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Issue #7 |

Rest Area

Around one he completed the walkthroughs and hung the clipboard on the screw threaded incompletely into the cinderblock wall. The snow was melting as it fell, sleeting out of the sky in globs that streaked slowly down the windows. No one had been in since the woman with the stumbling, half-awake boy who complained loudly that he had to pee. She waited at the counter, mixing creamer into a cup of complimentary coffee and digging suggestively in her purse without ever touching the donations can. Not that Jeremy cared. She had been kind, a surprise given her gaudy makeup and hair, her slinky leather jacket with fake fur trim. People who worked so hard on their appearances rarely acknowledged him freely, but she had, peering over the coffee station to say it was nice, this practice of serving fresh coffee on cold nights, and he’d said to tell the Department of Transportation, heck, they probably saved money, keeping drivers sharp. She ignored that to smile at the pop song issuing from his small red radio and said this seemed like a nice state, much nicer than the one she was from, where the few troopers on salary cared more about giving out tickets than keeping people safe. That moved Jeremy to nod, for he believed this state was one of the country’s last bastions of civility, and he was primed to warn her the roads would freeze by dawn when her boy wandered out drying his hands on his coat, and she became a mother again and forgot Jeremy, not so much as saying goodbye as she herded the child into the falling snow, toward the red minivan with a screen of translucent slush already covering its windshield. Moments later the headlights flashed on, the wipers heaved off the accumulation, and then they were gone.

He missed them a little, the way he missed all late night guests once they left, no matter how rude and noisy they might have been, though most were courteous, even chummy, glad to see a gentle face after hours of driving in the dark woods. He hoped that the woman and her son had reached their destination, though his gut told him they were in for an all-nighter. Families who stopped at night were usually in trouble, running from something or to someplace. This route at night was lightly traveled, and apart from truckers and state police, the people who stopped during these small hours seemed lost and adrift.

Beside his personal red radio, the black police walkie talkie stood in its dock, silent and charged. The station’s night DJ reached the end of the rotation—they played about forty songs—and started from the top. The lamps along the long narrow parking area showed mounds of frozen mush on the sidewalks. Jeremy pulled on his parka, reluctant to go out, but grateful for the chore. He trudged into the icy sludge, blinking at the wet particles blowing into his eyes and nose and thawing and refreezing in his beard. At the end of the sidewalk, the salt hut loomed dark and bullet-shaped on the white hill. Not two years ago, Ashley would have been nodding off in front of the TV, waiting for him to come home and take her to breakfast. He thought of Patrick Maloney, probably asleep and somehow gloating, as if in securing incarceration, he’d gotten one over on Jeremy. Jeremy knew it wasn’t like that, that most likely, Maloney had been a confused and stupid dishwasher who made some a series of bad choices one night, starting with the decision to follow a cute older waitress home. Most likely, Jeremy had never entered the shifty-eyed boy’s thoughts until they saw each other under the courtroom’s florescent lights. The boy had looked away, rarely glancing at Jeremy afterward. It had been a strange trial, and at times jurors and even the judge appeared sympathetic to Maloney, as if he were the heartbroken boyfriend, and Jeremy were the monster, sitting out in the gallery among the spectators. Maloney wept often during the trial, and he had declined to speak before the judge passed sentence. Jeremy knew Maloney must regret what he had done. The kid probably suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts. Jeremy had read all about it in the year or so following the sentencing. It becomes necessary to kill the figure of the past self, one book said. Only once the former identity is imagined purged is “rebirth” possible. Many subjects adopt a “born again” narrative, though the memory of the crime remains close. As many as three-fifths of murderers do not progress from this state of affairs.

He’d thought studying this stuff would help, and for a while it seemed to. It was a little relieving to imagine Maloney feeling guilt. Recently, though, Jeremy found himself wishing the worst on the guy, not just the standard rape-and-beatdown prison clichés, but other things, torture scenes he would never admit to dreaming up. He blinked away a burning, took a breath of the bracing air, then picked up his pace, pulling boots from sucking slush.

