Warning you now – this is a loooong chapter, slightly over 4,100 words. I think I can break it into two chapters, but it is begging me to leave it as one. I will put a mark where I think it can be broken. Question 1 addresses that. Thanks again to those of you sticking with it. Your help has been amazing, and I hope you are not getting bored. Happy Monday.
Update – it’s been cut from 4,100 down to about 3,900 words. Changes in blue.
It was about three in the morning when the train was slowing down. They had no idea where they were, but Chris sensed they had to leave the train. Ann followed him from the lounge car through the next two. Chris walked through doors as if they weren’t there, Ann winced slightly upon approach. They reached a dimly lit car full of wide seats that reclined for sleeping. He noticed a few people sitting up and a few empty seats. They continued to the next car where Chris stopped so abruptly as soon as they entered the car that Ann had to walk around him instead of running into him from behind.
He immediately glanced to his left and just as immediately regretted it. He was certain that they had revealed themselves to someone. They were being watched, but he couldn’t tell who or why. All Chris knew for sure was that eyes were on them. Ann followed again as Chris headed towards the far end of the car where again Chris stopped. When he looked back at the door they had entered at the other end, he realized they had entered this car by walking through the door. He stored that away for later because something told him to move without delay.
Chris turned again to the door ahead of them and ran through it, followed closely by Ann. They didn’t see who got up from the dark corner in the previous car, but they knew someone was coming. They ran through two more cars of staterooms before arriving just behind the locomotives. They stood between two cars and saw lights far in the distance.
“Go! Now!” yelled Chris before pushing her out. With feline grace, she turned in the air and danced on one foot, stutter-stepped, and pranced like a deer into thick scrub and bushes of a dark, Arizona night. Before she could admire her dexterity, Chris was already running past her and called, “Keep going!” For ten minutes they trotted through the desert, not far from a highway with little traffic. She slowed but he didn’t.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Something’s up there.”
“What kind of something?”
“Don’t know, but it knows we’re coming.”
“What’s it doing?” he asked.
She paused. “Waiting.” She looked ahead, tried stretching up on her toes, but saw nothing. “It’s smart. We won’t see it until we get there.” She looked back, then forward again. “It’s not going to hurt us.”
“You know that?”
“Pretty sure,” she said.
“Any chance you can drum up a definitely instead?”
They crept carefully with each step towards a small ridge lined with sparse shrubs and cactus. Straight ahead was a more concentrated clump of growth. Ann looked at it, at Chris, and nodded. She pointed at him, then the left, and then she moved to the right.
As they circled the collection of shrubs, two small triangular shapes moved. Then something moved side to side. Their shoulders relaxed as they exhaled. From behind the shrub sat a coyote. It approached Ann with a wagging tail and lowered its head to be petted.
“That’s amazing,” whispered Chris.
“Why are you whispering?”
“I don’t know.”
They stroked the fur of the thin animal that looked in need of a few good meals. Its fur did not move while being petted, but it still wagged its tail and panted as their hands slid along its spine.
“He sees us,” said Ann as she rubbed her nose against the coyote’s snout, “and he’s not afraid. I sensed he was here before we got here. It was like having a premonition that turns out right. Did you sense him?”
“No,” he said, looking ahead in the distance.
She glanced up from a cross-legged position in the dirt. “I felt something, but it didn’t feel anything threatening or dangerous. I guess that’s because it can’t really hurt us. But it probably didn’t know that until we got closer.”
He continued to scan the horizon. “C’mon. Let’s get to that town so we could figure out how to get back to Philly.”
“Let me make sure I got this right,” she said. “We’re trying to get to Philly. We were just on a train going pretty fast in the right direction, but something told you we had to get off that train?”
“I know it sounds crazy, but yeah.”
“I’m not saying it sounds crazy. I just want to make sure I got it right.” She patted the coyote once more, ruffled her hands on its neck, and walked towards a gathering of lights and cars in the distance. “It’s not like I have anything else to do,” she added.
