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Buzz shifted the gears into third and let the bike gain speed as he headed down yet another hill. The road between Bangor and Collinwood was a continual, though mild, roller coaster. But he liked it. It gave him the chance to put her in and out of full throttle, feeling the rush that her roar always gave him as he sped down the tree-lined road.

Summer was starting to come down warm, and now that his decision to head out to the west coast had been made, his memories of Carolyn Stoddard were as safe as yesterday. It wasn't going to matter that he'd never again touch her shining hair or look into blue eyes that always held a hint of sadness alongside the steel. Or it wouldn't matter, once he had the open road beneath his wheels.

Topping the next to the last hill before the turnoff to the village, his mind jumped ahead to the brass ball party planned by his buddies in the local biker gang, the Black Cats. It meant a lot of booze, a bonfire on the beach, and who knows what all with the chicks that would show up. They were throwing it for him, they'd said, though he privately thought that any excuse would do for them. Full moon? Party! High tide? Let's have a brass ball! As if the thought of heading west wasn't celebration enough.

Just as the rise in the hill gave way to the other side, he saw a truck stalled alongside the road at the bottom of the slope. Whoever it was had pulled the truck over far enough so that it was in the shade of the late afternoon trees that lined the road for miles on either side. The emergency blinkers were on. Buzz guided the bike to the middle of the road, to give the fellow enough room, when he realized that he recognized the truck. It was that white one the guy up at Collinwood used. The guy who waited on that dusty eccentric, Barnabas Collins. The one Carolyn had plenty to say about, even though when they ran into him in town she had nothing to say to him. Which wasn't saying a lot, seeing as a great number of Carolyn's acerbic comments had been used up on Jason McGuire. The man whose absence was the reason he was heading west soon.

It was all tied together, man.

He shot past the truck just as Loomis was straightening up from looking under the hood, wiping his hands on his jeans. Somewhere the karma was going to come back to him tenfold if he didn't stop and try to help. Whatever else he was, and hints in town about Loomis were all dark and dire, the man had been connected with McGuire, and thus the circle had to continue. A good deed became another good deed. Not that any in the Black Cat crowd would ever understand any of that. Nor would Loomis, probably.

Downshifting, he gripped the break as he pulled back on the throttle. The bike responded like a well-schooled steed and came to a halt without a single buck. He turned off the engine and swung off the seat, snapping down the kickstand in the same motion. Listening to the motor purr into coolness, he walked toward the truck. Toward Loomis who stood frozen, the oil-black rag clenched in both hands.

"Hey, Loomis," he said, giving a small waist-high wave of his hand. "You havin' trouble, man?"

Loomis jerked back with a start. Giving him the wary stance of someone turning toward an outsider in an alley fight that he is sure to lose. And though it might have been the sprinkle of shadow across his face, or the movement of air that carried darkened light, it seemed as if he was afraid of Buzz. The last time Buzz had gotten a reaction like that was when he'd driven through the rich part of Collinsport to pick up Carolyn from her friend's house. He'd rung the bell and the maid who'd answered the door had nearly fainted away. She'd fluttered for a good five minutes while he'd waited in the lobby; later he'd told Carolyn that there'd be no more picking her up there. If she wanted a ride, she could meet him at the corner or walk home. Carolyn had balked and pouted and in the end, had only needed one more lift, as McGuire had left town soon after. Leaving Carolyn without a reason to throw her newest beau into her family and friends' faces.

And now Loomis. Not close to fluttering, not by a long shot. But white. Muscles tight beneath his rolled up shirtsleeves, legs in a stance that spoke of either running or fighting, whatever was required.

"What do you want?" asked Loomis, in a voice that was firm and low.

"I wanna help, man. That's all." Buzz held up both of his hands as if to show he held no weapons.

Now disbelief shaded Loomis' features, darkening his eyes and narrowing his mouth. "Help? Why would you do that?"

"Yeah, man. What's the matter with your truck?"

Best not to discuss the whys of it, even if Loomis could understand, besides, it went against karma to explain.

A small gust of wind kicked up some dust in the road as the coolness of the fading afternoon whooshed through the trees. Buzz thought he saw a twinge of alarm on the other man's face, then he looked at the truck.

"Looks like you got a load of stuff, there, Loomis."

"It's outta gas," said Loomis, barely moving his mouth. His eyes never left Buzz. "And Mr. Collins, he--"

Then Loomis stopped, mouth clamped shut on whatever he was going to say. As if saying it would make it so. And that what might be so was definitely not good.

