Read Grist Mill Road Online

Authors: Christopher J. Yates

Grist Mill Road (33 page)

 

ROSEBORN, NEW YORK, 2008

She sees their blue car half concealed by pine trees, parked in front of a split rock, remembering them leaving their bicycles in the same spot twenty-six years ago, but no sign of her husband now, McCluskey stopping the car, getting out fast, a lone trail leading away from the road, McCluskey pushing his gun into its holster as they head out together on the path she remembers, and even if McCluskey were to keep quiet, someone will think to suspect Patch if he goes through with what he wrote, someone will find the message he sent her this morning. What was he thinking? She prays they will not be too late.

McCluskey is surprisingly fast over the ground, Hannah working hard to keep up, the story jumping through her mind in fragments, like cards being flashed in front of her eye, McCluskey pausing to help her over the rocks, Hannah tiring now, and again she can feel the sense of that pistol being pressed to her head, the same spot on her temple where the nightmares fire up in the dark, the dreams in which she remembers the smell of his teeth,
say it again,
and then suddenly she is tied to a tree, feeling the sting of those pellets on her skin, a pain like being punched in the eye, never a harder punch in the world, and then darkness, dark like a cave, her eye like a cave.

The trail carries them over hollows choked with tree roots,
across the heat-baked earth, the ground studded with half-buried rocks, the path coming to a fork.

Which way, Aitch? You remember?

She thinks about Patch and a red bandana soaked in water.

There was a stream, she says, panting, out of breath, McCluskey nodding and pulling her along the path that heads down into a shallow valley, and the closer she gets to that place, the more she can hear it, like moving toward a waterfall, the sound starting out like a whisper, building up to a roar, as she remembers her words.
Because you're a faggot.

The scree on the steep trail makes the path almost slick, Hannah trying not to fall as she remembers how the words came out of her, not even thinking what she would say before she spoke it out loud, especially not that final word, something she heard at school a hundred times a week, the confusion of a young girl, a different kind of world, twenty-six years ago, another century.

There are other words. What if she'd used another word? Would it have made any difference?

They cross the stream, and she knows they must be nearing the place, remembering the way Patch had moved that red bandana toward her, holding it up to what was left of her eye, and the look on his face, that's when she realized how bad it was, Patch's cheeks turning pale, a sense of him wanting to recoil.

The trail starts to rise, sheer rock face on one side, the other thick with mountain laurel, McCluskey turning to help her, another shelf of rocks, but Hannah gesturing to stop as she remembers pushing through bushes, and she points off through the branches toward a place she will never forget.

Stay here, Aitch, he whispers, but when McCluskey turns off the trail, she follows him into the brushwood and dried leaves, the undergrowth brown like butcher's paper, and then into the thicket of glossy leaves, the tangle of branches, stepping carefully, quietly.

Until suddenly McCluskey halts, throwing his hand back to stop her as he reaches for the gun beneath his jacket, but Hannah takes another step, a twig snapping underfoot, and she can see past his shoulder, into the clearing.

There it is.

She remembers the tree, the same tree, only this time it is Matthew tied to that tree.

And Patrick is holding the gun.

*   *   *

HE STANDS BACK, EXAMINING THE
ropes and the knots, the shotgun hanging in his right hand. Matthew appears groggy but with a look in his eyes as if he still believes he can talk his way out of this. And Patrick supposes he did promise to remove the tape from his mouth. Besides, what harm can it do now?

He is about to step forward when a sound comes from the bushes and Patrick raises the shotgun, steadying it with his other hand as he swings around, turning and seeing a man at the edge of the clearing. The man reaches under his jacket.

Patrick lifts the shotgun to his shoulder, cocking the hammer. He is about to shoot when he notices someone else and his finger loosens its tension on the trigger.

Hannah?

And now the man in the bushes has a gun pointed at him. Patrick, hey, it's Mike McCluskey, the man shouts. We met one time, right? Detective McCluskey. Look, will you do me a favor? Can you lower your weapon?

Hannah? he calls out.

Patch, it's me, she says. Patch, listen, everything's OK.

