When your girlfriend wakes you in the middle of the night and tells you she's dreamt a murder you're likely to tell her to roll over and go back to sleep. You're likely to go back to sleep and file the incident under "another weird thing she does." You'll probably go on living your life as God intended, going to work, eating your dinner, sleeping, and doing the same the next day. I did those things because I thought I had a choice in the matter.
When the murder came true the face of creation changed forever and laid bare the tortured course of my shallow life. The power of prediction sealed my fate. I woke up and the bed beside me was empty. I rolled onto her pillow and took a deep drag on the scent of her essence as it thinned in the dying warmth of her sleeping place. There were noises from the kitchen--running water, the clatter of metal pots, the refrigerator door opening and closing.
I got out of bed and went to the kitchen rubbing the fuzzy sleep from my eyes. She greeted me with the morning paper by swatting me in the chest as if disciplining a puppy for making a mess on the new carpet.
The good Lord made me a simple man. He never meant for me to be college educated. He gave me a keen sense for survival and I did my best to use those talents. Only common sense and cunning got me this far in life. I'd have long since been run over by a cement truck or shot in a freak gun cleaning accident had I lacked the sensitivity to tell when the fate was about to curl its icy fingers around my neck like Thanksgiving's turkey.
When Sandra hit me with the newspaper I pulled my arms up around it as if cradling a baby and felt my future rumble toward me.
She said, "We should have called the police."
I sat on the kitchenette chair and felt cold on the backs of my bare thighs. The paper fell open on the table in front of me revealing a picture of the victim. It was one of those grainy high-school pictures they always seem to find of murder victims. She was a young girl, probably no longer in high-school, but probably not old enough to pluck a gray hair from her scalp.
I read the headline aloud, "Student found drowned in Fresh Kills lock. Police suspect New Jersey man."
The tea kettle whistled and Sandra poured herself a cup of chamomile tea. She said, "We should have called the police."
"Could you fix me a cup of that, honey?" I asked.
"You should have called the police when I told you to," she said. She put the steaming mug in front of me and took another from the cabinet.
"Thank you, dear," I said. "I have to get out early today. Claus is sending me to Gibbsboro today. Way down Jersey way. I may be late so don't wait dinner for me."
"I should have made you do it," she said. She sat at the table in her bathrobe and glared at me. The mug steamed between her hands. Her short dark hair shot askew from her head as if trying to escape.
"Aw, now honey," I said. "What would I have told them? 'Hello, Police? My girlfriend has just had a bad dream. How's about you send a car over to someplace I don't know to protect somebody I've never seen?'"
"You stop it, Virgil Sanders. I had a vision and visions are not dreams. They're glimpses into the future. Pieces of life from other places and other people. Images of things that will be." She put an emphasis on the word, "will," that sent a shiver down my spine.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't mean to ridicule your gift."
"Well that's exactly what you're doing and a little girl has paid for it with her life." She tapped the picture on the front page for emphasis.
"Oh, now come on," I said. "Don't you go trying to blame this on me. This is a news event. I wake up in the morning and here it is in the newspaper. Look. They said she was killed two nights ago. And where was I two nights ago? Rolling in the hay with some skinny girl who looks just like you."
"That's not what I meant," she said. "We could have stopped it and we didn't."
I reached out and put my hand on top of hers. She pulled away and took a sip of her steaming tea.
"Honey," I said, "how do you know? Okay, so you have the gift. Who's to say you might not have made a mistake? Or who's to say that girl decides not to walk down the dark alley on her way home from work. Or maybe the killer gets a traffic ticket and arrives a little too late to the scene of the almost crime. Things happen. It's not a predictable world."
"That just goes to show what you know," she said. "We're governed by the laws of the universe. As spin the stars and planets, so goes the human race. How many times do I have to tell you? Things are determined above. We are born under the same stars as falling rain and rushing waterfalls. And just like all God's creations we have to be what we will be. A waterfall could sooner change to a cloud than a man deviate from the course laid before him at birth."
I couldn't think of anything to say so I drank some of my tea and told her I loved her. She said, "You're an Aries and naturally pigheaded. I should have known better than to ask you to believe me."
"I believe you," I said. "It's just that the rest of the world has a bit of catching up to do before we can rush out to the police and talk about visions and palm lines. Honey, there's a fine line between having someone believe you're seeing things that will happen and having someone believe a padded cell and some tranquilizers would be best for you."
"I'm not crazy," she said, "but I have to be what I am. I knew I had the gift from the time I was five years old."
I leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. I said, "I know."
She turned and looked me straight in the eye as if she needed to count the sins notched on my eternal soul. She said, "You can't escape what you are. That's a fact."
I heard an explosion. Something big and far away detonated to dust. A deep boom shook me from the soles of my feet to the static in my hair. "What was that? Come on. You can't tell me you aren't hearing those booms," I said.
Sandra took a sip of her tea. She said, "I didn't hear anything." She smiled as I unlatched and unbolted the locks on the front door. The apartment building hallway was empty and soundless. I slowly closed the door expecting to hear the noise again. But it didn't come.
"If the world is what it is," I said, "if we're governed by the heavens above, how is it you expected to be able to change the course of history to prevent that murder?"
Sandra ignored me. She had the newspaper spread out in front of her and sipped her cooling tea while she read.
"If that death was preordained by the moon and the stars above, why do you think a phone call to the police would change anything?" I asked. But she ignored me even worse by turning the newspaper pages as if speed reading. "It's not logical thinking, honey. It's just not logical."
I left for work and as I drove I reflected. I met Sandra at El Coyote, a country bar in midtown Manhattan. I had just blown into New York from Austin. The city was big, dangerous, different from where I had been born and raised. I felt I had come to another country. Three days in New York City and the hair on the back of my neck hadn't settled once. I could feel predators around every corner. After a while I longed to speak to someone who didn't sound like Sylvester Stallone and who knew Sam Houston wasn't a football player.
