By Nathan Goldschot
Marissa asked me to meet her at the coffee shop near her office during her lunch break. Considering she didn’t drink coffee, I knew something was wrong. I left the condo expecting the worst–we had barely spoken a word to each other in two weeks.
I parked the motorcycle and walked inside the coffee shop, feeling like a phony in my leather jacket. My dad had loaned me his Harley after my car broke down and I still didn’t feel comfortable riding the thing after a month.
I saw Marissa’s bun of scarlet hair across the room. She was sitting at a small table in the corner of the cramped space, reading a novel while spinning a spoon through her lemon water.
The barista waved to get my attention as made my way toward Marissa’s table. “Nice ride. Is that a Super Glide FX? Looks like a 72.”
“73,” I told her. I wasn’t sure about the rest. “Thanks.” I smiled like the imposter I was and kept moving.
I took a deep breath and took a seat across from Marissa. “Hey, what’s up?” I asked, sitting my helmet on the seat beside me.
Marissa looked up at me with a pinched face. “Alistair, we need to talk.”
“That’s why I’m here,” I told her. “Mind if I get some–”
“Just listen,” interrupted Marissa as she put down her book.
“Alright, go on then,” I said, knowing things were going to get heated. Thankfully, the place was mostly empty except for an elderly couple sipping tea and sharing a newspaper.
“I’m tired of watching you flounder,” said Marissa. “You almost seem to take pride in the rut you’ve dug for yourself.”
I wasn’t expecting a fun conversation, but I was still taken aback. “Rut? I’m doing exactly what I want to do, Marissa. We’ve talked about this…ad nauseum.”
“You talked about it, but we didn’t discuss anything. You barreled ahead without considering my feelings or getting my input. I could have warned you that your little shop was going to fail.”
“The clinic is not failing,” I said, trying to keep my cool. “I know it’s taken longer to open the doors than I thought, but I’ve already lined up some clients.”
“It’s more than that.” Marissa pushed her glass around the table and tapped her foot nervously. “I thought I was getting engaged to a doctor, not some weird…eyeball guy.”
“Ocularist,” I paused and took a deep breath. “So, you’re still upset I dropped out of med school…I knew it. You should have told me it bothered you so much.”
Marissa shook her head and sent an icy gaze through me. “If you had stayed on course to becoming a surgeon, you’d earn more money in a day than you’d make in a year with those stupid glass eyes.”
I looked around nervously. “Jesus, do we have to do this here?”
“We’re surviving on credit cards for God’s sake! I thought once you finished grieving for your grandfather, you’d start thinking rationally. I was wrong.”
I stiffened. “I’ve never been more rational. I was nearly done with my ASO apprenticeship when my parents decided to push me toward medical school. When granddad died and left me his tools in his will, it sparked something inside me. I realized I was on the wrong path.”
“Your grandfather’s workshop was a creep show,” groaned Marissa. “You told me those eyeballs used to scare you.”
“Yeah, back when I was two or three years old. I eventually came to respect the artistry granddad put in each one. He turned people’s lives around without having to deal with the choking bureaucracy of the healthcare industry. He garnered a mountain of appreciation and respect, and I want to carry on his legacy. Truthfully, I don’t give a shit about money.”
“So, you don’t give a shit about me either? About our future? You may be content to follow your fucking whimsy, but I’ve made plans! If you expect me to languish in that squat above your ratty storefront, you’re crazy.”
“We would only be there for a few weeks while we searched for a proper house!” I said, bristling. “Come on, Marissa…you’re blowing this out of proportion.”
“We had a five year plan, Alistair. You were supposed to finish school while I worked my way up the ladder at BlueLife. By the time you found residency, we would have been well on our way to becoming millionaires.”
“There’s more to life than money.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, the world around us is going to hell. Nothing is more important than stability. I’m building a rock-solid career at the largest insurance firm in the state, while you’re gambling everything on some pipe dream! You’re either too blind or too callous to notice the huge risk you’re taking. Either way, you can’t expect me to sit back while you throw our futures in the toilet.”
“It’s not like I’m becoming a fry cook. I’ve been training to do this since I was 13, and eventually, I’ll make a decent living.”
“Eventually.” Marissa stirred the lemon slices around in her water nervously. “If you want to paint, just do it as a hobby. Do you actually think this weird career is going to keep you fulfilled?”
“Maybe, maybe not…but I want to try.” I looked over my shoulder at the elderly couple. They were staring at us.
“You missed you rebellious phase by ten years and you’re too young for a midlife crisis. On that note, for the love of God, Alistair…how long are you going to be on that fucking motorcycle?”
The conversation was devolving. “Winter’s on the way–I’d trade the Harley in a second for something with a heater and a cup holder,” I said with a shrug. “Anyway, it’s just a way to get around. I seem to recall you enjoyed riding on the back.”
“Well, it got old fast.” Marissa exhaled loudly. “Alistair, I can’t live like this.”
I was getting frustrated. “We don’t need designer brands and plastic ideals to have a good life! We don’t have to measure up to all the other beemer-driving, country club assholes your family is constantly striving to emulate. I’m sorry if you feel like I’ve mislead you, but I’m never going to be one of those people.”
Marissa’s brow lowered in anger. “Well, I’m never going to be a loser, and if you think I’d ever marry a loser, you’re dead wrong.” She took off her engagement ring and sat it on the table in front of me.
“Jesus, that bad?” I said, stunned. I reached across the table and took Marissa’s hands in mine. “None of this stuff matters as long as we love each other. Marissa, we can work this out.”
“You’re delusional,” said Marissa, dropping my hands and standing up. “I’m falling out of love with you.”
I was struck by her strange choice of words. You can fall in love in an instant, but it takes far longer to fall out. Love clings to you and leaves a stubborn stain on your soul. “Come on, not like this,” I begged.
“A truck filled with your things will stop by your shop tomorrow.”
“Are you serious?” I groaned.
“Yes. If you need something, call my office. I’m having the locks changed on the apartment this afternoon.” Marissa stood up without another word and clomped out of my life in her thousand-dollar heels. Olympia isn’t a big town, but I doubted I’d ever see her again.
I left the ring on the table. I wouldn’t be needing it.
My modest shop was located a few miles from downtown Olympia, teetering on the edge of a suburb. It had been print house before I took ownership, and still smelled vaguely of paste-up wax and toner. The place resembled a barn and was the oldest structure on the block, sitting between a funeral home and a vape store.
I purchased the building using what was left of the money my grandfather had left me and immediately began renovating the place. I spent a month tearing out the dry rot, patching the walls and putting in new insulation–replacing wads of old newspapers dating back to the 1920s. I removed the moldering carpet and restored the hardwood floors, which squeaked horribly but were still in great condition. The exterior was covered in weather-beaten cedar shingles, but I lacked the budget to even consider replacing them.
The second story of the clinic became my permanent home after Marissa and I split up. It was still in a horrid state of disrepair, but plugging up the drafts and hanging some new drywall made a big difference. I bought a couple of third-hand appliances off Craigslist and installed a showerhead in the bathroom. The water took torturously long to heat up, but otherwise the upstairs rooms were completely livable–if ugly.
As soon as everything looked presentable enough, I hung a temporary vinyl sign above the front window to make our opening official. No customers were chomping at the bit to get inside Moon Ocular Prosthetics, but it still felt good to be open for business.
My first few clients were fairly forgiving of the ramshackle surroundings and seemed to be pleased with my work. My skills still didn’t match my grandfather’s, but I was making progress. The glass eyes he made held a special, indefinable quality I had trouble matching with modern materials, but acrylic prosthetics were lighter, easier to paint–and most importantly–shatter-proof.
Making an artificial eye is a complex undertaking demanding precision. Having no choice but to stare my patrons in the face for hours during multiple appointments, I did whatever I could to make an arguably intrusive process easier to endure.
The first session was probably the strangest. I squirted an alginate paste into the client’s ocular orbit to create an impression for a mold. Whenever someone inquired about the cold goo, I usually said it was wax to avoid having to explain the sculptural benefits of dead algae. After painlessly removing and examining the impression, I transferred it to a stainless-steel cask. The resulting mold was filled with acrylic then baked to create a “blank.”
Most modern artificial eyes are able to move in tandem with the remaining eye with the aid of an ocular implant–a porous, permanent ring placed within the eye socket during surgery. Even with ideal natural movement, the prosthetic can look immediately out of place if it fails to match the look of the other eye, making proper painting of the blank vitally important. Some ocularists rely on photo references, but I did my best work when the person was in the room with me. Using a jeweler’s visor in coordination with series of progressively smaller brushes allowed me to apply minute details. Every kind of paint and pigment imaginable was utilized to capture the exceedingly complex structure of the iris, but one stray stroke could ruin the illusion of reality. Once the final coat of paint dried, I sealed, buffed and polished the artificial eye to a realistic sheen.
The final session where I unveiled and fitted the prosthesis was critical. This was when a client’s unpredictable emotional state came into play, making their trust in me as important as the quality of the prosthesis. I lived for the moment when people looked in my mirror and saw the face they remembered. Many were moved to tears, and sometimes I was as well. Although I lacked my grandfather’s charisma, I tried to make up for it with hard work and patience—not to mention discounted rates.
Not every customer who came into the clinic left satisfied. Losing an eye is an intensely traumatic affair–both physically and mentally–leaving people with a litany of difficult emotions to process. I could never predict how each session might go.
One man refused to pay me, claiming his new eye made him look deranged. I quickly realized I needed proper lighting in the clinic’s fitting area to ensure a good first impression. If the light is too bright, the fixed pupil of the fake eye appears too large in comparison to the other eye, and vice versa. I experimented with different sources of illumination until a series of incandescent light bars proved ideal.
Another customer asked me to paint them a cat’s eye to match one of their novelty contacts, which I gladly obliged. Their significant other wasn’t too pleased until they saw how thrilled their spouse was with the results–which was all that truly mattered.
A troubled teenage boy couldn’t stand the feeling of his prosthesis after sitting through multiple fitting attempts. Frustrated, he stormed out of the clinic and threw the acrylic orb in the air, stranding a $2,500 hazel eye somewhere on my roof. I didn’t have the heart to bill his frazzled family.
I couldn’t hope to fully understand what my clients were going through, and truthfully, I hoped I never would. The public tends to assume most artificial eyes are given to people with congenital problems, but devastating eye injuries are sadly common. Every day I was reminded that horrific accidents happen all the time.
The awful sight of the clinic’s crumbling cedar siding continued to weigh on me, so I decided to simply cover up the problem. Knowing my budget was tight, my friend Jim gave me 50 gallons of leftover exterior paint he had used to cover the local Forest Service office where he worked. Pale green wasn’t a color I had considered using, but I couldn’t turn down the offer. As soon as the sun made rare autumnal appearance, I threw on some old clothes and lugged a ladder out of the garage to start painting.
In the midst of my efforts, I heard a voice 20 feet below me.
“Kind of weird time of year to be painting, isn’t it?”
I leaned over carefully and peered at the lanky young woman below. She was staring at me with crossed arms and a cocked hip. A stiff breeze kicked up a flurry of orange leaves and pushed back her auburn hair, revealing an eyepatch beneath her black-rimmed glasses.
“Sorry,” I shouted down. “We’re closed today.”
The woman’s green eye glinted mischievously. “Maybe I’m just a curious passerby marveling at your lack of common sense.”
Sensing the woman wasn’t gong away, I started clanking down the ladder. “I didn’t want to wait until summer to get this done, so I’m taking my chances.”
