As she came out of the Walmart store, Pretty Loberg wrestled with three unruly plastic grocery bags, one of which had slipped past her hand to strangle her wrist. It was late afternoon in September, and already almost dark. Thank you, Wisconsin, she muttered, and fuck you, grocery bags. She was holding her arm up, dangling the bags and shaking her wrist, trying to get the tightest noose to spin back around, when she heard the voice and the question.
"Sunshine. Did you buy a candy bar?"
That was all.
It was ridiculous. Her imagination getting the better of her, because five minutes ago, in the store, she'd been staring at the Hershey bars on display near the register, picturing the neat little rows of rectangles exposed when unwrapped, and smiling at the sweet memory of sharing candy with an interesting boy a long time ago.
The boy who called her Sunshine.
She turned toward the voice, and there he was, leaning against the pale tan brick like a question mark, his face obscured by a fall of straight black hair.
Every part of her froze. Two of the bags fell from her fingers and landed with soft thuds at her feet, leaving her holding only the wrist-strangling sack. The deceptively warm sun fled behind a cloud, and the sudden chill in her bones came from more than the autumn air.
He was a tall, slim figure wearing black on black, holding a cigarette and puffing smoke in her direction. Was it him? Could it be? For a second she couldn't even think, much less speak a single word. She'd looked for him, over the past twenty years, time and time again, always wishing she knew what happened to him, always hoping he was still alive.
There are memories you share with only one other person in all the world, and Jeremiah was one of those people.
Pretty's husband knew a million things about her no one else did. If asked to share her secrets, he'd come up with a few. Like how, if she was deep into a good book, he could call her name five times and she wouldn't even hear. He might say she struggled to speak her own mind, or he hadn't married her because she was Betty Crocker, and she could suck a golf ball through a garden hose, which wasn't anyone's business and wasn't true anyway. And somewhere, buried deep in his subconscious, he knew the candy bar story, too, but had it filed in the space of brain we all have for 'things not very important.'
When, indeed, it had always been one of the most important things of all.
Now, looking at Jeremiah, Pretty felt her internal organs seize with... oh, dread and disbelief and shock and joy. She'd been told he was dead. She made his name into a question of her own. "Jeremiah?" But she had no voice, and all that passed her lips was a whisper. She coughed to clear the shock from her throat and tried again. "Jeremiah Carlson?"
His boots clumped on the blacktop as he approached. They were black, up to the knee, and probably steel-toed. Just like they'd always been. "It's Quick, now," he said, as he picked up her plastic bags.
Pretty shook her head, confused, but oddly comforted by his familiar way of leaving her in the dark. "What is?"
And there was that old smile, the one more grimace than grin, as if he'd had to teach himself how to do it in front of a mirror. His eyes were the kind of light blue that almost had no color, that could do 'emotionless' better than anything, but managed 'cold' and 'flat' pretty fucking well, too. The smile didn't reach them, and she couldn't remember if it ever had.
"My name. Jeremiah Quick. Not Carlson, I have nothing to do with that fucking bastard anymore."
The charge between them was almost tangible, like a bubble of electricity, a tremendous… presence… of something unknown, something that would change her in unfathomable ways.
She was still processing the fact that he was standing there, alive.
She said, "At the last reunion… Charlotte told me you died. I could never find you, so I believed her."
His laugh was short, a sharp burst of sarcasm, and when he spoke, his voice dripped with scorn. "You go to high school reunions? God, Sunshine. Really? Did it change so much after I left? How could you?"
"I go with Amy. It's not so bad. I hardly recognize anyone." There. There was the sinking feeling, the little bit of shame that she's given in and followed the crowd, doing not what she wanted to do, but what was expected of her. No, high school hadn't changed after he left. He knew it hadn't. She'd been the outsider alone then, without Jeremiah, without Chill. The next year had been worse, like the whole social structure of school was designed to inhibit grieving.
He took a drag off his cigarette, then flicked it into the drive lane in front of the store. "Nice poem. My remembrance."
