June 3rd, Year of our Fair Lord 10, Carlotta
The majority of Carlotta’s business was on its east edge where hotels and convention centers overlooked the racetracks and golf courses. There was little vegetation within the city, and the air had a gray feeling over it.
“Civilization,” Jill observed, trying to summon enthusiasm. “What next?”
“We sleep,” Fred announced.
While Fred bought them tickets for the earliest bus the next day, Rose found a motel on the map. When they’d gotten a room, they washed up. Jill took the laundry downstairs, along with a handful of quarters, dismissing Fred’s offer to help. He meandered down to the ground floor anyway about an hour later.
“Pastor’s asleep,” he informed her. “Rose too.”
“Do you know what’s with them?” Jill asked.
Fred lingered in the doorway, folded his arms, and didn’t answer. He had a sense of what was “with them,” but it deserved more than an exasperated question.
He watched Jill sorting shirts for a moment.
“You always did the laundry when it was us too.”
“So?” She pointedly didn’t look up as she measured another load’s detergent.
“Just observing,” he added.
She turned and threw a balled sock at him heatedly.
“If you’re not going to help, you can go back upstairs,” she said sharply.
“I was going to help…,” he said.
“Then you could offer help, like a sane person.”
“Where’s the fun in that?” Fred juggled the sock.
Eventually, Jill put her energy back into sorting. He waited for some of the heat to clear. She had never liked his segues, in retrospect.
“Why did you come along?” he asked at last. “You obviously hate my company.”
Jill shut the washer a little harder than was necessary, then walked over to the neighboring dryer. The first load was already tumbling in its drum. She watched it. “Rose is my best friend,” she decided to say.
“So, that’s what best friends do.”
Fred’s frown deepened. “And she asked?”
“Of course she asked.” Jill looked up at him heatedly again. “And then she told me she was thinking of asking you for help, well I couldn’t have you going off with her alone, now could I?”
Fred tossed the sock from the doorway into a laundry basket. “I don’t like her that way,” he said.
“You better not.”
“So I’m still not clear on your answer: You came along because of me or Rose?”
“I would have come anyway,” she said. She had a certain imperiousness when she tried hard enough. It usually helped when she thought she was right. By her deliberation there were other reasons, he was sure of it, but it made him smile despite himself. He sighed next. He had hoped for a harmless chore to talk over, but the talk had to happen even if it was hard.
“We’ve got a long trip ahead,” he said apologetically. “I was wondering, for the sake of it all, if you could just let things go and move on.”
She put her hands on her hips. “I will when you do.”
“I have.” Fred kept his own posture neutral. It was always like walking on eggshells with her, he thought, in the dark, in iron boots. “I get that you regret me, but we should be a little more mature about it, don’t you think?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean…” He hesitated just a moment. Impossible eggshells. He wanted to explain that everyone had burdens on this trip. Even so, he’d always felt a bit sorry for her. It was better to put it in a way she might listen to than preach. “I mean,” he said, “we have bigger problems to worry about than hard feelings.”
“You broke up with me.” The elbows were still akimbo.
“Because you said I was ruining your life.”
“So it’s my fault?” She threw up her hands and turned around.
He had a look for questions like that. She knew it well. Glancing to see it was just formality.
“It’s our fault,” she amended. “Just you won’t take responsibility.”
“For ruining your life?”
“I did take it.”
“I broke up with you when I didn’t want to.”
She turned from the washing machine again and fumed silently.
He added, “Are you saying I shouldn’t have?”
“No. Breaking up with you is the best thing that happened to me,” she said. “I don’t know what was going through my head.”
“Okay then, so everything should be even,” he said. “Don’t worry, I’m not doing this to try and get back together with you. I came because Rose asked, because she and Pastor need me for what they’re doing. Maybe they can beat the enemy.”
Jill shifted. “But what’s in it for you?”
“Why does there need to be more than that?”
“I want to know that the people I care about are safe.”
He frowned. “That’s kind of part of it for me too.”
“If we’re caught and they find out what Rose is up to, that’s it for us and everyone we know.”
Fred said, “All the more reason to make sure we get along so we can end the Slight Twice King.”
“Don’t talk so loud,” she said. She straightened her shoulders in a predictable way and headed for the door. He moved aside, but she jostled him anyway.
Fred sighed. Jill had dramatics as bad as a Fair Lord at times. He turned to follow her with a pat on the door frame. He really wanted to stop trying. You couldn’t stop people from hurting themselves, not without a warrant or a strait jacket and he had no right to apply either, nor any desire to.
