Henry lay in the hammock, quietly swaying beneath the stars.
He watched the fire slowly giving up its ghost a few yards off toward the van. He wanted to throw more wood on it just so he could see another explosion of sparks. There was something primal, even cathartic about it that he found most fascinating. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any wood left to throw, and there was no way in Heaven or Hell we was going out looking for more. Not out here in the Badlands, and sure as hell not in the middle of the night.
Besides, the medicine they’d been pounding since fleeing the bar was finally doing its job. He wasn’t feeling any significant pain at all, physical or otherwise. Not yet. He had a feeling the morning would be a different story. Morning would probably take his Epic Outing full circle. And it truly was Epic. Every time he thought he’d reached the peak of insanity, something else managed to top it.
He pulled the sleeping bag up around himself. It was getting colder by the minute, which just didn’t seem right to him. They were out in the middle of the desert, after all. And with all those billions of stars beaming down from on high, he expected it to be warmer.
“Move over, Superman. I’m coming in.”
Alice materialized from the darkness, hugging herself like she was on the cusp of freezing.
“Alice, why are you still wearing that dress? Don’t you have anything warmer?
“Just you,” she said as she scampered for the hammock.
He threw the blanket open and she climbed in, nearly dumping them both in the process. Her bare arms and legs were cold as ice.
“Ooh, that’s much better,” she said as she cuddled into him, “You are so warm.”
“Was,” he said.
She slid her hand under his shirt and onto his bare belly.
Henry winced and grabbed her wrist too late. “Bloody hell, Alice! That was just mean.”
“It sure was,” she said, giggling.
“There’s something seriously demented about you. I think you’re a sadist.”
“Yeah, and I’m sorry to report that it runs in the family. If you need to flee, this would be your best opportunity.”
“Nah, I think I’ll hang a bit longer. It’s kind of like watching TV.”
“Yeah. The Addams Family Goes Camping.”
She twisted up to look at him. “Am I Marilyn?”
“Yeah, that’d be the Munsters.”
“The King of Useless Facts. Land sakes, you’re a piece of work, Henry Smith.”
“Brr.” She curled tighter into him. “I wish we had some schnapps.”
“I suspect that’s about the last thing we need.”
“I have no urge to wake up tomorrow in a gas station bathroom somewhere in wilds of Arkansas.”
“Not even with me?” she said, peering up at him.
“Especially not with you.”
“But maybe that’d be like a reverse space-time event.”
He looked down at her. “Reverse space-time event? Seriously?”
“Sure, like going backwards through a time warp. Maybe you’ll end up back home before any of this started.”
“That is hands down the most ridiculous thing you’ve said yet.”
She began to say something else, but he clamped his hand over her mouth.
They lay together rocking for a bit. The rope announced each rotation with a soothing creak. The river murmured contentedly below them. The fire popped and hissed as it grudgingly succumbed to the inevitable. Alice had her face in the hollow of his shoulder. He played with a twist of hair coiled along her temple.
As they rocked, Henry studied the stars. There were too many of them. How could the ancient peoples have guided their ships by such a mess? He couldn’t navigate his way off a freeway if there were too many signs.
“Can I share the tent with you tonight?”
That one took him by surprise. “Someone better be sharing it with me,” he said, “I’m sure as hell not sleeping out here by myself.”
“Is that a yes?”
He looked down at her resting in the crook of his arm with her face settled against his chest. She was watching the fire. Her green eyes perfectly reflected the dying flames. He looked back up at the stars just as a meteor shot across the expanse. He wondered what the ancients would make of that. Maybe it bode well. Maybe it meant he’d be home by tomorrow night. Maybe it meant something worse.
“Are you trying to find a way to say no, Henry? You can just say so. Seriously.”
He thought about that. He was feeling pretty good. Not drunk, not even numb exactly, more like at peace. His ghosts seemed to have taken the night off.
“Patience,” he whispered, “I’m not saying no. I’m just wondering what all my choices are.”
“Alice, why do you have to ask? I mean, why now? We’ve been going together for a year already, right?”
“Something like that. You have such a good memory.”
“That’s because I keep a detailed journal,” he said.
“Really? I’m impressed. What’s in it?”
“Pretty much everything.”
“Why don’t you read some of it to me?”
“Well, it’s more like a list, I guess.”
“That’s okay,” she said, giggling, “I like lists.”
“All right, let’s see… page one, our first date. Says here you took me skinny dipping.”
“Wow! That’s right. I remember that. I was so forward.”
“Yeah, and I was a little shy.”
“Were? You still are.”
“Page two, our second date. It says you took me to your designer shop and made me some new clothes.”
“Really? How generous of me.”
“That’s an understatement. You had to go all the way back to Denver for your equipment.”
“Actually, it’s just outside Denver. A dreamy little town called Castle Rock.”
“Castle Rock,” he repeated, “Sounds country-western as hell.” He didn’t mean it in a good way.
“What’d we do on our third date?” she said.
“Third page. Says here I returned the favor. I took you for a luxurious, all-expense paid spa visit.”
“Oh, that’s right. I got my hair done. It was absolutely fabulous. What hands that masseuse had. Phew!”
