He lay down wide-awake in the large king-size bed of the seedy no-tell motel, and stared up at the crumbling ceiling, the peeling wallpaper and the horrific paint combinations on top of one another on the walls.
He couldn't help but listen to the droplets of yellow rust-colored water leaking from pipes twice his age in the bathroom. They would have been thrice her age, if she were here with him.
Unable to find a comfortable position he shifted in the bed, as he saw her face in front of his eyes, and in the chipped paint of the ceiling and the faded patterns of the decaying wallpaper. He saw her face even when he closed his eyes and tried to sleep. He didn’t sleep much nowadays.
When the smile of hers wouldn’t leave him alone - it never did - he groaned. She had been his anchor in the world; losing her was a blow against his face. His stomach churned, feeling like it fell a twenty-foot drop, and made him dry heave once. Thinking about her was making him queasy, still.
He sat up in the darkness, leaning his elbows against his knees and staring at the disgustingly stained red carpet of the floor, and tried not to think as to what the white and brown blotches on it might be.
He sighed and let his fingers slide over his face and into his overgrown brown hair. He shook his head, as he threw his legs over the edge of the bed, still resting his forearms against his thighs, letting his palms hang down between his legs as he hunched over. Closing his eyes once, and then quickly opening them, he shot a look at the bathroom door unclosed.
The sickly yellow lights of the bathroom buzzed and blinked. They weren’t the only light source into the room from the open bathroom door. He wasn’t sure if the door would actually close. He hadn’t tried, but it didn’t mean jackshit.
The twice eaten pea soup colored curtains were slightly agape and allowed the hollow and pale street lights to stream through the window, and creating shadow puppets on the dark brown wall; shadow puppets of her and the accident.
Everything in the horrid motel room was repulsing. He had not bothered to contemplate it when he had moved in just few days ago, but as the time passed he was starting to think he should have.
He huffed and turned to see the clock on the equally seedy nightstand. It was only barely 3 am. Not even the Gideons had donated a Bible for this place, or it had been stolen a long time ago. Then again, what would he do with such a book? Faith hadn’t done shit for him lately.
He stood up, adjusting his sweatpants that clung low on his narrow hips. He wore no shirt; in the feeble light, the room was allowed to see the few scars that crisscrossed his back, beneath a tattoo of two, winged demons. His muscles rippled with each movement of his body and arms. There were not many people in his life that knew about the scars on his back; a thing he rarely divulged. He bore deeper, yet invisible, scars and secrets in his heart. He had already resigned to them, knowing in his mind that he wouldn’t ever get over them, or even if he wanted to get over them.
He began stretching, rolling his shoulders slowly, and then pulling his right arm over his left one, reaching as far as he could. He pinned his arm against his chest with his left, and heard his joints pop, while he felt his muscles stretch. He did the same thing with his left arm. He opened and tightened his fingers, twirled both of his wrists around once or twice, hearing the joints and cartilage crunch, and blood beginning to pump faster through his limbs.
Groaning out loud approvingly, before he stretched his fingers out again, he walked past the heavy bag he had bolted onto the ceiling the first night he had signed into the Motel 6. Figuring he would probably pay for the four holes in the ceiling, but in the end he couldn’t be bothered by that. At the end of this job, there was a 50/50 chances that either he was dead, or 100 miles down the road when they would notice the holes in the ceiling in the first place.
The damn motel room was in shitty condition anyway, and he wasn’t sure if anyone would notice four small holes among the chipped paint, ripped wallpaper and bullet hole or two here and there. Either way he wasn’t going to let that spoil the moment he currently needed in order to get his mind off of things.
Picking up the bloodied rags he used when he sparred with the boxing sack, he began to wrap them around his palms and fingers.
The bruises and scratches from his last job, a payment recollection; easy gig, shitty pay, hadn’t healed yet, but he didn’t mind. He just kept wrapping his fingers one by one, watching the blood red scrapes and the slightly swollen skin around the wounds.
Pain was his friend. Pain told him he was still alive. Pain told him not to forget the spiced apples and lemonade he still could imagine lingering on his lips when he had kissed her.
