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Authors: Marc Laidlaw

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BOOK: The Orchid Eater
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He lay a
long time listening to the thudding of disco before he realized that it wasn’t
music at all, and it wasn’t coming from next door.

It was his
heartbeat.

The dust
finally settled and the moon reappeared. He found that he had landed beneath a
ledge in the dry creek. Crawling out slowly, he looked up to find that the
cliff had crumbled, collapsed, fallen in on itself. All the other boys were
coming out to look as well, but he supposed he was the only one of them who saw
the moon wall lying in ruins.

 

25

 

Food in the Bohemia Bay jail was the same stuff eaten by waterlogged, sunburned and dehydrated tourists who
straggled up off Central Beach to the Plankwalk Cafe. Instead of the true
nourishment they so desperately needed, the beachgoers received a variety of
burned, fried, stale and soggy meats and starches. Hawk was relieved to
discover that at least the cafe did not noticeably worsen the food it prepared
for prisoners, probably because Gus, the ex-con “chef,” felt compassion for
those inmates who would eventually open the lukewarm cardboard boxes featuring
the Plankwalk’s tantalizing emblem: skull and crossbones on a flapping black
buccaneer’s flag.

Last night
he had been too tense to eat the hamburger and fries provided. But this
morning, waking after a remarkably deep sleep, he felt a fresh optimism that
enabled him to wolf down the congealed home fries, cold scrambled eggs and
almost half of a warm, mealy apple. He could bring no enthusiasm to the
slightly brown coffee, which looked and tasted like hot water from a rusty
pipe. But he said his prayers all the same. He suspected he had plenty to be
thankful for.

Late in the
night, as he lay tossing on a wire cot that left honeycomb patterns on his
skin, he had heard a
boom
echoing through the hills and canyons of the Greenbelt. This was
followed by a frenzy of cops in corridors, shouting and yelling, doors
slamming, sirens going full blast as what sounded like every available patrol
car raced out of the lot.

After the
sirens faded, his nervousness increased in proportion to the silence. He had a
fair idea of what must have caused the sound, and he couldn’t help imagining
all the possible outcomes. Worst of them, somehow, was the picture of the James
house in ruins, bodies strewn everywhere—his boys among them.

Later, the
cops began wandering back, loudly disappointed, sourly informing their
station-bound peers as to the outcome of the call. In the cement-walled jail,
their echoing conversations were easy to follow.

According to
their speculations, the explosion had been caused by a stash of old, unstable
explosives in a cave. The site was deep in the Greenbelt, away from all
possible harm to Bohemians. It had shattered a hillside, woken some residents,
but nothing else. There were no witnesses.

Hawk relaxed
then. His words must have gotten through to Randy. Otherwise a body or two
would surely have been found.

Yesterday
afternoon the police had descended on Hawk’s trailer, interrupting him in the
middle of trying to convince Maggie to give him one more chance. He hung up the
phone and went peacefully.

During the
interrogation, they let slip the whereabouts of his missing chrome crucifix,
and Hawk realized that Lupe had set him up. He must have followed Hawk and
Dusty on the fire road; skulking, he had listened to their plans, then run
ahead to prepare a distraction that would give him the best shot at Mike James.
Hawk knew better than Lupe that as soon as his boys heard about the arrest,
there would be not even the pretense of a vigil. Lupe would get his chance, all
right, and Hawk’s vow to help Mike would come to nothing. That troubled him
more than his own arrest and the charge of murder—which was far from being
proven, after all. Even the cops could not believe he would have left such an
obvious marker, and sensed that it had to be a frame-up.

“I could
understand why you’d do it and all,” one of them had said. “Fuckin’ faggots—I
can’t stand seein’ it either.”

“I
didn’t
do it.”

“So you
said. Then who hates you and Sal both so much he’d try to take the two of you
down in one move?”

He was not
about to mention Lupe. He still clung to the notion that he might somehow catch
the killer himself, though how he was going to manage that in his present position
was a problem he couldn’t quite figure out.

