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Authors: Duane Swierczynski

Hell and Gone

BOOK: Hell and Gone
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For David Hale Smith

Ma prima avea ciascun la lingua stretta
coi denti, verso lor duca, per cenno;
ed elli avea del cul fatto trombetta.

—Dante
Inferno,
canto 21, lines 137–39

 

Save me darlin’
I am down but I am far from over

—Frank Stallone
“Far from Over”

 

 

 

 

Dear Julie,

This is going to be hard to explain, but

1

 

She had crossed to the other side. She was part of the land. She was wearing her culottes, her pink sweater, and a necklace of human tongues.

—Tim O’Brien,
The Things They Carried

 

JULIE LIPPMAN
WOKE
up early the day her boyfriend died.

As she forced her eyes open and searched her memory bank for the date, she was relieved to discover it was Sunday, the last day of Christmas break, and she had absolutely nothing to do until that evening, when a bus would (she hoped) bring Bobby back to campus. Nothing to do was good, because she was hungover to the point of active nausea and her head throbbed from all the blow and the lack of sleep. It had all seemed like a good idea at the time. A kind of exorcism, a final wiping of the slate before a return to what she prayed was normalcy. God, what a week.

She hadn’t seen Bobby since the day before break. He had left in the middle of the night, the day before Christmas Eve, without a word. She had been vaguely aware of him kissing her forehead before slipping downstairs and out the town house door into the brisk December morning, leaving nothing but the start of a lame good-bye note that she later fished out of the wastepaper basket in his dorm room.

At the time, though, she thought he was being a dick.

Still, Julie was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the semester has stressed Bobby out, and he needed a little time to himself. So she decided to be a good girl the first week. Went home, did the Christmas thing. Got mildly buzzed on some good white wine—like her father would ever miss it—watched cable TV, even tried to read a little of next semester’s lit anthology.

But by New Year’s Eve, she’d grown bored with the good-girl thing. Was she supposed to live like a nun? Just because Bobby was off somewhere with his panties in a bunch? So she finally called and agreed to hang out with Chrissy Giannini, and that led them to a rooftop party somewhere, and that led her to a white tile bathroom with a group of people she didn’t know, and that led to a toilet lid with a line of blow on it. She was drunk enough to get down on her knees, feeling the cold tile through her black stockings. Drunk enough to lean forward and snort. And with that first hard snort, the good girl inside her settled down for a long winter’s nap.

Week two was all very
Less Than Zero
—Julie could practically hear the Bangles singing about a ha-zy shade of pure blow. Only she was coming back east from school out west, and Main Line Philadelphia was not exactly L.A. Her life became a dizzying succession of parties, from house to apartment to dorm room. She met up with a high-school boyfriend she thought she’d never see again; they spent what seemed like an eternity on a mattress in a high-rise apartment near the University of Pennsylvania campus, Julie insisting he keep his hands above her waist; the ex stubbornly, drunkenly refusing, a smile on his face the whole time. Later that night she crawled into the hallway, dragging her clothes with her, wishing her head would stop throbbing, using a dirty wall to support herself as she dressed, feeling a wave of regret wash over her. What the hell did I do? What am I
doing?

The shame dogged her all the way back to her dad’s house, which was empty and cold and quiet. The Philadelphia winter had frozen her favorite quiet spot, the garden out back. There was nowhere left to go but school. Two expensive cab rides later, she was at the airport and flying back to campus, wishing she could erase the past week. Once home, she curled up next to her apartment’s heater and tried to read and sip coffee but all she could think about was Bobby, and how she would never do something this stupid again.

So now it was morning, Sunday morning, and she had the day to kill. Bus was due midafternoon.

But the bus never came.

By evening, the news was spreading around campus: a charter plane had crashed in the Nevada desert, just outside West Wendover, killing twenty-four people. All Leland University people, coming back from a holiday service project, building new housing for the impoverished.

