Christopher Roman O'Halloran is a young writer in the lower mainland of Canada with training in acting for TV and Film. He has very little experience and this is his first published piece.
The Phoenix by Christopher O’Halloran
The broad shouldered man limped through the corridor of Ashley’s large Tudor
mansion and she followed, the long ice pick poised to strike again. His blood dripped dull off the end and splashed on the area rug stretching out towards her study. She could hear his rasping breaths coming quicker and quicker as he dragged his wounded leg.
“You bitch!” he shouted at her as he took hold of the door and slammed it shut.
Always, Ashley thought, always bitch. Every language, every accent, throughout the years it was always BITCH . The word men threw at her when faced with their defeat. It used to get her blood pumping, it used to fuel her hatred but now she rolled her eyes at it the same way a mother will roll her eyes at a petulant child after a temper tantrum.
He would have locked the door and started looking for a phone. That would be
after he saw there were no windows or obvious methods of escape. Most of them were the same once they were weakened past the point of fighting. They resorted to their basic instincts, acting like frightened rabbits in a trap.
Ashley heard the frantic noises coming from the study as she opened a door on the east wall of the hallway. She removed the coats hanging from the rod stretching across the narrow closet as the man flipped over furniture. She entered the combination to her safe as the man slid her heavy desk in front of her door. She removed the 9mm pistol from beside a journal full of names and descriptions as the ragged breaths came slow from the study, punctuated with curses.
The gun was always loaded. The safety was always off. Safety was never a
concern. It wasn’t always this easy, but the latest century of her long life introduced more conveniences with each decade. Weight was always reassuring. The weight of a rock two fists large, the weight of an obsidian dagger both reflecting and absorbing light somehow, the weight of an axe well used and well maintained. The weight of a fully loaded Beretta full of death and destruction. It made her feel strong, giving her the mechanical advantage where her own muscles had failed her.
“Hey Trevor, how are you holding up in there? Can I get you anything? Another
glass of wine? I had to hold my breath earlier when you were panting and drooling over me, maybe you’d like some gum!” She raised the gun and pointed it at the door, waiting for his reply.
“Why don’t you come out here and we can get back to where we left off? If you
could talk to my previous partners they would tell you I am worth bleeding for.” If ashes could talk.
Still nothing. Not even the sound of his laboured breathing. Had he bled out in
there? Ashley frowned at the thought of that. He seemed tougher than that.
“Come on you limpdicked faggot, maybe if you beg me nice I’ll keep it to myself
that you like to choke down cocks on the weekend. I won’t tell anybody that you like to pull on your tiny weiner when your boyfriend lovingly fucks you in your little ass!”
When all else fails, call them gay. Men hate that.
“Fuck you!” shouted Trevor, the big man with the strong arms, strong cologne and cheesy pick up lines.
Ashley aimed eight inches lower than where the sound came from and fired 6
shots through the study door into what she hoped was his center mass.
Her ears rang with a high pitch absurdly contrasted with the deep barks from the pistol. Many times she contemplated buying a suppressor but she just loved that blowback so much, the powerful ejaculation as her bullets raced out the end of the barrel towards the destruction of anything she loathed. Through the ringing she imagined she would hear the sliding of his heavy body and the thump as it hit the ground. In reality that wouldn’t have been the case, the bullets would have tossed him off his feet immediately but she thought herself an artist and her interpretation seemed more poetic, if a tad cliche.
She forgave herself for the cliche. When you’re my age, she pondered, it’s hard to pinpoint when things transition from fashionable to hackneyed.
She repressed that giddy feeling that always comes after a kill and walked towards the study. When she reached the door, she stood on tiptoes and ran her hand along the top of the frame. The feel of the key was unfamiliar. She never had a man run to the study.
Nothing about the long hallway suggested escape. It was dark and terminated in a single room. Most men if they got the chance to flee would run along the path they entered through, the one Ashley led them down, sometimes by the hand, sometimes by the tie, sometimes by something else.
Ashley had lived long enough to become mildly bored at the patterns she found
and this change of pace invigorated her.
“Still kicking honey?” she cooed through the closed door as she slid the key in,
feeling the tumblers rise and catch like puzzle pieces. Maybe he was still alive and she could watch his life leave his eyes. She imagined herself sitting on his chest as it hitched, him powerless underneath her. She wanted to feel his blood soak her pants as it seeped out of 6 little holes in his chest.
“My big strong man is awfully quiet, maybe I can liven him up,” she purred as she
turned the handle and pushed on the door. It moved slowly against the weight of the desk and she had to lower her shoulder to get more power into it. She heaved and the door slipped open a foot. She squeezed in and felt a splitting heat as
Trevor plunged a letter opener into her neck.
He followed her to the ground as his damaged leg gave way and the thin blade
slipped spraying arterial blood across his chest. It scalded him and he frantically ripped his shirt over his head and threw it away from him as he laid beside the dying woman who just 5 minutes ago thrust a heavy ice pick into his leg. He rolled away from her as the blood pumped from the side of her delicate neck.
Had he not known the monster she was, he would think her beautiful.
Ashley stared at him, surprise showing in her eyes. At first she tried to staunch the flow of blood escaping her but realized the futility of it and gave up. A smile spread over her face, touching her eyes
“You look familiar,” she said, “have we met before?”
Trevor shook his head. “My brother.”
Her smile widened as she remembered.
“Smaller than you. Still big though.”
He nodded and got to his feet, his right leg aching where the ice pick sized hole
“He didn’t fight as much as you. Probably because I got him in the temple. Got
him while he was inside of me.” Her smile widened and he thought if she smiled any more her head would open up like Pac Man. “I felt him shrivel up. I squeezed him out like a little baby, dying instead of being born.”
Trevor stepped over her and into the hall, making sure to avoid the spreading
blood that was pooling around her. It didn’t go very far, just ran tightly along her body, already beginning to congeal. He saw the open closet door and glanced inside.
“ Rock a bye baby in a tree top,” Ashley sang from inside the study, her voice
sweet and bursting with love.
He grabbed a shoe box and dumped out its contents. Faded polaroids of men, faces full of shock.
“ When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.”
He pulled a scarf down from where it lay draped over the rod. Paused, then pulled down another.
“ When the bow breaks, the cradle will drop,” the words floated on the still air,
pregnant with the next line.
He waited for it, one second, two, three. Ten.
Nothing. Then the sound of a crackling fire.
Trevor saw a broom and dustpan tucked away in the corner and grabbed it. He
limped over towards the study but was frozen by the sight of a raging fire.
Although the heat baked off and made him wince, the wallpaper showed no sign of burning. The door stood surrounded in flames but remained unburnt as well. Ashley lay in the middle of the fire, eyes closed and smile retracted to a peaceful, content look. She looked like she could be dozing as the fire consumed her.
He sat and waited, back resting against the wall of the corridor. One minute, two, three. Twenty. When she was ashes, the fire died down and faded away. No smoke rose from the pile.
With a grimace he rose using the broom to aid him. He hobbled over to the pile
and began sweeping the ashes into the dustpan. When the pan was full, he dumped it into the shoebox and repeated the process until he had gotten as much out of the carpet as possible. He placed the lid on the shoebox and wrapped the two scarfs around it as tight as he possibly could. The fabric seemed too thin to hold anything of great strength inside but he wasn’t worried.
In the trunk of his car he had chains. His drive home would take him over a bridge crossing a river just a kilometer away from the ocean. He walked out of her large home gently closing the door behind him, the shoebox cradled in his arm.
5 minutes into his drive, the wail of a baby cried out from the shoebox in the
passenger seat. Trevor shifted into fifth gear.
I'm 57 years old, unpublished truck driver. An Illinois Yankee living in the deep south, specifically Georgia.
Dying Time by David Everly
That crazy Carlos always said he could shoot. I’d figured it was just more of his macho bull, but damned if he wasn’t right. Problem was, I only learned how good he could shoot a few minutes ago when he started shooting at me. Bad timing. Story of my life.
I can hear him talking inside the old farmhouse. He’s nice and cool while I’m going brown and crispy under a hot Texas sun. Calling in reinforcements I’ll bet, and using my damn cell phone to do it with. I handed it over to him easy as anything. “Gotta call my folks,” he said. “See how Grandma’s doing, broken hip… hospital… blah, blah, blah.” All bull of course. Figured he wanted to look at my contacts list, see who I’d been talking to, make sure I was who I said I was. I’d heard he did that sort of thing.
I’d bounce if I could, but my car is parked less than ten feet from the front door and he’s sure to be keeping a close eye on it. It’s what we’re all here for after all. A 1994 beat to hell Lincoln Continental, half gray, half all American quarter panel rust, and at least five years late for the crusher. In the trunk is three million dollars’ worth of Peru’s finest. Pure white snow, direct from her high mountain meadows and brought to America by the magic of me. That’s what I do when I’m not dodging bullets. It’s a living, and a good one, at least it was until today.
I can’t afford to wait until this asshole’s friends show up. I can’t leave on foot, it’s a damn desert out there and way too open. There’s nothing to see for miles; no trees, bushes, nothing. I’d stick out like a sore thumb when his buddies showed up. Leaves me one choice.
I bust two caps into the Lincoln, shattering windows. I’m around the house and through the back door while the glass is still falling – I was a sprinter in high school.
Out of the frying pan and into live fire. I can only pray that the sounds of destruction distracted him enough.
It’s cooler inside, out of the hot sun, and I can feel the difference as soon as I enter, my skin crinkle popping as it eases its tight protective grip. It’s darker inside too. Where is Carlos? Come out, come out, wherever you are. If anybody ever needed a good old fashioned crinkle pop it’s my not so good friend Carlos.
Coming in from the bright sunlight to this semi-dark room it’s hard to see. No time for my eyes to adjust. Move, squint, move. I hear him then, see movement down the hall to my left. I turn and fire at the once dark figure in front of me, now lit up and all too recognizable from the muzzle blast of his hokey old wheel gun.
Like I said, that crazy Carlos always said he could shoot.
I’ve expected to die young my whole life. When I was a kid I knew I was going to die at thirteen. I don’t know why I thought that. Looking back I figure it was just because thirteen was supposed to be unlucky, and dying is often considered an unlucky thing to do. Right up there with stepping on cracks and breaking mirrors. I was never bothered by the thought of dying so young. I accepted it as I accepted all the other things kids have to put up with.
“You start school on Tuesday.” (Okay)
“You go to the Dentist next month.” (All right)
“You die when you’re thirteen.” (Okay)
What the hell did I know?
I was an only child, with loving parents who loved to say yes but knew when to say no, and loved me enough to say it and make it stick, so I escaped the dangers of childhood relatively unscathed. It was a good childhood. I mean, hey, if you can handle the fact you’re going to croak at thirteen you can be cool with just about everything. I think the worst thing that happened to me when as a kid was when my Grandmother baked a round loaf of her special bread, just for me. She called it my “big biscuit”, and I dropped it on the ground getting out of the car when we got home. A tragedy at five.
Dying at thirteen I could live with - well, you know – but Grandma’s bread was something else. God, I loved that bread.
