Henry followed alice through the tent flap.
The flames of his anger had mellowed to a fading burn, like the embers dying in the fire pit outside. The dream left him feeling hopeless. He was too tired to care about any danger anymore.
Alice helped him slip off his jeans. She pulled his shirt up over his head. “I’ll fix this in the morning,” she said as she folded it.
She pulled back the sleeping bag and gestured him in. It was on an air mattress, and it felt like the sweetest bed he’d ever fallen into. He lay on his back. He watched her dark silhouette brushing against the green moonlit glow of the tent. He watched her dark form slip off her shirt, and then her shoes and pants. He watched her slide into the bed. Her skin was cold to the touch; he instinctively pulled her closer. Her legs and arms wove into him too easily, too naturally. She parked her face in the hollow of his shoulder.
He drew a deep breath. A slice of the moon simmered through the screened vent at the pitch of the ceiling above them. It was almost too bright to look at directly, but he didn’t pull away. The pain felt good. The light burned his vision away so that he felt like he was staring into a dark tube lit only by that that distant fire.
“What did she look like?”
Her words startled him. Though she’d whispered them almost too gently, they still took him by surprise. He locked harder onto that silvery fire burning far, far above him.
“Why would you ask that?” he whispered.
He felt her shrug. “Curious,” she whispered, “You don’t have to answer if you don’t want.”
He drew a sigh. “No,” he whispered back, “It’s all right. It’s an odd question, that’s all.”
Alice didn’t respond.
“Are you worried she looked like you? Is that why you’re asking?”
“Maybe you think I’m attracted to you because you remind me of her?”
“It never occurred to me.”
He sensed the anger in her voice and stopped. Besides, he’d effectively just told her he was attracted to her, hadn’t he? He looked back up at the slice of moon. It’d already moved a bit.
“Nothing about you reminds me of her,” he said. His tone came off a little cruel. He hadn’t meant it to. “I mean, you’re not… you know…”
“It’s okay, Henry. I understand.”
“I mean to say you’re not a stand-in or anything.” He had to say it. “Not even close.”
“We’re just friends, Henry. I’m not threatened.”
The words stung a little. We’re just friends. Why would he react that way?
“She was taller than you,” he said after a moment, “Little heavier, I guess. She had dark hair, long. Wide mouth. She had a good smile.”
“I bet she was pretty, yeah?”
“I don’t know, really. She was more complicated than that.”
“Was she your wife?”
That caught him off guard. His natural state of panic kicked up again. He had this odd sensation of drifting, like their bed was a raft slowly moving along with the current of the river. He only had the moon to anchor onto, and the moon was quickly moving on its merry way. Pretty soon he’d have nothing.
Alice was absently stroking the skin over his sternum with her fingers, drawing odd shapes there, like talismans or archaic runes. It had a strangely sedating effect on him. He wanted to resist it, but he was outgunned.
He thought about her question. Were they married? What difference did it make now? “Why do you ask?” he whispered.
Her fingers continued their gentle drawing for a moment. And then they stopped. Her face nudged him almost imperceptibly. “Because,” she whispered, “I think you need me to ask.”
Henry didn’t know what to say to that. He watched the shrinking sliver of the moon sneaking past the vent. It wouldn’t be long now.
“Never mind, dear,” she whispered gently, “Your heart’s pounding too hard. I can hear it through your chest.” She stroked her open hand across his breast and ribs. “We should go to sleep now.”
He seriously didn’t think that was going to happen. He wished dawn would get here so he could get up, get out, maybe get some medicine.
“We were married,” he said. He didn’t know why he said it. He just said it. It felt too abrupt.
He could practically hear the wheels spinning in her head. He’d just opened the door for her, hadn’t he? No game, no pretension, just open up the bloody door. He wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d grabbed a pen and pad.
“How long?” she said.
That one burned a bit. “Long enough.”
“How long have you been apart?”
That one burned worse. That one left a mark.
He shifted a bit. He felt suddenly confused. He wondered what to do. As he considered his limited options, the last of the moon eased out of sight beyond the vent. That was it. It’d abandoned him here. He was on his own.
He felt her face shift up toward him. She was waiting, but she didn’t press. He had to give her a point for that. Why was he drawing this out? She deserved the truth, no matter how grim. So just give it to her and be done with the whole miserable thing. Send her on her horrified way.
“Are you all right?” she said gently.
Even in the darkness he felt her laser eyes burning into him, felt the heat of her targeting system. Her fingers continued drawing on his chest. It was obviously a distraction.
She didn’t say anything for a time. He wondered if she was disappointed. Maybe the question was some kind of emotional yardstick. Maybe she was trying to measure his emotional availability. Maybe she thought that at four years, he should be farther from his pain.
“Did you have children?”
He was disappointed at how much by surprise that took him. Definitely should’ve seen that one coming. “No,” he said, “Tried hard enough, but it always ended up at the bottom of the toilet.”
She seemed to falter a bit at that. “You don’t have to be crude, Henry. If you don’t want to talk, just say so.”
He felt the sharp bite of guilt. He felt like a brute, and he hated himself for it. He might just as well have slapped her. It was the story of his life, and he knew it as well as his name. He’d made a career of punishing everyone around him for his mistakes.
“Good night,” she whispered.
She nestled into him tighter. She meant it this time. She was leaving him.
So that was it, then, was it? Just let her go to sleep with that last image of him in her mind? Let her sleep on what a dick he was? Let it go, problem solved? Thanks for shopping with us. Next!
He pushed the hair back from his forehead and rubbed his eyes. His black eye felt tenderer tonight. He briefly wondered if he’d gotten hit there again, though he didn’t remember it.
He sighed and dropped his forearm across his brow. Why the hell was he punishing her? Because his anger was his jailer, that’s why. Because his anger kept the cellblock locked. Because he didn’t have any free will anymore, and he was miserable, and he just wanted to be left alone because of it.
Oh, stop lying to yourself for once, he told himself. If that were honestly true, why are you still here? Why did you stay with her? Why did you play the damned game? Because it was exactly as she said. Because you need her to ask. So, be a man for once in your misspent life. Answer the goddamned questions or get the hell out of the tent.
“That was rude,” he whispered suddenly.
He felt her stir. He thought she might have actually been falling asleep. Her face slipped up toward him. “Hm?” she whispered.
He stroked her cheek with his fingers. “I’m sorry, Alice.” He meant it. “I’m a Class-A dick sometimes.” He was.
“It’s all right. Don’t apologize. I know this isn’t easy.”
“There’s nothing all right about it,” he said carefully, “Sometimes I’m a bully. I get angry over stupid things. Mostly when I’m… I don’t know…”
Direct hit. “Probably.”
“You’re safe with me, Henry. You can tell me anything you want or don’t tell me anything you don’t want. It’s all good between us.”
That was what worried him the most. It was all good right now. She hadn’t been down to the dungeon yet.
They lay together in silence for a few moments. The river hushed along in the darkness outside. It sounded duller and more depressed from inside the tent
This time he knew exactly what was coming. He steadied himself. He pushed his anger out of the way and prepared to receive. “Ask it, Alice.”
“Where is she now?”
Her fingers stalled.
He felt another bite of guilt. He’d said it too quickly, she wouldn’t miss that. He looked up at the deserted vent. “Go ahead,” he said, “Doesn’t matter now, the door’s open. Let’s just finish it.”
Her fingers began tracing the runes again. “How… how did…?”
It was the first time he’d seen her stall, the first time he’d sensed any evidence of hesitation or self-doubt in her, and he was even more impressed with her because of it. Her heart was a size too big.
“You have to ask, Alice,” he whispered, “I can’t answer it if you don’t ask.”
“How did she die?”
It surprised him how unprepared he actually was for the question. Never mind he’d set it in motion himself. Never mind he’d practically said the words for her. That question trumped his anger. That question unlocked the cell door. That question released the horrors.
“How did she die?” she asked again.
He knew she’d had no choice but to ask again. They were both prisoners now. He couldn’t push back against the memories any more than she could stop asking to see them.
“How did she die?”
He tried to say it, but he couldn’t draw a breath. He wanted to say it, wanted to be rid of it, but his throat wouldn’t comply.
“How did Zoe die?”
“I killed her.” The words landed before he even realized he’d pushed them out.
Her fingers stopped.
He felt her cheek flush hot against his chest.
And in that instant, he knew exactly what to expect. Everything was going to be all right now. Everything was going to be just fine. His heart slowed just a bit, just enough to ease the pain. He could breathe again. This is how it ends, and thank God for it. This is how he regains control. This is how Henry once again narrowly escapes his life.
He only had to hold on a bit longer. Once she processed the words, she’d suspect the monster. She’d try to react politely. She’d give some lame but not too lame reason to excuse herself. She’d walk to the van a bit too quickly, and the sound of the van doors locking from the inside would mark the end of it.
His relief was almost unbearable. A few moments more and he’d be free. He began plotting the route home. Two miles out to one-eighty, then north to interstate—
But then he felt her draw a breath, and with that, her fingers started up again.
He couldn’t believe it. She was tracing those runes on his chest again, tracing them like she was marking him against the devil. He felt her face slowly slipping up toward his. He felt her draw another determined breath.
“How?” she whispered.
This wasn’t supposed to happen! This was impossible. This was like a movie where the bad guy’s down and everyone’s safe at last. Only then, she twitches. And then her hand moves. And then she’s coming for him again. There was no running now. This was going to end very, very badly.
“How, Henry?” Her voice was more insistent now.
“I know you didn’t kill her. How did Zoe die?”
The cell door flew open. The memories charged out. The images rushed over him like lepers on Christ. There were too many. He couldn’t get away from them, couldn’t resist them. They were pulling him down. His pain boiled up, hot and insistent.
He saw Zoe’s bare legs. He remembered she was only wearing one shoe. He remembered her red toenails and how curious they looked against that purple skin. He remembered the peculiar angle of her neck. He remembered her tongue and her empty eyes! Why did he have to remember that? Why did he ever have to see that?
“She hanged herself.”
Alice let slip a little cry. “Oh, Henry,” she whispered to him, “I’m so sorry.”
Henry choked. He closed his eyes. The words played over in his mind like guilty whispers heard from the wrong side of a closed door: She hanged herself.
Alice climbed higher in their bed. He felt her forehead press into his cheek. She took hold of him like she was never going to let him go.
He wanted to tell her it was all right, that it was just proof she should run away, that she shouldn’t hold on too tightly to him. But he didn’t.
“Keep going, Henry,” she whispered. He felt her breath on his face. “You’re safe with me. Tell me all of it.”
“It was after the … after the affair.” The dark heat boiled up through his chest. His eyes burned. It was only Alice’s hold on him that kept him from being sucked up through the vent and out into the vacuous atmosphere.
“Keep going,” she whispered to him. She brushed the hair back from his face and kissed his forehead.
“She hanged herself in the garage,” he whispered, “I remember… I remember curious things about it. I remember the urine stain on the cement. I remember the line it’d left to the drain. Zoe would’ve been mortified by that, to be found like that. To have soiled herself after she… after she...”
His breath locked in his chest.
Alice pulled him in tighter. She was quietly, almost politely weeping. “Keep going,” she whispered, “Tell me everything, Henry.”
“She used… she used a little table to stand on. It had grapes painted on the top with the vines trailing down the legs. She’d bought it at an art festival years before, but never found a place for it. Every now and then she’d see it out there in the garage and tell me she had to make room for it inside, that it was such a cute little table, but she never did. It just sat out in that garage gathering dust. I used to bitch at her about it, about wasting our money on junk, and why couldn’t she just find a place to put the damned thing?
“But in the end… in the end she did find a place for it, didn’t she? The joke was on me. She found a place for it right underneath her. She used it to stand on. She used it to–”
He suddenly couldn’t speak. The pressure behind his eyes was hot and insistent. He felt himself collapsing back into the darkness.
“Henry,” Alice whispered, “I’m so sorry.”
“I killed her, Alice.” The words felt raw and unprocessed like vomiting undigested food. “I killed her.”
“No, Henry. She killed herself. You can’t stop someone when they’re determined to do that.”
“No, I killed her! She’d still be here if not for me and my childish intolerance!”
“Because of the affair,” he whispered, “It was just a mistake, for God’s sake! It was just one miserable mistake in a lifetime of them.”
“You can’t keep punishing yourself, Henry.”
“Punish myself?” He almost laughed at that. “She hanged herself because I wouldn’t stop punishing her.”
Alice stalled as she read the words. “Zoe had the affair.” It wasn’t a question, it was a revelation.
“I wouldn’t let her forget,” he whispered, “I wanted her to suffer. I beat her down with it! I made her suffer because I was suffering. I was suffering, but I was too vindictive to leave. I’d rather suffer with her than see her go free. I as good as killed her myself!”
The vent was a watery blur above him. His throat was on fire. “I couldn’t forgive her,” he said, “Hell, I never even tried. I just wanted to punish her and humiliate her, over and over and over! I wouldn’t let her go and I wouldn’t let her forget. I as good as tied that rope around her neck and hoisted her up myself.”
“No, you didn’t, Henry.”
“She begged me to forgive her. I can’t even tell you how she begged me! But I didn’t want to forgive her. I just wanted her to suffer as deeply and miserably as I had. But, you know… no matter how much I shamed her, no matter how hard or deeply I humiliated her, it was never enough to make the pain go away. I was in a rage. My anger was a monster that’d grown too big to leash. It controlled me. It still controls me.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“It still controls me, Alice. It’ll always control me! I’m a fucking monster! I’m the one they should have buried.”
Alice pressed her face into his neck. The heat of her tears soaked his chest.
His eyes were burning, his throat was raw, but no tears were coming. He was not going to cry. He just watched the stars flittering through the vent above him and tried to keep breathing.
Then Alice was there with her wet face pressed into his. She held his head and kissed his face, and muttered calmingly to him. He felt his arms slide around her as if they had made the decision on their own. She rolled onto him and fell into him. She kissed him so deeply he couldn’t pull away. She consumed him now. She owned him, if only for the moment. Their limbs tied them together through the height of her strength and the depth of his fears, and together they rolled off the edge of the world.
HENRY OPENED HIS EYES.
He was in a glowing green room. For a few beats, he couldn’t make sense of it. A few daggers of sunlight stabbed him from the ceiling.
He was in the tent.
He stretched out through the maze of sleeping bags and arched his back. He felt better than he had in weeks, probably months, maybe even years. The fresh air felt like a transfusion. Maybe this sleeping outside action wasn’t so bad after all. He wondered if he could ever do it alone.
Then the dream flamed through his mind.
He remembered Alice saving him. She’d come to him and taken him back to the tent with her. He remembered telling her. He’d open the vaults to her. He remembered her crying for him. He remembered holding her. He remembered kissing her. He remembered…
The rest of the memories followed like a barrage of punches.
He bolted upright and grabbed his face. “Oh, my God,” he whispered into his hands, “What did you do? What the hell did you do?”
His stomach was full of burning coals. Jesus, he wasn’t even drunk last night! He lifted the edge of his sleeping bag to find himself just as naked as he expected to be. He collapsed back into the bedding and moaned.
“Oh, my God! What in the bloody hell did you do?”
The one thing he absolutely hadn’t wanted to do, that’s what. The one thing he’d sworn himself to avoid. He’d promised not to drag her into his insanity, not to subject her to his fallout, and yet here he was. He was nothing but a self-serving asshole!
He thought back to Alice’s uncomfortably accurate description of his weekends: And when you stagger into work Monday morning, the consequences of all the hiding you did on the weekend are just smoking wreckage.
He drew a deep, stuttering breath and tried not to cry. Alice was the last stand. Alice was a gift of hope that he might not be irreparably screwed up after all. She was sacred territory. She was the first person he’d ever wanted to protect from himself.
And now it was all out of his hands. Now he had to go out there and set fire to her world. He felt abandoned and alone. Even his anger was strangely missing in action. It felt like the last slim thread to his humanity had been snipped, like he was in perfect free-fall.
He threw his hands to his eyes. He wanted to sink into the earth and sleep the sleep of the dead. He wanted to be nothing. He wanted every living thing to forget him. He wanted to be swallowed into whatever hell awaited him on the other side of that dark door and be done with it. This life was finished. He was finished. He couldn’t bear to bring any more sorrow down on anyone else.
The air in the tent was too thick, too stale and unforgiving. It was the scene of his latest abuse, and he couldn’t bear to linger in it. He had to get this over with. He threw back the sleeping bag, and pulled on his jeans. His shirt was gone, so he pulled open the tent flap and marched out into the wreckage of the day without it.
The sun was higher than it should’ve been. It had to be past noon. The picnic table was covered with packed boxes of food and gear. The cooler was resting at the end of the bench. The little spigot was open, but it wasn’t dripping any water. There was no telling how long they’d been gone.
He walked over to the picnic table. The awning on the van was gone. So was the clothesline. It looked like they’d gotten the weather forecast, like they’d seen the coming storm and were preparing to ride out ahead of it.
The door to Fort Drift was open, but no one was inside. He suspected the crew might be taking a last consecrating bath before hitting the trail. He wondered if he should go say goodbye or just go. The latter would surely be easier.
Then he noticed the bottle of water sitting beside the cooler. It had a little sticky note affixed to it with the words Drink Me written in girlish letters that he knew would smell like Sharpie ink. He twisted the top off and took a deep drink. Funny it didn’t taste like poison anymore.
As he replaced the top, he remembered waking in the van the day before. Was it really just yesterday? How could that possibly be? He thought about the springs, thought about swimming with Alice, about bathing in the hot pool, meeting Alice on the path, walking alone with the stick and the snakes, finding the note in his shoes.
He looked over at the van. His beat up dress shoes were neatly parked under the sliding door just as they had been yesterday. A scroll of paper was tucked into the left one, just as it had been yesterday. He unrolled it and held it to the sunlight, exactly as he’d done yesterday.
The note was written in familiar block letters with the artsy, girlish flair. It read:
Good morning, Henry,
Another day, another mission. I’m sure your CIA pals would approve. This is yours, should you choose to accept it:
1 Grab a towel and a pair of flip-flops from the blue duff.
2 Follow the trail in front of the van..
3 Find a really big stick to whack grass with (whatever!).
4 Find a high cliff that curves in on itself.
5 Look for your friends.
PS I recommend you start fretting it now, cuz we’re all naked.
PPS Don’t worry about the snakes, they can’t hurt you anymore.
He read it again. Your friends are waiting for you. Your friends.
He looked up at the two-track meandering off into the rocky wilderness, and then he looked back at the park road doing the same in the opposite direction.
Two miles either way.
A half hour walk either way.
Take the two miles to them and he could finish the job at hand, set the wreckage on fire, and end it completely without any pesky lingering doubts or foolish hopes. He’d leave them a bad man, sure. A nut job loser, another close call on the road to love. But at least she’d know it was done. She’d have some closure.
Take the two miles toward the highway and simply ride off into the sunset. Maybe that way he’d only leave a burning bridge behind him. Maybe that way he’d leave it all clean and neat and minus the dirty drama. At least it’d be clean and neat for him, and to them he’d just be an asshole best quickly forgotten. Yeah, it might take a week or so before she understood the truth, but it sure as hell would be easier.
He looked up at the sun climbing above the mountain wall across the river from him. An eagle or vulture or some other ominous looking bird soared effortlessly just above the cliff’s edge. It had to be a mile high.
As he studied that portentous peak, he realized there was a third choice, after all. He felt a chill at the revelation, at once both frightening and thrilling. A third choice. The Grand Resolution. Maybe it was time. Maybe enough was enough. No, scratch that. Definitely. Enough was definitely enough.
He had butterflies in his stomach. He felt like a prisoner must feel in the minutes before they’re released. Sure, his prison had been hellish and brutal, but it’d still been home. At least for a while. It was right to suffer a little bout of melancholy when it came time to leave it behind, wasn’t it?
He closed his eyes and drew a steadying breath.
Then he laughed, and it surprised him. He hadn’t even seen it coming. He’d thought about the Grand Resolution a thousand times in these past four years. He’d even made plans, written notes, almost called people. But in spite of his intermittent convictions that it was the right thing to do, the only honest thing to do, something had always discouraged him.
The image of Zoe hanging from the garage rafter exploded through his mind. He choked back a cry.
He remembered the horror of finding her hanging there so grotesquely, the woman he’d made laugh, the woman he’d made love to back in the days before the fall. She was hanging as still as death, not like in the movies where they’re always swaying just a bit, the rope mournfully creaking, like the discovery had been made only seconds too late. He remembered the horror in her lifeless eyes, the urine pooled beneath her hovering feet, the little table with the grape vines lying sorrowfully on its side beneath her. It was that sight as much as his guilt that’d ruined his life.
And it was the same miserable image that stopped him every time.
He couldn’t follow the Grand Resolution, though he had absolutely no fear of doing so. He couldn’t follow it, because he couldn’t leave himself to be found by another person. He couldn’t bear to impose his monster onto someone else just because he was too cowardly to live with his guilt. He couldn’t bear the thought of transferring his angst into the heart of another. Better to die drunk in a mangled vehicle on some anonymous roadside. At least then, those who found him would just be doing their jobs.
And he especially could not pass that onto Alice. He could never do that to her.
If he did nothing else decent in his miserable life, he had to leave her as clean as he could manage. He picked up the note written in those girlish, serious, demanding letters. He folded it very carefully and tucked it into the pocket of Ed’s jeans. And then he did as she instructed.
HENRY WALKED DOWN THE TWO-TRACK IN HIS BORROWED ORANGE FLIP-FLOPS.
He had no stick this time, exactly as ordered. He wasn’t even watching the grass with any particular interest. Alice was right, he had no need for the stick; the snakes couldn’t hurt him. Nothing could hurt anymore.
His mind was made up, the plan carefully scripted. He’d be on the road before day’s end. He’d leave the family behind with as little damage as he could manage. The only road bump in this otherwise flawless plan was Alice. He had to stand before Alice first.
He had to say goodbye to her face-to-face. Properly. He owed her that little bit of courtesy. Hell, he owed her a lot more than that. Maybe if he stood up to his fears just this once, not everything he left behind would be burning after all.
He worked his way along the stone path toward the river and pools. As he climbed down that final washout, he saw them. They were in the same hot pool as before. Except there were only three of them this time. As he walked closer, he harbored doubts. Two of them appeared to be wearing some kind of odd masks. Maybe this was the wrong crew.
Then the larger masked person waved to him, and Henry realized the grim truth. They weren’t wearing masks at all. It was Frank and Ed and their war wounds.
“Good morning, Sunshine,” Frank called to him as Henry walked up to the pool.
“Holy shit, Frank! You look like hell.” He did. His skin was bruised and swollen starting at the Frankenstein stitches on his forehead and running clear down the left side of his face to his jaw line. Half his lip was puffed out to the size of an orange slice.
“Why, thank you, Henry,” Frank said, laughing, “Sweet of you to say so. Now we look just like you, royal members of the Purple Face Clan.”
Ed was even worse. His eyes were swollen nearly shut. His lips looked like he’d been mummified, and his face was mostly the color of bad eggplant.
“Jesus, Ed,” Henry said, wincing, “Do you still have teeth under those lips?”
Ed made a sound like a laugh, but immediately contracted into a wince and groan.
Bridget stroked the back of his head too carefully. “He’s not going to be very pretty for a while,” she said, looking up at Henry, “But he’ll recover. Isn’t that right, baby?”
Ed looked at her like he wasn’t sure.
“You fared all right,” Frank said, grinning, “All you’re sporting is the same fading black eye you arrived wearing. Must’ve been the uniform.”
“Yeah, I only came away with a souvenir dent on the back of my skull. Might’ve split my lip a little, but it didn’t swell or anything.”
“Well, thank goodness you still have that sweet, boyish face,” Frank said, “In fact, I’d go so far as to say you actually look better today. Certainly more refreshed, no?” He threw Henry a wink with his good eye.
Henry’s shame gave him a cold slap. He spied the remaining spoils of the scotch from last night sitting on a rock next to Nancy’s head. He actively resisted the urge to dive for it.
“We’re packed up,” Frank said.
“Yeah, I saw that. Going home? Pilgrimage complete?”
“No, we’re moving north. Probably swing over to Taos for a couple days.”
“Yeah, there are some old hot springs northwest of there. Ojo Caliente. Not rustic like this, but still classically delicious.”
“We’d love if you came along, Henry,” Frank said too seriously, “But Alice says you’re moving on today. She gave us strict instructions not to press you. I’m probably going to receive a royal slapping for even mentioning it, so please have a heart, and don’t say anything.”
Alice says you’re moving on today. Henry’s legs wavered for just an instant. He forced a recovery, faked a laugh, and said, “No worries, Nancy. I’ve got your back.”
“It’s true, then? You’re really leaving us?”
Henry had nothing to say to that. His throat was too full of angst to speak, even if he’d had a ready answer. He simply nodded.
“Well, I’m sorry to hear that, Henry. I really am. I’d like to spend more time with you. I think we could’ve gotten to be close friends, actually. Of course, you’ll have the good taste not to mention that I said that, right? Reputation and all?”
“Frank’s reputation, sure,” Henry said too quickly.
“You’re really bumming me out, Henry,” Frank said softly. He looked like he meant it.
“I’m sorry. I’ve… I don’t know, got things to do, I guess. I mean, I just… I’ve got things to do.”
“Sure. I understand,” Frank said. He didn’t sound convinced.
“I appreciate that.”
“Actually, I’m lying. I don’t have a clue why you can’t join us. I mean, it’s not like you have a job or anything, right?” He laughed. Henry didn’t. “But… Alice made me swear I wouldn’t press it, so there you go.”
“Maybe I’ll catch up with you next year. Next pilgrimage.”
“You know, Henry, dear, I’m just not much for faking it. If it’s goodbye, let’s just make it goodbye. Let’s leave this memory tarnish-proof. No insincere promises, right?”
Henry nodded. “No insincere promises, Frank.”
They looked at each other for a moment. Then Frank said, “I could kiss you full on the lips for your contribution to the tribe. Not only did it make last night that much more fun, it’s making today a whole easier to take as well. I’m sure Ed feels the same way. We’d both be a hundred ways deeper in pain if we didn’t have the pills.”
Ed groaned and waved half-heartedly.
“Not a problem,” Henry said, “What you did for me was a hell of a lot bigger than that measly gift. I doubt I’ll ever be able to thank you, not properly.”
Frank grabbed the scotch bottle and took a deep slug off it. “I’d offer you a ride to the interstate,” he said as he capped the bottle, “But Alice has other plans, so I’d best leave that all to her.” He held the bottle up toward him.
Henry waved it off.
Frank shrugged, recapped, and set it back on the rock.
“So,” Henry said, “Where is the Queen of All She Surveys?”
“She’s out walking.”
Frank raised his arm from the water and pointed toward the cliff face bowing in so dramatically over the river. Henry tracked it to the top, then looked back at Frank. “I’m not sure I get you? She’s rock climbing?”
“No, she just hiking, but she went that-a-way. There’s a gravel trail back before the washout. Follow it way uphill there. You’ll find her sooner or later. There’s only one path up and down.”
Henry nodded. He again looked up at the cliff. About a mile above them, two massive obelisks stood side by side at the very edge of the precipice like a pair of heavenly pillars. It looked like the place a young blonde woman might be chained before the giant gorilla comes along for her.
“Sure you don’t want a slug before you go?” Frank said, laughing.
Henry looked at him. “Who said I was going? Maybe I’ll just wait here, maybe catch a quick soak.”
“No obvious lies, Henry.”
Henry tried to laugh, but it died during birth. “Yeah, I’m going after her, I guess.”
“Better get a leg on, then. We’re leaving in ninety minutes.”
Henry looked back up at the pillars again. From way down here, it looked like the perfect place to throw himself to the rocks, a human sacrifice served up to appease the guilt gods. Then again, it wouldn’t be a sacrifice at all, would it? It would be more like penance.
“You worried,” Frank said.
Henry looked at him.
“Go after her, Henry. I’m pretty sure she’s not going to hurt you.”
“Yeah,” Henry said, “Yeah, I know that.”
“Really? You know that?”
“Yes, Frank. I know that.”
“Then why do you look like a man about to climb the stairs to the gallows?”
HENRY MADE HIS WAY UP THE NARROW GRAVEL PATH WITH MORE EFFORT THAN SUITED HIM.
The air was significantly cooler at this altitude. He was a little surprised by that. If not for the sun on his bare back, he’d have been a lot more uncomfortable. He wished he’d worn his dress shirt, even with Alice’s accoutrements.
He laughed at that. The shirt. Grief! Though he was grateful, and even a little touched by her efforts to repair it, he didn’t know if he could ever wear it publicly. In fact, he’d never been more relieved than when she pushed him in the river yesterday. It’d gotten him out of having to wear it to the bar. He was just a tad too pretty for that whole metro-sexual look. He could only imagine what her shop must look like. He wondered if he’d ever see it?
He smothered that thought in its infancy. Would he ever star in his own sitcom? Would he ever be elected Pope? Would he ever grow wings? Each scenario was just about as likely as someday visiting Alice’s shop. No, he not only wouldn’t ever see her shop, he couldn’t ever see it. Not ever. He was saying goodbye. Today. Time to burn this manuscript before he wrote the tragic ending.
The first twenty minutes of his walk up the side of the mountain had been grueling. His flip-flops really weren’t up to the job of blazing through loose rocks and stones. Thankfully, the ground was now leveling off nicely, and the walk was actually becoming a pleasure. The path closely followed the edge of the cliff up here, a bit too closely for his taste. He could see the silvery tongue of the river winding through the debris way too far below him.
Off to his left was a hundred mile vista of absolutely nothing but mountainous ruins, rocks, and scrub. It was exactly like all the other ruins, rocks, and scrub he’d been suffering since this trip began, though higher and more jagged. He could only imagine what manner of creatures inhabited such a place. No wonder they called it the Badlands. At least, he thought they called it that. Or was that somewhere up north? Maybe Nebraska or Montana? Christ, a third grader had better geographic skills than he did.
He spied the pillars ahead, the same pillars he’d admired from that riverbank a mile below. They erupted from the rock at the cliff’s edge like giant fangs. They had to be forty or fifty feet tall, and they were a hell of a lot bigger around than he’d suspected from down there. They stood nearly at the drop itself. A craggy ridge half the height of the pillars wove away from them in either direction, so that it looked like a gate in a great stone wall. The space between the pillars was open and clear, like an entrance. Or an exit.
He soon passed along the rim of the first one, running his hand along its strangely smooth surface. The pillars were close enough that if he stood between them, he could touch them both with his arms outstretched. It was exactly as it’d appeared from down below, like some ancient temple used by aboriginal tribes to perform ceremonial sacrifices. He was a bit disappointed that there were no iron rings hanging from them.
With his fingertips pressing into the relentless granite of each pillar, he stepped through them, stopping just at the edge of the cliff. His toes tickled over the lip. The edge was straight and sharp, as if some mythical god had taken a gigantic chisel and split it open. It was a perfectly vertical drop here, falling straight down for several hundred feet. The drop ended where a massive washout finished the slope down near the river another several hundred feet further. The drop was breathtaking and astonishing, and tempting as hell.
