TimePaths

The Books and Writings of
Kurt R.A. Giambastiani

  Excerpt from Unraveling Time
by Kurt R.A. Giambastiani

Unraveling Time
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Bainbridge Island

The old Ford pickup rattled like tin thunder as Hamish turned off the highway and onto the dirt road. It jounced over the roots and ruts that washboarded the roadway, fishtailing to the limits of the double lanes that quickly narrowed to a single, brush-bordered path. An empty can of Pepsi protested as it hopped around the passenger side floorboards. Hamish tromped on the gas and sped the truck across the open field and into the woods beyond. The setting light of the March sun flickered through the thin-boned cottonwoods that blurred past his window, switching the truck's dirty windshield from clear to opaque and back with blinding rapidity.

Hamish frowned at the glare, but didn't slow down. With eyes squinted and one hand casually draped over the steering wheel, he pushed the gas pedal to the floorboard. The Ford hesitated, as if unsure that he was serious, then surged forward.

He knew this road, had driven it for years, back and forth, from home to town, to work…and to other places he wanted to forget. He barely needed to look anymore; the bumps and feel of the wheel in his hand told him where he was. And besides, his mind was occupied with things more important than the details of driving down a path he knew so well.

Ten years of marriage. This anniversary should have been a happy event. It was a milestone and it should have pleased him, but it didn't. It neither pleased him nor filled him with a sense of pride. What it did make him feel was sad, and feeling sad pissed him off. He tried to think of something else-had been trying to think of something else all day-but like a man with a chipped tooth, he'd been unable to leave the subject alone even though it zinged him every time he touched it.

The stark cottonwoods gave ground to the taller and older evergreens with needle-clad branches that blocked the sun. He blew past the shadowed drive that led up to Gordon's place and let the dished-out roadway guide the truck around the long right-hand curve that led up the hillside. The truck rocked into and out of the turn, shocks creaking. The Pepsi can danced. A rusty crescent wrench slid forward from beneath the seat and hit the can with a Calypso clang. At the meadow, the sun broke through and he slowed as he approached the overgrown driveway. At the low end of the meadow was a spring-filled pond, its level riding high with recent rains. Up the hill, tucked in alongside the dark-robed firs, was his home.

No, not just his home. Their home. His and Odette's.

He stopped the truck and let it idle there, coughing at the bottom of the driveway as he stared up the house. The old place had been run-down when they bought it, but their energy and his plans for the future had made it bright in their imagination. Now, eight years after signing the loan, those plans had long since been blown away, as had so many other dreams and hopes, and the house-like Hamish-was worse for the loss.

The house had two floors built on a square foundation. A wide staircase led up to a front porch that overlooked the slope and the pond. The second story was capped by a deeply pitched roofline that helped shed leaves, needles, and the infrequent inches of snow. Wide, double-sashed dormer windows jutted out from the roof, extending the light and space available in the upper rooms, and chimneys on either end of the house told of a history before central heating.

But the railing on the porch was gap-toothed, and Hamish knew that several of the floorboards out there wouldn't support his weight-might not even support Odette's. Moss clung in emerald green patches all over the shingled pitch, and the white paint on the clapboard sides was chipped and curling, giving the place a lichenous appearance, like an old stump, slowly rotting away.

The image was apt. From the chimneys' crumbling masonry to the mill-sawn joists down in the dank basement that were slick with black mildew, Hamish's house was indeed rotting away. Given time, it would collapse in upon itself, taken down by the inexorable pull of gravity and the insidious degradation of time.

He saw it, in many ways, as a portrait of himself painted in architectural oils; and like him, there was so much that required repair that just figuring out where to start seemed an overwhelming task. The interrelations and interdependencies of faults and problems were so complex, the easiest plan was probably just to tear the whole thing down and start over.

But he couldn't do that with himself. Or wouldn't. Or didn't know how.

And he didn't want to think about that, either.

He gunned the truck up the drive and wheeled around the back to the detached garage. Though newer than the house, the outbuilding was in sorrier shape. The window panes, crusted with the dirt of three years' neglect, hid the interior from view. As he got out of the truck, though, Hamish was glad for the veil of grime, for there was nothing inside that he wanted to see.

