"Crashing" by Christopher Werkman

“Crashing” by Christopher Werkman

Lacey flipped her pillow and savored the cool underside of the case until it warmed against her cheek. It was going to be a sizzler. Not Iraq-hot, but blistering for Ohio. She just knew.

Tyler was still asleep, awash in crisp sheets. The night before, he invited Lacey to a family picnic and she said she wouldn’t go. No family meet-ups. Just friends. Fuck buddies. Not ready for a relationship. Having enough trouble rediscovering her civilian-self and easing back into everyday Midwest America. Now, she lay looking at him, wondering how her decision would affect the day. His face had a thousand freckles. Little sepia spatters. He pawed his dark tousles into orderly eddies after showering and his hair never changed once it took its set and dried. Even his helmet didn’t affect it. The idea of permanent helmet-hair crossed Lacey’s mind and the thought coaxed a smile just as his eyes opened. “Hey,” she said.

He smiled back. “What?”

“Your hair. It’s like a sculpture. Looks the same as when you went to bed. Even wind doesn’t faze it.”

“You jealous?”

Lacey rolled onto her feet and picked up her panties. “No. Well … yeah. Maybe,” she said, slipping them up over her hips and letting the elastic snap.

Tyler turned onto his back and nodded toward where his erection tented the sheet. “Hey, what about this?”

Lacey shrugged. “Morning wood. Take a squirt. It’ll go away.” She dropped a loose sleeveless shirt over her slender-but-muscled torso and smiled. “Don’t trip, though. You’ll pole vault.”

“Aw, come on.” He cradled his head in his hands and rested chin on his chest. “I’ll be fast.”

Lacey buttoned her shorts, jerked at the hem to get them on her hips where she liked them and padded barefoot around the bed. She bent and planted an open-mouthed kiss, enjoying the wetness of Tyler’s lips while she wrestled his tongue into submission. Standing abruptly, she turned for the door. “Bummer,” she said, over her shoulder. “I’ve got to be at the Haverhills’ house by eight-thirty.”

He grabbed for her, but missed. “Jesus, are you a cruel woman,” he bawled theatrically. He slid out of bed and started for the john.

She used a scrunchie to fashion her hair into a short straw-colored ponytail and winked. “You got it. Cruel and unusual. Not someone you want loose in polite society.”

Tyler thought to set the timer, so the kitchen steeped in the thick aroma of coffee. Surrounded by her troop of cats, Lacey spooned food into their bowls, rinsed her hands and pushed a thumbnail through the cellophane of a package of English muffins. She split one and dropped each half into the toaster. By the time Tyler walked in, his coffee was poured, the toaster had popped and Lacey was nibbling a boiled egg.

“How do you eat that without salt?” he said, hot-handing a muffin and slicing off a pat of butter while simultaneously stoking Bahrah, Lacey’s fluffy blond cat, with the bottom of his bare foot.

Lacey smiled. “What? You put salt on deviled eggs, too?”

His eyes clouded over and he shifted to stand on both feet. “I guess you’ll never know.”

“Shit.” She rocked her face to the ceiling and shook her head. I go and mention picnic food. I’m such a dumb ass.

“Eating a hamburger within a hundred feet of my parents doesn’t constitute common-law marriage or anything,” Tyler said. “Not in this jurisdiction, anyhow.”

She stepped on the pedal that opened the lid and let the wastebasket consume the rest of her egg. “You know what it means when you bring somebody around. Family immediately assumes there’s something going on.” She paused. “More than just, you know, casual.”

He started to put his arm around her and she stopped him with a look. She could eye-Taser anyone into surrender. He stepped back. “And that’s all this is? Casual? ‘Cause I’ve been living here with you for a while.”

“Crashing.” She stooped to gang-pet her cats, then walked over to get a container of yogurt from the refrigerator.

He smiled thinly. “Never say ‘crash’ to a biker.” He spread butter on the other half of the muffin, then gave her a piercing look. “So I’ve been saying it wrong? I’ve been crashing, not living with you? Because I thought you crashed for just a night or two, not for four months.”

She spooned some yogurt. “What did you tell your parents?”

“Them? I just said I had a friend with a house who was letting me stay.”

She flicked out her index finger like a switchblade. “There you go. Crashing.”

He turned, put his hands on the sink and looked out the window. “I think I’m way past that.”

“Past what?”

He looked into her eyes. “Past the friend part.”