Wouldn’t this be an absolutely brilliant place for the Grand Resolution. All he’d have to do is take a half a step forward, spread his dark wings, and lean into his fate. A moment of pristine weightlessness followed by an eternity of absolute freedom. The sad movie’s finally over. Drop the curtain. Everyone go home now, pay the sitter, and tuck your brats into bed.
Alice’s face flamed through his mind. He envisioned her finding his mutilated body awash on the rocks of the riverbank. He remembered the utter horror he’d suffered at finding Zoe hanging so unnaturally still from the manufactured rafters of his garage, and with that memory, the notion of a Grand Resolution died in the womb. He once again confirmed the utter impossibility of passing that anguish onto Alice, and thank the universe for it. It appeared there was still a little human left in him after all.
He saw Frank and company moving below on the other side of the river. They were so small, they seemed weirdly unreal and fully inconsequential, like at any moment some giant could come along and squish them with its heel. He wondered if that was why the Christian God so rarely intervened in the natural and human-manufactured horrors that incessantly ravaged this earth, because we all seemed so useless and insignificant from where He sat. Maybe His lack of participation in mortal lives wasn’t simple heartlessness on His part, after all. Maybe He just didn’t see the point in getting involved in the irrelevant struggles of those wee little ants down there.
He leaned further out over the drop for a better view. They were out of the pool. Frank was easy to spot because of his shape: A round, pink blob with man-tits. As naked Frank bent over and grabbed his towel, Henry was suddenly enormously grateful he’d taken this hike.
He tracked the line of the river back along a bend just below him, then over to a long, wide pool. The warm pool. It sat just before a wide dam of cascading water that seemed to be a source of the river. Funny he hadn’t noticed the waterfall when he was swimming with Alice. The water looked like mercury from here, shimmering silvery gray under the godlike force of the sun. He thought about yesterday morning and washing Alice’s hair. It was a good memory. For a change.
Frank and Bridget each had one of Ed’s arms around their shoulders as they made for the washout. Henry laughed and immediately felt guilty for it. Poor Ed. The man was a mess. He wished he’d been able to intervene faster last night. Then again, if he had, it might’ve been him being schlepped back to the camp instead of Ed. Frank said they were leaving in ninety minutes, but he couldn’t see it happening. It was going to take them that long to haul the corpse back to Fort Drift.
Watching them make their way, Henry felt the sting of urgency. He absolutely had to talk to Alice in private before they left. There wouldn’t be another opportunity. He needed to apologize for his dire mistake last night. He had to try to minimize the wreckage before he took his leave. He couldn’t bear another ghost following him. Especially not one with Alice’s face.
He took one more mental snapshot of the view, then reluctantly turned away.
He heard the dog bark before he saw it. The animal charged through the pillars for him, snarling and snapping at his legs. Henry lurched back from the animal. The effort cost him his balance. He grabbed for the pillars too late. His heel found air behind him. He was falling!
HENRY FELT SOMETHING SNAG HIS BELT.
He stopped violently, wrenching his neck on the recoil. He immediately reeled forward and caromed off one of the pillars before spilling hard into the gravel, landing brutally on his hands and knees.
The dog was still barking. Someone was screaming. It sounded like a woman. He couldn’t get his breath. Hell, he could barely see. He could only grovel there on his hands and knees with his fingers dug into the dirt, too terrified to let go. His sight pulsed weirdly with each vicious heartbeat.
A hand pressed against his back. A pair of knees landed in the dirt before him. A dog the size of a lion licked his face. He grabbed its collar and held it at bay as he struggled to breathe.
A spilled picnic basket lay on its side in the dirt a few yards ahead of him. It blurred in and out of focus to the rhythm of his pulse. He worried that if he didn’t get his breath back soon it would be his parting image.
“Are you all right?” It was a woman. “Oh my, I’m so sorry! Are you hurt?”
The dog slopped his face with such zeal that Henry had to close his eyes or risking losing one. It was brown and scruffy with half-cocked ears. He pushed the dog’s head back. He realized it was a man kneeling before him. Alice stood just back behind him on the safer ground beyond the pillars. She looked like she’d just seen the white light. He had to go to her, had to reassure her that everything was all right, that he hadn’t fallen, that he was safe.
And then he realized it wasn’t Alice at all. It was younger woman, another blonde.
“I can’t believe it!” the man said, “That was too close! Are you all right, sir?”
Still on his hands and knees, Henry looked up at him. “Too close?” he said between pants, “That’s the best you can do? Too fucking close? I was walking on air there. That dog damned near killed me.”
“I know. Oh God! I can’t tell you how sorry I am!”
The dog dove into his face again, slopping at him with even greater enthusiasm. Henry couldn’t seem to pull away from it. He wondered if it was apologizing.
“Come here, Crito,” the woman ordered the dog, “Back! Back!”
The dog pawed the dirt as the woman reeled him back by his leash.
Henry pushed himself back onto his heels. He wiped as his mouth and watched the dog. His hands shook like a dry drunk’s.
“Crito?” he said, looking up the woman, “Wh-what the hell kind of name is that for a dog?”
“Why, it’s Greek,” she said. She said like he’d asked her if water was wet.
“Greek?” His breath was finally returning. He looked at the man kneeling across from him, “Greek was my weak subject. Now, Babylonian history? Yeah, that’s more my cup of tea.”
“Really?” the man asked seriously.
“Hell, no. I don’t even know what state Babylonia’s in. I’m thinking maybe Alabama.”
The man just looked at him. Then he laughed. “Alabama,” he said, “You had me.”
“What? That’s not right?”
The man stood up, then threw a hand down to Henry. “Let’s get away from the drop,” he said, “Man, I think I’m going to dream about this for the rest of my life.”
“You are?” Henry snapped back, “Hell, I may never climb stairs again.” He accepted the hand and rolled up to his feet.
“Holy hell!” the man said, gripping Henry’s shoulder, “I am so sorry. That was too close! If I’d known anyone was around I’d never have let Crito—”
“It’s all right,” Henry said waving him silent, “Really, it’s all right. Forget it. It’s over. Seriously.”
“Forget it? How could I ever forget it? You damned near went soles up. You would’ve been killed! How can I forget that?”
“Let it go,” Henry said again, more insistently, “I mean it. A few minutes ago I was thinking about jumping anyway, so falling would’ve just kept me on track.” He faked a grin. They didn’t grin back.
The woman he’d thought was Alice slipped past her husband and took Henry’s hand. “Please come away from there,” she said like she meant it, “You’re giving me the willies! I swear, I cannot abide another fright.”
Henry allowed her to lead him to safety. She didn’t seem intent on letting go of his hand anytime soon. He looked at her engorged belly and immediately remembered her. This was the couple he’d seen setting up camp yesterday. He’d thought she looked familiar then, and now that he saw her up close, he knew why. She was a younger version of Alice. Same green eyes, same appealing smile, same blonde hair worn a bit longer. He thought this must be what Alice looked like when she was twenty, or would have been if she’d been morbidly pregnant.
“I’m Henry,” he said. She still had his hand.
“Henry, yes. I’m Beth. This is my husband, Ike. You already met Crito.”
“Yes, I did.” He noticed her eyes were wet and suffered a pang of guilt for it.
“Well, I’m just good and sorry,” she said like she’d never been more serious about anything in her life, “It was reckless to let him run. He should have been on a darned leash. We didn’t know—”
“Stop!” Henry said, “Stop already. Please, you’re forgiven. Seriously. I can’t handle any more apologies. Everything’s fine. Now, can I please have my hand back.” He smiled at her.
She looked up at him, then covered her mouth. She was about to dive into a full bore cry.
“No, Beth, don’t cry,” he said quickly, taking her shoulders, “I mean it. It’s all over now. No harm, no foul.” He didn’t know what else to say, he had no experience with consolation. Seemed like it was always him doing the apologizing.
Beth pushed out a labored smile as she wiped away her tears. She was watching him too intensely. She had eyes that made him feel like there was no one else in the room.
He wheeled his attention to her husband. “Gotta love those reflexes, Ike. You couldn’t have called it any closer. Thanks a bunch.”
“Yeah, not so sure about that,” Ike said. He sounded Midwestern. “You wouldn’t have needed me if hadn’t been for Crito’s lousy timing. Didn’t think we’d need to leash him up here. I mean… there aren’t many campers out and about this weekend, you know?”
“I don’t care what the cause was. You saved my butt. Going to take me a while to pay that debt back.”
“No debt,” Ike said, grinning, “I absolve you.”
“Perfect. We’re all even then.” Henry again noticed the spilled basket. He walked over and knelt before it. “Sorry about your picnic,” he said as he righted it. He began replacing the contents, beginning with two bottles of white wine that were calling his name. They were still cool.
Beth knelt beside him and joined in. Crito was licking his face again. The dog obviously felt pretty bad about nearly killing him. Henry gave his head a good scruffing.
“We were going to set up for lunch here, Henry,” Ike said behind him, “Please join us for a quick sandwich?”
“Thanks,” Henry said over his shoulder, “You don’t have to feed me. It’s a perfect day for romance. You should just enjoy it yourselves.”
Then he felt Beth’s hand on his shoulder. He stopped repacking the picnic, and looked over at her.
“Have a glass of wine with us. Please? We can all use one after that near calamity. Isn’t that right, dearest?”
“Wiser words I’ve never heard, Lovey,” Ike said.
Her eyes were so much like Alice’s, so green and unrelenting. It was at once both disarming and a little unsettling.
“What do you say, Henry?” she pressed, “Please, don’t make me ask you a third time.”
Henry finally relented. “Okay, General. Doesn’t sound like I have a choice.”
“You do not, sir.”
“But I don’t have the proper attire.” He looked down at his bare chest. “I’m afraid. My uniform’s being repaired.”
“Uniform?” she said, smiling brightly, “What branch of service are you in?”
“I’m in the superhero division.”
She kept smiling, but he could see the words streaking across the back of her eyes as she processed them.
“Beth? I’m kidding?”
She laughed with him as she returned to her basket. “Of course, you are Henry. Why, I knew that, of course I did.”
He couldn’t resist laughing with her. And as he did, he thought again of Alice.
HENRY WASHED THE LAST OF HIS CHEESE SANDWICH DOWN WITH THE LAST OF HIS WINE.
He’d never been overly fond of wine, but this particular label was sweet and crisp, and somehow hit the spot dead-on. Then again, he would’ve thought rubbing alcohol ambrosia after what just happened. He leaned back against the cool rock wall with his plastic wine glass balanced on his knee.
They were parked in the shade, sitting in a sandy space beneath a ridge of solid stone. The shade felt as refreshing as the wine. There was even some grass here. It was almost like he wasn’t on the lunar surface anymore.
Ike lay on his elbow across the flowery blue blanket from him, half in and half out of the sun. He was about the same build as Henry, though thinner, less matured. He had the same dark hair, though a little longer. They might have been brothers, though Ike had to be at least ten years younger.
Crito laid in the dirt just a respectable distance off the picnic blanket, soaking up the sunlight. Beth sat in a triangulated position between him and Ike. She wore a pale yellow sundress and sat cross-legged with her belly testing the dress’s seams. He couldn’t stop peeking at it, though he didn’t understand why. He’d never been overly fond of breeders. In fact, pregnant women usually repulsed him. The idea of something growing inside their abdomen? It was creepy, all Aliens and crap. He’d never found it even remotely appealing. Not before this.
“Beth,” he said to her, “I’m probably putting myself in peril by asking this. So, if it happens I’m wrong, feel free to march me back to the pillars and finish what Crito started.”
“Eight months, Henry. And yes, you should be very, very careful when broaching that topic with a woman.”
“Yeah… I thought so.”
“If you’d been wrong. I would’ve taken you up on your offer. Isn’t that right, Ike?”
“You are so right, honey,” Ike said like he’d rehearsed the line.
Beth reached for Henry’s glass. “You were safe asking me,” she said as she refilled it, “I mean, the bump is ridiculously obvious. Still, I’d advise great caution if a woman has the bump and she’s packing weight elsewhere. Particularly if she’s toting saddlebags or cankles.”
Henry accepted the wine. “Sage advice. Gratefully accepted.”
“As it should be,” she said, giggling.
She had one of those rare laughs, the kind that make you want to make her laugh more just so you can hear it. He thought about Alice, and he suddenly felt lonely, which only served to fuel his angst. What the hell was happening to him lately? He needed a distraction.
“How long have you been married?” he said to Ike, more to get someone talking than out of curiosity.
“Six months,” Ike replied.
Henry held his glass out to him. “Well, congratulations on getting a running start. No time like the pregnant, eh?”
Beth laughed and flipped a grape at him. “That’s some style you have there, Henry.”
Ike saluted him with his glass. “Well said.”
“You got an early start on the whole family package thing,” Henry said, looking at Ike.
“Like you could resist sampling that dessert before the meal?” Ike said, grinning slyly, “I mean, look at her. She’s breathtaking. And under all that pregnant, she’s hotter than a—”
“Ike!” Beth said with faux mortification, “We have a guest!”
“Anyway, it’s a defensive move,” Ike said, “Beth demands my attention twenty-four/seven. It’s more than any mere mortal man can handle, so I figured I’d best build myself a couple allies to help out.”
Beth threw a grape at him. “Jerk!”
“Witch,” he said back.
They both laughed. Then Ike rolled forward and kissed her.
Henry looked down at his glass. It was another mind-freaking moment in an equally mind-freaking outing. They looked so much like him and Alice it was uncanny. It was as surreal as the bar fight, but pushing entirely different buttons.
His name startled him back to the moment. He looked over at Alice. No! It wasn’t Alice. It was Beth.
“Are you all right, Henry?”
“You look a little pale.”
“No, I’m good. Just thinking.”
She was watching him more than closely. He suddenly felt uncomfortable. Or maybe out of place. More like out of time.
“How old are you two?” he heard himself ask. He had no idea where he was going with this. Maybe he was just trying to find the ground again. Maybe he was trying to prove to himself that he was lucid.
“I’m twenty-two,” Ike said, “Beth just turned twenty.”
Henry barely heard him. He put the wine down on the blanket.
“We’ve been together since sixth grade,” Beth said, smiling sweetly at Ike, “We’ve been planning to marry since we were kids. We were born for each other.”
Henry looked at her. He had no response for that. He didn’t even know how to process a statement like that, how to put it in perspective. He had no basis to compare it.
“We knew we were right where we were supposed to be,” Beth said, sipping from her water bottle, “So why wait? College, work, death, it all comes around one way or another. Sooner or later, or somewhere in between? I prefer sooner. Get it?”
Henry again had nothing to say to that. Sooner or later? It felt like a foreign concept, like translating Aloha into both goodbye and hello. His was a life permanently locked into a single moment of time. What possible difference could sooner or later make in a life that never moved?
“Frankly,” Beth said, “I’ve never understood why people put off all the really important events in their lives.”
Her voice startled him back to the now. He looked over at her.
“It makes no sense to delay taking what you most desire until after you’ve supposedly cleared your hurdles. Do you know what I mean?”
“I do,” he said. He didn’t.
“If you’re in love,” Beth said, looking at Ike, “I mean, like the real deal, not an infatuation or a crush or anything? If you know this is where you’re supposed to be? Then what’s the point of losing all those years of togetherness while you traipse around after school and career? Why not live them simultaneously? You can never get those years back, right?”
“Right,” he said. It was a sour thought, and he had no desire to linger there. He tried to think of a way to change the topic, but nothing seemed forthcoming.
“Isn’t it better,” she said as if it were ridiculously obvious, “To be together while you’re pursing college and career or whatever? Isn’t it better to act on those desires now and avoid wishing later for the things you neglected to pursue? You can’t refill a clock, Henry.”
That image stopped him cold.
You can’t refill a clock.
He couldn’t argue it. It was the absolute truth, and he was sure he understood it much more intimately than she ever could. She might understand it in theory, academically, but he understood it in practice. And what she especially didn’t see from her post so many years behind him was that it was monumentally more complicated than that. The further along you meandered through life, the more life got in the way. It was something she’d learn soon enough. She just needed a few more years, just enough time to see her dog die, or watch her babies getting sick, or catch her husband singing to some sweet little thing on the side, something younger and prettier and more available than her.
He felt a surge of fear he couldn’t explain. He took a slug of the medicine.
“Are you all right, Henry,” she asked him too nicely.
He was getting good and bloody sick of that question. It seemed to be coming around a lot lately.
“You look a little pale,” she said, “Maybe you should have some more wine.”
He steadied himself. Then he looked at her again. “I get the clock thing,” he said, “Unfortunately, it’s nothing like that simple.”
“What does that mean?” She sounded serious.
“I mean, your analogy. The conflict of a refilling a clock. It’s overly simple. The truth is more shadowy.”
“Really? Well, please elaborate.”
He watched her. He couldn’t tell if there was sarcasm in her response or not. The sun had risen a bit higher, and her face was now fully in the light. She was very beautiful. She was very Alice. It gave him faith, though he couldn’t explain why. He finished his wine.
“You’re talking about regrets,” he said as he fingered the glass.
“Maybe you do understand,” she said.
“Maybe I understand?” He refilled his glass without asking permission. “It’s plenty easy to say you’re going to actively avoid regrets. And believe me, I have some experience with regrets. But the real world is one crossroad or fork or dead end or switchback after another, and there’s usually no signpost saying Regrets This Way, Contentment That Way. Usually, you blindly pick a route and are startled to find regret waiting for you a little farther down the road. It usually hides in the shadows so it can jump out and scare the hell out of you.”
“You make it sound unavoidable,” she said. She didn’t sound like she agreed. In fact, she sounded a little annoyed.
“It is,” Henry said, “No matter how wisely or carefully you pick your way through life, you’ll sooner or later realize that somewhere back there you took the wrong turn. Somewhere back there you missed the sign that said ‘I’d turn back if I were you.’”
He was surprised to see no sign of Zoe. She’d usually be climbing up from her grave about now. He found himself a little disappointed by that. She was the source for his thesis on regret, after all.
“Sooner or later?” Beth said, “Why would you say that? Seems to me we have more control than that. Yes, there may be the occasional minor exception, but by and large… well, a little dollop of wisdom can spare one a barrel of grief.”
Henry found himself laughing at that.
“Oh, that’s funny, is it, Henry?” she asked like it was a dare.
“Yes, Beth, it is,” Henry said plainly, “Most of us can’t just dollop the wisdom around like we’ve got a vat of it to tap.”
“Do tell,” she said. She was actually sounding a bit pissed.
Henry looked her dead on. “All right,” he said, “You think you can control every aspect of your fate because you’re still young. But that’s just a lie you tell yourself, a lie that reveals itself later, when you’re older, when it’s far too late to make U-turn and go back. The truth is sometimes you’re forced down a path you don’t choose. Sometimes regrets are imposed on you despite your best intentions to avoid them. You can’t control the people around you. You can’t change their foolish decisions. And you can’t even always control how you’ll react to them. You can wash your hands twenty-four hours a day, but you’ll still eventually catch the flu. It’s the law of statistics.”
“Statistics,” she said with a smile that smelled of condescension, “Of course, there are no absolutes. I’m not—”
“Sometimes we simply fall victim to life,” he said, wanting to put a stake through this whole conversation, “We’re all human, right? None of us are gods. None of us have nearly the control we think we do.”
“Well, that’s quite true, Henry,” she said, still smiling suspiciously, “Yes, it is. We are indeed all extremely and irreversibly human.”
He lifted his glass to her with the intention of making a toast and changing the miserable subject.
“But that sounds a bit too much like a copout for my taste.”
The wine glass sank back to his thigh.
“I’m sorry if it offends,” she said, “But that perspective is simply an effort to dodge responsibility, a copout, if you will. Why, of course I’d never propose that all regrets can be avoided. Of course life is dynamic and as unpredictable as the path of a butterfly. But your perspective sounds like an excuse.”
“Yes, Henry, an excuse. A reason to stop trying. A reason to abandon all efforts to avoid such intersections where a carefully thought out decision may avert a lifetime of regret.”
“Wow,” Henry said, “Nice shot.” It absolutely was.
“It wasn’t a shot, Henry. It’s merely an observation.”
“I’m kidding,” he said without knowing why. He wasn’t kidding in the least. Then he simply added, “I understand,” in hopes of putting this fire out.
“I’m not sure you are. Or do.”
Her eyes were drilling into him. He’d thought he’d taken back control of the steering wheel, but he clearly wasn’t in the driver’s seat anymore. Hell, he wasn’t even in the damned car. She had him totally on the run.
“It’s a pretty simple formula,” she continued, “There are only two elements that matter in our entire lives, time and mind.”
“Here we go,” Ike said. He rolled over onto his back.
“Time and mind,” Henry repeated.
“Yes, time and mind. Time only exists in the present. There is no past, nor any future, only now, only this very moment we’re sharing right now.”
Henry shrugged. “Keep going.”
“The past is a book. The future’s essentially a project plan. Neither are real. Are you with me?”
“I believe so.”
“You only ever write in your book in the here and now. You write in the moment. You can’t go back in time and edit it. You can’t write ahead for the future. You can only write now.”
“Are you trying to drag me down into an intellectual swamp, Beth?”
She giggled at that. “No, Henry. I’m educating you.”
He held his glass out toward her. “In that case, I may need some more gas”
She leaned over with the bottle and topped him off. “The past is a history book, a point of reference, nothing else. Its only function is to provide a basis for the moments that follow.”
“The Philosopher Queen,” Ike said, saluting her with his glass.
Beth threw another grape at him.
“So,” Henry said, “Let me see if I have this. The past is a book.”
“You’re not listening, Henry.”
That one felt like a slap. “I think I am, Beth.”
“No. You hear the words, but you’re not listening to them. The past sets the standards against all your future decisions, but it’s not real. It’s a diary, just an echo of moments gone by.”
“An echo,” he said.
“Exactly. And that’s where the mind comes in, element two of the formula. The mind can look at the current state, then reference the past to make a decision. If I do X, will I regret it later? What do I have experientially to measure this against? What I have I experienced in the past that is close to X? Are you still with me?”
He sure was. And he hated it. He looked at his wrist and was pleasantly surprised to find his watch still missing. He wondered how long he’d been sitting here? Maybe if he stayed long enough, Fort Drift would set sail without him. He wondered what would happen if it did. Would this prove another much-deserved opportunity for regret?
He looked over at her. “Yes, Beth. I’m here.”
“Does that make more sense?”
“It does. I understand what you’re saying, I actually do.”
“I imagine it’s harder for people like you, Henry.”
That remark startled him. “Is that supposed to mean something to me, Beth?”
“I think so. Using your regrets crossroads analogy, I believe some people are just less inclined to read the signs. Some people even make a conscious decision to deliberately avoid looking at the signs. I think those are the kind of people who actively collect regrets because they think they deserve them.”
“Really?” Henry said.
“Yes. You, for instance.”
Henry felt the needle skip off the record with that one. He suddenly reconsidered Fort Drift. Maybe he should catch up with them after all. Maybe he should get up now and run his sorry ass all the way back to camp.
“It’s not a bad thing,” Beth continued, either oblivious to his terror or in enjoyment of it, “It’s just that some people simply prefer traveling the hard way versus taking a nice straight line, and I think you’re one of them.”
Henry reeled at that. It was all too fantastic, all too paranormal to be real. How many times had he heard that same observation on this terrifying journey, that he liked the hard way? Maybe this was some kind of final mental voyage before the white light. Maybe he never made that dirty gas station restroom. Maybe he was dying on the side of some backwoods road, deep in the wilds of New Mexico, and this was the psychotic equivalent of watching his life pass before his eyes!
Henry nearly jumped out of his pants. He looked over at her.
“Please don’t take it wrong,” she said, “I don’t mean to be rude. It’s just… well, I have a sense about people.”
“You have got to be kidding!” Henry looked at Ike. “What about you? Do you have a sense about people, too?”
“Nah. I barely even notice people.”
“I’m sorry, Henry,” Beth said, grabbing his ankle, “I’ve offended you. I didn’t mean to. I actually like you.”
“No,” Henry said, “No, it’s not that. It’s just… it’s just that practically every person I’ve met over the last two days has told me the same thing, that they had a sense about me, that I like to go the hard way, whatever the hell that means.”
“You know exactly what it means. Don’t fake coy.”
“Coy? I’m not being coy. I’m just freaking out! It’s the weirdest damned thing I’ve ever experienced.”
“Hell, yes, it is!” It came out louder than he’d intended.
He looked down at her hand still holding his foot, and as he studied that event he tried to regroup.
“I feel like I’m in another dimension,” he said after a moment, “A place where everyone on the planet has the Henry Sight except Henry. Everyone understands me on contact, no warm up, no getting to know you, just touch hands and instant insight.”
“Well, that sounds like a blessing, Henry.”
“A blessing? Are you serious?”
She took a sip of her water. She carefully recapped the bottle. Her eyes never left him. “Maybe you’re being given the Henry Sight by proxy.”
“Are you joking?”
“Maybe your current trip is some kind of… I don’t know, cosmic gift. Maybe you were destined to meet these people, dear. Maybe you were supposed to learn from them.”
Henry looked at his bare wrist and was yet again surprised by his surprise at seeing his watch still gone. Not that he needed it. He knew exactly what time it was. It was time to go. In fact, it was well past time to go. He should’ve taken Option Two when he woke up this morning and simply abandoned the team back at camp, just hit the road and let them watch his tail lights fade. This wasn’t fun anymore. It wasn’t even interesting.
“You seem like a good man, Henry.”
Henry looked at her. He suddenly felt dried up, like his voice had abandoned him, like there was nothing left to say. He felt fully and completely spent.
“I think you’re the only person you know that doesn’t like you,” Beth continued too gently, “If what you say is true, I can only imagine what a journey this past couple days must have been for you. My advice, if you want it, is to take the profit from your encounters and spend it wisely.”
“Wait,” Henry said, waving his hand, “Wait. Wait. Wait. If what I say is true? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s not meant an insult, Henry. It’s an observation, a glimpse of insight shared with you most affectionately.” Her smile consumed her whole face now.
An observation? So why did it feel more like a dissection? And yet, in the end, he knew she was right. He was just throwing up the walls when he should be tearing them down. As usual.
“I believe you,” he said at last, because, seriously, what else could he say? “And I’m not insulted.” He actually wasn’t. More like stunned. He took another slug of his medicine.
“Good,” she said, “We’re all brothers and sisters in Jesus, after all.”
Henry snorted wine all over the blanket.
Beth laughed. “Just kidding, Henry.”
He was about to retort when the dog started yelling. The animal tore away from the blanket and raced around the rocks and out of sight. An instant later, a woman screamed.
HENRY WAS INSTANTLY ON HIS FEET.
Crito had raced off around the rocks and was barking like he’d seen the devil.
Henry and Ike ran toward the chaos. The dog had a woman pinned back against the rocks. The woman was Alice. She was whacking at the dog with an open umbrella.
Ike dragged Crito back by the collar. Alice flew into Henry’s arms.
“Land sakes!” she shrieked, “That damned dog about scared me to death!”
“I am so sorry!” Ike said. He physically made Crito sit.
“Are you hurt?” Henry asked her as he held her.
“No, I don’t think so. Just scared.”
“What happened?” It was Beth.
“Crito had this woman pinned down,” Ike said, “I think he scared her pretty good.”
“Oh, Crito,” Beth said worriedly, “He’s such a bad, bad boy. Is she all right?”
Henry quickly inspected Alice. She wore cargo shorts and a wifebeater. Her hair was drawn back into a short ponytail. He looked down at her bare legs. She appeared unharmed. He looked at her shirt again and suffered a tingle of pure joy. She’d just restored his faith in wifebeater’s.
“She’s okay,” he said as he pulled Alice back into his arms, “No damage.” He thought about the look on her face when Crito was terrorizing her, and he started laughing.
Alice pushed him back to arms’ length. “Henry Lowenherz Smith! Are you laughing at me?”
“Me?” he said, trying not to grin, “Never! Alice, how could you accuse me of such a thing?” He couldn’t smother his humor.
“I nearly got mauled,” she said. Her eyes grew redder as she looked at him. “I was scared, Henry.”
Henry pulled her back in again. “I’m sorry,” he said as he stroked her hair, “I’m not laughing at you. I’m just really glad to see you. The dog did the same thing to me, but it’s all right now. Crito’s harmless.”
“Crito?” she said into his shoulder.
“The dog. That’s his name.”
“Crito? What kind of name is that for a dog?”
“It’s Greek,” he said.
“Greek wasn’t my strong subject,” she said seriously.
“That’s exactly what I told them.” He turned her toward the younger couple. “Alice, meet our neighbors, Ike and Beth. Beth is the one with the bowling ball under her shirt.”
Beth went straight up to Alice and took her by the shoulders. “Heavens above, I’m so sorry, Alice. Crito’s harmless, but he’s the guardian type. He can be scary, but only because he’s loud. Well, loud and large, I suspect.”
“And stupid as a stump,” Ike added.
Alice wiped her cheek. “It’s all good,” she said, looking down at the restrained lion, “He startled me is all.”
Ike picked up her umbrella. It was still open, though half of the ribs were bent the wrong way. “I’m sorry about your umbrella,” he said sheepishly, “I might be able to fix it.”
“It’s just a sunbrella,” Alice said, “It’s got too many tiny tears to use in the rain anyway. Don’t even worry about it.”
“I love carrying umbrellas when I walk,” Beth said, “It’s so romantic, don’t you think?” She still had a hand on Alice’s shoulder.
Henry looked at them and felt almost weak in the knees. They could’ve been sisters. Hell, they should’ve been sisters. Beth looked more like Alice than Bridget did.
Alice slipped an arm around Beth’s shoulder and laid a hand on her belly. “Beth, when are you due?”
“One month,” Henry said.
Alice looked at him.
“I just had lunch with them. Beth was explaining the Meaning of Life to me.”
“Oh,” she said, looking back at Beth.
“Hold it right there,” Henry said to Beth, “Help me understand. How is it women can ask that question straight out, while men have to dance all around it for fear of castration?”
Beth laughed. “Why, it seems perfectly obvious to me,” she said, looking at Alice, “Because men, as a rule, are perfect idiots.”
“Land sakes, Beth,” Alice said, pulling her in for a hug, “I think I’m really going to like you.”
“The feeling is mutual, Alice.”
Alice stroked Beth’s belly affectionately. “I think you’re the most beautiful pregnant woman I’ve ever seen.”
They stood arm in arm, smiling at each other like they’d just fallen in love.
Ike startled Henry with a slap on the back. “Come on, Henry,” he said, “I’ve got another bottle of wine stowed. I think we’d best fortify ourselves against the impending syrup.”
HENRY HELD ALICE’S HAND AS THEY WALKED DOWN THE GRAVEL PATH TOWARD THE TWO-TRACK LEADING BACK TO CAMP.
The sun seemed to grow more intense by the minute. He looked down at her pale skin so fully exposed by the wifebeater. He hoped she didn’t take a burn.
“They were a lovely couple, don’t you think.”
“Yes, Alice. Absolutely darling.”
“I know you are.”
They continued walking.
Henry was starting to feel sick again. Every pace took them closer to the end, closer to the moment when he’d be watching the van drive off into the sunset. His head was a mess. He kept thinking about Beth and her observations on time and mind. She’d planted the seeds of torture in his head, and he had a feeling it was going to be growing there for a while.
