Chapter 16: To Drown Myself Wittingly or Not
For the first thirty seconds my eyes are open, I have to breathe through the pain and the panic. The brightly lit walls boxing me in are smeared with brown, oxidizing blood, and I feel like I have a knife stabbing my kidneys. I’ve been dropped into a goddamn horror film.
I dive off the blood-stained sheets and scramble over the console to get away from the carnage. I barely get the door wrenched open before tumbling from the truck into a pile on the rocky ground. I clamber a few feet away and fall to my back, still frenzied and huffing by the truck’s muddy tire.
I ache in every conceivable place, and the bright blue sky is blinding. I lie in the dirt for a few minutes, my hands hiding my face from the world, and wonder for the millionth time why fooling around with someone always has to be this painful.
It’s got to be mid-morning by now, and the cool breeze and fresh air coming off the lake are slowly calming my shot nerves. I want last night to be a blur, and yet here sits the memory of the gruesome orgy, vividly replaying in my mind like a gritty slasher flick. I drop my hands and clear my head, squinting up at the pile of logs hitched to the truck to avoid both my grisly memories and the brilliant sky.
A voice calls from the lake, “I thought immodesty was rude!”
I sit up to see Hero’s shaking head poking out of the mirrored lake as he treads water.
Apparently I’m still naked, and now rolling around in the dirt like a dumbass. I cover my dick and yell, “Did you see the truck?! It’s the stuff of nightmares!”
“I’ll clean it before we take off!” he calls back, through stifled laughter. “I have peroxide in the back.”
“How much, though? Because god damn!”
“Don’t worry about it,” he calls. Good, because – my God – I don’t want to handle that mess. My heartbeat is finally slowing, and I’m catching my breath when he yells, “Come get cleaned up and I’ll look at your hand!”
Since we’re in the middle of Bumfuck, Nowhere, I temporarily excuse my exhibitionism and limp down to the lake, still covering my junk with my sliced-up and blood-stained hands. The fire’s already blazing, warming the dutch oven next to it. Hero doesn’t look the type to be a Boy Scout, but the bastard does seem to be eerily prepared for whatever’s thrown at him.
“What’s in the pot?” I ask, plodding a few feet into the lake. I stop when the water reaches my knees, because it’s fucking freezing.
“Your shadow,” he answers through a cloud of cigarette smoke.
I could’ve guessed that. “You can stop calling him that; he’s not my shadow.”
“Guess you’re right. I’m your shadow now.” He’s snickering, and I pretend my face isn’t igniting at that crude observation. “And you’ve certainly earned your name, Cowboy.”
I’m wholly unamused by the enjoyment he’s deriving from making fun of me over last night’s depravity. He was the sick fuck sucking blood off my fingers like a damn vampire.
“How do you feel?” he wonders.
“How do you think I feel?”
“Like a bear with a sore ass.”
He snickers at my plight, because he’s not the one who’s going to be dealing with this agony, bouncing around in a truck seat all damn day.
“You didn’t have to be so damn eager, Cowboy.” Like I don’t know that. “I would’ve been happy going slow, but you had different ideas, and I’m not one to complain.”
“Just … stop talking about it,” I hiss, and he nods, finally letting the damn thing drop.
I wade past him until I can carefully kneel on the lakebed, letting the water come up just below the dirty bandage on my chest. It’s cold, but it feels good to be submerged in something other than disaster – plus the chill is pleasantly numbing.
After I’ve washed off the blood, I finally examine the damage to my palm. The slice itself is still bright red, and there’s a wide line of deep purple and yellow-green bruising across my fingers where I clenched the spine of the knife. What’s most surprising are the thick black stitches running down the length of the cut – I had no idea Hero had sewn it up. The threads closest to my wrist are loose, and the wound is gaping a little from all the strain on it last night. My gut rolls and clenches just looking at it.
Hero glides through the water to kneel in front of me and tips my hand to examine the cut.