Such a casual statement, but a surge of heat flashed through her, under her skin, over her skin, until her very fingertips broke a sweat. The last plastic-handled bag slid from her arm and hit the ground with a crinkled thump.
It was a relief to let the burden fall.
He took a few steps toward her, right into her space, and he was too close now to be a figment of her imagination.
The laugh came out of her, an embarrassing bark, but she couldn't help it. She'd always laughed easily. It was part of the reason he hated her, and part of the reason he liked having her around. Even the candy bar never changed the dichotomy of that.
The candy bar was just bait, anyway. It had always been bait.
She had to ask, couldn't help herself. "You saw it somewhere? The poem?" A little part of her had to admit she was pleased as much as mortified. Talk about dichotomy.
He spread his arms, lifting the grocery bags into the air, out from the sides of his waist. Title the scene Expansive Shrug Awkward with Plastic.
His voice was flat. "I Google myself now and then, like everyone does."
Pretty ran the words of the poem through her head, trying to remember the first stanza, feeling faintly embarrassed he'd seen something of her inner world, her pain when she lost him, which for so many years she'd held close and private. Except she’d flung the poem out to the blogosphere, finally giving up the possibility that he was still alive.
"I wrote it after you left," she said. "All those years ago. I know it's awful."
He shrugged with a rustle of plastic, his mouth turned down, his words softer than the expression that hardened his face. "Naïve," he said. "Just naïve. And that's not your fault. It's not like you could help your life."
She didn't know what to say. Does one apologize for a lack of childhood trauma? But she didn't have to say anything. He said it.
"Pain. Poverty. Desperation."
He paused between each word, letting her feel how much anger was nestled behind and between them.
She recoiled, just a fraction.
She'd been spoiled and pampered, she knew she had been. And in a lot of ways, she preferred to be naïve.
He knew it, could see it in her, had always seen it. "I lived everything you never knew, never experienced. And I never forgot you, Sunshine Grrrl. In fact, I'm amazed someone so sheltered could still be alive. I thought life would get you, eventually."
His 'Sunshine Grrrl' was a sarcastic growl, a mean quirk of his lips when he said it, like he was… throwing a dart that was supposed to hurt. When they were young, he'd rarely called her by her actual name, and had several nicknames for her. 'Sunshine' was the most affectionate of them, 'Precious' the most caustic.
Her parents named her Pretty for some asinine reason. Pretty Leticia Loberg. They were of Scandinavian descent, and Pretty had the typical fair skin and blonde hair. Perhaps the most distinctive trait of her family line were their eyes, bright blue irises surrounded by a dramatic ring of navy. Pretty had them, too. They were her favorite feature. She differed from her family, though, in stature. Instead of a tall and sturdy build, she'd always been small and delicate. She supposed she was pretty, and grateful for it when she interacted with or observed women who had bullish bones, thick bodies, and hog-like snouts, but it was a ridiculous name, and she'd always hated it.
In college, she'd adapted her middle name to 'Letty', and most other people adapted, too. But throughout high school she was "Pretty" – to all the teachers and all the classmates who had known her since kindergarten.
Jeremiah already had her full attention, and never needed to call her name to get it.
She'd been a shy child, introverted, often playing by herself in her room with dolls and stuffed animals, trying keep quiet, trying to escape the notice of her hypercritical mother. As she grew older she fell into books, eschewing parties and after school activities in favor of long journeys into storied lives.
She was wooed for the cheerleading squad and the dance team because of her looks, but never tried out because she lacked athletic skill, and because the thought of being on display was horrifying. And the notion of being "popular" made her feel stick to her stomach. She had disdain for the popular girls, although a tiny part of her envied the fact they clearly felt they belonged somewhere. She had always lived with a sense of unbelonging, a chasm undiminished by their attempts to invite her in.
She was not like Them, and she knew it.
After Jeremiah, she knew a little better why.
But he left before she knew what to do about it.
And then there was Drew and the awful thing he did – leaving Pretty with even less of an idea what to do, how to be someone different. But there was no connection between Jeremiah and Drew, excepting her own grief.
