The tart cider-vinegar rot of fall hung heavy in the air around the apple orchards preceding Drakewood, one of the half-dozen towns in the thirty-five mile stretch of the Avenue of the Giants, Madrani being the largest at population 333. A sign out front somewhere in town said Your Low-Cal Locale. That was new. The statue of the giant logger still stood. Beau appreciated that whoever carved it long ago left it natural.
Liliana looked lacquered. So perfect, so pristine, shiny and unweathered. When she slowed down near the The God in the Tree Gifts for some deer crossing the road, she put a hand on Beau’s leg and began to caress.
He looked at her. He didn’t want to take her attention off the deer, but he looked at her. “You’ve got to be kidding. Don’t you know that’s why I ditched you at the market? ‘The market.’ Fuck! ‘Investment banker!’ I go my whole fucking life dreaming of situations like this, and now it’s two in one day and I can’t! Well, I can’t. On account I’m married. And I’m accountable.” Liliana had both hands on the wheel, she wasn’t crying, didn’t look mad. She wasn’t breaking down. This was good. They were leaving the Avenue now, coming up onto the highway. A half-dozen hippies banded together with eclectic clothes, cardboard signs and a dog on a piece of rope half-heartedly hitched under a streetlight at the onramp. Beau toned down his diatribe until he and Liliana had driven out of earshot. “So no monkey business. I mean, what is it with all this, anyway?”
“Beau, I want you to know that I hear you. And I promise to be a good girl. I guess I’ve been obsessing on you a little. It’s really not fair to you.”
“Hey, I appreciate that. I mean, I can really appreciate it. It kills me that those kids up in Carata at that party were all half my age. I think you’re obsessing on your own past more than you are on me, though. And I can relate to that. I was just at my high school reunion.”
“What did you mean when you said ‘Two in one day?’”
“You said ‘Two in one day.’”
“Oh, I only meant, there was this—look, it’s nothing, never mind. I hate being someone who says never mind. But, really. It’s nothing. Forget it. Look, I haven’t eaten in hours, and I am really hungry. Why don’t you take the exit into Radley and we’ll swing by Bramford’s. Why you should obsess on aging is beyond me, though. I mean look at you.”
“Thank you, sir.” Liliana looked at Beau and smiled. “It doesn’t come easy.”
“I’m feeling my age today. Feeling it big-time. I’ll snap out if it. Gotta pull myself together here for the big Gothic Convention. At a castle no less. This ought to be a hoot.”
Reaching Radley, Beau saw the sign for the turn to Whale Harbor twenty miles out and thought of a friend of his way out there by Hawthorn with a great big spread of forest with creeks and hills and a bridge and a pond and trails and how the last time Beau saw him he said, “Sometimes I forget I have a forest back here.”
Liliana pulled into Bramford’s. They exited the car, the midnight blue Karmann Ghia convertible—cabroilet—this gorgeous brunette looking like a model half his age on his arm, which he himself held out, out of sheer force of habit, and the desire to be seen, at some level, with this bewitching creature in her skimpy little negligee, black and shimmering as the night through which they wandered. And though his own ensemble was stolen from the high school band room, Beau felt like James Bond. When James Bond was Sean Connery.
He tipped a nod to a scruffy-looking fellow who appeared to have recently taken leave of the Civil War, undoubtedly some long historical siege in any event. Then he realized, and thought, “Oh hey, that dude graduated only a couple years before me. I remember him from P.E. always acting like a total dick. I’ll bet he thinks he’s never seen me in his life. Why is he looking at me? I hope he’s not going to ask me for some money.”
“Hey, how’s it going?”
“You don’t know who I am, do you?”
“Sure I do. We used to have P.E. with Mr. Logan.”
“Logan. That prick. I hated Logan. He always made us run. This your wife?”
Beau hustled Liliana into Bramford’s, thankful that she hadn’t stopped to extend her hand for a slobbery kiss from the leering asshole.
“Sorry about that.”
“Not at all. I’m used to his sort.”
What sort was that? Beau wondered. Liliana grabbed a hand basket and Beau moved along with her while she shopped. What irked him, he realized, taking stock among the shelves, was the fact that his actual wife was quite beautiful, so it wasn’t the presence of beauty in his life which made him want to present the illusion of him and Liliana being a couple together, it was the face of the slightest threat of competition. On general principle, why should he have to suffer the slightest hint of anything unpleasant simply walking into the store? Part of him resented that this old high school P.E.-er, clearly having nothing to lose, actually had an advantage of sorts. Nothing to sue from him. Nothing to ruin, nothing to take away. But then, deep down, Beau also wondered how wide a chasm there really was in their economic status. Maybe all the guy really needed were some stolen clothes from the band room and a wacked-out broad with a car.
