Lester raised the knife—a long pocket blade with a graphite handle molded to his palm as if a woman’s breast. The edge eased through clumps of hair, back to front, not so much ripping as separating, the way careful hands might pull apart fine linens fresh from the dryer. Brown tumbleweeds rolled down his cheeks, bounced from his shoulders and fell to the bathroom floor or landed in the faux-marble sink. He watched himself in the mirror as he cut. At first, he resembled a pretty-boy rock’n’roller in some second-rate bar band. Now he just looked deranged, maybe a little diseased, the remnants of his flowing curls now a burned forest with smoldering ghosts of trees left barely standing. Later, he’d bulldoze the remains with a razor, maybe take off his perfectly shaped eyebrows, too. He needed this negative metamorphosis, the butterfly becoming a caterpillar.
“Damn it,” he grunted as the honed steel nicked his scalp. This blade was one inch longer than its brother that he’d thrown away, and the added length was enough to catch skin. A quick trickle of blood descended. He reached for toilet tissue, balled it up and pressed it to the wound, holding it there, squeezing, waiting, looking all the more ridiculous. I’m going to be ugly, he thought, although ugly was exactly what he wanted.
As if to remind himself why, he glanced down at the folded newspaper on the toilet seat. There, in neat charcoal turned to printer’s ink, was his likeness. A striking sketch, it caught his angelic good looks, his small, tight face, his princely chin, his somber eyes that, even in the
picture, seemed to hint at blue. It captured him so much better than yesterday’s photo from the surveillance camera that came out grainy and blurred and made him resemble Jesus in a gray windbreaker, but also could’ve been a picture of a scarecrow or a cardboard cutout of a two-toed sloth. The sketch was devastating in its accuracy. That sketch could put him in chains.
He still bore the scar on his thumb where he cut himself wielding the other knife. He was the only one he injured, though not the only one he frightened with his actions. He hadn’t planned anything—pulling the weapon, waving it about, robbing the register. It surprised him as much as the old salesman he threatened.
Lester got out of the taxi and handed the driver five dollars. Scanning the contents of his wallet, he saw twenty-three left—two tens and three ones. He couldn’t do much with that. He had two Visa cards that were still active, but he didn’t know how close they were to being maxed. Would he have enough? He doubted it. He was too broke to spend a few days at the beach. He couldn’t afford to be stranded here. He was just passing through on his way to a better place, a better life, and now this…His beat-up baby blue Ford crapped out around 3rd Street and Empire Avenue. It was the alternator, he figured, though maybe the battery died with it in the collateral damage.
Now, he stood in front of the auto parts store with little hope and less money. But he had to go in. He had to see…
Light poured through the chain store’s wide glass windows and doors, a blazing chandelier in the twilight. The shop would close soon, he knew, so he needed to hurry. Lester could tell from the empty parking lot and the view through those windows that no customers remained inside. He stumbled up the walk like a mosquito drawn by the neon column of a zapper. He couldn’t escape his need or his fate.
The doors didn’t open automatically. They were heavy security doors, steel framed, with wide, flat handles. Those doors opened out, reminding Lester of the entrance to a castle’s great hall in one of those Lord of the Rings movies. He tugged, getting the weight of them, then stretched them open and stepped through into the light.
The first things he noticed were rows upon rows of steel shelves stacked with batteries, water pumps, sparkplugs, windshield wipers and the like. Some items sat out in the open. Others were buried in boxes with line-art drawings on the front. Lester inhaled, expecting the grease smells of a garage, but the only odors were bleach and faint traces of cigarette smoke where some rebellious employee probably stole a few puffs in a darkened back room.
He took a few steps farther in, allowing the doors to fall shut behind him.
“Hey there, sugar,” said a soft but bright female voice, startling him from his reverie.
Lester turned to his right to see who spoke.
He held up the folded newspaper, staring at his uncanny likeness. It had to be her, he thought. She’s the one that saw me clearly. Lester hadn’t yet made the critical decision when he walked into the store. He’d made eye contact. He thought he’d even smiled. She saw him in all
his angelic glory—the way so many women saw him, attracted to him, memorizing him by pieces like names of generals for a history exam. For years he’d turned them all away, not expecting the miserable hour to come when he would find himself alone. So, he could forgive himself now for a flirtatious grin or a pair of wandering eyes. It’s only what came later that made this single moment seem somehow inappropriate. Yes, it was definitely her.