My breathing was the first thing to go. It’s a funny thing, breathing. It’s there your whole life, right in front of you, right inside of you, and we never think about it. Every few seconds you breathe in. Your lungs inflate, delivering oxygen to the blood, then you breathe out expelling crap you don’t want anymore. In and out, in and out all day long and we never notice, but you notice when it’s gone. Damn right you do. An atomic bomb going off down the block would be less noticeable.
I’m lying here on the cracked linoleum of this dirty kitchen floor just trying to breathe. I don’t hurt anywhere; whether from shock or spinal injury I don’t know, and I can’t spare any time to think about it. I can’t breathe! There’s a huge weight on my chest, a Jumbo the elephant kinda weight pressing down on me like I was a grape in a wine press. No pain, as I said, but there’s a terrible pressure, an emptiness. Part of me is gone and I feel its loss keenly. I would gladly exchange that emptiness for any amount of plain old fashioned pain. Pain can be good. Pain means you’re alive.
I graduated high school with honors, a full blown idealist. I was young, smart, and eager to do my part, to serve my country and give back some of what had been given to me. I also wanted to kick some ass and take some names if the truth be told, and lying here on this dead linoleum, truth is all that’s left to me. It didn’t hurt that the G.I. Bill was still around either.
Al-Qaeda brought the towers down and there I was, trained and ready to go, with orders to protect my country from evil men. I couldn’t have asked for a better assignment to begin my military career. I was like a knight of old embarking on a sacred quest; killing evil dragons and rescuing fair damsels.
My naiveté lasted less than a month once we were boots down on enemy soil.
We were on a routine patrol thirty clicks down the Euphrates searching for hidden weapons caches. We hit bank and exited the boat near a lone farmhouse. I’m forty meters from the house waiting for the order to move in when a huge dog erupts from a pile of hay nearly right under my feet. He attacks, and momentarily stunned, I don’t shoot him but I do manage to hit him with my gun butt sending him flying. Before he can recover and attack again I click the safety off and shoot him.
I’m still freaked. It feels like a movie monster attack or an alien, not a dog. It’s only been two or three seconds and I’m still trying to figure out what going on. I’m scared, I’m confused, and I’m angry; angry mostly because I’m scared and confused and I think that’s why I shoot the kid when he comes running out of the house to help his dog. Seven, eight years old maybe. Hard to tell with half his face blown away like that.
Shoot an innocent kid in the face and you don’t feel like a knight in shining armor anymore. You feel like the goddamn dragon.
It was so hot outside in the sunshine that I was constantly wiping the sweat out of my eyes, but in here on the linoleum it’s beginning to feel downright chilly. I hear car doors slamming outside, a bunch of them. They sound a million miles away. Even so, my heart jumps a bit, skips a beat I guess, when they all come storming in; a dozen guys with guns, organized and professional. Law enforcement or military I suppose.
I don’t really care at this point though because my heart has stopped. That last jump/skip seems to have worn it out. That steady beat is missing. That lub-lub-lub, that lub-a-dub-dub gone bye-bye now. Well hello Mary Lou, good-bye heart! Didn’t need it anymore anyway. All it does is send oxygen to the cells and I seem to be all out of oxygen at the moment. Maybe you can come back tomorrow. I may have some then; the trucks due in at four.
I brace myself for the shooting pain in my chest and down my arm – it’s the left arm isn’t it? I can never remember. It doesn’t come. In fact, the pressure on my chest has eased up a bit. I’d say I feel better, but with my heart and lungs shut down better ain’t in the dictionary anymore. Damn it! Nothing is.
I can’t even remember the name of the place. I was high a lot those days. Hell, it might not have even had a name for all I know, just some little podunk rat infested raghead village in the middle of nowhere. There was a deal going down there, a big one, and everybody knew about it. The bozos doing the dealing were supposed to be some kind of big shots; drug lords of the old Byzantine Empire with the whole world bowing before their magnificence, but they let the whole world know their business. That made them dangerous to the rest of us in the business, so they had to go.
Army reconnoitered then sent a whole company in. Me and the boys, my squad, went in just a little bit ahead of everyone else. We were what you’d call self-starters, especially when there’s money to be made. We knew just where to go so we went in fast and hard. We killed everybody, I mean we burned them down. It was easy.
There was more smack in that ratty little shack than we could carry, must have been nearly a ton of it. Thirty or forty duffel bags of the stuff, and heavy, but we couldn’t find any cash. There was supposed to be cash. We grabbed what we could, getting more than half the drugs, then torched the place. We left enough burning heroin behind to fire the imagination and edify the mind of anyone getting close enough to breathe it in. We used the smoke to slip out while the others slipped in, with a lovely sense of unreality in our minds and big, wide smiles on our soot covered faces.
We got the stuff to our transport quick as we could, putting it into empty ammo cases brought for just that purpose. The craziest part of the whole thing, just after we got back we were spotted by some brass. Fight was over and they were showing up so we could tell them how wonderful they are. I can’t believe how gullible I was when I joined up.
They saw us, tired and a bit worn, our faces blackened by soot and reeking of poppy power and declared us heroes; gave us medals. Real heroes all over the place, throw a rock and you hit one and we get a bronze star. Crazy old world.
It wasn’t long after that that I realized I was no longer in control of my drug use. I’d ridden the wave too long and it finally broke over me, dragged me down. Drugged me down. I had a monkey on my back and he was one needy little bastard. I couldn’t make enough, or steal enough, to please my new master.
When I finally crashed the Army sent me back to the States and got me cleaned up. I was ready for clean and vowed to stay clean forever. Yeah.
Used my G.I. benefits, went to college, got a B.S. in Botany. Stayed clean. The first couple years were tough. I felt alone and without purpose. In the Army there were always buddies around and there was always a clearly defined goal. A purpose. Civilian life was different. No friends, no purpose, no drugs, but during my junior year I met some people who helped me find some of the purpose I had lost. Four months later I applied to be a Peace Corps volunteer and was accepted providing I completed my degree.
I graduated in May and left for my station in Peru three weeks later. I had a lot to make up for. Maybe this would help.
I’m dying. Not much doubt about that now. Gunned down over a trunk load of cocaine. I’m dying and I’m scared. Scared of what come next, cause I don’t know what comes next. I’ve done a lot of bad things in my life. I killed that little boy. Killed him right there in front of his mother and father. Didn’t mean to, but I did it. Couldn’t take the dreams after that. Kept seeing his face all angry-mad and scared exploding into a pink mist, a thousand tiny shards shooting out and twinkling in the sunlight like fireflies at night. Relived it every night, over and over. I turned to the drugs to chase away the reality. I was weak, that’s all it was. I tried, I really did, but I was weak.
Went downhill fast after that. Hell, I didn’t really care anymore. Taking drugs, selling drugs, killing folks to steal their drugs. Did awful things. I…
Oh Lord! That hurt. Don’t know what it was; kidney, liver. Whatever it was, it’s shut down, left town, kill that fuzzy Charlie Brown. Little dizzy. Can’t move, can’t even move my eyes. All part of the deal when you fly Dead Air. I can still see though, and mostly hear. I can see my hand, the right one. It’s so pale, all the blood run out of it. Looks like the hand of a statue, one of those old Roman or Greek suckers. White. Ugly.
Someone tries to find a pulse but I got none so they ignore me. I see the back of his jacket as he leaves though. Says ATF. Don’t know what they’re doing here. Oh I had a few guns but hell, this is Texas, everybody’s got guns. Case of beer on the back seat. No tobacco. Don’t know… know what. Oh boy. Dizzy. Hurts.
I tried to be good, tried to make up for all the bad. Went and helped people cut down trees and all that other stuff. I’m gonna, I’m gonna go to Hell. Killed that poor little boy. I punched his ticket for him all right and proper that day and earned a lifetime pass through the gates of Hell for myself. An E ticket too, just like at Disneyland. I’ll get the full treatment. All the rides. I went to do good. Tried to do good. Ha. Good intentions, that’s what I was trying to say. The bricks used to pave the road to Hell. I’m sorry for screwing up. I’m sorry little boy. Never even knew his name. I’m sorry little boy with no name. I’m … I’m so sorry.
The Peace Corps gig ran two years, and two years is a long time to be stuck out in the boonies. After six months I got three weeks off and got to live in a real town again. First thing I did was to get a pizza. Delicious.
I met some guys and we had a few laughs. One thing led to another. Six months later when my next break came I started moving white powder again. Cocaine instead of heroin, but the job was the same and the ride was fantastic. I was back on top and that nameless little boy on the banks of the Euphrates became just another sad memory.
I served out the last year of my volunteer duty. My trip back to the States was one of the most exciting of my life as I successfully smuggled in half an ounce of cocaine. A piddling amount of blow, but this was just to see if it could be done. The method I’d come up with was simple and worked perfectly. Within a month I was bringing in ten and twenty pounds at a time. I built up a list of customers, a “clientele” that got bigger and bigger as my stockpiles increased, finally culminating with my largest customer so far, old straight shooting Carlos which brings me right back to where I started.
Carlos was major, man. Anyone who buys three million dollars’ worth of coke is a big time dude. He said he wanted the same every month if the quality is as good as I say. He failed to mention he was going to shoot me to get it or I would have pointed out, reasonable business man that I am, that killing me would make it harder to deliver more. Some folks just never think ahead.
I can hear Carlos talking in the background. Says I started shooting when he badged me. When he badged me! He’s ATF, or maybe FBI, they’re here too. Don’t know Known him for six months and never had a clue. Clever bastard.
I’m beginning to feel light now. Light all over, and it’s getting harder to hear. I have to strain to hear what they’re saying in the other room. Cell phone in the truck so he couldn’t call? That’s why he wanted to use my cell phone, to call his buddies and leave no record traceable to him. He’s dirty. Couldn’t use his own cell phone to call people to haul away the goodies. Mine! Mine goodies. I mean my druggies. Lighter now, won’t be long. Head hurts. I didn’t think it was supposed to take this long to die.
Somebody’s tugging at my soul. No, wallet. Tugging at my wallet. Everyone’s so surprised when they find the badge inside, especially Carlos. Makes his story sound pretty fishy. Good. Damn good. Squirm baby, squirm.
The friends I’d met during my junior year put me through an accelerated training course during my next summer vacation. After graduation I took a two week refresher course then joined the DEA as an unofficial undercover asset two days before I left for Peru.
When I got back to the States I began working my way up the scumbag ladder, looking for the big guy, the one at the top. Carlos wasn’t the top rung, but he was close, and we were going to take him and try to turn him in hopes of reaching the number one guy, but my guys got lost somehow and I got shot. Turns out Carlos wasn’t what we thought he was anyway. Turns out he was worse, a bad cop. Not my problem anymore.
My mind is clearer now that I’ve left my body behind, but the fear is still there. I tried to do good. I tried to make amends. I tried to erase the black stain from my soul.
I’m going now, I can feel it. Not rising, not ascending to heaven, not going down a tunnel, just… going. Going in a direction I could not have gone when I had a body to impede me. As I go I can feel all the accumulated baggage of a lifetime dropping away, piece by piece, the once fiery rocket of my life shedding its stages as it ascends to glory... or destruction.
