By: Michael Summerleigh
Somebody came through the door of the Rose & Crown and a slash of sunset snuck in with, knocked him blind for almost a minute, so he didn’t actually see her walking up to his table. The effect was like she had materialised out of thin air. A bit of magic. He smiled into his bourbon, pleased with the thought, and she said:
“Hi. There’s lots of empty tables but you’re here by yourself and so am I and…”
She shrugged in silhouette, and as his eyes came back to where he could use them again she made a wry smile that was charming and somehow very childlike. Like maybe she should be scuffing at some dirt under her bare feet. He took half an instant to think about it, then said:
“Please…” and nodded to the empty chair beside him, half-standing as he reached to pull it out from under the table for her.
Her strapless cocktail dress was clingy, hugged her up close in all the right places, some dark stretchy fabric that was as elegant and sexy as the smooth dip and swivel that sat her down beside him. She plunked a tall drink glass on the table and held out her hand.
“I’m Carly Atkinson,” she said. “Carla really, but my friends call me Carly.”
“Then I’m pleased t’be a friend,” he said, taking her hand and making sure it was something that approximated a real handshake. In the meanwhile, before they both let go, he met her gaze in the half-light, saw a glint of green-gold in the shiny eyes, and then registered the cool almost ivory feel of her hand before she drew it away.
He sensed a seduction in production and realised she’d already won him, that he didn’t really care if she was a working girl. The shadows in his corner of the local tavern hid a multitude of sins, his own as well as hers, if she had any. He liked her. Immediately. And mostly he was just all of a sudden happy for her company.
“Travis,” he said. “Travis Harker. Do you come here often?”
And he started laughing, and so did she, because they both got the joke immediately
and he knew damn well she’d never been in the R&C before and she knew he knew.
“Hundreds of times,” she said. “How strange we’ve never met.”
“Life is full of stuff like that,” he said.
“You can say that again.”
Her laughter gave way to giggles as she shook her head. An errant ray of light from somewhere struck a deep gingery colour from her hair that wasn’t copper but wasn’t carrot either. It framed her face like she’d washed it and then just shook it out rather than bother with a brush or a comb. She reminded him of Pamela Rodgers, one of the adorable Rowan & Martin Laugh-In girls from the Seventies. He’d lusted after her from the moment she appeared on the show,
“So here we are,” he said, and that hot meltdown feeling came rolling out of his past like a little locomotive on a short run to Heaven.
“Yeah. Here we are. Now whatta we do?”
It was his turn to shrug and kick dirt. He felt like a schoolboy and the warmth of it, the thrill of something sweet…imminent…becoming possible…becoming almost… something…flooded through him. He said:
“I have no idea, Carly. You ever just sit down with somebody and feel so good with them just being close by? Not saying anything at all, but being so comfortable…so stupid happy all at once for no particular reason?”
She nodded and smiled again, but then looked down into her lap and started twisting her fingers together,
“You looked like a nice guy. Not lonely or anything else,” she whispered.
The Rose & Crown was always busy on Friday nights, the go-to neighbourhood tavern for pub food and drinks and weekend party kick-offs. In the time it had taken for them to get where they were together the level of noise and conversation should have become intrusive, but it wasn’t. Somehow the overhead was still just background music; the level of volume in the clatter of glasses and the babble of voices muted, like sounds from a room on the other side of a closed door.
“Lonely,” he said.
She looked up. “Yeah. Guys that sit alone in bars like this are lonely…or looking for fun.”
“I’m not lonely,” he said. “And I’m good with fun, but not the way you meant.”
“I knew that! I could tell. That’s why I came over.”
“I’m glad you did,” he said. “I live around the corner so I come here a lot, but tonight it was because I’ve been used to being around people all day long and last week that stopped.”
Her eyes widened a bit to let him know she was asking how come.
“I retired,” he said.
“Are you rich?”
“Enough t’buy you another drink if you want one when you finish that one, but no…not really…”
“So how d’you get to retire?”
“Well I’m tired of being an accountant for forty years and I turned sixty-five last month.”
Two sentences. He felt flattered.
“Way,” he said. “Wanna see my driver’s license?”
“You can’t be! Sixty-five. You?”
“Travis I thought you might be fifty.”
“I’m thinking you might be maybe twenty-five if you were havin’ a bad day, but that means I should’ve been at your high school graduation…the proud parent…”
They weren’t even pretending to play games. It was like they’d been something to each other forever.
