In Euphoria

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Description

IN EUPHORIA opens in the wake of a freak hurricane-like storm in the middle of Illinois. With no power and some roads impassable, Pauline and Jared manage to meet at the Goodwill Store, one of the few places with light and company. When Pauline’s husband Tom arrives home earlier than expected, Jared flees, as is his habit, and Pauline sets out days later, aiming toward California where she’s convinced he’s bound. Nothing more apropos for two wanderers than a road trip. This novel unites and then divides Pauline and Jared as they are drawn toward things they’ve been taught to avoid: tenderness, vulnerability. Stung by love and scared of loss, they veer down separate highways, seeking a love that won’t yield.

Chapter 1

Drought for three or four successive summers in Euphoria cracked creek bottoms and frogs died trying to wedge into those cracks. Tree roots staggered, their stress unremarkable. September churned the Midwest like a hurricane up from the Gulf, whipped Lake Michigan shallows to a froth that would top a tall man. Wheat and soybeans slanted across Missouri, Indiana, Ohio. Pine trees lifted, sent the ground’s crust up, so their roots shivered the way their cones and needles would if the world hadn’t upended.

Immediately, the pine tree leaning against power lines required attention, and Pauline called an SOS in to the electric company. They put her address in the queue.

Waiting, Pauline thought. On hold. Ain’t that just perfect?

She drove to one of her favorite lingering places that had power: the Goodwill Store. At least her car had gas. The place was party-busy with people drawn out from the eerie shade all over town to mill about in the store’s salvatory light.

“Power failure sucks,” said some safety-pin-lipped teen into her cell phone.

In the unisex aisle of hanging shirts, secluded from the entry and the front desk, Pauline mumbled that she preferred much-washed over new-scratchy. She wanted worn and lived in, a little broke down, she said.

Browsing the flannels there, too, Jared said, “I’m your man, then.” His blurt-out sat like a toad between them on the floor.

Ever see a woman pet a toad? A woman that’s not got much fear of the slimy would downright do it. Pauline did. And here’s a fact: toads are dry, not wet or sticky. Sticky part’s the tongue.

He traipsed with her to the checkout, his arms empty, his eyes skipping over the other shoppers. Those he nearly bumped might have suspected him high, but he wasn’t. He was infused with possibility, channeling it, he was a live wire. He refrained from winking at an old man to whom he wanted to shout, “Look at the bargain I found.”

Crumpling to her chest a plastic bag full of just-purchased old flannels so she could pocket her wallet, Pauline said she’d welcome company if he followed her on up the hill after he paid.

“I’m not buying, just looking,” he said. Then trailing her in the parking lot, dividing toward their cars he said, “What’ll we do?”
“Wait for the electric,” she said.

“Yeah, sure,” Jared said. “I’m in.” He ducked into his driver’s seat.

She had interest. It’s how he could drive across the top of her lawn, and she’d excuse him. Not forgive, but she’d excuse, and still hail him to the porch instead of cussing him out. From splintery chairs there Jared watched with Pauline for the energy trucks, then observed the jump-suited men with power saws in their hydraulic buckets decimate the tree. The lines lifted, the power came back on, they heard the fridge inside kick-start. The yard looked flat and uninteresting without the tree wreck to anchor the eye.

He said, “We should cut and stack it, the wood.”

“We will.”

“Your husband here?”

“In a few.”

“What, few hours?”

“Days.”

“’Til then?”

“Just us mice.” She faced the street with her talk, where she resided, merely a gravel turnoff from the rural route few traveled. “Mice all a-tatter,” she said, “looking for a hidey hole.” Expecting no one, she could afford to string out the night.
In form-fitting jeans and a blouse the color of heather nicely revealing her neck, she appeared not at all tattered to Jared. He craned this way and that in a show of looking around. She had never invited him so far before. Because yes, their Goodwill scene had been prepped and propped up for shoppers, observers, and diligent spies. This was not their first time. Jared said, “Damned secluded place.”
She stood and said, “Care for a drink? We can dare open the fridge now.” He went with her in the dark house where night had fallen. He liked drinking in seclusion; he’d forgotten that but remembered it now. Pauline had a way of helping him remember.
She turned on the god-awful kitchen light, tingeing the windows green and their faces tallowy. “Welcome to my mark-down. Got it in a foreclosure. One man’s tragedy, another man’s treasure. Or in this case, a woman’s. All on sale. I’ve been here a year.”

