fiction

--> Here is a story I wrote in between a couple of year-long lulls. I thought I'd put it up so that you (the mysterious you on the other side of the screen -- hi!) can see the kind of thing I write when I write.

© 1993 by Lisa R. Cohen. First Published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1993.

Thunder rumbled kettledrums along the thin line of light at the edge of the world. Rainbone leaned back against the cement wall of the mini-mart, his old bones pinging and cracking like a roadbed under the desert sun. He took a last drag of his cigarette before flicking it away. It bounced along the cool, blue tarmac in a shower of red sparks. He sighed. Rose reached over and put a cold, dry hand on his thigh.

"What you thinking about, Mose?" she asked.

"Tucson," said Rainbone.

"Tucson? You said I had to go to Seattle," said Rose. "You said I had to keep my mind straight on that or I might get lost again." Rainbone nodded.

"That's right," said Rainbone. "But I'm not so likely as you to get lost, am I?"

Rose shrugged. Her face, half-painted with blue shadows looked sulky.

"Well it would be a whole hell of a lot easier if I wasn't the only one thinking on Seattle," she said. "You know how much I hate that place. My mind wants to skip over it like a needle off an old record. If it's so important you ought to keep your mind straight too."

"Don't worry," said Rainbone. "You're with me now. I won't let you get lost."

"I ain't worried, Rainbone," said Rose. "I don't care if we never get there. It's just you said I had to keep my mind straight so I think you should too."

"Alright," said Rainbone. The girl tired him out. He closed his eyes thinking: "Seattle" but still it was the hot, blue Arizona sky that opened up inside his head. The vision and the pepper and sage smell of the desert were so real it was like he carried a piece of Arizona behind his eyes. The memory of it had never faded, even though it had been -- what? -- twenty? twenty-five years since he'd been there? That long. Sharon had been just a little girl then. He remembered he'd promised to bring her a piece of the petrified forest. Like something out of a fairy tale. But he'd never picked one up for her. Too many other things happening at once; Jenny Whitsock, the rainbone... and the family could always wait. So they always did. Until Rose came to get him. He opened his eyes again.

In the far, flat distance he could see the bouncing twin beams of a Greyhound bus. He looked around for Rose but she'd gone off again. Or maybe his eyes just weren't good enough any more to pick her out among the blue-black shadows.

"Rose," he called, just to be sure. "Bus is comin'." No answer from the shadows. Hunching himself to his feet, he fished out a wad of money from his pants pocket, counted it carefully. It hadn't multiplied. There was one thousand three hundred and thirty-five dollars in fifties, twenties and fives that he'd made shooting craps behind the Billiard Room. With Rose's help. He never would have made that much on his own and not lost it again soon after, going for the big stack.

The bus rolled up in a blaze of light and sighed to a stop in front of him. Rainbone got on by himself and bought a ticket.

"Tucson," he told the driver and handed over the money. He didn't even realize until after the word slipped out that he'd got it wrong. He knew for Rose's sake and his own that he should tell the driver to change the ticket, but something held his tongue. He wanted it so bad all of a sudden, like he was some kind of junkie. He just knew he had to go there, breathe the clean desert air. It would be alright, he told himself as the driver wrote out the ticket. He could keep a hold of Rose; they were family, after all. Just a little side-trip to feed that emptiness inside him and then they would head on up to Seattle. It would be fine.

The bus started up and the other passengers didn't even look up as Rainbone lurched and shuffled his way to two empty seats by the window. Mose pressed his face to the glass and watched the Louisiana countryside go by for a while.

"What the hell did you go and do that for?" said Rose's voice beside him. Mose looked over at his granddaughter. She had her mother Sharon's pretty face with its blue eyes like doll's eyes and a doll's soft pink mouth, but she dressed like a tramp -- stained lace teddy, mini-skirt hiked up her thighs, short blond hair. She wore too much make-up too, Rainbone thought and it was smudgy around the eyes. Hard to believe she was only fifteen. Not so hard if you looked at her twice.

"Don't worry," said Rainbone. "I thought it out, we'll be okay."

"I told you, Mose, I ain't worried," said Rose, her voice gone sulky and sullen. "It's just that you said and I believe that people should stick by what they say."

"I ain't changing what I said," said Rainbone. "I'm just changing the order a little." Rose shrugged and sat back in her seat, kicking off her spike-heeled shoes.

"Well, if we ain't in a hurry," she said, "why don't I just wait until I'm good and ready to go to Seattle?"

"`Cause you can't," said Rainbone. He didn't want to talk about it any more. He fingered a cigarette out of the crumpled pack in his pocket, stuck it in the corner of his mouth and lit it.

"I'm dying for a smoke," she said.

"Help yourself," said Rainbone, offering the pack.

"Can't," said Rose.

"That's too bad," said Rainbone. "Kinda interesting though." Rose wasn't distracted by that.

"I still don't see why we can take the time to go all the way to Tucson and we can't just take a day or two more to see -- I don't know -- the Grand Canyon or something. Or New York City," she insisted.

Rainbone looked at her. He remembered Sharon saying things like that to him, but Rose's voice wasn't anything like Sharon's. It was full of bull, a brassy blonde ass-kicking voice that expected people to listen. The difference between people who shined and people who didn't. Sharon's voice disappeared in a quiet room, under the noise of traffic in the street. Where did Rose get it all?

