Terra Incognita—Chapter 2

Here is the second chapter of my first completed novel, Terra Incognita.  In posting the first chapter yesterday, I said the story was my first successful attempt at completing a novel length work.  I use the term “successful” very loosely as I never really thought the writing was good enough for publication.  I do like the story idea, though, and I hope my readers will like it enough to overlook the errors I made in putting it down.

Chapter 2

Heather had not told Marcus where she was going. There was no need. He sped along Interstate 40, now doing seventy-five without noticing. The radio still played public radio, but instead of All Things Considered, a melodic strings piece washed over Marcus who heard none of it. What he did hear was a voice in his head reciting the letter in his pocket word for word. The voice, like the handwriting on the letter itself, seemed to rise out of his subconscious like something from a dream. A vague sensation like deja vu rippled up and down his spine, making him squirm constantly in his seat.

He steered the Toyota off the interstate and through a series of side streets until he took a left onto Bloomhill. The question rose in his mind of what he would do if Heather had not gone to Tanya’s after all, if she had some secret location to hide from him, but he pushed the thought away as quickly as it had come. Tanya, divorced over a year from her unfaithful husband, would be the best outlet for Heather to express her feelings. Unfortunately, Marcus knew, she would also shelter Heather from him until hell froze over if asked.

A wave of unexpected relief swept over him when he spotted the Ford in front of the apartment complex. He knew she could not have arrived more than a half hour before, but in his haste to find her, Marcus had failed to devise a plan that would allow him to speak to Heather. Convincing Tanya to let him in the house would be slightly more difficult than breaking into Fort Knox with a hairpin, but his only other option consisted of waiting on the doorstep until Heather decided to show herself.

Marcus parked his car next to Heather’s and got out, absently patting the letter in his pocket to ensure it was still there. He walked up the sidewalk to the breezeway between the two sides of Tanya’s building and, without hesitation, knocked on the door.

His knock was answered at once. The door opened enough for Marcus to see the chain still attached in case he tried to push his way in. Marcus had no intention of doing so and felt slightly insulted that Tanya, who had known him as long as she had know Heather, thought he might use physical force to get past her defenses.

“She doesn’t want to see you,” Tanya said, her tone carrying a dash of warning, “Go home, Marcus.”

“I didn’t expect her to,” Marcus answered. He attempted a conciliatory smile. “I was actually hoping that I could talk to you.”

This response apparently took Tanya off guard. Confusion showed in her face and she ducked her head away from the thin opening in the doorway for a moment, Marcus knew, to confer with Heather who undoubtedly stood near enough to the door to listen to the conversation.

“Please, Tanya, just a few minutes and then I’ll go.”

He heard her whisper something behind the door and a faint, but frantic whispered response. Then, the door shut and a moment of fear knotted his stomach before he heard the chain sliding off the door and rattling as it fell against the jamb. When the door opened again, it still only opened enough to allow Tanya to sidle outside into the breezeway. Wearing a tee shirt on which the word “Squeezeable” was printed in yellow letters above a lemon wedge, faded jeans, and no shoes, Tanya shut the door behind her and turned to glare at Marcus, hands on her hips.

“Mind if we walk?” Marcus asked, glancing at the door for emphasis.

Tanya considered for a moment, then gave a short nod. They walked down the sidewalk and followed it as it wound around the apartment building. Marcus knew she was was expecting him to ask for her help in getting Heather back, to ask her to intervene and convince Heather that he was worth a second chance. Marcus knew what she expected and gave her something else.

“How long have we known each other?” he asked her as they walked.

Tanya slowed her stride then shuffled her bare feet to draw even with him again. She had been caught off guard again, but answered in the same tone she had used to tell him to go home.

“About three years, I guess.”

Marcus followed immediately, pressing his advantage. “And do you consider yourself my friend?” He stopped walking, turning to look into her eyes.

“Yes, yours and Heather’s. And, as your friend, I’m telling you to go home.” She emphasized the “and Heather’s,” making sure Marcus knew exactly on which side her loyalties lay.

