Humor Mystery Internal voice Imaginary friend State birds

I'll Be You

By Manuel Royal
May 26, 2020 · 3,049 words · 12 minutes

If you’ve been to Point Reyes National Seashore, you’ve probably been on this road.

Photo by Jake Blucker via Unsplash.

From the author: When a set of behaviors can't be otherwise defined, it finds a home in 18 U.S.C.


I-35 took them under the State Line Road overpass and flat Minnesota changed to flat Iowa under the same thickening low oatmeal-gray sky. Barb slipped a More between her lips, struck a match, sucked down smoke and scrunched down in the passenger seat.

It was a good seat, Cadillac leather, felt like her father's old recliner before she soaked it with Moose Lodge vodka and torched it. Papa Bear's favorite chair caught so good the whole fishing shack went up and charcoaled down onto the Lake St. Augustine ice.

* * *

"State line, Baby Girl. New territory."

Sheelee's waxy white face is hanging over my shoulder, voice in my ear. Her mouth's a black slit, doesn't move any, and she's got no eyes, just pearly smooth craters, but I think she looks happy. White like altar candles.

"Tell me what this sounds like," she whispers. "Listen:"

She emits a staticky hiss, then the deputy's shaky young voice we heard on the police band.

"'Uuuh, I can see, I mean, subject observed -- uuh ... from the neck up at Argyle and Milkweed. Milkweed Road, not Circle. Right in front of the Quaker Oats, I mean the Quaker church. Fuck, there's a guy's head in the road, over.'"

Sheelee laughs, it sounds like more static. "Deputy has a way with words, yes? Even scared so. How you like that, Sweetcheeks?"

I don't, really. But I don't say a word, doesn't matter, Sheelee always knows, she knows me so well.

Sheelee did a number on that man, and the other one, and the woman. Three up, three down. Time to put Minnesota and its Common Loon in the rear-view. There's the other woman in the car, though, I didn't plan on that.

Sheelee rests her head on my shoulder, pointy chin digging in. "Ten seconds in, and Iowa bores me right out of my skull. Eastern Goldfinch -- big deal. Say, have you noticed the third person in this car? What you think about her? I've a notion."

* * *

"You smoke?" First time the driver'd opened her mouth since they started out. Small-boned, half Barb's size. Looked like a child behind the Escalade's wheel. Ash-white blonde, snub nose and freckled face, smooth-cheeked but creased with worry lines.

"Hey, hope you don't mind." Barb blew a smoke ring.

"Hayley. No, I guess not." The blonde had a little-girl voice, almost sing-song, like a ten-year-old or a porn star.

"It's your car, your rules, right? Hey?"

"Hayley."

"That's good, you keep saying your new name. You need to own that name, Hayley Simms, start your new life, to go with the top-shelf ID Gilly made you."

"Who?"

"Gilly. Gil! Turn off the stupid farm report." Barb reached over and turned the radio off. "Gil, the guy who made your new passport and Arizona driver's license and your new card for Social. Gilly makes that shit, it's his only skill. You know who I am, right?"

"You never really introduced yourself."

"I'm Barb Fromm. I'm Gil Fromm's wife. So Gil is my stupid fucking husband."

"I don't think I know him."

"You were going to meet up with him. In Arizona, right? Condo in Scottsdale?"

"No."

"Bullshit, his parents left him a condo in Scottsdale. He's been talking for a year about selling it, but he's full of shit as usual. You're fucking my husband, and you were heading south to shack up with him in his condo in Scottsdale."

"Does Gilly have sort of a tattoo on his neck, like a rose?"

"You know he does. I bet he told you his story about that tattoo -- that story's bullshit."

"I met Gilly, then, once. Once was enough."

"You met him a lot more than that."

"No, just the once. Other man with him had a tattoo too, his name I guess. Leonard or something."

Barb smeared her cigarette out on the dash and took some slow breaths. "Are you fucking with me?"

"No."

"What do you think is gonna happen here?"

"Nothing happens, long as we're talking."

"Oh, we're talking all right, bitch. Pull over."

"We're almost to Clear Lake. We can get ice cream."