I am going home. I feel that. Going home to face the music. Unsure of the tune, uncertain of the outcome.
No one really knows how long it takes to die. No one knows when our minds shut off, when we stop seeing and feeling what is going on around us. No one knows when consciousness flees or where it goes when it leaves. No one knows what doors death opens for us, or how difficult it will be to pass through them. No one knows. It is the uncertainty that frightens us so, that once frightened me.
Rod Serling always said, “There’s a signpost up ahead”, so I am unsurprised to see a signpost appearing out of the shadows. With a sense of relief and a rising, almost giddy excitement, I rush forward into a wondrous uncertainty.
Dying time is done.
Shawn Yager: I am an over-educated, under-employed family man with a passion for language. Over the years, I have had a few short stories or works of flash fiction published in various venues.
LOVE by Shawn Yager
Robert Mackey, soldier in the United States Army, Infantry Division, woke up with his cheek in a puddle of blood.
As he stood up slowly, he discovered that his body was sore as hell, and that he was surrounded by house-sized craters, blown apart war machinery, and corpses.
He checked himself over. He had his fair share of cuts and bruises, but the blood on his cheek was not his own. It probably belonged to the corpse at his feet, next to where Mackey had been laying a moment ago, and whose arm had been blown off. A look of surprise frozen on his death mask, as if to say "Dang, my leave was going to start tomorrow, too!"
What hurt most was his stomach. It was empty. His new purpose was clear. Search for food. Like a game of hopscotch, he dodged crater and corpse to began his quest.
A couple of hours later, he walked through a bombed-out village in which the only structures still standing were the headstones in the village cemetery. On the smoking outskirts there was a house that had somehow, like himself, survived the recent bombing run. Maybe he could get something to eat there, if the cupboards hadn’t already been picked clean by roving, hungry soldiers.
The door of the house swung open easily. There were curtains on the windows, tied back with bows. There was a table, with a table cloth. A flower stood in a soup can in the middle of the table.
And there was a teen-aged girl standing in front of the table, holding a gun in her hand.
Mackey's fingers touched his holster.
She wore the uniform of the enemy, but the sleeves and the pant-legs were rolled up, so she looked more like she was playing dress-up than defending her country. He pulled her hat off, the hat of an officer, and saw a long blonde braid, a rope of sunlight, wound around her head. Something soft and pink, like a pajama top, peeked out from between the buttons of her coat. He reached for the buttons, but she stuck her gun in his side and snatched his gun from its holster.
The house was an art museum. The girl was a work of art, even though her eyes were red from crying, lack of sleep, or just sustained fearfulness. Her cheeks were sunken. She looked like she had spent many nights crouched in a dark corner, hugging herself, listening to bombs exploding, waiting for death.
"Food!" his stomach screamed.
Taking a chance that she wouldn’t shoot him with his back turned, Mackey opened cupboards, pulled out drawers. The girl stood to one side and watched.
After he covered the table with what he found, she sat down next to him.
Together they rejected nothing, regardless of appearance or taste. They shared chunks of fat, huge pieces of gristle, crunchy cartilage.
At the point where his stomach could stretch no further, Mackey pushed his chair away from the table. He rubbed his belly and smiled at the girl to say that they had achieved something. She looked at him, smiled for a moment, then looked down at the floor and the smile vanished.
She stood and walked into the bedroom. Like a puppy, he followed her. Without pulling back the blankets or taking off their clothes, they lay down on the bed. It was like a huge pillow. Mackey was asleep within seconds.
When the soldier awoke, he found the girl standing in the doorway, holding her gun and waiting for him. They went outside, behind the house. There was a shovel and he knew what she wanted him to do.
He dug until the hole grew large enough for a man to fall backward into, if he stood in front of it and was shot in the heart at point blank range.
Is this going to be my grave? he wondered.
She waved her gun in the direction of the house and they walked to the cellar.
On a wooden shelf, two small bundles, tightly wrapped in gray woolen blankets, lay next to a few moldy potatoes. Each bundle was rounded at one end, and flat on the other--little mummies wrapped in wool. She made him pick up the bundles.
Mackey carried them in his arms as if they were sticks of wood. Like they were on fire, how they felt on his arms burned into his memory. He set them down next to the hole. The girl took a bundle and set it into the hole, then set the other one down into the hole snugly against the first.
“Go,” she said to him, pointing her gun at him.
She might as well have shot him. The only word she had spoken to him the whole time they were together went through Mackey like a bullet.
She threw his gun onto the ground at his feet, then picked up the shovel and started replacing the dirt.
He stood there for a moment, watching her.
"I can help you with that," he said.
She didn't respond.
He emptied his pockets of bullets, dropped them next to his weapon. He turned and resumed walking along the dirt road that had led him here, away from her.
The moon came out, as well as a lonely star.
The backs of skulls and elbows and heels burned his forearms. The woolen shrouds scratched his skin. The look of the girl, haunted, haunted him.
“I killed those children," he said.
He walked for another day until he encountered an encampment of fellow Americans. They all seemed happy and talkative. Mackey spoke only when spoken to.
An Army doctor looked at him, tapped his knees with a little rubber hammer, and said he was fine.
The US Government put him on a ship for New York. He spent the voyage leaning over a railing, vomiting into black water.
The entire city was in the streets celebrating the end of the war when he arrived. As fast as he could, he found the next bus home and boarded it, managing to miss being in a parade in honor of the returning soldiers.
During the bus ride, between bouts of restless sleep, he thought about the girl: Who was she? Was she their mother, their sister, their babysitter? Maybe she found them lifeless, and took it upon herself to provide them the dignity of a burial? Did she go to school? How old was she? What was her name? What were the names of the children? How old were they? Did she have a boyfriend? What is she thinking about right now? Is she still alive? I hope she's still alive.
I should have stayed, he said to himself. She must have seen something in me that she liked. She chose me to help her bury the children. She would have grown to love me.
He imagined living with her, in that house. They would be farmers, have lots of children.
I'm going to marry that girl, Mackey decided. I'm going back there and I'm going to marry her.
The bus dropped him off in front of the house he had grown up in.
Mackey stood next to the mailbox, the rounded kind that everyone had, with the red flag you can put up if you need to, but it looked strange to him. In neat black letters, his father had painted "MACKEY." The paint was faded. It could use a touch-up. He watched the bus drive away, belching a black cloud of exhaust. Part of him said "Wait, I changed my mind!" It swerved to avoid a pothole and he watched it shrink to a dot. Then, all he could see was corn. He turned and faced a dirt driveway leading to a white house with peeling paint, almost surrounded by chest-high corn.
The house didn't seem that big anymore.
The lights were on downstairs, creating squares of brightness contrasting with the early morning grayness. Leaving the mailbox behind, he headed for the door.
His father opened it and Mackey looked at him.
“Well, well, well," his father said with a smile as he opened the door, "Hi there, Bobby. Mother and I were wondering when you'd get home."
Are you really my father? He's shrunk, Mackey thought. The general shape was the same as he remembered--skinny and stooped. But he had a lot less hair, and what he had was totally gray. More wrinkles. Had he always squinted like that?
Don’t you dare salute me, Mackey thought.
“Come inside and have something to eat. We're just sitting down ourselves. Mother! Bobby's home!"
He hated how hungry he was. His father pushed him into the dining room.
"You're just in time to help me bring in the corn," he said as he guided his son along. "Hey, did you do any mechanical work while you were gone? The tractor's acting up and darned if I know what's going on. Your cousin Phil's been helping with the farming while you were gone. I told him it would be temporary, though, until you got back. Course, that was a few years ago I told him that. Anyway."
The table was set for breakfast.
He eyed the spread lustily.
His mother ran to him from the kitchen.
Are you really my mother? She, too, seemed to have shrunk. Like the house and his father. Hell, he thought, maybe I've shrunk, too. How do I know? She seemed not to have changed as much as his father had, except that her hair had gone gray, and her face displayed more wrinkles than he remembered, and maybe she was a little more rounded.
I guess this is the right place, he decided.
She threw her arms around him.
"Oh Robby, I'm so glad you're home! I was afraid you'd never make it back." She shed tears that stained Mackey's shirt. Mackey stood there, like he was getting a shot, and endured her embrace.
"Yep," he replied, "here I am."
She released him, wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
"You don't know how many times I woke up in the middle of the night, certain that you'd been killed."
"Nope, made it through."
His father had him sit at the head of the table. Mother gathered a pile of eggs and bacon and toast onto a plate. She poured him a cup of coffee.
“Here you go, Bobby,” she said, as she passed the plate over to him.
His parents stood against a wall as he sat at the table and gorged.
"You were very lucky," his mother said, watching him eat. "WE were very lucky."
“So,” his father said. “how are you?”
“Oh, just great,” Mackey said, mouth full. "War was a blast. You should have been there."
"Robert!" his mother scolded.
His eyes went from his father to his mother and back.
“You know what I did?”
“What did you do,” his father asked.
“I killed two children.”
“Oh, Lord!" his mother cried out, and covered her face with her hands.
“I might as well have,” Mackey added quickly, apologetically.
“Oh, well, OK, yes," his father said, patting his wife's back. "I see what you mean. That’s why they say war is hell, son. But we won, thanks to you. That's the important thing. And now you’re back in the good old U.S. of A.”
“You know what really gets me?" Mackey asked his parents. "What gets me is that I can kill for America and they’ll have a parade in my honor--for killing! Children!”
“Please stop," beseeched his mother. "I know you've been through a lot, but please--"
Robert shoved more food into his mouth.
"Sorry," he mumbled through the mouth full of eggs.
"Oh, my," his father said, eyeing the cuckoo clock on the wall. "Look at the time."
"Robert," his mother asked him, "did you want to go to church with us?"
"No thanks. Kind of tired."
"Well, that makes sense. Maybe next week, then? We'd love to have you go to church with us."
A car, black with rounded fenders, turned onto the driveway, producing a silo-sized cloud of dust and exhaust. Its horn let out two quick beeps.
“Harold,” Mother said, quickly dabbing the corners of her eyes with her napkin, “Mr. Harris is here.”
“I’ll go get our coats.”
"I got the Bibles."
Mackey watched his parents hustle around, gathering keys, handkerchiefs, hard candy, their breakfast forgotten.
"Bye, Robert," his mother said to him. "See you later."
"Bye, son," his father said.
They were half way through the door.
"I met a girl over there," he said.
His parents stopped and looked at Robert.
"Well, that's a pleasant surprise!" his mother said.
"Tell us all about her after church, OK, Robby?" his father said.
"Sure, sure." Under his breath, he said, "Not much to tell."
His father closed the door behind him with a gentle click. Robert looked at the doorknob. He felt like his stomach was about to burst. He stood up slowly from the dining room table and looked around. He found cabinets, opened and shut their doors, until he found a glass bottle nearly full of brown liquid.
"Whisky," the dusty bottle read. This is exactly what he was looking for.
