A short story by Laura A. Freymiller
The problem is I can’t breathe. Three years ago nothing would have kept me from having a good time. Three years ago—pfft—nothing.
Now I’m sitting on the curb, outside the bar, wishing desperately for a cigarette, head still throbbing from that godawful-country-crap-cum-music, wondering how the hell I’ll make it home. If I even want to make it there.
There’s something desolate about a Montana sky at night. The orange haze hovering above the horizon. The stars close and achingly far.
I try to focus on the feel of the sidewalk underneath me, still radiating the day’s heat. I feel the urge to pace, but the sky, somehow, keeps me pinioned where I am.
I am staring idly at my fingers, wishing they were covered in ash, brown with tobacco, when a woman sits down next to me.
She doesn’t look Montana to me, not with her Day-Glo skin, vibrant even in the dying light. Certainly not her hair, cropped short and spiky, platinum blonde to silver. She looks as though she’s flown in from some tropical paradise.
A half-moon hangs from one ear.
I look at her side-long. She is sitting close to me, but not so close as to necessarily invite a conversation. Still it is a big sidewalk under a big sky and she sat next to me.
“Evening,” I say.
“Cowboy,” she says.
“You got a cigarette?” I ask.
“Coffin nails?” She says. “Are you sure you want one?”
“Pretty damn sure,” I say.
She eyes me for a second then summons a cigarette as if from thin air. It is wrapped in a sort of fine tissue I’ve never seen before. It doesn’t matter though, because I hold it in trembling fingers and she flicks a lighter underneath and it’s ablaze.
The blessed nicotine.
I haven’t smoked in three years.
“You needed that, huh?” She asks.
“You have no idea,” I say.
She smiles slightly but doesn’t say anything.
“What brings you out here on this fine night?” I say. “Shouldn’t you be in there making eyes at some fella?”
“Fella?” She says.
“Or gal,” I correct.
“Not my scene,” Day-Glo says. “In case you couldn’t tell, I’m not from around here.”
“No shit,” I say. “Where are you from?”
“Here and there,” she says with a shrug. “Most recently, Texas Panhandle.”
“What is that,” I say, “Austin?”
“Huh uh,” she says. “Think Amarillo.”
“How come you haven’t got an accent?”
“Ya’ll don’t seem to take too kindly to strangers in these parts,” she drawls.
“Boy howdy,” I say. “So, what’s your name?”
“Alan,” I say.
“Alex,” she says, with just enough hesitation to make me doubt her. “You got a car, cowboy?”
“Even if I did,” I say, “I’m too drunk to drive.”
“No problem,” Alex says, “I’ll drive.”
“Forward aren’t you,” I say.
“You want to get out of here,” she says. “I want to get out of here. Otherwise we wouldn’t be sitting on a curb having this conversation.”
“Well,” I say. The itch has got ahold of me, the urge to move run shake scream breathe. Anything anything except to wait there for June to come out and find me. Another conversation ending the same way with tears and threats and pleas that I attend therapy etc etc etc
“Shoot,” I say, “let’s go.”
It is technically June’s car. But I have her keys. And damn if I don’t feel owed right now. Owed by the breathless sky and the bleary light of the same old bar full of the same old people waiting for their turn to die.
Three years ago could I see myself here? Sliding into the passenger’s seat, tossing the keys over to a complete stranger, reaching out a casual hand to crank up the AC?
Three years ago could I see anything?
In the car I catch a whiff of her scent, not perfume, not unpleasant, but bizarre. The smell of sweat and salt and something vaguely rotten. It contrasts sharply with June’s smell, a clean soapy smell that has to me now a soporific effect. Sending me continually to sleep in the way only things too familiar can.
It isn’t June’s fault. None of it is ever June’s fault.
The thought pin-balls around in my head, threatening to shake it all lose. I turn to Day-Glo, Panhandle Alex. New, different, driving the goddamn car.
“Where are we going?” I ask, aware by now that we have exited the parking lot, turned left at the stoplight, cruising down Main towards the bridge.
“The river,” Alex says. “I need to get down there, and maybe some ways past.”
“How far past?” I ask.
“Scared?” She asks.
“A little,” I say.
We sit in silence, the dull roar of the air conditioning, the occasional flash of passing cars. Outside people enter and exit bars. Dogs are being walked. Stores stand empty and dead.
I wonder if June has started to worry about me yet. If she’s left the bar, noticed the car missing. As if in answer my phone begins to buzz.
“Your girlfriend?” Alex asks.
I don’t answer.
“All right,” Alex says. “You’re lucky you’re here with me and not my sister. She hates cheaters.”
We are crossing over the bridge now, the iron railings whipping past.
“You have siblings?” I ask.
“Just the two,” she says. “Sisters.”
“Pull off up here,” I say, “if you want to get down to the river.”
“Roger that,” she says with an exaggerated drawl.
Alex steers June’s car into the gravel turn off, leading it down past the scrub trees to a low impromptu parking space. A steep overgrown path drops down to the water’s edge.
“How old are you, cowboy?” Alex asks stopping the car.
“Old enough to know better,” I say.
“Good,” Alex says. She gets out of the car, leaving the key in the ignition, the engine still purring. I watch as she makes her way to the water, shedding clothes as she goes, silhouetted by the blaring headlights.