“I’ll clean it and tighten it up when it’s dry,” he says. He lifts my chin and inspects the gauze on my chest for a moment before his hand hooks my neck to keep me from drifting away from him. He carefully picks at the corner of the bandage and slowly works off the tape. There’s an oddly professional quality to the way he moves, and how his eyes scrutinize my injuries. He peels back the gauze and I glance down. My stab wound is stitched, too, but it doesn’t look nearly as bad as it feels.
His fingers probe the skin around the wound, and I realize we've never been this close to one another in the daylight before. The familiarity we share with one another seems to be reserved for the cover of night. He's only inches from me now, and the smell of cigarette smoke overpowers any natural smell he might actually have. My thoughts start floating off into inappropriate territories, so I clear my throat and ask, "Where's Garm?"
"Hunting. She'll be back before we leave," he says, and then lightly taps my chest. "This looks good, but remember: no strenuous activities.” He winks, and I suddenly feel like his embarrassed little patient again.
I wonder if he’s just bullshitting with me. “Where did you learn to suture like this?” I ask.
“Amazing what you learn in medical school.”
He is a damn doctor then? I’d like to think that the puzzle pieces he’s given me thus far are fitting together, but I have nothing but a random pile of useless shit that tells me nothing about him. I don’t even have a damn corner piece to start with. “When, uh, when did you go to med school?”
“When I was a med student,” he answers, like the ambiguous bastard that he is. Why did I ask him when? His age is meaningless. I should’ve asked him where. Then he offers, “I was a surgeon, and now I’m not.”
Well that’s something. “Useful skills, I’d imagine … for your new line of work.”
“What, trucking?” he snickers.
“No … uh, never mind.” Yeah, because human butcher isn’t a damn profession, you idiot … well, unless you’re Colorado Guy, I guess.
He backs away from me to lower himself further into the lake until the water is lapping just below his chin again. “You hate it when I assume something about you,” he says, “but you’re quite comfortable assuming you know everything about me. Do you recognize your double standard?”
“Double standards are quite comfortable,” I say.
“They are. And it’s much easier to assume you know the truth than to find out and be disappointed.”
“You’re bound to be disappointed with me. Everyone always is.".
“You haven’t disappointed me yet. In fact, I’d say quite the opposite. You’re intelligent, well read, skilled with a knife, and a hell of a good lay.”
Jesus Christ … I ignore his disingenuous praise and continue, “We’ve got plenty of time to disappoint each other. I give it another week.”
“A week is probably generous,” he chuckles and leans his head back to finish rinsing out the crusty red tips of his blood-stained hair. When he lies in the water, he closes his eyes and relaxes, letting his naked body float to the surface.
I’m beginning to appreciate Hero’s opinion of modesty; it really has no place out here in the wild. I don’t bother to hide my wandering eyes anymore. If he catches me, he’d probably find my lecherous stare complimentary, anyway. He looks carefree and weightless as he floats like there’s nothing in this world that could stop him from squeezing the most out of every moment of life. He’s absorbing the serenity of this glass lake, surrounded by the tall, lush trees and billowy clouds of a beautiful Mississippi summer day. It’s heaven on earth, and I’m finally starting to see it.
The air feels different this morning. It’s not pregnant with heat and insects like the last morning I remember. It feels clean, though humid, and the storm last night cleansed the atmosphere of irritating pollen and dust. All that’s left now is the marshy scent of a dredged-up lake and the occasional plunk of bluegills diving under the surface of the water. Now I really wish I had a couple fishing rods out here.
In lieu of mulling over what species I could be catching from a jon boat on this pretty little lake, I decide to join Hero and lie back in the water. I clutch my stitched hand against my stitched heart, and my head plunges back, washing away a week’s worth of blood and shame in the process. All I can hear is the gentle hum of nothingness in the underwater world – faint bubbling, a low rumble, and my own slowing pulse.