Her voice startled him, and he cursed himself for it. “Yes, Alice?”
As they walked, she studied the road before her feet as if looking for lost change. “Did you notice anything odd about those two?” she said softly.
“Yeah, she was pregnant as hell, and they have queer notions about dog names.”
“They kind of looked like us.”
Henry’s stomach gave him another twist. It wasn’t just him. She’d seen it, too.
Alice continued studying the path passing beneath them. He could practically hear the gears grinding. He felt like a deadman walking, like he was making the final march down a long, windowless corridor toward a cold cot and a hypodermic needle. He thought about Beth. He remembered what she’d said about regret, about the mind being the second part of the equation. A person can look at the current state, cross-reference the past, then act accordingly. If I do X, will I regret it later? If I do Y, will I find happiness?
“I know you’re leaving today,” Alice said suddenly.
Her grip on his hand was too tight. She was looking up at him. No, correction, she was studying him. Closely. This would be a bad time to falter.
“Yes, Alice,” he said as firmly as he could manage, “I am. I’m leaving. I have to.”
She nodded. “I understand, Henry. It’s all right.”
Henry felt disappointed by her response. It also didn’t surprise him.
“It’s best,” he said carefully, “I’m wound too tight. When I finally spring, I wreck everyone around me.”
“I know. I can see that.” She wasn’t smiling anymore.
They stopped. He considered taking her other hand, but he didn’t. Instead, he just stood there facing her.
“There’s… there’s something I need to tell you,” he said. He immediately regretted the hesitation in his voice. “I’m not sure how to approach it, so I’m just going to put it out there, okay?”
She shrugged. “You need my permission? Just say it.”
Her tone wasn’t promising.
“I shouldn’t have slept with you last night.” He bristled at that. He shouldn’t have put it so straight out there. It came off cold.
“What did you say?” she said. It sounded like a dare, like go ahead, Henry, go ahead and say that again.
He felt suddenly chilled. His testicles were trying to dig their way to safety in his abdomen.
“I… I promised myself I wouldn’t, you see,” he willed himself to say, “I… I mean to say… it feels…”
Say it, damn you. Stop acting like a schoolboy. Be a man for once in your fucking life. “It was wrong,” he said at last, “I was wrong. I took advantage of you.”
“You took advantage of me.” It wasn’t a question.
“I didn’t mean to. I mean, I never planned to. I just… I didn’t want to…”
She watched him too closely. She had no expression, but her lasers were at full acceleration. “You didn’t want to what, Henry?”
He forced himself to keep eye contact. He was sweating. Again!
“You didn’t want to what?” she pressed.
“I didn’t want to be a… a drive-by. I guess.”
“A drive-by? And that means…?”
“It means I didn’t want to be a one-nighter. I didn’t want to use you. I had no right to. I’m starting to care about you, and I can’t—”
She dropped his hand. For a moment, she just stood there, glaring up at him.
“Just shut your mouth, Henry. It’s my turn to speak.”
He did exactly as told. He couldn’t have spoken if he’d wanted to.
“You are one vain prick.”
For just an instant, he was certain he’d heard her wrong, but the fire in her eyes quickly burned away the fog of that misconception. He was about to apologize, but quickly reconsidered. He was plenty deep in the hole. Time to stop digging.
Alice shoved her fists into her hips. “You know, your arrogance is absolutely mind blowing.”
“Alice, I want to—”
“I told you to shut up, Henry!”
Her words knocked the wind out of him. He wanted to protest, but her expression looked like the wrong end of a gun. He decided to follow her advice and suffer the oncoming beating like a man.
“How do you know I didn’t sleep with you?” she said.
“Do I really look that delicate? That weak? Like a girl who drops her panties and bends over the car fender at the first sad story she hears? Oh, poor, poor Henry! Such a pathetic story! Why, I was so moved I simply had to let him fuck me!”
The blood drained from his body. He felt momentarily disoriented. “What? What are you talk—”
“You are some piece of work, Henry Lowenherz Smith. Who the hell do you think you are? Some All Powerful God of Misery that controls the emotions of everyone around him?”
“No, you! You think everyone around you is in mortal peril from your deep, dark angst, don’t you? You think you leave some kind of burning path of crying, wounded people behind you every time you go to the grocery store. Well, I have news for you, Dr. Doom. Sometimes all you leave behind is a bunch of people who just think you’re an asshole.”
“Alice, what are you—”
She threw a hand over his mouth. “Shut up, Henry! You shut up and you listen to me before I beat you to a bloody pulp! You’ve made yourself an island of unhappiness. You hold onto your grief the way a toddler holds a blanket. You hide behind it like a coward, avoiding anything in life that might offer any hint of forgiveness or normalcy. You’re always never home. You’re always looking for the nearest exit, and you’ve been doing it for so long you aren’t even aware of it anymore. It’s become instinct now.”
Her words thoroughly routed him.
“You’re pathetic,” she continued, “You know the truth behind your sorry state, but you refuse to act against it, maybe because it looks like too much work, or maybe because you just like being the sorry, misunderstood sad sack. Maybe it’s just a nice, safe wall, or a good excuse to evade responsibility. You’re so… so…”
She stopped. She seemed almost short of breath in her anger. Her eyes were wet and sorry. He wanted to take her, wanted to pull her into his arms and not let go. But he didn’t. How could he? The plan was too close to perfect now.
They stood there in the brutal sun, staring at each other in mortal silence for what felt like forever. Then Alice sniffed and dragged her wrist under her nose.
“Then again,” she said as she looked off in the direction of camp, “Maybe I’m the pathetic one. I believed that buried somewhere under all that garbage was a good heart. And damn, I wish there had been, because somehow over the last couple days, I’ve fallen in love with you.”
Henry felt like he was falling, like he’d so thoroughly ravaged his world that nothing physical was left to keep him anchored to it. He had nothing to say, nothing that could do her justice. She deserved better. He again opened his mouth to speak and again was abandoned by his tongue. He threw his eyes to the dirt separating them.
“So, that’s it, then,” she said at last, “Yeah? This is how it ends, is it? You standing there like a fucking mute? Feeling sorry for yourself? Patting yourself on the back for being such a successful failure? Maybe you’ll wait until I’m out of sight and throw yourself a high-five? Maybe scoot out a quick victory dance?”
“Alice, no! I—”
“Shut up, Henry. See, here’s the thing. I’m beginning to love you, but I don’t want you. I don’t want you in my life. I don’t want you anywhere close to it. Even if you asked to come with us, I’d never, ever allow it. Not because of your garbage, but because of your contentment with it, because you won’t do anything about it.”
Henry stood there staring stupidly at her. There wasn’t a word in his head. Nothing. He’d just been completely stripped of his medals.
Before he could pull himself together, she dropped her arms and stepped up to him. She tipped up on her toes, took his face in her hands, and pressed her lips into his. She held him that way forever.
Then she released him and backed off, backpedalling slowly away from him like she was never coming back, and in that moment, everything about her changed. She looked up at him now like he was a memory, like she was already mourning him. There were no more lasers examining him. There wasn’t even any interest. Alice was gone.
He watched her trotting down the path away from him. She was finished. She’d completed her dissection of his Magnum Opus with the greatest efficiency and precision, and now she was done with the entire affair. He considered going after her, but he couldn’t find the will to order the pursuit. He felt weak and hopeless. He felt utterly indecisive.
And yet, in the end, he knew he had indeed made a decision. Inaction is action, isn’t that right? This was what he’d planned for all along, wasn’t it? He hadn’t even had to pull the trigger himself. She’d done it for him. It was the perfect solution.
Still, as he began the long, long walk back to Fort Drift, he wondered if that were true at all. If it was so perfect a solution, why did he feel like climbing onto a little table in the garage?
HENRY WATCHED FRANK STOW THE BOX OF MEDICINE IN THE BACK OF FORT DRIFT.
Frank was just about to shut the back doors when he stopped and looked back at him, squinting over his cigarette. “Did you want a cocktail before I close the bar, Henry?”
Henry waved away the offer. “I’m good. Thanks.”
“You sure? I swear you look like you’re at a funeral. It’s not a problem to pull something out, dear.”
Henry considered Frank’s purple face and Frankenstein stitches, and he said, “I look like I’m at a funeral? You look like the guest of honor.”
Frank slammed the van doors shut and brushed his hands off each other. “So Henry’s not drinking this afternoon?” he said as he pulled the smoke from his mouth, “My goodness, is it a holiday or what?”
“Hilarious,” Henry said without enthusiasm, “That never gets old. You’re a real hoot.”
“Why, yes I am. I’m about the funniest boy I know.”
“I totally agree with that. You are the funniest boy you know.”
“Why, Henry… I think there may be an insult lurking in that statement somewhere. Sadly, I’m going to have to ponder on it a while before I’ll know for certain.”
“I’ll stay tuned.”
“I’ll give you an update the very instant it materializes,” Frank said.
They crossed to the picnic table. Frank flicked his cigarette into the fire pit. Henry sat up on the tabletop with his feet on the bench. They both looked down at the river.
Alice, Bridget, and Ed were down at the bank. Bridget was dressing Ed’s wounds. Ed didn’t look like he cared much. He didn’t look like he was going to be caring much about anything for a while. Alice sat on a rock a few feet from them sewing on the ripped Superman tee.
“Poor Ed,” Frank said, “He sure took a beating last night. I suspect it’s going to be a couple days before he parks in Bridget’s vagina again.”
“Jesus, Frank!” Henry said, scowling at him, “You are such a bitch.”
“Yeah, I’m afraid it comes with the matronly duties of the household.”
Henry parked his elbows on his knees. The bar fight rolled over in his mind for the hundredth time that day. “Was it really just last night?” he said, “I can’t believe it. Seems so surreal now.”
“Surreal?” Frank said with a snort, “Surreal isn’t nearly the word for it. I mean, I am one scrappy Nancy, I admit it. And I’m not one for the rot of rules and roles, and I never will be. But a fistfight in gay bar redefined the world even for me.”
Henry looked at Frank’s battered face and suffered a pang of guilt. After Alice’s ‘Come to Jesus’ speech, he imagined that was what his stomach looked like.
Frank touched his stitches as if reading Henry’s mind. “Tell me the truth, Henry. Am I still as pretty as I was yesterday?”
“Frank, I’ll always think you’re a Princess.”
“It doesn’t matter how disfigured you are, it’s what’s inside that’s important. Wait a minute, scratch that. If that’s true, it means you’re good and well screwed.”
“You’re a prick.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“No,” Frank pressed, “I’m serious.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Still, I’m gonna miss you, you old lug.”
Frank pulled another cigarette from the pack as he grinned at him.
“I’ve always thought that term a little rude,” Henry said, “Old lug. Never understood why it was used that way.”
“Rude? Are you serious? I do believe it’s meant as a term of endearment.”
“Do you even know what lug means, Frank?”
Frank stuck the cigarette in his mouth and patted his cargo pants in search of matches. “Henry, dear. You’re so clueless. It’s a term of affection, of course.”
“Yeah, not so much. It means dull-witted.”
Frank grinned around the unlit cigarette. “It sure does,” he said.
“So you’re essentially saying, I’m going to miss you, you old moron.”
“Frank, look… I just want to… I mean, I want to thank you for all you’ve done for me.”
Frank dug the matches out of his pocket and torched his cigarette. “Yeah, so you said. Over and over and over. In fact, you’ve said it so many times I’m starting to regret ever having picked you up to begin with.” He released a voluminous cloud of smoke.
“Dude,” Henry said, “You totally smoke way too much.”
“Dude,” Frank said back surfer-style, “Fer sure. Smoking’s, like, totally bitchin’. Quitting would be a mondo bummer.”
“Pulling an oxygen tank around is a mondo bummer. Being dead is a mondo bummer.”
“Henry, I see your lips moving but…” Frank clacked his fingers in the air as he took another hit. “Besides,” he said on the exhale, “It helps me keep my weight down.”
Henry looked at the man-tits erupting under his tee shirt just above the beachball that was his stomach. “In that case I think I’ll buy you a couple more cartons.”
“Sure, just as soon as you find your car.”
“So tell me,” Frank said too seriously, “What’s up with you and Alice these days?”
Henry’s stomach twisted. “What do you mean?”
“What do you think I mean?”
“Where did that question come from, Frank?”
“Why, my heart, of course. So… seriously, what’s up?”
“So… seriously, why are you asking?”
Frank shrugged and drew a hit. He looked down at Alice and blew a series of smoke rings toward her. After a bit, he looked back at Henry. “Alice didn’t look very happy when she got back from your walk,” he said, “She already told us you were leaving, but something’s different. You had a squabble, I think.”
“What are you asking me, Frank?”
Frank shrugged. “Are you planning to follow up on this business later?”
“This business?” Henry felt a slow burn starting somewhere down in that dark place. He fought it back. He just didn’t have the energy to go back there, especially with Frank.
“You know Alice has a sense about you,” Frank said, “Right?”
“Every bloody person I meet has a sense about me.”
“Nay, not like Alice. And she likes you. A lot. Too much, I dare say.”
“Alice deserves better than me,” Henry said. She absolutely did.
“Is that right?” Frank said as he scratched the shirt stretched tautly over his belly, “Seems to me that’s Alice’s decision. Not that I necessarily disagree with you, of course. Still, who are you to say what Alice deserves or doesn’t deserve? She’s a smart girl. Why, I’d say it’s a wee bit arrogant on your part to make that decision for her, wouldn’t you agree, dear?”
Henry didn’t respond. The word arrogant was digging a hole in his gut. He looked down at Alice sitting on that rock at the river’s edge with her toes in the water. Her yellow hair flamed nearly white in the sunlight. He really didn’t want this discussion. Not now. Probably not ever. And especially not with Frank.
“I’m serious, Henry. What’re your plans? You planning to follow up or just disappear into the traffic like a magician running from the rabbit?”
Henry looked at him. “Frank?”
“Mind your own fucking business.”
Frank stuck the cigarette in his mouth and started clapping. Slowly. “Well put, Henry. Brilliant response. Concise, tight, well delivered. You’re a regular orator.”
“Seriously. Piss off, Frank.”
“Gee, and I was just getting to like you, too.” Frank took a deep draw. His eyes targeted Henry.
Henry pulled away from him. He turned back toward Alice, and he felt a warm rush. She held his shirt up before her, inspecting the stitching. The Superman emblem looked particularly impressive in the sunlight. He liked it better with the stitching through it.
A moment later, Frank flicked his butt into the fire pit to join the fifty others heaped there. Henry watched it smoldering and wondered why the pile never caught fire.
“Henry, you told me you weren’t here for a drive-by,” Frank said, looking hard at him, “I think your exact words were ‘I’m not interested in courting Alice and I don’t want to bed her’.”
Frank didn’t break his gaze. “Well, it seems at least half of what you told me was true, then, hm? So I guess you’re only half a liar.”
Henry felt the hot promise of anger swell. “Be careful, Frank. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t I? You bedded her last night, didn’t you? And today you’re heading out with no plans to keep in touch?” He frowned and shrugged. “Gee… help me out, here. What part did I get wrong?”
“I told you, Frank. I’m not interested in going through the good brother, bad boyfriend routine. I’m not sure what I’m going to do yet. I’m just… I’ve got to… I don’t know. Doesn’t matter, it’s none of your business anyway.”
Frank watched him a moment. Then he said, “You’ve got what?”
“Issues, Frank. Okay? Baggage!”
Frank threw out a sarcastic laugh. “Are you kidding me? Every bad man on earth uses that line. Believe me, I know. Been there, done that, darling. And yet, I expected you to do a wee bit better than that.”
“Alice doesn’t need my problems, Frank. I’m doing her a favor.”
“You know her that well, do you? In two days, you’ve gleaned such a deep insight that you can make so bold and prophetic a statement? Lord above, what arrogance.”
The words pushed Henry too hard this time. A low buzz started up in his ears. Still, he steadied his breathing. Don’t let him push your buttons.
“Well, that’s it right there, isn’t it?” he said as carefully as he could manage, “It’s been two days. Two. Days. And now I owe her what? An engagement ring? Seriously?” His stomach was on fire.
“Nah, you’re right, Henry. She’ll better off if you just get the hell out of her life.”
Henry glared at him. “You know what, Frank? Those were practically her very words. Why the hell do you think she came back so pissy? She told me she didn’t want me in her life. So, you see? I’m doing exactly as instructed. Alice is a hell of a lot smarter than you.”
Franks’ face tightened at that. “I guess that means my first assessment of you was spot on, doesn’t it? Turns out you were here for a drive-by after all.”
Henry’s anger broke his restraints. He felt himself fly up out of his body. He saw himself rush to his feet. He watched himself push Frank violently backward. He watched himself shoving Frank back again and again. And when a tree stopped Frank from going any further, Henry pinned him hard against it.
“Shut up, Frank!” he said into his face, “You just shut the hell up! You don’t know squat about me. You don’t know what happened between me and Alice, and you never will. You don’t know how hard it is for me. How hard it is for me to… for me to…”
Frank put his hands on Henry’s arm and carefully eased him back a step.
Henry surprised himself by yielding. He stood there for a moment, heart kicking, breath ragged. He dragged a hand across his mouth and looked down at the nearly white dirt strewn with brown pine needles, at the thick black ants weaving their way through the debris with such obvious intent. For all their determination, he couldn’t see where they were accomplishing a thing.
“I’m sorry,” he said as he watched the ants, “It’s complicated.”
“Yeah, I can see that,” Frank said. He didn’t sound like he meant it.
Henry dragged the hair back from his face. “We didn’t just… you know, have sex,” he said carefully, “You need to get that out of your head. It was different than that.”
“You have a different name for it in Riverside?”
Henry finally looked up at him. “I do,” he said carefully, “I call it something very different. It’s not something I can explain, especially not to you. It was between Alice and me, and it was very personal. But it wasn’t a screw, and if you ever call it that again, I swear I’ll…”
Frank just watched him.
Henry looked over to the gold hair glimmering in the sunlight down by the riverbank. “She’s… quite something. Your sister. In another world I’d never let her out of my sight again.”
“But in this world?”
He looked back at Frank. “In this world? In this world, leaving Alice behind may be the most noble and selfless thing I’ve ever done.”
“Oh, don’t go getting all Philosopher King on me, Henry. Does that even mean anything? Or is it just some kind of corndog crap you read in a bathroom somewhere?”
“There’s a monster inside me, Frank! There’s been a monster in me for a long, long time, and I’ve let it control everything I’ve done. But now I need to kill it. Alice helped me see that, that and the fact that I’m no good to anyone until I do.”
Henry again thought about Beth, about time and space and mind. He thought about regrets. He thought about the folly of measuring the present by the elastic yardstick of the past.
For several moments they just stood there in silence. Then Frank said softly, “I understand.”
Henry looked at him.
“I understand,” Frank said again, “I mean, I get it, I really do. I’m just not happy about it.”
“No, Frank,” he said softly, “You don’t get it. But you do see the truth in me, don’t you? I’m going to kill this thing inside me. And when I do, Alice will be the first stop on my victory tour. And if I can’t kill it? Well… it’ll kill me, I expect. And in that case she’s better off without me.”
Frank lunged forward and pulled Henry into a huge hug. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered into his ear, “I thought there was something more to it, but I had to be sure.”
“Frank, are you crying?”
Frank hugged him tighter, squeezing him, and sobbing gently into his shoulder. “Promise me,” he said, “Promise me you’ll call her one way or another. That’s all I ask. Promise me that, dear. Promise you won’t make her wait for nothing.”
Henry felt a surge of irritation. He wanted to push the fat man away, to turn around and tear his way down that two-track and back into obscurity. But then the truth barged its way into his anger, and he realized he wasn’t irritated at Frank at all. He was just afraid, and that simple revelation melted his anger like water on a witch.
So instead of resisting, he put his arms around Frank and reciprocated the hug. And as he stood there comforting him, he realized that holding a sobbing fat man in his arms could never feel so normal anywhere else in his universe.
Henry handed the last of the tent poles through the van door to Frank, then brushed his hands and turned around.
Alice strolled toward him with the Superman shirt held up in the air like she was hawking it at a ballgame. He steadied himself for the worst, but all she threw at him was her smile. Her demeanor was the precise opposite of what he’d expected. In fact, she seemed downright happy. If he hadn’t been back there on the trail to witness it himself he’d never have guessed anything had happened between them.
“I finished your uniform, Superman.” She hung it open and shimmied it back and forth enticingly.
The stitching put a slightly jagged crease diagonally through the S, leaving it with the edge where the two halves met just a hair off line. The black, heavy thread made the seam look like a stitched wound. It clearly was not an accident, and it actually made it cooler than before. “Wow,” he said, “Nice work. It’s excellent.”
She pressed the shirt against him like she was measuring it for size. “Henry approves?”
“Henry approves. Thank you.”
She tipped up and gave him a perky kiss. “Can’t have a superhero running around in a compromised uniform.”
“No?” He was confused. What was she doing?
“Absolutely no. The evil doers will think he’s a weak-kneed girly-man. Haven’t you ever read a comic book?”
“Henry,” Frank called from the van, “Throw me that bag of stakes.”
Henry took the stakes from the picnic table and tossed them over.
“Thank you, dear,” Frank said, “Now, ready the troops. This wagon train’s moving out in fifteen.”
“Aye, Captain,” Henry said with a one finger salute.
“That’s insubordination, soldier,” Frank said, “Me likey.” He was giggling as he disappeared into the van.
“Lift your arms, Henry,” Alice said from behind him.
Henry turned toward her, but she stopped his motion and twisted him back toward the van. “Alice?” he said over his shoulder, “What are you doing?”
“I’m helping you with your uniform, nitwit. So be a good boy and hold your arms up already.”
Henry couldn’t see her face, but he sure as hell felt The Look. After their conversation on the trail, he wasn’t sure what to make of this. He opted to do exactly as he was told and to do it as if he liked it. Alice climbed up onto the bench of the table behind him, slipped the shirt over his arms and pulled it down into place.
“There.” She jumped down to the dirt. “Now turn around so I can inspect.”
She smoothed out the wrinkles, straightened the shoulders, and pulled the short sleeves down into place. He watched her fussing with the emblem. Her face was focused and all business. It was the first time he’d seen her use her laser vision on anything but him.
“You’re quite particular about your tee shirts,” he said to her.
She glanced up at him, but immediately returned to her work. “You say that like it’s a revelation to you. It shouldn’t be.”
“It’s not. Not with anything sewing related.”
She threw him a glare at that.
“I mean, with fashion designing,” he said quickly, “I’m just surprised to see such focus, that’s all.”
She stood back with her fists on her hips. “Surprised?” she said way too seriously, “And why would that be, Mr. Smith?”
Henry resisted the urge to cower.
“It’s my work, Henry. It’s what I do. I take it seriously.”
“I understand.” He couldn’t have understood less. It was a damned tee shirt.
She continued looking up at him like maybe he’d forgotten to avert his eyes or curtsy or add a ‘Your Worship’.
“Is there something you want to say?” she said without breaking eye contact.
“Well,” he said carefully, “I mean, it is a tee shirt, after all.” Judging by the change in her expression, it wasn’t careful enough.
He looked down at the emblem, then back at her. “I thought so,” he said tentatively, “But now I’m thinking probably not so much.”
She grabbed his chin and pulled him closer to her. “It’s a symbol, Henry.”
“A symbol of…?”
She flashed him a looked just laced with disappointment. “You shouldn’t have to ask,” she said humorlessly.
Henry was good and truly stumped. For about three seconds. Then he got it, and it was suddenly clearer than he wanted it to be.
She moved closer and placed her hand flat against his emblem. “Henry?” she said too gently.
“I hope someday you’ll figure it out. I sincerely do.”
He thought about her lecture back on the trail and felt a surge of disgust at himself. “Pretty certain I just did,” he whispered.
She slapped the emblem. “Not just this, Henry,” she whispered up to him, “The whole dilemma.”
“Henry!” Frank called from the van, “You’ve got something on your back.” He cackled at that.
“What?” Henry said, looking back at him.
“He does not!” Alice yelled back.
Henry craned his head back over his shoulder but couldn’t see anything behind him. Alice twisted him around and brushed his back. “There’s nothing,” she said, “It’s fine. Pay no attention to the queen behind the curtain.”
“No,” Frank said, still laughing, “It’s right there.”
Alice charged the van and shoved Frank hard enough to send him flailing back into the sleeping bags. Then she slammed the door on him. “Piss off, Frank!”
Henry watched the scene and once again marveled at the weirdness of this family.
HENRY WATCHED THE ROCKS SAILING ALONG THE ROADSIDE.
The interstate was coming up too fast, and he was perfectly dreading it. Fort Drift was soon going to come to a stop. The side door will slide open. Alice will peel away from him for the last time. And then he was going to be standing in the hot gravel watching the van fade into the heat waves, and it was going to feel like being thrown from a bus.
You can’t refill a clock, Henry. Beth’s voice. It flamed through his head like a prairie fire.
He immediately reeled his mind back to the moment. He looked down at Alice sitting on his lap with her back to the door. Her arms were around his shoulders, her head nuzzled against his neck. She snored ever so softly.
You can’t refill a clock.
Another sign flew past. Sanders 24.
Twenty-four miles to the interstate. The countdown begins.
“Almost there, Henry,” Frank said. He wasn’t smiling.
Henry felt himself sinking into the seat. Were these people mind readers or what? He laid his face on Alice’s head and smelled the warm comfort of her scalp, and looked out at the passing scrub.
“Did you hear me, dear?”
“Yeah,” he said, glancing over at Frank, “I saw it.”
“My, Henry doesn’t sound very happy.”
“Piss off, Frank.”
A lighter clicked a couple times. A cloud of cigarette smoke wafted past and ejected itself through his half-open window.
Alice stirred, and then she sat up. “Are we there yet?” she said, yawning.
“Close, my love,” Frank said, “Another twenty-five miles or thereabouts.”
Alice reached over and took Frank’s cigarette. She leaned back against Henry and dragged a hit from it. Then she turned toward the window and sent the smoke on its merry way.
As she passed it back to Frank, Henry asked her, “Why do you do that?”
Alice leaned her head against his cheek. “Do what?”
“Smoke Frank’s cigarettes? I’ve only seen you smoke one of your own.”
“She smoked one of her own?” Frank said, “When was that? That’s news I need to give to Hello Kitty.”
“The night you rescued me,” Henry said, “She was smoking one when she opened the hatch.”
“Hate to deconstruct your theory. But that was one of mine, too.”
“So, why is that, Alice?” Henry said, “Why don’t you ever smoke your own?”
“Well, I’d think that’d be obvious to a man of your academic achievement,” she said without looking at him, “I don’t smoke.”
“I see.” He didn’t.
“What she means,” Frank said, “Is that she doesn’t buy them.”
Henry looked down at the blonde head bedded against his neck. “Note to self,” he said, “Alice is a mooch.”
Frank laughed. Alice punched Henry. Then she settled back into him again. “You’re both going to hell.”
“Going?” Henry said, “Hilarious.”
“You two just be quiet now. I’m trying to get some sleep. I’m tired.”
“Whatever is the matter, dear sister,” Frank said, looking over at them, “Did you have troubled sleep last night?”
Alice didn’t respond, but Henry wanted to slap him stupid. Instead, he settled for, “Frank, you’re a real dick.”
Frank grinned around his cigarette. “Yeah,” he said, “I know.”
“So be a good girl and shut the hell up for the last few miles, okay?”
Frank flashed him a perfect idiot’s grin. “Okay,” he said.
They drove on in silence for a bit. The scrub, rocks, and crapped out mobile homes squatting on lots suffocating in dirt raced past. Henry wondered what on earth could be so bad that it would drive someone to banish themselves to a hell-hole like this. Even with his demons, he stayed in the relative comfort of the city. This place was mortifying.
Alice stirred again. This time she sat up, leaned deeply into him, and pressed her lips against his ear. “I’m going to miss you,” she whispered.
Her breath gave him a chill. He heard Beth’s voice again whispering in the back of his mind. There’s no past, no future, only now, and he suddenly understood. That was where Alice lived. He remembered what she’d said to him on the trail: You’re always never home. He wondered if he ever would be home. If he ever could be.
“I’m going to miss you, too,” he whispered back. He would, and the awareness of it terrified him.
“Maybe we’ll see each other again someday,” she said softly.
He knew it wasn’t a ploy or a request, or even a hint. It was just a simple truth. He had nothing to give back.
“I wish you’d reconsider our offer,” she said.
“Please don’t ask me that.”
“I don’t see what difference it’ll make. I’m worried sick for you, don’t you see?”
“It’s better this way.”
“Yes, Alice. It’s better for me.”
“Why, Henry? We don’t mind at all. Land sakes, we want to do it.”
“No,” Henry said carefully, “I fell into the black hole on my own. I need to climb back out on my own. Please try to understand.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Riverside is eight hours out of your way. No, wait. In a round trip, it’s sixteen. I won’t have it.”
“What if we kidnap you?” She giggled. “What are you going to do then, Superman? Throw yourself from the van?”
He squeezed her tighter.
“Well, I’m not going to fight you anymore,” she said, “But you should know it displeases me. It displeases me very much.”
He took her chin and eased her face up toward him. He looked into those perfect green eyes. “Alice, try to understand,” he whispered, “I started this Epic Outing on my own, and I need to finish it the same way. You’ve helped me see things… I don’t know, differently. I guess.” He thought about it a moment, then shrugged. “You know what I mean.”
She watched him closely. He wasn’t sure she got it at all, and she was throwing him no bones.
“I need to end it the way it started,” he continued, “I have a feeling it’s part of the plan, like the gods have a design for me. I know it sounds lame, but I think I’m starting to see things differently. I’m worried that if I take any shortcuts, it’s all going to end in failure.”
She kissed him gently on the lips, then settled back into his neck. “You know I’m used to getting my way,” she whispered, “But I guess I’ll just have to back off on this one. I know when I’m outgunned.”
HENRY’S STOMACH WAS KILLING HIM.
The van rolled very slowly along the shoulder. The sound of the gravel crackling beneath the barely moving tires felt too physical, too ominous. His tension built with every snap, crackle, and pop. It was like being at the dead-end of a drunk, when the stew is bubbling in your gut, and the outcome is inevitable.
“Damn it, Frank!” he snapped, “Stop the van already!”
“Sorry,” Frank said too softly.
Henry didn’t know where the words came from. He couldn’t remember pushing them out. His heart thumped his ribs like someone beating the cement with a wet mop.
Alice held him as completely as if they were lashed together.
He looked over at Frank. “I’m sorry, Frank,” he said, “I don’t know where that came from.”
“It’s all right,” Frank said, “We’re all feeling the same way.”
“There’s no need to lie,” Henry said sharply, “I’m not an idiot. It’s been two days. It’s not like we’re—”
He froze mid-sentence. What the hell was he doing? Be a man. Think about someone else’s needs for once in your pathetic life.
“Sorry,” he said, “Again. I didn’t mean that. It’s just my usual…”
Frank made an odd noise, then turned to look out the driver’s window.
Alice pulled up on the door handle. The sound of the latch’s clack felt like a kick in the gut. Then she spilled out of the van and into the heat, and she was gone.
