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The Harder They Fall

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I.

This is how Richard Strand falls in love: Attention caught by a woman who challenges him, he tries to reason his way out of the illogical feeling; but for a man so preoccupied with order, the chaos of the emotion conquers him too easily and too entirely.

So too did Sisyphus struggle against the weight of the boulder.

###

Eleven messages (and a dozen more emails). Unbelievable, the gall of some people. Of some Seattleite reporter.

Strand dials the number and gets her voicemail.

“Hello, I’m returning one of eleven calls from somebody named… Alex Reagan? It’s Richard Strand. Okay, goodbye.”

A week later, the woman who’s been harassing his staff meets him in his office. She’s short, shorter than even Ruby, so he has to crane his neck at an uncomfortable downward angle to avoid directing his gaze over her head. She’s pretty, but not of an uncommon variety: the tresses of her shoulder-length brown hair and the noted lack of makeup speak of a practical plainness. Her brown eyes study the room, and he can’t decide if she’s more like a child soaking in a new setting or a soldier surveying the path ahead for land mines. He settles for a creature of purposeful curiosity.

Already he likes her more than her standard NPR counterparts. And he doesn’t like most people (or public radio show hosts).

He gestures toward a pair of chairs next to his desk to distract her observant eyes from the secrets of his past, held secure in black VHS cases in the back room.

“Is this okay?”

Her eyes flick toward him, and he’s gratified that she’s self-aware enough to show a little embarrassment. He gently ribs her about being a radio reporter (“People still listen to the radio?”), and makes a mental note to Google what a podcast is after she leaves.

Her questions are trite, common, and he’s irritated that she isn’t as intriguing a person as he suspected. He launches into his practiced lecture (“Isn’t there enough wonder and beauty in the world?”), and she surprises him when she gets out of her chair and strolls over to the bookshelf of solved cases. He can’t help but think her impertinent for ignoring him in favor of her own interest. It’s only fair—she is a journalist—but he doesn’t like the way she feels entitled to explore his space.

He trails her as she runs her fingers along the spines of the tape cases. She questions him about the contents of the tapes, but still keeps her eyes averted from him, like she’s photographing every inch of his office and committing it to a database in her brain. His mind inadvertently shows him too familiar flashes of a woman’s wicked smirk as she saunters away, looking anywhere but in his direction; the way thoughts of her test his concentration as he handwrites portions of his thesis; the almost animal urge to chase her until he can sink his teeth into her neck and claim her as his; the surge of self-indulgent masculine pride as Coralee finally said yes to that first dinner date.

Strand’s mouth goes dry when he sees Reagan peek into the equipment room, her eyes fixating on the small bookcase of black VHS tapes.

He shuts her down, fast, and ushers her out of his office with forced politeness. The way her eyes glimmer with defiance stab him in the gut, and his willpower collapses, floored by the simple appeal of a self-assured woman. He ignores Ruby’s smirking face (Could you be any more obvious, boss?) as he addresses Reagan.

“I do have to get to a meeting, but please feel free to call if you have any additional questions.”

So of course Reagan does call him back, and he can’t say he’s shocked or displeased; and he’s not unhappy when she returns to the Institute a day later, her sunny disposition brightening the grays and whites of his overly organized office. She’s like a honey trap that reduces him to a fly—he can’t help but respond to her offer of proof of the paranormal.

In the next fifteen minutes he sinks into the practiced familiarity of the skeptic. He likes to think of himself as an educator.

(Stop peacocking, you ass, his mind chides.)

Strand thoroughly and entirely debunks the “ghost” footage, and he finds himself disappointed with how easily the University of Illinois-Urbana’s resident crackpot Emily Dumont has duped Reagan. Somehow in the three days of knowing this journalist, he has come to expect a higher degree of intelligence. He’s wasting his time trying to show off by disproving a case as simplistic as the one she’s brought to him.

So it’s as if she’s ripped up the carpeting and flipped him onto his back when asks the question: “What’s the difference between these white tape cases and the single row of black tapes in your equipment room? Can I take a look?”

He feels the ache in his shoulder blades and realizes that, yes, Alex Reagan hides a predator’s intelligence behind her doe eyes.

He draws out the silence, a long held breath before he delivers her sentence. Will he send her into exile? Or will he offer mercy in anticipation of the gratitude she will bestow? He savors the return of power to his hands, groping it with sensual longing before he releases it back into the ether.

“Sure. I can show you a case.”

