Perfect Circle: Chapter 4

Life is a firework, a burst of light in the sky. When you die, it's like the rocket is falling. But for a ghost, like the girl Hanlon killed, death is a bad photograph, transfixing you.


Sean Stewart
July 31, 2004 12:00AM (UTC)

That night my body was dull and heavy with drugs. For hours before I woke I was lying on my back with my eyes open, looking up through cool blue layers of Demerol at the wafer-board ceiling far overhead. The smells of rubbing alcohol and latex rippled into me.

I took a slow breath. Pain eddied out from my chest. There was an IV in my right forearm. With every heartbeat the plastic needle trembled in my skin.

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My eyes closed.

My heart beat.

Hospital sounds, muted and murky, came to me as if underwater: Many footsteps, phones ringing, distant announcements on the intercom. Creaking gurneys rolled by with conversations attached, talking suddenly louder as they passed my door and then fading down the corridor.

"I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." The rustle of a Bible page turning.

Who's there? I tried to say.

So cold.

It's like this to be dead. Cold dirt stuffed into your mouth and ears. Life just a rumor -- the whisper of people talking as they walk around in the bright air. Packed in the earth, muffled thump of feet overhead and inside my room, a faint gurgling hiss, as if someone far away was sucking the last of a Slurpee through a straw. I let my head loll to the side and opened my eyes again. A nurse was standing in a pool of light by the other bed. Her white uniform was shining, shining. She looked down at an old man who stared at her, frightened and blinking. A whispering mustache of plastic tubing disappeared up his nose.

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I wanted very badly for the nurse to go away because if she stayed I thought the old man would die. I didn't want anyone else to die. No more ghosts.

Tom Hanlon an angel with bright wings smoking in the yellow light. The gleam and flickering.

I drifted through the long night, eyes open, eyes closed. Busy nurse shoes squeaked across the linoleum. White uniforms doctored my IV bag or bent over the old man or walked briskly into my dreams. I heard the rustle of pages, and once I saw my mother's face looming over me. After some hours it floated up like a balloon, dwindling into the ceiling until it slipped into a hole in the wafer board. Many dreams later I saw her again, sitting quietly in the chair beside my bed, her face still and grieving.

The intercom hissed and crackled. A hungry sound, like fire burning in the next room.

I am 11, tagging after my cousin AJ, who is 17 and beyond cool. She reads poetry. She's saved up money from her after-school job at the fabric store and bought a Walkman, on which she plays The Clash and Roxy Music instead of George Jones and Dolly Parton.

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AJ is not my baby-sitter so much as my parole officer. She takes me out on weekends when the grown-ups have other things to do. Today we're going to the hospital to visit one of her classmates. "Jamie says they just went into the closet and necked for a while." AJ and me don't believe that for a minute. "Barb says Sandra said he raped her, kind of. Not all the way."

AJ always treats me like I'm old enough to handle it.

Outside it's greasy August heat, the air like hot motor oil, but when the hospital doors swing open a wave of chilly A/C spills out, smelling of formaldehyde. We get directions from the information desk and head up to the psych ward, me in an "Empire Strikes Back" T-shirt, AJ sporting tinted John Lennon glasses and hauling around the big denim purse where she keeps her Walkman and tapes and feminine products and probably some drugs although at this age I've never actually seen any.

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"Ten days after the party, this girl, Sandra, tried to kill herself," AJ tells me. "Her mom found her half-passed out in a bathtub full of red water. She broke open a Bic razor and tried to cut her wrists."

I hate hospitals. People die in them.

"She had a huge crush on Jamie. After all, he was on the football team," AJ says witheringly.

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When we get to Sandra's room her mom is there, bustling around to cover the silence.

Sandra is a Zombie. She is very thin. Her hair is long and greasy, her pale face is dotted with pimples. Whether it's the drugs or just sadness, she's white and stiff. If you poked her with your finger, her skin would stay pressed in, like cooling wax. She moves in a slow, jerky shuffle. She's a broken thing, and you can't imagine she could ever be fixed. The plastic hospital bracelet looks empty around her wrist.

