Today is the third anniversary of my mother’s death. Instead of writing about that, as I did here and here, I’m going to recommend anyone who is my Facebook friend to read what my brother wrote about the topic today. It’s another perspective, well-told, and it makes me just as sad to read his account as it does for me to go back and read my own.
That said, my mom wouldn’t want me to dwell on the sadness when I have so many other things to be happy about. In that same spirit, here is the third installment of my first completed novel. As I’ve recounted before, my mother had aspirations of being a writer and I think she would’ve been proud of me just for finishing this story, not to mention the other works I’ve had published.
Marcus awoke early again the next day, long before the sun made its first appearance over the eastern hills. He loaded his suitcase into the trunk, wondering if he had forgotten anything before deciding that it did not matter. He was careful to leave enough room for Heather’s things.
As the first full rays of dawn found him, he pulled the Toyota out of the driveway and made the ten minute drive to IHOP, arriving there at a quarter until eight. He was only mildly surprised to see the Ford sitting in the parking lot. He had expected her, but not quite so early. He could see through the back glass that Heather was not alone. Tanya, he knew, had come with her for moral support, and to drive the Ford back, of course.
At that moment, Marcus realized the reason for Heather arriving so early. She still was undecided about whether to give him a second chance and he knew that if he failed to convince her, Tanya would be waiting outside to whisk her away from him forever.
His mind flicked back to the letter, now stashed in the console between the front seats and only through great force of will did he wrest control away to the problem at hand. To talk Heather into joining him on this trip, he would need to focus on her every word to the exclusion of all else.
He parked two spaces over from the Ford and got out. Heather stood by the passenger door, arms folded across her chest. To Marcus, she looked as radiant as always and he found that putting the letter out of his thoughts would be much easier seeing her in person. A hundred happy memories of her flashed through his mind as he looked at her and every bit of his concentration trained on her lovely features.
He walked toward her slowly despite his urge to rush in and embrace her. Offering a weak smile, he asked, “Can I buy you breakfast?” He hoped those words would illicit some response. He had asked her the same question the morning after their first night of lovemaking.
If she recognized the question or its significance, she gave no sign. She nodded once, then turned to go inside.
Marcus turned to look at Tanya, in the drivers seat of the Ford and found her expression equally blank. Any empathy he may have gained from their conversation of two nights ago was obviously spent. Still, she had helped him get this far and he offered a mouthed “thank you” for which he received, and expected, no acknowledgement.
Hurrying to catch up with Heather, he found her already seated browsing the menu. Marcus knew that she was not actually deciding on what to order, the two of them ate there frequently and had long ago memorized the menu. Still, she turned the menu over, scanning each line with her dark brown eyes to avoid looking at him.
Marcus sat down across from her. He did not touch his menu except to slide it to the edge of the table for the server to pick up. An uncomfortable silence fell across the table, broken only by the common clanking and scraping sounds found in nearly every restaurant. For what seemed like an eternity, he stared at the menu separating him from Heather.
A server approached, placing a couple of drink napkins on the table, and asked if they would like some coffee and Marcus, seeing that Heather planned to keep her silence, said, “Thank you, no, I’ll have some orange juice.”
“One O.J., ” the server repeated, her upbeat tone reminding Marcus of his conversation with Mike the day before. “And for you, ma’am?”
“Water,” Heather spoke from behind the menu.
“And one H two O,” the server said, marking her order pad. “I’ll get these and be right back out to get your order.”
Marcus thanked her and she scurried off to fill their drink order. Turning to the menu still blocking Heather’s face from view, he said, “Thanks for meeting me.”
There was still no response, which Marcus read as a sign to continue. “I’ve been thinking over the past few days how wrong I’ve been to treat you like I have.” Silence. “I’m more sorry than you can imagine. I never wanted to hurt you.” More silence. “You mean so much more to me than any job I can ever have and I’ve been blind, or maybe just stupid, to take your love for granted.”
At last, Heather folded the menu slapping it shut with an audible smack. She was about to launch her rebuttal as the server returned with their drinks. They gave their orders and Marcus was thankful for the brief respite, hoping it may serve to deprive Heather of some of her bluster.
