SEVENTEEN. . How They Came Back Home

ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD

I gave you every chance to choose,

Mr. DeCruz.

“BACK IN TOWN”

He laughs into the wind.

Below him the coach clatters with all the right sounds,shakes in all the right ways. There are six horses pulling the coach, in rows of four and two; four of them he has conjured from the past, uncertain he’d be able to do so again,and two are new ones: the dark trace-horse and the fair off-wheeler. The new ones are uncertain, untrained, but he has four experienced horses to guide them. Twice, no more, he has cracked the whip over their heads, and now they run,knowing the hand upon the reins is sure. The six heads are stretched forth upon their necks as they charge into the gloom of the impossible place where all is possible, while he, the Coachman, guides them along paths of memory,chance, and choice.

Here, a wheel dips and splashes through a small puddle of fear, but he doesn’t even slow. There, stray rocks of misfortune litter the path, but he guides the horses around them with the merest touch of the reins. Above, demons of frustration taunt and threaten, but there is a calk on the end of his whip, and he drives them away.

“So, how fast we going?” Ed knew it was a dumb question as soon as he asked it. But the wind in his face made him grin, and the simplicity of it all pleased him immensely. There were lights above them, glittering in the darkness, and a wide world stretched out around them. It was all a dream, and he knew it, just as he did when he dreamed of flapping his arms and flying through the sky. But now as then he figured, what the hell, enjoy it while you can, because he sure wasn’t going to get it this good when he was awake.

“As fast as you wish, or as slow,” said the Coachman, and they exchanged a knowing grin. Damn, he liked this guy. Ed vaguely remembered he’d been feeling sad about something, but now he couldn’t remember what it was. He only knew that he was traveling, as he’d always wanted to. Moving through strange lands and peoples. The night wind smelled exotic, spices and smoke and foreign flowers. The air was warm on his face.

He leaned forward into it, admiring the Coachman’s fingers on the reins, the way he talked to the horses. He suspected he could do that himself, after watching for a little longer. The Coachman teased the reins, and it was just like pressing down on the gas,there was the same smooth surge of speed.

“So, where we going?” he asked the Coachman.

The Coachman glanced at him, lifted one eyebrow sardonically. “Nowhere,” he said. “Everywhere.”For a long time the world rocked past them, smooth as bourbon. Ed caught a glimpse of lit windows, of a woman’s face peering out into the night. The houses here were low, the roofs fat and rounded. Fields rustled with some grain crop between the houses. “Everywhere,” the Coachman said again. “Everywhere but home.”

Home.

And the word hung there silently like a curtain dividing them. Ed had a sudden sense that the Coachman didn’t really know what it meant. Not like he did. The Coachman might know the whole world,hell, he might know every world there was, but there wasn’t one that he could call home. Wasn’t one where he knew every single alley, and knew what it looked like, winter or summer. Wasn’t a place where he remembered what the empty lots looked like before they sprouted buildings. He’d never seen a nice neighborhood go slum, and then years later get religion and go condo and become exclusive. He’d never know the wide world encapsulated in a city the way Ed did.

“Want to go with me?” the Coachman asked.

For a long moment, Ed looked at the reins. Everywhere but home. Never that sigh at the end of the day, never the grocery clerk knowing your name, the paper boy yelling hi to you on the street. Never turning to a friend and saying, “I know this great little hole-in-the-wall restaurant.” Never a bar where you could stand up and call over your shoulder as you walked out, “Put it on my tab.” The price tag on all the worlds was to always be a stranger.

“Naw,” Ed told him. “But it’s been great to be along for the ride.”

Worlds are spinning away beneath his wheels. A thousand possibilities, a million. Sometimes he thinks he knows what would be best. He thinks he could let one off here, put another there, and they would be happy. But it is not for him to decide. It is only for him to offer. He will not persuade, he will not dissuade. He offers, and he listens, as the horses run on under his hands.

The car interior smelled like furniture polish. The seats were deep, deeper than their family car, and Durand was sunk in his so far he could barely see out the window. His mom sat beside him, holding his hand. He wished she wouldn’t. He’d been hugged,patted and held beyond endurance by well-meaning people attempting to console him. What he needed was to be left alone.

Sergeant Cleary was driving slowly. Giles Durand tried to see his face in the rearview mirror, but the sergeant’s hat was low over his eyes. His hands looked strange on the wheel, skinny and freckled, not like his dad’s hands had looked. He’d never see his dad’s hands on a steering wheel again. It was another one of those thoughts; he knew it was true, but he didn’t believe it. He kept looking into the empty passenger seat, knowing that if he saw his father there,he wouldn’t be surprised. Someday, he knew, it would all become real, but it hadn’t yet. He tried to listen to what his mom was saying.

