The setting sun was a smeared blush against the August sky, reflected in the river rolling by and the sky was taking on a fiery red in its’ dying moments. There was a distant rumble from way behind her; possibly as far back as Hickman. She thought of the drive ahead of her tonight and how Hickman seemed a long time ago; certainly more than two nights.
The red neon sun shivered in the heat that still hung in the air; a heat that was losing its’ grip but not giving in without a fight. She drove on at a steady fifty, and the sign came into view more clearly. A roadside bar. The same roadside bar as in Arkansas City, Greenville, Wilson and a dozen other places she’d driven through in the last few days, or not different enough to matter. She rubbed a tired hand over weary eyes and coasted into the empty parking lot.
The car gave a wheeze, followed by a shudder which, if not a death rattle, was at least an advanced stage of a terminal disease. She pushed the door open, got out, and gave the car an almost affectionate pat before walking into the bar.
The ghosts of a thousand smoked cigarettes and untold spilled drinks rolled over her as the door swung shut behind. A woman on the jukebox was singing about her cheating husband and her lonely nights.
The bar, like all the others, clearly relied on its weekend bingers to limp through the quiet weekdays. The owner apparently saved money during the week by not bothering to light the place. The room was almost empty. Two men sat on stools at the bar, talking with the barman. In the dim light, she could just make out someone sitting alone at a booth in the back.
She ignored the watching eyes of the men and sat at an empty stool at the end of the bar, a few spaces away from the men and ordered a beer. The barman gave her a close look, and she gave him a weary half-smile, the best she could muster. “What’s the matter? Want to see some ID?”
He didn’t blush the way the young pretty-boy had, back in that bar a few miles outside of Ripley when she’d asked him if she had something hanging from her nose. This man didn’t look as if he’d ever blushed. He just turned, took a glass, and started pouring.
She took the beer and pulled a pack of red Marlboros from her jeans’ pocket, using a matchbook sitting on the bar to light one. One of the two men at the bar, a red-faced good old boy who’d probably been a football player a lifetime ago, decided a decent enough amount of time had passed and turned to her, his speech barely impeded by the matchstick in his mouth, “What brings a pretty lady like you into a place like this?”
She sighed. A pretty lady. She didn’t feel it, and looking in the mirror behind the bar, she didn’t see it in herself. Still had the slate grey eyes, though. They always liked that for some reasons. Slate grey eyes and Bardot hips. That’s what Johnny used to say.
She looked along the bar at the men: the ex-footballer with a scrap iron jaw and the other, who looked as if he’d always been his scrawny sidekick.
“I’m looking for a man,” she said quietly.
“Well, honey,” smiled the one-time jock, revealing a mouth containing crooked teeth and a few gaps, “You come to the right place.”
As the men yukked it up, she moved her own mouth to resemble a smile, as though it were the first time she’d heard it. They always asked, and they always managed to get something sexual out of whatever she said. She let the smile die on her lips and took a small drink from the bottle. “Actually, sweetheart, I already got a man. He’s back in Angola doin’ 9 to 12. Killed a man that was nasty to me.”
They always paid a bit more attention after that, and it was almost true.
Johnny was her man, and he’d been in Angola, back down in Louisiana. He’d been in limbo (“And he still is.” A small voice in her mind said)- in jail waiting for his trial. He would have got 9 to 12. She didn’t think anyone was going to believe the self-defense claim when the prosecutors got through showing pictures of the dead kid. She didn’t see the need to tell them that for a week now he’d been in the medical wing, dead to everything but the machine that breathed for him.
She saw the barman flash the man a warning look. She’d become an expert at picking up glances from sad men who told a “pretty woman” how lonely they were. Men who all thought that Hank Williams had written their life stories.
Men who had no idea how lucky they were.
The barman, sallow-skinned with slitted, suspicion-filled eyes too close together, took a rag from behind the counter and started wiping a glass that didn’t need wiping.
“You stayin’ on around here, ma’am?”
She took another mouthful and shook her head. “Nope. Don’t worry about it. Just lookin’ for someone.”
