In Sheep’s Skin
by Scott Hale
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any relevance to any person, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
This book is protected under the copyright law of the United States of America. Any reproduction or other unauthorized use of the material or artwork herein is prohibited without the express written permission of the author.
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2019 Scott Hale
In a forgotten field stands a forgotten tree, a sheet of skin slung over limbs; white moon in its red rivulets. When the wind blows here, coarse hairs are kicked up and carried off like seeds. It’s a cold night, when all words spoken are written ghostly, yet there are still pockets of warmth. They stink of sweat and blood, and the acrid gasses of a starved stomach. The heat and reek run from the tree to the tree line, where the woods, shaken bare in Fall’s clockwork stick-up, show a shadowy tableau: a ribbon of road, lunar-lit, and beyond, a diner just as forgotten as the field and tree, soon to be forgotten no more.
“I saw you, Peter, with your head between her legs!” Mary cried, pointing her French fry accusatorily at him from across the table. “What the hell am I supposed to think, huh?”
Not expecting her to have gone that far, Peter gave the diner the once over. The constipated trucker in the corner hadn’t heard them, or at least hadn’t the mind to care: in one hand, a ham sandwich smashed against mouth, in the other, a beat-up cellphone on full bright – the modern-day torch. Across the sticky linoleum ocean, the hooded shape kept his head down; the occasional shifting of the bright pink headphone cables running across him the only sign of life coming out of that polyester black hole. The chain-smoker walking the perimeter outside obviously hadn’t heard anything, but with the way she kept twitching and staring at everyone through the windows, you can’t be too sure. Peter was fairly certain the fourteen-year-old dad with the bags under his eyes (certainly not the first, nor the last bags he’d pack), hadn’t heard anything; he and his bride-to-be were too busy staring at each other in a pentagram-crossed lovers kind of way, while their hell-spawn in his booster seat rapped his knuckles and cried.
If anyone had heard Mary, it’d been the waitress, Rita, but as far as Peter could tell, it’d gone in one ear and out the other. Rita was posted up by the counter, gathering dust like the relic she was. She’d been here a long time, that’s what Mary had said. Always was here, Mary reminisced. Twenty-to-life, like a prisoner without parole; that was Rita’s sentence for the crime of carrying on when everyone else in her life had probably said behind a cloud of smoke, “Why bother?” If they were going to get anyone’s attention, but especially Rita’s, who probably only responded to, “Put the money in the bag!”, him and Mary were going to have to kick it up a notch if this was going to work.
“Well, I think you ought to get your eyes checked, Mary,” Peter said, emphasizing her name. “While the doctors are having a look, why don’t you see if they can—” he twirled his fingers around, “—reconnect some wires in your skull. You’ve lost your damned mind, woman. I’m not…” He corrected his accent. “I ain’t that kind of man!”
“A man you are not. This is true.”
Peter went red, cooled himself off with a slurp of soda. She was good at this. Probably always had been. What else did he not know about her?
Mary leaned in, elbows thumping the table, and said, dramatically, “I thought you were the one, baby. How could you? How… could you?”
“I still am,” Peter said, taking the bait. “You know that I am.” He made eye contact with Rita the waitress, but her glazed over pupils were quick to deflect. “But I hate what we’ve become. This ain’t us.”
“It is, though, Peter. It is.” Mary’s jaw dropped, in preparation for words taking their time to spill out. Then, finally: “We’ve done terrible things to each other because we’re terrible people. A terrible thing is how we found each other. What’d you expect?”
Peter knew this conversation could go one way or the other. Thus far, it’d been a failure, so he took the path oft-traveled and rumbled, “You… bitch.”
Mary shot back in her seat so fast, the chain smoker outside on patrol did a double-take. He’d caught her off-guard. With no follow up on his part, this signaled the end of things. But seconds later, Mary was back in the game, teeth clenched and fists balled, with enough ammunition to carry on this war of words for hours to come. Peter didn’t know her as well he should’ve or would’ve liked, but if he did know one thing, it was that Mary was one hell of an actor. She could be anyone, anything. It made him wonder how she’d settled on Mary.
“You bitch? You bitch. It always comes to that, doesn’t it?” she said, voicing growing louder. “Now you sound like my father!”
Peter turned red as the fourteen-year-old dad turned around and gave him a sympathetic glance that said, “I feel you, brother.” It wasn’t what he needed right now, and it rang a little too true in the midst of all these theatrics.
