Duality, Part Three
A Four Visitors Story
Start at the beginning of the Four Visitors series
Tina Cronin saw at the smoke billowing from between the roofboards of the old barn on Willow Street, and she saw the flames dancing between the dry timbers, and she thought about John Crowell, killed in a pool of blood in his own kitchen. She thought about Crowell's studio, his artwork.
She thought about the possibility that she might be burned to death, but only for the moment it took to yell "Call 911!" into Georgia Tabbot's ear before she shoved the woman aside and ran for the barn door.
Tina burned her hand pulling the door open, and the blast of hot air nearly knocked her off her feet. She ducked low, remembering grade-school fire safety drills, and held her breath.
The wall to her right was in flames and the fire was spreading down the center of the barn. They'd cleared away a lot of the clutter getting ready for the art opening, and that was probably what kept the whole barn from going up at once.
Tina's lungs were aching by now, and she had trouble keeping her eyes open. She moved away from the flames toward the patches of blackness on the walls. Crowell's paintings. The need to save them forced aside everything else. Tina shut her eyes and made for the paintings furthest from the flames. Halfway there she finally had to take a breath, and she choked and stumbled the last few steps as smoke and ash entered her lungs. The heat pushed her toward the wall and Tina bumped into wood and canvass.
She opened her eyes.
Richard Gem was standing a couple of feet away, taking paintings off the wall with a calm efficiency that was almost laughable. Tina didn't laugh or speak. She just continued to choke.
Gem stacked paintings neatly on a stool he'd pulled from in front of an easel. At a break in Tina's coughing fit, he handed them to her. She saw that he had his eyes closed.
"Go out the way you came. I can got one more load and make it out the back." He didn't wait. He was moving along the wall, ducking under smoke.
Tina bent over coughing. She couldn't keep air in her lungs. People don't burn to death in fires; she remembered the handy bit of Discovery Channel trivia too late to be anything other than a distraction. They don't burn, they suffocate. She ducked low away from the smoke and tried to take in one more deep breath to get her back across the barn.
She coughed it out, but she forced herself to run anyway.
She leaped for the door like she was back at her track meet, except that the landing didn't go quite so well this time.
Another breath. Another spasm of coughing as she gripped a wall beam and dragged herself to her feet.
The door smashed in toward her, whizzing by her face. She caught just a hit of cool fresh air and threw herself toward it, and a gloved hand caught her wrist and pulled her out.
The paintings went flying onto the grass, and Tina tried to scream as the boots of a firefighter smashed through one of them.
But all that came out was more coughing as she was pulled across the lawn toward two paramedics who were coming across the lawn with a mask and an oxygen tank.
"Normally, I'd thank Mr. Malone for inviting me here to speak with you. But instead I'm going to start by thanking him for bailing me out of jail this morning."
That got the group's attention.
Nick Lorem sat at the back of Mr. Malone's classroom with a Subway sandwich and a Dunkies iced coffee in front of him. As usual, he ignored the muttered comments and eyerolling. Nick Lorem wasn't exactly welcome at the Gay-Straight Alliance meetings, in spite of a policy that everyone was welcome.
But Nick wasn't about to be intimidated, even if he wasn't used to being on the receiving end of this kind of shit. And he wasn't about to get guilt-tripped either. He was here, wasn't he? He just wasn't exactly sure why.
Well, today Nick was here because Tina was off having her own personal senior skip day and she wanted someone to find out what it was that Steve Gem had to say. So Nick sat in the back of the room, taking in the hostility, annoyed that Tina wasn't answering his texts.
A few hours later Nick would find out that Tina wasn't returning his texts because she was on a bed in an emergency room having oxygen administered and being treated for what would fortunately turn out to be mostly first degree burns.
But as Steve Gem thanked Mr. Malone for paying his bail, Nick was feeling abandoned and trapped.
"You might be wondering why I'm here," Gem was saying. "Or maybe you're wondering why I'm living out in the woods. Those are the reactions I usually get. This guy's a bum. What's he got to say that matters to me? I get that one a lot. People say it to me too."
He looked at a girl in the front row. "You saw me on a streetcorner, would you call me a bum? Tell me to get a job?"
She shrank in her chair, shaking her head slightly.
