The Traveler

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.”

“What?”

“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.

“You hungry?”

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.”

“Why?”

“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?”

“What?”

“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.”

“Cool.”

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.”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“Good.”

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.

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Squall

It was late January, my friend Angie Miller told me that I could stay over at her place. I had been driving for hours, coming over from Des Moines, and my eyes heavy from staring at the wide-open highway and being pinned behind semis spraying blackened snow and salt into my windshield. I hadn’t seen Mike Rowland since our 20th reunion, which was a few years ago. It felt strange losing a classmate, as though an invisible doom hung over all of us—that perhaps we might be next, that death stalks us all.

We called Mike Rowland “Row” while growing up. I knew he had been sick but didn’t know the extent of his respiratory illness. As I made my way to Pine Valley, Illinois, where I had grown up, I see the younger generation with their brazen stares, and some with that same look in their eyes that we had, as if fun or trouble was just around the corner. After high school, most people had longed moved away. Angie said that she will die here. Poor girl.

We’d had a mild winter, but a snowstorm was moving in from the southwest that evening. I saw remnants of cornstalks across the farmland, still frozen from the autumn harvest. The town of Applewood was a ten-minute drive from Pine Valley, and both small towns were south of Peoria. Every time I come through here I get a bit nostalgic. The old junior high school, where I ran cross-country, looked smaller, on the verge of vacancy. I remember at football games, standing around and talking about who we had crushes on: Bethany Kellogg (now Beth Daniels), was a dentist in Bloomington, Illinois, and Nikki Bilson (now Nikki Grozier), who lived in Chicago with her four daughters and ran an Internet clothing company. I’d heard Nikki was well-off and had married an eye surgeon.

As I was turning onto her street, Angie texted me. She wanted to go out for drinks before the weather turned bad. I remembered her house, a small white-stucco with black shingles, and that funny mailbox shaped like a golf ball. It had been a year since I’d been over. We weren’t dating or anything, though we had a few romantic encounters.

Angie continued her text message: “Antsy crazy shit Belle!” She inserted laughing emojis. “You still have your pooch?”

“No,” I said. “Hey, I’m here, in front of your house.”

“I see you.”

I turned off my car, heard the engine settle in cracks of heat. Angie stood at the front door, had on a dark-blue sweatshirt. She glanced up at the sky. When I saw her, I still think of 1990 Angie, somewhat stout, athletic, although she’d never played sports in high school, and her face still had the raw curve of being the same gregarious Angie Miller.

“How are you?” I said.

“I’m okay. I always forget how tall you are, Travis. What, six-three? I know it’s only been a year, but I’m always taken aback.”

“Six-two, I think. I might’ve shrunk. Getting old. Ha!”

We embraced in an introductory hug. Inside Angie’s house, I smelled a pumpkin-spice scented candle burning. Her house was a compact place of tanned walls, drapes the color of mocha over the windows, and I noticed a white coffeemaker stained brown from constant use. The window above her kitchen sink was slightly open, maybe to let in fresh air, to clear any cigarette smoke. A bottle of gin, the kind of bottle that looked aglow, set atop the counter. Below, there was an empty dog dish. “Belle’s bowl?” I asked.

“Yep,” said Angie. “I took her to my ex’s house and my boys have her. I don’t know why I got that dog.”

“To answer your text, I had to put Marlow to sleep. About five months ago. That was rough.”

“It always is. Been there. I’m sorry.”

“The poor dog was almost fourteen and had kidney problems. I didn’t want him to linger around in suffering. That hurt, you know, putting him down, it hits you so hard, almost harder than losing a human being.”

“It can be.”

The way Angie glared at me and then away, in red-gleamy eyes, she must’ve been thinking about Row. Her blondish highlighted hair was thick; it had grown out since the last time I’d seen her. Grant, her ex-husband, lived two blocks over. I had met Grant a few times and he seemed nice, chill, and laid back. Her two boys, Ben and Jason, stayed with him more because of Angie’s nursing schedule at Applewood General.

“All I do is work,” she said, “but that’s okay. It keeps me from thinking too much about the what ifs of my life.”

“Where’s your TV?” I asked, looking around.

“Sold it,” she said. “Rarely watched TV. I get the news on my phone. I read more. Got my new laptop. The money wasted on cable, come on? I’m saving for a new ride. Got four grand already. For now, the Impala that I drive was Grant’s. Or technically, still is. I give him $240 a month, and he pays the remainder on the lease and lets me drive it. He has an old truck that’s paid off.”

“That’s a good deal,” I said. “It’s great that you guys are cool together, not at each other’s throats like some ex-spouses.”

“Try to be. It’s not always perfect or cool. So, you ready to go?”

“Whenever you are,” I said.

She blew out the candle on the table near the front door. “Glad you’re here, Travis. Been thinking about you.”

“Pine Valley, what a place!” I remarked. “Every time I come back here, it looks smaller.”

“That it would, after living in a bigger city,” said Angie. “It’s the same-old dump but it’s home. Quaint. We can take the Impala. You can be my chauffeur. Ha-ha!”

Inside her car I had to adjust the seat. She turned up the heat and blasted the stereo.

“Satellite radio,” she said. “One of the perks.”

She turned down the volume and tapped the sunroof and said, “Out of habit, I still like to crack this open, even in the winter. Hope you don’t mind if I occasionally light a cigarette?”

“Go for it. I don’t smoke, but it doesn’t bother me if you do.”

