Long Sunset

Hellraiser

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Ed Gorman has been an astonishingly prolific writer since he turned full-time in 1984 after 20 years in advertising. Since then he has produced two to three books a year, several pseudonymously, written over a hundred short stories, edited many anthologies, and co-founded and edited the news magazine of the Mystery field, Mystery Scene. He has been dubbed the ‘Poet of Dark Suspense’ and much of his work haunts that ill-defined land between horror and mystery where the emphasis is as much on fear and shock as it is on crime and detection. Even his western fiction trespasses into this darkly psychological territory. His best known horror novel is Cage of Night, his collection Cages won the International Horror award, and one his stories was nominated for a Bram Stoker award. His novel The Poker Club has now been filmed and is available through Netflix and Sony. To find out more about Ed Gorman visit http://www.newimprovedgorman.com/

 

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The afternoon it all started, Sean and I were playing basketball. Or rather, Sean was playing basketball, and I was trying to keep up with him. Sean was the star athlete of Woodrow Wilson High. I was the basketball team manager, thanks to his influence. I played like a team manager, too.

It was just after the season had ended. There were still patches of dirty, April snow on the playground asphalt. The wind was warm and hinted of apple blossoms and the first sputtering sounds of lawn mowers and Saturday afternoons, of little kids with their wobbly kites and adults with their Frisbees and happy dogs. Just a few weeks away now.

Ken Michaels pulled his red Kawasaki motorcycle right up to where we were playing and whipped off his helmet. “Hey, you hear about Jenna?”

“Jenna?” I said, knowing instantly that something terrible had happened to her.

“Downtown,” Ken said. “A car hit her.”

“Oh, God,” I said.

“Is she alive?” Sean asked.

“Yeah. But she’s in pretty bad shape.”

A minute later Sean and I jumped on his motorcycle and headed for St. Mary’s Hospital. Jenna, Sean, and I had grown up in the poor section of our little town of Black River Falls, Iowa. The Knolls they call it, up in the hills above where the great factories used to roar before all the manufacturing went first down South, and then to Mexico. We were inseparable friends. We were bright and ambitious, too, and determined not to stay in the Knolls (or Black River Falls, for that matter) any longer than we had to. There was only one problem. Jenna was in love with Sean, and I was in love with Jenna. And Sean was in love with the princess of Woodrow Wilson High, Kim Westcott.

The good news was that Jenna wasn’t as death-threatened as Ken Michaels had led us to believe. The bad news was that her right leg was so badly smashed by the car—the driver a local guy with two previous drunk-driving arrests—that the doctor told her folks that she would probably always limp. They hadn’t mentioned any of this to Jenna. This wasn’t the time.

I stayed until they kicked me out around seven o’clock. Jenna, pale, pretty, scared, was obviously happy I was there. But she was even happier that Sean was. But after four o’clock, which was when he left to get ready for his date with Kim, Jenna didn’t look so happy again. She chit-chatted with her folks, and then chit-chatted with me while they were down in the cafeteria having dinner. But she kept staring longingly at the empty doorway, as if she thought Sean might magically reappear for her.

She stayed in the hospital almost three weeks. The tests and examinations were intense. They told her about the limp. She took it so badly, they put her on one of those psychoactive drugs for depression.

She made it back to school just in time for graduation. Sean wasn’t around much, spending every possible moment with Kim and her friends. Knolls people like Jenna and I weren’t invited.

The first time I ever saw her drunk was graduation night. She’d asked if she could ride to the ceremony with me. When I went to pick her up, her mother came to the door and whispered, “Jenna went somewhere this afternoon and got drunk. You weren’t with her, were you?” I assured her I wasn’t. “We’ve been pouring coffee into her for the last couple of hours.”

Her father brought her down. She looked sweet in her cap and gown. She made it about halfway across the tiny living room and dropped straight down, unconscious. No graduation ceremony for Jenna.

“She was afraid of walking across the stage to get her diploma,” her father said, “everybody staring at her. You know, her crutches and cast and everything.”

“But she’s so pretty,” I said. “Nobody cares about that.”

“She cares,” her mother said. “And that’s all that matters.”

The first time she was arrested for driving while intoxicated, I was the one the Chief of Police called. Jenna’s parents were out of town visiting relatives. He wanted $350 in bail money. I had about $3,000 in the bank, my savings toward college. Iowa City was less than an hour away. I was taking three classes a semester and working at a supermarket the rest of the time. I’d been planning to go full-time, but then there was a downturn in the agricultural market. Since my father sold big-ticket farm implements, we didn’t have much money.

