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Authors: A. M. Jenkins

Night Road (13 page)

BOOK: Night Road
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GORDO
seemed a little subdued after his sidewalk-feeding adventure and its aftermath.

But Cole also noticed that he didn’t get rid of his red shirt.

The nights took on a definite rhythm: The three would get up, leave the hotel, then go immediately for a feed. After that the evening was free, and sometimes now they even stayed at a club for a while before driving on to the next town.

Cole finally felt secure enough in Gordo’s ability to
not
attract attention that he had okayed spending two days in the same hotel in Pittsburgh. Now Sandor wanted to feed in Castile, a medium-sized town off the highway, and so they headed into Ohio. Cole had been this way many times before and didn’t think anything
about it till he saw a sign loom up in the dark:

OLYMPIA MALL
NEXT EXIT

It must be a new mall. He didn’t remember seeing it the last time he’d been through here—which would have been what, a dozen years ago? Longer? He would have remembered it with a name like that.

Olympia, Ohio. The settlement of his boyhood was long gone, eaten up by growing towns; but the name remained.

“The college is coming up,” Sandor reminded him. Sandor had urged them to wait to feed in Castile because, he said, wasn’t Gordo ready to hold off a bit? And besides, it was a Saturday night and this was a party school, one of Sandor’s favorites.

Cole held the wheel steady, but most of his attention was now on his surroundings. There was nothing recognizable in the asphalt and concrete rivers that made up the freeway and its ramps. Now he saw the mall itself off on the right; from here it seemed to be mostly parking lot, with skinny lampposts that looked like forlorn twigs bearing luminescent berries. The mall was still open; he could tell because there were plenty of cars sprinkled under the lights.

“Take the next exit,” Sandor said. “Turn right, and you will come to the campus.”

Cole obeyed. He eyed the mall as they circled the edge of it; he was looking for a creek that used to run somewhere along here. Why shouldn’t he? This area used to be his home. And it had been so long since he’d even thought about it—of course he’d have a natural, impersonal curiosity.

There was no sign of the creek. He saw a drainage ditch, lined in concrete, but no creek. Along the road, domesticated little wisps of oak and elm were carefully arranged on the manicured lawns of restaurants and office buildings.

Perhaps, he thought, these trees were the great-great grandchildren of the wild forest that used to be here. Back then, he remembered, the trunks were so big that three or four people holding hands could not get their arms around one. So old and tough that an ax dulled after only a few blows.

The campus was only a few minutes away. “Turn here, turn here!” Sandor said, and Cole pulled the car onto a tree-lined avenue of large houses, each one bearing Greek letters over the door.

They heard the music first, a thumping, blaring haze of noise. Then they saw the barricades ahead, blocking off a side street. As Cole drove past slowly, they could see a mass of people milling around behind the barriers.

“Perfect, a street dance,” Sandor said, delighted. “Looks like there’s a theme: the forties maybe? Do I look all right?” he turned to ask Gordo, who was in his now-accustomed spot in the backseat.

“Um, yeah. You look fine.”

“Great! Cole, if you keep going straight, there’s sure to be a space somewhere down there.”

“Is it okay if I drop you two off?” Cole asked.

“You’re not going to come?” That was Gordo.

“I’d rather go off on my own just for a bit.”

Sandor had been looking eagerly out the window, but now he turned to give Cole a sharp look. “You’ve forgotten how to jitterbug, haven’t you?”

“Of course I remember how to jitterbug. I don’t
want
to right now, that’s all.”

“Very well then, do as you wish. We will have a good time while you do your romance-novel-cover brooding. Let us out at that corner there.”

Cole stopped the car. Gordo started to get out, but hesitated. “Where will you go?” he asked Cole.

“I saw a mall as we were coming in. I think I’ll try that.”

Sandor opened his door. “Hmf. Malls, is it? Aren’t they a little more difficult than street dances?”

“They’re different.”

“All right. We’ll meet you back at this corner then in a couple of hours?”

“Sure.”

“Come on, Gordo,” Sandor said, sliding out of the car. “Put on your dancing shoes! Metaphorically speaking, of course.”

“Sandor,” Cole called. “Keep a close eye on Gordo.”