He could tie his hands in his sleep, he had done it so many times. Amidst the wrapping of his fingers, he looked over at the table by the window he was leaning against.
His guns, and the cleaning kit, were splayed all over the surface. There was a red rag, stained with oil and blood and other things, next to his Sig Sauer 9MM, and his favorite custom made revolver Smith & Wesson M686. He preferred his Sig when on a job, but sometimes - just occasionally - that bloody revolver had saved his sorry ass.
He was certain that the sight would have caused someone to jump, feel nauseated, or even made them faint, but he was used to seeing them. But, yet, agreeing to the unknown spectator’s point of view, the sight was indeed sickening. Looking into the trunk of his car was another mess of sick stuff.
But then again, so was his job as a private contractor, a mercenary of sorts, a gun-for-hire.
He most definitely could agree that most of the things he was hired to do was barely above the law and those that weren’t were far more sickening than any collection of guns in the world. But, it was a job of his own choosing.
If he didn’t do it, someone else would. And he might be on the kill list instead. At least, it paid well enough to keep him holding onto his next meal ticket, his car, his prized bike and some other necessities.
Guns, for him at least, were just a big bonus. He preferred his crossbow or his hunting rifle and his sniper rifle. Whenever he wasn’t on a job, he spent his days in the woods. He didn’t always hunt, didn’t kill game unless it was for food, but the forest didn’t judge, or throw malicious glares at him expecting him to screw up. When he was pissed at the world, or at himself, he used his rifle to practice nearly impossible shots; a Marine Scout Sniper through and through.
Turning his eyes away from the table and the guns, he leaned against the wall and looked out of the window, into the darkness of the October night.
Outside, under the window there was a rusted-out and broken-down pool with no water and mostly leaves, branches, dirt and rocks on the bottom. No one had used the pool in ages, and it showed. The cracks of the tiles on the edges and at the bottom meant it couldn't be filled, unless someone put the effort to fix it.
If it had been summer, he might have missed the chance to jump into the pool, not that he hanged around pools and babes in bikinis that often, but occasionally he indulged himself. His brother on the other hand, he would have lounged eagerly, surrounded by scantily dressed women, by the pool. But he was a one woman kind of a guy.
The motel parking lot had been paved years ago, probably at the same time they had built the pool, but now it was cracked and there were dangerous and annoying potholes all over the place. He had driven into one, when he had swerved on the parking lot some few weeks ago.
This job of his had forced him to find a new rhythm in sleeping.
Even with a normal ‘gun-for-hire’ job he slept mostly during the day and was expected to perform his job during the nighttime. There were no babes in bikinis at night. Unless he found himself in a strip club, or perhaps in Las Vegas. Small towns, such as this, didn’t attract them much. He had never really liked Las Vegas much, or other big cities. He preferred his own peace and quiet. Big cities drained energy, they ate people from inside out, they definitely ate him inside out. But he had been keeping a homebase of sorts at Las Vegas for the past year, living at the edge of the city, but not really by choice that was pleasant.
Hiding himself in the masses of people, being average enough and unmemorable kept him under the radar. He had left his old life behind him the moment he had been released from the prison they had shoved him into, ignoring his parole and any friends and family that might have still been waiting for him. He knew well enough that he was wanted for at least his parole violation.
Grimacing, he turned to look at the room, as he sat on the edge of the table properly, finishing wrapping his palms.
The off-white sheets of the bed hadn’t been changed in ages. He chose to ignore the stains of the sins of the past residents on the mattress. The cleaning crew obviously had broken their vacuum as well, since the floor hadn’t been properly cleaned either.
He had sat in the motel room for two days, unmoving. He had accepted this assignment after Merle had begged him to.
He hadn’t asked any questions, but he knew there was something about the way he had asked Daryl to take the gig.
Merle Dixon didn’t beg. And this time he had begged like his life depended on it.
It probably did, though. He had thought about that while driving PCH up to Washington State.
He was numb, feeling like he was dead on the inside. Jobs like these had always been his least favorite ones. They did make him want to be dead on the inside.
