Rendezvous with Sula Prime
My wife doesn’t want me to write any of this down. But that’s probably just because of where it starts: with the wife before her, Muriel, who was herself pretty much just a replacement of my first wife and true love, Candace.
Since Candace was from my junior year of high school, she wasn’t a stand-in for anybody. If she was anything, she was a girl I’d shaped from my dreams, equal parts movie and magazine, but somehow pure.
My current wife is Janie.
Where she found me was in the parking lot of a truck stop in Arizona. I was standing in the endless sea of pumps, just one rig out there, its running lights dull they were so far away.
Janie touched me on the elbow.
What she wanted was the coffee cup I’d carried out the door with me.
“Lose your balloon?” she said, nodding up to the sky. It was where I was looking.
I smiled, didn’t lower my face.
“You know that guy?” I asked, lifting my cup to finish my coffee.
When Janie didn’t answer I wiped my mouth and turned to her, to see if she’d heard.
“Ted,” I told her, nodding inside.
She looked to all the plate glass then back to me, and the reason I asked her to marry me two years later, I think, was that not asking her would feel like a betrayal. She’d got it in her mind that I was coming back every weekend for her, I mean.
We’re good together though, too, don’t get me wrong.
Her waitress skills are more than enough to keep the books for what little veterinary work I do anymore, and in the mornings I make the coffee and bring it out to the porch for us and we watch the horses together and I count them in my head.
Who knows. We might make it all the way, me and Janie.
Maybe that’s the secret—you start out on the wrong foot, with a misunderstanding, and then you hold onto each other just to keep from falling down, and pretty soon, a few years later, you’re in stride together, holding hands, pulling each other across the rough ground. Not alone anymore.
Except, some mornings when I’m the porch before her, I look across the ancient landscape of Arizona, the sun painting reds and pinks on all the rocks, and I know that it could have been another way too.
All those times, going back to the truck stop weekend after weekend, it wasn’t for Janie. Some nights she wasn’t even there.
It was for Ted.
That’s what I call him anyway.
The only time I ever saw him was two weeks after Muriel had left me. To say I was in a hole I’d dug myself is to put it mildly. I’ll try not to bore you with the details either, as I’m sure you’ve sat through a soap opera at one time or another.
It’s enough to say that she wasn’t Candace, and so had always had one strike against her.
The bad thing was, I’d figured that out, too, after three years of her saying it to me in every way she knew. How I wasn’t just messing up my life, but somebody else’s as well.
The first week of thinking about it I went to work every day and sleepwalked through the office visits, the dogs and cats and lizards in the consultation rooms, the horses in their trailers, the cattle I had to drive out to myself, at eight cents a mile.
The second week I started falling away, though. When I placed my hand on a dog’s neck to pinch up some skin to inject, the skin felt more like clay than anything living. But it wasn’t the animals. It was me—like I was wearing gloves all the time, but on my eyes too, and my thoughts. By Wednesday I had a sign on the front door directing people to my friend Mick, who probably didn’t need the business but got it anyway.
By Friday I was in my truck. Just driving.
I told myself things like This is what you went to school twelve years for and You should have just gone and gotten the cigarettes yourself. The world would be a lot happier then. If the milk truck had slammed into me instead of Candace.
But it hadn’t, of course, and now I was floating away from one thing, probably about to fall into another. It didn’t matter if my eyes were closed or open, really.
And, though Janie claims to remember the first time she saw me, the brass bell of the truck stop clanging against the door over my head, I don’t remember her until the parking lot. Even though she’d brought me eggs and bacon and, all told, three cups of coffee.
It’s because of Ted that I don’t remember, yeah.
When he sat into the booth opposite me, everything changed.
Or, it almost did.
But that’s the story of my life.
He waited until I looked up to him to speak. It was a good thirty seconds. I’ve been in enough truck stops to know that anybody who approaches you, it’s probably not to just give you something. Not unless you have money, of course. Or a spare seat.
But Ted was different.
First—and I saw this right off, in spite of how unobservant Janie likes to tell everybody I am—was his shirt, and his hat. They were mine. Just like them.
To be sure, I leaned over, to see my jeans on his legs. My boots. It was like someone had slid a mirror across from me instead of a man.
I came back up. The only thing different was the face.
“What are the chances, right?” he said.
I chewed my eggs, swallowed them.
“Guess I’m waiting for somebody here,” I finally told him.
“I’ve been waiting too,” he said, like he was thrilled that I’d given him the chance to say that. “You,” he added, and, as if suspicious, “Is that breakfast?”
I held up a forkful of eggs to inspect, said, “Their estimation of it, I suppose.”
“But it’s not morning . . . ” he whispered, in a voice you use for secrets when you’re ten years old. “I thought meals here were, um . . . regimented.”
I chewed my eggs, raised my cup for more coffee.
“Hun?” the waitress I didn’t know was Janie said to me, and the visitor held his hand up, palm out, his fingers tight against each other, almost military.
He’s imitating something he saw, I told myself, then studied my plate instead.
Just like he’d wanted, the waitress had stopped talking.