I learned New Yorkers spend their time outdoors trying to become inconspicuous. They have an innate chameleon-like ability to make themselves invisible against a backdrop of littered streets and buzzing neon. As I walked around I mistook the apathy of the crowds as a sign of acclamation. Nobody seemed to notice the Texan amid the smoke and trash. Maybe I blended into the scene. I figured I was safe.
But Sandra pegged me from minute one. She came to me in the bar with a drink in her hand and said, "You're new," as if I were the one green jelly bean in a jar full of red ones.
"Does it show that bad?" I said. I bent toward her so I could hear her above Hank Williams Jr.
"Oooh, and an accent too," she said. Then she looked at me with her glistening brown eyes and I felt as if the hand of almighty God reached in through my pupils and grabbed my guts from the inside. I shifted on my bar stool.
"What's your name, pretty one?" I asked her.
She slithered onto the stool next to mine and sat with her knees touching my thigh. She was slim, and short. She wore tight jeans and a loose sleeveless top that seemed to hang on her like a bed sheet she had forgotten to yank off her shoulders that morning. A thin black band crossed her forehead. She put an elbow on the bar and leaned toward me.
"My name is Mary Beth," she said. "But you have to call me Sandra."
"Why do I have to call you Sandra if your name is Mary Beth?"
"You just do."
She moved a little closer and I could see down the front of her blouse. She wore a tiny golden medallion on a thin chain around her neck. At first I thought it was some kind of good luck charm. But when I asked her she told me it was the ancient Egyptian symbol for love. She seemed to enjoy knowing I didn't know what it was, and knowing that by focusing my eyes slightly past King Tut's amulet I could see her breasts clear down to the nipples.
I swallowed hard when she put her hand on my knee. "What brings a handsome country boy like you up here to all us heathens?" she said.
"Work," I said, almost asking as she slipped her hand a fraction up my leg.
"What do you do?"
"Whatever needs to be done," I said. She let her hand slide a full inch higher and I could feel myself tightening against the strain of the pressure she had brought to bear on my thoughts.
"And I expect you do it very well, too," she said. That's when I heard the explosion for the first time. There was a low boom like dynamite going off a few miles away. Something big and old had been blasted into a billion pieces. And the realization hit me that these three days in New York I had been readable as a billboard. I was as obvious as a white mouse on an endless asphalt parking lot and the eagle was above me screeching in for the kill.
"I suppose I'm okay," I said.
I felt the eagle talons latch into my thigh and I winced. "That hurt?" she asked me.
"Not as much as it hurts about six inches higher," I said, referring to my inability to stand comfortably.
She finished her drink in one gulp and dropped the empty glass onto the bar. Then she took my hand. "Let's go," she said. She pulled me off my seat.
"Where we goin?"
She giggled and turned toward me as she struck a path through the crowd of people, "You're for real, aren't you?"
"The genuine article," I said.
She looked at my belt and let her eyes drop slowly. I could feel it as if her gaze applied a pressure like an invisible third hand.
"Your cock knows where we're going but your brain's a little slow."
As she started pulling me through the bar I followed, tripping over my feet. I asked, "Are all New York ladies like you?" But she didn't answer. She stood at the curb and whistled. A yellow cab pulled up and we got in. She gave the coordinates to her apartment to the driver and we wound up there after a small game of catch-my-tongue in the back seat.
Her apartment looked like a horror movie set. There were mostly burnt candles on the floor and on shelves. She had chains of colored beads in the archways between rooms. I couldn't see the walls for all the posters of John Lennon, Jimmy Hendrix, and some tall vampire-looking guy she said was Rasputin. There were ashtrays littered with the black and gray remnants of something smoked strewn about the room. In one corner some blue glop undulated in a lava lamp of piss-yellow liquid.
Something on the wall caught my eye. It was an object out of place and time in that room. The certificate hung between a poster of Edgar Cayce and an art print of the Cheops Pyramid. At first I thought it was a diploma. I had gotten close enough to see it was a citation from the New York City Police Department when I felt something touch my thigh high on the inside of my leg. I jumped and heard a squeaking sound I thought had come from something I landed on.
"I do police work sometimes," Sandra said. She stood behind me and wrapped an arm around my chest while she stroked the inside of my leg. I could feel the points of her breasts touch against my shirt. The warmth and the smell drove past my intellect and straight to my groin. I was not in control.
"What do you do the other times?" I asked.
"I'm a model for the Virginia Rosemont Agency." She pushed her palm up into my crotch and squeezed gently.
"How's business?" I said, my voice getting higher. "Are you on TV?"
"Okay, I lied," she answered. "I'm a waitress at the Movenpick near Radio City. Does it matter?"
She drummed her fingers over me until the tickling sensation became unbearable.
"Christ," I said. "You don't waste any time."
"I know what I want," she said. "Besides, neither of us have any choice. This meeting is preordained."
I turned quickly and wrapped my arms around her to stop her probing long enough to take stock of the situation. Things were going way too fast. I could feel the hair on the back of my neck prickle. I was suspicious of every move she made, every breath. I took stock of the room. I scanned the shadows for movement. If the door cracked open even an inch I would bolt like a jackrabbit.
"What do you mean, preordained?" I said, squeezing her tight. The scent, the warmth and glide of her skin made me want to crush her tight to myself. I felt a tension in my jaw and the need to sink my teeth into her. Adrenaline pumped electricity into my blood. My muscles tensed. "What the hell is all of this about? Why did you bring me here?"
She said, "You're hurting me." She squirmed under my arms. Her movement strengthened my resolve to immobilize her.
"Why did you bring me here?" I said again, deepening my voice as if I could implant the sound inside her.
"Cut it out, asshole," she shouted. There was a flame in her voice that set fire to the fear building in my body. I could feel her pull in air and bear down as if to scream. And what I did next happened without so much as a furtive consultation with my higher intellect. The fear cracked me.