"We ain't got enough money to go to New York City," Mose said. "Besides, the rainbone says I got to go to Tucson first." He lied for the rainbone sometimes. The truth was he didn't know why he wanted so much to go to Tucson after all this time. The more he thought about it the less sense he could reason out of it. But the less sense it made, the more he wanted to go and do it. He hated arguing with himself that way. Better not to think about things too much. If only Rose would just trust him, he could get in and out and no one the wiser.

He thought from the look on her face that she would argue more, but she didn't.

She just said "Damned rainbone," like she couldn't argue with that and gave it up to stare out the window. Rainbone looked too. Drops of water spotted the glass. In the glossy blackness beyond, Rainbone saw a phantom glaring back at him -- eyeless and hollow-cheeked. Just his own reflection. Rose didn't have one. The dead didn't get to keep much.

* * *

Rose was four years old the first time Rainbone saw her. That would have made Sharon twenty-one. He hadn't intended on visiting them. It had just happened that he stopped in Seattle with young Eddie Buck heading out to Vegas. Riding in Eddie's maroon '76 Maverick they had just come off I-90 into town, and cruising around looking for some place that sold ribs which Eddy had a hankering for, they passed a young woman pushing a stroller down the sidewalk and Rainbone said:

"Looks like my kid."

He hadn't meant to say it aloud. Hadn't meant to say it at all. But Eddy looked at him and said:

"You got a kid, Mose?"

"Yeah," said Rainbone. "Lives here in Seattle, I think."

"No shit," said Eddie. "She cook?" Rainbone didn't know. He didn't even know if she still lived here, although he thought she probably did. He looked her up in the phonebook, found her at an address on Queen Anne Hill. But he hesitated in the phone booth, dime in hand before he called her. When he did dial the number it rang and rang for a long time before Rainbone put the phone down.

"She ain't home," said Rainbone.

"You got to go see her. It'll be bad karma if we don't." Eddy was the only gambler Rainbone knew who talked about karma instead of luck. Talked about it like it piled up in little stacks on one side or the other, good or bad. From what Eddy said, you earned Karma like money. Good karma for good deeds, bad for bad. With good karma, you bought luck. But if you tried to buy luck with bad karma you just bought more bad karma. Rainbone didn't believe in karma. He believed in luck which he knew to be much more slippery. You couldn't buy luck or earn it. You couldn't even tell if it was good or bad until after it happened and even then you couldn't be sure. Like with the rainbone. But like any gambler would he trusted superstition for its own sake and so they drove up and down the rollercoaster of Seattle until they came to a small, white house at the top of a steep dead-end street.

There was a little girl playing with a green, plastic horse in the front yard. The girl had Sharon's straight, fine blonde hair and blue eyes. They stopped the car and got out. As they came up the walk, the girl put down her toy and ran inside. A moment later Sharon came out with the girl balanced on her hip. She looked at the two men suspiciously as they came up the walk to the porch and Mose didn`t know if there was a moment there when she recognized him because her expression never changed.

"Hi, daddy," she said and it sounded like all the times he'd heard it, stopping by to borrow a stake from Sharon's mother or spend a few hours in the sweet comfort of her bed.

"Hello, Sharon," said Mose. He didn't have anything else to say to her, nothing in his pockets for her. They just looked at each other for a long time there in the muggy Seattle sunshine. It was Eddy Buck who took over the talking, then. Eddy Buck, handsome and smiling, shaking Sharon's hand and the kid's too, who got them invited into the house for a beer and then dinner; talking like a snake charmer about their trip out, telling funny stories about dumb-ass gas-jockeys and horny counter-girls. Sharon seemed to like him a lot and it made Mose feel old to be sitting, hunched over his porkchop and potatoes like a senile old rest-home inmate, listening to the young folks flirt and talk.

He noticed little Rose watching him. She had not smiled at all, and Mose, ignorant of children, thought she was too young to talk. So he was more than just surprised when she asked him, in a voice as ringing as rain on a desert flower:

"What's a rainbone?"

"Well, now," said Eddy Buck, laughing. "Well, now. I've always wondered that myself, Mose."

"It's just an old wives' tale, hon," said Sharon, too quick. Her eyes were on Mose and he had to look away.

"Then why do they call you Rainbone," Rose asked Mose directly. Mose didn't look to Sharon for permission because he knew she wouldn't give it. She'd heard the story long ago and believing it hadn't helped her none. Still, like he did every now and then, like the rainbone was pushing him, Mose felt he had to tell the story to someone who needed to hear it.

"Sometimes," said Mose, "when a baby is born during a rainstorm, that baby is born with a bone in its heart. And that bone is very magical. With that bone in your heart you can hear ghosts."

"That's scary," said Rose.

"No. Ghosts ain't scary once you get used to them," said Mose. "They're usually just lost and lonely and want to go home. So that's what you do. You take them home."

"Stop it, daddy," said Sharon. "Don't you lie to my child about no rainbone. A rainbone ain't nothing but an excuse to walk out on people who need you."