“You’re a cat doctor,” he said then, once we were alone.
“Listen,” I told him, dropping my crumpled napkin into my plate and pushing the whole affair away, “I don’t know who you think I am here—”
He interrupted with my full name, and birth date, his voice eager.
“So you know I’m a vet,” I said, hooking my head out to the parking lot. “It says so on my truck.”
“And you’re between right now,” he said, like this too was a secret.
“Between?” I repeated. “This is—we’re halfway to Scottsdale, yeah.”
The visitor smiled, set both of his hands on the surface of the table.
“Right now,” he said, “and you know this, I wouldn’t be here if you didn’t, right now you could disappear from this diner and from everything else, and never come back, and nothing would change.”
“It’s a truck stop,” I corrected. “Not a diner.”
“A revolver,” he leaned forward to say. “Not a pistol.”
It was a distinction my father had always insisted upon when I was young and learning guns.
I’d been thinking of it on the road because there was a loaded revolver in the glove compartment of my truck.
The watchdogs being what they were, I couldn’t use it on injured horses myself, but I could loan it to friends or clients or whomever, to save them the cost of an injection. Just because it was faster, and, I thought, just as humane. More important, it closed the circles better, I’d always thought. Put the life back in the owner’s hands.
I was just staring at the visitor now.
Not a muscle moved on his face.
The reason I was out here, though, where there was nobody else, was specifically because I’d been thinking of that revolver, and about circles, drawing themselves closed after forty-two years.
It was just luck that I’d decided to stop for a cup of coffee, I suppose.
But I think he’d have found me anyway.
I pushed away from the table, went to the bathroom, washed my face and dried it. I’d left my hat on the table to let the waitress know I wasn’t gone.
I came back a few minutes later, sat down in my place.
“But you know cats,” he said.
“Why?” I asked. “You got a sick one?”
He just stared at me. “If one were dying, I mean, you could probably save it.”
“Depends if we’re talking injury or disease.”
“How much you willing to spend?”
He smiled, his first real expression, but kept his hands in plain sight.
“I wouldn’t have come to you if you weren’t between,” he said then, holding my eyes with his.
“Worlds, Mr. Sam.”
It was a name an Asian launderer might call me if we were in a Western.
“I don’t follow,” I finally said.
“You haven’t decided to do it yet,” he said. “And you haven’t decided not to either.”
He held his pistol finger deadcenter to his forehead. Instead of his temple.
It would have been stupid, except that’s where I told everybody I loaned my gun to aim.
I stared at this guy, this visitor, my hands on the table now as well.
“You don’t know anything about me,” I said.
“You fix cats,” he said back.
“And I’m ‘between.’”
He nodded. Like this was a real conversation we were having here.
“Perhaps you need more information to decide,” he said, after neither of us had said anything for a bit.
“Whether to help or not.”
I blew a laugh through my nose, looked away, into the parking lot.
“Yeah,” I said, “perhaps.”
I don’t think he heard the joke in my voice.
“It’s not a question of payment,” he started, “or of transportation. That’s all perfectly easy and already in place. Maybe we should just start with the cat.”
“Or who you are, say.”
“I’m what you would call a gamekeeper, Mr. Sam.”
“It’s just Sam. Then—I take it we’re not talking a house cat here, right?”
He acknowledged that with a nod.
“And,” I went on, “what you’re going to tell me is that it’s after hours, you need somebody right away, not tomorrow morning.”
“And you’ve already said money isn’t an issue. Which I heard, don’t get me wrong. But I wonder if it’s enough? I mean, if you don’t even have a name. What this tells me is that your cat doesn’t have papers, is probably an exotic, and can get my license pulled.”
“You weren’t worried about your license when you walked in here.”
“I’m just talking what-if here.”
He nodded. “Cat fixers don’t go between very often, Mr. Sam. You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting for this exact moment.”
“When I tell you no?”
“When I ask you if you’ve ever seen an atrox.”
I rubbed a spot on my forehead, closed my eyes because this conversation was starting to hurt.
“Don’t think they’re really ‘between’ anymore,” I said, smiling a little. “They’re kind of dead and gone.”
He grinned, his fingers spreading slightly on the table.
“Then you haven’t seen one.”
“Just the same way everybody else has,” I told him. “In the books. From the tar pits.”
“But your people—I’m sorry. You haven’t bred any back, I mean?”
I shook my head no.
Panthera atrox is Latin for ‘terrible panther,’ where ‘panther’ really means ‘lion.’ It’s just that, when you go back far enough, lions and tigers aren’t so easy to tease apart. So ‘panther’ covers them both.
I’d seen P. atrox in the books, though, yeah.
The sketches based on recovered skeletons suggested a cat that could offer an African lion shade. And, unlike its European self, the cave lion, the American didn’t have any rock paintings to indicate whether it had been maned and tufted or striped, or both.
What always got P. atrox noted in the textbooks wasn’t its size, though, but its braincase.
Going strictly by skull volume set against total body mass, P. atrox was maybe the most intelligent cat that had ever lived.
