At 7:30 AM on Saturday morning, Craig's phone rang. It was his private line. There was no answering machine, so the phone rang and kept on ringing.
Craig, mostly asleep, tumbled out of bed, tripped over yesterdayís clothes, and picked up the handset. The tinny voice said, "It's Ashleigh."
"Ashleigh," he said muzzily, his brain latching on to the first comprehensible word. "Ash, it's..." He yawned and focused on the digital clock by his bed. "It's 7:30 in the morning."
"I know that," she said. "And for that matter, it's 7:32. Craig, do you remember what day it is?"
"It's a Saturday," he said fuzzily. "And it's early. I wanna go back to sleep."
"You can't," she said. "Remeber what else it is?"
He thought as best he could. He had gotten wildly drunk the night before and was operating on less than four hours of sleep, but it only took him a moment to realize: "It's your birthday."
"Yes," she said, "it's my birthday. We've been planning this for a long time. You know that."
He fought to keep his voice calm. "But I thought we were going to start after nine o'clock. Christ, Ashleigh, I had a horrible day yesterday. Can't you just give me five more minutes?"
There was a muted humph, and then no answer.
"Ashleigh?" he asked.
The response came in a rush of happy brass. She had popped one of her orchestra CDs into the stereo and was blasting it at a volume to wake the dead. It certainly woke him.
He yelped: "All right, all right, I'm up! Ash? Ashleigh, stop it!"
The music halted.
"Did you have to do that," he yelled. "Fuck! I swear i'm deaf in that ear now!" He wasnít, of course, but she didn't need to know that.
"You weren't going to wake up," she said succinctly. "Craig, this is important. You know it's important. I want to get started on our plans as soon as possible."
Craig grumped. "How long've you been up?"
"Since Thursday," she said quickly. "I'm not going to waste any time anymore."
"You didn't sleep at all last night?" he said incredulously. "Jesus! I was out like a light the minute I got home."
"I don't know," she said, "I just have more energy these days. And I drank a lot of Pepsi. And it'll be okay, anyway, because in 24 hours it won't matter at all anymore."
Maybe not to you, Craig said, but he said it silently.
"Look," Ashleigh said, "when can you come over?"
He shook his head--pointless, really, when you were on the phone. "Give me half an hour," he said, "and I'll be over."
Craig showered carefully, washed his hair, shaved. He dressed neatly. He ate some-thing to fill his stomach; fifteen seconds after he was done he had forgotten what it was. He brushed his teeth, applied deodorant, dried and combed and coiffed his hair. He floated through his tasks on automatic pilot, deviating without realizing it from his carefully-rehearsed grooming routines. On automatic pilot he made love to his image in the mirror, made his image lovely in the mirror.
He was tall and well-muscled; he played a fairly decent end on the football team at his high school. He had fine curly hair of a brownish tone, which Ashleigh called 'blond with too much gray in it.' His eyes were of a similar color, but greener. His face was well-sculped, unblemished by age and puberty.
Ordinarily he was fairly vain of his appearance, but today he saw not a thing. In the mirror he saw only Ashleigh's face, her narrow features and rich blond hair and deep green eyes that he had to stop himself from falling into every time he looked at them. She was not extraordinarily beatuful, and he was not inordinately handsome.
They were ordinary.
After today, he thought, we wonít be ordinary again.
It took him ten minutes to drive to Ashleigh's house in Cupertino, which put him five minutes late. Ashleigh was sitting on the porch outside her house, waiting, when he got there. "You're seven minutes late," she sad as she got into the car. It was a white Geo Metro, and he took care to keep it in good shape. She settled into the passenger seat smoothly, shutting the door with a nice sort of a bang. She could be incredibly graceful when she wanted to.
Craig snorted and slammed the car into gear, surged off. She could say. She was late to things just as much as he was, if not later.
"Drive around the neighborhood," she ordered, "I want to see it again." She was giving the orders today. This was previously agreed upon, but Craig decided that last day or no last day, if she got out of line he wasn't going to listen.
But he cranked on the steering wheel and took her around the neighborhood. Ashleigh watched out the window intently, putting faint mist along the glass pane with her breath, occasionally waving to a neighbor. She seemed vaguely content. Her calm made his stomach boil.
So once he found a quiet street with no one on it, he pulled over to the sidewalk and parked the car.
"I don't want to see this street, Craig," she said.
"Are you serious," he asked, ignoring her, "are you really going to go through with this?"
"Yes," Ashleigh said calmly. "I will be seventeen in..." She consulted her watch. "...Eighteen hours. At that point, the chance to actually fulfill one of my goals will be gone. And I've missed so many of them in my life. I'm not going to miss this one."
His stomach clenched. Of all the goals to be serious about hitting, he thought. "How... How're you going to do it?"
She reached into her pocket and pulled out a gun.
It was cold and massive in her hand: a neat little hand-held package of contained violence, gleaming with blood-lust in the light of the sun.
"Itís my fatherís," she said. "I only found it a few weeks ago. When they were asleep last night I sneaked it out of his bureau."
Craig remembered that she had tried the same stunt she was going try later today about three days ago. The thought that sheíd had access to a gun at that time... "Your father has a gun?" he said, feeling strangled.
"Yes," she said, "and this is it."
Ashleighís greatest ambition was to end her life before her seventeenth birthday. She had tried half a dozen times that Craig knew about, doubtlessly more he didnít. He knew he had stopped her at least once, and the rest had just somehow worked out.
This time it might not.
He stared at the pistol. It seemed to dominate her hand, dominate the car. It was only steel and aluminum and plastic, and it chilled him to the bone.
"How long has he had it?" he asked.
"I donít know," she said, "it doesnít matter. All that matters is that I use it."
"What... Ashleigh, how can it not matter?" he said nonsensically. "Your fatherís going to feel awful when he finds out you used his gun to kill yourself."
"He wonít," Ashleigh said flatly. "I told him Iíd found his gun, and he didnít give a fuck."
"Well..." said Craig.
"Look, letís not talk about it now," Ashleigh said suddenly. She stuck the pistol back into her pocket, all the way in, snugged it securely out of sight.
Craig gave her an odd look, but he didnít say anything of the firearm or her father.
"All right," he said, "now what?"
"We start," said Ashleigh. "We were going to go to San Francisco, remember."
"Works for me," said Craig. "Do you know your way around there?"
"No," she said, "thatís the idea."
They drove off. Craig got on the highway, going north to San Francisco. He said: "Isnít there any way for me to convince you otherwise?"
"No," said Ashleigh, "Iíd think youíd be pleased to see me gone." Her green eyes traced the rolling hills, yellowed with grass. "After all, I dragged you out of bed at seven-thirty in the morning."
"Yeah, but..." said Craig. She had a point. "But, Ash, one morning of making me wake up early doesnít make me hate you already."
"But what about my pessimism?" she countered. "You always say Iím too pessimistic. And you also say that Iím too self-centered, that I think of myself too much and never about you. You keep complaining that I donít wear makeup, that I donít let you fuck me often enough, and--"
"All right, all right," Craig shouted. He didnít like being criticized. "So you are a demanding bitch. Shut up about it already."
"I hate you," she said. "I hate your kindness, and I hate how you always cheer me up. I hate how you always seem to be right. I wish you would let youreself hate me. Itíd be easier for both of us."
"Fine," Craig agreed viciously, "I hate you. Iíll pull over and let you walk."
She gave him an odd look.
Immediately he recanted: "No, Ash, Iím sorry-- Ashleigh? Ash, Iím sorry--"
"Donít be," Ashleigh said coldly. "Itís better if youíre glad to see me go." Her hard green eyes watched the limp and unresisting hills.
"But I donít," he said. "Ashleigh, maybe youíre all those things, but thereís more to you than that, I know it."
"What?" She turned to look at him and the cold recklessness in her eyes scared him. "Tell me what more there is," she said.
"Well..." said Craig.
"My parents beat me, I was molested by an uncle, my mother hates me. No one ever cares about me. Tell me what more there is to me." Her eyes chewed at him, polar ice. "Tell me."
Craig opened his mouth helplessly, trying to make himself form words. There was a lot to say and he could see it all very clearly and he just could not say it--
"You see," she said, "you canít. Thereís nothing. I donít do anything useful. I donít even do my homework. You do your homework, Craig, and youíre the biggest lazy-ass I know. I donít do anything and I donít give anything to anybody. What right have I to live?"
Useless, he drove.
They met the barrier of overcast clouds and crossed over it, passed under it. You knew you were close to San Francisco when the sky turned grey and the sun went out. They passed a cemetery on the side of the highway. It stretched almost halfway to the horizon, green grass under the grey sky, endless rows of white tombstones under the grey sky like white teeth.
"Maybe Iíll be buried there," Ashleigh said.
How appropriate it all is, Craig thought.
"Can we go there," Ashleigh asked.
Craig didnít have a problem with it. He did, however, have a problem with finding the damn place.