She slammed the yogurt down and tossed the spoon into the sink. “Well, that’s your problem, Ty. I told you from the git-go, N-S-A. No strings. I have one business, and I’m trying to get another one up and running.” She looked at the clock. “Christ, now I’m late.” She started for the door, remembered her shoes and scurried back across the kitchen to the utility room. “I got an attic full of crap I dragged back from Iraq, and my work. I don’t have the time or the emotional ammo to be your little girlfriend.” She alternated hopping on one foot, then the other while she pulled on her ankle-high walking shoes. “Girlfriend experience,” she said, tying the laces. “Isn’t that what expensive whores call it? Sweet talk and hand-holding, too.”

He rolled his eyes. “I wouldn’t know. I guess I was never with an expensive whore, ‘til I crossed paths with you.”

She patted his cheek as she passed by, on her way to the door. “Nice try, but that’s not going to empty my magazine. I’ve been called worse, hon. I’m still locked and loaded.” She crossed the living room and dropped to her knees, caressing and cooing to each of her cats. They rolled like big dust balls and pawed gently at her hands. She stood and opened the door. “You and Jett are going to practice stunts today?”

He nodded, then leveled a pretty impressive stun-gun stare of his own. “Afterwards, maybe I’ll pack my shit.”

She exerted control. She had to leave. No time to let this death-blossom. “Over a picnic? Don’t be a wuss.” She started to go, but wavered. “Besides, I might be horny again tonight. You want to be here for that.” She blew a kiss, grinned and closed the door.

Outside, she keyed her van and it clattered to life. She slammed the lever into drive, side-glancing at the house as she pulled away. Her house. Rent-to-own, maybe, but it was her world. She loved the house and her cats about as much as a human could. Tyler’s cycle crouched on the sidewalk near the porch, its silver stripes carving big shiny breaks in the hot red paint.

Man, could that boy ride a bike. Not ride, really. He danced with the monster. Romanced it. Watching him move with that cycle was sexual. High compression porn. A Suzuki Hayabusa has more horsepower than most cars, but he could make that thing stand on either tire and waltz like a debutante during the daddy-dance at her coming out. Some girls she palled with at a local bar were going to the county expo one night last spring, and Tyler and his team of crazies performed a stunt show for the grandstand crowd. Lacey had never given a motorcycle a second glance until she saw Tyler with his legs wrapped around one. On the spot, she knew she had to meet him. Careful what you wish for, she thought, as she guided her van onto the highway, eleven weeks later. She’d been so certain he’d just want to play; use her like some biker-boy groupie. That was the idea. Not a date to meet and greet Mom, Dad and the sibs.

Five summer morning miles later, she pulled onto the driveway of Dr. Brent Haverhill and family. The blacktop gently twisted and curved through a good quarter mile of heavy woods, with little areas cleared to display wood, stone and metal sculptures along the way. The driveway finally made a circle in front of the house, which was centered on a couple acres carved out of the forest. The white brick McMansion was dwarfed by the surrounding trees, so it wasn’t until you let yourself into the twelve-foot ceilinged foyer and looked down the cavernous central hall that you realized the size of the place. Lacey had been cleaning for the Haverhills for nearly a year and their apparent wealth continuously amazed her. Sure, she’d poked around in drawers and snooped a little. Ms. Haverhill, who was never anything but pleasant and “call me Suzanne”  friendly, had a closet the size of Lacey’s living room and more jewelry than a mall kiosk. The children, Avery and Adrianne, were grounded and not at all bratty. They always called her Miss Lacey, and told her little stories about school and their activities.

Dr. Haverhill was the only one who made her uncomfortable. For a cardio-pulmonary surgeon, he seemed to be around more than Lacey would have expected. His flirting was subtle at first, but as time passed, he was more and more overt. She never felt the least bit threatened; on the contrary, she could easily cross-hawk him into a world of whoop-ass. No, it wasn’t a matter of fear. Just discomfort knowing he disrespected his wife and family enough to make obvious verbal passes. He was a rich middle-age jerk who figured his wealth and position of power would wow a twenty-something. Sure, like I really want that big doughy belly slapping away on me while you prove you can make cookies with a woman half your age. Sign me up!

When Lacey mentioned to Suzanne that she’d started pet sitting, in addition to her housecleaning business, the woman’s eyes went dinner plate. Now the family was in Switzerland for a month, and Lacey was embarked on thirty-two three-a-day visits at sixteen bucks a pop. Over fifteen hundred dollars was a substantial hunk of cake. The fact that Lacey loved the Haverhill’s adorable little cockapoo was the icing.

