People, Places, Things – Patrick Easton

Noah lies to Jane about the book. Tells her she’ll see pages soon. He has a Google doc of notes littered with “xxxx” as placeholders. He knows the basic premise: Woman found headless, vacuum-sealed in a bag left in a pasture. The veteran detective is called away from Vancouver to the Kootenays. Some callbacks for the fans and nothing to confuse new readers. The book permits him to skip Jane’s home group meeting. Avoid her sponsor, a church basement vampire. He tells Jane this is a crucial phase. While she’s out, he reads arguments about heat shock proteins on the forums and Reddit crypto threads. After a month of this, Noah concedes the situation is dire. Research is needed.
        “You’re going to have so much fun,” Jane says.
        “I’m not sure if it’ll be fun, per se.”
        Her bags are heaped by the door, more than she needs for a weekend.
        “You always say that right before you have fun,” she says.
        “Your weekend sounds better than mine,” Noah says. “Five girls crying together? That’s a party.”
        “It’ll be like half yoga, half trauma-bonding. Don’t worry about me. Just focus on writing.”
        They kiss goodbye. He swallows the impulse to tell her to not let him go.

Noah leaves Strathcona around noon. He bombs along the highway in his old two-door Tacoma, the truck Jane says he should replace. He stops in Chilliwack for a tin of dip. He dips the whole drive and spits into a water bottle. Nobody urging him to be better. The bliss of silence. His mind is a perfect blank. 
        Something settles over him on the Crowsnest. An optimism. He might send pages to his editor soon. He pulls over onto the shoulder to snap a picture for reference. The book is tangible now. It seems possible.
        He forgot how heavy the clouds hang in the Kootenays. Yellow and fawn hills. This is the first trip to Cleaver since his dad’s funeral. The only evidence his family ever existed is the faded blue script at the base of his neck, his mom’s initials he got at eighteen, hidden under the collar of his Arc’teryx vest.
        The Airbnb is a modest house overlooking a valley submerged in shadow. It’s a short drive outside Cleaver. He retrieves the key from the lockbox. Inside there are amateur paintings of horses, exposed beams, and a stone fireplace. He sees a Post-It on the fridge. 
        “Welcome! Get comfy and help yourself to the wine. It’s local :)”
        There’s a bottle of Chardonnay in the fridge from a place called Whitetail Vineyards. In Jane’s world, this would be a sign. Nothing enters her life by chance. She would share about this in AA, adhering to a program of rigorous honesty. But this isn’t God speaking. This is a non-event, unworthy of discussion. He pours the wine down the sink.
        Craigslist, maybe this is how his killer selects victims. Blips of code beamed out by easy prey.
        “W4M: androgynous but can be hella femme sometimes. You: hung, DDF, take me on a car date.”
        “W4M: 26, been told I’m attractive. Do you have party favors?”
        Sometimes there are pictures. Headless bodies scoured by starbursts of light in the mirror, unforgiving iPhone flashes. Noah closes his laptop when he gets horny. He knows how Craigslist ends. Motels. Condoms in the trash, limp like dead fish. The house buzzes with silence.

There are no familiar faces in the Kraft Pub. The bartender says he doesn’t know a Liam Henderson. Doesn’t know any Liams. Noah orders a tonic and a cheeseburger then steps out to smoke. His detective would stop here for a gin on the rocks and appraise the photos of the old paper mill. He would envy men like Noah’s dad who dutifully drank their lives away here. Men who kept their heads down.
        Noah can’t sleep so he checks Jane’s Instagram. She posted earlier, topless and angled away from the camera with two other women. Their bodies shine in the purple gloom of the woods. She looks back over her shoulder. Her mouth is parted. The caption: “Sharing magic.”