Lester slung the newspaper across the room. It struck a fat white lamp that wobbled once and righted itself, though its shade developed a penitent nod.
He remembered her clearly: shining, golden hair the tint of snowdrifts under an arc lamp at night; green eyes piercing and revealing like blips on a radar screen; tiny shoulders covered with a plain white blouse—they peeked out from beneath her uniform’s red vest. She wore black stretch pants and black sneakers, too. She was five and a half feet at most, and tiny-framed except for a little heaviness in her thighs, which Lester also wasted too much time noticing. She saw me, he thought. She can’t forget me. Now, after all this, he couldn’t forget her either. They were bound—a pharaoh and his concubine sent together into the afterlife.
“Hey there, sugar,” she said.
Lester turned to see.
“What you need tonight, honey? Something small, I hope. We’re about ready to lock up for the night.” Just then, he noticed the mop in her hand, its handle red as her vest. “Better tell me what we can help you with. Best not waste any time.”
Lester glanced at her nametag riding the small hump of her left breast. Anna, it read. “Well, Anna,” he told her, “I need an alternator for a 1984 Ford…”
“Ooh,” she interrupted, pouting with her thin, pink lips. “That’s a big buy. Too big for me tonight. You’ll have to talk to Jasper.”
“All the way in the back by the other register.”
Lester scanned the aisles. They looked like rows of tunnels that ran for miles, or vast steel catacombs of robot crypts.
“Head on back. You can’t miss him. He’s the only other person in the store.”
“Thanks, Anna,” Lester said, then turned to go.
“Sure thing, honey,” she said. Every word she spoke sounded like an invitation.
Lester pulled off his tee shirt and tossed it over the back of a yellow-and-white deck chair. He stripped to his black boxers that he hoped were long enough and dark enough to pass for swim trunks. Then he eased into the icy water, down the plaster steps at the shallow end. Lester wasn’t used to staying in the kind of motel that would have a pool. Though the water was dirty and coated with the corpses of spiders and insects, he still looked forward to the soothing motions of the water as he swam or floated, as he tried to forget.
He made it in up to his waist and paused to build up his resolve, soon flattening out and diving under the surface. When he reemerged, a boy was staring at him from the ledge of the deep end where the diving board should have been. He looked to be about ten or eleven, wearing new dark blue jeans and a white tee with WWJD? emblazoned on the front. He had a fat face beneath an upturned bowl of greasy brown hair. For some reason, Lester thought of the kid from The Omen, although that notion passed quickly. “You look like Uncle Fester,” the boy said, his voice squeaky and sharp, but friendly.
“Uncle Fester. You know, from The Addams Family?”
“Oh, right. Does that make you Pugsley?”
The kid laughed and shook his head. “No, I’m smarter than that.”
“But as mischievous, I bet.” Lester dove back down and swam below the surface all the way to the deep end. When he came back up, he saw the kid still there on the ledge, having sat there with his legs crossed.
“So, who are you?” he asked.
“No, Just. Short for Justin. That’s my name.”
The guy in back wore the same red vest over a white dress shirt. He was older, his thin, square head covered with a choppy carpet of gray-blond hair. He smiled widely, showing off his massive overbite and a missing incisor on the left side. “That’s a fine model, but a pretty old mistress,” he said. “You’d be better off trading her in for a younger gal.” When Lester squinted but didn’t reply, the old fellow—his nametag read Jasper—chuckled. “Well, you want a little of that plastic surgery to get her hot and running for a lick, well, I guess I can fix you right up when it comes down to it. An alternator, you say?”
“We probably got one. Best expect to clean a mighty layer of dust off it.”
“If you got it at all, I’ll be happy.”
“Sure, sure. Let’s check the inventory.” Jasper went to the computer and started tapping the screen. Every touch brought a soft beep. Jasper’s head moved up and down, scanning the monitor, reading every line of text and examining each picture, all the while his fingers tapping, tapping, tapping. “Well, what do you know? Says here we got a pair. That’s a surplus, far as I’m concerned, but mister, you’re in luck.”
