This story was posted with the permission of both Gizzie and Martha Little, authors of the Messenger/Time/Tercet universe. It deals with Langly's alcoholism within that universe.
Muchas gracias to my beta, Nancy Floyd-Finch, also known as "Evil Mistress of Betas." If this story has any merit, it's because of her beta, and her re-beta, and her re-re-re-beta.
And yes, lest anyone snicker, I had a liquor beta. Miss Martinellis does happen to know a little about liquor. Stop snickering.
Disclaimer: Me Loa. Me no own. 10/13 own. Anybody want a peanut?
"It must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile NOW was at the thought of his immolation." --E.A. Poe
- - -
Prologue: Baby light my way
- - -
The dark tunnel. He wakes up, cold-sweating, shivering. Panic -- is she still there?
She lies on his chest, curled up against his sweat-matted T-shirt. In sleep, she does not move, rock-heavy, one hand curled under his chin. Her corduroy overalls are heavy and damp from where her training pants have overflowed in the night. Her curly brown hair tickles his nose; her little feet are tucked into his waistband.
She is three years old. She has not cried yet. And, lying over his heart, she keeps that organ from its final frozenness.
It is July fifth.
It is dawn.
- - -
One: The thousand injuries of Fortunato
- - -
"I don't go in for that patriotic crap anymore," I say airily. I wave my hand in the air again. Really, I don't care one way or the other, but I'm trying to get Frohike angry enough that he won't ask me to attend any July Fourth celebrations with him. But pushing Frohike's buttons is like stealing candy from a baby: it sounds easy, but when you really try it, you don't do as well as you think you will.
Frohike is tacking a flag, a beautiful (handmade) Stars and Stripes, into the front window of the Lone Gunman offices. Afternoon sunlight pales through the cloth, striping purity and justice across the monitors, one of which is currently engaged in cracking the access code of a major foreign petroleum company. He is mad enough, currently, to spit tacks. But he finishes pinning the flag into place before he replies.
"Langly, it's two stupid hours. Two hours that I ask you to go with me and honor the dead."
"It's brainwashing," I smirk, hating myself and loving the patness of this answer. If nothing else, I still have my silver tongue. "They get you all worked up over a 'war' and 'saving democracy for other nations,' when really it's a territorial dispute, or someone makes Tricky Dick mad, so he decides to continue instead of capitulating. Damn, Frohike, it's like you take this seriously or something. I mean, the dead are dead. They don't care. No one cared enough to keep them alive in the first place." I know what Frohike's going to say next, and he doesn't disappoint me.
"Have I shown you nothing?" he hisses, hair practically standing on end. "It doesn't matter why we did it. The fact is, we *did* do it. We went over there while you were still kicking around in your momma, and we -- "
*trampled through the jungles and we killed boys, killed men, till we were rotten with it, till we cried,* I finish in my head. I've only heard this about a thousand times. Shut up, Frohike! Damn but you're boring. My gut twists and knots. The air reeks of wonderful liquor. My skin shivers.
"Till we cried!" finishes up predictable Frohike. "And my friends died in that conflict and I'm going to the Memorial to remember them. And since you, sir, cannot be trusted, you are coming with me willy-nilly. Now get your damn shoes on before I kick your ass." And he stomps into the other room.
"Bite me," I say weakly as he leaves, but I've lost the argument once again. Dammit!
Oh, and I cannot be *trusted*. Well, that hurts, coming from a short frazzled man who once voluntarily spent four years on and off in a psychiatric ward. Frohike has spent a lot of time watching me like a babysitter while I try, once again, to detox myself. Frohike attends AA meetings with me. He even hugged me once as I stammered about my problem. I think that right then, I'd reached the very height of embarrassment. Looking back on it, I feel like a virgin after her wedding night -- happy about finally getting through it, but heartily embarrassed to have had someone else there to share the experience.
Especially, I amend, someone as ugly and unloveable as Frohike essentially is. I have begun to hate Frohike, and the power of it is poisoning me. Hate's so easy, you know? It's easier than a two dollar hooker. Sure, I hate Frohike. It's less work than loving him.
Most of this is my fault; I know that on some level. I've known it since I picked up that bottle at the New Year's party. I tried, I made the effort, I really did. I just have a weak constitution -- I have no willpower -- and I'm full of excuses. It's my fault that Frohike has spent every waking hour with me for three weeks. My fault.
I lean the chair back, eye the flag. Think about where the matches are.
- - -
I'm surprised at my control. Langly makes me wild, these days. I suppose it's because we spend so much time together now. Like brother lions confined to the same cage, we maul each other instead of turning on our Daniel.
Still, as I go into my bedroom and shut my door, I congratulate myself. I didn't kick that whining, pansy-ass creature in the kneecaps. That isn't Langly. Since Becca's New Years party, his spine has disintegrated and his bones have turned to pure pisswater. He sits and watches TV all day, and when he's forced outside, he whines to beat the band.
