I splash the ice cold water onto the face on the man zip tied to a chair in my living room. He wakes with a start spluttering.
“Tell me what you are doing here?” I demand. He just looks at me with disdain remaining silent. “Look I’m kind of pressed for time right now, so you can tell me what I want to know easily or I can cut every bit of information from your flesh,” I threaten him darkly. He remains silent then he spits in my face and mumbles an insult in Russian. I backhand him hard enough to knock him and the chair over.
“So you’re Russian, at least we’re getting somewhere,” I tell him pulling the chair upright again. “You know it’s a good thing you’re not the same Russian guy who attacked the very pregnant love of my life, because when I find that guy, no force on Earth is going to save him.” I hiss in his ear then I take a step back. His face seems to show a glimmer of recognition.
“You are FBI, you can’t do anything to me,” his thick Russian accent drips with confidence. I lean my head in close beside his ear.
“Actually I’m retired,” I scowl and I drive the hunting blade into his thigh as I stuff a rag into his mouth to supress the scream. I wait a couple of moments for the string of curses being muffled into a rag to stop before I ask him again. “Now tell me what you are doing here,” I command as I pull the rag form his mouth.
“You crazy fucking bastard, I’m going to kill you,” the man howls and I stuff the rag back into his mouth. I dramatically wrap my fingers around the hilt of the blade sticking out of his thigh and his eyes are so wide I fear they might actually pop out of his skull. Then in a smooth jerking action I pull the blade from his leg. The rag still muffles his screams and curses and I let him see the pulsing scarlet liquid pooling out on his thigh and flowing over his knee like lava down the side of a volcano. When he stops his curses I remove the rag from his mouth.
“Now you can tell me everything or I can let you bleed to death.” I tell him nonchalantly.
“Okay,” he wheezes, “I’ll talk.” I apply pressure to his leg to slow the bleeding and he winces in pain.
“Talk,” I hiss.
“All I know is that I’m supposed to be watching the girl.” His accent is crushing the English words as he tries to speak through the pain.
“Who hired you?” I demand. His head bobbles weakly to one side.
“Nolikov, Viktor Nolikov.”
“Is he in Bayfield?” I shake his collar to get his attention back on me. He shakes his head in response. “Are you certain?”
“He is waiting for my call to tell him when she is alone again.” He says exasperatedly.
“Does he know I’m here?” He nods heavily as his eyes start to roll into the back of his head. I pick up the phone I took out of his pocket and hold it up in front of him. “Is this how he gets in touch with you?” I ask him shortly. He nods again more slowly. The blood loss has made him weak but I can’t let this guy die in my living room. “One more question,” I say as I walk away towards the fire place, “are you the one who attacked her?” His eyes meet mine and I can see the fear in his. He knows my threat was deadly serious.
His head inclines ever so slightly as his face fills with regret. I ignore the regret, this man is a gun for hire with no moral qualms about slashing at a pregnant woman. I pick up the fire poker from the fire and the end is glowing red from being left sitting in the fire so long. I walk slowly back over to the man swinging the fire poker around like Charlie Chaplin did his cane. The man starts pleading and begging for his life when I get closer and I put the rag to his mouth.
“You’re going to want to bite down on this,” I tell him coldly. Then I drive the heated poker into the bleeding wound on his thigh in a crude cauterization, the sound of a grown man muffled screaming echoing through the tiny cabin.
“Now if you don’t mind,” I tell him injecting him with some morphine, “I have a date.” I inject him with some antibiotic to ward off infection after pouring alcohol over the freshly cauterised wound. I was merciful enough to dope him before I did that. I make sure his mouth is duct taped and I store him— still zip tied to the chair— in the small hall closet. He should be out for a while but just in case I secure a padlock to the outside of the closet door. I take a quick shower and get dressed, I make sure there is no trace of blood on me. I don’t have time to clean the living room, but I don’t plan on bringing her back here anyway. I pocket my gun and my prisoner’s cell phone. I throw my jacket on and I tap the closet door on the way out.
