By Glenn Dungan

Snow infiltrates their boots as they limp along the expanse, an uneven rhythm of chains dangling behind them, stringing a paint swath of blood. It is just the two of them now, Donny and Kate, and both know the irony of their situation. Handcuffs chain them together. Kate always thought Donny walks too fast and Donny always thought Kate walks too slow. 

“This gives another meaning to the ‘ol ball and chain,” Donny says, wincing as his twisted ankle plunges into a soft mound. 

“Shut up,” Kate says, the very arm which stopped her from playing softball in high school now dislocated again from Donny’s tumble. She pulls him up and pops the arm back into place. She clears her nose of any icicles of snot.

Snow falls around them, dampening all noise sans their huffs and puffs and occasional swears. The star dotted sky illuminates a candy red, like a sun beginning to trade shifts with the moon. Kate hears the sirens.

They traverse through the snow, falling, bumbling. Donny gets his knee cut up pretty bad tumbling down the steps at the bank, and Kate’s falling on him did no favors for anyone. The two of them take turns leading through the clearing, shifting positions wordlessly as if sharing the same brain. She is better at seeing through the gnarled branches and slapping leaves, even against the mounds of snow collected at the bottom of the trunks and occasionally falling like bricks from above.  It is indisputable that Kate has better eyesight, and besides Donny’s glasses broke when the police officers showed up and slammed Donny’s forehead into a pillar before chaining him to Kate, who also happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They only switch when they encounter an obstacle only Donny’s strength could clear. It is times like these, when they switch places and Kate half lookouts / half watches him, that for all they ever went through she was glad he never used his hulking strength to beat her. She remains impressed by his might, even now, as his grunts slice through the dead sound in the forest, snapping and smashing thick branches in their path. 

“Here,” Kate says, moving to her forward post, “I see something. A building.”

“All I see are lights. It’s not a house?”

“A diner,” Kate says, pulling him.

“A house would be better,” Donny says, “what’s a little more chaos for tonight?”

“You never know when to stop. A diner is better. We can lay low. Wait for the cops to finish up with the others.”

“Shouldn’t have left them,” Donny says, “doesn’t feel right.”

“Well, they started shooting at the cops after we got cuffed. Had graphite not been flying we might not have been on the other side of life, Donny. I saw a chance and I took it. You’re welcome.”

“Always so good at self-preservation. Nice ego, Kate.”

“Shut up, Donny.”

“And bullets are made from lead aluminum, and sometimes copper and brass. Graphite is in pencils.”

“For god’s sake,” Kate says. 

They wait for the one car at the end of the road to pass by the diner before edging to the end of the woods. They crouch underneath an elm crusted with snow and Kate scopes to make sure none of the patrons at the windows are looking outside. All snow and hills and tall trees and ice storms. After several minutes, they clear the edge of the forest and walk across the road, which is an unsightly appendage of a major highway. Infinity looms to their right and left. Luckily, it is not marked with alternating ruby and sapphire lights. 

The diner seemed petrified into the 50’s and has a race car motif that cut like a blunt knife. The building permeates a yellow, ghastly aura akin to an electric fly swatter. An electric buzz emanates the moment Kate and Donny limps into the parking lot, and the generators in the back thump in the cold, silent night. The exterior is plated with a reflective aluminum, and the two of them stop and examine themselves and each other. Splotches of blood dot their sweaters and jeans like a Pollack painting, and twigs and leaves crown their hair, which is frizzy from the sweat accumulated in their now discarded ski masks. Their clamped wrists are rubbed raw from maneuvering with as much eloquence as a three-legged race, and for Kate personally the metal lacerated her wrist, as her frame is tinier than Donny’s and the police put the clamps on in haste. 

“Hold my hand,” Kate says.

“No way.”

“How else are you planning on hiding the cuffs then?”

Donny swears to himself and opens his palm. Chunks had been taken out of his calloused flesh from falling so many times in the forest. Splinters poked into the ridges of both their hands. Kate interlaced her hand with his, and both looked at the clasped fingers with a sublime familiarity, wincing at the contact of wounded flesh upon wounded flesh. They looked into one another’s eyes, and each saw the past. 

“Like acting,” Kate says, “we can do that.”

The bell chimes into the sleepy diner. Because it is late and, on a weekday, the diner is minimally staffed. Only a line order cook in the back who plays classic rock at an unobtrusive volume and an older waitress with curly hair and a pink getup. A couple diners in the corner. Old people, weary travelers. The waitress greets them with two laminated, oversized menus already in her hands, and she eyes them both up as if they are two post-coital teenagers. She gestures for them to follow and Kate and Donny both trip over each other, unsure of who is to lead. Eventually Kate pulls a little harder than Donny and he limps behind her. The waitress set the menus across from one another and said she will return with water. 