He’d seen a therapist that whole first year, under what amounted to threat of termination if he didn’t, something he understood later, when he was clear-headed enough to see how much he frightened his boss nowadays. The fidgety gray-haired man never lingered at the rest area past sundown, as if some lycanthropic transformation might come over Jeremy once darkness fell over the surrounding woods and mountains.  Jeremy began to laugh inwardly in the man’s anxiety, and he’d fought the impulse to smirk at the last month’s meeting, where his boss saw him come in and changed the subject from traffic fatalities to the state’s initiative to seed wildflowers in the medians this coming spring. As if he could somehow spare Jeremy the pain of remembering Ashley by talking about something other than death.

Therapy had been effective, Jeremy thought, as effective as talking about the past could be. He had learned some things, like victims report higher levels of wellbeing once they have come to see the transgressions against their loved ones as impersonal events, incidental in space-time. He had stopped wishing so hard for revenge, not just because it was impossible, blocked off by a prison filled of guards, but because those fantasies ate up time he could have spent remembering Ashley. When he told the therapist he felt out of place in her waiting room, that the well-groomed children there looked at him like a fairy tale woodcutter who’d taken a wrong turn, she had risen to her feet, crossed the room smelling of musky and probably expensive perfume, and gathered him in her long, hard arms. He was stunned by the gesture, but more so by how welcome he found it, by how easily he had surrendered to the urge to weep.

* * *

He came in, hair and beard wet, and grinned at the tall, lanky figure standing by the coffee carafe. The man pinched a packet of sugar between stained fingers and shook grains into his styrofoam cup, careful to not spill on his black T-shirt or stretched out long john shirt. He turned a long, bland face and looked at Jeremy with dull intensity.

Jeremy let out a low chuckle, as if there were a joke between them. “Hey there, Damon. Where you headed tonight?”

The trucker reached for the can of non-dairy creamer, saying, “All the way up. Land of ice and snow.”

“Anything interesting out there, man?”

Damon shrugged his high, narrow shoulders and poured more powder. He had dropped the empty sugar packet on the table where someone else—Jeremy, probably—would have to clean it later. As if oblivious to this fact of life, Damon plucked a red straw from the wicker basket beside the sugar and sweetener packets and stirred it all together. “Televisions. Flat-screen,” he blinked, appearing thoughtful. “Guess they all are now.”

Jeremy stamped his feet and wrung softly electrified sensations back into his hands. He had been going to make a fresh pot of coffee until Damon dropped his garbage on the table. Now he would wait until the guy left. In the years he had known him, the trucker was always doing little things like that, tracking in mud or leaving trash on the floor, and while Jeremy had come to suspect this was garden variety negligence, he nursed the tiniest suspicion that Damon was showing him contempt on purpose. He went past the trucker, around the shelves of ads for cheap area attractions, and pulled off his coat. He turned down the squawking radio. “Come on, man. Can’t be that dead out there. What’s the word?”

“Just fixing to take a nap. Accident up the way, maybe a hundred miles. Got the road closed. Might as well use the time.”

Jeremy had been going to ask if Damon always drank coffee before going to sleep, but now he was thinking of the woman and the boy from earlier. “You know the vehicles involved?”

“Minivan and a rig.”

He held his breath and then sighed, feeling slightly sick to his stomach. “Any fatalities?”

“At least one, from the sound of it.” Damon looked into his coffee as he stirred. He nodded his head toward the radio sitting on the battered wooden desk behind Jeremy. “One of the drivers.”

Jeremy turned down the top forty radio and cranked up the volume on his walkie-talkie, making himself still as he listened to the voices forming out of the radio static, speaking codes and other jargon. The words female, early thirties and male, age ten and ambulance is currently on route, then adult male, deceased. When he glanced up, Damon had turned to watch the wet snow falling on his truck, which was parked down at the end of the lot. He always parked out there, as if by habit, and he seemed to be watching his vehicle now, as though concerned about a break-in, which would have made sense at a crowded stop, but not here, not tonight. Jeremy wondered if Damon had a woman out there, one of the prostitutes truckers called lot lizards, or maybe some teenager he’d picked up hitchhiking. Strange things happened on the road, and Jeremy only knew what he heard from truckers and cops and saw in the Missing posters of mostly girls’ faces inside the glass case on the wall. None of it was his concern, but it was horribly tantalizing and disturbing, watching another man try to describe some atrocity or thrill. But this, tonight, was probably Jeremy’s imagination, nothing more. Damon had been stopping in for more than a decade. He was eccentric, but so were most guys who spent their conscious hours driving enormous vehicles back and forth at high speeds. It would have been more suspicious if Damon seemed normal. And Damon had done things for Jeremy in the months following Ashley’s death, bringing bottles of Canadian whiskey and sitting here when he should have been back on the road. Small gestures like that made a world of difference. He remembered that the bereaved show improvement when exposed to a community. He spoke to Damon’s back. “They were in here, earlier, I’m pretty sure. The lady and her son.”