Rainbone didn't answer. He knew he should have waited until he could talk to Rose alone, without Sharon to interfere. She had so much anger in her over things said and done so many years ago. In a way she was right. He hadn't done as good as he could for his family. But it was hard to explain. Sharon always wanted things to be black or white and he didn't have it that way in his head. If it was just him and Sharon alone he'd have said something like that, or apologized, let the whole thing drop, but there was Rose to consider. Already he could see things in the child that needed to be explained to her. She had to know the rainbone was a real thing and how she had to work it.

"It ain't right," Sharon went on, anger still hovering like a wasp in her voice. "Go on, tell her it's just a story. Tell her it ain't true."

"I won't lie to the child," said Mose. He looked from his plate to Sharon's face. It was like the face he remembered running up to him in the front yard, but different. Something awful had frozen there, the way you freeze a bad chicken so it doesn't smell. He knew he'd done that to her and it made him angry. Little Rose too, looking at him expectantly. They needed so much, people did. Not like the dead. The dead only needed one thing, a simple nudge in the right direction. Maybe they had needed more in their lives, but once they were dead all of that seemed to run out of them. The dead were grateful for what they got, too. Maybe a little sad sometimes, but not torn up or burning like Sharon was now. More like me, thought Mose. The dead are a lot like me. He realized his attention had wandered and that the bad things still hung in the air around the table.

"It ain't just a story, Sharon," Rainbone said, realizing as he said it that it was the wrong thing to say. Realizing from the look in Sharon's eye that she had been waiting for him to say just that thing for about a hundred years.

"Oh, it ain't?" said Sharon. "Then how come I ain't never seen no ghosts? Huh, Daddy? How come nobody else I know ain't never seen no ghosts? You ever see any, Eddy?" Eddy didn't answer, just gave something between a nod and a shrug.

"Your mother believed me," said Mose.

"She never did," said Sharon, "Never, daddy. She loved you, that's all. She loved you and forgave you. That's all."

"That's something," said Rainbone. He stood up then, pushed his way away from the table.

"If you don't want me to stay, I'll go," he said. "You finish your dinner, Eddy. I'll be outside on the porch." He pushed his way carefully past Sharon and Rose to the back door and stepped through it. As the cool darkness took him up he heard Eddy's low rumble trying to make peace. Sharon's voice came through the screen, too:

"He never will hear my side of it," she said, to Eddy and then: "Rose, you go off to bed now." Rainbone lit up his cigarette and took a deep drag.

Poor Sharon, he thought. He might have thought more, but there was something out there in the damp, rain-filled wind that hooked his heart. He spent a while trying to fix onto it, but it faded into distance and sadness before he could.

They stayed over that night anyway. Eddy came out and got him after a while.

"She's real sorry about the fight," said Eddy.

"I know," said Rainbone.

"And I'm sorry if I pushed you to come back here."

"Nah," said Rainbone. "You were right. I left it too long as it is." The two of them smoked outside for a few minutes more and then came in. Mose and Sharon made a kind of uneasy, apologetic peace and didn't mention the rainbone, either of them.

Sharon put sheet and blankets on the mildewy old couch for Mose and on the floor for Eddy. Mose just lay there in the dark, not really able to sleep, just lying still and half thinking about the desert. He wasn't surprised when Eddy Buck got up quietly after a while and went into Sharon's bedroom, closing the door behind him. It didn't bother him. He hoped maybe Eddy Buck could give Sharon back some of the happiness she'd been robbed of.

A little while later, Rose came out of her room, a blanket wrapped around her, eyes big and full of moon. She hesitated in front of her mama's closed door. Rainbone heard her and not wanting to scare her said as quiet as he could.

"Your mama`s sleeping." Rose turned away from the door and came to the couch to sit down beside him, swaying like some little ancient mummy. He sat up and put his arm around her.

"You have a nightmare?" he asked. In answer she put her hand over her heart.

"It hurts sometimes," she said. Rainbone felt tears welling up around his eyes.

"Sometimes," he said. "Sometimes it hurts a lot. But other times you hardly know it's there, unless it rains." And then, not for the first time, Mose hated the rainbone.

They left the next morning, and Eddy Buck never said anything much about the visit until one night in Vegas, watching Mose lose four hundred dollars in a crap game he said:

"I always used to think the rainbone was a good luck charm." and Rainbone answered: "Well, you can see it ain't that." and they both knew they weren't really talking about craps.

* * *

The bus rocked and rolled along the road and the rain streamed down like Hell emptying out. Rainbone realized he'd fallen asleep and what had woken him were the whispers and the aching in his chest. Sometimes he wondered if his heart really was sick. If the rainbone wasn't pressing on things that shouldn't be pressed and that his heart wouldn't just give out from it someday. Not today, he hoped. But the pain eased a little as he sat up. Rose was gone again and that worried him a bit. Not just for her sake but for his own. The whispers were louder now. Louder than the sloughing of the rain or the rhythmic slapping of windshield wipers. He was afraid to listen to the whispers tonight. Afraid they would distract him, take him away again. So many things he'd wanted or thought he wanted, left by the wayside while he followed some twitch of his heart. But not this time, he told himself. This time I'll follow my own hook. But he wasn't sure he had the strength to say no. He pressed his forehead against the cold glass of the window and tried to keep his mind closed to the lost and lonely voices of the dead.