I dragged her to the floor in a football tackle. I pressed my thighs around her pelvis and sat on her while I pressed a forearm onto her neck. With my other hand I covered her mouth.
She grabbed my arm with her hands. Her eyes flew wild and bloodshot from side to side as if she were expecting someone to come in and stop me. I could feel her heart pound. Air hissed through her flared nostrils as she pumped her lungs.
"Now calm down," I said, quietly. "Calm down and I'll get out of here. I'm not going to hurt you. I'm not that kind of guy."
She hit me in the side with a fist but the blow was weak.
"One of us has got to stop, lady," I said. "I'm not going to let up if you're going to start screaming bloody murder and get me in trouble. I'd just as soon tie you up and leave you here than have you causing trouble for me. Look, I just got into town. I was minding my own business when you started this bullshit. I'll go back to my business if you let me. So just you relax and shut up and I'll let you go."
I could feel her try to control her breathing so I loosened up on her mouth. When she was breathing slowly I took my hand off her mouth. I kept my fingers cupped close to her lips so I could shut her up in a hurry.
"How about taking your arm off my neck?" she said. I rolled my eyes and made up my mind. I got off her and rolled to the side. She lay quietly on the floor beside me.
"I'm really sorry," I said. "But you scared the shit out of me. I'll get out of your way now."
I didn't see her move but I felt the blast in my head and saw the white flash in my eyes. Something hit me. I heard her scream like a cat being strangled. I raised my arms to cover my face but she was on me in a second with one hand tightening around my windpipe and the other hand drawn back ready to strike.
She said, "Don't fuck with me. You do not understand the trouble I can cause for you."
I kept my eyes glued to her right hand. She flexed her fingers to line up the bones as I had seen martial arts experts do.
"No problem," I croaked. There was a tattoo on the heel of her palm. A small flower.
Beads of sweat broke on her forehead. She relaxed her grip on my throat and unbuckled my belt. "The difference between fear and pleasure is winning," she said as she wedged both her hands into the cracks between the buttons in my shirt and pulled. Tiny meteors of plastic hit the ground around me. Sandra tore down the zipper on my jeans, yanked the elastic strap of my jockeys painfully. I winced as she closed a fist.
"I still don't get it. What did you mean by preordained?" I managed to say.
"We're children of the universe," she said. "No less than the trees and the stars, governed by the immutable forces from which all life has come."
"You're crazy," I said, as she positioned herself and slid down warm and wet onto me.
"Shut up," she said. She bounced on her knees and I stared, amazed I was still hard, afraid to give in and come.
So I spent my fourth night in New York on Sandra's living room floor providing something for her to use to pound herself to ecstasy. I spent my fifth night in her bedroom banging her so hard her head hit the apartment wall and made a sound like we were hammering in picture hooks. After that my life with her became a blur that seemed to stretch from my birth to my death.
When we weren't having sex we discussed books she had read. Most of them I'd never heard of. When we weren't talking about books I'd never read she read my palm, analyzed my numbers, told me my future, or relived my past.
"Immutable, ancient, and unyielding," is what she told me. "We are pawns in the cosmic game of chess. We are what we are. We can escape our future as easily as we can escape our past. We have all lived before and we shall all live again."
"Then what good is my life?" I asked her. "If I'm not the master of my life, if I'm stuck playing some bozo role I was cast into at birth, why bother? Why bother with anything?"
"Love," she said. She walked to the bookshelf and took out a three-ring binder. Then she sat next to me on the floor and opened it. News clippings were pasted to yellow paper and bound in the book. There were pictures of children, pictures of families.
"Who are these people?" I asked.
"These are my babies. These are the lost children." She turned the pages reverently as if handling an ancient book of knowledge. When she turned the last page she closed the binder, wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, and put the binder back onto the shelf.
"How do you know them?"
She said, "Think about love, Virge. Think about the beauty of love." I didn't understand what she meant, but I tried to think about love as she closed her eyes and drew a line from my chest to my thighs with her tongue.
And love is what I was thinking about when the front tires of my truck jumped up the curb and into the parking lot at work. Though meticulous want-ad searches I had managed to secure myself a position delivering goods for the Wolfgang Andrew Claus medical supply company. I delivered wheelchairs and blood-pressure cuffs over the metropolitan area. I spent my days on the road learning the east-coast "kill or be killed" etiquette of the highway. I spent my nights in bed with Sandra making one with the life-giving forces of the universe.
"Did you think about what I told you?" said Ulrich, one of my distinguished colleagues. I punched-in and he leaned against the painted cinder block wall. He clicked his pipe against his teeth waiting for my answer.
"I don't know, man. I don't think it's the right time for me to get involved with something like this." I shoved my time-card into its slot and tried to walk past him. He blocked my way.
"Right time?" Ulrich snapped. He was a tall balding man with a salt-and-pepper mustache and full beard. I never saw him without his pipe. He spoke with a slight accent I assumed was German. "Right time? There never was a better time. You're young. You're a good driver. Nobody knows you. You're clean. You have no record."
"I don't know...what if we get caught?"
"That's the least of your worries, my friend. This is a quick in-and-out job. There will be no people around, no guns. You take the goods and drive. You don't know anything. We supply you with all the papers. You'll have legal manifests and tax-papers just like any haul you make. If they pick you up--you're working an evening job to supplement your income and you don't know what the hell your carrying. You are just bringing it from here to there. You have no priors, so at the very worst they will slap your wrist and send you home."
Ulrich's blue eyes seemed to radiate. I could feel him scanning me, searching out weaknesses he could exploit for whatever means he intended.
"I'm not ready for something like this," I said, squirming in my boots.
"Look, cowboy. How much does the old man pay you? Six? Eight bucks an hour? Well this little job isn't going to make you rich but it will net you at least a year's pay at this hole. Think about it. You could spend your time tracking down a real job instead of having to work here and job-hunting in your spare time. What was it you said you did again?"
"I climb high-iron."