This was two years after graduating high school. Jenna hadn’t gone to college at all. The problem wasn’t money. It was alcohol. Jenna had become a serious alcoholic very quickly. A lot of public scenes, slapping people in bars, drunken crying jags at parties, a couple of half-assed suicide attempts. She worked at the mall sometimes. The job had been regular at first. But then her uncle, who had a caramel-corn concession out there, just let her come in when she wanted to. He was her godfather and didn’t know what else to do.

The first time I bailed her out wasn’t so bad. She was contrite and full of resolve never to take a drink again. We ended up sitting in my car in her darkened driveway for almost three hours. She cried a lot. She even let me kiss her a few times. It was heady, and I’m not kidding. This girl I’d loved since I was a little kid . . . at last in my arms.

Over the next year, I bailed her out twice more. One time she was belligerent. Fucking cops. Fucking stupid laws. She’d been walking, for God’s sake. Not driving. And since when could fucking stupid cops pick you up for fucking walking. Public intoxication, I said gently. Oh, you’re so fucking full of shit, I can’t believe it, she said, and slammed out of the car.

The next time she was really sick. She opened the door and threw up twice before I even got her home.

I guess it was around this time—to be honest, I didn’t have any reason to pay this kind of thing any particular attention—that a few farmers started calling the local radio station and newspaper with stories of spaceships hovering over their houses late at night. And not long after that, some of the same people started talking about being abducted by creatures from those very same spaceships, little aliens with tear-shaped heads and glowing emerald-colored eyes. At the time I remember thinking, sure, whatever.

Sean didn’t get back to town until he was twenty-eight. By then, he’d spent three years as an All-American at Ohio State and four years as the star quarterback of the Bears, his career ending when his throwing hand was crushed in a riding mower accident. He’d invested his enormous salary, though, and was rich.

He came back to town with his high school princess and three gorgeous blonde daughters in tow. He built a house that cost almost as much as our library had six years earlier, and bought a horse ranch that provided the stud services for two thoroughbreds that had come very close to winning the Derby. He drove around town in a big Mercedes-Benz convertible the color of a misty dawn.

As for the princess, she took over the Junior League, the country club, all the charities that could get her on TV, and the major party scene, such as it was. Fluttering about her at all times was a group of smirking empty-headed gossips whose husbands were this generation’s city fathers. Giggle giggle giggle; whisper whisper whisper.

Jenna and I watched him and his life the way you would a movie. Parts made us laugh, parts made us mad, parts made us sad. He hadn’t forgotten us entirely. Jenna and I hung out at a tavern called Dudley Do-Right’s. Every so often Sean’s Mercedes would sweep into a parking lot filled with Harleys and pickup trucks, and he would come inside and have a few beers with us. The men inside tended to fawn over him when he walked in. They always asked for the inside scoop on this player or that coach, and he gave them enough tidbits to make him forever popular there.

One rainy August night, the rain hotter than the day itself had been, he came in late. Jenna had already gone home. She was working her way back to detox. Her pattern was always the same. A month or so after detox, she’d start hanging around Dudley’s again. She’d start out with just Diet Pepsi. A week later, it was beer. Alcoholics will always argue that beer doesn’t really count. A week after that, she’d be back on the hard stuff. Then it was a matter of five, six months. She’d lose another job, have another lousy affair, sleep with Dudley a few times so he’d forgive her bar tab, and then start calling me in the middle of the night to cry over Sean. She was still in love with him; she would always be in love with him.

Not that my own life was any better. A two-year marriage gone bust. A job out at the mall hawking computers. Watching my parents slowly fade and die. I was long over loving Jenna. But instead of relief, all I felt was emptiness.

I was always eager to see Sean because he represented a life I’d never have. Not just the big car or the horse ranch or the investments, but the wife and daughters. Unlike my life or Jenna’s, his had a definable and discernible meaning.

Or so I thought till that rainy August night.

He said, “I envy your life, Randy.”

He said, “Man, it was so fucking wonderful on Sunday afternoons. All those fans screaming and shouting and applauding. And my life’ll never be like that again. Not ever again.”

He said, “You know how many women I’ve slept with in the last year? Over fifty. And you know what? I didn’t come with any of them. I can’t have an orgasm anymore. I used to think it’d be so great, to be able to go all night, literally all night if you wanted to. But it’s a curse, man. Believe me, it’s a curse. And the fucking doctors can’t seem to find any way to help me.”

He said, “You know what I’ve been thinking lately? I’ve been thinking maybe I married the wrong woman. Maybe I should’ve married Jenna. Maybe I’ve been in love with Jenna all along and didn’t know it. All that society bullshit my wife is into. I hate it. Jenna isn’t like that at all.”

He didn’t say all these things in sequence, of course. He said them over the course of several hours, both of us getting drunker and drunker. In between, we talked a little town gossip, a little local politics, a little nostalgia. He was once again the Sean I’d grown up with.

