Steph was at the intersection. It was January first and cold was knife to the skin, stinging everything with its icy sharp chill, overpowering her car’s heater, a bucket of water awakening the senses. Her fingers frozen felt to the steering wheel despite her thick gloves. The light turned green and she took a left.
Every person she drove past was looking into her soul. They could read her sin as if it was printed on her forehead. She drove a little faster. The judgmental eyes of those around her in other cars, on the sidewalks and even faces on billboards burned her flesh with their gaze and managed to cut through the winter winds harder than the winter winds cut through thick winter coats. She made another left.
Alan was waiting in the usual spot. On the corner of 8th and 5th, 13 stores away from the funeral home that was practically dying itself. The layers he was wearing to shelter from the harsh weather couldn’t hide his guilt. His eyes were the only piece of his face visible because of his scarf over his mouth. Steph pulled up next to him and he got in.
For a moment he just enjoyed basking in the company of his lover and the small amount of heat coming from the car that was practically a sauna after being on the cold street corner for 15 minutes. Steph finally broke the silence.
“Why’d you have me pick you up this time?” Broken from his warm daze Alan looked startled for a moment before answering.
“Car’s in the shop.” And he looked back out the window.
“So she dropped you off?” Steph seemed a little upset.
“Yeah,” he replied, “Since the office is just down the street I had her leave me there then I figured I’d go a few blocks away before anyone could see me,” Alan explained.
“You don’t think she knows, right?” Alan shook his head.
“She couldn’t be more oblivious.
“Okay,” Steph said but she was reassuring herself more than anything. “My friend thinks I’m at work too so we shouldn’t have any interruptions. We might not be able to do this as often now though. She’s going through some stuff and will probably need me around more.” Alan looked a little upset but understanding.
“That’s fine sweetie.”
“We’re okay, right?” Steph asked, not entirely sure of the answer.
“We’re fine, I promise you. I love you. Now cheer up, it’s New Years day, hell it’s the first day of this set of a thousand years.” He flashed that smile that Steph could never say no to, she smiled and nodded and they drove off.
“The usual place?” She asked once they made a left at the corner.
“Yeah.” Alan said coolly.
They went westbound on the interstate to the Xiii motel. It had always been a joke to those who knew the story. The owner had wanted an Asian theme and Xii was the best he could think of for a name. Why he spelled it with three I’s no one knew, but he would always stress how it was pronounced “Jee,” despite his nonexistent knowledge of any Asian language.
“Welcome to the Xiii the only motel where your bags are carried by rickshaw.” Dennis said dully from behind his desk. “Yeah, Dennis we’ve heard it all before,” Alan criticized as he and Steph walked in “Can we get our usual room?” Dennis got up from his swivel chair behind to reach for the key “But of course, I keep that key under glass just for you guys.” Dennis said sarcastically. In the face of the freezing temperatures he sat wearing a stained white tank top which he would often boast about as his “going out clothes.” Dennis would always push his glasses up against his face and brush the remaining strands of hair he had in an attempt to clean up for any woman to enter his establishment. Today had been no different. He handed the key to Alan and with that they shot up to their room.
Hours later Steph and Alan were lying in bed together. Alan was staring at the ceiling, Steph with her head on his chest tracing imaginary lines on his stomach with her fingers.
“Hey Al?” Steph whispered.
“Hm?” he mumbled, looking down at her. She rolled over so she was on her back with her head still on him “we can’t keep doing this.” There was pain in her eyes.
“You want to break things off?” He seemed surprised.
“You have a wife Al. You have kids. This isn’t fair to them.” Terrified, Alan leant up.
“But I love you. We’re going to move away some place warm and be on our own.” Steph’s eyes started to tear.
“We can’t Al. You can’t just leave them.” She was crying now.
“They mean nothing! We’ll start a family on our own!” Alan begged.
“You know that’s impossible!” She said through her puffy eyes and red nose as she jumped to her feet. “You know I can’t have kids since the cancer! You’ve been saying we’d run off together for months now and we’re still coming to this sleazy motel every Saturday! You don’t think I’m not jealous of your wife? She gets you all week long! She gets to fall asleep with you and knows you’ll be there in the morning. Your kids get you, hell; the family dog sees you more than I do!” Alan was up at this point too.
“You know I work hard to keep everyone happy! You think I like having to sneak around Cecilia like this?”
“Well then I guess I’m doing you a favor! I’m done Al.” Steph grabbed her clothes and stormed off half naked into the cold. She got dressed in the car and went home to tend to her friend who needed her more than anything.
Later that night there was a knock at her door. Steph removed the chain and unlocked the deadbolt. When she opened the door she found herself face to face with a man she had never met before. He was wearing a grey suit with a white shirt and a thin blue tie all under a soaked trench coat. “Can I help you?”
“Yes ma’am I’m Detective Rathbone, I’m sorry to bother you, I’m just going to have to ask you a few questions.”
“About?” Steph asked, trying to wipe the dried mascara from her face.
“Did you know Mister Duke three apartments down from you?”
“The journalist? I’ve bumped into him a few times in the lobby, why what happened?”
“He was found dead in his apartment and we were just wondering if you knew anything.”
“That’s awful,” Steph returned “If I hear anything I’ll be sure to inform your department.”
“Please do,” the detective said as he reached into his coat “Here’s my card. Call me if anything comes up.”
“Will do” Steph said taking his card. The detective stood in her doorway examining everything for a moment before realizing the fact that he had come to this woman’s residence at such a late hour.
“Well I better let you go back to bed ma’am. Sorry for the intrusion.”
“Oh its fine, I wasn’t even asleep, but I’m just about there. Goodnight Detective.”
Steph closed her door and turned off the light.
The phone rang two weeks later.
“Hello?” Steph answered.
“Hey it’s Al.” A lump grew in her throat. “Listen Steph, I’m really sorry about everything that happened. Can we meet up tonight? Just talk things out?”
After contemplating it for a bit Steph finally let out “Yeah Al. That sounds great.” She was overcome with invigorating optimism.
“One more thing” Alan added. A fearful shock wave hit her. “I forgive you for freaking out on me the other day, I’ll see you tonight okay honey?” Steph began to shake with anger and disappointment.
“Yeah sure, bye Al.” They both hung up.
Steph was at the intersection. It was a few weeks into January and the sky was raining icy bullets hitting everything that lay beneath them. It was four in the morning and it couldn’t get any darker. A hearse drove across the intersection. Seeing the vehicle of death made her feel overcome with a sense of right and wrong. Her guilt had over ridden her. “What am I doing?” She sadly said aloud to herself as she slowly lowered her forehead onto the steering wheel to think. When she looked up the light had turned green. She made a right turn.
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