by Burke Sauls
Up somewhere in the hills, out where steamy-windowed cars park and stay way too long, she saw the two people locked together. The light was pale, and the two people were holding each other so close the girl hiding in the bushes couldn't tell where they blended--almost like one thing, they were so close. Stepping quietly closer, she heard breathing...their breathing.
They were standing. The woman had her eyes closed, lost in his embrace, and the man was looking out past the woman into the city, very seriously. His eyes scanned the blanket of scattered yellow lights, twinkling like hard stones, and a cold wind blew up from the canyon. The man's hair moved, and his eyes narrowed.
The girl hiding in the bushes stayed quiet and moved closer to see what it was he was looking down at, and to maybe figure out why the woman the man was holding looked like she was crying.
The hiding girl's name was Nil, and the people she was spying on were Tommy and Valerie. Tommy looked upset, like he wanted to cry, too. She knew him, hell she'd slept with him the night before. The night before she'd been the one with the closed eyes, lost being held by him. The woman, she knew her name but had never seen her until now. Valerie, it must be Valerie, the woman Tommy was always talking about.
Nil felt young and inexperienced when she saw the way Valerie was holding Tommy. She saw the fingernails pulling against his back and she knew that Valerie felt real love, a real experienced love, like she'd learned it from boyfriends and maybe even husbands. Finally a tear fell from Tommy's eye. Nil looked out into the basin and maybe felt what he was feeling. She saw the city down there, heard the low rumble like a rush of air or water running. The city was breathing one long sustained breath. A massive exhale like the final sigh of someone dying. Nil almost forgot about hiding; she wanted to go closer to Tommy even though Valerie was there.
Tommy held Valerie away from him a little, looked into her face, kind of pushed her back and looked at her. Valerie's eyes were still closed and her head wobbled a little bit, like she was drunk. Tommy looked from her eyes to her neck and Nil thought he looked hungry, like a vampire in a Dracula movie. She listened. "I can't do this anymore," is what he said to Valerie.
Nil felt bad watching, so she started back to her car but waited when she heard Valerie crying more, asking, "Why?" locking her fingers into Tommy's hair. "Why?" she cried, and coughed a little.
"I told you, Valerie. I can't just do this. It's a lie!"
"You don't love me," she moaned.
Tommy stepped backwards. Nil wanted very badly to show herself, but it would be crazy. They'd think she was crazy for following them like that. Maybe she was crazy, but they didn't need to see it. Tommy already knew how messed up Nil got about things, but she stayed hidden anyway.
Valerie was melting against the car and Tommy stormed back and forth. "Why?" she asked again.
"I don't know!" he was mad now. Mad at Valerie for not just instantly understanding that the center of his universe might not be her. In fact, Nil knew, if someone loves you and you don't love them back, you hate them. When they're crying real broken-hearted tears for you in that pained throbbing sob, they just look ugly.
Tommy stopped, obviously seeing Valerie ugly, hunched over his car choking on her words, actually sobbing the worst possible sentence ever invented, "I love you," she said.
Tommy's eyes burned when she said it. "No," he said directly at her. "No, Valerie." He was a combination of disappointed and pissed. "Don't say that bullshit."
Almost screaming she looked up with her eyes flaring, floating in tears, "It's not bullshit!" was all she could think of to say. "It's not!"
Tommy nodded, like his head was trying to catch its balance. He sort of wobbled toward her, moving his rubbery steps all snaky. The closer he got to her the more his eyes burned and the more she begged through the spit in her mouth and the tears on her face. "Shut up." Nil heard him whisper. He was actually mad past words at this woman who needed him so bad it was tearing her up. It was like she was coughing up bits of her broken heart and choking on the sharp pieces. Tommy didn't give a shit.
Then he was hitting her.
Nil flinched but didn't take her eyes off it. She'd never seen this side of Tommy before. His fists looked so big, powerful like a machine coming down repeating and wound up, he slammed into Valerie like iron bars or a slab of broken concrete. It sounded like a word, but the blood muffled it. Nil put her hand over her mouth watching Tommy. The sound of fist against flesh hurt Nil's ears. It was different than the movies, and looked awkward and sad, her falling on her ass slipping down the embankment banging against the rocks with her dress all hiked up and torn. Valerie tried to reach up to touch her broken face but Tommy was there, grabbed her by the neck and slung her around, pulling hard back and forth until she finally did shut up.
