Rich tiptoed to the edge of the babbling water, behind an Oak and peered into a little still pool carved into the bank. Something was nipping at larvae on the water’s surface, sending ripples out across the water. Rich wiped a piece of crust from his eye and took note of the larvae’s stage of development and walked back to the bed of the pickup, where Jason was sitting, legs limply dangling over the tail and dug through his stock of flies to find two to match. He found them, handed one to Jason and the two began tying flies to the poles’ tippet. This was the first time in a year and a half that Rich and Jason had gone on their twice annual fishing trip. Jason thought to himself that it should become a twice per decade tradition. They ventured into the stream, crawling over jutting rocks and swollen fallen branches, slipping several times. Jason spotted an eddy behind a large boulder, the perfect hiding spot for weary rainbow trout. The reluctant angler hoisted the rod over his head and behind, snapped it forward, flicked it back, then flicked forward. The thick yellow line obeyed the rod in fluid, arcing motions and settled the fly perfectly in the center of the eddy. Jason watched the fly patiently in the dim morning glow. Rich found another still pool on the opposite bank. This one was obscured by a fallen pine, another great hiding spot. He held the rod parallel in front of his body and flicked it forward in a roll cast. The base of the line settled a few feet in front of him; the remainder tumbled across the water. The hook settled into the tree trunk, though. ‘Bitter, merciless Allah.’
‘You never were any good with those precision casts, Richie.’
‘Yeah, yeah. I’ve been working on ’em in the living room, though.’
‘Still not there, yet, Richie-boy.’
Rich pulled down his waders and the nylon running pants in a sweeping motion, exposing his bare ass, then slapped it loudly.
Jason snorted with laughter. Rich smiled and began the walk to extricate his hook.
The two fished in silence for about 45 minutes before Jason piped in, ‘Not so sure about this cold. Seems a bit frosty to be out here too long, don’t you think?’
‘This is southern Maryland, Jason. If you don’t like the weather, just wait an hour and the it’ll change.’
‘They say that everywhere. Why not just say, ‘This is the planet earth; if you don’t like the weather, just wait.”
Rich sighed, flicking a cast. ‘I guess.’ A moment of quiet. ‘So, how’s that girlfriend of yours doing.’
‘Rose is good.’
‘Yeah, she’s cool.’
‘How long you two been together?’
‘Goin’ on a year now.’
‘That’s good. Make sure to make time for sowing those wild oats, though.’
‘Yeah, I never really understood that expression. How does one sew oats, exactly?’
‘It’s just a figure of speech.’
‘Yeah, but at some point there had to be a practical basis, right? I mean, were people actually sewing together oats with needles and thread; and if so, why?’
‘S-o-w, not s-e-w, Jay.’
‘It means to plant, not to seam together.’
‘Sometimes I can’t tell whether you’re fuckin’ with me or what.’
‘It’s part of my charm.’
Rich chuckled and the two returned their attention to the search for fish.
‘So, what’s your game plan, Jay?’
Jason scrunched his face up. He knew where this line of questioning would lead. ‘How do you mean?’
‘You know where I’m going with this.’
‘Yes, Rich, I’m still thinking about enlisting when I turn eighteen.’
‘I still don’t understand why you won’t just try school for a semester. You know I’ll do anything I can to help.’
‘I’ve tried school for the past twelve years. I don’t care for it.’
‘Yeah, but college is different. Less baby sitting, more learning. Maybe fewer drugs though.’
‘I guess, but it’s not something that’s really in my budget now and I’d sooner put my nuts in a vice than ask Kim’s husband for the money.’
‘Like I said, I can help.’
‘I know, man, but there’s also something to be said for making it on your own, for not having to thank anybody else for what you got.’
‘I can understand that, Jason. I really can. But everyone needs a little help now and then. Don’t let your pride get in the way of your happiness and your future.’
‘But, who’s to say my happiness and future are necessarily at the end of a bunch of books?’
‘You’re totally right, kid. All I’m saying is weigh all the options.’
Jason shrugged his shoulders. ‘You’re right, you’re right. I will.’