“Well, my friend,” Marcus said, adding equal amounts of despair and sarcasm to his voice, “why didn’t you telling me I was screwing up the best thing in my life? Why didn’t you tell me, even if she couldn’t, that I was letting her slip away?”

Tanya stared back at him in stunned silence for a full ten seconds before her voice returned, stronger than before, “I shouldn’t have had to tell you. If you were spending more time with her and less time selling people damn jock straps, you’d have known how she felt.”

He had expected the attack, but it still left him feeling as though he had been hit in the gut. The storm was beginning, he knew, as the loyal friend rose to champion a cause that was not hers.

“She doesn’t care what a hot-shot manager you are, what kind of promise your career has, or any of that bullshit. She just wanted you to be there for her and you weren’t.” She paused, waiting for his rebuttal, but when none came she continued the assault. “I know in some idiotic male way you’ve justified how much time you spend at work, convinced yourself that you had to do it so that you could provide a life for her and any kids that may come later, but all you’ve managed to do is prove that you’re a selfish bastard who doesn’t deserve a girl like her.”

Marcus took the blows, feeling like a boxer paid to throw a fight in the tenth round. He looked long at Tanya, saw her preparing for the counter attack, and instead of screaming at her like she expected, he turned away from her and walked back up the sidewalk.

Tanya hurried to catch up, her bare feet slapping the concrete, and cut him off. “Where the hell you going?” she asked.

“Home,” Marcus answered as he stepped around her. His voice was barely a whisper, but its effect was exactly what he hoped for. He took five steps before Tanya spoke again.

“Marcus, wait.”

Marcus stopped, but did not turn around. He did not want to seem too eager to hear what she had to say. The bare feet took a few steps toward him.

“Give her a few days and think about what I told you. Maybe she’ll be willing to listen. No guarantees, but maybe,” Tanya said.

Marcus turned around slowly. “Tell her I’m sorry. I know it probably won’t mean much, but tell her anyway.”

“I’ll tell her, don’t worry,” she assured him. “Look, I like both of you and I hate to see the two of you break up like this, but . . . “

He cut her off. “I know,” he said, waving his hand dismissively. “I want you to tell her something else, okay?”

“Okay.” She sounded tentative.

“Tell her I’m taking a vacation, maybe a week, maybe a little more. Going back to Kentucky for a few days and I want her to go with me. I need some time off to get my priorities straight and I want her, need her to help me get my head right.” He took a step toward Tanya. “Tell her that if she will agree to go, to meet me the day after tomorrow for breakfast at IHOP on Blue Ridge. Eight o’clock. If she’s not there by nine, I’ll . . . I’ll know.”

Marcus smiled weakly at Tanya, turned, and walked to the Toyota. He did not look up to see whether she was watching him, he knew she was. As he pulled out of the complex onto Bloomhill, he glanced in his rear view in time to see Tanya watching him drive away before turning to go back inside. Behind her, Marcus also saw the blinds flutter. Heather had been watching, too.

Driving home, Marcus wondered if he had handled the situation properly, if his scheme would work. He knew Tanya would not have allowed him to see Heather, or even speak to her, but if he could gain a little of that loyalty for himself, could generate enough sympathy in Tanya, he felt confident that she would seek a resolution that would satisfy the demands of both friendships.

He tried to picture the two of them, Heather and Tanya, sitting on opposite ends of the couch scarfing a pint of Ben and Jerry’s each, watching Jerry Maguire or something similar, and speaking very little, just being there for one another. Tanya would eventually tell her friend what was said outside, but Marcus could not envision that conversation. He tried, but two things kept him from getting a clear script for the dialogue. First, he could not be sure of Heather’s reaction to the message he had sent her. Much would depend on how Tanya delivered it, but he felt she would at least be neutral, if not slightly in his favor.

