The Big Sleep Together
THE BIG SLEEP TOGETHER
Issue No. 9 – September 2015
July 15, 12:45 PM: Suspect’s Place of Employment
The second day of the stakeouts is in Donna’s car, something cute and new-ish —it was short notice and the back of Rick’s is filled with debris that is a little embarrassing in its particulars, McDonald’s receipts with identical orders and Walgreens bags and yellowing ad inserts with McDonald’s coupons in them.
Her car has an air-freshener with a picture of another car on the label. It smells just like tires. “Right?” she had said, spinning the rack around at the Quik Trip.
Apollion Purcell had come out of the Taco Gringo twice for smoke breaks on the first day, when Rick was alone, carrying one of those ridiculous Indian pipes you can get off any interstate exit in Missouri, his curly hair bouncing over his neckbeard to the rhythm of his schlubby gait.
“Missour-uhh,” Donna’d told Rick, when he was talking about the pipe. The sticks. She had gone to college in Missour-ee, one of the St. Louis suburbs he can’t keep straight, and when she was a little drunk and Rick was not drunk she would claim to have left an impressive but vague reputation behind her there.
Rick is hoping for more this time, because Donna could make it, and the Apollion mystery is the kind of just-kidding-but-seriously thing that holds her interest. This time Apollion comes outside for his lunch break, like Rick expects, exactly like he’d hoped. He pushes open the door with his flabby shoulder and then, looking right over the cute greenhouse of Donna’s new-ish car into a perfectly, briefly mild sun, swings his bag of tacos back and forth in an expansive, private gesture.
Donna cracks up and when he sits down she ducks gratuitously behind her center console. From near the CD changer she speaks in the direction of Rick’s lap: “He — did he see me?”
“He maybe heard you,” Rick says, looking down, but over her eyes.
Rick considers eating at the Taco Gringo a secularly depressing thing to do, but slouched over in his rumpled uniform polo Apollion looks especially sad — he wants him to pull the pipe out, again, and give that pipe-smoking smirk, at least.
Rick watches him for clues while he eats his tacos, while he rifles around in the bag, while he sucks not especially pruriently at his bendy-straw. Donna spins the seek dial for stakeout songs. Their being together in this moment, partners, is why Rick cares about his pervert neighbor.
June 30: 11:15 PM: Rick’s Parents’ Deck
Before Apollion had come up Rick had been spending a lot of downtime with his mom, picking out appliances for her new house. He’d learned things, if nothing else: that he preferred white to stainless steel, that convection microwaves added resale value, that he liked ramen well enough if he cracked an egg over it. His mother told him that trendsetters were buying white again because everybody else had replaced their refrigerators with stainless steel.
At the old house, as it was poured out into the new one and his dad’s spartan bachelor condo, he puttered around in quiet rooms. Then Donna boomeranged back into the subdivision and they met again on accident.
That May she had packed up her student apartment in wherever it was. Her boyfriend Joe, their friend from high school, was in Taiwan, teaching English and ingratiating himself with certain tycoons and sending the both of them Facebook messages with in-apartment thermometer readouts that had to be Google-converted before they could be gawked at. And before Apollion the whole summer had been sitting in a car with no air conditioning, or drying up in someone’s backyard, or going to Family Video and lingering in the Nearly New Releases section even though they’d already picked out one of those movies where Harrison Ford is yelling about getting away from his family, because they keep it about sixty-five degrees in the Family Video by what is still Rick’s parents’ house. It had been talking about finding jobs, maybe, and what they’d do if they got one, and why they hadn’t.
Then, finally, Donna sees Apollion. And they’re caught up in something weird and they dramatize it. Like, Rick puts Donna in a red dress, smoking from a cigarette holder. He gives himself a nice hat, not a weird one, not a neckbeard one. He moves them from his parents’ back deck in Springfield to a millionaire’s steamy greenhouse. They’re in the movies Family Video rents five nights for a dollar, on the Timeless Classics shelf.
He and Donna have been talking for a while, in the greenhouse, around things. As mysterious damsels in distress go he thinks she’s a type B — mysterious not because she has any really obvious hidden past but because she appears to have no past at all. She’s completely — not shallow, but surface-oriented. Everything she thinks — and he’s had a lot of time to formulate this, but this is as far as he’s gotten — is in the process of being turned into something she can say or enact.
