Shay Sheridan - Reality
Noise from the street.
Gigi opened one eye. Pink. Nothing but pink. She closed her eye and rolled over, savoring a few more moments on the satiny sheets. Except the satin was sticking to her face and the pillow smelled a little too much of scented soap... which clashed with the overwhelming odor of dying flowers wafting around her. The cloying smell trickled up her nose and she sneezed.
She stretched lazily and rubbed her nose. There was something fuzzy in the back of her mind, struggling to come into focus, and she let her mind wander, freely connecting the dots...satin, bed, hotel, Kissing Town, kissing, kissing Wolf, oh --
The memory thrust its way into the forefront of her brain and she let out a little gasp. Her heart skipped erratically and she could feel her face turn red. Oh, she'd --they'd. Goodness.
Funny, she didn't feel any different, really. Somehow, she thought she should feel different. More mature. Wiser. More womanly. Whatever that meant.
"Um." The voice came from across the room. Startled, Gigi opened her eyes wide and started to sit up, then realized she wasn't wearing any clothes and clutched the red coverlet tightly to her. She scrunched up against the headboard among the heart-shaped throw pillows, and regarded the other occupant of the room. Wolf was sitting on the windowsill, wearing his traveling clothes. He stood up as she focused on him. Well, this was more embarrassing that she would have imagined possible. What on earth should she say?
He saved her the trouble "Morning." He remained by the window, which filled her with relief.
"What...what time is it?"
"Nearly an hour past sunrise."
"Well. Er. Good morning." There was a lull. "How long have you been up?" Oh, dear, that didn't sound quite right. She blushed, from her forehead to the tips of her toes, but fortunately Wolf could only see the former. "I mean, have you been awake long?"
"Yes. I couldn't sleep." As Gigi watched he shifted his weight from his left foot to his right, then back again. His hands were clasped in front of him, but they were making little dancing movements. He looked very nervous. Gigi was glad she wasn't the only one feeling that way. "Um. How are you?" He sounded nervous, and embarrassed, too, Gigi thought; at least he didn't look like he was going to ravish her again any time soon. Which, confusingly, left her feeling both relieved and disappointed.
"Fine. I, uh --" She realized how dull she sounded and struggled to make "morning-after" chat that was wittier and more confident --like she imagined a girl should make after sleeping with a man for the first time. She smiled at him and hoped it didn't look too forced. "About last night--"
"--Yes, last night." Funny, Wolf looked more pained than delighted. Had she done something wrong? Wasn't she as good at it as his other girlfriends? What about that Virginia he always was going on about? Perhaps I wasn't energetic enough. Or maybe too energetic. Or, wait! Maybe I'm supposed to tell him how great HE was last night. Yes, that must be it. Men always want to hear what great lovers they are, don't they?
Problem was, she didn't remember how great he was. She didn't remember much at all. The last thing she did remember clearly was falling into bed with him; after that everything was quite murky. But a little flattery couldn't hurt, could it, while she waited for her brain to catch up? She tried to put on what she hoped was a dazzling smile. He looked at her curiously, but she pressed on, dauntless. "Wolf, ah, last night was --wonderful. Incredible, really. You were quite..." Word, Gigi, word! "--quite wonderful." Oh, great! She'd said "wonderful" twice! What would he think, that she was some silly little virgin who'd never had to talk to man after they'd --well, it was true, after all. She had no experience at this part of S-E-X, either. Words were not coming to her in a very coherent manner right now.
Wolf didn't seem to notice her discomfort; he was far too distracted by his own agenda. "Wonderful, uh, that's good, Gigi, that's nice. I'm glad you had a nice time." Oh CRIPES! That's not at all what he wanted to say! He started to pace a little. This was getting worse, the longer he delayed. Why couldn't she just hate me and tell me never to come near her again! But no! She thought he was a "wonderful" lover. Hah! He didn't even remember doing it! And funny, wasn't it, she had no idea how little experience he actually had in these matters, just a few all-too-brief interludes with Virginia, and--
Cripes! He'd almost forgotten Virginia again!
He really, really wasn't looking forward to this discussion, though he'd been rehearsing what to say to her for hours. He cleared his throat and planted himself as firmly as he could without fidgeting, which showed the seriousness with which he regarded the situation. It was bad enough he had to explain it to Gigi. How he was going to ever talk to Virginia about this was beyond imagining. He opened his mouth and began his rehearsed speech: "Um, Gigi, I want to apologize for what I, what we, what happened. I've been under a kind of a strain, you see, not that that's much of an excuse."