“I really don’t smoke that much. Just when I’m stressed. Man, I can’t believe Mike is gone. I’d just seen him two weeks ago. He looked fine. He said he was feeling better, going back to work soon. You knew that Chrissy Stellmack died? She moved to Ohio after high school graduation. The funeral was there. Near Dayton, I think. We were good friends throughout high school. I missed her funeral. Feel bad about it.”

“I think I did hear that. Around Christmas?”

“Awful. Right before Christmas. She and her husband Brad, they have a little boy. I think it was a DVT. You know what those are? Chrissy travelled a lot for her job. On airplanes, flying overseas. A lot of people who fly and sit for long periods of time are susceptible to Deep Vein Thrombosis.”

“That’s scary. And those aneurysms.”

“Just think, Trav, one day we won’t wake up. Newer generations taking over. We’re pretty much screwed after forty.”

“Pretty much,” I said. “But might as well enjoy it.”

“We’re still relatively young,” said Angie. “We can still make things happen. Enjoy the snippets of happiness left.”

I wiped off my glasses.

“What time’s the funeral?” I asked.

“Two o’ clock. We can hang out at my place until then. You’re still staying over tonight?”

“Of course,” I said. “Brought clothes to change into. I’m not driving back if we’re getting all that snow.”

“I heard four to six inches, but you know the weather people can be so off on the forecast.”

We passed the high school. When I was twelve or thirteen, Dean Morrison, Larry Finch, and Row—all rode bikes along the trails behind the school. We’d find the biggest hill to go down, knowing that the river wasn’t far, and if you were not careful, you’d end up there. All of us lived for that rush, bloody wounds as a result, and bruises on our arms and legs that made it seemed like were always in fights.

We played lots of basketball, sucked in the pain from jammed fingers, sprained knees or ankles, scuffed elbows…

“Dean lived two houses from me,” I told Angie, as we continued to drive. “We would find lower basketball rims to dunk on. Dean was shorter than me, and I would always time his shot and block the ball. We played off each other’s abilities, drove to Peoria sometimes, looking for pick-up games, but mostly playing ball at the YMCA gym. We played five-on-five against men twice our age. I’d like to think that we held our own.”

“Basketball rebels,” said Angie. “Didn’t you guys run track together?”

“Cross-Country.”

Dean was no doubt the better-looking guy and had more girlfriends than me. He ended up marrying a woman named Sara Williamson. No children, and they co-owned a bar in Applewood. The two towns blended together, Applewood and Pine Valley.

“Old wild Dean,” I remarked. “I bet he’s changed.”

“He’s calmed down,” said Angie. “He was, as they say, out there, for a while, meaning that he had partied too much. I don’t know him, really. Not now. Ran into him a few times. Have heard from people who are close to him that he’s better, doesn’t drink as much. In fact, we can go by his tavern. Pretty sure he’s there.”

We drove to Applewood. A strange moment of thinking back, that weird loopy feeling that it all hadn’t faded too far in the past. The economic malaise and gutted factories around the towns, even predominate grocery store chains of the 1980s, were replaced by bigger box stores.

It turned dark, and that night glow of winter held a mystery in what we could not see, that something invisible as the future might bring us was like a marble circling around a cylinder, spinning faster and faster into the center until it disappeared. I joked with Angie that we were in one of the Terminator movies, and a cyborg might jump out and shoot us. She laughed. I could see our breath near the windows as we cracked them briefly, as Angie lit her cig. She said that she’d been stressed over money, her boys having trouble with grades, and drama on work scheduling. We drove past the Applewood Mall, mostly vacant now, just a few stores left in business.

“It’s not really a mall anymore,” said Angie. “Not sure what it is.”

“I remember it being the big gathering spot to check out the latest movie, play arcade games at Aladdin’s Castle, troll for girls…”

“Those were fun times.”

1990 Angie was still illuminating, skimming the surface of the present moment. I wasn’t sure if I needed to make a move with her, being that we hadn’t talked or seen each other. Were we just ghosts of ourselves from the past? Ghosts of various moments in our lives that fled like a good dream that we wished we could go back to after waking up. She asked about Sean and Kevin, my boys, and whatever happened to Melanie, my ex-wife.

“She remarried and lives north of De Moines,” I said. “She’s fine, though a little scattered and a worrywart. Like you and Grant, we get along. And Sean’s a sophomore, Kevin a senior. They both look like their mother, but at certain angles in the light, I see a little of me.”

“I see the same thing when I look at Ben and Jason,” said Angie. “Some of me is present, but they look more like their Dad.”

We arrived at Dean’s tavern and, low and behold, he was standing by the door, his hair glazed back and almost entirely gray. I recalled seeing photos of him on the bar’s social media page. Dean looked like an aged professional soccer player. He was talkative, personable and polite. He grabbed two Import beers that glowed in green bottles, waving nonchalantly for me to put my twenty-dollar bill away.

“How’ve you been, Trav? What brings you to Applewood?”

“Visiting Angie. Mike Rowland’s funeral’s tomorrow. You knew that he had passed?”

“Yeah, saw the obit. That’s too bad. I hadn’t seen him in probably seven years. Before we had the bar. I knew that he’d moved to Tennessee and came back, and he lived with his parents after the economy went bad. Didn’t really know Mike after high school. I remembered him as a kid, more so. Good times we all had. I might try to make it, for the calling. What exactly happened to him?”

“Not sure. I think he’d been sick for a while. He had respiratory problems.”

Dean shook his head in disbelief, took a swig of his beer. He asked Angie how she was doing. That strange weird loopy moment resurfaced, blood pulsing around my temples, as if a headache was coming on. Then Dean tapped my shoulder and pointed at a woman sitting at a table: “You know her, Travis. Remember Kaylee Ritter?”