“Apollion’s a sex offender,” she’d said. Apollion is their neighbor’s son. They hadn’t noticed him before leaving for school — not once their entire childhoods — and now that they’re both back he has appeared, all of a sudden, around the neighborhood, doing creepy things. Acting creepily.
They’d walked around the greenhouse, then.
“Literally a sex offender?” Rick had said, doing something with his nice hat.
“Literally,” she’d said, smoking from her cigarette holder.
And the day after that they meet again on his parents’ deck, and Donna tells Rick everything she knows about him.
“His name is Apollion Purcell,” she says.
“Good work,” Rick says, and she punches him on the arm.
“He’s twenty-three, so probably the year ahead of us. He went to UIS but didn’t graduate, so you guys have something in common!”
“In case I go undercover.”
“That’s a good idea,” Donna says. Rick’s parents’ deck, low and long, with a hot tub on one end that he and Donna don’t make eye contact with, looks across a particularly narrow part of the 14th fairway at the back of Apollion’s mother’s house as it rises sheepishly over a spite fence. “We can’t figure it out just by asking him, or else he’ll know we know.”
The Purcells aren’t members of the country club and they aren’t even in the Bear Run subdivision at all, but his mother has always been at the edges of the neighborhood, so when Donna points out the fungal outline of Apollion’s hair in the window Rick begins to wonder how he’s never seen the guy. When Rick was learning to ride his bike, or running out through the sprinklers on the sidewalk — when he went up to Mrs. Purcell’s house in a homemade saber-toothed tiger costume and got fun-sized candy bars — Apollion must have been there at the margins, being creepy.
“He’s creepy,” Donna says. “It’s creepy that we didn’t notice him, even. But here’s what it says on the website—” and Rick hasn’t seen the sex offender registry before and it startles him when Apollion stares back at him out of Donna’s phone, looking ill-at-ease and uncovered. It says he’s two hundred and ten pounds, which seems about twenty pounds off in the sad direction. It reveals only that he was convicted of something bad enough to be listed in the registry.
“We could watch him at work,” Rick says.
“At the Gringo, yeah.” New ideas seem to hit Donna all at once and her hand rattles the arm of her lounge chair, like she’s trying to buzz into a game show that won’t have her, and she says, “We could have stakeouts. We could — how do you bug a phone? You know, right? With the computers and all —”
“No — I mean—”
“And we could tail him. We could figure out where he’s going to sex-offend and we could tail him.” She slaps Rick on his shoulder. “We could put him in citizen’s arrest.”
If the watch-list website just said what Apollion had done the two of them would go back inside and laugh about Rizzoli & Isles or something in the emptying living room, but it didn’t say anything, and so they sit out in the humidity and watch Apollion move around his little cell. Finally he stands up and for a moment Donna balls one of Rick’s shirt-sleeves in an anticipatory fist. Apollion stares out over the golf course, and he unzips his pants, and closes the broken blinds, and he sits down at his ancient computer, and “Oh—” Donna says, “oh, no— I mean, I know you guys do it, but—” and suddenly it’s a little weird for them to be so close after dark, Rick thinks, and he walks her out through his parents’ emptying kitchen and she promises to sound the klaxons if Apollion appears on her side of the sub-division.
“Didn’t you guys have a refrigerator?” she says.
“They’re moving,” Rick says. “We’re moving.” He imagines a conversation, floating outside the places they usually talk, where he explains the split. Where he says, “It’s not that it’s not your business, it’s that it’s not really my business.”
Anyway, she looks at the hole where the refrigerator went and Rick wants badly for the kitchen to have doors.
July 4, 8:00 PM: Father’s Condo
There’s a week or two where Rick doesn’t do much besides talk to Donna on the phone about things he’s said on the internet somewhere, clarifying vague, frustrated comments directed at a general audience. Explaining subtweets.
Rick’s dad’s HOA has fireworks, though, and he and his brothers go out there around 8:15 for the show. Rick can’t get around his dad’s new place — the TV has a strange new remote, and when Rick can’t find the HD channels his dad grabs it and punches in nine-zero-zero like that is a thing they all know. He points Rick to the bathroom and mentions these great elliptical machines they have in the gym. The fireworks are great, those super-active neighborhood association fireworks, and they watch them from Rick’s dad’s new deck and he offers all of them some champagne, nice champagne for once.