She blinked at him. What was he talking about? Why was he saying this?
"--And you see, I thought maybe it was the full moon, but it turned out it wasn't, and maybe I had a little too much to drink at the restaurant--"
Gigi's eyes grew wider. It almost sounded like he was saying--
"--And I suppose because you look so much like Virginia, and you certainly do smell like her, no doubt about that, you have the same delicious aroma of, er, I mean even now, it's still a little confusing to have you. . . Well, never mind, that's not important, what I'm trying to say is--"
Gigi stared at him, her mouth falling open. That was it! He was trying to say he didn't --"You didn't really want to ravish me?"
Wolf paused, thrown off his script. "Well, yes, I mean no, yes, I mean, I suppose that what I'm trying to say is, I'm so sorry that I got so confused, but you're a lovely person in your own right, and I'd never want to--"
"YOU DIDN'T WANT TO -- DO THAT -- WITH ME BUT YOU DID ANYWAY?"
"No! No, I'm not saying that" Wow! She really was making him sweat for this apology! "I did really want to, but I'm sorry I did, and I promise it will never--"
"--You didn't want to, you did anyway, and now you want to dump me?"
"I didn't say that! That is, I did want to. And besides, you wanted me to, you were--"
"--Oh, so this is all my fault, is it?"
Agh! Would he never understand women? "No, it's not your fault, its, its nobody's fault --" She opened her mouth to speak and he jumped in, trying to navigate her mood. "No, it's my fault, I'm sure it is. Everything is my fault, I know, I know, it's always my fault. But you know, Gigi, it was all a mistake, it's not really dumping you, I mean, it's not like we're really seeing each other, I mean, yes, of course I'm seeing you, I see you right here, and though it's not dumping you, I can see why it seems that way, like it is a sort of dumping and you could consider yourself the dumpee, but I'm just saying--"
"You monster!" In her fury, Gigi forgot to keep a grip on the coverlet and her breasts bounced up into view. Wolf closed his eyes, though in truth the last thing on his mind right now was a lusty romp with her --or anyone else, for that matter, possibly for the rest of his life. He turned his back on her. "Don't you walk away from me, Wolf!"
"I wasn't walking, I was turning, so you wouldn't be embarrassed--"
"--Embarrassed!" Gigi stood up on the bed, wrapping herself in a sheet, and Wolf turned back to find a toga-clad wild woman towering over him. "Gee, why should I be embarrassed about giving myself to an ungrateful, selfish, self-centered creature like you?" With each insult she hurled a pillow at him, which he caught until his arms were full. "Don't you have any feelings? Don't you care if you hurt people?" She was starting to cry, and Wolf couldn't help but feel great pity for her, young and vulnerable as she was. Her words stung him, and even though he knew they'd both been out of control the night before, he did feel that he was primarily to blame. The guilt was tremendous. Incredible. Depressing. He dropped the pillows and fumbled for a handkerchief to give her but she batted it away before crumpling onto the bed. "How could you?" She buried her head in the blanket and wailed. "How could I?"
Wolf sat down on the bed. She didn't push him away --she didn't seem to notice him at first. "Gigi If it makes you feel better, I hate myself much worse than you could ever hate me."
"I doubt it."
"Gigi." He put a hand on her shoulder but she wrenched away from his touch.
"I'm so sorry --"
Wolf stood up and moved towards the door, head down. He'd made a mess of things. Again. "I'll be around if you want to talk."
"I won't! I never want to see you again!"
Well, he'd gotten his wish. She despised him. Including himself, that made two of them that hated him. Virginia would make three. He closed the door softly, leaving her to sob inside her room. Her unhappiness weighed heavily on him. He felt responsible.
Oh, no! There was something else that suddenly came to mind, a sobering thought that wormed its way into his brain and wouldn't let go. What if...no, no, it couldn't be. Whatever was controlling his journey, Snow White, or The Powers That Be or an Unseen Hand --surely none of them could be so cruel as to make history repeat itself in one extremely sensitive area. Please, please, he thought, squeezing his eyes shut and slumping against the wall. Please don't let me have gotten Gigi pregnant!