‘And before you sign anything those recruiters shove in your face, you let me see it first. Those cock suckers will tell you anything to get you in the door. You don’t believe anything they say unless it’s spelled out in that contract, you hear me?’
‘You know, I don’t think we’re gonna catch so much as a brown trout out here,’ Rich said.
‘Must be a lot of trouser snakes in the water this morning. At any rate, it’s in the fishing, not in the fish.’
‘You said it, kid.’
Both returned their eyes to the stream.
* * *
Rich, Albert, and Donnie pulled up in front of the MCI Center about an hour after they left. ‘Alright, what the hell are we doing here exactly?’ asked Rich.
‘Don’s got some strange friends is all. They’re cool though. No reason to get excited,’ Albert responded.
‘Who’s getting excited?’
‘Here, put these on,’ said Don, handing stage passes to Rich and Albert. Donnie led them through a maintenance entrance in the side of the arena. They walked down a dimly lit hallway, past an elderly man in a yellow security guard jacket who glanced nonchalantly at their credentials.
‘Richie, me and Don are gonna go talk to his friends. You wait right here.’ The two disappeared down a corridor. Rich rolled his eyes. He walked a few dozen yards to the arena’s opening. The air was pungent with the smell of an assortment of fresh manures from a variety of semi-exotic animals. Magenta, mauve, and cream spotlights searched the crowd and the floor, casting a solid glow over the otherwise dark building. The crowd murmured restlessly like a field of crickets. Rich felt a rumbling behind his left ear. He looked over his shoulder to see a stampede of intense galloping black stallions piloted by ten railish girls wearing crimson sequined uniforms and feathery caps. He jolted back as they sprinted by, clapping his head against the concrete cinder block wall. The riders dashed for the center circle and began a fevered sprint around the inner edge of its perimeter. A numb rush washed over Rich’s skull. The crowd roared its approval, squeals rising up from ten thousand pre-adolescent children. The riders mounted hand stands atop the beasts’ backs, leapt to the ground, bouncing sharply off the hard packed dirt, rode standing astride parallel horses, and leapt from animal to animal. The acrobats entered a side circle and ascended ladders to the top of a huge metal apparatus with swings and nets. They vaulted stone-faced from their cabled batons, flipping, spinning, twirling, grabbing. When one latched on to another from one of the flying cabled batons and was flung to a third, they seemed to be one majestic animal of a single mind. They wore skin-tight aqua blue leotards that contrasted strangely with their brown skin and skillet-black hair. With each twirl completed, they lapped up the applause of the arena. A white pickup pulled a huge metal sphere from the hallway about thirty feet to Rich’s left and entered the arena. The driver got out and pulled a trap door from underneath that connected with a ramp directly below. The roar of a revving motorcycle engine pierced the air, sending rumbling vibrations across the floor. A rider on a black custom Harley came sprinting into the arena. The crowd roared and squealed. Some of the younger children began to cry. The rider did one lap around the sphere, kicking up a cloud of dust that engulfed the circle, popping wheelies over and over. He stopped about 20 yards directly in front of the ramp, idled for a moment, revved his engine louder this time, and made a dash up the ramp and into the sphere, circling, circling, circling. Two more engines revved from across the arena floor. Two more riders on Harleys did a lap around the sphere, then sprinted for the ramp and into the sphere. The driver closed the gate. The crowd roared, squealed, and cried. The riders engaged in a deafening, noxious, weaving dance, twirling deftly about the sphere.
Rich grew increasingly anxious waiting for his father and Donnie to return and decided to seek them out. He walked down the hall, went around a corner, and came to a room with the door slightly ajar. He heard Donnie’s voice whispering loudly inside.
‘Just stick the goddamn syringe in that orange bitch’s ass. Do you want this money or not?’
‘Hey, fucko, be careful with that goddamn thing,’ Rich heard his father say, also in a loud whisper. ‘And what the fuck are you talking about? If I’m the one doing the real work, why is it you’re pulling home more than me? Besides which, I still don’t understand why we’re using a tiger instead of a gun,’ he heard his father reply.
