Form: composite novel

To Cut a Long Story Short

To Cut a Long Story Short

We lost. My generation.

My parents and grandparents were either unable or unwilling to do enough to change the world. And my generation was too late.

And now it is here. Just saw a vid in Meta about the hurricane that smashed New York. Well, its sister smashed Bangladesh the month before. And before that, the Summer Olympics were drowned in rain. In Brisbane, for God’s sake.

The world is heating up and there is no way back.

What do I do about it when it’s too late to do anything to stop it? How do I stop hating my parents, or people like them?

Should I have kids?

All of these things are crazy. I should not have to think about them. I’m only 26.

But there it is. There is only the struggle now.

What will my struggle look like, now that the enemy has broken the gates?

I don’t know. I only know that I can’t give in to what I feel.

In a nutshell, I choose life. That’s all you ever can.

*

Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash

Shining Through

Shining Through

Emma gazed at the stately old buildings across the river and wondered who had lived there before—100, 200, 300, or more years ago? She felt like she was slipping into a dream again when reality interrupted.

“You know, a lot of the Old Town was blown up by the Germans, during the war,” Stephen said. He surveyed the Charles Bridge and the Bedřich Smetana Museum as if he was checking off a list.

“We’re in Prague,” Emma said. “I don’t want to hear about war. I just want to see what’s here.”

As on cue, there was a murmur in the tree crowns over them as a soft breeze caressed the park, with its tourists and lovers.

Emma closed her eyes and thought of a number. 1852.

Her autistic brother loved numbers, but to him they were different. Michael said he sometimes felt the numbers had colors, even personalities. To Emma they were gateways.

“Well, what do you see?” Stephen asked, arms crossed.

“Maybe I see two lovers, eloping—running away together, never to come back.” She smiled, knowing what the response would be.

“You read too many romance novels,” Stephen said and shook his head. He checked his phone again. “The guide says we could catch the Beer Museum and the Bedřich Smetana before they close if we go right over the Legion Bridge now. Or maybe—” he looked north “—we should go back and cross over Charles Bridge on the way. Then we’ve done that one, too.”

“Sure, Steve.” Emma still had her eyes closed. Who were these young people? They had run away together but why?

Emma saw the woman clearly in her mind’s eye. As clearly, as if she was right there—between Stephen and her—breathing frantically, running to all that life in front of her she craved, never looking back.

If she could run fast enough could she outrun the chains of her past? Perhaps an angry father who had forbidden her to marry the man she loved? Poverty? Something about a war her man was about to be drafted for but he did not want to go, did not want to leave her …

Perhaps …

“Are you coming?” Stephen snapped the phone shut. “We don’t have that much time left.”

“No,” Emma said and bowed her head. “No, we haven’t.”

Kyrie

Kyrie

The Aubrac Plateau, France

“Except the small hut over there, I can’t see anything in this direction,” Emma said.

“That’s because there isn’t much,” Stephen said. “This is one big empty wilderness. I don’t get why you wanted to go out here – and this bloody early.”

Emma didn’t answer but started walking again, feeling the satisfactory grind of pebble-sized stones under her hiking boots. Before them stretched a sea of moorland, peppered with small wiry bushes and boulders and only stopped by distant mountains.

“Provence was better,” Stephen kept complaining. “I think we should figure out where to go next, once we get back to the hotel. I hear there are some nice facilities in Aurillac.”

“There’s also a quarantine,” Emma said and scouted the horizon. None of the paths she could make out felt right.

“Yeah,” Stephen lamented. “Not enough people getting their shots this time either. You’d think they’d have learned their lesson by now.”

“People don’t learn anything easy,” Emma said and turned to look back at him. She tried to remember how she liked him and was attracted to him, especially his sandy hair and tan and those sharp, clever eyes.

But this was one of the times when she had to try really hard. Stephen dialed up the volume of his laments.

“Jesus Christ, Em. We’ve been vacationing this part of the country like vagabonds for almost two weeks. We’re almost out of money and I still haven’t seen Paris, which was the deal, wasn’t it?”

“The water flask,” Emma said. “Give it to me.”

Stephen was baffled. “What are you talking about?”

Emma took it herself from his belt and then threw it to the ground, so the lid popped open and the water ran out.

“What the fuck are you doing?” He quickly kneeled down and took the flask, saving about half of the water. The day was still burning hot, though, like most August days in the highlands of the Massif Central.

Stephen tried to swat one of the many small flies that had come too close to his sweaty face but forgot he had the still-open flask in one hand and accidentally spilled more water.

“Fuck! Now see what you’ve made me do!”

“I didn’t do anything,” Emma said. “You’re the one who said yes to a morning hike, and you keep saying yes to things and then complaining about them. Well, now you have a choice. Go home to the hotel. You should be able to make it with the rest of the water.”

Stephen righted himself. “Emma, I am not going to have this kind of argument again with you. You’re not going to bait me.”

“It’s not an argument,” she said and tightened the clip to her blonde ponytail, getting ready to walk again. “It’s an attempt to get you to stop saying things you don’t mean.”

“Well, I won’t go home. I will go with you.”

“Then you don’t have enough to drink.”

“We can share. Or we can cut the walk shorter.”

“I don’t want to.”

“What’s … out there, anyway?” He waved his hand dismissively at the moorland. “This is like the asshole of Provence.”

“No, this is the Massif Central. It’s a place where people disappear – or try to.”

“You’re talking in riddles and I’m tired. Go on. See if I care.” He turned and began walking back.

Emma felt a sting of regret. She knew she had been a bitch. But she couldn’t help it. This was supposed to be the dream holiday – her first vacation on her own, overseas, and mostly without having to worry about her health or anything like that.

Maybe she was being a bitch because Stephen was being a dick. So she felt she had the right. And where did that leave her now?

She looked around at the lonely moorland spotting a small puddle of water she had not seen before. Otherwise, it was all the same as it had been in the half-hour they had been walking. And if she went on, alone, it would purely be out of spite.

You have to say what you really feel she thought to herself … if not, we might as well stop this right now. All of it.

Then she turned and walked.

The Maker of Rules

The Maker of Rules

My parents were so afraid I would fight against their decision, and to be frank, so was I. I didn’t want to cause any more trouble than I already do.

Normal people would probably see the rust-fading sunlight over there on Anchorage’s few tall buildings for all of two seconds and then turn their faces away from the bite of the wind and look back to where they came from. Maybe go indoors and try to forget where they are. But not me. I stay here on the rocky beach and feel right at home with the wind.

You see I found out early on that wind is one of the few things that don’t bother me. If you are on the autism spectrum you are usually very sensitive to all sorts of things. My mom used to get fits when I was little because I couldn’t stand that my socks didn’t go all the way up and over my trouser legs and covered every part of my skin.

I don’t know why, I just couldn’t stand it, and because mom and dad got so angry about it at times, especially when they were in a hurry, I also felt bad about crying and howling, which made me cry and howl even more. But I just couldn’t stand it.

That’s what you get as someone on the spectrum. You get a lot of things you can’t predict, and you get a brain that goes in all kinds of different directions. So when I was four years old I had taught myself the sounds of all letters and could read all the roadsigns but I hadn’t learned to talk yet, only scream. Like my mom once said, “figuring out what is wrong with you is like being a detective trying to find a clue on the beaches of D-Day”.

I didn’t understand that reference until we talked about my great-grandfather and the war he was in, but most importantly, I didn’t get it until I understood how much it stressed my parents that I couldn’t talk. I was busy stressing about it myself, I guess.

So now. One jump. Down from the rock, but not too close to the water. I have read that the temperature of the water is actually below freezing point in some places, only it can’t freeze because there is too much wind and too many waves.

The water you see here is Knick Arm and across it is Anchorage where dad now works as a private security man, after 20 years in the police force. Some days during our first winter here, there is so much snow on the road you can’t even get around the water which is like a long deep bay, or one of those lochs from mom’s home. You can’t get over to Anchorage, before they clear the roads, even though you can see it perfectly.

Then we call back and forth and dad assures he will get home, we just have to be patient and wait. What has changed?

Anyway, on one of those days, you get the feeling, ‘maybe I should just walk across the ice?’

Because by that point even the wind can’t stop the water from freezing. But of course, you wise up. It would be stupid to walk across the ice. You would probably not make it. Yet still, sometimes I think about it like that. Because that’s what it feels like for me. Every day I walk across the ice, never knowing when it will crack.

What new trick is my mind going to play on me? Is a tiny little noise going to feel like an explosion? Is a flash of sunlight a carving knife scratching my cheek, but warm on the back of my neck?

But I didn’t fight Alaska, not when dad said he couldn’t stand another year in the police. And he had this offer, albeit in the other end of the country. As far away from Yuma as you could possibly get in the same country. From fire to ice.

I didn’t fight it. I didn’t like change, sure, but I knew exactly now how the sun in Yuma worked. I knew when it felt like it should feel and when it was just me, who felt that the light was wrong on my skin, even when everybody else said it was a ‘fine and mild day’. Fuck them.

I also needed to try something new. I wasn’t sure if Alaska would be it. Sounded too extreme. Why would I freak out less over sensations on my skin here with all the cold, then down in the oven of Yuma?

Turns out, though, I’m actually better with cold than with heat.

Mom is always fussing, of course, and sure enough, I already have been close to getting it wrong and getting frostbite. However, I get along better with the cold. It feels better. It is less unpredictable. Not like socks.

Of course, the new school is important, too, but I have found out that some of the native classmates here are actually more accepting of a weirdo like me than many of my ‘friends’ back in the old school.

Apparently, according to Chugachigmiut tradition, I am one of their ‘two-spirit people’. Historically that is a name for people, you know, who could be both men or women. But it is also just a description. Like “Tyakutyik” which means “What Kind Of People Are These Two?” It’s a name for many types of people in the community who are a bit … different.

Which is nice.

Especially because Kira told me about it, and I like to get her to tell me more. About everything …

I smile when I think of her, and then count my own steps and the stones. There is a special stone just for her. And now I turn and walk, and turn and walk, back and forth on the same spot on the rocky beach, counting every step.

I know all the stones, and I know exactly how the wind feels here, no matter which direction it comes from. I can see our house and I can see Anchorage and the mountains over in Chugach State Park, sprinkled with white.

I have found out how Alaska works. For me, anyway. It only took me a couple of weeks. Whereas I never got used to the desert. I never found a way of playing with its rules. They changed too often.

The heat was too unpredictable. You could feel it in too many different ways, and sometimes they contradicted each other. Don’t ask me why cold is calmer. I couldn’t tell you.

Only that I am at fault. It’s because my brain is playing against me. There is nothing wrong with you, or the weather, or mom or dad. I take it all on me.

That also means I should be allowed to make my own rules, so I can stand being in the world.

I have walked exactly 47 paces now and it is time to turn. There is a place close by on the beach where the cold isn’t my friend yet, but I will get there. Maybe tomorrow. Right now I will stay in familiar territory. Then in six more minutes, it is time to go back in and do my homework.

But first I want to enjoy what I still can of my special nest here on the beach. I have made it my home and nobody is any wiser.

And that’s okay. Sometimes it’s okay that they don’t know what is going on with me.

More Mileage

More Mileage

What I have found out after I started on Taekwondo classes and got the black belt in marriage repair in record time, was that I am not a failed artist unless I make myself be one.

This is not my mother’s early New Age fluff. It is real. But you have to work for it to understand why the idea is worth it.

First of all, I have to acknowledge that I have a bit of time here and there and I have some space to work in, the attic if nothing else. Those are two of the Big Three when it comes to trying to draw or write, or any other creative shit.

Time and Space.

The third?

Energy.

I don’t often use my bits of time creatively because I don’t have the energy. I use them on Facebook instead, or watching telly or masturbating.

There. I’ve said it.

There is nothing wrong with masturbation, except that I do it alone. Whether I masturbate in the shower or whether I masturbate to the excitement of seeing my own opinions liked on Facebook, Twitter, and whatnot.

Sometimes you just need to jill off. Fine.

But the energy is gone.

And I think it’s gone because I’m still angry. Of all the shit life has dealt me. And about all my own mistakes. And about my children acting like crazy, and my husband being a jerk.

Well, I guess I am a crazy jerk, too, sometimes and if I expect them to live with me, I have to love to live with them even if they are crazy, angry jerks at times.

Or in the case of the kids, small mobsters.

One thing that Laura taught me in TKD-classes was that the girl (or guy) who is the most focused, usually wins. It’s about training yourself not to be thrown off balance and to continue to look for weaknesses in your opponent’s defenses.

So, like, what if I stop to go to the bathroom and have sex with myself during a difficult sparring match? Will it help me when I come back?

Sure, for all of two seconds until Devon kicks my teeth in. That guy is brutal – I wouldn’t want to spar with him even with all the gear we are wearing, but sometimes … I have to.

It’s that, or don’t show up.

I have been neglecting to show up for my own creativity because I thought that I needed all of Time, Space and Energy to be creative.

It would be nice if I had them all. But I probably never will. So either I search for the next thing to like, or I try to retain at least some focus in daily life.

On drawing.

First priority is doing an aquarelle.

If I can’t do that it’s a pencil drawing.

If I can’t do that it’s a sketch.

If I can’t do that it’s a quick study of some anatomical detail or a bird’s leg.

As long as it’s part of the overall story I am still trying to draw. At long as it is part of the whole.

It has the following benefits:

I get some shit done, instead of getting nothing done.

I get more energy by drawing what I can instead of nothing.

I get to accept myself more, because I practice accepting my fucking weaknesses every day, instead of getting paralyzed by them. And eventually, I will grow stronger.

Last but not least, I get to feel better about living, even if I never finish the story.

And today again I failed in all of that because Michael had an autistic fit and Emma said she hated me for not allowing her to visit Miriam for a whole weekend in LA. And Jon … well, he just hasn’t come home yet because some asshole had run his truck into a bus full of kids out near Ligurta …

And laundry has exploded all over the house and I am a crazy bitch because I can’t help myself and I yell at everyone. Not good for Michael, or Emma. Not good for me.

But tomorrow is a new day, and I will try again. Because what’s the difference between this and when Devon kicks me in the face during sparring and says it was an accident and I know he is not really sorry.

He is just a careless man, like Tom Buchanan from The Great Gatsby smashing things and then retreating back into his day job as an accountant where he is not careless but this keeps him from beating up his annoying wife, his annoying boss, and everyone else who is annoying because he can get out his frustrations during TKD class. Then he lets other people clean up the mess he has made, including blood on the mat from my face.

I asked Laura the other day why she allows a brute like Devon to attend class at all. I said, “He is fucking irredeemable. He will never learn discipline. He thinks this is a game!”

And Laura looked at me and said, “I am allowing him here for the same reason I am allowing you and all your whining about how things are with your family. Now get your ass back on that mat and take his guy down, or I’m going to throw you out of this class first.”

I got back and went through all rounds. Next Sunday I will be back for more.

This Day’s An Invitation

This Day’s An Invitation

It was summer in Berlin and time for a family to disintegrate. Emma, 16, had refused to even pretend she was with the others because after the way Martin had treated her she wasn’t interested in patching things up, only breaking them down.

She deliberately went five paces ahead of everyone else whenever they dared sortie from the hotel to navigate the bustling metropolis that seemed to have gotten a second lease of life after the pandemic.

If only there had been a second lease for her parents, it might have gone differently, but despite Jon and Carrie walking hand in hand, Emma had no doubt that it was all for show and that the recent arguments about divorce were about to come true. They might as well just get it over with like Martin had when he dumped her – by text message – just before they were to fly out of JFK and head for her second trip to Europe.

Making out the rearguard were grandmother and her new man, Marcus Chen. Well, he wasn’t that new. This was the third time, apparently, they were a couple and Emma could never really figure out what it meant. Were they good friends who had sex? Were they lovers? Were they, well, a real couple? She wanted badly to figure it out because it would give some stability to her world. It would show her that things could be for real and forever and all the things you could read in the books, at least.

She turned left and the ugly slab of concrete that was the Bahnhof Zoo station greeted her, but she went right past it hardly bothering to look at the map on her phone. With a bit of luck, she thought, she might stumble into a jungle part of the actual zoo on the other side and become lost if she kept going without looking. Or lose the others. She almost stumbled into a truck instead, as it pulled out from the parking lot behind the station.

“Wait up, young lady,” her father called. Voice firm as always, even if joy had long since left it.

Emma reluctantly slowed, feeling more caged than the animals in the Zoo they were going to gawk at any moment now. Or so she imagined. 

She suddenly felt all energy leave her. Even her anger at feeling lost and alone for the nth time wasn’t enough to keep her moving. Her heartbeat like a heavy machine and the sound of the traffic around her was like a silent dream. Dust from the park ascended in the heated afternoon, and the whole day felt tired from the lead in the air. Like it was seeping into her pores. She hated Yuma but at least they had clean air in the desert, even if it was always hot as hell to breathe this time of year.

In Berlin, the air was just heavy, and there was no redemption. It was supposed to be a marvelous chance to see an old city in Europe …

“You feeling alright?” Marcus Chen asked as he came up. They had all stopped in the parking lot as if they dared not go any further. As if there had been a crack in the collective agreement to have a conciliatory family trip to the zoo, as the first of many sights. 

“I’m okay.” Emma brushed away Marcus’ hand as she felt it closing in on her shoulder. 

Marcus sighed and looked at Emma’s grandmother. “Well, it’s just over there. But if you feeling like going someplace to sit down first, have a cup of coffee … ?”

“We’re fine,” Carrie said through thin lips before her own mother could answer. “Let’s go.”

“Yeah.” Emma’s father nodded but it was clear the lead had gotten into his pores as well. 

Then Emma’s phone buzzed and, of course, it was from Martin. Messaging her all the way from his safe hideout in some desert suburb on the other side of the world.

Emma held the phone up and looked at it as if it was a cockroach. Then she muted it.

“Who was that?” Her father asked because he needed to ask about something that had nothing to do with the decision they had to make. To go on, into the zoo. To be tourists, normal, find something to smile at.

Her mother had looked like she wanted to ask, too, but instead, she had fallen back on her usual ask-me-no-questions demeanor, as if she was the one everything devolved around. Emma wanted to ask her many things. Like, what was going to happen with her and dad? Emma and Carrie had always been able to talk about anything, but right now that was almost non-existent, like a muted Facebook message.

Emma’s screen kept lighting up with one more message. Then another. Then she realized she was looking at it and hadn’t pushed the button that darkened the screen.

“Perhaps we should go ahead?” her grandmother suggested, smiling her wizened smile, her gray-green eyes not having lost any of their steadiness. “I’m sure Emma can find us. You have those tracking things in your fancy phones, haven’t you?”

“I’ll text you,” Emma said, not sure why she said it. She was definitely not going to forgive Martin. But she wanted to be alone.

“You can’t stay here in this … ” Her father looked around. A steady stream of cars passed them, trying to find space either to park or a way around other cars that wanted to find a way out.

“I’ll sit over there, on the bench,” Emma said and pointed.

“Let’s go,” her grandmother urged, letting her hand rest on Carrie’s shoulders that slumped a bit.

It was a done deal then, and the rest of the family were led away by grandmother, as usual, like driftwood for uncertain destinations. 

Emma said the standard things she needed to say to reassure her father especially and then she was finally free. She looked at the messages: 

<Can we talk?> The last one said.

Emma hesitated, then began typing:

<What is there to talk about?>

She smiled, but it was a sad smile. He had a guilty conscience because she had refused to talk to him after he broke up like that, and it was kind of sweet. Also kind of useless.

But if she refused to talk and at least try to mend some things, what then? School would be so awkward … 

She gazed after the others. They were out of sight, probably standing in line somewhere in the zoo.

There were other things that had to be mended, which she had no control over. But at least she had this.

Emma typed again.

The lead felt as if it was evaporating slightly in the summer air.

Waiting for the Update

Waiting for the Update

I need another cup of coffee because I can’t escape into random news surfing this morning. My iPhone has decided to run a half-hour long update so with “exciting new features to iPhone, including the ability to unlock iPhone with Apple Watch while wearing a face mask, more diverse Siri voices, new privacy controls, skin tone options to better represent couples in emoji, and much more”. So I have no buffer between myself and the five zillion demands that assault me from the moment I open my eyes until I close them, from kids to looking for a job to kissing my husband goodbye and pretending we still have some semblance of romantic marriage. But once I am able to sit down for two consecutive moments and gulp another espresso, my brain begins spinning scenarios anyway for how I can get everything out of life before it is too late: more money, more love, more art.

*

Thanks to Taylor Harding on Unsplash for the wonderful photo!

*

Last updated 26 January 2022

Not To Tell Another Lie

Not To Tell Another Lie

“We’re sorry, but your profile is not what we are looking for.” The voice at the other end of the phone line sounded almost meditative, like crushing the hopes of other people had become so routine that it conferred a strange trance-like state on its owner.

“On behalf of Dymo I wish you good luck with future applications,” the voice continued, rounding of with a tone of expectation. Expectation of consent.

“Okay,” Carrie said.

“Once again, we’re sorry. Goodbye,” the voice said.

Carrie hung up. Then she went back into the living room, walking slowly in her bare feet, trying not to touch the floor.

She had taken the call in the tiny hallway. Somehow it felt better to have taken it there like she was in a sheltered place. In reality, the house was protective in the same way a prison was, and she knew it.

She sat down on the sofa and noticed the dust had become so thick that it was also on the armrests, not just the window sills which were easier to ignore. Jon didn’t mention it anymore. In fact, he didn’t mention much about anything anymore. Just buried himself in work, and, of course, paid the bills as his reward for the effort.

Work …

Carrie looked at her cell phone, which was almost out of power. Then she hurled it away into a corner.

So of course they had not hired her. Her resume sucked. So why the feeling of surprise and disappointment?

Fortunately, she had other strategies. She thought of going upstairs to draw in the attic, but then she noticed the corner of a pad, sticking out under the sofa. One of the kids must have pushed it out, trying to find some toy or other. Probably Michael. Emma was too old but Michael still played with his model cars, for hours.

Carrie bent down and took out the drawing pad. There was no pen, but sure enough – there was the last drawing she had made – six months ago. Somehow nobody had cared to pick it up and give it to her. Or nobody had dared.

She had cared, but she had just been too busy. Her head exploding a million times a day with job applications, chores, arguments with Jon and her mum and Emma, and dealing with Michael’s autism.

She looked at the only picture on the pad. Did she really like it?

Then the phone rang, and Carrie had to scramble to find it before it was too late. But when she saw who it was, she figured that perhaps it had been a mistake to rush. And there was only 5 percent power left.

Jenna … 5 percent is not enough.

She answered it. “Hello?”

“Carrie – daaarling!”

“Yeah, it’s me.” Carrie slumped down on the sofa again.

Why talk to Jenna – now?

Maybe because it was so easy.

“I called because you left the messages.” Jenna was all bubbly. Carrie breathed deeply but felt like she was breathing quicksand. She had forgotten those messages. It had to have been at least two weeks ago.

“Yes … I didn’t hear from you, and there was nothing on Facebook, so I thought … ” 

“We’ve just been away for a while. Steve and I.”

“Oh.”

“You know. That hotel in Phoenix. I got mom to take care of the kid.”

“Sure.”

“Your mom still coming by to look after Emma and Michael?”

“No, she’s back in L.A. For like a year … I mean, the kids are big now. No problem.”

“Okay, well, it was a totally great weekend. We really caught up, if you know what I mean.”

“I think I know. That’s good. Very good.”

“How are you and Jon?”

“Oh, you know. We’re … ”

“Why don’t you come over?”

“Sorry, the power is getting a little low here. I’ll message you.”

Carrie hung up. For a moment she rested her head in the palms of her hands. Then she slowly let her fingers slide through her hair and was reminded that she really needed a bath. Like she needed a zillion other things. But there was never enough.

For a long time, she watched her cell phone as its remaining power died. It felt morbidly calming. And as if she had just won a little strength test of her own will, being able to concentrate for that time, and not think about Jenna or the people who had shredded yet another of her job applications.

Outside, the Yuma sun scorched the quiet suburbs. The neighborhood was like a warehouse for empty houses that were stowed away for the day when life had left them, lost by people who were looking for all the wrong things, and buying all the wrong things.

Carrie slowly stood up and went over to the window facing the road. There was a barbecue grill standing solemnly on the lawn of the house opposite theirs. But no chairs or signs that there had been or was about to be a get-together. She hardly knew the new people over there, anyway. So it wasn’t important, was it?

At least she had made her choice. She went to the kitchen, found the cranky laptop, and got it going, albeit under protest as usual.

She found all the scattered litter-like notes about how and when she would draw more. Because when she would be able to do that then she could also film it and put it online, as a course or something. Monetize via short videos on YouTube about the process or any of the crapload of other initiatives that seemed to work so well for everyone else ‘living from their passion’. Everyone who had managed to escape the need to apply for a job.

Carrie looked at the date of the most recent document. It said 2019. She closed it quickly.

Then she found the empty YouTube channel she had set up for this specific purpose and the blog, which still only had one entry. Obviously, there was nothing on them, because she had not had the time or the head to produce something, but they were there waiting. Waiting for success … So she wouldn’t have to apply for crappy jobs. If she could just make that transition.

The Twitter account and Facebook pages were also empty. Obviously. She knew that. Why did she have to look?

But she would start today. Today would be the day she would turn things around. She could write a blog post about that. Or do a video.

Then she felt like concrete. She still had a long list of jobs to apply for. And all the other shit. If she could just gain some measure of stability. How could you start a business if you had nothing to invest?

So maybe I am never going to live off my passion?

The thought was almost scary because it felt like … relief. She quickly choked it.

She had to live from her passion. She had to transit from the rat race of jobs to the passion of her own creative online business.

If only we had more aspirin. I should go buy some. But I have to get started …

The phone in the kitchen chimed. The landline. It had been ages since anyone had used that.

Carrie snapped the phone from its hanger. “Yes?”

“It’s me.”

She could hear the distance in his voice immediately. “Oh God, Jon … What’s happened?”

“No, no, it’s all right. I mean, yes, something has happened but it’s all right. I wanted to tell you before it hit the news.”

She turned and found the local channel on the small TV on the corner shelf, right under that board Michael had made for her in school, with perfectly sawed angles.

“It’s a fucking mess,” Jon continued, clearing his throat more than once, while he told her in a few terse sentences what had happened. “They had to fly Fred to Phoenix. I think he’s going to make it, but … ”

Carrie zapped through the channels. “There’s nothing but ads on here!”

“Try the web. Try—”

But Carrie had already switched off the TV and plumped down on the chair next to the laptop. She scrolled feverishly through the police Twitter feed until she found it.

“Oh God … ”

“Yeah, but it’s over now like I said. It’s over.” Jon sounded firm like he had to stop a bleeding somewhere.

Maybe he had. “Are you hurt?”

“No, no – just a bit roughed up, that’s all. After I got his gun away from him, he hit me right in the face. Think that damn tooth may have come loose again.”

She grinned, but her eyes were full of tears. “You know the dentist. No escape from her, ha-ha.”

“Yeah,” Jon said. “Yeah, life’s a bitch, ain’t it.”

“When are you coming home?”

“We need to make the report. The Chief will let everyone off for the day then. Will you call Emma and Michael? I’m afraid Emma may already have seen it. She is an addict. She shouldn’t even subscribe to news channels at her age.”

“She would have called if she had seen it,” Carrie said, feeling again some odd measure of control in stressing a pure belief as if it mattered more than getting off her ass and calling her children. “She should have that phone transplanted to the palm of her hand,” Carrie continued. “She should—”

“Yeah. She should.” Jon broke her off. “So how was your day, hon?” He was never good at being funny, and especially not now.

She wiped tears off her cheeks. But she also smiled and hoped he could feel it, even if he couldn’t see it.

She felt relief again, and it was overwhelming. A different kind of relief but no less valuable. Absolutely no less …

“I … made a decision,” Carrie tasted the words.

“A decision?”

“Yeah, I didn’t get the Dymo.”

“Fuck.” Jon sounded like the news hit him harder than the guy he had arrested this morning. “I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t be,” Carrie said. “It was shit, anyway.”

“Most jobs are. Except policework, of course,” Jon deadpanned.

They both laughed at that. Fragile laughter, but laughter nonetheless. More relief.

“Brent found you that video cam,” Jon then said. “For your YouTube Channel. But I forgot to tell you. There’s been so much …”

“It’s okay,” Carrie said. “Forget about that.”

“Forget about it?”

“Look …” She breathed deeply. The air was dry but at least the quicksand was out of her system. “I’m – I’m going to look for another shitty job and then draw when I can. For myself.”

“For yourself? I thought you already did that.”

“Well, apparently I didn’t. It’s a long story, but I … am not going to kill myself anymore trying to find that business idea. I miss just drawing. What time did you say you were home?”

“It’s probably going to be a couple of hours.”

“Okay.”

“There’s one of your pads under the sofa, by the way.”

“I know. It’s out now.”

*

Last updated 30 May 2021

Newest stories

Newest stories

Newest stories

These are the most recent stories added to Shade of the Morning Sun
– including flash fiction, micro fiction and vignettes.
(Dates on each post denote when in time the stories are set.)

New stories - March - April 2022

Pirañas Under Our Feet

Returning to Bolivia after 15 years, Carrie finds out that an old friendship perhaps never was what she imagined it to be.

New stories - February 2022

Breaks

Another suburban morning.

New stories - January 2022

Shining Through

In Prague, Emma and Stephen seek out vastly different sights.

More Mileage

Carrie has started taking Taekwondo-classes but is kicked to the floor again and again.

Blind As the Moon

Calum has mixed feelings about being shot before he could shoot someone else.

New stories - December 2021

Ground Control

Michael puts a serious problem into new perspective.

Kyrie

On her first vacation overseas, Emma is struggling to keep her first relationship going.

Every Time

Jon reflects on how to help his autistic son to play.

In Black and White

On the way to her new psychiatrist, Lin decides to start treatment early.

Without Any Fear

In New York, a lonely Deborah ponders what life may hold for her now.

The Seven Words Left On Paper

The Seven Words Left On Paper

“Isn’t that the bag dad uses for his guns?” 

“No, it’s an ordinary bag,” Carrie said, “like yours.”

Emma had her own new pink bag with the large Japanese letters slung over her shoulder, so it was obvious that she was going over to Mika, probably to try again to make a positive impression on the new smart girl in class.  

Emma nodded at the bed again. “It looks like dad’s bag.”

Carrie adjusted her ear ring, even though she had already done it. But at least she had somewhere to put her hands. “I’m going shopping. Is there anything special you want for dinner, sweetie?”

“Dinner?” Emma still tripped in the doorway to her parents’ bedroom, staring at the big black bag her mother had on the bed.

“Yes, is there anything you want?”

“Er, for dinner?” Emma repeated as if her mother had asked her about the site of an alien landing.

“Yes, I was thinking about fries and chicken … ” 

“We had that yesterday.”

“Oh, right.” Carrie left the earring alone and pretend she was all clear. “Well, your brother likes it so no harm in having it again.”

Emma smiled briefly. “I think I will eat over at Mika’s … if you don’t mind?”

“The rest of us will certainly miss your excellent company, but we will try to manage.” Carrie was about to say something more, but it was already too late.

“Okay. Bye now!” And away she was. Carrie could hear the stair groaning in protest as Emma flew down to the front door, like a soldier to battle.

Carrie hooked up in the straps of the black bag and felt its weight. It didn’t feel like going off to battle, although perhaps it should. The bag was there, but it did not feel it belonged to her. 

Her summer dress with the knee-length skirt—that belonged to her, even if she’d rather have a newer one. Her sandals that were a little too tight, and which she had to replace soon. A whiff of nail polish, deodorant, lipstick, all familiar. All belonged to her. She had just dressed for shopping, after all.  But she did not feel like it.

She felt like an intruder in her own life. And it wasn’t the first time. She wondered if it would make a difference what was in the bag or that she was going to give it to Jenna, before going anywhere near Costco. In fact, she felt no appetite at all … 

After a moment of hesitation, Carrie heaved the bag up once more, felt the strap bite into her naked shoulder but ignored it. She listened instead. There were the expected sounds. Michael was playing his games. This time it was strategy-something. And he was well into his own autistic world, as usual. He probably wouldn’t notice if she knocked on his door, anyway.

She went out, to do what she had to do.

*

Emma watched her mom walk over to the car, heels click-clacking on the sun-cracked cement that made for a driveway to their small house. 

She was in her usual hide-out behind Mr. Taylor’s fence, which he luckily never got around to replacing. The old planks had long since come apart as rain and sun had done their job, each season, and it was easy to find an opening wide enough to look through, but not wide enough to be seen. Or at least she reckoned so.

Mr. Taylor himself was at the nursing home, looking after his wife, as usual. Or at least she reckoned so.

There were a lot of routines in Emma’s world that she depended on to get by and crazy as it sounded one of the routines was that she knew her mother’s dark moods well enough to be able to predict fairly well, when Carrie would be angry or just distant. Emma also knew when to look out for worse things. Her father had had a long conversation about that one night when Carrie had been at her friend, Jenna’s, with some other of her friends.

That conversation had frightened Emma, and she had felt crushingly alone, and her father as usual had kind of left it there and didn’t seem like he wanted to talk about it again, although she desperately needed to.

Her mother started the car and it pulled out onto the street and then quickly disappeared between the boxes that went for houses in their suburb. She didn’t make the usual turn at the end, so Emma knew she wasn’t going into town. She was heading out of it. The only person in eastern Yuma that Emma knew her mom knew was Jenna Banks. Otherwise there was nothing for her there.

The sun was in the sky, as it was so often here in Arizona, but it felt cold.

Emma pulled her phone from her Japanese bag and called Mika.

“Look, I can’t come over now.”

“What?” Mika sounded both disappointed and a bit like it was what she had expected. “Not again!”

Emma bit her lip. “I’m really sorry. It’s mom. She’s gone over to a friend, I think, but something is wrong.”

“Last time you thought your mom would kill herself, she went to a barbecue party.” Emma could hear Mika chewing gum, and … someone else in the background. Were there other girls from her class? Mika had said that tonight was ‘their night’.

“It’s not her this time. I think she might kill … I don’t know.” Emma stalled. She couldn’t say it. And it was crazy, wasn’t it? The only clue she had was dad’s black bag. But it had looked … heavy.

“You think she’ll go on a shooting spree?” Mika’s voice became serious, all of a sudden. “Is that what you are saying?”

“I don’t know what I am saying … ” Emma felt something in her stomach, like acid. It was eating away at her insides. “I don’t know, I’m just worried. She has had a lot of arguments with Jenna recently.”

“Maybe you should call your dad. Isn’t he a police man?” Mika chewed the gum again. “I want to help. Tell me if I can do anything.”

“I’ll call my dad. It’s probably all right. She hasn’t been doing pills or booze or anything … ” Emma hung up, but the acid was still there and it was spreading.

It was that feeling that she had had more and more often. It was both acrid and ice cold at the same time, and it nailed her to the spot.

She couldn’t move. She felt her heart beat faster and she had trouble breathing. Doctor Maryam had called it anxiety attacks and had given her some pills, too, but the only pills Emma could think of was the ones she knew her mother sometimes had in her drawer. The ones against depression. Had she taken them recently? Were they enough? 

Despite what she had told Mika, she really didn’t know if her mother had been skipping her pills or if she had been drinking again or anything else. It was easier to keep an eye on mom due to COVID 19, of all things, because they had been home so much, but on the other hand, it wasn’t as if Emma could survey the attic or the bedroom 24/7. Emma suspected mom already knew that she was sometimes watching her.

She finally tore herself loose of the cold and started walking down the street, her pink bag bopping at her hip. She was only 15 but it felt like she had already spent whatever life had been allotted to her. She wanted to go over to Mika’s and have fun and watch those series they had talked about, because Mika and her brother had both Netflix and HBO.

But instead she got on her bike and began half-heartedly cycling in east, towards the Foothills where she knew Jenna lived. She wrestled with the question.

Should I call dad?

There could be a million reasons her mother had borrowed that bag. It was one of the biggest they had. Maybe her mother would go to Costco on her way back? Maybe her mother thought it was none of Emma’s business that she was going to Jenna’s first? Maybe she wasn’t going to Jenna’s but somewhere else?

Emma knew it was stupid to continue biking. She had to do something. Stop and call. Decide this was normal and ignore it. Go back to talk to Michael. But as long as she was biking at least she felt she had direction, as crazy as it was.

If only she felt that her own life in general was heading in some kind of direction. A direction that gave you hope. Not one that made you feel like you were driving towards a deep dark tunnel that nobody knew the length of.

Perhaps one that never ended.

Then the thought struck her. 

If mom really wanted to do something crazy, she would have left a note, right? That’s what they always do.

It was pretty absurd, but the thought gave Emma what she needed. Hope and another direction. She went back to the house to search for a sign, some indication. Then she would call her father.

I might be ten thousand times too late … but I have to do this right.

The doctor said she should always think twice. Think about what really could have happened. The possibilities. Not just the worst-case scenario. If only the latter wasn’t so hard.

For a moment, she considered calling mom. It would be the obvious thing to do. Except that her mom would probably lie, as she had done so often before. No, not lie. Lie was a bad word. More like her mom was always hiding, not telling her how she really felt.

Emma went to the bedroom. There was nothing.

Then she went to the locker in the basement where her father kept his guns. It was locked. But her mother knew where the key was. She knocked on the locker. It sounded as if there was something inside. She tried moving it a little bit. It felt heavy, as usual. There was definitely something inside. Yet, her father had many guns … 

She couldn’t stand it any longer. She went upstairs to get a better signal for her cell phone and began punching her dad’s number. She wondered if she should take the extra pills, Dr. Maryam had prescribed for ‘difficult situations’, but she wanted to call first.

Then she saw the note in the hallway.

It had to have fallen out of mom’s purse. No, it looked crumpled, like she had thrown it away. She sometimes did that with the strangest of things in the strangest of places. Once her mom had left an entire Happy Meal on the pavement, because she had decided she wasn’t hungry, and then went home to cook late. It had been one of the bad days, so nobody had said anything about how hungry they were and things had dissolved into workable normalcy the next day.

Emma picked up the note. It said:

Chicken 
Juice
Rice
Chocolate
Milk
Michael
Emma

Questions & Answers

Questions & Answers

Below you can find some of the frequently asked questions and their answers – about the Shade of the Morning Sun project and its creator, Christopher Marcus.

Table of Contents

What is Shade of the Morning Sun?

Shade of the Morning Sun is an online art project combining hypertext fiction, linked short stories, photos, and music in order to chronicle the lives of a Scottish-American family over three generations from 1968-2068. The heart of the project is an ongoing series of linked short stories with the same main characters. 

The project is created and developed by Christopher Marcus.

How do I experience Shade of the Morning Sun?

You create reading sequences depending on your interest in a certain character, on your mood, or musical inspiration.

There’s a reading guide here.

Where do I start?

Go to the Main Portal and start from wherever you like – with one of the collections, for example.

Are the texts in Shade of the Morning Sun like an online novel or short story collection?

They are neither.

Shade of the Morning Sun is a (constantly growing) collection of linked short stories, also known as a novel in stories or short story cycle. This form is also sometimes called a composite novel, or interrelated short stories.

Inspirations include Sherman Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, among others.

How long is each story?

Typically about 2-3000 words, although I have a few stories over 10000 words.

Currently (2022) I mostly have time for flash fiction only (below 1000 words) so expect to see a lot of those for the foreseeable future.

There are also a small number of vignettes in the collection.

So there is no big plot or story arc?

Not as such.

You have some events and associated themes that come up again and again, like  Carrie’s recovery from addiction and how she deals with it. Or Jonathan’s PTSD from the Iraq war. But that’s about it.

As the collection grows, obviously there will be sequences that may eventually grow into storylines that resemble novels, such as Carrie’s sojourn to South America 2000-1, but it is by no means a given.

Why has this project been created as a website?

Because the vision for Shade of the Morning Sun is that it is a story, or an experience if you will, that is constantly growing.

Pieces of the character’s past, present, and even stories set in the future are all being added continually. Imagine you were a genealogist from the far future trying to find out the story of a branch of your family, and then you found a magical treasury of knowledge about these people.

Sometimes you find it in the form of prose, sometimes in a form reminiscent of diary entries, sometimes merely in the form of artwork or photos – but all of which continually revealed parts of this family’s story. 

Also, there is no definite end to Shade of the Morning Sun. In principle, if someone cared, they could continue ‘the research’  after I am no longer alive, or branch out and add material about other people connected to our main cast.

Are there an equal number of stories for all the characters?

No, but they will most certainly be ‘uncovered’ as time goes by. 

Do the names under each title refer to the main characters in the story?

Usually.

I have also included chapters and stories where characters play a prominent role even if they don’t have the main spotlight, for example, Emma in “One Step Closer”.

What is the exact relationship between photos, musical inspiration, and stories?

The stories are the heart of the project. Photos and music enhance the experience of individual stories and provide new options for creating reading experiences of sequences of stories. But they can also be enjoyed on their own.

The photos are illustrative of the mood of the stories. They don’t reflect what is going on in the stories, necessarily. You can choose to contemplate the photos individually and perhaps listen to the musical inspirations suggested if you find yourself reminiscing about some meaningful event in your own life after reading an associated story.

Why aren’t there many stories from 1968-1990, and 2022-2068?

Because I haven’t had time to create them – yet.

I have chosen to start with the ‘middle generation’ of Carrie and Jon, so for a while, there will be more about them.

Is Shade of the Morning Sun hypertext fiction?

It is also hypertext fiction. If you want to get really high brow about it, the stories in the project can be labeled axial hypertext fiction, where there is a central storyline but many options to digress from that storyline (such as choosing to read a related short story to the one you are now reading, or reading more about the same character but from a different POV, etc.).

What does it mean that stories are ‘updated’?

It means that from time to time I edit stories and clarify language or add new paragraphs or make similar changes. The date denotes the most recent version.

What is the origin of Shade of the Morning Sun?

I started writing a traditional novel 20 years ago with some of the characters but was not able to finish it, being occupied with education, work, and a period of serious illness. It soured on me around 2009 but I wanted to do something with the story ideas and characters, so I started writing short stories. I was impatient and just put them out on the internet and it sort of took on a life of its own since.

There was definitely also a drive in me to actually do something different with my creativity than go the traditional route, or even self-publish on the then newly established market for that (Amazon). I remember thinking about publishing my stories on MySpace (ah, those were the days … ) and collaborating with artists who had written music that inspired me and then combine the presentation of both story and music, but nothing came off it at the time.

Slowly, over the years, I have built this online experience, as the creative vision for it became clearer. The current result is what you have before you, but I am confident that in 10 years’ time it will all be different – again.

Why is your project called ‘Shade of the Morning Sun’?

I’ve taken the project title from part of the lyrics of New Order’s 1987-song “True Faith”:

I used to think that the day would never come
I’ve seen the light in the shade of the morning sun

The song is about drug use, but I also see it as a song about wanting to escape from life and searching for ‘the light’ – i.e. happiness, even if that happiness is not always what it seems.

The duality of this interpretation, and the title, I think are very fitting for the overall mood of the Shade of the Morning Sun stories.

How will I know when new stories come out?

You can follow the Facebook page and keep updated on new stories.

How often will there be new stories?

I have managed to get new stories out about once a month for a while now, but it varies greatly.

Why are there different people posing for the same character photos?

Originally because I could only afford to use royalty-free photos from Unsplash and Pixabay and similar sites, but as time has gone by I feel that it is rather fitting. Even though the same cast populates the stories, I like to think that many of their experiences are universal.

There are not a lot of stories about [my favorite character]

As noted above and in the archives, not all of the characters have an equal amount of stories – yet.

Some stories take place over several days but don’t have several chapters

I would like to be consistent here, but the truth is I only have so much time. So, yes, you will find some stories that take place over several days, but I have listed the whole story in a single post, with a single starting date and time. I hope that in the future I will have enough contributions to the site that will allow me to work on these edits, so I can present the stories in a consistent way.

*

Last updated 16 April 2022

One Step Closer

One Step Closer

The morning was really good for once – until the phone rang.

She didn’t take it. Not yet. She was not going to answer that damn phone. She had any number of excuses in the back of her mind, vague, dreamily, as if nothing else mattered than here and now. And everything else could magically take care of itself. You could say – think – anything to shape your world and it would do as you pleased.

In the end, she took it. Her lips still tasted salty and she allowed herself a second to remember that …

“Carrie – ? Are you there, honey?”

Okay, now there was no way back:

“Mom – what is it? Has something happened?”

She almost wished for it, although her gut told her it was not like that. And her heart that it should not be like that.

But it was something that would make her perfect, salty day all dry up.

Carrie seated herself upright in the bed, with the cell phone pressed hard to her ear. She soon pulled her legs up under herself, pressing her jaw equally hard towards her knees as she listened. It had only taken 10 seconds and now she was curled up like a steel spring.

Jon did not wait long before he rolled out and began looking for his socks and jeans as if nothing had happened. He knew it was now the only thing he could do.

The quiet morning before the suburban beehive woke up was still quiet. But in Carrie’s mind storms were raging.

Why could it never be different with mom, after all these years?

“Please, could you say that again?”

Carrie had to ask because from the moment she had picked up the phone, everything had become more and more unreal.

Her mother was happy to prolong that reality:

“Look, I know it’s hard to wrap your head around, and they have hundreds, if not thousands, of candidates. But this time it is you!” 

“Me … “

“Yes! Marcus will give you 100,000 dollars as part of the Church Universal’s yearly Give Way-Event. The only condition is that you’ll use them to improve, well, anything really. Start that business. Draw … whatever.”

“Uh … I don’t know if,” Carrie tried, but it was really too late.

“Don’t you think that it is awesome, darling?” her mother beat on. “I am really glad Marcus and I kept in contact all those years. And you know, last year there was a widow who lived on welfare in Boston who received the Event Money and she has a small salon today that – “

“Look,” Carrie said, “I’m really not sure that – “

“I mean,” her mother continued undaunted, as always, “with you leaving college like that and never becoming a lawyer and then – “ she hesitated ever so slightly ” – that problem down in Florida, and all the hard work afterward… I think you deserve it, Carrie.”

“I really don’t want to talk about Florida … “

Carrie didn’t know if she was irritated with her mother for using that damn euphemism for Carrie’s short, but nearly fatal, dance with cocaine over 15 years ago. Yeah, it had all started in Florida, but it wasn’t just Florida where the problems had continued. And why couldn’t we call it what it was …

I was a crackhead, mom … 

But her head now was beginning to swim with something that almost made her long for that escape.

“Mom, this really isn’t a good time. It’s morning here and I need to think about this … “

“Well, you have been thinking for 15 years, haven’t you?”

One of the Deborah Sawyer witticisms. You never quite knew if it was designed to make you laugh or cry.

“I have been trying to build a life – caring for my family.”

“And draw. I know you love drawing. And then of course that job …

“What, the cleaning?”

“No, no –  something better.”  Deborah Sawyer sounded like she had found something precious that had been lost for a long time ” – maybe you could use the money to pay for you doing more of that interpretation work for that organisation you help – I can never remember its name – “

“OMAC, mom.”

“OMAC – that’s it. With the migrants, and all.”

“That’s right. Separated migrant families. And other – “

Carrie didn’t say anything now. She seriously needed to stop this. It felt like she had been hit by a brick.

“Mom … it’s Marcus,” she then said.

Pause.

“—What is it about Marcus that you don’t like?”

“Okay, it’s not just about Marcus,” Carrie finally said.

“Then who is it about?”

The old knife’s edge in Deborah’s tone, whenever they talked – it had never completely gone away.

“Look, I am not going to meet him, okay?” Carrie said with finality.

Jon had long stopped getting dressed and was standing there looking at her with a half-puzzled, half-worried expression.

“Do you think it’s funny for me having to work my ex to help you?” her mother said, the knife still getting sharper.

That tone – it was like her mother’s attempt at cutting away at that always smoldering exasperation and frustration that she seemed to carry around, just beneath the surface.

“No, mom, I don’t think so.”

“Well, don’t you think it’s a good offer … ?” Deborah followed up.

And then before Carrie could answer, her mother added:

“If I had had that offer at your age, it would have changed everything.”

“I’m 40, mom. And – “

“That’s my point, dear. It is never too late.”

“It’s certainly never too late to try to fix my life.”

“Well, that’s grateful, dear – real grateful.”

Carrie pulled her legs up tighter and clenched the phone hard now. Sure, she was naked in the bed with only part of the sheet pulled up around her body, but that was not the problem. The way this conversation veered off – the way it always veered off – made her feel it wouldn’t matter how many clothes she put on. Sure, a moment ago she had also been naked – but she had not felt naked. She did now. And in the bad way.

Again …

“Mom … ?”

“Yes, darling.”

You don’t mean that.

“Listen – ” she started, then caught Jon’s eyes.

He eyed her, questioningly. She covered the cell phone with her hand:

“Kids … ” she whispered.

“But – ” he began.

“I’ll be fine.”

“All right.”

He quickly tugged his shirt all the way down into his trousers and tightened his belt. Then he grabbed his shoes and was out the door, to wake up Emma and Michael.

And do all the things that needed to be done, even if the world had stopped a little bit in their bedroom.

“Carrie … ?” Deborah’s voice sounded more distant now.

*

“Want to tell me what this was all about?” Jon asked just when she had felt relieved he probably wouldn’t.

The breakfast table was half empty already, so Carrie was toasting some more bread and searching for the marmalade and moving some dishes around, and looking for more to do, so she did not have to sit too much at the table and talk about Emma’s homework or that Stanton kid Michael was afraid of, and who did seem like a certified bully.

Maybe he has absent parents?

“Can we talk about it … later?” Carrie eyed Emma and Michael.

“Sure,” Jon said quickly.

“Talk about what?” Emma asked.

“About … when we are going to visit Miriam in LA,” Carrie said quickly and looked at Jon.

“Yeah, right,” Jon said.

“Well, when are we?” Emma asked in a tone that was loaded with impatience bordering on … pain.

Carrie breathed deeply: “Maybe next month.”

“‘Maybe’?” Emma had not said much this morning, as usual, but now …

“What about grandma? She lives there now, doesn’t she?” Emma continued, “we could visit both.” But it was obvious from her tone that it was nothing she really wanted as much as visiting her best friend who was no longer there.

“Are we going to visit grandma?” Michael quipped while slurping his cornflakes. A flake had somehow become stuck in his wily blonde hair.

“Yes, dear, but … ” Carrie started and removed the flake as she sat down.

“You forgot the marmalade, mom!” Michael complained, fiddling his toast.

A change of subject. Never had it been so welcome.

“I did.” Carrie got up and took the jar of strawberry marmalade. She had taken it out of the fridge but left it on the table.

Carrie went back and sat down and gave Michael the jar.

“Here, honey.”

Michael turned the jar upside down and since it was open he almost immediately covered her toast and most of his bread in marmalade – and quite a bit of the table.

“No – ” Carrie started. And there they went again.

But it was comforting, after all. It was routine. Even the post-postponement of that LA visit. Carrie wanted so badly for her daughter to be able to visit Miriam, but not alone. On the other hand, it would just make her relation with Deborah worse, if Carrie followed her daughter to LA and did not visit her own mother.

So it was the ritual ruminations that were shut down as quickly as you could find some marmalade to worry about and thank you for that.

It was the ritual chaos in the tiny dining kitchen in a dry white house with a low-angled sun-bleached turquoise roof, doors, garden gates – or what went for a garden.

The garden was there but it was all the things there was never time for, and usually not enough money for, to really do something about. So it just had to be as it was.

It was home. In good times and bad times.

It was the comforting chaos and homely box full of unfinished dreams and decoration plans that she knew as a base, somewhere to shelter.

It was the shelter she had to leave in under 15 minutes.

*

Carrie and Jon finished up without talking more about the call from Deborah. Or LA. All the things that were better talked about … later.

And then Hammond picked up Jon on his way to the station, so for once, Carrie had the car. And the kids were allowed a ride in a real police car, so that also helped matters.

If being alone with your thoughts was helpful.

Carrie knew the city too well after all this time. She could almost follow the roads blindfolded, she thought, as she drove off to work herself. Everything was familiar – in all the ways that were both good and bad but ultimately comforting.

A strange kind of comfort … like sedation.

Today, though, Yuma was covered in the sun that made its city vista mosaic of rust red, and white look a little milder and more inviting than she had ever felt it would be.

Carrie had never wanted to come here, into the desert, close to the edge of this adopted country of hers.

But there had been work for Jon and none for her, so the story had played out as it always had in these situations. They moved here and not anywhere else.

And then she had to find work – any kind of work.

When Carrie reached Meachum’s Nursing Home she stood there for a moment.

Then she measured herself and went in, trying to put on her best ‘I don’t care’-face.

But it wasn’t the uniform or the stench of bleach that bothered her.

It was that damn phone call …

Carrie went through the doors and checked in. It wasn’t that bad.

Some cleaning ladies have to check in way earlier … this isn’t bad. This isn’t bad.

She thought about it and noticed the usual stillness in the air and the dust on top of the picture of Monument Valley in the reception. The dust was never cleaned because there were strict rules (regulated by strict budgets) about what should be cleaned and what should not.

Carrie knew very well what had to be cleaned. After five years she knew every nook and cranny of the 200 rooms, hallways, offices, and toilets of Meachum’s.

It was strange … when you wiped a table somewhere you began to notice cracks or marks and all kinds of atomic details when at home you could barely remember the color of the cushions on the couch.

That’s what cleaning full-time gets you … it makes you a goddamn robot with a photographic memory of things that don’t matter … 

She walked down the hall, nodded a few greetings to personal on morning watch and Mr. Hansen and Mrs. Mckenzie who were always roaming early.

In the little dressing room at the end of hallway 1, Carrie found the one person she always slightly dreaded to see, yet had learned to live with. Like a sore knee …

Clarice’s tiny wiry 50+ body struggling with the uniform and filling no space at all and her voice and attitude filling everything:

“Fucking hell – why can’t they ever get the sizes right for the new ones?!”

“Hey … Clarice … “

Clarice looked up and grinned and Carrie was reminded to be grateful that at least smoking was never a vice she had had.

The coke and the booze were quite enough …

That was a different time, though. A life lived … by somebody else.

“Carrie … ” Clarice seemed she had forgotten why the laundry or purchaser or whoever was a jerk.

“You look just like I feel … !” Clarice then added, as if it was a divine inspiration: “No, scratch that, girl. You look a lot worse.”

Clarice pulled out a packet of cigarettes from her own pocket.

“Clarice – goddammit – “

“What?”

Carrie pointed at the pack, rolling her eyes.

“Fuck it – ” Clarice lit one.

Carrie shook her head. “We’re late,” she added. “And this ‘room’ is too small for that shit.”

“Not for the two wheezes I need.” Clarice blew smoke out her nostrils, then quashed the cigarette quickly. “Now do you know what you need to look a little more spiff when you come here, honey?”

“Nicotine?”

Clarice looked at Carrie as if she was a grape – and Clarice had just bitten into it. Then she blew out smoke:

“It’s that husband of yours,” Clarice said. “I can tell.”

“Yeah, you know all about husbands.”

“I do.”

“You do.”

“And you know all about men, right?” Clarice’s tone became venomous.

Carrie shook her head and started looking for her buckets. She figured she’d just go with the flow and close her ears as usual. And her heart.

She knew Clarice well enough. Despite the slight soft turn at the end of this morning’s talk, the potshots had only just begun.

*

“I can’t stay here any longer.” Jocelyn gulped down some more coffee. It was her second cup while Carrie had been at OMAC’s office.

One precious hour before kids.

Carrie stared at her coffee then at her own cup, which she hadn’t really touched. “Why?”

But she knew the answer. This was all just going through the motions.

The office at OMAC was lightly air-conditioned as always, even this month. And it was spartan, as always. It was as if Yuma’s Office for Migrants And Counseling was a local NGO so attuned to the people it served that its founders had decided there need not be any spiffy furniture or pictures on the walls, not even a single flower in a vase.

Everything should be dedicated to counseling those migrants who crossed the border legally or less so, and who needed help.

That was one interpretation.

The other, of course, was that there was never money for anything, especially not new office chairs or some original paintings or even framed photos. Or someone to buy and water flowers.

But those were all things, and in truth, they were not the primary need in the run-down former tarpaulin store and warehouse-building in southern Yuma, a short walk from the Custom’s Service on East 39th and with a naked desert view out of the windows in three of four walls of the building.

Dedication was the primary need, not just because there was never money. But also because the mission here – to guide and counsel migrants, no matter their legality or circumstances – wasn’t exactly something everybody appreciated by default in the United States these days.

Dedication, though, was not an infinite resource.

“Work … ” Jocelyn said, after a long pause.

Carrie nodded. “Been there.”

She thought of Meachum’s Home … of how she had this one hour before she had to go get the kids … of how much … she needed to be … here.

Here instead of there.

Always the case for me, isn’t it?

Jocelyn stared blankly into the desert behind the windows. A few miles beyond the horizon there was Mexico and all the pain and suffering of moving people that had somehow – some days, perversely she felt – turned into meaning for her.

“That bad, huh?” Carrie added.

Jocelyn shrugged as if she didn’t care, but she looked lost.

“I can’t get that break I want as a new lawyer if I work here as well. Nobody cares about this and they still expect you to do 70 hours per week if you want to get a foot in the door… “

“You heard from Kirkland & Ellis yet?”

“No, they probably even haven’t looked at what I sent them … So for now I’m stuck with Margrave. Half of it paid, the other half … ” She looked even more lost. “It’s what I have.”

“It’s what counts if you want to move up, yeah.”

“As in getting a steady job at a firm – somewhere.”

“As in that, yeah.” She shook her head. “But … “

Carrie knew the rest.

” … I want to work here,” Jocelyn said, sounding more resigned than ever. Then she shook her head. “And with you … ” She looked at Carrie but her smile was thin.

“Through thick and thin … that’s us,” Carrie said. “The team supreme. The Anti-Trumpistas … “

“Yeah … ” Jocelyn said softly and poured more coffee.

“You okay?” she then said to Carrie.

“Yeah – yeah … just thinking … about family stuff.”

“Oh, okay? Everything good back there?”

“Yeah, no – I mean, it’s my daughter – I – “

“Difficult age, huh?”

“Damn right.”

Jocelyn looked thoughtful: “Why can’t anything ever be goddamn easy? I just want to stay here and do some work!”

“But you don’t have enough time,” Carrie added.

Jocelyn looked up: “Sorry, you’re the one with two kids … “

“Never mind that.”

Jocelyn stroked her jet black hair, just above her brow. She looked away into the distance, but there was nothing but the wall in front of her – that was where she looked. But her gaze was far away …

“You know, Carrie, I really never made a secret of how much I admire you,” she then said.

“Come on – “

“That cleaning work must be exhausting … “

“It pays the bills. Some of them.”

“Not so much time to interpret legal stuff here for scared migrants, though?” Jocelyn said. “But you come here anyway. You are my best interpreter.”

“And you are … my friend.”

Jocelyn smiled with a bit more light.

“Yeah, yeah I am. But I was just thinking that with you coming here – still – it must be so difficult and – “

“Don’t make this about me,” Carrie interrupted. “I fought to get that hour off earlier so I could get down here on a weekday before the kids … you know, to say goodbye.”

