Forty One.

Road Trip.

Next afternoon we were all at The Well, even Gina. She figured it out, but she wasn’t coming, said she was too old for that shit, said she wanted a normal life, but she was just scared from the last time.

Billy Boy was excited. He couldn’t wait to show the car he stole. When he took us to the parking lot and pointed to the car, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Joe rolled his and shook his head. Sadie and Jane didn’t comment at all, just walked over and leaned against the wall and started talking to each other. Billy Boy beamed as he stood with his arms outstretched in front of a bright yellow VW microbus.

Joe kept his cool. He was old Joe that day, the Joe I remember from early days, focusing on plans and calculations, assessments and mental checklists, all emotion aside, all business. The irony was, this lightened his attitude and put him in good spirits. “It’s sweet, B.B., but it’s a little con-spic-u-ous.” Billy Boy’s smile dropped, then his arms. Joe broke his heart. Joe tried to lift him back up. “It’s beautiful, B.B., really. But we need something that doesn’t stick out. Can you get us something else?”

Billy Boy jumped at the chance to redeem himself, literally jumped, like an excited puppy. He danced in circles, looked back and forth, up and down the street, then disappeared around the corner, returning ten minutes later in a powder-blue Buick.

Joe slapped the fender when he stopped. “Perfect. Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

Billy Boy jumped out and ran to Joe, “Can I drive, Joe? Can I?”

“No,” Joe answered as he opened the trunk to load gear.

“Please. Please.”

“No. Get in. Yo, Mann, got everything?”

I checked the gear: pry bar, flashlight, hammer, screwdriver, rope. “Check.”

“Please, Joe. Please.”

“No. Let’s go.”

Sadie and Jane waited for the drama to end, then walked over, dropped their bags in the trunk and climbed in back. I grabbed shotgun, and Billy Boy waited for Joe to relent.

Joe shut the trunk and jumped into the driver’s seat. “Come on, B.B. Get in the fucking car.” Sadie left the door open. When Billy Boy hesitated, she pulled it shut. His hand was stuck when Joe started driving. Billy Boy screamed like a girl until Joe stopped. He climbed in, holding his hand, whimpering, and mumbling about never playing piano again. When he felt no sympathy, he stopped whimpering and relaxed into the plush seat.

The car was perfect for the trip. It floated along the highway like a ship on the ocean. Every bump caused a rocking motion that made it hard to stay awake, but it also had an incredible stereo, making it impossible to sleep. Eight speakers, tape player, flashing lights.

“Hey,” Joe called to me, “Any tapes in the glove box?”

“Let’s see.” I shuffled some junk, a map, three pairs of gloves. I held them up to Joe, “Gloves…in the glove box.'” I dropped them on the floor and rooted some more. “Bingo.” I pulled out an 8-track. “Lynyrd Skynyrd.”

“Yes!” Joe punched the accelerator. The Buick belched and we careened into the sunset.

An hour later Billy Boy was hungry. We were barely to Frederick when he spotted Arby’s. “Roast beef and fries, please.” He ordered through the closed car window as we sped by. That sounded good to me, but I knew Joe wouldn’t stop yet.

“Not stopping yet. No way. We just got on the road.”

“But I didn’t get lunch, though…though. Please, Joe.”

“No.”

“Please.” It sounded like the argument over who got to drive.

“Here, drink this.” Joe grabbed a mason jar laying on the floor. He tossed it back to Billy Boy, who held it to the light.

“What is it?”

“I don’t know. It’s soda.”

“It don’t look like soda.” He set the jar on the floor.

“I don’t know,” Joe mumbled. “Just drink it and leave me alone.”  He looked at Billy Boy in the rear view. “You know what it is, B.B. It’s magic. Pure magic.”

“Magic?” Billy Boy eyed the jar. Even I didn’t think he was that dumb. Maybe he thought “Magic” was the street name for some great new drug. “Cool,” he said, retrieving the jar and holding it to the light again. He shook it and watched the liquid swirl. The light casting through shone purple on his face. When he smiled his teeth were purple too. “Magic,” he repeated, but Joe had stopped listening. Billy Boy looked at the jar again. He opened. He smelled. He drank. He paused. He puked.

For as hungry as he was, he sure had a lot in his stomach. The first wave splashed the back of Joe’s head. The next several sprayed in everyone’s general direction. Then he dry-heaved for a while and cried out “Dear God,” gasping and squeezing his guts. Sadie pushed him away, pinning him against the door while he dry-heaved. I was worried he might die right there in the car. Sadie glared at Joe in the rear view while holding Billy Boy at arm’s length.

When the dry-heaves stopped, he slumped over, hugging his stomach. He didn’t move for a long while, but appeared to be alive. Joe pulled into a mini mart and we bailed from the car. Billy Boy rolled out and crawled to the curb.

“Well,” Joe said, looking at the car, engine still running, doors wide open, puke dripping onto the pavement, “We need another car. Leave the puke. Bring the Skynyrd.” He smiled at Billy Boy sitting on the curb and looking pale. “Man, I don’t know what was in that jar, but remind me never to drink it.” Billy Boy looked up at Joe but didn’t respond.

We all changed clothes in the mini mart bathroom, except Jane, who managed to stay puke-free. Billy Boy felt better, at least well enough to steal Twinkies on his way out. He slouched on the curb eating them and scowling at Joe as meanly as his spikey-haired, weasel face could.

When Joe’s prank with Billy Boy derailed us, he had to come up with something to rebuild morale. He was leaning against a pole, staring at a stack of motor oil in the store window, when the idea came. He stepped from the pole, put his hands in his pockets, and smiled.

He took a step toward the mini mart, then looked back at us. “Maybe we should start here.” He nodded toward the store. “That clerk’s the only one in there. No customers in half an hour. That punk looks pretty pathetic, too. Jane could make him squirt in a second. Just flash some cleavage.” He circled the group. Everyone perked at the chance to get started. “What do you say? What do you saaayaay?” He sang and searched each face. He stopped on me, raised his eyebrows, “What do you say, Mann?”

“Why not.” I answered without looking at anyone else. “But I drive getaway.”

“Wouldn’t have it another way.” Joe slapped my back and laughed.

We drove out of town two hours later in a dark green Mustang II with chrome Cragars and dual headers, only a little less conspicuous than a yellow microbus, but it was convenient and quick, and we had the keys. We jumped on I-70 and headed west. Jane rode shotgun and jerked the radio. “I hate this place. The music sucks here. Reminds me of the south.” She gave up the search and hit Scan. The radio paused on every station and they all sucked. She searched the glove box and found some cassettes and a map. She dug deeper. “Whoa.” A glint of metal flashed when Jane withdrew her hand.

Joe saw it and leaned forward. “Yes.” He slapped the seat. Jane held up a snub-nose .38, like the one Duke kept under the seat of his tow truck. “Mr. Saturday Night Special.”

Jane pinched the barrel between her thumb and forefinger, like she was holding a rat by the tail. “Um. Here, Joe,” she handed it to him. “I don’t like guns.”

“Yes.” Joe reached forward, took the gun and kissed it. He checked the cylinder, then stuck it in his belt. I watched through the rearview. His smile was strange and his eyes glazed a little, like he was high. When he saw me, he winked.

“Listen.” Jane turned up the radio. “They’re talking about us.” They were interviewing the clerk from the mini mart we just robbed. There was a rash of robberies lately, and they suspected a connection. The clerk told his story, but got it all wrong. He said five black dudes with shaved heads stuck three guns in his face and demanded the cash drawer. He said they hit him over the head and stole the keys to his “dark green Mustang II with chrome Cragars and dual headers.” He struggled to grab one by the leg, but the other four beat him unconscious.

“Would you listen to this bullshit?” Joe hit the back of the seat. “Punk ass fucker is lying through his punk ass fucking teeth.” If there was one thing Joe hated, it was a liar, unless it was him. “We should go back and kick his ass again. You know what? Let’s go back. Mann, turn this boat around. Um gonna kick some redneck ass. Get my aluminum. Um gonna git me some battin’ practice.” He slapped the seat again. “You know, people should have the decency to be honest when they’ve been humiliated. Punk ass bitch.” Joe bounced so much he looked like Billy Boy. The gun slipped and fell on the floor. He must have forgotten about it. He held it up like it was the eighth Wonder of the World. Then that sinister smile came back and his eyes glazed again. He squinted at me in the rearview and growled, “Turn this fucker ‘round.”

Sadie responded first. “Fuck no,” she said flatly. “No way, Joe. You start that shit, I’m out.”

“Me, too,” added Jane.

Billy Boy mumbled, “Yeah…Yeah…, me, too…, what she said,” He stared out the window, then looked at his hurt hand.

“Ok. Ok, girls,” he looked at Billy Boy when he said it, then glanced at Sadie and Jane smiling, “Just trying to liven things up.” He put the gun back in his belt, looked over at Billy Boy and made a gun gesture with his thumb and forefinger, pointed it at Jane and mouthed “POW.” Billy Boy giggled, then looked back down at his hand. Joe called forward, “Gotta do better next time. No loose ends.”

“We’ll get it right.” I said.

Joe sat quiet for a moment, then slapped the seat again. “Punk ass fucker.” He was still fuming over the clerk’s story. I understood. A man likes a little recognition for all of his careful planning and hard work.