“Fantastic,” said Lester. “How much?”
Jasper looked at the screen, looked at Lester, then looked at the screen again. He shook his head. “Says here it’s one-seventy-nine ninety-nine.”
“Ouch,” Lester grunted, squinted. “A hundred and eighty bucks. That’s a mint.”
“Yes, indeed. Can’t be helped. The price is the price.”
“So, you want it? It’s in inventory. Have to go in the back and dig it out. Say the word.”
Lester thought about it. Would he have enough on the credit card? Would he have enough on both cards put together? If he bought it, did he have enough tools in the truck to do the work himself? He couldn’t be sure. What a bind he was in. It was as if someone tied him to a tree in the middle of a lonely wood and left him there to starve or be eaten by wolves. “Don’t guess I have any choice,” he finally said.
The older man nodded, then touched the screen of his monitor to clear it. There was a loud click from underneath. “Oops,” he said. The cash drawer slid open. It was filled with trays fat from twenties, tens, fives and whatever lay below. “Darnedest thing. Hate it when that happens.”
Lester pretended not to notice. But he did. He noticed. He couldn’t help it. He thought, Haven’t these people ever heard of a safe?
“You forgot something.”
The boy sat cross-legged on the ledge. His dirty bangs clung like ivy to his forehead. When Lester glanced up at him from the pool, the kid looked like a baby Buddha haloed by cyan from the clear sky.
“What did you say?” Lester asked, treading water to keep his mouth from going under.
“You forgot something.”
Lester’s mind raced. Does this kid know something? he wondered. How did he figure it out? Who was he? What was he trying to do? Maybe the boy really wanted to help. Lester stopped kicking for a moment, and his whole head dipped under the water. Breaking the surface again, he shook left and right like a mutt to clear beads of water and the chaos of his thoughts. He regained his composure and his balance and said, “Okay, Just, what did I forget?”
The boy smiled. “You forgot to ask me what my shirt means.”
Lester laughed, relieved, until he choked on a mouthful of water. Then he said, “I know what it means. I’ve seen the letters before.”
“Not these letters,” the boy said.
“What do you mean?”
“They’re special letters. My mom said so.”
“What does she say they mean?”
“What would Just do?” he said.
Again, laughter. “I think I like your Mom. And what, pray tell, would Just do?”
The kid smiled back. “Anything I want.”
There was a moment—just a blink, really—while he was still innocent. He chewed on his lip and felt himself sweat under his arms. He could smell himself, soured with anxiety. He heard his inner voice pleading, urging, browbeating him, demanding he shout, “Danger! Run away! There’s a bad man in your store!” He couldn’t spit those words out, although he begged himself in a quieter voice to walk casually toward the exit, leave the auto parts store and never look back. He didn’t even need to tell old Jasper to forget the alternator. All he had to do was turn and go. Just vamoose, vanish, fly off into the night, a mosquito unable to get himself drunk on blood.
“Wait here,” said Jasper. “I’ll get that for you and be right out.”
Lester watched him go. As soon as the old clerk disappeared through the doorway, Lester drew his hand back, reaching into a pocket for his knife.
Lester swam a couple dozen laps beneath the surface, knifing through the dirty blue with graceful, wide-armed strokes. Submerged, breath held, eyes closed, he knew peace. He was free of his thoughts and free of his crimes. He could’ve been back in the womb, swimming for life, racing toward the world that would corrupt him.
Later. Another day. For now…serenity.
When he came up at last, the boy was there again. Something the color of hotdog chili stained his shirt. He held a red Big Gulp cup with both hands and steadily sucked on the straw.
“You’re back,” said Lester.
The kid shrugged and slurped his soda. “Where’d you run off to?”
“Seven-Eleven down the street,” Just told him, adding after a pause, “I stole ten dollars out of your pants. I didn’t think you’d mind.” He pointed to the wad of clothes heaped up on a deck chair.