“Maybe I can help,” he said, and she heard what he was not saying: I’m going to say “Never seen him” to whatever you ask me. So, get that starting’-to-spread-south ass of yours out of this bar.
“A man with a lantern,” she said simply. Sometimes when she said it straight out, there was a glint in their eyes before they could hide it. This time it was different. She’d never had muffled laughter before.
“Looks like one for Freddie, wouldn’t you say?” the former football player sniggered.
“You got that right,” agreed his sidekick.
She wondered what this was, whether they were playing with her. She wasn’t going to bite, not that easy. She asked the lizard behind the bar where the ladies’ room was, and he pointed vaguely towards the back. She nodded and left them to watch her walk across to it.
The man sitting in the corner looked at her with interest. She glanced at him, not slowing. In his mid-sixties, she guessed, with what looked like it had been a thin face, now swollen around the chin and cheeks. Probably another boozehound, she thought, pushing through the door into the bathrooms.
Once inside, she splashed water over her face and tied her dusty hair back where it had started to come undone on the road.
“Thirty-nine going on sixty,” she said to herself, unsmiling. The last week had worn her down. She stared defiantly at her reflection, and when she spoke again the words were hard, unpitying.
“Don’t you go getting desperate, Suzy!” She took a step back in surprise. There was the old, cold determination back again.
Hello old friend, she thought. Where you been? Skipped out for a few hours back there, didn’t ya? Good to have you back.
“We’re gonna get that skin-and-bones son of a bitch, aren’t we?” She answered her own question with a nod, liking this determined voice more than the doubts she’d been listening to in the car for the last few hours.
She felt more ready for the night’s search. Get out of this place and head on down to the riverside. She promised herself the luxury of a motel tomorrow morning.
She was still thinking of the joys of a shower and a bed, rather than catnaps in the back of the Chevy, as she walked out past the man in the corner.
“Miss?” he asked, and his voice had none of the leer she had heard at the bar.
She turned to look at him.
“Did I hear you say you’re looking’ for the man with the lantern?”
A voice called from the bar: “You ignore old Freddie, sugar. He asks everyone comes in here about his damn old lantern man. Come on over here and let me buy you a drink.”
She ignored the voice. “Yessir, I did.”
The voice from the bar came again, “He’s crazy, honey, and he ain’t got much left to satisfy a woman, if you know what I mean. Come on over. . .”
She spun round and fixed on the would-be Romeo at the bar. “Listen cracker head, shut your pie hole, else I’m gonna come over there and bust you across the head so hard you’ll be seein’ stars for a week. Got it?”
The barman spoke, “Lady, this here’s my bar. I think it’s time you–“
He broke off as she left the man in the corner and stalked back to the bar. “Listen, Cletus, or whatever your redneck ass name is. I’m talking to someone over there and you boys are interrupting us. . .”
The barman sneered at her as he came around the bar. When he spoke, his voice was quiet enough so that only she and the two at the bar could hear it.
“Get out the bar, bitch, before I throw you out.”
She stepped right up to him. When he put his hand on her arm, ready to make good on his threat, she didn’t stop him, but instead leaned in close. Speaking softly in his ear, so only he could hear her, she said, “I understand you don’t like me raisin’ my voice. I’m keepin’ my voice real quiet now, cause I want to make sure you understand what I’m saying. That bein’ the case, I’m gonna speak slow as well… I’m gonna go and talk to that gentleman there, and if you interrupt me one more time” – she laid a hand on top of his and touched something that made him gasp in pain – “you’ll be serving drinks with a hook, got it? Now get your hand off my arm before I break it.”
When she let go of his hand, he dropped it off her arm with a confused and pained look on his face. He stepped back, and she spoke louder, so the men at the bar could hear her apparent good cheer.
“It’s been a long day, sugar, and all I want is a drink. Could you get me a bottle, and him over there,” she jerked to the old man, “whatever he drinks? Then bring it over. Keep a tab running.”
The barman stared at her, unsure what had just happened.
Not waiting for an answer, she headed back to the corner booth.