For the record, here’s how it went down. Jane walked in wearing a tank top, no bra, and insanely short shorts. She told Punk she needed whiskey but didn’t have money. She’d been fighting with her boyfriend and kicked his sorry ass out. Now she was lonely, horny, and needed a drink. Punk saw a chance for revenge sex and jumped on it like a fly on shit. He invited Jane into the back for a drink. She leaned over the counter and said, “Thank you, Sweetie,” showing cleavage and winking at him. She stood erect, arched her back to make sure she had his attention, walked over to the door and pretended to lock it. She crossed back in a way that only Jane could. Punk was too busy following her, first with his eyes, then his cock. He didn’t check the lock.

Jane knew how to distract a man. When she batted those lashes, and stretched and strained, and blew her sweet breath on you, it was hard to think of anything but sex. She stroked you with her eyes and stared at your mouth like she was about to kiss it, like she was hungry for it, her tongue edging the back of her teeth, all the while swaying gently, back and forth, lulling you, transfixing you in her blue-eyed gaze, until you were hypnotized, then BAM, like a cobra, she’d strike.

Joe burst in a minute later armed with a baseball bat. He wasn’t taking any chances, like the last time with Gina. He saw Punk drop to the floor like a sack of potatoes…no, more like a slab of beef, “SLAP,” onto the concrete.

Punk didn’t move. Jane stood above him, rubbing her fist. Joe stood for a moment, with bat raised, assessing the scene. He laughed, lowered the bat and looked again at the slab on the floor. “Um…, never mind.” He knelt down to duct tape Punk’s hands and mouth.

Sadie and Billy Boy were clearing the shelves when I caught up to Joe in the back room.

“Well, he’s still alive.” Joe joked, checking his pulse. He stood up, “Got him in one swing, huh? That’s fifty points. And, judging by the “slap” when he hit the floor, you get another hundred for the takedown.” Joe nudged me, “You getting all this?”

“Yeah.” I pretended to tally the score on my hand. “That’s a hundred and fifty, plus two hundred for successful completion. How much for appearance?”

We both scanned Jane and just shook our heads.

“Yeah,” she smiled, “I’ll be in the ice cream aisle.”

When we came back out to the front, Billy Boy was grabbing cassettes of Christmas music and pine tree air fresheners.

“B.B.,” Joe called, “drop that shit. Grab the cash drawer and get the fuck out of here.” Joe looked at me, “Let’s finish this.”

When the others left, we headed to the back with scissors and a razor. Joe cut and shaved Punk’s head in patchwork pattern and I wrote “MASTURBATOR” on his jaw with Magic Marker. He looked ridiculous and kind of scary. I felt bad while doing it, but not enough to stop. When I finished I checked my work for spelling and legibility.

“I thought we were doing the forehead,” Joe observed.

“The mandible is the message.” He didn’t get it, but he laughed and dropped Punk’s head onto the floor. “Let’s go.”

“Should we be concerned that he’s still unconscious?” I asked.

“Probably. Let’s go.”

Forty Two.

AAA Approved.

“How deep you think this river is?” I asked Joe as we stood on the bank a few miles north of the interstate.

Joe watched air bubbles rise as the stolen car sank. He shrugged, “Deeper than a Mustang.” When the bubbles stopped, we piled into our new ride, a tan Caravan with fake wood paneling.

We drove west until dark, then Jane and I cleaned up at a rest stop near Funkstown. Joe, Sadie, and Billy Boy laid on the floor in back, half sleeping, half just staying out of sight. Before we left the rest stop, Billy Boy swapped tags with another car. We got back on the interstate and searched a secluded motel.

When I saw a flickering neon: “$29.95 Single,” I pulled off, “How’s that look?”

“I don’t know…,” Jane squinted. “The sign says it’s AAA approved.”

“I mean, does it look secluded?”

“It looks deserted, Sweetie.”

“Perfect.” I parked out front and we went in. There was no one at the desk so we rang the bell. When no one came, I rang it again.

“Hello. Helloooooooo,” Jane sang.

Then I sang, “Come out. Come out, wherever you are…

Jane smiled, “And meet the young lady who fell from a star.” The door in the back corner opened and an old man stuck his head out.

“Hi,” Jane said leaning over the counter. She stood and grabbed my hand. “We’re on our honeymoon and we’d like a room.” She batted her eyelashes.

“Hold on.” He barked and slammed the door. He came out a minute later, adjusting a hearing aid and fumbling with his glasses. His eyes, made huge from the glasses, got bigger once he saw Jane’s tits. He didn’t even notice me, just talked directly to Jane’s chest.

“You need a room?” He asked quietly, half to himself, half to confirm he heard correctly. He opened the guest registry and scanned the columns. The registry looked as vacant as the parking lot.

While we waited, the door to the back room creaked open. The TV was on and he had been watching Benny Hill. I saw some trophies on the dresser, and medication on the tray table next to a gold Lay-Z- Boy. A Beagle laid next to the chair, shifting his gaze from Benny Hill to the old man.

“So you need a room,” he repeated, “What size?” He was still staring at her tits.

“Some double D’s.”

The old man flinched, looked over his glasses, not sure he heard right, then, certain he hadn’t, asked again, “What size?” He cleared his throat and looked at me, noticing me for the first time. He shifted his weight and pushed his glasses up on his nose. He looked at both of us again. “What size room do you need?”

Jane smiled. “A double, please.”

The room was small, just big enough for bed, dresser, and end table. We couldn’t all stand at once. Billy Boy checked the drawers for free stuff to steal. Sadie scanned the motel service card. “No room service.” Jane smiled. “Sorry. Elvis has left the building.”

Joe called out, “Billy Boy, you’re on burger run.”

“Can’t we go to a restaurant tonight, Joe. Please, Joe?”

“No. We’ll find a diner in the morning, if you behave… Now go get us food. And don’t forget onion rings this time.” Joe stroked his hair then inspected his hand. “I need a shower. I gotta shit, too.”

“Me, too. Me, too.”

“Food first. Go.”

“Shit. Shit. Shit.” Sadie grabbed a magazine and leaning back against the headboard.

Jane laid on the bed next to her. “I shat this morning.”

Joe went into the bathroom chuckling and mumbling about Bambi dropping dainty turds in the Enchanted Forest.

“And turn on the fan in there,” Sadie called to Joe.

In the morning, we all showered again, just because we could. Some shat again, too. Then we left to find a restaurant. The closest we got was a drug store diner.

“Man,” Joe held the door for us, “these places still exist? Shall we?” Jane was the last through. Joe slapped her ass as she passed. I guess he couldn’t resist, she was looking good: black cut-offs, tight tank top, and those fuck-me pleather boots.

The rest of us were in jeans and t-shirts. Joe’s was sleeveless to show his tats. The big one on his shoulder was a tribal spiral. He said it symbolized life. He wasn’t into reincarnation, just believed shit kept going round and round.  When I said we were on a carnival ride to Hell, spiraling into the belly of the beast, he joked it wasn’t the belly but the asshole.

The waitress came to our table with a coffee pot in one hand and a Camel light in the other. She was a hundred years old and so was her makeup. She had big hair, a raspy voice, and squinted as we ordered. Her pen shook and when she didn’t squint, her face ticked. She smiled when she caught me staring, “What’ll you have, Mister?”

“Huh? Oh, cheese omelet with home fries, please. Thanks.”

“Same here. Same…same here.”

“I’ll have two eggs over easy, French toast, coffee.”

“Oh yeah, me too. Wheat toast, please.”

“Pancakes, bacon, coffee, OJ.”

The food came quickly. There was no one else in the diner but two high school girls in the corner.

Someone’s cutting class,” Billy Boy sang to himself. They were bouncing and giggling, and sharing a magazine. Billy Boy stared like a dog at the dinner table. “I’ll be right back,” he said with surprising confidence, and without stuttering.

“So,” Joe looked at Sadie and Jane, “what’s the plan?”

Jane perked up, “You’re gonna like this one.” They gave us the details of our next caper. I considered calling Billy Boy over to hear the plans, but it was nice not having him in the meeting. It meant no stupid questions and no having to explain things twice. He never listened anyway.

We finished eating and paid the check. I looked over at the corner booth. Billy Boy was sitting between the girls and sharing his hurt hand. They were touching and kissing it. He looked at me and smiled. He didn’t look like a spike-haired weasel anymore. That smile reminded me of Joe. He turned back to the girls.

We left him, hoping he’d remember how to get back. As we crossed the lot and started along the tracks that passed the motel, I had a strong feeling we would never see Billy Boy again.

The next morning Sadie and Jane walked into a pharmacy holding hands and whispering to each other. They were dressed in cut-offs and tank tops. Sadie wore a leather vest over hers. Jane wore her fuck-me boots.  The pharmacist was a short Asian man, with graying hair that swooped his balding forehead. He wore a lab coat and thick-rimmed bifocals, which he wore low on his nose so he could scan the store from his station. He spied Sadie and Jane at once and met them at the counter.

“Heeyyy.” Jane said, leaning and whispering. “Me and my girlfriend have a little problem, and we’re hoping you can help.”

“Yes, Ma’am. How can I help?”

“Why thank you, Sweetie.” Jane continued, “I bought this little present for my girlfriend, Eloise,” she motioned to Sadie. “But I don’t think we’re using it right.” Sadie only agreed to play along if she didn’t have to speak. She would have preferred to just beat the tar out of the pharmacist and take the money, in fact she suggested it. But Jane loved roleplay, and Sadie did it for Jane. So Sadie reached into her bag and pulled out the big black dildo they used to scare Elvis, back in Tennessee.

The pharmacist’s eyes bulged when he saw it. He looked around to ensure no customers were near. There was no one else in the store. “What seems to be the problem, ma’am?” he stammered slightly.