The trucker nodded slowly, then raised his cup of coffee and drained it in a single gulp. “Guess I better get out there.” He looked back at Jeremy, then said in his monotonous voice, “It’s good seeing you.”

“You, too, man.”

“It’s like I always know when you’ll be here.”

“Probably because I’m always here,” Jeremy said, laughing.

“Not always,” Damon said. “You think the ground will freeze tonight?”

“Hard to say.” Jeremy was listening to the chatter on the radio, hoping to hear something about the conditions of the driver and her son. He recalled the details of the weather forecast automatically, saying, “Not ‘til tomorrow. That’s when the real cold’s coming. It’s going to blow through and turn all of this to ice.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Jeremy watched Damon drift through the wintry mix, as if he were impervious to the cold, shrinking toward the dark truck until he was no more than a tiny silhouette making its way around the enormous tractor unit. Yeah, Damon was a funny bird, but he had been here when no one else was, had borne witness while Jeremy drank himself into a burbling stupor, had been a friend when Jeremy needed one.

* * *

He had not known he could forget her until the process set in. At first, he thought about her constantly, often crying, it seemed, for whole days. And then it was like he ran out of material. Like the old memories lost their shine. Coming in with the mail one day, he stared at a model on a lingerie catalogue, aware he’d gone all morning without envisioning Ashley’s face. If he lived long enough, there might come a time when he stopped thinking of her altogether. He looked through his books and read, At the end of the grieving process, patients report a feeling of reconciliation which may signify an unconscious acceptance of loss. Patients may now begin to successfully adapt to life without the deceased. He closed the journal. He was sitting at the kitchen table. The house was silent. Beside him, his lab mix Buddy sat up attentively, waiting and watching. He thought of Patrick Maloney, lifting weights in the prison yard or eating cheap cafeteria food among his fellow convicts. He wondered again what the boy had seen in Ashley, why he had chosen her to follow home. He went upstairs and got his rifle, then took Buddy out to shoot any creatures that were asking for it.

* * *

He was still listening to the police radio, waiting on news about the mother and child, when the door opened, and in came a pink ski-jacketed young woman whose tight blue toboggan pressed her dreadlocks against her bold cheekbones. Marta. It had been a while, and he smiled despite his reservations about her line of work. He was even blushing slightly—he couldn’t help it, she was so pretty, in her sunburnt farmer’s way. Behind her, the familiar white container truck idled, its exhaust steaming in the snowy rain that was becoming a mist. She raised two fingers in a peace sign and glanced around the empty lobby, at the glowing windows of the candy machines and the framed maps of the state’s highway system. She pulled out a fistful of change from her pocket and dropped it in the donations can.

“Hello, Jeremy,” she said.

“Hey,” he said. He was unsure whether it was Martha or Marta, having only heard her boyfriend call her the latter and somehow imagining that French Canadians all said the name wrong. That was stupid, maybe even offensive, but Jeremy’s prejudice persisted alongside his vague awe of anyone with the . Not that Marta admitted this directly—she claimed to move Christmas trees, never saying why she delivered them year-round—but she had a tendency to smile slyly when she talked about her work. It was as though the police no longer cared about marijuana traffickers, so long as they put some effort into hiding it. Still, Jeremy was happy to see her. “Isn’t it late to be out driving cross country?”

