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Riding BitchK. W. JETER
K. W. Jeter has written some very edgy novels, including Dr. Adder, The Glass Hammer, and Infernal Devices. He has also had a number of short stories published. His work defies classification.A lot was still going to happen.A He would stand at the bar, he knew, locked in the embrace of his old girlfriend."Probably wasn't your smartest move." Ernie the bartender would run his damp rag along the wood, polished smooth by the elbows of generations of losers. "Sounds like fun at the beginning, but it always ends in tears. Trust me, I know."He wouldn't care whether Ernie knew or not. The beer wouldn't do anything to numb the pain. Not the pain of having a dead girl, whom once he'd loved, draped across his shoulders. Her left arm would circle under his left arm. When she'd been alive, whenever she'd conked out after too many Jäger's and everything else, she'd always wrapped herself around him just like that, from the back. Up on tiptoes in her partying boots, just blurrily awake enough to clasp her hands over his heart.He would knock back the rest of the beer in front of him, remembering how he'd carried her, plenty of nights, when there'd still been partying left in him. He'd shot racks of pool like this, leaning over the cue with her negligible weight curled on top of his spine like a drowsy cat, her face dropping close beside his, exhaling alcohol as he took his shot, skimming past the eight ball ... .Her breath wouldn't smell of anything other than the formaldehyde or whatever it was that Edwin had pumped her full of, back at the funeral parlor. And it wouldn't really be her breath, anyway, her not having any in that condition. He would gaze at the flickering Oly Gold neon in the bar's bunker-like window, and swish another pull of beer around in his mouth, as though it could Listerine away the faint smell in his nostrils. The dead didn't sweat, he would discover, but just exuded--if you got that close to them--an odor half the stuff hospital floors were mopped with, half Barbie-doll plastic."Those look like they chafe."Ernie the bartender would catch him tugging at the handcuffs, right where the sharp edge of metal would be digging through his t-shirt and into the skin over his ribs."Yeah," he'd say, "they do a bit." Should've thought of that before you let 'em strap her on. "I wasn't thinking too clearly then.""Hm?" Ernie wouldn't look over at him, but would go on peering into the beer mug he'd just wiped with the bar towel."I blame it on Hallowe'en," he would explain."Hallowe'en, huh?" Ernie would glance at the Hamm's clock over the bar's entrance. "That was over three hours ago." Ernie would lick a thumb and use it to smear out a grease spot inside the mug. "Over and done with, pal.""Couldn't prove it around here." The bar would be all orange-'n'-blacked out with the crap that the beer distributors unloaded every year: cheap cardboard stand-ups of long-legged witches with squeezed cleavage, grinning drunk pumpkins Scotch-taped to the wall over by the men's room, bar coasters with black cats arched like croquet wickets, Day-Glo spiderwebs, dancing articulated skeletons with hollow eyes that would've lit up if the batteries hadn't already run flat by the thirtieth, everything with logos and trademarks and brand names."Why do you let them put all that up, Ernie?""All what up?" The bartender would start on another mug, scraping away a half-moon of lipstick with his thumbnail. "What're you talking about?"He'd give up then. There'd be no point. What difference would it make? He'd shift the dead girl a little higher on his shoulder, balancing her against the tidal pull of the beers he would put away. The combination of low-percentage alcohol with whatever the EMTs would huff him up with, when they scraped him off the road and into their van, would wobble his knees. Hanging onto the edge of the bar, instead of trying to walk, might be the only good idea he'd have that night.And not all the ideas, the weird ones, would be his. There would still be that whole trip the other guys in the bar would come up with, about the reason Superman flies in circles.But everything else--that would still be Hallowe'en's fault. Or what Hallowe'en had become. That was what he had told the motorheads, back when the night had started.No--Cold lips would nuzzle his ear. You've got it all wrong.He'd close his eyes and listen to her whisper.It's what you became. What we became. That's what did it."Yeah ..." He'd whisper to himself, and to her as well, so no one else could hear. "You're right."
