THE CAUTIONER'S TALE, Chapters Two and Three

So. Anyways, THE CAUTIONER'S TALE (Part Deux)

Jeff Note: When I released the first two chapters of my book a week or so ago, I was overwhelmed with the amount of positive responses I received from folks. Thank you so much! This may be overindulgent, but I wanted to release the next two chapters of THE CAUTIONER’S TALE for folks to get more of a taste of the story I’m trying to tell. We pick up the story after our “hero” has just returned “home.” Again, feel free to comment and criticize as a comment or as a DM on my twitter. I value all feedback as it’ll only make this story better. Thanks for reading!

JUNE 2007

Baltimore, Maryland

Buzz. Buzz.

A rising tide of red creeps towards me. Blood. Shadow men train rifles on me.  

Buzz. Buzz.

I wake up. Was I even asleep? I reach over to the end table and snatch my cell phone off my dresser. Message.

“Wut r u up 2?”

Exhausted and annoyed, I snap my cell phone shut and toss it back onto the end table. Glancing at my watch, I see the time. Four-thirty. Another night where I have no idea if I slept. Jesus. I throw the blanket off my body and trudge out into the living room to find the lights on and John slumped over textbooks at the dining room table.

The floor creaks under my steps. John wakes up, moaning, “What time is it?”

I smile. “Early. What are you doing up so late?”

 John gestures at the pile of books. “Studying. Got finals coming up this week. I knew I should have taken it easy this summer. I bet you don’t miss all the studying.”

I think briefly back to my failed semester of college. I didn’t even buy one of the textbooks. Maybe if I bought one of the textbooks, I could have passed a class or two. I shake my head no.

He yawns and points to me. “Why aren’t you sleeping? Jetlag?”

A few moments float by while I try to formulate an answer, and then I decide to just lie.

“Yeah. Still adjusting from California time.” John doesn’t need to hear about the nightmares. I pause, not wanting to sound like a pussy before continuing: “John, just wanted to say thanks again for letting me stay here while I get myself sorted out.”

Despite his exhaustion, John cracks a smile. “Yeah, man. I’m just glad you’re back. And hey, if you’re looking for a good way to fall asleep, try going back to school.”

My phone rings and instinctively I jump up and rush to my room. I check the caller ID, frown and silence it. I trudge back out to the living room to find John looking at me inquisitively.

He yawns, “Who was that?”

“You know who.”

Stretching as he stands, John approaches me and mockingly pats my shoulder. “Oh, you mean the crazy chick you’re banging who does your laundry for you?”

“Didn’t your mom ever do your laundry for you?”

“Yeah. When I was nine. You’re what? Twenty-three? Twenty-four? And your girlfriend does your laundry for you.”

“She’s not my girlfriend.”

John side-eyes me. “Oh, she’s not?” Weird. You spend a lot of time banging your not-girlfriend. And have I emphasized enough that she does your laundry?

I frown at John, but he continues. “I’m heartbroken for you. I mean I’ve been in a relationship with Shelly for three years, and we do our own laundry like real adults. By the way, she wants to know when she can meet you.”

“Whenever.”

John plops himself down next to me, “In all seriousness, it must be tough coming home and finding the time to hang out with people who want to see you.”

I shift in my seat, now uncomfortable. No one’s wanted to hang out with me besides you, Paul, Hurricane and now Shelly.

“Yeah.”

“So, it’s no rush. I’d just like you to meet Shelly. She’s special, man. I think you’re really going to like her.”

Special. Though I haven’t met Shelly, John is in love, even dropping less-than-subtle hints that Shelly is the one.

My cell phone buzzes again, and John rolls his eyes, “I’m hitting the sack, man. Good luck with Hurricane Bahama or whatever you call her.”

As John walks away, I whisper at nothing in particular: “Havana.”

#

Ten hours later, I’m sitting in John’s apartment half-awake, half-alive, watching some idiotic rom com on TV, wishing that a sniper round would tear through Matthew McConaughey’s shirtless torso, when Hurricane calls again. I consider not picking up but glancing back at McConaughey emerging shirtless and dripping from the ocean on the TV, I finally answer only to hear Hurricane bitch about how bad her day has been and how the only thing that would make it better would be if I would come over right now to talk – her code for fuck.

I hang up the phone and drive over to her campus, park my car and approach her apartment. When I reach the door, I pause for a moment and get myself ready for my bones to be jumped. Entering, I find her sitting on the sofa, a laptop resting on her knees. She smiles and waves me over. Suspicious, I make my way towards her.