And nobody called it ‘atrox,’ either. Not unless you had a spread of, say, Smilodon and P. atrox bones on the table, and were trying to separate them into two piles: sabre-tooth and American lion. Which wouldn’t be that hard a process, really—not as hard as teasing P. atrox from P. leo spelaea: the American lion, enough its own species that it doesn’t carry the ‘leo’ anymore, and the European cave lion. The problem there would be that P. atrox was P. leo spelaea more or less, a cave lion that had followed game across Beringia and then, for some reason—climate? terrain? prey? predation?—developed a slightly bigger brain.
At least the ones stupid enough to step into the tar pits had had a bigger brain.
What this guy sitting across from me was suggesting, though, was that there’d been ones smart enough to stay away from the pits, too. To slip ‘between’ and just keep on living, invisible.
And, not only that, but he had one. Alive enough to be sick.
I laid a ten by my plate, stood to leave.
Before I could walk all the way off, the guy, the visitor—Ted—had my wrist in his hand.
I jerked away, told myself to breathe once before doing anything, but then, because we were making contact, I think, and maybe because I wasn’t looking at him so much, but to the side, so that his reflection in the plate glass was in my field of view, I saw him as he really maybe was.
He wasn’t wearing clothes like mine.
And he was half again as tall.
And not human. The scales, the pupils, the ridges. The mouth.
I turned from the reflection to him and he nodded once, his lips thin like he hadn’t wanted this to happen.
“Who are you?” I said, with less push than before.
He pulled me close and spit it out, whatever he was. Or maybe his name. I don’t know.
It started with a T-sound anyway, I was pretty sure.
I lowered myself back into the booth.
After that he just stared at me. What we were waiting for was my heart to stop punishing the backside of my chest. For a moment I was sure I was going to throw up.
My best explanation for what I’d seen in the glass, and what I’d heard him say, was that I’d already found my side road out in the desert, and placed my father’s revolver to the bridge of my nose, angled it up so the exit wound would be the whole top of my head.
Maybe this truck stop was ‘between,’ like he kept saying. Halfway between suicide and hell.
Except I didn’t feel dead.
“You’re not,” Ted said, across from me.
I rolled my eyes up to him.
He was just a man again. In clothes exactly like mine. I’d been his model for what would fit in, after all. What wouldn’t draw attention.
He said it again: “We wouldn’t be here if you were . . . what you say.”
“If that’s the term you prefer.”
“But—but I could disappear right now and nothing would change . . . ” I said, quoting him.
“Or you could go back too.”
“I just want to borrow you,” he said, the impatience in his voice rising a bit now. “Buy your services, is that how you say it?”
I stared at him a long time, trying to find shelves in my mind to arrange all this on. Finally I said it, the most obvious thing: “Panthera atrox died out with the megafauna.”
Ted smiled, leaned forward, his hands under his chin now, his grin not as pleasant as I wanted. More like tolerant, I suppose.
“What would it take, Mr. Sam?”
“To come with me.”
I took a long drink on my cold coffee, tried to study the situation from every angle.
“How far away are we talking?”
“How far . . .?”
“Where is this place you want to take me,” I clarified.
He nodded that he understood now, then leaned back from the table. “Closer than you think,” he said.
“So it’s got a name then?”
His eyes settled on me but didn’t focus. Like he was concentrating.
“Sula,” he said, hitting each letter. “Sula Prime.”
I looked away from him, out at all the pump islands.
At the counter Janie was folding napkins around forks and waiting for that brass bell above the door to ring, and, according to her, falling in love with me from first sight.
The way she paints it, it was romantic, me just sitting there alone, looking out at the Arizona night like it held something for me.
My hands were shaking, though.
“Okay,” I said to Ted at last. “But show me first.”
I don’t know what I was expecting, really. Was P. Atrox supposed to materialize, sick, in the next booth? Was Ted supposed to have some kind of viewer I could look into? A picture postcard, his arm looped over the atrox’s neck?
“Well?” I said, and he tilted his head outside, as if in defeat.
Backed up to the sidewalk just past our window, like it had been there the whole time, was a rusted-out two-horse trailer with a hogwire roof.
Because I’d tacked that hogwire on myself, I didn’t have to peer around the side of the trailer to know that the wheels didn’t match. One was chrome spoke, from a kid’s wrecked car, and one was just white.
I also didn’t have to look to know what was pulling it—a 1968 three-quarter ton Ford—but did anyway. The instant I saw that ragged wheel flare though, I came back to the booth, shook my head no.
For a long time I didn’t say anything and Ted didn’t say anything.
Every time I blinked, I was seeing that wheel flare again.
Finally I stirred my coffee, licked my lips, tried testing my voice to make sure it wasn’t going to crack but then just went on anyway.
“You shouldn’t have used that truck,” I said.
Ted’s face crinkled up a bit in question.
“You’re using stuff from—from my head, I know,” I told him, “can’t show me anything new unless you have to, something like that. But that’s the truck my wife . . .” I closed my eyes, said the rest in the dark: “It was destroyed in the wreck. That’s what I’m saying.”