Her exhale is soft and relieved, and he gazes at her pretty face: the countenance of a spy who’s tricked her way into accessing clandestine information, a veritable Rosenberg. He wonders which of his atomic secrets she will pass on to her handlers.

They sit together and watch the Torres tapes, her shoulder casually bumping up against arm. It’s almost summertime in Chicago, and she’s in a sleeveless blouse. He laments his stuffy suit jacket and wishes he could feel the sudden burn of 2,000 volts arcing between the soft skin of her upper arm and his elbow, the heart-stopping force of her physical touch.

(His heart skips a beat.)

###

Brush and sticks crunch under their feet as they hike their way through the woods of the Portola Redwood State Park. Jagged edges of shadows periodically disrupt Strand’s vision as sunlight dances down in between the leaves overhead. Alex and he are the only ones out on the trail today suffering through the blistering heat of the Californian summer. He misses the whipping breezes of his own windy city, even the dreary rains of Seattle. Sweat drenches the back of his button-up, and he wishes he had Alex’s foresight: she’s in athletic gear and sneakers.

He doesn’t pay much attention to the conversation as they walk deeper and deeper into the forest. He’s too busy cursing himself for agreeing to walk all this way, just to see a crime scene he already has pictures of on his laptop. But of course there is no saying no to the force of nature that is Alex’s unending curiosity. Where some might regard her as nosy, he classifies her as intrepid. It is not her lack of passion, after all, that is her failing. It’s her lack of rationality, her desire to get swept up in the twisted romance of a mystery. She’s better than that; or at least he thinks more highly of her than that.

At first he’d fought the stranger in his head who took note of little details: how Alex takes her coffee, what makes her laugh. It’d been years since he heard that voice, and it took him months to identify it. Affection, he’d intuited at last, and not of a courteous, professional variety. He generally ignores the interloper in favor of more rational pursuits, but on those nights when he voyages through his mind, a sailor without a sextant, the voice whispers sweet futures on the salty breeze. He’s since warmed to it and accepted the new wind in his sails.

Sometimes that pleasant breeze churns the air into gusts, and he holds fast for dear life, trying not to capsize. The outsider reveals its nasty side, agitating the sea around him.

He’d been jealous. It’s an ugly word, an ugly emotion, and an irrational one at that. It fits him like unironed flannel: unseemly and plebian and ugly. Strand despises how the instinctive feeling lowers him to the baseness of human experience. The sensation tastes even sourer when he recalls that it is the self-help scammer Tannis Braun he envies, for stealing his investigative partner for a whole afternoon. When he’d asked Alex about her time in the park last night, he’d imagined her strolling at a leisurely pace with Tannis, only the pleasant breeze and the soothing chirps of birds to chaperone the twosome’s time in the woods.

Now he regrets his quick acceptance of Alex’s request. The heat is oppressive. He’s out of his element, a fish out of water, a Strand out of academia.

They finally come across the cabin. It’s certainly a ways off the main trail. As soon as he enters, he welcomes the cool shadows of the structure, a reprieve from the sun. It should be as sweltering inside the cabin, but he doesn’t protest the chill that relieves his overheated skin. The temperature drop reinvigorates his cognitive ability, and he starts processing the iconography with interest.

Alex’s rapt gaze as he explains the placement of the equations doesn’t hurt, either.

But what are the attentions of women to obscure religious symbology? The verbal rabbit hole of sacred geometry and the Golden Ratio overtake him until he’s seeing the world in terms of demonic mathematics.

Is he doomed to become his father, just as obsessed with Sumerian lore and just as destructive to his family? Well, he’s got one half of that already covered, with an estranged daughter and a dead wife.

The nervous note in Alex’s voice splits his attention in two, so that the analytical part of his brain continues to run on overdrive speculating about rogue monastic orders and violent rituals, and the emotional part of his brain urges him to offer comfort. The two converge at a set point, the place where they so often agree: “You do realize that none of this is real, right?”

“Of course,” she says, her voice aflutter with fear. He’s seen enough of this freezing cabin.

“Let’s head back,” he offers, already dreading resurfacing into the sunlight.

Alex nods her assent. She remains quiet almost the whole hike back to the car, only responding in halfhearted laughter when he tries to make a joke. On the drive back, she blasts the radio to tune out the deafening roar of silent fear.

When he walks her to her hotel room, it’s only his self-restraint and conservative nature that keeps him from reaching out and cupping her cheek. Instead, he offers her all the peace he can.

“It’s okay, Alex. None of it is real.”

