The night was truly over by the time Larry brought the car to a stop in the parking lot of a deserted strip mall several miles from the accident scene. The streets began to fill with cars, and store owners began preparing their business for the day, unlocking gates in front of doors, lifting others in front of large windows filled with merchandise, flipping “CLOSED” signs over to read “OPEN.” One man carrying a broom appeared in the doorway of a shop nearby. He glanced at their car for a long moment and then started sweeping up the trash that had appeared overnight,
Larry sat behind the steering wheel, his hands still gripping it as he had since beginning their odyssey through night-time San Francisco. His face was drawn and pale. Finally, he took a deep ragged breath and turned to Jill.
“I don’t think anyone noticed us leaving. I just wanted to get us as far away as possible, and I’m pretty sure we weren’t followed.”
Jill, still shaken, nodded, “I’m sure you’re right.”
“I probably should take you back to your car. You probably want to get home.” He paused and then added urgently, “I’m sorry I got you into this mess, Jill. I swear I never thought anything like this would happen.”
“Larry, don’t. I don’t blame you. I’m a big girl. I wanted to come along.” She yawned and said, “But if you don’t mind. I live on the other side of the Bay. It’s simply too far to drive right now. I just want to stretch out for a few hours. Please.”
“Sure. I understand,” he said. “I’m sure there’s something around here.”
They had found a small hotel and, when they discovered there was only one room available, Jill said, “If it’s got a couple of beds, let’s take it. I can’t stay vertical much longer.” She gave him an exhausted grin, “I can trust you, can’t I?”
The room was pleasant, not fancy, but clean. Two double beds were turned back invitingly with little chocolates on the pillows.
They settled into chairs around a small table in one corner of the room, and opened sacks of fast food they had bought before finding the hotel. Jill unwrapped her breakfast burrito and took a big bite. She closed her eyes savoring the greasy food.
“Ummmm,” she said with her mouth full, “I didn’t realize I was so hungry.”
“We didn’t eat much last night. A sandwich and coffee, if I remember correctly.”
“I feel like I could sleep for a month.” She wiped her mouth with the napkin and took a big slurp of the tepid liquid in the cup. She smiled at him, her eyes already at half-mast.
“You’re sure you don’t want me to take you home? I could bring you back for your car later.”
She shook her head and yawned, “My aunt sleeps until eight thirty or nine. I wouldn’t want to disturb her.”
“You live with your aunt?”
She nodded sleepily, “I thought I told you. I’m staying with her until I can find a place that I can afford. I had no idea an apartment would be so expensive. LA’s bad, but this town is ridiculous.”
“Well, if you’re sure,” he said. “Pick out which bed you like and I’ll see if I can find an early paper or something.”
“You don’t have to go downstairs. I’ll just pop into the bathroom. Then you can have a turn.”
“A turn,” he grinned, an wicked glint in his eye.
“You know what I mean. . .at the bathroom.” She smiled, letting him know she knew he was just teasing.
She turned to the bathroom without looking back at him. In a minute, he heard the rush of water in the shower and finally a deep heart-felt sigh.
Larry was standing at the window, looking at the street below, when she rushed from the bathroom with a towel wrapped around her. She quickly slipped into the bed nearest the bathroom door and pulled the covers up to her chin.
“Your turn,” she murmured.
He nodded and walked to the bathroom without a glance in her direction. The mirror was fogged and moisture hung in the air. Larry, too, felt the need of a really hot shower, but when he turned on the tap the water was barely warm.
“Not tonight, I guess,” he thought with a wry smile, slowly removing his shirt.
He opened the tap in the sink and splashed the tepid water on his face and chest. Grabbing a towel from the rack, he briskly rubbed his face. The roughness of the towel felt good on his tired skin. It felt years since he had slept. He unwrapped a miniscule piece of soap that lay wrapped on the sink and then dropped the paper in the tacky, turquoise plastic trash basket. He wet the soap under the gushing tap and used it to lather his armpits and chest. He rinsed as best he could and used the towel to dry. Then he rubbed the damp towel against the mirror until he could see his face. It was haggard with fatigue; deep dark circles around his eyes made it worse than it really was, and he badly needed a shave.
“Good grief,” he thought, “I look almost as old as I feel.”
He returned to the bedroom and walked to the far side of the other bed, unbuckling his belt and sat not facing her. He took off a shoe and let it drop to the floor.
“You really did see something at Cliff House, didn’t you?”
He took off the other shoe.
“I really did. Yeah.”
“What does it all mean?”
“I wish I knew.” He dropped the other shoe.
He turned back the covers on his bed and plumped the pillows.
“This is all over now, isn’t it? The man from the cliff is dead. There isn’t anything else to do.”
“What about the woman, not to mention, Mr. J. Winston Wainwright?”
“But we don’t know he had anything to do with that. And the woman, well, you reported it to the police. What else can you do?”
For a long minute he didn’t say anything. The silence hung like a shroud between them.
“There’s something, Jill. A memory, right on the tip of my mind. I can’t quite get hold of it, but it’s there. Something’s going on. I don’t know why I know it, but I do, and I just can’t let it go. It’s like an itch that you can’t quite scratch, but you have to try or it’ll drive you crazy.”
Jill sat up in the bed, eyes large, clutching the sheet in front of her. “I’m afraid, Larry. I want this to be over.”
He turned and saw the expression on her face. Guilt flooded his mind. What had he gotten her into? He rose and quickly went to her side and sat on the edge of his bed. He took one of her hands.
“There’s nothing for you to be afraid of, Jill. You’re out of this. In the morning I’m going to take you to your car, and you can forget you ever heard of Larry Wheeler and this mess.”