But he was going to destroy Jenna. He wanted an easy answer to what he saw as the torpor of his life, and he was going to try anything that was at hand. He didn’t care if an affair was good for Jenna. All he knew was that it would be good for him. At least temporarily. He disagreed, of course, when I brought it up.

“You didn’t hear what I said, Randy. I said I think I love her. Not just that I want to hop in the sack with her. That I love her.” He brought his fist down on the booth table so hard that everybody looked in our direction.

I knew then that there was nothing I could do to stop it. Jenna was finally going to have that love affair with Sean she’d wanted since we were all little kids, growing up poor and sad in the Knolls.

Jenna bloomed. She even cut her drinking way back. Sean was able to provide what the detox clinics hadn’t been able to. She went to work regularly and bought herself a lot of new clothes. Her drab apartment became festive with new paint, new curtains, a new couch. On the nights when Sean couldn’t make it over, and I didn’t have a sex date with one of my waitresses or mall clerks (a bad marriage can scare you off romance for a long time), Jenna’d have me over so she could tell me all about how wonderful it was to be in love with Sean, and to have Sean in love with her. He’d leave his wife, and they’d be married. They’d build a new house, a huge masterpiece of a house, out on the edge of Hartson Woods, where they’d raise themselves some gleaming children.

Sean was just as taken with Jenna. I’d never seen him vulnerable to anybody before. It made him human in a way he’d never quite been. He’d grin like a kid when he talked about her; and stare off with great, grave melancholy when he recalled certain tender things they’d said to each other. Even the swagger vanished. He was just a simple man in simple love.

It lasted longer than I thought it would. Four-and-a-half months. I’ve never been sure exactly how he met Kristin, but suddenly she was there—she’d moved here from Cedar Rapids to take over a small real estate firm—and suddenly Jenna was in my apartment sobbing and frantically throwing back straight scotches.

I slept with her. I knew I was taking advantage, but I didn’t care. I no longer loved her, not romantically anyway, but I’d always been curious about sex with her. The first time, she was so drunk she had to excuse herself in the middle of it to hurry into the bathroom and throw up. The second time, she was so drunk she passed out beneath me. But the third time . . . she was sweet and sad and tender and it was the best sex I’d ever had, her hair fragrant as flowers, her voice gentle and even poignant at times, and her slender body a marvel of surprising richness. The only time she got spooked was when she was naked in any kind of light. The limp. The crushed leg. She was so ashamed of it. For a while I was afraid I was going to fall in love with her again. But it didn’t happen, and a part of me was sad about it. It had been a long time since I’d burned with that searing fever that takes over your whole life. And I wanted it again. But she was gone from me now, we truly were just friends now, and so the best I could do for her—or for myself—was hold her when she wept, and make timid, cautionary remarks about how her drinking was getting out of hand again. I knew I was wasting my time. She was drinking harder than she ever had.

There were scenes. She drove drunkenly out to his horse ranch and slapped him and started sobbing. And then she accosted him in a bar one night and spat in Kristin’s face. And then she called Sean’s wife and they commiserated on what a shit he was and (at least according to Jenna’s drunken retelling) they became friends for life on the basis of that single phone call.

I didn’t see Sean for a while. He had his shiny New One to spend time with. The night I did run into him in one of the local pubs, I was drunk enough to follow him out the door—he and the bartender were sick of me telling him what an asshole he was—and hit him hard in the mouth. Hard enough to split his lip. It felt great. Then he hit me three or four times and not only bloodied my lip but my nose as well.

He went back in and got a six-pack and we sat in his Benz convertible polishing off the beers and listening to blue Miles Davis jazz low on the CD player and talking about the old days in the Knoll and how he was sorry he’d hurt Jenna and would do anything he could to help her, including picking up the tab for this special detox clinic he’d heard of just outside St. Paul. We used the alley as our chamber pot. We sat there two hours and in the course of it I was able to gauge just how much he’d changed. Or maybe he’d always been like this and I just hadn’t been observant enough to understand it. The kindness, the concern, was there to make him palatable to his fellow humans. He was a good actor. But he didn’t really give a shit about Jenna or his wife or his kids or me. He was even waffling on Kristin, her no longer being “quite as interesting” as she’d once seemed. There was a new New One, it seemed . . . .

When I got home, Jenna was asleep in my bed. I slipped in beside her. In the morning we made quick love and then took a shower together. She said she’d make some breakfast while I got ready for work. The breakfast was Cheerios and orange juice out of a can. And, for Jenna, a generous glass of my whiskey . . . .

I guess it was about four or five weeks later that she called me and asked me to come over. She sounded strange—distracted and distant—and I wondered if she was thinking about suicide or something. The tone of her voice made me nervous as hell.

