The Approaching Wilderness
The wilderness through which we are passing to the Promised Land is all over fill’d with fiery flying serpents. But, blessed be God, none of them have hitherto have so fastened upon us to confound us utterly. All our way to heaven lies by dens of lions and the mounts of leopards; there are incredible droves of devils in our way.
Cotton Mather, The Wonders of the Invisible World, 1693.
Evans Brinkley spotted the cars at his house the second he turned the corner. He slumped down in the driver’s seat, took his foot off the gas, and glided slowly past his house. There were lights on inside the house. The yard lights were on, and he could see people inside the garage. There were also men walking around from the back of the house, and up the driveway.
“How did they find me?” Brinkley snarled to himself as he drove past. Then, just as quickly, he said calmly and icily, “No matter, no matter. They can’t stop me. I have one more weed to pluck out.” As he entered the next block he turned onto a side road and pulled over. He opened his glove compartment and pulled out the .45 caliber handgun. He checked to see that it was loaded, and checked the safety. Then he put it back, and headed toward the Dallas Tollway, which would hook up with Harry Hines Boulevard, and eventually downtown. He looked at the clock on the dashboard. It read 7:30. He had plenty of time. Classes wouldn’t be getting out for another hour. He even had time to grab a bite to eat. He was thoroughly relaxed. It was the end of the tunnel, the dénouement. Whatever happened tonight, soon it would be all over. All the hate, all the pain, all the grief was coming to a climax. He looked over on the passenger seat, where Teddy was sitting. “Won’t be long now Punkin,” he said as he playfully poked Teddy’s navel.
Once downtown Evans stopped at a fast food restaurant. Standing in line he found himself behind a man and a little girl. By their interaction he could tell they were father and daughter. She was about five years old, and was giggling at the display of colorful clowns being offered with the special meals menu. Her father ordered it, and handed a clown to his daughter as they walked to the seating area.
“Hi there. What can I get you?” said the perky attendant to Evans. After a slight delay from indecision, Evans replied, “I’ll have the special meal.” He received his food, and the clown. He noticed it was different from the one the little girl had gotten. Evans turned and looked over at the seating area and spotted father and daughter sitting near the doorway. He walked over to where they were sitting.
“Hi,” Evans said.
“Uh, hello,” replied the father, somewhat defensively.
“Hi there,” Evans said to the girl as he turned and stooped down to reach eye level. “What’s your name?”
“Sondra,” she replied. “See my new clown?” she said as she held it out in front of her with both hands. “My daddy bought it for me.”
“Say, that’s a neat clown. You know I have one too. See?” Evans said as he showed her his clown. By now Evans calm and delicate manner had disarmed the father, who now smiled at both of them.
“That’s a neat clown too,” the girl said.
“Do you really like it?”
“Yes,” the girl said as she touched it and then giggled bashfully.
“Well, you know what? I got this clown with my meal, but my little girl is away. And, well this clown might get sad without somebody to take care of him. Do think you could help me by taking this clown so he won’t get sad?”
The girl looked at her father, who smiled and nodded.
“Yes,” she said eagerly. “I don’t want him to be sad.”
“Well then here, you take him,” Evans handed the clown to the girl. She took the clown and set it next to hers.
“What do you say to the man, Sondra?” the father asked.
“Thank you,” she replied.
The father also thanked Evans, who rose and started for the door. He turned briefly, winked at the girl, smiled at her father, and then walked outside into the cold November night..
Meanwhile, the first thing Maria had dome when she returned from New Guinea was call on Bill. She was so glad to see him she gave him a huge hug in the center of the Oak Cliff substation. He held her just long enough to gently run his hands along the smooth skin of her arms. They looked into one another’s eyes. Something was happening. Then, he broke the embrace and filled her in on all they had found out.
“You were dead on,” he told her. “Thanks to your theory we were able to narrow done our list of suspects. We’re getting close now,” she recalled him saying.
The second thing Maria did was return to the classroom. The interim instructor had done an excellent job, but the students were glad to have the re-energized Dr. Contreras back in the classroom. She looked refreshed, and felt safe. Her police bodyguard, posing as a student, was unobtrusive and blended well with the class.
At eight-thirty, she had just concluded her Cultural Anthropology class. After mixing with a few students in the hallway, she headed back to her office.
