He sees the photograph and he begins to shake.
“Let’s cook,” says Todd.
Jesse can’t move, can’t form any words.
Todd stands next to him, and nods toward the picture of Andrea and Brock. “Hey, don’t worry. Long as we don’t have any trouble, they shouldn’t either, right? But let’s get going, okay?”
It takes him several more seconds, maybe a minute, but then he turns around, and they begin. He has no choice. For once he doesn’t have to question what he does next, and there’s a certain horrific freedom in that.
Every movement is painful, his lacerated skin throbbing, and he can barely form a coherent thought. But he manages to work his way through the steps of the cook, and it’s good that it’s a task with steps, a task with a beginning and end. Just get through to the last step. He just needs to get through this, and then he can break down, then he can fall apart. And after that, he’ll pick himself back up, and figure out…
Figure out what? There’s no getting out of this, there’s no-
He feels like he can’t breathe. Maybe Todd notices something’s wrong, because he touches Jesse’s arm. Jesse flinches, and Todd takes a step back. “You doing okay?” he asks. When Jesse doesn’t answer, he says, “Look, I know it’s been a rough day and all. But I hope you don’t hold all that against me. I like you Jesse, I really do. But you’ve been in this business longer than I have- I’m sure you’ve done things you wish you hadn’t needed to. You know how things go.” He shrugs, with an inoffensive tilt of his mouth that says What can you do?
Things you wish you hadn’t needed to. He feels a flare of anger at the comparison Todd is making between the two of them, but its heat quickly fades. He doesn’t have the energy to sustain it.
“I mean, if it weren’t for me,” Todd continues, “Uncle Jack would’ve put a bullet in your skull. I saved your life, Jesse. That alone should put us on good terms, right?”
Jesse closes his eyes, and can feel the gun at the back of his head. He can see the sky, the endless blue sky, and two birds soaring overhead.
He opens his eyes, and everything is dim again, and the space around him is too small, and maybe it would have been better if the last thing he ever saw was that bright expanse of blue.
“Well, we’re pretty much done here,” Todd says, surveying the lab. “You must be real tired. Why don’t you get some sleep?”
They walk outside, and the sky has gone dull.
He dreams he’s standing in front of a door.
The door opens, and his hands are shaking, and he’s pointing a gun at the man before him.
“You don’t- you don’t have to do this,” Gale says.
For a moment Jesse feels panic cloud his vision, but then he blinks back his tears and remembers. Gus is dead, Mike is gone. He doesn’t need to do this, not this time.
So he lowers the gun.
Gale takes a deep, shaky breath, and then says, “There… that wasn’t so difficult, was it?”
“Sure. Now it isn’t,” Jesse says, angry, though he knows he has no right to be.
They stand in silence for a few moments, and then Gale sighs and says, “Would you like to come in? I was in the middle of preparing some tea.”
Jesse follows Gale into his apartment. Intricately patterned, jewel-toned rugs cover the floor. Pictures of distant countries are pasted to the wall. A clay mask covered in chipping paint the color of dried blood sits on top of a bookshelf.
Gale tells him to take a seat on the couch and hands him a cup of tea. “It’s flavored with cardamom,” he explains. “I learned how to make it when I was traveling through Jordan. I have some lovely photographs of Petra, if you’d like to-”
“Why are you even talking to me? I murdered you. Aren’t you pissed?”
Gale shrugs. “Maybe I was. But there’s not much to be done about it now.”
“Still. You must be pretty satisfied with, you know, where I ended up. Think that I got what was coming to me.”
Gale seems to consider, but then shakes his head. “It might be easier to think of it in those terms, but… I don’t see it that way.”
It would be easier to think of it that way, like the paying of a debt, as if his own suffering could erase the pain he’s caused others. But it doesn’t work like that, and there’s no purpose for what he’s going through, none that he can see. Maybe Gale understands the reason, but Jesse can’t bring himself to ask, afraid there won’t be an answer after all.
