By L.E. Swainsleigh
Click here to send comments
Click here if you'd like to exchange critiques
Heighleigh’s interlude began with an overture, a melody I remember as
if it were just played, although it graced me more than two years ago.
It was played on a spinet owning a voice typical of a saloon piano, over which soared the rusty wind chime song of the girl herself. It was an almost obscene sound, belonging to someone far older than fifteen.
The overture was punctuated by the sounds of the Rattlesnake Pub. Laughter, harsh words, clinking glasses; and beset by the pungent airborne miasma of cigarette smoke.
The piano was in desperate need of regulation, the atmosphere was abrasive, and the audience was unreceptive except for the occasional lewd comment. The child on the corner stage remained unshaken.
She stood as a shadow of a girl, blue dress clinging to skin, skin clinging to bone. The only accessory she wore was the blizzard of freckles that consumed her. Her hands were pale and clammy.
Those water wrinkled hands held power, though. She had an undeniable spark to her, in her eyes, her voice, even the aggressive manner in which she moved.
I had come to Louisiana out of want, not necessity. It was somewhere
I hadn’t been, and when my Uncle Nick asked me to join him on his trip,
my curiosity answered for me.
Nick, my father’s brother, is my favorite uncle. Everyone has one, although some people have more than one to choose from. I don’t, as far as I know. My mother never mentioned a brother, though she never mentioned much.
Nick is an honest man, sometimes to a fault. He has a very innocent way of placing too much trust in people. I suppose people like Nick are put here to balance the demeanor of the rest of the world. My father calls him a humanity martyr. Nick also has a particular affinity for a good time. Unfortunately, he often takes this trait too far as well. He can easily be branded a heavy drinker, although to say that of him seems to paint him a shade or two darker than I would like.
Regardless, it’s true. This was the reason I found my grotesquely underage self in the Rattlesnake Pub that evening.
It was a leisure trip for Nick as well, although he made dead sure not to let this on to my father.
According to their conversation over dinner, it was another business trip. Nick worked for myriad musicians, dotted all over the United States and a couple of other countries. He traveled a great deal to meet with his plethora of clients, probably more often than was necessary. He had that Kincaid issue wanderlust, just like me, the relentless call to travel that had brought my father and his brother to the States from England to begin with.
Through the magic of Nick’s persuasiveness and my father’s understated lenience, the ever-protective Noah allowed his wild younger brother to steal his first born away to the Deep South for two weeks. We were in search of something new, and also for one of Nick’s oldest and dearest friends, a man named Jackson.
I was reasonably sure that Jackson was his last name, although I’d never heard him referred to as anything else. He was a whale of a man, with gold rings on all of his fingers and a cigar jutting out from the corner of his smirking mouth. His brown skin wore spots of age; his head was bald and shiny with the relentless southern scorch.
Jackson lived on the very edge of the city, in an apartment that was not nearly large enough to suit him. His bulk, his piano, and his thunderous words and laughter were all in constant competition for elbowroom.
He was a Jazz pianist by trade, and when Nick told him of my own ardent piano playing endeavors, he released a booming arpeggio of laughter and sat me down on the piano bench right then and there.
I usually play classical. I always play classical, at least when I’m at home. That’s what my father does, so it seems to make sense. Regardless, Jackson and I played all night to the metronome of my uncle’s chuckle. I was exhausted from the trip, but our colossal host exuded energy almost as prolifically as he did perspiration, so I didn’t stay tired for long.
We must have looked a sight, little insignificant me; sixteen years old, five feet tall, little more than a hundred pounds soaking wet; dwarfed by Jackson’s massive shadow. I was certain that, should Jackson lift his feet from the floor, I would be launched through the ceiling and into the apartment above.
I slept through the next day on Jackson’s tiny couch, waking up just in time for the evening’s activities. We would most likely play again that night. Jackson was expecting company. According to Nick, Jackson’s definition of company was picking up every known musician, regardless of hang-up or disposition, within a ten-mile radius of his apartment and a couple bottles of whisky.
Another night submerged in the splendid cacophony of Jackson’s companionship was guaranteed, but not before Nick had himself a drink.
Which brings us, inevitably, to the Rattlesnake Pub. There I sat staring at that delicate girl as she sang the blues as easy and soft as water, to an audience that wasn’t listening.
It happened that I knew an audience that would. However, it was a sad truth that in my socially sheltered shyness, I would never have the backbone to approach her. I mourned the loss of her potential presence, but let her slip away. I would allow the smoke its moment of glory in peace, instead of fumbling to clasp it. She put on her coat, undisturbed, sheathing her bony bird shoulders within. I watched her step out, feet landing as lightly as her hand did on the door, as she conducted her soundless movement through time.
Then the regret poured over me like oil, as I knew it would. It stuck in my pores with the “should haves” and “what ifs” that are always so adhesive. I must dislodge myself from this self-loathing sliminess, I thought, and turned my attentions to a more poisonous distraction: a cigarette. Smoking was allowed in the pub, of course, but for my uncle to see me smoke would be devastating for family relations. I stepped outside, hoping that the fresh air would also do my looming condition well.
I leaned my back against the frame of the front door, musing silently the ease of escaping the eye of my drunken chaperone. I watched the night, indulging my eyes in the welcome distraction of something new. The night was remarkably still, the kind of night where sounds and light and movement are all magnified as if in a black box stage. I could probably attribute this to the complete lack of moon, and the undeniable abundance of stars. It was not my reality, not the same sky that hangs over my beloved desert.
I produced a cigarette from my jacket pocket and started the leisurely search for a lighter. An orange flicker caught my eye, just barely in my periphery, sparking from the other side of the doorway. I watched the falling star before me, the sporadic sparkling like a dying firefly. It was neither, of course. This was the sad dance of a defunct lighter.
My fingers glanced off the cold brass corners of my Zippo, and I brought it out from hiding. Being the helpful sort, I turned and stepped toward the disembodied embers, as their human catalyst was concealed completely from view by the dark. I snapped open the cover of my lighter and flicked the wheel, illuminating the area directly before me. The yellow light washed over the face of the stranded smoker, a moon shaped and magnificently freckled face so familiar that it made me startle.
She eyed me quizzically, fairly enough, for her relaxed pose and unassuming personage were unworthy of my reaction. Her skeletal hand held the cigarette upraised, her lips slightly parted to receive it. It was still unlit, and she leaned to the flame slightly, drawing her eyes down from my face to concentrate on the task at hand. I pulled the flame away from her, and spoke.
“You shouldn’t be smoking. Not with a voice like that.” An all too familiar case of my mouth taking action without the permission of my brain. She allowed me a sideways smile.
“How do you think I got a voice like this?” she rasped lightly.
“Fair enough.” I lit her cigarette, then my own.
“You’re not from here,” she subtly accused. “You have an accent.” She herself possessed a certain length of vowel and softness of consonant that tagged her as a local. I kept my observations to myself.
“Do I?” I asked, bemused. “I’ve spoken no more than a dozen words to you.” Her eyes panned over my face, and I wondered what she was looking for.
“Well I can tell.”
She assured me this, punctuating her statement with a dignified haul from the glowing Camel. The way she spoke was in broad contrast with the attitude I had expected. On that stage, she was aggressive. She protected herself, quite visibly, from the dangers of the pub and its denizens. Out in the theatre of the night, she played a different part. She was nonchalant, the gravel in her voice giving it all the casual qualities of a cat’s contented purr. Perhaps this demeanor was that of the actress, not of a separate role. I doubted this, though, for I’ve learned that people are far removed from their truth in the situation of a first meeting, always trying to portray one impression or another.
Still, she was far from defenseless. Although I was clearly no threat to her, her eyes stayed sharp, their icy blue like shards of glass. There was a shadow encircling the pallor of her eyes, a ring of sullen cobalt that lent to them a certain depth.
She took in another deep drag, flipping a stringy section of spun copper out of her eyes. I noticed that her cigarette was halfway spent, which engaged in me a state of near panic. Soon her obligation to converse with me would be over, and she would go her way, and I mine. My chance would be again wasted.
“I thought the singing waitress was a dying breed,” I commented, after the silence made the weight of her eyes more intense than I could handle.
“I’m not a waitress,” she corrected me. “I’m a dishwasher.” Her nose wrinkled up slightly at the recognition of her place in the foodservice pecking order. She shrugged her coat closer around her, covering any slice of visible blue from the fabric of her flimsy dress. “Girl’s got to make a living, sure as hell don’t pay me to sing,” she added begrudgingly, justifying her less than glamorous lifestyle.
“They should,” I said honestly.
“Oh hell no, not at that dive. Musicians only get paid at Maggie’s and places like that,” she said, words spoken over a low chuckle, her feet scuffling beneath her in the dirt.
“Then why don’t you work at Maggie’s?” I asked, thinking I was undoubtedly prying, but I figured as long as she kept answering me, I was doing all right.
She openly laughed at my sentiment, letting the rumble of her voice idle a little higher than before.
“I’m not nearly good enough. Big local names play over there, like Eddie Cook and Gun Jackson and them.” A twinge of thought twisted through me, a notion I couldn’t quite place.
“Who’s Gun Jackson?” I inquired, remembering the missing first name of my musical cohort from the night before.
“Huge black guy, smells like a cheap cigar… plays the piano like you’ve never heard,” she answered me, intoning the word “never” with a certain stretch that added ultimate emphasis. Click, click, ding. Funny how things work out. I smiled to her then, her emphatic manner endearing.
“That good, huh?” I asked, although it was completely rhetorical.
“Oh you wouldn’t believe it.” She answered anyway, the word “believe” taking on that same sparkling tone. “I go to see him play every Saturday night.”
“Yeah? Ever play with him?”
She snorted softly at that, flicking the remains of her cigarette into the parking lot.
“Would you like to?”
She eyed me as I leaned there, one shoulder to the wall. I couldn’t quite pin the look she gave me, although I think it was somewhere between curiosity and judgment.
“Are you kidding? Of course I would… just never had the nerve,” she said, as if this lack of audacity was regarded as a personal fault. I paused for a moment then, perhaps for emphasis. Her cigarette was gone, but the conversation seemed to hold her there for just a moment longer. I spoke humbly to her, looking to her feet as they continued their shuffling dance like red sneaker-clad bumblebees.
“Well I… my uncle and I… we’re staying over at Jackson’s place for a little while, if you’d want to stop over sometime.” I didn’t look to her face, not just yet. I reprimanded myself for stuttering so inarticulately, wondering why I’m always confident until the moment I need to be. As I stared at the ground, I also wondered why she was wearing worn out red sneakers with a little blue dress. “Actually, there’s going to be a few people over there tonight, if you’d like to join us. I mean, if you’re not busy.” Her feet had stopped shuffling. I ventured a glance in the direction of her face.
She blinked at me, wide eyed, as if I had suddenly started speaking Swahili. She did something odd then. Her feet lifted and she quite literally hopped, in the manner of a giddy little girl, which she ultimately was. I watched her face for the confirmation of her answer, and while she left unused the grin I would have expected, her eyes sparkled absolutely.
“I suppose I should retrieve my uncle before he destroys something.” Hardly had I finished my sentence when the speckled bird had descended upon me, grabbing my wrist with a sharp white claw and dragging me inside. She surveyed the area from the doorway for a moment, keen eyes piercing the tobacco smog, waiting for me to lead the way.
I walked to my uncle, who still sat at the same table, several empty glasses standing like trophies before him. I kept the songbird close in tow, pulling her along by her hand, which was still mercilessly fastened to my wrist.
Nick looked up at us, eyes slow and hazy with drink. He examined the girl standing in my shadow. I don’t know what kind of look she was giving him over my shoulder, but whatever it was made him tremble with the slightest degree of laughter.
