Image by Dayanara Nacion
Mercy is for Morning
by James Maxey
It was close to three a.m. when a woman came into the Borderlands diner. I slipped the book I was reading under the counter and said, “Morning.”
She kept walking, her face mostly hidden by a hoodie, her hands jammed into her pockets. I couldn’t tell how old she was. Her fashion skewed young, but all I could see of her face were gray lips against pale and waxy skin. Her frame was skeletal, her movements slow and shuffling. She made an odd, irregular clacking sound with each step. I peeked over the counter. She had a bundle of electrical cables hanging out of the back of her jacket dangling all the way down to the floor, tapping against the linoleum.
Her eyes darted around, hunting for something. Since she’d walked past the bathroom, I guessed what she was looking for. Sure enough, she took a seat at the far end of the counter by the wall next to an electrical socket. She needed to charge her phone, which meant she hadn’t had access to a charger in the vehicle she’d arrived in, the eighteen-wheeler that had pulled into the side lot a few minutes earlier. She was either a hitchhiker or a hooker. I know it’s creepy to jump to conclusions, but I’ve worked third shift here long enough to know who stops in this time of night.
But she twisted my expectations. Instead of a phone charger, she pulled a plastic box the size of a brick out of her pocket and plugged it in. The lights flickered when she did this, and for a second I worried the fuses might blow. She plugged the wires she’d been trailing into the brick, and it lit up with multiple rows of LED lights, some green, some flashing red. The only clue as to what this device might be was a stylish lightning bolt “Z” on the front, the logo of the Zahn Corporation. Anton Zahn was one of the most famous inventors alive, though he was better known for his scandals than his technology. Still, there were millions of people walking around thanks to Zahn’s artificial hearts. I never expected to see that kind cutting-edge tech in a dive like Borderlands.
If you’ve ever driven on I-95, you’ve seen billboards for the place. Berto the Burro, a sombrero-wearing donkey, encourages drivers to stop at Borderlands for gas, fireworks, and terrible Mexican food at the Burro-Ito Buffet. There’s also a motel painted a radioactive shade of pink and a whole bunch of fiberglass dinosaurs.
And, of course, there’s the diner, where I work the graveyard shift. It can get crazy on weekends, but weeknights are usually pretty dead. Nicer, less pothole-riddled truck stops down near Florence capture most of the truckers. The drivers we do get are either overly fond of racist mascots or don’t want their buddies to see who else is in the cab with them.
Thirty seconds after the woman took a seat, the bell on the door jingled again and the Devourer of Souls strolled in. Devourer of Souls probably isn’t his actual name. He drives a shiny black rig with red flame decals swirling over the cab. Even in summer he wears a black leather blazer. He sports a trim goatee, has a soft smile and smooth voice, and seems alright until you spot the big devil-head ring on his left hand and the “666” tattooed on his throat. He comes in a few times a month, always with a different woman in tow. His “girlfriends” usually look like they’ve got one foot in the grave, junkies with obvious needle tracks, or tweakers with missing teeth and empty eyes, showing a lot of skin regardless. Tonight’s catch was a nun by comparison. That he brings them in for a meal could plausibly be interpreted as the act of a Good Samaritan. Still, I can’t help the uncomfortable feeling that the primary quality they share is that no one’s going to look for them when they go missing.
“Coffee and the number three,” said the Devourer, seating himself next to the woman. “Coffee for her, too.”
“Don’t want anything,” she said, so softly I could barely hear her. Her eyes looked anxious as she studied the LEDs on her power brick. Some of the red lights were now flashing yellow.
I took the coffee down to the Devourer. It had been a couple of hours since I made a fresh pot and evaporation had left the brew dark as motor oil, just the way he liked it. He took a long swig of the stuff without letting it cool. I took a closer glance at the woman. Her hands were smooth, youthful, but the same bloodless gray as her face. I didn’t waste much time studying her. The Devourer normally reeks of cigarettes, but tonight there was whiff of rotten meat around him that left me eager to retreat back to the grill.
On the flattop, I started working on the number three, a T-bone and eggs. I cooked it the way he liked it, which was hardly at all. The eggs received similar light treatment, sunny-side up, three of them. I ran his toast through the toaster twice, until it looked like charcoal. That’s how he eats it. I wonder if he actually enjoys the food, or if he gets a kick out of dragging me in his over-the-top creepiness. After all, he likes to show off with half-dead dates.
