First Memories

My sister Janet had taken me to the hospital for tests, and then we drove across the street to my regular doctor to discuss options. This had been a lingering health problem and it was now time to confront it. Technology now days gave doctors results faster than in the past.

I hated hospitals.

The smell alone could do a person in, let them hang from the confines of the room being placed there in the future, and that smell lingered with me in the car and at the doctor’s office waiting area. Janet skimmed through a magazine with a sexy young celebrity on the cover. They called me back and that was when I was told: “T-cell count out of control.” A mass too close to operate near the brain stem, but chemo might offset the mass and delay the onslaught.  Eventually, if I decide not to do treatment, my immunity would be compromised as the days moseyed on until my last breath. I don’t know when that will be, hell, nobody knows when their last day on this planet is. I’m cool with it. At forty-five, a person should have their life figured out and have lived well enough to enjoy any memories. Janet hummed to a pop song on the radio as we headed to my apartment. She kept saying how we Powells are fighters and I can’t leave her because I’m the only sibling left to poke fun at and reminisce about old Indiana days. “You want something to eat? Chipotle, Applebee’s? My treat, Johnny. I need to pick up Sophie soon, so let’s not be capricious on this decision.”

I clicked her XM radio button and heard a Tom Petty song and it changed my mood. We drove by Panda Express and it sounded good to me, and told Janet: “Panda, you missed the turn.”

“Jesus, okay. Next time, a heads up would be nice.”

She had gotten nervous and banked right on the next turn.

She was still married, which was surprising because Janet could be hard to figure out, hard to get her to agree with any of your conversations about current events or something deep and profound like the death penalty or assisted suicide, or if humans really had free will and if God existed, who then created God?

“I haven’t been here in ages,” she said. “It’s okay.”

We walked inside Panda and I ordered the Kung Pao chicken and Janet ordered grilled Teriyaki with broccoli.

“I should have eaten more of that in my twenties,” I said, nodding at the broccoli on Janet’s plate.

“Why?”

“Chemicals in it supposedly suppress free radicals.”

“Bullshit,” she remarked. “Not saying it isn’t good for you, but please.”

“You remember your first memory,” I asked her. “As a toddler?”

She handed the lady at the end of the line her debit card and pulled a cold fruit drink out of the ice rack.

“I’ve kind of been craving an ice tea,” I said. “So, Janet? First memories?”

“Not sure, Johnny. I think I remember running into a wall one time. I was probably two or three then. What brought this up?”

“Been thinking about Mom and Dad.”

“Yeah. Well, they’re no longer around and that’s how life goes.”

Her voice sounded staggered, guilt-ridden. Janet had been fourteen when I found our mother lying on her side in her bed, her eyes like fogged glass, wide open. She lay unresponsive, the old aqua green rotary phone beside her. Mom had a way of calming people, and Janet referred to her as “pseudo-therapist.” Mother smoked a lot, as most parents did in the late 1970s, and I still remember those gray smoke ovals around her mouth. She and her girlfriend Barbara would hang out on the porch sunbathing, drinking vodka with Dr. Pepper. I would not know what that was until later, of course.

“I remember Dad,” Janet said. “Man, that voice of his! He had the deepest and resounding baritone voice that shook the house when he got agitated at Mom.”

“I know. Scared me shitless.”

“It seems so long ago, almost forty years, and yet so close, those memories.”

She stared out the window and I noticed when I looked that I saw a few brown leaves skitter across the sidewalk, the sky a deep gray and the hint that winter was not too far off.

“Anyway,” I said. “Old mom. I can still see her body shadowed against the wall, getting bigger and bigger as she neared my room. It was my first memory, and I must’ve been younger than two, shaking the crib rails.”

“Wow! You’ve always had a fantastic memory. I wish I had your recall, Johnny.”

“It’s all right. Wish that it could have helped making me money or land a better career.”

I hated sales. As I got older, I began to despise people; the world was becoming packed and crammed with more people every day who drove everywhere and seemingly, like little buggers that chew and poke at you from a distance with their pale angered faces and withered hands hanging out the car windows.

“Well,” Janet said, “in life there’s not much time to do everything. Find one or two things that you enjoy and make the best of it.”

“Yes, I know.”

“They loved us, John. Mom and Dad. They did the best they could.”

Dad’s lips seemed to carry away any remnants of cigarette or cigar smoke; scabby triangles on his hands had healed and looked purple. Dad’s eyes, those huge irises—culminated an authority that you knew when to keep quiet.

I would hear Mom say that her hair was in rat tangles. Mom held the phone to her ear in the bedroom for what seemed like hours, the door almost closed but a slight crack of an opening where I could see her. She’d talk to her friends, as if soaking in their problems and felt a need to cajole out respect and to help ease any sudden discomfort in them.

By 1979, Mom had gotten hooked on Darvocet and drank more vodka. The economy had tanked. Dad said it was President Carter’s fault. Everyone argued about money and feared nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Mom abandoned us forever at the age of thirty-eight in June of 1979, and I found her with her eyes open on that summer day while Dad was at work and Janet at the local park swimming pool with friends. I went over to Mr. and Mrs. Steven’s house and they called for an ambulance. Dad’s foggy eyes slowly took on mother’s as the years flittered on after her death, and he began to work less hours and sat on the front porch alone with a beer or wine drink reading the newspaper.

Dad would later follow Mom in 1982, something about a blown aorta because of his high blood pressure and Type-A personality. He was only forty-nine; I’d just turned twelve while Janet was a sophomore in high school, and we would go live with our Aunt Karen and Uncle Mike in Martinsville, Indiana.

I told Janet, rather randomly, as we drove toward my apartment: “It will be impossible to know you are dead. It would totally go against the laws of biology and physics.”

She quickly turned her head at me with one hand on the steering wheel.

“Souls,” she said. “They prevail. Or maybe the brain funnels our memories, twists the images like light bending around matter in space? Eventually, yeah, you are no longer you and time is up. You had your chances.”

I cringed thinking about that hospital, knowing that was where I would live out the rest of my days.

The sky was cloudless and the chill in the air made the bare trees and farmland look like the color of coiled old barb wire. Janet looped her fingers at the ends of her hair. She resembled our mother in many ways but had outlived her. A few more years and I will have caught up to our Dad’s age, but I don’t know if I will catch him, to see the world as he had. I won’t have any children and marry the lady of my life, but that’s okay. I was not big on romance. I’d had a few girlfriends over the years, some good, some not-so great, and some were calm and accepted their flaws and had let life come at them as if there was nothing they could do to change their fate.

“Chemo,” my doctor’s voice rewinding in my head. “Too risky to operate.”

I told Janet that I could move to Oregon and take a special cocktail and drift away with my memories.

She stepped on the brake hard.

“Stop it, John!” she yelled. “You’re going to man up and fight this.”

“What’s there to fight?”

“We Powells are not quitters,” she said, and jabbed at the radio button. “Eventually, like what I’ve been saying, yes, the big rest happens to everyone. I am sorry. Life is a one-way ticket filled with choices and things that are beyond our control.”

“And what is it really, life? Our lives?”

She looked down when thinking. She’d always done this. She stared back at the road. A squirrel darted in front of the car and disappeared behind a tree. Sometimes I couldn’t tell if it was Janet or our mother talking. Maybe Mom was living through her?

“Survival,” she said. “Meaning of life. Trying to earn a living, reproducing. I don’t know. It has different meanings for everyone.”

“True,” I said. “But I’m dying now and this means it’s pretty shitty.”

She dropped me off in front of my apartment unit and it started to rain a little. You could hear it tatter harder against parked cars and the apartment rooftop.

“Let’s Face Chat later,” she said. “Okay? We can discuss your treatments next week. I can take you. I don’t mind waiting. I have PTO build up at work. This won’t be as bad as it seems, John. Isn’t that true with most things? How we conjure up events or appointments more intense than they really are?”

I nodded yes.

“If you call I might answer,” I said.

“It’s going to be okay.”

“I pretend this is a bad roller coaster that I’m on and it will end soon.”

“I gotta run,” she said. “Need to pick up Sophie from Pre-K.”

“Bye, Janet.”

Sophie was Janet’s five-year-old girl. She and Phil had adopted. Janet hasn’t discussed Phil that much and if he’s impotent, but every time I hear Janet call out her daughter’s name, it makes me think about it and then I laugh to myself.

I went inside and turned on the television, the horrid news events and something BREAKING about Donald Trump and his advisors taking military action in the Middle East (after the big attack). I took in a gulp of orange Gatorade and it clinched my thirst and worries of the day. I made a turkey sandwich on wheat and eased into the recliner and flipped through the channels. First memories: I glanced down the hall and I looked for Mom’s shadow, her giant head lingering through the doorway, making sure that I was all right. It had to be her, or maybe I had just dozed off and my brain playing tricks on me.

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The Gorillas

What is this about? Your voice is static over the bad phone connection. A gorilla?

She turned the wheel and made a left and could see the two-story shape of her parent’s house in the wintery haze of fog. The car’s engine revved, the belts making a grinding noise as it eased to the top of the road. An image of her brother David sledding down Barbara Drive when they were kids, so long ago but close enough of a memory that it felt that she could climb back and laugh with him, throw snowballs. Samantha’s parents watched her daughter Terra on days when Samantha worked, and when her ex-husband called, Samantha rolled her eyes thinking that he must want to change parenting time, again.

“What, Jackson?” she blurted back into her phone.

The respiratory infection had left her exhausted, her horsed voice that crackled. She did not mind being alone on New Year’s Eve: maybe play some light jazz from her wireless speakers, or read that new hardback book she had ordered online? She might blog, too, letting her thoughts go adrift, graceful as seagulls hugging the surface over inlets of water.