‘I dunno. This is how the Kraut wants it done. Don’t ask me how a queer’s mind works. As for the money, this is my deal, Alby. I’m the one who established the connection. I’m the one who…ya know, masterminded this whole scheme.’
‘Masterminded? Scheme? We’re sticking a fucking tiger in the ass with a syringe-ful of PCP. If that’s a…ya know, master plot, then…then…fuck, I can’t think of a good analogy, but we’re splitting this thing 60-40 in my favor if I’m sticking that cat with this fucking thing and that’s that.’
Rich opened the door. ‘What the fuck are you two assholes doing?’
‘Richie, what the hell are you doing?,’ asked Albert, clutching his chest.
‘Look, tell me what the fuck is going on, or I’m out.’
‘Alright, alright. Here’s the deal kiddo. This isn’t a drop-off.’
‘It’s more of a stick-in,’ Donnie nosed in.
‘A stick-in? What the hell are you talking about?’
‘It’s a hit, you stupid fuck,’ replied Donnie.
Albert reared back and smacked Donnie in the face, knocking him to the floor.
‘Goddamn, Alby. What’d you do that for.’
‘Look, Rich. All we’re doin’ is sticking this tiger with a little PCP. The tiger does all the work in two acts and we walk away with 15k.’
’10k,’ Donnie piped in.
’15, you fuck.’
Rich stood rigidly, his incisors pressing hard into his cheek.
‘Don’t give me that look, Richie.’
‘Pop, you realize that doesn’t mean fuck-all. You’re gonna be lookin’ at a murder rap regardless of whether you shoot whoever this guy is or the tiger does the dirty work for you.’
‘Yeah, I know, Rich. I know. But, I’m fresh out of options right now.’
‘No you’re not. You’re fresh out of easy options.’
‘What do you know about it, Rich? What the fuck could you possibly know about it?’ He paused, now staring wide-eyed at his son, his voice cracking and his eyes welling. ‘Look where I am, kiddo. I got nowhere to go.’
Albert’s teeth clenched. ‘This is the only way.’
Rich rolled his eyes. ‘Dad,…’
Albert balled his right hand into a fist, rose it above his head and slammed it into his open left.
‘Fuck, Rich. You’re not fucking listening. This is the only way.’
‘O.K., I’m leaving. That’s it.’
As Rich started to walk away, Albert half-whispered, half-yelled his son’s name. Rich turned around. Albert’s eyes darted, then fumbled for the ground. ‘Son, I’m begging you.’
Rich sighed deeply. He fixated on the thinning gray hair atop his father’s head. It was combed over from the left in a feeble attempt to conceal his pink scalp. Rich could remember when that hair was thick and black as a puma’s coat. He remembered spending long hours as a child observing his father on the boat, pushing and lifting for hours before the sun rose– like some driving, unrelenting machine.
Rich bit down on his cheek again. ‘Alright, you got five minutes.’
‘Okay, let’s do this,’ Albert replied, beaming. ‘Go stand watch at the door.’
‘Yeah, yeah, I got it.’ Rich began walking to the door, both fists clenched.
Albert breathed deeply, then walked to the tiger cage. The cat was sleeping in the center, curled into a mammoth ball. Albert bent to his knees and reached in with the syringe. He could not reach her. He laid on the ground, sticking his shoulder as far into the cage as he could, his face pressed hard against the bars. He strained harder, his face turning bright red and grunts emanating from his throat, but still he could not reach. ‘Fuck.’ Albert got up and paced furiously back and forth. He stomped back to the cage and shoved his arm in again, the veins on his neck sticking out like garden hoses. ‘Fuck! Fuck me!’ Albert withdrew his arm and slumped against the cage. He buried his face in his hands. ‘God-Fuckin’ damn it.’
Rich stalked over to his father.
‘What the hell are you doing, squirt?,’ Don responded.
‘Pop, gimme the needle.’
‘Look kid, it’s over.’
Rich snatched the needle from Albert’s hand.
‘Richie, what the hell are you gonna do?’