He didn’t look at me when I brought his plate to him. The woman had her hands jammed back into her pockets.
“Sure I can’t get you anything?” I asked.
“I’m fine,” she mumbled.
My nose wrinkled. The dead meat smell… it was her breath.
The stink didn’t interfere with the Devourer’s appetite. His plate was already a mess of blood and yolk. There was orange gore on his lips, speckled with black flecks of toast as he said, “Get her some pie.”
“No pie,” she whispered.
“Keep your strength up,” he said. “Got a long night ahead of us.”
“Our pecan pie is really good,” I said.
“Not hungry,” she said.
“No problem,” I said, stepping away, wondering how long they would stick around. I hoped to get in a few more hours of reading before the breakfast crowd. I was currently slogging through Les Misérables, a book I’d somehow never read despite having an MFA in Writing. Yes, I’m aware I didn’t need that degree to flip burgers on the graveyard shift. Why, yes, I have heard every joke you can make about my life choices. Truth was, right out of school, I had a good job offer to teach up in Ohio, but my girlfriend didn’t want to move.
She and I had just recorded our first album together, because, sure, I’m not only a failed novelist, I’m also a failed songwriter. Our one video, “Mercy is for Morning,” had, like, thirty thousand views on YouTube, which translated into about a hundred downloads on i-Tunes, which translates into less than I make in tips on a weeknight. Now my girlfriend’s long gone, I live in a trailer with no hot water, and I pawned my guitar to buy a new alternator for my car. Once, I dreamed of fame, or at least of earning enough from my talents to pay a power bill. Alas, the only creativity that’s paid anything is my exploration of the theme of eggs and bacon on the canvas of a flattop grill.
I scraped the grill as I contemplated my wasted life. The Devourer was almost done with his meal. The woman had her head bent down so that her chin touched her chest.
The Devourer said something to her in a low voice.
The woman shook her head.
“Come on,” he said, a bit louder. “We had a deal.”
“No,” she said.
“This isn’t a bargain you can back out of, sweetheart,” said the Devourer, grabbing her arm.
“Ready for the check, sir?” I asked, hoping that reminding him I was here would interrupt whatever was unfolding.
“Yeah, we’re done.” He dragged the woman off her stool and tossed a fifty-dollar bill on the counter. “Keep the change.”
“I’m not going any further!” the woman said. “I’m done! I’m done!”
“You’re done when I’m done with you,” growled the Devourer of Souls.
“Stop!” she cried, as the power brick jerked from the socket.
“Hey!” I said. “Back off! The woman doesn’t want to go!”
The Devourer of Souls glared at me. It was probably the reflection of the neon “OPEN” sign, but I swear his eyes had fire in them.
“I’ve got the cops on speed dial,” I said, keeping calm. You get used to dealing with belligerent drunks on the graveyard shift. Not that I thought he was drunk.
“Go on,” he said, smiling. “Pick up the phone.”
There was a SNICK sound and suddenly he had an open switchblade in his hand.
And I laughed. The gift shops at Borderlands are filled with the cheesiest crap you’ve ever seen, including fake plastic switchblades. I hadn’t expected the Devourer of Souls to have a sense of humor.
His brow furrowed, like he didn’t know why I was laughing.
Like his threat was real.
Like it was a real knife.
“Shit,” I said, stopping in mid laugh.
“You done?” he asked.
“Please, don’t call the cops,” the woman said. Her hoodie had been pushed back and I got a better look at her face. Halloween was two weeks away but it looked like she was wearing zombie makeup.
“You want to go with him?” I asked.
“No!” she cried. “But don’t call the cops!”
“I won’t,” I said. Then I calmly reached under the counter and grabbed the .38 caliber revolver taped beneath the register. I aimed it at the Devourer of Souls. “Go,” I said. “Leave her.”
The Devourer of Souls closed the switchblade and said, calmly, “She begged for a ride. We made a fair deal. But, I guess this is as far as she wants to go.”
“Just go,” I said, keeping the gun aimed at him.
“Going,” he said. He stopped at the door, looking back. “I’ll be seeing you soon, William.”
For half a second I freaked out that he knew my name, but, duh, I wear a nametag.
He left. The woman watched the door close. She looked like she might be on the verge of running out after him. Then she looked back at me and said, “Is that a real gun?”
