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.

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