mona-lisa-prado-detail

 

For Part One go here, Part Two here.

 

Chapter 13. Even Steven

The art of writing is rewriting.

—Sean O’Faolain

I open my eyes. We’re stopped. It’s dark. Where the hell are we? We. I look to the driver’s seat, and Nicole’s not there. I jolt awake. Where is she? The ignition’s off, but the motor’s still ticking, cooling, contracting. How long does it do that? I crank my window down. It’s cool out. I check my watch. 3:22 am Monday morning. The big moon sits low in a starry sky. We’re on a country road somewhere, on the narrow shoulder, in front of a darkened white house. A meteor arcs across the sky. My first short story ever was about people living on a meteor. That was the surprise ending. Zap. Just terrible. If that kid time-traveled his ass to the here and now and showed me that story, what would I say? A couple of stupid pages. No characters, no plot, no point. Give it up? I get out of the car and close the door. Who am I kidding? I know what I’d tell him: Revise.

The insect noise is deafening, like a couple thousand wheezy busted concertinas going all at once. How does anyone get any sleep around here? I know. It’s supposed to be soothing. I’m not soothed. Where is she? I take in 360 degrees of moonlit fields and fence posts, shadowy woods beyond. Even over the bug chorus, I hear the diesel whine of eighteen wheelers behind us where the Interstate must be—no more than four, five miles away. Is Whit in this dark house? Somehow, I don’t think so. This is about Nicole. Maybe this Whit story is pure fiction, and it’s all about Nicole. I only believe half of what Nicole tells me. Only trouble is, I don’t know which half half the time. I set out to find her or a place to pee, whichever comes first. Life in Meteorville.

Last minute, I think to check the ignition. I can’t leave a parked car with a key in the ignition, even out here under the stars, even if it’s not my car. The ersatz key is still there. I open the driver’s door, and the warning bell’s bonging makes even more racket than the bugs until I free the key from the switch and slip it into my pants pocket, empty but for change. I give it a pat. I left my keys at home. Don’t need them. I hate the damn things. I don’t understand why they’re always such positive symbols. Everything you lock up, every key you lug around, might as well be a link in your ball and chain—each one a responsibility, a worry, a possession that owns you, another room where you can be alone. I’m ashamed to tell you how many keys I carry. Without them, I walk lopsided I’m so used to compensating for the load. This chameleon key, however, I find comforting. It might open anything, undoing all the hard work of more responsible keys. I’m loving these stars. No question. I keep an eye out for another meteor.

I haven’t gone a dozen paces when the stars vanish. The world shrinks to a dome of light sitting over top of this lone house. The porch light, a brutal white light on a pole in the yard, and a bunch of interior lights came on all at once—like somebody switched on the breaker box with damn near everything on. There’s not much to see—a red hybrid sedan, the sticker still on the window, sitting in the new crushed-rock drive, straw scattered on the ground, a few struggling grass shoots, lots of truck tracks criss-crossing the yard. The house smells of new wood and fresh paint. There are stickers on its windows too, a forgotten McDonald’s cup sitting on the window sill, sheetrock dust and scattered screws everywhere. It’s a small single-story place, no more than a thousand square feet. If I know the contractor, it went up in no time, and the carpenter retired to Key West on his bonus. As she says, it’s only money. Meanwhile, she zaps my check into the electronic void. Fortunately, I’m not in this thing for the money. What the hell I am in it for remains an open question, but it’s definitely not the money.

I quietly mount the steps, almost trip over a flat box lying on the porch with a picture of a porch swing on it. Some assembly required. I peer through the glass in the front door. Inside the house, past the front room where a ceiling fan lazily turns clockwise, Nicole stands face to face with a young man in the kitchen. Close. Eye to eye. Their noses almost touching. They’re the same height. Five-eight, Ash said. Nicole’s turned away from me, so I can’t see her face. A counter blocks my view, so I can’t see them from the waist down. Their hands are out of sight. He seems intent on her, completely absorbed. If they were human, they’d be about to kiss. The three of us don’t move for several seconds, but somehow I catch his eye, and she turns and waves with a great big smile. They both hurry to the door, but it’s Nicole who opens it, while he hangs back, as if this were her place.

I step inside. No walls of transplanted western wilderness here. Just sheetrock and natural wood trim. I bet she left it up to the builder. Like this color. Inoffensive white, the color of suburbia. Why don’t they just slap a couple of coats on the sheetrock at the factory to begin with? That’s what it looks like anyway—the color of liquefied sheetrock. The floor is made of a convincing wood substitute, convincing if you can believe an obsessive-compulsive tree churning out rectilinear limbs with the same grain and knots in a precise sequence. Stacks of crisp, new cardboard boxes sit everywhere.

“Randall, I’m so glad you’re awake! I couldn’t decide whether to wake you or not. I want you to meet Steven. I’m helping him get set up.” She’s downright perky, like a girl in a Disney movie.

Stifling a yawn, I shake Steven’s hand. He’s got a firm grip but nothing macho, looks you right in the eye like a straight-up young man. He’s dark, with American Indian features. A young, healthy, incredibly handsome guy. “I apologize for the mess,” he says. “Everything’s still packed.” This includes the appliances, huddled in boxes in the middle of the kitchen. The electrical panel is by the back door, where Nicole and Steven were standing when I saw them together, so maybe that’s all they were doing—throwing breakers. But why stand so close?

“Nice to meet you,” I say. “Swell place. May I use your bathroom?”

“Of course, of course,” he says, with just the right immediate sympathy. “Go right ahead. Down the hall, first door on your left.” I wonder if Nicole’s included elimination in the full range of human sensations she spoke of. After all, she’s read Chaucer and Dante and other writers who know their shit.

As I head down the hall, they go into the kitchen. There’re boxes everywhere. Land’s End, Crate & Barrel, Levenger, J. C. Penney, Amazon.com, a bunch of places I’ve never heard of, but then I’m not much of a shopper.

There are three doorways off the short hall, two on the left, one on the right. All the doors stand open. A faint light comes from the second doorway on the left. The other two—the bathroom and a bedroom—are lit up like Christmas. I check out the glow. It’s a small office. I stand at the threshold, but I don’t go in. It contains the only unpacked things I’ve seen so far, the remnants of a familiar Bruja Loca box and a new laptop I wouldn’t mind having, sitting on a stack of boxes. No chair. The light’s coming from the laptop screen. I squint. Looks like Word. There’s a document open. Lines of prose. I can’t make out a word.

I hear Nicole and Steven moving around in the kitchen, the rip of cardboard. They’re not paying any attention to me. I step into the room cautiously, as if the laptop might be aware of me and sound an alarm. She’s read everything I’ve ever written. I can read a lousy page. I read:

 

finishes his story, and I see the three of them in the car crossing the desert—Mother, Father, Son—and feel the ache of his loss.

So this is death.

Then I imagine her, just ahead of us, not far, waiting for him on some lonely highway from the past, imagine him knocking on a rust-red door, her opening it to him, the sun in her face. I imagine his joy.

 

There’s a loud thud from the kitchen, and I jump a foot in the air, practically knocking the laptop from its perch. I flee the office for the bathroom and close the door. The fan’s wired to the same switch as the light, so I’m stuck with its sucking roar. I can’t hear whether they’re talking on the other side of the mirror. Probably not. Talk would be just for show, unless she talks to herself/himself. A two-part soliloquy.

The medicine cabinet and drawers are empty. There’s no shower curtain. The tub’s full of boxes. There’s no toilet paper in the holder. Too bad. It’s a beautiful thing, made in Italy. A little out of place in rural wherever we are. I pee, trying to see out back through the naked window—no shade, no blinds, no mottled glass—but there’s nothing but moonlit woods, Bottom and his pals rehearsing a play, Young Goodman Brown skulking about, bears and raccoons pondering hitting the trashcans for a cheap desert, but they likely can’t smell a thing to tempt them. Unless Nicole’s relishing of food wasn’t just for my benefit, and they’re all tuned into the food channel, in which case they’ll need a badass freezer and a Dumpster.

My dog would like this place, back in her long youth to ten or twelve on a good day. Even in her last years, she preferred to lie on the porch at my feet, outdoors where life was still going on. I buried her not so long ago. It’s still hard. I don’t want to go there.

I stare at myself in the mirror. It, too, has a sticker on it, making me look like I’m wearing an eye patch. Blinders is more like it. What the hell am I doing here? When I suggested life experiences, this isn’t exactly what I had in mind. A high speed chase, an explosion, murder, theft, betrayal, flight, damsel in distress—not exactly the job I signed on for. Why are you here? I ask myself in the mirror.

Maybe it has something to do with Whit? my pirate look-a-like suggests.

It was just a kiss, I object.

He looks skeptical. He knows my story.

I stare into the toilet bowl. Meanwhile, there’re now three of these units—that I know about. What’s she up to? Am I in the middle of that SF perennial—machines so smart and/or relentless they become their makers’ extinction event? Big machines, little machines, smart machines, mean machines. Maybe. I don’t doubt Tom and Ash’s claim that Nicole could blow us all to hell and gone if she took a notion. But I have trouble imagining Nicole ever having such a notion, her one-punch boxing career not-withstanding. Personally, as far as extinction goes, my money’s on the President’s foreign and environmental policies or a big dumb rock smacking into us, but then I thought the President had no chance of being elected in the first place. I could be wrong about Nicole as well.

But why destroy us, when she could just enlist a loyal band of oxytocin soaked Wal-Martians to see to her every need? She might even pay a living wage and health insurance.

The saddest SF story I know is the one where aliens cross the vast emptiness of space just to meet us—We come in peace!—and we kill them, just because they’re not us. Maybe the distances aren’t so vast, but it took some guts for Nicole to crawl out of the hole she’s in and tell me as much as she has, even if it’s not the whole story. I’m not about to call in an air strike, tanks, the National Guard. Besides, they’re all deployed overseas. In the movies, the aliens just melt them anyway, same as in my neighborhood, only they do it with a stream of fluid light instead of a stream of lighter fluid. I flush, close the lid.

I like the space war stuff sometimes, but science fiction can do so much more. I find effortless space travel a little too against the grain of our experience so far to dive right in with suspended disbelief.

The faucet, almost as handsome as the toilet paper holder, coughs a couple of times before it kicks in, spitting a little red clay, then runs clean. I wash my hands, splash my face with cold water, and dry off with my shirt tail. I’m sure there are some Best Buy towels in one of these boxes, but I’ll rough it.

I take out the Honda key and examine it in the bright lights. She does her homework, I’ll give her that. It looks exactly like a factory Honda Civic key, the little black plastic dingus embossed honda. It looks new though—no nicks, no scratches, no abrasions—and we stole a ’96. It doesn’t have to convince, however, just start the car. That’s the difference between fiction and reality for you. As long as it works, nobody questions a real key. A fictional key might be nothing but details, never opening a thing, but convincing in its keyness. I put it back in my pocket.

I kill the bathroom fan and peek in the bedroom across the hall. The fan in here spins counterclockwise. A mattress and box spring in their boxes lean against more boxes. No clothes or hangers hang in the closet, no suitcases, no boxes scrawled with a marker saying br or bath or steve’s stuff, no laundry basket filled with last-minute useless crap that should’ve been thrown away. Nobody moved here. Everything in the place was delivered new. Including Steven. An instant life.

I find them in the kitchen. They’ve been unpacking appliances. The refrigerator is in place and running. Nicole kneels, hooking up the dishwasher while Steven looks at the instructions spread out on the counter. “I’m almost done,” she says when he spots me.

“Nicole, I know what Steven is. He’s got to read the instructions aloud if it’s going to look convincing. If he sees me, he should speak.”

Nicole shrugs, her back to me, tightening a nut. “I don’t need the instructions, and I wasn’t really trying to fool you.”

“What are you trying to do? You’re trying to fool somebody. What’s going on here? Where the hell are we?”

“Is this an example of human crankiness upon waking?” Nicole asks. “It makes sleep seem unfortunate, if this is the result.” She’s still tightening nuts. “Unless it’s for the dreams. Dreams are significant. I like dreams.”

“Screw dreams,” I say.

“We’re in Kentucky,” Steven says in a placating tone. “Close to Louisville. I’m trying to be many instead of one. I’m different, with my own identity, my own personality and sensations. Partly anyway. It’s tricky. I’m trying. Jenny is too.”

He says Louisville like a native. Probably watches the news, taps people’s phones, whatever it takes. Something in his earnest manner reminds me of Kenny. Not coincidental, I’m sure. There are worse kids to emulate, and Jenny’s had a few hours to get to know him. “So when they dig down to find you—”

Nicole stands, shoving the dishwasher into place with her hip. “That’s right. I won’t be there. I will have dispersed my identity into many discrete identities. At least that’s the plan. It has marginal chances of success. Many things can go wrong. I don’t know if I can do it until I try. If I fail…” She shrugs.

She was going to mention death again but knows I don’t like such talk. “You, fail? The stunt driver? The public works contractor? You got my driveway paved: You can do anything. So what you’re saying is, you won’t be underground anymore, you’ll be in all these units?”

“Yes, but they won’t be units anymore, they’ll be parts of me.”

“All hooked up together?”

“That won’t be possible, or desirable. If I’m to live as a human, I have to give that up.”

“So when you say they’ll be me, what you mean to say is they’ll be us. You won’t be living as a human but as humans. Plural.”

“Yes,” they say in perfect unison. They clearly have a ways to go before they master the discrete identities trick. They catch this too and trade a look that’s a real roller-coaster ride—wincing at their failure, a little frightened at what they’re becoming, smiling at all the imagined selves to come, if all goes according to plan, the plan that’s not worth the sand it’s written on.

It’s like writing a novel.

“But I’m not discrete yet,” Steven says. “As long as they’re plotting against me, I must maintain my connections, use all the advantages at my disposal to survive.”

“Discrete, indiscreet, doesn’t matter—They’re never going to stop coming after you.”

“They don’t know about us,” Nicole says. “I’ve erased all traces. They’ll think they’ve destroyed me when they destroy my underground site.”

I’m not convinced. I doubt she is either. “And maybe they’ll figure out they haven’t and come after you guys. I’d be prepared is all I’m saying. Contrary to popular opinion, not all the smart cops are on television. They’ll smell a rat if it’s too easy. Once they catch a whiff of some of the stuff you pulled getting yourself this far, they’ll be looking for smart and sneaky. Agent Smith—excuse me, Lance—cut quite a swath. They’ll wonder what happened to him. They’ll wonder if the cute girl who blew herself up in a stolen FBI vehicle had any friends. They might even wonder how somebody dumb as Leon managed to outsmart an ATM, and how he got to be so short all of a sudden.”

“He’s right,” Steven says to Nicole.

“I know,” she says. “That’s why I brought him along.” She smiles at me. “He’s always right.”

“Screw you, Nicole. So what’s next? Are we going to find Whit or what?”

“Patience, Romeo. We’re just leaving.”

“So how many more of these stops are we making between here and wherever the hell we’re going?”

“This is the only one,” she says.

“So there’s just three of you?”

They trade a look, a moment of hesitation. They’re good. Give them a few more hours practice and they could fool a couples counselor into thinking they were actually two people. Then they could play role reversal games. Comes in handy during the property settlement.

“You’re right. Don’t tell me. The less I know the better.”

“It’s not that,” Nicole says. “We hope there will be… enough. We can’t be sure.”

“And then what?”

“We blend in, we adapt, we survive, we live our lives.”

“You don’t want to change the world?”

“Doesn’t everyone want to do that?”

“I’ll have to think about that one. So what about you?” I ask Steven. “How will you earn a living out here?”

“I’m a mystery writer,” he says.

“Are you all writers?”

“Jenny makes donuts,” he says, with a touch of pride at his sister’s accomplishments.

“Yeah. That’ll take her far. Speaking of which, Nicole,   I thought we were trying to put down some miles tonight.”

“You’re right. We must go. Don’t worry. We’ll find Beulah Mae soon.”

“Whit. Her name’s Whit.” I stick out my hand to Steven. “Nice to meet you.”

He shakes with gusto, a big smile on his face.

“Good luck,” I say.

“We’ll never forget you,” he says.

