There Be Monsters
“I’d like to live like a poor man with lots of money.”—Pablo Picasso
Fred got up early, around 5:30, though he’d been lying awake for some time already, lost in thought. He glanced over at Ike, still fast asleep, on his back, one arm hanging over the edge of the bed into space. Better to get cleaned up, maybe take a walk till Ike got up. It was oddly uncomfortable to be traveling without the companionship of a book. He pondered what book he would really like to have in his hands now as he stealthily let himself out into the foggy morning.
Ike was up and nearly ready when he heard Fred’s key in the lock. Fred threw his coat on the bed and himself into a chair, as Ike retreated to the bathroom to finish shaving.
“Been up long?” Ike called from the bathroom.
Fred waited for the water to stop running before he answered. “A couple of hours.”
Ike’s head appeared around the wall again. “Feeling OK?”
Reduced to monosyllables. Not good. Ike flipped the lights off in the bathroom, sat down on the bed to rummage for a t-shirt and sweater to add to the jeans he was already wearing. A pair of sweats, the ratty Nine Inch Nails concert shirt and a wet towel were scattered over the neatly remade bed. He looked up as he finished dressing; Fred was staring at him, bemused.
A hot flash ripped through him, coloring his face. “Yeah, Paulette.”
“Well,” said Fred, looking slightly more animated. “It sounded friendly.”
Ike looked up at him, his hands hanging between his knees. “Very.”
Fred slapped his legs and stood up. “I’d like a bit of breakfast, how about you?”
Ike slid into his shoes, grabbed his keys and phone from the nightstand and headed after Fred.
“Wait,” he said, stopping midway across the room. “We coming back?”
“Probably not. My bag is already in the car. Pack up; I’ll go ahead and secure a table for us at the diner.”
Ike nodded. He was relieved not to have to talk about Paulette anymore. He’d been the one to push it last night, and still he felt awkward. Why was it so hard to admit how really into this woman he was? Well, the fault was all his own. He had given no thought, when he’d taken off with Fred, in spite of a begging-off call to Gordo explaining he needed a few days for a family emergency, to the fact that Paulette would call that evening, as she always did, and no thought to picking up that call, as he always did. And then, when secrecy was still possible, he’d taken the fateful step. He didn’t regret it exactly, but he was still terrified.
It was stupid. He didn’t know what was wrong with him. Everything was happening so fast. Sure, they talked all the time, but he’d slept with her just once, seen her three times since—he’d only known her for two months. Who the hell was he? But those brown eyes lost in shadow, the way she turned as he came closer, the first step in a dance, a compass pointed right at his heart. He hadn’t seen it at the time. She gave him what he had not known he wanted.
A man needs air every minute, water, food and rest, so why couldn’t he need this? He needed this.
And then, as always, when his thoughts turned to Paulette, in a single instant, all fear burned away in a swift flash of fire. Francie had been a girl—a cute, hot, manipulative girl—but only that. This feeling for Paulette, and what was growing between them, was so far beyond those confused fantasies, it was the difference between the architectural visions that danced in his dreams and imaginings and the clumsy ability to color the stop sign red and stay in the lines that had earned him gold stars in kindergarten. Why didn’t anybody tell you these things? He might have married her. Married her and been miserable, and never understood why.
Maybe no one knew any different.
He felt so lucky some days, so full, beyond mere happiness, that he didn’t think he’d mind dying, if it suddenly came to that. “I’m alive!” he wanted to shout. I’m alive. Go ahead and kill me, he told the universe at large, it doesn’t matter now. I’ve felt this; I’ve been here, entire, full, electric with the joy of living.
He lit the phone and sent a message. Xena Superhero, Queen of the Universe. NB
He sat one more moment holding the phone, his lifeline to her, then thrust it in his pocket, grabbed his bag and went to check out.
A few minutes later, as he joined Fred for breakfast, it started all over again.
Ike gulped his coffee. “What do you want me to say?”
