Henry swam up from the dreamy fugue that was them.
The bar hadn’t changed since the last time he saw it. Still dark and gaudy, still haunted by the same shadowy patrons, still fogged in smoke.
He felt blissfully numb. He couldn’t say how many songs they’d been dancing to. It might’ve been five, it might’ve have been five hundred. Time didn’t seem to live here anymore.
Alice stirred in his arms. She pulled her head away from him. It felt like an amputation. Her face glowed with that same glazed, thrilled look people wear after they’ve been making out for hours and only separate long enough for a pee and a smoke.
His fingers sifted through her hair. Her mouth was right there, just a breath away. He wanted to roll into it more than he wanted to breathe. As he fought to resist that inhumane temptation, he wondered how he’d been coerced into so sorry a state of powerlessness. Was it the medicine? Was it the woman? Was it the circumstances? He wondered if it really mattered. When a ship is sinking, what difference does it make how the leak came to be?
“Do you concede?” she asked him. She sounded like she just woke up.
They continued slowly turning for a few moments as he translated the question. The effort proved useless. “Concede?” he said.
“The game. You haven’t answered yet.”
“The game. I forgot.”
She buried her face back into him. In spite of their intimacy, nothing about this Heroic Dance felt overtly sexual. It felt more like comfortable, or familiar, or even just safe. Then again, perhaps that was the very definition of sexual. Maybe his relationship with her was the most sexual experience he’d ever had. That despite the fact they hadn’t even brushed lips yet and, in just a few short hours, were destined to separated forever.
She gave him a sharp squeeze. “Are you conceding?” she whispered into his neck, “The clock is ticking.”
He felt her warm breath on his neck, and he nearly swooned for it. “What… what was the question?”
She squeezed him again. Harder.
“My job,” he whispered, “Right. Should’ve seen that one coming.”
“Is that right?”
“Yeah, that’s pretty much exactly right. It’s the obvious next step in your scheme to unravel me, Luthor.”
“Cry me a river, Henry. You’re stalling.”
He nestled his nose into her hair and breathed deeply of it. “I quit my job because I was tired of being a poser,” he whispered, “Given your brilliant powers of deduction, I’m sure you’ll soon have that one figured out.”
The song on the juke shifted. Now that dead guy with the sunglasses was going on about the Lonely and how fucked up it was to be one of them. Alice snuggled in tighter. She let slip a little moan, then a muttered word. He assumed she was approving of the song.
They slowly gyrated to the melody. Every turn felt like another tick in the countdown. He tried to focus on the perfection of the moment. He wanted to commit it irrevocably to memory before it took its last breath, because the end was coming. The end was always coming.
“Keep going,” she whispered as if reading his mind again, “Explain.”
He thought about it. The rationale ran too deep to ever fully explain. He doubted he really understood his own pathology.
“I don’t really know,” he said because he knew she wouldn’t tolerate his silence much longer, “I think maybe I got tired of the games. Tired of listening to clients and pretending I knew what they wanted, or that I even cared what they wanted. Tired of showing them the fancy pictures and throwing the prefabricated words at them. I hated my life, and I hated everyone I knew because of it.”
He stopped their movement. He was beginning to feel a little sick.
“Don’t stop,” Alice whispered.
He conceded to her demand. He buried his cheek back into her hair and watched the jukebox’s lights wincing to the music. “You want to know the truth?” he whispered to her, “The honest, mature, adult-looking-in-the-mirror truth?”
She squeezed him.
“Truth is I just ran out of ways to punish myself, and the job was getting in the way.”
She squeezed him again, but didn’t say anything.
“I wasn’t doing anybody any good there. Least of all me. I’ve left a trail of misery behind me as far back as I can see. I decided I’ve been doing the coward’s shuffle long enough. Time to cut it all loose and choose a path. Time to re-enter safely or crash and burn, and I’ve no faith the first will happen and no fear of the second.”
Alice shifted her face toward him. “Henry?”
Henry braced himself. “Yes, Alice?”
“I hope it doesn’t turn out like the cartoon.”
“Where the duck saws the branch off between himself and the tree.”
Henry felt a chill. What was it with her? One stupid analogy to a cartoon and she’d perfectly encapsulated his predicament. She seemed to know all the shortcuts to his weaknesses.
His hand slid down along the silky curve of her spine, into the small of her back, and on toward points unknown. He caught it the instant before it slipped past the warning signs and into the dangerous hills: I’d turn back if I were you! That wasn’t a safe place for him. Not tonight. Not the way he was feeling. He shifted his hand up higher on her back.
Her voice saved him. He pulled her closer. “I know,” he whispered into her ear, “You want your question.”
He rested his chin on her head as he looked up into the dusty darkness. “Okay,” he said, “Let me think.”
“Hurry. I’m getting tired.”
A dozen questions blew into his mind. What’s her favorite movie? Her favorite dessert? What’d she do on the weekends? Had she ever stolen anything? Had she ever miscarried? Had she ever committed adultery? Had she ever killed anyone?
Then he settled for, “Why do you call me Superman?”
She lifted those perfect green eyes toward him. “Are you even trying to win?” she whispered.
“No, Alice. I’m just trying not to lose.”
She rolled back into him. “That one’s a bit obvious. I call you Superman because of the heroic figure you cut that first night I adopted you.”
“Adopted?” He laughed at that. “That’s flattering. Thank you.”
“You were standing out there in your secret identity looking so alone and pathetic. It broke my heart. I took you in because I felt sorry for you.”
“Is that right?”
“Yes. And I still feel sorry for you. That’s the only reason I’ve been hanging with you all day. And so you don’t get too cocky, you should know this is just a pity dance.”
He began to retort when someone yelled out.
Someone else screamed.
Henry wheeled reflexively toward the sound, ushering Alice behind him in the same motion. A chair caromed off a table and bounced toward him. He deflected it with his foot. Ed materialized at his side.
He followed the trajectory of the chair toward the fight. Two guys were struggling with a third. The third was Frank.