When they get back to the house his brothers get ready to go out and do whatever illicit high school things they do, but Rick can’t stop thinking about how at home his dad is already, how much he’s figured out since he left. Rick has felt, all summer, like everyone around him was receiving very specific orders from some benevolent third party; back at the neighborhood he realizes he’s only got Apollion, and the eye contact he and Donna make when it’s late and very hot and they’re tired, a little, punch-drunk.
One of Rick’s brothers is lifting a cooler into the bed of his truck when Rick mentions their dad and his apartment and how organic it all felt. “Well, he lives there,” he says. While Rick was away at school his brother has somehow developed a southern accent.
July 15, 1:00 PM: Suspect’s Place of Employment
Stakeout talk: “I don’t think you should worry about any really terrible thing that might happen to you,” Donna says.
“I figure that if anything really tragic happens some rogue time traveler in some possible future will take care of it, consequences be damned.”
“How will he know to do it?”
“They’ll know everything eventually. Anyway, it just takes one guy who doesn’t take time travel paradoxes for an answer.”
“So nothing we do now has to matter?” Rick doesn’t know if he’s taking it too seriously.
“It’s comforting, right?” she says.
The idea of all-seeing time travelers unsettles him, but Rick is mollified because he knows when their conversations are just-about-over, and he loves that, and he always has.
“Make sure to die in a situation of incredible global import. So they’ll know to come back for you.”
When he and Donna are both quiet, and Apollion has finished eating, the suspect reaches sloppily into his pocket and pulls out a cheap little phone, a rough lump of flaked plastic and dull silver paint.
“A burner,” Donna says. “Of course.”
They watch him talk and then they watch him lean his phone and his chin into his chest and away from the door. Donna starts rolling down her window and then, with a graceful turn of her head from Rick to Apollion, her ponytail tracing the opposite arc, she opens the door and lopes through the parking lot, taking the long way around the patio seating to the front door.
Her path rounds very casually around the umbrella over Apollion’s table. Then she stops, and Rick panics, and Apollion’s phone stirs against his shoulder. And when Rick thinks Apollion’s about to flip his phone shut she reaches smoothly into her purse and slides the keyboard out of her own.
Rick watches her fake-text, a little more rapidly than she real-texts. He sees her look up as though contemplating a turn of phrase, then angle her screen under the awning. Then without a glance back at her car she walks into the Taco Gringo. The whole routine buys her a solid minute-and-a-half.
“Private eyes (clap) they’re watching you (clap clap) they see your ev-ery move,” Rick’s phone says. At some point Donna must have set it up. He checks his texts and she’s written:
“Ogh ggod! He’s tlaking abt lttile kids! Rrck this guy is the creepiest! Adcpoqwdojddmkld i’m tpying now so he wont look up, it jas to sound really fast and cnotinuous ore lse he will. Okk Ill let yuo know.”
He looks at her through the glass of the storefront but under his gaze he feels Apollion staring at him through the windshield of Donna’s car.
They don’t talk about it the entire way back — “Holy shit,” Donna says — “Jesus,” Rick says — and when they get to Rick’s house Donna gets out of the car and walks around to the passenger’s side just to push Rick with both hands and say, “Holy shit.” He’s never seen Donna look so excited about anything, and her cheeks go red and glow beneath a shimmering layer of sweat.
It’s just two o’clock and the sun and the humidity will be around another seven hours, but it feels to Rick like it should be four in the morning, like their day should be officially over and their skin should be flushed under hooded sweatshirts in the dark, like they should feel bad about staying up so late. Now, only now, is Donna pulling the detective stories close to herself, wearing her femme-fetale dress, looking at him like he’s something he’s not. And as uncomfortable as Apollion makes him — uncomfortable as it is to look through his private things — Rick wants to wear the fedora, he wants to swim out from his parents’ wake and into some untraceable Manhattan office.
