catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 23 :: 2009.11.27 — 2009.12.10


Clutching Dust and Stars

Chapter Four: I'm Not as Think as You Drunk I Am

This is the fourth chapter of Laryn Kragt Bakker’s new novel, Clutching Dust and Stars (read chapters one, two and three), published by *culture is not optional and available for purchase now.  We’ll be serializing the first part of the novel on catapult for the next several weeks.

He had already said the requisite curses, standing in the damp darkness of the parking garage beside a small pile of shattered safety glass next to his car. The small window behind the rear driver’s side door had been smashed and the front door hung open. He examined the interior, making a preliminary list of what had been plundered: all of his CD’s, a small day-pack, and his point-and-shoot camera. The dashboard was torn up but the stereo was still intact.

He said the curses again, feeling strangely hollow in his stomach but full in his head and chest-as though he had been drinking on an empty stomach. Top heavy. He decided that he was going to move to Bellingham.

He turned around and slowly climbed the stairs back to his apartment. He had packed a bunch of boxes with the stuff he didn’t use every day, and had stacked them in the middle of his living room. He sat on the couch and propped his gammy leg on a low box. He was such a lazy ass. The thought of moving was exciting and dreadful. There were so many details to take care of-the most important of which was the question of where he was going to live.

He opened his backpack and roughed up the papers that were crumpled inside it. He had taken notes on a few of the places he’d visited. He shuffled them around until he found the one he was looking for. Gordon Nerburn, single occupancy room with shared kitchen.

“Six months at minimum, and once you’ve been here that long, you might never leave,” Gordon had told him, bug-eyed and frantic, wagging his knobby fingers in the empty space between their heads. “Some of my tenants’ve been around here for ten times that long. Twenty times. If I don’t kick you out, you’ll stay.”

He doubted it, but it was cheap. He dialed the number that he had scrawled on the paper. The phone rang twice and there was a violent sound, like someone had dropped the receiver on the other end.

He heard someone breathing into the phone, and then “Hello?”

“Good morning. Is this Gordon?”

“This is.”

“Hi, Mr. Nerburn. I talked with you yesterday about the room you’re renting.”


“Well, I’m interested in signing the lease.”

“Can you come tonight?”

“No. I’m in Seattle right now, but I’m planning to move before the end of the month.”

“You mean tomorrow?”

“Is that the end of the month already? Yeah, I guess so. Damn.”

“Well, okay. I can hold the room on the first floor for you until tomorrow, but I might not be around when you come. I’ll leave the front door unlocked. If it’s not unlocked, knock. If no one answers, call me. Leave your check in the drawer beside the sink, in that kitchen area. First month, deposit and last month, two-fifty each. I’ll collect it from there. The key to the room will be in closet number four, beside the water heater. Call me when you’re moved in to confirm. Okay?”

He grabbed a credit card offer from the pile of junk mail on top of the fridge and started writing the instructions down on the back of it. “I…think that’s great. Thank you.”

“Okay,” said Gordon Nerburn, and hung up.

Rob continued scribbling notes with the phone beside his ear. This was crazy. Tomorrow? It was already mid-morning, so he didn’t have much time to get this thing planned. The phone dangled from his fingers by the antenna. He needed to call some people. He left messages for a few of his friends to break the news and invite them out drinking. They’d been planning to get together, anyway. Now they had a reason to drink.

He spent some time separating belongings into boxes, digging out everything that had settled to the bottom of the drawers and the closets. These were mostly the things that he had been hanging onto for years, walking around them, tripping over them, until they found their way into the unobtrusive corners and niches of the place. Now he had to ask himself why he kept them all this time just to throw them out now. Papers. Lots of notebook papers, printed pages and old newspapers. Stories he thought might sell but didn’t. Scrawled notes. Junk mail from two years ago. Here was a thin paperback book that Natalie had given him years ago: Norse Legends and Heroes. She told him that he must have had some Viking background because his last name was Erickson.

It was interesting how information sticks in your brain. He had forgotten about the book, but certain details from it still surfaced in his brain every now and then, unbidden. How much of our belongings or our friends become imprinted on us?

He sank onto the couch and flipped through the book again. Dave had found it lying around the apartment when Rob had first moved here and had called him Thor for a while. When they were mock fighting, he would sometimes cry out, “Thor’s going to bring the hammer down,” and shrink back from him.

He tossed the book into the open box in front of him and, finding himself already sitting near the entertainment center decided it was time to take a break. He bent down to pick up the gamepad, pushing in the power button on the console with his big toe.


“Piece of shit!” His voice re-oriented him to the room around him: the open boxes, the diffused light double-filtered, first by clouds and then by half open curtains. He gave the television the finger. Computers were a waste of time. Like most things. The more you do the less you feel like you’ve done anything important. Welcome to Viking hell-a banquet table full of food sitting right there in front of you, but the more you eat, the hungrier you get.

It had taken his dad more than sixty-five years to get to the point where he wandered the house aimlessly with nothing productive to do. Rob bettered that score by more than half. Here he was still years away from thirty and in the same spot.

He killed the game and walked out onto the balcony to feel the chill of the air. Two red-nosed children played down below in the parking lot, a girl and her little brother by the looks of it. He leaned against the railing and watched the boy drag a broom through fallen leaves as his sister grabbed handfuls and threw them in the air. The leaves fell down around them, not so much fluttering as simply dropping.

He wandered into the kitchen. The bread was dry and the lettuce was brown-edged and droopy. He toasted the bread and slathered mayonnaise on the lettuce. With a good tomato and a stack of meat, it still worked.

He leaned with his elbows on the counter, holding the sandwich over the sink so that the mayo splashed into the basin when it squeezed out. He brushed the crumbs into the sink and grabbed his keys from on top of the fridge.

It felt good to take the stairs again, even if he was slow. When he got to the car, he kicked the broken glass against the wall and crawled into the back seat to work out a solution to the hole. He slammed a plastic grocery bag in the door and pulled it over the place where the window had been. He reached over to the glove compartment and pulled out his emergency stash – a disposable ballpoint pen wrapped tightly with duct tape. He peeled it off in short sections and used it to fasten the plastic in place.

The air was moist, and everything felt grey. Colors seemed dull, brightness layered with dirt like hypocrisy in reverse. It was a good day to think of leaving. The bag flapped noisily and he wasn’t quite sure where he was. He backtracked around several blocks before he found the small U-Haul lot he had been searching for. He took the only truck they had left and had the agent install a tow dolly for the car.

He drove slowly back to the apartment, his car following submissively behind him. The textured rubber grip of the truck’s steering wheel and the woven fabric of the seat began to drag the abstract concept of moving out of the air and lock it down, transforming it into tangible fact. When ideas were in the process of becoming reality, it felt like a drug; he got high on potential.

When he returned, the boxes were still as he had left them. It shouldn’t have been surprising. He sank down on the couch and looked across the room at the fireplace. It contained a charred remainder of a processed log which he had purchased at a gas station early last spring. He had seen them stacked and wrapped individually by the entrance when he went in to pay for his gas, and on an impulse he had bought a few of them, thinking a fire inside with the cold and wet outside would be cozy. There had been a few people over to play drinking games and cards, and they had lit two of the logs only to find that the chimney was blocked up.

