Tomorrow Will Be Here Soon Enough

truck-bed

The party was lame, and when I say lame I mean that there were so many people there I felt like I’d walked into a Black Friday Walmart event. My only reason for attending—a favor to a friend, who’d introduced me to another friend before disappearing into the maelstrom of humanity.

So there I was—or rather there we were—standing like concrete stanchions suffering the abuse of a never-ending sea.

My new companion looked as thrilled about the situation as I felt.

“Give you a lift home?”

She laughed, “That obvious?”

“It’s coming off you in waves,” I smiled.

“Thanks,” she said.

***

I helped her into the passenger seat, slipped a tip to the harried valet running the key-stand, jumped behind the wheel, slammed the door, and exhaled in the sudden silence.

“Right?” she laughed.

I liked her laugh, there was something easy, yet heavy to it, like it had to push its way to the surface and was almost surprised at itself that it had somehow made it again. I smiled back at her.

I maneuvered out of the lot, inching past cars that most people only ever dream of buying. On the open road, I finally loosened my tie and sank back into my seat.

“Sorry about the lack of introduction. Did Kelsey drag you out too?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said, “it’s fine though. She’s great.”

“Yeah, she is.”

“Where am I heading?” I looked at her. “For you, I mean—sorry, I totally forgot to ask.”

She hesitated, “Would you mind if we just drove for a little bit?” Then in a quieter voice, “I’m not really ready to be home yet.”

“No problem,” I said. “Help yourself to the radio; passenger has DJ status.”

“Okay,” she said.

We drove on in silence for a couple minutes before she reached over and tuned the radio to an oldies station.

“I’ve got a place I like to go and sit when I want to be alone,” I said, staring out the windshield. “We can go be alone together if you want.”

She was quiet for a long comfortable moment.

“I think I’d like that,” she said.

***

Twenty minutes later, I’d backed my truck onto a dune overlooking the ocean. I pulled a blanket from under the back seat, and she followed me to the bed of the truck. Sitting there side by side, the gray sands ran away from us into the curve of the ocean, the waxing gibbous washing it all in an otherworldly glow.

I don’t know how long we sat, but the moon had moved a good hand’s breadth toward the black line of the horizon before she spoke.

“Kelsey made me come to that party because tomorrow . . . or, today I guess, is the anniversary of my divorce.”

I didn’t say anything. It’s always taken me a long time to think of something to say, and then more often than not I usually just say it to myself. Besides, there’s no correct response to something like that. I didn’t turn, but I felt her staring far away into the water.

“Do you ever wish you could stop time?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said.

She sighed, a quiet sound, almost drowned in the whish of the whispering surf. I don’t know if she even heard it herself.

“Just enjoy it,” I said, “tomorrow’ll be here soon enough.”

Her head was resting against the back of the truck, but she cut her eyes toward me and smiled. She had a beautiful, tired smile—the kind of smile that was finding it increasingly hard to get up in the morning.

“It’s hard to let people go, even when they’re gone,” she said.

I nodded then looked back out to sea.

“Do you think he ever really loved you too?” I asked.

She pulled her knees up to her chest, rested her chin on them, “Sometimes I wonder about that . . . but rarely more than twenty times a day.” She forced out that deep breath of a laugh again. “I don’t know why I’m dumping this on a complete stranger.”

I shrugged, “Sometimes the right person’s just in the right place at the right time.”

“I don’t know,” she said. She turned and looked right at me then. I could feel the weight of it.

“You have this . . . I don’t know . . . this cosmic sadness about you, like there’s someone way down deep in there—someone safe. Do you ever let people in?”

“I try not to,” I held her eyes for a few moments then offered a rusty smile of my own.

“What would it look like if you did?” she asked.

“Maybe I’m too scared to find out. Maybe they’d see me for the fraud I am,” I said.

She pursed her lips, thinking. Still staring at me but not at me.

“Maybe that’s it: maybe we’re all just frauds.” Her eyes came back. I was still watching her, sensing I needed this moment—this answer—somehow. She looked like she was going to speak again but then nodded like she’d solved some puzzle that had lain unfinished for years on the back table of her mind.

***

The moon had set. Across the horizon a buzz of warmth glossed the sky. It was a moment when the construct of time disconnects from the spinning planet we call home, the hands of the clock stand motionless almost in disdain of the parameters we dare to impose upon them. The bleeding sky reeled up the sun, but there was a weightlessness—a moment—I will never forget as we sat side by side, and when I looked at her again, she had fallen asleep on my shoulder.

