“Uh uh, no. No way. I told you not to come back here.”
Jay glanced up as the bell above the door rang. Ed’s had been nearly dead for an hour at least, and it was almost ten, long past the hour he had planned to leave. His body pulsed with a strange energy, weary and alert at once. Jay had swept the floor twice now, and felt he could barely stand another minute — though the old man had still shown no sign of sending him home.
He had barely got a look at the newcomer when Ed’s voice, no longer dry and understated, boomed out from behind the bar.
The man stopped, glared across the diner at Ed, who was waving both arms in a forbidding motion.
“I can’t give to everyone comes in here askin’ for food! I got a business to run.”
“I ain’t come for no handout.” The man’s dark eyes flickered toward Jay. “I come for him.”
Jay stared. The man was short, wiry, disheveled. Older than first glance suggested. A certain shrewdness lingered about him, a tension in the arch of that dauntless brow. An air that spoke of living on his wits and none else’s. Only a slight frost, settled in the thick bramble of his beard, suggested age.
Jay threw up his hands as Ed’s glare cut toward him. “I’ve never seen this guy before.”
“No,” the newcomer agreed. “But he see the one axe me come bring him.”
“And who might that be?” Ed growled.
“He know. The one he meet out Coffin Road way.”
Jay felt a chill run through him. He’d met two souls out on Coffin Road, and didn’t know which of them this man might mean. Though he suspected the cop would not send someone like this. Or send anyone at all, for that matter.
“Well,” Ed groaned, glancing over his shoulder at the bar clock, “I suppose I can spare you, rest of the night. Been here long enough. Go on home. Or wherever this bum wants to take you. And you,” he pointed a finger at the other man, “don’t let me catch you in here again. I told you.”
They walked for a while through the dark, which seemed a living thing after the harsh, deadened light in the diner. Jay reveled in the night’s feel. It was warm, comfortable, a cloak to enfold him. He breathed in the bosky smell of old leaves, tasted fall in the air. A feast, especially to one so hungry as him.
“Mosquito,” the man said, breaking the silence. Jay slapped the air reflexively, ducking a little. “No,” the man chuckled. “It’s what folk call me.”
“Sorry about Ed back there,” said Jay. “He’s a skinflint for sure. Are you…hungry?”
The man bristled. The way Ed had spoken, Jay assumed he was homeless, but he had no wish to offend the man.
“Told you already, I ain’t axe nobody for a handout.” He glared at Jay, then softened a little. “No, I ain’t hungry,” he said.
Mosquito said nothing more until they came to Coffin Road. Jay wondered where the nickname had come from. Certainly not from his endless buzzing; the man had barely spoken since they’d left the diner. Still, he looked content, even more so than Jay. A fellow native of the night.
Jay decided he liked the man.
“So,” he asked, “How do you know Rumor?”
In all the weeks he’d spent in this town, all the late evenings at Ed’s, the Mondays and Tuesdays off spent with Rumor, he had never met any other who had seemed to be her friend, or know her name. He wondered if she was a lonely person, and wondered why he hadn’t thought of it before.
But the man laughed. A deep, throaty laugh, the kind he couldn’t fake.
“I been yah since birth,” he said.
Jay wondered if that was meant to be an answer, or if Mosquito had changed the subject. He decided not to press the matter. He tilted his head, studying the man.
“Do you know why she asked you to bring me here?”
The laughter drained from him. “She in a bad way.”
“She have one of her spells. She heart heavy. Since day lean down.”
Jay shook his head. “What does that mean — spells?”
Mosquito shrugged and blinked his veiny eyes. “That what Miss Celia say. But she just in a bad way.”
He quickened his walk, tried to understand it all. Mosquito’s answers that weren’t answers, the offhand way he treated all of this, as if it were a regular thing. Was it? And what did it mean that Rumor was in a bad way? What was wrong? Who was Celia? The night crowded close about them as if waiting for its own answers, listening.
