Authors: Richard Laymon
“Take it easy, Odie.”
“Yeah. Holy cow.” Rubbing the back of his hand under his nose, he turned away and started along the balcony toward the stairs.
Gillian shut her door. She went into the kitchen to make a pot of coffee.
She would miss Odie and Grace. She had managed the twenty-unit apartment complex herself for almost a year before they showed up in their lopsided pickup truck. Odie was unemployed, but Grace had already lined up a book-keeping job that would bring in enough money to cover the rent and little else.
Gillian not only liked the two at once, she trusted them. She gave them an apartment rent-free and hired Odie, overjoyed to be released from the burden of running the place.
Now they were leaving.
I’ll have to get someone else, she thought as she poured a mug of coffee. No way am I going to start managing again.
Sliding open the kitchen door, she stepped onto the sundeck and sat down on a padded chair. She stretched her legs out, propping her feet on a plastic table. She took a drink of coffee.
Her stomach hurt. It wasn’t just losing her managers, it was liking them and knowing she would never see them again after they left.
They weren’t exactly friends. But she had cared about them, and now they’d be out of her life forever.
That’s life, she told herself. That’s why you shouldn’t start caring.
She drank some more coffee. She rested the mug on the arm of the chair, dosed her eyes and tilted her head back to feel the sun on her face.
How’s about bugging out? she thought.
I don’t know.
She’d only come back yesterday. The need wouldn’t start getting strong for a week or two.
But with Odie and Grace taking off, she might be stuck here after Friday—at least until she could find someone to replace them.
If you wait, you might have to go without for a whole month. Maybe even longer.
You’ll be climbing the goddamn walls.
Better go for it while you’ve got the chance.
Her decision made, Gillian felt a familiar stir of excitement.
Get a move on, she thought. If you don’t have any luck today, you’ll have to wait for Monday.
She finished her coffee and went inside.
Gillian drove to an area in Studio City where the homes were nice but not elaborate. Rarely did she venture into truly exclusive neighborhoods—except on occasions when she wanted a special treat. Not this time. She had no taste today for the luxuries of a million-dollar home. Nor for dallying with such frills as elaborate alarm systems and private security patrols. A nice home in a middle-income neighborhood was all she desired. This area was just right.
Gillian had spent a terrific week in a house not far from here. The Jenson place. Murray and Ethel, away on vacation to Boston, had been good enough to leave their calendar clearly marked with their departure and return dates. Gillian had simply cleared out the day before they were scheduled to return. That had been back in February. This was June, so plenty of time had passed. She never liked to return to the same general area unless at least three months had gone by.
After cruising the streets for a while, she spotted one of the white Jeeps with red and blue stripes used by mail carriers. It was parked near a comer.
Gillian left her car on the next block, then began to wander the streets in search of the mailman.
Within ten minutes, she found him.
She walked slowly toward him. With his detours to front doors, she soon overtook him. She left him behind. At the end of the block, she crossed to the opposite side of the street and watched him from there.
When he made no delivery to a house, Gillian wrote the address on a note pad.
She spent nearly two hours observing the mailman. By then, she had five addresses on her list.
She returned to each house.
At one, she heard voices through the front door. She walked away and scratched that address off her list.
At another, a surly old man came to the door when she rang the bell. He glared at her. “I ain’t buying. I ain’t donating, I ain’t signing shit. Get outa here’n stop annoying me.” Gillian smiled at him. “Are you saved?” she asked. “Get fucked,” he said, and slammed the door.
Gillian scratched that address off her list. Her hand shook when she did it.
At the other three homes, nobody answered the doorbell.
One of these had an alarm system, two didn’t. She scratched off the one that had the alarm.
In an alley behind one of the remaining homes, she peered through a narrow gap between the fence and gate. There was no swimming pool, but the back yard had a nice patio area and a hot tub.
She walked two blocks to the other house. On close inspection, she found that it had a swimming pool. A definite plus.
Gillian returned to her car.
On the way back to her apartment, she weighed the choices. A pool was preferable to a hot tub. However, the place with the hot tub had a vacant house next door with a For Sale sign in front. That would mean one less next-door neighbor who might get suspicious of her sudden presence.
