Ultraglis

Stories

Dissimulation

Dissimulation

Part 1

Later on, after Wes got out of the hospital and was able to speak with Jenna again, much of what she told him did make sense, or at least seemed plausibly to explain the events of the terrible night.

The problem was that she was a liar, and when the newspapers and the blogs and the social media vultures began exposing her lies, few were inclined to credit anything she said. Her own attorney said he would never present her version in court, or even call her to testify.

Wes recognized the crux of her dilemma almost immediately: even he questioned her account of the night. Her long history of lying made him almost incapable of believing anything she said without wondering, questioning, doubting. He felt bad for thinking of her as a liar. They were, after all, friends, childhood friends, best friends even. When he thought of her as a liar, he thought of it simply and truthfully and straightforwardly: she constantly told lies, and delighted in doing so, much as a storyteller does, and if pressed to explain the difference between a liar and a storyteller, he didn't know if he could. He supposed the difference was that Jenna did not want to record her lies; she wanted to live them, and for other people to live them as well.

Her lying began when she was very young, as a form of play or make-believe. Of course, the same can be said of most children. But unlike most children, Jenna continued evolving her technique, making her lies more complex and exciting. It became a game, her favorite game.

Growing up, Wes and Jenna were next door neighbors. They lived at High Point Terrace, atop a deep ravine cut into the bluffs. Timber and underbrush blanketed the ravine, so that in the summer you couldn't see to the bottom, and you couldn't even see out. In the fall and winter, the rest of the world suddenly became visible again, but the homes remained basically isolated, accessible in a car only by narrow, dangerous drives.

Jenna's father was an executive at Caterpillar—a vice president in charge of innovation and development in the mining division. Wes's dad was a physician. Her family was far wealthier than his—they could have lived in a more exclusive neighborhood, but her mother was reclusive, and she preferred the privacy of High Point Terrace.

At adolescence, Wes found that Jenna's lying took on new significance for him; it was no longer just about fun, but became instead a kind of weapon against his peers. Dozens of them, who had once been friends and playmates, suddenly arrayed themselves against him. They called him faggot and fairy, though he considered himself neither. He lacked masculinity, and everything that word implies: an aptitude for, or even interest in, sports; a muscular carriage; a sexually predatory posture towards women. And for these failings they made him suffer.

There's no cruelty like the cruelty of teenagers: in them is yoked the moral vacuum of children to the expanding physical and mental powers of young adults. Wes heard people call it "bullying", but he felt that this word did not quite capture its fundamental sadism: "bullying" sounded like a discrete, escapable incident, a malign effect of the crowd's inherent capriciousness. But crowds do not really act capriciously, and the bullied is caught in an inescapable web of persecution, which pervades every aspect of his life and inflicts a kind of terror and shame that adults seem to forget. Part of the shame of the bullied is the knowledge that he himself would eagerly combine with his persecutors against somebody else, if it meant that, in doing so, attention could be deflected elsewhere. And anyway, it may be that crowd psychology cannot even explain bullying, since each member of the crowd is in it for himself, and derives his own unique pleasure or relief from his participation in the act.

Against the bullies, Wes found in Jenna a surprising ally. Though their lives had begun to move in different trajectories—she was accepted by the most popular of the popular, while he sunk to the level of the despised—they remained close friends, an arrangement that was perhaps only possible because they were neighbors, affording them a private social space, apart from school, and in that space their friendship grew stronger than ever. Jenna's game of lies became, for Wes, a way of mocking and attacking the society that attacked him. It was not self defense, but retaliation. She taught him to despise society—not just the society of their fellow schoolmates, but the larger society that had created, aided, and abetted those classmates. All of society's codes and conventions became the objects of their own private ridicule, and she developed new lies to expose and subvert those hypocritical codes and conventions.

She once lured Jeremy McCabe into asking her on a date. Jeremy McCabe was popular, but she sensed, with the uncanny insight of an expert hunter, that the more popular kids would, with sufficient cause, happily turn against him. So she lured him into asking her on a date, and she accepted his invitation. After the date, she invented weaknesses, weirdnesses, and unconfirmable abnormalities about him: he was a sloppy kisser; he had bad breath; he talked incessantly about his mother; he exposed his penis after only a few minutes of kissing, and his penis immediately became shrunken and flaccid when she refused to touch it. She turned every available convention of masculinity against him, including the convention that governed how a man should treat a woman, which prevented him from defending himself. Her own superior popularity meant that nobody would side with him even if he tried.

Time after time, she punked the bullies whom Wes most despised, and back at home, she regaled Wes with every thrilling detail. He in turn became her eager accomplice, even helping her to invent new lies, though he was never as imaginative as she.

They graduated from high school in 2013. Neither wanted to attend college, and they told their parents they were taking a gap year. Gap years had, just about that time, become quite fashionable among the children of Peoria's wealthier families. Or rather, they had become fashionable among Peoria's wealthier parents; it was a sign of status, to have a son or daughter on a gap year. But Jenna's instincts always veered away from satisfying her parents' pride, and so, unlike most graduates who took a gap year, she chose not to travel, and told Wes that he should do the same. Wes never took much persuading to do what Jenna wanted. She had so completely subsumed his will to hers that he didn't know if he even wanted to travel once she said he shouldn't. She said he should stay in Peoria, and that became his wish as well. They both remained in Peoria.

That gap year turned into two years, and then three. The next thing Wes knew, he and Jenna were pretty busy doing nothing but wasting their youth: like their parents' money, they thought it inexhaustible.

Part 2

PEORIA, ILLINOIS
Friday, July 8th

Friday afternoon, Jenna called Wes, and asked him, "Do you want to do something with Dylan and me tomorrow night?"

"Love to, but I have to work." Wes was a bar captain at the Peoria Country Club.

"What time do you get off?"

"Ten."

"Why don't we pick you up at ten, and do something after?"

"Okay. At the service entrance, like usual. I work 3 - 10."

Saturday, July 9th

Around four o'clock on Saturday, Jenna sent Wes a text message: "You wanna go out tonight? / we'll pick you up at work / ten / when you get off".

Wes thought the message a little odd, since they had already agreed on those plans, and it wasn't like Jenna to forget, but the bar was busy, and he just texted back, "👍."

He had a feeling Jenna was concocting one of her adventures, and that in her text she had already entered into her own role, whatever that might be. She was always planning these adventures that involved a certain amount of play acting. Wes's job at the country club was actually a case in point: it was her idea that he should work there. The country club ordinarily did not hire the children of members, but Jenna persuaded the bar manager to make an exception for Wes. Wes was pretty sure the persuasion involved sex, but whatever she did it worked and he got the job.

Wes enjoyed working at the country cub bar, and discovered, much to his surprise, that he was popular, especially with the waitresses. He had learned, from Jenna, the skill of molding his personality to suit whomever he was with. And he had learned from her that, rather counter-intuitively, listening gave one considerable power over others. Jenna used to say, and now Wes found it to be true, that "Everybody loves talking about themselves. People are basically egotists. They're fascinated by themselves, and love talking about their pathetic little problems. If you pretend to be interested in what they're saying, they'll think you're an interesting person. Don't be flattered if they do, because it has nothing to do with you. They'll think you're an interesting person because you're interested in the same things they're interested in. In other words, because you're interested in them, or at least you seem to be. Think of it this way: if you're a smart listener, you'll become like a mirror, so that when they look at you, they're looking in a mirror, and because they adore themselves most of all, they'll adore you more than anybody else. Anyone but themselves, at least. They'll think highly of you because you appear to think highly of them; they'll think you're intelligent because you appear to think they're intelligent; they'll think you have good taste, because you appear to be fascinated by them. It's the simplest trick in the world, and it just shows how stupid people basically are, that more people don't use it: simply listen and agree. Tell people what they want to hear. If a girl is ever talking about her boyfriend, and worrying about whether or not he really loves her, then reassure her that he does. Think of some explanation for why he might not have called three nights in a row. 'He's probably just really busy with schoolwork. I'm sure it doesn't mean anything.' Even if you know the real reason is that he's fucking somebody else. Nobody wants to hear the truth. People hate the truth; everybody hates that. The truth won't get you very far. Really, just use your imagination. If it's a girl, she'll be eager to accept whatever explanation or reassurance you can offer, though naturally it's better if the explanation is at least a little convincing. In most cases, though, your explanation doesn't need to be imaginative or even likely: girls are so desperately insecure, they'll snatch up any crumbs of reassurance you deign to throw their way, and they'll be grateful to you for them. So you can imagine how, if you throw them something meaty—no pun intended—they'll adore you even more. If a girl wonders whether she looks cute or pretty in some outfit, always say she does. Well, that's a rule of thumb. If you're shopping with her, and I hope for your sake you are never drawn into that hell, then you must pretend to show some discernment. But even in those cases, you basically reflect back to her whatever she's already thinking, and that's never difficult to guess: if she seems in doubt about a skirt, then reflect that doubt. But once she makes a purchase, never cause her to question it. It should go without saying that, in listening and reflecting, however boring it becomes, you put yourself in a position to gather information. No girl can ever keep a secret for long, and if they trust you, nothing will give them greater pleasure than to share secrets with you, especially other people's secrets, so that you can share in their scorn for other people's folly, but also their own secrets, so that you can offer them the reassurance that they'll drink up like nectar from a flower. I'm completely serious. And, it should go without saying, that once you have their secrets, well, what you choose do with them is up to you."

