by Cary Kelley
It was the smell of lilacs that brought the memory back. He could have kicked himself in the ass for not closing the canopy down forty miles back when the wind had picked up. If he had, he would have never caught that damn scent. Never thought of Violet. Everything would be just fine.
He blamed it on the weather honestly. It was just too pretty of a night. He could see the 405 below him, like some sort of broken archaic runway, pointing him in the direction he needed to go. He preferred flying to retro tubes or the fossil fuel burning tanks that passed for cars these days.
Violet. She was never too far from his thoughts, even two years later. He had been in better shape then, to be honest, but then he didn’t have much choice. His life depended on it.
The day had been pretty typical, and it was hot as hell! He had come later in life to the temperate shores of Southern California, and part of the reason had been his absolute hatred for desert heat. He had been in too much heat in his thirty odd years and wanted a change of pace. Something different, even if it wouldn’t last. So he pulled up stakes and caught a shuttle to CALEX, what used to be called LAX, and started looking for a place to live, and eventually work. No one bothered to tell him that California was experiencing one of its worst droughts in years, nor did they mention the unseasonable record high temperatures.
Durham wasn’t one to complain. Hell, the only time people even knew he was upset he was already killing someone, so he took the heat as a minor disappointment and went for a run. He went by the tried and true maxim that nothing would cure a case of red ass like a good long run.
He was about halfway into mile nine, and starting to feel somewhat better when he saw her. She was lying off the side of the trail, flat out in the middle of nowhere. He initially chose Griffith Park for its noted lack of people and abundance of flora and fauna, and had been pleased to have not seen another person since he began his run. Until Violet.
He stopped, against his better judgment, and found she was in pretty decent shape for someone bleeding from the scalp laying unprotected in the sun. She was a healthy woman from what he could see. She had the shape he was fond of, and she was wearing running clothes. Another plus.
He checked her pulse, and found her vitals to be strong and stable. That was a good thing.
There was a much better chance of waking her up and letting her walk out on her own that way. He had no desire to run nine miles back with this woman over his shoulder, no matter how pretty she was or how good she smelled.
“Hey, lady! You ok?” He shook her slightly, and her eyes fluttered open slightly then scrunched closed.
“What happened?” She groaned, raising a shaking hand to her head. The wound there was fairly shallow from what he could tell through her hair, but scalp wounds were the worst bleeders. In his professional battlefield opinion, it looked a hell of a lot worse than it actually was. He figured she would live.
“Hey. My name’s Durham.” He said matter-of-factly. “Seems like you ran into a spot of trouble.”
Her eyes were slightly open now and she looked up at him, trying to keep her face shaded enough to make out his features.
“Yeah, I guess. I was…running and then next thing I know here you are.”
“Think you can stand? We need to get you to a doctor as soon as possible. It’d be a damn sight easier on both of us if I didn’t have to carry you out of here.”
“Everything feels like it’s still there, so yeah, lets give it a try.”
“That’s my girl.” He said with a grin.
She reached up to him and he pulled her up to her feet in one smooth motion. She was as light as a feather. He figured she weighed about a hundred ten pounds soaking wet. He wondered if she lifted weights. From what he could see she was solid muscle.
“How far?” She said, trying to steady herself.
“How far to the hospital?” She looked off into the distance, trying to get her bearings as she held onto him with one arm.
“Oh!” He felt like an idiot. She was still holding his arm, and he had to say, he didn’t mind much. Durham had never been one for much human contact. In fact, one might say he was a confirmed loner. But the way she touched him, when she wasn’t really even trying…he liked it.
“It’s about nine miles back that way.” He said pointing down the trail he had been running on. “I don’t know which way you came from, but if you need a ride…”
“Thanks.” She said through a soft smile. “I don’t think I should be driving right now, and I think your ride is closer than mine.”
She turned back to Durham and gasped. ‘Stupid stupid ass!’ He thought to himself. He wasn’t thinking. Her head was still bleeding, and if she started running it would only get worse. He only meant to give her something to bandage her head with and had taken off his shirt. It was no wonder she nearly screamed. He felt the same often enough to know what she was thinking.
His chest, and in fact most of his upper body both front and back was a maze of scars. A fragmentation grenade from Ganymede had torn out most of the left side of his chest four years ago. That was all artificial now. He had taken three, no four rounds on Titan, one of which was an explosive shell, and that had done most of the damage radiating across his right shoulder. Doc said it was pure luck the one lodged next to his heart hadn’t exploded as well, but Durham was of the ‘make your own luck’ school. They had sewn him up pretty good, but he was showing some mileage that was for sure.