Rich slowly opened the latch on the cage and tentatively began opening the door.
Albert slowly rose to his feet. ‘Rich, lock that goddamn thing right now,’ he whispered half-heartedly.
Rich placed the syringe in his mouth and climbed into the cage on all fours, slowly crawling toward the beast. Her side rose and fell as she breathed, like a massive wave gathering before it crests, and her whiskers twitched as she slumbered in deep R.E.M. sleep. Rich’s heart pumped spastically; blood thundered in his ears. He left a sweaty handprint with each advance. The tiger snorted, her hot breath filling the cage, freezing Rich. When she remained still, he continued. Reaching her, he took the syringe from his mouth and gently placed it in her rump. His eyes remained fastened to the cat’s face as he depressed the syringe’s plunger slowly; she rubbed her paw against her face and snorted again. Rich withdrew the needle and slowly backed away. As he exited the cage, Albert closed its door gently and embraced his son tightly. ‘You did it, kiddo, you did it,’ echoed in Rich’s ear.
‘You got some huevos on ya, kid. I’ll give you that much,’ Donnie contributed.
‘Alright, let’s bolt,’ Albert said.
The three shuffled briskly out of the room and continued down the hall toward the maintenance entrance. Rich had the sensation that he was being carried by a conveyor belt. Albert placed his arm around his son’s neck. Rich cast an insentient stare across the unending corridor. Suddenly, he heard a rapid scuttling on the concrete floor, like nails scraping metal. Before he could turn, Albert’s arm pulled him to the ground violently, slamming his skull hard against the pavement. Rich could hear nothing but a blaringly high pitched note reverberating, like a bristling tuning fork screaming in his cranium. His head pulsated, anesthetized, and his vision swam. He craned his neck and saw a huge, amorphous apricot blob encased in a humming white glow thrashing wildly with slow motion abandon. The crowd roared to a shrill crescendo. Rich called out to his father, but could hear nothing through the cheers. He staggered to his feet to run but slipped in a warm puddle of liquid and fell into it. His stomach convulsed, splattering vomit across the floor. He stumbled to his feet and ran again.
* * *
’55 miles an hour, 57, 50, 52. Jeez, slow night. Doesn’t anybody speed anymore?,’ Rich thought to himself as he lay in wait behind a billboard on route 235 across from the Red Door, a dive bar only recently furnished with wooden floors, replacing the dirt and saw dust that had previously been its trademark. He looked down at the clock ‘ 2:35 am.
‘Do we want a boy or a girl? East Asian, Latin American, or Eastern European? How about African? I don’t know, maybe it’s not a good idea to adopt outside your own race. Maybe that’s just asking for trouble’for you and the kid. Maybe Eastern European is the way to go’maybe Russian.’ Rich reclined in the chair until the dashboard completely obscured his view of the road. He held the radar gun high in the air, watching the numbers blink on the screen as the cars rolled by intermittently; 50, 58, 47, 53, 6.
‘What the fuck?’ Rich sat upright. An El Camino with wood paneling and eaten tan paint rolled by at a snail’s pace. Its windows were rolled down in spite of a whipping wind and sub-20 degree temperature. The driver was so short that his chin barely cleared the steering wheel. His hair was slicked back perfectly in spite of the wind and he wore a pair of shades with mirror lenses and a button-down coal shirt with white pinstripes and a jutting collar. Rich exited the crusier, incredulous at what he was seeing. He jogged to the driver’s side door and walked alongside, staring at the man in disbelief as he continued his slow roll down the highway. The man took no notice of his pursuer.
‘Where’s the fire, buddy?,’ Rich asked.
The driver turned to him at last, but then turned back to the windshield.
Rich leaned into the car across the man’s lap and yanked the emergency break. The vehicle came to a stop. The driver released the brake and continued to roll. He got about six inches before Rich yanked the door handle open, grabbed him by the collar, dragged him onto the asphalt, forced him face down in the gravel and handcuffed him.
‘Don’t move, Asshole, I’ll be right back.’ Rich made his way to his vehicle to call in the arrest. On his way, he heard the voice of his Dispatcher, Bernice, through his walkie-talkie, ‘Rich, what’s your location?’