She sends him an offline message later, from down the street. There’s something about her and Joe, something sad and alienated-sounding, and then, “He was talking to somebody about some weird shit. Like, he hadn’t lately, is what he was saying, but it’s hard not to. That’s ominous, right? With kids? Like, maybe there’s a ring. Like, a kiddy ring? That’s what it’s called, right?”
Rick’s face gets hot and even though he wants to be consoling about it and good about it he scrolls quickly through the paragraph about Joe. But he writes back, “A ring. Jesus,” he writes. He passes afternoons thinking about what could happen on their excursions, the common ground it might give them.
July 27, 12:30 PM: Rick’s Front Door
On or about July 18 Joe’s father pulls some local strings in such a way as to get Donna a temp job as an administrative assistant downtown, somewhere in the back of the Willard Ice Building.
The investigation goes dark on Donna’s end, save for a string of shaky photo messages: a blob of pixels framed by a rough Korean car, or the trees at the edge of Bear Run, and all of them with captions at the bottom like, “Creeper Watch: Day 5.” The stakeouts at the Taco Gringo end, but on July 27, on Rick’s suggestion, she stops there and observes Apollion for a few minutes before getting takeout at the other register.
She shows up at Rick’s front door with a bag of burritos and two Cokes. “I had to make it look on the level,” she says.
She looks on the level: She’s wearing a Department of Revenue badge over the nicest suit in the Petites section at Kohl’s. A week ago it might have looked like a costume.`
Rick has to prompt her to give a debriefing. “Oh,” she says. “He couldn’t talk on his phone or anything because he was behind the counter. But he stinks, did we know that? Like, he just smells really bad. I — that’s all I noticed. Sales tax has me preoccupied.”
There’s a lull where Donna looks like she wants to be invited in, only there are men with thick weight-lifting belts disassembling the sectional couch where they’d sit. But Rick remembers to ask about her job and Donna has a story ready about her crazy boss and the crazy people she’s seated next to. Rick wants to follow her through these coworkers and among those desks, but they’re sealed off from him somehow.
She’s lost in it for ten minutes or so, and Rick has to remind her that her lunch period is over. She snaps out of it and says, “Take some,” and holds her side of the Taco Gringo bag in two fingers.
Rick says, “No way — I don’t want you sitting there in the break room with a smug look on your face knowing I’m eating the Bandito in my parents’ living room.”
“Joe’s dad could probably get you a job if you wanted. He’s got weird government powers.”
Rick has been telling her about a résumé he’s been working on.
“Maybe,” Rick says. He’s Joe’s friend independently; he and Joe hung around in grade school, too, were assigned to the same chaperones on class trips. He’d sat, a kid, in Joe’s dad’s Lexus and watched the spacey lights on the dashboard swirl in complex patterns. But arranging something like that through Donna would be wrong somehow. But he just says, “Maybe, yeah.”
“Talk to him, I mean. Anyway I’ll be eating the Petito-Bandito. Oh — oh, you’re right, I’m late.” And he watches her car disappear toward the business parks a few exits down.
The first and last time Rick was ever kind of pissed off at Donna for things, and not just himself, it was graduation day. She and Joe had just finished a ridiculous synchronized cap-throwing dance for video cameras from each set of parents, and then she’d run past her dad and nearly over Joe’s mom to meet Rick. He was looking at her for a second and she was looking at him.
She looked him up and down, finally, and pulled him into a somber graduation-day hug, and she said, “Rick?”
And he said yes, because what else could he say.
“Promise me,” she said. And she held him close, buried her face in his shoulder, and he held her back, his hand on dress and strap and skin, and she said, “Rick. Rick.”
Uh-huh. They both sounded husky and stupid, and he wanted to spin them a few quiet steps away from her parents and their classmates, or else just to keep sounding husky and stupid in that quiet way.
“Promise me,” she said. “That no matter what—” He could feel her blinking against his robe, and then her mouth opened again, and she said: “You will never reveal the Wu-Tang secret.” And she started to giggle against his chest.
There was another way the conversation should have gone that he’d let her close off — that he hadn’t even let himself look down. And he’d had to laugh, because it was funny.
When Rick can’t see Donna’s car anymore he thinks about that, and he sets the food down, there on the porch. When she’s not there it becomes too clear to him that he’s chased Apollion around their quiet neighborhood on false pretenses, that what he’s doing could just as well be grossing out some other set of neighborhood detectives. And out on the porch he’s trying to crack the case on his own — to at least have an ending on his own terms, and not Donna’s.