He tries to think of something else to say. He could say that he regrets what he did, that he should have listened the first time Gale told him he didn’t have to do it. He could say that, but what good would it do?
So he remains silent, and takes a sip of tea. The flavor is sweet, intense, like nothing he’s tasted before. Has he ever been able to taste something so vividly in a dream? Maybe. He can’t remember.
Gale stands up and selects a CD to play from a collection on the shelf next to the couch. As the music begins, Jesse says, barely above a whisper, “I’m sorry. God, I’m sorry.”
But Gale is turned away from him, adjusting the volume of the music. Jesse doesn’t repeat himself, just listens to the song, something in a language he can’t name.
He sees the hose and shudders in anticipation of the frigid blast of water.
But when he begins to remove his shirt, Todd stops him. “Hey, no one’s around the clubhouse today. How about a shower inside?”
Jesse hesitates; just because no one else is there now doesn’t mean they won’t show up later. But he hasn’t felt hot water on his skin in so long, and he nods before he can stop himself.
Todd leads him inside a small bathroom with a toilet and a shower stall. He sits down on the closed lid of the toilet and lights a cigarette while Jesse undresses. A grimy shower curtain conceals him from view, but it doesn’t make much difference at this point. His body stopped feeling like his own a long time ago.
Inside the shower there’s a bar of soap and nothing else. The clean smell of the soap, the way it foams on his skin, and the warmth of the water on his back feel so good he wants to cry. And maybe he does, but it’s hard to tell with the water running down his face.
“Hey, Jesse,” Todd says. “You met Ms. Quayle before, right? I mean Lydia. Actually, she told me to call her Lydia, but I still call her Ms. Quayle, on account of respect and all.”
Jesse pictures the woman standing before him in the Madrigal warehouse, remembers the fear on her face. I’m not going to apologize for being careful. Wasn’t that what she said? Does she repeat that line to herself now, when she thinks of him handcuffed beneath the ground?
“Anyhow,” Todd continues, “do you think I might have a chance with her? Uncle Jack and the rest say she’s too uptight, but that’s just because they don’t know her like I do. She even let me hold her hand one time.”
Jesse is silent. Todd must mistake his apathy for disbelief, because he then says, “Really, she did. After we took out Declan and his guys. She didn’t want to see their bodies- she’s real sensitive like that. But my point’s that she let me take her hand and guide her past them with her eyes closed, because she trusts me. And trust is the most important part of a relationship. Don’t you think so?”
Jesse listens to the water hitting the tiled floor of the shower stall and tries to drown out Todd’s voice. But Todd repeats the question: “Don’t you think so, Jesse? I mean, hell, you learned that lesson firsthand with Mr. White, huh? You gotta know who you can trust.”
Todd says it casually; Jesse can tell he’s not trying to provoke a response. But the mention of Mr. White’s name makes him feel ill.
He shuts off the water, watches it swirl down the drain. Within moments, the moisture on his skin starts to go cold.
He dreams he’s walking through the desert.
It’s a six-mile walk to the border. That’s what Gus said. But he must have been wrong; they’ve been walking for weeks, maybe months. At least, that’s what it feels like.
He knows it’s a dream because he doesn’t feel any fear for Mr. White’s life, for what will happen when they cross the border. But he feels the exhaustion.
He tries to remember why they’re here. He can picture bodies lying beside a pool, but they’re small and distant. He turns to Gus and asks, “Was it worth it?”
Gus doesn’t answer him, and Jesse feels something almost like pity, which he supposes he can afford to feel, now that the man is dead.
Jesse’s throat is dry, and talking will only make it worse, but he speaks again anyway. “I never got to ask you- did you mean it? I mean, that thing you said about seeing something in me. Did you mean it, or was it just part of, like, getting me to do what you wanted?”
“I don’t believe,” Gus says, “that the two are mutually exclusive.”
“Well. Anyway, Mike said you meant loyalty. Like that was the quality you saw in me.”
“You could say that.”
