In the musty darkness of a roadside motel in some forgotten corner of Santa Ana, Harold and Sophia lost themselves in each other.
Their first hotel room felt like a lifetime ago. This was the second room this week. Another stolen moment in a summer of stolen moments. There had been a brief gap of several days after that day by the harbor, and Harold thought little of it. Laying low, disappointed, he thought. Who knows? Who cares? But when that first text message with Sophia’s name popped up on his phone, he piloted that boat of a Ford to the side of the road and dropped anchor somewhere in Irvine.
BORED IN BREA. WHAT YOU UP TO? her message read.
A little back and forth and an hour later, they were stealing kisses at a mall like a couple of teenagers cutting class. In the days to come, their text messages became love notes. Love notes evolved into voicemails. Voicemails slipped into hushed late-night calls. Long drives and short make-out sessions in parking lots and malls quickly abandoned for more hotel rooms and lunch at her favorite places. And when Sophia paid with cash, Harold never asked why.
“Why me?” he asked her one night in a church parking lot.
“Does it matter?” she said.
A phone rang in the musty darkness. Sophia rolled atop Harold, and answered it. And as he looked up at a woman speaking casually with her husband on the other end of a very inconsiderate call, Harold supposed nothing mattered at all.
“Goodbye, Oliver,” Sophia growled, hanging up and tossing her phone. It clattered on the floor, and she clawed at Harold’s chest and nibbled on his lip. “Where were we?”
“What?” she said, looking at Harold as if he were the stupidest man alive. “Yeah, I’m fine. Everything’s fine. Why?”
“He just called,” the stupidest man alive drooled.
“For fuck’s sake,” Sophia huffed. “You’re not going to start being a little bitch about this, are you?”
“No,” Harold lied. “It’s just–isn’t this even a little fuckin’ weird to you?”
“That’s funny,” she said, rolling off Harold. “I didn’t know that was your conscience inside me a minute ago. My bad.”
Harold sat in his mess, watched Sophia gather her clothes and disappear into the shower, and then sighed. “Goddammit.”
Brennifer stepped out into the alley behind the gallery, and found Harold standing there beside his grandmother’s Ford, a large framed photograph under each arm, and one shattered to pieces at his feet.
“Everything okay?” Brennifer asked. “I heard screaming.”
“Yeah, it’s cool,” Harold replied. “I always scream when things are okay.”
She gestured with a nod of her head. “You need some help with that?”
“Nah,” Harold said, squeezing the two remaining frames into the Ford with the others. “This is the last of it. Sorry it took me so long to come back for all this.”
“It’s cool. I’m sorry nobody bought anything.”
“Yeah. But at least I got some work out of it.”
Brennifer puzzled this, then laughed. “Oh, yeah. That weird couple. How’d that work out?”
“Sophia’s not weird,” he laughed.
“Aw, shit,” she grimaced.
Harold blinked. “What?”
“You dumb bastard. How long have you been fucking her?”
Harold considered this, then doubled down. “What?”
When later asked by police to describe what happened next, Brennifer said, “The dude came up and knocked him the fuck out.” And this was more or less true. One moment, she and Harold are debating the ethics of marital infidelity in the alley behind an art gallery. The next, Harold’s kissing pavement while a very angry man stood over him.
“Wait,” the officer interjected. “You didn’t think to warn your friend–“
Brennifer shook her head, Nuh-uh. “Harold and I screwed a few times in the utility closet after hours. We weren’t friends.”
The officer looked at the pink-haired woman in front of him, wondered if she sold minerals or weed (Both, he decided. Definitely both.), then continued. “Right. So, you didn’t think to warn Harold that a ‘very angry man’ was about to start a fight with him?”
She shook her head again. “Not a fight–an ass-kicking. The guy threw one punch, then left.”
“Okay. But why didn’t you say anything to Harold?”
Brennifer considered this, then shrugged. “Maybe I thought he had it coming.”
Eunice Jablonski was eventually stirred from her place on the couch by the sounds of her near-mint wood panel Ford station wagon screeching to a stop in the driveway, followed by the, quite frankly, overdramatic way her grandson, Harold, tantrum-ed into the house.
“I’m gonna fuckin’ kill him!” Harold said, utterly failing to both sound tough and hide how he had been crying the entire drive home.
“Are those MacGuffin boys teasing you again?” Eunice yawned.
Harold puzzled this. “What? No. Grandma, the MacGuffins haven’t lived around here for years.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure. Remember? Their house burned down when Mr. MacGuffin’s meth lab blew up during a police raid.”
“Our water was off all day!”
