“Care for a repeat of last night?” Max asked the next morning, his arms circling me as I brushed my teeth.
My eyes met his in the mirror. Along with a simmering desire, his shone with a love I didn’t deserve. I’d had sex with him, but in my head, had been joined with another man.
I smiled around the toothbrush. “Don’t push your luck, big boy.” My gaze dropped to the sink, watched the foamy water swirl around and down the drain. “There’ll be plenty of time for that when we get back home…” I was an expert at hiding what was going on in my mind—at least, when sober. “…tomorrow.”
“You wanting to head home now?” He swept my hair away from my neck. I felt his breath, his lips against my skin. “Don’t want to go back and take another look around the old home place like we’d planned, come back here and spend the night?”
“No, I don’t.”
He kissed my neck. “Okay, baby, if that’s what you want.”
It wasn’t a question of wanting to; I had to.
I had barely slept last night. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw Ira, felt Ira, and had no whiskey to drown his memory. I couldn’t talk to Max about him, tell him about the fear and anxiety threatening to pull me under. Not anymore. It had been a mistake to do so in the first place; he was too close to be objective. When we got back home, I would have him set me up with one of his colleagues.
During the endless night spent staring at the ceiling while Max slept, I had faced the fact that I needed help. Badly. Coming here hadn’t lessened the feeling I was sinking into a quicksand of madness; it had only exacerbated the situation.
The sooner we got out of here and back to Brownsville, the better.
While stuffing yesterday’s dirty clothes inside my suitcase, I noticed something missing. “Max, have you seen my jacket, the one I had on yesterday?”
“No, baby, I haven’t.” He paused in the act of shaving and glanced through the open bathroom door. “Did you look—oh yeah, I don’t remember you having it after you laid it on the steps at your granny’s place. Could you have left it there?”
The moment the words were out of his mouth, I knew that was exactly the case. In my mind’s eye, I saw it laying on the steps. “Never mind. It’s not important.”
“I don’t remember you picking it back up…yeah, that’s where it is. We’ll swing back by and get it. Won’t take but a few minutes.”
Just the thought of returning caused my heart to race. It hadn’t been all that bad yesterday, but now…now I wanted to get away from here, away from the memories that were threatening to shatter what little control I still possessed. “It’s okay.” I snapped shut the suitcase. “We’ll just leave it. It’s not worth the trouble.”
“Nonsense, Chloe. You wear it all the time. We’ll go get it.” The razor hummed.
I looked at Max in my peripheral. He had turned back to the mirror as if the matter was settled.
Should I insist we leave my favorite blazer behind? Would I come off as paranoid if I did? And would Max start in psychoanalyzing me as usual? I was tired of all the talking, going round and round in circles that always came back to Ira.
I wished I had never agreed to this trip in the first place. And I wished I had never told Max about Ira. He wanted to fix everything for me. But some things were too broken to be fixed; I was too broken to be fixed…at least by him.
Just keep your mouth shut, it’s easier that way, my mind whispered. Just get the damn jacket and go.
But when we arrived at Granny’s old place, it was gone.
Did you really leave it here? The voice again, the one that spoke to me from the bottom of a Jack Daniel’s bottle. Or just…imagined you did? “It…it must be back at the motel. I must have overlooked it.”
“I remember you laying it here,” Max said. “And we both looked through the car and the room. It was here.” He walked around, poking at brush and vines. “Maybe a hunter found it.”
“No one hunts in July, not in the daytime.”
“Then an animal packed it off.”
“Probably so,” I agreed, though in my mind a more sinister answer to its disappearance was taking shape.
“I’ll buy you a new one when we get back.”
“Okay.” I didn’t want a new one. I didn’t give a damn about a new one. I just wanted out of there.
“Ira’s house is close by—right?” Max asked when we were once again seated in the car.
“Yes, it isn’t far,” I answered. “Why?”
“Since we’re out here anyway, why don’t we go take a look?”
Was he crazy? “No.” You’re the one who’s crazy.
“Is there any particular reason why you don’t want to?”
I stared straight ahead. “No special reason, just ready to go home.”
“You sound unsure, Chloe. I don’t think you’ve let go of Ira, that you’ve even tried to.”
