Reg stared at the clippers in his hand. Do I really want to do this? He thought. Yes, he decided with sudden resolve, I do. He pushed the switch with his thumb and the blades buzzed in his hand. Lifting it to his head, he watched his hair fall to the floor.
Brushing off his shoulders, Reg ran his hands over his head. He did not look in the mirror. It was useless to do so anyway. He'd grown used to avoiding the glass long ago. Setting down the clippers, he ran his hands over his head. There was a tuft at the back of his neck that he had missed. He started to reach for the clippers again, then dropped his hand. Leave it, he decided, resignedly. Call it fashionable, he told himself with bitter humor. Stepping off the towel he was standing on, he carefully gathered it up by the corners and walked outside to the balcony. Shaking it over the the rail, he watched the evening breeze blow the dust away.
Am I safe now? He wondered, watching the headlights of the trucks driving by on the highway, Big Mike's looking for the Thin White Duke, not grunge boy.
Sighing, he turned and walked back inside the motel room. Tossing the towel over a chair, He started to dress in the clothes he had laid out for himself on the bed: a t-shirt advertising the name of a place he'd never heard of, a plaid flannel shirt, and a faded pair of jeans torn at the knees. No more tailors, no more bespoke suits. He picked up a stocking cap and pulled it down over his head, thrift stores from now on. He looked at the closet where his last suit hung. Pulling it roughly off the hanger he draped it over his arm and headed out. He threw it in the Dumpster as he walked to his car.
The eastern sky was just barely light as Reg pulled into the lot again. Pulling the key out of the ignition, he sat a moment and stared through the windshield at the few stars fading away. How long had it been? How many years? He'd been... 19? 20? when he met Julia. Julia with the appropriate last name! He smiled at the memory, although it had been a few years after they'd parted when he'd started hearing the term. Julia had introduced him to Mark, Mark had brought him to this. But Mark left not long after. Itchy feet, Julia always said. She had stuck around for a while after that, but then he'd heard from Sammy that she'd gotten caught outside without shelter when she lost her keys. When had that happened? Was it during the war or after? Must have been after. He remembered Sammy, and the rustle of her full skirts as she poured herself another cocktail. His mood sank further and he looked up at the sky again – it was lighter. Opening the door he stepped out of the car and walked back to his room.
Reg did not look at Benny as he climbed out of bed and pulled on his pants. Why did he even bother anymore? The slightest suggestion and the boys were tugging on his zipper. Sure there was always the rush when he ate, but...
He scowled, "But. But. But." he said to himself as he picked up Benny's wallet and pocketed the cash and credit cards. "But nothing!" He walked out the door and to his car. "It's nothing. Always nothing." he said to himself, pulling out of the driveway. Too many years had passed. Mark was gone, Julia was gone, hell, everyone he knew was gone. "Why do I stick around?"
"Dear Gen," he began, then paused. Did she still live in Las Vegas? How long had it been since he'd left? Geneve was a sweet girl, always ready to go out and party. Maybe we didn't always agree on where, but I did leave rather quickly. I should apologize. He drummed his fingers on the table. What was the name of the street she lived on? I remember the apartment number, but what was the street? He put the pen down, stood up and walked across the room to where his duffel bag sat on the floor. Reaching inside he dug around until he found a slim black address book. He walked back to the table and opened it.
"Richard Troute?" he read. This isn't right, he realized. I thought I'd lost this book. He looked again at the address, "Richard Troute 1157 Dellenbaugh Ave., Cleveland." Memory flooded back in a rush: Dickie! He closed his eyes as the memory washed over him. Ah, Dickie... He could picture him now, the dark brown hair, that smile, the faint lines at the corners of his eyes as he told another silly joke. Dickie used to keep them in stitches for hours! Whatever had happened to him? Oh yes, he got married and moved away. Something slipped out from between the pages and Reg looked down. A yellowed newspaper clipping had landed on the table. He picked it up and unfolded it. "Father of two killed in robbery" the headline read. Reg did not bother to look at the rest. He picked up the book again and turned a page.
"Art and Sammy Kursh" was the next entry. It had been crossed out. He had drifted away from Sammy years ago. Who was Art? When had she known anyone named Art? He turned the page to another random section, Marco, Ernestine, Noah... Ah, Noah. "No problem Noah" they called him. Noah could get you anything you asked for. Noah had introduced him to Pedro, who'd given him the job with John, and John had introduced him to Big Mike.