"Oh, no problem," Ashleigh said, "take the next exit and go in that direction."
Craig did. It felt odd, the whole situation did. This was surreal. He wondered, vaguely, what his parents were going to think when they found out about it.
"You helped Ashleigh kill herself," his mother would shriek. "What kind of a friend does that? Thatís even worse than Dr. Kevorkian. How could you do such a thing?"
And his father would say in his quiet tones: "You might be arrested, you know. For aiding and abetting premeditated murder. And Ashleighís family may sue."
"Oh, Craig." His mother would be near tears. "You know how much her parents loved her. And now sheís gone--and you helped. Do you know how much theyíll be crushed?"
The light turned green, and Craig drove on, leaving his gravely serious parents on the pavement behind him. He glanced at Ashleigh: she was leaning back with her eyes closed. There were bags under her eyes. Her whole body was haggard.
"Donít let me fall asleep," she said, "just donít. Iím not going to sleep anymore. I donít have time to waste."
He shook his head. He hated her sometimes, hated the power she held over him. He hated how he just wanted to melt when she touched him, or smiled one of those special smiles she saved for him alone. He hadnít had a choice when she asked his help with this plan, and he hated that worst of all.
At the cemetery he parked the car and got out. Ashleigh led the way into the cemetery proper, walking calmly among the rows of tombstones. He saw her: a single emissary from the world of the living, infiltrating the ranks of the dead. A single blemish of color among the green and grey word of the damned.
What scared him was that the picture fit. She seemed awfully at home, walking among the bodies. This was a place of isolation, for isolation.
She stopped in an area halfway across the plain of green. The highway clamored and yelled faintly, the incoherent roars of a parade of souls pleading for mercy.
"Itís quiet here," she said.
An abortive car horn slashed by.
"Yes," Craig said.
"Sort of," Craig agreed noncommittally.
"Isnít it a nice place?"
"No," said Craig, "It chills me."
Ashleigh looked around, and then said, "Oh, no way!"
"What?" Craig asked.
"Look," Ashleigh said. She darted to a tombstone and knelt in the grass. Craig clumped after her. He read the tombstone:
1982 -- 1998
Requiescat in Pace
"I knew him," said Ashleigh. "I always wondered what happened to him."
Under the incomprehensible Latin was an inset picture: a boy of pale skin, pale eyes, pale hair, childlike and eternally smiling. He had that look of youthful optimism about him, that says to those who watch, Life is not a problem. Apparently he had not had it beaten out of him when he died.
"Look at him smiling," Ashleigh said bitterly. "I bet he didnít want to commit suicide."
Craig read that Darren Walden had been run over by a truck not long after the picture had been taken. Who knows, he thought, who knows. Being run over by a truck was a pretty good way to knock yourself off the face of the earth.
"I wish I had known," Ashleigh said softly. Craig saw a tear drop into the ĎEí in ĎWalden,í filling it in. "I wish I couldíve stopped him. He was always smiling, always there to make us laugh or smile. He was a nice guy. It was like, if he was around, everything would be all right."
Craig had no idea what she was talking about. He shrugged uncomfortably. The first time heíd ever heard Darren Waldenís name was to learn he was dead. He wondered remotely if this ought to bother him.
She said: "Youíre like that," and she looked straight at Craig.
Craig gave her and unbelieving glance.
"But not to me," she said, an edge growing in the words. "You only make things worse."
Craig drew an angry breath and kept his temper. She always insulted him like that. Why wasnít he used to it by now. "Iím trying to help you make it better," he said.
"Well, itís not working," Ashleigh said flatly.
"Whose fault is that," Craig returned coldly.
"Itís sure as hell not mine," Ashleigh retorted.
"Not yours!" Craig cried, choking on the words. "Not yours! Ashleigh, itís all your fault!"
The air went to ice around her eyes, and she tossed her golden hair angrily. "Craig, maybe youíve forgotten that being completely negative was never my choice. I didnít ask my parents to beat me. I didnít ask that boy Kellen to harass me. It wasnít my choice to be ruined."
"It was your choice to get help," Craig snapped coldly. "Whereís the therapist you said youíd see? You said you were going to open up to people, but you havenít told anyone about anything. You never even tell me anything. You havenít called Child Protection Services, you havenít tried to find any help at all!"
"Itís not easy, Craig," she said quietly. Tears bathed the tombstone, a baptism of tears.
The anger went out of him. "Yes, I know, but..."
If itís so hard, why donít you ask for help?
Ashleigh dashed the tears away angrily. "Iím tired of this place. Come on, letís go." She set off among the ranked and numbered dead, a splash of grey in a cloudy world. He watched the movement of her hips. She had a smooth firm ass, and her jeans accentuated them.
Craig caught himself. Youíre girlfriendís gonna kill herself today, he thought crossly, and youíre thinking about her ass. You are a sick, sick man, Craig Chambers. Be rational, not hormonal.
It wasnít easy to do. There was something about Ashleigh Walkerís body that he found eminently desirable, some subtle arrangement of her features that fired him like no other girl had or could. She wasnít strictly beautiful, barely qualified as pretty, but she always could get him hard and ready.
Which she had done now. It was pretty uncomfortable trying to drive with a hard-on.
Ashleigh noticed. "I suppose you want me to get rid of that." Her green eyes drilled him.
"Well," Craig said, "I guess I wouldnít mind."
"Youíre out of luck," she said crossly. "You get enough fucking from me anyway. Thatís like your only response to problems, have you noticed that? If somethingís going wrong, we just start fucking." She looked away. Her tawny hair caught the dim vague lighting of the sun under the clouds. "Thatís all I am to you, I suppose."
Craig sighed. When she was feeling agitated and cold, it was hard to get her to respond any other way. And her body... This wasnít his fault! He wasnít good at dealing with her when she was unreasonable; really, he thought he did a pretty decent job of it, all things considered.
He realized she wasnít being rational or reasonable now, not really, and hadnít been for a while. He wondered if sheíd ever be rational again. In twenty-four hours it might not make make much of a difference.
Instead of answering, he said: "Now what?"
"Do you want to see the Golden Gate Bridge?" Ashleigh asked him.
He didnít really care, so he drove her to the bridge. Or at least he tried. He didnít have the slightest idea as to how to get to the Bridge. "Stop and ask directions or weíll end up in Colorado" Ashleigh said, and after a few misplaced turns Craig relented with bad grace. He bought overpriced gas, at 1.59 a gallon, which he didnít really need, while Ashleigh went into the cashierís room to pay.
"Why do you need gas, youíre three quarters full," she asked.
"You need an excuse to go in there," Craig said. Ashleigh glared iron bolts, but she stuffed the money into her pocket and went.
They had been going eastward.
The overcast sky cleared up as they drove, so when Craig parked at the north end of the bridge and he and Ashleigh got out, the sun was shining clear. The wind from the Bay blew her long hair backwards, like a streak of sunlight solidified.
Ashleigh brought out her camera. It was an expensive camera and of very good quality; it had been, at the time Craig bought it for her, the best camera available for amateur photographers that he could find. It was sleek silver, a flowing economic design that fit her slim hand.
They walked down the blood-red bridge with the flow of tourists, against the traffic of the cars. At every few intervals there were studded plates of worn brown metal set into the sidewalk. They made no clanging noises as he walked across them.
Craig tucked his hands into his pockets. Ashleigh forged forward against the wind.
At one of the massive struts they stopped. The sidewalk went out around the outside of the strut, leaving them in the shadow of the mammoth red girder. The strut was covered in bolts. Ashleigh took pictures, of the water below, of Craigís face. She stood with her back to the wall and looked up at the girder and took a picture of that as well. A group of Chinese tourists were peeking out over the railing, and from the angle of the picture Ashleigh took, they looked like they had no heads.
The tourists were, for some reason, spitting out over the edge into the Bay. Ashleigh, frowning, tucked her camera into her pocket and joined them at the railing. "Whatíre they doing," she asked him.
The spitting stopped for the time being while the tourists either reloaded or dug about in purses and pockets. There were squeals as they found their prize.
One of the children dropped a penny over the rail.
It fell, as mandated by the law of gravity. But the moment it cleared the underside of the bridge, the wind seized it up in eager hands and swept it away. The penny tumbled sideways, suddenly flung away from the bridge on the wings of the wind.
The tourists gasped in amazement, laughed. The wind crashed angrily, clamoring for more attention.
One of the boys dropped another penny, to the same effect: it streaked down and suddenly leapt out as the wind from the bay tangled it. Someone spit, someone tossed out a silver quarter; the wind beat away gravity, grabbed all with laughing hands.
Ashleigh watched with face pale and drawn. She grilled the railing with white-knuckled hands. She trembled like a leaf in the cursing wind. Craig put his arms around her hesitantly--she was touchy about being touched--and felt her trembling. He saw her face as the next penny tumbled, and as it tumbled he suddenly imagined her long body in its place, hair flying, tumbling end over end on the bosom of the wind... fluttering into the Bay with a splash.