With all the smoke coming in, someone decided that they might as well smoke their cigarettes inside, too, and somehow he had agreed. They had added a few burn marks to the carpet that night, and had reinforced the smell that still haunted the furniture and the carpet.

He stretched out on the couch. According to his lease, he was probably supposed to take the ashes out of the fireplace before he left and give the whole apartment a thorough cleaning, but he was pretty sure that he wasn’t going to. He relaxed his body and pulled the fleece throw blanket over himself.

In the periphery of his vision as he lay there he saw the light on the answering machine flashing and his heart sank; its blinking urgency seemed a silent protest against sloth. He pushed himself up and leaned on an elbow, reaching over to hit the button.

“Robbie, this is Dave, returning your call, you dirty rotten bastard. I guess I’ll have to kick your ass when I see you, and break your leg again. Uh, give me a call back when you get this and I’ll head over to help you move the big stuff. Oh, and know this: we’re going to party tonight!”

Dave was a graphic designer who divided his time between freelance work and a part-time job with a new media company in town. He was one of Rob’s closest friends in Seattle-they had gone through high school together and remained friends through most of it. Dave had moved to Seattle after high school and had been here ever since. When Rob had come down from Bellingham, he had stayed with Dave and his roommate, Tad, for two months before getting his balance in the city. He would have stayed longer if there had been another room in the apartment.

He dialed Dave’s number.

“Hey, whore.” Dave said before Rob had a chance to talk.

“Hi, bitch. I hate caller ID. You can’t surprise anyone anymore.”

“Yeah, you can. Just tell them you’re moving in less than 24 hours. That’ll surprise them.”

“Fair enough,” Rob said. “Are you going to cry about it, or come over and help me move?”

“Maybe both.”


It wasn’t packed as well as he had thought-there seemed to be no end to the hidden treasures in various cupboards and drawers. Dave ended up hauling a lot while Rob threw things into boxes. The truck was way too big, so he didn’t feel the need to pack it efficiently. They threw the couch over the balcony near the dumpster. It hit with a crack and then slowly fell backwards, slouched in the middle like it had given up, pillows scattered on the asphalt nearby.

When the truck was loaded and the rest of the junk from the apartment had been pitched over the edge, they locked the door and went downstairs. Rob dropped the key off at the manager’s apartment with a short note.

“I put your address on there, so they might send my security deposit to you.”

“Great, but don’t get your hopes up.”


“You think they’re going to give you anything back after you check out the day before the end of the month? You didn’t tell them a month in advance, did you?”

“The lease is up.”

Dave shrugged. “Let’s go.”

They left the truck parked sideways across a row of parking spots with his car up on the hitch. “Let’s go to my place and I’ll call Tad and Cindy. We’ll take a cab tonight, yeah?”


The pub was dingy and the four of them were seated in a booth, two on each side. Dave had a pint of Guinness and Tad had already commented on its dark thickness; he kept one hand cupped around it protectively.

It wasn’t uncommon for the comments to turn to the beer, a universal experience to rally around. Once every few months it became the topic of an extended conversation-Dave would order his Guinness or some kind of beer you couldn’t see through and then Tad and Cindy would proceed to talk for twenty minutes about how disgusting it was. He wouldn’t be surprised if Dave enjoyed that more than the beer itself.

They always argued for way too long about whose beer was more pissy or shitty. Dave was holding his glass out in front of him, sniffing it, rotating it and looking into its color as though it were a fine wine. Cindy was quiet tonight, hands clasping opposite elbows which rested on the table to prop her torso up.

Rob looked across the table to Cindy. “Have you given up on the debate, Cin?”

She smiled thinly and straightened up. “No, I guess not. I’m just not in the mood to argue right now.”

“No one’s arguing,” said Dave. “We’re just sharing our opinions with each other.”

Rob nudged her with his foot. “What’s up? Did you have a bad day at work today? Was there ‘an incident’?”

It was another well-worn joke. Cindy worked at a retirement home as a recreation director, planning and organizing events. The stories she had shared from the collective pool of her coworkers were too vivid to forget: images of old people and walls both covered in diarrhea, of dirty old men groping the staff and wheezing, “Come to bed with me.”

She wasn’t in the mood for that conversation either.

“I don’t know what it is. Sorry to be a downer.”

“Come on-this is supposed to be a party.” Rob reached over and used his thumb and forefinger to lift the corners of her mouth into a half-hearted smile. She turned her head to the side and took the skin between his fingers in her lips and kissed it gently. She gave him a sad little smile as he flinched and pulled away.

“There you go! Keep smiling.”

He felt some guilt for a number of the things he had said to her over the last six months, for pulling her strings the way it seemed she wanted them to be pulled. The words had seemed appropriate to the moment, the way that they would have been written in an early rough draft if his life were a script.

He realized that he hadn’t really given her any warning about the fact that he was going to move. But he hadn’t really given anyone any warning, including himself. And he didn’t really feel like they had an official relationship in that sense-just potential. Enough to get high on, once upon a time.

Tad and Dave had turned their attention to the TV in the corner and were watching the Mariners without much hope. Rob slid out of the bench, bracing himself on it as he stood. “I’ll be right back.”

He walked with his cane, staring down anyone bold enough to look at it for any length of time. He stopped at the far end of the bar first and ordered a double round of shots for the table and then continued to the restroom.

There were two urinals, but one was taped off and bore an “Out of Order” sign. He leaned the cane against the wall and positioned himself in front of the functioning one. Two guys walked in, talking loudly and laughing. One of them was about Rob’s size, and the other was a few inches shorter. They stopped short when they saw that the only urinal was in use. One of the men went into the stall and started pissing noisily into the water in the toilet bowl.

Rob looked straight ahead. They had a bulletin board with the sports page tacked up at eye level in front of the urinals so that people could pretend they were reading it.

He tried to think of something to say to Cindy to cheer her up, but he couldn’t. This was the night that the shit came home to roost, so to speak. She had to find out at some point. Maybe she wasn’t as attached to him as he thought-but he doubted it. He had had a premonition that he was brewing trouble when he started sleeping with her and it seemed he was right. At least he was right about something.

The waitress was just setting down the shots when he returned.

“What is it?” Dave asked, grabbing one to sniff and then wrinkling his nose immediately.

“No smelling!” Rob slid a shot to each of the other two and then lifted his own. “To Bellingham!”

The shot burned all the way down, lighting up his esophagus and stomach.

“To us!” Dave passed a second shot glass to everyone while they were still breathing fire, as though chasing the last shot down with another would help. They all dutifully picked their shots up and tipped them back.

Cindy had a sick look on her face. “I think I’m going to vomit.”

Dave offered her an empty shot glass to use as a pail and she finally broke a real smile. They both started sputtering. Tad was watching them impassively, a slight smile playing itself on his lips every few seconds until he could control it.

Rob put an arm around Tad. “I love you guys,” he said.

Dave raised an eyebrow. “Then why are you leaving us?”

“Shut up.” Rob smiled.

“All I can say is she must be quite a piece.”

Cindy’s smile had shriveled up, so he was careful to keep his at full size. “Where do you come up with this shit?”

He waved his hand beside his head. “It just comes to me. Divine inspiration, and all that.”

