The letter arrives on a perfect spring Friday, one of those days when you can believe the past is past. You're sorting through the mail on mental autopilot when you come to it, and the handwriting blindsides you: a near-square card envelope addressed in chunky block letters, caps and small-caps, with the heavy lines of a man who holds a pencil like a weapon.
It's fucking Ray. It can't be anybody else.
You take the mail in, dump the rest on the hall table, and head for your office. Kate won't be home until at least 5, and on days this pretty the kids never ramble home before dusk, so you've got at least a couple of hours to think about whatever the fuck is in this envelope. You'd like to think you haven't thought about Ray and Lakeside View in years, but why lie to yourself? You think about them all the goddamn time. Today's nice enough to let you forget, but most days aren't, and your mind wanders back to Lakeside more than you'd like. As you step into the office and click the flimsy privacy lock on your door, you know it's going to happen again.
Shit. The last time Ray wrote you a letter, it was right before the end. How many years ago was that?
You sit down, push yourself a half-spin in your chair, and let yourself think.
The beginning of the end came when John woke you up with his regular knock: three beats, then four, then three again. You woke up to dim mid-afternoon light filtering through your blinds and cold kitchen linoleum under your cheek, and you counted off ninety seconds to yourself before you forced yourself to your feet; any longer, you knew, and John would start knocking again. You were pretty sure there was something you were supposed to remember, but it wasn't coming. Shit. Did you owe Michael money?
When you finally got to the door, John didn't even have the dignity to look impatient. Haggard as usual, sure -- ashen skin, drawn features heading towards middle-age sag, clothes that had done the thrift-store cycle a few times -- but not at all impatient. "Hey," he said. "Mail for you." The envelope he held out was thin: a message, not a delivery. Fine.
You knew before you opened it that it was going to be from fucking Ray. You hadn't had the energy to deal with him lately, and you'd hoped he'd wander off like he usually did, but somehow you weren't surprised he'd decided to use John as errand boy instead. (That was the problem with tweakers; you could never tell whether getting high was going to flake them out or drop them into hyperfocus.) A part of you wanted to tell John to tell Ray to go fuck himself, you weren't in the mood, but you'd been avoiding him for long enough -- might as well bite the bullet, you thought, and opened the envelope. The letter inside was short, in Ray's usual big block capitals:
CARLIE AND ME ARE GETTING OUT OF HERE!
WE WANT TO KNOW IF YOU'RE IN.
WE HAVE A PLAN.
MEET AT HER PLACE AT 7 AND WE'LL TELL YOU ABOUT IT.
WE'RE GETTING PIZZA! COME EAT SOMETHING, I KNOW YOU NEED IT.
Pizza. Food. Shit, you did need it -- shit, that was what you were forgetting! You were supposed to get groceries today! You had twenty bucks in your pocket that needed to go to food before it went into your arm, but if Ray wanted you there at 7... shit. You looked up at John, who was still standing there, waiting for praise or abuse as usual. "John, can you do me a favor?" A formality; had he ever said no to you?
"Sure, sure. What is it?"
You rummaged in your pocket for your funds and came up with the two crumpled tens you'd hoped to find. "Take this down to HEB and pick me up some groceries? Just leave them by the door. You know what I get."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. You're gonna go talk to Ray? About the letter?"
"Yeah. What time is it, anyway?"
John looked down at the plastic Casio you suspected was stuck to his wrist by now. "Couple minutes before 6."
"Shit. Okay." At the pace you worked, that meant you'd have time to clean yourself up and change your clothes before you were expected. If Carlie wasn't there, you wouldn't have bothered, but around her you had to at least pretend you were still human. "Thanks, John. Keep the change off that twenty, okay?"
"Got it!" John beamed at you and set off, and something churned in your stomach. Was John really that much lower than you, that you could say shit like that and pretend you had fucking noblesse oblige? What the fuck was wrong with you? It was a question you asked a lot, sure -- but in this specific case, what the fuck had gone wrong?