“Fair enough. Now, please explain this color you’ve chosen. It looks like you’re painting your place with leftover split-pea soup”
I smiled. “A friend of mine gave me this leftover paint. I think it looks better than these bare cedar shingles.”
“Well, you’re wrong,” replied the woman.
“Sorry,” I said, as I stepped off the ladder and wiped my brow. “I don’t know you well enough to tell if you’re being sarcastic or–”
“Or if I’m just a bitch?” she interrupted.
I froze in place with wide eyes.
The woman laughed. “Relax! Okay, I admit I came here to talk with you…specifically about this extra hole in my head.”
“Right, like I said the shop is–”
“Come on, please? I promise it won’t take long. I just need some information.”
I looked at my watch. “Yeah, okay. I could use a break anyway. Want to come inside and have some iced tea?”
“Only if you have a pound of sugar to dump in it.”
I smirked. “I think I have a spare bag in the cabinet. I’m Alistair.”
“Valence. Valence Green. Nice to meet you,” she said, shaking my hand.
“Cool name,” I remarked.
Valence looked at my makeshift sign hanging over the window. “Moon Ocular Prosthetics. Is your last name really Moon?”
“Yup,” I said.
“Alistair Moon sounds like the name of a cut-rate magician.”
“Should I try to make you disappear?”
Valence laughed. “Sorry, I deserved that.”
I led Valence inside, trying to ignore my budding attraction to her. From my first glance at the top of the ladder I found her immediately striking in her tight black jeans and pink flannel shirt. I warned myself to be nothing but professional.
“It’s nicer on the inside at least,” said Valence, walking around the entryway then up to the small platform where I conducted fittings. “I like all the hardwood.”
“Yeah, I just finished renovating the bottom floor. After I paint the outside, I’ll tackle the upper floor–which is a mess.”
“I was expecting walls of shelves covered in eyeballs.”
I shook my head. “This isn’t like picking out glasses. There’s not really a need for a lot of display models–every prosthesis is custom made.”
“Which is why they cost so damn much, right?”
After strolling through the shop, we sat at the modest table in my kitchen.
“Sorry it’s a little cramped,” I said, sliding a glass of sugar-laden iced tea toward Valence. “This place was built in the 30s when people must have been smaller…or maybe they just felt less entitled to head room.”
“My grandparents were pretty tiny,” said Valence with a shrug. She took a sip of tea. “Ah, perfect.”
“Are you from around here?” I asked.
“Is this a date?” said Valence, raising an eyebrow.
“No! I was just curious.”
“I’ve only been in town for a few days. After what happened…” Valence paused for a moment. “Anyway, I decided I need a change of pace, so I just packed up and left.”
“Or stupid. I’ll guess I’ll find out soon enough.” Valence tapped her patch. “I should have gotten this taken care of before I left, but hindsight is 20/20. Well, just 20 now, I suppose.”
I let a laugh slip out. “Don’t be too hard on yourself.”
“Your website sucks by the way,” said Valence, veering off subject.
I raised an eyebrow. “While you’re at it, don’t be too hard on me.”
Valence smiled. “Sorry. The site just looked so cheap I thought I might get a good deal here…not that there are many other clinics to choose from.”
“I built the website using a template. It’s just a placeholder for now,” I said, embarrassed. “So what–”
Our conversation was interrupted by the sound of the front door swinging open. I stood up and made my way to the entrance where I was greeted by the sight of two boys, 10 or 11 years old with skateboards under their arms. “Can I help you?”
“Hey,” said the taller boy, turning his cap to the side. “There’s nothing in here.”
“What were you looking for, exactly?” I asked. Valence walked up beside me.
“Whoa, is that eyepatch real?” asked the boy, immediately distracted.
“Sure is,” said Valence.
The boy perked up a bit. “Cool! Just like Nick Fury.”
“Is it like, all gory and stuff under there?” asked the smaller boy.
“Totally,” said Valence with a grin. “Want to see?”
“Yeah!” said both boys, collectively.
I stepped between Valence and the kids. “Alright, alright. What can I do for you two?”
“Isn’t this a comic book shop?” asked the taller one.
“No,” I replied.
“Yes it is,” said the boy, undeterred. “I’ve been by here before. Where’s the comics?”
“They still make comic books?” asked Valence.
“Yes,” said the smaller, more timid boy.
“I’m a…this is a clinic,” I said. “I think there’s a comic shop up the street on the next block. That must be the place you’re looking for.”
The taller kid groaned. “Great. This sucks. You and your weird girlfriend suck.” The other boy laughed.
I was losing my patience. “I think you should–”
“You know the best thing about losing an eye?” interrupted Valence with a sly grin as she took off her glasses and stepped closer to the boys.
“What?” said the shorter boy, looking afraid.
Valence put her fingers on the edge of her eye patch and knelt down. “Once you lose an eye, you gain the ability to shoot blood from the hole. You want to see?”
Less than a second later the boys were out the door and screaming up the block.
“Little turds,” said Valence, standing up straight.
I couldn’t help but chuckle. “Nice…a little harsh, but nice.”
When Valence turned around, I could see a tear welling in her eye. “Can we sit back down and keep talking?”
“Sure. You okay?” I asked, concerned.
“I’m fine,” said Valence, tightening up. “Come on, let’s go back to your itty-bitty kitchen.”
On our way back to the kitchen, I realized I was in trouble. I liked this woman far more than I should. Looking at Valence made my chest feel light and my tongue heavy. I tried to distract my thoughts by handing her some brochures, which she promptly ignored.
“I don’t know why, but I’m just going to assume you’re good at this,” said Valence. “Tell me how much it’s going to cost to plug this hole up.”
“How long ago did you lose the eye?”
“Nine weeks,” said Valence, suddenly seeming nervous. “Don’t ask me how it happened.”
The request was common. “Don’t worry, it’s not important at the moment. Was the entire eye removed?”
“Do you know the name of the surgeon who performed the enucleation?”
“No,” said Valence.
“Did they fit you with an ocular implant?”
“I think so. He stuck a hunk of plastic in my eye. I was told I needed an ocularist to finish the job.”
“Good, good,” I said. “I’ll need to take a look at what he did.”
“Why?” asked Valence, suddenly defensive.
“Sorry, but I need to make sure your eye was cleanly removed and check the quality of the implant, or I won’t be able to do anything for you.”
“Fine,” said Valence. She took off her glasses and peeled back the patch.
I pulled out a small penlight and moved closer. “Sorry, bear with me.”
Valence crossed her arms and nodded. “This is getting pretty intimate, Alistair.”
“Hold still, please,” I said, wondering if was blushing. I spotted the temporary conformer beneath Valence’s eyelid. Her injury looked to have healed cleanly, with only some light scarring. I had seen the same pattern of the scar tissue before and quickly concluded she may have suffered a gunshot wound. I fought the urge to ask her what had happened. “The surgeon did a great job,” I told her. “From what I can tell, you’re a good candidate for a prosthesis. Who is your insurance provider?”
“I don’t have insurance.”
I leaned back with a sigh. “Really? How did you afford all this surgery?”
“The guy who did it was a…family friend,” said Valence with reluctance.
“I see. Well, without insurance, a prosthetic will cost about $2,500.”
“For a hunk of plastic?” groaned Valence, looking shocked. “I knew it wouldn’t be cheap…but damn.”
“That’s on the low scale. It takes hours to hand paint and fit an acrylic eye,” I said. “I know it’s a lot of money.”
Valence stood up, looking angry. A tear streaming down her cheek revealed her true emotions. “I’m sorry I wasted your time. Thanks for the tea.”
“Wait!” I called out, as Valence hurried to leave. She slammed the front door and I stopped myself from following her. “Shit.” I was simultaneously saddened and relieved she had left.
As the afternoon waned, I lost the will to paint. Once the brushes and gear were stowed away, I went upstairs to my unadorned bedroom. After paying a few bills I had been ignoring, I realized I was about to go broke. I distracted myself with a bad novel for a few hours until I fell asleep.
The next morning, I woke up with new resolve and a realization–if I wanted to keep the shop open, I’d have to be more aggressive about wooing clients. I decided to cancel my plans to finish the upstairs rooms. My living quarters would have to stay crusty until I made some real money.
When I walked outside to assess what was left to paint, I was shocked to see Valence sitting on the front steps. “Valence?”
“Hey,” said Valence, standing up. She put her hands in her jean pockets. “Sorry I wigged out, I just…I don’t know what I was expecting, really.”
“It’s alright,” I said, putting down my roller. “This stuff isn’t easy for anybody.”
“I didn’t come here looking for pity, I have an offer for you,” said Valence, taking a deep breath.
“What’s that?” I asked with trepidation.
“Listen, even with a coat of fresh paint this place will still look like a haunted house. Your landscaping is horrible, and you don’t even have a proper sign.”
I looked up at the vinyl sign. “It’s not great, but it’s all I can afford right now.”
“My dad was a carpenter. He taught me everything he knew. I can help you finish your renovations and make a proper sign for the front of the shop.”
“Are you a carpenter too?”
“No, I don’t build houses, I build websites…or at least I used to.”
“Thus the harsh criticism.”
“Consider it constructive. Tell you what, as part of the deal I’ll fix up that shit site of yours.”
Deep down I knew having this woman in my life–in any capacity–would be trouble. “Impressive resume, but I can’t afford to pay an…assistant.”
“You don’t have to pay me,” said Valence. “Just give me a new eye. And…”
“Well, I’m sort of lodging-deficient at the moment. I’m guessing you have a spare room up there?”
“You’re homeless?” I asked with surprise.
“Unless you call a Volkswagen Rabbit a home, then yes.”
“Sorry to hear that,” I said sympathetically. “I should warn you, the upstairs is pretty trashed.”
“So, you’re open to the idea?” asked Valence, lighting up.
“Hold on, I–”
“As long as you don’t have a crack den up there, I won’t mind.”
“It’s at least two steps up from that,” I said. I put my hand over my face and sighed. Don’t say yes, don’t say yes, I told myself. “This is crazy. I barely know you.”
“You need my help and you know it,” said Valence. “Why are you so scared? Do you always worry so much?”
“Pretty much.” I looked at her face and felt my heart skip. I hated myself for what I was about to do. “Fine, okay, but only until your prosthesis is painted and fitted. Can you give me a couple days to get your room ready?”
Valence smiled wide than pulled me off the porch by my arm. She turned me toward the front of the shop. “I think you’ll want me to start right away.”
“Little bastards!” I said, seeing a wide line of spray painted scrawl gracing my wall.
BEWARE OF DR. FREAK AND HIS CYCLOPS GIRLFRIEND, yelled the red graffiti.
“I guess those kids never found their comics,” said Valence with a shrug. She grabbed the paint roller. “This might take a couple coats to cover up. When I’m done I’ll go pull my car up and bring my suitcase up stairs. We have a deal?”
I shook her hand. “Alright. We have a deal.”
“Have you always lived in Olympia?” asked Valence, as we painted over the graffiti together.
“I lived in Oregon most of my life. I moved here to go to medical school, but I dropped out.”
“I heard doctors have shit lives anyway,” said Valence. “I think you made a good choice…unless you lose everything, I mean.”
“Yeah,” I said, thinking of Marissa. “What about you? Are you from around here?”
Valence went quiet for a moment. “No.”
“Where are you–”
“I’m going to go get some more paint,” said Valence, hurrying to the other side of the house.
I decided to make some lunch while Valence finished covering the graffiti. We sat on the front porch together and ate turkey sandwiches in silence.