Cindy pushed her way out of the bench and started toward the restroom.

“You okay? No vomit yet, that I’ve seen.”

“I think I’ll be okay. I’ll be back in a second.”

There was silence in her wake until Tad spoke up. “Leaving tomorrow, huh? That was a quick decision.”

“Yeah, I know. I guess that’s my style.”

Dave pinched his face up apologetically. “Sorry ’bout that. I forgot about her.”

“What’s this about a girl?” Tad asked.

“I’ve told you about Natalie before.”

“You guys are getting back together?”

“No! That was Dave’s ass talking.”

“But she’s still up there? She hasn’t moved out of town?”

“No, she’s there.”

“And you saw her when you drove up the other day?”

“We bumped into each other.”

“So you see her again once and suddenly you’re moving back to Bellingham. Did you get some?”

“I saw her for about one and a half minutes.” Rob looked over and found Tad still looking at him, waiting. “No, I didn’t ‘get some.’ I haven’t even talked to her or heard from her in almost two years.”

“Not once since you left? You never even talked on the phone?”

“Nope. Well, about a week or two after I left, I called her place and got her answering machine. I didn’t leave a message.” He looked up in the direction that Cindy had gone. “Let’s talk about something else. I don’t think she’s the reason I’m moving.”

“That’s an interesting way to put it. She get hitched in the meantime or something?”

Rob paused and looked at Tad. “Huh. I guess I don’t know.”

They each picked up their beer, one after the other, and drank. Tad dropped his glass like a gavel. “Well if tonight’s the night, we’re going to have to do something other than sit on our asses and drink beer. Pub crawl?”

By the time Cindy had returned, they had paid the tab and were all standing with their coats on.

“That’s it?” She looked incredulous.

“Oh no, no, my dear. Follow me,” said Dave, putting his arm around her waist.


Rob sat alone by the table, drowning in sound waves as the beat pulsed through him. The air was cool on the walk over, and the cane clicking on the sidewalk was like the cold persistent tap-tap-tapping of a conscience. It wasn’t far from here that he had been struck while walking across the street last year-something he tried not to think about whenever possible. His other option at the moment, thanks to Tad, was to contemplate deeply who Natalie might be with. That was enough to change his mood about this whole move.

Tad came back knuckling four bottles, and he grounded two of them in front of Rob. “Now we don’t have to get up right away for another one,” he yelled.

“I don’t know if I’ll last for two.”

“Bullshit-it’s your night! You’re not going to get away that easily. I think Dave’s getting something for you, too.”

Rob was already buzzing from the shots and the beer he had taken at the pub. Tad reached over the table with both hands and shook Rob’s shoulders.

“Yee-haw,” he said firmly.

“I guess I better get started then,” Rob sighed, gripping the first bottle and taking a deep breath.


If his count was right it was one and a half more beers and another shot before Tad and Dave’s energy began to infect him. They waded into the grinding mass of dancers, churning hot and dripping sweat and somehow loving it. He vaguely remembered spinning in time with the music, holding his arms out, laughter; he had sprawled back on one of the speakers and stayed there, waiting for the room to slow down while the beat thumped beneath him like an animal thrashing in its cage.

“Hey! Sober up or you’re out of here!” The bouncer had looked angry, but Rob remembered laughing at him and then feigning fear for the rest of the night, crouching behind other dancers any time he caught the bouncer watching him, putting on an expression of terror until he couldn’t hold the laughter in. He heard Cindy’s laughter sparkle and that encouraged him.

As they were absorbed into the crowd, people pressed in around them. Rob was being elbowed and jostled from all sides and somebody splashed him with sweat. He turned to look for a path out and caught the eye of the bouncer. He stopped moving and crouched slightly to make himself smaller. Tad’s elbow caught his jaw and sent him further off balance. He fell backwards.

Dancers pushed against the rest of the crowd to make room for his body as he fell, closing in again when he was on the ground. He thought for a moment that he would be trampled. He was fighting for breath amid the force of the crowd, thrashing against them; hands yanked him up.

He saw Dave’s and Tad’s concern on their faces, and the crowd parting as the bouncer waded in, his face set.

“Get the hell out of here,” he said, gripping Rob’s shirt and propelling him toward the fringes of the crowd. The music was still going but most of the people had stopped dancing and the lights played over unmoving bodies. They emerged on the other side and the rift healed itself, trapping the other three inside as the organism began to pump again.

The bouncer deposited him outside the door, meeting his drunken resistance easily. A small crowd of guys who would perhaps become paparazzi or lawyers followed them out, hoping for a bigger struggle, for some blood or shouting. They dispersed soon, and Rob leaned against a telephone pole, groggily watching the bouncer at the front door as he flirted with the women who came and went, gently holding their hands to check for their stamp, or stamping the cute ones who hadn’t paid the cover charge, winking.

A hotdog vendor was set up beside the entrance, waiting for the club to close and for all the people, hungry from a night of dancing, to walk near him. He smiled at Rob, but Rob didn’t say anything. The hotdog man took the plastic clip from a bag of buns and cracked it in half, fitting a half on one of his fingers and cocking it. He was biting his lower lip in concentration and let it fly as a car drove by.

He turned to Rob. “I got it right into an open window more than a block away one time.” Rob raised an eyebrow.

“How much for a hotdog?”

“I’m serious. I couldn’t believe it when it happened,” he said. “They’re four dollars.”

“Four? How do you sleep at night?” he muttered, reaching into his pocket for the money.

It was hot, at least, and he took extra cheese sauce on it. He wandered a few telephone poles down so he could enjoy it in peace, and began to watch the ecosystem of the city block at night. Taxis and police cars were already circling the block like vultures, their eyes fixed on the people emerging from the club. People were leaving in pairs and small groups and occasionally fed at the hotdog stand. And inside, of course, was the big mating ritual.

A smattering of unconnected words and phrases floated free of the general noise that the building was churning out. His leg had begun to throb.

Tad came bouncing out of the entrance, wearing an enormous grin. “Good show in there. Sorry about the elbow, though.” He rubbed his arm as if to console him with the fact that he had been hurt as well.

“Don’t worry about it.”

Dave and Cindy came out immediately behind him, and Dave was carrying Rob’s coat over one arm and pretending to be an old man with Rob’s cane. They were only half an hour from closing time, so they called it a night. Tad and Dave punched Rob’s fist in farewell, and then Dave jumped on him, pretending to cry. His leg nearly buckled and he clenched his jaw.

Dave and Tad caught a southbound cab, while Rob and Cindy headed north in another. He set the cane against the door of the cab and leaned forward. It always seemed to happen this way: he stopped moving and it felt like a truck hit him. Cindy didn’t say much to him, talking only to give the driver directions to her place, about five blocks from Rob’s. She hadn’t said much all night, though, so she was still in character.

When the cab pulled to stop in front of her building, she nudged him. “You gonna get out and say goodbye to me, or what?”

He got out as Cindy was paying the driver, and felt his head drain empty of blood. He crouched down and pinched the bridge of his nose as though to stop a nosebleed, but it didn’t seem to help. He heard a door close and then the taxi started to pull away. He looked up. “Shit,” he muttered. “Didn’t you tell him to wait a second?”