Holy hell!

“She comes in a lot,” said Dean. “Sits by herself. A little odd but nice. Drinks like a stinkin’ fish.”

Kaylee.

Kaylee Ritter was all grown up. I didn’t stare, didn’t want her to see me, didn’t want to rehash old times we had. The summer of us sitting under her maple tree, circa 1987, when I was fourteen…we embraced each other, kissing. Three years later, together on her bed, pre-coitus…

We eventually had sex for the first time in a rental home that her parents owned. Her asshole brother had ridden by on his bike and saw us leaving. He went inside and blabbered about the messy bed, said he was going to tell on Kaylee. Some things you never forget. A few years later, I knew that it wasn’t Kaylee’s first time. But being seventeen and “green,” as they say—I didn’t know any better.

“I kind of remember you guys,” said Dean, grinning, then he stepped toward the bar and away. Kaylee didn’t see me, and we never made eye contact or talked to each other that night. Angie wrapped her left arm around my neck and snapped a selfie of us. Me, in the photo: the man with raccoon eyes, with the creased Notre Dame ballcap over my head…

Angie warned that it might get posted on her Instagram. “Please don’t,” I told her, laughing.

Within the next half hour, people clustered into the tavern. Most were friends of Dean’s and Sara’s. What I remembered about Dean was that he never presented himself to be business-minded while growing up, more blue-collar, who was okay punching a timeclock and getting in his hours, then get home and drink a beer, eat dinner, work on his truck or bike. He brushed back around the bar and patted his hand on my shoulder. We talked basketball. Devin Crawford was a few years older than us and a basketball star, lead Applewood High School to two state titles.

“Sara will be in later,” said Dean. “Stay around if you want, Trav.”

“We need to get going. Before the snow hits.”

“That’s right. Forgot about that. I hate this weather. Sucks.”

He mentioned that he might quit his regular job as an electrician. He and Sara might sell the tavern one of these days. They were thinking about moving to Florida.

“I hate the cold, Trav. Can’t ride the bike all that much when it’s this cold.”

People huddled through the doors after taking a smoke from outside. Angie was seated by a woman at the bar, talking together, and Dean and I were jabbering about old times, and how Devin Crawford frequented the tavern.

“He came in last week,” said Dean. “He tells me that he’s in between jobs, and if I could lend him three hundred dollars. I said, ‘sure. No problem. Pay me back. Whenever.’”

“That’s crazy,” I said. “Didn’t he play for the Chicago Bulls?”

“Briefly. He then played overseas. I think in Greece for a few years. Hurt his knee pretty bad, and you know how that goes. Never the same player. I think he spent all that money that he made. Gave a lot to his friends.”

I walked out onto the deck. For a moment, over the ledge, looking out at the sky, the surface of time was passing through the winter air, and I felt calm. Thirty years ago, we were unknown kids in Pine Valley. Nobody special. People you had known long ago, in a round-about-way, no matter how talented or cool, they would have never entered your realm of existence then but were now part of it. I found this odd but appealing, something peaceful and tranquil about it.

Before leaving, I patted Dean on his shoulder, told him to keep in touch.

“Don’t be a stranger, Trav!” he exclaimed. “Come by and visit again. I mean it.”

It may be another thirty years before we would see each other again. By then, who knows, one of us could be gone, just like Row or Chrissy Stellmack, or another kid that we had known, Richard Flanton, who died in a car crash our senior year of high school. Hell, even Des Moines could be gone, a vapor of radioactive dust—a dissolved wasteland. What we had been, what we were doing, coincided together like pebbles fitting into grooves.

As I drove us back to Angie’s house in Pine Valley, Angie started to kiss on my neck. We drove along the same highway that I had driven as a teenager. As I drove along, the road seemed narrow, smaller. I looked through the sunroof and the stars were gone. Angie hummed to an alt-rock song, how that she loved the band, loved them to death, wanted to marry the lead singer. She laughed. I loved how she laughed and played around.

She continued to kiss my neck, rubbing the inside of my leg.

“Turn here,” she slurred.

I eased on the brake, and it all started to come back, that slow burn of the past and the pulse of blood through my temples. It was automatic, as if propelled by gravity down the hill. We inched on, and as I looked up through the sunroof, snow was coming down. It was another mile to a stop sign. When we got to it, a burst of wind rattled the car.

“A squall,” I said.

“What?” Angie said, her slurry tongue on her lips. “A squeal? Keep going, to my house.”

“No, a snow squall,” I said. “They can be blinding, very intense.”

“Two blocks, then turn right.”

“I can’t see a damn thing, Angie.”

I grinded the car ahead, but the squall was madly blowing into the car, and the wind gusts over the glass sounded like it might crack it. A half mile through the squall, we made it to the county line and into the back side of Pine Valley. The dark evening was now lighter, the white glaze of snow and the wind and the squall had made the night brighter than it had been.

I saw Angie’s porch light and that goofy golf ball mailbox, my car covered in snow at the side of her driveway. Angie did not have a garage. We parked and hurried through biting cold air.

Inside, Angie made a beeline to the bathroom. I took off my coat and began to make us a vodka and cola. Ice clanked against the dry glass.

“Fun evening,” Angie said, walking into the kitchen a few minutes later. She eased into me and put her arms around my neck.

“Last one,” I said. “A nightcap. To friends forever. Cheers!”

“Glad you’re here.”