“And I’m only seeing this now?”

“A man needs time to prove himself.”

“You feel I have?”

The refrigerator light illuminated her face when she reached in for the drinks, while it increased the shadows under her eyes. Jared thought maybe she hadn’t been sleeping so well lately.

He said, “Foolish, you up here all alone.”

“You think so?”

He nodded. “Foolish waste.”

She didn’t blink. She could have, but she didn’t. In fact, she longed to blink the dryness from her eyes. “Two months enough time to form this opinion?”
“Two times too much,” he said. “I knew it in our first minute.”

They went back outside with their beers and sat. He lit two cigarettes and passed her one.
She hooked her boot’s instep on the lower porch rail, clunker boots from the seventies. He guessed a person could still find Frye boots, somebody’s beat-up donations retrieved and cleaned by the resellers. They’d met, after all, in Goodwill.

“You come up on my land for some clear reason? Pauline said.

“Can’t say.”

“Why not?

“Don’t know yet if it’s come to me, or I to it.”

“The reason?”

“The clarity.”

They enjoyed hiding behind their smartass talk.

He looked at her, a woman, stuck in intimidating boots. He’d had the shit kicked out of him before—body and soul, many a time blood brought to his face. Thought he’d seen the end of that, but when was there ever an end unless you holed up and died?

He was just going to put it to her. “I thought you invited me.”

She smiled, and the porch then didn’t even need its electric light. “I did. Indeed I did.” She got up, reached one arm inside the screen door, and flipped off the switch. He identified her location by her cigarette and its smoke, and then the creak of the chair taking her weight.

The dark brought the trees to their elbows. Every woodsy animal sound was waiting to interrupt their porch talk.

“All my eggs are in one basket,” she said.

He said, “I love eggs, and if I had to choose, I’d choose your half price half dozen.”

“Half price because they’re secondhand?”

He didn’t care if some other guy had been her first choice. He said, “We’re all of us used.”

Jared tilted his chair on its hind legs to reach the ledge and strike a match there. Again the woods telescoped the two of them. Even the night birds shut their songs in their throats. He watched the fire until he had to drop it, and he’d bet she’d been watching it too, because her leg stretched out toward him, long in those jeans. Her clompy boot sole covered what was already extinguished.

“He’s got a name,” she said.

Jared tensed.

“Tom,” she said.

“You know, it’s odd, you’re married and all, but your honesty comes from some deeper place.”

Her laugh knifed and missed. “Deeper than marriage?” she said, “He wouldn’t think so.”

“’Course he’s not where your honesty’s directed.”

Her lips pursed to quit the smile, and he saw he’d made a bit of an inroad with her where he hadn’t managed before.

“I can see why people flirt with you, flit to you. You draw them. Hell, girls, too. I saw the chick at the Goodwill ringing you. They’re all moths when they get near you. You and your light.”

The talk about light, he meant it. She had gold in her hair, if she wanted evidence. He wasn’t about to churn up small bits of truth into flattery that might take her out at the knees. He wanted their trading to be honest. But he also didn’t know shit about her. He’d like to remedy that. He’d like to hug her knees, and then have her plant them by his shoulders the way he knew she could.

She’d been hungry for talk like his, interest like his, investment directed straight and primary at her. She hadn’t recognized this lack until she met him, but she sure knew it now.

He said, “Don’t you need to eat? I could take us to town for a bite.”

“Or I could throw something together,” she said.

So she intended he stay. She’d give him rope to hang himself, and he’d enjoy the asphyxiation. But maybe she was looking for nothing but company until her man pulled up. In a couple of days, she’d said.

“Supper,” he said. Simple, declarative, not even a sentence, just a word, an agreement. They tripped inside. His boot snagged the toe strip and he fell into her and she steadied him. Not what he would have planned, but it worked. She smelled of pine; the whole place did, inside and out, as if the workmen had split the tree in the front doorway.

Again that gruesome kitchen light. Jared looked around for candlesticks, a kerosene lantern, anything to wipe the hard look from both of them.

From a lower cabinet, she dragged out an electric contraption.