Nil tried smoking a joint she bought from a skinny girl in her apartment complex. She took a few shots of the whiskey Tommy left in her cupboard, but she could not get to sleep.
She stared up at the plaster ceiling with the little sparkles mixed in. She looked over at her dresser, and up on top was the clock he'd given her. It was tacky but typical of something Tommy would like. It was a round gray dial set in a big chunk of molded glass like a transparent rock. He said it reminded him of a clock frozen in ice, maybe like time standing still or something. She hated it deep down, but pretended to love it. She just thought it looked like a cheesy clock stuck into a cheap piece of glass. Before, it had depressed her that she hated that clock so much. She had almost started to love it, because she felt sad about it. She thought it looked like Tommy with that round gray face, but now it didn't any more.
All she could see in her mind when she thought about Tommy was those spots of Valerie's blood, like the numbers and little second and minute markers. She got up and grabbed it in a panic to get it out of her room. Her second floor window looked out onto the dumpster, and sometimes she could smell the garbage stink rising up out of it. It was a shitty place for a dumpster, unless you wanted to hurl an ugly fucking clock into it from your bedroom window.
Just like she figured, Tommy called her late. If he wasn't waking her up snoring, he was waking her up with a damn phone call. She'd slept maybe an hour or so, and it rang five times before she even knew what the sound was. Her machine took the call and she heard her own voice saying, "Hi, this is Nil, obviously I'm not home right now, so leave a message. Thanks!" She pronounced the word message with the accent on the second syllable, like the word massage. Saying the word "message" like that was one of those things that sounds like maybe it's funny, but it isn't really, and Nil hated hearing herself say it every time.
"Hey Nil, it's me. I was thinking, um, how are you? Um, there's this movie playing in Santa Monica tomorrow night. Or, um, it's... I can't think of the name. Gary says it's good. Okay, so if you want to, let me know. I guess you're sleeping. I, um. Oh, I... I had something else to tell you... I can't remember. Okay. Give me a call. See ya!"
Nil just stayed there in her bed looking up at the ceiling. "Something else to tell me," she thought.
She still hadn't let it all sink in. It all still seemed like a dream and smoking that joint made everything even stranger. What if she hadn't been crazy following them? What if she'd minded her own business? Nil knew that just a few hours ago, she would have sold her soul to Tommy. She would have married him even, but now she couldn't understand anything. She felt like it wasn't Valerie who'd died. Nil felt worse for Tommy. She felt like she'd watched him die up there on Mulholland Drive. "God," she whispered, and tried to go back to sleep.
Nil dreamed about Valerie; about her falling and her dress getting all fucked up like it did. She kept seeing that scene over and over again, but each time Valerie's dress got a little more torn and her legs got a little more cut. She saw Valerie looking up at her from down there with the rocks. Looking up like she was saying, "Watch your ass, Nil." Nil leaned closer to see better, and Valerie whispered something. Nil looked at her feet and realized that she was standing right on the edge of a cliff. She was looking down, and Valerie was even further away. She was way down at the bottom, crushed on the rocks with her arms and legs all awkward.
Nil had that nauseating dream feeling when you know you're going to fall or slip on something. She felt like the rocks were about to crumble out from under her. She tried to carefully turn around and walk back to stable ground, but when she moved, she realized that Tommy was there with her. He was looking down too, almost smiling. It was the smile that pushed her back. Just his smile, but she felt it in her chest, like a bass drum, thumping. His smile against her chest, pushing her back, feet slipping, rocks falling.
Nil sat up, gasping for air. Her pillow was wet with sweat. "Shit," she said aloud.
"What is it?" Tommy mumbled, half awake.
Tommy was turning over in the bed next to her.
"Goddamn! You scared me!" she said, pulling up the sheets,
"Tommy?" "Of course it's me. Who else would it be? You got another boyfriend?"
"No, I just keep forgetting you have a key."
"Well, I do. Carry it with me everywhere I go, just in case. Go back to sleep, baby."
Tommy rolled over and fell asleep again, but Nil stared at the glow-in-the-dark numbers on that stupid glass clock on her dresser for the rest of the night.
"Didn't she toss that thing into the dumpster? What's the next step," she wondered. "What is the next step..."