But his mom hangs up the kitchen phone in her new theatrical way and walks through the front door and says, “Do you know Mrs. Purcell’s son? With the weird name?”
And Rick says no, of course not.
“He’s a sex offender,” she says. Rick laughs, a little, but it’s bright out and hot and she doesn’t notice. “That was the family with the little daughters, on the phone. No longer interested in Bear Run. Internet, no doubt.”
Before Donna and Apollion this had been Rick’s summer, a running tally of the ways in which their house could be atomized and stripped bare but not sold. And Rick’s mom, in the middle of the afternoon, tells him exactly what Apollion did.
August 3, 6:36 PM: The Callahan Irish Pub and Restaurant
The Callahan is where the girls at the Willard Ice Building go on Fridays, and Rick is sitting there at a long empty table with Donna. They’re eating hamburger horseshoes and Donna is talking about work and about how she spends most of her time on GChat with Joe — because the time zones work out just well enough if he stays up too late or gets up really early, because government work. Her coworkers have vanished around them. They’re in the bathroom and getting refills and at the bar.
There’s wood and wood grain everywhere and something loud on the radio and families coming in for horseshoes and ponyshoes, and they’re at the end of this long, empty table, and there’s a bubble around them, Rick knows, where they could have some hushed important conversation that would leave them shivering in the air conditioning. But her job has eaten into their Family Video time and they don’t have much in common to talk about except Joe, with whom they both have distended Facebook conversations late at night.
When Donna has finished her last story about the Willard Ice Building — the one about how birds keep getting into the building through wide and expanding gaps in the beautiful glass roof and then dying over the airy cubicles — she asks Rick the Joe question again. “I just don’t know how long I can,” is how it ends this time.
Rick knows both of them, and is friends with both of them, and in these long Facebook conversations he’s somehow become the one they chase down for reassurance, the rock. He knows everything about their relationship, more than either one of them. So Rick says, “Yeah. The hard part,” and he’s making this up as he talks and surprising himself unpleasantly with how plausible it sounds, “is what you already did — you guys let each other go and figured out this new thing. And it’s only going to be, what, two years?”
“Maybe just a year if I can’t handle it,” Donna says. “You’re right. Thanks,” she says, and she smiles at him. “Thanks again.”
Rick is the first to see Mrs. Purcell walking in, holding her big purse in front of her like a deployed airbag, digging around in it for her wallet while the hostess asks her how many she’ll be tonight. The purse is a color that was purple and when she rakes her hand through whatever’s inside there’s a plastic clicking noise that Rick can hear once he’s turned toward her. Behind her’s Apollion, pushing the door open like his shoulder was caught accidentally between the glass and his pigeon-toed body.
Mrs. Purcell has an excited look on her face, and Rick can read the trilled word “horseshoes!” on her lips when she turns and waves Apollion through the doorway. Rick is picking at his own by now —there’s just part of the toast, covered in cheese sauce, and a few burnt fries on the edges. The hostess has the same excited look as she leads Mrs. Purcell and Apollion, hulking over both of them, to a little booth.
Donna still hasn’t seen them when Rick turns back around, and Rick doesn’t say anything about it. They talk about something stupid in the news that’s funny, and the part of Con Air where the undercover agent was killed and Donna started crying when she was a little girl. Then Rick goes up for another beer and sits at the bar and waits for something. There are long moments in detective stories where the people who are thrown together by the stupid things that throw them together aren’t doing anything at all, until they’re visited by something new.
Apollion is talking to his mother about church — about Megachurch, Donna would say, capitalizing the M, hammering the G like it’s towering thing that is about to fight Godzilla and not the three-story auditorium attached to the elementary school where they went. There’s a pastor there he’s talking to, a nice guy, Apollion says, and his mother is looking at him while they wait for their food to arrive with a smile like Rick has never seen, a perfectly sad satisfaction, when Apollion says: “I really feel close to God now. That’s what Pastor Mark says I should be looking for, is feeling a closeness.”
