Closing time. Well, at least according to California state law. Nora owned the bar. Perhaps if she picked up and moved to somewhere exotic like Japan or a floating penitentiary in the middle of the Arctic Sea she could serve as her own master at last. The big 6-0 had come and gone. As far as she knew, her husband had never eaten paint chips or suffered massive head trauma, but his mind was already starting to go. How would she occupy herself after 2am once he was gone?
Probably the same way she did now. Inspecting a bar tab printout as if electric signature devices would never belong in a crowded room full of drunks. At least not in her bar. The beer had always come cheap enough, but business was rough. Her girls were reliable but moody. Her regulars—well, there was a reason Nora was always looking for the unexpected. She had studied archeology in college and traveled the world sifting through everyone else’s abandoned dirt without ever questioning what she had become—old and homely.
“Let’s see here.”
Nora only talked to herself around other people when she was doing something important, but using her fancy new phone app to scan a perfect stranger’s signature all by her lonesome? This had to be borderline criminal.
طائر الحرية الفلسطيني
The unusual script looked Arabic, and wouldn’t you know it? It was Palestinian. Nora searched her mind for anyone she had encountered throughout the night that fit the bill but came up shattered shot glass empty. Before paying someone born south of Chula Vista to mop her floor for her, she opened a new tab in her internet browser. Typing both “Freedom Bird” and “Palestine” in the search field gave her an instant hit.
The name she had scanned wasn’t a name at all but rather a symbol of the quetzal, a mountainous bird whose colors matched the flag of the State of Palestine. This didn’t come as too much of a surprise. Nora had been to Guatemala before, home of the resplendent quetzal. The Mayans had considered it as sacred as the macaw and jaguar, but so what?
“Go home, Nora.”
Before taking her own advice, Nora found herself startled by a dark figure across the bar.
Nora hesitated to speak aloud. She nearly chased her own anchorous heart to the floor, when she heard an audible reply.
Erika didn’t look sad or lonely. Her older sister, Rebecca, had bartended at Nora’s for longer than she cared to remember. Nora knew something was wrong though, but what?
As if gently removing melting ice cubes from Nora’s slantless spine, Erika ran her fingertips across the bar while urging her, “Don’t be afraid.”
Nora couldn’t help it. She had never seen Erika drunk, not even the first and only time she had caught her and Becca dancing on top of her bar. Since then, they had brought three little ones into the world. Erika’s five-year-old, Timothy, was on the spectrum, but was Nora seeing things? Direct streetlight seemed to pass completely through Erika’s unusually tan skin. It was possible that she and Becca possessed far more Native American heritage than Becca dared to let on given her predisposition to volunteer work at countless nature reserves across the West Coast. People weren’t that bad though. After all, Becca never missed a scheduled shift, but what was Erika’s game?
She told Nora the unthinkable. She had died earlier that night, but she trusted her to make things right somehow. Nora could start by convincing Becca to forgive the man responsible for her death. A late night truck driver, just like their dad. At least before his knees finally gave out.
Surgery was always an option, and costly. So was vengeance beyond the grave, but Erika had found peace already. How? Because Becca would listen to Nora. She’d need a reason not to hop out the back of that garbage truck at an opportune time and slice a perfect stranger from ear to ear. She’d need a reason not to kill after the state covered the costs of the trial. Her dad would soon lose control of his prolific smile for good like a big rig operating on one borrowed stack of dimes too many, and she’d have to do something.
Nora had no idea where the saying “It’s time to pay the piper” originated from. She understood the long-term consequences of national debt even less, but she knew what was being asked of her. She just didn’t know how much longer she could postulate the very existence of the squeaky voiced vermin standing before her. Had she been roofied? There were ten times as many cougar hunters per square mile in Southern California than any other region in the country, but perhaps if she didn’t make any sudden movements her momentary night scare would finally end. She’d wake up, wander into the driver’s seat of her burgundy Volkswagen Tiguan and eagerly make her way home to her empty house and dream empty dreams.
No such luck. Erika continued standing erect, looking haunted, as she spoke again.
“There’s one more thing.”
Oh man. What now? Was her son okay?
Nora’s eyes widened, before she asked, “What? What is it?”
Instead of naming her own son, Erika named Nora’s. Jacob was a product of her first marriage, and he was going to kill himself. On his anniversary day.
Nora had never been that into horror flicks. She didn’t understand why her peers in college had showcased absolute terror during field digs, but she was convinced of this much—there was an art to building suspense, both in real life and the cinema. Telling without showing. The moment of discovery, of creation itself, would never be as invigorating as the moment just before—when the imagination and the inevitable had no choice but to exist as one. Then again, believing in anything bigger than yourself was inherently evil, or at least mildly unnerving. Nora just never thought her first psychotic episode would feature such a damaging claim about the only thing she had actually managed to burn to the ground because she had been too careful. Too understanding. Too motherly.
Only once Nora managed to form at least one coherent word on her quivering lips did she speak again.
“I don’t know.”
Erika was well aware that Jacob had yet to marry. After apologizing for not being more helpful, she bid Nora goodbye and disappeared from sight altogether. Her work in this life was done; Nora’s had only just begun.
Nora followed her son on each of his first four anniversaries. Then, on the day of the fifth she followed him to a day care center located less than two blocks away from an open liquor store in every direction. He and his wife had gotten divorced nine months earlier. Nora knew what Jacob had come to do. He had come to say goodbye, only he never left the sidewalk.
Jacob watched his son play in the yard for only mere seconds before heading towards the Pacific. Jacob was also on the spectrum, which came as a surprise to most. He hadn’t taken the divorce well, but he would handle the final stretch of I-5 before San Diego masterfully.
He was going at least 95 by Nora’s calculations, at least until he entered the state reserve a few miles north of downtown San Diego. Nora didn’t call out his name once he exited his car and approached the wandering sea. She didn’t say anything at all, until they both relocated to a standing roadblock 23 miles away. After passing twice as many idling cars as active web browsers, she followed Jacob into the woods unnoticed. The burning pines knew his pain but not his given name, and that just wouldn’t do.
Nora screamed Jacob’s name and nothing else until she tasted blood. Until she ran off more sleepwalking bears than CO2-rich air. She needed her terminally wounded child to come back to her, and he did.
The Great Thaw began, as they matched up inseparable shoulders no more and Nora cried, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Her son’s arms had never felt stronger against her heaving back. The nocturnal sun encroaching their most precious moment yet would never disappoint the devil they knew, but there were some nondenominational topics just too hot to tweet out at a moment’s notice.
“Thank you, Erika.”
Becca would echo the exact same sentiment, once Nora told her everything. She’d also figure, “I guess this means I shouldn’t ask for a raise any time soon.”
Think again, Bec’. Or just take your next tip jar treasure better than your direct employer did her last multinational nod to ancient Mayan culture. As if spiritual freedom would never be synonymous with Christina Ricci’s ignominious headspace, just two-legged races with Cool Grandma away from permanent afterhours grace.