Chapter Nine

Twenty Years Earlier

Alex huddled down into her battered black trench coat, warming her hands around a steaming mug of tea. Her father was down in the basement, trying to fix the heater. Vinnie could hear him swearing through the hot air vent.

Vinnie worked behind the counter of the town's General Store, where he and Alex were sitting trying to keep warm. He saw quite a bit of her, since she was his boss's daughter, and she lived in a simple apartment over the store, but seldom as early as this morning. But the lack of heat affected her apartment as well as the store, and he guessed she'd decided that company was some compensation for the cold. He sipped his tea and wondered aloud if any customers would brave the high drifts of snow outside to get their Sunday papers.

Alex looked right through him as he said it, and he knew her mind was somewhere else. He didn't mind, it had been some time since her wandering attention had bothered him. She was the same with everybody, and you either got used to it or gave up on spending time with her. He thought she was worth it, at least he thought so more often than not.

Her eyes came back into focus and she said, "Mama thinks we should close, but Dad won't hear of it."

"You think he can fix it himself, or will he have to wait for Luke?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. As long as we don't run out of tea I'm okay."

"Why so cheerful this morning?" Vinnie asked. Her usual gloom would, he thought, have been made worse by the cold, but she seemed in good spirits.

"I'm not thinking about certain things. Maybe the cold has frozen certain parts of my brain. I hope so. I'm in trouble when they thaw, though."

Vinnie laughed, though he didn't know quite what she was talking about. He knew some things had been bothering her all week, but she hadn't been able to put them into words yet. He guessed that a day off from worrying might do her as much good as a whole week of brooding.

"I was thinking of going to the beach today," Alex said. "Looks like the weather may get pretty wild this afternoon."

Vinnie nodded. "By nightfall, anyway. If you'll wait until dinnertime I'll come along. If I'm invited."

"I don't know. I may just go by myself. I need some time to think."

He looked at her with amusement from under the bill of his cap. "Well, your brain seems to have thawed out. It was nice while it lasted, kiddo."

She was silent, looking down into her mug.

"I'm sorry, Lexie," he said after a minute. "You do look a little rocky."

She shook her head. "No problem. So, what were you up to last night? I had a feeling you might drop into the BatCave, but you never showed."

"You know, I did, really late, and you weren't there. I guess you'd left already. Lauren made some crack about you, but I didn't catch it. I hung out for a couple of drinks and split. It was pretty dead by then anyway."

She made a face. "Isn't it always? The whole thing is so played out. This whole town is, really. We're just kidding ourselves, you know? I mean, I'm not telling you anything you don't already know, but–"

"I know what you mean. But that's the whole point, isn't it?"

She nodded, seeming somewhat happier again. "Of course it is. It's just so easy to lose track of that. To forget all our plans."

It's so easy to forget . . .

Vinnie touches her knee and she smiles. It isn't a lover's smile, but there is much affection and appreciation in it. "You know, Vin, we're getting dragged down a bit these days," she said. "We should . . . try to find some way to get away for a few days or something. Borrow a car and drive. This town isn't the whole world, you know."

He laughed. "So, let's go to Clifton for a few days, huh? Big thrill there." Clifton was fifteen miles away.

She fisted him in the shoulder. "Oh, shut up, you jerk. You know what I mean."

He nodded. "Yeah, I do. And if we managed to `think the right way,' I think going to Clifton would do the trick. Maybe even staying here would, for now."

"Very good thought, really. Getting out can just be a tease for what getting out will be like, when we do it for real. And nothing's going to do that but doing it." She got a faraway look in her eyes. "I wish this was the day, Vin. God, do I wish it was. That would be so perfect, wouldn't it?"

"Stop talking like you're in some play," he said harshly. "Don't make some hopeless romantic shit out of this. I don't have any interest in lost causes or anything like that."

She nodded. "You're right. I don't have any interest in that either." She finished her tea. "That's the problem. I keep feeling like I'm making speeches and striking poses. It's like I know there's somebody reading about everything I do, and I'm putting on an act for them. Not a bad act, but . . . I don't want any acts at all! It gives me the creeps!"