Mary, face caught between a smile and a snarl, took a deep breath and said, “I don’t—”
Rita the waitress stood beside their table, as if she’d teleported there. She gave her legs an itch through her stretched out leggings. “Together or separate?” She ripped a check off her pad of paper. “Who’s paying?”
Peter stared at Mary. Mary stared at Peter. Then: Scene. They broke out laughing, totally forgetting for a moment poor Rita and all the tedious shit she had to take care of before closing the place up for the night. After a few seconds, she’d had enough and dropped the check on the table.
Peter snatched it up, while Mary cried after her, “Wait, no, I’m sorry. We’re sorry! We’re not laughing at you…”
Rita the waitress dug a wedgie out of her ass as she headed back towards the kitchen. The constipated trucker saw this and watched her pass, likely contemplating the meaning of the gesture and if it had meant to be directed towards him. A few seconds passed. He came to his senses, and then to his stubby feet, and looking at Peter as if to say, “Did you see that, brother?” he waddled into the men’s restroom.
Peter went hard at his soda. Checking on the straw, he said, “That was awful.”
“Yeah,” Mary said, grinning. “Oh my god, that was terrible.”
“I know you said you didn’t want to make stuff up, but…”
“Oh, we’re going bullshit this one, for sure.” Mary forked the remnants of her veggie burger. “We have to.”
The project they were trying to accomplish here at Mare’s Diner was one that’d been assigned to them by Intro to Psychology professor Ms. Selene. As she tied up her silver hair, a grin on her face, Ms. Selene had prefaced the project by telling them they weren’t to do anything illegal or immoral, but most of their peers afterwards agreed Ms. Selene, tenured and tired of the same old, same old, was probably hoping for some sweet, sweet deviancy from the student body.
“Why else would you get into the field of mental health if not to hear about the freaky stuff?” she’d announced on the first day of class, the vest she was wearing at the time not all that far removed from a straitjacket.
After her warning, which sounded to most ears like a dare, she told them their project was to violate a social norm. To against an unspoken rule in their community and observe the reactions of those around them, which they would report on later.
“I’m sorry, Pete,” Mary said, with a mouthful of meat.
Waving her off, he said, “Don’t be.”
Peter and Mary had been sitting next to each other the entire semester. Neither one had chosen to sit next to the other; in fact, they’d both entered the room on the first day of class and both sat down beside each other at the same time. It was as if they’d been assigned those seats long ago, and finally seeing them, something primal awoken within and drew them to them, to each other. Peter had felt it. He was pretty sure Mary had felt it, too. Up until this moment, though, they were simply acquaintances; tolerable semi-strangers who only interacted with one another for one hour each week. It wasn’t that Peter had a crush on Mary or anything. It was something else. And it couldn’t have been any more evident that day in class when the project had been assigned. At the same time, they’d turned to one another as everyone else was pairing off and suggested the same idea: to pose as a couple in public, arguing about their relationship problems.
He hadn’t been able to put his finger on what brought them together, but as this night drew to its close, he found he almost had it in his grasp. It was there. He knew it was there. Familiar, yet foreign, like an alien organism in an inflatable pool.
Peter ran his hand through his hair, and it came back clammy. “So, uh, this place used to be the place, huh?”
Mary went dead-eyed.
“Hey, I’m not trying to give you a hard time.”
“Yeah, yeah.” She smiled, tugged on her earlobe. “Yeah, Dad and I used to come here a lot when I was little. I swear…” Mary turned around, took Mare’s Diner in a way she hadn’t before. “It’s crazy how much things change. You think things are one way…”
“Everything stays the same. Just you that changes.”
“Exactly.” She zeroed in on the hooded figure. “Like that dude? Dude’s probably been here since I was eight. Place was probably always this lame.”
Peter shrugged. “You know how it is. Thing’s are bigger deal when you’re little. I…we’re… we’re going to be fine. I have complete faith in our ability to completely BS the paper.”
“Oh, I know. It’s just…”
“You were looking forward to coming back here.”
She twisted up her mouth, put her dark, shoulder length hair into a bun.
“I get it. I totally get it. I used to go this nature center with my mom back home.” Peter leaned in over the table, a big grin on his face. “Shit was magical, let me tell you.”
Ravenous in her intrigue, Mary mimicked Peter’s excitement and said, “Tell me.”
“I went back there with an ex a few years ago. Now that I think about it, that might’ve been the mistake, but… Anyway, wasn’t the same. Felt smaller. Felt emptier. I don’t know. It’s a weird thing.”
“I got this theory,” Mary said, “that screwed up people are drawn to Psychology classes.”
“That’s probably a fact at this point. Crazy people working with crazy people, trying to find some normalcy in at all.”