So glad AJ should drop by, Sandra's mom gushes. It does Sandra such good to have company! Spots of color high in the mother's cheeks.

Sandra doesn't talk. She has gone to a place where words don't help.

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We stay for 15 minutes, and I am so glad when AJ says we've got to be getting on. As we get into the elevator, AJ's lips are thinned out that way they get when somebody's going to catch some shit. I'm hoping it isn't me. The elevator is a little one, with shiny steel walls. I'm trapped in there, with blurry AJs reflected all around me. They consider blurry me's disapprovingly. "I wanted you to see that, DK."

"Why?"

"Someday it will be you going into a closet with some girl."

One of the AJ's splits in half as the elevator doors open. She strides out through the hospital lobby, and I scurry after her. I understand I should feel guilty for being a boy, and I do: but I don't want to give up the good stuff, like being able to make gross jokes and take my shirt off in summer. I'm pretty sure AJ can sense this unworthy thought. I'm careful not to make eye contact, except I look up and find her reflection staring at me from out of the glass of the hospital door. "So don't be a jerk," she says.

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The next time I woke up, daylight was streaming into my hospital room. My mother was gone. I felt less drifty. There was an IV in my wrist and my chest hurt, but it didn't bother me as much as it should have. Still drugged to the gills, presumably.

A humongous black nurse ambled into the room. The name "Darla" was stitched into her white nylon blouse above a pocket big enough to stash a dachshund. "Good morning, Mr. Kennedy." She scooped up my wrist and took my pulse. Her fingers were like dinner rolls still warm from the oven. "How you feelin'?"

I coughed. Little firecrackers of pain went off inside my ribs. "My chest hurts." The slack muscles in my face pulled into a smile. Darla glanced at my IV bag and then jotted a note on her clipboard. "What's in my IV?" I asked. "Just Demerol?"

Darla chucked me under the chin. "Percodan. A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down."

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I laughed, which was a mistake. A flurry of little hot rips and tears of pain came from the various holes in my chest. "I wouldn't move around too much," Darla said placidly. "Your mom was in for a while last night. Nice lady." (A fragment slipped up from my underground dreams: My mother's still face, staring sadly down at me, as if I were lost at the bottom of a well.) "I'll be back wit' your breakfast directly. Best you eat up. The police are waiting to talk to you."

Oh. Great.

In my stupid teenage years I had a few run-ins with the Harris County Sheriff's Department. By the time I got out of high school, I had scaled back my life of crime to scoring the occasional dime or handful of poppers, but I did backslide during the year after Josie left me. There's a big Marine installation just down Old Spanish Trail from my apartment, and I started going to this one bar where the jarheads liked to hang when they crawled off base to nail the local girls. I can talk some pretty good trash when my need is great and my cause is just; it never took long for me to get an invitation to dance in the parking lot. Then there would be the brief obligatory bit of posing, while Mr. Professional Soldier pretended like he was going to box me scientifically. But sooner or later we would clinch, doughboy would grab my lapels and discover a handful of Eagle #8 Fishinghooks with the No-Rust Guarantee. He'd scream and I'd break his nose with a head-butt. Fight over.

It wasn't my most mature period, I'll admit, but justice was finally served. One night I started chatting with this black Marine from one of those little Louisiana towns where they live on crawdads and Wonder Bread. He caught my attention by loudly announcing that the Violent Femmes were all lesbians. I began a gentle correction, only to find myself 10 minutes later draped over a Handicapped Parking sign with a mouthful of blood and a growing suspicion I had been set up. Not only did this guy lose all interest in alternative music once I joined the conversation, he had a left jab like a staple gun. Two teeth, one cracked rib, and a broken jaw later, he told me he was a Silver Glove welterweight. It took me six months sacking groceries at Kroger's to pay off my dental bills.