And look where that got you.
Reg dropped the book on the table, pulled on his hat, and walked out the door.
The old barn caught his eye as he drove down the highway. He slowed down to look at it. It wasn't much: the walls were weathered gray boards and the roof was rusted metal. A billboard faced the highway, advertising the land for sale. Someone had scrawled "AF+BK TL4EVR" at the bottom of it. An upper corner of the sign was also missing. Reg sped up and got off at the next exit.
It did not take him long to find the right road. He carefully drove up the overgrown lane that ended at the foundations of a house and a brick chimney. The full moon lit the surrounding field as he stepped out of the car. Walking over to the barn, he assessed it. Thick weeds grew around and inside where something - nature, rot, weather - had knocked holes in the walls. Reg judged it would probably stand a few more years before collapsing completely. He walked around the building until he found what he was looking for. Bending down, he pulled at the cellar door handle. It resisted, he pulled again with all his strength. Finally, groaning loudly and showering dirt and flakes of rust, it opened. He let the door drop and leaned over to look inside. The stairs were intact and, cautiously, he descended.
It was not a large space, not that he had expected it to be, the walls were lined with shelves. Most of them were broken and the few remaining intact were full of cobwebs and animal nests. He walked in farther. In a dim corner, opposite the main door, was another door half the size. Reg looked at it curiously. It was held shut with a simple hook and eye. Lifting the latch he pushed it open. A dirt floor rose in a gentle slope, but the space was otherwise empty. He crawled inside, it was a tight fit and his head brushed against the ceiling. He looked down at the dirt coating his hands and knees.
What am I doing, crawling around? He thought, backing out. Brushing himself off, he stood up, took a last look, and smiled grimly to himself. It was perfect.
The sky was just beginning to fade from black as Reg pulled into the parking lot. His eyes were heavy, he could feel the heat on his skin, and everything inside him screamed to get inside and into the dark. He forced himself to walk slowly to the door and open it. Only after that, did he rush inside into the cool darkness and slammed it behind him.
He had not eaten tonight. The hunger gnawed at him but he ignored it. He went out the barn and sat down on the ground outside. He could see a house on a hill nearby. He watched until the lights went out in the windows. Then he watched animals moving in the tall grass. He sat until the pre-dawn silence fell and then drove back to the motel.
He looked at the address book again: Marie, Bobby, Steve-o... Gone, they were all gone. Too many years had passed. They had to be dead. Dead or too old to care. Why was he still around? A gift, Mark had always said. Never grow up, never get old. Reg had laughed, like a fairy tale? he'd asked. Yes, Mark answered, but better.
"I don't want this gift anymore." he said to the empty room. "Take it back."
It was a simple chair, wood with a wicker seat, Reg placed it on the counter.
"Is that all?" the cashier asked.
"Yes." Reg answered.
"$15." she said punching numbers on the register.
Reg pulled out his wallet and handed her a twenty. She let her fingers, warm and soft, linger over his. She leaned in close, "The store closes at eight." she said in a low voice, looking up at him. She was wearing too much eyeliner.
He smiled at her. "Thanks honey, but I'm not interested."
She looked at him a moment, then frowned. Her cheeks red, she counted out him five ones then stared at the store behind him. "Next!" she called loudly.
The billboard had been repaired and had a new sign. "Coming Soon!" it read, "A New Shopping Experience from F & F Development!" There were fresh tire tracks in the lane. Reg snorted humorlessly to himself. A legacy, he thought. He climbed out of the car and opened the trunk. Pulling out the chair, he walked around to the cellar, pulled open both doors with a grunt and let them drop on the ground. Looping one arm through the back of the chair, he walked down the stairs and stopped at the bottom. Stepping back he looked at it, then looked back outside. Picking up the chair again, he walked up the stairs and set it down on the grass in front of the doors. He looked at it, nodded, then walked back to his car and drove to town.
Lifting his head, Reg looked at Ronald, who panted happily in afterglow. He leaned forward, looking down at Reg and smiled at him. Grinning, Reg crawled forward, putting one hand on his shoulder and pushing him gently back on the bed.
