A car blew the red light at First and Union, grazing the chipped front end of Missy’s seafoam green Toyota Shadow.
Missy laid on the horn, stuck her head out the window, and yelled, “Hey! This is a ninety-two Toyota Shadow! How dare you!”
She lit her cigarette, pulled out of the gas station, and swung a left into the hospital parking lot. Her engine rattled past an ambulance at the emergency room entrance. She stared as a paramedic opened the door.
(Five Years Ago)
Under the invasive fluorescent hospital hallway lighting, Missy lay on the gurney she was brought in on. Blood stemming from her hairline dried on her cheek and a cut on her forehead bled through a gauze pad. She’d pulled the oxygen mask off her face so it clung to her throat. Her right hand was in a brace, her left arm stretched over her chest to hold Freddie’s hand.
Freddie stared down the hallway. He was rooted next to Missy like a dog on a leash. His long john was soaked with rain and mud with splashes of red. His hands were wrapped in bandages and he favored his left leg.
“Freddie! Look at me!”
Freddie shook and hyperventilated. His nerves trembled through his desperate squeeze in Missy’s hand.
A knock on the Shadow’s trunk, followed by, “Hey, wake up!” knocked Missy from her daydream.
Missy’s hand rested on the open window and her cigarette had burned almost all the way. She looked back to see Angel coming around the passenger side to climb in.
Of everyone they’d gone to high school with, no one expected Angel to be the most stable. She was a wild ginger with red curls and enough freckles to represent the lost souls of the world. Five years ago, she chased pills with a bottle of vodka and fought Freddie every time he tried to get her home safe. She blamed his sainthood on why she took care of him after the accident, through the night terrors, the cutting… but everyone has a breaking point. After working overnight, she pointed to all his faults and broke up with him. When she left, he took a knife from the pile of dirty dishes she yelled at him about and cut five inches of the inside of his arm open.
The passenger door creaked as Angel opened it and tossed her bag on the floor before getting in.
Five years older than the party girl she was, she was beautiful in a mature way. She covered her wrinkles and bags, but there was a story behind her almond brown eyes that was no one’s business that wasn’t there. She’d traded her check-out girl smock for nurse’s scrubs and popped purple grapes instead of stolen Xanax.
“Thanks for picking me up, this was a shift from hell.”
Missy shifted into reverse.
“Amanda should be ready when we get over there, I told the teachers I’d be by early today. Zach is coming over at seven, which gives me enough time to get home, get Amanda dinner and myself ready while she’s in the bath before Zach gets there.”
Angel digs a cigarette out of her bag, Missy hands her a lighter. She took a long drag and exhaled out the window. She looked at Missy as they passed the parked ambulance.
“What’s up with you?”
Missy shrugged. “I have to close the restaurant tonight, but I’m probably gonna hit the Press Box after, in case you and Dave want to swing by.”
“You kids stay up too late. I’m old now.”
“I’m older than you!”
“Once you have a kid, you’re automatically your age plus theirs.”
“Does that work with fucked up friends?”
“If it did, we’d be a hundred years old now, honey.”
“Did Freddie do something? Or not do something?”
“I’m moving to California.”
“Gabby, Ray’s sister. She’s renting a house with a couple rooms and one of then is opening up next month… and she’s down to help me out while I get on my feet out there.”
“What are you going to do out there? I mean, you’re not an actress, shit you don’t even watch movies.”
“Hey, I like Pretty in Pink.”
“I don’t know, Angel.” Missy stopped short at a red light. “I don’t know.” She looked into the analog dashboard behind the faded steering wheel. “But I can’t do this anymore. I can’t be here anymore. I can’t work these stupid jobs anymore. I can’t be here anymore.” Her voice rose with each statement, nearly screaming at the end, her eyes welled and her throat caught an invisible apple she choked down.
Missy looked up. The light was, indeed, green and traffic was moving in the other direction.
“It’s not you, you know, why I’m going.”
“I didn’t think it was.”
“It’s not Freddie either. I just can’t be here. It kills me inside, every time I relive that day.”
