He’s drenched, he’s wearing battle gear, and his metal arm is conspicuous. He turns back to watch the man from his memories—Steve—breathing on the shore. I gotta stay; his lungs aren’t so good. That memory is of a smaller man, but they’re the same. This bigger man: he can breathe through anything. The soldier starts to disappear into the underbrush, but stay until they find him, they might not find him, he could die. The soldier does go back, then, and he lowers his head to Steve’s chest, and he listens. It’s a sound he’s heard before, but not as steady as it should be—not elevated from exertion, God, Bucky, don’t stop, please, but with an irregularity that belongs to thinner limbs, a hollow in the chest.
There are noises—people calling to each other, the movement of bodies across ground and through brush. About five hundred feet away.
The soldier goes low through the bushes and, later, into the river itself. Much of the shore is parkland, wild and lightly used, but much is not, and the soldier sacrifices speed for stealth, alternating between walking, swimming, and staying in place. He needs to get clear of the inner suburbs, but this is DC, and the inner suburbs go on for a very long time. And he is injured: he needs medical supplies, as well as civilian clothes, and he will need food soon. Between the care he must take not to be found, and the injuries that are increasingly difficult to ignore, he cannot move as quickly as he usually does. It’s late at night when he finally stops.
He doesn’t remember Poolesville, exactly, but he remembers the knowledge of it: away from major roads, lightly developed compared to the suburbs that surround it. It still has farms and fields, and they were a safe place to hide—but from what, he can’t remember. Poolesville was a good place to hide, but it was across the river, in Virginia, that he got the supplies he needed. He isn’t sure he can swim the river twice, though. The Virginia side isn’t ideal: much of the shoreline is cluttered with homes, country clubs, schools, but some is set aside as parks, wilderness preserves, and it will do for a night.
Even weakened and unequipped as he is, it’s still not difficult to take what he needs from soft, unsuspecting suburban stores. Enough to last him until he can get farther away: a change of clothes, some food, medical supplies. It would be even better to have money, but that’s more carefully guarded than the merchandise. It can wait.
Nights in this area are mild in the spring. Some part of him knows this, too, as he makes a bed in the underbrush. His new clothes are dry, and he’s feeling stronger for having eaten. In the course of his career, he has slept in far worse conditions; he doesn’t remember many specifics, but he knows this to his bones. While it is dark, in this riverside parkland, he sleeps.
Travel to greater distances comes the following day. Air, rail, or road: his options. The first is obviously out; so is the commercial variety of the second. He could acquire a vehicle, but the major highways are likely under heavy patrol now, and his face is known; the secondary and tertiary roads will take too long. That leaves freight rail, which the soldier hasn’t used for a while, but he remembers the overall layout and necessary skills.
Unfortunately he’s on the wrong side of the river for that. His planning is subpar, and to some extent that’s the fault of the injuries, but there will be people looking for him. He can’t afford poor planning now.
He’s had to get out of DC before; somehow he knows this. There’s a ferry not far from his current location, and once he crosses into Maryland, he can stick to the relatively low-populated parklands. The ferry is small, though, and his presence will be conspicuous. It also requires a fare. The next closest crossing is the bridge at Point of Rocks, about fifteen miles away—insignificant in a car, but a walk that will take several hours by the most direct, and most visible, route, more if he hugs the river.
He’s going to have to venture into public at some point; he might as well start practicing now.
The soldier picks a pocket to cover the one-dollar pedestrian fare and crosses the Potomac at Dickerson. It’s another three hours on foot to the rail tracks, and then more time for the next freight. He jumps the first one that appears. He doesn’t care where it’s going.
The train rolls, stops, rolls again. Now and then when it stops, he hears the clanks and feels the jolts as cars are coupled and uncoupled. He remains alert for the sounds of anyone entering the car, but no one does, leaving the soldier alone in the dark with a great many boxes of washing machines. He stays tucked inside the car until he develops a need that becomes increasingly difficult to ignore: he has got to take a shit. He jumps out just past the next place that looks vaguely like civilization, which turns out to be Henryville, West Virginia.
He doesn’t mind sleeping outside—the weather’s fair, and he’s done it before when the mission didn’t include accommodations. He finds the parking lot where day laborers congregate in the early mornings for work with the crews who are building giant empty houses near the Maryland and Virginia lines. Being known as homeless is a way to stand out, though, so once the soldier has a few hundred dollars saved, he gets a tiny efficiency apartment in a development about a mile north of town. It’s a roof over his head and a place to bathe; he doesn’t need much space.
A couple of weeks into the job, he’s walking home from the grocery store, about a mile east of town, near the interstate, when he starts to overtake a familiar-looking figure laden with multiple bags. Her name is Basia, and she’s the only woman on the crew he’s started working with regularly. She’s an apprentice electrician, junior in the ranks but an employee, not a day laborer like him. She’s nimble, smart, sharp-tongued, a little standoffish. They’ve never spoken outside the necessities of work, and he’s not sure she’d welcome an offer of assistance, but she’s smaller and overburdened, and he’s tall with a metal arm that has essentially no weight limit.
There’s a memory the soldier knows he’s missing, probably multiple memories; the ones he has are hazy and unspecific enough to tell him that he once knew how to do this, how to offer help to a woman with no motive at all or with the motive of charming a pretty girl. How to do it without threatening her, without scaring her. He remembers enough to be aware that he doesn’t remember how to do it. The asset was a blunt instrument.
The soldier loads his own bags onto the metal arm—best not to take too many of Basia’s, if she lets him, and thus give away the unnatural strength—and says, “Uh, hey. You want a hand?”
She visibly starts, and the soldier realizes that he’s still standing behind her. He takes a long step so that they’re even on the sidewalk. Her face bears no expression, but the soldier can make out tightness in her lips and elevation in her pulse, and he realizes that she’s scared. He performs a quick inventory: he’s carrying no guns, and all the knives are completely hidden. There shouldn’t be any visible weapon to frighten her.
He steps back, and she eyes him suspiciously, then looks over the fruits of his trip to the Kroger with only slightly less suspicion. “Where are you going?”
“Home.” It occurs to him that an offer of information might soothe her some, so he adds, “Forest Estates. Off Highway 19.”
“My best friend grew up there,” Basia says. “In the building by the pool.” She surveys him for another moment, then says, “I’m turning off at Grassy Branch. You can walk me that far.”
The soldier nods agreement, and she hands him a couple of bags—filled with light things, like bread and greens. He rolls his eyes, and something clicks into place—for fuck’s sake, Stevie, give me the damn flour and sugar; this is just stupid. And the response, predictable as sunrise: up yours, Buck, I got it.
That’s a part of him that wasn’t a soldier, that never had been. That part of him didn’t know anything different but to stand on the sidewalk and roll his eyes at his mule-stubborn best friend, with his sharp cheekbones and sharper blue eyes, until, fine, God, why are you making a Broadway scene out of groceries? and his hands can still feel the heft of the paper sacks.
“Something funny?” Basia asks, and that tone is so familiar that he’s smiling helplessly. The soldier, Bucky, he is smiling.
“Just, uh, remembering something. Something I hadn’t thought about in a long time. Here, give me the milk and juice, and—is that cat food?”
“Her name is Isabela.”
“That’s a fancy name for a cat.”
“She’s a fancy cat. She thinks she owns the world. Or at least the apartment.”
They make their way to Grassy Branch Road, and Basia, as promised, takes back her bags and starts to turn. “Thanks for the assist, James,” she says. “I owe you.”
The name he’d given at the site. It’s his, somehow, but in a different way from Bucky, which feels like the exclusive property of one person, and that person isn't him. Stevie—Stevie gave him that name, and to Stevie it still belongs.
“No, you don’t,” James says. “I was going this way anyway. Tell the cat hi for me.”
They seem to be on more or less the same food-shopping schedule—Saturdays, early—because he runs into her twice more. The second time, when he offers to carry the cat litter and soup, she accepts with only a brief hesitation; the third time, she doesn’t pause at all, just hands him the flour, potatoes, and beans. When he leaves her at Grassy Branch, she smiles at him, pretty on her round, young-looking face. She can’t be any older than twenty-five.
On Monday at their lunch break, he’s eating his sandwich and reading The Great Gatsby, which he found for fifty cents in the book section at Goodwill and had never managed to read the first time around.
He hears someone coming up behind him, and, “I hated that book,” Basia says. It’s the first time she’s talked to him onsite about something non-work-related.
“Everyone in it kind of sucks,” James agrees. He hopes he’s using the modern slang correctly. “But it’s interesting. I never read it before.”
“Everyone in it totally sucks,” Basia corrects him. “It’s literally the adventures of a bunch of assholes.” James can’t help laughing. “We had to read it in high school; I almost went on strike.”
“What would you recommend instead?”
“Isabel Allende is my favorite writer. Sandra Cisneros is probably my next favorite. The library has them both.”
James can’t exactly say that there’s no way he’s getting a library card because it involves ID that he will never have; he only got his apartment after he heard from some of the guys on the crew that there was a manager at Forest Estates who wasn’t too particular about ID or a credit check as long as you slipped him an extra hundred. That’s why he likes the book sections at Goodwill and the Salvation Army store: the selection’s not huge, but they don’t ask your name. He could take the books from the library without a card, of course—he doubts their security is worth much—but it seems sort of wrong, even if he were to return them afterwards.
The next day, though, Basia drops a slender paperback in front of him. The cover is white, with an art picture of three women and lettering that looks like neat handwriting: The House on Mango Street. “This was the first book I read by Sandra Cisneros, my first year of college.” James starts at that: if she went to college, why is she working this job? But he doesn’t get to ask, because Basia continues: “It’s short, so if you don’t like it, it’s not much time invested. But if you don’t like it, you’re probably dead to me.”
“Noted,” says James, who finds himself smiling again. “What’s it about?”
“A girl growing up in Chicago.”
“OK,” he says. “I’m almost done with The Great Gatsby, so I’ll put this on deck.”
“What’s your final take on it?” Basia asks.
“Everyone’s an asshole,” he admits.
That night, James heaps together rice, beans, and chicken that seems cooked enough not to kill him, and opens The House on Mango Street.
He thought it would be hard to read—Basia, with her sharp tongue and sharp mind, seems like the type who would enjoy difficult books—but the writing is uncomplicated and clear. The boys and the girls live in separate worlds. The boys in their universe and we in ours….She can’t play with those Vargas kids or she’ll turn out just like them. Another memory, this time of a woman James is suddenly certain was his mother: Jimmy, don’t you let Ricky anywhere near those O’Reilly boys. They’re nothing but trouble.
Someday I will have a best friend all my own. James grips his fork, and it’s only when he feels it bending in his hand that he takes a deep breath and puts it down. One I can tell my secrets to. One who will understand my jokes without my having to explain them.
He can’t read any more that night.
The next day, he doesn’t talk to anybody onsite any more than he has to. He takes his sandwich and goes for a walk in the woods during lunch. But on Saturday morning at nine he leaves the apartment for the Kroger, and at nine-ten he overtakes Basia on the sidewalk.
“So did you start House on Mango Street yet?” she asks him, as though there hasn’t been a three-day break in their conversation.
“Yeah, but I’m not all the way through it. I know it’s short,” he adds defensively. “But it’s pretty intense.”