"Yeah, that's right. You are one of those ironworker guys. Well, you think hard my young friend. Opportunities like this only come once in a lifetime. I am not going to ask you again."
I sighed and shook my head slightly. "I just don't think...," I tried to say, but Ulrich wasn't interested.
"I will give you another night to sleep on it." He tapped his pipe against the wall and walked away.
That night as we lay naked and exhausted from our share of God's creative juices I asked Sandra about the citation on the wall in her living room.
"I find children," she said, staring at the ceiling. She reached into a drawer in the night table beside her, pulled out a cigarette, and lit it with a small plastic lighter.
I was about to say, "those things will kill you," when the wafts of smoke hit my nostrils with a scent I remembered from my youth. She held the smoking shaft between her fingers, inhaled, and thrust it toward me while she held her breath. When I didn't take it she looked at me surprised and exhaled a cloud into my face.
"What's a matter?" she said.
"I don't do drugs," I said.
Sandra pursed her lips. "This isn't drugs, Sweetie. It's medicine for your brain. It'll help loosen all those crusted thoughts and get them out of the way. Come on."
I took the joint and inhaled the rough burning smoke. Almost immediately I had a coughing fit. The burning sensation ran up the back of my throat and through my nostrils from the inside. I pounded my fist to my chest as I handed the burning roach back to Sandra. She laughed.
"What about the kids?" I said, between coughs. I fought the urge to spit.
"I have visions," Sandra said. "The first one...well I had a dream one night. I had a vision I saw her. I could see the place quite clearly but I couldn't see the surroundings. It was some kind of forest. I knew some kid was missing so I got in contact with the investigating officer. I drew the cop a picture and he had some people familiar with the girl's family show it to the mother. It turned out to be a small grove of trees behind the grammar school she went to."
She took another drag and held the butt out to me again. I waved it off not wanting to renew the pain I felt finally subsiding in my lungs. An ash dropped onto her chest and she jumped, brushing the burning ember onto me. I flicked the orange light off my arm before it could burn me and spit on it where it lay between us on the bed. The ash hissed as it died.
"That's disgusting," said Sandra.
"You want to incinerate us? Don't you know how many people die smoking in bed?"
"Don't you know how many people die fucking themselves to death?" she replied.
"I said, the little girl was found dead. Raped and beaten. Hands and legs tied with a lamp-cord. Seventeen stab wounds. The killer used a twelve-inch deer skinning knife. Eight years old. She was just a baby. What drives a man to stab a baby seventeen times with a foot-long knife?"
I felt gravity reverse in my chest. I felt I was falling. "Christ," I said. Sandra smashed the cigarette into a piece of aluminum foil on the night table.
"I had the fucking vision for a week. Every night, seeing that poor baby cry for her mother. Seeing that poor baby hurt and not being able to do anything about it. I wanted to die." I slid my arm around her as the tears came to her eyes. She buried her face in my chest. I could feel her shake under my arm.
She sobbed and said, "I can't get away from them. I can't get away from the visions, the babies."
After a few moments she calmed down and turned her head. She sniffled and said, "Why does he do it? God can't be a woman. A woman would never let someone be born to die in such a horrible way. She'd keep them from being born. She'd want to keep suffering down, keep it away. A woman doesn't believe in needless suffering."
"Maybe it isn't the way you think," I said, hesitantly. "Maybe people aren't born to die like that. Maybe it just happens."
She looked up at me, put a hand against my cheek, and ran her fingers over the stubble of my night beard. "There's so much to this world you can't understand," she said.
"I don't know," I said. "I always thought we had free will..."
"It's an illusion. It has to be. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. How could there be disease and war and famine that indiscriminately kills? How could so many young and old lives be extinguished in tidal waves and earthquakes if humankind's fate wasn't determined by God? I think of that baby, Virgil. I think of that baby and I get angry. And I swear I'll never have a baby to be brought up in such a world."
"Then why bother living?" I asked her.
"I told you, silly. To love. To love while you can before whatever is going to happen to you happens." She lay back in her pillow and closed her eyes. I was alone with the explosion. It pounded the air, distant like the beat of the drums in the tangle of the dark jungle.
That night I had a dream. I dreamed the fires of hell broke loose from a star light-years from earth. I dreamed a number. It was 137,622,955. One hundred thirty-seven million six hundred twenty-two thousand nine hundred fifty-five years before my birth a star exploded in our galaxy and hurled billions of tons of minerals and gas into the universe around it. The explosion was deep and loud and rattled through me. Of the mass of disintegrated star I saw a fleck of star-stuff the size and shape of a locomotive fly from the nuclear inferno to the cold nothing of lifeless space.
The fleck was the size of a grain of sand to the star, but it was death-sized to me. It gyrated in erratic paths around innumerable stars and planets as it followed its course to a destination I imagined--a destination I imagined would be my location the day my tiny orange life-ash was spit out by God.
In my dream I asked why. I asked the nothingness around me why the twisted course of my life led me to such evil.
Sandra answered. She said, "Because you have to be what you are."
So I saw the dock vacant of the powerboats usually parked there--the daylight shimmering from the ripples in the lake. I heard the laughing, the sound of a voice so radiant I felt warm standing in the sound. She had a smile that brought time to screeching halt. The sun behind her light brown hair granted her a halo. She was an angel from birth. A cherub bouncing between billowing white pillows of clouds. She'd be young forever.
"Now you stop those mischievous hands, Henry Jackson."
"Come on, Laura. Nobody is around."
"Henry, I said stop. Henry. Henry let me go."
The tension in my arms. I let her go. I let her go.
When I opened my eyes I was sitting upright in bed. Sandra's arm was around my shoulder, her mouth at ear. "Let it go, Virge. Let it go."
I said, "No." I got out of bed, pulled on my pants, and waited for the sun to rise so I could get to work and get on with my life. I sat at the kitchen table under General Electric's buzzing sunlight until daybreak. Sandra came a few minutes after it got light outside. She shuffled in naked and sat on the chair next to me.