Lester’s initial dumbfounded expression turned into a smirk. He really couldn’t be mad at the boy. Besides, it was already stolen money. He’d picked up a couple grand in the robbery. He could afford to share a little bit.
“Only ten, right?”
“You shouldn’t leave it lying around like that. The next fellow might not be so nice.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. Did you bring the change back at least?”
“Do you think I’d tell you if I did?”
“I guess not. But what if I told your mom?”
“Told me what?”
Lester spun around to see her coming through the gate, her flowing ginger hair blurring into the umber wood behind the wire-mesh fence. She looked thirty, maybe a little older. Her face was taut from a hard life or too much worry. Still, it was lovely. It had this plainness to it. He knew right off that she’d never been a cheerleader, but neither had she lacked for admirers. She wore a purple top that rose off the midriff—a younger woman’s shirt. Her belly was brown and smooth, an amethyst peeking out from her navel. Her shorts were white, glowing like moonlight through mist against her thin, tanned legs. Lester saw a lonely strand of violet rising above the waistband on her right side. “Well?” she said. “Somebody want to fill me in?”
He withdrew the knife with his left hand. His fingers twitched too much. He couldn’t unfold the blade one-handed so, bringing his right arm around, he pulled the steel spike free. It was fine and hard and felt as big as a scimitar in his grip, though it was the smallest blade he owned. He shifted the handle to his right hand and carried it behind his back—waiting, waiting, waiting. He already knew he’d go through with it. The devil is the god of accidents, he knew, and the spirit from some black hell had opened that register to show him his way out.
It didn’t pay to be so observant all the time. He often fixed on some detail most folks overlooked—some feature small as hints of lipstick pink from rose petals scattered across the lawn in the gray after a storm, or large as the expression on a woman’s face when she knows he knows what she did and knows he’s leaving. He focused on that tiny indigo hyphen drawn aslant across her hip. It inspired him to imagine the shape of her in nothing but those purple panties. What were they beneath the strap? Satin? Lace? If he slid his hand down the front of her shorts, would he feel some silky patch already grown moist and warm? He pictured it, painted it, sketched it in all its animal glory.
Lester kicked his legs faster to cover up the flutter in his groin. “So, you’re Just’s mother?” he said, to say something.
“Kelly,” she replied, holding out a hand as if he could shake it from the middle of the pool. She moved that hand toward Just and waved him toward the gate. “Just, honey, go on back to the room now. Let me have a chat with your new friend.”
“Sure, Mom. Go easy on him. He’s not a bad guy. Not too careful with money, and that bald head looks dumb, but he’s not a meanie. I can tell.”
“Thanks, I guess,” said Lester.
“Thank you, Mister, for the lunch.”
“You bought him lunch?” said Kelly.
“Sort of,” said Lester.
Kelly watched the boy leave through the gate, then turned back to the man in the pool. “I told you my name. You plan on telling me yours?”
“Shit,” said Lester. “Sorry.”
“I’m Lester. Lester Corey.”
“Well, Lester Corey, my son said you’re not a meanie, and that carries a lot of weight. It’s certainly good enough for me. I know we just met and all, but I can see you want to ask me out. Let’s say seven o’clock. That work for you?”
Lester shook his head to flick away a few droplets of water. “Sounds wonderful,” he said, “I think.” It took him a minute for what she’d suggested to sink in. “What did you mean you can see?”
She pointed into the pool.
He followed the aim of her finger and looked down. His prick, half erect and still rising, danced free from the loose flap of his boxers. It floated there like a submarine aimed for its ascent to the surface. “Oh, Jesus,” he said. He reached down to cover himself and adjust his drawers. His head sank beneath the waterline. When he came back up, Kelly was walking away—laughing and shaking her head. “Wait,” he said, gurgling a little on dirty pool water. “If you’re serious, where do I find you?”
She turned, smiled, laughed a little more. “Thirty-three,” she said. “Third floor by the ice machine.”
“What about your boy?”
“Don’t worry about Just. He’s young, but he knows how to take care of himself.”
Lester hid by the entrance to the stock room. His hand trembled holding the knife behind his back, nearly letting it drop. He squeezed the graphite handle. It felt to him like nothing was there, so he clenched it again and again.