“Panini maker,” she said, brandishing it like she was going to brain him. “From the Goodwill.”

He said, “I would have used a plain old skillet. Also from the Goodwill.”

They locked eyes over the bread she buttered.

Once the panini started cooking the whole place smelled greasy and warm. Their bellies growled. She laughed, then he did. He twisted open two more beers from the mildly cold fridge, held hers for her while she flipped the sandwich. The bread crisped, they toasted. Their teeth clicked in kissing. They split apart, she split the sandwich, her fingers trembly, but good trembly. He brought his half to her mouth and she bit. Cheese oozed onto her chin. He had to lick it. The two of them kissed and chewed, kissed and chewed, swallowed it all down, the beers empty. They stood at the beginning of being filled.

“That was the last of the bread,” she said. She shrugged, hopeful, and eager not to betray it. She’d learned to guard what she had.

He grabbed her oily fingers and took her down the hallway, unsure where the bedroom was, but he led her through the dark while she directed him from behind. They worked together, they just did, and it was nothing like work.

“Here,” she said. “Right here.” She stumbled into him the way he’d run into her on first coming into the house.

Next to her bedroom closet door she’d set an old full-length mirror, another thrift store find. Nothing fancy, with its two tarnished corners and chewed-at maple frame that had once been quite fine before it graced strangers’ attics. The piece lost its cheval frame before it crossed into Pauline’s hands, so she leaned it there against the wall. During her walks around the bedroom while she brushed her teeth, bending to peek out the window, toothbrush shoved inside her cheek, and circling back to the sink, in the mirror her shadow appeared first, anticipating her form.

“You see yourself coming and going,” Tom would say, a gentle dig at her narcissism. Those were during better times, when her shadow scouted the trail and beckoned she should follow. Show up soon, the shadow said, good things ahead. Or maybe Tom was who said that. With Jared in her bed, the shadows doubled. His and Pauline’s played in that mirror like fairies in Shakespeare’s woods; they made asses out of themselves and giggled over it. And then, as if the mirror and its reflections teetered in the long-lost cheval, they cradled and were cradled, they rocked and were rocked.

In the morning the chainsaw revved. Jared needed only to turn in Pauline’s bed to see out the window his lover in the yard putting blade to the smaller tree arms. He fell back to her pillow and the roar of the machine. It was that good, that deafening, it erased every place and person and predicament. He woke a second time to voices mumbling in another room.

Jared’s hangover didn’t allow for his best judgment. He entered the kitchen, searching out a huge cold drink. It couldn’t have been worse if he’d stood there naked and scratching his balls.

Pauline had wood chips in her hair. She said, “We have company,” a bemused smile on her lips.

“You could have worn some pants, man,” said the company.

Jared shrugged and felt himself shrink inside his boxers. “She told me to make myself at home.”

“Sure, blame Pauline,” she said. The day called for juggling.

The company—with no introductions Jared still knew it was Tom, so he thought of him as Tom—Tom claimed everything within eyeshot, spread his arm in a motion of largesse. “Mi casa, su casa, eh?”

They were nowhere near the border. They were in white bread Midwest, southeast of Champagne, in a place called Euphoria.

“Spare me the Spanish,” Jared said.

“Where do you get off talking like that in my place?”

Jared kept his mouth shut.

Tom said, “Look around, Pauline. What haven’t I given you?”

For a fierce woman, she turned misty-eyed on a dime. She narrowed that mist at the kitchen table. “What I didn’t know I didn’t have.”

“Which is?”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me.”

She squirmed, and when she squirmed Jared found her only more lovely. “I can’t give name to it,” she said.

Tom said, “Bullshit,” his boil nudging the surface.

Interloper Jared started backing out.

“You,” Tom shouted, finger pointing, shaking in its point. “You go nowhere.”

“I’m just getting my pants,” he said, to which Tom whirly-gigged his hand in permission. In the bedroom Jared wanted to spin out, take down the whole top of Pauline’s bureau, her knick-knacks, the mirror, her keepsakes, all of it dusted in the particular array she’d imposed, but he held back the need to destroy. For two months they’d been keeping things cool, and it looked like now they’d slipped.

Or maybe it was time for truth.