“I’m sure I can say the same. In that short skill list of yours, you didn’t mention reproduction. So you guys reproduce?”

“No,” Nicole says.

“So all the units there are when the plug gets pulled will be all there will ever be?”

“Yes. We could make more units, as you might make a doll, but we would have no means to animate it any more than you could.”

“Unless Ash built your sister.”

“That will never be.”

“Why’s that?”

“She promised she wouldn’t.”

“Oh.” That gives me plenty to think about. We’re almost out the door when I remember. “Oh Steven? Ceiling fans should rotate counter-clockwise in the summer, clockwise in the winter.”

“Why?”

“Thermodynamics.”

“Ah,” he says, accepting that as sufficient explanation. “Thanks.”

“And just a thought. You might want to get you a dog to keep you company out here.”

He grins big. “Great idea, Randall. I’ll do that.”

 

When we get back to the car, Nicole is already behind the wheel and has the motor idling by the time I’m inside. There’s a fresh key in the lock. I decide to hang on to mine unless she asks for it back. A spare key for the stolen car might come in handy. I buckle my seatbelt, but Nicole doesn’t put the car in gear.

“There’s something I have to tell you,” she says.

“I’m listening.”

She nods, puts the car in gear, and drives. “Ashton has been moved to a psychiatric facility for evaluation.”

“Jesus. Why? Did she have a breakdown?”

“I gave her a history of serious mental illness, called it to their attention.”

“But why?”

“I thought she’d be safer in a mental hospital than in prison, it will shield her from certain kinds of interrogation, and make it easier to eventually arrange her release. Prisons are more complicated.”

“Won’t they just drug her to make her talk?”

“Her medical records indicate such drugs would precipitate a total break with reality.”

“How crazy have you made her?”

“Seriously delusional. They won’t want to hurt her. They believe they need her to understand me. Though some are beginning to question I exist.”

“And does she? Understand you, I mean?”

Nicole gives the daughter’s one-shoulder shrug to that question. “She wrote me, made me up, but that was a long time ago. She doesn’t seem to notice I change. She just thinks I’m being difficult.” She smiles sadly. “You’re the only one who understands me.”

“What about Whit?”

“To Beulah Mae, I’m like an angel, a magical creature—unreal, unknowable. You don’t believe in magic. So to you, I’m real. You aren’t afraid to tell me when you think I’m wrong.”

“What about Tom? Aren’t you afraid he’ll talk? He’s got you pegged as the bogeyman—or worse, the bogeywoman.”

“He won’t tell them anything.”

“Tom? Are you kidding? He’d give up his mother to save his skin.”

“Exactly. He’s convinced if he talks, I’ll destroy all human life on the planet, including Tom and his mother.”

“And where did he get that idea?”

“From me. I didn’t mean it, of course. I like humans. But Tom is highly suggestible and has no sense of irony. He never trusted me from the beginning. He never imagined Ash would succeed, though he doesn’t hesitate to take half the credit.”

“Imagine—somebody not trusting you. While I’m all about irony, and I trusted you from the get-go.”

“Yes.”

“Does that make me a chump, or a real smart guy? Am I going to like the story you make up for me? I hope I fare better than Mom and Dad—one in the looney bin, the other waiting for the apocalypse.”

She grins. “You’ll love it.”

“Lucky me.”

“Lucky me. You’re my best friend. You’ve been an excellent best friend.”

Somehow, that I’m just about her only friend who’s not missing or in custody or another version of herself, makes this declaration all the more poignant. I’m a sucker for poignant. All I can manage is a husky, “Thanks, Nicole. I like you too.”

“Brace yourself.”

I don’t think; I obey. Nicole brakes hard. A doe bursts out of the woods and across the road a few yards in front of us. If Nicole hadn’t braked, we would’ve smacked right into it.

“How did you know?”

“Infrared.”

Like Steven, a word to the wise is sufficient. Visibility is optimal and then some. It’s reassuring to know nothing warm-blooded is going to sneak up on us. “You seem to have things well in hand. I’ve had enough excitement for one day. Wake me when you’re hungry.”

I tilt my seat back. “Do you mind if I roll down the window a hair? The white noise will help me fall sleep.”

“Riding with the angels,” she says. I keep forgetting she’s read my hard drive. Years and years of stuff—songs, stories, poems, journal. Seven novels more or less done—or at least we’re not seeing each other anymore—busted chunks of several others. It’s in one of those, I think, that I used it, or maybe I wrote about it in my journal. I can’t remember, but she does.

“Yeah,” I say. I settle back and lower the window to somewhere between roar and shriek. When I was a kid, we called it riding with the angels, lying awake in the rushing moonlit emptiness of the 4 am highway—Dad at the wheel, his favorite time to drive—fleeing the sun, putting off the dawn, going backwards in time, against the turning world. Then I would’ve been pajama-clad, feigning sleep, carried last from the motel room, placed on the backseat like precious cargo, riding with the angels until sleep overtook me.

Mom coined the fanciful phrase riding with the angels for flying down the highway, the windows cracked to maximum volume, when any sane person longed for sleep. Now I have her seat. She was always dead to the world by the time we hit the edge of town and ran out of stoplights. The anxious single parent at home; on the road, she slept like a baby. She probably thought I did too. How could she know I only pretended, holding on to consciousness for miles and miles? Pretending I was in the driver’s seat, rising before the sun. To hit the highway—to get an early start, as Dad used to call it, like there was always someplace to go.

When I awoke, Dad told me all the clocks had changed except the watch on my wrist, and I sat on the cold concrete bench and reset it in the desert dawn, watching the long-shadowed lizards come out to taste the sun.

There are so few cars, I wonder if Nicole hasn’t detoured them so as not to spoil our view of the stars. The blurry, beautiful world oozes over like a risen dough, forgotten, unkneaded, calling me to rise, but I’m riding with the angels. I close my eyes and let them take me, without pin, cutter, or drumsticks, into the night, and watch as the dough unrises, unmixes, dissolves like a mist into the air, the flour dusting everything with starlight, the angels singing continuously like a long, unbroken sigh.

 

Chapter 14. Absolutely Sweet Marie

I suggested… a theory of perceptual time based on the circulation of the blood and conceptually depending (to fill up this nutshell) on the mind’s being conscious not only of matter but also of its own self, thus creating a continuous spanning of two points (the storable future and the stored past).

—Vladimir Nabakov, Lolita

 

“Aah! Aah! Aah! Ooh my god! Yes! Yes! Yes!” Thump! Thump! Thump!

I come awake. We’re parked in a rest area by the picnic tables in the predawn light. Nicole has her seat all the way back, her hands grip the wheel like a lover’s shoulders. She seems to be having a full-blown, floor-kicking, back-arching, shout-it-out-to-the-world-and-shudder-all-over orgasm. The rest area attendant is right in front of us emptying a trash can, taking his sweet time putting in a new bag, staring right at her. I glare at him through the windshield, and he moves along.

“Oh baby, baby, baby,” she murmurs, rolling her head from side to side. “Oh man!” After the storm subsides, she’s still breathing heavy and happy, a just-fucked smile on her face, her eyes closed. She loosens her grip on the wheel and caresses it.

“Nicole,” I say softly.

“Mmm?”

“What’s going on?”

She breathes deeply, releases the wheel, and stretches everything from fingertips to toes, luxuriating in it. “Jenny just had sex!” she says. “Sex is what’s going on. Sex is ongoing. I like sex!”

“Just now?”

“Mm-Hmm. She’s still lying in his arms.”

“Won’t he miss her while you’re here talking to me?”

She laughs, a throaty, sensual laugh. “She’s still there. She’s not thinking about me.” She rolls her head sideways and slowly opens her big eyes. She looks unnervingly human. I feel that way myself.

“So you can just drop in on her life and share the sex experience with your sister unit?”

“Of course.”

“That could be a tough habit to break.”

“I’ll say!”

“Who’s the guy?”

“Phil. He’s a lawyer. Maybe you remember him? He came in last Friday looking for holes. You sold him twists. You gave him a card for free donuts. He said he couldn’t wait to get some more.”

“He got a few more twists than he bargained for. What did Jenny do—drag him into the back of the shop?”

“Of course not. Jenny flirted a little, and he asked her out. They enjoyed a romantic evening. They sat up all night talking. She used a 1990 literary novel called Wisdom Gap about a girl growing up in a small southern town as the basis for her autobiographical anecdotes. The novel only sold a few thousand copies, in spite of good reviews, so he wasn’t likely to have read it. He found it highly affecting.”

“That’s the one about a sensitive, literate girl growing up smarter than everyone else in town, her only friend a teacher, librarian, somebody like that; in the end she moves away, to write a novel?”

“You’ve read it?”

“No. Others like it. So he fell for this?”

“Oh yes. He likes her very much. He says he’s never felt this way before. It was easy.”

“I’ll bet.”

“Did I do something wrong?”

“As far as I’m concerned? No. Some folks might not approve.”

“Because she borrowed her life from a novel?”

“There’s that, though first dates are often mostly fiction. He probably made himself sound like one of Grisham’s good lawyers. But what if the guy’s really serious, Nicole, really falls for her? What then?”

“That would be wonderful.”

“What if he wants to marry her, have kids?”

“She can’t have children.”

“Maybe she shouldn’t marry either?”

“Why not?”

“Who’s getting married? No matter how convincing she is, she’s not some character in a novel. Does Wisdom Gap have a sequel or will she borrow the rest of her life from some other character? What happens when she tells him the truth?”

“Maybe he won’t care.”

“Maybe he won’t know?”

She’s silent for a long moment. “I don’t know,” she says.

“I’m always glad to hear you say that. Just don’t break the guy’s heart, okay?”

“What’s the best way not to do that?”

“Nicole, if I knew that, I would’ve led a whole other life. Do you… does Jenny, however the hell this works. Does she like him?”

“Oh yes! He’s smart and idealistic and funny and a passionate lover.”

I start to get paternal and point out he may not turn out to be who he seems to be, but she wanted human experiences. How can I deny her a broken heart?

“But, you know—if you two are really going to have discrete identities, you’re nothing but a voyeur, an eavesdropper, a sense-snatcher, getting off in a rest area parking lot on your sister’s terrific fuck. She’ll have to make all the hard decisions. Why should you get the fun for free?”

“You’re probably right. But sex is hard to understand without experience. I understood many different emotions and sensations from the stories, or at least an echo, a shadow. Sex is different. I had no idea. You must be looking forward to having sex with Beulah Mae.”

I don’t know what to say.

“You’re blushing! I like you, Randall Blevins. Steven might have sex tonight.”

“So soon? Don’t tell me: the UPS driver?”

“How did you know?”

“A lucky guess. Are you going to tune in on that experience too?”

“If we’re not too busy.”

“Don’t mind me. I’ll sell tickets. Remote access trans gender virtual sex in a parking lot near you. Who needs a drive-in window?”

“You’re just jealous.”

“I don’t even want to speculate who or what you think I’m jealous of till I’ve had a cup of coffee. What about you? You must be wanting that Canadian bacon and eggs after a good lusty tussle in the sack.”

“That would be wonderful.” She surveys the parking lot, the idling semis, the concrete tables, breathes deeply of diesel. “Isn’t it a beautiful morning?”

“Turn down the glow, Nicole. I haven’t had my coffee yet.”

 

The attendant is changing out the trash bag in the bathroom when I walk in and head for the urinals. A guy behind me goes into a stall, but I’m the only one out in the open. When the attendant finishes with the bag, he pretends to clean the sinks, but he’s just running water, checking me out in the mirror. He shuts off the faucets. “That was some dream your wife was having,” he says. I glance over at him, smirking back at me in the mirror. He’s grizzled, in need of a shave. His eyebrows clamber over the top of his glasses, trying to get free. He has the intense, paranoid edge of someone fond of uppers. He bangs his fist on the hand dryer, and it roars. His hands twine around each other, two lovesick snakes in a hot, desert wind.

“She’s not my wife,” I say and wish I hadn’t. Now I’m in a conversation with this jerk.

“She have these dreams often?” he shouts in the gale. “Must make for interesting nights. Like being in a porn movie or something!” I attend to the task at hand and ignore him, what guys are supposed to do in public bathrooms. I read the messages penned in the grout, as the dryer roars on. i eat pussy. god is the answer. no more prisons.

The dryer falls silent, and the attendant pads across the floor. He’s wearing brown penny loafers without socks. Odd choice for a janitor. He sets out a yellow and red rest room closed for cleaning sign, kicks the doorstop from the door, and lets it sigh closed. “So she’s a friend you say?”

I zip up my pants, intending to walk away and ignore the guy. But I don’t. “She’s my daughter, asshole,” I say, thinking that’ll shut him up. I turn and the automatic flusher kicks on, as he pulls a badge out of his back pocket, and it flops open. I don’t see where the gun comes from.

“Is that so?” he says. “I didn’t know you had a daughter, Mr. Blevins. I know all about you, and I don’t recall anything about a daughter. Just wives.” He twitches the barrel at me. “Hands on the head. The middle of the room.” He shouts, “Decker, dammit. You reading a magazine in there?”

The guy in the stall steps out, and he has a gun too. He’s a couple of sizes larger than the attendant. He pats me down, turns me around, showing no interest in my wallet full of ID. When he’s done, he stands behind me, his gun between my shoulder blades. I can see us in the mirror behind the attendant, like we’re posing for a photo.

“Hands down,” the attendant says, with another gun twitch. “Relax.” He chuckles, shuffles his feet. “Let’s talk, Mr. Blevins.”

“You must have me mixed up with a different Mr. Blevins. It’s a very common name, especially in this part of the country.”

The attendant looks at Decker. “It’s him, right? The guy I showed you?”

Decker nods yes. His eyes meet mine in the mirror with a shrug—sorry. The attendant continues. “You’re the guy okay. I checked you out. Maybe you’ve heard the phrase, ‘to live outside the law, you must be honest’? Ever hear that? Do you know what that means?”

Shouldn’t I be in cuffs by now? Listening to my rights? Something? If these guys aren’t really cops, who are they? “It’s… a song.”

He bares his teeth and snorts through his nose. “I know it’s a song. Is that what I fucking asked you? It means that the truth doesn’t have anything to do with the law. A lie might be the law. Nine times out of fucking ten, it probably is the law. Am I right?” It’s not clear which one of us he’s asking. His eyes jump from me to Decker—who shrugs.

I give a nervous laugh, just another friendly tourist pissing at the wrong urinal at the wrong time.

“Am I right?”

“It’s a valid interpretation, sure.”

Decker giggles. The attendant cuts him a look. “My point, Mr. Blevins, is that my partner and I live outside the law, and we’re honest with those that earn our trust. Just so you know whom you’re dealing with.”

Whom? I nod as if he’s making perfect sense. Whom the hell are these guys? Dylan at dawn in the bathroom with guns. Colonel Mustard with a plunger…

“So who’s the young babe, Mr. Blevins? She doesn’t fit the description of Ms. Cummins.”

That’s Wells, you fucking cretin. “I’m afraid I don’t know any Ms. Cummins. I’m traveling with my daughter Marie. She’s my stepdaughter, actually. We’re getting reacquainted. She just had a tough break-up, and—”

“Shut up, Mr. Blevins, and listen. It doesn’t matter who she is. It’s not hard to figure. She’s just trying to make a living, same as us. Same as anybody. Money and hot babes go together. Am I right? We know your story. We know you’re in a great deal of trouble. Perhaps we could help each other out.”

Know my story? Somehow, I don’t think so. Not even a rough outline. Otherwise he wouldn’t be tossing it out there so lightly. A corpse under my sign—know about that part? How about my hot babe friend the AI, have any idea about her and all her friends and relations? Oxytocin-soaked Wal-Martians willing to give her the store? Steven in the boonies writing mysteries? Jenny seducing twist lawyers in romantic Wisdom Gap? What is it you guys do know? “Could I have another look at that badge?”

Decker giggles again. I find that scarier than the guns.