He wasn’t. It was always like this before he was about to pull off a job. The hours before he actually dove into it were always the hardest.
His nightmares, his guilt, hadn’t left him alone since the night of the accident, since the night his life had changed inevitably; since the night he chose to pick up the guns once more and go blazing into the war.
Pictures. Flashing, beading across the room. Speaking in flared tones that he couldn’t understand or comprehend - - because he chose not to. He didn’t want to. It was something he already knew by heart. He’d been accused of something he wasn’t guilty of, but still he had allowed it to happen, and he was accused of something he was totally guilty of, and shouldn’t have allowed himself to do it.
Blaming him had been far easier, because he blamed himself.
He finally finished wrapping the bandages around his hands and cracked his neck, standing up and then jumping up and down slightly to warm up his tired muscles. He shook his hands and stretched his arms, and cracked his neck twice more; making sure his neck was warmed up.
He locked his eyes with the heavy bag and crouched down a bit, lifted his arms up in front of his face, and then began dancing around and about the sack.
With each hit he flinched from the pain that shot from the bruised and scraped knuckles. He was sure his little finger had a hairline fracture, but that was definitely little when compared to the other fractures and broken bones he had experienced in his life. Yeah, he couldn't be bothered by some little thing on his finger, when it wasn't even swollen.
He needed to keep him busy until he was exhausted.
Twenty minutes of hitting the bag drew sweat on his skin. Twenty-five minutes and he was breathing heavily. Thirty minutes and someone was banging the wall with a shoe and screaming for him to stop.
“Hey, Jerk-off! I got to fucking sleep!”
“Yeah, so do I,” he groaned out loud, and punched the bag once more, before turning away from the boxing sack and heading for the bathroom, that was as crappy shit hole as the rest of the motel room.
He opened the faucets of the shower, more hot than cold, and let the water pour down from the nozzle as he rolled the wrappers off his hands and kicked his sweatpants off, then he stepped under the spray and let the steaming hot water to soothe his aching body.
He winced when the hot water reached the scrapes and scratches and the throbbing bruises on his sides, arms and back. He swore out loud and tried to make a mental note that he’d remember next time he wouldn’t let things evolve that far. Once explosives were drawn out, ducking for cover wasn't such a bad idea. Either way, explosions weren't a good thing in the middle of a job anyway, especially, when he was asked to deal it with utmost delicacy.
He’d dealt with it. He’d done his job, and moved on. But he would be screwed if the man who had hired him would hear about the incident with C4. Hence he had accepted the payment collection gladly.
This new job of his would probably prove to be slightly more eventful than fighting some douche bag for the dimes he refused to pay to cover his gambling debts. It was clear by now that it would be something vile, and it had Merle hanging in the balance.
After showering, he found a fresh towel. It was fresh only because he had brought it along with him from the Seattle hotel he had stayed few days ago. Stealing towels wasn’t more than just a petty theft but he was actually glad he had taken the towel, he wished he had snatched the fucking robe as well.
The one towel he had hanging on the wall of the molding bathroom wasn’t something he wanted to touch his skin. The motel owner had never even heard of robes, he guessed. He had used oily garage rags to bandage up gunshot wounds, but that towel was a bacteria kingdom of its own.
So, he wrapped his stolen, yet fresh towel around his waist and leaned against the sink. At first he let his head hang down, but then he sighed and wiped the steam off the mirror and looked at his reflection.
He had bags the size of Texas under his eyes. That was due to the poorly slept nights; when he had had just three hours of nights sleep. He hadn’t shaved properly in a week. The stubble was growing up and soon he could call it a beard. His cheeks were hollowed and he sneered with disdain.
He hadn’t eaten properly either.
A burger and three cups of coffee wasn’t healthy for him, and he knew it, but that was what he had available as long as he was on the road. And he had nothing in sight to tell him that he would get off the road anytime soon. If he had, he could head back home; not the cesspool that was Las Vegas, but back to Georgia, back to Orchard Hill.