Now Buzz made the connection. Truckload of stuff and a time limit to get it there. Loomis wasn't afraid of ole Buzz, not by a long shot. Buzz could have run him over with the bike, should he have been inclined to do such a thing and ruin good tires, and Loomis would have been on his feet in the instant after, unflinching. His body, tense, was instead geared toward pleasing a man who had more money than he knew what to do with. A rich cat in a big house, he had Loomis jumping when he snapped his fingers. Buzz had seen it before, in the men in the Black Cat who had jobs with bosses who snapped and strutted. The resentment that kind of life fostered went a long way to stripping the men of restraint and the brass balls on the beach got out of hand on half the beer it would have otherwise taken.

But Loomis. Now there was anther kind of creature. Buzz had seen him on any number of occasions at the Blue Whale, when he'd gone there with and without Carolyn. Loomis came in late afternoons, usually, and so very seldom after dark. Ordered one beer, sometimes two. Drank alone. And then went home.

Whatever resentment he harbored, there was none of it visible now. Only white-faced grimness and that stiff stance which now translated into a paralyzing fear of what would result from his failure to deliver the goods on time.

"Got a gas can?" Buzz asked now, shifting his weight on one leg and shoving his hands in his pockets. Any man worth his salt would recognize the message in the stance.

"Y-yeah," Willie said, relaxing his chin, understanding it instantly. "One gallon."

"I'll take you and bring you back."

"What?"

"Like I said, man, I'll carry ya."

"B-but why?"

Convince me, Loomis was saying, not saying it. His body said it, and his eyes, now not so narrow, said it. Convince me you mean to help, not hold me up. I got a boss to please and he's so easy to displease.

Anything negative that Buzz had heard about Collins in town would not burden a handkerchief, and Carolyn's words about him had been equally as glowing. Charming, she'd said, gentlemanly, refined. Which flew in the face of the terror that Loomis obviously felt at the idea of crossing the man.

What does he read? Buzz had once asked her.

Read?

This had confused Carolyn, he could tell, as reading was far down on her list of interesting things to do. Why Buzz might want to know was beyond her, though she did manage to tell him that Cousin Barnabas read old books.

Ones with leather covers and pages as thick as cloth napkins, she'd said.

Old books meant old ideas like the inherent power of wealth and rank, and bloodlines that ran back thick as a tree trunk all the way to the beginning of Christendom. That had decided Buzz, even before he met Collins, that he wouldn't like him.

"Because I want to," he said to Willie now. "An' I like to show off my bike."

Buzz turned to wave a generous hand over the sparkle of slanted sunlight on the chrome and steel parked by the roadside. He looked back at Loomis before Loomis had taken his eyes off the bike, before the wanderlust had had a chance to fade back into the pewter-blue wall of his eyes. It disappeared once Loomis had zeroed in on Buzz again, but it had been there.

"O-okay," said Loomis, and Buzz decided his stuttered response was based more on surprise than hesitation.

Loomis went to the back of his truck to dig out the gas can, and Buzz walked to his bike, took the handles and kicked off the stand. Straddling the black leather seat, he started her up, his heart jumping with pleasure as she roared to life. Behind him he heard the footsteps in the gravel and planted his feet firmly on either side of the bike.

"Just put the can in the saddlebag for now," he said, not turning his head. "We'll figure out what to do when it's full later."

He felt the motion of the saddlebag cover being lifted and lowered, and then Loomis got on behind him. He got on like he had done it before, but not often enough to be smooth. There was an awkward moment as Loomis, unbalanced, almost fell off as he looked down for where to put his feet.

"Pegs're flat up against the frame, you gotta kick 'em out."

"Got it," said Loomis, and Buzz felt the man's weight settle in the middle of the seat behind him.

"All set?"

"Yeah," came the reply.

Guiding a bike with two-up instead of just one was easy enough, provided the passenger knew how to shift with the turns. As Buzz drove up the last hill and into town, he could feel the twitch of Loomis' thighs against his hips as the other man got used to the sensation of being double up on a bike. Didn't take him long either. By the time they'd reached the gas station, Buzz could hardly feel that Loomis was back there. Which spoke again of some experience. That or extreme adaptability. When he'd taken Carolyn for her first ride, she'd clung to his leather jacket like a blond-haired monkey, looking frantically over his shoulder every time he'd had to take a turn, throwing them both off balance. She'd jerked so hard at one corner that she'd almost tipped the bike, and while he wasn't worried about the paint job, per se, a nervous passenger was a danger to both. He'd pulled to the side then and there and told her what she needed to be doing, riding pillion. And what she needed not to be doing. Instead of getting off the bike in a huff, as he'd half expected her to do, Carolyn had listened intently. She wanted to ride, she assured him, the bike was the most fun she'd ever had.

