Henry was too hot.
The sleeping bag was smothering him. The air was too thick.
He couldn’t believe he hadn’t seen that coming. It’d landed as solidly and as unexpectedly as Larry’s bat. He felt cornered, again. Exposed, again.
With Alice, it was a constant game of flight or fight, and he just couldn’t seem to keep up. One minute, he was ready to flee into the night, to run away as fast as his feet and an eager thumb could carry him, the next minute he felt as comfortable with her as a couple celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversary. And in the breadth of a happy sigh, it turned straight back around again.
Alice lay looking up at him with her arms crossed on his chest and her chin propped on her arms. The hammock creaked quietly, though its swaying suddenly felt awkward and contrived.
“Did you hear my question?” she said.
He didn’t respond. His eyes were on the stars, his stomach on the ground. He had to fight the urge to heave her sorry ass out of the hammock. That was too close to home, way too fucking close. What the hell business was that of hers anyway?
“Henry, are you sleeping?”
He barely heard her. His pulse banged pans in his ears.
“What kind of question is that?” he demanded. He couldn’t remember the decision to ask it, and that revelation just pissed him further.
She bristled a bit. “It’s just a question.”
“You don’t even know there was a she.”
“You didn’t know I didn’t have a boyfriend.”
“It’s not the same.”
“Nonsense.” She pulled back just a hair, just noticeably.
“It’s not the same, Alice!” He said it harder than he meant to.
“Land sakes, Henry.”
“Land sakes what, Alice?”
“I think you’re getting a bit more worked up than the question merit. It’s just a question.”
He resisted the urge to respond.
“What the hell, Henry? Bad breakup or what? Man!”
He locked his eyes on the stars. It was one of those moments where he wanted to be any place else on the planet. One of those moments that feel so sickeningly self-conscious, it’s physical. If he could’ve willed himself out of that sleeping bag without loss of dignity, he’d be gone.
“Henry, what is this?”
“Nothing.” He couldn’t hide.
“Nothing? Then why are you getting all sour on me?”
“Piss off, Alice.”
This time she bristled more than a little. “Piss? Off? You did not just say that to me. Piss off?”
Henry watched himself bolt up from the hammock. He watched himself storm to the edge of the drop overlooking the river. His hands shook. He couldn’t draw a decent breath. He couldn’t breathe!
The hammock swayed manically behind him with her in it, the ropes screaming at each pass. He threw his hands to his ears. Don’t go there. Don’t go there. Don’t you dare go there! He closed his eyes and willed the cage closed. He couldn’t let it out, not tonight! He wouldn’t! He would not let it out!
The hammock ropes shrieked to a sinister rhythm. Each creak felt like nail in his stomach. He needed it to stop. He needed to escape into the night, to keep running and never look back. But he couldn’t run. Not now. He didn’t know the way out. It was the middle of the night in the middle of the desert. He was trapped between his terrors and the terrors. For once in his life, there was no place to run.
He gradually became aware of the river sneaking past below him. It made an earthy sound, a whispering, soothing sound. White noise, they called it, isn’t that right? He focused on it. He sent every bit of himself into it. He wanted to become the sound. He wanted to crawl into that cool mud beneath the river and sleep the hard sleep. God knew he deserved it.
Her voice was small and sadly tentative, and yet it somehow still startled him.
He turned his head just slightly toward it.
“I didn’t mean to make you mad,” she said.
The words felt like a kick in the but. His eyes burned, but he fought it back. It wasn’t even her fault. Not if he were honest. It was himself he was pissed at, not her. It wasn’t her fault he was a murderer.
“I’m really sorry, Henry.”
“I’m not… it’s all right. Just… just forget it. Go to bed.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I guess I took it too far. I made assumptions I didn’t have a right to make. I never wanted to make you uncomfortable.”
His heart was slowing. It was cold. A light breeze gnawed through him. He felt himself trembling.
“I mean it, Henry. I didn’t mean to take you places you didn’t want to go. I was just curious. I’m stupid that way. Come back to the hammock.”
Henry wanted to respond, but pride was driving now, and that pride was a loyal slave to his anger.
“You don’t even have to concede,” Alice said behind him, “We’ll just scrub the game. It’s all right with me. Really. I’d never want to make you uneasy. I like you too much for that. It was just a stupid game. It’s not fun anymore.”
And just like that, she gave his discomfort legitimacy that he never asked for. Why was she treating him so kindly? He didn’t deserve it. He wanted her to go away. He honestly and sincerely wanted her to leave him alone, at least for now. He was angry and ashamed, and he had no patience for being pampered.
“Henry, you’re cold. I can see you shaking. Come on, come back into the hammock with me.”
“I’m fine.” He so wasn’t.
“Come back to me, Henry.”
“Go to bed, Alice.”
“Go to bed.”