Monday, October 21, 2013

Chapter Three


Catnip cigarettes and saffron tea

 

         

Julianna Caspari liked green tea.

          Her pale pink travel mug was filled with it, along with three herking tablespoons of honey. She didn’t believe she was far enough along yet to be craving things, but, when she’d been standing in her family’s kitchen at sun-up this morning, she’d felt she’d had to add the two extra dollops.

As if her soul demanded it.

          Which could have been a stress thing, she thought, staring down at her mug as she exited Copeland’s apartment. She didn’t have a great deal of experience dealing with stress, but she had a little. She knew talking to her mother made her stomach hurt. And imagined that the mere sound of the woman’s voice had, over the course of her life, been slowly giving her an ulcer. She further imagined that, if she really was holding onto the opposite end of that stick, things might be working in reverse; that if stress from her mother discouraged her from eating, that the stress of becoming a mother might be causing her to enjoy it. Which also explained why, every time one of her four sisters had moved out, her mother lost another ten pounds. Regardless, whatever it was, honestly, other than worrying about being an eighteen year-old unwed mother with dogmatically catholic parents, or her fool boyfriend, the consumption of sugar was all she thought about.

She slipped Copeland’s apartment key back into her pocket and juggled her mug to pull the door closed behind her. She’d planned to come over early and wake him by gently sitting on his bed. Maybe softly whispering his name. Then, in theory, they would have talked about everything. Because, if she’d gotten to him early enough, she could have said whatever she wanted and been in complete control of that conversation. The boy’s brain just didn’t work that fast first thing in the morning.

But he wasn’t there, and, after yesterday, after watching the horror crawl across his face, and watching his whole life drain away behind his eyes, she knew the only other place he’d be. The same place she’d wanted to go when she’d found out. And, though she wanted to see him, was going to see him, wanted to rub the sand off his face and kiss him good morning, she would never dream of defiling his sanctum sanctorum with The Talk.

But her bike was lying flat on the ground and all she could do was huff when she saw it there.

Julianna didn’t drive, didn’t have a car, didn’t even have her license, and rode her bike everywhere. Her sunset beach cruiser had a rose pink body, extra fat whitewall tires, chrome plating everywhere, and a pristine wicker basket hanging from the handlebars. It was beautiful. Dependable. And perfect. She called her Mademoiselle Madonna del Ghisallo. Or “M” for short.

Julianna completely sympathized with biker gangs in movies because of her; when they murderously rampaged after whatever asshole knocked over their neatly parked babies. She totally would have done that. But this, M lying helplessly on the ground, in the gravel, was her fault. She had recklessly leaned her against the wall, and, in her nervous haste to accost her sleeping boyfriend, M had paid the price. Whatever gouges had been chipped from her chrome were nobody’s fault but her own.

She sighed.

And shivered.

The Channel Inn’s grounds were guarded by eight foot high stone walls, along with an enormous, retracting oak gate; to keep the locals out, the guests from other hotels out, and Bayocean’s homeless population from napping on their lawn chairs. But it also meant that, this early in the morning, no matter where you were on the grounds, even though the sun had been up for over an hour, there was nothing to stand in but shade.

Even though she’d spent her whole life on the coast, and knew, even in the sun, she’d be covered in goosebumps ‘til noon, she couldn’t keep herself from wearing shorts. As soon as May was gone, and warm weather was in any way a possibility, it was shorts until September. Summer rules. But she was tired of the morning air whipping over her naked legs. And Copeland’s Beach really wasn’t that far. So she left M on the ground, for fear of her falling again, or seeing her scrape marks after picking her up. So she marched, clutching her still warm mug, toward the tunnel.

The Inn, if you looked at it from above, was a Y. Or, more realistically, a very heavily bottomed U; a large main building with two wings that stretched up, parallel, straight toward the road. There was a highly gardened roundabout in the square between, and the main gate opened at the top of the arms, leading guests around the garden to the lobby in the center. Or, through tunnels beneath each wing, to private parking on either side.

Jules made her way under the northern arm, watching the pigeons as she went. They were already out looking for food, whirling around in the tunnel with her, and made her feel like a fairytale princess. Like they were paying their respects, acknowledging the life that was growing inside her, with their cooing and clapping wings. She smiled and nodded at them, as she imagined Snow White or Cinderella would, and then worried what her little friends might think of her if they knew how young she was, or that she wasn’t married.

As she stepped out into the open air of the square, there were bees moving between the lavender shrubs and rose bushes, too quiet to hear, slow in the cold, but busy and ignorant of every problem in the world. Which Jules appreciated. Their only ambition in life was to make more honey. And Jules appreciated that even more. She took a deep breath, sucking in the lavender with the smells of the early morning tide, and let the whole thing wash over her.

It was all so soothing, she closed her eyes.

She’d never figured out what it was that she smelled when she smelled the beach, though the scent by the water was as familiar to her as coffee or Pine-Sol. But besides the rotting crabs and composting seaweed she really had no idea what it actually was. What combination of things, living or dead, created that briny mist. The earth practically reeked of it. All over town. Even the plants and soil, far beyond the reach of the water, were heavy with it. As though all life within a gull’s reach of the sea had breathed in so much of it over the centuries that now it just poured out of everything.

It could get, at times, a little intoxicating.

Not altogether unlike, however strange it was, the smell of smoking catnip had become.

Almost singularly because it meant Gabby was coming.

Jules practically skipped around the garden, and snuck up behind her friend.