Cindy shrugged. “He said he had another call, so I told him he could go. Sorry.” She came over to him and gave him a little hug, setting his cane on the sidewalk. “You’re really going, huh?”

He put his arms around her lightly and felt her grip tighten. He grunted affirmatively through her hair, smelling old cigarettes on her. She pulled her head back and looked up at him.

“Why?” she asked quietly. He had known it was coming but hadn’t invented a good response yet.

“I don’t know,” he said finally, tightening his arms slightly.

They stood without talking for a handful of breaths. He leaned on her, stealing structural support in the guise of an embrace while she inhaled him, her nose buried in his chest again.

“Okay babe. I should go,” he said, loosening his arms.

“Come in and let’s talk for a few minutes. We never had any chance to talk tonight.”

He knew he shouldn’t, but he also knew he should. He hadn’t really been fair to her with the words he had given her; he felt like he owed her a few more, real ones.

She jangled her keys in the lock at the door to the building, struggling with it for a moment before it came open. She held it open for him and followed him in. He walked slowly down the hall in the path he had moved so many times before and she passed him, moving quickly-more alert than he had expected. She fumbled with the keys again at her door, then put her finger to her lips and slowly opened it. She slipped inside and was gone for just a moment before she opened the door the rest of the way.

“It’s okay-she’s not here.”

Good. He had knocked heads with Cindy’s roommate, Michelle, too many times and was in no mood to get lectured or to listen to her rant tonight. Tad and Dave thought that was that she was a lesbian, but they thought that any girl who didn’t like them must be gay.

He dropped his body into the couch and felt that it would take an earthquake to move him. Cindy had disappeared into the kitchen, and then rematerialized with a glass of water and a bottle of multivitamins.

“First things first,” she said as she straddled him. She shook a few of the pills out. “This’ll help you in the morning.”

He swallowed the vitamins and drank the water while she tilted the glass for him and watched.

“Cindy, I can’t stay long,” he began. She kissed his nose; the interior of her mouth was warm, or his nose was cold. “I don’t-” Her lips were kissing him; he did what he had been trained to do, feeling like a drunken robot, performing sloppily and without emotion.


It took him a moment to remember where he was and whose blankets these were when he came awake. As it came back to him, he let his head fall back on the pillow and his breath go out in a rush. He was sprawled across the whole bed, alone, as though during a nocturnal battle for space and blankets Cindy had been knocked to the floor. The multivitamins hadn’t worked completely, but instead of the splitting headache he was expecting, he had a lesser throbbing in his skull, so maybe it had helped.

She wasn’t on the floor. He heard the shower running and painfully got to his feet. It didn’t feel like much of a day for driving; it didn’t feel like much of a day for anything except bed. He gathered his clothes as he limped toward the bathroom, putting them on one by one and trying to ignore the stench of the club. His leg was sore today.

He opened the bathroom door and took one step inside. Steam had already condensed on the mirror and was swirling around the air from behind the shower curtain. “Morning,” he croaked. “Listen, I’m sorry about last night. We need to talk.”

“Good morning, pig. And don’t come in here.”


“What are you sorry about? The fact that you snore like a chainsaw, or the fact that you continually treat Cindy like a piece of meat?”

“Sorry,” he said again. “Where is she?”

“Probably working. Most people do.”

He tried not to imagine Michelle’s naked body behind the floral print of the shower curtain, standing there, glistening and dripping water with steam swirling around her. He reached down and adjusted his penis.

“Can I give you a note for her?”

“I’m not going to do your dirty work for you. You used her up and now it’s time to skip town, huh?”

“It’s not like that.” He started to leave, but couldn’t help hearing her response.

“No, I’m sure it wasn’t. I’m sure it was beautiful, pure, unadulterated love that went on last night. She thought so.”

He left the bathroom door open slightly, so he could still hear the water. He leaned over an empty note page by the telephone, knowing what he wanted to write, but wondering how to phrase it. The shower stopped and he heard the curtain open. He paused for a moment, then left the page blank and left the apartment quickly.

The pain in his leg was sharp, and as he walked home he began to question the decision to return the wheelchair. As he waited for the light at the first crosswalk, he hunched his shoulders and thrust his hands into his pockets, cradling his cane under his left armpit. He felt something that might be money and pulled it out.

It was a note from Cindy, on a folded piece of note paper that had a picture of a disheveled cartoon blonde behind a desk stacked high with papers.

I was going to wake you to say goodbye, but you looked too comfortable and I am late for work. Thanks for staying last night. Call me when you get settled up there. I miss you already. Love Cindy XOXO.

His heart sank when he read the hugs and kisses. If only he had just said what he had to say on the sidewalk and not gone upstairs. This was bad news. He would have to call her later. He shoved the note back into his pocket and limped across the street.


As he pulled the truck into traffic slowly, it reminded him of the trucks and tractors of home, even though it was relatively small and had an automatic transmission. He hadn’t driven anything but his car for a long time. But he couldn’t go back home if he wanted to. He had to satisfy himself with memories of tractors and of the smell of grass and diesel while cutting.

Returning to Bellingham was something of a homecoming in itself-he had lived there for five years. He waved his hand at the concrete and grime of Seattle by way of farewell. This was an empty valediction to accent a lonely departure; it seemed to contrast sharply with the energy of the club the night before.

But it didn’t take long to put those thoughts away. To be actually on the road, with all his earthly possessions in the back of the truck and heading toward something not completely known made him feel alive again. Besides, he was leaving Cindy and that whole mess behind him in the tangled sheets in her apartment.

Before these last few days, he hadn’t felt free for a long time. It was hard to explain, but it had to do with the unknown, the feeling that he was flirting with something uncontrollable, that he was choosing something that could get away from him. It was like the feeling he’d had in high school when he drove the truck around the corner  without braking and felt for a moment like he was going to overturn. Or a night he remembered only vaguely: headlights and adrenaline and him trying to hustle his inebriated carcass off the road…except this time he didn’t intend to end up with a shattered leg.

He nestled his ass cheeks against the seat as though settling into a nest and stretched his leg. That’s all life is-moving our bodies back and forth to try and make things around us more comfortable. Our friends, our apartments, our jobs. Wiggle around a bit and settle in. Everybody settled in in his own unique way, and nobody would do it in exactly the same way. Go through a fresh cycle of friends every few years or stick with the old ones until you drop. Keep the kitchen appliances polished and bright or use the dishwasher as a storage compartment for plastic grocery bags. Wait for the perfect job and go hungry or take the one that’s really unfulfilling but pays the bills. So here he went, making a new nest again.

Maybe it was the parasites driving him back home to Bellingham. Last Tuesday when he was on the toilet he had read an article in Discover magazine about how parasites can actually influence actions that the host makes. Lancet flukes live in cows and lay their eggs in the intenstines, so the cows shit them out. Snails eat the eggs from the shitpile, the flukes hatch in the snail’s intestines and have more babies which are eventually coughed up by the snail in a slime ball, which is devoured by a passing ant. The flukes find their way to the ant’s head, which they use like a steering wheel, driving the ant like a Cadillac and parking it in the evenings on the tips of grasses, hoping for a grazing cow to munch them during the night and bring them back home.