She shrugged and laughed and filled the first short cup hastily, pressing the button on the carafe so that hot liquid squirted out, spraying slightly over the mouth of the cup. Her eyes had a glazed look, and when she grinned, the odor of alcohol on her breath stung his nostrils. “Leonard and I got caught in the city,” she said. She sipped and wiped coffee from the faint blonde hairs of her upper lip. “We made the mistake of sitting down at the bar.”

“Whoops,” he said, feeling a twinge of jealousy. To have work take you someplace, he thought. To have the leisure of stopping at a bar there. To be there with Marta smiling at you. He knew what was happening: polymorphous manifestations of resurgent libido commonly take the form of ostensibly non-erotic fantasies.

“This is a stop for café. He’s out there, waiting. Some husband, eh? Send the woman in while he wait in the car.” She paused, smiling around as if the lobby had an atmosphere worth soaking up. “Quiet tonight, eh? You alone?”

“Yeah,” he said. He nodded toward the dark shape of Damon’s truck, out in the shadows at the end of the lot. Someone was moving around out there, a figure moving slowly in the darkness away from the tractor unit, carrying what looked like a suitcase. He wondered if the trucker was cleaning out his truck, or if the hitchhiker or whoever he had in the cab with him was getting out to wait for a ride here. “I mean, Damon’s out there.”

She frowned at him. “Who is Damon?”

He blushed. Of course she wouldn’t know. It was easy to forget that the people who passed through routinely had no reason to notice each other, though in fact he was surprised they did not. There must have been just enough of them, he supposed, to make it seem like the crowd here was always new. “Never mind,” he said. “Just another friend.”

“Well, then, bonne nuit. See you next time.’ Marta nodded and smiled pleasantly, as if this had not been a somewhat weird conversation. Maybe she had not noticed. That was one perk, he supposed as she carried the coffees he would have come in for had he been her husband, of living your life stoned.

* * *

He had been a good boyfriend, he felt, not perfect, but good. He sensed this basic truth when he compared himself to other men. And yet afterward, he wondered what people thought. Ashley’s parents behaved coldly toward him at the trial. At first he thought he was misreading them, but then her mother had tried to hide from him at the grocery store. He was pushing his cart through the produce section, past long beds of freshly harvested apples, and he had seen her in the corner of his vision, standing over by the pale heads of lettuce, staring at him. She backed away and ducked around the corner, back toward the entrance, against the flow of the store’s arrangement.

That hurt, enough he could have gone down to his knees right there, but he forced himself to keep pushing his cart idly, as if he had not noticed his once-future mother-in-law, the once-future grandmother to the children he would never have. It had come to him later that he and Ashley were fighting in those last few weeks, that she must have told them, like she always did when things were tense, opening up to her parents and anyone else who would listen in ways that struck him as unseemly, as if the world were her confessional. He had forgotten, or he had tried to forget. He wondered what she said to make her mother fear him. He wondered at the stupid tragedy of it all. That fact that they had been fighting was beside the point, a minor detail in the bigger story of their love. There had been many such chapters, and to have dwelled on this one would have been to disgrace Ashley’s memory, to distort the truth of what had been. Though he also began to doubt himself. He remembered the grocery store incident whenever he read that Subjects exhibited changes in memory of loved ones throughout grieving period. Memories most prone to revision served a distinctly etiological function in the subject’s narrative of the past. Those lines came from a study he read more than any of the others. They terrified him. If he had changed his memories, how could he ever know?

* * *

He left through the side door, where Damon and any passenger would be unable to see him. As he prepared to go around behind the building and sneak up on the truck, a Crown Vic’s unmistakable profile and lights came racing up the entry ramp. Jeremy stuck his hands in his pockets, looking for an excuse to be outside. He didn’t want to draw police attention to Damon when the guy was probably just helping someone. He wondered with amusement if this was employing a delusion of control as a coping mechanism. The trooper sped through the falling sleet and put the cruiser in park in one of the diagonal spots, then climbed out, leaving the engine running. He wore a green waterproof coat and raised a hand in greeting. After looking around the lot once and showing no interest in Damon’s truck, he closed the door and came walking across the glittering pavement and up the sidewalk to where Jeremy stood, his hair and beard getting wet in the night.

