Henry stuffed the last bit of pizza crust into his mouth.
He was shocked at how hungry he’d actually been. In fact, it must’ve been the hungriest he’d ever been in his life, for somehow, over the course of three slices of stale pizza, he’d divulged all the details of his outing to this enigma entitled Mrs. Pena.
The cap hissed dramatically as Mrs. Pena twisted it off a sweating cola. She handed the bottle to him.
“Thank you, ma’am.”
The soda was off-brand and the temperature of warm piss, but he didn’t think he’d ever appreciated a drink so much in his life. He put the bottle down on the picnic table and released a burp before he even saw it coming.
He laughed at that. “My apologies,” he said, grinning at her, “It’s just so good. Best soda I ever had, I swear. Is that from Sam’s Club? I’ve never been there, but man, if their soda is that good, I guess I’m missing something.”
She didn’t reply, and she didn’t break her gaze. Henry tried to remember if he’d even seen her blink since she jumped him back at the map. He looked at the last lonely slice of pizza slowly dying in the grease-stained box but decided against it.
“What are you going to do tonight?” she said, “You look like something Satan coughed up.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“It wasn’t a compliment, Henry.”
“I know, Mrs. Pena,” he said through his food, “I was being… never mind, doesn’t matter.”
“Answer the question.”
He continued chewing for a moment, but her gaze was unrelenting. The last thing he wanted to do was piss her off, so he swallowed the bite unfinished. “I’m going to head home,” he said, “Back to Riverside.” He took another drink.
“Hitchhiking.” It wasn’t a question.
“Have you reported your missing car to the police?”
“Of which state?”
“Does it look like your cutting wit amuses me, Henry?”
He was surprised to feel himself blush again.
“You need to report your car,” she said again.
“I will. The very moment I remember where and how I lost it.”
“You’d do well to consider AA. I can find a meeting for you near where you live.”
“I’m not an alcoholic.”
“Where did you say your car was?”
He looked down at the soda bottle playing between his hands. He knew this game. Once again, there was no correct answer. “I’m not an alcoholic,” he said again. His waning conviction disappointed him.
She put a hand on his arm. “You blacked out, Henry.”
“You don’t think that’s a problem?”
“I’m not an alcoholic,” he said, looking at her. He tried to press his gaze back as hard as he was receiving it, but he was a Pee Wee softball player pitching against a major league hitter.
“Try to convince me,” she said, taking a drink from her own cola.
Henry knew there was no bluffing with this one. Try to bullshit her, and she’d eat him alive. Best just to lay it all out there and hope for the best.
“I’m guess I’m what they call a binge drinker,” he said, trying not to look away from her, “It’s my weekend ritual, my escape plan. I grab my first drink on the way home from work Friday, and I finish my last one a few minutes before passing out Sunday night. What happens in between is pretty much mayhem. But nothing during the week. Not even a beer and a shot. Not a sip. I’m completely sober during the workweek.”
She watched him. And she waited.
When her lasers finally became too much for him, he looked down at the cola in his hand. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said softly, “But you don’t understand. And frankly, there’s no way you ever can. I mean no offense by that.”
“What are you hiding from, Henry?”
He told himself not to, but he found himself looking up at her anyway.
“What’s so terrible that you have to hide from it on the weekends?” she pressed, “I understand how work can consume a soul. I’ve used it myself for the same purpose. It keeps you occupied during working days and, if you work hard enough, leaves you too tired to care at night. But what happens on the weekends? What do you hide from when the computers are off, and the business is closed, and there’s nothing left to distract you? What drives you to climb into a bottle to hide away from your life? Are chaos and turmoil your only shields on the weekends?”
He felt the tremors starting up again. The door to the forbidden cell was beginning to rattle. Zoe’s face rose up from the fog in his mind, but he pressed a hand to his eyes and wrestled it back. He was startled to discover his palm was sweating. He couldn’t believe it. He never sweated. Never.
“Talk to me, Henry.”
“It’s complicated,” he said at last.
Once again, she probed him with those laser eyes. He could almost feel her thoughts bullying their way into his mind. “I can see that something’s chasing you, Henry. Something pretty scary, I would expect.”
His throat felt tight. He couldn’t possibly respond. It was too slippery a slope. If he started down that road, he might never come back. Instead, he hid behind his hand as he pretended to rub his forehead. A gentle breeze brought on the scent of funeral flowers. Somewhere in the distance, he heard her laughing.