I don't know this man anymore. I could say that we've been friends for ten years. I could say that I've held him when he cried. I could say that he's held me. But I won't say any of it, because a red tide of resentment smothers me. What gives him the right to ruin his own life, when I've worked so hard to protect him from harm?
Sometimes I think of myself as a ninja, a stealth warrior in black, keeping my friends out of trouble, rescuing Mulder from whatever hole he crawls into, coding my way out of trouble time and again. But as good as I am with the language of ones and zeros, I still have failed miserably in my job of keeping Langly, my younger brother lion, from sliding into one of those holes with the spikes on the bottom and the smooth, slippery sides.
The big bust came three weeks ago. Picture this: Langly had disappeared for one and one half days. We were frantic, but not really surprised. Langly'd been working up to it for ages, and I don't think he'd been sober for more than four hours at a stretch. We half-heartedly searched for him. Guess how many bars there are just on our *block*.
Byers and I pretty much ended up sitting around at the office until we got a call from the police, who'd arrested Ree for starting a legendary bar fight. Later, when I asked him what he was fighting about, he said he didn't remember. I asked him if someone'd asked him to play drums for their band, but he just gave me a sour look and said nothing.
Anyway. Arrested, and he called me, but all I could feel for him was anger. I'd been building it up for months, ever since we couldn't find him after the New Years party, and my cup had run over since then. Between the sullen aftermath of the New Year's party and the way he'd been stonewalling me for months, I'd pretty much had it with his belligerence.
The gist of it was that I refused to pick him up. I cussed him out pretty well and I'd have hung up if Byers hadn't grabbed the receiver. That man has the soul of a saint, and he picked Langly up out of the drunk tank and took him to Becca's. Grateful, Langly promised never to drink again.
Exactly four hours later, he emptied the contents of one liquor cabinet belonging to Byers' girlfriend. I say emptied, because there was only one bottle of peach Schnapps in there. I expect that if there'd been more, he would've taken that for the road. Langly staggered to the Lone Gunman office and slept there, reeking of peach. I found him there the next morning, still clutching the bottlecap.
I don't really excuse my actions at this point. What I did was wrong. Understand, though, that I was so very angry. When I shook him the first time, he opened his eyes but I could tell he didn't see me. The whites of his eyes were redder than a baboon's ass, and there wasn't anything behind the huge, dark pupils. I distinctly remember thinking, Oh, Langly. You fool. And that was it. I dragged him into the bathroom, and I dumped him into the bathtub with his clothes on. Turned the water to 'cold'--wish there'd been a 'Tahoe in January' setting. And I turned that sucker on to full blast. That was so satisfying that it took half my anger with it. I could feel myself grinning. Not nice, but satisfying.
At first he didn't really move. And he didn't jump straight up in the air like I wished he had. He just sort of grunted and flopped up toward me.
"Dead man swimming," I said, and aimed the spray directly at his now upturned face. It did my heart good to see his lips turn blue and his pale face turn even paler as the warmth leached out of it.
He said nothing, but the emptiness had gone from his eyes. This was not in vain after all. He was angry now; angrier than I'd seen him in ages. So I hitched up my courage and said it.
"Langly, listen up. Here's the thing: stay and stop drinking or don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out. Understand?"
Langly, dripping freezing water from his tresses, seemed to freeze up himself. To me, it looked like his brain had turned to ice. I could see that he wanted a drink, with the sodden desperation of a man in denial. If I could've, if it were safe, I'd have given him a drink, just for the look in his eyes. I'd have given him a sea.
Now picture this: Langly has spent ten years associating with us. We have lived together, puked together, built each other up, and torn one another right back down. Langly, princess of the Hacker Age, has nowhere else to go. But for ten frightening seconds, in the dingy bathtub of the Lone Gunman HQ, he considered leaving. As the seconds ticked to capitulation, he almost opened his mouth to say, Fine. I'm gone, Wayne. Gone. But he didn't say it, and eventually he bowed his head, sending cascades of H2O down his pallid hacker's face.
"I can't," he said. "I can't do it. I can't stop. You know it best, man. You know I have no choice but to drink myself to death. Just let me do it. Why can't you just let me go." His voice had all the animation of a hooker on barbiturates. And I just felt like screaming in his face: Because I have no choice but to hold on to you. Because my choice was taken from me years ago when I decided I loved you.
Brother lion. Brother mine.
So I didn't say anything. Not one damn word of consolation or one helpful smile. I handed Langly a towel and I took the hardnosed route again.
"This isn't One Life to Live. And I won't come after you if you go this time. I'm sick of your soap-opera whining. Look at Byers. He's finally getting a real life, finally living through Susanne, who tore his heart out and ate it. Ate it, man. Look at him, driving down to pick up his friend, who's wasting his life away in the drunk tank. Look at him, moving on. You're a stone. You're dragging him down."
At the mention of Byers, Langly looked up with animal hatred in his eyes. As well he should, for that man has taken gentle care of Langly through many thicks and many thins.