Those billowing clouds creep along the borders of my panoramic view, framing the blue expanse above me, and I’m now surrounded by air rather than water. I’m floating up and out of myself, beyond the pain and destruction I’ve witnessed, and into an ethereal realm of something akin to transcendental bliss. There are no choices here, no bad luck to suffer through, no waiting for the other shoe to drop – just total acceptance from the water at my back, and quite possibly from the man floating somewhere over my head.
I’ve never felt this before – openness, oneness, power in the sense of having control over my life. I could learn to like this. Hell, I could learn to love this, and that’s saying something, considering I’ve never loved anything or anyone in my life.
I finally relax enough to close my eyes and just drift. This feels far more like basking than what Hero accused me of doing. I can bask in total silence, floating in a cool, clear lake. I’m not a blood-thirsty murderer here, but I’m also not a high school teacher. I’m not a perverted savage with a penchant for sodomy any more than I am a shamelessly devoted husband – unless I believe myself to be either, neither, or both. I could think myself good or evil, but I don’t. I’m just a body floating in nothingness … until my head bumps into something, and a darkness falls over my face, forcing me to open my eyes.
Hero’s upside down, looking at me from above, and somewhat backlit by that bright blue sky. He mumbles, but his words drift up and away from me as my ears stay sheltered underwater. A lifetime of staring at people’s mouths rather than their eyes has made me a decent lip-reader, but this enigma doesn’t move his mouth like the people I practiced on. It looks like he’s saying, “I feel, you play,” but that’s probably not right. My eyes ignore his commentary and wander around his face instead.
His silvery hair is wet and pushed back, no longer tinged pink. In fact, I realize now, it’s not really gray at all. It’s more of a sandy blond that deepens into a golden ash at the tips. His face doesn't bear that black and white mask either, but rather ruddy cheeks that drip cold lake water from his scruffy jaw.
Those moving lips smile a lot more than I do, but if I recall correctly, I’m quite funny according to him. In my head, I can hear his low scoff and snicker, and I find it infectious, so I smile up at him for no reason. His mouth stops moving and he smiles back, and I can now see that his eyes aren’t black, or red, or empty – they’re amber and bright, and they’re finally realizing that I’m not listening to a damn word he’s saying.
Rough hands glide along my temples, and the top of my head bumps his stomach again. I have no idea what he’s thinking, but when he bites his lip, I unconsciously do the same, and it makes him smile again. It’s mesmerizing to watch another person’s face erupt in such joy. To be responsible for it, though, is another thing altogether. It’s addicting and captivating, and you never want to stop doing it.
I think he’s given up on communicating with me, at least with spoken words. His eyes say a hell of a lot, though. They don’t drill, but rather sink, into mine, and his face isn’t as harsh as I remember; but that could be gravity making him look a little soft around the edges.
His eyes leave my face and flick down my floating body, and I slowly shake my head when he licks his lips like a dirty creep. Yeah, I’m aware of what’s happening below my waist. I have ten years of flaccidity to make up for, and if Hero’s going to spend every waking moment trying to probe both my mind and my ass, what am I supposed to do? If we were just a couple inches closer to shore, the jackass would probably be rubbing his dick through my hair. For now, though, he’s just staring at my twitching cock instead of my eyes because he’s so incredibly charming.
Despite his clenched jaw clearly protesting his decision, he waves his hand over my face to gather my focus. He taps his chest and then points to the truck. Fine, go dry off, or clean the cab, or do whatever you want. I’m going to stay right here and fuck that pretty blue sky with my eyes for awhile.
His fingers drag through my hair and then set me adrift again, and I can hear him trudging through the water – sloshing, waterlogged footsteps growing fainter until they dissipate all together, and I’m back to staring at the blue in silence.
That’s not a bad way to say it, really, fucking the sky with my eyes. It feels that penetrative when you’re exposed and presented to the heavens on a mirrored platter. I feel gorged, plucked, and warmed by the heat of skin, ready and willing to be devoured by God. That pervert above’s got be jerking off to this – hell, I’m thinking about it myself.