“Yes, yes, of course.” Then, with the flourish of smile that blinds him with its sunlight: “Thanks for today!” And her door closes.

He runs a finger down her door to the knob and checks the lock. He longs and longs and longs.

###

II.

This is how Richard Strand falls apart: The tragedy of his past revealed to the world, worn bare and ragged by one Alex Reagan, he fights to temper his madness; but for such a composed man, he crumbles under the emotional weight too readily.

He loses his grip on the boulder, and it rolls back down the craggy mountainside.

###

His descent begins with a cassette tape. Coralee’s ghostly voice from the halcyon days of their past, musing over the movements of bees and the nature of love. Her mind worked differently than his. She saw beauty in belief where he only saw self-deception.

Look where that got her, his mind snaps, the bitter misery of a widower driving him further into the clinical, the mechanical, the explainable.

He plays the audio file once more in self-flagellation until his back bleeds. Even the cassette tape, the original, is lost to the uncaring movements of time.

“Richard, I’m so sorry, Pacific Northwest Stories didn’t digitize the whole tape,” Alex had told him, and her look of pity had made him want to smack her.

Strand is a self-aware being, though. He knows he’s unable to process overwhelming emotion in a productive way. It comes out instead in verbal tirades against believers, in screaming matches on the side of the highway, in the desire to knock some sense into a woman he is at once fond of and furious with. It comes out in his hatred of his dead wife: She left him. Even if she was taken (serial killers or something darker, he doesn’t care which anymore), she chose to abandon him, raise the white flag of easy surrender instead of fighting the good fight to preserve the marriage. Her French ancestry, he thinks. But that’s unfair. It’s an insult to the French.

He tears the ear buds out in rage so all he hears is the stillness of his empty hotel room. A poor impression of an impressionist landscape hangs dejectedly over the nondescript bed. It has more personality than his house in Chicago. The air inside his Chicago home is so thick with stagnancy, it’s like wading through quicksand. The stillness of the hotel room has a lower viscosity, so he is able to make his way to the bed. He collapses in a sad heap of lost personhood and falls asleep in his street clothes.

Over the next few weeks, Alex gets more brazen about asking him about Coralee: his feelings, his search, her affair.

“How did hearing her voice like that make you feel?”

“What happened when you disappeared for those five days?”

“Was the man’s name… Warren?”

Each question is a like a knife thrust into his gut, a crack in the artifice of detachment he has built up over two decades. The back of his mind warns that one day Alex will run him straight through with the sword of her tongue and the sharp edge of her watchful mind. The front of his mind stamps Alex Reagan as ally and friend (and he has so precious few of those).

He can scarcely maintain the unflappable demeanor when Alex delivers the news that Coralee might be alive. Not just alive, but living near Lake Tahoe. Under an assumed name. With a post office box. It sounds like her—Coralee did have a flair for the dramatic—but he doesn’t believe it. He can’t. Even if she has a post office box near Lake Tahoe, the Coralee he knew (and loved) died in 1997.

The affection and respect he holds for Alex splinters like a hairline crack in a window. It almost shatters when she aims a loaded handgun of a question to his head: “Did the fight get… physical?”

There’s accusation in her voice, tempered by a hesitance he registers as fear. Is she afraid he’ll hurt her?

“No,” responds, angry he even has to dignify her with an answer.

She prods further, brandishing her distrust like she’s ready to pistol-whip him. Every discrepancy in his story that she mentions rings out like a warning shot.

“I didn’t have anything to do with my wife’s disappearance,” Strand hisses. He can’t believe her line of questioning. Why is she deconsecrating Coralee’s grave and digging up an empty coffin? Can’t she let Coralee’s nothingness rest buried in the earth, appropriately forgotten?

This is what he gets for trusting a self-assured woman: betrayal, always betrayal. He shifts uncomfortably in his chair and makes to leave the room. The simple touch of Alex’s fingers trailing on the back of his hand stops him. He realizes that this is her greatest weapon, not the probing questions or the skittish distrust, but her understated acts of affection, the pained face that communicates enough empathy for the both of them. She accuses and she comforts, she mistrusts and she cares, and the dualism of her reaction to his presence is a horrifying Jekyll and Hyde act.

Alex squeezes his fingers in apology, and he stays. He’ll take his chances.