That was Jenna's philosophy on making friends and influencing people. When Wes began working at the bar, he was surprised to discover that her advice was basically sound. The waitresses talked, at first a little, and he listened. Then they talked more, and he continued to listen. And soon they were his friends.

On the evening of the ninth, the bar was very busy, with golfers coming in from the course for drinks before dinner. Many were ordering both drinks and dinner, because they did not want to dress for the dining room.

Wes was correcting a mistake on a member's tab, when Grant Gould, the bar manager, pulled him aside and said, "Stop by my office before you take your break."

An hour later Wes clocked out for his break, and knocked on Grant's office door.

Grant opened the door, conspiratorially, and said, "Ah, Wes, come in!" On Grant's desk was lying a small, framed photograph of Carrie Nation, from 1901 when she campaigned in Peoria. This photograph had, supposedly, hung in the bar manager's office since 1919. On the picture frame glass were four lines of cocaine. With almost exuberant friendliness, Grant said, "Sit down."

Grant was some sort of sex god. Handsome and charming and stylish and athletic. He had at one time or another laid most of the bar waitresses, right there on the sofa in his office. Wes knew this because the waitresses told him so. They'd say, "Do you think he really likes me, or is he just using me for sex?" Wes didn't want to have sex with Grant, but he wanted what, apparently, was far more difficult to achieve, which was for Grant to like him. Wes was determined to be whoever Grant wanted him to be, whatever would make Grant like him and approve of him.

Wes was staring at the sofa—it was a pine green microfiber tufted sofa, with loose cylindrical sofa bolsters and flared wooden legs—when Grant pointed to the picture of Carrie Nation. At first Wes thought he was going to say something about the lines of cocaine on the picture frame glass, but instead he grinned and said, "Sure was an ugly bitch, wasn't she? No wonder she hated for anyone else to have a good time."

Wes laughed, but couldn't stop looking at that sofa, and particularly those peg-length wooden legs: how much sex could those things withstand before breaking? How loose were they now?

Grant said, "That sofa is so fucking ugly; it's so faggy, especially those cushions. I'd replace it if I could, but we aren't allowed to change anything in the office without the approval of the club director." He then said, "You getting along okay out there?"

How would Grant want him to answer that question? Wes tested the water, "There's plenty to look at, that's for damned sure." Wes almost cringed hearing himself speak, it sounded so crude and phony. Fortunately, he hoped, Grant did not know him well enough to recognize the affectation.

"You seem to be pretty popular with the waitresses."

That did not feel like a compliment, and Wes worried Grant might ask whether any of the waitresses had gossiped about him. Wes said, "Oh, well we all just pal around out there. You know, to make the time go by a little faster."

Grant leaned forward, said, "You tappin' any of that ass?"

How the hell would Grant want him to answer that question? Would Grant consider the stable of waitresses to be his own private preserve, or would he like the idea of other guys making it with the ones he had already screwed and cast aside? Not that it technically mattered, since Wes was not making it with any of the waitresses, but he felt that the tone of his answer should depend upon Grant's attitude towards the waitresses. Wes decided he'd be safe by saying, "I think they're way out of my league, but I certainly enjoy looking. Some fine ass."

Grant smiled; Grant seemed pleased with that answer. "Hey, don't sell yourself short kid. Some of these hos are pretty easy."

Wes laughed, but he didn't think laughter was quite the right response.

Grant said, "Would you like to share a little Bounty with me?"

Wes did not know what he meant. "Bounty?"

Grant pointed to the cocaine and chuckled, "You know, 'The Quicker Picker Upper'?"

Wes pretended to laugh, and hoped it was convincing. He felt awkward, not because he had never seen cocaine before, or was uncomfortable with the idea of doing drugs, but because the invitation was so unexpected. Grant had never before even asked Wes to a friendly visit. Wes felt flattered by this indication of favor, and wanted to act in a way that would justify it.

Trying to sound nonchalant, Wes said, "Oh, sorry, my mind was still back in the bar. After what you said, my mind was all over Tina's ass. Wouldn't mind burying my tongue in her pussy." Again, he wondered it he had been too crude. He just wanted to say what he thought Grant would want to hear. No, he didn't think anything would be too crude for Grant. Then, nodding toward the cocaine, he said, "Yes, of course, would love to." Did that sound too eager, or not eager enough?

Grant snorted three lines of cocaine, and Wes snorted one.

After Wes left Grant's office, he didn't know if he was more high from the cocaine, or from the thrill of having just taken cocaine with Grant. He felt an incredible surge of confidence in himself. He imagined that he liked himself, admired himself, that liquified confidence coursed through his veins. He could be the person he wanted to be.

When he returned to the bar, and he saw the waitresses, he felt a pang of guilt over how he had spoken about them. They were, after all, his friends. Then he thought about what Jenna would say. He guessed she would say something like, they've been using you for months, making you listen to their boring problems; if you should feel guilty about anything it's that you didn't use your hard-earned knowledge to greater advantage, but you'll learn.

The rest of his shift sped quickly by, and at ten o'clock, he waited outside, by the service entrance, for Jenna and Dylan.

Wes felt a little on edge from the cocaine. He enjoyed the initial rush, but it also made him feel anxious, and by ten o'clock that anxiousness was blossoming into full-blown anxiety. He swallowed a Xanax, and washed it down with a bottle of Rolling Rock. He always had an ample supply of Xanax, Klonopin, Valium, Ativan—pretty much anything he wanted—because his father, who was a physician and an alcoholic, wrote prescriptions for him, almost on demand. Wes sometimes had the feeling that his father wanted him permanently sedated, even if that meant getting him addicted to tranquilizers. He once heard his father telling his mother, "Wesley suffers from hysteria. That's not normal for a boy, Vicky. He has depression and anxiety. These diseases only get worse if left untreated. When he enters adolescence, he'll be like a tinderbox. We need to get ahead of this. I don't want him getting into weirdo teenage rebellion stuff."

He saw headlights approaching up the service drive, and recognized Dylan's car. He tossed the beer bottle toward the dumpster. He thought tossing the beer bottle into the dumpster would look real tough, but the bottle missed its mark, smashing instead onto the pavement.

Wes got into the back seat. Jenna leaned over the front seat, and rather vampishly greeted him, "Baby doll!" Then she kissed him on the lips, as if she were his fag hag. Wes hated that. He wanted Dylan to think of him as a guy, a real guy: tough and insolent. Jenna probably sensed this, and wanted to undermine him.

But she was also probably trying to nettle Dylan, whom she enjoyed shocking; it was almost a sport with her. Perhaps she believed that, because Dylan came from a working class family, he would have conventional prejudices about relationships and gender roles. As it turned out, he really didn't, or at least not more than what even a liberally-minded person would. Even so, she constantly tried harder and harder to shock him. In his relative broad-mindedness, Dylan was probably a bit of a disappointment to her.

After she kissed Wes, Dylan said, "Hey Wes." He didn't sound too enthused, but he wasn't resentful either.

Wes lay down in the backseat, and stared at the car's ceiling. "Hey Dylan, how's it going?"

"Pretty good. We were just trying to decide what we should do tonight."

Wes got the impression that maybe Jenna and Dylan had been quarreling.

Dylan continued, "Aaron's having a party. We were thinking of that."

Wes hated parties. He always felt out of place at them. He never knew how to make small talk, or join groups, and that night he especially did not want to go; the cocaine had made him especially anxious. He said, "Oh god, please no. Anything but that."

Jenna said, "We can't really think of anything else to do, and we've been trying all afternoon."

"Please, anything but a party. Parties are bad enough on a good night; tonight I feel lousy."

Wes wondered if Jenna was counting on him to oppose the party, because even though she claimed they spent the entire afternoon unsuccessfully brainstorming alternatives, she immediately came up with a different idea once Wes nixed the party: "How about we run a gauntlet? We haven't done that in a while."

"Gauntlet" was the name she and Wes had given to a game they'd been playing since junior high school. There were several variations, but they all shared a common theme, which was that Jenna would get dressed in an expensive, but provocative, outfit. Lots of jewelry and makeup. Then they would go to some low class neighborhood or bar—down on the Galena Road, or on the East Bluff, or maybe over in Pekin. Basically anyplace where they could expect the greatest contrast between her cultivated beauty and everything else. Once they hit a Baptist church potluck. Usually, though, they were looking for white trash men who would hit on her, the harder the better. She also liked finding women who would stare disapprovingly at her. Wes's role was usually pretty minor: he would pretend to be a stranger, and either observe, or maybe cut in if he thought there might be an opening for him. If, for example, some guy was hitting on her, but with a little too much courtliness, Wes might approach her and just start coming on real strong, like saying how much he liked her ass, or use some crude pickup. For example, he might say to her, "I like your outfit. You know what else would look good on you? Me." That was generally the flavor of a gauntlet. The point was to cause some sort of sensation or scandal. Once she wanted to do a gauntlet at a gay bar, and see if Wes could get some lecherous old men to hit on him, but Wes refused, and Jenna scornfully called him "boring", and he felt ashamed.

