My plane landed early. I wanted to surprise Kenzie with flowers and a steak dinner, and to tell her about my position at the company being diverted to Asia, though I dreaded that conversation. I had been told days ago that I had the option of getting paid a bonus for finalizing an installation of servers to one of our big clients in L.A. It would make for a nice cushion until I found another job. Kenzie texted me that she would be working late: “You got fried rice and egg rolls in the fridge,” she said. “Warm it up when you get back tomorrow. Very busy. Have dreadful inventory for the next two days.”
I imagined her closing the fridge door, looking at the egg rolls. Before I left for L.A., she had given me the mortgage payment to drop off. Her hair looked lighter, a whitish blond when she moved in the light. She was wearing makeup, Kenzie never wore makeup. She grabbed her car keys and maneuvered through the kitchen, and we left each other as though we had become proverbial roommates.
Eleven hundred dollars for the mortgage, gone. The universe hated me.
I left the airport from Colorado Springs and drove to Meridian Pointe, where Kenzie and I lived. The town of Meridian Pointe had a population of around 23,000 now. In the 1980s, it had been over thirty thousand, with good employment, a good place to live and to raise a family.
The sky was clear and aqua on my drive. I was listening to the alt-rock band Reptile Moon. Then I noticed my boss calling me: “Good luck, Adam,” said Riley. “I hate we’re doing this. You know as well as I do business can be tough sometimes, a cutthroat reality. I will write you an excellent recommendation letter.”
“Thank you, Riley.”
I could sense her smile was congenial over the phone. She was a numbers lady. As we all know, numbers as profit and losses are of greater importance than the general workerbee’s career.
The deal was that our entire I.T. department was being shifted to Thailand and a company called Camden Data in Bangkok would run 95 percent of our data migration and server upgrades. I didn’t know what to tell Kenzie, that maybe we had to sell the house and downsize. I exited off I-70, though still early morning, I thought I’d go by Clair’s Inn for coffee and a bite to eat, work on my resume, check e-mails…
I took off my tan blazer as the sun warmed the interior of the car. I drove an old Lexus. I watched a few geese near a retention pond fly low, skimming the water. Not too far from I-70, a few miles before town, I saw a girl at the top of the hill. We briefly shared glances of acknowledgments. She was sitting on her duffel bag and appeared to be finishing a cigarette. She wore sunglasses over her head. The girl looked young, maybe early twenties, her cheeks flushed in the ray of sun, hair the color of golden-brown leaves. She probably thought that I had money because of the Lexus. I stopped the car and thought that she might need a ride, which was not my thing to do, really. I had never picked up a stranger or even slowed down to talk to one. I rolled down my window.
“Hey, where you headed?” I asked.
She pointed toward town.
“Bus stop,” she said. “A trucker dropped me off at the exit ramp.”
“Well, if you need a lift?”
“No, I’m fine,” she stammered.
“Are you sure? I’m going that direction anyway.”
She craned her head away. As I drove forward a little, I glanced in the rearview and noticed that she continued walking, almost hugging the guardrail. I pulled off the shoulder and waved for her to come on. She jogged toward my car. The girl looked harmless. I wondered about her life and where she was going, and maybe I could help her, buy her breakfast or get her a coffee.
When she got to my car, I told her that I wasn’t some psycho. “I just got replaced by a company in Asia,” I said. “Kind of bummed.”
“That sucks,” she said. “Okay, dude. Here’s the deal. I got a knife and if you even lay a fucking fingernail on me, I will stab your ass. Just drop me off at the bus station.”
She opened the door and got inside.
“Will do,” I said. “I’m Adam.”
I stuck out my hand for her to shake but she wanted no part of it. She leaned forward and tied her shoelace.
“Don’t judge,” she said. “These are men’s. They belong to my ex-boyfriend. Damn things keep coming untied.”
“These?” she said, lifting her foot into the air, and let out a laugh.
“Oh, I didn’t notice. Where are you going when you get on the bus?”
“Denver. Starting a new gig. I think it will be a good place to settle down. I’m originally from Redlands, California. Parents moved to Grand Junction when I was nine.”
She stared out the window and raised her hand to her face to adjust her sunglasses. You could feel the sun warming the windshield and it wasn’t even noon yet.
“Crystal, by the way,” she said, putting her hand out to mine.
I noticed that her left eye seemed bigger than her other one and had a different shade of color.
She shook her head yes.