Jocelyn tasted the word: “‘Goodbye’ … “

Then she shifted the topic, and they chit-chatted a bit about everything else but the elephant in the room. Carrie was glad to oblige.

But her mind drifted while they talked. She had expected coffee, yes, and talk about how to help kids out of cages and anything else that could make her feel like she was in the good fight and making a difference – make her feel bigger.

And now she was thinking that she should be sad but that a part of her was also relieved. Jocelyn was 10 years younger and on the threshold of a brilliant career because she was so goddamn smart. She had already worked in many law firms, the only thing holding her back to become a partner was her own desire to be somewhere else, much like Carrie.

She wanted to do the dirty work here on the ground and help the legal department of chronically understaffed and cash-strapped charities like OMAC.

She wanted, in short, to do something for people for whom victory meant to be allowed living a life and not winning a settlement claim of 1 million dollars more.

And that was also what Carrie wanted. And that was also why she loved working with Jocelyn, even though – at times – she had also hated that Jocelyn wanted this kind of work.

Because it was only Jocelyn’s decision to hold back her career for some years that had held it back (that and not having kids, of course). It wasn’t because she had fucked up at life or anything.

In short: Jocelyn was everything Carrie had wanted to be at 30, back when Carrie was only 21 and didn’t yet know that she would never go back to law school after that sojourn to Bolivia.

A part of Carrie hated that no matter how hard she tried to put it down. And another part of Carrie hated herself even stronger for thinking of it like this. It was Jocelyn, goddammit …

I have to fucking pull myself together. I don’t need all of these thoughts … I need them like I need cockroaches in the goddamn kitchen … 

It was, of course, at that very moment that somebody knocked at the door to the meeting room – and half-opened it at the same time.

A curly, redhead woman in her early 50s peeked in:

“There you are – sorry to disturb, but – “

Yeah, always interrupt then say you are sorry, Brenda … 

“What?” Jocelyn said, alert.

Carrie tried to hide behind her coffee cup. It did not work.

“Margarita Morales is back with her son,” Brenda said.

“I thought we had an agreement she’d come back next week?” Jocelyn said. “I gave that case to Tom, so he could take care of it when I’m gone.”

“She might not be here next week,” Brenda said. “They want to deport her tomorrow.”

“Oh shit … “

“I thought the case was all in the clear?” Carrie blurted. “I mean, we talked to officer Dean about it last week and he said – “

“That’s not what she says,” Brenda interrupted, shaking her head. “Or at least not what I gather. In fact, we could use a little help with interpretation, Carrie – Linus went home half an hour ago.”

Carrie felt lost: “I have to fetch my kids in 20 minutes from school.”

“Can’t they take a bus?” Brenda asked in that way that did nothing to de-escalate the situation.

Carrie glared at her but said nothing. She knew it was exactly the time to say nothing. She gritted her teeth and motioned to get up.

Jocelyn got up before her: “Let me take care of this,” she said to Brenda.

“I think we need someone who speaks better Spanish – ” Brenda said ” – not that – “

She was interrupted when there was noise from the hallway … it sounded like a boy crying. And then – a woman shouting:

“Carlos – venga aqui!”

Carrie got up before Jocelyn could protest.

“I’ll call Emma and ask her to take Michael home on the bus,” she said, making a point out of not looking at Brenda as she said it.

But it was okay. Emma could do this and Michael was a big boy. It was just the bloody traffic she was worried about and Jon was working late – again.

And of course, Michael’s autism. But … Emma could handle it.

And Carrie would do what she could – as always.

*

On her way home Carrie noticed that Em had been trying to call her. But then there was a text saying:

Nothing important, mom. We’re home now.

It wasn’t usual for Emma to be so … clipped, Carrie thought. And yet – it wasn’t unusual, either. When she was mad … at her mother.

Yeah, I had promised to pick you both up and then you would go to Marie’s and not look after your little brother who I don’t want to be all alone in the house because he is only 10 and the neighborhood is not that … and maybe I am overreacting and … 

Well, she could try a different line. Carrie thought about it as she waited in a crossing, just behind a truck that smelled like it had driven all through nine states without getting a wash.

Sorry, honey, but I think you are such a big girl now it was time you stepped up and …

Nah, fuck it.

How would she explain that she went to OMAC when she had said to everybody at the morning table 2 weeks ago that she would definitely not spend time volunteering and therefore get home earlier?

She had promised Jon.

She had promised Em and Michael.

She had promised herself.

Except that the last promise had felt more like a betrayal.

What the fuck is wrong with me … ?!

Why couldn’t she ever just figure out life? Figure out some kind of balance.

Carrie rounded a corner and … a truck raced by from the left and passed her – very close. She could hear the roar in her head and smell the diesel.

It had been just a few seconds after the red light. Or had she been … distracted?

Some other car honked behind her and she realized she was clogging everything up and quickly shifted gear, but too quickly. The car’s gears made a groaning sound and the car stopped as if it had hit something.

The guy behind her was yelling something now – while he was honking. Somebody else was testing their horn, too.

Carrie was very close to exiting and yelling something back, but at the last minute, she cleared her mind and started up and cleared the crossing.

Soon she was on the small roads – into the sundry suburbia of Yuma where home was, and a kind of safety. At least until she had to explain things to Emma.

I can’t explain it, darling. I was there because I felt … I missed it. I missed doing something important. And it is important when I help them translate. They don’t have that many people who know law and who speak Spanish. They ...

She rephrased it over and over again in her, but it sounded wrong.

It sounded so wrong that even the fact that there had been a screaming kid and a desperate mother who was going to be deported tomorrow for no good reason – that fact felt more and more unreal, the more she repeated the other facts to herself. The facts that were supposed to convince her daughter it was okay she had let her down again. That she – Emma – had had to look after Michael again. Or do something else than the plan she already had. Plans which meant everything to a teenager. About friends. About being … part of the group. The important groups anyway … it seemed as if Emma had new friends every week and she went out with them and she …

Carrie sighed as she pulled into the driveway. For a long time, she just sat in the car, not bothering to go out. The road was quiet. Not so her head.

Emma – OMAC – that truck – everything …

And then, of course … a hundred thousand dollars.

It’s crazy … I barely know the man, Carrie thought as she finally got out, locked the car, and prepared for the long trek up to the front door.

What’s the catch?

Marcus Chen … she had only met the man twice and he always seemed like someone who could be philanthropic. And a quiet sort of charisma, a determination, and direction that she had always lacked.

Perhaps that was why Carrie had liked him and then … somehow – the second time – felt inadequate. It had been at her mother’s 60th birthday and not so terribly long after the whole debacle in Florida.

And her cold turkey.

Sure that was something. Not many people could do that. And even get something like a real family afterward. A job. A … life.

But as time wore on, it felt more shameful again. And like something that always made her stand out. What could she have done with her life, if she had not snorted coke and fucked around and generally tried to kill herself slowly?

Maybe a business empire like Marcus Chen? Maybe a project in Bolivia for homeless children. Or a hospital for war widows in Rwanda?

So, of course, it had felt like a victory when she discovered that Marcus Chen subscribed to a religion even more warped than her mother’s.

Sure, he said he had changed and all … but … who can really change? For real? Especially when it came to what you believed in?

And that was a good thought. For if Marcus Chen was a nutcase then he could not be better than her, no matter how many homeless children he saved with his new “socially responsible business” and the whole organization behind it.

Right?

*

Carrie opened the front door carefully.

She could hear the telly from the living room – cartoon channels being zapped fast and furious.

There was the sound of another car behind her, but it passed too quickly on the road to see who it was.

For a moment she hesitated, looked at the white boxes that were neighboring houses, hoping for some other distraction. Then she turned again and went in.

Michael was in the living room, of course. And so were Disney and all the others.

“Hi, honey, where is your sister?” Carrie called.

“Uh, hi mom – I think she is in the kitchen.”

He didn’t even look at her, and why not, Carrie thought.

It’s not as if I’ve been that much here, even when I am here … 

But the evenings were always long and Jon always got the lousy shifts, so who could blame her that she was tired.

Yeah, one person, in particular, she thought as she opened the kitchen door.

Me … 

“Hi Em.”

Emma was sitting at the kitchen table, typing on her phone.

She did look up: “Hi mom.”

“Mind if I sit here?” Carrie pulled out another chair.

“Uh-no,” Emma answered noncommittally.

“All right … “

When she had sat down, Carrie found that she didn’t know what to say. Apparently the same went for Emma, but at least she had some really interesting texting to focus on.

So both of them were silent for some time.

Carrie looked at her daughter – 12 years old, going on 13.

God, you are beautiful ...

“So how was school?”

“Okay, mom.”

Well, it was a start.

Carrie pulled herself together and said it:

“Look, Em – I’m sorry you had to go home with Michael. But after those kids started going after him, I didn’t want him to go home alone. And, well, he is still only 10.”

“I know, mom.” Emma was staring intently at her phone.

“So … are you mad at me?”

Finally, she looked up.

“I’m not mad, mom.”

Not quite the reply Carrie had expected. Especially because she could see Emma was sincere.

So there she was – Emma – the spitting image of Carrie at 12-13-ish: Long blonde hair, blue-grey eyes, and a slender but strong body that just kept outgrowing the clothes they bought for her. Or that she bought herself. She could outrun many of the boys in her class. Only difference was that Carrie had never used lenses or glasses for that matter.

But it was an invisible difference and not one that mattered.

In fact, what really mattered was how different Emma was from what Carrie remembered she herself had been like.

Unlike Carrie at that age, Emma was self-assertive and outgoing to a degree that made her seem at least a year, maybe two, older than she really was.

Only her body betrayed her – this time it was a betrayal, or so Carrie knew her daughter felt. Emma was caught somewhere between looking like a child still, in so many ways, and behaving much differently.

And then, of course, there was her passion for swimming and windsurfing, neither of which were particularly easy to pursue in a desert city. And stuff Carrie would never have considered even remotely interesting almost 30 years ago.

“You … are not mad?” Carrie replied at length.

“No.”

Carrie sighed and felt a small part of the world lifting from her shoulders.

She really meant it … her wonderful, beautiful daughter.

“Well,” Carrie then said, feeling it was the only real option – to treat Emma like the adult she was quickly becoming ” – I think you should be mad. I was afraid you’d be.”

“Because I had to go home with Michael and not over to my friends?”

“Something like that.”

“You said many times you liked helping those mothers and kids at OMAC, mom. I watch TV, too, you know. I have seen those cages … “

“They are not all in cages. But most of them definitely need help.”

“Yeah … “

“I wish you could go help them, mom. If that is what you really want.”

“It is.” Carrie gazed out the window at the sun-white suburban world. It was all quiet. A life of dreary predictability and steady earnings. But people were willing to risk their lives for less, crossing the Rio Grande.

“Why can’t you get a job there? Interpreting?” Emma asked.

“Like I have said many times before … ” Carrie started.

Emma shrugged: “They don’t have money.”

“You know they don’t.”

“I think they should. They help people.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“Well, it should be.”

Carrie thought about Jon who at this moment might be called to help border patrol take in people. On some days when there were many illegal crossings, the highway police helped out. It was routine.

It was something she didn’t feel thinking too much about. She put a mental wall in her head and put the thought of Jon reluctantly escorting some of those women with children in their arms, into detention. That image had to stay behind a wall – for now.

She smiled at the irony. The world was so damn tiring sometimes …

“Do you think Marie is home this weekend?” Carrie asked.

“I dunno  … ” Emma replied, eyeing her mom with uncertainty.

“Ask her.”

“I don’t know if she is home right now. They may have gone somewhere else.”

“Well, ‘they’ brought their phones – didn’t they?” Carrie smiled wearily, but kindly.

“Oh – okay.” Emma turned to her phone again and her fingers danced across the screen.

“I don’t usually pry, honey, but that cartoon chicken profile is pretty hard to miss … “

“Yeah … ” Emma grinned. “That’s Marie, all right.”

“That’s her. What does she say?”

“She asks why.”

“Because I’m going to take you over to Palms and let you loose with a couple of movie tickets.”

“There aren’t any good movies right now, mom.”

“What about Captain Marvel?”

Emma looked at Carrie like she had just been served broccoli.

“I think we’d rather see Pet Sematary … “

“Right … Well, ask her.”

“Okay … it’s cool. She’d like to!”

“Good.”

Emma put down her phone.

“Mum – you don’t have to bribe me or anything. It was really okay about today … I mean, it was annoying but it’s okay. I see Marie all the time.”

Carrie breathed deeply: “I believe you but … ” She put her hand over Emma’s ” – but it’s important to keep agreements. Or make up for broken agreements.”

“Yeah?”

“You know it is.” Carrie allowed herself a tiny but honest smile.

It had been important to say this – to do this – for Emma. And she had.

“So maybe you don’t mind me going to Josh Layton’s party tomorrow evening?” Emma quipped.

Now she had found the doe-eyes, the secret weapons she had at the ready all the time – just in case they were needed.

“I’m not going to make up for that much.” Carrie crossed her arms, but she was still smiling.

“Oh, okay … ” Emma didn’t pursue it. She knew it had been a long shot.

But it was hard to keep a lid on, just the same … :

“Just because he is 15 and Jack had some beer there the other time doesn’t mean … ” she started mumbling.

Carrie looked her daughter straight in the eyes:

“No. It doesn’t. So maybe next time he throws one of those parties. I’ll talk to your dad about it. I promise.”

“Okay.”

Emma put down her phone.

“So if you take those hundred thousand dollars, maybe then we could throw a party?” she asked, dead-serious.

Carrie felt something hit her in the gut:

“What? What … are you talking about?”

“Grandma called – like, at least 3 times before you came home.”

“She should’ve called – she should’ve called me … “

Damn … you have to use my kids, as well, mom.

Carrie gritted her teeth: “Okay, what did she tell you?”

Emma shrugged and looked distractedly toward the living room and the sounds of cartoon Batman knocking out a joker or two.

“Emma, what did she tell you?”

“She said her old boyfriend – Marcus – wanted to give someone a hundred thousand dollars to … to get something they really wanted. That it was charity.”

“Did she tell you about Marcus’ church?”

“Is he a priest?”

“No, he is a former member of the Church of Scientology, and we’ve talked about them before – when you had that school project, remember?”

“Oh … but now he is not a member?”

“No, he started his own branch. He invented his own version of their religion. It’s pretty big in some parts of California, I hear. Your grandma was into it for a short while.”

“But we could … I mean, mom, it’s a hundred thousand dollars.”

Emma looked at Carrie, then threw a glance at the dilapidated door to the yellow grass back garden. The one with the three short withered pine trees they never had been able to get to look nice. Or had the time for.

Even pine trees …

Carrie stood up. For a brief, terrible moment it all came back to her:

Lin’s death, her sojourn to South America to ‘find herself’ (what a joke … ), ditching her law school never to return, hooking up with Jeremy in Florida, hooking needles into her arm – like Lin, slamming a car door into Jeremy’s face and hope he would be too groggy to fumble for that gun …

… all across America, drifting …

… and then finally finding a home, and Jon …

… a life … a family …

… a job.

Somebody wanted her for a job. Even with her resume. Or lack thereof.

shitty job, yes, but somebody wanted her for it.

And somebody wanted her for a wife.

And she was somebody’s mother.

Life was … normal.

But no.

It was never normal.

It always came back to this.

That no matter how hard she tried she would never make it as far in life as her peers, women her age.

She had made one crucial mistake – no, several, in fact. She had fucked up. And everybody else had a head start.

No matter how much she pretended that things were normal, they never really were.

Sure, lots of women her age had lousy jobs.

Or no jobs at all.

But they were not stuck. Not like her.

Carrie breathed deeply, then turned to her daughter. She saw the fear in Emma’s eyes and hated herself for using it, but the girl had to be put into her place.

Her mother – Deborah – had used her – Emma – to get to Carrie, and it had to stop. Right now. Right here:

“Emma, what if it had been you Jack Monroe had taken those photos of, without your clothes and shared on Facebook?”

Emma shook her head: “He’d never – I mean, he got expelled – he’d never do that. He could never do that, I mean … “

“But what if he had. Or what if somebody else did?”

“I’d hate that. Sure. I would.”

Emma looked more and more bewildered, but the fastness and rising anger in her mother’s tone held her. She dared hardly move.

“Miriam thought Jack loved her, that he would give her something because she was loved,” Carrie said. “He betrayed her trust. In the worst way.”

“Yes, but – “

“Hear me out, goddammit!”

No. That had not been her intention …

But Carrie found herself short of breath, something old and mean rising in her as well. Some urge to strike.

Strike out at it all …

“Marcus Chen is the CEO of a big company that sells charity campaigns, but his church – his new, improved version of Scientology – is funding most of it. When his company sells a new campaign to collect money for boys in Africa who got their legs shot off in some war – boys who are Michael’s age –  then his new church gets to host charity events where they sell their church. You go to an event and you get a folder about how great his church is, and you meet all the right people from the church who say all the right things about how poor the world is and if only more would do like them and help. Sooner or later you wind up just a little bit tempted to give some more money to some other program the church has. And then the church can go out and say – ‘Look, this or that person gave us money. We are so good. And we are so legit’.”

“I don’t understand, mom.” Emma had tears in her eyes now and Carrie was painfully aware that there were no more sounds of Batman beating anyone up.

Michael could always smell danger a mile off …  I guess I taught him well … 

And now there was only the sound of one person beating someone up …

Carrie tried to compose herself: “It is simple: Jack said he loved Miriam, but in reality he used her. He used her to show his pals – those pals he really wanted to be liked by – what a cool guy he was. He used those photos to pretend in front of his pals that he was really good at fucking an underage girl!”

“Mum – stop it!”

Emma had gotten up now and she was crying, and Carrie was vaguely aware that she herself was shouting. But it didn’t matter now …

Storms had a tendency to live their own life. And they had to blow out, hadn’t they?

There was nothing she could do – was there?

“Marcus Chen only wants to do good – to the kids in Sierra Leone, or to some poor hairdresser in Boston or … to me … because … “

Carrie searched for the words, found it harder and harder to breathe.

” … because he wants to promote his church so they can trick people into becoming members so they can brainwash them and take all their money.”

“How do you know that?!” Emma cried. “You said they were different. When we had the school project, you said they were different. Different from Scientology.”

“Not that different!”

“But how do you know?!”

Emma struck back, with all the force and fury of a soon-to-be teenager who already knew too many of her parents’ weaknesses. And who was hurt enough to exploit them.

“Have you even looked at their website … ?” Emma continued, wiping her eyes. “Well, I have. Maybe you should not always judge things … people … before you look at them, mom.”

“I don’t – “

But Emma continued, and now she was the flood that could not be stopped:

“If you did that then perhaps you wouldn’t be so afraid to change things, and then we could move away … from this!”

She threw her arms out in a gesture that encompassed both the run-down suburban box they lived in, but also much more.

Carrie knew what that ‘more’ was.

She knew how much Emma hated school.

She knew how much Emma longed for another place to live – like all the cities she had imagined would be so much greater than this asshole in the desert …

She knew such a place, in Emma’s fondest dreams, would be Van Nuys in Los Angeles, where Miriam had moved just 3 months ago and left Emma to suck up to Marie to be part of a cool group …

Not alone.

“You can’t trust a website, darling – ” Carrie started, but it was too late. Much too late.

“Don’t tell me what I can trust and not trust,” Emma yelled back. “Don’t tell me about something when you haven’t even looked at it – have you looked?”

Carrie hesitated, then shook her head: “No, but I know Scientology and your grandmother was also – “

“Stop trash-talking grandma!”

Carrie’s face hardened, but she also felt the tears sting now.

“I don’t trash-talk grandma. She has been shopping around in the spiritual supermarket since I was a girl your age. After she and granddad divorced she has always – surprise, surprise – found a new man who was the perfect man and who had the perfect new religion. Until, of course, he was not good anymore.”

“I don’t care,” Emma said, sobbing and picking up her phone. “I don’t care about what grandma did. Or grandpa.”

She looked up through tears:

“I care about what you do.”

“So we can afford to move?” Carrie asked, feeling something tugging at her shoulders.

“No … ” Emma cried ” … so you can come home every day from work and not be angry all the time! I hate it!”

Then Emma turned and ran up the stairs, to her room.

And Carrie knew she had just broken an agreement for which there might be no way to make up.

*

It was darker than usual when Jon came home.

Jon could only see the small light above the stove when he took his jacket off in the utility room. That and the laptop.

And otherwise shadows.

Jon took a deep breath and walked gently to the kitchen door but he did not turn on the ceiling light.

He went slowly over to the kitchen table, pulling out a chair.

Carrie didn’t look at him, didn’t greet him. She stared into her old laptop. The pale light from the screen combined with the weak light from the stove to paint her face with shadows that looked like they were part of her skin.

He sat down.

“What’s going on?”

“It’s me,” Carrie just said.

“Yeah? How so?”

“I hurt her.”

“Who?”

“Emma.”

“What do you mean?”

She told him.

When she was finished, Jon went to the fridge and got out a beer. Before he sat down again he turned and asked her: “Do you want one?”

“Yes.”

They drank their Budweisers from the can and said nothing for a while. Then Carrie said:

“Say something, dammit.”

“What do you want me to say, Carrie?”

She looked around the kitchen, like a trapped animal. There were plenty of exits, but no way out.

“How about I’m a bitch and I don’t deserve to be a mother?”

“We’ve been here before. Everybody hurts their kids, even if they don’t want to. You can only try your best. You … did your best.”

“I did not!” Carrie stood up and almost knocked over her chair when she pulled it back. She looked as if she was about to go somewhere but just froze in the middle of the kitchen room. Then she looked back down at Jon, eyes full of pain, and he really began to feel bad now. He had seldom seen her so distraught.

Carrie pulled back her sleeve: The scars were still there. Like they would always be.

“I … beat this,” she said.

“You did. You beat it good.”

She turned the computer at him. The screen was filled with job adverts. She had been searching for something new – again.

“I got one. Even if nobody said I could.”

“Nobody said you couldn’t do it.”

“Enough did, and they were right. I should have died out there – on the road.”

“You made one mistake and it got you into deep – for a while,” Jon said, his voice steady even though he himself felt like getting up and just getting the hell out of there.

“You got back,” he then added. “You’ve been back for many years.”

“I have,” Carrie said. “But I still hurt my kids … I hurt you.” Tears were in her eyes.

“I do it so often … ” she whispered.

“Not that often … ” Jon said but his voice trailed off.

“Yes, that often,” Carrie said. “Often enough.”

“What are you going to do?”

Carrie sat down again. For a moment she looked out the window into the dark, dilapidated garden and then she looked at Jon:

“There is a baseline, you know.”

“‘Baseline’?”

“For how much anger that’s normal. In families.”

“Oh … “

“You were right,” she said. “All the times you told me. Parents aren’t perfect. Nobody is.”

“Yes.”

“I’m way beyond that baseline, Jon. I have been for … years.”

“What you said to her today,” Jon tried. “It wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t …. “

“Not what I said. But the way I said it …” Carrie’s voice became hard:

“I will not hurt her ever again like that. Not ever.”

Jon waited.

“I’m taking Emma to LA next weekend,” Carrie said. “Then we’re going to see Miriam, my mom – and Marcus Chen.”

“Marcus Chen?”

“His corporate HQ is in downtown LA.”

“The first two parts I agree on,” Jon said, “the last part … “

“I know what you are thinking but she is right – Emma is right!”

“About what?”

“I don’t know the man. I don’t really know if it’s Scientology or … or if he actually left because it was Scientology and tried to create something new, something better.”

“And what if it’s still the same old deal?” Jon looked at his wife squarely “Or worse: What if it is and you don’t notice it?”

“I’ll prepare. There’s a lot of Internet that can be looked through from now and until next Friday.”

He nodded, but then looked at her again because he knew it was not going to be that easy:

“You can patch up with Emma in other ways that are less … risky. It’ll take time, sure. But right now you are inviting her to give some kind of veto as to whether or not you should take that damn money and become poster-girl for Marcus Chen and his ‘church’.”

“I’m not. I’m taking her with me so she can see Miriam. That is what she cares about. I’m going to see mom, too, so we can have a serious discussion about how she is going to behave with our family in the future – and her grandchildren. But I’m seeing Marcus Chen myself.”

“Okay … “

“And I’m making the decision about whether or not to receive his charity for myself.”

Jon sighed: “Okay,” he repeated, “I still don’t like it much, though. I don’t have much faith – no pun intended – in this man and his organization.”

“Neither do I,” Carrie said and took Jon’s hand, “but Emma is right: I haven’t really looked at things. I just made a judgment about who he was and then decided beforehand that it was not okay. And that my mom behaved like … she usually does, well, that didn’t help things either.”

“So let’ say he is legit,” Jon said. “You have a hundred grand now. What are you – we – going to do with them? Will you quit your job? Start a business? Draw for a year?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you think it will make you happy?”

“I don’t know – and really, I don’t care if it is this or that. But I have to take some kind of risk … to be happier. Otherwise – ” her voice trailed ” – I’m lost.”

Jon put his other hand over hers.

“You could find another job.”

“I should. But you know I don’t feel I … “

“Yeah, I know. But do you deserve that money from this man, then?”

“I don’t know. Maybe – even if he is for real – I will run away at his doorstep. And I will have wasted the opportunity of a lifetime.”

“I don’t think so.”

“But that is the risk. The point, though, is that I have to do something – anything – to change.”

“It’s the only point there is,” Jon said

Hello And Welcome

Hello And Welcome

I love fantasies.

Except when I try to make them real.

Could be fantasies about anything, but you know what it’s mostly about. Maybe it is different for you. But … I dunno.

Well, anyway, the problem with fantasies is that they get messy and troublesome once you try to make them real.

The problem is also that fantasies don’t have any soul if you go into them and never try to make them real. They get distilled, watered down. There is only the bare bones and framework.

That is so attractive. Of course. 

I wish I was better at making fantasies real and enjoying what I have. All at the same time.

And I am rambling, as I clean up the attic. Or my part of the attic anyway.

It’s dusty and forlorn up here, pieces of a life – more lives. I wonder what you could see if you went down the street here and looked into all the attics. I think you’d see pieces of many lives, never lived.

Or just clutter, thrown away.

Why did I go up here? I should try to fix my fantasies. I spent a whole morning with them because I was bloody alone. And why hasn’t Jon called yet to say when he is coming home with the kids?

I walk around and almost stumble over something. A bicycle. For kids.

I take it up and dust it off. Emma’s? I’m not sure I remember anymore.

Just as I don’t remember where my pencils are, where my paper is. It is somewhere down below and you see I wanted to use it – today.

I had made promises to myself.

I stumble over something else. I kick at it. I don’t even stop to watch.

I want to find those bloody drawings. Now.

But I can’t.

I look everywhere but I can’t.

The sun gets up higher and higher outside, but for once it only casts more light and not heat. The windows are dusty, too. But they are not blocking everything.

There is a reason – (I stumble again, or nearly so – dammit)

Dammit …

I sit down. On some crate of Jon’s, workout equipment he never used at home. 

There is a reason it’s cold here, and it is not the dust. Not the small window. Not because it is winter.

Winter is never cold near the Mexican border. Winter is a concept here, something we’ve heard of, but never really known. It is the land with only one season: heat.

Everything is always dry. But that is not the problem.

I think about the heat all the time when it gets to me. I’m not used to it. I come from a land of cold and mist and even though it is no longer my home, it is what I bring with me.

Like stories. Of my life. Like all the things that always repeat themselves. Like wars – inside and out.

I am always at war. I meet people who have been to war, but that … does not matter.

I know I am rambling now but bear with me. It is important. It is why I can’t find my drawings.

It is why I wasted the morning, trying to take something beautiful and hold it but could not go all the way. I should have tried to make it real. Like my drawings.

What I am trying to say is that I have not made a drawing for … years. I don’t remember when it was the last time.

And I am tired of finding excuses. But I keep doing it.

And I am tired of not being able to create something beautiful. I have even forgotten what it was I wanted to create.

I work as a cleaning lady. I once went to college. Then I did drugs but got out of it. Then I worked myself back into some kind of life. Then I met Jon.

It worked. I got a life.

But everything is on hold.

(I wipe it away.)

Then I get up.

Tears are no good. I have to find out how I get to draw again. How I get the time, space, and energy.

How I use my energy to do that, something precious – like my kids. But I have given them a lot now, they are old enough. I have to figure out what to give myself before it is too late.

*

Carrie stood for a moment in the attic and looked around, trying to make sense of it all. Where had she put her old drawings?

Then she remembered that there was paper in the cupboard next to the entrance.

But no pencils.

I could go shopping and buy some. It is Sunday but the mall is open. 

She wondered. Maybe this was another way of getting away. What if she went over there and got distracted?

What if she spent her energy?

What if Jon was back when she came home?

Carrie looked at her hand. In the dust-filled light, it looked ghostly. She touched her hair, let her fingers slide through it. It was dry, like the land around her. Like she felt.

So what was the point? She should be pleased, shouldn’t she?

She started descending the ladder, leaving the smell of old cardboard behind. She couldn’t stand it for a moment longer.

She gently lowered herself to the floor, since the ladder to the attic didn’t go all the way down. It was enough that she had almost fallen 3 times already – up there. She didn’t need a damn broken ankle when she was almost back.

But back to what?

Then she heard the car, then the door, then …

“Mommy – we’re home! Mommy, where are you?”

Carrie went to them. That was what she went back to.

But she noticed her heart was still alight when she hugged them – all of them.

That was good enough. Very good.

And yet. It pained her that she had failed again – to find the drawings, to find pen and paper. To get something done.

Something like drawing again.

“Hey, honey – ” Jon panted, putting down the bags. His hug was still strong, still good. He was still strong, although not without wear and tear.

She caressed his beard, for lack of some other gesture. But it was okay. No, it was more than okay. It was Jon.

“Anything the matter?”

He knew her too well. The kids were already running wild. They had not noticed anything.

“I guess … ” she looked down ” … I didn’t get so much rest, after all.”

He smiled. “I didn’t get any rest either – that playground in the mall is insane.”

“Well, the kids love it.” She put her arms around him.

“Emma is too old, actually,” Jon continued now, his voice trailing ” – she’d rather go shopping. Are you sure you are all right?”

She hesitated, but only for a second now: “Yes.”

She let go now and looked directly at him:

“Is JoAnn’s Craft Store still open over in the mall?”

“Yeah, I think so? Why?”

“I’m going there. Have to pick up a few things. Can you hold the fort for me – just for an hour?”

Jon was about to protest, but only for a second or so: “Yeah, sure.”

“Good.” Carrie took the car keys from his hand and clenched them in hers for a moment. Then she gently tapped his chest with her closed hand, and the keys.

When she went out the door and into the driveway, Jon called after her:

“What do I tell Em and Mike?”

She stopped and looked back at the house and him. Regular dry suburbia, but right now it looked a little better:

“Tell them I went to buy some new crayons.”

“For them or for you?”

“For all of us.”

His Last and First Breath

His Last and First Breath

“I should have died.” 

The words were hoarse and rough, like that desert he had breathed for most of a year. Over there …

“Don’t say that. Please, don’t say that.” Carrie held him tighter. “What about us?”

“It’s not that,” Jon said. “But sometimes there is a feeling of certainty … when it is your time. In Iraq, when we were being evacuated after our chopper was shot down, some of the guys from my squad were still … breathing. The medics talked like they could save them. But my pals … they just looked at me like it was all over. Somehow they knew they would not make it.”

“And you?”

“I knew that that time would not be it.”

“Why? How? How did you know?”

He shook his head. “Can’t explain it. At first, you are frightened, sure. And your body acts its best not to get hit. That’s instinct. But a part of you is just … in another place. And you know that this time you will not die.”

“It could be imagination … something your mind does to protect you.” She let him go, gently. She was searching for some kind of conclusion. 

The dishes were still out in the kitchen. The kids were on their way home. Life pushed its way back towards them. 

But Jon shook his head again. Like all of that ‘life’ was one enormous experience you could never be sure of. “Maybe you are right. But the other day – when I was drowning – then I felt for certain I was a goner. In a way that I had never felt in Iraq. And then …”

“Then you saw the boy.”

“Yes.”

2 days earlier … 

There had been rain all night, a defiant remnant of Hurricane Rosa. Jon had driven through it on the first part of his watch, and the morning sky had been like a whipped up ocean. As if the storm had to punish someone before it finally died out. 

It was always an event when they got weather like this in Arizona because everything was dry and seared most of the year. But not that morning. It had been useless driving more until it was all over. So Jon had pulled over for some coffee at his favorite diner in Gila Bend. 

There had been ample time to drink and chat but mostly just sit and watch the colossal shower outside coming down hard on the small desert town.

And wonder if he would do the same thing in 10 years’ time.

When the rain finally receded enough, he got back in the patrol car and headed out Pima towards Interstate 8, ignoring several small lakes now pooling on the road. He sped up and slashed through them with water spraying to all sides. Just like all the other drivers.

It was still overcast, but he had a feeling it would clear any moment.

Jon was about to turn on the radio to hear how bad Phoenix was hit when he crossed Sand Tank Wash. 

Usually a long empty scar in the landscape of gravel and dusty sand, Sand Tank Wash was just that – an invisible creek with no water. It didn’t exist until it rained. 

Now the Wash had emerged from non-existence with a vengeance. Jon could hear the roar of the water before he could see it.

From the road, about a hundred yards before he reached the bridge crossing, he could also see thin trees and bushes alongside the wash quivering, but not because of the wind, which was long dead. The torrent of water came down from the mountains with such force that it pulled out enormous chunks of dirt and gravel from the edges of the creek. 

Something else was too close to an edge.

Jon hit the brakes right in a big pool of water, and it looked like the car temporarily exploded in raindrops. 

Then down with the window. “Hey, lady – get away from there!” 

The bridge over the creek had a ‘railing’ only 3 foot high. And somebody was leaning over it. 

It was a woman who looked like she was throwing up down into the flood below. Or … was she trying to jump down into it and had decided against it at the last minute? 

Jon got out and ran across the road, barely pausing to switch on the patrol car lights. The woman stood upright at the sound of Jon’s voice. She was twenty-something and frantic with fear.

“My son is down there!”

Jon hurried to the railing. “Where? Where?!”

She pointed desperately, and now he saw the boy.

There. To the left of the bridge, but right in the raging flood. 

The boy was only about 5 or 6 and clinging for dear life to some shrubbery that careened dangerously into the water. The spindly piece of vegetation’s roots was already half out of the dirt on the side of the creek, which was collapsing into the flood.

“Do something!” The woman was simultaneously crying and also pulling at Jon’s arm, so he couldn’t do much else than trying to get her to let go.

“Stop it – ma’am.” Jon forced her away and into the arms of a trucker who had come panting over after blocking the road for further traffic with 20 tons of furniture. 

More people came running, but Jon barely registered them. The boy’s head was almost underwater now …

His mind raced. He might get some rope from somewhere. Perhaps the trucker had something useful …

Now the boy’s head disappeared momentarily underwater. But he still clung to the bush.

“Call 911!” Jon shouted at the bystanders.

Then he ran to the end of the bridge where the railing ended.  He rounded the corner and skirted down the sloping side of gravel that led to the terrain below. Here earth and vegetation were still being torn at by the sheer pressure of the water flooding through the creek.

“Hang on!” Jon yelled. Then over his shoulder to the others on the bridge: “If somebody has rope, go -”

He never finished the sentence because he knew he had to act. An absurd act, with a vanishingly slight chance of success. But the shrubbery was there, dipping in the thundering brown currents just below the bridge, and clinging on to it – the boy.

“What’s your name?” Jon called out. 

Another futile gesture by any objective standards. What did it matter? In moments, the boy might be dead, and Jon as well. But it seemed like the only thing to do, aside from the actual rescue attempt itself – or perhaps despite it. Because Jon knew, as soon as he got to the bush, that this would not work.

He desperately threw himself to the ground and clasped both his hands around the stem of the bush, trying to hold it in place. Jon could feel the roots coming loose from the soil, as he tried to get a hold of them. The soil which was also being torn loose around him and devoured by the water.  

“I will not let go!” Jon called again. “Hold on!”

“Sani … “ the boy cried.

“What?” For a moment – confusion. Then understanding. “Sani? I’m Jon. I’m a state trooper. We’re getting help. You will be all right.”

And that’s when the handful of thin branches of the bush which Sani was clinging to were ripped apart and the boy lost his grip. In the next second, he disappeared in the water.

Jon reacted instinctively, although he knew it was playing with death. He threw himself forward onto his stomach and reached out with both hands to catch the boy – hoping against all hopes that Sani would come up again. And that he could stay on the rapidly deteriorating shore.

It was a matter of balance. Only Jon’s arms were in the water. He should be able to stay out of the water since most of his weight was on land.

And that’s when the rest of the shore that held the bush, and Jon, came loose and slid into the flood. 

Several yards away from the bridge other chunks of the ground came off at the same time and splashed into the water as if a fragile cord holding them all in place had finally been cut.

For Jon, the world became one long mad howl of rushing water, which was muted every time he was pulled down in it. He struggled to avoid it, but the current – the pull – was so strong, he felt like a rag doll.

Jon went blank inside. All he could think of was getting air; big wheezing gulps, half-filled with the brown muddy water.

It was like being a fly caught in the water from a firehose. Jon knew there would be concrete slabs under Papago Street – another crossing – a few hundred yards north of the Pima Street crossing. But his ability to orient himself was near non-existent in the howling torrents. So he didn’t even know he was at the bridge until he briefly smashed into one slab, tried to hold on to it, and was then promptly sucked under again and flushed out on the other side.

Further north there were only two or three other crossings. He couldn’t remember. But none of them had bridges. It was just roads crossing the creek which was also used as a North-South throughway whenever it was dry. All of those crossing roads had to be flooded now.

There would be nothing but water until the flood died out.

Somewhere between the gulps and the panic welled up inside him, like another flood, he saw broken pieces. Little shards of his vanishing life that gave way to a sudden sadness so deep and yawning that it was like he had already died, even if the currents still tossed him around and he was faintly aware of it.

It was the sadness of losing your life. There was so much you still had to do. So much you had not done. There was his wife – his daughter – son – brother – everyone he would never see again. And the clarity of that pain was almost worse than the grimy water in his throat and lungs.

Then he felt like he was pulled down for what was the last time, but suddenly there was the sun above, which was odd, like his thoughts. Like he had dropped out of dying and was seeing it all dispassionately, wondering about the sun, the weather, if it was possible to see this or that from 5 feet below a flood … 

And then current flung him upwards again. Suddenly there was sky – air – life. Another few seconds … 

And … 

Someone … 

Outlined against the light from above the water, Jon could see the silhouette of a human.

A small one …

Jon didn’t know how he knew. Or how it could strike him with so much clarity, so he didn’t think of the lack of air. But it was the boy.

Sani!

Jon struggled and somehow kept his head above water for more than a few moments this time. It was like waking up in the middle of traffic. The world over the water was a giant thunderous rush, as waves from the flood drove him forward.

“Mister – here!”

It was the boy. It had to be.

He was on the shore at Jon’s right side. The current suddenly pushed Jon towards that shore and he grasped frantically for something – anything. But there was only more dirt and gravel being sucked down into the water. He couldn’t get a hold on anything.

“Mister! Look!”

The boy held out something for him. A hand? No, a branch? No … not that.

Jon desperately tried to reach for the boy, although it seemed insane. If the boy was reaching for him, the pull of the current would tear them both out into the roaring flood. He could not take the boy’s hand … 

“Get away!” He shouted, mouth half full of the seedy water. “Stay away!”

But the boy persistently followed him on the shore, as the current pulled him further and further alongside it, and soon back into the torrent itself.

“Mister – look!”

Then Jon saw it. The boy was not reaching for him to do some madly desperate and ultimately futile locking of hands that would just pull them both out. No, he was trying to get Jon’s attention. He was pointing … 

There was another tree, bigger, stronger. It was leaning over the water, but not because it was being uprooted. Not yet. It was merely bent that way. And its roots were deeper.

Jon knew that he would not have seen it, because he was busy panicking and coughing water out of his lungs before he swallowed more. 

It was like the tree had come out of nowhere.

*

He didn’t know how he grabbed it, much less held on. He didn’t know for how long. But at last he heard voices.

And felt … rope, hooks, hands. It was all a blur. But he was being pulled.

“You are secure. You can let go.”

Voices again. He let himself be pulled. Not by the waters, but by hands. And at last, he felt the ground again.

All kinds of voices asking questions, checking, handing him something to drink once they made sure there wasn’t more in his lungs that had to go out first. He struggled. 

Jon knew now this wasn’t the end. 

At last he recognized a voice. And there was a friendly face to go. 

Anderson.

How long had it been? There had been a road accident out near Theba …

“Anderson!” he called. 

And the face – mid-30s, curly hair, glasses – became Anderson. One of the floating voices around him was now Anderson. Real. Human. There. And someone he knew. Someone he could talk to. The flood receded.

“Is that you, Reese?” Anderson flashed a slight smile. “We have to stop meeting like this.”

“Sani!” Jon blurted. “What about Sani?”

“Who?” Anderson shook his head. Lights flashed in the background.

“The boy,” Jon said and tried to get to his feet. Anderson supported him.

“The boy … “ Anderson repeated. Understanding flashed in his eyes. “Oh, the boy … “ 

Then his voice faded. “I’m sorry. He didn’t make it.”

“What?”

“He didn’t make it.”

He must have fallen in again, was Jon’s first thought. Even if it was absurd. Sani had been on land. Running. How could he have fallen back in … the flood?

No. There had to be a mistake. Sani had been safe. Unlike Jon.

Jon grabbed Anderson’s arm. “Where is he?”

“They have him down at the bridge. Papago … “

Jon looked confused. “At Papago? But that’s …” He looked south. It was at least a mile back.

Anderson nodded gravely. Another guy who Jon did not recognize excused himself as he brushed past them to put some gear or other back into the truck with the flashing lights, one of the few that Gila Bend had on hand for occasions like this.

“I talked to Cooper on the radio while you were trying to get some freshwater in … “ Anderson tried another smile, but when he saw Jon’s face he let it fade.

“I’m going down there.” Jon took a few steps in the sand alongside the roaring Wash before he felt Anderson’s hand on his shoulder.

“They are already half-way to Phoenix,” Anderson said. “And we should get over to EMS. To get you properly checked out.”

“The hell we should … “ Jon brushed Anderson’s hand away.

“You’re welcome to take that up with your Captain.” Anderson’s voice became firmer. 

“You talked to him?”

“Well, I know Les and I know that people who have almost drowned should – “ Anderson began.

But Jon was already running.

When he reached the crossing at Papago street there was nothing, though. Only some thin iron rods barely visible above the frothing whirls on the north side of the bridge. 

*

Carrie had of course been shocked when Jon finally came home, even though he had prepared her on the phone. But he was all right. 

It had been bad, yeah. But he had had a lot of bad days on the job. This one wasn’t so different.

He had a long day and a long night trying to explain that to Carrie, though. And to the kids.

“There were so many trees,” he had said to Emma and Michael. “I would have caught one of them sooner or later. It was dangerous, but I was going to be all right.”

Michael, 10, had asked a lot of questions. Emma, 13, had said nothing. She had just given him ‘that look’. Then she hurried up to her room.

Carrie asked a lot more questions, especially later on when they were alone. He answered most of them. 

He didn’t talk about seeing Sani on the shore, though.

It was only after a day off and a debriefing with Anderson and the other responders that Jon even realized that, in fact, he had told no one that Sani had been running along the flood, on the shore, trying to make him see that tree.

So the reality that Jon agreed to was that someone had called 911 from the Pima crossing, because Sani’s mother was out of it and both Jon and Sani had gone into the water. The firefighters from Gila were closest, a few miles to the west on Papago Street just north of Pima as fate would have it. 

The firefighters had been about to split up – someone to Pima and someone to follow the flood north and look for Jon and Sani. Then a guy who was there to film it all for his YouTube storm chaser channel came running over. He had seen legs sticking out in the water under the bridge at Papago.

Sani. Right there. He was hanging upside down from a rusty iron rod that had caught him under the small Papago bridge. That’s where he had drowned. 

But they knew from the 911-call that Jon was in the water, too, so Anderson and his teammate had driven further north to see if they could find him. 

When Cooper and his colleague got Sani up back at Papago, they had tried CPR, but it was much too late. Somebody had brought Sani’s mother to the scene, and she was in pieces.  Cooper had then driven Sani’s mother to the hospital in Phoenix with the body of her son, and they had confirmed what everyone already knew. 

Sani had drowned under that bridge and over a mile south from the spot where they had found Jon. 

The geography could not be wrong. The Papago crossed Sand Tank Wash long before Jon had even seen Sani. Even if Sani had somehow made it up from the flood and then fallen back in, he would have been swept further north, not south. That was the direction the firehose was pointing. South to north. Not the other way around.

So Jon figured he had to be wrong. And  said nothing about what he had seen. He only mentioned the tree. 

At the end, when all had done their ‘choir practice’, as they called it, they soon found themselves in a diner nearby. That was the part of the debriefings that everyone always looked the most forward to. 

But Jon had no appetite. He drove home as soon as he could excuse himself.

The next day, Captain Browning had Hoffman do their own report about the incident and he asked Jon a few questions, but Hoffman seemed more than ready to get it over with. Even more than Jon.

Jon thought about trying to contact the mother. But a sinking hollow feeling came over him every time he thought about it. So it was better just to get on the road again as soon as possible.

And so the October flood of Maricopa County was over. And the story about its single casualty was over.

If you doubted it, you could always refer to the reports.

*

Weeks later …

“It’s the same shit as always,” Carrie complained. “I get home weekdays and I’m beat after the kids go to bed. I am home on weekends and I still get beat – because there is so much house-stuff leftover from the weekdays.” 

She held the beer in front of her, watching it thoughtfully, then took a big gulp.

“I know the feeling,” Jon said. “Hmm … I thought you got some drawing done yesterday?”

“I planned to.” Carrie slumped in the chair. “But then Jenna called and ‘could I please help with outfitting her gym?’”

“She’s still doing that?”

“And the children’s rooms, and the bedroom. And the garden. Oh, and the living room will be repainted again next month.” Carrie sighed, but something in the tone of her description wasn’t dismissive.

Jon frowned. “I thought you and Jenna … I thought she was good company?”

“She is …” Carrie sighed again “ … when you are a lot alone or alone with the kids. Then you need company. You even think you need hers. You even feel good about it when you’re there. But she just talks about her sons and herself. And you get home and feel just the same …”

Jon saw what she was getting at. “And you regret you didn’t stay home and got that drawing done?”

“Damn right. What a waste. The only time this month the kids are out on a Saturday and I blew it.” Carrie finished the last of the beer.

You drink like a biker, honey,” Jon made a toast in her direction. 

Carrie went to the fridge and got another beer. “When I’m angry at myself, I do.”

“We all need some things,” Jon said. “Sometimes … we just throw it up against the wall and see what sticks. You couldn’t really lock yourself in another weekend, even if it was to get something on that canvas.”

Carrie sat down again. “What do you need, Jon?”

There was silence for a moment. Carrie’s question caught him off guard. He should have seen this coming. But his mind had been elsewhere. He had really enjoyed that beer … until now.

“I guess …” Jon started “ … I guess I just need to relax a bit.”

“I thought you had.”

After the debriefings, he had been home for three days before going back to work. The Captain had insisted.

“I have … relaxed,” Jon said. 

She wetted her lips. There was little taste of beer left, of anything really. “I’m not saying you should be more home, or with the kids. I know your job pays the bills. Just …”

“Carrie, we don’t have to – you don’t have to say that every time, we -”

“But I want to, because it’s goddamn important.”

There was another awkward silence, which was filled with the echo of a fist that had slammed the kitchen table. It was Carrie’s.

She apparently became conscious of what she had done and got up from the chair. “Never mind … Just never mind.”

Jon got up, too. “Wait. I know I haven’t been home much, but work is … you know.”

Carrie looked straight at him. “It’s not work. I just said that.”

Jon crossed his arms. “Then what is it?”

It was a strange little stand-off now, not unlike a thousand other standoffs. A situation that a thousand other people probably repeated right now. And the silence of the road outside would be as unchanged as ever. Perhaps that was what annoyed Carrie. 

That she had a deep feeling this wouldn’t matter – again. This time more was at stake. She knew that, too.

So she had to try. “Recently, you have been too busy even when you were home.” 

Jon looked at her. “What do you mean?”

“What do I mean …? How about that you are so busy brooding that you forget the rest of us?”

“I’m not ‘brooding’.” He looked down, then back at her.

She crossed her arms.

“Okay – okay!” He waved dismissively at her like he did when he passed a smoker on the street and accidentally got a lungful of nicotine. “I’ll try to get some more days off – even after I get back to work. This takes time. I know.”

If Carrie had noticed that he had reduced her to cigarette-smoke, she didn’t flinch. But her voice was still hard. “Do more than that. Don’t just sit here – when you are at home – with a beer and watch television. Talk to someone.”

“Who?!” Jon got up and paced around. “Who the fuck do you think I should talk to?” 

He stopped, turned towards her. His eyes were like those never-ending, gray skies in the Atlantic that Carrie had grown up with, and for a moment she flinched.

Jon hated smoke. Carrie hated bad memories. 

“You could start by talking to me …” she said.

“I’ve said all there is to say …” Jon looked out into their dilapidated garden as if he was casually inspecting it, but it was as if his breath had stopped half-way in his throat. “I can’t think of anything else to say.”

“I believe what you saw,” Carrie tried. “The problem is that you are shutting yourself down over it. As if it was you who had died …” 

She shook her head. “Sorry, that came out weird …”

“No. It’s okay.” Jon spoke quietly now, but in the tone he reserved for those men who opened the door when the wife had called and said they threatened to kill her. 

“But the problem is what I saw. It is because of that that I …” He trailed off.

She went to him and put her arms around him from behind. She let her chin rest on his shoulder. “You don’t have to. Why do you have to?”

He kept looking at the garden. The tiny pecan tree looked frail and spindly, like some of the bones he had seen in the Iraqi desert.

They had better water it soon.

The breath that was stuck in his throat had turned to a lump now. Something that felt like ash but heavy with the mud-brown water of the Tigris 15 years ago. It had coagulated on the shore like big black drops of blood, while factory buildings on the other side were burning. Or were they houses …?

“Carrie …”

“I’m here.”

He put a hand over one of hers. She was still holding him like she had always been there.

Perhaps she had. Perhaps that was why they had stayed together, despite all the yelling and shouting, especially after Emma was born. They had been together for less than a year. And then later on, when there had been more shouting, but over other things.

Sometimes the shouting died out, though. And they continued. Sometimes they talked about it later on, or sometimes they did not. They just put it to rest and continued. For the children. But also, they both knew, for each other. What else was there to do? If they couldn’t make this work, then what would happen to them?

But right now something tore in Jon. He felt Carrie near, as he always did when things got rough. She had never once tried to run or escape or bullshit him in all the years. She had called him things he’d rather forget. But she’d always been honest, and she had always been there.

But the worst part now was that he felt he … didn’t want her there. He didn’t deserve it.

*

The days passed and Jon was back to work. So for a time there was that normality.

He even inquired about Sani’s mother. Proper channels and all. The Captain didn’t approve, but said he wouldn’t prevent Jon from calling her either.

Jon found the number and got through on the first try. For about 2 minutes. He only remembered that there had been much yelling and crying at the other end, once Sani’s mother realized who he was. 

So she was angry at him. He should have … done something. It was the same with all cops. They all didn’t give a fuck about her and especially her ex. Or something. She was not coherent. She was out of it in a way that made Jon both feel concerned and sick at the same time, so it felt like a relief when she hung up on him.

But then reality settled in. Nothing had been solved by that call, quite the opposite. It had been better if he had not tried.

That’s when Jon understood he could never have the conversation he imagined with Sani’s mother, and he thought a lot about how Sani had talked to her. If at all …

I’m not even sure what the hell I imagined … that I could somehow make her son come back by telling her … 

But he never got to tell her he had seen Sani. And he wondered if he had, would it have made her hate him more? 

He had seen her son when her son was supposed to be dead. How was that supposed to make a mother feel?

*

They were in the garden. Carrie and him. It was Sunday. They were supposed to be fine. But they talked about superficial things.

Jon looked out into the garden and in the direction of the soccer game between Michael and his buddy, Ari.

Carrie frowned and pulled her legs closer to her body. It hurt to do this while sitting on the concrete step from the kitchen door and to the garden. That damn muscle she had strained last Thursday when she was rushing too much to finish all the rooms in time at the nursing home. It still wouldn’t leave her alone. But she couldn’t make herself move away. 

She was sitting beside him, after all.

Jon merely had his elbows on his knees, one hand resting lightly in the other. But she could see his hands were opening and closing, like her husband was holding an invisible object. 

Testing it. Checking. And then checking again.

There had been a shooting in a supermarket just a couple of months ago. The man with the AR15 was dead. Jon’s reflexes had been as sharp as ever. 

That was something to be relieved about, wasn’t it?

Carrie put a hand lightly on Jon’s arm. “You thinking about the supermarket again?”

“No …” He didn’t look at her, and he still didn’t look at the kids either.

“Well,” Carrie continued carefully, “you never saw doctor Maryam about those dreams, and I think you may feel … bad about shooting that man in the supermarket, even if it was the only thing you could do.”

“I don’t have the dreams anymore …” Jon said, but his voice was raw. He looked down.

“But I don’t think it has gone away,” Carrie said gently. “Maybe it … faded. But now that you survived this flood, it has all come up again.”

“Not just that,” Jon added quietly. 

She gripped his hand now and made him look at her. Lines of worry were edged in her face. They should make him react. That he could see how distressed she was. He usually did.

But he just looked away again, down on the concrete.

“We have to do something,” she said. “We should have done something long ago. This can’t go on.”

“For my sake or yours?” There it was again. A sudden flash of anger. He would do that whenever this came up. It had all become one big knot … 

She almost let go of his hand.

*

Another week went by. Then two. Then three.

Then it was Sunday again. But Jon didn’t feel like he could relax. He was usually able to zone out with TV or beer on the weekends. But this was not a usual weekend. They hadn’t been for a long time.

He and Carrie had stopped talking about ‘it’. Or rather, she had given up trying to get him to talk about it. And he had given up trying to explain to her why he could not. Talk. 

Not yet. Not like she wanted. He didn’t even understand what she wanted. Not in this case. What did she want him to say?

So he focused on the kids. On old promises. And he looked for fresh ones to keep. Anything to keep him moving. 

Maybe the creek would soon dry out again …? At least the way he imagined it. The way he always saw it when he closed his eyes now. The rage of the water. Sani’s call.

Hands slipping …

The Arizona sun was not burning this Sunday. But it was ever-present, dominating as always here in the desert. He wiped sweat off his brow, took a sip from the plastic bottle.

“Want some?” Jon held the bottle of water out towards Emma.

She shook her head. They had allowed her to grow her hair longer, and even though she was only 13, it amazed him how much she looked like Carrie already. Carrie no longer had long hair, not like when he had met her. He sometimes missed that.

He missed a lot. But he often thought he missed things that never were. Like peace. Real peace.

“Dad?” Emma looked at him closely.

“I’m coming now.” He got up. “Don’t want to get you late for gym class.”

“You promised to stay and watch.” She ran alongside him. The car was waiting. The tiles from their front door and to the driveway were warm.

“Hmm-mm,” he muttered.

The tiles were warm. Not burning. No, not burning … not yet.

“Daddy?”

“I’m all right. Get in the car.”

She did, hesitantly. Jon got in, too. He took her bag, which she had placed between her legs and flung it onto the backseat. “No baggage on the front seat while we’re driving, young lady.”

Emma nodded but kept looking at him.

“What?” Jon was about to turn the key, but now he felt like breaking it. “What?”

“Dad … why are you angry?” Emma’s eyes widened, she paled. He almost never yelled at her. That was mom’s territory.

He shook  his head. “Nothing, sweetie. Nothing – let’s go.”

He backed out of the driveway. Once they were on their way he asked, disarmingly “ – You sure you want me to see your class today?”

It took her longer to say yes than he liked. But he knew why. There was a cause and effect to everything. 

Except what happened in Gila Bend.

Everything he had found a shelf for, fighting for 15 years to put behind him. He had found all of that again – in that creek at Gila Bend.

And it was all about cause and effect that didn’t add up. That never added up.

Carrie didn’t ask Jon about it when they got home, even though Jon knew Emma had told her mom about all that happened. 

Emma was like that. She didn’t get along well with Carrie lots of times, under normal circumstances. 

But somehow when her world began to crack, the first place she looked for understanding was with her mother. Jon told himself that that was all right, and that there were good reasons why he was not number one on her list, like when she was younger. Especially now. 

But as the days passed, he found himself thinking more and more that it was a problem that had to be solved. Because Emma avoided him. It was obvious.

And there it was again. Cause and effect. 

He argued with Carrie now every evening, sometimes – most times – over paltry things. 

They had done that in periods, sure, especially when the kids were small. But this had come after Gila. And there was a black chasm, he felt, that opened wider and wider between them, even if it was just about who had forgotten to wash the car.

It was this tone in their voices that became more and more distant and at the same time vigilant and tensing up like there was only one way this could go. Like before, they had gone in for the attack, all those years ago. 

Or when they had waited in the dark for someone else to attack, although it often came to nothing. Voices took on a special quality during those times, even when it was just whispers between the soldiers. There was always the tinge of steel, even below reassuring words. 

For every time he actually did try to talk about it, somehow they ended up arguing and arguing about things that had absolutely nothing to do with what was wrong. 

*

The night was black and the road outside devoid of sound. The suburban beehive had gone to sleep. 

But Jon couldn’t. There was something in the silence that kept pulling him back from the brink of sleep. Like something or someone was waiting. 

Like there was an enemy out there.

But there wasn’t. There had not been enemies in the dark for 15 years now. He had to tell himself that.

Still … no sleep.

It was the most disconcerting experience – not being able to sleep – because usually he could sleep the best when there was complete quiet in the house. He had a collection of earplugs to rival that of a pro musician. Now the quiet was the enemy.

And then it was broken. “Honey?”

Carrie …

When he didn’t answer her she turned in their bed so she faced him. He realized he was still lying down on his back, as he had for the last 2 hours, staring into the ceiling. He wanted to move, but didn’t feel like it. But now he had to do something.

Carrie frowned. “You’re not asleep?” 

“So it looks …”

There was more silence, but this time it was the problematic silence of just having taken that tone with her. The tone she hated. The tone that hid all sorts of things. But he didn’t feel like talking about it, and she knew it.

So let her decide what to do … 

“What are you thinking about?”

“What do you think?”

Carrie shrugged, but her shoulders were already tense. “I dunno – sex?”

“Ha!” Jon exclaimed, but only slightly relieved.

“Well, it’s not as if we … you know … too much … “

“Yeah, I know.”

“But you weren’t thinking about that, obviously.”

He sighed. Didn’t answer.

Jon wanted to reach out, but he felt numb. Why the hell couldn’t he just do one simple thing?

Why couldn’t he just say what he felt … because of Gila Bend?

And the boy … ?

But that was the problem.

He could feel it like he had felt that brown water in his lungs … but he couldn’t say what it felt like.

And every time he tried, the knot inside became more and more twisted, until he knew he couldn’t say anything at all.

So they got into their usual argument and she went to sleep on the couch, like she had done 3 nights in a row now. In one week.