"Aren't you cold sitting here like that?" I asked.
"Don't go out today," she said. "Don't go to work. Stay with me." She put her hand on top of mine and put her lips close to my ear. "I'll make it worth your while. Come on. Come back to bed."
I pulled my hand away and went to the cabinet for a glass. "That's crazy. I can't miss work today. The old man's sending me back to Jersey with another delivery. Ulrich is out on sick leave so I'm going to have to do it. If I call in today they'll fire me and I need this stinking job. I need this stinking job so I can help pay your rent. I need this fucking job so I can live another day, live another stinking day."
"I'll talk to some people and get you another one, don't go today. Call in sick. Stay with me, honey." She stood behind me and put her arms around me. I could feel her head against my back.
I opened the cabinet over the sink and it was empty. "Where'd you put the glasses?" I asked her, growing impatient. "I need a glass of orange juice." She put her arms around me again. I said, "Come on, gimme some room." I shook myself away from her and found a dirty paper cup from the take-out hamburger meal I bought on my way home from work the prior night. I rinsed out the dried cola syrup and filled the glass with orange juice from the refrigerator.
"You can't go, Virge. I had a vision last night. A vision about you."
I finished the juice and crushed the cup in my fist. I was afraid to turn around to speak to her. I wanted her to stop but I didn't know how to stop her.
"That's great. Tell me about it when I get home," I said. I quickly walked past her and found my shirt and shoes in the bedroom. I started to get dressed for work.
"Virgil, things are... If you go, something could happen."
I could feel the uncontrollable fear rise from my gut to my head. She was starting it. She was leading it right to me. The damn boulder from hell was searching the cosmos for my puny head and she was putting the crosshairs on me.
Without thinking I threw my shoes at the wall. She flinched and covered her head in her hands as the shoes went wide and slammed into the refrigerator. I yelled from the bottom of my stomach.
"What! What could happen? What the fuck is going to happen? Tell me darling. How does Virgil Sanders come to his tragic end? Do I get my brains blown out? Does somebody cut my throat and leave me dying in the gutter to bleed to death?"
"Virge, I...," she started. But I was all over her like flies on garbage. I grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her as I stared into her eyes.
"What's going to happen? What the fuck do you care? I'm living my life. I'm being what I am. You don't even know what I am. You never even asked." The fear coursed through me. I could feel the meteor's low-pitched rumbling as it hurtled through space toward me. It was still hot at its core from the explosion that sent it to kill me so many millions of years ago.
"You never ever asked."
She started to cry. "I know what you are," she said. "You're a..."
I released her. Something about my hands must have made her think I was going to try something. She took a defensive step sideways but my body anticipated the move. I tried to grab her forarm--I watched her struggle against my grip as if through a frosted glass window. Was my hand on her throat? At first, I couldn't understand what I was seeing. Was she choking? And when the frosting lifted I released my grip and she pulled backward, crying.
"Maybe I'm not a nice guy," I said to her. "Maybe I'm a criminal. Maybe you're born innocent and the world sends you a message and it isn't always what you want to hear. You have to live up to it."
She stared at me with glazed eyes.
"I wasn't born this way," I said. "But everyone says I am so I must be."
Then I ran. I picked up my shoes and ran out of that wild rumbling place. My stomach turned end over end as I drove. I would have to get out. I would need money and an escape route. I would have to move. The tires roared against the highway as I sped toward work and the answer to everything. As I drove it became clear. The farther from her I went, the clearer my path became. I knew I would destroy anything I grew to love. I had to stop fighting it. I had to be what I was and follow the tracks laid down by the forces of creation that put me here.
I heard the voice. The travel voice--the sound I heard when I was alone and moving. When I heard it again I realized I hadn't heard it all the while I had been with Sandra. Somehow she kept it away.
"You're hurting me, Henry. Let go."
I could feel the voice inside me.
"Jesus, how I love you, Laura." I said it to road moving under my truck. I said it to the windshield. "Why did I run away from you?"
I imagined the dock and the shimmering water. I imagined my Laura living forever next to the water lapping quietly at the wooden piles, the muffled sound of the power boat engines in the distance, sun so bright it turns everything to a dream, the grandfathers loading grandchildren into rocking aluminum craft to cruise out bass fishing.
Laura dips her toes in the water forever.
This is the sound: Click-rack.
Everything was yellow-white in the street light glare. Ulrich showed me the blue-black machine.
"I thought you said there wouldn't be any guns."
"Just a precaution," Ulrich said. "You know how to handle one of these, cowboy?"
"Wait wait wait. You said no guns. Get the goods and go. No people so no guns. What's the story? Why do I feel I'm being fucked?"
"Calm down," Ulrich said. "Look, anything could happen. There are street gangs in that area. The Colombians run a distribution house not more than a block from the warehouse. If they come in shooting what are we going to do, throw beer cans at them?"
There was a sour taste in my mouth. "I'm out," I said, turning to get back into my truck. "I'm outta here. I'm going up to Canada to find something. Count me out."
Ulrich leaned to the side and put his hand on the wall in front of me blocking my path with his arm. "Hey look, you were in five minutes ago. What is your problem now? Nothing has changed. It is the same job in the same area. I mention we are bringing a little protection and you flip. Can you get a hold of yourself for a minute and think? On second thought, maybe you should take off. If you can't keep your head under pressure we can't use you." He pulled his arm away and stood aside.
"Go ahead. Take off. Kiss fifty grand goodbye."
I took two steps past him and stopped. I could feel the rumbling from the sky again. I could hear Sandra's voice. I knew what I was.
"Fine. Gimme the gun." I held out my hand and he pushed the Mac-10 into it. I fumbled a few times to keep from dropping it.
Ulrich raised an eyebrow. "You sure you know how that works?"
I dropped the magazine and pulled back the bolt. The gun was empty. "Yeah," I said.
"Where did you learn? Do you have any military experience?"