We stumbled in the hallway, kissing, pressing together against the wall. She flipped on the hall light and opened her bedroom door. In her bedroom, I saw a large hunting knife on the nightstand, part of the hall light shining through made the blade shimmer.

“What the hell you got that for? You plan on killing a grizzly with that thing?”

“Crazy world, Trav. It’s for peach of mind.”

“Ha-ha! Okay, Peach. Come here, Peach.”

We undressed. Our heads were abuzz from all the beers we’d had.

“What if your kids come by?” I remarked. “Or Grant? For whatever reason?”

“They won’t. It will be okay. Don’t worry, Travis. Everything will be fine.”

The next morning, jaded by being in another bed, I rushed outside to my car and opened the trunk, grabbed my dress clothes that I’d brought for Mike’s funeral. The snow wasn’t as deep as I expected, but the sun shone on the fresh snow and created a blinding light. I hurried back to Angie’s house, kicking the snow off the side of my shoes against the porch step. Angie woke up and said to make myself at home, that she was going to sleep for another hour. You could say that I was more of a morning person, out of habit. I jostled around the kitchen to make coffee and felt the seep of cold air under that partially-opened window. It bugged me that it wouldn’t shut all the way.

I took a hot shower and thought about Kaylee Ritter, Dean Morrison, and all the people in that social vortex at the tavern. It was good to see people you hadn’t seen in a long while, even the people you had known or would never talk to or maybe never see again.

We got to the funeral a few hours later. There was Row’s body in the casket, and you couldn’t help but notice the stiffness and yellowish tint on his skin; everything was gone out of him, but his lips were parched in a way that made it seem like he was smiling, telling a joke, and that he was in a good place now.

The strange thing about funerals was it gave a pinch to one as a reminder, at some point in the future, it will be you there. In the future, I could only imagine people who had known me, my younger self, as I ran hard to cross the finish line during cross-country meets; the consistent good worker who rarely called off, and the loving parent, as they’d say their goodbyes. But I would be outside of them, unaware of their longing or sadness, how sorry they might be for not knowing me more, or sad for what I had or didn’t accomplish.

It would be spring soon, then summer. I knew that I wanted to spend it with Angie Miller. She gripped my hand as we stood up and paid our respects, as the pastor from Mike’s church began to speak. Angie whispered to me, “I love you. I think I love you, Travis.”

The cold air from under the doors drafted inside. Right then I knew my future had seeped into my present. A new beginning for me, maybe? I could hope for happier times; I would get through the funeral and spend the rest of my life with Angie Miller. I heard the pastor’s words, and I did not want to think about being ashes to ashes, memories to dust. I did not want to dwell on such things. I had a lot of living left. It would come, eventually, the end of our lives, swallowed up by a hideous disease or a sudden thump out of nowhere. Maybe not so far off in time, or maybe it would linger and linger on until you want nothing more than to be extinguished from this planet. That happens, I’m sure it does, happens all the time, when people are ready to leave this earth for the possibility of another good life, another existence without old strains and pain. A new slate of beginnings.

Reserved Parking for Phantom Hunters

They called themselves “Phantom Hunters.”  Clyde Lexington and Dollard Sanchez were friends of mine, had known them as regular customers when I had worked at the lumberyard years ago. Clyde had replaced my car brakes for less than a hundred bucks, and he told me about an old house near a graveyard. Dollard, who spoke with a squeaky voice and had graying hair frizzed and disheveled, owned special camera equipment for night viewing. They wanted to capture ghosts and sell them to news outlets; they invited me to tag along on a chilly Thursday evening in November.

I did not believe in ghosts. I did not believe in the supernatural, or spirits, souls…

When we arrived at the old house, Clyde and Dollard were setting up the equipment.

“Sometimes you just have to believe it’s real,” said Dollard, standing a few feet away. “Just like with a creator, or God.”

I rolled my eyes.

“You believe in God, right? Desmond?” Dollard looked over, wanting a quick answer from me.

“The graveyard’s creepy as hell,” said Clyde, puffing on his cigar.

“Well?” said Dollard. “Desmond?”

“What?”

“You gotta believe in something.”

“I believe if a spirit, or spirits, are crazy enough to want to hang around on earth after they’re dead, and if God is in charge of that, he’s got to be crazy.”

“Ha!” laughed Clyde. “Can’t argue that.”

Dollard’s nose was shiny, as if he had accidentally rubbed oil on it or over-moisturized.

I didn’t know how old Clyde and Dollard were, at least in their middle fifties, maybe older. Clyde had that demeanor of being easy-going, knowing that he wasn’t going to chew you out or ridicule you for something. He was tall and angular looking, had roughed-up hands and muscles cut and visible like carved plywood. He loved cigars, carried a small flask around. You could smell the rum and cigar smoke if he got near you.

They positioned the camera on the tripod. It looked like they were aiming for the graveyard. The house was a bungalow, with boarded windows and brick siding covered with brown vines. We were not going inside. There was a No-Trespassing zone twenty yards from where we stood on the hill, but we had a clear view of the side of the house and the back.

“So, are those old Civil War graves?” I asked.

“Could be,” said Clyde. “You can’t read the headstones on most of them. They’re that old.”

As we settled on the hill overlooking the grave, Dollard kept steadying the camera, and a half hour into our ghost hunting, he let out, “What in the hell?”

“What is it?” piped Clyde.

“It’s a dog. I think my heart just skipped a few beats.”