When Nil woke up, Tommy was gone. Was he ever even there? Nil wandered into the bathroom and looked at herself for a little while in the mirror. She saw a girl, twenty-three years old with something that made her look like she was in her thirties. Her eyes were older than the rest of her. Like when she was looking right at someone, or herself in the mirror, it never seemed like she was actually looking into their eyes. It was more like she was looking at something a few miles behind them. If she heard "You look like you're a million miles away" once, she heard it a million damn times.
Nil brushed her teeth and remembered a psychic she talked to once. Every time she brushed her teeth, she thought about that psychic. Nil figured that when you have these daily rituals and you think about something when you're doing it, then you think about the same thing again the next time you're doing it, it sets up sort of a pattern.
She'd probably think about that psychic every time she brushed her teeth until the day she died. What the psychic told her was the usual stuff of course, but there was one thing she said that stuck with Nil. This was the specific thing that Nil thought about every morning and every night when she was standing there in front of the mirror, brushing her teeth. The psychic told her that some day she'd be forced to make a heavy moral decision that involved love and murder.
At the time, Nil laughed it off thinking that it might have meant something stupid like maybe she'd do jury duty or something. She always tried to look at things like that, sort of a pessimistic habit, but now it was real. Finally, when she was brushing her teeth thinking about that psychic, Nil felt like the whole thing fell together. Murder is the worst crime there is, but she loved Tommy, and she understood his temper. She loved him and nothing he could say or do would ever make her stop. Love wasn't like that. Love didn't just stop.
Nil got dressed, and while she was pulling on her shirt, she realized that she had dressed herself all in black. No big deal, she always wore a lot of black because it looked good with her blonde hair, and some people said black made her eyes look deeper blue. Her old boyfriend, Bradley, said black made her look even colder and tougher. She didn't know how he meant it, but she assumed it was a compliment. You have to be cold and tough to survive, so almost like a good luck charm, Nil usually wore at least one black thing. Today, though, Nil was wearing all black. Black everything. She even put on a bracelet her dad sent her from South Africa made of some really strong wood she forgot the name of. It was black too, and this was the first time she'd ever worn it.
She straightened her shirt and turned to the mirror again. She looked a little better, still older than she should, but better after a shower and a little makeup. Behind her, reflected in the mirror, she saw her bed, still unmade. On Tommy's side, she saw the dent in the pillow where his head had been. Further down, the sheets were all twisted and pulled out like he'd been troubled by nightmares. She sighed, thinking that people were entitled to a few mistakes here and there, and a mistake is a mistake no matter what the consequences are. The messed up sheets and his smashed pillow proved that he had a conscience. It proved that Tommy was tortured by what he'd done, and torture was penance. Torture was punishment, self-inflicted, but punishment just the same as any prison sentence. Nil stepped closer to the mirror and touched the surface. She touched the image of the pillow.
She knew it. She knew it was a mirror, and that she was seeing her own side of the bed in the reflection. Tommy's side barely even looked slept in.
Nil's protection kicked in. When things got shitty, and bad thoughts filled her mind, the safe thought came on like an emergency sprinkler system. Instead of seeing or thinking something bad, Nil thought about the mall, and about where she'd park, and where she'd go, and the smell of those ratty giant cookies with "Eat Me" scrolled out on them in icing. There were some new places just opening, and there would be Grand Opening sales. She was sure of that. It was comforting, all those stores and people.
Nil bought some stuff with her credit card, not really wanting the things she bought but feeling like maybe it would make her feel better about everything. She bought a sweater and a pair of boots, but by the time she stepped back out into the mall, she hated the sweater. Figured she'd give it to her sister Beth. She wandered into the mall's food court and got a plate of stir-fried vegetables at a little Chinese place called Ho's Kitchen, found a table that was less filthy than most and sat down. She stared into her plate of soft, overcooked peppers, carrots and broccoli. She noticed that it all seemed to be coated in a murky transparent goo. Gradually, Nil made herself disgusted and after staring for a few minutes, she left it there on the table. She barely made it into the last stall in the lady's room before she coughed up the cup of coffee she'd had for breakfast.
After washing her face for a while, she tried one last shopping attempt. Maybe a few shirts or some sweat pants. There was one place she liked, and the bright colors inside calmed her nerves for a minute, but suddenly something washed over her when she was in the back of the store. Something pushed in on her like that smile in her dream. It was like Tommy's smile pushing back on her, shoving her back into the racks near the back of the store. A clerk, a twenty- year-old girl moved into view as Nil walked the straight line to the exit.