"I blame it all on Hallowe'en.""That so?" The motorhead with the buzz cut didn't even look up fromthe skinny little sport bike's exhaust. "What's Hallowe'en got to do with your sorry-ass life?"He hadn't wanted to tell someone else exactly what. He hadn't wanted to tell himself, to step through the precise calculus of regret, even though he already knew the final sum."It's not me, specifically," he lied. "It's what it did to everything else. It's frickin' satanic."That remark drew a worried glance from Buzz Cut. "Uhh ... you're not one of those hyper-Christian types, are you?" He fitted a metric wrench onto a frame bolt. "This isn't going to be some big rant, is it? If it is, I gotta go get another beer.""Don't worry." Something he'd thought about for a long time, and he still couldn't say what it was. Like humping some humongous antique chest of drawers out through a doorway too small for it, and getting it stuck halfway. He could wrestle it around into some different position, with the knobs wedged against the left side of the doorjamb rather than the right, but it would still be stuck there. "It's just ...""Just what?"He tried. "You remember how it was when you were a kid?""Vaguely." Buzz Cut shrugged. "Been a while.""Regardless. But when we were kids, Hallowe'en was, you know, for kids. And the kids got dressed up, like little ghosts and witches and stuff. The adults didn't get all tarted up. They stayed home and handed out the candy.""True. So?""So you've got three hundred and sixty-four other days, including Christmas, to act like a cheap bimbo, or to prove that you're a beer-soaked trashbag. Why screw around with Hallowe'en?""Dude, you have got to stop thinking about stuff like this." Buzz Cut went back to wrenching on the bike. "It's messing up your head."He couldn't stop thinking about it, if pictures counted as thought. Didn't even have to close his eyes to see the raggedy pilgrimage, the snaking lines of pirates and bedsheeted ghosts and fairy princesses, and the kids you felt sorry for because they had those cheap store-bought costumes instead of ones their mothers made for them. All of them trooping with their brown paper grocery bags or dragging old pillowcases, already heavy with sugar loot, from the sidewalk up to the doorbell and back out to the sidewalk and the next house, so many of them right after each other, that it didn't even make sense to close the door, just keep handing out the candy from the big Tupperware bowl on the folding TV tray. And if you were some older kid--too old to do that stuff anymore, practically a sneering teenager already--standing behind your dad and looking past him, out through the front doorand across the chill, velvety-black night streets of suburbia, looking with a strange-crazy clench in your stomach, like you were first realizing how big and fast Time was picking you up and rolling and tumbling you like an ocean wave, head over heels away from the shore of some world from which you were now forever banished--looking out as though your front porch were now miles up in the starry-icy air and you could see all the little kids of Earth winding from door to door, coast to coast, pole to pole, stations of a spinning cross ...No wonder these guys think I'm messed up. He had managed to freak himself, without even trying. Like falling down a hole. He tilted his head back, downing the rest of the beer, as though he could wash away that world on its bitter tide."So how's the nitrous setup working for you?"Blinking, he pulled himself back up into the garage. Around him, the bare, unpainted walls clicked into place, the two-by-four shelves slid across them as though on invisible tracks, the cans of thirty-weight and brake fluid lining up where they had been before.He looked over toward the garage door and saw the other motorhead, the red-haired one, already sauntered in from the house, picking through the butt-ends of a Burger King french fries bag in one hand."The nitrous?" It took him a couple seconds to remember which world that was a part of. At the back of his skull, a line of little ghosts marched away. An even littler door closed, shutting off a lost October moon. "Yeah, the nitrous ..." He shrugged. "Fine. I guess.""You guess," said Buzz Cut. "Jesus Christ, you pussy. We didn't put it on there so you could guess whether it works or not. We put it on so you'd use it. Least once in a while.""Hey, it's okay." They'd both ragged him about it before. "It's enough to know I got it. Right there under my thumb."Which was true. Even back when he and the motorheads had been installing the nitrous oxide kit on the 'Busa, he hadn't been thinking about ever using it. The whole time that the motorheads had been mounting the pressurized gas canister on the right flank of the bike--"Serious can of whup-ass," Buzz Cut had called it--and routing the feeder line to the engine, all 1298 cubic centimeters of it, they'd been chortling about how much fun would ensue."There's that dude with the silver Maserati Quattroporte, you see all the time over around Flamingo and Decatur. Thinks he's bad 'cause his machine can keep up with a liter bike.""Hell." A big sneer creased Red's face. "I've smoked the sonuvabitch plenty of times.""Not by much. That thing can haul ass when it's in tune and he's not too loaded to run it through the gears." Buzz Cut had tapped an ominous finger on the little nitrous can, tink tink tink, like a bomb. "But when this shit kicks in, Mister Hotshot Cager ain't gonna see anything except boosser taillight fading in the distance." He had looked away from the bike and smiled evilly. "Won't that be a gas? For real?"He had supposed so, out loud, just to shut the two of them up. Neither motorhead, Buzz Cut or Red, had a clue about potentialities. How something could be real--realer than real--if it just hung there in a cloud of still could happen. Right now, the only way that he even knew the rig worked was that the motorheads had put the 'Busa on the Piper T & M dynamometer at the back of their garage and cranked it. Stock, they'd gotten a baseline pull of 155 point nine horsepower. Tweaking the nitrous setup with a number 43 jet, they'd wound up at 216 and a half, with more to go. "Now that's serious kick," Buzz Cut had judged with satisfaction.It didn't matter to him, though. He sat in his usual perch on the greasy workbench, where he always sat when he came by the motorhead house, adding empty beer cans to the litter of tools and shop catalogues, and thought about the way their heads worked.They didn't work the way his did. That was the problem, he knew. Nobody's did. Or maybe mine doesn't work at all. He had to admit that was a possibility. There'd been a time when it had--he could remember it. When it hadn't gone wheeling around in diminishing circles, like a bike whose rider had been scraped off in the last corner of the track. Gassing on about Hallowe'en and nitrous oxide buttons that never got punched, and somehow that made it all even realer than the little ghost kids had been--Inside his jacket, his cell phone purred. He could have burst into tears, from sheer relief. He dug the phone out and flipped it open.Edwin calling, from the funeral parlor. He didn't have to answer, to know; he recognized the number that came up on the postage-stamp screen. And he didn't have to answer, to know what Edwin was calling about. Edwin only ever called about one thing. Which was fine by him, since he needed the job and the money."I'll see you guys later." He pocketed the phone and slid down from the workbench. "Much later.""Yeah, maybe." Buzz Cut had finished with his customer's bike, standing back from it and wiping his hands on a shop rag. "Maybe next Hallowe'en."
