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Zihuatanejo Is Not Heaven

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The world is smaller than it seems, and Zihuatanejo is not heaven.

Andy Dufresne arrived on the outskirts of town in a bus with no number, a man with no name. If he hadn't been there once before—on holiday with his family as a teenager, before his life had set itself on a more proverbial southward course—he might have been a touch frightened. There was no chance of that now, though.

Not after Shawshank.

He checked into the cheapest hotel on the bayside and, armed with his room key and a pocketful of twenties, headed straight for the bar. The piano was badly out of tune, and the dark-skinned man at the keys had probably never even heard of Mozart. As hesitant as Andy's Spanish was after all these years, it wasn't worth asking. Instead, he handed the bartender forty dollars and told him to keep the tequila shots coming.

By the twelfth shot or the twelfth hour, it really didn't matter: just past midnight, two complete strangers hauled Andy to the door and let go of him just before he was sick all over the nearest patch of sand. Morning found him sunburned and tearstained, but at least no one had taken the room key from his pocket.

 

* * *

 

The truth is, I had a lot of time to think about the repercussions of what I'd done.

Most of that time was spent on one cramped bus after another, and thinking is a bit difficult once every infant from Boston to Baja has blasted your eardrums to Kingdom Come. And I'm not talking about what I'd done to get sent to Shawshank in the first place, either: that, I'd squared with a long time ago.

I'm talking about petty vandalism, walking out on a job, and breaking parole. Curiously, it was the job I couldn't seem to get off my conscience. There was more money in that tin than I'd made in six months. Who was I to argue with that? Even Sears and Roebuck can fall on hard times, and even a man who gets things may finally reach a point when he's got to let someone else provide for him.

Zihuatanejo didn't look like much. If you had asked me on the spot what I thought of it, I'd have told you, now, that's one half-baked excuse for a resort town. That's what I thought walking through the dusty streets, anyway. Every fishing village from Maine on down looks pretty much the same, except for the faces and the weather.

But when at last you've crossed enough streets and the scrub brush opens onto the sea, Lord Almighty. It's blue and white and blue for as far as the eye can see, and for an instant, it was almost enough to have made the aching eardrums worth it.

 

* * *

 

"How much is it?" Andy asked, finding that a week of just sitting around and listening to local conversation had done wonders for his ailing proficiency. Granted, he'd spent most of that week trying to find a balance between getting drunk and sobering back up. In the end, he was on no better terms with tequila than he was with bourbon.

"Yours for five hundred dollars, señor," said the young man in passable English.

He was the closest thing to a real estate agent that the tiny, crumbling beach house seemed to possess. The hotel manager had been the one to point Andy in its direction, eager to be rid of him. Andy could see where he might've been bad for business.

"That part of the roof's caving in," he said, pointing, stubbornly sticking to Spanish. "Can you recommend someone to do repairs?"

"Sí, but that is another hundred."

"Fine," said Andy, defeated, switching to English. "When can you start?"

It wasn't the first time he wished Red would hurry up—if Red was even coming, if he'd even remember—and it certainly wouldn't be the last. The house was livable in under a month, but the roof still leaked in the worst of storms, and that was most of them.

 

* * *

 

"That's right," I said. "Tall white man. Gringo with reading glasses. Has a hotel?"

"Too many hotels," muttered the old woman, suspiciously. "No good. More money?"

I handed over another twenty, thinking this had better be a worthwhile investment, or else. "Okay, no hotel. What about a house? House near the ocean. With a boat."

"Too many boats," sighed the woman, twirling a tin-petaled flower aimlessly between her withered fingers. Those baubles seemed to be her only livelihood.

"Listen, ma'am," I said, removing my hat and dabbing my forehead with my only handkerchief, which was pretty grubby. Playing hard-up works in any language. "He's a friend of mine. Amigo. I have to find him. He might think I'm dead. Muerto."

A vaguely pitying look passed through the woman's eyes, which were darker than mine. She pressed the flower into my hand and gestured down the seemingly limitless expanse of white sand. "You go there, señor. That way. Hotels, boats."

"Many thanks, ma'am," I said, and kept walking, my shoeless feet on fire.

 

* * *

 

The first thing Andy invested in was a used gramophone and a box full of secondhand records, as new specimens of either item were hard to come by. The only opera in the mix was Tosca, but that suited him just fine. He spent the next few months alternating between repairs, improvements, and crafting an inlaid chessboard to match the pieces he'd carved in Shawshank. He played games against himself and finally bought a bucket for the leak, as there seemed to be nothing for it—not even the young man who'd acted as go-between and repairman in selling him the place.