Wes had actually grown a little tired of gauntlets, and he knew Dylan hated them, but he said, "Fine by me. I like it better than going to a party."

He did not have the guts to refuse Jenna once she had seized upon an idea. And, he didn't really object to her idea so much as he objected to the way she ran roughshod over Dylan's feelings.

Dylan sighed, "Oh god"

Jenna tried to coax him, "I think we should. It's the perfect night. It'll be a laugh!"

Dylan demurred, "Sometimes I really don't understand you two."

Since Jenna had begun dating Dylan, part of the gauntlet's appeal for her had been the fact that it obviously bothered him. She always tried to make light of his objections, though, "Dylan babe, do not resist an evildoer. That's according to the Bible."

Though unenthused, he relented, "Ok, fine."

Jenna said, "I know a good place too—somewhere we haven't tried it before!"

Again Wes was struck by the incongruity of her initial statement that they had been unable, all day long, to think of anything else to do, and this sudden access of inspiration, right down to an exact location. But then Jenna was a person who operated by flashes of enthusiasm.

The bar she chose was the Owl's Nest in West Peoria.

They wended their way down Grand View Drive—Dylan took the curves pretty recklessly, Wes thought, maybe as his way of expressing displeasure. He turned south onto Adams, sped through Averyville, and then veered right onto Jefferson at the Hofbrau. The river felt close, though one only knew of its presence from the giant trussed bridges high above. They drove south on Jefferson, and then north again on Main, back up the bluff, then past Bradley, and south again on Sheridan. They turned southwest onto Moss Avenue, past all the old mansions.

Dylan said, a little sarcastically, "I guess this is where you guys would be living if it were a hundred years ago."

Jenna tartly responded, "A hundred years ago my mother would have committed suicide before I was even born."

"What, did suicide go out of style or something?"

"No, psychotropics became stylish instead."

WEST PEORIA, ILLINOIS

Dylan turned west on Sherman. When they drove past Waverly, Jenna asked, "Where're you going? You should have turned right back there."

Dylan replied, a little enigmatically, "What's the hurry? We got all night."

"Well, not all night. It closes at two."

"Just taking us on the scenic route."

At Sterling he turned north, with St. Mary's Cemetery to their left. Halfway along the cemetery, Dylan turned east on Callender.

They got a parking spot right in front of the bar.

Jenna was excited. "Okay, we haven't done this in a while, so let's just run through the routine, make sure we're all still on the same page. I'm the bait, obviously. I go inside and sit at the bar. Conspicuously alone and available. I wait for a guy to start hitting on me." She turned toward Dylan: "Don't worry babe—I won't let him lay his filthy paws on me. At least not too much." She laughed and then kissed him reassuringly. "Now, once I've got him hooked, I sigh and express displeasure with the bar, probably boredom." She glanced out the car window, toward the bar, "Which, from the looks of it, I won't even have to fake. He'll suggest we go someplace else. They always do. I'll agree, very sweet and innocent with a splash of slutty. When we walk past you guys here in the car, you start your cat calling. Try to to think of something fun, something new this time. I don't know—use your imagination. The old Richwoods High routine has gotten kind of boring."

"We'll think of something," Wes said. "We'll make you an offer you can't refuse."

"Oh good—I can't wait! Not money, though. That's too obvious."

Wes was beginning to get into the spirit of the game, and he said, "It won't be money, but it'll be money."

Jenna laughed, then went into the bar.

Wes climbed over the front seat, then thought that this probably seemed kind of juvenile. He could never make a good impression; he was always acting like a bit of a sissy. He wondered if, in some ways, he didn't deserve all the ridicule heaped upon him in high school. You can't be a sissy and expect to get away with it. You just can't. The world doesn't work that way. You can wish that it would, but wishing won't change a goddamned thing. He stopped himself, and realized that these thoughts, they were Jenna's thoughts, Jenna thinking for him. Those were her ideas, probably even her words. But experience had proved the ideas to be sound. Sound as in steady. If you built your actions upon those ideas, you would not be shaken. Those words were probably from the Bible. Yes, in fact he was sure of it: the house built on rock and the house built on sand. Jenna must get most of her good ideas from the Bible. Wes wanted to build his house on rock, on the rock of Jenna's sound advice, and yet, christ, he could never shake this feeling that he was all on sand, and that every little rain storm washed him away all over again.

Dylan and Wes sat silently for a few minutes, and then Dylan said, "I can't understand why you guys think this is so much fun. It seems so degrading to Jenna, not to mention dangerous."

Wes didn't know what to say. He didn't disagree, but he also hoped, for Dylan's sake, that Dylan wasn't waiting for her to change. Wes said, "I don't know. You don't think it's even a little fun, messing around with these jerks?" He hoped Dylan would agree with that; he wanted Dylan to approve of him, to be his friend.

"Yeah, I guess. Although really, do we even know that the guy will be a jerk. I mean, just because you go to a bar like this doesn't automatically make you a jerk."

"Jenna thinks it's fun, and what Jenna wants, Jenna gets." Wes grinned at him, trying to lighten the mood, "Or hadn't you noticed that yet?"

"Oh no, I definitely noticed."

"After all, Jenna wanted you."

"Oh god, so that's how it was!" He laughed.

Wes laughed too, but Dylan's mood, more contemplative and brooding, was beginning to affect him, and maybe the Xanax was too.

Dylan leaned over and removed a hip flask from the glove compartment. He took a swig and handed the flask to Wes, saying, "Whiskey?"

"Sure, thanks."

They were silent again, handing the flask back-and-forth.

After a few minutes of silence, Dylan asked, "So you and Jenna have known each other since you were kids?"

"We were next door neighbors."

"And she's your best friend?"

Wes knew there was plenty about Jenna that Dylan disliked, and he did not want Dylan to associate him with those parts. He wanted to create some distance between himself and Jenna, make Dylan understand that he shared her good qualities, but not her bad. Almost reflexively, he said, "I guess," and then he realized he was building on sand again. He felt there was nothing certain in himself, nothing at all.

"What do you mean, you guess? Don't you even know if she's your best friend?"

Yes, it was a stupid thing to have said, I guess she's my best friend. It lacked conviction. Everything about himself seemed to lack conviction, and it struck him that this lack of conviction was not a very manly quality. Even worse, it was cowardly and two-faced. In both word and tone, it pointed toward an unspoken criticism of Jenna, which Dylan would certainly not like. Maybe he could salvage the situation; maybe he could he have it both ways: distance himself from Jenna, while simultaneously heaping blame upon himself. "Well, she's the only person I ever felt I could really be myself around." Then, after a pause, he added, "I don't know if that's a good thing, though."

"What do you mean? Of course it's a good thing. I hope you can be yourself around me too"

Wes's thoughts were muddled. His thoughts and his motives. How could you know what to say when you didn't know what you wanted to obtain from what you said? The conversation began to cascade, "Honestly, I'd rather you have a higher opinion of me than that."

"Than what?"

"Than what you would have if I was really myself around you. Than what you must have. You don't, for example, approve of this whole gauntlet thing, and I guess I must be part of your disapproval."

Ha, there it was, inevitably, the final defense maneuver of the weak. He had done it enough to recognize the tactic almost immediately, and to feel embarrassed by it: he was backing Dylan into a corner, pressuring Dylan to offer reassurances and validations. That's what Wes really wanted anyway, what he craved even. It was a kind of psychological bullying that Wes was good at, though he had more experience using it on women: through self-deprecation he extracted praise. Dylan was good natured, and Wes sensed that he would be susceptible to such bullying.

Unfortunately, Dylan was too good natured, too easy going: "Oh, who cares if I approve or don't."

Who cares? Wes cared, that was who. He cared desperately. But at least he had successfully veered the conversation away from his caddish, implied criticism of Jenna, and Dylan seemed not to have noticed.

Dylan then said, "I just get protective of Jenna, I guess. You should feel free to be yourself around me. I have a good opinion of you."

It was tepid praise, and worse, it was permission for Wes to be himself, and what use was that when Wes did not even know who or what that would even look like. What he wanted, what he had so pathetically been angling to coerce from Dylan, was something along the lines of "I think you're really cool", or "I think you have a great sense of humor", or, "I admire your intelligence"—some praise that was definite and concrete, praise that could telegraph to Wes the kind of person Dylan would want Wes to be, so that Wes could then strive to be that person.

Wes hated what the conversation had become. He was embarrassed. He had said too much. He decided to try a different approach, a technique that Jenna taught him: ask questions; get people talking about themselves. Everybody liked talking about themselves, according to Jenna, and they will like you for listening. Wes asked, "What are your parents like?" People loved complaining about their parents.