She nods. “You think it’s simple, but it’s not.”
They walk through the aisles amiably—fruit, vegetables, pasta, meat—and James thinks to ask, “So how is it that you went to college but you’re working on the site?”
Basia glances away, and her eyes skitter on the rack of Campbell’s soups before then settling on an indefinite point above them. “I wanted a new start,” she says, finally.
“I get that,” James says, making his voice as gentle as he can, though he has no idea whether he’s successful.
She looks back at him. “You too, right?” There’s a bit of a challenge in her tone. “From the military?”
His heart leaps in something sick—fear or anger, could be either—but it occurs to him that many people were in the military. The U.S. didn’t see fit to stop with the war that broke him, and there have been multiple lengthy, destructive wars—two in just the last decade, even. There are a lot of broken veterans wandering around.
“Yeah,” James tries. “From the military.”
She nods. “My brother was in Afghanistan. No physical wounds, but…they don’t have to be physical, you know?”
God, does he. “Yeah,” he says. “I know.”
Basia takes a breath. “I met my ex in college,” she says like a confession.
When she doesn’t go on, James says, “I understand that’s a thing people do?”
She snorts, and her eyes go back to the soup. “Yeah. They do. I did. He wasn’t actually in college, though—he was a little older. I met him at the newspaper where I volunteered. It was a radical paper,” she explains, “free, mostly volunteer staff. He was the managing editor; I was an intern. All I’d done was my high school paper, but he had actual published bylines. Now he’s got more than that—twenty or thirty thousand Twitter followers, a book deal.” She takes a breath. She’s still looking at the soup. “But anyway.”
“Twitter, that’s an Internet thing, right?”
Basia actually laughs. “How old are you, ninety? Yes, it’s an Internet thing. A very popular Internet thing, where people have conversations in 140-character segments.”
James parses that proposition, then bursts out, “But that’s not even a sentence!”
“Sure it is. Just about one sentence.”
“What can you even say in one sentence?”
“Go fuck yourself,” Basia pronounces. “Houston, we have a problem. Jesus wept.”
It’s a distraction from the more serious conversation, to which neither James nor Basia returns them.
On their way out of the store, Basia shakes too-long bangs back from her face and scrutinizes James. “Now that I’ve got all this food, I feel like I need to make something decent for dinner tonight. You want to come over?”
It takes him by surprise, and he realizes that a few seconds have gone by while she’s still standing there waiting for an answer. “It’s OK—” she begins, and he recognizes that she’s giving him a way out, thinking his delay is due to reluctance.
“No, I mean, sure, I mean, yeah, of course.” God, he knows he used to be better than this at things. “I just— I was out of it.”
She smiles in a new, hesitant way, and says, “OK. Come over around six?”
He has lunch and reads for a while after he finishes putting away the groceries. Esperanza’s words, as ever, are clear and unornamented: I would like to baptize myself under a new name, a name more like me, the one nobody sees. James looks up from the book on his pocked garage-sale table and thinks about that. It seems fitting that he should have a new name, but what would it be? He was Jimmy, Bucky, the asset—who is this person now? Someone wrote down James when he was born, so James he uses, for lack of anything else. But maybe there is another name. Or maybe it would be better to have no name at all.
You don’t show up empty-handed for dinner. James doesn’t know how he knows this, but he’s confident that it’s true. Unfortunately, he’s got nothing to bring. Wine? Except sometimes you need ID for that: he definitely looks over twenty-one (a damn travesty of a drinking age, when you can die in a war at eighteen), but he’s seen people clearly in their thirties and forties get carded at the Kroger. Flowers? That seems a little like something you’d bring on a date—but he is going over to a woman’s place for dinner, so maybe flowers aren’t out of line. Plus they’re a nice thing to bring. He remembers a woman kissing his cheek—James, you shouldn’t have. An older woman, not a date, not his mother. Sarah. She has Steve’s elegant cheekbones and blue eyes, and the circles underneath them. Kind, observant, tired. Of course I should. Everybody should. The man said to put them in water, and change it every day or two. They don’t have a vase, but she directs him to a tall drinking glass, and he cuts the stems to fit.
And later, alone with Stevie, after she’s left for your shift: I’ll bring you flowers. Bring you flowers and get down on one knee— He’s got Stevie under him, the way he likes, his hips cradled between Stevie’s thighs, and Stevie rolls his eyes: What, you gonna propose?
If you let me, came the answer, and James knows instantly and instinctively that it was true. You couldn’t do that back then, not legally, but some fellows did, and kept quiet about it except in certain places. You let me, and I’ll do it, rings and all.
No reply in words, but Stevie had tangled a hand in his hair and pulled him down, and he had gone, because he always went where Stevie told him.
Seventy-five years later, James sits down heavily. He still doesn’t remember everything, but he knows he never made that proposal, and he knows that he should have. The war got in the way, because the war got in the way of everything, but there was time before that, time when he was—what was he, anyway? Too afraid to say that he loved somebody?
Instinctively, he knows he has his answer: he was too afraid to say that he loved the person he loved most in the world. Certain things the world would overlook—certain things his parents would overlook—but not this one. And then he was shipped off to war, and then. Well. He knows what happened then.
He opts for flowers. They have a small floral section at the Kroger, but it turns out there’s a flower shop in town, too. He walks in and then stands there at a loss. The smell is almost overwhelming, and the colors are obstreperously bright: reds, yellows, purples. Maybe he should risk getting carded after all.
He walks out with flowers, though: dark pink roses, white daisies. Do you bring roses when it’s not a date? They’re nice, though: not an obnoxious color, and they smell good, light and sweet.
Basia lives in the basement of a house, she told him, although she hadn’t given any further detail besides the address and the fact that her entrance is on the left side. The home is a modest ranch, set significantly back from but within sight of the road; a pickup truck is parked out front. A dog barks from inside and is shushed.
There’s a path leading around the side of the house, and James follows it and knocks on the door it reveals. Basia answers, in clothing similar if somewhat tidier than what she wears onsite, but with her dark hair braided around her face and ears like a tiara. She smiles; turns and says sternly, “No, Isabela!” to a gray cat crowding the door; and then takes in what he’s carrying. Her face does something complicated that James has no hope of interpreting, but all she says is, “Thank you,” and steps further inside to set them carefully on the small, plain table in what appears to be the kitchen area of a studio apartment. “Come in,” she adds, and beckons him inside the small space.
The kitchen and living areas are combined: there’s enough room for a refrigerator, a stove, a sink, a couch, and the tiny table, but not much else. There’s also a large bookcase that appears to block off another area, which James guesses is where Basia sleeps. There’s a bright-colored rug, a polka-dotted blanket folded over the back of the couch, and a framed poster of a hummingbird. There are also a lot of books, in multiple rows on the shelves, in Spanish, Russian, and English. He wonders how she came to speak Russian and how fluent she is, but the fact that he knows the language is not something he wants to call attention to.
“These are pretty,” Basia says, fingering one of the rose petals. “Did you go to Miss June’s in town?”
He nods. “I’m glad you liked them, because I almost passed out from the smell in thee.”
She laughs, clear as a high bell, and says, “Well, thanks for braving it. Do you like pork loin? I was trying to remember if you ate it, but I feel like I’ve seen you eat meat at the site.”
“I eat literally anything,” James says, because it’s true. Steve’s dubious interpretation of soup; MREs; anything he could find, some missions. One thing James has not become over the years is picky. “Do you need me to help? I’m not much of a cook, but I can chop things.”
The pork loin, it turns out, cooks for a couple of hours and is therefore already in the oven, along with the potatoes that accompany it; the only remaining task is to prep the Brussels sprouts that will go in toward the end of the roast’s cook time. James thinks he remembers that you’re supposed to boil them, but Basia’s eyes widen in horror when he makes the suggestion. “No, oh my God, only if you want them to taste like ass.” Once he’s done cutting them in half, she cooks them for a short period in garlic and olive oil on the stove, then puts them in the oven with the pork.
“We boiled everything when I was growing up,” James says. A flash of memory comes with it: there’s cabbage cooking, which isn’t James’s favorite thing, but Sarah had made it, and later they would all sit down together.
“Well, that’ll make almost anything taste like ass,” Basia replies, then adds, “Um, no offense to the foodways of your people.”
“The foodways of my people were based mostly on what we could afford and what we could scrounge up.” James knows, unquestionably, that this is true.
“Did you grow up poor?” she asks, with frank directness.
“Yeah, although—” James pauses. “I’m not sure we thought of it like that. Times were bad for everybody.”
“My dad’s a fireman,” Basia says. “He grew up in the Bronx, trained at FDNY, then moved here with my mom after they got married. I have no idea how they chose this town. But he wanted to get the hell out of New York City, raise his kids somewhere peaceful.”
“That’s one way to describe it.”
Basia snorts, then bends down to open the oven and shake the pan of Brussels sprouts around. She closes the oven, straightens, and says, “The other way being ‘boring,’ you mean?”
“Boring isn’t so bad.”
“We were the only non-Anglos here for a long time, so that was its own set of issues. But, yeah, we left our doors unlocked, all that small-town stuff.” She pauses, too, then goes on, “I guess if anything, I grew up a little too innocent. Too trusting.”
“How do you mean?”
She shrugs. “I was easily impressed, is all.” She opens a drawer and removes several pieces of cloth, then opens another and fishes out eating utensils, then hands everything to James. “Here, you can set the table.”
There are two pieces of folded blue medium-weight cloth, and two pieces of flat heavyweight cloth in the same color. There are also two forks and two knives. James knows that they each get a fork and a knife, so he decides it’s a reasonable guess that they’re each supposed to get a folded and flat piece of cloth each. He sets a flat piece in front of both chairs, then puts a folded piece on top of it, then puts a fork and knife on top.
Basia is rummaging through a cupboard. “I have milk, juice, water obviously—tap, not bottled. Oh, or my mom gave me that bottle of wine—do you want wine?”
“I don’t even remember the last time I had wine,” James says, honestly.
She pulls the bottle out of the cupboard and reads from the label. “‘Lynmar 2013 Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley.’ Sound good?”
“I wouldn’t know one way or the other,” James admits. “If it’s good wine, it’ll probably be wasted on me.”
“Same,” Basia says. “So we can be philistines together.”
The pork loin is the best thing he’s eaten in a long time—longer than he can remember. The potatoes, cooked in its juices, are delicious too, and so are the Brussels sprouts, to his surprise—green and tender, not bitter at all. He remembers that you’re not supposed to talk with your mouth full, and so he swallows before saying, “These are really good.”
“I told you it’s better when you don’t boil them.”
“That’s an I-told-you-so I can accept,” James says, and Basia grins at him.
Basia has a second serving of the pork, and so does James. “You know,” she says, “this shit’s expensive, but every time I eat it, it tastes like victory.”
“You conquered the pig?”
“No, I’m pretty sure the pig was conquered long before its component parts wound up in my oven.” She explains, “I wasn’t allowed to eat it, when I lived with my ex.”
James feels his eyebrows go up. “He told you what you could and couldn’t eat?”
Basia’s looking at her plate, not at him. “Basically. He was vegan, so our apartment was vegan, and if we went out, he expected me to eat like he did.”
“Vegan—is that like vegetarian?”