Mackey went to the bathroom and stuck his finger down his throat until everything he had just eaten ended up in the toilet. He felt much better. Now he could breathe. From there he walked to the living room with the bottle and let himself fall onto a couch that faced the picture window. The big window allowed him to see the road, see where the bus had dropped him off. There was the ordinary-looking mailbox with his name on it. There was a huge field on the other side of the road, full of chest high corn. Like it or not, he would probably end up helping his father harvest it, as well as the corn on this side of the road that threatened to invade the house. Off in the distance was the river that passed through town, reduced to a dark sliver. He took a gulp from the bottle, gasped, and took another. He remembered his father's question about doing anything mechanical while he was over there, because one of the tractors needed some work. He laughed. I know how to fix a rifle, that's about it. He closed his eyes and slept.
He dreamed that the girl was standing on a cloud. She took her hat off, her long golden braid wound around her head. She unwound it and let it fall, thousands of feet. He caught it. He climbed and climbed. It was so easy! It was the easiest thing he had ever done! It seemed to take forever, though, but he kept on climbing and soon enough he could see her through the cloud, her rolled-up pantlegs. She could see him, too, and she waved to him, smiling, encouraging him. A feeling of happiness went through him. He knew they would be together again.
He woke up with a start. He had no idea where he was. He looked around and realized that he was in his parents' living room.
He almost spilled the whisky.
MIKE JOHNSON - I started writing late in life. Age sixty four to be exact so I suppose that comes under the category: it’s never too late to learn! I’m English from the county of Yorkshire but moved to Spain in the year 2000. My writing career began after meeting other published author’s here on the Costa del Sol. My first novel; Dragon - written in long hand at first would you believe – was edited by my wife who I found was more than capable – and far less expensive – than the Publishers. The next two novels in the series; The Korean Connection and The Buddha in Ice followed soon after. It may be of interest to learn the wrap around front covers were designed by me, and illustrated by a local design company. You have no idea how cost effective that is for a first time writer self-publishing? In between these novels I began writing short stories: The Little Home on Wheels was one of them, but my readers wanted to know; what happened next? The story begins here in Spain in places I have visited and know well.
The small convoy set off again with Alex taking up the rear. They would stop for a rest every two to three hours but even so the constant driving was not something she was not used to and asked Congo to take over for a while. That evening she was glad to make camp by the road side.
Carmen noticed the strain taking effect and joined her in the motorhome ‘you should get some sleep Alex we should reach your village tomorrow I would think’
‘Thanks Carmen but I can’t help worrying what has happened to the hospital and dad would remind me what you have just said’
‘I don’t understand’
‘You said my village. He keeps warning me not to get personally involved, but it’s hard not to’
‘Oh I see. Your father is a wise man and a respected surgeon you told me?’
‘Mum as well. When I was growing up my parents used to discuss their patients at home. I must have been absorbing all that information without realising it but in truth I was really interested in medicine. By the time I was sixteen I had read most of the medical journals in the house while most of my friends were discussing the latest gossip in the Hello magazine. Bit of a conversation stopper that was. I delayed entering medical college until I had passed all my degrees and then waited another year until I was sure it was what I really wanted and not just following in my parent’s footsteps. They separated that year by the way’
‘I’m sorry to hear that’ Carmen sympathised.
‘Everything turned out well in the end but at the time I didn’t realise how upset I was with both of them. Three years flashed by before I knew it. I was top of the class all the time of course much to my colleague’s annoyance. Then it happened!’
Carmen was fascinated by her story ‘what happened?’
‘One day I was sat in the hospital canteen having a drink when the walls seemed to start closing in on me. It was like a scene from the Star Wars movie when they get trapped rescuing the princess. I was sweating, shaking and feeling really weird. It was at this point I pulled the engagement ring off my finger’
‘What engagement ring?’
‘Oh sorry I forgot to mention that I had become engaged to Terry another doctor in the hospital. Even now I can’t explain why I agreed to marry him it just kind of happened. Anyway once the ring was off my finger I calmed down. I just sat there for ages assessing my life and what I wanted to achieve. One week later I was on a plane to Africa having joined help the Children’
‘You did break it off with the young man before you left didn’t you?’
‘Err not quite!’ she answered fidgeting a little.
‘Come on Alex you can’t stop now’
‘Oh crap!’ she sighed ‘it wasn’t one of my finer moments but that turned out for the best as it happened. I put the ring in an envelope and asked another doctor, one of the few I was friendly with to give it to him’
‘Oh Alex you didn’t. Why did it turn out for the best?’
‘The friend was very pretty and I know she had a crush on him. The last I heard they were due to be married next year. People fall in love in mysterious ways’ she started singing.
Carmen was in tears ‘Oh Alex you tell a good story that’s for sure’
‘Thanks Carmen you’re one of the few people I’ve confessed that to’ she really was a nice person thought Alex.
‘You know when I first saw this motorhome I thought it was quite quirky but impractical. I have to say I’m really enjoying being around it. The toilet facilities are a lot better than what I was used to that’s for sure. Privacy is a premium on these road trips’
‘You can say that again. How is Colene coping by the way?’ she asked ‘this being her first trip so to speak’
‘That young lady has been sent by god that’s for sure. She never complains or argues the point and I think you are beginning to realise she is an exceptional nurse’
‘I won’t argue with that. In fact, I’m surprised she hasn’t thought of becoming a doctor herself?’
‘I did ask her that once but she just said she was happy being a nurse. Not everybody has your persona Alex’
‘I’ve never been told I have a persona Carmen’ she grinned.
‘Don’t be cheeky young lady you know what I mean. It would never occur to you not to treat a patient would it; no matter what the circumstances? You may question what the best treatment would be but after that self-doubt would be out of the question?’
‘You know I have never thought about it’ she mused.
‘Good!’ she told her ‘don’t start now. You are young, talented and dedicated to your profession. I was going to say you will be a wonderful doctor someday but I think that day is already here’ she said standing up ‘good night and god bless Alex’
Alex watched her go and suddenly began crying. It would be a restless night.
The convoy made good time mainly due to the lack of traffic on the road. The N3 was also a decent enough road although in need of repair in places. It was when they reached Kiffa the problems started.
The road block was a rudimentary affair just enough to stop any traffic and warn them of the dangers ahead. Heavily armed soldiers sat under trees or awnings but made no effort to stop them.
It was the same at Ayoun el Atrous but here the soldiers actively questioned why they needed to go any further. It was obvious to anyone the convoy was a charity and carried medical supplies. They warned us however that the Red Cross on the side of the containers would not stop the raiders from attacking them.
At the town of Timbedra they came to a halt. The soldiers refused to let them travel any further until the all clear was given from the forward troops. Congo did his best to persuade them but in the end even he admitted it would be foolish to continue until the situation became clear.
They made camp and avoided Alex.
The next morning a soldier entered their camp and saluted smartly ‘I understand you have a doctor in your party?’ he asked in French.
Jack responded first ‘Yes can we be of assistance?’
‘My sergeant was injured three days ago but refuses to be evacuated. He is in command while our Captain is in the forward position’
‘One moment and I will fetch Doctor Trent’ he said moving away to collect her.
When she arrived she questioned the Corporal ‘what kind of accident?’
‘My sergeant is not a man to ask his troops to do anything he wouldn’t do’ he told her proudly ‘but in this instance he should have let one of the men test the bridge first’
‘The bridge was not as strong as he thought and it collapsed underneath him. The medic is with the forward troops but he refused to order him back. We think his leg is broken but there was also a gash in his leg’
‘Let me get my medical bag and I will come with you’
‘I’ll accompany you Alex’ Carmen announced running to collect her own bag.
The sergeant was in his own tent with a guard outside. Alex knew instantly she entered the tent that the man was very ill.
Pulling on a mask and gloves she preceded to unravel the blood sodden bandage. When it was fully removed Carmen had to look away for a minute. Alex ignored the gore and sniffed the wound.
When she looked up Carmen knew exactly what she was about to say ‘gangrene?’
‘I’m afraid so and well advanced. The skin is pale and greyish and is making a crackling sound when I touch it. He has a very high temperature and is sweating like the proverbial pig’
‘Can we do anything for him?’
‘If I don’t remove the leg in the next few hours he’s as good as dead. Even if I do remove it there is no guarantee the infection hasn’t already spread up to his calf?’
‘I think we should inform the Corporal and let him make the decision. This man is in no state to do that’ Carmen told her.
The Corporal given him his due didn’t flinch ‘if he can be saved then so be it. What do wish me to do?’
‘Sister Carmen will administer a drip and start pumping him with anti-biotics. If I attempt to operate in that tent he will more than likely die anyway so that’s not an option? Give me one hour to prepare then stretcher the sergeant to the motorhome. You’re now going to find out why I won’t let anyone into the bedroom’ she told Carmen.
Back at the camp she told everyone what was happening then turned to Congo.
‘I’m going to need your help Congo’
‘Anything you need doctor just ask’
‘Ok if you’re sure. I want you to get completely naked and come into the motorhome!’ she told him then turned to the other two men ‘please close your mouths gentlemen it’s not what it seems. When I was in Gibraltar I made a few changes to the interior. The double bed was removed to be replaced by a single one that can be turned upside down to make a passible operating table. Plastic sheeting is positioned all around the room and can be dropped down to make it reasonably sterile. There is also an arc lamp that can be plugged in and hung from the ceiling’ she informed them then turned to Congo once more ‘you need to use some sterilising soap I’m going to give you. Use the shower and scrub yourself until it hurts. Then I want you to convert the bedroom to what I’ve just described, can you do that?’
‘Leave it to me doctor’ he said already moving away and discarding clothing.
‘As soon as Congo starts on the bedroom I will scrub up’ she said then turned to Colene ‘this is going to be a messy and tricky operation Colene; are you up to it?’
‘Maybe I should scrub up first doctor to help Congo. Do I have to be naked as well?’
Alex had to stop her-self from smiling too much ‘no I think a hospital gown will be required for you but not wearing anything else would help us to keep cool I suppose. Those arc lights will make the room very hot even with the air-conditioning on’
When Colene moved away she spoke to Jack and Freddie ‘there is no guarantee the man will survive even if I remove the leg successfully’
‘Right now you’re the only chance he’s got Alex what can we do?’
‘When the stretcher comes he will need to be man handled into the operating room. You cannot enter the motorhome for risk of infection so pass him over to Congo’
‘Very well leave it to us’
When she was out of earshot Jack turned to his friend ‘that’s one hell of a woman Freddie and that’s for sure!’
The sergeant was already well sedated as Alex entered the temporary operating theatre. The idea to convert the bedroom had been in the back of her mind since Henri suggested she travel to Africa in it. By the time she reached Gibraltar her plans were well advanced. The Royal Engineers were only too happy to help out.
‘Ok let’s begin’ she told Colene automatically reverting to French.
Jack and Freddie played cards.
The Corporal stood to attention in the background and didn’t move.
Three hours later the door of the motorhome swung open and everyone froze.