There is also a barnacle that injects itself into a crab at the elbow, sneaking through a chink in the armor. It sends out roots, stealing nutrients from the crab’s bloodstream, eventually getting far enough to wrap around the crab’s eyestalks. The crab acts as though it’s pregnant while the invader sits there and makes eggs, which the crab gives birth to as if they were its own.

He imagined enormous fingers snaking through his veins and wrapping around behind his eyeballs, and then for a moment he did feel something tickling inside his torso. Was the fluke in his brain driving him to Bellingham for its own sinister purposes? He gripped the wheel and tensed his arms.

“Why are you doing this to me?” he yelled into the empty cab, then burst out laughing.

He turned on the radio and watched the steady stream of dismal traffic heading down into Seattle. The parasites must like that city. There were people who drove all the way from Bellingham and back every day. He felt validated because he was going against the flow, and not in some small way, trying to sneak out of the city in a Geo Metro or something. He was going big, U-Haul-style, taking everything he could take with him and leaving no apologies.

It was good that it was cloudy and wet. For one thing it was easier to look at things that weren’t bright this morning, but it also made him feel better because he felt like he was leaving a dismal chapter of life behind him and heading for something new. Of course, it might be nice to pull into Bellingham in the sun, but that didn’t seem likely.


He was always amazed at how he could zone out while driving, taking corners, braking and accelerating without consciously thinking about it, as though he had an autopilot setting for his brain. He always snapped to attention when something abnormal started to happen-like now. He approached a stopped car that was halfway in his lane and halfway on the shoulder, lights flashing. He performed an emergency shoulder check, pulling halfway into the other lane largely on faith.

He was driving directly over the middle line on the road, half on the left and half on the right; the short painted lines ran underneath him like he was being slowly bisected, running himself very carefully on the serrated edge of a knife, or the blade of a band saw. In the cartoons, the truck would separate into two parts whose paths would slowly pull apart from each other, starting off almost invisibly and then veering apart and back together repeatedly.

He pulled back into the slow lane because the tow dolly that was holding his car had been designed for a maximum speed of 45 miles per hour. Whenever cars passed him he was tempted to speed up but he didn’t want to lose the car on the highway.


Bellingham looked the same as two days ago, but it felt different, maybe because this was not just a visit anymore. He exited the freeway and traced his way around corners and past stores that were familiar, others that were new. This was near the university, in what was known to students as “the ghetto.”

He pulled into the narrow parking lot beside two old houses and a small apartment complex, trying to stay toward the far side, just past the dumpster and the recycling bins so as not to double park the row of cars. He unfolded the torn envelope from his back pocket and re-read the instructions he had jotted while on the phone yesterday.

-First floor: if door unlocked OK; if not knock; if no one home call

-key in closet #4

-beside water heater

-call to confirm when moved in

-leave check in bottom drawer ($750 = first+last+deposit)

-to: Gordon Nerburn


He folded the note again and pocketed it, then looked around and felt distinctly that this was not home. The house was two stories high, built on the slope of a small hill that ran down from 26th Street. The two carports, already occupied, were off the side of the building nearest the parking lot and opposite the hill. Tiny covered balconies from each room looked like the entrances to caves.

His balcony would be on the other side, on the corner of the first floor. He decided to walk in and take a look around. He mounted the concrete staircase which led up to a set of wooden steps. The front door was unlocked and he opened it cautiously, peeking in so he didn’t surprise anyone, but there was no one home.

It was more dingy and run-down than it had seemed a few days ago. Each of the four numbered doors that came off this room had a small accordion-style closet door beside it. He pulled his open and found an upright vacuum cleaner and a small hot-water tank. There were two small shelves beside it, and one of them had a sheet of white paper on it. He lifted it and found three keys lying underneath, labeled with shaky handwriting on masking tape: Laundry; Front door; Apt. #4.

He smiled. This would be an interesting landlord. It was all clandestine and secretive. Here he had taken the keys from their hiding spot in a closet and was moving in, with directions to leave the money in one of the drawers in the kitchen. Next month, maybe he would be instructed to put it in an unmarked paper bag, drop it into the dumpster outside and walk away; Gordon Nerburn would be watching, and he would come disguised as a garbage man to collect.

The deadbolt snapped back and Rob pushed the door open. It was dark. Dim light filtered through the hanging blinds on the sliding door directly across the room, illuminating it enough to see that it was completely bare except for the refrigerator immediately to the right of the entrance. He searched for the light switch and found it on the wall halfway behind the fridge.

He pulled the cord to open the blinds and looked out to the balcony. It was more of a deck than a balcony because of the slope of the hill. His view consisted of a lot of dead grass which peaked at the road in a cluster of trees and bushes. They looked as though they had been planted up there to hide the road from the people on the deck, or maybe to hide the deck from the cars.

He propped the door open by wedging his cane underneath the doorknob and walked back out to the truck. He started hauling the smaller boxes while he worked on a plan to get the big items in without wrecking himself. He stacked the manageable ones in the middle of the room, slowly building the base outwards as the partially filled boxes crushed each other and the pile began to lean. It was going to be a bear to unpack this.

When he stepped back into the kitchen, he saw a lanky guy with shaggy hair, probably a student, turning a key in the lock to number two.

“Excuse me.”

“What’s up.”

“I’m Rob. Moving in to number four.”

“Chad. Number two.” He pointed at the plastic number that was screwed to his door as evidence.

“Nice to meet you. Could I ask you a favor? I busted up my leg a while ago, and I’m not supposed to strain it. Would you help me move a few of the bigger things in? I’ll pay you.”

Chad’s eyes had reflexively dropped to study Rob’s legs as soon as he had mentioned them and bobbed back to his face in the time it took to process the childhood command, Don’t stare.


There wasn’t much that was very large: the fold-out sofa, an easy chair, the entertainment stand and the television. Chad had gone next door and recruited Kenton to be the double. They moved a bunch of the smaller items as well, and they had it in the apartment in under twenty minutes. It wasn’t organized, but it was inside, placed around the perimeter of the boxes that Rob had stacked.

Rob gave them twenty dollars, which they refused to accept initially, until he told them to go buy some beer. He was relieved that it had worked itself out so well. He closed up the apartment and got back in the truck. He was out of practice-it took three tries to back the trailer out of the parking lot before he headed out toward the nearest U-Haul drop point.

After he had gotten rid of the truck, he drove back in the direction of the apartment, taking a detour to drive by the university, and a handful of houses where he had lived before. One of them, the one he had lived in as a junior, had been torn down and rebuilt, but the others were all there. He sat outside of the one he had lived in most recently and for the shortest amount of time, feeling like a stalker sitting there in the car and watching, but wanting to see. It would have been better to have parked a few doors down, but this was where the open spot was. He hoped nobody noticed him and made a show of checking his watch every so often, as though he had agreed to meet someone in front of this house.

The flower garden was still there, though it was bare dirt at the moment. The house was still white, and the same ugly pea green trim lined the windows and the deck. Someone had taken down Natalie’s hand-painted street number, replacing the free-spirited “312” and the brightly colored stylized flowers with generic silver decals from a hardware store. The tree out front had been pruned a little too enthusiastically; it reminded him of a newly clipped dog or a sheep after shearing. Mostly it was the same. If he made a list of what was different and what was the same, mostly it was the same.