Old Jasper came out carrying a box with the alternator inside. He held it out tenderly as if it were a birthday cake.
Lester lunged at him from behind. He lifted the knife and touched steel to the man’s throat. “I’m sorry about this, mister, but I need that money.”
Jasper dropped the box and let out a gasp that wasn’t quite a scream so much as a cross between a whimper and a prayer.
“I’m sorry,” Lester said again. He was so nervous he held the knife backward. The flat of it braced against the flesh of Jasper’s throat. Lester was shaking too much. To steady the blade, he pressed with his thumb and sliced it open on the honed edge. He nearly cried out himself, but he managed to hold that in as blood spilled around the metal.
Old Jasper didn’t notice that the knife was backward. The sudden warmth and wetness of blood on his neck frightened him all the more. He tensed and stood still until Lester eased forward, then moved with him one slow step at a time.
“I hate doing this to you. If only I didn’t need it so much….”
The clerk reached out a thin, gray finger toward the touch screen. An instant later, the drawer shot open with a click that sounded loud as a trumpet in Lester’s ears but was really rather quiet and muffled by the hum of the air conditioner and exhaust fans overhead.
“Grab a bag,” said Lester. He stared at the stacks of money. There was probably more in that drawer than he’d have gotten away with if he’d robbed a bank. “Put it in there,” he said. “Put it all in there.”
He eased her through the doorway of his motel room. She wore a flowered summer dress that rose above her knees, with no stockings underneath and no socks but only a pair of cheap white canvas sneakers on her feet. She purred as he slid his hands up her warm, tight thighs, while she reached up behind her to stroke the stubble atop his head. He kissed her neck, and she sighed. He breathed on her earlobe, and she moaned, pulling his head to her. His hands skipped over the straps of her panties to find a grip on her sides. She eased a foot between his legs, using it to close the door.
They’d spent a pleasant evening together. He bought her a steak dinner using blood-stained bills. He took her to a movie—something about a young pregnant woman falling in love with a gay man. They talked a great deal about her husband who left her and his wife who made him leave her. They joked about how maybe the two were off together somewhere, perhaps chained and being thrown by natives into a raging volcano. He made her smile often with his sarcasm, and she stole all his guilt away, if only for a little while.
Later, they walked along the beach, already kissing, holding, playfully groping, as if their whole relationship existed only in this moment, this infatuated pause from reality. Lester knew there was no black and white for him. A man can be good and bad at the same time. For now, he was so good, as good as he could be in her embrace.
His hands moved to her middle, thumbs rubbing delicate circles. She arched slightly as if he’d found the true center of her. He arched with her, taut jeans riding the valley her buttocks framed. His fingers reached the ring in her navel at the same time—amethyst, he remembered. Then, recalling more, he ran his hands down her front, seeking the purple he’d imagined on her. The panties were lace, he felt now, coarse and latticed and already damp. He pressed deep, rubbing as if to warm his hands under a faucet. Kelly mewed and gasped. He kissed her neck again and again until she turned her lips to him. Then he devoured them. They tasted like grapes and tobacco. He smelled those flavors too, pictured her beside him, the two of them smoking cigarettes in a vineyard by moonlight. How innocent he felt, and how forgiven. This was no robbery; it was a gift.
Finally, she spun to meet him just before their bodies found the bed with its thin off-white cover. Kelly started to kiss him but pulled back. He expected her to say something like “I don’t usually do this,” or maybe, “We’re moving too fast.” What she actually said was, “It’s a shame there’s no room service. I like my coffee black and my eggs over-easy.” Then she kissed him, as her fingers probed the waistband of his jeans.
He froze, trying to decide about the alternator. Should he take it? Leave it where it lay? He’d revealed too much: the make and model of the truck, that it was broken and how. The cops would find it soon enough. Then what? It wasn’t registered to him, but the license could be traced back to Tennessee and the crusty old badger who’d sold it for five hundred bucks, cash on wood. Had Lester told the man his name? He didn’t remember. Hell, he thought, that truck’s cursed, and that guy deserves the hassle coming his way. “Leave it,” he muttered.
Old Jasper flinched. His eyes swore he didn’t know what was expected of him.