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After this guy left me flat-faced in the parking lot -- to loud applause, I should add -- the bouncer squatted down to let me know the cops would be coming by to toss me in the can for creating a public disturbance. I should have run away, or at least crawled behind a dumpster to hide, but instead I was still dragging around the handicapped spaces groping for my missing teeth when the black & white pulled up. The cop was a friendly middle-aged guy named Earl. He took one look at me, called an ambulance, and then whiled away the wait by chatting about his current passion, which was gourmet salads. I couldn't afford to go to Emergency, but it's hard to argue when you're covered in blood and the friendly cop might have decided to run your ass into his precinct instead.

I think that was the first time I ever heard the word "arugula."

That was my best-ever encounter with the police, but 10 years later, under the present circumstances -- self-defense, an armed murderer who had already beaten a girl to death and dumped her body in a river or something -- I guess I was expecting a certain amount of sympathy from the Men in Blue. As it turned out, the Harris County Sheriff's Dept. had dealt me a couple of your basically suspicious and un-nurturing-type police officers. It soon became obvious that from their point of view, they had a guy with a bunch of JV misdemeanors and a spotty work record who had burned a tax-paying citizen's house to the ground with said citizen inside it. I told them Hanlon had confessed to killing this girl and then decided to get rid of me. They didn't sound thrilled with that explanation, but no way was I going to start telling them about the ghost.

I suggested they do a background check on Hanlon and see if there were any links with possible dead women in Europe, and then said maybe it was time to call my lawyer.

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That afternoon I had another visit from my mom. She tried not to let me see how scared she was, but her eyes kept creeping to my IV and my bandaged chest. She chatted gamely, mostly about my sister Fonteyne's new baby, Violetta, but I was brutally tired, and silences kept spreading between us.

Mom bustled busily to cover them. Spots of color high in her cheeks.

My mother has worked as a receptionist in the same medical clinic for as long as I have been alive. There was a doctor there in the '80s who got addicted to morphine. He'd been making mistakes and missing appointments for two years before one of the nurses came in late to get a purse she had left behind and found him lying on his office floor with a needle stuck between the webbing of his toes. He had started using after a patient he diagnosed with routine back pain died of spinal cancer. Mom says a lot of doctors are addicts.

They hushed it up and put him in drug rehab. He actually kicked morphine. What he couldn't do was stop smoking. This mattered because he had a daughter with asthma. Once every couple of months this kid would wake bright blue and unable to breathe, and he would rush out of his bedroom in his bathrobe and shoot her up with a needle full of adrenaline and then take her to the hospital. But he never managed to quit smoking. Red light at the end of his cigarettes all the time, all the time. Smoke curling into every thread of the carpet, every crack in the ceiling.

Not all ghosts are dead, but every ghost is hungry. They are all hungry, and they can never, never, never get enough.

When we were kids, Mom carted home an endless supply of tongue depressors, happy-face stickers, and those crappy plastic toys they hand out after immunizations. But of all the things Mom brought home from the office, what I remember best are the back issues of the MMWR: Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report. Every issue of the MMWR has three or four stories in it, and each story is like a little fable with a moral at the end. Every story starts differently --

"Three dentists in Omaha were sharing an egg-salad sandwich when . . ."

"Four hikers from San Diego had started through a difficult pass in the Sierra Mountains when . . ."

"A group of schoolchildren in Dayton, Ohio, were swimming in a local pond when . . ."

-- But however differently stories in the MMWR start, they all end the same way.

I spent my whole childhood eating breakfast cereal while learning about mosquito-borne viral meningitis, or standing to pee while the MMWR on the back of the toilet detailed birth defects in Michigan children whose mothers were getting mercury in their tap water. It was a running joke in our family: "Three kids were late for school in Deer Park when," my Dad would say, pretend-scowling as he tried to hustle us out the door.

I don't know why Mom was so fascinated with the MMWR. I guess it's what there was before there was Oprah.

A young girl in Europe met a traveling salesman from Texas when --

So here's the thing about my cousin Tom.

I killed him.