“There’s a diner across from the bus station. Clair’s. We can go there for a quick bite, if you want? Or just coffee. Either way. I have nothing else to do. I was out of town, got in early and thought I would surprise my wife with a dinner tonight. I have not told her about losing my job. She might be pissed. Kind of scared.”
“I don’t want to deal with it. All the stress.”
I saw Crystal’s S tattoo on her shoulder. She looked healthy, despite the circumstances. She had in a small nose ring. She let duffel bag rest against the inside of her legs.
“You girls today,” I said, “with your tattoos and jewelry. Adds flavor. Highlights your personality.”
“Damn right,” said Crystal.
She tapped her purple-painted fingernails on the dash; she seemed antsy, jittery.
“We’re ballin’ bitches, Adam. Hyped millennials. Ha-ha! Take it you must be a Gen-Xer?”
“Guess so,” I said. “I’m over forty.”
“Man, that seems old. My mother passed away five years ago. She was, I think, forty-three then. Dad moved back to California. Somewhere up north. We have not spoken to each other in a while. It’s okay, I get by. I do dancing. You know, strip clubs? And for the record, I’m no criminal or druggie. All that heroin going around is bad news, but won’t lie, an occasional oxy helps me get through a rough day, helps ease the pain from a bad molar. Don’t act like you’ve never been to gentlemen’s clubs, Adam. You seem like a red-blooded American male who partakes in those adventures.”
I pulled in front of Clair’s.
“Not anymore,” I said. “After you get married and hit forty, most of your old friends have scattered. It’s hard to meet new people when you’re an adult, and most of your time is consumed working all day, worrying about money. No children.”
She turned up the radio volume.
“Holy crap! Love this band. Gets me pumped. You like Reptile Moon? You’re cooler than I thought, Adam. I’m going to have a good day now after hearing this.”
“My fav band,” I said. “Hell, anything remotely beyond the grunge-rock and rap music of my era and I’m totally lost who the bands are. What do you want to eat?”
“Do they have biscuits and gravy? Or, maybe I want some eggs. Hey, speaking of eggs, you know what the truck driver out of Grand Junction told me?”
“He told me that you have to eventually embrace your life, no matter what you did or didn’t do. He said he was fifty-four. The poor guy looked every bit of it and older, looked broken in many ways. He told me you gotta crack eggs in life, take risks, and he said that you must make the best out of it, even if they turn out scrambled or runny. You do it, then you own it. Pretty cool, I thought.”
“Good analogy,” I said.
Reptile Moon reminded me of when Kenzie and I went to see them last summer in Colorado Springs. It was the last time that we felt like we had a good time together, attuned to each other’s attraction.
The way the light hit the side of Crystal’s face, she looked older, more feminine.
“I’m originally from Illinois,” I said. “Near Chicago.”
“A Midwest guy,” she said. “I would have guessed that.”
“How old are you?”
“I’m twenty-four, Adam.”
“I thought maybe nineteen, twenty.”
“I get that sometimes. I wish that I could go back and make better decisions. Funny how that works, huh? Hell, I’ll be twenty-five in September. Did you make decent money at your gig?”
“I did. Worked in I.T. On the hardware side, with servers and stuff.”
We went inside Clair’s and the waitress seated us.
“Regular coffee,” I said. “I will have bacon and scrambled eggs.”
“Same here,” said Crystal. “Piping hot. Hold the Bailey’s.”
I glanced at her with a grin. The waitress scratched the end of her pen to her ear.
“Look, I know I shouldn’t be hitching rides. I’m careful. I got this just in case.”
Crystal’s driver’s license fell out of her purse. A knife clanked to the table.
“It’s more of a souvenir. It’s got a dull blade. One of those old school switch kinds. Cool, huh?”
“Where did you get that?”
“It was Shelby’s. He had it since middle school, stole it from a sporting goods store, I think. It’s been around the block. Just like you, Adam? Ha-ha!”
“Hardly,” I said. “So, Shelby’s your ex?”
“Yup. He’s living in Portland, Oregon. Good for him. He likes to post pics of his new girl and them together. Tongues hanging out, eyes full of lust or love bullshit. Whatever. Hey, if you don’t mind me asking, why don’t you and your wife have children? I mean, most people as old as you have had a boatload by now. I mean—”
I paused for a second, looked out the window. I could have sworn I saw Kenzie drive through the parking lot. Wouldn’t that be great, Kenzie walking in and seeing me sitting with a total stranger.
“Well,” I said. “A lot of it has to do with Kenzie’s genetic history. She had a genetic screen last year and there’s a sixty slash forty chance that she could carry Huntington’s to her offspring. Her mother had it and died from it. Kenzie doesn’t have it, but she still has her mother’s DNA that can pass down. And there are other things, too. We don’t need to discuss those.”