If I drift to sleep in this ethereal peace, all the better. I’d welcome both dreams and drowning at this point, as both provide the mind with the greatest of reveries. There can be nothing on the other side to fear since life happily provides us with the worst of bodily torment. If death brings the destruction of the body, how bad could it really be?
As I relax into my watery bed, I nod off and my mouth dips below the water. I startle awake, flailing for a second until I realize I can stand in the shallows. As I gather footing in the muddy lake, I look across the shore and catch Hero smoking and now dressed in jeans, dragging a few lengths of chain and an axe across the beach towards the trailer. That is neither a bottle of peroxide, nor as peaceful of a sight as I was expecting to see when I woke up.
From this angle, he has the chains draped over his right arm, which clutches the axe handle, and I can make out a faint tattoo under his left shoulder blade. Have I really never looked at his back like this in the light? I don’t think I’ve looked at his naked back at all, except in Boulder before I almost passed out into a toilet. I will most definitely have to closely examine him from that angle very soon.
He’s at the trailer, messing with a few log ends, hooking three clips to something back there. I can’t see anything from my vantage point, but each section of chain looks about a yard long, with rustic black metal loops attached to the last links. When he’s finished hooking them up, he threads his axe handle through the loops, and with a quick jerk, the ends of three logs, maybe six inches thick, pop out of the log pile like a damn cork. What in God’s name is back there?
I slosh out of the water and up to the truck, grabbing Hero’s towel from the cab and wrapping it around my waist. “What’s this now?” I call to him as I round the back of the trailer.
On the ground, Hero’s stacking coolers and other crates, all fixed with eye bolts and attached to long lengths of rope. He’s pulling them out a cavernous hole running the length of the trailer. There are three logs completely missing, creating what looks like a three-foot round channel about forty feet deep, drilled straight into the pile. “What the hell is this?!”
“Storage,” he says, digging through a crate.
“Storage for what?!”
“Peroxide, venison, disrespectful shadows … whatever moves me,” he says with a grin. “Hell, I’ve slept in there on more than one occasion.”
This is the part of Hero’s life that I feared discovering more about. I don’t want to see or know any of this. In fact, because he’s being unnaturally casual with this grisly secret, I’m left wondering if this isn’t a now that you know, I have to kill you type situation. “So … so … this is how you do what you do?” I ask, “This is how you avoid police, and … transport things?”
He nods and says, “I change vehicles occasionally, but I’ve had this trailer for a few months now; it’s working for me.”
“That business about you heading north to drop off a load in Missoula was bullshit, wasn’t it? You don’t actually haul anything.”
His head cocks, and I swear to God I can hear that damn clock ticking again. “I’ve been to Missoula,” he says, like that should placate me. “That’s where I got the truck.”
“But what you said in Boulder was a lie.”
“Not a lie. I was intending to go back; I just didn’t.”
I nod, but this is all becoming a much clearer picture for me. He calls me a liar, but has never spoken a damn word of truth himself. “Cold Eggs said he was going to Reno, too … he was passing through Salt Lake, remember?”
“Now, that was a lie,” he states flatly. “I don’t frequent Reno. The cops are too erratic for my taste.”
“What were you going to do with Junebug then?”
I don’t know why, but the thought of her riding with him is overwhelming my mind. I can’t stop thinking about her running off to hop in Hero’s murder wagon and driving off into the bloody sunset. All the sudden, that hole in the back of the trailer is looking awfully Junebug-shaped.
Hero’s wrinkling his forehead because he has no idea who the hell I’m talking about. “The tail you wanted me to drop in North Platte – Junebug.”
“I wasn’t going to do anything with Junebug.”
“Why did you want me to drop her off, then? Why did you accuse me of denying you tail?” These aren’t unreasonable questions, but he’s looking at me like I’ve lost my damn mind. I just want to know how deep in the darkness this asshole lurks. Would he have ruined and murdered that girl for fun? Is that the sick and twisted person he is – pounding and eating children? “You going to answer me, or should I make up my own story? The one I’m kicking around is pretty damning. I’m giving you a fair shot to explain yourself.”