"Fuck all this noise," he spat. At this point, goosebumps had formed all over his milk-white skin. "You can shove it --" and he began to climb out of the tub. Incidental profanity doesn't bother me, but I was sure that at this point, he'd go find another drink. So I pinned him to the porcelain instead. I don't weigh all that much, but since he's a shadow, I managed pretty well.
Then, I did the thing that I'm sorry for now . . . but again, you must understand that I was a little mad. In both senses of the word. I had been thinking for a few short minutes about how I could keep him in the house for awhile, short of superglue. What did he prize most? What could I blackmail him with? Desperate times, yadda yadda. What were Langly's family jewels? Besides the obvious, thank you.
So I grabbed his hair, right? And I started saying, "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your long golden hair." I got one glimpse of his utterly terrified eyes and then I began to cut off his hair. I used those little nail scissors, cause they were the only ones in reach, but I did an extremely thorough job. And every piece of thin, blond hair that came off was like a weight coming off my heart. Revenge is sweet. I told you, I shouldn't have done it. But it was sweet.
Halfway through, Langly began to scream, a high, wide scream that took in most of the upper register. But I'd nailed him as surely as a butterfly in a display case; and soon, all of his hair was detatched from his head and lying, scattered, limply scattered all over the bathroom. He retained only inch-long patches of fine blond hair.
Picture this: Rapunzel, shorn.
- - -
Two: The rheum of intoxication
- - -
For three weeks, I have not left the HQ. I have been in Frohike's sight every waking moment. When I sleep, it's on his bed and he handcuffs us together. I can't sleep that way, so I spend most of my time lying, thinking, in the dark.
At first, I merely thought about beating him up, taking his money, upending a case of Coors on his head. Lately, I have thought about killing him. I think of leading him into a dark tunnel, and my slimy-wet imagination conjures images for me like a street magician. As that handcuff pulls on my wrist, I think of handcuffing him to an old barrel of wine and bricking him up behind a wall. I think of strangling him with the handcuff chain. Even now it makes me shiver, makes my eyes tear up behind their thick glasses. I have thought so hard of Frohike's murder that if I were telepathic, it would have happened already.
I lean back in my chair. My hands lie unclasped in my lap. My eyes close. I think of drinking; wine, beer, gin, whatever is at hand. Frohike has thrown all the liquor in the house out. My hands clench as I think of a bottle of vodka. It is clear and square; it refracts light in rainbow dazzles. I think of luring Frohike into a tunnel and then whirling, insubstantial as cloud, and cleaving his skull with an axe. Never mind why I'm carrying an axe. Absolut murder.
I open my eyes. The flag casts stripes over me; I am covered in liberty and justice for all. Suddenly and without warning, I'm so ashamed of myself. I want to cry, just sit and wail. I want to say, "This isn't how it was supposed to be! I'm not supposed to be lost here! This isn't me -- this isn't me." But what good would wailing do? It would just bring Frohike out here, and he'd. . . .
The hatred is back, as I run my hands across my raggedy scalp. When last I looked in the mirror, I saw a straggly remnant of the punk age. I can almost feel cool red and white stripes, like candy, coating my head.
This isn't me.
I push myself out of my chair and head for the kitchen. It's not too well stocked; Byers used to do it, but he doesn't live here anymore. I don't eat all that often, and Frohike likes to order in. I search the freezer, but it's only got some old frozen broccoli. The fridge has some V-8, ketchup, and the six kinds of hot sauce that Frohike puts on his takeout. The cupboards contain some old spices and a bag of chocolate chips. I take them out and there, behind the bag, is the old bottle of real vanilla. Byers used to have a thing for cookies. Made 'em all the time; horrendous things, they were. He had no flair for baking. Plus, he stopped using real vanilla. He looked at me once, face full of righteous wrath, and he said, "Can you believe this stuff is 70 proof?"
I take the lid off, run my finger around the rim of the bottle, put my finger in my mouth. Sweet, sick-sweet, dream-sweet. Oh, I cannot stand it. I move toward the sink. I'll pour it down the drain, and I won't think about it any more. I don't want it. I'll just pour it down the drain. . . .
A third of the bottle goes down the drain. The rest of it I drink, huddled in the corner of the kitchen, crying, shaking, trying not to spill. When I finish drinking (and crying), I stand up and drop the bottle, smashing it to bits on the linoleum. Frohike comes running to see what the matter is: my faithful nursemaid, my faithful dog. I grin at him, wondering if he can see stains on my teeth, and tell him that I was reaching for the chocolate chips and knocked the bottle onto the floor.
"Lucky thing it was practically empty," I say. A thin breeze from the air conditioner blows onto my shorn head. My head pimples into tiny goose-bumps, but I feel depressingly sober. I expect the chocolate chips would give me more of a caffeine buzz than two-thirds of a bottle of 70 proof vanilla has. Frohike looks at me narrowly.