“And who’s this?” he asked slowly, accentuating the words a little too suggestively. “Takin’ her home, Fletcher?” Nick teased, his adopted American accent slipping from his intoxicated grasp. He had reverted accidentally into a slurred version of his default Liverpool.
“I don’t know her name… and, well, yes. She’s a musician,” I informed him. I could barely see the fervent nodding of the girl’s agreement behind me, but the fragile one still didn’t offer her name. Nick nodded sagely.
“Very well then.” He apparently approved of my talent scouting. He averted his eyes from me, letting them slide over to my silent company. “Is that all right with your parents, kid?” Nick inquired of her, trying his drunken best to sound responsible. He was always awkward in dealing with children, having none of his own.
“They’re away. It’s fine,” She uttered, the campfire crackle of her voice barely burning through the late night din of the pub. She held fast to my wrist, and I could feel my fingertips starting to tingle with constricted circulation.
With an affirmative nod, Nick rose from the table, placing his palms firmly against it for a moment to steady himself, and ambled to the bar to pay his tab. I looked to my captor, whose crystalline eyes were staring at me with shameless intent. It could have made me nervous, but the grimy state of her sneakers and the way the gauzy hem of her dress escaped her long jacket was disarming.
“So what’s your name, anyway?” I managed simply.
“Heighleigh McCullough,” she answered in a crunchy monotone, carefully maintaining her steady gaze. “And you’re Fletcher, apparently,” She deduced. I nodded, deciding it only fair for me to elaborate, since she had.
“Fletcher North.” Now we were even.
“Good name,” Heighleigh noted with a slight tilt of her head, her stare softening a little. “Sounds famous.” Her peculiar observations were spoken as if they were ordinary, perhaps they were to her. I couldn’t help but laugh, being caught off guard.
“For the record, I’m not.” I replied.
“Maybe you will be.” One tiny shoulder hitched up in an awkward shrug. The tall shadow of my uncle appeared behind Heighleigh, hands stuffed into his jacket pockets, shoulders high and square.
“You kids ready to go or what?” he said, giving me a look I couldn’t quite decipher. He seemed to have recovered his false American accent and affixed it again over the vocal traces of England.
We left the pub, sealing the smoky light and dull clamor behind us with the closing of the door. We were immediately washed over by the cool damp air of the nighttime swamp. I imagined that’s what it would feel like to reach the surface of the sea after being submerged. To finally breathe without choking, to feel the rush of moving air instead of stagnancy. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been to the sea.
It was a relatively brief walk back to Jackson’s apartment. The streets were rough and narrow, the ground soft. The air weighed down warm and damp upon us like a wet wool blanket. I reveled in the strangeness of it, remembering all the walks I’d taken around the desert. I always made some kind of discovery, even while traveling those same few miles over and over again. If I had been alone, I’m sure I would have found myself escaping into the woods on some quest or another. For the fact that I was not alone, I was content in simply experiencing the foreign air.
Heighleigh shuffled along in her ragged red shoes, saying very little. Sometimes I caught her humming. Now and again she would defiantly kick a defenseless pebble from her path. Nick lagged slightly behind.
Beginning the climb up the four flights of stairs to Jackson’s apartment, Heighleigh grappled the sleeve of my jacket. Thinking this was meant to call my attention, I turned and regarded her with a subtle hmm? She said nothing, and I resumed the grueling ascension, a small fist clinging to my sleeve for most of the journey. I wondered how Jackson made it up that steep stairwell day after day, our host not exactly the spryest of individuals. I thought he might float up on his own laughter.
By the second flight, we started to hear the stampeding hooves of twenty or so soused musicians as they kept time. By the third flight, their music was seeping down through the drafty ceiling and raining down on us like the mist in the night outside.
At the top of the stairs, I pushed the door in, leaning into the room. I promptly leaned back out, or more accurately was pushed by the brute strength of sound waves. It felt almost necessary to put my arm to my face like a wanderer in a storm.
As I made myself visible to the room, the familiar boom of Jackson’s voice soared over all the raucous goings-on.
“Well if it ain’t!” he announced, placing emphatic pauses between each word, and then adding an ellipsis of laughter. “Come on in, now, we’ve gone and started without you.” He waved me over to the piano with a round brown hand. Stepping forward, I must have revealed the nightingale that stood on the small landing just outside the door. I figured this from the infectious smirk that swept the face of every man in the room.
“And who is the little lady?” Jackson spoke for the stunned masses. I stepped in further, leading Heighleigh into the room. I tugged the cuff I hadn’t noticed she had a hold of again.
“This is Heighleigh McCullough. She sings over at the Rattlesnake,” I watched her timidly step into the room and raise one tiny hand. She wriggled her fingers in a nervous wave. Nick brushed past me and perched on the arm of the couch. He gave a low whistle and shook his head.
“Bringin’ girls home from the bar…” he started, only to be intercepted by Jackson’s throaty chortle.
“Certainly don’t take after you.” Jackson teased jovially, letting his lithe hands ring out a few little chords to decorate his words. “Bring the little lady on over!” Jackson called over the tremolo of laughter that had ensued after his last comment.
Heighleigh paused in the middle of the room to shrug off her coat, hanging it over the back of one of the many folding chairs that filled the tiny apartment. She seemed to slide more than walk across the well-trafficked floor, her movements as sleek and languid as water on glass.
In the light of all that attention, she was made magnificent. Her exposed bones didn’t appear so jagged; her worn sneakers became ruby slippers. The sway and ripple of her dress around her knees could have been that of the finest Chinese silk. This reverie already, and she hadn’t sung a note.
Heighleigh stood at Jackson’s left elbow, and I sat on the other side to watch, making sure I could see both Jackson’s hands and Heighleigh’s face from my vantage point.
“Start on in if you know this one, honey.” Jackson said to her, cigar pinching in his teeth as he flashed her a smile. He began, his large dark hands like dancing bears on the keys. His gold rings clicking against one another as he played, forming a minute percussion section.
I suppose she was familiar with it, for eight bars after he started, Jackson’s meaty hands paused and hovered over the keys, and her voice creaked to life like the opening of a beautiful door on old hinges.
Others started in, a few among the men holding guitars, bass guitars, fiddles, harmonicas, and myriad percussive objects. I was mesmerized, but only until someone put a guitar in my hands. I had little choice but to unglue myself from the wall where I had quickly become a dazed flower.
The sky changed from cobalt to navy to black, and had shifted back to a golden blue by the time I found myself curled in the corner of Jackson’s little couch. I was awakened by a pinpoint of early sunlight or late streetlight; I couldn’t decide which, stabbing annoyingly at the corner of my eye.
I wasn’t alone on the couch. I was startlingly aware of the presence of a foot on the back of my knee. Glancing over my shoulder, half to assuage the assault of light on my eyes and half out of curiosity, I saw the arc of Heighleigh’s pronounced spine piercing her blue dress like a metal ladder.
There was only one large indent on the two-person couch, for it was more like an armchair to Jackson. Hence, we were both inescapably sliding toward the middle. She still sighed the slow breaths of sleep, and lest I wake her, I opted not to move.
I settled in, one arm guarding my eyes from the violent light, and began discovering all the mundane nuances of the light fixture directly above me.
The normalcy of it must have hypnotized me, because I fell back to sleep as soon as the sun had passed the window from which it had been spying on me. When I woke the second time, Heighleigh was awake, sitting on the piano bench with a blueberry muffin in one luminescent fist. She picked at it with the other hand, quite absorbed in her task.
“Good morning Heighleigh,” I attempted, although most of it came out in the form of a yawn.
“It’s afternoon. Your uncle brought food,” she replied quietly, never taking her eyes from her merciless destruction and pursuant consumption of the baked good.
“Oh… right. I’m not hungry,” I mumbled and rolled over to bury my face in the back of the couch.
“You’re lazy,” she announced. I turned back over to face her. Heighleigh’s feet were bare, swinging lightly over the floor. They were white, but appeared blue in places with the blatancy of her veins. Her ankles were so awkwardly bony; they appeared the crude articulation points of a porcelain doll.
“I’m on holiday. It’s allowed,” I defended myself, smiling weakly with sleep. Heighleigh began the delicate procedure of peeling the paper baking cup off of the bottom of her breakfast.
“That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go do things during the day,” she protested, folding the ridged paper in half and in half again with a surgeon’s precision.
“I suppose not,” I allowed, sitting up slightly to lean on the arm of the couch. “Although I don’t know what I’d do.” Heighleigh removed her attention from the muffin for just a moment to give me a disgusted look.
“There are plenty of things to do, Fletcher. You’re just lazy.” She rolled the folded paper up and tossed it at me. It struck me with infinitesimal force in the shoulder. “That and you don’t know your way around,” Heighleigh added with a smart shrug. I removed the crumby projectile from my shirt.
“You do.” I launched it back at her, missing completely. She snickered at me and tossed her coppery hair, although the wispy tendrils replaced themselves immediately in her face.
“Yep,” Heighleigh asserted, standing up from the piano bench and putting the last little chunk of blueberry muffin in her mouth. She strode swiftly over to the couch and presented a tiny hand, the other rested on her hip in wait. I looked at the frail speckled hand before me.
“Where are we going?” I timidly asked.
“Out.” Heighleigh articulated crisply.
“Now?” I shied away, seeing how early the sun was sitting still. She glared, and I moved briskly to my feet. “Okay, okay… at least let me brush my teeth.”
With only as much as a “we’re leaving” delivered over my shoulder to my uncle’s guest room door, we were free. It was not the typical city tour. Heighleigh dragged me to every odd corner that she knew, showing me all manners of the unusual. The city was an eclectic palimpsest, layers upon layers of tarnished glory apparent.
I don’t know how long we wandered the streets of New Orleans, but the sun seemed particularly magnetized toward the horizon as the day sped into evening unnoticed. Heighleigh’s pace was dizzying. Her whirlwind explanations made me drunk with confusion. By the end of it, as we clambered up the four flights to Jackson’s apartment, a disjointed array of images were trying to sort themselves out in my mind. It was a kaleidoscope of wrought iron balconies, murky brown river water, townhouses, Jackson Square mystics, artists, wet streets, and tenebrous alleyways. All of the pictures were askew and overlapping, like someone had thrown the slides from a projector onto the floor. Still she spoke to me, stories pouring from her as if she’d saved them her whole life, waiting for someone to ask her what she knew.
I looked to Heighleigh as I pushed open the door. She had taken a breath in her expedient monologue, and I interjected.
“So where do you live in all that?” I asked nonchalantly. A hush befell my manic comrade. Lupine eyes watched me from beneath the ever-present red-blonde veil.
“Oh… I don’t live in the city,” she answered cryptically and slipped past me into the apartment, leaving me on the landing with my curiosity. I followed her in after a moment, deciding it would be best to check my questions at the door. If there was one thing I had figured out about Heighleigh, it was that sometimes you just have to give up.
The room was dark, empty aside from the far-strewn remnants of the previous night. There was a note on the end table. Heighleigh picked it up carefully between one talon finger and her thumb and regarded it with the discerning and calculating eye of an investigator handling vital evidence.
“What’s it say?” I inquired, starting over to her.
“You tell me,” she said dismissively, flicking her wrist to sharply issue me the piece of paper.
“Fletcher and Heighleigh,” I began to narrate. “Jackson is playing at Maggie’s. Meet us over there or hang out until we get back. Food in the fridge. Don’t touch the beer. Nick.” I nodded to the paper, skimming again over my uncle’s crudely truncated sentence structures. “And I think he spelled your name wrong…” I added this afterthought as I examined Nick’s careless handwriting.
“I don’t care. No one can spell it,” Heighleigh said with a shrug.
“Well, except you.” I said quietly, perching on the edge of the couch so as not to fall into Jackson’s man-made crater. I watched her discreetly from behind the paper’s flimsy curtain.