Basia explains that vegan is similar but stricter. “It got to the point where even if he wasn’t with me, I’d still eat vegan, because—well, because. He would get mad.”
“Why would he care what you ate?”
She’s looking at her plate again, pushing the sprouts around. “It was important to him,” she says quietly, and then looks up, eyes blazing. “Fuck it,” she spits. “I swore I was done making excuses for him. He cared because he wanted to control everything I did. He wanted me to be his—his minion. No, his subject. And if I didn’t obey, he’d beat the shit out of me, but of course never where anyone could see, and then he’d buy me roses, and then he’d go blog about patriarchy and intersectionality.”
James only understands about half of that last sentence, but he thinks he got the important parts. “What a fucking dick.” Then it occurs to him: “Shit. I should have brought you a different kind of flowers.”
Basia’s laugh is rough, unexpected, almost like a bark. “You didn’t know.”
“Well, still. Next time I’ll go for…I don’t know—tulips are nice, right?”
Her smile is small but genuine. “You don’t have to bring any at all.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s the civilized thing to do. And speaking of civilized—” He gets up and takes their plates to the sink, and pours her more wine. He starts to gather the pots to wash them; when Basia protests, he says, “Maybe up in the Bronx it’s OK to let the cook wash up, but not where I’m from”—and then he has to catch himself on the edge of the counter. That’s how we do it in Brooklyn, motherfuckers! and the sensation of throwing something and listening to the cheers—from his team? from his friends?—as it exploded. Your turn, Stevie—you can’t ride that motorcycle into everything. Sometimes you just gotta throw a fucking bomb.
“James!” Basia’s voice, here in the present, is sharp and worried, and she’s inserted herself underneath his shoulder—shit, the left.
He straightens and pulls away—most people aren’t expecting metal there, but it doesn’t feel like flesh, and she’s not dumb. “It’s OK. Christ. Sorry. I just—” He takes a breath. “My memory, it’s…not great. Sometimes I remember things, but I don’t know when it’s going to happen. And it just happened.”
Her brown eyes are wide with concern. “Do you want to talk about it?”
There’s no way to say, I’m from Brooklyn, and I was in World War II, so he says, “No,” instead. “It…it wasn’t bad. Just something important. That I can’t believe I ever forgot.”
“We can call it a night,” she says, and he recognizes the tone in her voice as gentleness.
“No. Uh, unless you want to. But lemme finish the dishes, anyway.”
“There’s dessert if you want it.”
“It’s the civilized thing to do. Devil’s food cupcakes, mocha frosting.”
Every part of that proposition sounds worth investigating, so James hurries up and finishes the dishes, and they sit down on the couch with cupcakes and the rest of the wine.
It’s a good combination, but it makes him sleepy—Basia too, if the way they’re listing against each other is any indication. It feels good, being warm and comfortably close like this. She smells nice, and her body is soft, with an underlay of strength from their work. She’s on his right, so he can put his arm around her; the cat plucks her way over and curls up in Basia’s lap. They sit there like that for a while, quiet, with only the sounds of their breathing and the cat’s purring. James remembers cold silence, but he can’t remember when he sat with someone like this, just two people and nothing else (except the cat). Maybe with Steve, but he doesn’t have that memory back yet, if it was ever there. He hopes so.
He’d like to run his fingers over her hair, but he isn’t sure whether that’s welcome, and anyway it’s up in those braids that look like they took a long time to do. He hears a girl’s high, sharp voice: Jimmy, stop! Those took forever! You jerk! And there’s a sensation, too, of sitting cross-legged, with long, soft strands in his fingers, plaiting them together surely and patiently, like it was something he’d done before a hundred times.
Basia shifts against him, settling closer, and James compromises with himself and traces his fingertips over the coiled lines of the braids, lightly so as not to muss them. She shifts again, and he does too, and somehow this means they’re kissing: her lips cautiously against his, just a press—and then he feels the surprise of her hand tangling in his hair, and their mouths are open, their tongues finding each other and meeting.
It’s been so long. He hasn’t touched or been touched in this particular way for more time than he knows how to count, but knows who the last person was: the little fellow in his neatly pressed shirt and careful tie, the big man in the ludicrous uniform with the star and stripes on it, both of whom are somehow the same person.
This is different. It’s tentative, exploratory, two people who are only beginning to learn each other. James still doesn’t want to mess up Basia’s hair, but he can do other things: cup her jaw in both hands, draw a line up and down the nape of her neck, listen to the pleased gasp of her indrawn breath.
After a while she comes to rest her head against his shoulder. She’s shaking a little, and he holds her close. The feeling that washes over him is at once foreign and familiar, and he comes to recognize it as something protective, the desire to shield the person in his arms from harm—and the knowledge that he can’t. No one can. Harm is part of being alive.
James kisses her again, tasting chocolate in her mouth.
He’s not sure how things are going to be at work on Monday, but it turns out everything is normal. James is still working his way through The House on Mango Street, and when Basia sees him reading it at their lunch break, she raises an eyebrow and says, “Still?”
“It goes quick, but then it’s like you get to a line and you have to stop.” Last night’s had been about midway through the book, the intensely unexpected opening to a chapter: Most likely I will go to hell and most likely I deserve to be there. What the tiny narrator of this book could have done to land herself in the inferno is a mystery, but James’s crimes are clear enough, even if he doesn’t remember all of them. He remembers enough.
The book is in front of him, but he hasn’t picked it up again. Who knows what other truths it might throw at him, truths he isn’t sure he’s ready to know.
“What are you reading?” he asks Basia, as a distraction, and she tells him. It’s something about the Internet, which reminds him. “That Internet thing you told me about where you can barely write a sentence, what’s that called?” His phrasing makes her laugh, which was partly his aim, but he genuinely wants the information.
“Nobody can write a sentence on the Internet,” Basia says. “But are you talking about Twitter?”
Twenty or thirty thousand Twitter followers, a book deal. “Yeah,” James says, “that’s what I’m talking about.”
He goes to the library after work. It’s not about books: it’s because he’s heard from some of the guys that there are computers there, and James has something to find.
There are two rows of computers, each in its own little carrel, and James sits down in front of one. He’s seen people use them: a keyboard like a typewriter, and a little rolling device that you use to point at things. There’s a rectangle that says “Search or Enter Address,” so James points on it and considers what to search for. He tries to remember some of the words Basia said. He’d go blog about patriarchy and intersectionality. James has a sudden nonsensical vision of Methuselah or Abraham or one of those Bible characters from Sunday school in a car at a stoplight. He types patriarchy intersectionality into the rectangle: it turns out they’re both feminist things, and not about Old Testament people who had beards and begat other people. James reads a little more and concludes that Basia’s ex-boyfriend must have talked a lot about women’s rights while beating up his girlfriend. What an asshole.
He tries another search, this time more specific: feminist man. He adds Twitter and blog, then, remembering the rest of Basia’s comment, book and radical newspaper.
A list of short blurbs shows up onscreen, and some of them are clearly not what James is looking for. Canada’s leading feminist website. The latest Tweets from Feminist Culture (@feministculture), activism on the grounds of gender, with intersection on race… Everyday Feminism. Contemporary feminist reviews, blogs, features & news. The trouble with Twitter feminism.
Ian Summers. Feminist, antiracist, executive editor of the Radikal.
James aims and taps the button on the pointer. Another screen comes up, with a blue rectangle that says “Profile” in the center. There’s a picture: a smiling white fellow in his thirties wearing a button-down shirt, black glasses, and five o’clock shadow. The full blurb follows: Ian Summers. Feminist, antiracist, vegan, executive editor of the Radikal. Check out my book Intersectionality 101, coming from Chronicle Books in January! West Philly, Pennsylvania. www.radikalfreepress.org/ian-summers.
It’s him. It has to be.
James has another idea. He points to the topmost rectangle again and types in Basia Radikal Philadelphia. He realizes as the letters appear that he doesn’t know her last name, but that in a few seconds he might. Is it the right thing to do, to find out like this, without asking her? But he doesn’t want to plan the death of some random guy who never beat a woman and happens to think equality is a good thing.
The blurbs come up again. The third one down says Radikal Writers: Basia Diaz, and James points to it. There’s a picture of her smiling with her hair loose around her shoulders, and a short paragraph below it: Staff writer Basia Diaz is a Puerto Rican/Russian feminist who grew up in a nowhere town in West Virginia. She started at the Radikal three years ago as an intern. She’s a senior at Bryn Mawr College with double majors in Cities and Gender and Sexuality. She plans to go to graduate school in cultural anthropology. She lives with her incredibly supportive partner and their cat, Isabela. There’s a list of article titles, none more recent than a year ago.
She didn’t go to graduate school. Instead, she took the cat and moved back to the nowhere town in West Virginia.
The Radikal’s headquarters aren’t hard to find: the address is right on the masthead. James memorizes it, for later reference.
If he clicks on the left-hand arrow enough, it takes him back to the blank screen, which he has to stare at for a few minutes before he can bring himself to type Steve Rogers and point at the little arrow that will bring up the blurbs.
There are a lot of blurbs. It turns out Steve has an account on Twitter: he’s smiling in his picture, too, and wearing a baseball cap with a logo of his shield on it. Steve Rogers. Retweets are not endorsements. New York City. There’s a comment about a fundraiser for veterans, and something about vaccinations, and another thing about funding for school lunch programs, and then a comment about how there are less rich people now but they have more money. Those all sound like Steve. The dates on the comments are pretty far apart, though, like he doesn’t use his account much, and there’s nothing personal, aside from the New York bit. James points on the left arrow.
Everything else that comes up are articles about Steve. James considers, then points at the rectangle again and adds address.
TMZ Exclusive: Captain America Flies Low with the Falcon
Obviously James points to that.
There's a picture: Steve, unmistakably, in a work shirt and trousers, walking with a handsome black man. James recognizes him: the man with wings, from the helicarrier.
Steve “Captain America” Rogers and Sam “The Falcon” Wilson take the air near Wilson’s historic family brownstone in Sugar Hill, Harlem. Rogers has been spotted coming and going from the address since S.H.I.E.L.D. sank. FYI, the Falcon may look casual, but those are Ferragamo loafers and Zegna slacks he’s sporting. As for Mr. Rogers…well, let’s just say his name suits him.
The shot places them outside, and the computer shows a bigger version of the picture when James points to it. It’s a close shot, with the foreground focus strongly on Steve and the man he’s walking close beside, but there’s some neighborhood detail in the background, as well as the doorway and stoop. James has found more using less.
There’s a printer, but he isn’t sure how to use it, so he has to resort to asking a librarian. She looks at the picture and smiles. “They’re a good-looking pair, aren’t they?”
James, to his complete shock, blushes.
“You wouldn’t be the first to think so—and not the first man, either.”
He’s still too horrified to answer, but she takes mercy on him and shows him how to print out a copy of the photo—in color, even—for twenty-five cents. Two bits seems like a lot for a piece of paper, but it is in color, after all.
When he gets home, he folds it carefully and hides it between the bills in the binder clip he uses for his money. He doesn’t know what he wants to do with the picture, exactly, but he knows he wants it with him.
He wants to finish the book before Saturday so that he can give it back to Basia, so Friday night he sits down determined to read, no matter how deep in his gut Esperanza’s words stab him.