"Take a shower, you stink." he says. "And get something decent on. We're leaving in half an hour."
I nod, meekly, and step off to the bathroom, trying not to think of ways to kill him, trying instead to control my hands, which want to tear out my own stomach, my own liver, my own heart.
Two hours later, I'm standing at the Vietnam Memorial, bored to death. Have I mentioned that I hate holidays? Remembering the dead, my ass. It's nothing but an excuse to get a day off work. In Frohike's case, I'll make a tiny exception. He doesn't work, so he has nothing to take off from, and yet we are here at the Wall, as the muggy heat seeps into our lungs and Frohike traces the names of comrades etched into black granite.
I'm sweating like a pig, and I'm so thirsty. Oddly, I long for a margarita. Girly drinks, margaritas, but I see the chilly glass right in front of me, sitting . . . right . . . there. A bead of water condenses on it as I watch, and I can smell it, can smell the lime and Triple Sec. Aw, hell, I think, glassy-eyed. Forget the margarita. Just leave the bottle.
My fingers touch cold stone. Unwittingly, I have reached out and touched the memorial. RICHARD LEE ADAMS, my fingers read. I don't believe in God. What did Richard Lee Adams believe in? Why did he die, fine upstanding man that he must have been, while I live? I would rather flee to Canada under cover of night than ever fight in a war.
Beside me, I hear Frohike uttering the Lord's Prayer. He has leaned his head against the cool wall and his hands are splayed out against the names, covering them in benediction.
"And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."
Defenseless as he is, I long for something sharp. I'm sure he wouldn't notice me, between his closed eyes and his quiet speech. Now, right now, as my fingers leave Richard Lee Adams, a vision hits me with LSD clarity. Me, spinning Frohike around with my weakling arms, spinning him flat up against that wall, and ripping his throat out with my teeth. I can feel the warm splash of blood against my own face, and I have to touch myself to make sure that I haven't actually killed Frohike. I may have vanilla in my bloodstream, and Frohike moans through a second (third? fourth?) recitation of the holy litany. De Liv Er Us From E Vil For Th Ine Is The Kin Gdom And The P Ower And The Glor Y Fo Rev Er Amen Amen Amen
The long, black wall starts seeming like a mountain, something I can't get around. Everything looms as I set one foot in front of the other. Trees seem higher, and grass lower. I hear the wind and the river calling one another. Someone or something is calling my name, saying "Patrick," but no one calls me that except my sister, but today she is is just as dead to me. I see her hands in front of me, hands I've held numerous times, taking her to a park like this very park, but suddenly I'm not in the park anymore, I've gone beyond its boundaries and broken a bond, some kind of bond, some kind of promise. Thy King Dom Come.
Cars whiz around me because I'm running down the block. I smell blood and gunpowder and cherries. My arms seem to rise of themselves, wings that won't ever work. I keep running. My lungs begin to hitch and my body, used only to the wastrel life of a drunk, begins to tense and cramp. The baseball cap with which I'd covered my baldness flies off to the side. I feel the wind of passing blow over my streamlined skull, leaving no wake. The noise is astounding to one who's always been used to having his hair cover his ears. I hear my heels drum against the concrete, swish through the grass, and suddenly, my shoes fill up with water. I have waded, seeing and unseeing, knee-deep into the Potomac River.
The coolness of it stops me from screaming. Evening sunlight reflects orange lace paths. The current runs strongly. I can feel it pulling on my legs, urging me farther into the stream. I go with it. Why not? I have a sudden confused fantasy of floating on the Potomac, just laying down and floating all the way to the Chesapeake. Nothing but the tip of my nose showing; only the ends of my hair trailing out behind me, like the Lady of Shalott with no boat. My long, blond hair. . . .
Damn and blast. Hell and damn and blast. That's it. I'm going back there and I'm going to tell him exactly what I think of him and his thrice-damned nail scissors and his high-horse attitude. Then I'm going to . . . then I'm going to. . . .
Imagination fails, or quails, and I snatch my glasses off and dive into the Potomac to try and escape it. It's cold, but I knew that and I don't mind. Underwater, everything narrows down to the green blur that fills my gaze. Mud swirls up around me and I try not to hit the bottom with my hands -- you never know what you could cut yourself on. But I let myself float, like in the fantasy, for a while before I drag myself up, beaching on the other side of the river.
Oops. The sun is going down quick and the wind's blowing. It's a summer wind, but suddenly I'm Iced Langly and I feel a need to get somewhere dry. Home would be nice. I have dry clothes at home. But bars are nice and dry too, they don't ask questions, and there's probably a baseball game on. And Frohike, the perpetrator of the Washington Inquisition (no one expects it), is nowhere to be seen. I wonder, idly, if he even bothered to look for me. But no. He probably got back up on his high horse and told Byers to look for a new partner. Holier-than-thou jerk.
