First published in Interzone #250.
Darlene had been shouting that morning, and I guess I’d been shouting back, both of us going at it pretty hard.
It was all about the pickup, who got to drive and when. Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was about other things: money, and children, and forgiveness, and the way we didn’t seem to have much of any of those, even after five hard years. But neither of us was going to make the other see sense with all that language passing back and forth. I grabbed my coat, shouted something mean and easy that I knew I’d regret later, and got out.
The forest smelled fresh, like new snow. It wasn’t so far to the truck stop on the highway, not a bad hour’s hike. Fall had ignored the warning signs that hemmed the national park and set the trees on fire, and it felt good to be out there, too good for anger.
That didn’t mean I let it go. The best I could do was pack it deep down–something for later, for the next time. With Darlene and me there would always be a next time.
So I pocketed my anger like a dirty dollar bill and walked. The sun was bright but cold, as if it was dying but still trying its damndest. I kind of liked it that way. It made me think of hunting trips with my pa, before the cancer took him, when things were simple and decisions were something older people made. I walked, breathed deep, and didn’t think too much about Darlene, or the things she’d said that stung for being too near the truth.
When I got to the stop, it was all but empty. It was too late for breakfast, too early for the lunchtime trade, so there was just me and the sad-faced kid who serves when Judy’s busy. I was stuck with the same dilemma; I’d eaten breakfast two hours ago, wouldn’t want lunch any time soon. I settled on coffee, and picked a booth near the door. I sat staring into my cup, willing it to cool a little.
Both me and the kid looked round when a car pulled up. It had a well-maintained growl that told me it wasn’t from anywhere nearby. Sure enough, when I glanced out the window there was a sleek estate pulled up beside the pumps, some foreign make I didn’t recognise.
Two men stepped out on the near side. The driver was old, but well-preserved old, the only real telltale the grizzled beard lying past the collar of his white suit. The other wore a black shirt and silver-buckled black slacks that matched his goatee and slicked hair. Around the other side I thought I saw a little girl getting out, but when I looked again I realised it was a woman in her early twenties. Something in the way she moved made me think of a flamenco dancer–somehow awkward and elegant at the same time.
As the two men came in, the one with the Johnny Cash getup was saying, “Is this really necessary?”
“I’d like a coffee. Is that all right?” White-suit sounded English, I thought at first. Then I corrected myself, European. But that wasn’t really it either.
“You know what I mean.”
“I’ve got my duty, bro, like you’ve got yours. You’d think by now you’d have learned a little patience. Also, I seem to remember the coffee here is pretty good. Am I right?” he said, speaking now to the zit-pocked teenager hovering behind the counter. Not waiting for an answer, he went on, “Make mine black, kiddo.”
“White,” said Johnny, “two sugars.”
The woman, who’d just come in behind them, added, “Can I get the same to go?” To the men she said, “If you two are arguing again I’ll wait outside.”
She spun on a heel and marched back out, the door jangling hard behind her. They took it in their stride, as though this sort of thing happened enough for them to expect it. White-suit took his coffee to a booth at the far end and sat down. His companion trailed after. The next time they spoke, they’d dropped their voices too low for me to hear.
I looked around instead. Sure enough, the woman was waiting outside, slouched against the tail of the car. She’d lit a cigarette and was just blowing a first plume of grey towards the glassy sky. Again, there was something in her pose–the tilt of her head, the way her forearm rested on the trunk–that struck me as very refined somehow. When she exhaled again I thought of smoke signals. At the same time, I remembered the last thing Darlene had shouted, and how scrambled and ugly her face had been while she said it.
I got up and grabbed her drink in its takeaway cardboard cup from the counter, where the kid had left it while he hunted for something beneath the counter. Even as I shouldered through the double doors I had no clue what I meant to do, but there was a kind of relief in letting the impulse drag me. It felt like letting out a breath I’d been holding for too long.
She looked older close up; a well maintained mid thirties, probably a little past my own age. It didn’t make her any less attractive. I held out the cup and said, “Thought you’d want this.”
She didn’t look surprised, although I could tell she’d realised I wasn’t an employee at the ‘stop. She took the cup and sat it on the roof of the car, then pulled a battered cigarette packet from a pocket and offered it–some foreign brand I didn’t recognise. I hardly ever smoke these days, but I still had my old Zippo in a pocket of my jacket, so I took one and lit it, telling myself it was to be polite.
“Those friends of yours, are they always like that?”
“They’re family. And yes, when my father and uncle work together they tend to fight.” She let the shrivelled remnant of her own cigarette drop and ground it neatly into the tarmac. “I suppose when people do a job for a long time they get into habits.”
“You’re here on work?”
“I’m just along for the ride. So is uncle, I suppose; he argues about it, and then insists on coming anyway. Father is the only one actually working.”
“So what does the old man do?”
She looked at me properly for the first time. Until then she’d been concentrating on her cigarette, or staring towards her own outstretched foot. Her glance weighed me up. No, it did more than that. I felt like an open book, except it was as if she’d skipped through the contents and gone straight to the index. It took her barely an instant, and then she looked away again. “He’s making sure it’s all here,” she said.
Still taken aback by that look, I asked, “All what? The diner?”