Everything crumbled, once Jeremiah was gone.
She swallowed all these thoughts without choking, and said, "I thought you weren't. Alive, I mean. I posted the poem to honor you, because I was sad."
His voice came like a weapon, then, vicious and hateful and spitting. "Good. I'm glad it made you sad to think I was dead."
Something in her chest folded in on itself, as his words indeed became anger-tipped darts that tore into her. She could almost keen the pain right out loud. But what right did he have to find her after all this time just to hurt her? She stiffened and reached to take her groceries back.
It was easy to become the child she'd been before, hopelessly innocent, middle-class born and bred, brainwashed. The only fallback she'd had, the only way she could cope with his cruelty, had been first to agree with him, and then acknowledge they were so, so different.
She tried it now.
"Yes, I mourned you. I never felt like we were done. No goodbye, nothing. I attached myself to you and stayed. You were the one who left. I was so ready to fall for you, but you wouldn't allow it. You made your mark, but you never knew, did you? So, yeah. I can see it would make you glad."
Jeremiah sidestepped Pretty's reach, almost wary in his refusal to respond to her challenge.
She said, "I should have given you a sandwich instead of chocolate. You were too thin."
He dropped all three grocery sacks at his feet, then raised his arms and held them out from his sides, palms facing the darkening sky. "What the hell difference does that make now?"
She shook her head, unwilling to explain about regret.
"My old man kicked the shit out of me as many times a week as I managed not to avoid him. You gave me chocolate nearly every day. Believe me, it was appreciated. Sometimes it was the best part of my day, and the only thing I could predict with any certainty."
"I'm sorry," she said, more whisper than voice. "I didn't know."
"I didn't want you to know. I didn't want anyone to know."
His hands flew up to the sides of his head, pinkies searching for strands of hair to tuck behind his ears. It was a gesture so classically Jeremiah that she forgave his hurtful words, stepped into his space, and wrapped her arms around him – exactly what she should have done the moment she saw him.
He responded the way he'd always responded – a tightening of his shoulder muscles, a tilt of his head back and as far away from hers as possible, his whole body going taut and tight as if she were hurting him. His hand patted her back three times, and then he was trying to pull away.
She held on tighter. "Can't you just relax and accept a hug?"
And then he was fighting the embrace, respirations increasing until his breath came in soft puffs of air, trying to lean out of her space, away.
She let go of him before his escape attempt escalated to thrashing.
"Another time," he said, his voice shaking. "Not here. Not now."
Quick picked up the plastic burdens again, and gestured Pretty to lead the way. She led him to her car, a very common and not new Impala. Four doors, because it's so much easier with three kids.
The backseat was filled with her daughter's assorted clothing detritus, and the boys' abandoned backpacks. She stared at Quick's hands as he dumped the groceries amidst the clutter, then stared at his profile when he settled into the front passenger seat.
"You look just the same," he said, then gave her the smile/grimace thing. "Mostly."
She didn't. She had twenty pounds on her old self, crows' feet crinkles, and a permanent frown squint in the middle of her forehead, but she took the words as a kindness. Her eyes were the same blue, and her smile still came easy.
"So do you," she said. "All you'd need, to give me a flashback, is the jacket."
It wasn't exactly a lie, he did look essentially the same. But there was something different about his bearing, something quieter and almost... hollow... that made him not at all the same. He'd always been twitchy, filled with a never-quite-able-to-be-still energy, like the way he fought being hugged. But the trait seemed… less, now.
She didn't know where to take him. Her house? A make-out spot? A bar?
"You loved that jacket," Quick said, and Pretty heard a real smile in his voice.
"I used to think it would hurt to hug you," she said, and then remembered it had hurt to hug him, the few time she was allowed. He never seemed to have a clue he was crushing her face against his spikes. But maybe he did. Maybe it was the price for getting too close.
He leaned his head against the seat-back. "Yeah, you don't think my wearing armor to high school was an accident, do you?"