Jon didn’t stay in bed. He got up and got some clothes on. Then he went outside and began pacing the quiet street. 

Everything looked so frail in the gossamer light of the street lamps. Every house looked like cardboard. The sidewalk was thin, he felt, like the rock and sand of the desert could come through at any moment and reveal just how much there was down there. How thin this entire city of Yuma was … this way of living.

This could not go on.

Jon went back to get the car. 

*

It was less than two hours’ drive to Gila Bend from Yuma. It was night now, so that made it even less.

The town’s streets were empty at this hour, as he had expected, which suited him fine. So he went to the Pima crossing first. Right where he had seen Sani’s mother that day. 

Below, he could see how the Wash had almost drained of water again. It was reverting to its non-existence. Like a road accident. 

When a truck hit you out of nowhere and then sped away, leaving only death and chaos. But when you finally came to your senses again, all you had was a wrecked car and screams and blood and quiet and kids’ chests that weren’t heaving.

And your mind refused the scenario. This could not happen to you. But there it was. And then your body acted. The body always knew what to do, even if the mind had to catch up.

Just like in war.

Jon stared into the darkness. 

Then it came over him. “Fuck you … “

He waited, almost as if he had to assure himself that there was no one else around. But aside from a few lights from the nearby Palms Inn there was no one. Not even a passing car.

Jon didn’t look. He couldn’t care less if anyone heard him. He just waited because he had to find the right words. Like taking aim.

“Fuck you, you little son of a bitch. Fuck you to hell.”

The words were meaningless, but that’s how he felt. Even though everything in him screamed: No!

You should not feel like that. You survived. You should not be angry. Especially not at that poor kid who drowned.

Instead of you.

There it was.

Instead of you.

Just like in Iraq. It was always someone else. Not him.

Like in L.A. where he had grown up, trying to survive and help his frail little brother survive, when their father had given up on that responsibility and their mother was long gone.

San Pedro, L.A., was sometimes like Iraq. And sometimes it was the kids from such a place they sent over there – to fight. For the US of A.

Jon noticed that he hadn’t breathed for … a long time. But only when his body did it for him. He had held back. Now it was like coming up to the damn surface after almost being pulled under for good. You hurt inside. Your body forced you to  … breathe. But what if there was nothing to breathe?

At least there was now. But for how long … ?

He felt himself sinking down again, staring into the darkness, opening and closing his fists. Then there was a voice.

“You …”

He turned and saw her.

Jon hadn’t really gotten a good look at her that day. But now that she was here he was not in doubt.

Sani’s mother had long hair, black as the night, unkempt. She wore an old leather jacket and tattered jeans. The same clothes, he now remembered, that she had worn that day. Night was in her eyes, too. But also a distant glow reflected from one of the lonely street lamps along Pima.

Jon said nothing. He just nodded. He had closed his fists again.

For long moments they just stared at each other.

Then the mother said: “I come here every night to beg forgiveness. Have you come for that, too, officer?”

Jon looked away, but only briefly. “I don’t know why the hell I have come …”

“I know why I have.” She went over to the low railing, still at least 5 yards from Jon. She looked down into the dying Wash.

“For ‘forgiveness’ … “ Jon repeated quietly. “I’m not even sure what that means … “ 

He looked down over the bridge railing as well. As if Sani would somehow be more alive if they looked at the place where he had last been alive. As if memories could become more real by clinging hard to them. Like tree branches …

Sani’s mother coughed a little. “I … he didn’t like me much.” 

She was still looking out in the darkness on her own. For a moment, Jon felt she was talking more to herself than him.

“He was running away that day,” she continued. “We had some arguments. We had lots of them. I … may have hit him.”

Jon shook his head again. “You don’t have to tell me this.” 

He was still processing the fact that she had come here – at the same time as him. That it wasn’t just a fluke, a crazy unbelievable coincidence.

But the more he dared to look at the shadows on her face, the more he became convinced it wasn’t. She was telling the truth. She did come here every night. Perhaps all night.

She finally turned towards him, realizing the implication of where this was going.

“I never told the police that part. But now I have.” She huffed. “Perhaps I was waiting to be able to do that.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Jon said. “I’m not going to tell anyone.”

She looked like she wanted to say something again, but he shook his head to stop her. 

“Even if I did,” he said, “it doesn’t matter. You didn’t … kill your son.”

A lone car passed by. For a long time Jon eyed its fading lights. Then he braced himself.

“There is something you should know,” he started.

Now it was her turn to shake her head. “Don’t tell me. That you are here is enough. And I’m not angry with you. I’m sorry about that day … when you called.”

“But this is important,” Jon pressed. “And it’s not about the call. It’s about Sani.”

She began backing away. “I don’t want to hear it … “ 

Jon felt something boil in him, just like before. Why the hell was everything so difficult? Why the hell was the world made up this way? Why didn’t anyone just listen to him? 

He held her back. “You have to hear this.”

She struggled. “I don’t want to.”

“You don’t even know what it is!”

Then he let her go. What could he tell her? That he had seen Sani after he was supposed to have been dead? Jon didn’t even believe in God or anything himself. He didn’t believe it was possible.

What if it had been stress? His mind playing tricks? He was drowning, after all.

But everything had been so clear. He was as sure that Sani had been there as if it had been Emma or Michael.

But what could he tell her? What if he offended her religion by telling her? What if she didn’t have a religion?

And … no matter what he told her, it wouldn’t bring Sani back, would it? It wouldn’t make it all better. It wouldn’t erase the fact that an innocent child had died, and he had lived. 

When it should have been the other way around.

Then he discovered that Sani’s mother had not run away. She stood there, on the pavement, very close now. Her face was streaked with tears.

“You saw him, too, didn’t you?”

Jon swallowed. “How do you – “ 

But she interrupted. “I mean, I dream about him. You dream about him, too, don’t you?”

He took a deep breath. The first real breath, it felt, since he had been pulled from the flood.

“Yes,” he said. “I dream about him, too.”

“What does he do in your dreams?” Her voice was close to a whisper.

“He … “ Jon felt something push in his chest, like a thousand knots. “He …”

“It’s okay,” she said. “I’m sorry I am like that. I was … I would like to hear it now.”

“He tells me he is okay,” Jon finally said. “Yeah, that’s what he tells me.”

“But you can’t believe it?”

“Not really.” A resigned smile made its way over his lips for the first time. 

“I can’t either,” she said. “But I would like to.”

“Me too.”

She gave him a quick hug, and then she started walking away again. Briskly. As if the hug had been the actual crime.

He stared after her, but didn’t move. 

She stopped and turned slowly. “You can call me again, if you want to. But now I have to go home.”

Jon just nodded and held up his hand. 

Then he pulled out his cell phone. He wasn’t sure why, because he hadn’t called Sani’s mother from that phone. Her number would be at the station – not on his private phone.

Then he remembered why.

And the phone was full of messages. From Carrie. And one from Emma. 

He unmuted the phone and called.

*

Last updated 27 Feb 2021

Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash

To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse

“I’m not sure I follow you … ” Jon said.

He tilted his whiskey slowly from side to side and wondered how to break to his father-in-law that he really hated this conversation.

“Well, I reckon ye would nae,” the older man said and gazed out the window.

There was a slight reflection in Calum McDonnell’s water glass of the deep green from the hills outside, including a darker spot that hinted at clouds over the nearby Loch.

“What time did they say they would be back?” Jon looked at his phone. There was no signal but the phone’s clock told him what he needed to know.

“In an hour or so,” Calum said. “Good thing, too. There’ll nae be any going to the lighthouse tomorrow.”

“Why not?”

“—The weather,” Calum just said.

Jon looked at his whiskey skeptically. When Calum had asked him to try the Talisker, he thought first he should refuse. He was even surprised Carrie’s father still had something like this in the house. But it was a ‘special occasion’, or so Calum had said.

“First real talk between us old soldiers,” he had said. “Worth celebrating.”

“You have been to visit us in the States,” Jon reminded him.

“Aye, but always too bloody much going on … ” Calum poured the whiskey for Jon. “Here.”

He looked satisfied when Jon took the glass. “Good choice. Now ye can sample the local pride.”

But Jon had not sampled it. Merely held it in his hands. The amber liquid smelled like seaweed and smoke. Then they had sat down and begun their little chat, and the glass had remained in his hands.

“I regret ever going to Iraq,” Jon said eventually. “But I was young and I needed the money.”

Jon hesitated. Then he took a sip from the glass. There was a burning in his throat. But not like desert sand, though …

Calum nodded. “I don’t regret going. Only that my knee got shot up.”

“That’s bad. But it could have been your head.”

“I know, I know … but I should have seen the bastard.”

“Did you see him afterward?”

“Aye. My pals in the squad cleared out their nest for good. Last Argies in Goose Green, that’s for sure.”

Jon took another sip. “You regret not being able to go up there and shoot them?”

“Nae like that,” Calum replied thoughtfully. “But I do regret nae being able to do something, at all.”

“You got shot before you could engage the enemy. What could you have done?”

“I should have …” Calum paused. The dark spot in his water had grown. “I should have been … better.”

Jon looked at his phone again. “So … if you were able to still be in the service, would you have chosen to remain?”

Calum leaned back in the chair which responded with a mournful creaking sound. Jon wasn’t surprised. The living room in the house seemed like a time capsule.

Nothing much had changed since his wife was a child. Not much had ever been replaced.

“I would … probably.” Calum shook his head. “Carrie and her mother joke that they both married soldiers because they were the best-looking gifts they could find before all the shops closed. Then they discovered what was under the wrapping, so to speak.”

“Oh, did Carrie say that?”

Calum smirked. “Think ye’d better have a word with her once she gets home with Sheila and the kids, eh?” He got up and turned on the radio. “It’s news time soon. Hope ye don’t mind.”

“Not at all.” Jon thought of time, too.

Calum retreated to his chair again, with heavy movements. He lowered himself into it with obvious strain. “Ye know, my 11-year-old granddaughter confided in me last night while we did the dishes that she will never marry a soldier—unless he is a good man, like her father.” He eyed Jon, looking for a reaction.

None came.

” … Emma already knows what’s good,” Calum continued, his fingers tapping the window frame beside the chair. “And that men who want to go off and fight usually turn out no good.”

“That’s not how she sees you,” Jon said. “Neither does Carrie for that matter. In fact—”

But Calum held up his hand. “It’s kind of ye, Jonathan, but the only fact here is that ye came home and swore ye’d never go again, and that was the right choice. I came home and swore that if I had the chance I would. Even after it cost me my marriage.”

In the background, the venerable radio buzzed with something about Russian bombings in Syria.

“I believe you wanted to make it work,” Jon offered. “And lots of people make it work. Some of my old buddies from Iraq are still in the army and they have families, too.”

Calum let a brief smile cross his lips. “So ye are suggesting it was nae because I enjoyed doing my job that there was a problem, but because I couldnae figure out how to have a family, too?”

Jon shook his head, then got up. “What I’m suggesting is that it is over. The war for you ended 35 years ago.”

Jon looked at the other man in the way he looked at shadowy figures approaching in desert twilight. You never really knew what they carried behind their backs. So you had to look at them as if you did not care in the slightest.

It was something he had practiced a lot.

“I’ll go out and meet our ladies and the kids,” he said. “I’m sure they are on their way back now.”

Calum nodded wistfully. “I’m sorry, Jonathan. I’m an arse. I will try to be someone different. I don’t want ye to believe in all the stories my daughter has told ye about me.”

“She told me some bad ones, yeah. She also told me a lot of good ones.”

Calum downed the water, then put away the glass slowly. “What did she tell ye?”

“That you searched for a whole day, on foot, once she had run away. You went up to those mountains—what was the name again—”

“The Cuillins.”

“Yes, those. You went up there and you came home with her.”

“Any father would have done the same. Especially after those whiners at the station said they had to stop for the night.”

“Maybe,” Jon said. “But I don’t know many fathers who are also trained in outdoor survival.”

Calum harrumphed. “Ye are trying too damn hard to make it work, Jonathan … Why don’t ye go on ahead and meet the others? I’ll join ye in a wee bit.”

“On the way to the lighthouse?” Jon asked.

“Damn right,” Calum replied.

Sparkles In The Rain

Sparkles In The Rain

“What do we do when we feel time is passing too fast?” she asked.

“Do ye feel that already?” her father asked, looking mildly surprised.

“Never mind,” Carrie said. But they had stopped.

“It’s not what I mind,” her father said. “It’s what ye mind. And maybe we haven’t been that much together in the last 20 years but I know my daughter. What’s wrong?”

Carrie breathed deeply. They were both standing on the side of a hill overlooking the Bay of Portree. It was crisscrossed with small paths that were barely visible but her father knew them all and she had followed him this far, and he had allowed her to set her own pace.

“Megan died,” Carrie then said. “She was my age – a year younger actually. 37 … ”

Her father nodded gravely: “That’s sad.”

“Yeah … ” Carrie shook her head as if she had been hit by sudden nausea. “Yeah, it is. She worked at that organization I told you about. Didn’t know her that well, but … “

“But enough,” her father concluded.

“Yeah.”
They both looked out in the distance. There was mist, as always. In the harbor below small boats darting to and fro and there was a slight hum from the small town around it, giving a faint but reassuring indication of life. And it was a life that – in later years when she got in touch with her father again and more and more often thought of Portree and Skye – had often appeared to her as … uncomplicated. Much more so than the life, she knew in the big cities in the States, where she had lived since she was a teenager.

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Reunion

Reunion

“Let’s nae talk about Tim now.” Carrie’s father put the land rover to a firm halt in the small yard with gray and white pebble-stones.

“Sorry, I have a liiitle bit of jetlag, okay?” Carrie muttered under her breath. She hadn’t meant to mention Tim, but as they drove up the final road to her childhood home, her daughter Emma had asked if she was to sleep in Carrie’s old room and if her little brother was to sleep in Tim’s old room, and then Carrie had answered without thinking.

“So this is the house? Wow – do you have sheep, grandpa?” On the backseat Emma was bubbling with excitement.

Carrie cast a quick glance at her father before she answered. “Yes, Emma, that’s where I grew up, with the sheep. And with your uncle.”

“Ye’re breaking our agreement on purpose, Caroline.” Her father sighed in exactly that tone Carrie hated. She knew it would be coming. Perhaps that’s why she had felt like striking first.

“What agreement?” Emma was there immediately, almost crawling out between the front and passenger seat.

“Nothing,” Carrie said with enough venom in her voice that Emma drew back. “Use the door if you want to get out. That’s what it’s there for.”

There was a slight drizzle, and Carrie remained seated as Emma struggled to open the heavy backdoor. Her grandfather went out from the driver’s seat and around the car to help her, too. Carrie could also hear Jon, her husband, get out of the other land rover behind them, presumably to help Sheila with the luggage (and with Michael).

So Carrie was the last person inside any of the vehicles. Like a piece of forgotten luggage.

She looked out through the rain and the front window and took in the contours of the house. She noted that she didn’t feel anything. Not yet. She noted that was good. She went out to the others.

“No, that one!” She could hear Michael cry out, pushing a suitcase back in the trunk of land rover number two. Sheila looked confused. “Take that one instead,” Michael said and pointed to a big grey suitcase – his father’s. Carrie bit her lip but said nothing since Sheila looked as if she was determined to figure out how to do it right. Jon had stopped and looked unsure how much he should interfere.

The flight from the States had been surprisingly unproblematic for Michael, and then he had freaked out because the suitcases got off the plane in the wrong order. ‘Autism without borders’ Jon had joked, referring to that Doctors Without Borders secretary job she mused about on the way over. Carrie had sent him a withering glance and then they were both busy helping Michael cope with another painful interruption in his world’s order, while Emma withdrew to a bench to see if she could get a signal on her phone.

But at least they were finally here, after another half day of travel from Glasgow and up into the highlands. Carrie and Jon, their children, and the children’s grandfather along with his new wife.

It should have been the moment of relief but Carrie felt tense as a wire.

Emma was already striding towards the small white house, her pink backpack bumping up and down for every step.

“Emma!” Carrie called, “let granddad go first so he can open the door.”

“The garden path is still big enough for two,” Carrie’s father said. “I’ll get the young lass in first and then Jon and I can take the luggage.”

“Just be careful about the order-” Carrie started and carefully glanced in the direction of Sheila and her son.

“We’re fine, mom!” Michael waved and looked as if he had had an epiphany. Their suitcases were now ordered according to a certain sequence of colors that absolutely had to be correct. So all problems were over. Michael’s glasses were slightly foggy due to the drizzle and when he grinned, braces and all, he reminded her of a kid from one of those science fiction cartoons that he reveled in every weekend. Carrie wondered if they could watch them on YouTube and what they would do if they couldn’t. There had been so many things …

And from that point on, the logistics of unloading their baggage and getting everybody in before Scotland’s famous five hundred varieties of rain had soaked them all unfolded with remarkable speed and efficiency. Emma’s enthusiasm even seemed to have a strangely contagious effect on her brother, who was usually quiet and reserved when confronted with new places and situations. It was not long before the kids were roaming around the house, admiring everything with ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ as if they had been dropped into a toy store.

“If the wee ones weren’t 9 and 11, I’d give them a good drink to calm things down,” Carrie’s father remarked, followed by one of his trademark wry smiles, as he came in with the last suitcase. “And if I still had good drinks in the house.”

Then he stopped, as he saw Carrie standing frozen in the small hallway, looking at the faded drapery with the Lone Shieling verse on it:

From the lone shieling of the misty island
Mountains divide us, and the waste of seas
Yet still the blood is strong,
the heart is Highland,
And we in dreams behold the Hebrides

“Dad, why is Tim’s jacket still here?” she asked.

Her father stopped; suitcase only half over the doorstep. Small droplets of water formed underneath it then disappeared into the mat.

For a long time, her father was silent. Then he said, “I don’t know, Caroline. I guess I thought it was wrong to remove it. It’s right under the drapery.”

Carrie crossed her arms. “I can see that. So much for the agreement, eh?”

“I’m really sorry,” he offered, sounding genuinely out of it. “I guess I have a bit o’ permanent jetlag about that one. It’s been hanging there for so long, I … ”

Carrie didn’t hit back this time. Apparently, there were some things you could try to agree to tell a certain story about, and then you would discover soon enough that there were other authors working around you.

Inside the living room, she could hear Jon trying to calm the kids, while Sheila was rummaging with something on the stove in the kitchen right beside it. But she could only see the jacket. And the drapery.

“Shall I put it away?” her father asked, bracing himself.

Carrie opened her mouth like she was trying to find a breath. “No. No, it’s okay.” She put on her best smile.

“And if Emma asks?” Carrie’s father continued. “She’s an inquisitive lass, I can already see that. What should I tell her?”

“It will probably be Michael,” Carrie said. “He’ll tell you it isn’t your size. Emma may wonder about the Metallica logo on the back, though.”

“Aye, well, I still think I should put it away,” her father said. “I wouldn’t know what to tell them, anyway.”

Carrie breathed deeply. “Tell them the truth. I should have done that already, but I thought it was best to focus on this … reunion.”

“I reckon we both did, Caroline.”

Carrie worked to get her coat off, suddenly feeling how tired she was from the journey. “You know, Michael will tell you that Reunion is a French island in the Indian Ocean. He knows pretty much all the islands in the world. Right now it’s the ones starting with ‘R’ that he is most interested in, though.”

Her father helped her with the coat. “My grandson seems to be good at remembering the right things, then. That’s nae bad start.”

And so they went in, to be together.

The Inside That I Carve

The Inside That I Carve

Carrie was trying to decide whether or not to get divorced while taking the bus for the work she hated.

They had had sex last night, for the first time in months – sure. That was nice. But it wasn’t as if it mattered.

Jon was too tired after, and she didn’t really feel they connected. More like they just tried to copy something they had done without thinking 10 years ago.

Now they were overthinking it.

So sex, or lack of sex, was a problem but it wasn’t the problem anyway. It was just a sign.

One of many.

“East 24th” the bus driver droned and Carrie got up without thinking, as she had done so many times before.

A lot of things you did in life without thinking, and then … when you got thinking too much: It hurt.

She stepped out into the afternoon blaze. The sun almost blinded her. The heat choked. People bustled to and fro.

She’d bustle to the nursing home and clean. That was her job. For the 5th year.

“You’ll find something new,” Jon had said, but only for so many years until even he had stopped trying to believe it.

She had said to herself for a while it was a necessary sacrifice – to keep up with her voluntary work.

She had said to herself that she was better off – a lot – than those poor women coming up and getting legal counsel (what she could give) as a volunteer at OMAC and then being sent back by the authorities.

She was here in the promised land, Carrie Sawyer, yes, she was. She just had to fight a little harder and things would work out for the college drop-out.

Carrie went over to the building and checked in.

Clarice was at the reception desk.

“Afternoon, hun,” Clarice said without looking up, “don’t do the second floor today.”

“Why not?”

“Some concert. Local band. The residents will be coming in to hear it in an hour or so.”

“Oh.”

The usual chit-chat followed, but it wasn’t much. Clarice didn’t overly care about Carrie and the feeling was mutual.

Like many of her colleagues, she was a shadow, someone you saw and then moved past.

Like most of the old folks here. Except perhaps one or two.

Mrs. Darrington had really been nice the last time, Carrie had been in her room for the trash bag. So sweet. And also a little pathetic. What would Carrie do with a picture of Mrs. Darrington from a Florida vacation in 1958?

Mrs. D was slowly going senile. Carrie knew that sometimes she couldn’t see if Carrie was Carrie the cleaning lady or Mrs. D’s daughter who had died in a traffic accident in 1992.

Carrie went for her uniform and stuff and started at the bottom floor. She figured she’d go through there and then wait until the rest of the rooms cleared for the concert. Would make it easier … in so many ways.

So about that divorce … what the hell would it help? Jon has been good to me. It is not his fault we don’t talk much anymore or don’t turn each other on. I wouldn’t be turned on by myself … hell no.

She swung the mob in angry strokes over the first dirty floor and wondered if Maria Gonzales would be there the next time Carrie had time to go to OMAC to counsel and translate. Pretend that it mattered that she flunked out of university 17 years ago.

Not many of the books from back then had any relevance here. In fact, her Spanish skills were more relevant.

Carrie thought a lot more about Spanish whilst doing the other floors.

It would be easiest, after all, to go home and pretend everything was normal and let the kids be the most important matter.

*

At some point, Carrie got to room 14B and discovered the new name tag. She discovered it but paid it no attention until she actually went in and saw the new furniture and images. Including the wedding shots, of course.

She stopped and picked up the old photo. A dark-haired man with a mustache, a bit Latino. A wisp of a woman, blonde, short hair. The room belonged to the man.

So what exactly is it that doesn’t work? she asked herself. It’s not the sex and all that. We can fix that. I hope … 

Was it then the fact, that Jon was burying himself more and more in work? He had a desk job now and seldom went on patrol or in the field. But there was a lot more to do, even if less dangerous. All those young offenders that he wanted to save.

Like he had wanted to save her, back in the day…

She smiled briefly and put away the photo.

No, it wasn’t Jon’s priorities.

But they had drifted apart. Something was missing. They seldom talked. And it didn’t feel like it was getting better.

And, if she got that divorce – she hated to admit it but there it was … then she’d only have to have the kids part of the time.

Carrie took the mop and furiously attacked the bathroom floor.

She wasn’t allowed to think this.

But on the other hand, it was there – true.

And yet – how could she?

She stopped again.

I love you, Emma, she thought imagining her daughter sitting on her lap, when she was smaller and wanted to.

I love you, Michael, she thought and imagined the same with her son.

She really did love them.  But she needed some time away. Not feeling so boxed in …

Then she heard somebody coming up the stairs and hurried to the next room.

*

When she was finished, she sat down in the small shed out near the parking lot and pulled out the pack.

At least it is not snow … 

Or booze … 

Yeah, she had made some progress in life. And she knew she ought to be grateful.

How many would’ve predicted that a college drop-out runaway crack addict would ever get back into life?

Get married?

Have children?

Move to suburbia?

Get a job – even if it was a lousy one?

And, of course, do her little bit to help society along – with the volunteering and all?

When she was rattling in her own puke more than once in those desolate hotel rooms after someone had long gone and she barely remembered him, well, … what could she think of then, except the regret if she died now without being able to get better?

Clarice came out. Pulled out her pack:

“Long day, eh?” she said as if she had already read Carrie’s mind. Once again …

“Long day,” Carrie admitted. “Again. I can’t wait for my first holiday in five years. Pity it’s not longer.”

“Going to visit the old man, eh?”

“I would rather go to Acapulco but yeah. I mean, God knows when I ever get the money to go somewhere again?”

“You know, maybe it’s okay,” said Clarice. “That we got this far. Maybe we don’t need it anymore. Maybe this is a victory.”

Clarice had told Carrie, in the only unguarded moment, during the Christmas get-together in ’14. Oh, had she told …

(Denied it afterward, of course, but still … )

“What do you mean ‘victory’?” Carrie asked and looked at her cigarette, slowly burning out.

“Well, you know what the hell I mean,” Clarice answered in a non-answer, blowing smoke towards the merciless sun.

The smoke seemed to dissipate and drift away in the heatwaves of the air, like their lives.

“Look, I would have died if I had stayed with Seth,” Clarice then said. “But I got over him and away from him. Maybe Sam is a fat idiot but he is not Seth. And many women never leave. They just … succumb.”

“I feel like I have succumbed,” Carrie mumbled and finally inhaled.

“Bullshit,” Clarice snarled and Carrie almost jumped with surprise.

Clarice got up and threw away the cig: “I’m tired of your whining, Carrie. You are still pretty – not like … “

She wiped her skirt for something. Maybe dust. Then she turned around, but one last thing still got said:

“You have 20 years more time than me to make mistakes. Why the hell you wastin’ them here?”

Carrie didn’t answer. She just inhaled more.

*

Back towards home on the bus. Yuma passing by. Texting with Emma about her school project.

I look so much fw 2 seein it, honey. On my way home.

And other letters she didn’t remember. Carrie looked out at the city. Everything seemed grey and yet sunny at the same time.

It was a paradox. It was her life.

She had won. She had triumphed over the hardest odds. Who came back from the needle, from being a train wreck in the head, from … that nowhere where she had been?

Who came back?

So now she was a suburban housewife with drone marriage and tired of kids? Big deal!

Yet …

Carrie drew out her notepad. It was already filled, like the walls of a pyramid with the hieroglyphs of her strained handwriting.

On the last page she just wrote one sentence:

‘Why can’t I win this one, too?’

*

Last updated 10 May 2021

Ghost Hearts (VII)

Ghost Hearts (VII)

One night I try to throw it out, in the bin. And then – as if it’s a bad movie replaying itself – I get stopped.

Michael.

The kid discovered that I took some of his drawings – you know, the crayon stuff he did on the back of the dot matrix print outs of “Ghost … ” by Adeline ‘Lin’ Christakis, 1999.

“I thought you didn’t miss them, darling? You said I could have them back, remember?”

“Noo …I did NOT. ” And he begins to get miffed. (My son can get miffed very loudly.)

He said I could only borrow. But hadn’t he understood that mommy misplaced the papers – that she left these papers in the stack by mistake? That they weren’t made for drawing on? With crayons or anything else?

It’s hopeless. Here you go. Peace. Let’s watch TV. Story of my life as a parent. And my life.

But maybe … one last time?

*

I read the story again, in the living room – Michael allowed me to hold the papers again, if he could keep me under watch, I guess. Barely.

I read it again. One last time. One Last Time.

I have to do so whilst commenting distractedly on Michael’s cartoons, as well – my co-nanny that evening when Jon was working late and Emma was over at Janice’s. (Bless you, Walt Disney. Are you a ghost, too? I don’t care.)

And Michael likes Donald Duck very much. You’d almost think he forgot the papers that made out Lin’s lost “Ghost” or the killer truck vs. Godzilla he drew in 3 different variants and then 3 other variants. 6 pages out of 7, both back and some on front – over the fainted dot matrix text.

“Look at that, mommy!” Suddenly Michael has forgotten why I was the worst, most forgetful mum in the world.

And Donald … does something funny. Something that …

And then … I knew something.

I knew … and I had to really make an effort to still comment on Donald Duck’s doings and mischief.

I knew the ending of “Ghost … “

*

There was no new ending. It would stop where Lin had originally stopped and the place she didn’t like, because that was the only place the story could stop.

The empty space of the loss of her sister would eventually be allowed to live in heart of the girl, if she made the choice and did not try to fight it.

But it would not be painful. It would be okay. The pain came from trying to fight it too much.

If it was allowed to be there, the empty space would – somehow – over time – become a link to the lost sister. A place to … sense her.

Even if there was nothing. Even if there would never be anything but memories. Even if those were the conditions there would STILL be another part of that “Ghost” in the title of the story and in the universes that Science Guy spoke of.

A part that was enough.

A heart.

It would be a heart, because it would be the girl’s own heart – which she now finally dared to be with – wounded forever as it was because of the loss of her sister.

But she didn’t try to repair it. Or forget it. Or heal it. Or hurt it. She didn’t even pretend she could do either of those things and achieve a meaningful effect.

She knew that even if she – in the wildest of her dreams – had been able to communicate – through angels or whatever – with her sister in the other dimension, then the sister would still be lost, disconnected, from her life.

Always.

It would at the very least be like having a sister living across the Atlantic. You could only Skype, but never visit.

Her sister was gone. And in her place was the doubt about where she had gone. If anywhere. If there was anything left but the ghostly space in the heart.

She had stepped over a boundary to … somewhere … to a place she could only be followed on that final day. If it ever happened. She had left … space.

But the space could be owned. If the sister who was left made the choice to own it. It could be inhabited – by her own spirit.

So the girl knew the only way to live with it was to carry it with her. The empty space.

And that was it.

I couldn’t write that at 20, and neither could Lin. I can’t even write it now – I’m only ranting.

But that’s my way, I guess, of owning the empty space.

*

We turned off the TV, finally, and I put Michael to bed and tried not to think about what if something happened to him. Was there a limit to how much empty space you could have in your heart?

I think so. But what I had … maybe I could make it like that ghost ending to that story and be with it and accept it. And … live.

Lin was too attracted to Goth and Martin Gore and dark tales with dark endings, like an addiction. She freely admitted it. Even made fun of it. Capitalized on it. Made me like her because she was cool and mysterious, whenever we were in public. And I was the only one she let down her guard with.

No, Lin would not have liked the ending to this particular story, that I just felt should be the ending. She would not have liked it at all.

But she would have wanted me to live.

Ghost Hearts (VI)

Ghost Hearts (VI)

More days …

Jon and I have a serious argument – one of the first in a long time. He tries to restrain himself, but his patience is not what it has been. So much for our deals and freedoms and gifts to each other. All misplaced, covering up … how much we need to work on.

“You have got to get yourself together. If nothing else, then for the kids.”

Focus. That’s it. Don’t forget lunch boxes or drive recklessly, when I have the car. I know what he is afraid of. He knows my fragile mind. What it can do.

And I know he hates himself for having fallen to this level. For not being able to be the helper he always is.

The man … the rescuer.

But we both play the game and get the shouting done, and then make amends. Later that night we have sex for the first time in a month and it is very good. Surprisingly good.

But it solves nothing. There is no ending to the story. And it takes all my willpower not to think too much about Lin again.

She just broke into my life again – or the ghost of her did. And I can’t get rid of it. I can’t.

It came back, after years and years, and I know why.

I should have stopped her.

*

I should have seen how unhappy she was. I should’ve predicted …

Stop it, Carrie. It. IS. Bullshit.

Bullshit!

I couldn’t predict she’d shoot so much cocaine into her veins so it’d kill a herd of elephants. Why am I trying to be a fucking martyr here? It is pathetic.

But why can’t I then leave the story, without that ending?

Ghost Hearts (V)

Ghost Hearts (V)

A Thursday.

That’s when I find the old novella draft from Lin. Another one unfinished. I kept it because she allowed me to keep it, when I was afraid she’d throw it out. She would have. Then it was with my mum for a long time, until she dropped most of my archived stuff here last year. Fair enough. I threw out a lot back then. But I kept this and then forgot.

Maybe part of me wanted to remember it now, because suddenly it dawned on me – that it existed. But I was afraid that I might have thrown it out. I searched and then I found out that Michael had taken it, because it was – somehow, inexplicably – in the bag with old paper to be reused. A lot of fine crayons 8-year old style on both back and front of the dot matrix-printed story.

So now you are expecting me to say that the story helped me. That grace or something like that made me think of it and find it. That’s not so. As a matter of fact I’ve got so few things left from Lin – even photos – that I obsess about the ones I do have. And even this one, precious as I said it was, did not avoid to come close to extinction in the mess that is my life and my house.

But I saved it. In truth, I thought about it all the way from Vegas. But it was a secret thought – the one I kept pushing away, because I didn’t want to feel it all again. I didn’t want to think of Lin lying in that pool …

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Ghost Hearts (IV)

Ghost Hearts (IV)

Another week.

I am stressed and tired and near breaking. I thought I had put a lid on those feelings of loss years ago, and of guilt. And here they fucking come again.

Lin … lying in a pool of her own … no, I can’t even think it.

But I can see it. Feel it.

*

V

Ghost Hearts (III)

Ghost Hearts (III)

The next week

I’ve changed tack. I have been honest with myself. About what I really want.

And I suppose I’ve got a somewhat more poetic (cowardly?) take on the question at hand – is Lin alive? Somewhere? Right here and now? No BS. No Hollywood. No fantasy. For R-E-A-L. Even if it sounds insane.

My take is that I don’t really want to explore the answers – as you might do – about which dimensions are there and which are not. And who lives in them.

But that’ just the problem with my fragile and more-than-slightly obsessive mind. It tends to crack a bit there and now, especially when I think I’m home free – literally – after years on the roads, with drugs and whatnot. Especially now that I’ve found a functional everyday life with house, husband and kids in a suburb in Yuma of all places. I didn’t want to think – too hard – about what if my dearest dead friend from those shadowy teen-years were still out there … in some other dimension, now that science had ‘approved the possibility’.

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Ghost Hearts (II)

Ghost Hearts (II)

Yuma – not Vegas

I am back where I am.  It is a blur. I need it to be a blur.

I clean rooms and put on clean sheets at the nursing home and get the usual broadside from Jeannie and her ilk for not being fast enough, as if they cared. I come home tired. I fetch the kids and I am tired. I cook and I am tired. I don’t have sex with Jon – again – because, guess what, I am tired. I watch television to forget that I am tired and fall asleep. And through all of it my thoughts race, because I just opened a fucking dam.

Then the science guy actually emails me back.

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Ghost Hearts

Ghost Hearts

I was on my second solo-weekend in the Bigger City as per the new ‘rules’ in Jon’s and my marriage. I was beginning to regret it, though.

I felt good about it – no doubt! – but the goodness – like the food and wine – and even the freedom to think, all of which I had yearned for … it was as if something still didn’t click, still didn’t feel enough.

And for that reason alone I was spending this evening alone with a bottle of white wine, counting the lights on the Strip outside the hotel room window.

When I could have been anywhere else, with anybody else.

When the hell am I going to be satisfied?

I chuckle, at myself, when I become aware that I’m bitching about this … but there is no joy in any sounds I can make right now. Laughter, chuckling, or just being silent. It is all as if a cold, empty feeling is growing and infects all of me, and all the sound I am able to make or not make.

And the worst is that if only I could say with definiteness that there was NO goodness or NO good food or good wine (all which was a damn unselfish gift from Jon combined with hours of my own slaving in order to save for it) …

If only I could say that I had found out that I hated the freedom and the long hours of uneasiness when I suddenly become aware that I have full control over my own thoughts. I don’t have to distract myself, to be or do something for someone else – to make the family hold together or to hold myself together at work. I am… free.

If only I could say I had not been able to handle that …

But no. Everything is perfect. Really. Goddamn perfect.

*

So what has crept up on me? What has gently pushed my attention towards some misty darkness between the lights of the Strip, something that seems to pop up in my mind more and more often now as the evening wears on?

Perhaps it comes because I am secretly looking for it? I should drink more wine. Or go find a bit more … goodness to tell Jon about.

It was after all the ultimate freedom, he gave me – to be used. And born of bitter experience – about what it really means to raise children when you weren’t always ready – about swanky and self-confident Juliana from Jon’s station – about that idiotic getaway as a stewardess – and about crazy but very strong urges to stay in an airport in Morocco even if I am about to cry every time I think of Emma and Michael.

That’s why I didn’t do it. I couldn’t ever leave them. But have I left myself … somewhere?

*

So yeah, I was bored and I locked myself in the hotel room and surfed and surfed and surfed. What else to do? TV was all about Trump …

Then I came across the article:

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22429944-000-ghost-universes-kill-schrodingers-quantum-cat/

Maybe it was someone who shared it and I clicked. I don’t know – okay? But I am easy to distract, especially in situations like this when I want to be distracted.

I read again:

Our universe …

shares space with a large number of other universes …

particles in our universe feel a subtle push from corresponding particles in all the other universes …

These other worlds are mostly invisible because they only interact with ours under very strict conditions, and only in very minute ways …

via a force acting between similar particles in different universes …

One way to think about it is that they coexist in the same space as our universe, like ghost universes …

So …

Ghostly universes that are not parallel to ours but PART of our own universe.

Which may look and feel like ours and be vastly different in some cases.

They are here – now – right beside us, only a little bit removed.

Weaving in and out of our reality, like misty vapors, but if we could see them from their perspective WE would be those misty vapors – very close, and yet far away.

That’s how I – try to – understand it anyway. Never was much of a physicist.

Anyway, so this is an insane but certified theory of more – infinitely more – universes crammed into the same box …

But the gist is this: The universe could be like the hall of mirrors, only every distortion, every variation takes place in a part of the same mirror. Everything that could have happened and could not.

It’s out there. So close.

And so I began to think of Lin again, after at least 5 years of willing myself not to think of her.

What if my dearest dead friend still existed in another universe in the same space as ours?

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Pirañas Under Our Feet

Pirañas Under Our Feet

In La Paz, Bolivia, the majority of people live for less than a dollar a day, so the last thing Carrie expected was for an expensive American-made four-wheeler to wait for her outside the main—and only—airport terminal.

As the mostly homegoing wife of a state trooper back in Arizona, and with two kids—one of them with a diagnosis—Carrie wasn’t exactly a stranger to surprises that demanded caution, grit, or both. But this made her hesitate. 

She had expected Julia to be here like she had written. But there was no one who remotely looked like her. Just a mostly empty parking lot and then the monster of a car.

A bubbly young backpacker couple pushed their way past her out into the cold thin air and sharp mountain sun, to be met by a swarm of ‘helpful’ cabbies saluting in broken English, and pointing to handwritten signs on cardboard in dusty car windows, saying “Taxi”.

So not an entirely empty lot, but the hubbub of cabs in various states of disrepair seemed drawn to the airport building like bees to their hive.

Which made the lone black four-wheeler all the more conspicuous.

Not knowing what to do, Carrie distracted herself by looking at the young couple who were in profound negotiations with a gray-haired cabbie, using a mix of English, Spanish, and sign language. 

A bittersweet smile crossed Carrie’s lips. That was me 14 years ago … 

Back then, Julia had been embarrassed she could only offer Carrie coca tea in that tiny hut that had been her home in the tropical forests of the Cochabamba valley. 

Carrie briefly wondered where Julia lived now that she had moved to the capital in the highlands. Almost simultaneously, she suppressed a sting of regret that she herself wasn’t in the airport of Cochabamba right now. 

Julia’s hut had been a home for almost a year for her—a young backpacker running away from the darkness in her life—and Carrie had infinitely better memories of that hut than many of the hotels she had stayed in before and after.

Hotel rooms didn’t make you whole after your best friend in college had committed suicide. 

They were just another kind of prison for the grief you tried to escape from but which always followed you, like a shadow. 

But the creaky bed in Julia’s hut, and the view through the single window to the pensive waters of the Espiritu Santo River, had been a place where the shadow could finally begin to dissolve. 

It had been the beginning of coming back to life for Carrie and moving on, even if that moving on had been to a different kind of prison—married with children and bouncing around between shit jobs or just the daily shitload of laundry. 

However, as long as you didn’t shoot anymore crack into your veins or drank like a sailor or any of the other things, that was a prison she could live with. It was a step up. 

A big step for Carrie Sawyer, now Reese. 

But shi-it, 14 years is a long time ….

She eyed the black car again. 

Its plates looked quite official—as in government-official. But why would Julia be waiting in that car? 

No, it was more likely she was late. Typical. Bolivians, including Julia, were never on time. 

There was a reason they had a whole concept for the phenomenon down here—hora boliviana. Time just moved differently in this part of the world and you had to accept that.

“Señora—taxi?” A hopeful cabbie popped up in front of her, his daredevil grin reminding Carrie of her son. Including the missing teeth.

She waved him away and took a few careful steps down the stairs, swaying to one side because of her suitcase, and feeling the first pangs of headache from being almost 12,000 feet above sea level. And breathing 35 percent less oxygen.

She had to make a decision about that car. She had to power through the throng of cab drivers and get out onto the lonely parking lot and wave. 

Or maybe go back into the terminal? Could she have missed Julia inside? Not likely. The airport was the size of her daughter’s school.

But still, that huge car couldn’t possibly be there for her, could it?

Julia had been active in one of Bolivia’s numerous unions after her coca farmer husband had been killed by police during a demonstration. She posted a lot about the union on Facebook. This year she also shared campaign posts on Facebook every day from MAS – the reigning Movimiento Al Socialismo party—and had quipped about helping a ‘senate member’— just before the recent election in Bolivia. However, she had mostly talked about handing out pamphlets when she and Carrie had found a rare occasion to chat online about it. It seemed preposterous that Julia would ever be in any kind of position to—

And then, a black door opened and a very familiar woman hopped out onto the tarmac.

“Carolina!” Julia almost flew over to the stunned Carrie and caught her in a firm embrace.

“Julia—¿cómo estás?” was all Carrie could say, although she could see Julia, despite a few pounds extra and prominent lines under her eyes, was quite better off than all those years ago. 

Quite a bit …

In fact, her old friend was wearing a jumpsuit that had probably cost more than Carrie’s ticket from Los Angeles. 

“How I am doing, querida? I am doing just great!” Julia’s English was exuberant and with a thick accent. “Especially now you come here!” 

Carrie forced herself to smile. She also forced her memories to readjust. “So … you didn’t lie when you said you had learned English.” 

Julia grinned and made a dismissive wave of her hand. “Only little.”

“Lying or learning English?” Carrie deadpanned. 

She felt so out of it. It was so great seeing Julia again. It really was.

“As government servant, you have to maintain good inter-na-tio-nal relations.” Julia snuck an arm around Carrie’s shoulders and squeezed affectionately, while at the same time steering them both back towards the black car.

“—Hey, you’ll soon speak better English than I speak Spanish.” Carrie blurted.

“Not a chance, amiga ...” Julia replied in Spanish. “Santana!” 

Julia was apparently calling for the driver, who was on his way out. Carrie noticed that his skin was considerably darker than Julia’s. Aymara, she thought and nodded politely to him.

Julia herself was of mixed blood but Santana was clearly from the highlands where many indigenous peoples had their home, in small gray villages on the windswept Altiplano or here in the suburbs of La Paz.

He was a young man, little more than a teenager. When he had exited the car he stood erect, by the front door, his thin shape clear against the azure sky over El Alto Internacionál, but his gaze was neither here nor there. 

“What were you doing?” Julia scolded. “I told you to get out and be ready.”

“I was checking—” Santana started.

“Help our guest with her luggage. Now.”

Carrie frowned but then stopped herself. She handed the driver her suitcase and got into the big car, feeling a bit faint. She wondered if she already had altitude sickness.   

Julia got in beside her. She beamed at Carrie. “Ready to see Bolivia again?”

Carrie smiled tentatively. “Yes.”

Julia knocked on the back of Santana’s seat. “Go.”

Santa put the big car into gear, and Carrie was temporarily pushed back into her seat as they turned and accelerated quickly and somewhat haphazardly out of the airport parking lot.

Her hand instinctively fumbled for her seat belt but she found only the buckle.

Julia noticed. “No te preocupes. It’s a short trip.”

Carrie sighed. “No seatbelts, even in a new car.” Then she put a new smile on, for Julia. “It’s Bolivia, all right.”

Julia grinned. “.”

The car sped out onto the sole highway connecting El Alto airport with La Paz and promptly got stuck in a long line of fuming, honking vehicles of all kinds. That was also Bolivia. Just as Carrie remembered it. 

Yet, she could also see the majesty of the snowcapped Andes mountains and she was finally with Julia again after so many years. 

Carrie felt like her heart was beating once more, after a long-dead time as a housewife in the suburb of an American border town.

Now she was free.

Carrie tried to relax on the seat but found the hard black leather not entirely comfortable. She was already sore from the flight. But it didn’t matter, did it? 

She was here. Julia was here. That was enough.

Carrie noticed Julia was staring at her. “So … am I that different?” she quipped.

Julia shook her head. “You are exactly as I remember you.”

“Only 35 instead of 21.”

Julia made a dismissive gesture. “Ah, what does it matter?”

“It matters,” Carrie said. “And I should have come before. But, you know, the money. Kids …”

“I know!” Julia exclaimed. “But money is okay now—here.” She offered a quick grin, almost looking relieved she had said it.

“I can see that,” Carrie said. “What on Earth has happened to you? Last time we chatted, you told me you handed out flyers in the street for MAS before the election.”

“I did, I did. But then Romero and I, well, we decided we wanted to do more—” Julia was interrupted by a cacophony of cars honking at the same time outside. 

“Can we roll up the window?” Carrie asked. “It’s hard enough to breathe at this altitude.”

“You will get used to it.” Julia knocked on Santana’s chair again. “¡Cierre la ventana!”

He pushed a button that let the half-open window near the passenger seat close entirely.

“So …” Carrie said, daring a breath, “how’s Luis?”

Julia waved her hand at the car window as if there were still some fumes from the cars in the cabin. “Oh, he is at school. He is doing well.”

“Is it a high school?” Carrie asked. 

When she had last seen Luis he had been little more than a toddler. It was a leap, like so many others, that she had to make in her mind and she found it difficult. 

“Si,” Julia said. “And how are your children? How is little Michael?”

The herd of cars around them seemed far away suddenly, their endless wailing muffled.

Carrie cleared her throat. “He’s fine. They are fine. I’ll tell you all about it later, okay?”

“Okay.”

Carrie looked out the window again. “Maybe we should have walked?”

“It will clear soon,” Julia said. 

She was right. Against all odds, the traffic began moving again and after a brief excursion through the desolate neighborhoods of El Alto, the car swung out onto Calle 8 de Mayo and a breathtaking sight filled Carrie’s view. 

Ringed by white-peaked mountains, Bolivia’s capital spread over the entire valley as far as she could see. 

Carrie breathed deeply again, and for once felt she had enough air.

Maybe she didn’t need to go to that hut. Maybe this entire country where she had found life again was enough. 

Maybe she was already home.

*

An hour or so later, many things had indeed become clearer.

Carrie now knew that Julia worked as a personal secretary for senator Romero Gonzales who was 52 and owned a six-room apartment in the posh Sopocachi neighborhood. Julia talked about Romero in every other sentence. Oh, and they had also gotten married, it appeared, and she was really sorry for not having mentioned it but there had been some considerations about the election, his divorce, etcetera. And Julia had been terribly busy.

But not with handing out flyers anymore. Someone else was on that particular assignment.

In fact, everything seemed to go really well for Julia who once had hardly known where her next meal would come from. 

In contrast, Carrie had mostly unpleasant stories to entertain Julia with; extrapolations on issues she had briefly touched on during their infrequent chats online. The marriage to Jon was straining, Michael’s autism diagnosis had been a real shock, Emma was getting into fights at school, and there were no good jobs in sight for Carrie—a college drop-out and former addict. Obviously.

Yeah, a lot had happened in those 14 years since Carrie the tourist had found a lost little toddler named Luis on the big market in Cochabamba and reunited him with his mother, even if she had felt so depressed that day she had decided she would not try to talk to anyone again for the rest of the trip, just be alone.

Things hadn’t worked out that way, and an unlikely friendship had been the result.

And Julia was so full of energy and so excited about everything now. Carrie was excited to see her, too, but there was nothing exciting about how things were at home. 

Why had she not thought more about this? Why had she not thought about how fragmented her stories had been on Facebook these last handful of years? Just as she in reality knew very little about Julia from Julia’s infrequent postings or chats, the other thing was true, too. 

But Julia didn’t seem to mind. She was sorry about Michael, of course, but everything else would ‘work out’, she insisted. Just as it had for her. Carrie’s marriage, jobs, everything.

It was a bombardment. Of Julia’s questions, her child-like optimism about possible solutions to Carrie’s problems, and, of course, the sounds and sights that assaulted the senses on the way through the city; piss-stinking sewers, thousands of tin stalls the size of a stamp with solemn solicitors of everything from candy to llama fetuses, shouting drivers in the micro-busses that plowed into the ubiquitous traffic congestion with death defiance, and above all the mayhem—always the real skyline that was the Andes, silent, majestic, eternal. 

But eventually, it was over. They had arrived at Julia’s new home.

And it was definitely different from a hut made of timber and tin. 

Julia now lived in one of the few skyscrapers that towered over La Paz’s southern districts, its parking lot surrounded by a castle-sized wall adorned with broken glass.

Carrie was shown one of the apartment’s spacious rooms by the maid, who was also Aymara, and who seemed to be the only one at home. 

She excused herself that she was tired and had to rest before dinner, and Julia was very understanding.  

When Carrie finally closed the door to her room, everything, including the capital’s incessant buzzing, had receded to a vague hum. She plumped down on the fluffy bed and searched her handbag for deodorant and some pills for altitude sickness. 

Instead, she found a picture she had had the photographer in Yuma copy from her old negatives. He had thought of it as an ‘interesting archaeological exercise’ now that everything was digital.

Carrie had thought of showing the picture to Julia at dinner, later that evening, when Julia’s husband had returned from work.

It was a picture Carrie had taken of Julia in 2000, with her old camera, one day at the river, after a very long evening. Neither had gotten much sleep, but the world and everything in it had been settled. 

Carrie thought Julia had looked particularly serene that morning, despite the wear and tear from hard living which was already visible in her young face, but most of all in the way she looked at the world. Except in moments like that morning.

Julia had been sitting on a small bridge close to the boat, her naked feet dangling over the water. Carrie had felt secure enough in her Spanish to try a lame joke.

‘¿No le tienes miedo a las pirañas?’

‘There are no pirañas in this river, stupid,’ Julia had replied and her dark eyes had sparkled like the sun glinting in the shadowy water. 

“Are you sure?” Carrie came over and gave Julia a friendly push.

“Absolutely,” Julia said. “And if there were, it wouldn’t be a problem.”

“Oh, yeah? How so?” Carrie grinned. It was a lovely morning. 

Julia shrugged. “Because didn’t you know, they say pirañas only eat fat, rich people?”

“I’m rich,” said Carrie. “Technically. I mean, I’m from a richer country.”

“You’re not rich,” Julia said. “You said so, yourself. You spent your last money coming here. So we’re equals.”

Carrie put an arm around Julia’s shoulder. “Yes, we are.”

And the water of the Espiritu Santo river flowed under their feet in silence. 

*

Photo by Shyam on Unsplash 

The Morning Sun

The Morning Sun

It’s one of those mornings that should’ve been like a zillion others, yet it isn’t.

But I remember what came before the morning. Not like a zillion.

And now: Sun rays through the window as I do a quick dishes. Enough to make me squint. But also to smile. And I usually hate the sun here.

I usually hate doing lunch boxes, too: A peanut butter sandwich for Michael and fruit only for Emma. Water. Some juice. That’s all. All that which I could usually hate.

But I don’t. I feel light. Like it all has taken on some hidden meaning that I was only too blind to see before.

“I get off early, I could pick up the kids,” Jon says while scrolling through today’s news on his phone with one hand and absentmindedly harpooning the bacon with another.

Jon never picks up the kids on Fridays. But never is far away this morning.

“That would be lovely,” I reply and the light continues. I put the last dish on the tray. Now everything will look neat when we all get home, and until that washing machine repairman can get his ass over here. But he doesn’t have to hurry, it seems. I got it.

And lord knows, I have got enough of this on my job. In 40 minutes and counting. But at least the car works today. And I have that, too.

The small blessings. Of the morning sun.

And not like a zillion.

Why can’t we have more in our lives of the things that make us a light inside?

*

Photo by Taylor Deas-Melesh on Unsplash

Ancient Melodies

Ancient Melodies

Michael screams as I try to take the Mars bar from him.

” – You can’t take that with you in class. It’s not allowed.”

All the arguments – I run through them like a machine. A tired machine. And then I think about choking mum. And not inviting her for Christmas. Or both.

“Michael – come here. Right now!”

But off he runs, his 5-year old-feet tapping along the sweltering pavement. In the wrong direction.

“Emma – stay here. I’ll be right back.”

Yeah, sure.

So I leave my oldest daughter, staring dumbfounded after her mother, chasing after her little brother. Oh, well, she’ll only have to stay there, at the bus stop and take care of herself and be the butt of jokes from the other children, who have some good reason for taking the bus, instead of our reason which is that Jon couldn’t fix the car “in a jiff” like he said he would last night after I threw something at him. I don’t remember what it was, I think it was heavy enough, though, to make an impression.

“You hear me – stay there, Emma. – Michael!”

I imagine I can hear the snickering of the other kids. I imagine I can feel the eyes of the older lady, who’s there waiting, too, and who has already judged me in a hundred different ways. I imagine that Emma’ll deal with all this, no problem, and stay safe till I get Michael. Emma’s eight. She can handle it, big girl.

“Michael – goddammit. Come here, or I swear, you’ll never have chocolate again.”

I finally catch him in the sleeve, two seconds before some truck lunches from the hidden nothingness behind that corner: the places we usually don’t think about until it’s too late.

The driver honks, Michael screams, I scream. It’s a cacophony. It would be funny if only I didn’t feel like crying.

I wonder if it was wrong to invite mum down from Bakersfield, or if it was wrong of me to throw that glass jar (yes, now I remember what it was) at Jon? Or if it was wrong of me to let Michael see it. I only threw it on the floor, after all. Not at him. But inside it felt like I threw it at him – my husband. Could my son, somehow see that? Is he just as smart as all the other kids, who begin to hate their parents at an early age, having seen through them – seen that there’s nothing there but fear, terror, helplessness?

Thoughts race, while I race back to catch the bus. Emma dutifully waits. The traffic of East 48th drones by, ignorant; people with real jobs, real directions. Perhaps somebody smiles mockingly. Perhaps no one notices. We catch the bus, in the last second. Michael is crying loudly, impossible to ignore.

Emma grabs my hand. But I feel guilty. I should grab her hand, feel in control.

But control left me years ago when I thought Jon saved me from myself. When I thought children were the blessing of all blessings. When I thought that I had a right to a new life, and finally somebody noticed.

*

The sun blazes, Yuma burns. I burn. We go by bus. I deposit my children at their school. I wait for another bus to take me away from the school again – to work. I wait while I burn.

And then I notice her: the dark-haired 40-something lady who was also waiting for the bus when I ran after Michael. She took the bus with us, sitting just a few seats behind … Why is she here – at the school stop? Why is she the only one here?

“Finally free?” she asks when I come back out from the schoolyard.

Direct, isn’t she? What the hell …

I push my sunglasses all the way up, so I can catch her eye. I’m not going to hide from anyone. And there are five minutes until the next bus and on to work.

“Are you waiting to change busses?” I ask.

“Yes, but I’m in no hurry,” she answers. Still friendly. Oh, so friendly …

“I am,” I say. “I am going to work.”

“So am I. Tonight. Right now I’m just going downtown to shop a bit.”

“Uh-huh … “

“Not feeling up to conversation, eh?” she smiles. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

Now I feel strange … and like sitting down on the bus bench. I grab for my water flask in the bag.  Where the hell is it … ?

“Listen,” I say while I grab, “I just delivered two monsters – well, only one actually, but it feels like two – to school. So yeah, maybe I don’t feel up to conversation …”

She nods, stares out over the street, squints at the sun.

“I just wanted to say that I … oh, never mind.” She eyes me carefully. ” – It’s idiotic anyway.” She shrugs. “What can I say?”

I look back toward the school grounds. I can hear lots of children. No one screaming. Not yet. A bell rings. My shoulders ease. Michael kind of smiled when the teach took over. But  …

“So you’re not going to work until tomorrow, then?” I ask, still fumbling for the flask. I give up. Look up:

“What do you do anyway?” It comes off as kind of rude. Surprise …

But she just smiles again. It’s like she could disarm a whole army with that smile. Somehow it gets to me. She really means well. She’s just awkward … ?

“I am a doctor.” She stretches out her hand. “Charlotte Danner. – Danner Tansley, actually. My dad was a big Virginia Woolf fan. It’s not a certified name, but I kept it in his memory. God, listen to me – I’m really babbling today, aren’t I?”

But she still holds out her hand.

I take her hand, carefully, as if I had grabbed tumbleweed flying in from the Gila bassin, once full of barbed wire. I search for some leftovers, some trap. I find nothing. But her grasp is as ephemeral as those flying wisps, yet with a sinewy, firm strength. How can something be both gentle and iron cast?

“I’m just Carrie Sawyer,” I say, “cleaning lady for the elderly.”

“That where you are going?”

“Uh- huh.”

“Sounds like you don’t like it.”

“Sounds about right.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. What kind of doctor are you? You work at the hospital?”

She shakes her head. “Not here in Yuma. I work abroad – for Doctors Without Borders. Know them?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

She hesitates, on guard. Something flickers in her brown-grey eyes.

The bus comes. I’m relieved.

We board, sit down. The school disappears behind me and I disappear from it, like a wild animal crawling into hiding.

I feel edgy all the way to my seat and wonder if I’m going to break down and cry. Something’s completely off. I’m falling too pieces. And why …

“We all have days like this, don’t we?”

The Danner-woman has chosen the seat next to mine, but on the other side of the aisle. All other passengers are non-distinct grey shapes. Like we’re riding a bus with shadows.

“I … guess we have,” I finally manage to reply, wiping the sweat of my brow.

But I’m going to work. The one thing I don’t need right now. How do I look my chief in the eye? How do I keep up the cheery face, when old man Kensington cracks his racist jokes?

“It’s hard having kids,” she says.

I can’t make out if that’s an observation or a question. If it’s a question it would be stupid, bordering on rude, given the mess she just witnessed at the bus stop. But an observation would be … banal.

I finally get a hold of myself and look more closely at her.

The lines under her eyes and the grey shadows above them indicate a handful more years than forty. But her eyes themselves are alive and sparkling as if they are the source of all life itself. Who is she?

“Where are you going?” I ask, trying to be polite, controlled. Trying not to think of Mr. Kensington.

“To _________ Motel,” she replies. “Been visiting my aunt. Really.”

“Here in Yuma?”

“Really. There are other aunts in Yuma, right?”

A mischievous smile, as if she knows she got me. Or maybe just a doctor knowing that her patient is improving.

I lean a bit more back into the hard bus seat and try to think of good things. Like Mr. Kensington visiting his grandchildren today. I think they live in Nebraska.