I head down the street, mixing with tourists on the wrong side of the river and people who are going home from church and goths and businesspeople who stay open all week and are just now closing. Searching for a bar like this makes me feel vaguely guilty. I mean, damn, I've been dry three weeks. I've had the shakes, the confessional experiences, the screaming heebie-jeebies. Many times I've gone through this same thing. Up. Down. Up, down, up, down, and here I am about to do it again. Something funny about that. Really, it's funny. If I weren't shivering so hard, I think sourly, I might even laugh.
No bar looks good to me, though. Oddly, I find myself reluctant to go into any of the sleazy holes in the wall that I know would take a drowned rat like me. Neon signs fizzle and pop in the windows: Coors. Busch. Baileys. Absolut. They're all my buddies in arms. We can skip down the yellow brick road together, looking for the gentle good witch of oblivion.
Ahead, I see a guy selling sparklers and suddenly I want some, though I have no matches, and I head over there. But when he tries to charge me, I realize one more bad thing has happened to me. I had my glasses clutched in my hand when I swam, so I can still see. My wallet, however, seems to have been taken tribute by the hungry river. I apologize to the guy for wasting his time and head off again, broke and tired and freezing.
Buck up, Langly, I tell myself. You've been in worse situations than this. What about the time that you were up in Wyoming and you got lost in one of those damn national forests? You got rescued that time and you'd broken your wrist. I mean, geez, this is DC. You live here.
But I'm not comforted. It's getting darker and darker, the crowds are thinning out and I'm stuck in the murder capital of the U.S. And oh, the thought of taking a taxi and then getting Frohike to pay for it galls me to the extreme. So I set myself to walk and I'm headed for who knows where when I hear the fireworks.
- - -
Three: To your vaults
- - -
I mean, I see them too, but hearing them makes me look up. They have a special 'pop' that is uniquely theirs, and every American knows that sound. I see them arc up over my head, red and blue and white and green, and instinctively I head over to where I think they're coming from. Where there're fireworks, there're people. It's an American axiom, almost more than baseball or the Pledge of Allegiance. Some people don't watch baseball, and some people disagree with the Pledge, but everyone turns out for fireworks.
I begin to jog, suddenly overcome with the fear that they might stop and I'd be left alone. The jogging warms me up a little and I think, why didn't I try this before? I used to like to run, a lot, though you wouldn't think it to look at me: ten years ago, I came in fourth in a half-marathon. But now I'm winded after three blocks and I slow down, panting, and begin to see the people. It's a park, and they're cramming it, and music is playing and everyone's having fun. I know that I can't exactly go and join in, but it makes me feel a little happier to know that the human race isn't all made up of Frohikes and Langlys.
"Someone, somewhere, is having a normal life," I say out loud. "They got up and had a Fourth of July breakfast with their aunts and uncles and cousins, and they went to a parade, and then they had a big old lunch. Then they went and played softball -- what's more American than softball? Then they went out and had a water fight, and then they had steak for dinner and now they're watching the fireworks. I can't believe it."
Suddenly I think of my sister. She would like something like that. She's probably out on her balcony, right now, watching fireworks and wishing I was a better brother so she could ask me over for pie or something. I want to call Moire. I really, really want to hear my sister's voice and know that she still likes me, cause I'm her brother and she has to.
I don't have any money, but I do have Byers' phone card number memorized. He knows I'm good for the cash and besides, he won't care. I head over to the phone booth, full of ideas. And something moves in the shadows, hurtling at me.
I jump into a defensive stance. Is it some kind of rabid dog? But no, it's making a noise, like "Mamamamamama." I look down, surprised and flustered, at the curly head of a small girl. She's clutching me around the knees and she's crying in gulps, like it's been awhile since she started. I try to move my leg away, but she's got a grip like a warrior princess. I mentally dub her Xena as I do the obvious thing and pick her up. At once, she quits crying.
She's wearing corduroy overalls, patterned in red, white, and blue. Someone took obvious care to dress her: little matching barrettes are hanging half out of her curly 'do. And ew -- she's a little wet. I tighten my hold as she takes a good look into my face and says: "You not my mama."
Way to go, Captain Obvious. I look right back at her, seriously, and say "No, I'm not."
She replies, "Where my mama?"
I say, "I don't know. We're gonna try to find her, okay?" Poor little lost thing. But honestly, I don't see how we're ever gonna find her mama in that huge crowd of people. I look around in the half-dark to see if anyone's hunting for her. I listen for calls, but all I hear is the bang of fireworks and the sizzle of conversation. She squirms around in my arms to get a look at the fireworks, and I sit on nearby bench and plump her down on my thighs to give her a better look. No point in spoiling her whole night. She's stopped crying completely, and seems at ease with me, pointing up into the sky and saying, "Green!" and "Blue!" when the appropriate colors rain down on us. Everyone loves fireworks.
We watch them all the way through to the end. Every last bang and boom, with her craning her little neck up with her head on my shoulder. At the end of it, she sighs a little and drops her whole weight on to me. Boy, is she a heavy critter. My legs begin to go numb. We gotta get on the move.