Terra would be at Jackson’s house. It was his weekend with her. At first, Samantha thought it had to be about him making sudden plans and he’d totally forgotten that he had Terra. He had done this before, often reneging, often having an excuse that his new wife Stacy was not feeling well.

He now spoke in such excitement, wild abandonment, that Samantha thought his tongue was caught between his lips and teeth—frantically saying something about a gorilla.

“You have what?” Samantha asked. “Gorilla?”

“Gorillas,” said Jackson. “Plural.”

The phone regained a better connection. Jackson had worked as a veterinarian for almost a decade. Samantha pictured he and his wife Stacy, in the truck, transporting two giant gorillas. How odd, how goofy.

Her ex-husband had that swarthy, awkward way about him, though a spitting resemblance of the musician Jackson Browne, one of Samantha’s favorite rock musicians that she remembered her mother listening to while growing up in Central Indiana.

She heard Stacy over the phone, her voice a distant tone of mumbles. Samantha smiled at the idea, that perhaps, one of the gorillas would break free and grab Stacy by the throat, and—

Stacy Wulfstein, a woman at forty years of age, who mildly intimidated Samantha with her broad shoulders and heavy-set physique. She’d always wanted to challenge Samantha, gripe at her about incongruous stuff, which had no real bearing, and never would.

But Samantha got over whatever it was that Stacy pursued, challenged her with that sharp piercing tone of voice as though there might be a speck of interest still left over from the divorce, with whom Stacy thought that Samantha had feelings for Jackson. But there weren’t any left-over feelings, frozen over the years. She started to mingle, date more and being less apprehensive wanting to be with a guy or someone to fill in the quietness of her life now. She focused on her job, her bland career in data support, logging in numbers and parsed columns of code, and when it was her time with her daughter, they ran errands and planned their week and months ahead.

This was not the way it was supposed to work for Samantha, and she antagonized with it: single mother, starting over at thirty-five. Not cool.

Somehow Jackson cut out on the phone and clicked back on and said, as if in mid-conversation with Stacy: “Two loving gorillas from the Cincinnati Zoo… Sam, you there?”

“Yeah.”

“Taking them to the Indianapolis facility. Something about a deadline before the new year.”

“That’s awesome,” said Samantha. “So, it’s just you and Stacy riding together?”

“Yep. Not sure why they contacted me. Most other vets are on vacation right now, out of town, I guess. Anyway, returning the vet truck from the Indy facility. Brandy and Bash, those are their names. Bash is, in fact, another female. If I get a chance, maybe I will take Terra to see them.”

“How exciting,” said Samantha. “Hey, I texted earlier to see what time you wanted me to bring Terra over. Any ETA?”

She sensed his mood drop, like the chill of air coming from an old windowpane. That’s right, I got her tonight. New Year’s Eve. Totally forgot. Spaced it.

He didn’t forget.

Dr. Rosen suggested to Samantha to keep their interactions brief. She told Samantha that she needed to be stern, even forceful and not let Jackson control the allotted time, and any abusive language and profane remarks had to stop. The only way it would is if Samantha stepped up and not seek his approval, or let Terra’s love leap from her over to his and that was the only love.

Stacy and Jackson together: how it felt like a layer of deception—a sinister plot—

to weed out annoying Sam!

You got this. You’re a grown woman and can make choices. He cannot control you and do whatever he wants anymore.

Any lustful or romantic feelings between them subsided, evaporated, but she still cared for Jackson, in a way when one rationalizes that the ex-spouse is the father of your only child.

“I might have plans,” declared Samantha. “It’s New Year’s Eve. Why wouldn’t I?”

She could hear Stacy’s voice again: “Lawrence and Carrie will be over soon.”

“Can you bring her by around ten-thirty? Make sure she’s fed. Bring her melatonin,” said Jackson.

“I thought nine?”

“Nine? No,” said Jackson.

“Nine!” blurted Stacy, as if that time was the worst possible thing that could happen.

“You know that I can hear her, right?” said Samantha. “Anyway, I don’t mind if Terra stays up past midnight. She’s okay. We did last year. Hold off giving the melatonin until later.”

“Fine,” said Jackson. “I don’t want to argue. It’s been a fun day and I will continue to have a fun evening. Will ring in the new year with optimism!”

“I wasn’t arguing,” said Samantha. “It’s all good.”

 

She did not have plans. She did not have any other friends except Lonnie, and her other co-worker Rachel, who was married and had a little boy almost three years old. Samantha had been dating off and on, but nothing grew from those dates, nor did she feel attracted to any of them. Lonnie was older, forty-seven, forty-eight maybe—a nice guy but not her type, said he was spending New Year’s Eve with his parents in Bloomington.

The curiousness, the pursuit for older men seemed inevitable for her. Forty would be here before Samantha knew it. Middle-aged guys seemed more composed and honest, experienced, held good jobs—were unafraid and were ready to settle; they appeared relaxed being themselves, held within their mind and eyes a curious wonder and no ounce of being judgmental or shallow. Jackson would be thirty-nine in a few months, in the new year, but was seemingly boyish; she presumed that he still played video games all the time, dressing down in sweat bottoms, wearing gym shorts and baseball caps in the dead of winter, using profanity when Terra was around (as well did Stacy). A few years after Samantha was married to him, his academic smarts had vanished while making good money at his vet practice, and he had gotten a decent trust fund after both his grandparents had passed away. Between them, however, his time was spent elsewhere, and Samantha realized that had been a red flag. In hindsight, she wanted to make their relationship and marriage work. In hindsight, all possibilities bloomed with good intentions.

His gregarious nature at the beginning enthralled her. She loved animals, particularly the hound breed of dogs (growing up, she and David enjoyed taking their bloodhound on long hikes in the woods behind their house). Samantha and Jackson had gone to the same high school, dated off and on, and after graduating, attended different colleges. Jackson attended Purdue, Samantha Indiana University. A few years had gone by and they hooked up again. They had always kept in touch via e-mail, text-messaging. She fell in love, that mysterious love spark between them activated, and his swoony brown hair that lie over his big forehead…

As a young woman, Samantha-Clevenger Milton, seemed to fall hard for guys. She accepted this as one of her basic flaws: Being naïve. If I give you my body, at least I want in return your undivided attention. Why is this so hard?   

A burning sensation fumed in her chest—a hatred toward Stacy Wulfstein as she drove to get Terra, so sudden, like a panic attack taking over her nervous fists. A much bigger woman than Samantha, she was afraid that Stacy might instigate a fight. Having shoved Samantha into a wall at Terra’s karate class a few weeks ago, emphasized this. Dr. Rosen told her to ignore Stacy, to talk to Jackson only when it came to Terra’s extracurricular activities.

“I think Terra is too young for karate,” Samantha had said to Stacy.

“No, she’s not Samantha. Christ, you act like Terra is still a toddler.”

“No.”

“Yes, you do. She’ll be ten, and you treat her like a toddler.”

I don’t think that I do.

She questioned her own judgments, her choices. If life had redoes, she would have avoided Jackson Milton as if he were carrying a deadly contagion. Of course, that meant no Terra, her little Terra with Jackson’s genes, and she loved her daughter so much that to imagine never having her, created a dreadful mask over her eyes, created a raw sense of inexplicable angst. What was it now that he and Stacy had called her? Ewok, from Star Wars?

“The Ewok is bugging the shit out of me!” texted Stacy to Jackson, after Terra grabbed Daddy’s phone and accidentally brought it with her in the car when Samantha picked her up last month, and she noticed a few text messages and saw the shrewdness, the cruel ways that he and Stacy poked fun at Terra.  And Samantha said to Jackson, “You let that woman, your wife, talk about your own daughter like that?”

“It was not Terra,” said Jackson, who always corrected Samantha. “It was directed at you, Sam.”

 

Samantha pulled into her parent’s driveway and the glow of the porch light shown over the mound of snow along the sidewalk.  She could see her mother gathering to the door with Terra. The noise of Samantha’s winter boots scraped over the salted driveway.

“Hi, Mommy,” said Terra, and she ran to the car.

“Thanks,” Samantha said to her mother.

“You’re welcome, honey. One of these days, I’m sure you’ll be doing the same for Terra.”

They drove home, down the slope of Barbara Drive, and in the back of Samantha’s mind, she pretended to be sledding. Her brother hollering in excitement, his toboggan loose-fitted on the side of his head. She wished that she could go back being a child again. So simple, so clear and easy life had been.

Lonnie had IM’d her. He wanted to know if she was going out. Change of plans—he was not going to Bloomington. Samantha replied that she was staying home.

Samantha took a shower while Terra watched a kid’s DVD. In the mirror, she knew that she had lost weight. The digital scales displayed 123, and Samantha felt grateful and confident, and maybe it was because of the respiratory infection and being only on a liquid diet.

New goal: 115 pounds by February 1st.

The aroma of the bath lotion clung to her arms, her neck. She took in the smell and it made her smile. She undid her robe and stared at her naked body in the mirror. A cold chill went through her arms, a tingling sensation through her fingers, and she realized at that moment everything in life would be fine.

“I will not compromise anymore,” she said aloud, as if repeating a Dr. Rosen mantra. “I will stand up for myself, take life by the proverbial horns.”

She put on some jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, her maroon and white Skechers and looked at the microwave clock and noticed it was 10:21.

Jackson only lived five minutes away, but she hated to be late, even if it meant parenting time. She dreaded seeing or hearing “that woman” by the front door where she always seemed to push Jackson aside and butt in—to give Terra a hug as though she were the real mother and not Samantha.