He looks up from the crate he’s digging through and says, “I’m not really appreciating your tone, ‘boy.”
Well, I’m not appreciating the condescension and lies.
“She had nothing to do with any of this,” he says and returns to digging through his crate. He’s acting like my accusations mean nothing to him. He’s just scouring through boxes and pulling out white gallon jugs – basically ignoring me.
“Why did you agree to take her to Salt Lake if you weren’t headed to Reno? Is that your good Samaritan peeking out again? I rerouted seventeen hours out of my way to avoid you.”
He sets down a jug and stares at me. “Why? What made you avoid me?”
“Because I thought you were a creep and you might mess her up and kill her.”
He starts laughing as he coils a rope around his arm. “Good eye,” he snickers.
What the hell? “So you were going to kill her?”
“I go where I go, and I do what I do,” he says. “If you had dropped her in North Platte, I would’ve driven her to Salt Lake, but you didn’t. You made that choice, not me. I didn’t change your route; you did.”
“But if I had made the decision to leave her with you, would you have killed her?”
“What I would’ve done is irrelevant. Her fate would have been in her hands after the drop, not yours.”
His roundabout logic is enraging, and he avoids direct questions like a damn plague. “Would you have killed her after the drop? Yes or no?”
“I guess we’ll never know,” he says. “Thanks to you and your good eye.” He smiles and starts loading coolers back into the man-made maw of his trailer.
Fuck him, fuck his log hearse, fuck everything; I need to get dressed. All the anxiety and tension that I released into the lake is seeping back into my skin, and I’m turning to leave when he grabs my arm and hauls me back.
“I was trying to get to know you,” he says. "You brought up the girl. When I heard your twitchy little voice on the radio, I just said hello. There’s no mystery here – no malicious intent. I was offering to help a friend. You’re obsessed with being dramatic, Cowboy. You’re touchy. Makes me wonder why you’re still here.”
“Touchy?!” I scoff. I am not touchy!
“You pick fights faster than I can squelch them.”
“Oh, of course. I forgot. You’re the one in control. I’m just an unpredictable bomb ready to explode, and you’re keeping me nice and stable, right?”
“You’re doing it right now,” he says.
“Looking for excuses to hate me. You’re at odds with yourself, and you’re taking it out on me.”
I’m not at odds with myself. I’m thinking clearer than I ever have before, and I can see what he’s doing. I know he’s trying to trick me; everyone tries to trick me. “I’m not a puppet.”
His grip tightens on my arm. “Good. I don’t want a puppet,” he says, shoving me away.
I stand there, still dripping lake water, a towel the only thing separating me from the world at large, and I’m left wondering if I should go get some clothes and start hoofing it out of this nightmare.
But I don’t. I stay right where I am.
“Fine,” I say. I’ll bite. “If you don’t want a puppet, what do you want then?”
“I already told you,” he hisses, “But ears won’t hear what the mind begs them to ignore.” He loads up the last crate and recaps his little puzzle box with a whack from the butt of his axe. He gathers up his chains and jugs and heads to the cab, leaving me alone at the back of the trailer to stew and drip.
I kind of want to dive back in the lake. I kind of want to run away. I kind of want to curl up into a ball and pretend this whole conversation didn’t happen. But that would be the coward’s way out, and I’m not feeling particularly cowardly at the moment. I could go pick another fight – he never did answer me honestly about Junebug – but that just makes me the victim of his little mind games, a touchy drama queen who can’t let the past stay in the past. It strands me out here at his whim and mercy, and that doesn’t feel quite right either. I’m now left with surviving this mess and just getting through it, morality be damned.