‘The operation was successful. I mean the patient didn’t die on me’ she laughed to herself ‘it will be another 24 hours before we know for certain the gangrene hasn’t spread to his upper leg’
The Corporal walked forward and saluted ‘thankyou doctor I will inform the men’
‘He will need to be moved to a hospital as soon as possible Corporal’
‘I have already contacted command. They are waiting for a report on his condition before they send a helicopter to transport him’
Alex resisted the temptation to say what she was thinking ‘good’ was all she said.
Carmen approached ‘I will relieve Colene. Why don’t you get some rest?’
‘Thank you Carmen I will. I think by the way Colene is the best nurse I have ever worked with’
‘I’ll let her know that, she will be pleased’
Twenty four hours later the good news was the sergeant would survive. A helicopter had been dispatched to transport him to hospital in the Capitol city Nouakchott.
Alex was now determined more than ever to see her village and the hospital. She would not be satisfied until she knew the people were safe.
Jack returned from a meeting with the Corporal.
She was about to start bullying him to take her but he stopped her ‘the Corporal and his men will escort us all the way to the village. He suggests we leave the little home on wheels here and just take the Land Rover’
‘The little home on wheels; I like that’ Alex grinned.
‘Sister Carmen and Colene should stay here as well; to look after the patient of course’
‘Tactfully put Mister Warner’ Sister Carmen smiled.
‘When you’re ready we’ll leave?’ he announced.
The two trucks full of soldiers slowed to a crawl as they approached the village.
Two by two the soldiers dropped down from the rear and disappeared into the
scrub on either side of the road.
Jack was impressed ‘whoever trained these men has done a good job’ he told her.
The village was deserted. So was the hospital. It had been ransacked and looted but thankfully there were no signs of violence.
‘According to the Corporal the village had warning the raiders were in the area and decided to move out of the village’
‘But where did they go to?’
‘I’ve scouted the area and found lots of tracks moving west’
‘But that’s the direction we came from isn’t it?’
‘Yes but these tracks lead into the bush. I guess the thinking was it would be harder for the raiders to catch them?’
‘That’s typical of Doctor Jacques always thinking ahead’
‘Was that the man in charge of the hospital?’
‘Yes, he’s more like a native he’s been here that long. If anybody can keep the people of the village alive it would be him’
‘Well the good news is there are no bodies and no signs of violence. What do you want to do?’
‘Now the soldiers are here do you think this place will be safe for the villages to return?’
‘I would think so. If my information is correct these men have travelled a long way from their usual home in the bush. With such little pickings it would be a waste of time returning’
‘In that I case I want to leave the Medical supplies here. Could we hide them somewhere just in case?’
‘It’s a risk but I don’t see why not. Without them the Land Rovers could possible track your people over land; but that was your thinking wasn’t it?’ he suddenly realised ‘dam it Alex you would make a dam fine tactical officer in the military!’
‘So let’s get going’
‘No chance Alex and this time I mean it. The charity has already been on my case about putting you in danger. I’ll call up Freddie with the other supplies and we’ll start to unload and hide them. You’ll be going back with the Corporal and no arguments!’
Alex knew it was no good arguing. She had pushed her luck getting this far but now she was sure the village people were safe she had no more excuses ‘very well Jack but please radio us or something if you do catch up with them?’
‘I promise Alex. Now you and the other two ladies should return to the Capital where you will be safe’
Alex reluctantly agreed.
By the time Alex returned to their camp site the motorhome had been thoroughly cleaned.
‘Where has Congo disappeared to’ she asked Carmen.
‘He went to see the Corporal I think. Ah here he comes’ she said pointing up the road.
‘Are you ready to go?’ she asked him noticing his reluctance to hurry.
Congo frowned and scratched his head clearly something was bothering him.
‘What is it Congo? We’re all friends here aren’t we?’
He looked at the doctor and made a decision ‘Mister Warner will not like it if you disobey him and don’t return to the coast’
‘Why should we not return to the coast?’ Alex asked sensing he was trying to tell her something.
‘The Corporal has just informed me the people of your village are close to the border with Mali. They will soon be out of the armies’ jurisdiction as they are in another country’
‘But Jack told me they were all heading west to the coast. I don’t understand?’
‘It seems Jack was not telling you the truth Alex. You can understand why?’
‘Dam it Jack!’ she swore.
She began to pace up and down trying to think what to do. The motorhome was their only source of transport something Jack had obviously considered when taking the two Land Rovers. She had been tricked and she didn’t like it.
Carmen looked at Colene who just nodded in her direction ‘are you sure?’ she asked her.
She nodded again to confirm she agreed.
‘Alex!’ she called ‘the quickest way to Mali is south along the RN4 if I’m not mistaken’
Alex had not seen the exchange and was caught off guard ‘Carmen I can’t ask you to come with me. I’ll get you back to the capital I promise’ she said now looking guilty at not discussing things with them.
‘You know as well as I do it is too far for one person to drive by themselves. You don’t believe we would abandon you now do you?’
She was lost for words but none where needed. They boarded the motorhome and set off.
Later that day they entered Mali. The RN4 road would eventually reach the capital Bamako but she hoped that they would meet up with the villagers before then.
Congo was confident they would ‘there are women and children but no patients from the hospital. Your doctor Jacques had the good sense to send them west in the only trucks they had. It means they are walking but should be making good time’
‘We could go faster?’ she suggested.
‘Not a good idea doctor. This is a fine vehicle but these roads have deep potholes. If we get a puncture that’s not too bad but anything worse and we could be in trouble’ he said steering carefully around a bend in the road.
He really was a good driver she thought but he still had that worried look. I wonder why?
‘How long have you worked with Jack and Freddie?’ she asked casually.
‘About three years now’ he shrugged keeping his eyes on the road ahead.
‘Did you meet in England or in Africa?’
‘Both!’ he answered not wanting to elaborate.
‘Have you worked for the charity long?’
It wasn’t working. He would evade her questions all day and she knew it.
Very well let’s try something else ‘was your military training very hard?’
That made him glance sideways quickly ‘I don’t understand doctor I’m just a driver for the charity’
‘Congo it’s time we stopped playing games and before we leave each other I want to know your real name’
He grinned flashing a smile he had not shown before ‘the Brigadier warned me to be careful around you doctor and he was right. It’s time we made camp for the night’ he said pulling onto the side of the road.
Congo erected a small tent for himself; the women would sleep inside the motorhome but with all the doors and windows wide open.
They needed to preserve as much fuel as possible ‘there’re not many petrol stations around here’ Congo had warned them.
When they had settled down for the night she approached Congo ‘you know I’m going to keep asking questions until I get to know what is happening so why don’t you just tell me?’
‘The Brigadier will not be happy with me Alex if I do’
‘In that case I promise not to discuss it with anyone’
He looked at the doctor and was glad there were people like this one in the world.
He had been skeptical of her abilities at first but after the way she had saved the sergeant, and worked with the refugees in the camp he admitted he had been wrong, very wrong.
‘Jack was in the SAS until recently. He recruited me in Africa after my family were murdered. If it wasn’t for him, I would have hunted the men down and killed them and probably been killed in the process. I was not a soldier you see but a scholar.
My father sent me away to England to be educated. You are our future he told me when I left. It was because of him I agreed to do things a different way than just killing for revenge’
‘You said Jack was in the SAS but I have a feeling he still keeps in touch with the military?’
‘Officially we work for the charity as you do but with the understanding we are free to help out the authorities, your MOD for example if it does not involve any of their employees directly’
‘People like me, Carmen and Colene you mean?’
‘Yes. Our contract states quite clearly we should never put you in danger if at all possible’
‘I guess that could be difficult here in Africa’ she said feeling a bit guilty over her attitude to Jack.
Now he had started Congo decided to explain the rest ‘things are a lot more complicated than you realise doctor’
‘I think you should explain it to me then!’
‘The recent terrorist’s attacks in some of the capital cities of Europe not to mention Tunisia and Egypt have made the security services nervous to say the least. The fundamentalist aren’t only in Syria and Iraq but in Africa too. Mali for example is split into ethnic fractions even more complicated than Syria.
The military coup last March that ousted Toure resulted in Tuareg rebels seizing the north of the country in a revolt and later hijacked by Islamist radicals. Mali is a former French colony and Africa's third-largest gold producer by the way.
The recent attack on the Radisson hotel in the Capital Bamako has forced the government to take action against the militants’
‘I see. They’re afraid the rebels might capture the gold mines just like they did in Syria with the oil fields?’
‘Imagine what they could do with a few million Euros to spend on armaments?’
‘But how are you Jack and Freddie involved in all this?’ she asked.
‘Until 24 hours ago we weren’t officially. The Brigadier got a call from London asking his whereabouts. When he explained where he was and what he was doing they asked him to provide any Intel on the rebels that he could. When he advised them he may be heading into Mali they really where interested’
‘Is he in any danger?’ she asked worried for his safety which would have made a career soldier like Jack smile for sure.
Congo delayed his answer not sure what to say but in the end he decided they needed to know what they were heading into ‘doctor we may just be heading into a war zone!’
Jack had no trouble tracking the villagers as they headed east. He could even establish when they made camp. He could then calculate the distance travelled each day. The two vehicles would travel on a parallel course through the bush. In that way they would not lose the track if the villagers decided to alter their course.
When he had agreed to find the villagers it had been to placate the doctor who would have insisted on going after them. Her tenacity had surprised him.
But the reason had now changed.
A few hours earlier he had received a coded message from London.
‘We have to stop the villagers crossing into Mali’ he told Freddie ‘if we don’t they’re going to be in the middle of a firefight’
A call came over the radio ‘Jack I’ve found the villagers’ Freddie informed him ‘they’re camped beside a small river due north of your position’
‘Great. Make contact with that doctor Jacques and I’ll be there ASAP’
Doctor Jacques was everything he had expected. Tall but stooped with the coming of age. Unruly hair sticking out from under the spectacles and always looked like he needed a shave. His eyes however were clear and bright and bore into you. You had the feeling you shouldn’t try and lie to a man like this.
Jack explained what was happening and gave him the good news it was safe to return to his village. He also explained where the medical supplies were hidden.
‘Tell that young lady thank you and that we will be alright without her. That wasn’t meant to be unkind by the way. She is a dedicated and exceptional doctor but wasted in an out of the way place like ours’
‘I’ll give her the message I promise’
Before the two vehicles set off Freddie contacted Congo to make sure they had reached the Capital.
The look on his face when he pulled off the head phones said it all ‘you’re not going to like this boss’
‘What has she been up to now?’
He told him.
‘That woman has done it again. How far into Mali are they?’
He told him.
‘Shit!!!’ he cursed ‘Call Congo and tell him to get back across the border. The damned rebels are heading straight towards them. If they get caught out in the open, they could be in trouble’
Command post Alpha was located only a few miles from the airport at Mopti in Mali but few if any civilians knew it existed. It was home to the French and now British Special Forces and the command centre for the Drone aircraft now flying Recon missions all over Mali.
The eight man SAS team, the helicopter pilot and his co-pilot had just returned from one such mission and were relaxing in their compound.
A courier entered the tent, saluted smartly and handed a message over the teams Commander who nodded and said he would go now.
‘Wonder what that was all about?’ one of the team asked his comrades.