“… change your mind. I know it’s hard for you to understand…”

You’ll understand when you’re elder, son.

“… but you have to keep believing in everything he taught you, Giles. Daddy died, but he died doing what was right. That’s what we have to hold on to.That he died for what he believed in, and we have to keep on believing in it…”

In the front seat. Sergeant shifted uneasily. He glanced back once at Giles, then shifted his eyes back to the road. His mother was still talking.

“That’s what we have to remember. When you grow up and you’re a policeman like Daddy, that’s the code you’ll have to live by, too. To do what’s right, no matter what the cost. Your daddy believed in that, Giles. He lived for that, and he died for that,and that’s what we have to remember about him. That’s what everyone will remember about him, and the people he helped will always be grateful that he was that way.”

“Then why weren’t they there today, at the funeral?”

“What?”

The suddenness of his mother’s confusion made him realize that she hadn’t been talking to him at all; she’d been holding onto him while she talked aloud to herself. Maybe even saying it out loud so the sergeant would hear her say it, and would go back to the station and tell all the other cops what she had said. As soon as the boy thought that, he knew it was true. But it didn’t keep him from asking the question again.

“All those people he helped by being a cop. Why weren’t any of them there? It was just us and Grandma, and Uncle Ted, and all the other cops. How come all the people he helped weren’t there?”

“Well, honey, it wasn’t like they all knew him personally. It was what he symbolized that was important. I guess you’re a little too young to understand what I mean by that…”

You’ll understand when you’re older, son. His dad pushing the girl’s face away from his crotch, and turning away from her and Giles as he zipped his pants up. The station house locker room had smelled like dirty socks, and his dad’s face had been very red. Sergeant Cleary had laughed, then. Now he didn’t even smile.

“… but it’s like, he wasn’t a person to them, he was a policeman. Most of them probably never even knew his name.”

“That girl did.” Giles glanced up at the sergeant in the rearview mirror. He’d been there, he would know; but he didn’t meet Giles’s eyes. “Remember her. Sergeant Cleary?”

The Sergeant kept driving, his hands tight on the wheel, his jaw set.

Giles opened his mouth to speak, and at that moment it seemed that he could see and hear what was going to happen. She knew his name, he would say.She called him Ricky, though, not Richard like you do, but she knew his name. And Dad was helping her, really helping her to let her do that to him so she wouldn’t have to go to jail, because she was really too young to have to go to jail. So if he helped her and she wasn’t in jail, why wasn’t she there, the funeral today? And then his mother would turn, and ask him more questions, and Sergeant Cleary would sink lower in his seat. And in the end, after he’d told her all about it, she’d turn and coldly ask the sergeant, who would say he didn’t know what the kid was talking about. Then his mom would turn and slap him, slap him so fast and hard that he never even saw her hand, would only remember hitting his head on the shiny upholstery so hard it was like a slap on the other side of his face. And then they wouldn’t talk anymore, and they would never, ever talk about the ride home from the funeral and what he had said,and it would almost be like it had never happened.He wouldn’t remember it, but he and his mom would never be able to forget it when they talked about his dad’s. So they wouldn’t talk about him very much. How could he know that?

“What girl?” said his mother sharply.

“Oh, some girl Sergeant Cleary once told me about.A girl dad had to arrest, but then he let go,” said Giles.

His mom smiled indulgently. “Richard arrested someone and then let her go? Giles, I don’t think policemen are allowed to do things like that. Once they arrest someone, that person has to be punished.”

In the front seat. Sergeant Clearly stirred. “It depends, ma’am,” he said softly. “Sometimes you give a first offender a break. Sometimes you know they don’t really deserve the blot on their record, so you let them off the hook.”

His mom looked puzzled for a moment, but didn’t say anything else, and Giles sat back, wondering why he had the feeling that something horrible had-just been averted, wondering how he could remember suddenly that Captain Cleary had sat in the front row when he graduated from the academy.

The Coachman looks at the young man seated next to him, and finds the young man staring back at him. “What changed?” asked the policeman, and the Coachman isn’t certain how to answer.

“You did,” he says at last. “You took a different path.”

“But I-” he doesn’t complete the sentence. After a moment he says, “A better one?”

“I don’t know,” says the Coachman. “Better for whom?” Then, “Did you and your mother talk about your dad much?”

“Huh? Sure. All the time… oh.”