Their strength is secret. They send ferocious roots beneath the ground. They grow up and they grow down and grab the earth between their hairy toes and bite the sky with violent teeth and never quit their anger.
Hell no, James thinks. There’s some anger that you never quit. It never leaves you, no matter how many years, decades, it’s been, no matter how much time has passed. It’s satisfying to read that, somehow, like saying words and knowing they’re true.
When he meets Basia on the sidewalk the next morning, he hands the book back to her. “Done. Finally.”
“And?” she says.
“I liked it. She—” He pauses to think of the right way to put it. “She says a lot with a little.”
“Sandra Cisneros is good at that. So what are you going to read next?”
“I don’t know; I haven’t really thought about it.”
“Well, if you like people who say a lot without saying very much, you might like Raymond Carver.”
“I don’t know who that is,” James admits.
“He was a short-story writer. His most famous book is probably Cathedral. I can bring it if you want to read it, or you can get it from the library.”
No, he can’t. “Sure, I’d like to borrow it.”
“You’re not quite as dead to me if you don’t like it, but I really don’t know why you wouldn’t.”
They make their way through the store, same as every Saturday morning. Basia pauses to compare prices on two different kinds of cereal, both on sale, and, with nothing to distract him, his eyes go to the gleam of her almost-black ponytail. It somehow seems less intrusive to touch it with his gloved hand, and so he does, just the ends, feeling the very slight weight of the strands but nothing else.
Basia turns, and their eyes meet, and this time James knows that he kisses her. She’s not embarrassed; indeed, one of her arms slides around his shoulders, and when he tilts her head up, she leans closer. They stay like that, necking in the cereal aisle at the Kroger like they’ve got nothing better to do—which, really, they might not—until there’s a cleared throat and a, “Hello, Basia.”
Basia pulls away and goes as red as James did in the library. The speaker is a gray-haired woman with glasses, and she looks a little stern, and also a little amused.
“Um,” Basia says, “hi, Mrs. Johnson. How’s Mr. Johnson?”
“He’s fine. I’ll let him know you asked after him. And who is this young man?”
James understands this as his cue. “Hello, ma’am. I’m James Smith.” This is the name on his lease at Forest Estates, so it’s his name everywhere else, too.
Mrs. Johnson shakes his hand firmly, and now she looks sterner. “Hello, James. I’m Mrs. Johnson. Basia was in my eleventh-grade English class.”
The only thing worse than necking with a girl in front of her English teacher, James thinks, would be doing it in front of her father—who, given the size of this town, Mrs. Johnson probably knows. She takes mercy on the both of them, though, wishes them a good day, and moves out of sight.
“Oh my God, she was my AP English teacher!” Basia hisses. “I had her husband for calculus! She wrote one of my college recommendations! This is the worst day of my life!” James tries not to laugh, and fails, and Basia punches him in the arm—the right, thank God. “This is your fault! Now everyone in town is going to know that—that I was making out with—with a hot person in the grocery store like some kind of—of shameless hussy!” This time James laughs out loud, and Basia punches him again, not hard.
“Lock up your sons,” James says. “There’s been an infestation of shameless hussies in the Kroger on Saturday mornings.”
“Whatever, it’s not as bad as the infestation of scruffy dudes who think you’re supposed to boil Brussels sprouts.”
James wants to kiss her again, kiss her feisty mouth the way he remembers, clearly, kissing another one, but he’d rather avoid any further encounters with former authority figures in Basia’s life—and he’s sure she would, too.
I want to kiss you, Buck.
Not here. When we’re home.
To hell with that. I want to kiss you everywhere.
I want to kiss you everywhere too, Stevie. Your lips and your neck and your pretty—
Shut up, I didn’t mean it like that. I mean, I did, but—I want to kiss you on the subway and on the stoop and at the movies and when we’re waiting at the butcher shop. We’re just as good as anyone else.
I know we are, but I don’t want us to get arrested, so let me get you home so that I can kiss your pretty—
James looks at Basia. To hell with that. “I want to kiss you again,” he says. “But I can wait.”
She bites her lip. “I was going to ask you over again tonight,” she says. “But maybe I want to do it now.”
“Yeah,” James says. “Now.”
“Or after we pay for our groceries, anyway.”
James doesn’t kiss her, but he brushes a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “After that,” he agrees.
They go straight to her apartment.
She’s barely made room in her refrigerator for the most perishable of James’s things when he presses her against the kitchen wall and tangles his real hand in the loose part of her hair. “Not like this,” she says, and turns them. This is good too, him against the wall, and he pulls her closer with his other hand.
“Can I—your hair,” he manages, and she says, “Yeah,” and reaches behind herself to remove whatever holds it in place. It falls glossy and thick around his fingers, like they’re buried in silk.
It’s not far to the couch, and when Basia sinks down on top of him, James sighs in unexpected pleasure. The softness of a woman’s hips and thighs are somehow familiar; so is the salty scent of her arousal, probably imperceptible to anyone with normal senses. She leans down to suck a kiss on his throat, and that feels good too. “That OK?” she whispers, and he breathes, “Yes.” Her mouth moves up, warm with just a little bit of teeth, and he shifts to let her. She sucks at his earlobe, and his hips jerk up—he’d forgotten that he liked this, but, God, he does. She rolls down against him, and he recognizes the feeling—his own arousal. He’s getting hard. It’s a hot, urgent feeling, intense, and it’s been so long—
James drops his head onto the back of the couch, and Basia stops. “You OK?”
“Yeah,” he says. “It’s just—it’s been a long time.”
“For me too,” she says, although she’s got several decades’ worth of advantage on him. “Sorry if I went too fast.”
“You didn’t. I—I sort of forgot what it was like.” He doesn’t add: I wasn’t even sure I could still get it up.
He keeps his arms around her, and she doesn’t move off him, just puts her head on his shoulder. He runs a hand up and down her spine, at once strong and fragile under her T-shirt, like anyone’s bones. Her fingers play lightly at the corner of his jaw, rasping lightly over the stubble.
“You know all about the asshole who was my most recent,” she says. Of course this isn’t true—James knows more than she’s told him, but certainly not everything. “Anybody you want to tell me about?”
It’s a different world now, James thinks. You can say things out loud now that you never would have dreamed of the last time he sat like this with someone. Things are not just tolerated, not just legalized, but accepted—at least by some people. He doesn’t actually know how Basia feels about those things. But there’s so little he can tell her. He can tell her this.
“It was—” He takes a breath. “It was a long time ago. It was—he was my best friend.”
“Yeah?” she says, quietly. She doesn’t sound shocked.
“We grew up together. We were in the service together. I didn’t want him to join up, but telling him not to do something was like—” James laughs, only a little bitter. “It was like daring him to do it. So of course he did. And then he—he saved my life. Just to show me up, I’m pretty sure.”
James doesn’t know how to continue, and Basia says, still gentle, “Where is he now?”
“New York, I think. Seems like he’s got a new fella, but I don’t know for sure.”
“No, it’s…He deserves somebody.” James remembers the grace and ferocity of the flying man—Sam Wilson is apparently his name. “I think the new guy will take care of him. He needs that. Doesn’t have the sense to do it himself,” James can’t help adding.
“Did you always know?” Basia asks. “That you liked both, I mean?”
“Both guys and girls. I mean”—and there’s a mischievous tint to her voice—“I’m guessing you like girls too.”
He can’t help laughing. “Yeah. I think that’s pretty clear. I think—” There’s so much he doesn’t remember. “I think,” James starts again, “I think I always mostly liked girls. But he was like…It was like I was born with a space in me that was shaped like him.”
Basia shifts a little to look at James. “So why aren’t you still with him?”
James shakes his head. “I did things that…that he wouldn’t be able to forgive.”
“Have you ever asked him about that?”
James doesn’t answer, which is an answer in itself.
She moves again, resettling to his side and stretching her legs across his. She’s wearing denim shorts, and her feet are bare; she kicked off her sandals when they came inside. He notices that her toenails are, unexpectedly and delightfully, pink. She’s got hair on her legs, which seems to be practically unheard-of now. He skims his right hand over her calf, and the sensation is bristly softness; Basia giggles, though. “Sorry, it tickles.”
He relaxes his hand to drape over her ankle and asks, “Is this OK?”
“Yeah, that’s fine. It’s just when you do it lightly like you did.”
He runs his hand up and down, from ankle to just above her knee and back again, and that seems to be OK too: no tickling, and Basia straightens her leg to give him better access. He outlines the arcs and planes of muscle with his fingertips, and a memory comes of slender, precise fingers doing the same time to him—one hand touching, the other sketching, like eyes weren’t enough for Steve to take in everything he wanted.
James curves his hand around the arch of Basia’s foot, jumps his index finger from toe to toe, and she sits up again. She takes a handful of his hair to pull his head down, and they’re kissing again. Her breasts are circles of warmth against his chest, and he thinks they’d fit right into his hands. He slides his right hand up her side—but. He doesn’t want to be like the piece of bad news who was in her life before. “Can I?” he asks. “Your, um, your…” He is confident that he has done this before, and yet he has no idea how he actually got there. Maybe there were signals back then.
She grins at him and lets go of his hair to reach down for his wrists. “My breasts, you mean?”
It’s a newer, bolder age, and yet James feels his eyes widen at her frankness.
“You want to touch them,” she says, “but you get all embarrassed when I say it?”
“I’m not exactly used to it,” he admits, “but the answer is yes. And yes.”
“Yeah?” Basia says. She’s still grinning. And he almost falls over in shock when she leans back, crosses her arms in front of her, and strips off the shirt.
She's built like a goddess, heavy-breasted, strong, with delicious-looking rounds to her shoulders. Her brassiere is purple, which he hadn’t thought to expect, and it doesn’t extend down onto her ribcage, which somehow he was expecting. The bottom and middle parts are made of lace, which he definitely was not expecting. He realizes that he’s staring.
“Good or bad?” Basia asks.
“Excellent,” James says.
The satin of the cups is sleek underneath his fingers, and when he dips them underneath, she sighs happily. “You can…with your other hand too,” she says. “With or without the glove.”
He shakes his head. “The glove is…It stays on all the time.”
“I figured,” Basia says, “especially since you’re the only person wearing long sleeves in West Virginia in August. I just…If you want to take the glove off, I don’t care what it looks like underneath.” He shakes his head, and she leans forward to whisper, “It’s OK. I like how leather feels, too.”
Bra clasps, at least, have not changed in seventy years. The piece falls onto the floor, and she’s bared in front of him: soft amber skin, darker brown nipples. He tentatively runs his left thumb over one, and true to her word, she shudders. James leans forward to put his mouth there, and she breathes, “Yeah.”
Her hands land at the hem of his shirt, then pause. “Probably not OK to take yours off, right?” she says, and he shakes his head. “What about right here?” she says, laying a palm over his navel. “Because it’s a little hard to tell under the clothes you wear, but I bet your abs are fucking amazing.”
He laughs, but he still has to think about it. Finally he says, “No higher than here,” and guides her hand to lie just under his ribs.
Basia’s fingers burrow there, but no farther. She places them flat on his belly and hums happily. “Just like I thought. I could probably bounce a quarter off those.”