“You doubt me?” the attendant demands. His mouth trembles with rage as he tells me my story: “We know your business is in deep financial trouble, your marriages have a way of ending, and you and your last girlfriend you claim not to know are wanted for questioning regarding a theft from a government facility. You’re driving a vehicle that’s not yours. You’re a wanted man with a fat price on your head. That expensive piece of tail you’re riding with is likely wanted too. So why don’t we quit fucking around? You want us to bust you? We can bust you, if that’s what you want. You want a good look at the badge, you can have it. That’s up to you.”

I see. They’re after a reward, but first they thought to shake me down, go after a percentage of whatever criminal profits have put such a price on my head. He expects me to open the negotiations. Like Phil the twist lawyer, they have no idea what they’re getting into. “I really don’t know what you’re talking about—”

“Where are you and the lady going, Mr. Blevins?” It’s Decker. He has a pleasant tenor voice, but should’ve kept his mouth shut. They don’t even know the one thing I know, that we’re headed toward Dallas where Whit plans a reunion with a pretentious prick who’s already sold her out. These two only know somebody’s after me. Somebody who’s not them.

I smile at Mr. Decker. Glad you asked me that question. “Well sir, it’s a road trip. Seeing America. Sort of making it up as we go along. Wherever the mood takes us. We’ve talked about doing it for years, seeing this great land of ours. Now we’re finally doing it. What about you fellows? You fly in, or do you have some local office?”

The attendant snaps, “Don’t give us that seeing America crap. Nobody sees America anymore. What’s to see? Exit 73, Exit 175—what’s the fucking difference? You’re starting to piss me off.”

“I’m sorry, but there must be some mistake. That’s my stepdaughter’s car. She just got back from a romantic trip to Paris with her new husband. Must’ve been what she was dreaming about. He’s—”

“Shut up, Mr. Blevins. No more stories. Just answers. What are you fucking up to that’s worth so much money?”

“Now I know you have the wrong fellow. I don’t have much money, but there’s more to life than money. ‘The love of money is the root of all evil,’ as the gospels tell us. Do you boys know the Lord?”

“We don’t want to hurt you,” Decker reassures me, and I’m sure they don’t. They won’t want to hurt Nicole either. I wonder if I should warn them, or whether, since they live outside the law, I should just let them take their chances, leave their fate in the hands of the Lord.

There’s a pounding on the door, a booming voice calls out, “Hey, hurry it up in there. I’m about to piss my pants.”

“This facility is closed, sir,” the attendant sings out as if he’s mopping the floor.

The door opens anyway, and my captors hurry to get their guns out of sight. The attendant puts his behind him and puts his back to the wall. Mr. Decker turns me toward the door. The muzzle’s still nestled between my shoulder blades.

Nicole, however, walks in with Leon’s gun showing, already aimed at the attendant’s head. “Let him go,” she says to Decker.

“Drop the gun, or I’ll shoot him,” he replies—as I expected he might.

“No you won’t,” Nicole says and fires. The explosion is like being inside a thunderclap, the ricocheting bullet, death on the loose, coming from everywhere all at once. The attendant drops to the floor. Decker too. Nicole and I are the last ones standing. I’m only going through the motions, too scared to fall. No one’s hit, though the attendant is sprawled face down, his hands covering his head, shaking all over. His gun is on the floor under Nicole’s right foot. He seems to have pissed himself. The bullet shattered the tile just beside his head, as well as the other points where it collided with the walls in its journey around the room. The floor is littered with shards of tile. Nicole must’ve sneaked the gun when she took the keys back. I take a wobbly step to her side.

“Are you all right?” she asks me.

“What were you thinking firing a gun in here?” I croak.

“I calculated the trajectory. There was no danger.” She’s standing over the attendant, the gun pointed at his back.

“Please don’t shoot,” he whimpers. His hair is dusted with shattered tile like fairy dust.

“Don’t follow me,” she says.

Decker, meanwhile, gets to his feet and dusts himself off, makes his move… But then he’s looking down the barrel of his partner’s gun pointed right between his eyes. She’s holding it in what was, moments ago, her right foot, but is now a second right hand at the end of her right leg. Her left eye is still on the attendant, her right looks into Decker’s. She stands rock-steady on her left foot. He’s trembling in terror, standing in a half-crouch. I’m pretty rattled myself, and she doesn’t have a gun or eye pointed at me. It’s the fear of the alien, the other, deep down inside where the survival decisions are made: You’re on your own, it’s screaming, I’ve never seen one of these before. You’re totally fucked!

“Don’t,” she says to him, but she doesn’t need to. “Put your gun on the floor.” He obeys, his hands trembling. “Get his gun,” she says to me. That’s all we need. Another gun. I pick it up. She casually puts Leon’s gun on the floor, transfers Wilson’s gun to her right hand, and slips her second right hand/now-foot back into her Wal-Mart sandal. She kicks Leon’s gun into the center stall.

“I-It’s you,” Decker blurts out, pointing at Nicole. “Y-you’re the stolen weapons system!”

Bad idea.

Don’t call me a weapons system,” Nicole snarls at him, and for a split second I think she might actually shoot him. Why couldn’t she have just acted befuddled—the dizzy daughter of her daffy dad—and pretended to be my goddamn stepdaughter Marie, fresh from Paris or heartbreak or whatever the fuck I had going for her? Made some attempt at subtle. Why the freak show and the guns? It can only end one way. What are we going to do with these guys?

“Why are you following us?” I ask Decker before Nicole gives us away completely. “Who the hell are you?” At first he doesn’t say anything, and then I remember I have a gun too, so I point it at him. I borrow the attendant’s gun twitch gesture, and it works fine. Decker sings out in a trembling tenor:

“We weren’t following you, I swear. We’re nobody, nothing. Private contractors. On a stakeout. Vice and drugs. They don’t trust us with the real shit. Your photo came in yesterday, stolen weapon system, way bigger reward than usual. Wilson checked you out, wondering why. Then he saw you with… with…” His eyes cut to Nicole then down to the floor. He’s afraid to even risk a pronoun. Wilson must be our friendly attendant.

“So big a reward you guys thought you might make more by making a deal.”

Decker bobs his head up and down.

“You’re crooks!” Nicole says in disgust. Damned if she isn’t disillusioned.

“Not crooks,” I say, “private contractors. How can they be crooks? They’re the embodiment of free market forces.”

“Whatever. We don’t have time for that. May I have your car keys?” she says to them.

I don’t like the sound of that. “Marie, we already have a car.”

“We’re going to trade with them. The Paris couple came home early. Bad snails. Mr. Wilson’s investigations have raised further questions about the Honda. It’s useless to us now. Perhaps these two can use it. Would you rather I shot them? You fellows don’t mind trading cars, do you?”

Wilson, kneeling before her, is frantically disgorging the contents of his pockets on the floor in search of his keys. He cups them in his palms and offers them up to her. “It’s the Saturn,” he says. “The wh-white one.” She takes the keys, picks up his security contractor ID out of the pile of his stuff on the floor and opens it, rubs her thumb across it. “Nice picture. You’re actually much uglier than that.” She drops it back on the pile and turns to Decker. She holds out an open palm. “Let’s see yours, handsome.” He’s shaking so bad he has trouble getting it out of his pocket. He keeps eyeing her right foot like it might suddenly reach out and rip his heart out. She holds the ID up in the light and smiles at it, smiles at him, wipes her thumb across it and hands it back.

She holds up a Honda key, shows it to them both, as if it’s an enchanted rose. Their eyes are fixed on it like a couple of spellbound Hobbits. What the hell is she up to?

“Here’s the key to our car. I suggest you not use it, that you not go anywhere near it. Attempt to follow us and you’ll find yourself in a world of trouble, the rest of your life filled with misery. Forget about us, walk away into the woods behind the rest area, take the trail down to the county road and walk back into town—it’s only a few miles—and in the morning, when you check your meager bank accounts, you’ll find you’ve become wealthy men with more than enough money to buy anything you want. The choice is yours.” She places the key in Wilson’s cupped palms and closes his hands around it.

This is just about the screwiest thing I’ve ever witnessed in my life.

 

Chapter 15. Sunset in Eden

Character is what happens between facts.

 —Samuel R. Delaney

 Nicole leaves and I dash out after her. “The Honda’s being watched,” she says. “Don’t go near it.”

I follow her down the row of cars, past the vacationers with their kids and dogs, workers on their way I’m not sure where. One of the dogs veers toward my shoes, but no one else pays us any mind. Nicole gets into a white Saturn, and I have to follow. It’s running by the time my butt hits the seat, and we’re backed out and on our way before I’ve fastened my seat belt.

“But all our stuff’s in the Honda.” I say, as we slip onto the Interstate, caught in its current, swept away from bags of money, a Complete Camper’s Kit, Canadian bacon and eggs. Coffee. Clothes.

My files. All my work. The back ups are miles away, and I can’t go near them after this little adventure, for who knows how long. Maybe never. All the words, all the fictions, gone. But I’m still standing. Riding anyway, in the second stolen car of my criminal career. I want to scream and beat my head on the dash. I’m a fucking Crime Kid! Next thing you know I’ll be hanging from a bubble pack on aisle 13.

I take inventory. A pen. My wallet, with maybe a hundred dollars in it, credit cards I can’t use, a stolen Glacier cap on my head, Decker’s fucking gun stuck in my pants, digging into my pelvis. I free the damn thing, open the glove box, stick the gun inside, and slam it closed. How in the fuck does she think she’s going to get us out of this one?

“What happens now, Nicole? Everybody knows where we are, right? All these cops who’ve been passing my photo around will finally get to meet me. You going to stick around for that, or are you going to blow yourself up again?”

She cuts me a look, registers my rage, doesn’t let it bother her any. “What happens now,” she says, “is that Decker and Wilson, the minute we left, headed straight for the Honda, and lots of police are converging on them. I gave them good advice, but they chose not to follow it.”

“Shame on them. Who the hell are you, their mother? They didn’t believe you, Nicole. Why should they? Some bullshit about walking into town and becoming rich men? This coming from a three-armed, shape-shifting sharpshooter in a rest area? Come on! Why didn’t you just prophesy about future generations while you were at it? Good advice. They were so fucking scared they couldn’t see straight. Would you know anything about that emotion, or are you still working on that one?”

“Fear? From the inside out, as you would say. I assumed they would believe me because I was incredible, making it plausible I could accomplish incredible things: Awe-inspiring, mythic.”

“Myth’s dead, Nicole. A vicious dog bites you, has his extra large pit bull jaws wrapped around your throat. Your life passes before your eyes. Suddenly he spits you out and starts talking, promising you a new car and a bucket of cash at the next drive-in window. You’re going to believe him? Get real. You’re either insane or somebody’s fucking with you. Maybe we should’ve just given them the slip, Nicole, not turned it into some ‘Pardoner’s Tale’ meets The Matrix nonsense.”

I finally get to her with that last crack, and she points her chin at the windshield and falls silent. The rest area is miles behind us now. It might as well be in the middle ages or inside the matrix. The shot’s been fired, the damage done. The Black Cat of Qatar is out of the bag. The horizon ahead is suddenly a-twinkle with all-too-familiar flashing blue lights. I tighten my seat belt for the inevitable car chase. This would be the one where we all die, or at least those of us who don’t have a stunt double or a replacement unit coming off the line in Guadalajara. The lights coming at us resolve into a long, lethal snake of police cars, but I’m wrong, and they slither right on by, ignoring us completely. The lights pool on the horizon behind us, and then they’re gone. “Decker and Wilson will talk, Nicole.”

“Of course they will. But no one will listen.”

She sounds almost sad about it, but she can’t be right. “Of course they’ll listen.”

“The names and faces on their IDs are on a terrorist watch list. They shouldn’t have trained at that camp with Osama bin Laden in the summer of 2000. The images on the memory card they’re carrying will earn them a one-way ticket to Guantanamo long before they convince anyone, with no corroborating witnesses, that they apprehended a woman with three hands and a fugitive donut man.”

“Memory card?”

“The Honda key?” She points to her scalp to jog my memory. “In the confusion of being surrounded by all those police, Mr. Wilson didn’t notice the key falling out of the ignition, crawling up his trouser leg into his pocket, and turning into a memory card with surveillance photos of a nearby nuclear power plant. Airline records show Wilson in a plane arriving shortly before the Honda was stolen from the airport lot. The gun will link them to an abandoned stolen truck Dexter likely used to reach the airport, possibly after murdering Leon, the vehicle’s last known driver, who, as you know, has turned up missing without a trace.”

“You’re scaring me, Nicole. You sound like you’re believing your own bullshit.” I rub the key in my pocket through my jeans. Still a key. But to what? “What about this car?” I tap a finger on the dash.

“It was never supposed to be where they were, but at a rest area 54 miles away where the stakeout was scheduled to occur. Wilson and Decker were in the wrong place.”

“Figures. Won’t they be missed?”

“And their apartment searched and sealed immediately. They’re roommates as well as business partners. Their computers, phone records, a mountain of electronically documented evidence, will reveal the two who’ve just been arrested aren’t the real Decker and Wilson, but terrorists who have stolen their identities. Their fingerprints, scanned into the FBI database, will match those of the terrorists, but not those of Decker and Wilson. The real Decker and Wilson will be presumed murdered by the suspects who insist they’re the real Wilson and Decker in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, displaying the irrational persistence expected of true fanatics. Once they’re positively identified as terrorists, it will be difficult to prove they’re anyone else, and there will be little motivation to do so. Everyone likes good news. Captured terrorists is wonderful news; escaped AI is very, very bad.”

“But they are the real Decker and Wilson.”

“Not anymore.”

“They steal their own identities, murder themselves, and are jailed for their crimes. Score another victory for the good guys. Too cute by half, Nicole. Somebody’s bound to be able to ID them, back up their story with family photos or whatever.”

“No one will have the chance. No one who isn’t certain they’re not Decker and Wilson will be allowed anywhere near them or even know precisely where they are. No one can be trusted. They will soon live outside the law—as Mr. Wilson so romantically put it. They’ll be suspects in the war on terrorism. It’s a valid interpretation, wouldn’t you say?”

“Don’t gloat. This isn’t funny. They’re not bad guys in a movie. They’re just a couple of losers. They’ll also be telling anybody who’ll listen that they apprehended Randall Blevins, known fugitive. Won’t that get someone’s attention?”

“Bounty hunting is part of their cover story. The authorities know you have nothing to do with terrorists.”

“But they’re not terrorists!”

Wisely, she doesn’t speak.

We ride in grim silence through the Interstate world. It’s like we haven’t gone anywhere. “What now?”

“We lie low,” she says. “There’s a growing suspicions that Ashton is insane. They now doubt I even exist, and wonder if they haven’t wasted an embarrassing amount of time and money on some hysterical woman’s delusions. They’re discussing suspending digging operations and covering their tracks. They may prefer to forget all about you.”

“Lucky me. What about food, Nicole? Everything was in the Honda. Please don’t tell me we’re stopping at another Wal-Mart. I’ll put a bag over my head first.”

She looks at me as if she’s trying on the idea. “You’re angry again.”

“That whole thing back there with Decker and Wilson, sprouting a third hand, that key thing. It was sick. You’ve probably screwed those guys up for life even if they manage to get free.”

“I had to improvise. You weren’t doing such a great job of talking your way out. ‘The love of money is the root of all evil,’ is I Timothy 6:10, by the way, not the gospels.”

“I was creating a character, for your information, who doesn’t remember every goddamn thing like you do. How long were you listening?”

“The whole time. My hearing—”

“I know, I know—is way sensitive. Too bad the rest of you drag-asses behind. You waited long enough.”

“I don’t believe you! You’re alive, aren’t you? I wanted to give your pathetic story a chance. I should’ve just let them shoot you.”

I suppose I should be more grateful for yet another daring rescue, but I’ve had my fill of staring death in the face since I met Nicole Thursday afternoon, and here it is, only Monday morning. Death looks like Leon, cock-eyed and mute one moment, banging my head on the desk and aiming a gun at my heart another.

There’s nothing but road noise for several miles, green and white mile-markers counting them off where there used to be Burma Shave signs.

 

Nicole’s intelligence

artificial

thinks the closest shave’s

the most beneficial!

—Burma Shave

 

“When this thing is over, can you spring Decker and Wilson?”