Dylan grinned, his eyes squinted with amused bemusement, probably over the abrupt change in conversation: "My parents? Well...my dad works at Keystone, and my mom works at the Crystal Clean Laundromat, over on Sterling."

People were supposed to take a question and run with it. Dylan's answer was almost completely arid. Usually when you asked people about their parents, their answers were like rivers of emotion. Wes decided to redouble his efforts, to follow up with a question aimed at eliciting more feeling: "Do you—? Are you—? Did you ever resent them?"

Dylan chuckled a little. "I guess most people resent their parents. But actually mine were pretty good. There's really not much to say. They left me alone, mostly, once I got to high school anyway. No, even before that."

Wes felt stymied, and then he realized that maybe he could make Dylan like him, depend upon him even, for what he knew about Jenna. That was one thing he possessed that Dyland did not: lots of information about Jenna. He said, "You know, Jenna hates her parents, or at least she thinks she does. Her dad is a big-shot at Caterpillar. His division is working on some new, super-efficient strip mining process. Jenna says his bonus will be so large, he'll probably retire after that."

Dylan was silent for several seconds, and then he said, "You know, you changed the subject, just now."

"I did?" Of course, he knew that he had, but was embarrassed by the line of conversation he had opened, and suddenly wished to veer away from it. He had drawn Dylan into his world of insecurity, and then quickly kicked him back out, presenting the reversal as a form of self-effacement.

Dylan said, "Come on. You don't gotta play dumb. You can talk to me. What was all that stuff about not being a good person? Just because of some stupid game that I might or might not like?"

Wes was surprised, disarmed even, by Dylan's expression of interest in him. Dylan had an older brother quality about him. Wes never had an older brother, or any brother, but Dylan was what Wes imagined an older brother would be like. Dylan was the kind of person who inspired trust, made Wes want to confide in him. In his words and his manner, Wes sensed an intimacy, an intimacy which Dylan probably never intended, but which Wes felt as strongly as if they had been the closest of friends. At that moment, Wes felt closer to him than he did even to Jenna.

Wes thought hard, trying to find an adequate explanation of what he meant or felt or thought, but only ended up realizing how muddled his thoughts were, especially his thoughts about himself. And like most people with scant self knowledge, he could only formalize what knowledge he did possess in moral terms. He said, rather feebly, "I'm not a good person. Really. I want to be, and I try to be, but I'm not. The best I can hope for is to make people think I'm not a bad person. But that doesn't make me a good person. I don't remember ever having been one. I don't even know what that would feel like."

"I don't understand."

"I feel like there's something inside me: like rot. In my mind, and on my soul, like gangrene. I can't feel anything but what's inside of me, and I want to stop feeling that. I want to feel numb. I don't want to feel anymore."

Dylan said nothing, and that seemed like the perfectly appropriate response. Even in his silence he conveyed understanding and care, or at least Wes imagined that he did. Then, rather tentatively, he said, "Do you think—? Well, I shouldn't say anything."

"No, you should. You should say anything." Although Wes was not able to talk about himself, he was eager for Dylan to do so. He felt Dylan might reveal something that he himself could not see. "You can say anything to me, ask me anything. If I can say anything to you, then it goes both ways."

A couple of good-timers walked past their car, laughing and shouting, clearly drunk. Happy and drunk.

Dylan then asked the question that began the unspooling of a dangerous story. "Well, does it have anything to do with Carter?"

"Carter?"

Very quickly, Dylan retracted, "God, I shouldn't have said anything—"

"No, I just don't—"

"Jenna told me, and I swore I wouldn't say anything—she's just real worried about you. I'm really sorry."

"You don't have anything to apologize for; I just have no idea—"

"Please don't tell Jenna I said anything."

"Yes, but I don't understand what you said? Or rather, what you didn't say. Who is Carter?"

Dylan stared skeptically at Wes: "You mean you seriously do not know what I'm talking about?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Jenna's brother, Car—?"

"Oh god, what has she been telling you?"

"Hey, please forget I said anything. I must've misunderstood something she told me. It was a long time ago—I probably misremembered. Hey, please promise me not to mention any of this to Jenna. She'll get really pissed. I obviously got it all wrong."

Reluctantly, Wes said, "Okay."

"You swear?"

Wes laughed, wondering if he would have to cross his heart and hope to die. "I swear."

Dylan then looked toward the bar, and, no doubt to change what had become an awkward subject, said, "I wonder what's happening in there. Maybe we should go inside and check on her."

Just then, however, Jenna came walking out of the bar, a guy clinging to her. The guy was actually pretty handsome—not at all like the creepy types she usually picked up on a gauntlet. The guy looked as though he was probably in his mid- to late-twenties. About Dylan's age. Jenna and the guy walked towards the car, Jenna staggering a little, pretending to be drunker than she really was.

Dylan said, "Shit, here they come. She told us to say something new. We haven't thought of anything."

Wes's own mind was filthy enough that he had no difficulty improvising. "Oh, I have an idea." Already he was beginning to warm to the plan, feeling a little intoxicated by the fun of it, the fun of degrading and manipulating another human being. He was aware of feeling a tremendous amount of resentment towards other people.

Wes rolled down the car window, and as they walked past, he called out the window to Jenna, "Hey, I'll take a piece of that!"

They stopped walking, and the guy asked her, "Do you know these guys?"

Jenna shook her head.

The guy then turned to Wes, and said, "Hey what's the idea? You don't talk to a girl that way. You should apologize."

It annoyed Wes, the way this guy thought you should treat a woman one way just because she was a woman, that men and women should be treated differently, and that women deserved to be handled with kid gloves for no reason other than their gender. It annoyed him, and yet it also gratified him, made him feel morally and intellectually superior.

The guy said, "I think you guys've had too much to drink."

"Au contraire," Wes said, "I don't think we've had enough, and I wouldn't mind having a drink from her pussy."

Wes was a little frustrated that, although laughably conventional, the guy wasn't becoming obnoxiously macho, and actually he sounded instead quite reasonable, "Let's not have any trouble here, fellas."

Ignoring the guy, and simultaneously trying to goad him, Wes said to Jenna, "Hey baby, I'm packing nine inches, and my friend here has ten: ten thick inches. I've seen it and wow—he could really stretch your horizons."

This statement finally did the trick, and the man became visibly angry.

Wes continued, "Do you wanna suck? We're a twofer: two for one. It's both or neither. Suck and get fucked? Just like in the movies?"

The man stepped between Jenna and the car. He said, much to Wes's delight, "Look here assholes! You talk to a girl that way? You wanna talk to me? Why don't you pussies get out of the car and try talking to me that way?"

Wes responded, "I got a better idea: why don't you fuck off? We aren't interested in you, mister. Just the babe."

The man stepped closer to the car. Jenna pulled him away.

Contemptuously, Wes said, "What's your name, dude?"

The guy stared at Wes a few seconds, then said, "Rip. Rip Callahan." Jenna appeared to be surprised, and Wes wondered if maybe the guy had told her a different name in the bar.

Turning towards Jenna, Rip said, "Alright, alright, let's just get going and leave these pricks alone."

Jenna, trying to sound ditzy and maybe a little slutty, said, "No, I mean, look, they do have a point, in a way."

The man said, as if there could be no possible answer to the question, "What do you mean?"

"Well, you men, before you take a girl home, well we girls dress so you know what you're getting. For us girls it's always a gamble."

Incredulous, Rip asked, "What are you talking about? I been treating you good haven't I?"

"Oh, I don't care how you treat me. I mean, that's nice and all, but it's what's inside that counts."

"Totally. And I got a big heart and a big soul inside. I just want to show you that baby."

"No, no. I mean inside your pants. You have no idea how many times we girls go home with a guy, after a long night trying to find a good one, and then it's, like, he just has a tiny little cock. Do you have any idea what that's like? When his pants come off, and you're looking at some ugly chubby little cock, or a thin little one, and you're supposed to act enthralled by it, and say ‘oh baby yeah', and suck it and all that stuff? Do you have any idea what that's like?"

Rip Callahan was now completely nonplussed. Wes struggled to refrain from laughing.

Jenna continued, "So when these two guys tell me upfront what they're offering—I don't know. I mean, they kind of have a point."

Patronizing her, as if she were simply too drunk to know what she was saying, Rip said, "Come on, baby, let's get out of here."

"Okay."

He put his arm around her and began to step away, but Jenna didn't move. Instead she said, "But baby, now I really wanna know."

Chuckling uncomfortably, he said, "I'll tell you everything. Let's just get out of here."

Petulant, Jenna whined, "Noooo, I wanna know now, before we go. Maybe they really do have the better offer."

"Come on, you can't be serious. I wouldn't even let you get in the car with these two creeps. They're probably rapists or something."

Jenna stepped away from him. "Just tell me and then we can go."

"These guys probably aren't even telling the truth anyway."

Wes began to unbuckle his belt. "I'll show you baby, if you don't believe me. I'm already rock hard just from looking at you. I'll show you, and your friend too, if he wants to see it so badly."

Jenna looked challengingly at Rip, who seemed to have become a little suspicious: "Is this some kind of joke?"

