They stayed at a shabby motel called the Capeway Inn. It was one floor of weather-beaten cedar shingle, long and low slung, with a sign that boasted of AC KITCHENETTE WIFI CABLE HEATED POOL. Good thing, Mike thought, since anyone staying there would have to drive to the ocean, even here, on the part of the Cape where the ocean was so close. He knew of a much nicer place, a little further down, right on the water and near a lighthouse, but Luci would not hear of it. Turn in here, she’d said as they came upon it. Let’s stay here. Besides, she had said, if you’re a serial killer this is a far more fitting place to murder me.
He shook his head in a mock-stern no as she reached for her purse when they were at the front desk. The attendant took his card and checked them in while the TV news flickered behind her. THOUSANDS DEAD IN MOST LETHAL HEATWAVE TO HIT INDIA IN TEN YEARS, ALGAE BLOOMS RENDER SECTIONS OF THE COAST UNUSABLE ran the tape at the bottom of the screen.
Early the first morning, he slipped out of the bed, Luci tangled in the sheets next to him. She shifted and grunted softly. Just going to the store, love, he said, and kissed the top of her head. She was awake when he got back, bags of sandwich fixings, bread, pickles, condiments, coffee, and tea in his hands. Luci was sitting up, arms crossed around herself as if she were cold, eyes searching the room, her face lost then grim. She turned and her face cleared. I could have gotten that, she said.
Nah, Mike replied, I was up.
That first day, he turned on the TV. The news, something about the election, a pundit saying, I can’t imagine having to listen to her voice for four years—
He hit the remote. That was a terrible call, he said.
What do you mean? Luci asked him as she reached for a can of soda in the mini fridge. He felt her across the room, freezing in place and holding her breath.
Turning on the TV. It’s all garbage, and everyone on it is garbage.
Luci exhaled. Yeah, she said. It’s garbage all the way down.
They spent the days in the pool with the sun beating down on them like a hammer, and the insects buzzing and crackling in the heat, a roar of distant traffic replacing the roar of the waves. At night they enthusiastically ignored the much-touted cable TV and wifi. He found himself offering a prayer of thanks that there was no one in the rooms on either side of them as the bed rocked and thudded against the wall to their rhythm. In the late hours, they lay next to each other, spent and exhausted, Luci’s head sometimes on his shoulder or chest, and they’d talk about things: Cats versus dogs, favorite foods, where they had been, the things they had done or wanted to do. He was careful talking about his family-it wasn’t time yet-but he listened as she told him about her parents (Not good for much, she’d said, they loved the Bible, their sons, guns, and nothing else), her brothers (We won’t talk about them, she said), and her time on the streets when she’d had enough and ran away.
It’s not so bad, she said, once you know places where you can stay where you won’t get messed with too much. She told him about a few programs that she luckily fell into, getting her GED and Associate’s degree, getting a job and staying employed enough to keep a roof over her head. A success story, she said, her mouth twisting. Other than her childhood, she told her life’s stories into comedic vignettes--the jobs lost, the home she bought that she tried and failed to fix up, the causes taken up and found to be irretrievably lost; the car that always broke down at the worst time, the meals she cooked that sickened her guests; the trips she took that were drenched in rain or stymied by stomach bugs; the flowers she planted that were overtaken by crabgrass and attracted bad tempered wasps; the sports teams she joined and dance classes she attempted where she sprained and broke ankles, wrists, and knees; the pets she tried to nurture that ran away or died months after she took them in. She turned her failure into entertainment for him, the only gift she could really give him.
Why do you think I’m a serial killer? He’d once asked her.
I don’t really, she said, laughing, just that it’s kind of an obvious fate to befall every woman who goes off with some man she doesn’t know. Why did you ask me to go away with you?
He was propped against the pillows of the bed. Her head was in his lap, his fingers splayed through her hair. I couldn’t imagine not being with you, he said, and she laughed.
Smooth, she teased.
He saw her looking at herself in the mirror once, pulling her hair back before they went out to the pool, face set in disappointment. He felt it then, how old the both of them were, time falling onto their bones like lead.