Gillian decided on the hot tub house.
They had set off with Bert driving. After the coffee and doughnuts, Rick nodded off and dozed for an hour. When he awoke, they were on the Grapevine, heading down through the Tehachapis. The valley below them looked flat and endless.
In Bakersfield, they stopped at a filling station. The gas tank was only half empty, but their bladders were full. Bert used a restroom while Rick pumped gas at the self-service island. When she returned, he hurried to the men’s room.
He came back and offered to take over the driving, but Bert said that she wasn’t tired yet. “Why don’t I drive till Fresno?” she suggested. “That’s when we start east. I’ll let you experience the joys of the mountain driving.”
“Fine. And you can navigate, since you’re the one who allegedly knows where we’re going.”
When they reached Fresno, they were ready for lunch. Bert took an off-ramp. Along the sideroad were several restaurants. Bert said that a Burger King would do nicely, but Rick talked her into Howard Johnson’s. “I’ve really got a craving for fried clams,” he told her, “and that’s a specialty at Howard Johnson’s.”
“You interested in the clams or the bar?” Bert asked.
“Both,” he admitted.
“Just remember you’ll be driving.”
Inside, they each drank a Bloody Mary while they waited for the meal to be served. Then Bert had iced tea with her clams and French fries, and Rick had a beer. He nursed the beer along, wanting another but holding back so Bert wouldn’t start to worry.
The car was stifling when they returned to it. Rick put on the air conditioner, and soon cool air was blowing against them.
Though the alcohol made him groggy for a while, it blunted his apprehension as the valley was left behind.
The land changed quickly. For a while, the road rose and dipped through brown foothills where cattle grazed. There were few trees, and only a scattering of rock. Then the rolling fields became littered with rock, and clumps jutted up like broken knobs of bone that had split the flesh of the earth. The road curved upward, a granite wall on their right, a ravine on the left. Then trees on both sides cast their deep shadows onto the pavement.
Bert asked Rick to turn off the car’s air conditioner. They both rolled their windows down. Warm air that smelled of pine rushed into the car. “Delicious,” Bert said.
She rested her elbow on the window sill, and Rick stole glances at her as he steered around the curves. Her forearm was sleek and tanned. Her face was tilted toward the window. The one eye he could see was half shut and her mouth was open slightly, smiling. The wind ruffled her hair and fluttered the open neck of her shirt.
God, she was beautiful.
In Rick’s imagination, she opened more buttons and the wind flapped her shirt open.
Then his mind strayed away from her beauty. He found himself wishing he were Bert, face to the wind, relishing the scented mountain air. She seemed untarnished, pure and free, enjoying herself like a child. Rick longed to be inside her and feel the way she must feel. There would be no worries, no knot in his stomach, only the thrill of being in the mountains at the very start of a vacation.
He could remember the way it felt to be that way. The memories made him hurt for what had been lost.
Maybe I can get some of it back, he thought. Maybe some of Bert will rub off on me.
Just don’t let me rub off on Bert. Don’t, for godsake, ruin it for her.
Bert turned her head. “I once hiked three days,” she said, “and never saw anyone. Can you imagine that? Nobody else on the trails. We camped by lakes and had them all to ourselves.”
“That does sound nice,” Rick said. “I hope we get a lake to ourselves.”
“Yeah, I bet I know what you’ve got in mind.”
“You can freeze your nuts off in those glacial lakes.”
“It’s not so bad,” Bert said, “once you get used to it.”
“I was never in that long.”
“One does tend to take on a lovely shade of blue.”
“I guess we’ll find out,” Rick said. “You swim, I’ll watch you turn colors.”
“I’ll be your towel holder.”
“One doesn’t use a towel. One lies out in the sun on a flat rock.”
“That’s how it’s done, huh? Does one wear a swimming suit?”
“Not if one can help it.”
“This is sounding better and better.”
“But you’ve got to be somewhere isolated for that, so I wouldn’t count on it.”
“You mean we won’t be isolated? I thought that was the whole idea.”