Rich lowered his head and clicked the receiver. ‘I’m on 235; just busted some dopehead hipster. What’s up?’
‘Richie, you need to get down to St. Mary’s General.’
‘Why? What’s going on there?’
‘Rich, just get down there. You need to go.’
‘Bernie, what are you talking about?’
‘It’s your wife. It’s Reggie.’
‘What’s going on? What’s wrong?’
‘Just get down to the hospital, they’ll tell you there.’
‘Bernie, what the hell are you talking about?’
‘Something happened, Rich.’
‘Bernie, what is it?’
‘She’s gone, Richie.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘They’re not sure what happened. She went in with a bad migraine and it turned out to be much worse. She’s gone.’
Rich’s knees buckled slightly. ‘What do you mean? She’s in perfect health. She’s barely had so much as the flu her entire life.’
‘Just get down to the hospital, Richie. You need to get there now.’
‘Christ, though, what if it’s a brain tumor. Oh, my God, what if it is a tumor? I mean we gotta get her a doctor’a specialist.’
‘Richie, you’re not listening. She’s gone.’
Tears began streaming from Rich’s eyes. His voice quivered, ‘She’s gonna want me to bring her pillow. And those goddamn hospital pillows are like rocks. And her blanket. She’s gonna need her blanket.’
‘And her mattress. I need to get Reggie’s mattress.’
‘Rich, listen, on second thought, I’ll send someone to pick you up, okay?’
Rich unhooked the receiver from his uniform and slammed it to the ground, shattering it into dozens of plastic shards. He fell backward against the cruiser and slid to the ground. Rich banged his head back against the cruiser door, paused, then beat it again repeatedly, denting the door. When he was done, he leaned back and began sobbing spastically, holding his left hand to his face. He caught a glimpse of his captive through the corner of his eye. The man was straining to lift his head from the asphalt to observe Rich. He crinkled his nose and a grin spread across his face, wrinkles expanding across his temples. Rich stood up, and walked to the man. He grabbed him by the hair, lifted his head, neck and torso about a foot off the ground, then released his grip, dropping him to the asphalt. His head slammed against it and one of the lenses from his sunglasses cracked and fell to the ground. Rich walked back to the cruiser and sat again. The man was still scrutinizing Rich, still smiling. Rich returned the look. The cruiser’s flashing red and blue lights glinted across the man’s chestnut eye over and over with strobe-light rapidity. Rich pulled his legs tight against his chest, placed his head between his knees, squeezed his eyes tightly, pressed his hands against his ears, and bit down hard, grinding his molars. When he lifted his head, his prisoner was nowhere in sight and the car had disappeared. He leapt up, pivoted both ways, frantically looking up and down the road. He sprinted into the woods in chase, branches smacking his face, until the brush and vine became too thick to pass, forcing him back.
* * *
Jason entered Jackie’s room. He stood over her as he had on their first meeting. Her eyes were sunken and her skin had grown gray and clung to her skeleton like Saran wrap. Jason lowered his head again to get a closer look.
‘You know what they say,’ she whispered through a hoarse voice.
Jason smiled. ‘How are you feeling today, beautiful?’
‘I feel wonderful.’ She struggled to get the words out, speaking haltingly. Her eyes were barely open and Jason could tell that she was having difficulty focusing them on him. ‘My doctor…’ She paused to cough, then continued, ‘…and my hospice nurse came by this morning. They brought the real shit with them this time. I mean, I’m talkin’ about some primo morphine, man.’
‘What’d the doc say?’
‘I asked him if I’m gonna be able to run the Boston marathon next month.’ Jackie broke into a violent coughing fit. She regained her composure and continued, ‘He seemed to think the odds were against it.’
Jason smiled again. ‘What do doctors know anyway?’
‘You’re tellin’ me. Last week, I asked him how long I got to live. He says’ He says ‘three weeks, that’ll be a thousand bucks.” She paused to search her memory for the punch line. ‘I says, ‘I don’t have it right now,’ so he gives me another three weeks.’