As she pulled out her keys to unlock the office door she heard the phone ring. At the same time, her bodyguard said he was going to the bathroom and would be right back. Maria walked into her office, set her lecture notes on her desk, and picked up the phone.
“Hello, Maria Contreras,” Maria said.
“Maria, it’s Bill.”
“Hi, what’s up? I just got out of class.”
“We’ve found our guy, We’re at his house right now. We found the fishing line, the weed killer, the duct tape, the whole nine yards. We even found a pair of pruning shears that may have blood on it. Frankie thinks it might be what he used to cut off Juan Cortez’s finger. We have also lifted fingerprints off some kitchen utensils, which I think will match the prints we got from the fishing lure.”
“God, Bill that’s great! Do you have him in custody?” Maria asked.
“No, not yet. But it shouldn’t take long to track him down. You know you were right, Maria. By all indications this guy was sitting right next to normal until his daughter got caught in the middle of a gang hit. He just snapped!”
“Oh, Bill, I ’m so glad we are going to catch this guy, but I can’t help feeling a little sympathy for him. You know I lost my brother the same way. The pain was almost intolerable for me, I can’t imagine his pain over losing a daughter. You get so angry you don’t know what to do. I ran. I guess this guy had a different solution to his rage.”
“I can understand that,” Bill said. “But the difference is that you didn’t go out and start killing innocent people to ease your pain.”
“By the way, does this guy have a name?” Maria asked.
“Uh, yeah. His name is Evans Brinkley.”
“What? His name is what?” Maria’s response was a mixture of urgency and disbelief. Suddenly she didn’t feel so good.
“Evans Brinkley. Why?” Bill asked.
“Hold on second!” Maria said abruptly. She put the receiver down on the desk, and opened her notebook. She retrieved the class roll, and ran her finger down the list of names. She didn’t have to go far. It was the fifth name down. After Branson, Richard, the name stood out like it was branded in 26-character bold type face, Brinkley, Evans. She slammed her notebook shut and picked up the receiver.
“Bill. Jesus Bill, this guy’s on my class roll!” Maria could hardly believe what her lips were saying.
“What?” Bill exploded. “You mean this guy has been attending your class all along?”
“Bill, I don’t know. I don’t grade on attendance, and I don’t have any test grades for him. I never thought to put a name to him before. He could be one of many people who shows up sporadically, and eventually drops the class, takes an incomplete, or fails.”
Maria thought for a moment, brushed her hair back from her face. She was looking for a sense of composure. She now knew that the Lawn Man had been stalking her since the beginning of the semester. He had toyed with her. He had e-mailed her and called her, and all the while he could have been, probably had been, attending some of her classes. He knew what she looked like, and what her schedule was. Quickly, she snapped back to present moment awareness.
“Bill, what does he look like?”
“Just a second.”
Maria heard Bill talking to someone.
“We have a picture of him,” Bill replied. “It was taken with his wife and daughter, so it is at least three years old. He is about average height, has a muscular build, brown curly hair and blue eyes. But there is no telling what he looks like now.”
Bill paused again, and Maria could hear him talking to someone. Then he was back on the line.
“Maria, is Williams with you right now?”
Maria knew he meant her bodyguard, Officer Williams.
“Yes, uh, I mean no. I mean he just went to use the restroom.”
“Hold on a sec,” Bill said. Again she could hear him talking with someone, but couldn’t make it out.
“Maria, still there?”
“Yes. What was that all about?”
“An officer was just telling me about a journal they found, Brinkley’s. In it he talks about the times he spent with his wife and daughter during the holidays, Easter, Memorial Day, the 4th of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.”
“Does that mean anything?”
“Hell yes. It matches a list we found in Brinkley’s desk. The list has the names of six gang members, five of whom are dead, and the names are associated with holidays.
It means that Brinkley’s killings have been timed exactly to these holidays, pretty symbolic, wouldn’t you say? Plus, it tells us that if we don’t catch him soon he’ll strike again at Christmas.”
“Do you think that I’m safe Bill?” She could hear a long pause.
“I don’t want to take any chances, Maria.”
That was not what she wanted to hear, but she knew he was right. Brinkley must know that the police were on to him, causing him to deviate from his pattern.