“Some things can’t be run away from,” he heard Mrs. Pena say, “Some things have to be talked through, no matter how terrifying they are. You can’t carry it alone, Henry. You need someone to help you with that load.”
He wanted to look at her, wanted to tell her she didn’t know what the hell she was talking about. He wanted to show her the horror chasing him, see if she thought talking was such a good weapon then. But he didn’t. He couldn’t. He could barely breathe.
“Have you talked to your Mother about it?”
It took him a moment to digest the words. The heat in his eyes retreated. He lowered his hand and looked at her. “What did you say?”
Her face might as well have been chiseled stone; he couldn’t read a word behind it. “Have you talked to your Mother about it?” she said again.
He shrugged and looked away. “I… I should get going.” He suddenly felt like a sheep about to be shorn. “I appreciate what you’ve—”
“Henry, have you talked to your Mother about this? About what scares you? About what makes you run away from your life with such drama?”
He realized he was chewing his lip and stopped it. “My mother’s gone, ma’am,” he said plainly, “Died in a car wreck more than a few years ago.”
To his shock and awe, Mrs. Pena actually smiled at him. “Mothers are never gone, Henry. Not ever. They’re always with you, even after they’ve crossed.”
He stood up. She didn’t.
“It’s all right, Henry,” she said, looking up at him. She still held her smile, though the zest was fading from it now. He expected that the half-life of a smile parked on that face was probably pretty short.
It was time to go. “Thanks for the pizza,” he said, “And for the—”
“You can work through this in time,” she said with some force, “It may not be a fast process, and it won’t be a painless one, but there’s nothing in this life you can’t beat. You need to start by talking to your Mother. Talking to her will file the edge off the blade. It’ll make it easier to take it further, to get the real help you need.”
He couldn’t pull away from her. It was as if he were locked in some unnatural tractor beam. “I don’t… I don’t know what…” The words died on his tongue. He had no idea what to say to this. He just knew he had to get away from her.
“It’s going to be all right, Henry. I won’t put any more pressure on you. You can go now.”
Henry grabbed his gear. He wasn’t sure what had just happened. She’d seen his dungeon. She recognized his forbidden cell. She knew there was something terrible inside it, something that frightened him to death. She’d seen it, analyzed it, shown him how to fight it, and then she’d pulled back from it. She’d told him she cared and left it at that, and in that moment, he could have hugged her for it.
“You can’t hide from your fears,” she said to him, “Not for long. Eventually you have to look at them. Eventually you’ll have to show them to someone else. They never go away completely, but if you share them with someone you trust, they can be neutralized. You need to talk them out. If you don’t, you’ll be running from them for the rest of time. I know you see that.”
“I do,” he whispered, “But I’m… I’m not ready. Not yet. Maybe not ever.” Probably not ever.
“Start with your Mother, Henry. Talk to your Mother.”
“Mrs. Pena, I told you, my mother’s gone. She’s dead.”
Her odd smiled blossomed again, and in the unnatural light of that mercury light, he thought it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
She again put her hand on his arm. Her touch was surprisingly tender and warm. “I told you, Henry,” she said carefully, “Your Mother’s never gone. Now, you go home. You finish this abusive outing. You get some rest. And then you go talk to her.”
“I imagine you’re a good mother,” he said. The words took him by complete surprise. What the hell was that?
Her eyes drifted off toward the highway traffic. “A good mother,” she said with a whisper of a laugh, “Yes, I suppose I was. In my own way.”
“What do you mean?” he said carefully.
She seemed to be studying the passing cars. He could see her eyes systematically lock on one and follow it until it was out of sight, then track back and lock on another. After a few passes, she looked up at him. “I lost her,” she whispered, “It was… it was many years ago.”
Henry watched her for a moment. She was a paradox, this one. She had the shell of a field sergeant and the heart of a bird, and he didn’t think he’d ever trusted anyone in his life as much as he did her right here in this moment. She’d lost a child, and that’s why she wore the armor, because she couldn’t ever go through that pain again.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Talk to your Mother, Henry.”
“I will,” he whispered back. He felt the heat rising behind his eyes again, but this time he didn’t try to fight it.
“Talk to your Mother, Henry.”
“I… I will.”
“Talk to her before you kill yourself.”
“I will. I promise.”