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?”