"So what is the big deal?" Behind Edwin, the grandfather clocks lining the hallway ticked like ratcheting crickets. "You take it from here, you take it tothere. You drop it off. And you get paid." Edwin's manicured hand drew out an eelskin wallet; a finger with a trimmed, glistening nail flicked through the bills inside. "So why are you making it so hard on yourself?"The tall clocks--taller than him, way taller than Edwin--were part of the funeral parlor decor. They had been Edwin's father's clocks, back when the old guy had run the place, and Edwin's grandfather's, who had started it all. Edwin had inherited the family business, right down to the caskets in the display room. You could hear the clocks all over the place, in the flower-choked foyer and past the softly murmuring, endlessly repeating organ music in the viewing rooms. Maybe they reminded the customers in the folding chairs of eternity, or the countdown to when they'd be lying in a similar velvet-lined box. So they had better talk to the funeral director on the way out and make arrangements."I don't know ..." He looked down the hallway. Past Edwin's office was the prep room, where the public didn't go, where it was all stainless steel and fluorescent bright inside, and smelled chemical-funny. Edwin had taken him in there one time, when it had been empty, and shown him around. Including the canvas-strapped electrical hoist mounted on the ceiling, that Edwin's father had installed when his back had gone out from flipping over too much cold dead weight. "This is kinda different ...""What's different?" Edwin's face was all puffy and shiny, as though he hadn't actually swallowed anything he drank--the glass with the melting ice cubes was still in his hand--and now the alcohol was leaking out through his skin. "It's the same as before.""Well ... no, actually." It puzzled him, that he had to explain this. "Before, there was like a van. Your van. And all I had to do was help you load it up, and then drive it over there.""The van's in the shop."That didn't surprise him. Everything about the funeral parlor was falling apart, gradually, including Edwin. Things stopped working, or something else happened to them, and then they were supposedly getting fixed but that never happened, either. Which was the main reason that all the funeral business now went over to the newer place over on the west side of town. With a nice big sweep of manicured lawn and a circular driveway for the mourners' cars, and an overhang jutting out from the glass-walled low building, so the casket could get loaded in the hearse without the flowers getting beaten up on a rainy day. All Edwin got was the occasional cremation, because the oven his father had installed was right there on the premises, in a windowless extension behind the prep room.Or used to get--Edwin had managed to screw that up as well. To keep the money from dwindling away quite so fast, what he'd gotten after his daddied, he'd taken on a contract from the local animal shelter, to take care of the gassed dogs and cats, the ones too ugly or old or mean to get adopted out in ninety days. An easy gig, and reliable--the world never seemed to run out of stiff, dead little corpses--but Edwin hadn't been picky enough about raking out the ashes and the crumbly charred bits from the cooling racks. Edwin had still gotten some human-type jobs, family leftovers from his father and grandfather running the place, and some old widow had opened up the canister that nothing but her husband's remains was supposed to be in, and had found the top half of a blackened kitten skull looking back all hollow-eyed at her. Things like that were bad for business, word-of-mouth-wise. Even the animal shelter had unplugged itself from Edwin, and then the state had revoked the cremation license, and now the oven also wasn't working, or Edwin hadn't paid the gas bill or something like that. Edwin had told him what the deal was, but he hadn't really paid attention."I don't get it." He pointed down the ticking hallway, toward the prep room. "Why do they keep dropping jobs off here, anyway?""Hey." Edwin was sensitive about some things. "This is still an ongoing business, you know. Mortenson's gets booked up sometimes. They're not that big." That was the name of the other place, the nicer one. "So I can take in jobs, get 'em ready, then send 'em over there. Split the fees. Works for them, works for us. This is how you get paid, right?"Barely, he thought. Hard to figure that the other funeral parlor did a fifty-fifty with Edwin, since they would do all the flowers and the setting up of the casket in the viewing room, the hearse and the graveside services, all of that. The actual getting the body into the ground. What would they pay Edwin for providing a slab-tabled waiting room? Not much. So no wonder that the most he got from Edwin, for driving the van back and forth, was a ten-dollar bill or a couple of fives. Only this time, there was no van."Actually," he mused aloud, "you should pay me more for this one. If I were to do it at all. Since I'd be providing the wheels.""How do you figure that?" Impatience lit Edwin's pudgy face even brighter and shinier. "Gas is cheaper for a motorcycle than a van. Even a hopped-up monster like yours."If he hadn't finished off the six-pack, back at the motorheads' place, he might have been able to come up with an argument. It's my gas, he thought. I paid for it. But Edwin had already steered him down the hallway, past the clocks, and right outside the prep room door."Just do it, okay?" Edwin pushed the door open and reached in to fumble for the light switch. "We'll work out the details later."Edwin had another sideline to get by with, dealing cigarettes dipped in formaldehyde, that being something he had gallon jugs of. The customers atthe funeral parlor's back door were all would-be hoody teenagers, slouching and mumbling. Their preferred brands seemed to be Marlboros and those cheesy American Spirits from the 7-Eleven. Edwin fired one up, puffed, then handed it to him. "Just to calm you down."It had the opposite effect, as usual. The chemical smoke clenched his jaw vise-tight, the edges of the contracting world burnt red. He exhaled and followed Edwin inside the prep room."This better not be a bag job." He handed the dip back to Edwin. "Like that one that got hit by the train. That sucked." He'd hated everything about that particular gig, including hosing out the van afterwards."All in one piece." Edwin pulled the sheet off. "Looks like she's sleeping."He looked down at what lay on the table, then shook his head. "You sonuvabitch." His fist was ready to pop Edwin. "This is not right.""For Christ's sake. Now what's the matter?""What's the matter? Are you kidding?" The table's cold stainless-steel edge was right at his hip as he gestured. "I dated her.""How long?"He thought about it. "Four years. Practically."Edwin took another hit, then snuffed the dip between his thumb and forefinger. "Not exactly being married, is it?""We lived together. A little while, at least.""Like I said. Come on, let's not make a big production about this. Let's get her over to Mortenson's, let's get paid, let's get you paid. Done deal."He turned back toward the table. At least she was dressed; that much was a comfort. She had on her usual faded jeans, with a rip across the right knee, and a sweatshirt he remembered buying her, back when they'd been an item. The