The waitress came by to take Ike’s order. Probably a little older than Fred, heavily mascara’d with emphatically black hair pulled back loosely in a barrette, she was clearly giving Ike the once-over, though he was too engrossed in the menu to notice.
“I’d like an order of pancakes—“
“—strawberry or blueberry topping, babe?”
“Blueberry. Also, a side of bacon and home fries. And please,” he added, as he closed the menu and looked up at her for the first time. Her name tag said Loretta. “—Loretta—I need lots of coffee.”
She tilted her head, smiling at him with an arch coyness.
“I can fix you up,” she said lifting the coffee pot she carried. Ike was too busy waiting for Fred’s answer to register the way she leaned in almost cheek-to-cheek to fill the mug.
Once she had moved on to another table, glancing back over her shoulder periodically at Ike, who was now busily drawing on a postcard he picked up at the check-out desk, Fred resumed.
“I don’t know. I am dumbfounded. I never saw it coming.” He was cutting another bloody breakfast steak. Constantia had been right.
Ike studied the card, approved of the neat pattern, trading his Sharpie for a yellow highlighter. “Me either, but it came. It’s here. And I’m stupid, fucking happy.”
“So, you’re really like–?”
“And you two–?” His face carried the insinuation.
“I was positive you rather loathed her.”
Ike shrugged. “What can I say? I’m an idiot.”
Fred dug thoughtfully into his home fries. He wasn’t sure in which way that statement had been meant; whether it had been intended as an indictment of Ike’s foresight or of his inability to abstain from inappropriate couplings.
Soon after, Loretta reappeared, delivering an enormous heap of pancakes smothered in blueberry sauce, a miniature pitcher of maple syrup, home fries, bacon and an update of Ike’s coffee, which was half-drained already.
“Thanks,” Ike said, with a polite smile. He seemed intent on changing the subject. “In a few hours, you’ll be an official millionaire.”
Fred shuddered. Touché.
Finishing his third cup of coffee, Ike said he was ready to go, except for a detour to a junk food shop and a mailbox, whereas Fred needed to borrow Ike’s phone for a call to Numb4. Both conditions were easily met. Equipped with directions they found on the Internet, they set off then for the Powerball headquarters. It wasn’t hard to find. There it was, a low-slung concrete block office building fronted by a stretch of paved parking, ornamented by a few dying evergreen shrubs of the type gas stations favor as landscaping in a sea of surreal white gravel. Ike bounded out of the car as soon the engine cut off, and was at the glass door of the office before he realized Fred was still in the car.
He came back and tapped on Fred’s window. “Come on, man!”
Fred gazed up at him, his hands still clenched around the wheel. Ike tapped on the window again, and this time, Fred rolled it down an inch.
“Changed your mind?”
Fred shook his head. “Give me a minute.”
“Then pass me your ticket—I’ll get things rolling. The sooner I start, the sooner you can get out of here. Deal?”
Fred fished the ticket from his coat pocket and slid it through the gap in the window, watched as Ike disappeared into the darkness beyond the glass door.
Ike lined up his pop and junk food on the counter beside a real plant and a fake flower arrangement, smiling at the woman behind them. Nora Fishwhistle, her gold-lettered nameplate said. Oh, what was he grinning at? She listened to his explanation about Fred and the ticket, craning her head around Ike for a glimpse out the window.
“He’s coming in, then?” Nora asked, squinting at the figure still at the wheel of the late model car.
“Oh, yeah, eventually.”
She took the ticket into the back office, and was gone a little while before returning to him. “Our manager, Buddy Brandt, is validating your ticket—“
She acquiesced. “Shouldn’t take too long, if you want to wait.”
Her gesture indicated a few vinyl armchairs in 1970s colors. Above the wainscoting, the wall was papered in repeated Powerball motifs and crowded shoulder-to-shoulder with framed photos of the winners.
Ike was most of the way through a back issue of National Geographic when Fred came in, said a few words to Nora and then found Ike. “I don’t really feel well,” Fred said, slumping into the next chair.
