Halo of Gold by C.S. Houghton
Halo of Gold
by C.S. Houghton“It is all very well to talk about the facilis descensus Averni; but in all kinds of climbing, as Catalani said of singing, it is far more easy to get up than to come down.” — Edgar Allan Poe, “The Purloined Letter”
“Silence, the meat-hook, hangs me out the back,” Jacob said.
“On the clothesline?” asked Eliot.
Jacob laughed and pictured himself clothes-pinned on the line. “No, but I like that.”
“Want to kill the engine?”
“Sure, so much for power steering. Give me another word,” Jacob said. He shifted into neutral and turned the key. Past the cliffs edge the canyon road snaked through the chaparral until it laid its tail end in the sun-baked valley below.
“The golden sun, my guide, my wish, and lie.”
“Oh shit. We’re not gonna make it down are we?” joked Eliot.
“We’re both single now anyhow. No more Mary, no commitments. Give me another word before we die.” Jacob pulled hard on the Celebrity wagon’s wheel. The tires whined as they coasted, carving through the twisting switchbacks.
“Submission.” Eliot sat plastered against the hot vinyl bench seat. “And yeah, my mother would love to hear I died like this. And give up on the Mary thing, maybe you’d still have her if you weren’t such an obsessive freak.”
“Submission? Hmm.” Jacob pumped the stiff, lifeless brakes, as dead as the engine. The speedometer barely inched back even a notch. Jacob faced Eliot as they plunged down another slope and said, “Submission is for snakes and not for Eves.”
“Holy shit. Was that a hawk?” Eliot asked.
“Where?” Jacob leaned close to the dash and looked to the sky.
“Forget it. Watch the road. Can you slow down at all without turning the car back on?”
“Only a little. Give me another word.” Jacob clutched the wheel, white-knuckled, as a corner pushed him tight against the door.
“Slow down. Slow down. There’s a stop light at the bottom.”
“That’s more than one word,” grinned Jacob.
“So sweet and sick, an angel called me.” Jacob forced the meter and engaged the ignition at sixty miles an hour. He braked as they cleared the corner and charged down the straightway towards the crossroads.
“When all the scansion in the world won’t save you,” Eliot said with a smirk.
“That’s hilarious. All right, it’s your turn. Mexi-melt.” Jacob unsnapped his seatbelt and Eliot did the same. As flat as the valley seemed from the top of Placerita Road, small hills dotted with juniper crowded the empty intersection. Jacob pulled to a rolling stop.
“Mexi-melt fire can burn stomach’s desire.” Eliot counted the syllables out on his fingers.
“Clever,” Jacob said. He sped forward and took a hard right past a twisting and dusty leafed oak.
A girl, no more than eighteen, stepping to the roadside, fell backwards. She thudded against the rear passenger window and vanished in a cloud of dust. Jacob skidded to a stop. Neither spoke. He looked at Eliot and threw his door open.
Jacob held his palms against his sweaty brow and shook his head while Eliot helped her to her feet. She stood speechless and covered in a sandy-blond dust.
“Oh my god. I’m so sorry. You okay?” asked Jacob. She still stood like a statue in the unsettled air.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I think I slipped.” Her voice fell delicate and shaken, but she stood tall and her blue eyes were vibrant and wide. She wore a wedding dress.
“Are you hurt? Your sleeve is ripped at the shoulder,” Eliot said.
“There’s blood on the back of your hand,” Jacob said.
“It’s not your fault,” she said. Long black wavy locks fell over her face as she smoothed out the skirt of her dress and brushed away dirt and pebble. She sounded too angry to cry.
“I was speeding. I’m so damn sorry.” Jacob stumbled over his words. Her sandy feet were bare and the toenails unpainted. She looked at him for a brief moment and then to Eliot. Tears welled up along her waterline, threatening to fall across her uncommonly smooth skin. Her dress followed and dragged as she turned and walked fast towards the intersection.
“Wait!” Jacob called out. Eliot followed her, but Jacob just stood still as the dust, staring. He thought of Poe’s Ligeia and of gifts, almost unreal, yet given. Then he too ran to her side and slightly past. Her feet barely seemed to touch what must be scorching pavement. “I don’t think this road goes anywhere. Are you sure you’re okay? Where are you going?”
“Home,” she said with resolve. Any tears seemed to have vanished. “Where are you going?”
“We’ll bring you anywhere you need to go,” Eliot said. He pointed to an approaching tractor-trailer and said, “Careful.”
“There’s blood on your head,” Jacob said, pointing to a slick spot of matted hair above her brow. “We’re here on vacation, where is there a hospital? We need to take you.”
