Only The Way It Feels Now

by Nicholas LaMendola

The Dollar General parking lot is drenched in late afternoon sun.  Filigrees of mist twirl out of blacktop cracks and up into the swooning air.  It smells anxious, like it’s about to rain.  Of course, out here in the intertidal, it’s always about to rain.

            Aaron’s foot aches from walking, and it will be three miles home before he can take off his boots and air out his toes.  Carli had never asked him to stop escorting her and her son home from work, so he shows up, every day he can.  She can use the protection, he’s decided.  You can’t trust most of the people you run into out here, now that most of the people have left

            He worms a finger into itch along the small of his back, peeling sticky skin away from the handle of the pistol jammed into his waistband, and then he spots her through the plate glass.

            Every time Aaron sees Carli, he can feel himself seeing her for the first time.  He’s watched himself glimpsing her, over and over.  It’s perhaps his favorite part of her, the glimpsing.  The repetition of catching the sight of her is one he’ll never choose to end.

 

 

Getting old happens in fragments.  The sensations are novel but not unexpected: over and over, realizations that so much of your soon, always trickling into now, has seeped past.  In this way, Aaron already knows his wretched legs won’t be able to hold his balance.  Partway through his spin, he’s feeling ready to crumple.

            His right foot, his plant foot (the traitor) is a tingling balloon of inflammation.  His left, still to be warily trusted, whorls in pivot as he takes his stance.  His right hand yanks his pistol free from his belt, left arm extending fully, to brace its partner.  A heartbeat, an inbreath, ready... aim.  Not a  decision to be made, just something to observe his body doing.  Failing him.

            A confusing frictionlessness spiders up his thigh as his right bootheel slips on wet gravel.  On his way down, he is momentarily eye to eye with little Pico, who is also terrified, who is also mired in the slurp of a late reaction.  The cop car, which apparently hasn’t flattened them, is already a red and blue smudge dimming ahead. 

            Because we are only brains within bodies, because “reality” is just a figment of our experience, because our vaporous subconsciouses congeal like weather into the unpredictable, kerplunking precipitations of now here’s a thought, when Aaron sees Pico, Aaron sees Tina.

            Tina was fifty something years ago.  She’d be winging around on her scooter, in full protective gear - pink helmet, pink wrist guards, pink knee pads velcroed over floppy khakis.  Up and down the sidewalk she’d go, bouncing over gaps in the buckled concrete, her scooter’s tiny wheels clacking their noisy, tempoless rhythm.  The kids in Aaron’s neighborhood would yell out names, and Tina would say nothing back, and the kids would get bored, and find something else to do.  She’d just keep on scooting, sticking to the sidewalk, avoiding the street, as she’d been told. 

            Then one day, Mark steps up to block her path.  The kids are expecting him to grab her scooter and freewheel it across the street, just to watch her give chase, just to hear her scream.  It had all been done before, it isn’t new, and it isn’t fun, exactly, but it is what they’d been expecting.  Instead, Mark starts to talk to her.  Young Aaron can see her face light up with the attention, even from over where he is sitting, on the far side of the street. 

            They end up in someone’s backyard, in a clumpy little circle formed around her.  Mark asks Tina what she’s done before.  What she would do.  Aaron can’t recall what she says back.  She probably doesn’t say anything, she never says much back.  So Mark leads her around behind the shed.  Eventually, the more fainthearted kids leave, to go find something else to do.  They latch the fence’s wooden gate behind them. 

            It’s hard to know how much of this is true, to what extent it has been deformed, like a receipt caught in the pocket of a pair of jeans and run through the washing machine of time.  Maybe, just now, Aaron’s brain had ladled this long forgotten moment out of the soup, because it had been the first time he’d talked to a cop. 

            “I don’t think you had anything to do with it,” the sergeant begins, unconvincingly.  He’s gigantic, all navy and bulging muscles, stuffed behind a low, laminate desk in an office in the police station.  He pauses his note taking, setting down his pad and pencil to stare incriminatingly into Aaron’s boyish face.  “I just want you to tell me what happened.” 

            Before there’s enough time to get his thoughts together, the man continues: “you know this young woman, uh, Christina, that she’s, slow, right?”