Were he to open the doors and let in the horizontal light of evening, he'd find nothing but the cobwebbed ghosts of a forgotten future stacked on a concrete slab covered with wood shavings and dust-spirits he had banished there and tried to forget. Tools and equipment would cast long shadows on the far wall. The table saw and jointer would beckon, aching for the oil that would rejuvenate their rusted surfaces. Planes would open razor-lipped mouths, hungry for the taste of poplar or maple. Drills and routers would cry out for just one more dance along the heartwood, lonely for the curl of shavings and the heat of activity. The garage was a workshop where work was no longer done, and as Hamish got out of his truck, he turned away from it with the same reluctance a rider might feel, torn between healing his horse's broken leg and putting the animal down with a bullet. He could feel it all in his hands: the journey of the wood from rough and splintered to satin-smooth; the tempting angles of joinery…tongue and groove, mortise and tenon, rabbet and dado.

There was one other item there, too-one unlike all the others: a Harley V-Rod. A marvel of modern machinery that merged form and function, beauty with raw, mechanical power. It, too, sat in the dark, dust dulling its chrome and age sending slow fingers of rust into neglected crevices.

They were all part of his shattered past, and had no place in Hamish's broken future. He walked away from the garage and its silent soldiers. Unbuttoning the cuffs of his shirt, he climbed the stairs to the back door of the house.

On the back stoop sat Spot, their cat. White with a black patch on his back, Spot stared at him with the sort of immobile impatience that only cats can master. Spot yawned as Hamish grabbed the handle, then stretched at the sound of the house key in the lock. The rusty spring yowled as Hamish opened the screen door, and Spot ducked inside first. When the door banged shut, it sounded like a can of nails.

The kitchen was neat and clean, despite the yellowed vinyl flooring and the countertop grout made dingy by innumerable cups of spilled coffee. Antique gelatin molds hung on one wall, reflecting the setting sun with happy, copper-colored metal, but the garage-sale table and chairs looked cheap, and had been. Hamish had always promised to replace the set with something of his own making, but finances had required the selling off of nearly every piece of furniture he'd ever produced.

Spot wove in and out among Hamish's ankles as he pulled his gun from its holster, double-checked to make sure he'd unloaded it at work, and laid it on the table's scarred Formica top. The walkie-talkie was next, and then the wide belt, the thick leather creaking as he coiled it into thirds and put it on the table next to the other items of his newly-adopted trade. Lastly, he unpinned his nameplate and badge and dropped them on the tabletop. The nickel-plated metal of the badge and the gold-tinted letters of "Mutual Security" made him sneer. God help them, down at the bank, if they really needed him to do anything.

In the cupboard above the hood of the stove, tucked up behind the stockpot and the Costco supply of black peppercorns, was a square-sided bottle. He pulled it out and snagged a tumbler from the wooden dish drainer. The bottle gulped air as he dumped two fingers of whiskey in the heavy-bottomed glass. He knocked the drink back in two large swallows, relishing the burn in his throat and the tears the harsh liquor brought to his eyes. Two more fingers' worth glugged into the glass. He spun the cap of the bottle closed, and returned it to its place up above the stove. Then he opened a can of cat food, dumped it on a plate, and set it down for Spot. Spot fell to his meal, all pretense of love and affection dropped in favor of a close encounter with tuna and liver pâté.

Belt over one shoulder and badge, walkie-talkie, gun, and drink in hand, Hamish headed upstairs. He needed to shower before Odette got home. They had to be at the restaurant at eight for a celebratory dinner with Ray and Charlene.

Unlike the downstairs, where the décor was an amalgam of his wife's refinement and his own more homespun taste, the master bedroom was undeniably Odette's demesne. Tall art nouveau prints by Mucha flanked the mirror of a walnut vanity-one of the two pieces Hamish had made that they'd been able to keep. The other piece, her seven-drawer tallboy, stood in the corner. The top of the tallboy was cluttered with tiny vials filled with perfumes and essential oils. Sandalwood, gardenia, Moroccan rose, and patchouli fought for space with department store samples of Chanel No. 5, White Rain, and something overpriced and citrusy from Calvin Klein. Odette guarded their minuscule amounts as if they were holy relics, meting them out in judicious rotation. As a result, she had no "signature" fragrance, unless it was every fragrance. Hamish, sitting at his guard post just inside the front door of the Bainbridge Island branch of Washington Mutual, would think of Odette a dozen times an hour, as every woman's perfume was also, at some point, hers. Years ago, he would not have minded such a constant reminder, but now…now, it was almost an annoyance.