The server left them again to enter their orders and Heather turned her dark eyes again on Marcus. “You have no idea what I’m even mad about. You’re not sorry how you’ve treated me and, moreover, I don’t think you really give a damn,” she said in a harsh whisper. “You spend so much time at that stupid store. You don’t know what I do in my spare time, what television shows I watch while you’re there selling that crap. For all you know, I could be out screwing every guy within a hundred miles of here.” The volume of her voice rose so that the last sentence could be heard across the restaurant and many heads turned to see the source of the disturbance.
Marcus felt the eyes upon him, but would not acknowledge them. He stared into those brown eyes, staring back into his with a fury he had never known in them before. With a sudden flash of insight, he finally recognized the pain the dedication to his career had caused Heather and for the first time he truly felt the shame he ought to have felt the entire time they had been together. For the first time, he understood her.
He could feel his eyes grow wet and when he opened his mouth to speak, his voice broke. His mouth opened and shut a few times like a fish, searching for words that seemed to be whirling in his brain like clothes during the spin cycle. Finally, he managed a question, the only thought he could articulate.
“What can I do to fix this?” It was a statement he had used several times over the year in his store to diffuse customer complaints and now it sounded cheesy to his own ears. He felt sure that Heather would see through the question, but if she did, she gave no indication.
Instead, her eyes also welled with tears, tears that she refused to let fall. “I don’t think you can.” Her voice was barely a whisper now, but it carried well enough for Marcus to hear it over the blood pounding in his own ears.
The server appeared at their side, seemingly out of nowhere, and offered their two plates. Her pleasant demeanor still in place, she asked them if everything was okay and, without waiting for their response, hurried to fetch refills for another table.
Marcus knew he had to regroup or lose any chance of holding on to Heather, regardless of his intuitions about her place in his journey. He looked for some place in his mind to gain some stable footing, some safe harbor to collect the ship of his thoughts. Finally, as he felt ready to give up and flee out the door, his confident side, the side of him that managed every aspect of a multi-million dollar business, took over and developed a plan.
“Tell you what,” he said, his voice sounding just over the state line from begging, “you spend the next week with me, sleeping separately if you like, just like two friends on a road trip. We’ll talk, God will we talk, and then, after we get home, I support whatever you want to do–stay or leave. I do love you, but if that means letting you go after this week, then so be it.”
Heather, who had been staring intently at her cheese blintz, looked up. Her eyes were dry, Marcus saw, and the rage he had seen in them earlier was gone.
“One week,” she repeated, “I’ll give you that long to prove to me that you can think about something other than that store. I suppose I owe you that much.” Her voice was blank, emotionless, but it was capitulation and for that Marcus was thankful.
“You don’t owe me anything,” Marcus said, feeling a sweet wave of relief wash away the stones he swore had settled in his stomach. “If anything, I owe you for putting up with me.”
He smiled at her, but she did not smile back. They ate their breakfasts, Marcus with particular relish borne of his good fortune. They made some small talk, mostly about mutual friends and the social drama that was occurring in other people’s lives while they pointedly avoided that in their own lives.
At five past nine, they paid their bill, left a sizeable tip for the server, and left the restaurant. Tanya waited outside with the trunk popped on the Ford. Her arms folded, she still glared at Marcus as though she smelled something foul, but she said nothing as she helped Heather with her two suitcases. Marcus took them in at once in a feeble attempt at chivalry and mouthed another silent “thank you” to Tanya who again offered no response.
A few minutes later, Marcus took the ramp onto the interstate and headed west toward the Tennessee line. Heather had said nothing since their departure from the restaurant. She sat staring morosely out the window as might a child right before asking “Are we there yet?” or “How much further?” The rounded, tree-covered hills of Appalachia, awash in fall color, trundled past on either side. For over an hour, Marcus waited for Heather to speak, even to comment about the weather, which was wholly unremarkable even for autumn. He figured that, as a male, he would hold a distinct advantage if he drove in silence, because all the women he had ever known seemed to view silence as a sin against nature. They found it uncomfortable for some reason unfathomable to anyone without the old double-x chromosomes. Men, on the other hand, loved the silence, loved the deer stand and the end bar stool. Only a group of men could sit around for hours at a time, not speaking, and yet enjoy themselves.