Clyde leaned in to look, then I peeked, and sure enough, there was a dog prowling around a headstone. Its eyes glowed and its mouth agape, looking like a scavenger and metallic under the infra-red lens. There were a few moments of “We got it!” “What’s that?” as the minutes passed, but it was nothing more than a tail of another dog, a cat, or a leaf flying into view. After two hours, we decided to call it a night. We walked back to the van, which Clyde owned outright. “Hey, you like our sign?” he said, letting out a gargled laugh.

The sign displayed the words: RESERVED PARKING FOR PHANTOM HUNTERS

It resembled a miniature street sign, and Clyde knew a guy who specialized in making metal signs.

“Cool,” I remarked.

“Makes us official, right?” said Dollard. “Ha!”

“Hey, are we still on for drinks tomorrow?” I asked. “At the Woodcrest Tavern? Walrus is playing.”

“Yes,” said Clyde. “We’ll be there.”

“I don’t know,” said Dollard. “My wife wants to go out for seafood.”

“You’re married, Dollard?” I asked.

“Of course, Desmond. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“You never talk about her, that’s all.”

“Her name’s Kristy. We’ve managed to pull through nineteen years without pushing each other off a cliff.”

“Good for you,” said Clyde. “Been divorced way too long. You get acclimated to that quietness. Not sure I want to settle down and remarry. I love women, don’t get me wrong, but we all know when we get older, it’s more about sharing spaces and filling in the quietness. I kind of like my quiet.”

“I can understand that,” I said.

“You’re young,” said Dollard. “You don’t.”

“I’m forty-one.”

“That’s young,” said Clyde.

“How old are you guys?”

They didn’t answer, and we started back into town. Clyde still listened to CDs and had a shoebox full of them. He put in The Moody Blues and The Little River Band, music my older brother had listened to when he was in high school. The music made me think about Eric, who passed away in combat in Afghanistan. He would have turned fifty this year.

*

My girlfriend Emily was five months pregnant. We lived in Toledo, lived in the same apartment townhomes but in different units. When my lease is up, I plan to move in with her, and eventually, get a house together. She was going to come with me to The Woodcrest Tavern, but was worn out and decided to stay home.

Inside the tavern, there was a fresh cedar smell that teased your nostrils. They offered a beer called “The Oaken Cinnamon Pale,” and I ordered a pint and lazed back into the seat only to see the lead singer of Walrus coming up to me. Lizette Connor. We’d gone out a few times, before I met Emily. Lizette was cool and laid back, but always seemed to be philosophical about life and out of the moment when talking to her. She would say things like: “There’s no such thing as past time, Desmond. Technically, it’s still 1975, or any other year. Cell-based organisms break down because that’s just the way we are made. We turn the calendar because it helps us keep shit straight. The earth rotates on its axis, spins, but gravity keeps us, you know, planted? Things are made, invented, torn down, and die, but time is the same.”

Lizette made my head hurt.

She tossed the orange wedge from her Blue Moon beer and it smacked against the side of the trash can behind the bar.

“Darn it! One of these days, I will make that.”

What’s up, Liz?” I said.

“About to play. Maybe last gig. I think we are calling it quits. If we were going to get a record deal, pretty sure it would have happened by now.”

“I’m sorry. You guys sound awesome. It’s always packed in here when you play.”

“Yeah.”

“Supposed to meet some friends but don’t see them yet,” I said.

“You want to do a shot? Let me get Geoff over here.”

“What kind?”

“Whiskey, dude. Always whiskey,” remarked Lizette. She had her hair pulled into a knot. “To our lives filled with fleeting happiness and rushed moments in the chase of making money. Cheers!”

Lizette raised her shot glass and we nudged them together. Geoff slid his glass down the counter. I felt that sting of whiskey numb my throat. I remembered that spark of impulsivity in her, that desire to have fun in a moment’s notice.

The band Walrus consisted of Geoff Schaltenbrand, Kurtis Davidson, and of course, Lizette Connor. All of whom were in their mid to late 30s. As they stood on stage, there was enough distance where you might think they were still twentysomethings, sweaty and agile like flexible contortionists. Lizette had a good voice, reminded me of a punk-rocker chick, tough but soft at the same time. I had let go whatever feelings we had for each other. I had no intentions of hooking up with her, loved Emily too much to ruin things.

I texted Clyde to see if he and Dollard were coming but didn’t get a reply. After a few hours and a few beers in, I texted Emily that I would be taking an Uber home. She said that was good, the smart thing to do. She would leave the light on for me. We were going to meet her mother in Columbus in a few days. I wondered how Emily’s mother will react to the pregnancy news. What will she think of me? How old are you? she might ask. Forty-one!?

Emily was only twenty-eight. Who was this guy, Desmond Free? A guy who worked on the accounts payable side for a trucking company in Toledo. A guy who finished college. Bachelor’s degree in accounting. Yes, a man way older than Emily, but still…

Would being biracial (white and African American) be a problem?

Not a big deal, Emily has said many times. Between us, there was an invisible mesh of lust and love, and it canceled out any foreboding questions from other family members.

I watched Lizette on the stage. She disappeared into her music, which was enthralling to see. Walrus played 1990s and 2000s alternative rock. Occasionally, they did riffs of Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, The Doors…

Before I left, Clyde sent me a photo of an old barn out on County Road 600. “Prime spot for phantoms,” he said. “Last one at the house was kind of a loss, I know. That dog? I wonder where it scurried off to? Sorry I couldn’t make it tonight. Some stuff came up. Dollard’s out with his wife.”

My Uber driver arrived, and I told him the address to Emily’s apartment.