Somehow it felt good to see things relatively unchanged-he wasn’t sure why-but it also resurrected all the emotions that he had carefully buried, all the unanswered questions, the hurt. This house was where she had ended it. She was the only girl who had ever broken up with him; all the other times he had been the one to initiate it. Sitting here and examining the house’s every detail was like slowly peeling the scab off of an old wound. If he had stayed in Seattle, all this would have stayed dead.

He was an idiot. What next: knock on the door and ask if he could just take a peek inside? “Ah, excuse me, I just need to check if the rim on the toilet seat is still loose, if you don’t mind. And while I’m here anyway, can I push your couch back and see if that hammer hole in the drywall remains? I used to live here, it’s okay.”

He missed Natalie. He should not have come back to Bellingham-what was he going to tell her? There really was no reason for him to be here. She was going to assume that it was her. Maybe it was.

A boy of about fifteen walked by, his skateboard under one arm, and turned his head to look at Rob as he walked by. Rob jerked his arm up and reflexively checked his watch. He shook his head, trying to act perturbed, carrying on the act even though the boy had already passed by.

He pulled out and started back up the hill. He turned the volume of the stereo up, tuning in to a Vancouver station. It wasn’t enough to drown out the flapping plastic; he wasn’t sure if it was even an improvement. He had had enough of unpacking and didn’t feel like sitting home alone on the first night in town, especially considering it was a Saturday night. He might as well call her.

He turned into a gas station and parked beside the payphone. It was funny, in a way, to have to look up Natalie’s phone number; it was a powerful reminder of the fact that no matter how tempting it was to look at the familiarity of Bellingham and the old houses, things were not the way they once were.

He found her number easily-the last name was still Williams, as he had hoped. He hadn’t seen a ring on her finger in the restaurant, but there were two years to account for and who could say for sure if that meant anything? He imagined calling her and getting a burly man’s voice, enjoying and hating the tension he was building up within himself.

He pulled the telephone book as far as the chain would allow and held it against the glass with his body. He was patting his pockets in search of a pen to write her number down when his cell phone rang. He had a momentary, irrational conviction that it was Natalie. It was an unlisted number.

“Rob?” she asked brightly.

“Yeah?” he said cautiously, knowing she did not have his cell number. He felt tangled up inside, like he had swallowed his stomach.

“It’s Cindy! How was the ride?”

“It was…fine,” he said, leaning his head back against the glass and closing his eyes. “I think I should’ve been a trucker.”

She laughed. “There’s still time.” He could hear a crowd in the background. “I can’t talk long. We’re taking everyone to a show tonight-high school theater. I just wanted to say hi and see how the trip was.”

“Well, ah appree-shiate that.” The telephone book was slipping out from behind him. He pulled a pen from his jacket, shifting his weight to check the other pocket for paper. “I just dropped the truck off. I got two of my neighbors to move the heavy stuff. Nothing’s organized yet.”

“You know you’re crazy, right?”


They both listened to the people in the background for a moment, and Rob started to jot down Natalie’s phone number on a scrap of paper from his pocket.

“What are you going to do tonight?”

“I’m not sure yet. Haven’t made any plans,” he said.

“Rob-have you talked to her yet?” Her voice was quieter than it had been a moment ago.

“Who?” He stopped his pen for a moment, adjusted the cell phone between his shoulder and ear. He quickly finished taking the number down and let the phone book drop.

“You know. That girl.”

“What, Natalie?” He paused as though waiting for an answer. The phone book was swinging on the end of the chain. “No, I haven’t. I’m not even unpacked yet.”

“I was just wondering.” She said. “Do you think you will?”

“Oh, I guess I’ll probably get around to it sometime,” he said. “We used to be good friends.”

“Yeah. Did you get my note?”

“I got it.”

He turned the scrap of paper over in his hand. The cartoon woman still looked harried, her hair springing out all over. He re-read what she had written that morning. Natalie’s phone number was embossed in reverse in the middle of Cindy’s loose script.

“I should run, I think the show’s starting.”

“Hey, let’s talk some night when you’ve got more time, okay?”

“That would be good,” she said. “Bye, Rob.”

“Talk to you later. Thanks for calling.”

He turned the phone off and stepped out of the booth. Two boys were standing next to the door of the booth, a pudgy one and a smaller one with a bad case of acne. The thin one was holding a quarter between two fingers, ready to be inserted. They looked like high school students-the ones that all the other kids made fun of.

“Maybe next time you can talk outside on your phone so we can use this one,” he muttered as Rob walked by.

He could have let it pass, but it struck him the wrong way. Smart-ass kids these days. What was he, fifteen? He didn’t turn but muttered back as he opened the car door. “Maybe next time you can stick it up your ass.”

Rob swung the car around and gave them the finger as he drove by, then held the phone number against the steering wheel and dialed as he waited at the exit for a break in traffic. It would have felt better to be able to squeal out right away after giving someone the finger like that instead of having to sit there. It was starting to feel kind of silly.

“Hello?” It was a man’s voice. He couldn’t think what to say. He missed an opening in traffic.

“I, uh, is this the Natalie residence?”

The man made a sound like a rush of air leaving nostrils. “Well, I guess it is. It’s also the Shawn residence and the Tinker residence. Would you like to talk with Natalie?”

“Please.” He pulled into traffic, turning in the direction of his apartment.

He could hear the phone clatter against something hard, as though it had been set down roughly on a countertop. He tried to make out the voices he could hear indistinctly in the background. What was he doing? She was probably living with this guy. Maybe Tinker was their child. She was the sort of person who would name a child Tinker. Maybe he should just hang up-he hadn’t given his name yet.

“Hello?” Too late.

“Natalie! It’s Rob.”

“Oh!” He gave her a moment to digest the information. “Wow, that’s twice in one week. Twice in three days, even.”

He was having trouble hearing her, so he pulled to the side of the road to silence the flapping of the bag in the back window.

“That you heard from me, you mean.”

“Well, yeah. I mean, two years of silence, and then twice in one week. I think a little bit of surprise is understandable.”

“I guess. But there are special circumstances. I was just calling because I’m here.”

“You’re in Bellingham again?”

“I moved in today.”

“Moved in? Wow.” She stopped talking, then continued, leaving a gap of silence like an irregular heartbeat. “You thought about that one for a really long time, didn’t you. Not that it’s bad! I mean, it might be good, well, it is good.”

“Thanks so much. I feel all warm and fuzzy inside.”

“Come on.” There was another awkward pause. This wasn’t going well. “Well, we’re having a few friends over tonight, so if you want to stop by, feel free. We’re just going to be hanging out.”

“Maybe I will. Where do you live?”

“Oh yeah. We’re on the corner of Chestnut and Garden. There’s a few bikes locked up on the porch beside a beat-up old recliner, and the house is white with brown trim.”

“Not pea green?” he asked, regretting it instantly.

“No, it’s…no, definitely not pea green.”


He dug around in his bags and boxes until he found his toiletries and a towel. As he shook the shaving cream, he noticed that the basin of the sink had a chip out of it. He hadn’t filled out a damage report yet. He hadn’t called Gordon Nerburn yet either, or put the money in the drawer.

He set the bottle down and stepped back into the main room to do that before he forgot. He dialed the number, holding the phone with one hand while he searched for his checkbook with the other.