The horses never tire. Nor does the Coachman. Beyond,back a forever behind them, something that wasn’t real,that never should have existed, collapses in on itself. It doesn’t leave a hole, for a thousand other possibilities flow in to take its place.

The Coachman sighs.

One left to ask. And the choice he must offer is bitter.This one he dreads. Never has he felt himself such a sly trickster as he does right now. He knows it is not upon him to choose what to offer. Each chooses what to offer himself.But from this, if he could, he would rein aside, would have the horses find a better path.

If the choice were his.

But it isn’t.

Each breath was painful. Stepovich couldn’t understand it. The night was cool-warm, full of summer city peace, the steady slow clop of the hooves was soothing as a lullaby. Beside him, the Coachman drove silently. That was fine with him. He’d had enough noise and action lately. This peace, this was what he wanted. It had been a long, hard day, full of stress, all blurring behind him. This quietness now,this was good.

The coach was keeping pace with a young couple strolling down the sidewalk. His arm was around her slender waist, and she leaned a dark head on his shoulder. He recognized his younger self, and his wife. No, not his wife, not then. His fiancee. How elegant it had once felt to say that word, how wealthy.He savored it.

Something struck him as slightly odd, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. He pushed the uneasiness out of his mind when he realized he could hear them talking. He remembered the conversation,even, from so very long ago. Funny. It hadn’t seemed important, back then. Hadn’t seemed like a turning point.

“Honey,” she said, “I wouldn’t mind working. In fact, I’d love it. You could go to school full-time, then,and be done that much sooner. I think it’s the only way we’re ever going to get what we want. Mike, I love you. I hate to see you work all day, and then try to study all night. And you know it’s making your grades suffer.”

The voice of reason. Patient, encouraging. God,how he’d wished for a cigarette, but he’d already given those up for her. No more cigarettes, or pickled eggs, and he’d quit wearing suspenders.

But he didn’t want to quit being a cop.

He’d started taking the night school classes to impress her. Gonna be a lawyer, he’d told her. Lied to her, might as well admit it. He’d taken just enough law classes to find out how slippery a subject it was.Justice, that was what he wanted to learn about. And Ed’s could teach him more about justice in one righteous bust than any of his night school teachers. He remembered all this. This was the night when he’d told her that he was going to lay out of school, for just one semester, to catch up with himself, so when they got married in a month, he’d have time free to honeymoon with her. Only he’d known then that he was never going back, that he was telling her a lie.

He watched himself lie to her, watched her accept it. Knew he could lean down and shout the truth out,and that his younger self would have to utter it, tell her that he really wanted to be a cop, that he didn’t think it was a lowlife job that kept him in permanent contact with lowlife people. He could have made that younger self explain to her just what it meant to him.

He listened to her reply.

“Well. As long as it’s not forever. It just scares me so, sometimes, knowing you’re out there being a target for every wacko in the city. As long as you’re happy, though, I suppose it’s okay. And you will go back to school next fall, right?”

Stepovich heard what his younger self had never heard. The lie in her voice. It wasn’t okay with her. Never would be. But she had believed it was only temporary, she’d believed she was marrying a future lawyer, not a blue suit and a duty weapon.

“We believed in each other’s lies,” he told the Coachman.

The Coachman nodded. “Don’t we all.”

“I could tell her the truth,” Stepovich said slowly.”I could tell her right now, and it would change everything. Maybe she wouldn’t marry me.”

“Maybe you’d go to school full time and become a lawyer. You had the brains for it.”

“But not the stomach,” Stepovich said slowly. He dragged in another painful breath. “This isn’t a dream, is it?”

The Coachman turned, and looked at him for a longtime. “It’s your choice,” he said quietly at last. “This could be a dream. Or it could be a place where you climb back into your skin, and take a different path.”

Stepovich could feel a chill seeping through his blood. He lifted a hand to his shoulder, almost remembered. Somewhere in the night, a slow anger tapped a tambourine.”Am I dying?” he asked.

“Dying? No. Not dying, but… you’re not dying.”

“And if I were, would I get another chance?”The Coachman shook his head slowly. “This is it.You picked this choice place, and I can offer you but one.”

“What do you suggest?”

For a moment, it seemed the Coachman winced,but all he said was, “I make no suggestions. Decide.”