In the still of the snow-bound Sunday morning, Vinnie heard a sound that surprised him. There were footsteps coming down the outside stairs from Alex's apartment over the store. He looked at Alex, but she averted her eyes. The door opened and a man came in.

He was well known to both Alex and Vinnie. He was tall and hawk-like, attractively ugly, quite a bit older than Alex or Vinnie. His name was Ian. He frowned genially and moved towards Alex, obviously intending a rather warm greeting. Her face moved in strange ways and he stopped and turned to Vinnie.

"How's it going?" he asked.

"Okay," Vinnie said slowly. "Working hard as usual."

Ian nodded and turned to Alex. She frowned.

The night before, at the BatCave, Alex was being invisible. She watched the usual Saturday night bedlam absently, as if waiting for something or somebody. There were many familiar faces. She sort of wished Vinnie was there, but the BatCave on a weekend wasn't his favorite place to be. He liked it better when it was half-empty.

Alex saw Lenore drinking with Ian in a corner. Lenore ran her fingers through her long red hair and looked skeptical about whatever Ian was saying. She was drinking red wine, as usual, and Alex remembered that Vinnie always said she drank it because she was trying to match the color of her hair. It might even have been true. What a strange pair to be lovers, Vinnie and Lenore. You almost never saw them together. From outward appearances, you'd probably think Vinnie was sleeping with Alex and Lenore with nobody at all.

Lenore saw somebody she knew at the other end of the bar and got up to go over. Ian got up also, looking around the room. He spotted Alex and walked towards her, stopping on the way for two more beers. As usual, Alex's best invisibility act didn't work on Ian. He put one of the beers in front of her and waited. She waved a hand at the chair opposite her, and he sat down.

"What's new, kid?" he asked pleasantly.

She shrugged. "Nothing. I don't know. I'm wondering about what I'm doing here, what I'm really accomplishing. It's sort of a pointless, privileged existence, you know. I should be out there among the real people, in the real world, or how am I ever going to do anything worthwhile? I'm so fucking fragile!" She stopped and looked out the window at the snow. Then, still looking out, she went on. "But the world is so fucking scary, the number of ways they try to control you and beat you down . . . Maybe the only way to be really honest is to avoid all that pressure. You have to be able to maintain your ideals."

Ian finished his beer and smiled, a strange sight indeed. "You know what I like about you? When I ask you what's up, you really tell me what's up."

She made a face, half-disgusted with him and half-amused with herself. She may have been ludicrous, Ian thought, but at least she knew it. She was more aware of it than anybody else, in fact, and others often didn't realize it until she told them.

"Enough about me," Alex said definitely. "What's been going on with you?"

Ian shook his head. "Same old same old. I don't know, this town's weird. All summer I wait for the tourists to leave, 'cause they're so horrible, and then they all go away and I realize that this isn't any better."

"So, why do you stay?"

Alex's hands always gave away more than she wanted them to, they were often far more expressive than her face. They moved uncontrollably when she was troubled, picking at her clothes and hair, they conveyed an electricity all their own when they touched the skin of somebody she liked and felt comfortable with, and they were red-blotched and claw-like when she was most trying to act as if she was healthy and happy.

This morning they were cold and hard to the touch, Vinnie noticed. Alex warmed them around her constantly-refilled mug, and held them in front of the heater when her father finally got it working, but these things didn't help in the slightest. And, when Ian was there, she made a point not to touch him, Vinnie noticed, as if hiding the coldness of her hands from him. As if he cared, Vinnie chuckled to himself. Warm hands might frighten Ian off.

Alex drained her mug and stood up as Ian went out. Vinnie looked at her questioningly, and she smiled. "It's getting more human in here." She stretched and took off her coat. She took off her hat and sat down again. Two people Vinnie didn't know bought Sunday papers and walked out.