Gem took a step back. "I know you wouldn't. But people do every day. Courtesy is the first thing you lose. So yeah, that's the first reaction I get when I come to speak. But the other one is actually harder to handle. It's the 'what's he doing here?'. See, here I am, supposed to inspire you or teach you something, and then tonight I go back to sleep in a shelter or a camp out in the woods. So maybe you're thinking that I choose this. Okay, we'll get to that. But before we get to that, I'm going to share some of what I've experienced. I'm going to try, with my words, to bring you into my world for a little bit. Close your eyes. No, not trying to pull some shrink bullshit… Apologies, Mr. Malone. Not trying to pull some… Deception. Just a clean break. Now when I wake up out there, the first thing I feel is the cold. See, I feel what kind of day it's going to be when I wake up. The cold has spent all night trying to get through your blankets because it wants to kill you, and on this day you feel it's slipped in there with you and it's gonna keep with you all day. The hunger hits you next…"
Nick kept his eyes open. A year ago, he wouldn't have even listened. But he'd seen what Chief Collins had done to Steve Gem the previous night. He wondered about the bruises that were still fresh under the sweatshirt that Gem was wearing. The cops hadn't hit him in the face. Nick knew how that worked too. Learn how to hurt without leaving too many marks. Nick had been a pretty decent student of that. The guys who'd worked Gem over, though, those guys had been master craftsmen.
Gem was finishing up. The end caught Nick's attention again.
"Everyone's different. We get taught that. Value diversity and a whole bunch of happy bull… crap. I'm going to tell you that there are people in your town, in your school, in your home maybe, who believe they are so different that no one would ever understand. You can help. Even if you can't get a guy a job, or a roof over his head, or a hot meal. Even if you can't spare some change. Or if you won't. You can help. You can look a guy in the eye and say to yourself that no matter how far outside your understanding, this guy is still human. Look a man in the eye and remind yourself of that. Do it every time. It means more than you think it does. It's a start."
The students applauded. The bell rang. Mr. Malone announced that next week's guest speaker would be a Mrs. Franz from the Census Bureau to talk about the demographics of homelessness in small towns. Most of the students were already on their way to class.
Nick slipped between exiting students and made his way over to where Mr. Malone was shaking Steve Gem's hand. Gem excused himself and walked over to Nick.
Nick was getting ready with a question about what Gem really meant about being different, but Gem cut him off.
"Tina is in South County Hospital. She needs you." Gem's whisper was barely audible, and he turned away as Mr. Malone started to say something about lunch.
Nick ran for the door.
Nick got a buddy to cut class to drive him to South County. By the time Nick found Tina, the hospital was preparing to discharge her.
"I'm okay," she assured Nick. "I just need to know what happened."
"You tell me first."
"John Crowell's barn burned down. We lost almost everything."
"Including yourself almost," Nick said.
"I had to. Those paintings were important somehow." Tina looked down at the bandages on her left hand. "I can't believe they're gone."
"They're not," Georgia Tabbot announced from the doorway.
"What?" Nick and Tina spoke simultaneously.
Georgia was holding two purses. She looked a bit out of breath. She'd run in from the parking lot.
"Most of the paintings weren't in the barn, Tina. I tried to tell you, but you were already running in. I took most of them last night to a friend's house. A nice old lady who used to teach art classes at the Community College. She taught John. She taught me too, although I was never much of an artist. She was losing her eyesight last I heard, but I thought with these paintings, since you have to touch them…"
"What's her name?" Nick asked.
"Trudy Franz. She lives with her daughter, Edith, who…"
"Wait. She's working for the census, right?" Nick was suddenly uncomfortable about all of the connections he was seeing.
"That's right. She was going to bring her mother over this morning to look at the paintings, but I got a call from her last night saying that she had car trouble."
Nick knew exactly what was wrong with Edith's car. It was sitting in the police impound lot. You can get yourself bailed out of jail on a weekend if you're lucky and the magistrate is making his rounds. But the impound lot is strictly Monday to Friday, nine to five.
Georgia continued. "So last night, I drove over to the barn and loaded as many as I could into my car, and took them over to where Edith and Trudy live."
Nick asked, "Have you told anyone about this?"
"No. Well, I guess I mentioned it when they did the police report. They need to know that for the insurance, right?"
Nick looked at Tina. "We need to get over there."
Tina got out of the bed.
"You're not discharged yet," Nick pointed out. Tina grabbed her jacket. She winced once when she slipped it onto her shoulders, and then took her purse from Georgia.
It was a busy day at South County Hospital. If anyone noticed them leaving, they didn't say anything.
It wasn't until they were in Georgia's car that Tina realized that there was something else she needed to ask Georgia.
"What happened to Richard Gem? Is he okay?"
"He's fine. I saw him talking to police after the fire, but I didn't get a chance to speak with him. Why?"
"I'm just glad he got out."
"He was in the fire."
"Tina, you were the only one in there. That's what the firemen told me."
The house was a little ranch with neatly trimmed flower beds. Nick recognized the truck in the driveway. It had the logo of the plumbing service that Hal Morris worked for.
"Fuck. We're too late."
"Who is that?" Tina asked.
"The Pharmacy?" Hal's reputation had grown. The whole senior class knew him.
Nick nodded. "Yeah, but that's not the problem. The problem is that Hal is in some kind of fucked up conspiracy that goes all the way to the chief of police. Hell, it probably goes to the CIA or some shit like that. He talked to me the other day. And then Chief Collins had another discussion with me Saturday night. They want me to choose sides."
