Lucie was in trouble, and try as she might she couldn’t hide it—not from Mark. He could read her signs all too well. The restlessness in her voice was a dead giveaway: that frantic skipping, like an overplayed record, cracked and scratched and abused.
The 12:00 AM phone call went just like this:
"Please, Mark, pretty-please. I’ve been driving for hours. I need a place to stay, even if it’s just for the night."
"Not this shit again, Lucie. I have work in the morning. Is there anywhere else you can go?"
"You’re the only person I know anymore."
She burned all her bridges a long time ago. He had to say yes.
At 12:27 there was a rabid banging at the door. And with step trailing reluctant step, Mark inched towards the clamor. He was being sincere when he said he had to work in the morning. It was hard-hat labor, and it had already taken a heavy toll. His back was wrecked, his shoulders burned, his callused hands were sore, and in the morning there would be much more work to do.
Ba – Doom
Ba – Doom
Ba – Doom – Boom – Boom
The banging was relentless.
But Mark wasn’t a heartless man, so with shame pouring down his back he sprinted for the door, and in his haste he failed to notice how close his shins were to the sharp edge of the decoupaged coffee table that sat in the middle of the room. Bang. The blow ripped free several photographs he had so delicately pasted the week before, but he cursed his way through the pain and swung the door wide open.
And there stood Lucie, or what was left of her. She flickered in the dark like an emaciated angel.
At once, he could smell the sweat, oil, and methamphetamine leaking from her pores--it was the damning stench of the lost, as familiar as it was revolting--an obnoxious megaphone, screaming to all within earshot that the way is not clear. The road is not safe. The fires have not been smothered. They still rage, and they want to burn you alive.
Mark stood there with his mouth wide open, but no words came to him. Hot blood pounded in his ears. Lucie embraced him, and held on for dear life. Her chin trembled. "Mark, please don’t hate me."
He swallowed the stone in his throat and blinked away a tear. The edges of Lucie’s cheekbones were abnormally keen, giving her the look of a strung-out Marsha Brady. Through the black sundress that hung loose like curtains from her shivering frame, he could feel the straight razor sharpness of shoulder blade. He wouldn’t dare to squeeze any harder.
"You’re glad to see me, right?" she asked, her voice choked by trepidation.
"Of course I’m glad to see you," he said, sincerity seeping away . "What happened?"
“I know too many people," she said, "Too many people who can’t keep their damn mouths closed. They’re everywhere. And now, because of them, I have to keep running.”
Her words were utter nonsense.
Lucie fluttered around the room for a time before finally settling in a well worn rocking chair tucked away in a corner. Mark sat straight-backed on his threadbare sofa trying to make sense of it all. Yes, he had seen Lucie in distress, but it had never been this bad before. “Who could be after her?” he wondered. “Why’d she have to get me involved?” he thought, perhaps somewhat selfishly, clenching his jaw in frustration.
"Bathroom’s in the back, right?" Lucie asked, her porcelain body bobbing back and forth in the creaking wicker chair. "Second door," Mark replied. She scurried off. He knew what she was doing in there. And even though he wanted to help her, he wouldn‘t think of going through this again. I will be a good host to an old friend. I will entertain her for a while and then I will ask her to leave.
"I’m glad you’re here, Mark," Lucie shouted from the bathroom. "You understand me. "You understand why I do the things I do. Even when you try to pretend that you don’t, we both know you really do."
He wished that he didn‘t. He wished that he could erase Lucie from his mind. The best he could muster was to force a paper bag of nostalgia over her scarred and scabbed face. She was gorgeous when they first met. In those days he called her ‘Girly-Girl’.
Mark walked into his kitchenette craving a beer--a welcome swallow would numb the mind. He could hear Lucie snorting in the bathroom all the while. He pictured her scraping the drug out of nickel sized baggies with her pinkie fingernail, the shards glimmering like a constellation of stars. Experience had taught him that she would need something to bring her down, too. He yanked the refrigerator door handle and freezing air cascaded downward.
He plucked two bottles of beer from a six pack resting on the top shelf among boxes of leftover Chinese takeout. Snooort.