“Nope.” I held it up. “Plastic, weighted with putty. I’m told they sold these in the gift shops, like, twenty years ago. Never thought I’d actually point it at someone. Really didn’t think he’d fall for it.”
“Jimmy wasn’t all that bright,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest.
“The guy you just chased out of here? You seemed to know him.”
“I never knew his real name.” I scratched my head. Jimmy? What a letdown.
“He’s been listening to talk radio all the way since Richmond. Some crazy dude named Art Dunkle ranting about UFOs and the Illuminati. Only a moron believes that crap.”
“You were hitchhiking?” I asked.
“I’m not a prostitute,” she said.
“I didn’t mean—”
“I never agreed to anything,” she said. “What he thought, he thought, okay?”
“Okay,” I said. “Is there, um, anyone I can call for you? Family?”
“I haven’t had anyone I’m willing to call family in a long time,” she said, sounding bitter. She raised her right hand to her lips and chewed on a nail. Her distress was plain, but I still wasn’t getting a clear vibe just what was going on. She was probably in her early twenties, too old to be a runaway. Drugs? What drugs made you look like a walking corpse?
“I don’t have any money,” she said.
“I can call the motel across the road. The night clerk owes me a favor.”
She shook her head. “I don’t need to sleep. I should keep moving.”
“The ocean?” she said, sounding uncertain.
“That’s… a rather broad destination.”
“Anywhere. It doesn’t matter.” She pulled up the sleeve on her left arm. She was wearing a ridiculously large watch, like a Fitbit on steroids, also bearing a Zahn logo. She grimaced as she looked at the watch and said, “Crap.”
“I’m barely out of the red zone,” she said, moving back to the far end of the counter. “Look, pretend I’m not here for ten more minutes.”
“I think I deserve to know what’s going on,” I said.
She shook her head as she plugged in the power brick. “You deserve to know nothing. It’s safer.”
“You think I care about safety? I pulled a fake gun on a dude with a real knife.”
“You’re a regular hero,” she said.
“What the hell are you charging?” I asked.
She frowned. “Drop it.”
“Whatever,” I said, turning my back to her. The Devourer of Soul’s big black rig was gone, but the fever-dream landscape of Borderlands, with its glowing neon and fake cactuses and life-sized dinosaurs had never looked creepier. If you a need a great place to piss off a devil-worshiping psychopath, seriously, you can’t beat it.
Knowing I’d never be able to concentrate, I grabbed my book and took a seat at the counter.
“Is that Les Misérables?” the woman asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Read it?”
“I saw it on Broadway a few weeks ago. The same night I—” She looked at me for a few seconds, then shook her head. “Nothing.”
I sighed, looking back at the book.
“I killed myself the same night I saw that show,” she said.
“Now that’s a bad review,” I said. “But if Hugo goes on one more chapter with this Waterloo crap I might kill myself too.”
“I’m not joking,” she said. “Anton had stuck around the hotel lobby to talk to some investor he recognized. Told me to go up and get ready for bed. My heart was racing all the way to the penthouse. Anton rarely let me out of his sight. For about a minute, I really thought I had a chance to escape. I tried to stop the elevator at a lower floor, but the buttons wouldn’t work.”
I put the book down. It had to be a coincidence that she had gear with a Zahn logo and talking about someone named Anton. “Anton was… a boyfriend?”
She shook her head. “I was his slave.”
I furrowed my brow, unsure if this was melodrama or something more serious.
“When I got to the penthouse, running away felt impossible. So I took a knife from the kitchen. And I sliced open my wrists.”
“Christ,” I said. “I won’t pretend to understand what you’ve gone through, but attempting suicide—”
“I didn’t attempt,” she said. “I died. I was dead for three days before they reanimated me. I’m still dead.”
“Okay,” I said, really sorry I’d asked any questions. Why had I assumed she’d be sane?
“I’m not crazy,” she said. “It’s all true. I’ve been the slave of Anton Zahn, the Ghoul of Silicon Valley.”
“Right,” I said, still thinking she was playing a game. On the other hand, if you going to name a famous billionaire most likely to have slaves, Zahn was a good choice. Zahn’s interest in longevity didn’t end at inventing artificial organs. He’s, like, ninety, but looks thirty, and claims he owes his youthful vigor to a weekly infusion of fresh blood from youthful donors.
