The day was over. The sun was gone, but light still lingered on the horizon, spilling through the pines across the road. Jay stepped out of the diner and closed his eyes. Fresh air rushed into his lungs. The smell of smoke, the taste of bad coffee on his lips, even the nasal whine of Hank Senior, all lifted. He felt cleansed. The day’s rain had stopped, but its ghost remained in the air, cool and bracing. His heart quickened.
“There you are,” a voice said.
She rose from the bench where she sat sheltered by the diner’s eaves. Her eyes glinted as she peered into his, wordless, hair drifting in the breeze. She took his hand and squeezed it. He squeezed back.
Jay hadn’t seen Rumor since the weekend. He hadn’t heard from her or Celia, not since leaving the envelope at the door. In all that time a hot feeling had crept up from his stomach and curled around his heart.
The choice he had made…it was a private thing, almost. The thought of her knowing made his stomach sink. But all that fell away now, seeing her. He felt lighter now.
They watched the cold sun set the longleafs afire, gold amidst purple shadows, then finally vanish. He let her hand go and stretched his arm around her.
“I’m glad,” she murmured, leaning her head into him.
He didn’t need to ask what she meant. “I was already a week or two behind from that ticket. What’s another month or so?”
His break soon ended and he watched her walk alone eastward by the evening’s last light. Under full dark and the harsh neon lights, his happiness faltered. What was he thinking? Could they really be together, the two of them, here in this town? Could he really stay put?
Maybe Ed was right. Best to know who you are and stick with it. He couldn’t be the sort of person Rumor needed.
Or could he? He’d been here for nearly three months, longer than any place he’d been since he was first forced away from home… Hadn’t his time here changed him? At least a little?
Either way, there was plenty of time to figure it out now.
* * *
Early Monday afternoon, Jay rode into town to check in with Jim Holt. The cold huddled close over the streets again; he gritted his teeth and clenched the handlebars, fingers brittle on the brakes. Grateful, at least, for the ugly plaid thrift store sweater, as much as it itched at him.
He felt the siren before he heard it — the pulsing lights and plaintive wail. Jay skidded, nearly fell off the bike.
“Seriously!?” he yelled out. “What the hell did I do this time?”
Glass rolled to the curb behind him, wheels crunching the dead magnolia leaves in the gutter. He stepped out of the cruiser, approaching Jay with a slow, impassive step. His eyes were hidden behind aviators. The cop halted, looked him in the eye, considered Jay for a full beat before he spoke.
“I want to know your intentions.”
Jay looked askance. “I intend to speak to my mechanic. Hopefully without police harassment…if it’s not too late for that already.”
Glass strode to the other side of the bike, looked it up and down. “I done some digging on you, Jay. I know you’ve been spendin’ a lot of time with that blonde. I know about your wrecked car at Mixon’s.” He glanced up, looked Jay full in the eye. “I know you gave money to that black gal.”
“Guilty as charged,” Jay spat. “Where’s the crime in that?”
“No crime. I just want to know one thing.”
He would not indulge the copy by asking. Finally Glass shook his head. “I want to know. Are you staying in this town to fix your car, or — something else?”
“Something else?” Jay’s eyebrow rose.
Glass removed the sunglasses and stared out of those small pale eyes. “Will you stay longer? Or just move on.”
Jay had no intention of answering questions about him and Rumor, if that’s what the cop was getting at. “I hadn’t thought about it,” he lied. “At first I planned to leave soon as I could. Now, though…” He shrugged.
Glass raised a hand to cut him off. His face was rigid; the tapered red hair stood on end. Something bright flashed in his gaze.
“I’ll pay what you owe Mixon’s,” he said quietly. “Whatever you haven’t saved up, I’ll give you — if you leave now. Don’t come back. Forget this place.”
Jay laughed. “I can’t just leave. I have a job, a motel room, a—”
“I’ll give you a week.” he pulled a wad of bills from his crisp front pocket. “This outta cover it. After the week, you’re gone.”
Jay stared at the handful of fifties and hundreds. He couldn’t be sure by the thickness alone, but it looked more than enough to get the Buick back. Today. Did he want that, though? Hadn’t part of him wanted to stay? Why would Glass make an offer like this to begin with?
A bribe. To get Jay away from Rumor.
As soon as he thought it he knew it was true. Remembered the way the cop had watched them in the diner. How he had followed Jay all this time. He’d assumed it was a personal grudge, an unhealthy obsession. It was that, he saw now, and something more.
Sooner or later, the old voice spoke inside him, you’ll have to leave her behind.
Jay took the money. The cop nodded, gave only the hint of a satisfied smirk. He turned and climbed into the squad car.
Now Jay could breathe better. What had he done? What would he tell her? He could barely think as Ira Glass began to drive away.