Hurricane pats the sofa cushion next to her.

“Sit!”

I comply. She points at the screen.

“Have you eaten anything today? If not, I was thinking that maybe we could go grab a late lunch.”

“Lunch?” I guess we’re not fucking this afternoon.

“Yes. Lunch. Together.” She rests her head against my shoulder. “A real date!”

“Uh, okay.”

“Great!” She slides her laptop over to me. “I’ve pulled up a few spots that you might like. You can pick.”

I push the computer back to her, “Any where’s fine.”

“Okay! Well, have you ever had Cuban food before?”

“I don’t think so.”

“There’s this place downtown. It’s a little bit of a drive, but it’ll be worth it!”

#

Sunlight sparkles white across the Inner Harbor. A warm breeze floats around me, sending a flutter through my menu. I study it, mouthing the words one last time and then look up at the waiter.

“I think we’ll start with Masitas de Puerco Fritas,” I say the words slow and correct - the way that Hurricane had me practice on the car ride over, “And then we’ll both have the Cubano.”

Hurricane’s smile is proud as the waiter departs. “I know it’s only a small thing, but I really appreciate you taking the time to say the words correctly.”

“No problem.”

Hurricane sips from her daiquiri, “My Abuelo and Poppi are always saying how we’re Americans, but we need to remember where we’re from. Speaking Spanish is one of those ways.” Hurricane pauses, scanning the water next to us. “Abuelo Javi loves coming here. It reminds him of eating outside in cafes in Havana growing up.”

“Does he go back often? To Cuba?”

 Hurricane flinches. “No.”

“Why not?”

Hurricane looks shocked. “You don’t know?”

My eyes dart right and left, “Should I?”

Hurricane runs a hand across her face, “I guess I thought maybe you’d learn about in school, but-” her head bobs back and forth like she’s trying to piece words together for me to understand, “-he can’t go back because of Castro - that fondillo. My family had to flee his death squads. If he went back, they’d murder him.”

“Oh.” I grab my beer and take a long swig to keep myself from displaying more ignorance.

I need to start learning some of this shit.

Hurricane shakes her head, “It’s not your fault. Most people born here don’t realize how hard it is for immigrants to come to this country or what they leave behind.”

I plug my brain, trying to remember anything that might connect with what Hurricane is telling me.

“I think my family is Irish.”

“Do you know when they came over?”

No. “I think maybe the nineteenth century. They were fleeing from …” I search my brain for a plausible lie, “... the English who wanted them dead for stealing …” I go deep into the tank, “potatoes.”

Hurricane slides a hand over her mouth. “Oh my god. Did they steal the potatoes because they were starving or something?’

I nod slowly, searching my brain for more lies, “Yes. Grandma Pat used to cry when she told that story.”

The waiter arrives with our appetizer, rescuing me from having to spin more bullshit. He places a steaming plate of cubed pork, seared red and brown in the middle of the table.

Hurricane stabs one of the pieces with her fork and dips it into an orange sauce.

“Here,” she extends her fork across the table towards me, “I want to see your reaction when you try it!”

I take the fork from Hurricane, bite and chew. I taste citrus at first, and then as I bite down further, my eyes begin to water from the spice. Not bad.

“I like it.”

“I’m so happy you do!”

Hurricane grabs a smaller plate, sweeps a few pieces onto it and passes the food back to me. She eats one chews, swallows and takes another sip from her daiquiri.

“Families are so interesting to me. Someday, I want you to meet mine. My mamá taught me everything I know.”

“Okay.”

“What about your family? You mentioned a grandmother? Is she still alive?”

I stab a chunk of pork, “No. Emphysema.”

“That’s so sad. What about your mom and dad? What are they like?”

Selfish. Stupid. Miserable.

“They’re …” I try to find the right-sounding word, “around.”

I place my fork up to my mouth.

“When do I meet them?”

My teeth slip off the meat and bite deep into my tongue. Stifling a scream, I taste blood. I grab the napkin from the table and shove it into my mouth to staunch the bleeding.

“Are you okay?”

The napkin comes out of my mouth with a spreading spot of bright, red blood.

“Just bit my tongue.”

“Ouch! That must’ve hurt!”

Another taste of blood, “Yeah.”

I take a small swig from my water glass, swish it around my mouth and spit pink water onto the napkin. Glancing up, I hope that maybe this episode will be enough to distract Hurricane from her question.

“So, can I meet your parents?”

