"Was she pretty?"
I knew where he was going and I didn't want to go there but I was in his kitchen and drinking his beer. I turned to stare out the window, stalling for time. I saw his palomino grazing in the yard, complacent, calm, sure of his place in the world. I badly wanted to be that horse.
"Was who pretty?" I copped out. He called me on it.
"Cut the crap, white boy. I've been hanging with you for a week, and there's only two reasons somebody like you would be out here and living like you're living. You're running from the law or you're running from a heartache. You aren't honest enough to be a good criminal, so it must be a woman." He grinned that insane grin and drilled his eyes into mine, waiting. I decided to be honest..
"No. She wasn't pretty. But I couldn't keep my eyes off of her, sometimes."
He laughed. "Now you're being honest." He knocked the cap off a fresh beer bottle and watched it foam for a minute. Then he drilled me with his eyes again. "So what happened? She dumped you? You caught her with your best friend? What?"
"You're an @!$%#, you know that?"
He laughed again, louder this time. "Look around you, Veho. Where the hell do you think you are? You drove hundreds of miles into the middle of nowhere, looking for me. Why? To chase mustangs? You got a hole in your soul the size of a truck battery and you're trying to pretend its not there." He leaned in close and tapped my chest with his finger. "So who is the @!$%#?"
Another man would have hit him. But another man wouldn't have spent time tracking him across half a continent, either.
The bastard was right.
"So, what? You want to hear the story?" I couldn't figure out if I was angry or scared. He opened another beer and pressed it into my hand.
"No, I don't want to hear the story." He leaned back and stretched his legs onto the table, folded his hands around the bottle and settled it on his stomach.
"I want to hear what you felt."
What I felt. How do I explain what I felt? Do I even want to go there again? I made a pretense of scowling out the window, as if I was trying to remember. The palomino had worked his way across the yard and found a tasty bit of something at the base of a fence post. He yanked it out and raised his head, and the desert sun caught his eyelash. Not for the first time, I was struck by how expressive a horse's eyes are. Large and liquid and alert. Not like hers. Her eyes were dark and bottomless, untouchable, like staring down a well. They stayed that way, even while she was dying.
So I told him what I felt, as best I could. I told how I felt nothing at all, for long time, and then I felt too much, to the point of insanity. I talked of the anger and the fear, and the horrifying pain of helplessness. I told some of the story, too, about the people who weren't people, and the old man standing in the morning sun while spirits danced around his face like tobacco smoke. I told of Mary, who poked gentle fun at my confusion and taught me to embrace what I felt, no matter what.
I spoke of her, too, the unfathomable girl who lived her life like a kite in a hurricane until she finally decided it was all too much and took herself away from it all, putting out the light that wasn't really there, and taking my old life with her.
We talked through the evening and into the night, and it was close to dawn when we ran out of beer, but he produced a bottle of Cutty Sark from somewhere and I was surprised at how much I still wanted to get out.
Finally I stopped. There was daylight on the walls and expectancy in the air. The room smelled of wood smoke and spirits.
"Where did she go?" I looked over at Alex. He cocked an eyebrow at me. "I mean, she wasn't nothing. She was a person. She had thoughts, she had doubts, she knew how to laugh. Where did all that go?"
"She died, Veho." His voice was almost a whisper. "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust."
"No. you're not getting it. She wasn't pretty, but I couldn't keep my eyes off of her. I used to watch her sleep. Why? That wasn't physical. That was something else. I was in love with something. Where did that something go?"
He smiled, a bare-bones smile, not at all like his usual manic grin. "She wasn't pretty, but you couldn't keep your eyes off of her." He spoke softly and slowly, like he was trying to memorize the line. He raised his glass and tilted it my direction. "You weren't in love with her. You were in love with what she could feel." He took the last swallow from his glass, flled it up again, and handed me the bottle.
"And......you were in love with what she made you feel."
I was just starting to pour when that last line stopped me, the bottle poised at an angle, the sunlight burning through my empty glass. He reached over to take the bottle. He filled my glass and held it under my nose. He was halfway across the table, propped on his elbows, a smiling, drunken gargoyle handing me my cup of enlightenment.
"She didn't go anywhere, my friend." He held the glass to my lips and tipped it.
"She became you."