"Shut up. Take this exit here." Barb issued terse instructions that led them down a county road, then an unpaved farm road, coming to a halt between fields of alfalfa.

"Okay, kill it."

"What?"

"Kill the engine."

The blonde shut it down, but turned the radio back on.

"There's a new crop report at the top of the hour."

Barb switched it off. "You say you saw Gil and Trey together."

"Who's Trey?"

"Halfwit with the Lynyrd Skynyrd tattoo. Gil's brother."

"Are you sure they're brothers? Didn't look like it."

"Half-brothers."

"It's good, talking like this. Try not to tense up, I can smell it."

"What?"

"I smell it, even with the cigarette. The woman set things off."

"Set what off?"

"Lynyrd-tattoo and Rose-tattoo and the woman all smelled ready, but she was the one started things rolling."

"The Christ -- what the fuck are you talking about? What woman?"

"Hayley, or whatever her name was originally. We met serendipitously."

"Bitch, you're Hayley."

"No, but I borrowed her name and her car for a little while. "

Barb had taken the blonde's knockoff Gucci bag when they started out. She rooted through it and found the driver's license. Newly-made; the same license she'd seen listed in Gilly's computer records. She examined the photo closely.

"This isn't you. Blonde chick, but it ain't you."

"No, it's her. It was serendipitous, how she and I met."

"So where the hell's this Hayley, and who am I talking to?"

"She was only bottle-blonde. Part of the new identity, I guess. We only met because I serendipitously followed her after she picked up some Somali girls at the bus station."

"Somali -- what?"

"The three of them -- I mean Gilly, Trey, Hayley, I'll try to remember the names -- they had a deal going with people in Nebraska."

"Who the fuck do you deal with in Nebraska? There's nothing there."

"Metzger, she said, in Omaha. Gave me the address."

"Metzger? Bullshit. No way. I heard of Metzger, Gilly wouldn't work with him."

"They move girls through Omaha -- refugees, girls without much English."

"Yeah, I know what Metzger does. Gilly did something for him once, said he'd never go near the fat bastard again."

"Guess Gilly changed his mind."

"No! Gilly does nothing without me, I make the deals. Boy's got no brain for business, would get nowhere without me leading him by the dick."

"Oh, I think he was sleeping with that Hayley. She had his smell, weed and Old Spice. She knew Metzger a long time."

Barb lit another smoke and took a long drag. "How you know all this shit?"

"They talked, kinda fast. They tend to babble near the end. So, knowledge acquired serendipitously."

Barb's head was pounding. "Stop saying that!" She pulled her own bag off the floor onto her lap, put her hand in it, closed her fingers around the butt of the .38. "Motherfuck!"

The blonde leaned forward, held her gaze. Blue eyes, nearly colorless, pale and lit up somehow, like first light, Barb thought, like morning out the window in her room when Papa Bear was alive and she lived at home, way long ago.

Barb's hand in the bag was shaking. "Who the hell are you? What's your name?"

"I don't matter. Nobody really does. Everything washes away. That gun smells like you just cleaned it. Don't take it out yet; let's keep talking." The blonde drew her legs up and put her small bare feet on the bench seat, resting her chin on one knee.

"You knew I had a piece?"

"Smelled it."

Barb hadn't needed the revolver when she'd rolled up in Hayley's driveway and blocked the Escalade as the woman was getting into it. In her child's voice the little blonde had only said, "I've got to get on the Interstate. I'm done with Minnesota." Barb'd had a hot flame of righteous anger in her belly; maybe didn't think it through, just climbed in the passenger side, told "Hayley" what to do and got wordless obedience.

Now the flame was burned out and her half-formed plan to ride all the way to Scottsdale and drag the blonde up to the door of Gilly's condo seemed pointless. What would she do in Scottsdale? Probably torch the Escalade, maybe burn down the stupid condo too.

"You like burning things, don't you?"

"What?" Barb stared at the blonde.

"You burned something this morning." Her nostrils flared and she inhaled. "Vinyl, and fabric. Did you burn Gilly's LPs and his clothes, Barb?"