"Can I help you find something?" she asked politely.
Nil managed a weak, "No," trying to stay calm, but desperate to get out into the open. She made a line in her head to the parking lot. Perfectly straight and uninterrupted, and now this girl was there.
"Are you sure?" the girl asked, closer, louder.
Blood swam in Nil's eyes, she wanted this girl's skull to shatter. She wanted out so bad she couldn't stand to be there another second, or even a fraction of a second. Her fist came up in a tense arc connecting with the girl's jaw. Racks pulled gray and green jackets, hats and socks down in a tangle around the bloodied girl. Her eyes became globes as she scrambled, shocked and terrified in the unexpected collapse of New Fall Fashions. Nil was gone before the security appeared to help the confused sales girl dab the blood from her neck and ear and calm her down.
Nil tried not to think about things too much unless they were really important, and that little scene in the mall was nothing. She didn't hurt that girl too bad; probably gave her something to think about in her boring worthless life. Nil hated the fucking mall. How could she forget that she hated it so much? Every time she went there, she realized all over again that it was hell. Every time she left, she'd sit in her car in the parking lot, just seething about how stupid and worthless life was in there.
Inside that mall, human beings are just cows, blindly doing what they're told. Today was the same, only worse. Nil had never actually made violent contact with the object of her hate. She looked at her knuckles, and they were red and scraped up a little. Her fist was throbbing, she wondered how that girl's face felt. Maybe she did hit her hard enough to hurt.
Right there in front of the mirror again, Nil started crying. She figured she'd give the sweater another chance, so she put it on to check it out, but when she faced herself, she couldn't help but cry. There she was, standing there looking back, wearing that ugly sweater. She realized that it was exactly the kind of sweater someone like Valerie would wear. "It had that mature look some women went for--made them look like secretaries," Nil thought.
She thought about how unfair it was that she was standing there wearing a sweater Valerie would like, while Valerie's body was out there somewhere, maybe not even found yet. Maybe being dragged to pieces by coyotes. She'd be one of those mysterious murder victims being hauled to an ambulance zipped up into one of those black rubber body bags. They'd be rough with her because she's dead and it doesn't matter anymore how careful you are.
Or maybe in a few years some hikers would find a piece of her skull partly buried in the loose dirt near the bottom of the hill. She couldn't stop thinking about Valerie, and she couldn't stop crying, and for how long she didn't know. Just standing there, sobbing like she did when her dog Booze died.
She took off the sweater, folded it nicely and packed it away in one of her boxes in the closet. She put in some cedar blocks and a few little bags of moth crystals. She carefully placed the black bracelet her father had given her on the sweater, right over where the heart would be.
She took a deep breath, smelling the moth crystals and the new clothes smell before closing the box and sliding it back onto the top shelf. She looked back at the box up there, one last time before turning off the closet light. She whispered to the box, "I'm sorry, Valerie."
She listened to her messages. There were three from Tommy. He still wanted to see that movie he was talking about. Nil decided not to answer the messages. She'd wait, at least until morning.
That night, Valerie showed up. She was wearing the sweater Nil had bought for her and she just stood there. She wasn't being judgmental, just standing there, looking down at Nil while she slept. Looking at her hair, moving around to the other side and kneeling so she could see her face. A dim shaft of light seeped in from the street light outside and Valerie could see by the look on Nil's face that she was troubled. Valerie forgave Nil for not saying anything about Tommy to the police.
She loved him too, and understood. Valerie was a black cut-out against the window smiling at Nil, almost jealous of her because she was still alive, and still able to be with Tommy. Valerie had that peaceful look people describe after they have had near-death experiences. It looked like Valerie had accepted the fact that she was dead, and Nil was the one to carry on with Tommy. Maybe some love would leak over to the Other Side and Valerie could feel it. When Valerie reached over and touched Nil's neck with her cold fingers, Nil woke up, choking on spit with her heart almost beating out of her chest.
She looked around the room, but of course it was a dream. Valerie was dead, and there are no ghosts. Nil checked the time on the clock Tommy had given her. Did he find it in the dumpster and bring it back? Nil flipped her pillow over to the cool side and tried to get back to sleep.