How does ‘no fucking way’ sound to you? “Probably not. I haven’t spoken to them in four years.”

Hurricane flinches back. “You haven’t?”

“No.” I don’t want to fucking talk about this anymore. Hurricane’s head tilts at an angle indicating that she wants me to answer her question anyways.

Irritation replaces my discomfort. “Look, can we talk about this another time?”

“We can, but you should know that family is very important to me.”

“That’s great, but my family fucking sucks.”

Hurricane wags a finger at me. “You shouldn’t say that about your family. God is listening.”

I glare at Hurricane. “No. He isn’t.”

Hurricane wags a finger at me. “Yes, he is! And you should be careful when you talk about your parents. They love you.”

Anger heats its way to my neck, but I keep my voice level. “No. They don’t.”

“My mom and dad are great! Taught me everything I know. It’s not cool when you say things like they don’t love you. What’s it going to be like when you are a parent?”

“Never going to fucking happen.”

Hurricane stares at me for a moment. Her voice grows quiet. “Oh.” She stirs her daiquiri with a straw. “Maybe it’s like something you’ll change your mind about?”

“No.”

Hurricane leans away from me, hurt widening her eyes. Shit. Now I’m not going to get laid. We sit in silence for a few moments until the sound of something plastic and hollow rhythmically hitting the ground approaches us. I turn to see a little girl walking up to our table, bouncing a plastic ball against the ground. She stops next to Hurricane.

“I’m Emma!” she says, not taking her eyes off the ball. “My birthday is tomorrow!”

Hurricane’s expression breaks into an awkward smile. “Your birthday!? That’s awesome! How old will you be?”

“Seven.”

“Seven!?” Hurricane gasps, a real smile emerging across her face. “you’re so big!”

A woman hustles over to us and puts a hand on the girl’s shoulder.

“Emma, you’re bothering these people.” She turns to us, “Sorry about that.”

Hurricane smiles and shakes her head emphatically, “She’s not bothering us!”

The woman doesn’t hear Hurricane. “Come along, Emma. Your food is getting cold.”

The girl catches the ball and turns up to her mother, “Can I say bye first?”

The mother’s smile is pained, “Okay, but hurry.”

The girl looks up at Hurricane and me, all innocence.

“Bye!”

Hurricane waves excitedly. “Bye Emma! Happy birthday!”

“Thanks!”

The girl begins bouncing the ball again as her mother directs her away. A moment later, the waiter returns and sets our sandwiches in front of us. Bile still at the pit of my stomach, I don’t touch it. Maybe if I apologize to Hurricane for lashing out, I’ll feel better? I look up to her dreamily gazing towards where the girl was standing.

After a long moment, she notices me. “Didn’t you think that little girl was cute?”

A surge of vomit reaches for the bottom of my throat. “Sure.”

“See! You’re not a total lost cause. Maybe someday you’ll want your own little Emma.”

I still feel bad about earlier. Time for some damage control. “I don’t know.” I try redirecting the conversation away from me, “Why do you want kids?”

Hurricane’s face glows with excitement. “I just love them! I just imagine how awesome it will be to hold my own baby.”

My face twitches. “Yeah.”

Hurricane puts defensive hands up in front of her, “I don’t want you to get the wrong impression that I’m planning on getting a bun in the oven any time soon. But given the right guy …”

She searches for my eyes. I make sure they’re not found. I turn my body from her. “Wonder what happened to that girl?”

“This is serious. It’s not like I’m going to be a stay-at-home mom or anything. Papi raised me to be self-sufficient. I’m going to be a working mom. Baby, can you look at me?”

Baby? A gust of wind blows in from the harbor, and I feel goosebumps running up and down my arm. Reluctantly, I turn back, trying to think of something to say.

“Oh.”

The waiter arrives, rescuing me again.

“How is everything?”

My sandwich sits uneaten below me. “Fine.”

I look over to Hurricane polishing off the last of her daiquiri. She sets the empty glass on the table.

¡Todo esta bien!” She switches to English, “And can I have another one of these? They were soooo good!” she motions over to me, “you don’t mind, right?”

My stomach starts to clear, and I feel hunger. If she’s drunk enough by the time we get back to her place, maybe she’ll swallow.

“Go for it.”

#

Hurricane’s shoes dangle from the tips of her fingers. We hit a bump, and they fall to the floor of my car. Giggling, she puts her feet up onto the dashboard and rolls the window down.

“Weeeeeeeeeeeee! Isn’t this fun!?”

It will be when you’re on your knees gagging on my cock.

