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She watched him from a distance, wondering if she should, how she should, approach him. Flying to San Francisco from Southern California, Alice took a bus north to the small town on the Russian River, a town she had never heard of, nor had she seen it on any map of California. It’s only significance to her was that Tom’s sister told Alice that Tom still lives there. The trip had been a blur. Alice had never been particularly impetuous. She had made a life’s habit of planning her vacations at least a good year in advance. Her calendar for the coming year was already filled in, and it was only April. But now she felt she was on a mission that she didn’t understand, driven by some echoes in her subconscious that she had decided she could do without.

At 60, Alice felt she had the right to take the trip. It was about time. Maybe it was inevitable. Having had recurring dreams about Tom Sherman for the past 30 years or longer, Alice believed that it was a mission for improved mental health, something she thought she deserved in later life. Thirty years of saving him in her dreams, finding him, losing him, helping him, letting him slip away. Dreaming and dreaming and never solving one problem, never really knowing if he were dead or alive, or somewhere in between. But her last dream had him looking well, telling her that he was okay. Alice had to know if what she dreamed was so. It was as simple as that. Thirty years of dreaming about Tom Sherman’s safety was quite enough. She needed to put her mind at rest.

Just a year ago, she had dreamt he had died of a drug overdose. In another dream, still more distant, she knew if she left him on the top bunk of a bed, safe from encroaching water, he would be gone when she got back. But last month she dreamed he was looking healthy and strong, telling her he had joined a substance abuse program for alcohol treatment, and that he said he needed to stay the course. Alice woke up, wondering how she could help him. She always woke up wishing she could do something to make her life better.

Now she gazed at Tom Sherman from across the street as he entered a hardware store. From her vantage point on the wooden bench outside the bus station, she was sure she blended into the building enough to remain anonymous. It was a coincidence that he would be going into a hardware store within the hour Alice got off the bus in this small northern California outpost where he lived. It was two miles from the Pacific Ocean and about 2,000 miles from all his family and most of his old friends. Tom seemed to have become taller than she remembered as he walked into the store, although adding height at his age seemed quite unlikely, she thought.

The second to last time she had seen him, they were both 28. They had danced at their high school class’s tenth reunion.

“How are you doing, Tommy?” Alice asked him as they danced. “Are you all right now?” She permitted herself to gaze into his large brown eyes that looked chronically sad to her. Even in his grade school photos, which Alice had stashed in a drawer of her night table, Tom looked sad, maybe glum, as though he had nothing to smile about. Tom looked back at her more deliberately than she ever remembered in all their years in school together.

“I stayed with my sister, Georgina, to see if I could stop drinking,” Tom told her as they barely moved their feet while dancing. No one would have known they were talking about his addiction that became more serious in the jungles of VietNam.

“It’s going to be better, but I am not entirely okay,” Tom stopped for a minute, looking away. He seemed to be thinking about how much he could tell Alice. Then he looked directly into her eyes again, as they did the perfunctory waltz, their bodies swaying against each other.

“Please don’t tell my mother,” he said quietly, almost whispering. It sounded like a plea.

Alice placed her cheek on his and whispered into his ear, “I won’t tell your mom, Tom. I won’t tell her anything.”

As they swayed with one another, Alice felt she had known Tom before and they were renewing something from back when, maybe a high school Christmas dance, maybe a prom. But Alice never really dated Tom, she just watched him from a distance, wondering why he never smiled much, wondering why he never seemed very happy. After attending all of grade school with Tom, in their first two years of high school, Tom began dating her best friend Marsha. Whatever happened to that relationship, Alice never understood, but she always felt that Tom was Marsha’s boyfriend after that, an untouchable under any circumstances. She never tried to know him in high school or after. Just that one dance, just that one whisper.

Alice never had the occasion to even see Tom’s mother either, much less confide any secret until about 15 years later. Alice had come home, and Tom invited her to visit him in the town where they grew up. When she arrived at the Sherman house that she used to visit as a child, Tom told Alice that he wanted her to go with him to visit his mother in a nursing home. She was glad to join him, feeling that it was a special invitation he was asking of her, to visit his mother who she had known most of her own childhood.

When they entered the nursing home, Tom took Alice’s hand, holding it lightly as they walked down the hall together. Entering the room, Tom went over to the bed and kissed his mother’s cheek. She appeared to be sleeping, but she woke up and turned her face.