“I don’t mean to pry into your life,” I told her. “I’m just a little curious…is all.”
Valence swallowed. “Well, stop. I’m not some mystery you need to unravel.”
“Fair enough,” I said, disappointed. I was eager to change the subject. “You’re pretty good with a brush.”
“My dad taught me how to swing a hammer but he was a lousy painter. If anything required more than a coat of stain, my mom and I usually handled it.”
“Sounds like they’re a well-rounded team.”
“Yeah, they were.” Valence leaned back, taking a long pause. “They died…a while back.”
“Sorry. That’s hard.”
“I’ve been living on my savings since I left Modesto, but it’s running out. I came up here hoping to start fresh, but starting is a lot harder than stopping.”
I nodded. “You can say that again.”
Valence squinted. “God, you’re corny. Were you a farm boy?”
“Is it so obvious? My parents are potato farmers in Eastern Oregon.”
Valence laughed. “Can I call you Potato Boy?”
“Hell no. Not if you want to keep staying here,” I said, feigning irritation.
“Sorry boss,” said Valence, sipping her tea. “So, what’s next on the list?”
“We’ll keep painting. But first, go ahead and pull your car into the garage. Where is it parked?”
“Around the block. Hopefully it’s still there.” Valence leaned over and looked down the driveway. “That shack leaning toward the ground is a garage? You sure it’s structurally sound?”
“Probably not,” I said, “but so far so good.”
I opened the garage door for Valence as she pulled up in her battered white Rabbit. She parked it carefully beside my dad’s Harley. Her eyes popped wide as she turned off the engine and stepped out of her car with her suitcase. “Whoa, Potato Boy rides a hog.”
“That sounds weird…on so many levels,” I said.
Valence laughed. “I just didn’t peg you as a Harley rider.”
“I’m not. My car broke down so my dad lent me his motorcycle. It’s his baby, and he’s not too happy about the arrangement.”
“Well, that was sweet of him,” said Valence, running her hand along the gas tank.
“Are motorcycles your thing?” I asked.
“Me? No…not really. My dad had a couple of dirt bikes but I haven’t rode one in a long time.”
“The thing’s a menace,” I said. “I can barely keep a handle on it.”
“Can we take it for a spin?” asked Valence.
“Um, sure…maybe later.”
“Alright, Easy Rider,” said Valence, walking out of the garage with her suitcase.
As I was closing the doors I looked in the back of Valence’s Rabbit. Peeking out from under the driver’s seat were two cans of red spray paint.
I felt on edge as I led Valance up to her room. I wanted to confront her about the graffiti, but I had absolutely no idea how to address the issue. The damage she had done had already been covered up, but I was troubled by her dishonesty. Unable to fathom her motives, I derailed my train of thought and decided to drop the issue until later.
“Well, here’s your room, such as it is,” I said. “The twin bed is pretty new and the sheets are clean. My father was going to come visit a few weeks ago but he couldn’t make it. It’s drafty up here, but all the major holes are covered. If you notice any rain coming through the ceiling let me know. The shower is down the hall next to my room. It takes a couple minutes for the water to heat up.”
“Thanks Alistair. I really appreciate this. I promise I’ll make it up to you, in spades.” Valence put her suitcase on the bed. “Hey, is that computer I saw downstairs decent?”
“Yeah, it’s a little old but it’s not bad.”
“Take me down there.”
I led Valence downstairs to the meager desktop PC in the corner of the fitting area. “I use this mainly for accounting.”
Valence smiled. “This machine is a hunk of crap, but it will do–I can download all the tools I need.”
“Tools?” I asked.
“To rebuild your site, dummy!” said Valence. “I’m going to make it look amazing.”
“Well, it couldn’t be any worse,” I said. “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it. It’s almost literally the least I could do. I’ll start working on it tonight.”
“I can’t wait to see what you do,” I told her. I looked out the window and sighed as the sun dipped. “I think I better do a bit more painting before it gets too dark.”
“Alright, I’ll join you. Together, we can probably get it finished,” said Valence with a smile.
We painted the shop until the moon lifted into the sky. Our stomachs were both rumbling as we descended the roof.
“It’s done, I can’t believe it,” I said, wiping my brow. “You were right. This color looks awful.”
“We’ll repaint it red when your fireman friend comes through,” joked Valence. “I’m starving.”
Red. I still couldn’t bring up the spray paint. “Go get yourself something to drink and I’ll meet you on the back porch. I have a couple steaks I can grill up. There’s some salad in the fridge, too.”
“No Alistair…I’m already imposing, I can’t eat all your food too. I still have a bit of cash. I can go pick up something for myself.”
“No, come on…don’t worry about it.”
“Alright then,” said Valence with reluctance. “I’ll finish cleaning this mess up then I’ll meet you out back.”
I went to the garage to grab the steaks from the freezer and couldn’t stop myself from looking inside Valence’s car. The cans were gone. I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking I had just been seeing things. “What’s wrong with me?” I said aloud.
Valence and I discussed the state of the clinic and the world as I grilled steaks on the back porch. Our rapport was immediate and effortless. I had never felt as comfortable and uncomfortable with someone simultaneously.
After finishing my steak, I pushed away from the patio table and sighed. “That was good. Now, I’m just tired.”
“You going to eat that last hunk of meat?” asked Valence, still gnashing a bite.
“Take it,” I said with a groan. “I expected you to eat like a bird, not a horse.”
“High metabolism,” said Valence, stabbing the leftover bit of steak and putting it on her plate. “I guess you’ll think twice about inviting me to dinner again, huh?”
I laughed. “Definitely.”
“You ever going to answer that?” asked Valence.
I realized my phone was buzzing in my pocket. I looked at the screen and sighed.
“Not good, huh?” said Valence.
“It’s my ex-fiance, Marissa. She keeps calling.”
“Ouch. Sorry it didn’t work out.”
I shrugged. “Thanks…but It’s fine now.”
“Hardly. What does she want?”
“I have no idea.”
“Is that why she left you?”
“Not funny,” I said, even though it was. “Marissa and I split up a few weeks ago but it already feels like years. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing.”
“I think it’s probably good,” said Valence.
“She keeps calling, but I can’t think of anything I’d want to say to her.”
“Yeah, but is there something you’d want to hear?”
The air around the plastic table felt a little thicker. I stood up and stretched. “I’m going to take out the trash before I turn in.”
“Oh, okay,” said Valence, wearing a look of concern.
I walked a bag of garbage to the can on the side of the house, enjoying the feeling of the autumn breeze. When I lifted the lid I saw an unfamiliar grocery bag. I peeled back the plastic and saw two empty cans of Krylon Crimson Red. “Damn it.”
After slamming the lid of the trash can in frustration, I went back inside to face Valence. All I found was a note left on the table next to her bloody plate. “Thanks for dinner. I’m off to bed.”
I sat down with a sigh and glass of cheap whiskey. After I finished reading my horrible paperback, Struggle of the Atomic Heart, I peeled off my shirt and dragged myself up the stairs to the bathroom to take a shower.
“Do you mind?” I heard, as I opened the bathroom door. I lifted my eyes instinctively and saw Valence in the bath tub.
“Shit!” I said, panicking. I quickly closed my eyes and backed out, shutting the door again. “You said you were going to bed!”
“Yeah, well, I changed my mind,” said Valence, calmly.
My heart was beating fast. “Who takes baths? No one takes baths.”
“Obviously, someone does. Didn’t you notice the steam wafting out of the door?”
“Maybe knock next time, perv,” said Valence. Even though I couldn’t see her face I knew she was smiling.
“I think you planned this from the beginning,” I said, hoping humor would mask my true feelings.
“I guess the jig is up. Hurry up and join me in the tub.”
“I knew it. Go away, pervert…you missed your chance. I’ll be out in a few minutes.”
“Alright,” I said with a sigh. “Goodnight.”
I squinted against the morning sun, having found it impossible to sleep through the night. Despite all the pressures in my life, all I could think about was Valence.
After finally taking a shower, I wandered down the hall to the guest room. I needed to confront Valence before it was too late. I wasn’t upset about the graffiti, just confused. The gunshot wound she had suffered is what truly made me curious. I steeled myself and knocked on the door.
“What is it?” asked Valence through the door, sounding groggy.
“Are you awake?”
Valence opened the door. “What a stupid question.” She was completely nude.
I clamped my eyes closed. “Can you…not be so naked?”
When I opened my eyes again a few seconds later, Valence had a sheet wrapped around herself. “Better? Please make up your mind…are you a pervert or a prude?”
“Is there a third option?” I asked.
“No. What’s up potato bo–I mean, my generous host.”
I wrung my hands together. “I’ve been meaning to talk with you about something.”
“Is this about the spray paint?” asked Valence with a groan.
“Come sit on your shitty bed with me and we’ll chat.”
“You were already almost done painting this place, and I wanted to make sure we had something else to…bond over…before I made my proposal. I thought my pitch would be too weak on its own. I probably way overcompensated.”
“Machiavellian,” I said.
“Our disgust over those children seemed to bring us closer together, so I wanted to keep it going.”
“I just wish you hadn’t lied to me.”
“You asshole,” said Valence, crossing her arms. Her mood had changed in an instant.
I was confounded by her reaction. All my words fell apart in my throat.
“I only did something so desperate because I have absolutely no leverage. Don’t you realize you hold all the power here?” Valence stood up, dropped her sheet and started to get dressed.
I averted my eyes. “Valence, I just–”
Valence tugged up her jeans and pulled her shirt over her breasts. “Alistair, I could tell from the start you’re a good guy–and to be honest–it completely wrecked my plans. I was going to walk into your clinic while you were distracted and steal the first eyeball that vaguely resembled mine.”
“Do you want me to be honest or not?”
I sighed. “Yes.”
“I had convinced myself that getting a new eye would help me reboot my life, and I became obsessed with the idea. Because you were so goddamn nice and patient with me, I couldn’t bear to rip you off. My follow-up plan with the graffiti was just as shitty, but my thought processes are pretty wrecked at the moment. I’m sorry Alistair…I’m sorry I crapped all over your kindness.”
“You didn’t, it’s not like that,” I stammered, while looking her in the eye. I had never felt so guilty about being deceived.
Valence sat down beside me and leaned her head into her hands. She was crying. “My head’s a mess, and I wish I could tell you the reason why, but I just can’t. I’ll pack my shit up and go.”
“You’re right. This dynamic we have going on is weird,” I said. “What you’ve gone through is none of my business. All I really know is that I don’t want you to leave.”
“Why not?” said Valence, looking at me with confusion.
“Who gives a shit about the graffiti. You’ve already helped me so much and…I don’t know,” I said. “I just think we should try to be honest with each other.”
“But you’re lying to me right now,” said Valence. “I know you have something else on your mind, so just say it.”
I hadn’t wanted to acknowledge my scrambled emotions, but she was right–after only a day and a half, I was completely smitten with this damaged woman. “It’s stupid and completely illogical,” I said, shaking my head.
“If you can’t say it, show me,” said Valence, her voice hushed.
I wrapped my hands around Valence’s waist and kissed her. Our heads tilted as our embrace intensified and our tongues met. I pressed closer, feeling her body heat rise with mine. When the kiss finally ended, I stood up abruptly, my pulse racing and my skin on edge with electric tension.
“This isn’t going to make our weird dynamic any better,” I finally said.
“I don’t care.” Valence shook her head and bit her lip. “I’ve been waiting for that kiss.”
