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Authors: Greg F. Gifune

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BOOK: Midnight Solitaire
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Of course watching other people’s children frolic is a poor substitute, but it affords him the chance to live vicariously through the parents, those who gather in small clusters at the fringes of parks and playgrounds, most showing less interest in the play of their own children than he does. They have no idea how lucky they are. That’s the worst part of being without children, he thinks. Never having the chance to live those little moments, those mundane everyday situations and conversations and experiences so many take for granted. They’re so fortunate, these parents, but so few seem to realize it. He can’t very well blame them, though. He certainly didn’t have much better. In fact, he had far worse. He’s only learned to cherish his life now that he’s lost it and will never again have the chance to make it what he’s always dreamed it could be.

Luke may as well have been born with a gun in his hand and a prison number stenciled across his chest. Just like the old man and his old man before him, one more criminal in a line of many. Bad company, his father used to call it. That’s what we are, boy, bad company. And that’s all we’ll ever be.

Just like the beatings he’d endured as a kid, the fallout from his old man’s words continues to linger, sticking to him like a second skin. He had his chance with Rachel, and he blew it.

He sits in the rain and remembers the last day he saw her. More than a week of driving and wandering, trying to figure out what to do and where to go next, he stops only when the driving becomes too much and he can no longer put off sleep. Then it’s off the highway, into one of these little towns, hit a convenience store or something easy, grab some fast cash then back on the road before anyone knows what’s happened. Find another roadside motel and spend the night with a bottle, maybe a local working girl if he gets lucky or the score’s enough to cover it. Then right back out on the road to…what? Does it even matter anymore? Has it ever?

His memory is nothing special, but for some reason whenever he pulls a job he remembers everything in vivid detail. It’s always been this way, all his life. The jobs replay in his head for days, sometimes weeks, crystal clear like he’s watching a movie. On this dark and dreary late afternoon, he remembers the last job, a liquor store he knocked over the night before. The cashier, a twenty-something woman wearing a bandana, gobs of eye makeup, big silver hoop earrings, too-tight jeans and a sweatshirt with a depiction of a kitten holding a shotgun beneath the caption: A Little Pussy Never Hurt Anyone, freaks out the moment he walks through the door. Like people sometimes do when a man like Luke Thompson pulls a ski mask down over his face, raids their space and points a gun at them, she immediately begins pleading with him and reeling off her life’s story. For example, within thirty seconds or so, Luke knows the woman has two children, that her boyfriend lost his job and is struggling with a drinking problem, and that she’s holding down two jobs and going to college online on her nights off and doesn’t need this shit in her life and just take the money or whatever you want because I seriously—seriously—do not give a fuck, just please don’t hurt me.

Luke thrusts a small canvas bag at her, and in his fiercest voice orders her to fill it with the money from the register fast as she can or he’ll blow her head off. You ever want to see your kids again you better hurry the fuck up.

He remembers her stuffing the bag with cash, her heavy breasts shifting beneath the sweatshirt, the kitten with the shotgun rippling and dancing as her eye makeup runs, diluted by tears, across her cheeks in black swathes. He also remembers the guilt. He despises robbing women.

Wrong place, wrong time. Nothing personal.

Once the bag is full, he takes a quick peek over his shoulder at the parking lot. Satisfied it’s empty, he waves the gun at the camera over the counter and demands the surveillance tape. Trembling, the woman ejects the cassette from the recorder under the counter and hands it over.

Stop crying. He stuffs the tape in the bag, quickly counts out a hundred in twenties from the stash she’s just given him then tosses them on the counter. Put that in your purse. Buy your kids something. Nobody’s gonna know.

Are you serious?

As he leaves, fear becomes confusion, and then amusement.

