Henry watched a young couple pitch their tent as a really big dog watched.
The tent was going up alongside an ancient jeep Wrangler a few hundred feet down and across the road from Fort Drift. The woman caught him looking and waved. She had long blonde hair, a nice smile, and a bulging belly. Something about her looked familiar.
He dutifully waved back. He couldn’t imagine anyone voluntarily sleeping out here in the wilderness in a measly tent, especially not while so morbidly pregnant. Did they know there were rattlesnakes skulking about this place? The thought of it made his skin crawl.
Alice sat across the table from him working on his clothes. She’d been sewing most of the afternoon. Frank was swinging in a huge hammock hanging between the pines next to the fire pit. He was smoking a cigarette and supervising Bridget and Ed as they erected a good-sized tent of their own. The happy couple didn’t look too happy. He wasn’t sure if it was because of their forced labor or the fact they’d be sleeping there later. Probably a little of both.
The Story of Frank hadn’t revealed any surprises. The man was just about as easy as he’d expected him to be. He had the perfect personality for drug restoration. Just add opiates and – voila! – instant human.
Even better, his personality underwent a Doppler shift when he was stoned. In fact, he’d been so happy with the gift, he’d dragged a sizable box of medicine out of a storage well in the van. Sadly, it was all wine and cheap brandy, but any shelter is good shelter when it’s raining. Not to mention it turned out Chardonnay isn’t too bad in orange juice.
“I need you to put these on,” Alice said, holding his pants up before him, “I can’t finish the seams unless you’re wearing them.”
“Is that right?”
She looked up at him. “That is exactly right.”
He was still getting used to Alice’s Do-My-Bidding Look. She was sweet and funny, and almost disturbingly laid back, until she wanted something. That’s when she channeled the Master Sergeant, and that’s also when the people around her started mysteriously slipping out of sight.
“Well, I’m obviously here for your bidding, dear Alice,” he said. The wine was working. He felt more relaxed by the sip.
“Need I remind you whose slacks I’m working on?” she said with a look.
“How long have we been married?” he said, “Feels like a year already.”
She reversed an inside-out pant leg. “Have another drink, Superman,” she said as she inspected the seam, “Drinking makes slavery so much more enjoyable.”
“Depends on what kind of slave you are,” he said.
“Don’t get any funny ideas. You’re most assuredly the kind that needs liquor.”
“I guess that means I’m not a pleasure model, eh?”
“Sadly, dearest Henry, you’re the kind chained to a bench with a company issued oar and no seat cushion.”
He sighed. “I suppose it could be worse,” he said, “At least my wife’s a seamstress. Maybe she can make me some gloves.”
“Fashion designer, jerk!”
Henry grabbed a bottle from the box. Brandy. He hated brandy. Especially the skanky, bottom-shelf kind like the varnish in this bottle. He poured a couple fingers into a dixie cup and took a slug anyway. Despite the sensation of pure vinegar rolling down his throat, it was having the most desired effect. His worries already seemed to be evaporating around him.
He poured another. “Care for a bracer?”
Alice looked up at him. “I don’t need a bracer. But I’d love a drink.”
“Alice, your sensibilities move me.”
He set the cup down before her, then his hand reached over and brushed some renegade strands of hair back over her ear.
The action startled him. He reeled his arm back as casually as he could manage. Where did that come from? He couldn’t remember making the decision to do it. Again! He immediately poured another dose and summarily murdered it.
She stood up and handed him the pants and shirt. “Put these on, please.”
“By your will, milady,” he said. Failed humor. He started walking toward the van.
“Where are you going?”
He stopped and looked back at her. “I’m a little bit naked under this towel. Mind if I just slip into the van before I slip into your pants?” He realized what he’d said and kicked himself. Idiot!
Alice laughed. “My pants? Why, Henry! Are you asking me out on a date?”
Henry’s stomach soured. What the hell was wrong with him? He probably needed more brandy. “I’m going to go change now,” he said seriously, “You can wait right here.”