“Hey, Zoober,” Lacey shouted, as she opened the door and coded into the security system. “Let me hear ya!”

The dog’s happy yaps and barks echoed through the huge rooms separating them. Lacey hurried to the utility room to let Zoober out of his crate, his “house,” as Suzanne and the kids referred to it, and knelt to rub and pet his soft curly white fur. He made chirp-like whines and licked Lacey’s face and hands. Having a routine with each animal she sat for was important, and Zoober’s first activity that morning was a quick trip to the small fenced area outside the utility room door. After a couple leg-ups to pee, he was ready for breakfast. “Come on, Zoob,” she said, slapping her thigh. “MREs in the mess hall.”

While the pup scarfed his canned food, Lacey wrote an entry in the daily log she kept for the Haverhills. After Zoober licked the last morsel from his sterling silver chafing dish, she walked him back to the utility room. The Haverhills had a circuitous path cut through the surrounding woods, and both Lacey and Zoober enjoyed the walk. She hooked the leash to his collar and grabbed a poop-bag. “Time for a little recon, trooper.”

They walked across the back lawn and around the half-acre pond to where the trailhead opened into the trees. It was still morning-cool in the woods, so Lacey didn’t expect mosquitoes to be a problem. Zoober was good on walks. He’d stop to sniff around, but Lacey could maintain her pace and the leash rarely went taut. They hadn’t gone far when, just as they rounded a turn in the trail, Zoober growled and Lacey caught a flash of black and white in motion, a few feet into the low brush.

A wall of stink hammered her with nearly the effect of an IED. Her eyes, nose and throat went red-hot with pain. She stumbled back, tripped on a root or a branch and landed smack on her can. More pain shot through her shoulder and she realized Zoober had run out of leash, ending his headlong dash back the way they came. His tortured barks and coughs ripped her out of her sensory agony and she fought her way to her feet. Reeling in the leash as she trudged in Zoober’s direction, she gathered him into her arms and managed to jog a few yards. She turned to see what the skunk was up to and realized it was locked in a struggle of its own. She ventured a few steps to confirm her suspicions. Yes, the poor animal was tugging against a leg-hold trap. Jesus god, what the fuck do I do now?

Lacey fell into a dead run with the dog in her arms. When she got back to the pond, she tied Zoober’s leash to a bench and pulled out her cell. Tyler’s phone went to voicemail. He was no doubt riding, so there was no way he’d answer. She hoped he had it on vibrate because she knew he couldn’t hear it over the baritone of his bike.

“Ty.” During his away message, she told herself she would be calm, and she believed she was doing pretty well. “I need help. We got hosed by a skunk. Me and the little dog I’m watching. Oh, shit, Ty. You wouldn’t believe it. The poor skunk’s in a leg-hold trap, and I don’t know what the hell to do.” She actually started to laugh. The thought crossed her mind that emotions converge in unusual ways. This was a crisis, but comedy was its Siamese twin. She couldn’t separate the two. “I stink. I can’t set foot inside the people’s house. I’d goddamn destroy the place with skunk smell. Call me.” She gagged, almost vomited, but she managed to gulp it back. “Please, Ty. I don’t know what the hell I’m gonna do.” She closed the cell and sat down next to Zoober. He was rolling and writhing on his back in the grass.

The skunk. A wildlife officer with a tranquilizer gun would simplify things, but even if she 411-ed a number, how long would it take to get someone out there? She wasn’t used to this. In the sand hole, she was always part of a team that worked as a unit. “Army of One” was recruitment bullshit, not how the infantry worked. Now, she would have to go it solo, her only weapon a cell phone. Wait for Tyler?  Christ, I can’t wait. Ty might not check his messages for hours. Zoober was whining and wiggling around in the grass, but seemed to be breathing okay. She stroked him gently, which seemed to settle him. Damn, do we stink. She didn’t know if the skunk had a second shot of spray chambered and didn’t much care, considering that she was already thoroughly layered with stench. Another shot of skunk juice wasn’t going to make any difference.

“You sit tight, Zoob. I gotta deal with this.”