sweatshirt said UNLV across her breasts. For some reason, she'd had a thing about college basketball, even though they'd never gone to a game. There was a cardboard box full of other Rebels junk, sweats and t-shirts and caps, that she'd left when she moved out of his apartment. Plenty of times, he'd come home drunk and lonely and horny, and he'd pull the box out of the closet, kneel down, and bury his face in its fleecy contents, lifting out the tangled sweatshirts and inhaling the faded, mingled scent of her sweat and Nordstrom's cosmetics counter perfumes, more stuff that he'd bought, usually around Christmastime. He still kept in his wallet the list she'd written out for him, the stuff she wore. Which meant that now, every time he opened it up to pay for a drink, he'd catch a glimpse of the little folded scrap of paper tucked in there, and his equally frayed heart would step hesitantly through its next couple of beats, until the wallet was safely tucked in his back pocket again and he was recovered enough to continue drinking. Which helped. Most of the time.He didn't have to ask how she'd wound up here. She'd had bad habits, mainly the drinking also, back when they'd been hooked up. But he'd heard they had gotten worse after the split-up. He had mixed feelings about that. On one hand, there was a certain satisfaction in knowing that she was as screwed up about him as he was about her. On the other, a certain pang that came with the thought of her heart wheezing to a stop under the load of some cheap street crap.Which was apparently what had happened. He could tell. Whatever prep work Edwin had done, it wasn't enough to hide the blue flush under her jawline. He'd had buddies go that way, and they'd all had that delicate Easter egg color beneath the skin."So you're gonna do it, right? Don't be a schmuck. Think about her. For once. If you don't take her over to Mortenson's, I'll have to dump her in a wheelbarrow and take her over there myself.""Yeah, like that's gonna happen." He knew it wouldn't; Edwin got winded just heading upstairs to get another drink. "This is gonna be double.""Fine. You got me in a jam. Just do it, okay?"It struck him that maybe this was some elaborate joke on Edwin's part. What would the punchline be? Her sitting up on the table, opening her eyes and flashing her old wicked smile at him?I wish. That was something else that wasn't going to happen."Exactly how do you propose I'm gonna get this done?" He knew from previous jobs that she wouldn't be stiff anymore. She didn't even smell stiff. "Maybe I could sling her over the back of the bike and bungee her down. Or maybe across the front fender, like those guys who go out deer hunting with their pickup trucks." He nodded. "Yeah, just strap her right on there. Who'll notice?" The dip load in his brain talked for him. "Maybe we could make a set of antlers for her out of some coat hangers.""Look," said Edwin, "you don't have to get all pissy about this. I'm the one doing you a favor, remember? I thought of you because you're always going on about how you need the money."Which was true. He nodded again, deflated. "All right. So what exactly did you have in mind?"Edwin had already thought it through. He pulled the handcuffs out of his jacket pocket and held them up. "These'll do the trick. We just sit her on the bike behind you, throw her arms around your chest, clip these on her wrists and you're all set. Anybody sees you, just another couple cruising along. Young love.""No way. She never liked to ride bitch." He'd found that out after he'd already pulled the stock seat off the 'Busa and put on a Corbin pillion for her."She always wanted her own scoot. Remember, I was gonna buy her that Sportster? The powder blue one.""Yeah, yeah, yeah." Edwin gave him a wearied look. "It's not as if she's in a position to complain about it, is she?"The guy had a point there.
Took a lot of wrestling--for which Edwin was no frickin' use--but he finally got on the road. With her.He rolled on the throttle, in the dark, kicking it up from fifth to sixth gear as the single lane straightened out. The chill of her bloodless hands, icy as the links of the handcuffs, seeped through his leather jacket and into his heart.He stayed off Boulder Highway and the bigger, brighter main streets, even though it meant racking up extra miles. There was a helmet law in this state, though he'd never heard of the cops enforcing it. Or anything else for that matter--you'd have to shoot the mayor to get pulled over in this town.Still, just his luck, the one time some black 'n' white woke up, to get nailed with a corpse on back of the 'Busa. Cruel bastards to do it, though. He could see, without looking back over his shoulder, how her hair would be streaming in the wind, a tangling flag the color of night. With her pale cheek against his neck, she'd look as though she were dreaming of pure velocity, the destination that rushed just as fast to meet you, always right at the headlight's limit.And if he closed his own eyes, as if he were sharing the same furious pillow of air with her ...Not a good idea. He didn't even see the patch of gravel, dropped on the asphalt by some construction truck. His eyes snapped open when the rear wheel started to skid out from beneath him. He yanked the 'Busa straight from the curve he'd banked into. The bike felt awkward and top-heavy with her weight perched a couple inches higher than his own. He steered into the skid, wrestling the bike back under control, his knee clearing the guardrail as he trod down on the rear brake.That all took about one second. But that was enough to have shifted his cold passenger around on the seat behind him. The handcuffs rode up under his armpit, her face with its closed, sleeping eyes no longer close to his ear but now pushed into the opposite sleeve of his jacket, down below his shoulder. One of the boots that Edwin had worked back onto her ivory, blue-nailed feet had popped loose from the rear peg. Her denim-clad leg trailed behind the bike, the boot's stacked heel skittering on the road. The bodyslewed around even more as he squeezed the front brake tight. By the time he brought the 'Busa to a halt, she was almost perpendicular on the seat behind him, her hair dangerously close to snagging in the wheel's hub."God damn." Edwin and his stupid ideas--this whole job was becoming more of an annoyance than it was worth. He levered the kickstand down and leaned the bike's weight onto it. Her hair swept a circle in the roadside debris. He was annoyed at her as well. If she had still been alive, he would have figured she was doing it on purpose. Drunk and screwing around again. Her weight toppled him over as he swung his own leg off the bike.Now she was underneath him. As though she had brought him down in a wrestling hold--back when they had lived together, he had taught her a couple of moves he remembered from the junior varsity squad. Above him, the stars of the desert sky spun, wobbled, then held in place. If he rolled his eyes back, he could just see her face, somewhere by his ribs. If she had opened her eyes, she could've seen the stars, too.His thin gloves scuffed on the sharp-edged rocks as he rolled onto his hands and knees, pulling her up on top of himself. That much effort winded him. It wasn't that she was so heavy, but every part of her seemed to have cooked up its own escape plan, as though none of her wanted to get dumped off at another