Oh, Tommy, it is so good for you to be here.” Mrs. Sherman said softly. Tom turned to Alice, and motioned for her to come closer to the bed. “You remember Alice, don’t you, mom? We went to grade school and high school together?”

Alice moved closer to the bed and smiled at Mrs. Sherman. She recalled the number of years they had spent together, the two families, both with six children, both strong church-going broods lined up in the second or third bench in church. As their families grew, they were less likely to socialize with one another, but they did share some family picnics and parties. Alice’s mom saw Mrs. Sherman at school functions or at the women’s organizations held at church. Tom’s older sister's baby sat for Alice and her sisters and brothers. They even attended a summer camp outside of town together.

Once through with their visit to the nursing home, Tom drove Alice back to his sister’s home where Tom was staying, and where Alice’s car was parked. Tom stopped the car and they sat together in the front seat, parked in the driveway, just looking ahead and thinking quietly to themselves. Alice remembered them playing at the grocery store when they were still not in grade school yet. Tom and Alice were small, shy customers, while their older sisters sold them canned goods from the sidewalk store. She recalled sitting in front of the TV at the Sherman house, observing Tommy’s sisters spooning peanut butter out of the open jars while they all watched the Mickey Mouse Club together. When they were in fourth and fifth grade together, they partook in vigorous King of the Mountain snow fights with the girls trying to take the snow hill on the side of the grade school parking lot, while the boys defended it. Buttons flew off winter coats and snow pants got ripped during the furious contests between the boys and the girls. It was the only time Alice had touched Tom in all those years.

Suddenly, as they sat quietly in the truck, Tom leaned over and kissed Alice on the lips. She was startled but pleasantly surprised, and enjoyed the warmth of his full lips. Alice sat back, thinking that they had advanced from the years of being shy with one another, barely coming close as children.

Now, sitting on the bench outside the bus station, Alice looked at the city in front of her and wondered what his life had been like. A grocery store, a hardware store, a cleaner, a thrift shop posed as a “Deja Vue” place to buy used clothing were on one side of the street. A gas station, post office and hair cutting salon (no doubt unisex), and an office building were on the other side of the street. That seemed to be the entire town on one block. Alice wondered if the little town had once been a haven for hippies with a carrot juice store under a Eucalyptus tree.

But these people walking down the street didn’t look like Californians, Alice noted. You could probably find similar folks in Milwaukee or Toledo, she thought. No one was wearing sunglasses or driving foreign cars. It looked like a place that had forgotten to be cool, which is just the kind of place she knew Tom would like.

Alice sat and reflected that Tom had been in the hardware store a long time. She was wondering if he was building something or fixing the plumbing. She wondered if he might be painting and needed tape to mask the woodwork. Alice continued to conjure all the reasons Tom might be staying in the hardware store so long. Maybe he is bored, she thought.

Suddenly, Tom walked out of the store and headed across the street at an angle, probably toward his car that was parked somewhere down the street.

It’s now or never,” Alice thought. Then she suddenly remembered she needed a place to stay, if she was going to be here overnight. She reminded herself that she could try to find him tomorrow when she was rested. She turned around and looked at her reflection in the bus station window, pushing her bangs over her ears. She had been growing them out for the past year. Her ex-husband had remarked that he thought her effort to change her hair style from layered curls to a one-length straight look had changed her personality in the past year. Something had changed her personality, that’s for sure, Alice thought, as she fussed with her image in the reflecting glass. She changed after the first year in California into someone who would, for instance, seek out a very old friend she had been dreaming about and saving for most of her adult life. That was not something she would have done before moving to California. Never.

Suddenly, she saw his reflection looking back at her in the window. When her eyes met his, he turned away, as though he was not really looking at her but rather reading the bus schedule that was posted on the window. He had no choice. She was burning a hole in his head.

Hi,” she mumbled, turning toward him.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” Tom responded. “I thought when I saw you from across the street that I recognized you. I am pretty sure I do know you.” Alice noted that Tom didn’t appear to be as shy as she thought he was. It was his home, she conjectured, so he was comfortable making the inquiry.