“Don’t die before I get back, I still have some more questions for you.” I say out loud as I reach my front door. On the drive to Ruby’s I find myself feeling nervous, I’m excited for what I have planned for her and not to mention the adrenalin still coursing through my veins from the quick interrogation in my living room. When I arrive in her driveway my breath is taken away by the vision before me. In dark blue jeans, her cowboy boots—from our trip to Nashville that she doesn’t remember— a boat neck red sweater and a suede jacket and coloured scarf.
Her hair long brown hair is down and wavy as the breeze blows it over her shoulders. I know winter is officially over and the breeze is slightly warmer but it will still be cold on our activity tonight. She jumps off the porch in a bouncy spring and her mood seems lighter than before. I try to pick my jaw up off the ground from staring at her so I can smile instead of just looking at her like an idiot. She blushes as I stay speechless and the colour in her cheeks makes her seem alive again. No longer the sun deprived creature I saw here a little over an hour ago. I run around to the passenger side of the truck and I open the door obligingly as she prances over towards me.
She gets into the truck with a smile,
“So are you going to tell me where we are going?” She asks and I shake my head at her.
“It’s a surprise,” I say intriguingly. As we reach the highway she lets out a sigh.
“You’re not taking me to the diner are you?” She looks at me displeased. I laugh at her a little.
“That’s it you guessed it,” I mock her, “I finally get you to go out with me and I’m taking you to your work on your night off.” She slaps my arm at me teasing her.
“Well where are we going then?” She asks again a little more worried.
“I can’t tell you exactly,” I try to pacify her, “I can tell you it’s in Minnesota.”
“What? That’s across state lines, I got my butt kicked the last time I let you take me out of the state without telling the Marshall.” She says in a panic.
“Don’t worry I won’t rat you out.” I tell her calmly, “besides it’s worth it to get out of town and live a little.” Ruby smiles at me in surrender then leans her head back against the head rest. I start to tune the radio until I find a country music station for her. “I’ll stop at the next gas station for some road trip snacks,” I tell her and her face lights up.
“Are you suggesting that I can’t go for any length of time without some kind of junk food?” She accuses.
“Of course not, I know it’s all the baby’s fault craving such bad food.” I say playfully and she laughs.
“I can’t believe I’m already blaming my kid for my vices.” She laughs and then she leans back into the seat some more. She starts to squirm around a little until she finds a comfortable position.
“Well it’s a bit of a journey, are you comfortable?” I ask her. She shoots me an amused look.
“I haven’t been comfortable for months,” she says sarcastically. We continue driving and she starts to tap her foot along to the music then I see the gas station sign and pull in. I fill up the tank and Ruby jumps out of the cab, “Surprisingly I need to use the bathroom.” I toss her my wallet over the truck bed.
“Can you get the snacks?” I ask her and she smiles at me broadly then stops half way into the shop and turns back to look at me. I smile at her and she just shakes her head and keeps walking. Once I’m done filling up I look over towards the shop and I can’t see her anywhere. I hear the chime of the electronic doorbell as I enter the store. I look over the tops of the few short isles and I can’t see her.
“She’s still in the bathroom,” calls an elderly lady from behind the counter and I walk towards the plastic bag stuffed with cholesterol raising calorie filled treats. I smile at the woman behind the counter but she looks away from my face.
“Is this our bounty?” I ask Ruby as she reappears in the store. She smiles shyly and looks at her boots.
“Well I didn’t know what you’d like,” she says embarrassed. I pick the bag up off the counter and I gesture towards the truck and Ruby starts ahead of me. I spot a stand just near the door and I grab the neck roll cushion off the stand and take it back to the counter to pay then I race to catch up with Ruby as she reaches the truck. I help her into the cab and as she sits I hand her the bag of goods.
“Lean forward,” I tell her gently and she does. I slip the roll cushion in behind her lower back and she leans back and the arch looks far more natural than her previous pose.