He twisted the bottle caps free to a sharp hiss of escaping carbonation and tucked them safely away in his shirt pocket.
Years as a habitual user and she still hadn’t learned much about the art of discretion.
Mark returned to his living room and found Lucie roaming around in his yellow hard-hat, bright eyed and full of chemical vigor. He tried his damnedest to look stern, but a smile crossed his lips. "You look like a bobble-head in that thing," he said, placing an ice-cold bottle in her trembling hand. Lucie smiled, raised it to her mouth and gulped.
"You’re going to let me crash here tonight, right?" she asked as Mark took away her crown.
"Lucie, listen. I…"
"Look how pretty I was!" she demanded, her eyes widening further at a picture of her past captured on black and white Kodak paper. It was one of several that had fallen to the ground. "You were going to make me famous, but I guess it’s too late for that now."
"I would’ve had to make myself famous first. We saw how that worked out."
And though his brief attempt at art school had ended in failure, and the cock-sure photographer that he once was had been cut off from the blinding promise of fame by the cold inevitability of adulthood, Lucie’s childlike faith in him never faltered.
"Mark, remember when we were gonna get that place together? Look, I know that things didn‘t work out, but we should really give it another shot," she said. "It would be fabulous. We could take care of each other. We need each other." She was as sincere as a six-year-old on Santa’s lap.
"Yeah, that’d be nice Lucie." This plan was a decade old. It pained him to see her living in yesterday’s shadow.
The light bulb sheathed by the brass fixture overhead blinked for an instant, but neither of them took notice. Lucie manically paced the room as the drug once again took hold. Mark had had enough. He quickly chugged his beer and slammed the empty bottle down, clasped his hands together, and stretched his arms high over his head until his shoulder joints popped from the strain. A yawn escaped his mouth and he, hopeful that Lucie would take the hint, collapsed on the sofa like an imploding high-rise. Looking down, he spotted a bare patch in the table where a photo should have been. This absence disturbed him, and he gazed at the nothing with some measure of disdain.
"I’m not an idiot," Lucie said.
"Beg your pardon?"
"I’m not a fucking idiot. I saw how you were looking at me."
"How was I looking at you, Girly-Girl?"
"Don’t patronize me. I know what you’re thinking, Mark. I know what you’re thinking and you’re dead wrong."
The light above flickered and hissed, distorting the shapes of soft shadows on the wall. Mark stood up and tapped it with his fingertip. It buzzed in defiance before settling back into a steady glow.
For Lucie, though, the shadow play did not end. She hadn’t slept for days--a fact Mark was unaware of--and this drug fueled insomnia was steadily warping her mind. She started to hallucinate. Lucie’s mad eyes swam as the shadows on the wall took human form. They danced a silent dance for her and they packed the empty spaces. She felt the air grow heavy as their breath, hot as cinders, coiled serpentine around her. Lucie’s half-empty beer slipped from her grasp and hit the carpeted floor with a muffled thud before rolling under the table with a trail of foam behind it. She frantically scanned the room for a distraction, but the shadow men were everywhere. Her eyes called out to Mark, but he was blind to what she saw. For a moment she found refuge in the table and the once familiar faces that were pasted to it, but it didn’t last for long. The faces returned her desperate gaze, their expressions twisting into masks of disgust.
“I have to leave. I have to get out, Mark. I have to go right now." She was shattered glass.
Seeing her this bad off was soul wrenching.
Lucie bolted towards the door.
"Where are you going?" Mark asked.
"Not smart, Lucie."
"I’m not an idiot…"
"I never said you were."
"... and I’m no fucking junkie."
"We both know that‘s a lie."
"Go to hell, Mark."
And though every cell in his body told him that running after her was a horrible idea, he did it anyway. He was not a heartless man.
Mark sped after Lucie, gravel stabbing his feet as he ran breathless to the end of the parking lot. He found her sobbing in her red jeep beneath the bright glow of a street lamp. The jeep was the same one that her foster father had given to her as a high school graduation present—Lucie called it his big apology--and it was in worse shape than she was. Both of the doors bore huge dents, and there were countless scratches in the paint revealing the dingy metal underneath. The idea of Lucie driving under the influence caused Mark to clench his jaw again.