She sat down opposite the man. She pulled out her cigarettes, lit one, and offered him the pack. He took one, lit it and smiled. “Ain’t half as fearsome as he thinks he is, is he?”
“No,” she said, smiling a little herself.
“Not when you’ve seen what you’ve seen, am I right?” There was a twinkle in his eye, and she thought that once he might have been a good-looking man. Now, the unruly beard and crisscross-veined face hid it well.
“Honey, he wouldn’t have been scary even before that.”
“Reckon you’re right,” he said and gave a little chuckle that made his chin wobble. “So, they told you I was crazy. What you doing talkin’ to a crazy man?”
She blew smoke out. “Hell, I’m crazy myself. Ain’t you figured that out?”
The man ran a hand through his beard, smoothing it down a little.
“Reckon you are, or if you’re not, you’re going’ that way. He’ll do that to you.”
“He?” she asked quietly.
“You know who I’m talking about. That old velvet-nosed bastard. Tell me what happened, and I’ll tell you what I know.”
She shook her head. “Not the way it’s going to go. You tell me what you know. I’ll buy you drinks, and if you’re not tryin’ to yank my chain or get me into bed, I won’t kick your ass for you. How’s that?”
He laughed a wet, slightly sick-sounding laugh. “Sounds good. But I am crazy. They told you that, so if I tell you anything’ that you don’t believe, well, maybe it’s just this party in my head that I brought back from the war with me.”
He rocked a little with laughter, and there was something not quite right about the movement. She glanced down and saw there was nothing below either of his knees. He caught her looking, and it reminded her of when she’d caught guys in these places staring at her titties. She felt ashamed.
He chuckled at her shocked expression. “I got a million war stories, honey, but you don’t want to hear about me losing’ my legs.”
“I’m sorry about the ‘gettin’ me into bed’ comment,” she said.
He shrugged, “Well, I still could be trying’ . . . but I ain’t. Let’s talk.”
Before she could say anything, drinks appeared in front of them. Budweiser for her and a shot of something she couldn’t place for the old soldier. The bartender gave her a look again, but this time there seemed to be a tinge of fear in it. He returned to the bar without a word.
The old man tipped his glass in a salute to her. “Name’s Freddie, just like the idiot at the bar said. Once it was Captain F. T. Worthington. But that was a long time ago. . .”
“Nice to meet you, Freddie. I’m Susan.” She gave him an encouraging smile.
He returned the smile, and his eye did a lazy wink. “Don’t worry, Susan. I ain’t one to talk much, and you’re wanting to get out of here quick. It’s just that the military stuff’s important.”
“Okay,” she agreed. “When you say military you’re talkin’ about Vietnam, aren’t you?”
He nodded agreement. “You know how many Vietnam vets it takes to change a lightbulb?”
She looked at him, puzzled. “No.”
“That’s right,” he snarled, mock anger in his voice. “‘Because you weren’t there!”
She didn’t laugh, but she smiled a genuine smile.
“You’re here for a man.” A statement, not a question.
“The man with the lantern. Yes.”
He made a pshwah sound. “You’re here for another man as well, aren’t you? A man you’re trying’ to help?”
She caught his drift. “Yeah. Another man. Johnny. Even got his name next to mine on my arm. Didn’t seem that corny when we had them done.”
“A lot of us are like that joke I just told you. You can’t know what it was like if you weren’t there. Your man fight in the war?”
She nodded. “Not yours, though…the Gulf.”
He smiled sadly. “Weren’t ever mine, sugar. Weren’t ever mine.”
“That’s where you saw him, though? What did you call him? Old Velvet Nose?”
He nodded and took a small sip of his drink. “I’ll tell this quick. You won’t get the whole picture, but enough so you’ll know if it means anything to you.”
She nodded for him to go on, grateful that he seemed to understand the urgency. She could almost see the memory clouding over his face; part of him was no longer with her in this shitty little redneck bar.
“It was back in 1968, deep in Vietnam, near a big river. I could tell you where, how green the jungle was, how hot the air was, but this ain’t no geography or history lesson, so I’ll leave it at that; you know why the river’s important.