The pair of thieves stare at the set table like it is an incomprehensible work of art. They try to sit across from one another, but the handcuffs scrape along the table and they have to keep both their arms outstretched. Donny tries to hide the chain with a menu, but it looks silly, and Kate tells him so. Then they relent and sit next to one another, each staring blankly at the empty booth in front of them. Bruce Springsteen is playing over the loudspeakers, filling in the awkward gap in their silence until the waitress returns. 

“That’s an odd way of sitting,” she remarks, the birthmark on her upper lip moving up like a scale. 

“We like being close,” Donny says, thumbing the cuff.

“Oh, I was young once too.”

“Not a day over 25,” Donny smiles, then sees what he looks like in the reflection in the glass and stops.

“Oh hush,” the waitress says, putting her hands on her hips. 

Then she stands alert, a pen hovering over a notepad. Donny orders a hamburger and Kate a French onion soup and Caesar salad. 

The waitress winks and walks to the terminal. Donny nudges him with her elbow, rattling the handcuffs. “’Not a day over 25?’ Are you trying to get her to stick around?”

“I’m being nice. Not like you were talking.”

Kate tries to cross her arms, but Donny keeps his hand to his side. “You can’t be quiet just once. Always talking, Donny.”

Donny looks at her, “Well now she thinks we are two odd love birds, not crazy people who looked like they escaped the woods. It’s a slow night, not a lot is going on. She’s bored. We’ve got to create a narrative for her. I’m being tactical.”

Kate growls, “Well, tactical isn’t what I would call it.”

“So what would you call it?” Donny says, aware he is taking the bait.

“Idiocy.”

A silence falls over them. The pain from their cuts are beginning to burn. Then Donny says, “Maybe you could use a little patience. Think of the long game.”

“Excuse me.” Kate tailors her response like a statement, not a question. She knows it pisses Donny off.

“That’s all I’m saying.”

“Well, if you played it safe, we would have been at the bank, still handcuffed or worse. We could have been in the shootout.”

Donny mutters, “I think this is the worse.”

“Leave me alone, Donny, for like three minutes. Let me think.”

They remain silent until the waitress returned with the food. She sets it down in front of them and Donny makes chitchat. Kate rubs against him, and for a second she becomes tired, forgets how much support Donny’s arm offers, how she would fall asleep, inevitably during movies.

The waitress is now chewing gum. As they talk, she makes no effort to hide it. “So, how’d you two love birds meet?”

Donny stops chewing a fry. He places it down and stares at Kate. Then he stammers, “A restaurant,” then he adds, after realizing she was expecting more, “she was a host and I was a server. Just getting through college.”

“What’d you study?”

“Creative writing,” Donny says, and he is proud of it, and Kate knows he was proud of it.

“And you?” The waitress turns to Kate, tilts her head, the grey curls cascading to one side.

Kate says, “Architecture.” She hides that she never continued past the second year.

The waitress notices other guests calling her. Then she says, “Well, perhaps I’ll see you on the back of a book one day, mister. And miss, maybe you’ll design a new diner for me to work at.”

“Yeah,” Donny says, “maybe.”

She leaves and Donny looks at his food, listless. His shoulders slouch. 

Kate says, “You okay?”

“I’m fine.”

Kate spoons her soup and watches Donny nibble on a fry from her peripheries. She is left-handed, and the handcuff was on the right hand. It is a somewhat laborious activity. Then she stops, sees Donny’s expression. 

“You alright?”

“I’m fine, Kate.”

The music moves from Springsteen to Sly and the Family Stone. Donny’s body, normally stalwart and planted, an immovable force, transformed into a posture that is not so much built but poured. Something corrosive blossoms inside him, tapping at him like gnarled fingers on a frosted glass. She can see the gears turning in his head, moving one thought to another, each rotation straining the machine. A pair of sneakers in a dryer. Thumpa-thumpa-thumpa.

“I could have done it,” Donny says, finally.

“Done what.”

He doesn’t shrug. “Written. Kept the restaurant job and just wrote until I got published and someone made a movie out of my stories and I got a nice big house and nice big pool. With two awesome dogs.”

“One lab, one retriever.”

“Yeah.”

Kate looks away, sees herself in the window. Bags have swollen underneath her eyes, and somehow there are still twigs in her hair. The snow in her boots melt and her socks are squishy and cold. She wants Donny to stop talking.

“And you could have gone finished school. Your buildings were nice.”

“Thanks,” Kate says, wiping her nose. 

Donny turns to her, ignoring the handcuffs scaping along the leather. “What happened to us? How did we get down this slippery slope?”

“You mean how did we get to bank robbery with someone that said they had more experience than they did? Why did we believe Tom and his gang?”

“Never mind, Kate.” He turns away, awkwardly bites his burger.

“I get it,” Kate says. And she knows Donny understands. “Life punches you in the face sometimes. It happens. But sometimes…sometimes the way you get up isn’t right, and it like, sets your sails in a completely different direction. You look for easier winds.”

“What good the easier wins did for us.”

“Winds, Donny, not wins.”

“I know. I was being poetic.”

“Really? Or are you just trying to backtrack and say you hadn’t misheard me?”