“Are you being sarcastic?”
“No flies on you.”
“What does that mean?”
“You think you’re so much smarter than everyone else. Figure it out.”
They continued walking, veering closer to the highway until they and the road met at a traffic light and a bar. As they passed gas stations, motels, and convenience stores, Ann took the lead.
“Where are you going?” asked Chris.
“Up there. See the blue blinking sign?”
“Yeah. It’s a motel. Why are we going there?”
“Don’t know yet.”
The brightly-lit motel had a sign that boasted free breakfast and Wi-Fi. It was good enough not to announce mirrored ceilings. The pool was like glass but empty, the still surface perfectly reflected a few of the brighter stars in the night sky.
“Now what?” Chris asked.
“Here.” She turned as a black Mustang slid into the parking lot. It stopped abruptly as if it were considering plowing through the door of one of the first-floor rooms. A woman stepped from the car and walked unevenly through the parking lot to the pool, kicked off her heels, sat at the edge, and put her legs in the water. Her mini skirt stayed dry. She pulled a cigarette from her purse and lit it.
“She left the keys in the car,” said Ann.
“She’s drunk. Do most women drink this much?”
“Yes, and it’s your fault. C’mon.” Ann led him up a flight of stairs and walked along a row of doors, turning a few times until she was certain of which one to enter. She nodded at the door, and they walked through.
Ann smiled at the gold décor, strutted to the bed, and hopped upon it. The mattress gave not an inch beneath the weight she no longer had.
“Pretty nice,” said Chris. He walked to the corner of the room where a suitcase rested on a table. “Looks like a female.”
“Or a transvestite? You think it’s the girl out by the pool?”
“Thank you, Captain Obvious,” she snarled.
Chris walked around the room. “So what do we do?”
“Then why are we here?”
“Like George said. If something feels strong enough, check it out. It’s not like we have anywhere to go.”
“George also said that it’s not our business to get involved with other people and to just take care of ourselves,” argued Chris. “Why don’t you want to go home? Don’t you want to see your husband?”
Ann lost her smile. “No.”
“George also said not to go home.”
Chris walked closer. “Look. I don’t mean to pry. I realize you don’t owe me any explanations. It’s just that we’re kind of connected now. I don’t know where this is going or what’s going to happen. I just figure we’re probably better off together. So we may as well get to know each other.”
She fought back a suspicion of tears while studying the room. “You’re right. I know. I’ll get there soon.”
Chris reached out to her but stopped when she leaned away from his approach. He walked further around the large room, then over by the bathroom. “Nice,” he said, but he only took three steps on the marble floor when the door to the room opened. He quickly hid in the bathroom.
“You don’t have to hide, doofus. C’mon out,” Ann said.
“You were right. The woman by the pool.”
Chris stepped out in time to see the thin woman toss her big heels on the floor near her suitcase and her cell phone on the bed, right through Ann who instinctively tried to catch it.
“Uh oh,” said Ann. The woman had streams of mascara running down her face. She searched the suitcase for a small, amber bottle of medication and shook a few into her hand before going into the bathroom for a mouthful of something to wash them down.
She returned from the bathroom and crawled on the bed to find her cell phone. She sat up against the headboard as she scrolled through messages and missed calls. She stared at the phone for roughly half a minute, reading, until she clapped the phone closed and bounced it on the bed. She took a pillow and hugged it, lying on her side and curling her legs up to help surround the pillow so that it could never get away. Her body twitched a few times, her eyes closed, and her mouth stayed tight until the strength of the repressed sobs was too great, and those sobs burst forth like water from a garden hose as if someone had a finger on the end and then released it.
Chris, looking at Ann, opened his mouth to speak until a knock at the door interrupted. The woman hopped off the bed, checked herself in the mirror, put her big heels back on, straightened her skirt, and strutted to the door. After peeking through the curtain, she opened it, and an unshaven man in a flannel shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots slipped in quickly.