"What, are you a fucking bloodhound? Yeah, if he wanted his stupid records he should've taken them with. Now I don't ever have to hear Hootenanny again."

"You certainly don't. Gilly's not in Arizona, Barb." The blonde's pupils had been black specks. They expanded now like drops of ink, swallowing up the clear pale blue.

Barb felt a cold lump form in the center of her body. Her hand was still in her bag, and she tightened her grip on the revolver.

The blonde's pink tongue flicked over her lips and she went on in her soft little voice. "Hold up, Barb, be still. You light fires, you've done some things, but you never crossed the killing line. Gilly was a killer, and Lynyrd -- Trey was, and the bottle blonde with the new Hayley ID, but not you."

"Where is -- where's my husband?"

"I'll tell you, then you decide what you're going to try and do. Don't move yet, you can still jump one way or the other. Hush, Barb, 'kay? Rain'll hit in a second."

Barb jerked a nod, anything she might have said sticking in her dry throat. The pounding of her own blood was a roar in her ears, and now came a drumming on the Cadillac's roof, at first hesitant then steady.

Rain poured down, splashed against the windows. The blonde leaned closer and raised her voice.

"I know you don't like the word, but it really was serendipitous. It's been like that every time, in Michigan, and Vermont, Ohio and now Minnesota. Robin, thrush, cardinal, loon. State birds, I mean. I meet three people in each state, three up and three down. Nothing happens but what they make it happen, have a try to kill me first. People like that seem to just live everywhere." Thunder rumbled somewhere and the rain was loud and hard now. They were surrounded by gray bars stretching down from the sky.

"I met fake-Hayley, then the tattoo brothers showed up, and Hayley said I was trouble and she gave a try. She had a gun too, I think it was the kind that holds like sixteen bullets. Sheelee had one of those combs with the pointy end, so that worked. Oh, I just now thought, Hayley probably was the woman's first name for real. Rest was made up, though, I guess.

"Sheelee handles situations, makes the plans, like how we're going to Omaha to see Metzer, 'cause Hayley said he's got two guys're always with him, that's perfect."

Barb found her voice. "Sheelee? Who?"

"Listen, just listen!" The blonde stirred, bounced a little in her seat. "People start things, Sheelee ends them, but she's forever leaving me holding the bag, though. I thought I'd get Hayley's skin off, sew it back together and waterproof it, then blow it up like a big doll and leave her floating in the fountain downtown. But that'd take a while, and Minnesota was wearing on me, so I just got some cling-wrap and put her in the meat section at Cub Foods. She made about twenty packages. It feels good to talk about this."

"Where -- where is Gilly?"

"You understand, right, I change up the method every time. Gilly's in a Quaker church in a little town off Highway 14. In the pews, and the belltower, and a mini-fridge in the office. Lynyrd's buried in front of church in the road, head sticking out. Sorry! Trey."

A small sound escaped Barb, inaudible beneath the hammering rain. Listening, she'd somehow let her bag slip to the floor, gun and all. Now she fumbled for it, unable to look away from the blonde's eyes. Unblinking blue-rimmed black orbs.

The blonde stretched her body like a cat and her bare feet pressed against Barb's neck, pushing her against the window, one foot turning her head to the right, the other pressing its big toe beneath her ear.

A wave of pain, pressure like the depths of an ocean trench, immobilized Barb, her hands clenching into useless claws. The window was cold against her head, vibrating under lead-heavy rain pellets.

"Barb, I'd finished work in Minnesota, three up and three down. You would've been safe anywhere in the state, but you made me drive across the line, and my Iowa counter is zero. State bird, Eastern Goldfinch."

Barb tried to speak; the pressure eased up just enough she could squeeze out a few words. "Just ... let me go." Her .38, so close, six hollow-points.

"You need to talk to Sheelee."

"Who ... fuck ... is Sheelee?" It was easier to breath, but she still couldn't move. The blonde's feet were amazingly soft and carried a faint scent that reminded Barb of something long ago.

