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Here you can read my serial novel mix ix and learn about other writings. Presently introducing my young adult espionage novel Shibboleth.

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Departures

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Departures

                                    Then is it a sin

To rush into the secret house of death,

                                              Ere death dare come to us?


I wriggled one foot into a bike cleat then the other. Sari was still crying upstairs. I snatched up my bike and practically ran out my back door, pedaling down the alley to escape the horror. I went up Chandler Street and turned onto 11. An ambulance was slowly navigating around cars down at the intersection, presumably trying to make its way to my place. Distant pangs of conscience told me I should go back and deal with the situation, but I didn’t listen to them and pedalled harder, having no intention of ever going back. I wasn’t going to see Rayne or Sari or my house or anything. In fact with every spin of my pedals I was pushing myself to some other fate, something or somewhere irrevocable. I was burning bridges.

Poor Rayne. She might have been okay if she didn’t run into me. I should have known not to pursue her. She was too good a person. I was a scumbag, cursed since birth, a problem wherever I go. If I’m around long enough people turn foul or go insane or abandon me. It was an illusion to think I could live anything like a normal life and be with somebody half as good as she. I never deserved her.

These dark thoughts only got worse, and when I thought they couldn't get worse, they did. Without thinking I had ridden my usual route and found myself in Mooresville, that one-road poor excuse for a town. The main road ran more or less straight along the water, lined on each side by a single layer of houses, most of them raised a good ten feet off the ground, which was mostly sand with patches of some grass. Sand had blown into the street, at places covering it entirely, making it precarious progress for my treadless thin tires. A guy wearing nothing but shorts that was wheeling his trash can in from the street stopped and squinted at me. Where was I going? Didn’t I know the road dead-ended ahead? Yeah, I think I did know that. Ahead was a barrier with a sign that said Dead End. The houses ended there. End of the line. If I was in any state to be amused I would have enjoyed the irony, or maybe I would have worried people might think it a tasteless statement on my part.

But none of that mattered. My only concern was to end my life, extinguish this catastrophe it had become. Not a glimmer of hope remained. My entire future would be as a wanted criminal, a deviant. I did not deserve to live. The misery and hopelessness and self-hatred was tangible, it was physical, like a feeling of disgust you’d want to scour from your body. My existence was repugnant.

I rolled to a stop, unclipped my cleats, and stepped off my bike, just let it fall from under me and bounce on the gritty roadside. I kicked off the cleats, peeled off the socks and walked across the sand which, at whatever late morning hour it was, had already become quite warm. Ahead there was no dramatic crash of breakers on the timid bay. A plane droned somewhere and some gulls squawked. It was otherwise a quiet and clear morning.

The sand thickened under my feet then went wet and flat at the shoreline with its series of polite diminutive waves tapping the shore. A feeling of relief came over me and I stared at the water before me like it was a huge bed, a comforting and all-consuming blanket that would smother me, maybe suck me down into its dark depths, drag me out into the ocean where fish would peck at my corpse hovering in the water like a discarded marionette.

Approaching the actual waterline I found it had some sound, a puny splash in stereo, a few waves big enough to leave behind some white foam. There was a drop at the water’s edge, a mini cliff made by erosion. I stepped down, then in the water. It was cold, but that was okay, it would all be over in minutes. To orient and motivate myself I looked up to the horizon as I plodded into the water. Was that an island out there, that paper-thin strip at the horizon?

My next step went off a ledge or sharp drop-off and I dropped down to my chest level. I didn’t know much about drowning. I guessed the body would rebel against inhaling water, I’d have to force the situation, so I plunged forward telling myself to just go, go forward and downward until I’m too far to possibly surface and breathe. A wave passed, submerged my face for a moment. The salty taste on my lips. The sensation recalled my foster-father carrying me on his back, how I found a five dollar bill floating on the surface, but didn’t get to keep it. Orphan Cliff. He never had a chance.

Under I went, the water transforming sound as if it ran through my head. I didn’t open my eyes, tried to walk but my feet left the ground and I floated up. I exhaled all the air within me, swung my arms to go downward, had to get my legs behind me to kick. It turned out to be hard to go under. I felt air on my head, assumed I’d surfaced again, involuntarily inhaled, but took in water instead. It sent me into a paroxysm of choking, my body trying to surface. Daylight in my face, another inhalation. More choking instead of breathing. Drowning was going to be more unpleasant and complicated than I imagined. Let’s just get this over with. I inhaled. More choking and gagging, my body jerking. The connection between my body and my thoughts was breaking, random images from my life insinuated themselves. The microwave in the teacher’s lounge: how somebody would leave nasty notes on it insisting you cover your dish. The girl in kindergarten with the big mole and the hooded eyes. How I saw her years later and was struck by her same bland expression. That thoughtful moment when I was a boy rolling my bike down the hill and meditating on how the bumpy features of the front tire became a solid blur.

Was I seeing sunlight, were my eyes open?

Something was on my neck. Had I sunk to the bottom? Were there sharks?

Air, choking, a person, an arm around me. My face was hot, my lungs hurt. Was I alive or dead?

