Sunday, 17 February 2008

Nostalgia Trip #9: The Big Guy

I'm not sure if Mark Rudolph's FULL UNIT HOOKUP is still publishing, the magazine had some delightfully quirky reads across most genres. The Big Guy appeared in Issue #2, Sept 2002, years before the latest film even became a twinkle in Peter Jackson's eye.

For an awful moment she thought it was Jack. Only when he stepped into the light and came closer did she realize it was someone else. He gave her a winning smile that did nothing to allay her suspicions, lifted his hat and said, "Miss, uh, Darrow, isn't it?"

"Close enough."

"My name is Brent, how do you do? I'm with News America."

She looked him up and down as she took a cigarette from the packet Jack had given her at the hotel, before she'd sneaked out the back way without telling him. "News America, huh?" She tapped the cigarette against the back of her hand. "And what can I do for you, Mr. Brent?"

He got out his lighter and held it steady for her. She blew a cloud of smoke toward the ceiling of the airport terminus building. Her plane would be boarding in ten minutes, which was precisely ten minutes too long. Other planes were taking off and landing, sleek silver in the fading light. The roar of their piston engines shook the building, sending a shudder down her spine, reminding her of....

"Well, my readers sure would like to hear a few words from you. They're fascinated by your adventure. You've caught the imagination of the entire world."

"I think you've got it wrong, Mr. Brent," she said. "I haven't caught anyone's imagination. He did that, all by himself."

Brent thought that one over. "You're probably right. Or at least, that's the angle all the other newspapers are taking."

"But you're not?"

"As big as he was, he was just an animal. What we're interested in is the human aspect, and that's you."

She'd turned cold inside at Brent's mention of "animal." Somehow she forced herself to smile. "How come I get the special attention? There were other people on that expedition, you know. You could talk to them."

"I suppose I could. But what could they tell me that I don't already know? They didn't get near to him. Only you did that. I was there when they brought him into town. I saw how he looked at you, how he responded when you came close to his cage. And I saw how you looked at him. Out of all the people there, only you felt sorry for the poor sap. To everyone else, he was just a commodity, something that had a price tag tied to his big toe."

She tried to remember Brent was a reporter out for a story, not really interested in her or anything else. But the way he said it, it was like he cared. About her. About what had happened. About him.

"Why don't you save us both some time and just make something up?" she said. "The airline staff will confirm that you talked to me before I got on the plane. That's all you need. I won't deny anything you print."

He pushed his hat up so it sat on his head at an angle. "Well, I can't really say I like that idea. It's not my idea of good reporting."

Tired of the cigarette, which was doing nothing to soothe the butterflies in her stomach, she dropped it onto the floor and ground it beneath her shoe. "You shock me, Mr. Brent. I didn't realize newsmen had any morals."

"Well, this one does. What makes you think I'd want to make up a story anyway? What makes you think I'm not interested in this, too? Forget my Press card, I'm a human being, just like everyone else."

"What do you want to know, Mr. Brent?" she said, wishing the announcement would come so she could leave this city and its memories behind forever. But the clerk behind the desk just shuffled some papers, giving no indication that the plane might board ahead of schedule.

"I want to know how you feel," Brent said.

"How I feel about what?"

"About his death. About the way they killed him."

"Pretty bad about both, since you're asking." The rumble of plane engines again reminded her of what had happened. She closed her eyes, wanting to shut off the images, but they persisted.

"Some people are saying he got what he deserved," Brent said. "That he was a killer. When he climbed up the building, he grabbed that young woman for no reason and threw her to her death."

"That's not true. He did have a reason."

Brent's eyebrows shot up. "Oh? And what might that be?"

"The girl was a brunette, Mr. Brent. Consider where he came from. On that dreadful island, the natives all had dark hair. They treated him very badly. Kept him locked up behind that huge wall. Lured him into a cage and tortured him with spears. Starved him, then forced him to eat human sacrifices. He felt awful bad about that."

Brent paused to light a cigarette of his own. "Let me get this straight, because I don't want there to be any mistakes when I write it. He murdered that innocent young woman because he didn't like the color of her hair, and you're saying it's okay?"