It was Edwards, one of the younger guys. He was usually in an upbeat mood when he came in, as if he weren’t policing one of the . “Bitch of a night, huh, James?”

“You could say that,” Jeremy said. “Any word on that lady and kid who were in a wreck north of here? Know what kind of shape they’re in?”

“Kid’s stable,” Edwards said without hesitation. “The mom’s not so much. She was in the ICU, last I heard. Why, they of yours?”

Jeremy shook his head, feeling dismayed. He wondered if there was anyone expecting them to arrive somewhere, whether those people knew. “I think they were in earlier. Seemed like nice people.”

“You know what I would do if I had a family? Move someplace where nobody drives.”

“I hear you,” Jeremy said.

“Ain’t that the fucking truth,” Edwards said. “Say, you see anything strange up around here tonight? We’ve been looking for these heroin dealers out of Quebec. You see any anybody funny in here tonight? Married couple.”

Jeremy shook his head. Apart from the mother and son and Damon, there had only been Marta and her husband, people he knew. Before, at dusk, the usual rush of truckers had come through, some gnarlier-looking than others. One thing they had shared in common was a soiled look eventually imparted by anonymity. A few families, too. Most likely, this other couple hadn’t stopped. Though there had been one young man, a Lexus driver who strutted around as if he owned the place. He looked at Jeremy without smiling, poured himself a cup of coffee, and left without acknowledging the pay can’s existence. He was long gone, but at least they could laugh at him. He was conjuring an image of the young man’s round face and neatly trimmed goatee to describe to Edwards when Damon’s truck switched on its headlamps and rumbled down the ramp to the freeway.

The state trooper followed Jeremy’s gaze toward the departing vehicle, then said, “Hope it’s nothing I did.”

“Who, Damon?” Jeremy said, wondering if there were some young woman now shivering at the far end of the lot, hoping she would have the sense to hide herself from view of the state trooper’s car. He was eager to get to her, to tell her to come in and drink something hot. “No, I think traffic must have finally cleared up.”

Trooper Edwards grinned. “A joke.”

* * *

“If I die before you,” she said. “I don’t want you to wait around. You should move on.”

They were drinking beer from the old Star Wars glasses from her childhood. He had Boba Fett, she had Princess Leia. It was early summer, the evenings still free of mosquitoes. They sat in the yard watching lightning bugs flash overhead. Sensing she required some kind of reply, he turned and stared, hoping to make her laugh it off.

“I mean it,” she said. She leaned forward, holding Buddy’s head between her knees, scratching behind his ears until he groaned. She frowned. She was drunk enough to feel bad about something. “I mean it. I hate the thought of you grieving. I hope you’d move on.”

“All right,” he said, trying to hide his irritation. He hated it when she wanted to have these conversations, which she seemed to think were necessary from time to time, like checkups at a doctor’s office. They were thirty-two years old, for Christ’s sake. He only had so many days off, and he hated to waste free time. “I hear funerals are good places to meet women.”

She let go of the dog’s head and went in. She slammed the door, though he already knew. From the instant the words had left his mouth, he’d felt they were a mistake, that now she would go and cry, and he would have to go in and tell her he was sorry. Put on a show, play the part of the concerned boyfriend. Then she would confess what was really bothering her.

He did not go in right away. Something in him would not allow it. He sat in the thickening dusk and drank his cold beer and told himself he might as well enjoy this quiet moment at home, such a rare thing since the end of his bachelor days.

* * *

After the trooper drove on north, Jeremy waited a few minutes to ensure he wasn’t looping back. When Edwards spoke over the radio, identifying his position eleven miles up the road, he went out the main doors, heading toward the dark south end of the lot. He took the long flashlight from inside his coat and switched it on, moving its beam over the landscaped picnic area below the wooded mountain slope. The air was growing warmer, and the snow had turned completely to rain, making streaks in the snowy hillside and causing little streams to pour down off the picnic area and into the lot. Trickling murmured all around him. He didn’t want to know what it looked like on the knoll above, where the picnic tables had been overturned for the season. One large, slushy puddle by morning.