Alice licked her lips and briefly bit them, not being able to think of what she had planned on the bus to say. She cleared her throat but wasn’t sure that any noise would come out. She knew instinctively that her eyes were pleading for mercy, understanding, or any emotion that would let her save face. All at once, she felt very stupid.

“Hi Tom. We do know each other. In fact, we’ve sort of known each other most of our lives. We just look a little different now. I’m Alice. We were in grade school together, and we rode the bus together in high school, danced at our tenth reunion, and visited your mother while she was in a nursing home. We haven’t seen each other for a really long time, but I thought I would try to visit you since I am in California now.”

Tom looked as though someone had punched him in the stomach; the shock in his eyes was pronounced, but he didn’t say anything and didn’t smile. He never smiled, she thought. He just peered back at Alice, his enormous brown eyes making her feel like he was trying to read her thoughts through her brain instead of listening to her with his ears.

“Alice? It’s you? Alice McGee? What are you doing here? Why are you here? I can’t believe this. Really? You know, you haven’t changed that much at all, but I must say, any change is pretty nice. You were always a pretty girl.”

“Well, Tommy, we both look older,” Alice exclaimed, not wanting to acknowledge what appeared to be a compliment. “I don’t think it is possible that I would age to be better looking. I am a grandma now. But truthfully, you do look younger, as though you may have stopped aging at some point. You also look taller. Can that be?”

“I don’t know. I guess I stopped shrinking when I stopped eating the mushrooms,” Tom commented, laughing as he said it. “Really, you don’t look that much different, Alice. I am just having a hard time believing this. What are you doing here?”

Tom stepped back as if to take a better look at her. Alice saw him scan her body as though he was trying to quickly catch up and place her in the current time period. Alice knew she had gained weight from motherhood; her breasts had become fuller and her hips might have expanded some. Alice knew she probably looked like a plump version of the cheerleader she had been in grade school and high school.

“Well, I came to see you, Tommy,” Alice responded. She wasn’t sure if her bluntness would be appreciated, but she really didn’t care. It was such a burden to have lifted. He was standing in front of her, tall, healthy looking, slightly greying, with curly black hair surrounding his ears. She wondered if he had ever grown that beautiful curly black hair down his back like so many of their classmates had. It didn’t seem that he had changed his style much at all: jeans and a t-shirt. He had worn jeans and a t-shirt to the 10th reunion. She could see crows’ feet around his eyes and wrinkles on his forehead. She wanted to use her finger to press out the crease that met in the middle of his two dark eyebrows that hung over almond-shaped eyes, yielding a deep-seated intensity.

“Tom, I am here because I have had this strange relationship with you since we danced at our 10th reunion, and since you and I visited your mother at a nursing home about 15 years later. I feel like I’ve talked to you at least a hundred times since we saw each other last. I started to write you a letter a couple months ago, after my last dream about you, but then I thought you might not write back. Then I’d be right back to dreaming my worries about you. So, I decided I would do this instead, to see for myself if you are okay or if you are still struggling with something. I feel like I am kind of descending on you without warning, but I also know I can’t keep dreaming about you without actually finding out how you are. I won’t make a menace of myself, and I am not a stalker. I just wanted to have a couple days of vacation on the Russian River and to find out if you are okay. I know it might seem sort of invasive of me—dear Lord, very invasive and kind of bold. But it is something I had to do. I’ll explain it more but can we get some coffee or lemonade or something? Is there any place where we can sit down and talk?”

Alice stopped to catch her breath. She was aware it might be likely that Tom thought she was absolutely bonkers, but she knew there was no way to explain away her visit to the very place where he lives.

Tom pointed down to the next block, took her bag, and began walking toward a small family restaurant under a Eucalyptus tree at the end of the block. Alice said she needed to carry the bag herself to maintain balance, but Tom took it anyway, smiling slightly and taking her by the arm with his free hand as though she needed to be escorted.

“I don’t know why I have these recurring dreams about you, Tom,” Alice started to explain again. “When we danced at the reunion, you told me not to tell your mother something, but I never knew what you were talking about. Right after that, I started to have dreams about you, worrying about you, wondering if you were all right. I didn’t have them constantly, but often enough that they began to bother me. I’ve saved you in my dreams from every conceivable circumstance you can imagine, Tommy. In one of my dreams, I even saved you from some angry woman who you owed something, money, I guess. I stepped in and said I would take care of it, as if I was your mother. I don’t understand it, and I’ve never gone in for psychoanalysis. Now I just wanted to find out if you were dead or alive, and that you are okay. I’m sorry if this gives you the creeps. It gives me the creeps. Really, it must seem insane to you, but I am really quite sane. God, I’m sorry. I must sound so odd.”