She was sober. That was the first thing I noticed. And she had this velvet painting of a forlorn Jesus sitting on her dining room table, a dinner candle burning in front of it like a votive candle in a Catholic church. Jenna was a Methodist.

She was better kept than I’d seen her in a long time. Scrubbed, short dark hair combed forward to flatter the elegant bones of her small face, white blouse, and designer jeans clean and freshly pressed.

“Pepsi all right?”

“Fine,” I said.

“I haven’t had a drink in three weeks.”

“Great. I’m proud of you. AA again?”

Shook her head. “On my own.”

“Wow.”

She disappeared into the kitchen, returned with glasses heavy with ice and dark with Pepsi. “Diet was all I had.”

“No problem. I prefer it, actually.”

She sat on the couch, pulled her legs up under her wonderful buttocks. She made me horny and sad at the same time. She said, “You’re the first one I’m telling.”

“All right.”

“And I know you’re going to be skeptical. And think that this happened when I was drunk. And that it was just a dream or something. That’s why I mentioned the drinking. The first time, I was drunk, and I’ll admit it. But that’s why I mentioned about not having a drink for three weeks.”

“I see.”

“I want to tell you, but I’m afraid to tell you.”

“All right.”

“Just please don’t laugh, Randy.”

“I promise.”

“Or smirk.”

“Scout’s Honor.”

“Or ask me to see a shrink or anything like that.”

I smiled. “You ever going to tell me what it is?”

She hesitated. “All these people who say they were abducted by aliens?”

“Uh-huh.”

“They’re telling the truth. At least, the majority of them are.”

No laughing. No smirking. No asking her to see a shrink. Those were the groundrules. My body did tighten up, though. Nothing I could do about that.

“All right.”

“Is that a smirk?”

“Nope.”

“You know what I’m going to tell you, don’t you?”

“That you were abducted?”

“That’s right. I was. Three times, in fact.”

“Two of them sober.”

“Two of them sober.” She hesitated again. “So what do you think?”

“I guess I take your word for it.”

“It happened. It really did.”

“And I believe you believe that.”

She laughed, but there was more sadness than joy in the sound. “That’s what most people around here’ll say when they hear it. Stuff like that. I don’t think they hate me, actually. They just feel sorry for me. The booze and all. And this’ll be one more step up to the mental hospital door. Permanent residence, this time. Die in there at the ripe old age of one hundred and three.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t tell anybody.”

“In other words, you don’t believe me.”

“No,” I said. “Not that at all. It’s just that I know how people respond to things like this.”

“Come over here.”

“Over there?”

“Yes. The couch. Next to me.”

“You sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“I thought we agreed not to—”

“I don’t want sex. I just want you to hold me.”

“I charge by the hour.”

“How much?”

“A nickel.”

“I think I can swing that.”

We ended up in bed, of course. Slow, sweet love. I couldn’t ever recall sex being so tender or innocent. And she must have found it the same way because after we were done, we lay next to each other holding hands and talking about when we were little kids up in the Knolls: the good stuff, not the bad stuff, the good, sweet, innocent times, kittens and puppies and TV shows and movies we loved and funny things happening at school and how much we’d loved our now-dead folks, a sweet sadness coming on with that, and when it was time to go, I realized that something had crept up on me: happiness. Usually, I spent my time looking back at all the bad things that had happened to me. But being with Jenna this snowy afternoon—I was so exultant, I left my car and walked home. I stopped and helped a little girl build her snowman, giving her my brand-new fedora for the snowman’s hat; I got in a friendly snowball fight with some high school kids; and I stopped in a Catholic church and said a few Presbyterian prayers; and at the comic book shop, I bought thirty dollars’ worth of Batman and Daredevil comics from the late seventies and early eighties and took them home and had a great, grand night reading them. I was high out of my mind. But it wasn’t drugs. Drugs had never come close to making me feel euphoric. It was something else: it was Jenna. I was high on Jenna.

The next day, I started calling her as soon as I got off work. Her line was busy. It stayed busy. I called the operator. She told me there was apparently trouble on the line. I was getting kind of desperate. All I’d been able to think about all day long was how good I’d felt after being with her. It wasn’t the sex, though that had been great; and it wasn’t that I’d fallen in love with her again, which I hadn’t. It was just the mental state she’d somehow put me in. For several hours after leaving her, I’d been able to transcend all my petty human problems. While I’d been raised poor, I’d been a pretty happy kid. And I’d been kid-happy again last night, after being with Jenna.

I spent another useless hour trying to contact her on the phone. Still busy. I drove over there.

There was a group out in front of her shabby old apartment house. People of all ages, colors, social stations. Maybe fifteen in all. A couple of the older women held candles, as if this were a religious service.

Nobody seemed to mind the cold night. Or the snowfall.

“What’s going on?” I said.