Stroking his arm, Jenna said, "I want to want you. I want you. But I need to know. I really do. It's not fair. You already know everything, and I don't know anything."

He said, "Sweety, there's more to you than your body. I don't know everything at all. Let's just go. I want to know more about you, much more."

Feigning disappointment, she said, "I just don't know; I don't think so. Now I want to know. I've just got to know, now I'm curious."

Wes said, "Hey dude, you can use the back seat, and show her there."

Ignoring Wes, Rip said to Jenna, "Look, I'm leaving. Do you want to come with me, or stay here? This is way too fucked up for me."

"I don't know. I mean, if you won't even do this one little thing. I just don't get it, why not. You expect a lot from me, and I only get to expect a little from you. I just don't think so."

"I'm not sure what's going on here, but I'm out. Have fun with these assholes, if that's what you want."

He walked away. Jenna got into the car and began laughing. "Oh my god, that guy was so creepy. You should have heard all his cheap come ons. Christ, just talking to him made me feel like I'm covered in cheap cologne."

Dylan sarcastically said, "Thank you for including me in that; I don't know how I would've enjoyed the night without it."

Wes felt a little ashamed of himself. He realized that, if given the choice, he would rather have Dylan's approval than Jenna's.

Jenna was annoyed by Dylan's comment, "Oh come on, he was just stupid white trash. Fuck him." Then she laughed again. "Oh my god, the look on that asshole's face."

Dylan said, "I have to admit, Wes, that you did a pretty awesome job coming up with that shit on the spot."

Jenna exclaimed, "Oh my god yes! That was so brilliant. Let's go someplace and celebrate. I'm so high right now!"

Dylan suggested Aaron's party.

Before Wes could agree or object, Jenna said, "No, Wes doesn't want to go there."

But Wes had changed his mind. Or at least he felt they ought to do something that Dylan wanted to do, especially after he had been sport enough to run the gauntlet. Wes said, "Oh, I don't really care. We can go there. I'll just call a cab if I want to leave. It's no big deal."

Jenna now seemed dead set against going to Aaron's party, however, and continued to use Wes as an excuse: "Well, I don't think we should go if we all don't want to go."

Dylan said, "Okay. You two just decide something." He didn't sound angry or annoyed at all, and that made Wes feel even more guilty.

Jenna said, "I got an idea! Let's get a hotel room and party there. I know! Down in Mapleton—there's a little motel. We'll hole up like fugitives, just the three of us!"

Dylan asked, "Is that really what you want to do?"

Jenna was disappointed by his lack of enthusiasm. "Where's your sense of adventure? Or are you gonna rain on all our fun tonight."

Wes thought she was being unfair, especially since Wes was the one who had rejected the original idea of going to Aaron's party. Wes felt that he himself was the only one who had rained on anything. Even if Dylan had been unenthused by the gauntlet and now this, he never actually refused.

Dylan turned to Wes, "Wes? You wanna go to Mapleton?"

"Fine by me. I guess I like it better than going to Aaron's, but I'd do either."

So they drove down to Mapleton.

At Bartonville, Wes thought about its abandoned insane asylum, with its graveyard where the dead have no last names and no birth dates, only first names and only death dates.

MAPLETON, ILLINOIS

The Mapleton Inn was right on the highway. The gravel crunched beneath the car tires as they entered the parking lot, which had undoubtedly at one time been paved. The motel was two stories, with exterior hallways, in the shape of a rectilinear "U", which wrapped itself around a kind of park, sparsely wooded and grassy with a picnic table. The motel office was at the southwest end, near the highway. Wes noticed an abundance of chicory growing around the parking lot; its blue flowers appeared almost to glow luxuriously in the night, if you could consider weeds luxurious—Wes thought probably not, but under the moonlight they seemed to be. Not many cars in the parking lot. The motel was quiet, but the cicadas and the frogs were loud, and the window unit air conditioners were too. In a few rooms, light from television sets played against drawn blinds. Wes imagined condensation dripping through the aluminum screens covering the air conditioning coils: drip drip, drip drip, drip drip...into a puddle on the concrete sidewalk that fronted the row of motel rooms. There was a blue cherry-picker in the lot.

From the motel you could see the floodplain stretching to the river. Across the river, rising up into the sky, was Powerton, the gigantic, coal burning power station with its enormous cooling lakes leaching thermal pollution into the river. High voltage power lines emanated in all directions from Powerton, running to every horizon and beyond.

Jenna dashed into the office to get a room, and then quickly returned: "We're in twenty-eight!"

They parked the car, and began climbing the steps to the second level. Wes said, "I can't believe that a shithole town like Mapleton would ever have needed a motel this large. Who do they think would want to visit Mapleton?"

Dylan said, "These old motels were built for travelers, people passing through, not as destinations."

"Even so," Wes said, "Who would be traveling through here?"

"This highway used to be the main road between Detroit and Kansas City. Lots of people would have been passing through. This place was probably hopping back in the day."

Jenna asked, "How in the hell do you know so much about it?"

Dylan laughed. "Oh, well my parents both grew up in Bartonville. Their parents too, and I don't know how far back. Anyway, they used to tell me that Bartonville wasn't always such a lousy town, and I remember them saying this highway was one of the reasons why. That and the asylum hospital."

Jenna said, "Your parents told you that the insane asylum was one of the reasons Bartonville wasn't such a bad town? Christ almighty babe, that's fucked up!"

They all laughed, and finally arrived at their room.

Room 28: two full sized beds, dark vinyl wood paneling, and a black-and-white television set with a rabbit ear antenna. Fiddling with the antenna, Dylan said, "This place isn't even classy enough to offer free HBO".

Jenna and Wes laughed.

Wes asked, "How much was the room?"

Jenna seemed to think for a moment, and then she said, "Thirty dollars for the night."

Wes said, "I feel as though we should be shooting a porno here."

Jenna liked the idea, "Maybe we should. I bet we could get a lot of money for some footage of you two." She laughed, and then added, "Or all three."

Dylan played along, "I'm gonna need to get a whole lot drunker before that happens, babe," and then he kissed her. "Sorry if I've been a wet blanket. I love your idea. Not the porno, maybe, but coming down here. We can just hang out and have fun. Hopefully there's a decent place to get breakfast."

Jenna said, "Oh yes, the desk clerk told me there's a diner a little farther down the road."

"And what was the desk clerk like? I'm imagining an old geezer with no teeth."

Jenna was obviously pleased that Dylan's mood had improved. "Actually, no. He was clean-cut. He had all his teeth and even spoke correct English. He was really nice."

"Yeah, well guys do have a way of warming up to you, Jenna."

Jenna jumped into the bed farthest from the window. She beckoned Dylan with her hand, "This one will be ours babe."

Dylan got into the bed with Jenna and put his arm around her.

Then Jenna said to Wes, "Baby doll, you can have the other one."

Wes put a desk chair next to the television, and faced Jenna and Dylan. "I think I'll just sit here for now."

Dylan rolled a joint, and passed it around, along with a bottle of whiskey.

Wes started feeling pretty good, and then at some point he peaked and began feeling pretty rotten. "I think I'm going to be sick." He went into the bathroom and closed the door; he threw up and then fell asleep on the brown-and-tan, pinwheel-patterned floor tile.

Dylan woke Wes, and Wes realized that he was no longer on the bathroom floor, but in the bed nearest the window. Dylan asked if he knew where Jenna was. Wes wondered what had happened while he slept.

Dylan was almost frantic with worry. "I don't see where she could have gone. I'm worried about her. Jenna and I had an argument. I left the room. From the parking lot, I noticed the glow of a cigarette in that little park. I walked into the park. When the person inhaled on his cigarette, I saw that it was the man from the bar, back in Peoria—Rip, the one we did the gauntlet on—he was sitting at the picnic table in the little grassy area. He was watching our room. I'm certain he must be watching our room. He must have followed us here or something. Christ. Where did Jenna go? I don't see how he could have followed us, though. I would have noticed if he had followed us. Nobody followed us. There was nobody behind us the whole way."

Still very drunk, and high, Wes felt dizzy, and said nothing. He barely even comprehended what Dylan was telling him.

Dylan paced the room.

Wes wondered how he got into the bed; he last remembered lying on the bathroom floor. Brown and tan tile.

Dylan said, "I'm gonna report that guy to the desk clerk. I don't think they'd want strangers hanging around the parking lot, especially late at night like this."

Dylan left the room. When he returned, he was even more panicked, and angry too. "I don't know what the fuck is going on. Is this some kind of joke? Are you in on this? Please don't lie to me. I don't like all this. It's not fun to me."

"What? What happened? I don't understand what you mean."

"The desk clerk isn't any clean cut nice guy, like Jenna claimed. It's an old woman."

"Maybe the guy she talked to, maybe his shift ended or something."

"No, I asked. She says she's been here since eight o'clock this evening, and that nobody else had worked the desk all night. What the fuck was Jenna talking about?"

