Part Three: Covet
AMY ROSE from her chair in the track’s security office, a 12-by-12 foot damp room consisting of one metal desk, two metal chairs, a metal filing cabinet, one trash bin, one 19-inch television, and one cramped holding cell—where The Hobbit sat on a metal bench, handcuffed and staring down at the floor.
Amy leaned against the cell’s bars and opened her program. She held it up for Slander to see. “I just watched the replay of the sixth race. Because of your drama, we missed out on hitting the trifecta. My pick, Billy Budd, ran first, at 12-1, and get this: the trifecta had only two winners. Two. Each ticket was worth $7,500. If you and I had played the race, we would have won a third of the pool—$5,000. That’s $2,500 each. Tell me, how much do you make a week — $500? So that’s a little more than a month’s worth of salary for you. I could have used $2,500. But no, I had to sit here, like a good girlfriend, and listen to you say nothing for the past 45 minutes.”
The Hobbit raised his head, but he didn’t face Amy. “No one prevented you from making the play. You still have plenty of available cash.”
“And leave you alone or, worse, exclude you from the wager? I don’t need to listen to your heart break for the umpteenth time. No thanks. I decline.” Amy reached in between the bars and tossed the program toward The Hobbit. It landed at his feet. “We would have broken the streak.”
The Hobbit looked at the program with disgust. “Yeah, that would have made things whole.”
“Whole? Made what whole? I don’t understand, Slander. What is bothering you? What’s with the green streak, turning into the Hulk over the likes of Iggy? So we dated. News flash, Slander: I dated men before you.”
“I know. But Iggy? Iggy?” The Hobbit stood. “Jesus, why him?”
“Why not him? He’s handsome. He’s interesting.”
“Interesting? He’s a fucking meth addict! Does being good looking absolve one of all character flaws? Good heavens, Amy, what’s so interesting about a junkie? His backstory? Tell me, Amy, because this is messed up. You’re a bright woman. You have better options.”
Amy checked her watch. The security officer would be back soon and then she would have to decide whether to accompany Slander to his next jail cell or remain at the races, a decision she didn’t want to make. She wanted to be loyal to Slander, but damn, there were some good races coming up, and she needed to make a score or risk going home broke and with options she didn’t want to face or admit to her father.
“Everything is messed up, Slander. We’re all messed up to some degree. Look around at the people who come to the track, the regulars. Better yet, look at us. Look in the mirror.”
“I know, I know,” The Hobbit said. “But Iggy? Is it purely about looks?”
“No, not really,” Amy said. “Sometimes it’s about timing. I met Iggy not long after I got home, and roughly two months after I recovered from my injuries. I met him at a coffee shop in Union Grove. He had recognized me from the articles and television stories and introduced himself, but he didn’t press me for all the miraculous details. I hate being known as ‘The Fortunate One.’ It’s…an unfair burden.” Amy raised her eyes toward The Hobbit, looking for understanding, perhaps forgiveness. She saw only hurt. “Slander, he didn’t want to save me or heal me. He didn’t want to analyze my survivor’s guilt. He didn’t care about my backstory. Somehow he knew I needed a place to escape, to have fun. He introduced me to this place. Before meeting him, I’d never even been in a casino much less a racetrack, and he made me laugh. It was easy, or so it seemed at the time. I know you don’t believe this, but he was kind and gentle.”
“Gentle? Kind? God, Jesus, Mary, Joseph. Did he write you poetry, too?”
“Thankfully, no,” Amy said. “Hey, I’m with you, my badass lover. I’m here.”
“Don’t say ‘lover’. Don’t mock me.”
“Not mocking anyone. We’ll get there.”
“Yeah, sure. Considering this is the only place where you’ll see me, I doubt it. Given current events and my previous drama, I doubt I’m going anywhere without male accompaniment for a while. Jesus, I can’t believe this is happening. I’m going to be arraigned on assault and battery charges, and I don’t have bail money or money for a lawyer, and apparently you don’t either.”