“I was heading up a twelve-man unit, and we’d come under sniper attack. One young fella, Larry Bradbury, crept round back and took the sniper out about the time we all thought we were done for. There was a lot of shooting going on, then we heard a different gun shot, a pause, and another shot. Larry came walking’ back down, gun hanging down and face like a ghost. We were all telling him he was a hero and he was going to get a medal, but he started snapping at people to forget about it.
“He told me what had happened as we moved out — I don’t know if it was ‘because I was the Officer in Charge, or ‘because I was his friend. Maybe both. The shooter had been a kid, no more than nine, he said. Next to the shooter was a girl of about six, probably his sister. Larry took them both out. He asked me what I would have done, what I thought he should have done with the little girl.”
“What did you tell him?” Susan asked, but he either didn’t hear her, or didn’t want to answer, because he carried on.
“That afternoon we came across a young American soldier who told us he’d been separated from his lash up when they’d been attacked. He came along with us, heading back to base. We racked out for the night a couple of hours after that. He shared a tent with Larry. Larry had barely spoken two words since he’d told me about the kids, but as I lay in my bag, I could hear them talking in quiet whispers.
“Next morning, they were both gone.”
He paused for a moment and looked at her. “You know what I mean when I say that?” He studied her for a moment and continued, “I see you do. Larry was still there, or at least the shell of Larry, but he was as close to dead as any man with a pulse could get. We didn’t have a Corpsman…I mean a medic, not after Bill Morrison got his self shot three days back. We didn’t know whether the kid was going to die in a minute, an hour, or a month. He was alive, but we had no idea how alive. Does this ring any bells with you, miss, or should I stop now?”
She shook her head slowly. Tears stung at her eyes. “Johnny, my man, he’s in prison. I got a call Monday last week, saying he was sick and I should get down there as soon as I could. After I saw him, lying there in a coma, the warden told me what had happened. Johnny had only been in there two days when a new prisoner had been brought in. Records were confused. ‘Course he didn’t tell me that in case I sued their asses for neglect, but I could tell they knew next to nothing about this guy. They put him in Johnny’s cell, and they heard Johnny talking to him. The guy was asking questions, and Johnny told him what he’d done. He’s never denied it, so it wasn’t like he was giving anything away, but it struck me as strange. Johnny’s never been much of a talker. . .”
“What was he in for?”
“I worked in a bar down in Baton Rouge. One night after work, waiting for Johnny to pick me up a couple guys got rough with me. I can take care of myself, but one of these guys hit me with a bottle… that was when Johnny arrived. He saved my life, I think. Those kids would have…”
“Well, that’s the way the paper tried to paint it afterwards…they were old enough to know better. Johnny was only trying to protect me, but once he started he…well, he didn’t stop and one of the kids ended up dead…”
“And they locked him up until they decided what to do with him.” Frankie said.
“Uh huh. And the new guy comes in and they go around the next morning to wake them. . .”
“And Johnny was gone.” the old man said softly.
“Johnny was gone like your buddy. The other guy was just plain not there.”
The old man sighed. “You can’t hold someone like him with mortar, stones, and chains.”
“They took Johnny down to the hospital wing, and he’s been there ever since. Sleeping the sleep of the dead. . .”
“Not yet, Susan, not yet.”
She thought about this for a moment, and then asked, “What happened after he disappeared?”
The old man took a sip of the drink in front of him. “It was my decision. I thought about what Larry had said to me the day before, and I thought I knew how he felt when he’d had that split second to decide about the little girl.
“We put together a makeshift stretcher and mounted out. We didn’t make a whole lot of progress that day. We were still getting used to walking through jungle, never mind carrying a dead weight on a half-assed stretcher with us. We camped down that night in a clearing, and we were all asleep half an hour after dinner. Normally, guys would shoot the shit for a couple hours, but that night no one wanted to talk. We kept wondering’ whether that lonely soldier was going to pop back up, maybe with an M16 he wanted to introduce us all to.
“Guess you know what happened. He did show up that night. I dreamt I saw him, and he was the same but different. He’d turned into Mr. Velvet Nose.”