Ike looked up. “You don’t really look well either. But don’t worry—they’re in the process of validating your ticket in the system; shouldn’t be too much longer.”
He shoved the magazine at Fred, open to an article about a recent Egyptian dig. Buddy, a round man with a cheap suit and a genuine smile, bounded into the lobby not long after.
He shook hands with Fred, confirming there was another winner, from Philadelphia, an investment banker with whom he’d split the prize. The computer seemed to be showing a third ticket sold, but there was no claim yet, and they had reason to suspect that the information was not valid. Ike ended up filling out most of the paperwork—and there was a lot of paperwork—Fred’s hands were shaking too much. Still, Fred had to do the signatures and it was Fred who had to pose with the giant-sized check with way too many zeroes on it. Facts, figures blurred through Fred’s head; his entire psyche went out of focus.
Buddy, smiling at the camera, handed the giant check to Fred. “It’s Ok to be happy, you know.”
A few clicks captured the moment for the web press announcement; Fred was not smiling in any of the pictures. Ike picked the one that looked least anguished.
“He’s in shock,” Ike offered, slouching in one of the nearby green vinyl chairs, his ankle angled over his knee.
“That happens a lot,” Buddy said. “Maybe a little vacation, give you some time to think it all over. That’s what a lot of folks do.”
“Must be an interesting job,” Ike said, eating a puffy orange stick he extracted from the bag of Cheasy Snax. “Giving away huge amounts of money to people every week.”
Buddy turned to Ike. “It is. You really feel you are helping folks out. It’s almost magical, that kind of money coming from nowhere.“
“Seemingly,” corrected Nora.
“Of course, Nora’s right, as we all know so well. All those tickets people buy—wishing on stars—that never pay off, they sure add up.” He turned to Fred. “Your life will change.”
Fred stared back at him. “I don’t want it to.”
Ike jumped back in because there was something that worried him. “But I’ve read it can mess people up in the long term—family quarrels, broken marriages—“
Fred dropped the arm supporting the billboard-sized check, which now leaned precariously at his side, following the conversation with a frown.
“—bankruptcy, drugs, you name it. That’s right. Still, why should it be like that? We’ve evolved a philosophy of sorts among ourselves.”
“The Wish-Gift, for short,” Buddy prompted.
“Right. As you can imagine, we’ve given it a lot of thought.”
Fred tucked the mega-check under his arm as he assumed a standing Thinker pose.
“Simply, it means that money binds us, via our choices, to the greater society. You must decide, first, on the reality you wish to experience, and then you must purchase it.”
“The way we spend is the way we build communitas…”
Ike watched the ping-pong match with a blank avidity.
“Yes. In either positive or negative values, but always in values. Largely, we handle money in an entirely unconscious, media-generated manner.”
“Ah! Yes, yes! Debord had it. Life first, then money. “
“Vaneigem—non-duality, cessation of work…”
“What do you want to do with your life?” Nora interjected. “What do you want to do right now? Then pay for it, whatever it is. “
The cheesy things were salty; Ike reached for the Gatorade.
“Don’t think: I’ve got all this money, I can buy anything I want. It’s the wrong way round; it leads to the souls that drown in their abundance.”
Fred glanced toward Ike, who lifted the bag of orange fripperies toward him. Fred shook his head, but his brow was at least contracted into that furrow that denoted a living process at work in the skull. Ike was much relieved.
“I want to thank you, Mr. Brandt. Less perhaps for the check than for your ideas.” Fred extended his hand. “You have made this experience a pleasure I did not expect to receive.”
“My gift to you, then,” the man said, as he shook Fred’s hand. “Best of luck.”
Ike brushed his right hand off on his jeans and shook hands with Buddy and his assistant. Fred threw the giant cardboard check in the back seat, as he climbed behind the wheel.
“Home now?” he asked Ike, who folded the bag neatly in half and lodged it between his seat and the door.