“Let’s go, honey,” she said to Terra. They gathered their things and opened the car doors and drove to Jackson’s house. Samantha bumped the heated seat button on the driver’s side, her hair was no longer damp after her long shower.

At Jackson’s house, a two-story bungalow on Grayson Street, with green and blue Christmas lights still blinking in the windows…

Terra said from the backseat, “I bet Daddy takes me to see the gorillas.”

Samantha had mentioned the gorillas while driving home, after Terra had been at Mama’s and Papa’s place. She did not want her daughter to leave the house tonight; little kids should not be out on New Year’s Eve, where the chances of being involved in an auto accident were greatly increased. She had read that statistic, and that people were more likely to die between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

The porch light flickered on by the motion of someone coming out of the front door. Terra was already running through the front yard. Jackson stepped outside and said, “Hi there little pumpkin!” He nodded at Samantha. She got out and sloshed ahead toward him, carefully avoiding any ice or melted snow that had hardened. She locked eyes with Jackson. He smiled. He had on an old gray sweatshirt with the Purdue emblem on the front, one that she remembered him wearing when they were married.

“Happy New Year,” he said. “You celebrating, with co-workers?”

“I’m not going out,” she said. “Still trying to get over this chest bug. Happy New Year to you guys.”

“Flu?” said Jackson. “Stacy had it right after Thanksgiving and just now recovered. Bad stuff.”

Samantha glanced past Jackson and looked through the storm door and did not see Stacy in the lurch wanting to make sure she had her stepdaughter in eyeshot, in the clasp of her claws.

“You are more than welcome to join us. Lawrence and Carrie just got here. We’re playing games all evening. Trivial Pursuit. Plenty of food. Snacks and Beer.”

She gave Terra a hug and watched her slide past the front doors.

“I don’t drink beer anymore,” she said. “Just wine now.”

“That’s right. Proud of you, Sam. You look good.”

“Thanks. Hey, you guys aren’t going anywhere tonight? I mean, of course, the police do those checkpoints and stuff.”

“Of course not! It’s our own little lock-in.”

“Good. Terra thought you might take her to see the gorillas tonight. I told her about your transport.”

“Maybe tomorrow. If she wants to. I have the keys, codes to check on them, if needed.”

“Okay,” said Samantha, and she walked to her car. “Happy New Year again.”

“I’ll bring Terra over on Sunday evening, Sam. Take care.”

She looked back and saw a shadow in the window. A big-headed shadow. It pivoted, creeping toward the foyer, and Samantha knew it was Stacy about to greet Terra.

*

At home, Samantha fixed microwave popcorn and dumped it into a big stainless-steel bowl, one that had become her default bowl for snacks. She hoped Stacy and Jackson were not ignoring Terra. Being single, Samantha had no other reason to do anything else but to be consumed by her daughter and to feel the importance of being a “good” mother, a woman who had nothing else to do or prove but to work, finally making decent money and able to pay down debts and save for a new car in the coming year.

Christ, you act like Terra is still a toddler.

            No.

The ball at Times Square finally dropped. Big deal, thought Samantha. Another year. Same old crap. Another car commercial aiming at the millennials for having “Wi-Fi” in the car, and aiming at financial data, how one could get a new car for six months “no payments or interest.”

Though her eyes were heavy she did not want to go to bed yet. The merlot made her sleepy, but she needed to drink another glass of water to avoid a dreadful wine headache in the morning. When she poured her water, in between the window blind, Samantha saw two headlights beaming in the driveway. Jackson? She thought. They had brought Terra back before, around Halloween, to get antibiotics or Terra’s inhaler. But the car idled, and Samantha strained to see who it was. She walked to the front door, expecting to see the car backing out. Maybe just a driver turning around?

The car didn’t back out.

She opened the door and peeked and recognized that Chrysler; the lights went out inside the car and the door cracked opened, a beeping sound that the keys were still in the ignition.

“Hey?” bellowed a voice. “Samantha, whatcha up to?”

“Lonnie? What are you doing?”

“Sorry, got bored. Was in the area and thought I would drop by. You don’t mind?”

She furrowed her brow, an unconscious thing Samantha did when annoyed. She hated when people just showed up without calling. She looked a mess; she hated for him to see her like this, and she dreaded this awkward moment but now had no choice.

She had no choice but to invite him inside, at least for a little while. After all, it was a New Year and she could lighten up and not worry about it. But something felt off: Had Lonnie been drinking too much? His voice sounded slurry, and hurried.

“I was about to go to bed,” she said. “But I guess I can stay up a little later.”

“Thanks,” he said, and staggered to her porch. He opened his arms wide, as if expecting Samantha to do the same, lean in for a hug. A New Year’s kiss.

Instead, Samantha nodded her head for Lonnie to follow her inside.

“Got any pale ale?” Lonnie asked. “It’s all I’ve been drinking, but—”

“No beer,” said Samantha. “Just a little merlot left. You want any?”

“Sure,” he said, taking off his coat. “Wow, you changed it up since the last time I was over. You moved your sofa and chair around. The television. I like it.”

“Yes,” said Samantha. “Got tired of how it was arranged.”

“Cool.”

She poured the remainder of the wine, emptied the very last drop into a glass and took it to him. She had a little left in hers.

“So, what’s up?” she asked. “Why didn’t you go to Bloomington?”

“Oh, nothing. Nothing serious. I can go visit them another time. Didn’t feel like driving that far, where there are probably those sobriety checkpoints.”

“Smart move.”

He raised his glass. Samantha did not have hers within arm length and stood up to grab it at the table.

“Belated cheers!” Lonnie said.

“Cheers!” she said. “Happy New Year!”

They sat beside each other, watching the TV flicker from commercial and back to a live band playing on the New Year’s Eve show from Times Square. Lonnie told her that his father wasn’t doing well. His father turned seventy-six, had recently been diagnosed with early stages of dementia. His mother, too, had fallen on some ice last week and though she didn’t break anything, had to go to the emergency room. Samantha was surprised about this, how Lonnie never discussed or said anything about his parents at work. Lonnie was always the chatty type about sports, or how politics in our country was eroding the very fabric of our democracy and capitalism. He mentioned Trump would have us in a big war in a few years.

As he leaned into her face, his lips puckering to hers, she sat her glass down. He pushed up against Samantha’s breasts. She took in a deep breath and let him fall into her, and she slowly kissed him but it was not what she wanted, she did not want to lead him on or have him on her. He reeked of beer, greasy potato chip or fish breath, and Lonnie’s mouth steamy on her wine-stained lips. His stubble of whiskers pricked into Samantha’s cheek and nose.

“Hey, I don’t think so, Lonnie,” she said. “I’m sorry. I don’t—”

He paused. He stared at her, his face flushed a pinkish red, as if being rejected another time surprised him. Even by Samantha-Clevenger Milton! He squeezed his hands. She did not know if Lonnie was trying to warm his fingers or what, his worn and leathery hands twisting into a fist. He licked his lips.

“What do you mean, Samantha? I drove over, ya know? I drove over to see you. I thought we had a connection. Ah, a certain kind of bond, a synergy about us?”

Synergy? What the?

She tried to wrap her tired head around that word for a moment, her wine-splattered brain.

“No, no,” she said. “I’m sorry if you mistook me as if I was interested in you, Lonnie. I mean, I like you, I have a good time at work with you, but I am not interested, you know, romantically?”

“That’s too bad. I think if you got to know me that I’m a good guy. A catch. I’m a good guy. What, you think a prince is going to swoop down from the heavens and rescue you, Samantha? At your age now? At thirty-seven?”

“Thirty-five.”

“Well, okay. Still…”

“Lonnie, I don’t think this is right. I think you should go.”

She cupped the palm of her hand to her neck, felt her pulse beat under her fingers. She felt wobbly, dizzy. Her eyes felt heavy, and Samantha could only think about slamming the front door after this man left her alone. Her breathing felt forced, and her fingers began to shake. Lonnie did not get up from her sofa, the live band on the TV continuing to play on, another R&B singer singing about hope and love, and Samantha did not know who this young singer was. Not Jennifer Lopez, not Fergie, or Lady Gaga… a new girl. There was always a new face in the music industry, she thought, hoping it would distract Lonnie and she could enjoy the remainder of the new year, and she hoped he would leave and forget this incident ever happened.

Then Lonnie got up and turned his head slightly, looking at Samantha as if finding a lost puzzle piece.

“Alight. Alrighty, Samantha. I’ll see you at work in a few days.”

She felt relieved. Lonnie walked toward the front door, but as he turned the doorknob about to go, he sprang back toward Samantha as if he meant to reach for his phone or grab something, but instead, tightened his fist and delivered a punch, a sudden swing to her face where Samantha stood at the entry of the kitchen and the living room, and why he had done this was not only shocking but criminal—his fist hardened like a piece of granite going into her jaw.

Samantha fell into the kitchen wall. Unconscious, briefly, and to comprehend what had happened made her groggy, seeing tiny stars in front of her eyes, thinking she had heard little Terra say “Happy New Year, Mommy! Happy New Year!” And she was almost back in time, briefly—to Jackson’s porch a few hours ago, giving her daughter a hug before she went inside the house.

It had to be broken. Samantha tried to open her mouth, and a stream of blood oozed from her lips, a rivulet of burgundy saliva as she tried to spit in the kitchen sink, tried to make sense of what just happened.

Did Lonnie really do that? Punch me? For respite of rejection?

He had left and was not in the house. She wobbled to the door, his car was gone from her driveway. Across the street, she heard her neighbors, a balloon popping, music playing from inside the house. The cold winter air felt good to her heated face, but it was not below freezing, and even quite warm for the first of January. She could not catch her breath, find her phone to call the police, and her hands began to shake.