“So – ” I say, gazing at some point between the ceiling of the creaking bus and the dusty Yuma-scape passing by outside the window ” – it’s a family visit and then back to doctoring?”

“That’s right.”

“I don’t want to sound rude, Mrs. Danner – “

” – Miss.”

“Miss.”

We chit-chat a bit. About the traffic. Weather. Stuff. But then I can’t keep it back any longer:

“Look –  I might as well be honest – ” I take a deep breath and then let it out while I look/don’t look at her ” –  and honesty is that I’ve only had one good conversation with a stranger on a bus for the last five years and I don’t think today is the one when I’m having another.”

I end that sentence with the look. At her. The ‘get it’-look. That look I hate when it comes to me. But it’s a powerful way to look. At others.

“I think you may be right,” she says, but matter-of-factly, as if the renewed hostility in my tone (why couldn’t keep it down? – I felt I could) doesn’t matter. Like she has seen it all before:

“I’m sorry for bothering you. I guess I just felt a bit, I don’t know … “

She trails off. Looks out her window.

The bus lumbers on, like a groggy rhino. Traffic thickens. Rush hour at its deadliest.

We sit in silence for the next many minutes. I’m approaching Kensington Station and my stomach churns. Maybe I can get to clean the basement today? So much for the money that went into law school. About the same amount that went out through that needle, I pushed into my arm for so many years.

I glance at her – the Danner-lady. She looks … sad somehow.

“I’m sorry,” I then say and feel like I have to clear a stone out of my throat: “I’m just sorry. About all of it.”

I dunno if I say it to myself or her or both.

Another woman, 60-ish, on the seat in front of me turns and eyes me like I was a convict she is not certain she recognizes. Then she turns back to her knitting.

“It’s all right,” Charlotte says. “I understand. Children can be the worst test – but still – ” she looks at me directly now, something warm and embracing in her eyes ” – they are the miracles of our lives, right?”

“You have some?”

She shakes her head. Something in me sours.

“Any small children in the closest family?”

” … No.”

“Delivered some?”

“Some.”

Something in me sours again. Like old food, I thought I had thrown out, but I only put it someplace to be forgotten for a while. Then I find it again and it smells worse:

“Okay, but even so I guess you don’t know what the hell you are talking about, do you, doctor Danner?”

I see the next stop and get up from my seat in one fluid, perfectly aggressive movement – like a snake slithering toward its next prey. Then I look down at Not-Mrs.-Danner:

“I’m getting off here, ” I say and hate every word and myself: “Sorry for being a bitch. I guess I can’t help it, but not all of us have perfect lives.”

Something glistens in her eye. I don’t know if its a dying sparkle of the blazing sun outside the dusty bus window, or something that glistens for other reasons. Perhaps reasons to do with delivering children that do not breathe and feeling lonely enough to talk to strange women who are a little better than weeds …

“I wanted to have children so badly …”

It comes out almost like a whisper.

She is looking me straight in the eye for the briefest of moments, then her head slumps a bit. She looks away, continues:

“We tried for eight years. Nothing could be done. I had depression. My husband got tired of it and left.”

Then she hesitates – looks at me again – sees how dumbfounded I am, that I have nothing to say. Then it is as if she makes a decision.

She stands up quickly, walks down the aisle, and exits from the center door of the bus, just before the rhino lumbers on again.

I want to follow. I want to talk. To apologize. To explain that maybe I am also depressed. Maybe the pills I’m taking to keep it a bay aren’t working. Maybe there are all sorts of reasons I just broke her heart when she tried to be kind to me. Which is the story of my life and I wish I could change it, but it never – never – changes.

Including the fact that I’m a coward and sit in the bus until the next stop – but then run back towards the nursing home and don’t even look for her, because I’m afraid they’ll kick me out if I’m late again.

I only stop once. When somebody yells at me:

“Hey, lady – you forgot your purse!”

It’s a young guy, with pimples instead of a face, and he looks embarrassed by just looking at me. He stands at the bus stop where he got off same time as me. He waves at me, and the waving gets timider and timider as I turn back and walk towards him and try to grasp what he just said, and try not to look too much at him, in order not to make him more embarrassed and my heart feels like a knotted fist.

Then I get it:

“It’s … it’s not my purse … ” I say.

“Must be that other lady’s, then – the one you talked to,” the young guy says and pushes the purse into my hand without explanation. Then he is gone.

Somehow Charlotte Danner Tansley won’t go away so easily.

*

We’re home and it’s late and peace has caught me after all. In a few brittle moments, but nevertheless. I cherish them even so. For their fragility. For the time I can just sit here in front of the computer and let YouTube videos run and try to think that it was okay that Jon had to put Emma and Michael to sleep for the nth time this week. He was as dead-tired as I was, but what do we do? Have a lottery?

Why can’t my husband just say he doesn’t care? Even when he has had to follow another con to another transfer up in Flagstaff and listen to this creep’s insults throughout another blazing day on the highway.

Life as a cop kills you, but not in the ways you think.

I tap another video and it runs. It’s my junk and I know it.

Then I look at the purse again.

It’s small, brownish. Leather. Some kind of African pattern (I guess) on the front.

I have already opened it more times than I care to. I want to again.

Damn her.

If she only had left an address. But no. She wouldn’t just make it easy. Perhaps it’s some kind of refined revenge. But she would have to know me better than that, right? To know what ticked me off.

To know what I would not stop doing, once I saw that I had no choice because that is who I am. When all is said and done.

But a stranger can’t know another stranger so well. That’s impossible.

No address. Damn her.

Just that pic. Some lipstick. Old receipts. A gasoline card. Small mirror. That’s it.

That and that pic.

Lying there at the bottom, like a nugget of gold in a mess that could as well have been my life.

I take it up again and look closely. It looks back at me:

Charlotte is there, in some village. Africa. She’s in a medic’s uniform – or what goes for it in the bush. She is holding a boy, perhaps eight years old or so. He only has one arm, the other is bandaged but it is clear that half of it is missing. She holds him in her arms. He clings to her, with all the strength he has in that arm he has left. She smiles at the world on the other side of the camera: That sad, strained smile, I saw on the bus. Yet also a smile of hope and infinite patience, like she could carry that boy forever.

And maybe – just an infinitesimally small maybe – it is also a pic that’s one of the most personal things she had – for some reason. Why else carry it with her like this, so close, instead of leaving it in a drawer or on some hard drive?

It’s a real photo – developed on that glossy paper they used to use all the time. Not a photo copy. Not a print-out. Real. Like in the old times, say, 10 or 15 years ago. Like the last picture I had from my life on Skye from the summer of ’94 – the one where Siné Munroe and I stand with our backs to the autumn-red sea down at Armadale and hold out the camera and hope it will catch us like we hope this will not be the good-bye that would last the 16 years it actually did.

So it was Charlotte’s pic that did it to me. It made me do it.

Made me excuse myself with that same old excuse to my husband and feel bad about it, but it was only a little sting and it was quickly over. Once I had closed the door … once I had distracted myself for the usual 20-30 minutes with videos of nothing and email and status updates.

Then I knew I had to find her.

Say I was sorry.

And … find out if it was just an accident that I sit here with her and the child she never had.

It can only be an accident. There is no other reasonable way to think about it.

And yet …

On the back of the photo, some words in handwriting (hers?):


… It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you …
.
No. It has to be an accident. I’m just being hysterical about it, because I feel like a pit inside – for unknowableth time in my life.

I want to find her. I have to.

Somehow.

But despite several hours of frantic search on the web, I never find Charlotte Danner Tansley. No Facebook page. No NGO. No clinic – nothing.

It is as if she never existed. Or doesn’t want to …

So all I have is what she left me, for her own reasons which I will never understand. If they were reasons at all.

*

I only discover that I have fallen asleep by the laptop, when Michael wakes me up, because he can’t sleep and has braved the stairs in the dark to come down and look for his mother.

Blue_hole

Photo by Mara 1

Breaks

Breaks

Carrie tore through the kitchen. “Where is the goddamn coffee?!”

She was absolutely positively NOT going to deal with any more of all the shit she had to deal with every day without coffee.

Jon, already in uniform, eyed his wife in the same way he observed a speed demon heading for a crash on the highway. 

“I’m … not sure I remembered to buy,” he said carefully.

“There’s always something!” Carrie raged, throwing away the empty coffee container with a clang. “I never have the tiniest fucking break!”

She picked up the coffee container and threw it again. 

Jon caught it. “Look I know

She lifted her finger. “Don’t!”

He frowned. “Calm down, okay? I have to go to work.”

She looked at him fiercely. “Wanna trade places?”

*

Image credit: Photo by Congerdesign on Pixabay

When Everything Was True

When Everything Was True

“Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Carrie. “But you’ll have to be up with the lark,” she added.

“‘Lark’”, Michael repeated.

“It’s no use explaining it to him,” Jon mumbled from across the table, shuffling his bacon back and forth on the plate without eating any of it. “He doesn’t understand anyway.”

“If I don’t talk with Michael,” Carrie said in a low voice, “when will he learn to talk?”

“Never?” Jon suggested and looked as if he was about to add something. But he quickly changed the subject.

“Actually,” he said, “I think the weather will be the best today. Lark or no lark …”

The morning light seemed far away outside the window of the small kitchen, where the smell of newly applied ajax, coffee, and bacon still mingled. The only sound they could hear was Michael driving his Hot Wheels toy car back and forth over the table, his blond brows knit tightly in concentration. “Lark-lark-lark-lark.”

Jon reached over the table as if to direct Michael’s hand with the toy car, but he didn’t touch him. “The car says ‘vrroom’, Michael.”

“Lark-lark-lark …”

Carrie threw the towel in the sink. “Goddammit—is Emma still asleep?” She went out in the hallway and called. “Emma! Are you awake?!”

“No!” came a plaintive cry from upstairs.

“Get down here, now!” Carrie went back into the kitchen and pulled out cornflakes and a plate from the cupboards.

“So what’ll it be?” she said, without looking back at Jon or Michael over at the table.

“You mean …” Jon started, his coffee cup almost touching his lips.

“The holiday house.” Carrie turned, arms crossed. “Hammond said we could borrow it, didn’t he?”

“Yes.”

“Well, can we?”

“Yes.”

“Are we going then?”

Jon looked at his coffee then at Michael who was happily driving the toy car back and forth in the exact same invisible lane on the table as he had been a minute ago. 

“Lark-lark-lark-lark—”

“We’re going,” Jon said. “I think we should drive late in the afternoon when there is less heat, though.”

“Michael will be tired,” Carrie said.

“I don’t think going before noon is a good idea,” Jon replied, “you know how stressed he can get if he is in the car for too long.”

“Lark-lark-lark—”

“Where are we going?” Emma stood in the doorway, her long blonde hair looking like a ball of yarn.

“To Hammond’s holiday house,” Carrie said and went over to try to pet her hair into submission. 

“The one in Kachina?” Emma asked, trying to get her mother’s hands out of her hair. 

“The very one.” Carrie held up her hands in a gesture of surrender.

“Come get something to eat,” Jon said, bacon in his mouth again. “We’re going in the afternoon.”

“I thought you didn’t wanna go?” Emma plumped down on her chair at the table and began pouring generous amounts of milk on the cornflakes.

Carrie and Jon shared a brief look at each other. Then Carrie sat down beside Emma, leaning heavily over the table on her elbows. “It’s not that we didn’t want to go last time, sweetheart. We just had … to make sure it would be a good trip, for all of us.” She eyed Michael.

Emma nodded and took a mouthful of cornflakes. She stole a look at her brother who was still fully absorbed in driving the ‘lark’ toy car back and forth over the exact same area of his side of the table.

“We could go there for my birthday next weekend instead if you’d rather want that,” Emma said, balancing a spoonful of milky flakes over her plate. “We could stay home this weekend, too.”

Carrie stroked Emma’s hair, but this time without any secret tonsorial agenda. “I want you to celebrate your seventh birthday here, with your friends, just as we planned. It would be rather lonely in Kachina with only the four of us, wouldn’t it?”

Emma eyed her mother skeptically. “What about Michael’s birthday?”

“What about it?” Jon leaned back heavily on the kitchen chair, looking out the window.

“He is going to be five this year—and five is an important number for him,” Emma said. “So we should have the birthday here as well, right?”

“We are not celebrating anyone’s birthday in Kachina, darling,” Carrie said. “It’s just a kind of holiday. To get away.”

*

It was cloudy when they got on their way, but in the South-Western desert that only meant that it felt like you were in an oven that had been used some hours ago.

Carrie looked over her shoulder from the passenger seat. “Is it too hot? Should I turn up the air conditioner?”

Emma was helping Michael whenever his iPad lost the signal which was coming from Carrie’s phone, now that they were out of the house. But after a lot of tears and panicky breaths, it was decided that Michael should try playing a game instead of watching YouTube cartoons that might freeze at any moment. That proved to be a better way forward and soon the little boy was fully absorbed in playing with his LEGO game on the tablet, only a slight increase in his frown or a little more punch in his fingers against the screen, indicating how he was doing.

“Everything’s fine, mom,” Emma said. 

“You fine, too, Michael?” Carrie asked.

Michael played on without answering.

“Michael?” Carrie said, in a slightly higher voice.

Still no response.

Carrie turned and looked out the front window instead. “Where are we?”

“Camp Verde in a few,” Jon said and tipped his dark sunglasses up with one hand. “Everything okay back there, kids?”

“We’re fine, Dad,” Emma said. “The internet is bad, though.”

“That’s why I love the LEGO app,” Carrie mumbled. “The one with the number blocks. You love those numbers, don’t you, pliskie? They are your friends—”

“Now I don’t have any connection at all, mom,” Emma said, “but I’ll be fine.”

“You sure?”

“Yes.” Emma put down her own iPad and crossed her arms. 

For a long time thereafter, she didn’t say anything and only stopped looking out the window when she needed to help her brother.

*

It was early in the evening when they finally arrived and the oven had definitively closed. A mild breeze rustled the pine trees that were more numerous than the inhabitants of the small village south of Flagstaff.

Carrie got out of the car to run over to the triangular garden stone where Hammond had left the key but she kept looking back into the car to see how Michael was doing. 

Still, when she returned, somewhat out of breath, Carrie smiled for the first time since they had left Yuma. “Ah, now I can almost remember why we go all the way up here.”

Jon had already gone around to help the boy out of his seat. “Let me guess,” he said. “Because Hammond used his pension fund to buy that pool? Because you love Sedona?”

Carrie grinned now. “Right on all counts.” Her shoulders slumped. Maybe it would finally work this time.

Then Michael screamed.

“What?!” Carrie ran to the other side of the car.

“He just stepped on a pine cone,” Jon said, looking sheepish. He was standing beside the car, the door to Michael’s seat still open, and Michael was by his side. The boy was rigid and in full panic mode at the same time. 

“I’ll help you, Michael!” Emma who until now had been fiddling with her iPad wiggled out of her seat and climbed over Michael’s to get out of the other door. She quickly picked up the cone. “Look!”

But Michael didn’t look. He kept on screaming and now he was crying, too.

“Didn’t you put his shoes on before you took him out of the seat?” Carrie looked around as if there was someone nearby whom she could hit.

“Ease down.” Jon bent down to try to calm Michael but he was looking at Carrie. “You heard him for the last half hour. He could not sit still in that chair for one moment longer.”

“But we put his shoes under the seat so we could get them quickly,” Carrie said, going almost as rigid as Michael.

“I know.” Jon kept one hand on Michael’s shoulder and the other on the car door, knuckles white. “But he was just about to explode. The ground here is mostly sand. I didn’t see the goddamn cone.”

Carrie opened and closed her fists but then went past Jon to the trunk.

Meanwhile, Emma was holding the pine cone up in front of Michael, who was still crying. “Look, it’s just a cone!”

“‘Cone’,” Michael finally repeated and gazed intently at the zigzagging patterns adorning it. Then he wiped his eyes.

“His feet are so damn sensitive,” Carrie mumbled. “He should have kept his shoes on.”

“Not just his feet,” Jon said. “Look, can we get on with it?”

Carrie said nothing. She opened the trunk hard enough for it to vibrate up and down.

“Want to touch?” Emma asked and gave the cone to Michael.

Michael held it briefly then threw it away, in a pushing motion, as if the cone was a person standing in his way. But he grinned at his sister.

“‘Cone’!” Michael repeated.

“That’s right,” Emma nodded vigorously. “It’s—”

But Michael, who Jon had now managed to get into his shoes, stepped past his sister and ran in the opposite direction. There was a big bright number ‘5’ on Hammond’s holiday cottage and he was heading directly towards it. 

When he reached the big number five, the little boy stopped in his tracks and held up his arms as if he wanted to touch and caress the sign, which was made of wood and painted yellow.

Carrie looked at her husband, and Jon nodded and went over to Michael so he could lift him up to touch the number. Again and again.

“Yeah,” Jon said, “you remember this, don’t you? I agree, it’s probably the most beautiful number five in all of Arizona.”

And so on.

Soon Michael grinned and even chatted away in gibberish like he was telling the number that he had been scared before but now he felt better. 

Emma looked at the cone for long moments. Then she carefully picked it up and put it in her own rucksack.

“I don’t think he is interested, honey,” Carrie said.

“He might be later,” Emma said.

*

Night had fallen and Jon and Carrie sat on the terrace of the cottage, too tired to really talk. So for a long time they didn’t really try. They just sat there and watched gray clouds flicker past a gibbous moon.

Eventually, Jon looked at his wife. “So what are you thinking about?” 

The moonlight seemed to make Carrie’s face glow with a gossamer softness that partially hid the wrinkles of strain under her eyes. Jon only saw those wrinkles disappear when Carrie was asleep, sometimes not even then. 

“Well, I’m thinking I’d like another beer,” she deadpanned. “Maybe I will soon have had enough, so I can’t taste it?” 

“Are Arizona Lights really that bad?” 

“As always,” Carrie said. “Will you be a darling and get me another one?”

“Of course.” Jon got up. “Time to celebrate.”

He went back into the cottage quietly so as to not wake the children and spoil the efforts of another long ‘combat evening’. 

That was how Iraq vet, Jonathan Reese, had come to think about bedtime for his son. 

For it was mostly about Michael. Emma had been difficult when she was little and it was just her, but with Michael, it was a nightmare. Everything had to be in the proper order, when to eat, when to brush teeth, how the toothpaste was administered, and so on.

If you missed a beat he might get very upset unless you started over. That ritual and then what obviously was some kind of period when the kid was beginning to assert himself, like any normal kid, and say no just because he could.

Oh, and everything got 10 times more difficult in a strange place, although he had been to the cottage before. Well, last summer, but still …

But now Michael had finally fallen asleep, and Emma had to be sleeping, too.

Jon took out the beer from the fridge. Its coolness felt good. Somehow better than drinking the damn stuff. Then he stopped and listened.

There were two bedrooms in the cottage, and the one with Emma and Michael was quiet now. Velvety darkness had descended on the single hallway that led from the kitchen and down to the bathroom and bedrooms. Jon strained to hear … something.

But there was nothing. The only thing he could hear was his own breathing.

*

It was not the first time Emma could not sleep but she did not say anything.

She lay very still in the bed, aware of every one of her brother’s movements in sleep, while at the same time trying to concentrate on the pale moon outside the window.

The moon had fascinated her ever since she was very small. And since she was almost seven years old now, it felt like it was very long ago she had first thought about how the moon looked. 

Its surface is like crumpled, dry paper, Emma had thought many times.

She turned carefully to look at her little brother.

Michael was lying on his side, breathing heavily. His unruly mop of dark blonde hair was visible outside of the comforter, and at the other end of his right foot. It was covered by a green and red sock.

Michael never went barefoot. He always wanted to have socks on. That had given him some problems with athlete’s foot and all sorts of other things, Emma had not understood, but which mom had talked about in an exasperated tone ever so often.

Mom talked a lot about something that was even more difficult to understand which was called problems with sen-so-ry-in-te-gra-tion. Emma was proud she could remember the word. But more importantly, she could remember what it meant.

Her brother felt things differently.

For Michael even the smallest exposure of skin made him stressed like he was too cold or too hot.

Michael whimpered in his sleep and moved his foot back and forth outside of the comforter. Emma could see a small sliver of skin where the top of Michael’s socks didn’t go all the way around his night pants.

She slowly rolled over toward him and put the sock back over the night pants and then pulled the comforter all the way down over Michael’s foot. Michael mumbled something in his sleep then lay still again.

Emma lay very still and watched Michael sleep. 

Mom had said she would come in right away if Michael woke up and had a fit and that Emma should just sleep and worry about nothing at all.

Nothing at all.

*

The next morning Hammond came by unexpectedly with his new wife in tow.

His guests were all in the pool, and Jon got up to give his old partner a strong handshake, dripping with chlorine water.

The burly bearded Hammond smiled his usual sly smile. “Everything satisfactory? Madee and I were heading to Sedona anyway and I thought I’d drop by.”

The young Thai woman waved down to Carrie who was still in the pool with both kids. Michael loved the water. It was about the only sensation against his skin that he cherished without hesitation.

Carrie wiped a wet lock of her own short hair away from her eyes and squinted in the morning sun. “Hello Madee. Emma, say hello.”

“Hello Madee,” Emma said politely while hugging a beach ball in the water. “Hello, Mr. Barkley.”

“Hiya, kiddo.” Hammond waved. Madee smiled.

“Aaand I don’t think I have met you before.” Madee bent down, hands on her knees, and smiled brightly at Michael, who was sitting on the staircase that went into the water at the far end of the basin. “You are Michael, aren’t you?”

“Madee, he—uh—” Carrie started, but Jon interrupted her.

“It’s fine. Madee knows.” He turned to Hammond. “You told her, right?”

“Told me what?” Madee looked over at her husband, who frowned.

“Uh, that,” he began and looked at Jon. “I—”

Then a bird chirped far up in the pine trees that stood all around the garden like tall green sentinels.

“Lark!” Michael exclaimed, and looked up.

“It’s just some bird,” Jon said. “I don’t think there are any larks out here.”

“As a matter of fact,” Madee corrected him, while also looking at the bird which had perched itself neatly on a branch almost directly above Michael’s head, “—that is a Horned Lark.  Eremophila alpestris.”

Jon’s eyes widened at Madee. “Hammond never told me you were, uhm, knowledgable about larks.”

Madee’s smile became more restrained. “I’m sure you must have mentioned to Jon I majored in biology at NAU?”

Hammond looked helplessly at Madee, but Carrie saved the situation. “You told us, but Jon is very bad at remembering those things.”

“Probably just a coincidence, anyway,” Jon added. “It’s the only other word for a bird he knows.”

“No talking yet?” Hammond looked at Jon.

Jon shook his head. “Not really.”

Michael looked up at the black, brown, and white bird, in mute fascination. Emma came over and sat beside him on the stairs.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it, Michael?”

“Lark,” Michael said.

*

Photo by Donna G on Unsplash

Every Time

Every Time

One of the hardest parts is seeing other children on the playground and their ‘normal’ families. Children the same age who can talk, play and all that. Parents talking about what this or that child did and I’m there thinking about how many of those things Michael cannot do. I’m trying not to but I’m thinking of them.

I’m also trying to help Michael play with the other kids if he feels like it, but I’m not sure I’m helping because there are so many things I have to tell him not to do, like walking too close to them and looking at them like they were strange creatures from Mars. Or just going around making strange noises.

I can’t really tell him not to do it because he doesn’t understand much of what I am saying, but I’m afraid he understands enough. He understands that there is something he can’t do or isn’t allowed to do, at least in his own way, although he wants to.

So I want to help him to have some kind of relation with other children and prevent him from making them angry at him or afraid of him. And by doing that I may also make him hesitant of trying to play with them, because he doesn’t understand why I am restraining him.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

I guess the upshot is that I can’t help him without also taking something away from him. But it would be worse, if I didn’t try to guide him. It’s cold comfort but there it is. It’s what I have to take. Every time.

Crystal

Crystal

Every day my four-year-old son counts the all numbers on all the 78 houses and on all the 21 cable boxes on our route as I take him from kindergarten to our house, and he begins to cry if I don’t count along with him.

It’s been a little over a year since Michael got his autism diagnosis, but I mobilize a determined hope every day that it is not that bad. 

After all, Jenna’s son scarcely looks at her when she tries to communicate with him. Michael is fairly eager to catch our eye, but only if he wants something. Like me saying the numbers of cable box 345128 just like I have done every weekday for five months now since this particular habit started. He has loved numbers for a long time, but the boxes came in later.

“At least he finds new things to count,” Jon says. “He doesn’t count the same stuff over and over again.”

“It feels that way some days,” I say.

And then we get into an argument because we are both stressed out of our minds and arguing seems to be something that has now become a trap we can’t get out of. Something as basic and instinctual in order to cope in some fucked-up way when Michael has been crying or howling all day for reasons we don’t understand because he hasn’t learned to talk for real and we don’t know what ails him, or in what way those multiple problems autistic kids have with sensory overload affects Michael.

And then Jon goes to work, and Emma goes to her room, and I’m not sure if it’s because she doesn’t know how to deal with her brother or with her parents.

And yes, I am thinking about all this as I count house number “fifty-threee”.

Michael loves drawing out the pronunciation of this particular house number – it’s as if normal kids were offered ice cream. The same joy – every time. Michael doesn’t like ice cream. In fact, he doesn’t eat much but bread, and we are worried sick but that’s how it is with autistic kids and there is a very long wait to get some help from anyone who can, especially in Yuma, and especially if you are not the richest family in the world.

So you see, I’m thinking about all this, and it’s not as if Jon and I just had that conversation, but we might as well have had it. We seem to have it every other day. We definitely have the argument.

If only we could use our energy, the little we have, to help Michael. To help our son. But it feels like we are stuck in quicksand and it doesn’t help that I’m unemployed again or that Jon shot a guy in the chest two weeks ago when said guy tried to rob the grocery store with a shotgun.

I try to tell him that the man will live. I tell him that even if he didn’t live I’d much rather have that reality than the one in which Jon’s head had been turned into pulp by the same dumdums that went clean through the big Halloween pumpkin by the door two seconds after Jon came in to buy a soda while in uniform, and the robber panicked and fired at him without warning.

It later turned out the guy—Carlos was his name—had pumped as much cocaine into his veins as I did myself over an entire year back in the early 2000s. But what does it matter?

It doesn’t make you any less dangerous just because your brain is to fried to even register what you are shooting at.

And my head is like a fucking beehive. Why can’t life be easy for more than five minutes?

Why can’t I get … peace?

“Fifty seeven!”

“Fifty-seven, sweetheart.”

“Fifty-seven!” Michael looks at me with mounting sadness and a stint of anger, unable to grasp that I just told him I love him in one extra word, but the extra word does not go with the numbers. You have to say them exactly as he does, or his world falls apart.

I wonder when Jon will come home. I wonder if we will argue. I want to shout at Michael now.

Fuck fifty-seven. Fuck that number.

But I don’t. Not today.

I walk on with my son’s hand in mine, and Yuma’s winter sun is mild and I wonder when he will learn to understand what ‘sweetheart’ means.

That’s what I use to chase the bees away for a little while, even if it hurts to think about, too, when I pass so many other parents on their way home, with kids babbling away and being aware of the world in a way I don’t know if Michael will ever be.

But this is a hurt that is better. So I choose it.

 

Losing Your Place On Earth

Losing Your Place On Earth

“Please, don’t say that about our son,” she had said.

“Well, I said it,” he replied and left for work.

Driving alone for 8 hours through the desert gave Jon plenty of time to regret what he had said, though. Not the feeling that he sometimes did not want an autistic son who had a habit of getting up in the night. Especially the nights when Jon was desperately in need of sleep from the last watch as a state trooper looking out for the lonely highways and byways of Arizona.

That particular feeling was genuine. But he regretted that he had said it out loud.

No. No, that wasn’t right. He also did regret the feeling itself. Little Michael needed all the love he could get if he was ever to have something remotely akin to a normal life. And Jon did love him.

Except for the times when he wished that his son wasn’t there.

Michael was still too young to understand, of course, and maybe he never would. The psychiatrists put his chances of ever learning to talk at about 50-50. Jon knew he had committed a cardinal sin, though, by saying what he felt that morning out loud, in front of his wife and oldest daughter who was just as dead-tired as he was, from being up all night.

So that was the question, Jon thought, as he made ready for his routine turn at Gila Bend back towards Yuma. At the last minute, though, he decided to go directly south on the 85. He didn’t feel like driving home just yet, although his watch was almost over.

Jon turned on the radio and listened to the pundits who hadn’t much to talk about. Obama’s win had been pretty clear.

They droned on, while Jon’s thoughts about what had happened that morning were the only noise in his head.

I regret every damn word, dammit. But …

But he didn’t feel like calling Carrie and saying he was sorry. Not yet. Even though he knew those kinds of remarks hurt her more than she let on. The problem was an insane work schedule, two kids – one of them handicapped, or so he thought of it. The only way you could sometimes carve out a niche for yourself was by being angry.

Still, it was not right. Jon decided he had to tell Carrie … something when he got home. He didn’t know what, but at least a decision had been made.

That was when he heard a loud ‘crack.’

Gunshot.

Jon hit the brakes.

The patrol car came to a stop in the middle of nowhere. There was no one but him. And no other vehicles.

But that sure as hell sounded like a gunshot …

Jon got out of the car and carefully surveyed all directions.

Nothing.

Nothing in his world now but a few cacti and the usual horde of dusty creosote bushes, and then in the distance, haze-shimmering mountains.

He was about four miles from the road fork towards Tucson, but otherwise, there were no other roads nearby. None meant for normal vehicles, anyway.

Then he heard another ‘crack.’

Instinctively, Jon ducked low at the side of the patrol car. In the next second, he had his gun ready. But there was still no one to see.

The shot, if it was that, had come to his right, he figured. It had come from somewhere from out in the sea of small, spindly desert bushes. That much he was sure of. It didn’t sound as though somebody was shooting at him in particular, but that he could definitely not be sure of.

Jon reached in through the half-open front door and pulled at the radio’s mike. “This is 477 – reporting possible firearm discharges on highway 85 at Cameron’s Tank, approximately four miles out of Ajo.”

He filled in the rest. He couldn’t see anyone. But he would stay in the area to investigate, and they would send 436 which was the nearest unit, for backup. Maybe it wasn’t needed. Maybe it was just some kids, borrowing their dad’s car, going out in the desert to have fun shooting at cans.

Jon put down the receiver and narrowed his eyes against the desert haze.

Then another ‘crack’ came. This time he was sure it was gunfire. He had heard that sound too many times.

Jon crouched quickly and crept to the tail end of the car. He had pulled it over and stepped out to the driver’s side, so he had asphalt to his back and maybe another car passing by at some point. But on the passenger side, there was just the desert.

He felt fairly sure he wasn’t the target, but he could become soon enough by accident.

It was like he had been in this situation before and the crazy thing wasn’t that he was in somebody’s line of fire. He had been that often enough.

The crazy thing was that it never seemed to stop.

The Cold Has A Voice

The Cold Has A Voice

My relationship with my step-brother is a bit complicated by the fact that he has been dead for almost 10 years, and I never got to say goodbye. Never got to say much, in fact, before it was too late because I drifted away from him busy with my own problems.

And that’s where a lot of the shame comes from. Tim always had my back when we were kids and my ‘mates’ from the class were after me.

Actually, Tim never backed down from any fight. If somebody wanted a scrap they got it. As a result, he got a lot of bruises. Also, he couldn’t back down from a provocation, and provocations were rife on that island.

After all, if you lived with a family with an immigrant unemployed step-mother (my mother) from ‘big stupid US of A’, and you had a father who slowly but surely drank himself into permanent unemployment, then you were a returning target for the McMurdo boys, Sam Cullen’s gang.

But Tim didn’t mind, it seemed. He just kicked back. He always looked unphased. Except when some of the gangs had done something to me. That made his face darken and even I got scared and asked him not to do anything about it. But the next day, of course, there was a call from the principal and some kids got to see the dentist an extra time.

He had one weakness. You see, all the older boys on western Skye at the time listened to punk or heavy metal, at the time he came to live with us because his mother had to have another “holiday” at the Royal Edinburgh.

Anyway, there was a certain sport in listening to the most outrageous stuff and in hating all the pop stuff, especially the local stuff like the Runrig boys. But in his most private moments, Timothy took a holiday himself by ratting out on all those solemn promises to be tough as nails, for all time. In Fort William’s small record store he had found a couple of pieces of vinyl, which he had bought for the money dad had given him instead of Christmas presents:

Two A-ha albums. 

I don’t know why he picked up ‘girl’s music’ in the first place. Perhaps he had planned them for a gift to indulge himself with Maire, or perhaps the opposite, when she was playing mean bitch … like making a package of them, throwing them off at her house, and writing all sorts of obscenities on it. The younger teen boys often did similar things to tease the girls, but in reality, they just wanted to connect, and the girls knew that. 

But Tim kept at least one of the pieces of vinyl. I honestly don’t know what happened to the other. It might have ended up smeared with dog food on Maire’s doorstep, or it might have gotten lost. 

The one he kept, though, was Stay On These Roads

Our rooms were just next to each other, and so, one evening when dad had gone to the pub again and my mum was over at the Munroe’s (back-talking dad most likely), and he was supposed to be looking out for me. That’s when I heard it. 

He hadn’t come out of his room all evening, and I was just sort of going into my own little coma, lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering how to avoid going to school tomorrow. That’s when I heard it:

He played the record that all the girls liked because they were crazy about this Norwegian guy with the soft voice and the big deer-like eyes. He played a particular song, over and over. 

In the end, I had to open the door and see if he was still alive. Some odd thought struck me that perhaps he wasn’t, and the record player had jammed in the same groove. Of course, that wasn’t possible, but I was only 10 or so at the time so what did I know. It would be a long time before I would get anything better than my old cassette player, especially all the money going to dad’s drinking binge. 

I didn’t open the door very much, but he saw me. I was afraid then that he was going to hit me or yell at me, but he just called me in. 

“Ye like the tune, Caroline?” he asked, lying on the bed as I had … just staring into the ceiling. We had been like mirror images all evening, it seemed, but invisible to each other all the same. 

“I like it … ” I confessed. 

“I like it, too … ” he said, still just lying there, looking into some dream and not at me or anything else in the room. “I like it … a lot.” 

He never told me why he liked it, and after that day I never heard him playing it again. I think he had gotten rid of it. And when I tried to ask him about it one time, he got angry. 

Tim moved back to his mum in Edinburgh (later Aberdeen) in the early ’90s. She had gotten better and found herself a new man. Things were in some sort of fragile control. 

But Tim still had to pick a scrap whenever he could find one. He moved to Manchester with some girlfriend in the late ’90s and got involved in more brawls than I care to count. And then he joined the army. From that point on I seldom saw him. It was bad enough that I had moved to the States and gotten lost in my own way. I tried to get in touch again at some points, half-hearted I guess. 

In 2003 Tim was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, just when his unit was coming home from patrol, and two days before they were to be sent home for good. I had barely spoken to him since the turn of the century.

One day while I was on the road in the early 00′s my mum finally managed to track me down and tell me that he had been killed …

So there I was, sitting with a needle halfway into my arm, and feeling like going all the way more than anything, but … couldn’t. It was my last fix, and I didn’t finish it.

I was ashamed for having lost contact with Tim, but also for sitting there like the derelict piece of trash I had become … while he was actually trying to do something (even if going over to that war may not have been the best thing to do—but I keep out of such discussions on principle).

And then he got killed.

Me, I was just trying to kill myself.

At least he was trying to find his way … I wasn’t. After the news of what had happened, I couldn’t do anything less than at least try.

Was it crazy of me to tell you all that? Maybe. But I’ve had to admit a lot of things since then, and it’s the only way to salvage something, isn’t it?

If you’re an addict, the first way to get clean is to admit it. 

And that’s what Tim still has to tell me even today, just as Lin has certain things to tell me. Keep salvaging.

And I feel now more than ever that Tim was my brother—my real brother. I don’t care about that ‘step’-thing. To me, he proved more than once that that was just a label.

I was ashamed for years I didn’t feel anything at his funeral, but how could I? I had drunk half a bottle of whiskey to douse the shock. They almost had to dig an extra hole for me.

So in some way, Tim kept coming back for me after he died, like that day in Miami when I got that phone call in between god-knows-how-many fixes.

I know this may sound just like post-fact rationalization, but in my heart I know I always loved my brother even though it would be years in between our talks, when I moved to the U.S., ditched college, and took to the road. And I am grateful for all the scraps he took on my behalf, back when we lived in the same house.

I’m grateful that he will always ‘stay on these roads’ for me. As long as he does that, the cold outside—and inside me— won’t really be that frightening.

For it will always have a voice … A voice I know.



In memory of Timothy McDonnell (1974-2003)

*

Last edited 26 April 2021

Like Grace From The Earth (III)

Like Grace From The Earth (III)

“Jon is gonna be so pissed.”

“Have you tried calling him again?”

“I’m working on that part.”

“I’m sure he’ll understand.”

“I know he will. But he is gonna be pissed at first.”

The new bus had come to Salton City and apparently, it was not going on from there for the next 2 hours.

“Gotta have my scheduled break,” was all the new driver had said. He was a big black man with a left eye that looked like it once had met a boxer’s fist. Ernest H – ‘Your God’ – had gone back to Bakersfield when the new bus came to pick them up at the parking lot outside Palm Springs. All the passengers were weary, but some were not too weary to complain loudly over this new, unexpected stop.

“And I’m due in Mexicali for a meeting,” a pale-looking, freckled woman of about Carrie’s age snorted but didn’t say anymore as if inviting everyone to guess how important the meeting was but not why someone who was due for an important meeting had to go to it in a Greyhound bus.

A fat Texan man in a crisp white shirt and tie argued for a long time with the new driver until he, too, had to give up to the imperatives of regulation.

“Look here,” the driver said with finality, “I’ve been going on for 10 hours until I had to pick up you lot in Palm. Do you want to be in Mexicali 2 hours later, or do you want to be in a ditch somewhere because I fell asleep behind the wheel?”

The fat Texan didn’t answer. He went out of the bus instead, growling to himself.

A dark-haired girl sitting on the first seat, on the right side of the aisle almost next to the driver, looked after the Texan. Then at the driver. She was barely a day over 18 and already visibly pregnant. She started mumbling something about why Ernest couldn’t have stayed, but the black man gave her a hard look and she kept silent.

Then he leaned back in his seat and seemed to fall asleep almost at once. Soon he snored, along with the Chuck Norris-guy from a few seats behind Anne and Carrie. ‘Chuck’ had already been snoring loudly under his cowboy hat before they stopped again. He was seemingly unaware of the new delay.

The bus emptied as people had nothing left to do but go out and wander around a new sunburnt parking lot. Only a few people, like Anne, actually had to get off at Salton City.

Carrie was standing with Anne outside the bus. Anne had no luggage besides her handbag.

“At least we’re not in the middle of the desert, although it sure looks like it,” Carrie sighed and surveyed her surroundings.

“I’m sorry that you have to wait here even longer,” Anne said. “At least I am where I’m supposed to be.”

“Yeah, I seem to get delayed a lot,” Carrie said.

Anne smiled knowingly but said nothing.

“Now that you are here, perhaps you would like to follow me to my ‘motel’. It is just down at the end of that road there, close to the Salton Sea.”

Carrie looked at the lonely, faded sign: ‘Marina Drive’, it said. There were only a few scattered houses along the ‘drive’, they mostly looked abandoned. And then there was just the desert and the small, dried-out bushes and scattered cacti. She couldn’t see any ‘marina’ anywhere, much less water.

“What kind of motel does one stay at in this place?” Carrie asked.

“A private one,” Anne said and smiled. “I have a good, old friend, Mr. Rubensford – Charlie. He moved into part of the old motel down there – back in 1987.”

“Oh … “ Carrie said.

“There’s a Mexican family staying in one of the other rooms,” Anne said. “Apart from that, I think it’s empty. Unless someone new moved in recently.”

“Abandoned … to squatters,” Carrie mumbled to herself. But Anne heard it:

“I would hardly call Mr. Rubensford a ‘squatter’, honey.”

“Sorry. But he is not – I mean is he and you – “

Anne smiled mischievously: “What if we were? Who said that you had to give up the little pleasures in life, just because you are not fifty anymore?”

Carrie felt like the sun had already burned her, although they had only been outside for maybe 5 minutes.

“Maybe I’d better walk you to your motel,” she said.

“May you’d better.” Anne smiled again.

Then began trotting along down the cracked, deserted ‘Marina Drive’. After a little while, Carrie thought she heard something that sounded like surf.

*

Carrie had barely heard of Salton City. Now she was here. And whatever she had heard, it was very different from what she had imagined.

The town was developed in the 1950s as a resort community on the Salton Sea, Anne explained in her low, soft voice. Yet very little development was achieved due to its isolation and lack of local jobs. In the 1970s, most of the buildings were abandoned.

Carrie and Anne strolled quietly down ‘Marina Drive’, passing scattered husks that had once been houses and where it was far from certain anyone had ever lived. So far Carrie had only seen a few trailers, parked here and there, which seemed to be inhabited.

Suddenly Carrie spotted something else, though.

“Hmm – that place over there looks a bit like a casino,” she said, nodding towards a large, flat-roofed building with several rusting neon signs on the facade. The building seemed to have sunk a few inches down in the sand as every year had worn by since the 1950s.

It could have been one of Salton’s larger hotels, for all Carrie knew, but it was clear that nobody had been living there for decades. The crushed glass in the tall, narrow windows stood out like broken teeth in the gaping maw of a corpse. She couldn’t help staring at them.

“Have you ever been to a casino?” Anne asked and broke Carrie’s reverie.

“Uh, yeah … kind of.”

“Was it exciting?”

Carrie looked down: “I worked in one up in Nevada, near Vegas … kind of a ‘waitress in a cocktail bar’-thing, you know. But not for very long.”

“I wonder if I’d win,” Anne mused. “I have never really felt lucky like that.”

“I don’t believe in luck,” Carrie said. “I always had that feeling that it was just a bad excuse. But I always wanted to believe – that if people made something of something, then it was luck. Crazy huh?”

“A little, yes. Most of the time, when people make something of something it is more work than chance. Except in the casinos, I expect.”

“But then there’s skill …” Carrie knitted her brow, tried to find the right words “ – you can work hard and still don’t make something of anything! Although I’ve heard that some people who are good at counting cards and stuff can do well in a casino … ”

“Perhaps,” Anne reflected. “But it depends on what you want to make. I never made much money in Germany, but I still made something for myself. What is ‘counting cards’?”

“Well, it’s like … some people just have trained themselves to count … cards. So they know exactly where a particular card will be – in whose hand – during the game. A big advantage when you’re to decide if you’re gonna fold or play on.” She ended the explanation in a mutter: “Me, I never learned to count cards …”

“What, honey?”

Instead of answering Carrie just looks straight ahead, towards the still invisible Salton Sea that is supposed to be at the end of the road:

“God … this place is really empty. – Do you realize there’s so much of America that’s just … empty. Abandoned, like … people just tried to make something of it and then … they gave up?” She could not hold back a small, joyless laugh: “Not the kind of America they advertize, huh?”

“Maybe they didn’t give up,” Anne suggested, in earnest. “Maybe they moved to that other America?”

Carrie stopped: “Other?”

“The one they advertise.”

“Ha-ha,” Carrie said. “ … Where?”

Anne shrugged: “New York. San Francisco. The big city. I have been to New York many times. I like it a lot, but I don’t think I could live there. It is so busy.”

“Yeah, me neither … ” Carrie muttered.

Suddenly she felt like dropping to a hunching position. They had come to another crossing, with only one, lonely wind-worn house at the corner. It had no roof anymore, or the roof had simply collapsed. In front of the house was a big garden of sand, which had been neatly fenced in. The fence was sunburnt white and the paint had fallen off almost everywhere. A few still lay in the sand, looking like big ragged snowflakes

Carrie took up one of the paint flakes, then looked up again, down the road. There was still no sign of the sea and Carrie didn’t think she could hear it anymore:

“Are you ok, honey?” Anne asked slowly.

“Anne … what exactly is it you would like to photograph around here? This place is so full of loneliness.”

Anne said: “If nothing else then I will photograph the loneliness, then. Then I can sell it to people who want a picture of that to look at when they are losing their minds in, say, an apartment in the most crowded part of Manhattan.”

She laughed a little too loud, as she said this, but there was no doubt that she had meant well – if not for the stressed inhabitants of New York, then for Carrie.

Carrie knew this and tried to suppress an involuntary smile.

Anne pulled out a camera from her small, black bag. It was a Polaroid camera that looked several decades old: “ – And I can take a picture of you if you allow?”

“Of me?!” Carrie almost gasped “That’ll be … no, that won’t be any good.”

Anne cast her glance down. “Of course not,” she said quietly.

Carrie bit her lip: “I mean … I don’t exactly look my best now and, you know, out here – in this … ghost of a town. You could not sell that to anyone in New York!”

“Well,” Anne started, taking her time. “I think photos, where people look their best, are redundant. I like people who look like people and places that look like places … Real places.”

Carrie was still weighing the crumpled paint flake in her hand: “I dunno … Maybe … ”

“Are you sure you shouldn’t call Jon, Carrie?” Anne sounded worried now.

Carrie suddenly dropped the ‘snowflake’ and looked right up at Anne:

“Do you really think it would be a good picture?”

“Yes.”

Carrie began getting on her feet. “Okay then. Where do you want me?”

“Just sit down again,” Anne said, now with a calm that seemed like it had been honed a thousand times. She readied the camera with her thin, wrinkled hands displaying a surprising nimbleness and firmness at the same time.

“‘kay … ” Carrie said and hunched down again, hesitantly.

There was a click. Just one.

Anne pulled something from the camera, waved it slightly in the warm air, then held it and waited. She looked pleased with the result.

“Crap – I didn’t smile did I?” Carrie blurted.

“You did.” Anne handed Carrie the Polaroid.

“Wow … a real Polaroid,” Carrie said, turning the photo very carefully in her hand. “ – Been ages since I saw one of those.”

“You look … grown up,” Anne commented. “That is good.”

“’Grown up?’ Ha-ha, I was on my knees … but maybe that’s how most grown-ups live?” Carrie said, not caring to hide the bitterness she suddenly felt welling up inside.

“Look at the little lines around your eyes,” Anne continued, unperturbed. “You look like you are thinking, I think.”

“I was … yeah I was … ” Suddenly Carrie felt the tears. She wiped them angrily away. “Maybe we should get going? There’s the bus and … it’s awfully hot out here … Awfully hot … ”

“Well, there is no negative,” Anne said softly. “So if you don’t like it you can throw it out and no one will know.”

Carrie turned the photo again, looking at it very closely. There were furrows all over her brow now. At last, she said:

“Don’t … throw it out – but don’t give it to anyone neither, just … keep it.”

Anne didn’t say any more. She just handed Carrie the plastic water bottle. Carrie suddenly remembered that she was very thirsty and drank hard. The water was, predictably, very luke-warm, though, but she drank a lot of it, still. Finally, she wiped her mouth, came to her feet.

“I think you should keep the picture,” Anne said.

“But – ”

“It is only about 1 dollar,” Anne said before Carrie could protest – “ so don’t get too excited.”

Carrie smiled slightly: “Seriously,” she then said, “ – I’m not a good motif for any picture, Anne. It’s just … just … I should’ve gone much farther.”

“What are you talking about?” Anne asked gently.

Carrie shrugged and began walking again as if she felt uncomfortable standing in the crossing. Anne followed, at her side.

Carrie tried to collect the right words, but it was difficult. It was difficult because he had never really tried before. Finally, they came, though. Not the right words, she felt, but just the words that she needed:

“After college – I mean after I dropped out – I did some pretty idiotic things. Drugs, actually. A little … and there were those men … and a lot of … a lot of drifting. I could’ve gone on to draw like a pro, like my brother-in-law. I could’ve stayed in law school. I could’ve done a zillion things.”

“But you didn’t,” Anne said.

Carrie breathed deeply. The desert air was dry and awfully warm:

“No, I did not. I just went down the drain … and wasted time. And time is precious. I know it sounds ridiculous to someone like you, Anne, because … you probably expect me to have lots of time. But what if I don’t?”

“What if you do? That is almost worse.”

“Then it’s still wasted … ” Carrie said harshly as if this was a conclusion she had long since come to. “ – Ten years that’ll never come back. How do I make up for that?

“You don’t,” Anne said. “But I am not sure they are wasted. How did you meet Jon? Why are you on this bus? Why do you help those immigrants? Are those things not to be counted, too, when you look back upon those ten years?”

“They are … I guess …”

“So it is not all bad,” Anne concluded. “Apart from the awful bus, I mean.”

“Yeah …” Carrie smiled weakly. Then she suddenly stopped again:

“Oh – ”

Carrie and Anne had come to an empty parking lot, just before the motel.

Here Marina Drive ended, and indeed there was a marina. It had fallen into decay years ago, but it was clear what the builders had intended. Before them was the Salton Sea, shimmering in the sunlight. Carrie had not even noticed it, so busy had she been following the lines in the cracked, scorched pavement while thinking hard about what to say.

At the far end of the marina, there was the old motel. Its walls were burnt pale, too, after decades of sun and no paint or maintenance, but there were whole windows in the part of the building that loomed closest to the water. It was possible to sit in that room and look out onto the marina, and once, there had been many boats to look at.

“So this is your ‘hotel’?” Carrie said.

“It is.”

“Do you think Charles is home?”

“It doesn’t look like he is here right now,” Anne said and narrowed her eyes a little as if she tried to see from where they stood if there was anyone inside. “Anyway, he knows I’m coming, so I’ll just wait. He’ll come back.”

Carrie wasn’t really listening. She looked out over the lonely Salton Sea that had just seemed to come up in front of them, to relieve the sight of the endless desert and the abandoned houses.

“You know,” Carrie mused “ … that’s got to be the only big body of water in this desert. And yes, because it is here, it is not really a desert. At least not the way I think of deserts. Hey, do you think it’d make a good photo?”

“Possibly,” Anne said. “Depends on your eye.” She took the camera and placed it in Carrie’s hand.

Carrie held the camera a bit. It felt big and slightly awkward compared to her slim digital camera. Or at least how she remembered its feeling. The digital camera – a birthday present from Jon’s brother – was in a drawer somewhere back in Yuma.

“So?” Anne asked cautiously. “Do you want to?”

Carrie nodded: “Yeah … just gotta … just gotta find the right focus.”

She turned the old camera in her hands, then held it up.

Then she pressed her finger, slowly, down on the photo button.

Like Grace From The Earth (II)

Like Grace From The Earth (II)

The bus was going nowhere – again. Another problem with the engine, Ernest growled from his driver’s throne. Carrie went out the bus and over the parking lot for more water.

There was a McDonalds at the other end. Most of the others went out, too. But Carrie came back in again. It was like entering an oven. She tapped the air condition. It was as dead as the engine. The old woman – Anne – didn’t seem affected, though. Not yet.

“Sorry if it’s not too cold,” Carrie said and handed Anne her plastic bottle. “It looked as if the fridge in there wasn’t working properly.”

“Thank you, honey,” Anne said and drank.

“Damn,” Carrie muttered under her breath. “Jon’s not gonna think the world of me if I come late back to Yuma again. He’s drowning in work these days and first Emma had the flu and Michael – “

“The bus will probably be going again soon,” Anne says quietly. “I don’t think you will be too badly delayed. Was he very upset when you called?”

“No … in fact he sounded very calm about it. But that’s usually a sign … that he is biting on something.”

“He has a temper, your Jon? Some men do.”

“You know,” Carrie said, very still, as she sat down again “ – he is so controlled, at home – usually. But then there are these small eruptions … like he’s holding something back. God, it would be easier if I had a job … then the bargaining would be more equal, if you know what I mean?”

Anne nodded, while looking out the window. The carpark off the highway was almost empty. “It is important to feel equal,” she then said. “Even if you’re not. Hans and I used to fight a lot.”

“What did you fight about?”

Read More Read More

Like Grace From The Earth

Like Grace From The Earth

A blond woman in her early 30s scrambled to make the bus before the door closed. She wore old jeans, t-shirt, short jacket, and carried a rucksack. Her hair was slightly messy and thin lines were showing under her eyes. It was a desolate Greyhound station in Bakersfield, California.

She got into the bus and thought that she had to hold on to something, because they would be driving any time now. The bus did not move. So the woman began looking for her seat instead. All the time checking her ticket which, it seemed, she had great difficulty in reading.

She found an empty seat – it was one of two in the entire bus. On the seat beside it an old lady was seated already. She had completely white-gray hair and was dressed in a blue nylon dress that looked at least 30 years old.

The dress also looked noble in a strange kind of way, the young woman thought. Then she thought about her troubles again:

“ … this ticket is unreadable,” the young woman mumbled. “Is … is this seat taken?”

“No, it is not,” the old lady answered. She had a faint accent.

The young woman sighed deeply: “Oh, thank god … I’ll just have to move if somebody comes around. But there should be at least one seat for me in this bus.”

“Of course there is,” the old lady said. I have taken the bus many times. So many never show up. You will be fine.”

“With my luck,” the younger woman said, “it’s probably Mr. Texas Ranger down there.” She nodded at a red-haired Chuck Norris-type, slouched in his seat a little further down the aisle, seemingly guarding the only other remaining empty seat in the bus. “But I’m not gonna go and ask him… not until I have to.” She smiled hesitantly.

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Warriors

Warriors

1986 – Wilmington, Southern Los Angeles


That was then …
 *

“Admit it, David—you saw your no-good brother steal that car.”

Gray light filtered into the room, and the smoke from the Detective’s cigarette seemed to add to the general murk in his coffin-sized office. David Reese did not look up. He already knew very well what he would see and he did not wish to see those small, cold eyes of Detective Felt.

In fact, none of the kids who were caught by Harvey Felt wished to ever sit in The Chair again—or the ‘Electric Chair’ as his colleagues referred to it, exchanging knowing glances over their stale coffee when he hauled a new underage suspect into his office for questioning.

The A/C had broken long ago and the smell of old cigarette buds from the pool of ash in Felt’s mud-brown tray at the center of his metal desk appeared to have seeped into every nook and cranny on the wallpaper. It seemed as well to have seeped into the ruffled papers sticking out from black file folders, and even into Felt’s half-open shirt. He didn’t seem to care—about that or anything else except getting another little trophy.

David had to fight himself not to hyperventilate, to look calm.

Fight, fight, fight …

“Come on, David,” Felt pressed, with the same determination as a construction worker turning a screw until it absolutely cannot be tightened anymore. “– Jonathan does not deserve your loyalty. You were the lookout. You saw everything. It’s that simple. Admit it.”

“I didn’t see shit …” David said, arms still crossed tight, eyes still locked on the floor.

“You’re lying!”

“I’m not lying—!”

Felt heaved himself up from his creaking chair. He walked past the desk to look David directly in the eyes.

“Well, kid, you might not be lying but you sure as hell ain’t tellin’ the truth!”

Felt’s fat sweaty hand suddenly clamped down hard on David’s shoulder. He leaned very close to David, who stared hard at the dirty carpet on the floor.

“—You think you know what it’s like to be tough,” Felt rasped. “You think you can come in here and just shrug because you’re underage. Well, I got news for you, sonny. Your brother’s going to prison. He already got a record. And you saw him take that car because you were watching out for him – weren’t you?”

“I didn’t see anything,” David repeated, clenching his teeth.

“Oh, didn’t you?” Felt growled, leaning so close David could smell that he had been drinking something. It smelled like his father’s breath too often did.
Felt was keenly aware of David’s edginess. He smiled a bit: “I know a liar when I see one, David. Your brother stole that car and that’s why we caught him running away from it, after the chase.”

“It was Sim,” David tried again.

“So you keep sayin’ … So you keep sayin’…” Felt shrugged, but not as if he meant anything by it. Then his voice grew colder: “Sim was nowhere near that car. Otherwise, we would’ve caught him, too, don’cha think?”

“What do I know what you think I think?”

“Don’t play smart with me, boy!”

“I’m not. I’m telling the truth. My brother didn’t steal that car.”

“He did. And you saw it all on your little guard post and if you don’t admit it—David, I’m not sure you fully appreciate the consequences. You see, you already got quite a record, too.”

“I know.”

“You should. He’s heading for prison next. This is what he deserves. He got a lot of chances because he was young but this time he is going to do time.”

“He didn’t steal that car!”

If Felt noticed this peep from David, he didn’t show it. He lit another cigarette and thoughtfully watched the first few skull-like wisps of smoke dissipate:

“He did steal the car, David. And you know it because you were there to make sure he got away with it.”

“I was not. And you can’t prove I was!”

Felt looked like he was going to laugh so hard he could have swallowed his stinking cigarette. Unfortunately, David thought, he didn’t.

“We got ourselves plenty of circumstantial evidence, kid. Too bad you didn’t see that guard – Mr. Shrum – at the laundry, or perhaps you had forgotten to check this time? Well, he was there. The whole time – saw you loitering at that corner where you got a nice and clean view of the street before Mr. Barnham’s house. Nice and clean, yeah—for exactly 15 minutes before your brother jerked the car door open, did his little trick with the ignition, and drove away. All professional, I might say. He sure has the expertise.”

“I had to … get some laundry for my dad.”

“Your old man doesn’t use a laundry this far away, does he? There are plenty closer to his dump in South Bay than—but then again, I guess he is too busy to get his pants cleaned, isn’t he? We’ve been trying for two hours now to get hold of him.”

“He’s working.”

“On a Saturday afternoon? Kid, you fucking crack me up!”

David closed his eyes. He knew the noose was tightening. He could almost feel it. Like the stinging smoke from Felt’s Marlboros became solid, entwined itself around his throat.

He could be defiant all he wanted to. Felt wasn’t going anywhere and neither was he. But he was not going to say anything that could get Jon into prison. Maybe Jon had been caught too many times. Maybe Jon was old enough to get a more severe sentence. What did David know? He never cared shit for that. He just wanted Jon to … well, not to leave him at home, he guessed. Not that dad beat him or anything. Well, maybe once or twice, but then again, they had been pretty stupid to play around that huge, rusty oil pump. They had gotten what they deserved, hadn’t they?

It had been before he was old enough to take to the streets with Jon. It had been when their best, most dangerous time together was at the pump. They first used to pretend the oil pump jack near their house was a dinosaur, and sometimes it would make noise and even sound like a dinosaur.

And the monster had to be challenged: So they would jump the chain-link fence around the oil pump jack, next to their yard, and then head over to the pump and put discarded beer bottles on the platform and wait for one of the arms to crush it. Once they had come out and saw that a dog had been squashed under there.

It had been David’s first meeting with death. He dreamed about the pinkish-bloody guts, spilled out from the stomach of the skinny street mutt for the better part of a month. His second meeting came a day or so after when he slipped and he would’ve been squashed, too, if Jon had not caught him by the jacket and pulled him to the side. He had dreamed about that for longer. He had cried out because when you are five years old such dreams don’t go away by themselves.

Only Jon had been there to talk to him, all the times when he couldn’t sleep.

Dad had been out.

“Just take your time, David,” he heard Felt’s voice say, from somewhere that suddenly seemed far away. “I know it’s hard, but your brother doesn’t deserve your protection. And I would hate to see you taken away from your father but I’m afraid if you insist on being stubborn, there’s not much more I can do for you.”