Lacey booked it back down the path into the woods. At the turn in the trail, she slowed and advanced quietly so the skunk wouldn’t get riled again and try to pull free of the trap. She scanned the area where she last saw it. Nothing. Oh man, did it get away? Another thought occurred; it might have yanked the trap loose from whatever held it in place. The image of the skunk running through the woods dragging a leg-hold trap taunted her for a moment. Then, she saw it. It wasn’t moving, but she could see the rise and fall of its belly. She had to free it. Now. Ty wouldn’t let her down, but how long would it be before he got her message?

She planned to leap onto the chain near the trap with her left foot so that she could jam down on the spring to release the jaws with the other. She didn’t care about getting sprayed again, but she worried the skunk might panic and bite her.

Just then, her cell ring-toned. “Oh, damn!” Sure enough, the skunk immediately began screaming and yanking against the trap to get free. However, what seemed bad turned out to be good. The chain was taut, now, and Lacey jumped onto it and stomped on the spring. The jaws clattered open and the skunk skittered away.

“What can I do?” were Tyler’s first words when Lacey opened her phone.

A dizzying clap of relief hit her hard and she stumbled to a nearby tree for support. “Oh, Ty.” She began to giggle. “What a freaking mess this turned out to be. I … I handled it though. The skunk’s out of the trap. Couldn’t have been hurt too bad because it ran okay.” Time to think. To gather her thoughts. “I guess all we need now is something … oh hell, Ty. This little dog and I, we both stink to high goddamn heaven.”

“Tomato juice? That’s what I’ve always heard.”

Lacey thought. “No. You know what? I just remembered. Some gal in basic told us. Massengill.” She blotted her face with the hem of her top and giggled. “Honest, Ty. That’s what this trooper said. Supposed to work better than anything.”

“What the hell is Massem-what?”

“Massengill.” She laughed heartily now. “It’s douche. Massengill douche. Go to the drugstore and get a bunch. Buy all they have.”

Tyler laughed. “Are you in some kind of stink-induced psychosis, now?”

“No. Honest. This chick was somebody I’d believe. Please hurry.”

She gave him directions to the Haverhills’ and closed her phone. When she got back to the pond, Zoober was rolling on the grass like his coat was on fire. She lay down next to him and he seemed to relax. She patted his head and smiled. “I called in reinforcements, Zoob. Relief is just a douche away.”

The stench was so heavy, it felt like she and Zoober were buried in a haystack of reek. And it never seemed to get better. Her eyes no longer burned, but she was as close to a stomach-twisting retch as she was the instant the skunk first sprayed. Lying in the soft grass, stroking the whimpering pup, she found herself repeatedly flashing on Iraq. Better skunk stink than rotting corpses, she decided.

She knew Tyler would bullet, but the minutes seemed to creep. His alarmed voice rumbled through her memory. “What can I do?” That, even after she’d told him she didn’t want to meet his family the night before, and gave him a raft of shit that very morning. Lacey rocked onto her back and looked into the azure sky. It looked the same from Toledo as it did in Iraq, and even surrounded by manicured grasses, foliage and boisterously chattering songbirds, she couldn’t pull her mind out of the sandpit. Not entirely, anyway. Months of reining in emotions and cutting off feelings to keep others detachable, in case they got wonked, were hard to overcome. On top of that, Lacey’s experience was that female infantry on deployment had two choices—make yourself a clearing barrel for any horny trooper in the unit, or be the nastiest, surliest, most repellent man-bitch you could be. Lacey chose the latter, and the hard, coarse, don’t-screw-with-me persona she’d perfected to keep gender out of any and all interactions zombied back into existence every time she thought she’d finally pronounced it dead. How can Ty care for someone I hate so much?

Her head was a repository of horror. She’d narrowly avoided a general discharge or worse because, during her second tour of hell in the sandbox, she finally lost it, big-time. Went ballistic when some Iraqi soldiers they were training began using dogs and cats—any animal that had the misfortune to happen by—for target practice, and no one in the stream of command seemed to give a shit. She tried to reason. She tried to ignore. In the end, she could no longer hack it. She went off on a big trooper from Texarkana, symbolically fragging him with fifty caliber shells hurled as hard as she could throw them. When he only sneered, deflecting her fusillade with his sirloin-sized hands, she put him on his back with a smooth Jujitsu move he never saw coming, didn’t have time to react against and was no doubt still trying to live down. He came off the ground angry, and she drew down on him with her sidearm. Lucky for Lacey, her chief warrant officer liked her stuff and came to the plate. Ordered her into “counseling,” which set the stage for a psychological intervention. Her C.O. testified that her previous service was exemplary, and she got an honorable discharge, full benefits.