“There are—” Ted started, then stopped himself, as if searching for just the right word. “You’re right. There are rules you don’t know about, but are going to have to accept as binding nevertheless. Like what you refer to as gravity. It constrains you whether you know about it or not. Or, just—let me say it like this. There are ways that things are done, and they’ve been done that way for so long that that’s the only way they can be done anymore. I can say that much. I’m sorry for the . . . the association, but there’s no other way.”
“I’m just saying I know that truck isn’t around anymore.”
“The same way you know atrox isn’t around anymore.”
I smiled. “What I mean,” I said, “is that anything that truck’s pulling can’t be real either. And anything inside that trailer.”
Ted nodded about this, shrugged, and then, starting in the seats but spreading to the table and the floor and the plate glass so thin beside us, the whole truck stop started to tremble. Slow, like some massive door opening up for the first time in years, with a bit too much space between each creak. Like an alive thing, just drawing it out on purpose. The sound you can make with your throat, gargling air.
And it was coming from the horse trailer.
P. atrox had roared, and was still roaring. In pain, and in anger, and in loneliness—it was more than I could take.
My mouth opened and closed, and I think maybe my ears popped.
The waitresses at the counter ten feet away were still polishing and folding and stacking, oblivious to how everything was shaking around them.
“They don’t know what an atrox is,” Ted said.
The surface of my coffee was rippling from the sound.
I stared at it and smiled and then started laughing, inside at first but it spilled over more and more. Janie doesn’t remember it but I know I was just sitting there, chuckling with my lips shut, tears in my eyes.
Ted cocked his head over, waited it out.
“This is an emotional response,” he said.
I looked at the trailer some more. The farm tags on it were twenty years out of date.
I kept waiting for it to shimmer in the wind, maybe fade a bit so I could see the pumps through it, but it never did.
Ted was still staring at me.
“I’ve waited a long time for this,” he said.
It was the beginning of his closing pitch, I could tell.
I drank some more of my coffee, held it in my mouth because it was so cold now. I thought it might wake me up. It didn’t.
“Listen,” I told him finally. “I think maybe you’ve got the wrong guy here. I’m a horse guy, really. I just do pets to pay the bills. I’ve seen exactly one lion in my life. It was on a table at a zoo, knocked out.”
“But you have the training to make a diagnosis,” he said, leaning forward for emphasis. “And you’re—you’re in the right place.”
He nodded once. I shook my head no.
“Suppose this is all real then,” I said. “How do you go about getting a Panthera atrox in this day and age?”
“You don’t need to know that to fix it,” he hissed, catching my tone better than I would have given him credit for.
“To make this happen, I need to know,” I said, shrugging a weak apology.
He curled his top lip a little, looked out at the trailer himself.
“There are rules about this too,” he said. “You don’t even know what you’re asking.”
“I don’t really have to be anywhere.”
Ted covered his mouth like he was hiding a smile. “The rest of your life wouldn’t be enough for even the beginning of the first part of it,” he said.
“So, what?” I said. “It’s a thirty minute story?” I held my cup up to show it to him. “I only meant to stop for one, right? Unless I’m mistaken, that’s what—what makes my services available.”
With his eyebrows and lips, Ted acknowledged this. It was a very human gesture.
“It’s not foregone yet, though,” he said, nodding all the same. “What you were considering. Otherwise I couldn’t be here. It’s a delicate situation, Mr. Sam. More delicate than you can possibly know.”
I rubbed a spot on my forehead then studied my fingertip, like I’d expected a bug to be there on my skin, squashed.
“And it’s just getting sicker, right?” I said, flicking my eyes up to him then out to the horse trailer.
Ted lowered his face and closed his eyes, clamped his temples with the thumb and forefinger of his right hand.
“Listen, if you don’t want to tell me—” I started. It was the beginning of a fake goodbye; a tactic. Anybody would know that. Ted didn’t call my bluff though. Instead, moving slow, he lowered his hand from his face, regarded me.
“Would that the choice were mine,” he said, then dragged his eyes away from my face, as if he were feeling sorry for me.
After a long spell in the bathroom, Ted came back to the booth. While he’d been gone, Janie had collected my plate, asked where I was heading.
I don’t know what I told her, and she doesn’t remember either. Because of Ted, I think.
He did something to her, I’m pretty sure. Maybe just by being there, I mean.
The reason I think this is that, while he was there, she acknowledged his presence, sort of. Like he was really in that booth across me. But then as soon as he walked out, he was gone from her memory as well, like he’d never been.
This is what we do with impossible things, I think. Forget them.
Except that’s precisely why I remember. Precisely why I’m still here.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Though Ted never spelled it out for me, I think that like everything else that night, the way he told me what he told me had to do with the revolver in my glove compartment. Instead of just saying it straight, he had to mash up a lot of different versions, just to be sure that nothing he told me was going to nudge me one way or the other, to my glove compartment or away. It wasn’t because he cared for me either, I don’t think. If he’d nudged me one way or the other, I wouldn’t be what he called ‘between’ anymore, and couldn’t help his cat.
