Jack was relieved until he saw … the sight of something in her eyes that he hadn't ever seen before. He knew so little about her and her life. Oh Lord, Emmy, Jack thought, and the slender trunk of his heart buckled for the second time that night.
—Matt Bondurant, The Wettest Country in the World
She arrives in the night, it seems; Richard now knows all of the girls of the Artemis Club by sight, but one evening someone new is simply there behind the makeshift bar in the sitting room, pulling out glasses and reaching behind her for crystal bottles as though she set up the place herself. He hears her laugh as soon as he enters the room, sharp and quick and silver, and he sits in the corner by the fire and listens.
He hears the men teasing her, asking why she's not upstairs with the other girls, mocking her plain clothes, her accent, her height. One of the calls her Grandpa, laughing at her white-blonde fair hair, cut nearly as short as a boy's and already bearing livid streaks of gray, but she just snorts.
You're right about that, she says, tucking a strand behind her ear. But the funny thing is that I can change it quick as a wink, whereas I expect it'd take you two 'n' a half lifetimes to learn some manners, and longer'n that to convince any gal that you had 'em.
A few of the other men laugh at that, and one toasts her. The man who'd said it flushes to his ears.
Thought your job was pouring drinks, not shooting your mouth off, he says. Maybe it's you who's gotta learn, honey.
He reaches for the apron she's wearing over her dress. Richard sees her arm move quick as a flash, pinning his sleeve to the wood with the fork she's using to break up ice in a bucket. It's a small, dextrous gesture; no one else seems to notice. But Richard sees the startled look on his face.
Manners, she says very quietly. There's your first lesson.
Later he hears that her name is Judith.
It's a week before Richard goes to sit at the bar. He sits at the far end. When she comes over and says, know what you'd like?, he shrugs and shakes his head.
Well, you sit awhile and think on it, she smiles. Down at the other end, a man throws himself onto a stool and calls loudly for a drink, fanning himself with his hat. She takes a glass and begins to fill it.
You're Richard, right?
She begins to say something else, but the man hails her again.
Come on, girl, some time before lunch. I'm sweating like a goddamn pig over here.
Patience is a virtue, mister, she calls back. Then, as she wipes a few spilled drops with a cloth, she chuckles and says to herself, actually, you ain't. No such thing.
Pigs don't sweat, Richard hears himself say, out of nowhere at all. That's why they. Roll in the mud. And she looks over at him as though she hasn't seen anything so wonderful in days and days.
She moves down to the other side of the bar and slides the man's drink down to him. Then she returns to Richard.
How'd you know that?
When he glances up she is looking right at him, eagerly. Her expression doesn't flicker as he meets her eye.
Grew up on a farm, he says.
You didn't! she exclaims, with a wide smile. Well, I'll be. That makes the two of us, then. I've seen you round in here near every day, but I had you pegged as one of these city boys, sure as shootin', in that handsome suit and all. She moves back down to the center of the bar.
I gotta cut these lemons, but c'mon down here and talk to me some. And without thinking about it, he slides from the stool and crosses to where she stands.
Gillian says you're the one keepin' us all safe in here, she says as he sits again, producing a small knife and beginning to slice the fruit. He swallows hard.
Whereabouts you from?
Wisconsin, he says, watching her hands against the bright yellow. Plover.
Wisconsin! she repeats, as though it's the most magical place in the world. I never been that far north. I hear it gets awful cold up there.
He nods again. Silence. Then he ventures, are you from. Virginia?
She looks up quickly.
And just how'd you know that?
You sound like someone I. Used to know, he tell her. Clarence Jones, a black-haired, chipped-toothed corporal who talked on and on about getting home to his little brother and teaching him to fish properly before someone else beat him to it. He was shot in the throat early one morning in October. He doesn't tell her that.
Well, aren't you something, she says. I think we're gonna have to be friends for sure.
He nods once, automatically, and what he wants to say is yes, but all that comes out is a low hmm. But this just makes her smile too.
You sound like my brother, she tells him, chuckling. I think that's his favorite word in the whole wide world. Look it up in the dictionary and I bet you'll find his picture, scowlin', most like. Know what you want yet?
He looks up again. What?
To drink. Unless you're secretly one of those temperance types. She gives him a playfully stern look. Sneakin' around here undercover-like.
Definitely not. She chuckles. Bourbon. Please.
A fine choice, she says. She pours, puts it down in front of him. He stares down at it, not wanting to ask. It feels like a test, somehow. Like her reaction will determine--something, from here on out. Maybe everything.