Henry couldn’t take his eyes from the open door. It looked like the gaping hatch to a skydiving plane, beyond which was nothing but emptiness. It didn’t bode well. He wasn’t packing a chute.
He felt Frank’s hand on his arm. It took him a moment, but he willed himself to look back at him.
Frank’s eyes were red and miserable. Despite the blonde hair and black roots, despite the Sinbad the Sailor earrings and the mascara, despite the halfhearted beard and the man-tits, he looked as sad as a little girl.
“It’s all right, Frank,” he said softly, “It’s been fun.”
Frank began to say something, but instead smothered it with his hand.
Henry squeezed Frank’s forearm. “Thank you,” he said with too much effort, “You’ve been a friend. I mean it. And I don’t have many, so I take saying that pretty seriously.”
“You son of a bitch,” Frank said between chokes, “I don’t know why I’m so worked up. You’re right, it’s only been two stinking days, for Christ’s sake.”
“I think sometimes people meet because they’re supposed to,” Frank said, wiping his cheek, “I think sometimes the process of friendship is accelerated because it’s the natural turn of events. Sometimes people who should be natural enemies meet up, but something in the equation lets them defy the odds.”
“I suppose. I never believed that bull before, but I’m sure beginning to.”
“I just hate to see you go.”
“I know, but there’s no way around it. I have work to do, you know?”
“I’m glad we met, Henry.”
“Me, too, Frank.”
Frank abruptly lurched forward and hauled Henry into a breathtaking hug. Much to his surprise, Henry again found himself hugging back.
Frank pressed his cheek tightly into Henry’s. “Remember,” he whispered to him, “Remember what we talked about. Let her know one way or the other, okay?”
“I will, Frank.”
“Please, Henry. Promise it to me. Don’t let her drift. If she’s not going to see you again, you need to tell her. Okay? Don’t leave her hanging and wondering.”
“I will. I promise.”
They released. Henry pulled back into his seat. Frank looked back at him with wet eyes. As they choked on the silence, Henry realized he couldn’t fulfill his promise. He had no contact information.
“Wait,” he said, “I don’t know how to reach her.”
Frank threw a strange smile at that. “Don’t worry about it, Henry. You’ll find a way.”
Henry didn’t know what to make of that. Why was Frank blowing him off? “I know her shop’s some place in Colorado, right? Castle Bend, something like that? I could look it—”
“Castle Rock,” Frank said, laughing, “But that doesn’t matter. Just have faith in what I’m telling you, okay? When the time comes, you will absolutely know how to contact her.”
“Are you serious?”
“My dear Henry, I don’t think I’ve ever been more serious in my life. I know trust isn’t your strong suit, but I’m asking you to break that stupid tradition just this once. Okay? Just this one time.”
Henry looked at him. He did believe him, and the revelation was just one more in a series of mind-altering surprises provided by this Epic Outing.
“Okay, Frank. I will. I do.”
Frank threw his hand out and Henry gladly accepted it. “See you on the dark side, Henry.”
“You will, indeed.”
Henry looked back into the van’s cave and waved. “Bridget, Ed, see you around, yeah?”
Bridget waved and smiled, though there wasn’t much enthusiasm in it. Ed grunted something indecipherable, but Henry didn’t have the heart to press him on it.
HENRY STEADIED HIMSELF AGAINST THE VAN WALL AS HE WORKED HIS WAY TOWARD THE REAR.
His palms were covered in sweat. Again. He felt a little nauseous. Again. What the hell was happening to him? When in the course of forty-eight hours had he assimilated so completely into this tribe? Maybe it was fate. Maybe chance. Maybe just bad fucking luck.
In the end, he knew it didn’t matter either way. The fact was that he was gorged on a lifetime of regrets already. He couldn’t bear to swallow another bite.
He turned the rear corner of the van with all the fear of God in his heart. He didn’t know if he was man enough to face what was coming, but he sure as hell wasn’t man enough not to.
Alice sat on the rear bumper with her hands folded between her knees. She wore a perfect white sundress that left her looking celestial in that metallic sunlight. She had his refurbished dress shirt draped across her lap. She looked up at him and proffered a half-hearted smile. It kicked the scaffolding out from under him.
“Hi,” Alice said to him.
“Hi,” he said back.
She didn’t get up, but she didn’t look away. She seemed at once both the child and the parent. “I brought your shirt,” she said, “I know you’re not crazy about it, but I thought you’d want it as a keepsake. Something to remember me by.”
Time came to a screeching stop. He stood a few feet out in front of her with his hands locked in his pockets. The air seemed to solidify around them. They didn’t say anything, but only watched each other’s eyes.
Once the pressure grew too big to contain, he whispered, “Alice?”
“I don’t want to leave with you mad at me.”
“I’m not mad at you.”
“Why would I be mad at you?”
“After our talk back on the trail today. I thought…”
He stalled on the words. She watched him in silent waiting, staring up at him with her lasers revved at full acceleration.
“Well…” he pressed, “I guess I thought…” The words failed him. Finally, he just shrugged.
Alice cocked her head at him. “I know you’re not waiting for me to bail you out, Henry.”
Time to grow a pair, Henry. “I acted like a dick,” he said straight out, “You’re right about me. I totally see it now.”
She watched him, but didn’t speak.
“Anyway,” he continued, “I’m going to make a couple calls when I get home. I know I’ll never lose the monster, but I’d sure like to leash it.”
“It’s not a monster, Henry. It’s just a very scary past. You can beat it, You’re stronger than you want to admit.”
“Thanks.” There was nothing else to say.
He counted the hammer blows against his ribs. They reverberated in his ears like the midnight countdown of a clock chiming twelve. Twelve chimes and the old day was over. Twelve chimes, and he’d be thrown back into a new day. Twelve chimes, and he’d be standing at another crossroads. Twelve chimes, and he’d be absolutely alone.
Alice stood up and took his hands. She looked at his disfigured Superman emblem. She studied it like a secret relic rested behind it, and all she had to do to get it was figure out the code.
“Feels, weird, yeah?” she said without looking at him.
“Yes.” Weird was a gross understatement.
She giggled, but still didn’t look at him.
“What are you laughing at?” he heard himself ask.
“At us, what else?”
Henry studied her but, as usual, couldn’t get a bead. “What’s so funny about us, Alice? It actually feels kind of bad. To me, anyway.”
She offered him a gentle shrug. “Land sakes, the year just flew by, didn’t it? I mean, where did the time go?”
He grinned at that. “Yeah, but it was a pretty damned good year, wasn’t it?”
“Sure, just too short, that’s all.”
“Most people are lucky to get a good weekend,” he said gently, “We got a whole year. What do we have to complain about?”
She gave him a queer look. Then she seemed to withdraw a bit. She sent her eyes out into the surrounding rockscape.
What the hell was he doing? He stood before this beautiful woman, who was clearly grieving his passing, and all he could do was wax phony philosophical? Get all Dr. Phil on her? He suffered a slice of shame that he was pretty sure was going to leave a mark.
He moved closer and pulled her into him, because he knew he should. He hugged her like he was never letting go, because he wanted to.
She wrapped her arms around him and held him just as tight. After a moment, she slipped her chin up onto the seam in his emblem and targeted him with those kryptonite eyes. She smiled that lethal smile, the one that breached every weakness in him, the one that left him as vulnerable as a mere mortal.
Then she rubbed a hand across his emblem and said, “I just adore a man in uniform.”
“Is that right?”
She placed her cheek against the seam in his shirt. “Can I tell you the truth?” she whispered.
“After the past two days, I sure as hell hope so.”
“It’s not just the uniforms. I’m a sucker for superheroes. Especially the troubled ones.”
“Well, it’s a good day to be me, then. Isn’t it?” He wished it were.
She didn’t say anything.
He ran his fingers across her face as he studied it. He smelled her hair and her skin. He felt the contour of her back. He drank deeply of her glorious eyes. He committed every detail of her to memory.
“Alice?” he heard him say.
He watched her for a moment. He didn’t want to let go. “Meeting you…”
“Meeting you was…”
She smiled and shrugged her brow. “Yes, Henry?”
He licked a dry tongue over drier lips. “I think you’ve helped me.”
“You think so?”
“Let me know when you’re certain.”
His breath failed him. It took all his strength to say, “I will.”
“Let’s not draw this out, dear. I’m not good with long goodbyes.”
“Me, either. In fact, I usually avoid goodbyes altogether.”
She laughed at that. “Just sneak off into the night in full stealth mode? Maybe take to the skies and just fly away?”
“Mostly I just avoid situations that end with goodbye.”
She stroked his cheek. “I guess you really screwed up this time, then, yeah?”
Her eyes completely filled his vision. He couldn’t think. He brushed the blonde strands back from her face. It felt like silk.
“You’re not leaving any burning wreckage this time,” she whispered.
He felt a cold breeze slither past.
“I think you’re the one burning this time, Henry.”
His stomach wrenched so hard it nearly took him down. She was right. She was so damned right. He wanted to tell her that, wanted to explain to her that she’d filled a hole he didn’t even know he had, that leaving her behind felt like someone ripping his guts out. But he didn’t. He couldn’t. He could only look at her and freeze-frame her face in his mind, and pray hard that the image never faded.
“Let’s get on with it,” she said.
The sadness in her voice, in her eyes, was heaviest load he’d ever had to lift. Looking down at her looking up at him was killing him. He couldn’t let her go. He couldn’t will his arms away. He couldn’t find his voice. For the first time in four years, he had absolutely no control.
“Let’s just not say anything else,” she whispered, “Okay? Let’s just end it with us.”
It took every bit of will he could summon to simply nod.
And then Alice slipped her hands up around his neck, and she tipped up on her toes, and she kissed him deeply.
HENRY SAT ON THAT GUARDRAIL WITH HIS THUMB HANGING INDIFFERENTLY OFF HIS KNEE.
Day was easing into evening with all the enthusiasm of garbage scow. He had absolutely no interest in this return trip. He could sit there baking in that broiling western sun for the rest of eternity for all he cared. He couldn’t remember the last time he felt this alone, this hollow and incomplete. It wasn’t his shining moment, not by a long stretch.
He thought back over the year he and Alice dated. He’d run the full course of emotions. He’d laughed more than he had in years. He’d made friends, something he’d pretty much thought himself incapable of anymore. So why did he feel so miserably incomplete? Shouldn’t he feel at least a bit satisfied? Shouldn’t he feel the slightest hint of accomplishment? Shouldn’t he feel something bigger than lost?
An old, beat up green Rambler came chugging down the on-ramp. Henry lifted his thumb a little higher, because he probably ought to. The driver leaned toward the open passenger window and flipped him off as he passed. The dude was grinning like it was the funniest thing he’d ever done.
It was exactly not what Henry needed in that moment. A rush of anger seized him. He jumped to his feet and yelled, “Asshole!”
The brake lights flamed. The car screeched to a stop. The reverse lights came on. The car came reeling back.
“Bring it on, you prick,” Henry said. It was absolutely the wrong time to be screwing with him. There’s nothing more dangerous than a man who doesn’t care.
The car slid to a stop beside him. The driver again leaned into the passenger seat and glared up through the open window at him. “You talking to me, bra?”
Henry threw his hands down on the door. “After your friendly little wave, I felt obligated, bra!”
The guy was straight out of a bad cop show. Hugely obese, shoulder-length thin blonde hair, thick stripe of yellow flavor-saver on his chin, too many tats, too many chains. If he’d had darker skin, he’d have looked Samoan. To top it all off, he was wearing another bloody wifebeater!
“Wave?” the man said, “What the hell you talking about, bra?”
Henry showed him.
“Oh,” the fat man said, laughing, “Did that hurt your feelings, man? You delicate that way?”
“No, it was the smile attached to it that hurt my feelings.”
“What’s the matter, sweetheart? Y’all having a bad day?”
Henry bared his teeth at him. “You have no idea, pal. But I’d be glad to show you. Just pull over and get your fat ass out of the car.”
“Oh, do I see a sad story coming on?” the dude said with a pout, “Hold on, let me grab some tissues.”
“Go to hell.”
“Go to hell? You’re telling me to go to hell?”
“Yeah, go to hell. I have no patience for rude behavior.”
“Rude?” the man said like he honestly couldn’t believe it, “Y’all calling me rude?”
“You flipped off a stranger, what the hell would you call it?”
The man grinned, exposing a pair of bucked golden teeth. “I call it funny, bra.”
“Funny?” Henry said, “What the hell’s funny about flipping off a stranger.”
“I don’t know,” the fat man said, grinning wider, “But the look on your face was primo.”
“You have one cheap sense of humor, pal.”
“Is that right?”
“That is exactly right, asshole. Tell me something, how many Sharpies do you have on you?”
“You like to write stupid shit on rest area maps?”
“What the hell you talking about?”
“I’m talking about standards of decent behavior, bra.”
“Never mind, it’s a stupid question. Anyone over eighteen driving a ratty ass piece of shit Rambler like this obviously doesn’t put much stock in standards.”
The man’s wide face twisted into a scowl. “Hey, don’t you be dissing on my car, man. This is a sixty-nine classic. There ain’t many around nomore.”
Henry laughed. “Are you serious? It’s a piece of shit. Look at the side, it’s all scratched to hell. Shit, your fender’s a good kick away from a rust pile.”
“Yeah, but look at the interior, bra. It’s all original. I just gotta work it up and—”
A car leaned onto its horn behind them.
Henry and the fat man turned in tandem, yelling, “Piss off!”
The woman behind the wheel flipped them both off, then careened around the Rambler.
Henry looked back at the guy. “Asshole! Everyone’s in a hurry these days!”
They both laughed.
Then the guy leaned over and yanked the passenger door handle. “Well, you best get your ass in, then, bra. We’ll talk about this on the way. Besides, y’all won’t never get a ride on this redneck on-ramp.”
HENRY HAD TO ADMIT THE DUDE WAS RIGHT.
The inside of the Rambler really was in damned good shape. Still, he absolutely could not fathom why anyone would ever want to own one. It was a boxy piece of crap with bench seats and no shoulder harnesses. The seatbelts looked like something off an airplane. They didn’t even retract.
“Where you heading, bra?”
Henry looked at the driver. He was so big he took up half the bench seat. He made Josho look anorexic.
“West,” Henry said, looking out into the passing misery, “Due west.”
“West,” the guy repeated.
“That’s what I said.”
“Not north?” The fat man laughed.
Henry looked at him again. They guy had like twenty earrings spiked around the perimeter of his ear, and a plug in his lobe that had to be an inch wide.
“North?” Henry said, “Is that supposed to mean something to me?”
The big man flashed him a grin. His bottom center teeth were missing. Henry hadn’t noticed that earlier, probably because they were hidden beneath the golden bucks up on top.
“Yeah, you know… north,” the man said, “Like back to your Fortress of Solitude, bra.” He laughed harder than the humor merited.
Henry studied him a moment. “So, what’s with the bra shit?”
The fat man looked over at him like he’d just asked if the sky was orange. “I’m a surfer, dude.”
Henry looked him up and down. “A surfer?” he repeated. He’d need a surfboard the size of a barge. “You ever even touch a surfboard before?”
“Totally, man. Surfing since I was like eighteen.”
“How old are you now?”
“Twenty-nine, man.” He pounded out a beat on the steering wheel, then added, “Twenty-nine and coo-king.”
“All right, Chewbacca,” Henry said in resignation, “Whatever. You’re a surfer.”
“Where you think I’m heading right now, man?”
“Yeah, man. Totally!”
“You know you’re in New Mexico,” Henry said, “Right? It’s a desert with borders? A land locked state?”
“I’m right here in New Mexico at this very most moment, bra. But I won’t be in the same New Mexico in the very next moment, you feel me? Static versus dynamite, man.”
“I think you mean dynamic.”
Henry just looked at him.
“Name’s Tyrone,” the guy said, extending a hand.
Henry looked at the proffered hand. It had the letters T-I-T-S tattooed across the knuckles of his first four fingers. It was all he could do not to laugh as he shook it. “Tyrone,” he said as seriously as he could manage, “Perfect.”
“Yeah, Tyrone, man. But you don’t got to call me that.”
“No?” Henry said.
“No way, man. Y’all can call me Roger.”
“Roger? How the fuck do you get ‘Roger’ from ‘Tyrone’?”
The guy gave him a queer look. “What you talking about, man?”
Henry was about to press the question when he decided he didn’t actually give a damn He settled for, “Okey dokey, then.”
“So, what’s your name, man?” Roger asked him.
“Superman,” Henry said, “But you can call me Clark.”
“Superman,” Roger said, giggling, “Got me a real-to-life superhero in the Rambler. Ain’t nothing gonna slow us down now, bra.”
“I sure as hell hope not,” Henry whispered.
Roger punched the cigarette lighter into the dash and pulled the ashtray open in nearly the same motion. He slipped a half-burned joint from among the butts and held it up between sausage fingers wrapped in thick gold rings a size too tight. “You light up?” he said.
Henry looked at it. Great. He hoped Roger wasn’t one of those guys that got all chatty when he was stoned. He waved it off, saying, “No, thanks.” It was about the last thing he needed.
Roger parked the roach in his pudgy lips, pulled the lighter out of the dash, and lit it. He drew a long hit, then offered it to Henry anyway. “Man,” he said, fighting not to release any smoke, “You seriously got to try this shit. My friend grows it? Called Platinum, man.”
Henry looked at the proffered joint. “Platinum what?”
Roger studied him with the wisps of smoke trickling from his pudgy, pink mouth. “Huh?” he grunted.
“Platinum what?” Henry repeated.
Roger exhaled with a small cough. The smoke flooded the car. “Platinum what?” he said hoarsely, “What the hell, Platinum what?”
“You can’t just call it platinum,” Henry said, “There’s already a metal by that name. Platinum should be like an adjective. Like Platinum Joy or Platinum Blast or something.”
Henry looked down for the window button, but found nothing. Then he noticed the silver crank on the door. He took it and carefully rolled down the window
“Adjective,” Roger said, looking at him.
“Yeah, it’s a descriptor. It modifies a noun.”
“I know what a fucking adjective is, man. I got my GED.”
Henry suffered a moment’s pang of angst for having automatically assumed otherwise.
“Clark, you are one uptight mother!” Roger took another huge hit.
That tickled Henry’s irritation. “Yeah? You can tell that after fifteen minutes in the car with me?”
“Oh hell, yeah.”
“Let me guess. You’ve got a sense about people, right?”
Roger scowled at him with his lips puckered tight around the joint. “What?”
“You’ve got a sense about people? You can tell things about them just by talking to them?”
“You’re not even smoking, bra. What is up with you?”
Henry looked out the window. Did this landscape ever change? This was so wrong. Alice’s observation back at the van had been a direct bullseye; he was totally the one burning this time.
They drove along in a few minutes of silence as Roger finished off the joint. Henry wondered how the dude could suck that whole thing down and still keep on the road. Then again, they were going fifty in a seventy zone.
Finally, Roger cranked down his window, and pitched the roach. “That is some tasty ass weed, man.”
“Glad you’re happy, Roger,” Henry said sarcastically.
“Call me T, bra.”
Henry looked at him. “What?”
“T, man. Call me T. That’s my label, bra. I’m the T-man, see?”
“T? How the hell do you get T from…”
Roger was watching him too intensely.
Henry shook his head and looked out at the passing rocks. “Never mind.”
Dusk was coming on fast. It wasn’t particularly encouraging considering the company.
“Clark, man. You know how to drive a car, bra?”
Henry rolled his head toward him. “How in the hell could I not know how to drive a car?”
T shrugged and laughed. “Got me a gramma don’t know how. It’s the Twenty-Fifth Century, man. Anything’s happening now days, even shit that don’t never happen otherwise.”
“Yeah, man. I mean, give or take. Y’all gotta open your mind up about that shit.”
Henry looked out the passenger window, thinking just shoot me now.
“You’re too uptight, man.”
“Too uptight?” Henry said, “Are you serious? Doesn’t the fact that it’s the twenty-fifth century lend itself more to the possibility of everyone knowing how to drive rather than the possibility that more people wouldn’t?”
“Y’all gotta drive us across the Arizona line.”
Henry looked at him.
T grinned back at him like he’d just been caught peeing in the pool. “Serious as a period, man. You got to drive us in.”
“I can’t do it, bra.”
“Why can’t you drive across the state line?” This didn’t sound good.
“Can I trust you, man? You a cowboy? You stand up when your homies gots prob?”
“I didn’t know cowboys had homies,” Henry said.
“Y’all know what I mean,” T said, looking over at him, “Can I trust you?”
Henry’s defenses went up. This was getting weirder by the minute, if that was possible. “Can you trust me?” he said to T, “You just met me. What do you think?”
T just stared at him for a moment. Then he grinned and nodded, and he said, “Yeah, I think I trust you. I totally saw the code, bra.”
“Yeah, Clarkman, the code.” T hiked a thumb at him. “Your code, bra. Back there. It’s all over you, man. You’re like that Keanu Riverez dude.”
“You know, that Matrix dude. You got the code pouring down your back just like him.”
Henry looked down at his emblem. Maybe he meant the stitching through the S. Hell, maybe he just meant the S. He made an executive decision not to press it.
T pressed it for him. “Behind you, man. It’s all behind you. The code, man.”
“Sure,” Henry said carefully, “The code.”
“That’s why I can’t drive over the line, man.”
“Because of the code?”
T slapped the steering wheel and yelled, “Totally! They can tell when I cross the line. You get what I’m saying, right? It’s all true. They can hear totally my thoughts, man.”
“Your thoughts,” Henry said. He glanced over at the gas gauge. Half tank. He was going to be stuck here a while.
“You ever hear of the Weather Underground, bra?” T was looking at him with an unsavory spark in his eyes, “They home down in L.A.”
“Yeah… so what?”
T rolled his massive bulk closer. “They want me, man,” he whispered, “I’m serious as hell. They get the signal when I cross the line.” He grinned his golden grin and tapped a finger against his temple. “Got shot in the head with a special bullet. Bullet’s still there. Got a transmitter in it.”
“You don’t say,” Henry said carefully.
“Yeah, Clarkman. Government suits put it there. I can’t drive across the line or they get the transmission. But you can totally drive me across, man. I’m cool if you’re driving, see? Y’all got the code. But I drive? I’m totally toasted, man.”
“Sure,” Henry said carefully, “I understand. Maybe I should just drive right now.”
T started laughing again. The sound was too high pitched for his enormous body. “No, man, it’s all good. All good. We’re cool. We both got the code, except you got it wrote down, so they can’t hear you.”
“Wrote down,” Henry said.
“Yeah, man. It’s right there. And the thing is? Satellites can’t pick you up if you got it wrote down. See, I get it now. I was supposed to pick you up, feel me? It’s like destiny or something.”
“Destiny,” Henry said. Man, he sure as hell hoped not.
“It’s so awesome, bra!”
“Yeah, it’s awesome all right.” The man was a total nut job. He had to get the hell out of here.
“You ever surf, bra?”
Henry had never been so thankful for a change of subject in his life. “Not since I was a kid.”
“Man!” T yelled.
Henry nearly jumped from his skin.
“Brother’s gotta surf, man! Where you living?”
“Oh man, that’s so bad! They don’t got no surf there. You got to go west, young man.” He looked at Henry and laughed again. Then he looked at the road and stopped. Then he looked at Henry and started again.
Henry hoped it was the pot. Unfortunately, he had a sinking feeling it was something a little more permanent.
“Hey, Clarkman! You like hip-hop?”
“Absolutely not,” Henry said.
“I wrote me some sweet jabs. Want to hear some?”
T started slapping out a rhythm on the steering wheel anyway. Then, much to Henry’s horror, he began singing. It was a wretched interpretation of a rap ditty, complete with oral turntable noises that sounded like he was trying to cough up a hairball. The lyrics, as near as he could tell, seemed to revolve almost exclusively around how much he enjoyed ‘titties’.
Henry drew a deep breath and settled back into his seat. This was going to be the Queen Mother of long nights.
HENRY STARED OUT INTO THE DARKNESS FOLLOWING THEM.
He thought about Alice. He locked onto her face like it was a lifeline. He catalogued their moments together, starting with that first sight of her hanging out the van door like a paratrooper. He should’ve known right then and there that taking her hand was going to be like drinking from a little bottle of poison labeled in blue Sharpie: Don’t Drink Out of This Little Bottle of Poison.
T’s singing finally ended.
“That’s good, huh, bra? You dig that, man?”
Did the nut job say anything in less than a shriek? He had to find a way out of this car. The ride could not possibly get worse.
T looked over at him, and said, “You like sex, man?”
The ride just got worse.
Henry pretended he didn’t hear the question.
“Totally serious, man. You like sex, don’t you?”
Henry watched the passing rocks and tried to gauge how much damage he’d suffer if he threw himself out onto the shoulder.
“My songs turn me on so much! Serious as cancer, Clarkman. I can’t fight it. I gotta make a stop up here.”
Henry suddenly found hope. He immediately began formulating his escape plan.
“Just up here, man,” T pressed, “Got to stop and grab me a quick peek and pull.”
Peek and pull? What the hell? Was that like a rub and tug? Was this ever going to end? Henry decided the safest approach would be to simply not press the topic and hope it died a natural death.
They drove on for several more minutes. T began banging another hip-hop nightmare. Soon a sign flew past indicating Flagstaff was waiting for them just up ahead. Henry had never been happier. More inspiring, the gas gauge was finally giving up the ghost.
As Henry counted down the mile markers, he thought about Beth, about her thesis on the moment and time and mind, about being present. Much as he agreed that her theory held validity, he wanted nothing more on earth than to see this particular moment come to a screeching halt.
They passed several gas station exits before sweeping onto one leading into the city. The city meant more people. It improved his chances for flight. First available opportunity, he was getting the hell out of this nut bucket’s car. The guy was a freak.
Several minutes down an urban four-lane, he spied a sign promising Route Sixty-six just ahead. It made him think of Clarence. He wondered if he’d ever see that old man again. He kind of hoped so. He owed him an apology.
They turned onto San Antonio Street, and urged their way down through a long neighborhood of old shops and buildings. It didn’t look like an area designed for peeking or pulling, but who knew. Every town had its sordid side, and they were often camouflaged within a layer of respectability.
The buildings gradually grew older and more rundown. A couple tattoo and piercing joints gave evidence they were closing in on the right area. The sidewalk was seedier here, the cars less impressive. They pulled to a stop in front of an old, decaying red brick building. It was built in the classic industrial-era design of a squat box. Half the windows were bricked shut, the others were blinded with paint.
“I so love this place, man,” T said as he threw the shifter into park, “Every time I drive through, I gots to stop in and drop one here.”
Drop one here? Henry’s pulse tightened.
“Y’all are so gonna love this place, man. All college chicks and shit. You ever had a pair of college-style titties in your face? Sweet mercy! Feels better than pushing gunpoint, baby.” He was rubbing at his crotch more enthusiastically now.
Henry looked out at the bar’s flashing beer signs and watched them irritate the night from the two windows not covered in paint or brick. It didn’t look like a strip joint so much as a dive college bar, but it didn’t matter either way. There was no way he was going in there with this freak.
“Keep your eyes open in there, man. Gots to watch for the gangs around here. They’ll stick you just as sure as shit.”
“Gangs?” Henry looked out the back window. “It’s Flagstaff. What kind of gangs could they possibly have here? Cowboy Crips? Wranglers gone bad?”
“Listen up, Clarkman. This here’s a badass town. You gots to trust me. I know something about gangs, you feel me?”
“What does that mean? Do they have surfer gangs in Arizona?”
“No way, man,” T said, laughing, “I totally learned about them in prison.”
The air abruptly thickened. “Prison?” Henry asked tentatively, “When were you in prison?”
T looked up at the ceiling with his lips all tight and pressed out like he was trying to solve a calculus equation. “Let’s see,” he said, “Something like… uh, last month, I think.”
Henry felt the seat drop out beneath him. He couldn’t believe it. What happened to this trip’s momentum? What happened to everyone he met offering pearls of wisdom? He had the sour feeling his luck had gone south when he left Fort Drift.
“We gotta go around back, bra,” T said, “That’s where the club is. They gots to keep the titties back there on account of the gangs.”
Henry looked over at a suspicious alley that almost certainly led to a disreputable back lot. “Around back?” he said, “Are you serious?”
T leaned forward and rolled his bulk toward Henry. “Move your feet a sec, bra.”
Henry did. T probed around the seat beneath him. His head was nearly on Henry’s lap. Henry thought of Josho. He’d take the preacher over this train wreck any day. Hell, he’d take Josho over most of the people he knew.
T rolled back into his seat. He pulled a cigar box up onto his lap. Not the cardboard kind Henry remembered as a kid. This one was wooden. T slid the lid free. The inside was crammed full of tens and twenties. There had to be a thousand bucks there.
“Are you kidding?” Henry said, “You carry your cash in a cigar box?”
“Nah, not usually. Box was all they had at the gas station.”
T started counting out a stack of twenties.
“Doesn’t really seem safe,” Henry said just to keep the fool occupied, “Keeping your cash in a cigar box under the seat.” He turned around and looked down the street. It was quiet, practically no cars. Half the streetlights were out.
T laughed. “Safe,” he said as he counted, “Clarkman, you are some kind of funny. You crack me up, man.”
“You should get those switched to bigger bills,” Henry said, “So you can keep them on you. What if someone breaks into your car?” Henry watched a van cruise toward them. It only had one headlight. As it slowly sidled past, he suffered a pang of disappointment that it wasn’t Fort Drift.
“Yeah, yeah, dad.” T laughed. “Haven’t had time to change them.”
Henry looked at him. “Haven’t had time?”
“Yeah, just got them today, bra.”
As T picked out a small wad of bills, Henry saw a flash of blue steel at the bottom of the box. Was that a gun? A fucking gun? Perfect!
“T,” he said quickly, “Tell me something. Why exactly were you in prison?”
T slid the top back over the cigar box and looked over at him. “Call me Roger, man.”
Roger? What the hell? He didn’t even ask.
“Roger,” Henry said carefully, “Why exactly were you in prison?”
Roger counted off a half dozen notes from the wad and carefully placed the pile on a thigh as wide as an ironing board. Then he looked at Henry. “Say what?”
“What were you in prison for?”
“Which time, bra?”
Damn. Damn. Damn. Could this get any worse?
“This last time,” Henry heard himself ask, “What were you paroled for?”
Roger snorted. “Who said anything about parole? Clarkman, you are one hysterical mother.” He began counting the stack all over again.
Henry steadied himself. It was all he could do to keep from throwing himself from the car. He licked at his dry lips, and then he said carefully, “Roger, why were you in prison?”
Roger giggled weirdly. “They said I murdered my old lady, but they all full of shit. Ain’t no murder if they deserve it, right, bra? Then it’s just a execution, man.”
The temperature in the car plummeted. Henry felt like he’d just woken up in a swamp with a hundred alligators circling the raft. He watched Roger counting another stack of bills, tens this time. His heart felt on fire.
Beth’s face again flamed through his mind. If he ever saw her again he was go to explain to her in great detail just why moments are sometimes grossly overrated. Right now, he’d give up a week of his life to have this particular moment be a memory fading in his rearview mirror.