He blinked once, long, and then started, his voice like a growl, every word measured and weighed beforehand. In the bathroom most likely.
The first way he told it was that felidae—felines, cats—they were a rare and beautiful thing, so rare that, to keep this area safe from daily intrusions, a few representative specimens had been spirited away, relocated to an area where breaches wouldn’t matter.
“And no, they’re not restrained, Mr. Sam,” he added, in response to what I was thinking. “Who could restrain an atrox?”
“But you care for them, feed them.”
“Atrox are sufficient unto themselves. I only manage.”
“So they’re not domestic—they hunt to eat.”
“And are in turn hunted themselves, to mark certain events.”
This stopped me. I studied his (my) shirt, said, “Then this is how it’s injured.”
He laughed, looked past me as if confirming what I’d just said with someone else.
“A royal hunt is a form of communion, as I’m sure you understand. The most sincere form of worship, a one-becoming with another mind.”
He smiled, leaned forward. “Or maybe it just looks like communion. Perhaps, over the millennia, atrox has developed the ability to project an avatar, me, to procure medical assistance in times of need.”
“Then you’re not really here.”
“More like I’m not what you think I am.”
I sat back, watched the restroom door, then the payphone.
“What makes them so special?” I said, finally, trying to backpedal some. “Felidae?”
“It’s not their bodies that make them cats,” Ted said, in the voice you might save for a child. “It’s their—it’s how they exist.”
It was his turn to look away now. Raise his lip again.
“So Sula Prime, this area they’re in now,” I said. “It must be between as well.”
“Your Earth,” he said, coming back to me, his eyes hot. “It’s Sula Prime, Mr. Sam.”
“Then you don’t have to take me anywhere.”
“Correct. You just need to come with me.”
He was just staring at me again.
“Imagine a . . . a place, if you have to call it that,” he said, “a place remote from where you are now but also congruent with it. A place where a pride of atrox developed and sustained that most rare of genetic mutations, sentience, but then starved to death when their prey died out. Can you imagine what it must have been like for them, to be burdened with the knowledge of what they were, and to know that they were about to be over?”
I digested this for maybe fifteen seconds.
“You’re talking about the horses dying out,” I said. In P. atrox’s day, the American horse had been its choice prey. “But they didn’t have to starve. I mean, you manage them, you know what they can do. There were Giant Bison, and deer, and—”
“None of which had a pituitary gland quite like your primitive horse. Not that it knew what to do with it.” He smiled. “Or what it tasted like to them.”
I stared at him, waiting for a rogue cheek muscle, an eye tic.
“This pride,” he said then. “Wouldn’t you save them, if you could? Let them—let them develop as they were meant to?”
My heart was pounding again.
“Or,” he went on, “what if there were a . . . what if that pride of atrox had been isolated for their own good but then left alone too long, so that they became a legitimate threat to many areas up and down the—?” He clipped his question short, started over. “Wouldn’t it make sense to go back, see where they were in their infancy, before their eyes were truly opened?”
I was watching my hands on the table now. The spaces between my fingers.
“Only it might not want to go with you,” I said. “It might get injured.”
“Or sick from the journey.”
I looked to the trailer again. Through the metal slats of the back gate I could sense it watching me, could tell when it had spun around to pace back to the rounded nose of the trailer.
Maybe I had killed myself already, I thought.
Maybe the heaven of animal doctors was a series of extinct animals, each in need of veterinary assistance.
Ted was shaking his head no, though. Smiling behind his hand about this.
“I can think whatever I want,” I told him.
“No,” he said. “You can’t.”
I exhaled through my nose, as close as I could come to a laugh right then, and realized that Hell for animal doctors would be the same thing, pretty much. Except, there, I wouldn’t be able to save any of the beautiful creatures. There, every cut I made, no matter how precise, still the animals would bleed out, and they would each be the very last one of their kind. And look at me like they knew it.
“What if I can’t save it?” I said.
Ted just stared at me.
If he’d have said ‘Then the great experiment is over’ in his regal voice, I would have stood then, I think, gone with him. The same as if he’d said it was just one lion of many, then I could have shrugged, ordered an omelet.
There was no way to say them both, though.
“It has to be your decision,” he said.
I nodded, swallowed, then reached down to the seat for my hat, to step outside with him, lean into this thing, whatever it was.
This is why I remember this night, and Janie doesn’t.
What happened next was at least as impossible as a P. atrox.
As I was standing, I looked up to the horse trailer again, just to see if there was any fur between the slats, but I had a different angle now, could see further down the side of the trailer, along the passenger side of the truck, to the tall rectangle of a mirror I’d mounted myself.
Framed in it at the wheel, looking back at me like she’d been caught, was Candace.
She opened her mouth to say something but Ted’s large reptilian hand slammed onto the glass hard enough that Janie even remembers looking over.
What she thought was that I’d fallen asleep in my booth, slumped into the window after thirty-six hours on the road.
All I was doing was standing there though, still half in the booth, the crown of my hat in my fingers, the hat partway to my head.
Slowly, I lowered it back to the table, then sat down hard behind it.
Across from me Ted sighed, lowered his hand from the glass.