"I don't know, maybe I should be worrying about last night, but I think it was the right thing to do. Ian's not quite the way everybody likes to make out. He's more . . ." She shook her head. "Not yet. I'll figure him out, though. There's quite a lot in there."

"And he works pretty hard at keeping it in." She chuckled. "So, last night wasn't just a one-shot deal?"

She laughed. "As Ian said last night, there aren't very many one-night stands in this town. You use up the available prospects too fast."

Vinnie laughed. "That's great. Maybe that's why I'm sleeping around less and less. I think I may be getting near the end of the list."

"Well, you could always start again at the beginning, you know."

"I tried that once. You wouldn't have me, remember?"

Her face broke out in a surprisingly affectionate smile, complete with dimples. "Serves me right for mentioning it. You want some more tea?"

He nodded, and she took their empty mugs into the back room. Vinnie remembered all of a sudden why he liked her so much. She was really the only thing that made life worth living in this jerkwater town. She was fully alive, fully aware, even if this made her crazy sometimes, made her think and say things that were totally wrong and stupid. Her skin was too thin for the city, he thought. If she ever left this safe harbor she'd either toughen up or fall apart, and whichever way it went something would be lost. Something that meant a lot to him, no matter how silly it had seemed when they had met.

Vinnie had always worked in the General Store. First he'd been the delivery boy and floor-sweeper after school. Then, when he'd had to drop out of high school to help support his family when his step-father had died, Alex's father had made him the cashier. One thing was for sure, he'd never regretted having to leave school. What a disaster that had been. He'd been close to being thrown out anyway, and it had pleased him to leave under his own steam.

He and Alex had had that in common, even back then, both dropping out. She was real different, of course, all those fits and breakdowns from the pressure. Not that Ross Regional was a high-pressure school. They didn't care what you did as long as you showed up and didn't cause too much trouble. But the pressure in her mind, and from her parents, had been too much for her.

A month after Vinnie had dropped out and started working full-time it had come to a head. Alex had come into the store and started talking to Vinnie. They didn't know each other too well in those days, the angry young tough in the leather jacket and the boss's awkwardly tall and bookish daughter didn't have too much in common, but she asked him something about the weather, then before he could answer, her father came in and said he was going home. He said she should come along, too, and get her homework done before dinner. She choked out that she'd be along in a minute. Her father said, "See that you are, young lady," and told Vinnie to turn out the lights and lock up at the usual time.

He left, and Vinnie watched in silence as Alex turned her back on him and clutched herself in the stomach. She doubled over and he heard small, choked sobs. Then, suddenly, before he could figure out how to react, she whirled around and her long arms flashed out, knocking down a display rack of magazines. Screaming, she yanked a shelf of fishing supplies off the wall, pulling six-inch screws out of hard, ancient timber as if they were nothing. She turned to knock over a long rack of paperback books, but as she got her hands on it Vinnie leaped off the counter and tackled her, the two of them ending up buried under books and lumber. He held her in a bear hug as she struggled, then suddenly she threw her arms and legs around him and started to cry, pulling so hard on his jacket that he thought the leather would rip like paper. She cried long and hard, huge raw sobs making it hard for her to breathe. It seemed like hours, but it must have been only a few minutes.

As soon as he could, seeing unemployment and debts for repair floating before his eyes, Vinnie eased free from her embrace and ran to the door. He locked it, then hung the Closed sign face outward. When he got back to Alex she was sitting up and looking around at what she'd done. "He'll kill me," she whispered as Vinnie sat down on the floor beside her.

"He'll kill both of us," Vinnie whispered back, "starting with me. But never mind about that. You look like you need somebody to talk to."

She looked at him as if such an idea had never occurred to her, and now that it was in front of her she couldn't believe her good fortune. He understood the feeling.

It took some time, they were both so used to keeping everything in, never expecting anything from parents, teachers or even schoolmates except incomprehension and anger, but both had longed, without ever thinking of it that specifically, for a kindred spirit, and now that such a person had appeared, the barriers came down and they talked, for the first time in their lives, about what they really felt. It was, for each, like meeting a long-lost twin.