Jason laughed. ‘I don’t know what I’m gonna do without you, Jackie.’ His eyes began to well up. ‘These last months have been’ I don’t know. I mean’ before you” He choked on his words and turned his head away in an attempt to gain his composure. ‘Fuck, I’m just so scared for you. It has to be terrifying where you are right now. I’m just so scared.’
‘Hey look, Sparky. Don’t sweat it. Don’t worry about me. I’m ready to go.’ She stared at him intently, searching for her next words. ‘This is gonna sound like the morphine talking, but I’m actually excited. I mean, it’s not everyday you get to find out if there’s actually an afterlife. You spend your whole life wondering what happens at this moment. It’s like’ it’s like the end of a pretty good movie. So, I don’t know, but now that the check’s already in the mail, I honestly just can’t wait to see what happens next.’
The tears streamed down Jason’s cheeks. ‘Say, I got you a going away present. Let me go get it.’ Jason stood up and started for the door.
‘Wait, before you go, give me a hug, kiddo.’ Jason bent down and embraced Jackie. She grabbed his neck and held with every bit of strength she could muster. ‘I love you, Jason. Please don’t forget me. Don’t let me disappear from you.’
‘You know I won’t, Jackie.’ She let go and slinked back into her bed, exhausted. ‘I’ll be right back.’
Jason went out to his car. He came back carrying a gold pocket watch his grandfather had given him years ago. ‘I wanted you to have…’ Jason stopped in mid-sentence. He approached Jackie, hovered over her again and placed his index and middle finger on her carotid artery; it did not return their inquiry. He leaned in until his nose touched hers, caressed the gaze of her placid eyes, and kissed her still lips.
Jason left the house. A million ivory flakes were falling round and fat from the dusk stratosphere, filling the air, absorbing all sound, leaving white silence. The full Pines and naked Sweet Gums that spread across the neighborhood were caked in powder and covered in ice from branch tip to trunk, forming crystalline canopies. Jason walked to the center of the yard, retrieved a large black wool cap from his jacket and put it on, along with a pair of leather gloves. He pulled the hood over his head and laid down, arms folded over chest. The sky stared into him; delicate crystal galaxies flew past his head; giant, roseate, spongy glaciers crawled languidly overhead. The glassy terrain accumulated all around until it overcame everything but Jason’s face. A nourishing warmth gathered in his body like rain in a floodplain and his eyelids gradually gained weight until they could bear it no longer. The boy drifted and time lost track of him. Suddenly, a shiver jerked him into consciousness and he found himself ensconced in night, embedded in a valley crowded by colossal mountain silhouettes. Mist cloaked the land in gray spectral wetness that breathed long and delicate inhales and exhales. The stars flickered; tiny, silent infernos casting a lambent, alabaster glow over the landscape. The floor was canvassed in a bed of wild flowers stretching to the horizon that captured and amplified the starlight, shimmering like a bright neon blanket of amethyst, sapphire, and emerald. A thin dirt path ran beneath Jason’s feet and meandered ahead like a gurgling trickle of water between the toes of giants. A delicate breeze flowed, whistling a soft, hypnotic tune.
Jason walked along the path until it ended at a circle of fifty or so figures gathered around a small fire, garbed in multi-colored robes with wide hoods that shrouded their faces. The robes were tinted in the hues of the valley flowers and swirled in smooth motions like creek water over rocks, but they were as blindingly bright as molten lava freshly bubbled from the earth so that Jason had to squint to look at them directly. The gatherers did not seem to notice Jason; their attention was focused squarely on the center of the flame. Jason walked into the circle and they parted for him without turning their heads. Inside, he saw Jackie standing, her eyes, too, transfixed on the pyre. He walked to her side and took her hand. Her face appeared as it had earlier that day, pale and emaciated. She wore a bright pearl robe that reached the ground and trailed several feet behind her. Its sleeves dangled at her sides and its hood hung low at her back. She glanced at Jason and smiled nervously. A vigorous wind gusted across the valley, sending the grass into a wild and primitive dance.