Every so often Mike thought he could smell the salt water of the nearby ocean, and resisted the urge to bring her. All in good time.
Mornings started with coffee with milk and sugar for Mike and black tea for Luci. Midway through the day, as they floated in the pool, one of them would remember lunch and emerge from the room with sandwiches, chips, and soda. Some cookies for Mike. Luci made short work of the pickles—if it was sour, bitter, or tannic, she would eat or drink it until it was gone.
Across from the road from the motel was an old gas station, long abandoned, the pumps moldering and the windows broken. He heard a dog barking once at dusk around there and was going to look for it—who let dogs run loose these days?—when Luci said, It’s not a dog. It’s a coyote. He saw it early the next morning as he looked out the window, sitting by the chain link fence around the pool, almost blending into the gray air of the light fog that rolled in and blunted the distant sunrise. The coyote yawned, got up, and trotted across the road toward the rusting pumps.
We don’t live in a place that has jackals at least, Luci said. Mike turned and saw her, eyes flat as a plate, staring at the retreating figure of the coyote. Maybe today, he thought. Maybe today I can bring her. He didn’t want to anymore. He wanted to stay there, by the pool, in their room, eating sandwiches and chips. Talking about everything and nothing.
She shook her head, as if to clear it. Man, she said, those things are bold.
The day was hot and gray, with low clouds pressing on them with thunder promising but never coming. Luci lay on the bed and even allowed Mike to turn on the AC, which she usually hated. Her complexion looked sallow and there were dark rings under her eyes. I’ve got a headache, she said. And my face hurts.
The AC should help a little, it’s probably the humidity, Mike said. But I’ll go to the store and get you some ibuprofen. He bent over her, kissed her on the lips, and then cupped her face in his hands. Hey, he said. I love you, Luci.
Her eyes snapped open and she opened her mouth to say something and he said, I don’t want to hear anything from you unless it’s you saying you believe me.
She laughed. Most people want to hear-
I know what most people want to hear. He was careful to say it gently. Something in his chest twisted. Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear, okay? I’m not telling you what I think you want to hear. I’m telling you the truth.
He kissed her again. I’ll be back.
The old man was waiting for him by the car when he came out of the ramshackle and overpriced market. Mike exhaled, irritated, and wondered when he would leave him alone.
Can you just trust that I know what I’m doing? he said.
Quite a way to greet me.
You’re not funny.
I’m not laughing. It’s getting to be time, the old man said. She’s tired now, yes? She’s sleeping? A little overwhelmed?
She’s not feeling well. I got her something for her headache.
It’s time to bring her.
Look, Mike snapped, I get it. You want the thing done. You don’t give a single fuck about her or how she’ll suffer. Because she will suffer. She has suffered. You’ve seen to that.
Enough, Michael. You had your own part in that.
Yeah. I was being loyal to you. I have regretted it ever since.
And taking her to some shitty little hole in the wall is your idea of making it up to her?
It’s what she wanted.
Of course it was. She was never one for having any taste. You were supposed to take her to the lighthouse. I was expecting you there days ago.
Mike raised an eyebrow at this.
If you don’t bring her, I will come to her myself. You won’t like that.
Leave her alone. There isn’t a deadline for this. What, will the world end if we wait another week? Mike laughed a hollow laugh.
You’ve had more than your share of time with her, the old man said. You need to tell her. She should know. She’s going to figure it out sooner or later. She already is figuring it out. And you don’t want me giving her any clues.
As if you or the rest want anything to do with her. Just let us be. You’ll get what you want. Just let me make her happy before you do.
Mike came back to find Luci watching TV. Protesters gathering over the death of Imani Taylor, a 14-year-old girl who was taking a walk when she was shot by 54-year-old Leonard White, who claims he was afraid for his life—were tear gassed and beaten by the police last night, the anchor said. On the screen, a middle-aged Black woman was lying on the ground, blood on her face. Mike switched it off.
Luce, he said, no. Come on, that’s just gonna make things worse.
