by C. M. Barnes
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Mira was right about the darkness. It was coming on faster than Alec had anticipated. When he stepped off the cabin’s back deck in the direction of the shed, he didn’t see a treacherous depression in the ground waiting below him in the faded light. His ankle plunged into it at a ninety-degree fold, and he went down on his back in the hostas, cradling his burning shin and staring up into what was quickly becoming a storm-clouded night sky.
“Hey, neighbor.” A scratchy, familiar voice sounded from behind the top of his head. “Doing a little night gardening?”
Alec rolled onto his gut to confront two mud-covered work boots staring him in the face. Farther up, Dave Tillman was looming over him with a gun in his hands. It was hard to tell from the angle, but the gun appeared to be a rifle, not large, possibly a .22. “I just twisted my ankle real good,” Alec said.
Dave spit down into the hostas, and the hock landed somewhere in the vicinity of Alec’s right shoulder. “I can see that,” he said. “You should be more careful. Those high ones will leave you gimpy for a month.”
“Good,” Alec said. “Great to know.” The smell of the carcass was everywhere, and it was awful. He rose slowly to one knee then tried putting weight onto his newly damaged joint. A flare of pain, like a well-executed twist burn, crackled up his shin. “Jesus,” he said, “I think I’m crippled for life!”
A skinny hand inserted itself into his armpit and hauled him upward. “Come on. Walk it off. We got stuff to attend to, and it smells like a turd parade out here.”
On his feet now, Alec stepped gingerly and barely suppressed a whimper. The burn had not abated. He turned to face his rescuer anyway. “Well, thanks a bunch, Dave. Anything I can do for you?”
“There’s a power issue.”
“No, not obviously. I came over here to see if you got any lights. We lost ours bottom of the seventh.”
“Bottom of the what?”
“The seventh inning? The seventh inning with a chance to clinch? Don’t tell me you’re not watching.”
Alec crossed his arms and tried slouching over his good ankle. The pain in his bad one ebbed into a dull smolder. “No, Dave, we are not watching. In fact, we don’t have a TV in the cabin.”
“That’s kinda sad.”
“Not really. What we do have is a dinner party in progress. Me, my partner, and a couple of very old friends.”
Dave’s crinkled, thin, whiskery face formed a smile in the gray light. “So, you and the Subaru ladies are having a dinner party, huh? That’s real nice. In that case, I’m sure you wouldn’t mind if we fire up that old generator of your Daddy’s to get the Tillman tube running again. Game means a lot to Drake. He pitched for the high-school team this year. Just an eighth-grader. He wants to pick up tips.”
Alec felt something cinch deep in the seat of his chinos. “Not sure if that’s going to work for us,” he said.
“Come on, friend. You could light some candles. Get a real ambience going. Isn’t that what you come up here for, the natural vibe?”
Alec tried shifting some weight back onto his bad ankle and discovered it could bear a load provided he stood perfectly upright over the joint. Any listing to one side or the other brought on the burning, crumpling pain again. Had Dave Tillman just used the word “ambience”? “I’m not even sure if the generator still works,” Alec said. “Also, how in the hell do you know about the generator?”
“Sure it does. And I’ll tell you — ” Dave leaned in over his weapon and tapped his pocked nose — “we’ve even used it once or twice in a pinch. Never while you’re up here, of course. But your Daddy gave me a key once, and I figured you wouldn’t mind, seeing as we’ve known each other for quite a while.”
“Is that right?”
“It is at least from where I’m standing.”
“Maybe we’re not standing in the same place.”
“Well, seeing as you’re all gimped up, that’s probably a good thing. Now why don’t you just go take a load off, and I’ll run out to the shed and get things hooked up. Once the game’s over, I’ll run out again and switch the line back over to your place. That way, you’ll have plenty of light for dessert. I know it’s a little risky to be out and about, what with the big cat on the prowl, but I got my pea-shooter here, and Drake’s covering me with the big gun from the house.”
A cool wind rippled through the hostas at Alec’s feet. It smelled like rain, also like serious incoming atmospherics. It only amplified the stench. “The big gun?” he echoed.
Dave’s smile got even bigger. “You know, it’s the damnedest thing. A few years ago, quite a few in fact, I found this little .22 and a big, old .338 Mag out in the woods. Brand new. Still had the tags on and everything. Crazy, right? I’ve been blowing squirrel brains out with them ever since, and I’m pretty sure that Mag could knock down a grizzly if the opportunity ever presented itself — or a mountain cat, for that matter. So far, no dice, but the night’s young, right? Drake’s got a real good eye.”