“Oh that’s perfect, how do you always know?” She says gratefully. I shut the door and go back to my side of the truck. As we start to pull away from the gas station back onto the highway Ruby turns her head to look at me. “So how do you always know?” She asks again and I look at her.
“I can just read people really well,” I say, “that and I’ve been pregnant a few times so I know a couple of tricks.” She laughs out loud and the beautiful sound echoes through the truck cab.
“Well that explains it,” she giggles.
The headlights of the cars passing us on the highway are a steady glowing stream. “How much further is it?” Ruby asks with a mischievous smile. I look down at the bag of snacks at her feet and smile.
“We have about another half hour to go, so feel free to demolish what’s left of the stash.” I tell her approvingly.
“That’s not why I asked,” she bites her whole bottom lip and scrunches her nose up in the cutest way. She squirms a little in her seat and looks at me apologetically, “I need to use that bathroom again.” I can’t help but laugh a little at the way she says the words like a child asking a teacher to be excused from a classroom. “It’s not my fault,” she laughs throwing her hands up in a dramatic surrender, “I’m a hundred weeks pregnant and the kid is crushing my bladder.”
“A hundred weeks pregnant,” I exclaim as I continue laughing. She swats my arm as she laughs as well.
“Stop making me laugh it makes it worse,” she scolds me as she tries to compose herself.
“Look there’s a gas station up ahead.”
Ruby gets back into the truck with an embarrassed smile on her face and we continue our original course.
“Thank you by the way,” Ruby says suddenly. I look at her aghast.
“I wasn’t about to deny you a bathroom break.”
“Not for that,” Ruby laughs. “For getting me out of the house tonight, I’m ashamed to say I’ve been feeling a bit sorry for myself this week and I didn’t know how badly I needed this.”
“Don’t thank me yet, you haven’t seen where I’m taking you.” I say mysteriously. Soon enough we enter the city of Duluth, Minnesota. I follow the directions I memorized from the flyer I received last week and before long I can just follow the distant glow of lights to our destination. I pay the attendant and drive around the lot until I find a park big enough for the truck. When I kill the engine I look over at Ruby with a slight terror creeping into my thoughts about whether she will be interested in this in her current state.
“You’re kidding me right?” She asks sceptically. I wink at her and I get out of the truck and run around to open her door. Ruby slides down from the truck into my arms and she looks up at me, “Mason I can’t go in there.”
“Why, because you’re a hundred weeks pregnant?” I demand playfully.
“That’s one reason, the other reason is I’m not twelve.”
“Well we’re here now, so you’re just going to have to suck it up.” I tell her firmly as I take her hand and lead her towards the ticket booth. The sounds of loud music and teenagers screaming saturates the cold night air. The bright multi-coloured lights guide our path towards the carnival, and the towering Ferris wheel is beckoning people from miles around. There are a couple of other tall rides that are spinning up and around at a speed that would’ve terrified me as a kid. I pull Ruby along and we reach the ticket booth window.
A young acne covered man sells us our tickets and smiles at us with his braces glinting in the bright lights.
“Dude you should totally get a job in our haunted house, you’d scare the crap out the kids.” He says with a congratulatory tone. I tell him I’ll think about it and I lead Ruby to the entrance. We’re passed on the way in by a gaggle of tween girls on their cell phones giggling and laughing amongst themselves as they walk along with their arms linked and swinging non-existent hips in skirts far too short for this weather. Ruby stops dead like she’s stuck in the mud and I turn to look at her.
“Come on, I’ll buy you a giant cotton candy if you’re good,” I encourage her playfully.
“A pink one,” she demands rolling her eyes at me. Then she smiles at me and links her arm through mine again. I laugh out loud at her trying to pretend that the assault on all the senses of this place aren’t inspiring a playfulness in her that has long been supressed. We make our way to sideshow alley first to play a few games, I need to work up to taking her on any actual rides. I discover that Ruby has a far better arm than me when it comes to throwing a baseball at milk bottles and I need to recover my masculinity quickly. I search around until I spot the game of skill at the end of the alley. Ruby is practically skipping beside me gloating about her pitching skills.