So they went to the movie in Santa Monica even though Nil had no interest in seeing another French comedy. Tommy loved foreign films, especially French ones. Nil tolerated them, occasionally even admitting that she didn't quite hate one here and there. This one was another love triangle with silly comical situations in which the woman's two boyfriends come dangerously close to discovering one another. Nil wanted to be home asleep so badly, but sat through it anyway. After the movie, Nil walked beside Tommy, slightly further from him than usual. He asked her if everything was okay and she said sure, everything's fine, why? They drove home silently, Nil huddled on the passenger side while Tommy drove with both hands on the wheel. Nil looked at his hands gripping the steering wheel and imagined them around her neck, shaking her as violently as he'd shaken Valerie.
She saw the muscles flexing beneath the hairy flesh of his arm and thought of snakes. His eyes were intent and focused on the road. His hands held the wheel tighter; he was thinking about something. Nil wondered if he knew that she knew what he'd done. Maybe to him it wasn't all that big of a deal. Maybe that sort of thing happens all the time. She wondered if murder might be one of those things lots of people did but never talked about unless they got caught. There were damn sure more missing persons than officially murdered ones. That desire for blood and the drive to kill like an animal might just be one of God's ways of keeping the population down, Nil thought. "What are you thinking about?" Tommy blurted.
"Nothing," It was an answer Nil said without thinking about it.
"Nothing, really. Just staring into the distance."
"You been acting weird the last couple of days."
"I'm tired, I guess," was the next answer Nil said without thinking about it. "
Why are you so tired? You been off for three days."
"I know. I'm bored, I guess. Nothing to do wears me out."
"When do you go back to work?"
"Day after tomorrow."
Then, a dangerous thought strolled into Nil's head. She had an almost draining desire to ask Tommy why he'd killed Valerie. She thought the words out in her mind, imagining what it would sound like to actually come right out and ask him. She looked up from his arm to his face and felt the words dancing on the tip of her tongue, just at the edge of being said. "Why'd you kill Valerie?" She whispered it inside her mouth, forming the words with her tongue. "Why'd you kill Valerie?" She tried to communicate directly with his brain, like maybe she could psychically induce him to confess. He didn't hear her. His face was blank.
"You hungry?" He asked.
"Yeah, a little," Nil murmured.
"Yes. I am hungry."
"Where you want to eat?"
"I don't care."
They stopped at the Porcupine Diner. Tommy had a bacon burger and Nil had a salad. They barely spoke through the entire meal. Tommy slapped down a twenty and they left. On the way back to the car, Tommy gave Nil a strange look, like he wanted to say something but decided not to. Normally, Nil would have tried to find out what he wanted. Normally she would have asked him what he was going to say, but this time she really didn't want to hear it. The idea that maybe he suspected something gave Nil goose bumps, and for the first time, she was scared of Tommy. They got into the car, and Tommy suggested that they go up to the observation overlook up on Mulholland. Nil hesitated enough with her answer to make Tommy ask again. "Sure, okay," she finally responded.
They were going to the very place where Tommy had killed Valerie only a few nights before. Nil was torn between thinking that Tommy was taking her up there to kill her too, and thinking that maybe he wanted to be there with her to purge himself of guilt. He probably figured that being up there with Nil would change everything and make him not feel so bad about what he'd done to Valerie.
He leaned against the car with his arms crossed, while Nil stepped out to the edge of the overlook. Down in Hollywood, the lights burned dim orange and yellow, and Nil couldn't help thinking how beautiful it all was. She knew damn well that people were down there getting raped and murdered, but she loved the way it twinkled.
She swallowed, sensing Tommy behind her. He stepped closer, and she shut her eyes against her thoughts. He stood, looking down with her at the swarming basin below. To Tommy, the lights were dull markers in a huge maggot infested cemetery. It reminded him of a dead animal; something that used to be beautiful, but now it was dead. Dead, and filled with vermin. Blindly, Nil took Tommy's hand and squeezed, closing her eyes tighter to keep the tears back. She knew he could feel her trembling, and finally he spoke, "You cold or something?"
"Yeah, a little," She opened her eyes and looked at him. He knew.
"So..." he started.
"So what, were you hiding somewhere? Did you see everything?" Nil heard the words and almost felt them as they came out of Tommy's mouth. She struggled not to flinch when they hit her, but it was like being punched in the gut. She set her jaw and looked him straight in the eyes, brave, but she knew somewhere inside that she was probably going to die up here.
"What are you talking about?" she asked.