I was just starting on my second hideous hospital breakfast when I heard the clip-snap of a pair of pumps walking up to my door. I looked up from my breakfast of grainy hot cereal (compare to: Cream of Wheat), as a young woman slipped into my room. "Suzette Colbert, Houston Chronicle," she said. "I want to do a story on your ghosts."

"How the hell did you know about -- "

"Used to be Suzy Friedlander," she said. "My cousin Travis used to be married to Marcia Jessup."

"Aunt Patty's niece Marcia?"

"Yeah. We met once, at AJ's funeral." Lying flat on my back I could only see her top half as she click-clacked toward my bed. "Travis used to tell us stories about Marcia's spooky cousin, Dead Kennedy. I thought I recognized your name on yesterday's police briefing. My brother works in the Public Relations office. Nothing like family, is there?"

A revelation hit me in the head like a five-pound mallet. For as long as I could remember, I had been super careful not to talk about my ghosts, and yet everyone had always known anyway. Now, as I picked up my hospital-issue spork and poked at my side order of Browns in Microwave Shredded Potatoes, I realized it must have been my family that snitched me out. Specifically, all the deep dark secrets I told AJ when I was trying to make myself interesting had obviously been retold within hours to her friends and relations, like her cousin Marcia.

I couldn't believe I hadn't figured this out before.

Hell, probably my sisters had done the same thing, trying to look interesting for their middle-school crushes. I snorted with laughter, which hurt. What an idiot I had been not to see it before.

Suzy Colbert dug a little silver tape recorder out of her purse. "Do you mind?"

"Usually I don't talk about this stuff," I said. "But since it's family . . ."

"I surely do appreciate it," Suzy said, in a parody of a Texas cheerleader's voice. She hit Record. "So tell me, Will -- what is it like to see a ghost?"

I thought of my barefoot Uncle Billy waiting for me beside the dark water under the Fannin Street overpass, standing in front of the shopping carts and dirty bedrolls of the street people who had managed to fall out of life without even dying. "You know homeless people? You know how most times you just try not to notice them? Like, they're there but you don't stare. You look away." Suzy was nodding. "It's like that. Only I'm not as good at looking away as everybody else."

"You were investigating a ghost for Tom, right?"

"Yep." I groped for my packet of boysenberry jam and struggled to open it. My shoulder hurt like hell and my hand wouldn't stop shaking. "He got a little freaked out and pulled a gun on me." Maybe the nursing staff had left a little too much Percodan in my drip, but this whole situation seemed weird and funny and very, very Texas. As Lee once remarked, there's a fine line between Houston and farce.

Suzy took the jelly packet, opened it, and spread boysenberry jam on my microwave-softened triangles of toast. "That must have been scary."

"No shit. I mean, You Bet. Why, I haven't been that scared since the case of the Bayou Ripper, back in '99."

"You do this kind of thing a lot, then?"

"I try not to, but sometimes the money's too good to turn down."

Suzy blinked. "What do you charge?"

"A thousand dollars a day." I took a sip of reconstituted orange product with 10 percent real juice. "Plus expenses." Got to remember to bill for expenses. See, all those childhood hours spent watching "The Rockford Files" hadn't gone to waste after all.

"Expenses?"

"You know. Candles. Computer research. Maybe a priest, if I need one." There was definitely still some happy syrup in my IV. "Those guys aren't cheap by the hour, you know."

"Wow. This is great stuff," Suzy said. "I had no idea!"

My broken ribs made it easier to keep from laughing as I reluctantly revealed the secrets of William Kennedy, two-fisted ghostbuster for hire. AJ, you little snitch. You drama queen. This one's for you.

The next morning Darla brought me a copy of the Houston Chronicle with my breakfast tray. Suzy had put me on the front page of the Lifestyles section.

Dead Man Talking

"From the suburbs of Hell to Refinery Row, Houston-area paranormal investigator William 'Dead' Kennedy is no stranger to infernal landscapes."

There was a picture and everything, a photo of me in my hospital bed looking, as my Uncle Walt would say, like 10 pounds of shit in a five-pound bag. I looked up at Darla in horror. "Oh my God."