Once John was down the stairs and gone, you dragged yourself back inside, throwing the lock and bolts before you headed to the bathroom. Clean up, then change clothes, then go eat a hot meal and see what the fuck Ray wanted. Probably some dumbshit tweaker idea, but who the fuck cared? Maybe you could spare Ray a little time. Besides, you hadn't eaten a solid meal in... what, two days now? Pizza sounded good. Real good.
Carlie's apartment was on the third floor, on the half-floor chunk that you suspected the landlord reserved for non-deadbeats; inside it was the same shitty floor plan as your own place, but she'd arranged her furniture like she expected someone else to see it. It smelled nice -- like an air freshener, or maybe just like clean, you weren't sure. She'd laid out the pizza on her little coffee table: nothing special, just Gatti's, but you inhaled three slices before you even tasted it. You worked on the fourth slice as you listened to Ray talk.
There's this old Tom Waits song with a line about a sailor who "spends the facts of his life like small change on strangers"; Ray was like that, only with his dreams. He always had some new ambition he was eager to tell anyone in earshot about, at length and with digressions, and honestly you wondered how the fuck Carlie could stand him. Was it his money? He had a good job by Lakeside standards -- one of the light-industrial warehouses on the northside that paid cash under the table and didn't give a shit about his convictions -- but after the speed, how much could he be bringing home? What else could Ray have to offer someone like Carlie, who was sober, clean, holding her shit together? You were pretty sure she had a kid. Who the fuck wanted Ray around a kid? At least he'd showered, though, and gotten a haircut sometime in the last year -- was that Carlie's doing? Well, whatever. Not important, probably.
Ray was even more focused on the food than you, and by your count he polished off half a pizza and three red Solo cups full of Pepsi before he started in on his plans. "Okay, so, here's the thing. Carlie has this cousin, right, and he lives a while out of town, towards Waco, on this farm? Except it's not really a real working farm -- I mean, they have some gardens and stuff, but not a farm farm, you know? It's kind of more... shit, what do they call the places where hippies hang out? A commune? Yeah, a commune. Anyway, so I thought we could move out there, try and get clean."
As usual, it took you a minute to catch up to what Ray was saying, and even longer to try and understand it. "Wait, a commune? Outside of Waco? Ray, is this a goddamn cult?"
"Nah, nah! It's just like... it's a place people can go if they have problems in their life, you know? And take a little time and figure things out. You don't have to pay any money or go to church or anything. Carlie knows, right? Her cousin got into some trouble with his girlfriend a few months ago, it got real bad, and now he's just hanging out, recovering. He's not like a Satanist or anything now, right, Carlie?"
"Nah, he's fine," she said -- the first thing she said since she let you in, you realized. Around Ray, she was probably way too used to not getting a word in edgewise. "It's a nice place out there. Calm."
You couldn't shake the images of black robes and gore-slicked knives, but you decided to let it go for now; bizarrely enough, the threat of Satanism wasn't even in the top three questions on your mind right then. "Okay, so, let's say we go to this commune. What do we do from there? Just detox? Fuck, what are we gonna do for money?"
"Hey, it's only like an hour out of town," Ray replied. "If I get up early I can still pull my shifts at the warehouse, and I can drive you in if you wanna get up. If you don't -- shit, who cares? You've quit that gas-station job like five times because you just didn't give a shit about it, why not do it again? Like, they're not gonna let you go hungry out there. They're good people, or that's what Carlie says, and she's good people, so, y'know..."
"And nobody out there uses?" You let the question hang because the reasoning was obvious, you figured: if the plan was to get high, why move? Lakeside was comfortable. It had your stuff in it.
"Little booze, little weed, but nothing heavy. I'm serious, really; I wanna get clean."