“Who’s your favourite movie star?” she asked, leaning forward, a challenge of some sort.
“Don’t really have any…but I like Helen Mirren…Scarlett Johansson…”
She thought them over, then tilted her head to ask Why…?
“They’re both gorgeous and they always say what they mean.”
She got quiet. Lifted her glass up and sipped at something clear and bubbly that came to him as citrus and maybe vodka. He said:
“What about you?”
She shook her head. “I don’t have any favourites. I don’t go t’the movies so much.”
“I haven’t gone in forever. Most of it’s crap…with more violence than I need in my life once I’ve gotten past the news feeds on my computer.”
“Are you gonna have another drink?”
“Not if you’re not havin’ one…and maybe wouldn’t mind walkin’ around for a while. It was looking like a magical night when I came in here and I guess I was right.”
He’d never even noticed the small clutch purse or fringed shawl, but the shy smile came back and continued to shine as he handed her back up onto her strappy open-toed heels. She put her arm around his waist before they got to the door, had to go sideways to get back out onto the street. Travis was almost certain he was gonna get lucky, but there was this really odd hope that there would be hours and hours of something else in between before it happened.
Out on the street Carly was soft and warm up against him and her almost-but-not-quite-coppery hair up near his nose smelled like some exotic tropical flower. They walked up to the park and found a horse-drawn carriage waiting for them; Travis got lost in the silence when her heels stopped clicking on the pavement. There had been an instant just before he handed her up into the caleche when the horse dipped his head down against hers and he saw her eyes close in something that could have been ecstasy…
He told the driver to take them into the park and then just wander, looked up at Carly who smiled, nodded in agreement. After that they both let the quiet close in on them, the clip-clop of the horse’s hooves, the sound of traffic, the breath of wind whispering in the treetops…all fading away to leave them in silent shifting shadows every time the carriage passed beneath a streetlamp. She curled up against him again and he put an arm around her as she whispered:
“Oh, sir, this is so wonderful.”
She shivered against him, made a sound that could have been quiet laughter, or a frisson of infinite sorrow. When another streetlamp cast light down on them her face was upturned to him, her eyes glistening.
“Take me home with you,” she whispered. “I want to be someplace safe that belongs to you. I want to belong to you, even if it’s just a dream.”
She wriggled closer, his arm dropping down to the curve of her hip, a soft radiant invitation of warmth beneath the fabric of her evening dress he felt the thin brocaded length of the thong she wore beneath it, traced it with his fingers, down to the swell of her behind. His turn to shiver.
He said her name very softly. She sighed so very gently. Travis closed his eyes…
* * *
In the darkness she breathed Oh!…over and over again every time he moved….slowly… deeper inside her…almost sorrowfully…as if the pure sensation was too exquisite to be borne. She broke his heart with her total surrender to his invasion of her body… almost but not quite sent him reeling into something not at all gentle or kind or in any way having anything to do with anyone but himself and the feeling of himself growing longer and harder inside her…something horrible and primitive…an invitation to an ancient dance of violence…
In the night outside his bedroom window, neon and starlight made half-formed images that crept through the wicker window shades…painted her with mystery and desire and a wordless wish for something more gentle than the snarling orgasm between his legs that was howling for release.
He fell down beside her still inside her, with the reality of her lovely behind against his belly and his head in the rain-forest luxury of her hair.
* * *
Sunlight. Little bits and stabs of it sneaking past the edges of his bedroom blinds he opened his eyes…closed them again feeling something warm and breathing beside him…remembered…her name…Carly…and hours long into the night reaching out for her…the rush of her warmth into his arms and the seemingly endless lovemaking all blurred into a bright morning…complete physical exhaustion masquerading as total Peace.
He felt the sunlight sneaking through the bedroom blinds and when he opened his eyes a second time she was there…curled up in a little ball against his stomach with her spiky rose-gold crown of hair more spiky than ever and the bumps in her spine like kisses on the underside of the satiny skin of her back.
He moved slowly so he wouldn’t wake her…wide awake now himself…thinking a thought from the night before…
Breakfast. Breakfast just him and Carly in the little windowed alcove off his kitchen. The breathtaking gift of scrambling eggs for somebody…making toast…browning up home-fries…finally…after so long…for somebody else not Travis Harker…
She seemed so small…that childlike thing all over again belied by the underside of a breast he had come to know and love in the space of hours. Where the bedsheet had come away from her behind there was the scent of matted rose gold hair salty-sweet and desperate against his lips in the hours before light had come back into the world. And now, the curiously arousing image of her thumb in her mouth…her face smooth with sleep…marred only by thin streaks of mascara where tears had loosed them from her eyes.