“Hey, I’m sorry to bother you,” a woman says to Noah in the grocery store. “You’re Noah Monroe.”
        She’s maybe twenty with a pink streak in blonde hair. She has an earnest, embarrassing beauty, the kind that popped up early and will be gone early.
        “You caught me,” he says, dropping a bag of carrots into the cart. Smiling for her.
        “I almost didn’t recognize you from your photo.”
        His author picture is from his late twenties, before he got sober. All of the photos from then show an inexplicable shadow across his face.
        “I didn’t mean it looks bad or anything. I love your books,” she says. “You’re the only famous person from Cleaver.”
        “Thank you. Famous is a strong word, though.”
        “Famous enough that I know you. I’m Kaitlyn.”
        “Good to meet you.”
        “Don’t worry, I’m not asking for an autograph or anything tacky. I just wanted to say hi.”
        There’s a moment of silence.
        “I appreciate that. Hey, do you know a guy named Liam Henderson,” he says.
        She laughs.
        “I do. He’s my husband.”
        Noah tries to picture Liam proposing. His giant frame on top of this brittle woman. Liam’s stories were about bad beats in poker, fights where he was always justified, the good guy.
        “That’s crazy,” Noah says. “We worked together at the mill before it closed.”
        “I know, he told me.”
        “I couldn’t find him on Instagram or Facebook, but I was hoping to say hi.”
        “That’s gonna be hard. He had to go away for a bit. He’ll be back in about a year, now.”
        She doesn’t break eye contact. Her voice stays bright and cheery. She’s just relaying the facts.
        “I had no idea. I’m sorry.”
        “It’s okay, you didn’t know. Do you have plans for dinner?”
        “Had a shitty meal at the Kraft last night so I’m cooking in my Airbnb.”
        “Come over. I’ll cook.”
        “Are you sure? I wouldn’t want to impose.”
        “My daughter’s with the in-laws. It’s no trouble. One condition, though.”
        “What’s that.”
        “You gotta tell me what the next book is about.”
        Noah fiddles with the shopping cart key.
        “That’s what I’m here to find out.”

Kaitlyn’s house isn’t far from the trailer park or much bigger than a trailer. Noah parks at the curb, not in the driveway. The night is mercilessly hot. He’s sweating already in a black tee. His hair is tied back into a bun. He imagines he’s on a stakeout. There’s no sound or movement. A middle-aged woman once came up to him after a reading to say she used to lie in bed at night anticipating screams from her neighbors, but she never heard anything, much to her disappointment.
        His offers to help are denied. Kaitlyn tells him to get comfortable on the couch. He looks around the living room for kid paraphernalia but sees nothing. All the furniture is what his editor would call rec room chic.
        “Do you want a drink?” Kaitlyn says. “I have wine, beer. Some whiskeys. Pretty much everything.”
        “No, thank you,” Noah says. “I’m almost three years sober, actually.”
        “That’s amazing,” Kaitlyn says as she opens the oven to check the roast. “I do tastings at a winery. I meet a lot of people who should get sober.”
        “Yeah, I bet.”
        “I just thought, um, from the books, you drank a lot. And Liam’s stories, obviously.”
        Noah watches as she pulls plates from the cupboards. Nothing about her outfit seems like an invitation.
        “When I was a kid,” he says, “I saw people lose their minds drinking. I didn’t understand it. Then you get older and realize there isn’t much else to do. So now you’re in the family business.”
        “The family business,” Kaitlyn says, looking into her glass of white wine. “That’s a hard one.”
        “It took me a long time to get out,” Noah says. “For a long time I thought life was just violence. And I always did the worst of it to myself.”
        “Things are different now.”
        “Super different.”
        “Can I make you a coffee?”
        “I’d love that.”
        Kaitlyn points to a framed picture on the wall.
        “That’s Cassie,” Kaitlyn says. “Isn’t she beautiful.”
        Noah tries to make the right sounds of approval. Cassie doesn’t look like Kaitlyn or Liam. She doesn’t look like anything, an unformed pink blob.
        “Liam says you were a player,” Kaitlyn says as she cuts into a slice of roast beef.
        “He’s kind of blowing up my spot.”
        “He’s a player too. I met him when I was seventeen.”
        Noah sips his coffee. There’s dark blood on his plate, pooling against mashed potato.
        “What were your lines,” she says. “Pretend you met me somewhere.”
        She waves her hand, invoking some permissible alternate timeline.
        “Okay, so we’re not us,” he says. “We’re a man and woman meeting.”
        “We’re not us.”
        “I wasn’t, like, that kind of player. I didn’t have lines like that.”
        “Come on baby, I have blow at my place,” she says in a fake man-voice.
        “Not far off,” he says. “That’s what I sound like, too.”
        They laugh.
        “Wanna smoke,” she says.
        “Yeah. Let me use the bathroom first.”