Did she not want to call the police, on all evenings, to come over and file a report? But not an ordinary police report—an assault and battery report.

Jaw was broken, it had to be broken.

 

She did not dial 911, but instead, found the number to the local police department. Before she called she went to the bathroom and rinsed her mouth out again, and she could feel the crunch and gristle, something out of socket. She grabbed a towel and went back to the kitchen, grabbed Lonnie’s glass and threw it into the sink and watched part of it shatter. She pictured his drunken face in the shards of glass.

“Okay, Mam, we’ll send an officer right over. You need an ambulance?”

“No,” said Samantha. “Well, yes, I do.” Her words came out as if she were talking with her teeth together. “Yes, an ambulance. Only an ambulance. No police, please. My jaw, think it could be broken. It was an accident, I fell.”

She could not imagine this or anticipate she an event. She picked up her phone and called Jackson. What was it now, almost one-thirty in the morning?

“Hello?” said a familiar, loving voice. A voice that she had longed for right now. “Milton residence.”

“Terra?”

“Mommy?”

“You’re still up?”

“I’m having fun. Happy New Year!”

Samantha could hear music in the background, people talking, and then Jackson must’ve seen that Terra had the phone.

“Hello?” he said in whispery, slurry voice.

“Hey. It’s me. Something is up. Something happened tonight. An incident.”

“What? I can’t understand what you are saying, Sam.”

She paused for a minute. She decided to let it go. She did not need to tell him. She was tired of telling him everything that she did or incidents that had happened. She let it go, and after all, they would all find out later, after their party, after all their fun and excitement had subsided, drifted off into the unpredictable winter morning.

“Oh,” said Jackson. “I think we will take Terra to see Brandy and Bash tomorrow. The gorillas. That okay? Sam?”

“Yes,” she said. As best she could at replying, holding her other hand to her jaw. “That’s fine. Goodnight.”

As soon as she hung up, she saw the pulsing-dotted flash of ambulance lights coming down the street. No sound of the siren was blaring, and she was glad it was off. She grabbed her purse and headed out the door. She was numbed and flustered, angry at what had happened, and she could see her hawkish neighbors transfixed by the moment of surprise at the ambulance, almost walking toward the edge of the road and wanting to ask questions. She could feel their eyes; she knew that she didn’t owe them an explanation, or anyone.  She didn’t have to explain anything, and Samantha thought that she just might keep all of this to herself. She would be proud if she could, and there was no doubt that she couldn’t.

Night Owl

The cityscape appeared lighter than normal in my dreams, and I would dream about sharks or snakes—venomous white and black sea kraits slithering under my bed, hear hisses from pit pipers or from a coral snake escaping from a neighbor who kept exotic reptiles. I would let out a frightened bark of terror, then Marina would hover in darkness as if I had died, gone into oblivion.

“You and your nightmares, Elliot. Get some help, please.”

She got up and walked to the bathroom. I believed this was my new normal. And when Marina came back for a hug, she smelled of Listerine. I clasped my arms around her; I said that today marked going three months without a cigarette. “That’s awesome,” she said. “See, I told you it was mental toughness.”

Everybody smoked in the military. It made the underpinnings of our jolted lives pass freely and unsuspended. I served in the first Gulf War, and then briefly called to Iraq. Retired now, worked as a freelance photographer and writer. I got a pension and insurance from the military and it helped, but Marina was not afraid to remind me about bills. She had a way of placating me that insinuated a sense of being worthless, as though fighting for our country had escaped her mind and that old Elliot was nothing more than vermin, a returned vet at home full of his problems.

I visited the doctor and he told me that the insomnia was a reflection of our compressed lives. He scribbled out a prescription on a white notepad.

Ambien, he wrote down.

I had doubts that it would work.

I tapped Marina on her foot.

“What, Elliot?” she said, turning over in the covers.

“I’m going. Wanted to let you know.”

“Okay, be careful.”

She reminded me of a darkly-curved ocean creature with her head hidden under the sheets and her nose sticking out. I thought of the great possibility that she would no longer be attracted to me because of my insomnia. I wanted to tell her that a red light caused it; it had a cosmic alien glow and it did something to my eyes, but she’d think that I was even crazier. She would leave me, and at forty-one, who wanted to be alone, start over?

I stopped at a 24-hour convenience store off Rosewood. Inside, I saw the night clerk girl sitting in a chair behind the register, tapping on her tablet computer. When I walked by, she grinned at me as if finally seeing a human helped her cope with the unnerving boredom. I placed my coffee cup under one of those foaming machines that sprayed out flavored cappuccinos.

“Good morning, stranger,” I said, smiling.

“Hi. Good morning, sir,” she said. “Won’t be long and the sun will be coming up. Means that I only have an hour left here.”

“Where’s the music?” I asked. “You need music.”

“The Replay, they call it. It’s broken. It’s getting fixed. I got my earbuds, though. That’s all?”

“All to what? Life?” I remarked, laughing.

“Wait,” she said. “I still have these lotto tickets printed from earlier. For some reason, the lady changed her mind and didn’t want them. Big drawing. Two hundred Million dollars up for grabs!

“No thanks. I don’t play the lottery. Worst gambling odds ever.”

“Just take them. You win anything, just remember me, okay?”

“You’re giving them to me?”

“Yeah. Go ahead. I’ll put the three dollars out of my own pocket in the register.”

I noticed a small nose diamond, the new kind of hip thing young women were wearing. She didn’t look anything like Marina with her russet hair. I could tell by her calmness that she had come to terms with her boring job and fate in life, how this might be the best it gets.

Marina, whom for fifteen or so years that I had known her, had to be in the mix of other people’s messes—in eyeshot of desire. The night clerk did not seem to have a care in the world of what others had going on; I did feel an inkling of attraction to her, for whatever reason to a degree that Marina and I were less physical and intimate.

“Alright, I’ll take them. Thanks. “If I win, I will definitely come back and give you half.”

I shrugged my shoulders and felt the coolness of the nightly air.

“Awesome,” she said. “You be careful, sir.”

I had been getting that a lot lately: sir. It was, of course, the polite thing to say to a fellow when they appeared mature and well into adulthood, which that I was now. The young woman had that look on her face that I really don’t want to be here but she had no alternative to be working, which pulled one into a cascade of regrets of past decisions.

When I got home I turned on the television, low volume so that it didn’t wake Marina. I flipped through a rehash of sports highlights, coaxing infomercials that made you think you needed something, and unsettling news that seemed to incinerate any hope of a decent world that lie ahead. The awful bloody mess of people’s lives were recorded by tireless news anchors and reporters at the scene of car accidents, shootings…

Marina and I didn’t live in the best part of Cleveland, but it was not the in the slums. There had been a few shootings not far from our condo. Lately, house fires had been happening. A seventy-nine-year-old woman died in a house fire two days ago, just a half mile on our street. The air still had that charred smell around the area. According to Marina, the lady died from smoke inhalation and probably went quickly and didn’t suffer much. “Hopefully,” I remarked. “What a horrible way for one’s life to end, after living so long.”

I wondered how my end would come. I wondered if Marina might decide to move out and go live with her mother in Akron. She had brought it up. Her mother had been diagnosed with pre-Parkinson’s, and her father died in 2009 from a heart condition.

“No securities on this planet,” Marina always said, reminding me of her fatalist views. “No guarantees for any of us, Elliot. We trudge ahead until it’s time. Everyone has an expiration date.”

Unbearable to hear! Such a downy, Marina Knox. I was still young, really. I had at least thirty-five to forty years of life.

She had continued her barrage about things, seemingly hammering away at life’s dismay:

“Isn’t it unkind and somewhat bizarre that fires and bullets and car crashes find us, Elliot? I mean, what kind of God designs this world?”

Her icy stare at me, waiting for my potential rebuttal, and I could not think of anything to say.

I climbed back into bed. Marina snored a little. I had taken the Ambien and thought about the night clerk girl, the lotto tickets that she gave me. I tossed them on to the countertop in the kitchen. I had a photography shoot at Cleveland State in the morning (staff magazine for the School of Journalism). I thought about spitting cobras, that loose coral snake that found its way into our dirty clothes basket…

Marina and I rode together the next morning. Working freelance brought in a little money, but it was not consistent. Being an adjunct professor, Marina made more and paid for most of our bills, and I could tell it was wearing on her for her to do all of that.

Before the photoshoot, I went and got coffee and sat down to check my phone messages. I overheard two girls talking at a table about sociology assignments and how one of their boyfriends, named Steve Shaw, pressed against her when they were making out the other night. I don’t eavesdrop, but couldn’t help from listening. They were rather loud and unassuming, or even cared if others heard them.

“Seven, at least,” she said, making a length symbol by stretching her thumb and finger out. “Inches.”

The other girl had a frozen, glassy look in her eyes and smiled big. I grinned to myself, wondering how cool it would be to be in my late teens and early twenties again.

“Wow, really?” the other girl remarked. “You’d better work to keep him.”

I could not stop thinking about the store clerk. I envisioned kissing her, being with her…

When Marina and I got home that evening, I fell asleep and then awoke around four in the morning. I got up and put on sweat pants and left the condo. I did not tell Marina that I was leaving this time.

I went to the convenience store and saw the clerk pacing back and forth. Should I go in? It looked as if she might have seen me from the window, but a few cars had pulled up and there were people going through the door. At five-thirty, I got out of my car and went inside. No one else around. I told her that I craved these cappuccinos and wanted to know if she’d like to hang out sometime. I hoped she didn’t think that I was hitting on her; I was just trying to chat and fight these wild night energies.

“I’m Elliot, by the way.”

“Maddie,” she said. “So, are you married? With someone?”