“Why do you keep calling him that?” Susan asked, too curious to stop herself.
He took a breath and another drink. “You look at a skull just right and it don’t look like a hole in the middle of the face. If the light is wrong and the heat has got to you a little bit. You know how it is. When you’re so tired and it’s so hot the heat feels like it’s walking right along with you? Maybe you don’t. But it gets to be like a weight on your back. I don’t even remember who started the expression, probably Billy Kovac; he was only eighteen and stoned out of his head most of the time. We came across a burned-out village; our own people had done it, and there was a pile of bodies. Someone, Billy I think, picked up one of the skulls and in this fucked-up voice, excuse my language, starts squealing, ‘Oh, Mr. Velvet Nose been here, all right.’
“I’d forgot all about it till that night I woke in the jungle. I saw an orange glow outside the tent, and he’s sitting there. He’s got a little fire going, and he’s sitting next to it. He’s got a little lantern, a little flame, flickering away in a little box, hung from a pole. The pole, see, looks a lot like a bone to me. I guess a thigh bone or something’. The lantern…the only way I can describe it is like some crazy jack o’lantern. Except normally you’d get pumpkin face with a light shining inside of it, here you got some of the light, and somewhere deep deep inside of it there’s a face in there. Then I figure it all out and realize this is a dream. So, I go on out and sit by the fire even though nights are as hot as hell out there, and I’m surprised that when I stick my hand near the flame, it’s cold. But what the hell, it’s a dream. He turns to me, and there’s a face swimming on the thing’s skull, and the face is almost like the one in the lantern he’s carrying. Almost, but it’s not clear enough to make out properly, you know what I mean?”
She nodded. “Like fixing a focus on camera. It’s there, it’s gone, it’s there . . . but it never quite stays clear.”
He nodded too. “Yeah, that’s Mr. Velvet Nose all right.”
He looked at her, inviting her to say what she’d seen. She felt the need to do it, to tell someone, anyone. “The night after it happened I saw him. He came into my room, the sonofabitch.
“He stood at the end of my bed and looked at me, and he was cold. The cold came off him like stinky lines in a comic book.”
“He told me he had Johnny’s soul in the lantern. I think I said something like ‘Good for you, asshole,’ because it was a dream. It had to be a dream because his coat was moving — that’s what I remember most. A thick, black coat, twitching, fluttering, and then I thought, just for a second, that it was. . .”
“Birds,” he supplied.
“Yes,” she answered, “made of ravens, or crows or something. All of them rustling their feathers, pulsing. I was so afraid he was going to throw that coat over me, and it would just–” She broke off, looking at him, “You okay? You forgot about the coat, didn’t you?”
He nodded. “I thought I remembered everything. I remembered something about the coat, but I’d managed to . . . forget the birds.”
“You remember the voice though, right?” she asked.
He shuddered, and lifted his arm, and at first, she didn’t know what he was doing. When he spoke, she realized that they’d both been talking in absolute whispers for the last fifteen minutes or so because now his voice sounded louder than hell.
“Hey, Merle, bring some more goddamn drinks over here, now!”
The barman threw him a look. “Goddammit, Freddie, since when have I been a fucking waitress? Get your damn ass over here and get them yourself!”
“That was funny the first time I heard it. What was that, ten years ago? Now bring the fucking drinks. . .”
Merle showed him his middle finger but went about getting the drinks.
Freddie turned back to her. “Can I get another one of those cigarettes, miss?”
She offered the pack. “Only if you can tell me what the fuck that voice was all about.”
He took one and puffed for a moment. “It was twenty years before I figured it out. I had a friend, he was in ‘Nam with me later, after the time I was telling you about. He got too much Agent Orange, or whatever other shit they were pumping down on us when we were black cadillacing it through jungle with our shirts off. He got cancer of the throat. You ever hear anyone with cancer of the throat, just before they put that thing in?”
“Tracheotomy?” she asked.
“Yeah, tracheotomy. Well, he was waiting’ for one of those when they realize it ain’t gonna do no good, and he’s got this shit crawling’ all the way through him. I was there when he died, in a shitty Vet hospital in Arkansas. The last words he spoke, just as he died. That’s the closest thing I ever heard to that voice.”