            Aaron tells the sergeant everything he could remember, which isn’t much, because by now it’s weeks later - it had taken Tina awhile to let slip to her parents that something had happened behind the shed.  After it’s over, Aaron’s mom, incensed and embarrassed to have been dragged into this, tows her son out into the parking lot by his earlobe.  In a startlingly low voice, once they’re back in the car: “I’m gonna whip the tan offa you when we get home.”

            But Aaron, is that really the way it happened?  Were those the words spoken?

            You askin me?  I don’t fuckin know. 

            I can tell he feels interrogated.  I’m not here to blame anyone.  Biological memory is so fickle, so grafted to desire, it doesn’t matter what anyone actually said.  Only the way it felt.  Only the way it feels now. 

            Back today, what Aaron feels now is the crunch of his hip on pavement.  He doesn't have much padding back there, skinny as a flagpole from his youth all the way into his mid sixties, so the landing hurts, a lot, and he releases a carpet bombing of profanity.  Carli’s wailing pauses as she notices that none of the three of them have been run over, but Aaron is still spouting off like a lawnmower revved in full choke.

            The cop must have been doing over seventy-five.  Probably disabled self-driving, taken manual control, something the general public can no longer do, but police still can.  Most cars plod autonomously, at each road’s exact speed limit, wary of the hazards of scurrying animals and pedestrians.  They don’t speed, even out here in the ebb of the creeping Atlantic, where there isn’t much left but hurricane mangled trees, pooled potholes, and no sidewalks.  The officer must have bypassed his cell tracker, which would have lit up the infrared glow of two adults and a child, walking along the shoulder.  Wherever he’s going tonight, he’s going recklessly fast.

            He’d only barely avoided them in a last second swerve, burning down the two lane highway in ferocious electric silence, red and blue flashers spinning their dizzying warning, siren switched off.  He’d come up from behind them, they’d had no warning except a faint haze purpling the treeline.  There was the skid of four tires under maximum torque, and a breeze, like the exhale of apathetic death.

            Pico’s face is squeezed in consternation.  His widely set eyes furrow over a flat nose, head held tight along his shoulders on almost no neck.  He hasn’t yet had the chance to start crying, but he will, soon.  Aaron has seen Pico lose it before - the boy is only six, but he’s a flailer, and difficult to restrain. 

            Carli has never offered more about her son than “Pico don’t understand so good.”  Aaron isn’t one to diagnose, he isn’t one to ask. 

            Pico hadn’t wanted to spend all day crawling through the aisles of the Dollar General, but Carli can’t leave him home alone like she can her older kids.  He’s upset - he’s tired, and hungry, and he wants home.  Just as Carli stretches her arms out toward her son, she notices the menace of Aaron’s pistol, cocked and pointed precariously in the wild tilt of his fall. 

            Carli isn’t unacquainted with guns.  It had been a long journey northward into America, she’d learned to travel with protection wedged into her belt loop.  It’s just that to some people, the sweaty metal pressure against the small of the back feels like a shield, and to some people, like a target.  This had been a flirtation with The State, a narrow miss, a bit of luck.  The police will have questions she can’t afford to answer, should she ever stumble into their jurisdiction.  But now, Aaron has stumbled, flailing stupidly like an action hero, threatening to bring her and her kids down with him.

            In the recoil of the flop, Aaron’s finger finds its trigger. 

            Sometimes, like when you’re a young boy, you can know the difference between right and wrong, but also recognize that it’s easier to do nothing.  Walk out of the backyard, and latch the gate behind you.  Tina hadn’t been screaming.  It’s not like they’d known Mark was hurting her. 

            The cop car will welter around a bend in a moment.  It will be gone, too late.  Fury billowing out of his nostrils, mania reddening his vision, Aaron can afford only the briefest pause to make this decision.

            This asshole’s gonna pay. 

            But his trigger finger wobbles.

 

Later on, Aaron is back at his trailer, soaked.  The bugs are braying, the swamp is loud after a heavy rain.  It’s so dark out, it’s purple.  He doesn’t like how visible it makes him, but he waves his phone out in front of his body, like an amulet for warding off the spirit world.  Its blue glow lights up the divots, the branches, the rusted pieces of fuselage strewn across the lot.  An alert pings as he passes through an infrared beam - POSSIBLE INTRUDER - SOUTHEAST CORNER.  