I focus back on the road for a moment, all thoughts of children and my family replaced by a growing lust. This day doesn’t have to be a dud. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Hurricane fishing around in her pocketbook. She withdraws a plastic bag with rolled joints and a lighter.

Jesus Christ.

She pulls one from the baggie and puts it up to her mouth. For a moment, I consider telling her to put that shit away, but then I remember how wet she gets when she’s high.

Maybe she’ll even tell me how big my dick is when I'm balls deep. I guess that's worth my car smelling like weed for a week.

Hurricane struggles to light her joint against the tornado of wind roaring through the open window. Out of pity and horniness, I press a button on my armrest, and her window rises and closes. Smoke and the pungent smell of weed follow. 

“Wasn’t that little girl just the cutest!?”

Second-hand weed slithers into my brain. “Yeah.”

“I hope our first child is a girl.”

“Sure.”

We exit the highway and cruise down a straight road. At the first stop sign, Hurricane takes a long drag from her joint and then reaches over like she’s about to put her hand on my shoulder. Instead, she grabs the back of my head and pulls me towards her.

“Hurricane, what the-”

Our lips collide, and she wedges mine open with her tongue. I feel a cloud of heavy smoke pouring into my mouth. My eyes water, and I feel high. Real fucking high.

She edges away from me, her eyes locked with mine, “It wouldn’t be right not to share— especially when we both know what happens next.”

The hairs on my neck rise, and I feel a fog drift over me.

Why the fuck would she do that?

My hands move languidly back to the steering wheel. When the stop sign turns green, I make a left turn, and the world fades into an inky mist.

Dreams of Hurricane, a boy without a face and me, paralyzed by memory, swirl until it all goes black.

#

My eyes open to darkness and a rhythmic beat pulsing in the near distance. I breathe deep and feel cobwebs stretch across my brain.

What the fuck? Where am I? And how did I get high?

I look at my surroundings, trying to piece it together. I’m in a room. Whose room? I look over to the nightstand and see a picture of Hurricane and a pack of women mugging for the camera. They all wear the same black shirts with Greek letters and light blue jeans.

Hurricane. I’m in Hurricane’s room.

I notice my phone in front of the picture, and I swipe sluggishly at it with my left hand. It falls to the floor. When I reach to grab it, something metallic catches on my right wrist. I look up and find my right arm restrained to the bedpost by a pink furry handcuff.

Jesus Christ. How the fuck did that happen?

It only takes five minutes of calling for Hurricane before the bedroom door opens and she stumbles in.

“You coming to the party or what?”

I can’t decide whether I’m annoyed or confused. I opt for the former. “Sorry. Can’t make it. I’m tied up for the evening.” Her eyes glass over, so I rattle the handcuffs. “Uh, could you please unlock the cuffs?”

#

“So, you’re that guy that Andrea always talks about.”

“Who’s Andrea?”

Even before she answers the question, I feel a frown creeping across my face.

“Never mind.”

I throw back a shot and hope that this stupid bitch leaves me alone. Instead, Hurricane bounds over holding a smoldering joint and passes it to the blonde.

“Soooo, I see you’ve met my Little!”

The blonde girl takes a hit and shoves her hand at me. “I’m Jaimie!”

I grimace but still shake her hand. “Yeah. We’ve met ... a few times.”

“Wow, really?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh my god. Andrea’s been my Big for like a year. I should know better!” Her apologetic look disappears. “Oh my God. It’s been like a whole year already! She’s so great!”

If I pretend to give a shit about her and her boring life, maybe Hurricane will let me fuck her against the wall.

“You’re Andrea’s Little? And she’s your Big? What does that mean?”

Jaimie gives me a reproachful look. “Are you not in Greek life here? It’s like the best thing ever! I just know the guys at Tau Kappa Epsilon would love to have someone like you in their fraternity. Anyways, a Big is like a big sister in the sorority, and a Little is like a little sister. Isn’t that just the most adorable thing ever!?”

I stare at her and wonder whether she ate paint chips as a child. “Sure.”

“So, Andrea here was telling me about how you were in the Navy?”

“No.”

“That’s sooo awesome! Hey! So, I’m kind-of dating this guy in the Army. His name is Rob Carrazo, like with, a ‘C’. Do you know him?

This is agony. “I wasn’t in the Army, and I don’t know your friend. Sorry.”

My lips curl into a forced smile, but as I attempt to stand up and mutter the word “bathroom,” Hurricane grabs my arm and pulls me back down to my chair.