It just switched on, I think, she said. Woke me up.
That’s weird, he said. Maybe you hit the remote in the right way in your sleep. He sounded doubtful. If it happens again, just turn it off. It’s just garbage, stressful garbage.
We can’t ignore it into oblivion, she said. Her voice was thick.
We can’t watch it into stopping, he countered.
I can’t make it stop, she whispered. I kept trying. She shook her head, red eyed and wan. You know, one of the activists I knew kept talking about how easy it is to burn things down, and how hard it is to imagine the world you want and build it. She snorted.
Everything I’ve tried to build just collapsed.
Mike sat next to her, drew her to him. Love, he said. It’s gonna be okay.
Sure, she said. Yeah.
She stayed in bed that day, dropping in and out of a fitful sleep. Mike had also picked up some ginger ale for her in case her stomach was upset, and she sipped it when she was awake. When she slept, she sometimes murmured things. My baby, she said, not my baby girl. And once: But we offered our best calf. Our very best. She was sweating, and when he put his forehand on her head, it was near scalding to the touch.
He sighed. This was going to be bad.
Luci started coming out of it early the next morning. Mike had been up all night, getting ice from the machine down the hall, wrapping it in one of the threadbare hand towels in the bathroom, and putting it on her forehead. She stopped sweating and just before sunrise, roused herself a little, looked at Mike, and said, You know, it’s okay if you are a serial killer. I know you’ll make it quick. You won’t let me suffer. You’ve been so nice. It’s been so lovely here with you.
Luci, he said, don’t.
But she was already asleep again.
By 11:00 she was back to her old self, or the self Mike had known for the past days at least, and busied herself making lunch for them. Did you want to go to the pool? She asked him and he smiled. I’ll go anywhere you want, babe.
Lord, she said laughing, I got me a real sweet talker.
That afternoon at the pool he dozed off in the lounge chair and had a dream where they were walking by a church. He started towards it and Luci shook her head, frightened. It’s okay, he said to her, it’s only a church and pushed the door open. He drew Luci in and as the light from outside poured into the dark church, he saw that the reverend, the organist, the choir, and the congregants all wore sacks over their heads. The reverend was bellowing. Behold the dark one walks among us. Bringer of evil, destroyer of souls, the whore—
He jerked awake to find Luci looking at him, her brows knit, the sun a halo behind her. Maybe it’s your turn to take a rest, she said. I can run to the store if you need anything.
No, he said quickly, thinking of the old man. I’m okay. Just a weird dream about church.
Oh, that sounds like a nightmare, she laughed.
Not a churchgoer, I gather.
I don’t think your average church lady chucks it all to hole up in a motel with a man she barely knows, but if you know of a denomination that’s down with that, I’ll give them a try. She cracked open a bottle of water and passed it to him. I’m actually an atheist.
He laughed, longer and harder than he knew she would have expected, and fought to get some control. Sorry, he said. It’s just. . . of course. It’s on brand for you, I guess.
What’s that supposed to mean?
You don’t seem like someone who wants anyone telling you what to do.
Yeah, she said, that’s accurate. And besides, I think all of that spiritual claptrap is awful nonsense. Even that Buddhist bullshit or whatever the fuck.
Yeah, that shit about transcending our desires? It’s another version of mortifying the flesh. Like those fucking religious Christians who whipped themselves the minute they got a chubby. The idea that having pleasure is bad. Or pain is bad. Or attachments are bad.
Basically, being a human in the world is something to run from. Those dumb assholes have never been detached from the world. They don’t know what it is.
Okay, I see your point, but pain is bad.
Not when you don’t feel anything. Then it’s a relief.
He paused a minute, taking it in. Luce-
She smiled and patted his hand. I’m sorry, I’m just being melodramatic. I meant, pain beats not feeling anything, right? If you don’t feel pain, you can’t feel pleasure. You might as well just be dead.
He blinked at that. He didn’t know what to say.
She seemed to sense this, and asked him, Did you grow up in a religious family?