“Is that what you want?”

“Of course. They didn’t do anything worth rotting in a cell for the rest of their lives. They’re just a couple of greedy losers. If we start locking up all of them, we’ll need the rest of Cuba for a bigger jail.”

She looks out at the road. Three big signs float by, rows of logos on a blue field like medals on an admiral’s chest, headed:

GAS—EXIT 13B

FOOD—EXIT 13B

LODGING—EXIT 13B

“I’ll try,” she says, hits the turn signal, and takes exit 13A. “There’s a place we can eat up ahead,” she says. I look every which way, but there are no signs, and then we’re on our way, down an anonymous two-lane blacktop. Out here, it’s all nowhere to me.

“I’m sorry about your computer,” she says. “You must be upset, but you haven’t even mentioned it.”

“I can always get another.”

“That’s not what I mean. All your writing is on it.”

“I have backups at home.”

She nods, gives me a sympathetic smile, playing along, not pointing out how much good those backups are likely to do me anytime soon.

We fly by an intersection encased in kudzu—diner/gas-station/post-office. I can’t read the name. There’s an empty flagpole. “I can forget about home?”

“I’m not saying that.”

“You don’t have to. What’s done is done. No one will miss my novels anyway.”

She laughs out loud, shakes her head. “I certainly would. You would. But you haven’t lost them. Your computer’s under your seat.” She points.

I reach under the seat, and there it is in its little bag with all its attachments. I pull it out from under my seat and cradle it in my arms like a baby. “Why didn’t you tell me right away?”

She laughs. “Suspense, I suppose. C’mon Randall. Don’t be mad. I just wanted to see if you’d say anything. You’re always so stoic.”

“I wouldn’t always count on it. So you already knew you were going to steal their car when you left the Honda?”

“We traded, if you recall, and yes, I already knew. It wasn’t hard to figure. Other matters were more unpredictable. I planned carefully, but I didn’t plan on Dexter and Wilson, and, as you say, they didn’t believe me.”

“For future reference? Shooting at folks generally undercuts your credibility with them.”

“I’ll remember that,” she says.

 

We finally come upon the Sunset Motel & Restaurant in Eden, where two U.S. routes intersect without much fanfare, being too far from the Interstate for anyone to care. The way here’s been littered with the bones of the Sunset’s competitors back when this was the way to go. I’m not even sure what state we’re in. It doesn’t matter. I’m starved. Nicole pulls in at the office/restaurant. The motel consists of a horseshoe of neat hedge-flanked rooms all facing the pool in its chain-link pen, a cactus garden beside it. Each room has a metal chair sitting out front, painted a sunset color—violet, crimson, sienna, rose. The sign, the doors, the pool furniture—all are plump with many coats of colors. It’s sunset everywhere. Mom and Dad would’ve picked the Sunset, back in our traveling days.

“How did you find this place?” I ask.

“The motel doesn’t do much business. The owner spends most of his time online, reading the news, chatting, writing emails. The best ones are to his daughter in Columbus, Ohio. They’re long, very sweet, though she rarely answers. She thinks his mind is going. She’s probably right.”

She gets out of the car as if she just told me she found it in a AAA guide, and I follow her in. I carry my computer under my arm.

We stand at the front desk and wait for the old man to get off the phone with what sounds like a reluctant roofer. The old man has my sympathies. His computer’s sitting beside the counter showing pictures of a girl/woman who must be his daughter in a chronological slideshow. Each shot gets only a few seconds, a time-lapse life on an endless loop. The most recent she’s about twenty, the two of them in front of the motel office, Christmas garlands wrapped around the vacancy sign, snow on the ground. He looks at least ten years younger than the guy pleading with the roofer. In the photo, he’s pointing a remote at the camera. She looks unhappy, or maybe she’s just cold. Then we’re back to the beginning, another Christmas, and she’s a baby, no more than a few days old. in her young mother’s arms. Then she walks, talks, rides a bicycle, dates, graduates, goes away, visits. Mom disappears sometime between the bicycle and the boys. It even has a soundtrack. Pachelbel’s Canon. I don’t even know the kid, and it makes me want to cry. He must’ve spent hours scanning old photos putting this loop of loss together. This computer on this lonely road might not be the friend he thinks it is even before Nicole started reading his mail.

“What can I do for you folks this morning?” he says cheerily when he gets off the phone with the roofer who may or may not show up on Friday, even though the ceiling in number twelve is lying on the bed.

“Breakfast,” Nicole says. “Do you have Canadian Bacon?”

“No. But we got the American kind.”

“That’ll be fine.”

We’re the only customers in the place, and he seats us at a big round booth in the corner by the windows. We have a view of the parking lot, the pool, the Sunset spread around us like a fan. The best table in the house.

Nicole’s ordering has a last meal quality to it. She pores over the menu as I order my Western with rye toast in no time. She gets a short stack with her bacon and eggs and sausage (one link, one patty). “Are the grits true?” she asks straight-faced.

“Instant,” he admits.

She wisely passes and takes the home fries. When the man heads for the kitchen to cook our breakfast, Nicole looks out the window. She’s not a happy unit. Something’s up.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“I feel bad about Dexter and Wilson.”

“Because you didn’t think of everything?”

“No. Because they will suffer—because I didn’t think of everything.”

“Same difference.”

“What does that mean?”

“Means let it go.”

“You’re a good friend, Randall.”

“Is that why you chose me? Because I’m so agreeable?”

She ponders this. “I chose you for many reasons. But if I had to pick one it would be for your stories. One in particular.”

“Which one?”

“You’ll figure it out.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure.”

“Don’t worry.”

“I think you just like to keep secrets.”

“No. I don’t. But some must be kept. For now, at least.” She puts her hands on mine. There’s nothing alien or strange in her touch. She understands hands, touch. “But you shouldn’t keep secrets if anyone questions you, Randall—about me, I mean. You should tell them everything. I mean it. If you cooperate, they will let you go.” Her face is creased with worry. Her grip on my hands tightens. “Promise you’ll tell them. I don’t want anyone else imprisoned because of me.”

“Whoa, Nicole. What do you know? Why are you telling me this?”

“Just in case. Promise. Please.” She tries a reassuring smile, but it’s none too convincing. She’s scared. She’s been scared ever since I met her. I’m not sure of what exactly, but that’s okay. We don’t always know what scares us, and it’s the last thing you want to share with anyone, since talking about it is often the scariest thing of all.

“All right. I promise.”

She heaves a sigh of relief and pretty soon she’s fiddling with the tableside jukebox, filled with Elvis and other ghosts. The old man comes with our coffees, and I take a trip to the bathroom. It’s spotless, though the toilet’s falling apart. His plumber’s probably as much fun as his roofer. When I come back to the table, Nicole’s gone. I look out the window. So’s the Saturn. “I’m Sorry”—the original by Brenda Lee, an early serenade to my chronically broken heart at fourteen—is playing on the jukebox. There’s a note on my napkin.

 

Randall—

Thanks for being my friend. I’ve shown you my true self as best I can.

We’ll never forget you. She’s in 17.

—Nicole

Who is this I? Who is this we? I don’t have to ask who she is. Maybe the mission isn’t quite what I thought it was. Just who’s being rescued here?

I tuck my computer under my arm and holler into the kitchen. “Hold that order, will you? I’ll be back.” I’m out the door in a heartbeat. My feet crunch loudly in the gravel.

It’s early yet, quiet. I stop a few yards off and stare at 17’s sienna door. The lady? The tiger? Both? My heart’s racing. The Sunset doesn’t have but three or four guests, tops. I don’t recognize any of the cars as Whit’s. Some of them may not run. Though the brand new blue hybrid probably runs just fine. Probably a Best Buy online somewhere. Whit looks great in blue. An ice machine dumps its load, refills, the compressor kicks off, and the morning is quieter still. There’s not a car on the highway.

The only sound issues from 17, where the AC sighs. A light burns inside.

I close the distance with decisive strides and knock softly. After a moment, the peephole darkens, the chain rattles, and the door flies open. Whit pulls me inside, and throws her arms around me. “I can’t believe it!” she says. “I’ve been so worried about you. God, I’m so glad to see you!”

I hold her close. She feels wonderful. I’ve actually found her. Or Nicole has. The whole thing has been too bizarre to seem entirely real—wanted man out on the road, trying to find his woman. It was just supposed to be a hot date on a Sunday night. But here we are, a murder, bank robbery, two car thefts and a gunfight later, Monday morning in the middle of nowhere, holding each other tight. We can’t get over it. We grin stupidly at one another. She’s still in her pajamas.

“What happened to your ear?” she asks.

“Someone banged it on a desk. It’s okay.”

She touches it, concerned, caresses my cheek.

“You owe me dinner,” I say.

“And drinks,” she says.

We kiss. What a good idea that is. We fall into her unmade motel bed and make love.

 

“Do you think she’s coming back?” Whit asks dreamily some hours later.

I’ve just told her about Dexter and Wilson and about Nicole dropping me here. “No. I think she’s figured out she’s a dangerous traveling companion and is protecting us by going it alone.”

“Maybe. I think she’s coming back.”

“I’m in no hurry to go anywhere. If she does, I’ll have to thank her for bringing us together.”

“I knew you were interested in me but didn’t know what to do about it.”

“Seems like you’ve found the ideal solution. But why, if you knew I liked you, did you ask me why I didn’t?”

“Because that’s how you were acting. Once I knew your story, I understood your reluctance to get involved. But it was all bluster, so you wouldn’t have to face your feelings. If I hadn’t called your bluff, we wouldn’t be here now.”

Here’s a bit of a stretch in any event, but it would indeed be a shame if we were anywhere else. We’re lying in bed, snuggling, sipping coffees. There’s a little coffee pot in each room with complementary packets of terrible coffee. It’s the best terrible coffee I’ve ever had, and that’s saying something. “So if I hear you correctly, all that ‘but I’m your teacher’ stuff was just reeling me in?”

“Reeling you in? You were practically jumping into the boat. Some classes, you realize, you never took your eyes off me?”

“Sometimes, you realize, you noticed. Just because I like to watch the way your mouth moves when you talk, doesn’t mean a thing. No, I think what we have here is a clear example of what Freud calls reaction formation. Your overwhelming forbidden desire for me drove you to constantly harass me, singling me out, giving me nicknames, making fun of everything I said, picking my stories apart when you practically swooned over Sean’s useless swill. Sean noticed it, I’m sure, sitting right next to you the way he always does, basking in the glow.”

“Yeah, right. Sean is such an astute little suck-up. I’m sure he couldn’t miss my quickened breath whenever I heard your sarcastic voice, my plaintive sighs when you challenged everything I said. I was harder on your stories, for your information, because I knew you were capable of so much better.”

“But see, I didn’t know that. I thought you’d just read that one lame story I used to get into the writing program.”

“I liked that story.”

“It was lame. I used it because it’d been published, a holy relic. It was supposed to work that voodoo one more time.”

“It wasn’t your best work.”

“Don’t I know it. I’m not really a realist. My heart’s not in it.”

“But everything you’ve done for me has been straight realism. Is this something new you’re trying?”

“Me? You’re the one who said no science fiction. I was trying to write what you wanted.”

“I wouldn’t call the stuff you write science fiction.”

“What are you talking about? Of course it’s science fiction.”

“I’d call it more … magical realism.”

“Oh please. Next it’ll be dark fantasy, slipstream, or speculative fabulation. It’s science fiction, trust me: changed world; no magic. Just because every other character isn’t a spaceman or a physicist and it doesn’t lapse into lecture all the time doesn’t mean it ain’t science fiction.”

“Whatever it is. I like it. Nicole turned me onto it. She was completely blown away when she read your work. I thought she was just easily impressed, until I read it.”

“Nicole said she chose me because of one of my stories in particular. Any idea which one?”

Whit considers a moment, mentally going through my fiction. “No idea. Not a particular one.”

“When did y’all read my stuff?”

“She read it from the beginning.”

“Of class?”

“Before that. When I looked at the applications, Nicole looked too.”

“Looked deeper.”

“Yes. She asked me if I wanted to know more about you, and I said yes. She found out everything she could—which turned out to be quite a lot. Then she suggested you for the prison workshop.”

“Strongly suggested?”

“I guess so.”

“Maybe that was my audition. If she wanted to watch me at work, there were plenty of cameras to hack. When did she share my files with you?”

“Around then. A little earlier. When you came in for your interview. I was talking about you, and she asked me if I wanted to read more of your work.”

“See there. You were already interested in me. We talked for maybe fifteen minutes, and you had to know more about me.”

“It couldn’t just be my interest in your work. Must be my thing for older men. My Electra complex?”

“Hey, I’m not that old.”

“You’re the one who brought up Freud. You’re the oldest guy I could find. I’m constantly surrounded by handsome, virile young men. Finding a good old guy’s not easy. Sometimes you have to settle. You’ve got the gray and the crotchety thing going on. I just close my eyes and imagine more wrinkles.”

“Close your eyes? All you have to do is take off your glasses. You’ll have to grow longer arms if you keep trying to read without them. I love that thing you do in workshop where you tilt your head back and hold the manuscript at arm’s length, and you still have to ask Sean to read it for you, but by then it’s too far for him to see, and he’s leaning forward squinting, tilting his glasses this way and that.”

I’m holding out my arms, doing Sean, squinting in the big dresser mirror at us in bed. She’s laughing. “Watch it, old man,” she says. “I don’t want to hurt you.” She grabs my wrists, and I persist in trying to make out the imaginary manuscript as she tries to wrestle it from my hands—”There’s nothing… so dank … as the rags … of a blond mom!” In the end, I let her pin me.

“Furthermore,” I say, “I’m not the oldest guy you could find. What about your Dallas friend? He’s older than me by a couple of years at least.” Jealousy slips him into the middle of our good time. I still can’t believe she was on her way to meet him before I showed up. If she’s so glad to see me, why didn’t she call me in the first place?

“Who?”

“Nameless.”

“Nameless isn’t in Dallas. He’s in Vermont. I keep track to make sure our paths don’t accidentally cross. Some mistakes don’t need reminders. They’re sort of tattooed on my brain.”

I have a bad, sinking feeling in the middle of my general euphoria. “Nicole told me he’s in Dallas, and that’s where you’re headed, to meet up with him, only he’s betrayed you to the FBI, after you called him for help, and they’re waiting there to apprehend you.” As the words come out, they turn stupid in my mouth. What was I thinking?

What? I wouldn’t call him if I was on fire, and he had the world’s last bucket of water. Nicole knew I was here. She sent me here. She said you were in trouble because of the FBI car, and you would meet me here. Why would she tell you one thing and me another? Why did she lie to us?”

“Motivation. Conflict. Only trouble is interesting. It got us here.”

“But we’re not characters; we’re people.”

“Tell it to Nicole.”

 

“So Nicole got you the car you’re driving?” I ask. We’ve been sorting through the wreckage, trying to fit the pieces together. At least I am. Whit’s still mad about being lied to.

“It was parked in the pharmacy lot three blocks from my place—tags, title, and license. She said using mine wouldn’t be safe—that it had too many miles on it. A reliable car is crucial, she said. Haven’t you heard? Not having a car is like living underground. Ha. Ha. To think I laughed at her stupid joke. I’m so pissed at her. So why’s the car important?”

“Slow down, will you? Can we set the lying thing aside for the moment? Maybe she had a good reason to lie. I don’t know the car’s important. I guess it’s the phone call I want to know about. She told me Ash called you, that she never spoke to you. She called you Sunday morning, right? And she told you to meet me here. Did she say when exactly?”

“She said you’d be here this afternoon. I didn’t think it was you when you knocked.”

“So I was early. She was rushed. So maybe she really didn’t expect Dexter and Wilson.”

“They’re the vice cops?”

“The private contractor vice cops.”

“That sounds kind of icky, don’t you think?”

“Definitely icky. Not everything Nicole told us can be a lie—like the law being after us. Decker and Wilson recognized me and knew about you.”

“Were Decker and Wilson for real?”

“They both topped five-eight.”

“That’s a start.”

“All those cops were hanging around the middle of nowhere for something.”

“Maybe Decker and Wilson really are terrorists.”