###

He can’t stand her anymore, can’t brush aside her little duplicities—Alex has twisted his words like the snake that she is, and when she finds him collapsed on the floor, she strikes at his soft underside, a predator going in for the kill. He can’t quite shake the disgusted feeling of being used by someone he trusts. His memory flashes back to him combing through credit card statements and cell phone records, uncovering his wife’s tryst that he’d been blind to all those months.

“This isn’t some kind of game, Alex,” he hisses, and he’s glad it’s a phone call instead of in person, because he’s tempted to shove her against a wall with a kind of savagery and castigate her about sticking her nose in places it doesn’t belong.

How does she do it? How does Alex catch the one weakness in the body armor of emotional detachment? How does she know to go straight for the throat, viper fangs bared in attack?

She has the gall to tell him that Coralee not being dead changes everything. The urge to hit her reveals itself dark and ugly in the pit of his stomach.

Nothing will change, no one’s life will change, except that it means a woman he once loved decided it was more bearable to fake her own death and disappear entirely than to spend one more minute working on their broken marriage or raising a daughter together.

He bites back a question: “Whose life changes?”

“It’s not that simple,” comes her calm, collected reply, and he’s irritated with her composure.

“Richard?” she calls, and the gentle familiarity of his first name contrasted with the weight of her treachery is what pushes him over the edge. She’s finally done it, what he foresaw so long ago (and he’s not a psychic, he’s just good at predicting the logical outcome of a situation). She runs him clean through with her blade, cleaving his chaotic heart in two, and the weapon slides out his back, cutting a hole through his suit jacket. The worst part is her weapon of choice: she’s stolen his fondness for her and sharpened its edges. She brings him to his knees by speaking his name in a fashion he might consider affectionate, if not for the blood staining his button-up.

“Goodbye, Alex,” he answers, and slams down the receiver. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as smashing a heavy landline into its base. The raw physicality of the act, compared to a tap on a touch screen, makes it particularly gratifying.

For the first few days he sulks. He calls in to the Institute and tells Ruby that’s he’ll be taking a few days since he’s coming down with something. He can hear the incredulity in her voice—she was in the office during that disaster of a phone call—but he doesn’t have the patience to correct her assumptions.

The next week he has a fire under his feet, engines running, pistons firing, all systems go. He needs to find out what Thomas Warren had on Coralee all those years ago.

He Googles and Bings and Yahoos and whatever other nouns the digital generation has turned into verbs. Tracking Thomas Warren’s movements is difficult, especially in the early 90s when the Internet hadn’t yet invaded the lives of the masses. It’s like trying to find the ghost of his dead and not-dead wife (and he doesn’t believe in ghosts).

So he takes to the old-fashioned methods of investigation, pounding the pavement and talking to contacts. As the weeks pass, the order of his office descends into a chaos of conspiracy: photos and news clips all pinned up in string, these are a few of his new favorite things. He can’t find the time to run his suits to the dry cleaner. Little joys that used to please him lose their sweetness. He bids farewell to the satisfaction of a good shave, a neat crease on a pressed shirt, a travel mug of hot tea for the commute.

Drowning was never so freeing.

###

III.

This is how Richard Strand falls back on Alex Reagan: Stunned and not stunned to find an ethically questionable reporter breaking into his office, he doesn’t even try to resist her anymore; for a man of such strong will, he welcomes her back into his life all too readily.

He sprints down the mountain after the boulder, hoping to catch it before it rolls too far out of his reach.

###

The scampered footfalls of Converse down the hall alert him to a developing situation in his office, and he shouldn’t be surprised that some Seattleite reporter has made it her personal life goal to pester him and his staff. If she died, she’d probably continue to haunt the place as a poltergeist, ringing the telephone off the hook and floating audio recorders into his face. Even though ghosts don’t exist, she would find a way to become one through sheer dogged willpower.

Strand forces the office door fully open with a hand calloused from months of sifting through paper files. He soaks in all her manic grandeur. Wan skin and ashy eyes inform him that one Alex Reagan has in fact left the physical realm and assumed spirithood.

“It’s okay, Ruby,” he says. With an exaggerated roll of her eyes, Ruby closes the door behind her.

“Hi,” Alex breathes. How fortuitous. His leads have died off one after another, gone cold with the temperature and buried under the snow, and along comes the one person he knows eager to chase a story to the ends of the earth.

He gestures towards the one chair in the room not covered with banker’s boxes and redrope files.

“Please, sit down.” He considers her another moment as she lowers herself onto the seat. “I need your help.”

He observes the fight playing out on her face: eyes wide with interest, lips turned down in judgment.

