Let It Go
Segments of thought followed each other like train cars.
White van straddling the road.
Continue to play the game?
“You won’t come?”
The Troggs’ Love Is All Around crackled through the coffee shop’s ceiling speakers.
“I’ve already bought a few acres in Death Valley. We can live out of a trailer until the house is built. No one will know we’re there.” Howard swirled his speckled-white mug of coffee and put it to his lips. His hand shook ever so slightly while steam fogged the bottom half of his huge glasses.
The place was nearly empty. There was a pair of young men sitting in a booth on the opposite side of the restaurant. Judging by their crisp white shirts and black ties, they had to have been Mormon missionaries. At the counter sat a chubby long-hauler wearing a baseball cap. He was leaning onto the counter, exposing an ass crack just begging for someone to drop a coin.
“I can’t,” I said. “Not now.”
Howard’s expression soured. It wasn’t the coffee. He set the mug down and cradled it like a baby bird that had fallen from its nest.
I put the Chevy in park, dead-smack in the middle of the two-lane highway, and turned off the engine.
To my left was a steep drop down the 1,500-foot canyon while to my right was a flat wall of dynamite-blasted limestone.
They’d chosen a good spot and my first instinct was to feel betrayed.
Facing what was coming was an easy choice. There was nowhere to run.
It was freezing outside. This big rock on which I found myself was too far from its sun. I’d been with my boyfriend, Sidney, for two months but we weren’t yet at the point in our relationship for me to suggest we leave Ohio for warmer climes.
Obviously, Death Valley was knocked off any potential list.
“Alpha, you’re free to do whatever you want. You’re no one’s prisoner.”
I tipped my head to the side and raised my eyebrows at him.
“Any more,” he finished.
As if seeing him for the first time in three months wasn’t enough, his words all too easily triggered memories of humming fluorescent lights and cold, metallic environs.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I know this is all rather sudden. It’s just….I figured we could, you know, start over.”
I laughed loud enough to draw the attention of the Mormon boys.
“Start over?” I asked. “Is that why you called me out here?”
Howard took a handful of pink packets from their ceramic holder and placed them on the table, lining them up in the shape of a triangle. It was a nervous habit he’d exhibited over the five years I’d known him. It helped him think, he had said.
Thick brown hair on the back of his hands peeked out from his coat sleeves as he pushed the paper soldiers across the formica, moving them forward one-by-one, trying to maintain the pattern.
“I helped you.” His voice was quiet and his eyes were locked on the packets as if he were addressing them. It was obvious how much he was trying to contain his emotions, but maybe only to me.
“I cared….care….about you.”
“If it wasn’t for me,” he said, “you wouldn’t be here. You wouldn’t be with him.” He looked at me for the briefest of moments. Tears streamed down his face–streams of water which I was still trying to comprehend, having no faculty to produce them myself.
The tiny bells hanging on the front door rang as someone left the cafe.
“The others would have kept you locked up in a cage like some sort of zoo exhibit,” he finished. I looked down and saw sweetener spilled all over. He had torn the ten packets in half.
The situation was delicate. I had to be careful, but I had to be direct. I reached out and laid my hands atop his.
“I appreciate everything you did for me. I really, really do.”
It was difficult to see him this way, so I glanced out the window onto the slush-covered parking lot, watching the trucker step carefully around the building to avoid falling on his ass.
“But what did you expect to happen when you let me go?”
I should have realized he could never have truly let me go.
My feet hit the pavement and I strode around toward the passenger side. The frigid air made my insides ache.
I suppose I could have told Sidney the truth when we first met. The whole truth: that I had been living freely in the world for only a month before we laid eyes on each other. That I originally came from a place I’d never be able to see again, my only means of transportation destroyed.
And after telling him everything else that had happened since my arrival, I’d have to tell him the most unbelievable thing: that I had felt an obligation to see Dr. Howard Benevolo when he reached out to me, even though he was one of the men who aided in my captivity for five long years.
None of that mattered now, though.
The oncoming van came to a stop forty yards away.
“There’s a big gap between knowing and doing,” he said. “I knew we couldn’t keep you there. It didn’t make it any easier to let you go, though. At the time, I thought my infatuation was with the work itself, but I was wrong. Maybe a failing of our species.”
“But can you say with all honesty that you never felt something for me?” he asked. “That we didn’t develop something more? I know the beginning was hard. I know.”
His lips were saying one thing, but his eyes another.
I exhaled slowly. My flesh still felt the pinch of the needle, a visceral memory of when they would draw my blood at all hours. Each physical pang was associated with a crisp memory.
Its physiology is almost unremarkably similar to ours.
It took little effort for me to recall sleepless nights spent monitoring the drones in lab coats at the same time they were monitoring me. The clipboards in their hands. Their constant scribbling.
Nothing extraordinary. Its mental capacity and IQ is that of a twenty-two-year-old college graduate.
“Of course I felt something for you,” I said. “My reaction was natural. You treated me like a person where others didn’t. The rest of them only wanted answers to their questions, no matter how they got them.”
Howard turned his palms up to meet mine and I felt their clamminess.
“That’s right,” he said. “I was the only one who cared. Who really cared and who, despite your best efforts, could see you for who you really were.”
A shadow fell over the table.
“Ya’ll good here?” Our waitress smacked her gum as she touched up Howard’s coffee.
“We’re fine,” he said, wiping the remnants of his tears with a napkin.
She looked at me.
“Okay. Well, ya’ll just holler if you need anything.”
Five men in front of me: four in black carrying their standard M1As, the fifth as well, but still wearing his trucker hat.
From the van behind me emerged three more soldiers. A man in a crisply pressed suit and aviator glasses followed them.
Howard stepped out last.
We were silent until the waitress made her way to the other side of the cafe.
I could practically feel the sweat leaving his pores.
“You people have a saying,” I said, “‘If you love it, let it go,’ right?”
Howard smiled, but not too broadly, and squeezed my hands.
“I’m sorry,” was all he said.
I’d learned everything I needed to learn in those five years.
I was no longer constrained.
The men approached cautiously. I supposed they thought it would make a difference.
“Alpha,” said the man in the suit and tie. The sun reflected off his sunglasses and he smiled a smarmy smile. “We’ve been concerned about you.” He looked at the scientist beside him. “Howard made a mistake, for which he’s partially atoned. We need you to come back home. We have more work to do.”
It took all of half-a-second.
Except for Howard, each one of them collapsed onto the ground like crumpled tissue paper. I smiled at him and he waved gently before I hopped back into the Chevy.
The van in front of me was still in the way. I focused and its tires began to spin. I steered it past the guardrail and watched it dive over the edge.
I cranked up the heater and drove toward home, wondering how Sidney would take to the idea of moving into the Sahara Desert.