Alec experienced a new pain that was not centered in his foot or his ass but rather dispersed throughout his entire body. It was in his gut for sure and in his chest. It was impacted deeply between his eyes. “A real good eye,” he repeated, “even in the dark?”
“Desperate times,” Dave intoned, “desperate pleasures.”
But it was impossible that Dave had said “pleasures.” Alec could feel his ankle swelling against the biting strap of his sandal. If he didn’t get off it soon, he would have to roll it back to the cabin. Thunder cracked somewhere off in the trees. The hostas trembled. Somewhere else, somewhere much closer, acne-backed Drake was targeting him with his father’s old gun. He, Drake, was probably shirtless.
“Look,” Alec said, “to be honest, I’m pretty sure we’re going to need full use of that generator tonight. But I’ll go back in and talk it over with our guests. I’m not making any promises, but we’ll see if we can work something out. For instance, maybe we could switch the line over after Mira and I are done playing host?”
Dave was no longer smiling. “And how soon do you think that will be?”
“I don’t know, Dave. I also don’t know why you haven’t invested in a generator yourself, seeing as you’ve been living up here for longer than I’ve been alive.”
“I think it was your Daddy’s generator.”
“That’s correct. And now it’s mine. So stop patronizing me.”
Dave took a step back and blew out a long, wounded sigh. “All right now. Don’t get your balls in a twist. You run in and talk to the gals, and I’ll just wait here and keep an eye out for the cat. Sound good?”
Alec lurched back toward the deck, sat down on the edge, and then swung his bad leg up and over. Then he pushed himself up in such a way as to lodge a couple of big slivers in his palm. “Sure, Dave,” he said. “You sit tight, and I’ll hurry back with the word just as soon as I can.”
Dave turned away from him, and the barrel of the .22 swiveled off to face the trees.
* * *
“He wants to do what?” Mira said.
“I know. Pretty presumptuous, right? I’ll just hop back out there and tell him to piss off. Probably the power will be back on before he even gets home.”
Mira shook her head. “That thunder sounds pretty loud.”
“Most thunder does.”
“It also sounds pretty close.”
“So does Dave Tillman huffing at our backdoor. Trust me. It will be a real pleasure to tell that guy to stick it. I can’t believe he’s been going into our shed. If he didn’t command such an arsenal, I’d get that key back right now and sue him for use fees.”
Mira folded her arms. “I don’t know if that’s a productive idea.”
“Not like I’ve been on a roll up to this point.”
Claire and Jennifer were still sitting at the table. Alec couldn’t be sure in the cabin’s interior darkness, but it looked as if they were holding hands. Cute. Two lost waifs smuggled off to the witch’s hut in the forest.
He knew for a fact that Claire had once hiked across a good portion of the very same mountain range now looming around them — some kind of eco-friendly fundraiser for a doubtlessly impeccable cause. She was more than capable of rising to this type of occasion, and he wasn’t sure if he had ever disliked her more than at this moment, watching her play the victim to these demented circumstances. She probably had four flashlights and a generator in her car.
“I don’t suppose either of you have any thoughts,” Alec said in the direction of the table. “Dave, that’s our friendly, well-armed neighbor, thought we might enjoy lighting some candles. I believe he used the word ‘ambience’.”
Claire and Jennifer drew closer to each other over the table. “This is your neighborhood, Alec,” Claire said. “You should do whatever you think is best — not that it would probably kill you to begrudge one of the local peasants the use of your generator.”
“I see. So you’re saying we should all just huddle here in the darkness while Drake picks up tips.”
Claire’s face was unreadable in the black. “Whoever Drake is aside,” she said evenly, “if you’re at all interested in improving neighborly relations, a little sharing might go a long way. Consider that that much poorer man you speak of so condescendingly spends roughly eleven months out of the year staring out his back window at your larger, fancier, empty cabin. That’s got to be frustrating, you know, in a fuck-the-one-percent kind of way. Why not seize this opportunity to mend some metaphorical fences?”
“That ‘much poorer man’ chucked a baseball through my very non-metaphorical window and has yet to own up to it.”
“Are you certain it was a baseball?” Claire said. “What if it was branch or something? What if it was an animal?”