“Is that really her?” I whispered to him. If I talked too loud I would break the spell, I was sure. I didn’t want to wake up anymore.
Ted nodded, didn’t look up.
“She was—to find you in time . . . The window was small, and she was the only way. There are still . . . what you would call lines, I think, between the two of you. I can’t explain it any better than that.”
“But she’s . . . she’s not dead.”
Ted looked at his hand where it had touched the glass then turned it out for me to see. The palm was his real skin now, kind of. The human was gone anyway.
“What’s happening?” I said, but before Ted could say anything, Janie, suddenly beside us with a coffee pot, yelped a little, splashed coffee down onto the table. She’d seen something in the glass, I knew. Just for an instant.
Ted closed his hand into a fist, looked hard to me. Like I was supposed to save him here.
I understood, tilted my hat over so the felt brim could touch the spilled coffee.
Janie was on it in a flash, keeping it safe. Using her apron to pat the coffee away.
I waved away her apologies, even managed to float my coffee cup around as she filled it, in play. Just to keep her eyes there instead of on Ted, or the horse trailer.
As to what we said, if anything, I don’t recall.
If Janie wants to remember it as flirting, though, then that’s what it was. But in my head, pulsing, my heartbeat, was Can-dace, Can-dace.
“Thank you,” Ted said a few moments later.
“She can see you,” I said back, tilting my head to Janie.
“I have to be careful now.” To show what he meant he held his balled hand up. When he looked at it he winced like it had been burned.
I nodded, kept my head down but couldn’t help leaning back, to look down along the side of the trailer again.
The mirror was angled in now, though.
Unless I was standing right at the bed of the truck, I couldn’t use it to see behind the wheel anymore.
Ted was waiting when I came to back to him.
“It’s her,” I said. “I saw.”
He conceded this.
I started to stand again, to rush out there, but Ted had my wrist in his burned hand.
“What?” I said, trying to shake loose.
“Not yet,” he said.
I laughed about this, pulled harder, but it was useless.
I have no idea what this looked like to Janie, either. That was Candace out there, though. My wife, the first girl I’d ever loved, that I’d never even got to say goodbye to. The reason I was where I was.
“This is my fault,” Ted said, and hooked his chin outside, to the idea of Candace. “I overstepped. But any system moves toward equilibrium. You know this. You push, and the world pushes back.”
I stopped pulling against him, sat back down.
He thanked me with a curt nod.
“Seeing her is a . . . a correction,” he said, shrugging like this was as close as he could come to telling me without being corrected again.
“I know,” I said, “she was never supposed to die.”
Ted closed his eyes in something like amusement, opened them again to study the trailer. Or whatever it looked like to him.
“The atrox,” he said. “Have you decided?”
“I’ll breathe for it if I have to,” I said back, my hand still on my hat, my heels not touching the ground.
Ted laughed a breath out.
“And how do you know I’m not just this animal’s feeder? That—that the hormones making you . . . that the chemistry leading you to your revolver, that it doesn’t flush through your own limbic system in a way that makes you for the moment similar to the primitive horse atrox once knew? Perhaps you’re a delicacy, Mr. Sam. Perhaps I’m there before every suicide.”
“You’re asking do I care if you’re just leading me out for that thing to eat me, right?”
“No,” I told him. “Let it.”
He held my eyes for about ten seconds then, and, looking back, I think I understand what he was doing, asking me that. He was correcting the correction. To make up for him telling me too much, I’d been allowed to see Candace before I was supposed to. But that pushed me one way, not the other—away from that glove compartment. What that meant for him, and for the P. atrox, was that I was moving away from being between. So he had to nudge me back. Just, like everything else, he had to do it indirectly. Like there was no push at all, really, but a steady, inexorable pull.
Either that or seeing Candace got my pituitary gland all bitter with hope, and he had to get that tamped down before letting me near the trailer.
I really and truly did not care, though.
Whether it was a gun turning my lights out once and for all or a lion, it was going to be dark.
Ted was just looking at me now.
“Well?” I said, my fingertips on the table, ready to push off.
“If you—if you do this,” he said, his burned hand suddenly an iron cuff around my wrist again, his tone reverential almost, “to have an atrox in your debt is to have anything, Mr. Sam. The way they exist, I mean. It allows them certain, unique opportunities.”
I looked to the trailer again, unable not to, desperate for that mirror to be angled out just the right amount again. It wasn’t, but I took that as a positive sign anyway. It being turned in meant Candace was real enough to touch things, to push and pull them.
“A wish,” said, almost whispering again. “Right? And I’ve already made it?”
“If you say so. But not the way you think. If she steps out of that truck, into this area—”
“I think you know that too. In this area, where we are now, she’s . . . different.”
“It would be like the night of the wreck, yes. The world would correct itself.”
I looked to the mirror again, in disbelief. Except it hurt worse.
“Then what?” I said, my voice hardly making it across the table, I knew.
“You can choose to be paid in years.”
I studied the payphone again, and the two stools at the end of the counter. Janie polishing something down there, her hand in the rag going in tight, unconcerned circles. It reminded me of my mother somehow.