Memories of the woman scooping up the money morphs into visions of Rachel standing at the foot of the bed glaring at him. Their apartment, rundown and in need of a good cleaning, and Rachel dressed for work, doing her best, trying to hold a secretarial job while Luke did what he does, works the angles, tries to secure a decent score, always so close to that big one that will change their lives and make everything all right. A weary knight in armor tarnished and dented, chasing dragons that don’t exist, a holy grail destined to remain cloaked in the fog of dreams just beyond the grasp of anything real, his is a doomed crusade. And he knows it. Deep down he always has.

But now Rachel knows it too, and she has lost her faith. It’s gone, and taken with it any chance Luke has at redemption.

You had a chance at a straight life and you couldn’t do it.

He watches the puddles at his feet, sees his reflection in them staring back at him with dead, empty eyes.

You couldn’t hold a regular job. I work my ass off and we have nothing.

Rachel, I—

It’s over. I’m done. I mean it. I’m too old for this.

I can fix it, just give me a chance to make it right and I will.

You’ve had five years to make it right. You’re thirty-years-old and you’re still running around like some punk. You’ll be back in prison in no time. And I can’t do it again. I can’t—I won’t—wait for you again. I’m done. I love you, but I’m done.

He closes his eyes. She holds her arm up so he can see her bare wrist.

Where’s my watch? You pawned it, didn’t you? You gambled it away, right? You gave me that for our anniversary. What’s it worth? Fifty bucks? It meant more to me than that. I thought it meant more to you too. And you want me to get pregnant. You expect me to bring a child into this mess?

Let me explain, I—

I’ve been listening to your explanations for years. No more.

Rachel, I love you, baby, don’t—

You don’t love me. You don’t love anybody. You don’t know how.

Her face lingers there behind his eyes. Broken.

When I get home from work I’m leaving. I mean it this time.

Until the moment came when she walked out with a suitcase in hand, he didn’t believe she’d really go through with it.

Now, in the rain, far from home, he knows there is no going back, no more chances. His life—Rachel—is gone. None of it’s coming back. He started off in New York and has gotten as far as Western Massachusetts. Maybe he’ll swing up into New Hampshire then Maine, maybe even slip into Canada.

Doesn’t matter. The last leg has arrived, and he knows this. It’s not about whether or not he’ll go out, it’s down to how. As a child, Luke was in and out of juvenile detention centers. As an adult he’s done numerous stretches in county jails and two stretches in state prisons, one of three years, the other sixteen months. But he has not been incarcerated in more than three years now. Still, Rachel is right. It’s only a matter of time. Before, when he still had something to go home to—and a home at all for that matter—there was always the hope that once he did his time and got back into Rachel’s arms everything would be all right, he could straighten things out and finally do the right thing. But there was no point now. It was over. Only this time, he had no intention of going back to prison. Luke Thompson would never be locked up in anything again, other than the coffin they buried him in.

Go out swinging, his old man used to say. Never lie down for nobody. Go out fighting with everything you got.

But he is not his father. He may not be much better, but he refuses to be that bad. Luke is violent if he has to be. His father was violent because he enjoyed it, as any sadist does. Luke is a thief, no more, no less.

Still, maybe the old man was right. Even if he wasn’t, Luke knows he will follow that last bit of advice. Either he will find his way and by some miracle get a life worth living back, or he will die fighting and kicking his way out of this world like his father before him. Regardless, this ghost he’s become, this phantom aimlessly traveling back roads and highways, is not long for this world.

That Luke Thompson is going to die. One way or the other.

He takes another swallow of coffee then tosses the cup aside, watching as the remains spill and trickle into the dirty puddles at his feet.

The rain falls in diagonal sheets, pummeling and crashing down on him with a vengeance. It consumes him, distorts his presence to a mere silhouette in the intensifying storm.

He remains frozen, helpless.

As if he no longer exists. As if he never really has.