              It’s just me, you idiot.

              His security is so overdialed that it’s practically useless.  Some nights, the scurrying of nocturnal animals keeps his phone buzzing until he’s ready to chuck it out the window into the bog. 

              Dripping wet, he shuffles through squishy brush until his boot kicks the bevel of a wooden porch, entombed by undergrowth.  The small step up is all his deadened right foot can support, throbbing after the long walk back from Carli’s.  He keys a doorknob and two deadbolts, and eases open his whiny door.

              Inside is a lot like outside - in transition between forest and marshland.  Twigs and leaves and clumps of mud mat the rough carpet.  It’s too dark to count the cobwebs, the holes in the window screens, the leaky cracks that strafe the ceiling, letting in droplets and twinkling sky.  There are no lights - he’s off grid.  He doesn’t like to run the gas generator at night, wary that its drone might mask the noises of an intruder. 

              There is always a moment, a voltage, before his first step into the indoor blackness.  If someone were to ease out of the shadows with a knife, now would be the time.  He sniffs at the air.  It smells stagnant.  Unchurned.

            There’s nobody here, of course.  Hasn’t been in years.

            He tosses down his phone, knowing the layout the way a blind man would.  Eyes don’t do much better open than closed, and he revels in the cloister.  Thinking he might be hungry, he squelches into the kitchen and stabs a can of beans with the dulled point of a hunting knife, but the smell draws into his empty gut like a wail, and he leaves it on the counter, repulsed.  It’s three steps back into the living room, where he peels off his sodden jeans, his gun clattering to the ground as he plops down onto the mouldering couch.  He picks it up and keeps it near.

            Home.

            This place isn’t his, but way out here, in the vacant estuary that has become the Eastern Carolinas, the owners have all fled.  All that’s left are squatters, and God (or whatever you’d call the ransacking revenge of our planet upon its temporal population - She will always hold the deeds). 

            He flicks his lighter at the stub of half a cigarette he’d tucked behind an earlobe, but it’s too damp to catch.  He closes his eyes, but a few frustrated minutes later, he’s vibrated back onto his feet. 

            His phone is at 7%, so he picks up an extension cord from beside the couch, fed through a hole drilled in the baseboard and out to the carport covering his boat.  Today had been cloudy, his solar panels couldn’t give it a full charge, but its marine battery has plenty of capacity.  Anyway, he might not have anywhere to go tomorrow, not after tonight.  Carli looked pissed.

            He swigs from a plastic water bottle he finds on the floor.  With the lemonade powder settled to the bottom, its mostly gin, and lurid. 

            Before thinking better of it, he taps open LifeJournal.  It isn’t the same on his phone’s tiny display, so he has to get up to paw around for the headset he’d flung howlingly across the room the last time, maybe yesterday, or this morning.  Its eyemask screen is cracked in the top left corner, but it chirps eagerly awake. 

            Inside the helmet is all there is and ever was.  Anything ever written.  Every picture in existence.  Any sound, from anywhere on Earth.  Obviously, feeds from every camera concealed on this property.  Plus video of the friends, and neighbors, and children he’d once had.  It’s an indescribable expanse, like the sky over the ocean.

            He wonders if he should check how she’s doing, and LifeJournal pulls up Carli’s page, without being asked.  She’s getting her kids ready for bed.  In the clip she’d just posted, he can see her eldest, ten year old Carlos, toweling off his younger brother Pico’s frizzy head after a bath.  Astrid, a year younger, is gargling, and getting Pico’s toothbrush ready, and wiggling a dance, and curtseying for the camera.  They knock him out, the way the four of them are together, always laughing, and getting along.  He’d never understood how people can be so perpetually nice to each other.  They’re like an exhibit at the zoo.