“You think he’s Death?”
The vet shook his head. “No, death ain’t always cruel; sometimes it’s welcome. Like old Frank, he was waiting for death, and he wasn’t sad when it came. Like I said, that was the closest I’ve heard, but it wasn’t exactly it. His voice was mocking me. You ever heard a man’s dying words?”
She nodded, thinking of the kid (“Not kid- The man, dammit, he was old enough to want to rape her.” She thought) she’d watched Johnny kill, lying there, bleeding to death on a sidewalk, still cursing her as he died.
She took a cigarette herself. “He stood there, his coat flapping around him, his face melting and coming back, and in that fucking voice he told me he had a deal for me. Told me about this river outside that looks as if it’s about to wash this shit-hole away. He stood there in my own bedroom like some goddamn rapist and told me if I could catch him before he got to the end of the river, we could… talk. If not, bye-bye Johnny.”
“You left the next morning?” he asked gently.
She lit her cigarette. “You’d have thought so, wouldn’t you?”
The old man shrugged. “Not really. A sensible person would put it down to a nightmare, shrug it off, feel strange about it all day, but carry on trying to do normal things. Then when that person had the same dream the next night, they’d wonder how it could happen. Then they’d brood on it more; wish they could talk to someone about it but think what was the chance of finding’ a head doctor out in the jungle. Then they’d let it slip in front of the rest of the unit and find everyone else there’d had the same dream, both nights. . .”
She looked at him, and there were tears of gratitude starting to well in her eyes. “Really?” she asked. “That’s what happened?”
“That’s the way it was. Honey, I wouldn’t blame you if you hadn’t started out on such an insane road trip for a week. I wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for the others. You were on your own.”
“It was three days before I set out,” she said flatly. “I can’t get those three days back though, can I? He has three days on me. He’s on foot, I’m in a car. But what does that mean if the guy can appear in a bedroom, in a prison cell…shit, in the jungle. How fast can he go? And what good is the car, when I have to keep getting out every couple of miles to check the river.”
Freddie said nothing, and she lit another cigarette, before carrying on, “I keep calling the prison, and they tell me no change. They say I can go see him, and I know they wonder why I’m not there.”
“Nothing you can do there; and maybe you can here.”
Merle brought the new round of drinks, put them down heavily on the table and left without a word.
Freddie looked at her kindly. “How long’s it been, Susan? How long you been on the road?”
“Seven days; only a week, but it seems a lot longer. It’s slow going. Half the time there aren’t even proper roads. I keep thinking should I go for the main ones and make better time. Then I think, what if I miss him?”
The old man shook his head, “No, I think you’re doing’ the right thing sticking’ to the river. You got to.”
“But it’s slow!”
“How many hours a night you driving’?”
“All of them.” She took a drink from the bottle in front of her, knowing she shouldn’t if she was to get through the night, but unable to resist talking to someone who understood. “So, what did you do when you all found out you weren’t dreaming?” she asked.
“I don’t know that we weren’t dreaming’. I don’t know that it makes any difference. We all knew we could do something’ about it. If we could catch that bastard somewhere before he got to the end of the river, we could maybe save Larry. He’d saved us.”
“You caught him?” she asked, and there was desperation in her voice, hoping for a hint.
“I never seen a bunch of men work harder,” he said. “I was so proud of my boys over those next few days. We marched triple time, barely rested, walked through the nights.”
“You think that’s the best time to catch him?”
He nodded. “Honey, I think that’s the only time he comes out.
“We made a five-day hump in three nights. By the time we got to the end, we were almost dead on our feet, bloodied beyond belief.”
“You . . . you got to the end?” she asked nervously.
He looked at her and smiled, and it was the saddest smile she had ever seen.
“We got to the end, and we never saw that bastard once. We walked on a couple of days, to the base. We’d been there but ten minutes when the infirmary called me and said that Larry had died.”