But Georgia didn’t call to him anymore like it had before. His blood didn’t draw him back there. Not after her accident. He wanted, but at the same time, didn’t want to go back. It was force of things, if he found his way back there. He had burned too many bridges behind him to go back there with his tail between his legs. Even after the investigation was seen through, the people back home blamed him for the accident.
He could blame the people for his choice of a career. And then again, he could blame just about every single event of his life.
That was a sad and sorry story if anything.
He glanced at the clock again and sighed. It was barely four am.
Two hours and he’d be on his way to break yet another law.
“Shit,” he swore out, slamming his fist on the edge of the sink and realized it was ready to fall off the wall. He stepped back and moved back into the room and found something clean to wear. Come to think of it, he would have to find an all-night Laundromat before soon. He was running out of clean clothes.
He pulled a pair of black boxers and a black t-shirt on and tossed the towel on the chair. He knew he should put it to hang to dry but he wasn’t in the mood for any housekeeping chores. Nothing in the motel room encouraged anyone to do housekeeping chores.
He wandered back into the room, and sat down on the chair by the desk. He picked up the Sig and started to clean the barrel with the cleaning brush. He could just as well finish up with the cleaning. It was clearly pointless for him to try to get some sleep. The morning would come and he would pay for his coffee on an IV at some local diner.
He filled up the part of meticulous gun crazed hermit well for the next two hours. When he finally glanced at the clock, it was already 6:24 am.
He placed both of the guns, the Sig and the revolver, on the small green towel he had spread on the desk, and gathered the cleaning supplies on their box. Then, he stood up and stretched his back. He'd give his broken little finger for someone to walk over his back.
He went digging for his jeans and finally got his socks and shoes on too. He snatched his wallet from the table, and next his Sig, which he stuffed under the belt of his jeans in his back and threw his dark brown leather jacket on. Scratching his stubble he locked the door and headed for his car.
A new, black truck stood on the parking lot undisturbed, three slots down from his door. It was the only thing in his life now that he valued more than his own life, now that she was gone. It was too flashy, and maybe too big, but it was big enough to fit most of his belongings. Sometimes it was good to have a bigger car. Sometimes he found himself sleeping in it, and it would be far too uncomfortable to do so in a smaller vehicle.
He found his keys in his pocket and opened the car door. Sitting down he pulled the door shut and reached for the seat belt.
Zack had proposed to her when he had crawled home drunk out of his mind. She had opened the door for him, and watched him sway down the hall and into the living room, where he had plopped on the couch and flicked on the TV. He'd watched wrestling, when he had popped the cap of his Heineken and after two or three gulps of beer, had offered it to her as a ring.
It was so unromantic that she didn’t know how to say ‘no’.
There she had stood, in front of the couch and stared at him, when he had slipped the cap on her finger. He had mumbled something incoherent, thought things would turn out better after this. He had watched wrestling for an hour and a half before he had passed out on her couch, once again.
She’d spent a good hour sitting in the kitchen crying and staring at the cap she had dropped on the table.
It was honestly the first real memory she knew that wasn’t figment of her own imagination, because sometimes - most days - everything seemed a little bit too wild for her to classify as reality.
It was truly strange. Everything else in her life, before her ‘accident’ seemed like a bad dream, or a foggy and unclear memory of a life she didn’t know anymore; couldn’t help but wonder if she had known it in the first place.
Her father had told her about the accident she had been in just few years ago, and that she had lost her memory of the time prior to it. He told her she had been in a coma for over a year, she had been in gruesome physical therapy and rehabilitation after that and then, he had taken her from doctor to doctor in order to regain her memories. But nothing had worked. Most of the few past years were still hazy, fragmented and cracked like a dry earth.
And some days she could hardly remember her father, but the man was the only constant in her life after the hospital stays and the physical therapy. He had been by her side as she fought to get better, learning to walk and speak again.
There were some days, though, when she’d stood by the mirror in the bathroom, touching the fading scars on her forehead, her cheek and her wrist wondering and trying to remember what exactly had happened to her.