 

*Author’s note: I have to give credit to Stephen King, Wendell Berry, and the film Before We Go for their influence on this story and to Jake Sidwell’s music for keeping me company while I wrote.

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Familiar

ghost

I lean into the warm water, feeling it fill my ears with a soft whoompf, the tip of my nose and lips just breaking the surface. Slow, measured breaths. Quiet breaths. The ceiling shimmers and flexes as I open my eyes, the water stings for a second. I like the pain. I’ve always liked it. Razors with their warm shiny edges, beautiful wet blades. It connects me to a body I don’t quite own.

The light flickers, buzzes, blacks out, wavers back to life. The cold fluorescent echoing in shadows.

Warm waves flood my scalp as Mama’s fingers ripple through my hair. Hands move mechanically, massaging my head. I go limp.

Shall I braid it?

I slide up, nuzzling my neck into the edge of the porcelain tub. I nod. I’ve missed my braid. Wiggling my fingers, I check the mobility in my left hand. A little better.

Good girl.

She leans over me. The light pops zzzaaap, black splatters her face.

“Sing?” I mumble.

Her hands disappear for a second. I feel her shift behind me and then lean closer.

Rock-a-bye, baby

fingers trace the red welted scars on my wrist. My blood burns. An itch only a razor can scratch.

on a treetop

fingers press into the flesh, digging, searching.

when the wind blows

Zzzzaaaaazzzaaaap a cough of darkness.

the cradle will rock

Something is shifting, changing. Her arms elongate, thinning, a yellow foot hooks over the edge of the tub.

The door handle rattles. “Ava? You in there?”

Patrick? What’s he doing here? His flight gets back tomorrow.

Zzzzzaaaazzzzzz a chaotic symphony of shadows dance gleefully along the walls.

Mama perches on the edge of the tub, all elbows, knees, and bony edges, like she swallowed a bag of hammers. Emaciated skin sucked around jagged ribs.

I wonder why he doesn’t come in. I don’t remember locking the door.

when the bough breaks

Her eyes are gone. Just a white sloping emptiness distending from straggling ropes of hair down to a pocked nose. The cheeks pull into something resembling a grin. Part of her bottom jaw is gone.

“Ava, who are you talking to? Who’s in there?!” The rugged mahogany groans as he throws a shoulder into it. “OPEN THE DOOR! AVA!”

Mama turns and scuttles up the wall, her wet, hacking voice splattering around me.

the cradle will fall

I can’t pull my eyes away, fascinated by the ripples of her distended spine protruding through her back. Bony shoulder blades squirm and jerk.

ZZZZZZZZAAAAAAAAAAAA POP the light goes out leaving me with one last glimpse of her body splayed across the ceiling above me, small but impossibly large, her head rotating, black hair falling around a sightless face.

and down will come baby

BOOM!

“AVA!”

BOOOM!

“BABY! PLEASE! AVAAAAAA!!”

I reach up in the darkness, “MAMA! DON’T LEAVE ME AGAIN! DON’T LEAVE ME!”

cradle and all.

CRAAAAACKKK! The door splinters open, a beam of light catching Mama’s form as she launches herself toward me, all disjointed arms, knobby legs, hooked fingers.

“AVAAAA! NOOOO!”

And then I am awash in fire and blackness and rushing water. Patrick diving, reaching, but he’s late. He’s too late.

Mama takes me.

Down, down into wet, shiny nothingness.

She Sleeps

she-sleeps

She sleeps.

I sit and watch. She feels safe when I’m there with her. I know even though she’s never told me. It’s there in the tranquil way her body lies under the sheets.

The autumn breeze whispers through the screen. The purr of cicadas whirs in my ears.

Is it possible to be so infinitely happy? So at peace. So still. So at home with the love of your heart.

She is the one I love. I knew it the first moment I saw her—that coffee shop in late August two years ago: me lost in some worthless conversation on my phone waiting on my order, and then I . . . how do I explain it? I felt her near me. I felt her before I saw her. I turned, and we saw each other.

Is it possible to fall in love at first sight? Can I use that cliché? It is a cliché. I know that, yet, I have to use it. No other words will do.