He tips her back because it’s easier both to address himself to her breasts that way and to distract her from anything potentially arm-related. She makes fantastic noises when he sucks at her nipples, which harden under his tongue. He scrapes his teeth over them, and she presses up against him. He can smell that oceanic scent again, and his fingers want to touch her—he knows, somehow, that she’ll be as hot as a four-stroke engine, and slick with welcome. He moves up to kiss her mouth hard, and her leg wraps around his thighs.
This, too, is not something James thinks he has ever asked a girl for directly—there were signals, he remembers, subtle ones, because it wasn’t gentlemanly to ask, and it wasn’t ladylike to give in, even when both parties wanted the same thing. Basia doesn’t seem to hold to those views, and James is pretty sure she’s not unique in that respect these days.
Lemme suck you, Stevie.
Yeah, Buck, God. Please. And he can remember the shape in his mouth, the taste, Steve’s moans. James had asked him for it, and he had said yes. Had said yes, had buried his hands in James’s hair, had cried out Bucky and come in James’s mouth.
James brushes Basia’s hair back from her face. She’s sweating a little. “I want to touch you,” he says. “Can I?”
And by way of answer, she moves his hand between her legs, where he can feel her wet heat.
Her shorts are a simple button and zipper, and her underwear are a demure white cotton; he sets aside the urge to lick her through them. So long since he’s touched anyone like this, but it returns quickly. He listens to her cries, lets her guide him, curves his fingers inside her when she arches up against them. He kisses her, plays the leather of the glove against her nipple the way she seems to like, and it’s at once completely new and familiar and miraculous when she tightens around him and comes, eyes closed and head thrown back.
She opens her eyes and smiles at him, and he licks her taste off his fingers. Her eyebrows rise, but she looks impressed more than anything else. She curls up against him, and he holds her, strokes her hair. “Thanks,” she says.
James isn’t sure how to respond to that, so he tries, “You’re welcome?”
She moves her hand down to where he’s hard in his jeans. “You want some help with that?”
He does. God, he does. Her hand would be soft and knowing, and they’d be warm and close here on her couch.
He shakes his head. “I do— I’m not— I don’t—”
She kisses him, gently. “You don’t have to explain.”
“I think I do,” James says. “Because I’m pretty sure I’m crazy to turn that offer down.”
“It’s renewable,” she says. “You want some lunch?”
James goes home late that afternoon with his groceries and another slim paperback book. He puts the food away, then lies down on the bed to start reading. He’s distracted, though, still half hard despite the distractions of lunch and a couple of episodes of a television show Basia likes, something harmless about government workers in a small town. There was a familiarity to sitting quietly and watching the show with her, and he realized that it was like listening to the radio—he remembers flickers of a story about a mysterious detective. There were sensations attached to the memory: the warmth and sharp edges of Stevie tucked up against him when they were alone, the constant awareness of his presence as they sat some appropriate distance from each other when they weren’t.
James sets to the book to the side and reaches down to cup his right hand over his dick. He presses down a little, just enough to feel good, and sighs. He must have done this before: he can remember sinking into Steve, head thrown back, and he can remember the shudderingly good slide of Steve’s cock inside him, but he doesn’t remember doing himself, even though it seems almost impossible that he wouldn’t have.
He unzips his jeans and lays his fingers over his dick, feeling its length and shape under his boxers. Yeah, Buck, please. Please. Fuck, don’t stop, please don’t stop. His dick gets harder; his hips flex up in the rhythm he remembers. He shoves down the jeans and underwear to wrap his hand around himself. He remembers Steve’s hand here too: remembers it small, with delicate but precise fingers, remembers it big, covering him almost completely.
He jerks the shaft lightly; he has a sudden longing to tease the head, his balls. He’s wary of trying that with bare metal, but he does still have the glove on. He runs a fingertip around the head, finding a place on the back that makes him moan, exploring the slit. His eyes fall closed, and his legs spread of their own accord. The jeans get in the way, though, so he kicks them off, and now he can trace a light touch over his sac. A memory, immediate and shocking: a blond head between his thighs, the hair soft in his hands, Steve’s mouth hot and brazen on the fragile, nerve-laden skin. Stevie, oh god, please, oh god it’s so good. His mind white, blank in the best possible way, overloaded.
He’s stroking himself faster now, tighter, and there’s fluid that makes it warm and slick. James thrusts up, and the bed creaks; he braces his feet on the mattress so that he can fuck up urgently into his hand. He’s making noise; he doesn’t even mean to, but it feels so good that the sounds rise unbidden from deep in his throat. He closes his fingers for more pressure, rubs hard on that spot behind the head, and he comes with a shout, back arching like he’s in pain, except it’s pleasure, nearly more than he can stand.
He collapses onto his back, limp, body sounding like a struck bell. The cotton of his shirt against his nipples is almost unbearably coarse; there’s sweat at his hairline and temples. He’s panting, even though he can run for miles without getting winded.
He wriggles out of his outermost shirt and wipes himself clean, then tosses it onto the floor. He’s suddenly drained, too exhausted to read. He falls asleep. He doesn’t dream.
On Monday, James is prepared for their normal pattern: civil on the job, going their separate ways afterward. It’s nothing personal about him, James knows: he can’t see a face, but he can hear a voice, female and crisp, arch and concise, employed to keep an unerring grip on her professionalism and reputation, neither of which she could stand to lose. Neither can Basia, the only woman in this small world of men.
The ones who have cars drive home at the end of the day, but many of the crew don’t, so the ones going to Henryville pile in the back of the foreman’s truck for a ride to the Kmart parking lot in town. Some have rides waiting there; some don’t. There’s a minimal county bus system, and a few of the guys make their way to the stop, but most set off on foot to wherever home is. Basia always does.
James is contemplating whether to go in the store and buy a few new shirts, which he sorely needs even after just a couple of months on the job, or whether to put it off for a while and save the money. He really wants to take Basia out; it’s time. The restaurant selection in this town is not extensive, but there’s an Italian place near the flower shop that he’s heard some of the guys talk about taking their wives and girlfriends to. James suspects that Basia has more refined tastes than that, but there’s not really anywhere better within a reasonable distance without a car, and he is certain that Basia would frown on stealing one. So Portabella’s it is, or at least it will be, once he’s got a little more money together. He wants to make sure she can get anything on the menu, wine and dessert too.
He’s still debating the merits of new shirts versus a larger contribution to the dinner fund when its subject nudges him. “Hey. You planning on standing here in front of the Kmart all night?”
The shirts can wait, James decides. The ones he has are fine, just a little ratty looking, and it’s not like he’s hanging out with fashion critics. “Just trying to remember if I needed anything. You headed home?”
“I was thinking of hitting the clubs, but, there not being any, I guess home will have to do.”
He has the same urge to kiss her that he did in the Kroger, but here it would be disastrous, so he restrains himself and says, “I’ll, uh, I'll walk you.” It’s out of his way, but he doesn’t mind.
The road is mostly woods and trailers, with just a few houses, including the one in whose basement Basia lives. She makes a face when they get to the driveway, where a second pickup is parked this evening. “My dad’s here,” she says. “The red truck is his.”
“How come he didn’t come get you?”
“He’s offered about a hundred thousand times. He hates it that I ride in the back of Leroy's truck—he’s given me the safety lecture about five hundred thousand times. But I…I didn’t want to depend on him. Or anyone.”
“So he comes to check on you?”
She makes another face. “He’s not here for that. At least not officially. He’s probably watching baseball with Jerry. That’s his best friend. He and his wife own the house, which is how I ended up renting the basement. So not that independent after all, I guess.”
“You pay rent, right?”
“Yeah, but. I don’t know. Dad won’t come down unless I ask him, but, like, I can feel him worrying when he’s here. So I should say hi.”
No part of James is ready to meet a girl’s dad, and, thank any gods that may exist, Basia doesn’t ask.
“Can they see us from the house?” James asks.
She smiles, slyly. “That was extremely subtle, Mr. Smith.”
“Subtle is my middle name.”
“Yeah, I can tell. And unfortunately they can, and I’d kind of like to skip the questions from my dad.”
“OK,” James says agreeably. “I’ll just think about what you taste like all the way home.”
She glares at him, and he grins at her.
“Next Saturday,” he says, “I think we should, uh.” He stops. Dammit. He had this all planned out. “I think we should go out. To a place.”
Basia raises her eyebrows. “We’re in a place right now. Any geographic location is a place.”
It’s his turn to glare.
“To a place,” he continues. “Uh. To eat. To a restaurant.”
She’s motionless for a moment. Then she says, “That’s very public.”
“If you don’t want to—because of the guys on the crew—”
“No, it’s…I’m not trying to be a dirty little secret. Or to make you my dirty little secret. Um. That would be a nice. A restaurant.”
“There’s only one that I know of where you can actually sit down, and it’s that Italian place that can’t be really Italian because I have yet to see an Italian person anywhere near here.”
She laughs. “Portabella’s. Yeah, it’s kind of the only game in town unless you can drive somewhere.”
“I could,” James says, “but my guess is that you’d disapprove of hotwiring a car.”
“Can you actually do that?”
“OK, no, don’t commit grand theft auto just to take me out. I promise I’m happy with Portabella’s. Even if we run into my English teacher again.”
He doesn’t kiss her, but he does briefly take her hand, and he smiles all the way home.
There was a flaw in his planning: with his Friday pay, he’ll have enough for his rent and a nice dinner for himself and Basia…but he has nothing besides his work clothes to wear to said dinner. It’s not a fancy restaurant, exactly, but he is given to understand that you wear better than worksite clothes to it. Which means that he has to break his crime moratorium and steal some, because he’s not going to show up to take Basia out looking like a hobo.
They make their standard grocery trip on Saturday morning, but then split up again, since they’ll be seeing each other again in just a few hours. He tries not to be nervous. He’s done this before, even if the specifics escape him. He can take a girl to dinner. It’s a completely normal, unremarkable thing to do.
He gets ready as best he can. He showers, shaves, dresses, ties back his hair. The routine is familiar somehow. The shirt is gray; the trousers are black. The shirt is more fitted than he’s been wearing, but the shape of the metal isn’t obvious underneath it, and the color is dark enough that it doesn’t show through.
Even though they’re walking, he still goes to her place to pick her up: it just seems like the thing to do. He knocks, she opens the door, the cat tries to run out, Basia jumps to catch it, and it’s only when she has secured Isabela inside and closed the door that James realizes she’s wearing something he’s never seen on her: a skirt. A dress, actually, with tiny flowers on it, that falls just above her knees. It doesn’t have sleeves, and the straps are narrow, revealing her collarbone and shoulders, which he already knows he likes; her hair is loose around them, and it’s longer than he realized. “You. Uh. You look really pretty.”
“Thanks. You clean up pretty well, too.”
They stand there for a moment and look each other up and down. Then James holds out his arm, and Basia takes it, and they set off for the restaurant.
James is glad that he acquired some decent clothes, because while Portabella’s isn’t fancy, exactly, most of the men are in slacks, and most of the women are in skirts or dresses. He's also morally certain that he has had real Italian food in the past, and this menu, which includes items with names such as corn nuggets and Italian nachos, does not contain it. The scampi’s not bad, though, and neither is the spicy penne that Basia gets. The wine she had at her house, though, was better. They have tiramisu for dessert, and that’s good.
