I’d estimate the hour to be approaching midnight. It’s raining, as it has been all day, and storm clouds have shrouded the moon, so the desert is invisible except when lightning jolts the sky. But it comes without thunder. The heart of the storm is miles away.
My duffel bag is packed. I think Orson’s waiting for me to fall asleep. I’ve heard his footsteps approach my door and stop several times in the last hour, as if he’s listening for the sound of my movement. This makes me a tad nervous, particularly since he’s been so kind today. But strangely enough, I trust him. I can’t explain it, but I don’t think he’ll hurt me, especially after last night. That really touched him.
Hopefully, this is the last entry I’ll ever make in this cabin. Through writing these pages, I saved some degree of sanity and autonomy, but I haven’t written down everything that occurred here. The reason for this is that I intend to forget. Some people find the cravenness to lose entire years of their childhood. They tuck things into their subconscious so that it only eats them away a little at a time, in small, painless bites.
This idea of repression is my model. My goal is to forget the unspeakable events of these past eleven days. I’ll gladly pay the price in episodes of depression, rage, and denial that are destined to plague my coming years. Nothing can be as devastating as the actual memories of what I’ve seen and done.
I signed my name at the bottom of the entry and folded the sheet of notebook paper into thirds. Then I walked to the duffel bag and stuffed it down between the dirty clothes with the other entries I’d saved. Turning out the lantern on the bedside table, I slid under the blanket. Rain on the tin roof was more effective than a bottle of sleeping pills at lulling me to sleep.
Lightning broke the darkness, and I saw the whites of Orson’s eyes. He stood in my room, dripping onto the floor. When the sky went black again, my pulse raced, and I sat up in bed.
“Orson, you’re scaring me.” My voice rose above the tinkling roof.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “I came to give you an injection.”
“Something to help you sleep. Like what you had at the motel.”
“How long have you been standing there?”
“Awhile. I’ve been watching you sleep, Andy.”
“Will you turn the light on, please?”
“I shut the generator off.”
My heart wouldn’t decelerate, so I grabbed a book of matches from the bedside table and lighted the kerosene lantern. As I turned up the flame, the walls warmed, and the terror faded from my heart. He wore jeans and a green poncho, soaking wet.
“I need to give this to you,” he said, showing me the syringe. “It’s time to leave.”
“Is it really necessary?” I asked.
“Extremely.” He took a step closer. “Lift your sleeve.”
Pushing the T-shirt sleeve above my shoulder, I turned my head away as Orson jabbed the needle into my arm. The pain was sharp but brief, and I didn’t feel the needle pull out. When I looked back at Orson, the room had already grown fuzzy, and my head fell involuntarily back onto the pillow.
“You don’t have much time now,” Orson said as my eyelids lowered, his voice as distant as the storm’s thunder. “When you wake, you’ll be in a motel room in Denver, a plane ticket on the dresser, the three-fifty-seven locked up in your duffel bag. At that point, you can know that Mom is safe, and the evidence I have against you is in a secure place, in my possession. You’ve upheld your end of the agreement. I’ll uphold mine.
“I think we’ve passed this stage in our relationship, but I’ll say it once more. Tell no one what you’ve done, where you think you’ve been. Say nothing about me, or Shirley Tanner, or Wilbur and the boys. You were in Aruba the whole time, relaxing. And don’t waste your energy coming back out here to look for me. You may have deduced the location of this cabin, but I assure you I’ll be leaving this desert with you.
“In the coming months, things may happen that you won’t understand, that you may never have dreamed of. But Andy, never forget this: Everything that happens, happens for a reason, and I’ll be in control of that reason. Never doubt that.
“You’ll see me again, though it won’t be for some time. Carry on with your life as before. Guilt will come for you, but you have to beat it back. Write your books, embrace your success, just keep me in the back of your mind.”
His face was blurry, but I thought I saw him smile. The sound of the rain had hushed, and even Orson’s voice, an eloquent, soft-spoken whisper, I could scarcely understand.
“You’re almost gone,” he said. “I see it in your slit eyes. I wanna leave you with something as we say good-bye and you fall into that blissful unconsciousness.
“I know you like poetry. You studied Frost our freshman year of college. I hated him then; I love him now. Especially one poem in particular. The thing about this poem is, everyone thinks it applies to them. It’s recited at graduations and printed in annuals, so as everyone takes the same path, they can claim uniqueness because they love this poem. I’ll shut up now and let Bob put you to sleep.”
My eyes closed, and I couldn’t have opened them had I wanted to. Orson’s voice found my ears, and though I never heard the last line, I couldn’t help thinking as I surrendered to the power of the drug that “The Road Not Taken” was undisputedly his.
“‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler, long I stood and looked down one as far as I could to where it bent in the undergrowth;
‘Then took …as just as fair and having perhaps the better claim because it was grassy and wanted …the passing there had worn them really about the same,
‘And both …in leaves no step had trodden black.…’”
WITH the floor space of a coffeehouse, it surprised me that such a crowd had squeezed into 9th Street Books. One of a dying breed of individually owned bookstores, it felt like the library of a mansion. Though two stories high, the second floor existed only as shelf space, and a walkway, ten feet above the floor, circumnavigated the store, lending access to shelf after shelf of elevated books.
Removing my gold-rimmed glasses, I chewed on the rubbery end of an earpiece, leaned forward with my elbows against the wooden lectern, and read the closing sentence from The Scorcher: “‘Sizzle died and went happily to hell.’ Thank you.”