She grinned.

I skimmed Suzy's story. It was all there, every wacky lie and truth mixed in, right down to my rating system -- Buddhas, Tell-Tale Hearts, Cobains, Rippers and Zombies. They had tapered the Percodan out of my medication, and somehow the idea that half of Houston was eating sausage and biscuits while reading the story of Dead Kennedy, Punk Exorcist, was a lot less funny than it had seemed yesterday. "Aren't there supposed to be fact-checkers or something?"

"I think maybe that's in News. You're in Lifestyles. Your eyes is bugging out," Darla remarked.

I could hear them spilling along the corridor, complaints and shushing, the squeak of sneakers, sounds of a scuffle as my sister Paris yelled "Justin!" and dragged her two-year-old out of someone else's room. My four-month-old niece, Violetta, let out a long, astonished squeal; Dad murmured to her in baby-talk.

"Okay, Meg," Mom said, just out of sight, "you go in first."

My heart squeezed tight. Megan! Megan would know about me and the ghosts. Even if she didn't read the article herself, someone would tell her. She was going to find out. That was why I shouldn't have talked to Suzy Colbert. Oh my god. After 11 fucking years of trying to hide that shit from my daughter, I had blown it all in 20 minutes just to jerk the chain of some third cousin who worked at the Chronicle.

Fuck.

Megan came into the room. She was wearing make-up, brown eye shadow and pale pink lipstick. "Hey," she said.

"Hey, yourself."

She held up my Discman. "Grandma and me thought we should bring you this."

I fumbled for the bed control. Motors whirred as the bed tilted me slowly upright.

I felt pitifully weak and not a little stupid. My right arm was basically useless, my broken rib stabbed me every time I laughed or coughed, and every muscle in my chest was hot and sore, as if I had been beaten with a baseball bat. "You were in my apartment?"

Justin darted into the room with Paris in hot pursuit, and the rest of the family followed. "God, what a pigsty!" Paris grabbed her son's arm and yanked him to a stop. "Justin? Do you need to use the potty?"

"I'm a cat!" Justin said, jerking free and scrabbling behind my bed on all fours. "Ruff! Ruff!"

Megan was wearing khaki pants with embroidered cuffs, and open-toed sandals. Her toenails were painted black, thank God. If they had been pink I would have lost all hope. "I'm going to tell Mom I'm never cleaning my room again, if that's how grown-ups live," Megan said. "Now I know why you never take me there. Just kidding, Will."

Megan's room was always immaculate. Probably Don carried out surprise inspections, with demerits if the bed corners weren't turned to Marine specs.

My dad paced into the room wearing a spit-up towel over one shoulder and gently jiggling my sister Fonteyne's baby, Violetta. Fonteyne claims the father was a male model. None of us have seen him, and I suspect that includes Fonteyne, whose track record would suggest she was drunk and had her eyes closed for the first few cell divisions of little Violetta's existence. "Fonteyne couldn't make it this morning, but she said to send you her best wishes," Dad said. "She had one of her modeling classes."

I might have rolled my eyes.

Mom sank heavily into the visitor's chair. "We brought some things from your apartment. The Ramones and the Eels, and that 'Sandinista' album you used to like so well." She dug each item out of her purse and held it out at arm's length, peering through her bifocals to read the titles. "Screaming Blue Messiahs. Jesus and Mary Chain. Stiff Little Fingers."

"What? You didn't bring my Gun Club tapes?"

"We saw that article in the paper," Paris said. "You never told us you were making so much money! Hire a maid or something, why don't you? Justin!" she hollered. "Get you out from under Uncle Will's bed this instant!"

Justin is a hider. Comes by it honestly, though, to judge by his dad, who hasn't been seen since the day Paris' pee turned pink on the home pregnancy test. My sisters don't have great taste in men.

"I don't think I've seen Suzy since her graduation," Mom said. "She hasn't been to a reunion in years. I think she used to run around with AJ and them."

