Excerpt from Zeke by Wodke Hawkinson:
When he was sweet with her, like now, she melted like sugar on the tongue. When he wasn’t, she agonized over losing him. The roller coaster of love.
“I’m going underground,” he said suddenly. “Breaking away.”
“What do you mean underground?” She pulled back and looked up at him. “That’s an odd term. It’s like revolutionaries do, or criminals.”
He laughed. “You’re so precious.” His tone was only half mocking.
A chill that had nothing to do with the weather or their eerie location crept down her spine. The crows flapped overhead and their raucous cries pierced the deepening gloom. “Can we go sit in my car while we talk? It’s getting dark and I'm really cold.” Sue shivered.
Zeke took her elbow and guided her toward the gate. “Does anyone know where you are?” he asked casually.
“No, of course not. I know the routine by now. I don't talk about you to anyone. But I still don’t understand why we have to keep our relationship a secret. It’s starting to be weird. I mean, we’re both adults.”
“I like it better this way.”
Zeke’s footsteps made a sucking sound in the mushy grass. They trudged through the gate and got into Sue’s car. She started the engine and as soon as it had warmed, she cranked up the heater, rubbing her hands in front of the vent.
Lighting a cigarette, he cracked the window. Sue squirmed and tried to resist saying anything, but it slipped out. “My folks don’t allow smoking in this car.” She felt stupid and childish the minute the words were out.
“I thought this was your car.” Zeke stared at her through the tendrils of smoke.
“It’s mine to use,” Sue said. “Not technically mine, I guess.”
“See? That’s exactly what I’m talking about.” Zeke pointed at her. “I can’t be myself in this town. I do my best to keep a wide space between me and other people. Now, here I sit, being controlled by whom?” He waited the blink of an eye before saying, “That’s a question, Einstein. Answer me. Who is trying to control me?”
“I don’t know,” she stammered. “Not me.”
“Your parents, that’s who. People I’ve never even met, and have no desire to ever meet.”
“Oh, Zeke,” she said softly, hurt.
“Take it easy,” he said. “I’m not putting them down or anything. You just have to see it through my eyes. How would you like two total strangers putting restrictions on you?”
“I guess you’re right,” Sue said dubiously. “Go ahead and smoke. I’ll air the car out on the way home.” She ducked her head to hide the quick burn of tears. It seemed to happen so often, she was almost convinced she was hormonal.
“I'll blow it outside. That make you happy, princess?” Zeke inhaled deeply and directed the smoke toward the window.
Sue decided to ignore his sarcasm. “What’s this about going underground? I don’t want you to leave.” Nervousness caused a slight tremble in her voice. She cleared her throat and hoped he wasn't serious.
“Why not? You’re going with me.”
“What? Going with you? Oh, I don’t know, Zeke.” Inside, conflict squeezed her gut. She saw herself on the precipice of a decision, and it was a frightening place to be. In spite of the warmth now filling the car, she felt cold and shaky.
Zeke’s face was sorrowful. He put his hand on her knee and she could feel its warmth through her jeans. “You know how I feel about you. Don’t you want to be with me?” His sarcasm was gone, replaced by tender need.
“Of course, I want to be with you.” Sue put her hand over his and massaged his fingers. Raising his hand to her lips, she kissed his knuckles. They smelled of soap and cigarette smoke. She glanced out at the darkness pressing against the car windows and felt a sudden overwhelming urge to be home with the television murmuring in the background and the aroma of her mother’s cooking wafting through the house. She pushed those thoughts aside and focused on the dark excitement that radiated from Zeke. “But why do we have to leave?” Her voice held an unspoken plea.
“We’re dying here,” he grumbled, and pulled his hand from hers. He threw out his cigarette butt. “We’re getting old.”
“Old?” Sue almost laughed, but caught herself. Zeke didn’t like to be laughed at. “I'm not even twenty yet, and you can't be much older than me.”
“Right.” Zeke rolled his eyes.
“Well, are you?”
“Let's focus on what's important, Sue. You just can’t see the big picture, can you?” He shook his head in disappointment. “What’s in front of us? Work, bills, getting old, then dying. That whole scene doesn’t appeal to me. I want some adventure. I want to explore. Experience. Live. I can’t do that in this town. No, baby, I need to get out.”
“Back to New York?” She held her breath.
“No, not yet. First, I want to travel, wander,” he said dreamily.
Sue exhaled her relief. If they went to New York it would claim him, take him away from her. Thank heavens it wasn't New York he was pining after.
“What about your mom?” Sue latched onto Zeke’s demanding mother, the human wreck who relied on him to run errands, keep their crumbling house together, and provide her with companionship.
“That old drunk? What about her?” Zeke wiped the fog from the window and stared out at the night. He pulled his knife from his coat pocket and Sue gasped. Ignoring her, he began to clean his nails with the tip.
“Who will look after her?” Sue persisted.
“Not my problem,” he said coldly. “She had her chance at a life. Now it’s my turn.”
“What about my classes?”
“Well, what the hell then?” Zeke said angrily. “If you don’t want to go with me, just say so. Don’t drag it out.”
“No, no, I didn’t say that.” She rushed to soothe him. “I’m just thinking out loud here.”
He sheathed his knife and slid it into his coat pocket. He seemed distracted, and she watched his profile in the dim lights of the dash. His thin face suddenly appeared sallow under his black hair. Even that, however, could not diminish his beauty or detract from his sharp but compelling features.