Mary finished off her veggie burger. “I like that. I never knew my mom.”
Peter hesitated for a second, but only for a second. “I never knew my dad.”
“I don’t hear from Dad anymore,” Mary said.
“Uh, yeah, I don’t hear from my mom too much, either,” Peter said, cocking his head.
Mary pointed wagged her finger back and forth between them: “That’s weird. Us, I mean. That’s really…”
“Or it’s super common.”
Peter threw his hands up in the air. “Who knows?”
“There’s got to be someone out there who knows,” Mary said, folding her napkin—human-shaped origami.
Bells at the front door. It whined as it opened, as it seemed to always do. A wayward woman came through. Nothing she wore would’ve rung up as anything but triple digits at check-out. With hair that screamed, “Let me see your manager,” she hurried to the bar at the center of the diner and seemed ready to ask just that. Rita, Pavlov’s lost pup, must’ve felt the tolling in her teeth, because she came sprinting from the back of the building, cigarette smoke still fuming from her mouth, and met the woman head-on.
“I’m so sorry, miss,” the wayward woman said, sweetly. “I’m lost.” She waved her phone. “Died on me a mile back.” She laughed at herself. “I hate to bother you, but could you give me some directions?”
Rita smiled. Who knows how long it’d been since she’d been treated so nicely? “Honey, of course. Where you trying to get to?”
Not missing a beat, Rita: “Really?”
“Yeah, I know it.” The wayward woman squeezed her designer purse. “Got to be in court there tomorrow morning with the ex.”
“What’d he do?”
“What didn’t he do?”
“I don’t got a lot in this life,” Rita said, “but I do got some time.” Rita pressed her palm to the wayward woman’s back and guided her to one of the booths at the back. “Promise you, you’ll always get to a place quicker with a lighter load.”
Peter watched the two women settle into the booth, and felt like a complete asshole, because in a way, he’d been one to the both of them. For messing with Rita. For judging the woman. It spoke to the uneasy feeling he’d had about the Intro to Psychology course. It got him thinking about things he hadn’t thought about before; observing for things he’d otherwise been blind to. Self-reflection was one thing, but he found himself sizing people up, tagging and bagging them. Ms. Selene had told the class they’d have diagnosed just about every mental illness in themselves and their friends and families by the time the semester was over, and she wasn’t wrong. She told him not to worry, but he did. About himself. And right now? About Mary, too.
Looking away, Peter quickly looked back, looked beyond. Past the women, past the bar, to the hooded man, whose head, swallowed by darkness, had been down and was now slightly up. He was staring at Peter. Or was he staring at the women? Or nothing at all. He couldn’t tell. It didn’t make sense, but he couldn’t see the man’s eyes, so deeply set was his head in the hood. All that was there were two hungry glints of light; unbroken, because apparently, he never blinked.
“What’s wrong?” Mary scooted across her seat, until she was blocking his view. “You alright?” She turned around. The hooded man put his head back down. “What?”
“Oh, nothing.” Peter smiled, grabbed the check. “I got this.”
Mary’s hand shot out to snatch it from him, but she caught herself and plunged it into her purse beside her, instead. “You sure?” She started rummaging for her wallet, but Peter could tell she was just turning things over until he told her exactly what she wanted to hear.
“Yes,” he said, laughing.
She stopped rummaging, flashed him her wallet, which was thin and well-worn, and buried it deep.
The bill came out to fifteen dollars and some change. Peter took out a crisp, linty twenty from his pocket, slapped it down. He carried a credit and debit card like most every other human being on this continent, but there was always this nagging voice in the back of his mind, worrying at it like a termite. What if they didn’t work? What if someone stole his identity? Sometimes, he felt as if he were phasing between the man he was and the man he would be in forty years’ time. A glimpse of his future self to come—anxious, overcautious; and at the same time, out of control.
“Was it that guy? Did he do something?” Mary asked.
Self-reflection had sweated up his brow. He gave it the once over and said, “Huh?”
She tilted her head at the hooded man, who’d gone back to playing possum.
“Oh, yeah.” He whispered, “Guy was staring right at us.”
“Well…” Mary chewed on her lip,” …we were acting kind of like idiots.”
“Ha, yeah, that’s true. You’re right.”
Through their window, Mary tracked the chain-smoker outside, who held her burner phone so close to her teeth, she might as well have been chewing on it.
“Maybe that’s the point of the project,” she said.
The chain-smoker mouthed “please” over and over again in between whatever she was saying. She didn’t seem to begging. It was a filler word, filling in for “like” and “um.”