“You said you just got those today?” Henry said carefully.
It was like one of those dreams where no matter how you asked it, you could never get the question to come out right. “Where, Roger?” Henry pressed, “Where did you get them?”
Roger didn’t stop counting. “Got the last of them right before I picked you up. I like the box, man. Makes it easier if I gotta to ditch it quick, you know? Easier to heave a box.”
Ditch it? Henry grabbed Alice’s dress shirt and began wiping down anything in the car he might’ve touched: The dash, the seatbelt buckle, the door handle. He couldn’t breathe. He had to get the hell out of here.
“Brother, this place is totally naughty,” Roger said too excitedly. He snickered like a little boy.
Henry used the shirt to open the door. He was so desperate to get out, he more fell out the door than climbed. Before he could make his retreat, he wiped down the outside handle. Then he started walking. Quickly.
He heard the driver’s door slam behind him. He quickened his pace. He could barely breathe. He wondered what it was going to feel like when the bullet found his back. Would it pass through? Would he die instantly or lay on the pavement like a worm after a rain, dying very slowly as the blood bubbled from his mouth?
He thought about Alice and bad decisions. He didn’t want to die like this, alone in a city on a nameless street. He should have gotten her number, her email address, anything. He should have stayed with her in Fort Drift.
“Clarkman!” Tyrone called from the car.
Henry flinched and increased his pace. This was it. This was where his self-pity and self-loathing, and his utter indifference to life had left him. Bleeding to death in the middle of the night in a dirty gutter, alone and forgotten. He didn’t even have his wallet, for Christ’s sake. How would they identify his body?
God, he wanted Alice. He wanted Alice and her whole whacky clan more than he wanted to breathe.
“What the hell, bra?” Roger yelled from behind him, “Where you going? Them titties are back here!”
Henry didn’t look back. He redoubled his pace and waved his hand up over his shoulder. “Thanks for the ride, bra!” he yelled without turning. He prayed the guy wouldn’t think him a threat. He felt a small burning sensation in the middle of his back where he was certain the lunatic was aiming his gun.
“Hold up, man!” Tyrone yelled back, “I’ll buy you a dance! Come on! Don’t be a tool, bra!”
Henry leaned into a jog. “No, I’m good!”
He glanced back over his shoulder. The guy was still at the car. The man was twice the size of the vehicle. Even in the worst case, he could surely out run him from here. Those handguns didn’t have very good aim, isn’t that right? Didn’t he see that on National Geographic or the History Channel or something?
“Henry!” Roger yelled, “Y’all’re pissing me off, bra!”
Henry broke into a full run. He threw another glance back at the car.
Roger had his arms outstretched with a wad of bills in each chubby fist. He stood at the back of the car. Something dark was tucked into his belt.
“Hey man, who’s gonna drive me over the border?” the fat man yelled.
Henry looked back over his shoulder and yelled, “I already drove you over the border!”
“No, man!” Roger yelled back, “I’m talking California. How do I cross that border, bra?”
Henry laughed. He was far enough away now that he was pretty sure he was safe. The sense of relief was nearly overwhelming. He turned so he was jogging backward, cupped his mouth, and shouted, “Use the code, bra!”
“What the hell? How do I do that, bra?”
“Dude!” Henry yelled back, “Lift your feet as the car passes the over the state border! They can’t hear you when you do that!”
Roger watched him for a moment, his fat, money-filled hands still out at his side. “Really, man?”
“Would I lie to you, bra?” Henry called back, “Dude, I’m a code man, just like you!”
HENRY SLIPPED ALICE’S DRESS SHIRT ON OVER HIS TEE.
It was cold, and it was getting colder fast. Then he remembered that Albuquerque was a mile high. He didn’t even know how he knew it, he just knew it. It probably got down to freezing here at night this time of year. He buttoned his dress shirt up to his Adam’s apple and shoveled his hands in his the pockets of his pants. Then he increased his pace, hoping to generate some body heat.
He was royally pissed at himself! Stupid moron! He should’ve known better than to get in that car. Idiot! Tyrone/Roger/T was a murderer and a thief and, more than likely an escaped convict. He’d probably robbed a gas station or a liquor store or a Dairy Queen right before picking him up. He wondered if that really was a gun in that box. Damn! It had to be. What if they’d been pulled over? Damn! Damn! Damn!
Had he gotten all his prints out of the car? He thought so. He hadn’t touched that much. Seatbelt buckle. Got it. Door handle, inside and out. Got it. Dashboard? Got it. Seat cushion? He didn’t think so, but he didn’t think he’d touched it. He sure as hell hoped not. God help him, this moment was going to haunt him for a long damned time. He couldn’t possibly do prison time. Alice had said it straight: You got some real purty lips.
He laughed at that. Thank you, Alice. You’ve saved me again.
The neighborhood he was walking through was lousy, but he didn’t feel particularly unsafe. It was old in the Old West sense. Some buildings looked really ancient, but not in that antique, old world, charming way. More like in a Catch-22 kind of way: They’re older than dirt and look like hell, but we can’t tear them down because they’re older than dirt. A typical block displayed a few unremarkable old redstone buildings that looked like they’d been there a hundred years. They were interspersed with seventies strip mall shacks and gas stations.
He saw a sign indicating Historic Route Sixty-Six and followed it. He walked a couple miles, following the evidence toward I-40. The walking helped warm him, but it was definitely getting colder. He could see his breath in the streetlight. He passed a store with an ancient digital clock in the window. It was a breath away from midnight. Last night at this time, he was driving their wounded back from the Cheatin’ Heart.
That thought knocked the wind from him. Was it just last night? How was it even possible? It couldn’t be possible. He and Alice joked about their year together, but the truth was it didn’t seem much of a stretch. That’s exactly what it felt like, a year together.
This really was his Magnum Opus. He’d thoroughly outdone himself this time. Three cheers for Henry. This was master level deconstruction.
What the hell did you do to me?
HENRY WATCHED A DARK SEDAN ROLLING TOWARD HIM.
It was a late model Impala. It was so white, it looked like a florescent light tube rolling through the darkness.
He was cold enough that he was actually starting to shake. The car passed him in that slow, deliberate way that told him the driver was appraising him. The windows were tinted too dark to see inside. There was a magnetic sign on the passenger door that read Monica Darkveil, Psychic Counselor, with a phone number. The car slid several yards past, then the brake lights flamed. A moment later, the reverse lights popped on, and it rolled back toward him, moving just as lazily as it had passed.
He bent down as the window glided open. It stopped half way. The heat wafting out from it felt like standing before a brazier.
A woman leaned over into the passenger space. She had fine, shoulder length black hair with the bangs cut square across her forehead. Her face was long and angular, and comfortable to look at. If she’d been a man, they’d have called the look rugged. In a woman, he thought the word was handsome. Or maybe winsome. He couldn’t remember.
“Riverside?” she said.
Henry felt a chill. He looked down at the sign. Monica Darkveil, Psychic Counselor. He looked back at her. “Are you serious?” he said.
“Yes, I’m seriously going to Riverside. You want a ride or not?” She had a smoky, sensuous voice.
The heat pouring out the window was incentive enough. Henry got in.
“Man, it’s freezing out there,” he said as he buckled up.
“I know.” She quickly accelerated down the ramp and merged into the cruising lane.
She was older than him, maybe closer to forty or forty-five, and thin in a nice way. She had dark eyes that looked happy to be there. She was actually quite attractive in a serious, metropolitan, no-nonsense kind of way.
“I thought this was the desert,” she said without looking at him, “What’s up with this temperature?”
“Well,” he said, “We are at altitude. Albuquerque’s a mile high, so there’s less atmosphere to keep the heat in.”
She shot him a look that felt a little annoyed. “It was rhetorical. What are you, the Vagabond Geographer?”
Henry wasn’t sure if he’d just been slapped. “No,” he said, “Just full of useless information, I guess.”
“So it seems. My name’s Monica.” She didn’t offer a hand.
“I’m Henry. Thanks for the lift.”
“Where are you going, Henry?”
“Shouldn’t you be able to tell me that?” he said, grinning.
She sent him another look. This one didn’t beat around the bush, either. “Full of useless information and an annoying sense of humor. Great. It’s going to be a long drive.”
“Sorry.” He felt his face flush. “I just meant… I mean, what with you being a psychic and all… ?”
“Yeah, I got it. You’re a real hoot, Henry. Keep it up. I think I’m starting to see your future.” She put a couple fingers to her brow and focused her eyes. “Yes… I see you in the middle of Arizona. You’re on a dark road in the middle of the desert. You’re lost, cold, hungry…”
“Okey dokey, then,” he said, “Note to self, no more psychic jokes.”
She looked at him again, but this time she laughed. “I’m just kidding. I get that all the time. I’ve learned it’s best to shoot back quickly.”
“So, you’re really a psychic?”
“So, you’re really a hitchhiker?”
“Not so much.”
She had a dry wit. He liked it. “I really appreciate the ride.”
“You already thanked me. You should know I find repetition tedious.”
“Sorry.” He wasn’t sure what else to say.
“I don’t usually pick up hitchhikers,” she said.
“Well, we’re in good company, then. I don’t usually hitchhike.”
They drove on for a few minutes in silence. Then Henry said, “So, why did you pick me up, then? I mean, if you usually don’t?”
She shrugged. “I sensed a quiet desperation about you. I’m a sucker for that in a man. Besides, how dangerous can a grown man wearing a Superman uniform be?”
Henry looked down at himself. His Alice overshirt was buttoned all the way up to his neck. His uniform wasn’t even exposed. He felt a queer chill. He wanted to say something about it, but didn’t know which way to go with it.
“Don’t make a deal out of it, Henry.” She sent him a crafty smile. “It is what it is.”
“Then, you are the real thing?” He couldn’t believe he was asking the question.
“Define real thing.”
“You really have psychic abilities.”
“I hate that word used in such context. Abilities? That’s stupid.”
“What do you prefer? Gift?”
“Gift.” She laughed. “That one never gets old. Is your sense of balance a gift, Henry?”
“I don’t know. Never thought of it that way.”
“How about your proprioception?”
“I’m not even sure what that is.”
“If your arm is out of sight do you still know where it is?”
“Oh, I get it. Like position awareness.”
“Is that a gift?”
“Not really. It’s just a function of my body.”
He settled back in his seat and again wondered how she’d seen his uniform. Maybe while he bent into the car when she first stopped. She probably saw down his dress shirt. There had to be something that gave it away.
“Don’t over analyze it, Henry.”
“What, are you reading my mind?”
“You can’t read a mind, Henry. It’s not a comic book.”
“Then what’s a psychic?”
“Different animal altogether.”
He laughed. “Why do I have the feeling that with you I’ll either be on the offense or defense?”
“I would guess because you’re intuitive, Henry. And because you’re right.”
“Hm, I’m liking you better by the moment,” he said. He meant it. “This is going to be a most interesting ride, isn’t it, Monica?”
“For which of us?”
He looked at her.
“Still kidding, Henry. Relax.”
He wasn’t sure he should. “You’re not exactly easy, are you?”
“I’ve got my darkness just like you,” she said.
Henry’s alarms started ringing. He looked over at her. “So, how’s this going to work, Monica? Do I have to put up a barricade of mental razor wire to keep you from hearing my thoughts?”
He laughed at that. She didn’t.
“First of all,” she said, “I hear with my ears just like you. Thoughts don’t make sounds. Second, I’ve got you filtered, so you can just take a chill. Third, nobody reads minds except in the movies. We just get impressions.”
“Impressions? Meaning what?”
“Meaning I don’t hear your thoughts like Boris Karloff is whispering in my ear. I get a sense, like a picture flash.”
“Like a picture flash,” he repeated, “I don’t get it.”
“A blonde girl with the green eyes.”
Henry froze at that. Alice’s face rushed into his mind, and he suffered a pang of grief for it. “What did you say?” he asked her.
“It doesn’t matter, Henry.”
He wondered if he’d even heard her right. She couldn’t know about Alice. There was a trick in here somewhere, he just had to find it.
“Relax. I won’t go tiptoeing through your head uninvited, I promise.”
“Do you get these impressions often?”
“Didn’t I just tell you I have you filtered?” She threw her dark eyes at him. “Nobody likes worry warts, Henry. They’re dreary.”
She was no nonsense. He liked that. It put him at ease.
“That’s not what I’m asking,” he said, “I’m asking if you get impressions routinely?”
“Do you hear things routinely, Henry? Or just when you actively listen?”
“Okay, I get it. No more stupid questions. Tell me how you do it. Filter, I mean.”
The tail of the pickup truck in front of them was coming up fast. He wondered if she was going to move over. She merged into the passing lane just in time to avoid rear-ending it. The dashboard green face of the driver of the pickup gave him the what-the-hell look as they passed.
“It’s complicated,” she said, “You just learn. It’s a kind of self-preservation.”
“But, you have to actively filter things out. You can’t just not accept the impressions?”
“Henry, have you ever seen something you wished you hadn’t?”
The garage tried to stampede into his head, but he immediately blocked it. “Sure,” he said seriously, “Of course I have.”
“Why didn’t you will yourself not to see it when you did?”
“Why didn’t you actively anticipate that you might see something unappealing, then set your sight to avoid it?”
“Because I don’t know it’s coming,” he said. And then he grinned. “Okay, I get it. Really, I totally get it.”
“You ever see a scary movie where you squinch your eyes right before the really bad scene comes around?”
“Sure,” he said, “Pretty much every time.”
“It’s a little something like that, though you’d have to imagine it fifty times worse than a scary scene in a movie. Receiving an impression you don’t want can be ugly. There’s usually a great deal too much emotion in it.”
“What if you forget to filter?”
“One trip through the grocery store without filters, and you learn to never do it again. You only have to suffer through one dirty memory or bad intention or intense loss. It’s not usually an image so much as a pulse of raw emotion. Trust me, you adapt. Horrors abound out there, Henry. It’s why I spend most weekends in the country and far, far away from humanity.”
“That is too bizarre.” Too bizarre to be true, he thought.
“Bizarre is as bizarre does.” She looked over at him. Her face was filled with the ghostly light of oncoming traffic. “You’re a skeptic, Henry. But that’s okay. I have no need to prove anything to you.”
“So, what about me?” he said.
“What about you?”
“Are you picking anything up from me right now?”
“Not especially, other than what I’ve mentioned. I usually put up the shields as soon as I’m within talking distance of people.”
“Wait, that’s not entirely true. I actually did get something very briefly when we first spoke.”
“What, besides the girl with green eyes?”
“Oh? Do tell.”
“It wasn’t much, just a faint impression.”
“You might not like it.”
“Seriously, is this the kind of drama you use with your paying clients? Just tell me, already.”
She looked over at him. “I saw your car.”
Henry just looked at her. What the hell was that supposed to mean?
“There’s a flat tire,” she said, “I think it was at a gas station or some kind of fenced lot. I’d recognize the place if I saw it. At least, I think I would. But it could be anywhere.”
“I don’t know how to respond to that, Monica,” he said, watching her. He didn’t recall mentioning having lost his car.
“Was that a hit?” she said.
He was sure she already knew the answer. “Can’t speak to the flat tire,” he practically whispered, “But, otherwise… ding.”
She continued watching the road. Another wave of light washed over her face. She didn’t look particularly impressed with herself.
“How did you do that?” Henry asked carefully.
“You mean what cues did I pick up on that gave me the information.” It wasn’t a question. She still wasn’t looking at him. “It’s all right, Henry. I’ve spent my life around skeptics. It’s all good. You don’t have to believe me. In fact, I couldn’t really care less if you do or not. Most skeptics actively avoid the truth. It’s a safety issue, I believe.”
He knew she didn’t mean that vindictively or because she was offended. It was just the simple truth. “It’s nothing personal,” he said, “It’s just… you know, I’m victim of a scientific mind.”
“Want another one?” This time she looked him full on.
He thought about it a moment. He thought about the secrets he had locked in his dungeon. She was probably the last person he should let in. If she thought a trip through the grocery store was filled with horrors, just wait until she strolled through his garden.
Anyway, the truth was, though he had been certain she was a fake when they first met, it seems the jury had just reconvened to deliberate the decision.
“Think I’m going to pass,” he said, “Thanks all the same.”
She looked back at the road. “Suit yourself.”
“Okay,” he said, laughing, “Nice weather we’re having.”
“That’s a matter of opinion.”
HENRY WATCHED ANOTHER MILE MARKER ROLL PAST.
They came at him like the ticks on a clock, a never-ending countdown. Yet he dashboard clock seemed stalled at two-thirty. He figured they’d hit Riverside around seven in the morning. And then what? When had he slept last? Really slept? He figured he’d gotten a total of maybe seven hours sleep in the past few days. Didn’t seem like enough.
He watched the distant house lights slipping slowly past them out in the scrubs beyond the road like the spirit forces of the dead. It looked lonely out there. It probably seemed worse at night. He again wondered what could possibly draw normal people to live out here. Maybe it was a good place to hide. Maybe it was filled with serial killers.
Then he thought of Alice. He thought about their last moment together and all the delicious details he’d committed to memory. But the sad truth was the details were already gathering dust. They were already fading. He wished he’d gotten a picture of her.
“What’s her name, Henry?”
Henry’s stomach lurched. He looked over at Monica. “I’m sorry?”
“The girl. What’s her name?”
“Are you using your abil—” He stopped. Corrected. “Are you getting impressions from me, Monica? You told me you had me filtered.”
She flashed her soft, rugged smile at him. Her lipstick was a few shades redder than most women could pull off. It made her perfect teeth so white they seemed otherworldly.
“I don’t need to read your mind to see you’re in love, Henry.”
He thought about that. “I’m not sure I am,” he lied, “And anyway, it’s… it didn’t work out. And that’s the end of that story.”
“Well, that’s too bad.” She said it like she meant it. She wasn’t trying to comfort him or be empathic. She just saw it for what it was and called it out.
“It’s nothing,” he lied.
He looked back to the night. His reflection stared back at him from the passenger window, all ghostly and accusing. You’re such a liar, Henry. Haven’t you learned anything?
“Not so sure you’re being honest, Henry,” she said, “Love’s a pretty valuable commodity to be throwing away with such a cavalier attitude, I’d say.”
Ouch, that stung. “I honestly don’t know,” he lied again.
Monica laughed. “You don’t know? You look like a man whose heart is pieces. How can you just write it off with I don’t know? You’re not very decisive, are you?”
He thought about that. “I usually am. But this has been a pretty bizarre weekend.”
“How did you end up out here with a broken heart and no car?”
“Talent,” he said seriously, “And a lot of experience.”
“Yeah,” she said, looking at him again, “I can see that.”
The lights washed over her face. She had eyes like a raptor, focused and piercing. They weren’t the same surgical laser eyes like Alice or Mrs. Pena, the kind of eyes that look deep past the skin in search of a point of purchase, a point where they can apply their healing tonics. These eyes were looking for weakness.
“You’re cloaked in one hell of a deep, dark aura, Henry.”
“A dark aura?” he said.
“Is that a psychic observation?”
“In part. In part, it’s my education.”
“You have a degree?”
She sent him a look. “What? Because I’m psychic, I’m just naturally unlettered? Perhaps even stupid?”
“I have multiple degrees, hotshot. So tread carefully. It’s not wise to jump to conclusions.”
“One of my master degrees is in counseling.”
One of her master degrees. “Interesting combination of skills,” he said to regroup.
“Turns out, not so much. One tends to get in the way of the other.”
She shrugged. “It’s complicated. I thought being able to get impressions of a person’s issues from the inside would help guide them better from the outside. Turns out, not so much. I found myself trying to actively guide them toward the goal. Even if they weren’t ready.”
He shrugged and looked at another passing mile marker. “I suppose that makes sense. You’re pretty direct. Not that I’m an expert. I’m not all that familiar with the whole counseling process. From either side.”
“You should be.”
That one caught a piece of flesh. “You only just met me,” he said straight at her, “What was it you just said about jumping to conclusions?”
“It wasn’t an insult, Henry. Put away the guns.”
He rolled his head back toward the passing darkness and his miserable reflection. “Sorry,” he whispered. He was.
“I see what I see,” she said, “And I’ve got two eyes and a pretty good brain backing up my internal sight, so I see a lot more than most.”
Henry couldn’t resist looking over at her again. A bright light reflected back from the rearview mirror. It flooded her eyes. He twisted around and looked back through the rear window. “Asshole has his high beams on.”
“He does,” she said matter-of-factly
“He’s right on your ass.”
“There’s not another car in sight,” he said, still watching the car trailing them, “Why doesn’t he pass?”
“He’s not present.”
“I know. He’s an idiot.”
“No,” she said carefully, “He’s not an idiot. He’s just not present. He has a woman on his mind.”
He looked at her. “Oh.”
He felt her decelerate. The speedometer eased its way down from eighty to seventy to sixty. Finally, the car behind them swung around and passed. Monica gradually returned to their previous speed. The offending car rapidly tooled away from them.
“Man, what is with people like that?” he said.
“Nothing. He was just preoccupied. It happens.”
“Preoccupied,” he said, “I suppose.”
“Not everyone can be the decision-meister you are, Henry.”
He sniffed at that. “Hilarious, Monica.”
“No, really,” he said, “You’re a regular joker. Maybe you should change your plaque to Witty Psychic Counselor.”
“Oh, Henry. You’re so dreary.”
“Yeah, I get that a lot.”
“I imagine you do.”
They watched the darkness roll past for a bit, then he again rolled his head toward her. “Question,” he said, “Is Darkveil your real name or a professional one?”
“Some things just can’t be made up. It’s my real name. So is Monica, if you were considering asking.”
“Want me to tell you yours?”
Henry felt another chill. “You know my last name?”
She smirked, but didn’t look at him. “Nah, I just like to see you sweat.”
He laughed. “You’ve got one mean cruel streak in you, Monica Darkveil.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“Is the Psychic Counselor gig your main job?”
She gave him a look that told him in no uncertain terms he’d best not be playing her again. “Yes, Henry. Do you have an opinion on that you’d like to share?”
“No, not at all.” He didn’t. “It’s interesting, though. Do you work on the road? Or do you have an office? Or maybe a parlor? Maybe a tent?”
“You are so going to be walking soon.”
“It’s probably pretty low overhead, right? I mean, what could you need? A place to stand? Do you use a crystal ball or tarot cards or anything?”
“I recommend you consider changing tack, Henry. I recommend you do so quickly. It’s very dark out here.”
“Seriously,” he said, “I’d think you could probably do it anywhere, except maybe while showering or driving.”
“Actually, it’s easier while I’m driving.”
She was serious. “Why is that?” he said, “It doesn’t make sense to me.”
“It’s a distraction, like listening to music. Lets me focus without being overtly aware I’m doing so.”
“You keep saying interesting the way most people say bullshit.”
“That’s not what I meant, Monica. Put away the guns.”
“In my experience,” she said, “The skeptics are usually the ones most afraid of the trait.”
“Do I strike you as afraid, Monica?”
“More than just about anyone I’ve ever met, Henry.” She slashed at him with those raptor eyes.
He looked out the window. “Whatever.”
The radio whispered just below listening level. It sounded like jazz but was too low to identify. The tires hummed in soothing tedium beneath them. He realized time was passing finally faster than he’d hoped. More than that, it was passing pleasantly. For a change.
But Henry found his curiosity growing too quickly to contain. He looked over at her. “So, you can tell my future, then? While driving eighty miles per hour down the freeway?”
“No? What, no?”
“I can’t see your future. No one can.”
“But I thought—”
“The future hasn’t happened yet, Henry. So what’s to see? There’s only now and what’s inside your head. That, and the past, which is still pretty much just in your head. That’s it, son. Don’t look for anything else.”
He laughed at that.
“Themes,” he said, “Themes are funny. I seem to have run from one theme to another all weekend.”
“That’s probably something I don’t need to understand, but thank you all the same.”
She threw on her signal as she passed a truck. The blinker’s ticking seemed louder than it should have, like someone beating sticks together.
“So, you want to give me a try?” He wasn’t sure why he said it. He didn’t even believe in it. Then again, he wasn’t sure didn’t not believe in it.
She looked at him too long, then turned back to her driving. “I’m going to take a pass on that, Henry.”
“What? Why?” He felt a little slighted.
“I already told you.”
“No, I don’t think you did.”
“It’s not going to happen, Henry. Give it up.”
“But you’ve already mentioned stuff. You’ve already opened the door. So, now I’m curious.”
“The impressions I’ve picked up from you have just been peripheral chatter. It’s the small stuff that gets past the filter. Usually doesn’t have any meaning. Stuff like worries about forgetting to turn off a lamp, things like that. Nothing with any drama or importance.”
Henry wasn’t convinced. She’d described it the way a salesman describes the benefits of a clock radio with a dial face over a digital one, like she didn’t honestly have a vested interest in either one, like she was just going through the motions in hopes the customer would get as bored as she was and leave so she could get back to her cigarette break.
“So you have to look closer to see the real meat?” Henry pressed.
She shrugged. “Most of the time. Depends.”
“But you won’t look closer at me?”
He watched her for a moment. Then he remembered. “Because of my aura,” he said, “You said it was dark.”
She still didn’t look at him. He noticed her hands tighten on the steering wheel.
“Is that it?” he said.
“Let it go, Henry.”
“I’m just trying to understand.” There was no way in hell he was letting this go.
She still didn’t look at him. She just kept driving.
He was getting a little pissed, and he didn’t even know why. The best thing for him right now would be to walk away. But as usual, he didn’t. As usual, he kept pushing on that sore spot until it was good and swollen. “Well, I don’t know,” he said as he looked out into the night, “Sounds like a copout to me. Or maybe you’re just full of hot air.”
“You can’t dare me into it,” she said like she had some experience with that tack, “Let it go. It’s not worth it.”
“Fine, but I’m feeling a little gyped.” It came out more sarcastically than he’d intended.
“Gyped?” she said, giving him a reprimanding glare, “What are you, twelve? That’s a bit of an offensive word, don’t you think?”
Henry sighed and sank back into his seat. “Duly chastised,” he said softly, “I’m just tired. I apologize.”
Why had he even pressed it? Because he felt inexplicably comfortable with her, that’s why, though he couldn’t explain the rationale behind it. Maybe it was his recent history. Maybe it was some strange pathology. Maybe his exposure to all these unnaturally interesting strangers over the past two days had somehow lowered his trust threshold.
Another green mile counter ticked past. The Epic Outing was quickly winding down. He tried to think back across it, but it felt like a cartoon scenario, like walking into a ten by ten foot room and finding a palace on the inside. He couldn’t find the details through the depth of time separating them.
“Look, Henry. I mean no offense.”
Henry startled at her voice. He looked over at her. “Offense? What offense? I’m not offended.”
“No, I mean by what I’m about to say.”
Her eyes were still locked on the road, her hands on the wheel. Her mouth was drawn a little too tight. She looked like she was trying too hard to concentrate on something.
“Did you get another impression?” he asked her.
She kept driving.
“You did, didn’t you? What is it?”
She looked over at him, but didn’t linger.
“It’s okay, Monica. Just tell me.”
“I pushed a little deeper in,” she said too softly.
He didn’t like the sound of this. “And? Seriously, just say it. There’s nothing you could say that would surprise me. Not this weekend. After this weekend, I’m seriously cast from iron.”
She looked at him, but again her eyes didn’t linger. “Henry, you seem like a good guy.”
“I have my moments.” He forced out a laugh that sounded as choreographed as it was.
“I was telling you the truth before. You have a bad aura.”
“Okay, bad aura. Got it.”
“No,” she said, looking him full on, “I mean bad like in dangerous. Bad like in foreboding. Bad like in they make horror movies about guys like you.”
His darkness stirred. He felt a mood approaching in the shadowy distance. This suddenly wasn’t fun anymore. “I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about,” he said.
“Yes, you do.”
He didn’t even attempt to retort that. No point lying to her now.
“You’re carrying someone else’s stink on you, Henry. I don’t have to go inside to smell it. You’re marked. You’re haunted by someone else’s karma. You need to open that cage and throw those old ghosts out before they drag you down with them. And believe me, Henry, they will take you down.”
Henry’s breath locked in his chest. He felt a drop of sweat tickling down his sternum.
“Shall I keep going?” Monica said.
Henry couldn’t look at her. Instead, he looked out into the night, and he nodded. “Yes,” he heard himself say, “Sure. Why not?”
He heard her carefully lick her lips. He heard her take a drink from a plastic bottle she had tucked in her door well. He heard her recap it, slowly, deliberately, then put it back in its place.
He gripped the plastic armrest on the door. Brace yourself, Henry, this is probably going to smart.
“There’s a woman,” she said.
Henry’s heart skipped at that.
Henry willed himself to keep breathing.
“She was close to you. I get the sense that you cared for this ghost, that you danced with this ghost for a while, but that you didn’t really love her, not in the end. There was too much drama in the end.”
Henry felt the blood vacate his head. His chest was tight. He wanted to speak to that, to correct her, to tell her he loved her very much, but his doubts were gagging him.
“She’s gone now, but she refuses to leave. Or she can’t leave. For some reason, you’re unable to… no… no, wait. Not unable. Unwilling. You’re unwilling to cut the shackles to that ghost. You won’t let her go even though retaining that hold on her keeps your world burning.”
More sweat. And yet, his skin felt like ice.
“My sense, Henry, is that you have to cut her loose. You have to throw loose the shackles that imprison her in your life. If you don’t give that ghost up, she will kill you. I don’t mean that metaphorically, Henry. I mean she will kill you.”
She stopped talking.
Henry felt like he’d suddenly succumbed to paralysis. Eventually, he looked over at her. Her eyes were red and wet.
“You have to believe me, Henry,” she said softly, “You have to get rid of her, and you have to do it soon. Your time is running out, and the end will be bloody and dark.”
Henry’s pulsed beat so hard against his ears, he felt sick. He heard the distant rattle of a cell door, but closed his eyes against it. He couldn’t let her out. He didn’t dare let her out. Not here, not now.
“Do you believe me, Henry?”
“Maybe,” he whispered, “I don’t know.”
“I think you do.”
Henry looked out the window again. He felt Zoe’s breath on his neck.
Monica pulled a tissue from a packet resting on the compartment separating them. “That’s why I can’t visit you, Henry,” she said as she wiped her nose, “That’s why I won’t allow a deeper impression from you. I can’t let you get any closer. You’re far too dangerous for me. I can’t let that kind of darkness into my head.”
“Some rooms should be kept locked,” she said, “There are some rooms no one but the owner should be allowed into. There are some rooms you walk into that you don’t walk out of alone.”
Henry dragged his hair away from his face. He glanced over at her, but quickly deflected his eyes back out into the night. He suddenly felt dirty, or maybe more like contaminated. Zoe wrestled him for control over his thoughts. The forbidden box was open, the locks in ruins. Everything she said was the truth. Zoe was going to kill him.
He wanted to say something, wanted to denounce her observations, to tell her she was full of shit. But he couldn’t. It appeared she was psychic after all.
HENRY WONDERED IF HE SHOULD OFFER TO DRIVE.
It was almost four in the morning. She had to be tired. She’d been driving all night, after all.
“I can drive all night,” she said, smiling at him.
