Mel balanced atop the slender steel rails under a chalk sky as the train approached. The metal vibrated beneath his soles, transmitting the force of the engine over the ties and up his spine and out the top of his skull. The engineer blew his whistle at a hundred yards, and Mel stepped out of his path and onto the platform as the train ground to a halt. Wind from the engine kicked up paper scraps and laces of dirty snow, flinging them against the tails of his overcoat, the nicest piece of clothing he'd ever owned. Laura had picked it out in the Big & Tall shop, stretching her arms wide to hold the fine black wool against his shoulders. After he'd tried it on, she had kissed him twiceone a quick peck, the second slower, warmbefore draping it over her arm and heading for the register. The memory made him less self-conscious as he edged into the lee of the depot and out of the slicing air. Mel fixed his eyes on the doors of the lone passenger car, the only one necessary since few people came this far north on the line in winter. He waited for Bookie to appear.
Bookie had always been small, a head shorter than Mel and half his weightDavid and his Goliath, Bookie had jokedbut the man that climbed down from the train was gaunt. He wore a cheap shiny suit that hung on him as if on a wire frame. No overcoat, a nylon duffle in one hand. Bookie twisted to talk to someone behind him. The conductor followed Bookie down the car's steps, his face bent into a polite smile, nodding as Bookie finished whatever tale he was on. Chatting up, he'd called it, talking to anyone who would listen and half those who wouldn't, running a line of bullshit in order to impress a total stranger. Bookie gave him a firm handshake with that sliding move that meant he'd tipped the man.
Mel pulled his coat closer around him, shuffled his feet to keep circulation going.
"There he is," the familiar voice said.
Mel looked up to find his friend at arm's length. Bookie did that at times, slid from point to point without seeming to cross the space between. Bookie held out his hand. In Mel's palm it felt brittle and light, although Bookie made a show of trying to squeeze as hard as he could.
"I'd say that you've gotten bigger, but I don't think that's possible," he said.
"Book," Mel replied.
Their handshake remained clasped until it was too late for a hug, and both let go at the same time. Mel tucked his hands into his coat pockets, wishing he'd brought his winter gloves. His knuckles still ached in the cold, broken dozens of times from the fights Bookie had set up during their years together.
"Truck's over here," Mel said. He turned, avoiding patches of clear ice on the brick walk.
"Still got the beast after all this time, huh?" Bookie asked, stepping fast to pull even, skimming over the slick spots without faltering. "I would have thought you'd ditched it for a suburban cruiser. Maybe an SUV."
Mel shrugged. He fished for his keys. His old pick-up had been their home for three and a half years of wandering until Bookie had gone inside. The truck was won in a fight, like everything else of value they'd had in those days.
"You took the cap off," Book said.
"We're remodeling," Mel said. "Need the space."
Mel had also removed the neat wood platform in the bed, the one that had held their bedrolls on plywood sheets with room underneath for camping gear. They slept out most nights, but passed the coldest or stormiest nights listening to the weather rattle and snap the fiberglass above them. Mel lived on the road alone for less than a month after Bookie's sentence had begun, until he landed the construction job that tied him to Manistique and, eventually, to Laura. Now on weekends the truck bed hauled sheets of drywall, fixtures from the recycle shop, and raw, sweet pine lumber.
Bookie stared out the window as Mel drove down State Street. In the close cab, Mel caught a powerful smell of mint coming off him with each breath. The sky had darkened to gray, with low clouds full of snow. Town curved away from them and down a long slope toward the shore, falling off into an expanse of Lake Michigan indistinguishable from the sky. The rusted steel frame of the old ore-loading docks stuck out into the harbor.
"Seems like an okay place," Bookie said. He watched two women who were not dressed for cold weather turn a corner and disappear through the blacked-out door of the Town Tap, leaving the street empty again.
Mel drove below the speed limit, cutting across the grid of streets to the small white house that he shared with Laura. It still felt odd to know his way around a place. At her request, he'd drawn out the meandering line of his travels with Bookie, sketching them on a placemat map of the country. Next to the logical squares of Manistique, their track looked like that of a migrating animal.