The bike, of course, was crucial in her little end game to stop her mother's marriage to, one, Jason McGuire. Buzz's was one of the loudest, blackest bikes in town and only the best would do for Miss Stoddard.

Pulling into the gas station, Buzz gave a short press on the horn and gunned the engine for good measure. From inside the station, he saw the wave that gave him the go ahead to pump it self-service. Mac loved motorbikes, especially Harleys, and always encouraged Buzz to bring it on in when it needed work. So Buzz did, and in return, Mac gave him a discount on the gas.

"Okay, Loomis, we can get it here," he said, cutting off the engine and planting his feet.

Without a word, Loomis got off, almost gently enough not to rock the bike, and started pumping the gas into the gas can. Fumes rose up in the warm, spring air that was quickly turning to cool as the sun went down. Within minutes, Loomis had finished filling the gas tank, paid for the gas, and was back again, gas tank in one hand, eyeing the motorbike.

"Just put it in the saddlebag," Buzz said.

"No, it'll ruin it," said Loomis, shaking his head. "The gas'll eat through the leather, or tear it, or--"

"Hey, man," said Buzz, stopping him. "These bags have a steel frame in them. Tough as nails. If you're worried, wrap it in your shirt, but it'll be easier to balance with it in there than it would if you were holding it."

Buzz watched as Loomis' eyes flicker as he thought this through. Then Loomis took off his shirt and wrapped it around the gas can. His t-shirt was probably not much protection against the growing chill air, but Loomis didn't seem to notice it much. "Right or left?" he asked.

"Left," said Buzz. It was easier to shift to the right to carry the extra weight on the left, and he waited while Loomis secured the gas can.

"Hop on, Loomis, we're burning daylight."

As Loomis swung up behind him, Buzz started the engine, and the roar of it almost, but not quite, covered the other man's reply.

"You got that right."

*

When he dropped Loomis off at his truck, Buzz fended off the offer of a few bucks for his trouble, telling Loomis instead to pass the favor on to the next fellow who needed it. Loomis had nodded, seeming a little lost as if this were an unexpected notion, and Buzz had gunned his way back into Collinsport.

Play it forward, man.

He picked up some cases of beer, packing it in his saddlebags. When he arrived at the Blue Whale, it was almost full dark, and Bangor Jones and his leather-clad Molly were there, waiting to give him the news on the brass ball.

"Stone Cove, man," said Bangor Jones, "and the guys from Clearwater are going to be there too, an' they're bringing a keg."

Bangor Jones was worked up enough to let go of his bike, and Buzz caught the rise of beer fumes, already thick enough to float a house. Molly nodded from her perch on the parked bike, not saying anything, but looking at him with glimmering eyes. She'd been swilling her share too, looked like.

The brass balls had been good at first, a fun-spirited way to blow off steam, to talk about bikes, and of the open road. However, he'd discovered after some months of this, that not only was the talk just talk, but also at a certain point in the festivities the party turned to drinking and brawling and screwing. And usually that was okay, too. Tonight, though, with his imminent departure to places beyond the horizon, he realized that the thought of spending an evening watching his biker pals tip back enough beer only to yark it all over the beach was not a pleasant one. But what could he do? It was bad karma not to have a sendoff.

"Hey, man," he said, not getting off his bike, or turning off the engine. Even to a biker as drunk as Bangor Jones, it was a clear symbol that he was still on the road. Still headed for somewhere. "Sounds like that would suit a man headed out for the coast in the morning."

"Yeah," said Bangor Jones, now having got a grip on the seat of his bike, "and chicks, you know, new chicks. All from Clearwater." Chicks to Bangor Jones meant either getting screwed or watching his best pals get screwed. For free. Over and over. It was his favorite activity.

Stone Cove with the Black Cats and the lads and chicks from Clearwater would suit someone, he knew, but it wasn't him. Not tonight. He should have realized this when he'd confronted their initial confusion when he told them he was leaving. Why, they'd asked in the plaintive tones of a storybook heroine, whither wilt thou go? And why would you? Man.

"Gotcha, man," Buzz said now, gunning the engine a little. "But I gotta go meet a friend, and I'll come by later."

"Hey, great!"

Yeah, Bangor Jones couldn't care less if Buzz came by or not. Long as the beer held up and the chicks put out before he toppled face down on the beach. He was well on his way to it; Buzz hoped he scored before then so the evening wouldn't be totally lost for him.