Night passed and the voices faded in and out of his dreams. Sometimes he would turn to see Rose beside him. Other times the rhythm of the road got hold of him and he would be back in the Arizona desert, watching the parade of ghosts cross over from night into day. Sometimes Jenny was there. She stood at the edge of the scrub, cornsilk hair blowing in the wind. The wind carried her whispered words away. Then she turned and joined the parade and was lost to him in the empty night.

Rainbone woke and looked out the window. In the grey half-light of dawn he could see lights and storefronts. The bus slowed and pulled up in front of a restaurant and the driver called out "Twenty-five minutes for breakfast."

"You hungry?" Rose asked. He wasn't but he wanted to get out into the air. He stretched sleep-tickled limbs and stood. Everyone else was doing the same, pulling down satchels, rearranging mussed clothes and tangled hair. They looked pleased and puzzled, like they'd passed through some awful trial during the night, and woke up a little surprised to find themselves still alive..

"Where are we?" Rainbone asked.

"Oklahoma, I think," said Rose. They stepped out of the bus into muggy morning air and headed into Fay's Coffee Shop.

Fay had the air conditioning turned up high and Rainbone shivered as his bony hips sank into the thick red Naugahyde cushion of the booth. The waitress brought Rainbone a coffee right away, without him having to order it and smiled at him as if he was still a young man and kind of cute too. Rainbone liked that.

"You sure you won't eat something?" the waitress asked. Her name, in black letters on a bright pink badge, was Bonny.

"Maybe later," said Rainbone. He doubted it, but he wanted her to come back around. He wished suddenly that Rose wasn't there so he could flirt. But he knew that even if he were a free man, he was long past flirting. His heart didn't seem to hold room for that kind of thing anymore. Only room for ghosts and memories.

"I'll let you make up your mind," said Bonny, slipping a menu in front of him. Rose waited until she was gone.

"What we gonna do in Tucson, Rainbone?" she asked.

"I don't know yet," he answered.

"Well, how long we gonna be there?"

"I don't know that either," said Rainbone. He felt cross this morning and answering Rose's questions made him look like a crazy old coot. Bonny wouldn't be smiling at him quite so friendly when she came around and heard him talking to the air.

"You don't know much, do you?" said Rose.

"Don't take on attitude with me," snapped Rainbone. "Don't matter what your mama said about the rainbone, you're still need me to get you home."

"Well, who says I want to go home?" said Rose.

"Want don't have nothing to do with it. And besides," said Rainbone. "You'll want to when the time comes."

Rose shrugged and slouched back into her seat. She looked sulky and pouty and very young.

"I just wanted to see something of the world before I go," she said.

"I know you do," said Rainbone, softening a little. It was hard to remember, sometimes, that she was dead. It was always hard to remember that. Hard to believe that so solid a creature was a ghost, unseen and unfelt by those with whole hearts. Mose knew he could reach out and take hold of a small, cold hand or touch the yellow hair she was fidgeting with. But he knew too that Rose could turn in a direction exactly opposite from here and now and vanish from his sight to go walking along the crazy roads of the dead. What had it been like when she'd first turned in that unexpected direction?

She wasn't looking at him now, preoccupied with her own thoughts about all the things that were lost to her. He wished he could tell her about the other side, wished the rainbone had given him the power to see beyond into some wonderful, exciting new world where the dead would find something even better than they had left. But all he knew was that when they were gone, they were gone, and he couldn't bring himself to lie about that. Not to Rose.

"You must have seen some of the world," said Rainbone. "Sharon said you'd been gone a couple of months. Not the first time, either."

"I didn't see nothing but Washington State and a piece of Canada."

"Well, that's something," said Rainbone. "I ain't never been to Canada. What's it like?"

"Different," said Rose. "It smells different. The people talk funny. I don't know. How come you so interested in Canada?"

"I'm interested in you, is all. How come you ran away so much?"

"It wasn't no particular thing,".said Rose. "Just everything. That house, the rain, Mama. I didn't get along at school. It felt like my whole life was just a dead tree on a dead end street in the rain. Like what I saw out of my window was the whole world.

But then sometimes at night, alone in my room, when I'd be looking out the window at the dead, dark street, I'd get that twisty, achy feeling in my heart and it was like the planet and all the stars were echoing down at me through the night sky. If it went on long enough I'd go."

"That was the rainbone," said Mose, "pulling at your heartstrings."

"I know," said Rose. "I met up with a ghost once. This guy I met along the waterfront -- Snake, his name was -- down near the aquarium. He said he'd cracked up his bike. `Like a peach over sandpaper', he said. I thought he was real cute, you know, so I just went for a walk with him, down along by the water. The wind was whipping up our hair, and we talked a bit. And all the time I felt that twisting in my heart, and I thought maybe it was love or something, but it didn't feel so good.

He kept looking at me, saying `There's something real different about you, girl' and hanging on to me. We made out some, then he asked me which way was east to Detroit. I showed him and he walked that way and then he was gone." She shrugged. "Took me a while to figure out what happened. After that I felt scared for a while, but then I thought, well, what's to be scared of? There's lots worse that are alive."

"Was it the rainbone made you run away that last time?"

"It wasn't the rainbone made me run away, ever," said Rose. "It was just me wanting to go and the rainbone giving me a reason, you know?