Mel watched Bookie look up and down the block at the string of identical cottages, built sixty years ago to house workers for the mines, when the government had needed all the iron in the U.P. for warships and weapons. Every other house had added a touch to set it apartfake brick around the cinder block foundation, black shutters made of plastic, the outlines of flower beds under the old snow, or new additions crowding the tiny lots. Only his and Laura's had no distinguishing characteristics. As Mel watched, the inner door opened and he saw her through the storm door. She wore her new red blouse. Condensation formed on the inside of the glass, but he could still make out the fall of her dark hair, see her twist her necklace the way she did when nervous. He stood still, the cold forgotten and a knot in his stomach, as Bookie started up the short walk and she opened the door to let him in.
Bookie must have told the story about the skywalkers a thousand times in the years that Mel had known him. "That's how stories take root," he would say. "You hear them over and over until the words sink into your skin. Then it's yours as much as mine."
He leaned back in the wooden booth at the tavern and lit a cigarette over the remains of his whitefish platter. This last time he'd told it, the story had been thinner than Mel remembered, like Bookie himself, not starved but sharpened.
"The skywalkers were Indian," Bookie said, "all of them, mostly those flat-head Mohonk motherfuckers from upstate New York, not like the fish-eater Ojibwa in this town, or the Iroquois sitting here in this booth."
He always managed to work his heritage into any conversation.
"Definitely not skinny blonde guys with lightsabers and robots. That George Lucas twists my balls." Bookie continued, "So, these Indians took the good jobs for the one and only time in history. They walked the steel over New York City, building the skyscrapers from Midtown on down to Wall Street. They were the best, see, because they had no fear. No skywalker ever fell to earth. Not one. Strode around up there on girders ten inches wide like they were sidewalks, a thousand, two thousand feet up. High winds couldn't stop them, rain, nothing. They'd work when no one else could, and they didn't bring the newsmen around with a swan dive, so the bosses loved them. From fifty stories up the human body splashes when it hits concrete. I've seen it."
Bookie signaled for a third neat whiskey with his empty shot glass.
"Occasionally one of them wouldn't show up for work, and you got nine little Indians instead of ten, but the foreman would think that the missing worker was sleeping one off somewhere."
"He wasn't," Mel said. He could never contain himself by this point in the story.
"No, they weren't sleeping it off," Bookie said. "Well, maybe one or two."
"So where did they go?" Laura asked.
"They fell," Bookie said. He puffed a new cigarette to life on the stub of the old one. The flare of light reflected yellow on his pocked skin.
"I thought you said that skywalkers never fell."
"They never fell to earth."
Laura shook her head in the tiniest of movements, a clue that warned Mel, when he was on the other side of an argument, that he was about to lose.
"Up," Mel interjected again.
"Exactly," Bookie said. "Skywalkers fall up. It always happened in the afternoon on days when the moon rose early. One of them would be carrying the hod with the white-hot rivets, or trailing the gun, and he'd feel it. Like remembering something at first, and then it would start to attract his bones, his organs. He'd get lighter until his feet came free and he'd tumble off, straight upwhooshgrowing smaller and smaller against the face of the moon until he disappeared out of sight. Each building, at least one guy went."
"So they would never fall to their deaths, but the moon could take them at any point?" Laura asked.
Bookie shrugged. "I only tell the story." His fresh shot arrived, and he picked it up gingerly to keep from breaking the surface tension and spilling. He sipped, making a small, rough sound of pleasure in the back of his throat.
Mel could almost feel it: the wind howling up past the edges of the girders. He saw the streets sprawled below, sectioned into grids and rectangles and triangles by the steel structure, felt the attraction lift him by the shoulders, taking the weight off his tired knees, pulling him out at an angle over the void like an iron filing drawn to a magnet. He'd begin to rise: slowly at first, gaining speed and altitude, soaring off in a stretched curve.
"The Mohonk were from farther west. Not upstate," a man at the next table said. He was a doughy tourist, overdressed for the tavern, who seemed to sense that he should have remained quiet. "That's great though," he said, "about the skywalkers."