“Hey, sweet pea,” the old woman rang, spinning around, in her wonderfully graveled voice.

Jules just stood there on the stone border of the garden, smiling happily, admiring one of her truly favorite people in the world.

For all intents and purposes, Gabriella Frankley was a wizened and refined eccentric, and Copeland’s surrogate grandmother. Or, more apropos, his doting lunatic great aunt. His very old, doting lunatic great aunt.

This morning, she was wearing a thigh length red and burgundy vermicular patterned silk robe, embroidered with a hundred brightly stitched lotus blossoms, and, to the casual eye, nothing else. She carried her tea with her in a white china cup with platinum bands around the base and brim, and held a smoldering black cigarette in the other hand. Her hair was perfectly gray, cut short and curled, with a black ribbon tying it up; the bow just above her left eye. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, no matter what time of day it was, or year, no one had ever seen her locks otherwise.

Julianna adored her.

She just felt that a woman who was a thousand years old, nearly always shoeless, and only ever seemed to care that people felt welcomed was the kind of person everyone should love.

“Well,” Gabby craned her head, “I don’t usually expect any of my angels to make an appearance in the world until at least after eleven.” She had a habit of cackling at the end of sentences, regardless of whether what she’d said was funny or not, and absolutely nobody minded. “So what’s your story, tiny?”

Jules didn’t know what to tell her. She popped open her mug and took a sip of her green tea. She opened her mouth, thinking something to say would just come out naturally, but nothing did. She was starting to feel nervous and she never felt nervous around Gabby. There was no reason to. The woman had no shame. Not for herself. Not for anyone. But there was a sudden bubbling feeling coming up from her middle, an overwhelming uneasiness, and all she could do was stand there, staring, studying her old friend.

It was a troubling, bubbling feeling, to be sure.

It didn’t scare her.

It had no sharpness or quickness to it at all.

It was just a kind of thoughtfulness, maybe. A feeling that was turning into a thought. A bit of unconsciousness hardening into information. Swirling. Slowing. Stopping. Becoming matter. Mattering. She had no choice but to consider it.

It was an instinct.

She’d never had an instinct before.

She swallowed her tea. Hard. And her jaw fell open, just a little.

In one very uncomfortable instant, Julianna Caspari knew what it was.

But how did the old woman know?

She wasn’t supposed to know.

She shouldn’t know.

Only Cope could have told her and, no matter how freaked he’d been, he would never have, not in a thousand years...

“You can tell that I know. Can’t you, tiny?” Gabby interrupted, still smiling, but without her cackle. “You know I know you’re pregnant.”

“God, Gabby! Did Copeland tell you?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course not. That boy wouldn’t tell me if I had the last bucket of water in Bayocean and his dick was on fire.”

Jules took a large gulp of her over-sweetened tea, so thick with honey that it coated her throat, nearly choking her. She tried to cough but just sort of gagged over the nearest lavender bush. “How’d you find out?” she gasped after a minute.

“Well, when you get this old, you stop needing people to explain very obvious things to you. Experience makes even the dimmest bulbs seem bright, and you, my darling, are glowing. But that’s not what we’re talking about, is it?”

Jules put her fist to her mouth to keep from coughing in the face of her friend, couldn’t hold it in, and snorted through her nose.

“Oh for Heaven’s sake,” Gabby laughed, pulling the plastic travel mug away from Jules and replacing it with her own tea cup. “Here. Drink this before you drown on my sidewalk.”

Gabriella’s tea was the practical opposite of her own. It wasn’t hot, barely lukewarm. And it wasn’t sweet. So unsweetened, even, that it felt dry and tickled her tongue and danced on her lips as it went down. And, as soon as it reached her belly, her entire body relaxed. She stopped shivering. Not that she wasn’t cold anymore. Because she totally was. It was just as if her body had learned a new trick; like she could be in the cold, but no longer needed to be a part of it. Like she had total control. Maybe it was control. Control in a cup.

“Gabby?”

“Yes, love.”

“What the hell did you just give me?”

“Saffron tea.”

“Saffron?”

“With a little cream.”

“Saffron, as in the most expensive spice in the world, Saffron, made into tea, with cream?”

“Yes. Well. And just the tiniest drop of brandy.”

“Gabby! You can’t give me alcohol! I’m…”

“Sweetheart, there’s more alcohol in your mouthwash. But you go ahead and tell me anyway. You’re going to need the practice.”

Jules looked away from the old woman, and took another sip.

Gabby looked away too, politely avoiding eye contact, but kept talking, “Let’s get back to the matter at hand, shall we? You knew that I knew.”

Jules sighed.

“But how did you know?”

“I don’t know.”

“Has that happened to you before? Have you ever felt that way? Like you knew something you couldn’t actually have known?”

          “Never. First time.”

          “You’re going through one of life’s most incredible changes, little one. And some women, not many you see, but some, go through it a little differently than others.”

          “I had to sit through sex-ed just like everybody else, Gabs. I know what’s happening.”

          “I don’t mean the bitty in your nitty, tiny. I mean you knew that I knew. For some women, when they…

          “What are you talking about, Gabby? It was just a weird feeling. I probably just thought- I just thought that you knew I was…”

          “Say it.”

          “I just thought you knew I was pregnant.”

          “And I did. And you’re such a good girl!” Gabby cackled and took her teacup back, wrapping her arms around Jules, burying her in her bony chest. “Say it again, tiny. Tell me again. There’s no one here. Say it louder. It’s already happened to you and you can’t keep it from being real by not talking about it. Just say it over and over. Get comfortable with it. You’re going to need to be. You’re going to be this way for a while.”