Her father had not told her much of it, just vague story how she had been mugged and shot while on her way back from work. He seemed to blame someone in her life at that time for it, but never spoke much about them either. He had never answered to her what she was doing before the accident, and anything she could think of didn’t fit to her, and most definitely didn’t trigger any memories.
All she knew, that they had operated on her for hours, she had spent that year in a coma and when she finally had come to, she was who she was now, with an impenetrable wall around the memories of her past.
Obviously she could hardly believe that her mugger would have slashed her wrist, but whenever she asked about them, the doctors, nurses, even the police and her father shut down like they were robots, changing the subject and balancing on that proverbial tight robe to another spot to keep her from getting an answer.
But despite all that, she’d gotten better. She had built new memories, albeit only four years old. And somehow, the old life had hidden itself inside her mind, behind that smoky curtain that she didn’t want to disturb, fearing there might be something she didn’t want to know.
But eventually she got tired of her father’s overprotective nature, and after a fight she had found herself living in Seattle. A small town girl in a big city such as that was probably a recipe for a disaster that she should have foreseen.
So, when Zack handed her the beer bottle cap, proposing to her, slurring some words of affection she knew she was better than this. But Zack? Zack wasn’t.
It had been so stupid of her to think he would ever change. He wouldn’t have changed no matter what she would have done, and she wasn’t about to accept him as her husband, so, she did the only thing she could and gave up.
It was even easier, when he had taken his bad mood up to her and beaten her down in his drunken stupor. Bruised ribs and a black eye weren’t an easy thing to explain at work, but when she walked out on Zack, she walked out of her job in Seattle law firm. And it was surprisingly easy to tell her boss to bite it when she went to get her stuff from her desk and then proceeded to march out.
She moved back to the Kitsap County; back to Bethel. The whole county of forests, national parks and United States Naval Bases.
Somehow that didn’t quite feel like home, though.
She was told after the accident that claimed her memory, that she had grown up there, with boys who wanted to become marines. Those boys were nice enough; they had treated girls like her with respect. Probably because apparently her father had once been one of them, one of the marines. Semper Fi to the end.
Her father had been less than pleased when she had moved in with him, but he had tolerated her, because he had no other choice - he was her father after all. He told her brutally honest that he had expected her to make better decisions, and her coming back to the cabin was somehow an inconvenience.
So, moving back to her father’s cabin was a step from bad to worse, not only because of her father’s attitude, but because she had to explain to the people of her former hometown why she had returned. She had to keep things simple and tell something surprisingly vague. People, not just her father, expected her to do better, they expected her not to come back, even as much as they liked her. She should have gotten a job at some big firm and have her dream, unlike those who stayed behind.
She returned and smiled and replied to all the questions by the people and neighbors of her former hometown. She came back, and got a waitressing job at the King’s Diner and Bar. A year of that and she was slowly slipping into the mental state of a comatose patient she had been before - a year she had spent in this small, former lumber town and she was losing her grasp on reality slowly.
The people had stopped asking a long time ago and she wasn’t telling.
But a year later, after she had shown up at her father’s doorstep, he had died. They said it was a hunting accident, but she didn’t buy it.
Hershel Howe wasn’t stupid; he wasn’t one of those City hunters, who would shoot themselves in the foot because they didn’t recognize which end was the dangerous one on their firearm. He knew his way around weapons.
She wasn’t as shocked or devastated about his death as she thought she would have been - should have been? No, it was a relief, it was an unconventional feeling of freedom, but at the same time a hard realization that her father gone she had no means to find out what had truly happened or if she had any family remaining.
But, when the Sheriff told her about him, she knew it was anything but an accident, at least from his part. There was a reason why he lived in the secluded area of Kitsap County, instead of in the small town of Bethel.
There was a reason why she suspected the other hunters, some of whom had had trouble with him in the past, but she couldn’t prove anything, and the Sheriff wouldn’t investigate. After the coroner concluded it to be an accidental death by a firearm, there seemed to be even less she could do.
Again, her life had been turned upside down, and she had deemed her Small-Town America unsafe. It hadn’t been safe in a long time, and she had a gut feeling that it would go from bad to worse before it would be engulfed into flames altogether.