Jared had a knife he resisted using. That had been a promise of his—no more emotion-fueled action. Examine things first, he’d pledged, and the source of his emotion, and his emotion with Pauline— he couldn’t get a grasp on that. She was quicksilver, dazzling and elusive. Getting ready to dress, he swung around his jeans, a little too angry about mercurial Pauline, and his big Texas-bought belt buckle hit and shattered the window.

“Fuckin’ A,” someone shouted from outside the bedroom.

“We see eye to eye on things,” he heard her tell Tom.

And Tom’s, “Bullshit. You don’t know this joker. Name one thing you see eye to eye on if that’s so god-all important to you.”

Jared’s fingers hovered before pulling up his zipper, but Pauline had no comment.

“See?” said Tom. “All’s you’re agreeing on is your two asses in one bed.”

So wrought up in argument they hadn’t heard Jared bust the glass, but he removed enough not to cut as he slipped out to level ground.
In passing her car, he noted her license plate, DOV569, and he stabbed himself with memories of the many times he’d followed “the dove,” as he called her, to some trysting place.

Pauline was just another thing in his life he wanted and he wasn’t going to have.

Pauline, his lay, his love, his lovey-dovey dove, his feathered lightning, his silver bullet. A good twenty years ago, Jared’s army-bound brother, Sten, took him to summer skeet practice in prep for his first official dove hunt in a mowed-down cornfield. Sten, who ended up in Afghanistan, lost in the poppies.

“Just remember,” he told Jared, “clays fly straight but doves juke all over the goddamn sky.”

And, “The longer you track a dove, the greater chance you’ll slow or stop your swing or the bird’ll dodge off. Instead, think eyes to the target, hands to the target, in that order. Lock your eyes on the dove as it comes to you, but don’t budge the gun until you’re ready to shoot.” Then he told Jared, “On a short lead, pretend the bird has a dollar bill in its beak. Lock on the dove’s head, hands and the gun will follow. Just get the muzzle out in front and good things will happen.”

Short lead, long lead, so much to remember. “Then what’s a dove when it comes at you from overhead?” Jared said. He took a guess: “No lead, right?”

Sten said, “A dove overhead looks farther away than it really is, just like the moon’s huge when it’s touching the horizon but seems smaller and smaller as it climbs up the sky.” Jared tried to slice his thoughts into steps one, two, and three, but Sten had overflowed the afternoon with his know-it-all talk. No boy of eleven, already awestruck, could hold onto so much new news.

The doves streaked by with their eyes and their throttles wide open, a stream of tiny gray bullets zipping overhead. They came in at every conceivable angle and flared wildly once Sten started firing, and yelling.

“Swing the gun with the bird, and when it disappears behind the muzzle, shoot! Just blot it out, pull the trigger, and keep swinging!”

The bird folded clean like an envelope and took forever to fall to the ground.

Sten said, “Did you watch where it fell? Did you track and identify something to mark the place?”

“I shot it, isn’t that enough? Jeez.”

Sten spat into the field and his words reduced Jared and the whole day’s worth of glory:

“No point in shooting birds you can’t recover.”

“And where do you think you’re going?” Tom called from the cast-open front door. Pauline peered over his shoulder, visoring her eyes with one beautiful hand, locating Jared in the far-off.

I’m right here, babe, he wanted to say. Arm’s length. Just reach out your arm. Jared had stopped and, with little to no thought, had been running his key along the side panel of Pauline’s car, gouging thin lines in the paint. Blue had not been this old Bonneville’s first color.

If he couldn’t walk away with Pauline, what was the point in walking at all? He froze, as though he’d been frozen among the corn stalk stubble, stunned by all the little gray rockets exploding around him, and stilled by the fact that in the midst of sound and flight and gunshot and Sten’s nagging, he’d managed to pluck one unlikely dove from the stratosphere. He tracked Pauline behind Tom on the porch. He wasn’t going to miss where she landed. Hell, he’d help her land, he’d cushion her landing, he’d offer up the soft parts of his body to her, to the dry earth, to whatever Tom tried jabbing between them.

Jared said, “You two got things to settle, obviously.” He returned his car keys to his pants pocket beside the knife.

Tom took a step. “And you don’t think you’re part of that? You’re the instigator, you’re the reason and the goddamn rhyme.”

