Excerpt from the Novel
Hank didn’t know where he was. As he came out of a black haze, his thoughts were blurry and disconnected. It was difficult to focus, but he forced himself to try. He could tell he was in a dark room. He could hear the sound of other people talking around him. Someone laughed too loud in the back. There was heavy metal music playing. He could smell stale beer and sweat and cheap perfume.
His eyes focused on the beer bottle in front of him. It was sitting on a stained wooden bar that he was leaning hard against. It was the only thing keeping him from falling off his stool. Slowly, it came back to him. He was in a bar, drinking. And as his recognition returned, so did the memory of the pain. He slowly reached for the beer, still unsure of his movements, and tried to drink from it, but it was empty. He slammed it down on the bar harder than he meant to, his arm heavier than he expected. The bartender, a burly guy named Rocky or Rocko, looked his way and scowled at him. Hank had heard that he’d been in prison, but he couldn’t remember for what. He motioned for another beer, but the bartender ignored him and went to serve another customer at the other end of the bar.
Hank closed his eyes. He wanted to go to sleep, but sleep wasn’t possible. Going to sleep meant going home, and right now he couldn’t move. Right now he just wanted to dull the pain that was resurfacing before it made its way all the way up into his consciousness. He needed another drink, and he needed it now before he remembered why he was drinking. He had to push it back down. And the only thing that would do that was if he got another drink. He opened his eyes and looked for the bartender again, willing him to turn in his direction so he could get his attention.
“Well, look what the cat dragged in,” a familiar voice purred. “I just don’t seem to be able to go anywhere without you not far behind. Looks like someone has a little crush on me. Have you met Jimmy, sugar?”
Hank turned to see Roxy standing beside him, a tangle of wild white-blond hair and heavy makeup, wearing a tight leather skirt and a shirt that was too low cut. She was standing next to a guy who had his arm slung tight around her neck as if to show everyone she was with him, though he could also be leaning on her for support in his own drunken state. He was tall, like Hank, but lankier, with straight dark greasy hair that came down to his shoulders. He was wearing a leather vest with no shirt underneath, showing an array of tattoos down his arms and across his chest. Hank didn’t know who he was and he didn’t care. He thought he’d finally found a place where Roxy wouldn’t find him, yet here she was again. Not tonight, he thought. I can’t handle this right now.
Hank turned away from them and tried to catch the bartender’s attention again, but he wouldn’t look his way. Just one more beer, Hank thought, If I can get one more beer…. The bartender looked toward him, then away again before Hank could signal him. Hank was starting to feel desperate.
“Hey, the lady’s talking to you,” Jimmy said in a slurred voice. He moved closer, dragging Roxy along until he was standing over Hank in an attempt to be intimidating.
Hank turned to look at Jimmy and Roxy again, surprised they were still there and still talking to him. He could feel the anger start to surge inside him. He gave Jimmy a dirty look, shaking his head in a way that said, No, no, no. Leave me alone and threw his arm out to swat Jimmy away before turning his attention back to getting another drink. He drunkenly raised his hand to summon the bartender, but as he did so, he felt Jimmy grab his upper arm hard and jerk him off the stool, further igniting his anger and frustration. The movement caused his other arm to sweep across the bar where his hand came in contact with the beer bottle. Grabbing a firm hold of it, Hank took it with him as he felt himself fall toward Jimmy. The sound of breaking glass was the last thing he heard before descending back into the darkness he knew too well.
How They Met
Henry Charles Atwater was angry. He’d been unloading boxes for hours, and his neck and shoulders were getting sore. It was hotter than usual for May under the North Carolina sun, and though he welcomed the idea of summer, the heat was starting to get to him. He stopped a minute, leaned against the truck, wiped his brow, and took a long sip from his water bottle. His brown eyes focused on the main cause of his distress: John DeGaulle. As in his employer, DeGaulle Delivery Service. John was busy sitting off to the side on a folding chair in the shade playing a video game on his phone, oblivious to the work at hand. This was the second summer Hank had been forced to work with John, who attended college the rest of the year. It had been bad enough last summer, when Hank did the majority of the work while John hung out and played on his phone, harassing him when bored. Hank was deeply disappointed when he saw they would be working together again.
“Hey,” Hank said after waiting a moment for John to notice. “We could get out of here a lot faster if you helped with some of these boxes.”
John finished what he was doing, put his phone in his back pocket, sat back, and looked up at Hank. Hank had the advantage of being taller at six-foot-four and was more fit than most twenty-year-olds, but one look from John could make him feel like none of that mattered. John had the handsome chiseled looks of a blond rich kid and an entitled manner that said he knew how to navigate the world, unlike Hank, who constantly felt like he was underwater. John was the boss’s son, and he used it at every opportunity to avoid work.