            He retreats back in time, to remind himself of what she’d been doing last week, and two months ago, and last fall.  Her kids get younger, Carlos is dribbling a soccer ball, Astrid’s short hair is long again, Pico’s lost tooth reappears.  It’s important to know where they’d been that one morning last March: smiling over cereal bowls at their kitchen table.  It’s important to remember that it had rained that day, that it had been seventy-six degrees and breezy.  He scrolls back to this evening on the road, where he can measure the distance on the map between his dot and hers (four and a half feet) and scrub their locations in slow motion as the rectangle of the cop car blazes past.

            LifeJournal got started around ten years ago, when Facebook merged with Verizon.  I have to explain this, in case it’s two decades from now, and you’re scrolling around the internet through a chip drilled into one of your molars, and none of my words make any sense anymore. 

            They took the deluge of GPS records they’d told us they hadn’t been storing, and fed them into an algorithm that cross referenced all of our pictures and videos, narrowing in on an early product called Where We Were When.  As the other telecoms caved, as they volunteered (sold) their (our) data to the behemoth, it grew.  Programmed to show us what we wanted to see, it began to predict our moods.  Once they blended in years of the ambient sounds they’d told us our phones hadn’t been recording, an unstoppable force (nostalgia) became an immovable object (LifeJournal).  There were naysayers, sure.  Congress investigated.  People sued, but to what end?  Litigation isn’t an action, but a unit of time: this epoch of litigation.

            They beamed LifeJournal from satellites across every habitable inch of the world.  Outstanding, mesmeric coverage, all for free, of course.  Everyone gets service, even shitholes like this. 

            Aaron wanders back toward his most familiar anchor: the time he’d first laid eyes on Carli.  He’d been trawling up an overrun creek, upriver from here, scanning for forageable scrap, when his cell tracker pinged, and from around a bend he’d spotted her trailer.  She was just a dot on the map, until she’d stepped out her back door to hang damp laundry on the line.  There was a breeze, his earpiece repeats to him, 6mph NNE, and he can feel it, he can smell his boat’s chop through the muck, the waft of her laundry soap.  Geosynchronous photos, taken from space every seven seconds, recapture the moment like a stuttering flip book.  There’s nothing, and then she’s there, unfurling a wrinkled sheet.  Biometric readings replay his spiking pulse, he can see his dot on the map inching forward for a better look.

            She sees him.  She smiles like a siren, and through the phone in the back pocket of her shorts he hears her release a “hello”.

            But wait, that’s not right, is it Aaron?

            Well, um...

            He’s stammering.  He doesn’t like to be part of the telling of his story. 

            Is that true?  That she said hi?  Was she the one to speak first?

            It was 11:35, Sunday March 15, 2031.  The siding on her trailer was white, before I painted it for her…

            All he can come up with are corroborated facts.  He’s useless inside the helmet. 

            She may have smiled at him.  She may have turned tail, slipped back inside at the sight of a strange man in a camo vest drifting up the shallow waterway behind her house, and locked her doors. 

            LifeJournal is a truth making device.  It’s impossible to remember all the little things, and the little things are what make all the difference, aren’t they?  Her t-shirt’s precise shade of teal.  The curl around her earlobe of her short black hair, just the way his wife used to wear it.  You want to remember, but you can’t, so leave the remembering to us.  LifeJournal.

            It was always in their business plan to dapple the canvas.  They already have you ensconced within humanity’s most sellable emotion: yearning.  They only have to overlay the thinnest coat of varnish. 

            Carli says hello, and from her phone he can hear that she’s smiling.  She says she’s having trouble with her stove.  Can he come in, and take a look at it?

            I know I shouldn’t press him, this nursing mammal, but I ask again.

            Aaron, come on!  Is that really the way it happened?

            He tears off the eyemask and throws the headset across the room.

 

The evening’s rain is over, and back outside, the night is in full smear.  Brackish, loitering puddles mirror luminous streaks of sky.  Aaron skulks his yard in his boots and underwear - he’d left his jeans crumpled up on the floor.  Squeezing into damp clothes is unpleasant, like crawling backwards into a cold, abandoned womb. 

              His boat is fine.  He’d already known that, because there are more alarms around it than even the trailer where he sleeps.  His boat is his only chance out here.  If somebody were to come for him, he can’t expect to escape hobbling out on foot. 