He unbuttoned the shirt of his uniform and took it off. With a peek in his closet, he saw that he had another shirt in reserve. Mutual Security took the appearance of their front-line security personnel very seriously and, though he despised the job, he needed to keep the position. The possibility of losing this job, after all that Odette had done to get it for him, was to be avoided at all costs. Then he checked the clock. 6:40. Odette would be home soon, coming in from Seattle on the 6:45 ferry. He'd better get ready so she could have the bathroom to herself.

He buzzed back his five o'clock shadow while the water got hot, then showered quickly. He was drying off when he heard the screen door bang.

"Hamish?"

"Up here, Sweets."

Feet coming up the stairs. "Did you remember that we're-oh, good," she said as she came into the bedroom and saw that he was nearly ready.

She looked stupendous, but then she always did. She was built with the thin frame and broad shoulders that dressmakers love. The fabric of her blouse draped across her smallish breasts in a way that accentuated their form without revealing. Her neck rose straight up from the gentle arcs of twin collarbones. As she undid the twist of her dark, shoulder-length hair, Hamish could see the languid play of muscles beneath her skin and the strong curve of her jawline. As she worked on the buttons of her blouse, he drank in the sight of her lips (full but not wide), her nose (straight and narrow), and eyes (chestnut) set deep beneath angled sable eyebrows.

Ten years. Why hadn't it been bliss?

"Come on, you" she said with a smile and a slap to his bare ass as she sidled in behind him. She turned on the water for her bath. "Don't dilly-dally. We've got to leave in half an hour." She sat on the edge of the tub and tested the temperature. When she turned back, Hamish saw her eyes catch sight of the empty whiskey glass, and then look up at him. He met her gaze in the mirror, refusing to turn sheepish in the face of her disapproval.

But she didn't say anything. She just looked back at the empty glass. The sun of her smile was suddenly lost behind cloudy weather, and then her gaze just…drifted away, like leaves dropped into a lazy current. No drama. No complaints. Just a barely audible sigh that summarized and restated all the arguments they'd ever had on the subject. She tested the water again and absently adjusted the temperature. Then she stood, dropped blouse, skirt, slip, and underthings onto the floor, stepped into the rising water, and pulled the shower curtain closed.

Hamish stared at the glass. Why had he left it there? He should have known it would upset her.

Not should have. He had known. He'd known, and he'd done it anyway, unthinkingly. Or uncaringly. Had he hoped for some other reaction from her? Some sign of passion or caring? He'd always blamed bad luck and past events for their recent problems, but how much of it was of his own creation?

He looked at himself in the mirror. He wore his gut like a breastplate, an armor of sloth. The strength of his youth had been blown away on that bloody day three years ago, and then sapped by his subsequent drinking and inactivity; no vestige of it lay hidden beneath the layer of pudge that enwrapped his body. The only flaw in the roundness of his belly was the twisted scar that puckered him from hip to groin. On his back there was a smaller scar, just under the kidney, where the bullet had exited. And on his left thigh and around the knee, other, smaller scars laced his leg with tortured paths.

He'd once been handsome. He'd once been fit and unbroken. He could see the ruins of his rugged, Celtic rootstock hidden beneath his pain, but comparing his own marred condition to the lithe beauty that crouched in the bathwater behind the shower curtain, he saw that they were as mismatched as Tracy and Hepburn.

Ten years, he thought to himself. Why has she stayed with me for ten years? Especially these last three?

He grabbed the glass and went to get dressed.

He had time for a third drink while he waited for her to come downstairs. He had not been looking forward to this evening, and the liquor took the hammer out of his heart and calmed his nerves. When she came down the stairs, though, he was nervous all over again.

She'd pulled her hair back in two wings and pinned it in a tail that draped down the nape of her neck. Under a breath of white chiffon that she wore like a shawl, he could see the neckline of her sapphire blue dress cut straight and low across her breast, revealing an unexpected expanse of skin. His pulse raced and his loins tightened in a way they'd not done for quite some time.

"Honey hush," he said as she walked toward him. He smelled freesia and…and…he sniffed the air…and carnations. "Sweets, you are magnificent," he told her, and it was apparently the right thing to say, for she smiled at him, and some of the sadness left her eyes.