“Did you know …” Hurricane grabs the joint back from Jaimie, “... that I was the one who set Jaimie up with Rob?”

“Oh.”

“We went to high school together, and when I see two single people, I always wonder if they might be right for each other. Turns out they were!”

Jaimie’s face morphs into a smile. “Andrea! We’re not super serious. Not yet! But maybe one day. I just don’t know if I want to settle down just now.”

#

Thirty minutes later, I loathe this girl. It’s not just the way she talks. It’s not just her annoying fucking laugh. It’s not just that every fucking thing she says is about her. It’s all of it.

And everyone is really drunk or really high. Jaimie is both. She sways on the couch cushion, talking at no one in particular.

“I think condoms are like so gross. It, like, feels soooo much better without them,” Jaimie slurs.

A bottle of open bourbon sits cradled under my arm. I grab it with my right hand and take a long gulp. “When was the last time you visited the abortion clinic?” Shit. I should not have said that. How fucking drunk am I?

 Jaimie’s eyes widen in shock. A hand shoots up to her mouth. “That’s just ... so rude!”

Slap. My face jolts sideways from the impact. “What did you just fucking say?”

Thud.

My senses sharpen, the room melting into a haze of sand and blood. My hand shoots out to grab the one that just slapped me, and I catch a wrist. Just before I begin to twist, the pungent smell of weed invades my nose, mouth and eyes. Shaking myself from this vision, my eyes widen as I realize that I’m about to break a woman’s wrist. Gingerly, I loosen my fingers and try to nonchalantly place my own hand onto my lap. A moment later, I’m jerked to my feet.

Hurricane’s face practically touches mine. “What the fuck is wrong with you!?”

The voices grow silent around me, but the thud, thud, thud of the music keeps playing. Hurricane shoves her arm in front of my eyes showing red, angry marks in her skin. “Look at what you just fucking did to me?”

Guilt wells up in the pit of my stomach, “Hurricane, I ...”

She points to the door. “Not my fucking name. Get out.”

Wrenching myself away from Hurricane, I grab the closest bottle of alcohol and blow past everyone, seeking escape out on the landing. After slamming the door behind me, I take a long swig from the bottle and yank my pack of cigarettes from my pocket. Lighting one, I angrily realize that I’m too fucked up to drive home. I reach into my pocket to call a cab and remember that my cell phone is still in Hurricane’s room. For fuck’s sake.

My eyes shift to the door, then back to the stairs. Fuck, this is going to be a long walk home.

Sighing, I take my first step away from Hurricane’s apartment when the door bursts open behind me. Jaimie flies out of the door with Hurricane in tow.

“Maybe stop falling in love with abusive assholes, you bitch!” Jaimie screams over her shoulder.

“It’s not like he said anything that wasn’t true. You did go to the clinic after you hooked up with Matt. Maybe stop whoring around so much, cunt!”

Jaimie screams incomprehensively at Hurricane before vaulting down the steps, unaware that I’m still standing on the landing.

Hurricane stops at the edge of the steps, glaring after Jaimie. When Jaimie is clear out of earshot, Hurricane mutters, “Fucking bitch,” turns around and notices me standing against the railing. “What are you still doing here?”

I look at the ground and shrug. When I look up, Hurricane is standing in front of me.

“Let me bum one.”

I hesitate for a moment but then gingerly reach in my pocket. Before I can even pull anything out, she snatches my pack from my hand. I raise my lighter, and as I flick it, she plants that cigarette between her lips and takes a long drag.

Her face glows red against the night.

“Listen, Hurricane, I’m …”

She puts a hand up to silence me as she blows out a cloud of smoke into the night air. We stand in silent eternity as Hurricane takes long drags off the cigarette.

“If you were going to apologize about Jaimie, save your breath. She always gets so aggressive when she gets drunk. She won’t remember tomorrow.”

Not what I was going to apologize for. “Oh.”

She flicks the butt down to the landing below her and then cocks a grin at me. “But if you were going to say sorry to me, now’s a good time.”

My eyes dart away from Hurricane’s face and down to the stub of her cigarette glowing red, then yellow against the cement surface. This is fucking blackmail! My eyes roll up to the black night off the landing. But I need to get my keys and my phone.

“Sorry.”

A bark of laughter erupts from the direction of Hurricane. “You are so easy! God, man. You can’t even make eye-contact with me. It’s fine. I’m just fucking with you. Besides …” A hand grips my face and pulls it up and over. “… I like it when you play rough.”