Mike McCluskey? Yes, Patrick does know the name, Detective McCluskey, he always passes on the best details to Hannah. The detective waves his hand. Patrick, keep your eyes on me, buddy, just me, he says. Remember, you made brisket? Best damn brisket I ever had. So how about you put down the gun, Patrick? Come on, we can talk about this.

Hannah! he says, everything starting to become clear as the detective shouts something else. But Patrick isn't listening to the words, noticing only how the birds in the treetops haven't stopped singing and then hearing the sound of his own breath in his head, his breath and his thoughts swirling together, everything falling
into place now. There is only one path, nothing can be undone and Patrick can see his own path like a light, how could anything else matter, how could he ever have thought himself lost if this is where the path was leading him? Now he sees Hannah more clearly than ever before, understands her better than he's ever understood anything, seeing her as she sees him, the distance between them nothing but air, a space so empty he can hear what she's thinking, what she wants him to do, what she has always wanted him to do, the look in her eye perfectly clear.

Life has always been sending him back here. It feels so inevitable now, this ending, a sense of purpose at last.

Patrick, please, I need you to drop the weapon
now
!

He turns and pulls the trigger.

*   *   *

A KIND OF DARKNESS STARTS
to fade and Patrick opens his eyes, a weight pressing down on him, as if rocks have been piled high on his chest. And then he hears a voice as everything starts to turn softly blue. Hannah's voice, a warm sound. Patch? Patch? Oh God, Patch.

That's it, keep the pressure on, right there, Aitch. I got no fuckin signal in this place, I'll go and get help.

Patrick is looking up at the sky, its darkening blue. But then he sees Hannah. This is everything, there is nothing else in his world.

He is lying on his back, wondering how he got there. And now he remembers, feeling again the kick of the shotgun in his hands, a prickling in his fingers.

Her eye is wet. He tries to speak, tries to say her name,
Hah,
and she hushes him but he has to speak, he has to,
Hah
 … What happened, Hannah? Am I shot?

Yes, Patch. Yes you are. But someone's going to come and help you. Very soon, I promise.

Matthew?

He's dead, Patch, Matthew's dead.

Did I save you?

Yes, you saved me, Patch, of course you did. I always knew you would.

He was coming after you. I had to stop him this time.

Yes! Yes, he was coming after me, Patch.

Had me fired. Him and Trevino. Together.

Oh, Patch.

I was never on his side. I was always with you, Hannah.

I know, Patch, I'm so sorry.

No, it's like an escape.

An escape from what, Patch?

What? I don't know. What did I say?

Patch, everything's going to be OK now.

Yes. I love you, Hannah.

I love you too, Patch, so much.

Then that's the only thing … he says, wanting to say something more. But there are no words left. To have loved her has made everything in his life shine, that's what he wanted to say. He hopes she heard him anyway.

Patrick can feel his breath leaving him now, the warmth of him ebbing away, everything beginning its return to the earth. Yes, it all makes sense. He is nothing but borrowed parts, pieces large and small that must be returned, some of them given and some of them taken—from the dust, from the oceans, from the fields, from the sky—but now it is the world's turn to take of him, soon he will come to be sustenance, this is how everything works.

Hannah blinks, the light of her eye falling on him like a raindrop as he thinks about the smallest pieces of him rolling away, stones spilling from the mountaintop, pebbles dropping into a lake, everything falling into the blue.

And the lake is the blue. And her eye is the lake. Because that's where he sees it, his life with her beginning, its light in the blaze of her eye as he falls deeper and deeper into the blue.

Where they kiss. For the first time, the last time, they kiss. And it surprises him how gently unfolding it is.

 

INTO THE BLUE

I bought it at a drugstore Saturday morning and wore it all day, noticing how it made the world swim as I bumped into things, stepping unsteadily from curbs and climbing steps clumsily, my feet looking sometimes too close to me and sometimes too far away. It was the same with my hands, which didn't seem to belong to me in this strange half-world.

At eight o'clock, I changed clothes and headed out into the dimming light, the sidewalks swelling with life as I walked the awkward mile or so to the Flatiron District, getting more and more used to it but still not at ease on my feet.

I was deliberately five minutes late. That night I would let you arrive first, Hannah, wanting you to see me make my entrance.