“I didn’t think you were coming,” she said.
“Me neither,” he whispered, peeking out through the door before closing it and fastening the chain and lock. He turned to her with starving eyes and began to unbuckle his belt.
“Hey, slow down,” she said. “No hurry. You want a drink?”
“No time for a drink,” he smiled.
“Well I ain’t going that fast. I barely know you.”
He caught up to her, backing her toward the bed. She attempted to maneuver differently, but he was steering. She stopped at the edge of the bed and won the fight to remain standing, but he reached down for the bottom of her skirt and yanked it up.
Chris took a step forward until Ann told him, “No.”
“I said slow down.” The woman grabbed at the bottom of her skirt and tried to hold it down, but that allowed him to push her backwards onto the bed and climb over her until he straddled her waist. When she put her hands up to hold him away, he grabbed her wrists and pinned her arms helplessly on the bed above her head.
“You think you get to tease me like that for an hour and then just turn it all off?” He smiled as fear grew in her eyes. “Doesn’t work like that, Honey.” He had the strength to hold both wrists down with one hand and unbutton her blouse with the other.
“No,” she grunted. “Get off.” She struggled.
“I plan to,” he drooled.
She tried to kick her knees up at his back but couldn’t get enough leverage against the soft mattress. She tried to twist beneath him, but his weight was too much. As she searched for another option, there was a knock at the door. He glared threateningly at her and put a finger up to his lips.
“Jimmy!” yelled a deep voice. “We gotta go! Fast! There’s a fight!”
“I got one in here too!” he yelled back.
“Now, Jimmy! Forget that bitch! Find another one later!”
He hung his head for a second before getting off the bed and buckling his belt. She sat up with three things to say to him but held them back. He turned for the door, then quickly turned back and delivered an open hand to the woman’s unsuspecting face, knocking her to the floor. He ran from the room to his friend’s car waiting in the parking lot.
Chris and Ann watched as she struggled to her feet. She looked again at the mirror that only a minute ago she had looked at so proudly. This time, instead of tears she had a hint of hatred and pity.
“I didn’t know we could cry,” sniffed Ann.
The woman pulled off her top, leaving only a tiny black bra. Chris looked away.
“What?” said Ann.
“What what?” he said.
“It’s not a big deal if you look.”
“Well, it feels wrong.”
“Not anymore. And after all you been through, you deserve a peek. Your wife peeks at guys all the time.”
“Stop it. You don’t know that.”
“If I know it, you know it.”
“Whatever. It’s not a big deal to look. If I’m on a diet, it’s okay if I look at a burger as long as I don’t eat it. Same thing.”
“I am seriously beginning to worry about you.” Chris said. “A woman gets smacked in the face, and you’re comparing looking at her naked body to having a burger?”
“Wait. You watched me have sex, but you won’t peek at her?”
“I didn’t watch you have sex. It wasn’t you.”
“Don’t tell me it wasn’t me. I was there. Up close.”
The woman slipped off the skirt, threw it at the suitcase, and walked naked to the bathroom. They heard the bathtub start and the water rushing heavily to fill it. Then came the clinking of a glass.
“She drinking?” Chris asked.
“You go see.”
“Fine, you baby.” Ann got up and walked into the bathroom doorway from where she saw the woman attempting to get in the bathtub. “Oh, she’s a mess.”
The woman reached the edge of the tub and sank to her knees. The combination of pills and alcohol prevented her from feeling the cracking of her kneecap when she landed on the marble floor. She turned slightly and sat, held the side of the tub, and began to cry more heavily. First some slight sniffles and then body-shaking sobs. Chris reluctantly entered the bathroom.
“What do we do?” he asked. The woman pulled herself up, went to the vanity for her bottle of vodka, and took the last mouthful. Unexpectedly, she cracked the bottle on the rim of the sink, creating a jagged edge at the end of the neck, which she gripped tightly as she struggled back into the tub and sank into the water.