Bookie leaned toward the man with a thin smile.
"It's great that they fell?" he asked.
"No, I mean"
"Good that they had jobs . . . those Injun freeloaders?" Bookie asked, without waiting for an answer. "What's your name?"
Mel's dinner sat heavily in his stomach.
"Jesus," Bookie said, shaking his head sadly. "Chet."
He turned back to Mel and Laura at the table.
"Seriously?" he asked them. "Chet?"
"Yes." A smile twitched at the edges of the Chet's mouth. He didn't seem sure that he was being mocked.
"Not Chester?" Laura asked gently.
Headshake. "My folks didn't know it was short for something."
"Chet. Chetty-chet-chet," Bookie strolled to the bar and set his empty glass on it. He nodded to the bartender, and asked over his shoulder, "Were you by any chance born at a frat house, asswipe?"
Mel stood and picked up his coat, urging Laura out of the booth. He paid the check while Bookie tossed down his drink and then Mel moved their trio toward the door and the cold night outside.
The conversation took place in whispers, in the dark, while Bookie slept in the small guest room across the hall.
"If you're concerned, you should do something about it," she said.
"He's always been like that," Mel replied.
Her nails traced his collarbone, the sensation a faint electric line drawn down and across his neck and then gone. He shivered.
"You never told me about the night he was arrested," she said. "I got all the buddy tales except that one."
Mel cleared his throat. "I told you."
"You said that he saved you, but never how."
Mel thought about it, looking for the right pieces to put into words. He felt her hand was close, hovering in the dark.
"It was in an old warehouse outside Grand Rapids. Big crowd. He'd set it up with some other guys so there were a couple bouts. I went last, up against this Swede."
The invisible touch returned, stroking his skin as if drawing the story out of him.
"Mean guy. Hard. Toughest I ever fought." Hitting the Swede had been like punching stone. Mel's left hand, his best hand, had let go right away, the bones cracking under the impact. The Swede had had a snaggle-toothed smile, and getting struck made him happy.
"He was going to kill me," Mel said.
He could feel Laura's tension, and it made him skip over the choke hold, the thumbs in his windpipe that seemed to be drilling through to his spine. Mel's vision had blanked and returned two or three times as he tried to break the Swede's grip. His bladder had let go. The crowd roared in his ears like a freight train, surging against the sound of his pulse. He could hear it slow. Began to count the time between beats.
"And Bookie . . ." Laura prompted.
Mel shook his head, clearing the memory of dying. "He came out of nowhere and hit the Swede over the head with a coal scuttle."
Laura withdrew her hand. He wished that she hadn't.
"It broke the third time he hit the guy," Mel said. "Kept whacking him with the handle until the guy let me go. The off-duty cops at the fight who'd been betting on the Swede called their buddies. The Swede survived. Otherwise Bookie would still be inside."
There was more to it, of course: Bookie towering over Mel, defending him from the furious crowd until Mel could stand on his own. He could have escaped. Mel had begged him to go, as best he could while retching and gasping, but Book had stayed until the police were all over the warehouse.
"You're worried," Laura said in the dark. "I don't want you to worry."
He lay on his back as she turned away and curled on her side. After a long time, her breathing eased into a regular rhythm mixed with tiny snores. Mel slipped out of bed, leaving Laura with the duvet caught in one fist and twisted up to her mouth as if she planned to eat it. He found a pair of shorts by feel on the closet floor and pulled them on. Nothing moved in the house as he eased the bedroom door shut. He padded to the living room.
Bookie sat in the rocking chair next to the bricked-up fireplace, smoking, a plastic cup in his other hand. Mel's next project was to open up the hearth and see if the chimney was in good shape. Laura had always wanted a house with a fireplace. He took a seat on the couch. Bookie offered the cup. Mel shook his head.
"You're getting soft," Bookie said. "Turning into a fat, contented white man. One with a pretty wife."
"Fiancé. And what are you?"
"Native." Bookie exhaled smoke like a ninety-eight pound locomotive. "The greatest hunting machine the world has ever known. My ancestors could kill a grizzly bear with a stone knife. A hundred years ago, I'd have scalped your pink suburban ass and hung it in my teepee."