He really didn't want to think about that possibility, but once the thought was present in his brain it began to gnaw at him as mercilessly as an earwig. You should have thought of that last night, Wolf, but NOOOOO! Starting a family was something he'd wanted to do, but with his mate, not with every woman he passed on the road. Not that Gigi was just any woman -- oh, huff-PUFF, shut up, stop blithering, Wolf! This is serious!
In fact, it was terrifying.
He knew there were some men who didn't think twice about such things --they just racked up the notches on their belts and moved on to the next conquest. Some of them were so selfish they'd boast in every tavern about how they were single-handedly populating the kingdom with little versions of themselves. Men like that disgusted him. Wolves weren't like that. At least not honorable ones, he corrected glumly. Any honor he might have once possessed was pretty much gone by now.
It was such a tricky, confusing subject to consider. Wolves mated for life, and a female wolf would expect to start a family immediately, but humans? He realized he hadn't even been sure that Virginia, his mate, was truly happy to discover there was a little wolf cub growing inside of her. She said she was, but certainly he'd been aware her delight was much more subdued than his. He began to worry --what if she secretly hated him for what had happened? What if Virginia hated their cub? His fears rolled on and on, gathering momentum. And now what if he'd done the same thing to Gigi? Oh, Wolf! Why couldn't you keep your "tail" in your pants! So many people would be hurt! So many people would suffer! He felt wobbly suddenly and sat down on the top step of the staircase. Life was complicated enough. Why, oh, why, had he been incapable of controlling himself?
"Calm down, Wolf, calm down," he said aloud, trying not to pant. "You may be worrying for nothing. It doesn't always happen the first time, you know that."
True, but it had with Virginia, hadn't it? And if Gigi was so like Virginia--
What would she do if she were pregnant?
What would he do?
He felt like there was no air in the hallway. He had to breathe. He had to go outside. He lurched to his feet and ran down the stairs.
The desk clerk made a disapproving face as the front door slammed behind the disreputable-looking man with the remnants of a black eye. "Some people," he remarked snidely to the bellhop, "have the manners of an animal!"
The man with the shaggy coat and the floppy hat stood in the town square, looking up at the tower. He was oblivious to the stares of the couples passing him, who whispered to each other with alarm at his curious clothes and piercing stare. He looked out of place in Kissing Town, frighteningly so, with his cloak of animal skins and the shiny weapon slung over his shoulder. An unusual bow, it was, with the face of a falcon and the shimmer of silver about it. Weapons weren't often seen in Kissing Town. There was no need; this was a town for love, not violence. There was something distinctly odd about this lone man, and those who passed him shivered and hurried by.
The huntsman didn't care. He considered the tower again, then turned away. Better to stay at ground level. She was here somewhere, he'd tracked her this far. Her and that meddling companion --a wolf, no less, he'd been ambushed by a wolf! Ordinarily he had no time for revenge, but if that wolf crossed him again--
He hefted the crossbow. It felt good to have it back on his shoulder. Without it, he'd felt incomplete. Those ridiculous overgrown bumpkins in Little Lamb Village! They'd hardly known what they had in their possession. To them it had just been a lump of silver in a pleasing shape, valuable for what it was made of. They hadn't dreamt what it was really worth, what it had cost in lives. Foolish, greedy boys. They'd never know now that its value had increased by the addition of two lives. Their own.
"Buy some flowers, Sir?"
He looked down. A small girl was tugging at his coat, holding a bunch of flowers in front of her. She had a hopeful look on her face, a face framed by ringlets and lace. She smiled at him. He smiled back, and as he bared his crooked teeth her smile became uncertain. "What do you want of me?" he inquired in a harsh whisper.
The little girl's pink face became decidedly pale. "F-flowers for your lady?"
He leaned down until his face was inches from hers, and now he could see she was trembling. The thought neither pleased nor displeased him; she was merely a means to an end. He reached over and caught her arm. "Well, little girl, in fact I'm looking for my lady. Maybe you can help me find her?" His other hand reached into his coat and flicked open a parchment. "She looks like this. Think you can help me?"
Tears appeared in the little girl's eyes and she shuddered, terrified.
"Well, can you?"
"Yes, Sir, yes Sir, I'll help you! Let me go!"
He let go of her arm. "Very good. I knew it was our destiny to be friends."