He looked down at his own clothes: dark slacks, black shoes, gray shirt with an open collar beneath a tweedy sport coat. "Let me go change," he said.

"You're fine," she told him.

"I look like a sack of potatoes next to you. Let me put on a tie, at least."

She put a hand on his chest, a near-caress. "You're fine. I just felt like dressing up a little."

"A little." He laughed. "Dressing up like that only makes me want to undress you."

She smiled again and winked. "Later," she said. "If you're good. But Ray and Charlene are expecting us."

"We could be a little late," he said with a reaching hand.

"Not on your life," she said, slapping it aside. "You're just going to have to wait."

He shook his head in appreciation. "This better be a quick dinner," he said.

They let Spot out for the evening, and got into Odette's dark blue Volvo, it being less of a rattletrap than his pickup, though it smoked more. He drove them down the long, dark curve that led to the highway and felt his mood brighten. For some reason he couldn't fathom, this bright creature still loved him. Broken, overweight, and nearly useless as he was, she still loved him. He reached over and patted her knee. She put her hand on his, and they drove that way down into town.

The residents of Bainbridge Island, following in the auspicious footsteps of such cities as New York, New York and Mexico City, Mexico, had given their largest community the distinctively unimaginative name of Bainbridge Island. And while "Bainbridge Island, Bainbridge Island" was a rather uninteresting designation, its people were not. Over the years, it had become a magnet for the rich, the artistic, the iconoclastic, and the just plain odd. Quiet, quaint, and unhurried, it was a haven from the bustle of city life; and at just a twenty-five minute ferryboat ride from Seattle, it was the perfect bedroom community for those seeking a refuge that was comfortably distant while not being totally out of reach.

As Hamish drove from their house on the far end of the island, they passed roadside placards advertising rabbits for sale, made-to-order pottery, and free dirt. Closer to town, the signs changed from hand-painted to professionally-lettered, and the businesses began to acquire names above the description of their wares. Anthony's Antiques. John Hubbard's Custom-made Cabinets (known on the island as "Hubbard's Cupboards"). At the outskirts of town, the signs spoke merely of the establishment itself-Grassland Studios, Dougherty's, or Blakefield-as if it was either too crass or simply unnecessary to tell prospective patrons what sort of business they might expect to transact within. Those who needed to know, knew; everyone else should keep driving.

Such was the Island of Bainbridge-a mixture of the rural and the refined, each rubbing up against the other, often rubbing the wrong way-and nothing exemplified the situation like the town of Bainbridge Island, Bainbridge Island itself.

They drove into town, heading past the tin-roofed quonset of Sal's Grocery. Hamish turned left at the Marjorie's On Madison shoe store, and then headed down to the Winslow docks where on one side stood Chuck's Fish-n-Chips with its glaring lights, walk-up window, and striped umbrellas over white metal tables, while on the other side of the road was The Frigate. Behind The Frigate's cedar-shingled walls, candlelight bloomed from hurricane lamps, filling the sheer-curtained windows with a soft, yellow glow. Couples sat paired at linen-covered tables, faces limned by the pulsating flames, while waiters plied the darkened room with trays of grilled beef, bottles of wine, and baskets of warm, butter-ready sourdough.

The Frigate was out of their usual price range, but tonight, Charlene and Ray had offered to treat them to the best Bainbridge Island had to offer. Not the most romantic of possibilities for a tenth anniversary, Hamish thought as the Volvo's tires crunched onto the gravel of the parking lot, but Odette had wanted to go, and Charlene was always a kick, even though Ray could be a stone-cold bastard when he wanted to be. Hamish pocketed the car keys as he got out. Across the street was a patrol car, and he saw Pete Simpson taking a black woman with braided hair into custody. He waved but Pete, busy with his arrest, didn't respond. Ignoring it, Hamish hustled around to the other side of the car to get the door for Odette. She took his hand as she got out, kissed him easily on the cheek, and waited for him to close the car door and escort her inside.

Suddenly he was back nearly a dozen years. It was October 1994, and Hamish, feeling bearlike and two sizes too big-as he always did when with her-was trying to be suave and debonair. It was his first date with Odette, this creature from a higher plane. It took him a week to build up the courage to ask her out, but it was really only a matter of time. He knew when he first saw her that he had to ask her out, and damn the emotional risks.

