Sam and his dog Jack pulled into the parking lot of the Last Memories Motel well after night had fallen, and well before dawn would break again. Sam looked up and aside from his parking spot at the red neon “Vacancy” sign flashing its second “c” and missing its “y” altogether, then stepped out of the hybrid SUV and onto the asphalt of a town he now only rarely visited. He left Jack in the truck.
Service at the front desk required the ringing of a bell, and the man who appeared at that ringing was plump, mustachioed, and balding, even though he was most likely the same age as the protagonist. He looked familiar.
“Sam Miller,” the man offered with a hesitant half-smile.
It took Sam a moment. “Larry Max.” Another moment. “Haven’t seen you since graduating.”
Larry was quick with the number. “Sixteen years.”
Yet another moment. “How you been?”
“Been good.” More hesitation. “Looking for a room?”
Sam laughed a smile. “I most certainly am. For me and the dog.”
“Good, ’cause we’ve got plenty of room.” Larry was already looking down at, and now reached for, his receipt pad. Then he asked, in an almost-nonchalant way, “When was the last time you had dinner in Rostov?”
“May Twenty-Ninth, Nineteen Ninety-Three.” Larry uttered the date while finger-gripping the stem of his Margarita.
“May Twenty-Ninth, Nineteen Ninety-Three,” Sam repeated. “Exactly sixteen years ago today.”
Larry Max pretended to show interest in the people walking past the patio of Sarita’s Mexican restaurant, but the pretense was brief. “Coincidence you passed through tonight?”
Sam took a long sip from his own Margarita, and took his time putting the glass back down. “Coincidence. I visited Mom for Mother’s Day, and thought I’d stop through on my way home.”
Larry smiled. “Mother’s Day was almost three weeks ago.”
Sam sipped again. “So it was.”
The smile slightened. “Business must be good if you can take three weeks off.”
Sam pushed his Margarita away. “More like ‘Business is bad, so why bother.’” He looked up. “You’ve been following me.”
Larry looked straight. “A lot of people have. You ran for Congress, after all.”
Sam reached down to scratch Jack’s ear. “And after all that, nothing.”
“You got memories, right?”
Sam stared off at a woman staring at him. “You can’t pay the bills with memories.”
Another woman approached, this one plump. “Hello, Sam.”
“Sarah Martin. We went to Byarmian together.”
Pause. “It’s been a few years.”
“Sixteen, to be exact.” Sarah put a hand and wrist around Larry’s neck. “I’m surprised we don’t have more gawkers in town.” She was looking off at a clutch of out-of-towners posing for a photo at the entrance to the Byarmian Mall.
Sam set his glass back down. “I gather you’re ‘Sarita.’”
Sarah took a seat between Sam and Larry, and took Larry’s hand. “I am indeed.” Larry, for his part, seemed blissfully happy to be holding Sarah/Sarita’s hand.
Sam’s eyes surveyed the patio full of diners. “And you seem to be doing well.”
“Rostov in general’s doing well. Oil’s up.”
“Could go back down.”
Sarah just smiled. “But it won’t tonight. How are things in Colorado, Sam?”
Sam just smiled. “They’re doing okay.”
Larry looked perplexed. “You said business was off.”
“Business can be off and you can still be okay.”
“Headed back soon?”
“First thing in the morning.”
“Well, drive safe. A friend of mine hit a hailstorm coming from Kerrville last night.”
“I’ll drive safe.”
Both men watched Sarah walk off, and one man asked the other, “How long have you two been dating?”
“It’s a recent thing,” Larry replied, with obvious satisfaction at the “thing” part. He sighed and pushed his stem away. “I suppose it’s time to get back to the front desk.”
Sam looked at the wrist which no longer held the watch in the age of cell phones. “It’s gotta be past ten o’clock.”
“And the front desk girl’s got kids at home.”
It was the great sex which Sam wasn’t having that woke him at two minutes to midnight. The Last Memories Motel would be remembered for its thin walls, and he pushed himself out of bed before turning on the light and taking Jack for a walk.
It was a pleasantly cool evening, and Larry had left open an office window that happened to be within a few feet of an isolated patch of grass. Jack peed, Sam fished in a pocket for a poop bag, and Sam let his dog finish his business as Larry told a visitor the story of Rostov, Texas.