              Crouching on grinding knees, he checks the mossy hollow of what used to be a towering sycamore.  He taps on his phone’s flashlight, which he can risk only while low to the ground, and only briefly.  There’s the ammo box.  Compulsively, he pops its waterproof latches to make sure the rounds inside have remained dry.  They have.

              Of course they have, you just checked this spot yesterday morning.  But it isn’t worth hectoring him, not at this hour.  The question I really want to ask is: who do you think is coming for you?

              As he taps his phone dark, it trills three quick vibrations.  It’s measuring an elevated pulse, it’s reminding him to breathe normally.  He wedges it into the ankle of his boot, picks up his plastic bottle, and empties the last of its gritty liquor. 

              He keeps meaning to delete that medical monitoring app.  There are so many alarms in his life, tolling like a nearby belltower you’ve stopped hearing.  Why monitor his blood pressure?  If his valves finally give out, if his heart explodes like an old water main, he’ll just belly up with the rest of the shrapnel out here, and rust.  It’s like reading about how the climate is changing.  It’s like hearing Carli tell about how the terrorist attack three years ago led to crop failure, and food shortage, and bullets sailing through city streets, which is why they’d fled here.  Nothing your gut doesn’t already know.  There’s communication, and then there’s just wasting your time.

              Of course, when he buries his head in that helmet, that’s different, he’d tell you.  I don’t want to ask him, but I’m pretty sure that’s what he’d say.  LifeJournal is recognition.  Reality embraced.  None of us have all that much time, so we focus our attention on the things we care about.  It’s called love. 

              Resealing the ammo box, he feels the upchuck of another buried memory.  That swerving cop car, the panicked defenselessness of it, it had flung Tina back to him, but she was the wrong recollection. 

              This one is macerated, and amorphous.  It’s been out of rotation too long, he can’t get it to come back to him on his own.  Bare legged, he dashes back to his trailer.

 

He’d padlocked a little over a decade.  Don’t show me this.  Don’t allude to it.  Bury it (but don’t erase it).  It takes him a frustrated while to think of the password, but then he does: Cristobál.  Entering the word throws open the crypt, and the helmet pours out the sloshing contents of a former life.  His eyes water against the blast furnace heat.

              LifeJournal begins chronologically with a picture dated August 23, 1994.  Some suit is giving a speech at a ribbon cutting ceremony in front of a gleaming new building.  There’s barely any cell data from those days, so LifeJournal has to piece things together from scraps - this photo is from The Post-Gazette, the headline: Provost’s Speech Dazzles at U-Pitt Natatorium Inauguration. 

              Thought I knew her by then… Aaron struggles.  He wishes he could hang suspended from satellite view, watch himself pick her out of the pack of classmates crossing the quad, re-experience that first, inchoate moment just before he’d ever conceived of her.  But they didn’t have orbital cameras back in the nineties.  He doesn’t have the moment of conception.  Only the way it feels now. 

              No, she was by herself, he interjects.  I can see his face light up behind the eyemask, I can tell that suddenly he wants to drive this story.  Unvalidated memory is always squirmy, but the sound of his voice portends something truer than the truth.

              I wolf whistled.  To impress the crew, probably.  We all did it.  Most of em just kept on walking, or sneered, but she wasn’t like that.  She was pissed.  She came over to chew me out for it.

              She yelled back?

              Marched right up to me, furious.  I thought I was about to get hit.  I was on all fours brushing a sidewalk we’d just laid.  There was no fence.  She coulda kicked my teeth out into the wet concrete.  Most beautiful woman in the history of the world.

              I wait out his reverie until I can’t wait anymore - so then what happened?
             She let me have it.  Coulda been ten minutes uninterrupted, and I couldn’t get up from my hands and knees without mussing my work.  She was all… feminism, this and that.  The guys had stopped hauling buckets and were cackling.  I couldn’t say nothing, not even sorry, before she stormed off.  She was gone, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the spot where she’d vanished.

              This is all news to me.  I’m hooked.  And then?

              And then it was summer.  Campus emptied out.  I stayed on that jobsite craning my neck for as long as I could.  I volunteered for all the crap cleanup after most of the guys were reassigned and working better jobs for better pay. 