Sandor turned back, bending over so he could look Cole in the eye. “Don’t worry. He will feed before I do. I promise to keep him safe.” Straightening, he continued, “If you want, Gordo, I will show you some dance steps that will make any girl swoo—”

The car door slammed shut, and they were gone.

Alone, Cole headed back to the mall.

Inside, he walked slowly past the bright storefronts. He briefly thought of his camera, locked away in the
trunk of his car—but only briefly. He had always worked strictly in black and white anyway, and the canned lights that angled over the displays lacked contrast and emotion.

Hard to believe that there used to be a forest here. It had been like walking underwater, among those trees. Quiet, because the age-sodden layers of leaves underfoot muffled all noise. Still, because the wind couldn’t reach through the thick canopy overhead.

And dark. Every once in a while a shaft of light would stretch out a finger, as if blindly trying to touch him. But it couldn’t find him, couldn’t see him, for the trees.

He paused. There was a girl working in the window of a bed-and-bath store; she was arranging bottles of lotion or shampoo in a basket. There was a name tag pinned to her blouse, but he did not look to see what it said. When she saw him watching her through the window, she smiled, and he smiled back, as if he had nothing better to do than watch a salesgirl rearrange stock.

Then his vision shifted and he saw the glass between them, with his own shining reflection layered over her. Parts of his body seemed blurred and half dissolved into the background, but his eyes gleamed like marbles.

He turned and walked away.

The floor was featureless tile under his feet. When he was a child, he couldn’t walk more than a few yards in any direction without being turned aside by a looming tree; any path he chose was forced to wind and twist, and he was never sure which direction he was going. None of the children strayed far from the paths in those early, early days.

In the food court, he got in line at the corn dog kiosk to buy a soft drink. He stared at the back of the man in front of him for a while before it occurred to him that he’d better focus on his purpose. He’d indulged himself a little, and it hadn’t done any harm; but now it was time to attend to business.

He pulled his necklace out and let it dangle in plain sight.

“Can I help you?” the girl behind the counter asked when it was his turn. She had on a sort of baseball cap, but it was pink, and the bill stuck out about a foot from her head.

“Just a Coke,” he told her.

“Two nineteen,” said the girl, pushing a drink toward him.

“Thanks,” he said, smiling at her without even thinking about it as he pulled out his wallet. She couldn’t help but smile back, of course.

He paid, and she gave him his change. “Straw?” he asked.

“Oh. Gosh. Sorry.” Flustered, she handed him one.

When he turned around he saw two teenage girls sitting at a table, watching him sideways, one from under dark lashes, the other openly; and when he let his smile loose again, the latter one giggled.

The dark-lashed one was prettier. But the giggling one would be easier. Tonight, he decided, he would take the easier one.

Sure enough, twenty minutes later he was seated next to the giggler, whose name turned out to be Emily. Her dark-lashed friend was buying a pretzel, and when she turned her back, Emily cast a quick glance at him.

“I like your necklace,” she said, still smiling. “Are those nails?”

He hesitated, pretending he’d forgotten. “Oh. Yeah,” he said, looking down to lift the cross from its place below the hollow of his throat. “It was a gift.”

“Well, I like it.”

“Thanks. Want me to tell you something about it?”

“Sure.”

“It’s a secret.”

“O-kay.” She laughed again, but was still leaning toward him, interested, so, still holding the cross, he drew close to whisper in her ear.

“This won’t hurt,” he told her softly, his mouth just below her ear; and then he pressed the end of the longest nail into her neck. She gave a little gasp, but his lips were already on the puncture, and now she was still, floating in that numb, glassy-eyed state.

He didn’t drink his fill, of course. He fastened his mouth to her skin and swallowing the pulsing trickle, not even enough to slow her heart the tiniest bit before he released her and sat back, the wound sealing as soon as air touched it.

“…and that’s where I got it,” he said, as if finishing his story.

Her eyes focused. “I’m sorry,” she said, confused, “I think I…zoned out for a sec.”

“That’s okay. It wasn’t a very exciting story.” He liked the ones that did that; sometimes they tried to fake it and pretend they had heard everything he’d
said. He preferred the honest ones.

The dark-lashed girl came back over with her pretzel, and the three of them spent the next thirty minutes walking around the mall, talking, while he took note of the girls’ facial expressions, their gestures, the slang they used. He noticed it all and stored it carefully away; he might need it sometime.