Tommy smiled at her and squeezed the arm he was holding. They entered the restaurant and seated themselves in a booth across from one another. Alice's legs stuck to the red vinyl cushions of the booth. She felt herself sweating and took a napkin from the metal dispenser on the table to wipe the drops that were forming on her forehead and upper lip. She moved deliberately, as though she was sitting alone, pretending as though she wasn’t scared to death to look at his face again.

Tom sat quietly, watching Alice as though he was watching a movie. Somehow, Tom had always been able to be directly across from someone, or right next to them, and appear as though he was miles away. It always seemed as though he couldn’t be reached. Alice wanted to reach across the table and touch his arm, to prove to herself that he was there.

“I guess it is my turn,” Tom said, a slight, bashful smile forming on his full lips. “I just don’t know what to say. No, I don’t think you are nuts to have dreams, but I don’t know why you would dream about me, Alice. I’d be flattered, I guess, if I weren’t so damn stunned. I’m telling you; this is nothing like anything that has happened to me before. You look like you might blow up, Alice, your face is beet red. Are you alright? Do you need some water?”

Alice did feel like she was going to explode. She half wanted to leap from the table and run for the bus station to hop on the next bus out of town. “I could pretend it was his dream this time, and it never happened,” Alice thought.

“Yes, I would like some water. Ah, waitress?” Alice beckoned a young woman who seemed intent on watching them.

“Hi Lena.” Tom said as the waitress approached the table. “Could you get my friend and me two glasses of ice water? Do you want something else, Alice, while she is here? I think I’ll have grilled cheese. Lena, this is an old friend of mine. We went to grade school and high school together. She is here for a visit.”

Alice watched as Tom provided an explanation that seemed so simple and straightforward. She recalled that in this small town it was likely that everyone knew everyone else’s business. Maybe Tom wanted to get an accurate description of this stranger out on the streets, so the folks wouldn’t be making up their own stories. Half their high school class had probably made up stories about Tommy; there were probably lots of stories floating around California and Illinois about him.

“Now that you are here, where are you staying?” Tom asked with sudden intensity. “The only place nearby is a kind of worn out Best Western that’s close to the water. Do you have a reservation there? Oh, maybe you weren’t even going to stay for the night?”

“No, I thought I’d stay at least a night, whether or not I found you. But I didn’t make a reservation. I didn’t know where to call. I figured I could head back to San Francisco if I couldn’t find anything here. I kept my hotel room there, just in case,” she added.

“Well, it would suit me if you were to stay,” Tom said with a smile. “To tell you the truth, it will take me at least a day to get used to seeing you here with me. I can’t believe it, really. You look great, Alice, and you look like yourself. I can’t believe you would make all this effort to find me.”

Alice felt comforted by Tom’s burgeoning candor. He seemed almost gleeful in his own way. She was beginning to feel happy herself—like this was a vacation after all.

“I know this might be a bit forward,” Tom continued, “But I do have a bedroom at my place. You are welcome to stay there. I can sleep on the couch. I so often fall asleep there that it might as well be my bed. I think you’d be better off at my place than at the Best Western. Would you be comfortable with that?”

Alice knew she would feel uncomfortable with that. She would probably crawl right out of her skin. She hadn’t seen her ex-husband for over three months, and had spent the entire time alone in California, separated from all her family and friends. Their separation had been agreeable. Alice’s personality had been changing for over the past two years since Josh’s company had transferred him to California. Once they moved away from everyone they knew, Josh was on the road constantly. So, Alice had been spending most of her time alone, cleaning the pool and walking up and down hills. She really didn’t understand why Josh had been so enamored with moving to California in a flurry, intoxicated by palm trees and a swimming pool. Alice hid in the confines of her walled existence while her personality changed. Six months after moving there, Josh agreed to work out of the Corporate offices in Illinois, so he was gone most of the time. No one in the company thought a thing of it. They needed him here, then they needed him there. So, it didn’t matter much where she was, it was just more of the same, separation or not. Alice finally had enough of it, and filed for divorce. Josh was still in Illinois when it was all taken care of.