Even now that it turned out so bad for me, even if I'd've known it was going to happen this way, I still would have gone." She laughed. "Wouldn't have got into that goddamn blue Camaro, though."

Rainbone looked up at Rose and saw that she was smiling. He realized it was the first time he'd seen her do that. She had a nice smile -- a little wise-ass, a little crooked -- but a soft, sweet smile at heart.

"I think you learned a lot in your life," said Rainbone. "I wish I'd been around more."

Bonny, the waitress, came by again and poured more coffee into his cup.

"You sure you don't want something to eat?" she asked. Her smile was still bright and flirty. Maybe she just liked crazy, old men. It made him feel good anyway.

"Think my bus is leaving," he said. "Maybe next time I'm passing through."

He left a five dollar tip under his cup for the smile and paid the bill. Outside, morning was heating up the damp, grey street. The bus was still idling in front of the restaurant; one door half-open, like a drooping eye, to the warming daylight. Rainbone stepped up into it, found his seat. Rose sat down beside him.

"Sorry you didn't get better than you got," said Mose.

"Me too," said Rose. "But, what the hell." She shrugged and smiled that crooked smile again.

* * *

The bus rolled on through the day. The Oklahoma country-side stretched out on either side of the road like a thick green carpet, hot sun beating down, killing the air conditioning. The sky was a clear hot blue. Almost the desert sky but there was still some water in it.

Rainbone felt the gentle ache in his heart, on and off, like a sore tooth. He missed it when it was gone, poked around for it until it came back. But when it did, it bothered him, made sitting uncomfortable. When the ache came back so did the whispers, soft and sad like the muted conversations in a bus terminal, full of restless goodbyes.

He worried more about Rose. He'd once thought that the rainbone was some kind of calling from God. But the hand of God hadn't ever reached out to protect him or help him and he'd stopped believing in that. The rainbone was just a part of nature and had nature's cold heart. It didn't care about who carried it or who it called home. It didn't even have such a thing as care in it. It was just a cold hard thing like a rock or the sky. Only people cared. Sometimes.

The bus stopped at the big terminal in Farmington for a couple of hours to gas up and change drivers. Rainbone would have stayed sitting in his seat until they left, but the driver made him get off. He wasn't hungry so he just sat in the station smoking butts and watching the people. Rose said she wanted to look around and he let her go. She'd most probably stay nearby, and he though he needed a break from her company anyway.

He wondered idly if there was any quick action to be had but he didn't know Oklahoma and didn't have Eddy Buck's quick ways of getting to know the climate of a town. He missed Eddy, wondered what happened to him. For all his fast ways, Mose had always sensed a strain of settler in the man. He wondered if some woman had come along to tame the boy and make him happy. It could have been Sharon. That would have been good for both of them. For a while anyway. No guarantees on a thing like that. A man could find the best woman in the world and the two of them be happy for four, five years. Then the money would get tight, or they'd both get to remembering what they gave up for their happiness, putting the shine on memories that weren't half that good to live, and next thing you know they'd be hating the very person who saved them from their loneliness.

For a long time after Jenny was gone, Rainbone was sure they would have been different. Now he doubted it, but some little corner of his heart never gave up. Damn, he hated the way it rolled over and over in his mind. Once he started thinking about Jenny, she haunted him all over again. .

And always the same doubts rose up to strangle her memory. Had she really loved him? He wanted hard to think she did. That made it alright, somehow, if she had loved him back. But he could never be sure if that had been it.

They called the bus over the P.A. and Rainbone walked to the gate to meet Rose. She wasn't there, and the bus nearly filled up before she arrived.

"Where you been?" asked Rainbone, when he'd got them seats.

"All over the place," said Rose. "I just saw a them bust a kid over by the gift shop."

"Sounds exciting," said Rainbone.

"It was, kind of," said Rose. "I felt bad for the kid, though. Didn't have the first kind of clue. Shoplifting souvenir spoons of New Mexico. Stupid dick."

The bus backed slowly out of the terminal, turned and rolled on down the long-shadowed Farmington streets. They travelled in silence for a long while, Mose watching the low, wood-frame houses flashing past and then the longer stretches without houses. Rainbone's mind began to wander ahead to the high country forests of ponderosa pine, and beyond that to saguaro rising out of dusty pink mesas dotted with creosote.

"Do you think Ma misses me?" Rose asked, pulling him from his daydream.

"Course she does," Rainbone said.

"We wasn't talking much in those last days," said Rose.

"That don't mean nothing," said Rainbone.

"Maybe not," said Rose. "Maybe she thinks I don't miss her."

"Well, do you?" asked Mose.

"Yeah, I do," said Rose. "I missed her even when I was there."

"Some people are that way," said Rainbone.

"I never told her I loved her or anything," said Rose.

"I'm sure she knows," said Rainbone. Rose said nothing for a while, but she seemed uneasy with the answer. Rainbone could see that her thoughts were all over the place, worrying and wondering. He'd seen it before; a stage some of them went through of worrying about things left undone, questions left unanswered.

"About Tucson,--" she began, but Rainbone cut her off.

"Alright, Rose, it ain't just the rainbone..."

"I know," she said. "I don't know how, but I know. It's personal ain't it? Because of Jenny?"