Couldn’t he see it wasn’t me who wouldn’t let go? It was Ira. I wanted to scream at him, make him understand. Understand what? That a ghost controls you? “You’re wrong…I’m not hanging on to anything.”
His hand cupped my chin, gently turned my face in his direction. “Then prove it. Let’s go to his house.”
“There’s no reason to.” But every reason not to.
“Yes, there is. Chloe, baby, he’s not there. But in a little corner of your mind, you’re not convinced of that, are you?”
I met his stare. “Yes, I am.”
“If you believe that, you’re lying to yourself.”
But you’ve been doing that for years, haven’t you? “I—I don’t know.” Why had I ever become involved with a psychiatrist? It was like playing with fire. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
“He’s not here, he’s not out there…” Max made a sweeping gesture with his arm “He’s nowhere, Chloe, except in your mind.”
“No, he isn’t.” What kind of person are you, looking straight into the eyes of the man who loves you and lying through your teeth?
“You’re not being honest. And I can’t help you if you aren’t honest with me.”
I didn’t want his help. I wanted to go back home and hide in my bed with Jack Daniel’s to keep me company. But I knew he wouldn’t stop until he had gotten what he wanted. And the sooner he was satisfied, the sooner I would be home. “All right, we’ll go.”
Max steered the car back toward the bridge to where the road branched, then following my pointed finger and clipped, “That way,” turned onto the fork. A wealth of grass and vines wilted by summer’s heat covered the road, creating the illusion of a narrow, greenish-brown carpet rolling out into the woods. Small trees had taken root along the border of their larger relatives, encroaching upon the unused path. In places, the grass was so high it was impossible to see what might lay underneath.
“Watch it!” I yelled as Max slammed on the brakes.
We had spotted the downed tree at the same time. A fallen maple stretched across the road, blocking the way.
“You can’t drive around that,” I said, feeling as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. “We’ll have to go back.”
“We’ll walk the rest of the way,” Max said. “It’s not much farther, is it?”
“Good. Let’s go.” He killed the engine and stepped out of the car. Knowing it would do no good to argue, I followed.
The maple’s trunk had been split by lightning, and the thinner half, not able to support itself, had come crashing down. The leaves were just now beginning to wilt and curl, showing that the strike had occurred recently.
Max boosted me over the waist-high barrier, then climbed over to join me. He took my hand and we set off down the road, arriving at Ira’s old house in a few, short minutes.
There was no longer even a semblance of a yard. Brush and trees crowded right up against the sway-sided walls, which to my surprise were still standing. But in several places the roof had caved in. Creepers slithered up the weathered boards and through the four broken windows that lined the front. The door sagged open, one bottom hinge keeping it upright. A layer of moldy leaves had accumulated on the porch, covering it and piling against the walls.
“I see something…I think…” Max waded out through the knee-high grass toward the house.
Stop him! Terrified, I ran after him. “Max, no!” I tugged on his arm. We had to get away. Now! “Don’t go any closer. I want to go. Please!”
He shook off my hand and kept going. “Just as soon as I see what it is. It can’t be…”
“Please, Max,” I begged, grabbing his arm again. “We’ve got to leave—right now!”
He stopped and grasped my shoulders. “You’re getting hysterical, Chloe. What’s wrong with you?”
I looked up at him through a blur of tears. “We have to leave now—before it’s too late.”
“Too late for what?”
I didn’t want to speak his name, fearing it would conjure him into being. “Just too late, that’s all. We need to get on the road…”
“I’ll only be a second.” He bounded up the steps onto the porch, then leaned over and picked up something. “Wonder how this got here?”
“What is it?”
He turned around, something pale dangling from his outstretched fingers. “Your blazer.”
He’s here…he’s here…he’s…here. My fists clenched. “He’s here! Ira’s here! I want to go! Now!”
Max sauntered down the steps, my jacket in his hand. “Come on now, I’m sure there’s a logical explanation for this.”
“No! It’s Ira!”
“Damn it, he’s not here, Chloe!” He looked almost angry. “Oh, what the hell, let’s go.” He took my arm in a firm grip, and we turned from the house and started back across the yard.
“Leaving without saying goodbye, little girl?”
To be continued…