Henry filled the second bucket with river water and toted it over to the boulder where she waited.
It was no easy task, hauling twenty pounds of water as he felt his way along a rock-strewn riverbed with frozen feet and oversized flip-flops. The woman had to be insane for doing this.
Then again, he was willing engaging in the act, wasn’t he? And why, exactly? It had to be the brandy. The wonderful, beautiful, inspiring brandy. He felt almost back to his old numb self again. It probably explained such irresponsible risk-taking behavior with a very dangerous woman from who he should be running like bloody hell.
Alice squatted on a wide, flat boulder at the river’s edge, digging through her green bag. She was pulling out bottles of female paraphernalia and lining them on the sun-warmed stone beside a stack of worn, but colorful towels. She threw him a smile as he hauled the bucket toward her.
“This is going to be delicious,” she said to him, “You’re a doll to do this.”
“This is going to be cold,” he said back, “You’re a maniac to do this.”
He set the second bucket on the boulder next to the first. He wondered how long it would take for the sun to warm them. Given how cold the river water was, he figured around a month.
“Why am I a maniac?”
“I just told you. It’s going to be too damned cold. I can barely feel my feet.”
“So, I shouldn’t do it because it’s going to be cold?”
“Cold, like in painfully cold,” he said, “Cold, like in the color blue cold. It’s irrational.”
“Land sakes, Henry. I’ve never met anyone with so many boundaries.”
“What are you talking about now?”
“You’re a walking List of Rules.”
“Yeah, that’s just how I ended up on the interstate outside Albuquerque in the middle of the night with no wallet or socks. Rule number four hundred seven: Once a week, completely cover your clothes in vomit and proceed to black out.”
“Do you see the romance in anything, Henry? Look at where we are. Having a handsome man shampoo my hair in a pristine river in the wilds of the American Southwest? It’s lovely.”
“How romantic do you think having a bucket of ice water dumped on your head is going to be?” He began rolling up his sleeves. “Seriously, you should let it heat up for an hour or so. I’ll even stir it for you until it’s warm, if you want.”
Where the hell did that come from? He kicked himself for not bringing the brandy down with him.
“Henry, you are equal parts sweet and utterly hopeless. You should’ve been an accountant. Or better, an IRS agent. IRS agents simply love rules.”
She climbed up onto the wide, flat boulder and knelt with her back to him. Glancing up over her shoulder, she called, “Nudity alert! Cloister your shy! Blind your timid!” Then she pulled her tee shirt up over her head.
“Hilarious,” Henry said as he kicked off his flip-flops. The sun-warmed stone felt like heaven against the soles of his frozen feet.
“Do I detect sarcasm in your voice?” she said to him, “I’m just trying to be sensitive to your prudish fear of naked bodies.”
He hoisted the bucket into position and dribbled a bit of water on her bare back.
She screamed. “Jerk!”
“You realize you’re just making me enjoy this that much more, don’t you?”
She sent him a convincing glare. “You understand the concept of Pay-Back, don’t you, Henry?”
Henry felt a chill. “Not as much as I expect I’m going to,” he said.
“Why, I think you’re beginning to get it. Maybe you’re trainable after all.”
She rolled forward onto her hands and dropped her head low. “Now, dear boy, you may proceed.”
She looked like a condemned woman waiting for her beheading to commence. Henry hoped it wouldn’t come to that. He seriously entertained an impulse to give her the entire bucket, but she looked too vulnerable down there, too exposed. Sadly, he just didn’t have the strength to do it. Maybe he was a nice guy, after all.
“Hold on one sec,” he said.
He set the bucket down on the boulder, then draped one of the thicker towels across her shoulders and tucked it snugly around her neck. It was a brilliant play. Not only would he minimize her discomfort, but now he could look down at her without feeling guilty. It seemed the brandy was only numbing him so far. He wished he had some proper liquor.
“Thank you, dear. You’re not as bad as you think you are.”
“What are you, a mind reader?” Her insight didn’t so much flatter him as piss him off.
He lifted the bucket over her again. Before he poured, he called out, “Cry Havoc, and let slip the dogs of war!”
“Just do it already!”
Alice screeched as the water crushed down over her head. He poured it few beats longer than necessary. So much for being a nice guy. She came up sputtering.
“You’re right, Alice. That looks romantic as hell!”
Henry knelt down beside her. “Geez. Romantic notions sure must hurt a lot more than the books say, huh?”