David felt it again: The tightening around the throat, but he was not going to tell on Jon. Maybe Jon had done something stupid. However, his brother was not going to prison. He was not.

David had often wondered what it felt like to be ready to die and to have made a decision so steadfast that if you had to go through with it then you would surely die.

“…counselor might blabber otherwise. But don’t think that he’s gonna help—”

Felt’s combination of threats and bait seemed to recede even more. Perhaps it was all as it should be. If he was going to be taken away from home because he didn’t want to tell on Jon or because of something else that Felt had on him, real or invented, did anything matter anymore?

Not words, certainly. He should have been listening attentively, trying to find some way out—some clue in what Felt was saying to how he could get out of this one without betraying Jon. There wasn’t any and he knew it. There was just the tightening around his neck.

It wasn’t a particularly cool way to end his youth. It wasn’t as in those tales dad would sometimes come up with (or cook up?) when hard-pressed, when he was in one of his less depressive moods.

… About how grandmother had been a real Cherokee and how they all had real warrior’s blood in them. It was hard to trust, though, wasn’t it? He had never met grandmother, either, and she seemed as much a fairytale creature to him as anyone. They had left Louisiana and mother when he was only three years old because of the break-up.

They had ended up here in Wilmington, living next to a monster of an oil pump. They were close to the Pacific and he loved going down to the harbor, just sit and watch the water, trying to imagine what it would be like to go all the way to the horizon. He wished it were visible from their house, which was less than a mile away, but from his and Jon’s bedroom window the sea was obscured by cranes, factory pipes, and the towers of rusty freighters.

However, when he was old enough he would stow away on a ship. That was the plan.
He wasn’t sure why it had to be the plan, only that he needed to do it, because it would get him away from Wilmington. He hadn’t even overheard tales from the sailors or anything like that. There was just a strong sense in David that … something awaited out there, which was better, than whatever he could find in L.A. He didn’t even consider going overland instead, because to him it was just desert or prairie, maybe mountains, and when it wasn’t that it was just another big city that he imagined would be like this one. But the places he couldn’t imagine, on the other side of the ocean, they allowed him to hope exactly because he didn’t know what they would be like.

He would fight for his chance to get on one of those ships—one day. In fact, if you didn’t know what it was like to fight, how could you be anyone else but John Reese – blowing your rather generous harbor worker paycheck on the booze, the horses on the Alamitos racetrack and sometimes on those women but seldom on a new pair of shoes for your 13-year old son?

“—You know that your loyalty shouldn’t be with that brother of yours … “

Something dawned in David’s mind, as Felt’s repetitions now became completely opaque, like the ghostly smoke that now seemed to permanently glue to the big, fat detective, wherever he paced back and forth in the room. Strange … David had never seen it so clearly until now: His father was an okay man, maybe.

But he was not a fighter.

David could be a fighter, though. He could somehow delete that part of their family record, which felt heavier in his heart than any record Felt had on him. He could throw out an invisible line to grandmother whose tribe had had that clash with the police when they were to be moved to a poorer reservation and who had almost died herself when the cops beat her and did who knows what afterward.

He could be like grandfather, who had quit his job in that store that sold goods to the tribe at the border and then taken her to his home in Lafayette to start over. He could be like his great-grandfather who came from a white family that had owned the largest number of slaves in Louisiana until 1865 and had some prominent members of the Klan after that, but who now didn’t hesitate to supply the mixed couple with money.

Yes, there were all kinds of warriors in his family. Maybe dad invented a part of it. Maybe dad didn’t really know all of it, but—David decided right there and then—some of it was truth. And he wanted to continue that truth.

Even if he had to make it up.

He only just managed to relish that last thought, the warmth it gave him when he suddenly looked straight into Felt’s puffy, unshaven kisser. The police officer had obviously lost patience and had now grabbed both handles of the ‘Electric Chair’, right in front of David, like a big wall of sweaty skin and cigarette breath.

“You’re not listening to what I’m saying’, David Reese.”

“I … am.”

“No, you are not and that – ” his bloodshot eyes suddenly became slightly, awkwardly sympathetic “ – that is not a good thing, because if you are not listening you are not cooperating and if you are not cooperating then I can’t help you anymore. One last chance:
Tell me how you saw your brother steal that Chevy Nova. Then you can go home. ”

Suddenly it was all clear.

Somewhere in the distance, somewhere outside the bars of the nicotine-greased blinders, he could not see the hard contours of the nearby concrete blocks stand out against the decaying sunlight anymore.

He could not see the jagged silhouettes of the harbor cranes, like dead metal trees along the docks.

He could not hear the constant whooshes of cars droning by out on Gibson Boulevard.

He could not feel the hardness of the ‘Electric Chair’, nor the spindly, stinking smoke from Felt’s cigarettes.

Only one thing was clear:

Along a creek, somewhere … perhaps back in Louisiana, although he had been too young to remember, there was a man, looking for something in the water.

David saw him clearly now. The man was a Cherokee.

The man stood up, turned, and … looked straight at David.

“I did it,” David then said. “I stole the car.”

Felt’s eyes narrowed. For a long time he said nothing, then:

“You can’t drive.”

“I can. Do you want to see me do it?”

“You were on the lookout. The laundry guard saw you.”

“He saw shit. I know where I was. He didn’t see what I was doing after we went across the street and took that car. Jon … wasn’t with me, but we planned to meet up later. I did it for him. And we met up where we agreed to.”

“Jonathan was caught running away from that fine old Chevy – only one block away from it. The patrol car had spotted it 10 seconds before it spotted him. We found some of his ‘tools’ in the car.”

“I borrowed them.”

“Bullshit … The officers didn’t see you at all – before they caught you in the other street, right after big bro had been netted. You were running for home.”

“I was running away from the car – but in the opposite direction. Do you think we’re stupid?!”

“I don’t know what to think: So you’re saying your brother was not in the car – at all. He was waiting for you to ditch it? Bullshit. Even if you had been able to drive that car there would at least have been prints and – ”

Something snapped inside David: “I was wearing mittens, you f– !” he blurted. “ – I always wear mittens!”

Felt looked as if he was an executioner just about to swing the ax and then the pathetic sod on the scaffold had pulled a yellow rabbit out of his ass.

Once again, he leaned very close to David, and now some ancestral part of David Reese was not in doubt anymore. Those reddish veins, clawing at the rim of Felt’s eyeballs, were the same that a Lakota squaw had seen in the bloodshot eyes of a US cavalryman at Wounded Knee before the soldier had put a bullet through her head and thought no more of it.

“Awright, kid,” Felt concluded chillingly: “You insist on taking the blame for your no-good brother, I’ll make sure you take the blame – even though your testimony is all over the place. You see, I don’t believe in self-sacrifice. I only believe in consequences. And you might as well get a preview …”

***

Yuma, Arizona

This is now…

“And what exactly are you trying to tell me with that story … officer?”

Jonathan Reese had heard the word ‘officer’ pronounced many times, but seldom with so much venom as what the young fellow in front of him had just spit out.

It was a blisteringly hot day in Yuma as if the heat was cutting into your skin; same as when you come too close to an open oven. It had not been nearly as hot that day, Jon thought – that day almost 25 years ago, in a dark office of a bitter police detective looking for a way, any way, to choke his brother without actually touching him. After all, weeds had better be killed before they grow bigger, hadn’t they?

Jonathan Reese didn’t see David Guerrero as a ‘weed’, though.

On the contrary, the 19-something Latino was handsome by any standard, if perhaps a bit on the slick side. His faded red t-shirt and tattered jeans betrayed his position in the hierarchy, though, but that’s the way it was with all of the youngsters who stayed here in town, wasn’t it?

If you were of a mixed family, was there any more hope for you than if you had risked your life digging your way in – somewhere under that 600-mile fence that separated the US from another world?

No, David Guerrero had no semblance to David Reese, except in name. It had definitely not been so hot that day in Wilmington, he was sure, or … maybe it had been, if only in that particular room where the questioning had taken place.

There were many things his brother had not told him about that day. There were many things about that particular period of their lives Dave would probably never talk about, and

Jon would always have to try not to think too hard about what he would say if Dave ever opened up about it.

Jon leaned back in his ergonomically designed office chair. It was new and the leather was clean; it would, he hoped, be enough to keep his back working for ten years more. Five would also be okay.

“I’m not trying to ‘tell you’ anything, David,” he then said. “You make of my ‘story’ what you will …”

“Hey – aren’t you supposed to be off-duty now, Officer Reese?” David Guerrero asked, and again there was acid in each syllable.

“I’m supposed to at least try to do my job,” Jonathan said. “And that means taking whatever time I think is necessary to prevent young men such as you from going down the wrong lane. I don’t want to see you in prison, David.”

“I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Haven’t you?”

“Hey – you got nothing on me, man.”

“Was that an admission?”

“It was an admission that I’d like to go now … officer.”
Jonathan leaned slightly forward, his hands resting on the desk he had cleared half an hour ago, when Joyce had told him David Guerrero was here, asking about his brother who was in custody.

“I know what you are doing … out there,” Jonathan said quietly. “But yes, I don’t have anything to charge you with yet, and even if I had I might want to give you another chance like my brother once gave me a second chance.”

“He did time—for you?”

“He was too young, but he went to juvenile hall for half a year. Felt saw to it, even though there were many counselors who didn’t believe his little lie, either. But Felt was the kind of man you didn’t play the hero in front of.”

“Your hermano got taken away from home?”

“Oh, yeah – and our father was furious. I guess he finally woke up—and he was not the only one.”

For long seconds David Guerrero did not say anything. Then, without blinking, he concluded:

“Those kinds of fairy stories don’t really do nothing for me, man. Can I go now?”
Jonathan felt something strain across his eyes:

“Yes, David – you can go now.”

The young Latino got up, swiftly, as if he had something to do before everything closed down for a siesta. At the office door, he seemed to change his mind. He turned slightly:

“You know, Officer Reese: Suppose you had gone to the slammer because your little brother had squealed on you for boosting that car …”

“Suppose I had?”

David Guerrero shrugged as if it didn’t really matter, but the triumph in his smile said everything.

“Just saying … what does your brother do now, by the way?”

“Since you ask. He is a writer.”

“Really?” David Guerrero looked as if he wanted to roll his eyes but thought the better of it. “And what does he do to make a buck?”

“Dave … does the cleaning at a medical research lab. Nights. In Philadelphia.”

“—He does that, eh? And you get paid shit for sitting here after 6 PM and talking to guys like me when you are not out at the border trying to shoot drug dealers – or avoid getting shot yourself. Oh, wow … you two sure got it made.”

Then he briefly fondled the golden chain around his wrist; the chain Jon had not asked him about. Not this time. And then David Guerrero was gone. The door to the hallway at the Yuma police station was still open.

Jon did not go after him. He punched the space bar on his laptop and the screen came alive again.

Then he opened the next file on the next young man, who, he knew, would soon be sent in here, like David Guerrero, and say the same things and go out again, not giving a damn until it was too late, just looking forward to telling all his friends about the ‘fucking stupid cop’. It would never stop.

But he fought on.

—-
With gratitude to Michael Shrum.

Last edited 20 November 2013

When The Moment Arrives

When The Moment Arrives

I didn’t think she’d come. And frankly, I didn’t know if I wanted her to come.

But now – when the flight from Houston is actually marked as “landed” on the screen up there … now it is for real. In about 30 minutes, max, she is going to walk through those doors and back into my life. And I’m still not sure if that’s the right thing – for both of us … Can a 15-year black hole in a friendship be mended just like that?

In the years that have passed, I’ve thought like crazy about the ‘why’. Yeah, she got married, with kids and all like the rest of us … but that wasn’t the entire explanation. And whatever it was, to me it was ultimately betrayal. After the accident, everybody said I was not to blame, but in their hearts, they felt I should be blamed. ‘Two careless kids playing on the cliffs … ‘ – that’s what they thought. One chases after another. And suddenly the world ends as we know it.

Few people stop to wonder why there is a chase, to begin with, perhaps because they don’t want to acknowledge that kids can be so cruel to each other. ‘It’s a period of innocence, don’t spoil the picture …’ But Siné said she trusted me – that she would always be my friend – even after I locked myself inside myself, after coming home from the hospital. All the more reason it hurt like a knife twisted in your gut when she stopped writing – only a few months after we had fled from Scotland, back to a Cleveland family that didn’t really want mum to return.

And now … do I want her, to step through those doors?

It’s moot, isn’t it? I can’t just butt out now. No, I have to go through with it, but after weeks of thinking, I still don’t know how I will go through with it. The first part is forgiveness, isn’t it? And how do we go about that? ‘Uh, I’m glad that you found me on Facebook and that we got all talking again and all, but I really still have a problem with the way you just cut me off back in ‘95. But hey – let’s go have a cappuccino and talk it over.’

After she ‘friended’ me on Facebook and we began talking again, we haven’t even touched on this, not in any mails, messages, nothing – just pretended, I guess, that it wasn’t so important. We were teenagers. Lifetime ago, right? But it was all the time like a dead man buried in a garden, we all knew he was there and that we had to dig him up and now we’ve decided to meet in the garden and we have to do it. Don’t we? Maybe I should have told her how I felt about the past before I said ‘Oh, so you and your husband are staying in Houston with some of his business pals? Well, Texas is not so far away from Arizona … you could drop by, just for a few days … ‘

Why do you always end up agreeing to such things, out of politeness or whatever, way before you get to talk about all the essential stuff? I mean, I really can’t – I just can’t imagine giving her an honest hug, even if … well, I just can’t imagine that. Because we have to clear that dead man out first, get him properly cremated before we can move on. But what exactly does she have to do before I can forgive her?

15 years … I’m never going to get past those years …

“Carrie?”

Oh, my … there she is, behind those two black mamas …

“Siné – over here!”

There she is … small green bag, flung over her shoulder; her short, blonde hair slightly faded but still looks soft; a little plumper around the belly and hips; a few more thin lines under the eyes, but her face still … shining like a bright spring day. All of that and a blitz of memories about secret curled-up paper messages under our school desk; salt-water sprints in our faces as we raced our little dinghy out to the island on the far side of the bay; Girl Guide campfire tales until the wee hours … and when we got older: Taking beautiful, aching pride in being ‘lonely together’ on school prom nights while Steve Tyler sang about why it was all so ‘Amaaazing’.

I still have to forgive her, though.

She walks towards me, slowly, perhaps sensing my hesitation.

“It’s good … ta see ye again,” she tries.

I still have to forgive her. She owes me an explanation. We have to get it sorted out.

“It’s good to see you again, too … Siné.” It doesn’t sound better when I try to say it …

She then tries a smile in return … but I can see that it’s about to die before it even comes alive on her lips. All my fault, I know, because I’m standing here, frozen as a corpse, hands glued to my side. This is already going so bad. I should never …

“Ye’ve not … changed much,” she then says, voice thin as a gossamer thread, probably sensing that her own worst fears are already coming to pass. “- Well, except ye’ve got that funny Southern accent now … ” A new smile to go with that statement …

For a moment neither of us make a move.

Then she drops her bag, opens her arms. They tremble a bit.

… And I fall into them.

*

I think I shivered like I had been ill or something … or maybe it was her. Or maybe I cried. Or we both did …  Or maybe … we just stood there clutching each other tightly, jabbering incoherently, completely ignoring the heavy-weightlifter from Tampa commenting loudly behind us why the two “whiny chicks didn’t just clear the aisle …. ?”

Maybe because we didn’t need to dig up the dead man anymore.

*

Last updated: 9 Feb 2016

In Spite Of Dreams

In Spite Of Dreams

“I can’t believe it! How can she just… ask me that – after all these years?!”

Jon’s expression is a study in puzzlement. “Why can’t she ask you what?”

I shrug angrily.  “You know…!”

Some things don’t bear repeating, especially not to my husband.

“I ‘know’….?”

Jon raises both eyebrows in that charmingly innocently inquisitive way that completely diverts attention from the fact that my hubby supports himself – and me – by arresting people who crawl over fences and try not to get shot.

Maybe it’s a good ability for police work as well as marriages.

“Just forget it, hon.”

“Right… “

He hoists himself up from the old armchair – with such a mock effort that he almost knocks over the stale red wine on the small table. He hasn’t really touched it.

I thought we were going to have a romantic evening. Of sorts.

Jon walks over to peek out the window, hands clasped behind his back as if he was about to return to his real work of making some really groundbreaking astronomical observations.

There’s enough to observe, actually; the stars come out by the thousands here in the burning Arizona night. Too bad none of them ever seem to be lucky.

“It’s just… ” I start and then choke on my words.

He turns instantly. “Just what?”

“It’s been 15 years, Jon… !“

“So?”

“’So’?!

“Wasn’t she your best friend back in school? I remember when you told me about, back on Skye, that you and her – “

“I told you a few things about that. Enough.”

He nods carefully, licks his lips a little.

“Okaay… maybe you should tell me why you brought this up? I thought we we’re going to get a little… ”

He nods towards the wine and then seems to remember that he hasn’t really touched it because he was actually longing for beer, driving all the way home along with that flood of dust that they call a road out here.

I just shake my head and down my third glass. I don’t have a problem with the choice of drinks for the night and I’m not going to go get a beer from the fridge and put it on the table now just. It’s Friday night for crying out loud. If he wants to get something from me he has to play it my way – just a bit.

Not even sure I’m in the mood any longer, though. Somehow it just came out while we were talking about something completely different. That thing with Siné…

… And the air in here feels like it’s venting from a toaster.

“You know, a lot can happen in 15 years, Carrie…and that’s just normal.”

Ah! Sermon time. There are things I both love and hate about Jon. This is one of them.

He drops down in the far end of the sofa where I sit as if to keep some sort of tactical distance. “By the way, I met Tim Wilkes the other day,” he suddenly informs. ” – Did I tell you that?”

“No? Tim who – oh, that Tim!”

“Yeah, can you believe it? I almost stumbled into him right outside the station. 2 seconds later and he’d have passed by – for a meeting. He didn’t look a day older, I tell you.”

“So… what had he done in all those days that hadn’t passed for him, but only for the rest of us?”

“Haha – wouldn’t you like to know, beautiful?”

He comes over, just for a sec, kisses me on my forehead. Then he’s back in his corner. Jon has a fantastic instinct about my insecurity; those damn leaks here and there that I still haven’t plugged, seem to spring open at any goddamn little opportunity.

But I was not thinking about how I dislike being thirty and not really having done anything with my life except getting married with children. No, I wouldn’t be so… weak.

I’m supposed to be the counselor, for Christ’s sake!

Jon actually picks up his wine, finally, but his appreciation of the first gulp looks decidedly artificial.

“He’s still the same old wonderful guy I remember from high school – Tim. And he shouldn’t be – do you know what he does now?”

“No, Jon, what does Tim Wilkes do now?”

“He’s a tax lawyer – in Memphis of all places. A regular Mitch McDeere!”

“Does he work for the mob, too?”

“If he does, he didn’t say so. Guess he saw my badge, huh?”

“Guess he did… “

“Well, he was here on business, and, uh, we just had time for a cup of coffee and… “

I take a deep breath; try to remember that he is trying really hard.

“So… was it still the same – you know, feeling of friendship – between you after all these years? Or did he feel like a stranger?”

“Both… I guess. I’d like to have spent more time with him to find out. Those 45 minutes really sifted away fast. But we did dig up a lot of good memories while gulping down Starbucks… a lot of good memories. I think I might want to see him again.”

“But you told me you just drifted apart after high school, right?”

“Yeah… “

“So it’s not the same, Jon.”

“But I think you said that that’s what happened between you and Shee-na, too?”

“It’s Shee-nuh.”

“Whatever. Your native language is almost as good for knotting up the tongue as Navajo!”

“It’s not my bloody ‘native language’! I was forced to learn Gaelic at school because there’s this idea that it’s vital for Scotland’s national identity to keep alive a language that only about 1% of the population still speaks. And – my dad – and especially mum – insisted. She could never get a hang of it herself, though.”

I put down my glass on the table with such force, that for a moment I’m afraid I’ll shatter it.

He nods but doesn’t pursue it further.

Jon wouldn’t have survived as long as he has on border patrol if he didn’t possess an acute danger sense.

“It’s okay… It’s… okay… ” I manage to crank out, like a choked whisper. “But maybe Siné Munroe and I didn’t just… drift apart.”

He looks at me, waiting, glass still in his hand.

The house is silent now. Completely silent.

The kids have long stopped rumbling about upstairs, hopefully, because they are fast asleep. The desert outside seems to have absorbed every other sound than the insisting ticks from the old Civil War-era clock in the corner; about the only valuable Jonathan’s great-great-great-grandfather left his family.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

I shrug. Suddenly I feel dead-tired and it’s not the wine. It’s like liquid lead suddenly decided to sift through every synapse of my brain.

Somehow it feels familiar… the few times I thought about Siné since we moved to the US. Since I stopped writing after the fifth letter she never answered…

“I’m not sure… “

“About that you don’t want to talk about it or… “

“ – Should I go get you a beer?” I make to stand up. He gently pulls me down.

“Carrie, you’re evading the question.”

“Figures – I should never have married a policeman.”

Jon bites his lip then does some kind of imitation of a nod. As if we’ve reached a conclusion.

“Okay,” he says. “Okay, I guess… I’ll just go check on the kids, then.”

He gets up and reaches the door to the stairway before I stop him.

“Jon – “

He’s got one hand on the stairway rail, but he hasn’t taken the first step.

“Come over here,” I say weakly and touch the empty space in the sofa beside me as if to give some kind of sign that isn’t really a sign of anything but my indecision.

And then, when he comes over, I feel this… sharpness inside. Like something cutting through.

Jon puts a hand around my shoulders.

“Maybe you should pour some more of that awful wine.”

“Is it really that awful?”

“Yeah… you were never very good at picking wines.”

“It’s your fault. You hate wine no matter what brand.” I lean against him, slowly, like I’m finally giving in after trying to fight gravity for too long.

“I should never have married a man who hates red wine.”

“I have other qualities.”

“Yeah?”

“Carrie – Tim Wilkes and I were best mates. I’d have given my life for him. I know how that feels. It’s not that different with guys…”

“Siné and I were best friends. At least that’s what I thought.”

“What changed?”

“I changed… I guess. It was after the accident.”

“Oh.”

“I told you I was in a bad way. My bones had healed but everything in me was still shattered and my folks didn’t know what to do. You don’t send your daughter to a shrink according to McDonnell doctrine.”

“But you empty an extra bottle because that helps her much better?”

“You’re unfair.”

He just snorts a reply.

I lean my head against his shoulder – finally; but at the same time, I cross my arms, pull my legs up under me.

“I would have died for Siné, too… and I think she would have died for me. The problem was… when I actually died – almost died – she wasn’t there. And when I came back to the land of the living, it was a different world. It was no longer my world. But Siné was still in the old world. We tried to … continue as if nothing had happened but… “

The sharpness… it’s almost cutting through now; my chest, my throat. All the shards boring their way to the surface. I shiver.

Jon’s grip around my shoulder tightens a bit.

“Why don’t we talk about it?” he says gently.

And so we do.

*

Afterward …

It’s way beyond midnight. Jon went to bed without me. I couldn’t really sleep. I think I told him everything. Finally.

From that time when we were six and Siné told Mrs. Morgan that it was she who had smashed that hideous garden leprechaun by knocking it down on the path stones by her front door – and not me – who was the real culprit…

… and until that last camp together, at fifteen. Over in the Black Cuillin, those mountains that are the real reason Skye has another, less romantic name:

The island of shadows.

That camp when she finally realized what a freak I’d become because I tried to tell her about how I really felt after the accident and because I never should have.

There are some things you don’t tell people, not even your best friends, especially not if they are only hanging by you with a fingernail or two.

And then mum and I moved back to Cleveland and I wrote and wrote and never heard from her.

So how could she do this… now? What’s her agenda?

Suppose she really means it? Would I want to… forgive her? Do I have the right to insist on that after all these years?

Doesn’t time heal everything?

But what’s worse… what if I’m just number 236 in the line that she asks this? What if I just become one of the crowd now, someone way, way out in the periphery? Wouldn’t I then humiliate myself totally by accepting?

I feel ashamed of myself for making such a big deal of it, but I can’t help it and I don’t know what the right thing to do is.

For a long time that night I just look at the screen on our little laptop:

Facebook friend request – Siné Munroe Robertson to Carrie Reese

Accept – Ignore

Like The Wind Through My Tree (II)

Like The Wind Through My Tree (II)

The next afternoon after work I decide to go by the gym, anyway. But after the time I know she has been here. Or usually is here.

Forlorn concrete boxes on the edge of some dusty Arizona town – that’s the gym and the nearby pool. They are as shitty as they look, but they have what people need.

To come here. Often.

They have it.

I step through the doors and then remember I haven’t brought any gym clothes.

“Hey champ!” Dylan calls from his cave behind the desk.

“Hey – uh – I guess I am getting old. Forgot my clothes.”

“Why did you come in then, champ?”

“Got nothing else to do, I guess.”

Dry laughter. My best attempt.

“You here to see Carrie?”

Dylan goes right to it. He has his lucid moments. Not sure I like that …

Read More Read More

Like The Wind Through My Tree

Like The Wind Through My Tree

“That’s the problem with being in love,” Hammond said, “most guys don’t want to admit it.”

“What makes you an expert on that?” I quickly shoot back and chow down some more fries. And cola. And then more fries.

Anything to concentrate on … just concentrate on eating.

Hammond leans over the diner table, conspiratorially:

“I have figured it out,” he half whispers. Not low enough so it’s completely certain she doesn’t hear. Even with all the noise from the rest of the noon-time diner.

Asshole.

“What have you figured out, amigo?” I say, but keep my eyes where they are supposed to be:

The food …

My bulky partner grins. It is easy for him.

Eric Hammond: Ready to tell me some bullshit, to rub me the wrong way as usual. In his sweaty trooper shirt, beard stubs, and unkempt hair. Like some Burt Reynolds movie’s version of a cop – too fat, too slow, too sweaty.

He is anything but.

That biker he stopped from cleaving my skull yesterday, baseball bat-style, is still in Flagstaff Med Center wondering if he’ll ever be able to propagate his genes again – so we can have more alcoholic bikers with a grudge against the rest of the world.

Not the first time he’d done that. And I’d do the same for him. Every time.

So I let him BS me.

Every time.

“You know,” Hammond says, “I was always crazy about some chick when I was a teen, and then 10 times more after that. I never said a word.”

I look up from my cola, which is empty soon. But I am not going to call her to come get me a new one.

Maybe …

“Just because you were awkward when you were young … ” I start.

“Don’t give me that,” he interrupts. “I wasn’t finished. It’s not just me.”

“Keep it down … ” I say, breathing heavily and wondering if I can chow down more fries before we have to leave. I want to do something not to leave, but not eat.

“We have to do the round between Kachina and Sedona,” I continue, trying to make this all business.

Which is all BS, too, of course.

Hammond takes one of my fries, the last one. Eats it like it was a delicacy.

“Jon, my man – we’ll get there soon enough. The question is why you don’t want to talk to her.”

“I do. We have talked. I drove her home from the gym.”

“Yeah, and then you want to come here every day to have lunch. So you can talk about fries and ketchup with her. Great way to keep a conversation going. I’ll say it again: You don’t have the balls to ask her out!”

“I don’t want to – look, you don’t know shit about her. You don’t even know if I want to ask her out.”

“You have only been talking about her for the last two weeks. I know what the hell you want.”

He winks at me: ” … amigo.”

“Stuff it.”

“Oooh … ” Hammond’s eyes widen at me, mock-like. Then he turns in his seat before I can stop him.

“Honey – we’d like some more to drink,” he calls out.

And she comes over.

Carrie is a natural blonde but doesn’t look the part if you know what I mean. Oh, I realize how that sounds but you should see her eyes, man – you should see them. Like they are looking at all the world and like there is a world behind them. But that’s where the problem comes. I’ve seen such beautiful eyes before.

I’ve seen the pain and strength which are there at the same time in such eyes. Because she knows that everything she dreams about, everything she really is inside – all of her world – it may never be part of the world outside.

The fence is just too high.

“What’ll it be, gentlemen … Another round of Larry’s the best?”

She means the fries.

Hammond is polite enough not to stare at her breasts as she leans a bit forward and you can see that she also has got all the right curves beneath that dull waitress uniform.

It’s not because he is married, you know – the a-hole is busy looking for my reaction.

“Eh … “

Yeah, I get off to a great start.

She smiles and I am lost again.

“Maybe you want to,” she suggests, “but don’t really have the time?”

“Something like it!” Hammond quips and grins broadly at her.

She nods, she understands.

“I can get you some to-go. It’s gonna be a long afternoon, right?”

“Yeah, right,” I say and mean to get up. “Just get us the same as we had … Carrie.”

I hesitate on all counts. On saying her name. On getting up. On finding out where to look.

This is … not right. I’ve been in serious relationships for fuck’s sake. I chase bikers and drug dealers for a living. I know how this works.

And yet … I don’t.

I don’t go anywhere, just lean back and don’t even bother to hide how tired I feel.

Now it’s her turn to hesitate.

“Will I see you at the gym, tomorrow?”

That was not for Hammond.

I go for the cola but it is long empty, so I put the cardboard cup down and …

“Yeah,” I say – fully aware that I am not myself right now – “yeah!”

And I look up and smile. And she smiles.

And I have never really seen anything that makes me happier. Even in a run-down diner waitress’ uniform.

“Ha-ha!” I hear Hammond go, mouth full of his last fries. As if he had saved those for this moment.

“You got something stuck in your throat, hon – ?” she asks with accustomed ease.

She has been working here for months, I know. She must get all the shit from all kinds of …

Hammond wipes his mouth with the back of his sleeve. Leaving grease spots on his own uniform, to join the rest.

“I’m fine, thanks.” He nods vigorously. “I’m fine.”

“Look,” I start, manning up before this gets out of hand. “I’ll be there. As usual.”

I say it to her, and I am still not myself. Who is talking? How did this guy who can say these things to this woman – how did he suddenly get here?

I dunno.

But I’m glad he did.

She smiles again and takes our trays.

*

The problem with ‘the guy’ who just offered me help in the diner is that he is … not a regular.

He comes and goes.

Kind of like that self-confidence you are depending on when you are out to arrest people. Especially dangerous people, with guns and not a whole lot of resistance against using them.

Then you prep with your colleagues and you remind yourselves that you have a ton of experience doing this. You just need to remember it. Everything will go well.

But then you are out in the field, and something goes awry and you forget. And you begin to get those shakes or that cold feeling in the stomach. And you do your best to hide it, and just get it over with.

Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it happens even if everything goes according to plan.

I guess things went according to plan this time, in the diner. At least I did not screw up.

But I feel like I screw up every time I talk to her, even if it is just small talk.

So I come there, usually with Hammond, for lunch. And I get like I don’t want to be there, and I feel like something in me is taking over and looking for all sorts of distractions, even though what I want most is … to be there.

And then, sometimes, ‘the guy’ shows up and I manage to have a normal conversation with Carrie. Even if it’s just about what we’ll have, and if I’ll show up for gym the same days as she plans to.

So maybe ‘the guy’ is not someone else. Not some secret courageous Cary Grant living inside me.

Maybe he is just normal me.

And the true impostor is that feeling that takes me over and makes me feel like … she’s out of my league.

*

“Are you that skittish in the gym, too?” Hammond asks as we drive out I-17 towards Kachina Village. “I mean when she’s around … “

“Maybe you should start coming to the gym,” I say, “then you can see for yourself.”

“I bet you are doing fine,” he says, unperturbed. “I bet you work out there and everything is fine. With talking to her and all … “

“I bet you are right. It’s just … small talk, though.”

“That’s a start. Why not more?”

“You begin to sound like Dylan from the gym, Ham. It doesn’t really help.”

Hammond’s voice shifts, a tone that doesn’t help. And I know I did that.

Fucking stupid.

“Listen,” he says. “Don’t compare me to that chatty man-baby. He just messes with everyone, he tries to draw them into talk about all kinds of crazy stuff in his mind.”

He then looks at me, dead-earnest:

“What’s on my mind is you, partner. You haven’t been yourself for weeks now and it’s beginning to … “

I know. He doesn’t have to finish. I am a liability now. Ever so small, but still.

And partnerships and, heck, friendships don’t need that.

Especially now.

We drive on in silence and the trees seem to grow more shadows. At the Dollar Store we pull in and Hammond gets a new package of smokes – for later, of course.

I don’t comment anymore – of course.

I just wait in the patrol car, watching people a little bit but really, I am watching the shadows between the trees in and around Kachina Village.

My bro explained it to me last fall when I took him here for some R&R after his illness, and why not – he is much more into shit like that than I am:

Kachinas are spirits or personifications of things in the real world. These spirits are believed to visit the Hopi villages during the first half of the year. Kachinas are understood as having humanlike relationships; they may have uncles, sisters, and grandmothers, and may marry and have children.

I remember Dave looking at me in a strange way, when he walked between the trees one morning, just a little away from our cottage. I got out and asked him what he was doing, it looked as if he was feeling his way through the forest – with closed eyes.

What was he looking for?

Maybe what everybody who has almost died of hepatitis – or anything else – is looking for?

Dave looked at me and said something I don’t remember about the kachinas. And then he said something I do remember:

” … kachina has to do with the idea that there is life in everything in the world – rocks, trees, people. Everything has an essence or a life force, and we have to connect with that life force.”

“Or what?” I asked, in good spirits, because I had just made coffee, and it was a great morning and Dave looked a bit comical out there among the pines in his bathrobe.

Obsessing about our imagined Cherokee ancestry, like he always had.

But then he looked at me in that strange way and said:

” … Or we die.”

Hammond came back with cigarettes and colas and off we went again, looking for things on the road that violated some regulation or other. Like people, cars.

My mind felt hazy. I let Hammond do the looking, and take care of the radio. I just drove on.

That’s the way I’ve done life so far, alright. I just … drive on.

Whenever there is something by the road that makes me jittery … or makes me feel like a million bucks … or just really, really fantastic … whenever there is that …

I drive on.

*

Let me tell you about Carrie Sawyer. Let me tell you what I fear about her.

First of all, I fear that she is too wonderful. That she is … someone so special that there is no way in hell I could ever deserve her.

I dunno why there is that feeling. It’s just there.

It was never that way with Kim, and we did have some good times. Or with Maggie. Or Shay.

I don’t think I’ve had any other relations with a woman that was worth mentioning. Not in my 30 years in this fucked up world …

And Shay – oh, man – we were hardly out of high school. That was just … a fling.

It’s not that Carrie is your almost stereotypical good-looking blonde. It’s not that. She’s got it where it counts, sure. She’s got those ice-blue eyes and that nice long hair and some curves that are really, well, beautiful.

But all that is just … nothing. It’s not what really counts.

I mean, it does matter that she is … you know … that she has those looks. But she is hardly a model. Her face is a bit like some soldier I once saw in a movie.

I know that sounds odd, but I think it is beautiful, too. I talked about models before and they are all smooth as silk and look like somebody drew them with a feather pen.

Carrie has got the looks all right, but there is a roughness about her that comes off as more sincere.

Heck, I don’t even know what the hell that means …

I guess … I guess it means that if you put some of those models that I used to fantasize about when Dave and I were kids – if you put someone like that in a snowstorm and ask her to find her way home, she would either not come home or she would come home and look like a doll that somebody had hit with a sledgehammer. She would be just like that.

Like somebody who looks like someone who had been hit by a sledgehammer. And who would never go out again. Anywhere.

Carrie would come home and she would look like she had been in a snowstorm, but she would be tough. She would be there. She would be beautiful.

She would be able to go through another snowstorm.

And I guess that’s also what …

There’s something about that strength I see that makes me think it’s not all roses for her, or it’s never been. It’s the kind of strength that’s either genuine and really beautiful when you have it and you are as beautiful as she is – as a woman.

Or it’s a cover. A cover for something that’s as messed up as I am sometimes. And as I know Dave is.

And which is probably because our mum died and left us with that asshole for an old man.

And then all sorts of other shit. And it’s a wonder I ever got accepted as a cop, you know … but that’s another story.

I’m proud I got this far, but I feel like I have been in 3 of those snowstorms to get there. And I feel like … I can’t really go through another.

I need some years where I don’t get into all kinds of shit with people I love. Or people I am supposed to love.

Don’t get me started on my old man …

Don’t get me started on all the crazy arguments Kim and I had at the end. She wanted someone who was going to be … refined.

Or just all right, I guess. No baggage. I don’t know what kind of movie she saw, but it was different than mine.

We didn’t think so at the beginning, but that’s the way it turned out.

*

“You want a cola?”

“No thanks, buddy.”

“It’s late.”

“I’m turning back to Flagstaff at the next roundabout.”

“Good. I’m starving.”

“You’ve been fucking eating for the last hour.”

“I asked if you wanted something.”

“You did… “

*

I come home to my condo and I don’t turn on the light at first. I just go into my living room, which is the only room and I sit down on the couch and look into the darkness.

And I think about her, of course.

I’ve never felt … so close to anyone. And yet we have barely talked.

Mostly about weights and push-ups.

And ketchup and fries, of course.

What if she is the real thing?

What if she is not?

What if she is from somewhere as shitty as Dave and I?

That would mean I am not really in love, right? I am just looking for someone to share my own messed-up-ness with. Some kind of crazy sympathy …

No.

What’s crazy is that I don’t even know that. About her.

I don’t really know her.

And yet … I know I have known her all my life.

Carrie Sawyer.

With that quirky accent that she can’t really hide. Where is that from anyway? Wales?

Fuck it.

I reach for the remote. A safe option. There is a program about …

Scotland?!

WTF?

On Fox. Of all places.

So maybe she is from Scotland.

And maybe I should steer clear.

I should.

I am thinking that maybe she is too beautiful for me because she is beautiful and tough.

And maybe she is tough because she is as big a mess like me.

And I’m not tough. Only when I do my job …

It’s not a good combination.

Kind of like two people, with the same messes, feeling they have something in common. And they do. But what they have is not love.

It’s more someone to share the loneliness and the messes with.

Not a good combo.

I’m going to bed.

Fuck it.

I was pretty close there for a moment – believing I ‘knew’ her.

Yeah, I probably do. But for all the wrong reasons.

And I’m not coming to the diner anymore. Or the gym.

I’ll be doing us both a favor.

*

Continued

Scars of Our Civil Wars (III)

Scars of Our Civil Wars (III)

She had not spoken to a soul since spring. This morning would be the same.

Anna went outside as usual and did her round. The wind had gotten colder, just like the sting in her side. She knew it probably wouldn’t go away if she kept it up with those bottles that Limerick—the prick—had left. The only thing he had left.  But it was hard not to.

She thought about her book again. It was rare that she did these days. She hadn’t written a single entry in it since April.

It was a stupid idea that she could write a book like that about herself. Papa would have thought it was not something a girl should do. But she was not his little girl anymore. Who cared who she was?

… Who cares?

Those words stayed with Anna as she walked along the edge of the small stream that ran a few hundred yards from the cabin. There were no other sounds here, aside from the ever-present whisper of the wind and the faint gurgling of the flowing water. Anna liked that.

What should she do?

She had come a long way since escaping into the wilderness those 25 years ago and escaping a fate worse than death, or so she thought. But sometimes she wasn’t sure. What was worse?

Would it really have been worse if that roving detachment of drunk Yankee soldiers had raped her again and then cut her throat and been done with it?

Then she would not have had to remember her parents’ screams as they died in the fire or think of what happened to her little sister, or Mama’s loving eyes suddenly looking at her with fear and disgust—for every day of those 25 years.

Then she wouldn’t have had to let others do even more unspeakable things to her than those Yankees ever did— just to get by after she emerged from the woods and stumbled into the scorched streets of Atlanta. Or later, when she learned to ride and shoot and became somebody and thought she could leave it all behind once more—only to realize that it didn’t work that way. 

Like her friend, Jane, she had been one of the few women who could scout and who knew that land in Dakota better than most, because—by ways nobody cared to ask—she had had a lover from one of the tribes they were about to wipe out. 

Oh, he had been a scout, too. For the army, like her. Then he had gone back when the tribes got their own land.

But that arrangement wasn’t to last if General Custer and the Great White Father in Washington had anything to say about it. And she had needed the money, and hey—he had left her without explanation. Had it been love or some fantasy about escape? Or an idea that since all White Men had darkened souls, then perhaps Red Men had the pure opposite? 

The fantasy only lasted until he abandoned her, too. 

So was that why she went up there with a damn Yankee General or was it the money? Again?

Money definitely wasn’t enough to forget what butchered women and children looked like. And she knew that whatever revenge she had felt like doling out wasn’t going to be like this. So Anna had bolted from the army, and at just the right time, too, before the Yankee General got himself scalped at Little Bighorn. 

They had sent a warrant out for her, but nothing ever came of it. Anna disappeared into the vastness of the South-West. 

Anna sat down and watched the stream as it went down the mountain, vanishing between golden bushes. She knew where it ended, though. She knew every inch of this mountain.

No, not all men were wicked. Limerick hadn’t been. Until he had.

Anna looked down and saw shadows swirl in the stream. She hated herself. Now more fiercely than ever.

Despite everything she had learned and done and survived, one enemy she had not conquered.

… Who cares?

*

I spent dad’s money on some food, a fresh pair of boots, and a guide named Robert, who I immediately disliked. But again, he was the cheapest. So there.

Robert J. Miller: 23, glasses from the last World War, short-cropped hair and beard, and a nervous look in his eyes. A history student doing fieldwork for his thesis on mining here and a native from Grand Junction. 

So impeccable references; if only I didn’t hate them all.

I mean, he is going somewhere with his life.

But never mind. We prepared, and then when the weather was good enough, we waded into the endless sea of fir and pine. And its islands of boulders and rocks. 

It seemed like there wasn’t anything else beyond the last ski-equipment shop, and I can tell you, in my condition, you don’t want to do this for adventure even if it looks like a postcard from above. Down on the ground you wear out your untrained feet after the first 5 miles hiking up, up, and a little more down, and then further bloody up.

And you find out you bought a pair of boots that fit nicely in the shop, but not so nicely after 5 miles of rocky trekking.

But Robert knew the cabin well enough. He even knew the man, Briggs, who had found the place in 1974 and the script and all the other stuff that either went into the garbage dump of history or on auction for eccentrics like Tom Conway to find and pour over all those evenings he wanted to forget his impending divorce. Briggs died a few years ago but was a friend of Robert’s father, who owns a hotel back in Grand Junction.

I only told you that last part because I want to emphasize that’s all I care to know about Robert’s family. I want him just to help me get up there, not entertain me with stories about his straight-and-planned life and the resourceful people around him.

My dad was a highland ranger until he retired because of alcoholism and a knee that was shot to pieces in the Falklands and never really put back together again. 

I was, well, you know the story. So credentials only matter if you aren’t hit by the bus of life.

I wonder, as I brush the 10,000th pine-branch away from my face, what Anna thought of her life before she was chased away from it? From the burning home where she grew up? Mum and dad now reduced to cinders? Nanny dumping her like so much excess baggage?

Did she think she would become an important person? Someone famous? She sure seemed to have it made, belonging to one of the richest of the old families in Georgia. And then one day—all over.

The last photo of her in the back of the script—the only one where she wears a dress—I see that constantly in my mind’s eye as we approach the cabin. The end of all of those dreams. Of fancy dresses and well-bred gentlemen.

The photo itself is odd. Like she looks uncomfortable in the dress. She must be about my age when it was taken. 25-26-27-ish. There is no year in the photo, though—no context. So I don’t know. And why did she have that kind of photo taken in the first place? I mean, all the other photos are like regular Calamity Jane poses with her guns and horses and riding boots? 

Why did she keep it if she only wanted to remember her life after Georgia as her scout life, as her life as a would-be miner—her life as anything else than just a woman? She never wrote anything about dresses.  

And yes, she hardly mentions her childhood, either. So she must have wanted to forget all that and only focus on what happened afterward. What she achieved after God had cut her down, as the song goes.

And then, before I can imagine my answer to this new question— we are there.

*

“There is nothing here?!” 

It’s a ruin. 

No, not even a ruin. This is a forest and an echo of something that once was a log cabin. 

And then to top it all off, there is my bespectacled, soft-spoken young friend here whom I have paid my last dollars to guide me up here and kill my feet in the process. Good grief.

“A wooden cabin is not really that easy to preserve if left unattended for over a hundred years.” He says it like he is reading from some kind of manual. 

And still soft-spoken, like a pro-manual-reader. That I have to give him.

As if he is explaining some problem in his up-and-coming thesis about people who had lived, slaved, and died in the mines here—a world he will never know.

“Jesus Christ—why didn’t you say so before we trekked all the bloody way up here?!” I feel like killing, but all I manage is yelling.

I also feel myself slump down on a rock and the rucksack slump down beside me. Like that verbal slap was enough to sap the last of my strength. I pull off one boot and massage my sore feet, all the while making sure he can hear my curses.

Robert hesitates. Then he skids past me and over to the naked spot between the ever-watchful pines where I had expected to see … something.

“Here.” He holds up a brick-like ‘rock’ like it was the key to everything. “This was part of the fireplace.  And see those logs over there?—They are from one wall. The place was used by trappers and other passers-by for some time and partially rebuilt as needed. But after Briggs came here in 1974, nobody used it, and wind and weather did their thing.”

Silence. Only the wind and the emptiness. Like what I feel inside.

“I’m sorry if this is not what you expected.” He eyes me cryptically, his aloof master-student calm, a red cloth I can no longer stand.

You are sorry?! Fuck you! I gave you my last hundred dollars to take me up here, and I expected to find … to find … ” 

I was about to get up from my rock, feeling more or less like rushing the few yards over to the carcass of the cabin and strangling him.

But I can only gawk at what is left—or rather, what is not left. It is a pile of bricks, heavily hidden by bushes and dirt. And then there is a skeleton of walls of uneven height like the wind had torn the logs away, like the roof.  And all of it is partially obscured behind new walls of trees. It looks as if the forest is digesting the rest of the building. Bringing it back to where it came from. Like dust to dust.

And that sight is enough to stop me from going anywhere. So I slump again. 

Then something happens that makes me want to kill someone else more fiercely than Robert—namely myself. 

Not now! Not in front of him.

I hide my face in my hands, but the gesture can’t hide shit. So I cry and I shake, and all the while the quiet mining-history-student with the old-fashioned glasses is sitting over there on his log and regarding me with a mixture of fear and awe like I was a fucking zoo animal seen for the first time in ‘his’ mountains.

“I-I’m sorry,” is all he can repeat, dumbfounded.

I don’t hear it. I just struggle to get a hold of myself. 

Control! I know how to control myself. It’s what I’m best at … It is. It is!

“Should I take you back?” Robert finally asks, his voice sufficiently subdued to give me a pang of guilt for my attack before. 

I shake my head. Wipe my face with my dirty sleeve.

Robert fiddles intensely with the straps of his own rucksack. 

I go over to him.

“I’m the one who is sorry,” I just say and look away. “I should have had a plan.”

“What kind of plan?” 

“For what I would do now that I’ve come here.”

“What did you want to do?”

I look around and feel a sudden, deep sting in my side. It is not physical, but almost. There is a deep loneliness to this place that I have seldom experienced, not even in my childhood when I sometimes strayed off in wilder parts of Skye on my way home from the school in Portree and my dad and god knows who else would have to go look for me.

Robert means well, but this is as far as he can go with me.

“I have to find Anna,” I tell him. “But I don’t know … how.”

“But she’s dead,” he replies, still without comprehension. “She might have been dead for over a hundred years.”

“No.”

*

It has begun raining. But the tent is up and I take little notice. I have put it right here in the middle of the cabin where the main floor once was. 

Inside, I have my flashlight. I watch the shadows its light is throwing on the walls of the tent. 

Like ghosts … 

Robert had insisted that I came back with him but I won the argument by staying put.

But I don’t have much to stay on. I have some biscuits and chocolate and about half a gallon of water, and that is it.

I also have my drawing pad.

Well, since this is the craziest shit I’ve ever done, I might as well continue. 

I think I finally know what to draw—not just sketch. After 4 years. After Lin … 

It’s so obvious. But I didn’t get it until I was alone. 

Here.

I have to draw Anna’s story. Nobody knew what happened to her. But what if I imagine what happened? 

There was this other life, in high school, in Ohio. And a bit at the State University. There was Lin and me. And she wanted to write the next Virginia Woolf and I had to draw it—illustrate. I also experimented with comics. We were proud of being both pretty, clever, and nerdy all at the same time. We had the future. Until the future went away. And left us without.

There was no amount of pills and electroshocks that could cure Lin’s dead father and psycho mum. And in the end, she cleansed herself with the only thing that can truly make you white inside—pure.

When I took it—it was different. It wasn’t to get high. It was at first perverse revenge.

You see, Lin was weak. She quit. And she left me. I was angry. I had to show her how weak she was. I see that now. Even if I hate myself for it. But that’s how it was. I was so angry.

But it quickly became something else. A way to show that nothing could ever hurt me. That I did not care.

I found the last words Anna wrote. They were scribbled on the back of that single photo of her in a dress:

‘Who cares?’

I care, Anna. 

I have hated myself for a million reasons and I have hated others. And the latest reason was that I wasn’t as strong as you. And I threw away a life that could have been for losing Lin, and perhaps others—but mostly Lin.

I wasn’t as strong as you. You didn’t really get any more chances. I had all the chances, and I threw them away.

I can understand how you feel. And I will make up for my own life by telling everybody what happened to yours. I will write a great story—something Lin could have been proud of. And I will draw it. Something she would have loved.

I will go back. Talk to mum. Get another job—something. Doesn’t matter if it’s just flipping burgers. 

I will stay clean.

And all the way through, I will have this grand project. Maybe it is my way of being strong—finally?

You know, I can’t help crying more now, even if it’s piss cold and I can hardly see where I put my pen and the forest is full of ominous rustling and I don’t know how the hell I will get home, now that I decide I have a home to get to.

I think I cry because I have found something I was meant to do.

What was it that guy said in the TV series, Tim and I watched whenever he was on loan from his mother in Edinburgh?

Nothing is forgotten, and nothing shall ever be forgotten.

So many people don’t get second chances and just disappear—forgotten. But one of them, I will remember—for everyone.

It’s so crazy, isn’t it?

My ‘plan’.

But it’s what will save me, bring me down from this mountain alive. And out of this darkness.

And it will make me able to bear my scars.

 

Scars of Our Civil Wars (II)

Scars of Our Civil Wars (II)

Anna cursed. She didn’t know how to write anything now. She couldn’t.

Oh, she had had good schooling at home. Before the Yankees came.

So it wasn’t that she could not spell. It’s just that tonight there were no words to spell. 

There ought to be, she thought and bit the tip of her pen, looking out the tiny cabin window. The night outside was pitch black, and the wind was her only company. 

There ought to be, she mused again. 

She had already written a lot before she came to Telluride to seek out Limerick again. There were so many things she still had told no one—not even him. But right now it was only inside her, like an old snakebite. Still injecting venom.

She had been 12 years old, and one night life was still life.

The next it was all dark. The night that lasts a lifetime.

And here she was now, and her candlelight was close to going out, and she hadn’t written a single damn sentence. 

The mountains outside were still. If Limerick was out there, she thought she’d be able to hear him for sure. But he wasn’t. The cabin had been empty when she arrived. Just like his promises. 

He took all the money.

Everything they had scraped together and then some. And the proceeds from the mine.

The letter was a mystery, though. It had said that Limerick was ill and that Anna should come quick. So was it all a lie? Was he so ill that he could barely ride back and forth to the post office down in that sick little town, but did it anyway? Did he go back here to lie down with this Winchester and hope bears were the only thing he had to worry about when he finally had to go to sleep?

Anne threw away the pen. It made no bloody sense. 

He loved me.

But he was just the same, wasn’t he? Like every other man. 

Unless something happened? Why write the letter?

She stood up and took another sip of whisky from the bottle. She knew deep inside that she would never know what had happened to him. A thin line between hope and hate.

She should write that down. In the book. Why Limerick was a no-good son-of-a-bitch. But she was too angry tonight. And she was still not sure it was fair. 

What if something did happen? she thought again. 

What if someone had come and knocked him down and taken the money and dumped him in a ravine somewhere? Someone like Baldy and his friends?

But everything had looked so neat and clean in the cabin when she finally made it up here. Cleaner than it ever was. Much cleaner than the first winters they had spent here. Especially on their good nights. It was so goddamn cold outside, but they had a great fire going inside.

Now the fire was gone. 

I should go and light up the fireplace, she thought. See if there is still something that can burn. I should go get the wood. I should do a lot of things.

But tonight she felt like freezing.

And she didn’t write a single line. 

Good thing the book was soon finished, anyway.

I wonder who will read it, though.

It was the best and worst idea she had ever had. She wasn’t even sure why. As with so many things she had done since fleeing the other flames that clawed at the Southern night.

Except … it came down to one thing, didn’t it? She had shown the world that she could survive. She learned to ride and shoot and talk fast and steal and kill even faster—and all those other things she needed to learn.

But it was never what she wanted. 

She had always wanted to do something else. Only she couldn’t remember what. That dream had died, and now she only wanted one thing.

I want someone to know.

To know me.

*

I try to draw but fail again and again. It’s late here at the cheapest of cheap in Telluride. For a ski resort, the selection isn’t that big. Good thing I came out of season.

What hurts isn’t that I can’t figure out what to draw or that it looks like shit every time I get the smallest idea that inspires me for like 2 seconds.

It’s that I feel with icy certainty this isn’t temporary. Or it should have passed when I stopped pricking holes in my arm and started, ever so carefully, using my pencil again to sketch—back at the boarding home. But I didn’t get much further than sketches.

What hurts is that, like law school, drawing was another investment I threw out the window. A longer, more heartfelt investment. An entirely different ballgame. But important in ways university and prestige and purpose could never be. 

I have done it since I was a little girl. Ever since I drew X-Men for my big bro back in Scotland. At least before he settled permanently with his mother on the mainland.

I tried calling dad from the post office. I hadn’t thought about time zones until after the call, but he was up. He always is. 

We had a talk which was longer than I bargained for, even though I accepted that he called me back so I didn’t have to pay for it. Or maybe he was still his old self and wanted it exactly like that. Well, two can play that game. 

Anyway, I told him where I was, how it was going, and blabla. Nothing much had changed. He asked if I was still clean if I had a job, a place to stay, those things. And I told the truth, mostly. Then we talked about mum and me kind of skidded over that I had passed on her in L.A.

Then we got to the why—why Telluride? Why the Rockies?

And I had no answer. Nothing that made any sense, that is.

“There is this cabin up in the mountains. It’s probably been abandoned for over a hundred years, but that’s where the guy who put the script up for auction found it.” 

Yeah, and miraculously intact. Like time had not passed at all.

“Okay … ” he said while I slipped out of the conversation and couldn’t help imagine what it had been like, breaking open that door and seeing … the cabin. Probably untouched since the 1890s. That’s how well hidden it was. It must have been.

“Okay,” he repeated, “and you want to go up there?”

And I had to admit it. I had already said too much. I hadn’t planned on telling him. Or anyone. 

But he didn’t try to keep me from it. Instead, he just said:

“Carrie, I’ve been a ranger for almost 40 years, and if this log cabin is as high in the mountains as you believe from the information you have, then you will have to get a guide. Do you have the money for that?”

I didn’t. And you know how it ended.

Dad wired me some money. And I searched for a guide. The guilt of barely speaking to your daughter for almost 10 years until her estranged half-brother steps on a mine in Afghanistan—that kind of guilt is worth a lot.

10 years ago, when I went back to the US with mum, I didn’t choose her because I loved dad less. Even despite all the drinking. I chose mum because I had to make a choice. There was no malice in it. I swear.

Is there now? I mean, I use his guilt like the ghost I am. I use it and I think no more of it. I do what I have to.

It’s like this: When you already feel like shit, there is less stopping you from doing more shitty things. Odd, huh? You’d kind of think it was best to do better.

I have thought about it a lot. Maybe I can’t forgive myself that I never pursued my passion for drawing. I think of when I closed the door to the room with Lin’s lifeless body and saw somebody else call 911—someone who looked like, but wasn’t. My body moved. My mind, my soul had stopped moving. That’s when time stopped, too. I ditched college two weeks later, got out of the condo, sold most of my stuff, never looked back. 

But law school wasn’t that important in retrospect. It was only a superficial way of numbing the pain—do something destructive. The real destruction came from giving up drawing—and my few remaining friends. And my family.

Maybe the answer is that damn simple. 

And you know, the more I think about it the more sense it makes because drawing wasn’t just drawing. I was meant to draw a story for Lin. She was an up-and-coming writer, and I was illustrating one of her books and we had oh so many, many more projects. Together.

We would be somebody. Together.

Instead, Lin became a dead body because of a depression that she had had since childhood. And I did everything I could to destroy my body after that.

And so I throw away the pad and the pencil and go to bed.

I threw away all my chances of doing something with all my talents, all my skills, and now this last part of me has been eaten by the ghost. 

Despite everything I survived until now, every step I’ve taken back into the world of normal, it doesn’t matter.

I. Don’t. Deserve. A. Second. Chance.

I am weak. I threw too much away. 

I spend the rest of the evening looking at the old photos of Anna. I read the last entries in her diary repeatedly. I try to decide what happened to her. And I do a good job on that whiskey I got from the store around the corner.

So now my mind can focus on the important things again. But what little research I’ve been able to pull off in some Internet cafe or other—that has yielded less than nothing about Anna.

It is like Anna Lee Shepherd, who survived being orphaned and raped and almost killed during a Civil War … she just went away.

But I will find her. If it’s the last thing I do.

*

GO TO PART III

 

Scars of Our Civil Wars

Scars of Our Civil Wars

Guilt, if that’s what it is, has to have consequences. I bear them all as scars beneath the sleeves of my blouse. 

I used to have another life. In that one, I left college after my best friend killed herself. There just didn’t seem to be a point anymore. And so I drifted for years, often in dubious company. 

The most recent place I ended up in was this boarding home outside San Francisco, run by a guy who collected military paraphernalia—Civil War stuff. He was a nice guy. Like badgers can be nice if they are well-fed and the temperature is right, I reckon.

Anyway, I got a job—my first—helping him transcribe old letters for a book he had been working on like forever. Stories from the war. Ordinary soldiers’ stories. 

History never really was my thing, but it helped pay the rent. And his wife baked me pie and got me a glass of orange juice every Sunday, when I was sitting in their attic listening to the heartbeat of the Pacific, straining to decipher curls and loops that made out 140-year-old memories.

Yeah, I can do shit like that when I want to. I always crushed languages in all my schools (and got crushed by math in return).  But the badger was smiling for the first time in weeks when he found out. Not in the least because he could save a lot of money. 

I didn’t care. I also loved strutting my stuff, for a change. Oh, and I can draw, too.

I am someone. Not no one.

Not the one who always catches up with me. Not my ghost half. 

Less than a year before moving into the boarding home, I had ditched my last boyfriend (the guy was into bruising). I had gone cold turkey right after that and I had kept ‘clean’ by drinking whiskey instead. 

Now, Tom Conway—that’s our Civil War author’s name—he didn’t take kindly to drinking. In fact, everyone who stayed at his “Home”, as he called it—had no choice but to keep clean. No smoking. No drinking. No nothing.