A napkin dispenser. She was polishing a chrome napkin dispenser. And then she sat it back down.
“Years?” I finally said, settling back on Ted.
“Twenty,” he said back. “How it would work is this. You would get into the truck with her and drive away, into nineteen seventy-six, and never know any of this.”
“Before the wreck.”
Ted nodded, watching me close.
“But I have to fix the—the lion first, right?”
“And what if I can’t?”
“I wouldn’t be here if you couldn’t.”
His voice was so even, so serene.
“Breathe,” he said, when I wasn’t.
I did, deep, and then the truck outside started, the right tail light of the trailer glowing red, the left one dark, still wired bad.
“We’re running out of time,” he said.
I opened my mouth to say something, I don’t know what, but cried a little, I think. Like, just from my throat. It’s the only way I knew to anymore.
“I’ve got to—” I said, and pulled myself up, pointed with my chin to the bathroom.
Ted looked up to me and saw the bathroom window I was trying not to think about, I’m pretty sure. How I could just sneak around front, unhook the trailer, and ease the truck away, drive off into some perfect future.
He shook his head no, nodded for me to sit back down.
I swallowed the coffee I’d almost thrown up, laughed at myself a little.
Typical Sam, Muriel would have said about what I’d wanted to do, I knew.
If I have anyone to blame for what I did next, too, it’s her.
And I owe her the world for it.
The last I’d seen her had been in the tight hall of the house I’d lived in for two years before moving her in. She was throwing hair brushes and ash trays and pictures from the wall, and she wasn’t a violent person. Or, she hadn’t been before me, anyway.
But I said I wasn’t going to give you the whole soap opera, I know.
To unpack it just partway, though, it wasn’t that I had girls on the side—vet’s offices aren’t exactly crawling with those kind of situations—and I didn’t hit her, and it wasn’t even the thousand little cuts thing, or the straws and the camel. And I don’t think I was malicious, either.
Still, though, six years into it, she was throwing things.
And some of them were even hitting me.
According to her, what was wrong with me was that I never treated people as people. And she wasn’t going to listen to any more of that, about it being a milk truck that had left me just sleepwalking through life. I wasn’t her second marriage, see; I was her third. She’d been through the mill enough to know a thing or two about what she called my kind—guys who are great out of the gates, when they’re having to fight for each step forward, but once the course levels out and it’s not so crowded anymore, they fall into a pace or something. One that’s not about trying anymore, but coasting. All that matters is one foot after another, and saving their breath, and letting the people who stumble a little go ahead and fall. It’s an attitude that she said leads to a feeling of already having won, almost. Of entitlement. But really it’s just a rationalization for cheating, should the opportunity present itself. For taking a shortcut should a shortcut present itself.
And that was supposed to be the definition of our marriage: me, trying to save my breath for the long ugly haul it was going to be, and taking every shortcut I could find, just to make the years go faster.
It only proved her point when I refused to throw anything back at her, or slam her up against the wall, or yell at her that she was wrong, that it was her fault. I didn’t have to, she told me, because none of it really mattered, right?
And yeah, I’m not stupid. Her argument, her accusations, they were shaped out of everything she didn’t consider herself to be. Her good traits were missing in me, and the stuff she would never stoop to, that’s what I was made of.
She was right, though. That’s the thing.
I didn’t care enough to tell her any of this.
Which is why I started tapping my shirt pockets for a pack of cigarettes.
Until a few years ago, that’s where I’d always carried them.
“Are you hurt?” Ted said, inspecting my chest it seemed, his eyes worried.
“A cigarette,” I said back, more desperate sounding than I’d intended.
He threaded one up from his own shirt pocket, lit it somehow as he passed it across to me.
I pulled deep on it, coughed long and hard.
When I looked over to Janie she narrowed her eyes then turned importantly to the kitchen window.
What she was saying was that she wasn’t the one who cared about smoking.
I nodded, cupped my body around the cigarette as best I could. Tried not to exhale too much.
“What are you doing, Mr. Sam?” Ted asked.
“It’s just Sam,” I spat back at him with a grey cough, my eyes watery from the smoke.
“Sam,” Ted said, leaning forward.
I backed away from him, couldn’t help looking out to the horse trailer one more time, its single tail light beckoning.
I closed my eyes against it, opened them on just the plate glass. I could see through Ted’s reflection now, a little. I turned to make sure he was still there.
“You—” he started, feeling it too, I think, like I was: my future. That I even, suddenly had one, I mean.
And it was all Muriel’s fault, for knowing me so well.
Holding that revolver to my head out on some lonely road, it would be the same as trying to slip out the bathroom window—it would be cheating. Which is far different from deserving to live, I know. Believe me, I know. But, sitting in that booth with Ted that night, I saw how, if I really wanted to punish myself, if I really hated myself as much as I thought I did, then I couldn’t just sneak out of another life.
I nodded an apology to Ted about what we both knew. That I was going to live at least one more night.
“You can still go with her,” he tried, tilting his head towards Candace.
I shook my head no, though.