Wanting to improve on a disastrous first impression, he'd pulled out all the stops. With his invitation to dinner, he'd sent a handmade gift that was sure to melt her heart. From the depths of his closet, he retrieved his only suit and tie, which he sent out to be cleaned and pressed. He'd combed back his hair and trimmed his beard until he looked nearly dashing, and he'd emptied his meager account and brought her to The Frigate. Escorting her from the car, he held out his arm and smiled with a calmness greater than anything he hoped to feel. She smiled back, and slipped a hand into the bend of his elbow. Then he turned and summarily slipped in a pile of dog shit, ending up sprawled along the sidewalk in front of her.

It was a memorable second impression, one that rivaled his first, and now, as he locked the Volvo's door, he had to take a breath to dispel it.

This time, he held out his arm, smiled, and turned to look where he was going. It was such a silly thing, long past, but his heart was still pounding when they entered the lobby and gave their names to the maitre d'. The man brightened.

"Ah, your friends have already arrived," he said. "Let me show you the way." He led them past the cozy patrons seated near the street-side windows, around the side booths, and back toward the dock-side of the house. He halted before a pair of double doors and, with a smile, opened them.

"Surprise!"

The room was filled with a six-no, eight people. Ray and Charlene came forward in the vanguard of an entire troop. Odette squealed and laughed, hugging their hosts before she hugged everyone else in turn.

Hamish kept a smile on his face and hoped it looked genuine.

He hated surprises, and surprise parties were the worst sort of surprise. He looked around as the couples swarmed them. Ray and Charlene, Leon and Kimber, Wendy and her husband (whatever his name was), the blond guy who owned that boat and his redheaded wife. Hamish barely knew half of them. They were Odette's friends, from her work-a-day life across the Sound. None of his friends were there, but then, why should they be? Ray was Odette's colleague from work and Charlene was her best friend from a childhood spent across the Sound in the more upscale environs of Medina and Yarrow Point. Neither of them knew Hamish very well, much less who his friends were. As Hamish looked over the crowd of capped-tooth smiles, it was obvious that their focus was Odette. These were her people, not his. He nodded and smiled, shaking hands and accepting their well-meant congratulations; but these were people of her world-or what had become her world, since she'd taken the promotion that moved her from a desk on Bainbridge to an office in downtown Seattle. These were not islanders. They were Seattleites, people of the city who had crossed the Sound for an evening among the quaint. No, this was Odette's crowd, and though he would never deny her an ounce of the love and attention the world could provide, a part of his heart ached with the sense that his own love and attention was no longer enough.

He turned to hail a waiter.

Scotch, he mouthed. A double.

The waiter nodded, smiled, and went to fetch Hamish the first of several as the group turned and entered the private dining room.

"Oh, isn't the table lovely," Odette said.

It was a long table, covered with a cloth of heavy red linen and laid with three wrought iron candelabra. Between the candelabra were low bouquets of white and red carnations surrounded by fern fronds. The ten places were set with a plate and soup bowl of Italian earthenware flanked by an impressive array of silver and crystal, as well as a red linen napkin bound by a silver ring.

"I should hope so," Ray said. "Charlene and I were very particular in our instructions. Stylish, we said, but with strength. Like the two of you." He struck a muscle-man pose and laughed in Hamish's general direction.

"Ah. Ha," Hamish said, wanting to throttle him.

Ray pointed to the chairs at either end of the long table. "And to our revered guests go the seats of honor at head and foot. I'll let you two work out one from the other." He winked. "And who gets which one."

The others chuckled. Hamish groaned. Ray talked like that. All pompous and pretentious, but with a hint of sarcasm, as if everything was a game, his game. And perhaps it was. Hamish knew it certainly wasn't his game, at least not tonight. He and Odette exchanged a shrug and took a seat at each end. Ray planted himself down at Odette's end, as did Leon, and then the others boy-girl-boy-girled it on up to Hamish's end, stranding him with Wendy and the boat-guy's redheaded wife.

Oh, God, he mourned silently.

The waiter arrived with his Scotch.

"Bless you, my son," he said quietly.

Hamish listened to the laughter and chatter from the far end-he couldn't see his wife for the intervening flowers and arms of twisted iron-and drank his Scotch. Wendy, a woman of indeterminate age with blunt-cut hair, soupy eyes, and a rounded nose, tried to stir things up at their end.