“Maria, is Williams back yet?”
“No, not yet. I wonder what’s keeping him?”
“Well, when he does I want both of you to get in your office and lock the door.” Bill had a clear edge to his voice. “Do you hear me? Get in your office and lock the door when Williams comes back. Frankie and I are headed your way ASAP.”
“Okay. I’ll do what you ask.” But inwardly she was thinking, why not just leave the office? The answer came to her with a cold shiver, because he’s out there.
“Good, hang in there.”
“Okay, see you soon.” Maria said with a nervous quiver in her voice. She hung up the phone, folded her arms together and looked out the window. A misty fog had descended on the city. She could hardly make out the tall high-rise office building across the street. The variegated office lights looked blurry and out of focus.
In an effort to conserve energy, the Physical Plant at Central College turned off the lights on the side corridors after the last class, which ended at 8:30. Officer Williams finished his business and washed his hands under the bright and harsh fluorescent-lit restroom. Opening the door, the contrast of light-to-dark was stark. He squinted as he moved into the relative darkness of the hallway. He didn’t see the shadow emerge from the darkness. Before he could react, he felt a hard blow to the left side of his head. He fell to the floor, unconscious.
“Gotcha!” Evans Brinkley said in a husky whisper as he watched Williams fall to the floor. He looked around. No one else was visible. He grabbed the officer by the arms and dragged him to the door of a classroom. It was unlocked. Brinkley opened the door and dragged Willams inside. He laid him down underneath a blackboard just inside the door. Then, he walked outside and closed the door behind him. From his pants pocket he pulled out a handful of pennies, and began stacking them in threes and inserting them tightly between the door and the frame, causing the door to become slightly off center. He tried to open the door and it wouldn’t budge. It was a trick he learned in college, when he and his friends would play practical jokes on guys in the dorm by pennying them in their rooms. There was no way for anyone inside to open the door without removing the pennies, which, of course, could only be removed from the outside.
“That oughta’ hold you a while,” Brinkley said. Then, he turned and walked to Maria’s office.
Staring into the mist, Maria heard footsteps entering her office.
“Thank God you’re back,” she said turning as she heard her office door shut.
“I just got off the phone with Bill and ____,” Maria stopped cold in mid-sentence as she looked straight into the eyes of Evans Brinkley, who was pointing a gun in her face.
“Hi Miss Harvard,” Brinkley said with a grin. “It’s time for our final exam. Aren’t you thrilled?”
Maria made a move to get past him, but Brinkley was too fast. He grabbed her by the hair, and put the gun to her head.
“Not one word Doc.” Brinkley’s eyes were wide and feverish. “One word and I will splatter your pretty face all over these walls. Do you understand?”
Maria, in-between heavy and fearful breaths, instinctively retorted, “It’s you! How did you-?”
“Skip the details. We’re going for a walk, and if you scream, if you even utter a syllable, I will kill you right now!” Brinkley said with conviction.
He brought his arm up around her neck, in a chokehold, and began walking her out of her office, down the corridor to the elevator.
“What do you want?” Maria said, gasping for air.
“World peace Doc. But since that’s not likely, I’ll settle for teaching you about loss. Move!”
He had his left arm around her neck, and his right hand was holding the gun against her head. When they got to the elevator, Brinkley reached out, gun in hand, and clumsily pressed the down button. As he did Maria saw her chance. She bit hard into Brinkley’s left hand and then, bringing her right hand up, she slapped his gun hand into the wall, pinching three of his fingers.
“Damn you!” Brinkley shouted, grimacing. He let go of Maria as he tried to grab each wounded hand with the other. Seizing her chance, Maria shoved him into the elevator door as it opened, and then spun and headed for the stairwell.
She could hear the elevator door shut as she ran through the open doorway and into the dimly lit stairwell. She heard nothing behind her. She knew she couldn’t beat him to the main exit. Taking off her low-heeled shoes, she headed slowly and silently down the steps, stopping at a point where she could see the second floor landing and doorway. She sat down to compose herself and think. From her vantage point she could see up the stairs from where she had come, and also see down the two flights of stairs that led to the back exit. Where will he get off? She thought. Will he go all the way to the ground floor thinking I’ll try to out-race him? Or will he come through this doorway in an attempt to head me off? What if he got out of the elevator after I ran and is behind me?