Wes's head hurt. He swallowed a Percocet and an Ambien. He lay in the bed, waiting for the pills to kick in. He felt anxious and stoned. His mind latched onto the blue cherry picker. He couldn't stop thinking about it, but he didn't understand why. The blue cherry picker, he understood that it didn't matter, and yet he felt as though it was the only thing in the world that mattered. He stared at the night stand between the two beds, trying to take his mind off that blue cherry picker. A piece of paper with telephone instructions was scotch-taped to the night stand. Dial #01 for the front desk. It was almost like an order: Dial pound one for the front desk. Dial pound one for the front desk. Wes reached for the telephone, and removed the receiver from its cradle. He pressed the keys pound, zero, and one. After a few rings, a woman answered with an un-oiled iron brusqueness: "Desk."

Wes's mind was operating on a delay: he heard her, then understood her, then reflected, and then spoke: "Is this the front desk?"

"Something with your connection? I said 'front desk', didn't I?"

"Oh."

"You want something, or what?"

He couldn't respond to her questions without this damned delay. He couldn't think fast enough to keep up with her. "Yeah. Yeah. I was wondering about that blue cherry picker in the parking lot." That was the only thing he could think of to say.

"What about it?"

"Well, what's it doing there?"

"Why, is it causing a problem or something?"

He said, "I was just wondering whose it was."

"Well I don't know."

"You got a cherry picker in your lot, and you don't even know whose it is?"

She was beginning to sound angry: "I'm sure somebody knows. What's this all about anyway? Are you doing drugs down there? If you're doing drugs, I'm gonna have to call the police."

"Not doing drugs. Just drunk. I'm real sorry ma'am. Just drunk."

"Well go to sleep and don't bother me again." She hung up on him.

Just then, he heard Dylan shout, "What the fuck! Fucking bitch!"

Wes rolled over, startled. He had never seen Dylan angry before. "What? What happened?"

Dylan was staring at his cell phone. "What the fuck is she trying to pull? Are you in on this too? What the hell is going on? I feel like you've both been fucking with me. I don't know what you thought would happen tonight, if this was all some kind of fucked up set-up, but I'm not gay or bi or anything, and I'm not gonna have sex with you. Not ever. Not even to please Jenna. I'm not gay Wes. I'm not like you. Sorry, but I'm just not."

"I never said I wanted to have sex with you. I don't either. I'm not gay."

"So why did Jenna post this to Facebook?"

Dylan handed Wes his phone. Jenna had posted a photograph, which had been taken through the space between the split draw in the motel room drapes. The photograph showed Dylan undressing Wes, while Wes lay in the bed. Wes finally realized that he was only wearing his undershorts and t-shirt, and that Dylan must have helped him from the bathroom into the bed, and then undressed him so that he would be more comfortable. Dylan wouldn't have thought anything of it because he was a good person. For him, that was just how a person treats other people. And Jenna had taken that act of kindness and made it into something filthy. And made it into something untrue. And yet Wes realized that, in some way he could not articulate to himself, he wished it were not untrue, this lie Jenna had created.

Accompanying the photograph was a caption, "Find my friends app led me to a motel in Mapleton, where my boyfriend apparently trysts with my best friend. Never would have guessed that Dylan McCoy is bicurious".

Dylan spoke sharply, "What is wrong with her? I don't even know how she got that photograph, or why she would post that, but it isn't cool and it's not cool with me. She tagged me in that picture. I got family who will see that post." He threw his phone on the other bed, and put his hands in his hair. "Christ! I need some water." He went into the bathroom, and Wes could hear the faucet running.

Wes rolled over, and began dozing off to sleep again. Outside, somebody was unlocking the motel room door; Dylan came out of the bathroom and walked toward the door. He said, "Jenna? Where did you—?"

Wes heard gunfire, but it was not loud gunfire. It sounded like a bb-gun. Then he felt a sharp pain in his back. And then he blacked out.

Part 3

PEORIA, ILLINOIS
Monday, July 11th

Wes awoke in a hospital bed. He was very weak; he had been shot. Dylan also had been shot, but Dylan had been killed.

Wes did not know how he knew.

His father hired a lawyer, Jim Hardesty, some good old boy attorney with a reputation as a fixer. Wes recognized him from the country club bar, where Hardesty was a regular. But Wes wondered why he should need a lawyer like Hardesty. What was there to fix? What was there to fix that a lawyer could fix? Hardesty couldn't bring Dylan back to life. Probably his father was protecting his own interests, the interests of an aspiring hospital administrator, with a son embroiled in scandal.

Hardesty visited Wes in the hospital. Hardesty's confidential secretary accompanied him, and she took notes. Hardesty briefly introduced himself and his secretary, and then said, "Now, your friend Jenna, her story as of yesterday was that this man, Rip Callahan, followed the three of you from West Peoria to Mapleton, and that he shot you and Dylan McCoy out of anger or rage. Apparently the three of you pulled some kind of prank on the guy."

"Okay. That seems like it could be right."

"I'm told, however, that the only finger prints the police were able to lift from the gun were hers. Also that the police have found no witnesses at the motel, or anywhere in the vicinity of the motel, who remember seeing anybody who matches the description of Mr. Rip Callahan. Also, that several people have come forward describing a Facebook post, now deleted, probably by Jenna, in which she says she used a cell phone app called 'Find My Friends' to track Dylan McCoy to the Mapleton Inn, where she caught him and you in a compromising position. Apparently she also posted a suggestive photograph of you two."

"That post must have been a joke," Wes said. "She drove to Mapleton with Dylan and me, in the same car."

Hardesty nodded. "Very likely—"

"Not 'likely'," Wes exclaimed. "That's what happened!"

"But," Hardesty, continued, as if Wes had not even interrupted him, "Jenna's story already contradicts an earlier version that she herself put out, that she spread on Facebook. She says now that she was with you and Dylan McCoy the whole time, and that Rip Callahan followed you all to Mapleton, whereas earlier she told people, on Facebook, that she followed you and Dylan McCoy to Mapleton. Two different stories. So her credibility will be called into question."

"But that's what happened, I'm telling you! She was with us the entire time!"

Hardesty again nodded. "Any proof? Any witnesses besides you?"

"The motel clerk will surely remember. Jenna bought the room around midnight when we arrived. The room we were all staying in. There couldn't have been many customers at that hour."

"Yes, well, you're almost right: the motel clerk says there were, in fact, no customers at all during her entire shift that night, and the motel's books support her statement."

"But that's impossible—"

"A lot of things seem to be impossible, now, don't they? And yet something happened to get Dylan McCoy killed. Something possible happened."

"Yes, fine, but how else would Jenna have gotten the room keys?"

Hardesty looked at his secretary. "That's a good question."

Wes continued, "Or how would Dylan and I have gotten the keys even, if we supposedly arrived alone, if the desk clerk says nobody bought a room that night."

"Another good question. I don't have any information yet from the interviews the police will have conducted with other motel staff. It may be that this night clerk is an unreliable witness."

"She must be. She certainly sounds like it to me."

"Quite possible. Now we have other questions. Were you and the deceased, Mr. Dylan McCoy, were you sexually involved with him."

"No! God, what is this?"

"Mr. Carston, Wes, if I may, I know these questions are upsetting to you, but I promise that you will be asked far worse, and far more aggressively, by the police and by the state's attorney. So just to clarify, you and Mr. McCoy were not sexually involved?"

"No."

"Hmmmmm. Okay. Are you a homosexual?"

"No."

"Had Dylan McCoy, to your knowledge, ever engaged in a sexual act with another man?"

"No."

An incoming text message pinged on Hardesty's phone, and he looked at it. He said to his secretary, "Well, I think we better get moving. Paul has more information for me, and we should let Mr. Carston rest."

Tuesday, July 12th

The next day, Wes was interviewed by a police Detective Bucky Briscoe, with the Peoria County Sheriff's Department. Hardesty was present for the interview, as was Hardesty's secretary.

After Wes finished giving his statement, Briscoe, asked him, "Did you actually see the man you call Rip Callahan?"

"Yes, at the Owl's Nest."

"But did you see him at the Mapleton Inn, or anyplace besides the Owl's Nest?"

"No."

Briscoe asked, "How certain are you that Dylan said he and Jenna had argued?"

Wes hesitated, "I'm not certain at all."

"How certain are you that Dylan said Jenna's name when the door to your motel room opened?"

"Same: not at all. I mean I'm sure I think I heard him say her name, but I was drunk and I can't really trust my memory. I'm not even certain the door opened, or if I imagined it."

"Mr. Carston, have you ever taken cocaine?"

He didn't know how bad it could be for him, to lie to a policeman, but there was not enough time to consider the question, so he lied, "No. I have never taken cocaine."

"You didn't take cocaine on the night of July ninth, with your manager at the country club? Please tell the truth."

How the fuck did they find out about that? He hesitated. He couldn't say yes to this question without acknowledging he had lied in response to the first. And anyway, he wasn't going to be a snitch, not for this clown police detective: "No."

"Did your manager at the country club, Grant Gould, ask you to take cocaine with him at any time on the night of July ninth?"

Wes looked at his lawyer, who said, "Tell the truth."