He shifted a bit in the chair. You could say that. We’re not close these days. I really believed and I did things I regret.
She tilted her head. You are a serial killer, just for a Jesus cult! I knew it!
Get over here, he laughed, pulling her towards him. Her back to him, he reached for her comb and ran it through her hair.
This right here is heaven, she said, leaning back against him. Mike put the comb down and let her lie there, closing his eyes. He felt something block the sun.
It’s so nice to see a happy couple, a jocular voice said and Mike froze. The old man stood over them. Surprised though, he continued, that you aren’t at the Inn at World’s End. That’s quite the spot for honeymooners.
Luci set her face into her most plastic smile and said, Well, we’re not married, and this is quite the spot for unmarried degenerate sinners.
The old man laughed. Oh, you are a funny one, he said. Even for a rebellious degenerate, my dear. Then, mocking: Are you in love? You don’t strike me as capable of it, but you are radiant.
Luci ignored that. If you want to check in, ring the bell at the front desk. Nice meeting you.
The old man didn’t go anywhere, though. He stared at her as if he thought he saw her on a wanted poster in the post office.
I just stopped for directions and thought I’d stretch my legs a bit before continuing on. I’ll confess to some curiosity when I saw a couple at the pool. If it wasn’t for you two, I would have driven by. This place looks a bit abandoned.
Hmmm, she said. That’s part of its charm.
And yet you found it, he replied. And decided to stay here of all places. Such an ugly little place. I suppose it matches your insides, Luci?
Mike snapped to attention at that. What the fu--
Luci laid a placating hand on his arm. Mike, she said in a low warning, then laughed in the old man’s face. I was going to ask if I knew you, because you don’t seem to like me. So run along. Life’s too short.
I know you, the old man said, baring all of his teeth. I know you better than you think, Luci. I know what you are. You do too, deep down. You just hole up here, like a little rat.
Mike didn’t remember seeing where the old man went after that—he was cold, and conscious of Luci’s now very vulnerable body against his.
Mike, she said, you’re hurting me.
Oh, he said looking at his hands gripping her arms. I’m sorry. That. That freaked me out a little.
It’s okay, she said. Then: How did he know my name?
Her voice was soft and sounded far away. As far away as home, as far as the time when he was loyal.
She was distant for the rest of the afternoon. Mike couldn’t tell if it was because he hadn’t said anything--though she did warn him-or if it was because of how rude the old man was.
That’s shitty even for you, Mike thought.
He tried to cheer her up. Fuck that guy, he said. What an asshole. He probably had a king sized wedgie up his ass. This got a distant smile from Luci.
When he brought back some cans of soda from the room, Luci was staring across the pool to the road with vacant eyes. Luce, he said. Hey.
She kept staring.
She shook her head and looked at him, confused. Who--who are--what--where is this?
Luci, it’s me. It’s Mike who is not a serial killer?
Slowly her eyes refocused. Oh. Hey, thanks, she said in a thin voice and took a soda from his hand.
Everything is ugly here, he thought. Everything is wrong.
Getting dinner in town was Mike’s idea. He thought it would be a way to break the wrongness surrounding them; they could escape the smear of grease the old man had left over everything. Luci was quiet in the car, not seeming to hear his attempts at conversation. She chewed on her lip and narrowed her eyes, looking at some point in the distance, like she was trying to work out a puzzle.
They got in a little early and walked around, looked in some of the cedar shingled shops, some with window boxes. It was a tourist town but an expensive one, so the offerings were handcrafted, artisanal jewelry and art for display other than kitsch. Mike noticed Luci looking at him once with narrowed eyes; when he turned to face her she just said, This is awfully expensive for a wooden spoon, isn’t it? As if anyone who vacations here cooks.
They quickly lost interest in the wares and wandered out, walking past the little shops and cafes to sit on a bench by the harbor.
Such an ugly little place. I suppose it matches your insides, Luci?