I scoop her up and say to her, "Let's go find your mom," and she sighs again and then I think she's asleep, because her weight goes even deader and she drops her head to my breastbone with a thonk! The crowd is dispersing, and there's even more of them than I thought. No one seems to pay attention to a ragged, wet, skinny-ass man carrying a little girl. This is DC after all. We wander around the park a little with me having no idea what to do, and then I decide to just take her to the nearest police station. So I start to walk in the direction of home and hope that there's some kind of precinct house on the way. You'd think I'd know, for how many times I'd been in one, but usually I don't exactly remember how I got there.
Xena's so heavy that I have to stop and rest my aching arms once every couple blocks. I don't really complain though -- where would she be if I hadn't found her? I can just imagine her gripping the knees of a drug dealer or a pimp, saying "Mamamama." You can bet they'd find a use for her.
But there's no station house in my vicinity, so I reluctantly decide to go into a bar and ask for directions. What else is open this time of night? I head for one that's above ground and clutch Xena tightly as we enter the dark arena. The bass is thumpin and the girlies are hot, but she never wakes. Kids. They can sleep through anything.
The place is pretty crowded, and the bar is packed. I get as close to the barkeep as I can and yell over the noise. "Hey!"
He looks around and I raise my eyebrows, indicating Xena. His eyebrows twin mine, rising to his hairline as he quickly turns someone out of a barstool. It turns out that he only emptied it so he can yell at me, but that's just as well.
"You can't bring kids in here!" He's a small, dark man, reminds me a little of Frohike but with even less hair.
"She's lost. I just need directions to the police station so I can bring her back." His expression changes to one that mine probably reflects: an "aww, isn't she cute." He draws me a quick map on a napkin, it's about five blocks away. Then he gives me a sidelong look with no small amount of sympathy. Hairless men are instant buds.
"What happened to your hair, man?"
I grimace. "Roommate. Uh . . . I was drunk, he was mad. . . ." Whereupon he grins slyly at me and begins recounting this really funny story about his boyfriend and an electric razor. I listen, fascinated in spite of myself. And I thought my life was weird. When he finishes, I thank him and he turns away. I start to get up and someone puts a hand on my arm. A heavy guy in overalls is sitting next to me and he has the funniest look of pity on his face.
"You're a good man," he says. Runs his hands through his thinning brown hair. And pushes his shot glass toward me.
I am in the middle of refusing when the whiskey hits my stomach. I realize that I've snatched the drink and downed it. In the middle of rationalizing and before I can even move, I've slurped down a shot of Jim Beam. The pity on his face increases. He looks like a basset hound who's just killed his master.
"Needed that, huh?"
"Yeah," I say as I get up unsteadily. No. No, you idiot, I sure's hell didn't need that. I can already feel a little buzz as my empty stomach absorbs the alcohol. Whoo. He turns toward the bar, presumably to order another, and I snatch my kid up and get out as fast as I can.
Halfway down the block, I realize that I've forgotten the map, but I can remember his general direction. I hitch Xena up again, sigh, say something that I'm shocked to recognize as a prayer, and head to the right. Another half-block, and I realize that I'm not going to be able to do this. My head feels like it's full of helium and my arms feel like lead pipes. I'm afraid I'm going to retch on Xena, or drop her, so I have to find someplace to hole up, to sleep this off. I can't even make it another block. Not even ten more steps.
I'm walking by railroad tracks and the place is mostly deserted. I thank my lucky stars, for I spot an unused railroad tunnel. Grass grows over the tracks and a tree has sprung up outside the mouth, partly obscuring it. I stagger over there, and my luck is holding because no one else is occupying it. I collapse with a huge sigh and prop myself up against the tunnel wall. Xena sort of slides down onto my thighs and she's putting them to sleep, so I lie down full-length and shove her up onto my chest. I can feel a railroad tie digging into my back but I can't even think any more, can't remember what's important. Something about Frohike, how I should maybe call and let them know I'm not dead, nah, why would he care, he doesn't care about me, oh, hold onto her, she's so heavy, she's gonna crush me, crush me with the sweet and sour taste of whiskey on my tongue.
- - -
Four: NOT the cry of a drunken man
- - -
He'd never believe me if I said I waited for him all night. I was in the middle of saying the Lord's Prayer for some buddies of mine, and next thing I know he's gone. First, I cursed myself for six kinds of fool, and next I started asking around. Some kid said he saw a "funky-haired guy in glasses" go off toward the river.
The first thing I thought is that I'd finally pushed him too far. It'd be like a maudlin country song: "I went to the river but the water's too cold." Great. I got a flash of them fishing his bloated body out of the river, and I shuddered. I shouldn't have taken him out, shouldn't have brought him here.