          Julie cried, “I’m pregnant, Gabby.”

          “I know you are, honey. Oh, how I know.”

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Chapter Two

Better Not Knowing

Fireworks are supposed to be fun. They’re supposed to be a grand celebratory gesture. The definitive signal that says to everyone around, “I am very excited. I like this moment very much. And I want to communicate my feelings in the loudest and brightest commercially available way possible.” Though, more often than anyone will likely admit, all sentiments of merriment are lost beneath the competitively obnoxious chorus, “We have spirit, yes we do. We have spirit. How ‘bout you?” Or at least Canner Connelly thought as much from the balcony he’d rented by the sea.

He lit a cigarette and leaned over the railing on his elbows.

He also thought that neighbors and tourists were two of the most annoying sorts of people, especially on the 4th of July, and the fact that he’d committed three weeks of his life to the beach, a place that transformed perfect strangers into both, was the kind of personal torture only he ever had to pay for.

Not to say that the unit they were staying in wasn’t worth it, emotionally or monetarily. Of course it was. The Channel Inn had, in its previous incarnation, been a timeshare, or a condo or something, so their hotel room didn’t feel like a room at all. Because it wasn’t. Their unit was almost a thousand square feet, had two bedrooms, a beautiful bathroom, bamboo floors, and granite everywhere. The only features that differentiated it from an actual, very nice apartment were the built-in wine cooler and the singular closet. Somehow triangular in shape and impossible to fit anything into.

But, otherwise, conceptually, mostly perfection.

The building sat on a cliff and they were on the top floor. Canner’s balcony was the farthest you could get from the ocean, but every balcony on all four stories had been built at a diagonal so that everyone got a view, and he couldn’t imagine it getting much better than his. Especially now. In the absolute middle of the night. The moon’s light wasn’t bright enough to define the horizon, and the twinkling ripples on the black ocean blended right into the stars. He thought he could actually see, with the help of a little wine, what forever meant.

The whole experience might have changed his life right then, if it had been one continuous stream of perception-altering awe and wonder. But there was a large group of pyromaniacs on the other side of the building, accompanied by their belligerent fans and spectators, firing off virtual artillery shells out over the water. Every few minutes there was an erratic mix of squealing and quaking rumbles, followed by flashes of color that blended like food coloring on the surface of his clarity to form a very patriotic shade of brown.

Canner knew they were only trying to enjoy themselves. And that he was prone to both exaggeration and unreasonable frustration. And that the place they had chosen to celebrate was admittedly ideal, having only a few patches of beach grass, picnic tables, and fire pits to navigate in the dark. But it was so late. And they were so close to him. And all he wanted was to fall asleep to the sounds of the waves, like the old days.

Canner consoled himself with more wine and the thought that most people just used that area to take their dogs out. He prayed for the inevitable; smeared on the upholstered floors of their cars in miraculous proportion.

He reached into his pocket, breathed in deeply from his cigarette, and pulled out his phone to check the time. 2 am. He then nearly dropped it over the railing, startled by the tap on the sliding glass door behind him.

His lit cigarette casually fell out of his hand over the side.

She knew he smoked. He knew she knew. But, gradually since Henry had left, he’d begun to smoke more and more. Half a pack a day. And now he hated to ever let her see him.

“Hey, sweetheart,” he smiled, spinning around, sliding his phone back in his pocket. “Fireworks keeping you up?”

Chloe didn’t answer. She simply held out a smoke detector, and waited for him to take it.

“What’s this?”

“A smoke detector.”

“Right. Well. Yeah, Chloe. But why isn’t it on a ceiling?”

“Wait for it.”

He watched her staring at the plastic disk, glaring at it with as much menace as she could muster. Her eyes were both blue, one slightly greener than the other, and, when she wanted to, she could turn them both into ice. Like hypothermia in stereo. Her dark chocolate hair was falling out of a haphazard bun, its tendrils drifting down behind her. And, for pajamas, she wore bright blue sweatpants that were far too big for her, and a lime green camisole that, as Canner often lamented, was not nearly big enough. Not for his twelve year-old daughter. Not even for bed.

WEERP.

“Holy hell,” he croaked.

“That,” Chloe nodded, pleased that it had acted up while someone else was there to see, “is why I’m up.”

“It’s just a warning. It means it’s running out of batteries.” He flipped it over and began feeling for a seam.

“I know that. But you can’t change the batteries.”

“Of course you can. You just…” He flipped it back the other way and tried to twist it open like a pickle jar.

“Of course you can,” she mimicked, even more pleased. She’d tried. There was no way about it.

Canner rolled his eyes and pushed past her, moving through the door and then through the living room. The hardwood had been so perfectly polished before their arrival that, even though the blinds were turned down, the sheen from just a little moonlight led him toward the kitchen window.

The living area of the unit was one long, open space; the couches and television were next to the balcony on the northernmost side, which then became a dining area in the middle, with an oak table and chairs set, then the kitchen to the south. The entryway was separated from the kitchen on the west by a wall of cabinets, the refrigerator and dishwasher, and the wine cooler.

The drawer above the wine cooler was the one that had the screwdriver in it.

Canner had found it last night by accident, while in search of something with which to battle the world’s most aggressive moth.

A battle he might have lost, had he been by himself. Though he argued that he only needed help because he’d had to settle for a spatula, and not a proper flyswatter.