“You know they can treat most mental pathologies with counseling and drugs these days, right? Even things like obsessive shyness?” She sounded like she meant it.
He waved a fist at her and tried to scowl. “One of these days, Alice…”
She feigned indignation, waving him off like he was her favorite servant.
He climbed into the van and pulled the door closed. He felt simultaneously offended and flattered by the way she treated him. Alice was a peculiar little puzzle. She felt as comfortably familiar as a pal from the days of old, and as unnerving as a stalker. He wondered if she felt the same way. Or maybe this was just normal behavior for her. Maybe she just took to people the same way he took off from them? What had Frank told him? He was the flavor of the day?
In the end, that was very good news indeed, right? Flavor of the day? Perfect! He wouldn’t have to lose any sleep over the carnage he’d leave behind him. Maybe he wouldn’t even leave any carnage. Maybe he’d only be doing her bidding. Entertain me, pleasure me, you are dismissed. Next!
Still, he once again resolved not to encourage it. It couldn’t go anywhere anyway. Besides, how long had they known each other? A total of maybe eight hours? Another day with him and she’d begin to see the tubes and wires, and any affection she might develop would quickly sour into disappointment. At best.
But in the short run, he had to admit the truth. He secretly kind of liked it. He liked their bantering and their laughs, their playful teasing. It was a harmless little pleasure, like flirting with your favorite waitress, and their relationship had about the same potential for longevity.
He slid open the door and stepped out of the van. It felt damned good to be dressed again. Especially in clean clothes.
“Come here, Superman,” Alice said, beckoning him with her fingers.
He climbed up on the bench of the picnic table as directed. Alice immediately began pulling and fussing with his pant legs. He looked down at her from on high, and as he did he got his first glimpse at her work. She’d tacked a narrow ribbon along the outer seam of his dark blue dress-pant leg, and was now sewing it in place. The ribbon was a familiar pattern of twisted reds and blues. He had a couple Jerry Garcia ties that weren’t much worse.
“What the hell, Alice?” he said, “Am I joining a marching band or what?”
“No commentaries until I’ve finished.”
“And I’m guessing there’ll be none then, either? Am I right?”
“Stand still before I poke you.”
“I don’t have to march about the compound or anything, do I? Or play a musical instrument. You should know, I’m pretty much tone deaf.”
She sent him The Look again. “Your seams were coming apart. This is the only way to cover the tears. That must’ve been one hell of a going away party.”
“I wish I knew.”
Henry glanced over at Ed and Bridget working on the tent. Frank was still in the hammock, still smoking a cigarette, still grinning at him. Henry waved. Frank waved back. His eyes were smaller now, and he looked a good bit merrier than before the gift.
Henry looked down at his pants again. “Alice,” he said softly, “You realize these pants are part of a suit? A reasonably expensive suit?”
“I saw the label, Henry.”
“Then you know it didn’t come cheap.”
She stood up, propped her hands on her hips and glared up at him. “Where exactly did you say you left the jacket? Maybe I can dress that up for you as well?”
“It’s in my… ” He stopped. He got it. She was good.
“Yep, it’s in your car, isn’t it? Well… now you have a brand new pair of slacks designed personally by Alice’s White Queen label. I’d estimate these pants are now worth more than the sum of your cute little suit. Top and bottoms.”
“Whatever,” he said.
He immediately regretted the word. Her face twisted into an expression that probably wasn’t going to favor him. She seized a wad of his pants perilously close to his crotch and pulled him forward. He had to grab her shoulders to keep from falling.
“Listen to me closely, Henry,” she said straight up at him, “I know you think I’m some waifish little blonde who probably holds a fine job in one of Denver’s very best diners, but I’m going to enlighten you to the truth. So if you typically have a need to brace yourself for reality-altering revelations, now’s the time to do so. The truth is I’m a real-life, honest-to-golly, paycheck-earning designer with a real line of clothes and a real brick and mortar store that I sell them in. I even have a web page. And you should know I take my work very, very seriously.”