“Some say it was named after Rostov, on Lake Nero in northern Russia,” Larry explained to the passerthrough. “Some say it was named after Rostov-on-Don, on the Black Sea,” he added, his voice naturally giving no hint as to his own opinion on the name’s origin. The passerthrough’s response could not be heard; only Larry’s own response. “Yes, two dark-sounding bodies of water. The Black Sea is actually a favorite vacation destination for Russians, but the Byarmian Basin – we’re in the heart of it – was named for the ancient land of Byarmia in northern Russia. Ever see the film Saturday Morning Darkness?” Unheard response. “It’s a book, a film, and TV series about the town and Byarmian High School’s football team, the Byarmian Bears.”
An unheard question. “Well, be warned the folks around here don’t really like to talk about that, but, yes, that’s the same Byarmian High School. Yesterday was the sixteenth anniversary, as a matter of fact.” An unheard observation, and then Larry’s voice had lost all of its hotelier’s warmth. “It’s still an open school; I don’t give directions for that. Your room’s on the right, six doors down.” More unheard. “You too.”
Sam, having already knotted the poop bag, made his and his dog’s way back to their room on the left, three doors down. He opened the door to the darkened room, led his dog in by the leash, turned on the light, closed the door behind both of them, turned the bolt, turned around, and slammed himself against a wall when he saw the figure sitting on the foot of the bed. Silence. Long silence. “You’re supposed to be dead.”
“I’m supposed to be a lot of things.” A thirty-something Kyle Edwards removed the AK-47 from his lap, only to set its stock against his crotch and point its barrel at the ceiling. He used a free hand to pet a dog with a wagging tail.
Sam remained against the wall. “You disappeared after Byarmian. No one ever heard from you or Hamilton again.”
The apparition of Kyle Edwards just smiled, in a way that would have been creepy to anyone who didn’t know him. “Hamilton Denton died in Mexico ten years ago.”
Sam wanted to reach for his dog, but he didn’t want to offend the visitor with the gun. “What about you? Ghost, hallucinating, or you just been hanging out in Mexico all this time?”
The apparition set the gun back on its lap, as if it was nervous. “The last. You suppose you could say I’m just passing through, headed north.” There was stubble on his face, stubble that, a few days hence, could be a full beard.
“Why’d you do it?” Sam fell into the room’s only chair to keep himself from falling to the floor. “Why’d you kill all those kids?”
“They were a bunch of assholes, Sam. You know that better than anyone.” The apparition stroked the stock of his gun, in an action that creeped out even Sam.
“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” Sam repeated. “Gandhi.”
“Yeah, well, Gandhi didn’t go to Byarmian High School.” Edwards clicked off the safety.
Sam was surprised at how calm he was. “So you’re going to kill me now, too? For knowing that you passed through?”
Edwards clicked the safety on, revealing both clicks as nervous gestures. “Quite the contrary; I’m going to let you live.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“Not everyone at Byarmian was an asshole. Some of them were human beings.”
“Everyone does something in life.”
“Sounds like a justification.”
“I let you live, didn’t I? The exception proves the rule.”
Sam wanted to cry. “I was the quiet one, wasn’t I? Is that the way to survive in this world, to keep your head down and do nothing to no one? To just go with the flow?”
Suddenly, Kyle looked as if he wanted to cry himself. “Sometimes the flow is into action.”
“Sounds like another justification.”
“Just an observation. I’ve spent sixteen years on the run.”
“So you regret what you did?”
“The time for regrets is past. Now the flow is to keep running.”
“Where are you running to?”
“Anywhere but Rostov.” Kyle stood up from the bed. “This town was named after the city on the wide-flowing river which forms the border between East and West; the Byarmian part was just a coincidence. Sixteen years later, and Larry still doesn’t know shit.”
“Things are flowing into running for you.”
“For you, and for me. I’ve been following you online like everyone else. Get back to Colorado, stick with your business, and run for Congress again. They’ll never know this conversation happened.”
“I still don’t think you’re real.”
Kyle had already turned the bolt back, and now had his free hand on the steel doorknob, but he waited to end the conversation. “We can only wish I wasn’t real.” With that, he and his gun were out a softly-closed steel door.