“If—if I went back,” I started. “You’ve got to understand. What will happen. What I know will happen. It’ll be the same as with Muriel after a while. I won’t mean to do it, but I’ll kill whatever’s best in her. In Candace.”
Ted touched the corners of his lips with the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. It was like he was stroking the memory of a mustache.
“And I won’t do that to her,” I added. “I don’t know if you can understand this, but she’s everything. I loved her like nothing else. Too much to even think about hurting her.”
“You don’t know it would go like that.”
“I know who I am. How I am.”
“Or could be.”
“Even if you love her?”
“Maybe especially because of that. I don’t know.”
Ted nodded, reached out to ping my coffee cup with his fingernail, like, here at what felt like the end, he was savoring the hardness of things.
“I can still help your cat, though,” I said.
He shook his head no, I couldn’t.
I stared at the trailer one more last time.
“It’s too late,” he said, his voice different now. Less forceful, I guess.
“Is he the last one?” I asked, able at last to see the dirty gold hair pressed up against the slat.
Ted laughed through his nose in that way he’d learned, or picked up, and I smiled too, noticed how I could see all the way through his reflection now. Like it wasn’t even there.
When I turned back to the other side of the booth, he was gone.
The next thing was the one tail light, flaring against the plate glass beside me as the truck lowered into gear.
I closed my eyes as hard as I could, and hid my face in my hands, and told Candace one last time that I was sorry, and that I loved her, and to never grow old.
I hope she never did.
Going on what she knows—Ted disappearing like he did, something about a sick horse and a trailer I recognized from when I was having to pull crazy hours and make calls in four counties at once—Janie thinks an angel came to see me that night, to talk me out of killing myself. The proof is that I’m here, now, with her. It’s hard to argue with. Sometimes I even want to believe it, that I’m that important.
But Ted wasn’t there that night for me, I know. He was there for his lion.
And it hasn’t been as bad as I’d planned either, living.
I’ve heard a Panthera atrox roar across time, I mean, and down through the base of existence, and, when Janie walks out onto the porch in the mornings, I pass her coffee up to her and she pretends she can’t still smell my smoke in the air. It’s not perfect, what we have, and I’m not pretending it is, but when the sun’s just up and the desert is crisp and our horses are looking to the sound of our voices on the porch, it’s pretty close.
That doesn’t explain why Janie doesn’t want me writing all this down, though.
The reason for that is that everybody in town already thinks I’m crazy. Something like this, well. It would confirm what I know they’ve been saying—that somewhere along the way I started doping myself with livestock tranquilizers or worse. As far as they’re concerned, it’s the only way to explain my last few business decisions.
What I’ve done is sell my practice nine years ago and invest all that money and then some in a breeding pair of Tarpan ponies. But I haven’t kept their bloodline pure. It’s an outrage. Of all the types of horse in North America, the Tarpan is perhaps the most rare, the most delicately balanced, genetically.
Another name for it is the Polish Primitive Horse.
It’s a breed that was painstakingly bred back from wild horses out on the steppes of Russia. They’re short and thick and tow-headed like a donkey, but agile too, and—all the horse people say this, and the books too—‘exceptionally intelligent.’
It was that last part that got me interested.
As for what I breed my Tarpan with, it’s less about bloodline and more about stature, and wit. Being a vet, I know all the old Welsh ponies and the like in the area, and can usually collect them in trade for services, provided all the kids are too old to ride them anymore.
Too, though, I’ve poured a couple of zebras into the mix as well, just for the hell of it, and some burro as well, from deep in Brazil, and all kinds of scrub horses out of Mongolia, and even a dingy little grey spotted horse that the guy on the phone insisted was a cross between a Sorraia and, three generations back, an Exmoor, the only two breeds maybe as primitive as a Tarpan.
The result is that the only two horses of my herd that resemble each other anymore are the original breeding pair.
But that’s only half the outrage.
Aside from mixing the bloodlines, I also don’t keep my horses in the pens up by the house, where they’ll be safe from coyotes and dogs and thieves.
It’s like throwing money away, yeah.
But it’s my money, too.
So here’s what I think: with all his different stories—Earth was Sula Prime, P. atrox was ‘between,’ in need of help of some kind, help only I, the lapsed horse doctor, could give—Ted had been telling me something, preparing me specifically for this day.
I wasn’t ever supposed to go out to the parking lot with him, I don’t think. I was just supposed to come back to the truck stop over and over, until I got familiar with Janie, who counts the horses with me each morning and thinks an angel came down to talk to me.
I love her, yeah. Even when—maybe especially when—one of the horses is missing.
“What do you think got it?” she’ll ask in a fake scared tone, holding the side of my hand, leaning forward out of her chair to be sure one’s gone.
These last few weeks, it’s become a game with us.
“Lions,” I whisper to her like a secret, squeezing her hand back, and she’ll look over to me, her eyes wide, and then smile with her whole face, so that for a few moments life is roaring past me, and through me, and into me, and I know all at once that ten thousand years wasn’t that long ago. That it might even be tomorrow.
-Stephen Graham Jones