But of course, I did just that. And with some new guy, I picked up at a bus stop in Oakland no less.

And yes, you guessed it. No men allowed in the women’s rooms either.

The breakup wasn’t good. They never are. 

But his wife wasn’t angry. She gave me a farewell present. 

I got a copy of all the letters I had translated. Just those, she said.

But I was grateful since it made me feel worth something, even if it had been an obscure gig. 

And I would have more than enough time to read it all on the bus to L.A. with less than 100 dollars in my pocket and the knowledge that I had to beg my mother for cash again and try to pretend I was finally coming back to life when I’m anything but.

I couldn’t do it. We hadn’t seen each other for years and only talked on the phone and whenever I passed an Internet café.

What could I tell her? I was a prize student. I knew I had my future in my hand. I threw it all away because of one terrible thing that I should have gotten over. I made a ghost of my life and now I have become a ghost.

Dad also tried to call. I told him less. 

It’s always the same.

And I couldn’t even open the damn envelope because I was busy staring out the window and feeling sorry for myself.

Except when I was bored out of my mind at the transit station. Then I finally looked in that mother of an envelope, and my jaw dropped.

There was nothing in it.

I mean, there weren’t any of the printouts I had expected—of the letters I had transcribed. 

Only old letters. Letters I had never seen before.

Mrs. Conway must’ve gotten it wrong in all the hurry, and I’m sure she didn’t have the badger’s blessing to give me originals!

Yes, she gave me a bunch of genuine letters from the 19th century. 

On second thought, maybe that wasn’t a mistake. Maybe that was her rebellion. I mean, they were talking about divorce all the time and didn’t care if anyone heard.

For a moment, I considered calling and delivering it all back to Mr. Conway. Then I started reading because I couldn’t figure out why the hell Mrs. Conway wanted me to have more letters 

That’s when I discovered that the papers weren’t letters at all.

They were a diary.

*

Anna Lee Shepherd exited the only store in the mining town somebody had thought to name Telluride. That was when she saw the three men waiting for her.

She recognized them all from the saloon from last night. They had not seemed better company yesterday than now. 

“You leaving town already, girl?” 

The first man had a gruff voice. He was at least 6 feet tall, sported a big black mustache, and was bald as an egg.

“We thought we recognized a dame getting a room last night.” 

The second man’s beard was gray as the dust from the mines. He was also missing most of his teeth and wore an old Confederate slouch hat. He had played cards with Baldy last night. 

“Rarely we see a dame around here. Shame to leave so soon. “

The third was built like an armored train and had an odd accent. He had been sitting silently at the table next to Baldy and Graybeard. 

“I’m not a dame.” Anna slowly let go of the bag of provisions she had just purchased.

Both hands free. That was best.

“Sure look like one.” Baldy spat something out, black as tar.

The single town road behind him seemed empty suddenly. There was only whispering of the mountain wind between the handful of shed-like houses.

“And she talks like one.” Graybeard grinned, but his eyes were dark pits.

She had seen such eyes before.

“Okay, so I’m a woman. What’s it to you?” Anna’s hand wasn’t close enough to touch the cold steel hammer of the army colt very visible on her hip. But she knew exactly how close it was.

Less than a second close.

“Please … ” The mousy form of Mr. Simmons emerged from the shop. “Please, no shooting here.”

“Shut up!” The Train waved him back and Mr. Simmons retreated as quickly as he had come. 

The wind was now almost still.

“There are few women here.” Graybeard smiled so Anna could see what remained of his teeth, which was not much. “And the ones that are, wear proper skirts.”

“Then maybe I am not a proper woman.” Anna’s voice was even.

This wasn’t so different from escaping Union soldiers who had raped her at age 12. 

Or shooting a man in Reno years later when he had tried the same.

This wasn’t any more different from knowing that her parents were inside the burning mansion back in Georgia and would never get out in time.

Or Mammy who had fed her and played with her when she was a little girl, but who preferred the woods and freedom instead of helping that same girl, just a few years later, when the whole plantation was torched by Sherman’s men.

No. No different at all.

At first, it is. But then it becomes strangely normal. A small part of you—a deeper part—still feels the terror. But it recedes. The part of you that is the eagle—that part soars above it all and flies away and survives. 

So the eagle part is different and speaks in a different voice. It’s the part that learns to be still and wait for the moment.

And so there is no need to raise your voice.

“I don’t want to kill you.” She looked down upon the entire scene now. From high above. 

Marking exactly where the three men stood on the deserted street.

“Kill us?!” The men heehawed. 

Then Baldy spat again, but slower, all the time looking at Anna. And at her gun. “There’ll be no need for killin’. We just wondered if you were up for a good time?” 

He eyed her carefully. “It’s been very long since there were any good times in Telluride.”

“I hear that,” Anna said. “Simmons back there tells me the mines are almost empty.”

“There’ll be new ones.” Graybeard’s gaze flickered from Baldy to The Train and then also back to Anna’s very visible colt. “There always has been.”

“All things must end,” Anna said.

A few heads peeked out windows further down the street. It was as if the sudden delay to disaster acted as a magnet. As if the wind whispered impatiently and called people out to see.

Anna had hoped to make a discreet getaway into the mountains after getting her provisions. She had hoped her story from last night about her ‘husband’ waiting for her just outside town, because of some vaguely defined accident, would hold up and that there wouldn’t be too many questions. 

But she felt she didn’t have time to change her clothes again as soon as she had gotten provisions. Or maybe that was the excuse. Maybe the single dress she owned reeked of too many bad memories. 

And she was already behind her schedule, and perhaps Limerick was really dead—up there. She eyed the mountains that dominated all horizons in Telluride.

Then she eyed the men again. Wolves.

And she knew the dress would have made it worse. Also, it would not have let her do what she now did.

The shot silenced the wind immediately. It cleaved the air like a whiplash of thunder and smoke. One second the colt was at Anna’s hip, the next it was in her hand.

The slouch hat flew off Graybeard and landed in a puddle on the muddy street they all tried to dominate.

But the battle had been fought and won before the men had even decided to participate.

Nobody should be that fast. Least of all a woman. 

But whatever their own dark thoughts about what ought to be, the men kept all of that to themselves. They were busy staring dumbfounded at the hat and then at her gun.

After a few more moments of hesitation, they backed off.

Anna knew that time was not on her side, though. Not just regarding Limerick and whether he was dead up there. No, these men would be back soon. They did not like to lose. They did not like tables turning and suddenly becoming the weaker part they had hoped to prey upon.

She knew all that. She knew men well by now. In her 38 years, she had known quite a few. Some were good, most were bad, and quite a few were dead.

Time waited for no man or woman. 

They must have been desperate, she mused, and picked up her bag. This old gal is not worth that much attention anymore.

She was about to get her horse when something stopped her. She looked down at the slouch hat in the mud.

Had one of these once. It served me well. 

She picked it up and looked at the small scar in the left brim where the bullet had grazed it, exactly as she had wanted it to.

But that was a long time ago … Now I’m at the end of my ride.

*

Money is not a problem if you are willing to put a part of yourself to sleep for a few hours. That’s how I always deal with it. 

I look down at the man beside me in the bed. He is sleeping for real. And snoring, if anyone was in doubt.

I’m not. I’m sitting in the other half of the bed, legs drawn up and the sweaty sheet only tentatively covering me. I look at the stars outside the motel window and the curtains we had forgotten to close completely because he was so hungry.

But it was all right. With whatever his name was. And it isn’t like I am doing this full time. And even if I was, does it matter? He was nice. He had the money for the next ticket to my next destination. And more. 

I have decided not to see mum in L.A. but I wrote a message for her about soon coming home and that I was all right and other reassuring things I hardly believe anymore.

Maybe mum doesn’t either, but it was a little game that was easier to play the more you played it. You have a confederation of lies you nurture and the more you do that, the more it feels like reality. The reality of wishes and intentions.

I pull out the envelope again and the thick bunch of old papers, which I carefully unwrap from their protective plastic sheets.

At first, I thought they were just letters. But my God—this is a little script. An attempt at writing a book. Or a diary that was to become a book. It is not entirely clear. 

5 April 1889 is the last date on the last page, and there is no ending after that.

The author—Anna Lee Shepherd—had just stopped.

Perhaps that was why Mr. Conway had cared so little for this stack of old paper, which he had probably got from one of the many Civil War auctions he constantly bragged about winning. He had not even mentioned this script to me in the 4 months I was at his ‘Home’. Or perhaps he believed it was just fiction and not an actual diary. And hey, it was all written by a woman and not a soldier, anyway. 

So there.

And maybe Mr. Conway would spare his wife because she put this little treasure in my bag when I was booted out of the boarding home (along with a lunchbox with enough pie for 3 days).

Maybe not. There were thunderclouds in the air every time I saw them in the kitchen together. But whatever sainthood the Pope is planning to announce next, Mrs. Conway is on my shortlist.

I can’t help smiling at the memory of that sneaky, elderly woman while I continue leafing through the old pages slowly and carefully.

It feels strange, though, to do this—sitting here in a bed with a stranger I fucked so I could get money for the next three days. 

It is strange to be here and feel somewhat like flypaper but also feel that real old paper under my fingertips. Can’t explain why, but that last part almost feels holy. Unlike the feeling in the rest of my body which I have had enough practice in burying. 

Yeah, my ghost self takes care of quite a few burials.

My other self—the one I like—hasn’t decided what to do with this script yet. I have been in self-imposed exile for 4 years and drifted over most of the Americas, working as … everything. And often not working. Just drifting. I have not been used to planning anything more than a few days ahead.

I once was. I quit law school, of all things. And family. People. Even my drawing, which had once been the most important thing in my life. It had all faded like the old photographs that were glued to two pieces of cardboard at the end of all Anna’s diary pages.

But the principal person in those photos had only faded because of time, not because she had lost her spirit. She had not quit like me. 

She had lost so much more, during the Civil War and after. But she had not quit. She had moved on. She had survived and lived. Scout. Miner. Even a stint at selling cow hides in Nebraska.

I had lost one person. Maybe Lin had committed suicide after a long depression. And maybe I feel like she should have done more to make it. And maybe there are always good reasons you shouldn’t hate yourself for feeling like that. Rational therapeutic reasons.

But still. It was one person. Not an entire family, or home, or way of living.

No, the rest of those things I had thrown away. And for what? Getting high? And a man who beat me, but whom I stayed with for too long because he gave me that high for free? If I can be that stupid then something must have been very, very wrong with me way before Lin died.

And I roamed around with no purpose—always moving. And moving. Meeting new people in Bolivia, Peru, Argentina—and then north again—all the way to Cape Cod. But always leaving them. Never staying.

 Doing nothing to change.

My hands are shaking. I turn the last page of the cardboard with the old photographs. 

Here’s the very last photograph. Again Anna Lee Shepherd. Her name scribbled on the lower part of the photo. And in a dress for a change. Cute.

Okay, I have seen drawings of myself that were more mirror-like, but something in her eyes shines with life that goes beyond simple physical resemblance.

No, no—Anna doesn’t look much like me. That’s not what I mean. 

She just has the eyes I want. 

Eyes that have seen it all and moved on.

That’s what she wrote about in the diary. 

Still, there is the missing ending. Her diary stops in that mining town in the Rockies, Telluride. There all traces of Anna Lee Shepherd disappear.

So what to do with that? 

I look for the last time at the nameless man in the bed beside me. 

I make a decision and feel like a thief now more than ever. And, you know, he had promised to pay for another night.

But I pack my bag and put on my clothes silently. Then I leave the room without waking him.

Putting myself to sleep in that room, with that man, while my body worked—that had netted me another 300 dollars. Enough.

It has been a long night, but it was what I needed. To get to where I knew I had to go.

I dash through the warm night towards the Bakersfield bus station. Once there, I curl up on a plastic bench until the ticket sales open at 7 AM. 

Then I buy a one-way ticket for Grand Junction, Colorado. 

From there, it is only a brief trip with a local bus to Telluride.

*

GO TO PART II

Portrait Of A Killer (III)

Portrait Of A Killer (III)

It ends on a Friday evening.

I come home dead-tired and feel rotten and then sorry for myself and then angry. Business as usual. Then I think about why my mother hasn’t called and told me she understands why I asked her to go to hell the last time we talked because she wouldn’t cut it out with all her just-go-to-a-spiritual-retreat-and-everything-will-be-fine. Then I put my ear to the wall towards Daniel’s room and think about why the hell he does nothing I can hear. I know he is in there right now. What is wrong with him?

Then I try not to feel too cold because I remember what silence is all about. What it can be. Not the kind you find at the end of piers looking at mirror-like surfaces of water. No, I think about Miami and blood in my nose and how it tastes.

Then I think about options:

I could stay and pretend that Daniel is normal. After all, I rarely see him. I don’t have a relationship with him. What could he possibly do – to me? Would he come in, one night, with a knife in his hand, trying to rape me? That’s ridiculous. Isn’t it?

I could leave – find another place. It’s not going to be cheap, though? And this place is as cheap as they get. And I still don’t have much money, although I work my ass off every day. But I guess that’s what’s good about charity, eh? The feeling of being grateful is worth it all, isn’t it? No, I shouldn’t say that. Mr. and Mrs. N are good people. They offered me something when I had nothing and nobody wanted me. But the pay is … pfff.

There are cheaper places, but further down the coast, away from Frisco. And I already spend too much time on a bus. And who knows what people are there? At least I know who is here.

Except for Daniel.

Then I give up. I go crazy thinking about this shit. I should just ignore him or … talk to him. But I cannot do either. I feel like I’m frozen in time. Inside me is some deep primeval pool of tar I just stepped in and it pulls me down. I can’t get out. Can’t move.

But … I can pull out my sketch pad. It’s brand new. Haven’t used it since Sacramento, which would be about four months now.

But I take the plastic wrap off and I find the only pencil I have and I start. 

And … then I notice the gun. Its muzzle is visible at the edge of my rucksack. I put it there after work and now I pulled it halfway out when I clawed after my pad, at the bottom of the rucksack, beneath a horde of laundry.

For a moment I get up from my chair and go over to the rucksack and leave the pad behind. It’s a reflex. I have to get the damn thing back in there. The blinds are up. Mrs. List always walks in the garden strip just before sunset, like a ghost drifting back and forth, thinking about the time it was alive. 

The hell with it. 

I pull down the blinds and I pull out the gun and put it on the bedside table. The table lamp will do as lighting. 

Because, you know, I could use some warm-up. I haven’t done this for four months. I miss it like crazy but my hands feel frozen.

And if I do something borderline stupid like drawing the damn thing, maybe I can unwind enough to draw something I really want. I mean, if you can’t get the thing out of your head then own it, right? Then it goes away, all by itself. At least that was what a shrink once said to a long-gone friend of mine.

So I sit and draw for maybe half an hour, and I quite enjoy it. The gun is ugly and I mostly like drawing people, anyway. But concentration is good for me. I almost feel like I was back home in mum’s apartment in Cleveland, drawing all those afternoons because it was the only way to feel good when school was bad.

I should have done this before. I should have – wait. What was that?

For the first time in 3 weeks, there is a sound from within Daniel’s room.

And it sounds like someone smashing a chair through the window.

Suddenly the whole room erupts in explosions of things breaking – the chair, the night table, the bed, and God knows what else. And in between … a howling.

Deep, guttural, primeval. 

I want to get up and run now … but I can’t.

Mrs. List comes out from further down the hallway. “What the hell is going on … !?” 

I forgot what a high-pitched voice she has. But the howling drowns it out. And then the door to Daniel’s room is flung open, and he is in the hallway and Mrs. List slams her door right shut again.

Did I lock my door? 

I can hear him up and down the hallway and he knocks on the wall with something – a leg from a chair? And he rants:

“Fuck it – fuck everybody – fuck it – fuck it – fuck it!!!”


First movement and suddenly I got the gun in my hand. Daniel is back in his room, still smashing and howling and cursing everyone and everything.

Did he have a bad trip? I’ve seen that shit before …

For a moment there is a lull in the storm, and it sounds like he is just sitting down and … I don’t know, breathing? Or more like struggling to get air, like an animal that has been underwater for too long.

I get up and think seriously about going to him, but then he starts shouting “fuck” again in staccato rhythms like it was a perverse poem. Something heavy, metal-like is hurled through what remains of the window.

I stand there on the floor with my gun in one hand and my sketch pad in the other. Then I drop the pad and take a step forward.

For a moment the entire world turns around me. I can see and feel long hot nights in Miami, cold sweat in the bathroom, warm blood in the sink, the smell of make-up trying to cover … it all.

I reach for the only weapon available to me now. 

I pick up my phone and call the number.

Mr. Conway answers in his usual amicable way. “What?”

“My neighbor – Daniel – he is trashing everything.” I cram the phone hard in my hand. 

Mr. Conway is silent for long moments. “Damn …” 

The next hour is like a bad movie going too fast. Mr. Conway was in Frisco, and not in his part of the house as I hoped. The hour it takes for him to get back I spend sitting like a statue in the chair with my gun cramped in my hand and listening to any more sounds from Daniel’s room. 

“Fuck … dammit … oh God … ”

That’s all I hear, but his voice gets weaker and he is no longer moving around. But neither am I. I am just squeezing the gun harder. 

Apparently, whoever is in their rooms at this hour, too, all decided that that course of action was a great idea and mimic my example. They probably don’t have guns, or Mr. Conway would sure as hell throw them out. But whatever the case, nobody is tempted to come out and have a look. Like … maybe open the door a bit and ask Daniel what is wrong? 

So we wait.

Slowly the outbursts die, and there is complete silence. If you didn’t know it, you might as well believe Daniel’s room was empty. The only thing I can hear is the rising wind from the darkening Pacific Ocean pulling at what remains of his blinds. They give off a rattling sound and then finally – clank – a gust of wind pulls them to the floor. Nobody inside the room picks them up.

I hear the door to the hallway open, and Mr. Conway’s footsteps. I hear him opening Daniel’s door. The rest – the few short lines that are said thereafter – I don’t want to hear that. But it sounds like a pronouncement of a mission failure I once saw in a movie. Some soldiers had had to do something, and they had all died. When word got to their superior in HQ, he didn’t hold long speeches. He just informed everyone around him in one clipped sentence that they had lost everything. I guess for Mr. Conway that is as suitable as it gets, with his military fetish and all.

I never got to know what war Daniel was in, but he picks up his things and leaves right after that and then it’s over.

Mr. Conway gets a plywood sheet nailed over the smashed window, and then he locks the door and leaves, too. Not a word to any of us. Nobody comes out to ask, either.

It’s like when Mr. Dreyer had a visit from his wife and they started yelling and throwing things around last month. Mr. Conway also arrived and terminated whatever mission they had with their lives right there and then. Whatever battle they were waging had to go on elsewhere or not at all. They were gone the same evening but in separate cars.

And all the rest of us stayed where we were. Later on, when I met Mrs. List and Mr. Brockeridge in the kitchen, we talked about why Mr. Conway hadn’t purchased new dishwashing liquid.

And so it is after Daniel is booted out. The next day repairmen are already fixing the room. Ready for a new guest.

It is a sunnier day, and the mist has disappeared, even though it is early morning – one of the few clear mornings by the coast at this time of year. I have put my gun in my bag again, ready to go to Frisco, just waiting for the bus. A little, but not too long. 

I am pacing the garden strip between the house and the cliff that leads down to the roaring waves. But it’s not the waves I try not to look at. It’s the window. His window. There are workmen inside. But they don’t care about me. They work. I glance at them while trying to pretend I am just strolling. They work. And work. And work. Apparently, it was more than just furniture that got trashed, so they will be busy all day, just like me. Too busy to think of too much. Good. I have to get to the bus soon … 

I feel my bag. The gun is there, as usual, but the sense of reassurance is gone. What would I have done if he had barged into my room? Would I have shot him? No. He wasn’t dangerous. I should have talked to him. He obviously had had some bad shit happen to him.

But you never know … Would he have beat Mrs. List with that chair leg if she hadn’t retreated into her room? Better safe than sorry, I say. I have to leave it at that. I have to accept that to protect myself; I have to make some choices and not play the heroine. 

This conclusion is so obvious, it shouldn’t even be an issue. Especially with a nutcase like Daniel.

I am about to walk up the path to the bus when I notice some of the trash in the grass. He flung a lot out that window yesterday, but this particular trash doesn’t look like trash. In fact, this piece here – I bend down, pick it up … it’s a pad.

A drawing pad. Not unlike mine.

For a moment I look at it. Black, faux leather binding, but inside – sure enough – 100 sheets of 130 grams drawing paper. It’s more expensive than mine and more suited for finished art than just sketches.

I refuse steadfastly in my mind to do it, but I see my hands open the pad, anyway. 

On the first page is a date – 14 February 2004 – the day after Daniel moved in. And there is a drawing of a woman.  A 25-something woman.

The details are very lifelike.

In fact, they are so lifelike that there is no mistaking who the woman is.

It’s black and white, all of it, but on some of the drawings, there is a whiff of watercolors, as if he had started but didn’t quite trust himself enough to proceed.

My hands are shaking more and more as I leaf through the pad. And sure enough: Aside from a few exceptions – a chair here, a cloudy Pacific sky there – the young woman is on most of 3 weeks’ worth of drawings. 

So I see myself about 20 times all in all. I see myself so clearly even though my killer mind whispers that I am mistaken and that it has to be someone else. But in the end, even though my hands are shaking like I still have withdrawal symptoms, I reach the last page and I know there is no mistake at all. 

Save for one … 

I reach into my bag, pull out the gun, and throw it over the edge of the cliff – far, far out into the eternally white-crested waves.


Portrait Of A Killer (II)

Portrait Of A Killer (II)

The weeks pass. 

Daniel fits right in. He seldom talks.

We seldom talk …

… except about instrumental things, like where is the remote for the television in the common room. But I think about him, almost every day, although I had made a firm commitment on that first night to completely exorcise him from my mind. I don’t need the grief.

But aside from the senseless things about remote controls, Daniel doesn’t talk. Not at all. Not even small-talk. The only time was that time on the path, and that did feel kind of forced, now that I think of it. 

And I have only seen him once come out of his room to actually watch television, and that was just news – half an hour, in silence with me and Quiet Man from Grant, who I think was half asleep, anyway.

Is Daniel autistic? What do I even know of that? I’m not a shrink or a doctor.

Read More Read More

Portrait of a Killer

Portrait of a Killer

I need time to think about where I will get rid of the gun, so I get off near Kearny and walk the rest of the way to Embarcadero. 

There is a grainy mist in the air that makes San Francisco feel forbidding and cold like it doesn’t really want to receive me. 

I work here, sure, and I live in fucking faraway Montara, but the whole Bay Area feels like a stranger every morning, even though I have come here for over three months. 

Like this is someone else’s city.

I glance at my watch and try to distract myself with calculations about how fast I can walk to the pier and back to the restaurant without being late and getting fired. I have not had the best of records in being on time so far, and it’s not just because of traffic. I have to pull myself together or Mrs. Nicolo’s famous social conscience might wear thin – if it hasn’t already.

And still, there is the gun. I can feel its weight in my bag as I cross the street and make a point of passing the Financial District, without actually passing through. That is a world that is now forever out of reach, after the road I’ve been on for the last three years. 

My career as a drifter would not get me anywhere in those hallowed halls of glass and concrete. And to think I once dreamed of being a lawyer who went there and made an example of some guy who did all the dirty deals, and then I showed society what justice was all about. Just like on TV.

I hurry towards the water and the Bay. I can see the green-blue stripe between the buildings and I think for a brief second about if I should take a boat to Alcatraz, which is crazy because then I could really be late and get my ass fired.

One of the few people who gave me a chance, and I would have let her down. And myself. Well, I’ll be damned if I will let that happen.

So I walk faster.

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Shadows In The Shape Of Men

Shadows In The Shape Of Men

For a split second, a perverse thought struck her … what would happen if she told Mr. Conway the truth?

‘Oh … by the way, I’m a former addict!’

The contract clearly said that Mr. Conway had to give her a month’s advance warning if he ever wanted her out. So if she told him outright, would that be … insane?

Maybe. But in a strange way, it would feel good to prove that she still had the guts to stand by who she was. She could always go back to the motels until she found something else.

Also, doing something insensibly crazy like this would feel even better than the oh-so-sensible promise she had made to herself: That come summer she would have earned enough of her own money to pay back Jeremy and return to university and finish—guess what—her law degree. After she had become a real lawyer, she would spend the rest of her life helping people who had found themselves up to their throats in shit, just because they had made a few bad calls at a time in their lives. Yeah, she would go back to university, and then she would be like that lawyer in the John Grisham-novel … what-was-its-name-again…?

But she hesitated … and then she told herself sharply not to think crazy thoughts again, not to ruin it all on a childish whim, and to smile normally to Mr. Conway.

He didn’t smile back at her.

In fact, he just kept staring at her, with both hands immovable in his pockets, and she felt increasingly uncomfortable. When she first had met him an hour ago, his eyes had been narrow slits. Now they were even narrower—as if he was always scanning his surroundings or people in them. He was short, stocky, in his early 60s, tanned and with compact muscles bulging under his army-green t-shirt. As he stood there, obviously annoyed about having to look slightly up to her, he reminded her of a badger she had once seen—in a cage.

“So you were due in Restaurant Nicolo Monday morning, Miss May?” he said.

She swallowed but kept up the smile. “Uh-huh.”

“Waiting tables?”

“That’s the exciting part.”

“I see,” Mr. Conway said, nodding gravely to himself. “I still don’t understand, though, why you want to live out here in Montara – so far away from downtown San Francisco, a young woman like you.” He looked down into the asphalt of the driveway for a moment then directly at her. “If you know what I mean?”

“Sometimes it’s nice to be away from downtown San Francisco, exactly because I’m a young woman.” She took a chance and winked at him. “If you know what I mean?”

He scowled at her, but removed one of his hands from a front pocket, reached into his back pocket, and then pressed two cold, small keys firmly into the palm of her open hand—and held them there. For a moment she was afraid he would not let go.

“Take good care of them,” he said. “The locks in this house are brand new. They cost a fortune.”

“I will.” She quickly put the keys in her pocket.

“Good.” He turned and with another set of keys, he opened two of the expensive locks and then pushed open the big white-painted door, which led into the ground floor of the old house. He motioned for her to go ahead, and she stepped into the hallway with her rucksack. The door just on the left had the nameplate, ‘General McAuliffe’. It was her room.

She stood a moment in the hallway, taking it all in once more—but with a mixed feeling of being estranged and high on joy at the same time. This would be her place, a real place to live. It didn’t matter that the house itself was … old. There had been a granite boulder on the front lawn with a year chiseled in it: “1846”. She had briefly seen the rooms when she came and was again pleasantly surprised about how pristine everything looked as if somebody cleaned the old woodwork every day and painted it at least once every six months. A big copperplate lamp in the ceiling lit up the entire hallway and there was a faint, recurring creaking sound somewhere as if you were on a ship. Somewhere on the other side of the house, she could hear the muffled booming of the Pacific surf. She had already felt more than a few needles in her stomach when she walked from the bus and couldn’t stop herself from looking down the cliff along the road. It grew ever steeper as she had made her way to the house. She had had to concentrate not to stare for too long at the waves vaporizing against the rocks below.

Behind her, Mr. Conway cleared his throat—loudly.

“Leanne May, you are now officially a resident of The Fremont Home,” he then said, with a notable tone of resignation.

She just nodded, stepped into the hallway, and hoped he would accept that as a satisfactory closing of the conversation. She desperately needed to be just herself now.

Apparently, she got at least one wish today. For Mr. Conway didn’t say anymore. Instead, he closed the hallway door behind her.

The woman, whose real name had never been ‘Leanne May’, was finally alone

*

For a long time, she sat on the bed, thinking hard about all the things she had to do, all the things she wanted to do. When she finally realized that her mind was just going round in circles, she got up and began to pull off her blouse and jeans. They were sweaty from walking from the bus station and up the hill to The Home. She really, really needed that shower now. The room had a minor shower cubicle, and a tea-kitchen, and not much more—aside from the bed and desk, of course.

A big black and white framed photo of Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe hung on the wall above her bed.  He was standing somewhere outside, presumably near the front line, but his uniform looked immaculately clean and without any folds that were not supposed to be there. With determined dark eyes, set in the chiseled face of a middle-aged man who had known what his role in life was, it appeared as if he was scouting the horizon for something—perhaps another enemy to beat. She felt it was going to be somewhat unsettling trying to sleep with him hovering over her bed.

For a few moments, she considered ways to cover him up, and how to avoid that Mr. Conway would notice. He had specifically instructed her not to put anything on the walls. That probably meant not taking anything down either. It wasn’t long, though, before she decided that she could live with the general. She had had to adapt to many things, why not continue with him? She suddenly longed for a TV, or a radio—something that could distract her so she didn’t have to think anymore. She ditched her clothes in a pile on the floor. Then she hurried into the shower and turned on the warm water.

It wasn’t as warm as she had hoped for, and it took a long time for it to become even moderately comfortable. The old cheap-shot—Mr. C—had probably not wanted to pay for proper heating, she thought gloomily as she soaped herself over and over again with a minuscule piece of soap she had taken from her last motel. She also briefly thought about where she had put the cutout from the paper and if she wanted to confront Conway with it. She decided not to, although the wording on heat had come off as rather unambiguous:

ROOMS FOR RENT – HOME BY THE SEA

ATMOSPHERIC OLD HOUSE OF HISTORIC VALUE, MONTARA BY SAN MATEO, BED, AND SHOWER, $400/ MONTH, HEAT AND WATER GUARANTEED. EXHIBITION ON FIRST FLOOR WILL OPEN FOR VISITORS SOON, RENT NEGOTIABLE IN RETURN FOR PRACTICAL WORK.

But maybe she had read what she wanted to read? Who put an ad for rooms in the paper these days, when everything happened on the Internet? It had been blind luck she had even found the crumbled newspaper under a bench at the station and even luckier that she had actually read it and made the call. It was a bit far away from Frisco for her taste, but the rent was ridiculously low. On the phone, she had soon convinced Mr. C—who had mumbled much about ‘the right kind of people’—that she would be perfect, even if she was absolutely the opposite of that.

Maybe she shouldn’t have lied about Tim, though … It had been a long time since she had spoken to her stepbrother. She was still not able to think about it for more than a few moments. It wasn’t because he was dead. It was because at that moment her mum had called to tell her that Tim had been blown to pieces by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, she had had the cell phone between her ear and shoulder because she was busy adjusting the needle in her right arm. After her mum had hung up, she had been sitting like a statue for almost half an hour. Then she finally pulled out the needle. She dumped its contents in the toilet. Then she spent the rest of the day diving into Jeremy’s whiskey collection, just to take the worst of the withdrawal symptoms.

Nevertheless, for Mr. Conway the story about her brother had been the true icebreaker; the part about his heroic service, anyway—most of it guesswork from mother’s infrequent contact across the Atlantic. Whatever her outstanding moral debt to Tim for inventing all kinds of shit about their relation, it had served a very important purpose that almost made her dizzy with relief. Mr. Conway had wanted to see her right away, and she had only been a few days in the Bay Area.

When he actually saw her, though, he seemed suddenly to get second thoughts. She had done her best to shine up herself and she had even secured a direct phone number to Mrs. Nicolo, whom he could call for ‘a little backup’, although they had only known each other on the trip in the Nicolo family truck from Sacramento to San Francisco. Mr. Conway, however, was no Mother Theresa, looking for ‘lost women’ to take under his wing, and The Fremont Home was no pet social project, like Nicolo’s Restaurant. She had been afraid he would actually make the call and say something bad about her to Mrs. Nicolo. She’d rather lose the room than that job opportunity. She still couldn’t believe Mrs. Nicolo had asked her. It was as unreal as a second-rate Hollywood movie.

Here and now, she pushed the memory of Tim away as she tried to rub some heat into her skin. She could still not feel any real heat. Although the weather here would never be as harsh as in Cleveland—or even back on the Hebrides of her childhood—winter had indeed come to California. The mornings, in particular, were as cold as the white chill she sometimes felt inside, after waking up on yet another strange bed. When she arrived in Frisco she had felt acutely aware of a need to find shelter, somewhere to stay for a long time, somewhere out of reach. She hoped the radiator in the main room worked properly, and she berated herself that she hadn’t checked before paying the first 6 months. What kind of ‘shelter’ did she expect to find by the bloody sea, anyway? She had gotten a room on the side of the Home, which faced the ocean and the wind and…

However, there were far bigger messes. She needed to think of something that would somehow negate the crap she had done to herself. She needed to do something new that would make the past unimportant, or less important. She gritted her teeth and rubbed her arms and thighs and her face more fervently with the ever-smaller piece of soap. It was one thing still to have the kind of control that allowed her not to give in to a whim and blurt out something insanely stupid about her past missteps in front of a card-carrying patriot like Tom Conway. Another thing was being able to get all the threads untangled in her mind—and find out what she was actually going to do.

Finally, she threw away the soap. There was nothing left of it anymore. She leaned her head against the shower cubicle wall, felt the hard tiles against her forehead, wet tangled strands of her long hair in between, allowing the sprinkle of the water to caress her back. It was finally warm enough so that she could relax and just feel it.

She was not a loser, not stupid. She was not. Sure, things had happened that were serious enough—but she had gotten good grades before those … things. She had done well. She wanted to do something right again. Why couldn’t she?

She could blame her parents of course, Lin who had killed herself when she needed her most, or Jeremy … But wasn’t it really something in her character? She could get all the good grades in the world, have all the good intentions, all the opportunities, and yet she let herself slip back on a path where she just threw it all out the window; all the gifts she had been given. What were they worth if she worked so hard on grinding herself down? Wasn’t that the very definition of lack of self-insight? Or … being stupid? When she could even define it like this, and still couldn’t get her act together and do something to move past the destructive streak—or whatever the hell it was … did she really deserve anything else than being labeled just that: Stupid?

That doubt was a constant companion and all she could do was trying to fight it off whenever it came.

There was of course another possibility to quench it … but no.

She had been clean for almost half a year now, and she had been sober for a little over a month—not a drop of alcohol, although the yearning to just lose herself through the welcome burning of absinthe or whiskey in her throat… it was still there. It was as if it would never go away, and she needed all her strength of will just to keep it at a tolerable level.

She tried to turn up the heat of the water even more, but it was already at max and that, apparently, meant just a little bit above tepid. In some motel rooms where she had stayed, she had showered for almost an hour, turning up the heat at full volume, coming out of the bathroom red as a scolded lobster. It had worked, though—at least temporarily. It had provided the necessary distraction. Still, it wasn’t enough. For some reason, she hadn’t picked up smoking yet, the obvious distraction. She wondered why. It seemed like an odd kind of abstinence to have the knack for, when it was rather obvious that you couldn’t really stay away from anything else.

Her cell phone rang.

She rushed out of the shower, and almost slipped on the wet floor tiles. She grabbed onto the sink to prevent herself from slamming into the floor on her back. She still managed to hit her knee, though, on the corner of the shower cubicle.

“Aw – goddammit.”

The phone buzzed on. It was deep in her rucksack, which was on the bed.

She rummaged through all the little side pockets of the rucksack until she found it, but then saw who it was. For a moment, she just held it, staring at the display as if the little Nokia was an ugly and perhaps slightly dangerous piece of flotsam, which the thundering Pacific had flung in through her open window, although that was quite impossible. There were at least 100 meters from the cliff’s edge, which began where the strip of grass outside her window ended, and then down to the inferno of the waves.

The phone fell silent.

She threw it back on the bed. It landed beside the steel nozzle of the first thing she had unpacked and which was now tugged safely under the pillow.

She then slumped down on the bed, wet hair dangling in front of her eyes.

That was stupid, missy – maybe you didn’t know the number but still … why should it have been him? Why would he even have my number?

She got up and went to the bathroom again, suddenly conscious that she had been naked in front of the open window. If any of the other residents had decided to go for a stroll along the garden fence just now to look at the waves, they might have gotten a little more to look at … not as if it mattered an awful lot after all the things she had already done to her body. She didn’t want to give Mr. C another reason to be suspicious of her, though. It was clear that he had already been thinking hard about whether or not to give her the room, and only the cash had convinced him … for now.

She came back into the room, with a towel around her body. She began drying her hair with another towel. Then she changed her mind and pulled down the blinds, too. Somehow, it felt better that way. She sat down on the bed again, looking at the phone while she rubbed her hair thoroughly with the towel. She expected it to ring again, but it didn’t.

For the first time, Carrie wished she had a cigarette.

*

Carrie nearly got a shock when saw the black-haired boy staring at her outside the window. She considered – briefly – that somebody from the other rooms might decide to take a walk around the house and pass through ‘her part’ of the small garden strip that separated the rooms from the cliff and the ocean. Maybe some of the other residents had a thing for looking at the ocean, so close to a free fall? Maybe they just liked to take a walk now and then, like normal people. She hadn’t really expected anyone to go out, though – not past her window.

After she got dressed, she had skittered around in her room, sorting out the mess, a big towel wrapped on her head like a turban to keep her wet, long hair in place. She should have gotten that haircut long ago. It would be one of the first things on her to-do list before Monday morning and Restaurant Nicolo. In fact, she was just thinking about the haircut, and where to get it, while sorting through the four different town maps, and that was when she cast a casual glance out through the window and froze as she locked eyes with the boy.

Carrie’s second almost shock came, when she realized ‘he’ wasn’t really a boy—but a girl with her hair tightly gathered in a bun behind her neck. The girl had frozen as well. She was, in fact, not a girl but rather a young woman about Carrie’s age, in her early twenties. She wore tight-fitting old cowboy jeans and an open leather jacket. It looked as if she hadn’t been able to make herself throw it out. It did look a little too small for her…

The woman had a boyish body with only a few curves. Maybe the light had flickered in the rain-laden clouds behind her and confused Carrie. However, the realization that ‘he’ was actually a ‘she’ only made the woman’s deep, ebony black eyes more mesmerizing. They looked like two pieces of the night sky.

The young woman was looking at Carrie with a mix of what appeared to be embarrassment and curiosity. Then she seemed to gather her wits and flashed a brief smile. She sent Carrie a vague nod as if she was just another passer-by, who had accidentally looked too long on Carrie on any public street, and by doing so had broken unwritten rules of politeness.

The woman turned and walked to the fence and stood for a few seconds watching the sea, and then she began moving away, obviously feeling uncomfortable to be standing right outside Carrie’s window now that the spell of anonymity had been broken. She went further to the left, away from Carrie’s window towards the back end of the house. Then she stopped, almost immediately, as she was reminded that the garden strip narrowed to almost nothing now. It was impossible to walk around the house from this angle unless you wanted to crawl over the fence and scale the cliff.

Carrie just … stood in the middle of her room, her towel-turban feeling awkward and shuffling the maps in her hands, having completely forgotten what she wanted to do with the goddamn things. Had it been a bad idea to roll up the blinds again? No, she had been dressed and she needed the little sun that seemed intent on breaking through the ocean fog during these early hours. She had been in the dark for too long.

Because there was nowhere to go near the back end at the house, the girl reluctantly had to backtrack and ended up outside Carrie’s window again. Unlike before, it seemed that this time she had decided it would be even more awkward not to show some kind of recognition that they had become aware of each other just before. She nodded hesitantly again. Then, as if she was afraid that Carrie couldn’t hear over the roar of the surf, said in a louder-than-normal voice:

“I didn’t mean to pry. I was just taking a walk … getting fresh air.”

Carrie had to mobilize extra will for a few seconds before she was ready to smile. She had counted on being utterly alone for the rest of the day; alone to think, about all the things she … needed to work out. At last, she got her act together. She returned the smile. “It’s all right. You live here?”

It was a stupid question; just as it was stupid standing there half-shouting. She went over and opened up the window. There were quite a few locks on it as well, but none needed a key. At last, she got it open and stretched out her hand.

“I’m Leanne.”

The girl took it.

“Ghazala. I live in ‘Sherman’.”

“Ah, the room,” Carrie said.

“Of course.”

“You must have ‘McAuliffe’, yes?”

“Yup. Tony and I are best buddies.”

The other girl didn’t seem to know if she should smile at this. Carrie quickly diverted the topic:

“So… I’m just staying here temporarily until I find something better.”

Carrie wasn’t entirely sure about this, but it seemed like the right thing to say. She wasn’t sure about anything today, which, to her annoyance, wasn’t big news. Ghazala seemed to sense her unease. In a soft, careful tone she said:

“I live here with my father. We are also looking for somewhere else to stay. My father has been negotiating a deal for a small bungalow in Corona, but I don’t think we can afford it.”

Carrie nodded solemnly as if she was already well informed about this. Then she squinted against a sudden burst of sun that had managed to slice through the heavy clouds and leaned on the windowsill with her elbows. She had briefly to hold up one hand to shield her eyes from the sudden light. It only lasted a few moments then the clouds had mushroomed again and choked the rays. There was a dim glow behind the clouds now but they looked fat and not as if they intended to give up so easily again.

Ghazala looked over her shoulder towards the gray ocean. “In Pakistan, we lived almost as far away from the sea, as one possibly could. In Kashmir.”

“Oh …” Carrie blurted, “isn’t that where— ”

“Yes,” Ghazala nodded quickly. “But it’s not as bad now as it was.”

“So … uh … what brings you to ‘land of the free’?”

She laughed, a short dry laugh: “Certainly not our own free will.” Then she frowned as if something had stung her across the eyes. “My father was an official in the local government. He met an American woman, a soldier, during your invasion of Afghanistan two years ago. My mother had died and they fell in love the good old-fashioned way. Some people didn’t like that.”

Ghazala looked like she regretted saying this, then she gathered herself:

“It’s … complicated, as you Americans would say.” She flashed a strained smile.

“—It’s none of my business … !” Carrie said quickly.

“No, it’s … fine,” Ghazala said. She cast a brief glance over her shoulder, towards the ocean. “Look—are you doing anything right now?”

“No…”

“There’s a small place down the road, to get something. The only place around here I think,” Ghazala said, nodding in the direction of the only road leading away from The Fremont Home, down to Montara.

“The ParadIce place?” Carrie asked.

“Yes. Would you like to go? There’s not much to do around here today for me.”

“You don’t have to—”

“I go to the university,” Ghazala said, “and I work at a hair-dresser in my spare time, but today is my day off—and I don’t feel like studying.”

Carrie didn’t feel sure that this cloudy day was right for ice cream. But after that shower, there was something demoralizing about the prospect of staying in her room with the good General, who already had made something of his life, and seemed to be waiting for her to do the same—a task she was definitely not up to before Monday. And for her all her foreignness, Ghazala seemed like somebody it would be nice to share at least a cola with … after too long alone, on the road.

“Oh, why not,” Carrie said. “Gotta get to know your new neighbors, right?”

A faint smile showed briefly on Ghazala’s lips. Carrie turned from the window to rummage through ‘the Pile’, as she now had dubbed the second-level order she had managed to impose on her personal items. She turned to the bed instead and took her old gym-jacket

“It’s rather cold today,” Ghazala commented..

“Oh—I ’ll be fine,” Carrie said, zipping up the jacket too close to her throat so it bit into her skin and she had to pull it down a little. “So, uh, what about the other tenants?” she asked swiftly while messing about with her shoes and rummaging the Pile for her purse. “Do you plan on inviting all of them for ice cream, too—or do I get special privileges?”

Ghazala shook her head: “Leanne, you are the only other tenant.”

*

ParadIce was an ice-cream parlor, cheap seafood diner, and postcard shop all in one. However, its full selection of offers wasn’t something you realized until you had stepped in through the front door and almost bumped into the stand with oddly oversized postcard reproductions from the 50s and 60s. As they walked over the minuscule parking lot before ParadIce, Ghazala looked determinedly relaxed. She had brought Carrie here along a gravel path, which ran alongside the main road. It was as if Ghazala already knew all there was to know about the terrain near the Fremont Home, for she had led on with quick assured steps.

Unlike the garden outside Carrie’s window at the Home, there was no fence here between the two women and the vertical fall down towards the agitated sea, which was coiling itself into a pit of white snakes around the rocks below. One or two times, Carrie closed her eyes instinctively, even though it was crazy because that would just make it more dangerous to walk there. But it was the only thing to do, she felt, which would keep her from looking down too long, and being captivated by the hypnotic pull of the white snakes. She didn’t say anything to Ghazala about that. What would she say?

When I was eleven, I fell down a cliff in Scotland and almost killed myself, could we please go another route?

No. She had deliberately chosen the Fremont House nestled in its alluring safety and seclusion out here on the edge of the rugged coast, west of San Francisco. She wanted Ghazala to like her. She wanted to start over. There was only one choice: Close your eyes hard and tell the past, and all things in it, that it was now invisible and therefore didn’t matter.

ParadIce’s shop sign was yellow and complete with two big white balls glued to the sign after the ‘e’. They denoted the scoops that topped a plastic cone icon, which had fallen off the sign long ago and only left a lighter, more faded triangle in the paint. Birds had shit on the white scoops and the shit had grown black, so they looked like two large eyeballs staring at her.

Carrie and Ghazala went in.

They found a table near a window on the side of ParadIce that faced the ocean. The windows were slightly damp but Carrie couldn’t see if it was from the fumes from the kitchen or the mist outside. There was a big sign beside the counter displaying all the variations of ice cream that could be made for you. Carrie eyed the silent, balding man behind the counter, who shuffled some fries with one hand and stacked small boxes of cones with another and looked concentrated as if there was nothing more important in the world.

Carrie ordered a coke with nothing to eat. Ghazala ordered nothing to drink and a cone with three scoops of vanilla ice and a blood-red strawberry on top. It looked remarkably fresh, but also unnaturally pumped—as if it could burst at any moment. Carrie looked at the strawberry for a moment and then Ghazala bit over it and swallowed it whole along with half a scoop.

“Aren’t you hungry?” she asked.

“No.”

Carrie stared hard out the window and, for a moment, she couldn’t help following the billowing vapors of mist with her eyes. The mist itself seemed to follow the waves of the ocean.

“You’re a strange one,” Ghazala said.

Carrie forced a smile: “I beg your pardon.”

“No, no—I don’t mean it in a bad way.” Ghazala shook her head and wiped ice cream from her lips. “I mean … you don’t look like the average drifter.”

“I didn’t think I looked like a drifter,” Carrie lied.

Ghazala ignored it. “You look like you don’t belong here—or on the road.”

They had talked a bit about Carrie’s sojourn across the States, on the way down here. She had said that she just traveled from place to place in order to find work, and she hinted that she had had an alcohol problem. She had not mentioned anything about Jeremy or his particular business, or the missing money or anything else that might come off as less acceptable in Ghazala’s eyes than a ‘heroic struggle’ with alcohol. Perhaps that was what aroused suspicion? Carrie found to her dismay that even if she had acted in those films, she certainly didn’t have an acting talent of any significance. Perhaps that was exactly why she had wound up where she had?

Ghazala bit her lip slightly, then said: “You look like you belong in a … school, I suppose.”

“I went to university.”

“‘Went’?”

“I dropped out.”

“Why?”

“It … didn’t really work for me.”

“Oh … ”

Ghazala looked quickly out into the mists. Then she ate the last of the cone in one bite. She had devoured the whole ‘Super-Pack’ homemade ice cream very quickly.

“I was just … you know … not cut out for school,” Carrie tried.

“You look smart.”

Carrie couldn’t suppress a short—joyless—laugh.

“Believe me,” Ghazala said and blinked at her. “I know people …”

She glanced discreetly at the sign again up at the counter. It was as if the Pakistani woman suddenly wondered if it would be rude to order another one or upsetting. Carrie couldn’t quite make out what she thought about the prospect of Ghazala throwing herself over another X-large cone with scoops, but she supposed a thin girl like her didn’t need to worry about such matters. Jeremy had had a fit each time she gained an extra pound, but she didn’t feel she had the strength to exercise and it was very tempting to put all sorts of other things in your mouth when a day’s work was finished.

“I like studying,” she then said. “The authorities that got us here made sure I could continue my studies. I went to a university in Kashmir also.”

“What do you study?” Carrie asked.

“Politics.”

“Political studies?”

“You sound like it was a foreign fish!” Ghazala exclaimed and smiled.

Carrie felt something loosen up in her: “Uh, no—I’ve just never been much into politics. That’s all. I’ve never voted.”

“Why not?”

Carrie shrugged: “I guess I’ve never felt it would make a difference. But I kind of regretted it the last time. I think Bush stole that election.”

“Oh, but he did,” said Ghazala. “He got less popular votes than Gore.”

“Well, that’s our system.”

“That’s why someone needs to study it,” Ghazala said earnestly, “to make it better.”

“How can you make it better? I thought you said on the way down here that you hadn’t even gotten permission to stay permanently, much less citizenship.”

“It will come,” Ghazala said and shrugged, too, as if it was already decided. “Do you want something else?” She nodded at Mr. Silence behind the counter. He looked as if he in turn was watching something in the deep fryer as if it was still alive.

“Maybe … I am a bit hungry, anyway,” Carrie said. “I wouldn’t have chosen this place if there wasn’t the small store on the other side of the highway, but I may regret it later. I don’t feel like cooking in that mini-kitchen up in my room.”

“And you can sit on your bed and eat,” Ghazala said. “You won’t like sitting at that table.”

“Do you sit on your bed and eat?”

“All the time.”

Carrie wanted to say something, but it was as if she couldn’t, not without feeling … wrong somehow. Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to get something to eat. She didn’t want to tell Ghazala more about herself, really. But how to avoid it? Perhaps it had been best to take that room over in Montara, but they had little kids and a dog and although the suburban family of four seemed as friendly as if they had been picked right out of a commercial pamphlet urging people to move there, Carrie just hadn’t felt at home at all. She needed someplace solitary, and yet out in the open, and far away from everything. It had seemed like a good idea to choose the Home, not just because it was cheap but also because there appeared to be more privacy, even if you lived in a hallway with rooms of other inhabitants. But those doors were closed, like another motel … She could deal with that. But now she had already broken the first promise she made to herself when she came to Frisco: Don’t get personal with anyone, not until you have gotten your life together.

“Have you changed your mind?” Ghazala asked and glanced at the menu. It was a slip of paper printed from an average computer and laminated to the table.

Carrie shook her head. “No—no, I could use something to eat. I haven’t had anything since this morning.”

“Let’s eat then.”

Ghazala didn’t order anymore except a Dr. Pepper. Carrie had fries and a fish that tasted like it had been in the freezer for too long. She felt awkward eating alone and tried to finish quickly.

For a long time, Ghazala sat with her hands folded under her chin and looked at Carrie eating. None of them said anything.

Carrie ate more quickly, wondering if she should just stop and say that she wasn’t any hungrier. But the problem was that she was hungry. She had only had a coffee and a bagel for breakfast and that had been her only meal all day. She had to get herself together and cook some proper food. Soon …

“Why haven’t you asked me why my father and I had to go to America?” Ghazala said and broke Carrie’s reverie.

“I … thought it wasn’t any of my business,” Carrie answered quickly, swallowing a mouthful of two or three half-chewed fries with some difficulty. Then she drank deeply of her new cola.

Ghazala’s eyes mirrored the nearest mist bank outside for a moment. It seemed heavier now. There was a sharp sputtering from the deep fryers on the other side of the counter. Then Ghazala said:

“My father is a professional IT engineer. He worked for the local government in Kashmir. He was … hired as a consultant for your US Army in Afghanistan because he spoke the local language—Pashto.” She smiled like it was all a joke and took a zip of her Doctor Pepper. “He was also very good at making the local jury-rigged computer solutions work.”

“So he helped the army install computers?” Carrie asked, and sucked hard on the straw that dipped into her coke.

“No, silly,” Ghazala snorted but not with too much malice “—he helped the local governments, or what goes for government, in various areas of Afghanistan. They need to come into the modern age. They need computers, right?”

“Right …”

“So that’s what he did.” Ghazala looked out the window again. The horizon was just a thin line now. It washed in and out of gray clouds and mist, as the sea stirred. “There was more money to be earned.” She smiled joylessly.

“Did you go with him?”

“Sometimes.”

“So why did he stop?”

“He didn’t. He was stopped.”

Carrie knitted her brows. She tried to sit more comfortably on the plastic chair but she might as well have sat on the asphalt outside.

Ghazala continued, delivering every word slowly and sharply as she was edging something into stone: “My father was seen as a traitor by various Taliban factions so they burnt down our house. I was home …”

Carrie stopped moving about on her chair.

Ghazala shrugged and looked away: “I was the only one who escaped, but I was badly burned. I was in a US Army field hospital for about a month.”

She pulled off her jacket so Carrie could see her bare arms. Carrie had once seen a horse that had burnt to death, back on Skye when she was eight or nine. It was Chisholm’s barn and lightning had struck that night. The nearest help was in Portree, too far away. Her father and all the neighbors went out to help but they could do nothing but watch it burn down. Her mother put her and Tim back to bed because she didn’t want them to hear the screams of the horses that Mr. Chisholm had not been able to get out in time. In the morning, the men had pulled out the carcasses and laid them on the ground. Carrie had snuck out with Tim and watched from behind the fence. When the men had gone inside to talk to the constable, who had finally arrived, Carrie and Tim had snuck over to one of the horses. What was left of the horse’s skin was black and dark red, and reminded her of charred wood that had gone strangely pulpy, as if it had bubbles all over which were hardened.

“It boiled …” Tim had whispered, looking impressed.

Carrie felt like throwing up and crying at the same time. She had run inside again. That was almost 15 years ago, and she thought she had forgotten what it looked like.

Right here and right now, Carrie became aware that she had covered her mouth with her hands. She took her hands away quickly.

“I’m sorry—I …”

Ghazala put on her jacket again: “It’s okay. It’s normal to react like that.”

“Couldn’t they—I mean … surgery or …”

Ghazala shook her head: “Not out there. It was too late before somebody thought it would be worth flying me to Lahore in a helicopter. But they saved my life.” She shrugged again and grinned as if she had just been showing off a particularly daring tattoo. Something churned in Carrie’s stomach.

“Does it hurt?”

Ghazala shook her head again: “I’ve got plenty of painkillers.”

*

They went back along the small path at the edge of the cliff. The sun was low in the gray sky and the fog banks seemed to have thickened even more as if they were getting ready to fall over the coast with the darkness. Carrie was glad that Ghazala seemingly knew the way because there wasn’t much light and she still felt jittery walking so close to the cliff. She tried to look at Ghazala’s back and not down into the frothing surf. They walked in silence. When they approached the house, the sky had deteriorated from gray to a dark blue that looked as if it was rising over the horizon like a wave, larger than all the others. But it was a wave that was slow in coming, taking its time to swallow all light as it crept in on the coast. It was her first night in the Home by the Sea.

She was grateful Mr. Conway had lit the lamps on the front porch. As they went up the stairs, she noticed a man in the window of the room next to Ghazala’s. It was an elderly, thin man with dark skin and steel gray, short hair and beard. He wore a pullover that seemed like it was a size too big for him. He was hunched over a laptop that emitted the only light in the room, and he didn’t notice them. He just sat, hands folded under his chin, looking at the pale light from the laptop screen as if waiting for an answer he had just asked it.

Carrie glanced at Ghazala.

“My father,” she whispered. “He is always working.”

Carrie didn’t know why Ghazala whispered, but she automatically did the same: “So … he has got work here already?”

“Kind of,” Ghazala said. “I can tell you tomorrow. You want to go to San Francisco with me tomorrow?”

Carrie felt uncertain. Something began knotting itself hard in her belly, twisting round and round, harder and harder.

“Leanne?” Ghazala looked at her, concerned.

“Oh – tomorrow? Yeah, why not?”

“Okay.” Ghazala nodded and then went to work on the many locks on the white oak door. Her key got stuck several times because apparently the locks weren’t designed to be opened easily because they weren’t as new as Conway claimed, or both. But Ghazala was patient, humming softly to herself. Only a single time did a curse almost escape her lips.

“Brand new locks my a—”

But she choked it.

And finally, she succeeded.

Carrie hesitated for a little while longer, then followed Ghazala into the hallway.

“Next time let me try first,” she said to Ghazala. “We had a lock which was a bit like that on a barn door where I lived as a child, but much more cranky. I think I know just how to twitch this kind of lock right.”

“Oh!” Ghazala exclaimed, “—why didn’t you say so before I spent five minutes wrestling with it?”

“I guess I forgot that I had seen worse locks. I do that a lot when I get too caught up in my own world.”

Ghazala’s smile had returned, very faintly, but slightly warmer. As if there was still some of the dead sun left in it.

Carrie decided that was enough.

Together they went into the Home.

*

Last edited 12 Feb 2021

The Frozen Horizon

The Frozen Horizon

I went out of my rented room the next morning wondering where to go next. I didn’t want to leave the farm, but I knew that I didn’t really belong here. I stopped at a fence looking at the white plains stretching away toward the hazy mountains on the other side. The whiteness was new-fallen snow with no features. It was as if there was nothing on that plain, living or dead. If I went out there, would I become part of the whiteness, too? Is that what my future looked like?

That Which Cannot Be Broken

That Which Cannot Be Broken

Imagine that your boyfriend just hit you so hard, he knocked loose a tooth and the only reason your head is spinning several days afterwards is not from concussion. It’s because it was the first time, and you never saw it coming.

So what is the solution? At first it is to deny it, of course. You have problems, not him. After all, you do drugs and he supplies. Maybe he is even within his right to treat you like this, because you can be such a bitch at times, especially if your body is tearing you apart and you haven’t gotten your fix.

But eventually, after he hits you again and again, you figure it out and leave. 

The problem is that the memories don’t leave your head. 

You feel you don’t deserve to get rid of the memories because you didn’t stand up to him quickly enough. Even if you were a complete fucking mess at the time.

So when you miraculously get around to ditching the coke and go far, far away in search of … something, then you still need a solution. 

To keep away the memories.

KLANK

Carrie put down her glass hard on the bar desk.

“Another one.”

Doris crossed her arms. “You’re gonna kill yourself if you keep drinking like a bloody lumberjack.”

Anaconda Bar’s resident matron was a plump 40-something Aussie immigrant with fiery red hair, who had a fondness for playing her native CD collection of insipidly PC rock music from Midnight Oil—over and over again. 

She had just changed t

She had just changed tracks and now she looked determined to change Carrie’s evening plans, or at least pretended to look determined.

Carrie for her part had no intention of even pretending to react to another of Doris’ sermons. She kept her mouth shut and waited until Doris turned away. Then she could go at it again.

The Anaconda Bar was one of the most run-down bars in which Carrie had ever tried to douse the black acid feeling inside with generous amounts of whiskey, and she had tried this in many bars. 

Beer splotches and cigarette ash littered the plank floor, and stains of an unknown origin dotted the vomit-green wallpaper like pimples. In a corner near the front door stood an empty jukebox, which now served as an extra shelf for a row of brazier candles on tin foil. 

The only redeeming feature of the room was the framed black and white photograph above the jukebox, showing two young GIs smiling broadly to the camera with an idyllic Mediterranean village and sea vista in the background. One of them was an American Indian, looking slightly out of place in the World War II US army uniform. 

There was a faded writing on the photograph. ‘Salerno 1943’. 

Although she liked looking at the photo now and then, the two men’s confident smiles barely distracted Carrie from the flaming feeling in her throat each time she gulped a bit of whiskey.