Tina was in the back seat and Nick turned to look at her because he knew the question was coming.
"Have you chosen?"
Nick looked right into Tina's eyes.
"Yes. Not theirs."
Tina reached for the door handle. "Then let's stop this."
Georgia reached for the car key, but Nick stopped her.
"You're on lookout and getaway duty. Hang tight and call Tina's cell if anything happens."
Nick pointed to the little gate on the side of the house between two flower beds.
"Go in the back."
Tina finished resetting her phone to vibrate and got out of the car. She circled around to the side and Nick walked up to the front door. He waited until Tina was out of sight and then rang the bell.
Morris opened the door a crack, then a little wider and tugged Nick's arm to pull him in.
"What the hell are you doing here, Lorem?"
A pile of black canvasses filled most of the living room.
"I'm here to help. You know. Duality, right? Right or wrong? Good or evil?" He looked down at the pile. ""Black or white."
Morris looked unsure.
Nick kept talking. "Chief Collins had a talk with me. I just want to help out. What's the plan? We gonna haul these out to the woods for some bonfire action or what?"
"Yeah, something like that. I told the two old bitches we'd just burn 'em here if they didn't keep their mouths shut. Figure Collins will make sure of that anyway. Let's get this shit in the van."
Tina found Edith and Trudy in the kitchen with their wrists bound to chairs with duct tape. It took some time to cut them loose. In the front of the house, she could hear Nick making trips back and forth to the plumbing van. Edith got her mother out of harm's way, but she didn't want to leave and Tina didn't want to make noise arguing with her.
Out in the living room, Nick and Hal finished up loading the last of the paintings.
"All done," Nick said. "I'll take it from here. Give me the keys to the van."
"I don't think so, Lorem. Who do you think is in charge here?"
Hal's reply was cut short by the sound of something shattering.
Tina rushed for the front of the house followed by Edith.
Nick was standing over Hal Morris, holding the remains of a vase he'd smashed over Morris' head.
"Damn, that felt good," Nick grinned.
But Morris wasn't out. He lunged for the door to the kitchen. Tina struggled with him for a second, but he grabbed her by the bandaged hand where she'd been burned and pulled and twisted, throwing her off balance. He turned away from Tina only to be tripped up as he tried to get past and he stumbled right into a hand that gripped his throat.
It wasn't until later, when Nick and Tina finally had a chance to talk that they happened upon a point of contention they weren't able to resolve. Nick said the man who dragged Morris off was Steve Gem, the homeless community organizer. Tina said it was Richard Gem, the art dealer.
They worked off of the twins theory for a while, but eventually, Nick began to believe that there was only ever one man. Neither of them had ever seen them together, of course. No one had.
Morris screamed all the way through the kitchen, and then the screaming was cut off in a rush of air and the ringing of shattering glass.
Edith got to the kitchen first, with Tina and Nick a step behind. Every window in the kitchen was shattered, and neither Morris nor Gem were anywhere to be seen.
Gem didn't show up for the art auction, but it didn't matter. It was a big success. The barn was gone, of course. They had to move the event. Fortunately, Jim Higgins who owned the skateboard shop offered to clear out his store for the weekend of the event.
At one point during the auction, Nick looked out the window and saw a police car sitting across South Main Street, just keeping an eye on things. Nick wasn't sure, but he thought he saw Hal Morris sitting in the passenger seat, next to a uniformed cop.
Morris had been found in the woods three days after Nick had last seen him. It made the papers. He'd been reported missing and the police had found his stash of drugs when they checked his house. He wouldn't say where he'd been for three days.
Edith Franz wasn't talking either. She was the only one who'd seen Gem (by now, Nick and Tina simply spoke of "Gem" as one person) since all hell had broken loose at her home. He'd shown up at her door and invited her to walk up the block and have coffee. She'd said that much.
When Nick and Tina asked what they had discussed, Edith had simply smiled said "secret things."
Tina walked through the crowd. It seemed like every misfit and oddball in town had come to the auction, and she felt comforted by that. The last piece was up. Trudy had run her hands over all of the paintings in the week leading up to the auction, and she'd given them all names.
This one was called "Spaceman," and it went to for the most money of any of the pieces. It sold for over a thousand dollars to a gallery owner from Providence. Someone had asked Trudy how she came up with the name, and she smiled and told them it had been obvious.
"Those men from space with the bald heads and big eyes. Like in that Close Encounters movie back in the seventies."
The painting had been returned to a central place of honor with a small "sold" sign, and as Tina ran her fingers over it, tracing skull and mouth and eyes, she noticed the conversations around her.
It suddenly seemed like everyone in the room had seen at least one UFO.
Story and image by Rick Silva, Copyright 2010