It was raining again.
As usual, he barely noticed. He certainly didnít care. He had stopped caring about things long ago. At least, thatís what he told himself. In actuality, he probably still cared, and therefore was just digging himself in deeper, but he told himself he didnít care about that, either.
He wrapped his coat around himself tighter, trying to find a little warmth, and quickened his pace slightly, hoping that would warm him up some. He doubted it, though. He knew that when one is totally drenched in December rain, the only way to warm up is to go indoors somewhere. And it didnít seem likely that he would find such a place anytime soon; as he looked ahead, there were only trees lining both sides of the road as far as he could see.
For the first time, he noticed that the road had a sort of pinkish tint to it. As far as he knew, asphalt always started out black, but as it aged, it turned a variety of colors. Most roads turned a light gray, but he remembered from various trips heíd taken in the past that some older roads tended to turn more toward pink. Or maybe the older roads just used more pink shale than more recent roads. It didnít matter, really. Just another of the endless useless tidbits of information one accumulates over a lifetime.
He afforded himself another quick glance at the sky. It was a deep gray, the gray of thick clouds that arenít going away anytime soon. Even worse, the gray faded nearly to black near the horizon, and though he didnít have a watch, he figured that meant it was close to dusk. He grimaced. Just what he needed. A temperature drop.
Not that he cared.
He turned his gaze back to the ground, stepping around deeper puddles as though it would have made a bit of difference. With each step he could feel the water inside his shoes around his toes. It almost felt like there was a pool of water in each shoe splashing around with each step. But he figured that was most likely the product of his sometimes overactive imagination.
He blinked suddenly, recognizing the sound of an approaching vehicle. He had heard the sound growing in intensity for some time, but until he recognized it he hadnít been consciously aware of it. He turned toward the source of the sound and immediately shielded his eyes. The oncoming car either had high beams on or else was using halogen headlights; either way, he could barely make out anything other than a vague shape and a brilliant light source.
The car reached him in almost no time and roared by, sending up a spray of water in its wake that enveloped him. The spray didnít catch his face since he had his eyes shielded. Not that it would have made a great deal of difference either way. He was already drenched, after all.
Turning forward once again, he resumed his walk. He set a quick pace for himself, one that he couldnít speed up without crossing the line into jogging. He sniffled, trying to clear his nose, feeling the early stages of what would certainly be a massive cold gripping him. Losing his health on top of everything else would just be the icing on the cake, he told himself with conviction.
That conviction lasted for exactly five more steps, when he realized that the sounds around him had changed. He came to a stop as he realized he could no longer hear the steady and monotonous yet somehow reassuring sound of the raindrops crashing into the pavement and splattering into the mud. That sound was gone, now replaced with more of a gentle clacking sound, the very soft sound of snow falling.
He shook his head. Nightfall was pulling the temperature below freezing. Now he had to find somewhere warm to spend the night, or heíd probably collapse and freeze to death in the mud along the side of the road.
Not that he cared, of course.
It was damn near pitch black out, and the snow was coming down hard. Though he couldnít remember how long it had been dark out, he was sure that it wasnít nearly as long as it felt like.
He was in bad shape; he frequently paused to stomp his feet against the pavement, trying to restore some feeling in his toes, and distantly wondered what frostbite felt like. Also bad—more or less he hadnít decided yet—was the fact that his drenched clothing was literally freezing around him. During one pause he had tried to stretch a little bit, only to hear the soft breaking of ice from his shoulders. A quick check had confirmed that anywhere his clothing wasnít pressed up against him, it was freezing. He had run his fingers through his hair and felt that it was largely frozen as well.
He pressed on, finding that the cold was a little easier to ignore when he stayed in his rhythm, walking ahead with as little extraneous motion as possible. He did have to look up periodically, trying to make out where the road was. The ground was freezing, and he found himself with a choice of walking on the road, which was little more than a thin layer of snow over a sheet of ice, or walking alongside the road, which was little more than a thin layer of ice over mud of the sort that could probably pull ones shoes off.