“Not really,” I said. “I live with a friend. Good friends over the years. I don’t think it’s going to work out between us anymore.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Kids?”

“Nope. No kids.”

“Wow, how did you pull that one off? I got three.”

“Oh yeah?”

“I do,” said Maddie. “I was married for a few years, but he was doing some weird shit and I knew I couldn’t stay with him anymore.”

“I’m sorry. Drugs?”

“Not really. Lots of booze. Gambling. Then I found out that he was involved in some under-age porn stuff, and I told him that I’m out. He was selling it. He did 90 days, being his first felony and all, but he also got a year probation and had to register as a sex offender.”

“Damn. That’s awful.”

“As you’d expect, the divorce went through pretty quick because of the charges. I get full custody. He can only see the kids after his probation and only on my terms. I’ve moved on. Not dating right now. Not sure that I want to. Just me and my two boys and little girl.”

“That’s good, Maddie. No rush.”

“Hey, not trying to bug you off or anything, but customers are pulling in and I got to fill out my time card online.”

“Yeah, no problem. Nice meeting you again. Good to see you.”

“Likewise, Elliot.”

People get caught in bad situations like Maddie. I felt sorry for her, but I knew that she would not want me to feel any kind of remorse or sorrow, or feel obligated to make her feel that her life would get better because I’m such a nice and unassuming middle-age guy without any real problems like she had.

Marina was up and making herself a bowl of oatmeal. She slammed the microwave door and started to stir her spoon in forcefully.

“It’s six-thirty in the fucking morning, Elliot. This has to stop.”

She slammed a few drawers. I could see her angered eyes, her mouth contorted in a way that she had had enough of my night drive excursions because of my insomnia.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I see my doctor tomorrow. New medication.”

“I hope,” she said. “Jesus, I hope you can find a full-time job.”

 

A week later it turned colder; you would often hear about winter weather advisories and how sharp the wind would change direction and the lake effect forced more snow than expected. Work had dried up. I continued driving in the night, reflecting from old days, seeing old buddies from high school or from the military, some of whom had already died from various illnesses or accidents. I went to the park and while walking around the path, the streets of the night had a blue tint, as if a certain kind of confidence and hope sprung within me. I thought about Maddie. The convenience store was not far from the park and I would sit and listen to music or sports talk on XM radio after my walk. I thought about ways to drum up new photography business, but it was hard because I didn’t feel like networking. The best places to network were local bars or coffeehouses; you talk to people, hand out your card, and hoped for the best. I used social media, but it was a lot of self-promoting and to me, that comes across being desperate.

I had a few business cards left and not sure why I didn’t give Maddie one. She and her kids might want a family portrait, or maybe just herself, or she may know of someone who might want some photoshoots. I didn’t want to bother her at the store; I’d make it quick, nothing intrusive, as if I was stalking her. As I turned into the parking lot, I saw the flash of police lights, an ambulance… other cars parked on the side of the street, where people gathered. The news station had a crew there.

I got out of my car and huddled near the crowd of people.

“What’s going on?” I said to a woman.

“Awful,” said the woman. “Just awful. They killed the clerk.”

“What?”

“I said they shot the clerk. It got held up.”

I didn’t think it could have been Maddie, maybe another night clerk. But did someone else work that shift? I just hoped maybe she called in sick or wasn’t involved. I walked around toward the news crew and stood a few feet away. They were interviewing someone, maybe a customer who saw it. I heard him say, “Yeah, they just flew in real fast and told the girl to hand over the cash. She froze. I think she got nervous and knocked over her iPad and it slammed to the floor. It made a loud noise and that’s when one of them shot her. Point blank. Bam!”

No.

When the man finished talking, he brushed beside me. I cleared my throat and said, “Hey, sorry, but did the clerk have brownish-red hair to her shoulders, kind of cute? Maybe late twenties?”

“Yeah. That was her.”

“O God.”

“You knew her?”

“No, not personally. Friendly interactions, on a customer basis. Her name was Maddie.”

“It happened fast, she had no chance. She was nervous and they shot her. They looked at me and fled. I got lucky, I guess. Thought for sure that I was next. Fucking gangsters!”

The sound of my heart pumped through my head, and it felt as if I was being lifted over the crowd, over the side streets and roads by a magical force of adrenalin. It felt like the moment being at the red light a few weeks ago and no other cars were around, and how time seemed frozen and that I could be and do anything that I wanted.

One of the police officers waved me over. I told them that I knew Maddie, and I was a regular customer who came in and got coffee. I heard one of them say to their comrade, holding what appeared to be Maddie’s driver’s license:

“Her name,” he said. “Maddie Garrison.”

That was the first time that I’d heard her last name.

A news anchor hurried by and she wanted to talk. A camera beamed into my eyes.

“I don’t know what to say,” I said. “It’s sad with all the crime and people not giving much thought about what they’re doing or any regard to life. It’s awful, something has to be done.”

I left the scene and drove toward home. I did not want to tell Marina. I wanted to clear my head, had had enough energy from all the commotion that I could go for a jog or take another walk around the park. I could still smell the fuel vapors from earlier around the convenience store and imagined Maddie taking her last breaths. She did not suffer long. I remember in combat and one of our platoon leaders took shrapnel and bled out in front of us. Death was always a reminder that we took life for granted. The real war was on our own streets, as they say, “in our own backyards.” One minute, a person’s doing nothing wrong, trying to make ends like Maddie, and the next thing some shit-for-nothing puts a bullet through you.

I walked around the ball diamond, enough to ease away any adrenalin. I stared at the swimming pool a hundred yards away and it lacked that cool summer glow that seemed like it was hot and muggy yesterday. I envied people in California or Florida, where it was always warm. People have told me in life we pick our poison, as Mom and Dad told me over the years, and if we’re reluctant to do so, life randomly picks it for us.

I returned home and the orange sunrise came through the pine trees in the front yard. I unlaced my shoes and put on my blue shorts and slipped back into bed beside Marina. It was as if I’d never left her. Marina took in deep breaths, but turned in the sheets. Shadows of tree branches formed on the bedroom wall. I thought about finances, money being tight…

A few minutes later Marina stretched out her legs, lifted part of the covers off her arms.

“I might as well get up,” she said. “Get a shower. You want to join?”

“I have to tell you something,” I said. “There was a—”

“Shower,” she said. “Let’s talk later.”

She cupped her hand over my mouth. She took off her gown. I saw a shadow of her right breast. She leaned back into bed and pressed her lips to my shoulder, and I could feel her tongue along my collar bone.

“The other night, Elliot,” she said, “when we were on the deck, you hesitated when I asked if we should have gotten married. Did you think we should have?”

“What? No. It’s not what we wanted.”

“What is it then? What do you have to tell me?”

I paused, couldn’t think. I didn’t know if I should tell her.

“I’m getting into the shower,” she said. “Join, if you want.”

I looked at the folded lotto tickets on the night stand, the ones that Maddie Garrison gave me. I’d brought them in from the kitchen and checked the numbers on my laptop computer and only matched one number, thinking maybe there was a mistake and that I should hold on to them for a while.

The next morning, after a few hours of sleep, I told Marina that I went by the convenience store where that homicide took place on Rosewood. She made her mouth into a contorted frown, and I could see her classic dimples branch across her face. I informed her of the details and she was upset that I wouldn’t have told her. She told me she was sorry that she’d cut me off last night, thought I was going to ramble on about my nightly escapades.

“I worry about you, Elliot,” she said.

“Yeah? I worry about me too,” I said.

 

As the weeks passed and a certain amount of awkwardness arose between us, it dawned on me that our middle-aged lives were caricatures of twentysomethings. Marina was looking over class paperwork and her checkbook.

“Elliot,” she snapped. “Your half of the income is a bit problematic this month. Your freelance stuff isn’t cutting it. You really need to look for more permanent work.”

Was this one of her soft ultimatums? Get permanent work, or else? 

My pension covered the condo payment, utilities, but we had credit cards and two car loans to pay. The autumn daylight vanished into the displeasures of shorter days of the coming winter. It was early December and not unusual to have snow storms form intensely from the lake effect. We had visited Marina’s mother over Thanksgiving, and on our way home that Friday evening, the day after our big meal, a watery tear the color of silver emerged down Marina’s face.

Another night drive and I needed gas. An alert resounded from my phone speaker: “Wintery Weather Advisory” issued. I thought about Maddie Garrison, her crimson smile, how she’d been gone now for two months. Wondered what she was doing in heaven these days? If only I had been there to save her, to have taken that bullet instead?

My doctor adjusted the prescription yesterday. My insomnia grew from within like an inescapable bruise. I got out of my car and listened to the wind howling over the eves on the metal roof at the same convenience store where Maddie had worked and where she had taken her last breaths of life. I wondered if I would come home to an empty place and Marina would be gone. Other ex-military guys’ girlfriends or even wives suddenly left, gone into the night and wanted nothing to do with them anymore.

At the other pump, a man a little older than me looked distressed. I lifted the gas nozzle, swiped my debit card and the man was speaking into his phone while getting gas. He said in a rushed voice (I think to his wife): “I know about the conditions, Kim. I got the milk and I’m on my way. Jesus Christ!”

“Sounds bad,” I said to him. “The weather tonight.”

“What?” he said in a frustrated tone. “Yes. Go figure! You married, dude?”

“No. I live with a girlfriend.”

“Smart man,” he said. “But yeah, heard a blizzard. Fuck, who knows anymore what the hell’s going on in our crazy world.”

His face was purple in the cold air. “Just freaking great,” he continued. “I don’t get paid unless I go to work. Company doesn’t offer PTO. How am I supposed to live like that? My wife on medical leave. Our income situation is a mess. Sorry, I know you don’t care.”