funeral parlor. Her legs sprawled on his other side, the boots twisting at the ankles.The handcuffs had been an even dumber idea. Edwin probably got some thrill out of the notion. It would've worked better if they had dug up a roll of duct tape and strapped her tight to his body. This way, she had just enough of a hold on him to be a nuisance. In that, not much had changed from when she had been alive. He rooted around in his jacket pocket for the key; couldn't find it. It must've popped out, somewhere on the ground.He tried standing up, and couldn't make it. He toppled forward and grabbed the bike to keep his balance. The near-vertical angle rolled her weight forward, the handcuffs sliding onto his shoulderblade, her head lolling in front of him. The bike gave way, the kickstand scything through the loose dirt. The hot engine burned through his trouser knee as he fell.The three of them--corpse, motorcycle, and its rider--hit the side of the road hard. He could smell gasoline leaking from the tank's filler cap. The links of the handcuffs gouged the middle of his spine. She was sandwiched between him and the toppled bike, her face upturned toward him, as though waiting for a kiss, one denimed leg wedged into his groin.He pushed himself away from the bike, dragging her up with him. The handcuffs slithered down to the small of his back as he managed to stand upright at last. That brought her face down to his belt level.Well, that's sweet. He stroked her tangled, dusty hair back from her brow.Just like old times. Memory tripped through his head, strong enough to screw him up worse."Come on," he spoke aloud. "Nice and all, but we gotta get going."He reached down, grabbed her above the elbows and lifted. She only came up a few inches before he realized he was pulling up his trousers as well, the frayed denim cuffs sliding above the tops of his own boots."What the--" He looked down. His eyes had adjusted enough to the slivered moonlight, that he could see her hair had snagged in the trousers' zip.It must've happened while he and the corpse had been wrestling on top of the fallen motorcycle. Every stupid, annoying thing was happening tonight. That brought back memories as well.Her cold face was caught so close to him, he couldn't even slide his hands down between her cheek and the front of the trousers. Not without undoing his buckle first; the loose ends of his belt flapped down beside her shoulders. He sucked in his gut and managed--barely--to pinch the zipper's metal tag. "Damn," he muttered. "Come on, you bastard." Half-inch by reluctant half-inch, he worked the zipper open, his knuckles chilled against her brow. Loosened, the trousers slid partway down his hips.The world lit up. Headlight beams raked across him, a car rounding the road's curve. He shielded his eyes from the probing glare. His shadow, and hers, spilled back across the empty landscape.He could see the silhouettes of the people inside. The driver, his wife beside him, a couple of little kids in the backseat, their faces pugnosing against the side windows as they got a better look. He glanced down and saw how perfectly the white, shifting light caught her profile. Or at least the part of it that wasn't shadowed by his open fly.Then the headlight beams swung away from him and down the length of road farther on. The car was right next to him; he could have let go of her arm and rubbed his hand across the car's flank as it sped past. Close enough that the people in the car didn't need the headlights to see what was going on, or think they saw. There was enough moonlight to glisten on the handcuffs' links as the driver looked up to his rearview mirror, the wife and kids gaping through the rear window.My life's complete now. He had been there when some tourist yokels from Idaho or some other numb-nut locale had caught a glimpse of another world, where other stuff happened. Like the tightly rolled-up windows of their rental car had been the inch-thick glass of some darkened aquarium that you could push your nose up hard against and witness sharks copulating with jellyfish, all blurry and wet. It would give them something to talk about when they got back to Boise, especially the bit about the poor ravaged girl being handcuffed around the guy's waist.Two streaks of red pulsed down the asphalt. The car had hit its brakes. Worse; he turned, looked over his shoulder and saw another red light come on, above the car. It flashed and wavered, with blue-white strobes on either side. They weren't tourists from out of state; he saw that now. He watched as a Metro patrol car threw a U-turn, one front wheel crunching across the gravel, then bouncing the suspension as it climbed back onto the road."Shit." The headlights pinned him again. He looked down and saw, as if for the first time, how luminous pale her skin was. They could tell, he thought in dismay. One thing to be spotted getting skulled on the side of the road, even with the handcuffs involved--that was probably happening all over this town at any given moment, not worth the police's attention. But with a corpse--was that a felony or just a misdemeanor? It didn't matter, what with him still being on parole for things he couldn't even remember when he was straight.He lifted harder this time, his hands clamped to her ribcage, hard enough to snap free a lock of her hair and leave it tangled in his zipper. Her arms still encircled him; that actually made it easier to sling her against one hip, his other hand tugging his trousers back in place. The difficult part was getting the bike upright again, but somehow he managed, even as the patrol car's siren wailed closer. Red flashes bounced off the tank and the inside of the windscreen, as he lugged her onto the seat behind him, the cuffs slipping across the front of his jacket once more.The 'Busa coughed to life. As he kicked it down to first and let off the clutch, the cop car slewed a yard in front of him, spattering road grit against the front fender. He yanked the bike hard to the right, bootsole scraping the asphalt, then wrenched it straight again, pouring on the throttle. Something loose--maybe her boot?--clipped the patrol car's taillight as he jammed past.He was already into fourth, redlining the tach, by the time he heard the siren coming up behind him. Fifth, and the yowl faded for a moment, then just as loud again as the driver cop stood on the accelerator pedal. Hitting the nitrous button wouldn't do him any good. The road was too straight; if they had been up in the mountains with some tight twisties to slalom through, he could've left the cops way behind. Out here in the flat desert, though, they could just keep hammering on top of him, long after the nitrous canister was exhausted, until he either gave up or sliced a curve's guardrail too close. The first would leave him on the ground, but alive at least, with a tactical boot on his throat and a two-handed forty-four pointed between his eyes. The second would probably leave two corpses on the ground, one freshly bleeding from the impact.Just as he hit sixth, the 'Busa screaming into triple digits, the siren and the flashing red light jumped in front of him. How'd that happen? He didn't havetime to wonder. A shining white wall reared before him. The 'Busa's headlight painted a big red X in the middle of it. That was all he saw as the brakes grabbed hold, too late to keep the bike from hitting broadside, even as it fell.