Summer is starting to turn the corner into fall, and the night is pleasantly cool when they walk outside. James isn’t sure what happens next. “I can walk you home,” he ventures.
“You could,” Basia agrees. “But, uh, I’ve never seen your place. So we could do that.”
“It’s not much to look at,” James says. “You know what the buildings are like, and I’m not much of a hand at interior decoration besides.”
“We don’t have to,” she says, and James responds, “No, it’s OK. It’s clean, at least.” Small favors: he happened to get around to cleaning the bathroom and kitchen last night. “I just don’t want you to be expecting Buckingham Palace.”
“I can mentally picture a cardboard box if it would help.”
“Yes, definitely. Cardboard box, multiple holes.”
“Not even any flaps. You have to turn it over if you want shelter from the elements.”
It’s not a terribly long walk, and it’s a nice night to be in the company of a pretty girl with no particular agenda. When they turn the corner into Forest Estates, Basia points out the first building on the left, by the pool. “My best friend grew up there.”
“She still in town?”
“No. She got a scholarship to University of Maryland, and now she’s working in DC. We both always said we’d get the hell out, but, well, here I am.”
“It doesn’t have to be forever, though.”
“It doesn’t. You can do electrical work anywhere. That’s actually a major reason I picked it. But it’s already been a while, and I’m still here.”
“It can’t have been that long,” James says. “When did you break up with the asshole?”
“It’s been about a year,” Basia says, confirming his suspicions from the Internet search.
“A year is nothing,” he says. “Especially when you’re young.”
She rolls her eyes. “And you’re so ancient. You’re like five years older than me.”
Try seventy-five, he thinks but doesn’t say.
At his building, he unlocks the front door, then leads her upstairs. The stairway light sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, but fortunately it’s on now. James unlocks and opens the front door to his apartment, then turns on the overhead light and stands aside to let Basia in.
It really isn’t much to look at, and he’s struck by self-consciousness as Basia steps inside and glances around. The walls are bare, and the bedclothes came from the secondhand store in town; so did the few books, shelfless, that James has accumulated.
“It’s definitely not a palace,” he says.
“Yeah, but it’s not a cardboard box, either.” She sits on one of the chairs at the tiny table.
James makes them coffee, using the press he got at the Kmart: it was the least expensive device the store carried for this purpose, yet its results are immensely superior to what James remembers. Maybe boiling everything really isn’t the answer. He drinks his coffee black: he retains a strong belief that sugar is rationed, even though the baking aisle of the Kroger demonstrates on a weekly basis that this is not true, and he doesn’t like the fatty texture of milk mixed in. Basia, child of an America that has never known rationing, takes her coffee with both.
They chat about nothing in particular, and James reaches across the table to run his fingers over her knuckles where they rest over her cup. She smiles at him, and he traces the veins that lead upward to her wrist and beyond.
Basia lets go of the cup, and, interpreting a signal to stop, James pulls back his hand—but Basia gets up and crosses the short span of space to stand beside his chair. He looks up at her, and she puts her hand on the side of his face. They’re both still for a suspended moment, which Basia breaks with, “I kind of like being taller than you.”
James turns so that he can pull her closer, still standing, between his legs. His hands land instinctively on the rounds of her hips under the dress, and she leans forward to rest her arms on his shoulders. “I’m in charge,” she says with the grin he wants to kiss, and he answers, “Always.”
She pulls the tie out of his hair and tangles her fingers in it. James wants to do the same to hers, but whatever this is, it’s her show, so he stays still. Basia tilts his head up to kiss him, which she has to lean down to do, and he does wrap a curl of her hair around his fingers when it falls down to curtain them both.
She tugs firmly upward, and James goes; she pushes him back toward the wall, and he doesn’t resist, just shoves the chair out of the way and goes until he hits solidity. He usually avoids being backed against walls, but this isn’t a fight: it’s just him and his girl, alone in private to do whatever they want.
They’re kissing again, and he can put his hand on her back, bare above the dress. The straps of the dress make no secret of her bra straps, which are a matching navy, unobtrusive but still there for everyone to see. It’s a style James has seen before, but it surprises him every time. When he slides a finger under one to touch the delicate skin beneath, Basia doesn’t seem scandalized in any way; indeed, she pulls him a little closer.
He lowers his head to push one aside and press his lips to the path underneath it. She shivers, and he makes a line up her throat, sucking gently when he gets to the hollow beneath her ear. Her hands tighten in his hair, and he feels the electric sting up and down his spine. She lets go, but only to grasp his wrists and guide them to her breasts. “Since I know you’re not going to say it,” she says, and he laughs.
“I’ve always liked doing better than talking anyway,” he says, and she responds, “So when are you going to stop talking and start doing?”
He starts by rubbing gently over the fabric of her dress, but she makes an annoyed murmur, and he says, “Yeah, yeah, I’m getting there.” He moves his hand underneath the dress and teases her through the cup, kissing her as he does.
Her hands untuck the hem of his shirt and burrow beneath, and he freezes for a moment, but she says softly, “Don’t worry, here, I know,” and draws a line with her finger across the point below his ribcage that he’d specified as a boundary the last time they were like this. True to her word, she splays one hand across his belly, which she apparently likes, and runs the other slowly up and down the indention of his spine in his lower back.
When he finally touches bare skin, Basia inhales sharply, then sighs out a soft moan as James circles a nipple with the pad of his index finger. He bends and bites lightly at her collarbone, then moves down to kiss across the top of her breast. It’s an awkward angle but a rewarding one. He nudges the neckline of the dress aside, then the bra cup, and strokes her nipple with the point of his tongue.
She pulls him up and forward, backward for her, and James is confused for a moment before he realizes her aim: the bed. She sits on its edge and pushes him down, and he goes to his knees between her spread thighs. “I’m taller again,” she says, sinking both hands in his hair and kissing him again.
“Not by much,” he says, and returns his mouth to her breasts, which are no less magnificent than they were last time.
It’s annoying, working around the dress, but it seems overly forward to suggest that she remove it. In any case, he can nose around it, licking and enjoying the high, breathy sounds she makes. She pulls at his hair with one hand, tattoos the back of his neck with her nails with the other, and his dick practically says her name when she gasps out his. She looks down at him, and he looks up at her.
“If I took this off,” she says quietly, “it would be inequitable.”
Some things are just not an option. So he quips instead, “I could take off my pants to make things even, but it would just look ridiculous.”
Basia eyes him in a way that suggests she doesn’t entirely agree with that statement. “Let’s try it,” she says. “For science.”
“For science,” James says. “That sounds serious.”
She nods. “It’s an experiment. We need empirical data and repeatable results.”
“That sounds like something I shouldn’t interfere with,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to get in the way of scientific progress.”
He stands, and she watches avidly. Once he’s half undressed, he does feel somewhat absurd in his long-sleeved shirt and boxers, but Basia looks nothing but interested. She puts her hands on his hips, beneath the shirttails, and her fingers slip tantalizingly under the elastic of the shorts but go no farther. She moves them back up, to the lowermost button of the shirt, and says, “Can I?” Yes is what he wants to answer, though of course he can’t. But she adds, “Just to here,” and lays her hand on the place where she drew the line.
“Yeah,” he says, “to there,” and she grins and leans forward and sucks a biting kiss below his belly button.
It turns out the dress is not complicated: it’s a loose drape of fabric that lifts right off, no zipper or anything. Beneath it is the navy bra, which is lacy like the other one, and equally lacy underwear that match. It’s remarkably coordinated for somebody who doesn’t seem to care a lot about clothes, and James wonders whether she was planning, or at least preparing, for this.
He drops to his knees again and runs his thumbs over the lace on the cups. “Pretty,” he says. She blushes a little, and he leans forward to lick the nipple again. “But that’s prettier.”
He makes his way down her belly, a gentle round underlaid with sturdy muscles, and rubs his cheeks against the insides of her thighs. He recognizes the salty scent of her wetness, and when he looks up at her, she’s staring down at him. He pushes the top of the panties down just a little, just enough to kiss the line of wiry hair they reveal, and says, “You want?”
Her eyes are wide, but her nod is definite. “Yeah,” she says. “Yeah, I want.”
James pats her hip, and she raises herself enough to let him pull the underwear off. He goes slow, kissing that soft skin, the layers and folds, while she buries her hands in his hair, and when he finally touches his tongue to her clit, she cries out and clenches her hands in his hair.
He works his hands under her, filling them with her ass as he tastes her, inhales her. She’s soft under his mouth, and she moves like it feels too good, like she can’t believe how good it feels. He guides her to lie back so that he can put his tongue inside her, and it occurs to him that the angle will be better if her legs are over his shoulders. He’s right: she moans and tightens her legs around him.
He refocuses on her clit and gives her two of his fingers, then three. There’s a spot that he knows, somehow, to rub, and she actually screams. He works her with his tongue, lets her squirm and tremble around him, and when she comes, it’s a sharp flood of consonants, gasping and shuddering. He doesn’t stop, though, and she comes again, pulling so hard on his hair that it actually hurts.
Basia goes limp on the bed, panting in choppy gasps, and James moves to lie beside her, smoothing her damp hair and kissing her temple. There are traces of sweat along her hairline, and he kisses them, too.
When her breath has quieted some, she looks over at him, and her expression is almost accusing. “Fuck. You just. Oh my god. That should be illegal.”
“Are you sure it isn’t? This is West Virginia.”
She laughs and turns onto her side to drape her leg over his hip. “I won’t tell if you won’t.” She uses her leg to draw him closer, to bring his cock up against the heat of her, separated by only the thin cotton of his boxers. He shivers, and she wraps her arm around his neck and kisses him. It’s surprising, that she would want to kiss him when his mouth is still coated with her, but there’s another memory: Steve’s body trembling in the aftermath of climax, and then those slender arms hauling James—Bucky—up, pulling him into a kiss even as Steve’s come was still warm on his tongue. You taste like me, Steve had whispered, and Bucky breathed into his mouth, Damn right.
James’s hips twitch against Basia’s, and she kisses him again and tightens her leg, bringing his cock right up against her pussy. “Fuck,” he mutters without meaning to. Without the fabric there, he could slide right inside.
“Do you have condoms?” Basia asks, and James’s mouth nearly drops open in shock.
“Uh,” he says, “no. I, um, wasn’t really expecting…”
“Do you want to?” she asks. Her tone is even, and she’s looking him in the eyes, but there’s a blush high on her cheekbones, visible even underneath the bronze of her skin.
“I, uh, yeah, um, if you do. But, uh, I haven’t. For a long time. And it was with a fellow. So it might be…His equipment was pretty different.”
She brings her lips close to his ear. “You made me come so hard I thought I’d gone blind.” Well, now his dick is practically bursting out of his shorts. “So I think you know how to work the equipment just fine.” She pulls back and runs her fingers through his hair, and her face goes serious. “It’s been a while for me too. And it was with my ex. So, I don’t know. I guess we’ll figure it out. Or I might freak out and hop off you and leave you with blue balls.”
“I left myself with blue balls the other time we, uh…” He trails off. “So I think I’ll live.”
To James’s dismay, Basia rolls away—but then looks over her shoulder and says, “Hang on a second.” She gets up from the bed, and he watches her walk, naked except for her bra, over to where she left her bag on the table. Her thighs are sturdy, muscular, supporting the twin rounds of her ass, above which are two dimples that James wants to lick. She turns again to face him. “I wasn’t, you know, I wasn’t exactly expecting this either. But I thought it was better to be prepared? I don’t know.”