“I don’t know.” Jane took the dildo from Sadie and dropped it on the counter. It landed with a thud. “It’s just that…, after Eloise fucks me with this for an hour or so, I get sore…, and we have to stop…, and I don’t like to stop. We like to fuck me all night long.” Jane’s eyes sparkled when she sang it. “She likes it, too. Don’t you, Eloise?” She reached over and pinched Sadie’s cheek. Sadie smirked and squinted at Jane, then leaned close and whispered, “You’re gonna pay for this, girl.”

Jane laughed and pretended Sadie said something naughty. “Oh, Eloise.” Sadie smirked again as Jane picked up the dildo and tapped her playfully on the arm. The pharmacist looked around the empty store again and cleared his throat.

Sadie grabbed Jane and started kissing her, mostly just to shut her up. But Jane countered by grinding her pelvis on Sadie’s thigh.

The pharmacist cleared his throat again, and checked the store again…, and stammered again, “Well, uhm, let’s see…” He thought about the problem Jane posed. “Regarding soreness, uhmm…, are you using lubrication?” He asked as they kissed.

Jane disengaged from Sadie. “No,” she said, wiping the corner of her mouth. “I don’t need it.” She gave Sadie another quick kiss, then gently bit her lip before pulling away. “Not with Eloise around, at least. She really churns my butter, if you know what I mean.” Jane squeezed her thighs together for emphasis. When the pharmacist stared at her crotch, she knew she had him. She squeezed her thighs together again just to torture him. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe we should try some lube. Have any?”

“Um, yes,” he answered, still staring at her crotch. “Um, yes. Yes, we do.” He looked up, embarrassed. He shook his head a little to clear it. “Let me show you.”

“Thank you.”

He led them across the store. Sadie grabbed the dildo and followed.

“We don’t carry many, but we should have something.” He stopped part-way down the feminine hygiene aisle. “KY, Astroglide. Here’s Vaseline, but it’s oil-based. You shouldn’t use it with rubber.” He moved further down. “We also carry replenishing ointments.”

“Oh my.” Jane looked at the box, “How does that work?”

“Basically, you insert the ointment, prior to sexual contact and it keeps you lubricated for the, uhm, duration.”

“Jane opened the box and pulled out the tube and applicator. “So, stick this up my pussy and squeeze?” She held the tube in front of her crotch and demonstrated. The pharmacist stared again.

“And if necessary,” he added, breaking his stare, “you can also use lubrication on the marital aid.” He tried to sound professional, but his shaky voice and shiny forehead gave him away.

“Marital aid? Oh, you mean…,” Sadie handed her the dildo. “Just smear lude on this and it will slide in and out easier.” Again she demonstrated.

“Yaaanah,” the pharmacist tried to answer.

“Let’s see. I want to do this right.” She opened the tube and squeezed some onto the dildo, then stroked it to spread the lube. “Like this?”

The pharmacist was lost. His shiny forehead was beading. His mouth hung agape. He hadn’t checked the store in ten minutes, hadn’t even looked away from Jane.

“Then we can fuck me all night?”

“Uh…Uh…Uh.”

“Thank you for your help, Sweetie.” Jane held up her glistening hand, “Oh my, I’ve made a mess.” She giggled.

Sadie rolled her eyes. “Can we go now?”

While Jane fucked with the pharmacist, Joe and I cleared the registers, even found the bank bag under the counter with yesterday’s deposit. Joe managed to grab some pills on the way out, too.

“Is he here?” Joe asked as we rushed into the motel room to check for Billy Boy.

“Nope.”

“Fuck. Fuck. This ain’t good.” Joe pounded a fist into his hand.

Sadie stood at the door. “We can’t wait. We shouldn’t even have come back.”

“Yeah, I know. I know. Fuck him. Next time he’ll know. Grab his bag. No evidence. That fool might get busted and snitch.”

When we got to Hancock, Sadie and Jane got their own room. Sadie said she was sick of cramped quarters. Joe just shrugged and threw his bag into our room. “I’ll be back. I gotta swap tags on the minivan.”

Our room had dark paneling and orange shag carpet. The floor sagged so much the bed crept out overnight. In the morning we had to push it back to get in the bathroom, which sagged in the opposite direction. It also had a metal shower with a leaky valve. Between the pinging shower, the creeping bed, and Joe’s snoring, I didn’t sleep much. When I got sick of reading, I watched old movies on cable.

Each morning, we took turns getting breakfast. For dinner we called Domino’s. By the third day, I was bored senseless. Joe just slept or popped pills and stared at the wall. I kept going to Sadie’s room. She and Jane were never bored. She said they spent a week in a room once. I wouldn’t last that long, not after prison. It didn’t seem to bother Joe, though, at least not those first few days.

With Billy Boy gone, there were fewer distractions, and with us holed up, we had time to think. When Joe wasn’t stoned and staring at the wall, he thought about Sadie and Jane. At first he liked his girlfriend having a girlfriend, especially one hot as Jane. But when he saw them together, all the time, without him, he began to resent it, and resent Jane. When they first got their own room, he was cool with it. They needed some space. Joe wanted some, too, until he saw he was being replaced.

By the fourth night, we were done. I stared at the TV for so long it could be off and I wouldn’t notice. In fact, it was. Joe turned it off to tell me something, but I didn’t hear him. Actually I heard him, but I thought he was the TV. Ok, I admit, I took some pills. I had to. I couldn’t stand the isolation. Now Joe was trying to talk to me. When I realized the TV wasn’t on, I got confused. Then I saw Joe pacing at the foot of the bed, on the verge of a tirade.

He noticed me barely notice him. “Hey, Mann. Snap out of it. I’m talking to you.”

“Huh?”

“I said, we gotta talk to the girls. This shit is out of hand.”

I scanned the room, “What shit?” I checked the TV again.

“The chicks, Mann, the chicks. There’s too much attitude around here.”

I scanned again, “Where?” Am I missing something? “What’s up? You out of pills?”

“Yeah, but irregardless.”

“What?”

“The chicks, Mann, getting their own fucking room, hanging out over there.” He pointed at the adjoining wall. “And if we want something, we gotta go to them? What the fuck?”

“I don’t know. I don’t mind.”

“What do you mean? The chicks are taking over the gang.”

“The gang?” I scanned again. What the hell did I miss?

Joe sounded desperate. “This was our thing. The words. The music. The whole fucking show. All ours. And the girls come along and shake their asses and try to hijack the whole shebang.”

Shebang. What the hell was he talking about? And what the hell is a shebang. He must still be high.

“She’s my girlfriend, Goddamnit,” he screamed at the wall.

Oh, I realized with sudden clarity, he’s jealous. As soon as I thought it, a slight breeze swept the room, and the lamp got brighter too. At least, it seemed to. I’d never seen Joe jealous before, but I was certain that’s what it was, and it wasn’t very pretty, especially on top of pills. Actually, it was pretty pathetic. And, kind of silly, too. But I didn’t tell him that.

I didn’t think Joe cared enough about anything to get jealous. But there he was, ranting in front of the dark TV, throwing punches through the wall, cursing the girls and life in general. Some of it coherent, some drug-addled, but all of it illuminating. I had to resist chuckling from the two thoughts I couldn’t suppress: this was far better than TV, and I wished Gina could see it.

“Everything was fine ‘til she came to town,” Joe mumbled as he dropped in the chair and leafed a biker rag. “AAAAhhhh,” he grunted and threw the magazine at the wall, then jumped and flew out the door.

I sat stunned. What the hell was going on? Why the hell was he upset? Where the hell is the remote? I stared at the blank TV for a moment. I thought he liked the idea of Sadie and Jane together. Now he can’t stand it? They weren’t trying to take over the gang. They just liked being together. They weren’t trying to run anything. But Joe wasn’t around to hear my thoughts.

I spent the afternoon contemplating what was bothering Joe. I gave up trying to figure it out, and just concluded he needed to get laid. And as soon as I said it, I knew it. That was it. Joe hadn’t gotten laid in a while, a long while, since we left for this trip and probably longer. In fact, he and Sadie hadn’t even hung together. In fact, they barely even talked. Sadie always talked to Jane. No wonder Joe’s pissed, Sadie’s ignoring him. “Maybe Gina’s right. Maybe Sadie isn’t happy. Maybe Joe knows it. Maybe I’m the only one who doesn’t. What else is new?” I said aloud to myself.

Again I had more questions than answers. I needed to talk to Sadie, but Jane was always with her. Maybe that’s what Joe meant. It was just out of character for him to show it. When he sat in the chair fuming, his hands shook. He never shook. He was Joe Cool. And he never yelled, barely spoke above a whisper. That’s what made him dangerous. He was cool as a cucumber, until he attacked.

It was strange to see Joe upset, sitting there, flipping pages and fuming, trying to grasp thoughts and feelings. When his hands shook, so did the magazine. When he noticed it, first the magazine, then his hands, he screamed and flew from the room.

I assumed he was outside, walking around or sitting against a tree, but I needed to make sure he was all right. It was dark and crisp out. The street lights glowed yellow across the gravel. I looked around but couldn’t see him. I checked behind the motel, at the edge of a stubbled cornfield. He wasn’t there. Our car was in the parking lot and he wasn’t in it, so I checked the only other place.

When Jane opened the door, I heard Joe inside. “We’re wasting money getting two rooms. Why you guys need your own room anyway? You avoiding us?”

“Look,” Sadie glanced as I sat on the bed, “if it’s about money, I’ll pay for it.”

“What?” Joe erupted. “You have money?”