After she'd run out of tears, Gigi washed her face and started to get dressed. That awful Wolf! How could he have treated her like this, like she was some sort of dishtowel to be used, wrung out and then thrown into the laundry! Or worse, as if she were one of those women who sold their favors, whom one used and didn't care for at all!
She sniffed and wiped away a straggling tear. I will not cry again! Not because of Wolf! He'd hurt her feelings, that was the real story. Worse, she felt mortified by their evening's escapade. All right, she had to admit she'd wanted him, but what had she expected, really? Did she anticipate true devotion from a rootless, shiftless wolf? Of course he'd used her. What had she been thinking? What else did she expect?
Much as she didn't want to admit it, the fact was she'd been using him, too. She'd wanted to get back at her father, hadn't she? And at Wendell, at the whole arrangement between them that would have her sold to the highest bidder in marriage. Oh, Gigi! What were you planning to do? Trot Wolf out and say, "Look, Daddy, look what I did, I gave my virtue to this unsuitable suitor? Joke's on you!" Maybe, but hadn't she already decided she wasn't ever going home? Then what, what had been going through her mind?
That was it??? She'd wanted to satisfy her curiosity?
Well, even if that was it, she thought defensively, at least Wolf should have known better. He should have stopped what they were doing. After all, didn't he say, hadn't he always said, he was in love with that Virginia person? And he'd --they'd --done it anyway? That didn't speak very well for his character.
She sat down on the bed. What they'd done didn't speak very well for either of them.
Oh, dear. She hadn't thought she'd feel this miserable afterwards. Maybe her expectations were too high. And, she thought guiltily, there was something else: she just wished she remembered more of the experience. A girl should have some memories from her transgressions. "Oh, Gigi! You are so, so wicked!"
Maybe if she concentrated really hard, she could remember more about what S-E-X was like. She had clear memories of them ripping off each other's clothing. She cast a glance at the purple dress draped forlornly over the bedpost --it had a huge tear up one side --she wouldn't be wearing that again.
But when the mists cleared and she suddenly remembered his hands sliding up her body, awakening her to his touch, and their lips pressed together --Oh. Oh my. More of it was coming back to her memory, and what she remembered made her blush and tingle inside.
Wolf's mouth on hers, on her neck, her breast, sliding down her belly, to – goodness! Where he'd kissed her! The memory brought a rush of sensation that surprised her. I must be a terrible person, Gigi thought, if just remembering makes me feel like this! And then she recalled, with surprising intensity, that when he'd done that to her, how she'd felt as if her body were on fire, and then she felt as if she were out of her body for a few long, short, infinite, immeasurable moments, her breath coming in gasps, her voice crying out in pleasure.
So that was what it was like. No wonder people wanted to do it.
The room, with its messy bed --the scene of the crime, she thought suddenly --now brought up too many intimate thoughts. She needed to go outside, get some air, clear her mind and organize her thoughts.
And try to decide what she wanted to do now, now that she'd told Wolf to get out of her sight. Sure, she felt that way, still, but the fact was, without him, without any money, she had no idea what to do next, or where to go.
She pulled on her boots and was heading towards the door before she noticed the small pouch on the entry table. It was red suede with a gold design she didn't recognize, but when she looked at it closely she read "Lucky In Love Casino." When she hefted it, it was quite heavy and jangled a bit. Curious, she looked inside.
Gold coins, one-, five- and ten-Wendell gold pieces --dozens, no, perhaps hundreds of them! Where on earth--
There was a folded slip of paper on the table. Slowly she opened it and read in Wolf's florid handwriting:
I TRIED TO TELL YOU LAST NIGHT I WON THIS AT THE CASINO--I AM SORRY I TOOK YOUR PURSE BUT!!! I WON 500 GOLD WENDELLS SO MAYBE THAT MAKES UP FOR IT SO HERE THEY ARE IN RETURN --WELL NOT ALL 500, I KEPT A HANDFUL BECAUSE I DID ALL THE WORK, HA HA, BUT NEVER MIND, YOU SPENT ALL YOUR MONEY ALMOST AND MOST OF IT ON ME SO I THINK YOU DESERVE THIS.
I KNOW YOU WONT FORGIVE ME BUT IM SORRY.