Finally, having left the tourist traps of the Great Smokies behind them, Heather spoke. “So why this trip all of a sudden? Won’t that cause an inconvenience to the store?” Sarcasm dripped heavily from the questions like water from a saturated sponge.
“It’s taken care of,” Marcus answered.
He waited for her to speak again, to take another jab at his intentions. He had purposely not answered the first question because, in truth, he did not know how to answer. He could not feed her the same line he had Mike because she would soon enough know the truth of where they had to go. She would know, Marcus thought, but she still would not believe. Silence set in for another fifteen minutes before yielding again, this time to Marcus.
“You ever have an imaginary friend growing up?” he asked her.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Heather turn her head and stare at him. He spared a quick glance and read her expression as a mixture of surprise and confusion, like someone who had just misjudged the number of steps while descending a ladder.
She stared at him for nearly a mile, trying to fathom any possible significance to the question before answering. “I had Analecia,” she said, almost too low for him to hear.
“Excuse me?” He had heard her perfectly, but he had known nothing about this aspect of her life, despite sharing her bed for most of the previous two years. With her pragmatic, conservative demeanor, Heather hardly seemed the type to have even acquaintances generated from her imagination, much less friends.
“Analecia,” she repeated. “When I was four or five, we lived on a little farm outside of Greenville. There weren’t any kids around to play with, so I made do with what I had. Analecia was a fairy, or an angel, or something like that. She was older than me and had beautiful wings that glistened in the sun. We moved into town about a year later and I remember telling my mom that Analecia didn’t want to move. About that time, I learned to read, anyway, and started spending more time with other people’s fantasies than my own” Her words, no longer carrying rich deposits of sarcasm, took on a wistful tone as she described her fictional playmate.
Marcus saw her smile as she looked out the windshield, lost in some pleasant memory of her childhood. He was struck again by how beautiful she was and how empty his life would be without her.
She noticed him looking at her, blushed, and turned to look out the passenger window. “Why don’t you watch the damn road,” she scolded.
Marcus turned his gaze back to the interstate, a slight grin curling the left side of his mouth. Again, they cruised in silence for some time with the hills dropping lower as they passed through the Tennessee Valley. The stopped in Knoxville for a restroom break and lunch at an Arby’s near the interstate before continuing on in relative silence, broken only by the sound of passing traffic and the Toyota’s tires upon the asphalt.
“Why did you want to know if I had any imaginary friends?” Heather asked, nearly an hour after the she had answered the question.
“Just curious,” Marcus answered.
“Yeah, right,” she said, sarcasm appearing again. “That’s not a “just curious” kind of question.”
Heather stared at him, waiting for a better answer than two raised shoulders and a goofy look. Seeing that none were coming, she turned the tables.
“How about you? You have any make-believe buddies you’d throw the ol’ pigskin to when you were a kid?”
“No, mine don’t know anything about football,” Marcus answered. He laughed slightly at the thought, but stopped when he realized the opening he’d left for the ever-observant Heather.
“Don’t?” She jumped on it immediately like a cat pouncing on a butterfly. “Are they still around? Maybe that’s who you’ve been spending all your time with?” She snorted a humorless laugh. “And here I was thinking it was that damn store keeping you away from home so much, how stupid of me.” She laughed again, a sound that normally put him beyond happiness, but now grated on his nerves. “You’ve been out running around with Harvey the Rabbit.”
Marcus found far less humor in Heather’s wit than she did herself, but he held back the scathing retort that sprang to the tip of his tongue as she laughed. He sat watching the road again, keeping his expression perfectly even until Heather looked at him with an equally blank stare. He realized that trying to explain the situation would be near impossible, but now he saw just how near. In some part of his brain where the sun always shines, he hoped she would be receptive to his tale, regardless of how fantastic it seemed, but those hopes were dashed in her echoing laughter.
“I lived on a farm, too,” Marcus began, forcing his voice to hide the frustration he felt. “All the way up until I left for college.” He paused a moment, trying to decided how to continue. “There weren’t any kids near me, either, not within a few miles anyway, but one thing Kentucky has that North Carolina lacks is caves. Our place was along the northern rim of Mammoth Cave and outside of the park there are all sorts of sink holes and undiscovered entrances to the cave system. We had about fifty acres, so we found a few of them on our property. Most of them had already been mapped, but I found one, just after my eighth birthday, that no one had ever seen previously.”