Justin grabbed the bottom of my IV stand from under the bed and gave it a furtive shake. The drip bag swayed overhead and the IV needle wiggled in my arm. "Hey! Cut that out, Jus."

Giggles from under the bed.

"When she saw you laid out, your mom came over all sentimental and volunteered to organize the next Smithers family reunion," Dad said.

Uh oh. My father isn't wild about spending 48 hours a year sharing two campground porta-potties with upwards of a hundred Smithers, depending on how many are currently out on parole. For a kid, of course, the reunion is all sunburn and Fritos and poking snakes with sticks, but organizing it is like navigating the Fourth Army through North Africa.

"Family's what we have," Mom said.

"Like Tom Hanlon," Dad said. "Gosh, if he'd just come to a few more reunions, he might have picked off quite a few Smithers before working down to Will here."

"I told you, he wasn't really a Smithers," Mom said, unruffled. "Dot's daddy remarried after her momma died. She had one of those real aggressive lymphomas. The mother, that is. Just melted her down like a candle, six months from diagnosed to deceased." Mom was still holding my hand, stroking it as if to make sure I was still there. "I seem to recollect her people were from up by Abilene. Dot took it real hard when her dad remarried so quick. That's always the way, though. Men just can't stand to be alone. Women expect to be widows."

Dad cocked one eyebrow. "Don't get your hopes up, Mother."

Mom spared him a quick smile. "Dot was the one who had to go clean her momma's stuff out of the closets when Eugenia's mother moved in, and I think they had words. If I recall, Eugenia's husband -- this would be Tom's dad -- he died in an oilfield fire out by Andrews. Put his backhoe shovel through a natural gas trapping line and burned to death in the explos -- "

Mom stopped suddenly, looking at me.

"Chip off the old block," I said. Seeing Hanlon again, what I did to him. A clumsy angel, burning and burning.

"Ruff!" Justin started barking under my bed. "I'm a cat! Ruff! Ruff!" Justin gave the IV another push.

My mother squeezed my hand. "You look tired, Will." I said I was fine, but she was already rising from the bedside chair. "We'd best be getting on. Megan, why don't you just take a second and talk to your father? We'll wait out in the hall."

They left me alone with my kid. I remembered looking at the dead girl in Hanlon's garage and imagining Megan there, tied up and beaten.

When I was a child, I remember thinking once that life is a firework, a burst of light in the sky. When you die, it's like the rocket is falling: glimmers and sparkles, memories, old stories, a few prayers maybe, and finally darkness. But for a ghost, for this girl Hanlon killed, death is a trap, a bad photograph transfixing you. All the color leaches out, the setting fades and the sky, everything goes dim and then stops, showing only one thing. The last, worst thing.

"So this guy who shot you," Megan said. "It was about a ghost?"

I flushed. Fucking Suzy Colbert, fucking AJ, 12 years of watching every word trashed in a day, 12 years of telling my family never to say one damn thing to my kid --

"Mom told me years ago," Megan said.

Oh.

"I didn't say anything. I thought you'd be embarrassed."

"OK," I said.

"Dad brings it up every time he doesn't want me to visit you." Dad meaning Don the ex-Marine. "He thinks you're a lunatic."

"What about Josie?"

"She thinks it's real."

"So who do you believe?"

Megan gave me a little sideways smile. "Mom and me know you better."

I nodded, very cool, but great ripping power chords were playing in my head. I gave Megan's hand a squeeze. "I'm sorry about -- I didn't want you to see me like this."

"Someone's gotta keep an eye on you." She kissed me before she left, a little peck on the cheek with those pink lips. Twelve years old.

I woke up late the next morning to the sound of my room door cracking open. I waited for the squeaking sound of busy nurse shoes, but -- "Will?"

Josie's voice.

For some reason I didn't open my eyes. I lay in the bed as if I were still asleep. I don't know why. I was tired. And it was nice to think of her standing there and looking at me.

"You're not asleep," Josie said dryly. "I still know what you look like when you're pretending to sleep."