She seemed so small. Fragile. He thought of breakfast again. Waking this lovely creature guised in the form of a woman who had appeared like magic in his life he thought:
I’m gonna shower and then bring her breakfast in bed.
* * *
He didn’t hear her follow him into the bathroom. Had no idea she was there until the shower curtain slid back and he saw a glint of steel for an instant before the big carving knife from his kitchen slid into his stomach and they were naked again eye-to-eye but now he could see the tears in her eyes and that kind of pain was worse than the one in his belly.
“I’m so sorry, Travis,” she sobbed. “Why couldn’t you be like the rest of them?”
* * *
“The President of the United States fucked me when I was twelve years old. They told him I was fifteen. And the fat movie pig from California…and the television preacher…”
She was staring straight at him now but she wasn’t seeing him at all. Carly was back into the nightmare of being barely anything at all with brand new tits, and parents who didn’t give a fuck what happened to her. She clutched a bath towel to cover herself and tears as clear as diamonds fell down over her face.
“We weren’t allowed to cry. We weren’t allowed to say Please stop it hurts…and some of them wouldn’t let us go or wash ourselves until we swallowed…”
Travis felt his legs turning into jelly beneath him, sank down into the deep claw-foot tub too scared to look at the handle of the knife in his belly or the look in the eyes of a little girl named Carly Atkinson. The shower–head above him was miles away.
“They said he killed himself…the one who was always there smiling…promising everything if we promised to be good…and now he’s dead and nobody cares about us
anymore…nobody wants to know what it was like to be so scared…to have to listen to fat hairy ugly men tell us we were being so good while they were fucking us…”
“Why couldn’t you be like them?”
“Don’t do this anymore, Carly. Don’t let them ruin your whole life.”
She looked down at him, tears streaming down her beautiful face.
“I’m so sorry, Travis. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“I know, honey,” he said…slowly…because all of a sudden the knife in his gut had begun to be painful and he noticed the black Hitchcock ribbons of blood meandering away down the drain of the bathtub…
She bent to reach for the knife and he put his hand out to stop her.
“No don’t, Carly,” he said. “Leave it be. If you take it out I’ll bleed faster and I need to say stuff to you and you gotta listen, okay?”
She nodded. The bath towel fell away from her and even though he knew there wasn’t that much more breath left in him he gave most of it away just looking at her.
“First thing you have to do is put some kitchen gloves on,” he said. “Right there, under the sink, okay?
“Then you have to go everywhere you touched anything and wipe it clean. And after you do that I want you to take all the sheets and pillow cases on the bed and put them in a plastic bag…”
“Travis…” she whispered, reaching down to him.
“Carly please just listen…”
She nodded again. Stood up beside the tub.
“Let me be the last one, Carly. Can you promise to try to let me be the last one?”
“Okay. I’ll try. I promise.”
“Don’t hurt anymore. I’m taking all of that away now.”
She started crying.
“Do you love me, Travis?”
“I love you more than anything else in the world, Carly. I’m sorry they hurt you, but you haveta start doing all the things I just said…and then…this is important…
“When everything is wiped clean and you’ve got all the bedsheets and stuff in that plastic bag, I want you to get dressed and listen at the door to make sure there’s no one in the hallway. When it’s quiet, put one glove back on and open the door…go to where there’s an Exit sign at the end of the hallway and take the stairs all the way down to the basement. Can you do that?”
Carly nodded again.
“Okay good girl…”
He stopped, took a deep breath in concert with the lance of fire in his stomach.
“When you get to the bottom of the stairs open the door and turn left. There’s another door at the end of that hallway. That one opens onto the alley behind this building and even though it says it’s a fire exit and an alarm will go off if you open it, it’s been busted for six months so just go ahead but make sure nobody sees you leaving…
“You gonna do that?”
Carly nodded. Travis felt Death creeping up on him.
“Go, sweetheart. Start now. Hurry, but be careful. And I’m gonna be the last one, right?”
“I love you.”
And then she went away. For a while he could hear her doing all the things he’d told her to do. Then he heard the door of his apartment close quietly, and after that there was nothing, just the sound of the shower raining down on him, washing away the last of his life.
Travis gave the last few moments of it to his own tears. Breakfast would have been so nice.