And then it was time for the $64,000 question. "Why? Why now, Ray? I thought... shit, I dunno. I thought you were on a roll." You hadn't seen a lot of Ray lately besides his messages -- scrawled, cryptic, and worthless -- and you generally assumed that meant he was happy. Ray, like most of the addicts you've known, didn't like to change a working situation.
For a few seconds, Ray was quiet, and that spooked you. When he spoke, the steadiness in his voice spooked you more. "Carlie's pregnant. We talked about it, and we wanna keep it, try and make it work, but that means I gotta get clean. Get my shit together, you know? And it's not gonna happen if I stay here. I figured you might wanna give it a shot too."
Jesus fucking Christ, Ray knocked Carlie up. You half-knew this was going to happen, and for a second you wanted to scream at him that he was a dumb shithead, that they were both dumb shitheads if they were seriously going to bring a child into this -- but you didn't have the heart to do it. Christ, Ray was trying. When was the last time you saw Ray trying?
Your appetite was gone. "Okay," you said. "Okay. I'll think about it. When are you doing this?"
"We're moving out at the end of the month," Carlie said. "A week and a half's time. Think it over, okay? It'd mean a lot to Ray."
You guessed it probably would, weirdly enough. You and Ray had seen some shit together -- probably worse shit than cultists, really. "Give me a couple of days and I'll tell you guys," you said at last, hoping it would only take a couple of days. You stood up, headed towards the door, and of course they let you go. Ray always let you end a conversation, because you were the only one who could.
You took the stairs down to your place, and when you got there, a grocery bag sat by the door. You picked it up and it jingled, and when you glanced inside, you saw the glint of coinage next to the bread, peanut butter, and canned tuna that made up your "usual." Didn't you tell John to keep the change? Shit, he probably didn't remember. Whatever, more cash for you. You fumbled for your keys in your coat pocket, unlocked the door, and shuffled inside to lie down and think.
You lost a few days after that; it turned out your stash wasn't as empty as you thought, and you killed it. When you finally returned to the world, you weren't hungry, but you slammed a peanut-butter sandwich into your face to get yourself used to eating again. Once that was done, you slumped down on the dusty futon, trying to sort through your thoughts. A part of you wondered why you were still thinking about this at all; seriously, a farm? This was another idiotic Ray plan, and when had one of those worked out?
What was holding you here, though? This apartment? You glanced around, and it took you way too little time to take inventory. What did you even own? There was the futon, the one you hardly ever even slept on now, and then what? A closet full of shitty clothes, a cabinet full of shitty dishes, a half-used bar of soap and a couple little hotel shampoos in the bathroom, and an empty stash? The fact that the stash you'd just finished off would have been your most valuable possession in this apartment was enough to make you hate yourself a little more.
And then there was the footlocker, the one you kept chained with an old bike lock to the radiator across the room. More or less nothing in there was valuable on an objective level, but it was all the stuff you couldn't live without: your scrapbook, your photos, old letters. Somewhere in that pile were the pictures from the party you went to with your sister a few months before the accident, the one where you met Ray, and deeper than that is the kid stuff -- the moosehide-and-pony-bead bracelet your brother made you the first year your dad was stationed at Eielson, the ceramics-class projects you salvaged from your sister's room, who knows what else. There was shit in there you couldn't even remember, but the thought of being without it made you feel less than human. If you left, would you be able to take it with you? You decided to go find Ray and ask. Worth a shot, right?
There was a three-beat knock at the door, then four more beats, but you managed to be there to answer it before John got around to the last three beats. You were hoping for just another Ray note, but John looked serious -- never, ever a good sign. "Hey. Michael sent me to say he wants to see you."
Shit. Did you owe him money? You were pretty sure you were paid up, but... shit. "Okay, fine," you said before you dashed back inside to grab your coat and keys. The footlocker and the move would have to be set aside for now.