"I wish I could let you walk, but I can smell you're fixing to jump the wrong way. I'll let up in one minute and you can give a try. Just listen to two things: first, I felt like we had a connection in our short time together. Remember time is part of the structure of the universe, so the best moment you ever had is still a real thing, it stays a part of everything just like your worst moment, which I guess is coming up."

Barb stared up through the Escalade's sunroof, covered with an ever-changing saturation pattern of pelting rain. A single flash of lightning flared through the glass, painting the world white for an instant, she kept her eyes wide open to take in every particle of light.

Vanilla -- that was the scent. Morning light, she in her room, Papa Bear making pancakes in the kitchen, the aroma would wake her up before the daylight did. Vanilla and cinnamon.

"Second, I'll make sure you go up in flames. Maybe that'll feel like home, whatever that feels like. Here comes Sheelee. Give a try."

The blonde's head dropped and she shrank in upon herself, her feet pulling away from Barb's throat, withdrawing. The girl hugged her knees, clutching a Bic pen in one hand.

The sudden rush of renewed blood flow left Barb giddy for a moment, then she was scrabbling at her bag, gripping the revolver and finally hauling it out, shaking, struggling to hold it straight, her voice cracking, screaming, "Hey!"

The blonde raised her head, aimed her face at Barb. Eyes closed, worry lines gone, smooth like a plaster saint. Nothing but a smile.

"Hey yourself, Sweetcheeks. Try hard."

The Caddie rocked on its springs, back and forth. Finally things settled down. In a few minutes the rain lightened and the car was back on the road, making good time toward Nebraska.

* * *

Sheelee's calm now, happy, speaking soft.

"I bet God enjoyed watching that. He makes people soft and leaky, he makes them to bleed, so he must like it. You start bleeding out the second you're born, blood goes out, faster than it comes in. On average. That's all God equips you for, bleeding out, bleeding other people to try and make up for it. All y'all, hollow, empty, bleeding, losing, taking. Everything else is elevator music."

I-80, the bridge over the Missouri, and we're in Nebraska. Sheelee laughs, staticky.

"Western Meadowlark. Nebraska's even flatter than Iowa. Can't wait to meet Metzger."

* * *

The place in Omaha is a hot tub warehouse office four blocks from a freight depot. One, Metzger, the fat one, the boss; two, a skinny tatted one, would-be dangerous; three, a quiet blank-faced one, dangerous.

A shiny revolver is just peeking out under Metzger's overhanging belly. He listened to me, I told him the whole truth, he wasn't believing it but he didn't like how I knew his business.

Sheelee's hanging back a little, stretching and preening. "Baby Girl, I know what the police report will be like, I can se it now. VIC, VIC, VIC, UNK PERP. So that's Nebraska done and over in an afternoon, and who needs more time in Nebraska, anyway? Hey, lookit that belly, that bucket of guts."

The skinny inked one locks the shop door, I can hear the bolt, then he's back in the room, behind me. The quiet one licks his lips.

Good, we're all in a little square office now, two behind me with a gun and a knife on them, fat man in front almost touching me. I'm tired of looking at his fat red face, I feel like laying down somewhere.

Sheelee grins without moving her blackslash mouth. "You simply cannot be tired already, Chickadee, we got 44 more states to go! Don't forget we got to cut back through Iowa and find two more. Look't that belly, that's a bucket of guts."

The sharp sour smell rises, I know it so well, that smell fills this dirty little place, fear and sweat, hot skin and rusty metal. Metzger is baffled, but knows his business is damaged and he wants something, needs it, money or blood or something else, something to pour in the hollow place. He's about to rap out an order and pull out the shiny pistol.

There's a toothbrush in my pocket.

Sheelee is close, hissing sharp in my ear, "C'mon girl, c'mon girl. I'll be you. I'll be you." She steps up, I fade back to watch and the world is a roaring tumult and all-over light, bright white and red, engulfing me and filling me, this is love and this is what home feels like.

I'm not tired, no, I'll never be tired, I'll never be tired, I'll never be tired of this.

This story originally appeared in "Waiting to be Forgotten" anthology.


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Manuel Royal

By and large a fantasist, with forays into crime fiction.