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Roy showed them the napkin with the sketches and explained what he wanted. The men nodded. The big one said that they could procure the items, said it just like that, and Irene burst out laughing. Roy hushed her with a look.
As the night wore on, Roy’s scheme grew more elaborate. He wanted girls in bikinis and a fireworks display, maybe a rock band to play him over the Falls. Two hundred up front, he told them and placed a wad of crumpled bills on the table. He promised them another five when they showed up with the barrel and video camera. They all shook hands and agreed to meet at the motel in the morning. Irene was getting a queasy feeling in her gut, like the time she was ten and rode the tilt-a-whirl at the state fair and threw up all over herself. As soon as they were back at the motel, she let Roy have it.
“Crazy son of a bitch,” she yelled. She launched her shoe at him. It bounced off his shoulder and left a scuffmark on the wall. She made a grab for the alarm clock, but Roy tackled her and pinned her to the bed before she could throw it. She tried to wiggle free, but he held her down, one hand on her breast, the other working its way into her pants.
“Don’t touch me!”
“I’m doing it for us,” he insisted, “for you and the baby.” He worked his fingers deep inside her, and she moaned despite wanting to kill him.
The thing about Roy was, he could be very persuasive. There had been times when she’d gone with other men because he’d asked her to. The first time she had been too messed up on junk to know what was going on. When it was over, Roy started crying and hitting his head against the wall until it bled. He swore she’d never have to do anything like that again, but she had, whenever they ran out of money and he was too strung out to work. She mostly just gave them hand jobs in bar bathrooms or parked cars, but sometimes, if they were really hard up for cash, she did other things. Roy was always just outside the door in case someone got rough with her.
Irene stared up at the ceiling. Murmuring voices called out from the television in the next room. She was too hungry to sleep. She fished around under the sheets for her panties, found them snagged on Roy’s ankle and yanked them free. His hands fluttered in the air like startled pigeons. He mumbled something she didn’t catch.
“Shhh.” She stroked his hair until he settled back down.
Outside, a door slammed and a woman laughed. Irene got up off the bed and peeked out the window. Roy had been careless, leaving the Oldsmobile parked right out front for the whole world to see. She had told him earlier to move it, that he was tempting fate, but he pretended not to know what she was talking about, so she let it go.
Her stomach growled and she wondered if there was a snack machine in the lobby. She dug around in her purse and came up with only a handful of pennies. On the dresser next to the bed was Roy’s wallet. She opened it, expecting to find it full of cash, but found only a twenty and a couple singles. She pulled the money out and counted it twice, and then once more to make sure. She snatched his jeans from the floor and rooted through the pockets. She even searched his socks and shoes.
“Goddamn it, Roy,” she whispered. He’d spent everything they had back at the bar. Twenty dollars wasn’t enough for the barrel, it wasn’t even enough for gas back to Ohio.
Irene gathered her clothes together and finished getting dressed. The task of getting her jeans on was becoming problematic. She had to suck in her gut and bully the zipper closed. Soon nothing would fit her anymore. She placed her hand against her belly and felt the stubborn way it bulged. When she first found out she was pregnant, she had wanted to get rid of it. With the two of them for parents, the kid was doomed. But Roy convinced her that having a baby would make things better. He said it was a tiny world growing inside of her, made of bits of her and bits of him. But only the good bits, he promised. Without looking at him, she shoved the twenty in her pocket and slipped out the door.
Every morning, Irene stood in line at the clinic to exchange a urine sample for a cup of cherry-flavored methadone. She had missed one dose already and could last another day, maybe two, before the shakes set in. As she headed toward the footbridge, she fingered the cash in her pocket and tried not to think about how badly she wanted a fix. The need moved through her, shadowy and restless. She shook it away and walked faster, hoping she could outrun it before it took hold.
Once she reached the island, she took a trail that branched away from the overlook and ran along the shoreline, where the upper rapids fed the Horseshoe Falls. It ended at a chain-link fence that was only about three feet high. Just beyond that was a weathered set of stairs that led down to the water. Someone had placed carnations and a makeshift cross on the rocks at the foot of the stairs. The man at the museum had told them that the Horseshoe Falls was a popular spot for suicides, more jumpers than even the Golden Gate Bridge or the Eiffel Tower.