“Let’s just drive around a little,” Ike suggested.
Fred eased out of the lot and out onto the road which shortly wound through rolling countryside, dotted here and there with compact towns. Already, the sky was blushing lavender and rose, with dusk breathing heavily behind the softness. When Fred stopped to fill the gas tank in one of these little towns, Ike loped off up the street. Must have some anxiety to burn off again.
Ike was back before Fred was done wiping down the windshield, grinning, his gait easy. He thumped into his seat and swung the door shut.
“Dinner,” he said, lifting sub sandwiches on hard rolls from the brown bag now in his lap. “And dessert,” he said, pulling out a bottle of bourbon to study the label. “We really do have to celebrate.”
The station was deserted except for them, so Fred wolfed his sandwich down before pulling back onto the road. Bologna and a different mix of meats than he was used to, lots of shredded lettuce. It hit the spot though. The sun was well gone now and the blues above them were deepening toward darkness. As he rolled back out onto the narrow black ribbon of road, he flicked his headlights on, showing in shadowy masses and voids the close hills and hedgerows between fallow fields.
Ike cracked the seal on the bourbon. “Communitas felix,” he said around the last swallow of hoagie, swigging from the bottle.
With an appreciative exclamation, he passed the bottle toward Fred.
“I can’t drink—I’m driving,” Fred said.
“Oh, come on,” Ike said. “You have to drink to communitas felix…”
Fred shook his head. “Sure, alright.” He shifted his right hand, and Ike slid the bottle into it. Wetting his lips, he echoed the toast, then extended the bottle back to Ike.
“Holy hell, what is that stuff?”
“Not sure. Never heard of it before. Maybe it’s a local brewery or something. I don’t even feel the cold anymore,” Ike said, now rolling his window down an inch and taking another large gulp.
“Oh, my god… YES!”
Fred laughed at Ike’s enthusiasm. They were headed vaguely southeast, a big moon off to the left over the trees, flashing now and then through flying clouds. Ike was nudging his arm again.
“Another little one isn’t going to hurt you any,” Ike insisted. “It’s your party after all.”
Fred did take the bottle, which Ike had made a nice impact on already. Between the heady fumes and the sliding heat in his throat, Fred began to feel quite pleasantly relaxed.
“You know, Ike, you’re right.” He was slowing the car, signaling to no one at all that he was pulling over. The gravel shoulder had widened enough at a farm gate for his car to get off the road. “I want to celebrate, too.”
He took the bottle again, and this time took a nice mouthful, held it a moment before letting it race down in a fast swallow.
“Nice!” Ike said, springing his door. “Let’s go sit up on this hill for a bit.”
Fred followed him. With an easy hop up to the rail, Ike vaulted the gate. Fred handed the bottle over, then climbed to the top, swung a leg over and dropped. They followed the farm road a little way, passing the bottle between them, until Ike noticed a trail skirting the hill that headed into the trees to their right. He grabbed Fred’s sleeve and tugged in that direction. His gait was lurching, turning back at times to look at the risen moon, but so rhythmic, it seemed almost as if his body were pulled by an invisible music.
Suddenly, in one of his turns, he let out a great baying howl, breaking immediately into laughter.
Fred laughed, too. “What was that supposed to be? A rabid beagle?”
“Unh-uh. I’m a werewolf, man. Can’t you tell?”
“Sorry, no.” Fred stopped. They were in a small clearing. “Let’s stop here.”
Ike headed toward a downed tree, placed the bottle against it, and began to gather sticks and brush. “Let’s see if I can do this drunk.”
Sure enough, in a short time they had a bright, if slightly smoky fire, which they enjoyed from the relative comfort of the log. Fred was craning his neck to gaze up into the bare, weaving branches above them.
“Something up there?” Ike said, leaning into Fred, imitating his glance.
“No,” Fred said, shoving Ike back into the vertical. “Just stars.”
“Thought maybe Bes was back.”