He wasn’t afraid of bugs. Or of touching them, really. Spiders, yes. Completely terrified. But bugs in general, no. He wasn’t afraid of this one explicitly, either, though the hairy creature was obviously plague ridden and determined to fly into his mouth. And eyes. And, once, straight into his ear. It was the frantic flapping of its wings that had gotten to him. It made the battling impossible. There was just no way to attack it with any resolve. Not beneath the 60 watt track lighting. Its flapping created such a strobe effect that it screwed with his depth perception, and he’d needed something longer than his bare hand to increase his arc of success. A sword to slay the Questing Beast. But, in the end, he hadn’t been able to lay blade to flesh, or spatula to bug, or connect with the moth in any way that it itself hadn’t instigated. So, truth be told, if the hotel hadn’t been insistently pet friendly, and Chloe hadn’t begged to bring their great black cat, and Charlie hadn’t been such a savant in the art of pest control, and the moth hadn’t landed on the wall directly in front of the weevil assassin, Canner may have been forced to spend their entire vacation cohabitating with a tiny, nocturnal pterodactyl.

He kicked something in the kitchen, the corner of the refrigerator, stumbled, winced, and wished for the first time in his life that he’d been wearing shoes instead of flip-flops. He also wished that the people who’d taken such painstaking care, superbly renovating this building, had considered putting a light switch nearer to the balcony. Or by the front door, maybe. Or just anywhere that wasn’t only in the kitchen.

He’d spent the last eighteen months building a house, and found those were the sorts of things he thought about now. Picking apart the choices builders had made. These sconces were hideous. Was that molding supposed to be a joke?

It had all started as a hobby. Something to do while Chloe was in school. Also, rebuilding was an honest and responsible way to manage Uncle Henry’s estate. But, after realizing he could do almost entirely by himself, however slowly it came about, he’d become sort of a professional. And he finished the thing. He did it. He built it. A beautiful little craftsman bungalow right over the top of where he’d once burned Uncle Henry’s house to the ground. So, now, obviously, he was a definitive expert in every construction related realm, and why anyone would put the switches, that controlled all of the lighting in the entire apartment, in the kitchen alone was beyond him.

It was probably money. It was always money. But he’d so much rather be mad at some construction crew for being lazy, or inept, or even jerk-off smartasses who were screwing with him specifically than at an architect or contractor who couldn’t care less about how he probably just broke his toe. Because that person would be nearsighted. Obtuse. And would only really care about staying inside the dark confines of an unrealistically estimated budget. And he couldn’t imagine liking that person. A money person. Money people were the worst.

He hadn’t always felt that way, but Canner had begun to hate money.

He’d always worried about it, of course.

But now that he had it, and couldn’t seem to get rid of it, he hated it.

It ruined everything.

Canner laid the smoke detector on the cold stone countertop and opened the drawer. It opened beautifully on greased wheels, and, he thought, if they’d just used cheaper cabinetry they could have installed more light switches. He pulled out the long, sharp screwdriver.

Chloe flipped the lights on behind him, three feet away, and shook her head at him. “Dad?” she asked, worrying he’d drifted off in thought and was going to hurt himself. She’d seen him recklessly stuff tools into things before. “You can’t open it. I already tried.”

Canner grunted. A preoccupied acknowledgement. Surrender was near. They both knew it. It just wasn’t there yet. It was past two in the morning now, and he had drifted off. The kind of drifting off that happens to everyone at two in the morning and some wine. He’d stubbed his toe and that had led him to thoughts of construction; construction to thoughts of home building; to the home he’d just built with his uncle’s money on his uncle’s land. Willed to him or not.

After more than eighteen months of silence, despite some apparent reluctance on Henry’s part, and even more apparently on Jane’s, she’d convinced the old man that Canner deserved to know everything. It took them seven pages, but every detail leading up to the events that happened that night in November were recounted. Everything. Canner now knew everything.

There was no return address, and no way to ask them why they’d decided to clarify that he was, in fact, an accessory to murder. But that’s exactly what he was. And that’s exactly what happened.

He may have had the best intentions. He may even have thought he was doing the right thing. But that was all in the moment. And that moment was gone. The things that he’d done to help Henry and Jane that night hadn’t been rational, well thought out, make your mother proud things. If anyone found out, he could get life in prison. Accessory after the fact! Ipso facto! Avada effing kadavra! And that would be it. It wouldn’t matter to anyone that he was going through a rough time emotionally. That, after all, he’d just stood up to his dead wife. That he’d only recently found his confidence again. Or that he’d just thought he was being helpful. It wouldn’t matter that he had been trying to save his uncle, the uncle that had just tried to save him and his daughter. That he’d been in protect-my-family mode. It wouldn’t matter to anyone.

It just wouldn’t.

A man in a black robe would simply stand up and look down at him, and ask him, “You did what?” And then they would take Chloe away. They’d send him to prison and take her away. And the rest of his life would be lived in his own personal hell. And then he’d die there, and probably go to hell for real.

Canner tried to swallow his tears, but found his heart had climbed in the way.

“Thank you, Chloe. You’re right,” he said as cherishingly as he could, staring down at the back of the smoke detector that had no screws showing, no openings of any kind, and was beeping louder and more frequently than ever. Nothing in the world made sense, and he threw the screwdriver back in the drawer and opened the freezer.

Chloe looked into the freezer with him and smiled, “Sometimes I can’t tell if you’re a genius or retarded,” and she scratched his back as he laid the noisemaker next to a tub of Tillamook ice cream.