The Falls were bathed in trippy-colored lights. Neon pink faded into electric blue into acid yellow. Irene looked first to see if anyone else was around, then hopped the fence and moved quickly down the steps. She took off her shoes, rolled up her jeans and waded into the frigid water. She just wanted to feel the pull of it, to see if it matched what she felt for Roy.
The drop was only about thirty feet from where she stood. Mist ghosted up from the edge and caught the moonlight. Waves humped and collapsed around her. Out near the middle, the river ran smooth. It slid past like a sheet of black glass while lunatic currents and whirlpools lurked just below the surface.
She stood there, waiting for something to come to her, an answer maybe, a way out. It didn’t matter now if Roy’s friends showed up with the barrel or not, the two of them were stranded. When Roy sobered up and realized he’d given everything away, he’d laugh like it was all some kind of joke. He’d cover her in kisses and beg her to forgive him. But when it came down to finding more cash, he’d expect Irene to earn it for them, even with the baby inside of her. Just one more time, he’d promise, just this once and then never again.
She inched forward up to her knees, her arms out for balance, like she was about to take flight. The ring Roy gave her shimmered on her finger like a star. Maybe he was right, she thought. Maybe it didn’t take much to be a daredevil. All she had to do was let go. The river would do the rest. She took another step forward and then another until the river had her to the waist. She felt herself lift from the bottom, felt everything slip away as the current twirled her around in what felt like a dance, and for a second she was gone. But then something shifted within her, like an eye opening, some other consciousness awakening.
Dim, dreamy images surfaced in the water before her. She saw Roy tucked inside his barrel spinning away from her. The barrel changed, and there was Roy again, this time sitting in the driver’s seat of the Oldsmobile. The vision was so real that Irene lifted her hand and waved, expecting him to wave back. The car dipped and swayed in the rapids. When it reached the edge, it paused like it was taking a breath. Its backside tipped skywards, and then it plunged.
Irene scrambled back until her feet found the bottom and she heaved herself onto the shore. She could still feel the water rushing against her legs as she wobbled back up the stairs. She let the momentum of it carry her along the path to the base of the bridge, where a pay phone sat in the glow of a streetlamp. Irene picked up the receiver and held it to her ear. The dial tone sounded mournful and she almost hung up, but she pictured the baby inside her, curled round like a comma, listening, waiting to see what she would do. The phone rang several times before a man finally answered, and when he asked Irene what her emergency was, she told him where to find a stolen car the color of butterscotch candy.
Outside the diner, the air smelled of bacon grease and coffee. A police car sped by, followed by a second. Irene stood in the entrance and waited for the hostess to seat her. Water dripped down her legs and pooled at her feet. The hostess eyed the puddle on the floor, but didn’t say anything about it. She called Irene honey and steered her to a booth by the window. Her soft, white shoes squeaked like tiny mice as she drifted back to the counter. She returned a moment later with silverware and a couple of clean dishtowels for Irene to dry herself with.
From her seat, Irene had a perfect view of the motel parking lot. The two police cars had pulled up alongside the Oldsmobile. Their sirens threw fierce shadows against the motel wall. Occupants from neighboring rooms poked their heads out to see what all the commotion was about. They gathered around in their robes and boxer shorts as the car was hooked up to an impound truck.
When the police led Roy from the room in handcuffs, Irene buried her face in the menu and studied her choices: blueberry, banana, buckwheat, or apple cinnamon. She decided on apple cinnamon, like her mother used to make. She hadn’t seen her mother in over a year. Her father came looking for Irene once. He tracked her down and stood outside their apartment building, raging at the door, hollering he was going to murder Roy for ruining his little girl. She hid in the bathtub until he finally went away. He wrote letters to her, but she never answered any of them. They were all the same. Come home, they said.
Inside the diner it was quiet, but the Falls still roared in her ears. The waitress set the order in front of her, and Irene gazed down at the thick, steaming mattress of pancakes. She picked up a bottle of maple syrup and poured. She kept pouring until the bottle was empty, until syrup flowed over the edge of the plate and onto the table. She began to eat and didn’t stop until her plate was clean.