She shook her head and looked into his weary eyes. “That’s not what I mean. It’s you I’m afraid for.”
He looked at her for a long minute, then stood, pushed her back on the bed and tucked the covers around her as he would have a child. He bent and kissed her gently on the forehead.
“I can take care of myself.”
He went to his own bed and with his back to her, stripped off his trousers and slipped into the bed. He smiled at her and turned off the light.
In the darkness, Jill still looked at the dark shape lying in the other bed and to herself she said, “Can you? I wonder?”
The day was bright. Tree limbs heavy with dark green summer leaves spread across the peaceful, car-lined, neighborhood street, dappling the pavement with splotches of gold. To the right a Latino gardener raked twigs and miscellaneous debris from beneath Golden Vickery Privet ledges that surrounded an older red brick home. The contrast of the dark brick and yellowish hedge was lovely, he thought.
Lovely, now there’s a word he wouldn’t normally use. Why use it now? He thought, shaking his head.
Beyond the gardener, a Federal Express truck parked casually, blocking the driveway of a rose colored Victorian house with white trim, while the driver carried a package to the front door. Two boys shot hoops in the driveway, completely ignoring the truck parked nearby, and a younger boy glided down the sidewalk on a slightly beat-up skateboard. A small scruffy dog raced across the lawn of a “California ranch” toward the street.
Music on the car radio had been from an “oldies” rock station, but it suddenly changed to something near the acid variety, the teeth-jarring, ear splitting kind that appealed to younger music lovers and those that had not yet matured in their musical taste. At least that was his opinion. He reached down to change the station, glancing at the buttons to decide which one to push. When he heard the scream it was already too late. He looked up to see, directly in his path, the woman holding a small boy. A squeal of tires and a terrible “thud” drowned out the scream and permanently fixed on the woman’s face, Jill’s face, the look of horror that he saw right before the car struck her.
“Larry, what is it?”
Jill was kneeling on the bed beside Larry, a sheet wrapped around her. She had her hands on his shoulders and was shaking him as he sat glassy-eyed, sweat pouring down his face, mouth still open in the cry that had awakened her.
Finally, the thrall of the dream left Larry and he pulled away from her and sat facing away, head in his hands, feet on the floor on the other side of the bed.
“Larry,” she said when he didn’t respond, “Are you all right?”
He gave a shaky sigh and nodded, “I’m fine. Go back to sleep.”
“It was just a nightmare, Larry,” she persisted. “Tell me about it. Come on, Larry, I’m a nurse. Remember? I want to help.”
He sat not moving for a moment, then turned and looked at her. She almost recoiled from the anguish in his face, but her training held her firm.
“There’s nothing you can do. Nothing anyone can do.”
“Tell me,” she urged, gently.
“I don’t know if I can.”
He took a deep breath, his eyes filled with tears. “I don’t remember anything about it, but I think I killed my wife and son.”
“And so they released me last week.”
Still wrapped in the sheet, Jill was sitting beside Larry on the bed. He had told her about the terrifying dreams he had been having and the time he had spent in the sanitarium. It had been difficult telling his story. It had come out of him like a baby’s birth, slowly and at times unbearable, with a great deal of psychic pain.
“You were there for five months and you don’t remember a thing?”
“About the accident, no, nothing. I don’t even remember being in the hospital until about three weeks ago when I started having the dream. Can you imagine what that’s like? Waking from something so horrible your mind refuses to remember it and then realizing you don’t know where you are or why or how long you’ve been there? It’s terrifying! And when they finally tell you…I can’t explain it. But it’s like being in a fog only worse. It’s like there is a hole in my mind. Things outside the hole are pretty clear, but around the edges of my memory, it’s like I’m walking on the edge a precipice and the ground keep breaking off under me. Like I said, I wake up and I can’t remember the dream, but I remember the horror and the fear.”
“Oh, Larry! How awful!”
They finally told me about my wife and little boy, but I swear to god, except in that dream, it’s like I never saw them before. I can’t consciously remember their faces. Hell, I don’t even remember BEING married, much less with a child.”
’But you said Mike was your best man.”
“Did I?” he shrugged, “Maybe he was. Anyway, the shrink said I will probably have these dreams until I can face what happened. But how can I face it when I can’t ever remember it?”
“I can’t even imagine what you’ve been through, Larry.”
“And you know what else? I think I’ve lost some time before the accident, too. I just don’t know how much. And then, yesterday, something happened.”
“Yes, Larry. I believe you.”
“I don’t mean the cliff thing. A couple of times something triggered a memory. I can’t quite put my finger of it, but it has to do with that blond guy in the limo. I know I’ve seen him before.”
“How is that possible?”
He shook his head, the misery still etched on his face, but now it also contained a hint of frustration. He looked at her, his eyes pleading, “God help me, I wish I knew.”
Jill slid across the bed and stood before him. She thought she had never seen such pain on a face before. She opened the sheet, stepped between his legs and wrapped the sheet around him, enclosing them both. He looked up at her in confusion and started to say something, but she stopped him with a soft kiss.
“Shhhh. Don’t say anything else.” She traced his face lightly with the tips of her fingers as if trying to smooth away the pain and confusion. “I’ll try to help you remember, Larry.” She kissed his eyes slowly one by one and then his cheeks. “And when you have,” with the tip of her tongue she gently traced the edge of his mouth. “Well then, I guess I’ll have to help you forget.”
She kissed him fully and felt his mouth open in response. His arms, which had slowly encircled her waist, tightened around her. The kiss grew in intensity and a moment later he drew her back down onto the bed, stretching out beside her, and kissed her deeply.