Here is where I considered breaking it into a separate chapter.
“Oh no,” said Ann. “She’s gonna cut herself. Stop her.”
“I don’t know.”
“Wait. What if we shouldn’t?”
“Are you nuts? You want to just let her kill herself?”
“Well, what if we stop her, and she gets up and drives drunk and kills someone? Maybe it’s better that she just kills herself. What if this is meant to be?”
“You don’t believe anything is meant to be,” Ann snapped, “and you know it. Think of something fast.”
The woman reclined in the bathtub, mouth barely above the water but arms reaching out to her elbows as she traced the sharp glass along her fingers, palm, and wrist. Occasionally, she pressed hard enough to draw a run of blood that slid down her arm and faded into the hot water, hotter than a sober woman would have tolerated.
Ann moved to the tub and dropped into the water without the slightest splash or ripple. She turned and settled into the drunken woman’s body. She cried more loudly than before. Her face contorted into emotional but not physical pain. Chris tried to decipher whether the cries were from Ann, the woman, or both.
“Come on, honey,” said Ann, not audible other than to Chris’s thoughts. “Put the glass down.” The woman’s hand shook as the jagged glass backed slightly away from her left wrist. “Atta girl,” Ann continued. “You can do it. Put it down.”
The woman grew tired and out of breath. She let both arms sink into the hot water, and her neck and back arched before submerging again. Her face slipped under and fought to stay both below and above.
“Good job,” said Chris softly.
But immediately the woman raised her arms from the water and moved the glass towards her soft wrist. Chris could hear Ann grunting and panting to stop her.
“Don’t give up,” said Chris. “You got this. Pull away.”
“I’m tryyyying. She’s too strong. She really wants to do thiiisss.”
“No she doesn’t. You’re going to stop her. Put it down.”
Chris watched as the point of the glass settled into her skin where a small wound opened. A noise. He walked to the other room where her cell phone was ringing. The ringtone was “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” by Randy Newman from the movie Toy Story.
“Her phone is ringing,” Chris yelled.
“She can’t hear it,” Ann said.
“So tell her it’s ringing. Tell her to get up and answer it. It’ll give her a reason to fight.”
“What if it’s someone she doesn’t want to talk to?”
“She’ll find that out after she doesn’t drown. Tell her to get out. Tell her it’s important. Does she have a kid?”
“Tell her it’s her kid calling.”
The woman slipped under again and then sat up, dropping the glass out of the tub to the floor. The harm had stopped but not the tears or cries. She drew herself up, tripped uneasily as she left the tub, and slipped her way to the bed where her cell phone waited.
Before she flipped the phone open, she took a few deep breaths and wrapped her wet self in the comforter from the unmade bed.
“Hi, Baby,” she cried, then paused to listen.
“I’m sorry, Baby. I had to work late.” She rolled and left a small streak of blood on the bed.
“I know, but I couldn’t come home last night. You had fun with Grandma, right?”
She wiped her drippy nose on the pillow she was hugging.
“Oh, I know. Me too.”
She rolled more, further wrapping herself in the bedding.
“Tonight? She looked around the room, then at the blood on her wrist.
“Yes, Baby. Tonight. I have to clean up a few things, and then I’ll be home as fast as I can.” She got up quickly with a new breath.
“No, you don’t have to wait up. But I promise I’ll wake you up when I get home so I can say goodnight. Okay?”
She smiled and cried, but in a good way.
“Aww, you’re the best kid ever. You go be good for Grandma. Bye bye.” And she hung up.
She searched her suitcase and pulled out comfortable clothes, gray sweatpants and a matching zippered top. She dug out white socks and sneakers and quickly put everything on, still crying.
“She’s doing pretty well for being so drunk,” said Chris.
“Motivation,” said Ann.