She was wearing a denim shirt and faded blue jeans the same color as her eyes, with her hair in a ponytail. She looked every inch the soccer mom she was, except for the six rings in her left ear. "I think you just like Don because with him you get to be the wild one," I said. "Mommy with an edge."

"He envies you, you know."

"Like hell."

Josie settled into the visitor's chair. Her hips were wider than they used to be, and there were a couple of strands of gray in her ash blond hair. "Don's always been . . . He collects guns. He reads books of Oriental philosophy. The year before he joined the Corps, he hitchhiked across Mexico." Josie stopped. "He never saw himself as the Assistant Mall Manager type. Now he provides for us. He doesn't complain. At least, not to me. But all this: wife and kid and soccer practice and a mortgage now -- we have a mortgage for Christ's sake!" Josie looked tired.

"If Don envies me, he's even more of a dumb-ass than I thought."

"You'd like Don, you know. If you ever got to know him."

Motherfucking jarhead bastard. "OK," I said.

"I pick good guys, Will."

I thought about how once I could have unbuttoned her denim shirt. Josie's hand was on my bed. I reached out and covered it with mine. My skin was buzzing and alive.

"Don't," she said. I could feel the bump of her wedding ring under my fingers. "Will, don't." She took her hand away. There was a diamond in the wedding ring Don gave her. I couldn't afford a diamond when we got married. My dad bought Josie's band for me. I never told her that. "Don wouldn't like me being here," she said.

I loved her. Hanlon's eyes filling with tears.

Josie shifted in the chair beside my hospital bed. When I looked back at her face, she was dead. Her lips had gone the color of wet concrete. Eyes like slate in her gray face, and the smell of cold dirt everywhere. A clammy flush spilled like ice water across my chest and up the side of my face. My chest was frozen and I couldn't breathe.

"Will?"

Jesus Christ. My meds must be fucking with me. I stared down at the IV needle in my arm, watching it shake with my pulse, two times, three.

I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.

"Will?"

Air rushed back into my lungs, making the IV in my arm dance. I coughed. It hurt like hell. Josie reached for the nurse's call button. Her fingernails were red. I looked up. "Are you all right, Will? Let me get some help." Her skin was pale but alive, her eyes the color of old blue jeans again, no longer blind.

"No, I'm OK." I shook my head and pushed her hand away from the call button. Her fingers were warm. My whole body was still buzzing with the shock of seeing her dead. She bent over me, worried. I got drunk on the warm smell of her skin and hair. Herbal shampoo. "I'm fine," I said. I wanted to reach behind her neck and pull her face down to me and feel the warmth of her cheek against mine. "J? Have you gone to a doctor lately?"

"What?"

"You check, right? For lumps and stuff?"

She went still. -- You look at me sometimes and I know you're seeing me dead, or dying.

Not like this, I wanted to tell her. Not with your eyes gone out like candles and your skin the color of cement.

The cops came back that afternoon and told me I better watch my ass, which I took to mean they weren't going to put me in jail. A relief. I didn't want that added to the list of things to embarrass Megan with.

That night I asked the nurse to leave the light on in my room, but she said it was against regulations. I arranged myself around my IV cord so I could see the little strip of brightness under the door. I stared at it for hours, that faint wash of light bleeding through from the bright corridor beyond, and listened to the garbled voice of the hospital PA system, that crackled and popped and hissed all night. Burning and burning.

My cousin AJ was shot to death by her boyfriend when she was 22. She burst out of their apartment at a dead run. A second later he followed, walking real slow. He held up a .38 caliber automatic, sighted over his arm, and shot her in the back. She dropped to the sidewalk like a bag of groceries. She tried to keep crawling, but something was wrong with her legs. He walked up to where she was thrashing on the sidewalk and shot her again. Then he went back into their apartment to wait for the police.

In the middle of the night I woke up, sweaty and gasping, with one thought circling around and around in my head.

I had never loved a woman enough to kill her.


Sean Stewart

Sean Stewart is the author of "Mockingbird," "Resurrection Man," "The Night Watch" and other novels. He was lead author behind the interactive Web game The Beast.

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