Craig held her close and buried his face in her windswept golden hair and let her tremble. He knew what she had seen in the penny. The whole thing scared him. She only let him hold her when things were bad.
The wind blasted and clawed at them, to no avail.
The clouds rolled back in, silent and brooding.
Presently Ashleigh said, "Letís get out of here now."
They walked back to Craigís white Geo Metro and got in. Ashleigh wanted to eat, so they went to a McDonaldís for an early lunch. He ate well. She picked at her food. She never ate much at all, he realized. It was the first time he had realized that most of the time she left over half of her meal untouched.
"That scared me," she said.
Immediately he wanted to fuck her. Not because she looked particularly desirable, but because it was practically the only way she would let him put his arms around her, and even then sometimes she didnít. Somehow, she did seem to like positions with a lot of skin contact. Heíd always thought she had been a rather physical, touchy-feely person at the beginning, but being beaten by oneís parents probably knocked that trait out very neatly.
"Iím sorry," he said.
Ashleigh looked up from her untouched fries. "Why?" she asked. "Itís not your fault. Itís mine. I wanted to see the Bridge, not you. You just drove me there." Her face was quiet, and... Some trait he could not define. In a subtle way, she had the most wonderfully expressive face he had ever seen.
"What else was I supposed to say?" Craig asked.
"You couldíve kept silent," she reminded him.
Craig scowled. "Then you tell me Iím not being sympathetic. You accuse me of being too self-absorbed to notice you."
Ashleigh bristled. "Well, maybe I donít want you to notice me."
Craig got angry. She didnít want him to notice her? After all he had done for her? He stood up. "I can leave right now, if you want. Iíll never notice you again."
Ashleighís face was troubled. She said nothing. She reached into her pocket for the cold steel of the gun.
Instantly Craig was apologetic. "Oh, Ashleigh, I didnít mean it..." God, what if she were to blow her brains out right here in the McDonaldís? "Ash? Ashleigh? Donít--"
She looked at him with troubled, troubled eyes, green and tired.
Soulful, that was the word. She had the most soulful face he had ever seen.
"Put it away, Ash," he said quietly.
She withdrew her hand from her pocket and placed it on the table.
Then she stood up and went away, out the door so quickly that he was barely on his feet before it shut. Christ, what if she does it out there? Abandoning food and dignity Craig scrambled after her.
Ashleigh stood on the wind-swept sidewalk. Her gold-spun hair made loops and tangles with itself and her green sweater--dark green, like a forest, not the ocean color of her eyes. She stared at the gum-spattered sidewalk studiously.
Not knowing what to do, he drew himself up and watched the sidewalk with her.
It was a common sidewalk of light gray cement. It was speckled with discarded wads of chewing gum in various colors: pink, white, green. A vagrant newspaper scuttled along the sidewalk, endorsed by the wind. He read on the cover page a story about a woman whose dog had been flung into traffic by an enraged driver. The sunís rays lit the sidewalk, making it sparkle the way some sidewalks do. What was it that did that? Had they dropped bits of metal into the cement before it dried? Were there bits of crystal in the mixture?
The wind coursed, and Ashleighís hair buffeted him, ending his ruminations.
"I canít deny you anything," she said quietly. "Donít touch me."
"All right, all right, I wonít," Craig said, feeling miffed.
"I donít know why," Ashleigh continued. "If you wanted me to jump in front of an oncoming bus, I think I might do it." Especially in her current state of mind. She watched a plastic cup tumble across the sidewalk as a car surged by. The cup tumbled end over end, caught in the carís jetwash, making hollow thunking sounds. "I hate how you have such power over me. And I hate how you never abuse it." She drilled him with an accusing glance. "No matter what happens, youíve never mistreated me. Youíre always so nice, so fucking gentle." She spat the last word. "Itís impossible to hate you."
Craig gave her a disgruntled look. "Sorry."
She made a minor smile: the corner of her lip twitched; that was all. Then she walked to his white car and stood with arms crossed and impatient impression on her face, tapping her foot until he unlocked the car and let her in.
"I want to shower," she said. "Iíve only showered once today and that McDonaldís was probably dirtier than the road is." Ashleigh was a compulsive showerer.
"And how do you intend to do that," Craig asked.
"Youíre going to get us a hotel room," she said.
Craig checked the condition of his wallet. He hadnít all that much money left. "How much?" Ashleigh asked. Digging around he turned up with about thirty dollars.
"I told you to bring a lot of money," Ashleigh said reprovingly.
He hadnít had time to get money. He had intended to do it the night before, but they both knew how that had turned out.
Ashleigh scowled. "All right, weíll have to find an ATM."
ATMs, Craig pointed out, were not shown on maps. In any case it was a moot point because he didnít have any maps in his car.
"There are always ATMs at the airport," Ashleigh returned.
All right, Einstein, how do you intend to get to the airport?
"Weíre in San Francisco," she said. "Thereís an international airport here, and I know Iíve seen an exit leading there from the highway. We havenít passed that exit yet. So we just get on the highway and drive until we see the exit, and then we take it."
Craig gave her an odd look and drove onto the highway. She was too smart for him sometimes. But sure enough, she was right, and Ashleigh made a satisfied noise when he pulled into the exit ramp.
"International or domestic," Craig asked.
She gave him a dirty look. "I donít care. Letís be glamorous. International."
They found a parking space, depleting a third of Craigís funds to pay for parking, and went into the airport. The place was wide and spacious, with sterile utilitarian silver metal and dull plastic. He was chillingly reminded of the pistol Ashleigh carried in her pocket, that she intended to kill herself with. He imagined her falling to the ground, the pistol spiraling from her hand, her blood and brains spilled across the dark carpet.
He decided to imagine something friendlier.
Craig located an ATM machine and logged into his bank account. Ashleigh lounged and watched the crowds.
"Look at them," she said, "all doing something. They all have places to go, things to do. Theyíre all on their way to somewhere different."
"Hmm," said Craig, not paying the slightest attention.
"They have a purpose," Ashleigh said. "They have a goal. Even if itís only to catch the next flight." She glanced at the readout on his ATM account. "Jesus," she cried incredulously, "you have that much money?"
He said defensively: "I save." It was true. Craig didnít care much for material wealth, he had been working through all of high school, and he was beginning to play the stock market, with mixed success. He knew what to do with money, and Spend it wasnít the right answer.
She fell silent, mulling. Craig started to withdraw some money, but he stopped. The tone of her silence boded nothing good. He glanced over at her.
Ashleigh stood beside the ATM machine with her arms crossed under her breasts, clasping her elbows with her hands. Her long hair flowed down her back, a river of gold. Her body seemed hunched over. She stared at the dark carpeted ground with unfocused green eyes.
She wore a dark green sweater, with a logo on the breast for a place in Lake Tahoe; she wore tight-fitting blue jeans. Looking at her Craig was struck suddenly by the feeling that she was only ordinary. Nothing particularly stood out about her--the average amount of blemishes on her skin, and her hair and eyes were certainly not unique. But at the same time, watching her, he realized just how completely un-ordinary she was. He wondered how he could have thought she was ever ordinary.
He wondered which one she was.
"Have you ever wanted to go to another country," she asked him suddenly.
He jolted out of his reverie. "Uh, no," he said. America was just fine with him.
"Iíve always wanted to see France," she said. "My mother was born here, but my grandparents were born in France." She smiled a little. "Momís a bitch but her parents are nice."
Suddenly she looked directly at him. "Do you want to go to France?"
"What," he said, startled, "now?"
"Sure, why not," she said, "youíve got a lot of money. Empty your bank account. Weíll get on the next plane and go to France."
W-- And then what," Craig asked. "Did you go and learn French without telling me about it?"
"Well," said Ashleigh."
"And if you go to France, you canít take a shower," Craig pointed out.
She sighed. "Youíre no fun."
He withdrew a reasonable amount of money and the ATM machine spat out his bills. He took up the cache of money, crisp and clean, and looked at them. They were so simple, so utilitarian... You knew what they were about. They had distinct numbers, distinct faces. They were very defined. Why couldnít life be as simple, he wondered.
Ashleigh was waiting by the exit.
He crumpled the bills into a ball in his pocket and went out with her to his car.
As they drove she did something she had never done before: she turned on the radio and sang. She had a beautiful voice. They were songs he had never heard before, moody swelling crescendos and long harmonies. His taste in music had always leaned towards the hard and fast-paced sort, the stuff that got his heart pumping. This, in contrast, made his heart melt. He was entranced, and more than a little sad when she stopped mid-song and said, "Stop there," pointing at a hotel.
"Why there," he asked.
"Iíve always wanted to stay there," she said. "We used to come by this part of San Francisco a lot, and we always passed by this building but never once saw the inside..."
They got a basic room--two beds, two semi-comfortable chairs with a table and an ashtray between them, a television and, most importantly, a bathroom with a shower. To humor her he had specified a bathroom and gotten a dirty sort of look from the room clerk. "All of our rooms have bathrooms, sir." Ashleigh giggled.