"Where did you hear that name?" Rainbone demanded, his voice rising. The man in the seat across the aisle looked up at him suspiciously. He asked again, almost in a whisper.

"You talk about her all the time, Mose," said Rose. "In your sleep, every night since New Orleans."

"Well it ain't your business, is it?"

"I don't know, Mose," she said, sounding sorry and sad. "Sometimes when you say her name I get this feeling; not like a rainbone feeling, just a weird emptiness.... It scares me Mose."

Rainbone sighed. Everything he had tried to steer clear of in his life seemed to be reaching out long tentacled arms to catch him here and now; Jenny, Sharon, Rose; all the tangled, broken pieces of his life. Maybe it was all connected. Maybe, cold and careless as it was, the rainbone was just like the rest of nature, all part of one pattern too big to see.

"What do you want to know?" he asked, resigned to the workings of nature's heartless web.

"Tell me about Jenny," said Rose.

"It's a long story," said Rainbone.

"I guess I got time," said Rose. Rainbone looked at her, tried on a smile.

"I met her in Arizona..."

* * *

He'd been a young man, then. Thinking maybe he was doing something important with this rainbone. Maybe not God's work, but just doing right, having a place in the world, doing something that meant something. He wasn't missing his family much. He never thought, in those days, that he'd really left them. He was only away, like salesmen were away at their jobs, and he always meant to come back. And when he was done his work, he always did go back. It was just getting to be more time away and less time at home without him even realizing it.

And then there was Jenny.

Sleeping in his rental car by the side of the highway just three hours outside of Tucson, he was woken by a knock at his window. He looked up, startled and dreamy and saw a face looking back at him, a face made mysterious as the moon by sleep and the night's purple darkness.

Her voice through the glass was muted and it took him a while to realize that this wasn't some desert spirit come creeping, but a woman with pale yellow hair asking him if he was alright.

He rolled down the window.

"Are you okay?" she asked again.

"Fine, fine," said Mose, confused. "Just sleeping is all."

"Sorry if I woke you," said the woman. "I just came upon your car like this and I didn't know..."

"I'm just fine," said Mose and then coming more awake, realizing that she was about to leave and that something about her made him not want to lose her, he asked her to stay and talk.

She seemed uneasy with that at first, but Mose kept talking, making jokes, flirting like he never really was able. Anything so as not to lose her. After a while she lost her fear of him, and came and sat in the car. He put the dash light on and the radio and Jenny, that was her name, Jenny Whitsock, came and sat down and talked and blushed and flirted too.

And then he thought, what's she doing out here in the middle of the night? And the possibilities scared him so he didn't ask her. And then she told him of her own accord that she lived nearby in one of the little pueblos and that she was sort of an artist and liked to walk in the desert at night.

"That can't be too safe," Mose had said.

"Exactly right," said Jenny.

"What do you mean 'sort of' an artist?" he asked her.

"I ain't been painting long," she said, almost shyly. "It's a whole new life for me." And the conversation turned to her old life with a husband and no children and his life with a wife and a daughter and gambling. Nothing about the rainbone, of course. Not the kind of thing you tell a woman you're falling in love with. Not 'til you're sure. And he wasn't quite sure.

Eventually he got cold and had to turn the car on to get some heat going and he offered Jenny a lift to home or anywhere she wanted.

She took him home and offered to make him breakfast. Her house was small, messy. It smelled faintly of must and the desert and old turpentine. She said, go ahead, take a look and he wandered around while she banged in the kitchen, peering into dusty rooms, scaring spiders. In the room that was her studio he noticed that most of the panes were broken and dust and wind blew through the room.

There were canvasses stacked up against the walls, lots of unfinished oils, not very good, he guessed but he didn't know anything about art. They were of the desert, mostly. Scenes of sand and scrub and stratified rocks in pinks and reds.

There was one canvas sitting on the easel, just begun. A self-portrait maybe. Just a faint outline of a woman's face in brown. He looked at it trying to see Jenny's face in it, then touched it gingerly. The paint was long dried. It all was; the paint on the palette, the open tubes of paint on the table. Everything was dry and dusty. Rainbone turned away from it.

He made his way back through the house to the kitchen. Jenny was sitting at the table, looking at her hands. There was nothing frying on the stove, or boiling in the kettle. Spiders scuttled in the piles of dust under the table.

"It's okay," said Rainbone, going to her. She didn't understand. She didn't know. But he knew. "I'll look after you."

"She was dead?" Rose asked, her voice soft with wonder.

"She was," said Mose. All the sadness of that time washed over him again like a river.

"And you didn't tell her," said Rose, "because you loved her."

"I thought it would be alright," said Mose. The way it sounded on the air was like he was telling someone besides Rose. Someone who couldn't hear. But even if she could, would it make a difference?

"Did she ever find out?" Rose asked.

"Yeah," said Mose. "She found out."

It wasn't a sudden thing. It was just the strangeness of it all caught up with her after a while. Mose found out from the Mexicans living in the pueblo that the house had been long abandoned. The artist that used to live there? They didn't know. She disappeared.

He moved in, bought food, cleaned the place up, fixed all the broken windows. It was summer. Sometimes it was just like normal. He loved Jenny with a feeling stronger than any he'd ever had before. They talked a lot. Mose had never been a talker in his life, but Jenny brought all his secrets up into the hot, white light and made them shine. All but one, and that one he kept buried so deep that he all but forgot it himself.