"I am not saying it's okay. Don't you ever quote me as saying that. I won't sue your newspaper, I'll come after you personally. All you'll hear is the squeal of tires and an almighty big bang. Tell me we understand each other, Mr. Brent."

Brent gave a lop-sided smile. "I think you've made your position clear. What do you mean, he felt bad? How can you possibly know what he was thinking?"

She wished she hadn't put the cigarette out. She needed it now. "You wouldn't understand. Nobody understands."

"Don't you think melodrama is best left for the radio shows?"

"I think I've said enough, Mr. Brent. So long, and enjoy the ride home."

He chuckled and shook his head. "Hey, not so fast. You've started something here. If you don't finish it then I will have to make something up."

She snorted her contempt. "So much for morals."

"What the heck, it pays my rent."

"Just how much of a cynic are you, Mr. Brent? Do you believe in empathy, in being able to feel what someone else is feeling? Like old couples who have loved each other all their lives. Or someone with a beloved pet. They know the object of their affection so well they can guess what they're thinking."

"Empathy, huh? I got a dog, but I don't know what he feels. Most mornings he snaps at me."

"I'd snap at you too if I were him."

"Okay, okay, give me a break, will ya? You're telling me you felt something deeper for the big guy? Gee, maybe that's how it works. The bigger you are, the more of this empathy you got."

"You're a very unfunny man, Mr. Brent. Don't give up your day job."

"Don't give up my day job? That's a good one—you know, you ought to consider script-writing. But let's not get sidetracked here. How can you possibly know how he felt about eating people?"

"How do you think? He told me."

There, she'd said it. Let Brent publish what he wanted; it was the truth, and she felt all the better for confessing her secret.

Brent's grin widened. "He told you? Did he use his finger to scratch three-foot-tall letters in the sand, or what?"

A loud buzzing noise filled the terminal as a four-engined plane rolled into view and stopped right in front of the building. Mechanics pushed a wheeled stairway forward. She realized it was probably her plane. Any minute now and she'd be on her way, thank goodness.

"I've tried to explain what empathy is," she said. "But do you know what telepathy is, Mr. Brent?"

He frowned. "Something to do with radio waves?"

"Empathy refers to shared feelings and emotions. Telepathy is. . . I guess you could say shared thoughts."

A uniformed man approached the desk clerk and indicated the plane outside. The clerk nodded and reached for her microphone.

"Shared thoughts?" Brent shook his head. "My readers ain't gonna swallow that one. In fact, my editor won't swallow it, and he'll do anything for five bucks."

"Flight Seven for Hawaii via Los Angeles is now boarding at Gate One," the clerk said. Her voice echoed throughout the terminal building, made scratchy by the loudspeakers. "Flight Seven for Hawaii, Gate One."

At last. She reached down and picked up her travel bag, aware of the tightness of her coat. "I'm sorry I have to leave you, Mr. Brent," she said. The reverse was true. "It's been nice talking to you." Ditto for that, too.

"Hey, wait a minute," he said. He stepped after her as she headed toward the gate. She'd already checked in and had only been waiting for clearance to board. "You're going to Hawaii? Why?"

"That's my business, Mr. Brent. It's nothing to do with you, your newspaper or your readers."

"Can't you give me just another second? This telepathy thing. Are you really trying to tell me that you and. . . you and that thing. . . could read each others' minds?"

She glared at him. "That 'thing' was an intelligent and beautiful creature. You don't fool me, Mr. Brent, you're just like the rest of them. All you saw was the fur and the teeth. Frightened, backward-thinking, bigoted people like you sent up the planes that shot him to death. You murdered him."

She saw the doubt forming in his eyes. He thought she was crazy. Maybe she was, but she'd never felt more sane, more in possession of her faculties, in her entire life.

Brent threw his cigarette down and said, "Wherever you're going, Miss, make sure you put your feet up for a while and get some rest. Try to forget about everything that's happened. And do me a favor, will ya? Go see a doctor, for your own good." He tipped his hat to her, then made his way toward the exit, head bowed and hands thrust into his coat pockets, his big story forgotten.

To her dismay, Jack appeared in his place, running into the terminus building, his coat open and his hat missing. For a moment she hoped he wouldn't see her—hoped she'd be able to pass through the gate and board the plane before he could find out where she'd gone. But then he spotted her and headed her way, pushing rudely past other passengers in his haste.

