Page 34


Two older punk rock guys sat smoking on a bench facing the water. Tired Mohawks drooped over their middle-aged foreheads, and their leather jackets had the ugly, dirty look of something they'd been wearing since punk was new. The blank expressions on their tan, slack faces made the whole scene feel even more desolate.

The swamp edging the two-lane highway had begun to overwhelm the asphalt, and the road just sort of petered out into swamp grass and mud. Luce had never been out this far in the river marshes.

As she sat, unsure what she'd do once she left the car, or whether that was even a good idea, the front door of Styx banged open and Cam sauntered out. He leaned coolly against the screen door, one leg crossed over the other. She knew he couldn't see her through the tinted window of the car, but he raised his hand like he could and beckoned her toward him.

"Here goes nothing," Luce muttered before thanking the driver. She opened the door and was greeted by a blast of salty wind as she climbed the three steps to the bar's wooden porch.

Cam's shaggy hair was loose around his face and he had a calm look in his green eyes. One sleeve of his black T-shirt was pushed up over his shoulder, and Luce could see the smooth cut of his bicep. She fingered the gold chain in her pocket. Remember why you're here.

Cam's face showed no sign of the fight the night before, which made her wonder, immediately, whether Daniel's did.

Cam gave her an inquisitive look, running his tongue along his bottom lip. "I was just calculating how many consolation drinks I'd need if you stood me up today," he said, opening his arms for a hug. Luce stepped into them. Cam was a very hard person to say no to, even when she wasn't totally sure what he was asking.

"I wouldn't stand you up," she said, then immediately felt guilty, knowing that her words came from a sense of duty, not the romance Cam would have preferred. She was there only because she was going to tell him she didn't want to be involved with him. "So what is this place? And since when do you have a car service?"

"Stick with me, kid," he said, seeming to take her questions as compliments, as if she liked being whisked off to bars that smelled like the inside of a sink drain.

She was so bad at this kind of thing. Callie always said Luce was incapable of brutal honesty and that was why she got herself stuck in so many crappy situations with guys whom she should have just told no.

Luce was trembling. She had to get this off her chest. She fished in her pocket and pulled out the pendant.

"Cam."

"Oh good, you brought it." He took the necklace from her hands and spun her around, "Let me help you put it on."

"No, wait - "

"There," he said. "It really suits you. Take a look." He steered her along the creaking wooden floorboards to the window of the bar, where a number of bands had posted signs for shows. THE OLD BABIES.

DRIPPING WITH HATE. HOUSE CRACKERS. Luce would rather have studied any of them than gaze at her reflection. "See?"

She couldn't really make out her features in the mud-flecked windowpane, but the gold pendant gleamed on her warm skin. She pressed her hand to it. It was lovely. And so distinctive, with its tiny hand-sculpted serpent snaking up the middle. It wasn't like anything you'd see at the boardwalk markets, where locals peddled overpriced crafts for tourists, state of Georgia souvenirs made in the Philippines. Behind her reflection in the window, the sky was a rich orange-Popsicle color, broken up by thin lines of pink cloud.

"About last night ...," Cam started to say. She could vaguely see his rosy lips moving in the glass over her shoulder.

"I wanted to talk to you about last night, too," Luce said, standing at his side. She could see the very tips of the sunburst tattoo on the back of his neck.

"Come inside," he said, guiding her back to the half-unhinged screen door. "We can talk in there."

The interior of the bar was wood-paneled, with a few dim orange lamps providing the only light. All sizes and shapes of antlers were mounted on the wall, and a taxidermied cheetah was poised over the bar, looking ready to lunge at any moment. A faded composite picture with the words PULASKI COUNTY

MOOSE CLUB OFFICERS 1964-65 was the only other decoration on the wall, showcasing a hundred oval faces, smiling modestly above pastel bow ties. The jukebox was playing Ziggy Stardust, and an older guy with a shaved head and leather pants was humming, dancing alone in the middle of a small raised stage. Besides Luce and Cam, he was the only other person in the place.

Cam pointed to two stools. The worn green leather cushions had split down the middle, the beige foam bursting out like massive pieces of popcorn. There was already a half- empty glass at the seat Cam claimed. The drink in it was light brown and watered down with ice, beaded with sweat.

"What's that?" Luce asked.

"Georgia moonshine," he said, taking a gulp. "I don't recommend it to start." When she squinted at him, he said, "I've been here all day."

"Charming," Luce said, fingering the gold necklace. "What are you, seventy? Sitting in a bar by yourself all day?"

He didn't seem obviously drunk, but she didn't like the idea of coming all the way out here to break things off with him, only to have him be too trashed to understand it. She was also starting to wonder how she'd get back to school. She didn't even know where this place was.

"Ouch." Cam rubbed his heart. "The beauty of being suspended from class, Luce, is that no one misses you during class. I thought I deserved a little recovery time." He cocked his head. "What's really bothering you? Is it this place? Or the fight last night? Or the fact that we're getting no service?" He raised his voice to shout the last words, loud enough to cause a huge, burly bartender to swing in from the kitchen door behind the bar. The barman had long, layered hair with bangs, and tattoos that looked like braided human hair running up and down his arms. He was all muscle and must have weighed three hundred pounds.