Do you have. A straw?
I think so, she says, and her face doesn't change. She sets down the lemon knife and crouches, disappearing behind the bar with her hand on the edge to keep her balance. He studies her nails, short and clean. He hears her moving things around before she stands back up.
Here we are, she says, and places it in the glass. Need anything else?
He puts his fingers around the glass. Maybe he's imagining it, but he thinks it feels warm from her hand.
No. Thank you.
A few nights later, when Tommy is in bed and the sitting room is nearly empty, the men having gone upstairs or home to their wives, he comes in to find her playing solitaire at the end of the bar as the phonograph hums quietly in the far corner.
Hiya, she says, when she looks up and catches sight of him. Found these under the bar. Want to play a hand?
He sits, and she deals out five-card stud. They play not one but seven hands, and at one o'clock, when Gillian comes in and begins turning out the lamps (she didn't accept new customers after that hour, explaining that any gentleman out after that hour was surely looking to cause trouble), Judith points a finger at Richard as he starts to head up the stairs.
You owe me a rematch.
And the next night, when he ventures into the sitting room, she's there behind the bar, shuffling the cards with a bottle of Coca-Cola and a glass of bourbon sitting in front of her. The glass already has a straw in it.
Gonna win all my money back now, she jokes when he sits down; they hadn't bothered betting at all. And it becomes their nightly tradition--most nights, that is, unless he has somewhere else that he has to be. She doesn't ask about the nights on which he doesn't appear. Sometimes he plays badly on purpose just to get to the end faster; she laughs wickedly every time, whether she wins or loses.
Gin, she says victoriously one evening, laying down her cards. My goodness, are you fallin' asleep on me tonight? You couldn't tell I was going for hearts?
I guess not, he says. Her eyes smile as much as her lips do, he notices. You're very good.
That's true, she agrees, gathering up the cards again. Especially when I can see your hand reflectin' in your spectacles every time.
When he looks up at her in surprise, she bursts out with that shiny laugh again, and her fingers press the back of his hand for the merest moment.
I'm just teasing you.
You like gin so much, how come you never let me buy you a real drink, huh? a drunken man calls at her from his spot by the fire. He lurches over, glass in hand, glancing only briefly at Richard. You must be thirsty, working back there all night.
She chuckles; this time it's a wry sound.
And have Gillian dock me a whole twenty-five dollars? No, thank you very much.
You'd make a lot more'n that if you came upstairs with me, he adds, lowering his voice, as though Richard is not right beside them. Come on, isn't that what you're here for? He reaches for her bare forearm, and she turns away with a smooth movement.
That's mighty kind of you, but I can't leave all this unattended, she says calmly, readjusting the glasses and bottles lined up against the wall. Who knows what could happen. We got rules in this establishment for a reason, you know.
Buncha whores having rules, he snorts, leaning heavily on the bar. Now I've heard fuckin' everything. She gives him a sharp, ice-blue look.
We got rules for you too, she tells him coolly. You'll keep a civil tongue while you're here or take your business elsewhere.
He glares at her, and she glares back, as tall as he is. Then he looks over at Richard, who looks steadily at him, half wanting to show him the pistol on his hip and half knowing he doesn't need to. The man scowls and slouches away, muttering obscenely, and Judith rolls her eyes as she shuffles the cards, bridging them between her hands.
Get one of those nearly every night, seems like.
Is that true? he asks. Twenty-five dollars?
'Course it is. Bad for business, Gillian says. Better to let the men get foolish and us stay sharp. She flashes another quick grin, but it fades. But to be honest, I don't touch the stuff anyway. Not anymore.
Her eyes flick up at him, then back down at the cards.
It'll sound right silly, I expect.
I won't laugh.
I know you wouldn't. Her fingers move rapidly for another few moments.
While back one'a my brothers got hurt. Hurt pretty bad, and we weren't sure if he was gonna make it or not. While we were all waitin' to hear, I swore I'd never touch a drop from there on out if he came out all right. Guess I was talkin' to God, though it didn't really feel like prayin'. Just kept saying it in my head, over 'n' over.
Doesn't really make sense. I was just sittin' at home reading when it happened.
He made it?
Yes, indeed. Still don't quite know how he managed it. I know it wasn't really 'cause of me and what I said, but...feels like bad luck to go back on it now, I guess.
I'm glad he lived.
She smiles at him, starting to deal the cards again.
During the war. My sister didn't cut her hair. Until I got back. When I saw her again it was. All the way down to here.