“I’m getting some food,” Heighleigh announced flatly. “Want anything?” I folded the note in half and placed it back on the table.
“I’m not hungry.”
“Well at least come in and sit with me.” She huffed, turning and disappearing into the modest kitchen.
Halfway through a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I decided to pry.
“So how do you spell it?” I asked meekly. She stared at me over the crust.
“Why do you care?” Heighleigh answered with a question. I hate that.
“I don’t know. It’s just an unusual name,” I said, feigning disinterest. She took another bite. I considered this to be another evasion tactic.
I was right, for she continued to stare at me blankly as she finished her sandwich, not speaking another word. When Heighleigh had finished, she rose quietly from her seat, pushing her chair back over the worn linoleum. She placed her plate, complete with neatly discarded crusts, beside the sink. Pivoting, she retrieved a pencil from a jar on the counter, and leaned over the table, addressing her unused square of paper towel as if it was extremely important.
Heighleigh bit her lip and put the pencil’s tip to the lumpy paper. She wrote in large, slow letters, the penmanship of a child. The characters stood in a crooked row, leaning against one another. She dotted her is aggressively, dropped the pencil on the table, and stared at the ten struggling letters.
“That’s how you spell it,” Heighleigh said, satisfied, and walked out.
As I had expected, her name was spelled with two sets of ei and two occurrences of the gh combination. I would have to doubt, however, that she could have told me that. She had written from memory, and I was close to positive that it was one of the few things she was able to write. I pocketed the mundane papyrus. I don’t know why.
I found her occupying the lowest point of the couch’s central groove. She was smoking, pale slender cigarette held by a hand of the same description. I could tell by her defensive placement that she didn’t want any company aside from her cigarette’s noxious exhaust. I sat at the piano. By the way she kept her eyes from me, I deduced that she didn’t desire conversation either. I began to play.
Heighleigh continued her ignoring game, and I played along, not even casting a glance over my shoulder to see if she was still there. Even when she perched daintily beside me on the piano bench, I didn’t look, not even when she began playing little improvisations along with the phrases of my long-since-memorized Haydn. She started another game then, watching my hands and listening to the progressions, then predicting the next chords, creating her own tinkling rendition on the very highest keys. I played this game with her as well, deviating gradually from the score in my head and trying to slip her up. She proved harder to trick than I thought.
Eventually, though, I caught her anticipating before she should have, which resulted in a disharmonious crash that was impossible to ignore.
A dagger-sharp elbow landed stingingly in my ribs, the squirm that resulted almost causing me to fall off the bench altogether. I laughed through clenched teeth. Heighleigh had underestimated the lethal qualities of her elbows; the attack was more painful than she intended. I didn’t let on that her assault would probably leave a mighty bruise, and instead ventured a glance her way. I hoped I wouldn’t be met by one of her icier glares, and was relieved to find her laughing as well. We didn’t make it to Maggie’s that night.
Throughout the fortnight of my stay, Heighleigh never left. Several
times I was tempted to ask her exactly for how long her parents were
away, but for fear of her merciless silent treatment or other
unpredictable emotional paroxysms, I left well enough alone.
We spent our nights in the circumambience of Jackson’s continuing musical soiree, and our days wandering unescorted through the city. Our conversation strayed as we did to any number of strange topics. Heighleigh never seemed fazed, only waxed more madly theoretical. I kept waiting for her to point out her neighborhood, her old grade school, places of any childhood familiarity. She didn’t, but told me instead the stories of haunted houses we would pass, and about why the dead of New Orleans rest forever in aboveground tombs.
“So bodies don’t go floating down the streets if there’s a flood,” Heighleigh had explained, her eyes twinkling with the vigor of macabre fascination.
A small red backpack had appeared one morning at the foot of the couch. As it was sitting open, I could see that it was full of tiny Heighleigh sized clothing and a few packs of cigarettes. She must have slipped out once while the house slept and brought it back from wherever it was she lived.
While her status in the household had undeniably shifted from visitor to houseguest, her eyes still bore the smoky veil of shyness around Nick and most of the other musicians that would come and go. Around Jackson, however, she was obviously comfortable. The more sparkling of her demeanors would shimmer into effect in his presence, as he continually made affectionate reference to her as the “little lady.”
On the fourteenth morning, I couldn’t find her. I didn’t wake to her feet crowding mine on the undersized and hammock-shaped sofa. I didn’t find her raiding the fridge in her worn flannel pajamas, nor was I greeted by groggy early-morning humming.
The backpack of doll clothes had vanished as mysteriously as it had appeared, and no note rang on the old upright piano.
Nick stepped in; newspaper, coffee, and cigarette adorning his visage, just as I was about to start overturning chairs and couch cushions in my search. I looked to him, my silent and obvious query reaching him like a dark smoke signal against clear skies.
“Fletcher, the police picked her up when we went to get coffee this morning. They took her home.” Nick said, the gentle qualities of his accent lost to a gruff tone of disapproval. “Her mother has been looking for her this whole time.” My jaw hit the floor with enough force to incur bruising.
“She… lied?” I asked no one. All answers I could have sought were now stunningly clear.
“Yes, Fletcher. She lied to all of us.” Nick released a highly pressurized sigh, and I could hear in it the pain of his trust betrayed once again. “I had to convince the cops that we weren’t harboring her deliberately. Luckily she does this kind of thing pretty often, or we’d be in some serious shit.” Nick seldom swears. I took a step back, nearly tripping over the piano bench.
“You didn’t wake me up?” I asked, offended.
“No need. I took care of everything. Don’t worry about it.” Nick said shortly. “Get dressed. We’ve got a plane to catch,” he stated in terse installments of speech, exiting into his room to pack as my mind continued to spin.
No need? No need to wake me up to say goodbye? Don’t worry about it? Oh, consider me worried, Nick. This is me worrying about it… worrying about her. Heighleigh had escaped me. Ultimately, it wasn’t her prerogative, but she was gone nevertheless. Out the window she went, the songbird I had sought so desperately to catch.
The flight was a silent one. I held a book, a defensive ruse to fend off prospective conversation. I stared at the same page for the duration; my unwelcome companions a heart full of loss, a mind full of why.
The next movement had no resolve. It was our unfinished waltz, and we played it in a minor key.
In the early spring, two months or so prior to my eighteenth birthday, I was to visit Louisiana again and stay with Jackson. This time, the duration of my stay was not preordained. I was to live in Jackson’s endless hospitality until I had earned, scrounged, and scraped together the means to pay for a flight home to Arizona.
I caught a ride south from a friend of Mary’s. Mary, in her stern and stoic brand of kindness, had arranged this convenience for me. It was a free ride in a warm car, all the way from Massachusetts to Louisiana, for which I was extremely grateful.
The driver was on her way to Mardi Gras, a little late for prime festivities, but still flocking toward chaos with reckless haste. I never intended to put myself in the thick of such a festival in my voyage home, but it happened that convenience smiled on me in a particularly raucous way. I was destined to endure it.
My chauffer was a girl in her twenties with tiny braids in her hair and too many mismatched earrings. I think her name was Alex. I don’t really remember, I’m terrible with names, and I never wrote it down. I’ve found it to be remarkably true, at least in my own case, that memory is often served best in print, for print never changes without consent.
She hardly spoke to me, using her precious breath instead to chirp along with the radio, painted fingernails tapping the edge of the steering wheel. The only conversation I can remember indulging in with this colorful stranger was brief.
“Goin’ for the party, huh?” She intoned obtusely over the rattle of the half-blown speakers.
“No,” I said. “Just visiting friends.” I had considered a more dramatic explanation, delving into the very innermost workings of my scheming brain, and elaborating the nature of my travel. I could have told her about the death, the long-lost girl, and the ailing brother in a faraway hospital, which would have been surprisingly more accurate. I abandoned this diatribe, writing it off as a waste of breath, and settled for:
“Merely a step in a greater journey.” She shut right up. Good enough that she found me stuffy, perhaps even odd, for I found her uninteresting and relatively thick. We tacitly decided to leave one another alone.
I remember little of the trip, the long crawl down one black flank of the east coast’s back, its ever-present Jersey barrier spine speeding by. I recall New York, the smell of it like a slice of moldy bread smoking a cigar, the city twinkling with Christmas-light fervor. I had always disliked New York. It was busy and obtrusive, like Victorian floral upholstery. I recall the cars braiding themselves before me into a red taillight tapestry, lain out on the Jersey turnpike. We sped under overpasses in the rain, causing the pounding above us to halt for a fleeting second in their shelter. Taillights flew beneath them, swift as embers, streaming around and out of sight, up the charred flue of I-95.
Our words were terse and spoken only out of necessity, and long durations of time would pass in silence. Most times the quiet would be so enduring, I would forget what was last said and who said it.
I arrived during a parade. My luck. Traffic was grueling, but we
eventually overcame it. I had Miss Personality drop me off on Jackson’s
side of town. I thanked her over-courteously and shut the door.
Then I was alone, no company aside from a gradually increasing ache in my shoulders from the weight of my backpack. Most of the weight could be blamed on my scrapbook, and I cursed it. I walked the streets; or rather let myself float in the current like a jellyfish in the waves of people. I tried to dust off the images in my head of this place, making comparisons between the soggy shambles of before and the festivity around me.
Regardless of all the make-up and jewelry the city had donned, she still had the same face.
A flicker of copper through the corner of my eye caught my attention, a spattering of freckles, the skeleton dance of a waiflike white figure in the very edge of my vision. A couple of times I thought I saw her. I never realized before how many dainty Irish girls there are in the world. Each girl, each flimsy specter of distraction would prove an ersatz on closer inspection, none so fragile and magnificently sharp as she.
The wild tide of partygoers had ebbed a little as I kept walking, and I felt myself getting close. I must have been heading to the edge of the city. I found Jackson’s building at last, following a familiar courtyard fence that was ringed around the top with razor wire. It could have almost been another decoration.
In the door I went, seeking solace from the pandemonium outside. I climbed the four flights of stairs on autopilot, but this time alone. I raised a hand to knock.
Jackson hauled open the door with a flourish I hadn’t known possible for a man of his build. His eyes shone, his cigar still pinched in the corner of his mouth. For all I know, it could have been the same one.
This was Jackson, without a doubt, but in a different shell. He, like all the residents of this alternate reality of a city, had caught the quickly spreading virus of celebration. Jackson was decked out in a great sparkling suit, encrusted with a million blue and gold sequins. He held a golden cane, and a glittering top hat perched on his shiny head.
“Got a gig tonight, Jackson?” I said through an eruption of laughter, surprise cutting easily into me. Thunder boomed, indicating Jackson's amusement.
“Oh yes. Big one. Pretty sharp, yes?” He chuckled, swinging his cane.
“Real sharp.” I said, walking into the living room. The apartment was just as I had left it, as if time had frozen and the space had lain inert for two years.
“You should come on down, I’m heading over real soon. Shouldn’t be hard to find the boys and me, we’s hard to miss!” He spread his arms, clicking the heels of his shiny shoes against the floorboards.
“I might just sleep for a while, to tell you the truth. Long trip.” I declined, sitting down on the same old couch.
“Oh that’s fine, that’s just fine.” Jackson said, waving a thick brown hand at me. “Hope’s you can sleep through all this noise, now!” He turned to go, but just before shuffling out the door, he pivoted nimbly again to face me.
“You got a gig too, Fletcher. I took the liberty, figured I’d let you know. Tomorrow you start.” He informed me. “I assumes you’re still playing?” I blinked, not prepared for this additional courtesy.
“A paying gig? Where?” I asked, wide eyed.
“Over Maggie’s. Where’s I’ve got connections.” He said, flicked the brim of his twinkling top hat, and skillfully fit himself through the doorway.