She doffed her clothes ad left them outside the door while she showered. Craig watched TV and conspicuously avoided looking at the pile of clothes--her bra and panties were lying at the top of the pile.
At least, he didnít look until he realized the pistol was still in the pocket of her jeans.
Craig left the TV on. He crept towards the innocuous pile of clothing, expecting her to come bursting out at any moment. But the water kept running. Carefully he sifted through the clothes--they were still warm from her body and smelled faintly of her (instant hard-on) and withdrew the pistol from her jeans. The metal was cold.
Facing the window, as far from the bathroom as he could get, he tried to figure out what to do with the weapon.
The most obvious solution was to remove the clip. But he wasnít sure how. He had no practical experience with firearms. Apparently Ashleigh did, but asking her for help would rather defeat the purpose. He stayed away from the trigger part of the weapon. He knew these things had safety catches, but that was about it.
He knew that if you pulled the trigger, it fired bullets at whatever you pointed it at. He was desperately trying to avoid that trigger being pulled--or, lacking an alternative, avoid bullets being fired at the target. Because the target was likely to be Ashleighís head.
He stopped fussing over the pistol. Such an innocuous-looking piece of metal and plastic. What in the world was he going to do with it?
"Whatíre you looking at?" Ashleigh asked.
He jumped. He hadnít heard her come out of the bathroom.
He could feel her coming closer, crossing the room to him. He didnít dare look up for fear his face would betray him. She grasped his shoulder and levered herself forward, her cheek brushing his, to see what he had in his lap.
She stiffened. The hand on his shoulder went cold.
"Thatís mine," she said accusingly.
He said nothing.
"Give it," Ashleigh said, grabbing for the pistol in his lap.
He stood up and faced her, to ruin her leverage; but his hand moved of its own accord, and by the time he was standing up the pistol was pointed at her.
"No," he said.
She tilted her head and made a vexed noise. Now they were at an impasse. His back was to the wall, but he had what she wanted.
Ashleigh gave him a haughty stare. The fact that she wore only a towel only added to her icy dignity. "Craig, give me the gun."
A part of him was laughing hysterically. This was completely impossible. But the same part was incredibly surprised that the rest of him was remaining so calm. "No, Ashleigh, I wonít."
"Give it to me now."
"No," he said again. Which letter did she not understand? "Why do you want it?"
"So that I can kill myself," she said simply. Which syllable did he not understand? Her green eyes were steady. There were goosebumps on her white shoulders.
"And you think Iím going to let you," he asked.
"You ought to," she countered. She tossed her head; stringy wet strands of golden hair went flying. "You canít keep me alive against my will. Itís not a good thing for me to be alive, Craig. Iím useless. I take up valuable resources. Like oxygen. You know that. Itís better for all involved if I die."
"Is it?" he asked. "Ashleigh, Iíll miss you."
"Youíll get over me," Ashleigh said.
"Youíre awfully casual in discarding me," Craig said. Why in the world wasnít he laughing hysterically, capering in circles, tearing his hair out? "Since when do you know my mind?" I certainly donít. "What if I donít get over you? What if I never do find someone else to fuck?"
"Is that my only use?" she cried. "Is that the only reason I ought to live?"
"No," he said.
"Give me another reason," Ashleigh yelled. "Tell me what I do that makes me useful. Tell me what I do that a hundred people donít do already. Give me a reason to live!"
Craig said: "You sing better than anyone I know."
There was silence. The fire stayed in her eyes, but she seemed to sag in place.
"Well, whatíre you going to do with the gun," she asked in what seemed to be a neutral tone of voice. Not neutral, actually, but dull.
"Whatever I do, Iím not giving it to you," he said.
"You ought to," she said. "You donít have the slightest idea how to use it."
He tried to lie convincingly: "Yes I do."
"Did you know the safety is off?" she asked.
Hurriedly he let go of the trigger.
"Craig, just give it to me," she said, sounding more tired than anyone ought to be allowed to feel.
Inspiration. He said: "Only if you let me keep the bullets."
She considered a minute, and then sighed. "All right. Give me the gun."
"No," he cried, "tell me how to do it and Iíll get them out myself."
She gave him an odd look. "I swear that for the next minute at least I will not do anything to you or myself with that gun."
To him? The thought had never occurred to him. He thought: Oh, shit...
But she kept her promises, so he handed over the gun. She popped the clip out and handed it back to him. He took it with no visible emotion, but his hand trembled. This was scary.
He stared at the bullets in his hand. They looked innocuous too. They were harmless. It was only Ashleigh that made them dangerous.
Ashleighís towel was on the bed. She was putting on her clothes. Craig watched her dress herself, with only a feeling of tired sadness. She had been born at two thirteen in the morning on May seventh. It was about two oíclock now. He watched her clothe her marvelous female body, with all its curves and softness, and thought: In twelve hours or so, that body could be cold and stiff and... Dead.
He sighed. "What do you want to do now, Ash?"
"Something crazy," she said.
"And everything weíve done today hasnít been crazy," he asked bluntly. He felt about a million years old.
She laughed. She had a subtle laugh, quiet and impassioned with the joy of just being able to laugh at all, of being able to be happy at all. It was one of those things that set her apart from the rest of the world, one of those things that a hundred other people did not do.
"You have a point," she said, and after a moment he smiled, too, and felt better for it.
"Well, whatís the crazy thing you want to do," he asked, feeling a little more resigned. Whatever was going to happen, would happen. He was just along for the ride.
"Iíve always wanted to just walk up to a strangerís house and ask to use their phone," she said with a conspiratorial grin. "Itís just one of those things Iíve always wanted to do."
He shrugged. "Works for me."
"Donít cancel the room," said Ashleigh, "weíre coming back here later."
He shook his head. "Youíre so... Youíre not paying for this room."
"Craig, Iím going to be dead in twelve hours," Ashleigh said quietly.
He said nothing.
"All right, come on," she said.
They got into the car and drove south, back towards San Jose and their houses. They drove for forty minutes in silence. Ashleigh did not sing. She stared sullenly out the window at the black asphalt streaking by, the green countryside and the valley below scrolling away. There was an air about her of fearful expectation.
At the exit she indicated, Craig pulled his ghost-white car off the highway and onto the residential roads. This was a very affluent neighborhood, with plots the size of parks and houses that scraped the appellation ĎMansion,í with a steak in every oven and a car for every kid regardless of whether the kid could drive yet. Ashleigh pointed out a particular house and they stopped there.
The only reason the house stood out was the assemblage before it. Lying dumbly on the lawn was a white-furred dog, bleary-eyed and rheumatic. It peered about at its surroun-dings through half-closed eyes rimmed in red. Arrayed around it were two women and two teens, a boy and a girl. One woman was obviously the mother of the children; the other appeared to have no connection to any of them whatsoever.
Conversation: "And I donít-- Hey, excuse me!" The second woman, the not-mother, broke off in mid-sentence and waved to them. "Is this your dog? Do you know him?"
"No," said Ashleigh, "why?"
"Well," the woman said, "itís my neighborís. Normally they donít let it out, but apparently it just got out and made its way down here."
"We just found it on our lawn," said the boy teen.
"Heís deaf and blind," the non-mother woman explained apologetically. "And I donít know how it got down here at all. I thought maybe you were my neighbors--I donít know them well at all, but--"
"No, weíre not your neighbors," said Craig.
"Oh, said the woman."
"Well, whyíd you stop, then," the girl teen asked, not unkindly.
"Actually, we were hoping we could borrow your phone," Ashleigh said. "Itís sort of an emergency."
The family exchanged glance. The mother said: "All right."
"Here, Iíll take them inside," said the girl. "Come on." She set off across the lawn, beckoning them to follow.
Craig and Ashleigh followed.
The girl was short and heavy-set, in a dark shirt and jeans. She took them inside the house, stopping to coo over a black cat that curled luxuriantly on the hood of a car. She gave them the first phone they came to, a battered beige touch-tone affair. "Go ahead, itís all yours," she said with a tinge of friendly irony, and sat at a computer on the other side of the desk, which was on and obviously awaiting her return. Within moments she was absorbed in its secrets.
Ashleigh considered the phone, and then picked up the receiver.
The dial tone sang.
Ashleigh considered the buttons, and then pushed one.
The two-tone beep of a number toggle slit the throat of the glorious dial tone.
Craig asked: "Who are you calling?"
"A friend," she said, "who knew Darren."
"I canít phone him at home, see, because my mother doesnít let me make long-distance calls," she explained.
She pressed a few more buttons. Numbers sang, an a cappella chorus.
Ashleigh looked at the phone. It was very beige. It did not seem as massive as the gun, not half as cold or dangerous by far.
She put the phone down.
"What, youíre not going to call," Craig asked.
"Obviously not," she retorted.
"Why not," Craig cried. The girl looked up from her computer with no expression on her face.