“A week, Jay,” the cop called from his window, “One week. And today counts.”
* * *
The money hung heavy in his pocket as he rode the rest of the way to Bell Drive. Apart from that weight, he could barely believe it was there. The whole disaster of his wreck, all the time and momentum he’d lost…and now here it was, the chance to move on. To be free.
In a way it’s easier now, he thought. I don’t have to make the choice. It’s been made for me.
He mulled that idea for a while. It didn’t make him feel any better.
Jay loaded the bike into the trunk of the Buick once he’d paid Jim Holt. It felt strange, sitting in his own car, turning his own key in the ignition. It wasn’t much better than Ed’s LTD, truth be told. Both were old man cars. But it felt roomier, classier. And it was his.
Ed only grunted when he gave notice the next day. “I’d like to give you two weeks, but it’s out of my control. I have to be gone by then.”
The old man shrugged. Glanced stoically at the industrial sink. “Got by fine before,” he mused. “Guess I’ll get by without ya.”
Jay gave a bittersweet smile. It was as sentimental a thought as he ever could have got from the man.
It wouldn’t be so easy with her. What would he say? There was nothing he could say. Things just happened, and this was one of them. He had little control over it, and even less over himself. Over who he was. People didn’t change.
He waited for her to visit him at the diner, or meet him on the side of the road. But all that week he never saw her. Jay tried driving up Coffin Road, early in the morning and late at night, hoping to spot her. No luck.
By the time Saturday night rolled around, he was getting desperate. His shift at Ed’s had ended, and he still hadn’t told Rumor what had happened. Should he park by the barn, search on foot the land that had once been Indicum Plantation? Look for the house Ed had said might lie near the river?
No, that was all he needed — to get arrested for trespassing, or lost on unfamiliar ground. He didn’t have time for that.
Then he realized. Celia would know.
If anyone could tell him where Rumor’s house was, how to get there from the road, which driveway to take, it would be her. Her or Mosquito. He needed to talk to them anyway, to make sure Rumor would not be lonely. That someone would be there when her spells returned.
It couldn’t be him anymore. The thought pricked him, an icy tine through his chest.
When he knocked on Celia’s door, it was Rumor who answered. Jay couldn’t speak for a moment, too surprised to form a thought. “Jay,” she murmured, seeing the look in his face.
He glanced at Celia, his mouth slack like a child caught in a lie.
“What is it?” Cee said, shifting on the sofa where she sat.
Jay turned back to Rumor. Gave a slight shake of his head.
“Seems like y’all need some time alone,” Celia stated.
Jay watched her disappear down the hallway. He stepped inside, took a seat where the woman had been. He could only gaze around the room, at the photos, the old furniture. The piano. “She told me she doesn’t play anymore,” he said, buying time to think. “Why is that?”
“She hurt her hands. Car ran over ‘em when she was tryin’ to save her cat crawled underneath.”
Jay thought about that. Sighed. “Rumor, I can’t stay here. I have to leave.”
“I always thought you would, someday.”
“No, not someday. Tomorrow.”
She took this in for a long moment. She sat on the couch beside his chair, eyes crinkling, glimmering.
“I won’t beg you to stay,” Rumor spoke, leaned forward. “But you mean a lot to me. If there’s any part of you that feels the same way…”
He breathed in deep. “It’s not my choice anymore.” His eyes fell. “I don’t know if it ever was.”
“No, that’s ridiculous. You can make any choice you want — no matter what you done or ain’t done in the past.”
“I don’t know… Look, I was never going to stay forever. I mean…hell, I don’t even have a place of my own here. I live in a motel room!”
“Then get an apartment. I’ll help you look.”
His shoulders slumped. Was he really having this conversation? Did she really want this? Did he?
Yes, he’d wanted to before. That was when the Buick had seemed so far off, nearly unattainable. Now, though…
He’d thought moving on would be easier than staying put. That he could rip the bandage off in one fell move. That was before seeing her, hearing her. Looking in her eyes, these clear green eyes he’d come to know so well.
Could he really leave that behind? Never see those eyes again, that smile?
“I can’t,” he slumped in the chair. “I’ve already taken money from that cop to leave town.”
“Then give it back,” said Rumor. “Or work till you can pay it back.”
What if he did? What if he did try to stay, after all? To make things work? It would be hard. It would be fighting against his own nature.
Maybe that wasn’t a bad thing.
She touched his hand on the armrest with her own small fingers. Then something straightened within him, snapped into place. I’ve done enough running, he thought. It’s time to stay. It’s time to stay.
* * *
The morning came flushed with rosy skies. It was the twenty-second, three days until Christmas. The air was frigid, the heater in the squad car took forever to turn on, but none of it bothered him. It was going to be a good day: the day Ira Glass was free of the drifter for good.