You got a sister? She leans forward, interested. What's she like? Tell me 'bout her.
And he does, though it takes a while, as everything does. She never seems to mind, but listens as long as it takes.
Gillian notices. One evening as he sits upstairs with Tommy, teaching him how to draw airplanes, she enters and peers over their shoulders, smiling.
Look, Mama, Tommy says, and the fist in Richard's chest tightens. They're like birds, only really big.
(You're awful good with him, Judith had said with a smile, the first time she saw them together one afternoon, after they came in off the boardwalk. He'd nodded his thanks at her, and she'd produced a peppermint from nowhere and tossed it to Tommy with a wink.
He yours? she asked after a moment, and he looked quickly at her.
No. Not really, he told her, unsure how to explain, startled by the realization that a small part of him wished he could say yes.
Oh, was all she said. Thought he looked a bit like you.)
That's lovely, dear, Gillian says. Then she looks at Richard.
Judith was looking for you. She says that she found a book that you two were discussing, and she'd like to show it to you. There is a flicker of doubt in her voice, as though she doesn't believe a word of it.
He nods without looking at her.
If I didn't know better, I might think that you were sweet on her.
She straightens the lamp on the desk unnecessarily. He doesn't say anything, just half-lifts a shoulder in the merest shrug. He can feel her looking at him still.
She's an odd little creature, that one. She marched in here as bold as you please and said to me, I like the idea of working for a lady and I'll take any job you've got for room and board, but I don't care to go with those men. I know nearly everything there is to know about liquor, but I'll never take one sip, so I'd make a real perfect barmaid for you.
He hears a very slight swing in her voice, the faintest imitation of a drawl.
It's true, he says, because he can't think of anything else. She doesn't drink.
Well, I certainly don't mean to tell you your business, but you needn't limit yourself to her. My girls are all very--
Good-hearted. You could have your pick, if you're looking. Perhaps find someone a bit more...elegant, or worldly, shall we say.
He gives another small shrug. What he wants to say is but she looked me in the eye, but he doesn't know how to make the words sound like what they mean. So he says nothing, and he keeps drawing birds.
In mid-summer Richard takes Tommy to a picture called Sherlock, Jr., and Judith comes along. She laughs throughout the entire thing, and Tommy chatters about the story all night. Two days later he finds a magnifying glass sitting outside his bedroom, wrapped up in brown paper with a note attached: every young detective needs the best tools. --S.H. He races around inspecting everything in sight for a solid week, and Judith merely winks when Richard tells her about it.
He teaches her how to play bezique, which he'd picked up in France, and when he pushes his hair from his face a few times one evening, she chuckles and says he needs a trim.
Startin' to look like a sheepdog, she teases. I'll do it, if you like.
Sure. Used to cut my brothers' hair all the time after our mama died, and that was with 'em wiggling around everywhere and tryin' to run off. And to think, I'm the youngest. I'd always say that I'd shave 'em bald in their sleep if they didn't hold still.
Did you ever do it?
Nah. Then they mighta done the same to me, she laughs. We'll go out on the back porch before opening tomorrow, how's that?
When he meets her the next morning, he finds that she has dragged a wooden chair out onto the outside landing, and when he sits down she throws an old, torn bedsheet around him. A shiny pair of scissors glints in her waistband, just about at his eye level.
There, now, she says, and then she pauses. Only after a moment does he realize what she is waiting for.
I gotta ask you to take that off, Richard, if you wouldn't mind, she says gently.
He lifts a hand automatically from under the sheet, but it trembles and fall back onto his knee. It's not just the usual fear, the widened eyes and the recoil that he's used to by now. Somehow it matters that the last two people to see his face are now dead. Somehow it, he, feels like a curse. One look and they turned to silent stone. Even though they didn't care, even though he loved them.
He looks over at her, unable to move. She looks back for a moment, and then goes to sit on the porch railing, facing him, letting out a quiet sigh.
You know, I've seen a lot of things, she says slowly. Real beautiful things and real ugly things and everything else in the middle. And something funny I noticed is that how a thing appears to be don't really tell you what it is, or what it means. Looks can kinda lie to you. You know what I mean?
Yes, he answers.
She slides off the rail and comes to stand beside him again.
It's all right, she says quietly. Please.
When the tin thing is in his hands, looking up at him from his lap, he raises his face to her. She looks for a long moment, her expression calm and her head tilting a fraction of a degree to the side, as though she truly wants to understand.
She takes a comb from her apron pocket and dips it into a glass of water sitting on the windowsill.