She didn’t smile, not right away, but in those bottomless eyes, those turquoise infinities, I felt her reach out to me. And I fell for her like a tree struck by lightning in the thundering mountain storms. Struck dumb to my core. Scarred for life. Scarred with a love so deep, so endlessly exquisite.

In that sliver of time—that breath—so marginal, so meaningless in its length, I was undone.

I became hers.

She became mine.

She stirs. I caress a strand of raven hair from her brow. I feel it damp with sweat.

I step to the window and raise it a bit more. Yes, good. The breeze flows around me, embraces me.

I stand watching her. My heart pumps, throbs, thrums threatening to explode with a love that consumes me.

She moves, subconsciously leaning into the night’s coolness. The curve of her breast pushes into the sheet for a moment as she turns and nuzzles deeper into her pillow.

I sit on the edge of the bed and watch her. She needs her rest. She works so hard; I can see the strain in her eyes when she gets home from work, the way she composes herself in her car before coming into the house. She doesn’t know that I know.

But when she sleeps, I know all is well. She is safe. She is loved.

I kiss the top of her head. Softly. So softly. I will not wake her.

She squirms, twists, turns onto her stomach. Glistening black hair cascades across her pillow, her naked back flawless in the moonlight.

I feel the love in my heart washing against my chest, waves crashing on forgotten beaches responding to the haunting call of the moon.

She sleeps.

At peace.

Radiant.

Goodnight I whisper.

I let myself out quietly.

Her husband will be home soon.

Stay with Me

natchez-trace-parkway-bridge
The phone rang at 9:30pm.

Kelly uncapped her pen, flipped to a new page in her binder, and thumbed her headset.

“Hello.”

Nothing on the line but silence. Normal. A lot of people who called weren’t ready to talk. The fact that their fingers had dialed a strange number set off some kind of mental denial. Like they wanted to take it back, to hang up.

“I’m here. You can talk to me.”

Now she could make out something—heavy, labored breathing.

“Can you talk?”

The breathing hitched.

“It’s okay. Take your time.”

When the voice came, it sounded soft and garbled in her headset, like the throat and jaw muscles were trying to figure out how to coordinate.

“ . . . didn’t think . . . was going to make this call.”

“Why not?” She jotted down male, and waited a beat. When the voice didn’t respond, she tried again, “Why didn’t you think you would call?”

“I wanted to be alone.”

“Are you alone right now?”

No response.

“Can you tell me your name?”

“Paul,” he whispered.

“It’s nice to meet you, Paul. Is it okay if I keep talking with you?”

He mumbled something.

“Paul, did you take any drugs?”

His breathing evened out like a person drifting off to sleep.

“Paul, are you still with me? Can you say something?”

“No drugs.” It sounded like nuhdrukz.

She scribbled no drugs. “No drugs? Good! Good. What else can you tell me? Can you tell me what you’re doing?”

“Stars . . . so clear tonight.” His voice strengthened then dropped back to a mumble.

“You’re outside, Paul? Can you tell me where?”

“So clear . . .”

“Paul, where are you?”

His breathing juddered. He coughed. “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“Have you . . . have you ever lost someone close to you.”

She thought she had never heard such sadness and loneliness in a human voice. She rubbed her eyes. “No, Paul, I haven’t. No one close. I guess I’ve been pretty lucky.”

She heard a small sob—a sucking, wet sound.

“ . . . lost my wife and baby girl. Some kid was texting. Didn’t even touch the brakes . . .”

Another horrible sob.

“I just wanted to kiss them goodbye . . . but I didn’t even get to do that . . . I think I’ve been waiting to die ever since.”

Kelly’s pen hovered over her pad, shaking.

She cleared her throat. “Paul . . . I can’t even imagine. I’m so sorry.” She sucked a breath, exhaled, told herself to focus. Find another track. “Do you have other family around?”

“Huh?” He sounded disoriented.

“Do you have family you’re close to?”

She could hear his slow breathing, the work it took for him to get the words out.

“ . . . only child . . . parents gone . . .”

Her pen scratched across the page. “When was that, Paul?”

Strained breathing in her ear.

“Paul, are you still there?”

“Mmm-hmm . . .”

“Are you falling asleep?”

“ . . . tired . . .”

“Paul, why are you tired? Are you sure you didn’t take anything?”

“ . . . so big . . .”

“What’s so big? Where are you?”

“ . . . Natchez . . . bridge.”

