Read Along: Paradise Palms: Chapter 9
Sam blinked. The ceiling hadn’t changed in the past thirty minutes. Girlfriend, tucked in his arms, slept restlessly. She’d been tossing and turning, but at least she’d managed to get to sleep. He tried breathing deeply, counting sheep, but nothing helped. He unwound himself from Girlfriend and sat up. He sat on the edge of the bed for a minute and tried to clear the images of Casper from his head. He couldn’t.
And Pops. Sam had waited for a long time, but Pops hadn’t come home. Girlfriend had eventually called his cell phone — Sam hadn’t thought of that — and found out he was at the VFW with some of his old war buddies and they were taking care of him. At least he had someone to help him keep his mind off things.
Sam had tried talking about it with Girlfriend, but he didn’t want to explain, neither the gory details nor how it made him feel. Better just to keep it bottled up and deal with it on his own.
Getting up slowly so as not to disturb Girlfriend, Sam made his way to the front of the trailer and the kitchen. Perhaps if he ate something. He hadn’t eaten all day, but just the thought of Casper, half of Casper, laid out in the morgue turned his stomach. If he had to, Sam was going to force himself to eat something. Even if he just drank a glass of milk, maybe that would help him get to sleep. That was it, just a glass of milk.
The fridge didn’t contain anything that looked appetizing, so Sam stuck with his first plan of milk. He grabbed the gallon jug and Tupperware cup from the cabinet and poured himself a glass. But when he raised the glass to his lips, all he could think about was Casper, cut in half, and the bottom half missing. He choked, nearly spitting out the milk, and set down the glass.
“Damn it, Casper. What happened to you?”
Tears welled up in Sam’s eyes. He hadn’t cried since he was a boy; he wasn’t about to start now. Girlfriend had cried. Patty had cried. Julie closed the Sandy Bar for the day and went home crying, blaming herself. She said “If only I’d gone home with him, none of this would have happened.” Sam couldn’t blame her for blaming herself, but in the end, Casper was due to come to a bad end. He’d starting hanging out with a bad bunch of guys from out of town and he’d gotten into a spot of trouble from time to time. Sam had gotten them some work with Lin and even with that Doctor fellow, Sam forgot his name, that lived in the double-wide at the far end of the park. They had it good. So what went wrong?
Sam picked up the glass of milk and forced himself to drink it all, each swallow painful. His stomach burned once he’d gotten it all down, but he needed something in his body to keep it going. Casper wouldn’t want him to stop his life just because something tragic happened, so Sam wasn’t going to. He wiped the tears from his eyes.
Sam grabbed a paper towel and blew his nose. He didn’t want Girlfriend to see him like this. Not at all. He turned toward the fridge, then turned toward the kitchen window. Girlfriend hugged him from behind, sliding her hands up from his waist to his chest. He tossed the paper towel into the sink and held her hands.
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“You miss him already, don’t you?”
“Yeah.” Sam felt something catch in his throat.
Girlfriend worked her way in front of him. “Sam, it’s alright to cry about losing someone close to you. It’s alright to tell me how you really feel about this. I know it’s tearing you up inside. You can talk to me. This is what a relationship is all about. Sharing everything. Isn’t it?”
Sam tried to smile. Tried to say something. Tried to talk. No words came. Instead of saying anything, he just hugged Girlfriend. Just knowing she was there helped. He couldn’t find his voice to tell her, or he would have. He wanted to cry, but knew he wasn’t going to do it in front of anyone. His father had beaten it into him that big men don’t cry and whenever Sam would cry, he’d get a beating. Starting to cry now wasn’t going to happen. He could almost hear his father say, “What are you? A sissy boy? Suck it up! I’m not going to have any sissy boy living in this house.” Always those words were followed by a slap or a punch. Sam’s father was the one that forced him to take up football in order to ‘toughen’ him up and learn how to take a hit.
She’d heard him sniffle. “I’m okay. I just can’t sleep.”
“I understand. Do you want me to stay up with you? We can just sit and watch TV or something.”
“No, that’s not going to help. I just need to think. Maybe I’ll put on some pants and go for a walk or something.”
“Yeah. Some fresh air will help clear my head.”
“I’ll get your pants and your shoes. You just stay here.”