They all just looked at me. Said nothing.

Their eyes told me how much they resented me.

I pushed past them and went inside.

A few residents were in the hall. “You see any cops out there yet?” a black man asked me.

“No.”

“The bastards. I wish they’d hurry up.”

“What’s going on?” I said.

A heavy man shook his head. “They think she’s some kind of angel or something.”

“Who is?”

“Your friend,” the black man said. “Jenna.”

“They’re all outside because of Jenna?”

The heavy man nodded. “The cops ran them off earlier tonight. But now they’re back again.”

“Is Jenna upstairs?”

“Far as we know,” the black man said.

We’d long ago swapped apartment keys. I went upstairs and knocked softly. No answer. Stained wallpaper hung loose from the hallway walls. A country-western CD competed with the rap CD across the hall. Ancient steam heat radiators clanged and banged busily.

I let myself in. Darkness.

She said, “Close the door. And please don’t turn on the light.”

I sat down on the couch next to her.

“You all right?”

“Sure. I love having mobs of people out on my lawn waiting for me.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t know.” She sighed. “That ship. The spaceship or whatever it was. I know you don’t believe me—”

“I believe you now.”

“You do?”

“Yeah. Something really did happen to you on that ship.” I told her about the bliss I’d felt last night.

“Well, they must’ve felt it, too.”

“Who are they?”

“Oh, you know, just people I met today. The guy in the expensive topcoat and the homburg—he’s my banker. The woman in the wheelchair runs the cash register at the beauty shop. The teenager is a bag boy at the supermarket. I somehow gave them the same kind of euphoria I gave you. And now they want more of it. They’re addicts. I was just trying to be nice, was all.”

I went to the window and looked out. A police car had just arrived. Two cops got out and made their way up the snowy walk to the apartment house. Took a while, but they managed to break up the people who stood dumbly staring up at Jenna’s apartment window.

“Can I stay at your place?” she said. “I’m afraid to be here alone.”

* * * * *

I got blissed out every night.

By the fourth night, I didn’t want to get up and go to work. I just wanted her to focus on me, find that spiritual part of myself that made me happy (thinking of my boyhood never failed), and then make me euphoric. It was kind of like telepathy, I guess, her ability to read you and find the aspect of memory that released all that lovely happiness. And it wasn’t even illegal.

The people she’d blissed out the other day had taken to quieting down. In their fervor, they’d managed to alienate a lot of their friends. The town was uncomfortable enough with all this talk about alien abductions. The prospect of an alcoholic woman who could work emotional miracles was downright embarrassing.

I knew better, and so did she. Several times, she tried to describe what had happened to her when she’d been taken aboard the ship. Unlike the experiences of most people, she reported a gentle and lovely time, not unlike those reported in many near-death experiences, when a soft, foggy atmosphere was filled with a warmth and security that imbued not only her body but her mind and soul as well. And during her fourth abduction, she returned from the ship carrying the blissful state with her. And shared it with anyone she had the time to concentrate on. Not passing strangers, but people she spent at least a few minutes with. When she focused, Jenna relieved them temporarily from all their anxiety and apprehension, filling them with tender and exultant feelings.

I wouldn’t have believed any of this if I hadn’t experienced it myself. I would have said that she was back on the bottle again and into fantasy and self-delusion.

But I knew better.

She kept me pretty well blissed out. I rented a lot of Abbott & Costello movies, and we watched a lot of late-night old movies, and ate a lot of pizza, and kept ourselves happy. I had to go to work, but it was difficult to concentrate. Several times the boss ragged on me. I wasn’t exactly his favorite, anyway. That dubious honor belonged to Kenny Wayman, who did everything except wash and wax the boss man’s car.

I couldn’t wait to get home, to disappear inside that cocoon of well-being she created.

I was whistling as I came through the door. Usually, I heard the sound of the TV or the CD player as I came into the apartment. But now there was only silence. Suddenly a brief burst of light in the sky visible through my kitchen window caught my attention. My first thought was of the ship, the aliens she had talked about. But that was ridiculous. As quickly as it had appeared, the light was gone, and I gave it no more thought.

I stood on the threshold, knowing something was wrong. It was more than just the silence. It was the absence. Jenna’s beatific presence had changed the air. It really had. There was a freshness, the way the air is fresh and clean after a rain. But now the air was just air, apartment air, with faint food smells and the homey scent of furniture polish.

No note. No message on the phone machine. She was gone. I sat in the dark for many hours. The pizza got cold. I opened a couple of beers but didn’t finish either of them. I fell asleep on the couch. The two cats slept on my back.

Around nine a.m., somebody pounded on the door. Two guys in moving uniforms.

“We’re supposed to pick up some stuff that belongs to Jenna McKay.”