She had a mission. And so, she returned to the Anaconda Bar every night.

A little while ago, she had heard the roar of the motorcycles outside the bar, and the booming voices of Jonah and the gang, and she had wondered if she would make it home in one piece tonight—or if that also didn’t matter anymore? 

She glanced back over her shoulder. Yup, Jonah and his friends were still out there, chain-smoking, bragging loudly about something to do with their sparkling Harleys—and they had all the time in the world. Was Jonah still pissed about last Friday, when she had given him the cold shoulder? 

She would know any moment now.


They sounded drunk already. There was also something in their laugh—maybe the volume, or the amount of time it took for it to subside—which unnerved her. Why did they laugh in that high-pitched, creepy way? 

Carrie had a solution for that as well. She reached for the whiskey bottle on the bar desk. 

Doris’ hand came down on hers immediately.

“I think that’s enough,” she said firmly.

“You’re going to ruin your sales.” Carrie tried to pull her hand back but Doris held it down. 

“Look—I appreciate selling liquor—but not to people who don’t know when to stop. I don’t want to have to call Sheriff Jenkins to come and carry you away in a couple of hours.”

“Yeah, this isn’t exactly a place you’d like to let the sheriff in too often, is it?” Carrie pulled her hand away.

Doris’ voice took on a softer tone, as she peeked over her shoulder in the direction of the grinning bikers out in the parking lot.

“You can slip out the kitchen door before they make up their tiny minds and decide to come in.” She added a meaningful glance in the direction of the front door. 

“I’m not afraid of Jonah.”

Doris took a deep breath. “You should be. I bet I know what he’s been planning for you in return for the insult you gave him last time. The only reason he didn’t do anything about it Friday was because Paul—Sheriff Jenkins—had come down to water, too.”

“Determination is good,” Doris said, frowning. “But you don’t play like that with Jonah.”

Carrie just shook her head, but in truth she had already begun to consider her options. 

Then suddenly it sounded as if the bikers were walking … away. After half a minute or so there was no sound of them at all. 

Both Doris and Carrie strained to hear. 

There was nothing, just the distant surf-like whoosh when a car or a truck passed out on the highway. 

Then Carrie slowly turned to look. It was difficult to see through the windows, though. There was one on each side of the bar’s front door, but the glass hadn’t been polished for ages and it was pitch black outside. 

However, now Carrie wasn’t in doubt either. Jonah and the others had chosen a different hunting ground—for whatever reason.

“Do you think … they went down to Harry’s?” Carrie asked hesitantly.

Doris looked straight at her again. “I don’t know but I know where I think you should go. They’ll be back for their bikes.”

“I think they went down to Harry’s,” Carrie said, but more to herself than to Doris. “That’s their preferred hang-out. They won’t be back for hours at least. And I really, really need one more, Dorrie—then I’ll go.”

Doris looked uncertain about what to say. Then she went around the bar, to look through one of the windows. She surveyed the night-filled parking lot for almost a minute.

“All is clear,” she then noted and withdrew from the window. “They must have gone to Harry’s instead. Dunno why the hell they parked here, though.”

“Me neither, but I know I have time for one more,” Carrie said.

Doris sighed and went back to the bar. “Just one more then.”

Carrie received a new glass of whiskey. “You’re an angel.” 

“Either that or I’m a greedy bitch who’s just made a mistake you’ll be sorry for,” Doris said in a resigned voice.

“I can’t blame you,” Carrie said.

“I don’t want to have to give that as a reason to the sheriff,” Doris said, “for why you got yourself in a real bad fix.” She put away the sparkling glass but immediately took up another and started polishing it instead.

“You won’t have to,” Carrie assured her. 

Nevertheless, she felt an indeterminable chill in the bar now, one which hadn’t been there before. Even more reason, she figured, to make this glass of firewater the very last. Or maybe just make it last? 

After all, she didn’t care to think about the prospect of sitting alone back in her shady motel room now. Right now that somehow felt more frightening than anything else.

“You should take Dorrie’s advice,” a hoarse, sandpaper-like voice came from down in the corner, breaking off Carrie’s reverie.

It was old man Eisenhower. 

Well, everybody called him Eisenhower, because he kept blabbering about how things would be better all around if only old Dwight D. Eisenhower—“Ike”—was still president. Carrie knew soon enough that wasn’t his real name, though.

Abel “Eisenhower” Battenberg was 82. He had made a living as an electrician after the war. He lived in a small trailer community a few miles out, not far from Silver Lake. He had done and still did a lot of work free, especially for people who couldn’t afford much. 

He came down to the Anaconda Bar, every evening out of personal allegiance to his brother, Billy, who’d started the bar before Doris became proprietor. Billy had left Abel all his money after Billy himself died in a car accident. At least that was what Ike had made quite sure to tell Carrie on the first night she came in to drink.

Carrie tried to smile at him. “I can take care of myself, Abel.”

“Sure you can,” the old man replied drily, “only I wish you would try harder.”

Carrie didn’t say anything to that. 

Eisenhower kept smiling genuinely at Carrie instead. His teeth were surprisingly healthy for a man his age. Their pristine whiteness made a strange contrast to his sunburned, wrinkled face.

“I don’t wanna see you in trouble again with Jonah,” he then said quietly. “He is a goddamn redneck.”

“What’s it to you?” Carrie asked, not trying to feign enough surprise to please him. “You hardly know me. I only came to your little town two weeks ago.”

“Then it’d be a shame if they have to carry you out in your third week, one piece at a time, wouldn’t it?” Eisenhower’s bright smile made the rather serious question seem less ominous than it actually was.

“You’re already fussing about me,” Carrie retorted, “as if I was a ten year old or something.” 

“When my daughter was ten years old she was considerably wiser than you.” Eisenhower smiled smugly. “She knew when to fight and when to run from the bullies at school.” 

Then he shook his head and stared into his drink for a few moments as if there was some memory he had to put to rest before being able to find out what to say next.

“Look—don’t worry about me, okay?” Carrie said, seizing the opening that arose from his hesitation. “Jonah may be a big shot here, but he is not stupid. He is not going to barge in here and do something he’ll regret.” 

She quickly turned back to lean against the bar counter, so she didn’t have to look Eisenhower directly in the eyes anymore. They were as blue and intense as any set of eyes she had ever seen on a younger man, and she felt uneasy looking into them for too long. 

Eisenhower had taken a special interest in her from the first night on, but not in any lewd way. In fact, it seemed more as if she had reignited a fatherly, or perhaps grandfatherly, mission for him, which he had given up on long ago.

So after only a week she knew about how he had a daughter out of marriage who now lived in Phoenix, worked as a dentist, and didn’t want to answer his letters, because he didn’t answer hers for the first ten years of her adult life because of some misunderstanding, or depression, or whatever. It was never entirely clear. 

However, what was clear was that she knew that he regretted this course of events much more than anything else. Even the war. 

The war. There was a cue to a lot of other memories.Sometimes Carrie wasn’t sure he was telling her everything, though. She suspected he was at least modifying the old war stories, because she had already caught him in two or three inconsistencies. 

However, she didn’t say anything. Maybe the inconsistencies were just due to the usual lapse in memory that comes when you have 60 years to remember, she thought. 

Some of the other regulars certainly didn’t seem to believe a word that Eisenhower said, though. They just rolled their eyes, when he began talking to her, and gave her looks which resembled pity, as if they were going to say, ‘There, old Ike has snatched another one’. 

It didn’t matter to Carrie. It didn’t matter what was pure truth and what was just imagined truth. The fact that Eisenhower so obviously, and sometimes clumsily, wanted to protect her from herself—that mattered. 

It mattered even more because she knew she wasn’t going to give him the chance. She couldn’t let him. The latter was a decision that felt like cutting oneself with a razor blade, but as with people who committed just this kind of self-mutilation it couldn’t always be helped.

For a while nobody said anything. Then she heard the scraping of a chair against the dirty floor. She glanced over her shoulder. Sure enough, he was coming over. Carrie tried to remain indifferent. 

Ike chose his spot at the bar—but in respectful distance from Carrie. Even so, she felt that he was standing too close to her by any measure. Perhaps that kitchen door was still a good idea? But she really, really needed that last drink …

“Another one for you, too?” Doris droned, not even looking at Ike.

He nodded. “Yeah. Make it a big one.” 

Carrie allowed herself a discreet glance at him. 

“I think our lady-friend here has drunk most of my whiskey,” Doris then said, sending Carrie ‘that glance’.

“I’ll take one from your hidden reserve,” Ike said.

“I’ll see what’s left.” Doris turned towards her rather limited collection of bottles. 

The night before a traveling salesman had come in and asked for gin and Carrie had immediately heard Dorrie snap. “If you want a fuckin’ martini, head to New York. This is a whiskey bar.” 

So Carrie had found out, too, when she landed here less than two weeks ago, but that was a smaller problem for her than it had been for the salesman. 

Doris searched a little more and then found a half-empty ‘Old Thompson’ on the lowest shelf. With a professional twist of the bottle, she poured exactly the right amount in a tiny glass, which she then passed to Ike. 

He took it and turned towards Carrie, leaning on the bar counter with one elbow.

“Since Doris is too kind to seem to kick you out on your ass, I thought I should make a final attempt to convince you not to hang around here anymore.”

Carrie bit her lips and didn’t look at him. “Everybody’s so concerned about my health tonight.” 

“It seems a shame to waste it,” Ike said, “for such poor reasons.”

“You thinking about the booze or Jonah?”

“Both.”

She nodded and looked at her glass, wanting to take another gulp but felt something in her resist. “Look,” she said, after long seconds of silence, “believe it or not, I do appreciate the concern. But I’m really not sure I should be concerned about myself. Not anymore. I’m not going to back down for such a type as Jonah.”

“He is dangerous,” Ike said.

“Yeah,” Carrie said reluctantly, “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t know.”

“So you got some other reason for staying then?” Eisenhower asked mildly.

Carrie held her breath for a moment, and then she said. “Let’s just say that I’ve got lots of reasons … For example, there was this guy I was with. He was just as bad company as Jonah, maybe worse. Then there was the … snow, a lot of booze, and a lot of other guys who were bad company, too. I don’t feel like talking about it, but that’s what it’s about. And I should never have been in it.”

“Where then?”

She hesitated. Something suddenly stung in her throat. “I should have been better than that,” she then managed to say through firm lips. “I should not have let them treat me like … There’s no excuse. Not for that.”

“I know how you feel,” he said.

“You do?” Carrie smiled weakly at his attempt to show sympathy. 

Even if he was every bit as clumsy at expressing understanding with a young blonde woman as one would expect a lonely guy his age to be, she didn’t mind. At least not right now.

But he surprised her. “Back in the Big One,” he said calmly. “My first battle, and we got our asses handed to us by the Krauts. I think I shit my pants.”

“It’s not the same.”

“It’s war. Here and back then.”

He turned to look directly at her. She thought he was about to chuckle at her bewilderment, but instead he just said, in a very firm voice. “Sometimes you got to know when it’s time to fight. We’d get both bigger and better than them eventually, but in 1943 Rommel and his bunch—they were tough customers. We were greenhorns. Our generals should not have let that happen. It was called the battle of the Kasserine Pass. It’s in Tunisia if you want to look it up.”

“Not Italy?” Carrie glanced at the photo on the far away wall.

Eisenhower smiled a wicked smile. “Told ya, we got better soon enough. But that first time. All of us should have been killed. It was pure luck we didn’t.” 

He looked at his drink for several long moments. “My buddy up there on the pic, he didn’t make it. The trick is always to know when to fight—and, of course, what to fight for. So if you die, it’s for the right cause.”

“Your war-stories really suck,” Carrie said and downed her drink. “If you fight Nazis it’s always a good fight. And Jonah’s little better. Nor was—”

Carrie shuddered. She dared not look at him.

“You don’t have to tell me anything,” he said quickly. “It’s none of my damn business anyway.”

“No …” she said, her voice very thin now, “I think I should … ”

Somehow, she managed. 

She started telling what she had sworn several times she would not tell anyone—especially not someone like him. She couldn’t make herself talk about everything. But Ike had given her an opening and she felt obliged to give him something in return. So she did—in bits and pieces, with many pauses and many more gulps of whiskey in between.

“I … hitch-hiked from Ohio to Florida and nothing bad happened, until I made a really bad call. I got together with a man who hit me whenever he felt like it, but since I felt I deserved it I stayed with him. It didn’t help matters that meanwhile I had done some coke myself, starting one night at one of my boyfriend’s infamous parties. It was a night when I was particularly angry and wanted to ‘prove’ that … someone I once knew who had … left me … that she had been weak, that she should have been able to cope … or some other idiotic reason.”

She looked at Ike hesitantly. “This makes no sense at all, does it?”

“On the contrary,” he said. “It makes too much sense. My daughter was married to an asshole, too. He beat her. She tried to get out several times but … ” He shook his head. “Eventually the police had to take care of it.”

“I … couldn’t go to the police.” Carrie swallowed hard, but she forced herself to relax. Or at least look like it. 

“So …” she said, almost regretting it but then going on anyway, “… this single really piss-poor decision I made to ‘just do it’ led to another, and another, and it all continued as a weekend-escape and ended in full-blown addiction. My boyfriend was the only one with the money to pay for it. I tried to get clean three times, and one of them nearly killed me. But I failed each time, and wound up with him again … and his abuses.”

Ike listened on in silence. He didn’t comment and he didn’t look as if what she said made him look at her in a different way than he had done the whole time.

Doris had retreated to a corner of her bar and looked as if she was checking something at the register. 

Outside there was only the grumble of a big truck as it drove back and forth at the adjacent lot for large vehicles, apparently trying to find a place to fit but without much luck. She had actually left the bottle, totally forgetting herself from before. Or was it on purpose?

Carrie didn’t care. She poured another one. But she found she couldn’t drink it.

Carrie stared hard into her drink. “One day I found a little spark of … something … inside myself which I didn’t even know I had left … perhaps it was desperation? Anyway, I finally slammed the door on him. I got away. I got clean, too—in my fourth attempt—or as clean as you can get if you’re me. I hadn’t stopped drinking, for I felt more than ever before that I had been a fucking coward … that I had let Jeremy and his damn friends do everything they had done to me, and that I had nothing left to offer anyone anymore. So I kept on drinking.”

“You’re not drinking now,” Eisenhower said.

“Ha!”

When Ike didn’t comment any more, Carrie turned to look straight at him. “So you see, Abel, why I’m not worth your time. In fact, I think you’ll do yourself a favor if you split before Jonah comes back. He hates guys hitting on ‘his’ woman, you see.”

Eisenhower shrugged. “Oh, Jonah hates a lot of things.” 

Then he shook his head with something resembling sadness, and emptied his whiskey in one gulp. “In fact—” he concluded after placing the glass firmly back on the bar desk “—I’m not even sure he would stop hating even if you and him were an item.” 

He smiled and for a moment Carrie thought she saw a young, suntanned soldier readying his rifle. “ Fortunately that future is not going to happen.”

She didn’t react to his attempt at cheering her up, though. Instead, she just stared hard at nothing in particular in front of her; as if there was a mist there she was trying to see through. 

Suddenly she felt bad again, although the conversation had managed to cheer her up a little before. She raised her glass, then stopped halfway and placed it gently on the counter again without touching its content. Her voice was thin again. “My future is easy to divine. There is none.”

“You could have fooled me.” Ike breathed deeply. He frowned, too, as if his mood had also shifted. Then he poured another whiskey. There was something in his tone, which left her feeling guilty for that last remark. She tried to make up for it. She didn’t want to sound like a whiner.

“Look,” she then said, “It’s been nice talking to you, and it’s nice of you to take interest but …”

“—But you’re gonna stay here and drink the rest of that bottle after all?” Ike finished for her.

“Something like it.”

“You’re not the least bit worried about Jonah and his boys?”

“I am … but I shouldn’t be. As I said, there have been worse things. And … what if I went back to my motel room? What then?”

He looked directly at her again. “You tell me. What then?”

“Then I’d just drink there!” she blurted. “I’ve got a little sample of absinth in my bag—” she nodded towards her handbag, which was placed on the floor, under her legs “—but back there, in my room, I got the whole stock, if you know what I mean?”

“I think I do.”

“And I don’t think there’s much preventing me from going overboard in that, too, if you know what I mean?”

He nodded gravely now. “I still think I do.”

“So you see, it doesn’t really matter where I am,” she concluded. “There’s no reason whatsoever for me not to just … finish it.”

“I see,” he said quietly. Then, after a few moments, it was as if he had reached a decision.

“You’ve been through some pretty rough times. I can only say this again. There are good times to fight and bad times to fight, good reasons and bad reasons. There are no reasons tonight, though … and … I think you’re worth more.”

She shook her head, as if he had just slapped her in the face. “No,” she said firmly. “I am not.”

For a while none of them said anything. It was as if the air had gone heavy, a lot heavier than it usually was in the damp bar. Doris looked at Carrie from the register, her lips a thin line now. She had put the CD back on, from the beginning. Somebody was singing about rusty-red cliffs, Aboriginal land rights and dream worlds lost and found—again.

“Aren’t you ever gonna play a different one?” Carrie snapped, feeling both sorry for herself and angry now.

“No,” Doris snapped back. “If you don’t like the music in this bar, go to New York. They got plenty of boring American rock’n’ roll in New York.”

“You always say that,” Carrie said, a rising antagonism in her voice. “You always—”

“Don’t sidestep the topic of the evening, lady,” Doris cut her off immediately, her eyes narrowing. “Ike here is actually trying to help. I think it’s the last genuine offer you’ll get tonight.”

Carrie looked at Doris, then at Zeke. He returned her glance briefly, but quickly refocused on the bottles on the shelf, as if he was searching for a specific one. His brow looked extra furrowed now, however. 

“Okay,” Carrie said mutedly. “I’ll go now.”

Ike didn’t say anything. A faint relaxation of the lines on his brow seemed to show for a moment, but that was all. Carrie turned to walk around the bar to get to the little swing door at the end of it, so she could slip out the back. And that’s when she almost … dropped like a dead tree.

Ike and Doris was there immediately, trying to help her to her feet. They managed barely, but it was Doris doing most of the lifting. When Carrie was on her feet, Eisenhower kept an arm around her, even if he probably couldn’t prevent her from falling by himself.

However, at that moment the main door to the Anaconda Bar swung open and the real chill from the Montana-night came stomping in.

The bikers greeted Doris with a couple of worn-out obscenities, and then demanded a “shitload of vodka”. The frontman was Jonah himself. He was a giant. Almost 7 feet tall, muscles straining his black leather vest and the t-shirt underneath. 

Next was a big fat wrestler-type, dome-headed, who sported an enormous red beard. He wore the usual black leather motorcycle outfit as well, but without the skulls. 

Last up was a smaller, wiry guy with pale blonde hair. Of the three she had only seen Jonah before.

Jonah looked at Carrie and Ike and grinned rustily. “Hey—hey! What have we missed, guys? Huh? What have we fuckin’ missed?”

“I say we missed a fuckin’ old perv carrying away your girl, Jonah,” the wrestler-type answered in a voice so gravelly and muffled that Carrie couldn’t help imagine that his huge beard was growing from inside of his mouth as well as all over the lower part of his face. 

Carrie staggered and Ike’s grip tightened around her waist, but it was obvious he couldn’t hold her.

Jonah strode towards them, and the others fanned out so Carrie couldn’t run past them, even if she had been able to run. 

She thought for a split-second about the kitchen door, but her legs felt too much like jelly to move her anywhere now. She doubted she could reach the end of the bar, to get around it and reach the door, before Jonah blocked her way. She doubted even more she could jump over the bar. 

For the moment, just standing upright was a main priority. On Doris’ vintage CD player a bitter, defiant vocal reached a crescendo.

Jonah now hovered over the elderly man and the shabbily dressed young woman, regarding both with perverse relish.

“So where you goin’ with my girl?” he bellowed.

His two companions laughed hoarsely from behind him.. Doris had retreated to the bar and stood frozen. 

“—I asked ya sump’n, ya old  piece of shit!” Jonah spat.

But Ike just stood there, his surprisingly strong right arm still around Carrie’s waist, lending her that at least some balance.

“ … I, uh, asked him to help me home,” Carrie managed to croak.

“Izzat so?” Jonah smiled coldly. “I didn’t know you liked old timers so much, Carrie.”

“I like—.”

“Yeah, you like me better. Isn’t that right?”

Carrie cast her glance down.

Jonah looked directly at Ike now, smiling. “I thought so. This old fart is below even your standards.”

Jonah obviously meant that last remark to be a threat, but Eisenhower still just stood there, looking through the big biker as if he was made of air. 

“I know what you’re going to do,” Ike said calmly. “You’re going to beat up an old geezer who might as well be six feet under, and you are right. I am old and useless and might as well be dead.”

Jonah’s mouth opened a bit, but then it closed again. His mates even stopped laughing for a moment, as if they had to cough something up before they could go on.

Jonah found his mettle first. “Yeah, you got that right.” His arm shot forth and he grabbed Ike by the throat. The huge biker pulled in the spindly old man, like a fish on a hook. Then he whirled Ike around and caught him in a chokehold. Obviously, Ike couldn’t hold on to Carrie and she reeled, barely managing to grab onto the bar instead.

“—Jonaaah!!” Doris wailed, coming out of her trance. “I’m gonna call the Sheriff—”

“I’m so afraid … ” Jonah snarled “ … that I don’t give a shit.”

He tightened his grip around Ike’s throat. 

“So you were gonna shove your dick into my fine little girl, weren’t you?” he went on, holding the old man in a steel grip. “Don’t lie to me, motherfucker.”

Eisenhower couldn’t lie, since he couldn’t breathe. His face began to turn blue.

Now it dawned on Carrie. Jonah was crazy tonight. Artificially crazy, that was. She of all people should know the signs … the way his smelly breathing was into overdrive—almost hyperventilating. She could hear it in the way he bellowed and roared, like a maniac, seemingly for no reason at all. He was high on something.

Probably crack, she thought. I should know …

From the creepy, tick-like way his mates laughed, Carrie also gathered they all had shared a big pot of candy before coming here. In other words, they had already had their ‘Carrie’. 

She was high herself, but it was all adrenaline. No one was choking her yet, but she still felt like she could not get another mouthful of air into her lungs.

With an effort she didn’t know she was capable of, Carrie got the lump her throat out. 

“—Stop it!” 

Jonah regarded her slightly amused, but unsurprisingly didn’t let go of Eisenhower.

“– D-do anything you want to me,” Carrie heard herself say, shaking. “Just let him go.”

“Who sez I want you anymore, Carrie?” Jonah drawled coldly. “You look like you’ve seen better days.”

“Hey, I’ll fuck her!” Beard Mouth yelled, and immediately the follower lapsed into a nigh-hysterical laughter.

“I’ll fuck all of you … all night,” Carrie blurted again, trying desperately to sound calm and not pathetic. “Just let Ike go.”

Now both Beard Mouth and the follower seemed on the verge of collapse from laughter. Doris, who until now had been standing almost frozen behind the bar, couldn’t help herself any longer. She began to sob.

“—Shut up!” Jonah looked at her menacingly.

“I mean it …” Carrie tried again “—I’ll do whatever you want.” However, while she said it she felt infinitely weaker. The fear she was trying to fight had begun to infect her again. Moreover, she had to cling to the bar once more, because the floor seemed like it was constantly trying to move without her permission.

“I’m not sure I would like to fuck anyone who stinks so much,” Jonah said, still regarding Carrie with wild bloodshot eyes. “Maybe I should just put this old perv away for good and then fuck you anyway, though. That would be a better deal, wouldn’t it?”

Carrie had seen such eyes before. There was no doubt now what they had gone away to do right before they waded into the bar. 

She had little doubt what they would do from here on. Jeremy always hit her the most when he had snorted coke. 

“You … should … just kill me …” Ike managed to rasp.

“Shut up!” Carrie cried “—I’m going to give them what they want—so shut up!”

“They don’t … want you,” Ike kept on, his hoarse voice straining more and more. “ … they feel sure nobody’s ever going to want anything … valuable from them … that’s why they decided … might as well just … kill everything—urgh—”

Jonah squeezed Ike’s throat so hard the old man almost went limp. And the words disappeared like they had never been there.

“Do it, for fuck’s sake!” Beard Mouth bellowed. “Snap his fucking neck!”

The follower found this remark so amusing that he almost fell over on his ass from just laughing. He didn’t fall, though.

Suddenly Eisenhower gasped loudly and his arms flew from Jonah’s chokehold and down to his chest. For an instant, it looked as if he was trying to cry out something … but the gasp was all that came from him. Then his body finally lost all strength and he dropped in Jonah’s hold, like a ragdoll. 

Doris screamed.

“Shut the fuck up!” Jonah snarled. “Mason—get over there!” He let go of Eisenhower who dropped to the floor.

Beard Mouth lumbered past Jonah, and stopped at the lifeless old man.

“ … A heart attack …” Doris whimpered. “Ohmygodhehashada—”

“Wha—?” Jonah began, for the first time looking genuinely human and not like a wild animal.

“He’s having a heart attack, you asshole!” Carrie cried. “He already has a condition. He—”

“I’m—g-going to c-call an ambulance …” Doris got a grip on herself, and reached for her cell phone, which she had put on its usual shelf below the counter.

“You do no fuckin’ thing, Dorrie!” Jonah interjected with venom in his voice. That stopped Doris again, as effectively as if he had thrown a real rattlesnake between her and the phone. Jonah turned to Beard Mouth.

“Mase?”

Mason was on his knees before the fallen old man, looking positively out of his element. “—The old geezer’s not … breathing,” he said, like it was a baffling discovery.

“We have to call an ambulance!” Carrie tried again “—or he’ll die!” She still clutched the bar desk, her knuckles almost white. 

“He’s already dead,” Jonah said, his gaze beginning to flicker.

“No—” Doris cried “—Eisenhower can’t be dead!”

“He is dead,” Mason Beard Mouth said and heaved his blob-body up from kneeling position.

“‘Eisenhower’? ‘Dead’…?” Jonah shook his head, like somebody had punched him.

“At least we won’t have to hear about his bullshit stories anymore,” the follower commented coldly.

“It wasn’t bullshit,” Doris retorted, through several sobs. “H-he showed me a picture once, of how he met Eisenhower, and got a medal …”

“Well, he’s gonna meet Eisenhower again now!” the follower chuckled.

“Shut up, Rex!” Mason barked. 

“Let me help.” With an effort of will Carrie let go of the bar. But she couldn’t make herself move yet.

“You can do … that CPR-shit?” Jonah asked, looking directly at her now.

“Yes.” Carrie took a step forward. She had to.

“Shiit …!” Mason blurted.

“—What the fuck is it now?” Jonah was slowly coming out of his stupor and the coke-induced frenzy glowed again in his red eyes.

Mason pulled something from the vest of Eisenhower.

“He wore this …” Mason mumbled “… this medal. The old fart did get one.”

Carrie felt a rising panic, raw and real, but couldn’t help herself. She let go of the bar and dropped down beside Eisenhower, as if somebody had pushed her. 

She couldn’t determine if he was breathing. She was on her knees now, cradling his head in her arms, frantically searching for a sign—she thought he might still be breathing, but she was not sure. 

“Get up, bitch.” Jonah commanded through gritted teeth.

She just shook her head, as if in a daze.

Jonah hesitated. Mason still dangled the brightly polished medal that he had snatched, looking at it like it was something a UFO had dropped. 

“—Boss—uh—what do we—” he began.

“Shut up, Mase! Just shut the fuck up!! Let me think, okay!”

Jonah then turned slowly towards Carrie. And in the next moment there was a switchblade in his hand. 

Carrie had torn open Eisenhower’s shirt and was trying to find the place to give CPR. In reality she didn’t have any training. She had only seen movies.

“Get away from him!” Jonah commanded.

For a moment, Carrie froze. Then she shook her head as awakening from a bad dream.

Ike was there, but he was dying. Or maybe already dead. He was the only good thing to happen to her in a long time, and like everything else that was just the least bit of good and passed her life … he was gone.

“Noo!” She screamed and began punching and pumping the old man’s chest with her hands, and then occasionally leaning over to breathe into his mouth.

This was when Doris moved as if she had been hit by one of Carrie’s punches. “I’m gonna call the fuckin’ sheriff—gonna call—” She almost stumbled as she flew into the backroom behind the bar and slammed the door shut. 

Nobody had the wherewithal to do anything to stop her.

“Shiit!” Rex the follower squeaked, like the gravity of the situation that his friends were responsible for finally dawned on him. He hesitated for about two seconds, then turned and ran for the door, too. Jonah yelled at him, but it was too late.

Jonah stood frozen for exactly one second. Then he kicked Carrie hard in the head, and she fell back on the grimy floor, away from Eisenhower. 

“When I tell you what to do, you do it!” He snarled. “I don’t care what’s the problem. You fucking obey me!

Carrie wiped blood from her nose with her sleeve. “No.”

She got to her feet, barely. And started moving for Eisenhower again.

Jonah hit her again, and she staggered back. But despite all the whiskey in her blood something kept her up.

“You just do … what I say … ” Jonah’s voice was like gravel. 

That was when Mason also split. There was a brief clank, as he dropped Eisenhower’s medal on the stained floor. 

Jonah eyed him for a millisecond then it was Carrie once again. 

Jonah flung open a switchblade.  “When I tell someone to obey—they fucking do it!”

Carrie saw herself, as if from a distance. She felt … light. Maybe she was already dead and on the way … somewhere else?

She saw Eisenhower, cold and still, his eyes looking wide open into emptiness. Did he see anything anymore? Was there any lingering memories of sunny liberated beaches and laughing Italian girls and dust and sweat and everything that had come after, or was it all gone now?

“I’m going to help Eisenhower,” she heard herself say. “If you want to stop me … you will have to kill me.”

She took another step forward. Jonah lifted the knife.

And that’s when Doris slammed open the door to the backroom. And she had company.

Shotgun-company.

“Stop this shit, right now, Jonah! I’ve called the Sheriff!” She aimed the gun at Jonah with uncanny expertise. It was apparently not the first time.

Jonah looked as if he was going to take another step forward and gut Carrie for her insolence, but in the last second he lowered the knife.

“Put it down on the floor!” Doris almost screamed.

Jonah didn’t say a word. He put down the knife and held up his hands, then he slowly backed towards the door. Carrie saw that his eyes were almost completely red now, but not red enough it seemed. If they had been, he would have made another choice, she knew. Cocaine did that to you. Whatever brain you had got switched to a different mode, and sometimes that mode was not human at all.

Carrie took a deep breath. Then she ran to Eisenhower’s lifeless body. She felt the tears on her hands, as she pumped his chest once more to start his old heart again.

*

The aftermath was strangely muted. Eisenhower never came back. It had been his last battle and he had chosen it for reasons that probably seemed right to him. At least that was what Carrie tried to think as she rocked back and forth on a chair, looking at the spot where the medics had taken his body. She knew she would not come to the funeral. She was not family. And he would likely be flown to Phoenix so his wayward daughter could take care of it. At least that was what the Sheriff said. 

Sheriff Jenkins didn’t say much more than that. He didn’t ask many questions, once he realized who she was.

“So you’re going back to L.A.?” That was how he ended the brief interview, and it almost sounded as casual as he intended it to.

“I don’t know,” Carrie said, “I don’t have a home anymore.”

“But your family lives there.”

“Yeah, my mother does.”

“Okay. That’s all.” He packed away his pad and pencil. “I’ve talked to Doris and you can stay here until we get a hold of Jonah and his boys. You’re not going back to the motel. My deputy will go over there and get your things.”

“There’s only a rucksack.”

“Then he will get the rucksack.”

“Okay.” Carrie fiddled with an empty glass on the table beside her, and the Sheriff looked as if he was going to say something more, but he left it at that.

Doris came out from the backroom. She had been trying to straighten her make-up but it looked as if she had stopped half-way.

“I’ll go up and make your room ready,” she said, addressed to Carrie. There wasn’t any real warmth in her voice, but it was not cold either. Just neutral, bland even. Like she had spent all her capability for feeling something for one evening, perhaps more.

Before Carrie could answer she was already up the stairs to the first floor. Sheriff Jenkins had also left. Carrie was alone in the bar.

On the desk there was still the bottle of whiskey. 

Carrie took a breath, much like someone who was about to run a marathon after they had just finished one. Short and sharp. She raised herself slowly from the chair. She grabbed the empty glass to bring it over to the bar desk and the solution that awaited.

She needed it now more than ever.

Then halfway across the dirty floor, she saw something lying in a corner.

It was Eisenhower’s medal.

She stared at it for a long time. It was a gold star surrounded by a wreath, topped by an eagle on a bar inscribed with a single word. 

The word was “Valor”.

After a while, she put down the glass.

*

Last edited 26 Feb 2021

Photo by Sandra Seitamaa on Unsplash

*

More photos that inspired me for this story.

A Letter For My Daughter

A Letter For My Daughter

i am not sure what i want to tell you about myself
i am not sure if it is worth trying to tell you something
after all, most of us tend to think about ourselves first right
so if you think about yourself first
why would you want to spend time thinking about me
about something I have to say
if this sounds needlessly gloomy
overly self conscious melodramatic what have you
then you are absolutely right
i dare you to just look away right now
because I know that you are thinking
little spoilt girl
or maybe you cant stand all the whining
or something
and I would not berate you
so where was i
god its so hard when your brains been run over by a truck
and squeezed by a drycleaner
so do you know why my words looks like shit
and why my words sound like shit
its because they ARE an absolute reflection of my thoughts
and my thoughts are a whirling vortex of mad dancing leaves
and i am in the middle choking
god wish i could breathe
what the hell is happening to me
what i am i trying to tell you
when i look at these words they are like
stings in my skin
like i am trying to tell you
something
and that something is hidden beneath my skin
and i have just cut open to see
look for it
and i have taken it out
all the tar
or whatever
it is
and now i have sewed everything back together again
but still its bleeding through
and my hands are shaking
the words are in and out of focus
its called a focus
i would not be so confident if i were you that i am mad
after all theres only one way to determine this right
you would have to look inside my head
and then youd most like likely end up choking in all the tar as well
and then itd be normal for you
to choke
for you too
so what i am trying to tell you
who i am right
who i am
that is the first most simple thing you can tell a person
you can say myname is such and and such
and then youve mad made a connection and it is all very simple
so utterly very fucking simple
well for me it is NOT FUCKING SIMPLE
it never was
oh god dont want to be like this
a regular beat girl or something silly like that
now if only I could focus
focus is good
they teach you that in society
focus is what it is all about
wheres my card
oh here
good
focus back
but now i dont have
i think it was here before
wheres my dollar bill

will you still be waiting for me
if i dont kill the future right
now?

______

Emma Sawyer Reese was born at St. Luke’s Medical Center, Phoenix, AZ on 6 May 2006.
______

A Thousand Reasons

A Thousand Reasons

It’s stupid to try to walk through the desert from Painted Rocks to Tucson with only half a bottle of water in my handbag. But I’m doing so anyway. 

I’m still hitching … even if there will never be another car …

*

I didn’t want to blow the money that I took from him on a plane ticket back in Miami. If I first set foot in an airport with a plan only to go to Phoenix – or perhaps as far as LA – I knew I would let panic seduce me and spend them all on a ticket for the San Juan Fernandez Islands or someplace else so far away nobody knew it existed. But I would not feel safe anyway once I got there.

I didn’t want to rent a car, either.  He’d find out for sure. He still supplies those underage flicks to Mr. Fed. He’d have access to databases or credit cards and whatever he needed to track me in 60 seconds, just for 60 seconds extra whack-time – or worse: Real-time.

That’s just the problem. I am paranoid. So cash is the only option. And staying low …

When then?

Taxi across the South? Might as well have doled out for that plane.

Bus? Forget it. Too much info you have to give, too slow, too many mamas with screaming babies.

Last and least traceable choice: Hitch it.

So I did. Across five states.

*

In Orlando, I was picked up by a middle-aged man with thinning hair and sweat stains all over his back. He chattered ceaselessly for the next 100 miles about his ex-wife, his purebred canary that he had recently sold for 500 dollars, and some high school buddy who he was going to visit in Shreveport.

He was rambling, maybe overjoyed by finally having someone to talk to? Maybe afraid that if he stopped, I would leave again? So if he could just hold my attention for the next mile and then the next and … then I would not just be some dream he had had in a twilit 1-room condo in a Vicksburg suburb, which he swore he’d leave behind for good. He was going to change his life now, turn everything around, he said. I guess that made us kindred spirits.

I was deadly tired from hiding that day. So when some primeval instinct had assured me that the chattering hermit would be no threat, my eyelids gave in. I dreamt, briefly, almost blissfully, of water that turned into green swirls while my dad and I sailed to the lighthouse in the dinghy a summer’s day that might as well have been as phantom-like as the imaginary high school friend whom the driver, Mr. Fitzgeorge, – (yes, that was his name) – kept babbling on about.

I thought I was … close to making it. Until a few days later. Somewhere in Nowhere.

When Jeremy found me.

We went through it all again. And then I made a choice.

*

I got off near the Rocks and slammed the car door into his nose and heard the bone crack like those shells you sometimes step on the beach – old and left behind by life long ago, all brittle. My skin is prickling from the heat and my throat feels like I swallowed sand.

And sand is all there is … all that surrounds me and this river of forgotten asphalt, my only tenuous umbilical cord to a life of shopping sales and strangling predictability. The empty sky plays prism and focuses the sun right down on me. It must be trying to scorch me away from the earth …

*

… like Tim sometimes scorched ants with a fireglass on the veranda way – way – back in our house in Glendale. He always laughed when I said he shouldn’t hurt them.

‘They’re just ants … ‘

Strange. I minded him hurting the ants, but not the day when Tim broke Rory Mcpherson’s collar bone, pushing him off his bike because he had called me a whore again. It wasn’t the last thing Rory would break. It wasn’t the last time I’d be called a whore, either.

I was only 11 years old. There was plenty of time for things to break and to get their proper names.

*

I don’t have the guts to walk right through gravel and sand and cactus anymore… not after what feels like ten miles of zigzagging, trying to avoid anything that moves behind rocks, and seeing only more rocks … so I’m back on the road.

And his car is gone. He is not coming back for me.

But nobody else is coming this way, either. It must be a back road. Nobody who wants to see damn scratches on stones comes this way …

Still … it’s a road. So why aren’t there at least one car here every hour? – or every two hours? – or  … ?

My head feels like all of those gazillion small cactus sprouted inside it. I feel –

Oh, wait … there’s a new car up ahead now.

That’s the only problem with illusions. They always leave you disappointed.

When We Hear The Voices Sing

When We Hear The Voices Sing

The morning came, although I did not expect it to.

I go down to the small, clammy reception because I am not sure where else to go while I wait for Jeremy.

Perhaps they have some sodas or something I could buy. I am not sure I need sodas, but perhaps I just need to need something.

Mr. Ruiz (that’s what it says on the small cardboard sign taped to the reception desk) is here.

Or rather his body is here, but his mind is elsewhere. He sits as if half-asleep. A black and white TV flickers strangely on the shelf behind him, between bursts of snow and then the silent running of a horde of football players after a ball I presume is somewhere, outside the screen, too fast for the camera to follow. The picture winks in and out of existence – snow, match, snow…

I tap the bell.

“Uh — yeah?”

“Do you have something to drink?”

“There’s water up in the tab, ain’t there?”

“I mean a cola or something?”

“Cola?”

He dries sweat from his forehead and then keeps his hand there for a moment as if he has to think really hard about what a cola is.

Mr. Ruiz is a short, plump man; face puffy, something black under his eyes that I’m not quite sure about. His eyes have this feel like a glow from a dark room, where a single red light bulb dangles.

“Cola?” he repeats.

“Yes, please.”

He turns, fumbles with something behind the desk.

“Lemme see. Might have some here.”

I lean on the counter, on my elbows. Everything in my body hurts. I wonder if it’ll ever stop.

There’s no one else here.

Outside, through the dust-plastered window glass, I  see the small parking lot in front of the motel. Beyond that: big, grey-green nothing that stretches from here and into Arkansas. Maybe it’s all there is.

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Carrie’s Theme

Carrie’s Theme

Detective LaPorte quashed his cigarette in the lonely ashtray on the cafe table. Then he looked at the blonde woman who was sitting across from him.

Well, ‘sitting’ wasn’t quite the right word. More like ‘hunching’.

If this had been a grimy alley in New York the woman’s bearing would have been indistinguishable from one of the bag ladies after she had combed the trash containers and found nothing.

It didn’t fit with her blood-red lipstick, the icy green mojito in front of her, or the lazy breeze in the palm trees above their corner.

And LaPorte didn’t miss New York.

“So, miss … ” He looked at her skeptically. “You say you work for Jeremy Banner. What exactly is it that you do here?”

“What does it look like I do?” She gazed out at the beach which was the next stop for every one of the noisy clientele around them after they had downed enough drinks.

LaPorte looked around, too, but at the man with the slick hair over at the counter who was in close communication with another woman of the same age, one hand on her butt and another waving impatiently at the bartender for more to drink. He looked at other men and women who looked the same. Different kinds of hunger in their eyes, different reds, different bikini thong cuts. It didn’t matter much.

“Look … ” LaPorte leaned slightly over the table. “I’m too old and too busy for games … ”

He let it hang in the air.

“Jeremy is … okay,” the woman said. “He has had some problems, sure—” She looked down and LaPorte could see that she hadn’t quite been able to cover the bruised left eye with mascara and sunglasses “—but it’s not his fault. It’s these … Montioso goons. They come here and scare the shit out of people. They are a real, real bad deal. Jeremy just wants them to go away.”

“Then he should come to us,” LaPorte said, looking straight at the blonde. There was a steadiness in his voice that was easy to hear, even above all the noise. “Why hasn’t he?”

“I don’t know. Why are you asking me?” The woman took off her sunglasses.

LaPorte didn’t flinch. He sensed a strength in this girl that was not yet quenched, but he also knew exactly what she was doing.

And although he had made an effort of will to forget Ella, and what had happened to her, he knew he would do it again.

“I want you to do what’s sensible,” he said to the woman, and his voice felt hoarse. He reached for his own drink but found it was already empty.

He saw Ella’s bloody face again. Heard the zipper of the black bag that the paramedics had put her in.

“You’re one of the girls I still have hope for—” he looked around again “—you’re not from here. You’re not part of … all this.”

“I am now. How do you know I’m not going to tell Jeremy about you?”

“Look, Carrie …” LaPorte took out another smoke from the packet “… You’re just some good girl from up North who got in with a lot of bad company. You don’t need to be here. You will do what is right. You will let us know if Jeremy is selling us out to the Montioso’s. They come in here all the time.”

“And if I don’t?”

For a moment LaPorte hesitated. But felt tired. He wanted to … help. He didn’t want to see another Ella. But maybe what had happened to Ella had happened because he wanted to help? Because he had gotten too old for these kinds of things?

Then he thought of what Bridget was going to cook when he came home. Or what furniture she had smashed this time.

He rubbed his brow. “The key of coke we found last night in your car … it has your prints all over it.”

Carrie looked down. “He said he’d beat me if I didn’t do it.”

LaPorte held the cigarette without lighting it. A sudden gust of wind from the sea blew a few ashes out of the tray and onto his white jacket. He dusted them off quickly. “I believe you and I just want to help.”

There was acid in Carrie’s voice now. “But if I don’t spy on Jeremy for you again, you’ll throw me in prison?”

LaPorte threw the cigarette away. “What’ll it be?”

Carrie looked at him, and he thought he saw something glint in her eyes. It wasn’t the sun, but it felt just as searing.

“You know, I wanted to be a lawyer once,” she said coldly.

“You can get back to the life you want again,” LaPorte said. “There are mitigating circumstances. And if you help us, you won’t go anywhere but home.”

She looked out over the ocean. “Or somewhere else …”

LaPorte nodded, but all he saw was Ella. The blood. The body bag.

He coughed. “You know, you can go back to your education. Maybe even be a lawyer. There are programs … “

“No,” Carrie said. “That life is gone forever. But I will still help you because it’s what I once wanted to be. Not because of that stupid key.”

He nodded again and felt a heaviness that only came in the late hours, not in the middle of the day like this.

Carrie put back on her dark glasses. “Guess a cop like you wouldn’t understand a crazy attitude like that … “

LaPorte stood up. His voice was still hoarse. “I guess I wouldn’t.”

The One I Tried To Destroy (epilogue)

The One I Tried To Destroy (epilogue)

I don’t go to the police. I think about it of course, but I don’t go. Mr. Lynch back at the hotel don’t ask questions and I have no idea why. I look like hell. He just gets a maid to come up and help me wash and bandage and ask if there is anything more I need and when I say ‘no’, she doesn’t come back. But there is something I need, so I go out again to a 24-hour store.

In the morning then I haven’t slept at all and I’m all drugged up on caffeine and cheap booze. It’s a wonder I can still walk down the stairs to the ancient computer that Mr. Lynch has lovingly installed on a small table across the minuscule reception desk.

‘Free for use for guests’ – whenever it works that is…

There’s a single e-mail. Nobody’s written to me in ages… Who –
__________

<Carrie,
My uncle finally went to Villa Tunari, so I could get a lift. You had not answered my last mail so I try again. Where are you? Your mother has left a message, too, at ENTEL. I picked it up. She is very worried. But you have not given her your e-mail address, she said. I am praying for you – wherever you are. Please answer this mail and tell me you are all right.
Julia>
________

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The One I Tried To Destroy (final part)

The One I Tried To Destroy (final part)

I should’ve quit at the first danger sign – that is when he insisted on us driving in his own car and not taking a taxi. I should have just gone away then. But after all that struggling with myself to prove that I was not afraid and didn’t care if … well, I didn’t.

The real shit started, though, when he suddenly turned off the expressway, down a minor road without lighting that ended in a container lot of some sort. We had been talking fairly normally, albeit awkwardly, up till then – actually, we had been talking quite well from the moment we left hostal Peron:

Miguel had first asked if I wanted to come with him to someplace called “Tigre” where his brother owned an “acclaimed” restaurant. I had said yes, because what else should I say? I had gone this far with him. Why question the fact that a guy like Miguel really might have a brother with a restaurant that got stars in the local newspapers.

I mean, didn’t everyone have a life before a war? Why not him? Why was I so focused on seeing only stereotypes – like the young offenders from Boyle Heights or Mid-West small towns who so often sign up for the army because they got nowhere else to go.

Then we had reached his car, an old Sedan that looked like it was only running on good will. I hesitated. I discovered that I was still in the process of making my real decision. The problem was that I didn’t even know for sure why I had done this. I only knew I didn’t want to date him for real – you know go home with him and all that – or anything. Of course not! But this was kind of like a date, wasn’t it? The problem is always like that: If you have never made up your mind entirely, if you don’t know your own reasons, someone else will tell you what they are.

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The One I Tried to Destroy (IV)

The One I Tried to Destroy (IV)

Night envelops Buenos Aires again. And with it I am enveloped in more strange dreams about ice cold seawater pushing into my mouth. It’s like Miguel’s bag is still in my room. I know what is in it, and yet I did not look in it. Or … have I not been sleeping at all, since I came home, just imagining?

Outside my hostal a hooker howls in frustration over a customer that apparently drove away without paying for a job in the car just below the dead lamppost at the corner; there is the even more distant howling of horns from taxi cabs squeezing each other to get the last customers in front of the Estación Buenos Aires Línea Belgrano Sur; transistor radios blast through wide open windows in the apartments opposite our building and in our building – bad pop music from the more seedy discos in the barrio of Barracas where I’m staying.

Funny, because in the day, Buenos Aires seems relatively mild, despite its subdued Latin American passion and the occasional soccer brawl; it’s mild in attitude, even welcoming in places – unlike, for example, L.A., which I’ve been to a few times. Sucked big time. Didn’t like it. Maybe if you lived in Beverly Hills, but then you’d just be a bird in gilded cage, wouldn’t you?

Maybe Ohio wasn’t so bad. Or even Skye …

Careful, Carrie – don’t get over-sentimental. Just find that single clean black blouse you have, and the least-worn looking pair of jeans and that comb you use too seldom. And then Mr. Miguel Sanchez Palomino won’t get any ideas of the sort men who are 20 years older than you might easily get. I’m not gonna look the part.

It could still go horribly wrong, though … What was I thinking?

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That Imaginary Desert

That Imaginary Desert

MissCarraway: Hey bro, I thought you military men weren’t allowed to use ICQ? What if the brass suspected you of divulging state secrets or something?

BlackRock245: Haha im on leave this week, remember? What time is it over there anyway? Shouldn’t you be in bed?

MissCarraway: Only about 7PM. Don’t worry about me.

BlackRock245: Caroline its been like six weeks since we heard a peep from u. Dad is freaking a bit out. Where are you? Brazil?

MissCarraway: Close. Buenos Aires.

BlackRock245: OK well just here on good old Skye. But going back to Inverness tomorrow.

MissCarraway: They going to send you off to war soon?

BlackRock245: Only the seasonal drills this year. Dont think there’s goin to be another dunkirk in 2001.

MissCarraway: Careful what you wish for. Granpa’s stories aren’t exactly fun.

BlackRock245: Sis, when are you going back to the states?

MissCarraway: Soon. A little more time.

BlackRock245: Deborah must be worried, too.

MissCarraway: Mom is okay. She emails a bit. She’s not on chat.

BlackRock245: She is. She chats with us sometimes.

MissCarraway: Dad talks to mom?!

BlackRock245: Course not. But Sheila does sometimes. Her and mom always got along. Crazy huh? But don tell dad they do it. Hell go bananas. 

MissCarraway: I won’t. I don’t talk to dad, remember?

BlackRock245: He wants to talk to you u know. He wants to know if u are all right. He asks me all the time if i talk to u and what do i say? ‘yeah like every 6 months’ lol 

MissCarraway: Tell him I’m OK. I’m coming home soon. I’ll email mom about it tomorrow. Just need to figure out which plane so I don’t end up in Timbuktu haha.

BlackRock245: Funny sis as always. What have u been up to? Wish I could travel as much as u. See the world!

MissCarraway: I only went away because I had to. You know that. But yeah, I saw all the touristy sites. Machu Picchu and such. You’ll hate it.

BlackRock245: I hate crowds alright. Glad u remember that 🙂 Still would be nice to go sometime

MissCarraway: Hey, don’t they send you on exotic overseas on missions?

BlackRock245: I don’t think theres goin to be anything ever, tbh. Well be chewin highland grass this year again. Was thinking about quitting actually, getting a wee job or somethin

MissCarraway: Now dad *will* go bananas!

BlackRock245: Not his call. Im here because I want to, but if nothing much happens I may change my mind. All that bollocks about the Falklands was a long time ago anyway. He doesnt talk about it anymore, btw, and i dont let him

MissCarraway: About the Falklands … I was thinking about going out there.

BlackRock245: What? Isnt it like a 1000 miles furhter south?

MissCarraway: Just kidding. I don’t even think you can fly there from Arg. Probably still pissed about the war.

BlackRock245: And u always yap about how I should stop letting dad

MissCarraway: I don’t!

BlackRock245: Ur the one wanting to go to the bloody falklands.

MissCarraway: It was just a thought. I am here, so why not? And

BlackRock245: What?

MissCarraway: Maybe it’ll make a difference to him, you know? Maybe he’ll stop being an ass if I came home and told him that I was actually there. That I wanted to see where it happened.

BlackRock245: Dads not goin to stop being dad. Or an ass.

MissCarraway: Haha. Good one.

BlackRock245: Look, are u goin to come home to bonnie ol Scotland? We miss u.

MissCarraway: I am pretty broke after this, but I think I will. Yes. That’s a promise.

BlackRock245: FInally. 🙂 🙂 Look, I got to go now. Sheila & dad just came back. Unless u want to say hello?

MissCarraway: Tell dad I will call him soon.

BlackRock245: I will. And Caroline

MissCarraway: Yes?

BlackRock245: Its been 7 years and dad’s been an ass. But we want u to come home safe ok? No matter if its US or 

MissCarraway: You’d better log off now. And tell him I’m fine.

BlackRock245: I will. Take care.

MissCarraway: You too. I’m coming back to Scotland before they send you to Dunkirk, okay?

BlackRock245: Dont worry. I think there arent goin to be any more world wars.

MissCarraway: No, war is over.

The One I Tried to Destroy (III)

The One I Tried to Destroy (III)

The cold South Atlantic waters can no longer be stopped from pressing through your nose, mouth, into your lungs; – the inevitability of the breathing reflex is remarkable, even when there’s nothing to breathe but heavy sub-Arctic seawater …  

*

I get torn out of sleep, almost instantly, when I can’t breathe.

Wait … I … can breathe. I’m … alive. Here. In the hostal. In Buenos Aires. Near the railway …

It’s deep night. The city is not asleep. I don’t think I’ll be again.

I’ll be thinking about why I am going back to look for Miguel tomorrow, and why it is so important that I have not  looked in the bag.

His bag. It’s there. On the floor, beside my too-short bed with the cement-mattress.

What do I want to prove?

*

Now

There he is.

Back on his little ’platform’. In his uniform.

I should really … get the hell away.

I walk over.

The plaza in front of the presidential palace is almost deserted. They must still be holding a siesta or something. A few seagulls drift lazily above, looking down on us indifferently as if they’d say: ‘We’ve seen it all before’ … ‘we’ve seen it all before’.

Miguel reacts like he’s seen me before, sure enough:

He doesn’t even nod. Just look the other way. Problem is, like I said, there’s no one else really to look it.

I take a few steps closer:

“Hi. I’m sorry for what I said yesterday. I acted like a jerk.”

A little twitch around the mouth, but he says nothing.

“I brought … your bag.”

I put it down on the ground, before him.

” … I have not looked in it.”

Something … changes in his face, like a little part of the invisible shadow on it fades away. He shakes his head a bit, then looks briefly after the seagulls. Then at the pamphlets. There’s a huge stack in a cardboard box. Same size as before – the stack. Then he looks directly at me.

Then he takes a step forward – suddenly, takes the bag.

“Thank … you.” He looks at me, still suspicious.

“You … really have not looked? In it?” he asks, not really looking as if he’d believe any answer I’m ready to give.

So I just shake my head.

“Why?” he inquires sharply.

“For the same reason I came back. I want to … ” – Now it’s my turn to shake my head – “Oh, I don’t know … I don’t know what the hell I want. But I know that I didn’t want to piss you off yesterday. I meant well. I just wanted to …  a cup of coffee … you know … “

My words die, but he nods; looks like he is considering something.

“Here.” He holds out one of his Falklands War-pamphlets.

“I already … have one of those.” I regard the pamphlet skeptically. He keeps nudging it towards me – as if he’d want to stick it on my t-shirt or something.

“Nono – ” he says impatiently. “I want you to write me where you stay – your hotel. If you want … “

He hesitates.

“No, no it’s okay – ” I manage to say and take the pamphlet “But do you want to – “

He holds up a hand as if to silence any further discussion.

“I will pick you up. At 8.”

(Okaay … )

“Do you, er, have a pen,” I ask stupidly, just realizing what’s missing from the picture.

“A pen?” he repeats, as if I had just asked him about the space hamster. Then he slips a hand into the breast pocket of the worn uniform. It comes up empty.

Now it’s Miguel’s turn to look like he’d rather have seen a space hamster.

“I must have forgotten it.”

“Then you’ll just have to hope that people have their own pens with them – so they can sign your petition,” I say and expect a lash back because that was positively the most inappropriate joke for someone who only just got to the phase of ‘ready-to-repair’ in the relationships truck stop.

He shakes his head again, at me I think … but for the first time a smile seems to be creeping up on his lips. Like it had been lying in ambush all the time.

“You’ll just have to tell me. I’ll remember.”

“The Hostal Peron, near the old railway station. You know it?”

“I know it. I … think.”

“It’s between – look – ” I pull up my Lonely Planet, which by now is only held together by hope. It’s a wonder it’s not fallen completely apart. I show him – on a minuscule map.

“Oh, there!” he exclaims. “Good.”

“Now you can pick me up at 8.”

“Good,” he says again.

“This is pretty odd … I thought you’d say no.” I put the guidebook back in my side-bag, and take a good look at him.

A voice screams from somewhere faraway but deep inside me: What the hell are you doing? Does he think I’m crazy? Or just pathetic?

Or is he so desperate that he thinks I’m so desperate and this is the clownish movements before a little roll in the hay, or some sweat-stained bed in a clammy motel. He must be at least 45 – God …

Miguel looks like, he is about to swallow something, like some of that humid, stale air that seems to be lying heavy over the main plaza this afternoon; drenched with a good dose of lead and exhaust from the millions of cars who probably feel it’s more their city than the humans’ now.

“I don’t know … what to say,” he then blurts, meekly.

“You’re not supposed to say anything,” I say and shrug. “You just invited me out. That’s all.”

“This is a stupid idea,” he then exclaims. “Stupid, stupid … “

“If you’re not gonna come, that’s okay, but I’ll be waiting at 8. I trust you. Ask for Carrie ‘So-ieer’ in the reception.”

“You really want to go out, señorita. What kind of woman are you?”

“Not the one you thought I was – for a few seconds. I’ll choose to let that slide. But if you think about me that way again, I might not come down when you stand there at 8.”

“Why do you do it? Do you feel … sorry for me?” He looks like he had tasted something disgusting, about to spit it out.

“No. But maybe I feel sorry for myself. Is that good enough for you?”

“No.”

“Well, why do you say yes then? You must feel at least as crazy as I am acting, to say yes to such a proposal.”

“Maybe I … would like some company. Not of … that kind!” he quickly ads.

“I know … ” I say an watch him again, not wearily anymore, kind of like attentively. He’s got a sea of lines under his eyes, making him look even older, but for some reason all I can think is ’45’. I dunno why …

“I know … ” I say again, as if to reassure myself before I begin to question my craziness. “I am good at spotting people who are as fucked up as me.”

“Why do you say that? Your Spanish is pretty excellent” – he nods with a suppressed hint of admiration – “if you are this good at speaking our language it should mean you are patient. And patient people are seldom ‘fucked up’ – loco.”

“And yesterday it meant something different.”

“What?”

“Oh, I forgot. Never mind. But yeah, I’ve practiced. Now, do you still want to do this?”

“Do you?”

“Hell, yes.”

“Good.” He nods more slowly, then takes a deep breath. It’s like he feels relieved like he didn’t – or couldn’t – believe this was real. I’m real enough, though. For now.

I turn to walk. I don’t want to break the moment. Perhaps if I stay he’ll regret it. Or I will. Maybe we’ll regret it all later. We still have time for that – and to screw up. Two total strangers, so totally incompatible don’t just do things like this. Do they?

Perhaps you’re just only good at making weird friends, Carrie Sawyer, so you might as well accept it. You are weird yourself, not like everybody else – who’re weird in their own right. You’re weird-weird. You’re someone who’s on the fringe. Not normal. You might as well act the part. Embrace it.

Hell, yeah …

“I’ll see you at 8 then,” Miguel affirms, looking somewhere else, everywhere else than at me. Perhaps he’s afraid, too, that I’m just a figment of his imagination. I wonder what that imagination has seen … in war, I mean. Perhaps that’s why I wanted to jump into this, to be crazy. Perhaps it’s my only chance to gain access to the mind of someone who’s really been to war and then know what it means. Does his war look like mine?