My stomach hurt. I’d never played for money before. The little sofa felt huge with my being alone on it. I curled up, noticing I still only occupied one cushion, even though I was now a staggering five foot two.
I eventually fell asleep, and night segued into afternoon surprisingly without incident. I reveled in my mighty laziness as it overcame the clamor of the party outside.
As my eyes were still adjusting to the light of day, I considered a trip over to the Rattlesnake, just to look around. I doubted she’d be there. I didn’t even know if she was still in New Orleans, for that matter. I bullied myself into thinking that there would be no point in going.
Jackson interrupted my bantering thoughts, emerging from the kitchen.
“Come on, now, Fletcher. Can’t be late now, time to get goin’.” He said in his resonant voice.
“Yeah? What time is it?” I asked, rubbing at my eye.
“Almost show time, now go have yourself some breakfast.” Jackson said, animated words urging me to move.
“I generally don’t eat breakfast.” I said quietly.
“Then have you a cup of coffee before you go.” He insisted.
“Can’t have caffeine, but thanks… I’ll be ready. How much time do I have?”
“Less’n two hours.” He informed me, looking at his wrist, which wore no watch. “The walk takes half an hour, and that’s without all this goin’s on.”
The walk to Maggie’s was a gauntlet of overexcited tourists, but I
skillfully wove myself through their meshing elbows. I made it there in
less than a half hour.
Upon my arrival, I examined the large room from the doorway. There were already performers on stage. They were leisurely tuning instruments, adjusting equipment, and carrying on a casual conversation at once. They seemed in no hurry, for they obviously couldn’t start yet. The piano bench to the side of the stage was vacant.
I recognized a few of them, although they were dressed with more extravagance than they had been before. I studied them, their relaxed attitude, the big white grins they all wore like shining accessories to their attire. These were friends of Jackson’s, of course. Not only that, these were his colleagues. His band. My endlessly hospitable friend had not merely found me a gig; he’d handed over one of his. I reminded myself to thank him later. For the time being, I had some enormous shoes to fill.
As I walked to the stage, I should have felt out of place. I didn’t, as eyes around me refrained from the expected sideways looks.
As for the show, I’ve never had to think on my feet so much in my life. Neither have I had other musicians talking to me while we’re playing. It was very different from the strictly aligned sense of musicianship I’m used to, but luckily I’m adaptable. As we finished the set, I was wracked with curiosity, wondering how I stacked up to my jovial predecessor. No one in the band told me, but based on their unspoken responses, I think I did all right.
While the stage was being emptied of its equipment and guitars were being laid back down in their velvet-lined coffins, someone leaned over my shoulder and insisted I go out drinking with the band. I accepted, although I don’t really drink.
We stayed out for a long time, the effects of time itself lost as the whole city refused to go to sleep. This kind of camaraderie was alien to me. The like is seldom, if ever, found in the classical music scene to which I was accustomed. It was a welcome change.
I arrived back at my temporary residence happy, exhausted, a little drunk, and a little more financially secure than I’d been when I’d left it. I fell asleep with my boots on.
I played at Maggie’s the next two nights, nestling into a comfortable
routine. Were it not for my brother waiting in a distant hospital, I
would have been tempted to stay. During the rare interim times when I
was awake but not occupied with playing, I would stroll around the city
alone, a kind of half-hearted search for Heighleigh. I knew I wouldn’t
find her out there in the middle of Mardi Gras, and I was equally
certain that my adventures through the city, carnival or not, just
weren’t much fun without her.
Saturday night I got to Maggie’s early. A chill rain had disrupted that afternoon’s lonely meanderings, and being a cold-loathing desert creature, I sought shelter.
Few people were there, and I took it upon myself to monopolize an entire table. I slumped my backpack into one chair, slung my jacket over the back of another, and finally perched in the third. I considered putting my feet up on the chair my coat occupied, but I thought that might be a little too flippant. Instead, I hooked the toe of my boot into the rungs of my backpack’s chair, pulled it closer, and retrieved my scrapbook from within the aged green depths.
I traced the compass on the cover with my finger, for no reason aside from it seemed the thing to do. I opened it to the book of the living, luckily the thicker section, but not by much. I flipped through at my leisure, hand moving over and over the thick black pages. It stopped involuntarily, fingers pausing over an unfinished sketch of Heighleigh’s sleeping face. My hand snuck back into my backpack, seeking out a pencil, and creeping up upon the still countenance as if her graphite-lined eyelids would flutter open at the movement. I started filling in the empty spaces, sections that hadn’t yet been shaded, trying to remember her face without reference.
I retraced the delicate seashell of her ear, and then became so caught up with the placement of each of the thousand freckles; I hardly noticed the band members trickling into Maggie’s one and two at a time. It took the jarring discordance of amplifier feedback to shake me from my transfixion.
Over went the cover of the book, over it went quickly to protect my drawing from the prying eyes of the crowd. I tucked it away in my backpack and cleared out, shifting gears from introverted artist to, well, introverted musician. My backpack found itself shoved under the piano bench again for protection, covered by my jacket.
I cracked my knuckles. I usually don’t. I was nervous, and although the crowd was thicker than it had been the last two nights, there was no real reason for this unease. I paid it little heed, and began the show.
I didn’t see her until the middle of the set. I almost missed my entrance.
There she was, sitting far in the back, playing with the chimney of the tiny kerosene lamp in the middle of her table. She looked just the same, angular frame stretched with pale freckled canvas, painted in lavender linen. Her copper hair was longer now, still unkempt. It concealed her face from my view. I wished she’d put it behind her ear. I wanted to see if she’d changed, though I hoped she hadn’t.
I pulled my eyes back to stare at the wooden filigree detail on the front of the piano, then to my hands as they continued, remarkably, without fault. I had to get through the show; afterward I would talk to her. I kept my gaze from straying. I couldn’t, however, keep myself from thinking of what in hell I was going to say to her, and why she was even here. The latter only took a slight jogging of my memory before I realized that it was Saturday night at Maggie’s. She still came here every Saturday night; it seemed, to see Jackson play.
Four hundred years later, or what seemed like it, the last chords were struck, the last applause was sounded, and I was free. I looked over at her table and saw she was still there. I let out a breath I hadn’t meant to hold.
As I was deliberating over my approach, the gods of awkward situations smiled upon me. Heighleigh rose, straightening her bird legs, and composedly strode over to the stage. She hadn’t changed at all; her bones still pressed against her skin as if to escape, and her face hardly betrayed that time had passed at all.
As she stepped up onto the stage, though, and I stood to meet her, I noticed that she was taller than me by a noticeable margin. I chalked that into the ‘life isn’t fair’ category.
“Why are you sad, Fletcher?” Heighleigh said, standing less than a meter from me now. Her wolf eyes held no shock, no surprise, as if I’d never left.
“I’m not sad.” I said in truth.
“You look sad.” Heighleigh noted, pausing a moment to look me over.
She saw me not as I saw her. Heighleigh had been preserved; she remained young and distant from the rest of the world, still the indifference of a child. She didn’t see the same Fletcher as I had been before. She saw me as I am now; prematurely aged, travel worn and battle scarred. My eyes were tired, and a gray streak had already invaded a space behind my right ear that had formerly been blond.
“You came back.” I only nodded to this. “Why?”
“It’s a very long story, Heighleigh.” I told her calm crystal eyes.
“Well you’ll tell it to me, then. I like your stories.” She grinned and swung her spindly arms around me, capturing me like prey in the arms of a spider for a moment before mercifully releasing me.
“I guess I could, if you want me to.” I said, watching her. I had to look up very slightly to do so. “But I’m not here for very long. Just until I have airfare.” I said, not only to her, but also to remind myself that I couldn’t stay any longer than necessary, for any reason. Her eyelids fell a little, a lash-fringed awning over the bright windows of her eyes.
“Oh.” She said; crackling vowel buried in the breathiness of a sigh. “Where are you going?”
“Why?” She interrupted me, as if my answer was wrong.
“Like I said, Heighleigh. It’s a long story.” I employed the same excuse, and she still didn’t accept it.
“The story you’re going to tell me?” She folded her arms over her chest defiantly. It was such a familiar stance for her to take on, weight rocked to one hip, head tilted. I smiled accidentally.
“Yes, Heighleigh. The story I’m going to tell you.”
We walked along the river, far enough up the bank that the sodden
ground couldn’t swallow our feet. The rain had stopped, but the sky was
still starless and somber. Over our shoulders the city continued to
coruscate, counterfeit light taking the place of the absent stars.
“So?” Heighleigh intoned expectantly.
“What?” I asked.
“The story, Fletcher. You were going to tell me the story.” She said impatiently, knocking her little fist into my shoulder for emphasis. I sighed. She rolled her eyes.
“I don’t even know where to start, Heighleigh.” She dropped it for the time being, but I knew her persistence wasn’t that easy to vanquish. “Besides that, Heighleigh, shouldn’t you be getting home?” I ventured meekly.
“Oh please.” She said, shaking her head.
“What? It’s late.” I said.
“I’m allowed to be out late, Fletcher. I’m not a little kid anymore.” Heighleigh said defiantly.
“When are you supposed to be home?” I asked, although I knew I shouldn’t. My intuition was verified as an ice-cold glare landed on me as crisply as a slap. “I’m just trying to prevent police involvement, Heighleigh. You can’t blame me for being paranoid.” I said, calm. She stared at me for a solid minute.
“I don’t want to go home.” Heighleigh articulated, eyes remaining perfectly cold.
“You’re going to have to eventually, Heighleigh.” I said, disarmed for the most part by her conviction.
“I know.” She said, lowering her voice and walking a little closer to the river. “You can walk me home later. There’s too many goddamned people in this city.” She paused, kicking at a root with her sneaker. Then she looked up again, as if something had caught her eye. Something was apparently me, that’s where she was staring.
“You have a tattoo.” She accused.
“I have three.” I amended.
“What’s that one for?” She pointed at my forearm, the inside of which wore the only tattoo that was currently visible. It was a tattered crow feather, in black ink.
“My mom. She died last year.” I held my arm up slightly to examine the artwork. “My brother has the same one.”
I was immersed in a flood of recollection.
I was walking out with my mother to feed the horses, as I often did. We each carried a bucket of grain, walking toward the pasture. I was watching the horses as they paced back and forth on the fence line, awaiting their morning meal. I saw the bucket drop to the ground and spill, and turned to see my mother fall as well. It took me three steps to reach her, but she was already gone.
The floodwaters receded, and I surfaced just as Heighleigh spoke.
“Oh.” She leaned over to inspect it further, then nodded reservedly. “It’s nice.” Heighleigh returned to contemplating her shoes for a moment. “I have a tattoo, but you can’t see it.”
“Something tells me I don’t want to know.” I remarked under my breath.
“It’s a shamrock.” She added.
“Yeah?” Common sense kept me from asking her where it was, although I have to admit I was a little curious. My brother had worked as a tattoo artist in the city for a while before his overdose, and he’d told me some interesting stories about his adventures in the trade.
Heighleigh has a distinct way of ferreting thoughts from people without their permission. Maybe she only did that to me.
“It’s on my butt.” She said matter-of-factly.
“Oh.” What else was I supposed to say? I looked around me instead, trying to find a subject to change our conversation to. I found nothing familiar in the immediate area.
“Where are we, anyway?” I asked, still blinking at the strange surroundings. The ground had gotten softer yet, and the city lights further away. The air had an unusual and not particularly pleasant smell to it.
“I thought you said you were going to walk me home?” Heighleigh said sweetly, but in a saccharine way, not a genuine sweetness.
“Right.” I said and continued to walk through the olfactive muck. “Are we close?”
“Yeah, real close.” She said as if it were a death sentence.