Gigi let out a long breath. When had he tried to tell her? It must have been right after their fight in the Casino. Funny, she couldn't really remember now what they were fighting about, though she certainly remembered them kissing in the street. He must have written this note while he was waiting for her to wake up. Well. He was full of surprises, that Wolf. It almost made her want to -- No! She wouldn't accept his apology. She closed the door behind her, setting her jaw with determination.
Still, maybe he wasn't all bad--
--YES HE IS!
--No, come on, he has his decent moments--
--NOT LAST NIGHT!
--Well, it's not like you're one to judge, you wanton little thing!
Aaaggghhh! "Stop it, Gigi!" she chastised herself. "In a minute you'll be apologizing to him, if you don't watch out!"
Well, that would never happen. Armed with a sense of indignation that was still pretty powerful and feelings that still smarted, she tied the purse to her wide gypsy belt and trotted down the stairs. The desk clerk nodded at her as she went by, then flinched as the door slammed once again. "Honestly!" he whined to the bellhop, "Was that couple raised in a barn?"
The day was bright and the sun danced prettily on the whitewashed buildings and slate roofs, but Gigi was in no mood to appreciate the sights of Kissing Town. She'd buy some breakfast, now that she had the means, and then decide which way to head out of town. The magic love town had lost its luster in the bright daylight. At least now she wasn't without money. In that respect, she noted grudgingly, she probably owed at least a passing thanks to Wolf. Maybe after she ate she'd try to find him. She wouldn't try very hard, though.
She thought she remembered a cafe and bakery around the corner where she might buy a muffin and perhaps a cup of cocoa, and she slipped out of the sunny boulevard into a narrow shady street. Her eyes hadn't quite adjusted to the dimness yet as an enormous, calloused hand grabbed her by the mouth, another one around the waist. She flailed at her captor, but whoever he was, his strength was far beyond hers. And then a voice, hoarse and ghostly, whispered in her ear, "Lady Virginia, how nice to see you again. I expect your father will be happy to see you, too."
Her heart threatened to leap out of her chest. The man released his grip around her just enough to swing her around to face him, and when she saw who held her, she thought she might collapse from fear. The pale eyes, as cold and blue as a glacier, froze her with their endless ice. The lank blond hair, laced with strands of gray, the horrible animal-pelt cloak, the smell of death about him. The huntsman! That's what Wolf had called him. But, but --how, how had he found her?
As if reading her thoughts, the huntsman smiled a cold, cold smile and whispered to her, "I take my time, but I always get my prey." He chuckled, a terrifying, inhuman sound that twisted her insides. "Come along, my lady. I expect you to come without much trouble. I hope you won't make me have to do anything that could leave marks." She stared at him, afraid to move, afraid almost to breathe. Oh where, where was Wolf now, now that she needed him?
The last time Wolf had been here, sitting on the ledge over the swiftly-moving stream, he'd been so despondent, so utterly without hope, he'd hurled the obscenely expensive singing ring into the water below him and watched it sink, along with his hopes of living happily ever after. It had been the low point of his life.
Today was running a pretty close second.
"I never want to see you again!" The words kept echoing in his mind. First Virginia and then Gigi. And, presumably, Virginia again, if he ever found her.
On that other occasion, he'd sunk so low that when the evil queen, Wendell's step-mother, called out to him, he'd actually gone to her. Why not? He had no life. Without Virginia, he'd felt he had no reason to live.
Right now it was hard to find a reason, too. He had no idea where Virginia was, but was fairly certain that a) he'd messed up so badly he'd never find her, and b) even if he did, she wouldn't want him to after his betrayal with Gigi. Meanwhile, Gigi hated him too, he probably was the father of two unwanted cubs, he'd screwed up Snow White's riddle, and Wendell was going to remain a dog for the rest of his life.
The last bit didn't bother him all that much, but taken in conjunction with everything else, it only intensified his misery. He was a failure as a hero, no doubt about it.
He resisted the urge to throw his head back and howl --what good would it do? Besides, his head still throbbed a bit.
Of course, all the misery in the world couldn't quell a wolf's hunger. His stomach began to rumble and he realized he hadn't eaten anything all morning. He might not have much to live for, but starvation was too slow a way to die. With a heavy sigh he stood up and dusted himself off.