‘If it’s another mission the French can sod off I need a beer and some entertainment’ he moaned.
Half an hour later the Commander returned. He glanced around the tent and settled his eyes on one person who suddenly became very uncomfortable. The rest of the team sensing something was about to happen went silent and waited. The Commander knew his men intimately and did not keep anything from them.
‘Flight Lieutenant John Spencer we need to talk’ he announced.
John stood to attention ‘yes sir?’ he responded puzzled at what he had done wrong.
‘You have only been with us a short time Lieutenant but we have been impressed with your ability as a flyer. I think the men will agree to that?’ he stated getting nods of agreement from the others.
‘Thank you; sir!’ he responded now even more puzzled.
‘Forgive me if I intrude on your private life for a moment Lieutenant but what did you get up to on your recent leave of absence?’
The men were now sat up and paying attention. Something was going on and their Commander was milking it for all it was worth.
John gulped unsure how to answer ‘I’m sorry Major but I’m not sure what you want to know?’ now really puzzled by the questioning.
The Commander walked towards him and produced a set of aerial photographs.
‘Did you by any chance purchase a motorhome and register the vehicle in the UK?’
John accepted the black and white photographs and his jaw dropped open.
‘What I need to ask Lieutenant is why the said vehicle is now in the middle of Africa?’
John couldn’t answer. He just gaped at the photograph. He recognised the motor home immediately there was no doubt it was his vehicle. The number plate stood out clearly in a blow up.
‘I take it by your expression Lieutenant that you were not aware the vehicle was actually in Africa am I correct?’
John recovered his senses ‘I left the motorhome with Alex, sorry Doctor Trent when I left Spain. She was going to sell it for me. I haven’t been in contact since the beginning of this mission as per my orders Sir’
The Commander smiled ‘take a seat John we need to talk’
John sat down willingly trying to make sense of it.
‘It was a simple matter to trace the vehicle from the number plate. The French were really surprised when they spotted it from one of the drones. You don’t get too many British camper vans in this part of the world’
John was tempted to correct him but kept quiet now was not the time ‘Doctor Trent works for help the Children, a UK based charity organisation. I can only assume she has travelled here in the motorhome to help out in some way. I thought she was going back to the UK?’
‘You appear to know the young woman quite well John is there something we need to know?’
The team were now all leaning forward. This was too good to be true.
John gulped knowing he was going to get ribbed by the team from now on ‘we were close’ was all he said.
That response got a few whoops and guffaws.
‘Settle down boys I’m afraid this is more serious than it seems’ the Commander said producing more aerial photographs ‘these were taken shortly afterwards. The French have been tracking a breakaway group of insurgents. As we all know the regular army with French commandos have been operating in the North of the country with much success. It means however it has created a vacuum further south which we have been tasked to monitor. The breakaway group are small in number but heavily armed. Until now the French have been content to let them move north unmolested thinking they should be out of the country soon. Two days ago they decided to alter course’
The Major opened up a folded map of the area and put three crosses on it with a marker pen.
‘This first cross indicates where the insurgents are now. They are heavily armed like I said but are also mobilised which means they are catching up to this group of people here who are on foot’ he said pointing to the next cross.
‘Who are they?’ one of the men asked.
The Major didn’t clarify but said ‘The French contacted them and advised them to move away from the area until they could mobilise a unit to protect them. That will not happen for another 48 hours’
‘By which time they’ll be dead’ the man decided as a matter of fact.
‘Correct Sergeant and so will the people here if they don’t move away’ he said pointing to the next cross on the map.
No one wanted to ask the question, they all looked at John who was having trouble breathing ‘that’s the motorhome isn’t it?’
The men all looked at their pilot. He had not been with the team very long but they all realised he was good at his job and would not let them down if they got into trouble on a mission. There were no more wise-cracks. People’s lives were at risk.
‘Have you any idea what that vehicle is doing here or who the people are?’
Before he could respond the tent flap opened and the same courier entered, saluted and passed over a message. He saluted again and left.
The Major read the message carefully digesting the implications of what it revealed.
Finally, he turned to John ‘the situation is getting more complicated by the minute. The vehicle is on loan to the charity. The motorhome and two Land Rovers with medical supplies left Gibraltar nearly two weeks ago. They were heading for a village in Mauritania. Apparently the man in charge of the hospital evacuated the villagers and led them towards Mali thinking to lie low until the danger passed. He must have been heading for the other village that is looked after by the same charity. They have now been stopped and are returning home’
‘That’s some good news at least?’ one of the team suggested.
‘Not really. The men tasked with looking after the doctor and another two French nurses, one of them a nun by the way, are not with the Motorhome. They were the ones who caught up with the villagers and sent them home’ he turned to the men ‘you may recognise the name; Jack Warner?’
‘Brigadier Warner your kidding?’ one shouted out.
‘Yes! The man who probably trained most of this team is at this moment trying to catch up with the three women he is supposed to be protecting’
There were murmurs and discussions among the men.
The Major let them continue for a while before he ordered quiet ‘men we all know our mission parameters. We are here as observers and to collect Intelligence. We are not allowed to engage the enemy unless it is self-defence’
‘But Major! The Brigadier is a top man but no way can he fight off a that many armed insurgents’ one shouted out.
Another man put his hand up ‘Major you didn’t answer my earlier question when I asked who represented the other cross on the map?’
The Major took a deep breath before he answered ‘I told you the villagers were heading towards another village looked after by the same charity?’
The men all sat up hoping it was not what they expected.
‘The group are from that village. It was set up to look after orphans and mothers without any support. Many of them are pregnant. The children are anywhere between two and fifteen years of age. I don’t have to tell any of you what will happen if the insurgents catch up with them?’
The tent was silent.
The Major was their commanding officer and they would not disobey him.
They waited as he decided what to do.
He suddenly stood up and left the tent ‘wait here’ he told them.
His French counterpart was sitting behind his desk as he entered ‘Ah Major you took your time’ he grinned ‘I understand you and your men wish to carry out a Recon near the border with Mauritania. I think that’s an excellent idea, but it’s a dangerous place maybe you should carry more weaponry this time?’
‘Thank you sir we will do just that’ he replied saluting and nodding his thanks.
Back at the tent the men waited.
He stood in front of them ‘lieutenant what is the readiness of your chopper?’
‘It was being checked over by the ground crew after our last mission. If they haven’t started taking anything apart we can be in the air in two hours’ sir’
‘Well then gentlemen’ he said turning to face the team ‘what are you waiting for. Gear up! We have some people to save!’
Congo had received the order from Jack to turn the motorhome around and head back into Mauritania.
Alex was not arguing with the decision now she knew the villagers were safe and heading home as well.
There were smiles all around as they started to pack away their little camp. They had parked the motorhome on top of a small hillock after taking a dirt path off the main road. It gave them a view of the surrounding bush.
‘The drought has done a lot of damage’ Sister Carmen sighed as she scanned the area one last time.
‘It’s a miracle anything survives out here especially the wild life’
‘You must know I believe in miracles Alex’ she teased.
‘After today maybe I will as well Carmen’ she smiled ‘I’m going to miss you all when this trip is over’
Carmen suddenly stood up on her tiptoes ‘what is that do you think?’ she asked pointing to a cloud of dust in the distance.
Alex strained her eyes ‘a herd of wildebeest or something?’ she speculated.
‘It is moving very slow for a herd and I don’t recall any water holes in this area from the map?’
‘Let me get the binoculars from the motorhome’ she said hurrying away to get them
Alex adjusted the focus until the scene came into view then gasped ‘Oh my god they’re people not animals’ she said passing the binoculars over to Carmen.
Carmen scanned the group then gasped as well ‘not just people Alex. They’re all women and children!’
‘Where have they come from do you think?’ she asked already formulating a plan to help them.
‘The Charity has another mission in Mali. They may be from there. It makes sense’
Congo came strolling over ‘the boss wants to know if we are heading back yet. He will rendezvous with us at the border’
The two women ignored him as they concentrated on the scene in the distance.
He was just about to repeat the request when Alex interrupted ‘you had better tell Jack we are going to be delayed. There are people down there who may need our help’ she told him pointing to the dust cloud.
‘Oh no please don’t do this to me’ he groaned ‘I’m in trouble with the boss already’
Jack had passed on his order to Congo. If the motorhome set off know it would be out of danger within the hour. At their present speed now they had reached the main road they should rendezvous with the motorhome within the next two hours.
He gave a sigh of relieve and relaxed his muscles as the two Land Rovers made their way down the road.
He was concentrating so hard on the road ahead he missed the call on his satellite phone. It was therefore half an hour later when they stopped for a comfort break he read the text message.
‘God dam son of a bitch’ he shouted making Freddie jump.
‘Oh hell what’s happened now’ he said shaking his head.
‘I can’t get Congo on his phone’ he told Freddie ‘and the insurgents are heading straight for them. Why haven’t they got out of the area?’
‘How do you know they haven’t Jack?’
‘It’s because a Drone from the British base camp in Mali has just spotted them again. That message was from London who is in contact with the base. Dam it Freddie if anything happens to those women I won’t forgive myself. Let’s get moving’
Congo had missed the call from Jack because he was at the time sprinting across the bush towards the refugees. He had given up trying to persuade the three women to return after taking the binoculars and scanning the group of women and children below on the plain. He had also spotted another dust cloud further away but heading towards them.
Having pointed out the danger Alex had started to go down from the hillock to warn them.
He stopped her ‘with all due respect doctor you are not built for running any distance through the bush. Also if they see someone coming towards them who they don’t know it may cause panic. We don’t want them heading in the wrong direction do we?’
She admitted it made sense. Five minutes later Congo set off, making good time but watching out for hazards as he went. The bush may look flat but it was pitted with sink holes, small gullies and razor sharp thorn bushes, all of which could cause an injury.
The villagers were unaware of his presence until he suddenly jumped out of a gully beside their path. One or two of the children screamed in fear but he soon settled them down. After a short discussion with the only man who was in charge of the group, they set off towards the hillock in the distance. It was slow going as some of the women were heavily pregnant. As the motorhome came in sight he picked up one or two of the smallest children and sprinted away to the waiting women. He repeated the exercise twice more until everyone was inside the little camp.
Alex, Carmen and Colene ignored the approaching danger and administered to the women in need of help. Alex decided Carmen had more need of the motor home and its crude operating theatre than she did. Twenty minutes after the group arrived the first baby was born.
Congo finally responded to Jacks call that was by this time barrelling down the road towards them at top speed. Thirty minutes later he skidded to a halt at the edge of the now much enlarged camp.
Freddie came up behind him ‘holy shit! What are we going to do with this lot?’ he swore aghast at the sight of so many women and children.
‘We’re going to protect them Freddie, that’s what we are going to do’ Jack announced unfazed ‘let’s break out the containers shall we?’
The containers as Jack put it were located in the boot of the Land Rovers. After clearing away all the luggage and canisters Jack pulled on two lugs and lifted the cover away. Packaged neatly underneath was a small arsenal of weapons including Kevlar bullet proof vests and a small mortar?