They were saying my name, calling me as if from afar.

Sand on my feet. I was out of the water on my back, being pulled by my shirt. A voice saying my name. I opened my eyes and a blurry, wet Sari was looking down.

“Cliff!” She sounded distant.

I coughed violently, seemed to throw up. She had turned me on my side and was slapping my back. My chest hurt, my nose burned. Now I just wanted to be able to breathe. My inhalation triggered another fit. After this happened again and again I started breathing air, felt the sand and sun on my face.

Sari was kissing my head saying, “Cliff, I need you. You’re all I got.” She continued, out of breath herself, “It’s going to be okay. Come on.”

When I finally was able to focus on her I saw she had been crying. She wiped tears, looked in back of me and smiled to somebody else, “He’s okay. Not a great swimmer. Thanks. What’s that? No, we’re okay. He’s fine.”

My eyes burned when I looked back to see who she was talking to. It was that guy I saw bringing in his trash can. He was a huge gut with a head, bronzed, hirsute. I think I raised a hand to indicate I was okay, thanks for your concern. He turned around and walked away, probably happy to be absolved of any further civic duty.

I was unsteady on my feet so Sari held my arm as we returned across the sand. On the way she picked up sandals she had discarded on the run to the water, her new phone. Her BMW sat running, door open, right where I had dropped my bike. She collected my shoes and socks while I lifted my bike, precious to me like a faithful pet. No major damage. I removed the front wheel and managed to fit it all in her trunk with the back seats down.

We got in her car soaking wet and coated with sand. She turned off the air conditioning and reversed into a driveway to head out the way we had come. I looked at everything I had seen on the way here, was surprised I didn’t have good vibes and born-again feelings about the life I had almost lost but regained. No, the world was back to the way it had been, nothing changed except for wet clothes and some itchy sand in my underwear. Sari looked more beautiful though, somehow younger with her hair pressed flat and wet, eyes bluer than ever. How did this petite girl wrangle me from the tides of the bay and haul me ashore? A swelling of emotion for her heated my eyes with tears.

“Thanks, Sari,” I said like a kid saying sorry.

She gave me a plastic water bottle and I guzzled at it.

“Whoa, take it easy with that.” She pulled it away from my face. Was this some drowning victim protocol? Moderate their water consumption?

I felt awake now and saw the state I had been in was part of a nightmare. Rayne was dead, all my problems were unchanged, but whatever suicidal grip had gotten me was gone. It was like the mindset of a sleepwalker, or like the non-drunk, non-sober state you might wake in after a bender.

“How did you know…”

“You guys were on the Low, coming down off of high doses. You weren’t prepared for it. Neither was she.” At Rayne’s mention her eyes welled up. She continued with a slight croak in her voice, “When you took off I had to assume the worst.” She gave me a stern look, “I was right.”

“But how did you know where I was?”

She shook her head, flung a dismissive hand, “Lucky guesses. Had a vague sense where you normally rode. I asked some people if they saw a guy on a bike. Came down this way, saw your tire tread in the sand. Asked that guy, then saw your bike. Truly luck.”

Yeah, luck. If it wasn’t for Sari I’d have been the latest suicide in the area. It wasn’t until then I connected Rayne’s suicide, my attempt, and the string of them around town with the drug. This drug was evil. How many people dead now? How many of them are suicides? I was thinking of saying something to her about the obvious dangers, wondered if she was still in denial about it.

We just re-entered Fowl’s Point. She asked, “Did you want to come back to the house?”

I wasn’t sure what she meant, looked at her.

She looked at me and nodded a bit, “She’s still there.”

“Wasn’t that ambulance…?”

“No, I didn’t get the chance to call anybody yet. I was looking for you.”

The ambulance must have been for something else. Now I felt like a fool, a pathetic man who not only ran away from his dead lover to cowardly try to off himself, but caused her sister to leave her body lay there. What kind of sniveling man was I? Am I no better than that?

I reached for the water bottle again and raised it to drink. Sari said quickly, “Take it easy, that’s dosed.”

Dosed? I looked at it and it looked like regular water. “Why did you do that?”

“You needed it. It’s a microdose, it’ll ease you off of the Low.”

“But I’m okay now.”

“Yeah. That’s what you think. That amount will be enough to wean you safely.”

I screwed the lid back on, “You can put it in water?”

“Yeah, the powder dissolves like any solute.”

“So why do we snort it?”

She shrugged, “More direct. As a solution it takes time.”

I watched as she took the bottle and swigged some. How often did she do that? How often was she microdosing since I met her?

She turned and stopped, put the car in gear and faced me, “I’m going back. I want you to stay away. I think you need some distance for now.”

I started to protest that I should go back with her. She just shook her head and leaned over and with closed eyes gave me the warmest, gentlest kiss. She opened her eyes slowly, “I’ll look for you here in an hour or so. Go. Be careful.”

I did as she said. I got out and she drove off leaving me there in front of Betwixt and Between Books. I had no money, no phone, nothing. I sat on the bench Rayne and I had sat on eating our bagels. I thought about her on that day I spotted her and everything that had happened since. I finally put my face in my hands and cried.