She stared down the road. Her shadow looked as short as Jacob’s own. She touched a hand to her crown and it came away bloody and dotted with sand. “This isn’t much of a place to vacation,” she said.
“Please, you need to come with me,” muttered Jacob. “If you’re running from a wedding, and I think you are, you can use a false name.”
“That’s funny,” she said and stopped. Her dress flapped in the wind as a drop of blood crept over her dust-smeared brow. She closed her eyes and moved with the breeze.
Jacob grabbed her by the shoulders when she collapsed. Her perfume was light and airy.
“You can just take me home, please,” Eleanor said. “It’s not far and they can bring me to the hospital if I need to go.” She lay in the back with hair blowing against the seat and a rag held tight against her head.
“There isn’t enough time for that,” Jacob said. “We can call your parents from the hospital. I promise. Just hang in there.” He adjusted the rear-view until he could see her grimacing face. She was beautiful. “Were you married today?”
“I need to go home. My mother is a nurse.”
“How close is your house?” asked Eliot, leaning over the back of the seat. “I saw another sign for the hospital.”
Jacob hit Eliot’s knee and looked at him with raised eyebrows. “She’s passed out twice now. There’s no time.”
Eleanor held her head and cried. When she tried to sit up, she fell back against the seat. “Please. I think we passed my street. I’m barely bleeding.”
Jacob watched her in the rear-view and turned onto Sierra Highway. The road cut sharp and long through a canyon. A dry riverbed ran alongside.
“Look, prickly-pear,” Eliot said.
“We’re heading south, so I’m positive this is the way,” Jacob said. “Besides that hospital sign said Sylmar, and I know that’s south. It’s right before San Fernando Valley.”
“I think she’s out again. Let’s get her home before we do anything.”
A drop of thickening blood ran down her cheek like a tear. Jacob imagined himself carrying her into the hospital. She looked so perfect. “No. She’s still awake. I wonder what she was doing in the middle of the desert. We need to stay in control here, this isn’t a joke.”
“Take me home. They’re going to be looking for me,” Eleanor said, sounding tired. “This isn’t the right way.”
They passed in the shadow of a highway underpass.
“Give me a word.”
“Prickly,” Eliot said.
“A prickly-pear is fine for bears and boys,” Jacob replied without much hesitation. He turned the radio on.
“Five miles till Sylmar.” Eliot turned the volume knob until the radio blinked back off.
“Oh? Did I miss the sign?” asked Jacob. “Now she’s out.”
“Do you think she just got married or what?” Eliot bit at his index fingernail.
“I’m not sure. Somebody is definitely lucky if she did,” Jacob said. He tapped on the steering wheel. “I don’t think she wanted to get married. Name one girl back on campus that could even hold a candle to her.”
“Maybe she was getting married, at a church?” Eliot asked.
“She was delirious,” Jacob said. “You know, she kind of reminds me of Mary.” He angled the rear-view to his own face and then back to hers.
“The one that got away,” Eliot teased. “Still a fresh wound, aye?”
“No. Not fresh. After all, one week is such a long, long time. Seriously though, she really does look a lot like her,” Jacob said. “So you think she was running off?”
“Unlikely,” Eliot said. “We should have just stopped at her house.”
“We’re almost to civilization.” Jacob watched another drop of blood mix with beads of sweat. “The bleeding could be worse, and I feel she’s got some divine favor in her. She looks classic, like she’s ancient Greek or Roman or something. Give me a word.”
“Save it for later, Don Juan. She’s not even awake,” Eliot said. “You told me exactly the same thing about Mary, like less than a month ago. Of course, that was before she cheated on you.”
“I’m just trying to help. Give me another word.”
“Her flavor, so divine. Idyllic, mine.”
“We shouldn’t have gotten on the highway,” Eliot said through his fingernails.
“This should circle around, and we’ll see signs,” Jacob said. “Besides, we’re better off on a familiar highway. We should take a look around L.A. tonight.” He spun the handle and rolled up his window. Eliot did the same and the roar of the wind disappeared with a pop of Jacob’s ears.
“Hollywood is supposed to pretty nasty, I hear,” Eliot said. He shifted in his seat and clicked the belt into place.
“Yeah, isn’t that the whole Guns and Roses ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ place? The whole fallen angel thing. Not exactly safe streets.” Jacob looked in the rear-view. Eleanor’s eyes seem to dart back and forth under her lids.
“Well, Santa Clarita wasn’t exactly safe for Eleanor.”