Icy fingers squeezed into her stomach. She knew the bridge—a picturesque tourist destination with a soaring double-arch spanning the 145′ drop to the ravine below. She swiveled to her computer, pounding the keys, firing off the message to the local police department.

“You’re at the bridge, Paul?”

“Mmm . . .”

“Paul, stay with me, okay? Stay on the phone with me.”

“Tell me a story . . . any story . . . doesn’t matter.”

She fumbled through a story from elementary—a school play; things went wrong; general mayhem ensued. Every few sentences she took a beat listening for the slow breathing, for anything. She could hear him—a monotonous undertone accompanying her.

“What’s your name?” he whispered.

That’s when she heard it. Sirens. Somewhere far away but coming through her headset.

Hurry up!

“Paul . . .”

And then his voice, clear, low. “You have a kind voice . . . wish I could’ve . . . had the chance to meet you.”

“My name’s Kelly, Paul! It’s Kelly, okay? You know me now. You know my name. And we can still meet.”

The sirens were close now.

“We can still meet, Paul, okay? Just don’t jump. Promise me you won’t jump!”

His breathing trailed away to nothingness. The sirens still howled in the distance, bleating and echoing in her headset but somehow getting no closer.

Hurry the hell up!! Why aren’t you there yet?!

“ . . . blue . . .”

“Blue what, Paul? What’s blue?”

A whimper. The sound of a small animal lying broken in the dirt.

“Paul, don’t do it! Please!” She slammed her fists on her desk helplessly again and again.

“Don’t do it!”

The messenger alert on her computer chirped.

“RESPONDING UNITS ARE REPORTING NO ONE ON THE BRIDGE. PLEASE CONFIRM LOCATION.”

“ . . . did . . . good job . . . Kelly . . .”

“REPEAT. NO ONE ON BRIDGE.”

And then she heard him—his voice far away, a whisper echoing in and out of the sirens, a voice so tired, so infinitely tired, finally succumbing to sleep.

“I already jumped.”

***

*Author’s note: When I was at the Natchez Trace Parkway bridge several weeks ago, I noticed a sign with the words “There is hope” and the number for a helpline. That–along with the short film “The Phone Call”–heavily influenced this story.

Come On Home

pen and paper

I would’ve missed him except for the bachelorette party. I don’t spend much time down on Broadway. Too many people. Way too many people. The beacon lights outside of Bridgestone Arena draw the tourists like bugs—swarms and swarms of them.

I was fighting my way up toward the intersection at 5th when the girls came pouring out of Tootsies. Jean shorts, check. Tank tops, check. Boots, check. Official Nashville bachelorette party attire checklist complete. The one in front nearly ran me over—the maid of honor I guessed by the way she was shepherding the poor girl sporting the lacy BRIDE sash. She managed to redirect at the last second after ricocheting off of me.

“Mscuseme! I am sooo sorry!”

Two blonde girls bringing up the rear found this whole thing uproariously funny for some reason.

I took it in stride. Considering where I was, I deserved what I got.

“It’s fine,” I said.

Bachelorette parties. On Broadway. Like shooting fish in a barrel—you couldn’t miss ’em if you tried.

“Congratulations.”

The blonde twins laughed even harder. It was nice to see them enjoying themselves since they probably wouldn’t remember much the next morning judging by their complete lack of pacing.

It was only 8:30 in the evening.

I left them there, a pack of dizzy minnows fighting the river of life flowing around them.

At the crosswalk, I lost the light and settled in for another wait. Something red to my left caught my eye. Turning I saw an elderly gentleman. He was wearing a sunny yellow polo shirt tucked into neat blue jeans. The starched jeans sported razor-sharp creases breaking over blindingly white Nikes. On his head was a scarlet baseball hat with USMC VIETNAM VETERAN stitched in gold lettering above the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor crest. It was his hat that caught my attention, but what held it was the look on his face—a look of calm, the kind of look you’d get while staring out across the gulf at sunset while the sun bled away . . . a look of tranquility stumbled onto after years of searching. It was completely incongruous with the mayhem around us.

“Semper Fi.”

He turned and looked at me, and I saw his eyes coming back, coming back from wherever that peaceful place had been, and for a moment I wished I hadn’t spoken. I wish I’d left him out there . . . wherever there was. But the smile he offered put me at ease—a smile that all those mall variety Santa Claus’s would kill for, full of thrumming warmth and vibrant humanity captured in an old soul.

“And same to you.”

His voice was quiet, but it cut through the tinny cacophony around us.