Lester grabbed the bag full of money out of Jasper’s hand. Then he ran. He ran and ran and ran…
As Lester crept through the doorway, he tried not to disturb her, but a brilliant, reddish-pink, stained-glass mural of sun and sky bulldozed past him, setting her alight. “Mmmm,” she moaned. She rested on her belly, a lone sheet covering one side of her. Leg, buttock, shoulder blade and arm lay exposed as the bright hues ignited all around her. She groaned again softly and covered her eyes with her forearm and crashing waves of her hair. “What time is it?”
He sat beside her on the bed. His left hand carried a cardboard tray with three Styrofoam cups, his right a large, brown paper bag with a logo on the front. A folded newspaper snuggled under his arm. “I borrowed your car,” he said.
That roused her. “You what?”
He rattled the bag, careful not to spill the drinks in his other hand. “Over-easy,” he said. “Coffee, black.” He paused for a breath before adding, “The keys were in your purse.”
Kelly squinted, almost scowling. “You’re as bad as Just. Take whatever you want whenever you want it.”
He leaned down and kissed her, pulled back and placed the tray of drinks on a nightstand. The bag went beside it, followed by the paper. “Yes, I guess I do. I’m a man full of want and need and hunger, maybe a little darkness sometimes. Do you hate me for it?”
She moved crabwise into a sitting position, the sheet falling away. Her breasts were small and loose, pale and beckoning, each a hypnotist’s coin. She didn’t answer at first.
“How can you hate me? I brought you eggs and coffee. I brought you breakfast in bed.”
Another moment. Finally, a hint of a grin.
“Something for your boy, too. I hope he likes pancakes.”
“He loves pancakes. But that better not be orange juice. He drinks his coffee black, the same as me.”
Lester feathered a hand from her hip all the way up to the unnamed indentation where breast became her underarm. His blood warmed and skin cooled. His heartbeat sped and slowed, raced and whispered. He loved how easily she forgave him.
He ran down the center aisle, clutching the bag in front of him, knife behind his back, blood dripping every few steps to spatter the white tiles. It took only seconds but felt like days. Lester thought he’d never reach the door. And then he did. And…
The door was open. There stood Anna, mop in one hand, the door held with the other. Her blond hair glowed from the overhead fluorescents and backlighting moon-fire from outside. She beamed at him with wide lips and perfect teeth. Her smile didn’t seem the least bit artificial. “Come back and see us soon,” she said.
Lester didn’t slow, though in his mind he paused, hammered by her words. More seconds passed, an hour, a day, a year. Then he was by her, out in the night, picking up speed, and running…anywhere, everywhere, nowhere—the direction didn’t matter.
He was already lost.
“This looks just like you.”
His heart skipped. He coughed out a cloud he’d inhaled from Kelly’s menthol cigarette.
He sat fully clothed in bed, one arm draped around her bare shoulders. “What did you say?”
“There’s a picture in here. It looks like you.”
Lester didn’t want to see it, but he couldn’t keep from glancing down when Kelly waved the newspaper in front of him. There was a sketch, an artist’s rendering. It really did resemble him, bald head and all.
“It even has a little mark like that nick on your noggin. I think it’s meant to be a tattoo.”
The headline read, Police Release Artist’s Sketch of Deer Beach Rapist.
It wasn’t him. My God, he thought. It really wasn’t! Suddenly he began to laugh, startling Kelly, who glared at him with eyes screwed up and awkward. He handed her the cigarette and freed his other arm, using both thumbs to wipe his eyes. What he’d thought was him wasn’t him, and what he’d thought was laughter wasn’t laughter at all.
He ran on through the night, down strange and dirty avenues, around curves, and onto side streets even the city’s dwellers probably didn’t know existed. He crossed backyards, stumbled through gardens. He negotiated tiny black patches of woods that would’ve seemed so out of place if he’d stopped to think about it. He didn’t, though. His mind was elsewhere.
Over and over, he saw the girl, Anna. Her pretty eyes, her electric hair, her smile so like a prayer for the long-since damned. “Come back and see us soon,” she’d said. She didn’t know. The distance between the front register and the back kept her ignorant of all the crimes in his heart. He wondered what she’d think when she found out. He imagined how terrified she’d be, and how grim that beautiful smile would turn. Lester shivered. So easily a man can break a woman, he thought, and so quickly he regrets.