They were, of course, very different in many ways, but under it all they were the same, two sides of the same coin. And, after all the frustration and anger and mixed-up rage had come out, they sat for a few minutes, arms around each other, and then Alex looked around and said, "I still say my father will kill us."

Vinnie stood up, helping her up with him. "We can fix this. Let me get the tools."

Within an hour, everything was pretty much as it had been before. They hugged, made arrangements to see each other the next day, and Alex departed.

Three days later they made love in the storeroom downstairs, on an inflatable beach mattress. It was the first time for both of them. Alex was a virgin simply because nobody had ever asked her before. She was totally unattractive by the standards of most of her peers, and her braininess, her strangeness and her refusal to play the right roles turned off the few potential suitors that might have looked past her appearance. Vinnie had never done it because one thing he had always hated, that had made him angry beyond words, was the way his schoolmates bragged, the competitiveness of it, the brutality of it, and the stupid way you had to act when you went out with girls if you ever wanted to get anywhere. It had never occurred to him that a girl might exist who wouldn't need dressing-up for, or manners, or politeness, or spending money, or any of that garbage, that would love his rough edges and his greased hair and his father's old World War Two leather flying jacket.

And love they did, despite all sorts of pressure from all around them. They didn't care, they were deaf and blind to disapproval.

Vinnie smiled, watching Alex return with fresh mugs of tea from the back room. He had kicked and screamed, panic-stricken at being abandoned, when she had said they should stop being lovers. But she had convinced him that she was right. She wasn't satisfied with just a safe haven, and she taught him not to be either. So, they stopped sleeping together, and tried to figure out what could be done instead of just hiding away.

Alex put the mugs down and Vinnie smiled. She looked at him for a moment, then smiled, too.

"It's good to remember," he said simply. She nodded.

Alex drew in a deep breath through her mouth and let it out slowly through her nose. Vinnie waited, knowing that this meant she was building up to something, something she didn't really want to talk about.

"I got a letter from Rick."

Vinnie looked carefully at the masthead of the newspaper on the counter in front of him.

"Didn't know they delivered mail on Sunday."

She made a face. "It came on Wednesday. I've . . . I haven't mentioned it because I knew what you'd say."

"What I'd say?" he asked. "You're tougher on him than I'd ever be."

"He wants money."

"What!?" Vinnie bellowed, slapping his hand on the counter. "Why the hell should you give him money? You should have let me–"

"I'm not going to give him any money," she said patiently. "I'm not that much of a sucker. I was only married to him for twenty-seven days, you know."

Vinnie sat back down. "I'm sorry. I know you're over that craziness. He just gets on my nerves." He smoothed the top newspaper on the pile. "Why does he think he deserves any money from you?"

"That's the funny part. He doesn't really say." She reached into the pocket of her coat and pulled out a battered piece of paper. "He just says he's found a way to make some money, but he doesn't really want to do it. It's something pretty rank, apparently. If he had some cash, then he wouldn't have to do this, but he really needs the money. He doesn't give a clue what it is he's talking about."

Vinnie laughed sourly. "That's lame even for him."

Alex looked like she wanted to say something else, but she folded up the letter again carefully and put it away. It was always hard to talk about Rick with Vinnie.

There was a storm that Sunday night that would be remembered for years afterwards. It started suddenly, almost out of nowhere, with a wild, moaning wind. The sky got dark, with sudden strange explosions of very bright light. A dark, unstoppable wind blew in off the highway and right through the center of town, up Main Street and down Commercial Street. It blew out to the pier, around the parking lot, and down the shore road to the beaches.

It blew howling past the door of the BatCave and then off into the night, leaving a single figure standing in front of the door. She watched as the sky cleared, the oppressive pressure lifted, the explosions of light started to fade. The night became still, and it started to snow again. The woman laughed out loud and walked into the bar.

chapter ten