But after a minute or so, I calmed down about him drowning. Langly has an awful lot of self-preservation. He might want to die, but he wouldn't be able to bring himself to do it. If he could, I think he'd have done it already. He's hit so many bottoms that by rights, he should be in China. Langly's a survivor, and a good man, and a good friend.
He put his life on the line for us when we were being hunted in Las Vegas. Without hesitation, and though he wasn't in the best shape of his life, he volunteered to help save our asses. And though he went down to the bar later and drank himself to stupefaction, I can't forget the look on his face when Susanne told him that he was programmed to kill. Desolation doesn't even begin to describe it. He looked like everything he'd ever believed in had been taken away. But since he has handled a gun, even in play, I think he's developed a taste for the power of the firearm. I think he's discovered that power, killing power, can make up for a lot of things.
I see murder in my friend's eyes sometimes. Murder, reflected in his glasses or his too-often-blank pupils. You can't live so long with a man and not know when he's thinking about killing you. At least, I can't, not since the war. But I've been living with it. Mostly because he's a shadow and I'm not frightened of him. But sometimes, I wish he would try. If he did, maybe he'd discover that it isn't as much fun as playacting at death. He doesn't know the difference between killing and killing. There's killing, where you know that the man will get up and shake your hand afterwards, and killing, where nothing will stand between the bullet and God.
So I walked for blocks and spotted neither hide nor hair, ha ha. I must have walked for three hours. Then I came to myself and took a cab home, because how would I be able to find him in a city that size? And I called Byers and he came over with Becca and we waited and waited and I don't think I felt anything. I didn't, like, sit around and blame myself. It wasn't my fault. Langly fell into the bottle without my help and he sure didn't want my help getting out of it. The feeling was more like a vague sort of uneasiness, a sense that he was out there somewhere, needing help, maybe asking for me in his sleep. An itch at the back of my neck, a pricking in my thumbs.
When the call finally came, I didn't have the strength to get the phone. I'd been jumping at every call for hours, from the AT&T guy to Mulder. It drained me, and Byers was the one who hung up and said vaguely, "He's at the jail."
At first, I heard "He's *in* jail," but that didn't even faze me. I was so glad to hear that it wasn't the morgue that was calling, or someone from the river. Without a word, we went and hopped in the van and Becca drove. There, Byers told me that he hadn't been arrested, he was involved in the case of a lost child. As we were walking up to the doors, Byers said, "He found a little girl and he's waiting till her parents get here. If they do."
- - -
It's unreal to walk into the building and see him sitting in a plastic chair, his scalp looking like a furry egg and his clothes dirtier than a pig in a puddle, holding onto a little girl for dear life. On closer inspection, it turns out she's holding on to him. He greets us with a languid "Hey," and I am relieved to see his eyes are clear, if tired.
"Meet Xena," he says, and smiles the old Langly smile. She's sittin on his lap, half leaning on him, her dark curly hair all over the place. "Xena, meet my friends." She looks up at us then, her inscrutable face split by a smile. "This is Frohike, and Byers and Becca."
"Hey, honey," says Becca, bending down to pick her up. "Aren't you just cute?" She must be responding to some sort of female instinct, but Xena isn't having any of it and hides her face in Langly's shirt again. Becca simply smiles and takes a plastic chair. I sit down too, but Byers remains standing. His face wears a vaguely perplexed look.
"Have they found the parents yet?" he asks.
Langly sighs and shakes his head. "There were seventy-one missing children reported last night because of the festivities. They're just getting started on it." Byers still looks uncomfortable. He's always hated being stuck in police stations for more than thirty seconds.
Becca, seeing his trapped expression, takes the initiative. "Hows about we go get some breakfast, John? They must have a good bakery somewhere around here."
Langly's expression approaches Nirvana. "Crullers. Hot crullers and tea."
"Cullers," pipes up Xena. Becca laughs.
"Crullers it is, and for you, Frohike?"
I'm ravenous, to tell the truth. "Two cinnamon buns, no raisins, and a cup of coffee with a dash of sugar."
She laughs again, the delighted sound hitting my ear just right. "All righty then. Let's go, John, before I forget and add raisins." She wouldn't. She never did. They make their way out of the police station and I feel uncomfortable sitting there with Langly. For once, we aren't handcuffed together and he's free to make his own choices. As, I suppose, he has been all along.
I notice that Xena's looking at me with frank curiosity in her eyes. I reach out a finger and tangle one of her curls. "Hey, Xena," I said.
She pouts a little and bats me away. "Not my name. I'm Sophie."
Langly looks at me with a new light in his eyes. "That's the first time she's said that. I couldn't get her to say her name."
I laugh lightly. "I've got a way with kids." Then I turn my attention to her again, trying to get her to tell me her last name. But she just buries her head in Langly's chest and refuses to look at me. Langly absently strokes her curly head as she burrows. Then he looks at me. I realize that the new light in his eyes is love, or something approaching it. He's fallen hard for this little thing, this little girl.