"I..." she shrugged.
"So youíre done," said the girl.
"Yes," Ashleigh said, "I just remembered that I donít need to call."
"All right," said the girl mildly, and went back to her computer. Evidently this sort of thing wasnít startling to her. Craig wondered whether it was self-possession or apathy.
They went back to Craigís white Geo Metro and drove off. The woman was gone, but the dog remained, tied dumbly to a local tree. It seemed happy there. The sun was shining and the breeze ruffled the silky fur under its ears; what more would an old dog want.
Ashleigh patted the dog on the head. "You and me, dog," she said.
"Now where," Craig asked. "Any other lifelong dreams you want to fulfill?" Suddenly he was inexplicably angry at her: she had dragged him all this way for nothing. "Want to go skydiving? Open fire on a school like those two nuts at Columbine? Swim under a dam? Anything?"
Ashleigh said nothing, only gave him a quiet look of unspeakable sadness.
Craig sighed, and it seemed she accepted his apology, for she put her hand on his.
"I want to go back to the hotel," she said. "I want to shower again." She thought for a moment. "I donít know. I feel... dirty."
He drove to the hotel. It took forty minutes. He felt like a chauffeur. She turned on the radio, but she did not sing. While she showered he sat on the bed with the clip of bullets in his hand, trying to think. What was she doing? How was he going to manage when she was gone?
When Ashleigh came out she said: "this looks familiar."
"Iím not going to do anything with them," he said, thinking about throwing them out the window.
She nodded and went to the phone between the beds. She was still wet from her bath and again she wore nothing but a towel. She picked up the phone and dialed.
"Who are you calling," Craig asked.
"The same person. Steve. I promised him I would call him today."
She promised, he thought. Hope? No, he didnít dare hope.
She pressed the speaker-phone toggle, so he could hear, and the trilling phone ring filled the room. Presently someone picked it up, a man with a gentle tan voice. "Hello?"
"Hey, Steve, itís Ashleigh," she said.
"Ashleigh! Hey! How are you?" said the disembodied voice. Craig imagined a tall man, about his own age, bronze-haired and leaning back in his chair, feet up, smiling.
"Iím all right, I guess," Ashleigh said in her gold-tinged voice. Her eyes went to the clip of bullets, which Craig had left on the bed glinting dully in the sunlight.
"Howíve you been? Itís been--what, two years since you last called me? Iíve missed you." They could hear his smile.
"Two years?" Ashleigh said, sounding amazed. "Has it really been that long?"
"Yeah," said Steve.
"Wow," Ashleigh said. "I... I dunno. Not too much. Just the usual. You know."
"School, life, hell, so on," Steve offered.
"Tried to kill yourself again?" Steve asked glibly.
She met Craigís gaze sadly, and he fell into her green eyes. Without turning away she said into the phone: "Yes. About half a dozen times since then."
"Why didnít you call me?"
"Well... Someone saved me," Ashleigh said, smiling at Craig. He stood up and walked over to her and sat beside her and put his arms around her and, for a wonder, she let him.
"Oh," said Steve, not at all put out by the fact that someone had replaced him. "Local, I hope."
"Yeah, at least closer than you," she said, smiling.
Steve laughed. "Yep, kinda inconvenient for me to fly back down from Washington when you have a bad day." There was a pause, and the unsaid was clear: I would, though.
"Steve," Ashleigh said into the silence, "remember Darren Walden?"
"Darren, Darren..." Craig pictured the man sitting upright, snapping his fingers. "Darren Walden. Yes. Pale boy, always smiling?"
"Thatís the one," Ashleigh said. "I found out why we never heard from him again. He died. In í98."
"Oh, no," said Steve. "How?"
"Car crash," Ashleigh said shortly.
"Man," said Steve. "Thatís too bad." He meant it, too.
"Yeah," said Ashleigh. "Fourteen. Thatís a hell of an age to die."
There was a pause. Craig imagined Steve--he could see him so clearly--stopping in the middle of leaning back, his face pensive.
"I donít know about that," Steve said finally.
"What do you mean, you donít know about that," Ashleigh said, sounding affronted. "He was fourteen. He was barely out of eighth grade. Thereís so much of life he didnít do: growing up, graduating from college, falling in love, getting laid--"
"By the end of eighth grade I had had my first sex," Steve reminded her.
"Yes, Steve, I remember." Ashleigh made a dry smile.
"And I think we can argue that graduating from college isnít necessarily worth the effort. But thatís not the point." The Steve in Craigís mind stood up and began to pace. "Ashleigh, the question isnít what you didnít do with your life, but what you did."
Ashleigh frowned. "I donít understand."
"Of course not." This with a smile, to take the sting out of the comment. Steve had a loud smile. "Youíve always been one to look forward, Ashleigh, never back. But look back, this time. I know you can do it." Again, the smile; a friendly assertion, not a derisive comment. "Just look back at what you know of Darren. What has he done?"
Ashleigh thought. Her face scrunched up, and she hunched over in Craigís arms.
"Donít ask me," Craig said. His voice was brown.
Ashleigh nodded. Aloud she said, her voice like golden chimes: "He was always complaining about homework. Do you remember--"
"Ashleigh, love, there you fall into the trap," said Steve. "Youíre confusing accomplish with do. Weíve all done things, hundreds and hundreds of things. But not all of us have accomplished anything. So with that in mind, what has Darren accomplished?"
Ashleigh said slowly: "Well, he always made us laugh."
"Ah, hah!" cried Steve triumphantly. "Lo, the heavens opened! Ashleigh, youíre starting to get it!" Somehow he was carrying this entire conversation without sounding conciliatory or demeaning. "Anything else?"
"He stopped a lot of arguments," Ashleigh said with growing confidence. "He never let us scare him. He kept us sane, basically, through a lot of the bad times."
"Exactly," said Steve. "Ash, Iíve always been convinced that, if not for him, at least one of us would be dead by our own hand by now, if not more. He kept me from the edge at least once, and I know he kept you and Sarah alive too."
"Steve," Ashleigh said quietly, "one of us is six feet under right now."
"Yes, but not by his own choice," Steve said. "Ashleigh, you may call me crazy, but I believe in pre-destination. I think Darren was placed on this plane of existence just to keep us sane until others could step in to take over the job." Ashleigh glanced at Craig with warm green eyes, and he squeezed her shoulders. "So once we were able to take care of ourselves--or in your case found someone to lean on--his job was done, and he could be taken away with impunity."
"Isnít that self-centered," Ashleigh asked. "Thinking someone was born just to hold you up?"
"Well, yes, but we all need something to believe in," Steve said simply. "And there are less noble things one could do with oneís life."
Ashleigh humphed. "Look, Steve, does all this have a point?"
"Yes." The Steve in Craigís head sat down in his chair; it creaked and wobbled in protest at its mistreatment. "In lieu of all weíve said, do you think Darren has accomplished enough already?"
"By your definition, yes," Ashleigh said.
"By yours?" Steve asked.
Ashleigh said nothing. Craig sat beside her maintaining a hard-on and smelling her sweet feminine scent and the golden tones of her hair. Somewhere far away Steve picked up a pen and twirled it deftly about his fingers.
"Well, yes," Ashleigh said, finally, reluctantly. Immediately she added: "But there was a lot more he couldíve done with his life if heíd lived."
"Ah, yes, and there you hit the crux of the matter, Ashleigh." Steve bolted out of his chair again, which whined recalcitrantly. He paced the dark confines of the room, illuminated solely in blue-white computer-screen glow. "You donít believe anyone is worth anything unless they are constantly achieving something tangible. Thatís why you never think of yourself as achieving anything. And how are your grades this year?" His voice was warm, as though he already knew the answer.
"Horrible," Ashleigh said with a faint smile.
"Any honors or AP classes?" Steve asked, smiling.
"None," Ashleigh said, grinning.
"Havenít even taken them yet!" Ashleigh cried triumphantly.
"And thus you are completely worthless in your own eyes," Steve said.
"...Well," said Ashleigh.
"Ashleigh, let me tell you a story." The Steve in Craigís mind looked at the pen in his hands, the spring-loaded type where one presses the back to extend the tip. The penís plastic barrel was a transparent blue.
"The last time you called me, I was going to kill myself the next day."
"No!" Ashleigh cried.
"Yes, love," Steve said apologetically. "But obviously I didnít, as Iím still here speaking to you. You see, you called me. You asked me how I was doing."
"You lied," Ashleigh said, "you said you were fine."
"Yes," Steve said, "what else could I have done? Here you were coming straight out of the blue. I couldnít guarantee that youíd remain safe if I told you what I was planning." His voice and face were sad. "But thatís not the point.
"The point is that you asked me how I was doing. No one had done that for some time. We were only able to talk for fifteen minutes but we spent the whole time on me."
"I always regretted that until now," Ashleigh said with one of her incredible smiles. "I called because I wanted some sympathy."