The fire’s pops and crackles startled Jason; his face flinched and his arms involuntarily flew up in protection. Each discharge emitted a scent like burning flesh that made Jason’s eyes water and marrow tremble. He peeked over at Jackie again and she flashed him another smile– still nervous, but more serene– that quieted his spastic body. He studied the flame and his own reflection emerged in its center. Letting go of Jackie’s hand, he approached and gazed into its eyes. He was drawn by their pupils– two black suns set in the center of a galaxy of spider’s webs. They pulled his own eyes into their siren orbit; he acquiesced. Silence seeped into his ears and immersed his mind, muting every nerve, pure and total, soaking him with a euphoric glow. Suddenly, he saw the circle of gatherers and the fire from far above the ground. The flame ascended high into the air and auroral, mile-long voltaic arcs exploded over the valley, loosing an incandescent indigo deluge that left the land gasping. Then, the earth sucked the conflagration back to its origin, leaving a pile of ash. Darkness reclaimed. The gatherers dropped their hoods, revealing their heads to be giant dandelions. The breeze swirled and scattered their seeds, which floated in every direction as if seismic waves emanating from an epicenter. The robes were left erect, phantoms in space. A velvet, lavender cloud formed over the earth and disgorged itself in a downpour, the liquid melting the garments, their colors dimming as they seeped into the earth.
The ground drank thirstily and the ash disappeared into it. From this spot, a coconut tree sprang swiftly from the ground, groaning as it stretched to the sky to form a wooden obelisk. One of its fuzzy spheres fell, landing softly on the moist, tender ground. It hemorrhaged down the middle and split open, revealing an infant, crimson and radiant; screaming piercingly and shuddering with the sublime terror of its first gulps of life.
Jason awoke in the center of Jackie’s yard; night had given way to morning. The trees glimmered in the sunlight and their branches, straining to sustain the weight of the frozen precipitation, dropped shards of ice and packages of snow with scattered thuds that skidded across the dormant earth. The snow had ceased falling. Jason opened his eyes and calmly lifted himself to his feet, brushing the white powder from his body and face. He walked the center of the empty street in strides long and light.
* * *
Kim entered the Red Door around midnight. The air was stale and smoky, tinged with cheap perfume and cheaper cologne and moist with body heat. She identified Rich, stubble-faced and bedraggled, his uniform untucked, unbuttoned and hanging over his belt, occupying the end of the chipped and dented bar, indolently picking at the label on a bottle. He hiccupped as she approached.
She placed a hand on his back. ‘Hey, Richie, how are you doing?’ Rich nodded his head without turning. Kim sat down on the adjacent stool. ‘Say, when would you say was the last time we were here?’
‘I couldn’t have been more than 22, making you about 18; long ass time ago.’
‘You ain’t whistlin’ Dixie.’
‘I wouldn’t even if I didn’t know the words.’ Rich nodded his head and continued picking at his label. ‘Say, I really appreciate you coming down to spend time with me like this.’
‘Hey, no problem. I’m sorry it’s been so long since I last called; but with keeping the house and chasing after Brent; well, you know.’
‘Don’t sweat it. I’m just glad you agreed to come.’
‘How are you holding up?’
‘Could be worse, I suppose’ under the circumstances.’
‘I’m not even gonna say I know what you’re going through; I can’t even imagine it.’
‘Yeah; seems nobody knows what to say these days. I guess there isn’t really much to say.’
‘I mean, I guess you just gotta realize tomorrow’s another day; that time’s gonna heal this thing.’
Rich looked back to the bottle, ‘Nope, that wasn’t it.’ He hiccupped again.
‘Sorry, I’m just not really good at this type of thing.’
‘Look, nevermind. Let’s just talk about something else. I wanted to talk about this when I called; but I don’t know, maybe it’s better if I think about something else for now. I just can’t be alone right now.’
‘Okay, okay. I can understand that. By the way, though, how many you had tonight?’
‘Just a few. I’ll be just fine.’
‘Alright, alright, just showing some neighborly concern.’