"Thank God," he said. He pulled her close, then released her and held her at arm's length. "I've been looking everywhere for you. I had the cops call the taxi company. They said you'd gone to the airport—"

"You shouldn't have followed me, Jack," she said, unable to stop herself from touching his handsome face and sweeping a strand of dark hair off his forehead.

"I don't get it," he said. "You and me, we were going to get engaged. Sure, I understand what you've been through, I was there, remember? But that's not reason enough for you to run off, is it?" He gave a nervous laugh. "Of course not. Come back to the hotel with me. We'll figure things out, plan our future together."

He was breaking her heart. She hadn't wanted this—had hoped with all her heart to avoid it. "Jack, I can't."

"What do you mean, can't?"

"I have to be somewhere else. And you have to accept the truth. I'm not the girl you think I am. I was a nobody before your boss found me on the street, a nobody stealing just to stay alive."

"What are you saying? This is crazy talk."

"I'm not even a real actress. The best thing you could ever do for yourself is turn around and walk away. I'm trouble, Jack, trouble with a capital 'T'."

His uncertain smile vanished, and then he became serious. "Listen here, I'm not going back without you. You and I—"

"You're not listening. There is no you and I. Maybe there could have been, if things had been different." She tried to think of some way to let him down gently. "You're a decent guy, Jack. You deserve a decent girl. But that's not me. I'm bad through and through. Had you fooled, huh?"

He shook his head. "Please don't—"

"No, Jack. It's goodbye. It has to be this way."

He shook her, suddenly angry. She guessed he had a right to be. The desk clerk and other passengers were staring at them. "You'll give me a reason," he said. "You'll give me a darned good reason, or else."

It was no good. He wouldn't listen to anything except the truth. "I'm pregnant, Jack."

All kinds of thoughts passed through his mind and were reflected in his expression. Some of them were downright ugly. "You're just saying that. You can't be."

She shook her head. "I'm sorry, Jack."

"Who was it?" he demanded. "It couldn't have been the boss, or any of the crew. I was with you all the time, except when those darned natives. . . ."

"No, it wasn't them, either."

"Then who? Who else could have—?" He stopped, staring at her in disbelief. "No," he said, his voice becoming a ragged whisper. "No, not him. Tell me it wasn't him."

Try as she might, she couldn't stop herself from remembering the cave. She'd been frightened at first, but he had been very gentle with her, laying her down upon a soft bed of flowers and reeds, those huge hands of his removing the tattered remnants of her clothing with the dexterity of a surgeon. And then he'd loomed over her, huge and menacing, yet for all his size there was no pain, just a wonderful warmth that spread through her entire body and took her to places she'd never been before. . . .

Her expression must have betrayed her because Jack staggered away, holding his hand to his mouth as if he were about to throw up.

"Jack," she said. "Jack, please—!" But he didn't stop. He nearly broke the doors in his haste to get out of the terminus building.

She wiped tears from her eyes, wishing it didn't have to be this way. Jack was a fine man, a good man. But how could she even consider being with any normal man after he had made love to her? When they were together in the cave he'd opened his huge mind to her and showed her things she'd never imagined possible. Started her thinking for the first time in her dull, miserable, pointless life. He'd set things in motion, things she was powerless to stop. And wouldn't wish to, even if she could.

Five minutes later she was aboard the plane, in a seat by the window, listening to the pitch of the engines change as the pilot ran through final checks before take-off.

The growing life shifted impatiently in her belly, taking form much faster than she'd expected. Already her clothes were two sizes too small for her. She closed her eyes, breathed deeply and relaxed as best she could. By this time tomorrow she'd be in Manila, where she'd charter a private boat. She planned to reach her dead lover's lonely Pacific island in time for the birth of his son. It was what he would have wanted. Only this time there would be no cages and no freak show, she'd see to that. The money she'd got for her one and only appearance before the cameras would buy privacy and protection. If anyone tried to bother her then she'd have them run off, or shot. That included the natives, for whom she had little love.

In time, when Junior was old enough, she'd arrange to have a big radio mast built on the island, right on top of that skull-shaped mountain. And then they'd contact the world, and tell their own story.

The End

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