As he looked ahead again, he slammed to a halt, then blinked, hoping that what he was seeing wasnít his imagination. The image didnít change; it was for real. Far ahead, to the right side of the road, was a light. Forcing himself into a jog, or at least as close as he could manage, he moved toward that light as a drowning man would grab onto a rope. Twice he lost his balance and fell heavily on the ice. Both times he ignored the pain and got back up. He was acting on sheer force of will now, since whatever reserves of raw strength he may have possessed had run dry some time back.
The lights were coming from a bar of some sort. It didnít look like anyplace he would normally have anything to do with, but any port in a storm. He slogged through the unpaved rock and gravel parking lot, between a what he would have considered to be a surprisingly large number of cars given the weather had he been in any condition to notice, and all but dived at the door. Grasping the knob, he turned it, threw himself inside, and slammed the door shut behind him, leaning heavily on it, his eyes closed, shivering violently.
He remained in this position until he realized that the only sounds he heard were coming from a television. Opening his eyes, his suspicions of why were confirmed: every single person in the bar was staring at him. He grimaced inwardly, extremely uncomfortable as the focus of attention, and quickly took in his surroundings. About a dozen people were in the bar, apparently feeling their best option was to get liquored up and then drive home in the snow and ice. Most of them were smoking, and the powerful smell of stale cigarette smoke assailed him. He wrinkled his nose slightly, but knew heíd adjust in a little while. He spotted a relatively deserted corner near the back of the bar and started toward it, wincing at what struck him as the incredibly loud sound of his shoes sloshing with each step.
As he reached the table, he noticed to his pleasant surprise that it was right next to a heater. He shrugged off his still partly frozen jacket and draped it over the back of a chair, then sat down. The other bar patrons conversed in low tones, and he knew they were talking about him. Even if it hadnít been obvious enough anyway, he saw them all casting quick glances way when they thought he wasnít looking. Every time he made eye contact, their gaze would instantly shoot back to their drinks. He scowled, not thrilled with the attention but certain that he didnít care about it, and turned his attention back to getting warm.
After a moment of thought, he kicked off his shoes and shifted in his seat so his feet were near the heater. The heat it threw had a metallic scent to it which would have bothered him under other circumstances, but he figured beggars couldnít be choosers. He flexed his toes as feeling slowly returned to them and wondered if it would be considered bad form to wring out his socks on the floor. He found he had to fight the nearly overpowering urge to fall asleep. Knowing that he didnít want to fall asleep here, he shifted around, hoping to find a tolerably uncomfortable position in which he could keep awake. He wasnít really sure if it was possible for anyone shivering as violently as he was to fall asleep, but he did know that he had no interest in finding out.
He sat there for a good long while, not worrying about anything other than getting warm. It took some time, but his shivering became less intense, and eventually subsided entirely. He smiled despite himself, feeling warm, and content, and safe somehow, so much so that even the lingering cigarette odor didnít bother him. He leaned back, stretched his arms over his head, and closed his eyes. Instantly they started burning, and he became aware of how tired he was. He rubbed his eyes, a bit harder than necessary, and considered resting his head on the tabletop. It wouldnít hurt anyone. Yes, a little bit of sleep seemed like a wonderful idea.
The scraping sound of a chair being pulled out nearby brought him back to his immediate surroundings with a jolt. He blinked, his eyes adjusting to the light after being closed for so long, and saw a woman sit down across from him. She sat a pitcher of beer and two mugs on the table and looked at him with a rather neutral expression. He tried to keep his expression equally neutral, hoping that his confusion wouldnít show, and glanced over her shoulder toward the bartender. He and the two men just across from him were all staring toward the table, but quickly averted their gazes the instant he made eye contact.
He looked back at the woman across from him. To his eye, she wasnít overly attractive or remarkable, though he was struck by her hair color, which seemed to be an unusual shade somewhere between blond and red that he couldnít recall having seen before. He glanced at the mugs, then the pitcher, then her again. She sat there, still silent.
Several moments passed before he decided to break the ice. He offered a polite "Yes?" and was relieved that his voice had come out okay; he had been concerned that with the cold he was coming down with, his voice would have been raspy or something.
The woman indicated the beer. "Care for a belt?"
He cocked his head slightly. "Doesnít Ďbeltí usually refer to drinks a fair deal stronger than beer?"