“No, don’t be,” I said. “It’s not our fault. We do the best we can.”

He stared at me and then down at the gas nozzle and snapped it back into the pump.

The adjusted sleep medication was a hybrid of Ambien and a new drug, and I figured that I would make it home before it kicked in. I imagined the snow piling up and we all had to re-examine our lives into simpler things. This would be my last night drive if the new medicine worked. I would miss hearing Marina snore, her lithe shadowed body bunched under the sheets. I should go look for a one-bedroom apartment, just in case if she tells me to get out. I would have to get a regular job. Maybe something at night, like warehouse work, but something not too painstaking or demanding.

Looking over at the direction of the doors at the convenience store, I saw a glimpse of the two men running away. They had been apprehended a few days after the shooting. They were still awaiting sentencing, as they both pleaded guilty.

The pump displayed “See Attendant for Receipt.”

But I see her, Maddie and all her energies and vigor, her sexual yearning yet to be appreciated in a loving relationship with the right man. It was gone from her. Her three kids left to live with relatives. “Life is often short,” I remembered my mother telling me after coming back from my father’s funeral decades ago.

When I went inside, I imagined Maddie behind the counter.

Hey you! Where are you?

“Can I help you, sir?” said a man walking out from the back. He was Indian, skinny-tall, wore a brown button shirt and had on a heavy-gray jacket.

“I had twenty in gas,” I said. “I need my receipt. It didn’t print from the pump.”

I paused, checking out the store.

“Hey,” I continued, looking at the man. “Did you know the girl who worked here? Who was killed? Her name was Maddie Garrison?”

The man shook his head no.

“I’m her replacement,” he said. “Didn’t know her.”

“Her replacement?”

“Yes.”

It sounded odd, a strange word to utter, but accurate, from a business view. Replacement. It dawned on me that other people were just replacing us: at our jobs, new lovers, and eventually, in our own dwindling lives as it slowly or quickly fades.

“I replaced her,” the man said again, as if I didn’t quite hear him. “Were you a friend?”

He handed me the gas receipt.

“One of her customers. I was passing through and needed gas, before the snowstorm hits, and I remembered when it happened. I feel so bad for her and her kids.”

“Gotcha,” said the man. “It’s an awful thing. You need anything else besides gas, sir?”

I noticed the Lotto sign in the window.

“Three tickets,” I said. “Quick draws.”

I was not that wide-alert owl now; the adjusted medication started to hit me, and I should not have taken it before I got home.

I glanced out the door and noticed the snow. The parking lot was almost covered.

“It’s going to get bad,” said the man. “Six to eight inches. Forty-mile an hour wind and I am stuck here all night.”

“That’s no fun,” I said.

People drove up to the pumps. The snow whipped around pink taillights; customers shivered in a hurry to get back inside their vehicles. I handed the man my three dollars for the lottery tickets.

“Good luck,” he said.

Driving home I heard on the radio how the winter storm had intensified, the wind off the lake and the temperature would plunge to single digits. The state police urged drivers to stay off the roads. Get home, I thought. I felt the allure of the park where I had walked and jogged. I pulled into the entrance and left the car on for heat. An old rock song blared through the dash speakers and it brought back childhood memories of my parents with their giant stereos in the family room… Mom loved Neil Diamond, Dad playing ELO on vinyl…

I held a cigarette but didn’t light it. I found it stuck in between the seat and seatbelt latch, and I knew that I could not not go back to that habit now. I didn’t feel the urge. I tilted my head out the window into the blurry chill of wind. The air on my fingertips and wrists, my hands becoming numb.

I turned up the heat. I was stupid to have taken the medication. I texted Marina I’d be home, fighting through the storm—don’t want to slide off the road. I would rest in my car and she would be livid when I got back, but I could not drive, not now. Eyes like heavy fishing sinkers over the lids. A certain equilibrium emerged within me. The summer pool appeared at the park a hundred or so yards away and I wished it was summer; I wished I could go back to all the great moments with Marina and how we had loved each other. I repressed being in the army and hearing the loud blasts of mortar shells exploding and the stinging sound of bullets. Was this the end? I didn’t know, and I would fall asleep and there would be no more venomous snakes or night driving through the city of Cleveland.

In this numbness, I would never know again to accept reality as it was. I fell into a deepening ease, a new sleep that I hadn’t had in a very, very long time.

Flight

She hopes that I will leave my wife. She knows it won’t happen. It will be our last excursion together—an end to this—whatever you make of it: a fling, a work-friendship turned intimate, an affair. Yes, our age gap is alarming: seventeen years. She is twenty-six. With Laureen, there is a crack of her syllables, hesitation in her voice. I’d told her over drinks that this was it, no more of us, together.

“At least we have the weekend. Of all places, Hawaii,” she says. “Our last hurrah. Sucks to be us, huh?”

I take in her sarcasm.

We had been having drinks at one of the bars at SeaTac, killing time, waiting on our flight back to Tempe, when Vessman, our boss called on video chat. Change of plans, flights, and this was not unusual with Vessman. Laureen says, “Can’t believe this! I was kind of looking forward to getting home, checking on my mother. Did you see what that dude had on? That green Polo blinded me.”

“He hardly sleeps,” I say.

A banking convention at the Omni Hotel in Hawaii and Vessman thought we should go, at the last minute. American and Japanese investors will be there. Hotshots in the industry. We needed to adjust some codes, spreadsheets, install new encryption.

We work for DDC. Laureen and I often have downtime in between travels. We are always on-call. “Bravado I.T. Travelers,” Laureen referred to us awhile back. We make good money, but I hated the rigorous nature of traveling and I wanted to quit, honestly.

Carolyn had sensed something might be going on, and I had told her about Laureen. I had never kept secrets from her. We attend therapy and it is working, but Carolyn has told me that she will never forgive, and divorce or separation is not ruled out yet. I have told her, after Hawaii, that I am going to resign. I will “freelance,” work-from-home…

 

Laureen and I work on our laptops in flight, somewhere over the Pacific.

“Threshold Moon,” Laureen calls her special input of computer code. “Finished.”

She closes her laptop, rubs her fingers across her temples as if a headache comes on. The airplane banks right. Laureen tips her drink and sips the last bit of it.

“How is your mother?” I ask. “Doing better, after getting home?”

“I have not spoken to her in a few days,” says Laureen. “My brother checks on her while I’m traveling. We hope she’s done with chemo and it’s isolated. God, I hope. Hey, do you think I curse too much?”

“You don’t.”

I think about my son Patrick, who’s fifteen, plays on the freshman basketball team in Mesa, Arizona, where we live. He amazes me how he’s almost as tall as I am, six feet, and has a much better jump shot than I did at his age.

Laureen and I get along. But it’s not as though we can finish each other’s sentences. We are not so agreeable, but more like two frisky cats attracted to each other, always a paw length away from protecting our egos.

“I’m glad I’m with you,” Laureen says, putting the palm of her hand forcefully around my forearm. “Only as friends, may it be. Just coworkers. Man, that Bloody Mary has kicked in!”

“You want anything, sir?” the flight attendant asks, walking by. “Another Diet Coke? We still have cold beer?”

“No thank you,” I say. “I’m good.”

Laureen runs her fingers through my hair; her eyes drift lustfully away, as if there is always that moment when she can have me.

“Do you understand all this code, Thomas? I hate how Vessman always has these last-minute assignments for us.”

“I know what you know,” I say. “The banking side is huge for us, though. The honchos in Honolulu. I think it involves a new solution to ward off global defaults on mortgages, a new code to protect against Default Swaps. To prevent, or at least soften another catastrophe like 2008.”

“You want my flash drive?” says Laureen.

“Wait until we land. Or until we get to our hotel. Man, a steak sounds really freaking good!”

Suddenly, there’s a crack, like the sound of metal splintering, grinding. It is loud and near the wing by the window where we sit.

“What the hell was that?” Laureen snaps, squeezing my thigh. “I’m not ready to die, Thomas.”

“You’re not going to die. Relax. I mean, if it happens it will happen fast and you won’t feel anything.”

Probabilities. I think how we both accepted the astronomical odds that we go down in the ocean or get torn to pieces. We accepted it, Laureen. The laws of physics now determine our fate.

Of course, I don’t tell her that.

“What?” she says.

She pulls her hand off my leg. She presses her face to the plastic window. I lean forward, hoping to see if something has hit the wing. In front of us, a teenage boy turns and says, “I bet the engine blew.”

The captain comes on and announces that the plane is stabilized. Laureen closes her eyes and folds her lips strangely until the puckering of them turns clear and her face reddens as if in a flustered thought at any minute we will be sucked out into the atmosphere at five-hundred miles per hour.

And oddly, I feel calm. I feel if it is my time to break away with the plane and disintegrate into the ocean—there is nothing that I can do about it. Yes, I can pray to God, but stopped that long ago. After Carolyn went through two miscarriages, after my father’s suicide, numerous close friends who have died, and after my sister’s torment with lung cancer… What God?

I can do what the flight attendant lady says: “Stay calm. Everyone, we will be landing in Honolulu shortly.”

People will say that Thomas Callaway and his mistress deserved their punishment for weaving in and out of their adulterous behavior. “God struck them down with vengeance,” a pastor in Mississippi will conclude. “God had a plan for them, for everyone on that plane, and it is God’s plan that we cannot quite understand,” a pastor in Flagstaff will utter with careful deliberation of tongue.

