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Little Cactus

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Rust shuttles himself between Doumain's and Marty's like a child of divorce, spending a few days here and a few days there. An uninterrupted week with Marty still gets them both irritable no matter how close they are now, and becoming inadvertent blood brothers in what Marty's taken to calling "Satan's rectum" doesn't shield them from petty arguments about the correct way to fold a bath towel.

Today's an especially good day to get out of Marty's metaphorical hair. They've been getting mail and teary handshakes in parking lots from people with loved ones in the Carcosa bone pile, and yesterday an auntie brought them a pair of heavy homemade buttermilk pies. Rust has somehow managed to eat all of his and half of Marty's, so it seems wise to hightail it out to Bob's for the weekend before he opens the fridge and finds out. Besides, he loves being back out at the bar. It's different now - he hasn't talked about it with Bob and probably never will, but a reunion of sorts with their lost children has lifted weights off both of them.

Not all of it, but enough.

Bob's working through a list of bar housekeeping items that have never been done. Last week he cleaned the grime from the windows and this week he's freshening up the taxidermy. The old vacuum has a peripheral whistle that bugs the living shit out of Rust, who's in the back sorting out a shoebox of last month's receipts. He's of limited use in Bob's cleaning campaign because he can only lift so much and standing with his arms overhead still hurts.

He's about to escape for a smoke someplace quiet when the vacuum stops and his ear's tapped by a voice out front like a gold bell. Not a woman who's smoked since age six, which is their usual clientele, but a girl. He keeps sorting and listens to the construction of her drink - ice, a shot, and a squirt of the gun. Probably rum and Coke, or Coke and vanilla vodka if she's really young.

Bob appears a few minutes later. “Girl wants to see you,” he grunts. It's not a sentence Rust ever hears and it gives him a nice tingle. It may be a long shot but he hopes for pie.

It's Audrey Hart, in a little charcoal gray jacket with her hair pulled back. “Hi.”

“Hey. What brings you all the way out here?”

She runs her thumbnail along a groove in the Formica. “Dad told me about this place and I wanted to see it for myself.”

An unlikely story, but Rust can't think of a likely one. “Well I hope it's everything you expected.”

“Um, yeah.” She stirs what might be a 7&7 and looks up at the Budweiser Clydesdale lamp hung over the bar. “That's so cool. Does the inside rotate?”

“Used to, maybe. It hasn't worked since I've been here.”

“Well, it should.” She stabs at her ice with the skinny red straw and sits back like she's daring him to fix it. “I'd come here all the time if it did.”

Rust recalls all too well the puzzle box charm of twenty-five year old women. Doesn't need to crack 'em anymore but it's a thrill to be this close to one. She's up to something. “You wanna tell me why you're really here?”

“What. I can't stop for a drink wherever I want?”

“'Course you can, it's just nowhere near your ma's or your dad's and I know you didn't come for the atmosphere.” He leans in with both hands firm on the bar. “So let's hear it.”

Her nose squiggles and her voice cranes high. “Can I talk to you, please? In private?”

Goddammit, it looks like she might cry. Twenty-five year old women are like hurricanes. Stupid men think it's just water and wind but Rust knows better. They can level anything.

"Yeah, sure." He consciously softens his voice and stance. "Sorry if I sounded like an ass. Come on.” Bob's eyes drill holes in them, wondering what the fuck's going on as Audrey takes her glass and follows Rust through the back, past a mess of flattened boxes and out the back door.

She hesitates on the packed dirt between the bar and his little house like she won't follow him there, but it doesn't offend Rust because he never expected her to. “Be right back,” he says, and comes out a moment later with his old webbed lawn chairs.

They walk across the road to the battered boat launch and he flings Audrey's chair open for her, then they settle in and appreciate the pinkening clouds in the southeastern sky. “Alright,” he says. “I'm ready whenever you are.”

She takes a deep breath and begins. “Something happened yesterday, and I thought I didn't care but I must 'cause I can't stop thinking about it.” She squirms and unconsciously taps her feet on the old silvered dock boards. “I can't tell mom, can't tell dad, and all the friends I had then aren't the ones I have now. And I don't want to tell the ones I have now. So I'm gonna tell you.”

“Okay. Take your time,” he says. “Actually, hang on a minute.”

He trots across the road and comes back with a crisp white pocket square of cocktail napkins and a beer for himself.

“Like I said, take your time. It's a nice view, huh?”

“Yeah. I can see why you like it out here.” She sucks down the last of her drink with a scratchy whoosh and sets it down. “Do you know about the two guys dad beat up when I was in high school?”

“Um...” Rust downplays just how much he remembers, like the defensive ache he felt over the shamed, closed-in way Audrey carried herself the next time he saw her - because she knew that he knew. “Yeah, I think I might've heard somethin' about that.”

“I saw one of them. At Walgreens. I was picking up a prescription and we tried to pretend we didn't see each other, but... we looked at each other a second too long and basically had to say hi.” She swallows hard. “It wasn't that bad, like he was nice to me. But...” She pauses and Rust hands over a napkin.

“Take your time. You don't even have to tell me if you don't want to.”

“No. I want to,” she sobs, and a tight, constricted sort of crying owns her for a few minutes. “He's got scars. On the side of his face.” Tears smear as she touches her own left cheek. “Right here, it's like a wrinkle with a big chip out of it. Like, I've always felt guilty about it, but after a couple years I framed it in my head that we'd all moved on and nobody thought about it anymore. But he has to see that in the mirror every day.”

