Sucker?

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Morning. JJ and Tess, a woman he hardly knows, camped at an abandoned mountain ranch. His land. Her land. Whose land?

They leaned on an old fence, eating Pop Tarts. A vehicle approached down the long dirt road to where they were camped, a cloud of dust rising behind.

“Oh shit, that must be Cody,” Tess said.

“Who’s Cody?”

“Just my angry twin brother.”

Oh great. Angry brother. Cody. Twin. Twin telepathy. What kind of gun toting maniac was coming down the road?

“How does he know we’re here?”

“He doesn’t. Or he does. He just comes here.”

“He comes here? For what?”

“To get away,” Tess said. “He doesn’t like people much.”

An old Chevy pick-up came to a skidding stop and just sat there with the engine running. Cody drove angry. JJ couldn’t see him clearly for the glare off the windshield. But he knew Cody was looking at him. The engine shut off and made little ticks as it cooled. Some birds chirped and tweeted from the brush but no one moved. It was midmorning and warm in the sun, not a cloud in the sky. Finally, the door opened.

Cody was Tess with a buzz-cut, only his eyes were harder, solid blue ice where Tess’s were liquid blue. “Who’s this guy,” Cody asked.

“This here’s Jason,” Tess said.

“Is this your boyfriend?”

“No, not really,” JJ said. “We only met a couple days ago. I mean, we’re just friends. New friends.” JJ walked toward Cody with his hand extended. “Nice to meet you.”

Cody looked at the hand like JJ held out a putrefying fish. He looked at JJ’s face. “What are you two doing here?”

Tess walked forward and got between JJ and Cody. “Cody, this here’s a miracle! Jason bought the ranch at the auction. He bought the ranch for us!”

JJ and Cody both looked at Tess. Cody stared with disbelief of the, “here’s some more of Tess’s bullshit” variety. JJ was just trying to keep up.

“I felt something,” Cody said. “Yesterday. I knew something was happening out here.”

The twin telepathy. Fuck.

“Um, yeah,” JJ said. “I bought the ranch.”

“I’m sure it was out of the goodness of your heart,” Cody said, looking at JJ over Tess’s shoulder. “What’re you up to?”

If JJ were honest, he’d say: “I left Massachusetts because my best friend was getting together with my erstwhile girlfriend, who was my other best friend. I tried to write a memoir but instead started drinking, which is really bad for me. I flew to Colorado on the advice of a guy named Shaboo and kept drinking. I’ve been here before, trying to find myself, so I thought I’d try again. Instead I found your twin sister in a blackout. She convinced me to visit the bank where we put in a bid two minutes before the auction ended. Phone calls were made and the remainder of my lottery winnings were transferred from my bank. I signed some papers and here we are.”

Instead, JJ said, “I dunno.”

“Well here’s the deal, man,” Cody said. “This ranch has been in our family since the 1800’s and no fuckin’ boytoy of my sister is going to own it. Where are the papers?”

“Still at the bank,” Tess said.

Cody looked around and seemed to notice the Camaro for the first time. “What the hell kind of car is that?”

“That’s a Hyper Blue Metallic Chevy Camaro,” JJ said with a renter’s pride. He would keep his dignity through all this no matter what, he vowed.

Cody snorted. “Jesus, she saw you coming a mile away. The plates should read, SUCKER.”

Tess said, “It wasn’t like that, Cody. He offered to help.”

Cody chuckled and walked to the Camaro, appraising. Tess whispered to JJ, “It wasn’t like that. We’ll figure something out.”

“I’m sure we will,” JJ said. “Things always work out for me.”

Detoxing in the Mountain Air

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Withdrawing from alcohol. A mesh of electricity humming just under the skin, complete with unpredictable twitches, some lunatic doctor behind the one-way glass delivering voltage. Also, the feeling (the certainty!) of impending doom and imminent threat. Shadows behind rocks are crouching gargoyles, vigilant and silent. There is a lurking monster behind that tree right over there, some stick figure, an upright mantis keeping very still. And this woman, Tess, next to JJ in a sleeping bag under the mountain stars. They are camped on his land apparently, JJ’s land, in this valley in northern Colorado.

JJ lays on his side, shaky and alert, watching the trees and rocks, and wonders how the hell this happened. He knows the what, where and when. With the last of his lottery money, he bought this old mountain ranch that had once been in Tess’s family. But how? Why? Whither?

Next to him, Tess shifts in her sleeping bag, the nylon rustle amplified in the deep quiet. Is she asleep? JJ can’t get comfortable in his sleeping bag. He’s warm, he’s cold, he’s hot. Clammy nylon sticks to his cheek. His breath is fetid and there is a weird smell coming from his body, like the smell of an examining room in a hospital, some antiseptic cleaner trying hard to cover up the smell of human excreta- sweat, blood, urine, etc.  Also, there’s this rubber glove smell coming from God knows where. He must be getting better if he can catalogue these smells and place them in a hospital. Though, of course, he does feel more like a patient than a healthy human. He is detoxing.

This woman, Tess. Something is off but he can’t put his finger on it. She certainly smiles a lot. That’s never a good sign. She’s attractive, at least physically. Fit and glowing and endowed with…endowments. But, there’s an aura of disaster and chaos around her, an untethered feeling that infects JJ. He feels the same way when watching news footage from the scene of some explosion- whirling police lights and silhouettes moving and milling in a smoky background. You kind of want to be there, to see it, to have a part in it. To help out. That can’t be good. What did Dr. Shays once say to him? “Your attraction to a certain kind of person is automatic. It is machinery that you can’t see working. It chooses what it needs and by the time you catch up, it’s too late. You’re being ground up.”

JJ’s machine likes chaos. That’s why he could never stick with Lila. She’s crazy, but not crazy enough, too grounded to feed the beast.

But this Tess. She’s not right but she’s also very…very…alluring. Mysterious. Unpredictable?  More like erratic.

A voice, muffled coming from inside the horizontal lump of sleeping bag next to him. “Are you thinking about me?”

JJ shifts onto his back and looks into the vast mountain sky. Stars and stars and stars.

“Yes,” he says.

Tess sighs and again the voice muffled, coming from somewhere hidden, beneath the surface.

“That’s good,” the voice says. “That’s really good.”