“Yeah, I guess not. Hmm, I think we might have gone too far,” Jacob said. There were no chain stores or houses on either side of the raised highway. The land lay flat, and it lead the eye off to mountains in both directions. They seemed pimpled with stunted trees that never even bothered reaching to the sky. “The last time I was lost was when Mary got all flipped out about the stopping at a gas station thing. Kind of cliché, no?”
“Well, maybe we should stop at one this time.”
“Yeah. It would take too long now to circle back to that other place,” Jacob said. “Hey, give me a word.”
“Obsession. I mean Mary, err, obsession.”
“Funny.” Jacob slapped Eliot’s shoulder with a couple of fingers.
“You missed that last exit,” Eliot said. “It had those little green gas and food signs.”
“I’ll take the next one.”
Jacob pulled into a graveled turnout. There the trees were taller and the leaves much greener. Gnarled oaks and Sycamores with mottled jigsaw white bark cast shadows over the road. Jacob let a black Lexus cruise by before walking to the back door of the wagon.
“What are you doing?” asked Eliot as he ducked out of the car. “There isn’t shit here. Let’s go back.”
“Calm down. I’m just checking her head.”
Eliot looked through the back window and then turned away, scratching his neck.
Jacob nodded to him and opened the door slowly. He knelt down. He let her head fall slowly from the armrest to the vinyl seat. Her neck was arched and her closed eyes looked upward towards Jacob. The rag, all brown and dried, stayed pasted to her hair. He lifted her head and held the base in his hand. Her chest rose and fell. Spots of dried blood dotted the band of lace that wrapped around the front of the dress.
Eliot had come to the open door. “Jay, let’s get going.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t move her,” Jacob said.
“She’s not losing blood. She’ll be fine. We just need to get going again.”
“I don’t want to change the bandage with it all stuck to her head,” Jacob said.
“Yeah, you shouldn’t. Let’s go,” Eliot said. “C’mon.”
Jacob touched the underside of his hand to her cheek.
“We should get to a station so we can try to wash her head. Maybe they’ll have a fresh bandage,” Jacob said. Her eyes seemed to dart back and forth under her lids as if she were dreaming.
“Jay?” urged Eliot. “We should’ve had her in the hospital an hour ago.”
“Yeah, okay. Let’s go. Get in.”
Jacob watched Eliot walk back around the car. Eliot seemed to be running out of fingers to chew. Jacob leaned close to Eleanor. She smelled of hyacinth and dried blood. He kissed her, mostly the bottom lip since she was turned upside-down. Her lips felt warm and alive. The passenger door shut.
“She’s fine — let’s go,” Eliot said.
Jacob pushed her shoulder and turned her until she lay on her side. He shut the door as softly as he could. Before Jacob got in the car, he took three slow deep breaths.
“I can’t help feeling like all this was meant to happen,” Jacob said. “What if she was sent to me? You know, like some kind of heavenly conspiracy.” He smiled.
“You mean like a test?” Eliot asked.
“What?” Jacob replied. He looked at Eliot. “No, I mean like she’s heaven sent. What do you mean?”
“Nothing. Pull in that station.”
Jacob shook his head. “That place looks crappy.”
“Damn it. Pull into the fucking station.”
Jacob gripped the wheel and looked past the glare of the sun to the small, isolated Arco station. “You don’t have to be an ass about it,” he said as he took a left into the lot. The rear passenger tire clipped the curb. “I already know this is all screwed up. Don’t take it out on me, okay?”
“Whatever. I’m going inside to get some directions.”
Jacob waited for Eliot to step inside the tiny mini-mart. He opened the back door. She looked still and peaceful. He knelt down beside her and listened for breath. “We’re going to get through this just fine,” he whispered. He thought about how much vitality she had. Something about her said forever. “I know I don’t know you all that well, but at least we’ve had this time together. I think there’s something to be said for that.” He touched his hand to her rosy cheek.
“Jacob?” questioned Eliot. “I called an ambulance. It’s on the way.” Eliot stood only a few feet away.
Jacob stood up. He shook his head. “What the hell? How far is the hospital?” he asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” Eliot said. “This got way too fucked up.”
“What are you talking about?”
“What am I talking about?” Eliot asked. “Well, you tell me then, what are we doing in the middle of nowhere? You tell me what the hell is going on in your head.”
Jacob looked down at the sleeping Eleanor and away from Eliot.
“Is it just me or did the ambulance driver seem like he was drinking?” Jacob asked.
Eliot stared out the passenger window. “Not really.”
Jacob shrugged and tapped on the steering wheel. ‘There Goes My Gun’ played on the radio. The volume was low and laced with static. He looked at his friend. “Give me a word.”
“Not right now,” Eliot said. “No.”
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