"Catch you later," he said again, and shifted the bike softly into first. Bangor Jones stood back, and Molly nodded at him, and Buzz sailed out of the parking lot, with only a vague idea of where he was going. It was only when he hit the outskirts of the village and was on the road to the Great House on the Hill that he knew.

Getting to Collinwood was something he could have done with his eyes closed. Sloping up the road with a 1,000 ccs of Harley without being noticed was another matter altogether. And not something he'd tried before. Carolyn would not understand why he was coming up to her neck of the woods to pick up someone else. Not that she would want to come with him, not at this point, not when his usefulness was totally in the past. But she certainly would feel hard done by if she knew he was coming up for Loomis.

Loomis' unassuming company would be the perfect karma to celebrate what was coming Buzz's way. Of course when a guy shifted location as drastically as he planned to do, there would be changes. Big ones, wide as the open sky. Sharing a beer with a man like Loomis was the way to do it.

He made it up the track to the ancient structure that Carolyn had referred to as the Old House, where, according to both her and village rumor, Barnabas Collins ruled the roost, and one, Willie Loomis, did all his fetching and carrying for him. On a very tight leash.

At the top of the gravel drive, he idled the bike into neutral and then shut it off. The wind kicked up a brace of salt air from the sea. The silence of a place so far from the village was not as he had thought; beyond the echo of the engine, there was the rustle of leaves as they scurried against each other and the faraway boom of waves against black rock. And behind that, the whisk of wind around the corners of the house that loomed above him.

The feeling that eked at him from the house was not pleasant as he walked toward it. Probably from years of ruin and disuse, and he was heartily glad not to be living there. But Loomis did. And Collins did. And many before him, living and dying and leaving traces of themselves behind.

With these dark thoughts dancing in his head, he knocked on the kitchen door. And waited.

The darkness within was scattered aside by a single flame that wavered behind the warped glass in the doorframe as it came closer. Someone held it aloft and then the door was opened.

It was Loomis. Shirt sleeves rolled up, worn, striped apron tied loosely on, hair hanging in his eyes, caught mid-chore.

"Hey, man," said Buzz.

"Hey," said Willie, in return.

"Wanna come out for a ride on my bike?"

In the doorway of the kitchen door, Loomis froze. Buzz could not see his expression, but caught the furtive movement of his head as he started to look over his shoulder. Then he stopped himself, tipping his head down a bit as if nodding.

"No, I mean, I can't. Look, thanks, but I have things to do and all?"

His eyes were on Buzz, two gleaming circles in the candlelight, but he seemed to be watching still, too. Sideways, over his shoulder. Into the darkness.

Buzz nodded. Waited a moment, thinking about how to say it. The truth would be the best, after all.

"I've got beer, and I'm leaving town tomorrow. I'm gonna have a little celebration and I want you to come with me."

"Me? Why me?"

This was a harder question to answer, because he didn't quite know why himself. Part of it was the look he'd seen in Loomis' eyes when he'd first laid eyes on the bike and the slow way he'd gotten off it when Buzz had returned him to his truck. He hadn't wanted to get off, that much was obvious. Some people hopped off, as if they couldn't wait to be on solid ground again. Others, like Loomis, lingered over dismounting, sliding off slowly, keeping contact with the bike for as long as possible. Loomis' hand had even stayed on the seat of the bike while he'd unloaded the gas can. Stroked it with his fingertips until at last he'd had to walk away.

The other part of it came from the almost nothing that Carolyn had said about Loomis, and what he'd seen of him. A man like that wasn't likely to talk his head off when drinking beer. Or yark all over the sand after. He might even understand why it was so critical that karma be maintained before a trip as important as this one.

Part of the truth then.

"Thought you might enjoy it. Thought you might be good company."

"Wh-what about your--" began Loomis, and then he stopped suddenly, waving his hand in the direction of the bike, and Buzz turned to see it there, vague bits of starlight sparking off the chrome of the front fender.

"The Black Cats like to get wasted," said Buzz, turning back around to look directly at Loomis. "Tonight's not the night for getting wasted."

"Oh."

"Just for an hour, man, that's all."

"An hour?"

"Yeah, an hour. Ride the bike, go to the beach, drink some beer, and I bring you back."

Loomis looked at him steadily, all the while holding the candle to the left side of his face like a banner. "You doing this to get back at Carolyn?" he asked. There was concern in his voice, and of course there would be. Loomis was just a working Joe, and, in the Collins' lineup, that didn't amount to much. He couldn't afford to get in the middle of something that might be detrimental to the shining star of the Collins' gene pool.