How long had he been moving? He found the beach and slowed to a stagger. He went on, stumbling every few steps, all the while imagining and hurting, remembering and regretting. The money was one thing, but Anna was something else. He hadn’t hurt a woman before, other than by bouts of aloofness and sarcasm. Never like this. This was the Fall of Man. It was the teeth of the shark as they tear at a swimmer’s leg. He’d poisoned her with bad deeds. Now he hated himself for his brutality.
“Forgive me,” he whispered, stopping to stare at the moon above that ominous black ocean. “Damn me!” he shouted, tossing his knife as far out into the water as he could. He wished his arm was stronger, wished the knife would carry farther and farther, up and up, to strike that jaundiced, evil face in the sky.
He told her everything, crying and repenting, shaking and wishing all manner of torment on himself. She cried, too, her tears like a hundred coins thrown into a well by travelers praying for things unlikely to come true. She held him close, burying his face in her neck or the groove between her breasts. She tried not to show how shocked she was, or how she suddenly loved him like a husband she already knew she had to lose. “There there,” she told him, repeating the words as if they meant something.
“I don’t know what to do,” he said, in a tone that also implied, “I don’t know what I’ve done.” Then he added, “I don’t have any right to ask this question.”
She stroked his stubbly scalp. “If I were in prison, would you come visit me?”
She wiped away a tear with the knuckle of her thumb. Was it his or hers? She wasn’t certain.
“I’m sorry,” he told her. “No right. I have no right.”
“It’s okay,” she said.
“We had such a wonderful evening, didn’t we?”
“It was special.”
“I didn’t mean to drag you into this.”
“It was the sketch. It was too much.”
“I couldn’t handle it.”
“There there. There there. There there.”
He raised his head and started to say more, but she stopped him with a finger to his lips. Then, she leaned in and kissed the backs of his eyelids as if he were a child, as if he were Just after suffering from nightmares. Silence carried moments into minutes. The crying stopped, though the holding lingered. At last, he told her, “There’s something else. The restaurant…where I went to get your eggs…”
“It’s there…right before the auto parts place.”
Kelly sighed, nodded, petted his ear and the back of his neck.
“I drove right past it. Did you know there’s a Sheriff’s detachment not half a mile down the road? And, after that, another half mile takes you to the Interstate. Did you know that? From there, a man could go anywhere—another city, another state, another life.”
This confused her. What did he mean? Was he asking for advice? For permission? She wasn’t sure what to tell him. “There there,” she said. “There there.” Her hand fell from his neck. She didn’t know what she was doing until her fingers found his groin.
Sunlight tightened the skin of his face, and his eyes blurred, staring across the sand. He wanted a last look and a last chance to inhale that salty but sour beach smell that meant freedom. Whatever happened now, he was a captive to his fate. Bonds of steel or flesh or love or trust or the whims of some angry god—he was a prisoner to something.
Behind him, Kelly leaned into the backseat of her silver Taurus, checking Just’s seatbelt as he squirmed a little, alternately smirking and staring down at the football game on his handheld Nintendo. “Okay, baby, we’ll be off in a minute.” She ruffled his hair, then backed out of the car, closing the door behind her. For the first time since Lester saw her, she looked like a wife and mother, wearing a white beach shirt and baggy white pants. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail that protruded from a plain, white hat. She wore no make-up, and she looked somehow older than she had before. To Lester, that look was comforting.
Kelly went to him and kissed him, the bill of her hat tapping him on the forehead. “Are you ready?” she said.
“No,” he told her.
She nodded. She understood.
“Have you decided?” he asked her.
“Where I’m taking you?”
“Yes. What’s it to be?”
She turned from him, looking out across the sand and, farther still, across the water. The seeming forever of it calmed her, allowed her to put off the hard choice he’d left to her. “Let’s just drive,” she told him. “We’ll decide when we have to. The station or the Interstate? It’s a big question. Let’s not jinx ourselves by answering too soon.”