She shrugged. "No rush," she said simply, then looked at his expectantly. Mentally shrugging, he nodded. She filled the mugs with beer and slid one over to him. He took a sip, and even as he realized just how bitter it was, he found himself chugging it. He was a great deal thirstier than he had realized, and didnít pause for breath until he had drunk down just over half of the mugís contents.
He noticed that, unlike him, she nursed her drink slowly. "So," she said, taking a sip of her beer, "got a name?"
He considered briefly, then decided there was no need to play this straight. "Yes, I do. Why are you interested in it?"
She leaned forward conspiratorially, narrowing her eyes slightly. "Iím going to let you in on an open secret here," she said in hushed tones.
"Are you," he said flatly.
"Sure am. You want to know why Iím interested in your name, so Iíll tell you. Iím interested for the same reason that everyone else in this bar is interested. Can you figure out the rest, or do you need me to draw you a picture?"
"That wonít be necessary," he said quickly, grimacing slightly. He paused, thought for a moment, drew a name out of the air. "Iím Jim. And you?"
"Sue," she said, and took another sip. He raised his mug to do the same, then realized that somewhere along the line he had finished it off. He glanced at the pitcher, and she obligingly slid it toward him until it was within his reach. He grabbed it without a word, refilled his mug, and drank deeply.
"Ahhhhh," he exhaled happily. "That hits the spot." He sat his mug down, but didnít let go of it. "So, Sue, you typically take an interest in people who get caught out in the snow, or just me?"
She looked at him quizzically, one corner of her mouth rising slightly. "Is that sarcasm?"
"Not really," he responded quickly, honestly not knowing one way or the other.
"Fair enough," she said, and gave him a look that made him suspect she knew quite well that he didnít. "Iíd have to say that normally I wouldnít care what condition the people who stagger through the front door are in. But you..." She hesitated, trying to articulate, but came up with only, "Youíre different, somehow."
"ĎDifferent,í" he echoed.
"Yes. Tell me, are you unlucky or stupid?"
He coughed, a mouthful of beer spilling back into his mug. "Excuse me?" he managed.
"To end up in the condition you were in when you came through the door," she explained obligingly, "you must have been out there for hours, and while thereís patches of nothing around here, itís not desolate by any stretch of the imagination. So either some bad circumstance befell you and left you stranded somehow, or else you knowingly went out in this weather. So tell me, are you unlucky or stupid?"
He considered his answer, then dourly muttered, "Iím no dummy."
She gave him a quirky half-smile. "I didnít ask if you were a dummy."
"No," he conceded. "I guess you didnít." He held up his mug and waved it in her general direction as though proposing a silent toast of congratulations to her, then took a drink from it.
She watched him for a moment, then said, "Well?"
Realizing she wasnít going to let go until she got some sort of answer, he finally told her, "Letís just say that Iím a hard luck case and leave it at that."
Sueís mouth opened as though she was going to press the matter, but then she looked him straight in the eyes, and apparently though better of it, because all she said was, "Fair enough."
She held her mug and stared into it, swirling it slightly. He did the same, watching the way the light reflected off the beerís surface for a while. Then he glanced back at Sue, and she looked despondent enough that he couldnít help but feel a little guilty. She had been nice enough to come over and strike up a conversation with him, after all. Sheíd bought him a drink and taken an interest in him, and he wasnít exactly offering much in return.
Taking a deep, frustrated breath, he decided to say something else, ignoring the tiny voice deep inside him that insisted that he owed her nothing and shouldnít bother trying to explain. "Sue," he said, searching blindly for the right words. She looked up at him. He continued slowly, uncertainly. "I, um, I have certain... issues, for want of a better term, that Iím not dealing with very well, and I donít like to tell people about them. Because it makes me sound like a whiner, and because people generally donít care anyway. And because... I donít like to think about them. I donít mean to brush you off, but I donít really feel that I should burden you with them." He trailed off, not certain if what he had said came off as an explanation or an excuse.
She looked at him, not at all unsympathetically. "If I felt it would be a burden, I wouldnít have asked."
He looked back at her, and for the first time, he truly saw her. He looked into her eyes, and just for an instant he got the impression that hidden behind those eyes was a lifetime of pain that she did her best to bury inside her. A sadness fell over him, and he couldnít help but wonder if she was seeing the same thing in his eyes. Most likely, he figured.