He shambled listlessly back towards the center of town, eyes down, wallowing in his miserable predicament. He really, truly, did not know what to do next. Was there any point in continuing his quest? Or had his actions forever doomed him to remain apart from his mate? If only there were some sign, some message, some indication of what path he was to follow.
The sign, when it came, was from a direction he never would have expected.
The tiny pony cart rumbled along the rutted track. Gigi stared at the huntsman's back and tried to find a comfortable position. He'd tied her hands together, then run the rope through a rusty metal loop set into the side of the cart. She tugged on it again, as she had repeatedly since he'd turned his back on her. Nothing doing. The loop was rusted, but it held.
Oh, Gigi, you idiot, you should have tried harder to escape! He'd half dragged, half carried her down the shadowy street to the arch where the cart waited. She hadn't seen a soul along the way, no one who could have come to her aid. He'd thought it out very carefully, it seemed, with the practiced cunning of a predator. But maybe, she berated herself, maybe she could have struggled more, tried harder to shout or call for help, though in fact his hand had remained firmly over her mouth until he gagged her. Maybe if she'd only kicked him a little harder--
Should have. Would have. Could have. It was no use wondering about it now. He'd had the upper hand from the beginning.
The huntsman turned around suddenly and Gigi froze. He reached back to pull the filthy cloth from her mouth. Gigi choked and spat, and he chuckled softly and turned back to the reins. "Relax, girl," he said, "it's a long trip."
Gigi slumped against the side of the wagon. When she looked behind her, she was depressed to find that Kissing Town had become no more than a bump on the horizon. There was no escape; she'd be delivered to her father, an unloving husband and eternal misery, and there was absolutely nothing she could do about it. No one would ever come looking for her. Not Wolf, certainly --she'd told him in no uncertain terms to leave her alone forever.
Besides, even if people did look, how would they ever find her? How could she leave a clue as to where she was? It's not like she could drop a trail of breadcrumbs to be followed, like Gretel and Hansel had done--
No, but, her ever-inventive mind realized, there was something she could leave behind, something any pursuer would be glad to follow.
Slowly she worked her bound hands around to the front of her belt. The bag of coins hung by a leather strap and she ever so carefully began to untie the strings that held it closed. It was hard work; her captor hadn't left much slack in the rope that tied her to the wagon, but eventually she was able to pry the bag open a little. Her fingers groped inside and she tried to nudge the bag a little higher by lifting her thigh. There! Her fingers grasped a coin and she withdrew it with great care, her eyes on the huntsman. This time he didn't turn around.
Gigi clutched the coin in her palm, then with a furtive movement reached up as high as she could and pushed the coin over the edge of the wagon. Please, please, don't let it make a sound!
Her wish was granted. The coin fell silently onto the dirt road, and lay there gleaming in the sun. She released the breath she'd been holding, and fiddled for another coin. A path of gold, she thought. Surely someone will follow.
Oddly, she felt sorry it wouldn't be Wolf.
"No sir, I told you, the lady went out earlier and hasn't returned." The desk clerk regarded Wolf with disapproval. What a ruffian the fellow was, all glowering impatience. And the odd way he kept sniffing the air! And now he was running outside again, Don't slam the --aaaaah! --The third time it had slammed that morning. "Animal," the clerk remarked disdainfully. The bellhop shrugged.
Wolf stood in front of the building, nose up, sniffing the air. When he'd scented the dank, musty, bloody smell as he crossed the town square, he'd been so shocked, so horrified, that he'd nearly run into a wall. The huntsman! Here? How? He'd hoped never to catch a whiff of the man again, but here he was. In Kissing Town.
That meant only one thing: Gigi was in danger. The huntsman never gave up a hunt, not until he'd brought down his prey. I should have remembered that, Wolf thought bitterly. I should have protected her. I should have killed the man when I had the chance. Gigi had been right.
There --Gigi's scent, so recognizable because it was the virtual twin of his beloved Virginia's. He bolted away down the street, rounding a corner into a narrow passageway, still on her trail. But her scent was different now... it was mixed with something else...
His heartbeat quickened. There was something else now, mingled with her aroma. The smell of death. The huntsman. This was where he'd caught her.
Oblivious to other smells now, he followed Gigi's path through the back streets of Kissing Town, glad for once that he was a wolf, that he was able to track her. But he had to hurry; the trail would grow colder, and quickly, too. Wolf picked up his pace, and headed out of town.