Mel had heard this same speech when Book used to train him, holding up the target pad and weaving. Left, right. Jab, cross, jab, hook. Mel had been tight, strong like sprung steel.
"Not teepees," Mel said. "Not the Iroquois. You told me something else."
"Longhouses. Necessary to keep our dicks dry in the rainy season."
Bookie rocked and drank. He must have had it in his bag. Laura didn't approve of Mel spending extra money to keep booze in the house. Mel thought about the best way to ask what was on his mind.
"How was" Mel began.
"Shit boring," Bookie said.
The rocking chair had scratched a mark into the wood floor's finish.
"Scared?" Mel asked.
Bookie shrugged. "Not so much. You find some big dumb stone, make friends, buy him shit at the commissary. That's it. The hardest part for me was keeping my mouth shut for eighteen months."
Mel grinned. "I can see that."
The cigarette burned out against the filter with a smell of scorched plastic. Bookie examined it before placing the stub on the fireplace bricks.
"How is working for a living?" he asked.
Mel thought about how all he wanted, now, was to spend time with Laura and rebuild this house for her. And how that exact desire made it necessary for him to spend most of his waking hours elsewhere. Her father owned the construction company, and Mel's assignments in the slow winter season were scattered and always too far from the office to stop in for lunch.
"Shit," Bookie said, "I'm not going to wait here all night for you to put it into words."
Mel smiled, tilting his face to the floor as he always had.
"That's what I thought," Book said.
"Don't come in," Bookie said from behind the door of the guest room the next morning.
An ammoniac smell crawled out the gap underneath. Laura passed by Mel in the hall, the buttons on her business suit catching at the thin fabric of his t-shirt.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
"I don't know."
"I can hear you whispering," Bookie said, from farther back in the room. He sounded out of breath. "Everything's fine. Good. I need a minute."
"Christ, what's that smell?" she asked, pulling at Mel's arm to try and move him from in front of the guest room door. He turned and backed her along the hallway.
"I want to know what's going on," she said.
"Let's give him a second," he said. "I'll take care of it."
She studied him in light of the kitchen window, then turned and took her purse and briefcase off the table.
"Fine," she said. "I'll see you at dinner." She pulled him down by one ear to lay a kiss on his mouth. Not a slight lipstick-saving brush of the lips, but something warm and full that carried inside it the sense of waking up together.
The guest room door opened, as he had known it would, as soon as the front door closed. Mel remained at the sink, rinsing the few dishes from Laura's breakfast, turning only when he heard Bookie cross into the bathroom and start the shower. Mel walked down the short hall, silent in his bare feet.
The smell remained in the room, acrid and heavy. Bookie's bag lay open on the floor with wrinkled clothes scattered on top of it in deep layers despite the fact that he had arrived the day before. The bed was stripped bare, the sheets balled and thrown in the corner. A stain the size of a small dog lay centered on the mattress, mud-brown with an oily scarlet sheen where the morning light hit it.
The water shut off in the bathroom.
"You out there?" Bookie asked.
Mel considered lying, but couldn't come up with what to say.
"She's gone, right?" The bathroom door swung open to reveal a dripping Bookie trying to cover himself with one of the embroidered guest towels that Laura had put out. Each of his ribs stood out. "I'm going to buy you a new mattress and some sheets like you wouldn't believe. Percale, million thread count."
Mel nodded. "Cabinet."
"Extra towels are in the cabinet next to the sink," he said.
"Right." Bookie swung the door shut. "I didn't want to touch anything. It's like a magazine in here."
"You okay?" Mel asked.
"Embarrassed as shit, but, yeah. Good. Give me five minutes."
They left the window of the guest room open to air it out while they went to the dump. Bookie loaded the ruined mattress in the truck himself, struggling through the tight corners of the house, not allowing Mel to help. The furnace kicked to life. He went back for the stained sheets, and stuffed them in under the load. As Mel drove to the edge of town, Bookie dug through the glove box, holding odds and ends up to the light. His hands shook.
"We going to see any bears?" Bookie asked.