I recoil. “What?”

Hurricane rolls her eyes and smirks at me. “You know exactly what I’m talking about.”

My stomach churns. What the fuck is happening? “I … don’t.”

She licks her lips. “Don’t play coy with me.” She releases my face and slides her hand down to my crotch. “We should finish this talk back in my room. And this time, you’re going to be rough.”


JULY 2007

Baltimore, Maryland

Sitting across from John at the dinner table, I feel studied, like I’m under the microscope. Clean cut, wearing a crisp pair of Banana Republic khakis and a polo shirt, John finishes off the last piece of chicken on his plate. Placing the fork and knife down carefully onto the plate, he knits his eyebrows together, purses his lips and stares into the corner of the room, gathering the exact words he thinks will get my attention.

“Dude, I’m going to be honest; that’s just one night, and you were both drunk. Besides, you got laid - multiple times! What are you complaining about again?”

I push a piece of chicken around on my plate with a fork. “I wasn’t even conscious the first time, but what about the whole shotgunning weed shit?”

John rolls his eyes. “C’mon man, she was just drunk.”

I shake my head. “No, she was acting like a psycho bitch.”

John shrugs his shoulders. “Why should you care? She’s just your booty call.”

Is she? “Totally.”

John pats me on the back. “See. Nothing to worry about. You can peace out anytime you want. I mean, I get it. She does your laundry after all.”

“Jesus, John, that’s small fucking potatoes. What about-”

John cuts me off. “Bro, look, I’m not much of an expert at this sort of stuff. But Shelly is. She’s in grad school to be a psychologist. Why don’t you pour out your heart to her?”

I stare blankly back at John. He gives me an irritated look. “Well?”

“Well, what?”

John gives an exasperated sigh. “Do you not pick up hints at all? Fine. For some reason she still wants to meet you. So, do you want to meet my girlfriend?”

“Uh, yeah. Sure.”

“Great. We’re getting drinks on Saturday.” 

“Nice.”

John measures me. “Just to be clear: drinks mean one drink for each of us and meeting my girlfriend. No one’s getting shitfaced and doing shameful things, okay?”

“Of course. One drink.”

John rolls his eyes and points a finger up for emphasis. “One drink. Now can you help me do the dishes? Like I’ve been asking you for the past few weeks?”

#

John douses a plate into soapy water, scrubs it and then hands it to me. I dutifully dry it off and place it in the drying rack.

Domestic life isn’t so bad. Peaceful. A nice reprieve from-

John’s cell phone rings. He motions for a towel. I pass mine to him. After wiping his soapy hands for a moment, John grabs his phone and looks at the number as if he’s never seen it before. His voice is more of a question than a greeting.

“Hello?”

Somewhat intrigued, I stop what I’m doing and attempt to listen in.

“Oh … well, yeah, he’s here.” After a moment, John slowly hands his phone over to me, concern playing across his features. “It’s for you.”

Fear catches in my throat and I whisper, “Hurricane?”

John looks away and shakes his head no.

Intrigued, I grab the phone from John and hear the voice of a ghost on the other end:

“Before you hang up, I want you to listen.”

Wendy.

“It’s been four years since we’ve talked, and you can say no, but can we meet?”

Two walls and a ceiling intersect at the corner of the kitchen, and I stare at it unblinking until my eyes tear over, blurring the lines.

“I can hear you breathing.”

I blink and feel a hot tear threatening to overflow my eyelid.

Wendy sighs deliberately. “It’s okay. I can only imagine your shock at hearing from me. Listen, you don’t have to say anything, but I want to see you. Can we hang out? Maybe like now?”

My mouth falls open, but no words come out.

Wendy takes a deep breath on the other side of the line. “Okay. Well, I’m just going to assume you’re still there and heard what I said. I’ll be at our old spot in a half hour. I’ll wait there for you for fifteen minutes. If you don’t show up, I’ll understand, and I won’t bug you ever again. Just know that I’m still here for you as a friend. Hope to see you there.”

The other line clicks off and I stand paralyzed by memory. 

Chucking John’s phone towards him, I bolt for the door. John catches me.

“Wendy? That Wendy? I couldn’t believe it was really her.”

Ignoring John, I frantically dig into my pockets. Where the fuck are my keys? I rush back to my room and tear through it. John appears at the doorway with something shiny in his hand.

“You left your keys on the table.”

I make to grab them out of John’s hand when he pulls them back. “You’re going to see her, aren’t you?”

My eyes narrow. “None of your goddamn business.”