“I don’t want to interfere with your life, Tommy,” Alice said. “I just wanted to see you, to know that you are all right. I hope this will help me stop dreaming about you. Are you sure it wouldn’t be a big mess if I stayed with you for one night? I really don’t want to bother you.”
“You wouldn’t be disturbing me, Alice,” Tom retorted. “I’d love to have you stay. I’ve been living alone since my girlfriend moved out about two years ago. She’d been with me for five years before that. At first, I didn’t like living alone, but after a while it seemed like it was for the best. I stopped drinking. She and I partied well together. We stayed high for days, even weeks. As a matter of fact, I guess we were buzzed the entire time we lived together – the whole five years. I think that is why we got along so well. We were out of it. I was her boy toy and she was my Sheena of the Jungle. Yeah, it was just as well we cut out that crap. I didn’t think I could do it, but I did with a little help from my friend, who served as my sponsor. I haven’t had a drink for over two years. And now I have a great place for surprise visitors to stay. Great planning, huh, even if I didn’t know you were coming. I’ll sleep on the couch and you can have my room. I promise I won’t bother you, and I’ll keep my snoring to a minimum.”

They talked over grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato slices, sharing notes about their parents’ health, and the status of each of their brothers and sisters. Alice brought Tom up to date on anyone they both knew. At least five of their classmates had died, though she didn’t know all the details. She explained she was only recently trying to get back in touch with old friends. After multiple helpings of iced tea, Alice suddenly noticed the lateness of the afternoon and decided to change the subject.

“Let’s take a look at your boy-toy crib, Tom, before it gets too late. If it seems like I’ll be crowding you, I can still call to make a reservation at that Best Western. Deal?”

“Deal,” Tom responded. “But you won’t be crowding me. I live right on the river. There’re tons of room on the front porch if the couch gets lumpy. I’ve spent more nights out there on that porch swing than I want to tell you about.”

Alice climbed into Tom’s blue, beat-up 1986 Beretta. The car’s mileage was over 139,000. The front end had a dent, and the fan for the air or heat was not working. But the radio played classic rock, and Janis Joplin was screeching “Get it while you can,” as they bumped over a gravel drive to his house.

“If I were you, I would write to Chevrolet. Maybe you could do a commercial for them,” Alice told Tom. “This might be the longest living Beretta in history. Maybe they would want you to tell them all the good times you had over the 139,000 miles.”

“Oh, yeah, that would be a really great commercial. They could hear about the time I drove through the stop light and creamed a car that was turning left outside of San Francisco. That is the dent in the front. Or when I drove into a tree down the road after a long night of fighting with Cheryl, the girlfriend I was telling you about. She was threatening to get out of the car, to leave me, so I rammed the side of the car into the tree so she couldn’t get the door open. She climbed out the window and walked back to the house. We were both drinking, of course. The car’s life would make as great a commercial as my life. The tag line could be ‘Losers slowly dying away on the Russian River. But their cars keep going.’”

Tom related that he had purchased his home during an early dry spell with the money he made on photography. He had begun his business selling photos from Viet Nam and other overseas duty areas. The green of Thailand and the brown burnt-out villages of VietNam had been of momentary interest to some news organizations. That was decades ago, he explained.

Now the grey boards of the porch creaked as they walked up the front steps, and the front porch swing looked as though it had seen better days. Alice saw the swing and smiled. It hung from rusted iron chains. She could imagine the squeaking it must make if anyone sat on the warm beige cotton futon that covered the wooden seat. It was just how she envisioned he would be living, at some point in her dream cycle. Tom had gone from well and happy to stoned and defeated in her dreams, and then back to healthy. This was better than she ever pictured him, though, she thought to herself.

After he showed her where she could leave her bag, he offered her a glass of water and they sat on the porch swing to further update their lives. Alice likes to listen to Tom talk. He had been so quiet all the years she had known him when they were kids. He told her he had worked as a professional fisherman in the waters of the Pacific for over ten years of drinking. Cocaine had been a brief pastime when he had money, he said. But beer with shots of Tequila had been as good a binge as anything, and that was how he spent the darker moments after long days of fishing. Tom said he recently was asked to take photos of the Russian River valley for a Napa Valley wine magazine. They had seen some photos he had taken out on the boat, strong and dramatic pictures of a wild ocean and hardworking crews on the fishing boats. He had started that contract work about a month ago, he said, but he still planned to be a day worker on a fishing boat when he needed extra money. It wasn’t necessary to supplement his income just yet, Tom told her, given that his lifestyle was one of simple interests. His fishermen friends told him he could always come back to work with them, if he wanted.