She fidgeted on the bench. Kept her arms folded and shivered, eyes open but not focused on the blue gray water of the harbor, the lush trees, or the tight clusters of people walking by, their laughter trailing them like smoke. Mike found himself talking to fill the space. They could go to the desert next, you could see every star in the sky, at this time of year they could see the Milky Way. Or they could go inland, to the Berkshires or up north to Maine. Or maybe they could find a place and just settle there. City or country, he didn’t care, wherever she wanted to go. But let’s just go. Luci, Luci please. Can we go.
She turned towards him and shook her head, recognition in her face. There was a tear running down her cheek. I know why you found me. I know. I remember.
Luci, please. I know I have no right to ask you to believe me—
I remember what you did. What I can’t understand is why all this? What was your end game? What, gloat a little? Have some fun before sticking the fucking knife in—
Like, is this your idea of prepping for a fight? I want no part of it. I’m out. I’ve been out. But none of you ever listen.
That’s not true.
Thousands of years, Michael. He flinched at hearing her use his full name. Thousands of years. You tossed me out like so much trash because I had the nerve to question him to fucking question him—
I thought you were rebelling.
I was rebelling. I saw worlds with beings that felt things I could not even conceive of and wanted to know why we were denied that. I never wanted to be him. You know that. And as my punishment for not wanting to be some fucking astral --- robot --- you toss me out and he just condemns me to live in body after body after body.
Luci, he wasn’t punishing you. He needs you here. You’re here to do something.
Oh, I know, she said bitterly. I know what he expects me to do. Life after life with all the attachments—she laughed and sobbed at once—they come and go, and I see the absolute worst of these creatures in some of those lives. You have no idea. No idea what he’s created.
Mike reached for her. Luci, he says it’s a mercy.
There’s no mercy in what I do. They’re right about me here. He is too. I’m not merciful. I am bad. I am evil.
No. You’re not.
I can’t build anything. I show people the truth and they don’t listen.
That’s . . .that’s not exclusive to you, you know. So many people—
And this life. This one well I guess he made sure I had no attachments. I don’t know what this—she gestured towards him— is on your part, but it’s cruel as hell.
Luci, you’re not evil. You’re good. You’re a good person.
I’m not a person, she said.
Right now, you are, and you are a good one, the best one in the world.
Why are you playing this sympathy for the devil song, Michael?
You’re not the devil. Stop this.
I really wish you were a serial killer. I really do. It. It would have been better.
She got up and walked away from him.
She was fast. She was coming back into her power, but not enough to shed her body yet. He wasn’t sure she would. If it came to it, he wasn’t sure if he would either. She was right.
The sensations, the emotions, were what made them alive, made everything matter. Back home, he could look at the Milky Way or any other galaxy in all spectrums of light and observe the great glory of creation but not feel awestruck and breathless by it. They didn’t have bodies or the physical sensations they had down here. He had loved her in the way everyone loved each other there. Nothing like this, where you wanted to bury your nose in someone’s neck and breathe them in, memorize their face, hold them to you forever. All the different kinds of love people could feel was a cacophony of emotion he had yet to fully understand. He knew the love you felt for your best friend was different from the love you felt for your child, which was different from the love you felt for your parents or your siblings.
Love here was light thrown through a prism, refracted, each color glorious and true in its own way. At home love was a bland white light. It was for everyone, and the same for everyone. After he cast Luci out, he felt her absence; it niggled at the edges of his consciousness, a stone in his shoe or an itch he couldn’t quite reach. A cloud passing over a warm sun. But now, the thought of tossing her away was like a knife in his ribs.
As a human he’d been knocked back with the force of everything people felt. They had to feel these things and work and eat and survive every day? It had taken him a few years to get his bearings. How had she borne it? Differently. She was born, again and again, not knowing. The one case of reincarnation.
They were down the road, well out of the town center, Luci striding in the direction of the lighthouse. Luci, he called, you’re going to exactly where he is.
Good, she hissed. I’ll start with him and his little fucking toadies.
He followed her as she tore down the road, sparks in her wake. She glowed faintly, their lightbearer, shedding light on things no one wanted to see. The road cut through a forest of scrub pines. The lighthouse winked ahead of them in the distance through the trees. Mike reached for her arm.