“You’re a mean man.”
“You just said I was a nice guy.”
“It was a delusion.”
He looked over at the array of bottles. They were all unsurprisingly phallic-shaped. Sitting on the flat rock in the sunlight with the water coursing all around it, they looked like an ad for a line of back-to-nature dildos.
He shook his head to clear the image. Stay focused, he told himself. Don’t be lured in. “Which one’s the shampoo?” he said.
“Uh, that’d be the one with the word Shampoo printed on the label, Henry. Probably the front label, but you can check the back label, too, if you have any doubts.”
Henry scooted in closer to her, close enough that his thighs were pressed tight against her bare waist. He poured more shampoo in his hand than he figured he needed and started working it into her hair. The water was colder than hell. It didn’t take long before his fingers felt like someone else’s. Her waist against his pelvis, however, felt as warm as greed.
As he washed her hair, he suffered a cold bout of reason. What the hell was he doing? This was nothing like a safe position for the activity at hand. He quickly adjusted his stance, standing up to straddle her back instead. He forced his mind away from her flesh and concentrated on working her scalp.
“Oh my, Henry! That feels so good!”
The lather was rich and soft, even in the icy water. He watched blobs of it leap free and swim away with the current. As he massaged her hair, he was surprised to find himself enjoying it more than he’d expected. A lot more. Too much more. He looked up into the sky in search of yet another diversion. A little cloud was running like hell across an otherwise empty blue sea. It was really cruising along. Whatever was chasing it must be pretty scary.
He looked back at his work. Her head was a nice size, and he found himself enjoying the texture of her skull. It wasn’t perfectly smooth. It had bumps and kinks and flaws, all of which made it perfect. He could get used to having his hands—
No, no, no! Not a good place to linger, Henry. He cleared his mind and quickened his pace.
“Oh, my God! You should’ve been a masseuse.”
“Well, I considered it. But unlike Frank, I don’t look that good with breasts.”
She cocked her head sideways at him, peering up through the soap. “What?” she said.
He took the towel and dabbed the soap from her cheek. “A masseuse is female,” he said, “A man’s a masseur.”
“Hm, I was more turned on when you were a woman.”
“You know… if my life had a tag line, that would be it.”
“Henry, you have magic fingers. Keep scrubbing, baby.”
Henry obeyed. “Okay, here’s my game question,” he said as he watched the little cloud fleeing above him, “Why do you call Frank Nancy?”
Alice threw down a deep sigh and shook her head.
“What?” Henry said.
“Do you realize you haven’t asked me a truly personal question since we started this game?”
“Sure I have.”
“No, Superman. You have not. You do understand the point of the game, right? To get the opponent to refuse to answer a question?”
“Yeah. I understand.”
“Well, maybe you need to adjust your strategy a wee bit. No one’s going to fold because you ask them what color car they have.”
“Thanks for that tip, Alice. Really helpful.”
“I mean, come on. You could ask Nancy that question, and he’d answer it with or without a game.”
“All right, forget it. I thought it might be too personal.”
“I’m just saying… ”
“Okay, I get it, already.”
She was right as rain. He was pulling his punches. Or was he? In truth, it never occurred to him to ask her a personal question. He didn’t feel he needed to. Maybe he just wasn’t that curious.
No, that wasn’t it at all. It wasn’t that he wasn’t curious, he was curious as hell. The truth was he didn’t want to know. The truth was he simply couldn’t know. It wasn’t safe to know. Not safe for him and especially not safe for her. His boundaries were already wavering like a mirage as it was, and it was getting worse with the alcohol.
“He’s called Nancy after our Mother,” Alice said.
Her voice startled him back to the moment. “I’m sorry? I don’t think I could possibly have heard that right.”
“We call him Nancy because it was our Mother’s name.”
“Okey dokey,” Henry said as he scrubbed, “Don’t believe I need to know any more than that, thanks.”
Alice laughed. “It’s not weird. He pretty much kept me and Bridge together after they died. In a conservative universe, he would’ve been the pseudo-Dad, but you may have noticed he’s a just little bit gay, right? So, in our world he became the pseudo-Mom. We started calling him Nancy as a joke. It stuck.”
“Yeah, that’s the kind of thing that sticks to a guy all right.”
They both laughed.
Henry realized he’d been working her hair longer than necessary. The color of the soap lather had gradually transitioned from white to pinkish to gray. He worried that he might be overdoing it.