“Watch it, there, Atwater, or I’ll tell my father how you have been slacking off on the job. Then what would you tell your parole officer?” He held Hank’s stare until Hank broke it off and grabbed another box. Hank knew there was no use arguing. He might as well get the job done so he could get out of there.
As Hank walked past, John was already on his phone playing another game.
Hank lived on a quiet street of bungalows in an area of town that the developers hadn’t discovered yet, as they transformed the rest of Wilmington into a high-end beach haven. Each house on his block was no different from the others, a single-story rectangular unit with a long roof that overhung a front porch with white picket railings and square columns. When his mother had been alive, the garden area in front of the house had been well tended to, but that was a long time ago. Now the area in front of the faded blue house, which showed its age through peeling paint, only sported a few scraggly bushes and a small patch of dried grass worn down by the sun’s relentless glare.
The front door opened into the living room, and the first thing Hank saw was his father sitting in his recliner watching a ball game. Or so he thought. He was dressed in an undershirt and some long brown pants, work clothes he had yet to change. From the heaviness of his breathing and the way his head lay tilted to one side, Hank saw he had fallen asleep.
“Hey, Pop,” Hank said, not expecting much of a reply as he walked through the living room into the kitchen.
His father seemed to wake up, mumbled, “Hey,” and then focused back on the television. Hank noticed how much older his father looked these last few years, partly due to him, Hank was sure. His once brown hair had gone gray and his physique had become soft. Bob Atwater had always been a quiet man, but the last few years, he had seemed defeated by life. And why wouldn’t he be? Life had not been kind to the Atwater family. Hank went into the kitchen to see if his father had made any dinner, but there was nothing on the stove and very little to eat in the refrigerator.
Hank went back into the living room and started to ask his father if he planned to make something to eat, but he stopped in the doorway. There on the table next to the recliner was the photo album with pictures of Hank’s older brother, Rob. That explained his father’s solemnness. Hank decided not to bother his father in his grief.
“I’m going out to get something to eat,” Hank mumbled as he grabbed his keys and headed back out the front door, slamming it behind him.
His father didn’t even look up.
After stopping for food, Hank did what he always did when he needed to relax. He headed to the beach.
He drove a sturdy old black Jeep that used to belong to Rob. It was the perfect vehicle for a beach town—he could strap his surfboard on top and throw anything else he needed in back. It used to be a short drive from his house out to the Island, but over the last decade, Wilmington had grown exponentially, becoming both a well-known retirement community and a popular tourist destination as more people discovered it. At this time of day, the late afternoon traffic was pretty heavy, but Hank knew the back roads and made it across the Intracoastal in about fifteen minutes. He turned left on Lumina Avenue, which ran alongside the ocean, until he was far enough up island to avoid most of the crowds.
Surfing was only fun if you didn’t have to watch out for some guy who would take waves he had no business taking because he didn’t know the surfer code. Too many times, Hank had had to abort his ride because some college guy trying to impress his girlfriend or a vacationer who surfed only one week a year would get in his path. No, Hank preferred to steer clear of people in general. It was easier to avoid trouble that way. Trouble had already found him too often.
Hank parked on a side street and jumped out, grabbing his board. Just as most families were packing up to leave, Hank made his way down the beach, throwing his towel and keys in the sand before heading out into the water. Even though it was hot, there was always a good breeze at the beach cutting through the humidity. He dove into the water, clutching his board as he dove under the waves and started paddling his way out. The water felt cool on his skin. The tide was coming in and the waves were well-spaced and starting to gain some height.
Hank went under a large wave that crashed in front of him and swam until he was behind the sand bar and could gauge the waves. He saw one on the horizon and started to paddle hard; then he jumped up on his board and rode the wave halfway in to shore. He swam back out and kept catching wave after wave until the day’s stresses fell away from him and he felt himself start to relax. After a number of runs, the waves petered out for a time. Hank sat on his board, feeling himself moving in rhythm with the water, just looking at the beach houses lining the shore with their large windows to view the ocean and white picketed decks. He knew some of the townspeople who owned them, but he was always surprised at how often the homes looked empty. He couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to live in such a house, where he could wake up and look right out at the ocean every day.
Then Hank noticed a group of guys coming up from the parking lot with boards. A bunch of college guys by the look of them, with newer and more expensive gear. Even the sacred places were no longer sacred. Hank caught the next wave in, and when he came out of the water, he pushed his hair back from his eyes and started walking up to his towel, giving a wide berth to avoid them.