Jesse looks up toward the sun, and for a moment it blinds him. Then he says, “But it’s like, what good is it? Look where it fucking got me. I risked everything for- for him over and over, and now…”
“You lacked discernment, that’s true. But in itself, loyalty is never a flaw.”
Jesse isn’t sure if he believes him, isn’t sure if he’ll ever trust anyone again in his life, whatever might be left of it.
They continue through the desert, and it feels like hours pass, although the sun doesn’t change position in the sky. He can feel particles of sand coating his skin, his throat, his mouth. He can feel it getting in his eyes, his nose. He needs water, and he’s so tired. God, he’s so tired.
He collapses to the ground, and he thinks he’ll die here, and bones bleached by sun will be all that remains of him.
“Get up,” Gus says. It’s an order, but his voice isn’t unkind. Or at least, it’s kinder than it’s ever sounded before.
So Jesse gets up, and he keeps walking.
He sees the figurines in the palm of Todd’s hand and he feels repulsed, though he’s not sure why.
Maybe it’s the screams painted onto their small faces, the way they seem to be struggling to free themselves from Todd’s grip.
“I finished them this morning,” Todd says proudly. “Hey, you want something to eat? I brought you a can of Chef Boyardee.”
He sets the figurines down on the table and opens his bag. They’ve finished the cook, and although Todd normally leads him directly back to the pit once they’ve cleaned up, on certain days he’ll linger. Jesse doesn’t look forward to engaging in what passes for conversation with Todd, but neither does he look forward to the dark isolation of the pit.
Todd gets the ravioli out, removes the lid using the pull tab, and then hands the can to Jesse. Since he doesn’t have a spoon, he tilts his head back and lets the contents slide into his mouth. The ravioli is cold and feels slimy on his tongue, but he hasn’t eaten since the previous day, and it tastes good to him.
“I’m gonna put them in its tank,” Todd says, picking up the figurines again. “The tarantula’s tank, I mean. It’ll look like something straight out of a horror movie, right? A giant spider terrorizing a city. Maybe later I’ll make some little figures of people with their legs and arms missing. Don’t mention it in front of Uncle Jack, but I’ve kinda got an artistic side.”
“The tarantula,” Jesse says slowly, and he can see it, captive in a glass jar, lying on the ground beside… “You mean the one that- you kept it?”
“Sure. I find insects pretty fascinating.” He shakes his head, grinning. “Sorry, I mean arachnids. I’m always getting those two confused.”
“But… do you really want the reminder?” Jesse asks, unable to stop himself. He imagines Todd one day standing over his dead body, taking the shirt off his back as a keepsake.
“The reminder of what? Oh, you mean the kid? Nah. Feels like it happened a long time ago now, right? Doesn’t really cross my mind much anymore. I mean, it was a shame, what happened. But life goes on, huh?” He claps Jesse on the back.
And Todd is right. The horrible thing is that he’s right. Life goes on.
“Well,” Todd says, “if you’re done eating, guess we should head out for the day.”
Todd escorts him out of the lab, and Jesse thinks of Drew Sharp’s tarantula, struggling uselessly against a wall of glass.
He dreams he’s walking along the bank of the Rio Grande.
He pauses when he sees Mike, stands next to him, but doesn’t say anything. He considers asking about what happened, but he doesn’t really want to hear it, doesn’t want to hear the details of another senseless death.
Mike is the first to speak. “So,” he says, “you decide yet?”
“As I recall, you asked me where I’d start fresh, if I were you. So, you settle on somewhere yet?”
“I…” Where did Mike suggest? Alaska, that was it. “No. What does it matter, anyway? Not like I’m going anywhere.”
Mike gives an exasperated snort. “Right. Why plan for the future when you can spend your days feeling sorry for yourself?”
“Jesus Christ. I think I’m entitled to it, yo.” But he feels the briefest flicker of hope. “Do you really think I can get out?”
“I didn’t say that. But unless you hold on to the possibility, you’ll die there. That much I know.”