"Can't your father come look at it, Carlos? You said that he built this house."

"Yes," Carlos replied, who'd warily come to terms with Andy's Spanish, "he did. But he's dead now, so having him come take a look is out of the question. I've done everything I can think of. I think your roof is cursed."

Andy offered to teach him how to play chess, but Carlos declined.

 

* * *

 

Lady Luck had finally decided to smile on me. The first hotel I walked into, the proprietor seemed to know exactly who I was talking about. I could only wonder what Andy had done to make such a lasting impression. The options were limitless.

"He bought a beach house not far from here. I think you'll find him a peculiar sort."

"That's no news to me. I've found him peculiar since the first day I laid eyes on him twenty-one years ago," I said, knocking back a shot of tequila. I'm convinced liquor's not so much the oil of conversation as the money you buy it with.

"Then he is an old friend of yours?" asked the proprietor, as if he couldn't fathom why I'd ever keep company with the likes of Andy Dufresne. Of course, that wasn't the name I'd used for him. I hadn't used any name at all, seeing as I didn't even know what name he was going by, and that was bound to be anything but his own.

"Old as they come," I said, setting the glass back on the bar and replacing my hat. "Thanks for your hospitality, but I ought to be going."

"He is never at home these days," said the proprietor, shouting after me, as if he'd just remembered something. "Not since he bought Zapatero's old boat."

Let it not be said that Andy couldn't fix an idea and keep it from ever moving again.

 

* * *

 

Zapatero hadn't even bothered with proper bargaining. He'd taken a hundred dollars without hesitation and said, "Good riddance. That thing is as seaworthy as your roof."

"Thank you," Andy said, smiling, and headed off down the strand.

While it was true that ROSA SOLA—Lonely Rose—wasn't much to look at, it was immediately evident that her previous owner had given up on her prematurely. Her paint job wasn't so far gone that it wasn't respectable, but the color scheme of sickly green and faded watermelon was enough to wrinkle anybody's nose. Andy wasn't sure that her old name would do. Stripped down, repainted, she'd be a different vessel.

It took him almost two months—forty-three chess games, eleven records, and five collections of poetry—to finish scraping away most of the paint. If Red had been there, the job would've been done in a week. Underneath, Rosa was patchy gray wood interspersed with what was left of an ancient coat of white. Eliot's mermaids were mocking him, daring him to paint her red and brown.

Perhaps the name would stay after all. Rose wasn't Red, but she was something.

 

* * *

 

Only ghosts wear white, I thought as I crossed the last stretch of fire between my feet and the Pacific, between myself and wishing silently to drown. But there he was, in white, doing a damn sorry-ass job of stripping down Zapatero's boat.

He must have seen me before I'd seen him, because by the time I got close enough to see his face, he was already looking at me. Where I was sure mine had aged several lifetimes, his smile hadn't aged a day. Goddamn you, Andy Dufresne.

That's not the first thing I said to him, as much as I'd like you to tell you it was. In fact, I didn't get to say anything, because Andy beat me to the punch.

"Two years, Red. What the hell did you do, walk the whole way from Buxton?"

"Damn near it," I said, dropping my things every which way as he climbed down from the pretty-penny wreck he'd been perching on. "That's not counting the buses and the occasional hitchhike. Would you drive this sorry bastard across the border?"

He felt light in my arms, strange, not as solid as I'd expected. Then again, I had no point for comparison. Andy hadn't been easy with casual contact, especially not in those early days. Me? I'd gotten over it pretty quickly. At seventeen, it's all about a few fights, a broken nose or two on both sides, and then you're square. Sure, you're once or twice a month too sore to walk straight, but that passes with the rest of Shawshank's welcome bullshit. At thirty-four, it's a different story. Andy suffered.

"I'd have driven you to the moon," Andy replied soberly, clapping me on the shoulder as he drew away. "This is Rose. Would you like to meet her?"

"Leave it to you to find yourself a hussy before I even get here. How's she sail?"

"I have no idea. I have no idea how to proceed with the remainder of her restoration, either. You got here just in time, Red. She'd have gone on sitting here indefinitely once I'd redone the paint. I don't know the first thing about sails or engines."

"Well, to be fair," I said, sizing up the damage he'd done, "neither do I. But I can start by getting you whichever you prefer, seeing as that's what you've hired me on for."

Andy grinned and started to climb back up, but there was something behind his eyes that suggested agitation. I'd seen that look once before, and I distinctly recalled never wanting to see it again. I took hold of his arm and tugged him back down.