Noah pisses then snoops. He lifts the lid to her trashcan and sifts through. He’s rewarded with a scrap of blackened tinfoil and two glassine baggies. Jane would say find an exit but Jane isn’t here. Maybe he should stay. Maybe Kaitlyn needs him. He’ll tell her life gets better. A soft pitch, nothing evangelical. Then again, he can’t imagine much beyond sizzling foil, smoke pulled through a straw. Red Oxy 60’s, the ones you could crush before they became tamper-resistant. He barely got away from Cleaver the first time. He’s really testing his luck.
        Noah lathers his hands for a full minute. His breathing returns. He can see again.
        There’s a thunderstorm. From the deck they watch pink lightning flicker on the horizon. Kaitlyn’s eyes gleam and he forgets the profound things he meant to say. He leans in for a kiss. She tenses, then sucks at his mouth like separation would be fatal. He backs her against the railing.
        “Don’t push me off,” she giggles. He tastes sweet stale wine on her breath.
        He pulls her jeans down. They’re in the bedroom. Thunder rattles the house. It might split the entire world open. He holds his forearm across her neck so he’s not applying any weight, the theatrics Jane likes. Kaitlyn tells him to hurry up and get in.
        “I might get a gun,” she says after a long time.
        “That’s a good idea.”
        She plays with a loose strand of his hair, glancing down at the mass of tattoos on his stomach. His dick is soft again. He should have used a condom. He should have stayed away.
        “It’ll make me feel better about living here alone,” she says.
        Noah clears his throat.
        “I thought you said you had your daughter.”
        Her face falters. She wraps her hand around his arm, squeezes.
        “I meant living here without a man.”
        “You invited me in,” he says. “Are you sure that was smart?”
        “You don’t scare me,” she says.
        She bites her lip. A challenge. Noah grabs tangled hair, yanks her close. Their faces almost touch.
        “Maybe I’m a bad man,” he says.
        “I won’t tell,” she says, eyes heavy.
        “He reads all your books in jail,” she says.
        “Fuck,” he says, rolling off her. “Forget it.”

Kaitlyn wakes Noah. She’s in a button-up with the Whitetail Vineyards logo on the chest.
        “I made coffee,” she says. “I have to go soon.”
        “Oh, shit,” Noah says, propping himself up. “Did I sleep in?”
        “I didn’t want to wake you.”
        “I should head out.”
        “I hope I don’t end up in your book,” she says.
        Noah laughs, a short bark. They don’t touch in the solemn morning light.
        “Any resemblance to actual persons is purely coincidental,” he says.
        Noah drives to the mill. He parks in his favorite stall. A trillion mornings pulling into this lot reeling from hangovers so bad they left him giddy. The smokestacks aren’t belching anything today. He opens his voice memo app.
        “Who comes to the mill now? Urbex kids, taggers, teens looking for someplace to fuck. The mill employees scattered. Can they adapt,” he says. “Or has slow death set in. Out here you’re exposed. There’s not much shelter.”
        Noah trails off. He rolls down his window. He lights a cigarette and dangles his arm out of the truck.
        “The mill’s good. Maybe a drifter lives here, and locals suspect him. First-act red herring.”
        He groans, scratching at his face.
        “I don’t fucking know. I’m sick of these books. All this shit.”
        Noah is shocked at his confession. It can’t be undone. He stays for a half hour, talking and smoking, and then leaves.

Noah seals five hundred dollar bills in an envelope. He drives to Kaitlyn’s. Drops the envelope through the mail slot. He attempted to write a note but couldn’t find the words. What would he say. They made a mistake. There’s nothing more to it.
        He tells himself he would’ve given Liam this money too. His throat itches like it’s stuffed with cotton. His dad tried to hold things together with money, small offerings after disappearances and rampages. When he finally died it wasn’t even cathartic. Nobody learned.
        Noah returns to the Airbnb to pack and do a final sweep. He hits the road, flicking through stations until he gets a clear channel. He cranks up Matthew Good Band. The sun is high, bleaching and stabbing the whole world.