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The Shadow Behind

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There were days when Emma missed cigarettes even more than she missed Mathew.

 

It wasn't a thought she had all that often, but it was an inappropriate thought for a grieving widow, and picturing the shocked looks that would take over people's faces if she ever said it out loud always made Emma snicker. Things that made her laugh were in short supply these days, and she'd take what she could get.

 

Besides, she knew it wasn't true or at least the last part wasn't. There was nothing she missed more than Mathew, but some days, most days, really every day Emma Cullen did miss cigarettes with such a blinding, bone-deep passion that she was amazed she hadn't caved and held up a 7-Eleven.

 

"Your nicotine or your life," she muttered as she straddled her bike, waiting for the red light to change.

 

She'd stopped when Mathew's cancer first hit, the treatment making him so ill and sensitive that even the lingering smell of it on her clothes was too much for him to bare.

 

She wondered what would happen if she rekindled the habit. If the smell of the nicotine, and the flashing, flicker of the lighter would make her forget the last year. If the ritual and the smell would take her back in time, and allow her to stand barefoot on her back porch pretending she still had a husband snoozing in a shared bed.

 

The light changed to green, and Emma lifted her feet back to the pedals. The motorcycle growled underneath her as she continued on her way, and tried to leave the sorrow and the wishes on the pavement. She could always pick them back up on the way home.

 


 

 

The clock hanging on the wall of her local Denny's read 11:56 am. It wasn't the correct time, the bright moon and as the star-studded sky outside could attest to that, but Emma knew she wouldn't have been able to fix the clock even if asked. Her phone was still at home, charging on her bedside table, and she hadn't worn a watch in years.

Horne was leaning against the counter thumbing through Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer, and didn't bother looking up when she entered.

 

"How many?" 

 

"Just me."

 

The big man folded a corner of the page with gentle fingers.

 

"Why hello, Mrs. Cullen. How are you doing tonight?"

 

"Hello Jack. I'm doing just fine."

 

An uneven clacking rhythm filled the air with bursts of sound, and Emma looked further into the restaurant to see that Goodnight and Billy were in their normal seat. The two of them were sprawled across the long booth with their backs to the restaurant's large glass picture window. It gave them easy access to bathrooms, and a clear view of the door. Goodnight had his reading glasses on, and was plunking away at what she thought was a small metal typewriter.

 

"I certainly hope you're not suffering from a headache," Jack sighed. "He's been at it since they got here."

 

Emma rubbed a tired hand across her face, and shrugged which made the leather of her jacket crinkle and squeak.

 

"I don't mind."

 

Horne tucked the book away, and crossed his arms over his chest.

 

"Should I bother asking your order?"

 

"Thank you, but there's no need. Same as always," she said, and started toward the back. "I can seat myself."

 

Billy had chosen to sit on the same side of the booth as Goody. He was carefully hand-rolling his own cigarettes from a pack of rolling papers, and a ziplock bag full of tobacco when Emma slid into the empty seat across from them. .

 

"You know you can't smoke those inside," she said.

 

If she lifted her chin to see over Billy and Goodnight's heads she had a clear view of her motorcycle. It was the only vehicle in this section of the parking lot, and having it in her sights soothed her.

 

Billy he winked.

 

"Don't worry. I don't plan to."

 

Goodnight's hand paused on the keys of his machine, and he gave Emma a bright smile.

 

"Enchante, Mrs. Cullen."

 

Now that she was closer Emma saw that whatever Goodnight had it wasn't a typewriter. It was too skinny, and missing all but six keys and the space bar. There was a sheet of paper poking from the top, and Goodnight paused and ran his pointer finger gently over a line of it before going back to plunking away.

 

"What is that?"

 

"Perkins Brailler," Goodnight said cheerfully.

 

A ding filled the air, but Goody still hit a few more keys before stopping.

 

"It writes in Braille," Billy said. "You know. Like for blind people."

 

"What are you doing with it?" Emma asked.

 

"The Amazing Adventure's of Billy Rocks has earned itself a bit of a fanbase," Goodnight answered. "I am providing a particular member of that fanbase with a sneak peek of his next adventure since she will be out of town next week."