Normally a little spitfire, Pauline caved in. She stood, quiet, on the porch with her hands wrapped around her ribs. Tom squashed her spirit, anybody with eyes could see that. He was a good-looking man. Hell, if Jared were her, he probably wouldn’t leave him either.

Behind Tom, Pauline rolled the sleeves of one of the flannel shirts she’d bought yesterday up to her elbows. She said, “What can you do when you love somebody but follow?” Jared heard that where he idled beside her car and it twisted his gut.

Tom said, “You, Pauline. Not me, you. Christ, at least own your tramping around.” “Okay,” she whispered, and her whisper rose above the trees weakened by drought, all those poised to still falter and crash. “I love someone, somebody else.” Him, she thought, unable to curb her glance to the driveway.

Tom looked at her as if she’d just fired a gun in his belly. Hurting him, really tearing him up, she could see—exactly what she’d been avoiding these last months. But now the hurting snaked through her house, it shed its skin on her land, and she saw things could get worse, and that they would. She felt sick to her stomach.

Jared turned from her car and headed back to the house because while he’d been waiting, he’d also been mulling the sweet times, such as when he’d confessed to Pauline that, “God brought you to me.”

She said, “So you could complicate my life?” They already lay in his bed, fast upon that first meeting, it happened that way between them, explosive.

“So I could love you,” he said.

“You mean so you could be loved.”

He’d smiled where they lay in the dark, and he knew she knew the grin taking over the features of his face. “Same circuit, us, our one big love.”

His feelings for Pauline were concentrated like gunpowder under the packing rod in an old rifle. The kick in his stride scattered gravel. He fingered the handle of his knife. It wanted to leap from his pocket and he clutched it to keep it hidden from the two on the porch.

“You talk to her like that and I’ll be making you quit,” he said.

Tom said, “Today, you think?”

The self-satisfied jerk, practiced at baiting because he probably did it all day long to Pauline. Tom worked a number on her, and she let him—out of love or fear or obligation, didn’t matter why to Jared, who wanted to deck the bastard.

Jared plucked a dove out of the sky with his eyes closed, he’d gotten plain perfect since the first shaky days in corn stubble with Sten. He wouldn’t need any short lead, long lead shit with Tom. Tom was like the moon on the horizon, or a tin can set on Pauline’s porch rail, begging to be picked off.

The three of them stood together like triplets, a lopsided triangle of flannel.

Tom laughed and chopped his hand in the air so Pauline ducked and Jared flinched and scooted to her in the same one move. He smothered his impulse to deck Tom.

“Don’t fear me, honey,” Tom said. “I was just going to say, look at us dressed the same, like the three bears—papa, mama and baby bear.” He took on the gruff voice: “Someone’s been sleeping in my bed.” Then a lazy-daisy voice: “Oh, someone’s been sleeping in my bed.” And finally falsetto baby: “Someone’s been sleeping in my bed.” He swung around in a circle and nailed Jared with a push to the chest. “And there he is!”

Jared wasn’t leaving Pauline with this guy.

“Rethinking it now,” Tom said, “maybe you should go.”

Jared looked at her; truth was he never stopped looking at her. “Pauline?” She shook her head, which could mean I don’t know, don’t ask me, go, or don’t go.

“I told you before, the only one who can make me quit you is you,” Jared said.

He had said that, she’d heard it and felt it as true and insistent then as it rang through her now.

Tom said to him, “Can’t you see you’re not wanted here?”

Jared, with his eyes boring into her, willed Pauline to speak. Her lips parted, but then she turned to swat at cobwebs trailing from the porch eaves.

“For me to believe, she’ll need to say it.”

Tom got belligerent. “I said it, and that’s enough for all of us.”

Sten used to say, “There’ll always be a gun, but the knife is a sign of who you are.” His brother taught Jared the need to carry the blade and lean it into someone if necessary. Tom didn’t look the type for weapons, more likely to call the law than to vigilante Jared off. Off Pauline’s place.

Jared said, “Doesn’t she have something to say, this being hers?”

“What’s hers is mine,” Tom said.

In Tom appropriating Pauline and what she had acquired on her own, Jared felt like a bullet slipped into a chamber, that chamber being his gut. He was in his own gut, if that made any sense. Not shooting, not shot at, but loaded to shoot, he was the thing inside, the projectile, the source of a wound. Like the doves, he could take this guy way inside the box, would never need the amount of ammo retailers averaged for misfires.