I was starting to regret this conversation, attempted seduction or whatever the hell it was. Her voice had that same not-quite-European twang as her father’s. Probably she thought it was funny to be out here in the boondocks, with some redneck thinking he had so much as a chance with her. Probably she did this all the time. I wanted to say something clever or funny, but all I came out with was, “Are you in property or something?”
She laughed. It wasn’t a mean laugh, at least. “You wouldn’t believe me.”
“You know what? Fine. It’s not as if it’s a secret.” Still, she only seemed half decided. She brushed a strand of dark hair out of her eyes, pulled out another cigarette and lit it. Even then, she took a couple of draws before she began again. “Have you ever worked around computers? Do you know what a backup is?”
“Sure.” Darlene’s father works for some blue-chip IT outfit down near California, and every Christmas–mainly to screw with the rube that wasn’t good enough for his little princess–he’d bore me to tears with talk he knew I couldn’t understand. I’ve a good memory, though; after the third time I started to keep up, and even join in a little, which wound him up no end.
With a sweep of her arm that took in the diner, the pumps, the highway curling towards the mountains one way and the city the other, the glossy crests of the pines beyond, even the crystal sky sharp above us, she said, “This is a backup.”
I echoed her laugh with a nervous one of my own. “Right. Gotcha.”
“A copy,” she said. “For if the real one ever goes wrong. Father makes them. He makes sure they’re all there. And, when they’re finished with, uncle erases them.”
“I don’t get it.” Truth was, I understood perfectly, but I didn’t know what else to say. Was she joking? It didn’t seem too funny. The worst part was, as soon as she’d said it I had this sense, like the things around me had grown suddenly thinner, like if I pushed too hard at the car door or the rusting phone booth or the sign by the slip road my fingers might just pass on through. Any other day I’d probably have just shrugged it off, but on this one, her words dug in like fishhooks.
“Well maybe you don’t need to.” She glanced over my shoulder, and added, “Hey, don’t worry about it. You should just go back to your girlfriend and get on with your life.”
So that was it, she was some crazy friend of Darlene’s I’d never met. I almost sighed with relief. Instead, I laughed another awkward laugh, and said, “Maybe you’re right. Thanks for the smoke.”
“Don’t thank me. Those things will kill you.” She didn’t sound like she believed it.
I nodded, started back toward the diner. Half way there, I hesitated. I didn’t want to ask, but I couldn’t help it. “So how long do we get?”
She didn’t even pause to consider. “A while,” she said, “Not too long.”
I passed the two men on the way in. They didn’t look like guys who could make or break whole realities, but there did seem to be something about them–like they were a little clearer than everything around them. We exchanged a nod, and the one in the suit–who I figured, somehow, was her father–tipped an imaginary hat and said, “Time waits for no man.”
When I sat back in my place I had just time enough to watch them climbing into the car. The woman getting in on the other side looked far too old to be the one I’d spoken to, older than either of the men, but by the time I’d seen her she was gone.
My coffee was lukewarm. I carried the cup to the counter, gave the kid a nod, and went out. I glanced both ways up the highway, but the car was nowhere to be seen.
I was half way back to the house when the jumble in my head, the anxious confused mood I’d been carrying around since that conversation, turned into something else. It was as if I’d climbed higher and suddenly I could see how all the things around me were really just one thing, one single scene.
It was a good feeling, and a little scary. It began with a single thought, as clear and bright as winter’s first frost, and afterwards that thought kept batting back and forth, too big to shake itself loose.
Back home, the first thing I noticed was the pickup gone. Darlene would have gone to see one of her girlfriends in town. That would lead to drinking, and maybe she’d call to make up and see if I wanted to join her, but more likely she’d stumble in long after dark, set on finishing what we’d started that morning.
I went straight to find a piece of paper, as though the thought, so solid a moment ago, was now something that might vanish if I didn’t get it down. At the top, in big shaky letters, I wrote,
Then, like a gasp, came the thought:
Life is short.
I hoped there was something more behind this than what the crazy truck-stop woman had said–that it was an understanding I’d come to over years, a glacier of truth that had finally worked itself free of my ice-locked thoughts. That was how I felt. But in the end, did it matter much? I knew it was true. It didn’t make any difference if the world was about to blink out, not really. Life was too short for two people to make each other miserable.
I wrote a little more, not much. I said I was going away for a while. I’d take what I needed and some money, and everything else was hers as far as I was concerned. I’d ring Jack sometime about quitting at the mill; if she saw him, she was welcome to tell him, and if he coughed up my back pay she could have that too.
I didn’t say where I was going. I don’t think I knew.
And I didn’t write ‘I love you’. It was a lie, and I was done with those.
So how long is a while?
I’ve been walking for about a month, I think–I haven’t been bothering much with dates. If I had to say where I was going I’d mention my brother’s down in Denver, but there’s a long way between here and there, and I’m not hurrying. Sometimes I stop in a cheap motel. Sometimes I sleep rough. Sooner or later my money will run out, and maybe then I’ll have to get some work, at least for a while. Not yet though, not right now. And who knows what tomorrow will bring?
One time I thought I saw that car go by. The side window was down, and her face was just visible, hair all tousled with the breeze. She didn’t so much as look at me, and afterwards I wasn’t sure. Still, I whispered a ‘thank you’ under my breath.
Thanks for the warning. Thanks for the second chance.
How long is a while? Damned if I know.
But maybe, just maybe, it’s enough.