Maria nervously looked up and behind her into the dimness of the stairs, but saw and heard nothing. “Shit,” she whispered. She ran her hands through her hair, and brought her arm up to wipe the perspiration from her forehead. Where is he? She knew there were janitors in the building. Why weren’t they around when a person really needed them? Her heart was pounding. Her nerves were fiber tight. At this moment she had never been so frightened, nor so alive. Every sound seemed loud. Every swallow was a gulp that seemed to make that plunk sound when a large rock is thrown into a puddle of water. Every exhaled breath seemed like a gale wind. Her stomach felt like knots of bread dough. Totally focused, her mind was like a laser, burning into the existential here and now.
Maria had to decide. If she went back upstairs she might be able to work her way to a phone. She looked around up and down, as if toying with the delusion that the thought of a phone would produce one. Becoming uncomfortable in her sitting position, Maria shifted her legs. As she did so, she bumped one of her shoes she had set on the step, sending it down the steps with a staccato of loud clops before resting against the wall at the landing.
“Shit, oh Shit!” she whispered. Instinctively she got up to retrieve it. Then, realizing the futility and possible fatality in such an act, she froze with indecision. Should she run for it? She looked back upstairs. He might be waiting for her up there. But that couldn’t be. He must have known she was trying to flee down the stairwell, so he would come down and try to head her off.
Peering down the stairs, Maria fixated on the doorway and landing. She continued her silent soliloquy. Since he probably beat her there, and didn’t see her, he either is waiting down there for her, or he took the elevator back up because he thinks she doubled back. Oh Jesus, what to do?
Tension was wrapping around her like tentacles. Finally she could stand it no longer. Bracing herself against the railing, she bolted down the stairs, ran past the second floor doorway, and started down the last flight to the rear exit. She had gotten about halfway down when Evans Brinkley flew through the doorway she had just passed. He tackled her just as she reached the bottom step, pulled her up, threw her back against the wall, and pulled out his gun. He had outguessed her. Like any good hunter, he had greater patience than his prey. He had flushed her out, like a rabbit in a woodpile. It didn’t matter now.
“Nice try Doc!” Evans said, slightly out of breath from the physical confrontation. “Nice try.” As he gripped her neck tightly and pressed the gun against her temple, the air had gone out of the balloon that was Maria’s heart.
Brinkley held the gun to her head with one hand. With the other he opened the exit door that took them outside into a small courtyard. The courtyard lights were dimmed and distorted by the fog as she felt the cool night air envelop her. There was no one around. They were totally alone.
“It’s time to enter the wilderness,” Brinkley whispered. “It’s time to pluck the last weed from my yard.”
She could feel his grip tighten around her neck, the barrel of the gun was pressed against her right temple. Maria searched for some words, something, anything, to stall until the police arrived. For some reason chess entered her mind. Without her queen, she was forced into moving her king in a desperate attempt to stall the attack.
“You have it all backwards!” Maria gasped. “It’s you who has become the darkness. It’s you who are the wilderness. You are the weed!” Her king was backing away, behind only a few precious pawns.
“You don’t know!” Brinkley exclaimed. “You don’t know about loss!”
“But I do!” Maria countered. “Please listen to me! I know about loss. I know the gangs killed your little girl. My brother was killed the same way. I know the pain! I know your pain!” She moved out a pawn as a decoy.
“Really!” Brinkley countered. “Well let me ask you this? Did they catch and punish those responsible for your brother’s death?” Check.
“Yes, yes they did.” Maria replied, trying to shift her weight as Brinkley tightened his hold on her neck and back. She moved her king out of check.
“Well they didn’t find the low life scum that killed my daughter. They got away free and clean. They’re probably down in some Third World shit hole of a resort drinking Margaritas and banging native girls. So you see Doc, the difference is that you got justice, and I got injustice. Who is to compensate me for my loss, for my pain? Who should pay for the fact that I’ll never see my little Brittany again! Huh Doc, who? I’ll tell you who. Somebody who is just like those bastards, that’s who. If all you cultural diversity type, liberal thinking, social sciency fucks say it’s the culture, well bring it on!”
