The swimming pool at the Econo-Lodge was empty. There was a problem with it and they had to drain it so they gave us free drink coupons for the cocktail lounge to keep us from complaining, maybe asking for money back on the rooms. Anyway, those free drink coupons, that’s why I was in the cocktail lounge at three o’clock in the afternoon, cooling myself with mojitos instead of cooling myself in the pool, and that’s where I saw her. Not the first time I saw her. The first time I saw her was at the desk. She was checking in ahead of us. Little thing. Pretty. Sweet. Blonde. Maybe, oh maybe twenty. It was about three, three-thirty in the afternoon when I saw her in the cocktail lounge. It was freezing in there. Eddie said that was because the air conditioning was set to cool the place when it’s full of people and they don’t bother adjusting it. Eddie’s the cute bartender. I met him the first night, when Larry was up in the room after all the driving. So, it’s freezing and she’s sitting at the bar with a beer and she’s in this little camisole and she’s all clenched up. I assume from the cold. I knew what to expect when I went in there so I brought a sweater. Middle of the summer, middle of Arizona and I brought a sweater. It’s crazy. I go down to her part of the bar and I say hello and tell her she looks cold does she want to borrow my sweater. She looks at me like she’s surprised somebody’s talking to her, surprised somebody saw her there, sitting at the bar. She says thanks and takes this sort of olive colored sweater of mine with a zipper, no buttons which Larry says makes it a jacket, but I call it a sweater and he says it doesn’t matter what I call it, the thing is a jacket. So, she takes my “sweater” and puts it over her shoulders and says her name is Shelly. You want some company, Shelly? And she almost thinks about it, then she sees me looking at her thinking about it and she blushes. Freezing cold in the cocktail lounge and she goes all red and says sure. I go back for my mojito and sit down next to her. Eddie puts a whole bowl of chips in front of us with salsa. To keep you warm, he says. I ask her what she thinks of Flagstaff and she says she hasn’t seen much of it. She’s waiting for them to fix her car. She’s only driving through. From Eugene, in Oregon. She’s going to San Antonio. Outside of San Antonio. Fort Sam Houston. There’s a big military hospital there. Her brother’s in the hospital. He was hurt in Iraq and they flew him to this hospital in Texas. Thirty-six hours from the time he was hurt to the time he’s in Texas. Amazing. It’s a burn hospital. It’s where they send soldiers who are really badly burned. In the war. His Hummer blew-up. The other soldiers were killed and he was burned. Her brother’s name is Ben. I get all this in one, big blast, like I pulled a cork or something. He’s her big brother and he’s in Texas and that’s where she’s going as soon as they fix her car. I tell her he’s going to be really glad to see her and she smiles and says she wants to see him too, but she’s afraid. She’s afraid he’s going to see on her face how bad he looks. He’s burned something like eighty-percent of his body. I told her she’ll do fine which is what you’re supposed to tell people in that kind of situation. So we sit there in the cold, drinking and talking and watching the sun go down and feeling no pain. I tell her about working in the grocery store, she tells me about working in the dentist’s office which is something I could never do, but she says it’s really not bad and the two dentists she works for are really good and great with kids. Gentle. I think I’m taking her mind off her brother which means I’m doing her a favor. Somewhere in there Larry comes looking for me. He wants dinner and I ask Shelly if she wants to join us and I can feel Larry next to me wishing I hadn't asked her, but screw Larry, she needs some human companionship. So, we go into the restaurant and that’s where Larry first hears about Shelly’s brother being back from Iraq and Larry says her brother is a hero. A real American hero. He’s what America is all about. Shelly says Ben signed up right after nine-eleven and Larry said he was thinking about doing that back then too which is the first I ever heard about that. Larry says the whole country owes it to Shelly’s brother to stay in there, stay the course and get the job done, make the world a safer place, get them before they get us. Larry’s big on the war. I was feeling a little left out of the conversation so I had another mojito which is why I don’t have a clear sense of things after the entrees came. I know I woke up back in the room, in bed and Larry wasn’t there. I called his name, but he wasn’t there, and then I must have gone back to sleep. Later I heard the shower. The shower woke me up. It was still dark and Larry was in the bathroom taking a shower. That didn’t make any sense to me. I was still pretty swimmy and I fell back asleep before he came out of the bathroom so I couldn’t ask him where he’d been or why he thought he had to take a shower in the middle of the night. His hair was still wet when I woke up and he was there in bed with me, with his back to me. Wet from the shower. The pillow under his head was damp. This was seven, seven-thirty. I stayed in bed next to him till eight. Then I got out of bed and took my own shower. I wasn’t sneaking around, I just wasn’t making any extra noise. I put my face on, got dressed and Larry was still asleep when I left the room and went down to the free Continental Breakfast. I got myself some orange juice and a Danish and I sat down to wait for her. I was sitting there half an hour when she came in with her suitcase. She didn’t look good. She looked like she’d been crying, but I didn’t let that get to me. She didn’t stop at the table with the Continental Breakfast, she was going through to the desk. I said, where are you going in such a hurry? Where’s the fire? She jumped when she heard me. She looked around and she saw me and I stood up. I put down my juice and my plate with the Danish crumbs on it and I walked across the room. I was going to push her pretty little face in for her. I was going to grab her by the hair and bang her stupid head into the wood panelling till she fell down on the floor and then I was going to kick her in the stomach. But before I could do anything she told me her brother was dead. They called her to tell her her car was fixed and she packed right away. Then there was another call. She thought it was the car repair place, but it wasn’t. It was the hospital and they were very sorry to inform her that her brother had died during the night. His lungs gave out, I think she said. She was going to get her car and drive back home to Eugene. The Army was going to take care of shipping the body home so there was no reason for her to drive on to Texas. She was glad to run into me, she was afraid she’d have to leave a note for me and Larry. She was going to check out, walk over to the car place then start driving home. I said I’d drive her to the repair shop. She paid her bill and we got in Larry’s Hummer and I drove to where they fixed her car. She didn’t say anything on the drive. Maybe she was thinking about how she was sitting in the same kind of truck her brother was in when he got hurt. But really, it’s not the same kind of truck. It’s really different. They have the same name, but they’re two different things. I took her suitcase out of Larry’s Hummer while she was paying for the repairs and then they brought her car around. It was one of those little Fords they don’t make anymore. She said thanks for driving her over and she told me to thank Larry for last night and then she hugged me. She hugged me tight and I could smell her hair and her skin and it was sweet and she smelled like vanilla and I whispered in her ear that I was sorry about Ben. I was sorry her brother had to die in the stupid war. Then Shelly got in her car and drove away. We didn’t exchange numbers or anything. Neither one of us thought to ask the other, so that was that. I drove back to the Econo-Lodge, but it was only, like, ten in the morning so the cocktail lounge wasn’t open and I didn’t want to go back to the room. So, I sat by the pool. By the stupid, empty pool. And I thought about what it would be like to be on fire. To be burning. Just burning. And not know why it was happening to you.
Joseph Dougherty is a writer living in California.
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