Heather glanced at him, an odd sort of concern masking her features. “Yeah, I was by myself,” he said in answer to her silent question. “We went camping all the time and those were simpler times.” He thought the statement made him sound much older than he was, but he pressed on. “Anyway, I was out in the woods one day and this cave just seemed to appear out of nowhere. I’d never seen it before and I’d been by where it was hundreds of times.”
At this point, Marcus glanced at Heather, who was listening raptly with the trained ear of one used to hearing legal arguments and dissecting them for weaknesses. He knew the seed of doubt was already beginning to bloom, but he continued anyway.
“My dad was friends with one of the cave guides who had taken us spelunking with him a few times, so I walked in a bit just to see how far back the thing went. The opening was pretty wide and flat, so I managed to walk in quite a ways before I got spooked enough to turn around.”
Here goes, Marcus thought, time to break out the straight jacket.
“I turned and walked out the same way I’d come in. Couldn’t have been more than fifty feet, but when I came out I wasn’t were I had started. The terrain had changed. I was . . . somewhere else.”
He looked again at Heather. Her eyebrows stretched nearly into her hairline, giving her the look of someone working at a nursing home humoring the mumblings of an advanced Alzheimer’s patient. Marcus turned away, unable to continue meet her patronizing stare.
“I explored this new place,” he left out a great many details, but told himself that he would cover them in due course, “and made a friend, probably my best friend growing up. His name was Erasmus.”
Marcus stopped speaking, again unsure how to continue the tale. He thought he might as well go for broke, knowing he had already lost his credibility, but his instinct told him that the time was not right for full disclosure, even if she already thought he was crazy.
“So that was your imaginary friend? Erasmus?” Heather said, trying not to sound like she had serious doubts about his mental health. “I have to say, you have a much better imagination than I do.”
“Yeah, Erasmus was my imaginary friend. I went back to that cave, and through it, hundreds of times over the next few years. I could spend weeks in that other place and only hours would pass in the real world. We had many adventures together, Erasmus and me, but as I grew older and discovered sports and then girls, I stopped going as often. By the time I was fourteen or so, I stopped going at all.”
“Fourteen?” she said, unable to keep the note of amusement out of her voice. “You held on for a long time, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, I thought so,” Marcus answered, his eyes pointed at the road ahead but seeing far off places. “I pretty much forgot all about Erasmus and that other place . . . until two days ago when I, when we, received this in the mail.” He pulled open the console and extricated the strange letter, handing it to Heather. She unfolded the message, also noticing the odd material on which it had been sent.
After these many seasons, the time has come at last for me to send to you for aid. Dark times have befallen this land you have forgotten. An evil force, the Necromancer, has begun a campaign to rule us all and murder those who will not bow to his will. Our powers to resist him will soon fail without your support. Only you have the strength to withstand this onslaught and we now beseech you to return to us and fulfill the destiny for which you have been chosen. Time is short, so please be swift before all hope is extinguished and the land you once loved is no more
For a long time after she had finished reading, Heather stared at the letter. Then, she gently folded it and placed it in her lap.
“Is this supposed to be some kind of joke?” she asked angrily. “You must be out of your damn mind if you think I’m gonna fall for this.”
Marcus said nothing. He simply drove, his eyes fixed upon the horizon. For nearly an hour, he drove on in silence while Heather waited for him to break down laughing. He had gained a well-deserved reputation over the years for elaborate practical jokes and people close to him always lived with the fear that his evil genius would one day turn on them. Still, he resented the fact that Heather thought he would try to put one over on her, particularly considering the state of their relationship on this trip. The last thing any person in his position would want to do, he thought, would be to get a few yucks from the one deciding whether or not they ought to stay together.
They arrived in Nashville shortly before eight and Marcus decided, without consulting Heather, to get a room for the night. He glanced over to the passenger seat and spied Heather sulking, growing angry that he had not revealed the joke yet. He knew he had to assure sleeping arrangements would be totally separate, even if it meant finding two rooms, but in her current mood, he figured that she would not be the most pleasant company anyway.