Without reason, to his mind’s eye the image appeared of the body of the girl in the forest. It wasn’t the sort of thing anyone would realize in passing.
Liliana asked a question about food, and Beau replied.
In another life he had worked there. Could still see the u-boats under the store in the stock room overloaded with freight in a rat maze of pallets. Still hear the wheels squeak, the shrink-wrap stretch. Smell the sour omnipresent stench of broken things never properly cleaned, the stink of bottles and cans, residue of sugar-drink, beer and backwash fermenting, garbage bags and shopping carts freshly filled with stink as soon as the old get emptied, like new sets of shark teeth always rolling in, the olfactory equivalent of the constant blaring machinery grind.
Looking in a glass case, he could easily see himself digging down to the bottom of a crisscrossed stack of sixers to get the whatever buried underneath, and just as easily saw the dead girl in the forest reflected in the glass as well. This latter reflected his own state of shock, he supposed. But that was as far as it went. All of the rest stayed buried, and the only tangible thing he could taste was the fear
(She was already dead—wasn’t she?)
(There was nothing he could do—right?)
that he felt for himself.
The problem was, he hadn’t actually needed to attack. It was like one of those times you read about where the thief sues the old couple for hitting him on the head with a frying pan, or for spreading out glass shavings on the top of the property wall.
Well, kind of.
When he narrowed it down, essentially Beau was betting on his first impression, his gut instinct, that he had seen a dead body, and at least one murderer; that if he did kill the one murderer, then the other would not be able to call the cops because of the girl. To some degree he was also betting on Chuck being every bit the idiot he seemed. Add to that the fact that Beau no longer lived in the area, and wasn’t even at his parents’ house, and what he was left with was a damned scary experience, deep sorrow for the loss of the youth matched by his own certainty he had done all that he could.
At the register the cashier, a woman who had graduated a year or two after Beau, rang up a couple of cans of smoked oysters, a loaf of sourdough and some locally-made Turkish delight for Liliana, Beau having grabbed for his separate purchase the bottle of red to bring and a pack of baked tofu to eat in the car.
On the way out of town Beau asked Liliana to swing by his old elementary school, not to stop, but to drive past, and when they did he could see the big yellow buses, swinging in their impossibly wide turns, poor old motors wheezing away, kids inside all noisy and wild. A small stand of oak separated one side of the playground from a lumber mill. That was the first place he worked when he graduated high school. Many was the lunch he took there in the oaks trying to wrap his mind around the fact that time had passed.
A few minutes and a few miles later, gassing up in Bargerville before getting back on the highway, Beau noticed casually scanning the people in town wandering under the lights and inside the windows of businesses still open some old friends of his waving at him down the street.
“This’ll only take a minute,” he told Liliana. She was wearing a watch—thin, silvery (a present from her then-husband?)—and didn’t check it, but instead said, “I’ll park and meet you down there,” as she pulled the majority of her black hair with both hands behind her neck and fixed it back with a small strip of leather and a long wooden pin.
* * *
The lobby doors were open. A double-feature was playing in the theater: “Captain Blood” and “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” Beau’s friends, Blair and Darin, needlessly cajoled the gal behind the counter into letting him in for a few minutes free, but Beau broke down and bought his way in to the rest of the second feature for a buck to be a sport, Robin Hood already well into the revolt and speaking fluent treason.
Beau followed his friends upstairs, sat down in the back with them, and for not the first time, felt on seeing backs of heads and sides of faces of the seated people a calm deep kinship, and a sense of ghostliness to know that his time in the theater would end, that the theater would in his absence continue, new audiences view, fresh teeth always rolling in the jaws of the sleepless black-eyed beast. Everyone there would go home eventually, put head to pillow and rest, each dreaming of the only life that mind would ever know. The love Beau felt for home was the love he felt for life, and that was a biological condition he felt in infancy and learned to grow into as an adult.
Liliana appeared and sat next to him politely, yet with body language poised to go. Beau didn’t mind. Robin was just leaving the balcony, too.
Omar’s Cliffside Castle of Worms was all of those things and none. His real name was Gene Morrow, it was more of a hillside than a cliffside, more tower than castle, and the only reason he called it Worms was because he had been immersed in the Nibelungenlied at the time. His music was definitely out there for purchase, and if Omar didn’t rack sales as high as the A-listers commercially, he did at least have the respect of his peers as a master technician, and a good half-dozen accomplished guitarists in commercially successful groups acknowledged Omar as their well-paid instructor.