“It was rigged,” I tell her refusing to make eye contact. She bursts out laughing and jangles her prize in front of my face, the plastic charm bracelet with little blue birds hanging from it.
“You’re a sore loser, something I should keep in mind,” she giggles.
I smile and wrap my arm affectionately around the top of her shoulders and she wraps hers around my waist. I lead her towards the stand with the rows of sad yellow ducks running along the back wall. She looks at me and rolls her eyes,
“Are you sure you want to do this to yourself?” Her competitively mocking tone is adorable. I hand over the money to the game attendant and I pick up a rifle and hand it to Ruby,
Ruby smiles and takes aim, she fires a few rounds and I admit more ducks die than I expect. I look at her with a curious look as the attendant hands her a sequin hair band. I pick up my rifle and take aim. My masculinity is restored as I don’t miss a single target.
“Pick of the stand buddy,” the game attendant says slightly annoyed. I turn to look at Ruby as I gesture towards the wall of stuffed animals.
“Your pick darlin’,” I offer her. Her smile turns to laughter as the attendant hands over her choice. We walk along for a few feet before I offer to carry the toy for her. “You had to pick the giant purple gorilla.” I scoff playfully. She laughs at me then her head spies a snack food stand and she pulls me towards to smell of hot grease and sugar.
“The baby has terrible habits,” she tells me through a mouth stuffed with half a corn dog. I just smile at her as I thumb off the trail of ketchup on her side of her mouth. After a heart attack inducing binge we continue making our way along the sideshow alley. We play a couple more games and earn our made-in-a-country-you’ve-never-heard-of plastic toys. We come to the end of the row and see a sign for a miniature circus being held in the main event tent at the centre of the carnival. We squeeze into the crowded tent and I help Ruby up onto the bleacher style stand on the end and I jump down to stand next to her in the tent entry aisle.
As Ruby sits my eye level is at her shoulder, I refuse to take a seat when there are so many women standing and another guy has the same idea as he sits his partner in the seat behind Ruby and stands next to me. We nod at each other in acknowledgement and I’m impressed to find another gentleman in the vicinity. The show starts and the music is traditional circus tunes, the centre ring parades an assortment of clowns, jugglers and even an aerialist hanging from a shear curtain in the centre of the ring. There are dogs doing tricks and a miniature horse rodeo display with little people clowns riding them. The entire show is innocent and comical, making it perfect for everyone.
It’s a short show and it ends too soon for Ruby’s liking. Her face is sad as I climb the bleachers to help her up from her seat. She stands too fast and loses her balance and I grab her with both arms to steady her as she breaks into a terrified laughter clutching me around the neck.
“Well I suppose these are intended for high school kids to sit on, not pregnant women.” She laughs at her own comment. Her laughter is echoed by the woman sitting behind her as her partner joins her to help her up. He smiles at the women who are now looking at each other’s pregnant bellies and laughing at the sight. I shrug at the other man and he returns the action.
We leave the tent side by side with the other couple.
“You guys should check out the adult tent on the other side of the carnival, it’s got a dance floor and a band.” The woman tells us.
“And a bar,” the man adds looking at me. I nod appreciatively at the suggestion.
“That sounds like fun, are you guys heading over there?” Ruby asks politely.
“No,” the woman sounds disappointed, “we’ve got two other kids running around here somewhere we need to round up and get home.” She tells Ruby rubbing her belly.
“Well thanks for the tip, and good luck finding your kids,” Ruby smiles scanning the crowd with her eyes.
“Oh they’ll be out of money by now and looking for us too.” The man chuckles. We bid goodnight to the other couple and make our way towards this amazing sounding oasis among the chaos. Along the way I stop Ruby and turn her towards a queue of people.
“What are you doing?” She asks curiously and I look up to the sky and she follows my gaze. “No way.”