He hadn’t been sure, until Jay had taken the money, that it would work. It had been costly, but worth it. Ira had spent months mulling over a way to deal with the newcomer. To do what he needed to do.
And now it had been done.
He drove to Ed’s for his morning coffee. Ira usually patronized the café in town, but today would be different. Had to be different. Today, he would look upon the absence of the drifter, glory in his victory.
Maybe she would be there, too. The girl. He’d seen her once before, years ago, in the days when he was training to join the force. At the side of the road, walking alone. He’d wanted to ask if she needed a ride, but had glanced at the clock display in his truck, seen he was running late for his class, and had passed on.
He’d always looked for her in all the years since. But he’d never spotted her again, until… Until the drifter came to town. Then she was always with him. Ira’s blood boiled every time he thought of it.
Jay, who had disrespected Ira. Jay, who had tried to bribe an officer of the law.
He’d spent long hours thinking what he would do to Jay if he ever caught him in a crime. Imagined him resisting arrest, saw his own strong hands clamping cuffs on the guy. It was his duty, was it not? To make sure the town was safe, whatever it took.
Ira liked his job, was good at it. He was the good guy — the one who put his life on the line every day, always being on. Always looking for the next threat, never relaxing or savoring a moment. Most people couldn’t comprehend the higher standard he lived to, the risks that went with it. He was a man apart.
Pulling into the lot at Ed’s, he spit on his shades to keep the fog off. Climbed out of the car, opened the door, stepped inside.
Then he saw it.
It was Jay. There behind the bar, hunched over the dishwasher. Ira could barely see him from that angle, and the guy’s back was turned, but he knew. He could tell from that stance, the color of his hair. He couldn’t believe it.
Jay had betrayed him.
Ira turned and left the diner without a word. Climbed into the squad car, sat mulling things over. Jay. The bastard. He should have known something like this would happen. Should have expected it.
Jay had always made him uneasy. He didn’t know why. Maybe it was the way he behaved in Ira’s town, the way he behaved with that girl. Always with her, laughing with her, visiting her. As if he had any right. There was something special about that girl, something no outsider should get to possess. It made him see red, made his skin crawl. He felt adrenaline rush his veins, fill the vessels in his arms, just as it did every time he drew his gun from the holster.
Who was the drifter, really? Where was he from? Ira knew, in broad strokes, where he was from. Had seen the address on the man’s ID. But where exactly, what exactly, had he come from? What was he running from?
He’d often recognized the look in Jay’s eyes: a haunted and desperate look. The look of someone who’s seen something — maybe done something — truly alarming. Something that called out for the long arm of the law.
No, it wasn’t law that Ira wanted. He was beyond that, incensed. He wanted justice, and for that something more than a long arm was needed. A hard arm, maybe. Yes, the hard arm of justice. His hard arm.
He pounded the dashboard with his fist. Taking his money, making him a promise — only to throw it in Ira’s face. That’s not the way you respected a cop. If one told you to do something, you did it. If you didn’t want to be shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, pinned to the ground, you did what a cop told you to do. Why was it hard to just cooperate?
Jay was a threat, somehow. In some way. He wasn’t sure how, but it was certain in his mind. And didn’t an officer have a basic right to defend himself? To use deadly force when threatened?
By the time he finished shaving the next morning, something had clicked in Ira’s mind. He knew what he had to do.
He drove to the nearest gas station in town, filled up a tank. He only had the one with him, and to buy another would be suspicious. It didn’t matter. The wood was old, and there had been no rain for many days. He could feel the surge of the liquid as it was forced through the hose, into the red vessel. His thought slowed, his mind cleared. He knew that surge only too well.
It wasn’t long till he reached the barn on Coffin Road. Ira drove the squad car a way down one of the dirt drives, so no one could see it from the street. Walked back to the old building, circled it slowly.
He’d been by here many times on patrol, before the drifter had come; then more afterward, keeping a watchful eye on the man. He was sure they’d spent time here, he and the girl. Nights, maybe. Trespassing. Or if not, almost just as bad. It was part of his town. The town he’d sworn to protect and defend.
The place seemed empty. He went inside, boots clattering on the hollow wood. No one here.
Ira spilled the contents of the red tank, scattering as liberally as he could afford. Inside and outside. It wasn’t enough. Too late to go back for more, though.
It would be what it had to be. He lit a match, stared at the flame with clear eyes. Then tossed it into the barn.
He crossed the road, looked back one last time. He couldn’t see a flame yet, but he could hear it. Could see the column of smoke begin to rise from the loft window. He glanced at the willow tree at the other side of the building. It was too bad; it probably wouldn’t survive the blaze.
In all the time Jay had been in his town, the willow had kept its yellowed leaves, lively and tenacious. Now they had begun to fall. Dry and pale. As if knowing, somehow, what was about to happen.