Sensing I still wasn’t convinced, the woman stood, unzipping her hoodie and slipping it off, revealing her torso, pale green, the color of a hospital gown. Only it wasn’t her skin, but some kind of rubbery-looking body paint. I couldn’t help but stare at her breasts. Then I realized that the wires from the power brick were attached to a port below her left boob. She turned and moved aside her long blonde hair to show the shaved base of her skull, which had a stitched up bulge and a glowing red light faintly visible below her skin. This was either an amazing Halloween costume or I was looking at something I couldn’t begin to understand.
“Anton is obsessed with immortality,” she said. “He’s worked on this for years. He replaced my old blood with some kind of high-tech substitute, and the bodysuit keeps me from rotting, though, if you’ve caught a whiff of my breath, it’s not perfect.”
The realization she could smell her own breath chilled me. Imagine living with that stink every waking second.
“Anton says that with fine tuning he can keep me reanimated a very long time. He’s not doing this for my benefit. I’m a guinea pig for tech he intends to sell to his fellow billionaires.”
I swallowed hard. I believed her. If you’d been there, watching her eyes, you’d have believed her too.
She pulled her hoodie back on, covering herself. Despite her deathly pallor, I could see she’d once been someone Zahn would have wanted around as a trophy.
“The private hospital room they kept me in had a window overlooking the roof of a lower floor,” she said. “I smashed the window with an IV pole and bolted. Been hitchhiking since then. Jimmy’s not the first asshole who expected something in return.”
“Why haven’t you called the cops?”
“Anton owns judges like he owns women,” she said. “They’d throw me in jail for stealing his property.” She jiggled the wires hanging from her. “Only, I won’t stay in jail. They’ll send me back to him. My only escape is death.”
“If the suit’s all that’s keeping you alive, why not just unplug it?”
She shook her head. “Sure, I’ll drop dead if the batteries run down. So what? Once he gets my corpse, he’ll plug me in again.”
“What if… I mean, with a real gun…?”
“Blow my brains out?” she asked. “What makes you think he’d give a shit? He didn’t keep me around for conversation. A woman without a head would be his dream date.”
I nodded. “That’s why you’re going to the ocean.”
“If I went far out to sea and I weighed myself down… Anton has his own submarine, but the ocean’s huge, right?”
“Pretty huge,” I said. “I take my uncle’s boat out to the Gulf Stream sometimes. Every time I go out, no land in sight, no other boats, I think, if I went overboard here, no one would ever find my body.”
“You have a boat?”
“Um,” I said.
“It’s like I was meant to find you,” she said.
“Look, I don’t—”
“I gave you the option of not asking questions,” she said.
“What if this is your one chance?” she asked. “Your one chance to truly help someone who really needs it?”
I spend most of my life with my nose stuck inside a book. In every story, there’s a moment when the character does something that alters the whole course of his life. This felt a lot like that moment.
I stood, tucking Les Misérables under my arm. “Are your batteries charged enough for a two-hour drive?”
“My God, you’ll do it?”
“I’ve done crazier things.” I hadn’t. Turning down a good job to focus on writing songs for your girlfriend who’s secretly sleeping with your drummer is technically more stupid than crazy.
She pulled the charger from the wall. “Won’t you get in trouble walking out of here in the middle of a shift?”
“Oh no, I’ll be fired,” I said with mock distress, then shrugged. “A culinary artist with my spatula skills won’t be unemployed for long.”
As I said this, an SUV pulled into the lot. “Hurry,” I said. “We’ll slip out the back before anyone else sees you. Whoever’s coming in can pour their own damned coffee.”
She came around the counter and we darted through the back door. We stopped instantly when we found ourselves confronted by two large men in black suits getting out of an SUV parked next to my Honda.
“Hello, Mercy,” said one of the men. He was bald, with a big gold ring in his left ear. In his suit, he looked like a blend of pirate, corporate attorney, and heavyweight boxer. His friend was even taller, with long dreadlocks, and, I swear, steel teeth. They looked ready to fight James Bond. I was a fry cook in a dirty apron who’d left his plastic gun sitting on the counter. My only weapon was my copy of Les Misérables. There were worse books to use in self-defense, but still.
“Fine,” said the woman, Mercy, I guessed. “You’ve found me. I’m surprised it took you this long.”