“Hi, Gordon-” He was cut off.

“…please leave me a message. I will contact you.”

“Hello Gordon, this is Rob Erickson. We talked on the phone the other day and I’m calling to let you know I’ve arrived and have my stuff inside the room. I’ll put the check in the agreed upon location.”

He wrote the check and tore it off, then stepped out into the main room. Chad was stirring macaroni in a pot on the stove.

“Hey, Chad. What’s up.”

“Oh, hey…Rick?” He looked apologetic.

“Rob.” The drawer was on the other side of Chad, so he walked around the island. “Do you see the landlord much?”

“Nope. He’s not around too much.”

“I’m supposed to put the money in this drawer.”

“Oh, yeah. If you’re late paying, he sometimes does that so he can pick it up right away. Money must be tight. Usually he wants it in the mail, but if you forget, he wants to get it right away. He lives out of town or something.”

Rob dropped it in and slid the drawer closed again. Chad made no move to let him through the short-cut back to his room, so he started back around the island.

“What do you do again?” Chad asked, as though Rob had told him before. “School? Work?”

Rob paused. “Nope. Nothing, really,” he said, and wondered what the hell he was doing here.


He scraped two days of stubble into the sink and rubbed his hands on his smooth cheeks to search for patches that felt like Velcro. He slung his towel over the bathroom door, realizing for the first time that he had no shower curtain. He stripped down, folding his clothes onto the floor to act as sponges, and angled the water toward the inside wall of the shower.

It wasn’t easy to shower while trying to keep his body between the water and the lack of a curtain; eventually he just gave up and tried to go as quickly as possible. He could smell cigarettes as the water ran through his hair and down his face.

When he was done the mirror was completely fogged, so he picked his boxers up and wiped it as best as he could. He analyzed his face in the mirror, trying to remember what he had looked like two years ago. When you see yourself every day the changes are gradual-hair slowly disappears here, sneaks in there. He was probably a little less bulky than he used to be, but not much. Even his hairstyle, if it was a style, was the same: cropped short all around with the front slightly longer and spiked, like a counterpoint to the goatee.

Like she cared. He wrapped the towel around his waist and stepped over the pile of mushy clothes into his room. He didn’t feel like organizing or unpacking anything else, but he didn’t want to arrive at Natalie’s house too early, either. He was starting to wonder whether he should even go. He pulled on a fresh pair of boxers and wrapped his blanket around himself, collapsing in the chair.

He felt like he had just failed a test. Bellingham already seemed as dingy and filthy as Seattle. Now here he was with no job, no plan, and one possible friend who had a family. Maybe they’d ask him to babysit, or let him watch The Little Mermaid with them.

He hadn’t unpacked the boxes yet, so there was still the possibility that he could grab Gordon Nerburn’s check out of the drawer and run. The only problem was that he’d have to reload a truck, and he had no place to go.

He should have at least talked to Natalie for more than two minutes before casting his life back at her feet. But he told everyone that she had no part in the decision to move back. If you tell a lie to enough people you begin to believe it, but that doesn’t mean that it begins to come true.

He yawned. What were his parasites going to do about this?


The car seemed to be driving itself, and all the controls responded sluggishly, as though there was a delay built in. He wanted to get to Natalie’s house, but the streets all seemed to be rearranged; Chestnut and Garden weren’t where they were supposed to be. The car was enormous. His feet barely reached the pedals.

Cindy and Dave were asleep in the back seat, wrapped up in cocoons, oblivious to everything. A car in front of him slowed down, and he slid ahead on the seat to jam the brake pedal down. The car decelerated casually, stopping only inches from the rear bumper in front of him. The pedal was soft and kept sinking. When he had it completely down to the floor and he was standing off the seat completely, straining with his leg to reach and still be able to see over the dash, the car began to crawl forward again.

He saw a house with pea green trim to his left, but the brakes were gone and the car was slowly picking up speed again. He opened the door and jumped out, leaving the two sleeping in the back seat as the car pulled away.

The door to the house was open, but it opened into his apartment in Seattle, somehow. He walked through the kitchen, observing stacks of dishes on the counter with a sinking feeling. Someone had put his couch back in the living room, and the television. He tried to remember why that seemed wrong.

He pushed the door to the bedroom open, and his bed was there, strewn with clothes. He recognized a blouse of Cindy’s on the floor in front of him; he picked it up and sat on the bed. Natalie walked out of the closet, in the same jeans and sweater that she had been wearing in the Mexican restaurant. He smiled at her, relieved because now he remembered that he had been trying to find her.

She smiled back, but it was emotionless. He got up to give her a hug. A small fleshy worm slid out of her mouth, bright pink, as though her uvula had elongated and was out exploring. It moved slowly in a circular motion, tasting the air. Natalie’s stomach swelled and he reached out reflexively. A baby fell into his hands, wide-eyed and quiet.


He felt sick. His eyes felt tight, dry. He rubbed the snot from the corners of his eyes and looked around, blinking rapidly to try and budge his contacts, to moisten them. Sleeping before bedtime always disoriented him, and he always seemed to dream more than usual. It felt like the beginning of a new day after he had slept for days. Slowly things fell into place. Bellingham. Moving in. Natalie. It was completely dark outside and he had no clock set up in the room yet; he was sure he had just slept through the evening.

Whomever had lived here last had made a little star system on the ceiling with glow-in-the-dark stickers. He searched for constellations for a moment and smiled, surprised at how the surprise of worthless bits of plastic and phosphors could feel like a gift. Sure, the room is small, but look-there are little stickers on the ceiling.

It reminded him of the ceiling of one of mad King Ludwig’s rooms in Bavaria. He and Nat had visited it when they went through Germany. After Ludwig’s father had died, he had a night sky painted on the royal bedroom ceiling, then had the stars gouged out. They wedged fragments of crystal in the holes and lit oil lamps in the room above so the stars flickered below. Glow-in-the-dark was the modern equivalent: easier and even more artificial, more removed from reality.

The room was cold. He pulled some clothes out of his suitcase and put them on before locating and adjusting the thermostat. He stuck his head under the tap and sucked up some water to try and dilute the feeling in his stomach.

He limped out to the car-his leg wasn’t hurting as much as before-and turned the key backwards in the ignition to light up the clock. 9:17. Earlier than it felt and he could still stop in.


The house lights were on when he drove by, but the blinds were closed and he couldn’t see in. He felt nervous about the fact that he was moments away from finding out for sure that he had just moved to Bellingham for no reason at all. It might be better to drive away and pretend this never happened-at least he could try to fool himself into believing that there had been the possibility of something if he had stayed. The remote potential for something seemed better than the absolute certainty of nothing.

He stopped the car anyway. He parked a half block away so that he could walk for a moment before arriving and wake completely. Light from inside an old Presbyterian church pushed its way through a handful of stained glass windows near the front doors, the colors rich and deep in contrast to the stark street lamps. They were like the backlit signs at a strip mall, but instead of U-bake pizza, the offer was salvation. Everything was an advertisement.

He walked up the sidewalk toward the corner and looked at the house. Two old bicycles were chained on the front deck underneath the mailbox. He hugged his arms around himself, wanting not to go in. He hoped no one would open the door or peek through the blinds and see him standing there. He was feeling self-conscious, and he hadn’t even met anyone yet-but he was generally good at swallowing his discomfort and pretending he fit in. He prepared himself.