Luci wheeled around, her breath hitching, eyes wide and red. Luci, he said and lay his palm on her cheek. It was almost painful to the touch. Luci.
What? Aren’t you getting what you want?
No. This isn’t what I want.
You pretended all this to stop me?
I didn’t pretend anything! He was desperate now, flailing. Frustration was utterly new to him.
I meant everything I said. Everything. I missed you. I am sorry—if I could go back I never would have thrown you over. Ever. I volunteered to come and collect you, bring you here, have you do what he wanted you to do. But—I just couldn’t. Everything I said to you is true.
He shook his head. If you want to do this then have at it. It’s nothing to me. But if you don’t want to, then don’t. You can walk away with me or without me—I hope it’s with me but I’ll understand if it’s not. I just want you to be happy.
Happy, she said and looked off into the dark trees by the roadside. Happy. She snorted. I hadn’t been that for a long time. I kind of was at the motel—
We can go back.
We can’t. She shook her head. You know this. You stop me, or I stop this and you disappear, you’re in more trouble than I ever was. You know that, right?
I don’t care.
He will find us. He will find us and be a trial to us until I do this. She raised a hand, by then glowing like an ember, and said, He wants me to end it with fire. He’s primed me for this for the past five thousand years, Michael. I was so tired from it all I started being like I was before you cast me out. I was just numb. I didn’t feel anything. You know how you said the news is garbage? It’s nothing new. All of this shit keeps happening, over and over and over.
No one learns. It’s exhausting. And after a while, I stop caring. I can’t feel a thing. That’s what happens when I see so much of the same thing over so long. And that was just in this lifetime--this go round. It did what all of his cajoling back home couldn’t. I didn’t know that, of course. I didn’t know what I was. She looked up. Over there in that section of the sky is Venus, she said. Did you know they called it lucifer at one point?
No, he said. I hadn’t really kept up with things here. There are so many worlds.
I wonder how many he thinks I’m supposed to torch when he’s done with them.
Come on, Michael. You know it’s true. He won’t get his hands dirty. He’ll leave it to me. But me. I’m done. I won’t go back.
Luci, he said, his spine suddenly cold, what are you saying.
I can’t do it. Every attachment here is either gone or really frayed but I just can’t. I’m one of them right now. And if I wasn’t, he made them this way. It’s his damn design flaw, not their fault. They can save themselves if they want to or they’ll bring about their own end. He can just leave them be.
Okay, then. So that’s settled. We go somewhere. He exhaled, relieved. Maybe the desert?
Michael. She sounded sad. He’ll never give me a moment’s peace.
We can go anywhere you like.
What do you think he’ll do to you? she said. No. A halo of smoke rose around her, twirling up, ever higher.
Luci. It doesn’t matter to me. I love you.
She took in a long breath, looked at him. I believe you, she said. Mike smiled at that, reached for her, drew her to him though she was burning like a furnace, a lit fuse, an atom bomb ready to go.
And I’m not mad at you, Michael. I understand why you did it. I might have done the same thing at some point. I love you too. She looked up at him. That’s why I have to do this. It will stop it, once and for all, and he won’t be mad at you. I’m sorry, Michael. I am.
Luci stepped away from him.
I’m sorry, she said, tears spilling out of her eyes, rising in steam when they hit her cheeks. She was light, like gold now, spilling out across the road, throwing jagged shadows of the trees like teeth. This is the best way. No one can blame you for this.
You won’t see me again. I can just let this build until it consumes me. No one here will be hurt. There’s nowhere to go when I do this, and contrary to what the people say here, I’ve never been to Hell, let alone led the place. I don’t think it exists.
Michael stopped thinking. He stepped towards her and grabbed hold of her as the light grew. It engulfed them. There was a flash of light and pain, every nerve screaming.
Then there was nothing.
Pamela McCarthy spends her days working in healthcare fundraising and her nights writing short fiction. When she is not working or writing, she is buying seeds for her garden, creating more garden space because she bought so many seeds, or reading.