I’d trekked over to Jenna’s apartment during her stay here and had brought back a considerable number of her things. This is what they were picking up. I asked where they were delivering her things. They said they weren’t supposed to tell me.

It wasn’t much of a weekend. I cruised past Jenna’s place at least twenty times, hoping she’d show up there. She didn’t.

I used my car phone to check my home machine every twenty minutes in case she’d called. She hadn’t.

I even drove out to the company the movers worked for. The place was locked up.

I didn’t sleep well either Saturday or Sunday night. I couldn’t bring myself to lie in the bed where we’d made love. Too lonely. The cats got to use my couch-prone body as a mattress again.

Monday night, just after work, she called.

She said, “How you doing, Randy?”

So, I told her how I was doing, and I wasn’t very nice about telling her.

She waited until I finished and then she said, “It’s going to happen, Randy. Finally.” I’d never heard her this happy.

“What is?”

“He’s going to get a divorce and marry me.”

I didn’t need to ask her who “he” was.

“When did this happen?”

“He stopped by to see you last week, and I was there. And we just started talking—and he said he wanted to set me up in my own place—a real nice place. And that’d give him time to think of how he was going to handle the divorce. He doesn’t want to hurt his wife.”

Dumping his wife for another woman. Now how would that hurt his wife? “Yeah, he’s a real sensitive guy.”

“C’mon, Randy. We all grew up together. You should be happy for us.”

“Remember what happened the last time he dumped you? Remember how bad you got?”

It was kind of funny. Even though I was no longer in love with her—and I wasn’t—I had this proprietary feeling about her. She was like my kid sister now. I wanted to protect her. “You know how he is. He’s fickle. He wants everything. And he figures he deserves it, too. You have to be very careful, Jenna.”

“He loves me.”

“That’s the only dangerous part of you being blissed out. You’ve taken your guard down. You used to be very protective of yourself. And with Sean, you need to be.”

“I know love when I see it, Randy. And he loves me. He really does.”

What was the point of arguing? And how could I be sure that he didn’t really love her? Maybe he’d changed. I’ve lived long enough to know that some people really do change.

“I’m happy for you, Jenna.”

“Oh, thanks for saying that, Randy. It means a lot to me.”

“I hope it all works out.”

“I should’ve left a note or something. I just didn’t know what to say. It all happened so fast.”

“No problem. But let’s keep in touch.”

“Of course we will.”

* * * * *

A few days later, I was eating lunch at The Big Table when I saw Sean’s Mercedes pull up outside. He appeared to be headed to the bank down the street. I threw a five and my lunch bill on the counter and hurried out the door. I caught him at a red light.

He didn’t seem happy to see me. “I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t talk to Jenna anymore.”

“She called me, Sean.”

“Oh, yeah. I guess that’s right.” He nodded to a diner. “Let’s have some coffee.” After we’d been served, and were sitting at a window table watching all the bundled-up people hurrying red-nosed and red-cheeked through the sunny Midwestern winter, he said, “I don’t want anything to upset her.”

I was shocked. I couldn’t ever recall Sean saying anything like that before, being so protective of somebody else. I was not only impressed; I was moved. Maybe Jenna was right, after all. Maybe this time, he really was going to marry her.

“I mean, I don’t know if all that UFO bullshit actually happened to her,” he said. “But something did.” He looked around and then spoke in a half-whisper. “The happiness stuff. She said she did it to you.”

“Yeah,” I said, “she did.” I wondered if she’d told him we’d slept together. I hoped not.

“I haven’t felt this good since I scored that thirty-yard touchdown pass against the 49 ers in the playoffs. Won the fucking game,” he said. The way he said it, I could tell he’d been with her pretty recently. He was still blissed.

But he was also something else, something far more recognizable: he was selfish. He was already addicted to the state of bliss she infused in him and he meant to keep her all to himself.

He said, “I’m just afraid she’ll lose it somehow.”

“Maybe it’s religious.”

“What is?”

“You know, her power. Maybe the things on that ship are religious beings. Maybe they showed her how to key in on her own innocence and to share it with other people.”

“That’s the dumbest fucking thing I’ve ever heard of.”

“Thank you.”

He smiled. “I’m sorry. That came out harsher than I’d intended. I just mean it sounds like some dipshit sci-fi show or something.”

Actually, it was. A similar idea had been done on an invasion-from-outer-space anthology show called Beings.

“Well, she developed this power somehow.”

He shook his head. “How she got it doesn’t matter. It’s keeping it that counts. That’s why I’m taking good, good care of her. I’m putting her somewhere nobody knows about. I’ve convinced her there’re these rumors all over town about her power and that she’ll be treated like a freak if she ever walks the streets. That scares her. She wants to hide out.”

“She says you’re going to leave your wife and marry her.” I wanted to see how he’d respond.