The second, and more intrusive, factor keeping him from getting a clear image of how Heather would react to his offer was the letter. Marcus tried to push its contents out of his conscious mind, but the words kept repeating over and over, forming a mantra that rose in his thoughts like a Gregorian chant. He knew that at any other time, getting Heather back would consume all his energy, but now the strange note in his breast pocket demanded his attention. He swore he could feel heat, a small amount, but contrasting sharply to the cool October air, radiating from the folded material.

He pulled into the driveway he had left less than an hour before, got out, went back inside. His screwdriver still sat on the table next to the other mail that now seemed as trivial as a windbreaker in a hurricane. For a moment, he considered adding some ice and picking up where he left off, but instead he poured the drink down the sink drain. He would need all his mental function to deal with what he knew lay ahead and did not want to begin the least bit muddled.

After a restless night of sleep, Marcus awoke the next morning and realized that he had only slept alone for three other nights since Heather had moved in with him. Those three days had been nearly eight months before at the annual meeting at the SportsWorld corporate offices in Greenville. He had received two awards at that meeting, one for highest net profit percentage and the second for best inventory results, and both of these sat on the desk in the home office he and Heather shared downstairs. Although sleeping alone felt odd upon waking, he never experienced any of the difficulties falling asleep that Heather complained of upon his return. Sleep always came naturally to Marcus and Heather often marveled at how quickly he could fall asleep as she lay tossing and turning, trying to slow her ever-active brain enough to trick it into unconsciousness.

Heather certainly would have been pleased watching me last night, he thought, sliding out of bed and making his way to the master bath for a shower. Sleep had come, but not until he had turned to see his alarm clock beside the bed read a quarter past four. Marcus knew the letter, more than the circumstances of his sleeping alone, caused his unrest. Memories long forgotten clouded his vision as he stared at the dark ceiling and sank again like bubbles in a pot of boiling water. When exhaustion finally overcame him, his dreams offered little respite from his overactive mind, showing him visions of places he had been and things his had seen, none of which he could name.

He awoke early knowing he still needed to do several tasks before leaving the next day. First, though his schedule had granted him a rare Sunday off, he called Mike Green, his supervisor and, despite the demands of protocol in the business world, his friend.

Calling some people early on a Sunday morning would be inviting a conversation with an answering machine, but he knew that Mike, devoutly religious would already be mustering his kids from their beds to prepare for this week’s dose of “papal bullshit” as Marcus often called it. Years ago, before Mike had ascended to the lofty ranks of multi-unit management, they had decided not to discuss their views on religion with one another, more as a means to preserve their friendship than from any practical obligations, but now Marcus wondered what Mike would say, what passage of scripture he could quote, to put the contents of that letter into a religious perspective.

He would never know, however. He would have to lie.

The phone rang twice before Julie picked up. “Hello, Marcus, you change your mind about joining us for mass this week?” She, as devout as her husband, always practiced with vigor the Christian mandate of trying to convert the nonbelievers. Usually, Marcus would tell her that when she could reconcile all the problems he had with the Bible, he would go with them to mass and drop a good bit of cash into the collection plate, but today he had more pressing uses for his time.

“No, thanks for the offer, though,” he said. “I just need to yell at Mike for a minute.”

“Okay, but you know the offer’s always open,” Julie said, then he heard her call for her husband as she set the receiver down. Marcus waited for a few moments before he heard steps approaching on the hardwood floor he and Mike had installed the previous spring.

“Hey, Marc,” Mike spoke like someone who reveled in rising early and made everyone who did not hate his guts. “Still no religious epiphany, eh?”

“No, not yet.”

“Oh, well, we’ll keep trying. They all come back to God eventually.” He laughed, a bit too loudly for a Sunday morning. “So, what’s up?”

“I need to take a few days off, Mike. Maybe a week,” Marcus tried to sound casual, knowing that it would be easier to lie to his good friend if he sounded natural.

A long pause followed. Mike knew Marcus detested the time he took off from the store, not because he did not enjoy the time with Heather, but he hated leaving for a week and coming back to what seemed like a month’s worth of work. “Everything okay?” he finally asked, a note of concern in his voice.