"What do you think about the Supreme Court striking down the same-sex marriages in New York?" There was a comfort in the way she made her opening gambit that told of her pleasure in the news.

"I'm a Libertarian," Hamish said.

"You're from Africa?" the boat-guy's redhead asked in wide-eyed deadpan. "How fascinating."

Hamish squinted at her. She was a pretty woman, in that pneumatic all-American way, but she'd already started to get squidgy around the mouth and eyes, like a rubber balloon on about Day Three. The sparkles in her fingernail polish told of more leisure time than interests to fill it, and the lack of a furrow in her brow where a look of puzzlement should have gone told of weekend parties with the Botox-Collagen set.

"Libertarian," Hamish said gently, so as not to alarm her. "Not Liberian."

"Oh," she said, and subsided.

So much for politics.

His dinner arrived with another Scotch in tow, and as Ray finished regaling Odette with his tale of taking two months off to campaign for Howard Dean, Wendy turned to Hamish.

"You were in Iraq during that time, weren't you?" Again, he could hear in her tone more than the mere words.

"Yes," he said. "But you knew that, didn't you?"

"Well, I had heard," she said, looking back down at her chicken marsala. "I didn't know for sure. Odette never talks about…"

"Never talks about what?" Hamish wondered, and then realized he'd said it out loud. The tone of his words had penetrated a few seats downstream at the table. Wendy's husband and the blond boat-guy both turned, ears perked by heightened emotional overtones.

"Oh, nothing," Wendy floundered.

Dammit, he said silently. A sharp, self-recriminating anger at having spoken aloud stoked his long, simmering anger at what his time in Iraq had taken from him. And now a new anger arose-not that his wife was ashamed of his service; he knew that she didn't like to think of it-but that somehow her friends knew she was ashamed. He took another swallow of Scotch. The last thing he needed, it was like throwing a live round into a burning car, but he had stopped caring.

"Shit," he muttered, wanting it all to go away.

"I didn't mean," Wendy began, but he cut her off.

"You didn't mean she never talks about my Purple Heart," Hamish said. "Is that it?"

"Well, no…I mean yes, I mean she's never mentioned-"

"Or did you mean that she never mentions the RPG that blew my knee off or the bullet that ripped out my guts. Is that what you meant?"

They were all looking at him now, from redhead down to the far end. Boat-guy had one hand on the redhead's arm, as if ready to defend her from a lunatic. Leon and Kimber leaned back away from the table to see him around the candles and intervening heads.

"I'm sorry," Wendy said.

"You're sorry." Hamish laughed and swallowed more Scotch. "Hell. You mean I'm sorry. Bet she mentions that."

"Easy, Hamish," the blond boat-guy said, putting down his own drink and leaning toward his silent wife. Then he smiled a knowing smile. "No need to get…excited."

"Excited." He laughed again, and his thoughts started to fuzz. "No need to get excited. Now that's funny. It's almost as if…almost as if she's told you every intimate…"

At the far end, Ray was standing, and so was Odette. Odette's face was twisted up in a grimace of shame and anger, and her cheeks were shiny with tears. Ray's hand was on Odette's arm.

Slowly, items started to click together, like the pieces of a finely-crafted chair. Hamish stood, fingertips leaning on the weave of the tablecloth, steadying himself against the liquor and the weakness in his knee. His gaze swept the length of the table until he found Odette.

"What have you told them?" His voice was a gut-born rattle.

Odette shook her head.

"What have you told them?"

"Nothing!" she said. "I've told them nothing."

"Hamish," Ray said. "Let's not have an argument, hey?" His voice was calm and friendly, but there was ice in his gaze.

And his hand was still on Odette's arm, not caressing, not holding her in check. Shielding. Protecting.

He looked at the faces of the other guests. At Leon and Kimber, Wendy and whats-his-name, the boat-guy and the wife. They were all staring at him.

All except Charlene. Charlene was staring at her plate, at her unfinished salmon.

He looked at Ray, met his gaze square and straight. Then he let his gaze drop down to where Ray's hand pressed against Odette's arm. Ray looked down, too, and saw what Hamish saw, what Charlene saw, and what everyone saw. He pulled his hand away as if Odette was suddenly red-hot.

Hamish pulled his lips back from his teeth. "You son of a bitch," he said. "You god-damned son of a bitch."