"Ah, what the hell," he muttered. She was willing to listen, after all, and besides, it would be nice to be able to open up to someone for a change. So he reached for the pitcher again, refilled his mug, and told her everything.
They talked for quite some time, though neither of them could say for sure just how long. They did know that they had finished two pitchers and had put a significant dent into a third before either of them realized that it was getting late.
"Well," Sue said, standing up and stretching, trying to restore circulation after having sat in one position for so long. "Ready to go, Jim?"
He looked at her, confused. "ĎGoí?" he echoed blankly.
"Home? You mean with you?"
She rolled her eyes. "No, I figured you would go home with the bartender, fall in love, move to Hoboken, have 2.4 kids, and live happily ever after. Of course with me!"
He looked at her uncomprehendingly. "But..." he managed to get out.
She folded her arms across her chest. "Well, Iíll tell you what. If you want to go back out into the snowstorm while youíre still dripping wet, go right ahead. Youíd probably freeze to death in an hour, but itís your life, right?"
This gave him pause. He had to admit that she had a valid point. Though he had acclimated over the course of several hours, he was still rather wet from the rain, and the moment he thought about it consciously he became quite uncomfortable again. And heíd have to be an idiot to want to go back out in the storm in his current condition.
He looked up at her, his decision made, and felt a goofball smile starting. He licked his lips and tried to prevent the smile, but couldnít help himself. Giving up the fight, he said, "Well, Sue, youíve talked me into it." He coughed and tried to stand up, only to find his legs didnít want to support his weight. He leaned forward, put both hands on the table for support, and forced himself into an upright position. A triumphant smile flashed across his face. He let go of the table, took a single step, and pitched forward. If not for Sueís quick reflexes, he would have pitched solidly to the floor.
"Not used to drinking this much, I take it?"
"Hey," he said, poking a finger at her. "Iíll have you know that I drink all the time." He paused, then amended, "Occasionally."
Sue smirked. "Grab your jacket and your shoes and whatever else you took off during your initial strip tease. Weíre leaving." She gently pushed him into an upright position; he promptly flopped heavily back into his chair. She sighed, but he quickly grabbed his jacket and his shoes and stood up again, maintaining his balance on his own, though not without visible difficulty. Water dripped from his shoes.
"Ready," he said, then giggled.
She wrapped an arm around him, partly because he wouldnít know where she was heading, and partly to keep him from falling over. Together they walked through the bar. He was totally oblivious of the attention of the other bar patrons this time.
She pushed open the door and stepped out into the snow. He took one step and let out a loud yelp as he stepped into a puddle of slush. He tried to step back into the bar, but she held onto him. "The car will be warmer," she assured him, gently leading him into the parking lot.
They quickly reached her car. Sue unlocked the passenger side door and opened it, allowing him to crawl inside. After making sure he was safely inside, she closed the door, then walked to the driverís side, unlocked the door, and sat in the driverís seat. She started the car and turned the heat up to high, then grabbed an ice scraper from the back seat. "Be right back," she said, then stepped outside again.
He put his hands up to the vent, then cursed softly. The engine wasnít warm yet, and as a result the heater was blowing cold air. He closed his eyes, welcoming the darkness after the harsh lighting of the bar, and rested his head against the dashboard.
He didnít remember anything after that.
It was warm.
Warm and dark.
Quite comfortable, actually. He took a deep breath and exhaled happily, feeling for all the world like he had found some small piece of paradise that he wasnít at all willing to let go of. Curling deeper under the covers, he rolled over slowly, and bumped into someone.
He froze. That wasnít at all what he was expecting, and suddenly he found himself desperately trying to remember what had just happened to him. A moment ago how heíd ended up here was the farthest thing from his mind, but now it had become his top priority. He remembered the weather—God, the weather, how could he ever forget that weather?—a bar, a woman...
He froze again, realization striking him, then turned toward the person next to him. As he had figured, it was Sue. She looked as content as he had felt a moment earlier. She stirred slightly in her sleep, wrapped an arm around him and pulled close, then settled back into sleep.