"You know damn well what I'm talking about," he stayed cool, but now he was gripping her hand tighter. "The way you've been acting, I know you know something, and I know you probably think you understand what you saw. You probably have it all figured out, right?"
"No. I didn't see anything," Nil wagered on a lie. She was torn between telling the truth and being killed for it, and lying and being killed for it. Tommy turned her around so they were face to face. Nil forced herself to look into his eyes, knowing that if she looked away, even for a fraction of a second, he'd know.
"I feel like you did see something. In fact, Nil, I know you saw something up here the other night, because I saw you. I wanted to teach you a lesson for spying. Valerie and I wanted to freak you out," he wasn't smiling.
Nil was unable to speak, she felt her knees shaking, and the vibrations were working their way toward her hands. She exhaled, hoping desperately to keep the hand Tommy was holding from betraying her. "You what?"
"We knew you were there, Nil," Tommy released her hand and moved back toward the car.
"Yeah. You were right over there!" Tommy pointed to the exact spot were Nil had been hiding.
Barely making a sound, Nil said, "That's a shitty thing to do."
"Well, it sure taught you something."
Nil's mind was swimming with so many opposites and contradictions, she had to look back at the city to gather her thoughts. She still wondered what had happened. Tommy might still be lying, in fact, he probably was. She turned toward him again, not wanting her back facing him for too long. "It's still a shitty thing to do, Tommy. I was in hell here."
Tommy finally smiled, but it was a different smile than Nil had ever seen on him before. Kind of a defensive, scared smile, or maybe it was just the light. "I have to tell you though, you got some balls coming up here with me if you thought I killed her like that."
"So where is she?"
"Yeah. Where is she?"
"I don't know. She left town."
"So you're not going to see her anymore?"
"No, it's all over with her and me."
That was it. Now Nil knew Tommy was lying. The whole thing was out in the open and he was still lying. He knew that Nil still trusted him enough to come up here with him, but he was still covering for what he'd done. "I guess she got a kick out of freaking me out, didn't she?" Nil stuttered.
"Well, she kind of... It was like a favor to me. It was a clean break-up, with no hard feelings. I mean, Val and I are still friends and everything."
"She's like you, I mean, she's cool about stuff."
Nil took another deep breath and exhaled quietly through her mouth. She looked beyond Tommy at the road behind him through the trees. She saw the headlights of cars slowing down to check out the view. In the darkness, further back, she could just distinguish the Hollywood sign from the black hill it was on. Was it all that simple for Tommy? He could kill and lie, and just get away with it? Nil wondered if it was like her duty or something to simply trust him, even though she knew he was guilty. She checked a certain part of her mind to see if she still loved him or not. Ran those thoughts across the screen to see if they still had the same effect as before. Cherished thoughts she normally reserved for private moments, usually when she was alone, or when Tommy was asleep, that would trigger her love for him. His suitcase for instance.
Nil kicked him out once, and seeing his ratty suitcase stuffed with his t-shirts and underwear broke her heart. It was just an ancient green tweed suitcase that had belonged to his father, but seeing it, and knowing that it was his did something to recharge her feelings. She almost wanted to cry whenever she thought about that suitcase, but now, she felt different. She thought maybe the way she felt about that fucking suitcase was a lie, too.
"You look like you're about to say something," he said.
"Maybe I am," she wanted to get inside his mind and look back out through his eyes for a minute. She'd always known he was a born liar. She usually just lived with it when he'd tell her something she knew was bullshit. She go along with stuff and sometimes pretend not to notice when he'd get caught in a lie.
Sometimes, just to keep things uncomplicated, she'd fix a situation so that his lies would end up being true; like when he told her once that he'd worked as a mechanic at the 1980 Gatornationals in Florida. He told her that he'd been the head mechanic on two of the winning cars, and that he'd actually driven one in a record-breaking trial run. Well, Nil ran across a guy in Hollywood who she could tell was a real driver. He told her he'd been in almost every Gatornational drag race since 1974, and that he'd never heard of Tommy. He'd also never heard of the car Tommy supposedly worked on. He laughed and told Nil lots of guys go to the drag races and then tell their girlfriends that they were involved somehow. So anyway, she told Tommy that she'd met a guy who raced in Gainesville, Florida and that he recognized the name. She said she gave him a description, and the guy had said, "Oh, yeah. I remember Tommy! He was a good mechanic!" Tommy just nodded, like he was nodding right now.