              Couple months later, maybe September or so, I spotted her, gliding around like an angel.  I walked up, and she didn’t know who the hell I was.  I was all grease streaked, and she was just so damn clean.  I apologized, and she still didn’t remember me for awhile.  Then it clicked and she said thank you.  She was trying to get away, but I kept yackin, telling her about the new pool we just done and all.  I asked if I could buy her dinner.  God musta clubbed her in the back of the head, cause she said yes.

            Scanned polaroids and blurry, disposable stills fling out of the background, and Aaron investigates each one as if it’s an architectural relic.  When LifeJournal gets the opportunity to disinter a vault, it swells like a monsoon.  No human is ever as coercible as one in the process of breaking a promise he’d made to himself. 

            Here are the two of them at a party, Carolína smiling, but not yet sure about this guy.  There’s her cat, who’d eventually run away.  The album Wedding ‘95 shows everyone blearily euphoric, beaming and dancing and sweating and drunk.  There’s a t-shirt stretched over a watermelon belly, Carolína grinning through an apprehensive third trimester.  6/02/97 is etched in neon orange in the bottom right corner.

            Guess I’d just got out of jail right around then.  Aaron has found another bottle, and he mouthfuls a gulp of gin without a wince.  He’s in his back bedroom, in partial recline with his muddy calves splayed out over his bare mattress.  I back off, to give him space.  This is something I’ve never heard either. 

            We were out for a walk one evening.  Lína was maybe seven, or eight months in at the time. 

            LifeJournal inches a dated map of the incident into the periphery, but Aaron is entranced, working at full steam all on his own.

            We’re halfway through crossing the street when we hear this siren blaring.  We can see the car coming - we have plenty of time, even with Lína waddling slow like she was.  But he turns, flies through the yellow light, right at us.  Misses us by a foot or so - it happened faster than I could think.  If Lína hadn’t grabbed me by the collar I’da been pancaked.

            The cop slams on his brakes and gets out, at least has the balls to run back across the road and ask if we’re okay.  Says he’s rushing cause someone across town had got shot, or some on the spot bullshit.  Didn’t see us in the dark, no streetlights or whatever.  I tell him, say “the wife here is pregnant, asshole.  You coulda killed three people tonight.”  He goes white as a sheet, skinny little prick.  He was young, just out of Academy.  In over his head.  I got so mad all of a sudden, looking at this kid.  He says sorry, and I say “that’s right you fucking apologize.”  I can barely see straight.  I’d never had anything worth defending until now, and here he is, and almost took it all away.  Carolína goes “it’s okay, we’re okay”, hand on my back to cool me off, and then “sorry mister officer, sir.”  I couldn’t believe she’d apologize to him.  I say “you better watch your fucking driving.”

            Kid grows a pair and goes, “sir I said I was sorry”, and I say “THAT’S NOT GOOD ENOUGH!”  Got right up in his face.  He says “ma’am you’re gonna have to tell your husband to calm down,” and I just flip my lid.  “Don’t even LOOK at her!  Get back into your car, pig!” and I spit on him.  The way he looked at me then, like ‘what ya gonna do about it,’ it blinded me, I wound up and took a swing.  Wanted to knock the head off his neck. 

            Another warning about his blood pressure pipes up, but Aaron is in tunnel vision.  He’s pinned beneath the weight of an immovable object: the storied past, and though LifeJournal has little to contribute here, it swelters around him.  This is a tale just barely unvaulted.  There’s a lot of data to churn through, to conglomerate atop it, and there hasn’t been much time.  It flounders in the shallow indecision of the moment, its algorithm’s normally capacious reservoir running dry.  It pulls up the police report from that evening, attesting to Aaron Nowicki’s attempted assault on an officer on the evening of Friday May 2, 1997.  He’d had to be forcibly detained, arrested, and recorded a 0.12 on the breathalyzer he’d unwisely agreed to blow.  Ultimately, the punch never connected, and he’d fallen on his face, fracturing his cheek.  They’d had to let him free on bail that Monday morning.  He’d ended up with a misdemeanor for public intoxication and a hospital bill for some seriously overpriced aspirin.