Approaching her house, it was clear why she had kept its existence
secret. It was a weathered hovel with a sagging roof that squatted
between the river and the woods like it was ashamed of itself, hiding.
Long murky puddles ran along the tire ruts in the narrow road like the
infant children of the Mississippi to which they were parallel. We
bravely forded them, Heighleigh’s red sneakers making a most satisfying
sound in the mud.
She skipped up the uneven steps and shoved the door open. It protested heartily, crying out from its one working hinge as if in pain. It appeared to have at one time worn a coat of red paint. I followed her in.
There was a kitchen to my right covered with harvest gold linoleum. The Formica countertops were peeling and faded, cabinet doors suffering the same imbalance of equilibrium that made the front door tilt. To my left was a suffering living room, plastic covers on the furniture, central point of interest not a television, but a rack of guns over a filthy fireplace. Before me directly was a narrow corridor, its floor covered with a blue carpet whose worn center was going bald. Two doorways were apparent down the dingy shaft of hall, one with a door on the left side, one without at the end of the grimy wallpaper lined tunnel.
Heighleigh paraded down the corridor to the open doorway at its terminus. She sat down on the carpeted floor of the room and took off her sneakers.
“My socks got wet. I hate wet socks.” She announced. I settled into the only chair in the small space that appeared to be her bedroom.
“Probably because your sneakers have holes in them.” I pointed out, looking at the partially disintegrated shoes and setting my backpack down on the floor before me.
“Smart ass.” Heighleigh said, then looked to my backpack as it landed solidly on the carpet. “Jesus, what do you keep in that thing?”
“Everything.” I answered her. “And don’t call me Jesus.” I punctuated my dry little joke with the screech of the backpack’s zipper, pulling it to the other side.
“What are you doing?” Heighleigh walked her weedy hands over the floor, leaning closer.
“You said you wanted the story.” I pulled the scrapbook from its nest and laid it on the floor, facing her. “It’s all in here.” I watched her eyes flicker over the image of the compass on the cover, then up at me. “Here.”
I dug my fingernails into the pages and opened it to the appropriate section.
“August twentieth, nineteen ninety-nine.” I began. “Almost two months after I returned home from Louisiana.” I looked at the page upside down. It was my mother’s page, the image of her peaceful Indian face was scattered around the space in pencil, pen, and photographs. Around her like maudlin wreaths were newspaper clippings and notes scribbled in my illegible hand. I read the pertinent information for Heighleigh, my suspicions about her illiteracy neither proved nor disproved. “Helena Watches-Crows North passes away at an undetermined age, leaving behind a husband and two teenage children.” I paraphrased, pointing to the yellowed newsprint square of her obituary, but leaving its own cold words unspoken. Heighleigh’s hand fluttered over to a black feather that was taped by the quill onto the paper.
“Your mom.” She said.
“Right. Which brings us to,” I replied, turning a couple of pages, “my brother, Crow.” Heighleigh looked for a long time at his picture. He was tattooed and unsmiling, as always, though he wasn’t trying to look menacing. Indian smiles point downward. Around him were pencil sketches of carrion crows and syringes, but Heighleigh didn’t examine these, just Crow himself.
“You’re adopted?” She said softly, looking up at me finally. I set my jaw. That’s what everyone thought, and I could never seem to get used to it.
“No, he is.” I explained patiently.
“But your mom’s an Indian.” She argued.
“Yes, that makes me half Indian, half English.” Why was this always so hard to believe for the general public? She stared at me.
“I guess I can see that.” She shrugged.
“Yeah, thanks.” I responded unenthusiastically. “As I was saying, my brother started using heroin after mom died.” I thought I heard Heighleigh sigh, or more accurately saw her shoulders rise and fall. “Everything fell apart. The last time I spoke to my brother was the day he gave me this.” I indicated the feather tattoo. “The next day I found the needles.”
The tidal wave of memory took me under again. I remembered the argument, my words that had pushed him over the edge. I had called him monstrous, a slave to his addiction, and that our mother would have said the same of him. I endured a fierce black eye for those words. I remembered the shock; my brother had never hit me before that day. I recalled denying the apology that came next, forsaking my own brother, disowning him.
The wave rolled, and I surfaced.
“The day after that, he was gone.”
“Where did he go?” Heighleigh asked, her eyes too big for her face.
“Los Angeles. I haven’t seen him since.” There was a long pause before Heighleigh hesitantly reached forward and turned the page. She looked another redhead square in the eye, only the girl in the photograph had darker locks that showed about an inch and a half of black roots.
“Who’s she?” Heighleigh asked, staring at the girl’s short dyed hair and her grungy cut-off shorts. She was dusty with the desert sand on which she was sitting.
“Marla’s a different story.” I said secretively, hoping Heighleigh would turn a deaf ear to the sadness I knew was in my voice.
“I went to California to find Crow a while after he left, but my search was in vain. I guess I didn’t imagine a city so big.” I reached down and turned the page, uncovering the glamorous symmetry of Caitlyn Constantine’s face. It was an old pen and ink drawing, a few other sketches around it, all only suggesting her Mediterranean beauty.
“This is Cait. I stayed with her in the city until October of two thousand and one. Her parents had died rather suddenly, and she was bound for New York for their funeral. I went with her, giving up on Crow. I thought he was probably dead by then.”
Heighleigh looked up at me.
“Is he?” She whispered.
“I don’t know.” I said almost as quietly, not giving it much thought and continuing the story.
“I stayed in New York for just long enough to console Cait, but declined her invitation to stay at her aunt and uncle’s house there. I didn’t wish to burden a grieving family. I went to Boston instead.”
Heighleigh took the pause in my story as a signal to turn the page, opening into Boston. “I stayed there for a couple of months. During that time, I received a letter from my father. It had been addressed to Caitlyn in New York; she had sent it to me from there. He told me in the letter of Crow’s overdose, and that he was now in a rehabilitation hospital in Phoenix. It was informative only, nothing in it telling me to come home or instructing me to make amends with my brother, but I knew what I had to do.”
“I had to leave Boston when the people I was living with got evicted from their apartment, but I didn’t have a way home figured out just yet. One of the tenants, Kelly I think her name was, set me up to move into her friend Mary’s house in a little nameless suburb.” Heighleigh turned the page again; a photograph of the yellow house and drawings of its dwellers greeted her eager eyes.
“After three months, I had gotten in touch with Jackson and Mary had arranged a ride into Louisiana for me.”
“And here you are.” Heighleigh summed up. “Going home to see Crow.”
“Hopefully I won’t see him in a box.” I mumbled, but apparently it was loud enough for Heighleigh to hear.
“That would be a terrible ending.” She said directly, shaking her head as if she wouldn’t allow it, as if she could change the outcome of the story.
We stayed holed up in the tiny bedroom for a couple of hours, she
kept flipping through the endless black pages of my book and asking me
questions, and I watched her gears turn as she pieced my life together.
I could see out of the one prison-sized window, but the clouds concealed any notion of time that could have be told by the moon’s positioning or the sky’s hue.
An inquisitive tone started to issue from Heighleigh, a familiar sound now, but it was cut off by the siren screech of the front door being pushed very forcefully open. Her question turned into a gasp, and she stared at me pleadingly as if I could help her.
“Mom’s home.” She whispered, and then glanced to the window. It was too small for even her gaunt frame to pass through. We were trapped like mice in a one-way cage, although at the time I didn’t quite grasp the severity of the situation. I had never had the extreme displeasure of meeting Mrs. McCullough.
By the sound of the woman in the kitchen as she screamed Heighleigh’s name, I could tell she was as unhinged as the doors in her home.
“Stay here, Fletcher, maybe I can deal with her.” Heighleigh said hurriedly, and I could see those gears turning more furiously now as she pattered barefoot down the hall.
I listened to the screaming match that followed, Heighleigh’s reasonable approach to her incoherent mother thrown to the four winds as soon as Mrs. McCullough started in on calling her things that I find difficult to repeat.
I heard a reasonably large object get pushed into the dining room table, the infinite clutter of which rained loudly onto the linoleum. My hearing is my weakest sense, but I trusted it just enough to know that the reasonably large object had been Heighleigh. There are some things I can’t stand. I walked into the kitchen.
I didn’t have time to rationalize how I could possibly help the situation, and began to assess the scene. Heighleigh was pulling herself from the floor, hands clawing the edge of the counter. The floor was scattered with bottles and garbage and dishes, some broken. I moved to help Heighleigh from the floor, but the scream of the banshee as I made my presence known stopped me before I could reach her. I turned, startled by the wild eyes of Heighleigh’s mother as they peered at me from within her rage distorted, fleshy face. The woman screamed again, asking everyone within four miles who the fuck I was.
She didn’t wait for an answer, and I didn’t see that she was wielding an open bottle of Wild Turkey by the neck until it was approaching my face at an alarming speed.
Impact. The thick glass of the bottle struck the side of my face. I felt myself falling for a long time, suspended in a liquid moment that reeked of whiskey. I hit the floor with a sound so sharp it could have been mistaken for the blast of a shotgun.
I opened my eyes the second I landed, consciousness perhaps restored by the fetor of spilled booze. My dizzy gaze sought out Heighleigh as sound was gradually restored. I heard Mrs. McCullough screaming, but not in rage now. In pain.
It had been a shotgun, and Heighleigh still brandished it, standing in the living room beside the fireplace. I followed the direction of the barrel, looking to her mother. She seemed unhurt but for a peppering of buckshot on her right arm. Heighleigh had missed.
She dropped her weapon and sprinted toward me. I was still in a fog; she seemed to run for hours to cover the six meters or so between us. Heighleigh didn’t stop when she reached me, but turned sharply to dash down the hall, leaving me on the floor with the garbage, the shards of flatware, the whiskey, and someone else’s blood.
Heighleigh returned with my backpack on her back and her trusty red sneakers on her feet. She helped me from the floor, out of the house, and into the muggy dark of the woods.
“Cut it out.”
“Stop touching my face, Heighleigh.” I grumbled through an excruciatingly severe headache.
“It looks cool. Looks like you got into a fight or something.” She said, unbothered by our current circumstances.
“I did get into a fight.” I reminded her.
“Not really. That was a little one-sided to be considered a fight.” She brought her hand up to my face again as we walked, but I caught it.
“Heighleigh, we have more important things to talk about than how nasty a bruise this is going to be.” I murmured. It hurt to talk; my jaw had taken the brunt of the attack.
“It’s already pretty nasty.” She assured me, hooking her thumbs into the straps of my backpack that she still carried. I looked at her squarely, realizing how impossible she can be without even trying.
“Thank you.” I said, feigning flattery in the most sarcastic tone I could muster, which was not awfully sarcastic. “Now what do you suppose we should do?”
“I don’t know.” She said lightly, scuffling her little shoes along the damp forest floor.
“Well we have to figure something out.” I hated that I was still assigned to the task of thinking for both of us, seeing as my brain was rattled and malfunctioning by force, not just by default.
“Well what do you suppose we do?” She turned the question around in an extremely unhelpful way.
“I think it would be best if I went my way and you hid in the city. They’d never find you in the middle of Mardi Gras.” It was the most practicable solution I had come up with yet, but I’d really have to wait until the dust settled to see if it even made sense to me.
“No.” She rejected the idea directly. “I’m staying with you.”
“Oh for Christ’s sake.” I started, but Heighleigh interrupted.
“Umm, Fletcher? I hear a siren.” She announced quietly and we both subconsciously quickened our steps. I heard no siren, but at this I wasn’t surprised. Like I said, my hearing isn’t quite up to snuff.
“Ambulance or police?” I asked, and she turned her ear to the direction of the sound.
“Ambulance.” She answered me, crackling voice thoughtful.
“All right. If you hear any more, let me know.” I instructed her, and she nodded. She knew of my impairment, she had asked about it at length after seeing the photos of me in the scrapbook at age nine, coming home from surgery.
