Several months had passed since that game, and sprawled in congested misery on Ross’ living room couch, I blew my nose for the thousandth time, wadding up the tissue and tossing it at the waste basket. I wasn’t even close, and it joined its counterparts on the floor. I should say our couch, our floor because this was my home now, too. I had flown the coop and officially moved in with Ross after the holidays, having, after a few fits and starts, secured my replacement. Jean left shortly after my departure, taking an assignment abroad, so now Karen was the only one left from my time there. Eventually she would leave too, I supposed, and there’d be no direct connection to that house anymore, but the cycle would continue on, its rooms filled with a new set of castaways seeking their claim. Funny how natural it seemed to let some things go. How easily some ropes could slide from your hands, leaving no burn.
I was staying home that day because of a bad head cold. It was a bloodless, frigid day with last week’s snowfall—unusual for the coast—still on the ground, plowed, semi-melted and refrozen into tiny mountain ranges crusted over with road soot and sand. I was restless, having been stuck in the house all day but not feeling well enough to do anything about it, and it was only three o’clock. My head ached from my sinuses and from staring at the TV screen. The phone rang. The phone rang continually here, at all hours of the day and night, and the last two times I had struggled up to get it, it was somebody trying to sell me something, so I was going to let it go on the answering machine, but I had a queer feeling about this call. I hauled myself off the couch and picked up the receiver. “Hello?”
It was Natalie; there was a slight quaver in her voice. “Amy, I have some bad news . . .” She fell silent.
I froze—something had happened to Ross. “What? What? What is it?”
“Dan, Dan Morente and Jorge were abducted two days ago in Guatemala. Jorge on the street . . . in full view . . .” She hesitated again.
“Have they been seen since?” I demanded. The grip let go slightly at my knowing it wasn’t Ross, but this was bad. I mentally started making a list of steps we had to take.
“Their bodies were found on the side of the road outside . . . Maza. . . Mazatengo . . . tenango . . . sorry. . . uh, I can’t pronounce it.” Her voice sounded faraway and lethargic, as if she was speaking from the bottom of a well. “Both of them shot in the head. One of the GAM people down there confirmed it by fax.”
Natalie’s news turned my body cold, caused me to tremble involuntarily. The shock seeped down the back of my head, down over my neck and shoulders, my mind trying to get a grip on the violence, the lack of cognizance of these two men as living souls, people admired and loved, someone’s brother, someone’s son, someone’s friend; fumbling forward slowly and stupidly under this terrible burden of fact; it just could not be. So hard to focus . . . hard to focus the anger, focus—what was it? Hate? I could not believe this had really happened though we were always worrying about it. Dan had stayed at this very house this past summer, sat on the very couch I’d just gotten off of. I remembered seeing them off—Ross was driving them to the airport; they were heading back home. They had stopped by the office on their way out to say good-bye and Dan had been charming, funny, joking with me about “el jefe,” Jorge a little more circumspect. Seeing, breathing people. This was not playacting; the daily din had been suspended . . . . A dangerous place to fight your fight, and Ross was planning on returning there shortly. The darkest vision rose before me at the thought, ‘What if it had been Ross?’—his body dumped like rubbish on the side of the road, a bullet lodged in his no-longer-thinking brain.
“Is Ross there?” I asked Natalie, my own voice now unsteady. She’d been waiting for me silently on the other end of the line. No, he was with someone or someplace, she wasn’t sure. “Do you want me to come in?” I asked for lack of anything else to say.
“No, we’re covered; there’s nothing that can be done here. I’ll call you if we need anything . . . I just thought you should know.”
I put the phone down and waited, but the phone did not ring again. The television I’d muted during the call had been silently flashing the standard soap opera commercials for diapers, tampons. I walked back into the living room, aimed the remote at it and pressed the button (Bang, you’re dead . . .). No word from Ross. I worried about how he was taking the news—how was he supposed to take it? The last time he was in Guatemala he had stayed with Dan and his mother for a short time; she had cooked for him, treated him like her own son. I didn’t want to call and bother people at the office; didn’t want to call a cab and go in and then miss Ross, and I wasn’t sure I actually had enough cash to do that, so I could only sit and wait. I sat very still in the living room, heart pounding, and stared at the clock. Time ticked by slowly but irreversibly, about 48 hours since they died, now 49, now 50, not quite a year since I met Ross; eventually, I knew from sad experience, I would stop this counting. It had been a steely gray day, but at dusk the wind picked up and the sky cleared on the horizon, revealing a ghostly beautiful strip of sunset glowing pink and red in the western sky. Gradually the brilliance faded away like embers dying and night fell. I left the lights off and sat in the darkness.
Streaks of headlights washed through the room accompanied by the muffed crunch of wheels on granular snow, wrapping shimmering pearly ribbons round and round the house then pulling them free as the cars made their way by, spinning the room with their pale beams, wrapping me in silken cords of light and sorrow, capturing me, holding me spellbound, but after I don’t know how long, one car careened around the bend, screechingly out of control, a frightening, ugly sound, and my anger surged back up finding vent in these stupid, stupid teenagers, risking their lives just for the hell of it; this is real, this is real; do they understand that? I sprung up, jerked on the lamp, and snatched up the phone to call the police—I had had it—but heard the car door slam shut and steps on the back porch. Ross came into the room. He was coatless, hatless and his hands and ears were red and chapped from the cold. His private hell confronted me, burning in his eyes.
“You heard?” he asked quietly, staring above my head but seeing nothing.
“I sent a telegram to his mother; they’ll see that she gets it. We issued a press release,” he broke off. “An alert. We’ll make some other statement tomorrow . . .” His voice trailed off in admission of the limited nature our response could take. He stood there, eyes locked on the wall. He had come home because he didn’t know what else to do.
“Where’s your coat, Ross?” I asked. I wanted to grab him, pull him out of the abyss, press him hard against living flesh, but he seemed so enveloped in death, so hypnotized by it that I was afraid to touch him lest he shatter. “Sit down, honey,” I said gently after a pause, holding out my hand. He turned to me with a look of contempt. He looked like he wanted to break something, hit someone. However, he mutely sat down on the couch. Then with a blank face and emotionless tone he told me the whole story. He looked me directly in the eyes for the first time since coming home, and I could see he took it as a personal failure, a lack of something on his part that he couldn’t prevent his friends’ deaths. It was as if, almost, he was ashamed to look at me. Emotion suddenly spread across his tired face.
“They were my friends . . .” he blubbered heartrendingly, and I put my arms around him and held him tightly; I wanted so badly to protect him. Whenever I cried, though surprisingly I had not cried at this, the tears would come easily like rain; they would come often and at any time, cease suddenly, too; there was something effortless, natural about it. But watching Ross break down and cry was a wrenching, jarring process, the earth cracking to let out the built-up pressure, to finally allow the feelings to flow outside. He put up a terrible struggle to deny it, control it, not let the surface rip open. But it finally came, and he put his head down on my lap and cried bitterly.
I was shaken by his being brought so low; everything was so wrong and I wanted only . . . I only wanted . . . . His pain brought the tears to my eyes. I softly stroked his hair; I said softly, “I’m so sorry, Benny, my pet name for him; I’m so sorry, just let it out.” I couldn’t have loved him any more than I did at that moment—my strong funny darling, the bravest person I knew, taking punch after punch but stubbornly refusing to take a dive.