“Just one ride, we’re at a carnival you have to go on at least one ride or they don’t let you leave.” I say seriously.
“I can’t go on the Ferris wheel, I won’t fit in the bucket.”
“Of course you will, and you meet the height requirement so what’s your next excuse.” I demand.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” She mumbles as she lines up with me. “You better not try anything mister,” she warns me. I hold up my hand in a Boy Scout pose.
“I swear I will not try anything untoward,” I say disappointedly. We’re at the front of the line and they stop the Ferris wheel for us to get on, we take a seat in our bucket and I pull the bar down in front of our bodies and Ruby tries to shuffle back further into the seat. The bar in touching her belly but it is only flush against it.
“Good thing you didn’t try to bring me next week, or I wouldn’t have fit.” She says as the wheel starts turning again. I wrap my arm around the back of the seat and pull Ruby closer to my side to warm her against the cold air. She curls herself into my side as much as possible—as a purple gorilla sits between us— as we rise up over the lights of the carnival, the scene is magnificent. As we rise higher I can see the lake in the distance with the near full moon creating a highway of rippling light all the way to the black horizon.
“How beautiful, is that Lake Superior?” Ruby asks me and I nod in response as she lays her head back onto my shoulder. We reach the very top of the ride and as we flow over to the decent Ruby grabs on tight to the side of my jacket and closes her eyes as we fall towards the ground.
“Are you scared?” I whisper curiously. Her head nods into my shoulder rapidly.
“Hey,” I pull her face up to look at mine and she opens her eyes, “nothing bad will ever happen to you while I’ve got you?” I tell her seriously. Our faces are so close her eyes are full of trust as she takes a deep breath and looks back out towards the horizon as we travel over the boarding platform and start our ascent again. After a few more pauses and revolutions our bucket comes to rest at the bottom of the Ferris wheel again. I gently pull up the bar and I jump out and reach back to help Ruby out of the chair.
She hasn’t been able to stop smiling since we left the Ferris wheel and I know that this was the perfect idea for our date. We walk along a little further and we come across the haunted house,
“I dare you.” I mock her.
“Really, well let’s go then.” She challenges me right back.
“Whoa lady I can’t let you in here,” The attendant says uncertainly as we approach the entry.
“That’s okay kid, I’m not far enough along for you to scare the baby out of me, and I don’t have a heart condition.” She assures him. Ruby grabs my hand and leads us through the doors of the haunted house. It’s hilarious, the smoke machine and background music are outdated and I wonder exactly who is scared by this place anymore. Then the first ghoul jumps out from the wall at us and Ruby jumps and screams with laughter as she holds onto my hand. We make our way along in the dark with different shocking scenes being lit up one after the other. Cannibals, mad scientists, hanging corpses, the works.
The sound of howling wolves echo through the tiny dark hallway, then something fury brushes past us growling and Ruby nearly leaps into my arms. I try not to laugh as we continue and I hear childish screams of terror from people a way behind us. The next scene is a little girl skipping on a rope with her back to us, then she turns and snarls at us with her zombie face half falling off. The next scene is gruesome, a flaming fire around someone screaming as they’re burned alive while demons and imps dance around the fire hissing and snarling and reaching out towards us.
We break through the exit doors and the final screams of terror follow us out of the doors. Ruby looks at me in disbelief,
“That last scene was horrifying, they actually had the sound of sizzling skin on the soundtrack.”
“I can’t believe the wolf was what made you jump,” I says incredulously, “you do know you have a pet wolf.”
“Kida isn’t a wolf,” she snaps defensively, “and don’t think I didn’t notice you twitch at the sight of that zombie kid.” She teases.
“It’s not what you think,” I tell her calmly, “I was getting ready to shoot her.”
Ruby laughs as we stroll away from the haunted house, “I get that.” She agrees with me.
“Get what?” I ask hesitantly.
“You know those zombie movies when they always hesitate to kill the zombie child, and then they die?”
I laugh out loud and nod, “yeah I know the ones.”