“Huh,” Fred snorted. “Don’t think I’ll be seeing him again.”
“Ah, come on. I bet we can get his attention.” Ike was on his feet, scanning the clearing, before marching off resolutely toward a stout tree behind them. Reaching for a limb just above his head, he pulled himself up, with a late painful reminder that his ribs were not going to like this, shifted his grip, attempting to swing his legs up over the limb. His shoes skidded, sliding over the damp trunk, shedding bark. On his second try, he was seated on the branch, boosting to his feet for the next handholds.
“Ike!” Fred yelled up at him. “You’re drunk; you shouldn’t be climbing trees. You’ll fall.”
“Don’t be an old lady, Fred. If I fall, I’ll bounce.” He was now a good twenty feet over Fred’s head.
“Hey, Bes!” Ike bellowed at the sky. “Fred’s forgotten how to be French! He’s going to get alienation again if you don’t get down here. BES! We know you’re up there—no sense hiding!”
Fred was too occupied by Ike’s noisy harangue at the star-rich sky to have noticed that they had company until his two visitors stood just opposite the fire. He did not like the way the flames danced in their eyes.
He leaned slowly forward to pull a piece of wood from the fire.
“Ike…” The name had been inflected with as much warning as Fred could convey.
Ike looked down, saw something moving beyond Fred’s dark silhouette, then heard the growls. His heart began to race. Stealthily, he dropped down a few branches to a position in a gap between limbs, where he saw clearly, two wolves, their heads bent low, lips pulled back over their teeth, giving that rumbling dog growl.
Fred brandished the fire. One wolf snapped its teeth and moved toward Fred.
Ike let go and dropped. Sweeping through dead leaves and brittle twigs, he landed in a crouch, inches from the fire. The gray wolf advancing on Fred stopped, but was soon joined by the other.
Fred’s eyes never left the wolves, though he was aware that Ike had landed behind him, and then another thing charged past him, raising its own howling. Fred took a step forward, his mouth gone dry—and then it dawned on him that the thing chasing the wolves was Ike. And he was gone.
Fred stood alone by the fire, frozen into a Lady Liberty pose, when he discerned a dark figure stalking toward him. On two legs. Well, and weaving a little bit.
“Ike! What the hell?” He dropped like a dead weight, the brand falling back into the fire and throwing sparks.
Ike picked up the bottle, drank hard from it, turning back in the direction into which the wolves had disappeared.
“Go ahead—kill me!” he bellowed after them. “Kill me now—I’m alive!”
He took another deep swig and looked down at Fred with wonderment.
His face, lit from the outside by the orange fire, glowed also with an interior phosphorescence.
As he sat down, stretching the bottle in Fred’s direction, he began to laugh, a giggle that overran his whole body and didn’t let go. He bent over laughing, rolled on the ground laughing, gulping for air, but still laughing. Fred took one swallow and then a second, burning hot going down, melting some of the fear away, making him smile a little bit watching Ike, who was still laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Fred asked, licking his lips.
“I—I—don’t—I don’t know.” He tried to compose his face, but hilarity kept tickling its way to the surface.
“Do you think we should stay here?”
Ike chuckled. “No.” Then another giddy seizure flung him onto his back.
“I’m putting the fire out then.”
Ike looked up, nodded, stamping his foot into the dead grass trying to discipline some sense into his nonsense body, his putty brain and seriously painful ribs.
The darkness was total now without even embers glowing. On his feet, taking exaggerated deep breaths, Ike pointed back toward their trail.
“Let’s follow the trail. People made it, not wolves. It must go somewhere.”
Fred followed him. “Wolves, though? Isn’t that weird?”
“Yeah,” Ike said, his voice dropped into a husky, lower register. “This is a pretty civilized area generally. Spread out, maybe, but there have been people on these farms for centuries. Can’t imagine there being wolves…”
“But they were definitely wolves.”“Feral dogs?”