"My uncle had one. I used to shoot it out on his place in El Paso." The safety on the weapon had been altered to allow the lever to move to additional position. Ulrich confirmed my suspicion.
"We made a little modification to the equipment," Ulrich said. "We filed the sear. It'll go full-auto if you need it. You'll get your ammo when we get to the target. Are you ready?"
I nodded to him and threw the gun into the trunk of his car. I got into my truck and followed him from the alley behind the medical supply warehouse to a deserted street on the east side. There was a car parked at the curb ahead of us and Ulrich flashed his lights once. He pulled over and parked. I pulled in behind him and shut the truck down.
In the monochrome street lamp yellow I saw Ulrich walk to the other car and look in. He said a few things and pointed to my truck. Two men got out of the car and followed Ulrich toward me. They carried their guns openly.
Ulrich opened the trunk of his car and motioned for me to come. "This is Emilio and Carlo," Ulrich said, pointing to the men. I said, "Hi," to them but they returned my greeting with a steel glance.
"This is the asshole?" the man called Emilio said to Ulrich. The men were dressed in green battle fatigues and boots. They wore canvas belts covered with rectangular pouches.
"Meet Henry Jackson. He's okay. Slightly stupid, but okay. I had him checked. He is on a want for murder back in Texas. He'll behave. Won't you, Hank? I hope you don't mind if I call you Hank."
My heart raced. I glared at Ulrich.
"I'm not into this bullshit, man," said Carlo. "I say you fucked-up bringing him. I say we pop him and get this thing over with." Carlo racked a round into his assault weapon and leveled it at me. I took a step back and held my hands out. I could feel movement in the shadows all round me.
"Hold it. Wait a minute," Ulrich said. "Think, asshole. What the fuck is it with you people that you don't think? Who the fuck is going to get us out of here? You gonna waltz out of here with a hundred kilos of product on your back? Who's gonna watch the street?"
Carlo looked at Emilio, then he relaxed his grip on his weapon. "He's your responsibility," Carlo said to Ulrich. "If he fucks-up you both die. You pay him out of your cut, understand?"
"Ho capito," Ulrich said.
I shook from head to toe. The rumbling rose from the street and vibrated my down to my soul. I longed for the security of the bed and the warmth of Sandra next to me. I could feel the impact coming, the ancient piece of God's vengeance falling from the heavens to snuff me out.
Ulrich handed me the machine gun he showed me before. Then he reached into the trunk and pulled out two loaded clips of ammo. I cradled the weapon and the ammo in my arms like a baby, fumbling to keep all the metal from falling to the ground.
"Do you remember your job?" Ulrich said.
I nodded even though the instructions for my role in the crime were the farthest thoughts from my mind. I looked up and down the street for an opening. As soon as they were out of my sight I would ditch the weapon and drive as fast as I could for Canada.
"This is not the time to lose your nerve, cowboy." He pulled out a black wallet and let it fall open in front of me.
The expression on my face brought laughter from the two Latins.
Ulrich said, "I'm plainclothes."
I stared at the badge, my jaw drooping slightly. I felt myself falling deeper and deeper as if each second brought me farther down the tunnel that would lead inevitably to my end.
"I know you fled that murder charge. They'd really like to have you back in Austin. They plan to put you away for a very long time. Maybe even give you the chair--or do they hang murderers down there?"
I started to get dizzy. I felt clammy and sick to my stomach and I thought I would faint.
"Who was that little girl you killed? I heard it was your fiancee. Is that true? Did you catch her fucking somebody else? Maybe one of your cowboy pals was dicking her behind the barn?"
The air drained from my lungs and I thought I would never be able to get it back.
"So here is the way it is going to happen, Tex," Ulrich continued. "You skip while we are in there and the entire tri-state area will light up in an all-points manhunt for you. I will personally guarantee your popularity with law enforcement officials all over the country. But if you stick with me and keep your nose clean you are going to make yourself a little pocket money tonight. So you just slow down and think. In a few minutes you are going to pull up to that garage and we are going to put four fifty-five gallon drums in your pickup truck. You are going to take those drums to the dock I told you about in Jersey City. You will wait for me. And I will show up, take the truck and the drums, and I will pay you. I hope you don't mind walking home." He laughed.
I lifted my head and looked him in the eye. "What about this?" I said, raising my arms as if offering the gun and ammo like slaughtered animal.
"You keep your eyes opened and you protect the shipment. Anything hairy starts going down and you do what it takes to keep the shipment safe, understand?" He slapped me on the back. "Now go and wait in the truck."
I opened the door to my truck and threw the gun and the magazines onto the passenger's side of the bench seat. Then I got in and closed the door. I felt slightly more comfortable in familiar surroundings. The familiar smell of the cab, the feel of the vinyl seats under me, the dirt and the two half-moon clear spots on my smeared windshield were the familiar patterns of home.
Ulrich and the men disappeared into a black doorway and left me alone on the street. I fingered the keys and tapped my foot on the gas pedal. To start the truck. I longed to start the truck and head back to Sandra's apartment. But I remembered the morning and the feeling of her soft skin under my hands. What had I done? What was I doing?
It was inevitable. My sitting in a truck on a dimly lit street in lower Manhattan was simply an event on my life's path. I followed my fate. I was a criminal. A murderer. I forced myself too close to her. I wanted her too much. She pushed to get free from my advances. She stumbled backward and lost her footing on a slick spot. I heard the crack and the her sigh as her skull split against the steel boat cleat. Then she dropped into the water.
I dove then and I could feel myself diving again. My arms broke the surface of the water as her body floated in front of me, her eyes open and sightless as the sun filtered radiant shafts through the green water. Her hair drifted in halo brown strands around her head. Tiny bubbles of water rose from her motionless mouth. She was frozen as if encased in a clear plastic I would never be able to break.
I lifted her. I pulled her to the wooden ladder attached to the dock and climbed. I stumbled twice under the weight and fell back into the lake, all the time praying she was still breathing. And I pulled her up to the warm wooden deck. And I blew air into her lungs as a small crowd gathered.