We don’t hear another sound or any noise by the wing. Laureen grabs my hand and we do not look at each, the silence making it feel like we’re only strangers in the grand scheme of things. Soon, we will walk across the tarmac at the airport, go to our hotel and order beer, shrimp and steak on DDC’s travel credit card. Take a warm shower after soaking our stiff bodies in the hot tub. In the morning, go down to the conference rooms and set up any needed terminals. We will deliver the banking code to a gentleman known as Cheong-Le, a honcho from JP Morgan.

When the plane swerves left after a bout of extreme turbulence, the woman flight attendant falls. She is curled against the wall, part of her black underwear exposed, with her left foot shoeless. She sees me and we lock eyes, as if the two of us will die in the plane’s descent.

I close my eyes and see Patrick as a baby, holding him in my thoughts. My whole life does not flash in front of me, but fragments of it, like the jumpy spurts of candle light and all the good times in my life, fragments of my experiences that have only extended through work and feeling good about it, and the boredom it sometimes brings.

A hard jolt, then we land.

 

The sun has not set and the clouds in the distance absorb a purple color of fading light in the air. I smell Laureen’s sweat; she hugs me and says, “Well, not the best flight that I’ve had, if this was meant to be. Whatever.”

I think about dolphins somewhere out there, clown fish maybe, Great Whites’ fins through waves and the entrails of half-eaten fish. I think about Carolyn and Patrick in Arizona and how everything will be fine in our family. I will let Laureen go. I am sorry for all of this.

The next morning the sun heats my face and arms through the curve of the hotel window as I lay in the comfort of the white sheets. Laureen is gone. Did she catch the next flight back to Arizona? I can still smell her, like a drying towel, her powdered legs…her breath like minted coffee and waffle syrup stuck to her lips. I did not leave her, she has left me. After I got out of the shower, standing by the bed is Laureen: her tennis shoes untied, her burgundy hair pulled back and wrapped with a tie, and she says, “Let’s go for breakfast and get this over with, then get the hell out of here. I understand, Thomas. I love you but you don’t have to love me. After all of this, we just become normal coworkers. I’m okay with that. Really, I am.”

 

The Café

She watched the steam ebb around her coffee cup. At seventeen, she was yet to be saturated in the foray of grown-up habits, except for her morning coffee wake-me-ups. At least her mother Josie allowed her to have coffee. On the news, there was another local shooting. A woman, only twenty-two, shot in the leg by her boyfriend.

A bus crash in Tennessee leaves five dead. Protestors take pepper spray to the face by police…

The disjointed world made the anxiety in Deb more intense, like seeing a speeding car behind you in the rearview and it may not stop.

It’s not menstrual.   

It’s not stress. 

           “You’re such a hypochondriac, Deb,” said Josie. “You’re fine. You’re young.”

 

It was her senior year, the start of volleyball. She liked playing, her tall and slender body leaping high above the net, spiking the ball. She enjoyed letting the sweat roll off her arms. It made her feel as though she outplayed the other girls. She would let the shower water engulf her face and the warm steam made her forget about her mother and Ronnie’s financial troubles.

Over the past summer, she worked part-time at the Bistro Café, not far from where she and Josie rented their condo, the one Ronnie had bought five years ago, before the divorce. She wondered about her father, how he left them the house after the divorce; how he would be responsible for the rent and utilities, but was always late on sending any money.

Josie went through her Camel’s like a fiend these days. She worked at the local UPS.

“Political shows? What?” Deb asked, nodding at the TV with her mother beside her. “Into political shows now?”

“I’ve always been,” said Josie. “Why do you care? I like to keep up on this stuff. It affects all of us in one way or another.”

Deb snarled her lip. She didn’t want to tell her about the headaches again, the pain in her arms and neck, a flicker of pain like a bright bulb near her eye. All the pain in her body…

To Josie, it was fabrication. It was a way for Deb to get out of working, going to school.

The idea of dying in an already deathly world around her caused her stomach to churn, as though she’d eaten something foul. When she took pain pills, it temporarily relieved her angst. She knew that she only had a few months to live.

Was it Lyme disease from a rogue tick after hiking with Ronnie over July Fourth weekend?

Why her father was into hiking, camping, living in tents for a weekend, she had no idea. Maybe it was a divorced man thing? she thought. Maybe her father was homeless and wasn’t working? She remembered the quick match to her scalp:

“Hold still!” Ronnie yelled, bending the end of the match onto the tick’s body as it flung off a strand of her blond hair.

It was awful that she may end up dying from a tick bite because her father wanted to go on a new trail. As he’d put it, “Like Yellow Stone National…” And Ronnie would laugh at his own silly exaggerations, as grown men often did, believing his kind of humor entertained other people. His facial hair turned salt and pepper; his eyes reminded Deb that he might be high.

Foolish Dad, dumb-ass Dad and his camping enthusiasm.

Or maybe she had gotten sepsis after slicing her finger on the broken door handle when getting her class schedule the other day? The word sepsis, what a weird-sounding word, how it stuck with her for a while. It can be a serious blood infection. She had never said the F word so loud, and the P.E. teacher, Mr. Preston, heard her loud and clear and stared her down from the other end of the hall.

She hoped that she would not end up like her former classmate Margo Tannley, who passed away in 2015 from Stage 4 something. She envied Margo’s long beautiful brunette hair, before chemo ravaged it.

I will not go through chemo! I will not be a test subject by Big Pharma! I will spit and kick!   

The unnerving feeling of annihilation at seventeen clouded her head. Then she realized that it was believable because seventeen-year old girls died all the time around the country, around the world. Some of them with medical and financial burdens pressed onto their families, others without any inclination of warning by some drunk driver going the wrong direction. Or, there was that chance of dying from an aneurysm, ruptured spleen after falling in volleyball practice…

Life went on, thought Deb. People mourned and spoke about you in the future tense: “That girl would have done great things.”

At the café that Sunday afternoon, Deb watched the customers in between tables and wondered what they had going on in their lives. Couples: men and women glared at each other with intense eyes, wrinkled foreheads. She wondered if the love between them had been canceled out by their fast-paced routines every day.

Manager Nicole warned Deb to wear long sleeves so that her tattoos were not visible. What bullshit policy crap! Many of the customers who came in and spent money had tattoos all over their bodies. They were not offending anyone!

The rumor going around was that Nicole had crashed into a tree a few miles from her house in 2012. Her body never quite healed. She was drunk, coming back from a party. Nicole walked with a slight limp, still had a trachea scar, and her jaw slightly uneven, which made her speech hard to understand. But for what she’d been through, Nicole was still attractive and had a steady boyfriend who made a lot of money designing and building homes.

Anxious as hell for some reason. Autumn coming. Colder temperatures. She liked the fall—her favorite time of year, when Deb could be isolated and away from the daily static: walking down a park path, appreciating the beauty of the orange-filled sky and the trees and the wind whipping up dead leaves across the grass; she liked pumpkins on porches, little kid monsters asking for candy (only five years ago that was her on Halloween, being that innocent and anxious child sugared on Sweet Tarts and Snicker’s bars). Her days were now numbered, she thought. Something would get her body soon.

A new girl started at the Café. Kelsee job-shadowed Nicole. Kelsee had tattoos on her left and right arm. She looked about twenty years old and was pale, tired, bloated. Did some boy knock you up, little vamp? wondered Deb.

She watched Nicole from a distance point at Kelsee’s tattoos, pointing to her arms to wear long sleeves, reminding her about company policy, just as she had warned the other servers.

On her break, Deb took another pain pill, or it might’ve been something stronger from Josie’s cabinet, like Vicodin. And she thought about the future, one day herself being a mother and happily married—to be impregnated with all those dividing cells that would soon fuse tissue and bone, a beating heart. Maybe her future baby would cure diseases? No, her future baby would likely be another bad attitude kid growing up to be a waitress, a blogger with big-author ambitions, or a stripper with unfinished tattoos and quick hands to snatch any dollar bill from perv customers who eyed with lust. If a boy, she imagined him on a skateboard with long hair and pimples, a boy with crooked teeth who talked with a mild stutter. He would share her nose and mouth, have his father’s eyes and sexy dimples, and be a whiz at algebra. But other than that, he was no one special, just another kid like all other kids who nurtured from infanthood into kids and then propelled into that unbalanced teenage consciousness. Eventually, so clumsy the transition, this child becomes an adult; and one day he’d deal with ex-spouse shit and money traps like Josie and Ronnie, and it would be the epoch of their routines for years to come and it would drive them crazy.

It would never happen to her because she was at the end of her lifeline, but she would really love to see her own child grow up, to hold and to protect—mold into some creature that she could be proud. Most women wanted that, at some point. All women wanted that kind of life after getting past the heated noises that burned like an invisible laser beam through their lives.

The pregnant woman leaned away at a table at the Café. The projection of Deb as the woman could be her many years from now and beyond any metastasized tumor in her body, and a life beyond the moment of dealing with her senior year of high school and Josie’s and Ronnie’s shitty issues. So many things that could happen before then, so many variables to jut out and alter it. But it was fun to fantasize and know that it might happen one day. Deb had to get back to work. She had to deal with what was pertinent, “in-the-now,” and as she looked up and saw Nicole coming toward her, kind of fast, with a stressed look in her eyes, favoring her weak leg, and before she could say anything, Deb looked down and realized that she didn’t have to worry, she had on a long-sleeve shirt this time

Offsite

Our boss Frank Pearson sent out a random email to our department that Monday, a short work week with Thanksgiving in a few days. We worked in the ad department for a leading appliance retailer, and in those sloppy matter-of-fact phrases without any punctuation, Pearson wrote: “Short notice guys have an idea meeting offsite tomorrow 9 a.m. Starbucks. Bring laptops.”