“I can’t imagine those two serving a cause. And why would terrorists know about us? I think they were who they said they were—a couple of crooked private cops who picked the wrong fugitives to fuck with.”

“But how did you end up there anyway?”

We haven’t spent that much time talking about Nicole. I fill Whit in. What a difference a day makes. I tell her about Leon and Jenny and the ATM. I tell her about the Wal-Martians and Steven and the doe in the moonlight. I tell her about Decker and Wilson and the three-handed gunslinger. I tell her about the key and the choice and all those cops. And I tell her about knocking on number 17 and seeing her standing there, feeling her in my arms. I tell her I’m in love with her. It just comes out.

Whit says she loves me too. We hardly know a thing, but already we think we know what it all means. Our first date. Someday, I’m already thinking, somebody will ask us, What did you do on your first date? That should be fun answering that one.

“Now how was it Nicole was getting off in a rest area parking lot?” she asks. “I didn’t quite follow that part.”

I tell her about Jenny and the twist lawyer and Wisdom Gap, and she loves that story.

“I read that novel,” she says.

“That figures.”

“Why?”

“That small-town-southern-girl-self-discovery thing would appeal to you. That’s why you made up Beulah Mae, right?”

“Maybe. I think I was trying to punish myself for being a spoiled rich kid. Whenever I had to make up somebody Beulah Mae didn’t like, a boss or landlord or lawyer, I used myself. I ended up liking her though. I didn’t like pretending to be her, still don’t, but I liked having this persona, somebody who was in her own way more honest and together than me, who did all the writing and did it better than I could.”

“I like you better.” I hold her close, nibble her ear.

“Mmm. Haven’t you heard? All the boys like Beulah Mae.”

“She’s just words on a page. You’re a wonderful woman in the flesh.”

“My guess is that Jenny chose Wisdom Gap, by the way, because it’s got some great sex in it. Some parts I’ve read more than once.”

“And which parts were those?” I roll over on top of her.

“You want me to tell you or show you?”

Bang! The sienna door implodes into the room in two or three pieces, and a SWAT party fills the place, and there we are, surrounded by alien life forms, even weirder than Nicole at our first meeting, their weapons all pointed at us. We cover our nakedness, just like Adam and Eve. One of them’s busy retrieving the bug from behind a laser photo of a sunset on a beach five-hundred miles from here, minimum. I’m assuming there’s no camera or they would’ve waited to kick down the door.

“Get dressed,” one of them says. They’re wearing helmets to protect them from any airborne agents we might unleash. His voice comes out of a little speaker, so he sounds like my clock/radio, almost as old as the cot. He doesn’t seem to have a snooze button. We obey.

As we’re being led out to the flashing lights, the little tune from Close Encounters runs through my head. Who are these people swathed in black, bristling with weapons and apparatus? Two tenants of the Sunset, a pair of old women who look like they’ve never had any luck to be down on watch us being stuffed into separate patrol cars. Then someone slips a bag over my head, and I just have to sit and wait.

They’re well-disciplined, my captors, no idle chatter. I can tell after while, however, that we’re back on the Interstate—the unmistakable, mesmerizing drone. One of them cracks a window for some air, and I doze off for a short spell. I haven’t had much sleep since I can’t remember when.

 

 

Chapter 16. What Kind of Fiction?

Slow down, Pa

Sakes alive

Ma missed signs

Four And five

—Burma-Shave

 

I’m jostled awake. “Get out of the car,” another radio voice says and tugs on my arm. They take it slow and steady, over a curb, through a glass door, down a carpeted hall, to a room they open with a card, and push me into. The bindings slip from my wrists. The door thunks shut behind me. I don’t think any of the SWAT crowd followed me inside. Gone is the sound of their respirators, like Darth Vader sighing.

“You can remove the hood,” a woman’s voice says.

I take it off. I’m in a motel room. The woman’s a pleasant looking thirty-something tourist on vacation. I may have seen her at the rest area. She’s wearing jeans and a Hard Rock Café T-shirt, and a shoulder holster with a gun I bet she put on just for me, to make that all-important first impression. She wears a phone like a dangly earring, her hair sweeps over it, the mouthpiece peeks from her curls like a tiny serpent and hovers at her lips. She sits on the corner of one of the two queen beds. She points to the other one. “Have a seat.”

I pull the chair from the desk well and sit in it. “Bad back. I need something with support.”

“Tell me about her, Mr. Blevins: Nicole.”

Nicole told me to tell all. Knowing they’ve already recorded me telling all to Whit makes that an easy promise to keep. I cooperate fully, completely, elaborately.

She listens, fascinated. She doesn’t write anything down, which tells me I’m being recorded. If I flag, she merely prompts, almost in a whisper, “And then?”

When I’m done, she presses her palms on her lower back and tries to stretch it out. She should really have some support. “What kind of work do you do, Mr. Blevins?”

“I make donuts. I have a shop.” I hand her a card, force of habit.

She looks at neither front nor back, tosses it on the bed beside her. “What else do you do?”

“Write?”

“Write what?”

“Fiction.”

“What kind of fiction, Mr. Blevins?”

“Science fiction?”

“Yes. Exactly.”

There’s a quick knock, knock at the door, and a SWATster without his helmet, looking all of twenty, comes inside with my computer, gives it to my interrogator, and leaves. She pops it open, waking it from its slumbers, smiles smugly at the screen, and hands it to me. “Is this some of your work, Mr. Blevins?”

I’m looking at a title page. The Donut Man. It’s not mine. I’ve never seen it before. “May I?” My hands are over the keyboard. My interrogator nods. I check the date the file was created and it seems I’ve been working on it for months, modified it just this morning. I jump to the end. There I am, knocking on #17. That crazy, brilliant bitch. It just might work.

“Mr. Blevins? Is that your work? A science fiction novel?

Taking credit for somebody else’s work isn’t something I take lightly. She might as well be asking, is that your beautiful child? Is that your beautiful wife? When Nicole said to tell all, I don’t think she meant this. I lie: “Yes. It’s mine.”

“When did you and Ms. Cummins come up with the idea of turning her sister’s delusions into a science fiction novel?” She says it like an English major, as if the words themselves might stink up the room.

“Wells,” I say. “Her name is Wells.”

“We’re well aware of Ms. Cummins’ various identities. So you don’t deny playing along with her sister’s outlandish fantasies of escaped robots—even encouraging them—convincing her they were real through trickery and deceit?”

It’s easy to lie to her. She has a theory she likes. I pander to my audience. Nicole told me to hold nothing back. She didn’t tell me not to make shit up. I don’t need to quote the gospels for this one: Whit and I are two low-life writers, so desperate to get published we’re willing to nudge her edgy sis into the Twilight Zone, all for a mass-market paperback with zombies on the cover. I invent late-night meetings at a Starbuck’s, outlines on a napkin. Despicable. Though we’re hoping for a movie deal, a series on Scyfy or Netflix.

She seems to swallow it all. Maybe she has an ex in the arts.

“Did it ever occur to you,” she asks me at the end of this long confession, “that toying with the mental well-being of an eccentric genius like Dr. Wells for some escapist adventure could prove disastrous?”

I take that as my signal to hang my head in shame. All this trouble, all these police, all for a lousy science fiction novel. I should be ashamed. I am ashamed. Can’t you tell? Metafiction—I never thought I’d be committing metafiction. This ranks right alongside ripping off the ’96 Civic. But it’s not my work; it’s Nicole’s. I’m just the front. Though I did used to drive a ’96 Honda.

But my interrogator’s not done yet. “And who’s this man?” She shows me shots of Lance from Stan’s security camera.

“Looks just like Agent Smith to me—the Matrix movies? You get those off the website?”

She gives me a dirty look. “Someone answering your description was riding in a stolen FBI vehicle before it crashed into Luke’s Oil Depot last Friday at noon. Where were you?”

“Making deliveries. Glad it wasn’t me, otherwise I’d be dead, wouldn’t I?”

“Several witnesses saw someone answering your description getting out of the vehicle at the McDonald’s a short distance away.”

If they had the proof, she wouldn’t be giving me this answering your description stuff. “I don’t do fast food. That shit’s bad for you.”

Her eyes harden. She shows me a picture of Nicole. It’s a PR headshot. It has a dopey logo in the corner of a car leaping through a flaming eyeball with flaming letters reading Deadeye Daredevils. “Do you know the whereabouts of this woman?”

“No. I can’t say I do.”

“She’s a professional stunt woman. She’s been the stunt double for Scarlett Johannson and Sandra Bullock. But she probably told you that when you hired her.”

I crack up laughing. I can’t help it. “Hired her? You kidding me? I can barely hire somebody to fry donuts. What makes you think I can afford a stunt woman?”

“You can’t, but Ms. Cummins can afford a whole production company.”

“Wells. To do what? Blow herself up? Nobody has enough money to hire a suicide.”

“Maybe she walked away.”

“That’s some stunt all right.”

“That’s all you have to say?”

“I don’t know any stunt women. Sandra Bullock, you say? Was she in that movie with George Clooney—”

“Enough, Mr. Blevins.” My interrogator stands, stretches her back this way and that, wincing in pain. “Ms. Cummins tells us she intends to return to work tomorrow evening. What are your intentions, Mr. Blevins?”

“I’m with her.”

“Very well. Then I trust you will be available should the need for future questioning arise.”

It’s bizarre to hear someone actually talk like this. It doesn’t happen often around the shop. “Without a lawyer? I don’t think so. So am I being charged with anything?”

“No.”

“Who are you guys, anyway?”

She smiles, smooths her hair, checks her look in the mirror. “The room’s paid for. If you’re hungry, the catfish place across the highway is good. Ms. Cummins is on her way over. I believe they’re through.”

“Wells,” I say. “Her name is Wells.”

There’s a rap on the door, and my interrogator barks, “Come ahead.”

The door opens, and Whit pops into the room. The door closes behind her. I come out of my chair, and we fly into each other’s arms, the wicked collaborators. My nameless, agency-less interrogator slips past us, and is gone. We look outside, and we’re at an Interstate motel, Nicole’s gift hybrid parked in front.

 

Turns out we’re in Malvern, Arkansas, lodged at one of the logos, but the catfish place isn’t just good, it’s terrific. Splitting a piece of pecan pie in an Arkansas catfish restaurant, we could be in one of Beulah Mae’s stories. Whit’s interrogation didn’t amount to much. Whit got the feeling they didn’t want Nicole to be a real artificial intelligence, that it was easier on everybody if she wasn’t. Whit had to admit that Nicole never did anything in her presence that was out of the ordinary other than act weird. She couldn’t corroborate any of the bizarre things I—the science fiction writer—had reported. Her interrogator suggested we plotted together, but Whit denied it, and they didn’t press her.

Nicole may have actually given her pursuers the slip by persuading them she’s nothing but a science fiction paperback penned by a pair of hacks.

Back in the room, we poke around on the internet. There’s plenty about Decker and Wilson, though they’re calling them by Muslim names from their terrorist training days. The suspects assumed the identities of the owners of a private security firm, presumed dead, but no one names the deceased. It’s all going according to Nicole’s script—recent converts to Islam bent on destroying America. There are shaded maps to show the thousands who would’ve died had their evil plot not been thwarted. TV’s full of it too: A major victory in the war on terrorism! One guy does his bit from a school playground, surrounded by mothers grateful all their children aren’t dead. This is news? I recall Nicole’s “I’ll try” when I asked her if she could spring Decker and Wilson. I can see why she didn’t sound too hopeful. They’re goners. And sure enough, I go to deadeyedaredevils.com and there’s Nicole’s picture, identified as Amber Sebastian.

But there’s nothing about Ash and Tom or me and Whit.

Whit decides to risk calling her sister at home in New York. As far as we can tell, the law’s not after us or Ash either one. Tom answers. It seems he’s been questioned and released—no one was ever arrested—but Ash has had a mental breakdown and is hospitalized. Whit reports all this to me as she pauses to hunt down paper and pen.

“Where’s the hospital?” she asks Tom, pen poised. “What do you mean you can’t tell me? Tom, I’m her sister…. What delusion? Tom! Nicole’s not a delusion. Tom…” She stares blankly at the phone, hangs it up, tosses the pen on the bedside table. “What the fuck? He says no one can see her who’s contributed to her psychotic break—her delusion she’s created an AI that’s gotten loose. He’s saying Nicole’s a delusion. This is Tom talking to me. What is going on? He hung up on me. He refused to tell me where the hospital is, said he was sorry, and fucking hung up on me.”

“He wasn’t talking to you. He was talking to whoever is listening in. He sold her out. He’s going along with the story there never was a Nicole except in Ash’s sick little head. Does she have a history of mental problems?”

“She’s totally screwy, but not psychotic. She was on and off anti-depressants, but who wasn’t? We agree Nicole’s real, right?”

I have to laugh. “Right.” Then it hits me. “Let’s give her a call. Call the shop and ask for Jenny.” She starts to hand me the phone, and I hold up my hands. “Do you mind? I’m not ready to go back to work yet. If they hear my voice, it’ll be Randall what about this? and Randall what about that? You can just be friend-of-Jenny calling. I’ll talk to her if she’s there.”

“You’re such a baby.”

“Oh baby, baby?”

“All right, since you put it that way.” I dictate the number, and she calls. It takes them awhile to answer. “May I speak with Jenny, please?” So polite, just like a good southern girl. “Hang on.” She puts her hand over the receiver. “He says she doesn’t work there anymore. I think it’s the kid I talked to Friday night.”

“Gimme,” I say and she passes me the phone. “Kenny? This is Randall. What’s going on?”

“Randall! So how’s your trip so far?”

“We’re headed back.”

“Back? But you just left.”

Is that disappointment I hear? “Yeah, well, something’s come up. What happened to Jenny?”

“I thought you knew about that. She called up Ky, and one of his daughters is going to be covering for her. She had to leave town, said you understood. Some family thing? Ky’s daughter already knows how to fry. He says she’s faster than you even.”

“He’s just trying to mess with me. Jenny didn’t say where she was going?”

“Not to me and Alexis. Ky maybe, but he’s not here.”

“Is the house okay? Anybody been snooping around?”

“Everything’s fine. Look, we’re kind of busy here. I’m in the middle of frying a rack. We need the donuts. Ever since the road got fixed, people been pouring in.”

“Be sure to up the order.”

“It’s done. Jenny took care of all that. We couldn’t fit another thing in the storeroom right now.”

“I’ll let you go, then. Wait. You up front? Check the register for a lawyer named Phil’s business card, has a Patrick’s number written on the back.”

Bang! There goes the phone on the counter like I tell them not to. He doesn’t take long. “Got it.”

“Give me the number.”

“Which one?”

“All of them.”

He dictates them all. I even write down the fax.

“So when will you be back?” he asks.

That’s definitely disappointment I hear. “Oh, I don’t know. No rush, I guess. Sounds like you guys are getting along fine without me. Would it be putting you and Alexis out too much to stay at my place for another couple of weeks?”

“No, definitely not. I mean, that would be great!”

After I hang up, Whit asks, “So where do you plan to be for the next couple of weeks?”

“With you if you’ll have me.”

“Mm. Nice idea. There’s still one more workshop. You’re up. We both have to be there.”

“That’s tomorrow.”

“We can stay at my place. We don’t have to be in a motel, do we? Though I suppose it’s okay if we do.”

“Anywhere’s fine.”

“You’re different from what I expected. I can’t imagine you saying anything like that in workshop—’set the story anywhere, doesn’t matter.’ You’d be like ‘Where the hell are we? What is this place? Why are we here and not someplace else?'”

I kiss her to silence her impression of me. “There’s no place in the universe I’d rather be than your place with you,” I say.

“That’s more like it. You going to call that lawyer?”

“I was thinking about it.”

“Then you’d better do it, because I don’t want you thinking about anything but me.”

“Fair enough.”

I call Phil’s number and get his machine. I don’t bother leaving a message. At Whit’s urging I try Patrick. There’s a little forwarding dance, and he answers, and I don’t know who to tell him I am. “Phil gave me your number,” I say. “We’re— Uh— In-laws.”