The button for the doorbell was cracked and unlit. A small, weathered piece of paper was tacked above it; a loose sketch of a hand with the fingers bunched into a fist and block letters above it directed him to “do it the old-fashioned way,” as though doorbells were a new fad that the residents of this particular house refused to give in to. He knocked.

A belly dancer opened the door, her skirt fluid as though her torso was floating on air. She was beautiful, but seemed very tired and too thin.

“You must be Rob,” she said, taking his hand and leading him in. “We were wondering if you were going to show up or not. I’m Tinker. Natalie’s told us all about you.” She emphasized the word all.

He felt numb; he could have kissed her if he weren’t frozen. She was Tinker! He felt like running, but allowed Tinker to lead him into the living room. The place smelled like dope.

He saw Natalie right away, sitting on the couch with her knees up, watching him come around the corner with a curious smile.

“Well, hey, you decided to grace us with your presence after all.” She got to her feet and gave him a light hug. He hugged back with force.

“You didn’t think I’d come?”

She broke his hold, turning around. “Hey everyone, this is Rob-Rob, this is everyone. I’ll let them introduce themselves. Here, have a seat. We’re kind of low key tonight.”

He heard the names but didn’t pay attention to remembering them. He was still thinking about the fact that Tinker was not a child, and especially the fact that she was not Natalie’s child. He nodded at each person and said the required words after they had introduced themselves. When it came to Shawn, he snapped out of it, remembering him from the phone and remembering that he lived with Natalie.

“Hey, Rob. We already met, kind of.”

“Kind of,” Rob agreed.

He was short and stocky, with close-cut hair and a direct look about him. He was massaging another girl’s shoulders, and Rob felt himself relaxing.

“This is Dara.” He clapped his hands twice on her shoulders and let them rest there.

She passed a something to him over her shoulder, then leaned her head back to look up at him. He inhaled and then leaned forward and kissed her. They coughed and giggled.

Rob sat next to Shawn and Wade, a greasy-haired guy with slouched posture. He hadn’t said anything but his name when introducing himself. He seemed strange, not completely safe.

Tinker came back from the kitchen with a glass of water and paused for just a moment when she found Rob in her seat.

“So anyway, now Rob’s here, so we’ll have to talk about someone else.” She sat herself in Wade’s lap, draping an arm around his neck.

“You just got in today?” Natalie asked.

“Yeah. Thursday I looked at a few places and I signed up over the phone yesterday. I’m not sure how it’ll be, but I didn’t have much time.” He was formulating his reasons in his mind and hoping no one would ask him why he moved.

“You’re not sure how what will be?”

“The place I’m in, I guess. The landlord seems a little eccentric, and it’s pretty small.”

Natalie got up. “Anybody want a cup of coffee?”

She counted and went into the kitchen. She looked older, but not old. He remembered other times that she had stood up, other times she had walked away.

“Natalie, Rob was looking at your bum!” Tinker shrieked. “He was staring at it the whole way to the kitchen.”

“Come on,” he murmured, unsure how to respond in this group. Everyone was laughing at him.

“Why’d you come back here, anyway?”

There it was. He thought it was a bit aggressive but he had worked out his defense.

“Well, it’s kind of a long story.” He saw half of Natalie beyond the door to the kitchen as she moved into a position to see him. “I got hit by a car last year and had to roll in a wheelchair for a while. So I’ve been walking and riding the wheelchair off and on for a while, and I decided it might be better here, you know, with all the hiking trails around. So I can walk it around on something other than concrete.”

They seemed to be digesting that.

“Bullshit,” Tink said and snuggled into Wade. Natalie disappeared again.

“What are you going to do here besides hike around?” Shawn asked through a mouthful of a cookie.

Rob raised his shoulders and left them up. “I’ve got to figure that out yet.”

“Must be nice.”

Natalie set a tray of coffee cups on the table.

Shawn scratched his stubble and wiped his mouth with his fingers. “Hey, if we go camping next weekend, we’ll do a little hiking. Rob can come.”

“Shawn wants to go camping next weekend,” Natalie said.

Rob felt awkward sitting there and talking about plans and everyday life. He and Natalie had two years of the past in between them like a giant void that he wanted to rush and fill, but not with all these others around. He didn’t want to ask her if she wanted to go for a walk, either-she might say no. So he sat, and laughed, and joked as if there was nothing strange about being in Natalie’s house.

Tinker offered Rob a drag, turning the cigarette she had just lit toward him.

“Nah. I get paranoid. Last time this dog started barking outside and I went psycho, throwing myself against doors and walls, trying to get away.”

“Give it another chance,” she said.

“No thanks. Can you give me a light, though?” He pulled out his smokes and shook one out.

Tinker shrugged and threw a matchbook at him. “Whatever, but even Natalie’s partaking tonight.”

“Can I smoke in here?” he asked with the cigarette dangling from his lips, inches from a lit match.

“You can do anything you want,” Tinker said. “We’re going to have to air this place out anyway.”

Rob leaned towards Natalie, pulling his cap off and scratching his head, his cigarette held between two fingers, the filter toward his head.

“You know, it was weird, I accidentally fell asleep just before I came here and I had this crazy dream.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Well, first of all, I guess, was when Shawn answered the phone, he said it was the Natalie and Shawn and Tinker residence, and it sounded like a little family. So I was thinking Tinker was, well, you and Shawn’s baby,” he said, addressing Natalie.

Tinker screamed, clapping her hand over her mouth, and Natalie laughed. Shawn was smiling faintly, as though he were enduring the topic, but not especially enjoying it.

“Sometimes it feels that way,” Natalie said, grinning at Tinker.

Rob took a drag. “All evening I had this idea that maybe I’d come over here and there’d be a little kid running around, and stuffed animals on the floor.” He stopped talking and there was silence, as though they were waiting for more. “That’s my story.”

“Isn’t it past Tink’s bedtime?” someone asked.

“It’s always past Tink’s bedtime.”

Natalie was looking intently at him. “What about the dream?”

“Oh!” He shrugged. “It was stupid. I don’t even remember too much of it, just one image sticks out. It’s not as good as I made it sound.”

“Well, you have to tell us now,” she said.

“Okay. From what I remember, it went like this: I was coming into my apartment in Seattle, but it was mixed up…no, I was coming in an old house, you know the one we had on Alabama?”

Natalie nodded, her eyebrows pinched in the middle as she listened.

“Well, I was walking in there, but as soon as I got through the door, it was actually my apartment in Seattle. You were in there and I gave you a hug, and a little worm poked out of your mouth.”

Everyone was smiling politely, except Natalie, who was still at rapt attention. She nodded for him to continue as he put the cigarette to his lips again.

“This part’s kind of bizarre,” he said, the words escaping in explosions of smoke from his mouth, fading away into the haze that was developing above them. “But your stomach started to expand, kind of like a balloon, and I reached over and this baby fell out from under your sweater.”

Tink started laughing and said how beautiful it was to hear her birth story, but Natalie was scowling. She picked up her mug and took a long drink, hiding behind it. When she put it back down, her face was expressionless.

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