We walked on. I wasn’t sure if she knew where our path would bring us, but I had no idea.
“So if you’re not going to hide out in the city, where do you intend to go?” I asked.
“With you. To Arizona.” I was about to protest. For some reason, perhaps pity, perhaps blind heroism or something else, I didn’t.
“Okay.” She blinked at me, surprised and elated that I hadn’t objected.
“I’ve never been to Arizona, what’s it like?” Heighleigh asked, her excited tone like the light chirping scratch of a violin.
“Let’s worry about getting there first, Heighleigh. Chances are you’re going to be pursued.” I was nervous, but reassured myself with the fact that it took Mrs. McCullough two weeks to find Heighleigh last time, and that was inside of New Orleans.
“We. We’re going to be pursued.” She corrected me. “She’ll probably get the police to believe her again… she always does. But she won’t forget about you, either. She doesn’t like it when strangers appear in her house.”
“That was entirely not my fault.” I defended myself.
“I know.” Heighleigh remarked, pausing for a moment. “Thanks, by the way.”
“Not like I helped much.” I said, my face hurting more with this recollection.
“You distracted her. It was brave.” Heighleigh said, trying to make me feel better. She almost succeeded.
“I don’t know about that, Heighleigh. But it was all I could have done. She was… uncontrollable.” I said softly.
“I know.” Heighleigh replied. “That’s why I had to shoot her.”
“I hear another one.”
“Another siren,” Heighleigh said, holding up one hand to quiet me as she listened. I could see very little out there in the dark, but unhidden were the four perfect ovals of green-blue bruise on one side of her pallid wrist. Fingerprints.
“Police cruisers. A few of them. But far away.” Heighleigh said finally, chewing on her lower lip.
“Then I suppose this would be the time to ask whether these woods will lead us to a highway or into a swamp.”
“Probably a highway,” Heighleigh told me.
“That’s reassuring.” I said. Her sparse input was all I had to work from, and this fact was starting to make me nervous.
The result of our traversing the wood was actually a little of both.
We found neither a highway nor a swamp, but a smaller road surrounded by
squelching mud that smelled just as bad.
“At least there aren’t alligators.” Heighleigh noted optimistically.
“There aren’t any cars, either.” I said, surveying our new terrain. My eyes reached Heighleigh again. She looked tired. “Hey, do you want me to carry that?” I asked, indicating the backpack.
“I’m fine. I can carry it.” She was trying desperately to seem as capable as possible. It was obvious that she was struggling. I held out an expectant hand.
She handed the pack over.
“So what do we do now?” Heighleigh said, stretching. Her back arched into a feminine curve, like the sole of a ballet slipper.
“Follow the road, I guess. It’s got to go somewhere. If you hear a car…” I continued, only to be met by Heighleigh’s interruption.
“I know, I’ll tell you.” She affirmed and started to walk along the side of the road, away from the woods. I followed, shouldering up my backpack, amazed that she had carried it for so long without collapsing. I felt guilty for forgetting she had it, I still wasn’t thinking perfectly clearly.
The sun threatened to rise, cutting an orange slice out of the
horizon with a serrated edge. Heighleigh’s face was washed out and paler
than usual, something I wouldn’t have thought possible. Dark circles
situated themselves under her eyes. I’ve never seen that girl look like
so much hell, but I didn’t even want to know how monstrous my
countenance had become.
I watched Heighleigh as she walked slightly ahead of me, legs wobbly. She must have been cold in that little dress in the early dawn.
My skin was beginning to feel like it was frozen to my bones. I was nearly paralyzed with the chill. Heighleigh’s shoulders were shrugged up to her ears, a shrug that deepened when the wind ran its icy fingers through her hair.
We hadn’t spoken much in the last hour. Conserving energy, I guess. There wasn’t much to say anyway.
Heighleigh turned suddenly to look back down the road.
“I hear a car.” She croaked. I turned as well and put my thumb out. What the hell, right? They’d probably speed up rather than stop for us. We looked as though we’d just crawled out of our own graves.
The first car did pass, as did the second.
After six or seven I lost count, but the motorists became more frequent. Heighleigh kept her eyes trained on each car, making sure no rectangular lights perched on their roofs.
Just as I thought Heighleigh’s legs would snap and my back would break with the weight of the backpack, a merciful soul pulled over and offered us a ride.
I never knew angels drove Buicks.
Cardboard boxes occupied the front seat, so I climbed into the back. It felt like years since I’d sat down. Heighleigh clambered in beside me, shutting the door and curling up like a kitten on the seat. I guess I was to do the talking.
“Where you goin’?” The driver asked, a little too chipper for the hour. I suspected a heavy caffeine habit.
“West.” I said, voice taking a second to warm up. The patron saint of child fugitives chuckled from the front seat.
“I’m on my way to Texas. Is that west enough for you?” She leaned over to watch me in the rearview mirror. Her blonde hair was huge.
“Not quite, but it’ll do.” I said. She must have thought I was joking.
“Where are you coming from?” The woman asked cheerfully. Here comes the hard part, explaining myself. I hadn’t thought that far in advance. I paused, thinking. “Coming from the party?” The woman suggested. Of course, the perfect alibi.
“Yeah. Kind of got stranded.” I said, already formulating the rest of the story, should I need it in the future.
“Yeah, that can happen.” She sympathized as we rumbled down the road. The white noise of the old engine was more than hypnotic enough to lull me, and I fell asleep with Heighleigh curled against me like a lamb, the lamb I watched over like a shepherd, although she lacked the innocence of such a creature.
A breath of dry air, familiarly arid, made me stir. I woke up alone, the car now parked in a driveway. From my odd vantage point leaning against the window, I could see structures of squat stature all around me. My vision was askew, depth perception lost to the fact that my left eye didn’t want to open very much. Sitting up, I found that the Buick had come to rest in what was much less a driveway than a huge gravel lot, upon which stood rows of trailers for as far as my one working eye could see.
Most people, upon waking in a strange place, ask themselves where they are right off. This was not the case. On first instinct, I wanted to know not where I was, but where Heighleigh was.
There was only one way to find out. I shoved open the door and set both boots with a crunch onto the pebbled ground. It was hardly a surprise to find that the car was parked in front of a trailer, as there were no other points of reference.
With my thousand pound backpack close in tow, I approached the door of the generously sized tin can and knocked on the front door, seeing no more sensible options.
Heighleigh answered the door. Her hair was damp and braided neatly into pigtails. She smelled like shampoo, although it was hard to tell over the lingering stink of whiskey that emanated from my shirt. She had changed out of her little lavender dress into faded jeans and an equally abused red tee shirt; clothes I could tell weren’t hers. They were even more ill fitting than her own.
Heighleigh rasped a giggle and pulled me inside by one arm.
“Go take a shower. You stink.” She told me, as if it were her house.
“Uh, Heighleigh?” I started, but she waved a hand at me, stopping any further words. I hadn’t really wanted to talk anyway, my jaw still hurt like hell.
“Oh, it’s fine. Angie wants us to stay with her for a little while, just until we’re not so bedraggled.” Somehow I knew that Angie had used those exact words.
“Okay.” I relented, still not completely awake. I considered commenting that Heighleigh didn’t look bedraggled at all, but I gave it a miss, to save my face a little pain. Heighleigh pulled me along the tiny hallway, past a miniature kitchen, and pushed me into the bathroom.
“Your room is across the hall.” Heighleigh informed me and shut the door. I blinked away afterimages of her crisp, well-rested composure and her little braids that made her look even younger. I was beginning to think that she aged backwards, if only she wasn’t so tall. So tall being five foot five or so. I reiterate: life isn’t fair.
I wandered into the bedroom, wrapped a few times around in a ludicrously fluffy towel. Heighleigh was lying on her stomach on the bed, reading a newspaper that she had strewn all over the bright floral bedspread.
“There you are. Now you don’t smell like my mother.” She looked up at me and smirked, having obviously made herself right at home in the luxury of someone else’s trailer. I jerked a thumb towards the door, telling her silently to leave so I could change. I turned my attention to my backpack and started rummaging.
“Jesus!” Heighleigh exclaimed.
“What?” I mumbled through my teeth.
“Your tattoo!” Oh, that. She’d noticed the one across my shoulders, the primitive eagle, also in black. It was far more obtrusive a decoration than the first one she’d discovered. I simply nodded in acknowledgement and repeated my layman’s sign language, telling her to get out. This time she listened. I was surprised she didn’t find the third tattoo.
I emerged from the room minutes later to find Heighleigh and her new best friend, Angie, sitting at the little round table in the kitchen.
“And what do you want for breakfast, sugar?” Angie chirped, looking at me from under the bleach-blonde encumbrance that threatened to devour her.
“I generally don’t eat breakfast.” I managed. “But an aspirin and a glass of water would be excellent.” Our effervescent hostess obliged, as I sat down beside Heighleigh and snuck her a look of supreme puzzlement. How long had they left me asleep in the car? How much had Heighleigh told her? She mouthed I’ll explain later.
Later manifested sometime after Heighleigh and Angie had some coffee and watched television together, all the while getting along famously. I wondered if this strange woman in coral pink lipstick could possibly be a long-estranged aunt to her or something. Then again, Heighleigh did make friends awfully quick.
I had retreated to my room at one point while Angie was discussing with Heighleigh all the subtle nuances of whatever it was they were watching. I have little patience for television, mostly because I can’t really hear it.
I folded up the newspaper that Heighleigh had been dissecting and took out my scrapbook, intending to start a new page. It had been a while.
Heighleigh crept in, though, just as I was putting my pen to a piece of notebook paper to be affixed into the book.
I addressed her straight away.
“Do you feel like telling me what’s going on?” My battered jaw voiced an achy grievance.
“I told you, Fletcher. Angie wants us to stay until we’re ready to keep going. She’s really nice,” Heighleigh started, alighting on the edge of the bed beside me.
“Did you tell her what happened?” I asked, not knowing what I wanted or expected to hear.
“Not exactly.” She said, averting her eyes and stretching her words in a most guilty fashion.
“Heighleigh, what did you tell her?” I asked in a scolding tone.
“I told her I was running away, and you were helping me.” Heighleigh answered quietly. “I didn’t tell her about the fight with mom, or the gun, or anything.” She sounded far too apologetic, and I felt guilty for no reason.
“We’re leaving soon, Heighleigh. We have to keep moving.” Heighleigh huffed in response and stretched out on the bed.
“So what’s Arizona like, Fletcher?” She asked, twisting the end of one braid around her thin fingers.
“We’re not there yet, Heighleigh. You’ll see.” I told her, now not being the most opportune time for drawn out explanations. She huffed again and became silent. I turned my attention to my page, leaning against the wall behind the bed.
Halfway down the lined piece of notebook paper, I realized that Heighleigh wasn’t leaving, or talking, or sleeping. Something was wrong.
“Heighleigh?” She didn’t answer. I repeated her name.
“You’re mad at me.” She finally intoned, voice slightly distressed.
“No I’m not. I just wish you’d consult me before making a move like that.” I explained. I didn’t think I was being unreasonable; after all, I was her partner in crime. She paused for a long time again. She wasn’t buying it.
I leaned towards her a little, pushing the scrapbook in her direction.
“Hey Heighleigh?” I said. She looked over at me. “Do you want to help me with this?” She blinked at the book, then at me, then the book again.
“But that’s your book, Fletcher. I’m surprised you even let me read it.” She humbly protested.
“It’s not exactly standard protocol for other people to work on it, but I don’t see why I couldn’t make an exception.” Heighleigh watched me, looking into my good eye thoughtfully. Then she beamed and sprang from the bed, grabbing my backpack and pulling a Polaroid camera from it. She nimbly hopped back onto the bed and snapped a picture of me, much to my surprise.