“There’s social norms, and then there’s personal norms, and if you do one or the other, or both, long enough, it’s… normal.”
Peter nodded, said, “You did get pretty into it.”
“Come on, you didn’t?”
“A little,” he said, but that was a lie. He was always aware of who he was, who he was trying to be. It was annoying.
“If you write the introduction and conclusion, I’ll make up the rest,” Mary said, zipping up her hoodie. “I know it’s October, but damn—” she shivered, “it’s cold.”
There it was again, the voice in the back of his head, gnawing away. What if she overdid it? What if the professor found out they hade made it all up? This was his junior year. He’d gotten straight A’s so far. A B wasn’t bad, but if it was avoidable…
The wayward woman thanked Rita the waitress, got up from the bar, and exited the diner. Before the doors could shut, it was flung back open. The bell’s rung in the bitter wind that’d barged in, dried leaves like rats scurrying over the worn-down floormat. The door cracked back, bounced off the empty gumball machine that’d unwisely been put beside it. Rita, cussing up a storm, hurried across the diner and wrestled the door from the elements. Before she shut it, though, she stopped. Her body went stiff. She stared into the darkness, as if she’d seen something there. Turning around as if to confirm with her patrons, she then suddenly seemed to remember the people she’d been serving this night, shut the door, and went back to the back, to hassle the cook some more.
“That sounds good…” Peter said. “But how about this? We give it one last try. I’ll stomp out of here, go outside, rev up my bike, and peel out of the parking lot.”
Mary, sounding somewhat unconvinced: “Okay.”
“Then I’ll come back a minute or two later. I’ll just go down the road. Maybe someone will say something to you.” Catching himself, Peter added, “If you feel… comfortable…”
Mary cocked her head. “Coming here was my idea. I don’t need a knight in shining armor, just a sword.” She took a knife out of her purse, put it back. “But, yeah, sure. Why not? I know you’re not big on the lying thing.”
“Fine, it’s fine.” Mary laughed and nudged his leg under the table with her toe. “I’m a bad influence. You know I cheat off you in class sometimes, right?”
He didn’t know for sure, but he’d had his suspicions.
“Hey, listen to this, though. Why don’t I speed off?”
“In your hatchback?”
Mary glared at him.
“Shut up.” She got to her feet, glare becoming a grin. “Don’t hate on my hatchback.”
Peter stood, put his jacket on. His phone started to buzz in his pocket. His heart went into overdrive. Some cheesy, 80’s power ballad switched on his brain. It always did when he got a text from her. Katie. He didn’t need to check his phone to know it was her, because he knew it was her. She always sent one, and then a few seconds later, two more. And there they were, one after the other, on time, like clockwork. It was her signature move. Her way of announcing her arrival, and scrambling his senses until she signed off for the night. He had it bad for Katie. It was terminal.
“Get the fuck out of here!” Mary belted.
Literally wiping the smile off his face, Peter quickly caught on, said, “Gladly!” And then, for good measure: “Bitch!”
Peter didn’t bother taking a survey of the diner. With Katie blowing up his phone, one anxiety had been replaced by another. This situation was a ticking time bomb. If he got his wires crossed, he’d blow it for sure. He was so close, so damn close to asking her out. He just needed to bank a couple more good conversations; get her out one last time; get her laughing like she’d been when he’d met her and her friends at the bar last weekend. The kind of laugh that cuts through the noise, etching two people out from their surroundings, leaving only them and the unspoken thing between them.
Peter didn’t realize he’d left Mare’s Diner until he was standing outside it, in the sign’s neon glow. He hurried to his motorcycle, jumped on, and put the key in the ignition. He smelled smoke, but the chain-smoker was nowhere to be found. Giving the key a twist, the engine rumbled to life. He revved it up a few times, like an asshole, as he’d promised he would, and then took off, making sure to go slowly past the front of the diner, so everyone could see him. The instant he saw Mary through the glass, he peeled out of the parking lot.
For a man who worried about almost everything, the irony wasn’t lost on him as he sped off down the pale country road, on a motorcycle, without a helmet, a few justifications away from whipping out his phone to see what Katie had texted him. His mother was the same way. She was a very careful woman. She always had her ducks in a row, except for when she didn’t. Those things didn’t last long; didn’t often come back in one piece.
The October air burned his face with its frigid caress. He suffered it gladly. It was the shock to his senses he needed right now, before he pulled his bike over and lost them.
Deep in thought, he drove towards the full moon in the distance, until his form was lost amongst it’s changing light.