Broken Pieces

The Tortoise Shell Code by V Frank Asaro (Excerpt)

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The moon stood a quarter full in the sky as Cheryl pulled up in front of Anthony’s house in her old coupe. She had insisted on driving tonight.

“Did you notice how people keep looking at you?” she said. “Like they don’t know whether to cheer for you or run away.”

“It’ll pass,” Anthony said. “Egan’s buddies took him to the ER; he’ll be fine.”

“Fine? Mary told me he has two black eyes, a broken cheekbone and a concussion. He could have been blinded. You could have been thrown in jail, Anthony.”

“Don’t forget, he took the first swing–before I was even out of my car.”

“I know, but…now he’s saying you’re dead meat.”

“I heard that too. Well, he’ll have to take his shot before I leave for Berkeley in the fall, that’s all I can say.”

Silence, heavy and as dark as the night. Cheryl twisted her high school class ring.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “That was a bad way to bring it up.”

Cheryl twisted the ring, twisted it.

“It won’t be like forever,” he said. “We’ll write at least once a week and see each other every summer, and after a few years we’ll be together again. It will go by fast, you’ll see.”

She muffled a sob and leaned her head on his shoulder, close enough for him to smell the familiar fragrance of her skin. Tight and long he hugged her. They kissed, and he felt her wet eyelashes brush his healing face. “Anthony, please. Don’t go. Please don’t—”

“Cheryl. I have to. We’ve talked about it and talked about it, and…I have to go.”

“But why? If you really love me, why?”

“Because it’s important. For me, for us. For the future.”

“You mean our future.”

“Of course, our future.”

He knew she had to make the decision to leave with her parents tomorrow for Kentucky. The time had come; if he didn’t do it now, he never would. He opened the door and slid out. Disbelief widened Cheryl’s eyes. Through the open window, bathed in the surrealistic glow of overhead street lamps, they kissed–long, tender and lingering–searching and aching for some word or feeling that would make everything all right. Nothing occurred to him. Finally he pulled away, turned and walked off.

Behind the backyard fence he stopped and waited, listening for her car to start. Silence. He peered between two slats and saw her sitting with her forehead resting on her hands while she gripped the steering wheel, the streetlight reflecting dully from her class ring. Minutes passed. Her shoulders jerked.

He blinked hard and repeated to himself that he’d made the right decision; he had to have made the right decision….

But why? If you really love me, why?

At last the engine of Cheryl’s little coupe rattled to life and the car lurched away.

Pain knifed into Anthony’s chest. His skin turned cold. Without thinking, he sprang through the gate. “Cheryl!” But as he ran into the street her car with its one functioning taillight was already turning the far corner. He turned and dashed around the block in the opposite direction so he could head her off along the route she always took.

In darkness he flew down the sidewalk to the corner, stopped and looked down the block. No jalopy. He didn’t understand it. For the first time Cheryl had not driven her usual route. Looking the other way, up the street, he saw the single taillight of her car glowing red a block away…two blocks…then it blinked out of sight.

Anthony walked home, waited several minutes, then dialed Cheryl’s number. Her father answered, sounding annoyed at being awakened. No, Cheryl hadn’t arrived yet, and he didn’t want to be disturbed.

* *

After a long, sleepless night Anthony called again. His jaw dropped as a taped operator’s voice intoned, “The number you have dialed is no longer in service.”

He tried again, pressing the buttons very carefully—and got the same result.

He reached her house in ten minutes. No coupe out front; no sign of life. He knocked. No answer. Peering through the front room window he saw an empty living room: no furniture; lifeless; deserted.

He drove slowly home, banged into his room, closed and locked the door, pulled the shades, took off his shoes, and crawled back under the covers with his clothes on. Loneliness and doubt pressed down on him, heavier and heavier, until he shook under the pressure. Tears rolled down his face into his mouth, and the saltiness reminded him of the previous night, when he had kissed Cheryl for the last time and tasted her tears…a flavor he knew he would never forget.

* *

By the end of August he had received only three letters from Cheryl, mailed from the small town in Kentucky where she’d grown up. The first two were long and passionate, the last short and…friendly, at best. Then nothing. She never replied to his last letter.

As Anthony packed for the long drive to Berkeley, on impulse he made a long-distance phone call. Stood anxiously waiting while it rang.

A familiar middle-aged woman’s voice answered, “Crawford’s.”

“Hello, Mrs. Crawford. This is Anthony Darren. How are you folks?”

A pause. “Hi, Anthony. Just fine, thanks. We’re all just fine. How’re you doing?”

“Oh…okay, I guess. Getting ready to go up north. May I speak to Cheryl?”

A longer pause. “She’s gone on a trip, Anthony. Didn’t you know?”

“No. I haven’t heard from her in a while.”

“Anthony, she’s married. She’s off on a little honeymoon. Thought surely you knew.”

He swallowed a thick lump. Then, “Well, tell her congratulations for me. Who did she marry?”

“Billy Burns, a boy from these parts. An Army man. I think he’ll be good for her. She’s really been blue since you and her broke up.”

“Well, I’m sure he’ll take good care of her. She’s a very special girl. Please tell her I’m… happy for her.”

“That’s real nice of you, Anthony. Always thought a lot of you.”

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Genre – Legal Drama

Rating – PG13

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