Mel shook his head. "Hibernating, I guess."
"Shit," Bookie said. "That would've been a gas. I can remember last time I was up here, over closer to Wisconsin, that was high entertainment for a date. Watching bears eat at the dump."
"They've installed electric fences now," Mel said. Laura had told him about them, reading an article aloud from the newspaper. It had pleased her that the bears were protected from themselves, kept from eating the dirty diapers and bits of wire that used to kill several each year.
Bookie unloaded alone. When he climbed back in he looked better; his face had more color. At the only furniture place left in town, a small, cheaply-paneled box of a store hung with plastic streamers like a car lot, Bookie took an hour to decide among the three mattresses available. He flirted with the dowdy saleslady, cajoled her into pulling out brochures and catalogs, and finally chose the most expensive model. He paid from a small roll of cash.
Mel watched him put away the few remaining bills. Bookie had always handled the money end of things on the road. They'd eaten a lot of bologna and day-old bread.
The plastic cover on the new mattress crackled in the wind as they loaded it.
"Any place to get an eye-opener around here?" Bookie asked.
Mel hesitated at the intersection with State Street. He'd taken the whole day off, one hundred and twenty dollars gone. He thought for a minute about Laura sitting in her dad's office, going over the books the way she'd been when he first saw her. She chewed her pencils to stubs, and she'd blushed when he caught her with one in her mouth. The office was half a block left. He grunted and swung the wheel to the right, found a spot to park along the curb. The neon sign over the door of the Town Tap had lost a letter, and it read "pen" on this bright, brisk morning. The mines had been closed for a decade, but Manistique still ran as a three-shift town. Bookie was out of the cab and halfway to the door before Mel had unbuckled his seatbelt. Mel looked back at the mattress, hanging over his side of the truck bed, before pushing through the door.
It started with red-eyes: tomato juice, beer, vodka and a raw egg. They moved on to boilermakers, the first two of which seemed to settle into Mel's head like weights, not uncomfortable, holding him balanced. The old-timers in the placeretired auto workers moved up from the Lower Peninsula, pensioned minersate pickled eggs from the glass jar of red brine and pulled down the reeking smoked herring strips called "blind robins" from the clothespins that dangled along the bar header. Bookie roamed back and forth in the long, narrow space, shaking hands, offering cigarettes and trading lies.
After the fourth boilermaker, Mel considered walking down to see Laura on her lunch hour. A half-dozen snowmobilers, or at least would-be snowmobilers, had joined the crowd, high-fiving and punching each other's arms too hard. They'd pulled their expensive machines three hundred miles north on trailers to find an insufficient gray crust on the ground and the forecasted ten inches still locked in the clouds. Bookie waded into their ranks and collected a scattering of business cards: car salesmen, mostly, slick young guys who looked like they'd played football in high school a decade ago and fallen into a mean job afterward. Mel was pondering whether to include the shot with his fifth beer when the tone changed. The voices around Bookie grew sharp edges. Boasts, questions of fear and manhood and moneythe regular needling patter that ended in a fight. Mel pushed back from the bar and rose. Glances came his way now, sidelong looks that measured and weighed.
Bookie stood in front of him.
"These guys are pricks," he said. "Do them good to come down a peg or two."
Mel felt made of concrete. His hands seemed to weigh too much to lift. He wanted to hear Laura's voice.
"One last time, huh?" Bookie said. "We take them for a couple grand, and you can buy your woman a nice dishwasher or something."
Mel wavered. Bookie had a new scar on his forehead from his time in prison. The lines at the corners of his eyes ran deeper than Mel remembered. The night he was arrested, Bookie had looked invincible. Even with the cuffs on he had an air of nobility, like they were an annoyance not worth noticing.
The alley behind the bar had jagged scrapes along the bricks on both sides, from the garbage truck, Mel figured. He watched his opponent strip off his sweatshirt and begin to shadow-box. Shorter than Mel, thick, with a head that sat directly on his shoulders and long arms roped with muscle to balance out his impending beer gut. Someone among his buddies had said, "ex-Marine." Good. He'd destroyed a score of men who'd served, all of whom had tried the same handful of moves. Predictable. The cold air raised the hair on Mel's bare arms. Bookie held Mel's coat over his arm at first, then put it on. The hem reached to the ground, and the sleeves to his fingertips.