“Okay,” he said, “Time to rinse.”
“Sadly, yes.” He climbed back to his feet and grabbed the waiting second bucket. He hoped the sun had warmed it a bit. He was pretty sure it hadn’t.
“Ready?” he said.
He poured the water.
He poured more.
She shrieked louder.
He worked the water through her hair long after he’d lost the feeling in his fingers. He worked it until the water passed through clear. He worked it longer than necessary because he liked it. And because he liked it, he vowed this would be their last physical contact. It was time to cut the rope and let this particular future plummet to its death.
When he finished, he knelt beside her and put a hand on her back. The towel was soaked. She was shivering. “Nudity’s a tad overrated right now, isn’t it, dearest?”
“Screw y-you, Henry.”
The cold had her a little out of breath. He pulled the wet towel away and replaced it with a dry one. He wrapped it tight around her shoulders and tucked it under her chin.
“What’s next?” he asked her.
He draped a second towel over the first, then turned to the waiting line of dildos. “This blue bottle?”
“Yes.” Her voice sounded meek and far away.
Before he applied it, he gently wiped the pasty hair back from her face. And then he cupped his hand under her chin. It was like touching a corpse. “Man, you are so cold.”
“That f-feels good,” she whispered. Her teeth clacked lightly.
“Sure you’re up for this?” He didn’t think it was a good idea. Scratch that, he knew it wasn’t a good idea.
“I’m ready,” she said softly.
Her voice gave him a smile. He had the sense that this was exactly what she sounded when she was a little girl.
He applied the lotion to her head and began gently massaging it in. He reconsidered his previous vow and pushed his body against her to give her his heat. At the moment, he had more than enough of it to share.
“Henry, that feels really good.” She wasn’t shivering as much now.
“Yeah, it’s a natural talent,” he said as he worked it, “I can’t even wash my own hair at the gym. Feels too much like beating off. Wouldn’t be prudent, not in un-mixed company.”
She smothered a laugh in the towel.
“It’s your turn for a question, you know,” he said, “Unless you declare Game Off. Or concede.”
“Conce-cede? Such a dreamer.”
“In that case, the microphone’s yours. Please proceed.”
“What happened at your g-going away p-party?”
Henry stopped rubbing. His stomach threatened him with that miserable sinking sensation again. Just when he was starting to feel comfortable with this charade, too.
He resumed massaging. He hadn’t thought about that night since it happened. When was that, a year ago? Five? Ten? He shook his head. How could it only have been two nights ago? He didn’t want to go back to it. Thinking about it made him feel dirty and stupid.
“Do you concede?” she said.
“Patience!” he said, “Man, you are one pitiless bitch.” He meant it.
“Hardball, Henry. I warned you.”
“You did,” he said. She had. He’d agreed. And yet, despite that, here he squatted, on a rock in a wilderness river, washing a half-naked woman’s hair. And he did so with only barely enough medicine onboard to begin numbing the human out of him. What was happening to him? It had to be the kryptonite in her eyes. She made him weak, drained his powers of evasion. She was the arch villain, and he shouldn’t lose sight of that.
“I’m waiting, Superman,” she said, as if reading his mind. Again.
“You realize I can only remember parts of it, right?”
“This is insane.”
“No pouting, Henry. And keep rubbing.”
“I don’t even know your last name.”
“Not my problem.”
“I don’t know your last name, and yet here I am telling you all my darkest secrets.”
“Not my problem.”
“I’m not sure I like this.” He totally hated it.
“Let me rephrase that,” she said, “Not even close to my problem.”
“Maybe you’re a reporter,” he said. Like anyone would be interested.
She laughed. “Good thought. I’m sure the tabloids are tracking you as we speak.”
“Well, I hope they brought their cameras,” he said, “A beautiful full frontal shot like this would sell them a lot of papers.”
“How the hell would you know how beautiful it is? You’ve had your eyes closed since this morning.”
“I’m a gentleman.”
“You’re a prude. Now quit stalling. Answer, please.”
Henry sighed. He’d painted himself into a corner. Maybe he should just get up, and leave, just walk away and beat a hasty retreat before the real damage started.
He looked up at the little fleeing cloud. Man, that thing was hauling ass. It was quickly running out of territory. He wondered if it was a sign.
“I’m waiting,” she said.
“The party was at a bar called the Bucket of Blood,” he said seriously.