When I got inside, I turned off the lamp that Emily had left on. I guzzled a glass of orange juice and popped an Advil. I went outside to the balcony and listened to the rustling of trees and felt the warm November air, echoes of sirens pulsing in a sound of urgency.

I kissed Emily on her neck and maneuvered under the covers; she switched sides, flopped her arm over my shoulder. Later that night, almost four in the morning, my heart thumped hard. I couldn’t fall back to sleep. The blackness of the night. What form did it take on but dark energies?

When it broke on the news two days later that all three members of Walrus were reported missing, I felt sick that something bad had happened to them. I could still see Lizette on stage, her skinny body contorting to the music. People mentioned they saw them leaving the bar, got into their SUV and drove off into the night. I thought that I knew this was going to happen when I woke up the other night, staring out into the trees.

*

Clyde called and said he and Dollard got a tip of police activity near a retention pond. Something was going on there.

“What? Ghost activity?”

“Funny. No, a vehicle in the water was found off Briar Road. Not far. We’re going to go check it out. You want to go?”

“Emily is coming over. Going to Columbus to meet her mother.”

“Good luck.”

When Emily came by my apartment, I was relaxed on the couch. I could hear her breathing hard, out of breath from walking up the steps. She plopped beside me and pulled her phone out, pointed it at me as if it were a gun. “Ready?”

If her mother doubted me, I would not be shocked because I’ve been doubted all my life.

“Yes, I’m ready. Is something wrong?” I asked.

“Oh, you didn’t hear?” she said. “It was on the news, a vehicle was found and it may belong to that missing band. What’s their name?”

“Walrus,” I said. “Where?”

“Near Briar Road.”

“One of my friends just called before you came over. My ghost-hunter friend, Clyde. He and Dollard are going over there. Let’s check it out. It’s on the way to Columbus.”

“Okay,” said Emily.

I rubbed her belly, as if the baby could feel my hand.

“In the cocoon,” said Emily. “My butterfly”

“Unavoidable, right? Meeting your mother. Like the moment when you are about to get blood taken, or get latched into a roller coaster seat?”

She looked at me funny.

“You have strange analogies,” she said.

“Did the temperature drop?”

“Weatherperson said snow.”

“I am not ready for winter.”

“Technically, still autumn,” said Emily.

We drove along the highway and turned onto Briar Road. A burst of snow colonized in the crevices on the door windows. Emily smacked at her chewing gum, her thumb swiping her phone screen. When I was young, I hardly thought about my future and the life that I might have. When I was young, nothing moved more slowly than time: being in church or in a boring classroom waiting for the bell to ring at the end of the day. Lizette was wrong. Time sucks us forward and sometimes it’s difficult and we get wrapped into unforeseen circumstances. As an adult, you come to realize that there’s not a lot to look forward to, that your life has somehow constricted in its routines. If having a kid might change all that, how new routines are formed, it might lessen the impact of these insights. As the warm plasma in my body pulses from the chambers of my heart, time to time, I try to be calm.

We parked along the road. I saw the lift of fog over the hills, in little torn shapes, hovering like masks between the tall trees. Emily made the point of why someone hadn’t seen the vehicle earlier.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Probably that nobody pays any attention or looks over in that direction. It’s a curvy road. People are often in their own elements. Notice that drop off to the pond? It’s kind of hard to see.”

The pond itself was down an embankment. There was a stop sign a few hundred feet ahead, part of a 2-way Stop, and you could see crosses and flowers on the corner that enshrined those who’d died.

“Those your friends?” asked Emily, nodding her head.

“Clyde and Dollard.”

“Dollard? That’s a weird name.”

“Are you getting out?”

“I’ll wait. Let me know what’s up. Hey?”

“What?”

“Baby moved again. You want to feel?”

“Did it kick?”

I reached my hand over and didn’t feel anything.

“Hold on,” said Emily. She pulled her shirt up, holding my hand on her belly. “Look, there’s a foot! Kidding. Ha-ha!”

“You’re crazy,” I said. “I know it’s just a baby but that creeps me out.”

“Okay, I’m calling Mom to let her know that we’re leaving Toledo. I might waddle on down in a minute.”

The police were parked around the retention pond and nobody was allowed past the bridge. I get a good glimpse at the pond, some forty to sixty yards away. Clyde was chewing his tobacco and spitting every few seconds. Despite it being late autumn and being cold, it looked like he’d gotten some sun on his face. He only had on a thick plaid button shirt the color of pumpkin orange.

“You heard the news, right? I bet it’s them,” he said. “The band, Walrus.”

“That’s messed up,” I said. “If it’s them, wonder how they ended up in there?”

Dollard was tugging at his gray sweatshirt string around the neck. “I got an idea.”

“What now?” said Clyde.

“We come back tonight and set up the equipment. I bet we see something. They always say that the newly deceased are the freshest and still want to hang around.”

“You serious, dude?” I asked. “Man, you guys are creepy.”

“Of course,” said Dollard. “We’re phantom hunters. We own the night, we check your souls.”

“I like it,” said Clyde, “but we need to wait until the police clear it. That might be a few days. We can come back later and set up a little closer.”

“Guys, we don’t know if it’s them. Could be anybody for all we know.”

“Wait and see,” said Dollard.

“Is that Emily in the car?” asked Clyde. “She’s pretty. Going to meet her mother, right?”

“Yeah.”

“What about her Dad?” asked Dollard.

“He’s no longer with us. Past away six years ago. It was his heart.”

“He’s dead?” said Clyde. “Life is so weird. We are here to love each other and then, smack, it’s gone. Death intervenes.”