He made slow progress toward the lot’s edge, not wanting to surprise the hitchhiker if she was hiding there. For his own sake, he hoped she was a teenager, not a lot lizard. Someone young and mostly innocent, someone salvageable. He would help her regardless, invite her to come inside the facility, where she would be warm and safe. He would buy her something to eat from the vending machines, get her to tell him her story, maybe try to convince her to go home to her parents. At the very least, he could help arrange her next ride, when a trucker he trusted came in. Maybe he would be transferring qualities of the idealized loved one to a new object, but in the larger, more objective reality that had nothing to do with his mind, he would be helping her.

Seeing no one in the lot or on the sidewalk, he flashed the light up the hill, supposing the person was crouching in the picnic area where he could not see her. “Come on in,” he shouted. “You’re not in any trouble, hon. Police are gone.”

He stood waiting for a reply, listening to the rain drizzle on pavement and grass. He began to feel the spooked urge to both run and look back, as if someone were standing directly behind him, and he wheeled quickly, stepping back as he did.

The empty lot sprawled out, shimmering black, rippling with tiny streams. The lights inside the rest area suggested the warmth of a bed where he could hide under the covers, powerless but also safe against the larger forces of the night. He turned back and began to climb to the picnic area, muttering and sweeping his light over thawing snow and dark puddles. In the snow on the hill at the end of the lot, a set of melting footprints led into the forest’s pines and bare black trees.

Now he was sure it was a kid, probably a young one, too. Goddamn it, he thought, there was no way he was going very far in. He wasn’t going to get wet feet and the chills just to save some idiot runaway. Even so, his feet were carrying him into the woods, and soon the picnic benches on the knoll lay behind him, out of sight. He kept his flashlight pointed ahead, trying to avoid any surprises, and he held a hand out to protect him from branches and who knew what else. There was no telling what a runaway girl might carry these days. It was easy to imagine a handgun, and that was not the way he wanted to go, shot down in the snowy woods by some freaked out dummy he was trying to help. He remembered that In the aftermath of a loss, the bereaved may be at risk for delusions of heroic action. He thought about Damon and wondered what the guy might have been doing with a kid in his cab. Maybe he had misjudged him, given him too much credit for being decent, though Jeremy knew he shouldn’t make assumptions. He was lonely at the rest area, but not as lonely as a truck driver, and you never knew how an experience might change you until you passed through to the other side.

He came to an abrupt stop when the footsteps disappeared in a puddle of mud and melting slush. He probed the snow with the flashlight beam, looking for signs that Damon had turned one way or another, then brought his light back to the puddle at his feet. The water and snow pooled around shining, mounded earth. He grew very still, listening, then shined the light around once more.

Water dripped from wet winter trees, gathering in runnels in the ground, moving downward, making their ways to the rivers underground. He squatted down and moved closer to the puddle and the protruding mud, trying to judge if this was manmade. He was terrified of touching it, of finding that it might conceal something. The thing to do now was to get on his police radio and then into the station and wait. He did not move. First he should be sure, he told himself. After all, he was alone in the woods. He need not fear humiliation, not this time. And this would be easier than standing at the window in the morgue where they let him see Ashley.

A strange excitement came over him as he went down to his knees, the wet snow packing under his weight. It was easier like this. He reached into the frigid slop and pulled back water and mud in a pile, then scooped back another layer. When his fingers froze, he kept going, digging with numb claws, heaping the earth up in front of him. It was raining softly. The trees were alive but oblivious. He kept going until he had uncovered fabric and shined his light on it. A patch of jeans still filled out by a leg, too small to be a man’s, too big to be a child’s. He raised his head again, holding his breath and listening and hearing only rain and moving water. Melting snow outlined the shapes of other mounds, seven or eight, maybe more.

* * *

She was lying face down on the bed when he finally went in to talk to her. He moved to edge and sat, turning to place his hand on the back of her thigh. She slapped out blindly.

“Don’t,” she said. “Don’t touch me. I don’t deserve it.”

Jeremy sighed, then turned back and took his beer from the dresser where it had left a ring on the wood. He could tell she was no longer angry and wondered what it was he needed to say to make her feel better. “Whatever it is,” he said. “It’s no big deal.”