"Well, you didnít get it," Steve said, with a smile that mirrored Ashleighís in its brightness. "But you guaranteed future sympathy, Ash. Because you know what? That night I didnít kill myself. I didnít even try.
"Now, you donít have a diploma for that, nor a graduation certificate. Or a medal. No tangible proof of having done something. But, Ashleigh: have you accomplished anything?"
Ashleigh said nothing.
"Bingo," Steve said softly, and he flung the transparent blue pen from him, sent it clattering into the velvet darkness. And he smiled a great smile: victory.
Ashleigh sighed, and Craig kissed the top of her head.
Steve said presently: "So, who are you leaning on these days?"
Ashleigh gave a start and bolted out of Craigís arms. "Iím not leaning on anyone."
Steve dropped into his chair with a rattling squeak, dumped his feet on the white desk near the computer keyboard. Craig saw the tread of his shoes in his mind: a lattice of embossed hexagons. He wore those canvas shoes that so many people seemed to like. Sketchers, were they? "Come on, Ashleigh," he said cheerfully, "youíre always leaning on someone. Itís just the way you are. You may mask it by calling them your boyfriend or ordering them about--which you did to me," he added with an amused chuckle, "but youíre still leaning on them."
"Itís a weakness," Ashleigh said.
"No," Steve replied, "everyone does it. Some have just learned to be inconspicuous about it."
"Or be self-sufficient," Ashleigh countered.
"No one is self-sufficient, Ash," Steve said gently.
"But some are close," Ashleigh said.
"Yes," Steve admitted. It was the first word he had said that did not sound cheerful. Now he sounded only neutral. Bronze eyebrows crept closer, furrowed above lake-blue eyes.
"Why canít I be like that," Ashleigh asked bitterly.
There was a pause while Steve thought. He didnít chew his lip, but he looked around for the pen he had cast away.
"Well," said Steve, "Once you forgive yourself for having to lean on anyone in the first place, youíll be on your way."
Ashleigh said nothing. Craig put his arm around her again, around her white shoulders and the damp towel and the coldness in her heart, and he held her fast.
"His name is Craig," Ashleigh said finally.
Steve nodded. "And where are you?"
"In a hotel room in San Francisco," Ashleigh admitted.
"Whoa?! I thought you were at home. Iíd better let you go before the long-distance charges empty Craigís pocketbook. Iíll talk to you again soon, okay?"
"All right," Ashleigh said. "Thank you, Steve."
"No problem. I love you, Ash."
"Yeah. I love you too. Bye."
Steve hung up, and Craig could not see him in his mind at all anymore. He said: "So he stopped you."
"Yeah, a few times," Ashleigh admitted.
"And Darren stopped all of you," Craig said.
"Yes," Ashleigh replied.
"A friend. There were four of us. We broke after eighth grade, when Steve moved to Washington and Darren disappeared. I think she moved too. I havenít thought of her in a while."
"You never said anything about any of them," he remarked.
She sighed uncomfortably. "No. Lots of fond memories. Donít like to think about them."
"Thereís a lot about you I donít know," Craig said sadly, and in his head he heard Steveís whisper, "Bingo," and remembered the pen piercing the darkness.
After a moment, Craig said, "He said a lot of things I shouldíve said to you long ago."
Ashleigh said nothing, and he held her and was silent.
But finally she stood up and shed her towel. As she walked past him on the way to her clothes by the bathroom door, he watched her body move, drunk in the slimness of her arms, her smooth sculptured shoulders, the firm smooth curves of her breasts and ass, even the tangled triangle of hair between her legs. He watched, intoxicated, and was promptly unplugged as she disappeared around the corner of the bathroom.
"I want to eat," she said.
"What," said Craig, still slightly dizzied.
"Iím hungry," she said. "Letís go and get something to eat. Something edible, not that greasy stuff from McDonaldís. I want to go some place fancy."
Craig gave a little sort of a laugh. "Whoís paying?"
"You, of course," Ashleigh said. "But you get to borrow my credit card." He could hear her smile. Her smiles were rare and beautiful. "Itís from my mother. She says Iím not to use it except for in emergencies, but what the hell."
"Besides, in ten hours, it wonít matter," Ashleigh said.
Their smiles faded. Christ, Ashleigh, he thought, annoyed, did you have to go and say that?
He sighed. "Well, get dressed." Or not. "Weíll go find a fancy restaurant. Thereís probably one right here in the hotel--"
"No, I want to go out," Ashleigh said, her voice muffling as she pulled her shirt over her head. "Be nice to me, Craig. Iím trying to enjoy myself."
Under Ashleighís guidance he called the concierge and located a restaurant she thought she might like. They made a reservation for five-thirty and drove there. Dinner was large, fancy, very good and very expensive. Ashleigh had a lemon-roasted chicken breast, which she seemed to like, and Craig ordered a filet mignon, which he sort of pecked at. Ashleigh kept the conversation up on her end, talking deftly and determinedly on any and everything. He responded in nods and monosyllabics, sometimes not even in words. The situation was a reversal, and it scared him.
After dinner Ashleigh wanted to call Steve again. So Craig settled the bill, refusing a doggie bag, and Ashleigh made a collect call to Seattle from a local pay phone. Steve picked it up immediately.
"Ashleigh," he said. Craig could barely hear his voice through the phone against Ashleighís ear. "Long time no talk, eh."
"Yes, quite." Ashleigh clutched the phone to her ear. "Steve, just talk to me for a little bit. Please."
"Canít you get Craig to do that?" Steve asked with a scintillant smile.
"Well, I could, but... God, Steve, you know no one talks like you. No one knows me like you."
"True," Steve said. "Iíll have to teach Craig all that I know, then." He laughed. "After all, I canít quite come after you the same way he can."
"Yeah," Ashleigh said, "yeah." She clung to the phone like a lifeline, shrugged off Craigís hand.
"Well," Steve said, serious now, all cheer gone. "You want me to talk to you. All right. I suppose you know what the date is."
"Oh, yes," Ashleigh said, "how could I forget?"
"Whenís the last time you tried to cross the Big Line?" Steve asked.
"Two weeks ago."
"And later again today," Steve said.
"Yes," Ashleigh said.
"And I suppose youíve got people around to save you," Steve said casually.
Ashleigh frowned with sudden venom. "What if I donít?"
"It wonít happen," Steve said simply, "you always will. You see, Ashleigh, that day will never come. Your support crew is around you because youíve always needed them. Youíve never been able to justify your own existence, so you have to ask them. But of course you canít take those justifications to heart, because theyíre not yours, theyíre someone elseís.
"But your attempts will always go in two ways. Either you tell people, which means you want that justification. Or if not, you wonít tell anyone, and then weíre all lost anyway because youíll keep looking for as long as there is hope.
"And of course thereís a third way: you wonít even try it, because youíve found that justification. And thatís what weíre all trying to get you to do."
Ashleigh said nothing.
"Where are you?" Steve asked presently.
"In a fancy restaurant in San Francisco, on a payphone."
"Oh, wow, no wonder youíre slapping me with a collect call!" He laughed. "Oh, donít feel guilty, Iíll pay for it. Ashleigh, Iím glad you called me. Itís... Well, itís hard to explain. Iím pleased youíd call on me to ask for help. Iím pleased you trust me so much."
"Oh, well... Youíre welcome."
"All right. Does that satisfy your craving for my idle chatter?"
"Yes," Ashleigh said automatically.
"Okay, then. Forgive me for being practical, but I am paying for this call and itís probably costing me several dollars a second." His smile lit the phone cubicle. "Iíll talk to you again, okay?"
"Okay," said Ashleigh softly, "bye." She hung up, but she stood at the phone cubicle, watching the wall with mystic eyes.
"Ashleigh?" Craig said. "Are you okay?"
She sighed, a deep sigh, like the pent-up release of years of accumulated tired pain.
He patted her shoulder, awkwardly. "Iím sorry," he said.
"Donít be," she said, not moving a muscle outside of her mouth. "Itís not your fault."
He watched her beautiful face with sad eyes. Well, maybe not, but still...
"Come on," she said tonelessly. "I want to walk around Golden Gate Park as the sun goes down."
"Another dream," he said.
"No," she replied. "Iím out of dreams. Come on."
So they left the ghost-white car behind and went walking through the green grasses and the plants and the trees in the fading sunlight. It was calm, peaceful. Craig savored it. There was very little peace in his life when Ashleigh was involved, and what little there was tended to be the calm before the storm.
They found a secluded clearing, where the grass was soft, and sat, watching the sun. Craig wanted to have sex with her, because he was that kind of person, but enough people passed by that he realized that this simply wasnít the place for it. So he held Ashleigh, and let the horizon embrace the sun.
"Do you love me, Craig," she asked him.
Craig didnít know what to say. Normally he was able to deflect the question by reverting to some earlier topic, but there was no way to do that now. The answer was: "I donít know."
"Why not?" she asked. "Itís a simple yes-or-no question, isnít it?"