She turned all the way around at that. “Really?” she said.
Her expression was priceless. He laughed. “Nah, it was a sports bar. The Slammed Dunk, or some other crappy, cliché name like that.”
“Jerk,” she said, resuming her position.
“Thing is, there shouldn’t have been a party to begin with. If things had gone as planned, I wouldn’t be out here in the middle of the nowhere with no wallet or phone. I’d be back home on my favorite barstool watching a baseball game I couldn’t care less about, and drinking myself stupid.” Safe and sound.
“If I weren’t enjoying this massage so much I might be offended,” Alice said.
“I didn’t mean it like that. You know I adore you.” He faked a cough.
He thought about it as he scrubbed her scalp. “It would’ve been better for you,” he said softly, “You wouldn’t have had to put up with me last night. The smell and all. Stinkiness, you know.”
“And I wouldn’t have enjoyed a lovely morning of swimming and playing games at your expense.”
Henry looked up into the deep blue. The little cloud was nearly all the way across the sky now. He didn’t see any obvious monsters in hot pursuit of it, but he knew first hand that just because a monster can’t be seen is not proof it doesn’t exist.
“I know that’s not the end of the story,” Alice said.
“No, I guess not.” It sure as hell should have been.
“Then why are you not talking?”
Because it wasn’t a place he wanted to go back to. And even if he had, she was about the last person on earth he wanted to take with him. He looked up at the picnic table squatting above them on the ridge a thousand miles away. The brandy bottle was waving at him.
“Okay, already! I’m thinking!”
“It’s like I said, there shouldn’t have been any damned party. I never told anyone I was leaving, no one I worked with, anyway. But it’s a corporation, and rumors just leak out the walls in those places. So there we were, me and all the do-gooders I couldn’t have given a flying fuck about, drinking and pretending anyone cared I was going.”
“You and all your pals.”
“I don’t have pals.”
“Don’t pity me. I’ve no desire for pals. Pals are like that guy in the movie who the others should’ve killed right off in the opening sequence, because that would’ve saved them a world of pain five scenes later.”
She laughed at that.
“I’m not joking,” he said because he meant it, “Anyway, the party wasn’t going too bad, I guess. At least, not for a party I’d normally have chewed my own arm off to avoid. There was plenty of liquor to kill the tedium. I could’ve managed it okay, I suppose.”
“Do I hear a but?”
He looked up at the sky. The little cloud had successfully run the gauntlet, and there was still no monster in sight. Was it possible it’d been running for nothing?
“But?” Alice said, “Hello?”
Henry watched the cloud slip across the horizon and into time. “But someone showed up,” he said, “Someone I had… bad blood with. Kill on sight bad blood. Couple that with the fact that I imagine I was pretty drunk by then.”
“I blacked out, remember? I don’t know how drunk I was. I do, however, recall trying to introduce his face to a barstool. I recall that moment most clearly. Last thing I can see is his buddies heaving me out into the parking lot as my pals watched in passive horror.”
The memory drained the blood from him. It was the first he’d thought of it since it’d happened. In fact, he’d pretty much forgotten them completely. Forgotten or suppressed. Either way, the images had only flooded the landscape of his mind in this very moment. How long had it been since he’d last seen that little pissant dick? Was it at the funeral? Is that possible?
Alice pulled out of his hands and twisted around to face him. He sent his eyes up to the picnic table. “Henry,” she said too gently, “You so lose.”
“What?” Henry said, looking up the ridge. Frank still lay swaying in that hammock above them. He was still smoking and still smiling and still watching them like a damned voyeur.
“You told me you didn’t remember how you got the black eye. You lied.”
He forced himself to look at her. “I didn’t lie, Alice. I told you I didn’t remember. Last thing I remember is pounding that asshole’s head against the bar. That, I admit, I remember as clearly as if it were the most beautiful moment of my life. What I don’t remember is him ever laying a hand on me.”
“I’ve never lied to you Alice.” He took the second bucket and scooped more water into it. Then he lifted it above her head and said, “You ready?” It was all he could do to wait for her signal.
She’d already assumed the beheading position on the boulder, but then threw a hand up. “Wait!” she said quickly, “Who was the guy?”
“Alice, Alice, Alice,” he said, grinning, “You remember the rules right?”
“No follow-up questions.”
Before she could respond, he dumped the icy water on her head, and he was pretty certain the resulting scream would be sung about for generations.