Jesse tosses a stone into the river, and thinks of Alaska. He thinks of the smell of pine, and the feel of snow falling on his upturned face. He thinks of a white road spreading out into the distance, and a fire burning in a hearth. He thinks of a new life, a new-
He shakes his head. “I don’t know. And even if I... Look, you were the one who told me some things can never be put right. So what’s the point? I mean, what’s the point then?”
“You tell me,” Mike says, hands in his jacket pockets, still staring at the river. “You’re the one who went through a twelve-step program- don’t they have some line they like to trot out about knowing the difference between what can be changed and what can’t? Something about courage for the former and peace with the latter?”
Jesse rolls his eyes. “Yeah, sure. You ever change anything you really needed to? You ever achieve any peace about the shit you couldn’t?”
“Not precisely. But you’re not me.”
“Well, like I said, none of it really matters. Not anymore.”
Mike sighs, and then, almost begrudgingly: “Look, kid, you can handle it. One way or the other, you can get through this. Even if it doesn’t feel like it.”
Yeah, it really doesn’t. It really fucking doesn’t. But Jesse doesn’t say it aloud. He doesn’t feel like arguing with Mike, not now. He just wants to stand beside him, watching pieces of sunlight glinting in the current of the Rio Grande.
He sees the shadow of a man, distorted as the tarp shifts with the wind, and he turns onto his side, willing the figure away.
But the shadow remains, and then he hears Todd’s voice as he removes the tarp. “Hey, Jesse,” he calls down through the grate. “How’s it going?”
Jesse stays lying on his side. His throat is raw and his eyes burn, even though he hasn’t been crying for a couple of hours. He thought he might never stop. But his shaking body grew tired, and as wrong as it seems, exhaustion and hunger and dehydration can overpower grief.
Todd pauses, as if he actually expects Jesse to answer him. Then he says, “I just want to let you know, I told her it wasn’t personal. I told her that before I did it, and I meant it. And it’s not personal with you, either. It’s just, you knew what would happen if you tried to leave, didn’t you? We had to follow through. It’s not personal.”
Jesse looks up. “Would it make a difference to you?” he asks, his voice so hoarse it’s barely audible.
“What? Sorry, didn’t catch that.”
“If I tell you it’s not personal before I kill you, will it make a difference?”
He shouldn’t have said it; Todd could interpret it as a threat. But Todd doesn’t react. Maybe he couldn’t hear him.
A few moments pass, and then Todd says, “We’re on schedule and everything, so we don’t need to cook today. Take it easy for now, and we’ll get back to work tomorrow.”
With that, the tarp is thrown back over the grate, and Jesse is alone. He closes his eyes, though he doesn’t want to sleep; it doesn’t feel right to be able to after what’s happened. But he’s been awake for over twenty-four hours, and after some amount of time he’s unable to measure, he drifts off.
He jolts awake to the sound of wind rustling the tarp above him. Although his view of the sky is eternally obscured, a small amount of light filters through and he can tell it’s still day. He tries to remember if he dreamed, but all he can recall is the black void of a dreamless sleep.
He wishes he dreamed of Andrea. He doesn’t know what he’d say to her, because there’s nothing to say, no words that can even come close to conveying what he needs to. He just wants to see her face again.
But maybe she knows it’s too soon, that he can’t handle that yet (his subconscious knows, he corrects himself).
He swallows hard, licks his dry lips. They taste like salt.
He dreams he’s sitting at a desk.
The classroom is empty, but he knows who it belongs to right away. A poster at the front of the room displays the periodic table, and the one beside it tells him to Think like a proton and stay positive!
He gets up and goes over to Mr. White’s desk. There are papers scattered across it, quizzes in the process of being graded, but there’s no sign of Mr. White himself.
Mr. White is still alive, then.
“You killed her,” Jesse screams, despite the absence of anyone there to hear him. He doesn’t know if he means Andrea or Jane. Both. Andrea and Jane, and everyone else. “They’re dead because of you!” His voice uselessly fills the empty classroom, and just as uselessly, he shoves everything off the desk and onto the floor.