As always Girlfriend took care of what Sam needed. Though he didn’t say it often enough, he loved her and appreciated her. They’d taken a long, hot shower together and for the first time it wasn’t something sexual. It had actually been the most relaxing thing he’d ever done, allowing her to wash him.
“Here you go. Should I wait up for you?”
“No, Girlfriend. I’ll be okay. I just need to get some of this tension out. Thank you.”
“Okay, then. I’m going to go back to bed.” She turned to return to the bedroom.
She turned around. She looked so beautiful in the partial lighting coming from the street. She smiled at him. He wanted to say it, he really did. She came back to him and kissed him on the cheek.
“I love you too,” she whispered in his ear.
She let her hand lightly slide across his face and she returned to the bedroom. Sam put on his pants and pulled on his shoes, not bothering to tie them, and walked out the front door. Blue laid on the floor and immediately jumped up when Sam came outside.
“Let’s go for a walk, girl.”
Sam opened the patio door and let Blue run outside. As always, she stopped in the middle of the small yard and did her business before catching up to Sam and walking by his side.
A warm breeze blew in Sam’s face. It’d been a long time since Sam had been awake so late. He looked at his watch which read 3:22. A real long time.
The gravel crunched under his feet as he walked. He looked from trailer to trailer, each dark as death this late at night. Each that was, except for Lin Pza Pza’s trailer. There was a car Sam didn’t recognize, but he’d seen it pull up earlier in the evening. Lin never had visitors, but he’d seen her let the lady in, so she must know her. What could they be doing up so late, though? Sam thought about knocking on the door to see, but that would be rude even during the day. If they were up, they likely didn’t want to be disturbed.
The street lights dimmed considerably and a generator turned on somewhere. Sam heard the motor, but as he listened, he thought he heard a second generator running. Blue growled.
“What is it girl?”
Sam looked around. He could feel the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Something wasn’t right. Something was different. The buzzing of the crickets and flies and other bugs became louder than usual, as if something had stirred a huge pot of bugs and dumped it into the woods. Looking up, Sam could see the moon, but it was so much larger. It was huge, in fact. Almost like looking at a harvest moon in late September, but this was directly overhead.
A painful howl came from the woods. Sam’s head snapped at the cry. The woods didn’t look right. Not at all. Though the street lights still cast the same glow, the trees no longer looked like oak and birch and pine. They had huge leaves and long vines that hung low, like in a jungle. Those weren’t the woods of his childhood, of that he was certain.
Again the cry came and Blue started barking.
“Quiet, girl. Shush.”
Sam knelt down at Blue’s side and stroked her fur. She stopped barking, but still she growled a deep low rumble. Sam looked in all directions. He felt suddenly in danger sitting in the open road and in the light. He didn’t know why, but he felt as if he was being watched by something, or someone. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end and a shiver ran through his entire body. He wanted to run, but found his feet firmly stuck on the ground, just like in a dream.
Was he really sleeping? Could he be just dreaming all this? Blue’s growls felt and sounded real enough. He wanted someone to pinch him to assure him he was really awake and not sleeping soundly by Girlfriend’s side.
Taking Blue’s collar, he led her into the shadow of one of the trailers. He moved slowly as if any noise he made would attract whatever it was that watched him. His mouth had gone dry, making it difficult to swallow. He’d never felt this scared in his life. Not even when he played in his first big game against Wright. This was terrible. He even found himself shaking.
Stop that, Sam. It’s nothing. It’s just your imagination. You’re tired. That’s it. Just calm down. Everything will be alright.
The ground shook as something in the trees moved and bellowed a deep, mournful howl. Sam allowed his body to crumble to the ground in a sitting position. Something tight gripped his chest. Something Sam had never felt before. Again the ground shook and more violently the bushes around the trees shook. Sam was certain that this, something he’d never had to experience before, was the grip of fear. He couldn’t move. Didn’t dare move lest he attract the unwanted attention of something big enough and heavy enough to make the ground move with its very steps. The sounds coming from those woods were from something big. Something very big. All he could do was sit as, thankfully, the sound moved away, replaced by the bugs and smaller animals.
He didn’t know how long he sat there and listened to the drone and the screeching howls from the woods, but stay still he did. The lights dimmed once more and Sam watched in amazement as the woods from his childhood returned and the moon snapped back to its normal size. Sam’s shaking didn’t stop, however. Blue’s growls slowed to whimpers and she laid down by his side.
“What was that?”
Blue whimpered a response.