They made love too. On the big, musty wooden bed by the back window. Outside the window, the sun turned everything to brilliance and sharp cut shadows. Dust would rise up off the desert as he rode her solid golden body into sweet agony.

But other times it slipped away from them. Other times, after the blaze of sunset faded into cold purple night, Jenny would slip away from him and go walking alone in the desert.

That first night, he woke up to a twisting, squirming ache in his chest to find Jenny sitting on the edge of the bed, watching him. Her skin was cold and she smelled of pepper and sage.

"Where you been?" he asked, fear fluttering on batwings around the rainbone. Jenny was slow to answer.

"Just walking," she said, but Rainbone knew there was more to it than that. Each time it happened the rainbone in his chest twisted after her, and each time he fought it down. He'd never hated the rainbone before, never known it as a curse. He tried everything not to let her go. He pleaded, telling her it scared him, that anything could happen to her out there, that if anything did it would kill him. He ordered her not to go, roaring with anger in a vicious way he never imagined he had in him. He asked her, like it was just a little favor, to please wake him when she went, so he wouldn't worry. For a while she gave it up, slept or lay by his side while he lay sleeping and didn't wander.

Things went well for a while, then one day he looked up from cooking himself dinner to find Jenny holding a spoon up to the light, studying her hand holding the spoon.

"What's the matter?" he asked her.

"There's something wrong with me," said Jenny. "I shouldn't be here."

"You're just a little stir-crazy is all," said Rainbone. Jenny looked up at him. Maybe he'd answered too quickly, maybe something in his voice gave him away. Jenny didn't say anything more, but it was clear that something had changed.

The normal times grew less normal. A weird play-acting feeling colored all their actions. Jenny still made love to Rainbone, but she talked less and less. He often found her staring at things: dust, a chair, her hand or foot, as if she didn't know what they were.

She began night-walking again. Rainbone tried for a while to stop her, but when he brought it up she pulled away from him, pulled into some deep, worried silence that scared him as much as the midnight walks, so he quit.

He followed her. Or tried to. It was easier on his heart to stay close to her, but no matter how carefully he kept his eye on her as she left the house, he always lost her. It hurt so badly. Losing her, feeling her drift away this way, wondering if she knew now and hated him. Still he couldn't tell her. All he could do was watch her go.

Early one morning she came back before it was light and sat down on the edge of the bed. Rainbone came suddenly awake, not realizing that he'd dozed off. He had gotten so used to her new quietness that he was almost ready to roll right back over and go to sleep again, but this time was different. Jenny's eyes were bright. All of her, in fact, seemed to shine with a hazy, silver glow.

"What is it?" Rainbone whispered, his heart pounding like a fist in his chest.

"I saw them out there tonight," said Jenny, her voice breathless. "Like a parade of ghosts. Hundreds of them, shining silver in the moonlight. Hundreds of them, Mose. Walking. Just like me. Only they were going somewhere." As she talked, the twisting in his chest grew worse, like the rainbone was hooked onto all of the hundreds of ghosts, all pulling in different directions. It crushed him so he could barely draw breath.

"I want to go too, Mose," said Jenny. There was nothing in her voice like love, or sadness or any kind of feeling at all. Mose was afraid even to touch her for fear his hand would pass through silver smoke and she would vanish.

"You got to let me go, Mose," she said.

And he knew that it was the end. Something gave in his chest then. He felt it pouring down inside him in a warm rush and he sobbed with relief.

"Tomorrow night," said Mose. "But I'm going with you."

Jenny was gone in the morning when he woke up, but he felt too weak to do anything about it.

He drank bourbon all day, and sat with the shotgun between his knees and cried a little. And after all that effort to keep her with him, he couldn't do it. He fell asleep in the chair. He woke to find Jenny standing at his side. She was still shining with that unearthly light. Rainbone dressed in warm clothes. They neither of them said a word, not about the shotgun, not about anything.

When it was time, Jenny left and Mose followed. They walked a long way, across the low, flat desert. Stars and moon stood still and bright in the sky above them. Finally they came to a ridge, they climbed up and looked down.

There, below them, just like Jenny had said, a parade of ghosts. Hundreds of them, as far as they eye could see in any direction. Walking. They all glowed with the same hazy silver light.

Jenny turned to look at him. There was a brightness in her face that he could not bear to look at. Her eyes were full of longing, but not for him. He closed his eyes, felt slow, hot tears leaking out.

"Let me go, Mose," she said. Her voice seemed to come from far away.

"I love you," he said.

"Then let me go." Eyes still closed, he nodded. He felt something soft and cold and airy touch his face.

When he opened his eyes again, she was half-way down the other side of the ridge. He watched her join the stream of silvery ghosts and after a while he couldn't pick her out anymore.

* * *

"I bet you ain't never told anybody about Jenny," said Rose. "Not the whole story, anyway."

Mose shook his head. Tears ran down over his cheeks. He hadn't realized a thing so long buried could hurt the same as it had twenty-five years ago.

"I'm glad you told me," said Rose. She reached out and touched his face. Her hand was cold against his cheek, but it felt good and cradled in it, he slipped into a dark and dreamless sleep.