“I believe it was a masseur, actually.”
“Whatever. I still get hot thinking about it.”
“Page four. Hm… looks like I got to know the family. We all went to a gay bar for drinks and dancing.”
“You know, I only barely remember that. Did we have fun?”
“Did we? We danced the night away! We even got to know some of the locals.”
“It was. But, sadly, it ended prematurely when I was forced to defend Nancy’s honor.”
“You’re such a man’s man.”
“Man’s man?” He cranked his head down to look at her. “Not sure I like the way you said that, Alice.”
“You’re right. Sorry. What about the fifth date? There was a fifth date, wasn’t there?”
“Sure. Fifth date we camped out.”
“Geez, that was some year, wasn’t it, Henry?”
“Yes, Alice. It’s a year I’ll never forget it as long as I live.”
“So is that a yes, then?”
He looked at her. “Is what a yes?”
“Can I share your tent?”
He faked a deep sigh. “Well, yeah, I guess it’s a yes. But only because I don’t want to get mauled to death alone.”
She traced a finger along his chest. “Henry,” she said, “Check this out. Superman got his uniform slashed during his fight with the Super Villains. How hot is that?”
Henry felt the rip. It ran diagonally across his shirt tearing its way straight through his Superman emblem. He couldn’t remember when in the fight it’d happened. “Damn,” he said, “Hope Ed’s not too attached to this shirt.”
“I got news for you, Superman. Ed’s going to have bigger fish to fry tomorrow than a lousy tee shirt. I think he’s going to have the Queen Mother of all headaches.”
“Besides, I’ll have it stitched up before he even knows.”
They laid there for a while, gently swaying and watching the stars. The sight just got better and better. The sky looked like a huge swatch of black velvet sprayed with the most brilliant white glitter he’d ever seen. It was fantastic.
“Turns out you did deserve the promotion.”
Henry laughed at that. “It was a team effort,” he said, “Couldn’t have done it without my trusty sidekick.” He gave her a squeeze.
“Kind of like the Justice League?” she said, “Guess that makes me Wonder Woman, yeah?”
“Nah, more like Supergirl.”
“Sure. Blonde hair, fantastic figure, looks great in a short red skirt. Perfect!”
She laughed again. “Who would Nancy be?”
“Nancy would most definitely be Wonder Woman. He already has the breasts for it.”
Alice nestled in tighter. “I was a little worried back there,” she said.
“You and me, both.”
“Especially after you decked Larry. When those other cowboys started working their way toward you? I thought we were going down, baby.”
Henry had to agree.
Alice twisted her face up toward him. “Dude, you were like an inspiration. I mean, Dirty Harry, Gladiator, Rambo. You were the whole gaggle of He-men rolled into one.”
“I’m not sure a team of He-men should be referred to as a gaggle.”
“You didn’t even look scared. You did look epically pissed, though.”
He thought about that. “You’re damned right I was pissed. The bitch slapped you.”
“I rolled with it. She didn’t hit me as hard as it looked.”
“Doesn’t matter. She laid hands on you. That’s all I remember. She hit you and that was that. Light’s out for Henry.”
The fire released an ominous sizzle. The flames dropped like someone had turned down the gas. It wouldn’t be long now.
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me, Alice. I’m tired!”
“No, I’m not kidding,” she said, “And it’s your turn.”
“Wait, you can only activate the game when it’s your turn.”
Henry watched the stars. Another meteor streaked across the sky. Alice gasped and pointed. He didn’t think he had the energy for the game.
“Come on, Henry,” she pressed, “Just one. There must be something you want to know. Something besides how many miles per gallon Fort Drift gets? Or when was my last period?”
“I thought we were playing the adult version?”
“Don’t you want to know anything about me, Henry? I mean, isn’t your curiosity piqued at all?”
He looked down at her, at her blonde head simmering in his arms beneath the glorious starlight. “There’s a lot I want to know, Alice. Everything, in fact.” He meant it, and he felt a full measure of disappointment for having admitted it.
“Then why aren’t you asking?”
He steadied himself. Then he said, “Wanting something doesn’t mean you should have it.”
Alice didn’t respond to that. She pressed her face tighter into his chest.
“No pouting,” he said firmly.
“I am not pouting. I’m sulking. The difference is distinct and inarguable.”
Henry sighed. He wanted nothing to do with this, not right now. The night was too perfect to ruin by opening the doors to his ghosts. And that’s exactly where this tack was inevitably going to take them, straight down to the door safely barricading his ghosts away from the world.
“Come on, Henry,” she whispered up to him, “Please. One question.”
Henry stared up at the stars and tried to steady himself. This was an intersection from which there was no safe direction. If he agreed, the night would doubtlessly end in drama. If he denied her, he risked insulting her, or at least leaving her feeling like she’d been nothing more than a parking spot for the day. He was destined to lose regardless of which way he turned, and so he did the only thing he could: He hit the gas.
“All right,” he said, “You want something a little more high octane? How about this? Why don’t you have a boyfriend?”
“How do you know I don’t?”
“You can’t answer the question with a question.”