They neared the ruined house at last. A barred owl called down to them, querying. Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?
Jay didn’t bother to answer. “Where is she?”
“Up there,” Mosquito pointed.
“Inside the house?”
The man nodded as he pulled off his hat and held it in both hands.
Jay stumbled toward the front stairs. There was no streetlight here, just the starry sky to see by. Overhead the brick chimney rose in silhouette, a monolith that warned against trespass. Vines hung from the awning over the door and made the house look wilder. The doorway yawned, the door itself nowhere in sight. Wood moaned underfoot.
Jay looked back at Mosquito, who nodded. He held his breath and stepped inside.
There was no answer. He closed his eyes, let his hearing reach out for any hint of her presence. Nothing at first, just the soft brush of Spanish moss against the eaves, hung from the crepe myrtle outside. He breathed the musty smell of old wood and opened his eyes.
A little better. He could make out the edges of a staircase now, but it didn’t look sturdy. Would it hold him? Like the rest of this place it seemed to ponder collapse.
But he would try it.
He found her alone upstairs, sitting by a window in a bedroom. It too was empty, the glass long removed. She stared out through the supple branches out at some sight his eyes would not fall on, and did not turn to him.
Her cheeks looked pale. He could just make out faint tear tracks. They were near dried up, but her sorrow wasn’t. That was clear. He stepped forward, knelt by her, caught the gleam in her eyes, otherwise still.
His heart sunk. He’d seen tears like that. The kind that flowed of grief too deep to see past. Too deep to notice his coming.
It was a while before she stirred and looked him in the face. “Jay,” she moaned. His hand found her shoulder, but she wrenched away. “Don’t leave.”
“You would. You will. There’s things you don’t know…Things that’d make you leave right now if you knew me.”
“Jay,” she said again in a wooden voice. “I — I ain’t like you.”
“Maybe not,” he said again. He glanced out the window at the empty road. Mosquito, it seemed, had not lingered. “But that doesn’t mean I’m leaving.”
Shadows shifted on her face as the tree moved with the breeze. He could see a little clearer now. She looked broken, hollowed out. Her eyes, too, empty windows.
Then something shifted. A steadiness rose in her from an unguessed depth, though not displacing her grief. She blinked as if fighting to stay present.
Jay clasped her shoulders and this time she didn’t flinch. Her eyes glimmered as tears flowed free again. He didn’t know what to say, what to do, except to stay.
So he stayed.
* * *
He woke past eight, next morning. The sun had long risen and the moon tarried in the west above the pines. He rubbed his eyes, pushing away sleep.
“Rumor,” his lips held the name like an eggshell. “Are you—?”
“Hush,” she drawled. “Keep still.”
He rose from the bare floor and joined her where she knelt by the window, just as he had found her the night before. Had she slept at all? Jay wondered. He looked out with her, taking in the new day. The road, the trees, the edge of the chimney, a single vine tracing its way up the hard brick spine. Jay tried to follow her line of sight, but saw nothing in particular that might have caught her attention. He waited for her to speak, stirring now and then when his knees began to ache.
She looked at him. “Stay a while longer.”
“All right,” he murmured.
Jay shivered. He turned, glanced over the inside of the ruined house, seeing it for the first time. As he had thought, the room was empty. No bed, no chair, no nightstand — only walls and floor and ceiling. There was an air of forgotten age about it, history worn away by time and weather. A floorboard or two missing. Paint peeled, wood warped and splintered, dust gathered in layers nearly sunken into the house’s bones.
“It’s beautiful,” he said. “In a lonely, dog-eared sort of way.”
“It’s home,” Rumor said. “Always has been.”
It reminded him of Mosquito’s words last night. He turned to her. “Where do you live, though? I mean, where do you stay?”
“What do you mean?” Rumor finally left the window, giving Jay her full attention. “I just said. I live here.”
“In this…house?” Jay’s eyebrow raised. “I mean, I know Indicum is your home. But where do you sleep?”