There’s something Rick can’t place in Apollion’s voice, something that makes him sound like an old movie — a Jimmy Stewart one, not his and Donna’s films noir — until he realizes finally that it’s sincerity, or forthrightness, or one of those words. Apollion is hopping from pronoun to pronoun around what he actually did, but he’s not avoiding it, and when Pastor Mark’s name comes up relief shows on his face, in the pale space between his clogged pores, genuine relief.
For a moment Rick wants to leave Apollion there eating horseshoes and pleasing his mother. But one of the Willard Ice Building girls is back already and she and Donna are talking about work things. Nobody else Rick knows is working and everybody else is still living in their parents’ houses among their old things. And he wants to be where Donna is, hunting Craigslist for empty places, talking about it.
“I don’t really like the north side,” Donna is saying, “but I also don’t like driving Veterans every day. I don’t know, right?”
Rick knows what Apollion is doing, what’s hard not to do and who he’s not doing it with, but he wants to not know it with Donna, to be front-lit in The Big Sleep together. To share secrets. He listens to Apollion talk a little while longer about the young-adults group until he trails off and Mrs. Purcell starts talking about her job with the city. Then he sends Donna a text message and walks out the door and to his car.
August 5, 9:15 AM: West-Side Christian Church
Donna in church clothes is bored-looking and weirdly solicitous — her hair looks smooth and different and her thin straight legs stick gangled together under a dark, formal skirt. On Saturday afternoon she’d replied to his text message with, “i dont know its prob not worth it,” and on Saturday night she’d said “I guess” after Rick said he’d owe her lunch for it. (Saturday around midnight Joe asks on Facebook if Rick has ever considered going abroad, that lots of people in his program went abroad while nothing much was going on in the states, that all he’d have to do was get however many credits he didn’t have.)
Now while people shuffle in in front of them Donna gives Rick a joking, plaintive look and then a legitimately frustrated look and then, her green eyes suddenly softening and drawing wide, a sad, wondering look. “You’d tell me if things weren’t all right, right?”
Rick lets her cycle through the looks again until the lights go up over the big stage in front of the glowing baptismal font.
Apollion is in the front with his mother. They’re in the aisle, and one of his untamed legs hangs around the pew’s low wooden arm, his knee bouncing against the hymnal. And that must be how most of the people there know Apollion, just a leg sticking out too far and a hoarse low excuse-me, and behind Rick someone asks him to please lean back just a little because she can’t see the pastor.
The pastor has casual-Friday clothes on, dark pants and a dark purple shirt and a tie that goes iridescent in the colored spotlights. Donna is looking around and breathing forcefully until Rick says, “Look at it. His tie.”
Donna looks at it and her eyes sharpen and her mouth turns up. “He probably calls that his Fun Tie, to his kids. Right?”
“Probably,” Rick says. He’s a little taken by the idea, by a fun tie that is just a fun tie, but he laughs.
The microphone comes on and they’re both quiet as nothing happens. Donna turns to him halfway through the message, about the school they’re building in Benin, and Rick says, “I thought maybe —” that it would be a message about shame, or guilt, or secrecy, maybe, and that Apollion’s true self would bubble up and show red on his face and through his matted hair.
But when the message ends and people stand up to go home or to McDonalds or to meet again in smaller groups, Apollion and his mother rise with everyone else and he hugs her and she leaves to meet some other faces Rick has seen on the Purcells’ street.
Donna gets up, too, and Rick looks up at her from the pew and he says, “We didn’t ever tail him.”
“Yeah, no, we didn’t.”
“Do you want to? He’s alone now.”
Donna says he’s only going to Taco Gringo but she gives him a shaky nod, too, and they walk out to Rick’s mom’s car, which is still cleaner than his, and he waves her into the passenger’s seat. Apollion’s out at the other edge of the parking lot by then, crawling toward the exit with a line of other cars in a rusting-out little Mitsubishi.
“Are you mad at me?” Rick says. He’s staring out the window still at Apollion’s car as it idles through the line, and before Donna says anything he pulls his own car through a half-open spot and cuts ahead.
“No, I mean — are we mad at each other, or something?”
“No,” Rick says. “I don’t think I’ve ever been mad at you, really. I was just wondering.”
“I’ve been busy, is all.”