I looked away. The TV was off so I stared at the Bible on the nightstand, while they argued over my head.

“Whatever. I don’t need this grief.” Sadie shrugged and tried to walk away. Joe stepped in front and kept arguing. “What money?” I looked at Jane sitting across the room. We both got up and crept out. As I latched the door, I heard Joe plead, “Come on baby, what’s this all about?”

Jane and I hung in my room, then went back to check on them. Sadie was reading and Joe was gone. She didn’t know where, and didn’t care. So they went to bed and I went back to my room. I had trouble falling asleep, then had bad dreams about snakes and rats and Billy Boy. Joe came in sometime in the early morning. I heard the door open and felt the bed creek. A moment later he was snoring.

Forty Three.

Challenge.

Next morning, I woke to Joe grunting, a steady rhythm of “Uhn…Uhn…Uhn,” a familiar sound I hadn’t heard since prison. After a pause, the grunting started again. I didn’t feel the bed moving, so I assumed he was in the bathroom, and I tried to go back to sleep. But…, yeah…

So I faked a sleep-roll to face the bathroom door, then laid still. When I was sure he was still at it, I peeked. He was in there, and still grunting, but he wasn’t jerking off. He was doing pushups. I waited five minutes then pretended to wake up.

“Hey, Joe.”

“Hey. We should all go out for breakfast this morning.”

“Are you sure? Is everything cool?”

“Yeah, fine.” It wasn’t convincing, but it was a chance to get out of the room, so I agreed and went next door to check with Sadie and Jane.

At the diner, Joe and Sadie were civil, but didn’t talk much. We ate in near-silence and it wasn’t until we were finishing coffee that a real conversation started. Joe, who had forked his food and eaten little, looked over at Jane. “So, Jane…” He smiled.

“Yes Joe?” She lilted, trying to lighten the mood.

“I have a challenge for you.”

Sadie squinted. Jane moved up to the edge of her seat. “Do tell.”

“Walk into a place, right up to the register, take the money and walk out.” Joe leaned back and folded his arms.

Jane leaned back and let it sink in, but Sadie erupted, “Fuck you, Joe.” She glared at him, “Are you trying to get her caught?” She held her glare until Joe looked down.

“Now Sadie,” he said, leaning forward again and raising his eyes back to meet hers, “let Jane speak for herself.” He took a drink of coffee and glanced around the table, then back at Sadie. She was still glaring. He looked down at his coffee for a moment, then looked up at her and smiled. There was a glint in his eye I didn’t like.

“Fuck you, Joe.” Sadie didn’t like it either.

“It’s ok, Sadie. Really, it’s ok.” Jane held Sadie’s arm until Sadie looked at her, then she whispered again, “It’s ok.” As Jane caressed her forearm, Sadie’s posture relaxed. “I’m cool,” she said, smiling and gently removing Jane’s hand.

Jane looked at Joe. “So Joe, care to wager?”

I looked at Joe. He was smiling, but he wasn’t happy. “A wager, huh?” he nodded, leaned back, and folded his arms again. “What you got?”

“Sadie gets to choose.”

Joe smirked. “Didn’t she already?”

“Huh?”

“Nothing.” He smirked again. “What does Sadie choose?”

“She chooses the prize, of course,” she said with a giggle.

Joe looked at Sadie, then at me, then back at Jane, “Ok.”

“Jane, you don’t have to…”

“Sadie,” Jane touched Sadie’s arm again, “it’s ok. Joe just wants to play a little, spice things up a bit. It’s Ok.”

“Remember, though,” Joe wagged a finger, “no help from any of us.”

“No problem.” She wagged her finger back, “My target, though. Right?”

Sadie stood first, “I don’t like this.” She left the diner and walked back to the motel. I think she was angry at all of us. I followed her back, but I didn’t approach her. I just followed to make sure she was alright. I knew she could take care of herself, but I got a weird feeling whenever someone left the group. I wasn’t superstitious, but I had moments. My fear was more evolution than superstition anyway. There’s safety in numbers. Billy Boy was gone. We couldn’t risk losing another from the herd, especially not Sadie.

So I followed Sadie back and sat on the wall outside her room, contemplating the same old shit. I thought about the tattoo on Joe’s arm, the spiral getting smaller and smaller. Where does it end?

It wasn’t long before Joe and Jane arrived. They weren’t walking together, just in the same direction at the same time. Jane arrived first. “Hey, Quiet One.” She caressed my leg as she passed. Joe walked by and went to our room. I sat a while and stared at the mid-day sky.

I didn’t notice the clouds roll in, and I was still staring when the storm came. A crack of thunder shook me and a wave of water dumped from the gray sky. The heavy drops pelted the metal awning, and brought the thick smell of summer dirt as it washed to the gutter. The sky grew darker. When the streetlamps lit, I went inside.

The heavy rain continued through the next day, bringing somber feelings with it. We didn’t meet for breakfast. I stopped over to check on Sadie and Jane, but they didn’t want to go out. Jane was planning her caper and Sadie was helping with details, so I went back to my room and re-read Auden. Joe seemed to stare at the wall for hours. As soon as the rain stopped, he took a shower and said he’d be back later, said he was going to check on things. He didn’t elaborate and I didn’t ask.

While he was out, I checked on Sadie and Jane again. They seemed to be in better spirits.

“Hey, Quiet One.” Jane smiled, looking up from the table where she had her plans and diagrams spread out. It was the first time I noticed that she wore reading glasses. And I thought she couldn’t get any sexier. “Wanna see what I’ve got, big boy?” …Or any flirtier.

“Uhm, yes.” I didn’t really know what else to say. So, Jane shuffled the papers around to organize them, then explained the details and diagrams for her caper. When she finished, she smiled and said, “And that’s about it. What do you think?”

“Well, if anyone can do it…”

Jane sat straight and her face lit up, “Just the thought of it makes me tingle.”

“Uhm, yeah…, me too.” I felt shy saying it, but I couldn’t help it.

“I love being bad. Feels good.” I know she couldn’t help but to rub my shoulder as she said it.

Sadie stepped closer and squeezed my other shoulder, to wake me from Jane’s spell. “We need your help with this.”

Angelo’s Pub was small and smoky. It had a small bar down the middle, with stools and locals on one side, and booze and bartender on the other. Just past the small bar was a small pool table. There was a small jukebox in the corner.

It was a weeknight. I sat at the far end and ordered a beer. Three locals watched TV over my head. The bartender brought my beer. “Here you go, Mack.” He re-joined the locals, re-lit his cigar, looked at the TV.

A while later, another local joined the three at the bar. He was equal in age, wearing a flannel shirt and John Deere cap. When they asked about his crop and about something that sounded like farm equipment, I started to worry I was conspicuous. But a few minutes later another guy came in and the bartender called him “Mack,” too. He ordered a shot of whiskey, slammed it, bought cigarettes, and left. A while later, one of the original three left, too.

By midnight, I was on my third beer, one other “Mack” came through and one other regular. Neither stayed, though. Just long enough to grab a shorty and cigarettes. The locals still at the bar had to be drunk by now. Even the bartender, who was taking shots with them, was redder in the face.

At twelve-thirty, as planned, I got change for the jukebox and punched in Jane’s requests. First up was Patsy Cline. At the end of “Crazy,” I heard the front door open. I knew it was Jane. The door hung ajar with no sight of her. Then she stepped through to the opening chords of the Rolling Stones, “Playing with Fire.” She was wrapped in a motel bed sheet, that blew tight to her body from the draft in the doorway. When the door closed, she dropped the sheet. The men’s eyes glued to Jane’s body. The three at the bar kept their backs to her, but watched through the mirror behind the liquor.

Jane was covered in bronze glitter. She glowed in the dark bar. Her leg muscles sparkled as she stepped forward. She moved slowly to the cadence of the music, eyeing each man, then locking on the bartender, who was leaning on his stool, mouth agape, cigar hanging from the corner. She stroked each shoulder as she passed to the first empty stool, then climbed onto the bar with the ease of experience.

Jane crawled down the bar, passing close enough for each man to smell her skin. They stared as she passed, their eyes drawn to her glittering body like bugs to a lightbulb. When she got to the bartender she paused, then arched her back and leaned across to the cash register beside him. She put her hand between his legs, onto his stool, for support, then leaned closer so she could reach the register.

Her ass was facing the men, and I saw their eyes widened when she leaned forward and her ass spread open. They made no other movements. Even the bartender was transfixed as Jane took the money from the drawer and pushed herself back to kneeling, then up to standing.

Jane winked at me as she walked back to the end of the bar, then stepped onto the stool, onto the floor, and walked out the door, just as the song on the jukebox was ending.

After she left, I watched the men. They didn’t move, didn’t speak, didn’t look around. They just sat quietly, staring through the mirror at the door. When I was sure they wouldn’t chase after Jane, I laid the cue on the table and walked out. Before I made it through the door the bartender called, “Hey, Mack.”

I looked back. “Yeah?”

He reached into his pocket. I reached into mine. “Here,” he said, holding out some money. “Give her this, too.” I hesitated, then reached across the bar and took it. Then one of the locals said, “Here,” and handed me more money. I nodded, stuffed the money in my pocket and followed after Jane.

In Wheeling, we got two rooms overlooking the river. It was a quiet ride. No one spoke except Jane, and mostly to Sadie in whispers. We found a diner on the south side of town. While waiting for lunch, Sadie said she had made her decision.

“About what?” I forgot about the challenge. Joe kept staring out the window.