"No," he said, "I donít know what love is like."
She turned lethal in an instant. "You donít need to know," she said. "For all we know weíre all insane and fantasizing our entire lives. We know reality is subjective and arbitrary. So what I want to know is: Do you love me?"
Craig had no idea what to say, and she stared up at him with expectant eyes.
"Look," he said at last, "I donít know if I love you, but... When Iím with you, it seems that everything will come out okay. The world may fall apart and burn around me, but when you smile, I think that maybe, just maybe, we can put it back together.
"And I donít know what Iíd do without you," he added. "I just donít."
Ashleigh smiled quietly and settled closer to him. "Works for me," she said. She was quietly, deliciously drowsy in his arms. He loved it when she let him hold her. He was happy when she surrendered himself to him, happy that she would trust him. Trusting, caring, beautiful: that was Ashleigh at her best.
She fell asleep in his arms. Her clean body was warm and yielding. Over her head he watched the sun go slowly down, and played with her golden hair, and thought, If I could do this, just this, for the rest of my life...
Maybe he did love her. It had never occurred to him to decide. Just as long as he could fuck her... But soon he might not be able to. Soon she might be dead. It was around eight oíclock at night; they had seven hours left together, seven hours to make the best of.
Did I mean what I said, he wondered. All that stuff about her face and her smile... Did I really mean that, or was I just scared and trying to find something to say? Was it the truth... Or complete bullshit?
He looked down at her sleeping face. Her brow was furrowed in dream; even in sleep her troubles did not leave her. She was drooling a little on his shoulder.
Looking at her sleeping face, he had his answer.
He could watch her sleep for an eternity and never be bored.
But when she woke up, her eyes were dark. "I fell asleep," she said.
"Yes," he replied.
"I fell asleep," she repeated. Accusingly: "You didnít wake me up."
"Was I supposed to?" he asked, nonplussed.
"Yes!" Ashleigh cried. "I donít want to waste any time! I donít have any time to waste!" Her green eyes were furious. "Thereís a reason I havenít slept since Thursday, Craig!"
"All the more reason for you to get at least a little now," he retorted.
Ashleigh looked at him with new realization. "Youíre not taking me seriously."
Craig was astounded. Not taking her seriously? "Ashleigh, I am taking you very seriously--"
She bucked out of his arms, stood with her back facing him. Craig said: "Ashleigh? Ash, whatíre you--"
She looked up at him again and the pistol was in her hand and pointed at him.
"Now youíre taking me seriously," she said. ĎDonít move."
"And if I do?" Craig countered. "Whatíre you going to do? Shoot me?"
"Yes," she said.
"Ash, the clipís gone. Thereíre no bullets."
"Thereís one in the chamber," she said, "you donít fire bullets straight out of the clip, you know."
Craig didnít know. Was she bluffing? Was the telling the truth? The hand that held the gun was steady. It had long white nails. "I donít know about that, Ashleigh, why donít you prove it--"
"Donít be stupid with me, Craig," Ashleigh said in a voice like ice. "Iím not bluffing."
His guts felt like ice. This was surreal. This had to be surreal. He had fallen asleep and he was having a mind-bending dream--
"Donít move," Ashleigh repeated. "I know how to use this."
Can you? Craig wondered. Itís not as simple as pulling the trigger and putting a bullet into the target at a thousand miles an hour. Thereís more to it than that...
"Well, who are you going to use it on?" Craig asked aloud.
"You," she said, which took his blood to ice. He was still sitting on the ground, legs spraddled, with no leverage; she stood over him, the hard steel pistol in her hand straining towards him. "Youíre no help. Youíre just perpetuating the cycle. Another person for me to lean on. Making me weaker."
"Weaker!" Craig yelped. "Ashleigh, didnít you--" He stopped as the gun twitched, continued in a quieter tone. What would a random passer-by think if they saw this scene? "Didnít you hear Steve? Youíre supposed to lean on me. Itís good for you!"
"No," she said, "itís not. It gives people power over me. Power that they abuse." She knelt, leaned over him gun-first. "I canít make myself hate you, so instead Iíll just kill you."
"Thatís no reason," Craig said. "I lean on you and I donít hate you. You donít have a reason."
Ashleigh was silent for a moment. But she said: "Iíll tell you. Because Iím going to ruin you. Because Iím that kind of person. I never called Steve because I knew it would hurt him to talk to me. Because youíre too stupid to pull out when someoneís going to ruin you, and so I have to scare you off."
"Thatís not an argument either," Craig returned. "For one, youíre not going to ruin me. Iíve known you for close to three years and you havenít even started yet. For two, if you were going to ruin me, which youíre not, I wouldíve run away a long time ago. Iíve had people try to ruin me and Iíve always managed to get away. Iím not here for you because Iím forced to be.
"And you heard Steve, smiling. You heard him talking to you. If he didnít want to talk to you he wouldíve made an excuse, begged off. You know it.
"You donít have a reason, Ashleigh. Put down the gun." Craig watched her eyes--cold, pained. "Please," he said sadly.
The gun had been sagging towards the ground. But now she brought it up again. "No," she said. "Craig, you donít see it, you donít see it." She moved towards him, bent towards him, leaned all the way over, her hair sliding down her back, her hanging breasts visible through the neck of her shirt. The gun went under his jaw. "I can kill you, and I will."
He felt frozen. He could see in her eyes that she was very serious. She could kill him. And she would.
Suddenly, he was angry. She wanted him dead? Fine! "Well, whatíre you waiting for, then," he yelled. "Pull the trigger! Go ahead and blow my brains out! I donít care! My life isnít worth much without you, Ashleigh, itís not. You want to feel powerful? You want to spare me a life of torture? Go ahead! And while youíre at it you can pull the clip from my pocket and blow your own brains out, too!
"But Iíll tell you one thing. Iím not going to provoke you or stop you. You are going to have to kill me in cold blood. And then youíre going to have to kill yourself knowing that you murdered someone."
Ashleigh stared at him.
"You canít do it, Ash," he said quietly.
Ashleighís eyes were unreadable. The fey coldness in them scared him. Was he wrong? Could she do it? If she could, he had just thrown his life away on a gamble.
Oh, God, I canít believe I just said that.
She held up the weapon, slowly, and stared at it. She met his eyes. "This is the safety," she said, "Press it."
"The safety on this weapon," said Ashleigh, formal monotone, "is engaged."
She flung herself off him, crossed her arms across her chest and stalked away.
It took Craig a moment to realize it was over, at least for the moment. He stood up, and she didnít do anything. The clip of bullets was still in his back pocket, digging into his ass. "Ashleigh," he said, and didnít know how to continue. "Ashleigh..."
Her face was plain and quietly saddened, dim on the fading light. She stood alone on the cusp of the world.
Ashleigh, I love you / Ashleigh, I hate you / Ashleigh, I want to go out with you / Ashleigh, youíre beautiful / Ashleigh, I donít want to see you die / Ashleigh, I want you to die / Ashleigh, youíre scaring me / Ashleigh, Iím scaring me / Ashleigh, am I scaring you / Ashleigh, I donít know what to think at all, but I know that youíre the most important person in my life, in a way I canít explain and will never be able to--
"Come on," she said. "Letís go. I want to get out of here." She set off, and sick at heart Craig followed her.
By the time they reached Craigís ghost-white car, the sky was dark and the streetlights were on. The Geo Metro glowed in a pool of light like a beacon.
"Back to home, or at least in the area," Ashleigh said. "I want out of this city."
So he found his way back to the highway and drove in the dark for an hour or so until he reached the nether regions of the South Bay Area. He hadnít done much driving at night, and it was quite an adventure getting out of San Francisco on a Saturday night. Bay Area drivers were vicious.
Eventually they reached San Jose and puttered around in the downtown area for a little. Eventually they drifted into a more affluent part of the city. Ashleigh said she had a standing invitation to meet some people at a nightclub somewhere, so they went there.
Inside it was loud and chaotic. Flashing voices mingled with the roaring lights. Craig felt the eager bullets in the back pocket of his pants.
In order to be heard, he had to yell: "Are they here?"
"I donít know, I canít see them," she shouted back. "They may be."
"Letís go to the bar," Craig said, "everyone swings by there eventually. If theyíre here, theyíll see us."
Ashleigh nodded, and they negotiated their way to the bar, which was metal and plastic, and quieter. Ashleigh asked for a beer and got one.
"Ash, youíre underage," he said.
She smiled over the glass, suddenly mischievous. "Iíve got to try it someday, and todayís as good a day as any." She took a sip of the stuff. "Besides, Iíve got you to make sure I donít make a fool of myself."
"What about the day when Iím not there for you," he asked.
"Hopefully Iíll have learned some sense by then," she said, taking another sip. Her green eyes danced above the rim of the glass.
Craig shook his head in defeat. "Give me some of that." She laughed, and he drank. "Not bad."
"What," she asked, "youíve had better?"
He shook his head ingeniously. "No," he said, and she laughed again.