John sighs, “Why are you doing this to yourself? Remember last time?”

I stop for a moment. “I need …”

John explodes in exasperation. “You don’t need her in your life again! I thought you spent the last four years trying to forget Wendy?”

I look away from John. He’s not ready for that kind of honesty.

John’s voice takes on a pleading tone. “Just think of that tornado chick.”

The thought of Hurricane pushes me over the edge. John extends his hands out to me. “Listen dude, you don’t …”

Seeing opportunity, I snatch my keys out of John’s hands and dash for the door, leaving John and sense behind.

#

My car bounces over the same pothole that was there back in 2002. I park under the same gaudy sign advertising twenty-four-hour service; it flashes neon green against the same chrome exterior of the diner as it’s done for the last sixty years.

Nothing has changed.

I jump out of my car and peer through the smudged blue glass of the diner window, scanning each face, searching for the one person whose features I tried to forget. I find her in a booth, our booth. With a reluctance borne of bitterness, I walk in.

At the host station, I pause.

I shouldn’t be here. I should leave.

As I turn to walk out, I feel a disturbance in the air behind me, and suddenly, I feel arms sliding across my ribcage and briefly catch a glimpse of fingers interlocking around my chest before my body is wrapped in a bone-crushing hug. Even before she pulls away, I know it’s Wendy. I turn around and look her over. Slender with sandy-brown hair tied in a ponytail.

Holy shit. She looks exactly the same.

“I’m so happy that you’re here and okay, I’ve missed you.”

Heavy teardrops slide down her face. I don’t know what to say, or even where to begin. How do I express what I’ve bottled up for four years?

She directs me back to our booth. “We have so much to catch up on! Are you hungry? You still a fan of those massive heart-stopping bacon cheeseburgers you used to love?”

My mouth opens, but only empty air emerges; so, I nod. Wendy smiles at me. “Well, come on! Let’s catch up!”

The waitress appears at the corner of our table as soon as we sit down. “What can I start you out with?”

If I start talking, Wendy will take it as an opening. Realizing how fucking stupid this thought is, I order.

“Coffee. Black.”

Wendy points to a half-empty glass of iced tea. “This is fine for now.”

The waitress walks away, Wendy gives me a watery smile from across the table.

“I thought you said you were hungry.”

I glance away, pretending like I’m looking for the coffee I just ordered. “Uh, I ate already.”

Wendy’s voice pulls me back to her. “No worries!” She places her elbows onto the table and plants her chin into open hands. “So … what’s new? I haven’t heard from you for a while. I bet your mom is, y’know, thrilled you’re back!”

“Haven’t seen her.”

Wendy tilts slightly to the side, curiosity and concern etched into her face. “Oh. Why?”

I stare back silent for a moment and then, “I’ve been busy.”

Wendy opens her mouth as if to say something, reconsiders and then smiles. “Well, I know she’s dying to y’know see you.”

I give her a look. “She is?”

“Yup. We still get coffee occasionally. She said she heard from that cousin of yours that you were back from well … you know ...”

I lapse back into icy silence. Wendy shatters it. “I prayed every day for you when you were y’know ... away … over there.”

I feign ignorance as my discomfort rises. “In California?”

Wendy peers through me. “No. The Middle East. Iraq.”

“Why?”

I can see the tears forming in her eyes again.  “I prayed for you because I didn’t want anything to happen to you. I prayed that God would watch over you and keep you safe while you were in harm’s way.”

My mouth is dry, my tongue tasting metal. Where the fuck is my coffee?

Wendy continues, a slight waver in her voice, “Now I feel like my prayers have been answered. You’re here! And you’re okay!”

Okay? What the fuck does that even mean? Okay?

“Sure.”

Wendy appears uncomfortable. “Are you okay? You don’t seem very talkative.”

Why would I? You’re the one bringing up all this religious horseshit after everything you put me through. “Yeah.”

She looks at me skeptically. “Well, your one-word answers aren’t y’know exactly screaming that you’re okay to me.”

I lose control just for a moment and snap. “Why would I be okay after what happened the last time I saw you?”

Wendy looks startled, and I quickly find the fabric pattern of the booth cushion next to Wendy fascinating.

After a long pause, she takes a deep breath. “Oh. Well, I figured we’d ease our way into that topic, but that is kind of why I wanted to meet.” Wendy takes another deep, measured breath and begins. “I think that the way things ended four years ago was wrong on my part. I didn’t realize the depth of your feelings.”