"Call 911," I shouted.
"Call the police," someone said. "He did it."
"Blunt instrument trauma to the head. She was dead before she hit the water. Why did you do it, Henry?"
"I...she slipped. I swear, she slipped."
"She was screaming for him to stop. He was raping her. I saw it. I saw the whole thing. He tried to pull her clothes off and she screamed."
"Be what you are, Henry. Be a murderer."
The last voice was mine. I slammed a magazine into the gun and rammed a round into the chamber. Then I set the gun on the seat beside me. A glint of brass caught my eye as I put the gun down. A bullet. A nine millimeter full-metal-jacketed round sat like an erect cock in a magazine at my thigh. I tried to reseat the bullet but the magazine spring sent the metal cylinder flying toward my windshield. Without thinking I dropped the clip and snapped my hand in front of me. I caught the bullet in mid-flight. I could feel the cold metal lozenge. I opened my hand and it sat nestled in my palm like a brass insect, like an ancient symbol for something I didn't understand.
"Back you go," I said to it. But something was wrong. The way the bullet spun in the air in front of me, off balance. Something propelled my thinking. I turned the bullet in my hand and looked at the primer. Instead of a shiny silver circle I saw a small black hole. There was no primer, no gunpowder in the cartridge.
I picked up a magazine and pressed out several bullets with my thumb. They were all dummied. There wasn't a single live round in the two magazines Ulrich had given me. I lifted the tiny machine gun, made sure the safety was off, and pulled the trigger. The firing pin clicked on impotent air.
"Figures," I said, and I rolled down the passenger window. As I cranked the handle I noticed a number on the side of the gun. They hadn't filed it off. The weapon was traceable. It had a serial number embossed as bright and clear as day: 137,622,955.
I wiped the gun and the magazines with my shirt. Then, holding them with my hand pulled up into my sleeve, I threw the gun and magazines to the street as white headlamp light flashed across me. Two cars headed down the street.
Instinctively, I ducked to avoid being seen. My mind raced as the cars rumbled past. "What to do what to do what to do? Think Hank. Think. They always make it seem so easy in the movies." I was blank.
I waited until I heard the cars pass before I stole a glance out the front window. It was the cops. The need to escape pressed down so hard I could barely breathe. I opened the truck door and stepped out when God pulled the switch on time. Everything slowed to a crawl. I felt I was moving through jello.
A shape appeared in the dark doorway to the building. A man with a gun materialized monochrome in the street light beam--the man who felt killing me was the easiest way to ensure his crime would execute without a hitch--Carlo. I crouched beside my truck praying he didn't see me when I saw her on the opposite sidewalk.
And when I saw her, I heard her. The erratic squeak of the shopping cart wheels echoed off the lifeless buildings. The old woman walked in a hunched "r." She kept herself from falling face-first to the sidewalk by leaning on a grocery store cart filled to the brim with boxes, empty bottles, and rags. She appeared to be a walking clothes hanger. Her body was round from the untold layers of clothing she wore.
The cart squeaked out from under her and she had to shuffle to keep up with it. I had the feeling she had leaned against the cart some miles back and was forced to keep walking simply to stay on her feet. It was the only explanation for her being on the deserted street at the hour.
I heard the metallic click and peeked over the hood of the truck. Carlo pointed his gun toward the cops. He didn't know, didn't care that in his sights was someone old and innocent. The vision drove a spear through me and burst the container into which I had bottled all the pressure, the fear of death, and the nuclear will to survive.
Frosted glass covered my eyes as I listened to myself scream. I watched the road pass under my feet as I ran toward the woman. I heard the concussion of the gun firing a sonic impact against my back that I thought were bullets.
But I didn't fall. I was on my feet, running toward her, screaming for our lives.
She didn't see me until I was in flight, until her body's inertia stopped my travel long enough for one of Carlo's bullets to find purchase in the side of my back. I felt that impact sharp and deep. I fell onto the woman. In the moment her eyes met mine I knew something was amiss. There was no pain, only falling through the frosted world, falling onto the woman, pulling her to the ground, covering her body with mine. And in that moment I knew I deserved my fate. I deserved to die on that street as my beloved Laura had fallen on that bright summer's day. I deserved to be abandoned as I had abandoned her. I would not be saved and I accepted my fate with the joy of knowing it was mine to accept.
The concrete sidewalk rose to meet my cheek as the ground rumbled and sirens blazed. Blue and red lights flashed across the building in front of me. Gunfire crackled over shouting men and amplified radio voices.
I could barely feel the impact of my fall. My back and legs were numb. I felt as if I were a consciousness isolated in the compact container of my skull. The woman lay beside me and I felt her hands on me. At first I thought she would rifle my pockets, but I could feel her pressing something against my back. Then she put her hands under my armpits and pulled me to a dark spot.
I waited to die. A fire lit inside my back and grew to ball of spiked lava that seared my insides and drove waves of nausea toward my head. I took each breath against a mass that seemed to grow and crush my lungs. Bitter liquid gurgled in my throat. Each breath grew shallower as the mass grew in my lungs leaving little room for air. The pain grew and I couldn't drown it with gulps of cool air.
The woman touched my face and put her lips to my ear. "You're not a murderer and I know it," she said. "Forgive yourself and the world will forgive you." She put one of her hands against my cheek and she shoved the other one under her dirty coat. As she moved her hand it passed through a band of light and I caught sight of the flower on her palm.
I tried to say, "Sandra."
She pulled an automatic from beneath the coat and pulled herself to her feet taking aim. I could see her speaking into her shoulder. She shouted instructions while keeping the weapon at arm's length in front of her, scanning and locking on targets across the street.
I tried to say her name. I wanted her to know who I was. I wanted to apologize before I died.
As if she read my thoughts she looked down at me and said, "My name is Mary Beth now."
A finger of molten pain rose from my back and my ears began to ring. My eyes sparkled black and gray and a thought formed in my head.