Cam turned to her and smiled. "What's your poison?"

"I don't care," Luce said. "I don't really have my own poison."

"You were drinking champagne at my party," Cam said. "See who's paying attention?" He nudged her with his shoulder. "Your finest champagne over here," he told the bartender, who threw back his head and let out a snide hacking laugh.

Making no attempt to card her or even to glance at her long enough to guess at her age, the bartender bent down to a small refrigerator with a sliding glass door. The bottles clinked as he dug and dug. After what seemed like a long time, he reemerged with a tiny bottle of Freixenet. It looked like it had something orange growing around its base.

"I accept no responsibility for this," he said, handing it over.

Cam popped the cork and raised his eyebrows at Luce. He poured the Freixenet ceremoniously into a wineglass.

"I wanted to apologize," he said. "I know I've been coming on a little strong. And last night, what happened with Daniel, I don't feel good about that." He waited for Luce to nod before he went on.

"Instead of getting mad, I should have just listened to you. You're the one I care about, not him."

Luce watched the bubbles rise in her wine, thinking that if she were to be honest, she'd say it was Daniel she cared about, not Cam. She had to tell Cam. If he already regretted not having listened to her last night, maybe now he'd start to. She raised her glass to take a sip before she started in.

"Oh, wait." Cam put a hand on her arm. "You can't drink until we've toasted something." He raised his glass and held her eyes. "What should it be? You pick."

The screen door slammed and the guys who had been smoking on the porch came back in. The taller one, with oily black hair, a snub nose, and very dirty fingernails, took one look at Luce and started toward them.

"What are we celebrating?" He leered at her, nudging her raised glass with his tumbler. He leaned close, and she could feel the flesh of his hip pressing into hers through his flannel shirt. "Baby's first night out?

What time's curfew?"

"We're celebrating you taking your ass back outside right now," Cam said as pleasantly as if he'd just announced it was Luce's birthday. He fixed his green eyes on the man, who bared his small, pointed teeth and mouthful of gums.

"Outside, huh? Only if I take her with me."

He grabbed for Luce's hand. After the way the fight with Daniel had broken out, Luce expected Cam would need little excuse to fly off the handle again. Especially if he really had been drinking here all day.

But Cam stayed remarkably cool.

All he did was swat the guy's hand away with the speed, grace, and brutal force of a lion swatting a mouse.

Cam watched the guy stumble back several steps. Cam shook out his hand with a bored look on his face, then stroked Luce's wrist where the guy had tried to grab it. "Sorry about that. You were saying, about last night?"

"I was saying ..." Luce felt the blood drain from her face. Directly over Cam's head, an enormous piece of pitch-dark had yawned open, stretching forth and unfolding from itself until it had become the largest, blackest shadow she had ever seen. An arctic gush of air blasted from its core, and Luce felt the shadow's frost even on Cam's fingers, still tracing her skin.

"Oh. My. God," she whispered.

There was a crash of glass as the guy smashed his tumbler down on Cam's head.

Slowly, Cam stood from his chair and shook some of the shards of glass from his hair. He turned to face the man, who was easily twice his age and several inches taller.

Luce cowered on her bar stool, rearing away from what she sensed was about to happen between Cam and this other guy. And what she feared could happen with the sprawling, dead-of-night black shadow overhead.

"Break it up," the huge bartender said flatly, not even bothering to look up from his Fight magazine.

Immediately, the guy started swinging blindly at Cam, who took the senseless punches as if they were smacks from a child.

Luce wasn't the only one stunned by Cam's composure: The leather-pants-wearing dancer was cowering against the jukebox. And after the oily-haired guy had socked Cam a few times, even he stepped back and hung there, confused.

Meanwhile, the shadow was pooling against the ceiling, dark tendrils growing like weeds and dropping closer and closer to their heads. Luce winced and ducked just as Cam fended off one last punch from the seedy guy.

And then decided to fight back.

It was just a simple flick of his fingers, as if Cam were brushing away a dead leaf. One minute, the guy was all up in Cam's face, but when Cam's fingers connected with his opponent's chest, the dude went flying - knocked off his feet and into the air, discarded beer bottles scattering in his wake, until his back slammed into the opposite wall near the jukebox.

He rubbed his head and, moaning, began to pull himself into a crouch.

"How did you do that?" Luce's eyes were wide.

Cam ignored her, turned toward the guy's shorter, stockier friend, and said, "You next?"

The second guy raised his palms. "Not my fight, man," he said, shrinking away.

Cam shrugged, stepped toward the first guy, and lifted him off the floor by the back of his T-shirt. His limbs dangled helplessly in the air, like a puppet's. Then, with an easy toss of his wrist, Cam threw the guy against the wall. He almost seemed to stick there while Cam cut loose, pounding the guy and saying again and again, "I said go outside!"

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