I stuck out my hand, and he shook it. Before I knew what was I was saying, my mouth took on a rare initiative.

“Buy you a drink?”

He cocked a furry white eyebrow at me then nodded.

“Down here?”

“No. Let’s go someplace where we can hear ourselves think.”

***

We tucked ourselves into the corner booth, and after the waitress dropped off our drinks I made my confession.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I have no idea why I offered the drink. I know this sounds weird, but there was something about you that I saw, and . . . well . . . I wanted to know your story.”

He took a sip of his beer, “That’s good.”

“Told you. Locally brewed too.”

He raised his glass, and I clinked my bourbon against it.

“So what do you want to know?”

“I . . . I don’t know how to say this . . . when I met you, you had this look on your face—this look of peace that I rarely see in anyone, much less anyone on Broadway on a Saturday night.”

He smiled, “Nashville was a special place for us—my wife and me. I was remembering our last time here.”

“I’m sorry. Is she—“

“She passed away two years ago.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you. We had a great life together.”

“I’m sure she was a lovely woman.”

His eyes got that far-off look again, “She was. We loved to travel. We went all over the country.”

He pulled an old Rand McNally map of the United States from his pocket and spread it on the table. It was creased, worn, and covered with pencil marks: cities circled here, notes jotted there.

“This was our bible. After I retired, we took this map and made our wishlist of all the places we wanted to go.” He ran his fingers across the map touching city after city as he told me stories of where they’d been. When he touched Charleston, something in his pale blue eyes sparked.

“One of our favorites. Spent our honeymoon there, and when all was said and done, that’s where we settled down. That’s where—“ he trailed off. His eyes were wet and bright.

“You know what’s great about getting old? You can cry whenever you want and no one’ll say anything about it.”

I raised my hands, “Nothing to fear here.”

It’s just . . . sometimes memories come back all crystal clear like you’re actually re-living them and not just remembering them.” He glanced out the window, his voice fading away. “We made love on the beach. The night was perfectly black, and we just lay there after . . . . Wrote our names in the sand, then lay there looking up at the stars and feeling like we’d never get old.”

He traced the X, “Charleston was always my favorite.”

Looking back down at the map, he touched a few more X marks, and when he turned his face to me again, it was the face of a man haunted by ghosts of pain I knew I did not fully understand; I only knew that it was awful.

“I lost her before I lost her. Her mind, you see, it went early. I think that was the worst because she was still there, and when I looked into those hazel eyes of hers—those eyes that made you want to walk into fire and kill dragons for her—and I didn’t see her in there anymore . . . it was almost more than I could handle.”

He took another drink then whispered, “Sometimes it was.”

He looked up and I saw a desperation in his eyes that didn’t touch his voice, “Do you understand what I’m saying?”

I nodded.

I did.

***

I took a deep breath then knocked.

“Come in.”

Stepping into the room, I fought the claustrophobia clawing up the back of my throat. Grandma sat in the small chair to the left of her bed. Through the two windows, the late afternoon sun warmed the gold walls above her dresser—one of the few pieces of furniture she’d brought when she’d left her house to take up residence in the assisted care facility.

“Hi, Grandma, how are you?”

For a second I wasn’t sure if she remembered me, but then she lit up, and I saw the shadow of the woman I’d always known—the razor-sharp mind behind the English professor, the prolific reader, the only one in my family who read faster than me. And for a few minutes we got to talk, and she was there, really there. But then I saw the light go dim as something in the back of her mind reached up and pulled the blinds.

She sat silently twisting her hands in her lap.

“Are you married?”

There it was.

I said no. I said no to my grandma who’d sat at my wedding in her flawless green dress, fur stole, and diamonds. The lady who exuded effortless class. The lady who now looked at me with empty, childlike eyes.

She pointed her finger at me—the timeless way she had of demanding absolute attention—and said, “Well, you find a good girl. Okay? You find a good one.”

Somewhere in my chest my heart crawled away into a dark corner.

I told my head to nod.

“Okay, grandma. I will.”

***

She would write poems.”

He was swishing the dregs of his beer round and round in his glass. “She would write poems when she had her clear moments. Sometimes not more than a few lines, sometimes she’d fill a page . . . it all depended on how long she was there. Once, she’d been gone for almost a week, and I was losing my mind, just losing it you know? I needed her . . . I needed her.”