Michael had one of the bigger apartments on the second floor, an actual one-bedroom instead of your standard shitty studios, but inside you'd never know it. The place was cluttered with five trash-day curbs' worth of decrepit furniture, arranged to leave narrow walkways and little nests where you presumed Michael lived. You never asked why Michael decided to surround himself with broken flat-pack bookshelves and ancient couches, but if you'd had to guess, you would have assumed it had something to do with search paranoia. Hard for police to go through all that shit looking for his hidey holes, right?
He led you through to what you've always thought of as the "throne room," a little area with a half-decent armchair and a less-decent couch. It's where Michael usually dealt from, and for a second there you thought about asking him what he had in your price range that might be interesting, but it wasn't like you weren't already in enough shit. Besides, your "price range" was like five bucks, and even someone as small-time as Michael wasn't going to have a lot for you. You sat down on the couch, trying not to look too nervous, and Michael took his usual place in the armchair. "So," he said, in the wavery, artificially-deep voice you thought he associated with professionalism. "I hear you and Ray are planning something."
Wait, so this was about that? Well, that meant money was off the table, at least; if you owed Michael money, he never failed to lead with that. You leaned forward, relief probably too audible in your voice. "Ray is planning something," you replied. "I'm just thinking about whether to join him."
"You're not really considering leaving, are you? You'll be very missed. People really look up to you here."
The problem with Michael -- well, the biggest problem with Michael -- was that he believed his own bullshit, every fucking time, even when it made no sense. Who the fuck could possibly look up to you at Lakeside View? The steady stream of new arrivals, all frightened, strung-out kids who were gone so fast you didn't even bother learning their names anymore? (You were only twenty-four yourself, but they were still kids, dammit. That was the worst part.) John, who'd built a life out of being the errand boy for anyone who threw him a dollar or a bump? You sure as fuck knew Michael didn't look up to you. The only person who'd known you while you were human was Ray, and he was the one offering the ticket out.
You didn't say that, though; you still hadn't made up your mind, and you didn't want to burn bridges with your supplier if you didn't have to. "I guess so," you said, lying through your teeth -- hardly the first time you'd lied to Michael. "I'm thinking about it, but it's a hard decision."
"D'you want something to take the edge off? I got some oxy in. You can owe me."
The last thing you wanted to do then was to owe Michael anything, even if oxy sounded pretty good. "I'll be okay. Look, I can't promise you anything, but if I'm still here in a week's time, I'll probably be here for good." It was a threat to yourself, you realized, as much as it was a promise to Michael, but he still grinned. Christ, for as much money as he made off of Lakeside, he had seriously bad teeth.
"I'm glad to hear it. Seriously, can't I offer you anything? I know you're good for it."
You weren't, and you were half-tempted to take him up on his offer, grab as much as you could, and beat it -- but the point was to clean up, and if you were going to do this, you were going to do it honestly. "Seriously, it's okay. Thanks. Uh, do you need me for anything else?"
"That's it. Stay safe, okay? And I hope to see you soon." Michael rose to see you out, but you did it on your own, dodging and weaving down the furniture-path until you were finally out the door. Jesus fucking Christ, you were done -- done with Michael, done with all of this. You weren't sure about this farm commune, but at this point you'd rather have been growing rutabagas and sacrificing chickens than possibly stepping foot in Michael's apartment again.
It was time to go pack. It wouldn't take long.
The meetup was at 2 AM. Carlie's cousin had a van, thank God, and he didn't show up with a Bowie knife and a blood-covered apron, so you figured you were good to go. You'd managed to fit everything you owned worth keeping into your footlocker, and it fit easily enough in the back; it was lighter than you were comfortable thinking about. Ray threw in his two duffel bags, the cousin closed up the back of the van, and Carlie stood in the dim glow of the parking-lot lights, watching. Ray jogged over to hug her goodbye, but you'd both climbed in before you could ask him what the Hell was up. "I thought she was coming with us?"