Weird. We all had experience about the big rush for Friday, or D-Day, “The day after Thanksgiving,” and of course–we all had been through it last year. But Pearson was a newbie and came from the car industry, had lots of ideas and seemed cool enough. He was young, too, like twenty-eight or nine, but you could tell being a manager had aged him a little.

Linda Felton replied back to ALL:

“Nice! Can we dress down? Also, you still want me to help control the stampede of the wild buffalo early Friday morning?”

“Just want to make sure everyone knows their role and last push for all the advertisement,” continued Frank. “All hands on deck! Linda, you rest up. The sales department should have that covered. Jeans the rest of the week.”

My coworker, Leslie Blare, scooted her chair up to my cube. She sat to my right, in the newer cube, eco-friendly, as I still worked in one from the late 1980s.  Leslie insinuated confidence and influence, perhaps an attraction toward me. I was dragging that morning after I tossed and turned in the night, unable to get a sound sleep. Molly, my beagle-mix, had a rough night snorting and breathing. She was almost fourteen years old. My mind jumped from her fading health back to Leslie, then to Pearson’s email again.

“So cool,” said Leslie. “Pearson must’ve read what I sent him yesterday.”

“Sent him?”

“I made suggestions,” she said.

“You suggested to Pearson that we meet at Starbucks? Why?”

“No,” said Leslie. “It was a forward on office productivity. An article about how creativity and performance increase when taking your teams to offsite locations every now and then.”

“Hey, anything to break up the monotony around here.”

“You want to ride together?” Leslie asked.

I did not look at her but caught a glimpse of her face from the corner of my eye. I imagined that she was pressing lips together waiting on my reply. Those lips, I thought. I would rather be with Leslie on a date than be talking business crap, or be compressed together with other employees at a noisy Starbucks. I can do that on my own time, right?

“Which one?” I asked.

“Which, what?” Leslie said.

“Which Starbucks are we going?”

“I don’t know. Good question.”

I clicked on Frank’s email thread and stared at the word offsite. A paragraph below read: “Meet at the Starbucks off Tillison Ave. Just 5 minutes from our office. I’m sure everyone knows where at.”

I shook my head.

“It’s amazing how our boss, probably making five times my salary, does not know proper punctuation and grammar. How the hell does that happen, Les?”

“I want to tell him, but would feel weird about it.”

I swiveled my chair to her.

“So you want me to pick you up?” I said. “I’ll drive.”

“You read my mind, Trevor. In the morning, just come by my house. I’ll text you the directions. Cool?”

For some reason, Leslie did not drive. She told me she has her license, but does not drive and does not care to own a car. And I could tell in the seriousness on her face that she didn’t want to go into the reasons. Leslie was married to a guy named Winton Blare. He was ten years her senior. I think Leslie told me that her husband was forty- six, but from pictures, the poor man looked much older. She referred to him as her “Soon-to-be ex.”

It felt odd that I was attracted to a married woman. It had been going on for the last three months. I’d flirted with her, here and there, but didn’t want to pursue Leslie any further knowing that she was married to Winton. In a way, I don’t think she was my type. She seemed spoiled, perhaps too goofy and too jokey for me, not to mention way too positive and happy-go-lucky, unfazed by any kind of wrongdoing throughout her early thirtysomething life. She and Winton didn’t have any kids together. He had a daughter, Amy, I think around the age of twenty, from a previous marriage. Amy lived in Chicago, according to Leslie.

But it was true that Leslie had a certain radiance about her, as if her attractiveness usurped feelings and lust into a gigantic bag that fitted tightly around my head and could not remove for some reason. I wondered if she really meant that she and Winton were getting a divorce, or if that’s what she really wanted but was just kidding?

The next morning a layer of fog blanketed a mist over my windshield. The morning news said there were school delays. But the fog had lifted, and I was on my way to pick up Leslie. I sent her a text message that I was leaving and on my way over. A few seconds later, I saw that Leslie had replied. She sent me her address and street, and I had a vague idea where it was, but I entered it into my phone map and it came up.

Stoneybrooke Ridge was where doctors, lawyers, and dentists lived. I had no clue on what Winton did for a living, but I’m sure that he was well-off, or doing great for himself financially. I knew that Leslie couldn’t afford to live in these houses on her salary. As soon as I turned into the addition, a cop car flew by me. All lights. No siren. For a second, I thought he was after me for going through the yellow light that magically turned red as I plowed through the intersection a mile back.

Then another cop car followed. What was going on and what could be this urgent? When I got to Leslie’s house, a total of three cop cars were in front, and my heart began to pound, not just in my chest but the sound of it in my ears, the tinge of the pulse through my jugular, the tightening of my eyes as I squinted over my glasses. I could have been in “flight or fight,” ready to floor the gas pedal or get out and run just in case some lunatic came my way.

I heard a tap on my side of the car window. Leslie stood there holding her coffee mug and pointed her thumb toward the house behind her.

“Hey, my house is across the street. I saw your car.”

“What’s going on?” I said, getting out.

“We heard three gun shots at the house. Winton 911’d and here we are. Go figure. The Kleengers have always had issues. Domestic. Problems with their teen son. I don’t know. This is not the first time.”

“Damn.”

A man hurried up to the car. My eyes roved straight at Winton’s giant forehead and blondish tufts of receding hair; he pulled his tan robe over his chest, had on jeans, and stood stoutly in grass-stained Converse tennis shoes, sockless, half smiling and eating a piece of toast.

“You must be Trevor Patterson? I’m Winton. Thanks for driving Leslie. I am deep in meetings this morning, conference calls and shit, or I would have taken her.”

“No problem,” I said, peering into their garage and seeing a silver Jaguar. “Are we OK to be here? You need to give a statement to the police?”

“I already did,” said Winton, taking another chomp out of his toast. “As far as I know, I think Mrs. Kleenger shot him, her husband, Stanley.”

“Hey, the dickhead had it coming,” said Leslie. “The way he treated Jill—”

Leslie was dressed in a gray parka, blue blouse. It was not cold or really warm, and we had had an unusually warm November. Today was a little chillier. You could see puffs of our breath. Leslie leaned into her husband and gave him a peck on his clean-shaven cheek.

“Bye, honey. Don’t be mad if Trevor and I jet to Costa Rica on your dime.”

“You kids have fun,” said Winton. “Hey Trevor, Leslie mentioned you guys are spending the day offsite. I think it’s a good idea, get a fresh look at your work.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m sure we’ll be more creative.”

So bizarre. I felt crestfallen. It was as if at that moment I was hanging from a small plane and would be sucked back into the wing after my chute malfunctioned.

Leslie’s aqua flash of fingernails hit against her coffee mug, and then her wrist bracelets clanged. I got the feeling that she and Winton were fine, that no divorce was imminent. I was cool with it, even though I would not mind running off to, as she said jokingly—Costa Rica. I would enjoy it with Leslie.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Winton can be strangely intrusive, overly optimistic.”

“Oh no, I didn’t take him that way. He seems like an easy-going kind of guy. Very laid back.”

“We both are. I don’t know if our marriage will work. I don’t know about things anymore, but I’m happy where I am in my life. He makes good money, runs a division for Marshlon Pharma. You know, the big drug company? He’s been there for twenty some years. I can’t imagine being on my own, living in a smaller house or in an apartment. But we’ll see. We do keep things simple. We really do have a good relationship, but sometimes I feel out of love, out of how it was when we first met and how he made me feel. All of that seems replaced by material things, the threat that it all could be taken away.”

“I know what you mean,” I said.

“I like you, Trevor. If I was not married to Winton, I would definitely be interested in seeing you in a more than a-friend-kind-of-way. You know?”

She put her hand on my hand, but her fingers slid into the ridge of my fingers and down to my wrist.

“Turn right,” she said. “Starbucks is down there. You See it?”

“I see it. I know.”

“I think this will be fun. I’ll buy our drinks.”

“Pearson should buy. You think?”

She looked at me for a second or two, but it felt longer, as if she’d found some flaw in my face and was wondering about how that had happened or if it had been there before and she just didn’t notice, or if I was older than I said I was, or perhaps not as “attractive” as she once thought.

“Yes, he should. Maybe he will. I don’t see his jeep. We’re a little early.”

“Yes, we are, but that’s OK.”

“Let’s just sit here.”

We leaned in together with our chins touching, our lips close, and I could taste her gloss and it happened fast—we started to make out.

She eased away.

I felt my pulse again, in my neck and around the temples, my eyes blurry for some odd reason, the strobe of red and blue police lights flashing through my mind from earlier.

“Let’s stop,” she said. “I can’t.”

“I’m good. You good?”

“I’m fine.”

We got out and walked inside Starbucks and we were the only ones there from the office, and we waited for ten minutes, but Leslie got antsy and said she could not wait any longer and went to the front and ordered our drinks.

“Hazelnut Latte,” I said. “Make it a Grande.”

A few seconds later Frank pulled up in his red Jeep Wrangler. Mel Farmington, another coworker, parked his Chevy Malibu beside my car. Jenny Dixon showed up. Linda Felton. We had most of the marketing department. Frank was smiling and walking with more pep in his step and had his Mac laptop curled under his arm.

“This is great,” he said. “This is awesome. It’s almost here. D-Day. Let’s all just relax, just work on whatever it is you were working on, and try to finish all ads today. Happy Thanksgiving. I will reimburse your drinks. Order as many as you want.”

Leslie pulled her chair around and handed me my latte. She tapped her finger on her phone and then to my arm. I read her phone screen, a message from Winton:

“It was not Jill. It was their son Eric. They arrested Eric. Stanley is dead.”

And there it was again, that long stare from her as if my flaw popped out and Leslie found it interesting.

“He deserved it,” she said. “He was an awful, awful man.”