He smiled. It was close to a smirk. “Well, you know how the ladies are, Randy. They like you to whisper sweet things in their ear.”

“Even if the sweet things aren’t true.”

The famous Sean temper was there instantly. “What the fuck are you? Her lawyer or something?”

“I just don’t want to see her hurt again, Sean. I don’t think she could handle it. The last time, she ended up in detox.”

“Her choice, my man. Her choice entirely. Lots of people get dumped and don’t end up in detox.”

He was absolving himself of all guilt. He didn’t have time for guilt.

“And if she loses her gift, you’ll dump her again.”

“You think I don’t care for her, Randy? I do. I really do. She’s a sweet, sweet girl. A lot of problems, but very sweet nonetheless. And you know what? She loves this idea of being hidden away. She picked the house and the furnishings—everything. It’s a hideout for her. She’s never been able to deal with people anyway. And now she doesn’t have to.” The smile again. Not a hint of smirkiness this time. Just the coldness that was always there. “She gets what she wants, I get what I want. I’ve cornered the market on bliss.”

Every once in a while during the next month, I’d run into one of the people I’d seen standing on Jenna’s lawn that night. They come up and grab my arm and plead with me to tell them where she was. Sad people. Junkies, really. Bliss junkies. I didn’t feel superior to them. I had a physical ache in the pit of my stomach; I wanted the bliss, too. I don’t think they believed me when I said I didn’t know where she was. Our conversations were held in whispers. They didn’t want the town to think they were still pursuing their wild claims.

A lot of nights, I’d sit home and watch TV and stare at the phone, kind of willing it to ring. And one night, it did. She spoke quickly, in a whisper. “I need to get out of here.”

“Then leave.”

“I’m—afraid.”

“Where are you?”

She told me. She said he was upstairs, sleeping. “If I leave, he’ll just come after me.”

“He can’t hold you against your will.”

“Yes, he can. In this town, he can.”

I told her I’d pick her up in half an hour. She said she’d be ready.

The house was a chalet-style affair in the center of a tree-encircled meadow. No mailbox out front to announce it, and a road that would be impassable for most vehicles in deep winter.

She was out on the road, looking anxiously around, when I arrived. Winter dusk had rouged the sky the color of pink salmon. A quarter moon was crisply outlined against the night.

I didn’t notice it right away, her walking to the car. Only when she was three or four feet away did I realize what was different about her.

When she got in, I said, “You’re not limping.”

She looked over at me and grinned. A kid-grin, it was, and it was gorgeous. “Yeah, isn’t it great?”

“What happened?”

“I don’t know. It just went away.”

I smiled. “You must’ve ‘blissed’ it away.”

“I know you’re making a joke. But I think that’s actually what happened.”

By the time we got to my apartment, she’d told me all about it. Sean was quite literally hooked on being blissed out. That’s all he wanted, the bliss. He rarely went to work. He rarely even watched TV or read a newspaper. He’d demand that she bliss him up and then he’d go lie on his Playboy-style round bed and lie there for hours until the blissful mind-state had finally faded. Then he’d be at her again, demanding that she bliss him again. If she didn’t do it, he’d get violent with her. He was smart enough not to bruise her face, she said. But her body was covered with cuts and bruises. Power had made Sean’s already considerable temper even worse. She was now really afraid of him. He kept demanding that she could put him in an even higher state of bliss, if only she’d concentrate more. New, Improved Bliss—more potent than ever. Jenna said she feared for his sanity.

The first twenty-four hours were nice. It being a weekend, I didn’t have to go to work. I rented some videos and ordered in some pizza. I watched her slowly relax. She blissed me, but it was incidental. She said she hadn’t even tried. But her own joy and purity just naturally worked its way into me. I spent a couple of hours reliving some of the great times with my younger brother and sister whom, I learned in retrospect, I should have been a whole lot nicer to. But there were great memories nonetheless, good enough in fact to streak my cheeks with tears. She held me while I cried.

Toward dawn, she said, “I still love him.”

“I know.”

“Really?”

“Sure. It’s in your voice. Even when you’re angry with him, there’s a kind of melancholy in your tone.”

“He scares me.”

“He scares me, too.”

We didn’t say anything for a long time. Then, “Maybe if he actually gets a divorce, and we have a chance to live a normal life, maybe he won’t be so hung up on being blissed out, as you call it.”

It didn’t make much sense to me either, what she’d just said—I mean, she’d run to me because she was scared of him; now she was talking about going back with him—but I let it drift away, her words like wisps of smoke, and let myself slide into sleep.

I don’t know what time the door-pounding started. I jerked awake at the first heavy thud.

Jenna whispered, “It’s him.”

“Sean?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll take care of him.”