The truth? What was the truth? Wasn't everything relative? Wes didn't actually know for a fact that it was cocaine. All Grant had said was "Bounty" and "quicker picker upper". Maybe it was powdered Red Bull. Maybe it was powdered instant coffee. What is cocaine? How does one know it? Does it come with a label? Most of all, though, Wes did not want to do anything that might get Grant in trouble, or make Grant angry with him. "No, Grant never asked me to take cocaine with him."

"Are you aware that Jenna Albright asked Grant Gould to talk you into using cocaine on that night?"

"No."

"Well she did. She sent him a text message at one fifteen that afternoon: 'Grant / its me / i need another favor / could you please get wes on coke tonight before he leaves work / i will repay favor'. And Mr. Gould responded, 'Consider it done / looking forward to repayment favor'."

The information startled Wes, and he did not know what to say.

Briscoe continued, "Whose idea was it to go to Mapleton?"

"Jenna's, I think. But it was just a spur-of-the-moment idea she had."

"How then do you account for the fact she booked that room, and another one besides, on the morning of July seventh. She booked two rooms. She booked them for three nights. She booked them in person and paid for them in advance with her credit card. We have her signature on the credit card transaction, and a desk clerk at the motel remembers seeing her the morning of July seventh, at the motel."

"But that's impossible. She only bought one room, and she bought it when we arrived after midnight."

"Did you actually see Ms. Albright purchase the room?"

"No."

"Did you actually see her enter the lobby?"

"I think I did. I don't know for sure. Dylan and I remained in the car. Jenna said she would run in and get a room."

"The only person at the motel who could positively identify her was this person who worked the desk the morning of July seventh, and this person swears that she sold Jenna Albright two rooms. Like I said, we've seen the receipt, a signed and dated receipt, for two rooms, room twenty-six-eight and room twenty-six, for three nights, on July seventh, two days before you claim she bought them."

Wednesday, July 13th

Hardesty visited Wes again the next day. "Your friend Jenna is quite a piece of work."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"She changed her story again."

"Why, what does she say now?"

"She claims that she and this Rip Callahan were friends, and the two of them had planned a practical joke on you and Dylan McCoy, but that Mr. Callahan was supposed to enter your room and shoot you two with a paint gun, and that he must have used a real gun instead, but that she doesn't know why."

Hardesty seemed to wait for some kind of response from Wes, but Wes had no response. He was stunned; he felt dizzy..

Hardesty continued, "But if Rip Callahan actually exists, then it would appear that he is more than a friend to her. The texts messages she allegedly sent him are sexually explicit, and openly acknowledge that she considered him a second boyfriend, and acknowledged that she was cheating on Dylan McCoy. In her messages, she jokes about cheating on Dylan McCoy with Rip Callahan. The only question is whether Rip Callahan even exists."

Wes said, "I don't understand why you keep questioning whether or not this guy exists. I told you that I saw him, and it sounds as though you have seen text messages between the two of them."

"Oh yes, well there are plenty of text messages, and phone calls too, but the device to which this cell phone number is assigned was a prepaid phone, purchased by her, with her credit card. Nobody can find it. She probably destroyed it. The prosecutor will certainly try to make that case. Aside from your encounter with this person at the Owl's Nest, there is absolutely no evidence that Rip Callahan exists or ever existed. The address Jenna gives as his residence is another blooper on her: the apartment appears to be uninhabited, and the landlord told us that your friend Jenna signed the lease, and pays the rent. The police interviewed the property manager, as well as all other tenants in the building, and although many remember seeing your Jenna going to and from that apartment, and remember seeing a couple different men as well, no one remembers seeing a man who matches the description of Rip Callahan. So far, the only time this person has hit anybody's radar screen was that night at the Owl's Nest—never before, and never after."

"So will she go to prison for murder?"

Hardesty said, "She's the chief suspect, the only suspect, really, but I would be surprised if they charge her with murder in any degree. From what I hear, they just don't have a case they believe they can sell to a jury. There's no apparent motive. I've also heard, however, that the State's Attorney would really, really like to charge her with something. He's afraid it looks as though she's being allowed to skate because she's white and she's from a wealthy family. But they need either better evidence, or a motive. I don't know what this girl was up to, but with her it's a whole different play every time."

Part 4

PEORIA, ILLINOIS
Sunday, August 6th

After Wes was released from the hospital, he returned to his parents' home at High Point Terrace to continue convalescing. Jenna had also returned to High Point Terrace.

She visited Wes one day, shortly after he got out of the hospital.

She said, "Hi."

"Hi Jenna."

"I guess I got some nerve, coming here. Your parents didn't look too happy with me."

Wes's first instinct was to reassure her, to tell her that he was glad she came, but then he realized he didn't know if he really was glad, and he wasn't so sure he should say things he didn't really mean. He said, "How are you doing?"

"I'm okay. I feel like my life has been ruined. How are you doing?"

"Better. The doctor said I could have been paralyzed. Actually, right now, I sort of am, but I'm in physical therapy, and he said I should be able to walk again."

"I hope you know that I did not do it, and I didn't know that would happen. I hope I don't even have to say so."

Again, he paused before responding. He wasn't mad at her, but he didn't know how he felt about her anymore. Dylan was dead, and it seemed pretty clear that she had caused that to happen, regardless of whether she intended it to. He said, "I just don't understand what happened, or why."

"I wish I could make you understand what happened. I mean, Christ, I'm a victim too."

That statement surprised Wes. "What do you mean by that?"

"Well it's pretty obvious, isn't it? Why isn't this obvious to anybody? It's a frame-up. I'm being framed for a murder I did not commit."

"Why would anybody want to frame you? I don't understand."

A little condescendingly, she said, "Oh god Wes. The world's not like high school. I wonder if you're ever going to realize that. But you aren't the only one. Nobody believes me, what really happened. Nobody believes it. My own lawyer told me never to repeat it to anyone, ever again."

"You mean about the whole thing being a prank that this guy Rip took too far?"

"Sort of, but not really. The truth, it's not something you ever think will happen to you."

"I don't understand. The truth?"

"The truth is that the whole goddamned thing was a shakedown. But nobody believes me. And that's what my lawyer says never to repeat again: the truth."

"A shakedown?"

She was silent for almost a minute. He wondered what she could be thinking about. Finally she said, "There was this guy, I met at a bar. He said his name was Rip, Rip Callahan. And I believed him. I became involved with him. I was cheating on Dylan with him. It didn't mean anything to me; the whole idea of cheating didn't mean anything to me, except that maybe I got a little high off the idea of it. Everyone keeps judging me, but I'm not going to apologize for that part. Dylan didn't own me, and I met another guy, and I wanted to be with both, so I did. I would've let Dylan do the same. But this guy, Rip, he wasn't who I thought he was; he wasn't what I thought he was. He wasn't who he said he was. He was very handsome—you saw that yourself, at the Owl's Nest. He passed himself off as some poor, stupid hottie out of Morton, and I fell for it. I don't know who he really was, but after I found that you and Dylan had been shot, everything happened very quickly. He was just using me. He was a roper, working me, steering me, little-by-little, trying to entrap me. They wanted to use me as leverage against my father. The whole thing was a set up. After they shot you and Dylan, they said they could cover the whole thing up, keep me out of trouble, if my father would give them some information they wanted."

"What do you mean, 'they'?"

"It was a conspiracy. I was the victim of a conspiracy. I don't know who they were, but there was without a doubt more than one, and they were using me to get information from my father."

"What information? What information could your father have that would be worth killing people for?"

"I don't know. It's some process. He's been working on it for years. He and his team at Cat. It's worth a lot of money. These people had everything planned: I can still remember pieces of what they said: a server in Japan, file transer protocol, check sums, zip files, encryption. All my father had to do was upload his files to this server, and they would make all the trouble go away, but he wouldn't do it. He just hung me out out to dry. Put his job ahead of his family. That's the kind of person he is."

Wes stared at her in disbelief: "When you say that they would make all the trouble go away, you mean they would find a way to cover up the murder?"

"Yes, but he refused. He called the FBI. He told me I had made my bed and now I had to lie in it—"

"I wonder if you can hear yourself speaking; if you understand what you're saying?"

"Wes, for Christ's sake, don't get high and mighty with me. It was done, and it couldn't be undone. I had to make a decision based on reality, not on what I wished for—"

"Reality? Do you understand that, if your father had given in, they would have discovered that I was still alive, that your secret boyfriend hadn't finished the job, and they would have had to kill me too?"

"Everyone just keeps judging me. This could have happened to anyone. You could be in my shoes. Am I supposed to feel guilty because I got taken by a con artist?"

He realized that he couldn't have a conversation about this with her, and he also realized that she might not even be telling the truth. Maybe she was telling the truth; maybe this was another fabrication. He didn't have the energy to be that interested.

They were quiet while she read something on her cell phone. Then she started typing on it.

After a while, he asked her, "Why did Dylan think I was gay. He said that to me, before he was shot. He said, 'I'm not like you; I'm not gay,' or something like that. But why would he say that? I'm not gay. You know that. And I never said anything to imply that I am. Where did he get that idea from?"

