Monday, July 29, 2013

Baxter: Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Three

When he woke up the sun was on its way down. The TV was on, muted, and the news was running. Perhaps she’d been bored, but he thought it more likely that she’d been making sure they weren’t on the news. 
“I used your clippers,” she said from the doorway to the bathroom. She was backlit, and he couldn’t really see her, except that she was missing hair. She stepped out of the bathroom so that he could really see her, and he gasped. 
She’d used the bleach kit and an electric red dye, and he could smell the chemicals in the air, now that he was paying attention. Her hair was pulled up in three small knots on top, and the sides were buzzed to military length sidewalls. 
“Three looks in one,” she said, acknowledging his surprise without pleasure. She pulled a hat on and he saw that she simply looked like she had short hair with the red fauxhawk covered up. Then she took off the hat, snapped the rubber bands out of the knots, and let the red hair fall. The sides were shorter, but the hair down made her look much less punk.
“Guess I probably couldn’t get away with that,” he said.
“Probably not,” she agreed. Then she raised her eyebrows, looking at the bed.
“Right,” he said, rolling over. He tightened his abs to sit up and grunted. “Ow, dammit.” He sat up and shuffled off the bed like an old man. She handed him a bottle of ibuprofen. 
“Order some room service or eat a trail bar,” she said, “don’t take them on an empty stomach. Oh, and I set up the phones. Gun’s there.”
She climbed onto the bed, grabbed the coverlet, rolled up in it, and went to sleep.
Baxter nibbled something, took the pills, and then took a hot shower, which helped his stiff and aching joints to no end. 
Then he was looking at himself in the mirror, and he wanted to go back to bed. The strain of the past 24 hours was heavy on his face, he would swear he had developed jowls overnight, and the purple beneath his eyes was pronounced. He smiled weakly, and when he saw how sad and old it made him look, he broke through it with a grin.
“You were having fun yesterday,” he reminded himself. 
He was definitely too old to do something as extravagant as Barnes’ look, but he did what he could. He massaged some brown dye into his hair and then sat at the window, peeking through the curtain at the parking lot while it set. They were on the first floor, and just like at lunch, he still had the dread feeling that he’d see a black Town Car and know the jig would be up. Blaze of glory time, because he sure as fuck knew what would happen if he was taken alive.
But there was simply a regular evening’s traffic, a large sunburned family dragging bags and shouts in the hall a few minutes later. He saw a relationship that was so out of place (she gothy, him a good ol’ boy) that it was either a professional arrangement or true love. 
He went back to the bathroom, washed out the dye, trimmed the sides of his head down and teased the remainder into a rat’s nest with some product she had left on the sink. The tube of paste had red fingerprints on it. His mouth made an unimpressed line when he looked at himself in the mirror. He looked like he was trying way too hard. But he also didn’t look much like Jerry Sumner or Baxter, so that was something. His laziness had provided him with a few days’ growth of stubble, and he crafted it into a goatee. It made him cringe, but he supposed that was a good thing. 
He put a hat on over his too-shiny hair and went out. She was asleep, he didn’t dare lie back down again, so he went for a wander. The sun was down and the evening was cool, moving onto cold. He was more or less in the mountains, after all. He found a franchise steakhouse and decided it was good enough. 
He was feeling bloated, sipping on a Coke when the phone buzzed in his pocket. He’d only grabbed it from habit, it had been sitting next to the gun, which was in his waistband. The number ringing was listed as “1”. He answered.
“Where the fuck are you?”
“Went for a walk, got something to eat.”
“I told you to get room service.”
“I don’t look like the guy who checked in.”
“You think the food guy would even pay attention?”
“Ah, I just got antsy, listen--”
“Shut up and get your ass back here. Do you kn-- Just...get here.”
Baxter left some cash on the table and walked fast back to the hotel. His full belly didn’t encourage him to run. He used his key card to enter a side door and found the room without anyone noticing him.
The lights were on, the curtains closed, and partly thanks to her bright hair, Barnes looked pale and drawn.
“What. The. Fuck Baxter?”
“What?” he asked, baffled.
“Six hours, you asshole. Six hours I sat in here, no book, no magazine, twiddling my thumbs, waiting for you to get your sleep. And as soon as I go down, you bail on me. When I woke up I thought you ditched me!”
“Oh, God, look, I’m--”
“Shut up, Baxter. You think this is easy for me? I haven’t had even one day to wrap my head around this shit and I woke up alone. I wasn’t sure you were coming back. I was scared to call you. Christ you fucking asshole.”
“I’m didn’t mean--”
“I don’t care! This isn’t about you at all, you dick, this is about me being terrified. You’re used to being on your own, I’m not.”
He moved to her, holding his hands up placatingly.
“Stop right there,” she said. “You touching me is not going to help this at all. Now, you knob, here’s what’s gonna happen. I’m going to get into that bed and wrap up again. You’re going to put your arms around me, outside the covers until I fall asleep. This is not a reward, this is the only way I know I’m gonna get anymore rack time, is that clear?”
He nodded, finally clueing to the idea that he should not speak at all. 
She huffed, laid down, rolled up. He climbed on after her, putting his left arm under her head and right arm over her waist. 
“Ugh, what the fuck did you eat?”
“Onion rings,” he admitted quietly.
“You’re disgusting.”
It was only another ten minutes before her breathing slowed, and he gave her another ten to make sure she was under. His left arm was almost asleep by then. He gently slid his arm out from under her head, and she made a soft noise of protest, pulling her legs up, pulling into herself. 
He sat next to her on the bed for a long time, considering her. When was the last time he had been afraid, really afraid? Not these last 24 hours, certainly, he’d been pushing himself too much to stop and consider being afraid. And there was the fact that he’d also caught himself grinning at the fun time he was having. Fear? Not today. Or yesterday. Or...on 9/11 he’d been startled. He’d been a nervous wreck when he cashed in his bonds, but was he really scared? He didn’t think so, not exactly. The last time he’d been really afraid... 
He’d been lying on a concrete floor, trying to speak in spite of cracked ribs and battered body, trying to get one word out because he didn’t want to die. She was out there, she was waiting to hear from him, and as much as he didn’t want to die, he didn’t want to leave her alone, either. Chapstick. 
He shivered a little at the memory, not the temperature. He reached out and put a hand on her shoulder, feeling the warmth of her sleeping body through the cover. 
“I apologize,” he said, giving her a gentle squeeze. “I really do. I’m sorry.”
She sighed in her sleep and her body seemed to relax another degree. Maybe that was good enough.
He turned on the TV then, and punished himself by watching bad movies with closed captions. Twice there were sounds in the hall, the second time he was halfway to the gun before they died away. Her fear was not contagious, but her fear was so palpable that he couldn’t blow it off, either.
He was still awake when her eyes snapped open at 4 a.m.

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