"Nah, nah, she's gonna try to hold down the apartment. Besides, she can't miss work, you know, and we like never work the same shifts, so..." Ray shrugged. "It'll be fine."
It was the beginning of Ray's plan disintegrating, like Ray's plans always did, but as the van pulled out onto the near-deserted late-night streets, you didn't care. Fuck it, you were doing this. You were saying goodbye to the ghosts of that fucking building once and for all. This farm thing was going to be a disaster, you fucking knew it, but at least it would be a new disaster.
Could you see them then, the ghosts of all your lost nights in Lakeside, reflected in the van's rear-view mirror? Could you see the future -- the farm, Stan, Kate, the gradually brightening days to come -- like mirages in the darkness of the hill country as you rode through the night? Sometimes, these days, you swear you could, but you know it's more likely you just slept and dreamed. You never did believe in ghosts, even after you learned all about living death.
You crack open Ray's card at last. It's nicer cardstock than you expected, with purple foil-embossed letters indicating that you're invited to graduation from somewhere called the "Liberal Arts and Sciences Academy." You stop gawking at the jaguar-festooned coat of arms long enough to open the card. Tucked inside is a picture and a name card: Shondra Leigh Hernandez. Of course. It's been long enough, Ray's kid would be graduating, wouldn't she?
You take a look at the picture, trying to recognize the child you last saw as a chubby toddler, waving bye-bye as hard as she could as you and Kate set off on your great exodus. She hasn't exactly grown up pretty -- a little too much Ray in the face, you think -- but you can see that toddler in the smiling young woman in cap and gown. She's got braces, and a little gold locket glints at her neckline. You never thought Ray would have a kid at all, but you definitely never thought he'd have a kid with braces and gold jewelry. Time works strange miracles.
Stuck behind the picture is a note, and you pull it out and unfold it. Ray's handwriting is immediately familiar, even if he's tried harder on his grammar and his lowercase letters:
It's been forever, I know. I got your address from Stan, hope you don't mind. Figured you'd wanna know about Shondra graduating! She's going to UT in the fall, too. Full ride. Smart kid!
If you can make it, it'd be great to see you. Kate's invited too, of course. Stan says you're still together? And have kids? I kinda assumed you wouldn't have kids, especially since all the shit with you and Leah and your parents, but it's all good. Bring everyone down and we can do some touristy stuff and have dinner or something. Austin's pretty touristy these days. I kinda miss the grime but it's good for the kids, you know?
Call me and let me know if you're coming, okay? Number's on the back.
Somehow you doubt Austin's gotten that much more touristy -- that's an accusation that's been flying around since before you even rolled into town -- but if it's good for the kids, that's good. You can't even be insulted that Ray's surprised you and Kate have held it down and built a family, because a part of you is still shocked that both you and Ray made it to 30, let alone here. Now you're holding a nice cream-colored invitation to his daughter's graduation, your kids are rambling around in the suburban twilight, and you're both still alive to see it. That's basically a miracle, as far as you're concerned.
You've got some vacation days saved up; you're not sure how Kate's doing, but you imagine she can find the time, too. Maybe you'll take the kids to the capitol or something -- Hell, you could drive up to Waco and see Stan, while you're at it. As long as you stick to the brightly-lit places, you should be all right. There are parts of your time at Lakeside View that you've still never told Kate about, and you definitely don't want those conversations to happen on vacation.
One day, you know, you'll have to tell her everything: those long nights on the kitchen floor, the days you spent with Ray and who knows how many dead kids, the wreckage you left in your wake. That day doesn't have to be soon, though. You can swallow the past and spend a few nice days in June with your favorite ex-tweaker and the kid whose conception saved your life. You can tell yourself the old lie that the past is past, and you can keep saying it until it's true. You'll go get ice cream on the capitol steps and be happy.
It's a beautiful spring day, and you're alive. Lakeside has no power over you. The past is gone. Say it enough times, like a mantra, and it might just come true.