A pencil holder clatters to the ground, and papers flutter down after it. And then Jesse sees it, his own quiz. He picks it up and reads the words scrawled across it in red marker: Ridiculous! Apply yourself!
He remembers the day he received the quiz back, how he called Mr. White an asshole under his breath and gave him the finger as soon as his back was turned.
But he also remembers something about the words apply yourself that didn’t feel entirely insulting. It felt a little like being seen not in terms of what he was, but what he could be if he tried. You didn’t tell someone to do better unless you thought they could.
But it wasn’t real. Mr. White never actually saw him like that, like someone with potential, someone with value. And if he ever acted otherwise, it was only because it served his own agenda.
Jesse lets the paper fall from his hands and drift back down to the floor.
He sees the gun in the glove compartment and he feels something closer to fear than hope, something urgent that makes his chest constrict.
When Todd notices the gun in his hand, he speaks to him like he’s trying to soothe a child, or an animal. His voice is steady and soft.
As Todd calmly asks for the gun back, as he promises pizza and cold beer, Jesse plays out what he’ll do once Todd is dead. Of course, the first thing he’ll do is drive to Brock’s house, and then- and then-
And then what? He can tell Andrea’s grandmother that Brock is in danger, that they have to leave immediately, but what if she doesn’t listen to him?
For an instant, the briefest instant, he considers taking that risk. This is his only chance, and what happens afterward is out of his control, it’s out of his-
But the shame is immediate and overwhelming. I’m so fucking sorry, he silently apologizes to Brock, tears blurring his vision. I didn’t mean it. I’d never do anything that puts you at risk, never. I just don’t know what I’m doing. God, I don’t know what the fuck to do.
He hands Todd the gun.
Todd smiles like nothing’s happened, putting an arm around Jesse’s shoulders like they’re old friends. And maybe Todd truly believes they are.
They get back into the car and drive, through the red sand of the desert, beneath the infinite cloudless sky. Todd comments how pretty the view is, and Jesse nods, because it is. But it will only last as long as the car ride back.
Later, Todd buys them a pepperoni pizza. Jesse eats slowly, not used to such heavy food. As he takes small, careful bites, he thinks about Brock. He thinks about what he would say to him if they were ever to meet again.
The truth is, he has no idea what he’d say. But in the pit, all he has is time, and so he’ll think it over, think about it for hours and days and weeks until he has the right words. Or not the right words, maybe, but as close as he can get to them.
He dreams he’s staring at a painting.
He reads the title of the painting on the plaque beside it: The Beyond.
“It was her last painting,” Jane says. “The last one she did unassisted, anyway. She was already beginning to lose her eyesight when she did it. But I think it’s one of her best, don’t you?”
Jesse continues to stare at the canvas before him: a strip of black, above it swaths of blue, gray, white, and blue again. There’s something familiar about the landscape, something clearly reminiscent of earth, ocean, and sky. But at the same time there’s something wholly unfamiliar about it, something transcendent captured in the periphery of O’Keeffe’s fading vision.
“Yeah,” he finally agrees. “Yeah, it’s pretty great.”
He looks at Jane, and there’s so much he wants to say to her, and not enough time to say it. But she seems to understand, because she shakes her head and says, “Let’s not talk about any of it. I just want to enjoy the exhibit together.”
“I just- I miss you.” He takes her hand. “I miss you so much.”
“I know,” she says. “It’s okay.”
And they head toward the next section of the museum, hands laced tight.
He sees the painting when he closes his eyes, and wonders if he’s still dreaming.
But he can feel cold cement beneath him, so he must be awake.
And yet he can see shades of sky and water bright and clear before him, unenclosed by the borders of a canvas, spreading out into the never-ending distance.
He stretches out his hand, and there are tears in his eyes, because it’s beautiful, it’s so beautiful. He stretches out his hand, grasping for something just out of reach.