I sit for a moment, not sure what is expected of me. The feeling between us isn’t exactly sexual but it certainly is intense. I feel drawn, pulled to her like a moth drawn to the proverbial flame. But I have learned by now not to think too often of fire. And more importantly not to think too often.
I reach over and turn off the engine, dipping everything into an inky darkness. I drop the keys back into my pocket. I unlace my shoes and awkwardly pull off my socks, wincing when I step out on the rocks. They poke and prod at my feet attacking from odd angles.
I hobble after Alex’s retreating form.
When I catch up to her, she is already calf-deep in the river and completely naked.
I see a pale scar tracing its way down the length of her spine, as if she has been sliced open and sewn back up.
I roll up my pant legs and wade in after her.
“Oh,” she says, as if surprised to see me, “hello.”
“Hi,” I say.
“Still craving a cigarette?” She says.
We stand silent for a long moment, the water lapping at our legs. On the bridge cars roll by sporadically. If anyone looks down and sees us, they don’t stop. Perhaps we are not the strangest thing they have witnessed. Perhaps we are not strange at all, simply a man and a woman standing in the water.
“Cold, isn’t it?” I say at last.
Alex shrugs. Her Day-Glo skin, I note, stops chastely at the t-shirt line leaving the rest of her body pale. Her breasts are small, the nipples puckered against the night air.
“I always need to go to the river after I’ve killed someone,” she says.
“Ha,” I say.
She doesn’t reply and the silence stretches.
“Do you miss Texas?” I ask.
“Are you sorry?” She asks.
She turns to look at me with silvery eyes, and I see within them a smoldering anger. A delicious invitation to slip out of my sleeping skin and into madness.
I stand for a moment breathing in deeply, the cool damp air and somewhere far off the tinge of smoke.
“Yes,” I say, “every day.”
“Hmm,” Alex says.
I shiver. In my pocket my phone jangles again, insistently.
“Tell me,” Alex says. And it is a command.
It was dark, I think.
“I don’t know how to begin,” I say.
Three years have passed, or maybe I am still trapped, trapped in that same room. Nothing to break me loose.
“I don’t, I don’t have a drinking problem,” I say, “whatever June says. It’s just that—I don’t.”
Alex says nothing, her body glowing against the dark.
“It was a little over two years ago,” I say.
Two years, eight months, and a handful of days.
“I was drunk that night,” I say. “I’m the first to admit it, and I did.”
The smell of smoke, thick, and somehow enticing. Inviting me to stay, sleep, drift off into that sweet surrender. If not for June, I could have slept forever.
“I passed out,” I say, “dead drunk. Lit cigarette. Curtains. I made it out. June made it out. Shit everyone made it out except–“
That feeling of relief, disbelief, standing there out under the same Montana sky. Who knew so much smoke could seep out from such a small, slow beginning, writing great thick messages on the underbelly of the universe. The quick-cut red-blue of police cars and fire trucks. Wrapped in that yellow blanket, guzzling down oxygen. And all that time, in the adrenaline-buzzed midst of it, all that time–
“The old woman, our upstairs neighbor. You know, we used to complain about her all the time. Her television turned up too loud. And her cats smelled so bad. And then–“
I could still feel the vice closing around me, choking, suffocating. Dreams of endless smoke-filled hallways, two lefts and a right, no, two rights, then—and never reaching the door in time.
I turn at last to look at Alex. A slight smile plays on her lips.
“And how did that make you feel?” She asks.
I close my eyes, suddenly nauseous. A wave of stomach acid crawling up my esophagus.
I went to the funeral, against my better judgment, against June’s advice. Like a bystander, eyes drawn to the sound of a car crash, needing to know, to satisfy that deep question: how bad is it?
Closed casket, maudlin lilies, pitiful little family arrayed out on the pews. The drone of a church organ. The blood of the lamb.
How bad is it?
The sum of a life: a cloud of smoke and silence.
“It was my fault,” I say bitterly. “How do you think I feel?”
“Hmm,” Alex says. She turns to look at me, and I become suddenly aware of her body. The Day-Glo orange now almost painful to see, and rising behind her as if unfurling up from the cut in her spine, an aura, hazy and uncertain. If only I could focus, perhaps I could understand what is happening.
But things are confused and Alex’s eyes drag me back, pinioning me where I stand.
“You need to say it,” Alex says.
“I am guilty,” I say.
“And what,” she says, “do you deserve?”
The tug of the river against my legs, dragging me, dragging me down. Alcoholic, June said. Help, she said, you need help. But she never understood, never saw that I didn’t want help. That what I wanted was–
“Death,” I say. “I deserve to die.”
“Dramatic,” Alex says. “But perhaps not incorrect.”
I turn to her again and see her changing. The scar on her back split open and dark wings pushing outward, feathered and oily. Her eyes darkened, ringed with midnight fire.
“What?” I say.
“This is what you wanted, isn’t it?’ Says the creature who was Alex. “A deserved death, to wipe clean the slate. Free yourself from guilt.”
I stumble back, lose my footing, splash, flounder in the river.
Overhead the stars stars stars and the creature wading, moving, oh so slowly, towards me.
It is speaking now, in a voice of stones, low, rumbling, grating. Tectonic plates shuddering past each other through the slow roll of centuries.
“May your sins be washed clean,” it says. “May the waters of this world carry you pure into the next.”
“Wait,” I can hear myself saying over and over again. “Wait.”
June, I think.
It is upon me. And, god, I can’t breathe.