He had the neck of Tom’s shirt bunched inside his fist, lifting the guy off the ground.

Pauline stomped and the boards emitted dust. “Will you two quit before I call the law and have you both hauled off my property?”

Tied up the way he was, Tom still managed to taunt: “When’d you get so gutsy?”

Jared said, “She’s her own self, always has been.”

“True,” Tom said. He twisted in Jared’s grip so as to claim her with a look across the porch. “You’re my gutsy Pauline, right, baby?”
Jared had to haul him a little higher, and strangle him for that. Pauline made him forget the things he’d been—the sad, the spoiled, the failed, the bitter. How dare Tom fuck with that?

Pauline said, “Why don’t you both piss on me and get it over with, marking your property like a couple of goddamned dogs?”

Tom had been flailing for balance, but mostly sucking air. Jared had been off in his own space, so inside his gut and what his gut was telling him to do, it was like Mission Control had hold of him and he was just robotic arms and legs doing the grunt work on an airless planet. He had to remind himself to breathe. See his talent in walling off part of his mind so he could perpetrate crime? Something a person taking up with Jared would have to watch out for. With so many arms, he was an octopus, he held Tom with one, withdrew the knife from his pocket with another, and with a third, he planned grabbing and making off with Pauline. But no third arm, no dream, and she wasn’t budging from her porch step anyway.

Her eyes, intent on Jared’s, telegraphed, “Let him go. Or I’ll never.”

Why couldn’t she just say it?

Hurting Tom would earn Jared another reject check on the tally board he imagined hung in Pauline’s mind, where she evaluated the pros and cons of him. Jared would give her no reason to push him away. If they broke, it wouldn’t be over anything he’d done. It’d be because they’d made plans she couldn’t see her way through to completing.

Jared loosed his grip, let the knife fall to the bottom of his pocket, down deep, almost to his knee. He looked straight at Pauline and said, “Help is here if you want it.”

She put her hand to her mouth—he thought she might cry, Jesus—but then she went chewing at a hangnail, one of her several lovable bad habits. She might as well have been gnawing on his middle.

No knife, no fight, no pain. Except for the hole in his gut Jared curled around as he turned to walk down and away from the porch.

“Where’re you going?” Pauline called. Had her failing nerve killed everything?

“Let him run,” Tom said.

Jared zeroed in on the gravel scuffling up under his boot soles and the birds quieting in the afternoon heat of maybe one of the last good autumn days. He could practically feel the grass growing its final inch, the leaves crisping and roasting and breaking their connections.

Tom said, “Things will be different, Pauline.”

She said, “Your promises aren’t worth the paper they’re writ on.”

Almost two years see-sawing with Tom, she’d gotten well acquainted with dodgy commitment and how he’d try to otherwise slide free of his promises. She bought this place, on her own, during one of his flights of fancy, and damn if she didn’t lead him back through its front door, just like she was doing now. She didn’t know why she did half the things she did. Jared turned from the hurtful glare of their porch disappearance, gripped the door handle of his Pontiac. Old friend, old flirt, cool and alive under his touch. The way Pauline had been. He winced at his inability to not think of her, got in and kicked it.

He reversed and twisted the coupe a couple times this way and that, reorienting down the gullied gravel slope, only to realize parts of the pine tree Pauline had been slicing up earlier blocked his exit. He gunned the motor, thinking he’d just drive over the lawn, how she’d cuss him for that. Then he jerked the gear into park, killed the engine.

It took twenty minutes to move the untouched limbs the power company brought down into the deeper grass and stack what wood she’d made manageable. This he could do for her, she’d know it for the symbol it was. They were always talking shit like that, conjuring stand-ins for their feelings, tokens, jokes and stories that said one thing and ferried deeper, personal, between-them-two meaning, all the unsaid. He thought they’d seen eye to eye, but he’d misinterpreted her sneaking out to him again and again. Their symbol wasn’t fire, it was smoke. He worked sweat over the downed tree, and now he was smelling himself, himself and Pauline mixed on his skin. Shit, he hadn’t showered or got breakfast, brunch or lunch. He didn’t even guzzle that big glass of water he’d been thirsting for when he first walked into the kitchen.