“I am very glad that you were prepared,” James says, fervently, and Basia laughs.
Basia removes a small paper box, not a tin, from her handbag, and the square packet that she takes therefrom is metallic rather than regular plastic, but it’s otherwise almost identical to what James remembers using the last time he did this with a girl, decades ago. It’s a bit of a surprise that this form of popular technology hasn’t changed much in seventy-five years, but James supposes that when a thing works well enough, why mess around with it?
She comes back over to the bed, and James sits up to admire her as she walks. She drops the packet onto the mattress and swings her leg over so that she’s sitting on his thighs. She wraps her hand around his cock, and he gasps—it’s the first time she’s touched it. She strokes him gently, up and down, shaft to head, and the sound he makes is involuntary—soft, whimpery. “Good?” she says softly, and he answers, “Yeah,” and pulls her down into a kiss. The position is a little awkward, with her arm between them, but he doesn’t care—it feels so good to taste her while he moves in rhythm with her touch.
He pushes down the cup of her bra so that he can put his mouth on her nipples, and she pauses to take it off. They’re like hard candy against his tongue, and she makes a whimpery noise, too. He reaches down to touch between her thighs, where she’s still wet. He could do this all day, honestly, but Basia picks the rubber back up and says, “You want?” and there’s no way he’s going to say no to that.
She seems to know what she’s doing with it, so he lets her rip it open. She fumbles a little as she rolls it on to him, but everything about the sight and feel of her hands on his cock is enjoyable. He holds himself in place for her, and she positions herself over him. There apparently has been some improvement in the technology, because even through the rubber, he can feel how hot she is, and it’s all James can do not to thrust upward. It occurs to him to wonder how long he’s going to last after a three-quarter-century dry spell.
She lowers herself agonizingly slowly, balancing with her arms on his shoulders, and he keeps himself in place, biting his lip. It hasn’t been seventy-five years for her, but it’s been a while, and the last guy was a creep. The last thing James wants to do after that is hurt her.
Basia moans as her thighs come to rest on his—he’s fully inside her now, and it feels incredible. He wishes he was completely naked, too, skin to skin against her, but no sense in wishing for things he can’t have. He kisses her, brushes her hair back from her face, and says, “Your show, sweetheart.”
“I’m just—God. It feels good.”
“Yeah,” he says, running his hand up and down her spine. “It’s good for me too.”
She begins moving slowly, tentatively, and he lets her set the pace. She makes a pleased humming noise, and he shifts so that he can get his fingers on her clit. Her head drops back, and she sinks deeper onto him. Everything about it is good as they rock together.
She goes faster as he touches her, and James has to take his gloved hand off her back and grip the sheets so that he doesn’t grab her too hard. There’s no memory that can capture the intensity of the actual moment, the silky slickness of her, the scent of her arousal, the sound of the little gasps that she makes. He rubs her clit, angles his head to suck at her nipple, and it’s like being grasped in a velvet vise when she comes, clenching around his cock.
She’s sweaty, panting, and as much as James wants nothing more than to come inside her, he can’t help smiling at her, stroking her hair, and she smiles back. “Your show, cowboy.”
In this new world, it seems, people ask for things, and so James takes a deep breath and makes himself say, “Can I, uh, can I get on top of you?”
Basia kisses his cheek and says, “Because you asked so nicely.”
She lifts herself up and off of him, but she doesn’t go far, just turns so that she’s sitting beside him. He turns, too, and gathers her in his arms, and they settle themselves so that he’s holding her and looking down at her face, flushed and beautiful. He pushes back inside her slowly, and he can’t help moaning. This time she’s the one to brush his hair back from his face, and he drops it against her shoulder, trying to get his breath steady, trying to hold back.
He feels her hand on his ass, urging him deeper, and he obeys, thrusting in and pulling out, then in again. She moves with him, meeting him, and the orgasm is building at the base of his spine, hot as a bonfire. He’s making noises again, choked groans of pleasure, and Basia wraps her arms around his neck. He fucks her harder, faster, and she brings her legs up around his hips. “It’s OK to let go,” she murmurs in that way she has. “Come inside me. Give it to me.”
And he does as commanded, coming hard, his head thrown back, crying out as the climax rips through him. It’s shattering, overwhelming, and when the aftershocks finally leave him, he wants to hide beside her, inside her; he can’t move.
But there are inarguable logistics to take care of. James pulls out of her carefully, ties off the rubber, and throws it in the trash. Then he lies back down to hold her, still trembling.
“That was good,” he whispers after a while.
“Yeah,” Basia says, tucking her head under his chin. “Yeah, it was.”
They lie there for a while, and James’s heartrate slows to something like normal. Basia is warm and soft against him, and he feels himself drifting toward sleep. For a moment he’s glad he has the metal arm and everything else they did to him: he can protect her, keep her safe. That’s a good thing.
“Hey,” she says. “I’m going to wash up a bit. Do you have a T-shirt or something I can sleep in?”
He finds her one, something he got at the thrift store that has the logo of an unknown sports team on it. It’s not exactly classy, but the worn cotton is soft. Basia disappears into the bathroom, and James takes the opportunity to put on a clean pair of shorts and exchange his button-down for a long-sleeved T-shirt even more beat-up than the one he gave Basia. He definitely does need some new shirts.
When she comes out, he goes in to brush his teeth, and when he returns, she’s already under the covers in bed. He climbs in next to her, and she curls up against his chest. “Will Isabela be OK?” he asks.
“As long as I’m back in the morning. I left her extra food and water.”
“So you did plan this,” James says, smiling.
Basia elbows him, but not hard. “I just didn’t want to be unprepared.”
He kisses the top of her head. “I’m glad you were.”
He feels her fall asleep: her pulse slows, and her breathing goes shallow and even. It feels like a great privilege, to be with someone, and especially this person, when she’s so vulnerable. He gathers her close and doesn’t sleep for a while.
By morning, they’ve moved around some: when James wakes up, he’s lying on his left side, and he and Basia are facing each other. It’s a nice way to wake up.
He doesn’t want to move, but he also doesn’t want to stare at her like a pervert; fortunately, her eyes open, and she smiles sleepily at him. “Good morning.”
“Hey.” He’s smiling, too, but where she looks sweet and rumpled, he’s pretty sure he just looks like an idiot. But she leans forward to kiss him, so maybe she doesn’t think so.
His stomach growls, and she laughs. “Need some breakfast?”
“I could probably use some,” James admits. “I’ve got eggs, cheese, some spinach and tomatoes. I could try for omelets, but it might end up a scramble.”
“That’s fine with me,” Basia says. “I’m not picky. Mostly I could use some coffee.”
She kisses him again, though, and that goes on for a while, cozy under the sheet, and James is thinking maybe they could try for a repeat of last night, when his stupid stomach makes itself known again.
Basia kisses him a final, quick time, then sits up and stretches. In the morning light, with her hair falling around her shoulders, she’s the best sight he’s seen in a long time.
She gets out of bed, and James turns over to do the same. Lying on his back, he raises his arms to stretch, too. The shirt is twisted under him, though, caught somewhere under the metal, and the old fabric rips, separating the sleeve from the body entirely. Basia turns at the sound, and her eyes alight on the tear, which reveals, unmistakably, the gleaming plates of the his left arm and the red star at the shoulder.
For a moment she just looks bewildered, and then she blurts out, “Is that metal?”
There’s no way to answer that. It obviously is metal, and not a conventional prosthetic—she’s seen him use his arm for all kinds of things over the past few months. James pulls up the detached sleeve, but Basia is still staring at his shoulder, though it’s covered now. “The red star,” she says. Her usually expressive face is completely blank. “I saw you. On CNN. You were at that shootout in Washington, DC. At the Triskelion.” She looks at him directly. “You killed a lot of people.”
He has no answer for that. It’s undeniable, both at that battle and for many years leading up to it. “I don’t do that anymore,” is all he can come up with, knowing as he says it that it’s nowhere close to adequate.
Basia doesn’t accept it, either. “How can you say that? How can you kill all those people and then just say that you’re not going to do it anymore?” She pauses. “Are you going to kill me?” For the first time since he’s known her, she sounds frightened.
“No,” James says. “No. I’ll never hurt you.”
“I thought you looked like him, a little,” she says, almost meditatively. “But in the way that people say my dad looks like Benicio Del Toro. It never even occurred to me that you might actually be him. Especially not here in Henryville.” She meets his eyes again and demands, “How the hell did you end up in Henryville, anyway? It’s in the middle of nowhere. There’s nothing here.”
“I got on a train,” James says. “I got on a train, and when I got off, I was here.” He feels frozen. She could make a phone call, and this will all be over. He’ll be back with the blond man in the suit, back in that chair, doing whatever he’s told. And they’ll come for Basia too. James knows that for a certainty. She knows who and where he is: she knows too much. “You can call the cops. Or the FBI, or whoever. I won’t…I won’t do anything. But they’ll take you too. The people who are after me, a lot of them—they’re not good people.”
“HYDRA,” she says. “Yeah, I read the S.H.I.E.L.D. files.”
James knows for a certainty what he needs to do. In daylight, the idea of using his arm to protect her is so ludicrous as to be laughable. He’s a danger to her, to everyone around her. “I have to leave,” he says. “You figured it out; somebody else is going to recognize me, someday, if I stick around, and it’s better for everybody if that doesn’t happen. This…this is a good town. It doesn’t deserve to get pulled into this shit. My shit.”
Basia covers her mouth, and her shoulders are shaking. The sound that comes out of her is some mixture of a sob and a hysterical laugh. James wants to go over to her, but he also doesn’t want to scare her. “I find a guy who treats me decently,” she says, “and he’s a fucking infamous international assassin and fugitive.”
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I never should have come here.”
“But you did,” she says, “and now here we are.” She composes herself. “I’m not going to tell anybody. I don’t want the NSA showing up at Jerry’s door. Or my parents’. If they come, I guess they come, but I’m not going to lead them here.”
“But somebody’s going to put it together at some point if I stay.”
She exhales and looks at the wall to the left of his head. “Yeah.”
Without conversation, they both put clothes on, and she uses her cell phone to call a cab from the town’s one company. “I’m not doing the walk of shame through town,” she says, breaking the silence, and she sounds almost like herself.
James does go over to her then, just to kiss her forehead. She puts her arms around him, to his surprise, and says after a moment, to his even greater surprise, “Can you take the glove off?”
The damage is spectacularly done, so he does. She traces her fingers over the black body of his hand, the metal fingertips, and he shivers: the sensation is dull and distant, but it’s the first time anyone has touched his hand or arm like that. Then she pulls away, goes over to the table, and untangles her hair with a small brush from her bag. She pulls it up into a workmanlike ponytail, and that’s when the taxi honks from outside.
“Goodbye, James,” she says steadily, steps out the front door, and is gone.
There’s little that he needs to pack, and it all goes on him or into the backpack he’s been in the habit of taking to the site: a few pieces of clothing, his toothbrush and a few other basic hygienic supplies. His weapons; what money he has; some nonperishables and a few other things he can eat on the run; a water bottle. Basia’s copy of Cathedral, which he hasn’t finished but forgot to give back to her. The picture of Steve and the man with wings.