"No, man, that's all over between us. I don't ride with her anymore."

Loomis was almost scowling at him now, as if the invite were for something bad instead of something good.

"I still don't see why--"

"Look," said Buzz now, interrupting him, "I did you a favor picking you up today, right?"

"Right," came the slow reply.

"And now I want you to do me a favor. It's as simple as that."

"A favor to you?"

Buzz nodded. The tone in Loomis' voice told him that he'd hit the right note, and it was interesting that he wouldn't come out on the bike for his own sake, but instead would do it because Buzz wanted it. "Yeah, a favor. Can you help me out or what, here?"

There was a pause, and Loomis tipped his head to the side, almost smiling. "Well, if it'll help you."

*

Buzz rode Loomis to a little beach he knew of, just north of town. It wasn't very big, just a half-moon of sand, rimmed with layers of rock and rows of trees. There was only one dirt road that led to it, and, with no facilities, there were no tourists. Even if there had been some, it was too early in the season and too late at night for them to be about.

When he parked the bike at the spot where the gravel ended and the sand began, Loomis got off.

Buzz grabbed the beer and led them to a point in the sand just above where the high tide mark was, and when Buzz mentioned that a bonfire might be nice, Loomis promptly built one. He had the matches on him and everything. Buzz thanked him but the other man shrugged him off, saying something about knowing how and liking to do it.

"Okay, then," said Buzz, when the fire was brightly burning and the smell of ash and wood floated across the scent of the sea. "Here, have a cold one."

He sat down in the cool sand, pulling a bottle from the container, popping it open with the leverage from his key chain. Loomis looked at him, still standing, and Buzz waved his hand over the sand. "Take a load off, man," he said.

With a bare nod, Loomis sat down, and, watching him, Buzz saw him wince and shift to one hip.

"You okay there?" he asked.

Loomis shrugged as he settled himself into the sand. "Yeah, 'm alright. Guess I'll take that beer now."

Buzz tossed him one and Loomis caught it, opening it with his own key chain and taking a large, deep swallow. Then Buzz rested his hands between his bent knees, letting the bottle dangle between his legs.

For a few moments, neither of them said anything as the fire gained in momentum and the quiet of the small half-moon bay grew in the darkness beyond the constant, regular hush of the waves along the beach. The Black Cats would usually be too loud to notice the rough silence and too drunk to appreciate the calm and slow push of air across the water. Buzz knew he'd made the right choice.

"So," he began slowly. "I'm leaving town tomorrow."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah," Buzz replied. "And I have your friend Jason to thank for it."

"Jason?" Loomis sat up, almost spilling his beer, looking at him from across the fire. "Why Jason?"

"Cause he isn't here anymore, man, and that means Carolyn doesn't need me anymore to throw in her mommy's face, and so that means that I'm free to fly."

Loomis answered him with silence. A furrow appeared over his eyes as he thought this over. Finally, as if he'd wondered it for some time, he asked, "So you know she was using you?"

"Yeah, sure I knew. Not at first, but then, well, it was obvious I wasn't her kind of man."

"How did you--"

"Because she's not the kind of chick to go calling for dates. She's got to beat them off with a stick. And yet, out of the blue, she calls me, when before that she wouldn't answer any of my calls. Didn't realize it till I met up with McGuire. Don't suppose you know where he is so you could pass along my thanks?"

A long pause now, infinitely long, as Loomis' eyes went unfocused and he stared into the fire.

"No," came the quiet answer. "I don't know where he is."

"So he split town, and that's cool. But I wanted to pass it along somehow, which is why I invited you. Do you get it now?"

"Yeah, I get it."

Yeah, Loomis got it all right. And so had Buzz, after the first date or so. Carolyn calling him had felt like Christmas and New Year all rolled up together. And soon after that, so very soon, the cornsilk hair was beneath his hands, and that bright, pert face was looking up at him. Blue eyes alive and laughing, small, light hands on his hips, tucking themselves into his pockets.

His head spinning with his first invitation, he'd gone up to Collinwood and met up with Mrs. Stoddard. Stern faced and holding herself like a strung wire, she'd disapproved of him, his bike, his jacket, and his loud boots, all without saying a word. That he had expected, welcomed it even. But, after all, Carolyn had called him, so what right did mommy have to say different?