A group of girls were lying on towels nearby, all wearing bikinis and looking around to see who was watching them. Hank was pretty sure that they all went to the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, the local college. One of them glanced up at Hank and smiled, obviously impressed with his physique. Being fit gave Hank some pride that he was worth looking at, and for a moment, he enjoyed being noticed. But then another one of the girls looked at him and turned to the others, whispering something that made them all laugh. Hank turned away. He knew college girls were not interested in a guy on probation working for hourly wages. And the local girls all knew about the trouble he had gotten into and stayed away. So Hank didn’t think much about dating or the girls on the beach. Instead, he headed back to his Jeep and went home.
On Sundays, Hank liked to head down to the beach for a run. He would leave early before the crowds started to arrive, park at the pier, take off his shirt, and start running. To the south end and back was about five miles, and if he were feeling particularly good, he would head up to the north end and back as well, another three miles. It was humid, but the breeze off the water kept him cool enough to keep going, and if he really started to sweat, he would do a quick dive into the waves to cool down.
The sand felt firm and cool under his feet. It felt good to get in a rhythm and feel his body respond to the movement. Rob had been in great shape even before he went into the Army, and he had passed that on to Hank, to keep fit as a way of keeping his head on straight. Hank focused on his breathing and the strength he felt in his legs, side-stepping the early risers looking for shells or doing their morning walk. When he made it to the end, he turned around and headed back, trying to go faster, thinking about John and all the other reasons his life was not working out. He knew his anger was the reason he had so many troubles, but here he could put it to good use, using it to push through the pain and sweat.
When Hank completed his run, he immediately started doing squats, followed by push-ups and sit-ups, doing a swim lap the length of the pier and back between each exercise. He was proud of his muscular build, which was defined and well-proportioned, and it was evident just by looking at him that he was quite strong—strong enough to take on John and pummel him into the ground if he wanted—but he also knew he did not build strength to use it that way. He had used his strength in anger once, and it had gone very badly, so he swore never to use physical force again. Any exit was better than using his strength to prove he was right.
When Hank was done, he went into the public shower at the pier, cleaned up, put on a fresh shirt and shorts, and ran his fingers through his brown hair to make it sit right. All that exercise had made him hungry, so he did the one other thing he always did on Sundays—he headed over to get breakfast at the Causeway Café.
The Café was another local favorite that had been overrun by tourists. Announced by white letters on a blue background, the Café welcomed all to come in and have a good Southern breakfast. Hank walked by the picnic tables scattered across the front lawn up to the front porch which was laden with rocking chairs, working his way through the groups of tourists waiting for a table. He walked in through the screen door to the bustle and clattering of the diner at full capacity, but before he could talk to the hostess, June waved him over to the counter where an empty seat at the far end sat open.
“Saved you a seat, hon,” she said with a wink. June had been a friend of Hank’s mother and had known him most of his life. This explained why she didn’t avoid him the way most people did these days, seeing him as the young boy he used to be, rather than the man everyone else believed he’d become. She was heavy-set with lots of dyed white-blond hair that sat on her head like cotton candy, heavy blue eye shadow, and gum you didn’t know she had behind those bright red lips until she cracked it if you said something she didn’t like—her secret weapon against the more obnoxious customers, she would say. She’d been a waitress at the Café for as long as Hank had known her and he was thankful for her friendly presence since she always treated him well.
“Usual today?” she asked, pouring him some coffee.
“Sure,” Hank said. “How’s Bill?” he asked about June’s husband.
“That man,” June said, sighing as she put the coffeepot down, “you would think going to work was against God’s plan….” Her voice trailed off in the din of voices as she headed into the kitchen to place his order.
Hank sat quietly watching the people in the restaurant, looking at the various families and trying to figure out where they were from. He could spot other Southerners easily enough by their mannerisms and the New Yorkers because they were louder than most. This used to be a weekend destination for North Carolina families, but the attraction of the place had started to have a farther reach. He had spotted license plates from Michigan and Maine and even Canada in the parking lot, a definite change from years past. When his food arrived, he found he was ravenous and ate quickly, enjoying the mixture of eggs and bacon and pancakes and stoneground grits. He finished in minutes and was about to wave June down for the check when he was startled by a loud voice behind him.
“What do you mean you have no grits?” Hank heard the man at the table behind him say angrily. “It says right here on the menu, grits. G-R-I-T-S. So that means you serve them. Now go get me some.”
“Sir, I told you, the kitchen ran out. I will be glad to get you something else…” the waitress was saying calmly, trying to appease the customer.