“I think I need some time to think. I’m going to make some breakfast,” I said, fighting the temptation to kiss her again. I quickly left and dashed down the stairs, nearly tripping over my own feet. While walking to the kitchen I stopped and stared at my reflection in my framed print of my favorite painting–Wyeth’s Christina’s World.
“What the fuck am I doing?”
While making some eggs, I heard the hard drive of the computer in the fitting room start to whir. Considering I never left the desktop on, I figured Valence had come down sometime in the night to work on the website.
Unable to combat my curiosity, I plated the eggs and sat down in front of the computer. When it came out of sleep mode, the screen was empty. Confused, I checked the browser history and found two news articles from The Redding Record and Redding Weekly.
“California…Shasta Lake?” I mumbled as I loaded the pages. The first article was several months old. It described a robbery at an America National Bank branch on the outskirts of Redding. The suspects managed to empty the bank’s tills and escape on foot, despite being confronted by a customer wielding a hand gun. The article cut off abruptly, as if something was wrong with the web page. Frustratingly, a reload didn’t solve the issue.
“No, please.” My heart was already sinking as I opened the next article, which was relatively new. It recapped the events of the robbery then indicated the suspects were still on the lamb. The article closed with descriptions of the perpetrators: A male in his late 20s or early 30s with chestnut hair, brown eyes and olive skin. His partner had been a young woman with a thin build, green eyes and dark hair. She had likely sustained an injury to her face during the robbery.
“Impossible,” I muttered aloud. I followed links back to the homepages of the news sites but found nothing else about the robbery. A google search also came up empty. Searching for Valence’s name brought up little more than the usual social media sites.
Although sparse, the evidence was damning. The timeline of Valence’s injury matched the accounts of the articles perfectly and her reluctance to delve into her recent past was difficult to ignore. I imagined if I were on the run, I’d be tempted to search for my name online on a regular basis. I suddenly felt sick.
I punched out a quick email to my old friend William, knowing he was a far better internet sleuth than myself. I provided the cached links I found, and asked him to dredge up some more information on the robbery. I didn’t mention a word about Valence.
As I pushed away from the computer, I was startled by the front door slamming. The Harley was rumbling to life in the garage as I ran out of the shop and leapt off the porch.
I sprinted into the garage and caught a helmet in my hands.
“Nice reflexes. Hop on,” said Valence, straddling the motorcycle. “Let’s go for a ride.”
My heart and brain were locked in combat with my stomach left lurching in the trenches. I knew if I brought up my suspicions, Valence would probably take off on the bike and I’d never see her again. Although trivial, the spray paint incident had been a warning sign I shouldn’t have brushed off so easily.
“Wait,” I plead, trying to think of a way to get her off the bike. “I just made breakfast. Let’s eat first.”
Valence shook her head. “I’m doing this with or without you, buddy.”
“Come on, I’m hungry,” I lied.
Valence revved the motor.
“Alright! Wait, I’m coming,” I blurted. “How long has it been since you were on a motorcycle?”
“Too long,” said Valence, patting the seat behind her. “But I got this.”
Out of options, I put on the helmet and a spare leather jacket and slid behind Valence. My father’s precious bike was the least of my worries.
I wrapped my arms around Valence’s delicate middle and she sped out of the garage. She seemed surprisingly capable and cautious on the bike–until we breached the city limits. The Super Glide picked up speed as the pines and maples grew dense and the road narrowed. A light mist sputtered around us, making the blacktop shine. Fall leaves blurred like yellow and orange flames amidst the evergreens as we pushed along a winding road toward the wilderness. I held on to Valence tighter as she tilted around each corner, hearing the tires squeak on wet asphalt. The worries flooding my mind were drowned out by the engine as we roared over miles of rural road.
One of the first instructions my dad gave me after loaning me his bike, was to mercilessly flatten any critters that may stray into my path. Squirrels are apparently drawn to motorcycle tires like magnets, and over-correcting your trajectory to spare the life of a varmint could prove fatal.
Apparently, Valence had never learned that lesson. I found myself airborne after she swerved the bike on a sharp corner to avoid a suicidal chipmunk. The Harley landed somewhere with a heavy clunk and I felt myself collide against the ground, which was softer than I was anticipating. I had landed in a thick pile of wet leaves at the base of a stand of maples.
As soon as my head stopped spinning, I ripped off my helmet and stumbled to my feet. “Valence!” I screamed, searching for her in a panic. I looked in the ditch and saw the Harley lying there, none the worse for wear aside from some scraped paint and a broken mirror. There was still no sign of Valence.
I heard an explosion of laughter and turned my head. Valence was a few feet away, lying on her back in a long patch of thick mud. She was stained from head to toe.
I ran over to Valence and knelt in the mire beside her. “Are you alright?” I asked, fighting back my dread.
“I’m fine,” said Valence, grinning. She pulled me on top of her, and we slid across the mud together. We kissed tenderly as we rolled through the dirt and leaf litter, our hands sliding along each other’s bodies, loosening any buttons we came across. The rain started to pound as Valence opened my jeans and I tugged down hers. She wrapped her long legs around me tightly and we made love as the rain washed the grime from our bodies. When we finished, I picked Valence up and carried her beneath a thick oak tree where I held her close until the rain stopped.
“Sorry about the bike. Is it trashed?” asked Valence sheepishly after we shared another kiss.
“Somehow it survived,” I told her. “I’m just glad you’re not hurt.”
“I thought I could handle the speed, but I wasn’t ready for that beast running across the road.”
I picked up a leaf and twisted it by the stem. “At least we had some padding to land in. We’re lucky it isn’t summer.”
We were quiet for a time, clinging to each other as we listened to stray raindrops filter through the canopy.
“I was shot,” said Valence, apropos of nothing. Her voice was smaller than I had ever heard it.
“You’re shivering.” I ran my hand through her wet hair and kissed her gently. “It’s okay. Let’s get out of here while the rain’s stopped. You can tell me more later.”
I slid down the ditch to the Harley and pushed it back up the slope. After putting the broken mirror in my pocket, I held my breath and stomped the kickstarter. The engine growled as if nothing had happened. I waved to Valence and she took a seat behind me. Even soaked, I could feel her heat against my body as I pulled away. I rode slowly and carefully back to an unassuming diner we had passed on our way to the middle of nowhere.
I parked the Super Glide and helped Valence off the seat. “Let’s stop here and warm up for awhile.” We had air-dried a bit on the motorcycle but our teeth were still chattering.
“Alright,” said Valence, taking off her helmet. She sounded diminished.
The Outskirts Cafe was a converted gas station and still carried the aroma of diesel. A bell clanged as we opened the door. No one else was in the place aside from a friendly older woman who handed us a couple of paper menus.
“Sit wherever you like,” the waitress instructed before disappearing.
“How does this place stay open?” asked Valence.
We sat side by side in a booth and the waitress brought over a couple cups of coffee. “Looks like you needed this, unless you prefer tea.”
“This is fine, thanks,” said Valence.
“Go ahead and warm up,” said the woman. “Just give me a holler when you’re ready to order or need a refill. I’m watching the game in the back.”
“Will do,” I said.
“Huskies up by eight!” she blurted with excitement before hurrying away.
I took a sip of coffee and turned to Valence. “Is this a good place to talk?”
“No place is good, so this will have to do.”
I held Valence’s hand under the table, preparing myself to hear more lies or the truth or something in-between. “Tell me what happened.”
“This will be the first and only time I ever talk about this. I want to move on with my life, but I don’t think it’s possible until I come clean with you. Nothing is more important to me than starting over. Nothing.”
“Okay,” I said.
Valence’s finger was nervously pounding on the table. “I developed a drinking problem in high school, but managed to get myself sober by the time I graduated. After my parents died, I started drinking again and fell back in with some old friends even though I knew were no good for me.” She paused and fiddled with her eyepatch. “I haven’t had a drop since this happened, though.”
“Sobering, for sure,” I said.
“One of my idiot friends introduced me to this guy named Matt, a bouncer in a dingy club we frequented. He was big, beautiful and dumb–the perfect distraction from my troubles. We immediately hooked up and used what was left of my inheritance to tear our way through all the dives in the bay area.”
“You mean stupid,” replied Valence. “I eventually learned Matt was heavily in debt to the Norteños. Believe it or not, I had never touched a grain of cocaine, but Matt had a bad habit of snorting what he was supposed to sell. I was with him for weeks before I realized he was slinging drugs.” Valence sobbed against my shoulder. “I can’t believe I’m telling you this.”
“I’m glad you are,” I told her, utterly stunned. “Nothing you say is going to change anything between us.”
“We’ll see,” said Valence, her voice dripping with doubt and shame.
I held her hand tighter. “I swear, it won’t.”
Valence flashed a weak smile and continued. “Matt had burned so many bridges in the bay we were forced to head North. My parents had a little cabin outside of Redding, so we decided to lay low there for a while until we could figure out what to do next. It didn’t take long for the Norteños to track us down. They threatened to kill me in exchange for Matt’s fuck ups unless we came up with some quick cash. Matt decided the quickest way to get the money was to rob a bank.”
“Shit,” I said.
“It was the last straw. I told Matt I wouldn’t do it, that we were over, but he convinced me the Norteños would gun me down if I refused. I had no choice but to go along with the robbery. He obviously had no qualms about putting me in danger, as long as it squared up his debts.”
I was slack jawed. “Jesus Christ.”
“We drove around Redding for a few hours until Matt chose a tiny bank on the edge of town to rob. He parked his Charger in an alley and we walked a couple of blocks to the branch as it was closing. Before I knew it, he was rushing inside and screaming at the tellers to empty their tills.”
“What were you doing?”
“I was just standing in the lobby, holding a gun on the security guard. It wasn’t even loaded. I waited for Matt to finish trashing the place and then we ran. We thought all the customers had left, but we failed to notice the guy outside at the ATM.” More tears fell.
“Valence, you don’t have to do this. I’ve heard enough,” I said as I put my arm around her.
“No,” Valence ordered, pushing me away. “I need to finish.” She let out a deep sigh. “Matt told me to run, so I did. We were heading into the alley when someone yelled stop. I don’t know why I turned around, but I did. That’s when I heard a gunshot and felt my eye explode.” Valence slumped to the table.
“I’m…I’m so sorry,” I said, on the verge of tears myself. I held her hand despite her protests.
“Don’t be sorry, it’s my fault. All of it.”
“That’s not true. How did you manage to get away?”
“I’m really not sure. All I remember is Matt carrying me to the car. I woke up in a cold, dark room lined with stainless steel tables. A surgeon friend of Matt’s patched me up in exchange for half of our take. He said I was lucky I only lost an eye.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “A friend of Matt’s did the surgery? The guy did an amazing job.”
“Less a friend, than one of his connections from the underworld. The guy brought along everything he needed for the operation. I’m still not sure where we were when he performed the surgery. Something he gave me for the pain threw me into a real loop. When I woke up, I was back at the cabin.”
“How did you wind up in Olympia?”
“The surgeon gave me a list of instructions to take care of my eye. As soon as I felt confident to do everything myself, I shook the drugs out of my system and took off in the middle of the night with what was left of the money. I ditched Matt’s Charger and bought that ugly Rabbit with cash. After that, I headed north, not sure what to do. I knew the cops were aware I had been shot in the eye, which made me one hell of an easy mark. I tried wearing shades, but the world becomes a blur without my damn glasses. I did some quick research on my phone and decided to find a place where I could buy or steal a prosthetic…and I guess you know the rest.”
The waitress swung by again and noticed my drawn face. “You alright, dear? You in shock about the game too?”