He touched the map again almost as though the memories captured in the pencil scrawls gave him strength. “I came in and saw her with the pen in her hand. I could tell she’d just finished writing. I ran. I ran to her, but when I turned her around her eyes were already empty.”

He pulled out his wallet and extracted a tiny piece of yellow paper. Once he unfolded it, I saw it wasn’t yellow; it just looked that way. It had been folded and unfolded countless times until the original white paper had faded into a dusky yellow. The fold marks were nearly translucent.

He placed it on the table between us. Even though it was warm in the bar, I felt a cold hand slide down my spine as I read the beautiful, looping cursive—

Listen
For it is in those moments
Of deepest silence
I often scream
Loudest.

His hands trembled as he slid the paper back into his wallet then gulped the rest of his beer. “I almost went crazy when I read it . . . think I would have if she hadn’t written another one.”

“So she did write another one?”

“Yes. One.” He pointed at his wallet where he’d replaced the slip of paper.

“She wrote it three weeks later.” That horrible ghost crossed his face again. “Those weeks . . .” he trailed off.

“But we don’t need to talk about that. What matters is the last one.” The smallest hint of a smile touched his eyes. “But that one’s just for me.”

He faded off. Away out there again. I hated to interrupt, but I wanted to know.

“So why Nashville?”

He looked up, and I could see the young man deep inside him—the one lying on the beach tangled together with his hazel-eyed girl watching her eyes shift to green in the darkness. I saw the iron-edged strength at the pale edges of his blue eyes.

“When she wrote her last poem, we had a couple hours together—a couple hours where I had all of her. And she held my face like she’d do when she wanted to make sure I was paying attention, and she got real close—almost nose to nose—with those eyes of hers pulling me in, and she said You go on out there; you take our map, and you go way out there, and when you’re ready—when you’re really ready—then you come on home.

And so that’s what I did. I’ve been all over revisiting our favorite places and waiting for something—I’m not sure what. I just knew I’d know when I finally found it.”

He exhaled.

“I found it tonight.”

Folding the map in his cracked hands, he caressed it—a lover’s note that had whispered in his ear for maybe a little too long. As he slid it into his pocket, a weight seemed to slide from his shoulders. The last tiny cog in the maze of his soul fell into place, and with it, a small piece of himself that no longer needed chasing.

“I think I’m gonna go on home now.”

He nodded to himself, “Yeah. Yeah, I think so.”

He stood, and I watched him go, a small, hard man pushing through the door and out into the big night.

 

*Author’s note: I saw this man while I was driving through downtown. I couldn’t get his face out of my mind, and that’s where this story grew from.

Written while listening to Augustines “Walkabout.”

Splinters

splinter tree

He collapsed onto the bench beside me.

“You’re early.”

I nodded.

He sat for a moment soaking in the last of the September sunset; away to our left the sun ignited the sky, washing everything with a warm, pulsing glow. The traffic down the hill below us flowed along with its undercurrent of beeps and the throttled thrum of downshifting tractor trailers.

“How are you today?”

He laughed—or at least something that passed for a laugh.

“You know, you’re about the only person who asks that. Normally it’s you good . . . how are you . . . I’m so sorry.” He shook his head, “I never really know what to say, so I don’t say anything much more than I’m okay . . . I’m fine . . . thanks for asking. It’s like they’re embarrassed to talk about it.”

“It’s tough to know what to say.”

I pulled my flask out of my jacket and offered it to him. He took it without looking, unscrewed the cap scree scree and took a pull.

“You know the hardest one I get? When they say you’ll meet someone else, don’t you worry, such a great guy like you, just you wait, when you least expect it. What if I don’t want to meet anyone else?”

He twisted the cap back and forth scree scree scree.

“Is that wrong?”

I shook my head, “No.”

“I mean, the people who say that, maybe they just experience love on a different plane from me.” He took another swallow, coughed. “I can still remember the first time I saw her. Fifteen years ago, and I remember it like it was yesterday, and it wasn’t love at first sight—I don’t believe in that—but it was something. I knew there was something about her—this blonde, green eyed creature who’d stepped out of some fairy tale and cracked the foundation of everything I thought I knew about life. She didn’t even notice me—there were hundreds of people around—but I couldn’t stop staring at her. I knew I had no chance. And then she actually said yes . . .”

scree scree scree

“I remember what she wore on our first date, that green sweater . . . her favorite color . . . man, the way it made her eyes crack . . . I don’t think I tasted one thing I ate that night. I couldn’t stop staring at her. I was afraid it was a joke, like the maître d’ was going to come up during the middle of our appetizer, tap me on the shoulder, and say I’m so sorry, sir, but there’s been a mistake. The lady’s real date just arrived. It’s time for you to go. And then some James Bond deal would walk up, take my glass of wine, and smile while the hostess showed me out the door.