“That’s crazy,” said Crystal. “If it’s not diseases or genetic glitch, hell some asshole with a high-powered rifle will shoot our ass. Life, sometimes I don’t know about it.”
She pressed her teeth gently to her lips.
“You’re probably wondering about this?” she said, pointing at her eye.
“I wasn’t going to say anything.”
“I was five, playing around with other kids and ran around the corner of the house and smacked straight into a fence post that had a piece of wood sticking out. It clipped my eyeball and ripped through the flesh. The surgeons did a good job, the best they could back then. They could not save my eye, so part of it is glass and part natural. I was lucky, though. Could have bled out.”
“Damn, I’m sorry. It doesn’t look bad.”
“I had to do therapy. Doctors wanted to inject stem cells into it, thinking it might rejuvenate some muscle and maybe help regain my sight, but then Mom was against it and yelled for days about how using stem cells is wrong and goes against the Bible. So, here I am. You have a young face. I would have guessed you were mid-thirties.”
“Yeah, thanks,” I said, taking a sip of my coffee.
We waited on our food and talked about finding work and the thrill of “not knowing,” which to me felt like a total meltdown but not for Crystal. In a way, I wished that I was young like her, had that raw nerve for adventure, living on the edge.
“Listen,” said Crystal, tapping her fingernail against her coffee cup. “I had a miscarriage when I was sixteen. Sometimes I wonder what could have been. I really think when you make a decision you shouldn’t second guess it.”
“You’re right. Though that was nature’s, not yours. The miscarriage.”
“Right, but I would have gotten the abortion. I’m not stupid, I’m not going to have a kid at sixteen, Adam. Nothing against those who do, but I don’t think it’s fair for the child unless they are surrounded by a good family and have excellent financial support. I did not. Most young women don’t today. They would be better off—”
She tipped her coffee cup against her lips and wiped her mouth with her napkin. She pulled out a lighter and thumbed-clicked it. The waitress brought our food and sat it on the table.
“No smoking in here? Has Meridian Pointe gone nutty like the rest of America?” Crystal asked. “All these bullshit laws? Makes you wonder that we’re not all mad.”
“Local township wants to ban it,” I said. “Kind of funny, they want to ban cigarettes, but you can buy all the medical pot you want.”
“So, the smoke won’t bother you?”
“No, go for it. We’re all going to die, sooner or never.”
“Sooner or never? I like that. Sounds like something that Shelby might have said.”
“I’m going to the restroom,” I said. “Be right back.”
“Take one for the skipper. Shelby used to say that.”
“What? I think your boyfriend made that one up.”
“Ex, thank you very much.”
At that moment, I knew it was weird for me to be sitting at a booth with a stranger when I was supposed to be at work, if work really existed. What if one of Kenzie’s friends walked in? What if that was really Kenzie driving through? She worked a few miles north of here and the only thing in the strip mall was a Starbucks and a Dollar Tree. Then an absurd thought came over me: What if Crystal is wanted or is a fugitive? What if Crystal ends up dead in Denver and the surveillance cameras pinned me as a suspect? I could anticipate people saying, “I saw Adam having breakfast with that dead woman from Denver.”
The other side me said fuck it. Who cares? In ten years, I could be struck down with leukemia. I could be crushed to death by a jacked-knifed semi on snowy I-70 while going to my new job that paid twenty thousand dollars less. Hell, I could be shot next month by a psychopath whose only motive was to release his depression or religious anxieties. I could anticipate people reading my obituary on their phones, “Yeah, I remember that guy. ‘R.I.P., Adam Bartlett.’”
As I returned from the bathroom, I pulled out my wallet to pay for our breakfast. Crystal was chewing on her straw.
“Here,” I said, and handed her five twenties. “For your ride to Denver and to help with food. A hundred dollars, obviously, won’t get you much these days.”
“What? No, Adam.”
“I want to. Please take it.”
“You need that money too,” she said. “Being out of work now.”
“I’ll be fine. Got some saved, and got a nice bonus working overtime. Had to travel to L.A. for a final assignment.”
“Okay. Well, thank you. Thanks for breakfast, Daddo.”
She shrugged, the muscles in her neck had tightened. As we walked outside to the parking lot, I noticed a large shadow overhead. A drone, maybe? The military did tests north of Meridian Pointe, but it turned out to be a very large hawk flying low and over our heads. The hawk’s wings expanded as if it were a prehistoric creature, its head larger than any bird that I had ever seen.