James leaves the apartment unlocked with the keys on the table.
He knows where he has to go. He supposes it’s been inevitable this whole time, ever since he found himself on a riverbank near Washington, DC. But there’s an errand he needs to run first; luckily it’s pretty much on the way. It’ll give the dust some time to settle in case Basia does decide to make that phone call, and it’s a way James can apologize to her, even though she’ll probably never know it.
Ian Summers’s Internet account said that he lived in West Philadelphia, and it turns out the newspaper’s offices are there too. James lies low and watches for a few days, just getting the lay of the land and his target. He watches Ian Summers come to work in the morning, and learns that Summers is usually one of the last ones to arrive. He likes to get lunch at a nearby Indian restaurant, or sometimes at the expensive market down the street. After work, he often attends a class at a yoga studio a couple of blocks away. He lives in a big Victorian mansion, walking distance from the office, that has been cut up into apartments. He’s older than James remembers him looking in his Internet picture, but he has the same black glasses.
On James’s second night watching, a girl arrives. She looks younger than Basia did in her Internet picture. The girl rings the doorbell, Summers buzzes her up, and they eat dinner. Then, later, they do things to which James tries not to pay terribly close attention once it becomes obvious what they are. Summers and the girl sleep afterward, and get up and eat breakfast in the morning. Summers goes to the paper, and the girl goes a different way. Aside from her being way too young for him, everything seems normal. But maybe it seemed normal for Basia at first, too. Maybe that’s how Summers fooled her—by making everything look normal, until it wasn’t anymore.
James tails the girl one day, just to make sure she doesn’t live with Summers, and she doesn’t: she’s in college at the University of Pennsylvania, and she lives in a dorm. Clearly Summers has a type.
James bides his time a couple of days until an evening that runs late enough without the girl coming over that it’s obvious she’s not going to. He waits until Summers goes to bed, then waits another few hours until Summers will be deeply asleep, such that he’ll be groggy and disoriented when he wakes. James gets his coverage into place—balaclava, black gloves on both hands, a thick black sweatshirt that gives away nothing about his left arm—and enters Summers’s apartment easily. He’s a civilian, and soft: the only attempt at security is his deadbolt, which James picks easily.
He wakes up Summers with a knife to his throat.
James gags him and ties his hands and feet, then just sits there for a few minutes and looks Summers over. Summers pisses himself, which is pretty satisfying. James spins the knife in his fingers and says, “I’m going to take the gag out, but if you scream or make any noise, I’ll cut your throat and be out of here before you’ve even finished choking on your own blood. Are we clear?” Summers nods frantically, and James adds, “If you do what I say, you’ll get out of this alive. But if you don’t, you won’t see tomorrow morning, and the exit’s not going to be a clean one. Get me?”
Summers nods again, eyes wide, and James unties the gag while keeping the point of the knife at his jugular. Summers doesn’t scream, but he babbles, which is not uncommon, and which might be helpful. “Take what you want, just let me go. I don’t even have any money in the house. But the TV, the computer, you can have any of it.”
“I don’t want your money or your things.” James sets the knife down on the nightstand and turns on the table lamp so that Summers can see it clearly. It’s a bowie, and a little too large to be his favorite in combat, but the long blade with its serrated edge makes it frightening to look at, especially for civilians. Continuing the visual effect, James takes out his karambit: something about the curved blade, he has learned over the years, intimidates many targets. Settling it casually into a forward grip, he rests the point just below Summers’s navel, right above the waistband of his pajama pants. He presses just hard enough to draw a little blood, and Summers lets out a scared yip. “Remember what I said,” James cautions him.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Summers says, almost in a singsong.
James presses the point a little harder, and Summers bites his lip and makes a little whimper of pain. His eyes are tearing up already. James wants to ask him how he likes being on this end, how it feels to be terrorized by someone bigger and stronger, but he doesn’t want to betray any link to Basia. “You mentioned your computer,” James says. “Is that what you use to get on the Internet?”
“My laptop, yeah. I take it back and forth with me to work.”
Excellent. “You use Twitter. Anything else?”
“Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram. Email, obviously. And Microsoft Word. But that’s not Internet. InDesign for the paper.”
“Is that the laptop over on the desk?”
“Yeah. The MacBook.”
“Do you back it up?” James recalls that this is very important.
“N-no.” Summers isn’t convincing, and James draws the blade about half an inch across his belly, then pushes it in a little deeper. “No, stop, I do! It’s the orange hard drive next to the laptop.”
James gets up, unplugs the hard drive, puts it in his pocket, and brings the laptop over to the bed. The urine smell is strong now; he’s going to have to find a way to take a shower after this. He may resort to the Schuylkill River, which is only a minor improvement over the urine, but at least it’s something.
“I’m going to let you sit up,” James says, “and I’m going to untie your hands. If you try to fight me, it won’t go well for you.”
Having made a plan, James revises it: he lets Summers sit up, and he gives him the use of his right hand, but James keeps his fingers around the wrist of the other, with the blade of the karambit at the base of the thumb. “Delete all of those accounts. Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram.” James doesn’t even know what those last three are.
James applies a little pressure to the thumb. He could slice it off as easily as cutting a carrot for dinner.
“OK, OK!” The process is slow and awkward, since Summers is clearly used to typing with two hands, but he brings up each account and deletes it. Notably, Twitter gives somebody thirty days to reactivate their account.
Once that’s done, James takes the laptop.
“You said you didn’t want my things!”
God, this guy is tiresome.
James cuts off his little finger, mostly because he can. “I changed my mind,” he says, then: “I hear you have a book coming out.”
Summers is shaking. He’s wrapped part of the sheet around his left hand, and he’s staring at James like he’s the devil raised straight from the inferno. “That’s…yes. In a few months.”
“In the morning, you’re going to call your publisher, and you’re going to tell them you don’t want that book put out after all.”
“What? I can’t do that! There’s a contract!”
James covers Summers’s mouth and cuts off his ring finger. When the noises have subsided, James says, “You’re going to make that call, and you’re never going to publish anything again. Not even a neighborhood newsletter.”
“For the rest of my life?” Summers shrieks.
James sighs and puts the knife to Summers’s middle finger.
“Alright, I’ll call! At nine o’clock tomorrow morning, when they open!”
“Because if I see anything with your name on it,” James says, “I’m going to come back and finish what I started. You’ll die, but not before I cut off the rest of your fingers, your dick, and your balls. Do you have any doubt that I can and will do this?”
Summers shakes his head.
“Say it out loud,” James says.
“No.” Summers’s voice is unsteady. “I know you’ll do it.”
“Good.” James isn’t under any illusion that he won’t have to return, which will be inconvenient but necessary. He wants to add something like, And never touch another woman again, but that could implicate Basia, so he doesn’t. He leaves through the window and down the fire escape.
James keeps the laptop with him until he gets farther up the Delaware, closer to Trenton, where no one is going to notice a random laptop floating around. He rips off the screen and cracks the keyboard part over his knee, then throws both into the water near a railyard. If anyone finds them, it won’t be for a long time. He keeps the hard drive, though, just in case it’s needed in the future.
His next and last stop is New York.
Thanks to the article, James knows the neighborhood he’s looking for, and the photo helps him narrow it down to a block. It’s a quiet street, tree-lined and residential, with large apartment buildings that give way to rows of stately brownstone and brick homes. James deposits himself on a roof, and soon he knows the one he’s looking for: Steve comes out in jeans and a blue jacket, with Sam Wilson behind him, also in jeans, wearing sunglasses and a black leather jacket. They walk down the block and turn on to Amsterdam, and James follows them over the rooflines until they enter a cozy wood-fronted restaurant with potted palms outside. It looks like the kind of place you’d go for a regular date, not a fancy date; James approves.
He decides Steve is probably safe enough for the next hour or so, and he returns to the block to get a better look at the house, now that he knows which one it is. It’s one of the brownstones, attractive and well-kept, with wrought-iron stair rails and elegant dark wood doors. He can easily believe that it’s been in the same family for generations, lovingly preserved.
Steve and Sam come back after a while, around twilight, walking close but not overtly touching. James remembers that and is hit by a bolt of sadness that times don’t seem to have changed enough to let two fellows walk around holding hands. On the other hand, he considers, if Steve announced he was seeing anyone at all, there would probably be a line of photographers around the block—hell, there already was one, when he and Sam weren’t doing anything more than taking a walk. So maybe times have changed, but the press hasn’t.
He watches for several more days, observing routines as they become clear. Steve and Sam both go running in the early mornings, usually in Highbridge Park, and then come back home. Sam leaves again around eight; a quick tail reveals that he works in East Harlem. Steve usually leaves around nine, and his trajectories are varied: Avengers Tower; a variety of schools, one of which is regularly Hunter, where he must be taking classes. James had thought that was a girls’ school, but apparently not anymore. Steve volunteers at what looks like a homeless shelter for teenagers, and he has a part-time job at an art-supply store. He and Sam go out regularly. He seems happy.
James knows that all he has to do is go down there and knock, but he can’t make himself do it. He wasn’t lying when he told Basia he wasn’t sure Steve could forgive the things he’s done—and that’s just the ones James remembers. There are probably other, worse things he has no idea about.
I’m with you to the end of the line. But where’s the end? Does it end before James murdered a bunch of people?
Steve and Sam don’t usually run on Sundays, and so it’s midmorning on a Sunday when James cleans himself up in a bathroom at the big church around the corner and steels himself for his errand. He gets as far as climbing the stairs of the front stoop, but then he freezes. This is the home that Steve shares with his—well, boyfriend is probably the word now. Do they even want some scraggly stranger showing up at the door? They’re probably inside having breakfast and reading the paper. Who is he to break into their lives?
He’s sitting on the topmost step and debating with himself when the front door opens.
The person who steps outside is a small woman with fiery red hair. She’s wearing tights that come down to her calves, and sneakers, and carrying a rolled-up mat over her shoulder. She looks down at him with a raised eyebrow. “Here in civilization, zaychik,” she says, “people ring the doorbell.”
“Natalia Romanova,” comes out of his mouth simultaneously with the memory.
She smiles as if pleased. “I was wondering whether you’d recognize me.”
Of all the things James expected to happen when the door opened, she was not an eventuality he had predicted. “What are you doing here?”
“I live here,” she says. “Sometimes.”
“But I haven’t seen you at all.”
“It’s cute that you think I didn’t notice you creeping around here for the past week. I assume you’re here for Steve.”
“If he wants to see me,” James says. “Which…I don’t know. I don’t know if he does.”
Her voice gentles. “He does. He and Sam have been looking for you for months. Where have you even been?”
“Down south,” he says. “I…I’ve done a lot of things. You don’t know about all of them. Steve sure doesn’t. And I don’t know…” He trails off.
“If he’ll forgive you?” Natasha says. “Only Steve can answer that. But I don’t think he’d have chased down bad leads in Peoria if all he planned to do was tell you to buzz off.”
They stare at each other for a moment, and then she moves away from the door, passing him to stand a step below. Watchful, but giving him the opportunity. She knows he’s here, which means Steve and Sam probably do too. The next step is up to him.
James stands up and presses his finger to the doorbell.