She supposed not. She knew it was armor, she'd just never had enough time with him to convince him he could remove it when they were together.
Regrets, regrets. No, she didn't want to think about that.
She turned the key in the ignition, but nothing happened except a loud click. She tried again. Still nothing.
"Damn. Something's wrong with the car."
Normally she'd call her husband, except he wasn't home. He wasn't even in town. He'd taken the boys, ages nine and ten, to a regional karate tournament. Their daughter was at a friend’s house for the weekend.
"Do you want me to give you a ride?" he asked.
She didn't. Now that she was used to him alive again, she had a ball of dread in her stomach. She wanted him to have stayed dead so he couldn't change her, because he'd changed her more in the course of a school year's worth of lunch periods than anyone else had over the course of a lifetime. She didn't expect him to stop doing it now.
She sighed, nodded, and watched him collect her stupid Walmart bags from the back seat, then followed him across the parking lot.
His car was a huge two-door tank with bench seats, from an earlier era than their youth, a land yacht. Old and beautiful, a collector in primer and gleaming chrome. She gave him directions to her house.
When they arrived, Pretty held the door open for Quick, who carried the meager goddamned grocery sacks that had been between them for what felt like hours. He fought his way past the dog that tried to lick him into submission. He flinched and sidestepped and bared his teeth at the dog, and Pretty got the feeling he wasn't exactly a dog person. "Don't you lock your door?" he asked, setting the bags on the counter.
They'd never locked the door, didn't even have keys for it. Pretty and her husband laughed about it sometimes, but only worried about it when they went on vacation. "Nope," she answered. "The kids can't keep track of their keys. Besides, we have a dog. And it's not like we keep the crown jewels here. There's nothing to steal, not really."
She flitted around the kitchen, putting the things from the bags away: frozen pizzas, frozen chicken strips, ranch dressing, ketchup and mayo.
"Gross," Jeremiah said, making a face when he handed her the bread. "Soft white bread, the kind you can't swallow because it turns to sticky gunk in your throat. God, you're so fucking middle America."
And before she could respond, he trapped her against the refrigerator. "Tell me, Sunshine Girl, do you still brush against the Dark?"
"Of course," she said, trying to keep the nervous squeak out of her voice. "I'm a lot darker now, myself."
The noise he made – a laugh, a snort of derision? - was loud enough to startle her, and his almost-clear eyes glittered like polished glass. Pretty could see herself in them, nostrils flared, her own pupils dilated, caught between some kind of inappropriate anticipation and a basic, in-the-nerve-endings kind of enthralled fear.
His portentous presence was dark, too dark for the cheerful, yellow-painted room. He smelled male – sex and sweat and cigarettes. The odor of him filled her kitchen, pungent but not unpleasant. He smelled like wind and campfire, a breeze ghosting over a hot bed of coals. Somewhat free, somewhat dangerous.
Jeremiah Quick didn't belong in her kitchen or in her average life.
His arms tightened around her, pulling her hard into him, and then she did squeak a little, and tensed, then relaxed. And finally sighed. It felt like the favorite memory she'd never had, his scent surrounding her, his long lines holding her in a firm grip, giving just the tiniest hint she was helpless.
"What? The naughty books you write, porn sentence by sentence rather than frame by frame? That doesn't make you Dark, sweetheart, only a little braver than you used to be. You're as sheltered as ever. Comfortable home, husband who takes care of you. Two-point-four children and a dog."
She looked up into his face and could see he hated her more than ever.
"Stop," she said, and pressed a hand against his chest. She put pressure on it, urging him to step back, but it wasn't much pressure, and he ignored it. "Is that why you're here?" she asked, her voice low but hard. "To make fun of me? To be cruel?"
"No," he said, in a softer tone. He lifted his hands to her hair and petted her almost all the way down, top of head, cheeks, the sides of her throat. He let both hands whisper over her jutting collarbones, then down her flanks to her hips, never touching anything strictly private. "I just needed to see you. To see how you are, now."