Brinkley was now enraged by the comparison. His voice began to rise from a harsh whisper to full lecture mode. He spun Maria around and shoved her hard against the wall, knocking her head against the solid brick. Maria groaned, and became faint as she felt a warm trickle of blood run down the back of her neck. Check.
“Moan, yeah that’s it Doc, moan! Hurts don’t it? But I’m just getting started. You, you are worse than the rest. You wanna’ know why Doc? Come on Doc, ask me why?” With that Brinkley brought the gun up and slammed it into the left side of Maria’s head.
“I said ask me why!” Brinkley shook Maria as he forcefully whispered into her face.
“Why?” came her weak, barely audible reply.
“Because you lend credence to that bullshit.” It was now Brinkley’s turn at the podium. “Oh yeah, I have heard you in class talk about how everything in a society serves a function. How we must try to understand the cultural context of human behavior. Pretty words Doc, but it’s all bullshit! But you know what? You know what’s not bullshit? Ask me Doc?” Brinkley shoved her against the wall again. Maria’s hair and face were wet from the mist, and her left temple was throbbing. New trickles of blood flowed from her nose and a fresh cut on the back of her head. Becoming groggy, she knew that her only chance was to stall, to keep him talking. Maybe he would get careless in his rage.
“What’s…uh…what’s…not…bullshit?” Maria asked as she weakly strung the
words together and moved her king out of check..
“Glad you asked Doc. It’s Darwin. Now that’s some good stuff. That was the best part of your class! All that natural selection stuff about weeding out the gene pool. I like that! And that’s what I have been doin’ Doc. Weeding them out. Now, I have to weed you out.” Checkmate.
“No, no you’ve got it wrong, you don’t___” Maria said softly, trying to respond through her pain. But Brinkley cut her off.
“I don’t know?” Is that what you were going to say? I don’t know?” He took
the gun away momentarily and waved it around in the air. Seizing what she thought was her only chance, Maria fought the pain in her head. Mustering all her energy, she brought her right knee up and slammed it into Brinkley’s groin. He coughed and stumbled. As he did he pushed Maria to one side and she fell to the ground. Still dizzy with pain, she shook her head, but the dizziness would not abate. She looked up at Brinkley, who, though doubled over with intense pain, was now closing in on her. His hand was unsteady as he raised the gun and tried to point it at Maria.
During this entire encounter, neither one of them noticed the shadowy figure who had been watching from above, from the street near the sidewalk that led from the building. He had been watching, waiting for the right time, waiting for separation. Slowly, silently, the figure shimmied his way down the telephone pole upon which he had been perched. Attaining bottom, he quietly approached to get within range.
Maria heard a soft fooo-it sound, ending with a distinct thwack. She looked at Brinkley. She saw a weird look come over him as his eyes widened and he screwed up his mouth like had just eaten something sour. He stood straight up from his hunched position, and reached around his side as if to grasp something. The sound came again, foo-it…thwack. He took two steps forward, spun, and collapsed to the ground. He lay face down, motionless.
Maria, only half-conscious now, looked into the mist toward the street. It was dreamlike. She looked at the streetlight and saw the outline of a telephone pole behind it. In the mist, against the light she saw an apparition slowly approach her. As it got closer, she could make out the figure of a man.
Maria shook her head, staggered to her feet, and backed against the wall, as if trying to push her way right through the bricks. She squinted, and looked at him. He was holding something. As he came toward her she could make out the half-drawn bow and the reloaded arrow. Then, tears cascaded down her face as she recognized the dreadlocks of Johnnie Walken.
“Hal-loak-nak Akot Etu. (Hello sister)” Johnnie said as he came to her.
“Johnnie? Is it you?” Maria asked dumfounded.
“Yes sister, it is I,” Johnnie replied. He bent down over Brinkley for an instant.
He could hear him mumbling something.
“Shush little baby who is dat…. A furry black ball named fe…
And then silence. Johnnie placed his hand in front of Brinkley’s nose and mouth. Then, he stood up again to face Maria.
“You are safe now. This man has gone to the Mogats. He can no longer hurt you. He has had his compensation, and we have had ours. There is now balance. It is over.”
“But how? Where did you--?” Maria shook her head again to clear the cobwebs.
“I followed you from New Guinea, to your house, and to here. I positioned myself in my tower to await my enemy.” As he spoke Johnnie turned and pointed to the telephone pole.