The thought became a mountain, the mountain a hill. The hill became a boulder, the boulder a rock, and the rock a grain of sand the shape of a locomotive hurtling down from heaven.
Sandra lay beside me naked on beach of cloud-white sand. She reached out with one hand and touched my chest. I felt a wall rise around us, securing us from the storms and malice outside. She put her index finger into her mouth and sucked it.
She pulled the finger out of her mouth and said, "Watch how easy this is." Then she poked her finger deep into the sand and slowly brought the tip to my eyes. On her fingertip was a single grain. The sand particle clung to her finger as if it were struggling for existence. It was the Lord's own locomotive, ejected in thunder from a star millions of years ago.
"Look," she said. "You could have done this any time." She opened her mouth slightly and let her tongue rest on her bottom lip as she touched the tip of her finger to its glistening surface. Then she closed her mouth and swallowed the star rock.
"Don't you see? You can let these things crush you or you can eat them for lunch."
All at once the ground beneath me froze to quiet antiquity. The air stopped rumbling. The sound of distant explosions stopped. The land grew still and sat silently as it had for Galileo and Christ. I heard the clatter of metal as my heart broke free and a great sorrow conquered me.
"Laura," I said. My throat grew tight, my eyes filled wet, my head spun with pressure from inside. "My Laura."
A voice said, "It's okay."
"My Laura. What did I do? What did I do?"
"It was an accident, the dock man knows."
"I have to die. I have to die for her. I miss her so much..."
I saw Laura in her frilly white Sunday dress, her hair soft and brown glowing under her wide-brimmed hat, a sparkle in her eyes and the "tisk" on her lips--"What are we going to do with you Henry L. Jackson?"
"Well, of course that, but I mean after. I suppose I'll have to love you forever."
"The boatman knows."
"Henry, can you hear me?"
"Henry, can you hear me? Come on, Hank. It's time to wake up. You've been sleeping long enough."
I pulled on my eyelids, but only the surface moved. The lids wouldn't part.
"I think he's coming around. Come on Hank, honey. Come on, cowboy."
Then a blur. A blur of light and shapes hurt my eyes. I tried to speak but when I pressed against my lungs for air only a dribble came out. I felt the wheeze in the back of my throat.
"He's up," said the voice. And I knew I was on my back in a bed. Somebody clamped a hand on my head, forced an eye open, and blasted a light into it. I tried to move my head away but I couldn't break the grip as they pulled the other eyelid open.
"Cut it out," I said.
"Hey. Hey, Sweetie," said the voice again. It was Sandra. She put her hands on my face. I saw her shadow and felt the wetness on my lips as she kissed me.
"Hi," I said. "What happened?"
"I knew you would do it," she whispered.
A large man pushed her aside and stepped to the side of the bed. He took a wallet out of his pocket and flashed a badge. "I'm detective Costello. That was a pretty brave thing you did, young man. Pretty stupid, but brave. The NYPD owes you a debt of gratitude. But there's a little matter of this outstanding warrant for your arrest back in Austin. I'm afraid the extradition papers have come through and we're going to ship you back as soon as the doctors tell us you're well enough for the trip."
I felt a sinking as reality brought the weight down onto me. I reached up and Sandra stepped around Costello and took my hand. Costello continued, "Detective Daniels suspected Rothenberg all along. She designed the sting, but made a rather stupid mistake by exposing herself like that. But that's to be expected. She's not used to this type of work. In fact, she volunteered for this task quite unexpectedly. Thank God you were there when she tripped up."
"Sandra," was all I could say.
"Daniels," said Sandra, "Detective Mary Beth Daniels. My specialty is missing persons--missing children as you know. I've been on-loan to Internal Affairs working on the Ulrich Rothenberg case for a month or so. Then you came along. I didn't mean for you to get involved in this. I didn't even know about your record until Rothenberg found your real name and checked up on you. Honest."
It was too much for me to handle. It seemed all reality was a thin facade that was cracking away to reveal something bad and dirty underneath.
"The visions...," I said.
Costello shot a glance at her and she took a quick breath. Then she shook her head and closed her eyes, "I'm sorry," she said.
"Isn't anything real," I said. "Isn't there anyone who's not lying?"
Costello said, "We'll write up the report to reflect as favorably on your conduct as we can. Naturally, your flight from prosecution in Texas and your subsequent involvement with the criminal element here in New York are going to weigh very heavily against you. I wish you the best, Mr. Jackson. Honestly." He held his hand out but I ignored him. After a second he said, "Well, then," and walked out of the room.
"Isn't anything real, Sandra--I mean, Mary Beth?" I said.
"This life is yours, Virge. You can't fool yourself into believing it doesn't belong to you. You have to be what you are." She stroked my hair and kissed me on the lips. "I chose you for a reason," she said. "I knew you were a good man, I knew I could trust you. I knew you wouldn't let them hurt me."
She stood and took a few steps toward the door. But then she stopped as if she had forgotten something. She said, "The man who rents the boats at the dock saw everything. He knows it was an accident. He's the key."
"What?" I asked, at first not understanding.
"Her last thoughts were of how much she was going to miss you. She really did love you, you know."
"Please don't leave me," I said. "I'm afraid. I don't think when I'm afraid. I do stupid things when I'm afraid."
"Then stop being afraid. I had a vision of you. It was so..." She stopped herself.
She smiled at me and made me warm. "If you need me, I'll find you. I find people and I found you once..."
She took a quick step back toward my bed kissed me again. I said, "Be careful," as she walked out of my room.
On days when the sun shines high overhead and the light flickers off undulating wavelets on the lake, I think of Laura and of how different my life would have been with her. I bring flowers to her grave and talk to her when I'm lonely.
And when I'm awakened in the dead of night by the earth rumbling doom and the sky flashing murderous blasts of stroboscopic vengeance, I dream of Sandra and her vision of me and the love that lights the blackness of the human heart.