 

Students were smoking on the lawn, some holding candles, some crying. Everyone looked dazed. A series of conflicting emotions washed over her. There was relief that Bobby hadn’t traveled by air—in fact, she’d once laughed when he said he’d never traveled by air before. Like,
ever.
She was also in shock at the idea that she may have known someone on that plane. Worry that Bobby still wasn’t back yet—and that was mixed with guilt. Maybe he’d heard somehow. Heard how she
really
spent her Christmas vacation, and now he’d never be coming back.

Come on, Bobby. Where are you?

Just before midnight someone had cobbled together a list of names; they used the copy machine in the student-union building and started to circulate the flyers. A page was pressed into her hand as she walked past the lawn. She glanced down, bracing herself for familiar names, and…

No.

Not possible.

Not even
remotely
possible.

 

Julie punched the combination—24, 3, 15—into the metal buttons on the outside of Bobby’s door, turned the knob. The room hadn’t been occupied for two weeks and smelled like it. Julie scanned the room for the culprit. Someone had tossed a half-eaten sandwich in the plastic wastebasket. There was the usual assortment of Pepsi cans covered in cigarette ashes. Bobby’s roommate, Pags, used them as impromptu ashtrays while he sat cross-legged on the floor and listened to Cure albums nonstop. Smoke and decaying meat; one hell of a combination. Julie covered her face with a sweater sleeve, pitched at least a dozen Pepsi cans into the wastebasket, then carried the wastebasket to the end of the hall, dumped it. Though she wasn’t sure why she bothered. Neither of the occupants of this dorm room was ever coming back.

What Julie couldn’t understand—and what kept the grief frozen, at least temporarily—was the mystery of Bobby being on that plane. He shouldn’t have been anywhere near a plane. She assumed he’d been home, working part-time with his dad to make up the tuition difference. He wasn’t off building houses for the poor. Hell, Bobby
was
one of the poor, basically putting himself through an expensive Ivy.

Why was he on that plane?

Maybe there was a clue somewhere on Bobby’s desk. Shoved into the corner, near the window, it was a gentle mess, covered in papers, notebooks, paperback editions of novels. He was an English lit major, and this semester he had taken a course on war literature—which, as he put it, was “all about being fundamentally depressed down to my soul twice a week.” Secretly, though, he loved it. On top of the stack was a book Bobby had written a final paper on—Tim O’Brien’s
The Things They Carried.
Julie wasn’t much of a reader. Bobby all but forced her to read his favorite story from the collection: “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” about a guy in the Vietnam War who somehow manages to import his girlfriend over to the war zone. And once she arrives, she goes native—strapping on a gun, smearing camouflage paint over her pretty skin, and stalking the humid jungle for enemy soldiers.

“You’d do that for me, wouldn’t you?” Bobby had asked.

“Pass the ammunition, stud,” Julie had replied.

Bobby faux-squealed—his goofy Prince imitation, which was a hit at parties. It was this absurd chickenlike squawk that started in an upper register, then briefly dipped down a few notes before ascending to the heavens again. It sounded nothing like Prince, but an accurate imitation wasn’t the point. Julie had once admitted to being a Prince fan in her preteen days, and Bobby teased her mercilessly about it. Then would come the cheesy hand signals, straight from
Purple Rain:

I

Would

Die

4

U

And with that last letter, he pointed right at her. And every time, she’d giggle, despite herself, and call him a dick. But he was just a big goofball, her boy Bobby.

But now, sitting in the empty dorm room…

There were no plane tickets or date book or anything that would give Julie a clue about where Bobby might have gone. No notes, no receipts. After a while she sat down on his bed. Pressed his pillow to her face. She could still smell him. She started to cry.

U would, wouldn’t U?

She wished she could take back so much of what she said at that party…

 

As it turned out, nobody on campus knew that those twenty students—along with two grad students and two professors—had been off building houses for the poor. Those involved had kept it a secret from everyone, including their families. Like Bobby, they had given their relatives and friends some kind of cover story to explain their absences. An impromptu vacation. A job opportunity. A work-study program on campus. A road trip.

All of it: bullshit.

The university president explained it away as a “secret mission of kindness—these students and faculty did not want to broadcast their good deeds, merely complete them.”

Yeah,
Julie thought.
Right.