"So what's on your mind?" he asked.
"Not much," she said, looking directly into his eyes.
"Why are you looking at me like that?"
"Like you think I'm lying. You think I'm lying?"
"If I think you're lying, that means I also think you're a murderer."
"I know. That sucks. You think I'd be capable of killing someone?"
Nil took a little too long to respond. Tommy moved toward her and she acted just a little too scared. He froze. "What's the matter, Nil?" his tone went serious.
"I'm just thinking about shit, you know," she wrapped her arms around herself and moved further away from him, trying to keep a safe distance without making him think that was what she was doing. "Let's go home."
"I think we need to talk." Nil hated that phrase. Whenever anyone said, "I think we need to talk." It always meant, "I think we need to spit bullshit back and forth until we're both pissed off." She wanted to tell Tommy that what they really needed to do was stop talking. She was finished with all the talking. Talking with Tommy was always so empty, and nothing ever got "worked out" or resolved. She remembered something Tommy said to Valerie the night he killed her. He said, "It's a lie." Then Valerie said, "You don't love me."
Nil had a clear memory of Valerie's voice saying, "You don't love me," and Tommy's voice saying, "It's a lie."
A little louder, Tommy asked, "Did you hear me? I think we need to talk."
"About what?" Nil said almost whispering, not really caring about what.
Another phrase Nil hated; "We need to talk... about us." They were like lines out of some fucking soap opera. Tommy was as transparent as that damned clock he'd given her.
Nil put her hand into her purse and felt the cold glass. For once the heaviness of it was comforting.
"What, you got a gun in there?" Tommy asked.
Nil didn't say a word, she just nodded, "No."
Tommy moved even closer, and Nil felt dangerously near the edge of the overlook. Down below her was the ragged hillside leading down to the backyards of movie stars and rich people, and Valerie's body. She could see the creepy blue glow of a lighted pool down there, too. Tommy tried to smile, but it was the worst imitation of a smile Nil had ever seen. He held out his hands like he was inviting her to dance, but Nil tightened her grip on the clock. "Can you see her?" she asked.
Tommy stopped cold, "What?"
"Can you see Valerie?"
"Valerie. Can you see Valerie?"
His face turned colder than ice, and instead of looking up where someone might be hiding or watching, Tommy looked down into the rocks, where someone might be dead. Nil swung out the clock and slammed it against the left side of Tommy's face. His cold turned to confusion as he staggered, trying to keep his footing. His hand went up to the bloody mess on the side of his head for a second before reaching out for balance, grasping for the tree that was much too far away. Nil dodged him like a bull fighter, still looking into his burning eyes, which were wide, confused and filled with blood and terror. She hit him again, forcing him closer to the loose gravel at the edge of the concrete path. Nil looked down at the black lizard cowboy boots she'd given him for his birthday, struggling against the desire to reach out and help him.
She brought the clock up, still avoiding his hands, almost dancing away from him. Down hard again, and this time she knew it was over for Tommy. His eyes went from human to animal and he was wildly flapping his arms and crouched, trying not to fall. Nil finally put her foot on the back pocket of his jeans and shoved him over the embankment. He slid most of the way, but then started tumbling, and Nil guessed it would be a few days before anyone found him down there in the underbrush. She wondered if he landed anywhere near Valerie.
Nil took the clock home and washed it off, making sure she got every speck of blood. She pried the face out of the block of glass and cleaned the inside, carefully wiping every surface with a tiny, twisted-up piece of napkin. Then, just to be safe, she soaked the glass block in boiling water for a while before drying it off with her hair dryer and carefully reassembling the clock. She replaced the battery and set it to the correct time before hurling it out the window and into the dumpster for real this time. She saw it land in the steaming garbage heap, with the face staring up at her, still unbroken. Nearby in the dumpster, sprinkled with cat litter and coffee grounds was the box containing Valerie's sweater and the black bracelet Nil's father had given her.
The homeless people picked through that dumpster all the time, so Nil knew that the clock and the sweater would be saved. In a day or two, some poor guy down on his luck would find that clock, and maybe sell it at a pawn shop for a few bucks. The sweater might keep some bag lady warm on one of those cold Hollywood nights that were coming. Nil knew the cold was blowing in, and just by the way the wind sounded, she knew it was going to be a rough winter.
copyright Burk Sauls
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Cover Page Index