“Maybe I’ll come up for a conjugal visit,” Amy offered.
The Hobbit limped toward the bars. “This isn’t a joke, Amy. I hurt Iggy badly. God help me. What was I thinking? Look at me. I’m in handcuffs.”
Up close, Amy saw the purple and red bruise marks on his swollen hands. He looked as beat up and wounded as Iggy, and he had won the fight. She lowered her hands and ran the back of them along the sides of his face. “I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what you want.”
The Hobbit seized her hands and held them. “I want you to understand.”
“Please, make me, Slander. Explain.”
“I am not an attractive man. I wasn’t even cute as a child. I wasn’t even ugly cute. I was just … this person, this short, fat and twitching thing. I wasn’t even diagnosed with Tourette’s until I was 15 years old. Until then, I was this ugly kid with disgusting habits. I took comfort, and pride, knowing I was smart and clever. I also knew I wasn’t brilliant. I was limited. I wasn’t special. But I loved to read, and I longed to write. I wanted to become good at something, and what better choice for a man of my profile. So, I worked at it. I read like a writer, the great books, studying them as if my life depended on it. I wrote every day and, to my surprise, discovered I wasn’t terrible. I got published. Eventually I found out I wanted to write love stories. Maybe I thought being a romantic writer would make up for my lack of physical beauty.”
“They are beautiful stories,” Amy said. “They’re tender and empathetic. Don’t demean yourself, Slander. You’re gifted.”
“I’m glad you think so,” Slander said. “Thank you.” He raised his eyes toward Amy. “They say you should write what you know. I disagree. I believe a writer should write what he covets.”
“Amy, you and me, it’s not working. Even before tonight, I knew I couldn’t keep seeing you, not on your terms. Maybe that’s what truly lies behind my behaviour tonight.” Slander sighed. “Amy, I’m sorry, but our relationship is over. This is not the love story I wanted to tell. I want to tell love stories with happy endings, and honestly, Amy, I don’t see one with you.”
The Tower: Part Three
The glass tower was dying. Below the 78th floor, the observation deck, all the inhabitants had fled, scrambling down stairwells choked with smoke and clogged with debris and the bodies of the wounded and the dead. Most of the poor souls above the deck were killed quickly, either by the blast wave or the smoke. These were the fortunate ones. Those who had survived the blasts were trapped.
Amy and The Prince stood in the opening created by the first explosion. She precariously placed one foot on the ledge and stared out into the sky. It was the same brilliant blue she had embraced and loved the first time she had ridden the glass elevator to the observation platform. Below, through shifting gaps in the smoke, she could see the National Arboretum, and for a moment she remembered the sweet scent of the blisses her father had given her. The memory passed quickly. Her world had been reduced to a brutal choice: How are we to die?
The Prince grabbed her hand. He pointed down.
Amy looked down toward the courtyard. She saw emergency trucks and vehicles scrambling amid a crowd of blurred dark figures. Emergency ladders, she thought. Could the ladders reach them 102 stories up?
She understood The Prince’s intentions. She snapped her hand away from his. “No,” she yelled, “I can’t.”
“Do you want to burn?” he implored.
“There must be another way,” Amy said. “They will come to rescue us. They will climb the tower.”
The Prince held out his hands, begging her to take hold. He didn’t want to jump alone.
“There must be another way,” she said. “There must.” A hand touched her back. Amy turned.
It was Julia. Her clothes had been burned off. Her lovely, smooth ivory skin looked as if it had been grilled. The skin on her arms hung loose and revealed muscle and bone. Soot soiled her face. Only her eyes appeared untouched, and they resonated with loss.
“Julia, what are we going to do?” Amy asked. “I don’t want to die.”
Julia did not respond. She looked through her and to The Prince.
The Prince reached across Amy and took Julia’s hand.
The Prince and Julia stepped forward.
Julia smiled sadly at Amy. “Good-bye, Country.”
The Prince and Julia jumped.