The moon sat in her bed of clouds, her mournful face watching Jim Halloran meander down the street. The bourbon carried him effortlessly; he felt as if he was walking on air. It was the perfect end to a shitty week, the kind of week he would very much like to forget. In that moment of drunken stupor, he felt invincible. One could even say he felt reckless.
The tune he whistled was off key, echoing down the frozen concrete streets, bouncing off aluminium fences and the shuttered windows that sightlessly tracked his progress. Every now and then, he would utter a snatch of words, a stray lyric from some song that had circulated through the jukebox at the pub. The words themselves made no sense, but offered comfort nonetheless.
Cold air teased his face, the only part of his body exposed to the scything wind. His eyes were watering, rendering his already impaired vision totally useless. But that was of no consequence; there was no traffic out tonight. He had the town to himself. Tonight, he was the king.
Jim smiled at the thought. In so doing, he felt the pain from the side of his face flare up. With the pain came the memory… the boy with the chunky Harley Davidson ring and the homeboy beanie.
“Little bastard,” Jim sniffed, before ducking across the final road that led to his rented house.
In the fifteen or so minutes it took to walk from the pub, the full gambit of thoughts had chased themselves over the plateau of Jim’s drunken mind. The first thought was the fear, the same fear that, when he was sober some six hours ago, caused him to shake as if afflicted with the cold. Following the fear was the feeling of total ineptitude. This emotion was akin to a twisting, grappling feeling in the very pit of his guts. Here, the questions being asked in his mind ran along the line of: “Why didn’t you do anything?” Running on the coat tails of the helplessness was the bitterness. “You should have done something!”
And then, the emotion that drove the sled Jim’s mind was riding in tonight slid to the fore. The anger, boiling slowly before bubbling to the surface like a flowing genie. This was the sort of anger that scrunched Jim’s fists into tight clods of sinew and knuckle, the sort of anger that perhaps indicated that Jim should seriously consider booking into therapy.
“Fuckin’ little jerkweed,” he muttered under his breath. The merry, drunken whistling and aimless singing was now gone. And surprisingly, the wind didn’t appear to be blurring his vision.
His house was lit up like a Christmas tree. Every light that could be turned on was turned on. He rued what the power bill was going to be like, but did not want to risk retribution. It was bad enough copping the accusing stares as he bought two litres of milk at the corner store. He didn’t want to be surprised by some punk slinking in the shadows in his backyard, wanting to let fly with a tirade of abuse or an epilogue to Tuesday’s sordid little episode.
Even from the far end of the street, the brightness of the lights etched vivid flashes on his retinas. He wondered vaguely—as most drunken thoughts are arrived at—whether it was sensible to have purchased one hundred watt light globes for the outside lights. The lights that attacked his eyes were extremely bright; he might even say that they were burning. The insect life fluttering around them would be char-grilled should they fly too close.
That last thought appealed to Jim’s darker side. He tried a grin, but the effort hurt his face. Instead, he whistled once more, the heels of his boots striking on the bitumen, echoing down the street. Home drew steadily closer, the outside lights became more intense. Two doors away, he slowed his pace down to scan the bushes and trees scattered over the front lawn, on the lookout for loiterers. He actually stopped in next door’s driveway, and drew his hands, with his house keys clenched between the first two fingers of his left hand, out of his overcoat pockets. His breathing had all but ceased. His heartbeat was a steady tattoo.
“Jesus Christ,” he told himself. “Look at what they’ve done to you.”
A voice shattered the stillness of the night. He jumped and spun.
“Mr. Hallaron? Are you all right?”
She was perched on the front veranda of her house, the only light coming from Jim’s one hundred watt insect incinerators. Even in that imperfect light, her hair was brilliant gold, as straight as a knife cut, framing her angular face. Her dark eyes betrayed no visible emotion… at least none that Jim could see from his vantage point. She was trussed up in a thick jacket, knees tucked up to her chest, swaying silently on the swing seat she regularly occupied.
“I’m fine thanks, Jane,” Jim said, successfully disguising both the drunken slurs in his voice and the fleeting flicker of fear. Inside his chest, his heart was doing better than two hundred beats per minute. Watch it, pal; you’re heart attack material.
“You’re one heck of a jumpy dude at present,” Jane whispered. “Can’t say I blame you, though.”
Jim made a pretence of looking at his watch. “What are you doing up so late? Shouldn’t you be in bed or something?”
“Shouldn’t you?” Her voice drifted through the night, full of a confidence Jim never had when he was sixteen. Jane was a strange girl. Even strange wasn’t adequate. She was eccentric, the exception to every rule. “Mother’s having one of her turns again.”
“Oh,” Jim nodded. He was well aware of Marianne Geesin’s ‘turns.’ They were well documented by the Gossip Express, fifty-year old women with nothing better to do than dig up rubbish about everyone and everything. Currently, their eyes were turned in Jim’s direction… though Marianne Geesin would always provide regular titbits of juicy news… Marianne and her eccentric blonde haired ‘gypsy’ of a daughter. What would they make of this midnight exchange?
“No offence, Mr. Hallaron, but you look pretty crappy tonight.”
“I’m not feeling quite like my usual sparkling self, Jane,” he quipped, not entirely sure if he was being defensive or not.
“Is that bourbon I can smell?”
“Either that or my aftershave.”
“You should try some scented oils to soothe your stress. Mother might be able to fix you up with some.”
“The traditional method works fine with me thanks, Jane.” Jim switched the keys from one hand to the other.
“Each to their own, I guess.”
“Are you still my English teacher or what?”
Jim shrugged. “I assume so.”
“I mean, after all that… shit… last Tuesday…”
“I’m still waiting on things concerning that…”
“…you’ll let me know if anything happens?”
He shrugged again, unsure of what exactly to say. The usual stock response about privacy wasn’t really applicable to Jane considering the stuff they had been confiding to each other over the course of six months. Shit, if the Gossip Express even got a whiff of half of the stuff they’d talked about, they’d have enough shit to really tar and feather them.
“I suppose I could…”
“…you know it was totally unfair what they did, Mr. Hallaron?”
Jim nodded, all too aware of just how unfair Tuesday’s altercation was.
“I mean… your hands were tied.”
He nodded again, feeling both elated and uncomfortable with the maturity and uncanniness of Jane’s personality. Oftentimes, he forgot she was only sixteen.
“God, if I was there Mr. Hallaron… I would’ve…”
“You would’ve stayed the hell away from it!” Jim interjected, his voice eerily deadpan. “It was bad enough what they did to me without you getting involved.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Hallaron.”
“Mm. You’ve no need to be.” He stifled a yawn. “If I was half as smart as I claim to be, I would’ve seen something like this coming.”
With that, he trudged around the back of his house, suddenly aware of a heavy weight on his shoulders.