You tell me if this is too cold, now.
When she finishes, he forces himself not to shiver as she blows on the back of his neck, dusting away the strays. She runs her fingers through his hair, checking her work, and moves around in front of him, eyes narrowed in concentration. He looks up at her again, knowing he should say something, though only the simplest thing is coming to mind.
She puts her hands on her hips, the scissors still in one fist.
Why not you?
One night he returns late, so late that the house is dark when he pushes the door quietly open. He moves up the stairs, avoiding the places where they squeak, but instead of turning right, to where his room waits at the end of the hall, he turns left.
He can see a sliver of light under her door. He knocks twice, barely touching the wood with his torn knuckles. Metal springs creak and she opens the door, standing there in a green cotton nightdress that seems to dye her eyes the same shade. He can see a book lying open and face-down on the rumpled sheets, a dim lamp flickering on her bedside table, the curtains parted open over the small window. It seems she doesn't sleep much, either.
Richard, she whispers. He says nothing. Her eyes sweep across his face and then down, to the gun under his jacket, to the blood on his hands and on his shirtfront. He doesn't quite know why he's there, but he sees no shock or fear in her face.
Are you hurt?
He shakes his head. She looks at him for another beat or two, and then reaches for his wrist, pulling it up towards her face. She studies his bloody hand for a long moment, turning it over, and then, to his astonishment, presses her mouth to his palm, still warm from the gun's barrel, and then his fingers, and then the back of his hand, as though she is bidding him a gallant goodnight after a ball. Then she licks the blood from her lips with the tip of her tongue and looks back up at him with a deep sigh.
You better get washed up, she whispers, nodding towards the water closet, and he turns away and moves silently down the hall. When he finishes, he turns off the water and steps back into the corridor, jacket and shirt folded over his arm, and sees that her door is still open a crack. Somehow knows that he is allowed to return to her.
He nudges her door open again and sees that she is back in her bed, lying towards the far edge, near the wall. Her book is closed on the table beside the lamp. She gives a small, unmistakable jerk of her head, and he steps inside, closing the door behind him. He moves to the corner of the room and piles his clothes on a chair with the gun underneath and his shoes on the floor. He leaves the mask for last, setting it on top of his shirt. Behind him, Judith extinguishes the lamp, and he turns back around.
Come on, then, it's late, he hears her whisper.
Very slowly, not quite believing each movement, he moves over to the bed and sinks onto it, easing down beside her. His fingers clench involuntarily on a fistful of her nightdress, and he lets out a long, slow breath for the first time in what feels like days. The sheets are warm from her body. He breathes in again.
I had to do it, he says quietly, after a minute or two. I had to.
I know, she murmurs, her mouth beside his ear. You don't have to tell me if you don't want.
He doesn't know who falls asleep first, not sure if he's following her slow, even breaths or if she's following his. But he sleeps deeply, and barely dreams.
In the morning, lying on his back, and in a voice so quiet that someone crouching at the door's keyhole couldn't have heard, he tells her everything. He tells her about the front, and returning to the farm, and Emma. He tells her about Chicago, and the hospital, and the day that started everything. He tells her about Liam and Pearl and Odette, about coming to New Jersey, about Margaret and the children, about the d'Alessios, about Angela and her kind eyes and small hands. He tells her about Jimmy and his silences, the way only Tommy could make him smile most days, the way his shoulders tensed when he was trying to decide something. He tells her about the bloodstain on the floor, and the phone call on that rainy night that ended everything.
Judith lies on her side, her head resting on her hand, and listens, saying nothing until he talks himself into silence. Then she runs a quick finger under the dark blonde lashes of both eyes.
I think he must have loved you very much, to want to be with you at the end like that.
I should've been there, he says. I should have. Done something.
Don't think like that. By the sound of it, you couldn't've stopped it. He made a choice; they just would've killed you too.
What difference. Would that make.
He didn't quite mean to say it out loud, but she gives him a hard look.
A lot of difference.
He waits fifteen minutes before going downstairs after her, but he can still feel Gillian's shrewd eyes following them both, and some of the girls whisper to each other behind their hands. He finds he doesn't mind very much, though. He realizes later that some of the tightness in his chest has gone.
The weather starts to turn cool again. One night after they close up the house she says, let's go out.
To the beach. There's a big blue moon out there, it'll be gorgeous.