He blinked a few times, trying to wake himself up, and looked around, trying to make out his surroundings in the relative darkness. From what he could see, he was in a typical bedroom. A small table with a lamp on each side of the bed, a door that opened to a hallway, a closed door that probably led to a closet, a dresser against the far wall, and a window through which a faint light flickered. He stared at the window for several moments, lost in thought. He remembered the parking lot. Up until that his memory was fairly clear. They had been walking toward her car, and after that... after that...
He gave up trying to remember. After all, it was pretty obvious what had happened after that.
Looking toward the floor on his side of the bed, he saw a housecoat crumpled on the floor. Hoping not to wake Sue, he carefully slid out from under her arm and reached for the housecoat. He shivered at the blast of cold air that hit him the instant he raised the covers. He paused and stifled a groan; the moment he started to get up, his head started pounding. It was uncomfortable, but he quickly stood up and pulled on the housecoat, trying not to wake up Sue. A moment passed and she didnít make a sound, so, figuring she was still asleep, he left the bedroom.
Emerging into the kitchen, he made a beeline for the refrigerator and opened it up, looking for something to drink. He saw a bottle of Coke, but quickly decided against it; he liked caffeine a bit too much, and couldnít afford to become dependent. His gaze shifted to a carton of orange juice on the bottom shelf. He grabbed it and set it on the kitchen table, then looked for a glass. There were a bunch of dirty glasses, plates, and silverware in the sink, but the drainer was empty save for a large dirty pot with spaghetti sauce dried on the side. He hoped there would be a glass in one of the cabinets. They opened silently, a fact for which he was grateful. The second cabinet he opened held three small plastic cups; he selected one at random and returned to the table with it, filling it with juice and drinking it slowly.
The table was cluttered with all sorts of stuff. Newspapers, mostly. Other stuff, too, the sort of stuff that accumulates because it doesnít really belong anywhere. Coins. Various papers. Folded laundry. Very familiar folded—
He reached across the table and picked it up. Sure enough, it was his clothing, clean, dry, and neatly folded. He wracked his memory but couldnít remember anything about that. His imagination could put together a highly plausible scenario, of course. When he and Sue had arrived here, he must have still been soaking wet, so she gave him the housecoat and had his clothes washed and dried that night. Made perfect sense. And on top of his shirt were several dried dollar bills and a couple of coins, the sum total of his money in the world. He placed the clothing back down on the table, not yet ready to decide one way or the other about getting dressed.
Several minutes passed before the pounding in his head subsided to the point that he felt well enough to continue looking around. He entered the living room, and was immediately drawn to a desk with a few framed photos on it. Wandering over to them, he picked them up one at a time to look at them. Most of them were fairly unremarkable. Sue, several years younger. A childrenís fort built in a tree. A beautiful orange and purple sunset. Sue with...
He did a double take. The boy in the photo with Sue was no older than eight years old, but even that young, he bore a strong resemblance to Sue. Judging by Sueís appearance in the picture, it couldnít have been more than two or three years old. That would mean that the kid would be, what, ten years old now? Eleven? Certainly young enough that if he was really Sueís child, he would still be living with her. But there was only the one bedroom in this apartment—he was certain it was an apartment, or at least rental property—and there was no sign of a child anywhere.
He thought back to the previous nightís conversation, but for the life of him he couldnít recall Sue saying a single word about children. The child might not have been Sueís, of course. He could have been a cousin, or just a family friend who bore a resemblance through nothing other than coincidence. But somehow, that image of Sue and a child smiling happily together, a piece of her life that didnít fit anywhere into his mental picture of her life, saddened him more deeply than he could say, for reasons he couldnít even begin to fathom.
Putting the picture back down, he moved over to the only chair in the room, across from the television set, and sat down, for once actually having the time to sit in one place and become introspective. Thinking things through was a luxury he rarely had time for, a fact for which he was often grateful, but at the moment he had, and very much needed, the time.
He wondered how long he could keep this up. The way he was living had been tough enough before, but now that winter had come it was going to border on impossible. The last few hours had proven that. He didnít know where he would be if he hadnít had the good fortune to meet Sue, but trying to think about that made his skin crawl; he was sure that whatever the answer, he wouldnít like it. He probably owed Sue his life. He didnít really like that, either, but it was a difficult reality to deny.