When it was
time for his phone call, instead of seeking a lawyer, he called Sal’s house.

Randy
answered. Hawk knew he didn’t have much time before Randy would simply hang up,
so he tried to talk as fast as he could, describing his thwarted plan while
Randy hung on in what might have been shock or disbelief.

“You’ve got
to believe me, Randy,” Hawk said at last. “I had nothing against Sal. Nothing.
I want the same thing you do—to get the guy who killed him. You’ve got nothing
to lose by watching this James kid’s house. I mean, look, if I’m the murderer,
they’ll nail me for it. I’m already in jail. But if I’m not the one, then
Lupe’s still out there. And only you can stop him now.”

“I have to
go,” Randy said. His voice was thick from crying. Hawk wondered how much—if any
of it—had gotten through.

“Will you do
it?”

“I’m going
now.”

Maybe he’d
done it, Hawk thought. Maybe it was going to be okay.

The cops had
also informed him (playing along hypothetically with his insistence that he
didn’t know the details) that Sal had been murdered sometime between ten and
eleven o’clock that morning. Hawk had been alone then, asleep, with no
particular alibi since neither Maggie nor Stoner was around anymore to vouch
for him. Even if Randy succeeded, it would be tricky to defend himself,
especially once Stoner turned up. He had stayed vague about his activities,
waiting to see what they already knew for certain, but eventually he was going
to have to account for his time. It would be best if Lupe turned up with a
confession. But Hawk had the feeling that Lupe was buried under a load of rock.

If not, then
things were about to get much worse all around.

He couldn’t
convince himself to worry. He swilled down the last of the coffee and settled
back to wait.

He was torn,
in the moment of relative inner peace, between working on a sermon about the
dark night of the soul, or rallying his defense. He decided that a sermon would
be premature; things could still bottom out. As for his defense, he had some
things in his favor. Not many, but some: Dusty had been working on his jeep,
despite all Hawk’s threats and pleadings, and the vehicle was completely kaput.
Unfortunately, there was a working motorcycle on the lot, Stoner’s old Harley.
Everyone who knew Hawk knew he didn’t ride anymore—but that wouldn’t
necessarily persuade a jury faced with an ex-con biker accused of murder. He
knew
how
to ride, and there was a working bike at his disposal. So . . .
the transportation defense left something to be desired. If he’d only broken
down and taken the fucking bike to go see Maggie—as he had been sorely tempted
to do that morning—he’d be safe now. He’d have an alibi.

Give up on
it, he told himself at last. You won’t find salvation in logic or arguments or
even evidence. And if you have to take the fall for this one—well, hell. What’s
a martyr for?

It was then
he heard footsteps, and with them, startling him, Maggie’s voice.

The cop who
had sympathized with “his” murder of Sal brought her to the cell, winked and
walked away.

Hawk went
quickly to the bars. He wanted to kiss her, but she wasn’t close enough. She
watched him with a wry, amused expression. He decided not to appear overeager.

“How’d you
get here?” he asked.

 “Dusty and
me came over. He had to call a cab, if you
can
believe that.”

“The final
indignity.” Hawk grinned, though it felt out of place. Nothing was certain yet.
He shouldn’t be so happy.

“Someone
named Randy called him. Dusty said to tell you it was all taken care of.”

“Some of it,
maybe.”

“We’re
getting your bail together.”

Hawk nodded.
His hands were on the bars. She stepped forward and wrapped her fingers around
his knuckles.

“Hawk,” she
said, “I’m so proud of you.”

He looked
around in amazement. Where they in the same room together? “Proud?”

“You kept
out of it for once. I know how hard that must have been for you, and I
appreciate it.”

“Hard?” he
said. “It wasn’t hard or easy. I was locked up!”

“If that’s
what it takes.” She grinned. “This could be a turning point for you. For us, I
mean.”

He smiled,
shrugged. “Well . . . maybe you’re right.”