Sadie smiled then looked at Jane, “I think it’s Joe’s turn. It’s time for him to shake his ass a little.”

I looked over at Joe. He was still staring out the window, but I could tell he was listening. I was intrigued. Jane was, too. “What should we have him do?” She asked Sadie in a playful voice.

“I want Joe to steal the offering plate from a church.”

“Huh?” I looked at Joe. He closed his eyes for a second, but still didn’t say a word.

Then Sadie pointed out the window and across the street to where Joe seemed to be staring, “That church.”

Assemblies of God. Joe’s shoulders dropped when he read that. “I’ll need a prop,” he said, still without looking at Sadie.

“Name it.”

“Mann.”

“Huh?” I said. “No way. No way.” The scope of the whole caper became crystal clear to me as soon as my name was mentioned. “I ain’t robbing no fundamentalists. They’re crazy. Especially in church. That’s when they’re craziest. No way.” I was shaking my head and planning my escape. “I ain’t even going in there.”

Joe ignored me and talked directly to Sadie, “No Mann, no deal.”

“You told Jane she couldn’t have help with her caper.”

“But Mann did help, didn’t he?”

“No. He was there just in case.” Sadie looked at me, then back at Joe, “No deal.”

“Wait. Wait a minute. Don’t I have a say in this?” I felt like I wasn’t even in the room.

Sadie looked at me. Her eyes were hard and cold at first, then they softened. “I thought you already said.” She smiled, “What do you want?”

Suddenly I didn’t know what I wanted. Sadie’s smile was so sincere and so beautiful I forgot what we were talking about. All I could think about was how much time we spent together and how seldom we really looked at each other. It was like we lived in little bubbles that kept us apart, and then there she was, in my bubble, looking at me like it was her bubble and I was just visiting.

“Well,” Joe said, shrugging his shoulders. “You in or not?”

I stared at him while collecting my thoughts. “You sure you want to do this?”

“Hmmm,” he leaned back and gave me a Crazy Joe smile, “Why not?” And there was Joe, in my bubble, too.

Early Sunday morning I stood looking at myself in the mirror. “I’m telling you, Joe, my tits are crooked.”

“Stop fucking around. Here,” he pushed up on one of the water balloons and tightened the bra strap. “Better?”

I checked the mirror again. “Well, at least they’re even. But, why do I have to be the woman? Why can’t you? And, I don’t know about this dress.” It was frilly pink and purple with white flowers.

“I told you, it’s how the plan works. It’s gotta be this way.”

“I don’t know…, and this fucking wig. I think it’s blue.”

“Besides, you’re the artsy one. It’s like acting.” Joe pinned an old lady hat to my wig, then stepped back to look at me in the mirror. “You are the ugliest woman I’ve ever seen.”

“Fuck you very much.” I looked in the mirror. “This will never work, Joe. I have a beard.” I stared at myself in the mirror. “I have a beard for Christ’s sake.”

“Not for long. It’ll work. I’m telling you. It’s a church. They’re looking at your inner beauty.”

“Yeah? If they look up my dress they’re gonna see my inner beauty.”

“Don’t worry. They’ll just sacrifice it to God.”

“That ain’t funny.”

“It’s cool.” Joe shifted into business mode. “All right, just the way we planned. When the offering plate comes, you sneeze, big sneeze. I dump the money into this Bible pouch.” He held up a black leather book jacket. “See, it zips shut, to protect your Bible.” He must have been impressed because he zipped and unzipped several times. “So anyway, I dump the money in and pass the plate to you. You drop in the fake stuff and pass it on.”

“Alright, sounds good,” I said, still looking at the mirror. “Even if it doesn’t look good.”

“Bitch, you’re beautiful,” he smacked my ass as he turned away to start dressing himself for church. “Now, go shave.”

The church was huge. Actually, it wasn’t a church. It was the gym of a private school. They were fundraising to build a church. They had been here for ten years, their “flock” had grown exponentially, their missions work was going “swell,” and several of the church “gals” were pregnant with “little spiritual warriors.” When the preacher announced they were half way to their goal, Joe whispered, “Ka-ching.” Then the preacher prayed to end abortion and convert the world. He updated us on someone with cancer, and on missions in Indonesia, then led us in songs about the steadfast love of the Lord.

Joe leaned over, “This is great. What a scam.” He joined the singing, reading the lyrics from the overhead projector.

Half hour later, everyone was high. The ushers received collection plates and took positions in the aisles.

“Praise the Lord,” said the preacher. “What a beautiful Sunday morning. But aren’t they all. Turn to your neighbor and wish them a beautiful day.” His smile was big and lit up his face. “Welcome, and Wow, what a turn out. It’s wonderful to see so many together in God’s house. Praise Him. Wasn’t that last hymn great. One of my favorites. Especially the line ‘I will never deny you, Lord.’ Because he does, doesn’t he. Peter, he denies the Lord three times. Not once, or twice, but three times. And this was Peter. No one loved Christ more than Peter. How many times have you denied the Lord today? I know I have. But you know what? It’s ok. Because, what does the hymn say? Ask forgiveness and it shall be given. Jesus doesn’t want us perfect. If we were, we wouldn’t need Him, would we? He wants us to want Him, to want His forgiveness. That’s why He came. To show His love, and to give us a chance to love Him. Do you?

“As the ushers come forward I want you all to meditate on how much you love the Lord. And on how much you need Him, and His forgiveness.”

Joe nudged me again, “What a scam.” I didn’t hear him because I was caught up in what the preacher said. Not that I believed in God or anything. I didn’t know how I felt as far as that went. I mean, I read the stories, and I went to Sunday school back when I was too young to protest, but as far as religion went, that stuff was for people who needed it, like when your grandmother died. But when he preached about how we all make mistakes, and it’s ok, because we’re expected to, and we’re forgiven, well that touched something deep. I know it was supposed to, he’s a preacher. I just didn’t think it would affect me. I wasn’t about to drop on the floor and speak in tongues or anything, but I did feel bad about all the shit we did, especially robbing a church. I had reservations to begin with, but now I really didn’t want to be there. If I could have left, I would have. But I couldn’t. Joe needed me.

As the collection plate started down our row I had a mild panic attack. My hands started shaking and my palms turned clammy. My head got hot under the wig and I could feel sweat dripping down my neck. Since that never happened before, I got really nervous, which only made it worse. I felt the urge to run, just get the hell out of there. I started mumbling to myself, “This is wrong. This is wrong.” But in the back of my head I kept saying, “Joe needs me. Joe needs me.”

Joe saw me freaking out. “What’s up?” He whispered. “Keep cool. Keep cool. You’re gonna fuck this up.”

But I just kept mumbling, “This is wrong. This is wrong.” I tried to breathe but could only gasp. I wanted this over. I needed this over. I tried to take a deep breath. I decided to do this and then it would be over, and we could get the hell out of there.

I was so busy calming down I didn’t notice Joe got the collection plate. He paused, waiting for me to sneeze, and when I didn’t, he cleared his throat. When I still didn’t, he poked me with his elbow, which scared the hell out of me and caused me to jump and try to fake sneeze at the same time. My arms flailed outwards, my body jerked backward, but my head shot forward. The fake sneeze was so bad it sounded like a scream, a little girl’s scream.

When my head shot forward, the wig shot three rows forward and hit an old man in the side of the head. When the wig landed in his wife’s lap, she screamed, “Rat.” She threw the wig in one direction and her Bible in the other. The Bible hit her husband in the head and knocked his glasses right off his face.

When my arms flailed, the fake offerings flew everywhere and rained down like confetti. At first, everyone stared like I was Paul blinded on the road to Damascus. I stood, frozen, uncertain what to do. Then I saw Joe still trying to steal the real money from the collection plate. He was moving frantically, but had trouble getting the money in the pouch. He dropped the brass plate on the floor and it rang louder than my fake sneeze. When the ushers saw what he was doing, they started climbing down the aisle toward us.

“Time to go,” Joe yelled as he climbed back six rows and bolted out the door. I was right behind him but my dress kept getting snagged, and my high heels just wouldn’t cooperate. I nearly broke my neck scaling the folding chairs.

Eventually the heels broke, the dress ripped apart, and I sprang free. I ran for my life. I didn’t look back, but I was sure a legion of angels was hot on my ass. I never ran so hard in my life, not even when that guy shot at us after we robbed his house. I passed Joe and beat him to the car by a good three seconds. Thank God Sadie was waiting in the driver’s seat. If I had to drive we would have died for sure.

Joe jumped in next to me. “Go. Go. Go,” he yelled as he grabbed me and pulled us both to the floor out of sight. “Son of a bitch.”

Forty Four.

One More Job.

Joe was pissed. He didn’t look at me the whole day after the church incident. Sadie was pissed, too, at Joe. She got us into the next town and set up with rooms, then she unleashed on Joe.

That evening was intense. I walked back and forth between rooms all night, as Sadie stormed back and forth, to talk to Jane and yell at Joe. I didn’t want to be in either room, but it was cold outside, and I couldn’t help but to think that if there weren’t four of us, I would have been the third wheel, the awkward guest in either room.

Sadie stopped yelling around 3 a.m., but I could still hear them talking. An hour later she came back to her room. Jane and I were laying on the bed, biding time, with arms folded behind our heads. We were staring at the ceiling and making pictures out of the stippled spackle.

Jane sat up. “How’d it go?”

Sadie shrugged. “One more job, then you and me are going to California.”

Jane smiled, “Sounds good.”

“I should go check on him,” I got up as quickly as I could, sensing the weight about to land on my chest.