The unearthly sound of a landline telephone ringing redirected Harold and Eunice’s trip down Memory Lane toward the eventual climax of this story, and Harold answered. “Who’s this?”
“Harold?” Sophia sobbed, his name catching in her throat in that way words tend to do when one is currently (or has recently been) sobbing.
“Sophia?” Harold replied, and in that way one tends to do when one is inexplicably and unexpectedly contacted via an archaic form of communication. “How’d you get this number?”
“I’ve been calling your cell,” she said, “but it keeps going to voicemail.”
Harold didn’t have time to process how this didn’t answer his question at all, as he was too busy checking his pockets and finding only his wallet and Eunice’s keys. “Aw, shit.”
“Harold,” Sophia interjected. “Oliver found my phone. He knows everything.”
“Yeah, I kinda picked that up after he sucker-punched me at the gallery.”
“He already found you?”
Harold ignored this. “Not gonna lie. I think I got off kinda easy, all things considered.”
And then, Sophia screamed in that way one tends to do when their muscle-bound spouse suddenly returns home during an in-progress, infidelity-fueled rampage.
“Sophia?” Harold called out, again and again. But each time, he was met with only still silence. His palms grew slick with sweat. And the silence was soon replaced with the deafening roar of his own heartbeat pulsating in his ears.
Eunice watched the grown man standing in her kitchen sob like a frightened child into her landline telephone, and couldn’t help but feel as if she made a mistake by letting Harold live with her. By the time Harold realized that the phone had not gone silent on Sophia’s end, but rather the decade-old battery had simply gone bad, Eunice was sure of it. But by the time she thought to ask Harold if all this meant he’d be late with the rent again, Harold was already out the door and driving away. She never saw her near-mint wood panel Ford station wagon–or Harold–ever again.
What remained of Sophia slumped awkwardly in her bed. Swashes of blood, splatterings of brains, and bits of skull clung to everything. And as Harold looked on at this from the doorway, he couldn’t help but feel like he made a huge mistake by stopping for gas.
Now. To be perfectly fair to Harold, Eunice’s near-mint wood panel Ford station wagon was one Hell of a gas guzzler. And the trip from their home in Buena Park to that manor by the sea was already a good hour-long trip down the 5, give or take. Between the forty-year old fuel efficiency standards and some inexplicable bumper-to-bumper gridlock that began and ended for seemingly no reason whatsoever, Harold had zero chance of arriving in time for some heroic save. In fact, Harold realized this back in Irvine. But he also realized that he was a failed photographer in his thirties, living in his elderly grandmother’s garage, and having a summer fling with a married woman. So when the congestion blinked out of existence somewhere around Lake Forest, Harold steered the Ford off the freeway, put several dollars worth of gas in the tank, double-backed a bit, and eventually made his way up to Sophia’s bedroom doorway where he continued standing about like he wasn’t at some grisly scene worth reporting immediately to the local authorities.
“Good thing you dropped your phone,” Oliver said from somewhere behind Harold. “Otherwise, this could have gone–“
Harold ignored this, and broke Oliver’s nose with a wild and wholly lucky punch.
Oliver pinched at his bleeding, crooked nose. “I suppose I owed you that.”
“I’m only getting started,” Harold growled, looking for something large and heavy to beat Oliver with, repeatedly.
“You know,” Oliver said. “I completely agree.”
Harold blinked. “What?”
“Harold,” a familiar voice said.
“Brennifer?” Harold replied, turning to a pink faux hawk in sweatpants and a tattered Bon Jovi tee looking back at a very confused man seized on the fresh surgical incisions wrapped around her head. “What the Hell did he do to you?”
“These?” she replied, her fingers gliding over the stitched lines binding raw, swollen flesh. “Do they bother you?”
The thing wearing Brennifer stepped closer. “It’s like I told you, Harold. Oliver’s a magnificent surgeon.”
A hot pinch in his neck sent a cold shiver down Harold’s spine, his body grew limp, and the world darkened. “Why?”
“Turns out,” she said, pulling an emptied syringe from Harold’s neck, “when the clock stops rolling back, you can just get yourself a new clock.”
Harold collapsed to the floor, and stayed there.
“Did you see his face?” Oliver said, tending to his broken nose. “I think we broke his little mind.”
“Right?” Sophia gushed with Brennifer’s voice, then turned to what used to be her in the bed and on everything else. “But did you have to do that to my body?”
Oliver looked upon his work, and shrugged. “You’re not the only one who loves a little theatrics, Sweetie.”
Sophia shook Brennifer’s head, and sighed. “Shut up and help me move him.”