The Shadow pulls to the curb in front of a fenced in playground next to a small, brick building.
“I understand, hun.” Angel touched Missy’s cheek. “I’ll be right back.” She hopped out of the car and ran up the walk to the building.
A cookie cutter office space in a single floor office building was where Doctor Stephens, individual and family counselor, held his practice.
A shelf of toys and an easel with drawing paper and markers sat on one side of the room, while the other was a mocha leather couch and coffee table with a half-gone box of tissues.
Doc Stephens was a young early forties when Freddie first came in the door led by the hand of his mother and his little sister just ahead of him. More than a decade of listening to people, Freddie and his family included, salted Doc Stephens’ hair so he no longer looked like a soft, 1989 Keanu Reeves and more like a therapist who’s listened to too many problems.
Freddie sat on the couch. His fingertips played with the zipper on his hoodie to stay focused. Tired hit him while he sat out in the waiting area and he felt a weight in his chest desperate to pull him to bed. He’d sat in silence for five minutes, trying to focus on something long enough to talk about. Five minutes wasn’t record breaking, he’d set his silence record when he was fifteen and he and Doc Stephens only knew each other for two weeks and Freddie was released from his first trip to the psych center. Trust was built through the years; Doc Stephens trusted Freddie to not always tell the truth and Freddie trusted Doc Stephens to know when he lied.
“What about Claire?”
“I dunno, I haven’t seen her in a few days. She was all right last I knew.”
“She’s all right. She wants me to get another job working at the arcade.”
“Do you want to work at the arcade?”
“I don’t want to work around kids. I hate kids.”
“You’ve worked with kids before, though.”
“Yeah, but I quit the same time they were going to fire me.”
“If you could do anything, money doesn’t matter, what would you do?”
“This again? Why?”
“Let me ask you this, Freddie, what are you doing right now? Give me a summary of your life right now.”
Freddie flipped the zipper back and forth.
“I get it.”
“I know you get it, but tell me.”
“I live at Missy’s and work at The Castle. I make popcorn for a living and drink at the Press Box. Is that honest enough?”
“Now, if you could do anything, what would you do?”
“Shit, man, I don’t know. I used to want to be a magician.”
“Not a musician?”
“I only liked playing when it was me and Missy.”
“How’s sleep been this week, Freddie?”
“Liar,” Ray said. He sat on the end of the couch nearer to Doc Stephens, staring at Freddie.
Freddie focused his eyes on Doc Stephens with Ray begging for attention in peripheral.
“Are you okay?”
“Come on, Pally, you just said you wanted to be a magician. I’ll throw some tissues, it’ll be our parlor trick.”
“How’re the night terrors?”
“Not bad. Manageable.”
“Lies,” Ray whispered.
“You’ve been staying with Missy for six months?”
“Do you want to talk about what happened on Ray’s birthday?”
Freddie looked to his side; Ray was gone.
“Missy was the trainwreck, not me.”
“We’ve established that before. What happened?”
Freddie stood up. The weight in his chest was pulling him to lie down, to sleep. He walked to the easel and began to draw a tree.
“She got fucked up and I didn’t want to leave her.”
He added limbs to the tree, bare and skeletal. He drew a sloppy leaf falling toward the ground.
“That was the night you moved in, right?”
“Freddie, you know what I’m going to say.”
Freddie stretched his arms out so his hoodie sleeves fell over his hands. Only his fingers holding the marker could be seen. He drew a curve beyond the tree to make a hill and a couple slapdash lines for a gate.
“We decided in the morning it would be best if I stayed with her. I could keep an eye on her, she could keep an eye on me. I’m not sure how we’re ranking as caretakers, but we’re both still alive, so that’s gotta be worth something.”
A digital beep rang in beats of three – beep-beep-beep… beep-beep-beep. Doc Stephens presses the stop button a stop watch he hid in his pocket.
“Get some sleep, Freddie. I’ll see you next week.”
Freddie dashed his initial on the bottom of the easel paper – FN.