The castle, as it was for all practical purposes effectively so termed, would have by day appeared in glorious splendor suddenly around a breathtaking bend; as it was, even by night the lights provided quite a sight from that height, as did to Beau upon arrival the decidedly striking appearance of his host.
Omar’s shaven head shone whitely on his tall, lank frame, and the smile across his face promised a sharp tongue. Beau didn’t like him on sight.
Liliana parked on the upward sweeping curve of cobblestone. The second the car door shut, Beau felt uncomfortable, and Liliana hustling over for a hug didn’t help.
“Hello, dah-ling,” she said with a glow.
“I see you wore your flats,” said Omar.
“Just for you.”
It took Beau a moment to realize they were referring to the difficulty of walking on the cobblestone with high heels. He didn’t particularly like that he had been left to figure that one out, nor did he especially need to see Omar’s arm around Liliana’s waist, and a hand gripping her little negligee-clad hip.
Beau’s host extended his hand and gave a firm, practiced grip. “I’m Omar, thanks for coming. Come on in, and get something to drink.” He turned to Liliana. “How was the drive out? I see you’ve got the top down.”
“Oh, it was beautiful,” she said, still glowing.
“I love to see you drive with your top down,” he confessed, looking her right in the eye with a devilish twinkle.
If Omar’s head had suddenly been bashed open on the cobblestone and shit loose a mess of brains, Beau would’ve burst out laughing.
Everything all around was supposed to look Medieval. The bulk of the main turreted tower had to be viewed from the side to properly appreciate (reminding Beau of his own burgeoning gut), but the turreted top stayed well in view. Gargoyles and stone flagging adorned the park-like outer area with turreted perimeter walls, and what looked like flambeaux set in sconces provided flickering light over wrought-iron hinges and gates.
“Sorry about all the turrets,” said Omar. “I think it’s a syndrome of mine. And I’d watch that front door if I were you,” he added as they approached the draw-bridge. “Around here it’s a real draw-back.”
Omar’s torturous puns caused groans from Beau deep within. He was unaware to what degree this registered on his face.
“I hope all of this atmosphere isn’t contributing to any sort of sense of disquietude you might be experiencing there, Beau.”
“Not me. I think it’s great. Really Medieval-ish.”
“Medieval-ish? Come on, Beau. How about Medievalicious? There you go. Medieval and delicious. I’m the Medieval, she’s the delicious. Take a look at this, Liliana.”
To Beau’s growing annoyance, she did as she was bid. Omar showed her the hand-cranked wooden winch, which, when wound, would wind the great chain and raise the bridge from the moat-like trench it spanned.
“Now then,” he said, “do you think you can help me get it up?”
It nauseated Beau to hear him giggle and her play into it by acting so blushingly exasperated. Only when she had made her demure “Shame, shame” eyes a good three separate times could they finally pass beneath the portcullis, and only then did Liliana take Beau’s elbow—quietly though. No “Oh, Beau!” for him.
“What’s the matter?” she said, sounding flat and disappointed. Omar wasn’t so far ahead that Beau could talk to Liliana freely. So he said nothing, merely shrugging and shaking his head to indicate he was fine and had no idea what she was talking about.
“Aren’t you having a good time?” She couldn’t take the hint, and wasn’t even lowering her voice. “Oh, don’t be jealous,” she went on. “He just likes to kid.”
A garden-like area through which they passed displayed stone fountains and potted plants. Here could be heard reggae music drifting in, and a low murmur of conversation.
Entering past two suits of armor on either side of the open doorway, Beau saw a sunken living room with a wet bar above. A slinky peroxide-blonde woman whose bony cheeks and brittle-looking sternum created a cadaverous impression in Beau’s mind languidly reclined among the colorful cushions of the seating along the rectangular circumference four steps down. Two suede bean bags by an orange and brown coffee table set designed to look like a mushroom forest, and an Afghan rug of primarily purple hue formed part of Beau’s initial impression as well. Now he saw someone sitting in the upper area on the other side of a potted plant, the large green waxy fronds of which at first obscured his view. Stepping inside, he saw a man whose hair dyed custard blonde contrasted with his Asian features. The music wasn’t loud enough and no one was moving to it. A second woman appeared from a hall and passed by Beau without acknowledging as she sank into the living room, shoulder blades gliding around under skin thin as cling-wrap.
“Help yourself to snacks at the buffet,” Omar called out, heading for the bar. “A glass of white?” he added, pointing to Liliana.
“That would be great, thanks.”
“Beau, what’ll you have?”
“I could do a beer.”