She heard the whoop of Tyler’s cycle as he ripped it through the gears, the sweet yowl of the big engine getting louder by the second. He was flying. Then, downshift, downshift, downshift—she could picture him slowing to make the turn—then another big howl from the motor as he picked up speed on the driveway.

“Just chill, Zoober,” she said, giving the pup a soothing tap on the head. She got up and jogged toward the front of the house, rounding the corner just as Tyler pushed the kickstand down and swung his leg over the seat.

He pulled off his helmet and smiled. “You’re all good?”

She held her nose. “Take a big whiff. Good, but very freaking ripe. When I went back and freed the skunk, I figured even if I got waxed again, I couldn’t smell any worse.” She shuddered and made a bitter face. “I wanted it out of that trap. The way it took off, I guess nothing was broken.”

Tyler gave her a facial ataboy, then wiggled out of his backpack and riding leathers. Stripped to a pair of shorts and a tank top, he dumped the contents of the pack onto the driveway. Eleven four-pack boxes of Massengill and a plastic garbage bag.

“What’s in the bag?”

“Fresh clothes. Didn’t figure you’d want to drive home naked.” He stooped to pick up one of the boxes, pulled out a six-ounce bottle and looked at the label. “No instructions for getting rid of skunk stink,” he said, grinning. “I hope this shit works.”

The house was surrounded by acres of woods and she shucked her clothes right there on the driveway. The sun felt like a wash of warm butter on her skin. “We have to hurry. Zoober is really miserable, but you won’t be able to help wash him down until we take care of me. My hair will be the worst. My arms and legs got it, but my clothes took the rest. We can just bury them.” She spread her arms. “Hit me with your best shot, big boy.”

Tyler dribbled douche over her hair and she reached up to work it in, shampoo-like. They kept moving from spot to spot when they realized the smell lingered where it washed onto the grass. Several bottles later, they could tell the treatment was working. “I need a rinse, then I think I’ll be halfway decent,” she said. “Let’s grab the rest of the douche and head for the swimmin’ hole. You up for a skinny dip?”

“I think I could be persuaded.”

They picked up the remaining boxes and bottles and started for the back yard. She held up a container. “You didn’t tell me, how’d the drugstore clerk handle the run on douche?”

“You’d have died. Some guy about my age. He kind of gave me a look, so I leaned close and whispered that I was having a party and this is the latest drink craze. Massengill and Grey Goose. Douche-drivers.” He cackled. “Christ, I think he believed me.”

Lacey took a breath. “Maybe we should make up a batch to take to that picnic, next Sunday.” Tyler froze in mid-step, tilted his head and his eyebrows shot toward his hairline. “Look,” Lacey went on, “I can’t even believe you’re still hanging in with me, what with my crazy mood swings and bullshit.”

His face drew into an exaggerated smirk. “But the sex is so damned good.”

She dropped the containers she held and gripped his loaf-like biceps. “You could have any woman, and probably one with better tits.” Her face drew into a lop-sided smirk, but that vanished quickly and her eyes moistened. “I’m broken, and I know it. The deploys to the sandbox screwed my head around good. I thought I could Frankenstein myself back together without anybody’s help,” she shook her head, “but I can’t. I’m going to find a good V.A. shrink,” she chuckled, “soon as I lose this stink.”

Tyler dropped the douche he was holding and pulled her into his arms. “I’ve smelled worse.” He kissed her. “But she did have better tits.”

Lacey gave him a play-slap, and they stooped to pick up the boxes and bottles scattered at their feet. They started around the pond. It was getting hot, but a freshening breeze put ripples on the water. Lacey loosely wrapped her arm around his waist. She liked the way their hips bumped together as they walked.

“So, I guess I can still crash at your place?” Tyler asked.

She shook her head. “You were right. Crashing is for a night or two. We’re living together.”

Zoober barked and they both looked over at him. He strained against his tether, made a series of miserable bird-like cheeps and coughed. Tyler grunted. “This is going to be a long process.”

She nodded.  “One step at a time.”

Christopher Werkman writes full-time. His short stories appear in literary journals: Lynx Eye, Quality Fiction, Word Catalyst Magazine, 50 to 1, Litro: Stories That Transport You, Journal of Microliterature, 5923 Quarterly and in anthologies: Hannibal’s Manor, Short Sips, Coffee House Flash Fiction, and Daily Flash: 366 Days of Flash Fiction.