“I’m real sorry miss.” He said as he pulled the shirt back down over his scarred body. “Sometimes I forget.”
“No!” She said quickly, stopping him. “I should be the one apologizing. I’ve just never seen someone with so many scars.”
She was close to him now, and had pushed his shirt back up so she could see them up close this time. She looked fascinated but not in a looky-loo way. Not like one of those damn interns who never looked him in the eye. She knew there was pain behind every single one of those scars, and she felt for him.
She looked up at him then, her eyes tearing up as she did. Her hands were still on his chest, but same as before, it was nice. He liked it.
“You’re a Warrior.” She said with a reverence he had never heard outside the corps.
“Yes ma’m.” He answered softly. Most civilians wouldn’t get within arms reach of him, let alone put their hands on him. He was in unfamiliar water for sure.
“I’m sorry.” She said. “My name. In all the confusion, I never told you. It’s Violet.”
“Nice to meet you Violet.” He grinned. “I’m Durham.”
“Not Warrior Durham, or Sergeant Durham?” She asked playfully.
“Not any more. Now days, it’s just plain ol Durham.”
“Well, I want to thank you Durham. Not everyone would have stopped to help a stranger like you did. I owe you one.” She moved back, and he finished pulling his shirt off so he could wrap up her head.
To her credit, she didn’t flinch when he tended to the wound. He knew she was hurting, but she never made a sound. The more time he spent with her, the more she seemed like just his type.
He finished, and gave it a once over, deciding it was good enough to travel and they set off at a trot. She seemed to have recovered nicely from her injuries. She said her head still hurt, but she didn’t feel dizzy any more.
About half way back to the parking lot the storm blew in. He had smelled it coming a ways back, but hoped it wouldn’t come to actual rain till they reached shelter. So much for hoping. The rain picked up and then the winds started whipping it sideways, and still the amazing woman next to him kept running. She started laughing about a mile from the parking lot, and for a second he thought she was losing her mind, but she wasn’t. She just loved the feeling of being in the middle of the storm. At the time he didn’t think anything about it. He wasn’t thinking straight. Later, he would see it meant something that she wasn’t afraid of the scars, and her reaction to the storm. But not then. Such a blind fool.
By the time they reached the parking lot it was getting near dark, and this was made even more apparent by the overcast from the storm. She pulled the shirt from her head and shook her hair out, then rolled it back up turban style before moving to the passenger side of his lift. He brushed the purple blossoms off of the window, as well as out of several intakes before he opened his door.
“Aren’t they beautiful?” She said wistfully.
“Well, they smell good I guess. And there sure are a lot of them.” He was still fighting with several nuisance pieces which had fallen down into his main intake. The last thing either of them needed was an in-air failure. Even with the most advanced anti-grav lifts, a plugged intake meant nothing but trouble.
“They’re Jacaranda trees you know. Imported about a hundred years ago, give or take.”
“Yeah? How come?”
“Pet project the way I hear it told. One governor or another thought it would be far prettier around here if they added a bit of color. The idea was to get people to actually use the place more often.”
“Hmm.” He said noncommittally. “I like it like it is. The less people, the better it suits me.”
She looked over at him to see if he was making sport and then nodded as she opened the door. “Me too.”
She got in, and as soon as he did the same she was leaning over, kissing him hard. She tasted sweet, like a mango and he wondered if she was always that way or if she had eaten some sort of fruit earlier in the day. It didn’t matter. He liked it.
He took her to the hospital that night, and then she took him to her place. He discovered that night that she was just as blunt and straightforward as he was. If she wanted something, she went after it. She wasn’t afraid to take charge and she wasn’t shy about her feelings either.
Of course the sex was good, but that was never the best part of them. He was worried about that when he spent that first night, but she put him quickly at ease. As they lay together, naked in the darkness, she traced her hand over his scars, back and forth, following every one as it wrapped around him. She liked doing that, tracing his scars, and she had done it every time they had made love from then on. She said it was like therapy. Like he was her own personal Zen Garden. He didn’t have a clue what she meant, but it seemed to make her happy, and he didn’t mind it.
For almost a year they were inseparable. They found places all over California to go and see. It was a game with them, finding new and wonderful places to spend time in each other’s arms. For the first time in his life, he was in love.
And then just like that, she was gone. It felt like she had ripped him apart and left the pieces behind her as she left. No goodbye. No explanation. She was just gone.
He looked for her of course. He was too good of a Warrior to just let her go without trying, but despite all his skills, she eluded him. He found a trace here or there, a fuzzy headed witness who was sure he had seen the girl Durham was looking for, but she had been and gone, and he wasn’t sure where.