Sadie sensed it too. She touched my arm as I walked by. “It’s cool,” she said. “Everything will be ok.”

When I got to our room, Joe was digging through his bag, taking things out, putting things in.

“You alright, Joe?”

He was moving anxiously, packing and unpacking, surveying some items on the dresser. He seemed to be busying himself so he wouldn’t think about it, or to avoid talking to me. What he did manage to get in the bag was gear for a stakeout.

“Are you checking out a store?”

“Yeah,” he answered without looking up.

“Want me to come?”

“Nope.” He zipped the bag, brushed past me, and went out the door.

I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep, but I didn’t know what else to do. So I laid staring at the ceiling. Ours wasn’t stippled like Jane’s. We had swirls in our spackle. Every time a car drove by, the lights flashed through the blinds and crossed the swirled ceiling. And every time, I thought it was Joe. When the light flashed it looked like smoke swirling across the ceiling.

The jake brakes on the interstate were so loud I felt the bed rumble as the trucks passed. Somewhere in the motel some drunks returned from a bar. I heard them laughing, and yelling goodnight, as each door shut and the group got smaller, until there was only the silent roar of semis again.

I stared into the red glow of the EXIT sign over the door. I was empty. I knew it. Sadie was leaving. Joe wasn’t talking. But it was something more, something deeper. I felt worthless, directionless. I didn’t know what we were doing or where we were going. In the beginning, we were all together, that was the focus for me. We were together. But we weren’t, really. I watched the demise of Sadie and Joe, and maybe me and Joe, too. I watched Billy Boy disappear into the night. And I felt like we were all just trapped on a train to nowhere.

I fell asleep on that thought and dreamed I was riding a steam train. I bought a ticket to somewhere, but got on the wrong train. I didn’t know where it was going, but all the scenery was familiar. And the gang was with me, so I decided to see where it went.

We were the only passengers. We were playing poker in a Pullman. Joe was smoking a cigar and wearing a paisley vest. He kept checking his pocket watch. Sadie was dressed in black and squinting over the top of her cards, at Joe, waiting for him to wager. Jane was dressed like Mae West and stood with her hand on Sadie’s shoulder. She had a high heel propped on the edge of Sadie’s chair, exposing a pistol in her garter. It was Joe’s .38. Billy Boy was there, too, but he was flirting with a China doll in the corner.

I wandered the train looking for passengers, but there were none onboard. They were all outside the train, lining the tracks on the hillside, some with luggage, others waving, some just staring. I saw their faces clearly, but didn’t recognize them. I saw thousands as we passed.

I went back to the Pullman to ask Sadie and Joe if they saw the people. But I couldn’t find them. The pistol was laying on the card table, but Jane was gone too, as was Billy Boy, with the China doll. I was alone. I looked out the window and all the people were gone. I wanted to jump off, but couldn’t. The train was going too fast.

Then I heard the whistle, loud and piercing. It hurt my ears, but it meant someone was onboard, so I covered my ears and ran to the front of the train. I ran hard, but couldn’t reach the engine. I was running in slow motion. The harder I ran, the farther it got. The train kept stretching longer and longer, and started to fill with smoke. I coughed and my eyes burned as I held my ears and ran.

When the smoke thickened I stopped running. As soon as I did, the train shrank and I was standing at the engine car. I opened the door and looked in. Jane was there, blowing the whistle and shoveling coal into the burner. She was laughing maniacally, dressed in a white tank top and cut offs, with her black fuck-me boots. Her blond hair was flying around, she was sweaty and dirty. The flames danced around her like fingers caressing her skin. I watched as she fed the fire, set down the shovel, blew the whistle, then looked out the window and laughed.  She repeated the pattern, again and again.

Each time she blew the whistle it got louder and the engine room got smokier. I tried calling but she didn’t answer. I started coughing again and leaned down. When I looked up, Jane was standing in front of me. She was clean and dressed in a dark suit. She was smiling. Her blues eyes sparkled as she leaned forward like she was going to kiss me. When she got close she whispered, “It’s time to wake up now.” Then she straightened up and crossed her arms over her chest, as smoke swirled around her head and she disappeared.

When I woke the whistle didn’t stop. I realized it was the motel smoke alarm. I looked around. There was smoke everywhere, but no fire. I coughed and gagged, and my eyes started burning. I couldn’t see clearly, but I saw the red EXIT sign. I looked around for Joe, but he wasn’t there. I grabbed my gear and ran out.

Our end of the motel was engulfed in smoke. It was too thick to see where I was going. I felt my way along the wall toward Sadie’s room. When I got closer, I saw that was where the fire was. My eyes were watering, as I scanned outside the building for Sadie and Jane. There were a few people in the parking lot, some screaming, some crying, but most just standing staring at the fire.

I didn’t see Sadie and Jane, so I figured they were still inside. I crawled closer. Someone yelled from the parking lot, but I couldn’t hear them and I didn’t care. I just needed to find Sadie and Jane. The heat was intense. I crouched low. It was hard to breathe, but I gasped some air and kept crawling.

When I got to the door, I saw a figure standing in the doorway. At first, I thought it was Sadie. I tried to call out, but I just coughed and gagged instead. I looked at the figure again. It wasn’t Sadie. It was a man, just standing there, staring into the room. I took another deep breath and tried to talk, but gagged again. When I looked up, the figure was gone.

The smoke overwhelmed me. I needed to lay down. I sat on the sidewalk and leaned against the burning building. I was about to pass out when I remembered Sadie and Jane. I struggled back to my knees and crawled through the door.

The room was in flames. I couldn’t tell if they were in there or not. I called out, but there was no response. The bed was on fire, and sweat was pouring off me. I crawled past the burning bed, and searched the floor for Sadie or Jane. They weren’t in the room. I called again. Still no response.

The bathroom door was closed. I banged on it, and tried to open it. It wasn’t locked, but there was something blocking it. I pulled onto my knees and drove my shoulder into it. It opened slightly, and I saw there was a towel wedged under it. I pulled the towel free, and pushed the door open. Sadie and Jane were inside. Jane was in the bathtub unconscious. Sadie was curled by the toilet with a wash cloth over her face.

I wet some towels and wrapped them around Sadie and me. I picked her up with newfound strength and carried her out, straight through the flames to the parking lot. I laid her down and turned to go back for Jane. I felt Sadie grab my ankle. I looked down at her. She coughed, trying to draw breath to speak.

“She’s dead,” was all she could say. Then she passed out against the curb. I dropped next to her and did the same.

I woke coughing. My throat was raw and I couldn’t see, but it felt like I was moving. I rubbed my eyes to clear them. They kept watering and stinging and I could only see blurry light. I felt around for some sign of where I was. It was soft and comfortable, like a sofa. I tried to sit up but my head pounded, so I laid back and rubbed my eyes again.

When my sight cleared, I saw I was in the back of a car. I saw the driver’s head. Everything was blurry. It was Joe. I tried to talk but couldn’t. He heard me and adjusted the rearview so he could see me. “Hey, Mann. You ok?” I think he said.

“What…” I felt like my head was going to explode, “What…happened?”

“You don’t remember?” I still couldn’t focus, but I saw the glint of his eyes as he looked at the road then back at the rearview. “The fire? The motel?”

Vague images flashed back to me. Smoke. Heat. Fire. “Sadie!” I shot up, looking around for her, then exploded into a coughing fit.

“Relax, Mann. Take it easy. She’s alright. She’s right here.” I crawled forward and looked over the seat. Sadie was sleeping with her head on Joe’s lap. “She was awake for a little while,” he said. “She’ll be fine. Said you saved her. Fucking hero.”

I laid back and thought about the fire. I couldn’t remember much, but I had an uneasy feeling. I was relieved Sadie was safe, but there was something more. Joe was watching me piece it together. Something was missing. When I thought about Sadie I got really sad inside. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of emptiness. Something was still missing. Someone. Then I remembered, “Oh God, Jane.”

Joe was silent for a moment, just glanced back and forth from the road to me. “Look, Mann. You did all you could. At least you two are alright.” He watched me through the rearview. “There’s water back there in a bottle. Drink. We’ll be in Baltimore tonight.” He paused. “You guys scared the hell out of me back there.” He paused again. “Sorry about Jane.”

I slept for a while and woke still confused and unable to breath. I could only remember small pieces. I tried to put together what I could remember, but all I could think about was Jane.

“Do you know how the fire started?” Joe asked, without looking back.

“No, I was asleep.”

“I got back to the motel before the fire trucks. We passed ‘em on the way out. The whole building was on fire. The smoke was thick. I almost didn’t see you guys. I wasn’t sure about Jane ‘til Sadie told me when we were driving off. All I knew was I had to get you guys out of there before the cops got there.”

I was only half listening, as I stared out the window. “But what about Jane?” I asked to no one in particular.

“She’s gone, Mann. She’s gone.”

But what about Jane? What about Jane? I started to cough, and my chest clinched tight. I couldn’t breathe. I kept thinking about Jane. The more I thought about her, the tighter my chest got. I wasn’t sure what was happening. It felt weird, and I was scared because I forgot how to breathe. I could suck breath in, but I couldn’t exhale. I gasped the air, then pushed hard but it just caught in my throat.

I just kept seeing Jane, lying in that bath tub, her body contorted and motionless. She was dead. She was dead. She was dead. I heard a low groan, like the jake brake of those distant trucks, only nearer, much nearer. The groan was coming from me. I was exhaling. When my lungs were empty, I began to cry. Tears poured down my face like a burst dam. The constriction loosened some with each breath. It was the strangest feeling, like a boot was lifting from my throat, letting the air and the tears flow. Joe glanced back several times, staring expressionless, bewildered. After a while, he turned his attention to the road ahead.