"Nobody drives my jeep but me," she said as she fastened her seat belt. She could read his signs as well.
"Could you at least tell me where we’re going?"
"I don‘t know, Mark. Just let me drive."
Mark’s heart quaked as they rolled out of the complex.
"You hate me right now," Lucie said. " I can tell."
"If I hated you would I be here?"
"You feel obligated. I’m a baby in a basket that got dropped on your front door. Nobody throws a baby away."
"You’re a grown woman."
"No. I’m not. I can’t take care of myself. You were always around to make sure I didn’t crack."
"I’m still here," Mark said.
"Are you really?"
Minutes passed and they were on the highway now, careening through early morning motorists who were oblivious to the fact that the vehicle blasting past them was being driven by a drugborne schizophrenic. They were doing 80 in a 55. Lucie’s mouth kept pace with the speedometer.
"I just needed a place to crash for the night," she said. Somewhere that I could close my eyes and know I’d be safe."
“Lucie, please slow down.” Mark could sense her slipping away again.
“I can’t," she said." I have to stay one step ahead.”
Lucie’s eyes glazed over as she fell backwards, arms outstretched, through a hole in her own mind. She glanced at the rear view mirror and muffled a scream. The shadow men were there. They had followed her. Fire spewed from their mouths and their eyes were crimson suns. They ran with unnatural speed.
"What now?" Mark asked.
"They’re catching up."
"The shadow men," she said. "They’ve been following me. I thought if I could make it to your place they would go away. It didn’t work. I tried to lose them, but they wont stop. Please, make them stop!"
Lucie stomped the accelerator.
“Lucie," Mark said, " please listen to me. There’s nothing in the world that I would rather do than ride around with you and escape brushes with the boogieman, but I need to get home.”
“No. I need you, Mark."
"Let me out. I’ll call a cab."
"It’s much too dangerous out there.”
"It’s not too safe in here either."
"In here we can take care of each other."
Mark squeezed his eyes shut and thought about work. He actually kind of liked his job, hard work though it was, and would miss it. It tickled him somewhat that his final thoughts could be about something so mundane. He thought about swinging his sledgehammer, breaking through the peeling walls of buildings long ago condemned, saving what treasures he could, and clearing out the rest.
Lucie banked onto a sudden exit and they abandoned the highway for a narrow tree lined road.
Mark opened his lids to the empty road stretching before them.
But Lucie saw something terrible--blood red eyes shining in the night. She slammed the brakes hard and the skidding tires echoed their screams. Lucie threw her right arm across Mark’s chest, catching him before inertia could slam his head through the windshield. The car slid to a stop on the side of the road, and there they sat in absolute silence for what seemed like an eternity.
Finally they spoke.
"Are you alright, Lucie?"
"I think so," she said. The adrenaline had flushed the poison from her system and she could think clearly again.
"How about you?"
"My chest hurts." He looked down and saw that a few drops of blood had soaked through his shirt. Lucie’s hand had pressed hard against the bottle caps in Mark’s shirt pocket. They would leave a scar.
They stepped out of the jeep to inspect the damage. The rear driver side tire had blown out, but there was a spare.
"Where are we, Mark?"
"Somewhere else," he said.
And Lucie was thrilled to be somewhere else. Somewhere far away from her judges and betrayers. Far away from the hungry hands of foster fathers. Far away from the shadows.
"You’re going to be late for work tomorrow," she said. " I’m sorry for that."
"Well," he said, "I guess a near death experience is a good enough reason to call out as any."
Mark pulled his phone from his pocket and Lucie smiled in realization. He tapped the camera button and watched her through the glowing screen, forgetting the lost time, the lies, the ruin. He cast those things aside and remembered her for what she would always represent. She gladly posed for him, just like she had when they were young, and as she did they both laughed at the absurdity of the situation. The flash lit up the surrounding woods like lightning, and a constellation of stars shimmered high above. He would change the tire and they would drive home. Lucie would spend the night, maybe even several, and they would take care of each other for a while. They needed each other--he conceded this fact. For now, though, what they needed most of all was sleep. Because tomorrow there would be much more work to do.