“Me neither, kiddo.”

He shut the freezer door and everything was quiet. The last of the fireworks had stopped and the detector was muffled. Chloe flipped the lights off as they walked to the hallway where neither of them said goodnight. It was too late, even for niceties. And breakfast with Birch was going to come too soon.

 

 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Chapter One


Overdramatic

 

 

          Copeland Mayfield was lying on his couch in a practical cocoon. He’d taken the comforter off his bed and wrapped it snuggly over his feet and legs, tucked it around his torso, and pulled it up over his head; leaving only a tiny hole for fresh air to circulate in, and for one eye to see out. Today might possibly be the worst day of his life, but he hadn’t decided, and was determined not to leave the couch until he had.

          Although, there didn’t appear to be an end in sight. As the intro music began playing for his third consecutive viewing of Independence Day, thanks to a celebratory 4th of July marathon on A&E and one perpetually lost remote control, he had a very clear timeline for his misery. And, unfortunately, knowing exactly how long you’ve been suffering only ratifies despair. (Jules had knocked on his door at 3:48. The marathon had started at 4. It was now 8:01)

His hesitation in declaring today The Worst Ever mostly had to do with his only having been alive for eighteen years and, then, having plenty of unlived days to consider. However, the standing nominees were all serious candidates in their own right.

First in contention was the day his father left. The guy had walked out exactly one week after Copeland had been born, and, though he couldn’t possibly remember him going, or what was said in the days leading up to it, he blamed himself. The timing of such a thing, to his mind, was unbelievably beyond coincidence, and the guilt he felt for existing at all, on a day to day basis, hanging from his shoulders, could be weighed in stones.

Second in the running was the day his best friend, Dustin Meeks, had been dragged away in handcuffs from their middle school cafeteria. He still had nightmares about it. Everyone had been convinced that Dusty had tried to kill the school bully, Chad Bennett. Dusty was only in juvenile detention for a year, and Chad’s family moved away, and no one ever really talked about after that, but it’s positioning in the running for Worst Day Ever was solely based on the moments when they took him. When the two officers lifted him away from his lunch tray, he had kicked and twisted in ways Copeland had never imagined possible. But no matter how he’d tried he couldn’t break free. Those enormous hands had clamped over each of his skinny biceps and just dragged him away anyway. The nightmare always ended with Dusty being pulled through the cafeteria doors, and him turning his head over his shoulder, screaming. So fearful. So much so that even the sixth graders knew to look away. “PLEASE, COPE! SAVE ME! PLEASE! COPELAND! NO! NO! NO!”

But then, in the lead by a mile, there was this afternoon.

Julianna had just handed it to him.

She hadn’t even said hello or kissed him or anything.

Just, “Here.”

On the first night of the summer, a month ago, an eternity ago, she’d ridden her bike to his apartment just to kiss him and say goodnight. That night: amazing. Cope had woken up the next morning and immediately called her just to make sure it wasn’t a joke. They’d been friends since kindergarten, so she didn’t blame him. She just explained to him that it was time for them to be together. And it was. And they were. So whatever.

But today, she’d simply peddled up to the door of his apartment, knocked without getting off her bike, and handed him a white plastic stick that she’d obviously just peed on.

She rode away without word.

His skin had burned, practically boiling under the comforter, just thinking about it.

Still not reason enough to come out.

But how inconsiderate could a person be?

Nothing.

Not a one consoling word.

He’d been so mad at her that, from the safety of his cocoon, he’d spent a great deal of time considering all of the ways in which she could have done it better. How he could have improved her methods. But, so it seemed, every imperfection she had only made her a little more of the contrary, and, by the time Bill Pullman was rallying the troops, the first time through, Cope had moved on to wallowing.

Wallowing, and trying to force himself to find her attractive again.

Any other day, you couldn’t have stopped him from following her to the street, just to watch her perfect behind rock back and forth on her bicycle seat. But, right now, even the most perfectly shaped, most feminine rumps in the world wouldn’t have turned his head. They were suddenly repulsive. And that went so much more so for the hiney that had gotten him into this mess.

He started with her hair, as, unbeknownst to many, boys often do.

Jules had platinum hair. But he’d always thought bleached blondes were a little trashy. And she was peculiarly skinny. Not that being skinny was all that unusual, but her parents owned the nicest restaurant in Bayocean and she was never what people expected. Always, it would turn out that the very well kempt girl with a little meat on her bones and the winning smile was actually just a waitress. And the bosses’ daughter was the skulking girl behind her; the one who had just been caught by the swinging kitchen doors the wrong way and dropped three dinners on the tile. Her teeth weren’t perfectly straight, having lost every retainer she’d ever had, and she preferred her favorite sweater, faded and holey, to her mother’s new cashmere. 

But, even though Cope was temporarily unattracted, and had only recently recovered from being pissed at her, she was interesting and wonderful, and more than he deserved. And everyone thought so.

Copeland had actually believed he loved her.

But now he couldn’t even decide which day of his life was the worst, so what did he know. He was defeated. And lost. And scared. And he didn’t want to think anymore. Not even about aliens or Will Smith. He didn’t want to hear anything. He couldn’t handle any new information. All he really wanted was sleep. To be unconscious. To be away from this world. He was spiraling.

He didn’t want this.

He didn’t want this to be his life.

He didn’t want anything.

He pulled the blanket down over his eyes and just laid there, a wreck. Still, under the covers, he clutched the white plastic stick with the two pink lines, and he wondered if he was going to cry.