“Yeah,” Rick says. They’re on Koke Mill, now, following Apollion at a safe distance over streets that wind indiscriminately through neighborhoods and weedy fields. “He’s not going to Taco Gringo, at least. Not even the back way.”
After a mile or two of nothing Apollion’s right turn signal flashes through red masking tape. “Should I —” Rick says.
Donna looks nervous, but finally things flicker back into place and she says, “Take the next street down, up there, and then we can kind of —” and she makes a sharp right turn with her left hand, hooked into an awkward sickle. When she sets it back down it’s right against Rick’s on the armrest.
“Right,” Rick says. And they’re tailing him, the two of them. It’s theirs.
They drive through a leafy neighborhood Rick has never seen before, one with old-growth trees and new-looking houses with big, blind-covered windows. Rick remembers being very young in a neighborhood like this and playing outside in it, moving across the lawns and being vulnerable and getting yelled at when some kid’s Camaro flew through too fast. But there aren’t any kids in this neighborhood at all, he thinks, nobody older, either, nobody at all, and he’s thinking that when he runs a two-way stop sign and Donna stifles the beginning of a scream and Rick’s mom’s car collapses the left front quarter panel of Apollion’s Mirage.
There are sounds he’s only heard on TV, weird and familiar metal sounds, and the car seems to brake like it would have if he’d stopped on time, but the airbag doesn’t deploy and when he blinks he opens his eyes and it’s the same moment. Rick’s chest hurts from not hitting the steering wheel, and Donna is rotating her ankles gingerly in the passenger’s footwell and holding her bare knees, and for what doesn’t seem like a long time to Rick he’s thinking about what he can do next to not look like he feels.
Then Apollion’s pulling at Donna’s door, which is a little distorted from the impact, until it opens, and the first thing Rick hears is that hoarse, bubbling, awkward voice: “Are you okay? Either of you hurt?” And the first thing he sees is Apollion, his cell phone balanced on his shoulder, helping Donna out of the car and motioning at Rick to turn off the engine, just in case. Apollion’s trunk is open and there are reflectors in it, and flares, and an air compressor. He’s in command, somehow, standing up as straight as he gets, helping Donna test both her bruised legs.
There’s a part of himself Rick would have to give to get to really know another person, and Apollion has it now somehow and Donna doesn’t and he doesn’t want either of them to know what they know about him now—about his half-concealed desires bringing them all together. He sits in the car, staring down into the footwell, until Apollion grabs his hand. Donna says, “Jesus! God — are you — Jesus!”
Then they’re all out of their cars except Rick, and Apollion has placed his shabby reflectors and waved down a police car, and everything’s finished. Apollion looks at him now, into him, and the look isn’t anger like Rick assumes it will be, it’s just knowing, like they’re charter members of a secret society, and that’s when Rick throws up. Apollion waits until he’s finished and still doubled over and then he looks at Rick and he turns himself in, is the final twist, cops to everything. Rick can’t look.
Donna is over talking to the police officers when Apollion takes Rick by the elbow and admits all the things Rick knows.
“You guys,” he says. “I’d have told you if you asked. I have to.”
And Rick doesn’t want to know any of it, anymore, but Apollion tells him a story about having something called lolicon on his computer — pictures of girls from anime, twelve or eleven years old, he says, drawn having sex with each other. Rick had typed it into an incognito window after his mother told him about it and the pictures seemed so innocent, was the stomach-churning part, soft hands on pale skin, one set of big anime eyes transmitting love to another. “Somebody in the dorms,” he says, the UIS dorms where Rick thought secret and terrible things about Donna, “saw me looking at one of those, and she — well, she was right, I mean, to be so mad about it — and it got reported and I’m online now, and everybody knows it.”
Apollion helps him up out of the car, and over where he was sick, and he tells Rick about seeing Pastor Mike about it, about having an accountability partner, about being honest with himself, most of all, and Apollion is crying by the end of it, crying like he’s not talking to someone who wrecked his stupid car. It’s beautiful how he’s crying, how he can cry in front of them. And Rick runs, he runs away until nobody can see the secrets he’s uncovered.
Dan Moore is a writer from Springfield, Illinois, whose work has been published in Midwestern Gothic, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and elsewhere. He lives with his wife in Arizona. Photo by Ann Kornuta.