She smirked and gave a sidelong glance. “Here, sometimes.”
“Really? All year long? I mean, I know it’s the South but it still gets cold at nights. There’s not even a bed here.”
She gave a wry smile. “Then bring a blanket next time.”
Rumor slipped out into the hall and Jay followed close behind. Down the rickety stairs. The full light of morning streamed through the doorless entry, and he blinked, shielding his eyes. Once outside he turned and took the measure of this ruin he had slept in, as if seeing it anew. The house, the tree. A pile of bricks where he had stumbled last night.
There was no way someone could live here. It was a wonder the house still stood at all.
The crepe myrtle had shed its flowers since he’d last seen it; they lay scattered at its feet in a white train. The leaves were turning gold and orange, though the green still lingered. It was more noticeable now that its foliage was so bright, the bark just beginning to peel.
Rumor too seemed brighter. Her happiness lifted Jay’s mood as well.
“Rumor,” he murmured, stepping closer. “What…happened last night?”
She angled her glance away. “I don’t know how to tell you. Not so you’d understand.”
His lips tightened. “Okay.”
“No, listen. It’s not that I don’t want to tell you. I just — I’m not sure how. Just give me time. Okay?”
“Okay.” He inhaled deeply. “I have to get to Ed’s. Will you be all right if I leave you alone?”
She nodded and let go of his hand, which he hadn’t noticed that she’d been holding. He felt its absence now, though.
“I wanted to bring you here the last time we met. When I took you to the river. I wished I’d asked you as soon as you left.”
Jay didn’t know what to say. He too had felt a longing at the time, but there was no use in saying so. He was here with her now. And whatever had happened, whatever had caused her pain…well, it was him she had thought of, and he was touched by it
“Tell Mosquito I said hey, if you see him.”
Jay nodded. “Who’s Miss Celia?”
“Oh, his sister. Tell her hey if you see her, too.”
“Will do,” he smiled, askance.
He waved goodbye and followed the road west again, wishing he had his bike. The morning was humid but without much heat. Like the feeling of having just stepped out of a shower.
It felt comforting somehow, soothing. A long-lost friend he would never cleave from again.
He wondered about Rumor, what her story was. What had caused so much pain she would spend a sleepless night in a ruins… He didn’t really believe that she lived there, but there was little else to go on.
Jay thought he understood something, though. He recognized the way she answered his questions, like she was talking around the truth. Or was he only projecting? Was the truth really simple and clear, and it was only he who couldn’t understand?
He tried to fix Rumor’s face in his mind, but found that he couldn’t. He could only think of how bright the leaves of that crepe myrtle were, the way their scattered flowers recalled the lace of her white blouse.
Not till the police car pulled up next to him did Jay hear its approach. Its tires hissed on the worn road, and the window lowered, the sun’s glare flashing from the cop’s aviators.
“What the hell!” Jay spat, forgetting to be civil. “Are you stalking me or what? I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“What are you doing on Coffin Road?” said Ira Glass. “I find it strange you keep coming here. I saw you, other day. At the river. With that girl.”
Jaw swallowed. “I don’t have to explain anything to you.”
“Don’t think so?”
“I’ve done nothing wrong.”
Glass gave a stony look. “You keep saying that, but it gets harder to believe every time.”
Jay tried to still his breathing. It wasn’t smart, engaging with a cop like this, but something, maybe the blood burning in his cheeks, made it hard to keep still.
The cop leaned forward. His pale eyes glimmered. “Remember,” he spoke in softer tone, “I saw your ID that night. I know where you’re from.” He studied Jay with a cold and withering look. “You’re a long way from home.”
Jay straightened his back. He could tell it didn’t help; he felt only weariness now, and he knew it would show. “Yes,” he said, tasting iron on his tongue as the cop rolled away.
He walked quickly the rest of the way to the diner, stomach churning. He couldn’t escape this town soon enough.