So before I went inside, I peered in through the restaurant window. And there you were, sitting at the table, so pretty it made me giddy with joy to think of spending even one minute in your company. What would it be like to spend half a lifetime with someone like you? It felt as if I had chanced upon something new in the world—love, happiness—and this discovery both thrilled me and terrified me. Because what if I couldn't find my way into your life? Now that I'd seen this prize shimmering in the distance, understanding at last that there truly is love in the world, what would
happen if I lost my way and couldn't reach you? I felt sick and afraid and euphoric.

As the waiter led me toward the table, you glanced up, clapping your hands to your mouth in shock when you saw me.

I was about to wave hello when I misjudged how close the tables were on my left-hand side, my thigh knocking into a corner, cutlery rattling angrily, a wineglass falling over and its contents quickly staining the tablecloth. The man at the table yelled an oath at me as his wife let out a yelp. When I turned to apologize and the man saw my face, his expression changed quickly from enraged to sympathetic.

Dammit,
I said,
I'm so sorry. Please, let me
 
…
I reached for a napkin to mop up the spill.

Hey, that's OK,
said the man.
Accidents happen, right?

A small platoon of waiters were hurrying over to clear up the mess I'd made.

No, my fault,
I said,
will you let me buy you a bottle of wine or
…
? It didn't spill on you at all, did it?
I said to the woman.

No, it's no problem
, she said, dabbing at a line of red spots on her cream-colored skirt.
Everything's fine
.

Are you sure?

Go ahead and sit down,
said the man, waving me away.
Enjoy yourself. Hey, and here's a tip—the blue crab salad. Delicious!

Thank you,
I said.
And again, I'm so sorry
.

Don't mention it,
said the woman.
Have fun
.

I turned, seeing that you still had your hands clamped over your mouth, and walked very carefully to our table. When I leaned in to kiss you on the cheek, you whispered,
It suits you, Patrick
.

I sat down and adjusted the eyepatch, which I was wearing over my left eye.
Don't you think it's time you started calling me Patch?
I said.

You laughed and tilted your head to one side as you looked me over.
It really is a good look,
you said.
It makes you appear dashing, slightly mysterious. And blue was a great choice of color. With that suit? Perfect.

Are you sure?
I said
. It's just that yours is black. I didn't want to go too matchy-matchy
.

Right,
you said,
I hate those couples who color-coordinate their medical accessories
.

I just wanted to try and understand what it's like for you,
I said. Then I started to tell you all about my day wearing the eyepatch, the simple tasks I'd found so much harder, the problems with depth perception, the soreness of my neck after turning my head to my blind side so often, the small children in the checkout line who'd asked me whether I was a pirate and how I'd told them that I was indeed, the delight on their faces when I added that my name was Captain Patch and asked if they'd like to hear a pirate joke.

You know pirate jokes?
you said.

Only one,
I said.
Why are pirates called pirates?

I have no idea, Captain Patch.

Because they arrrrr
.

You laughed again, an unsuppressed laugh that made me think life with you would be endlessly wild and spontaneous.

You know what else happened?
I said.
People spoke to me. I mean complete strangers spoke to me. It was like I wasn't living in New York anymore. And something else weird—they were all nice to me.

That's happened to me as well,
you said
. Often people open up more when I'm interviewing them. Sometimes it's awkward with the lack of movement in my prosthetic, as if people aren't sure which eye to look at. That's not a problem when I'm wearing the patch
.

I reached into my jacket and took out an index card, notes I'd written earlier.
Right, Hannah,
I said
, I have one last thing to say about eyepatches and pirates and then I promise never to bring any of this up again
.

OK, what's going on?
you said, a note of playful suspicion entering your voice.

I did a little research,
I said
. Here we go, my top five fun facts about pirates. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

You leaned in, your eye so bright it was like a light swinging toward me. And then, clearing my throat, I started.
Fun fact number one. Modern-day pirates are considered criminals but many pi
rates several centuries ago were state-sponsored fortune hunters. A letter of marque granted the holder permission to capture enemy merchant ships and therefore was effectively a license for piracy—these pirates were known as privateers. Some pirates-slash-privateers, such as Sir Francis Drake of England, were considered national heroes.

Wow!
you said.
You can't beat national hero status.