Nursing the glass, she turned her back to the bar, looked out at the glowing patrons of the nightclub. They were sitting at tables, standing around, dancing. They talked and laughed. They were vibrant and healthy; there was nothing wrong with them.
Giving them a dismayed glance, Ashleigh reached into her pocket.
When it emerged her hand held the pistol, massive and highlighted by the racy light. It shrouded the room in death pall. Craig glanced about frantically to make sure no one was looking.
Taking hold of the top of the gun, Ashleigh pulled it back, ejecting the cartridge from within. The bullet was still inside of the cartridge, but the cartridge was no longer inside the gun.
The last bullet.
Craig caught it by rote.
"Keep it," Ashleigh said with her serious eyes on his. "It was burning a hole in my pocket. Now..." She held up the gun, shrugged. The weapon was no longer a massive evil overbearing thing; no longer held it that deadly, violent look. Now it was just... a gun.
Craig stared. She put the weapon back in her pocket and took up her glass again.
He looked down at the bullet in his hand. It was dangerous. He might harm someone with it. If he threw it at them hard enough. He didnít want it in his pocket.
Ashleigh took another sip of beer and made a face. "Too responsible for my taste," she said. She set the beer on the bar top.
Craig dropped the bullet in it.
Ashleigh laughed silently with her golden voice and her dancing eyes. She had a lovely voice. She was lovely. And her laugh was infectious and he laughed too.
"I feel better," she said. "Iíve been with you all day and I havenít ruined you or anything. Maybe thereís hope after all."
"Iíve always thought so," he said, though he didnít dare.
"Yeah, you would," she said, not unkindly. "I donít know whether youíre naïve or just optimistic."
"Does it matter?" he asked.
"Well... I guess not," she said. And he touched her shoulder gently and she smiled shyly, and he was reminded of their first fumbling date together, friends and yet not friends, uncomfortable, trying to find the connections they seemed to have left at home.
They smiled together.
"Come on," she said, "letís dance."
They did, and enjoyed it. Ashleigh smiled--oh, how she smiled... Craig thought that if she would continue to smile like that, he would be happy. Just for that smile.
When they came back to the bar the beer was gone, replaced by a man. Craig wondered what the barkeeper would do with the bullet when he found it. The man at the bar looked perhaps their age, a little older; a college student, maybe. He stood guard over a can of Coca-cola, and despite the slight formality of his clothes he was hardly out of place in the throbbing din of the club. His name was Mike, and he was waiting for his date to come out of the bathroom.
"Oh, she hides in there sometimes," he said, waving his hand in a careless gesture. "I donít know. Sometimes I think being in crowds scares her. But it was her idea to come here."
"Maybe she just likes the bathrooms," Ashleigh said.
Mike laughed. "Yeah, that could be it." He gestured with the Coke. "So what brings you here?"
Ashleigh shrugged. "Iíve been on a long journey," she said, "and I think I might be reaching the end soon."
Mike raised his eyebrows. "Oh, really?" he said neutrally.
She nodded. "Iíve been out discovering new things," she said with childlike solemnity. "Itís my birthday tomorrow."
"Oh, really?" Mike said, smiling broadly. "Congratulations! How old are you turning?"
"Seventeen," she said.
Mike nodded. "One of the better years of life," he said. "Iíd advise you not to miss it."
She smiled. "What about you? What brings you here?"
"My girl," he shrugged. "She wants to come here, so I take her here. She spends all of her time in the bathroom, though. She barely ever comes out to the bar, and I can never get her to dance, not even the slow songs."
"Whatís she doing in there," Ashleigh asked.
He shrugged. "Smoking, or doing drugs, for all I know; her parents would hate that. She wonít tell me."
"Sounds like a pretty bad deal," Craig said.
Mike nodded. "Yeah, itís pretty boring. But people talk to me," he said, with his teeth flashing as he smiled. "And I donít mind."
"Does she let you fuck her?" Craig asked. Ashleigh smiled a secret smile.
Mike tilted his head. "No, not much. Doesnít really bother me, though. Thereís more to going out than fucking, you know?" He paused, considering. "I canít for the life of me tell you what it is," that ever-present smile to show he was joking, "but I know thereís more."
Ashleigh poked Craig in the ribs. "See, I told you," she said.
"What does she do with you," Craig asked.
"She cries on my shoulder," he said.
Ashleigh said nothing.
"Sounds one-sided," Craig repeated.
"Maybe." Mike shrugged. "It works for me, though. At least she doesnít shove me away. Sheís a really good person, but got so many defenses up... Most people she doesnít even talk to. At least I get to talk to her."
"At least you do," Ashleigh agreed. "And sheís lucky she has a shoulder to cry on. This guy over here is ruled by his hormones." She grinned at Craig.
"Oh, thanks, Ash," Craig said with a martyrís sigh.
Mike shrugged. "To each his own, I guess."
A slight girl in dark clothing and black hair darted towards them. "Mike," she said, "can we go now?"
"Duty calls," Mike said to them dryly. "Pleased to make your acquaintance, you two."
"Oh, it was our pleasure," Ashleigh said sincerely. "Good night."
"Did he know our names," Craig asked.
"No," said Ashleigh. "He never asked."
They stood at the bar with Mikeís abandoned Coke for a while, simply thinking.
"The journey is almost over, isnít it," Craig said quietly.
"Yes," Ashleigh said. "One way or another, itís almost over."
What surprises did she have? Another gun? A knife? Cyanide pills? Was it not over? The thought turned his heart to despairing gel, but his face gave none of it.
Craig drove Ashleigh to her house with a heavy heart. He was sure it was over--the end, finito, the plot twist no one saw coming that would take her away from him forever. But she did nothing. She didnít turn on the radio, didnít sing. She barely even moved. She looked out the window at the world passing her by and said nothing.
"Well," Craig said, getting out of the car with her, "I guess thatís it."
"Yeah," Ashleigh said. "Itís been a long day."
He looked at her face in the street lampsí glaze. Her face was solemn, calm. A sense of impending dread.
Despairing, he said: "Call me some time, okay?"
She nodded. "All right. Iíll call you this weekend."
He was startled. "You wonít forget?"
She shook her head. "I promise."
He barely dared hope. She always kept her promises; they were a matter of life and death to her. If she promised, she would do it.
He barely dared hope.
"Do you want to come in," she asked.
He shook his head. "No, my parents will want me home soon." What was he going to do with the other bullets in the clip? He couldnít give them back to her. Maybe to her parents...
"All right," she said. "Thanks for taking me around all day."
"Oh, no problem," he said.
Suddenly Ashleigh held him, and he put his arms around her, and they held fast against the night. Craig looked out over the top of her head and thought he saw others out among the darkness, shifting. Friends, allies, their faces changing with each breath. He could not see them clearly--and yet he knew they were there. Steve, Mike, Sarah, Darren from six feet under--even the nameless tourists and the teenage boy with the dog and the phone. He could not see them, but he knew they were there.
When he released her, Ashleigh said: "Do you love me, Craig?"
"Yes," he said truthfully. He was not sure whether she would believe him, but it was the truth.
"Thatís... Probably a mistake," she said.
"One Iíd make again, if given the chance," Craig said.
She gave him a sad smile and kissed him on the cheek. "Good night, Craig. I love you."
Do you, he wondered mutely. I know you lie to me, Ashleigh. Are you lying? And if not, do you love me?
It doesnít matter, he realized. I trust you, as stupid as that may be. And thatís enough.
Ashleigh went up the front walk. She rang the doorbell and someone opened the front door for her, a rectangle of light pouring into the darkness. She stepped through the doorway, and it closed behind her.
Craig watched from the puddle of light from the street lamp until she was gone. Then he got into his ghost-white car, shining with amber lamplight, and drove home through the darkness.
This story draws heavily upon a movie called The Scent of a Woman. I'm not ashamed to plagiarize; after all, to quote Robert Heinlein, "Basic truths cannot change and once a man of insight expresses one of them it is never necessary, no matter how much the world changes, to reformulate them." In other words: They got it right the first time, and it would be criminal to alter their words.
A surprising number of these events actually happened, and almost every character in this story is based on a real-life acquaintence that I'd recognize on sight. And if not, they show up elsewhere: Mike and his girlfriend, for instance, are renamed versions of the characters in "Against The Black Night." The settings as well are all based on real-life locations; many of them I have driven by or visited many times. I think that's why I managed to make the setting so vivid.
An amusing fact: originally Ashleigh and Craig had sex at Golden Gate Park. But my ex-girlfriend, the only person to date who has read this story, was quite disgusted with Craig's (and my) prurient interest. "All he thinks about is sex." (This same person became the inspiration for Jane in my Naked In School stories.) Of course, she was right--Craig is pretty damn horny. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how significant it would be if Craig refrained from taking Ashleigh when he had the chance. It is the only non-cosmetic change I have ever made to the story, and in retrospect, I don't regret it at all.
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