 

Emma blinked, unsure if she was supposed to know who or what he was talking about.

 

"Goodnight's been telling the kids at the library ridiculous stories about stuff I never did instead of reading Harry Potter like he's supposed to," Billy clarified.

 

He smirked, and looked incredibly pleased at his partner's disregard for basic story-hour protocol.

 

"Oh?" Emma asked.

 

"The library has twenty copies of that book," Goodnight said. "If they want Potter they can read him on their own time. That boy wizard does not need my vote of approval to get readers. Besides, Billy is much more interesting."

 

"I am," Billy agreed.

 

Emma pulled her jacket off, letting it puddle around her middle the sleeves hanging over her thighs.

 

"That's new," Billy said, adding a finished cigarette into his waiting case.

 

Emma glanced to her right forearm where her newest tattoo was still healing. Most of the image was clouded over with the mixture of blood and ink trapped under the plastic suiter. It was acing fiercely, and the bulky sleeves of her jacket had been a god sent after the tighter, long sleeved blouse she needed to wear at the bank.

 

"Brand new," Emma said. "I've got to keep this on for three days, and then I can take it off and wash it. Should start peeling after that."

 

Emma'd been collecting tattoos since she was nineteen, but Mathew's skin had been bare right until the day he died.

 

"The only thing I ever loved enough to permanently tie myself too was you, honey."

 

She let the memory roll through her. It made her fingers itch and her eyes prick. Her hazy, exhausted brain spent a moment fantasizing about stealing Billy's entire case of newly rolled cigarettes. The ones with tobacco and the ones with an even harder kick. She'd fill the Denny's with smoke, lighting one cigarette with the butt of the next until the haze was thick enough to hide her from view. Until she was a thin and diaphanous sight from the front door, as real as a desert's mirage.

 

"What's the picture?" Billy asked. Cigarette case now full, he began to pack up. "I can't really tell."

 

With the rolling papers and tobacco safely out of sight, Billy focused on his second favorite vice, and began to doctor his coffee. Emma had been drinking late night caffeine with the two of them long enough to know that there would be enough sugar lining the bottom of the mug to put a normal person into a diabetic coma.

 

"Phases of the moon," she said. "Always changing. Always the same."

 

"Vasquez do it?"

 

She nodded. "He-"

 

There was a flash of headlights, and through the window Emma saw an old, beat-up green station wagon swing into view. Its tires screeched as it came to a stop centimeters away from her bike, and right in the middle of two parking spaces. Terrible techno music spilled out of the open windows.

 

Emma felt as though things were suddenly underwater. She felt far away from her spot at the table, and her heart was slamming against her chest. Her eyes could see nothing but the breath of space between her bike and the car.  She didn't recognize the driver, some young guy who was thumping away at the top of the steering wheel in what might have been the beat of the song. She did recognize Sam when he slid out of the passenger side.

 

Horne chose that moment to lumber over, and set a stack of pancakes, a plate of greasy bacon and a mug of hot chocolate with generous amounts of whipped cream decorating the top in front of Emma.

 

"One day you're going to order something else. Won't you at least try the Moons Over My Hammy? They're delicious, and you look like you need the extra protein."

 

Emma wrapped her hands around the warm mug. The heat against her palms was something to focus on, and helped keep her from marching outside and punching the driver in the teeth. Everything was fine. No harm done. No need to get up.

 

She took a sip of the chocolate, and got a fair amount of whipped cream up her nose.

 

"Eggs make my stomach hurt," she said.

 

Horne squinted at the scene outside. Sam slammed the door, turned, and started shouting into the backseat.

 

"It would appear that Sam is joining us."

 

"Oh good," Goodnight said. "I want to ask him if he'll bind this for me. Maybe draw a nice image for the front cover."

 

Billy gave Goodnight a sideways glance.

 

"Yes, sugar. I will make sure he knows to make you look cool."

 

Billy nodded, and both he and Goody turned just in time to see the tall, lanky figure of Vasquez climb out of the backseat. He slammed his door, and threw both of his hands into the air as though launching confetti into the sky. It gave Emma a nice view of his tattooed and well-muscled arms.