“Sure,” Jennifer seconded. “Maybe it was the mountain lion?”
“Oh!” Alec couldn’t have softened his tone now if he’d tried. “The mountain lion broke that perfectly ball-shaped hole in my window! That’s good, Jennifer. Why didn’t I think of that?” He could sense rather than feel her hurt gathering in the darkness. “Maybe the cat’s a pitcher too?” he went on. “Maybe that bitch can sling some real fire? And by the way, I’m like a twenty percenter, Claire, so just cool it with that class warfare.”
“Stop,” Mira said. “Just stop.”
“No! I refuse to be silenced in my own cabin. Instead, I’m going to ask the two of you just what the hell you came up here for anyway? Why do we even bother to have these little fuck-a-roo powwows? It always ends badly or worse and, if I recall, it’s usually you, Claire who’s the instigator. So, I’d like to know, just what, exactly, is the thought process when you’re like, ‘Gee, I think I’ll call up Alec and see if he’d like to have another miserable encounter? Also, Jennifer, that was a stupid thing to say about the mountain lion and the hole in the window. I’m not saying you’re stupid, only that that was a stupid thing to say. Do you see the difference? I’m just trying to honest with you — honest and accurate. I think it’s a virtue to be honest and accurate, don’t you? Don’t you?”
Alec, to his knowledge, had been manifestly cruel to Jennifer only one time. It was shortly after Claire had broken the news that had, in turn, broken his life. In the following days, she and Jennifer had been physically indivisible while Alec moved his possessions out of his now former apartment.
Jennifer and Claire had sat together at his cheap card table, very similar to the way they were sitting now, holding hands and watching him sherpa huge loads of scribbled casebooks and dilapidated furniture out the door, down three flights of steps, and through the sprung backside of a rented van.
Every so often, one of them would rise to offer assistance with a heavy object, and he would grunt dismissively, sweat pouring into his eyes, as he staggered off under the weight of what felt like another crappy prop in the cheap tragedy of his life. Finally, near the end of the second day, Claire was forced to leave Jennifer’s side for a few hours to attend a final. Jennifer had long since dropped out of law school in favor of social work. Alec watched her go from the window of the van where he had been living since the revelation.
Once she was out of sight, he returned to the apartment, jammed his spare key into the lock, and entered buoyed upon a cloud of distilled rage. He found Jennifer sitting in the middle of the now barren living room, crying. She did not seem surprised by his reappearance. For the first time in the two years they had known each other, he refused to allow any soft feelings for her natural-born situation to dilute his anger. Instead, he stalked up to her hunched form, leaned over her bowed head, and said, rather softly, “You are a duplicitous little cunt, and I will never forgive you for doing this to me.”
“I’m sorry,” she had said. “I’m so so sorry.”
But he continued to loom over her, filled with a desire to destroy and also fully aware that this desire was cruel and unjust. “Sorry is not good enough,” he said finally, lamely. “Nowhere even close.”
When she had looked up at him, her face had been tear-streaked in a cinematic way. “What do you want me to say?” she said. “I told you so?”
Then something truly terrible had happened. In the decade since, Alec had played it back in his mind innumerable times and, every time he was never fully certain of his intent. But facts were facts, and they were not in dispute. What he had done was he’d violently swung his body away from her, and, in doing so, his hand had made contact with her face. No, not just contact; his balled up fist had struck her face — right under her left eye to be precise.
After that terrible occurrence, everything became quiet. He left the apartment. He did not talk to Jennifer or Claire for a year. Then, when Claire called him up at his new office the next spring, seemingly at random, he had almost pissed in his cheap associate’s suit upon hearing her voice. His shame and fear were that great. But she had only claimed to want to know how he was doing, and she had been pleasant on the line, as both her and Jennifer were pleasant — if quiet on Jennifer’s part — when they met for drinks a week later.
Ever since then, all subsequent blow-ups and brouhahas aside, that one terrible contact had never been mentioned, at least not in Alec’s presence. Technically, he still didn’t know for certain if Claire knew about it. But, on a truer level, he knew that she had to know. There was just no way she didn’t.
“Sorry,” Alec said now into the silent darkness of the cabin’s interior, “I’m out of line again. I can see that. And you’re right. We’ll be fine in here either way, light or no light.”
“Alec,” Claire said, “all we want is to make peace with you.”
To be continued...
Copyright © 2021 by C. M. Barnes