“She’s still too drunk to drive.”
“Shouldn’t we stop her?”
“You stopped her from cutting herself. Get back inside her while she’s driving.”
“I don’t know where she lives.”
“She knows. She’ll tell you where to go.”
Ann looked straight at Chris. “How about I tell you where to go? How ‘bout that?”
They followed the woman as she dragged her suitcase to the steps and down to her car. She fumbled with the keys and wiped at her eyes with her sleeve until she suddenly was more composed and aware.
“Thanks,” said Chris.
“Yeah,” said Ann, taking a seat behind the wheel.
They drove for almost two hours until parking in the lot of an apartment building somewhere in Arizona. The woman got out of her car without her suitcase or locking the car. After locking the car and noticing the brilliant collection of stars, the woman looked around as if she hadn’t been expecting something. She burst with a smile, a bit of a happy cry, and flipped for the key to her apartment.
As the woman stepped away from her car, Ann remained standing with Chris a few steps away. She turned to him with a proud smile and waited.
“Two things,” he said. “First, I never could’ve done that. Second, I think she forgot to lock the door back at the motel.”
Ann’s shoulders sagged. “You couldn’t stop at the first one?”
“Sorry.” He walked through the parking lot and headed back to the street in the direction from which they had arrived.
“Where are you going?” Ann caught up.
“I mean now.”
“I saw a bus in someone’s driveway up the street. Just want to try to take a nap, sit in a quiet place for a while. Think about everything.”
“We can’t sleep.”
“I mean just like meditate or think in a quiet place.”
“Oh. Do I have permission to join you?” she stressed with attitude.
Still walking, he said, “What’s your problem?”
“You’re just doing whatever you want to do, and I’m just supposed to be ready for when you want to give me orders.”
“That’s not true.”
“Feels that way to me,” she jabbed.
“Oh, that’s real sincere,” she jabbed again.
“What do you want me to do? Print a certificate? Give you a sticker? Throw a party? What can I possibly do? Be real.”
“I am being real. And you’re being a real jerk.”
“And you just want praise and attention. Can’t people just do a good thing for the sake of doing a good thing without being rewarded for it?”
“You think I helped her out just to get praise from you? How about considering the fact that I did that for you?”
“For me?” Chris stopped walking and turned to her. “How do you possibly think you did that for me? I was the one telling you to leave her alone and reminding you that we’re not supposed to get involved with other people’s lives. So why did you push me to get involved?”
“Because you were feeling guilty. That’s why you begged me to help her. You didn’t have the guts to do it, but it would have driven you nuts if we didn’t help. You needed me to help so you didn’t feel guilty if something happened to her.”
“She had a kid waiting at home, and she was about to drive drunk, possibly killing herself and someone else. Isn’t that enough reason to help?” Chris yelled.
“Yes. But why did you ask me to do it? Why didn’t you do it yourself?”
“Because she’s a woman and so are you.”
“Oh, bullshit. Boy, girl, what’s the difference? You think it would be weird if you were inside the girl? What? Are you afraid that it makes you gay or something?”
“Yes. That’s it, isn’t it? As a kid, they all called you gay because you wouldn’t do all the rugged stuff your friends did.”
“Yeah. That’s right. You happy? I was called a fag and queer and everything else, just because I didn’t want to go shoplifting or play football or try cigarettes or any of the other macho bullshit. Is it fun to pry into my head and figure that out?”
Ann stared quietly back at Chris, both losing hold of tears. She softly answered. “Do I look happy?” He waited a bit.
“No.” He glanced at his feet, then up, then anywhere but at her.
They walked to the bus Chris had seen. It was a yellow school bus in a driveway of a ranch home that had seen better days. They entered the bus, found two bench seats in the back, and sat silent and still until sunrise.
Question 1: As I said, this is a long chapter. Do you agree with the mark at which I suggested breaking it, leave it as one chapter, or perhaps break somewhere else?