She slipped without warning into that familiar dread, the fear of losing him. “It's just that we have things here...jobs, my school, our families...”
“Forget school. Forget your mommy and daddy. Forget this town.” He reached out and turned her face toward him. “Come with me. We’ll fly under the radar, take the scenic routes. We’ll go wherever we want. Do whatever we please. You can always settle down later, when you’re old. This is your one and only chance to break free from the bourgeois establishment; spread your wings and fly. You can come back anytime you want, but when I’m gone, I’m never coming back.”
He was persuasive as he made his arguments. As he talked, she thought of making love to him without fear of interruption, without worry of being caught. She thought of his hot skin under her fingertips, his tongue in moist places, and his dirty talk. She felt a rush of anticipation. Freedom beckoned. Freedom from a rigid schedule, from parental concern, from homework and classes. And freedom from mopping floors and dumping trash at the nursing home.
An idea came to her. “What if we just took a vacation? We could go to Acadia, see Bar Harbor.”
“Ah, Susie.” Zeke sounded sad. “No, bunny. A vacation is not what I have in mind. If anything, I want to head south. Or west. You need to understand me here, Sue. I want to leave. I'm writing the story of my own life, metaphorically, creating it as I go. And the only reason this place is still part of my story is because you are here. But I won’t stay; not even for you, Susie. Not even for you. Come with me.”
Sue stared thoughtfully at her lover. A man so handsome that people actually stopped to stare at him, this beautiful man, was asking her to run away with him. Sue allowed herself to gloat privately. Plain old Sue caught the most exciting guy in town. On the heels of that thought, the memory of his moodiness also flickered through her mind, a quick warning to cloud the moment like a squirt of black ink in a clear pool. As if he perceived the reason for her hesitation, he reached under her clothes and caressed her.
“Sweet sexy Susie,” he murmured. He told her how much he cared for her, how he loved her like none other, how he would look after her. “We'll be wild gypsies, a caravan of two. Passionate adventures.” He paused to nuzzle her neck. “It’ll be romantic.”
“Okay,” she breathed, hardly believing the words as they left her mouth. “We’ll do it. We’ll just hit the open road.”
Afterward, Sue went home pretending everything was normal. But, inside she was wound up, distressed and excited at the same time.
“Sue?” Her mother stood near the kitchen doorway. “Joyce called. She said she tried your cellular phone, but you didn't answer.”
“I had it turned off when I was at the library.” Sue let her eyes rest on her mom for a moment. She took in the plain flowered cotton gown and was seized by a momentary urge to fling herself into her mother's arms like she had when she was a child. Instead, she turned toward the stairs. “I'll call her before I go to bed. Goodnight, Mom.”
“Goodnight, honey.” Her mother flicked off the kitchen light and headed toward her bedroom.
“Mom?” Sue swallowed. “I love you.”
Her mother paused and turned to Sue with a smile. “Well, I love you too, dear.” Then, a wrinkle of concern appeared on her forehead. “Is everything alright?”
“Yep, everything's fine. Goodnight.”
Sue ran lightly up the stairs, anxious to be away from her mom before her feelings got the better of her. She'd come way too close to blurting out her plans.
Lying on her bed she stared around her bedroom, overwhelmed by the gravity of her decision to leave. To give up everything familiar and run headlong into the unknown was the most frightening thing she had ever contemplated. Numbing herself to these emotions, Sue picked up her notebook. She crafted her goodbye letter carefully, following Zeke’s instructions, giving no clue as to his identity. The next morning, she would spirit some of her clothes and personal items away, take a portion of her college fund out of the bank, and meet Zeke at the graveyard where she would abandon her car. She thought guiltily of the pain she was about to cause her family, and then her body warmed with the memory of Zeke’s touch and her resolve strengthened. She had to do this; she'd hate herself if she let the chance pass her by.
Unable to keep the news to herself, Sue picked up her phone and called Joyce. Speaking quietly, Sue told her friend that she had met the man of her dreams and that she was going to leave with him.
“Is it that guy from the bookstore? The one you said was sooo sexy?” Joyce couldn’t hide her derision.
Sue was stunned when she mentioned the store. Zeke would kill her if he heard what Joyce said. Quickly, she laid those suspicions aside. “Guy at the bookstore? Oh, no, not him. This is a new guy at work. He’s adorable. Beats the hell out of that other guy. And listen, Joyce, this is a secret. You can't tell anyone, okay?”
“But, you’re just going to go away with this guy? Someone you just met? Sue! You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Well, why not? I'm an adult. This is a free country. What is there here for me?”
“Your job. Your school. Your family. That's what's here. For god's sake, Sue. This isn't like you. Why can't you wait until you know the guy a little better? I don't care how sexy he is; he's basically a stranger. If you want my advice, I’d say you better think it over very carefully.”
Sue sighed. She’d better allay Joyce’s fears before she did something to ruin everything. She wouldn't put it past Joyce to rat her out, thinking she was saving Sue from some dark fate or something. Regretting she'd even shared the news, Sue rushed to correct the mistake. “God! I guess you’re right. It’d kill my parents if I just took off. I’m glad I called you first. Thanks, Joyce. You’re a real friend.”
They talked about mundane stuff for a while before Sue hung up, certain she had convinced Joyce she wasn’t going anywhere.