Odette stepped away from the table. "No, Hamish," she said. "It's not that."

"The hell it isn't."

She moved around the others on the side opposite Ray. "It isn't," she said. "I swear it."

Diversionary tactic, Hamish noted. Drawing my attention away from him. He turned his gaze back to Ray.

"I've put up with you long enough," he said, walking away from Odette and directly toward Ray.

"Hamish!" She moved around the table to follow him.

"Hey, Sweets. Know how you're always saying I never finish anything?" He grinned. "Well, this I'm gonna finish."

Ray stood there like a frog in the moonlight, mouth open, eyes wide. Hamish knew that between the three doubles he'd had here, the ones he'd had earlier, and the missing third of his left quadriceps, he'd only get one shot at this, so he balled up his fist and prepared to break at least one of Ray's capped teeth clean off. But an obstacle rose before him.

Charlene.

"Back off, Hamish."

He stared at her. Charlene was tall, five-nine at least, with long, dark blonde hair that she always wore in a pony tail. Her limbs were long and wiry, made so from years of working with her horses. Hamish was bigger, could have picked her up and thrown her if he'd wanted to, but not if she didn't want him to, and judging by the threat in her eyes, she didn't want.

"You're defending him?"

"He's my husband."

"But he-"

"You don't know that."

"I can see it in his-"

"You don't know, Hamish."

He paused. "And if I did?"

Charlene looked up at him. "Then it'd be my place to crack his skull. Not yours."

He rocked back on his heels, all momentum lost. Charlene's shoulders remained tight, her hands loose and ready.

"Aahhh," he said with a wave that dismissed the whole crowd of them. Then he pointed a stubby finger at Charlene. "You're the only one of this lot worth a god-damn," he told her. "The only one."

"What about your wife," Charlene asked him.

He could feel Odette's presence behind him, like the pull of a river current drawing him toward the maelstrom. If he turned, he'd lose it; he'd see those eyes and see the pain he'd caused and he'd just lose it. So he didn't turn. He just patted his pocket to make sure he had the keys and, giving Charlene a wide berth, headed out of the room.

"Hamish," Odette said, following him.

"Just stay with your friends. Have a grand old time, why don't you?" He'd made it to the lobby before she caught up and grabbed him by the arm.

"Just wait. You've got to know-"

"No," he said, turning. "I don't gotta know. I only gotta think it, and thinking it is bad enough."

Her mascara had smeared from wiping at her tears, and her hair was loose on one side. Her eyes had started to swell from weeping, and the tip of her nose was red. He pulled a bandana from his back pocket and handed it to her. Then he turned away, unable to look at her sadness, unable to tell if it was born of the guilt of her own sins or of the pain from his.

"I'm going home," he said, and headed to the door.

"I'll take you," she said.

"No."

"You can't drive like this."

"I've driven plenty times worse."

"Jesus, Hamish!"

He looked back at her across the empty lobby. She stood ten feet away at the reception desk. The maitre d' had discreetly disappeared, leaving them to play out their drama in relative privacy. Her face, usually formed of smooth, gentle curves, was twisted by a bevy of emotions, none of them pleasant.

"Look at yourself!" she said. "You started drinking before I got home, and haven't stopped since. You made a scene at our anniversary dinner. You accused our friend-"

"Your friend."

"Our friend. You accused our friend, Hamish, and you accused me, too. And then you nearly started a brawl." She pointed her hand at him and laughed bitterly. "And now, though you can barely stand, you want to drive home. Jesus. How many times do we have to do this, Hamish?"

"Do what?"

"This! This very thing we're doing now! This!"

He closed his eyes. She was right. They had done this, time and again, in one form or another. He was suddenly tired, incredibly tired.

"Okay," he said. He reached into his pocket, and pulled out the keys. He opened his eyes.

A patron was walking through the lobby, heading for the restrooms as Hamish tossed the keys to Odette. He tried to miss the guy, but his inebriation caught up to him and he missed his aim instead, hitting the patron with the keys.

"Hey!"

"Sorry," Hamish said, hands up to show he'd meant no harm. "Sorry."

The guy passed on with a backward glare and Hamish wobbled down to one knee to pick up the keys from the carpet.

"Give me those," Odette said, snatching them from his fingers. "Now get up. And get outside."