“You don’t think the suit has GPS?” asked Pirate. “Or mics? We’ve heard every word you’ve said for the last eighteen hours. Zahn said to wait and pick you up where it wouldn’t cause a scene.”
“You’d better believe there’s going to be a scene,” I yelled. “You aren’t taking this woman anywhere. We’ve already called the cops!”
“Yeah, you haven’t,” said Pirate, grabbing Mercy by her arm. “Mics in the suit, remember?”
Dreadlocks reached into his jacket and pulled out a pistol. “Which is how we know you know too much to live.”
I froze as he pointed the gun at me. He smiled as he saw fear flash across my face. I also got to see my terrified visage, since his steel teeth were like a row of tiny funhouse mirrors. I yelped as he pulled the trigger.
Les Misérables slammed into my chest like a fist, knocking the air out of me. I stumbled backward, looking down at my fallen book. It had a hole gouged out right where the “M” in Misérables should have been. I was suddenly grateful Hugo hadn’t shut up about Waterloo.
Only, now I didn’t have anything between me and the next bullet. But when Dreadlocks fired again, his arm jerked. The back of my neck was showered with hot gravel as the bullet gouged a crater out of the cinderblock wall. Dreadlocks’ head tilted back, exposing his throat, and with a flash a slender knife blade sliced across his windpipe. Dreadlocks fell to his knees, clutching his throat, blood pouring between his fingers. Behind him stood the Devourer of Souls.
He smiled placidly as he said, “I hope I’m not interrupting something important.”
Pirate pushed Mercy aside and reached into his jacket for his gun. The Devourer covered the ten-foot gap between them in a heartbeat. He buried the switchblade to the hilt in the man’s left eye. Pirate collapsed. The Devourer turned calmly toward me, licking the eye-gore off his blade with a grin.
“Don’t know what that was about,” he said, sounding amused. “But it wouldn’t be very satisfying to let someone shoot you before I had the pleasure of carving you up.”
As he stepped toward me, Mercy rose between us, fists clenched. “You sick bastard!” she screamed. “Don’t take another step!”
As a reward for her bravery, the Devourer plunged the blade deep into her gut, lifting her from her feet. The motion brought her face only inches from his and he said, “What I’m gonna do to you, I couldn’t care less if you’re alive.” With a grunt, he threw her aside then looked back at me as she fell to the pavement.
He grabbed me by the collar of my shirt. He slowly, deliberately, brought the switchblade toward my face, resting the tip of the blade on my lower lip. My mind locked up. My arms refused to move at all.
“You sounded pretty brave in the diner, William,” said the Devourer. “Seemed to find me pretty funny. Hmm? Why aren’t you laughing now?”
“Maybe he doesn’t get the joke,” said Mercy, stepping up beside him, holding the pistol she’d grabbed from Pirate’s corpse. She pressed the barrel against the Devourer’s temple. “Drop the knife.”
The Devourer didn’t move a muscle for several seconds. Then he said, “I’m glad you’re still standing. I enjoy a woman with a little fight in her.”
“I said drop the knife!”
With manic speed, the Devourer spun, slapped Mercy’s arm aside, then jammed the blade deep into her ribs. The impact knocked her sideways. As she stumbled to keep her footing, the knife twisted from his grasp. I jumped forward and wrapped my arms around him, knocking him to the ground. Unfortunately, he proved to be as adept at wrestling as he was at stabbing people. Two seconds later I was flat on my back and he was standing over me, the heel of his boot pressed against my windpipe, grinning like he was having the time of his life.
Three shots rang out. He finally stopped grinning. He dropped to his knees, mumbling, “The hell, man?” He pressed his hand over the bloody patch growing on his shirt. Finally, his eyes rolled up in his head and he went limp.
Mercy offered me her hand, helping me to my feet as she shoved the pistol into her pants. She lifted her arm, revealing the hilt of the switchblade. “Can you pull this out? It’s stuck on something.”
“Aren’t you in pain?” I said, grabbing the blade.
“I barely feel anything,” she said. “He might as well have stabbed a slab of beef.”
I tugged on the blade. It came out with a sucking sound. Black gore thick as applesauce oozed from the hole before swiftly caking over. Unlike the rotten meat stink of her breath, the gore had a chemical stench, like Nyquil mixed with bleach.