He paused, took a drink and looked at her crest-fallen face, “You didn’t want to hear that, did you? I’m sorry, but no time for lies. So, now tell me what you going to do when you reach the end? Ain’t far now, another couple of days — or nights — and you’ll get there.”
“I’m going to find him. I’m not thinking beyond that. I figure I’m just a few miles behind him. I’ll get him. Maybe not tonight, but tomorrow, or the next night for sure.”
“I hope you’re right. What if you do catch up to him?”
She thought of the gun in the trunk of the car and wondered if it would do any good. She doubted it. “It’s funny, isn’t it? I spend all this time in the car thinking about that, playing out the scenarios. I always see me getting Johnny back. I just haven’t figured out the how part yet.”
“I don’t think it’s the sort of thing you can plan for. What makes you check out little shit pokes like this place?”
“See if anyone’s seen him on the river. . .”
“Is that the only reason?” Freddie asked, and she answered honestly, not concerned about how it might sound.
“I sometimes think I might just see him standing at the bar . . . I don’t know why. I just think he’d like the idea of being in places where bad things could happen. Some drunk beatin’ his buddy over the head with a bottle. Maybe that lantern of his can carry more than one. . .”
He nodded in agreement. “Things are tough around these parts — when things are tough, good people do crazy things. I always thought, if I hadn’t been reassigned South straight after that, if I’d gone into some side-street brothel I’d have found him buying drinks, looking around at desperate men and women. All the time thinking’, ‘I’m going to get you soon. . .’ He’s dirty like that, I think.”
“Why does he do it?” she asked.
“Dunno. Maybe it’s when Hell doesn’t want you, and Heaven is full. Maybe it’s when a good man does a bad thing. Do you think there is such a thing?”
She thought of Johnny. “Yeah.”
“I think he likes the game. Likes the suffering. . .” He paused. “You asked me earlier if he was death.”
“You said no.”
He nodded. “I think he’s the one that gets the in-betweens. Does that make sense?”
“No,” she lied, thinking of the look on Johnny’s face as he had hit that kid (man?) again. One time too many. One time when he must have known he was no longer a threat. He’d done it to protect her; she’d never doubted that. But in the darkest reaches of night, she’d sometimes thought he’d been almost glad it had happened, so that he could kill this man. Some party in his own head he’d brought back from the war, she thought, remembering the old man’s earlier words.
“The ones that death, or whoever, just doesn’t know what to do with, whether to send them up or down.”
“Your friend saved your lives. He was a hero.”
He nodded. “And he killed a little girl he could have let live. But you’re right. He did a good thing and a bad thing. The question was, who cared?”
She looked at him, confused. “You cared, you and all the men in your troop.”
“And you care for your man?”
“I love him,” she said, and when that didn’t seem enough, she added, “More than you could know.”
He nodded again. “So, maybe that’s the answer.”
“What is?” she asked, but already getting it.
“A man who is basically good. A man who has done a good thing, but with just too much badness. Someone who didn’t stop when they could have. And someone who loves that person. There’s the fun for that freak bastard.” He sighed. “Sometimes, you know, sometimes I think we went too fast.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll ask the question again, because it’s important. What you going to do at the end of the river when you ain’t found him, what then?”
“I don’t even think about that. I will find him.”
“Uh-huh, that’s what we thought when we trekked triple time through the jungle. Never did, though.”
“Why you sayin’ this?”
“Because, in these many years since, I keep thinking’ the same thing. Why did we give up when we got to the end?”
“Because you hadn’t seen him. He’d beaten you. You weren’t fast enough.”
“Probably you’re right. But what I keep thinking’ is, what if he didn’t?”
“You mean. . .?”
“You ever look back down the road when you’re driving’ at night? You ever check that cracked rear-view?”
She looked at him long and hard. She smoked a whole cigarette, he did too, and neither of them said a word. A fever of ideas beat in her mind like a drum. As she stubbed the cigarette out, she cursed. “I haven’t got time to think about what-ifs. I’ve got to go.”
“I could come.”
She didn’t even answer that, just grabbed the half-smoked pack and crammed it into her bag. Getting up she turned to him, “Why do they call you crazy, anyway?”