“I want you
to know,” and here she lowered her voice, “I’ve got your alibi all ready.”

“What?”

“That
little, you know, fight we had yesterday, on the phone?”

“Yeah?”

“You just
tell me when we had that conversation, how long it went on. Jog my memory.”

He started
to chastise her for lying, but he realized it was the only way she knew how to
help. It was a genuine offer. She wanted to save him, so she would take his
blame. She’d share the risk. How could he turn her down?

He said, “We
fought all morning, didn’t we?”

“Yeah. It
was bad, wasn’t it?”

“Between,
say, nine and noon, on and off all day till the cops broke us up.”

“Ever since
you got out of bed, and you could hardly sleep all night for thinking of me,
you poor thing.”

“No, I
couldn’t.”

“It was bad,
honey, wasn’t it?”

“That it
was,” he agreed. “But we were right on the verge of patching it up when the
cops broke us off.”

“That’s
right, and it’s all fixed up now,” she said. “We’re way past that verge, aren’t
we? Everything’s straight between us?”

“If you say
so,” he said.

“As long as
you don’t keep thinking you’re some kind of Peter Pan, you and your boys.”

Peter Pan?
he thought. It was not a suitably serious or Biblical image. It shocked him into
wondering how he really appeared to others.

“No,” he
said.

“’Cause I’ll
tell you something, honey. I ain’t no Wendy. I’m not that fond of boys. And
this sure as hell ain’t Never-Never Land.”

‘No,” Hawk
agreed. “That it ain’t. Isn’t. I mean,
ain’t.

 

26

 

Autumn rode
the wind in from the sea. The sky was thick with gray this evening, allowing no
rainbow sherbet sunset, no ultraviolet bars of cloud, no color at all,
anywhere. The summer was dying without a struggle. The ice cream parlors and
souvenir shops, the seascape galleries, toy stores and seashell boutiques
looked depressed and withdrawn, reacting badly to the seasonal death of crowds.
Many had closed early tonight, and looked as though they were shut down for the
year.

Mike walked
in the early chill, cocooned in coldness. He felt as if he might never emerge
from his thoughts; he had to keep reminding himself of where he was, that
everything was fine. The scars on his hands had healed—barbed-wire gouges on
the left hand, teethmarks on the right. The blisters raised by the poison oak
he’d fallen in after the explosion had long since scabbed over, sloughed away,
leaving his skin unblemished. But shallow wounds were always the first to heal.

School
started tomorrow, and he almost looked forward to it as a kind of coma into
which he could dive and take shelter, barely functioning while the world went
on without him. Whatever was going to change inside him, whatever healing lay
in wait, it could run its course while he hibernated.

At the end
of the boardwalk he came to a small playground, deserted at this hour, on this
day. He sat in one of the swings, buried his heels in sand, and stared at the
sea. His thoughts joined the last gulls shrieking overhead, circling over the
floodlights like vicious moths. He took his sketchpad from his pack and flipped
it open.

It was not a
new pad, but every page was blank. He forced himself to look at it until he
could no longer bear the sight of so much nothing. How long had it been since
he’d drawn even a doodle? A month or more? It was torture to keep trying to
force himself to draw—but not as torturous as his inability to come up with
anything. Yet he had to keep on. He was an artist. It was how he’d defined
himself for years. Without that, what did he have?

The problem
was, he kept seeing those daunting, perfect, grubby sketches. Created so
hastily, then lost forever in the blast. He was the only one alive who’d seen
them; they haunted no one else. No one would ever liken them to
his
pictures—no one but Mike,
that is. And his would always suffer in comparison. How could he ever do
anything to rival them? How could he forget them and go on with his own work?

He couldn’t
even remember what his own work was. Dragons and swordfighters? Did he expect
those to sustain him for a lifetime? Yet that was all he’d ever drawn—unreal
scenes, fantasies, wet dreams. It was all he was any good at, but it was
ruined for him now.

Soft steps
padded over the sand of the playground. Someone took the swing beside him,
rattling its chains.