“That’s huge,” said Crystal. “I saw one earlier. Could be the same bird. Strange world, Adam. Well, I’d better get to the bus. Thank you again for the ride and breakfast, and for the money. Nice to meet you.”
I gave her a hug. I saw her S tattoo again and realized that it stood for her ex-boyfriend, Shelby. The grayish ink shown in the sun as we embraced, as if we were siblings who hadn’t seen each other for decades. I gave her my cell number, just in case, for her to let me know that she arrived safely.
“And hey,” she said, “I’m sure your wife will understand. Just tell her, Adam. Secrets only end up causing more problems, you know? Distrust is a hell of itself. And yeah, I guess we women do it too. We shouldn’t.”
“Good advice. You’re spot on and wise for being twenty-four, Crystal. Take care in Denver.”
I watched her cross the road and get to the bus station. I would never see her again. In twenty years, she’d be almost my age, rough and torn, but filled with her adventures and perhaps had found a slither of happiness, had met a guy who she could trust and could love, not let time mold them into opposites.
On the way home, I kept thinking that the hawk was following me, waiting until I stopped and was within its crosshairs. I went by the grocery and picked up some white wine, Porterhouse steak, salad, and avocados. When I got to the house, I heard the continuation of the television on in the back bedroom. Kenzie must have gotten out of work early, I thought. So much for my surprise dinner.
“Kenzie?” I said, walking down the hallway. How odd. I’d noticed her car parked crooked in the driveway before walking into the house. I noticed another vehicle that was parked along the road in front of our house, a maroon Camaro. I pushed open the bedroom door. Bed covers moved, and that was when I saw her bare shoulders and chest with another person, embraced in the sheets; we looked at each other, and for a moment—didn’t say anything. The man with her had a scruff of beard, not much younger than me. Kenzie covered her exposed left breast.
“Adam? What are you doing here?”
I didn’t know what to say. I closed my eyes for a few seconds to soak in what was happening. “What am I doing here?” I replied.
I went down the hall, plopped into the couch cushions in the living room. A few minutes later they both walked in and didn’t say anything. I didn’t know who the man was. He glanced at me and stood there for a few seconds, as if maybe he’d expected that I would jump into his face, and then he mumbled “sorry” under his breath and ambled out the front door. He carried what looked like a laptop bag.
Kenzie bumped around in the kitchen. I heard ice clank into a glass, the opening and closing of cabinet doors, the thump of a bottle hitting the counter.
“Glad you didn’t freak out and go crazy.”
“No, of course not,” I said. “So, how long? And you know exactly what I mean.”
“Adam, you and I—it’s complicated. I don’t know, maybe a month, maybe two. I’m sorry. I just—”
“Stop,” I said. “Just stop.”
“Why aren’t you in L.A.? You didn’t even text me that you were coming back.”
“Finished early. I’m not there anymore, at my company,” I said. “Besides, I cheated on you today, too.”
I looked up and saw her holding the steak; she tossed it aside; she wiped her eyes and continued with her drink.
“What?” she said. “With whom?”
“With a stranger, a hitchhiker off I-70.”
She began to laugh, a tickled-forced laugh from the bottom of her lungs.
“Okay, I get it,” she said. “I’m the asshole. Go ahead, say it. I will: ‘Kenzie, you’re an asshole and a fucking bitch.’”
“Her name is Crystal. She’s going to Denver. We had breakfast at Clair’s. Were you near there today?”
“What? No. What happened at work?”
“Thailand happened. The I.T. staff is being replaced by people there. And soon, the dissolution of our marriage.”
“I’ll fix you a whiskey on the rocks. Can we be adults and discuss this without any provocation or profanities at each other, please? Can we do that?”
I didn’t look at her as she poured my drink. I imagined Crystal on the Greyhound, had in her earbuds listening to Reptile Moon. She would text me in a few days, I hoped, telling me that she made it to Denver and that she was okay.
Thanks again, Daddo. Come visit me in Denver.
She never texted.
I stirred the ice in the glass with my finger. Kenzie and I discussed separating, what it all meant going forward. Glad we could never have kids, I told her. She gave me a blank stare, her face flushed ruby-pink. I would get a job, any job to bring in money. I felt like the hawk was still flying, watching, and it was going to land on my head with its large wings and talons, then fly away and be free—away from life’s glitches, snafus. I was part of that bird, felt like I could sail into the unknown, out into the unpredictable world and land safely somewhere new.