            Before I have time to read any further into the report’s comments section, Aaron calmly removes the headset, and sets it down gently on his cinderblock nightstand. 

 

Collapsed onto his back on the sagging bed, Aaron’s right foot throbs.  He kicks off his boots, and flexes his soggy toes.  In the embalming darkness, he can’t see his skin’s bluish crossfade from calf to ankle.  Diabetes, like so many of life’s problems, isn’t getting better on its own.

              LifeJournal knows it had broken through earlier, and it’s befuddled that he’d slipped through its snares.  It flings texts and old photos to his phone, urging him to walk through an interactive map of his old neighborhood, see what his friends had been up to, to soak for a while in the saline solution of the distant past rediscovered.  Instead, he’s locked in the present.

              U OK? he texts Carli, thinking he should go over there to check on her.  But it’s 11:15, and she’d say no. 

              Mhm no biggie, after a few minutes. 

              Pico good?

            Si bueno, he’s sleeping, prolly wont even remember about it : )

            (The snaking tendrils of the internet economy beg to differ.)

            Alone on his bed, Aaron knows he’s at a chaotic disadvantage, reliant only on the thoughts in his head, but he tries to organize his feelings about her.  What are the chances that he’d run away from everything he’d ever known, flee Pittsburgh, tinker away half a lifetime, stake out the emptiest spot he could find in this soggy vestibule of South Carolina, and bump one day into a woman with the same name as his wife?  When Carli had told him her name, the lightning rod of a fate he’d refused to believe in drove a stake down through his chest and deep into the earth.  The two women had the same eyebrows.  The same spiky accents. 

              Maybe Carli and her kids were his second chance, after Carolína’s death, after everything the world had dumped on him in its immediate, excoriating aftermath. 

              I’d do anything for Carli.  Can’t love her.  She won’t have it, she’s still clung to that deadbeat husband back in Honduras.  He keeps saying he’ll move up here to be with her, never does.  I can’t love her, but I wanted to kill that cop tonight, for her.  It was a flash of me from forty years ago.  I wanted to pop a bullet through that windshield into his skull.  Didn’t get to look him in the face, but I wanted to watch him flip the ditch into a tree. 

              But you didn’t.

              Saw Carli’s face out of the corner of my eye.  The gun appeared in my hand like Jesus had flung it down from heaven.  Saw Pico, too scared to move and clutching his mother.  Thought about how I coulda defended that little girl Tina, but I didn’t.  You know what’s right and wrong, even in the thick of things.  People think they need to be told, but they don’t.  They know. 

              Years ago I wanted to tackle that cop, beat him senseless for Lína’s sake.  I hated him because I loved her.  All I did was rob myself of one of the last weekends I’d get with her.  Rob it from both of us, fuming in jail. 

            Aaron is lying with his eyes closed, deep within it all, his breathing slowing. 

            When I slipped, couldn’t brace myself to take that shot, it was Lína kicking out my foot, stopping me from doing something stupid, again.  “Don’t take yourself away from Carli,” she’d said.  “You ain’t got much time with her.  You never do.” 

            Maybe that’s something he believes, I don’t know.  I’m putting words in his mouth.  He’s stopped talking, and he’s drifting towards a troubled sleep.

 

When Aaron and Carli and Pico got back, Carlos and Astrid had raced outside and grabbed them in a group hug, just as the first thunderclap was rolling out of the sky.  For a moment, it had felt like home.  The kids had offered to let him stay, at least until it stopped raining, but he could tell Carli wasn’t so sure, that she was keeping a fearful, prickly distance.  Plus, there was too much on his mind.  Too many spindly memories, misshapen and engorged by time, poking at him.  Compelling him to get home, so they could be re-lived.  So, he’d limped home, in a downpour.

              Listen, can you shut up?  You talk too much.  I’m tryin to get some sleep. 

              Aaron, I begin, tentatively.  What ever happened with Carolína?  With the baby?

              Cristobál.  My son.

              Yeah, your son.

              Never met him.

About the Author

Nick LaMendola is a fiction writer and musician, and the creator of the podcast Written & Read By, featuring the narration of his short stories set to original music. His work has appeared in Mud Season Review and The Write Launch.