“Well when the zombie apocalypse comes I’m sticking with you, because you have no qualms about shooting a zombie kid in the head,” she tells me matter-of-factly like the zombie apocalypse is just around the corner. Still laughing I grab the bag of candy from her.
“No more sugar for you, you’re high.” I scold her. She laughs in response and pats the gorilla gently on the head as she tucks her arm through my free one. We finally come across the adult’s tent and I’m relieved, I was starting to think it was a myth. We go into the tent and we’re both carded by the security on the door. Ruby smiles as we reach a tall bar table made from an old fashioned wooden keg. There is a makeshift wooden dance floor and a stage where the band is pumping out some popular eighties tunes.
I order a beer from the bar and a soda for Ruby. She is parched and starts gulping then stops suddenly,
“I’ll be right back.” She says apologetically as she puts her drink down and dashes gracefully for the ladies room across the tent. I sit and drink my beer in the middle of this warm oasis and I can’t believe how grateful I am not to be surrounded by screaming teenagers for a few minutes, and the band is doing a great job of drowning out the carnival noise.
“Someone should open up a carnival just for adults,” I say as Ruby returns to the table.
“They did, it’s called Las Vegas.” She replies and I laugh.
As Ruby finishes her drink I gulp the last of my beer and bite the bullet. I stand up and I hold out my hand towards her and watch as her face lights up and she hops down off her bar stool. We make our way to the dance floor and I’m thankful for the crowd as I pull her closer to me. The song paces have slowed so I keep a strong close hold on her waist and hold her hand with mine. I twirl her a few times with the music and she sways with her usual perfect graceful rhythm. I look down as she starts laughing and she inclines her head towards where we were sitting and I see the purple gorilla sitting on the bar stool watching us and I laugh too.
“You know you picked a good prize when nobody wants to steal it.” I tell her affectionately. We dance forever, just happy to be in each other’s arms. I bring in Ruby’s hand and rest it against my chest as I cover it with mine. I wrap my arm further around her lower waist and try to pull her closer, but something is getting in the way. Ruby giggles.
“We have someone running interference,” she says looking down to her swollen belly.
“Give me a break kid, I’m trying to lay down some of my best moves,” I lean down and whisper to her belly and she laughs at me. The crowd around us has dispersed to less than half the capacity of the place when we arrived. I glance at my watch and I know we need to be going soon, to get Ruby home at a reasonable hour. Eventually I drag a reluctant Ruby from the tent and we are thrown back into the full swing of the carnival.
“I feel like I’m sixteen again, apart from this,” Ruby says running her hands over her stomach. I hit her playfully with the purple gorilla to make her laugh. Then she spies something over my shoulder and dashes past me towards the stand. I follow obediently and shake my head at her when I catch up to the stand.
“Oh come on, we have to get matching tattoos,” she informs me, “how about this one?” I see her point to a red heart with an arrow through it. The guy manning the temporary tattoo stand laughs at us as I refuse her choices. Then she points to something that isn’t all that crazy. It looks like a sailor’s compass with the north, south, east west points on it. I rub my chin pretending to think about it then I finally agree and Ruby jumps up and down clapping with excitement.
“Stop jumping you’ll go into labour,” I warn her. Ruby takes a seat and rolls up her sleeve to reveal her wrist for the tattoo to be placed on it. I smile as I watch her excited face as the artist works. She’s completely unaware of the significance of this symbol between us, I spent so long searching for her and I felt completely lost without her. She is my compass, always pointing towards where I need to be. When she’s finished she jumps up from her seat and takes the gorilla from my hands. I remove my jacket and roll up the same sleeve she did. When it’s done she lines up her tattooed wrist beside mine and leans her forehead to mine for the briefest second. Then we make our way towards the exit after another snack stop.
We’re in the truck less than twenty minutes when I look over to see Ruby fast asleep with a content smile on her face. The purple gorilla is pushed up against the window and she’s using it as a pillow. I turn the radio down to let her sleep as I drive towards home on a complete high after an amazing night.