Dammit, it hurt to care.
Jill was storming down the pavement outside the ground floor, the rest of the quarters jingling in her pocket.
He hadn’t caught up before they had to stop. Rose was jogging from the stairwell at the other end, her hair still down from her time asleep, her coat still off.
“Pastor?” Fred asked right away.
With a nod, she turned back around and they followed her quick stride upstairs.
“He’s been out for awhile,” she explained. “At first, I didn’t realize it was a fit. The first half’s always pretty tame.”
The word “fit” was a misleading one, Jill observed, stepping back to let Fred move past and check pulse, fever, and other things she didn’t know were important. Fit was such a small word. It brought to mind fussy toddlers or frustration at a slow computer when the ISP Tycoons played war.
But this “fit,” seemed to go on forever, though whenever she looked at the clock hardly another minute had passed. Rose stood by her and explained quietly that Pastor’s episodes were usually a cessation of movement, followed by paroxysms—another word that sounded tamer than it was. Jill watched as his whole body clenched and unclenched. His hands curled like claws and he whimpered horribly. Rose’d carefully laid him out on the carpet, away from furniture and wires, before running to get Jill and Fred.
At last, Fred stood up and shut the door, then chained it and threw the bolt for good measure.
“What are you doing?” asked Jill, angry with tension.
“Can’t have anyone checking in unless we want them too,” he explained.
“He doesn’t want us to call the hospital unless we have to,” said Rose. She stepped forward and knelt to pick his blindfold off the floor. She started to twist it. “I guess it’s smart.”
Jill put her back to the nearest wall and watched as Pastor’s back arched and his head tossed from side to side. A sweat had broken out all over him. He moaned as he shook, like a wounded child.
Rose knelt and picked his head up into her lap. She watched the sockets of his eyes. Fred sat on a chair. Jill shuddered at how calm they were.
“Is this normal?” she asked.
Fred said, “He shouldn’t have to take one for the team this bad. We should call an ambulance.”
“He has social insurance right?” added Jill.
Rose hesitated. She lay a hand on his chest worriedly. “What’ll we tell them about us?”
At that moment, Pastor clasped her hand and pulled it from him. She started, but his grip was no longer clawing its way up to reality.
“It’s fine,” he said. He sounded like a drowning man finally dragged up into the air. “It’s gone.”
Fred set to turning the pages in a telephone book just in case. Rose sat on the edge of a bed with Pastor. A water glass and emptied pill packets were on the bedside table. Pastor was stripped down to his shorts and undershirt, hardly conscious now as he reached out and took her hand.
Jill stood against the wall for a long time, feeling uncomfortable. It was one thing to know about things, she thought, another to see them. She hardly would have known what to do if Rose hadn’t been there, or Fred.
She excused herself because the room felt full of stress. Going downstairs, she walked across the hotel parking lot to stare out at the sparse trees. A golf course wasn’t far off, about a block from the bus junction. Carefully trimmed bits of nature. She’d never understood the appeal of sports or wasting space on them.
At length, Fred went downstairs to finish the laundry without being asked to. Jill fumed when she found him folding her socks. Rose met them at the door of the room as they carried the baskets back.
“I want to go get some shopping done,” she said mutedly.
Fred noted something ashen in her face. She had her coin out and was spinning it deftly between her fingers. She’d done up her hair, which always made her look older.
“I’ll go with you,” he said, ducking inside to grab his coat.
“I can,” said Jill.
“Might as well put the ox to work,” Fred argued easily, slinging on his jacket.
Jill hopped uneasily from foot to foot. “What about…?”
“I’m fine now,” said Pastor. He still stared at the ceiling. His color was back. He was otherwise motionless with exhaustion. “I’m just going to sleep.”
“Lock the door,” said Rose. Fred was already at the end of the second floor walkway, waiting at the landing. “We’ll knock when we get back.”
Jill sighed and shut the door behind her, throwing the bolt. She didn’t have words for her irritation, so instead she paced. Pastor turned onto his side and stuck his face in his pillow. Eventually, she assumed he was asleep. She paced her energy out and then lay down to take a nap, the better to forget the nerve of Fred for all his arrogance.
In no time at all there was a knock on the door.
“Back already?” she muttered, sitting up. She checked the clock by the bed. It was only four in the afternoon. She blinked, then squinted, as she looked outside.
A sudden chill washed over her. It shouldn’t, she reasoned, seem like the middle of the night.