He stepped to Maria and hugged her.
“You are my sister. A Dani man must protect his sister at all costs. For me to stand by and do nothing would have been dishonorable.” He broke the hug and broke out a wide grin.
“Hey sister. You remember me telling you about that other tribe fella who out climbed me in the competition?”
“Yes,” Maria said as she sniffed and began wiping the tears off her face.
“I am going to beat him next month.”
They both started to laugh, but the laughter was cut short as three police cars showed up, sirens wailing and lights flashing. They turned to the action on the street. Doors flew open as Bill, Frankie and three uniformed police officers ran toward them, weapons drawn. Maria stepped in front of Johnnie and waved her hands frantically in front of her.
“No! No! I’m okay. I’m okay!” She shouted. “He’s my friend! He’s my friend!”
Bill holstered his weapon, and waved the others to do the same. He and Frankie walked toward Maria. In unison they both looked quizzically at the man who stood next to her.
“You okay doll?” Frankie asked. “You look a little roughed up.”
“I’m okay Frankie, thanks to Johnnie here. He saved my life.”
Bill bent down over the crumpled heap on the wet grass.
“It’s Brinkley,” he said as looking at the face. “It’s weird Frankie. Two arrows through the heart and left lung just killed this guy, but he has a smile on his face. In all the murder cases I’ve ever worked on, New York City and Dallas combined, I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Bill stood up and walked to Maria.
“Hey, I think you need to quit your day job,” he said. He raised his hand and with the softness of a feather wiped a tear from Maria’s cheek. Extracting a handkerchief, he carefully wiped the blood from her nose and mouth. Brushing her hair back, he examined the wound on her left temple. He put the hanky there, and brought Maria’s hand up to hold it. Taking off his jacket, he placed it around her shoulders.
“We need to get you to a doctor. That wound to your temple is nasty.” Before he could change the subject Maria grabbed him and hugged him, very hard. She then backed off and looked at him.
“I’m glad you’re here,” she said with what little smile she could muster with her head pounding.
“Me too. I wish I’d gotten here sooner.” Then quickly, he pointed over to Johnnie.
“Whose this guy?”
“Oh, it’s a long story,” Maria replied. She looked to the sidewalk as Frankie, who had gone to the car, returned.
“Well doll, you’ll have plenty of time to tell it,” he said as he joined them. “I just got off the phone with Boggs, and explained what we have here. He said he needs you and your friend here to make statements, tonight. Why don’t we head to the station. Boggs will have a doctor there waiting.”
“Fine with me,” Maria said as she, Johnnie, Bill, and Frankie walked to the cars. When they got there, Maria turned to look one last time at Evans Brinkley.
“What is it?” Bill asked her.
“It’s ironic, you know,” she replied, “that Brinkley would think that the man who saved my life was the savage, while he, the civilized one, was trying to take it.”
“Makes you wonder who the savage really is, doesn’t it?” Frankie said.
“We are all savages, under certain conditions,” said Johnnie.
Maria nodded. “Yes, you are right brother. There’s a bit of the wilderness in us all. That’s the frightening thing.”
It was well after midnight by the time Maria had been treated by the doctor and Johnnie and she have given their statements to the police. Afterwards, she urged Johnnie to stay for a few days, but he declined. He said he had to get back to New Guinea. Tribal elections were coming up soon and Um’we was running for a council seat. Before getting into the taxi, Johnnie turned to Bill with the look of utmost seriousness.
“Maria is of the Dugum Dani, she is clan. You take care of her or I will hear of it!”
Johnnie shook Bill’s hand, and gave Maria a big hug. “Be well my sister. Visit us soon, yes?”
Maria broke the hug, stepped back but held both of Johnnie’s hands.
“I will,” she said. “I promise brother.”
Johnnie turned and got into the cab. As it pulled away Bill put his arm around Maria.
“Shall I drive you home?” He asked. She nodded tiredly.
They pulled up to the curb in front of Maria’s house. Bill let the car idle. There was a long silence between them, a tenseness that needed to be broken. Maria looked at her house, then turned to look at Bill. He was staring straight ahead. She took his hand in hers and squeezed.
“Bill, I don’t want to spend the night alone, not after all this.”