“No…I mean, I’m fine.”
“I can’t believe the Huskies blew that lead.” The waitress shook her head. “You two have been in here awhile…you want anything off the menu besides coffee? I don’t mind if you hang around. It’s not like customers are beating down the door.”
“I think we’re–”
“Pie,” interrupted Valence. “Lots and lots of pie.”
The waitress laughed. “Any particular flavor? We got just about everything.”
“Cherry?” I said, looking at Valence.
Valence nodded. “Apple too.”
I smiled. “Two–”
Valence punched my shoulder.
She punched again.
“Four slices of pie, please. Two of each.”
“You got it,” said the waitress. “I’ll refill that coffee while I’m at it.”
“You alright?” I asked Valence as the woman walked away.
“Actually, yes,” said Valence. “It felt good to get that off my chest..and you haven’t run away…yet.”
“Honestly, I don’t know what to think. Did anyone follow you here? Are you still in danger?”
“Not that I know of.”
“I’m ready for a hard reset–a brand new life–and maybe you can be a part of it. Falling for you was not part of my plan. Frankly I’m a little pissed off about it.”
“Understandable,” I said. I could barely form a thought.
Valence kissed me on the cheek. “You’re too sweet. It’s going to get you in trouble one day. Now, let’s eat some pie and get the hell out of here.”
The next day we were both brimming with nervous energy. Valence took it upon herself to start fixing up the rooms on the second floor, waking me up to the sound of hammering and drilling. After breakfast, I spent a few hours working on Valence’s prosthesis. We devoted the rest of the day to painting trim, pulling weeds, and repairing the yard sprinklers. When night fell, we used up what energy we had left making love.
The rest of the week was just as productive. Working helped me forget I was harboring a fugitive.
One morning, Valence was posing nude in my studio while I put the finishing touches on her prosthesis. She took great pleasure in trying to distracting me.
“I just need to look at your eye now and then,” I told Valence, doing my best to concentrate. “Your clothes don’t have to come off, you know.”
“Clothing is overrated,” said Valence. “Besides, it makes me feel like a French model posing for a tiny portrait in some dark corner of the Moulin Rouge.”
“I’m no Toulouse-Lautrec, but I’m doing my best.” I couldn’t help but sneak a peek at Valence’s body. “You’re killing me.”
Valence grinned and leaned back over a chair seductively, never breaking eye contact.
“You want me to get this done or not?” I asked, somehow willing myself to return my attention to the prosthesis. I sighed as I lowered my visor. “If you keep messing with me, you’re going to end up with a blue eye instead of a green one.”
“Or you’ll just end up with blue balls,” said Valence with a straight face.
“Come here, you maniac,” I said, switching to a brush consisting of a single hair. “I need a closer look.”
Valence scooted her chair over to me. “Are you sure you can handle–”
We both swung our heads around after hearing a knock on the door. Valence scampered away as I went to see who it was. I didn’t have any appointments scheduled. I peered through the blinds on the front window and saw Marissa standing there in an immaculate blue dress. She was wearing oversized designer sunglasses and her hair was up in a perfect bun.
Shit, I thought as I opened the door. “Marissa, hey. Come in.”
Marissa walked in with a forced smile, her chunky heels clunking on the floor. “The place looks nice,” she said.
I pulled a chair out for her in the reception area. “What’s going on?”
Marissa sat down and crossed her legs. She straightened her dress. “You’re not returning my calls.”
“I’ve been busy,” I said, sitting across from her. The flood of emotions I was expecting never quite arrived.
Marissa held fast to her fake smile. “I’m sorry things ended for us so poorly. I’ve been thinking a bit, and maybe you were right. Perhaps I was a little too…controlling.”
“You were nothing but consistent,” I told her. I honestly didn’t intend for it to sound mean.
“What are we doing?” said Marissa, leaning closer with a nervous laugh. “I know you must be lonely here on your own. Maybe we just needed a little break. You said we could work it out, and maybe we still can.”
“Let’s just start over,” interrupted Marissa. “Take things day by day.”
“You said you were falling out of love with me.”
Marissa grabbed my hand. “I’ve just been a little–”
“Oh, hello,” said Valence, walking out of the kitchen wearing nothing but my robe. She was holding two cups of tea on saucers. “I was just getting some chamomile for me and Alistair. Can I get you a cup?”
“Marissa, Valence,” I said, going pale, “Valence, Marissa.”
I had never seen Marissa’s eyes so wide. She stood up and went rigid. “Oh! Um, nice to make your acquaintance. And no, that’s fine. I was just leaving.”
My dread was quickly replaced by a supreme sense of awkwardness. I could tell Valence loved seeing me squirm.
Valence sat the tea down on the table and flashed an insincere pout. “Sure you can’t stay?”
“I’m afraid not.” Through Marissa’s trembling smile I could detect a mix of disgust and shock.
Valence sat down, her robe hanging open precipitously. “Sorry to hear that, Marissa. I’m always eager to meet Alistair’s friends.” She held my clammy hand.
“This is for you, Alistair,” said Marissa, digging in her purse. She walked closer to me and put something in my hand. “The cafe manager called my office and told me I had left this on the table. I figured this was more yours than mine.”
I looked down at our engagement ring. “I don’t want this,” I mumbled.
Marissa cut her eyes at Valence and quietly seethed. “Obviously.” She turned around and left without saying another word.
“Well, how rude,” said Valence, stretching out on the couch.
I sat down with a sigh. “Having fun?” I asked, feeling flushed.
“Did you really want that conversation dragging on? You should be thanking me.”
“I guess you’re right,” I said.
“You told me how she dumped you for not being rich enough. Good riddance.”
I nodded. “She wasn’t always like that.” I put the ring on the table.
“Nice rock,” said Valence, picking it up.
“It’s worthless now.”
“Maybe not.” Valence bent down on one knee in front of me and took my hand in hers.
“You can’t be serious,” I said, glaring at her.
“Alistair Moon, will you marry me?” Valence slid the ring onto my pinky, the only finger it would fit.
Valence nodded. “Why not? Can you think of anyone better to marry at the moment?”
I couldn’t. “Okay.”
“Yes, I will,” I said with a smile.
“Oh happy day!” said Valence, fluttering her eyelashes. “Are you alright with a long engagement? I always said I wanted to get married in my mid-90s. Less chance of divorce that way.”
“Smart plan.” I pulled Valence to my lap and kissed her tenderly. I reached over and picked up one of the steaming cups she brought out and took a sip. “This is just hot water.”
“I couldn’t find the tea,” said Valence.
After another day of painting and polishing, Valence’s artificial eye was finally complete. I presented it to her early the next morning, eager to see her response.
“It’s actually done?” she asked, leaning up in bed. “Does this mean I have to leave?”
“Yes, pack your stuff and go,” I said. “Come on! Hold out you hand.” I unwrapped the prosthesis from a microfiber cloth and handed it to her carefully.
Valence examined the eye. “To be honest, I feel a little weirded out. Is that normal?”
“Actually, yes. The more realistic the eye is, the harder it is for the brain to reconcile.”
“You did amazing work,” she quickly added. “I didn’t mean to sound unappreciative.”
“I’m not offended, really.”
“Wow, it even has blood vessels.
“Those are tiny shreds of silk thread, if you can believe it.”
“Wow. Can I try it out?”
“Absolutely. Let’s go to the fitting area.”
After getting dressed and going downstairs, I helped Valence put in the artificial eye for the first time. She closed her eyelid tight as soon as the prosthesis was in her orbit. “Oh god, this feels wild.”
“You’ll get used to it, I promise,” I told her. “If it doesn’t fit right, we can make some adjustments to your implant.”
When Valence finally opened her eyes, I became speechless.
“What’s wrong?” asked Valence. “I don’t like that look on your face.”
I thought I knew what to expect, but I was wrong. “I’m just…here, take a look.” I turned her chair toward the mirror.
“Oh my god,” gasped Valence. She blinked a few times and turned her head side to side. Her lip was trembling.
“Keep completely still. Look up and down then left and right a few times for me,” I said.
Valence laughed. “It’s so weird.”
“Your motility is great!” I said with excitement. “See how well the prosthesis’ movement matches your other eye?”
“Yeah…wow, it’s better than I thought it would be.” Valence jumped off the chair and hugged me tight. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”
“You’re welcome,” I told her.
Valence laughed again and kissed me. She turned back toward the mirror. “I feel like me again…no…even better.” She picked her eyepatch off the table. “Can we burn this in celebration?”
“I suppose you won’t need it anymore,” I said.
Valence beamed. “Then let’s torch the bastard in the sink.”
I was still paranoid about Valence being spotted by the cops. She assured me the police in Olympia didn’t give two shits about what happens in Redding, and I was inclined to believe her. A sense of normalcy began to creep into our lives as the days wore on. Valence and I cut, carved and painted a new sign for the front yard. After advertising our official grand-opening and launching the revamped website, business began to pick up.
I was saying goodbye to an elderly man who had come in for a refitting when a teenage girl barged into the clinic and pushed between us. She flopped down on the couch in the waiting area then pulled her black hoodie over her face.
“Looks like you got some work cut out for you buddy,” joked the old man as he patted my back and left.
A moment later, a troubled woman came up the steps. I held the door for her. “I assume this one’s yours?” I asked.
The exasperated woman looked right past me. “Rose! What is wrong with you?” she yelled across the room. The girl on the couch shrugged and pulled out her phone.
“Yes, she’s mine,” said the woman, apologetically. “We had an appointment at one. I know we’re a little early.”
“No worries,” I said with a smile. I waved to the girl and she curled up tighter, pulling her knees to her chest.
“Thanks. That’s my daughter, Rose. I’m Pamela,” said the woman. She shook my hand and took a deep breath. “She’s not exactly thrilled to be here.”
“It’s completely understandable,” I said. “It’s hard enough being a teenager on a good day. Throw a little trauma into the mix and all bets are off.”
“I appreciate your patience, but there’s no excuse for her attitude. She’s been a terror all day.”
“She’s nervous. How about I just chat with her for a bit before launching into the shop talk? If I can make this experience less weird for her, it may go better for everyone.”
“I wouldn’t get your hopes up,” said Pamela, running a hand through her blonde hair.
“Why don’t you take a seat and get comfortable. Can I get you something to drink? Coffee, tea?”
Pamela took off her coat. “Red wine?”
I chuckled. “Sorry, fresh out.”
“Black coffee then,” said Pamela. “Who’s that?”
I turned around and saw Valence sitting next to Rose on the couch. “That’s my girlfriend…she helps out around here sometimes. Most times.”
“Well, she has Rose’s attention…that’s a good sign,” said Pamela. She walked a few feet away and took a chair by the window.
“I’ll be back with that coffee,” I said, heading toward the kitchen.
I came back with a pair of mugs and noticed Rose had taken her hood off. The tension she was carrying in her posture had loosened significantly since Valence started talking with her. I sat next to Pamela and handed her a mug as we settled in to do some eavesdropping.
“So, he’s not even a doctor?” I heard Rose ask.
“Alistair? Nope. This is more like an art gallery than a doctor’s office. He hand-paints everything himself,” replied Valence.
“I guess that’s kind of cool. What about you…are you a nurse or something?”
Valence laughed. “Hell no! I mean, nurses are great and all…but I’m more like an assistant.”
Rose sighed. “I don’t mean to act so crazy. I just can’t help it. This just–”
“It sucks, right?” interrupted Valence. “Everything about this sucks. Believe me, I know.” She leaned down closer to Rose so her artificial eye was clearly visible.