“We live in the best of all possible worlds,” remarked Dollard. “Who said that, Issac Newton?”

“No, I think it was Leibniz. And he was probably right,” said Clyde.

Gray snowflakes came down and the police lights flickered off the water. The cold wind went through my coat lining. A few minutes later we all saw it, the lifting of one dark maroon SUV onto a flatbed. It looked like a mirage in the snow flurries. I wondered if they were inside, like bloated urchins tucked against the doors? They would be preserved by the cold water. I hoped that Lizette had broken through the door and gotten to the edge of the pond. Wishful thinking.

She was gone, as was Geoff and Kurtis. It was vexing, stuck in a stillness that I had an inclination that something went wrong that night. A news cameraman walked past us and nodded hello. He was older, early sixties, with hooded eyes that were gray as the small rocks along the road.

“Another awful day,” he said. “Then again, it has to be reported. Just doing my job.”

He put away his camera, untangling a cord. Clyde and Dollard watched him as he took apart his camera equipment.

“Wonder how they ended up in there?” I said again. “So weird. I’d just spoken to the lead singer that evening at the tavern where they performed.”

“Not sure,” said the reporter. “Maybe they were drunk? Suicide?”

“I don’t know about that,” I said. “No, not suicidal.”

“Hope it went quick for them,” he said. “Whatever happened.”

As fast as I’d seen the camera guy sprint up the embankment, like a frantic rodent you might see in a barn on a cold morning, he got inside his news van and drove off.

“Let’s come back next week,” said Clyde. “There’s a spot over there, where I can park my van. For a few hours.”

“You in, Desmond?” said Dollard.

“I guess. But maybe I prefer creepy barn phantoms.”

“That’s still on too,” said Dollard. “We’ll head there in a few days.”

“Sorry guys, I got to go.”

“Good luck on meeting the mother,” said Clyde. “It will all work out fine.”

“Thanks.”

We all walked slowly up the hill. Clyde and Dollard got into their van. Emily was standing outside of the car, as if she was about to come down.

“So? Anything?” she asked.

“They’re gone,” I said. “Walrus. All of them.”

“That’s sad. Sorry.”

“You hungry?”

“Hell yeah! I’m eating for two now,” said Emily.

“Let’s get out of here,” I said, and we got inside the car. I cranked up the heat and looked down at Emily’s belly, imagined our little butterfly of a daughter or soon-to-be son in the real world. Why don’t you just stay in there, little one. You are lucky to be kept away from this harsh world. You are a lucky little thing tucked cozy and innocent inside and will be vastly disappointed when you are out. I am sorry, I was part of your creation. Blame me, if you want. I understand there’s no stopping you from coming out into this life, this random and frantic whirlwind of life. I will always love you, no matter what, little one.

We turned onto the Interstate.

“What group is this?” asked Emily.

“The Little River Band. Clyde let me borrow the CD. You like them?”

“I do. Why haven’t I ever heard of them.”

“I don’t know, they’ve been around forever.”

 

Hawaii

Laureen and I are having drinks at one of the bars at SeaTac, waiting on our flight from Seattle to Phoenix, when our boss, Vessman called on video chat. “Change of plans,” he said, with his rodent-focused eyes staring at us. “Hate doing this, but I need you guys on a plane to Hawaii. Short notice, yeah, but come on, it’s Hawaii. Right? Enjoy it.”

Quite common with Vessman; last month he had routed us from Dallas to Miami. In March, during tornado warnings in Nebraska, he sent us from Omaha to Boston, where they had nine inches of snow.

It’s our last excursion, our last momentum, a flight fueled by convenience, lust.

I look over at Laureen. Damn. Whatever made me do it… a work fling? Friends turned intimate? An affair? Our age gap is seventeen years. Yes, I know—quite alarming. Why would I do that? Laureen is twenty-six. I hear some hesitation in her voice when we board the plane, a certain stutter that we were, uh—finished.

“Of all places, Hawaii,” she says. “Sucks to be us, huh?”

I take in her sarcasm.

Laureen nudges my arm: “I was looking forward to getting home, checking on my mother. Did you see what that dude had on? Purple Polo with watermelons? Who does that?”

“Apparently, Vessman.”

What was the deal about us going to Hawaii? A banking convention at the Omni Hotel and Vessman thought we should go at the last minute. American and Japanese investors will be there. Hotshots in the global banking industry. They had contacted DDC to adjust encryption code. At DDC, we’re always on-call. “Bravado I.T. Travelers,” I referred to us the day we landed in Boston. True, we made good money, damn good money, but I hated the rigorous nature of traveling, the constant bouts of turbulence and sitting for long periods of time.

Carolyn knows about Laureen, just as I had known about Marco, her office coworker two years ago. We went to couple’s therapy before Laureen and I got together. I have told Carolyn, after Hawaii, that I am resigning from DDC.

“Good,” she said. “But it won’t change things, you know—us?”

Laureen and I work on our laptop computers on the plane, somewhere over the Pacific, two hours into our flight.

“Threshold Moon is done,” Laureen calls out her special name for the file. She closes her laptop, rubs her fingers across her temples as if she feels a headache coming on. The airplane tilts right. Laureen tips her drink and sips the last bit of her margarita.

“So, who’s checking on your mother?” I ask.

“My brother Rick. Why? You worried about her too? Rick is good. He’s a constant texter and updates me on her condition.”

“She finished with chemo?”

“If it’s isolated and it has shrunk. Hey, not to change the subject, but do you think that I curse too much?”