He had worked in Nashville a few times and knew the main roads well enough to get around when and where he needed. SportsWorld had recently opened their third location in the area, the first that he himself had not assisted in selecting and training the staff. Finally, he pulled the Toyota into the parking lot of the Opryland Hotel and parked near the registration entrance.
Heather got out, stretched her lean body, and circled around to the back of the car. Marcus got out, opened the trunk, and pulled out his suitcase along with the larger of Heather’s two. Heather took up the smaller one, shut the trunk, and looked at Marcus.
“You gonna tell me what you’re up to, or do I have to figure it out on my own?” she asked.
“I guess you’ll just have to figure it out,” he said, lugging the two bags toward the entrance.
The two of them walked up to the registration line, waiting behind a harried mother of three small children who all wanted to run off in different directions to explore the wonders of the hotel. After a few minutes, Marcus stepped forward and inquired about a suite, knowing that they offered not only separate beds, but also separate rooms for their sleeping convenience. Receiving directions from the desk clerk, Marcus led Heather to the fifth floor and entered the designated room.
A large bay window overlooked what looked like a tropical canopy. The conservatory stretched into the distance, still within the confines of the hotel, but providing a strong feeling of being outdoors. Directly below the window, a small waterfall burbled its way down to ground level. He could see several people milling around on the various walkways and balconies below and wondered for a moment how many of them had problems remotely close to the ones he now faced.
Not a single one, he told himself.
Hearing Heather behind him, he turned to see her hauling her suitcases into the adjoining room which held two beds and a similar view of the indoor paradise below.
“You hungry?” he called to her.
“No, I’m going to bed,” she answered, shutting the door behind her without another word.
Marcus found that, despite the trials of the day, that he was hungry and left the room in search of one of the restaurants on the other side of the hotel. He settled in a sports bar, ordered a steak dinner and a beer, and watched Sportscenter until he felt sufficiently sleepy to return to the suite.
He took a circuitous route back to the room. The hotel, in its vast maze of corridors, walkways, and wings, often disoriented those without a well-developed sense of direction, but Marcus navigated easily, pausing at a few of the various shops to gaze in the windows. At half past eleven, he reentered the suite and found it just as he left it, his unopened suitcase next to the window where he had gazed out upon the conservatory.
The door Heather had closed earlier remained closed and a thin band of darkness leaked out from beneath it. He knew she would be fast asleep, or at least pretending to be just in case he wanted to try something. He had no desire to enter the room and knew it would be locked even if he did.
Instead, he pulled a plush chair to the bay window and sat down, staring out over the canopy of trees. He could hear the muffled sound of the waterfall outside and that, combined with the meal and beer, drew a heavy blanket of weariness over him. He snuggled back into the soft chair and felt his head gain weight, sinking slowly to rest on his chest.
He had nearly succumbed to sleep when he noticed a flickering of the light dancing upon his eyelids. He opened them slowly as they seemed to have gained a majority of the weight dragging down his head and looked through the window.
Suspended before him, dangling from a long rope tied to the rafters far above, was himself. His eyelids lost their heaviness immediately and slapped open like window shades as he watched his own body swinging and rotating fifteen feet away from the glass. The body’s eyes, his eyes, bulged until Marcus thought they would pop out and be washed away by the waterfall below. The swollen face, his face, had turned an odd blue color, deprived of the oxygen it so desperately needed.
Marcus screamed, though the sound was cut off as he overturned the chair backwards and smacked his skull hard on the cherry table in the middle of the room. He scrambled back into a sitting position, rubbing hard on the knot already forming on the back of his head, He watched himself slowly rotating for a moment, then the image began to grow hazy. Thinking it was his brain reacting to the blow, he rubbed his eyes and looked again through the bay window. The haze continued to grow and Marcus realized that condensation was obscuring his view. A large patch of moisture collected on the glass, blurring the horrible scene just outside, and then words began to appear as if drawn by a child’s finger.
He read the words, feeling a chill he thought would have frozen the medium in which it was written to a thick frost. He stared at them in wonder, and his sense of apprehension blossomed into a case of full-blown fear.
GO BACK MARCUS . . . he read.
GO BACK MARCUS OR DIE.
Marcus dared a glance at the bedroom door and when it did not open, he turned back to the window.
The words, the condensation, his swinging corpse were all gone.