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 was a strange weight in his pocket as he rode to Mixon’s. He thought of all the hours he’d spent working for this, only to have it handed to him. And all he’d had to do was to piss off a cop. He shook his head, wondering.
It’s easier now, in a way, he thought. I don’t have to choose—the choice was made for me.
The idea did not console him.
In under a half hour he was sitting in his own car again, his own key in the ignition, the bike strapped into the trunk. It wasn’t much better than Ed’s LTD, truth be told. Both were old man cars. But this was roomier, classier—and his own.
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 manage now.”
Jay gave a bittersweet smile. It was as sentimental a thought as he ever could have got from the man.
Only one thing left now: telling her.
What would he say? There was nothing he could. Things happened, and this was just one of them. It was always going to be this way.
All that week he never saw her. Not at the diner, nor on the roadside, not even up Coffin Road. By Saturday he was desperate. He thought of walking the Indicum land on foot, trespassing be damned, looking for the house Ed had said would lie near the river, that she had never showed him.
Then he thought of Celia. Would she know?
He needed to talk to them anyway, her and Mosquito, to make sure she would be all right. That someone would be there when Rumor’s spells returned. It couldn’t be him anymore—the thought shot through his blood, hot and sharp.
But when he knocked on Celia’s door it was Rumor who answered. He couldn’t speak for a moment.
“Jay,” she murmured, seeing the look in his face. “What is it?”
He glanced in at Celia, sitting on the sofa, her feet on the dusty ottoman. She shifted, then rose and disappeared down the hall. “Seem like y’all need a minute,” she said. “I’ll go get the brush mouth.”
Jay took her seat. he gazed at the photos, the furniture, the console; anywhere but at Rumor. “She told me she doesn’t play anymore,” he nodded at the piano, not knowing what else to say.
“She hurt her hands. It was an accident.”
Jay sighed. “Rumor, I can’t stay here. I have to leave.”
She met his eyes. “I always thought you would, someday.”
“No, not someday. Tomorrow.”
She took this in for a long moment. Then sat beside him, eyes crinkling.
“I won’t beg you to stay,” she leaned forward. “But you mean a lot to me. If there’s any part of you that feels the same…”
“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.”
“Look, I was never going to stay forever. I mean…hell, 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?
He had 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 if he could rip off the bandage 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.
Was he really going to leave all this behind?
“I can’t,” he leaned back, defeated. “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.”
It wasn’t that simple… Was it? What if he did? What if he tried to stay, after all? To make things work? The idea felt like turning his back toward danger, ignoring every impulse that rose from the deep, black, hidden pit in his stomach.
Maybe that was a good 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 be still. It’s time to stay.
* * *
Morning came flushed with rosy skies. It was the twenty-second, three days before Christmas. The air was frigid, the heater in the squad car slow to waken, but none of it bothered Ira Glass. It was a good day: the day he’d be free of the drifter for good.
It had been costly, but worth it. After months seething over Jay’s blatant disregard for the law, he had finally done what he needed to do. He hadn’t been sure it would work—not until Jay took the money. But now it was done. Over with.
He drove to Ed’s for his morning coffee, reveling in his victory, seeing in his mind’s eye the diner and its absence of the drifter. And she would be there again, maybe.
Glass had seen her once before, years ago, while training to join the force. She was walking alone on the shoulder, and he’d braked to offer her a ride, but had glanced at the dashboard clock and hurried on, late already. But he’d looked for her in the years since. Only to finally see her again…with Jay.
From that time on, she was always with him. The heat in his blood singed him at the thought.
Jay, who had disrespected Ira, tried to bribe an officer of the law. Visions of the drifter caught in a crime, resisting arrest, face in the dust while his own strong hands cuffed the guy. It would only be his duty. He was the good guy, anyway—the one who put his life on the line every day. Who lived by a higher standard, under higher risks. A man apart.
He pulled into the lot at Ed’s and spit on his shades to keep the fog off. Grinned as he opened the door.
But…there he was, still.
Behind the bar. Hunched over the dishwasher. Ira couldn’t see his face from this angle, but he knew. He could not believe it.
Jay had betrayed him.
Ira left the diner without saying a word. Climbed in his squad car and sat mulling it over. The bastard…he should have seen something like this coming. Should have expected it.
Who was the drifter, really? Ira knew, in broad strokes, where he was from. Had seen the address on the guy’s ID. But where, or what, was he running from? Jay had always made him uneasy. That look in his eyes, haunted and desperate, as if he’d seen something—maybe done something—truly alarming. Something that called out for the long arm of the law.
But more than that, this was Ira’s town. Not Jay’s. Parading like that on the streets, laughing with that girl. As if he had any right. There was something special about her, nothing any outsider should possess. And then to take Ira’s money and break his promise… That’s not the way you respected a cop. He had given Jay a chance, and he had not cooperated.
He saw red. His skin crawled. Adrenaline rushed in his veins, just as it did when he drew his gun from the holster.
Next morning, by the time he finished shaving, something had clicked in Ira’s mind. He drove to the Lil’ Cricket and filled the gascan in his trunk. He only had the one, but it didn’t matter. There had been no rain for many days.
His thought slowed as the liquid surged through the hose and into the red vessel. He knew that surge only too well.
Ira drove the squad car to the old house on Coffin, parking a little way down one of the dirt drives, just out of sight from the street. He walked back to the ruin and circled it slowly, boots clattering on the hollow wood. The place seemed empty.
He spilled the contents of the red tank, scattering as liberally as he could. It wasn’t enough, but it would be what it had to be. He list a match, stared at the flame with clear eyes. Then tossed it inside the house.
He crossed the road, looked back one last time. He couldn’t see a flame yet, but he heard it. A fringe of smoke rose from a side window. He glanced at the crepe myrtle. It was too bad; it probably wouldn’t survive the blaze.
In all the time that Jay had been in Ira’s town, the myrtle had kept its leaves, golden and brown and green. Now they’d begun to litter the earth beneath, dry and pale. As if knowing, somehow, what was about to happen.