‘Congo you take the right side and Freddie you take the left. Get dug in and keep
concealed until I give the word. We are outnumbered and probably out gunned but we’re going to let them know we are here’
Jack approached Alex who immediately started to apologise for her actions but he stopped her.
‘No need to apologise Alex it’s what you do after all. I should have stayed with you but then these people would probably be dead or worse in a few hours. We can only hope the rebels will pass us by but I’m not hopeful. They have left a trail a blind man could follow. If, or when the shooting starts I want everyone to stay as low as possible. I also want you to abandon the motorhome it’s a sitting target’
‘I’m sorry Jack there are two women in there with complications. Carmen is about to perform a caesarean section on one of the women. If we move her she’s as good as dead’
Jack just nodded and started to move away.
Alex stopped him and then threw her arms around him and kissed him on the cheek ‘I just wanted to say thank you!’
The rebels had no trouble following the tracks made by the villagers. It was also obvious by the items left behind that the group where mostly women and children.
The men grinned at what they thought would be an easy target.
The leader surveyed the hillock and decided there was no danger to his men. He ordered them forward.
They began a leisurely stroll up the hillock savouring what lay over the rise. They could even see the top of a vehicle of some kind.
‘I think it’s one of those caravans the stupid Americans use’ one laughed.
It was the last thing he ever said. The bullet took him in the chest and threw him backwards.
His men suddenly started falling dead all around him. He screamed abuse and ordered them back down the hillock and out of range of the deadly fire coming from above.
‘They will pay for this’ he ranted as he redeployed his men ‘circle around the hill and come in from all sides. I count no more than three shooters but they are well concealed so beware’
The NH90 Caiman is a medium sized twin engine military multi roll helicopter developed by NATO. It has the distinction of being the first helicopter to feature entirely fly by wire flight controls.
Flight Lieutenant John Spencer handled the controls with the touch of a formula one racing driver as he flashed over the tree tops.
His co-pilot pointed to a screen on the console. The drone high in the sky above the hillock had recorded the first attack by the rebels.
The Major came over the intercom ‘if we don’t get down there soon the rebels will have them surrounded. It’s your call as usual Lieutenant’ he told him.
‘It’s pointless dropping the team any distance away from the camp but I can’t go in over the rebels heads so I will circle to the east and come in from behind. It won’t be safe abseiling down. You would be sitting targets for those M2 Browning’s on the trucks below. Get your team ready to disembark the second we touchdown. We’re going in hot!’
The Caiman banked away to the east and then swung around west again to approach the camp from behind. The Major looked at his men who were revelling in the ride. It was what they lived for.
The women in the camp were suddenly blown off their feet as the helicopter came from nowhere. Within seconds the SAS team were on the ground and sprinting towards Jacks position.
The major dropped down next to Jack who showed no signs of surprise unlike Freddie and Congo who couldn’t stop grinning as the watched the team take up positions along the ridge.
‘I’m Major Tom Henderson Recon Force Delta on secondment to the French Military’ he announced ‘we thought you might like a bit of help Brigadier Warner?’ he said saluting casually.
‘Welcome aboard Major you’re just in time’ he said shaking hands ‘please advise your team to hold fire until I give the order and who the hell is that pilot?’
John had informed the Major he would distract the rebels until his men were safely in position.
He had no idea what he meant until now.
John had flashed over the hillock at no more than a few feet taking the rebels completely by surprise. Thinking they were under attack the men they had thrown themselves to the ground but it didn’t take long for them to realise the helicopter was unarmed. The machine guns on the trucks swung upwards and opened fire.
John threw the machine from one side to the other but eventually the gunners found their mark. Bullet holes suddenly rippled down the fuselage.
‘I think we’ve outstayed our welcome’ he grinned at his co-pilot who wasn’t seeing the funny side of things at all.
The leader of the rebels was now fuming and seeking revenge. He ordered his men forward once more. Jack once again waited until his men could inflict the maximum damage.
The rebels were cut down as they stormed the hillock. A mortar found its mark disintegrating the truck and machine gun mounted on the rear. The leader was killed instantly.
The rebels had had enough. Within minutes they were charging away into the bush.
‘Cease fire!’ Jack ordered as the last of the rebels disappeared.
The Major came over ‘the Drone will monitor them until we are sure there is no more danger sir but I don’t think they’ll be back?’ he smiled.
‘Thank you Major but it’s just Jack from now on. I have retired you know?’
‘If you say so sir’ he grinned again looking at the weapon in his hands.
The team would stay in position until the all clear. Jack went to see if any of the women had been hurt in the fire fight but he didn’t think so. He was feeling satisfied and pleased with the outcome.
That was until he saw the stretcher carrying Congo being carried into the camp.
He rushed over ‘what happened?’ he asked Freddie shocked at the sight of his friend.
‘He took a bullet in the head Jack. He’s in a bad way’
Alex had been told there was a casualty but her calm demeanour waivered as she saw who the patient was. Taking a deep breath, she ordered him inside the motorhome.
Colene was visibly upset as she administered a drip. She touched his forehead gently and held back a tear.
It suddenly dawned on Alex that Colene was attracted to the big African ‘well!’ I never saw that coming’ she thought.
Alex examined the head wound. It was deep and would need stitching. It was what she couldn’t see that was worrying her ‘he needs a head scan Colene to find if there is any damage to the brain. We must get him to a hospital as soon as possible’
Colene just nodded and touched his arm gently.
Alex went outside and gave Jack the bad news and then went to find the Major.
‘I’m going to ask you to do something that may be against your orders regarding civilians. Congo is a good man, and more valuable than you realise but I can’t say any more. We need to get him to a hospital and that chopper is the only thing that will save his life’
‘Consider it done Brigadier’ he said pulling out a radio from his jacket.
John landed the helicopter a short distance away. The stretcher carrying Congo as gently placed inside. One of the SAS team would accompany them. The other passenger was Alex.
John placed a set of headphones over his passenger but didn’t make any other comment.
Alex had not recognised the pilot as the helmet covered all of his face. She was also concentrating on keeping her patient alive.
It came as complete shock when his voice came over the intercom ‘doctor Alex Trent! Will you please explain what my motor home is doing in the middle of Africa?’
Alex just gaped unable to respond for a moment ‘John Spencer is that you. Oh my god it is?’
The accompanying soldier was grinning like a school boy ‘hey Johnny boy you were not kidding. The doc is pretty hot’ he said over the intercom.
Alex was now blushing furiously and too shocked to respond after hearing his voice.
John felt a bit guilty at ribbing her and became serious ‘the hospital has been advised of your patient’s condition and will be waiting to take him off your hands when we land unless you want to see him into the operating theatre?’
‘Tell them I want to be involved in whatever roll they see fit’ she answered.
John nodded not surprised at her answer ‘in that case I will see you tomorrow after I have got the team back to the compound’
Alex watched from the background as the surgeon closed the wound in Congo’s head. A blood clot on the brain had been removed. It had been a tricky and potentially life threatening operation but she had been impressed with the surgeon’s skill and the theatre nurse’s efficiency.
The surgeon had called her to the table to explain the procedure. He had expected her just to have a quick glance then step away. He was not expecting the high level of knowledge or the details questions. Her French was also excellent. He decided he wanted to know more about how she came to be in Africa.
The surgeon was confident his patient would recover but an induced coma would keep him in the hospital for quite a while.
‘Doctor Trent. What made you consider a blood clot? Most doctors would have assumed the head wound was just that and never consider it was anything more than a concussion’
Alex went through her reasoning impressing the surgeon even more.
‘I understand that you recently amputated a man’s leg. Was that necessary to save the man’s life?’
Again she explained her diagnosis.
The telephone rang on the desk.
He answered it and said she was on her way ‘there is a young man in reception waiting to take you home, wherever that may be at the moment’ he smiled ‘if you ever need a position Doctor Trent then please call me’
Alex suddenly realised it was morning and yawned. It had been a long night.
Alex woke up in sweat but it was nothing to do with the heat of the day. In her dream she had been caught in a whirlpool unable to escape, the water sucking her deeper and deeper. She breathed deeply and shook the sleep from her body. She was in a bedroom. Actually a very nice bedroom she thought looking around.
‘How did I get here?’ she asked herself.
The bedroom door opened and John Spencer entered carrying a tray with fruit juice and coffee ‘good afternoon Alex. I trust you slept well?’
She was just about to answer when she realised she was naked and subconsciously pulled the sheet around her.
John noticed her embarrassment ‘shall I go and leave you to get dressed?’ he asked knowing what the next question was going to be.
‘I think I should take a shower first. Pass me that coffee first though’ she said ‘I assume I have clothes to wear?’
‘I took the liberty of asking the hotel staff to buy you some new clothes. You were still in hospital scrubs when I put you to bed and the ones you came with were covered in blood’
‘Thank you. I never thought to pack’ she shrugged feeling better already.
‘You saved that man’s life Alex’ he stated frankly.
‘Yes I guess that does warrant a new wardrobe but at the end of the day John it’s what I do’
And you do it magnificently he thought ‘I received a message from your travelling companions. They should be here by tonight. The government got their act together and sent a squad of regulars to protect the villagers just in case’
‘Oh god the motorhome!’ she grimaced suddenly remembering who it belonged to
‘I’m so sorry I didn’t contact you to ask permission. I’ll pay for any damage’.
John was in hysterics at her sincerity ‘don’t give it a thought Alex please. I would however like you to complete an insurance claim’
She was just about to answer yes when she realised he was teasing her again ‘you’re a terrible person John Spencer’ she said slapping his arm and letting the bed sheet fall away.
He stopped laughing and gazed at her.
‘Maybe I’ll take that shower later?’ she groaned as he kissed her.
Two hours later Alex finally had her shower and dressed. The hotel had supplied a floral dress and some underwear. A small bag containing a few make-up items was most welcome.
She observed herself in the mirror ‘not bad if do say so myself’ she smiled at the reflection.
Her stomach suddenly rumbled and she realised it had been over 24 hours since she had eaten anything ‘I hope you are dressed John Spencer I’m famished. Where are we going to eat?’ she shouted into the bedroom.
‘Let’s stick to the hotel’s restaurant Alex. This is my first trip to the Capital as well’
‘You really were hungry!’ John stated as she finished the last morsel on the plate.
The hotel as it turned out had one of the best restaurants in the Capital.
Alex finished her glass of wine and pushed the plate away ‘your little home on wheels can only carry so much in the way of delicacies’ she answered and grinning at his reaction to the description of the motorhome.
‘The little home on wheels. I like it’ he decided.
‘It was how the Corporal described it after I saved his Sargent’s life’
‘I had to amputate the man’s leg or he would have died’ she answered as a matter of fact.
And I bet you did like it was just another operation that needed to be done he thought in admiration ‘do you wish to visit your patient at the hospital now. Your friends should have arrived by now’
‘Yes and then we need to discuss what to do with your little house on wheels. It’s a long drive back to Spain but it wouldn’t be a problem?’
‘I have a feeling nothing would be a problem for you Alex but I do have a suggestion’
‘Ok let’s hear it!’