When they get to the dunes she pulls off her shoes and stockings and goes sprinting across the sand to the water's edge, the whole long beach illuminated white by a fat, cold moon, and he follows her. She yelps softly and hisses between her teeth as the chilly water hits her feet, but she hitches up her dress and wades out until it swirls around her calves, and he rolls up his trousers and stands a few feet from her.
It's really somethin', isn't it? she sighs. We went all the way out to Norfolk once when I was real little, and that was the first time I ever saw the sea. First and last, 'til I came up here. When I arrived I just ran right to the beach, first thing, 'fore I even had a place to stay or anything.
I was eighteen the first. Time I saw the ocean. When we shipped out.
Well, I beatcha, then, she says playfully, and looks back out.
When I was in school we'd read about sailors and discoverers and those types, and I'd wonder, why would you ever wanna go out there into so much nothin'? Sounded so lonely and scary to me, to be so far from everything.
It can be peaceful.
That's what my daddy said. When I asked him what he thought he said, it's nice to be with just nature and nothing else, just sea and sky. He said lookin' out at something that big and that old, it puts you in perspective, like. It makes everything bad in your life seem real small and unimportant. Even the worst things you've done...
She trails off, and he waits for her to finish it.
They don't really matter so much when you think about the whole size of everything.
I like that, he tells her. Sometimes it's comforting to. Feel small.
Yeah. She puts her arms tight around herself, though the breeze isn't strong.
You believe in Hell? she asks him after a moment, so quietly he can barely hear her over the waves.
I don't know, he answers. Though I don't think there can be. Anything worse than what people. Do to each other.
Hmm. She keeps staring out at the moon, which looks to be only a short swim away.
But what if that's it? she asks. What if when you die, that's what happens to you--whatever you've done to other people when you were alive?
The good things or the bad things?
The biggest things.
It's not something he's thought about in a long time.
I don't know, he says again.
She's quiet for another moment, and he can see her chewing her lip.
My name's not really Judith.
She looks over at him for his reaction, but in a way he thinks he's always known; it was all there in the way her eyes dropped sometimes when she talked about home, the way she asked far more about him than she ever said about herself. Somehow, when he'd shown up that night with his violence all over him and she'd invited him in, he'd understood that they already knew the truth of each other.
You're hiding from something, he says, not asking. Someone.
She nods. She takes a long, slow breath.
My brothers are bootleggers, she begins. But it's not like up here, where everything's all neat and tidy and packaged up. They--we make it ourselves most of the time, in our own stills. You can make liquor outta just about anything, did you know? Corn 'n' fruits and anything you can think of, if you know what you're doing. And people ain't picky. They'll buy just about anything if it'll get 'em good 'n' lit, even if it's got twigs and tadpoles swimmin' around in the jar, seems like.
A fond smile passes across her face as she says it, and he recognizes it as a look of love, of nostalgia for a life now behind her. Salty air flicks her hair off her forehead.
But the law don't like it, of course--well, they don't like not gettin' a piece of it. And naturally there's all kinds of crooked fellas sneaking around trying to steal other folks' supply and their money and all the rest of that. My brother Forrest, he's real well-known for sellin' the good stuff; he'll get you as much as you want, 'long as you can pay for it. He used to run this restaurant called the County Line, sandwiches and eggs and regular things, but you could also get somethin' stronger if that's what you were looking for.
She swallows hard, and he sees her jaw tighten.
One night these two men came in and--well, I wasn't there. I just heard the story later. Everyone did. They started getting rowdy and givin' Maggie a hard time. She's the gal who works there. She's real pretty and all the fellas like lookin' at her, but she doesn't stand for one bit of their nonsense. And things got kind of messy, and Forrest ended up giving 'em a hidin' out in the lot, and then they left. Or seemed to, anyway. Later, everyone else went home 'til it was just Forrest and Maggie, and those men were waitin' outside for 'em. They--
Her voice shakes, but not with sorrow, Richard realizes. It's rage that he hears. He knows what it sounds like by now.
They cut his throat, she says. Left him to die in the snow. He got to the hospital--I don't know how, no one rightly does. People say he walked, for miles and miles, holdin' his skin together with his fingers.
And he lived, Richard says. That's why you don't drink.
Yeah. I know it must sound plumb crazy, but if you knew him, you'd know it might be true. I don't think anything on Earth'll kill him 'til he decides he's good 'n' ready to die. He's a survivor, like--well, like you.
Well, I surely don't think just anyone could've lived through what happened to you. You oughta be proud, that took some kinda strength. Don't you think?
For a moment he can't speak.
I never thought about it. Like that.