Donny scrunches his face. He gets a little red. “You know what, I’m not having this conversation. When we both get put into jail-”

“Hush, Donny, gosh.”

“-when we get put into jail, you’ll spend your days wondering if I misheard you or didn’t. I won’t give you that satisfaction.”

Kate slumps in the booth and realizes she felt safe here.  She misses having Donny protect her from the world. She looks outside, past the snowstorm and through the expanse, where beyond the thicket and brush of the snow crushed forest is a bank still screaming with tripped alarms, a dozen dead bodies of cops and the crew alike. But the forest, in a way, is enjoyable, and Kate does not want to apologize for admitting it. It is the two of them, finding comfort in arguing like old times, resurrecting old ghosts to shield their souls from the pain of what once was and now what is after. No, not arguing. Donny would say that is the wrong word. More like bickering. Yes, that’s what couples did when everything was going okay. In the forest they were bickering. The symbolism was so palpable that Kate starts to chuckle.

“What?” Donny says.

“Nothing.”

Alternating red and blue lights catch the side of her eyes.

“What?” Donny asks again.

“Nothing!” Kate says. 

A police car rolls along the parking lot, treading fresh tire prints along the crushed snow.  Two policemen get out. Kate shifts her focus to her reflection, maneuvers one hand to eradicate any twigs in her hair and then prods at Donny, who hates having his hair touched. 

“Leave me alone, Kate.”

“Donny,” she whispers, “the police.”

Donny turns. His expression drops.

Kate nudges him, “We’ve got to get out of here. I think I see the back door, or through the kitchen maybe.”

“No,” Donny says, rubbing his eyes awkwardly with one hand. His knuckles pull back a glimmer, “I’m done, Kate.”

The police officers begin their way to the patio outside the diner, right underneath the neon sign. Kate assesses them. They don’t seem like they are hunting for the two fugitives, perhaps coming by the diner for recon. Thinking about it now, Donny actually might have been tactical to woo the old waitress after all. The bell chimes, signifying their entry, and Kate feels both her and Donny’s heart drop. 

Donny’s cogs start turning again, forming a narrative. He takes a sip of water, watches the officers begin talking to the waitress. They crane their heads, looking at the race car themed décor. Outside the lights are red and blue, flashing the front half of the diner in a ghastly, funhouse glow. 

He says, “If you could do it all again, would you?”

“Donny, we’ve got to go.”

“Would you go back to school, build those buildings? You kept your drafting papers when we lived together, in a little portfolio in a drawer in the desk. You kept them underneath all the other files, as if you were hiding them. But they were quite good, Kate. Quite good. Would you go back?”

“Donny, come on.”

“It was good then. In our studio. Felt like a closet but it was good.”

“Donny,” Kate says. Then she pauses, stops staring at the officers and the waitress, and directs her attention to him. “Life was much easier. We were broke, but happy.”

“What happened?”

“We were still broke, but not happy.”

“Somewhere along the way?” Donny asks. A tear falls down his cheek.

“Yes. Somewhere along the way.”

Donny straightens himself. He takes another sip of water, a deep breath. “I may not love you now, but I loved you once. And that doesn’t go away.”

“Yes, Donald, I–”

Her vision cuts to black, a flurry of stars explode underneath her eyelids like thrown confetti.

She wakes up in a starchy bed, the sterile smell of disinfectant a noxious cloud adrift in and out of the halls. A flower design is embroidered on the wall, but it rotates when Kate tries to focus on it. A strike of thunder courses through her skull, and her eye feels swollen to the size of a grapefruit. A nurse comes in.

“You’re awake,” she says.

“Where am I?”

“A hospital,” she says, “the police brought you in. Don’t worry. We’re keeping you safe.”

It hurts to think. A hangover is having a ballroom blitz with a ska cover band in her cranium. “The police?”

The nurse bites her lip. She is a little plump and very warm. Red curls. She asks to sit at the foot of Kate’s bed and Kate, not viewing this bed as hers, gestures for her to sit. 

“The police found you knocked out in a diner, chained up to the man who tried to rob the bank. Said you were a part of it but during questioning said he forced you into it. Said he’d beat you senseless when he gets out. But don’t worry, Katherine, he won’t. Trust me.”

Kate nods, looks out the window and then asks for some water. The nurse hands her what seems to be paper thimble. Kate says, “In the diner.”

“Yes, in the diner,” the nurse fixes Kate another cup of water from a nearby sink. “The police need to question you, you know, for a quote or something. I can hold them off for a bit if you need some time. That shiner is a cracked cheek bone. That fella must be very large.”

“As big as a tractor,” Kate says, and then asks to be alone. 

The nurse nods and leaves. In the crack of the door, she sees two police officers waiting outside. Kate returns her gaze to the outside, where it has not stopped snowing. In the distance, the buildings of the center city rise like little spires, looking like fingers pointing to god. 

Glenn Dungan exists in a perpetual fugue state within a Venn diagram of design and storytelling.

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2 thoughts on “The After

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