“I don’t come all the way down to North Carolina for hash browns. Get me some grits!” he said, practically yelling. The restaurant seemed to quiet for a moment and then started up again, most people not wanting to get involved in the matter, being either vacationers themselves or locals who were used to this kind of behavior from rude out-of-towners.
June appeared in front of Hank and filled up his coffee, redirecting his attention. “Everything all right?” she asked.
“Great,” he said, wiping his mouth and putting his napkin on his plate. “Just the check.”
“On the house,” she said with another wink. It was their usual ritual. June would refuse to give him a check, paying for his food herself, and he would leave her twenty dollars under the plate to cover the food and a tip. Before he could respond, another waitress came up next to June with her back turned to him.
“What do I do?” she asked June in hushed tones. She was obviously younger, with a dark brown ponytail that swayed while she talked, emphasizing her words as she motioned to the table behind him.
“Honey, just get Sal. He’ll deal with it,” June said, comforting the girl with a pat on the shoulder and heading off with the coffeepot to her other tables.
“I thought you weren’t supposed to annoy your waitress or she might spit in your food,” Hank said. He had blurted out the words before he could stop himself, making him instantly freeze. Why had he said something? He should just stay out of it. No sense in getting involved.
The girl turned around and looked at Hank. She was about the same age as him, and now that she was facing him, he could see how pretty she was. He hadn’t noticed her at all before, and now he wondered how he could have missed her. Even angry, she had brown eyes that were filled with emotion, and he could see her mind quickly assessing him. She wasn’t the kind of girl you would notice right away, but once you did, there was something captivating about her.
“Well, there’s one I haven’t considered,” she said, with a slight smile. “But now that you have given me the idea….”
“Hey, as long as I am not sitting at your station,” he replied, smiling back at her without even thinking about it, feeling unusually at ease.
She gave a short laugh. “You better hope I don’t ask June to switch, then,” she said, giving a questioning smile and turning away to look for Sal.
Hank had not talked to a girl in ages, and he was surprised how relaxed he felt talking to this one. He watched as she headed over to the manager and explained what was going on. He got up and left June the money, then headed for the door, trying to act nonchalant but still buzzing from his encounter with the young waitress as if an electric shock had gone through his body. When he got to the door, he heard the voice as if it were right beside him.
You’re going to marry her.
Hank stopped short for a second, uncertain about what he’d just heard. After all, they’d just met and he didn’t even know her name. He quickly turned around and scanned the restaurant, hoping to catch another glimpse of her, to see if what he’d felt in those few short moments was real, but she was nowhere to be found.
Hank had only heard the voice two times before.
The first time was when he was seventeen and driving a couple of friends home from a party on a Saturday night. They had been blasting the music and were laughing about something as he drove down a dark back road when he first heard the voice shout as clear as if it had come from someone right next to him.
In reaction, Hank had jerked the car to the right just in time to get out of the way of a drunk driver who had fallen asleep at the wheel and unknowingly veered into Hank’s lane. Hank hadn’t been able to see him because the other driver didn’t have his lights on. As Hank passed him, he honked loudly, waking the other driver up, who immediately corrected his path. Hank pulled the car over and was a bit shook up, but no one was hurt, so they continued on, with Hank believing it was just his natural instincts that had made him react so quickly.
The second time he had heard the voice was the night he spent in jail. The officer had pushed him into a cell occupied with four other men, all tattooed and stronger looking than he was, with none of them looking friendly. As Hank heard the metal clanging of the jail door behind him mixed with the sound of the other prisoners yelling and making a racket, the voice came to him again.
You don’t belong here.
He had been surprised to hear it and immediately remembered the incident with the car. He had gone to a bench on the side as far away as he could get from the other inmates and tried not to be noticed. He wasn’t sure what to expect from them, but after giving him the once over and seeing what a drunken wreck he was, they ignored him, leaving him alone for the most part other than to give him the odd glance to make sure he wasn’t going to cause them any trouble. He had nothing to do but think while he was in there; he knew between the noise and concern for his safety that he wasn’t going to be able to sleep. So he spent his time thinking about the voice, remembering how it first came to him in the car that night and now here. He wondered where it came from, but he was unable to come up with an acceptable answer. Not that he was thinking all that clearly at the moment. He waited there, barely moving, until the cell doors clanged open again and his name was called for his arraignment; he had been relieved to get out of the cell for what he had hoped would be the last time.
And now the voice had come to him a third time. Her? he asked himself again, as he left the restaurant and headed back to his car.
But the voice didn’t answer.