"Listen, before we get this show on the road, how about I get us some lunch?"

 

* * *

 

The night terrors had started the week after Andy had finally sobered up. Ironic, considering how few nightmares he'd actually suffered during his time at Shawshank—even in solitary, even in the longest, dankest stretches of confinement in the Hole.

They went like this: Andy had his gun, the one he'd thrown in the river, and even though it was sodden through it still shot perfectly and never, ever missed its mark.

The times its mark was Red, he'd wake screaming worse than when it was his wife.

 

* * *

 

"So, about this hotel of yours," I said conversationally, carefully shaping the down-stroke of an R with a wide paintbrush. "How's that getting on? No offense, Andy, but that house of yours is barely big enough for the two of us."

"It serves," Andy said, standing back a few paces and squinting. "And as for the hotel, don't even mention that. I had enough trouble finding a shack and a raft."

"You're forgetting where I come in," I reminded him, already starting the O.

"No offense, Red, but your Spanish is worse than mine."

"None taken, but it's improving. I'm sure I can get you some specs on the market."

Andy came up behind me, nosy and impatient like a kid. It reminded me of the day he'd asked for Rita Hayworth. Lord, that day of all days. If I'd known…

"You have the steadiest hand I've ever seen. Do you remember the library sign?"

"Every day I live, at least once," I answered, and meant it. I wanted to turn and smile at him, but the S was in danger of turning out crooked. With Andy that close, my hand didn't feel so steady. There was probably a difference as wide as the Grand Canyon between what I'd come to terms with and what Andy hadn't.

"Do you miss it?" asked Andy, softly, so near I could feel his breath on my neck.

"What, the library? Sure, and everyone along with it. Even Heywood's yodeling."

Andy chuckled and the moment was broken, his warmth gone and the sun's in its place. Four more wistful strokes and Rose, at least, had a name.

 

* * *

 

Seven months in, Andy had nearly gone mad with the silence. And that wasn't counting the nights on which it stormed, or the many nights of drip-drop staccato that came after. He'd gotten into the habit of talking his chessmen through the more complicated moves to which he subjected them, but when it came to the queens, he was silent.

Time to change this, he thought. Time to clinch checkmate; I'm only human.

He went to a hotel he'd never set foot in before: classy, expensive, and respectable. As far as he could tell, the women were made to match the place, and not a single one of them spoke more than five words of English. Fine by him. He wasn't out to test himself on conversation. Lila had expressive eyes and a calm, wistful smile that was nothing like his wife's. She led him up the grand staircase, graceful as a dancer.

In the middle of it all—behind a closed, locked door with their clothes freshly strewn this way and that across the floor—he curled away from her as soon as she reached for him and broke down sobbing. He didn't have to send Lila away.

Quick as a whisper, lithe and dark, she left.

 

* * *

 

"Not bad for an old beater," I told Andy, brushing my hand along Rose's smooth-sanded, freshly painted prow. "She floats, that's for sure."

Andy sat at the back, the wind slightly ruffling his hair.

I couldn't say why, but I'd always found his resistance to a proper buzz-cut endearing. The wrinkles in his forehead were getting pretty obvious—but then, he always concentrated a bit too hard on threading his bait. What he didn't have to concentrate hard on was chess, and that was infuriating. If he weren't so patient, I swear he'd have reduced me to tears a dozen times over.

"I'd have found something better, but, as you've noticed, the locals are prickly."

"That's no way to speak of your neighbors, Andy. They're good people, and they've done right by you. I've got to thank them for that."

Andy jerked his head to look at me, startled, and his casting went awry.

"Of course they're good people. I never said they weren't."

"You've spoken better of the cacti," I said, trying to hold back a smile.

Andy waved me off and set his eyes on the horizon, giving his slack line a halfhearted tug. "Never mind. Forget I mentioned it. She's no beater now you're through with her."

We sat in silence for a long time after that, taking turns sipping out of the bottle of beer we found rattling around at our feet. Must've left it behind on one of those long days of work. You wouldn't think it, but machinery makes Andy curse a blue streak.

I caught his hand in mine on the neck of the bottle, just for an instant, and held it.

 

* * *

 

Nightmares weren't the only dreams that came, either.

After Lila, there were dreams of his wife. Dreams of his wife and her prick of a lover. Dreams of Boggs and the Sisters. Dreams of guards whose names he couldn't recall. Dreams of his wife and Boggs and the Sisters, dreams—

The ones with Red in were the only ones that counted as dreams. Partly because he missed his friend, and partly because they did everything for him that Lila hadn't.