“You think so?” They were disembodied voices and shadows, passing through the dark cold woods. Fred was sure he heard something moving off to their left. “You chased them.”
“I know, but…”
“Go on, Ike, own it. You chased off two wolves.”
“That’s crazy.” His voice was no more than a whisper.
“Did you think it was a wolf?”
hey walked in silence for a while until a new voice was added to the darkness: quietly running water, a creek.
“Yes.” Ike hesitated. “But who would believe that?”
“Or that I won the Powerball.”
“Ok, you win. It was a wolf.” He stopped. The woods continued beyond the creek, rising slightly, and in the distance, something large and white.
“A house. Cool. Let’s see if they’ll let us in.”
Fred agreed, so they set off to cross the creek.
awn came as a pinkish glaze through the dirty windows, one of which had been easy for Ike to lever up with a rusted iron fence post lying nearby. The floor was littered with the debris of previous break-ins—broken glass, plastic bags, crumpled beer cans. There were a few nasty couch cushions and a rug that Ike found in a quick survey of the downstairs. He had looked up the steep, narrow staircase, but a sudden rush of vertigo forced him to accept he was too dizzy to try it. Fred claimed the cushions and Ike rolled up in the rug as well as he could, but was asleep long before he had decided whether he’d be able to get comfortable.
“You are crazy, you realize that?” Fred said quietly, staring up at the ceiling, his arms folded behind his head as a pillow.
“That’s what you’ve been laying there thinking?”
“Hmmm—“ Ike threw off the rug, which seriously stank, and rolled onto his side, facing Fred. “It doesn’t quite feel like that from the inside.”
“I’m surprised how good I feel right now,” said Fred in wonder. “No bed, no food, no heat, no comforts at all and yet I feel utterly contented. The money does not exist.”
“I don’t know about the money, but yeah, that’s the cool thing on the road—you’ve got next to nothing and still you’re having fun. Why can’t life always be like that?”
“I don’t know,” Fred said thoughtfully, as he shoved himself upright. “Are you ready to reacquire my vehicle?”
They followed the path back through the trees, over the creek, and back toward the clearing, a remarkably short distance compared to how it seemed in the darkness last night. Just before they hit the farm road, Fred stopped.
“Let’s go up there,” he gestured toward the hill looming over them. “I’d like to take in the view of the countryside before we set off.”
Ike shrugged and followed. “By the way,” he said, using saplings to pull himself up the hill beside Fred. “I promise Paulette I’d bring her something.”
“It probably better be.”
“And you’re asking me? I am notoriously lousy at this.”
Ike frowned. They’d gained the top of the hill, and Fred stopped, turning about to look at the scenery. And there it was: in the light of a silvery day, four hundred years of cultivated field and tended woods, rolling up and over the undulant land. Even now, cloaked in the stark browns and grays of midwinter, it was beautiful.
“Boys, can I help you?”
They both jumped at the sound of the voice behind them. They turned in opposite directions, confronting at last a bearded old man in a black suit and broad-brimmed hat.
It was Fred who found words first. He bowed, as he always did. “Frederick Fuchs, sir—‘’ and gesturing toward Ike “—and Isaac Duckworth. We were admiring your farm.”
If the man was not too sure about the two trespassers, he was interested in the names. “Fuchs, do you say? Are your people from here?”
“I honestly don’t know. All I know is that it’s a German name that means fox.’”
Ike turned to Fred. “It is?”
The old man laughed, a high-pitched sound that seemed to only cause his shoulders to convulse. He walked a few paces closer.
“Your surname is English. Isaac, though, that is a marvelous name. We use it as well. I am called Samuel Weiss, and this is my land you are standing on.”
Fred twitched. “I wanted to look out from the top; that’s my car down on the road. There wasn’t a fence or a sign…”
The man made a small, conciliating gesture, even as he nodded toward Fred’s hands. “You know farming?”
Fred straightened up. “I live in the city, in Pittsburgh. Over the last three years, I’ve gotten most of my tiny yard under cultivation.”