“What are you doing?” I asked her, watching her pixie-like antics.
“Oh, come on. You’ve got to document such an impressive injury.” She snickered gruffly and pulled the square of film from the camera, chucking it at me with a flick of her wrist.
We spent most of the afternoon working on that page, Heighleigh taking initiative to arrange the pieces perfectly, as if lives depended on her scrapbook feng shui. When Angie leaned in the doorway and called us out for lunch Heighleigh scurried from the room, but I wasn’t hungry. I paper cemented the last fragments of our masterpiece and closed the book, pushing it aside and lying down for a minute. My headache had come back in full force.
“Move over.” A bony hand shoved at my shoulder, waking me up. It was
dark and the trailer was quiet. I grumbled something incoherent and
turned onto my side, taking most of the blanket with me. Funny, I hadn’t
fallen asleep under a blanket.
“Jesus, Fletcher.” Heighleigh grumped and curled up in the other side of the bed. It seemed our friend Angie had assumed something about Heighleigh and I that wasn’t particularly true. I had to squirm away from the sting of her serrated spine a couple of times, but I didn’t care much. At least it was warm here, and so close to home.
When I woke up, someone was licking my face, someone who didn’t smell too awfully rosy. I opened my unwounded eye, staring directly into that of my assailant, which was a shining pale blue. Thankfully, this was not a human eye, and thusly, not Heighleigh gone especially berserk.
I sat up to inspect the creature that had disturbed my sleep. He was a smallish dog, reddish tan, with a white marking that covered most of his face and one eye, the blue one. The other was brown. His ears flopped risibly, and from him wafted the fetid funk of garbage.
Heighleigh giggled incessantly, trying to pull the dog away from me as it continued to bathe me with drool.
“I didn’t know Angie had a dog.” I yawned, rubbing at my face with the sleeve of my shirt, and then painfully remembering my injury.
“She doesn’t. This is my dog.” Heighleigh squeaked. I backed myself up to lean against the wall.
“Where in hell did you get a dog?” I croaked.
“I found him.” She answered simply. “Angie and me went into town to get groceries, and I found him outside a bookstore.”
“Oh.” There was little more I could say this early in the morning.
“What kind of dog do you suppose he is?” Heighleigh asked me, scooping the dog into her arms, fearlessly disregarding his stench. I had no idea.
“Must be an American Palefaced Bookstorehound.” I said dryly, still not sure of how I felt about living, and eventually traveling, with an animal. Heighleigh watched me critically.
“You don’t mind, right? I mean, you said I should consult you before doing things… I can keep him, right?” She said, voice taking on a hint of nervousness.
“I don’t see why not.” I sighed. “A medium-sized traveling mutt. Every fugitive from the law should have one.”
“I’m not a fugitive from the law.” Heighleigh argued, hugging the squirming mutt close to her. “I’m a refugee from oppression.” She added heroically.
“Right. And that makes me what?” I humored her, and she watched me thoughtfully from over the dog’s splotched face.
“You’re a pilgrim.” She grinned. “I’m gonna go give little Paleface a bath.” Heighleigh cradled the dog like a baby, and scampered out.
“Good idea.” I groaned and sank back into bed, knowing I wouldn’t be able to fall back to sleep. Still I laid there, listening to the squeals and splashes of the sanitizing efforts taking place in the other room. Silently I rationalized. The dog makes her happy, and when Heighleigh’s happy, no one gets an arm full of buckshot. She can keep the dog. She can keep it as long as it doesn’t get in the way, and I’m not walking it.
I’ve never been much of a dog person, or a cat person for that matter. I’m not even a horse person, and we have a couple back home. I rather like birds, but it’s wrong to keep them. I suppose I’m not a pet person at all.
I enjoy the birds when I’m away from home. I used to watch them from the attic window in the yellow house, but I could never hear them. Where I’m from we don’t have very many birds. We have crows. I can hear the crows sometimes, but I’ve always wondered what a songbird sounds like. I imagine they must sound a little like Heighleigh does.
I heard Angie’s voice in the hallway laughing.
“Get that critter outside to dry off, sugar.” She chirped, and Heighleigh abided.
“Fletcher! Come outside with me!” Heighleigh shouted into my room on her way to the door. I heard the merry click of claws on linoleum as the dog’s white toes trotted along. I crawled out of bed and followed the parade out of the trailer like a zombie.
The mutt shook and squirmed and rolled in the gravel, fur bristled and wet. Heighleigh watched him, face aglow. At the top of the steps, Angie leaned against the doorframe, arms folded. Her colorful mouth grinned, her leviathan hairdo didn’t move in the dry wind.
There they were, the happy family. Heighleigh and Angie were so perfectly symbiotic, long-lost niece and favorite aunt. Now there was a dog to round off the idyllic picture.
In any other situation, at any other time, I would have left Heighleigh there to stay. I knew she wouldn’t object, too bad it was an impossible option. If Heighleigh didn’t keep moving, she would inevitably be caught. Even if she would be willing to sacrifice her freedom for a small, undetermined duration of actual happiness, Angie would then be dragged into the web we had woven. Heighleigh wouldn’t wish that upon her surrogate mother.
When I returned inside I decided on the most reasonable course of action. Alone I would work out the scant details of the next leg of our journey. I began to plan. I held my questions from Heighleigh, I didn’t have the heart to disturb the daydream she was busy living.
She found me in our room, on the floor, a notebook before me. The dog, who now smelled of shampoo more strongly than Heighleigh did, found the bed.
“What’re you doing?” She asked with innocent simplicity.
“Making a list.” I said.
“Of what?” She leaned forward, peering onto the cacography upside down, as if she could have read it anyway.
“Don’t worry about it, Heighleigh. I’ve got everything taken care of.” She eyed me.
“We’re leaving soon, aren’t we?” She peeped. I looked up at her, the pleading in her eyes making me falter.
“Yes. You knew that, Heighleigh.” She nodded, face drawn, showing the humility of a chastised child.
“When?” Heighleigh whimpered and slumped onto the bed, waking the mutt with a jolt. He squeaked a yawn and looked at her with his bi-colored gaze.
“Two, maybe three more days.” She huffed like it was her prognosis for survival. She had known that her happiness was terminal from the start. The dog licked her hand.
Heighleigh kept quiet, she knew as well as I did the consequences of not moving on.
“Heighleigh?” I ventured, watching her hair fall like a satin curtain in front of her face as she moved her eyes to the floor.
“I don’t want to run anymore.” She surrendered to the forces that stood against her. My words always abandon me when I need them most. I could find none to comfort her. She looked up; coppery curtains opening to let her peer through. She watched me with those wolf eyes, although they seemed so much less feral as she’d been domesticated in the last two days. She said nothing and laid down, hair spilling all over the pillowcase.
I opted not to disturb her, but continued my task, although the image of a white flag refused to leave my mind.
After the trailer had been swallowed into the quiet stomach of the night, I stepped outside. The trailer park was ugly by day; rows and rows of metal boxes like sardine cans on a grocery store shelf. By night, though, it was peaceful, as long as I looked up. The sky stretched out further in all directions, reaching right down to touch the horizon. The stars were clearer than in the forests and swamps I had traveled. It was the sky of the desert that I had missed. I sat on the front step and smoked, watching the plumes of cigarette exhaust cover the stars like tiny clouds and quickly dissipate. I was almost home.
“Fletcher?” A forced whisper in the dark room reached me as I closed the door. I looked to Heighleigh’s face; it was half lit from the window, from someone else’s outdoor light. “Could you leave the door open? Just dog-sized, so Paleface can go out if he wants?” The half-moon requested sweetly. I nodded and pushed the door open just a little, then considered the size of the particular dog, and pushed it open a little further.
Employing the highest degree of stealth, I laced my boots and stood
from the edge of the bed. I moved in Heighleigh’s proximity as carefully
as one might a land mine. I crept toward the door, picking up my
backpack silently from the floor as I went.
Just as I was about to clear the doorway, the stark white face of the dog lifted from its paws and watched me with its two-toned eyes. It was its movement that must have woken her, for immediately there were two pale faces and four eyes, three of them a glassy blue, examining me from the bed.
“Where are you going?” Heighleigh’s voice was little more than a series of creaks. It was early, the sun just barely showing its full shape over the horizon.
“I’ll be back in a little while.” I replied, knowing that response could never sate her curiosity. I had intended to walk into town, to find the path of least resistance to the nearest highway.
“Can I go too? Where are you going?” She pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes. I thought about it, and couldn’t find a reason for her to stay that would satisfy her tilted logic.
“Fine. Get ready quick.” I said in a matutinal stage whisper and walked as quietly as my boots would allow into the kitchen. Moments later Heighleigh floated in like an apparition, her little beast following her, its pink tongue curling in a yawn. Heighleigh held a piece of paper.
“We have to leave a note for Angie, so she doesn’t worry.” She demanded in a whisper. I nodded as she put the paper down, watching her for a moment. She made no move to write the note herself, and I took up the pen instead.
Hoping that Angie wouldn’t be completely baffled by the scratchy hieroglyphs of the missive, I walked out, followed by the small entourage that I had originally planned to leave in bed.
Heighleigh walked with a lilt to her step unusual to someone who’d just been woken up. Her faithful mutt nipped at her heels as she went. He was surprisingly well behaved otherwise.
The town was closer to the trailer park than I had thought; Heighleigh only had time to smoke two and a half cigarettes on the way. Which town it was, I didn’t know. It didn’t seem to flaunt its title on the dreary storefronts, nor were there any signs. If there had been, it might as well have read Godknowswhere, population fifty-two. Hardly a soul in sight to ogle us, which they undoubtedly would have, especially with half of my face still covered in a deep blue patina.
I made a note to ask Angie later where we were, wondering why I always ended up in nameless places like this. There seemed to be a great lot of them in Massachusetts when I was there, and I supposed Texas was big enough to have about a half million of them as well. Hopefully the obscurity of the town would work in our favor, going unnoticed as if it had sunk into the sand.
Heighleigh ducked into a convenience store on what I guessed was the main street. A terse argument erupted between Heighleigh and the clerk on the subject of store policy. She apparently didn’t quite grasp the point of shunning her precious animal from the premises, nor did she approve of the practice of asking for identification before selling her cigarettes.
Moments later she emerged, smirking with victory, brandishing a pack of camels, dog meandering casually out the door behind her.
“You’re supposed to be keeping a low profile, miss refugee.” I thought it appropriate to remind her.
“Do you expect me to take that kind of treatment from some fat, balding cashier? I don’t think so.” She defended, glancing over her shoulder to see if the enemy had heard her. Thankfully, the door had already shut itself.
“Of course not.” I caved, shaking my head and continuing down the road.
“Talking like that to Paleface… he should be ashamed of himself.” She mumbled, reaching down to scratch the dog’s clumsy ears.
I honestly didn’t understand her affection towards such a ragged, misfit mutt, probably because I fell under the same classification.
“Fletcher, why are we going this way?” Heighleigh inquired as we
headed out of town toward the highway. It was close, and offered us a
pretty straight shot westward.
“So we know where we’re going when we leave.” I answered simply. She took in and let out a full, slow breath of dry air before making another sound.
“When?” There was that dread again, the understated reluctance that caused me a sting of guilt.
“The day after tomorrow.” I specified, having made the decision the previous night. “I still have a couple of things to put in order.” This was an outright lie. I had been procrastinating, prolonging Heighleigh’s much-deserved eudemonia. We could just as easily leave the following morning, but I wanted to give Heighleigh time to say goodbye to her borrowed mom.
I couldn’t avoid the guilt. It pressed on me from one side or another at all times. Either for taking Heighleigh away from the family she never had, or for not moving homeward to mine as quickly as possible. In this indecisive limbo, I tried not to consider the grisly truth that my brother could already be dead.