“Whoa. you have one!” Rose finally said. “I didn’t even notice.”
“Well, don’t feel bad…most teenagers aren’t any good at making eye contact.” Valence gave Rose a gentle elbow.
“No, it’s true,” said Rose. “I haven’t wanted to look at anybody since this happened.” She peered at Valence, unable to hold back her curiosity. “Wow, it’s so real.”
“Alistair did a pretty good job, huh?”
I saw Rose look over at me. I sipped my coffee and pretended to read a magazine.
“He made your eye?”
“Yeah, and he can make yours too,” said Valence.
Rose crossed her arms and tensed up again. “Even if it looks real, I’ll still know it’s not.”
Valence leaned closer. “You know what I hate?”
“I hate being asked by strangers to explain what happened to my eye. It just brings everything flooding back.”
Rose gasped. “It’s the worst! Like, just leave me alone, people! If I wanted to tell you what happened, I would.”
“Well, here’s the best thing about a prosthetic eye. Sure, it’s not 100% real, but it’s good enough to keep the curious assholes you run into on the street out of your business.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” said Rose. “It would be a relief to not have to worry about bus drivers and baristas and 7-11 clerks asking dumb questions about my eye patch.”
“People usually mean well, but they’re also pretty stupid.”
Rose laughed. “Yeah. But the kids at school are even worse.”
“Oh, screw them,” said Valence. “You seem like a cool, arty chick. You have a handful of good friends, right?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“My advice for any teenager, missing eye or not, is to keep your good friends close and ignore everyone else. You’re what, 16?”
“You just need to make it three more years. After high school, people have more to worry about than bullying others to make themselves feel better. Sure, there will still be a lot of jerks, but they’ll be occupied with the horrible futures they’ve created for themselves.”
“Good to know,” said Rose with a gentle smile. “Ski accident, by the way.”
“Gun shot,” said Valence, tugging at her lower eyelid.
“No fucking way,” said Rose.
“Yup, but it’s okay now. So, are you ready to have some art in your eye?”
“I guess I can try it out,” said Rose.
“Come on, I’ll introduce you to Alistair. He’s not as nerdy as looks.” Valence winked at me, aware I had been listening. “Okay, maybe he is.”
Rose seemed like a different person during the consultation, and in turn, so did her mother. While I was setting up the next appointment, Rose surprised Valence with a hug. After saying goodbye to our new clients, we closed up the shop for the day.
“You were incredible,” I told Valence.
“I know,” she replied. “Seriously though, I really liked that girl.”
“Thanks for stepping in like that. I don’t know if I could have cracked her shell.”
“You cracked mine.”
I just got lucky,” I said. “I can’t believe you called me a nerd.”
“I can’t believe I wound up with a nerd.”
I laughed and pulled Valence closer. “Tough break,” I said, before kissing her.
Valence became my unofficial assistant at the clinic. She was patient and kind to everyone who walked through the door, no matter their mental states. Showing clients her own prosthesis helped answer their questions and lessen their anxiety, especially if they were children. As word of mouth grew, so did the clinic’s profits.
To celebrate our first month of breaking into the black, I bought us tickets to see Aida at the Washington Center. Realizing Valence’s wardrobe was still fairly limited, I offered to take her shopping for a new dress and she agreed.
Valence seemed troubled on the way to our third boutique. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I’m sorry I can’t make up my mind. I haven’t been faced with anything this fancy in a while. I want my dress to be perfect–within our means, of course.”
“It’s not like the Metropolitan Opera or anything, but I hear you,” I said. “Truthfully, I just enjoy watching you try on clothes.”
“Wow, you must be in love,” said Valence with a groan.
Despite the levity, my paranoia had returned. Every time I looked in the mirror, I kept seeing the same car. It had been following us since we left the last store. I deliberately circled the Rabbit around the block to see if the brown sedan would keep tailing us, and it did.
“What are you doing?” asked Valence.
“Sorry, I just…got a little turned around,” I lied.
“It’s right there, dork,” said Valence, pointing. I pulled the Rabbit into the packed lot of the glorified shopping mall and drove in circles until I found a parking spot. The brown sedan pulled in as well, but moved to the other side of the lot. “Head on in, I’ll catch up in a minute,” I told Valence as I opened the car door for her.
“What are you doing?”
“I want to check out that kitchen supply store over there. I’m just curious.”
“You’d rather look at garlic presses than my plunging neck line?”
“I’ll just be a minute.”
“Fine.” Valence patted her head as she stood up. “Where are my glasses?”
“We finally got you contacts, remember? You told me you hated those glasses.”
“Ugh, right. I guess I’m just used to them.” Valence leaned over and kissed me. “Hurry up.”
Valence made her way to the boutique and I walked as nonchalantly as possible toward the sedan. The air was dense with humidity, indicating a hard rain was due any minute. A muscular guy stepped out of the souped-up Buick and leaned against the door, lighting a cigarette. He wore a tanktop and black jeans, and appeared to be in his late 20s. The man definitely resembled the description of the bank robber from the article. I hovered behind a pillar to observe him for a while, watching him direct long looks at the boutique.
I walked close enough to the sedan to see a California license plate before the man spotted me. As I readied myself for a confrontation, he calmly tossed his cigarette away and got back into his car. His tires chirped as he accelerated out of the lot.
“Christ,” I muttered. My heart jump when I realized I had almost picked a fight with someone potentially armed and dangerous. I hurried to the boutique. When I walked inside, I saw Valence beaming as she chatted with the shopkeeper. She turned to me with a smile. “I think I found it, and it’s not too expensive. What do you think?”
My fear was momentarily extinguished by my awe as I looked at Valence in a shimmering, backless green gown that matched her eyes. “You look…amazing,” I told her.
She did a twirl for me. “I promise I’ll wear this more than once.”
“Let’s get it,” I said. Valence went to put her clothes back on as the shopkeeper ran my credit card. I kept scanning the windows behind me, expecting the brown sedan to come back. As soon as Valence emerged from the fitting room, I took her arm under mine and ushered her out of the boutique, trying not to rouse her suspicion. It didn’t work.
“What’s the rush?” asked Valence.
“I’m just really hungry,” I told her. The clouds had parted and the rain was beginning to fall. “Here, stay here with the dress. I’ll go get the car.”
“Okay,” said Valence.
I hurried through the rain to the Rabbit, about a hundred feet away. As soon as I hopped behind the wheel I saw a police officer approach Valence as she waited for me beneath the boutique’s awning. My heart pounded as I watched them start to talk.
I resisted rushing to Valence’s side. Time crawled until the policeman finally stepped away and returned to his car. As soon as he left the lot, I drove up quickly and let Valence into the car.
“Everything okay?” I asked. “What did the cop say to you?”
“He just wanted to know if I needed an umbrella,” said Valence.
“Jesus, Valence…I thought he was going to arrest you.” I pulled into an empty parking spot and waited for my adrenaline to stop pumping.
“Hey, relax,” said Valence, rubbing my shoulder. “You must do good work–he didn’t even seem notice my artificial eye.”
My mind strayed to the man in the brown sedan. I decided not to tell Valence about the guy following us until my paranoia had somewhat abated.
“Hello?” said Valence, poking my shoulder.
“Sorry,” I said. “Whenever I see a cop now, I expect the worse.”
“I know, but I think we’re okay,” said Valence.
“It’s not okay. I hate this. You shouldn’t have told that girl Rose you were shot.”
“Rose wouldn’t rat me out…besides, she had just opened up to me, I couldn’t leave her hanging.”
I leaned my head on the steering wheel. “Goddamit.”
Valence moved closer to me and kissed my ear. “Take it easy. Listen, I used to know this pot dealer who was so paranoid about being caught, he used to speed on the highway, trying to get a ticket. He figured if the cop didn’t arrest him for any outstanding warrants, they didn’t have anything on him. It gave him peace of mind.”
I turned my head, keeping my cheek on the wheel. ” What are you trying to tell me?”
“I’m saying, cheer the hell up because we just received some peace of mind. If the police really are looking for me, this expertly-crafted, artisan eye just threw them off the trail.”
I pulled out of the lot wondering if I had finally equaled my grandfather’s skill as an ocularist, or if was simply losing my mind. Thankfully, the brown sedan didn’t make a reappearance as we drove home. I was confused, but somewhat relieved.
Out of the blue, my friend Jim showed up on my doorstep the next day. I stepped outside to greet him, and our handshake soon turned into a hug.
“Jim! It’s been awhile,” I said.
“I tried to call a few times, but I always get voicemail.”
“Sorry, it’s been crazy around here,” I said, underselling the truth.
Jim looked up at the building. “You actually used that paint I gave you, huh. The shop looks…nicely covered.”
“Thanks,” I said. “You don’t have to mince words–this shade looks pretty bad on anything other than a federal building.”
“Yeah, it ain’t good,” said Jim with a laugh.
I smiled. “It’s your goddamn fault!”
“I didn’t put the brush in your hand, pal,” said Jim. “Hey, I’m sorry about you and Mar–” He paused, and I saw his eyes brighten. “Who’s this?”
Valence stepped around me in a yellow sundress. She shook Jim’s hand and flashed a wide smile. “Valence. Pleasure to meet a friend of Alistair’s.”
“I’m Jim. Pleasure is all mine,” said Jim.
“Alright, stop the Lando Calrissian routine,” I begged.
Jim winked at me. “Just messing around.”
“Nice uniform,” said Valence. “Are you the man responsible for the vomit currently gracing the outside of the shop?”
“That would be me,” said Jim. “Hope you don’t mind me stopping by on short notice.”
“No problem,” I said, “come on in.”
“Want some tea?” asked Valence.
“Don’t fall for that,” I said, “she’ll just bring you hot water.”
“Honestly, I’m on my way to check on some logging roads,” said Jim, looking at his watch. “I just wanted to stop by and see if you might be available for dinner tonight. Alice and I would love to have you over…both of you.”
“Don’t put words in Alice’s mouth, she doesn’t know I exist,” replied Valence.
Jim shook his head. “I didn’t either, but I like you already.”
“Well then, absolutely,” said Valence before I could respond. She knew I had become reluctant to leave the house. “What time?”
“Six work for you?” asked Jim.
“Yeah, that’s fine.” I said. “We’ll bring a bottle of wine.”
“Great,” replied Jim. “Bring a white…we’re having salmon.”
I shook Jim’s hand again. “You got it. See you in few hours.”
Valence leaned against me as Jim walked back to his truck. “Too bad I don’t like fish and I don’t drink anymore.”
“We’ll get you a burger beforehand,” I said with a shrug. “You sure this is safe?”
“No, but I’m tired of this pumpkin shell, Peter,” said Valence. “How long have you known Jimbo?”
“Jimbo? Forever. Believe it or not, we’re both from Pendleton. We went to high school together. I looked him up after I learned he had moved here after a stint in the Army. He’s a good guy.”
“I love a man in uniform, except for the cops…of course.”
“Not that funny,” I said with a sigh.
My nerves frayed as we drove across town to Jim and Alice’s place. Thankfully, there was no sign of the brown Buick. Alice greeted us warmly at the front door and I felt more at ease. “Alistair! And you must be Valencia?”
“Close enough,” said Valence, shaking Alice’s hand. “Valence. Nice to meet you.” We walked inside our hosts’ rustic home, filled with country charm and hardwood from floor to ceiling.
“Come on in guys,” shouted Jim from the kitchen.
“Take a seat at the table,” said Alice. “Dinner’s nearly ready.”