“Sure.” Regal Lager, Beau thought. Prrft.
“Try the soup. If you like it, I’ll send you home with a big container.”
“Omar owns Rasta Pasta, Beau,” Liliana informed him.
“You own Rasta Pasta? That’s weird, I’ve been friends with the owner, Gavin, for years.”
“Not very good friends, I guess. Gavin died last year. I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you. I just bought it a few months ago myself. Try the Marley Barley, Beau. And don’t forget to stir it up.”
The cadavers and the guy with the custard hair tittered.
“I get it. ‘Stir It Up.’ That was a good one.”
At the buffet table Beau sidled up next to Liliana, muttering feigned interest in the sundry fare and slipping in with a half-whisper near her ear, “Wasn’t there supposed to be some sort of convention?”
Omar, overhearing, answered. “The Gothic Convention, yes, I’m glad you’re looking forward to that, Beau. But I have to let you in on a little secret: We’re waiting on someone to show. We did have a lot more people here earlier this afternoon, but it’s been one of those nights when pretty much everybody has to go. That’s why I’m so glad to see you, Beau. I know you’ll shoot some trap with me. Won’t you?” Omar handed Beau a Regal Lager. “Come on.”
* * *
He led them through a series of winding passageways which emerged at a large half-circle of balcony with a low stone wall. Here Liliana sat down, and Omar held up before Beau what looked like a clay trap, except instead of the DayGlo orange familiar to Beau, this one was bright green. “Check this out,” said Omar, turning down the balcony lights with a knob on a wall next to some molding.
“Whoa,” said Beau. “Glow-in-the-dark. I was wondering how we were going to shoot trap at night.”
“I get these from a company out-of-state. The rep there told me about this glow-in-the-dark feature they have available, all-natural, non-toxic. It’s bioluminescence. They’re not clay. These are actually mostly grass seed. So some of the bits that fall down in the gorge will do a lot of good, because we want to get as much root structure as we can down there to keep that hillside held up. But another little interesting feature to these traps is that slugs love them.”
“You know, banana slugs. I’ve got hiking trails going down to the bottom of the gorge, and I’ve seen dozens of slugs at a time in areas where there happen to be lots of trap bits. You know how slugs love dog kibble, right? We ought to perform a taste test for slugs. I say they choose these traps over kibble every time. But it gets even better: The bioluminescence stays in their skin for a while. In fact, if you look over the side of the balcony here, you’ll probably see some bright green glow-in-the-dark slugs right now.”
“Oh, here’s some,” Liliana said pointing down. It surprised Beau to see how comfortable Liliana seemed to feel sitting on the edge of oblivion. For Beau, leaning over the rock wall, barely waist-high, without the benefit of branches to catch one’s fall, brought on that crazy vertigo feeling where something really could go wrong and he might actually slip over and fall all the way down, unexpectedly hitting the bottom of the rocky gorge hundreds of feet below in the dark, perhaps impaling himself on the top of a tree. What a thing that would be, to feel the awful nothingness speed with screams that stop atop a tree shoved in the gut and ripped out the back, tearing the body in half like tofu on a shish kebob skewer. Beau saw them though. A handful of dots in the blackness, like green stars below.
Omar adjusted the trap machine in the trap house—a cover to the flinging device keeping the shooter from seeing in what direction the trap will be flung—to the automatic setting, stood ready with a single-barrel 12 gauge shotgun and fired off at the rapidly distancing disk successfully with a spectacular burst of glowing grass seed raining like a glittering green fireworks display and producing oohs and aahs from Liliana.
For a guy who was not fond of guns, Beau had to admit, at least it was quiet. He looked at Liliana, sitting there on the wall, in the moonlight looking like Snow White. She couldn’t help but see out of her peripheral vision that Beau was staring at her, but she seemed to make a determined point to never once take her eyes off Omar. After all that flirting, too. All the pushing herself upon him, all day.
Is that what this was? Of course. She was making him pay for having turned her down. He should have known better than to trust her. Only an immature person, an underdeveloped person, a real stunted asshole would fixate on a childhood pen pal in the first place. So naturally, when conflict with the fantasy inevitably occurs, she’s not going to be the mature one to handle anything like an adult. Naturally, she’s going to want to exact some selfish, petty revenge. So now what could have been an interesting evening was clearly going to have to be mired in this shit.
Beau shot and missed. The trap flew away high over the forest like a bright green UFO, gradually descending until it disappeared.
“Well,” said Omar, “I guess that makes me happier than the slick little prick on a pig. What do you say, Beau? Let me get you another beer and give you the tour.”