“No; I’ve been thinking.” Her tone of voice said it all. “I’ve been awake all night. I love him, Randy. I really do. I can help him through this thing. I really can. Being so hung up on being blissed out, I mean.”

The pounding kept on.

She slipped from the bed and opened the door.

He did a Rhett Butler. They didn’t say a word to each other. He just swept her up in his arms, her mussed in my ancient, blue, threadbare K-Mart bathrobe, and carried her out to his Mercedes. Then they were gone.

I guess the rest of it, you pretty much know. You do if you watch TV or read the papers, anyway.

She called me the night before it happened, one of her frantic, whispered calls. “I’ve got to get out of here. I think this phone is tapped. He doesn’t want me to talk to anybody he doesn’t know about. He’s afraid somebody’s going to take me from him. I want my own life, Randy. He doesn’t love me. He just wants to stay blissed out. I can see that now. And that makes it easier for me. I just want to get out of town, so he can’t find me.”

The phone line clicked a few times: a phone tap, as she’d said. Then the connection went dead. I doubted she’d hung up. Someone had broken the connection for her.

I drove out to their aerie that night. No lights. No cars in the driveway. I parked up on a ridge for a couple of hours with a pair of field glasses. I didn’t see anything moving inside the house. Not even shadows.

He was sitting on my couch in the darkness when I got back home around midnight. He scared the hell out of me when he spoke. I hadn’t known he was in there.

He said, “Don’t turn the light on.”

“It’s my place, Sean. I can do what I want.”

“I—want to wash up first.” He hesitated. “I’ve got blood all over my hands and shirt.”

“You sonofabitch.”

I started to lunge at him. But then moonlight outlined the pistol he raised and pointed at me. “No heroics, Randy. I don’t want to kill you, too.”

“We grew up together. The three of us.”

“I know.”

“We were as close as you could get without being kin.”

“She was going to leave me.”

“You didn’t give a shit about her. It was being blissed out you were worried about.”

He didn’t say anything. “I’m never going to have it again. Being high like that.”

“Maybe you should’ve thought of that before you killed her.”

“She was going to leave me.” he said, “I couldn’t let her go.”

“Well, I guess you stopped her, all right.”

“Take me down to the police station, will you?”

I sighed. “Maybe I better call your lawyer first.”

“I don’t give a shit about lawyers. Just take me to the station, all right?”

I took him to the station. I knew the night man and told him everything that had happened and how Sean was out in the car. The night man called the Chief and, after spending a full minute apologizing for wrestling the Chief from his beauty sleep, told him what was going on. Then he hung up.

“We better go get your friend,” the night man said.

I had just started to open the front door of the station when the gunshot sounded. Just one. Ordinarily, a 9mm wouldn’t make that much noise, but it was late and the streets were empty and quiet, and Sean had the window rolled down because of the heat. It was still in the eighties and it was after midnight.

The car was a mess. I guess I focused on that so I wouldn’t have to focus on the dead man in my front seat or the dead woman he’d left back at his aerie. They took an ambulance a while later and got her.

Sean’s wife came down to the station after half an hour. I hadn’t seen her in years. She didn’t seem as icy as I remembered her. She hadn’t aged especially well—three kids and all the despair over Sean’s affairs had taken their toll—and when she saw me, she came over and hugged me and started crying. I thought of all the times this girl had snubbed me when we’d been growing up. But then I realized how petty I was being and held her tenderly and let her cry. I even told her I’d help any way I could with the funeral arrangements.

I tried to cry myself that night. I guess I’ve learned the male syndrome too well. Boys don’t cry. It’s funny. I see movies and TV shows all the time that make me cry. But when it’s something personal—I tried but I couldn’t cry. And then the hot, raw dawn broke and I slept fitfully.

* * * * *

A couple of months after Jenna was murdered, I heard the first rumor. Somebody told me there was a Jenna Internet site. I logged on and looked it over. Seems Jenna hadn’t really been murdered. That was just a cover story for the aliens who’d taken her back up to the mother ship, where she was now residing.

I went out there one Indian Summer night, out to the meadow where the people said they saw the ship every once in a while. There was a crowd of thirty or so. I recognized some of them. They were the people who’d stood in her yard that time, hoping to see her again to get high on the joy merely seeing her brought them.

I suppose I felt superior to them. My mind wasn’t filled with all their delusions; I was brave enough to face reality. There had been no ship, no abduction. She was simply one of those people who’d developed a power to make people feel better. Such people were celebrated throughout history. Jesus was certainly one of them. And Jesus did not come from a spaceship.

But late that night, in the darkness of my bed, I didn’t feel superior to them at all. I envied them. On our trip through the universe, the lonely and unknowable universe, they had something to cling to, anyway. I didn’t have anything at all.

 

(C)  Ed Gorman 2009


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