They verbally tussle over turning off recorder, but her heart’s not in it, and he doesn’t have the energy. He settles for diplomacy as the wisest choice of action, an uncharacteristic move from a man who dons the shroud of devil’s advocate like a clerical collar. (He’s losing the faith.)

Three months or three days? Does it matter anymore? He falls back into the old dynamic easily enough, but there’s a tonal shift from the first time she joined him in his office. She’s invested beyond the story. It’s a smokescreen that hides certain truths from her. He seizes the power in the partnership, and a thrill hums under his skin, separate from the practical implications of a new ground agent he can deploy. It’s a faint tingling of the delight in victory, the influence gained from a position of authority. It’s a taste of the darkness that overtook him those few weeks in 1997, intoxicating in its animalism—until he awoke from the stupor with a bloody fist and a police psychic collapsed before him.

The tang of darkness on his taste buds exacerbates his mania after Alex departs Chicago. Strand’s attentions veer in a dozen different directions; he jet-sets around the country in a frenzied pursuit of truth. Atlanta doesn’t pan out (not that he expects it to), and neither does Boston. Sacramento shows some promise, but ultimately that possibility is just sand trickling in between his fingers.

Ruby calls, and he ignores her. Three times. He instead phones Alex for an update, his clipped responses reproaching her for not working faster.

One contact’s information reveals something about a dig in Iraq. Armed with new data, he terminates his cross-country spree in Seattle and commandeers the PNWS office, leveraging a new crew of manpower. There’s some resistance in the ranks, so he’s grateful when the first mate returns from her separate voyage.

“Ah. Good. I’m glad you’re here,” he tells Alex as she enters Studio B, purse slung over her should and audio recorder in hand. (He used to regard the device as an extension of Alex herself, but now he has the power to turn it off; he has seen the woman separate from her tiny electronic safeguard, how tired and vulnerable and lost she really is, and he’d be scared for her if he had the time to process anything other than Thomas Warren’s investments in the Middle East).

The straightforward conversation teleports him back in time to the sweltering days of summer, when she asked the questions, her demeanor eager, and he cloaked his mania in suits and self-restraint. It flows too easily, and before he knows it, he’s pulled Alex under, drowning her in the myth of the aquatic creatrix and chaos monster that stains his family history. Except Alex dunks her head under willingly, seemingly tingling with anticipation for the moment the air leaves her lungs.

She changes her mind at the last second: she grabs him by the armpits and drags him up back to the surface, her slim legs struggling against the pressure of the depths.

“Come on, I’m taking you to lunch. And I’m not taking no for an answer.”

Come hell or high water, she’s his life preserver; he finds he can’t (won’t) refuse her.

###

The lights of the Bay Bridge twinkle over the San Francisco Bay, an upside down doppelganger wavering in the blackened water. City light pollution spills out from Oakland beyond the bridge, and the farther glow of Emeryville and Berkeley glisten in the darkness of the evening. In the foreground of the window he watches Alex approach, her reflection a mere shadow of the flesh-and-blood body that drops a hefty stack of papers next to the news clippings he’s supposed to be reviewing.

There’s something about the lights and the bridge and the bay, the black morass of the ocean fading into the ether. It’s a foreign landscape, nothing like the view of Lake Michigan at night. He doesn’t want to return to the frenzied drudgery of late night research.

“Nic’s FOIA request finally got a response,” Alex chirps, an eager student seeking approval from the master. He rolls his shoulders, waking himself from the intimate moment he’s shared with the bay, and swivels in the desk chair to face her. Behind her he notes his suitcase perched carelessly on a stool, and the papers strewn all over the bed. It’s not like he was planning to sleep anyway.

“A lot of it’s redacted, but there might be some useful information in there on the shell company Deva Corp. was using.”

She’s swaying side-to-side in excitement like she does sometimes when she uncovers something extraordinary. Her voice tap-dances through a summary of the facts she’s found, and he almost smiles. He’s glad he brought her along this time, instead of running himself ragged and alone around the country. She’s adaptive like a liquid, filling whatever space she occupies with a warmth and inquisitiveness that persists even after her innocence is long gone. Tormented infants or rotten corpses or pentagrams smeared in blood, nothing can even splinter her drive to see the story to its end. It’s something he’s grown to appreciate in Alex.

“Excellent,” he offers, struggling to make sense of the high-level details. He’s lost focus on shell companies. He feels like a shell of a person. He’s so tired.