Probably not, but maybe there are similarities.

And that – is as close as I get to a definition of an explanation for my actions today.

Wait – there was something else. I’d almost forgotten.

I turn, look back at him:

“Miguel – why do you say that patient people are seldom loco?”

He regards me inscrutably: “Well, patient people are able to wait until the madness has left them. That’s really all there is to it. And madness comes to all of us, if we live long enough – it comes in some form or other.”

“You sound very philosophical.”

“I’m not. I was a history teacher, though, before I went to war. There is a close relation between history and philosophy.”

I nod. “You can tell me about it tonight. I look forward to it.”

I walk away, without saying goodbye, without shaking hands. When I’ve left the plaza and can’t see him anymore, my mind goes into overdrive again and I agree with myself that this was most definitely the stupidest thing I’d ever done. Not only that, it was also an illusion.

He is not gonna show up.

*

[GO TO PART IV]

The One I Tried to Destroy (II)

The One I Tried to Destroy (II)

The next day:

“Hola … “

“Ah, the beautiful señorita is back. What a surprise.”

“People don’t often come back?”

“Nobody ever comes back.”

Today the sun is up, which is another surprise. The mist is still lurking somewhere out at sea. The streets are less crowded but the ever-present droning of traffic from a million cars you can’t even see reminds you that this is Buenos Aires – a capital.

A few people have found their way to Plaza de Mayo, along with me, however …  a lone Japanese tourist, lost in his love affair with the camera; an old man picking up garbage and putting it into a can; a smart lady talking into a cell-phone, adjusting her sunglasses … They all seem strangely upbeat even though you can’t see it directly if you look at them. They don’t smile, but they seem to be filled with some kind of … energy.

Perhaps it was an energy that only I could sense, something I longed to have myself: A sense of somewhere to go. But I saw nothing new for me in this city, after the fat mist had finally been torn away by the fierce winds I could hear outside my small room at the hostal all through the night like they were trying to tear apart the building itself.

Nothing except him …

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The One I Tried to Destroy

The One I Tried to Destroy

<Dear Julia,

It was not easy coming to Buenos Aires, finally. It was not easy saying goodbye. But I had to go and you know why … There’s a war in me. But maybe here, at the edge of another ocean, I will be able to make an armistice?

I’m afraid you can’t understand what I’m trying to say – even though you are trying; even though our wars – yours and mine – are so much alike. After all, what is the true difference between losing a husband and your best friend? It’s so close, as we often talked about. The wound is the same shape; it is just a matter of depth, isn’t it?

My war led me to abandon a ship that was already sinking: I left Ohio, my few friends, my mother, and began … drifting. My months in Bolivia, with you, was one of the stops I will never forget.

You helped me find faith again; faith that perhaps all losses are not final. Perhaps … there are always other friends, waiting somewhere, for you to find them – when the ones you knew have been torn out of your life.

If there was one thing I could never share (and I made no secret of that) it was the other faith – your Catholic faith in God. But in a strange way, I feel I have shared it.

Because it was that faith of yours that kept you alive; that there was some indefinable meaning to all you had to go through and that there was some even more indefinable salvation at the end. It made you not give up, and it somehow made me not want to give up.

Maybe it was like one of those waves from the ocean you always wanted to see but never have seen. Like those huge Pacific waves that greeted me every day when I hitch-hiked down the Pan-American.

If you go down to the rock-strewn beach and stand as close to the surf as you dare, then you easily feel the fine mist from its crest in your face even before it crashes down. It’s a nice way to wake up, especially if you are a little sore from 200 miles on the back of a post truck.

Your strength reminds me of the strength of such a wave, Julia; because of your determined will to live – to try again and again, no matter how hard you yourself are hit back by the rocks of the coast, which the currents and wind inevitably hurl you into. You accept it, gather yourself, and come back. Always. And eventually, the sand and gravel of the coast will be eroded away, the rocks will submerge and your wave will win.

Am I being too far out? Perhaps. You know my bouts of melancholy and my penchant for the dramatic. But what can you do when you sit on a bench here in front of that faded palace of roses they call the government building for all of Argentina; where such monumental figures as Evita and Juan Peron once stood on balconies and set afire the imagination of the crowds.

Right now the government palace is barely visible through the clouds of sticky fog flowing in from the South Atlantic. And so is my purpose in continuing all the way to here … I feel. Perhaps there never was one.

I had to journey on, Julia – to leave our friendship before it really got started, I sometimes feel. But at least this time I knew what I was leaving. In Puno, where I met this other traveler, the Canadian – you remember? … there I just left in the morning – before I got to know her at all. I was afraid, but I didn’t even know what for. Now I know.

And it’s hard to have to admit to yourself: That the reason you’re alone is that you are running away.

It’s even harder when you know it’s what you are doing and you just can’t stop doing it: It’s like some illness of the mind.

My mum briefly worked in health care, as I think I mentioned. She needed the money and during summer there were not many substitute classes in school. She told me that the worst of it was not to see the patients who did not know they were hurting themselves.

It was to see the patients who knew they were hurting themselves but could not stop it.

I sometimes wonder if I …

… What would you say?

Perhaps … that I am addicted to running away.

Yes, you would probably say that. You know how it is.

But the only way I can get un-addicted is to drive myself away from everybody – until the end of the world. And if I survive going that end, then … it … is finally out. I think. I think the knot will be loosened. I think I can go back, then.

But right now I don’t think I can send this letter to you, Julia. Like all the others, I think I will just crumble it and throw it away.

What would you think of me if you actually read it?>

*

I am just about to go home to my shoddy hostal, when I run into him.

Okay, perhaps I could have evaded him … but perhaps I didn’t want to.

After all, what is he doing there, alone on the Plaza de Mayo, standing below sickly-looking trees with the silent rose-tinted presidential building hovering behind him? Is he some kind of guard?

No, his uniform looks old and worn and he hands out some kind of leaflet.

I walk up:

“Would the señorita care for something to read?” he asks when he sees me.

Now that I’m closer I see the lines of his face clearly, like a map of some scarred coast. I don’t want him to be more than 40 but he looks older. Hair slightly greasy and he has stubs. Okay, so he is not in service – not in anybody’s service anymore, it would seem.

I take the leaflet. It is poorly printed, written by a typewriter. There’s a lot in Spanish that I can’t digest with only a few seconds of skimming, but it’s something about a pension for retired military servicemen.

“That’s right,” he says – voice slightly whispering, slightly coarse at the same time. “They deny us our pension. Those pigs. Makes one think, right?”

“Uh, yeah … ” I nod courteously. “That … is unfair.”

I close the leaflet. On the behind is a photocopied cut-out of a map. Now those shapes I recognize.

Something twinkles in his deep, black eyes but his face remains the same. Not a winch.

“Las Malvinas… ” I say and close the leaflet, for want of something to do. Then after a few seconds, I decide I’d better put it in my small shoulder bag.

Something dark, like a shadow, seems to briefly glide between us. Then I make another decision; to say something else – something … polite.

I could have gone on, like the couple of tourists who passes us just now, heading for the presidential palace and chatting eagerly in English about whether or not Madonna was really any good as Evita.

After all, I still look the part. – Okay, my clothes may be shabby from so many months on the road – but what does this old soldier from some long-forgotten war think that I really am? Does he think I am just what he sees: A blonde tourist gringa not really being conscious of anywhere she is going? A little tourist bunny lost?

I realize that I don’t really know what to say, so I don’t say anything. I just nod, and I hope he doesn’t notice that I don’t feel like looking directly into those black eyes. At all.

Then I leave, heading back for the little hostal with the creaking door handles, crammed into that narrow alley a stone’s throw from the central station – somewhere I think by now I can find my way back to. I’ve been here a week and that should be enough, to find my way back to a hole. But is it enough to find out which way to go now, I wonder?

I’m not sure if he follows me with those black eyes of his, but I get the feeling that he does.

It’s not that … they are threatening eyes, yes, but not pitch black like the inside of a grave; more like the pit you sometimes glance in the eyes of alcoholics, sitting in the streets … staring after you.

And perhaps that is what makes me come back the next day.

*

[GO TO PART TWO]

*

Last edited April 2021 

Until You See the Signs

Until You See the Signs

“You were the attractive queen of hearts while I was only the jack of clubs.”

The driver glances knowingly at me, then adds, “that’s what the cards told me this morning.”

“Oh, really?” I laugh nervously and try not to look at where his hand is moving. He should really keep both hands on the steering wheel. But he rattles on.

“I always have my coffee in the same café, a nice gringo place by the way. And I always tell my fortune with the cards before each day’s drive. And isn’t it remarkable that a lovely señorita such as you need a lift just today when there’s a queen of hearts in the reading?”

“No comprendo.” I throw him the stupid didn’t-bother-to-learn-that-much-Spanish tourist smile and then I look out the window for the nth time but the car is still going at least 80 so I’d get squashed if I jump out now.

Let me rewind a bit and tell you how I got into this mess. I’m not certain you can make any more sense of it than I can, because my life sure as hell seems to be like a series of tornadoes these days, all crashing into each other and throwing things around.

But the fact is, I have lived for almost a year now in Bolivia, and I have never felt threatened here. Ever.

I guess any sane person should have. Mom would have freaked out if she knew just how far out in the jungle I was living until recently. Me: 21-year old, blonde, a ‘stupid American’, and definitely ripe for the picking – at least in the eyes of some men. 

But nothing ever happened.

Then I finally decide to go back to civilization and things turn crazy real fast.

It starts when the bus’ gear shift breaks. The driver manages to wheel it into a village in the first gear and then runs off to find an auto mechanic without saying when he will be back. 

As I drift around the village with the other passengers, mostly locals out to smoke and take a piss, I notice a lone taxi in a corner of the market square.  I reckon I’m still at least an hour away from Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the only place here big enough to host an international airport, and I don’t know when the bus is going to ever move again. So I walk over and ask the taxi driver, how much for the rest of the way? 

One hundred bolivianos. 

Okay. It’s a lot of money here but back in the US, it’s more like two drinks, even though I still have to be careful with the little money I have left. 

There are no phone numbers or addresses printed on the taxi, only a homemade sign in the window. Tourists are warned in all the guidebooks not to take taxis like that, only the official ones. But, you know I feel I have lived in Bolivia forever now, so I’m not a tourist anymore, right? 

I look at the driver, trying to take stock of him. He is a sweaty 30-something guy with a thin mustache and piercing eyes but seems like the harmless silent type, or so I convince myself. And I really don’t want to be stuck here.

I agree to 100 bolivianos and off we go.

For 20 minutes he stares blankly out the front window, while his body is going through the motions to get his vehicle from the spartan upland and into the city where I plan to sleep for a hundred years. Then he begins to talk about cards.

And when I don’t seem to identify overly much with his vaunted queen of hearts, he ignores me and keeps talking about all the times he didn’t make that draw – and never met a girl on the road. 

My mind is racing way faster than the car. I look out the open passenger window again and pretend to admire the withered baby palm trees, dry fields, and unfinished buildings on both sides of the road.

I try to say to myself that this guy is not going to follow up on his implied threat of pulling over and doing various things to me if I don’t pretend to be his queen of hearts. But who’s to say he won’t pull over if I do agree to play along, and he is not just out to give compliments and let that be that? What if it’s the little finger that will tempt the shark enough to fancy grabbing the rest, and then some? I heard about two female tourists getting raped and killed at Lake Titicaca not so long ago. A rarity in Bolivia, but not an impossibility. 

This is insane. Am I about to be the next headline on some traveler warning site?

I glance at him again and see pearls of sweat dance over his brow while he tries to find a grimace that is somewhere between friendly and intimidating. My heart beats like a jackhammer but I try to remain calm and use the only asset I have right now.

Anger. And believe me, I have plenty of that.

I turn slowly towards him and explain in perfect Bolivian Spanish that he is going to pull over now because I am a crazy American chica who is here to jump from a chair with more than his loving arms around my neck, once I get to the hotel where my Bolivian boyfriend was supposed to meet me, but instead hung himself on this day exactly a year ago. I have tried life since but I have given up and now I am going to follow him. 

Because I loooved him so much.

Yes, that’s right. Everything is planned. I have even reserved the exact same room.

So I am not afraid of you, Mr. Sweaty, and I have nothing to lose so you had better drive me all the way to the hotel and to the agreed price, or I’m going to fast forward my planned exit from this world by pulling at a lot more than what is in your pants and make this car go over in the other lane and get squashed against the next oncoming truck.

Sweaty looks like somebody threw him a gut punch, bewildered and somewhat in pain. He didn’t get what he wanted; he hadn’t even articulated it for himself and that was the hole in his defense. And so I made my move and now he is off-balance, his tired self-pitying mind trying to process the new information. 

And so when a big fat truck actually pulls out to get in front of us (as Bolivian drivers are wont to do) but from a side road, and Sweaty hits the brakes – that’s when I kick open the passenger door. He forgot to lock it, of course, because, as I counted on, he hadn’t really planned this out. Or perhaps the lock didn’t work as most things in Bolivian cars. 

Whatever the case, I run to the roadside and then up the gravel lane that the truck came from where there is an excavator exhibition of all things, and I never see him again. 

I even got my few remaining things, all in my small faded rucksack, which never needed to go in the trunk anyway – thank God.

All in all, I get away with the whole stunt with only a few bruises on my left leg, which I get because I stumble after I get out on the asphalt safely because there is a damn rock on the road. 

Go figure. But I make it.

And now I have to make it on foot in burning noon heat towards Santa Cruz, still 20 miles away.

*

I hitch a new ride with a pharmacist, who drives an old American Ford pickup. Small, gray man, about 55. His wife, I take it, is in the pickup as well, so I climb in without too much apprehension even if my heart still hasn’t quite slowed to its normal routine. 

She is a big woman, with clear native features. As I squeeze in, I’m really glad there weren’t any ice cream parlors in the jungle.

And you know, my feet hurt and it’s too bloody long to walk to the city center where the decent hotels are. So Señor and, yes, Señora Flores are going to be my saviors and hopefully no more surprises. If there was a plane today, they could have dropped me off at the airport, but in a way, I’m glad there isn’t so I get an excuse to burn some of my last reserves on a room with a proper bed.

I find out that the two are on their way to an evening shift, right after the siesta they both look like he’d rather be doing still. But there is a sharp twinkle in the tired eyes of the woman, when she asks me, why I am out here, all alone and walking to Santa Cruz.

So I explain it, as nonchalantly as I can, and she feigns a quick smile, as she hears the story about how the taxi driver looked like an idiot while I heroically bolted towards the fenced area with the latest fashion in excavators.

“Where are you going, then?” She says it just loud enough, so it makes me think she also wants to make conversation in order for her husband not to fall asleep behind the wheel.

“I’m going to … Hotel Amazonas.”

I had almost forgotten the name. It looked good on one of the few pages of my Lonely Planet that was still readable after almost a year in jungle humidity. I had thrown it away, but Luis – Julia’s kid – found it for me. Behind a shed. Apparently, I had been reading it last when I came to town, and then not really. I don’t even know if the hotel still exists. I didn’t call beforehand.

“I know that place,” she says and lights up as if something grand has just been revealed to her. “It is two blocks from our pharmacy.”

Thank God for small favors.

We get there without any more incidents, only lots of small talk which I can deal with.

So the Hotel Amazonas turns out to both exist and be okay, too. A middle-end hotel where everybody looks a bit tired and the vending machine in the lobby is empty, but otherwise, it is clean and friendly. 

I hit the shower next and after that hop straight into bed. Then I treat myself to a good load of CNN droning on the fuzzy TV that is precariously mounted on the wall in front of the bed. But, of course, I can’t concentrate on president Bush’s first budget.

I try to imagine what a guy I could like would actually
be like. Someone I might meet – tomorrow? Someone like Manuel maybe, with all his good parts and none of the bad.

How about a good-looking guy, who was born into a mob family or something – and he wants out because of me? Ha, ha …

I smile about that scenario for the rest of the evening, and in the beginning, it feels exciting. But as night descends on Santa Cruz, excitement gets replaced by a feeling of desolation. My construct of a perfect man fades out and only fog is left in my mind.

What is wrong with me? Can’t I even think of a good-looking guy anymore, after what happened?

Anyway, since I sure as hell can’t sleep I know I have to go out or lose my mind in here.

The problem is that the first place that strikes me as the place to go, is a bar I saw at the plaza and I promised myself I wouldn’t get drunk so easily anymore.

Yeah, just like I promised myself I would recover from losing my best friend back in Ohio, oh, and also find love again and, yeah, in general only think about love. Pure love. How else to attract it? Yes, I would seek out and find good things only. Rebuild. Those were some of my most cherished promises.

I get up and get my clothes on and head for the bar. It’s too late and I’m too tired to start over before tomorrow, anyway.

*

The bar is okay but boring. Irish theme. But it’s mostly tourists and the local rich kids who haven’t really seen what is going on in the jungle or highlands outside their city. Anyway, I had to go although I really shouldn’t have.

There’s some kind of, I dunno, expectation of richness that comes with being a white American. People here seem to expect you to bathe in money every morning and you get to think of yourself like that after a while, even if you constantly scrounge for cash and send pathetic emails back home for the support you can never really get and pay with promises you can’t really keep.

Julia once confided in me that Bolivians are used to thinking about Americans as either DEA agents or uncaring tourists with a gold bar up their asses. They only shit out pieces if they are allowed to take a nice photo of your kids and pet the llama.

And so I got enlightened about living in rural Bolivia for some months. At first, I felt superior. Then I felt inferior. And finally, we were all just normal. Just human beings getting by and trying to do the best we could.

But I had, of course, met Julia, not to mention her brother. That changed the game. From eternal-backpacker-moves-in-with-locals to … I don’t know, but it didn’t work out. Living with them became the kind of normality I had run away from in Ohio with family responsibilities and close ties that hurt when they broke up and people died. I had run away from closeness because it brought me too much pain and lo and behold – I ended up just the same in the Bolivian outback of all places.

God, Julia was crying when I said I had to leave. And I lied when I said I would go home to the States, the natural thing to do now that my little ‘Second Life’-project in South America has met its end. 

And at the bar there is no one interesting to talk to about all of this, and, more importantly, no one to buy me the drinks I don’t feel I can afford.

So on the wrong side of midnight, I finally retire to my hotel room’s small balcony with a bottle of the local sweet booze, Singani, from the store across the street and a surprisingly cold coke from the machine in the reception. They make good company.

I checked the only computer they have in the reception and there was no email for me. No messages in the reception. I’ll check again tomorrow.

 I let my mind run through all the impressions from the last 10 months. Like a kaleidoscope of love and hate and quiet evenings outside the tin-roof house listening to the jungle murmur. Julia and I never got tired of that. And she was – is – very sharp. She’ll get out of that one day, to some better place. I’m sure of it.

And she has heart. She was the one who found a doctor we could trust and pay for when we thought I was pregnant. Manuel had just found his friends and an extra bottle.

I bet he was scared. But does that excuse him? I think that’s when it started to go wrong.

I drink more and my mind churns around the possibilities. Below me, the streets of Santa Cruz are as alive as ever. The warm tropical night mixed with clinking bottles, hooting scooters, and boys and girls laughing.

As I crane my neck to see, I also move my butt and the rest of me and I accidentally push the bottle so it topples. I manage to catch it but not before a good deal of Singani goes through the empty spaces in the metal railing.

“Hey! Que pasa!

Down below are two guys, looking up and laughing and waving at me. Goodlooking, shining smiles, pastel-colored t-shirts, nicely tanned and trained. Some more rich kids. They’d never dress like this where Julia lived. Maybe I missed that, too. 

“Hey, guys – sorry for dripping on you.”

I raise the bottle up again and the dripping stops. 

“Why don’t you come down here?” 

Direct, aren’t they? Okay. I give them my best and least drunk smile. “I can’t. I have been drinking too much.”

What? Did I just say that? Oh, what the hell. Let’s see how they react.

“You speak good Spanish,” Guy no. 1 widens his toothpaste smile.

“I have lived in Bolivia since last summer.”

“Here in this hotel?” Guy no. 2 snickers again. I notice a splotch on his pink shirt, near the collar. Probably beer.

“No.” I roll my eyes and try not to have the world roll back at me. They are only one floor down, but I’m glad the railing is there.

“Where then?” Guy no. 1 insists.

“In the Chapare.”

That stops the snickering.

“Chapare is where the drug barons live,” Guy 2 confides, his demeanor suddenly all too serious for his age and level of intoxication.

“No, they don’t,” I explain. “Some people grow coca and sell it. Some coca ends up as drugs. That’s not the same.”

“Bullshit.” Guy 1 shakes his head. He grins, but there is a grimace behind the grin that is not friendly anymore.

“You were just the lover of a drug baron, I bet,” Guy 2 dares and smiles, too, but not in a friendly way either. 

More like the way you smile at a cat before you kick it.

I feel the anger rising again. I have not had enough Singani to quench that.

“Fuck off.” I almost feel like throwing the half-empty bottle after them, but I manage to at least control that. 

So I just sit there and scowl.

“I think we’ve got ourselves a drunk drug-whore,” Guy 2 explains to his mate as if he had just discovered something important that they might have to report somewhere.

“Go fuck yourselves.” I get up, almost without reeling. One hand is firmly on the railing.

They just snicker some more and then begin to walk away. 

“All gringas are whores,” I hear one of them add to this most brilliant analysis of who I am and where I come from.

I should never have told them I had lived in the Chapare. 

There are a million farmers there and maybe a thousand or so sell coca plants for cocaine that somebody else does, but I had forgotten the prejudice and racism here in Bolivia. It’s not as if it wasn’t in Chapare, either. Just reversed.

Back there you talked about everyone who lived in the East province cities as assholes who bled the poor working people dry. And also in cahoots with the “gringo oppressors”, as Manuel’s friends in the Movimiento Al Socialismo would say when they thought I didn’t listen.

I lean so far over the railing that I almost forget my plan about not falling out. “Go to hell! Go to hell!!

All I get for being a drunk bitch are some more stares from the street below and some more snickering from the two guys who round a corner and then they are out of my life but not of my mind.

I slam the balcony door and retreat to the dark room. My half-finished bottle stays outside.


*

Eventually, the morning comes. It always does.

No email for me, so I go to the rundown hotel pool and try to float, but in the end, I just sit in the shallow half for too long staring at my own reflection in the water.

But it’s okay. I have all the time in the world.

I get up and get dressed and head back down to the reception.

Still no email. No messages, either. 

But I can wait some more. 

I have all the time in the world.

She has to feel the same.



The Halo Of Our Souls

The Halo Of Our Souls

The boy is crying. I can hear him even before I see him.

I am trying to make my way through the grand market of the valley city of Cochabamba. Through hundreds of Bolivians, mostly women, selling everything from new hats to cabbages. They sit on big piles on sheets of plastic on the asphalt and wait and wait. Then the next day they do it all over again.

Now I see the boy. He must be about five. Faded red training jacket and shorts. No shoes. Cute curly hair and big streaks of grime and tears across his face.

The Bolivian women sit by their vegetables, silent as sphinxes, gazing into the milling crowd and at nothing in particular. I am sweating in the noon heat like it’s a marathon and cursing it all away. I want them to look at the boy – take some kind of responsibility.

I was on the lookout for some cheap vegetables and bread for my lunch, now that I have burnt my travel money. I need to make every penny last.

Yeah, I have a lot on my mind.

So what do I do?

I walk on, of course. Past the boy.

For a brief moment, though, as I pass him, he looks at me. And, of course, I look at him.

I quickly look another way and continue to walk. He continues crying.

This is somebody else’s kid, somebody else’s problem. This is not even my country.

I stop. Turn.

The boy is still there, still crying. People still moving about him, like indifferent waves of flesh and sweat.

Okay, then.

I’ll have to hope I don’t have to look in the dictionary too much. Or for too long.

I go back to him and squat down beside him. He looks at me again, and I can see he is struggling because he is afraid of me – the stranger. But he is also afraid that nobody is going to pick him up. And God knows what else.

One of the few things I’m good at is languages, and my high school Spanish is still very much present. Not because I’ve used it much until now, but because a vaguely autistic drive had me reading Spanish books all night the last year Lin was alive. I should have been studying, but it was better to read gloomy love poems in Spanish. It was a better escape than commercial law.

So that at least I’ve got going for me. Not so much else.

“Hola,” I say and continue in Spanish with the thick accent that I know all the nasty love poems did not erase. “What is your name?”

“Luis,” the boy mutters and flinches again. I don’t try to reach out to him. This has to work or not work.

I look around feverishly. The human waves roll on past us, oblivious. God, I hate them all …

But I have got to pull myself together. I look at him again. What if I was 5 years old?

“How old are you?”

He says he is five and I congratulate myself for yet another easy victory. I also make my best effort at smiling, which is difficult when you are sweaty and hungry and have a beehive for a mind. But at least he gives me something to focus on.

“Where are your parents?” I ask.

“My papa is dead,” Luis says.

What the …

“Now? Where?” I ask and feel the world tumbling.

“Last year,” he says and I calm again. A twitchy weird calm. Because what the hell can you feel after such an answer?

“And your mother?”

“I can’t find her… “

Okay. So now the mission is clear. I get up and finally reach out for his hand. The litmus test.

He takes it.

“Come now. We will go find your mother.”

*

So we’ve been running around the market for half an hour and I am getting fucking desperate. I’ve tried to follow Luis’s directions. When and where did you last see your mama? I’ve tried asking around but all I get out of it is a growing chunk of ice in my stomach.

I have fucked up. I have made things worse. What if his mother is running around on the other end of the market? Now she can’t find him because he is not where I found him, and where she expected him to be?

No, he said he had walked around. There is no place she expected him to be, except the stall where he wandered off and which he says he can’t remember. His mum was buying bread but I see 10 stalls with bread and none of them have seen a boy like him or his mother.

I stop for a moment and feel the cold knot in my stomach and I dare not look the kid in the eyes, though I know he is looking at me.

“Hey – queres agua?” I ask and hand him my plastic bottle with water. It is half-filled and he drinks greedily but what the hell. I can still afford another bottle. And if I don’t find his mother that will be the least of my problems.

Cochabamba valley market – I hate you. I hate your sea of dirty vegetables and plastic and cracked asphalt, which I can feel through my worn shoe soles. I hate your chattering women. And men. And everyone.

And then suddenly one of those women explode from the crowd and virtually assaults me. “Luis – hijo mio – there you are! What have you done to him?!”

She is slim and wiry and angry as an alley cat. Her black hair swirls around her like a stormy night and there is lightning in those dark eyes.

She tears Luis out of my grip then lashes out of me, as if to hit me. I am not sure. I instinctively take a step backward before I can find out.

“Calm the fuck down! I was just trying to help – !” I cry, in English.

To my surprise she answers in English. “I not need your help. You leave my boy alone.”

“He was lost,” I continue, still in English but she seems like she comprehends, even if her own English is broken and all over the place. “I not believe you. You gringa – you take him for tourist photos.”

My jaw almost hits the asphalt. An elderly woman grins at us, half-hiding behind a mountain of mangos.

“Bien,” I say – going Spanish again because that could at least give me the upper hand now that I am in the ring with this crazy woman – “no quería tomar fotos estúpidas. Tu hijo estaba perdido. Tratamos de encontrarte.”

Yeah, I let her know in no uncertain terms it was not about photos but about finding her. Because maybe, you know, she could’ve looked better after her son, right?

She looks as if she is about to give me another punch, words, or fists.  Luis looks away like he is trying to hide in her skirts.

Then it sinks in.

“You speak e-Spanish?” she blurts, still in her own, heavily accented English.

Yeah, I might have gotten the past tense wrong but I do speak Spanish, you crazy b…

And with that punch of my own, I don’t need to defend myself anymore. Instead, I point to Mango Lady, who is having the time of her life at our expense. “Ask her – preguntarle!

We were here 10 minutes ago, so Mango Lady knows me. Yeah. She and I are like peas and pie.

But it doesn’t matter. I get what I want. When Crazy Mum asks the question, I understand that the mango lady confirms what I say.

Good, or I would have smacked her.

Good that I can still get the gist of it even though they talk much too fast now and weave in and out of Quechua, the native language.

So much for my bloody Spanish. So much for all the long nights with Neruda’s poems while listening intently for Lin’s door. Was she getting up and taking those pills again – one time, or one hundred times too many? Yes, I read those poems all night.

The first time I get to show off and I use what I can to piss somebody off.

They still talk – Crazy Woman and Mango Lady. Luis looks at me. He has my bottle of water in his hand.

“Keep it,” I say in Spanish. Then I turn and walk away before his mother’s interrogation of Mango Lady is finished.

Fucking story of my life … I should talk with people here all the time, share all the time.

I should be much more than a bloody tourist. I actually bothered to learn Spanish, even if I did it for all the wrong reasons. And the first time in weeks I talk to a Bolivian, and not another bloody tourist, it’s Crazy Woman.

I don’t the hell know. I don’t much care. My stomach is no longer ice. But now it is screaming at me to find something to eat, and make it something that won’t send me in exile at the hostel toilet.

So I do what I have done each and every day for the past many weeks. I buy some groceries and bread, and another bottled water. Then I find somewhere to sit and watch people while I chow down.

And I do it like I have done in the months since I crossed the Rio Grande with no goal but to getaway.

I do it the only way I can.

Alone.

*

Once again, I am not allowed to be alone.

You know, like I have forced myself to be since I went away on this trip to South America and ditched law school, probably forever.

Since I closed the door for the last time to our apartment back in Columbus.

A void has become the center of me since Lin died. I thought it would help to travel away 6000 miles, but it hasn’t.

And here she comes again, out of the crowd, right towards me. Just when I thought I had found somewhere good, so I could get the fuck away from annoying pests like her.

My spot is a street corner at the far edge of the big market. I eat my dry bread and gulp it down with lukewarm bottled water. I feel kind of good.

And then I see her.

Crazy Woman. With little Luis in tow. Heading towards me.

I should get up but I am so surprised all I manage is to sit like a dunce, with my mouth full of bread.

She reaches me and stops, right in front of me, on the pavement.

With the same assertiveness that almost made her assault me half an hour ago, she says, “I talked to women at the market. I am very sorry.”

I swallow my bread and nod. I don’t know what I look like, but this was the last person in the world I thought would come and see it.

“He told me, too, of course.” She manages a faint smile while looking down at her son quickly. For the first time, I see embarrassment behind her stern façade.

Then her visage changes even more and she shifts to almost despondent.  “I am so, so sorry. Can you forgive me?”

And I am taken aback. If she was the night before then how did the sun come out so fast?

But I can see that she means it. If only she didn’t … mean it so much.

“It’s okay,” I say nonchalantly and try to focus on anything in the crowd behind her. Anything but her.

She bites her lip and begins rambling. “I am really sorry. You see, I – I … “

“It is okay,” I blurt and hold my hands up.  “No harm done. I was just trying to help.”

She nods, more vigorously. “A white hombre – a man – he took Luis, last week. He took photos. Gave him candy.”

I frown. “That’s sick.”

“’Sick’?” she repeats.

Depravado,” I explain.

She shakes her head. “No, no – I don’t think he was like that. His wife was there. But Luis was playing – “ she continues in Spanish and it all comes out more freely.

I don’t run away again. I know how to function among other human beings. I can still do that.

So the story winds down. She was busy outside some office or other, discussing something with some people. Many people were waiting in line. Luis was there and this elderly couple began taking photos of him and giving him, well, candy. And maybe it looked to her like they were going away with him? I don’t know.

She speeds up, and I know she is embarrassed too and wants to get away, too, but she cannot. The story grows like a weed as she tells it and it locks her to the spot. It locks us.

I have to pull it up.

“Look – “I say, continuing in Spanish, “I don’t understand exactly what that hombre did, but I only gave Luis water.” I try a strained smile. “And like I said, I don’t take photos.” I pull out my camera and open the flap. “Look – no film.”

She hesitates a moment, and now she smiles at me and I know she caught it. But she also blushes. I can see it, even though her skin is quite dark – darker than usual for the women of the Bolivian lowlands.

“I must make no sense to you,” she says and ruffles Luis’ hair. The boy is beginning to look around, getting restless.

My turn to shake my head. “No, no – I get it. You thought they were going to take him away. I could have looked like that.”

“Only – “ she replies and something in her dark eyes becomes even darker “ – if you are always on the watch. Then you see ghosts everywhere.”

‘Ghosts’ … There is something in that word. Fantasmas in Spanish. But there is nothing fantastic about it.

I feel cold, even though the afternoon heat is still warm. It is also choking and mixed with fumes from the big roads on either side of the market.

“You see ghosts?” I say, not knowing if it was a question or not I wanted to ask.

Now it is her turn to shake her head, and the red in her cheeks is quite evident now.

“Not those kinds of ghosts … “ Then it looks like she makes a superhuman effort like she has to pull an arrow out of a leg. Her words are slow and strained. “My husband – Luis’ father – was killed a year ago. It was a demonstration. Against the government. A policeman shot him. It has … not been easy since.”

She turns to me again. “I should go now.” She looks like somebody is tearing at her, and it is not Luis.

And what the hell can I say? What would you say?

So I just nod.

“Thank you once again,” she holds out her hand. “I am Julia. Julia Jimenez Aroyo.”

“Carrie,” I say and don’t add anything.

“Ca-ree,” she repeats slowly. Her grip is firm even if she looks like she is falling apart and gathering herself up at least five times in a minute now.

“Julia Jimenez Aroyo,” I repeat.

She smiles one last time, then reaches out for Luis who has been playing with some stones. She begins to walk back towards the market. But then she stops again as a rope jerked her back. Back to one last question. “Where are you going, Ca-ree?”

I look at the bustling market. Then back at the main road and the long line of coughing cars and mini-buses. Then at her. “I am going … back to my hostel.”

“I wasn’t asking that,” she says and her dark eyes now lock firmly with mine. “I was asking where you are going in Bolivia – in South America?”

“What?”

She grins. “Is that a strange question?”

“Why – no, I mean – “

She grins even more. “So where are you going?”

I feel her sizing me up.

And I let her.

There is a … something in those eyes of hers. The same as before. But before it was angry and ghost-seeing. Now it has revealed a power that was always there, a core that wants to know – all the world around her.

It is a power to lash out to hurt people when they are ghosts. But also to catch them and reel them close.

I know for I have seen that so many times with Lin.

We are what we are. And most of us do want to get to know each other, I guess. We just need to get the ghosts out of the way first.

“I don’t know exactly where I am going,” I admit, and without being able to explain why I know it is safe to admit it to her. This strange, crazy-not-crazy woman. Julia …

She could make all kinds of comments on that. But instead, she says, “Then why don’t you see some more of Cochabamba? I can show you.”

“Really?” I cross my arms in mock seriousness. “What is there to see here?”

“Not much,” she says. “But perhaps you will see more interesting things than me because it is all new to you.”

I hesitate for the briefest of moments.

“Okay,” I say. “Where do we begin?”

“Right here,” she says.

 

New Year’s Day (IV)

New Year’s Day (IV)

In the morning it didn’t feel as if Jacob wanted to talk more about what happened.

But I didn’t feel as if he wanted to be alone either.

It just felt like he wanted us to go.

… Somewhere.

So we went, down to the beach where we bought a ticket for one of the crammed boats that would take us out into the endless blue depths of the Lake Titicaca, out to the Island of the Sun.

And after searching for a few inches of space in one of them, to sit down, we do just that. We go somewhere.

But first we sit – for a long time. We don’t talk about anything.

We just sit, in the boat, and try to ignore some slight edge of anxiousness that’s in the air.

Like we’re not going anywhere really. Just waiting. But not knowing for what.

After half an hour or so my mind begins to wander. I begin to look too much at the roofed pram they’ve stoked us into. “Uh, – there aren’t enough life-jackets on this boat, are there?”

“Hm – aren’t there?” Jacob mumbles. He looks distracted like he is still thinking about the night. And so many other things.

“No, there aren’t.” I feel a bit queasy. “And have you seen how many passengers we are? If something happens – “

“I don’t think anything will happen,” he says, still in a flat voice.

“I absolutely hate the idea of falling into that lake,” I mutter for lack of anything more brilliant to say on this situation which, right now, we can do zilch to change. “It’s probably freezing.”

“Are you afraid you can’t swim to the shore?” He looks at me. I can see how tired he is.

Did he get any sleep last night, after I saw him like … that?

And it freaks me out that we can’t talk about it. And that there is no space in this boat. And no life-jackets. And about 20 tourists talking happily about all their happy experiences and 10 or so Bolivians traveling back to the island with everything from tin cans to bags full of fruit.

So I stand up and almost hit my head against the wooden roof of the boat. “I’m afraid I can’t get out of this sardine can if everybody panics.”

I look at the other tourists as if they should listen. They seem totally oblivious. Damn it.

I turn to Jacob again. “Maybe we should go outside, get up on the roof?”

“What about our backpacks?” he asks, but I can hear it doesn’t matter

“Who’s going to run away with them – on a boat?”

“I prefer staying down here.”

He dismisses me with a wave of his hand and looks away, out one of the grimy plastic windows. “You go up if you want to.”

Okay. I need to do something. Or I’ll go crazy.

“Are you afraid of the sun?” I ask.

He looks baffled. “The sun? Er … no.”

“Ah – !” I throw my hands up in mock surprise. “So why is it I think that you don’t have faith in my super-suuuunscreen?”

I do some magic, rummaging through my handbag, and get lucky. The first catch is what I am looking for. I pull the bottle of sunscreen out and wave it in front of his nose.

He hesitates for a moment. Then something in his visage changes. Like he is reminded of something. Something that is both stupid and yet real and good.

He laughs. For the first time since I met him.

I suddenly feel grateful. After a few seconds, it’s over, but something seems to be more alight in him now than just before. 

“Maybe faith is something you have when you have to have it,” Jacob says still in a low voice, but now he looks directly up at me as if I am there. “So why do I want to have it and why don’t you seem to want to have it?”

“I … want it to have it.”

Jacob keeps looking at me. “What about everything David Bohm writes about – one of the most esteemed physicists of the 20th century? Or is that just ‘New Agey-wish thinking’?”

“I don’t know,” I say honestly, while at the same time I manage to cast a longing glance towards the door to the small deck in the back of the boat.

A middle-aged Bolivian guy, skin as brown and weathered as 100-year-old leather, sits outside on a small bench, which is part of the railing. He leans cozily back towards the railing, one hand on a tiller that controls both the outboard engine motors. It looks as if he knows the path over all the blueness in his sleep for he doesn’t really look where he is sailing. He just … sits and lets the boat move.

I sit down again. With something resembling a sigh I try to explain in the best way I can.

I chose to stay with him so I owe him that much “Look, rational arguments based on some quantum-something that I don’t know much about and which you read about – they don’t work for me. One thing I do know about quantum physics is that you can interpret it in a million different ways. Just because two particles seem to be connected beyond the speed of light or whatever. Why should that mean that something like ‘God’ exists? That’s a real big leap. And so it just doesn’t work for me. It just makes everything more doubtful.”

Jacob looks as if he’s about to say something, but then he stops himself.

“And – ” I continue, some feeling of finality sweeping over me ” – I don’t feel that I can believe either, just with faith, like so many of these people seem to be able to.”

I nod towards the locals who seem to have decided to clump together in one end of the boat, putting up some invisible wall between themselves and the Babylonian buzz of the tourists. They discuss something in their own language, not Spanish – some indigenous language. Probably something about crops. Or fish. Something sufficiently concrete, no doubt.

And when they need to be helped by that which is not concrete, they’ll go to the cathedral and get their car blessed. How difficult can life be?

Hey, what do you need David Bohm or quantum physics for?

“You lost someone, too.” Jacob states it like he does not want to remind himself of it, although he has never known Lin.

As for me, he might as well have pushed me overboard.

” … Yes.”

He looks down, briefly.

“I’m sorry. Family?”

“A friend.”

“I’m really sorry.”

“Don’t say that – ” I interrupt, not caring if the other tourists hear or understand. “I’m just being selfish now. We shouldn’t be talking about me.”

“Why?” he asks sincerely. “Wasn’t it a good friend?”

“My dearest friend … “

“And Levi was my dearest brother – and my only brother. So you are not selfish.”

“Then why do I feel that way?”

“You are a nice person, Carrie. I wish you’d come to Israel once. I could show you my country. It is a beautiful country.”

“I’d like to go. I don’t think the time is right, though. And I’ve blown the money I got my hands on, all for this trip.”

“Why? The trip, I mean?”

“Because I believe that … it’s necessary. I have to see this lake – Titicaca. It meant something to her.”

“To your friend?”

“Yes.”

He nods, slowly. “I couldn’t afford to go either – and I had to borrow some money from my uncle. My father was furious. But I wanted to go. Before – “

I touch his hand lightly. “So we both have to go – without lifebelts.”

This time he doesn’t shy away. 

For a long time we just sit and listen to the drone of the engines and the chatter of our fellow travelers; all excited, eager, looking forward to seeing the island where the sun was born.

Part of the ‘journey of a lifetime’. The myth and legends of the Andes …

“Have you noticed – ” Jacob suddenly says ” – how the water looks as if it’s sprinkled with diamonds?”

I turn around, peak out the dusty plastic window of the cabin. Then I see a hasp and manage to pry the window open. Immediately we can see everything clearly.

Including the diamonds.

“Oh, my – it is beautiful … ” I mumble on but very soon I shut up and just look.

“The Incas saw this place and knew that this was where the Sun was born,” Jacob says in the background, ” – or at least that’s what I read in the guidebook. I didn’t know much about Incas before I bought my Lonely Planet.”

I squint my eyes against the sun. “Neither did I.” 

All around us, the profound azure blue of the Lake but now dotted with thousands and thousands of small, star-like diamonds.

And I had been so busy thinking about … everything. I hadn’t even noticed it, and we’ve sailed what? An hour? At least.

“It’s the high noon sun that makes it look like that,” Jacob starts to explain.

Then he stops and lets out a breath as if he also lets go of something heavy. At least for now.

“And we’re way up in the mountains – not a cloud on the sky,” he continues after a few moments. “So in a way the lake is almost close enough to touch the sun. It looks that way, doesn’t it?”

“It’s … beautiful,” I just repeat, at a loss for words again. “I wish I could take a photo, but with my old camera it’ll probably end up like shit.”

“Better just to watch it then … ” Jacob says. “Maybe it’s always better to try to experience the most beautiful things in life directly.”

And so we try.

*

Last edit: 7 Sep 2021

New Year’s Day (III)

New Year’s Day (III)


Night …

I’m trying to sleep in spite of my stomach doing the alien thing.

I don’t think the impatient restaurant guy washed his hands too well before he prepped those trouts for us.

And now there is noise, too.

Who in this itsy-bitsy-tiny hostel has a walk-man with the volume of a ghetto-blaster?!

With some effort, I push the squeaky door open. Guess who I find out on the patio.

“Jacob, shouldn’t you be in bed?”

“Can’t sleep,” he mutters.

“No wonder- ” I cross my arms ” – I can’t sleep either. Not since Bono moved in.”

I nod at the walk-man. It is on a small table in the middle of the patio. Jacob is sitting on a plastic chair beside the table. He is alone, except for several beer bottles. He looks up at me but he doesn’t really see me.

I tentatively step out from my room and into the patio. I glance at the other doors to the other rooms. Nobody else seems to have noticed this little private concert.

Perhaps they didn’t want to yell at someone they didn’t know? I get that. And I’d rather do ten thousand other things, but with my stomach messed up like this, I have to get some quiet, between all the running back and forth to the toilet. Or I’m going to be even more a nervous wreck than I am, come morning.

So do I take his walk-man or turn it off or throw it over the roof and out onto the street? I don’t know. But I have to do something.

The night is ink-black and it’s freezing at least 10 degrees below zero. This tiny town by the Lake Titicaca may look like some kind of South American mountain Riviera-heaven during the day, as welcoming in real life as on the covers of brochures.

But you don’t want to stumble around for too long up here when the night falls.

So I quickly pull out the other plastic chair in order to sit down opposite Jacob. I cram my sleeping bag down in the chair first, though, and then wrap it around me as I sit down. Then I just sit there and try to figure out what the hell to say.

Jacob has no such problems, although what he says doesn’t make much sense. “This – this is a fucking great song, Carrie. Really f-fucking great.”

I try to say something but then he makes a sudden jerky move with his hand as if to wave away all advance critique of this song. He succeeds in smashing one of the bottles against the cracked tiles of the patio.

I jump back in the chair and it almost buckles under me, so I nearly – but not quite – fall on my back, down on the hard, freezing tiles. Like most other places in Bolivia, they have a lot of chairs – but all of them are plastic, commercials for Coca Cola mostly because they are free. But hell to sit on. “Shit! If you have to recreate a rock concert, including the cheap beer, why in heaven’s name do you have to do it right out here?”

“S-sorry …” He tries to pull the two surviving bottles closer together on the table. They are all open, I notice. Different brands, one stronger than the other.

He must have been sipping them all by his lonesome until he decided to crank up the music. How long has he been out here?

“I’d better g-go back into m-my room … ” Jacob tries to get up from the small table in the middle of the patio but he’s not doing too well. He drops back down in his own buckling plastic chair and begins gulping from another bottle.

I notice his thin blouse. He had a coat when we came on the bus, but he seems to have forgotten it somewhere. He hasn’t even taken one of the zillion blankets from his room and brought it with him out here.

“You’ll get pneumonia if you stay out here, Jacob.”

“S-so?”

“So just go to bed, okay?”

He tries to get up again; this time he succeeds. Barely. At the cost of another bottle that is smashed against the pink and grey tiles of the patio floor.

“Jacob – be careful!” I make to get up, but it is difficult with my sleeping bag and all.

He looks down at his feet, as if he hadn’t heard me or as if it didn’t matter that his feet were there or that he had only sandals. Or that the glass shards from another broken bottle could have gone clean through both the soles of the sandals – and the soles of his feet – had he stepped on that bottle.

I scout around, trying not to look too annoyed. There’s light in one other room and down in the bottom of the patio, at the entrance,  by the diminutive reception.

I wonder why the owner hasn’t come around yet. Maybe he doesn’t want to lose customers? This place sure looks like it could need some more tourist feed.

Suddenly Jacob turns and shuffles into his room, not a word of good night or anything.

He forgot something, though.

Though I want to be with you
Be with you night and

CLICK

It’s only fair that I mention that Jacob did turn down the damn thing, the moment I came out. But now I turn it off.

Then I look at the closed door to his room. I am annoyed with myself because I still bother … but after a little while, I pick up his walk-man and go to the door, and knocks gently.

He opens it ajar. “W-hat?”

I shiver and it is not because of the cold. In the light from the lamp over the patio I now clearly see his face. But it is a ghost face. Like he is some shell of someone else.

“You, uh, forgot your ‘ghettoblaster’.” I hand him the walk-man.

“Th-thanks.”

“Just keep it a bit down, okay?” I say, trying my best to make light of this whole annoying situation. “Michael Jackson must have invented those earphones; it’s like having a loudspeaker in the middle of the yard.”

Jacob nods, but in a way that doesn’t really make me confident that he understood me. Or cared.

“G’night, Jacob. Sleep well, okay?”

He doesn’t answer, just closes the door, like somebody closing the lid to a coffin.

I want to be worried. I have seen something like this before, I’m afraid. But I don’t want to think about that. I never want to think about that again. And I really have to think about myself.

I go back to my room, swallow some more Imodium to put a stop to my stomach once and for all. I hope it’s enough … to keep everything locked up.

*

Even deeper in the night …

My stomach finally decided to reboot a bit. The pain is only like somebody tattooing me now, without sedation. But with needles, not a pair of scissors. At least I have that.

When you travel to South America for the first time and you are on a shoestring you learn these lessons the hard way. You learn to be hungry instead of eating something that you have even the slightest sense will upset your stomach. You learn to appreciate feeling well in your body, like normal – not like you want to flee it every second, because it hurts so damn much.

In fact, I have never hurt so much in my life – physically. As when I ate something down here I should not have. And it takes weeks for my stomach to reset itself. In the beginning, I had some faint, grudging idea that it would take away my focus at least, on why I am here. Why I keep running. But at some point, you just realize that it hurts too much. And you want the pain to go away. You’d give anything.

Right now I sigh deeply and release some of the tension, as another shot of chemicals from my grand assortment of pain- and germ killers do their work and I feel myself slowly getting back into my own skin. The room is dark and there are no particular shapes for the faint light from behind the curtains to catch on to. Just my bed and a little table, not even a poster on the wall with some busty lady advertising the latest Bolivian beer.

It is all simple and relaxing. As it should be after so many hours of the opposite.

But I can’t help think of Jacob.

Damn.

I heave myself out of bed and waddle over to the wall, still with the sleeping bag wrapped around me, trying the impossible art of not letting feet touch the cold floor for too long at a time.

I shouldn’t care. I shouldn’t really care. But I’m already fully dressed – (yes, in my sleeping bag) – because of the damn cold and because I want to protect whatever I can still feel of my body after my little flirt with the local bacteria.

So it’s relatively easy to skid outside and over to his door, next to mine – both facing the small patio.

I just want to make sure, you know.

I knock on his door again. “Jacob?”

Some unintelligible sounds. But it is him, all right.

” … Is everything okay?”

Was that laughter?

“Can I come in?”

No answer. However, the door is not locked. I push the door open.

And there he is, Jacob – right in the middle of his own … god-awful mess.

I wouldn’t have imagined that it was possible to make a mess in these rooms that look like something decorated by Spartans on a budget, but Jacob has practically torn open his rucksack and spilled its contents all over the room.

He has also, it seems, spilled quite a few gallons of that cheap local brew he must have bought on the market while I went home early when I first noticed that something was not right about that trout. Some of the beer is on the floor is on the icy tiles on the floor, in big sticky poodles. And I just stepped in one of them with my bare feet.

God, it stinks in here. Has he thrown up? I can’t see, because the light switch doesn’t work, so we only have the light from the patio’s single bulb. I tear the curtains away and almost regret it.

Now I see him.

… Jacob’s lying there, on the bed, fetus-position, all curled up; still in his clothes from yesterday.

I hesitate but then I sit down on the bed. It squeaks a little. The only sound in the room. Except for my voice now.

“Jacob, are you … ill?”

He shakes his head.

“Jacob … what is it?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Yes, it does. How can you say it doesn’t matter?”

“Because it’s going to happen anyway – just like everything else.”

“What is?”

No answer. I look around for something –  to use to wedge myself back into this conversation that I don’t really want to be having.

“Uh, so what have we here?” I pick up the book from somewhere between two folds of Jacob’s Prussian blue sleeping bag. It’s part of the pile at the foot-end of Jacob’s bed; a pile that also includes a small case for his glasses (empty), an unopened beer bottle, and a pair of dirty underpants.

I look at the cover. Between the beer and coffee splotches, the title is clear enough.

“‘David Bohm: Wholeness and the Implicate Order’? – Nifty choice of travel reading, Jacob.”

No answer.

“Okay – okay. Not funny. Jacob, please … “

I gently touch his shoulder and he just lies there, as if he is dead. For a moment I become afraid that he actually is dead if it wasn’t for the fact that I could see his chest heaving up and down like he had to make an effort each time.

But his eyes …

He is lying on his side, looking away from me, staring into the gray wall that separates his room from mine; looking into that strange world that only he can see.

“Jacob … “

“Uhn … “

“Can I get you anything? Can I – “

“I wasn’t trying to be smart, Carrie.”

“‘Smart?'”

“Asking you about God and everything … “

“Oh, forget that. I just want to know if you’re ill or something or just drunk. I really don’t feel all that well myself, so if you’re just … drunk, I’ll go back, mind my own business. So is that it? Tell me you are just drunk.”

“I’m just drunk. You can go mind your own business.”

I nod and … stay rooted to the bed.

Fuck.

“Look, Jacob – it was nice of you to stay, to wait for me. So tomorrow we’ll go to Isla del Sol. Together.”

“Hmn … “

“That’ll be nice, right?”

“Hnn … “

“So, uh, I never really got around to asking, but are you going to, uh, Cuzco next? How about the Inca Trail? I … wish I’d done that.”

“Hmm … maybe.”

“But you still have time? You’re not going home next week, are you?”

“In a month.”

“Plenty of time then.”

“Yes, plenty of… time.”

“So what then? College? Some job waiting for you?”

“Prison.”

“Wh – “

He doesn’t turn around, just lies there; staring hard into the wall.

“Wh –” I start again but can’t seem to do any better than that.

“Prison, Carrie. Because I’m not going to do military service for 3 years. Three! I’m not going to do that!”

“And then you … you have to go to prison? Is that for certain?”

He does something with his shoulders that I think is a shrug, pulls his legs closer to himself; still staring hard at the wall, not blinking.

“I’m sure there must be some way of – “

“There isn’t.”

I don’t have anything to say about that.

He rattles on. ” – But I don’t want to go to prison. I just want to … “

He trails off.

My own voice feels far away now. “I wish I knew what to say.”

“You don’t have to know what to say.”

“Maybe military won’t be so … I mean, maybe it’ll be better than prison. At least. Maybe it’ll – “

“My brother died in the military. He is – was – just two years older than me.”

” … “

” – Blown to bits by some suicide bomber. A girl, around 15. She came walking up to the checkpoint asking for candy.”

“Oh, God – I’m so sorry … I’m so sorry.”

For a moment his eyes narrow and some kind of stillness creeps into the room; stillness full of ice.

“Strange … ” he then remarks. “You use God’s name a lot. Yet, you don’t believe in some god or other.”

“It’s just a manner of speaking.” I run a hand through my hair and can’t help noticing how filtered it is. “Look, are we … going to argue about God now?”

He shakes his head; like he just awoke from some dream. Then he shivers. And changes. “I – I don’t want you to be mad at me, Carrie.”

“I’m not mad at you.”

“I didn’t want to offend you. I didn’t want to impress you because … you shouldn’t think that I wanted to … with you … or anything.”

I almost smile. “It’s okay. I wasn’t offended and I didn’t think you were out to score me or … ‘anything’.”

“I just … ” He shakes his head again. I try to find something new to say. I have to.

“Look, I can understand why you don’t want to go into the army. I mean, I’d be afraid of that, too.”

“It’s not that. I just don’t want revenge.”

“Revenge?”

“They demolished the entire village, Carrie. They just drove in with tanks and everything and some other children who were in the way, they got … “

His voice breaks as if a stone got crushed in his throat.

“I’m sure they didn’t demolish the entire village?” But I know full well that if the Israeli army wants to demolish something, they are quite able to do just that.

“They just drove through some houses – ” he continues, fighting with the stone ” – houses with families. They arrested a lot, too. But they never found those responsible for sending the girl. Hamas said they did it, but Hamas is just … everywhere. You can’t arrest Hamas. It was in Gaza.”

I discover that my hand is still on his shoulder. I’m not sure if I should move it again. When is the right time to move it if you sit with someone like this?

I can also feel that the pills I swallowed are no longer working as well as they should and I really want to get to that island tomorrow. But now – now it is 4 AM and I’m sitting here.

And Siobhan is probably off to have fun with that Olympic swimmer or whomever it was we spied at the bar – if they are both still in Puno. I could have been, too.

But I’m here instead – here with skinny, beer-stinking, lip-biting Jacob.

And this, apparently, is where I’m going to stay and I loathe myself because I can’t mobilize a tiny bit of idealism about it. Yes, I want to be the pure-hearted martyr if only for a moment, but I wish … I really wish he’d just stop; that I hadn’t heard all this.

I put the book away.

He notices. “I have a favorite quote by David Bohm, actually … “

“Yeah?”

“Yes … ‘The notion that all these fragments are separately existent is evidently an illusion, and this illusion cannot do other than lead to endless conflict and confusion.'”

“‘Fragments?'”

“Everything in the world: particles, thoughts, trees … “

“Even Israelis and Palestinians?”

“I’m thinking … that if I can understand what Bohm means when he talks about this … wholeness that pervades everything, then perhaps I understand for sure – with my mind – how God could exist. Okay, maybe not the God of the Torah or of your Bible but some kind of divine dimension to life – something that links us together.”

He finally sits himself up in bed, but he looks like he had already been in a war. He takes the book, weighs it in his hands, looking intently at it, as if he is trying to remember another quote from it.

“Jacob … ? Maybe you should try to get some sleep. It’s awfully late.”

“You know, I have read a dozen books about interpretations of quantum physics, Carrie: Capra, Bohm, even that one by Greene about string theory … to me they all point to some greater wholeness the binds together everything; something we can’t just explain with our theories about combinations of dead, soulless atoms racing about in empty space.”

“But what do you want … explained? Why your friend died?”

He bites his lip, seems to grip the book harder. Then tears come to his eyes. And I can see that he is ashamed of them.

“I just want to choose my own way in life – without being punished for it. And I don’t want to have revenge. I don’t want to be like that. Running over a couple of Palestinian kids with a tank doesn’t bring Levi back. I won’t be like that … I won’t.”

He lets his head sink down on his chest, lets the book slip from his hands. “Even if I can somehow avoid prison – there are some ways – it’ll never be good with my family. My father is an officer. He is proud of Levi. Proud of his ‘sacrifice’ – can you believe he said that?”

Jacob looks up, staring wildly at me like I had some of the answers he is looking for. 

I just have one. “If it’s about fathers, yes, Jacob – I believe you. I believe you very, very much.”

“I should just stay here,” Jacob mutters, looking down at the floor. “I should never go back to Israel. But I can’t. Eventually, I will go back. So I’m also a coward.”

“No …”

I reach. For him.

And he flinches … draws away.

The moment dies.

“You … should go now,” he says.

Then he begins to pick up his stuff, with no real plan for it. He just piles it on the other end of the bed.

“Jacob, I – “

“Please, just go now.”

“Jacob … “

” … I would like to be alone.”

” … Okay.”

[GO TO PART IV]


Last updated: 7 Sep 2021

New Year’s Day (II)

New Year’s Day (II)

“Do you think the blessing will protect them?” Jacobs asks, looking at the procession.

“Are you asking me again if I believe in God?” I ask back, trying to sound neutral.

He shrugs. “I’m just very interested in religion.”

“So I noticed.” I give him a non-committal smile.

We’re still in Copacabana, Bolivia – not its colorful cousin in Rio. This is the cold and austere version. The one where you have trouble breathing because you are almost 13,000 feet up in the mountains.

The Copacabana cathedral spire is standing out like white cardboard against the blazing blue sky. Two dozen or so bulky Bolivian drivers are waiting patiently to get their trucks sprinkled with holy water by the priest.

The Benedicion de Movilidades occurs daily and Jacob insisted that we went to see it, before crossing over to Isla del Sol out in the Lake Titicaca, which is where everybody is going.

But right now here we are in front of the cathedral looking at all the cars, trucks, and buses lined up to receive a cha’lla, a ritual blessing – some odd combo of the local Pachamama-worship and reluctant Catholicism. And so they spray booze on the cars (that’s the holy water if you sacrifice to Pachamama), but they do it in front of the Church of the Holy Virgin.

Jacob snaps one pic after another with his tiny but very pro-looking camera.

I just gawk – fascinated.

I mean, when this is all over the vehicles and their drivers should be protected against driving on some of the world’s most dangerous roads, all of which are here in Bolivia … I wonder if they are protected against their own thirst for strong liquor?

“Look,” Jacob says, aft