“No, I don’t think you do. Why?”

“I probably do. Patrick text you back?”

“Not yet. I’ll text him after we land. I’m going to try and get in a nap.”

My son Patrick emailed me before boarding the plane about making the basketball team. He’s six-one and only fifteen. He has a much better jump shot than I had at his age. If he develops, grows more, the kid might end up getting a scholarship.

I close my eyes. I think about how Laureen and I get along so well. It’s not as though we can finish each other’s sentences, though. We are not so agreeable, more like two cats attracted to each other in ways that feel unhinged by the laws of attraction, a quick paw length away from protecting our egos.

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

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

“No thank you,” I say. “I’m good.”

Laureen runs her fingers through my hair; her eyes drift to the window.

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

“I know what you know,” I say. “The banking side is big business for us. The honchos in Honolulu. I think it involves a new solution to ward off global defaults. To prevent or soften another catastrophe like 08.”

“You want my flash drive?”

“No,” I say. “Just wait until we land. Or until we get to our hotel. Man, a steak sounds really good.”

Suddenly, there’s a crack, like the sound of metal splintering, searing apart. 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. If it happens you won’t feel it.”

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. “I would feel every bit of it.”

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 announces that the plane is stabilized. We’re about to land. Laureen closes her eyes and presses her front teeth to her lips, her face white in fear. She looks at me as if she might throw up, that in the back of her mind we might get sucked out into the atmosphere at five-hundred miles per hour.

I feel calm, oddly. I feel if it is my time to break away with the plane and disintegrate into the ocean—there’s not much that I can do about it. I can pray to God, sure, but stopped that long ago. Stopped praying after 9/11; stopped praying after one of my best friends was shot to death at a rock concert; stopped all that nonsense after Carolyn went through two miscarriages, and after my father’s suicide.

The flight attendant says: “It’s fine. Everyone, we will be landing in Honolulu momentarily.”

People will say that Thomas Tillson and his mistress deserved their punishment for their adulterous behavior. “God struck them down with vengeance,” a pastor in Mississippi will conclude, not long after the plane crash.

“God had a plan for them, for everyone on that plane, and it is God’s plan and desire that we don’t quite understand,” a pastor in Flagstaff will say, with careful deliberation to a big crowd at a mega church.

We don’t hear another sound or any noise by the wing. Laureen grabs my hand and we keep our attention ahead, toward the cockpit. Briefly, I feel like a stranger to her. Maybe it was the refurbished air flowing? Maybe it was the alarming, sudden panic from the passengers after the sound around the wing? Are we not eventually strangers in this wide spectrum of life? Soon, Laureen and I will walk across the tarmac at the airport and go to our hotel and order a bottle of wine, shrimp and steak on DDC’s travel card. We will take a warm shower after soaking in the hot tub. In the morning, we will go to the conference rooms and set up any needed computer terminals. We will deliver the banking code to a gentleman known as Cheong-Le, a banking honcho from JP Morgan. I will read later that Cheong-Le’s nineteen-year-old daughter had leapt to her death off a bridge in Tokyo two years ago, but you could never tell something so tragic had happened behind his dark-pearl eyes.

Our plane banks left after a bout of turbulence and the flight attendant stumbles. She is curled against the wall, and I see her black underwear exposed. Her left foot shoeless. She sees me, and we lock eyes. Our eyes entwined together, sunken into the realm of how we might meet again in our next life.

I see Patrick as a baby, holding him. My six-foot-one son almost a grown man. Weird that my life does not flash in front of me, but fragments of light, maybe the tiny lights in the compartment above, jut out as if spurts of air hitting a candle flame when one walks past it.

A hard jolt bounces the plane as we land on the runway. We would learn later that part of the metal on the right wing had broken off. The captain and co-pilot were congratulated nationally for their calm nerves and smooth landing of the plane. I text Carolyn that I’m okay, but tired.

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, or so—”

“Laureen, nothing is meant to be. We’ve had this philosophical conversation before.”

“To live, Thomas. We are meant to live.”

I shake my head in disagreement and don’t bother furthering any argument.

I think about dolphins in the Pacific Ocean, Great Whites’ fins slicing through waves and absorbing the entrails of half-eaten fish. I think about Carolyn and Patrick and how everything will be fine within our family dynamics, complicated as they’ve become. 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. Even fancy hotels’ smells linger around us, and one cannot distinguish it from a lesser quality room. Laureen is gone. Did she catch the next flight back to Arizona? I can still smell her powdered body, her breath like minted coffee and waffle syrup on her lips. I did not leave her, she has left me. Bummer.

After I got out of the shower, I see Laureen standing by the bed. Her tennis shoes untied, her burgundy hair pulled back and wrapped with a tie, and she says, “Went for a workout. Let’s go for breakfast and finish the terminal install. Get the hell out of here. Look, I understand, Thomas. I do love you, but you don’t have to love me. After all of this, we can just be normal coworkers. I’m okay with that. Really, I am.”

“I’m quitting DDC,” I say.

“Hope not because of me,” she says.

“Because I’m tired of being a corporate puppet. I want to spend time with my family. Fix things. Mend hearts.”

She gets a shower and then we take the elevator down, eat breakfast and begin our computer setup and don’t talk to each other for another hour or so. I want more than anything to leave Hawaii, but it will be another six to seven hours. I walk over to grab coffee and stare out of the atrium window, watch clouds break apart and reform, watch a plane disappear behind them. A few hours pass, and I feel a tap on my shoulder. Laureen says, “We can go. I don’t want to fly alone.”

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