The whole family had disapproved of him, with the exception of that David kid, who he'd caught trying to climb on his bike. He'd pulled him off, promising him a ride one day, determined to ignore the sour face of the housekeeper staring at him from the drapes of the front windows, had waited for Carolyn.

The first few dates had been like pieces of heaven, her on the back of the bike, arms wrapped around his waist, head pressed between his shoulder blades. But then the stories had come about some guy, Jason McGuire. And the anger Carolyn felt over her mother's plans to marry him could not be disguised. She practically spat his name when she talked of him, an ugliness showing that had she been aware of, he was sure she would have taken pains to hide.

It became obvious that he was being used when he realized how different she was than when he'd tried to date her the year before. Then she'd been a prim and proper miss, not a hair out of place, looking down her nose at the common folk, the typical rich girl. Now, she wore jeans, and let her hair hang as it would, and it was such a total turnaround that he'd begun to pay attention.

What's more, the whole while she determinedly went with him, biking across the countryside, dancing until she dropped, drinking her way into a stupor every chance she got, she'd had a small, sad, flat expression that she would get when she thought he wasn't looking. Then she would catch him watching her and straighten up and smile and laugh. As if everything was all right. Upon discovering her duplicity, it was that sad, still look in her eyes that kept him from setting her by the roadside and driving off forever.

The laugh, slightly too high and on the verge of being hysterical, became even more pronounced when there were other people around. He got used to it, forced himself to almost ignore it and concentrate only on the sparkle in her smile or the sweet purse of her lips when she was about to kiss him. He longed for it to be real forever, but it never happened. Except for the one time at the Blue Whale when McGuire had tried to bribe him to stay away from Carolyn. She'd been in the bathroom, powdering her nose, and when she'd come back, he'd spilled the beans. McGuire had been shocked, and Buzz had waited for her to explode at both of them. Instead, she looked at Buzz with real laughter in her eyes, and hugged him. He could feel it inside of her as she clasped him to her, a sort of amazed chuckle as if at his ability to resist Jason McGuire's charms. And then, after McGuire had gone, her face had looked even sadder than before.

Loomis had been there that night with McGuire, when they'd first walked in. His head had been down, in his usual manner, not saying a word, not catching anyone's eye. No one had acknowledged that he was even there, for the most part, and he'd left the Blue Whale a little later on silent feet. Like a cat trying to escape notice. Carolyn's comments about Loomis that night had been scathing, as if he too were a part of this. Loomis and McGuire had come to town together, he was told, and they'd cooked up some scheme, only now Loomis worked for Cousin Barnabas and McGuire was digging for power and gold on his own. And that Collins kept Loomis on a leash so tight that Loomis was almost choking.

But he deserves it, you know? After he harassed and scared Vicki and me. He's as bad as McGuire.

But she didn't quite sound like she believed it anymore, even if she once did.

Does he bother you now? he'd wanted to know. For surely he'd have to take care of Loomis if this were true.

Her answer had surprised him. No, Willie doesn't bother me these days.

In fact, according to Carolyn, he never bothered anyone. He was a totally different man, so much under Cousin Barnabas' thumb that it was almost hard to watch. Cousin Barnabas could be quite severe with Willie, she'd said, and that was as close as he'd ever heard her come to criticizing her cousin.

He'd met Collins once and only once, and upon leaving tomorrow, hoped never to have the pleasure again. It had happened when he'd been again waiting in the foyer at Collinwood. Carolyn was forever powdering her nose, but he suspected that she was actually giving herself pep talks as much as anything else. Determined to break up her mother's marriage to Jason McGuire, she was prepared to go to any lengths, it seemed. Including dating him.

Collins had shown up in the foyer, silently, and Buzz had spun around at the sound of a single footstep, suspecting later that if Collins hadn't wanted him to hear it, he wouldn't have. He seemed that kind of fellow. Had looked Buzz up and down without a word, then held out his hand.

"Young Mr. Hackett, I presume," he said, without any warmth in his eyes. "Paying court to my Cousin Carolyn?"

Buzz took the offered hand and shook it, not wincing at the ice-cold grasp. He was used to the disapproval of the members of the family, and had suspected that this would also be the case with Carolyn's eccentric cousin. However, the dislike was so instant in that meeting that it was at that point that Buzz began to grow weary of the game, of Carolyn's determination to fling him in her family's face.

"You presume correctly, man," he said anyway, playing his role, tipping his head back to show he wasn't intimidated. "I come, paying court, but bring no ministers to herald my arrival."