He felt the bite of irritation. “I thought you had me filtered, Monica.”
“I do,” she said, laughing, “But I told you, some things are just little pulses, like a craving for candy or the urge to pee. Can’t filter everything, son. Sorry.”
He sighed. “Man, you are some piece of work.”
“Yeah, so you said.”
“Honestly, I’m glad to drive if you’re getting tired.”
“Thanks. But I don’t really get tired.”
“I don’t sleep much. Maybe a few hours every day or two.”
“Why is that?” And he thought he was tired.
She looked out at the passing night. “Don’t know. Figure it just comes with the territory.”
Henry yawned and stretched back against the seat. “Speaking of the urge to pee,” he said.
“I’m stopping for gas soon.”
A few minutes later, Henry watched another exit slide past. Several gas stations had their signs hoisted high above the freeway like flags of port. He glanced over at her fuel gage. It was uncomfortably low. He didn’t understand why she wasn’t stopping. “Are you looking for a specific brand?” he asked her.
“I don’t know.”
It took him a moment to process the words. “You don’t know? I’m… I’m not sure what you mean by that.”
She licked her lips. She adjusted the rearview mirror. She didn’t look at him.
“Monica, what’s up? Is something wrong?”
“This isn’t the place.”
He looked back at the gas station signs fading behind them. “What place?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ll know it when I see it!”
That felt like a slap. Probably time to back away.
“I’m sorry, Henry,” she said with a glance, “It won’t be long. Are you okay for a bit?”
“Sure,” he said, watching her, “But how do you know it won’t be long if you don’t know what you’re looking for?”
“Perils of the profession, I’m afraid.” She offered him a smile that was fully out of context with the clouds in her eyes.
“I see,” he said. In fact, he suddenly did. “You’re following an impression.”
“I don’t think it’ll be far.”
“There you go sounding all confident again,” he said, laughing.
She didn’t look at him.
He wondered if this was what hunting with bloodhounds was like. It’d probably have been more fun if he knew what their prey looked like.
HENRY REPLACED THE NOZZLE.
He screwed the cap back on the tank and looked up at the scratchy display screen. Do you want a receipt? Why, yes, I do.
The receipt dispenser chugged and coughed. The first half-inch of receipt slipped out quickly, but the rest of it coiled up back behind the dispenser. He tore off what he could and looked at it.
“Hope the name of the station’s enough for her,” he muttered.
Monica came around the pump and tossed him a package. It was one of those scary looking sandwiches in wedge-shaped plastic modules, the kind most likely made in China and sent to unsuspecting Americans because the Chinese people wouldn’t have anything to do with it. It appeared to be some mutant variation of chicken drowned in a white substance resembling salad dressing. He looked up just in time to catch a plastic bottle of water.
“Thanks,” he said, “You didn’t have to—”
He shrugged and obeyed.
“I think we’re close,” she said. She threw the car in gear and wheeled it about on a squeal of rubber.
“Holy crap, Monica!” he said, dropping the water bottle and grabbing the dash, “What the hell?” The water went rolling under the seat.
“We’re close,” she said, as she ripped up the on-ramp, “I think we’re very close.”
“Close to what, exactly?”
She accelerated with enough g-force to startle an astronaut.
“All righty, then,” he said as he fought to secure his seatbelt, “Get in, sit down, hold on, and shut up. Got it.”
She actually laughed at that. “Sorry, Henry. I’m like a hound when I catch a scent. I have to find it.”
Exactly as he’d thought. “It’s okay,” he said, “I’m good with that. But it’d be more interesting if I knew what we were after.”
“I’d tell you, but—”
“You’d have to kill me?”
“Don’t’ be so dramatic. I don’t want to tell you in case I’m wrong, that’s all.”
He gasped at that. “You’re… you’re wrong sometimes?” he said, “I can’t believe that! I think I’m going to be sick!”
“Monica, how will I know you were right if I don’t know what we’re chasing? You could find a rock and say, oh yeah this is the rock I was after.”
“Again, I say… all righty, then.”
It was getting warm. He unbuttoned Alice’s shirt and slipped it off. He tossed it into the backseat. Then he leaned down between his legs and began fishing for his water under the seat.
“Henry? Can I ask you something without you getting all freakish on me?”
“Sure,” he grunted as he searched, “Go for it.”
“Is Alice the girl with the green eyes?”
Henry choked. He threw himself back into his seat and looked at her. “How could you possibly know that?”
“It’s not what you—”
“Are you probing me after all, Monica? I offered to let you. You shouldn’t say no and then do it anyway. It’s rude.”
“No, Henry. It’s written all over you.”
He just stared at her.
“Never mind,” she said, laughing.
He looked down at his uniform. Then he looked back at her. “Is this a joke?”
“Yes, Henry. It’s a joke. You probably said her name in your sleep.” She returned her attention to her driving.
“Funny,” he said, thinking about it, “I don’t remember sleeping.”
She giggled at that. “God, you’re easy.”
HENRY WATCHED THE MOTEL SLIDE PAST.
It was the usual sixties style drive-in motel, and in case anyone passing by had any doubts, there was a billboard-sized sign outside it with decaying black block letters on a plain white background saying MOTEL. Nothing else, just MOTEL. Two ramshackle buildings down from that MOTEL was an ancient alpine coffee shop with a similarly clever sign out front that read COFFEE SHOP. Again, black letters against a plain white background. It seemed nothing in Despegar, Arizona had a name.
Dawn was breaking, and with it came the spectacular vista surrounding the town. It was a breathtaking sight, miles and miles of desert scrub. It reminded him of Defiance, except flatter, dirtier, and even less colorful. Looking at this place, Defiance seemed almost tropical.
“Keep your eyes open, Henry,” Monica said. She sounded urgent.
“For what?” he said, looking at her.
“Just do as I say.”
“Yes, ma’am.” She seemed far too serious to argue with.
They tooled past two gas stations, each with a huge semi parking lot, each with only two semis in that huge lot. Wedged conveniently between them was a brand new Dairy Queen that looked as out of place out here as earrings on a pig.
Monica took a right and accelerated under the overpass. On the other side of the highway was another brand new gas station and another huge semi parking lot, but this one had three trucks in it. These people in Despegar really seemed to like their semi parking lots. Then again, there was more than enough room for them.
“We’re close,” she said as she flew past the lot, “I can smell it.”
She went another quarter mile, then wheeled the car over onto the loose gravel shoulder and hit the brakes hard. Henry thought he might’ve cracked a rib against the shoulder harness.
“Damn, Monica! What the hell?”
“We’re close,” she whispered, “We’re very, very close.” He suspected she was talking to herself more than him.
She hit the gas, wheeling the car around back the way they’d come from and leaving a dust storm in their wake. They ripped past the parking lot again. Again, she hit the brakes and slid into the shoulder.
“No!” she screamed. She pounded the steering wheel. “No! No! No!”
“Monica, take a breath!” Henry said, “Seriously, what the hell’s going on?” He wondered if he should just get out now.
Then her face lit up. She looked like she’d suddenly been filled with divine love. She glanced back over her shoulder toward the first semi parking lot behind them. “Yes!” she shrieked.
Henry nearly ruined his underwear.
“I think we’re close, Superman!” She wheeled the car around and floored it.
Henry felt like he’d been punched. “What did you call me?”
“Oh my God!” she screamed, “Over there! Over there! Over there!”
“Wait, what did you just call me?”
“I think that’s it!”
The car tore across the parking lot at a ridiculous speed with Monica hunched over the steering wheel like she was driving the 500.
“Look, Henry! Is that it?”
Henry followed her pointing finger straight ahead. Not that he needed it since they were already barreling too fast across the lot toward the indicated sight.
Lining the side of the lot farthest from the gas station proper were several cars. They were parked at varying angles against a failing hurricane fence that accurately reflected the mass state of decay of the area. The cars were so dusty and dirty he could barely identify a color between them.
“Is that it, Henry?” Monica slid the car to a stop before the lineup, and looked at him. “Is it? Look! Is that it?”
Henry again followed her finger out his slowly opening window. Sitting at the end of the line was an SUV. It looked like it might’ve once been black, though it was nearly impossible to tell through the crust. It was more brown than anything now. It had a flat rear tire.
“Is that what?” he said.
He looked at her. He looked at the car. He looked back at her. “Monica? I’m only going to ask you this once. Is this supposed to be funny?”
Monica was already out of the Impala. He watched in complete disbelief as she ran to the back of the SUV and tried to open the rear door.
“This can’t be real,” Henry muttered, “Has she lost her bloody mind?”
She wiped the grime away from the driver’s window and cupped her eyes to it. Then she looked back at him and wildly waved him over. “Look at this!”
Henry sighed. Then he got out of the car.
“Do you have a key?” she asked as he walked up.
“Are you serious, Monica? This model SUVs are all over the place. There’s probably a thousand within a two mile radius of us.”
“No,” she said, giggling, “This is it. Look, California license plate.”
The license plate was folded up so that only the state and a couple numbers showed. The bumper beneath it was pretty well mangled. “Oh yeah!” he said with faked enthusiasm, “California! Well, it must be mine, then.”
“How can we get it open?” She tried the door again.
He looked around at the misery surrounding them. “Why the hell would I ditch my car here? I don’t think I could get that drunk.”
“Do you have a key?” she asked again.
“No.” He walked up next to her and pressed his face into the spot she’d cleared on the driver’s window. The inside did look like his. There was a phone propped in the cup holder between the seats. Red, like his. And the wallet sitting next to it...
Henry staggered back from the window.
He suddenly felt unsteady, like he’d best grab onto something or gravity was going to divorce him. He threw his hand to his mouth. “No,” he whispered, “No… this is not possible. This is so not happening!”
Monica was laughing and dancing a circle in front of him. “I’m so freaking good!” she yelled to the sky, “Damn me, I am sooo goooooood!”
“I can’t believe this… I don’t believe this. This is a trick, isn’t it? It’s some kind of weird ass carny trick, isn’t it? How the hell’d you do this, Monica?”
“It’s no trick,” Monica practically sang, “Oh yeah, baby! I am the real deal!”
“Tell me how you did this,” Henry insisted, “Seriously! This is not funny anymore.”
“It’s not a trick, Henry!” she said, laughing like she’d just won the lottery.
“Damn it, Monica. This isn’t funny! How the hell did you do this?”
She rushed in and hugged him hard. Then she pushed him out to arms’ length but kept her hands latched to his shoulders. Her face was hysterically happy.
“Tell me, Monica!”
“You know how, Henry. You know exactly how this is possible, Mr. Skeptic! Woo hoo! Who’s brilliant? What? I can’t hear you! Who’s brilliant! Yes! That’s right! I’m brilliant! Monica Darkveil, Psychic Investigator!”
Henry pulled free of her. “I don’t believe this.” He knelt down behind the crumpled back bumper and felt underneath it. “Jesus Christ!” he yelled as he pulled out the magnetized box. He’d put it there months ago. He never thought he’d ever need it. It was the extra key.
“How good am I, Henry?” Monica screamed, “I can’t hear you? How freaking brilliant am I? I’m brilliant as hell, that’s how brilliant! I’m a goddess! I’m on top of the world, baby!”
He pressed the button on the key’s head. He felt the earth shake as the electric locks popped. For a moment, he could only stand there staring at his hand and the key and the dust marks where his knuckles had cleared the grime from the door. Then he carefully took the door handle and opened it.
The smell of fresh leather rushed past him. His stomach tickled excitedly. His car. This was his bloody car. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t even think. He had to actively will his gaping mouth shut.
He slipped cautiously into the driver’s seat. He picked up the wallet resting in one of the cup holders between his seat and the passenger’s. A glass sat in the other holder, half filled with what looked like stale bourbon. He laid his wallet against the steering wheel. He was afraid to open it. If it was truly his wallet, everything he knew and understood about the world, about the cosmos, was about to be cast asunder.
When he finally found the courage to unfold the wallet, he found his own face staring back at him from the driver’s license. It looked surprised to see him.
HENRY STAGGERED INTO HIS KITCHEN.
He tossed the keys onto the counter. He tapped off a glass of water and drank the whole thing.
Then he turned around and leaned back against the granite counter. He stood there for a moment, wavering in and out of the world. He felt flimsy and insubstantial, like he could drift right through the walls. The condo appeared to be exactly as he’d left it a year earlier, and yet it seemed strangely unfamiliar. The layout was the same, and the colors were the same, and the furnishings and pictures looked the same, but somehow they weren’t the same at all. It felt as if someone had come in while he was gone and replaced all his things with nearly identical replicas, replicas that were somehow just one off.
He buried his eyes in the meat of his palms. He was numb to the core, and yet everything seemed to hurt. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept, really slept. Maybe he never had. Maybe he still was.
He dropped his hands to his thighs. The round kitchen table rested in the corner before him with four ladder-back chairs standing at attention around it. A glass-covered picture hung on the wall above the rear chair. It was the print of an old ship, and it was sailing away from him as fast as it could manage, choppy seas be damned.
A brown paper bag of unpacked groceries rested in the middle of the table, squatting like a cornered inmate beneath the prison yard floodlight of the hanging ceiling lamp. He walked over to it and pulled an item from the bag. It was an extra-large can of baked beans. Vegetarian.
Baked beans? Vegetarian? What the hell was he thinking? Just the urge to buy it alone should’ve been a warning shot across his bow, a sign that crisis was about to ensue. Then again, since he didn’t even remember visiting the supermarket, he probably wasn’t in a state of mind suited to psychoanalyzing his shopping decisions.
He drifted out of the kitchen, past the foyer, and across the dining room. He took a right turn in the living room and passed out through the still open slider to the balcony. The morning air was cool and about as fresh as it got in these parts. The highway traffic buzzed determinedly in the distance. The condo complex spread out below him like a prison compound. Nothing seemed to have changed. He went back inside, slid the door closed, and buried the sunlight behind the curtains.
He collapsed onto the couch facing the cloaked slider. Zoe and his Mother watched him from the mahogany shelf beneath the flat screen TV in the corner. They smiled at him from four separate frames, like two pairs of identical twins. Their faces seemed to waver in and out of their dimensions, a trick of the light and his exhaustion.
He rubbed his eyes. Why did everything seem so fluid this morning? Even the air had a metallic luster to it. Could it be because he hadn’t slept in years? Or that he couldn’t remember the last thing he ate? Or maybe it was simply the fact that he was lost in the eye of an emotional hurricane.
He dropped his hands to his lap and looked over at his Mothers. The Mother on the right moved just slightly.
Henry’s breath caught in his chest.
His Mother’s eyes darted up and over, looking hard up at the Zoe on the left. Then her eyes came back to him. She just barely shrugged her brow. She didn’t look happy.
“Jesus Christ,” Henry said, laughing, “Psychoses or exhaustion, pick your poison.”
His Mother smiled at that.
He looked at the indicated Zoe on the top left, then back at his Mother. His Mother had that Well? look on her face, the same expression that had always told him he needed to make a decision, and he’d best make it quick if he knew what was good for him.
He slid lower on the couch and rolled his neck against the harder edge of the cushions. When he looked back at the pictures again, his Mother was scowling at him. “Jesus, now what, Ma?” he whispered, “I’m way too tired for games.”
His Mother looked at him like he should know exactly what.
He closed his eyes. He was talking to a picture of his Mother. What a perfect ending to the psychotic episode these past days had been!
A few minutes later, he snapped forward. He’d nearly fallen asleep.
His Mother’s head was now turned in the frame. She glared over at the lower left Zoe, the directly next to her. For her part, Zoe wasn’t looking at anyone. Zoe was just smiling that self-possessed, condescending smile she seemed to have been born with.
Henry sighed. He hadn’t been home ten minutes and his ghosts were already on him. He pushed himself forward and leaned onto his elbows. His hands wrestled between his knees.
He looked from Zoe to his Mother. His Mother was giving him The Look.
“What the hell am I thinking?” he whispered, “This is insane.”
His Mother stared directly at him. She didn’t look anything like happy.
“Fuck it,” he whispered to her, “I’ve got to take a piss. You two fight it out while I’m gone.”
A few minutes later, he flushed and washed. Then he brushed his teeth, rinsed his toothbrush, and sucked up a mouthful of water. As he bent forward to spit it out, he noticed the mirror in the mirror. He could see his backside reflected from the full-length mirror on the door directly behind him. There was something black all over his uniform.
He pulled off his Superman shirt and turned it around. At first, he didn’t know what to make of it. It was a block of writing, except that it seemed to be in a foreign language. He had the feeling that if his mind weren’t so full of sludge, he’d be able to recognize it. It covered the entire upper back of his uniform.
And then it hit him. It was written in familiar block lettering with a distinct girlish flair. It was from Alice’s sharpie, and it was written backwards. She’d written it on the inside of the shirt and it’d bled through.
He fought away a laugh. He remembered Frank back at the campground telling him he had something on his back, right before Alice shoved him into the van. He remembered T telling him he had the code behind him. And that’s exactly what her writing looked like. Code.
He turned the shirt inside out.
It was a letter. It read:
First, stop fretting. You’ve left nothing burning behind you, no wreckage, no bodies. You and I are golden. I adore you still.
Second, I hope somewhere along that winding road home you found your socks. Maybe even your belt. Possibly your car. Then again, just making it home safely might be enough to ask for.
Third, I hope you find the courage to bury your dead and move back into your life. Your life misses you. And why wouldn’t it?
Fourth, lastly, and most importantly, it was a brilliant year we shared. And if I’m so miserably unfortunate as to never see you again, I want you to know that this intersection of our lines was a grand and wonderful moment for me. I hope that someday you’ll find your way back to me and learn my last name. But mostly I just hope you find peace. You deserve to.
With deepest affection,
Henry couldn’t move. He couldn’t breathe. He could only stand there staring at the shirt in his shaking hands. He felt like he’d been hit by a car.
He reread Alice’s note. Bury your dead. A grand and wonderful moment. Learn my last name.
Learn my last name.
Disappointment kicked him deep and hard.
He threw a hand to his face. God! He was such an idiot! He remembered their conversation on the two-track by the campground yesterday. Alice was right. She was so unbelievably right. He was self-centered and self-important to epic proportions. How could he have left her without even knowing her name? He should throw himself in front of a train! That was a Mensa level moment of stupidity.
He read the note again. No phone number. No email address. No clues. It was just as he deserved. He’d been so terminally focused on himself and his poor, pitiful woes that he’d never even bothered to consider that maybe, just maybe, he might one day want to contact her.
He read the note again.
Bury your dead.
His rage boiled up. Something clicked inside him, something cold and metallic, like the cock of a gun.
Bury your dead.
The temperature in the room plummeted. He was freezing. He began shivering so hard, his teeth clacked.
Bury. Your. Dead.
The ground turned to sludge beneath him. He wanted to scream! He wanted to murder! He wanted to burn the whole fucking town to the ground!
He slugged the bathroom wall. He slugged it again. And again. “You’re a fool!” he yelled into the mirror, “A goddamned child!” He smashed the mirror with his fist. Glass splinters sang merrily as they threw themselves to their deaths on the porcelain sink.
He stormed back into the living room. His Mother and Zoe still watched him from across the room. His Mother nodded and smiled. Zoe’s eyes simmered up at him, condemning his uselessness and demanding more of him in the same breath.
He flew out of his body. He saw himself flip the coffee table over. He watched the books and coasters fly, watched his laptop bounce across the carpeting. He heaved a lamp against the wall, and the explosion of glass was as gratifying as an orgasm. He grabbed an end table and heaved it into the slider. The glass shattered magnificently out onto the balcony. He knocked the couch on its back. He smashed a dining room chair against the wall. He smashed it again and again. He smashed it until there was nothing left in his hands but two homeless legs.
He heaved one of the legs across the room, then passed into the dining room. He flipped the dinner table on its back and kicked two of its legs away. He grabbed one table leg like a bat, then flew back into the living room. There, he swung away, knocking pictures from the wall and throwing shelves and tearing down the curtains. He spun around and threw the table leg at the flat screen. The leg struck the glass with a satisfying crunch before flipping away into the debris as the TV crashed backward into the corner.
He reveled in the glory of his destruction, fighting to breathe, fighting harder not to laugh. Then he spied the pictures of Mother and Zoe.
He froze at that.
His Mother looked back at him in mortified silence, but both Zoes watched him from their sanctimonious little frames parked there side-by-side so sweetly. They were studying him. The bitches were talking about him! They were discussing him as if he were some kind of psychotic experiment gone awry.
He lunged for them. He stole them and his Mothers into the kitchen. He set the four of them side-by-side on the island bar. His Mothers were smiling warmly. The Zoes looked concerned. They should be.
“I’m exhausted!” he screamed at the dead wives, “Do you hear me? I’m tired of killing myself over you. I deserve better, isn’t that right, Ma! It wasn’t my fault, was it? I didn’t kill her. Zoe killed herself!”
His Mother seemed to agree. She turned her head and looked back into the living room beyond the kitchen. Henry followed her gaze, and as he did he saw his dungeon. The forbidden cell door was wide open. The ghosts were loose. And in that instant, he realized he would never be free, not so long as she had reign over his life.
He ran back into the bedroom. He grabbed the picture of Zoe sitting on his nightstand. There were two more in the spare bedroom next door. He dug through the bottom drawer of her old vanity and pulled out her personal collection, the five she’d paid some hack to take of her back when she was breathing. The last one was in his office. It was the one taken of them after the affair, but before the suicide, the one where they were posing bullshit happy for the camera like a pathetic little sitcom couple.
The frames landed in a disorderly heap on the bar counter in the kitchen beside his Mother and the other two Zoes. He couldn’t breathe. His exhilaration was nearly incapacitating. He heard his Mother whisper her satisfaction to him. He looked at her and smiled.
Then he picked up the living room pictures of Zoe. Her eyes were as sharp and accusing as they’d been in life. She was always correcting him, always trying to fix him, always trying to make him meet her unrealistic standards. We’ll get you a new stylist so you won’t look like a frat boy anymore, Henry. We’ll get you a new wardrobe so you’ll finally look like a professional, Henry. We’ll get your teeth straightened so I can present you to my friends, Henry!
He closed his eyes and dragged an arm across his mouth. He was shaking too hard. He felt sick to his stomach. It seemed like he was always sick to his stomach. A dozen Zoes sneered up at him from the pile on the counter. They all had the same look she wore in the dream, the same condescending, judgmental look that told him he wasn’t good enough, that he’d never be good enough, that he’d never be able to sing for her!
“Bury your dead, Henry,” his Mother said.
Henry startled at the voice. He looked over at her.
His Mother smiled sweetly from her frame. “Bury your dead, dear,” she whispered, “It’s time.”
Henry looked at the Zoes in each of his hands. He looked at her face, at her lips, at her dark eyes. “I loved you, Zoe,” he whispered.
“Bury your dead, Henry,” his Mother urged.
He suddenly felt unsure. “I… I can’t. I…”
“You don’t deserve this, Henry,” his Mother said, “You don’t deserve this prison. Bury your dead, dear.”
“I can’t!” he whispered, “I… I don’t know how! I can’t—”
“Henry!” his Mother shrieked, “Bury your fucking dead!”
“All right!” he screamed back, “All right! All right!”
He smashed Zoe’s pictures against the corner edge of the bar. The glass shattered, the frames twisted. He clawed her picture out of the remains. An ugly tear seared through her right eye and down her cheek. He threw the photos into the sink and tossed the frames to the floor.
He grabbed the next frame and smashed it against the counter. The splintering glass fell away like redemption. He dug the picture out and threw it in the sink, then dropped the broken frame to the ground. He took the next and did it again, and again. The glass was everywhere, sharp and jagged and covered in red. It shimmered like the eyes of angels.
He threw the last photo into the sink and heaved the broken frame against the far wall. The glass exploded in a shower of sparkles like the climax of a symphony.
Then he looked down at his Mother. “Yeah?” he yelled at her, “It’s good? Right, Ma? It’s all good!”
His Mother’s smile was breathtaking.
Henry threw open the pantry doors and seized the charcoal fluid and a box of kitchen matches from the top shelf. He sprayed the fluid over the bodies in the sink, then he backed away and carefully lit a match. He studied that glorious flame dancing at his bloody fingertips for just a moment, just long enough to sear it into his memory. Then he dropped it into the sink.
The eruption of the fire felt like a baptism. The heat felt like the devil’s breath on his face. He waved his hand back and forth through the flames. He could smell his blood smoking in the heat. He felt like he was walking on water, like he was dancing at a murder.
The smoke alarm went off. He grabbed the can of vegetarian baked beans and heaved it. The alarm exploded. Plastic littered the floor. The can hit the ground with the finality of a cell door closing.
And then silence filled the room.
Henry could only stand there, barely breathing, but fully alive. He trembled as he watched the faces twist and shrivel in the flames, as the black smoke boiled across the ceiling. He felt ecstatic.
The floor was carpeted in glass. The room was painted gloriously red. He felt like the villagers were finally at the castle with their torches and pitchforks, and at long last the monster was burning on the bridge.
He backed away as the flames slowly died. Glass crackled sickeningly under his shoes. His hands were starting to hurt. He lifted them, but couldn’t see any damage through the blood. He looked over at his Mother, but she was gone. She’d left him to his victory. There was only a photo remaining of her now. A very old photo of a dead woman posing a forced smile.
He stumbled out of the kitchen and through the debris field that had been the dining room. He grabbed his uniform from the fallen couch, then staggered back into the bedroom where he began systematically tearing the room apart.
HENRY OPENED HIS EYES.
At first, he wasn’t sure where he was. The door was closed, the blinds shut, the room clouded in half-hearted darkness. He looked over at the clock. The numbers 1:54 glowed on his bed stand. They sizzled in that familiar hellfire red that told him he must be back in his cell.
His mind felt as dull as a hammer. His hands hurt. He looked at the window above the bed. Sunlight burned a line along the bottom of the blinds. It was middle afternoon. He wondered what day it was. How long had been sleeping? He wondered why it mattered.
It took him a moment to make the decision to move. He pushed himself up to the bedside. The motion sent a sorry cry of pain through his hands.
The bedroom was in ruins. He’d been sleeping between two mangled dresser drawers. Still, he was pleasantly surprised to find he was wearing his uniform, though in the shadows it looked dirty, like it was covered in mud. He ran a hand across the seam in his S and tried to remember when he’d put it back on, but that memory was lost to the vapors. He wondered what Alice was doing right now. Probably soaking in a hot spring with her family and counting her lucky stars. Goddamn, Nancy, wasn’t that a close one?
After a bit, he found the strength to stand up. His feet found his slippers parked neatly at the bedside. He stumbled into the bathroom.
The mirror was a kaleidoscope of noses and rusty skin and eyes looking back at him from a hundred different stations in the ivory sink. He turned around to the door mirror. His hands and forearms were caked in dried blood. His uniform was blotted in it. His face was monstrous.
He felt his way down the hall. The condo looked like it’d been looted. The corpse of his couch lay on its back at the end of the corridor. He used the bottom of the couch to steady himself as he worked his way toward the crime scene. As he moved deeper into the apartment, the memories began materializing from the darkness like ghouls climbing up from their graves.
The living room was a portrait of carnage. The drapes over the slider fluttered slightly in the breeze admitted by the fractured pane. Jagged remnants of the slider littered the carpet. The dining room walls were gashed and mangled. A bit of a dining room chair still stuck out of one of the wounds. The crippled table was missing a leg. One chair had lost them all. He wondered how it was that no one called the law. The noise of his deconstruction must have been deafening.
He crept into the kitchen. Broken frames littered the floor. The picture of his Mother stood defiantly on the bar counter, the sole survivor of the carnage. Her expression was placid and indifferent in the way of the peacefully dead.
He walked up to the murder scene and flipped on the light switch over the sink. The room smelled like gas and moldering ash. The wall above the sink was fogged in soot. He looked down into the sink with the same trepidation he’d felt when he’d been forced to identify Zoe’s body. It wasn’t any less mortifying. Zoe’s remains were everywhere… an eye here, a bit of mouth there, pieces of shoulder or scarf, all seared and mutilated nearly beyond recognition.
The smell of funeral flowers filled the room.
Henry brought his hand to his mouth. The heat boiled up behind his eyes. He heard himself release a little gag. The counter was all that kept him from falling. He was going to vomit. God, he was going to throw up.
But the dark voice rose up to rescue him. The doubting voice. The one that insisted he might still be sane. How much time did you waste on Zoe? How many years have you been the walking dead because of her? How many years have you been a slave to her dysfunction?
Too many, goddamn you!
Too fucking many!
The thought gave him strength. He could see it now, see it as clearly as he saw her remains. He’d been a victim to her just as surely as she had been to him.
But now, for the first time in memory, now he really wanted to be free. Now he wanted to live again, and that revelation felt like a parole. The air gradually returned to the room, the nausea faded, the walls receded. He laughed and dragged the tears away from his eyes. It was all so funny. He couldn’t stop laughing. He was ready. He was finally, finally ready.
He retrieved his pants from the bedroom and rifled through the pockets as he picked his way through the battlefield and back to the kitchen. Even the pain of his lacerated hands didn’t slow him down. He pulled out a business card and laid it carefully on the counter in front of his Mother.
Sometimes talking just isn’t enough
He pulled out a second card and laid it directly beneath the first.
Reverend Joshua G. Grandhart
Sacred Weeping Heart of Jesus Ministries
Saving Souls Since 2003
The third card was more mangled than the first two. The edges were frayed and the letters faded like it’d gone through the wash. He didn’t recognize it. It read:
Jerry’s Service and Towing
He flipped Jerry’s card over. Handwritten on the back were Henry’s name and the make, model, and license plate number of his SUV. He couldn’t remember where he’d gotten it, but he had a fairly damned good idea. It had to have been in one of his pants pockets. Monica must’ve pulled it from his pocket as he slept. It had to be how she knew about his car.
He put the card down with the others, then he dug back into his pocket and found the one he wanted most. He placed it carefully beneath Jerry’s.
Ximena J. Pena, MSW.
New Mexico Human Services Department
He ran a finger over Mrs. Pena’s name. It left a red smear. He struggled to guide himself toward a decision. What would he say if he called her? Hell, what could she do if even he did manage to find the balls to make the call? Maybe this was a mistake. Maybe it was just…
He suddenly remembered her holding his hand. He remembered her words as clearly as if she’d only just said them to him: When you’re ready to kill the beast chasing you, you call me. I’ll help you find the support you need.
Kill the beast.
He picked up his cell phone and pressed the five. His finger stung with the effort. He pushed the zero with a different finger. The pain sizzled. Five. The pain was starting to feel good. Two. The pain grounded him. Four. Two…
He lifted the phone to his ear and waited. Much to his horror, her end of the line actually started ringing.
Four rings. Please don’t answer. Five. Maybe she wasn’t there. Six. Please, God, let it go to her voicem—
“This is Ximena Pena. How may I help you?”
Henry froze. Her voice sounded tinny and unreal, like it came from an old radio in another room.
“Hello?” she said again, “This is Mrs. Pena. May I help you?”
“I’m… uh…” His mouth went dry. His throat and eyes were on fire. Why was he doing this?
“Who is this, please?”
Her tone was daunting and intimidating. Henry steadied himself.