In my mind, I kept the best-case scenario close at hand. Crow might be alive, relatively well, and hopefully free of heroin when we arrived. I would finally introduce him to Heighleigh. Maybe my father would even be home. I played the scenes over and over, for motivation, for peace of mind.
We walked back the way we came, through the forgotten town, and back to the trailer. Heighleigh looked impassive, still stepping nimbly over the terrain as if her red sneakers housed not human feet, but cloven hooves. The dog had calmed down to trot obediently beside her. I would have whistled to break the silence if I knew how.
Angie’s vivid personage greeted us at the door of the trailer. Her makeup and clothing suggested a tropical fish, as usual. She spirited Heighleigh off to make her some lunch, trying to persuade me to join the repast. I declined politely and disappeared into my room, allowing Heighleigh and Angie some time together. I had some things I wanted to write down anyway.
The dog, Paleface as she was calling him, tagged along.
“Not hungry either, huh?” I said over the edge of my notebook. I wasn’t surprised; the little beast had an impressively protuberant belly that swayed as he walked. Then again, he was a stray; he probably had a stomach full of tapeworms.
He invited himself onto the bed on which I sat, curling up on my feet with his chin on his paws, the perfect vantage point from which to study me. I ignored him.
I felt the weight of multicolored eyes, and the expansion and deflation of the dog’s stomach as he sighed.
“Can I help you?” I asked, more politely and less sarcastically than I had meant. Paleface just stared. I turned the page over and put the pen down, retrieving a pencil from behind my ear. I started to sketch him, my subject staying remarkably still, as if he knew what I was doing. I figured he might as well have a picture on Heighleigh’s page.
Heighleigh’s inverted shadow framed itself into the rectangle of
light that spilled in from the hallway.
“Are you… drawing my dog?” She asked, amused. I looked up from the sketch; it was nearly finished.
“Yeah.” I looked at the mutt. He had shut his eyes, still holding my feet hostage. I was beginning to lose feeling in my toes.
“Cute. I thought you didn’t like him.” Heighleigh moved into the room and peeked over the edge of the notebook. She nodded, lips pressed together. She approved of my rendering and made it known with a grainy chuckle.
“How could I not? He smells so delightfully of strawberries.” I said facetiously, wondering why she didn’t just wash the dog with soap.
“Better than the perfume he was wearing before.” She averred. “Do you like Chinese food?” I blinked, the non sequitur catching me off guard. I wrinkled my nose as much as the horrendous bruise would allow and shook my head.
“Well, Angie wanted to go out for Chinese tonight.” Heighleigh said, sitting down on the bed and gently patting Paleface.
“You go ahead. I’ll survive.” I said.
“You’re sure?” She asked, tilting her head like a bird might. I nodded, scrawling the date on the bottom of the drawing and closing the notebook. Heighleigh grinned and looked to her dog.
“You can stay here with Fletcher. I don’t think you’d be very welcome in a restaurant.” She gave the dog a consoling pet and stood.
“We won’t be long.” The words lingered as she drifted out.
As much as I didn’t like to let Heighleigh out of my sight, I allowed this slight transgression on my part. She had more than proved to me that sometimes she’s capable of guarding herself.
I tugged my feet out from under the adipose creature and stood,
violent pins and needles prickling my toes. I walked out into the living
room and looked around, taking the opportunity of an empty trailer to
indulge my investigative side. I found little of interest, no
photographs aside for a couple on the end table of a fat orange cat,
undoubtedly long since dead. No evidence that incriminated Angie, or
even made her more interesting than she was. Chalking my leisurely snoop
up as a failure, I sat down on the couch and did something completely
unexpected. I turned on the television.
With a little push-button exploration, I found the news channel. The appliance was too archaic to have captions I could turn on, so I watched the quiet pictures go by, nothing but an indecipherable murmur to accompany them.
Although there was no mention of a matricidal Louisiana girl and the stranger that was escorting her across state lines, I found the news depressing and turned it off.
Paleface wandered in, yawning, his pendulous gut swinging as steadily as his tail.
“Evening.” I offered as the dog hefted himself up onto the couch.
If for no other reason than to keep myself from talking to the dog, I stood again and did another nosy lap around the living room. This time, I looked out one of the small windows, pushing the open curtains aside a little more. I think I was looking for birds. Of course I didn’t see any, I hadn’t expected to. I did see the face of Angie’s neighbor perching on the windowsill of the adjacent trailer, which was parked a few feet away.
The woman was scowling, an extremely unflattering expression for her, as it made her meaty face appear to have jowls. Her visage startled me, and then angered me as I realized she was intently watching the activity in Angie’s trailer. There was even a pair of binoculars resting on the windowsill next to her face. She had no alibi; there were no birds to watch.
I had thought it impossible to slam a curtain before I did it. What the action lacked in volume, it made up for in emphasis. The audacity of that woman, not even averting her gaze when I had caught her. What could possibly be so interesting in a nearly identical trailer that she would be scrutinizing so closely?
Heighleigh and I were just that interesting. Think about it, I commanded myself. Two wayworn teenagers appearing in a trailer that had only before been home to a lonely middle-aged woman, and at one point an obese cat. That must be just the earth-shattering event that her prying eyes had been hungry for. I should tell Heighleigh when she got home not to stand in front of the windows. Of course it would sound over protective and paranoid, but if the espionage of the neighbor lady went too far, it could be parlous to our escape.
Heighleigh called out my name from the hallway. I turned just as Paleface was scampering out to meet her, issuing her an I need to talk to you look. She read it loud and clear, turning and walking into our little room, dog pursuing her in and joining her on the bed as she sat.
“What?” She asked, sesame chicken on her breath.
“Angie’s neighbor has been watching us from her window.” I looked over my shoulder, indicating from which side the offense was coming.
“No shit, huh?” Heighleigh said gruffly, brow furrowing. “Do you think she knows who we are?” She leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees.
“I doubt it, but let’s not have her find out.”
The blinds were drawn in the bedroom, but still I felt like I was
being watched. I had a hard time falling asleep. When I finally felt
myself drifting off, it was long since morning. The bed had just started
to be comfortable, and it was time to drag myself out of it.
Across the hall I could see into the bathroom. Heighleigh was brushing her teeth with one hand, the other was holding a cigarette that she would intermittently pull from, and then continue brushing. I watched her cheeky display.
When she had finished, she bared her teeth to inspect them in the mirror. I had never seen her grin like that full on, I guess it’s an expression saved for her reflection alone. She always smiled with only half her mouth, which I supposed was why she had two dimples on the left side and none on the right.
As she examined her teeth, I noticed that four of them on the right side were a slightly different color than the rest. It was hard to tell at the distance from which I was watching, but they also looked like they were all one section, with no real space between them, and a bit of a seam at the top where they’d been… installed? It would appear so. Learn something new every day. My traveling companion has fake teeth. Not awfully convincing ones, either. No wonder she hid them.
All right, I thought. Enough spying, no matter how intriguing the subject matter may be. I hauled myself out of bed and made myself halfway presentable. I tucked a few stray items into my backpack, keeping my life consolidated and ready for tomorrow’s big move. I went over everything on my little list, noticing that buy film hadn’t yet been crossed off. I must have forgotten yesterday, I thought as I put on my boots.
“Heighleigh?” I said as I walked into the kitchen. “I’m going into town for a minute. Do you need anything?”
“Cigarettes.” She said around a mouthful of Lucky Charms.
“Of course.” Paleface sauntered over to me to stand by the door. Heighleigh looked up from her cereal, her elbow on the table, and smirked.
“Take Face with you. He could use a walk.” She insisted through her sideways smile.
“All right.” I humored her. She derived some sort of amusement out of sabotaging my precious time alone. “See you soon.”
“Don’t get lost.” She said in a sabulous chuckle, and I left.
It took excursions to three separate corner stores on three separate
corners to find the right film. By the end of it, Paleface had gotten
quite good at waiting patiently outside. I pocketed the boxes of film
and the packs of cigarettes, having left my backpack behind, and began
the trek home.
Halfway there, Face was getting a little antsy. He kept taking off to run ahead and then circling back to me. The urgency in his actions made me feel like I wasn’t walking fast enough. As the clouds pressed together above us, I realized the source of his distress.
The clouds purged their payloads, and the rain was unusually cold.
As we got closer, I saw the cars. The lights on their roofs were dormant, but they were unmistakable. My stomach turned over. Paleface crouched to bolt, but I held a stern hand down to him, and he stayed close. I would have been surprised at his obedience, but this was no time for revelry in stupid dog tricks.
The sky darkened more, the rain falling violently, pounding on the cruisers. Slowly we walked around the back of the row of trailers, keeping close to their rippled metal exoskeletons. I stood beside the low back steps of Angie’s trailer and peered down the narrow aisle between hers and the neighboring one, eyes catching a glimpse of rain-dampened copper as Heighleigh was led to the closer car. Her face was solemn, and she put up no fight. The dog whistled quietly through his nose, the precursor to a more audible whimper, and I shushed him.
She was caught. Her face was slack, and her arms hung limply at her sides, wrists resting on the small of her back, connected with shining metal bracelets. Her bony shoulder blades protruded from her back like truncated wings. Droplets of chill water clung to her face, like her freckles were crying the tears she would not.
The officers were talking, questioning her, although I couldn’t hear what questions they were asking. She kept shaking her head, slowly, dumbly, as if she didn’t understand.
Paleface ran out, body low to the ground, ears flat back. Heighleigh stirred as if waking, watching her dog as he milled around the officer’s boots to greet her. The police only grew frustrated, pushing the dog aside, one of them striking him in the ribs with his boot. Face yelped. Angie ran down, rambling apologies, and collected the dog, bringing him inside.
A minute later, a hand alighted on my shoulder as I stood, mesmerized by the scene. I startled and looked up into Angie’s face. The colors she wore were just as bright, but didn’t seem to glow anymore. She wasn’t smiling.
“Fletcher, you have to go.” She said softly, moving her hand from my shoulder and dragging my backpack out the back door and onto the step.
I wanted to say so many things, to explain, to apologize. I tried to, but I couldn’t remember the words. Angie nodded, looking older through her makeup with the wisdom on her face.
“Heighleigh told me everything, sugar. You have to go, they’re going to search this place for you soon.” I shouldered up my backpack, looking again around the edge of the trailer to watch as they clipped the songbird’s wings. She ducked into the car, her repose halcyon. She didn’t want to run anymore.
“Fletcher, go on.” Angie urged again. “Go home.” She took me by the shoulders and kissed the top of my head. As she released me, I glanced once more to the cars. One was pulling away, and I could see Heighleigh in the rear window. She sat with her head bowed, the moon of her face now a crescent.
“Fletcher?” Angie said hurriedly, like she was trying to wake me up. “Good luck.” I somehow managed a smile and turned, still finding nothing to say. It was enough to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. Raindrops kept finding their way to the corners of my eyes, and streaming down my face in the manner of tears. Perhaps they were tears, but especially cold.
As I walked away, the wall of trailers hiding me from the officers’ view, I heard the screen door on the back of Angie’s trailer slam. I looked over my shoulder, and there was Face, racing toward me as fast as his stocky legs and round body would let him. Angie had let him out to join me, so I wouldn’t go alone. She waved briefly from the back step and disappeared into her home. I never saw her again.
I walked numbly through the town and out to the highway, listening to the broken-record reprise of it’s entirely my fault. The trees along the highway were spectral in the weighty fog. They leaned and hunched like mourners, their boughs water-laden, as the sky continued to cry for Heighleigh.
She had been taken from me again; the wolves had caught up to my treasured lamb. I had turned out to be a terrible shepherd, but there was nothing I could do now. So I did the only thing I could do, I went home.
The final movement was a lament.