“Goddamn, Alice,” Henry said, still holding her shoulders, “Why do I suddenly feel like your bitch?” He wasn’t stretching it much.
With that, her face melted into a smile written straight out of a novel. “My dear,” she said softly, “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
He was pretty sure it was.
“The revelations about where I live and what I do are freebies.”
He nodded. “The game. Right. Thanks.”
As she returned to his seam, he wondered if he’d just witnessed The Truth of Alice, or if she was just messing with him. Probably a little of both.
He looked at his sleeve. His white shirt was barely recognizable. The rips were gone, the sleeve once again intact. She’d sewn surreal looking epaulets and psycho-military patches on his arms, chest, and shoulders. A wide, blue stripe banded each cuff. He didn’t even want to know what was on his back. He looked like a Sergeant Pepper reject. He figured he was getting a pretty good idea of what her store probably looked like.
“Almost done,” she said, smiling up at him.
“You sew about as fast as I drink.”
“I’ve had a lot of experience.”
“As have I.”
He looked down at the top of her multi-colored head. It didn’t seem as bright as before. Then he realized the water had taken some of the intensity out. She’d used a temporary dye, which made her quite prudent, didn’t it? There’s a little insight he might be able to harness to his advantage later when the time came to make his escape.
She’d rolled his pants cuffs up above his ankles and appeared to be tacking them in place. He wondered if she was just trying to access the insides or if she was turning them into capris.
He needed a diversion. He looked out toward the river and said, “Game on, Alice.”
She rolled back onto the balls of her feet and looked up at him. She’d shackled her hands to his bare ankles to steady himself. His ankles were really getting to like her.
“Is that right?” she said, “Are we feeling suddenly brave and manly, Superman?”
Henry followed the river down to the next camp. “I guess I am,” he said.
“It can’t be the alcohol,” Alice said as she sewed, “You haven’t had that much.”
“Give me time.”
She stood up. She wore that way-too-serious face again. Henry felt a strange urge to brace himself. “What?” he said defensively.
“Henry,” she said seriously, “I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to fix these threads up. I’d be sorely disappointed if they end up in the same condition they came to me in.”
“Funny, I was just thinking the same thing.”
She took his arm and guided him back to earth like he was the prom queen. “Well, well,” she said as she inspected him, “I must say, you do look lovely.”
“That’s exactly the image I was hoping for. Better than pretty, but not so arrogant as beautiful. Just plain old boy-next-door lovely.” And before he realized what he was doing, he brushed the hair back from her face again.
Before he could retreat, she put her hand on his and pressed his palm tighter against her cheek. Her skin was as soft and promising as a first crush. He felt a little weak in the knees.
“All right, Henry,” she said as she thankfully withdrew, “Game on, you say. What’s the question?”
“Not here,” he said.
“Not here? Ooh, that sounds promising!”
He followed her eyes over to the tent brigade. Frank was directing Ed to reset the corner stakes. Without getting out of the hammock, of course.
Henry looked back at her, then nodded toward the river. “Let’s take a walk,” he said.
“So Superman’s feeling a little shy, is he?” she said, “Does he need his Fortress of Solitude to ask the question?”
He pitched her as severe a look as he could manage.
She glided in closer to him. Before he could raise shields, she’d slipped a hand around his neck and drew him in closer. Her mouth rose toward his face. He caught the scent of strawberries in her lip-gloss. His fight or flight instinct surged like an electric pulse.
But instead of kissing him, she brushed her cheek alongside his and whispered into his ear, “You want privacy, do you? Well, I think we can do a lot better than a walk, don’t you?”
Her breath on his ear was unbearable. “Alice,” he said, “I don’t think—”
She pressed her fingers against his lips. Her cheek felt like silk against his. She smelled like an afternoon at the beach. “No walks,” she whispered, “I know a better place to talk. But I have to warn you, it’s going to require partial nudity.”