And Sue seemed happy enough with him. Maybe she was just a sucker for hard luck cases, but it seemed unlikely that that would be relevant, even if it was true. It was more likely that she had spent the night talking with him because she saw something of herself in him. He knew that at the very least he saw a lot of himself in her.
Those eyes... Even now he could see them as clearly as if he was still in the bar. He recalled a saying about eyes being the window to the soul. Sueís eyes, and what showed through them, haunted him. Her eyes betrayed a lifetime of experiences that he figured were somewhere on par with his, since they were frighteningly similar to the eyes he saw whenever he looked into the mirror. He cared for Sue, and didnít like the thought that she had been through anything like he had.
He didnít like the thought that anyone should have to be like him.
She hadnít been like that for long, though, he realized. The picture on the desk showed a much happier Sue, one who was still happy with life. Some of the pieces fell into place then. Thatís why he was saddened by the photo. Somewhere between then and now, Sue had lost that spark that children have but few carry into adulthood, the joie de vivre that makes life more than merely existing from one day into the next. Carrying that spark into adulthood was a rare thing, a wonderful thing, a gift that few people possessed. But then having that spark snuffed out... That was equally as tragic. He wondered how that had happened to her, what might have become of the child in the photo, and found the answers he was able to come up with too sad to dwell on any longer.
Abruptly he stood up, feeling that a slight shift of scenery would lead his thoughts in directions he was more comfortable with. He moved through the living room toward the kitchen, then hesitated as something on the small table right by the front door caught his eye. Wandering over, he picked up Sueís wallet and keys. He hesitated, then opened the wallet. It contained four twenties, a five, and a bunch of ones—he didnít bother counting them. He slipped out three of the twenties and just stared at them for a moment, thinking. If he was going to take the money from her, he might as well take it all, because it was unlikely that sheíd think any more of him if he only took part of it.
Oh, stop it, he told himself. It wasnít "taking." No matter what euphemism he chose, nothing would change the fact that it was stealing. He looked at the bills in his hand, sighed, put them back in the wallet, and immediately felt much better about himself.
He walked back to the bedroom and paused in the doorway, watching Sue as she slept, her breathing soft and steady. He felt a tremendous urge to walk over, crawl into the bed, and kiss her softly on the cheek, but he didnít want to wake her up. He just wanted to... to watch for a while, to take a mental snapshot, because for this one small moment in time, he felt happy, an emotion that had become increasingly alien to him.
He could probably stay, he realized. He didnít recall Sue saying much about her life during their talks, so he couldnít be sure, but he suspected that they were more similar than different. They could spend time together, get to know each other, help each other through what theyíd been through. She understood him, more than he would have thought possible. And he had told her a lot more about himself than he had ever believed he could tell anyone. There was a connection between them. Even though they had both been drunk, a condition that made it hard to judge, he was positive that there was a connection, some sort of chemistry he would be lucky to find again, anywhere.
But that a lot to expect from a single nightís talk. He had far too few memories that he looked on as positively as he knew heíd be able to look back on this one, and he didnít want to screw that up. If he stayed, and things went poorly...
Not that that was any legitimate reason not to try.
He gazed at Sue, and gave her a bittersweet smile in the darkness. Slowly, softly, he crossed the bedroom, coming to a stop on his side of the bed. He closed his eyes briefly, then made his decision and gave Sue a soft kiss in her sleep.
The snow was up to his shins, at least a foot high. He pulled his jacket tightly around him and shivered as he continued to walk into the strong, gusty wind. He was already freezing, and heíd been outside for barely a minute. He took one last look back at the building he had just left, where Sue lived, feeling sad and guilty. Taking a deep breath, he swallowed, turned, and continued on his way. It was just getting light out, and there was a chance it would warm to a more tolerable temperature before too long.
He meditatively fingered the eighty dollars in his pocket and hoped Sue wouldnít think too badly of him when she found out. He suspected she would, but he hoped nonetheless, because he found he cared a great deal what she thought of him. He figured he could buy a bus ticket and head south for a while. Eighty dollars wouldnít get him real far, but it would get him away from here. Heíd been heading west for a long time, but winter was striking hard, and he found that the direction heíd been heading in was colder than he could bear.