I uncorked the wine and we all sat down together. The grilled salmon was meaty and delicious. Valence was carefully hiding her portion beneath the rice pilaf when Jim caught her in the act. “Sorry, I should have told you I don’t like fish.”
Jim laughed. “Well, I appreciate your honesty. Most people would just claim to be allergic or something. Can I whip you up something else?”
“No thanks, the rice and veggies are more than enough,” said Valence.
We continued eating until a funny look crossed Alice’s face about halfway through the meal. She couldn’t stop staring at Valence.
Valence noticed. “Hey lady, my breasts are down here,” she said, cupping them through her top.
Alice blushed then laughed. “I didn’t mean…I just noticed your eye. It’s fake.”
“Come on, dear,” said Jim, looking pained.
“If this were a movie, I’d pop out my eye and put it in my mouth, or maybe drop it in your wine,” said Valence, creating an awkward silence.
“She’s not going to do that…I don’t think,” I said nervously.
“I apologize for staring,” said Alice, embarrassed.
“It’s okay,” said Valence with a laugh. “I’m just happy it took you this long to notice.”
“That eye is Alistair’s work,” Jim told Alice. “He’s still one hell of an artist. Don’t you remember that Valkyrie he painted on the side of my van back in high school?”
“That was you?” Alice asked me.
“Yeah, I’ve grown up…a little…since then,” I replied.
“Sounds bitchin,'” said Valence with a cheek full of rice.
Jim laughed, releasing a small snort. “I wish I still had that van. I loved it.”
“Then you wouldn’t have me,” said Alice.
Valence sipped her water. “I’d prefer a few Valkyries over that nauseating green paint.”
Alice put down her fork, looking appalled. “Jimmy! I told you not to give him those cans.” She turned to me next. “I was trying to spare you.”
“I stand by my decision to take the cans,” I said. “In fact, I think I’m starting to enjoy the color.”
Valence shook her head. “That’s impossible.”
“I thought I was helping,” said Jim with a laugh.
When dinner was done, we all helped clear the table. “I still feel bad for gawking,” I heard Alice tell Valence in the kitchen.
“Trust me, there’s worse things,” said Valence.
“Like what?” asked Alice.
Valence shrugged. “Like losing an eye.”
A small boy burst into the room. “Are you done yet? I need my Magic cards.” I immediately recognized him as one of the kids who had come into the clinic looking for comic books.
“Andrew!” I whispered to Valence. “I didn’t recognize him when he came into the shop. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen him.”
“Hey, I thought I knew you!” said Andrew, staring at me. He went pale as his attention was drawn to Valence. “Holy crap…she grew her eye back! Wait, can you still shoot blood?”
“What? Andrew, go back to your room,” said Jim. “You told me if I bought you that video game you’d stay upstairs while we did adult things down here.”
Valence laughed into her hands.
“Not adult adult things…you know what I mean,” said Jim, blushing. The boy ran back to his room without another word.
“What the hell was Andrew talking about?” asked Alice, looking at me.
“Andrew and one of his friends visited the clinic awhile back looking for a comic shop that’s up the block. I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t recognize him when he came in.” I recalled how Valence had framed those boys, hoping to stay in my good graces. It was a bittersweet memory.
“Andrew’s friend Michael lives in the neighborhood near your place,” said Jim. “I’m sorry if those boys said or did something stupid.” He took a quick gulp of wine.
“Nah, they were just being kids,” I told him.
After settling in the living room, we all engaged in a painfully long game of Pictionary where I learned Valence should never draw anything. After a bit more chatting, we put on our coats and headed for home.
As I got behind the wheel of the Rabbit, I noticed Valence was crying as she buckled her seat belt. “Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yeah, this just happens,” said Valence. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I just…need to let it out sometimes.”
“If you need to talk, I’m ready to listen.”
“No!” said Valence, looking rattled. She shook her head and let out a long breath. “Sorry, I just…I can’t.”
After letting Valence shed a few tears against my shoulder, I drove us home.
Three days had gone by since I’d seen Matt in his brown sedan–if it really had been him at all. Considering we had made it so long without incident, I assumed we were probably safe.
Our big night out had arrived. I considered forgoing the opera, but Valence was adamant we go. I became so entranced by how good she looked in her green gown, I had neglected to change out of my jeans and t-shirt. Valence scowled at me while putting on her makeup. “Hurry up, we’re going to be late!”
I came down from our room minutes later, looking pathetic in my cheap suit. “I look like a hobo compared to you.”
Valence came up and put her arms around me. “But you’re my hobo.” She kissed me on the cheek then wiped off her lipstick. She groaned while looking at the clock. “Shit. Hopefully traffic isn’t too bad.”
“It’s always bad this time of night,” I said. “Wait, hold on.” I ran to the closet and fished around until I came back holding two plastic packages. “It’s not supposed to rain, but hike up your dress and put this on, just in case.”
“They’re extra-long. I bought them for a camping trip I never went on. This way, we can weave between the rush-hour traffic on the Harley.”
Valence sighed. “Fine, but if you get mud on this dress, I’ll murder you in a manner so gory and tragic, they’ll write an opera about you.”
I rolled the Harley out of the garage. “If I get helmet hair, I’ll doubly kill you,” snarled Valence as we put on our helmets. She slid behind me in her bunched-up poncho as I stomped the starter. I revved the engine, anxious to put an end to the conversation then pulled out of the driveway.
Weaving through traffic hadn’t been necessary, but finding parking near the Washington Center was nigh impossible. I stopped in front of the theater to drop Valence off then go find a spot. While lifting her off the seat, I saw the brown sedan drive by and park in a loading zone at the end of the block.
I was sick of being afraid. After removing Valence’s poncho I put a ticket for Aida in her hand. “You look beautiful.”
Valence seemed distracted. “What? Oh, thank you,” she finally said with a smile.
“Your dress is mud-free and your hair looks great, do I get to live?” I asked. I was desperately trying to push Matt out of my head, but I couldn’t.
“Yeah, you get to live,” said Valence, running her hands over her dress.
I needed to see if my paranoid delusions were actually real. “Head inside and I’ll catch up. Hopefully it won’t take me long.”
“No, I’ll wait,” said Valence.
“Go on! Find your seat and I’ll join you in a minute.”
“Just…hurry up,” said Valence. She kissed my cheek then walked to the box office. I didn’t start the Harley until she disappeared through the double doors of the theater.
I swallowed hard and pulled back onto the street. Matt would surely hear my approach but I didn’t care. Halfway up the block, I realized I had absolutely no plan aside from my desire to confront the guy. He ducked into the alley when he saw me coming.
“Coward,” I muttered, as I left the bike and chased him into the alley. I clenched my fists, full of rage but otherwise unprepared.
Matt stopped and turned around. He flicked his cigarette away and crossed his arms. I realized no one could see us between the brick buildings–which wasn’t good for me if things escalated.
“Stay away from us!” I blurted. “Who the fuck are you and what do you want?”
“Ease up, you little shit. I’m not here to start trouble.”
I stayed about five feet back, trying to decide my next move. “Why have you been following us?”
The guy said nothing.
“Are you Matt?”
“You did a nice job on Val’s eye. She seems happy with you, for some reason.”
I plucked a stray brick off the ground and held it above my head. “Last chance to tell me what–”
Before I could react, my opponent had spanned the distance between us. He shoved me into a pile of trashcans, creating an immense clatter. I looked up from the ground, expecting a fist, but saw an outstretched hand.
I took the man’s hand and stood up, shaking with tension. “You have to tell me…something.”
“Christ, you’re persistent. Did Val tell you she stole my car? I found it about a block away from a used car lot. I asked a sales guy there if he’d seen anyone matching Val’s description and he said a young woman with an eyepatch had just bought a Volkswagen Rabbit with cash. Figuring she’d head north, I eventually caught up to her on the highway. I decided to lay low until I could figure out what the hell she was doing. Frankly, I’m still not sure.”
I clenched my fists. “Why are you looking for her?”
The man laughed. “Jesus Christ, I’m her brother! I never meant to be spotted, but I guess I’d make a lousy P.I. Val’s a big girl, but she’s been through some real shit, you know? I was worried. I don’t even care that she stole my car.”
“I’m David, nice to meet you.”
My head was spinning. “David? Then who’s Matt?”
“Listen up,” said David, disinterested in the question. “It’s obvious how much you two care about each other, but there’s a lot you don’t know about my sister. You seem like a good guy and I think you deserve to know the truth. Just don’t judge her too harshly.” It sounded like a threat. He patted my shoulder and walked past me, leaving the alley.
“Wait!” I called out. “Just tell me yourself.”
“It’s not my truth to tell,” said David as he walked to his car. He got inside the Buick and drove away.
“What the fuck is going on?” I yelled as I slid down the wall the asphalt. At a loss, I picked up my phone but couldn’t bear to call Valence. Hungry for information, I started checking the voicemails I had been avoiding. Halfway down the list, I found one I shouldn’t have ignored.
“Hey Alistair, it’s William. I was going to reply to your email, but I figured it would be easier to just call. I searched for more information on that robbery in Redding but couldn’t find any other news stories online. The Redding Record and Redding Weekly are real papers, but those links you sent me don’t originate from their sites. The URLs are dot nets instead of dot coms…an easy distinction to miss. The links on the dummy pages point back to the actual sites though, kind of clever. Someone worked fairly hard to make these articles appear legit. On a whim, I decided to call that bank in Redding. The manager told me his branch had never been robbed. Pretty damn weird. Anyway, I’m curious what this is all about, so give me a call back you jerk.”
I ran out of the alley toward the Washington Center. I needed to talk to Valence. I needed to hear her response before I allowed myself to feel anything.
After pleading with the usher to let me in, I moved quickly and quietly to our seats. Valence was nowhere to be seen. “Shit!” I said in frustration, to the annoyance of the people around me. As I was turning to leave, I saw a note on Valence’s seat.
“Goodbye Alistair. I’m sorry.”
I rushed out of the Washington Center and approached the man in the box office. “Did you see a woman in a green dress just leave?”
The man raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, a few minutes ago. She took a cab.”
“Which direction did she go?”
“What’s it to you, buddy?”
“Please…I’m worried about her. I’m her boyfriend.”
The guy sighed and pointed. “The cab was going west.”
Valence wasn’t answering her phone. I took off on the Harley and headed for home, unsure where else she may have gone. I weaved through lanes of traffic, unconcerned about my speed or the cops. Please be there, became my mantra as the engine droned in my ears. My knee touched the ground as I rounded the last corner, shredding my slacks. I threw the bike to the sidewalk and rushed up the steps of the shop, yelling Valence’s name.
There was no sign of Valence on the bottom floor, so I bolted upstairs. All her things were still in our room. I punched the wall and screamed in frustration. My world felt like it was falling apart.
I went back outside and sat on the steps of the front porch, holding my head in my hands. As tears filtered through my fingers I heard a familiar voice.
“Hey, I found the eye that kid threw up here.”
I took a few quick steps away from the porch and looked up. Valence was sitting on the edge of the roof, her feet dangling. She was still in the green dress.
“Valence!” I cried. “What are you–”
“Come up,” she interrupted. I noticed her face was streamed with mascara. “Please?”
I went back upstairs and crawled out the bedroom window to the roof, feeling a gust of cool wind against my face. The stars were bobbing on the horizon, lingering at the edge of a gibbous moon. I sat beside Valence, unsure what was about to happen. She was nervously fiddling with the wayward eye. My heart rate was still in overdrive.