In the end, Emily gave him her phone number and he said he’d call. He’d said it so often, it wasn’t a lie anymore, just a meaningless pleasantry.

He went by a skater shop and bought a shirt without trying it on. Then he stopped by the bookstore. He didn’t buy anything until he was on the way out and saw the sale table: 75 percent off.

Teach Yourself Manners.

The History of Weaving.

Over 10,000 Names and Their Meanings.

Curious, he picked up the last one.

The book had a cartoon stork on the cover. It was meant to help parents choose the names of their babies. He had seen books like these often, in passing, but had never really looked at one.

He bought the book—$3.87, with tax—before he left the mall.

 

Sandor wanted to spend a second night near the college, so they drove to a hotel not far from the sorority and fraternity houses. While they were in the car, Sandor took up the name book with great glee.

“‘Sandor,’” he read, “‘a variant form of Alexander.’ Shall we take bets on what ‘Alexander’ means?” he asked Gordo over his shoulder, as he flipped through to the front of the book. “I’ll bet you one dollar it means…‘great and noble man of stature.’ What do you think?” Without waiting for an answer, he began reading again. “‘Defender of men.’ Oh, that’s even better.” He sounded delighted. “Defender of men. That’s me, all right.”

“Look up my name,” Gordo said from the backseat.

“Hmm.” Sandor found the page, ran one finger down it. Then he started laughing.

“What?” Gordo sat up, trying to see over the seat.

“‘Gordon,’” Sandor read. “‘From the Old English
gor
and
denn,
meaning “a dunghill.”’ Oh, that’s priceless.”

“Let me see that.” Gordo’s hand came over the seat, reaching.

“No, no.” Sandor held the book away. “Let me read the rest of it. It says, “may also be a form of…of…” Can you turn the light on for a moment, Cole?”

“No.”

“…‘Gordius, meaning “bold.”’ Oh, I like that,” Sandor said. “Much better than ‘dunghill.’ ‘Bold’ is definitely the correct meaning of your name. Here, take a look.”

He handed the book to Gordo, who started thumbing through it.

“‘Cole,’” Gordo announced after a moment, “from the Old English, meaning “black” or “dark.”’ Huh. I’m not sure that fits.”

“Of course it does. Look at his hair, and his eyes,” Sandor put in before Cole could say anything.

“I thought his eyes were sort of brown.”

“When they’re that dark of a brown, they can be called black. Now see, Cole, we want that Luxury Inn up there,” Sandor said, pointing. “They have extra pillows in the closets. I like a place that provides extra pillows.”

“I like thick towels,” Gordo said.

“Yes, and an air conditioner that works. And of course Cole must have a pool.”

“Only in summer,” Cole pointed out. He headed toward the place Sandor had indicated. It didn’t make any difference, he supposed, whether or not Gordo
knew what most everybody else did: that Cole wasn’t his original name.

 

In his room alone, Cole picked up the name book and opened it, flipping through.

Ezekiel.
God will strengthen.

His parents wouldn’t have known what it meant. They’d been illiterate.

He’d used that name for a long time, and sometimes Zeke. When those became so unusual as to stand out, he’d started using his mother’s maiden name, Cole. It was perfect—a little name, Cole, harmless and light. It truly belonged to him too—that was important; he had never cared for the idea of plucking a name for himself out of the ether.

Now he wondered for the first time how his mother and father had come up with the name Ezekiel, and what it had meant to them. Had he been named after the Bible prophet? Or a long-gone relative? Or perhaps they had just liked the sound of it.

He flipped a few pages, looking for other names he knew.

Johnny.
Pet form of John
.

John.
From the Hebrew, meaning “God is merciful.” Also: Jon, Johannes, Joannes, Jochanan, Johanan, Yochanan, Johon, Jehan, Jan,
and so on for a thick paragraph:
Jean, Ivan, Hans, Janne, Giovanni, Jock, Juan, Sean, Shawn, Ian, Jenkin, Jovan, Jack.

Johnny had probably used most of those names; he’d spent so many years in so many places that he wasn’t really from anywhere anymore so much as he was from
everywhere
.

BOOK: Night Road
5.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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