A long silent moment followed what had been intended to be a fairly innocent statement, one that most would have no knowledge of the source, and he did not expect to be questioned. Not in this part of Maine where the best sellers were the Farmer's Almanac and the Maine Gazetteer. But Collins' brows had lowered, and his eyes had narrowed, snake-like. "Shakespeare?" he asked.

Buzz hid his laugh, but barely. "No, man, that was Johnson. Dr. Samuel Johnson."

Another pause, and Buzz knew that he'd made the other man look bad, even if only in his eyes and Buzz's. Even if there weren't witnesses, it was a mistake, of course it was, and that was bad karma, but just on the heels of that thought he realized how cold the room was getting. As if the frosty air from the north of Canada had suddenly forgotten that it was end of spring. A slight movement and Collins stepped forward, his cane coming an inch off of the slate tile in the foyer. Then he paused and put it down again. Buzz kept himself from stepping back, feeling a ripple of coldness slip up his spine.

Bad karma, all the way around. A life lived without another meeting with Collins would be a very good one indeed.

"Carolyn said," he began now to Willie, opening up his second and final beer of the night, "that you came with McGuire and that the two of you had this plan to control mommy's money."

It was the wrong question to ask, obviously. But it was too late; he'd never seen a still form move so fast. Loomis leaped to his feet, casting sand on the fire, making it sputter, sending his beer to foam over the rocks. About ready to run off, chest heaving, looking for a place to go. His face was in the shadows now, but Buzz recognized the other man's stance as being the same one he'd taken along the road, when Buzz had offered him help for his stranded truck. Didn't take much, apparently, to get Loomis as tense as a tight rope walker.

Buzz took a swig of his beer. "Hey, man, I could give a hang about that, so cool it, okay? Like I said, I'm for the road tomorrow."

"Then why did you say that? Why did you bring me here?"

With silent eyes, Buzz looked up at the man shaking on the other side of the fire. "Do you think I care about any of that?" he asked, waving his bottle in the air. "The Collins family has more money than sense. I just wanted to know, that's all. Seems strange you come here with McGuire. Carolyn said you were good friends, but you didn't leave with him."

The statement hung in the dark silence of the beach like a burst backfiring from a poorly-tuned engine.

"I-I don't--" began Loomis, then he stopped.

"C'mon, man, sit down." Buzz waved at the fire. "I don't care, okay?"

Another sip of his beer, and then a swallow, and then he looked up to see Loomis staring at him. Still standing, a sentinel at the gates. A sudden wind kicked up and as Loomis turned his head away from the grit flinging itself down the beach, Buzz caught a clear glimpse of his expression, eyes closed, mouth compressed in a thin line.

Time to backtrack then. All the way back.

Buzz shrugged and concentrated on his beer, taking long swigs while the wind died down and the silence of the beach absorbed him. After several moment of this, Loomis sat down, almost without a sound, and Buzz saw him take a mouthful of his beer.

Then he heard Loomis take a breath.

"Can't tell you what Jason's plan was," Loomis said. "Just know that he had one, is all. An' I guess it was about money, but--" Here Loomis stopped again, with a half shrug, the movement of his leg sending sand into the fire, causing it to spit. "Guess nothin' ever came of it."

This small bit of information was possibly more than Loomis had told anyone up at Collinwood, including that boss of his. He sounded as if not only hadn't he known, but that he didn't want to know. Leaving Buzz to wonder what had happened between two friends who had once been as thick as thieves.

Buzz realized he had opened the door to someone else's bad memories. Definitely not the way to start off on a journey. There had to be something he could do; it would all come back to good karma if he could. At any rate, it was time to change the subject.

He took a swallow of his beer, and then set the empty bottle against a dark rock half-hidden in the sand and looked up. The stars above were specs of chalk in black glass above him. Only here weren't just a million stars, there were hundreds of millions, as thick as flour thrown on a dark cutting board. All spread out from horizon to horizon, like flurries of snow in a blizzard, a broad curving ribbon of white, and Buzz tipped back his head to take it all in.

"Think the stars on the west coast will look like this, Loomis?"

Loomis did not look up. Instead he seemed to be concentrating his efforts on piling sand up over his feet. Could have been the beer, could have been idle action. But he was totally focused on this, his profile a hard line in the flickering light of the flames of the small bonfire that burned between them.

"Sure," Loomis said finally, taking a swig of his beer. "Stars stay pretty much the same, long as you're in the northern hemisphere."

Loomis had been a sailor, had been around the world, if Carolyn's casual remarks were anything to go by, and the tone was meant to be assured, Buzz could tell. But it was delivered in a way that somehow spoke of a lack of interest. As if all the stars could go out and the night sky could become a blanket of black for all he cared. Seemed an odd state of affairs for a sailor. Even an ex-sailor. Just didn't seem right.