Do you know what it’s like to be so out of your league you feel like you’re drowning? all the time? That’s the way I felt with her. Always. Like I was drowning. It hurt to breathe sometimes.”

scree scree

“Still does.”

A big rig hit its jake brakes and grumbled down the hill, the rumble reverberating around us. He turned to look at it then looked down at the flask like he’d forgotten he was holding it. Passed it back to me. The bourbon was good, the warm bite crawled down my throat.

“I know that look, you’ve got something rolling around in that brain. You can say it.”

I took another swallow, “Okay, I see it this way: I don’t think we look back at the past with rose-colored glasses simply because of how good the past was, but rather because we think about all the pain we’ve been through in the interim, and we realize that that past version of ourself hasn’t experienced that pain yet. We want to keep them always as happy and unscarred as they were back then.

I know that doesn’t make you feel any better. She’s gone—it was out of your control, is what I’m trying to say—and unfortunately, life’s instruction manual is pretty cut and dried: Pain Included. No Refunds. Thanks for Playing.” I shrugged, “Whether we like it or not.”

His voice climbed, a hard edge tinging it, “But just because she’s not in my life anymore doesn’t mean she’s gone from here.” He tapped his temple with two fingers. “Just last week I was at the mall, I was gonna buy a watch. I was at the counter, you know, just looking and all of a sudden I felt like she was behind me. I smelled her. That perfume she wore— I knew if I turned around she’d be standing behind me looking at me with those eyes. I froze. It was so real. I just stood there waiting for her to slip up behind me and rest her chin on my shoulder and whisper hey you watcha doing . . . I knew it was her, but I knew it wasn’t at the same time. This girl steps up beside me and it’s all I can do not to fold in on myself and go to pieces right there in the middle of the damn store. That girl had no idea when she put on that perfume that morning . . . she had no idea what she’d do to me . . .”

He grabbed his head with both hands, “There’s this splinter of her in here.”

Of course there is. And it might take years before it works itself out to a place where you can finally grab it, pull it free. Put it to rest.”

He closed his eyes, whispered, “Dammit it hurts.”

“I know it does. Splinters always do.”

He rubbed his eyes, leaned back and looked across to the dying horizon before pulling a package out of his jacket. With a quiet exhale he unrolled it on his lap, the paper shaking in his hands.

“Can I get one more hit of that?”

He took the flask, rubbing the worn leather with numb fingertips.

scree scree scree

“Daisies.”

He nodded.

scree scree

“She loved those,” I said.

He knelt and laid them alongside the marble headstone.

“Yeah. She did.”

The Letter

The apple caught Bobby behind the left ear, dropping him in the dirt.

Cal spun around, only one person threw like that.

“Whatcha little dipshits up to, huh?” Brad sauntered out from behind a tree tossing another apple. His twin, Carver, trundled out after him. What Carver lacked in smarts he more than made up for in size.

Cal wished Little Pete were there, but he was off at his grandparents’ place for his annual week-long visit. Little Pete was the only buffer between them and the Terribles as they liked to refer to the twins.

Bobby wobbled to this feet rubbing his head. Cal steadied him.

“Aw, is the little guy hurt?” Brad said. Carver picked at a zit then wiped his sausage fingers on his stained dungarees.

“Go away,” Cal said.

“Or what?”

Cal stared at him.

“Just go away,” Bobby said, “we aren’t causing you guys any trouble.”

“Yeah, but that’s the rub, ain’t it, Bobby? We like trouble.”

Carver giggled, a fat pig getting his stomach rubbed.

Bobby stepped up, “You just wait ’til Little Pete gets back—“

“Yeah?” Brad shoved him, sending Bobby to the ground again. “That fat piece o’crap ain’t here now, is he? So whatcha gonna do about it?”

As Bobby struggled to his feet again a piece of paper fell from his pocket. Brad snatched it up.

Bobby made a grab for it, “Gimme that!”

“What’s the little boy been writin? Maybe it’s a looooove note,” Brad rolled his eyes unfolding the paper. Carver giggled again.