Bookie stepped between Mel and the Marine and raised his hands as if they had a crowd of a thousand rather than five car salesmen and the few rummies who had followed them, drinks in hand, out the back door of the bar.
"No going for the eyes," Bookie said. That was it for the rules. "Last man standing wins."
Bookie dropped his hands and moved out of the way.
The Marine circled left, closing the distance by half steps. Mel mirrored him, the fight beginning to course in his blood. Mel had never felt anger toward the men across the ring, at least not personally. Their faces didn't come into focus. He watched their hips, because that told him which way the men would move.
His awareness drained to a single point; the sounds of the onlookers faded. The fighters came together and traded jabs. Time slowed, the Marine's shoulder dipping a fraction of an inch to telegraph his shot before his fist moved. Mel moved inside a punch, the blow passing him without harm. He stung the man with a pair of short digs to the ribs. The contact traveled up Mel's wrists into his forearms. It hurt and pleased, left him shocked that his opponent was real and not simply Mel's shadow. His awareness tightened again into movement and target, and Mel forgot that he existed in this fight, where he ended and the other man began.
One of them tried a leg sweep. Arm bar. They locked up, crashed together into the brick at one side of the alley. Less than a minute and they were panting, weakness in their arms and legs. No more complicated moves. A roundhouse reached out a half inch too far, and the opening hung there. Mel jabbed to the soft throat. It folded around his fist. Left hook to the temple, rocking the head back and exposing the jaw for an uppercut. Bone cracked, and splinters of teeth flew from the man's open mouth to spatter in Mel's face. The Marine's eyes went blank. His body took one step back without instructions and sat hard on the stained concrete. He slumped over on his side and did not move.
Sound crowded in on Mel again: the fucks and shits of the salesmen and Bookie's war whoop. A scrape burned along Mel's cheekbone from the brick. His left hand throbbed, and experiments with moving it gave him the shooting pain and crackle that confirmed that his knuckle had broken against the man's head.
Two of the salesmen bent over their fallen friend.
Another turned to Bookie.
"We're not paying shit. This was a set-up," he said. He wore multiple gold chains in a tangle, with an open shirt. Mel wondered if they caught in his chest hair.
"As a matter of fact," Gold Chains continued, "I got half a mind to call the cops."
"We can agree," Bookie said, "that you have half a mind. But you're not welshing and you're not calling anybody."
He produced the handful of business cards with a small flourish and pretended to examine them. Mel's long black coat made him look like a stage magician about to pull a trick.
"Amazing what you can find out about somebody, nowadays, with a name and maybe where they work," he said. "Tracking down home addresses is easy as cake. Phones, too. Suppose, for example, that the whores here in town wanted to give your wives a call so that they could swap tales of your inadequate equipment."
Gold Chain tried to think of something to say, but Bookie moved on.
"What are we talking, here? Three grand? Or was it four? I forget. Maybe four. It does seem cheaper than divorce, though, huh? Anybody have kids? You got pictures? I love it when daddies show me pictures of their children."
"What happened to your face?" Laura asked.
Mel kept his eyes on the floor after one quick look at her. Guilt and shame, also fear ran through him. Not the fear of physical pain, but of loss.
"We had a little altercation," Bookie said. "Your boy here saved my butt when some tourist morons got bellicose."
She looked from him to Mel and walked out of the kitchen and down the hall. They heard the bedroom door shut.
"Ah, shit," Book said. He sounded tired. "You can't fight the silent ones. I'm sorry, buddy. I've landed you in it up to the eyebrows."
Mel's buzz had elongated and sunk deeper into his head as the hours had passed. The acrid smell still hung in the air, and the bed frame in the guest room sat empty. The mattress had been gone when they returned to the truck. Bookie kept mostly silent as he'd driven them home while Mel cradled his wounded hand in a bar towel full of ice.
"You want your coat back?" Bookie asked.