I spent two weeks in bed recuperating, feverish and sweating the whole time. I considered the hospital, but it felt better to just lie still and drink lots of water. Mom tended me and didn’t ask questions. She watched the fever and sponged me when I got too hot. She reminded me about the fevers when I was little, about how my temperature would spike and I would convulse, and she wouldn’t know what to do.

After rushing me to the hospital the first few times, where they immersed me in a bath, and never discovered the cause, she just started immersing me at home. My earliest memory was sitting in the bathtub shivering while Mom doused me.

The fever always came while I was sleeping, and I knew I had one because of the vivid dreams, waves of wet concrete rolling toward me. During convulsions, the concrete turned into lava, flowing over me. And I could never run away. My feet were cinder blocks and I could only move in slow motion.

When I convulsed, Mom would hear me struggling. She would run to the bathroom and start filling the tub, then come and get me. The immersion caused white pain that flashed up my body and caused me to shake. I wanted to climb from the tub, get back under the warm covers. Mom said I never resisted, though, just hugged myself tightly and let her cool me. Afterward she would wrap me in a towel and smother me with hugs and kisses, while singing lullabies.

This time there were no lullabies, or smotherings of hugs and kisses, but Mom couldn’t resist stroking my hair and humming quietly as she cooled my fever.

After two weeks in bed I was nearly recuperated. I sat up after a few days, then moved slowly around the room. I saw flowers and cards on the dresser, but didn’t see who they were from. Probably Gina. When I walked past the mirror, I saw how skinny I got from not eating. I dropped and did pushups, but only did five before my head exploded. Still too soon. I sat for a while, half-healed, staring out the window at new-fallen snow. Morning cars rounded the bend, their indifferent headlights flashed across my wall, before disappearing over the slight incline.

Forty Five.

A New Day.

“…forty-eight…forty-nine…fifty.” It was Friday night and I felt good. I couldn’t spend another night at home, so I did some pushups and walked to The Well. I was still sore, but I was better. It felt good to be outside. The sun was setting and the sky was clear. There were stars everywhere.

When I got to The Well, it was packed with Vagrants, the parking lot littered with strange cars. I realized I was gone for months. I paused at the door, considered not going in. It was dirtier than I remembered, cups and butts all over, broken bottles, and a wet pile of something in the corner.

At the moment, I forgot what was appealing about the place. The tattered, faded sign stretched above the door read: The Wishing Well Saloon, hung on rusty nails bent to pinch the corners. Just then the door belched opened and some drunks stumbled out, trailed by smoke, stale beer, and a cacophony of noise.

A drunk tripped across the lot searching his pockets for keys. I knew him but didn’t wave, and he didn’t notice me. He seemed lost, almost blind. He found his keys and opened the car. A pile of drunks fell in and they drove off. When I turned back to the entrance, that stale smell hit my face and almost made me sick. If I had another place to go, I would have gone. Instead, I went inside.

I knew everyone, but they felt like strangers, with vague names and bland faces, even their voices warbled. I looked over at the pool table, at our regular table. I scanned the whole damn bar, Sadie wasn’t there. But Gina was. She waved me to the bar, gave me a beer and a hug, “Hey there. You got my card? And flowers?”

“Yeah. Thanks. It was sweet.” A couple of Vagrants waved from down the bar.

Joe was sitting at our table, reading something. It looked like a note. I was surprised I didn’t see him when I came in. Then I realized, I hadn’t thought about him at all since we got back. And he never called or stopped by to see how I was.

I walked over. He didn’t look up, just stared at the note. I stood staring at him, watching him stare at the note. I glanced at it, but all I could read was “Hey Joe”.

I nodded, then walked back to Gina. “Where’s Sadie?”

“Gone,” she said, as she closed the tap and slid a draft down the bar. She leaned toward me. “Said she was going down to Jane’s funeral, tell her family what happened. Don’t know what she’s doing after that.”

She nodded toward Joe. “Gave him that note. He’s been reading it for a week, just sits there staring at it. He hasn’t left, except at closing. I think he sleeps at the Shack, comes back when Nick opens, then just sits there drinking all day and staring at that note.”

“Have you seen it?”

“No, just pieces, when I take him a beer. Looks like a good bye letter. Says she’s going…Relationship wasn’t what she thought…, that sort of shit. Oh, I saw your name. Couldn’t see what it said, though.”

“Yo, Gina. ‘nother Nasty Bloh, Hon,” a Vagrant called down the bar.

Gina flipped him a finger, but grabbed a glass and headed to the tap. She paused, then leaned and whispered, “He thought she would stay, after Jane and all.”

I couldn’t hear anything Gina said after she said my name was in that note. All I could think about was that note. I needed to see what it said. I needed to know what Sadie said about me. I looked at Joe, still brooding and staring at the note. I didn’t know him anymore. He had changed, had been changing for years. I guess we both had. But recently, he changed a lot.

I walked over to the table and sat down. “Whatcha reading?” He didn’t respond. “Joe,” I said forcefully, “What are you reading?” Without looking up, Joe pulled a lighter and lit the corner of the note. He held it up so the flame engulfed it, then turned it so that I could read it.

Hey Joe,…I’m sorry…you’re a good guy…we’re not meant for this…

I scanned as fast as I could, before it was gone.

…I don’t love you…love stories about you…just a character…

I scanned faster. The entire page was ablaze.

…I want…Mann…dah mun rof…

I couldn’t read the rest. It curled and burnt, and was gone.

I looked over the burnt note into Joe’s eyes. It reminded me of the motel fire. A chill shot through me as I watched it burn away in his hands. He never flinched, never acknowledged the heat. Even after the flames were gone, there was still fire in his dark eyes. It was the look you got when you betrayed Crazy Joe. It was ice cold and scorching hot.

I saw him give that look to others, saw the fear it evoked, the damage that ensued. Grown men begged and lied to avoid that look, shook with fear when they got it.

It didn’t have the same effect on me, but the opposite. I didn’t feel fear, I saw fear. Joe’s fear. And his pain, and anger, and jealousy, and insecurity. It all spilled in one look. It wasn’t strength, it was weakness. Joe hid behind crazy armor because he was scared. But when he showed it to me I saw through. It dropped away like burnt paper, like flaking ash. It was pathetic. Joe was pathetic. I stared into his empty eyes. I thought he loved me, but Joe wasn’t capable.

I saw it clearly, like the motel fire had burned away those scales that were peeling from my heart and eyes for so long. I could see better. I could breathe easier. I felt relaxed. And finally, I could see Joe for who he was. He wasn’t better than me, or cooler or stronger. He was weaker. Joe was a wounded animal, hiding in a leather jacket.

Sitting with our eyes locked, I thought about our past, the fun times we had robbing houses, doing drugs, stealing cars and fighting. I thought about our time together in prison. It felt like it was with someone else. I was sitting there, staring right into Joe’s face, and I didn’t recognize him.

Then, for some reason, I thought of Sadie. Maybe I just wanted something good to think about. I couldn’t shift my eyes from Joe, but I could shift my thoughts. I pictured Sadie’s smile, the way she touched my shoulder as she passed, on her way to the bar for another beer. I remembered telling Sadie about Joe, so many times, about how I knew they would hit it off. I thought Sadie was Crazy Joe’s kind of woman.

Then I remembered Joe and I swore we would never let a woman come between us. And maybe Joe was thinking the same thing, because the first and only thing he said was, “You knew.”

Joe and I fought back to back many times, and I never thought we’d face each other, but I knew the instant he was coming. By instinct, I leaned back just in time to evade the slash of his switchblade. And, not knowing if that was meant as a warning or a call to arms, I jumped to my feet. He swung the blade again. I ducked below it and came up behind with an elbow to the back of his neck, sending him across the table and the blade across the room.

Joe rose with a bottle in hand and repeated the low growl, “You knew,” as he clipped me above my left eye. I heard the bottle break and felt heat flush my face. It didn’t hurt, but it did knock me to my knees. The jolt shook everything loose and for a moment I had total clarity. I saw Joe, grunting in front of me, like an animal, hating me, hating the world. But all I could think was I didn’t hate him. At that moment, I loved him as much as ever. I should have hated him, but I didn’t. I couldn’t understand why, but I wasn’t angry. I just felt sorry for him.

When I looked up, Joe had his gun pointed at me. “You knew,” he growled again. Just before my vision blurred from blood and tears, I saw cops swarm the bar and wrestle Joe to the ground. I heard Nick yelling at the cops as Gina grabbed my arm and rushed me out the back door.

She handed me her bar rag. “Here, keep this on your eye and get out of here.” I pressed the rag onto the gash and stumbled across the stream, into the woods, down a path I knew well.

A short distance in, I stopped to rest on a log. I looked back at the parking lot. It was awash with flickering lights. I saw Joe in handcuffs, getting tucked into a cruiser. I tucked deeper into the woods and waited to see if the cops were coming. When I was certain they weren’t I made my way to the Shack.

I woke early and felt I hadn’t slept at all. My head was throbbing and I was stiff from sleeping on the ground. I tried to walk it off, but the more I walked, the more I thought, and the more I thought, the worse I felt.

By the time I circled the woods and got back to the Shack I was numb, blaming myself for everything: Joe getting angry, Joe and Sadie breaking up, Joe and Sadie hooking up, Jane… it was all my fault.