“Thanks,” said Mercy, kneeling to root through Pirate’s pockets. She found a phone, then pressed his finger against the sensor, turning it on. She tapped the screen a few times then pointed the phone and the gun at me. “Hi!” she said. “My name is Mercy Gates. This is my confession. I’m kidnapping this guy. He just watched me kill a bunch of people, so I think he’ll be cooperative. You going to be cooperative, Billy?”
“No one calls me Billy,” I said. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Confessing,” she said. “Now get into your damned car before I blow your brains out.”
“But nothing! Do it!” She shook the gun at me. I held up my hands as I walked toward the car, completely unclear why she was doing this.
She opened the passenger side door and got in. “Sorry about your car,” she said. “I’m leaking from where he stabbed me in the gut. You might never get the smell out.”
“It’s okay,” I said.
“I’ve stopped recording,” she said. “You’re a decent guy, who nobody calls Billy, even if you kind of look like a Billy.”
“Will. I go by Will.”
“I don’t want you to get in trouble, Will. Tell everyone you were being held at gunpoint the whole time. Maybe you won’t even lose your job.”
“Losing my job is probably what I need,” I said. “I’ve been a little stuck.”
“Take me to your uncle’s boat,” Mercy said. “We have two hours?”
“Probably less. No traffic.” I tried to crank the engine, which was always a nail biter. I really needed a new starter. Luckily, the engine kicked in on the third try.
“Still plenty of time,” she said, turning my radio to the AM band, going to the lower end of the spectrum until she heard a guy ranting about how Bigfoot was part of the gay agenda. “Excellent. His show’s still on.” She punched numbers into the phone as I took the onramp to the interstate.
“Hello, Art Dunkle call screener?” she said, in a forced, perky voice. “Look, you’re going to want to put me on the air. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. I understand you’ve got a lot of callers already in line. For the last seven months I’ve been the slave of Anton Zahn. I’m ready to spill the beans on all sorts of filthy details about the secret sex cult run by the Ghoul of Silicon Valley. Can the lame weirdoes you’ve got on hold top that? I know! Right?”
Mercy put her hand over the phone and said, “I’m next.”
She told her story for the whole drive. Every crazy thing, not just about Zahn, but a whole sex slave ring involving bankers and senators and an NPR news anchor, to the not trivial revelation about how she’d died three weeks ago and been brought back from the grave with tech that Zahn intended to lease to his fellow oligarchs. Her choice of forums meant that Zahn would likely be able to dismiss it all as nutty conspiracy talk, but what was she supposed to do? You really think the New York Times would have returned her calls? At least the truth was out there.
We arrived at the marina a little before sunrise. She started recording again as she explained her plan to steal the boat and throw herself overboard tied to the anchor. She emphasized that everything I’d done to help her had been because she had a gun, then she waved the gun in front of the phone camera before pointing it at me.
“Oh god, don’t shoot me,” I said, drawing on some of my earlier fear to sell the performance. I mean, we had fled from a crime scene leaving behind three corpses. This video might be all that stood between me and twenty-five years of federal-paid room and board.
“You should be okay now,” she said, putting down the phone.
“I should be traumatized beyond all therapy,” I said. “But, strangely, I’m okay with this.”
“You’re not going to give me some speech about how life is precious? Tell me I should cling to my second chance?”
I shook my head. “I won’t pretend to know how you feel. Life is precious. But so are a lot of other things. I respect your choice.”
She smiled, for the first time since I’d met her.
At that moment, the edge of the sun crept above the waves. The pink sky took on magnificent tones of gold. We were standing on a grassy strip near the water. The dew all around us sparkled like emeralds.
She looked at her feet and said, softly, “Mercy is for morning, when dew is clean and bright.”
“What?” I said, my eyes going wide.
“A song. I used to listen to it all the time when I was, like, seventeen. Some band called Codex? You probably never heard of them. They did, like, one album, before splitting up. I bet I watched that video a thousand times.”
“Yeah,” I said, looking at the ground, shaking my head. “Never heard of them.” I couldn’t tell her I’d written the song. This moment wasn’t about me.
“Good-bye,” she said.
“Good-bye,” I said.
“I feel like, I don’t know, I should, like, hug you or something.” She looked down at her gore-stained hoodie. “I’m kind of a mess.”
“I’m kind of a mess myself,” I said, stepping forward to embrace her, a motion that felt far more honest than any words I might have found as I sent her to complete her journey and she sent me back to start mine anew.