"Loomis?"

"Yeah."

"Do me a favor."

The edge of Loomis' body went tense and still. "What."

"Put your beer down and look up at the stars, man."

There was a flash of eyes as Loomis looked over at him. Then a pause, and a slow inhale and exhale of breath.

Buzz nodded, twisting the empty beer bottle by his feet into the cool curve of sand beneath his hand. "C'mon man, it won't hurt."

Another pause, and then Loomis slowly put down his beer. Tipped his head back. And looked up.

For a long moment, he was silent. Perfectly silent, frozen in that position, and as the firelight flared up as it burned through a thin part of the wood, the blaze revealed that his mouth had fallen open. Silence rushed through the fire, and the waves hushed over the sand.

"Oh--" Buzz heard.

Just at that moment, he saw Loomis lean too far back, and collapse, unbalanced, in the sand. His head must have hit with a thump, but he never said a word. Never made a sound. Just lay there, a dark form in the sand, eyes only small bright spots in one long shadow.

"Christ, I--" A gulp and a swallow. "I had forgotten."

Forgotten the stars?

Buzz lifted a handful of sand and threw it on the fire. Threw another big handful on, dousing the flames until they were only low, banked coals. Enough heat to see them through for a bit, but no light to distract from the stars overhead. Smoke rose up from the coals that winked from cherry red to grey, and then Buzz heard Loomis clear his throat.

"Thank you," he heard, and it was almost a whisper.

Buzz laid back himself, tucking his hands under his head, feeling the sift of cold granules of sand as they made their way into his collar. Yeah, he'd be coated with sand in about a minute and a half, but it didn't matter. Not in the face of the good karma that was floating over them so thick and high that it reached the stars themselves.

*

When he dropped Loomis back off at the Old House, it was far later than it should have been, and he was going to be very tired for the trip in the morning, but it had been worth it. Loomis slid off the bike, slowly again, and turned to walk into the house.

"Hey, Loomis?"

"Yeah?" Loomis stopped and looked at him.

"You're a brother of the road, I can see it in your eyes. Why don't you come with me tomorrow? The bike can carry two as easy as one."

"No, I can't." The reply was automatic, even before thought, it seemed like.

"Why?"

"I just c-can't, okay?" Now the stutter was back, and that over-the-shoulder glance he'd seen from before.

"Hey, c'mon, man, what's keeping you here? Collinwood's a drag, you know that."

In the light of the stars, Buzz saw Loomis half close his eyes as if something pained him. And from behind him, he could see an outline of someone in the kitchen, moving forward as if moving to open the door. In a second it would be opened, and the karma of the evening would be shattered.

"Look, man, if you change your mind," he said quickly, "I'm leaving from the Blue Whale at 6 a.m. You wanna go with me? That's where I'll be. Okay, man?"

The door opened.

"Willie."

Buzz lifted his head, recognizing Collins, but not the tone. He'd only talked to the man once, but nothing Carolyn had said had hinted at the nasty edge to his voice.

Loomis reached for Buzz's hand, clasping it, his palm ice cold, shaking. "Thanks, Buzz," he said," G-good luck on your trip. Stay upright, okay?"

"Okay, I'll do that."

It was so hurried, so sharp and final. But Loomis was already walking toward the house and so there was nothing for it but to start the bike and go home. Buzz pushed the throttle, drowning out the sound of the door to the house opening and closing, and popped it into first. Time for thoughts later. Time for finalizing for his trip now.

*

Fog was so common in this part of Maine, especially so early in the morning, that he normally didn't think anything of it. Didn't think anything of it now, except that the swath of grey air seemed intent on keeping him from seeing anyone coming down the road. He sat straddled on his bike, the engine in neutral as it burbled between his thighs, and waited. Not that he thought Loomis would really join him, but he might, and that was enough. Besides, Buzz had asked him and said he'd wait and so here he was. And beyond that promise was the thought that Loomis would make a good companion on the road. But he couldn't wait forever.

By the time the sun broke the trees, the fog lifted, spinning away in grey strands from the road that led out of town. The white stripes down the middle beckoned, pulling toward the distance and breaking over the top of that first hill. The bells announcing the start of the six o'clock shift at the cannery went off. Time to go, then.

Buzz pressed on the clutch and toed the bike into first. He eased the gas on and, turning the bike westward, headed out of town.

 

~The End~