His life was over.

And then today was what it was. Today was the worst.

And, as soon as that was decided, he whipped off his comforter cocoon and went to the closet. He pulled out a long black flashlight, an oversized sleeping bag, and a backpack pre-filled with everything he would need to light a large stack of driftwood on fire.

Outside, on the ground level of The Channel Inn, families were bustling with excitement, getting ready to open their packages of sparklers and whistling fountains. They were laughing and checking their lighters, and happy, but Copeland might as well not have seen them at all. He simply shut his apartment door, locked the deadbolt, and walked along, following the beam of his flashlight, alone.

 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Prologue Noir

The conversation replaying in Riley Birch’s mind happened months ago, but no detail had been lost. He remembered it all, and, so long as he kept his eyes closed, it was easy. It was all right there, playing out in front of him; the greatest night of his life. It was the night he’d met her. If he had to complain, which he didn’t, nor did he want to, it would only have been to say that the exactness of the experience was a bit unnerving. Only because, no matter whether he attributed the perfect recall to his long life as a detective, or a symptom of having too much adrenaline in his system, if he stopped focusing on what was actually happening to him, even for a second, he could lose himself to the memory; sitting there on that velvety cushioned chair, drink in hand, as happy as he’d ever been. It was nearly out of body, and that, considering, was a little worrying. He had no idea how these things customarily went, and, truly, no one alive could have prepared him for it. But there was nothing to be done about that now. So, what he was grateful for, and all that really seemed to matter now, was that he could hear her voice. She was telling him all sorts of things. A little about the d├ęcor of the bar and how it reminded her of her dead husband, but mostly just everything she knew about Bayocean, the city by the sea, and how she’d fallen in love with it. Seemingly for no other reason than they were drinking in the same room, she’d just started telling him why she’d gone there in the first place and how she’d smiled again, and managed to live a little, all thanks to a spacious suite overlooking the Pacific. Birch closed his eyes tighter. He could feel the chill in the bar now. With every moment that went by, it all became clearer. More real. The air conditioners had been running on high. Not that even the warmest weather in Bayocean required them to, but because, without them, the body heat of just a handful of people lounging in those dark and squishy chairs, or even just the band in the corner, smoldering all by themselves, could raise the temperature a dozen degrees. Of course she couldn’t really be there, telling him those things –a fact Birch kept reminding himself of. But, every so often, he didn’t, and then she was there. Really there. Sitting beside him. Her perfume so sweet and light; like a rose bush making love to a gardenia after midnight. It almost made him laugh. And probably would have, too, had he been able to breathe. Birch tried again to take a deep breath, and failed. The air simply refused to go any farther than the back of his gaping mouth. His ribs were broken, and a handful of them had found their way into a lung. He’d forgotten about all that for a second, but, once reminded, he couldn’t believe he’d ever been able to think about anything else. The pain was terrifically nauseating. He desperately wished it would stop, but, more than that, he wished he could manage a breath just deep enough to speak her name. If he was going to have a last word, he felt it might as well have been her name. He managed to mouth it, “Talia,” and it was enough. In spite of the pain, he smiled. She had kept that kind of power over him from the beginning. The second he’d entered that casino bar, and saw her sitting there, he hadn’t been able to help himself. He walked right to her. And, before he’d made it all the way there, she’d stood to greet him. As if they’d known each other all along. Like they’d just lost track of one another in the dark, and come together again after a moment apart. She’d even halfway hugged him before asking him to sit down. After that, Birch was lost to her. After an hour or two, the band hadn’t let up, even for a breath between songs, but wound down into a slow, melodious shuffle. And, whatever magic was spilling out of the deep and murky souls of the wizards in the band, it only added to the wonder of the conversation he was having with the woman. The first round had come and gone long ago, and he couldn’t stop thinking that his life could have used more nights like that. But, he supposed, every man could use more nights that were perfect. However, this night and the time he’d spent listening to her talk, getting to know her and laughing at her jokes, could easily have been the most incredible thing he’d ever done or been apart of. He hadn’t any children. No lasting relationships. His work had consumed every ounce of energy he’d ever had. And, looking back, the only man he’d ever really considered his friend had died because of him. He’d gotten Henry killed, and he still couldn’t think about him without feeling debilitating shame. His whole life was mostly very painful, and, the few parts that weren’t, were really very boring. Except this right here. This one night with Talia. This was as nice a thing as he’d ever had. Of course, while halfway leaning over the railing, this railing, the railing that was keeping him from plummeting plainly to his death, even the worst of his memories might serve as an appreciable distraction. A new storm of adrenaline rolled on him. Fight! Don’t give up! Don’t give in to it! Fleeting sentiments, really. They were gone and had left him alone almost as soon as they started. However, before they did, they made it easier for him to admit that Talia really had been a foot too short for him. Also, there had been a crook in her nose that created some discontinuity between the top half of her face and the bottom. And her breasts were too large and perky for a woman her age. Much too nicely shaped to suspect them augmentations. Not that he had any problem with enhancements. It was that younger men were most certainly bound to stare when his back was turned, and he’d known plenty of good men that had been driven straight into madness by that sort of thing. It didn’t take him long to string together her short comings, and what he was left with