In a few minutes I felt better, so much better that I suspected it was that microdose Sari had given me. I felt its numb and fanciful confidence over nothing course through me. It wasn’t enough to become zonked out on visions, but definitely mood-altering, definitely erased that suicidal depression. But wait, I had reason to feel bad. I reminded myself that Rayne was dead, sprawled out at that moment at the top of my stairs. Why was I sitting there across town then? To give Sari privacy? It almost took effort to find the outrage. And what right did she have to dose me? Wasn’t that drug what has destroyed our lives?

My outrage was getting me antsy so I stood up and looked around town. Same old place. It made most sense to go in the bookstore since I could easily occupy myself for an hour there. Part of me feared its emotional associations with Rayne--but then part of me thought it was even more reason to go in, either as penance or to force the emotional impact I felt was lacking. I kept thinking of my foster mother’s funeral, how I felt emotionally detached and was ashamed about it, worried other people would see me as an ungrateful foster son, the messed-up orphan.

The bells on the bookstore door jingled as I went in. The old guy turned his head and looked over his glasses at me.

“How’re you doing?” I said.

“Where’s your girlfriend?”

“She’s uh, she went home.”

“Is she still interested in buying this place?”

I stared back. What was I to tell this man? That scent of book decay, whatever it was that gave these places that aroma, trip-wired some tinderbox in my brain. Our day there came back to me, the feelings I had for Rayne, the kiss over by the art books, the sense I had that I might actually be able to be happy and could be with the girl of my dreams. Now she’s dead on my floor because of her psycho sister and that damn drug. What was I doing here? I was going home and I’d kiss Rayne’s corpse and take the mix to Alan and be done with it and Sari. I heard the bells ring as the door slammed behind me.

I walked as fast as I could across the park and headed over the bridge. Ahead past where I would turn down Chandler I saw police lights. I thought nothing of it, maybe a car pulled over. Past Chandler near the trailer park a small group of spectators had formed to check out whatever had happened. They wouldn’t do that for any old traffic violation so I went down to them. They were mostly retirees with nothing better to do. I recognized the one woman with the cane because despite her infirmity she walked everywhere in the town. She was looking at me as I approached. Maybe she recognized me too.

I asked her, “What happened?”

“Somebody hit a man on a bike. I thought it might’ve been you. Are you the one that rides the bike?”

“Yeah. Do they know what happened?”

“Supposedly a hit and run. Car smashed into him and sped off.” Then she added, “I hear he didn’t look too good.”

“Was it a red car?”

“What? I don’t know…Jeremy, do they know what color the car was?”

Jeremy was a tall old man that wore shorts that went lower than his knees, and a Phillies ball cap. He had no chin. “Who?”

The woman repeated her question, but I was already walking away, cutting through the trailer park to get home as quickly as possible.

Was that the ambulance I saw earlier? Could this have been the work of a Rudi replacement and he had gotten the wrong biker? Was I being paranoid? Was Alan making moves against us despite the supposed twenty-four hour reprieve?

I began running, but slowed when I heard a diesel engine hauling itself up Chandler. I knew what it was. Through a space between trailers I saw another ambulance and in its back I knew Rayne lay. That was how I would always remember Rayne, her ambulance moving her body from my house to the morgue.

I got my bike out of Sari’s car and went in my front door. Sari was sitting on the couch. She looked exhausted, wiped out, but lost in thought. She tried to smile, it failed, “They just took her.”

“I saw.” I held a neutral face. I had steeled myself, used thoughts of Rayne to go cold against Sari and repeal her charms.

Sari said,“You know that’s how her mom died?”

“What?” I had to recall their family arrangement: same father, different mothers.

“Hanged herself in their basement.”

“Oh my god.”

“Rayne was a delicate…” Her nose crinkled and she cried into a tissue bunched in her hand.

I gritted my teeth, fortified myself with anger, “Give me the mix. I’m returning it to Alan.”

I had been wondering how she would react to my demand. On my way there I had formulated arguments, was going to point out what should be obvious: that it was a dangerous drug that caused people to kill themselves and it could still get us killed. I could cite the suspicious bicyclist death, and if pressed I could now viciously suggest that maybe a delicate person like Rayne whose own mother committed suicide might not be the kind of person should be experimenting with the drug--that in fact Sari endangered her, killed her.

But there was no need. Sari said, “It’s upstairs in my room. In the bag.”

I went up and found the bag and in it the foam with the test tubes. In the kitchen I found a plastic shopping bag for it.

I came into the porch where Sari sat slightly more collapsed. I changed into my sneakers, gathered my keys, wallet. Then I turned to her, “I think you should pack yours and Rayne’s things and head home. I’m not coming home for a while, so you’ll have plenty of time.”

She said nothing, her empty stare, open mouth, showed I had blindsided her. She’s was being kicked out, told to get lost. I turned from her pained expression, opened the door and went out.

Next Chapter: The Swimmer

Chapter Twenty-Eight: The Swimmer

Chapter Twenty-Eight: The Swimmer

Chapter Twenty-Six: Never-ending Night

Chapter Twenty-Six: Never-ending Night