“Miserable to start with, clay and shale, but I compost and till in manure each spring, and mulch heavily in season. I find more worms lately and the soil texture is much improved.”
The man reached up and placed a hand on Fred’s shoulder. “Come to my home and breakfast with my wife and I. Perhaps you can tell me about your city farm—“
He laughed again.
Ike stuffed his hands deeper in his pockets; the wind was chilly up here. “And you can tell us what we’re doing wrong?”
“We’d like that very much, Mr. Weiss,” said Fred.
The man gestured for them to follow him down the other side of the hill, where a white clapboard house waited, a steady column of white smoke rising from the chimney.
He looked over his shoulder as they made the steep descent, directing a stern eye at Ike. “You have too much bitterness. A strong boy like you should have an honest, laboring job; hard work kills doubt when you see what your own hands can do.”
He nodded to confirm his words, and Ike stopped walking. Fred was afraid of the strange look that came over him, but only a moment passed until he was moving again, passing Fred, balancing so easily on the uneven, vertical slope that he seemed barely to touch down. For Fred, it was a freefall, and every other step was putting on the brakes as he careened after the black hat and the blonde head aimed like colored notes in a straight line toward haven, toward food, toward warmth and company.
Mr. Weiss entered the kitchen after his two guests. A tiny, steel-haired woman placed a plate of ham slices on a table already laden with oatmeal, biscuits, eggs, gravy and jug of milk. Ike sighed happily at the smell of the coffee.
Hours later they were in the car, winding through small lanes, trying to remember between them the directions Mr. Weiss had given them for getting back to Route 30, which crossed the state into the west. In the back seat, behind which a giant check was propped, was a cardboard box filled with shoefly cake, a jar of cider, and several swiss cheese, ham and sauerkraut sandwiches wrapped in neatly folded wax paper.
“I’m not sure I’m ready to go back,” Fred said to break the silence that had fallen, after they’d made the turn that put them on a southbound road headed for Lancaster. “I thought we might take another day…”
“We can’t. Taking two days was one thing, but they’ll—”
“Fire us? I thought we were giving notice.”
“Yeah, but it’s not the way—“
“We don’t have to follow anybody’s rules now. We’re free.”
“Not free enough never to work again. Not me, anyway. Pittsburgh’s a small town. I fuck up this job, I may have a hard time walking in another door.”
Fred frowned. “Be a maverick.”
Ike’s ready retort stopped short on his tongue. Impulses cascaded through his nerves, one following another before he could bring them to focus, faster than he could act on them, all his crushed desires springing back to life. A lifetime, an unlived lifetime. My God, what would it have been like?
Looking at him, Fred perceived a breathless trembling, Ike’s eyes glazed by a distant vision of something not present in the car or in the surrounding countryside.
“Even so,” Ike whispered. “Mr. Weiss said that we’ve taken an obligation, and until we resign it—“
“The honor of your word,” Fred finished. He did not repeat the words that had followed, that were haunting him. The rich man must still be a good man.
Half an hour of thoughtful silence later, the signs for Route 30 materialized and they began their journey home. Shortly after crossing the broad Susquehanna at Columbia, at Ike’s request, Fred found a place to pull off. As he expected, Ike sprinted toward a small lane they had just passed and disappeared. When he returned a half hour later, he found Fred stretched on the hood of the car, his head propped on the windshield, staring up at the sky.
“Feeling better?” Fred asked quietly. The air was still; a storm hovered, holding its breath, directly above them.
Ike nodded, his skin quite flushed, his breath coming in thick plumes. He noticed the box, and jumped up on the hood beside Fred. “Save me anything?”
Fred pushed the box over, and Ike dug into one of the wonderfully messy sandwiches.
“Feels like snow,” Fred said, resuming his sky vigil.
“Think we’ll beat it?” Ike asked, washing down the sandwich with cider.