“Hi,” she
said. “What’re you drawing?”

His heart
jolted. That voice . . .

Looking
over, he saw blond hair pushed up in a bandana; dark eyes, high cheekbones. She
was wrapped in a light, many-colored sweater.

It was her.
The girl from the van.

His anima.

So this is a
flashback, he thought, experiencing a delirious flood of fright. He tasted a
brassy tang in the back of his mouth, an onrush of panic bringing LSD memories
and making them inseparable from reality. Dreams had broken out beyond their
borderland. Now there was nothing to keep Edgar from reaching up out of the
sand to drag him down. If his anima could come to him so easily, then nothing
would stop Lupe from walking out of the surf, dripping kelp, with deathless
eyes and drawn knife . . .

That particular
wave of fear crested and broke, leaving Mike gasping as it subsided and slid
silently away.

She
remained.

Mike
swallowed and closed his tablet. “Nothing,” he finally answered.

“Don’t I
know you?” she asked.

“I think
so,” he said, not daring to believe it.

“Are you a
friend of Kurtis Tyre’s?”

He ducked
his head. “Not exactly. A friend of a friend.”

“Oh, now I
remember. In the van. Yeah!” She laughed. “I got talked into tagging along that
night; my girlfriend knows Kurtis. It was pretty wild.”

“Yeah, it
was,” he agreed, his tongue feeling thick for another reason now. Stupid,
stupid! What should he say? That he had fallen in love and lost her in the same
night? And that Edgar had convinced him she couldn’t possibly exist? Edgar, who
was always looking beyond the obvious answers, and Mike, gullible enough to
believe him.

“I guess you
made out all right,” she said. “You were pretty unhinged there for a while.”

He nodded,
avoiding further thought of what had followed that night. Instead he tried to
remember her sitting close to him in the van, touching him. She was close
enough now that if he leaned over slightly, he could kiss her.

“My name’s
Mike,” he said.

“I’m
Anaïs
.”

“You mean
like
Anaïs
Nin?”

“You know
about her?”

He nodded.
“My mom’s always reading her diaries.”

“I never met
anyone, you know, our age who’s heard of her. I was named after her. My dad’s a
professor out at Irvine; he teaches Literature. We just moved here this summer
from Torrance.”

“You live in
Bohemia?” he said, hardly daring to believe it.

She nodded.
“I guess we’ll be in school together, then.”

Something
about the way she said “together” electrified him.

“You want to
walk?” he asked.

Without
answering, she got up from the swing and put out her hand. It was warm. He held
it delicately, as if she might break, burst, fade back into his mind. But Edgar
had been wrong about her. She was real enough to squeeze his fingers in return.

They walked
along the boardwalk toward the Dumas P
è
re restaurant. Remembering
the last time he had eaten there, he glanced down.

They were
crossing the tunnel where Craig Frost was murdered. Horror surged up in him
for perhaps the millionth time. Fear was an aftershock; he was never so afraid
in Lupe’s cave as he had been afterward, imagining over and over again how
things might have come out. But for the first time, he refused to clutch at the
fear. Released, it ebbed away, leaving only a dark stain on his soul like a
high-water mark. It would always be there, faintly blood-tinted no matter how
faded, until some greater tide surpassed it. But he could not imagine—and
prayed he never saw—anything to rival it, no matter how long he lived.

He veered
from the boardwalk and tugged
Anaïs
laughing
over the grass, toward the lights of the street and the shut-down stores. He
wanted to see her clearly in case she vanished again. He wanted to study the
face he had thought was only in his mind, a figment of his desire, but which
had turned out to be real after all.

He knew now,
suddenly, what he wanted to do. Sketching wasn’t enough anymore; it didn’t
encompass half of what he felt. He would take up painting. He would teach
himself to capture all her colors, the bright cloth and pale hair, her flushed
cheeks and pink lips, against the gray subdued sky of the last twilight of summer.

 

BOOK: The Orchid Eater
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