 

* * *

 

I'd never seen Andy drunk before, and I was suddenly very certain I never wanted to. True to Andy's promise, we were in the fanciest hotel that he knew of, and he was on his fourth tequila shot and pointing out to me all the women he knew by name.

"Lila, huh?" I said, watching her slow-dance with a German tourist. "What's her story?"

"She's a prostitute," said Andy, matter-of-factly. "Not a very good one."

"I don't know about that. Seems she's doing her job just fine. A nice dance seems to be just what that gent needs before getting down to business, wouldn't you say?"

"She didn't dance with me," Andy slurred, reaching for another shot glass. Enough was enough. I caught his hand and eased it away, downing the shot for him. Briefly, my vision swam. When it cleared, Lila was gone and Andy looked irritated.

"Did you want her to dance with you? Maybe you should've asked."

"No," he said. "And I didn't. I hate dancing."

"That's not the way my harmonica tells it."

"Your harmonica never leaves the goddamned house."

"That's as it should be," I said. "Speaking of which, it's pretty late. Past your bedtime, I'd say." Silly, saying that to someone who's just barely a decade my junior.

"Chess," Andy muttered. "You're going to take advantage of my inebriation."

"We'll see about that," I said, taking him by the shoulders and steering him towards the door. "In my book, the only worthy adversary's a sober one."

Andy didn't say a word the entire staggering walk home, which gave my mind plenty of chance to wander into unpleasant territory. What had he done to Lila? Furthermore, what had Lila done to him? I had to catch myself out on that one quick as a blink. She was a pretty young woman, not the likes of Boggs. She could do to him whatever she damned well pleased, so long as he paid her properly. And vice versa, I supposed, but it didn't sit any better with my stomach than Boggs all the same.

I had to fumble Andy's key into the lock, an awkward job even three months on. Andy was an immaculate housekeeper, and ever since I'd patched the roof, the place had begun to feel a lot like home. As far back as I could remember, I'd never had a proper roof over my head for more than a few weeks at a time. Not before Shawshank. I shivered, slammed the door behind us, and got Andy situated on the sofa.

It was only once I got the lights on that I could see he was almost sober.

"What kind of damn fool stunt was that, exactly?" I asked him, sounding like my old man back from an early grave. "Have you taken up making a fool of yourself?"

"Funny you should mention it," said Andy, again in that rare soft voice that was all at once familiar and painful, "but yes, fine, that's right. Man cannot live on chess alone."

"Man cannot live alone alone," I said, hardly thinking about the words coming out of my mouth. "How you got on without anybody, I swear I'll never know."

"After all I've accomplished, you think that's impossible?" His tone was reproachful.

"No," I sighed, sitting down heavily beside him. "Andy, in almost sixty years, God as my witness, I never did meet another soul like you. All grace and contradictions."

"You followed me here," Andy said, his gaze drifting out the window, distant.

"Yes, and you're lucky I remembered how to say this place, never mind spell it."

Andy looked at me, then, calm, as if sight of the moon had done his soul some good.

"I have to believe it was more," he admitted. "You got busy doing the right thing."

"And you got busy doing everything," I said, shrugging. "And that was that."

Andy moved his fingers on the cushion between us, involuntarily brushing the back of my hand. We both jumped a little, from the booze I'd guess. We laughed.

"What a sorry sight we are, Red. A shack, a raft, and no hotel to speak of."

Well, that did it. There was nothing left for me to do but stick my foot in it, and that I should've seen coming from a mile offshore. What had Andy said about mermaids?

"If I may speak plainly," I said, "this house has got one too many rooms as it is."

Andy was silent for a long time, but break it he did. His hand was solid and warm in mine, exactly as I'd known it would be, exactly as I'd hoped.

 

* * *

 

Red is right. The house is larger than it seems, and Andy's bedroom is heaven.

It's not about what he fears, for once, or what he doesn't want. It's about discovering what it means to kiss a man, something Andy has never done in his life. Even though he's given them up, Red's mouth will always taste of cigarettes. Even though they both shaved earlier that evening, his stubble is rough, and Andy can't help but wince every time their teeth clash. But it's also about discovering that the dreams aren't just dreams: he's painfully aroused by this, by Red, and he knows it isn't out of fear that he tears at Red's clothes before Red can even get to his, panting near-silent pleas.

"You're safe," Red whispers, his voice breaking as Andy's fingers find him, coax him, praise him. He touches Andy's cheek, his chest, his thigh. "Andy, listen. Listen…"

And it's also about this, Andy knows, about this very moment: the sound of the sea ringing wild in their ears and hope fierce as death in their hearts.