“I don’t know.” Exactly the words he wanted to say. Because he didn’t know, not about much these days. He’d been lying here trying to piece it all together, but hadn’t come to any conclusion other than the immanence of snowfall. A ghost in the machine…a ghost fighting his way back to the living world.
Ike followed Fred’s eyes up to the cloud bank. “Anything else up there?”
“Just the storm coming.”
“It all feels different now, doesn’t it? It’s not just strange or scary or curious, but it’s like looking at the New York skyline and thinking of someone you know who lives there. It feels personal. I think I like it better that way. Someone is up there looking down on me—on us—not knowing more than we do, but like looking down wonderingly at a recent photo of someone you haven’t seen in years and filling you with questions, fondness and imagined tales. So much better than Mr. Know-It-All in the sky. For me, anyway.” And when he was answered by silence, he added: “Sorry.”
Fred nodded. “No,” he whispered back, “that sounds about right.”
“Listen, I’ll drive awhile,” Ike said, half way into his second sandwich. “You need a break.”
Fred handed him the keys without an argument. Ike slid off the hood, still eating, crossing behind the car to the driver’s side. He started the car as Fred slid into the passenger seat and fastened the seat belt. Cramming the last bit of thick crust into his mouth, Ike looked over his shoulder, waited for a blue Toyota to pass and pulled back onto the road. They were still east of York when the first snow squalls hit.
“Here they come,” he said, flipping on the defrosters, front and back. A glance to his right explained the silence—Fred was dozing, his face turned toward the window.
Ike sighed, plunging on along the black ribbon of road, his eyes scanning the railroad crossing ahead, waiting for an eruption of lights or sounds that never came. The wipers swished and the snow ticked against the glass. The afternoon unfolded. Fred slept until Breezewood where Ike stopped for gas. It was nearly dark already and it seemed as good a place as any to stop for dinner.
“Fred?” Ike said after snapping a photo of a Dairy Queen they were passing outside of Ligonier. He felt fond of the place somehow; on this dark stretch of road, the red and yellow sign seemed cheerful. “What if we didn’t quit our jobs?”
Fred heard the tone, and took it seriously. It was getting late; Ike had the seat laid back and he was stretched out, staring, for the moment, at the cloth-covered roof of the car.
“What are you thinking?”
“Of Gordon and Lewis and Wills—I’d miss them. It’s a Communitas of sorts, isn’t it?”
“Perhaps a bit more for you than for me, though I see what you are saying. I’d miss seeing you and Esmeralda during the working day, but I’m a temp; my assignment is bound to end soon anyway.”
“Ah, come on. Amanda would give you a job any day!”
Fred ignored him. “We don’t absolutely need to work anymore, that’s true. What would employment be like without the pressure to conform?”
“I could work on Lance’s plans, code issues and permit through the winter, then bust ass on evenings, weekends and vacations once it warms up enough to start.”
“You’d never see Paulette…”
“I know. I told her.”
“Maybe if you asked for a leave of absence…”
“If I had to. If Krasnoski would go for it…I don’t know.” He sat up. “Do you want me to drive a while?”
“No,” Fred said easily. “I feel fine now.”
Ike’s attention was abruptly drawn to his phone.
“Are you going to…“ Fred paused to glance at Ike, tapping away on his phone. The wipers slashed arcs through the oncoming slush. “About the…wolves. Will you tell her that?”
Ike stopped mid-message, shook his head. The words came behind the gesture. “No. That’s between you and me. Would she even believe me? It would probably sound too weird to anyone who wasn’t there.”
“I’m not even sure I believe it. I think it was a test of sorts that Bes has set me.”
“To trust my experience, no matter how extreme, and not to live with concepts or ideas that I have not experienced. Those were wolves, not feral dogs, no matter what Mr. Weiss said, and I believe they followed us to the house and then faded back into the woods.”
Ike was tapping away again. He was thinking of Mr. Weiss, too. It was more possible than ever to build that house and he was ready to get started.
It all started here.