was a shapely woman with strong features who happened to be shorter than him. He rather quickly resigned himself to love her anyway, and was undeniably grinning again. And, with that, stopped focusing. Then he lost the ability to fight altogether. Reality left him. Talia was drunk. Holy God in Heaven was she drunk. She had absolutely ignored pacing herself. If she had managed to at all, and stayed at that wonderfully hazy balance that Birch had determined happened just after two beers and half a cigarette, her eyes wouldn’t be half as glossy. Not that being drunk was a problem. In fact, if you wanted conversation to come easily, and liked having something in common to talk about, Birch thought being hammered was a fair talking point. And, in that spirit, he let himself get a might further down the road than he’d been in quite some time. “It’s a beautifully odd town,” she’d said, seriously. She hadn’t just said, “It’s a beautifully odd town,” of course. She had said a great deal of things leading up to that; including how she thought God had been very clever to place Patagonia so far out of the way, and which hotels she believed were the best to order room service in. But, throughout a few essential transitions, Birch had been ogling her in his periphery and had completely lost track of what was being talked about. And so, he didn’t know, per se, what exactly it was that had moved them into a historical overview of the town, but, nevertheless, he was happy she was talking to him at all, and there they were. “Is it?” he asked, self-conscious of how unintelligent, or just plain stupid, he might sound to such a fine woman. He wouldn’t have meant to be, but no one ever did, and he couldn’t tell at the moment, which usually meant he was. “Truly,” she nodded, smiling. “It’s unbelievable, really. It used to be twice this big.” “What? What happened?” he asked, hating himself for lots of reasons, some to do with not being handsome enough, having gained a few pounds since taking a desk job and then retiring, but mostly for not being as brilliant as he thought he ought to be. “It fell into the ocean,” she said wide eyed. “Bullshit,” he blurted, wishing he was dead. “No. Really. I don’t know everything about it, and I get the feeling it’s all a bit legendary anyway. But the story goes that, over a hundred years ago, they were building up the peninsula into a world class resort. Bayocean was going to be ‘The Atlantic City of the West’. But there weren’t any roads to get here then, so you had to take a ferry from Portland, the S.S. Bayocean, and that took three days.” “On a three da-ay cruise,” he sang, cleverly stretching the word “day” into two syllables so that it would fit neatly into the Gilligan’s Island theme song. He sighed and tried to recover by asking a simple question. “So nobody came and the town fell apart?” “No,” Talia shook her head. “Loads of people came. It started off as a huge success.” Birch considered it might be a good idea to quit speaking altogether, maybe for the rest of the night, for any and all reasons whatsoever, and tried to move the conversation along by merely looking as interested as possible. “The boat ride, I guess, wasn’t really that bad for the most part. People were used to it taking forever to get anywhere. But the last part of the trip, in the waters between the ocean and the bay, could get wild.” Birch raised an eyebrow and begged her to continue with his heart. “It was so bad, they say, just in the channel, that people lost their luggage and their lunches all the time. And, eventually, a couple kids went over the side and drowned. About where the bridge is now. And that’s when the Army got involved.” Birch looked as forlorn as he thought appropriate for a man his age to be about kids who kicked the bucket before he was born. And swelled a little having urged the conversation along without having to say a single word. Talia was admiring his sensitivity, but was doing it silently, and Birch deflated very quickly. “Why didn’t they just dock on the ocean side?” he managed. “I asked the same thing,” she nodded agreeably. Birch’s relaxed. “Because of the goddamn bluffs.” And he positively glowed when she swore. “So, there wasn’t a harbor for twenty miles up or down the coast, and then, again, no roads to get people here afterwards, so they had to take the boat all the way to resort. And then the oceanside of the peninsula was just one long cliff back then, fifty feet high and totally unclimbable. And the waves crashed right into it, so even if they built stares or lowered a rope or something, there wasn’t any place to park the boat while they did. And, with there being nothing but calm water and sand and mud beaches on the bayside, getting into the bay was the only problem anyone focused on. And then, now, I’ve entirely lost the point of what I was talking about.” “You had started to say something about the Army.” “Right! So the owner of the resort, or the mayor, or somebody wrote some letters to see if there wasn’t something they could do to make the whole thing easier. And, back then, it was the Army Corps of Engineers that answered. Maybe between wars or something. So the Army comes out and says, ‘You just need a couple of jetties, and that’ll fix everything,’ and the mayor or whoever says, ‘Great. How much?’ and the Army says, ‘Two million dollars,’ which was like a billion back then, so the mayor goes, ‘And how much for just one?’ and the Army says, ‘Well, less, but we don’t know if that will do anything.’ So the mayor goes back and tells the townspeople the options, and the people decide one jetty is probably half as good as two, but much better than none.” Birch leaned in with his elbows on his knees, moving his drink around on the dark cherry table, and hoped the story would never end. If the bartender stopped serving drinks, or the band stopped playing, or the ceiling fell right down on his head, he wouldn’t have minded as much as he would have if Talia stopped talking. So much so that when something brushed against his foot, he didn’t bother to shake it away, or to even look down to see what it was. He just watched Talia, and tried to figure out what made her smile so spectacular. “Then what happened?” he asked, taking his head up off his hands just long enough to speak then settling right back down to listen some more. “They built it. Everything changed. And their world fell apart.” “It did?” “Yeah.” “That can happen.” “Yeah.” “The army didn’t know, nor did anyone else, that by building just one jetty, instead of the prescribed two, any balance that had existed at the bay mouth would be completely lost. The currents and the tides shifted so badly