"You with us, pal? How many fingers?"He wasn't sure. "Two?""Close enough."He tried to turn over on his side, but couldn't. She was still hooked up to him, arms encircling him on the cot where they lay.The paramedic van was like the inside of his head. Eye-achingly lit up, smelling of chemicals, and filled with mysterious objects that he didn't recognize."You hit us a good one." One of the EMTs had a knotted ponytail. He pointed to a spot near the van's floor. "You can see the dent from in here.""I can pay for it." He pushed himself up on his elbow. "Not right now, but--""Forget that." The other EMT, looking back from the driver's seat, had tattoos and smoke-reddened eyes. The whole van reeked of party atmosphere. "This is not good.""Yeah, yeah, I know." He tugged at the handcuffs but they stayed locked. "Look, just don't hand me over to the cops--""Cops? What cops?" The EMTs glanced at each other, above him. "We didn't see any cops."A small comfort, that he was just screwed up and not pursued. I must've made 'em up. Another good reason for not riding in that kind of condition--all that beer and the hit off the dip that Edwin had given him."I'll just be on my way." The van's interior swam and tilted as he sat up, dragging her with him. "You don't have to report this--""Report it? Are you kidding? This is a frickin' fatality situation.""What?" Then he realized what the tattooed one was talking about. "Uhh ... actually, she was this way before."They weren't listening to him. "I'm not calling it in," said Ponytail. "You call it in.""Screw that. I'm not filling in all that paperwork again. I did the last one we had. Remember? The coronary?""Guys--""Well, we can't just let him walk.""Why not?"They both looked at him, then at each other, then back to him. Ponytail slowly nodded. "Maybe ..."He put his weight on his left foot. The resulting bolt through his spine nearly took the top of his skull off. He collapsed backward, propped up by the dead girl."You're not going anywhere in that condition, pal."He looked down at himself and saw how ripped-up his trousers were. The whole long seam along the left leg had been torn open, the skin beneath bruised and chewed red by a skid over asphalt. God knew what condition the bike was in."I don't care." He gripped the edge of the cot with sweating hands, trying to keep from passing out. "I gotta get out of here. I got a delivery to make.""Her?" Ponytail nodded toward the shackled weight, with the long dark hair and dreaming face."Give him something," said the driver. "Just get him on the road. Long as I don't have to fill out any paperwork, it's cool.""Right--" Ponytail nodded as he fumbled around with the equipment shelved on either side. He spun a valve on a chrome canister, then tethered the plastic mask to his own face. He inhaled deeply, then held it out. "Here, try this."The van expanded and dissolved with the first hit. The blood throb in his battered leg faded, along with any other sensation of having a body. All he could feel was her pulseless hug around his chest. He pushed the mask away. The paramedic van slowly coalesced, now formed of sheets of vaguely transparent gelatin, warping beneath him and yielding to a poke of his finger."Off you go, pal." Ponytail maneuvered him toward the van's open doors, like a parade balloon. "You have a good night. Try and stay out of trouble, okay?"He found himself standing in the middle of an empty road, his wavering legs straddling a long scrape mark gouged out of the pavement. At its end, the 'Busa leaned on its kickstand. The EMTs must have picked it up after he T-boned their van. He wanted to thank them, but they were already gone.He pulled his passenger along with himself, over toward the bike. She seemed weightless as well, the handcuffs the only thing keeping her from floating away into the glittering night sky. The toes of her boots seemed to barely trail across the earth's surface."That was nice of them." He laid his hands on the tank. He could smell gasoline, but the bike didn't seem in too bad of a shape. The left fairing was a total write-off; that must have been the side he laid it down on. The pegs and bits of engine on that flank were scraped gleaming and raw. It could probably be ridden, if he could figure a way of holding on to it without getting blown away by the wind, like roadside scrap paper.Whatever the EMTs had given him, he was still way slammed by it. Thechemical tides in his bloodstream would have to roll out a bit--or a lot--before he'd be able to climb on the 'Busa again. Sleep it off , he told himself. Maybe he could just curl up at the side of the road, wrap her tighter around himself, spooning like old times ... .Better not. A soft voice whispered at his ear. I can't keep you warm anymore. Not like this.That was when he knew exactly how screwed up he was. And not by whatever was still percolating in his brain. That you could get over. The past, you never did.He looked around and spotted, if not refuge, at least a waiting room. One that both of them were familiar with. How had he wound up in this part of town?It didn't matter. He gripped her arms and brought her up higher on his back, her cheek close beside his, and stumbled toward the bar's sputtering neon.