Well, you should've, she says, in that way of hers that sounds stern but is in fact terribly gentle. She shoots him a brief, tight smile, shakes her head, and continues.
Anyway, they--my brothers--kept saying they were gonna find the guys that did it, but they'd left town, of course. Guess you don't stick around after something like that. And then the boys got busier with their liquor business and all, and they had bigger things to worry about, like the law comin' down on them and smashin' up their stills and all. But I couldn't stop thinkin' about it. I just kept lookin' at that scar on his neck, thinking about all that red blood in the snow--
(this is also something Richard knows, all too well)
--and it was just eatin' at me, you know? When you can't let something go?
Yes. I know.
Well, men talk a lot when they drink, I'm sure you know that. Way more'n they should, in my view. So I just started goin' along on deliveries and listening, and finally I heard someone talkin' about what happened to Forrest. That's when I found out that it was the law what did it. Those men were hired to do what they did, on account of my brothers' liquor business. Same ones who killed the Pate boy.
Who was he?
Friend of my brother Jack's. Real sweet little fella, never hurt a fly. Prettiest, palest blue eyes you ever saw. He had this funny idea for makin' drink come outta his bathtub tap, just like water. Worked like a charm, too. And they killed him just for that. Just outta pure meanness.
So was I. That's when I knew I'd have to do it myself; there was nobody could help or do it for me. Once I had the names, it wasn't too hard to find 'em. And once I found 'em, it wasn't too hard to get them to ride out with me, all alone one night. Men'll believe anything you tell 'em, once they're drunk enough.
You killed them? Richard asks, when she falls silent. He can feel himself sinking very slowly into the sand as the waves push around them and retract.
She looks over at him, arms still wrapped around herself, and shakes her head.
I meant to, she says desperately. My hand to God, I just planned to shoot 'em and leave. That was all I had in my head. We went out into the forest and I had my gun on me, the one Howard gave me when he taught me to shoot. I told 'em to get out and walk, and they're cursin' me and complainin' and I didn't care about that, but then they started talking about Forrest, and Howard and Jack 'n' Cricket too. And Maggie.
Her jaw clenches again, hard, and it's a few seconds before she can talk again.
I don't even know if it was all true. Maybe they were just tryin' to rile me and just made it up on the spot. But it worked. I was so angry, I--I'm not sure how it all happened. One of them was waving this little knife at me, but he could barely hold it, he was so ossified. I got this big rock, like I forgot I had a gun, and I hit 'em both, and they were lying there groanin' and I picked up the knife, and--
She looks over at him quickly, as if expecting to catch him looking horrified, repulsed. But he doesn't.
I never told anyone this before.
It's all right, he says, wanting so much to give back to her what she gave to him. You can say.
It was like I was standing outside of myself, watchin'. Like it was something from the pictures. I know I did it, but it doesn't seem real in my head when I remember it.
Color goes out of everything, Richard hears himself saying. And it goes quiet. And there's nothing except. What's in your hands.
Yeah, she breathes, nodding, her eyes rapt on his face. That's just exactly it. But I didn't know I could do that kinda thing. I didn't know that was inside of me.
Sometimes I think it's. Inside all of us, he tells her.
Maybe so, she murmurs. Next thing I knew I was driving home alone. Then a few days later I heard that they were both alive, somehow, in the hospital. And I knew they wouldn't tell; no way a man's gonna admit out loud that a girl done that to them. Everyone figured it was my brothers gettin' their revenge, and they were plenty content to let 'em think it. And I didn't say a word, but I knew I had to leave. I knew they'd come, or their kin would. So I told my relations I was going to find work here in Jersey, but I haven't written like I said I would, and by now they're probably wonderin'. I came here to get lost, and I was plannin' to move on after a little while to another busy place, maybe to New York or out to California or something. But it's harder'n I thought it'd be.
He wants to move into her, to put his arms around her and hold her close, but he's never done such a thing before. When she looks over at him again, it is with a plain, open expression.
I know it's only a matter of time 'til they catch up with me, I can feel it. But I still don't want to leave everything that far behind. Maybe it's foolish of me, but I already lost my ma and my two sisters; I'm not givin' up my pa and my brothers too, not if I can help it. I know what I did, and I ain't sorry. I know I have to live with it. But I can't...
Now he does step closer, extracting himself with difficulty from the wet sand. He lifts a hand slowly and reaches for her, hesitantly, finally letting it fall lightly against the warm spot where her shoulder meets her neck. She looks over at him.
It'll be all right, he tells her. I won't let anything. Happen to you.