“Yeah, more or less,” Marcus answered, although he thought to himself that everything was about as far from okay as could be imagined. “My dad’s sick and I need to go home for a few days.”

Marcus felt a tingle of shame shoot down his spine. Everyone he had ever lied to told him he was lousy at it and he waited for a sickening moment for Mike react to his excuse. Replaying every conversation between the two since they had known each other, he looked for any reference he had ever made to his father and could not think of any. Marcus had never been close to his father, even before his parents divorced when he was twelve. A heavy drinker, Percy Briggs never had much affection for anyone not named Jack, Jim, Johnny, or Jose and Marcus had not spoken to him since his fourteenth birthday which his father arrived an hour late, too drunk to remember whose party it was.

“He gonna be okay?” Mike asked finally, allowing Marcus to exhale again.

“Yeah, something with his digestive system or something like that. They’re running some tests this week to figure out what’s going on.”

Marcus thought he sounded convincing enough, at least to his own ears, and apparently Mike agreed. “The store covered while you’re gone?” he asked.

“Ben and Sarah can handle it, but you may want to look in on them this week.” Marcus was glad Mike had shifted his focus to the store, moving the focus away from the lie and allowing him to speak with more confidence.

“Can do,” Mike assured him. “When you leaving?” he asked.

“Tomorrow. Driving up first thing in the morning.” He thought of Heather as he answered and felt a pang of anxiety hoping she would join him for the trip.

In the background, Marcus heard Julie herding their three children to the door and called for Mike to hurry. “All right, man,” he said, “you be careful and if you need anything, give me a call.”

“Thanks, Mike,” Marcus said and then he hung up the phone.

A similar call followed to Sarah at the store. Marcus explained the fictional situation with his father and his plans, feeling slightly less guilt with his subordinate than with his friend and supervisor, but a fair amount regardless. He had absolute faith in Ben’s and her ability to operate the store in his absence; he trained his assistants to do everything he himself did, more for the possibility that he would be promoted rather than the task he now faced.

He then called Ben, got his machine, and left a message briefly explaining the situation with his father and telling him to call Sarah if he had any questions. Ben, like Mike, attended one of the many churches in town, but due to his irregular schedule and, Marcus thought, some deep-seeded reservations about the church, not nearly as frequently as his boss’s boss.

With the store covered in his absence and his leave approved, Marcus set about the task of deciding what to pack. He looked around the house for nearly and hour, deciding there was very little that would help him where he was going, so he packed light. Another hour passed and he had packed one suitcase with a couple changes of clothes, some of his hiking gear, and an audiobook to listen to in the car if Heather failed to shop at IHOP the next morning. He knew once he reached his destination, even these things would matter very little, but he recognized the long drive there and back. If I even make it back, he thought grimly.

For the rest of the day, he tried to occupy himself around the house. He managed to hold his attention on the Carolina Panthers game long enough to see the first quarter end, but his eyes kept roving to the letter, lying back on the kitchen table where he had first discovered it. At first, the looks were only glances, but these came with increasing regularity and soon blossomed into full, timeless stares. He felt no compulsion to retrieve the letter, every word seemed seared into his mind, but he continued to watch it, as if afraid it would disappear if he moved his gaze. Part of him, the logical part, hoped it would disappear, and thought by right that it should, so that he would not have to do what he knew he must.

He tried to think of Heather and imagine again what her reaction had been to his request to join him on his trek. He hoped she would, but found that his distress over their split was only a small part of his wanting her to go. In some subconscious part of his mind, he felt strongly that Heather would join him, not because of her desire for reconciliation, but because she was meant to accompany him where he needed to go.

This knowledge frightened Marcus more than a little. Heather, ever the pragmatist, would have a difficult enough time believing what he would tell her on the way to Kentucky, much less accepting that she had some part to play.

She’s going to think I’ve lost my mind, Marcus thought as he climbed into bed for his second night alone. Again he slept, and again the dreams came.

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