Bobby balled up his fists. Cal grabbed his shoulder, shook his head.

“Ho-ly hell, Carver, it is a love note. And it’s to Francine.”

Bobby sagged into Cal.

Carver pawed at his brother, “Read it! Read it!”

“Shut up,” he squinted at the paper, “you wouldn’t even understand half these words.”

He wheeled on Bobby, “Where’d you learn to use such big words?”

“Reading,” Bobby whispered, “maybe you should try it.”

“What’d you say, shrimp?”

“Nothing.”

“ ‘swhat I thought. Why don’t you just keep your little dreams of romance packed away in that little excuse for a brain you got stuck between those elephant ears of yours. Ain’t no girl gonna look twice at you, not even that fat cow Francine.”

“Fat cow!” yelped Carver.

“Shut your face, Carver, you ain’t got no room to talk, you sweaty meatball.”

Carver shut up.

They stood, the four of them squared off in the dusky summer heat. Sweat rolled in Cal’s eyes, but he never stopped staring at Brad. The quiet glare unnerved Brad for some reason. There was something off about the thin boy in front of him, the way he didn’t cower like the other kids, the way he just stood there staring.

“Ain’t got nothin to say, Cal?”

Silence.

Carver tugged on Brad’s shoulder. “C’mon, let’s go.”

“I’ll go when I’m damn-well ready to go,” Brad shrugged him off. He stepped towards Cal.
“You stay outta my way, freak. You and your pet runt.” He shoved his dirty finger into Cal’s chest.

Cal just stared.

It was wrong, Brad thought, to stand there like that. Wrong in some way his muddy mind couldn’t quite grab.

He slowly shoved the letter into his mouth, chewed it, then spit the globby mess into the dirt. “Hope she can still read it.”

The twins turned and lurched off into the trees.

Bobby sank to the ground and gingerly poked at the pulpy mess.

Cal laid a hand on his shoulder.

Bobby looked at him and sniffed, “I’m fine.”

Cal read the lie in his eyes.

“I jus’,” Bobby’s voice quivered, “I really worked hard on that letter. Been holding it for a week waiting for the right time to give it to her.”

He stood, swore, and kicked the wadded mess into the grass on the edge of the trail where it lay, broken roadkill left for the birds.

“I even wrote her a poem.”

Cal raised an eyebrow.

Bobby caught the look, shook his head. “I could maybe re-write it, but it’s not gonna be as good. It just had a . . . a magical feel, like I really got it right.”

He shrugged then started down the trail. Cal didn’t follow.

“You coming?”

Cal shook his head.

Bobby nodded, used to the mysterious ways of his silent friend.

“Swimming hole tomorrow?”

Cal nodded.

Bobby turned and shuffled away. Cal watched his little slumped shoulders until he rounded the bend in the trail and disappeared.

The trail was empty. Just the low summer afternoon and the grasshoppers singing in the shade of the forest.

Cal looked after him for a moment longer then turned and plunged into the woods.

***

“How do you eat that crap?” Bobby stared as Little Pete took another bite of black licorice.

“ ‘sgood.”

“False.”

“Whatever.”

Little Pete leaned back against the railing while Cal creaked back and forth in the old porch swing. Bobby gnawed his pencil and stared at the pad of paper in his lap.

“Heard you two had a run in with the Terribles last weekend.”

Bobby snorted.

“And I heard somethin else too, they done had some kinda run-in with some outta town punks. Leastwise that’s the story they’re tellin.”

Bobby perked up, “Say what?”

“Yep. Beat the everlovin piss outta ’em from what I heard,” he hocked a fat black wad into the yard, “done got their asses handed to ’em. Brad, he got one of the best lookin shiners I ever seen. Can’t believe you ain’t heard about it.”

Little Pete looked at Cal. “You sure you don’t know nothin about it?”

Cal opened one eye, stared at Little Pete, yawned, and went back to rocking.

“I sure would like to meet those fine gentlemen that delivered the beating and shake their hands,” Bobby sounded almost reverential.

Little Pete gnawed off another bite.

“Would you quit it with that? You’re making me sick. Smells like death on a stick.”

Little Pete sniffed the licorice, shrugged.

“It suits me.”

*Author’s note: This story falls into the world of “Move” and “The Swimming Hole.” I’ve gone back and forth on first and third person POV, and I think I’ll be sticking with third going forward.