She rolled her eyes. "I told him that. He was getting real jealous of my friendship with you, so I just told him that so he would stop bothering me."

"Wasn't there another way to make him stop feeling jealous? Did you have to humiliate me? He thought I was trying to come on to him, and that wasn't true. And now he's dead."

"I see what this is all about: you; you and Dylan. Sure, I should have guessed it. I know you tried to turn him against me, while I was inside, at the Owl's Nest. You caused us to fight, you know. While you were in the bathroom, passed out or whatever you were. Whatever you were trying to start back at the Owl's Nest, well you should be glad to know it worked. Dylan turned against me. I wonder what you could have told him to make—"

"I never told him anything—."

"Oh Wes, I'm sure you didn't have to tell him anything. Probably a few well chosen hints dropped here and there to make him see me in a less and less favorable light. You know perfectly well how that's done. You're just bitchy enough to pull something like that off—"

"What is wrong with you? Dylan is dead, thanks to your lies, and you—"

"I wondered when you'd finally get to that. That's the heart of the matter, isn't it? You've always wanted to judge me. You weren't too good for me all those years when a little lying here and there suited your sense of fun, and even helped you feel a little better about yourself. But now, now you're just like all the others, only worse. You took from me, and now that I'm no longer good for anything—. The last thing you wanted to take from me was Dylan, wasn't it? Christ. You think Dylan would ever have even considered, for a moment, any kind of relationship with you? You think he would even have been friends with you, if it hadn't been for me? Well, he's dead now, so you can't take him away from me, and you can't use me for that anymore."

"That's a lie and you know it is."

"Do I Wes? I'm not so sure I do."

Part 5

About a year later, Jenna had moved to Los Angeles. She somehow got a movie deal, after which she became a minor celebrity when a sex video of her and Dylan mysteriously appeared on the Internet. She was even on the cover of Us magazine, under the headline "Real Life Femme Fatale?". In the article she vehemently denied any responsibility for Dylan's murder, and described her grieving process in what Wes considered the most absurdly exaggerated terms. Readers, however, wrote letters describing how moved they had been by the interview, and the article was followed by a series of talk show appearances.

He hadn't heard from her since she left Peoria.

Wes, in the meantime, had taken a job at a local bank, as a loan officer. Wes's father was friends with the bank president.

One day, while leaving work, he was checking his Facebook account, and noticed a new friend request, but did not recognize the name, Bill Davenport. He visited the person's profile page, and almost dropped his phone, because he immediately recognized the photograph: unmistakably Rip Callahan. According to the profile page, this person was from Cape Town, South Africa.

Wes wondered if it could be one of Jenna's pranks. He put his phone away. As he drove home, he thought of Jenna out there in Los Angeles, living her movie star life, and he doubted whether she would waste her suddenly glamorous time on him.

He drove to a Starbuck's, and responded to the message, "Who is this and what do you want?"

When he received a reply, the profile picture had been changed to a picture of somebody else: "I sent you a friend request. I think that customarily means I want to be your friend"

Wes: "Not necessarily"

"Well then what do YOU want?"

Wes: "What do you mean?"

"You could either accept or decline the friend request. You didn't have to message me. So what do you want from messaging me?"

Wes: "I want to know who this is"

"I think you know who this is"

Wes: "I want to know why you sent me that request"

"Okay, and I told you"

Wes: "You know the FBI is probably monitoring this exchange"

"It's possible / I don't think it's likely though"

Wes: "Then you aren't as smart as I thought you were"

"So you thought I was smart, eh? I like that"

Wes: "Surely you realize the FBI was involved?"

"Is that what Jenna told you? You might want to consider your source of information"

Wes: "Why wouldn't I believe her?"

"You're not seriously expecting an answer to that? / Although you will have to learn the difference between prudent caution and unhinged paranoia, I'll grant you this much, and suggest that we move the conversation to a chat room: https://www.fntntahk.co.za/tmrnt/2634233"

Wes: "And what if I don't want to?"

"I hope for your sake you will one day stop asking stupid questions like that / and before you ask why is that stupid I will tell you: / it's stupid because it's unproductive / the answer is obvious: / if you don't want to / then don't do it / Also it's inefficient / because there is actually information you want from me / so you should just ask me the necessary questions directly / instead of wasting my time with byplay."

Wes: "Oh really? / What are the questions you think I really want to ask?"

"You're smart; figure it out / Canceling my friend request and deleting this account / If you want to reach me, do so within fifteen minutes at that chat room. Stop letting fear be your motivator, unless you want to work in that bank job until you retire. If that's the life you want, then good luck with it. Signing off"

Within minutes the Bill Davenport account was deleted.

He felt frustrated and confused. He thought he should be offended or insulted or pissed off. What he felt, however, was more like embarrassment. And he was aware of feeling flattered and curious. Rip had chosen to contact him, had shown interest in him. Wes wanted more contact with that. Rip seemed to possess considerable insight. Wes wanted more of that too. He had fewer than ten minutes to decide. It was almost as if he had been presented with two vastly different roads for his life, and had been given fifteen minutes to decide which to take. Then he rationalized: even if he went to the chatroom, he wouldn't really be committing to anything, not irrevocably. The smart play, he thought, would be to visit this chatroom, and just see what happens there.

He clicked the chatroom link. The site prompted him to choose a user name. He chose "Wes". Once inside the chatroom,he saw one other user already signed in: The Real Ramona. That seemed weird. Could that be Rip? What a strange name to select.

He typed, "Real Ramona, who are you?"

The Real Ramona replied, "You really don't have much of a flare for subterfuge, do you?"

Wes: "Who is this?"

The Real Ramona: "It's the person you're looking for, WES: Wesley Carston from Peoria, Illinois."

Wes: "Jesus Christ, are you insane! Don't use my name."

The Real Ramona "Then don't use it yourself, you fool."

Wes: "Okay, that's true. Sorry."

The Real Ramona: "No need to apologize to me. It's your hide."

Wes: "Can we speak openly on this?"

The Real Ramona: "You have questions. Why don't you just ask them, and I'll answer them if I can."

Wes: "Why did you think Jenna was lying about the FBI?"

The Real Ramona: "In this case, she might have simply been retelling a lie that was told to her. Or, knowing her, she might have been making shit up."

Wes: "Who would have told her that?"

Rip: "Did anybody from the FBI interview you?"

Wes: "No. I don't think so."

Rip: "Well don't you find that a little strange?"

Wes: "I suppose. But surely Jenna's father did call the FBI."

Rip: "One thing you should know is that I'm only ever told exactly what I need in order to do my job. No more, and often a whole lot less. So I'm just guessing here: Jenna's father wanted people to think he called the FBI. At the same time, the FBI is probably the last people he'd want investigating what happened."

Wes: "I don't understand. Why would he do that? Why would he want that?"

Rip: "I'm not gonna spell it out for you."

Wes: "Maybe you could at least spell out for me why you tried to kill me, when I had nothing to do with anything."

Rip: "First of all, I didn't try to kill you. If I had tried to kill you, you would be dead. I shot you because I had to. You shouldn't take that personally. That was business. I'm a professional. You got to take the technical view of things: I had a job to do. Impersonal. Step one, step two, step three, I did it. Actually, in this case, I was unprofessional. I let my feelings interefere. I shot you, but I didn't kill you, because I liked you. / But you and your friend were easy marks, and my bosses will know that I intentionally chose not to kill you, by which I mean that I intentionally disobeyed orders."

Wes: "So what, you think I should thank you or something?"

Rip: "I couldn't care less one way or another. Maybe if you looked inside yourself a little more, you'd realize that I gave you the one thing you really needed at that moment. I'll bet anything you're a stronger person today than you were a year ago, and I'll bet you anything that being forced to recover from that gushot wound made you stronger. I gave you the push you needed."

Wes: "The push I needed for what?"

Rip: "To become a man. You're a clamor kid. Evidently still are. You have a long way left to go, but I got you started, and I'm willing to help you finish."

Wes: "How's that?"

Rip: "I want you to get your passport, buy a plane ticket for Cape Town, get on a plane, and come here."

Wes: "You don't seriously think I would agree to something like that?"

Rip: "Why not? You have something better going for yourself? I don't mean to be cruel, but you seriously want to stay where you are, working in that bank? Unless I'm very much mistaken, your daddy would give you all the money you want to leave Peoria. And when you return, I think he will be quite pleasantly surprised."

Wes: "I still don't understand. Aren't you taking an awfully big risk by contacting me."

Rip: "I have to take risks. That's my job. Besides, I'm safe, and the risk, well, it's worth it."

Wes: "Why?"

Rip: "Because of you. You're worth it. So unspoiled. I love it. You're a volcano of potential—I saw that in you from what Jenna told me, and from what I saw with my eyes. I'm a roper, mostly. I'm trained to spot different kinds of potential in people, and the potential in you is of the very best kind. Pure analloyed gold. I want it."

Wes: "Tell me what really happened in Mapleton."

Rip: "Come to Cape Town, and I'll tell you what I know. Here's a hint: it's about the value of mines that have no real value. That's all I'll tell you, unless I see you in Cape Town."