Laura had brought a box in the door when she came home. It must have been delivered while they were trying to fix up Mel's face. She'd abandoned the box on the table.
"What's this?" Bookie asked. He gave the box a nudge. "Who's William Sonoma?"
"It's probably a wedding gift," Mel said. "We registered for a bunch of stuff, and people have been sending it for months. Her family." He'd had no one to add to the list of guests.
Mel crept down the hall and knocked on the bedroom door. Laura opened it after a moment. She reached up in the dim hall to touch his cheek with the back of her hand.
"I thought you were done," she said.
"I am. Now I am."
Mel could see the lights go out in the Marine's eyes again. Mel had hesitated for a split second before taking the opportunity. He hadn't wanted to hit the man, to hit anyone.
"I promise," he said.
She dropped her hand to his chest and left it there.
"Are we still going to dinner?" he asked. The topic wasn't closed, he knew. It would revive in a few days. He grasped at the temporary peace.
She nodded. "Let me finish getting ready."
Back in the kitchen, Bookie had a knife in each hand. The box, open now on the table, held a wooden block with what looked like two dozen handles protruding from it.
"Nice steel," Bookie said. "What's this one for?" He waved the slender, curved blade in his right hand, slashing at the air.
"I think that's a boning knife," Mel said. It seemed impossible that Bookie stood in his kitchen. This place was Laura's and his. He could feel the lump in his pocket made by his half of the money. There didn't seem to be any place to put it in the house.
"You in the doghouse?" Book asked.
Mel looked at the floor, the packing peanuts scattered across it.
"I gotcha," Bookie said. "My fault. Tell you whatyou and hergo to dinner, the two of you, huh? I'll take a walk around town, and we'll talk tomorrow."
Mel shook his head, but Bookie held up a hand.
"It's fine," he said. "Make up with her. Hey, you love her, right?"
Mel found his voice. "Yes."
Book leaned in close. "Let me tell you a secret. She's got it as bad for you as you do for her. I can see it. You two are good for each other."
Before Mel could find an answer, Bookie was out the door. Mel watched from the front window as his friend strode up the quiet street, still wearing Mel's good coat and lighting a cigarette with a flourish.
Dinner was not as strained as Mel had feared. Laura did not mention his swollen hand or his clumsy attempts to use a knife and fork. The restaurant was tinysix tables in an old house on Main Street. One by one, the lights on the other tables winked out, leaving them sealed in the circle of their own candles. They talked about their plans for the house, her father, about everything but his fight. Mel watched the flame reflect in her eyes, and considered himself lucky.
The lone waiter returned and stood in Mel's line of sight.
"We should go," Mel said.
The restaurant's lights went out as soon as the door closed behind them. Laura held his hand as they walked up the dark street toward the truck. Mel felt talked out.
"He can stay," she said. "You know that I'll do whatever it takes, right?"
Mel squeezed her hand in reply.
He paid no attention to the footsteps at first. Then another set joined them, and another. He glanced over his shoulder and saw three shadows arrayed across the sidewalk behind them, spilling out into the street. Mel picked up their pace, towing Laura with him. Half a block to the truck, which sat under the lone streetlight on this stretch. Two men who'd been leaning against it began to stroll down the center of the street in their direction. The sodium-arc light glinted off gold chains.
"Listen to me," he said.
Laura had noticed, too. Her hand stiffened in his.
"I need you to run to the truck, no matter what happens, and get away," he said.
He tried to continue walking normally, but could see her shaking her head out of the corner of his eye.
"Yes," he said. The fear in the pit of his stomach made his reply come out in a hiss. Not fear for himself. "If you get away, I'll be all right." Losing a fight meant nothing. Physical pain he could bear. "Run when I tell you."
She let go of his hand. In two quick moves, Laura took off her heels. She held one in each hand. He thought that the pavement must be freezing beneath her feet.
His knees shook. There seemed to be no strength left in his body. It was all he could do to keep walking straight. He wanted to cover her, absorb her into his body to keep her safe.
Gold Chains and the other man in front of them stopped, hands in pockets, legs wide. They were swaying drunk.