I have to be the bigger man, be a stronger man, and find the fortitude to face what I don’t want to face – the fact that last night he said he wanted me in the worst possible way. He’s not being cruel, or hurting me, or caging me against my will. He’s feeding me and tending to my wounds, and protecting my sorry ass from myself, while I’ve done nothing but rain blood upon us both. He already told me what he wants; I just don’t think he quite understands what that means, and I refuse to accept that after only a few brief, albeit intense, encounters that he could find me that worthy of adoration.
I wander down the side of the truck to the cab and find Hero stripping the bed and wiping down the walls of our bloody little den of iniquity. Since my pants and his old gray shirt are still tossed on my box of shit, I hop up into my seat and get dressed while Hero keeps slaving away behind me. “You need help?” I wonder.
“Probably more than you do,” he snickers.
“I’m not picking fights,” I blurt over my shoulder because I need to clear that up right now. I don’t want him thinking I’m some nagging asshole. I’m not intentionally being antagonistic; I’m trying to figure out what’s happening to me.
I’m beginning to wonder if Hero doesn’t understand me in more ways than I realize. Every time I’m about to lose my shit, he’s been right there helping me through it. I owe him more than the hostility I keep bringing to the table. He saved my ass in Boulder, lest I forget. He saved and fucked my ass here in Mississippi, and honestly, I’m starting to feel safe around him, despite learning more and more of his morbid little secrets.
When I realize he hasn’t responded, I reword what I said, “I’m sorry for being rude.” He starts snickering to himself, and I don’t get what’s so damn funny. I’m being serious.
“All is forgiven, Cowboy. Don’t grovel. As much as you seem to want to be one, you aren’t a dog any more than you’re a toy or a puppet.”
I nod and turn away to stare at anything but his eyes. That amber tint that was clear and obvious in the sunlight has faded from his irises, and I can’t help but feel responsible for its hasty departure.
I feel bewildered, off-kilter, like I’m teetering between two worlds – the right and the exceedingly wrong. The edges of both have become so blurred that I can’t tell who is the hero and who is the villain in this play. I don’t want to be the villain, but I wonder which is worse - to never feel remorse for your carnal sins, or to feel that remorse in every bone in your body but ignore it so you can keep on sinning because it feels that damn good.
It was only last night that I wanted to walk beside him on this stage, but I was coming down from a corporeal orgy – not really the best time to make a life-altering decision. Of course, maybe it is. Stripped of rational thought, the weight of choice, and the burdens of men, we are nothing but animals. Without a scale of evil on which to judge their actions, can an animal make a morally wrong decision?
Hero’s already tossed the bloody sheets onto the dash and remade the bed, and finally joins me in the front seat with a bloody rag that he abandons on the floor. There are no words on his lips, just another smoke.
“In the lake,” I wonder, “what were you saying to me?”
He sighs and rubs his eyes, now looking exhausted as he leans back into his seat. “Ophelia,” he says. “I was saying you looked like Ophelia.”
“Hamlet’s Ophelia?” I snicker. Med school and a lover of Shakespeare … the mysteries abound. Ophelia, though … how cryptic. “Do I seem suicidal?”
“You purposefully drown yourself in thoughts and rationality, and that is a dangerous practice.”
“I suppose I should just stop thinking, then – less water to swallow.”
“Or, rather than a dog, be a shark – then it doesn’t matter what you swallow.”
I huff out my amusement and release a pent-up, nervous sigh. If only it could be that easy … become a shark by simply believing that you are one.
Hero wads up the dirty sheets, shoves them in a white drawstring bag, and stashes them in the compartment under the mattress. “Lunch, and then decision time,” he says, plopping back in his seat and cracking his door.
“Are we still headed to the bayou, or are you planning to age that whiskey another fifteen years?”
I guess I could say no. We could turn this rig around and leave my father’s rotting shack in the rearview, but that seems like a decision a weak man would make.
I slide out of the cab and join Hero on his way to the fire to serve up more shadow stew.
“I’m not running anymore,” I say to him, and he nods. At least I’m not running today, anyway. I’ll worry about tomorrow when it comes.