Jay took a deep breath. He needed it. The smell of smoke, the nasal whine of Hank Senior, the taste of bad coffee in his mouth — all washed away by the rush of fresh air in his lungs, on his cheeks. The day was over, but somehow light lingered on the horizon, spilling through the pines across the road.
The rain was gone, too. He still tasted it in the air, but that only made it more bracing. Something about the evening, its dreary mood maybe, quickened his heart.
“There you are,” a voice spoke.
He turned, saw a form rise. She was not wet; the bench where she had been waiting was shaded by the diner’s eaves.
Jay stood before her. Her eyes glinted as she peered into his, wordless, hair drifting in the breeze. At last she took his hand, squeezed it. A smile lit on her lips and he squeezed her hand back.
They sat again on the bench, his fingers still twined in her own. He hadn’t seen Rumor since the weekend. Hadn’t heard from her, or from Celia, since he’d left the envelope at the door. In all that time her image had hung over his mind, a swaying sword. It was almost a private choice he had made; the thought of her knowing made his stomach sink. What would she say? Could he face her?
Now all of that fell away. Something in him felt lighter now: as if a part of him had been scooped out, cleared away. It was disquieting, but not displeasing. Not entirely.
They watched the cold sun disappear through ranks of longleafs, lit gold amid purple shadows. He let go her hand, stretched his arm around her shoulders, and she leaned her head against him.
“I’m glad,” she almost whispered.
Jay didn’t need to ask what she meant. “I was already a week or two behind from the ticket Glass gave me. What’s another month or so?”
Her breath fluttered in her lips. It reminded him of something — something nearby, yet far away as well.
When the light had gone, and Rumor had left him alone, his happiness began to falter, still water troubled by a cast stone. What was he doing? Who was he kidding? Could he really be here with her, in this town? Could he really stay?
Maybe Ed had been right. Best to know who you are, stick with it. Not pretend otherwise. Not pretend he could be the kind of man that Rumor wanted.
Could he be, though? Being with her these almost three months… It had changed him, hadn’t it? Not all the way; but part of him certainly was not the same Jay who had crashed into a grand oak?
Well, he had plenty of time to figure it out now.
Early on Monday afternoon, Jay rode into town to speak to Jim Holt about the car. To let him know of the delay. The cold huddled close over the streets again, so that the ugly plaid sweater he’d found at the thrift store nearly wasn’t enough. He gritted his teeth, clenched the handlebars, fingers brittle on the brakes.
Jay felt the siren before he heard it. Pulsing lights, a plaintive wail. He stopped, nearly fell off the bike, breath as ragged as the dead magnolia leaves heaped in the gutter.
“Seriously!?” he all but yelled. “What the hell did I do this time?”
Ira Glass stepped out of the cruiser, approached Jay with a slow, impassive step. He couldn’t see the cop’s eyes, hidden as they were behind his aviators. Glass halted, looked him in the eye, considered him a full beat before speaking.
“I want to know what you intend to do.”
Jay looked askance at him. “I intend to speak to my mechanic. Hopefully without any 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’ve done some digging on you, Jay. I know you’ve been spending a lot of time with that brunette. 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.”
“So where’s the crime there?”
“No crime. I just want to know one thing.”
Jay would not indulge him. Glass shook his head. “I want to know. Are you staying because of your car, or — for something else.”
Glass removed the sunglasses, stared at him with those small pale eyes. “Will you stay longer? Or just move on.”
He wasn’t sure what the man wanted to hear. He had no intention of answering any question about him and Rumor, if that’s what the cop was hinting at.
“I hadn’t thought about it. I planned on leaving as soon as I could. Now, though…” He shrugged.
Glass raised a hand, as if to cut him off. His face was rigid as ever, his tapered red hair standing on end. Something bright flashed for a moment in his gaze.
“I’ll pay what you owe at Mixon’s,” he said. “Whatever you haven’t saved up yet. I’ll give it to you — if you leave now. Don’t come back. Forget this town.”
“Leave? I have a job, a room at the Loblolly. I can’t just leave, I have — “
Glass cut him off again with a motion of his hand. “I’ll give you a week.” He reached in his pocket and pulled out a wad of bills. “This ought to cover it. After the week, you’re gone.”
Jay stared at the handful of fifties and hundreds. He couldn’t count it by the thickness alone, but he was sure it was more than enough to get the Buick back. Today. The unpleasant conversation he’d prepared for with Jim Holt, the extra month and a half he’d been delayed… All that could vanish now.
He jerked his hand back, not realizing till now that he’d begun to reach for the money. Did he really want it? Didn’t part of him still want to stay? To fight against his fears, to save all that he’d come through with Rumor, all that he’d found in his time with her?
He was sure that was why Glass was making the offer. A bribe to get him away from Rumor. He’d seen the way the cop looked at her in the diner. How he’d followed Jay all this time.
For a while he’d thought it was only a personal grudge, an unhealthy obsession. Only now did he realize it was that and something more.
Careful, Jay, the old voice spoke. You’ve wanted this before. To stop running. But that part of you that’s been there since you left home, since you were forced out — the part of you that won’t let you stay long in any once place. Why would it be any different now?
Sooner or later, you’ll have to leave her behind.
Jay took the money. The cop nodded, gave only the hint of a satisfied smirk. Turned and headed for his squad car.
Now he could breathe better. What had he done? What would he tell her? He could barely think as Ira Glass drove 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.
“Jay,” Rumor spoke, leaned forward. “You mean a lot to me. I won’t beg you to stay, but…I will ask you to.”
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’re your own man. 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 or somethin’. I’ll help you look.”
His shoulders slumped. Was he really having this conversation? Did she really want him to stay? Did he want to?
Yes, he’d wanted to before. That was when the Buick had seemed so far off, nearly unattainable. Now… 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.