“Are you okay? You look a little dazed,” Alex says, waving her hands in front of his face. She’s still riddled with tremors of excitement over the new FOIA documents (or possibly from her third cup of coffee for the evening), so her movements are jittery. He’s jealous of her, how vivacious, how alive she gets when she’s onto something, and he’s fading fast with age.

“I’m fine,” he mutters, and she clucks her tongue in disapproval.

Strand dislikes Alex’s new habit of halting the investigation to exercise her maternal instinct. Running out to the deli down the street wastes time when he can get his necessary nutrition from protein bars or other snack foods. Sleeping in a bed is a silly luxury when the floor will do just fine—it would be unwise to ruin the organization of the files splayed out over the comforter.

It’s hard to say no to her, though. And underneath the rational layer of annoyance, a childish part of his heart embraces the understated sweetness of having someone who cares.

“Come on, you should get some sleep,” she says. Alex gathers the photos and documents from the bed before he can utter his protests. She balances the heap of files next to his suitcase with a certain feminine grace.

“Come on,” she repeats over his grumble. She approaches the chair and taps her palm twice against his shoulder. “Go to bed.”

Strand stands up weakly. “What about you?”

“Sleep is more important for people your age.” She cracks a smile; her backhanded affection has caught up with his. “I’ll check out the FOIA documents again, see if that takes me anywhere.”

Alex returns to the desk and heaves the stack of papers up with a grunt of exertion. She’s planning to carry that up three flights to her hotel room?

“There’s no need to move all that,” he says, and then, more shyly: “It’s fine if you use the desk.”

She nods and releases the stack of paper back onto the desk in relief.

He falls asleep to the rhythm of her pencil scratching the pages, a pleasant hum lingering sweet and low in her throat.

###

IV.

This is how, after everything, Richard Strand falls into place: shock tingling electric in his fingertips, fearful of her truth, he vacillates between flight and action; for a man so reserved, his response is too excited and too sudden.

This time, when he starts to push the boulder back up the mountain, Alex’s tiny fearless figure struggles alongside him, and the stone isn’t so heavy anymore.

###

He slams her body up against the wall of her living room, blood coursing with exhilaration. He thumbs the base of her earlobe and wraps his fingers around the back of her neck, threading them through the ends of her hair. She’s a tiny thing, just at his shoulder level. She’s a bundle of contradiction: lips parted halfway in anticipation as she breathes fast and ragged, hands clutching at the wall behind her in apprehension.

The heady rush of control alights in his brain and his gut, urges him to take, take her. Neurons fire at breakneck speeds as he battles between the visceral want for further physical contact and the urge to sit her down and discuss this rationally.

He snakes his other hand around her side, hiking her tee shirt up a little so it ruches at her waist. How is he supposed to react? He’s skeptical of her, but he needs to give it proper thought. He at least owes her that. It’s not every day (or year, or decade) a woman tells him she loves him.

He swallows her muffled squeak and it takes his brain a full five seconds to catch up to his body: Ah, he’s kissing her. At some primal level, he’s already made the decision. He hides behind rationality but he is, at his core, an emotional being. He rises too easily to provocation, debates too passionately, and lashes out in distress too quickly. He kisses before he gives an answer to the implied question.

(Does he love her back?)

He’s confused, and ecstatic in his confusion. The simple freedom of not knowing what happens next, but maybe seeing where things could go, is like an expatriate returning home, a lost friend turned familiar.

She grabs at his flannel with violent exuberance, going for the buttons at his collar; she’s a commander focused on taking down her targets one by one, until she thrusts the flannel off past his arms.

“The hipster look is terrible on you,” she murmurs into his ear. “I miss the ties.”

The navy undershirt is her next victim. She focuses her attacks, practiced and methodical, as though she has studied him from the corner of the room for years.

But when it’s his turn to retaliate, he finds the process not so exacting as he imagined. Her milky skin’s gone pale from sleepless nights in front of an LED screen, but it feels soft and smooth under his fingertips. It’s as though his hands intimately know the dip of her collarbone and the curve of her hips.

“Alex,” he mumbles through the haze of exhaustion and lust.

“Alex,” he slurs as her chest rises and falls in uneven breaths.

“Alex,” he breathes as he sees stars.

Her uttered name is a prayer for something greater and something better; it’s a plea to the universe that he can love her as well as she loves him.

###

V.

This is how Richard Strand lives: he falls and rises, falls and rises. He falls again; he rises again.

Maybe Camus was right: the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.

One must imagine Strand a happy man.

###