As I walked, I asked myself, Why? Why this? Why that? Why Not? Why Not. It echoed in my brain. Why Not. I said it to others so many times and now I was saying it to myself. It was an easy answer, like a shrug.

I gently kicked the tree that anchored the corner of the Shack, as the obvious responses screamed through my head. Why not? Because someone could get hurt, someone could go to jail, someone could die–Jane could die. And it was my fault. And Joe’s fault. And Sadie’s fault. And Billy Boy’s fault. Jane was dead. Dead.

I tried to push it down and walk away, but each time, Jane’s dead, naked body came screaming into my head. I kicked the tree harder to shake the vision, but that made it more vivid. My anger grew into rage. I punched the side of the Shack and cracked a board. Then I grabbed it and ripped it from the tree. I grabbed a second board and pulled it free. I used it as a ram to smash the wall of the Shack. The old dry-rotted boards splintered and flew apart, until one wall lay in a pile on the ground.

I clutched a corner post and rocked it, leaning in as it swayed. The Shack rocked, creaking and loosening. I pushed and pulled. The roof shifted and slid and hung by a few stubborn nails, as the walls began to loosen and small pieces dropped to the ground. The corner posts loosened in their shallow holes, until a section of the roof pulled free and fell. The wall it rested on swung wild.

I saw my breath in the cool morning air, as I grunted and strained to build the momentum of the swaying structure. Another wall broke free and swung out. Another piece of roof dropped and dangled into the room. I pulled hard, and it slowly peeled its way to the ground, bringing the rest of the roof with it.

The remaining walls swayed free. One snapped in the middle and crashed to the ground. Another flexed from pressure, forcing boards to spring into splinters, leaving one wall standing. I leaned in and shoved it over. It fell like a tree, like slow motion. When it hit, a cloud of dust rose, curled around me and lingered, before slowly starting to settle.

I sat against a tree, breathing heavy and looking at the debris. The morning sun shone through the leaves and lit the pile. When I looked up the light hit my face and I began to cry again.

Some Vagrants passed. They didn’t see me but saw what was left of the Shack. After they passed, I followed the stream deeper into the woods, to the clearing where Sadie took me that night. I couldn’t find the tree she tied me to, but I did find where she laid me on the ground. I laid there again, beneath a canopy of White Oak.

I woke hours later, when the sun found my face again, I sat up and looked around. It was a beautiful spring day. I followed the edge of the stream until it cut back to the parking lot. I sat on a rock with my back to The Well and watched water flicker across the rocks. A warm breeze crossed the field. The tall grass dipped and waved, and wildflowers were bursting everywhere.

I was content to sit there all day, so content I didn’t notice Sadie pull into the parking lot, didn’t notice her drive straight to me, shut off her motorcycle and take off her helmet.

“Hey,” she called softly. A tingle rose through me at the sound of her voice. I thought I was dreaming, still staring at the water. But when I turned and looked into her beautiful face, nothing ever felt more real. I just stared at her. I hadn’t seen her since the fire.

I couldn’t speak at first, just stared. She looked so beautiful. Then I thought about how I must look. I glanced down at my hands. They were dirty and bloody from tearing down the Shack. I had a makeshift bandage on my eye, the side of my face was bruised, and my clothes were a mess from sleeping on the ground.

There were so many things I wanted to say, but still couldn’t speak. I couldn’t even blink. I just kept looking at her, while inside, wave after wave of warmth washed through me. It was like the moment just after I cried, after the dam burst, that moment when the air was fresh and new, crisp and clear, and so completely full of Sadie.

I’m sure The Well was behind her, but I couldn’t see it. I’m sure there were people walking by, cars parking, neon signs flashing, and all those families in the apartments beyond, but all I could see was Sadie, standing there, in leather jacket, thumbs hooked in pockets, hip slouched left, in motorcycle boots, and smiling, smiling, smiling.

“I said, ‘Hey’.” She said again, softly.

I couldn’t answer. I leaned over the stream and splashed water on my face. I looked up again to make sure she was still there, still smiling. When I was convinced she was real, I responded. “Hey. So, you went south?” I dried my face on my sleeve. “Jane’s parents?”

“Yeah,” she nodded. “Good people.” She paused. “You know…,” she got off her bike and sat next to me. “I’m done.” She looked over at The Well and shook her head. “There’s gotta be more than this.”

“Yeah,” I looked at The Well, too. “I know what you mean.”

“You know, Mann,” Sadie looked at me, “I was down there with Jane’s parents and I realized, these are good people, just trying to get by. And here I am, telling them their daughter was great. They already knew that.” Sadie flicked a pebble into the stream. “I felt like an idiot.” She watched the ripples in the water. “But I think it meant something to them. At least, I hope it did.” She sighed. “I’m gonna miss that girl.”

“Yeah.” We were quiet for a moment. “When I was recuperating, my mom took care of me. She never even asked what happened, like she didn’t want to know. Just took care of me. I started feeling bad about all the things I did. I tried to talk to her about it, but I couldn’t.”

“What would you have said?”

“I don’t know. Probably just apologize for breaking her heart. You know, for taking advantage of her, not trying hard enough. That kind of thing.” I paused. “I’ve been thinking about the stuff we did, Joe and me, and about Jane. For some reason, I needed to tell my mom I love her. Maybe because she was nearby. Maybe because I’m growing up or something, but I felt like I needed her to know.”

“Why didn’t you tell her?”

“I tried. I just couldn’t. Anyway, she already knew. She understood. When I did tell her something, she wouldn’t let me finish. I thought it was because she didn’t understand.”

My eyes drifted from Sadie. I looked down at the stream. “Every time I started a story, Mom interrupted with a story of her own, about when I was young. I thought she didn’t want to see who I was, but I realized she already knew. She knew better than I did. I’m the same person I’ve always been. I wanted her to forgive me, but she didn’t need to. She just patted my arm and said, ‘It’ll be alright, dear.’”

“Yeah.” Sadie was still looking at me, “Yeah,” she nodded. “I talked to Gina last night, while I was on the road. I’ve been checking in, to see how you’re doing. She told me about you and Joe.” She paused, then asked, “So, did you read the note?”

The note. The note. It fell like a boulder between us, or a meteor, like the one that killed the dinosaurs, leaving only Sadie and me, and the note. Suddenly I was quiet again. Did I read it? Was I supposed to? I glanced at her. “No,” then added, “only the beginning.” I glanced again. “He burned it.”

Sadie looked at her hands, then at the water. I thought about how I dreamed of her every night while recuperating. I wanted her to know I hadn’t thought of anyone else since the day we met. But this was Sadie. I could tell her anything, just not that.

So I didn’t tell her anything. I just stared at the water. And soon, Sadie did, too. She nodded a few times to herself, like she was thinking about something. I glanced a couple of times and smiled, then looked back at the water.

Something needed to happen. This wasn’t cool, wasn’t the comfortable silence we sometimes shared in The Well. This wasn’t one of those private moments in a crowded room when something happened that only Sadie and I saw, or like a joke that only we got. This wasn’t about The Well, or our pasts, or our friends. That silence was a room we shared. This silence was a wall between us. This silence was us. Everyone else, everything else, was gone.

Each time I looked up, I hoped the words would pop into my head, just start flowing from my mouth, but they didn’t. And each time they didn’t, it felt like a window was slowly closing, like Sadie was slipping away.

She was sitting so close I could touch her. But the space between us was growing, like her thoughts were packing to leave and soon her body would, too. When she glanced at her motorcycle, I felt a pang of anxiety, mixed with the start of a heartbreak. When I glanced at her motorcycle, my chest tightened.

After more silence, Sadie stood, “So, anyway…” She picked up her helmet. “It wasn’t important…, the note, I mean.” She stood for a moment looking at the stream. “I’m heading west, starting over.” Her voice changed. I felt the window close. Her thoughts shifted and even though she didn’t move, I felt her backing away, saw her waving goodbye. I had to say something.

“Where?” I pushed the word out.

“San Francisco,” she nodded, glancing at her helmet, then back at me. “I hear it’s nice.”

“Gonna finish…Jane’s journey?” I could actually feel my heart tear.

“Yeah, I guess.”

I couldn’t see her eyes, and I was glad she couldn’t see mine. I just nodded. “Seems…far,” was all I could say. I couldn’t imagine life without Sadie, but I needed this moment to be over. I needed her to leave or stay, but I needed her to do something.

“Well,” she said, strapping her helmet and mounting her Harley. “You take care…, Quiet One.”

It was the first time she called me that. It reminded me of Jane. I looked at Sadie, but I couldn’t speak for fear I would cry. I swallowed hard as she started the motorcycle and lifted the kickstand. Suddenly I was back at the fire, crawling to her room, coughing and choking, with no other thought than to get to her, be with her, hold her and see her face. I thought about the two weeks recuperating. She was my only thought. I came to The Well yesterday, just to see her.

At that moment, I realized she was leaving, really leaving. She was leaving, and there was only one thing I could do. I took a deep breath and forced the air out, “Hey,” I called to her as she inched away. She stopped, took off her helmet and smiled. When I saw her beautiful eyes, the pressure drifted from my chest, my throat opened, anxiety drained from me like a warm breeze through a newly opened window. Words filled my head and pushed toward my mouth. They were coming and I couldn’t stop them. They rolled out and through the air, “I love you.”

Sadie’s smile didn’t change. She didn’t flinch or look surprised or anything. And she didn’t hit me. She just stared at me for a moment, then looked away, then back again. “Finally,” she said. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Then she smiled again. “You coming?”