“This is… it’s, uh… it’s me, Mrs. Pena. It’s…”
Henry felt the floor open beneath him. He was seized with an all too familiar urge to run.
“Henry, is that you?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he heard himself say.
“Henry, where are you? Did you make it home?”
“Yes, ma’am. I… I did.”
“Oh my Lord, I’m so relieved to hear that.”
She sounded like she meant it.
“Thank you, ma’am. I didn’t mean to worry—”
“Henry, are you safe?”
“I’m… I’m sorry?” He felt confused. What could he say? Hell no, I’m a long fucking way from safe? I’m a half bottle of bourbon away from putting a bullet in my head? He couldn’t say it. He didn’t—
“You don’t sound well, Henry. I need to know that you’re safe.”
What was safe? He had no basis for such a concept. Then Alice’s smile beamed through his mind, and it gave him strength.
“Henry? Do I need to call nine-one-one?”
Henry dragged the tears back from his eyes. “No, ma’am,” he said, “I’m safe.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I’m sure. I think I’m… I’m good, actually.”
Mrs. Pena didn’t respond. He could hear her waiting.
He felt something like strength shove him forward. “I’ve… I’ve, uh… I’ve thought a lot about…”
“Yes, Henry,” she said calmly.
“About, uh… about our… our conversation the other night.”
“I’m glad to hear that, Henry. And what conclusions have you drawn?”
“Am I entertaining you, Henry?” she said.
He blotted his eyes with the back of his hand. “No, ma’am,” he whispered, “Never. You just make me feel good.”
He heard her smiling. “How can I help you, Henry?”
“I’m ready to go back, Mrs. Pena.”
“Back to my life. I think I’ve been down in this hole long enough.”
“That’s very good, Henry.”
“But… I’m not sure how to begin. I think I need to talk to someone… I guess.”
“I’ll get some numbers for you. Some referrals.”
“I was hoping it could be you, Mrs. Pena.”
“I’m not a therapist, Henry. I’ll contact some colleagues and get some names for you. Would you prefer public—”
“Wait! No! No, please. I trust you, Mrs. Pena. I’m not good with—”
“I’m not a therapist, Henry. If you do trust me, you’ll believe that I’m sending you down the proper road, okay?”
He thought about it. He did believe her. “Okay,” he said.
There was a pause. Then she said, “Henry? I’ll make you a compromise, all right?”
He fought the tears again. He couldn’t let them out. Not now. “Yes, ma’am,” he barely whispered.
“I’ll call you every week and see how you’re doing.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He was losing the battle. His eyes were on fire.
“We’ll talk every week, rain or shine. Once you set up therapy, we’ll pick a scheduled time, and I’ll call you.”
“And my phone is always open to you. You can call me anytime you want to. Do you understand? Anytime.”
He couldn’t fight his relief any longer. He began to sob. He’d never felt so relieved or so safe in his life. “Y-Yes, ma’am,” he forced through the tears, “Thank you. I… I can’t thank you enough for… for…”
“Good.” She went quiet for a bit. He heard her tapping into a computer. “Let’s see… I’ve got your phone number. What’s your address?”
He couldn’t speak through his crying.
“Take your time, Henry.”
His chest wracked with sobs. He couldn’t stop it, couldn’t get his breath.
“It’s okay, Henry. You just take as much time as you need.”
Eventually, the storm eased enough that he could draw a full breath. “I’m okay,” he whispered to her, “I… I’m okay.”
“Good. What’s your address, dear?”
He gave it to her.
“Email?” she said.
Again, he gave it to her.
“Excellent,” she said, “I’ll email you a few names and numbers.”
“Don’t waste energy worrying, Henry. We’ll get you straightened out.”
“I’m always here for you, Henry. I’m only a phone call away.”
“I mean it. You can trust me, Henry.”
“I know. I do.” He did.
HENRY LOOKED OVER AT THE SHELL OF THE ABANDONED OLD STUCCO GARAGE.
It was completely unchanged, still boasting the blown out windows, still wearing the words County Jail spray-painted comically above the door. Yet, it somehow seemed funnier this time around.
He turned his SUV into the gas station parking lot. The gravel crackled reassuringly beneath his tires as he crept toward the pumps. The restroom where he’d landed during his Epic Outing stared at him from the side of the station. It was barricaded behind a dull white windowless door with a half-circle shadow of smudges around the handle where a century of drunks had passed through. He turned his eyes away from it. He couldn’t linger there. It wasn’t a place he wanted to go back to.
He pulled toward the bar with the suspiciously country-western motif. A few cars squatted in the sun outside. He suspected they were the same ones he’d seen there on his first visit.
He parked his car. He took off his sunglasses and threw them onto the passenger seat. It was time to get out, time to finish what he’d been waiting months to do, time to finish paying his dues, to be freed so that he could finally move on with his life.
So why was he just sitting there?
Closure waited beyond that door leading into the bar. Maybe finishing this would mean cutting the rope. Maybe it’d mean starting that new book. Maybe he was just feeling nostalgic.
He drew a steadying breath and hooked the door latch. He put a foot out, paused to steady himself, then he climbed out into the oppressive New Mexican heat. He shaded his eyes and peered around. The world was as wide and open as his last visit, though it might’ve been just a bit rockier and just a little more desolate. But this time he found the subtle desert colors appealing, maybe even reassuring. It was actually pretty scenic in its own way.
He climbed the steps to the bar. His watch said nine forty-five. There was a black velvet rose taped to the window on the door of the bar that he didn’t remember from his last visit. Of course, considering he had metallic vision last time, he wasn’t surprised to have possibly missed a detail or two. He opened the door and went inside.
Much to his delight, his usual spot at the bar was open. He crossed slowly to the stool, paused for just a moment, then sat down and looked around. Same fossilized rings, same cigarette smoke fogging the room. The chains supporting the wagon wheel ceiling-lamp were every bit as dusty as he remembered them. The two ghouls still hovered around the old pool table in the back, still hunched over their pool sticks, still with dying cigarettes locked in their lips.
A woman moseyed toward him from the other side of the bar. She looked to be in her young fifties and wore straw cowboy hat over a ponytail that could only look good on her. She had a girlish frame and a wrangler’s walk. She rolled a welcoming cocktail napkin out before him.
“What do you need, cowboy?” she said.
She said cowboy like it was two words. He had a feeling she was insulting him. Her eyes were gray and biting, and clearly had no patience for bullshit. Still, she wasn’t unappealing. She had a face whose prettiness was growing tired, though it still held the shadows of its former glory.
“You awake there, cowboy?” she pressed, “You want a drink or you just looking?”
Henry smiled at her. “A drink?” he said, “It’s not even ten in the morning.”
She shrugged. “You’re the one on the barstool.”
“I’ve been called a lot of things in my life,” he said, smiling at her, “Cowboy has never been one of them.”
“That right?” She said it like she didn’t actually care.
He nodded toward the bar. “Got any coffee?”
“After a fashion, I expect.”
“Can I get it to go?”
“You can have it in a champagne flute for all I care.”
“You don’t dance around a point much, do you?” He liked her.
“Don’t see the sense in it. You want fake milk and sugar in that?”
“No. Black. Please.”
She shrugged her brow. “It’s your stomach.”
He watched her head toward the back. There was no sign of Clarence, but he noticed there was a framed picture of him sitting up over the cash register. He looked younger in the photo, maybe because his eyes were still swimming above crease level. It didn’t look like he was on the job today. He probably wasn’t in the back, either. Three patrons hardly justified two bartenders.
The woman returned and set a squat styrofoam cup of coffee down in front of him. “We’re out of lids, so show some caution.”
“Can I get you anything else?” she said.
Henry shook his head. “Not that I can think.”
“Good, ’cause we don’t really have anything else.”
He laughed at that. As she started to turn away, he said, “Wait, there is one thing.”
She looked back at him without any promise that she might actually turn around. “What’s that?”
“I’m looking for Clarence.”
She gave him a queer look. “Clarence? What do you want with Clarence?”
That irritated him a bit. “I want to talk to him.”
“What about?” She faced him now.
He studied her studying him. It was a weird moment. He wasn’t sure how to approach the impasse. He settled for, “I’m not sure how that’s any of your business. No offense intended.”
Her eyes bored into him a moment longer than was comfortable. Then she shrugged and turned away. “None taken. He’s not here.”
“Look, I need to talk to him. I mean… I really need to talk to him. It’s important. I owe him something. Please.”
She came back to him. “What do you owe him?”
He thought about it a moment. It was none of her damned business, but he had the sour feeling he wouldn’t get another chance if he pointed that out. Seeing Clarence was more important than his pride.
“I owe him an apology,” he said with some difficulty.
“An apology?” She leaned forward on her elbows just as Clarence had done. She grinned at him like she secretly knew he was a nut job and was just stalling him along for the entertainment. “An apology for what?”
Henry drew a breath and steadied his anger. “Please,” he said carefully, “I don’t know you, and I sincerely do not want to insult you. So if you could just tell me how to reach Clarence so I can give him what I owe him, or just tell me when he’s working again, I’d appreciate it more than I can say.”
“When was the last time you saw Clarence?”
He had a bad feeling about the way she asked it. “I’m not sure,” he said, “Something like three and a half months ago. Maybe four. Hell, maybe six, it doesn’t really matter.”
She continued to study him. He could practically feel the heat of her gaze. “What’d you say you had to apologize for?”
What was it with her? Was she, the county interrogator or what? He took a sip of the coffee. It tasted like hot crankcase oil. He practically sprayed it across the bar. “Phew, you weren’t kidding about the coffee.”
She actually grinned at that. “Yeah, it’s a specialty. Gotta let it cook a few days to get that kind of flavor.”
“Can I get a glass of water? Please?”
She laughed as she obliged him. “Here you go, cowboy.”
He drew a deep draught off the water. It didn’t help much. “Where do you grow that stuff, anyway?” he asked her as he waited for the foul taste to subside, “I think I just lost a couple years off my life.”
She again leaned forward onto the bar, only this time she grinned at him. “Son, California is one hell of a long way from here. For the life of me, I can’t imagine how you ever came to owe Clarence something like an apology. Not with that kind of distance.”
“How did you know I’m…” He stopped. Clarence had identified the same thing in him. He laughed.
“Wasn’t that funny, cowboy.”
“It is to me. Clarence told me the same thing. About California, I mean. He spotted it the moment I opened my mouth.”
“Knowing Uncle Clarence, he probably spotted it before you even opened the door.”
Uncle? He suddenly understood. She wasn’t trying to be difficult. She was trying to protect Clarence.
“Listen,” he said, “Clarence helped me out a ways back. He made me see something about myself that… well, it doesn’t much matter. I just want to apologize, that’s all. And thank him.”
She flashed a real smile at that. Her eyes looked wet. “Yep, I’d say that sure sounds like Uncle Clarence.”
Henry just nodded. And waited. He wasn’t sure what else to do.
Eventually, she stood up straight, though her fingers loitered at the back edge of the bar. “I’m sorry to tell you this,” she said straight at him, “Uncle Clarence is dead.”
Henry felt the ground move. “He… he died?” The words sounded unreal, like maybe he hadn’t heard them right. “He’s dead?” he said again.
She swiped her eyes. “Yeah, couple days ago.”
He felt a rush of grief as intense as if he’d known the man all his life. “No,” he whispered, “No, I can’t believe it.”
She was crying now. Henry handed her his cocktail napkin. She accepted it with a little nod. “He’d been sick,” she said as she wiped her nose, “It’d been coming on a while. Wasn’t any kind of surprise.”
“I’m really sorry.” His own eyes ran hot. The tears came on so fast it startled him.
“Everyone around these parts loved that man,” she said, “The old guy was damned near a hundred. Lived here in Defiance his whole life.”
“I’m two days too late,” he whispered. He thought about what Beth had said back at the campground: You can’t refill a clock. This was a sorry lesson learned.
“Don’t beat yourself up on it,” she said, “Clarence surely knew what he was doing when he did it. He wouldn’t expect an apology. Or a thank you. Then again, I know what you mean. You want to apologize, and it doesn’t feel right not to get to it. But the thought’s what matters most, I expect.”
“No. It isn’t,” he said too sharply, “No offense, but the thought doesn’t mean shit. Not in this case. In this case, it’s the deed that matters. I have to tell him. I need to rectify some of the damage I’ve left behind me.”
She looked at him for a long moment. He could see some kind of debate going on behind those gray eyes.
“You got a tie?” she said suddenly.
“You got a tie in that SUV out there? Maybe a clean jacket?”
He looked out through the grimy window at the hazy image of his car. Then he looked back at her. “Yeah, I’ve got a suit, actually.” A sorry habit left over from his days as a professional.
She turned back to the register. A moment later, she returned with another napkin and a black Sharpie. As she wrote, she said, “Cole’s Funeral Home. It’s just down the road a piece in Gallup. They aren’t burying him until tomorrow.” She pushed the napkin toward him. “Anyone questions why you’re there, you tell them Little Cloris sent you. Got that? Little Cloris. That’s me.”
He picked up the napkin. Little Cloris. That had to be an interesting story. He looked up at her. “Thank you, Little Cloris.”
She scowled at that. “You realize ‘Little’ isn’t actually part of my name, right?”
Henry felt himself blush. “Sorry,” he said, laughing nervously, “It just came out on—”
Henry nodded. “Thank you. I can’t tell you how much this means to me.”
“You seem like a guy who has to see this through,” she said, “Guess I can understand that kind of need.”
He smiled back. He knew exactly what was coming next.
“Got me a sense about folks,” she said, smiling, “You seem like a guy that’s got some demons to kill. I expect Uncle Clarence probably saw the same thing.”
Henry dug for his wallet. “You have no idea, Cloris.” He sifted through his bills.
Cloris put a hand on his. “It’s on the house,” she said smiling at him, “Besides, if you pay for it you’ll probably just end up suing me for poisoning you. Can’t sue for a gift.”
She nodded her cowboy hat toward the rear of the bar. “Get your gear,” she said, “Got a bathroom in the back. You can freshen up a bit and change clothes there if you like.”
He remembered Clarence telling him something similar. The memory brought hope.
HENRY THOUGHT CLARENCE LOOKED PRETTY GOOD.
He wasn’t quite so Stan Laurel with his hair combed and wearing a suit and tie. Of course, he expected that being dead softened the effect a bit, as well.
He stood over the coffin and wondered how to begin. He wondered if there was even any point in starting. What good would it do now, anyway? The man was dead. He doubted he could hear anything.
But he immediately recognized his reflexive dodge-and-evade defenses. Old habits are hard to break. The fact was he’d come here with a purpose, and for once in his pathetic life he was going to see it through. He owed the man. And he owed himself.
“Hey, Clarence,” he whispered to the corpse, “How’s it going?”
He winced at that. How’s it going? Seriously? The man’s dead, fool!
He regrouped and began again. “Look,” he whispered, “This isn’t easy for me, being an asshole at heart and all, but I’m going to give it my best. You were a good man. I wasn’t. I’m probably still not, but… I’m working on it. You were better to me than I deserved, and I’m… well, I’m here to thank you.”
“How did you know Dr. Carson?”
Henry nearly jumped out of his suit.
A tuft of white hair stood beside him. It was an old woman wearing a brilliant white dress covered in the happiest green and yellow flowers he’d ever seen. Her lipstick was as red as a fire truck and spread just a fashionable smidge further than the line of her lips, though it’d be hard to tell through all those wrinkles. Bright as she was, she looked as out of place in a funeral home as a sunflower in a bog.
She smiled patiently at him. She was clearly waiting.
“I’m… I’m sorry?” Henry asked softly.
“I asked how you knew Dr. Carson, dear.”
“I don’t understand. Dr. Carson?” He wondered if she meant her doctor. Maybe she’d wandered away from a nearby nursing home. He glanced around for the orderlies.
“Yes,” she said, “Dr. Carson. Did you know him? Or are you one of those odd fellows who take peculiar delight in visiting funerals of folks they’ve never met? I recall seeing an old movie along that line.”
She had a sweet smile that swam through her wrinkles with the determination of a swan in a mud hole. Her eyes were green and looked like some of their luster may have faded over time, but they still held every ounce of their intensity. He was perfectly disarmed by her.
She placed her tiny hand against his chest like she was checking for a heartbeat. “Son,” she said most politely, “Are you all right?”
He realized she was thinking the same thing about him that he was of her. That he was nuts. He resisted the urge to laugh.
“Clarence,” he said, “You’re asking how I knew Clarence.”
“Of course. Did you think I meant the gardener?”
He laughed too loud at that, then quickly glanced around to see if anyone noticed. “No,” he said, looking back at her, “No, of course not. I just thought… I mean I didn’t know Clarence’s last name. And I especially didn’t realize he was a doctor.”
“No. It never would’ve occurred to me.” He winced at that. It came off crudely, though he meant nothing like that. “I only meant I didn’t know Clarence very well. We only met one time.”
She seemed to understand. “Of course. You didn’t know he was a doctor. Clarence would’ve been mortified if anyone who’d only just met him suspected him to be someone from so low a class of profession.”
“Well, he worked in a bar. It’s not exactly a giveaway.”
“He owned the bar. He worked there because he loved it.”
Henry felt another moment’s embarrassment. “I have no doubt,” he said, “He was an excellent bartender.”
“You should probably sit with me a moment, dear,” she said as she took his elbow.
She guided him to an empty row of seats that were cordoned off for family. There weren’t many seats left; the place was packed with black dresses, dark suits, and grim expressions.
“So… he hadn’t practiced in some time, I’m guessing,” he said as they sat. She still had a hold on his arm, though her hands had slipped down to his forearm.
“Practiced?” She clucked at that. “My dear, he wasn’t a doctor of medicine.”
“No, dear. He was a doctor of philosophy?”
“He wasn’t a bartender?” he said.
“Well, he was that, too. The professions do seem like sister vocations, wouldn’t you say?”
“There’s not much call for philosophers in the job market these days. Not outside universities. Truth is, in these modern times, I don’t think there’s much call for them at all.”
“Meaning no offense, ma’am,” Henry said, “But Clarence didn’t exactly sound like a doctor, philosophy or otherwise.”
She laughed at that, but quickly threw her hanky to her mouth and looked back over her shoulder. When it seemed the coast was clear, she leaned into Henry. “I must endeavor to act more reserved,” she whispered, “I’ve only today learned that it’s apparently against the rules to laugh at a funeral.”
“I’ve heard that,” he whispered back, “Then again, rules are just guidelines, right? Handy suggestions?”
She laughed again, and again she smothered her mouth with her hanky as she nodded enthusiastically.
“Clarence definitely had that whole Country Scholar thing going down, though,” Henry said, “I should’ve figured it out.”
“Clarence had a curious habit with strangers,” she whispered, “If he desired to put them off guard, he’d take care to, well… dumb down his speech, so to speak.” She winked at him.
Henry couldn’t believe how wrong he’d been about the man. He realized in that moment just how biased and closed-minded he’d become. He’d made stupid assumptions that had severely disserviced this man. He’d injured him even more deeply than he’d thought. He’d never felt so much the fool before, and feeling the fool was something he had vast experience with.
“Are you all right, dear?”
“My name’s Henry,” he said taking her hand, “Henry Smith. I met Clarence at the bar.”
“It’s a pleasure, Henry. I’m Cloris Carson. My family calls me Big Cloris, but you can just call me Clo.”
Henry realized he’d just been let in on a little Carson family secret. “Big Cloris,” he repeated, “That’s funny.”
“I know,” she said, “It’s ironic. I’m a heaping five feet plus one in heels.”
“I met Little Cloris at the bar before coming here. I was there looking for Clarence. I’m guessing you’re Mrs. Clarence.”
She smiled. Her tiny eyes misted, but she proficiently repressed the tears. She looked like she’d had a lot of experience with grief. “Yes, Henry. Clarence and I were married for seventy-four years.”
“Holy sh… I mean, that’s incredible.”
“Well, that’s exactly right, isn’t it?” She took his hands and leaned into him. “I can’t tell you how tired I’m of all the grief and lilies and somber faces. Everyone keeps wetting my dress with their unrequested tears and telling me how sorry they are. For the love of God, we shared seventy-four years together. Seventy-four years, Henry! How many people leave their lives with so much happiness to boast of?”
“Not many, I’m pretty sure.”
“Not many, indeed. This should be a time of celebration and fond memories.” She glanced about and then leaned closer. “Which is precisely why I refused to wear black,” she whispered, “Much to the chagrin of most of my family. Then again, most of them think I’m a coin shy of a purse anyway, so who cares?”
Henry slipped his arm around her. “You stay strong to your principles,” he whispered back, “You outrank everyone here. Hell, most of these people haven’t lived long enough to call what they have a ‘life’ to begin with.”
“Thank you, Henry. You’ve validated my beliefs.”
“Well, I know something about life.”
He looked over at Clarence. Was he smiling?
“And regrets,” he added, looking down at her, “Mostly with regrets, I guess.”
“I can see that,” she whispered back, “You seem like a man who’s just climbed up out of the trenches.”
“You have no idea.”
“Clarence offered me a hand when I needed it,” he said carefully, “Not that I deserved it. Or even understood it at the time. But that doesn’t matter.”
“I know, dear. Clarence mentioned you to me.”
He looked down at her smiling up at him. “I’m sorry?”
“Clarence mentioned you, dear. It was several months ago. He told me about a troubled young man he’d met who was just at the cusp of a life-altering journey.”
“A life-altering journey,” Henry repeated.
“He told me the boy’s name was Henry, and that this boy was from California, though he didn’t hold it against him. He said the boy had only just started down a road, and that taking said road would ultimately lead to either his freedom or his death. He considered it a glorious journey.”
Henry stared at her. He felt shocked, dumbfounded. He wondered for just an instant if he was even awake. Either she was making this all up, or Clarence had been a seer in life.
“You look surprised, dear.”
He searched for something to say that could do justice to his shock. It was overwhelming in its profundity. “I… I seriously don’t know how to respond to that. I mean, he knew me for like thirty minutes, then he practically writes my biography? Phew, that’s a hard one to get my head around.”
“He was a deeply insightful man,” she said. Then she leaned closer and whispered, “And he was rooting for your salvation, if that helps.”
Henry didn’t think there was any response that would possibly do that statement justice.
“Don’t look so troubled, Henry,” Cloris said as she patted his hand, “Clarence had a sense about people. He figured you’d be coming back. Assuming you survived, that is. He said your odyssey was going to be similar to the peyote journeys he’d made with his Apache friends in the early seventies.”
Henry nearly gasped. “Peyote?”
She again patted his hand. “Don’t judge, dear. The point is that he was certain you’d experience your own visions, that you’d face your ghosts and come to certain terms with them, for better or for worse.”
“I treated him poorly,” Henry whispered, “I ridiculed him. I provoked him. I served him the precise opposite of the respect he showed me. And in spite of that, he still tried to help me.”
He looked at her, and then he understood. “You’re right,” he said, “He did help me. I wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t. He and a couple others I met on that weekend. Each one of them gave me a piece of themselves to take away with me, like bricks to add to my defenses.”
“And you’re here to apologize to him.”
“Land sakes, child,” she said on a tiny laugh, “You needn’t worry yourself further about that. He never expected an apology, and he surely didn’t want thanks. It was simply Clarence’s way. He felt we were all in this mess together, and because of that we were obliged to help one another out of it when such opportunities presented.
Henry thought about that. It felt like Clarence was sitting right here with them, like Cloris was channeling him and offering forgiveness by proxy.
“Feeling better, dear?” Cloris said, smiling those ruby red lips up at him. She still had a firm clasp on his hands.
“Yes, ma’am. I do. Thank you.”
“Then best you’d get going. You have folks waiting on you, after all. And a funeral home is no place for a man in search of a woman.”
His eyes boiled up at that. He looked at her. “What? How did—”
She pulled him to his feet. “Go finish your journey, Henry. You’re carrying a little bit of Clarence with you now. Take some comfort in that.”
He could only look at her, at this waif of a woman. He felt a hundred pounds lighter than when he’d walked in. Despite the odds against it, maybe this was all working out. Maybe he was finally flowing with the natural current of his life. He was sure as hell tired of swimming against it.
“Thank you, Cloris,” he said, wiping a hand over his eyes, “And you keep wearing your colors. I’m sure it’s what Clarence would’ve wanted. And after seventy-four years, who else do you need to please?”
“You know I will, dear.”
She hugged him with more force and determination than a woman a quarter her age or twice her size. And he was truly sorry when she finally let him go.
HENRY WONDERED IF HE’D STILL RECOGNIZE MRS. PENA.
He looked around the restaurant. It was milling with professional women. Many were of the same age, complexion, and hair color as her. He had a solid image of her in his mind, but what if it’d been distorted by time and distance? His confidence had taken its leave.
The waiter refilled his water glass. “Can I get you something else to drink, sir?” he said, “An appetizer, perhaps?”
“That’s the third time you’ve asked me,” Henry said, scowling up at him, “What have I done to make you think I’ve changed my mind in the last seven minutes? Did I send you some signal that I’m not aware of? Give you a look? A secret sign, maybe?”
“No, sir,” the waiter as said matter-of-factly as if Henry had asked him the time, “I’m simply trying to keep up to date with your needs.”
“Forget it. I’m just… I’m fine.” Henry looked down at his wrestling hands.
“How about if I wait for you to flag me when you’re ready?” the waiter said, “Or until your date shows up.” He said it like he didn’t have much faith she would.
Henry watched him walk away. He was suddenly and convincingly ashamed of himself. He’d treated the man like he was a piece of shit stuck to the bottom of his shoe. Why had he felt the need to punish him? Idiot! Have you learned nothing in these last months? You’re truly an asshole, and you deserve whatever misfortune finds you.
Mrs. Pena spared him further self-abuse.
She walked in through the front door of the café as confidently as if she owned the place. He was a little disappointed in the lack of fanfare announcing her arrival.
She scoured the room with her targeting system. It only took her seconds to lock in on him. He wasn’t surprised by the chill he felt when she caught his eye. Even after their endless talks, even though he now considered her a true friend, she was still the alpha dog, still inspired a little shock and awe in him.
She looked exactly as she had the last time he’d seen her. Same hair, same white purse, same laser eyes. The only difference was her pantsuit. This one was black. He wondered if that bode well or ill. He stood as she approached. She quickened her pace, and as she came up to him her face threw off its shackles and broke into a full-bore smile.
“Henry,” she said as she hugged him, “How nice to see you again.”
The relief he felt was indescribable. He squeezed her back. “The feeling’s mutual, Mrs. Pena. You look great.”
She didn’t linger in the hug, but quickly pulled away and gave him an efficient once over. “Henry, you clean up nicely. You’re a very handsome man without the battle scars.”
“Okay, now you’re just embarrassing me,” he said, glancing at the surrounding tables.
“Well, I suppose it’s possible you’re only handsome by comparison. Last time I saw you, you didn’t exactly cut a stunning figure, and your face was as purple as a circus clown.”
“Yes, I remember that pretty clearly.”
“You’re a little overdressed for the occasion, though. Don’t you think?”
He smoothed his tie. “Well, I just came from a funeral.”
“A funeral?” Her lasers instantly bored into him.
“Yes, back in Gallup.”
He nodded. “Yes. Strange, isn’t it?”
She smiled curiously. “You’re from Riverside. Odd you’d have a friend in Gallup.”
“Defiance, actually,” he said carefully, “But you’re right. It is an odd thing. I didn’t go there for the funeral specifically. It was just an unfortunate coincidence.”
“Who was it?”
“His name was Clarence Carson. He was someone I met the same day I met you.”
Her smile widened. “I see. Another person of interest, no?”
He laughed. “Extreme interest, yes.”
“I understand, Henry. You needn’t tell me anymore.”
He was certain she did understand.
“Shall we sit?” she said.
He scooted around the table and pulled the chair out for her. When she was seated, he returned to his own.
“You’re a handsome man, Henry,” she said again.
“Why, Mrs. Pena,” he said, grinning, “I didn’t realize you were such a flirt.”
Her smile evaporated. “I’m old enough to be your big sister.”
He laughed. She didn’t. Same old Ximena J. Pena.
She waited patiently as the waiter filled her water glass. “The last time I saw you,” she said to Henry, “You were sporting a respectable shiner.”
“So you’ve said. It got better.”
“I’m pleased to see that.”
The waiter turned to Henry. “Now, sir?”
Henry looked up at him. His badge said Raul. “Raul… look, I’m sorry about earlier.”
“I was short. No, I was just plain rude. I apologize.” He meant it.
“There is no need, sir.”
“There’s definitely a need. I’m not really myself today. I’m a little anxious, and I’ve never been a nice guy when I’m anxious. You did nothing wrong. My dark side was driving.”
The waiter grinned as he handed them their menus. “I know, sir.”
Henry just looked at him. Mrs. Pena laughed.
“Not to worry, sir,” Raul said as he pulled out his pad and clicked his pen into action, “Comes with the territory. It doesn’t mean a thing. People usually have more on their minds than lunch. In my business, you get over it or you go broke.”
“I wish I could learn to walk that road,” Henry said.
“We all do,” Mrs. Pena said.
They placed their orders. The waiter smiled and nodded, then collected their menus. Henry watched him walking away.
“You’re doing so well, Henry. I’m really proud of you.”
He felt himself blush. “Not so good,” he said, looking at the departing waiter again, “I still snap for no good reason. Someday I’ll learn to think before I speak.”
“We’ve talked so much over the phone I feel like we’ve known each other for years.”
“Once again, the feeling’s mutual. I owe you more than I can ever repay, Mrs. Pena. There’s no way I can ever make us even.”
She patted his hand. “Let’s start with you calling me Ximena. Okay?”
“Sure. Thanks. Ximena. It’s a great name.”
“Your therapist tells me you’ve made more ground in four months and nine days than most people do in a year.”
She knew the time down to the day. Why did that surprise him?
“I was motivated.” He drew his finger around the rim of his glass as he thought about it. “That day I called you? I was in a pretty bad place.”
She leaned forward and squeezed his hand. “I know you were, Henry.”
“If it hadn’t been for our meeting that weekend, I think I may have…”
“I don’t think so. You’re not the easy-out kind, Henry. You prefer to run uphill. You would’ve killed yourself eventually without intervention, but you’d have done it indirectly. If I had to guess, I’d go with an automobile accident. Or maybe irritating someone into beating you to death.”
“Uh, yeah,” Henry said with a laugh, “Thanks for the visual. Here’s an idea, let’s not try to guess how Henry might’ve gotten himself offed.”
“You’re right. Bad luck, that.”
“There’s something I’ve wanted to ask you, Henry. Something I just never felt right doing on the phone. I would like to ask you now.”
“There’s nothing you can’t ask me,” he said, “I’ve never felt safer with anyone in my life.”
“You remember that night at the rest area?”
“I could forget that?”
“Do you remember me advising you to talk to your Mother?”
He nodded. “I do. Clearly.”
She waited. Her lasers were locked on him.
“You want to know if I did,” he said carefully.
She continued waiting.
“The night before I called you, I…” He thought about it. He what? What was it? What could he say that wouldn’t affirm his lunacy? He settled on, “I had an experience.”
“An experience,” she repeated.