No, you cannot,
I said.
Now, fun fact number two. The first captain to successfully lead an expedition to circumnavigate the globe was a pirate. By the way, if they told you at school that Magellan was the first person to circumnavigate the world, that wasn't quite true, he died halfway around in the Philippines and his crew finished the journey without him. No, it was the state-sponsored pirate Sir Francis Drake who completed the entire voyage as a captain when he sailed around the world in the
Golden Hind
.

I'm liking the sound of this Drake guy.

According to rumor, so did Queen Elizabeth. But moving swiftly on, fun fact three. During a time when much of the world was controlled by uncaring monarchies, professional sailors were both underpaid and ill-treated. However, pirate life was based on fairness and democracy. This is true, ships were run according to their own pirate code, captains were often elected, loot was divided up according to strict rules and there was even a system of workers' compensation for pirates who lost limbs. For example, four hundred pieces of eight for the loss of a joint, eight hundred for a limb.

How much for an eye?

Actually, one of the codes did specify that. One hundred pieces of eight.

Damn, I knew I should have held out for a limb.

Should I continue?

Please. But I'll want my hundred pieces of eight by the end of the meal.

Fact number four, pirate-stroke-privateer William Dampier was a keen collector of plants and his bestselling book of observations made on his travels was considered a mine of information by Charles Darwin, who took Dampier's work with him on
The Beagle
. William Dampier also introduced more than a thousand words to the English
language including
avocado, barbecue, caress, chopsticks, posse
and
snug.

You know, maybe I am a pirate. I invent new words all the time when I'm drinking.

And lastly, number five, drumroll
 
… There is no historical record of a pirate ever owning a parrot.

What, that's your last
fun
fact? Way to end on a high note, Captain Patch.

Sorry, you're right, I could have planned that better. But anyway, all I'm trying to say, Hannah, is that pirates have had a bum rap.

And didn't sport parrots as fashion accessories.

Yes, and no parrots.

So wait, basically you're pitching me the idea that I should
become
a pirate? Is that what this is all about?

Of course not,
I said.
But I do think you should be anything you want and do anything you want, Hannah.

For a moment I felt awkward. Had that sounded cheesy? Like some kind of lame pickup line? But then your face lit up and it felt like the room was shrinking around us, a curtain being drawn, only the two of us sharing this world.

Thank you, Patch,
you said.
And you can take the eyepatch off now. It is a little strange, both of us wearing them, like it's a fetish or something.

But that couple
 … I said, half turning.
They'll realize I was just
 
…

It's OK, they left a minute ago.

They were very kind,
I said, taking off the eyepatch
. Didn't you think they were kind?

Patch? You've made your point. No need to stretch it.

Sorry, Hannah.

Don't be sorry. That was all very sweet. But first something to drink. And then food, most important food.

I called over the waiter. I was in such a good mood the only thing that seemed appropriate was champagne. I opened the wine list and pointed at the Pol Roger. And I remember what we ate that time, you running your finger down the menu, looking up
and asking me whether I wanted to share the rib eye for two before warning me that you liked your steak like your novels, bloody as hell. We ordered a bottle of Bordeaux.

As we shared the huge plate of beef, we spoke so much and ate so slowly that we had to order a second bottle of wine, our bellies full to bursting as we kept on talking and mopping up the red meat juices with the last of our fries.

Once we were done with our meal, we were too full for dessert. You asked me if I wanted to find somewhere quiet for another drink. Or a coffee, perhaps.

When we left the restaurant, I remember seeing the Empire State Building all lit up in blue, the sky indigo with a thin veil of cloud hanging over the tips of the tallest buildings. We didn't even think about where we were headed, just walked off together into the night, still talking and talking, until we found ourselves in Union Square, the lights of the park burning blue, and you reached out and took my hand. How warm you felt. How wonderful it was to be alive in that moment, walking through the park hand in hand.

But how strange the light. Sky, trees, streetlamps. Everything blue. Everything.

I remember what came next almost as if someone had choreographed our movements, both of us slowing down, stopping and turning, our lips coming closer as I fell deeper and deeper into the blue.

Your eye was as blue as a lake when you leaned in to kiss me. I closed my eyes and our lips met. And in that moment, embraced by the light of your kiss, I knew I would love you until the day that I died.

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