She spoke into her pillow, moaning, distorting her words. “You don’t know everything,” she said. “There are things I haven’t told you.”

He nodded, sobered by the sharpness of her tone. He thought of the woman at the blues show last summer, the one who’d kissed him on the mouth, her thick tongue bitter from smoke. She had been younger but had the bewildered eyes of someone older, a longtime drinker. She had unbuttoned her plaid shirt, and she hadn’t been wearing a bra. I could use a good fucking, she said, just before a friend came and dragged her away. He had never told Ashley about that. He wasn’t about to tell her now. There were things he could live with, a reasonable burden of guilt. “It’s fine,” he told her in the darkening room. He put his hand back on her thigh, and this time she let it stay there. “Whatever it is, it don’t change a thing.”

She sniffed and looked at him, her eyes lined and sad. She shook her head and tried to smile. “I don’t deserve you,” she said.

“Sure you do,” he said.

“I’m going to do better,” she said. “I promise.”

* * *

Back inside, having peeled off his soaked clothes in the small locker room, he slipped nakedly into a pair of Carhart overalls from the utility closet. They were tight, but they covered him. He was barefoot but didn’t care. He was safe. The doors were locked, the lights inside bright and screaming. Edwards had radioed saying he was fifteen minutes out. In the silence, Jeremy gradually noticed the low sound of the top forty radio. The station was on a commercial break, and a man was speaking enthusiastically about a local skiing resort that offered special discounts for family fun.

The air carried the rank, stale odor of his wet socks. He went into the lobby and paced by the big maps beside the door, looking at the windows that reflected his moving figure. He could just make out the parking lot beyond. It was empty, he knew. There was no one out there, no Damon come back to get him. In all likelihood, he would never see that person again. The thought agitated him, though he told himself that what he should feel, what a reasonable person would feel, was relief. He grew angry and began to mutter, a gibberish stream of half-words and curses. All those hours Damon had sat with him, keeping secrets from him. He must have seen the kind of man Jeremy was, must have enjoyed sitting there, watching him squirm like a bug on the end of a pin. He wondered how many others had seen him that way.

He got on the radio and interrupted the frenzy of voices. “Can someone tell me about the woman?” he said loudly.

After a silence, the police dispatcher responded. She sounded annoyed. “This channel is for official use only, sir.”

“It’s me,” he said. “I just called this whole thing in. I have a question. Can you please tell me what happened to that woman tonight? The one in the wreck? Is she going to survive?”

It was an impossible request. The dispatcher could not know. She was not in the hospital, had come in less contact with the woman than he. The absurdity of his demand rang loudly in the silence that followed his question, and yet he bent toward the radio, holding the transmitter his ear, as if he could draw voices from within it.

The radio blurped static, and the woman said, “Give me a minute, sir. I can’t get that information for you, but I’m sure someone can. Anybody out there know?”

He went to the door where he’d left his boots on the mat. He waited for the radio to speak. He slipped his feet into the damp leather mouths of the boots and turned the deadbolt. He was burning up, the surface of his skin hot to his own touch. Somewhere, someone was gathering the information he wanted. He opened the door and stepped out. The rain had stopped. A heavy mist drifted over the lot and dark hills and the woods beyond the highway. He breathed out and watched his breath dissolve. The police were on their way. Then would come the news vans carrying people and cameras. There would be other officials, and then his boss, his boss’s boss, and so on up the chain. Later, grieving parents, brothers and sisters, friends and boys who’d hoped to be more than friends. They would lay crosses and teddy bears and apologize and weep. There would be his face on the news, the dumbstruck expression he knew all too well. They would close this place. He would lose this job. That was not what was important. What was important was that he visit Patrick Maloney and see if the sorry murderer would say the words Ashley kept. What was important was that he make peace with what he did not want to know. He almost believed he could. He had to try. It would be so easy to forget, starting with tomorrow morning, mere hours from now, when a bigger storm arrived, and everything froze again.

 

Photo courtesy of Robert Couse-Baker; view more of his work on Flickr.

Hugh Sheehy is the author of the short story collection THE INVISIBLES (University of Georgia). He lives in Beacon, New York, and teaches at Ramapo College of New Jersey.

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