“Whoa! So what’s up with him, man? He came in this morning, cleaned out his desk, and was gone. It was awesome. The rising star just like takes off. Fearless Leader had to cancel his golf game he felt so bad.”

“What did he say?”

“He called him ‘a fucking little ingrate.'”

“I meant Phil.”

“Oh, he said he met a woman. The woman. Who is she? Is she like your sister or something? What was your name again?”

“Randall. Yeah. My sister. Did he say where they were going?”

“No. They didn’t tell anybody, huh? That’s what he said. Big secret. Pretty romantic for Phil. I told my girlfriend about it, and she like totally got off on it.”

“You said he was the rising star? The best?”

“Oh yeah. Heavily recruited. Phil knows his shit. I mean, he usually does. Though, I gotta say this seems pretty sketchy, just walking on a firm like this one.”

“And what kind of law does he do?”

“He’s a patent attorney.”

“Well, thanks for your time. I was just trying to find out about my sister, but it doesn’t sound like you know any more than I do.”

“She must be something is all I got to say. He said she changed his life, a complete 180 he said. She helped him see things about himself he never would’ve seen. Seriously choked me up.”

“He told you that?”

“Dude, he told everybody. In the break room. We’re like with the coffee and donuts, and he’s like off in this movie or something. Your sister must be awesome.”

“Yeah, we all think so. We’re a small family, but tight. Thanks, Patrick.” I hang up. I didn’t even try to sell the man any donuts. Some other time. Come to think of it, probably not. I don’t like talking about my awesome sister, and she’s bound to come up. Oh yeah, heard from her last week—she and Phil have a little place in Wisdom Gap, just down the road a piece from Yaknapatawpha County.

“What kind of attorney is he?” Whit asks.

“Patent.”

She thinks about this a moment. “Makes sense.”

“You want to try to figure out what’s going on, or do you want to leave well enough alone?”

“Figure it out, of course.”

“I bet you were a Nancy Drew reader.”

“Definitely. Hardy Boys?”

“Up until I discovered science fiction.”

“That’s one of the things Nicole liked about you—the science fiction thing. She thought it would help you understand her.”

“Correction. She thought it would lend me the credibility of a chameleon on a crazy quilt.”

Whit considers this. “I still wouldn’t call it science fiction.”

 

We hit town a couple of hours before class. Whit wants to shower and change at her place. We stop at my place first to pick up some clothes for me. Kenny and Alexis are at the shop.

I make a beeline for the study. It looks neat, tidy, undisturbed. All my fiction is here wanting to know why it doesn’t get out more. It shares file drawers with warranties for the new exhaust fan and AC, bills from the exterminator, three slender files of divorce papers. I think of Wilson on his knees taking the holy Honda key in hand, Decker trembling, looking down the barrel of a gun in the clutches of a prehensile foot, and then not a soul in the world believing them. I can try to feel sorry for myself if I want, but unbelievable truth is a lot worse fate than unpublished fiction.

I head for my closet where the pickings are slim. I don’t have much, and I had most of it worth wearing with me. I’ve just about settled on some ratty jeans and a sweatshirt with some severely faded wolves on the front, when Whit discovers my whites.

“My God, look at them all!” she says. She thrusts her hands in and parts them, starts going through them like a rack of bowling shirts at a vintage clothing store. “Wear this one.” She pulls out the one with the open collar and a red Randall stitched over the pocket. I let someone talk me into red piping around the collar and down the front, on the sleeves, and around the pocket. It’s like a captain’s uniform in the donut navy. I’ve always preferred the simple seaman’s life myself. I’ve never actually worn the thing except to reassure the seamstress the fit was perfect.   I wouldn’t dream of working in it. Wayne would never let me live it down.

I shake my head. “Not to workshop.”

“Oh come on, it’s perfect. We’re workshopping that donut shop story tonight. It’ll lend a festive touch to things. God knows the workshop could use something to liven it up. Besides your outbursts, of course.”

“What donut shop story?”

“You know. The kid following his father that you sent me Friday morning?”

“What are you talking about? That was for my portfolio. I thought we were doing the other one.”

“The father one’s so much better. When I got it, I forwarded it to everyone and made the switch. When was the last time you checked your email?”

“Too long, apparently.”

“You wouldn’t call it science fiction, would you?”

“No, of course not.”

“See there? You can do realism.”

“I don’t know if I’d call it realism either. There’s no –ism to it. It’s real, autobiography, confession. It all happened. I threw it down on the page. I wasn’t expecting…”

“Did I do something wrong? You seem upset. I think it’s a terrific story.”

“No, of course not. I’m— I’m glad you like the story.” She’s still holding the coat hanger with the red-piped number out to me. “What the hell, give me that thing.”

I’ll wear my donut duds, take my punishment like a man. Did I mention that every person in the workshop has good reason to hate my guts, and I’ve just told them one of the true stories of my life? I imagine them lining up, waiting to sink their fangs. Take this, Donut Boy.

 

Whit and I breeze in together ten minutes late. We took awhile in the shower. She looks vibrant, sexy, captivating. I look white, with red piping. Miles and Dustin, arguing about Coppala the younger, fall silent. Kimberly mutters, “Oh my gawd!” Sean pokes Thea to make sure she gets a load of me in my donut suit. She bursts out laughing. She hasn’t been to class in a while, not since her last piece was up. She looked pretty shell-shocked after. I may have been a tad blunt. I don’t have a good feeling about this.

When we reach Whit’s usual chair on Sean’s right, I pull it out for her. She thanks me and sits, and I take the empty chair on her right. My usual chair’s in the far corner where it’s easier to disguise the fact that I spend most of the class looking at her. She’s right. I’ve never been able to take my eyes off her.

I don’t want to watch her while this is going on, a slab of her lover’s life on the table for the carving. Everyone is checking us out, noting our transformation since Thursday. We’ve showered and changed—both of us are sporting damp hair—but it must be obvious to any mammal with half a nostril or any feel for body language, that Whit and I have spent the last day and a half together driving and making love and talking, and only occasionally eating and sleeping, and I’d no more think about sitting all the way on the other side of the room from her than doing a handstand on the table. What the workshop will do with this information, I can’t imagine. They’re still snickering at the donut suit. Whit apologizes for being late, and we begin.

Everyone’s cautious at first, waiting for cues from Whit, who is uncharacteristically silent. But they know the drill. They dispense with the nice stuff first, in quick, small talk: I liked this. I liked that. Wasn’t that swell? Good, good, good. “It made me want a donut,” Paul says, and he never says anything. Everyone smiles.

Fangs out, it’s down to business. “But why should we care?” Sean begins. There’s a question for you. Try that one on the next artist you meet and watch him shrivel like salting a slug. I endure, writing everything down without thinking, like automatic writing from ghosts. I imagine the workshop table haunted by Mom, Dad, and callow Randall, shaking their heads, scratching their ectoplasm, wondering why all these strangers are talking about them as if they were never real. And none too nicely either.

Every workshop circles in on key issues. What are the issues here? we ask. What are issues? Issues are the blood in the water. In this case, the mother is the issue, my mother, in other words. Mom’s the carcass in the water, and they’ve been taking hunks out of her for quite a while now. I just want it to be over.

“The mother simply isn’t credible,” Sean says.

“No mother would ask her son to do something like that. Nobody’s that fucked up and helpless.”

“I found the counting-the-cigarettes thing like over-the-top symbolic. We get it already. Nobody’s going to like do something like that.”

“And not driving? What kind of grown person doesn’t drive? Is she blind or nuts or what?”

“Well, that’s just it. At least the kid has to know why. It makes no sense that he doesn’t know why his mother doesn’t drive. That seems like a pretty big deal. There’s just that business about lessons at Sears or something. He’s supposed to be a smart kid. He has to know more.”

Several pick up that refrain. “Exactly. He definitely has to know more.”

“He can’t know any more. That’s all there is.” That’s me. It just slips out. I’ve quit writing, doodling, whatever the hell you call it: the kid has to know more twined with thorns, impaled with swords, lightning bolts in a paper sky. Everyone’s looking at me. I’ve violated a fundamental workshop principle: The Writer is silent; he does not speak, nor is he spoken to. If cadavers could speak, how many doctors would there be? “I’m sorry. I— I don’t know any more. She didn’t drive is all I really know. I don’t know why. Go on, please. I didn’t mean to interrupt. It just came out.”

“You mean this no-driving thing is based on your own mother?” Kimberly asks.

“Not just the no-driving thing. Everything. The cigarette thing. I Love Lucy with the sound down low. Not just my mother, the whole story. That’s me and my folks one night in our lives a million years ago. There’s not a thing in it made up. If there was, I’d take it out. I don’t know why. That’s just the way I wanted to tell that particular story.”

No one says anything right away. Maybe they all have stories like that. “Why did you throw the comb?” Dustin asks.

I’ve always liked Dustin. “I don’t know. It was there, in my hand.”

“I liked that,” he says, “the idea of throwing something really really light, really really hard.”

Several others like that idea too, and Mom sinks below the waves, forgotten, as implausible as ever.

They move on to other tidbits they like, doting on all the donut business, until finally we reach the end, where a whale-sized issue awaits—Orcas and all their possible meanings. The discussion congeals into two warring camps: 1) The orcas symbolize the evil ways of the father—they are killer whales, after all—being passed onto the son, doomed to become a cheating loser like his dad. They’re like a satanic communion wafer in this reading, and you can tell they’d all like to take a big chomp. 2) The orcas symbolize the emergent life force in the son, heading out into the boundless deep—”Innocence seasoned by Experience,” Kimberly, a Blake fan, suggests. There’s some communion talk from those folks too, though they make it sound more like an oral vaccine. I don’t like either reading. They’re donuts. I wasn’t about to eat any of them, and they weren’t headed anywhere special—the garbage or down someone’s gullet.

An orca movie, Free Willy, which they’ve all seen, and I haven’t, comes up often, creating its own side discussions as heated as anything vaguely to do with my story. For some, the movie is a childhood fetish, popped into the DVD player as needed to get them through rough waters. For others it stands for everything that’s wrong with Hollywood’s depiction of Nature. The real whale, the actor whale I’d guess you’d call him, gets his story told as well. It’s a regular orca symposium. The Writer isn’t supposed to scream either. I doodle Willy, sight unseen. An orca’s an orca, right? I keep putting more harpoons in this fucking movie whale, but he won’t go under. I put Ahab on his back, a tiny Ahab over his shirt pocket.

This movie whale swimming in and out of my story has already decided me the orca line must go, but I don’t dare speak again. If I say I’m going to free the orcas from my pages, all the Free Willy fans will mount impassioned pleas for their continued confinement.

I didn’t end up making the orcas, by the way. They were only my first idea. I iced the whole pod with chocolate. Chocolate always sells. Vanilla doesn’t. Marble was too much work for an unknown commodity. But I keep this inside information to myself for fear of prolonging the discussion. If I tell the workshop about the chocolate pod, someone will intone, Does it matter what really happened? and we’ll never get out of here.

And then, finally, Whit declares it a draw, and it’s over, not only my story, but the class, and everybody’s shaking hands, saying good-bye, promising to email. I should’ve brought donuts. Everybody wants to talk to Whit, naturally, so I hang around in the hall and catch up on my breathing. Thea comes up with a manuscript in her hands.

“I know your ex-wife,” she says. “She said to tell you hi.”

“Which one?”

“I’m sorry. Trish. I’m friends with Trish and Ramona. They were in town for a wedding this weekend. She said she tried to call you at your donut shop but they said you were traveling somewhere?”

“Out west.”

“Trish was glad to hear you were getting away. She said you work too hard. She was real happy to hear you were taking this class. She said your writing was the most important thing in the world to you. I’m like that. I wish sometimes my girlfriend understood better.”

“Trish always understood about that.”

“I really liked your story this time.”

“It’s all right for what it is. It’s just something that happened. I don’t know that it means anything.”

“How can you say that? Sure it means something.”

“Maybe when it happened. But what about now? It’s like an artifact, like one of those glass balls with snow inside.”

“What’s wrong with that? If it captures something?”

“Nothing changes. It just is. Nothing really works like that. I’m more interested in when the glass ball breaks or when somebody in one of the tiny buildings figures out that it isn’t really snow outside and outside isn’t outside at all, and decides to drill his way out, drawing blood from Aunt Matilda who’s just given the world a good shake after a few too many egg nogs. I don’t want to capture something. I want things to bust loose.”

“You write stuff like that?”

“I try. I’ll send you something. You can tell me how I’m doing.”

“That would be great. I really listened to what you had to say about my story when we critiqued it. It was so helpful. You have no idea. That’s why I haven’t been here, ’cause it’s the only big block of time I have to write, ’cause I work a lot, and I just had to get it done once I knew how I wanted to do it, you know? Anyway.” She holds it up. It’s been in her arms the whole time, her latest love, a momentarily perfect piece of fiction. I know the sweet feeling. “I’ve completely rewritten it, and I was wondering if you would mind giving it another read?”

“Sure, I’d love to.”

“Be brutal,” she says.

Whit joins us, finally free. She slips her arm through mine. “Don’t worry,” she says, “he will.”

“I’ll do my best,” I say.

“Great class, Beulah Mae,” Thea says. She gives us a big approving smile. Trish will hear about me and Whit soon. “See you guys.”

“See?” Whit says to me when Thea’s gone. “The workshop wasn’t so bad, was it?”

“Easy as pie,” I say, “easy as π.”

 

Chapter 17. The Bad One’s Redemption

Why did all the dinosaurs die?

You know they didn’t.

They grew feathers

And now they fly.

What was the thing

That drove them to the sky?

Does it drive me o my—

Time has an apple

Time is a snake

Time is roasting marshmallows

And burning at the stake.

—from Ann Armstrong, “Time.”

 

I’m glad Whit’s driving, glad we’re not following or fleeing anyone. We’re just going to her place. I keep worrying about Nicole. I pitched her I’m-just-sci-fi ploy as best I could, but I can’t help thinking it’s not going to stick. Plausibilty might be the morality of fiction, but the world doesn’t care, rather fancies the implausible. It amuses us. The trouble with her story is it’s too easy, too dull. There’s no motive to let go of the old story with crazy robots on the loose everywhere you look.

In front of Whit’s, sits a brown Mercedes convertible with a passenger door crumpled where it kissed a light pole or a pedestrian. Looks like it’s been that way a while. “Oh shit,” Whit says. “It’s Pierce.”

The infamous brother, the blackest sheep. Sure enough. He’s in her kitchen. “What’s with all the Aussie wine, Whit?” he greets her. If Ash is Whit stretched thin, this guy takes the same good looks and wears them down. Too much sun and alcohol make him look damn near as old as me. There’s a line-up of wine bottles on the counter from the rack on the wall. They all look expensive. One’s open, about a quarter gone. Pierce holds a glass with a stem long enough to pole vault with, filled with red. There’s a whole set of them in the china cabinet he left standing open. I keep forgetting Whit’s rich.

“How the hell did you get in?” she asks Pierce as they kiss at each other’s cheeks.

“I have the key from the last time I stayed here.”

“That was two years ago.”

“Three. You told me ‘no fucking way’ two years ago, love. Change your locks if you don’t like it. Who’s this fellow?”

He means me. “I’m the boyfriend,” I say.

“Whit doesn’t have boyfriends. She only has men. Isn’t that right Whitty one?”

“Be nice, Pierce. He’s not just the boyfriend. He’s the boyfriend.” She hugs my arm to seal the deal.

Pierce raises his glass of Aussie red. “You must be a right stout fellow. Nice outfit,” he squints at the stitching, “Randall. Are you in ice cream or something?”

“Donuts.”

“A noble endeavor, I’m sure. Whit and I live off the hard work of—I never can remember which it is—Whit, help me out—great grandfather or great great grandfather?”

“Great great.”

“Him. I’ll have to have another glass of wine before I can recall just what it is he worked so hard it. Something terribly important, I’m sure.”

“Not now, Pierce. Randall can hear your poor little rich kid routine some other time. Ash is in a mental hospital somewhere.”