“There is nothing wrong with that work if you can stand the smell, the hours and the isolation,” Tom told her. “And you don’t mind reeking of fish all the time. The catch might be great but the fisherman is no catch,” he added. Tom looked at her and waited for a response, but when she didn’t say anything, he took Alice’s hand and held it up to the waning light.

“It looks as though you have cleaned some bathrooms, young lady. What’s a spoiled Southern California housewife doing cleaning her own toilets?”

“I have to do something,” Alice said, embarrassed that her hands were somewhat dry and rough. He was rubbing her knuckles with his fingers and massaging her hands and wrists. “Housework keeps my neurotic compulsions toned, and keeps me from getting too bored. I also do yard work, if you need any semi-professional help around here.” Alice thought for a moment and then commented quietly, “If it weren’t for the fact that I like to write every morning, creating my own world, I think I probably would have lost my mind by now.”

“Why not go home?” Tom asked. “What keeps you in California if all your family and friends are in Illinois?” Tom kept massaging her hands with his brown eyes fixed on her face.

“I don’t really know what I’m going to do. I have that Southern California house that I care for. It’s my only job, at this point, and my only value, so to speak. I pay bills, do the yard work and the laundry, take care of repairs, and keep the pool clean and level. I drag plastic furniture out of the pool when the Santa Ana winds roll in. It is one bored woman who decided to take this trip. You can’t imagine what an adventure this is for me.”

Alice was surprised at her own honesty. She hadn’t come to open herself up to this old and precious friend.

“Well, I am glad you decided to do it,” Tom said, giving her hand a squeeze. “I’m not bored, but I don’t think I’ve had a friend like you to talk to for a long time. Not a friend who has known me since I was six, who knows my whole family, and who was willing to dance with me even when I was a burnt-out hippy at our tenth reunion. That isn’t someone who comes along every day. Are you hungry, dear traveler? I don’t want my only visitor in over a year to starve while in residence.”

They decided that apples and popcorn would be sufficient as the sun set and the room darkened with the night. Tom clicked on a dim light from the pottery lamp that sat in the corner. Its olive green and spotted surface looked like a remnant from a 1970s garage sale. But Alice had once had a lamp just like that. It made her feel at home. Its dim light created shadows on Tom’s face as they munched their popcorn, and sat on the couch together listening to Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits.

“I wonder if you would ever have wanted to find me, if it hadn’t been for those dreams,” Tom questioned thoughtfully. “I mean, did you ever think of me when you were awake?”

“Well, which is more flattering, Tommy, that I dream about you in spite of myself, or that I consciously thought about you but never did anything to get in touch with you? I don’t know, but I think it would be more flattering to hear that a person’s subconscious is seeking you out, trying to reach you.”

“At the risk of putting a damper on this evening, I have to admit I don’t think I ever dreamed about you, Alice. I thought about you on occasion, wondered what you were up to after we saw each other. But I think just about everything in my head became glazed over soon after that. In fact, I was even drunk at the reunion. Did I hide it well?”

“You always hid it well, Tom. Looking back, I wonder if you weren’t somewhat inebriated at most of the basketball games in high school. You played well, but you were so quiet on the bus going home. You seemed sad all the time.”

“Actually, I never drank before a game. I’d sit on the bus and just ache to get back home to have a drink. It was always with me, Alice. Either I was drunk or I wanted to be drunk. After Nam, there was no reason I could find to be sober.”

“Never?” Alice asked incredulously. “Never a happy time? No time would you rather have been sober?” Alice touched his cheek as she asked the question, moving her hand over the beard that was starting to darken his face in the shadow of the lamp light. His warm eyes looked down at her as though he was about to tell her some special secret.