Stepovich watched them kissing, the young cop and his fiancee. But the man thought he was kissing a cop’s wife, and the woman thought she was kissing a Future lawyer. They’d both be wrong. He still had a chance, right now, to step down from the coach and walk a different path, one that led away from the pains of quarrels and divorce. Maybe it would lead to no marriage at all. Maybe he’d learn to like being a lawyer. But there were no guarantees.Then it hit like a whip: No guarantees there’d be a Laurie or a Jeffrey; that’s what he was giving up, as well as everything else. That kiss they were sharing,that might be their last. He’d be sweeping away the joys with the pains. Did he want to chance that? Wiping out all those past pains, that was one thing. Giving up the picnics and family dinner in exchange fora life that might be worse, okay; but what if it meant the children never came to be?

A vague notion came to him that there was another thing he’d be undoing as well. He closed his hand on a weapon that wasn’t there, groped after a deed he couldn’t remember. But it had been important. And somehow it had kept Laurie safe. Funny, how foggy it was all getting. Not just his thoughts, but the night around him. Funny, how the horses plodded on, but they never passed the couple kissing under the street lamp.

“Drive on,” he finally said. “Drive on.” He leaned back into his pain.

One of the gypsies, the big one, is tapping a tambourine.He says, “So, you are taking all three of them back, then?”

The Coachman nods.

“What about the girl? Doesn’t she get a choice?”

“No,” says the Coachman. “Not yet, not here, not from me.”

“And the old woman?”

“She made all of her choices long ago.”

The big gypsy nods. He looks a bit like an owl, the way he stares. The Coachman drives on.

Soon he reaches a place where there is a soft glow of starlight, which is quickly joined by a half moon, waxing,and he feels sorrow. The journey is nearing its end. Only for a short time longer will he sit on this box and feel the horses talk to him through the reins. He has come many lifetimes tonight, but the journey still seems short. The thought takes him that he could turn now, and bring them all to another place-a place where this coach would remain real. Perhaps they would blink in the sunshine and thank him. Perhaps they would not. It doesn’t matter; he knows he will not do it.

The sun is rising ahead of him, red and thick behind layers of clouds, and in the glow, the horses begin to fade and the feeling of motion to decrease. Now he sees the faint outline of walls around him, and he pulls on the reins and the horses slow. When they have stopped, they are gone,as are we all, and the reins are no more than a twist of a scarf’s fabric tangled in his fingers.

17 NOV 05:57

I spent a lifetime in Hell last year,

I’m not sure when I got back.

The plaster statues are running in place.

And some are beginning to crack.

One wears a smile, one wears a frown;

They both seem fools to me.

The game isn’t over ’til one of them’s lost,

You never know who it will be.

“TELLERS OF TALES”

Durand felt like he was opening his eyes, though he couldn’t remember closing them. It was like a play resuming, a crowded set cluttered with furniture and people just starting to stir. Madam Moria was already setting upright an ugly little table that had gotten tipped over. She set her ruined kettle atop it, and glared at him when she caught him staring at her. With a sigh and a wheeze, she sank back into her chair as if she’d never left it. Durand belatedly realized that he was leaning against a tapes tried wall,clutching his bleeding arm.

He watched Daniel rise slowly, look around at the old woman’s apartment, and bow to the Coachman,who sniffed. “Don’t bow to me you, you gypsy, you.”Daniel smiled faintly, and turned to his brothers. Raymond was leaning against Csucskari, who still held the bloody knife.

“A pleasant ride,” said Raymond softly. He looked down suddenly, and, “How did he get here?” he asked the Coachman, almost accusingly.

The Coachman shrugged. “Perhaps he never left.”

Durand followed his glance. Little Timmy. The one they’d killed. The bloody corpse didn’t stir him at all. Only the pistol in the hand seemed real, and the only emotion it roused in Durand was anger.

Csucskari said, “We must see to the Wolf.”

And the Wolf is Mike, on the floor with Ed kneeling beside him. Ed pressed his handkerchief against Mike’s shoulder, while Laurie knelt beside them,clutching herself as she rocked back and forth. Durand crossed to kneel by his partner. He put his good arm around Laurie, stilled her rocking.

Durand blinked stupidly and looked around. His partner was on the floor, and his own arm was bleeding. From Ed’s color, he was hurting as well, even if no blood showed. The three gypsies looked as if a bare breath of wind might blow them all away. The Coachman leaned up beside the door, whip in hand,as if none of this concerned him. “What do we do?”Durand asked them all.

Madam Moria sighed heavily. She folded a scarf very carefully and set it aside. For a long second she shut her eyes. Then she opened them, and announced, “Well, I don’t have my cane, so I can’t make tea.” When everyone looked at her, she added,”My good kettle’s ruined, too,” and glared at Csucskari as if daring him to accept the blame.

Durand stirred suddenly. He walked over to her phone, a black thing crouching on a small table, and dialed.