He almost caught her in Tulsa. He got wind she was working there, but not what she was doing. He left a trail of broken bodies trying to find her, and the final finger on some idiot’s hand led him to the Shuttle station.
He broke every law in the book getting there, only to watch it launch with a brilliant corona, arcing off into the lower atmosphere, and from there, there was no telling.
A little old lady carrying an accordion and one of those cans that the street musicians used to collect their tips came up to him while he stood there, outside the terminal, watching Violet get away again. She looked about as friendly as someone working for slave wages possibly could and even smiled a little as she spoke.
“Son, you wouldn’t go by the name of Durham would you?” She asked him softly.
He said he did, and she nodded. She had that grandmotherly way about her, and even if he thought she knew something he wouldn’t have been able to beat it out of her. Not for Violet and not for anyone. Not anymore.
“She left you a message, Durham. She said you gotta stop looking for her. She ain’t coming back. Not ever.” The lady looked sad as she told him, but it wasn’t her fault.
“That it?” He said, looking at her through tears in his eyes. Eyes that hadn’t cried when the Mars rebellion was put down to the last man woman and child. Eyes that had seen an entire company lost on Io. Warriors didn’t cry. But he hadn’t been a Warrior since Griffith Park. Since Violet.
“No, not all. She also said to say: ‘How can I be sure in a world that’s constantly changing where I stand with you?’ She said you’d know what to do, once you heard that.”
He nodded, and turned away, heading back to his lift, and away from Tulsa. The little old lady followed him. He supposed her curiosity just got the better of her.
“What does all that stuff mean Durham? It sounds like a lot of nonsense to me. Does it really mean something to you?”
He turned and smiled. She really didn’t want to know, but he was too tired and too far along now to even care. He was getting the Warrior back now, and he answered her as best he could.
“It means she’s a liar. She always has been. She worked for the government same as me, did the same things I did, maybe even worse. She’s a killer. And she’s been sent on her final mission.”
The lady looked less shocked than he would have expected, but it had been a long time since anything made sense to him.
“You got all that from that silly message?” She asked with skepticism in her eyes.
“It’s a code phrase. Part of Warrior training. Old school. Only one place she would’ve ever heard that or several like it. Same pit of hell I crawled out of fifteen years back. She’s Cadre. No two ways about it.”
The old lady shrugged, as if he might be right but then maybe not, she wasn’t sure. “So what now? You just gonna let her go?”
The old lady was getting on his nerves, suddenly. Intruding where no one had the right to be. He considered ripping her head off at the neck and wearing it like a hat on his flight back to Hollywood, but decided he just didn’t have the energy. She was a bystander anyway. She was caught between things and people she had no idea even existed. Plus she was a little simple, and she was old. He gave her a pass.
He turned then, opening the door to his lift. He got in and closed the door, leaving fate to do all the pre-flight checks. He fired the engines and lifted off without so much as second glance back at the old woman.
As he rode off, and headed back to the west, well clear of the launch zone, he finally found the voice to answer the old woman.
“Where she’s going I can’t follow.”
Three months later he arrived at the local Cadre station and claimed Violet’s body. She hadn’t written him any last letters, asked his forgiveness, or given any explanation. He would have done the same thing. He carried her out and put her in the lift, and angled up and out over the slow rolling surf, pointing it North all the time. They rode like that, one last time, in silence. Just the two of them, until they had finally reached the place he knew she wanted to be.
And now, after all this time, he was back where he had left her. Two years seemed like a hell of a long time when he got right down to it. He had done a lot of killing in two years. A lot of fighting. But no matter who he killed or what battle he fought in, he was always drawn back here, because this is where Violet was. He felt closer to her here, for some stupid reason.
The tar bubbled, and it stunk like hell. He thought she was crazy when they first visited La Brea and she told him that this was where she wanted to be buried.
“I don’t think they bury folks in there, Violet.”
“Sure they do. Maybe not often, but there’s people there, and a million years worth of animals too.”
“Why would you want to get buried in there anyway?”
She laughed and turned back to him with her hands on her hips. She was giving him her mock stern look, as if he were thick skulled.
“Do you realize that ninety percent of all people choose to be buried in some plot with a granite tombstone? The other ten percent do the whole scattering of the ashes thing.”
She made a face like something tasted bad and pulled her hair back as she looked at him. It was right then that she told him, in her own way, the truth. He was just too dumbstruck in love to figure it out.
“Do I look like the kind of girl that follows the crowd?”