He shrugged, shuffling to the side of the booth, leaning to the one next door and retrieving his wheelchair, “Search me, baby. Burn a few things down, kill a few animals, mummify your mother, and people just overreact so much round these parts. . .”
She nodded, and a smile stole across her face. “Or sit in a bar waiting for travelers in distress.”
He nodded. “Who never take my advice anyway. I guess I must be crazy.”
“There’ve been others?”
“Just two, in twenty years or so. First fella went racing along the highway in his fast sports car, got to the end, then sat, and waited. Still waiting’ there when his wife died, I think. Too tricky to say where a river really ends. You got to stop him before he gets there.”
“And the second one?”
“She got to the end too. Didn’t see anything’. I read she jumped off the old bridge there. Made news, her dying like that. Her husband slipping away the very next day after being in a coma for three weeks. She was half-crazy by the time I saw her, though. Wouldn’t listen. She was on speed, so she could keep driving’ all night.”
“Goodbye, Freddie.” She shook his hand. “Nice meetin’ you.”
“. . .but you wish you’d never had to. If you do see him, kill the sonofabitch for me, and come tell me about it someday.”
She turned and walked out, not slowing as she tossed the bills on the bar.
Outside she took a large canister from the trunk and fed the car some water. She thought the head gasket had a minor crack that was going to grow into a big headache by the morning. She’d gotten lazy with the car maintenance since Johnny had started doing it. When the car had drunk all it wanted, she replaced the cap and climbed inside. She looked at the sky, black and bruised now.
She turned the key, and the car started second time — best it had managed in a week. She thought for a moment and then was out of the car, running into the bar, shouting across the room, “Hey, old man, you want a ride?”
He was in his wheelchair now and pushed himself forward. “Which way you going’?”
She looked at him a moment. “You’re navigating.”
She stood outside another bar. He sat in his chair next to her. Rain bounced off them like popcorn.
She took a deep breath. “You sure he’s in there?”
“Ain’t sure of nothing,’ but I feel something. I think I’ve spent so long thinking about him I’m almost tuned in or something. . .”
Susan started to reach for the door. “Sounds louder than it did when I stopped by last night.”
He looked up from the chair. “You scared, Susan?”
She nodded. “You?”
He pushed himself forward a few inches. “My legs have turned to jelly. . .”
“That’s disgusting.” She smiled and pushed open the door.
It was hot inside, packed with people except for a small pocket of emptiness at the corner of the bar. Susan and Freddie moved forward, feeling the air grow colder as they got nearer to the empty spot. Not completely empty — a man was standing alone, wearing a long dark coat which seemed to jitter as they moved closer. In front of him on the bar was a small lit lantern. No one was near him. No one seemed to know he was there, not even the barman, who had placed a drink in front of him and was now moving away, glassy-eyed, hypnotized.
The figure at the bar shuddered and turned to them. For the briefest moment Johnny was there on the face, a tortured, pained Johnny, then it was gone, and there was nothing there but the velvet nose and empty sockets
“Ssssusssannn. . .,” it hissed, something dark and wet rattling from inside the coat, the coat that seemed to answer the words with a faint fluttering. He looked down at the awakening coat, and then back at them, smiling as best he could with no lips, no skin; just that yellowing skull, the empty sockets, and the velvety blackness.
“. . And you’ve brought a friend. . .” The skull flickered again, and for an instant there was another face there; a scared-looking young man with a crew cut.
“You remember me, don’t ya, shit-heel?” Freddie asked.
The coat convulsed angrily, and the thing inside it spoke again, a razor blade voice, “That wasss another river. You didn’t catch me. This is none of your affair.”
The birds chattered. The thing wearing them said nothing, its’ fury clear even without the features to display it.
“Time to talk,” Susan said.
“Sssssupposssse I have nothing to sssay?”
The thin hollow flame in the lantern on the bar flared violently.
Susan glanced at it, “Looks like my man is gettin’ ready to wake up. What do you think, Freddie?”
Freddie gave an almost imperceptible nod.
And then the birds flew.