"The problem's not Hallowe'en," said Ernie. "It's you."Don't listen to this guy.He didn't know if the bartender could hear what she said. Maybe the dead spoke only in private whispers. Like lovers. He knocked back the latest beer that had been placed in front of him. "Why is it me?"Like I said. Her voice again. This one was always full of crap."You really want to know why?"He shrugged. "Do I have a choice?""You don't even want one." Ernie wiped his sodden towel across the bar. "Here's the deal. You're blaming the world for what happened to you. That's all backwards."Right now, the world consisted of this bar and its tacky, orange 'n' black decorations, courtesy of the beer distributors. He looked around at the dangling pasteboard junk, then back to Ernie. "I didn't do this." He pointed to the grinning, long-legged witches. "You can't blame me."Yes, he can. You just wait.The bar had emptied. He was the only one left inside, after Ernie the bartender had switched off the outside neon. While he had nursed one of the string of beers, Ernie had started stacking the chairs up on the tables. Then he had come back behind the bar to finish sorting out the world's problems."Just hear me out," said Ernie. "I mean, it's cool that you came here with your iced old lady cuffed to you. That shows some effort on your part.""Hey. We broke up, remember?"Did we?He ignored her whisper. "Long time ago," he told the bartender.Not long enough."Whatever." Ernie seemed not to have heard anything she said. "But that doesn't suffice. You gotta look inside yourself. It's not what Hallowe'en did to you. It's what you did to Hallowe'en."He wished Ernie hadn't said that. Not because the bartender was wrong. But because he knew--standing at the edge of a vast, lightless abyss inside himself, looking down into it--he knew that the bartender might be right. About too much."You can't expect things to stay the same," said Ernie, "and you just get to change all you want. Like there's no connection between the two." Ernie uncapped another beer and set it on the bar. "But there is.""He knows that," said another voice. "But he's got it backward. Like usual with him."He turned and saw, a little farther down the bar, Buzz Cut taking a pull at a half-empty bottle. The other motorhead, the one with the red hair, sat on the next stool over, drinking and nodding slowly in agreement."You should've heard him before," continued Buzz Cut. "With his whole Hallowe'en rap. Boo hoo hoo. It's all so frickin' sad."He had thought the bar had all cleared out. Where'd these guys come from?"Sad, all right." Red set his own bottle down. "Just listening to him.""He's got this whole thing, you see." Buzz Cut tried to explain it to Ernie the bartender. "About how Hallowe'en has changed. It's like really important to him. The poor sad bastard.""Yeah, right. I've heard it." Ernie pointed around at the decorations. "He goes off about all this stuff, too.""Wait a minute." It ticked him off, the way they were talking about him. In the third person, like he wasn't even there. When he wasn't even sure that they were there, or were just drug vapors. "Just because you guys--"Set me as a seal upon your heart.The whole bar went silent. As though they all could hear her now.For a moment, she wasn't draped across his back, her pale hands cuffed in front of his chest. She sat right next to him, leaning forward, those hands wrapped around her own beer. She turned and looked at him, beautiful and unsmiling, her dark hair a veil.As a seal upon your arm, she whispered. For love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. She took a sip, then continued. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame ..."Okay, now I'm totally spooked." He gripped the edge of the bar, forcing it to become real and solid. "Give me a break."She leaned over and kissed him. If all the wealth of our house were offered for love, she said, it would be utterly scorned. When he opened his eyes, she wasn't sitting there anymore. Her hands pressed against his heart once more, her cold arms wrapped around him.Still full of surprises, even dead; he had to give her that. Though not totally a surprise; she'd come up with stuff like that when they'd been together the first time. Pentecostalist childhood, for both of them. He recognized it: Song of Solomon, chapter eight, verses six and seven. There were some hot bits in that Bible book, favorites of hers. Though he couldn't recall her spouting that one before."You gotta go back." Ernie's voice penetrated his meditations. "That's what she's trying to tell you."Maybe they had heard her. He didn't know what that might mean. "Go back where? I already been all over town.""Not where. When. You gotta go back to when you went wrong. The two of you. And then do it right.""He'll never make it." Another voice came from the end of the bar. He looked and saw Edwin down there, stubbing out a cigarette butt in a drained highball glass. "He's too screwed up.""Up yours." The motorheads came to his defense. Buzz Cut nodded along with Red. "He can do it. We gave him all he needs. In this world, at least.""I'm not following this ... .""Pay attention." Ernie leaned over the bar, bringing his face close to his and the dead girl's, as if they were in a football huddle. "I heard you out before. I know where you're coming from. Believe me, I've heard it from other guys like you. You think the world changed out from under you, and that's why things are all wrong." Ernie tapped him on the brow. "But it's the other way around. You changed. You gave up the old faith. You thought you could mess around all you wanted, and the world would still be the way it was, the way it's supposed to be, when you got done. It doesn't work that way.""Listen to the man." Somebody shouted that from one of the tables in the corner of the bar. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the EMTs sitting there, empty bottles soldiered in front of them. And outside the bar--he could sense both the Metro patrol car and the tourist family from Idaho, slowly circling around. Except that he had made them up. So they at least were gone."Is this one of those Twilight Zone bits?" He felt even creepier than before. "You know, like where the guy is dead, only he thinks he's still alive?""You should be so lucky," said Ernie. "Don't change the subject. Don't try to get yourself off the hook. You want the world to be the way it shouldbe? Then you need to go back and be the way you should've been. You and her." Ernie reached out and stroked her dark hair, tenderly. "You should've been different. All this screwing around, and being trashy and wild--yeah, that's fun and I'm happy to help you do it, but it doesn't get the job done.""What job?""Come on. You and her, you were supposed to be the people handing out the candy. To the kids. On Hallowe'en. You were supposed to have a house, with a front door, and the bowlful of candy beside it. That's what you were supposed to do. That was your job. Instead, you screwed around. All of you." Ernie gestured toward the bar's walls. "You think all this crap isn't here for a reason? It's because of you. People like you. Not doing your job. That's how it got here.""Yeah, well, that's real great. Telling me where--or when--I need to go, and all. Only problem is, there's no way of getting there. It's gone.""Strictly a technical problem." Buzz Cut shrugged. "Just need to know how. That's why you have friends like us.""What's the matter?" Edwin had the kind of sneer that revealed a line of yellow teeth. "Didn't you read Superman comics when you were a kid? You weren't one of those Marvel faggots, were you?""What's Superman got to do with it?""Don't you remember?" Buzz Cut regarded him with pity. "Jeez, what a wasted childhood you must've had. No wonder you turned out this way.""When Superman needed to go back," said Ernie, "remember how he did it?""Uh, that was a comic book.""Regardless. Remember how?""He went real fast." A page full of bright yellows and reds and blues surfaced in his memory. "In a circle. Spinning, like.""Going in a circle doesn't cut it. If you think about this." Buzz Cut might have been explaining the difference between Keihin carbs and direct fuel injection. "It's the going fast that does the trick. Obviously. Go fast enough, you can get anywhere. Or when. The spinning around in a circle, that was just so Superman would still be where he started out. Right? Otherwise, he would've gone back, but he would've been out around Neptune. Or Alpha Centauri or some other rat-ass place like that.""Going fast, huh?""That's why people like to do it. Go fast, I mean. Even when they have no place to get to. Even when they're just going around in circles. They know what they're doing. They're trying to get back. And you know what?" Buzz Cut leaned toward him, imparting a secret, but loud enough that everyone in the bar could hear. "Sometimes they do."Some of it made sense, some of it didn't. "Don't you have to go as fast as Superman? To make it work. Super fast?""Hell, no. That was just because Superman had to go back to ancient Egypt, or go fight dinosaurs or something. You don't have that far to go."Red chimed in. "You just have to get back to where you went wrong. And start over. The two of you. That's just not that far back."It's not. Her whisper. Let's go for it."And no circles?""I told you already. Head down, full tuck, and accelerate." Buzz Cut got nods of agreement from the others along the bar. "Strictly straight line.""Kinda hard to tuck down behind the windscreen, with ..." He tilted his head toward hers. "You know ...""Do the best you can," said Buzz Cut. "Do it right, you won't even be outside the city limits. When you make it there."He knew what they were all going on about. "You mean the nitrous.""Well, of course. We put it on there for a reason. Now you know."Go for it.They all watched him. Their gaze weighed heavier on him than she ever had.
They were right. Buzz Cut and the others, Ernie the bartender, even Edwin. They were right."I'm not paying you, though." Edwin had pointed that out. "This is some other deal you got going."Once he got himself and her on the 'Busa again, and started it up, he realized how right they were. He didn't make it to the city limits. Out in empty desert again, sawtooth mountain silhouettes against the night sky--but if he had looked over his shoulder, he would still have been able to see the city's clustered neon, a single blue-white beam bending its trajectory above him.He didn't need to look back. Her face was right next to his, her eyes closed, dreaming into the wind.Straight shot, up into sixth gear, the road a knife's edge in front of them, throttle rolled to the max. Nothing left but the red button on the handlebars, his leathered thumb already resting upon it.Now's the time.Her whisper a kiss at his ear; he turned his cheek closer against the brush of her cold lips. He could barely breathe, she held him so tight. If his heart beat any stronger, it would break the links of the little chain.Come on ...Or maybe the handcuffs had snapped apart already--he couldn't feelthem--and it was her own locked grip binding her to him. The way it had before, her eyes closed, velocity and dreamless. His hand at the center of a small world, trembling with both their pulses, every small motion a new possibility.The button rose to meet his thumb. He pushed as hard as she did.Then he knew why he had waited so long.First to go was the 'Busa's fairing, where it had cracked in the spill before. As the nitrous oxide poured into the engine and ignited, the stars blurred horizontal. A wall of air hit him, almost peeling him off the bike. In the rush that enveloped him, he could see but not hear the crack along the left side widen bigger than his gloved fist. It spidered into a jigsaw cobweb for only an instant, then shattered, the razor fragments swirling around him, then gone in the bike's streaming wake.Pinned, the tach and speedometer were useless now. He couldn't even see them, unable to bring his sight down from the black horizon racing toward him.Do it, she whispered somewhere. Harder.The wind tore his jacket into tatters, stripped it from his chest. Her hands held tight, cupping his heart.The front wheel came up from the road, spun free in hurtling air. The distant mountains tilted as he rolled in her embrace, face full against hers. He let go of the handlebars and pulled her tighter to himself, her knees crushing his hips. Beneath them, the motorcycle broke apart, into fire as meteors do, a matchflame struck against the earth's atmosphere. Fiery bits of metal skittered along the road, white heat dying to red sparks."We're not going back." He turned and kissed her. "We're here already."Lies and stories. There'd never been any going back. That'd all been crap they'd told him, that he'd told himself, to get to this point.The old faith would have to do without them. If the children out at night looked up at the incendiary wound bleeding across the dark, they could take it as a sign.Just before they struck the earth, she opened her eyes and looked into his. The road would strip their flesh away, their entwined bones charring to ash."Fierce." She smiled. "As the grave."Copyright © 2007 by Ellen Datlow