I leave them there and go over to tell the desk officer that we've finally gotten a first name out of her. His grateful smile echoes his relieved voice as he says, "Thank you, sir. I'll look on the list and give her folks a call right away."
When I return to Langly, he's staring at Xena like her brown eyes hold the secret of the universe. "I don't know if I want to let her go, man," he says. One palm strokes her plump little elbow, and she curls her arm around him in response. For the first time in months, he is lit from within, like a house with candles in the windows. Someone, finally, lives in Langly's head. I smile in commiseration.
"They can really wiggle into your heart, can't they?" I ask. "I love little kids." Langly looks at me in real surprise. The smile broadens, and I explain that when I was younger and nicer-looking, I helped run a daycare. His surprise deepens into shock as I describe the place.
"I've driven by there! You mean, you ran that place?"
"Helped run it. For a couple years. I loved those kids, I did. It was after I got back from the war. I wasn't quite convinced of the . . . the rightness of the world, you know? That it was still spinning the way it was supposed to. So when Jenny asked me to help with the place, I said sure. And those kids helped me immensely. They still had faith that the world would turn out okay. Even the ones who came to school with bruises, sometimes, they could still look at you and trust you. They didn't see any enemies."
"Yet," Langly interjects bitterly.
"Yet. But still, they helped me get my own faith back."
"And you kept it," he says almost inaudibly, burying his nose into Xena's full head of hair. His own patches and spots mock me. I wince a little. The damage is pretty bad.
"Um. . . ." I start, unsure how to apologize for taking something he loves. "It'll grow back, I bet. You've always had quick-growing hair."
"Mmhmm," he says noncommittally. "It'll grow back." His eyes, clear and dear, meet mine and I read it in his expression: I'll forgive you if you forgive me.
But I already had. I'd forgiven him when we'd been handcuffed together in the deep night. I just hadn't realized it.
I lean back in the plastic chair and sigh. Xena echoes me with a tiny sigh of her own. And we wait. Byers and Becca don't come back, and the ticking hands of the station wend their way over half an hour. Langly is talking softly to Xena, who seems to be answering back in a mix of baby talk and English.
Suddenly, a dark, curly-haired man and his wife rush toward us. He's wearing jeans and a t-shirt, but she is obviously Indian, judging from the blue sari that she's wearing. She is crying, pressing the back of her hand to her mouth, and he's got relief written all over his face.
"Sophie!" The woman cries, holding out her arms. I see Langly tighten his own arms for a moment, his expression tightening and his eyes narrowing, but Xena wriggles her way out of his hold, crying "Mamma, mamma, mamma." The woman scoops her up and begins to hug her, speaking in a language that I have never heard before.
The man sits down by Langly and begins to thank him profusely. Langly doesn't seem to know what to say. He looks at me, but I shrug, it's his call. "You're welcome," he says uncomfortably in the face of parental volubility, looking like he regrets the whole affair. The man begins to take out his wallet and Langly stops him, his face changing to shock with a hint of a smile.
"Don't bother," he says, in a very un-Langly-like gesture. "I don't want the money. She saved me." And he pats the man on the hand, gets up, and beckons to me. As we are walking to the door of the precinct house, we hear Xena, yelling shrilly after him: "Bye, Ree! Bye, Ree! Bye!"
He turns around, fully smiling now, and waves to her. He walks backwards out the door, still waving, and I hold his elbow as we back down the stairs, craning for one last glimpse of her curly dark head.
- - -
Epilogue: Can't always be strong
- - -
When I wake up in the back of the van, I have burrowed into Frohike's shoulder. I don't even remember falling asleep, and I must be pretty heavy, but he doesn't complain.
Every emotion has drained out of me while I was sleeping and left me with a sense of completeness, like I have done something impossible and lived to tell about it. I sit up, yawning, and Frohike turns his head to smile at me, and just like that, he is beautiful again, with his halo of frizzy grey hair shot through by daylight. Just like that, I don't mind him anymore. Just like that, I'm sober and I don't need anything.
Surprised, I smile. Smile at all of them. Becca twists in her seat and tells me that she knows a girl who could do wonders to even out my hair. Byers says that I can have the rest of his biscotti. And Frohike doesn't say anything, but I know what he's telling me.
-+- the end -+-
This is a general sequel to "Auld Langly Syne" by Gizzie & is placed in the Messenger/Time/Tercet Universe. If'n you want to read it, it's at: Gizzie's Page
prologue & epilogue lyrics are U2's "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)."
Quote, parts 1-5 quote is Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado."
"The bass was pumping and the girlies were hot" is from a Beastie Boys song.
"Runs his hands through his thinning brown hair" is from Paul Simon.
Richard Lee Adams died in Kontum, South Vietnam 2/16/67 at 20 years old. http://www.thewall-usa.com/ remembers the dead. Oh, and that Fourth of July ritual? The breakfast, the parade, the baseball, the barbecue? My in-laws do that every single solitary summer. And you thought tradition was dead. :S
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