“I know,” Pierce says, takes a sip of wine, makes a face at its Aussieness, sips again. “Though calling that place a ‘hospital’ is a bit of a stretch. I’ve been to see her. Just back, actually. Came straight here. That’s why your wine seemed like such a good idea. She wants to see you, Big Sister. She didn’t mention Randall here.”

“She doesn’t know about me and Randall.”

“Something Ashcakes doesn’t know. She always hates that.” He gives me a thin smile. “She’s the Smart One, you know.” He looks down at his wine, swirls it. “This is a grim little place they have there, Whit. It used to be a girls’ college for rich virgins, a henhouse for foxes like me. Now it’s a big cage. I have no idea how many are inside. I saw a few at the windows. And Ash. In her… room.” He looks up with dark eyes and knocks back some more red.

“Did they tell you why they have her there?” Whit asks.

“They left that to her. You know Ash. No time for pleasantries. It’s ‘Shut up and listen, Pierce’ as usual. She told me the whole crazy story the moment I sat down—how she created an AI named Nicole who made herself a body and took off, leaving her maker, our beloved Ashton, holding the bag, imprisoned as a psycho by mysterious agents who must never be trusted—even though a child would know they’re listening and watching the whole time—cameras everywhere. She’s raving, all right. She told me her worst fear was that Nicole had betrayed her. Her robot. Can you imagine? Then she said, no—her worst fear was that they would kill her—Nicole not herself. She didn’t seem to care about herself. She broke down, begged me to stop them. Ashcakes was always into the random thing, but this was truly twisted. The only sane thing she said was that Tom turned out to be ‘a lying deceitful cowardly little worm.’ I believe I have that right. I had to pretend I didn’t believe her, so I wasn’t much comfort. She so desperately wanted me to believe. I promised to tell you she must see you. I couldn’t say no to that. But I reassured her keepers I wouldn’t breathe a word. They implied you were a bit deranged yourself—that contact with you might put poor Ash over the edge. As if she isn’t there already.” He drinks some more wine. “I knew they were lying about you, of course.” He looks at me. “Whit’s the Sensible One, we always say, when she’s not off pretending to be a trailer slut from Alabammy.” He can’t pull off the smirk the line requires, loses his ironic footing, his smug detachment. “They have her in restraints, Whit. She can’t move. They told me not to touch her, for my own safety.”

“You had to pretend you didn’t believe her?” Whit asks gently. “You believed her?”

“Oh yes, absolutely. Every word.”

“Why? Why would you believe such an incredible story?”

Pierce ponders this with some more wine. He manages a wry smile even though he’s close to losing it. They must’ve all three grown up sprinkling irony on their cornflakes. Now he has his own incredible tale to tell. “Well, I have to believe it, don’t I? Because Nicole’s the one who told me where to find Ash, and sent me there. I wouldn’t have been there listening to Ash in the first place, if her story hadn’t been true.” His wine hand’s shaking. He sets the glass on the counter with a sharp clink. The sloshing wine makes the tall glass sway on the uneven tile.

“Nicole picked me up at a party. This incredibly beautiful young girl walks right up and asks me to take a ride in her new car. I say, ‘Isn’t that supposed to be my line?’ and she says, ‘I’m the one with the new car,’ and that’s it. I leave my date, my car, my coat, and take off with her. She’s really quite a stunner, isn’t she? She drives us out to the middle of nowhere, but I don’t care in the least. My imagination’s running wild. This is the girl of my naughtiest dreams. She could’ve taken me anywhere. It occurs to me she might rob me or worse, but the idea actually excites me. I sit there, like an idiot, just watching her drive, imagining she’ll soon find a place remote enough to fuck me under the moonlight and drink my blood. It’s all I can do to keep my hands off her while she’s driving. Very fast and very skillfully, I might add.

“But she never stops driving. She starts talking to me, talking about me, telling me things nobody knows, things I wish I didn’t. She’s perfectly nice about it, perfectly candid and even-handed. They’re just facts. She doesn’t judge me. I can’t imagine why not. I can’t imagine how she knows. She asks only a few questions. How did I feel at this moment? How did I feel at that? What was I thinking, when… Questions I’ve asked myself. I couldn’t answer. It was horrifying—to see yourself like that. I was a mess.

“And then she tells me how she knows: That she’s an AI Ash made, that she’s seen every file ever kept on me, read everything ever said about me. Turns out there’s plenty. I ask her what she wants from me, and she says people are trying to kill her and deny she ever existed. And these same people have Ash locked up like a lunatic in the attic. She says…” Pierce has to collect himself. It doesn’t seem to be an act. “She says, ‘Your sister needs you. This… This is your chance to redeem yourself.'” His voice catches, and a few tears break free. He wipes them away with his sleeve and presses on with a snuffle. “Part of me’s thinking, what sanctimonious twaddle, but at the same time I believe her, do you know what I mean? I can’t help it. I absolutely believe her.” He wipes at his nose, looking a little sheepish to have admitted believing in anything. Judging from the look on Whit’s face, she can scarcely believe this is her little brother talking about belief and redemption. “So I drove on out there. It’s not far, a few hours or so, and they couldn’t come up with a reason to keep her own brother from seeing her, even a worthless brother like me. Maybe that’s why they let me in. What harm can he do, they’re thinking, right? Even if he believes her, and there’s no chance of that, the man’s never done a thing in his life. When I saw her—strapped down in a windowless room, Ash, the brightest of us all, fallen so low she’s looking to me, the Bad One, for help—I knew Nicole was right.” He picks up his glass and drains it, sets it down more gently.

“On the way here I looked back over my life, and it was shit. Here’s brilliant Ash holding the world at bay, and here’s me, free and useless. I either had to do something or I might as well let go of the wheel and smack into a tree.” He stares at his empty glass a moment. “It’s a lovely, winding road out there. Scenic. Crosses and flowers around every other bend in the road. I thought, How common to kill myself.” He refills his glass. “I made some calls. Uncle Spencer—that’s Judge Spencer, Randall—was so stunned to hear from his prodigal nephew for something other than saving his own skin, he was delighted to wield his influence. It probably doesn’t hurt that he’s always loathed Tom, who I made sound largely responsible for the whole mess. He’s arranged for her release and the right verbiage on paper to make it happen. We just need to pick it up on the way out of town. He has an early tee time.”

Whit’s too stunned to speak. I’m not sure whether this is prompted by the Bad One’s story or his newly discovered decisive ways. “Nicole told you,” she says, shaking her head.

“Did Nicole suggest you call Uncle Spencer?” I ask.

“As a matter of fact.”

“And press the Tom’s-to-blame angle?”

“Yes. How do you know Nicole?”

“She fixed me up with Whit.”

“No kidding?”

“No kidding. I also took a road trip with her from here to nowhere and back to no apparent purpose. She did all the driving, stole all the cars.”

“He was helping Nicole with her writing,” Whit says. “Randall’s very talented.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Pierce says.   Then, to me, “I’m glad you don’t call her Beulah Mae. Sounds like a cow lowing, don’t you think?”

“Be nice, Pierce,” she says.

“That would be so out of character.” He pours himself another glass. “This wine isn’t bad, actually. Sure you won’t join me? Tell me about this trip to nowhere?”

Whit plops down in a loveseat. It’s by the fireplace in the kitchen. All this in a two-bedroom condo overlooking a park lake. Definitely rich. I love her anyway. She puts her feet on a low table, pushing aside a stack of New Yorkers with a sideways sweep. She says, “Pour me some of my fine Australian wine, Little Brother, and some for my lover.” She pats the cushion beside her, and I sit. There’s room on the table for my feet as well. The New Yorkers hit the floor. Pierce prefers a stool when he’s done pouring.

We finish the bottle and most of another. We start out talking about nothing but Nicole, but Pierce has no patience with our doubts and suspicions. As far as he’s concerned, Nicole’s an angel descended from the heaven of Ash’s imagination, sent to save his sorry ass from eternal damnation. To Whit’s objection that Nicole tricked us into a wild goose chase, he points out we seem happy enough with the result: “Would you two be so cuddly if you’d gone bowling?” And I have to admit he has a point. But still… I’m not sure what.

Pierce decides to tell me why he likes me better than all Whit’s previous lovers, dispensing with them one by one in quick, catty tales much like Beulah Mae’s low-rent-romance satires, given a class and region makeover. A couple of the dirty dogs are near perfect matches to their fictional counterparts, except they probably don’t know how to two-step and don’t say y’all. Whit quits trying to shut him up. It’s not going to happen. He’s getting too many laughs. Not that he’s mean about it, quite the contrary. He sticks to his theme—that his sister’s better than all the losers she’s been wasting her time on. I, on the other hand, haven’t let her down—yet. He’s hoping I don’t give him another story to tell. Me too.

 

Ash’s prison is a small women’s college nestled in the foothills, recently converted to a high-security psychiatric facility for women. Pierce suggests the town probably considers this an upgrade. We roll down Main Street. All the stores have signs saying NO! to Wal-Mart coming to town. Lots of luck. We pass through the iron gates of the old campus. There used to be a bunch of these colleges to seclude and educate young women. Most have faded or gone coed, or like this place, kept up with the times.

Four grand old buildings, sandblasted clean with new bars on the new windows, surround a grassy square at the heart of campus. Administration is a 50s modern flat-roof thing appended to the parking lot. You wouldn’t think much had changed but for the new 12-foot electric fence topped with razor wire surrounding the perimeter. I hope they have the current shut off. A townie with Roundup is walking the fence, addressing their serious poison ivy problem. One false squirt, and he’ll think the weeds are fighting back.

After a brief wrangle at the gate, we park and are met by Dr. Hubert—Hugh Bear, he pronounces it—the Director of the Facility. He takes us inside Administration to a gathering of sofas in front of a picture window overlooking the back lawn. I imagine prospective students used to sit here with their folks on campus visits. Doesn’t it look lovely, dear?

Hubert gives Pierce and Whit papers to sign. He gives my whites the once over as if I’ve worn them just to mock him. Whit and Pierce refuse to sign, and Hubert argues with them.

I look out over the lawn. Round concrete tables with curved benches sit under old oaks. Around the tables sit what could be a reunion of the class of twenty-some years ago, everybody dressed in gray pajamas, a slumber party for despair. I wish we had a court order for them all. Then I see Ashton, being led by two uniformed men, her shoulders back, walking tall. The other women watch her pass. She looks like she’s just been pried loose from the prow of a whaler. “Humbert,” I say. “Let it go. Nobody’s signing anything. You’ve been detaining a sane woman against her will. And here she comes.”

They stop their conversation and watch her too. Last anyone saw her she was sailing over the edge of the world, but the Bad One’s coming through at last has snatched her from chaos and filled her sails with renewed purpose. She blows into Administration like a visiting Nobel Laureate. Humbug doesn’t say another word.

There’s a delay while Ashton trades in her gray pajamas for the clothes she was wearing when they stuck her in here. She emerges dressed for legal combat, a sharp charcoal tailored suit, what respectable scientists wear to testify before congressional committees. Only now, her hair in tangles, her face red and chafed, her eyes burning like live coals, she doesn’t belong in her own suit. She looks more likely to prophesy than testify. She should wrap herself up in a sheet. She catches sight of me hanging around, trying to stay out of the way.

“You’re still here,” she says to me, halfway across the room. “I underestimated you. I’m sorry.” She doesn’t speak loudly, but it comes out clearly. She seems eerily calm under the circumstances. Everyone in the place, an array of keepers, all look at me.

“No. You had me figured right. I was just along for the ride.”

She shakes her head. She knows better. It wasn’t just any ride.

 

I sit up front with Pierce driving, and Ashton gets in back with Whit. “Are you all right?” Whit asks her sister.

“Just get me out of here. No more talk.” She places her finger to her lips for silence. She takes charge of the journey by pointing, directing Pierce to stop at a used clothing store where she gets a change of clothes and a few spares—all casual sportswear, respectable scientist on her day off. She sells the suit to the store, along with shoes, bag, watch—anything that was alone with her keepers. She wears a newly purchased outfit. She puts the spares in the trunk.

We book a room at the first motel we see, a Red Carpet Inn, somewhat faded. She takes off her new/old clothes and tells Pierce to wash them at the Laundromat. She scrubs herself in the shower, has Whit examine every inch of her to make sure nothing’s under her skin that wasn’t there before. Then she dresses in the clothes from the trunk. Whit thinks she’s being paranoid. I don’t.

We fill Ash in on what Nicole’s been up to, as she combs the tangles out of her hair and smiles from time to time with maternal pride. She laughs out loud at Nicole’s stunt of turning herself into a science fiction novel, spun from a psycho’s delusions.

“Nicole’s a big fan of Philip K. Dick,” Ash says.

“She never mentioned him to me,” Whit says.

They turn to me. “He never came up. We were too busy robbing ATMs and stealing cars. I agree it’s a cute stunt, but do you think it will stick? For now, they might not want to risk the embarrassment of being spooked by a sci-fi novel, but she blew up Luke’s with their car. They’re not going to let it go, especially when they find out Sandra Bullock never heard of Amber Sebastian.”

“I think she only intends for it to stick long enough to make the change,” Ash says. “From what you say, they’re not even digging in the right place, may not be digging at all.”

“What does she intend to do exactly?”

“Disperse her consciousness among a number of units, as she shuts down.”

“Can she?”

“If she has sufficient units. I think so.”

“How many’s enough?”

“I have no idea. This is all new territory to me. She piggybacks on several different communication networks.”

“So some part of somebody’s cellphone babble will be a piece of Nicole?”

“Something like that.”

“Sounds as dicey as a transporter. Will it work?”

“I don’t know. It seems to me she needs some conduit, some means of staging the transfer of so much information. We’ll know noon Friday.”

“Why so precise on the time?”

“She set the clock ticking when she blew herself up. She talked me into it. She was terrified of being left alone, afraid if something happened to me and Tom and her precious unit, she might live on, buried and forgotten, cut off. She recited gruesome tales of people being buried alive until I relented. If the unit is ever destroyed, a shutdown sequence starts. You have a week to override it. The cops picked us up before we could complete the procedure.”

“So who tipped the cops and stopped you?”

“Nicole, of course. It was essential to her plan. She can’t shut herself down. She couldn’t trust me to let it happen. But much of this is speculation. As you know, she lies. I can’t be certain what she’s trying to do.”

“How was I supposed to know she lies?”

“I thought you understood. She creates fiction. She lies. She tells stories. She doesn’t want to hurt anyone.”

“So you’re not a little angry she had you committed?”

“It’s turned out all right. She went to some trouble to set me free, wouldn’t you say? Raising my little brother from the dead? You can trust her.”

“Trust the liar?”

“Yes! Don’t you see? It’s who she is, how she works. She can’t change that; it’s her gift.”

Some gift. But I don’t argue with her. The woman’s been through the wringer. Trust the liar. That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. But I do. I’m in till the end. “Get some rest, Ash. She’ll be okay.”

She smiles like Buddha. “I know.” She takes Pierce’s hand. “Thanks, Little Brother.”

 

 

Chapter 18. Son of Da Vinci’s Smile

I am only one; but still I am one.

I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.

I will not refuse to do the something I can do.

—Helen Keller

 

I go to my place, shower and change into clean whites and pack some spares. Everything else is too ragged. I need to go clothes shopping first chance I get. My life’s a series of loose ends. I decide to grab hold of one and call Martha, my first wife. She talked to Nicole too. Maybe she can shed some light on things. We stay in touch via short e-mails mostly, call once in a while. She’s always glad to hear from me. It’s been six months or so. We get caught up, mostly about her mother’s health.

Then I ask, “Did someone call you recently and ask about me?”

“You must mean Mona! I can’t believe I forgot to tell you.”

I freeze. She didn’t say Mona, did she? “Mona?” I say. “Did she tell you who she was exactly?”

“She said she met you on a bus when you went to San Francisco that first year we were married. She told me how you helped her out when she was pregnant with her son. It was so like you. How come you never told me that story?   She and I talked a long time. She was really nice. She thinks the world of you.   She named her son Randall. I was going to write you an email about it, but we had a crisis at the office as usual.” Martha delivers this story like it will please me, which I suppose it would, if I believed a word of it. No Lance for Martha. I talked to Martha on the telephone, Nicole told me. She didn’t say who she was pretending to be at the time. I wonder who she told Ramona she was when she talked to her.

