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Zihuatanejo

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I find I am so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it is the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.

I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams.

I hope.

*

"Zihuatanejo," I whispered again, as the roadside stands and dusty towns swept by the smudged window. "Zihuatanejo." The man across the aisle looked at me funny and turned back to his newspaper. Must've thought I was some ole nut. I wasn't sure he was wrong.

I'd torn out the giant page from the Rand McNally World Atlas at the town library. I sure felt guilty about that, but it wasn't the worst thing I'd done in my life -- just the worst thing I'd done in decades, besides jumping parole.

But I might as well have left it stapled into the book. I didn't have to unfold the paper in my pocket to know just where I was headed, though getting there seemed to take forever. I'd known Mexico was big, but Andy had chosen a town way down at the bottom. And try as I might, I couldn't help looking behind me at every stop. The Mexican police I saw a few times didn't give me a second look, and why would they?
.
Old habits, they die slow.

But you know, when I started out across that sandy beach -- unfamiliar except in my dreams -- I finally felt the shackles fall away. It didn't happen when they'd stamped my get-out-of-jail-free card or the day I first walked down Congress Street in that scratchy-stiff black suit. It was the moment my shoes touched the sand.

I pulled 'em off and tied the laces together, threw 'em over my shoulder. Then the black socks that felt like a joke down here in Mexico; all those bright colors around and me in a funeral suit. Felt the moist grit between my toes and started walking, and there he was, just where I thought he'd be.

Up close, Andy Dufresne was a sight for sore eyes. See, even back in prison, Andy had a look about him. That was what hope looked like. Now, he just looked happy. And I'd be damned if happiness wasn't as infectious as hope.

We sanded that boat for a good three-quarters of an hour without saying much of a word. I could have told him what it had been like back in stir, waiting for my day to come, but Andy sure as shit knew that drill already.

Breathless, Andy sat on the upturned boat and squinted up at my necktie. "You're not going to need to wear a noose down here, Red." I pushed the thought of Brooks Hatlen out of my mind. Maybe sometime I'd tell Andy how close I'd come to standing up on that same rickety old chair in the Brewster Hotel and kicking it straight into the corner. But not today.

"I figure if you bought that hotel down here, you might need some help at the front desk. Can't have the hired help looking like some kind of bum." I grinned at him, but he looked away. Maybe I'd gotten it wrong. I hoped not, but... "Hey, Andy. You know you don't have to hire me-" I started, but he waved a hand and smiled.

"Don't be ridiculous, Red," he said. "Of course I'm not hiring you. Partners." And he threw his head back and laughed when I gave him the big-eye.

"It's your place, though," I said.

"Nah. It's the warden's skim, most of it. And you earned it, more than I did. Besides, neither one of us is doing a lick of work ever again. It's not work if it's working for yourself, is it?"

"Guess that's right," I agreed. And that was a fact. I looked down at my turned-up suit pants and the tops of my feet half-buried in sand and curls of wood chaff from the boat's prow.

"Come on, Red," Andy said. "Bet you'd like to change. Got some short pants and things you can wear. We'll get you some huarache sandals at the centro market tomorrow; you'll like those."

It was strange. I was the fellow who'd shown Andy the ropes once upon a time and I supposed it was his turn now. I relaxed. Mexico. Lord, it was different. Andy picked up my fake leather suitcase and I trudged alongside him. My shoulders hurt from sanding, but it was an honest sort of hurting, and truth was despite those endless hours on the bus, I wasn't tired out at all.

 

The hotel Andy had bought wasn't open for the season. Oh, he'd take stragglers -- fishermen down to check out the yellowfin in the wrong month, but there was nobody there at the moment except for the woman from town he'd hired to cook and tidy up. She must have been about 25-odd years old, and pretty as a Pasco peach.

"Dinner's ready, Señor Andy," she said, and nodded at me shyly, her teeth a flash of pearl as she wiped her palms on her blue apron before extending a hand. I bent to plant a kiss on it and she giggled.

"Red's got old-fashioned good manners, Maria. Fish or fish?" Andy asked.

"It's fish," she said, and Andy shut the door behind us and led me down a hallway with walls painted the same color as the sky outside. He gestured towards the stairs. "Second door on the right," he said. I took the suitcase from him and went up the steps to my new home.

 

I cleaned up and dressed in a short-sleeved shirt I'd brought and cut-off pants and went down to the kitchen, my feet cool on the red tiles. Sure felt good. And the food. Now, I liked fish just fine, always had, but this wasn't anything like the kind I was used to. Cut up and wrapped together with fresh tomatoes and sauce that burned my mouth because I wasn't expecting it. Maria nodded at me and looked happy when I let her know how good it was before she disappeared.

"She your girlfriend, Andy?" I asked him, soon as I heard the front door close.

Andy gave me a crooked smile. "Nope. Kind of young, don't you think?"

"For me, maybe," I answered, as I stuck my fork into a piece of what Andy told me was avocado. "I do like this."

"You sure?" Andy asked. "Because we can get some meatloaf and mash if you miss 'em."

I groaned at that one. I never wanted to see another square slab of shoe-leather meatloaf or a runny mashed potato again, but I noticed how Andy'd changed the subject. He'd always been pretty good at that. I supposed he'd tell me if he had a girl. Maybe it wasn't any of my business anyway, and I couldn't tell you why it mattered, except I missed Andy. And I'm not proud of it, but maybe I felt a little selfish about his company. There weren't many around Shawshank like the two of us, that was for certain.

We had a drink afterward, tequila. Not to my taste but I wouldn't turn down the offer the next time either. Andy showed me around the place. He had a small library and that was no surprise. I went up to my room and brought down the books I'd picked out specially from the shop in Portland. A page out of an atlas was one thing, but I didn't have the heart to liberate books from a library after all Andy went through to get 'em for us. Don Quixote. He had a good old laugh at that, and didn't mind that I'd dog-eared it in a few places on the bus ride down. I knew he'd read it more than once, of course, and so had I. There probably wasn't much we hadn't; we had the time for it, after all. But he realized same as I did that a good book was like an old friend.

 

Andy led me out the door back to the beach, and pulled some wood from a stack, covered it with branches and lit a fire, and we settled back on the sand and watched the stars come out. I told him about being put in the hole when he broke out, and Warden Norton and Byron Hadley and when a log cracked I did too and then it all came rushing out: Brooks was here scratched on that cursed old beam and having to run and hide in the bathroom in the middle of bagging Mrs Franklin's groceries and all the rest. And did it ever feel good, having Andy Dufresne to talk to again.

And when he took my hand under that dark blue blanket of sky I even told him how much I'd missed him.

I'm a damned sap sometimes, in case you didn't know.