“Well, my therapist has a name for it that I can’t recall at this moment. But in my world? I pretty sure most people would call it a psychotic episode.” He let slip a laugh that didn’t even convince him.
“A psychotic episode.” She took a sip from her water. “Well, you’re not one to understate things, are you?”
The waiter brought their salads. Mrs. Pena smiled at Henry, then immediately began to eat.
“Shall I continue?” he said.
She dug into her salad with surprising zeal. For such a little bird, she seemed to take her eating seriously. Henry found it oddly endearing. In contrast, he had no appetite at all. He took a ceremonial bite, but had a secret plan to abandon it after that.
“Well,” he said after a bit, “You can imagine I was in pretty sorry shape that morning. I’d been up for more than a day, and you know the condition I was in the day before that. I was more than a little tired.”
“I would suppose you were.”
“I made up for it, though, I guess. I slept for over twenty-four hours after my little breakdown.”
“What happened that morning you got back, Henry?”
“I did as you said. I talked to my Mother. A picture of her, anyway. Or… I guess I should say she, uh… she talked to me.”
“My, that sounds like an interesting twist.”
Henry thought about that night. He remembered her picture. He remembered her eyes, her smile, her voice as she directed him to bury his dead. He knew it was some kind of weird hallucination, but at the time, it’d sure as hell seemed real.
Her voice startled him. “Sorry,” he said, “I drifted.”
“It’s harder than I expected,” he said carefully, “It doesn’t translate into a story very easily.”
“I understand. You may take your time.”
“You say that like you’re my teacher.”
She smiled at that. “I am, Henry.”
“Thanks. I think you’re one of only two people in the world I could ever tell this story to. Besides my therapist, of course. I know you won’t think I’m a complete nut job.”
“Well, let’s not get too cocky.”
He laughed most sincerely at that. And then he told her everything.
HENRY ACCEPTED THE COFFEE HE DIDN’T WANT, THEN STEPPED OUTSIDE.
He found a seat at one of the curbside tables and got into position. Perry Street was a wide and mostly lazy street lined with young but hopeful trees. An adequate line of landscaping foliage arose up before the curb beside him, providing him a buffer from the street proper. It allowed him to safely and discretely observe the shop sitting exactly across the street from him at the end of a perfectly manicured cobblestone crosswalk.
The clock on the faux antique street lamp said it was nine thirty-seven. Her shop’s sign clearly stated it opened at ten. He didn’t have long to wait.
He slipped off his sunglasses and rubbed his eyes. The sun felt like a stranger up here at altitude. It seemed more silvery than yellow, like looking at a huge star. Then again, pretty much everything seemed different up here. He got short of breath just looking at stairs, and the air was so dry, downing a gallon of water a day still left him chronically thirsty.
He unfolded his newspaper, spread it across the table, and made no attempt to read it. It was all he could manage just to look at the pictures. Even the headlines seemed elusive. His mind was a storm of worries and hopes. How could anyone concentrate with so much at stake? The best he could offer the paper was to pretend to read it, which wasn’t as easy in practice as it sounded in theory.
He slipped his sunglasses back on and looked up at the street clock again. Nine thirty-nine. Grief, it was going to be a long day. To make it worse, he was probably wasting his time anyway. Why didn’t he just march over to that store, pound confidently on the door, seize her before she could recover from her astonished silence, and kiss her like he’d never let her go?
The same old answer crackled through his mind like a skipping record: Because you have no right to.
He probably didn’t even have the right to talk to her, or to be on her street, or even in her city. Hell, he probably didn’t have the right to be in her bloody state! He’d left her behind (or rather, she’d left him behind at his insistence) without so much as a promise to write. He hadn’t even gotten her last name! He’d treated her harshly, and he had no right whatsoever to expect or even ask for forgiveness. Not after four months and change. Not after all he’d dumped on her.
He only had one card in his hand, and it sure as hell wasn’t much: He had hope. Hope, a freshly dry-cleaned sports coat, and a nice tie. Maybe he could make a good second first-impression. Maybe it wasn’t too late after all. Maybe she wasn’t already with someone else. Maybe she didn’t loathe him and his self-centered cowardice. Maybe she’d grown another head.
He dropped his face to the paper and groaned.
“Excuse me, but you’re in my spot.”
Henry sat up so quickly, his neck wrenched. A man stood across the table from him. He wore a green, long sleeved turtleneck shirt on a seventy-eight degree morning. He had a cup of coffee and fork in one hand, a muffin on a plate in the other, a paper under his arm, and a ponytail on his back. And he was glaring down at him like Henry had just crapped in his yard.
“You’re in my spot,” the man said again.
“You’re in my spot.”
Henry looked around at the tables and patrons scattered down the sidewalk behind him. Then he looked back up at the man. “Your spot? What do you mean, your spot?”
The man studied him a moment. He looked like he was trying to figure out if Henry was stupid or just annoying. “This is my spot,” he said again, “This corner. This table. You’re in my spot.”
“Are you serious?”
“Do I look like I’m joking?”
The man the softest voice he’d ever heard, and a hawkish face that was lined with all the worries of a probable lifetime of OCD. His long, graying hair was tied back too tightly, like an aging rocker who refuses to give up his habits, because, after all, they’re habits.
“Let me get this straight,” Henry said because he couldn’t not say it, “When you say this is your spot, do you mean the chair, the table or the corner?”
Henry leaned back in his chair. He dragged his hair back across his head and looked at the guy. “Wow,” he said, finally, “This is a conundrum, isn’t it?”
“I don’t see how so.”
“Well, I mean, this is a public place. I don’t see any signs designating this as the long-haired hippy guy’s seat. So, pardon my ignorance, but how can this be your spot?”
The man’s eyes clouded in confusion. It didn’t last. “It’s always been my spot,” he said like it was too obvious to elaborate on.
Henry watched the man watching him. The guy actually looked quite concerned about the standoff. Then, just as he was about to sling another obstacle into the guy’s path, he felt his resistance abruptly melt.
What the hell was he doing? The guy might be nuts or he might just be focused. Either way, what was there to gain by baiting him? After all he’d experienced over the last months, shouldn’t charity be his first line of attack? If this was the guy’s usual table, who the hell was he to stand in his way?
Henry slipped his chair back and looked at the man, and he smiled as sincerely as he could manage. “I apologize,” he said, “Rude comes as naturally to me as stink on a skunk.” He gestured to the chair across the table. “You’re welcome to sit here with me, if you like. There’s plenty of room.”
“I don’t believe you understand. That is my spot. You’re in my spot.”
Henry followed the pointing finger back to himself. And then he got it. “Oh, the chair. You mean this particular chair is your spot.”
The man nodded. “Yes.”
Henry stood up. “No worries, my friend. I’ll concede to your squatter’s rights. But I’m sitting right there.” He pointed at the opposing chair.
The man looked at the chair. Then he looked at Henry. He didn’t appear happy about the offer.
“It’s not negotiable,” Henry pressed, “There aren’t any other seats, and I really need to sit here. I mean, I really, really need to sit here. Right here.”
To his surprise, the man finally nodded and said, “Very well. I expect that will have to be fine. I mean to say I understand.”
With that, Henry took his coffee and his paper and moved to the opposite seat.
The street clock said nine fifty-nine. He peered through the foliage at the shop across Perry Street. The sign in the window still insisted it was closed.
He returned to the man sitting across from him. The guy had his coffee, his muffin on a plate, and his napkin and fork all neatly arranged in a perfect square in front of him. It looked quite specific in its layout. Henry suddenly felt like his own issues weren’t so bad after all.
Then again, he was skulking behind a shrubbery, staking out a clothing store in a strange city a thousand miles from home. And all because he was too cowardly to face the woman he thought he probably loved, because she might end up sending him on his merry way.
No, he decided, he had absolutely nothing over the ponytailed guy.
Well, no time like the present to make amends. He held his hand out toward the man. “My name’s Henry.”
The guy froze in mid-sip. He looked at Henry’s hand. After a moment, he put the cup down. “Hi, I’m Dave.” He wiggled his fingers toward the proffered hand, but made no attempt to take it.
“It’s good to meet you, Dave.”
“Mm hm.” Dave quickly retreated to his square.
This was perfect. It was the perfect company on the perfect day for his execution. It was exactly as he deserved.
“That muffin looks good,” he said to Dave.
Dave froze at mid-bite. His eyes were locked on Henry. He looked like he was trying to think of something to say to that.
Henry leaned back in his chair and sighed. What the hell was he doing? He deserved mercy the way a miser deserves a handout. “Good grief,” he said as he rubbed his eyes in the meat of his palm, “We really are all Bozos on this bus, don’t you think?”
To his shock, Dave broke into a smile at that. “Firesign Theater,” he said quickly, “Columbia Records. Nineteen seventy-one.”
Henry didn’t know what to say. No one in this day and age knew what Firesign Theater was. No one! He was about to profess his awe when he saw Alice.
An ice bomb exploded in his stomach.
He saw her through the shrubs dressing the curb. She strolled down the block on the other side of the street, sashaying along the sidewalk like she was walking on water. She walked the same way she swam, effortlessly and with grace to spare. She wore a bright white sundress that, just like everything else she wore, wasn’t nearly worthy of its station.
She glanced casually in his direction. He practically fell out of his chair. He hunched forward over his knees. He peeked back up in time to see her stop at the front door of the White Queen’s Habits directly across the street from him. She unlocked the door, but then paused. She slowly turned around and surveyed the street. Her eyes swept past Henry, then back again.
Finally, she went inside. He watched the Closed sign sweep around to Open. No trumpets blew, no angels sang.
Henry slipped back into his seat and dropped his head onto the table. He couldn’t breathe. He felt dizzy and frail, like he’d been given the first injection of a lethal cocktail and only had to hold on for the promised effect. He just couldn’t do this. He couldn’t bear the possibility that she might reject him. No, make that castigate him severely, shame him to the depth of his pride, and then reject him. But he also couldn’t leave. He had to see her. He had to!
What the hell was he going to do? He felt about as shackled as he’d ever felt in his life. He had no options. He was deadman walking. It was all going to end badly, so very badly, a cheesy TV drama with Henry bowing in shame at the end.
“Are you all right, Henry?”
The words startled him. He raked his hair back and threw a quick look around his surroundings. Nothing had changed, but nothing seemed the same. He felt like he was in a vacuum, like he was drifting through space with only the frayed end of his severed tether in his hand.
Dave leaned a notch closer. “You don’t look well. Are you all right?”
“Sure,” Henry said, “Of course, yeah. I’m absolutely all right.” He’d never been less all right.
“Do you know our Alice?”
The words landed like a slap. “What?”
Dave looked over at the White Queen, then back at Henry. “I said do you know Alice?”
“Alice?” Henry stammered, “Who? No. Sort of. I mean… yeah. In a way.”
“You’re not a very decisive person, are you, Henry?”
Henry choked on that. Time to go. He grabbed his coffee and stood up, taking care to keep hidden behind the foliage. “It’s been nice talking to you, Dave.”
“Sure. I’ll see you around, Henry.”
Henry bent low and skulked past the shrubbery. Several feet out, he stopped and slugged his thigh. Then he turned and skulked back to the table.
“Dave,” he whispered.
Dave looked a little worried. “Yes?” he said tentatively.
“Thanks for sharing your spot with me.”
“Mm… sure, Henry,” he said, “No problem. Thanks for being flexible.”
“You’re welcome,” Henry said. He watched Dave for a moment, then nodded before turning away to resume his skulk.
HENRY WALKED OUT OF THE COFFEE SHOP AND INTO A SURGE OF IRRITATION.
The only available table was Dave’s. Again. He drew in a sigh and resolved to do what he had to. He sat down at the table anyway, taking care to sit in the proper chair this time. He put the coffee and paper down and looked up at the street clock. Nine forty-seven.
Day Two of Henry’s indecision.
Man, he was some piece of work. His stomach was all a-jitter. He hadn’t eaten boo in the past two days, and he’d been drinking coffee like it was an elixir. He couldn’t even dress himself. This morning he’d decided the tie was too much. Today it was just a sports jacket and black tee. After all, she’d only ever seen him wearing vomit, a Superman tee, or nothing at all. He didn’t want to come off as pretentious at their reunion.
He looked up at the clock. Nine forty-eight.
“Excuse me, but you’re in my spot.”
Henry nearly fell out of his chair. He twisted around to see Dave standing over him. “What now?”
“You’re in my spot.”
“Dave, I’m in the chair you directed me to yesterday.”
“Yesterday was Thursday. I face south on Thursdays. Today’s Friday.”
The words spun around in Henry’s head. Today’s Friday. It didn’t make sense, but in the end he just didn’t have the energy for another debate. “Where do you want me, Dave?” he asked carefully, “And don’t tell me another table. There aren’t any.”
Dave looked at the opposing chair.
Dave sat in the spot he’d vacated. Henry watched him arranging his coffee, muffin on a plate, napkin, and fork. He assembled them in the same square formation, but the items were switched left to right so that they mirrored their position from the previous day.
Henry straightened out the newspaper that he was never going to read and again considered that maybe his own issues weren’t so complicated after all.
“How’d you sleep, Henry?”
Henry looked up to see Dave smiling at him. “Uh… good. Good. Thanks. You?”
“Oh, I don’t sleep much,” Dave said, “Too much noise in the shadows at night. And of course, there are the trains.”
“I see,” Henry said. He didn’t. And he didn’t want to.
He peered over his shoulder through the foliage just in time to see Alice coming down the street. He slipped a little lower in his chair. She wore a blue sundress today. Her brilliant yellow hair was tied in one of those Dr. Seuss ponytails that stick straight up in the air. She was so beautiful it hurt to look at her. She looked like she might’ve put on a little weight. It was good.
She stopped at the shop entrance, put in the key, twisted the lock, and opened the door. Then, just like the morning before, she paused and turned, and she carefully swept the street with her eyes. This time he was sure she’d spotted him.
He hunkered lower. She seemed to be looking directly at him. But then, to his overwhelming relief, she pulled back and went into her store. The Closed sign gave its post back to Open.
Henry found his seat again. He swiped a hand across his forehead and looked at it. His palm was wet. He was sweating? Things were even worse than he thought. He never sweated. Never!
“Why are you so afraid of Alice, Henry?”
Henry jumped. He glanced around, hoping no one caught his squeal. Then he looked at Dave. “I’m not afraid of Alice,” he said with a laugh that was too high pitched by an octave, “I can’t believe you’d say that. It’s ridiculous.”
Dave studied him very closely. “You told me you only sort of knew her, Henry.”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“Sort of, Henry. You said sort of.”
“Got it, Dave. What’s your point?”
“If you only sort of know her, why do you hide whenever she comes to work?”
“Hide? That’s ridiculous. I’m not hiding, Dave. I was just checking out these flowers here.”
Dave looked at the shrubbery that boasted no flowers at all. He gave Henry a look that suggested this might be a good time to change tables. “Are you stalking her, Henry?”
“Are. You. Stalking her?”
“No, Dave. Don’t be ridiculous. Do I look like a stalker?”
“You shouldn’t try to lie to me, Henry. I can smell a lie the way a bee smells pollen.”
Henry just looked at him.
“Do you understand me, Henry?”
“I don’t think bees actually smell things, Dave.”
“You ever ask one?”
Henry just shook his head. “Look, Dave… don’t make a production of it. It’s not a big deal. I sort of know Alice, and I sort of like to hide from her, because I’m sort of afraid of her.”
Dave continued to study him.
“What?” Henry said.
“You’re not wearing a tie today, Henry.”
Henry reflexively grabbed his shirt. “What?” he said, looking down, “No. Of course not. It’s Friday. I never wear a tie on Friday.”
Dave’s expression darkened just a spit. “Are you making fun of me, Henry?”
Henry was. And he wasn’t sure if he suddenly felt like such a fool because he had been making fun or because he’d been caught making fun.
“I’m sorry, Dave,” he said carefully, “I’m… on edge today. I’ve been on edge all week. I sometimes get a little mean when I’m tense. I apologize. It’s a flaw I’m actively working on.”
Dave’s expression was indecisive. He seemed to be trying to decide if Henry was still playing him. Then he relaxed. “That’s okay, Henry. I understand. I appreciate the apology. Consider it accepted. I’d write it down, except it’s Friday.”
“Write it down?”
“I collect them.”
“Apologies, of course.”
Henry slowly nodded. “Of course.”
“Except on Fridays. I don’t write anything down on Fridays. Everyone needs a day off.”
“Okey dokey, then.”
“Anyway,” Dave said as he cut a bite from his muffin, “I still appreciate it. You’re a very polite person. I admire polite people.”
“No problem, Dave,” Henry said, “I was rude, and I despise rude people. I really mean that.” He totally meant it.
“You’re trying too hard.”
That gave Henry pause. “I’m sorry?”
“You’re trying too hard, Henry.”
“To do what?”
Dave shrugged and returned to his muffin. “Forget it. It’s not my place.”
“I’m not even sure what you’re talking about, Dave.”
Dave leaned back in his seat. He was smiling far too politely. “I’m serious,” he said, “It’s none of my business. Please forget I said anything. I don’t know Alice that well, anyway. I shouldn’t dare speak for her.”
Henry’s curiosity was irreversibly piqued. He watched Dave methodically devouring his muffin. He’d cut a bite, take a sip of coffee, pat his mouth with his napkin, and then insert the bite in his mouth. Rinse and repeat. It looked like a hell of a lot of work.
“Seriously, what are you talking about, Dave?” Henry asked after a bit, “What am I’m trying too hard at?”
“Truly, it’s not my place, Henry. Forget I said anything.”
“I can’t just make myself forget something. I’d much prefer it if you’d just go ahead and say it. I mean, we’re pals now, right?”
Dave gave him a look that was not a confirmation.
Henry glanced around at the other patrons. No one seemed to be watching. He leaned toward Dave and whispered, “What exactly am I trying too hard at?”
Dave sat back and grinned at him. It was a harmless, friendly grin with no obvious agenda lurking behind it. It was, however, a grin that might be standing on a dais of knowledge. Henry suddenly had to know.
“Dave, come on,” Henry said to him, “I’ve met a lot of people these past months. People I’d never have any other occasion to know outside of the quirkiness of the circumstances we were thrown into.”
“Yes, really. They’ve mostly been brief acquaintances, but they each seemed to have a gift for me. Every one of those encounters has changed my life, do you understand?” He thought of T. “Well, almost every one.”
“That’s very interesting, Henry.”
“I’m serious, Dave.”
“I can see that, Henry.”
“So, you’re probably wondering what exactly I gleaned from those chance encounters, aren’t you? I mean, what was so important about those chance meetings that I’m talking to a complete stranger about them?”
“Not so much, Henry.”
“What I gleaned is there’s no such thing as a chance encounter. Everything happens for a reason. Everyone has something they can share with you. And if you’re lucky, if you’re really, really lucky, it might turn out that you have something you can share back with them.”
“So, please, Dave,” Henry said, leaning deeper into the table, “What do you mean when you say I’m trying too hard?”
Dave looked across the street at the door of the White Queen’s Habits, and then he looked back at Henry. “All right, Henry,” he said softly, “I’m telling you this because I like you and I like Alice more. Do you understand?”
“Very well, then. Here’s what it is. Not to cut too fine a point, but you should lose the image.”
“The look. The style. The outfit. The… not-you.”
Henry looked down at his expensively dry-cleaned jacket, his meticulously ironed black tee shirt, and his ridiculously polished shoes. And it all became so utterly and embarrassingly obvious to him, he couldn’t believe he hadn’t seen it himself.
“You should come back dressed as Henry,” Dave said to him, “And then you should go over to her. Not to be rude, but you should probably grow a pair.”
Henry felt weak. He realized with some alarm that his hands were actually shaking. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so insecure and inadequate and absolutely alone. But even as he thought it, he knew exactly when he’d last felt this way. It was when he watched Fort Drift accelerating down the on-ramp without him.
He swallowed back the dryness and looked at Dave. “Thank you,” he whispered.
“No. I mean it. Thank you.”
“It’s not a big deal. It’s just one of those things. A certain, fragile moment. It’ll surely never happen again.”
“Let me guess,” Henry said seriously, “You’ve got a sense about people, right?”
“Well, that’s a relief.”
“I only have a sense about you.”
Henry stopped laughing. It was a perfect circle. “Of course, you do,” he said, looking at Dave, “It fits perfectly. I mean that most sincerely.”
“It’s nothing, Henry,” Dave said, “Now, please get away from my table.”
HENRY WATCHED ALICE STROLL UP TO THE DOOR OF HER SHOP.
He couldn’t take his eyes from her as she expertly inserted the key into the lock. The sun shone down on her like there was no other creature left on all of God’s earth deserving of such radiance. And when she disappeared into the shadows of that shop, it felt like the world had plunged back into darkness.
Henry dropped back into his chair. He was breathless. Day Three in Purgatory. Day bloody three! He had to do this today. There wouldn’t be any other chance. He had to go to her today and profess his love and devotion, and beg for her mercy and her forgiveness of all the ways he’d wronged her.
Or he had to crawl back under the rock of his life and give her up for good.
He leaned back in his chair. His hands trembled. Again. His heart played his ribs like a drum. Again. And he was actually sweating. Sweating! Again!
He swiped the hair back from his face. He had to do this. He had to get up now. He had to march on over there and do it. He had to do it right now, right this very moment! He had to do it now!
He took a sip of his coffee.
“You’re in my spot.”
“Dave,” he said without looking up, “You really need to leave me a schedule, dude.”
Dave took the chair across from him. “Just kidding, Henry. How are you doing today? You look about as miserable as usual.”
“Your sense of observation is unworldly, Dave. Truth is I don’t have a clue how I am.”
Dave carefully laid his morning out before him. It was a square, same order as yesterday. “I must say, you’re looking pretty good today, Henry,” he said as he inspected him, “Is that an Alice original?”
Henry ran his fingers over the seam in his Superman emblem. “It is indeed, Dave. This little number has quite the history behind it, too.”
“Stand up, Henry,” he said, “Let us have a look.”
Henry slipped his chair back and stood up. He looked down at his uniform: Superman shirt, Alice dress pants complete with the red and blue Jerry Garcia ribbon running along the seams, no belt, and roughed up black dress shoes, one of which was slightly twisted with a nice crease running across it.
“You are going to blow her away, Henry,” Dave said.
“Wait, check this out,” Henry said, hoisting his pant legs a bit, “This is the crème de la crème.”
“What? No socks? Henry, you are so daring!”
“Yeah, it’s a sentimental thing. Takes me back to the day, you know?”
“The whole ensemble is dramatically, cleaner, of course. Than the last time she saw me, I mean?”
“Well, of course,” Dave said, “Turn around, let me get the whole picture.”
Henry complied, arms straight out, head held high, turning slowly and dramatically, as if he were waltzing his way down the runway.
The world fell abruptly quiet. Henry stopped and looked around. The tables surrounding them were flooded with dozens of matching sets of eyes, all of which were aimed straight at him. He looked from one uncertain face to the next. They all broadcast the same question to him: Why can’t these guys ever manage to stay on their meds?
“What?” Henry asked them all, with arms still outstretched, “This is an important fashion statement here. I’ll have you know this is a White Queen’s Habits original made by the lovely Alice herself. It’s probably worth more than your stinking suits.”
The people continued to stare at him.
“Seriously,” he said, turning with his arms still out, “You should all be deeply envious! I’m the—”
“Land sakes! I just adore a man in uniform!”
Henry froze. He looked down at Dave, who smiled up at him from across the table. Then he silently mouthed, “Alice?”
“Behind me?” he said, again in silence.
Dave laughed. And then he nodded.
Henry felt paralyzed. The experience was unworldly. He was simultaneously thrilled and mortified. Then he turned his head just slightly, and said, “Alice?”
That voice. Her voice!
He was suddenly lost. He didn’t know what to do. Time seized and shuddered. He felt like he was in a dream without control of his limbs.
“Why don’t you turn around, Henry,” he heard her say, “Let me drink you in.”
The sound of her voice gave him courage. He did as she told him.
The first and only thing he saw was her eyes. They were the same deep, brilliant, breathtaking kryptonite green he remembered. Looking into them felt like standing too close to a bonfire, like if he moved even an inch closer he’d be consumed by them.
She had her hands on her mouth. Her eyes glistened wet. “My goodness,” she said through her fingers, “You look so handsome.”
Henry ran his fingers over the seam in his emblem. “It’s… uh, it’s clean, too,” he said nervously, “I had it… well, pressed, I guess. Because you know how anal I am.”
Her smile channeled the sun. It was blinding to look at. “Well, it wouldn’t do to be flying around in a wrinkled uniform, would it?” she said, giggling.
“Oh, hell no!” he said, “I mean, what would the other superheroes say? You know what I mean? There goes SuperHenry in his wrinkled, vomit covered uniform again. Oh, and my, look at that… no socks. Again!”
“I think you look wonderful,” she whispered through her fingers, “No other superhero could possibly compare.”
He took a step toward her. He realized he was still fingering the seam in his emblem, and ordered his hands to his side. “I’m sorry I’ve been gone so long, Alice. I’m sorry I didn’t call or—”
“You don’t have to explain, Henry.”
“I’ve… I’ve been working things out,” he said carefully, “Therapy, you know? Working the problems? I couldn’t come back before I knew if I was… I don’t know. Fixable. I guess.”
“I knew you’d come, Henry,” she said, inching closer, “So did Nancy. We never doubted it, not for a moment. I knew I only had to wait for you.”
He moved closer to her. His knees weakened with each tentative step. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered, “I hope… I just hope you’ll forgive me. I hope you’ll think about letting me back in. I’m not the man I was, I swear it. I’m better than that.”
“I know, Henry.”
“I buried my dead, just like you said. I’m putting the past where it belongs. I don’t want any of that darkness anymore. I want you, Alice. I love—”
Alice flew into his arms. He buried himself in her arms and neck and hair, and held her tight. And for the first time in a very, very long time, he felt like all the hope he’d struggled to hold onto these past months might actually have wings.
ALICE HELD HIM LIKE THE SUN HOLDS THE EARTH.
She held him like it was her sole reason for existing, and he accepted every bit of her.
A light wind kicked up, gently rustling the leaves of the cherry trees standing post along the wide sidewalk. She slipped out of his arms with such tenderness that he wasn’t even sure they’d separated. Then she took his hand and his arm, and they walked together through the shade of the sidewalk beside the little park. The breeze was cool and refreshing, the early sun bright and rejuvenating. The morning was in full bloom.
It was a moment so exact, so flawless, so utterly perfectly destined, Henry knew this had to be that one singular moment in his existence that justified everything he’d ever done or ever would do in his entire life. This moment was the reason he existed at all.
“I knew you’d come back to me,” Alice whispered into his arm.
“I can’t tell you how I missed you,” he said to her, “I know it sounds corny and all, but thinking about you is what kept me motivated. I thought about you day and night. I never didn’t think about you. If you’d told me to take a hike back there at the coffee shop, I think I’d have ceased to exist.”
“I know, Henry. We were together a whole year, after all. It’s difficult to walk away from that kind of investment.”
“Your words saved me, Alice. I mean that. It was you that gave me the strength to bury Zoe. It wasn’t just love or desire for you, it was more like purpose. Knowing you showed me that I had a purpose bigger than self-loathing.”
“I don’t think it was Zoe, Henry. I think she’s been buried a long time. You just had to cut loose your guilt. I know it wasn’t easy. I’m sure it won’t ever be easy.”
He laughed. “Well… you need to know I’m going to be in therapy a while. There’s plenty of sludge that needs to be bailed out yet, including a whole family chest of drawers to sort through.”
“I know that, dear. I’m not afraid.”
He put his arm around her and reeled her in tighter. It felt so natural to be with her again, to be holding her again.
“What I’m telling you,” he said carefully, “Is that there will be bumps ahead. I’m not Mr. Rogers. I’ll never be perfect. I’m not cut from that kind of cloth. But I’ll never stop trying to be. You’ve every right on earth to doubt me and send me packing.”
She laughed. “Mr. Rogers is about the last person I want. I’d take Herman Munster first.”
“And I’ll never have to send you packing. Some things are meant to be. You’re home, Henry. You can stop looking for the exit, now.”
They walked on for a few minutes in contemplative silence. After a bit, he said, “I’m starting a new business. My own company.”
“I sold my condo. Actually, I sold pretty much everything I owned. I’ve got enough money to live a few years if need be, and I’ll be the only employee in the new start up, so I can run the business anywhere. I won’t need a headquarters, per se.”
“How convenient. I always said you were brilliant.”
“So I’m thinking Castle Rock might be a good place to launch it.”
She stopped and turned up to him. “Castle Rock?”
He felt a strange pang of embarrassment. Maybe he’d made a mistake. Maybe he’d made a horribly erroneous assumption. Maybe he shouldn’t have said anything. Maybe he was an idiot!
“You mean, here?” she said, smiling coyly, “With me? You’d do that?”
And just like that, she made him solid again. His eyes rushed hot, but he fought it back. “It’s the only place left, Alice,” he whispered, “The rest of the world is a… a wasteland.”
“Too full of burning wreckage,” she said.
He nodded. “Pretty much.”
She buried herself into him again.
He pulled her in tight. Then he pinched a little tuft of the skin on her side. “Alice, we’re putting on a little weight, yeah?”
“Yeah,” she said into his chest.
“It’s nice. You were too skinny before. You look good in it.”
“I hope so, Henry.” She slipped her face up into his neck and whispered, “I think it’s going to be there for a while.”
“Hm, that sounds like a plan. You’re doing it intentionally?” He immediately regretted that. “I’m sorry, that sounded back-handed. You look fantastic. I didn’t mean—”
She put her hand over his mouth and laughed. “No, Henry, I didn’t take it that way. I know I’m not fat or anything. It’s just a little extra weight, no biggie.” Her hand slid free of his mouth and parked on his chest, her fingers splayed across his Superman emblem.
“Whew,” he said, “For a moment I thought I’d really screwed up. What was it Beth said back at the cliffs? Remember? About men needing to tread carefully before—”
“Do you remember my note?”
“What?” That was a solid right turn. He understood that he would never have his balance around her, and he liked it. “Yes. Of course, I remember. I’m wearing it.”
“Do you remember that I wrote that I still adored you?”
“I could forget that? It brought me to my knees, Alice.”
“And you remember our last night? In the tent, I mean? You remember how we ended it?”
He felt himself blush, and was surprised by it. “Yes, Alice. Of course, I remember.”
She took his hands and pulled him closer. “And do you remember I told you in the note that you hadn’t left anything burning behind you? With me, I mean?”
He tensed at that. “Yes,” he said carefully.
She looked up at him, but said nothing. The weight of her eyes felt like a mountain landing on him. For a moment, he couldn’t breathe. Her green lasers were firing at full strength.
“What… what is it?” he said. He hoped she wouldn’t respond. He was terrified she would respond. What if he was misreading all this? What if she was actually going to send him back to the curb? What if this moment was the end of—
“I may have lied,” she said abruptly, “Just a bit.”
He couldn’t put her words in focus. “I don’t understand,” he said. He so didn’t.
She pulled his hands around behind her and pressed her belly into him. “I said I lied,” she said smiling. “You didn’t leave any wreckage, but turns out you may have left a wee fire burning, after all.”
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