that the whole system along the peninsula began to swirl along the coast instead of just wave, crash, wave, crash like normal. It was a blender. There was pressure where there had never been any and waves formed like no one had ever seen. That first winter, the sandstone face began to erode.” “Oh God,” Birch laughed, cringing happily. “Twenty houses, that had originally been built fifty yards from the cliff edge, fell in that first year. Followed by half a mile of paved road, the bowling alley, and the natatorium. They all had the ground washed out from under them before spring.” “What was that last thing you said?” “A natatorium? I didn’t know what it was either,” Talia nodded sympathetically. “As far as anyone could tell me, it was their dance hall, slash swimming pool.” Birch just squinted. He didn’t know why squinting made him look confused, but it did, and she understood, so who cared. “I couldn’t find any pictures, so I just looked up what it was, and all I found was that Natatorium means a building with a pool in it. Maybe Bayocean’s was special. People sure talk about it like it was. But all I can imagine is that scene from It’s a Wonderful Life, where everyone falls in the pool at the dance.” Birch nodded, and suddenly wondered if he didn’t nod too much when he’d been drinking. He decided he’d try varying with other agreeable gestures for the rest of the evening so that Talia wouldn’t think he was boring, but couldn’t think of any, at all, and further decided that nodding probably wasn’t as annoying as he’d thought. “Every winter after that, it got worse. And people almost stopped coming, for fear of falling into the ocean while they slept.” “Understandable.” “Indeed. But in the early 30s the State Highway Department finished paving the coast highway, and in the mid-30s they built the bridge over the bay mouth to connect the north half of the highway to south, and went out at low tide with a couple hundred sticks of dynamite and obliterated the jetty so everything would go back to normal.” “No kidding.” “Funny, huh? The resort fizzled out. The town barely survived, but it did. And, a long time later, the Indians came and built a casino, essentially fulfilling the original dream of the founders, and then someone opened a swanky jazz club in the back of that casino. And here we are.” The thing that had been brushing up against Birch’s foot had apparently stopped fooling around and was now firmly wrapped around his right ankle. He tried to shake it loose, but it held. He looked down and all he could see were his loafers, argyle socks, and the slacks he’d taken the time to iron before coming out tonight. He could see nothing there, and, he thought, whatever had his leg could keep it. The band quieted even further and played something aching and sweet. The drummer and the bass player felt they had nothing to add and got up to sit at the bar where they watched like everybody else. The trumpet player put down his horn and picked up a Spanish guitar. He tuned it and strummed and soon was playing a solo over the piano and the whole world felt a little smaller. It was too good. The song was connected to Birch somehow, and it was sucking him in. “Are you bored?” Talia asked. Birch stared at her. Snapped out of his trance, he realized the song was all wrong. The band was supposed to play together. They had played together the entire night, before. And no one had played the guitar. And that wasn’t what she was supposed to say next. She was supposed to tell him she had a bottle of champagne in her room and they should go open it and look at the moon from her balcony. “Are you bored? Did I lose you?” “Of course not,” Birch said, shaking his head. “What is it? What’s wrong?” “No. Nothing. I’m fine. Everything’s perfect.” Talia took a deep breath and laid both her hands over Birch’s closest knee. “You’re not fine. I know.” He froze. He couldn’t move. He was sure now that this wasn’t at all how things were supposed to go. But he was too afraid she might take her hands away if he said something silly, and he didn’t want her to do that. “I won’t take my hands away,” she smiled. “Tell me what’s wrong.” “What am I supposed to do?” he asked. “You’re not supposed to do anything. You’re just supposed to be here.” “What do you mean?” “This whole night is for you. Just be here and enjoy it with me.” “What?” “You know, don’t you?” “I know you’re too short for me,” he huffed a little. She just smiled her sweet smile and squeezed his knee. “I’m starting to get a little scared,” he said, looking down, still not seeing what had hold of his ankle, but feeling it being pulled backward under the chair. “What are you scared of? What are you having a hard time with?” “Knowing what matters. I haven’t been able to think of anything that matters.” “No one can, sweetheart. It’s just part of the night. You could have made a million decisions about a million different things, but that was all part of your life. This isn’t. You’re just here. With me. That’s not so bad, is it?” “I’m glad it’s you,” he said, his eyes getting thick with tears. “You can cry.” “I never cry.” “You can cry tonight. Do whatever you need to do.” The man playing the piano stopped and stood. He headed to the bar to stand with his friends. Only the guitar played on. Beautiful and soft. Talia was closer now, nearly in his lap, and moved her hands from his knee to his chest. He could feel his ankle being pulled harder than ever, but she had her hands on his chest, and he didn’t care about anything else. Then it stopped. No more pulling. Someone had turned the air conditioning off in the club and everything felt a little warmer. Birch looked into Talia’s eyes and let go. He couldn’t remember ever being this happy. He stopped trying to think of things other than Talia and then, it seemed, there was nothing that mattered outside of the bar. It all faded behind him. He didn’t care. It didn’t exist. Then he fell. It was at least a hundred feet from the balcony railing to the rocks and the waves below, but he didn’t feel the wind whipping past him as he dropped. He didn’t feel a thing. He was staring into Talia’s eyes, and now she was wrapping her arms around his neck. He plummeted in those same ironed slacks and leather loafers, and the silk Hawaiian shirt he’d bought special for tonight. It flapped behind him like a flag in a storm. Fast and hard. But he was sitting next to his favorite person in the world, who had nuzzled into his cheek. Someone had brought fresh drinks and set them on the table in front of them, and he couldn’t possibly have cared. The man with the guitar began playing his favorite song. Birch Riley laughed. And then he died.