He was ready to fly the hell down off this hill.

And so inside his car, he began the rumbly descent along the gravel.

Pauline jack-in-the-boxed in the backseat, straddle-leaped the console and sat opposite him, she his one big escape dream, her hair mussed, her face brimming with her stowaway secret.

“Let’s hightail it outta this town, partner,” she said, all wicked eye and grin.

The Pontiac fishtailed when Jared punched the brakes. He kept them out of the main road, but it was a less-traveled road anyway. He let the engine idle.

“I’m apart when I don’t know when I’ll see you again,” Jared said.

“Apart from what?”

“In parts, parted from you, in pieces, you know what I mean.”

Pauline concentrated on her clasped hands gracing her thighs as Jared spoke, which pretty much hid her face from him behind her hair. She grabbed at the luscious stuff, one-handed, the way she did to cinch it back in the midst of sex, because she wore it loose for him to enjoy. Then she let it fall, the highlights in the brown reminding Jared how precious she was to him. Gold, gem, jewel precious.

He would not allow her to blindside him. “Tom knows about us now. You’re fooling yourself if you believe he’ll leave us on our own.”

“So let’s go.”

“Nope.”

“What do you mean nope?”

“If you’re coming with me, then you’re going to leave him straight under his nose, none of this slinking off. He doesn’t know you’re with me, am I right?”

“You know you are.”

He nodded, and the simple flick induced a headache. “I’m past that, Pauline. You leave him for me, you do it in the open, make a statement. Show your cards to him and to me.”

“I’m not game playing.”

“I know you’re not, baby, but you have to come clean, mostly to yourself.”

“But I don’t know how.”

God, but she could make even whining sound pretty.

Jared said, “That’s it then, ain’ it? You got to go?”

She looked hopeful and helpless with her hair falling in her eyes. “Go with you.”

Jared shook off that idea. “Not ’til you tell Tom to his face and I witness the telling.”

He might as well have told her to grow another head.

He said, “Get out.”

She stared at him and in that stare Jared had never seen her more open, more available, like a field awaiting seed, but he turned and watched the speedometer consistently register zero while he gunned the gas.

He wouldn’t say why and she wouldn’t ask, and finally he heard her click the door open, heard the rustle of her sweet bottom off the seat and out of his vehicle. She shut the door quietly, didn’t slam it in her usual way. Denying her took him right outside himself, as if he were standing with Pauline on that side of the Pontiac’s passenger door. He was fucking split in two, and reveling in the split feeling.

She stood with her hand on the chrome edge of the open window and so it was up to him to drive.

It tore him up to leave her, but when his flayed edges stopped hissing in the breeze of Wennert Ridge Road, they felt not like rips, but flutters, like promises, like soothing hands; his own hands calming the gallop of his heart, or the hands of God or an angel, hands of his angel, lovey-dovey Pauline.

“Wings of a dove,” Sten would have said. “Sounds pretty but they’re just a means for whittling your sight down the barrel of a gun. On opening day there are plenty of young and semi-dumb birds around.”

Jared didn’t want nubile or dizzy, he wanted crackerjack-smart Pauline.

He heard Sten urge, “Lighten up and open up then. Doves have an airy, easily broken bone structure.”

Jared nearly rolled the Pontiac, righted it, pulled to the berm once he got free of the blind curve he’d been cruising. He ran his arm across his eyes and let the flannel shirt sleeve absorb his perspiration. His heart hammered a different beat from the ticking of the car’s underside. Did he want to break Pauline? No, he did not. But. He knew the way back to her place, as private and secluded as any sheltered ambush where he might blend in with her familiar horizon until it was too late for her to juke off to Tom. Waking with her in her very own bedroom had been a start he was in no way prepared to ditch. He wanted to rest amid her brilliance; he wanted to reflect her light.

Stupid talk of bird-in-the-sky memories, and planets and stars. You’re either on this earth, or you’re under it—an email from Sten before he’d vanished that burned constant in Jared’s brain. Pauline would fly, when the time was right, directly at him, and she might not even know it was him she was swifting to; maybe he’d decoy her into it, “but that’d be okay,” Sten said, and Jared sensed his brother was right, as long as Pauline ended up in his arms where he’d otherwise be clutching a gun.

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