He looked at her. Despite her ordeal she was still beautiful. In the darkness illuminated only by the warm lights of the dashboard, her large eyes were coaxing him, beckoning him. They leaned forward at the same time and kissed. It was a long, lovely kiss. Then Bill’s mind went to work, and the defense shields went up. He broke off the kiss and looked out his window.
“Maria, I don’t ____, I can’t____.” She reached out to touch his face, then thought better of it.
“Bill,” she said, “You don’t have to be afraid. I know what you’re feeling?” He turned and looked at her.
“Frankie told me. He said you were afraid to get close to anybody because whoever did ended up dead.”
Bill looked out the window again.
“Damn Nguyen,” he muttered.
Maria brought his hand to her lips and kissed it.
“Bill, you can’t save everybody in life. No one should inflict themselves with such a burden. It’s a setup for misery. Besides, look at those men you saved in Afghanistan.”
“He told you about that too, huh?”
Bill stared straight ahead, down a dimly lit and foggy street that led to the past, to the Korengal Valley. He could hear the thunderous gunfire, and the mortar rounds. He could see the unit disintegrating and the blood spilling from his wounded men. He felt the burning pain as he took a round to the left side, then another to his right shoulder. He started working his jaw. Then he snapped back to real time.
“But look at the one’s I didn’t save,” he said.
“That’s right Bill, you didn’t save them all. You thought there was more you could have done. But there wasn’t. You could have been in three places at once and you couldn’t have saved them all. I know what it’s like to feel that kind of helplessness.” Her voice was gentle, but pointed. “When my brother Hector was gunned down, I felt guilty. I thought if I had been with him maybe, just maybe I could have saved him.”
Bill looked at her, and she could feel the tenseness in his body relax slightly. He saw tears welling up in those gorgeous eyes. She could feel herself about to cry, but she wasn’t going to stop. For the first time in years she was going to trust someone and let her defenses down. She knew that she had to be the one to initiate intimacy.
“I couldn’t save you either,” he said.
Now she did reach out place her hand on his cheek.
“Does it really matter who saved me? Does it matter who saves anyone as long as they’re saved.”
Bill shook his head. “No, your right, it doesn’t”
“It’s time to stop running, Bill. I know. After Hector died I ran. I ran fast, and I ran far. I built walls so high that no man could scale them. At Harvard, every time there was even the hint of intimacy, I walked away. I can’t even tell you the last time I’ve had…well, you know.”
“Why?” He asked.
“It was a mass of jumbled feelings. I didn’t want to get close to somebody only to lose him. So I protected myself. Call it a preemptive strike to protect my emotions. If I felt myself falling, then I ran. And on top of that, I had to get away from my grief, my ineptitude and the surroundings that had caused Hector’s death. I ran halfway across the world to forget, and to heal. But afterwards I learned two things. I’ve come to realize that I can’t run from something inside of me. I have to learn to confront my guilt and my grief, and overcome it. I’m not there yet but I’m getting better. I also realized that I couldn’t turn my heart from the people who loved me and who made huge sacrifices to provide me happiness. I have to open my heart again.”
By now tears were running down her face.
Bill reached out and gently wiped them away from one cheek, then the other. He brought her close and hugged her tightly. She wrapped her arms around him, and spoke softly into his ear.
“It’s time to come back to us Bill Maloney. It’s time to bring your heart back to us. Bring your heart to me. Please stay with me, if only for tonight. I won’t ask for anything more. Tomorrow we can see what happens.” She kissed him again and smiled.
“Besides, I make a real mean breakfast toquito. I know you love them.”
“I know,” he said, “Frankie told you.”
She nodded mischievously.
He looked at her, and mulled it over. Then he nodded. “ Okay. But it’s got to be beef, none of that chicken nonsense,” he said wryly.
She stroked his cheek.
“Yes sir, Detective Maloney.” Bill turned off the ignition. They got out of the car. Arm in arm they walked up the sidewalk.
“You haven’t met my parents have you?” She said.
“No. How do you feel about pepperoni pizza?”
“Well I guess there’s one thing Frankie didn’t tell you.”
They both broke out in laughter. Crossing her front porch they went inside, and with them went two hearts hoping to break free from the cocoons of fear that had imprisoned them for far too long.