 

 

SIX

The Moonlight Road Motor Inn, a relic left over from before the interstate was built, sits in partial light, set back a ways from the two-lane highway in the middle of a cracked patch of pavement, its sign—a yellow half-moon with a human face winking out at the road—buzzes and blinks in the heavy downpour. The main office is all angles, glass and pitched roof, and looks like something built in the 1950s, which it was. The units, thirty in all, are housed in one long, narrow, single-story rectangle of a building set on a large dirt lot perhaps thirty yards to the right of the office. Were one to drive by while the sign was off, one might mistake The Moonlight Road Motor Inn long closed and abandoned, as the upkeep has been less than meticulous in recent years. It is a dying building on a rural highway in a part of Massachusetts that is largely farmland and open, unoccupied space.

The last stop in the middle of nowhere, Kit Piper thinks. Perfect.

Slumped in the front seat of her dilapidated 1990 Honda Civic while smoking the last of a blunt, she focuses on a golf-ball-size crystal at the end of a cheap chain dangling from the rearview mirror. A trinket she picked up at a New Age kiosk in Springfield a few months before, until recently it held no real meaning to her, Kit just thinks it’s pretty and likes the way it catches the moonlight, particularly when she’s stoned.

A news report drones from the tinny car speakers, an announcer going on and on about the rainstorms marching through the area and how they’re being followed by a major band of snow and ice that will arrive later this evening. Probably the last snow of the season, she thinks. Winter never goes out easy.

Kit finishes the blunt, tosses the roach in the ashtray and quickly flips through her manuscript pages. Hopefully somewhere in this mess there’s a novel, but who knows? She’s been working on it for more than a year and she still has no idea what the hell it’s about. She skims the last chapter, hates everything she reads and jams the manuscript along with her laptop into a worn knapsack. Maybe later tonight, once Carlin Pelham (the man she relives each night) has gone home and it’s quiet, she can get some work done on it. She removes her black, plastic frame glasses and rubs her eyes. She’s had some shit jobs in her twenty-six years, and while working the night desk at this dump sucks, it’s not as bad as waiting tables or struggling through some office gig. At least here she’s primarily by herself and has time to write. The money’s horrible, just a touch over minimum wage, but her expenses aren’t too bad now that she’s living at home again. After a stint in New York City, she realized being on her own wasn’t going to be as easy as she’d imagined, and after running into trouble, she moved back home with her mother. There is a great deal of love between them, but theirs has always been a somewhat contentious relationship. She hopes it’s only temporary, and that soon she’ll have enough money saved and get enough writing done so she can pack up and give the Big Apple another try.

Writing is such a long-shot, her mother constantly warns. You’ve always been a daydreamer, but why not pursue something more solid and less creative?

A few more months, she thinks, replacing her eyeglasses, and none of this will matter. One way or another, I’ll be free.

With a sigh, Kit looks out the window at the rain pounding the highway and turning the dirt lot to a muddy mess. But for her Honda, Carlin’s Chevy van and two cars parked in front of the units, both lots are empty. The large glass panels along the front of the office are blurred by the storm, but the light within reveals Carlin’s distorted figure sitting behind the front desk, fiddling with his laptop.

According to Kit’s watch, the start of her shift is still ten minutes away, but Carlin probably wants to get home before the snow starts and things get really bad. While he doesn’t deserve her generosity, she decides to offer it anyway. She figures she owes him since he has no idea she’ll be using him in her novel at some point. Can’t pass up a character that good. Kit pops a mint, grabs her knapsack, pulls her ratty old Army jacket in tight around her and makes a mad dash for the office. The rain batters her, cold and relentless, her Doc Martens boots splashing puddles as she goes.

A moment later she stumbles through the front door, closes it behind her then leans back against it. Dripping and out of breath, Kit pulls her hat off, tucks it in the knapsack and waits for Carlin to acknowledge her with his usual, wildly inappropriate banter.

He glances up over the top of his laptop. “Breathing heavy and soaking wet, just the way I like you. What’s up Nipples?”

“Really? You’re just going to keep right on calling me that, huh?”

BOOK: Midnight Solitaire
5.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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