Then Alice went strangely silent. She didn’t speak for a bit. In fact, she didn’t speak for several minutes. Henry waited until the risk that she’d fallen asleep became a realistic concern.
He gently nudged her. “Alice?”
“I’m thinking,” she said sharply.
He felt a glimmer of hope. Maybe he had her on the run this time. “Think quick,” he said, “It’ll be dawn soon.”
He felt her sigh. She had her hand pressed against his chest. Her fingers slipped through the tear on his emblem. She delicately traced his chest with her fingers.
“Well?” he pressed.
“I’ve just never been one for that sort of thing,” she said at last.
“Right. And just what the hell does that mean?”
“I mean, it’s never been my strong suit. I guess.”
“Is that supposed to be an answer? What hasn’t been your strong suit? Dating?”
She didn’t respond. She didn’t even move.
Then the truth hit him like a slap. “Ah! Love! Love hasn’t been your strong suit. Is that it?”
Again, she didn’t respond.
“Alice?” he asked tentatively.
He felt something hot against his chest, and he realized she was shaking ever so slightly.
“Alice?” He lifted his head and looked down at her. He stroked her cheek and found moisture. “Alice, are you crying?”
“You’re lying. What’s wrong?”
He suddenly felt like a heel. This is what comes of being in places you have no right to be. You wander into a swamp, you deserve to get bit by a snake. This was exactly why he should have refused the damned game from the start. This is the only place it could ever have led to, to her pain.
“Never mind,” he said, “I withdraw it. Seriously. It was a stupid question.”
And then he realized she was laughing. At first, he couldn’t make sense of it. Then he understood. He’d been duped. “What the hell, Alice?”
“You’re such a pushover, Superman.” She slapped him on the belly, still laughing.
“And you’re a real bitch.” He totally meant it.
She pushed herself up on an elbow and kissed him on the cheek. “Oh, Henry! You’re so easy.”
“Jesus, Alice. You’re a real piece of work. Do you concede or not? Because you really should after that cheap little play.”
“Not, of course,” she said, “The truth is I’ve—”
“Forget it! You’ve answered the question.”
She pulled back just a bit. “No, I haven’t. I was just funning with you.”
“No, Alice. Seriously? I think you just totally answered the question. Really. I understand why you don’t have a boyfriend now. I mean I really, really understand. Should’ve been obvious from the start.”
“Don’t be a jerk.”
“Honestly. Don’t say another word. It’s all clear now.”
“Yeah? Well, I’m telling you whether you like it or not.”
“Whatever. Talk yourself blue. I’m not going to listen anyway.”
She looked up at him like he’d just slapped her.
This time he laughed. Then he pulled her into a hug. “Man, you’re a pushover,” he said.
As she realized the ploy, grabbed a wad of his shirt. “Henry,” she whispered up at him, “You are so going to pay for that.”
“Going to? That statement should be set in past tense, Alice.”
“All right,” she said after a bit, “Here’s the truth. I’ve had boyfriends. And I’ve had special friends. I’ve had friends with benefits. I’ve done the whole ‘shuffle-of-the-dating-dead’ scene. I’ve gone to the clubs. I’ve gone on blind dates. I’ve gone on pity dates. I’ve gone steady. I was even engaged once. Briefly. Like, as in one week briefly. But in thirty-two years, I’ve never found anyone I thought interesting enough or honest enough or deep enough to bother with. Not for the long run. The men in this country are ninety-eight per cent assholes. Remember I told you I love gay men?”
“I could forget that?”
“Well, it wasn’t a lie. Gay men are straighter than straight men. They flatter you and criticize you because they mean it. It’s honest. When they have a problem with you, they bring it on. When they adore you, they shower you with love. Show me that kind of honesty in a straight man. Straight men are an unending series of games about manhood, selfishness, and saving face.”
“Wow! Color me enlightened.”
“You should be. You all should be.”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said, “And just for the record? I’m probably a little gay myself. Only in the good way, of course. In case you wanted to know.”
She grabbed him and kissed him on the cheek again. “I know, Superman. That’s why I’m cuddling with you now. I know how perfectly safe it is to be in bed with you.”
He snorted at that. “Good one, Alice.”
She looked up at him again. “Oh, and Henry? The age thing was a freebie.” Then she laid her head back on his shoulder.
“You’re a real piece of work.”
“So you’ve said. Well, did I answer the question to your satisfaction?”
He sighed and nodded and pulled her closer. “More than I even wanted to know.”
“Excellent,” she practically hissed, “And now it’s my turn.” She made the bwah-ha-ha laugh. It was actually pretty convincing.
“Great,” Henry said. It absolutely wasn’t.
“Are you ready?”
“I’m serious,” she said exactly as if she meant it, “After that, I’m totally playing hardball now.”
“I’m ready as I’ll ever be. And, just so you know? Being Attila the Hun is a step up from hardball. Just so it’s on the record, I mean.”
“Are you ready, Henry?” she said far too carefully, “If you have any protective gear you need to don before the games begin, this would be your chance.”
Henry felt a chill that had nothing to do with the night temperature. “Sure,” he lied, “Fire away.”
She scooted herself up and propped her chin on his chest. She looked him hard in the eyes. Then she said softly, “What was her name?”