“Officer Durand. My partner is down, and I’ve been injured. We need an ambulance at thirty-four-sixteen Oak Street Upper, northeast corner of Oak and Carradine. No, no back-up needed; the situation is stable. Hurry on that ambulance though. Mike’s hit bad. No, I won’t stay on the damn line. Use the nine-one-one trace, for god’s sake.” He left the receiver off the hook. Going back to Stepovich, he took Laurie firmly by the shoulders and pushed her into Ed’s arms. He knelt down, and began laying Stepovich’s shirt open.

“It doesn’t look good,” Ed muttered, and tried to keep Laurie from looking. Durand refolded the handkerchief and pressed it once more against the wound.

Stepovich stirred and cried out; Laurie echoed him. She pulled free of Ed, but suddenly Daniel was there, catching her in his arms despite the fiddle he still held. He pulled her face into his chest and held her tightly. She grew still. Durand swayed, then sat back on the floor beside his partner. He put his fingers on the pulse in Stepovich’s throat, kept them there. Ed got up and sank slowly onto the couch,one arm wrapped protectively around his ribs. “He’ll live,” he said. “But…” His voice trailed off.

Madam Moria had found her other cane. She thumped it impatiently on the carpet, “It’s over then,isn’t it?” she demanded.

“Over?” said Csucskari. “No. It’s not over. The Fair Lady has been banished from this world, but we have tasks yet to do.”

“We’re together now,” said Owl. “That is something.”

Durand turned his head, spoke to Csucskari as he kept his fingers on Stepovich’s pulse. “There’s still a warrant out for you, you know.”

“Yes,” said Csucskari.

“Perhaps it would be best if you left.”

“I don’t know where to go.”

“This is something new?” Raymond asked, and laughed.

“The Pennsylvania border is a good start,” said Durand.

Csucskari caught Raymond’s eye. “We must leave together,” he said. They both looked at Daniel.

His grip on Laurie tightened. He stared back at his brother, over her head. “I could be happy.”

“You’ve chosen already,” said Csucskari. “When it mattered most. Why torture yourself?”

” ‘Needs must when the Devil drives,’ ” Raymond began, but the Gypsy gave a slight shake of his head. The Coachman snorted.

A tremor shook Daniel. The bow slipped from his fingers, falling to the carpet. He seemed to age before their eyes. He let go of her. She didn’t seem to notice.

Daniel closed his eyes for an instant. Then he opened them and set his jaw. He gave himself a little shake.

Laurie blinked suddenly, and drew herself up. She looked around the room and Durand saw the confusion grow in her eyes. “Daniel?” she asked, puzzled.

“Daniel is gone,” said the Raven.

Stepovich groaned.

Laurie spun suddenly, seemed to see anew her father on the floor. “Daddy!” she wailed, and launched herself at him.

Mike had stirred. He made a sound that might have been her name, and she flung herself to her knees on the floor beside Durand.

The Raven turned aside again.

“We have to go,” the big gypsy reminded them all.

“How?” said Csucskari.

Something shining flashed through the air, struck the Coachman’s chest and fell to the floor. “Get the hell out of here,” Ed growled. “You been nothing but a pack of trouble anyway.” The Coachman crouched slowly, rose with Ed’s Cadillac keys in his hand. He jingled them in a loose fist.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

A growing wail of ambulance sirens answered him.A second siren, rising and falling, chimed in. “Get the hell out of here!” Ed snarled. “The cops are coming. And remember: Super unleaded, or she’ll knock like hell on the hills.”

“We’ll be gone, then,” said the Coachman. He opened the door. The big gypsy lifted a hand in a quick goodbye, then led the way down the stairs. The Gypsy took the Raven’s arm as tenderly as if he were wounded.

“Come, brother,” he said.

“I was what she made me,” he said softly. “Not as my acts betrayed me.”

The Gypsy tugged at him gently.

The Raven looked once more at Laurie as she bowed over her father. It was the only farewell he gave her.He straightened, squaring his shoulders. Then he stopped, and picked up his fiddle bow from where he’d dropped it. As the sirens drew nearer, he stood still, looking at the fiddle in his hands.

“Brother,” cautioned the Gypsy.

Daniel stepped forward suddenly, thrust fiddle and bow at Ed. “For her,” he said. “Later. When she wants it.”

Moria scowled. “Are you certain?” she asked.

“See she gets a case for it.” The Raven turned as abruptly as a father abandoning a child. “Let’s go,”he told the Coachman, and caught his brother’s elbow and hurried him down the stairs.

The Coachman gave the room one elegant sweeping bow, one last sardonic smile, and followed. 

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