"Well, look what" Gold began.
Mel didn't let him finish. He lunged and caught Gold's friend by the throat and plowed him into Gold. All three of them went down.
"Run," he got out.
Laura hesitated for a split second and sprinted for the truck.
Mel tried to get to his feet. A weight crashed down on his skull. He felt a click as something let go deep inside his head. The world spun sideways, and he vomited his dinner onto the pavement.
He fought to breathe. To stand. Bile burned his throat. He'd gotten one foot under himself when the weight came down again, glancing off the side of his head and landing on his shoulder. His arm went numb.
Laura seemed to be moving in slow motion. Gold and his friend started after her. Mel lunged and caught the friend by the ankles and clutched at him even as the weight came down repeatedly on his back. He couldn't stop Gold.
Gold chased her into the circle of light around the truck. Laura screamed. It was the worst sound that Mel had ever heard.
Mel made it to his feet for only a second before someone tackled him to the ground. Gold had her from behind now, one arm across her throat and the other hand grabbing at her breast. Mel's attackers tried to grind his face into the pavement. Before he lost sight of her, Mel thought that one of the shadows at the rear of the truck moved. It seemed to detach itself from the darkness and slide toward the couple.
Mel arched his body against the ground. An arm snaked under his and tried to get him in a hold. Mel gasped for air. For a moment they were still, straining but unable to move. Mel surged and rolled away from the pile. A man stood over him with both arms raised as he reared back to hit Mel again with the signpost. The shadow was there, too, resolving into Bookie in his long black coat. He reached out, effortlessly, and stuck the boning knife into the armpit of the guy with the sign.
The metal sign hit the ground like thunder. Bookie lunged and slashed, catching the guy across the back of the knee. He went down screaming. Mel made it up to his feet. The ground spun. He saw two Bookies now, and four men piling into him and bearing him down, clawing at the knife.
The truck's horn crashed into Mel's consciousness. He could hear the engine rev. Lights came at him. A wet, loose shape lay in a shining pool under the street light where the truck had been. He took another step and reached into the struggle with his one good arm and caught hold of the collar of the black coat as the truck swerved past and stopped.
Mel lifted Bookie out of the fight. The tailgate on the truck was still down from their shopping trip. He hefted his friend over it, rolling him like a sack of flour into the bed, and climbed after him. He could see Laura looking through the back window. There was blood on her face. She accelerated almost before his feet left the ground.
A metallic banging came from beneath the bed with each swerve and percussive bump: a broken leaf-spring or shock mount. The truck rocked on its suspension.
Mel dragged himself to the back of the cab, out of the wind, and pulled Bookie to him. His friend mumbled. In the flash of a passing streetlight, Mel saw blood covering Bookie's teeth.
"Feel it?" Bookie asked.
The handle of the boning knife stuck out from high in his stomach. His hands curled over it, but did not touch it.
The truck slowed. They were blocks from the fight. Mel pounded on the back window.
"Hospital," he yelled.
The truck picked up speed again, and Laura made the turn onto the highway that ran along the lake, accelerating toward the county hospital at the edge of town.
"Mel," Bookie asked, "you feel it?"
Mel pulled Bookie across his lap, cradling him. He could see Bookie's face now.
"A couple minutes, buddy," Mel said. "You need to hang on."
The moon stared down through a gap in the clouds. The cold bit at his exposed skin. Bookie lolled with every rattle and jolt. The snow had been released. It swirled over the cab of the truck and did not touch the two of them.
Bookie did not seem to weigh anything now, hanging over his arms like paper.
"I feel it," he said.
The truck struck a bump. Mel rose into the air a few inches, separating from the vehicle for a half-second, flying through the night, the snow cutting around his shape. He turned his head and saw into the cab, the framework of steel and glass, and through it, past Laura to the road beyond. The pavement stretched only as far as the headlights reached, blurred with the speed of their passage. He thought she might look back to check on him, on the two of them, but her head remained bent over the wheel. Mel felt himself reach the small apex of his flight and begin to come down, down to the truck with blood on his hands, down to Laura, but when he told the story later he swore forever that Bookie kept rising.