“I assume you’ve met my brother,” said Valence, taking a deep breath. “When I saw him driving away from the theater, I knew you were going to go after him. He’s been following us around but I guess you knew that.”
“I didn’t want to scare you.” I said. “Why did you run?”
“I…I don’t know. I thought about getting on a Greyhound, but I came back here.”
“Damn it, Valence…I was terrified.”
“When was the first time you noticed David?” asked Valence, returning to the subject.
“The other day when we went shopping for your dress.” Answering Valence’s questions meant I didn’t have to ask any more of my own. I was afraid of what I’d hear. “I didn’t know who he was. I thought he was…Matt.”
“I see. David worries a lot, but he doesn’t know how to deal with me. He probably thought I’d run again if I saw him, but he’s shitty at keeping a low profile. Was he mad I stole his Charger?”
“No. He just seemed relived you were okay.”
“I’m not, though,” said Valence. “Once this conversation ends I’ll never be okay again.”
An emotion was finally starting to fill me, one I didn’t want. Anger. “For fuck’s sake Valence, just be straight with me! Are you some kind of pathological liar?” I stood up and turned away from her. “What is this all about?”
“I don’t know!” cried Valence. She stood up but kept her distance. “I…I–”
“There was no robbery, was there? Those webpages you left for me to find were fake and so is Matt.” I laughed in frustration and shook my head. “Is Valence your real name?”
“Yes, I changed my name at the courthouse after…the accident. Valarie Gabel was dead to me. I needed to be someone else.”
It suddenly made sense why her online presence was so sparse. “Why work so hard just to lie to me? I don’t understand any of this!” My mind was racing.
“Alistair, it’s not like that.”
“What else could it be? I knew you were holding back something from me, I just…I just loved you so much I told myself you had your reasons. I trusted you not to lie to me again. How could I be so stupid?”
Valence turned toward me. “I have problems, Alistair…my head is a fucking mess. I never asked you to trust me, or to fall in love with me for that matter. I sure as hell never planned for any of this!”
I looked at Valence over my shoulder and saw her shaking. “Please. Just help me understand,” I begged.
“Everything just spun out of control. I was ashamed of the truth. Whenever I looked in the mirror I saw this unlovable, loathsome beast staring back at me. When I realized you actually liked me, maybe even loved me, I couldn’t understand why.”
“What?” I asked, reeling. “Why did you think pretending to be a bank robber would endear you to me? You had me worried someone was going to come arrest you and take you away, or worse.”
“I’m sorry. I know. It was risky and stupid, but I didn’t know what else to do.”
“Jesus,” I said, flabbergasted. “Anything but that!”
“I thought I wouldn’t be able to keep your interest unless I was this extraordinary flame-out of a human being. Not some boring, damaged piece of human trash.”
“Stop it,” I said, moving closer to Valence. I took her hands in mine and forced her to look in my face. My anger was melting. “You didn’t need to wrap yourself in some bullshit drama for my sake. I want to hear the truth.”
“What’s so great about the truth?” asked Valence. “The truth only hurts me. I’ll never be able to change the past, but when I’m with you the future seems wide open. I thought I could keep my new life safe by nurturing it with a perfect, tragic story. Something I could control.”
“But you couldn’t. You can’t build a life on a lie.”
“I couldn’t bear to face the truth, but I knew I couldn’t keep you in the dark forever. I invented a new history for myself–something I could think about, talk about, without falling apart in front of you.”
I realized as much as Valence’s lies hurt me, they carried no malice behind them. They were just desperate attempts to maintain some manic sense of momentum. In the moment though, I found myself unable to forgive her. “I need to know everything. Right now.”
“Don’t make me say anymore,” begged Valence.
“Valence, if you don’t, I don’t think I can be with you.”
Without warning, Valence dashed for the edge of the roof and started climbing down the side of the house to the ground.
“Stop!” I slipped across the shingles and clumsily slid down the rain gutter, hoping it wouldn’t tear off the side of the building. Once on the ground, I gave chase and finally caught up with Valence at the edge of the grass. As soon as I wrapped my arms around her, she collapsed into me and sobbed uncontrollably. We slid down together to a patch of dirt.
“It’s okay,” I said, trying to convince myself.
“Let go!” she suddenly screamed. “I can’t do this!”
“I’m not letting go.”
Valence wept until she began to wheeze. “No.”
“Get it out. For real this time.”
“I killed them,” said Valence weakly. I had never heard her sound so broken. “I killed both of them.”
Valence went quiet, but I could feel her tension radiating through me. After she regained a measure of calm, she spoke again. “I took my mom and dad took out to dinner to celebrate their anniversary. Usually, I’ll just let my phone ring if I’m driving, but for some reason I decided to check who was calling. The phone slipped out of my hands, and when I bent over to pick it up…”
“Let it out. Tell me.”
“When I opened my eyes, we were upside down in the ditch. I called out to my mom and dad but they didn’t answer. They were just…gone.” She paused and slumped lower. “I…it’s too hard.”
I kept Valence close. “Don’t stop now. You need to vent this out of you. All of it.”
Valence nodded, looking pale. “The cops said a semi truck had drifted into our lane. It clipped the edge of my dad’s car while I was distracted with the phone.”
“Everything fell apart after that. I couldn’t go to work. I could barely get out of bed. David tried to help me but there was nothing he could do. I felt like a ghost. While looking for some family photos, I found my father’s gun in his night stand. It was all I could think about the entire day. That night, I went to the backyard and I put the gun against my eye. I woke up in the hospital.”
“Valence…” My own tears were falling.
“The surgeon said the angle of the wound showed I had hesitated, but I have trouble remembering exactly what happened. He said it was a miracle I only lost my eye, but it didn’t feel anything like divine intervention. As soon as I healed enough to get off the pain killers, I emptied my savings account and stole my brother’s car. All I wanted was to escape–I didn’t care where. I thought a prosthetic eye would be the catalyst to help me reset my life…maybe even let me look at myself in the mirror again. That’s when I met you.”
“No,” I said, looking Valence in the eye. “I’m meeting you right now.” I hugged Valence tight and she accepted the embrace, to my great relief.
Valence released a gasping laugh. “Nice to meet you.”
“It’s going to–”
I heard fast footsteps approaching and turned my head in time to catch a fist against my face. I fell over into the dirt as my vision doubled.
“Get off of her, you son of a bitch!”
I opened my aching eyes and saw Valence pushing away her brother with all her might.
“David! Back the fuck off!”
David wore a look of utter confusion as he stumbled backwards. “I drove up and saw you crying and covered in dirt. It looked like he tackled you. What was I supposed to think?”
“Why start thinking now, you creep! He wasn’t doing anything,” scolded Valence. “Why can’t you just leave me alone!”
“It’s alright,” I said, struggling to my feet. “I don’t blame you for…whoa, you pack a punch, man.”
“I’m sorry…shit,” said David, helping me up.
“Christ, David,” said Valence, moving to my side and putting an arm around me.
I shook the stars out of my head. “Come on, let’s all go inside and get some coffee before someone calls the cops. Getting arrested would be the icing on the cake.”
“I’ll leave, I just wanted to make sure you were alright, Val.”
“I’m not…but things are getting better.” Valence hugged her brother tight and I saw tears well in his eyes.
“You aren’t getting out of this one, tough guy,” I told David. “Get inside.”
I sat down with Valence and David in my cramped kitchen. David stayed quiet until I located the Irish whiskey stashed away in my cabinet and poured it in his coffee. The three of us ended up talking for hours, sharing our fears, hopes and regrets. By the time the sun rose, all we had left were bad jokes made hilarious by a lack of sleep and an abundance of caffeine.
David had been holed up in a flea bag motel at the edge of town, so I invited him to stay at the clinic in the spare room for as long as he liked. Considering he was an obsessive gearhead, we didn’t share many interests besides Valence and the Harley’s V-twin engine, but we still got along fairly well.
For the next few nights, Valence and I shared long discussions about our future while lying in bed. Somehow, the stillness of a darkened room made it easier to get out what we needed to say.
As David was preparing to head home to Modesto, Valence asked if she could go back with him. She had yet to visit her parents’ graves, and hoped doing so would bring some much-needed closure. While there, she planned to help David sort out their parent’s remaining estate and spend some time with a therapist she had abandoned after her surgery. I desperately wanted to go with her, but I knew it was something she had to do alone. At best, I would only be a distraction.
“It’s just three months,” said Valence with sigh as she watched me load her bag into David’s brown Buick. “I can survive three months without you…I think.”
“I hate this,” I said, wrapping my arms around Valence and kissing her. “But I think you’re doing the right thing. If you need me, I’ll come. I can be there in hours.”
Valence nodded. “Your clients need you here. I need you too…but I can’t be greedy. After all, I plan on being with you until we’re a couple of old farts.”
“Right, when we can finally get married,” I said with a laugh.
“You’re engaged?” interjected David. “You didn’t mention that! Where’s the ring?”
“I gave Alistair a ring. I don’t have one.”
“How…modern,” said David, shaking his head. He looked at my hand. “I don’t see anything.”
“It’s a woman’s ring, and it only fits on my pinky, so…it’s a long story,” I said.
“David, can you give us a minute…please?” asked Valence.
“Alright, alright,” said David, stepping away to light a cigarette.
“You sure about this?” I asked one more time.
Valence sighed. “I need to get myself grounded, and this is the only way I can do it.”
“I’m going to wear out your phone out, be ready.”
“Okay,” said Valence, kissing me passionately.
I peered over at the wall where Valence had spray painted her insult. “I can’t believe you called me Doctor Freak.”
“I know,” said Valence with a sharp smile. “You’re not even a doctor.”
I laughed. “My beloved Cyclops Girlfriend.”
“I’m not sure why I thought vandalism was the best way to break the ice.”
I shook my head. “That feels like a million years ago.”
Valence took my hands in hers. “This won’t feel like a million years, will it?”
I wasn’t sure what to say.
My last kiss with Valence was overly-long and anguished, revealing our shared anxiety. Each of us found it impossible to say goodbye.
“Take care of my Rabbit,” said Valence, finally breaking the silence.
“I will,” I managed, as I opened the door of the Buick for her.
I walked to the other side of the car and gave David a hearty handshake. I knew Valence was in good hands. “You have my number. Keep me in the loop, alright?”
“I will, no worries,” said David.
I stood in the middle of the street as the car pulled away. A swirl of light snow twisted around my body, forcing me to take shelter inside the shop.
The world became infinitely quieter and painfully empty.
“So, Valence dumped you?” asked Rose, as I finished fitting her new eye.
“What? No!” I said.
“Then where is she?”
“She’s visiting family, but she’ll be back soon.”
Rose shook her head, looking at me with pity. “Dumped, huh. Just admit it.”
“I’m not dumped!” I protested. I turned Rose around and faced her toward the mirror. “Well, it’s finally done. What do you think?”
Rose smiled. “Cool.”
“Cool? That’s it? You know, it’s not uncommon for people to cry.”
“Get over yourself, man,” said Rose, turning toward me. She rolled her eyes and the prosthesis moved appropriately.
“Well, at least I know you have good motility. Everything feel alright?”
“It’s a little funky, but Valence said it might be for awhile.”
I sighed. “Yeah, you’ll get used to it.”
“I love it.” Rose stood up and hugged me tight. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” I could see Rose’s mother fighting back tears across the room. I almost shed some of my own.
“Don’t cry Al, I can tell Valence likes you. I’m sure she’ll take you back.”
I looked Rose in the eyes and smiled. “I sure hope so.”