“It’ll be in an area that’s pretty out of the way. I know the popular places that’ll be swarming with campers, and we’ve steered clear of those. But we won’t be in deep. Even if you do go in deep, that’s no guarantee. Just means you meet a hardier breed of hiker. We’ll probably have some company, but not much.”
“Be great if it was just you and me.”
“That, of course, is what we’ll be shooting for.” She ran a hand down his thigh, gave him a pat, then reached to the glove compartment. She took out a map. As she unfolded it, the wind snapped it taut. She lowered it against her legs.
“We almost there yet?”
“Not by a long shot. The fun hasn’t even started.”
“Which fun is that?”
“About thirty miles on an unpaved road.”
“I can hardly wait.”
“That’s the part that keeps out the riff-raff.” She spent a while studying the map. “It’s not even on here,” she said.
“Maybe it doesn’t exist.”
“Jean at the office was there last summer with her husband. They stumbled onto the road by accident and thought the area was great. I’ve got her directions.” Bert patted her breast pocket. “We’ll find it.”
A while later, dwellings began to appear among the trees on both sides of the road. Some of them looked like summer cottages Rick had known as a boy. There were a few log cabins and several A-frames. He heard the sputter of a distant chainsaw.
A sign read: Bridger Creek, Population 63, Elevation 7,300.
“We’re getting up there,” Bert said.
Bridger Creek had a crossroads. On two of the comers stood A-frame real estate offices. On another comer was the B.C. Bar with a few pickup trucks and motorcycles and off-road vehicles parked in its lot. The fourth corner was occupied by a general store with gas pumps in front.
Rick stopped beside one of the pumps. A skinny teenaged boy in bib overalls trotted down from the porch. He wore a cap with its bill at the rear. He smiled through the window at Rick. Two of his upper front teeth were missing. “Help ya?” he asked.
“Fill it up with unleaded,” Rick said.
The kid went over to the pumps.
“ ‘Duelling Banjos,’ anyone?” Rick asked.
Bert gave the side of his leg a gentle punch.
After paying for the gas, Rick moved the car to the end of the lot. They went inside the store and used the restrooms. Before leaving, they bought a bag of potato chips and two bottles of cream soda.
He drove with the bottle of soda clamped between his legs. It was cold through his trousers. The open sack of chips rested on the seat. He took turns with Bert reaching into it. Sometimes, when he was concentrating on the road, his hand collided with hers.
Soon after the chips and sodas were gone, the road narrowed. It curved along the side of a mountain. Beyond the other lane was a sheer drop to a wooded valley. Rick’s hands tightened on the steering wheel and he slowed down and edged to the right each time he met a descending vehicle. There were pickup trucks, Jeeps and vans, a few R.V.s. The big campers barely had room to squeeze by. Rick began pulling onto the gravel shoulder and stopping each time one of them appeared around a bend.
After the fourth time he did that, he slid a thin cigar out of the pack in his shirt pocket.
“Uh-oh,” Bert said. “The man’s getting serious.”
“They help calm me down.” He held the cigar out to Bert. “Want one?” he asked.
Though she had never complained of his cigars, she had never smoked one, either. “You are in a festive mood,” Rick said. He took one out for himself. His hands shook badly as he unwrapped it.
Cigar jutting from her pursed lips, Bert leaned toward Rick for a light and wiggled her eyebrows like Groucho.
Rick lit it for her. “You’re a regular guy,” he said.
“If I’m a guy, I’m irregular.”
He grinned and fired up his own cigar. He checked the road. Then he eased off the rough shoulder and picked up speed.
Smoking the cigar helped his nerves. So did watching Bert with hers. She didn’t smoke it so much as fool with it: she held it out daintily between two fingers; she stretched out her lips and sucked it like a monkey; she talked with the cigar clamped in her side teeth; she tapped off ashes with her pinky; looking at Rick with half-shut eyes, she licked its blunt wet end and slid the shaft deep into her mouth and out and in again.
“You’re going to make me crash,” he said.
“You’re doing fine.”
Long after the cigars were snuffed out in the ashtray, Bert unbuttoned the flap of her breast pocket and took out a folded yellow sheet from a legal pad.