“I don’t remember half of the tour in Nam. I can barely remember getting home. We were shipped like cattle, I recall that. None of us cared. We only wanted to get home. On the other hand, I was scared shitless about coming back. I didn’t know how I’d live, how I could get high. I didn’t even know if I would ever be happy. I had wanted to die over there, I think. And the sadness that I carried back with me was that I left a load of really great friends back in VietNam in some unmarked grave because we couldn’t drag them out. I almost never made it back. I laid under a pile of dead soldiers in a dugout when the Cong had massacred my platoon. I didn’t die because too many dead infantry men were piled on top of me. Can you even imagine something like that? Coming home when they had no chance of ever seeing their families again? I’m telling you, Alice, I had a hard time figuring out that living might be better than dying for the next three decades. I just stayed wasted. Dead was the only way I knew to be. I’m still tempted to check out, but I kind of found some value living in the last two years. It’s as if a light came on when I sobered up. Or maybe the light went on, and then I sobered up. I’m not sure which came first.”

“Do you want to live now? Have you forgiven yourself for surviving yet?” Alice reached out for his hand and kissed the palm. She couldn’t believe his hands had ever killed anyone. She felt him moving closer to her, his face moving toward her face, as though he needed to examine her skin. He took her cheeks in his hands and kissed the lids of her eyes. Alice sat quietly, wondering what it all meant.

You have such laughing blue eyes,” Tom told her. “Have you ever felt depressed? Has anything made you really sad?”

To tell you the truth . . .” she murmured, floating through a dark space as she felt his lips on her eyelids. She stayed quiet and eager, leaning toward him as though she was prepared to be consumed by him, taken head first into his soul. She wanted to feel him from the inside out, to see the light that obviously had been lost in him until lately, a light she had dreamed about.

To tell you the truth, the saddest I ever felt was after a dream when I couldn’t find you again. I kept letting you slip away in my dreams; I felt such remorse when I woke up. Until the next dream when I would find you again, rescue you, and then lose you again. It was as though I was permitted to save you, but not to have you. Not for myself, anyway.”

But you saved me today, honey. You can have me, sweet Alice,” Tom whispered in her ear. His hot breath was on her neck. With her eyes closed, she could feel him pushing the sweater from around her shoulders and over her head. Alice put her arms around his body and held his chest next to hers, their hearts beating out of time with one another. She held him as though he would slip away, the way he had slipped away so many times before.

Will you let me save you now?” she asked. “And if I do, would you promise not to leave me again, at least not until morning. I just wouldn’t be able to stand waking up and finding you gone again.”

Tom took her into his room where they stayed for the night. In the morning Alice woke up to hear his soft breathing next to her. She looked over and saw that he was spooned up next to her, not touching her but wrapped in a sheet and blanket that he held in a bunch, as though it was her body. She slipped out of bed and squinted at the clock on his dresser. It was morning. She had made it. He was there in the morning. She crawled back into bed and moved her face close to his.

Can I save you again?” she asked.

Tom’s eyes remained closed, but he rolled her body over into his arms and held her tightly.

Alice, you can save me now. Save me tomorrow. Save me next week,” Tom murmured. “I want you to save me until there is nothing more to save than a shriveled-up old body with crooked arms and legs, and no hair on my head. Can you save me ‘till then, Alice?”

I can,” said Alice. “I’ve done it before; I can do it again.” She kissed his ear and pushed her nose into his neck, burying her face next to his. Alice knew she could do it. She’d been saving him her entire life.

***

From a distance, Alice then heard a door open, and she felt slightly startled. Would they find her laying next to her sweet Tommy? She kept her eyes closed and waited to see what would happen, afraid to let him go.

Mom, are you all right?” someone said to her, gently tapping her on the arm. “Mom, we are here to see if you need something to eat or drink. You’ve been sleeping a long time, mom. I think maybe you’d better wake up a little.”

Alice remained still, but took her daughter’s hand in hers. She knew her daughter wouldn’t believe that she was finally with her sweet friend, Tommy. She knew that no one would understand. So, Alice remained quiet and let her daughter lift her head to spoon soup into her mouth. It would be over soon, she thought. She had to hold on to her Tommy; she just didn’t want to lose him again.

I wonder where she is?” Alice’s son told his wife, as he looked at his mother quietly laying in the bed, knowing she was near death since she was losing the ability to swallow. Alice’s eyes were closed, but there was a smile on her face. “You know,” her son commented. “She might be slipping away, but she really looks so happy.”

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