* * *

They pulled into the downtown Tucson terminal in late morning. Rainbone got off the bus, walked across the busy terminal and bought himself a ticket to Seattle.

"I kind of wish you hadn't done that," said Rose.

"Why not?" asked Rainbone.

"I don't know. Ever since you told me about those ghosts in the desert, I've had a crazy feeling I wanted to try it out."

"Rose, you know you got to go home to get home," said Rainbone.

"I guess," said Rose. "I just hate to think that there ain't going to be anything more for me than that. Couldn't do any harm to try, could it? The rainbone brought us here. That must mean something."

"I just made that up," said Rainbone.

"You sure?" asked Rose. "Maybe it was the rainbone making you want to come out here so bad."

Rainbone tried to think of a reason not to and couldn't find one.

"Okay," he said. "The bus leaves for Seattle at ten thirty tonight. We can try but if it don't work out the way you hope, we'll be on it. No arguing."

"No arguing," said Rose, "It's a deal."

As they walked out of the bus terminal, something caught Rainbone's eye in the window of the glass and chrome Tourist Information booth.

"I'll be right back," he told Rose and ran into the booth. He came out a few minutes later, a few dollars poorer, but feeling better than he had in years.

They rented a junker for their last two hundred dollars at the edge of town and drove west. The desert sky seemed more washed out than Mose remembered it. It seemed right that way, though. The Tucson he knew was already fading when he left it behind that many years ago.

"I doubt I'll be able to even find the place after all this time," he said.

"I'll find it," said Rose. "I know I will. I can feel it echoing on down to me. I know it's right." Her eyes were bright, and she leaned forward to stare hard out the the windshield.

It was late afternoon before they found the pueblo where Mose had lived with Jenny. It had all but dried up and blown away. Not a single house stood. They got out of the car and walked among the dust-blown remnants of foundations. Rose peered out across the scrubby mesa with one hand shading her eyes.

"This way," she said, and set out across the furrowed plain. The late afternoon sun rang down on them as walked, up ridges and down, stopping every now and then so Mose could rest. Rose didn't need to rest, though. She paced while Mose smoked, or rubbed a cramping leg. Sometimes she'd go off on her own, racing up to the top of a ridge and come back down asking Mose if that could be the one.

Mose was sure they were walking in circles. The sun went down in a wild blaze, burning the edges of the sky of red and orange and he was ready to head back.

"Not yet," begged Rose. "We still got time. You can flag the bus from the highway..." But, finally, as the darkness deepened, even Rose had to stop.

"I'm sorry," Rainbone said. It was a long time before Rose finally answered.

"But I Rainbone, I can feel it," she said. She stamped her foot at the unfairness of it all and sat down on the edge of a rock. Rainbone came to sit beside her.

"I know it's hard," he said. Rose shrugged wordlessly and kicked at the dust. Rainbone swallowed and went on:

"I wanted to say... I wanted to tell you thanks... for listening to an old man talk. It did me more good than you know."

"That's one thing I do know," said Rose. "When something hurts you and you don't speak out against it, it poisons your mind against yourself. You start turning everything all against yourself. Look at Mama. She's just full of poison. Against herself, against the world. Against you, Rainbone."

"I know that," said Rainbone.

"Yeah, but not because she ever told you. She just let you know in little ways."

"I didn't do much for her either," said Rainbone. They sat quiet for a minute, listening to the rythmic humming of the cicadas.

"Do you think you can find our way back to the road?" Rose asked.

Rainbone looked around. The moon was coming up silver and hazy in the east. To their left, the ground sloped steeply upward. Behind them, the ground fell away to narrow arroyos that branched in every direction. He felt it then, though it was so gentle it might have been there all along. A tender twisting in his chest. He looked over at Rose. She glowed with the moon's tarnished haze. And she was smiling her wise-ass, crooked smile at him.

Together they climbed the ridge and looked down into the shallow canyon. They were there, glowing silver in the moonlight, an endless parade of ghosts.

"Rainbone," said Rose. "I got to go."

"I know you do," said Rainbone. He fingered the tiny, smooth crescent of petrified wood in his pocket.

"I guess I got to go too." She smiled and reached out to hug him. Rainbone hesitated, then let his arms go around her, feeling the cool, silvery lightness slip through his fingers. She was still solid enough underneath, though, and he held her tight.

"Tell her I'm sorry," Rose whispered into his ear. "Tell her I love her and I'm sorry and... I guess that's all I can say."

"I'll tell her," said Rainbone. He let go of her then, and she smiled her crooked smile at him and turned and walked, shining, down towards the silvery river below. He watched her go. At the edge of the flow, she turned and waved and then she joined them and was gone.

After a while, Rainbone turned too and took the long walk back to the road. The bus to Seattle would pass by any time now. He made himself comfortable against a rock, lit up a cigarette and closed his eyes. The Arizona desert faded away and the wet, watercolor-blue sky of Seattle opened up inside his head.

The End

I hope you enjoyed Rainbone. If you'd like to download a copy for your own personal use, go ahead. Please don't repost "Rainbone" to the net though, or copy it or reprint it anywhere else without my permission. Thanks.



m a i n m e n u /m y o w n p a g e/ f e e d b a c k