 

Vasquez started yelling, but the actual words were swallowed by the thumping, electronic music that the driver was still drumming along to. Vasquez leaned over the roof of the car, and jabbed his pointed finger in Sam's direction. Whatever he said was bad enough that Sam circled around the car so that he and Vasquez could scream into one another's faces. 

 

"Are they covered in paint?" Emma asked as she began to drown her pancakes in syrup.

 

"Yep," Billy said.

 

"It's hot pink," Goodnight said. "And orange."

 

"It's neon," Emma agreed. "Did the three of them just come from a rave? Who's in the driver seat?"

 

"Sam never really struck me as the type," Horne said doubtfully.

 

"I don't like this type of music," Billy said. "I hope if they fight the driver changes it"

 

Vasquez took a swing, and Sam easily dodged it. The music played on.

 

Billy sighed. "Damn."

 

"You would think two artists would be better at communicating their displeasure with one another," Horne said.

 

Sam had lifted Vasquez clean off his feet, but Vasquez took advantage of being draped over Sam's back by jabbing into the other man in the kidneys.

 

Emma cut through the thickest part of her stack. "You don't know a lot of artists do you?"

 

Twenty minutes later Vasquez, Sam and the electronic music fan were all sulking in a nearby booth.  Or at least Sam and Vasquez were. Their driver was happily digging into his Moons Over My Hammy, an order that had made Horne perk up considerably. 

 

Emma was trying to cut her bacon into bite sized pieces so that she could create a pancake, bacon, pancake shush kebab on her fork, and trying to decide if she should say hello or ignore them.

 

"Should we ask?" Goodnight wondered.

 

Billy shrugged. "Their last fight was about artists I don't know, and art I've never seen. So we could ask or we could go outside and smoke."

 

He presented Goodnight with a freshly hand-rolled cigarette.

 

“Which would you rather do?"

 

Goodnight plucked the cigarette out from between Billy's fingers, and cast Emma a sheepish glance. Behind him, Emma saw a very familiar motorcycle pull into the parking lot, and stop next to hers.

 

“Don't mind me," she said, waving them both away with her syrup coated fork. "I'm just about done here."

 

The two of them gathered their things, and headed to the counter to pay. Emma popped the last of her late night meal into her mouth, and followed.

 

She waved at the deadly silent table occupied by Vasquez, Sam and the stranger who'd stated playing a game of solitaire with a raggedy deck of cards. Sam gave her a tired nod, but Vasquez was too busy glaring at the menu to notice her. He had a splash of neon green paint behind his ear, but Emma decided now was not the time to point it out.

 

She paid her bill at the counter, feeling thin and exhausted and wired.

 

“If you don't mind me saying so Mrs. Cullen," Horne said. “I hope I won't see you again tomorrow night."

 

“I hope that too," she said.

 

“Have you given this new trend a try?" He asked. "It's called yoga. I've been told it can assist with-well any number of ailments. Insomnia being one of them."

 

The urge to lean across the counter, and start throwing things against the far wall struck Emma suddenly. She'd aim for the clock, and then after she'd sent that crashing from the wall she'd just keep throwing things until there was nothing left to throw.

 

She viciously shoved the urge away. Horne didn't know all the ways she'd tried to sleep. Horne didn't know how many times she'd been offered this information. He was a nice man. Trying to offer the only piece of advice he had.

 

Instead she gave him a tight smile, and collected her change.

 

“Can't say I have."

 


 

 

Red Harvest was waiting for her in the parking lot. He had his helmet balanced on his knee, and looked far too awake considering the time. Whatever the time happened to be anyway. There was no sun threatening to cross the horizon yet.

 

"Thought you might be here," he said.

 

“Wondered if you were going to show up," she responded.

 

They didn't always see each other. Fellow night owls though they were.

 

Red motioned to her bike. “You want to play follow the leader?"

 

Emma zipped up her jacket, and pulled on her helmet. Red knew every side street, backroad and stretch of highway in the state. He liked to go fast, and Emma never grew tired of following him. In letting the world blur around her as she focused on the back of his jacket. A quick, sad specter of a woman just barely outrunning her ghosts, but after a ride with Red she might be able to sleep. If she was lucky it would be dreamless.

 

“Lead the way."