She propelled him through the doorway with a furious stare and a wave of shame. His anger spent, the dizziness of the whiskey burnt away, he considered his next move. It was too early for an apology, and considering the myriad he'd already given her, the time might never be right for another.

Odette unlocked the car, got in, and slammed the door. "Buckle up," she ordered as he closed his own door. He obeyed.

She took the route home at a quick pace, leaving the speed limit behind. Again, he wondered if there was any way to minimize the damage he'd done.

"Sweets?"

"Not a word," she said, eyes steely in the bluish glare of the dashboard instruments.

The unlit countryside and the clouded sky left him adrift along the highway's double yellow line. His vision wandered and slewed with the turns of the road and the heavy effects of alcohol, and he felt his life careening with an equal lack of control. What was he doing? How had he lost his grip on everything? He looked down at his knee. Had it been that day, three years ago in Fallujah? Or had it begun earlier, with Fallujah merely providing the coup de grace. They hadn't always been like this; things had been better, once.

Eight years ago he'd had it all planned out: a property with potential, a job at a cabinetmaker's, a budding side-business fashioning custom-made furniture for the suburban rich, and a wife of exquisite taste and beauty who managed the local bank. In her smile, he could see their future, a life of countrified luxury and honest toil. She'd work at the bank and handle other people's money. He'd eventually quit working for others and be self-employed, out back in the workshop, shaping hunks of wood into the curved splendor of cabriole legs, the planed expanse of a tabletop, and the turned spindles of chair stays. On the odd weekend and for a couple of weeks each year he'd do his stint in the National Guard, supplementing their benefits and building up credits that would help in their retirement. Eventually they'd have children-just a couple-and then, further along, grandchildren. His talent, her brains, and their mutual love would carry them through the rough patches into their golden years, surrounded by smiling friends and loving family. He had been able to see it all. Hell, they'd lived it for five of those eight years, but then things changed and now it wasn't a future. It was a fantasy.

When he'd imagined the rough patches, he'd only thought of parking tickets and quibbles about remodeling. He hadn't imagined September 11, Afghanistan, or Iraq. He hadn't imagined that his NG unit would be called up and mobilized for action overseas. He hadn't imagined the terrible danger, the bombings, the ambuscades, or the death. He hadn't imagined being torn apart by an RPG that ripped through metal and his own flesh with identical ease. He hadn't imagined the long recovery, being laid off, or the cyclopean weight of despair that overcame him as his dreams faded and his goals fled ever farther out of reach.

And he certainly hadn't imagined that three years after Fallujah, on his tenth anniversary, he'd be reeling-drunk, sitting in the passenger seat as his wife drove him home from a scene where he nearly decked her best friend's husband.

But that was the reality of it. That was the undeniable reality of his journey from then to now.

Gravel kicked at the wheel wells as Odette swerved off the highway and onto their side road. The Volvo shuddered and bucked as the tires dealt with the potholes and ruts. The road was a brown path through a tunnel of pale branches. The car yawed as Odette met the long, slow right-hand curve that presaged the run up to their property. Hamish felt events begin to lengthen as a white-and-black shape emerged from the brush along the inside of the curve. It was Spot, out on his nightly prowl, and he stood transfixed in the wheel-rut, staring at the oncoming car with glowing green eyes. Odette swore and pushed at the steering wheel, sending the car toward the outside of the curve. The possible became the inevitable. Hamish could see the slow, deliberate dance of physics as the car ramped up along the outside edge of the roadway. Odette cranked the wheel back, tires turning against slick grass and soft earth, and momentum laughed at her efforts, sending the car onward, straight ahead along its tangential path. Hamish felt the front wheels go airborne-first the left and then the right-and then the rear wheels. The car hung for a slippery moment of time, suspended by the balance of velocity and trajectory, rolling a handful of degrees to the left as the headlights pitched downward to light the dark green branches and thick gray trunk of a Douglas fir. Hamish saw it coming, and was unable to look away. He couldn't say all the things he wanted to say before he died, couldn't tell her that he loved her, couldn't tell her that he was sorry about tonight, as well as for so many other, similar nights. He was trapped like a fly in amber as time enfolded him and hurtled him forward with sluggish determinism.

The car hit the tree a little right of the midline.

Metal shrieked.

Airbags deployed.

Glass shattered.

Bones broke.


   

All contents ©2001-2010 Kurt R.A. Giambastiani