She tries to reach a hand over the table to me, but I lean away from it. Wendy winces before slowly withdrawing her hand. A moment passes before she leans forward, her eyes locked into mine. “You have no idea how sorry I am about the way things unfolded. I’m just so sorry. I felt like I lost my best friend.”

Wendy doesn’t break her stare, waiting for a response. What the fuck does she want? Some bullshit forgiveness? The waitress temporarily rescues me when she arrives with my coffee, giving me an excuse to break contact from Wendy’s eyes. I sip my steaming cup and nod approvingly at it.

“Coffee’s not bad.”

Wendy taps her fingers onto the table. “So …”

I realize that I can’t avoid the topic; so, I adopt a neutral tone. “That was four years ago; I’m over it.” Sipping more coffee, I lean back and force my voice to be casual. “We can just forget about it, right?”

Wendy’s fingers stop tapping on the table. “Why do I feel like you’re not over it. Oh, that’s right. You literally just brought it up like one minute ago.”

I bite my lip to keep myself from telling her to fuck off and decide to lie instead. “No, I didn’t.”

Wendy presses her lips together, and I know that look as I know all of her looks. She’s annoyed, but she’s going to try to sound like she isn’t. “I’m trying to apologize and make amends; please don’t blow me off. Could you please just, like, I don’t know, tell me how you really feel?”

How do I feel? I feel like shit. You crushed me four years ago, and then you try to ‘make amends.’ How fucked up is that bullshit? How fucked up is it that I dropped everything just to see you after all the shit I went through? John was right. This is a fucking mistake. I’m fucking pathetic.

I try to deflect from Wendy’s question. “Okay. But first tell me how you got John’s number, anyways?”

Wendy narrows her eyes suspiciously. “Facebook. Do you have it?”

“No.”

 We fall into an awkward silence again which is only broken when Wendy’s fingers resume their rhythmic drumming on the table. I suddenly find the rotations of the ceiling fan above me fascinating.

Wendy knocks her knuckles on the table twice to draw my attention back to her. “Look, trying to make amends is important to me. Do you have anything to say?”

You really fucked me up, Wendy. It’s all your fault. “Not really.”

Wendy bangs her fist against the table so hard that the noise silences the diner. “Really, dude!? That’s all I get! One or two-word answers!?”

I lose it again. “What exactly do you fucking want from me, Wendy?”

A strange look passes over her face, and her voice subsides. “I want us to be …” Suddenly, she finds the ceiling fan above us. “I don’t know. I want us to be friends again. I miss you, pal. Remember how we used to—”

“No, I don’t,” I say, swallowing a scream, “and I don’t see how we can be ‘friends’ again.”

The corners of her eyes glimmer with tears. Absurdly, I begin to feel guilty. “Look, it’s hard for me to see you or resume anything resembling friendship right now.”

She reaches out to me. Wendy’s compassionate eyes beg for something. Acceptance? Love? I can’t do this. I stand up, get a few dollar bills and drop them on the table.

“I’m sorry, Wendy. I gotta go and do y’know,” I gesture vaguely at the door. “stuff.”

Wendy stands up with me and puts a gentle hand on my shoulder. “Okay, but can we talk again?” She hands me a piece of paper. “This is my number. If you ever want to talk, I’m here for you.”

No, you’re not.

I nod anyways, stuff the piece of paper into my pocket and shuffle away from her. Guilt, remorse, anger and grief swirl around me as I depart.

#

Driving home, I feel nothing at first. Then it starts. My non-steering hand begins to shake. In vain, I clench my fist to steady it. No effect. Now angry, I slam my shaking fist against the dashboard once and then again and again and again and again.

I catch a glimpse of red and white lights of a helicopter above me, and instinctively, I duck under the dashboard. My thumb clicks off the imaginary safety on my Squad Automatic Weapon. Sweat forms on my brow, and the boy’s face floats emerges as a specter from behind the steering wheel. His mouth opens in a smile, and blood flows out it. I scream, yanking my hands away from the spreading, red ooze.

BEEEEEEEEEEEEP

A pair of headlights flashes bright, and my eyes widen in terror. Before I can collide with oncoming traffic, I grab the steering wheel and jerk hard to the right. I catch a flash of middle finger from the car I was about to hit and breathe a sigh of relief. I’m not dead. Not yet. I pull over to the side of the road and stare into the darkness. Unwanted tears flood my eyes, and I fight the urge to sob. Both my hands shake now. I ball them into fists again, slamming them against the dashboard over and over and over again.