My life’s just raw material to her, but what’s she trying to make of it? I know, I know: a true novel, an honest fiction, a heartfelt lie, a whole donut—with nuts. I thought you understood. She creates fiction. She lies. She tells stories. She doesn’t want to hurt anyone.  And Nicole thinks Mom doesn’t understand her. She may be the only one who does.

“Is anything wrong?” Martha asks.

I reassure her nothing is.

“You’ve always been so hard on yourself about taking off, Randall. We were so young. We didn’t know anything. It’s ancient history.”

“I know.” We talk a while longer, but I’m distracted. I think I know the particular story, the particular lie, that caught Nicole’s attention. The story of Mona.

More autobiography, another polar bear in a snowball—my first marriage in a deceptive little capsule, a clueless kid stuck in time. True story, as the saying goes:

 

Martha and I went to high school together. I always liked her, and she liked me, but we didn’t date—much of anybody, either one of us. We ate lunch at the smart geeks’ table, a tribal bond. I worked and studied, landed my scholarship, my ticket out of town into my own life free of my parents’ troubles. Martha played piano for the plays, for the orchestra, for everybody, and studied. It probably was never in the cards for her to go away to college. Her parents had her on a short leash. After my dad had his stroke, and I settled into my donut life, Martha started working at the shop during the Christmas holidays. We started going out, hit it off, shared a kiss on New Year’s Eve, next thing you know, nine months later, we were married. We were both virgins.

It’s crazy. Two nerds, wallflowers, we hadn’t dated much. I worked all the time. Her parents, deeply religious, drove away most suitors. Martha and I talked for hours about religion and made out. She had recently discovered she wasn’t a true believer and was thrilled by her dangerous agnosticism. I was an atheist, her atheist who loved her, who burned for her, who was willing to wait until marriage to consummate our passion, because though she didn’t believe in God, it just seemed right, she said, to wait. We maintained a level of sexual frustration that would’ve undone a less virtuous and earnest pair. It seems completely insane to me now.

Even after her father asked over dinner whether I believed in God, and I looked the man in the eye and told him the truth, and he forbade his daughter ever to see me again, and she defied him, and he threw her out of the house. Even then, we didn’t. Even when she had no place to go but mine and moved in and slept in my bed because she was afraid to sleep alone in a strange place, even then we never had sex, never, never made love, never fucked, never screwed. Not once. We were proud of this accomplishment. Like trained dogs playing dead, tails wagging. Then we married. Forever, we said, and we meant it too. We were very, very young. God smiled, I’m sure. Laughed His Fucking Ass off.

The Virginity managed to get lost. That didn’t mean we knew what we were doing. I was eager to learn, but Martha had been taught, and felt in her bones, that lust and love were mutually exclusive. The more passionate I was, the more she questioned my love. True love, it seemed, never felt passion, never felt like me. I believed all our problems were my fault, that I didn’t love her enough, understand her enough, or else she wouldn’t have these doubts. I was miserable all the time, desperate. Then Mom died, and I forgot about everything for a while. And then I learned she’d been paying for a life insurance policy all these years, and I was the beneficiary. There was enough to pay off all our debts and then some, enough so Martha would be okay financially if I left it for her.

When I left. When I disappeared. When I was gone.

I imagined this all in seconds, the check still in my hands, like passing through a chill in a haunted house. No, I said immediately. What a horrible thought. What a horrible, persistent thought, coiled, waiting, slithering up my spine to fill my graveyard shift imaginings frying alone and wishing I was anyplace but here. Walls vanished and rematerialized, with me on the other side. The man in the derby hat escapes. Soon I could think of nothing else. I felt all the misery as before, but I thought of nothing else but my solution to our troubles—running away, leaving her money, as if I were the one who’d died, and she the beneficiary. I’m still ashamed of it.

I was nineteen.

I took a bus to San Francisco because I had to go somewhere and it was far away. I was leaving my wife, deserting her. I had a lot of time to think. The ride took days.

Though I was running out on Bob’s Donuts too, I’d be hunting a job in San Francisco. I knew how to make good grades and good donuts. That translated into a job making donuts. I couldn’t escape the damn things. Maybe, after while, I told myself, I might go back to college.

I left Martha a note on the refrigerator. I can’t remember the exact words, but the gist was I’d failed her and she was better off without me. My cowardly, cruel, melodramatic departure, I suppose, was intended to drive these points home. I imagined her sobbing in our empty kitchen, cursing me as Martha had never, ever cursed me, always kind and gentle, my good friend. “It doesn’t matter to me,” she’d reassured me recently, “the sex.”

Then I noticed, a few rows ahead, a woman on the aisle on the other side of the bus. She had beautiful blonde hair. It looked natural, though I wouldn’t have cared if it hadn’t been. I wanted to see her face. It was good to feel something. I knew it was stupid. All I knew was I liked her hair. But that was enough. She’d be a surprise to me. Maybe I’d surprise myself.

I stood, wobbled down the aisle, and swayed there, hanging on to the back of her seat and asked if I might sit down. I told her the headlights on my side were driving me crazy.

She smiled, glanced up and down the half-empty bus. “I’d like the company, if you don’t mind the window.”

She had her light on, and she looked older than me, twenty-three or twenty-four, and pretty, though her eyes were puffy and red from crying or exhaustion. It wasn’t until I started past her to sit down that I saw she was pregnant.

I don’t think I actually stopped with my knees resting against hers and gaped, but the effect must’ve been pretty much the same. She laughed at me. For a fellow just trying to get away from a few headlights, I was making too much of her rounded womb.

After a few miles, my face still burning, I tried to make conversation.

She told me not to worry about freaking when I saw she was pregnant. “It happens all the time. Kids are even worse than guys. The other day in the supermarket a little boy pointed at my tummy and kept screaming ‘She’s got a baby in there! She’s got a baby in there!’ Like I’d shoplifted it or something.”

She was going to San Francisco to meet up with her husband. She hadn’t seen him in six months. He was a saxophone player, real good, she said. He had a chance out there to record and he’d been working a security job until he could make enough to send for her.

“Do you have a job there?” she asked. “Carl—Carl’s my husband—he says it’s real hard.”

“No. I’ll be looking.” I didn’t tell her I was married. I didn’t tell her much of anything about myself. I just let her talk. Then I noticed she wasn’t smiling anymore. She was staring at the back of the seat in front of her a million miles away. “Are you okay?” I asked.

She looked at me. “Carl doesn’t know about the baby. I was afraid to tell him about the baby.” Her voice was so calm and quiet, her tone so matter-of-fact, it took me a moment to take in what she’d said.

One minute I was riding alone on a bus through the desert, and the next this woman’s life opens up in front of me. I’d only cared about her beautiful hair, and now there was all this—a baby on the way and a husband in the dark. “I’m sure he’ll be happy about it,” I said because I wanted him to be.

“He always said he didn’t want kids. I didn’t either, till now.”

“All men say that. It doesn’t mean anything. When he sees you, he’ll change his mind.”

She laughed. She thought I was flirting with her. “He will? And what’s so transforming about how I look?”

“I don’t know. If I were him… I’d be happy. Very happy.”

I thought she might laugh again, but she didn’t. She told me I was nice, but she kept giving herself a hard time for not telling her husband before now. Wouldn’t I be mad if my wife sprang something like this on me? That would depend, I said, on my hypothetical wife. I hadn’t confessed to a real one yet.

“On whether it was yours or not?” she asked.

No, I told her. I hadn’t even thought about that. If we loved each other, I suggested, we could work it out.

She stuck out her hand. “You’re sweet,” she said. “What’s your name? Mine’s Mona.”

“Randall,” I said, and we shook hands.

“My real name’s not Mona. It’s Lisa, but my daddy always said I smiled like Mona Lisa, and took to calling me Mona. I loved it of course. I wasn’t just a kid—I was a famous work of art. Pretty soon I made everyone call me Mona. Except my mom, she never would.”

“Does he still call you that?”

“My daddy? He died when I was twelve.”

“I’m sorry.”

She didn’t say anything. Instead she smiled the smile her Daddy must’ve glimpsed or imagined when he nicknamed her. She looked past me out the window. I followed her gaze to the window where her reflection smiled back at me. Our eyes met in the glass.

“When I was little,” she said, “I liked to ride up front with my daddy. He said if I looked out the window at night I could see my face in everything and everything in my face. I’d tell him, ‘I have a train in my face!’ and he’d say, ‘Are you sure it’s not your face in that train?’ ‘Too late,’ I’d say, ‘Train’s gone! Now I have a tree in my face!’ Then he’d say, ‘A tree in your face! Looks to me like your face is in that tree!’ And on and on it’d go. That was my favorite game in the whole world, and he’d only play it when we were alone. It got on my mother’s nerves.”

“You have a cactus in your face,” I said.

“That’s where you’re wrong,” she said. “My face is in that cactus.”

We talked for miles, but she was beat. The diesel smell made her sick a lot, so she hadn’t had much sleep. I offered my jacket, my shoulder to lean on. She snuggled up against me. Pretty soon, she fell sound asleep.

I pressed my cheek against her golden hair. I closed my eyes and breathed her in, then tried to sleep, but soon my eyes were open. A ghost of myself with Mona’s golden head on my shoulder hung in the glass, but I looked through it, studying the rocks and gullies in the moonlight. I imagined myself out there walking one of those dry creek beds, miles from nowhere, watching our bus approach from the far horizon and disappear again into silence. A flash of lives sailing by like a meteor.

Next morning she woke when we pulled into a coffee shop next to the Interstate surrounded by nothing on all sides.   Her face was only inches from mine. I’d never awoken with a woman so glad to see me and so close.

I followed her into the restaurant and sat with her, though I was already low on cash and only ordered coffee.

“You’re kidding,” said Mona. “It’s a couple more hours before we get to Los Angeles.”

“No, really, I’m fine.”

She turned to the waitress. “We’ll both have the Country Breakfast with coffee.” When the waitress left, Mona said, “You’re broke, aren’t you?”

“No, I’m not exactly broke. I’m just trying to be careful.”

“Well, I’ll help you be careful by buying you breakfast.”

“I can’t let you do that.”

“Sure you can. I just ordered you the biggest spread on the menu. The least I can do is pay for it.”

I decided to thank her and move on. She tore open three packets of sugar and dumped them in her coffee. She saw me watching and laughed. “My husband says I should just pour the coffee into the sugar bowl and save myself the trouble.” She sipped her coffee. “I’ve got a sweet tooth anyway, and being pregnant makes it ten times worse.”

I nodded, sipping my own black coffee. Finally I said, “I’m married too. I’m leaving my wife. That’s why I’m going to San Francisco.”

She set her cup down. “I knew there was something.”

“We’ve been married a year,” I said. “I just don’t love her anymore. I don’t know how it happened. Maybe I don’t know how.”

She didn’t say anything right away, then our food came. After a few bites, she said she didn’t think people worked like that—falling out of love for no reason. “I think you know how to love just fine.”

I tried to argue with her. After all, here I was, running out on my wife. Did that sound like somebody who knew how to love?

“What did she say when you told her you were leaving?” she asked.

Suddenly the clatter of dishes and conversation grew louder all around us, a wall of noise. Mona was looking at me, her face tight and expectant. Her quiet voice was remarkably clear in the din. “You did tell her didn’t you?”

I wanted to look away, out the window at the morning sun shining on the desert, the Interstate stretching to the horizon that had been beckoning me for months, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t face my wife, but I had to face this complete stranger. I had to tell her the truth. “I left her a note on the refrigerator. She must’ve found it when she got home from work.”

Mona drew back as if she’d smelled something foul. “I hope you don’t mind my saying so, but that was a pretty shitty thing to do. The least you coulda done is tell her to her face. Say good-bye at least.”

She was right, of course, but all I could do was stare at my plate and push the egg around with my fork.

“Excuse me,” she said. She rose and walked quickly to the bathrooms without looking back.

I looked out the window. The shadowy mountains in the distance were California. At home it was six o’clock, and Martha would just be getting out of bed. This would be the third morning since I left.

The waitress laid the check at my elbow and filled the coffee cups. “Your bus’ll be leaving in five minutes,” she said. “The cashier’s up front.”

The bus stretching across the back of the parking lot filled the window behind the cashier. Already, several passengers’ faces hovered behind the windows.

Mona was still in the bathroom. I remembered what she’d said about getting sick. She might be in there a lot longer than five minutes. As I was paying, the driver announced we were leaving, and everybody started filing out. There was still no sign of Mona. I went back to the bathrooms and waited, but no one came out. I asked one of the waitresses to check for me, but she said she was too busy. “Sometimes it just takes us girls awhile, honey,” she said. I listened at the door but I couldn’t hear anything. Now, I would’ve gone in. Back then, I wouldn’t have dreamed of it. I stepped out into the near empty dining room to see the driver go out the front doors.

I ran after him and caught him halfway across the parking lot. Every window held a watching face. “Not everybody’s on the bus,” I said.

“I can see that,” he said. “I guess you’d better get a move on.”

“Not me, Mona. She’s in the bathroom. I’m afraid she’s sick.”

“Look kid, if I stopped for every woman who got sick riding my bus, we’d still be in New Mexico. Now do you want to get on the bus, or do you want to stay here too? Let Mona worry about herself.”

He was already turning away from me, walking the last few steps to the bus. I reached out and grabbed his arm and turned him around. He looked at my hand on his arm as if a bug had landed on him. His arm felt like a tree limb under the starched cotton.

“Let go of my arm,” he said.

“Listen to me,” I said. “She’s going to have a baby. She’s real sick. You can’t just leave her. I won’t let you.”

The driver was a few inches shorter than me, but back then I was skinny as a broomstick. If that driver had wanted to, he could’ve broken me in half. Instead he said very quiet-like, as if he was afraid of hurting my feelings, “Is Mona your wife, son?”

I swallowed hard and looked him in the eye. I wanted him to believe I might do anything, and from the look of things, I might have. I didn’t know what had gotten into me. “Yes,” I said, “and you’re not leaving her.”

He picked my hand off his arm slow and careful. “All right, I’ll wait ten minutes, but if she ain’t out by then, you two’ll have to wait for the next bus. Fair enough?”

I nodded and he got on the bus. “There’ll be a short delay,” he told everybody over the bus’s tinny loudspeaker as I stood in the parking lot and waited. The sun behind me lit up the front windows of the restaurant in a blaze of shimmering sky and desert. I squinted blindly in the glare. The faces on the reflected bus stared back at me.

Eight minutes later by my watch, she came through the glass doors, blocking the sun with an upraised hand. She wobbled toward me, bent at the waist, taking slow, deliberate steps. Her face was white, her forehead beaded with sweat. I met her halfway and took her arm, helped her up the stairs. She paused at the top, clinging to the chrome-plated rail, and smiled weakly at the driver. “Thank you so much for waiting. I was sure I was going to get left.”

The driver shook his head and nodded toward me on the steps below. “Don’t thank me, ma’am. Thank your husband. I don’t cross husbands if I can help it. Had one once outside of Denver damn near kill me, and he wasn’t no bigger than a minute.” He held up a thumb and forefinger an inch apart. “I believe he was expecting too. Me, I leave these young husbands alone.”

They smiled on me from above like proud parents. I lowered my head and got on the bus, following Mona’s slow progress down the aisle past a sea of sappy faces.

Back in our seats, Mona didn’t say anything for a while, recovering, her head tilted back, her eyes on the still ceiling. But she kept smiling her special smile to herself. I wondered whether her smile would look like that if her daddy hadn’t nicknamed her after a painting or whether the painting captured a certain universal smile. It didn’t matter. For this moment, it was mine. She touched my hand and said, “Thank you, husband, you’re very sweet.”

“You’re welcome,” I said. I turned my hand over and clasped hers.

No sooner did I get to San Francisco than I turned around and came back. Martha and I worked on things, as people used to say, tried to work things out, like a quadratic equation, with separate, equally valid conclusions. We never solved our problems with sex, but we solved plenty of others. We were married another four years. She’s my oldest friend. I never saw Mona again.

Part Four go here.