He knows he has no right to it; his touch is too formal and his words naive, meaningless. But when she gives him a small, sweet smile, her face pale in the moonlight, and reaches over to put her hand over his, he finds he doesn't care at all.
You're a good man, she says. I'm very glad to know you.
What's your real name? he asks.
Emmeline. Emmeline Bondurant. My family always called me Emmy, though.
He sees a change over the next few weeks. Her laugh is slower to appear, and her eyes don't smile as they used to. At night he hears her pacing the hall. One evening a few unfamiliar men come strolling into the lounge as Richard sits playing blackjack with Emmy, and when she moves over to fetch their drinks, one of them lights up at the sound of her accent.
A Southern belle!, he exclaims. Haven't seen too many of your kind in this town.
Thought I'd try and bring a touch of class to these Yankees, she replies without missing a beat, though her smile doesn't linger.
Is that right? From what I hear, those country boys are making a sport out of knocking each other off these days. He turns to his companion. Did you hear about that fiasco in Franklin County last week?
Emmy sets down their glasses with exceptional care, and Richard realizes that she is trying to stop her hands shaking. When she turns back, she moves unsteadily and too fast, knocking her glass bottle of soda pop from the bar with her elbow. It shatters into glittering fragments on the floor, its sugary scent blossoming in the air.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph, she mutters in frustration. Fine time to start goin' to pieces.
She crouches down, rag in hand, to clean up the broken shards, and when Richard kneels as well to help her, her gaze meets his and he sees the fear flickering in her eyes, though she says nothing more about it.
He counts only twenty-six days after the night at the beach. Then he sees one of the girls hurry up to her as she enters the house one morning, carrying a bag from the market. The girl speaks urgently to her in a low voice, and the blood drains out of Emmy's face as she listens to her. She presses the girl's hand and gives her a thin smile, thanking her, and then turns and moves swiftly up the stairs without another word.
He follows. She recognizes his knock and says, in a strained and small voice, come in.
Oranges are rolling across the rug from where she let the bag fall by the door. She is gathering clothes and books from the dresser and the closet, a bag open on the bed. When he enters, she glances over at him, her face full of stormclouds.
They were here, she tells him without preamble, still moving around the room. Four of 'em, asking about me. The gals said they didn't know any Emmy, but when they asked about a girl with hair like mine...
She slams the nightstand drawer closed and the lamp rattles. She puts both hands on the wood to steady herself.
I don't know what I was thinking. I should've been gone ages ago. I shouldn't've stayed so long, it was careless. They'll come back later tonight, I expect. I'll make sure the girls know where I'm headed so they won't think they're hidin' me.
Don't go, Richard says. Please.
I got to, she says, deliberately not looking at him. It's the first time he can remember her doing that. I can't let 'em find me here. Those girls have been good to me; I can't bring this down on them. And Tommy--I wouldn't put a thing past those men. Not one thing.
She reaches the bottom drawer of the dresser, and when she lifts her clothes out he sees her gun lying there. A Webley .455, just like his.
If I can borrow a car, then I can drive out towards Egg Harbor or somewhere and try to lose 'em there. If I leave now...
She looks distractedly at her wristwatch.
I can help, he says. If you let me. She shakes her head jerkily.
Can't ask you to do that.
You didn't. But this is what I'm. Good at.
She gives him a swift, searching look, and then turns back to her suitcase.
I gotta do this myself. This ain't your fight.
Not again, please, he thinks. It wasn't yours, either, he says aloud.
Now her head snaps up and it's a harder, blazing look, a stocking dangling from one hand.
And what's that mean?
He swallows hard, trying to find the words, and for once he does.
I know you did what you did because. You were the only one who could. It wasn't you they hurt. But you did it because you. Love your family. And I--
She is watching him with her lips slightly parted, her face pale. Her blue eyes are wide and full of light.
I understand why you've got to. Finish it yourself, he tells her. But this time you don't have to. Do it alone.
It's quiet for a moment; he hears music from downstairs, cars and people on the street beyond the open window, voices in the hall. Then she nods.
Okay, she says. I got an idea.
For a terrible moment, he thinks she freezes up. When the Ford V-8 comes tearing into the clearing (I know a quiet place, he'd told her. No one will come by) following the tire tracks they'd so deliberately left on the road, he sees something dark and hateful burst behind her eyes, and hears her mutter quietly, more to herself than to him:
It's that lawman.