Elbows tip to knees; Rust's not sure he should be touching her but sets a hand on her back anyway. “It isn't your fault, Aud. That whole thing was fucked up and none of it's your fault. Not one bit of it.”

“Yeah, well. It still doesn't make me feel great.”

His hand makes slow circles; her sniffs and snorts lessen until mascara-streaked napkins get shoved in her pocket to show she's done. “Anyway, that's it and I don't want to talk about it anymore. Thanks for listening.”

“Anytime.” Rust reclaims his hand when she sits upright and tries to introduce something nicer to talk about. “How've you been up until yesterday? You still live in the Garden District with that boyfriend your ma likes so much?”

"Fuck." Audrey snags another napkin. “We broke up but we're stuck with the apartment for three more months 'cause we don't have the money to break the lease. He's seeing somebody else, too. Not quite fucking her under my nose but close enough. It just about couldn't be worse.”

Rust has a powerful wave of deja he knows the guy's an asshole even though his only knowledge is from Marty, who heard secondhand from Maggie that he's a prince.

“You deserve better than that, Audrey.”

She dabs at her eyes. “I know.”

Her free hand slides over to his arm with a familiarity that he can't quite place, but her trust's a compliment that he's glad to have. He's always liked Audrey. How could he not be charmed by the ballsy little girl who asked if he'd ever fired his gun and made him hand-drawn valentines up until she graduated high school? Maybe she's always liked him, too.

He hopes it's not creepy that he still has the cards.

“You know what I want?” Audrey says suddenly. “To be so happy that I don't get knocked back so far every time something shitty happens. I don't need anything major, just a nice base level.” She stows the latest cry napkin away and re-crosses her legs. “You've probably thought about stuff like that lately. What do you want, deep down?”

“A new drivetrain for my truck so it'll last forever.”

It's a lousy answer but she doesn't press for a better one, and in the quiet Rust decides if she's revealing big personal stuff then maybe he will, too. She's right - he's thought about it plenty, and a new, soft hum in his blood's gained strength ever since he let it in. “Sometimes I think it might be nice to be in love one last time," he says, looking out across the water. "'Course it's a pretty tall order bein' this broke down and old.”

His arm gets a gentle squeeze. “You're not that old.”

They sit still and silent; a cool, flat blue takes over when the pulsing slice of orange on the horizon fades to gone. Rust can't measure his heart rate because it'd mean displacing Audrey's hand, but he'd guess it's about as slow as the bayou. He wonders how long she'll stay. “Sky's not all that pretty anymore, is it?”

“Yeah, I should probably go. No one knows where I am,” Audrey says. “This was nice, though. I like it out here. Thanks for listening to all my crap.” She draws herself up and folds the chair.

“I'll get that for you.”

“It's okay, I got it."

Rust picks up their empties and they walk back across the road, where Audrey's unafraid to step inside his house. “This is cute,” she lies, taking in the scarecrow furniture and bare walls. “Oh, hey!”

The little windowsill cactus captures her attention, a spiky nub in a clay pot that Rust lovingly feeds water drops off his fingertip every few weeks.

“That showed up in my hospital room. I'm pretty sure it's your dad's way of calling me a prick.”

“No, I gave it to you.”

“Oh.” He gets a slight shiver at first, but then feels horribly exposed. Oh.

“Sometimes I'd go sit with you after I saw him. Talk to you even though you were asleep and vented a couple times about all my stupid problems.” Her hands disappear up into her sleeves. “That sounds super creepy now that I said it out loud. Anyway, I quit coming after you woke up 'cause dad said you were in a bad way and didn't want company.”

Rust neither confirms nor denies, though at least it explains how he knew about the shitty boyfriend. “I wonder what was worse - the way I looked or the things you said.”

“That big black knot over your eye?” A closed fist over her own mimics it. “Beyond terrible. You were a great listener, though. 'Course you kinda had to be.” She takes Rust's smile as permission to do the same. “And look at us now. You still are!”

“Well, come back any time you want." He holds the door open for her and follows her outside. "We can talk about somethin' more fun next time.”

“God, I hope so.”

They walk out front to her car, but instead of getting in she heads for the bar's front door. “I gotta pay for my drink.”

“Forget it. It's on me," Rust says, and a polite struggle ensues until Audrey gives up and crushes him in the biggest hug she can give.

She's light and little like a hollow-boned bird. “I was scared to come out here at first but I'm so glad I did.”

“Good. Me too.”

“Thanks. For everything.” A flicker of a kiss lands on his cheek and he pats her back and lets go. Her eyes are dewy and her nose is still pink but she doesn't look sad. She looks fresh and almost happy.

“You should talk to your dad about money,” Rust says. “He'd be glad to get you out of that apartment if he knew.”

“Yeah,” she says heavily. “Maybe.”

“No, not maybe. Or if you don't want to ask him, ask me. You shouldn't live there if it makes you unhappy.”

“No, it's okay. I'll talk to him. Thanks, though. I can't believe you'd do that for me.”

“Well, you brought me that cactus," he says. "Think I'm gonna owe you for a while.”

She smiles and gets in the car. “Get back to work, slacker.”

“Yes ma'am.” He shuts her door and pats the roof goodbye as she backs out onto the road. Her hand flaps by the rearview until she's around the bend and he can't see her anymore.

Back inside the bar, Bob's giving him a goddamn look. A smug one, like he's sitting on a smart remark or has opinions and such. “What?” Rust barks. “That's Marty's daughter. Ain't nothing weird about it.”

He gets the closest thing Bob has to a smile as he points up.

A white extension cord snakes up to the ceiling and the Budweiser sign's lit up, all the plastic horses moving in a slow circle of light.