He started to reach for Ron's wallet, then stopped himself. "Nah," He turned back to Ron, who lay unconscious on the bed. "It's your birthday honey." he said caustically, tossing the wallet back. He dressed without a word and left.
He parked his car behind the barn where it could not be seen from the road. Leaving the keys in the ignition he walked to the cellar. The eastern sky was just starting to fade to blue and a red line was starting to grow on the horizon. He checked the position of the chair. Good. Just right. He sat down and waited.
The stars above him went out and a few birds started to chirp. Reg watched the clouds melt away. The sky grew lighter. He struggled to keep his eyes open. Decades of habit – instinct – screamed at him. Leave! Get inside! Darkness! Safety! Taking a deep breath, Reg gripped the sides of the chair and gritted his teeth. I will stay. He told himself. Right here.
His skin grew warm, then hot. He braced himself. He was feverish, burning. The horizon brightened to pink then yellow. Birds sang in earnest. His skin was on fire and he could barely see. He closed his eyes as the first rays of the sun broke over the horizon.
Pain! Fire! He had been dropped into the heart of the sun! Stay! He told himself, Stay! It will be over soon! He couldn't feel the chair anymore. The fire was all he knew, burning him slowly, slowly taking its time torture eating at his skin eating him Eating from the outside burning in and burning and pain pain pain. lungs seared. mouth full of flame. throat raw. screaming his voice gone. Knocking the chair aside, he ran inside the cellar, running as far back in the darkness as he could and closing the door behind him.
It was pitch black when he woke. He lay on his back and stared into the darkness. Failed. Can't even die right. He rubbed his hands over his face. His skin felt... pebbly... blisters? He ran his hands over his arms and felt flakes drop off. Raising his hands, he pushed lightly, futilely, against the wooden ceiling just over his head. Useless. I am such a useless piece of... He rolled over and crawled to the door, pushing it open. Why? He thought. What is the use? A car pulled up and stopped outside. Thought ended, hunger took over.
"Hi honey," a man said. He sounded older. A door alarm beeped faintly behind him.
"I think I'm going to be late tonight." he paused. "Yeah, forgot about the time change." he said ruefully.
"No, don't wait for me. I've just got to check this property and I'll be out of here. Won't take long."
"Sure, put him on."
"Hey buddy bear! How ya doin'? Daddy's going to be late tonight, but I'll be home in time to tuck you in, OK? OK! Be good for Mommy! Love you! Bye!"
The door closed, and footsteps walked around the barn. Reg looked up through a crack at the stars in the sky.
"Whose car is this?" the man asked himself. "Hikers?" he mumbled, "There aren't any trails around here." He took a step "Hello!" He shouted, "Anyone here? Hello!" The man, and Reg, waited a minute. A dog barked in the distance. "I'll call for a tow later." he said, a shrug in his voice.
The footsteps stopped in front of the cellar door. Reg crawled into the space under the stairs.
"The door?" the man muttered. "Hello?" he called, "Is anyone down there? Hello? I'm from F&F Development. Hello?"
Reg cleared his throat.
"Hello?" the man called. The stairs creaked as he walked down. "Who's here?"
Reg eased to the side and out from underneath the stairs as the man walked past him, deeper into the cellar.
He did not have time to scream.
Ed barely glanced up from the TV perched on the edge of the desk, "Hey Reg, how ya doing?" "Not bad. Just dropping off this week's rent." Reg laid the envelope down on the desk.
Ed picked up the envelope, counted the cash inside and put it in a drawer, all without looking up at Reg. "Thanks. You want Rosa to clean this week?"
Reg thought a moment, "No, I'm good."
Ed glanced up at him, "You look like you got some sun."
Reg looked at his arms, they were still red. "Yeah, I was out too long."
The commercial on the TV ended and the news returned. Reg leaned to one side to look at the screen.
"...and in other news, police continue to search for a suspect in an attack on a local developer." The screen changed to a police sketch.
"Heh, looks like my cousin." Ed said.
"Is he in town? I could use that reward money." Reg replied lightly.
Reg turned around, "See you later, Ed." he said, walking towards the door.
Waving absently with one hand, Ed reached forward and changed the channel. Happy applause replaced the news. "See ya." he said.