“Secret mission of kindness.”

Did nobody else realize that this whole thing made no sense whatsoever?

At the funeral, the casket was closed. Made sense to everybody. After all, Bobby had been inside a speeding tube of metal that had been hurled toward the earth at ridiculous speeds. Nobody wanted to see what kind of damage that would do to a human body.

Nobody except Julie.

As she sat there in a black dress—the same one she wore to a sorority social, Bobby at her side, just a few weeks ago, and until yesterday a Polaroid snapshot capturing that moment had been wedged in the corner of her mirror—Julie couldn’t stop staring at the coffin. She had no proof, no evidence of any kind. But she knew that coffin was empty. She could
feel it.

Gathering proof became Julie’s focus that semester. She stopped attending classes and photocopied newspaper articles about the crash—every piece she could find, no matter where the story may have appeared. The university library had a thriving periodicals section; Julie practically lived there for a week. After that, she traveled to the crash site, which didn’t feel right, either. Had Bobby been here, ever? Had he been in the middle of that pile of burning, wrecked metal? Julie didn’t think so. Again, she had no proof other than the unease in her stomach.

When she traveled to the site of the houses that Bobby had allegedly helped build, near Houston, Julie became convinced that someone was following her.

Everything at the housing site checked out; the project manager even gave her a tour of the home that the Leland University students and professors (“God rest their souls, all of them”) had helped construct. Guy named Chuck Weddle was the manager, and he claimed to remember Bobby. Weddle even showed her the backyard patio that Bobby had worked on. “He mixed cement like a pro,” Weddle said. Julie did everything in her power to nod politely and not break into anguished scream.

Bullshit, BULLSHIT,
BULLSHIT!

A man in a black sedan followed her all the way back to the hotel room, and then to the airport.

The university cut her loose in early March. Her parents claimed not to understand, but then again, they didn’t ask too many questions, either. They continued to pay her rent and send her living-expense money.

Julie continued investigating.

  

Spring break—of course Taylor would come out and visit her in beautiful California.

Taylor Williams was the high-school ex, and Julie was sure that visions of their time together on that mattress in the high-rise were dancing through his head. She insisted that he bring a friend. She didn’t exactly specify
why,
but from the excited “yeah” she heard over the phone, she assumed Taylor had put things together. Either Julie had a friend who was looking to hook up, or Julie wanted to try a little ménage action.

Neither was the case. She thought it would be easier with three shovels instead of two.

Taylor arrived with his pal Drew Nardo, a case of Miller Genuine Draft, a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, and a gleam in his eye. Julie didn’t exactly rush them, but before Taylor and Drew knew it they were all driving out to Stockton to do her a little “favor.” Predictably, the boys freaked a little when they heard what Julie had in mind. I mean, seriously—a graveyard? But Julie was convincing. She told them that she’d given Bobby her father’s college ring (a lie), something she didn’t have permission to do, and unknowingly, his family had buried him with it (another lie). And now her father was asking about his missing ring, and Julie couldn’t bring herself to tell him the truth (the third lie). The boys seemed to buy it. Julie also implied a wild night if they’d just help her with this one little thing, even though it was a little creepy…

The dirt was cold and hard-packed. In the two months since the burial, the earth had frozen and refrozen, thanks to some freak cold blasts in this part of California. The boys worked hard, though, fortifying themselves with swallows of Jack as they went along.

“Do they really bury coffins down six feet?” Taylor asked. “I mean, did you do your homework on this one? Because we’ve been out here all night.”

“I did,” Julie said quietly. She’d been graveside during the funeral. She saw exactly how deep the hole went down. It took a tremendous amount of self-control to resist running toward the casket and prying it open and looking, just to confirm to herself that she wasn’t losing her mind, that Bobby was just missing, not dead…

And that was the point this evening: to unearth the coffin and see if Bobby’s remains were indeed inside.

 

They’d only made it three feet down when bright lights flashed in the distance. A truck engine revved.

“What—what the hell’s that?” Taylor asked, wiping the edge of his wrist across his forehead.

BOOK: Hell and Gone
11.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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