The car screeches to a halt upon seeing her standing there, seemingly alone, feet planted and chin jutted forward in defiance, the Webley in her hand. Four men fall out of the car, and right away Richard fires his Enfield twice from where he stands behind the tree, taking out the two from the front seat, as they'd planned. The ones she wanted wouldn't be doing their own driving, she'd said, and it seems she was right.
She raises the Webley and fires without flinching at the man on the right of the car, and he shoots at her wildly back as he falls. The bullet goes wide, but Richard sees her left shoulder jerk back in surprise and hears her stifled cry, though she remains on her feet. He trembles with the effort of remaining where he is--everything in him is telling him to run to her, but she'd made him promise, no matter what happened--
The one she shot hits the ground and doesn't move, leaving only the other one. Richard looks out and sees the expensive suit, the bowtie, the wide, severe part in the man's hair, the pristine gloves and the .38 special in one hand.
The lawman charges at Emmy, face full of rage, calling her every name under the sun, but she doesn't move. Her right arm stays up, aiming at him, but she doesn't fire, and Richard tenses to aim at him as well, terrified that she is frozen, unable to do it now that it's real--
His heart turns over and drops as the lawman aims the .38 at her chest, getting even closer to her, and Richard hears him snarling at her, nearly incoherent, you hillbilly whore, I'll put down every last one of you country fucks--
But then Emmy speaks over him, in a clear, ringing voice, looking him dead in the eyes:
Nothing can kill us.
She shoots him right between the eyes. His head snaps back and he falls in slow-motion, it seems, onto the forest floor without another sound. Emmy stands there breathing hard and looking down at him, and Richard leans the rifle against the tree and runs out to her, pulling off his jacket as he goes.
Blood runs down her sleeve in a thin stream. He takes hold of her forearm and presses his folded jacket against the outside of her shoulder, and she flinches, as though only just noticing the pain of it. She looks up at him, blinking, and her eyes clear, turning back to blue.
It's over, he tells her. You did it. You're safe now.
Yes, she says faintly. Yes, I suppose that's so.
She looks down at the lawman again, and then across the clearing at the other bodies. He watches as she takes it all inside of her.
I can't believe you did this for me, she says very quietly, and looks at him again. Don't know how to begin to thank you.
He understands that she means both for what he did and also for what he didn't do, for recognizing what she needed to do and what it is that they share. He presses against the wound on her arm, trying to stop the bleeding, and his other hand drifts on its own towards her face, his fingertips finding her cheek.
I would do anything. For you.
She turns her face into his hand, and says his name softly, and then she moves forward and her arms are around him, the right around his neck, the injured one around his ribs. The gun falls from her hand as she crushes him to her with a remarkable, fierce strength, and then her mouth comes up and finds his, pressing against the uncovered side. Her movement nudges the mask out of place, and his hand leaps up instinctively to fix it.
I don't care, she whispers feverishly. I don't. You know that.
So he lets everything else vanish and discovers her, finally, and there's nothing except her under his hands, her breath, her hair, hips, neck and dry lips.
Let's go home, she murmurs finally, both hands pressed against his chest. Please.
They leave the bodies where they lay. She drives, his handkerchief tied around her arm, and holds his hand the entire way back.
Back in his room, when it happens, he is sure. The right word for it doesn't come to him until the next day, but in the moment he's not thinking about words at all. He grips her sides with both hands, his forehead bent against the hollow of her throat, feeling it quivering with her panting breaths.
When he leans back on the bed and her shoulders curve forward, her hips rocking with unhurried movements, the small golden cross dangling around her neck dances across his face, and he takes it into his mouth for a moment, like a prayer, or the opposite of one. She runs her fingers through his hair again and this time grips hard, her other hand flat on his ribs. He touches a light finger, and then his mouth, to the edge of the white bandage on her arm, and she smiles.
Somehow, he knows where his hands should go, how he should move with her. It's not like with Odette, when every touch was a question, where he needed her reassuring smile and her murmur of that's right, baby, that's good, just like that before he knew what was right. With Emmy, every moment moves into the next as though planned, like a moving spot of light revealing a dark path, second by second. There is no space or time think about what is happening before it already is.
They sleep curved into one another, her cheek against his shoulder blade. In the early morning light, he looks at the way the sheet lays against the lines of her body and he wishes he had a pencil and paper at hand. Her hand rests on his chest, and he watches it rise and fall with his breaths, feeling within himself only the easy beat of his own heart.
Know what you'd like? It was the first thing she'd ever said to him. And the first thing he'd said to her was yes.
- fin -