The Blackbird Season
Nate, Monday, May 4, 2015: Two weeks after the birds fell
The rain came in sheets, like a wall, forming wide rivulets down the windshield. The wipers swished and couldn’t keep up. They were old, needed to be replaced, and left streaks across the glass. But this was Alecia’s car and she hadn’t told him. His job was the maintenance, sure, but he wasn’t a mind reader. He smacked the lever up a notch.
He squinted against any oncoming headlights, the few there were. Winding pavement and black towering pines combined with the lack of streetlights made this stretch of road, up into the Pocono Mountains, a hazard regardless of the season. The Lackawaxen River rushed by to his right, a mere fifty feet over a guardrail, engorged with the deluge of rain, more than typical for spring in Pennsylvania. He slowed to thirty miles an hour and leaned forward, his headlights bouncing off the white line, the yellow centerline almost invisible, faded with age.
His phone rang, the display flashing. He ignored it. Could be Tripp, but he’d gotten into it with Alecia and she likely wanted to keep it going. He’d been so distracted he’d
forgotten his pillow and would be stuck sleeping with a throw pillow on Tripp’s sofa, mildewed and lumpy. He wasn’t even sure the bag perched next to him on the passenger seat had enough to get him through the week. He’d been unfocused, just shoving things in: jeans, socks, underwear, shirts. Things you need when you have no job, no wife to go home to.
The phone rang again and he took his eyes away from the road for a split second. Alecia. He almost picked up, but tightened his hands on the wheel. Pick it up, don’t pick it up? Her pecking and pulling at the threads of their marriage wasn’t new; it was as old as anything he could remember. She just had so much more to pull at now. Not just Gabe, although always, always Gabe.
His headlights caught on a figure in the distance, a hand waving in the air, panicked. He slowed the car, pulled over, until he was next to her, hair plastered to pale cheeks, black clothing rendering her almost invisible in the night, had it not been for her gleaming white hair. He felt the cord of muscle up his arms tighten in a spasm. He rolled down the passenger-side window, but just a crack. Maybe two inches. He’d be damned if he was letting her into this car.
“You’re going to get yourself killed. What the hell are you doing?”
“I need help.” Her eyes were wild, wide and doll-like against her face, and her hands, red chipped fingernails, cupped her cheeks, pushing her hair back. Fingers wound up into that bright white hair at her temples and she shook her head back and forth and back and forth, like a dog shaking off water. That hair, a regular topic of conversation with the students, impossibly exotic but just so weird. Teenagers these days aimed to stand out, and that bright whiteness still gave them all pause.
“I can’t help you. You know that.” There it was. He was finally, finally
angry. Everyone had been asking him, are you angry? In an accusatory way, a way that really meant why aren’t you angry? As though this alone was proof of his guilt. He wanted to capture the moment, record his voice right now, because seeing her, finally, he realized he was really, really angry. “Get out of here, Lucia. Go home. Where you belong.”
She leaned against the car so her mouth was even with the window opening, her body pushed against the window so he couldn’t see her eyes. Only that mouth, that lying little mouth. She wore a white T-shirt, soaked through, and he could see the outline of her nipples, pressed against the glass. Where was her jacket? It had to be fifty-five degrees. Not his problem. He looked away.
“I don’t belong anywhere.” And when she leaned her forehead against the door trim, he could finally see her eyes. They were bloodshot and her pupils dilated like black Frisbees against a cerulean sky. Fear could dilate your eyes, he knew that for sure. Or was she on something? Pilfered from that brother of hers?
He didn’t care.
He picked up his phone. Pressed the numbers 911.
“I can’t help you, Lucia. I’m calling the police and I won’t leave until they get here, but you cannot get in my car. I can’t do anything for you.” His voice was gentler than he’d intended. He’d always had a soft spot for her and those like her: the damaged, pretty girls. The smart girls with no guidance. The lost girls. There had been others; Robin Hendricks came to mind, but none who’d gotten him to this place before.
He hit send. Ring. Ring. “Pike County Police Department.”
“Hi. This is Nate Winters. I need help on Route Six.”
“Sure, Mr. Winters, what appears to be the problem?”
“I’m here with a Lucia Hamm. I was driving and I found her walking along the road. She might be on something but I can’t drive her anywhere. Just send someone, please.”
She stared at him, her mouth twisting. She backed up slowly, away from the white line, her eyes narrowed at him, the side of her face illuminated by the headlights.
“Lucia!” He called through the slight window opening. “Don’t you dare go anywhere. Stay right there.”
She stepped around the front of the car, his hazard lights blinking red against her face. Her mouth curved up in a wicked smile and his insides coiled. She leaned forward, palms flat against the hood of his car, eyebrows arched seductively.
“Mr. Winters?” The voice on the other end was deep and slow. “Is everything all right?”
She blew him a kiss.
He rolled his window down all the way and leaned out. “Lucia!” He called again, his voice dying in the wind.
She turned and walked away, along the white line, the headlights of the car flanking her retreating figure. She wore a short, black skirt and knee-high boots, and her hips swayed.
“Shit.” He ran his hand through his hair.
“Mr. Winters? Are you still there?”
She turned, then, maybe ten feet from the front of his car, braced her feet on either side of the white line and gave him two middle fingers. Then she cut right and ran into the woods.
“Mr. Winters.” The man on the phone was stern now, angry about having his time wasted. “Are you still there? Do you still need someone to come out?”
“I don’t know.” He felt sick. No matter what happened now, everything had just gotten worse. All the pieces he’d been clinging to had flown apart, scattering what was left of his life in a million directions. He was in trouble, he’d been in trouble, but now he was more than in trouble, he was as dead as a person could be while still being alive. In one heartbeat, he envisioned Alecia and Gabe huddled together on the
couch, himself in prison, a 20/20 special. His dinner rose in his chest and he took a deep breath to quell the panic.
He had no way of knowing that this moment would become the linchpin, the moment that all the moments after would hinge upon. The papers would call him a murderer; the police would come to him; his ex-friends, his gym buddies, the guys who knew him for God’s sake; and say, Nate was the last one to see her alive, right? The last one is always the guilty one.
He couldn’t know all this. But he could still feel it, like something physical chasing him and gaining ground, his heart beating wildly, a skittering pulse up the back of his neck. It was more than a feeling. It was a portent, something tangible, almost corporeal.
“She’s gone,” he said quickly, and hung up, dropping the phone on the seat. He should have just driven away. Everything in his body told him to just drive away.
He opened the car door and stepped into the rain.