‘Would you mind driving it back to England for me?’ he asked then waited for her to think about that request.
‘Err sure if that’s what you really want me to do and why are you grinning at me again John Spencer?’ she asked slapping his arm across the table.
‘You don’t really think I would expect you to drive all the way to England do you. No it would only be from Paris if that’s ok with you?’ he told her feeling guilty again at teasing her.
‘Ok I give in how is that going to happen?’
‘There’s a C40 French Transporter leaving at noon tomorrow. Can you be on it. The French have agreed to transport the motorhome in the hold all the way to Paris’
‘Wow is that allowed it being military and all that?’
‘It is if the motorhome was being classed as a military vehicle which after that firefight it has just been in it could be?’ he shrugged.
‘Now that’s stretching it but I agree. It sounds like fun’ she decided.
‘Great! Then let’s get going. We have one more night together and I don’t want to miss a minute of it!’
Alex met Jack and Freddie in the hospital canteen and introduced John to them.
‘It’s a pleasure Lieutenant Spencer’ Jack told him ‘that was some kind of fancy flying back there at the firefight’
‘Thank you, Brigadier coming from you that’s a real compliment. The whole team couldn’t stop telling stories about you after we returned to the compound’
‘You have a good team John make no mistake and they don’t give compliments freely. Your skill as a pilot was mentioned more than once’
‘Thank you, sir’ he beamed with pride.
Alex left them to talk and went to the wards. Colene sat at Congo’s bed side holding his hand gently ‘wow I really didn’t see that coming at all did I’ she told herself again.
Colene saw her enter the room and went to hug her crying as she did so. The reality of what had happened had slowly dawned on her.
‘I’m sorry Alex we should be used to the suffering shouldn’t we?’ she said attempting to dry her eyes.
‘Does he know how you feel about him?’ she asked reverting to French.
‘No but he wouldn’t be interested in a plain Jane like me would he. Did you know he was a Prince amongst his people, I mean a real Prince?’
‘I had no idea. What is his real name by the way?’
‘His African name is John Chisomo. It means grace in Africa. He will not use it in front of stranger’s s it reminds him of his family’
‘But he uses it in front of you Colene?’
‘Yes we talk a lot when we have time that is. I met John the first time when he visited our hospital in Leon. He came to see Carmen as part of his job with the Charity. I didn’t realise until this trip he was also involved with Jack as well’
‘So this wasn’t just a humanitarian trip after all’ she realised.
Alex talked for a while then said her goodbyes explaining she would be leaving the next day. There were more tears shed by both women.
Alex met Carmen in the hallway outside ‘how is the patient Alex?’ she asked.
‘Making good progress according to his chart. I’ll see the surgeon before I leave but
I think he should make a full recovery’
‘Colene hasn’t left his bedside you know’
‘Did you realise how she felt about him?’
‘I’m afraid so but it is not my place to say anything. I think he feels the same way but it’s hard to tell as he doesn’t show much emotion. The loss of his family still haunts him’
‘You know I’m not what you would call a religious person Carmen but even I will pray for them’
‘I think god would love to hear from you Alex. God bless you in whatever you do next’ she said hugging her fondly.
John noticed the red eyes and the sorrowful expression when she returned ‘is everything ok Alex?’ he asked concerned her patient had taken a turn for the worst.
‘Yes John everything is fine’ she sighed taking his arm ‘you did say this was our last night together for some time. I think we should make the most of it?’
The journey back to Paris and then on to London had been stress free and quite fun. Her mother had welcomed her with more than a few tears having feared the worst.
‘You’ve been in the middle of a war zone Alex, what do you expect. That charity has a lot to answer for and what in heaven’s name is that?’ she asked pointing to the motorhome.
‘That mother is a little home on wheels and I love it’ she sighed.
‘Oh my god are they bullet holes?’ she gasped pointing to three holes at the top of the home.
‘Err yes I had forgotten about them. Never mind I’m sure the garage will repair them when I take it in for a service?’ she shrugged.
‘Take it in for a service?’ she asked astonished ‘you’re actually going to keep it?’
‘Of course John and I may need somewhere to live at short notice when he returns home’
‘John!’ ‘Somewhere to live!’ her mother repeated ‘who is this John Alex?’
‘That’s a long story mother. Let’s go inside the house and I’ll tell you everything from the beginning’ she said giving her a big hug.
My Cubicle is a Secret Land of Make-Believe
Oh, man. That girl. That could have definitely been her. Could have been the one. Could have been my one. That girl, that sweet, delicate, smooth-skinned lady, with the most beautiful green sparkling eyes, like the kind of eyes that function as a physical feature so sought-after that I couldn't help but think I'd want her to have my babies so they'd get at least a 50/50 shot at getting those eyes and therefore have at least one thing to make getting through the humdrum of life a little bit easier.
This girl, who I could definitely have eventually seen myself falling in love with, no doubt about it, had not only shrieked but also shriveled away from me, into the arms of her two female cohorts who gave me looks of actual, unadulterated terror as they converged on and covered her, leading her further away from me, into the crowd, toward the stage where the singer in the band was flipping her hot-orange hair back and forth while sort of neighing into the microphone. And I was left to stand there, counting my losses, wondering what had gone wrong, hoping to fix it?
But no, things had gone too far. I look funny, and I'd touched her on the shoulder from behind. Once someone's recoiled from you, that's your first impression gone right there, and I've never had the wherewithal to come back from such a misunderstanding.
I flash back to ninety, ninety-five, a hundred seconds ago, when I'd seen her, arms out front, elbows crooked out and fists clenched, pointed at one another. She swayed back and forth, shoulders undulating. Enormous bright pink and purple lozenges passed over the back of her body from the stage's ceiling-rigged spotlights. She'd turned, for a moment, and looked at me. I thought she'd smiled. In retrospect, maybe not.
I don’t normally do these things. It's not like me. I feel bad about it. But God, the thing that would make me happy, the thing I want the most, is that I wish I was handsome enough to make her feel pretty tonight.
I've been having a tough time of it lately. Not too bad. Recently, at one point, I didn't leave my house for two months. I'm slowly overcoming that (it's still really bad) by blasting The Stooges, clenching my teeth, and driving until I'm about to pass out (I don't get very far).
Basically, I don't know anything about anything. There's nothing I'm an expert on. I don't have any good stories. I only have me. So, that's what I'll talk about. I'll talk about myself.
More often than not, when people describe themselves to you, like, “I'm a movie guy,” “I'm someone who's really humble,” “I'm the kind of girl you'd like to take home to mom,” what they say is actually the total opposite of who they really are. I mean, who are you to say what kind of person you are? Who gave you that right? If there's something complimentary about you, don't come right out and say it, let other people say it for you. A little humility is hard to find these days.
I've been described as: interesting, goofy, nice, intense, serious, a wet blanket, a mama's boy, a potential modern-day Al Jolson, and a man of excellent listening capabilities. Some of these came from family members, some not, I won't say which, because it doesn't really matter. What I can tell you is that nothing positive in that list came from Grandma, the woman who raised me, because, oh-boy, she's never had a good thing to say about me in my whole life! It's okay, though. She's had a hard time - husband dying of cancer, losing both of her kids to gang violence in Gary, Indiana (they were both mediators, and one of them was my mom), as well as plenty of other bad stuff. Plus, I was always kind of a wild kid, which can be tough.
Grandma is, was, a mohel, and high in demand until her early 70s, at which point a hand tremor would cause the family of the kid whose dick she was about to slice off to become pretty nervous and freaked out. Ever since then, I've pretty much taken care of her. I have my job at a local community college, where I have a small gray office situated behind a loading and receiving dock where I sign for packages all day. It's nice in there. Just me, a little TV, my Vaseline, and a box of Kleenex.
When I was a little kid, after I came to live with Grandma, I became aware that no matter what I seemed to do, my presence was very unsettling to other people. It's still the same now. I tried for a very, very long time to fix this, really, but I couldn't. So now I accept it, roll with the punches, don't care. The way people looked at me was never the way they looked at others. People were always keeping me at a distance or desperate to get away. I could feel this.
Even when I'd tried to make a friend, like approaching another kid at recess, they'd find an excuse to quickly get away and I'd be left standing there again, my eyes wet and burning and a sick feeling in my stomach. They'd already made their minds up about me before I'd even got a word out. I think it would be nice, would help a lot, if I could just find someone, anyone to tell this to who would say, “I know how you feel. I've felt that way before.”
A bit later, when I was a teenager, man, oh man, would Grandma ever confuse the heck out of me! She used to tease me and ask if I'd been hanging around any girls at school. The first couple times she asked, when I thought she was genuinely interested, my face would get all hot and there was something, I don't know what, that kept me from running out of the room and crying.
She said if I did hang around any girls that it wasn't because they wanted to sleep with me; I was too unattractive. She warned me about how women like to keep a guy around, a guy who the woman sees as not much more than a puppy with a larynx and opposable thumbs who can provide her with validation, attention, and on and on. She told me not to fall for this, that the girls only thought they could get away with it because all girls thought they were special on account of that hairy fish they were sitting on. But the girl had no intention of ever sleeping with the guy. Grandma told me to stay away from these girls. But, oh, man, I seriously ached to be used as some girl's doormat.
At least those guys, the doormats, got to hang out with the girls and got to say,
“We spent some special times together,” or “I used to hang out with her and her family and her dad would make fun of me for having such a big crush on her.” I see this as some defect in myself. You'd think even the biggest, saddest loser would have a girl take pity on him and treat him like a girl-friend. I wasn't even interesting enough to be pitied, or had enough of an interesting personality that a girl would've wanted to keep me around.
And when you're a teenager, man, you do some insane things. From the age of 12 to 22 you're so horny you could cry just THINKING about a pair of tits.
But also of course, when I was younger, I was interested in the one thing most people want: to have a good time. Crippling social anxiety let me out of the house only occasionally, when Grandma would force me out via name-calling, tough love, and/or embarrassment. But how to make the friends that would be there on the occasions when I actually did go out? It was always one step forward, then a kick in the stomach back.
So, for fun, I'd go out to a restaurant, order something big and expensive off the menu, and then just before the wait staff were about to bring it out, I'd get up and leave! Ha ha! Or I'd walk into a store, maybe a bicycle store, with a big Styrofoam cup full of coffee, and while looking at some of the merchandise, I'd accidentally lean over and make a big spill! Then leave as quickly as I could, leaving the mess for some other jerk to clean up.
What I'd do a lot, too, is ride the subway all day, from the stop near my house to the old dog tracks at Wonderland, and my favorite trick was to stand next to a train commuter. His (it was always a guy) attention would be hyper-focused on the newspaper held in his hands that blocked off everything around him, and as the train doors opened, then were ready to close, the locomotive prepped to carry us all away, I'd have a strike-anywhere match nestled tightly in my fist, like a shank, and would suddenly strike it on the nearest wall, and proceed to set the newspaper on fire! And before anyone could tell what had just happened, I'd be out the closing doors and up the stairs to street level!
Yeah, the days before security cameras were good ones. Definitely.
But then something strange would always happen when I rode the subway all day.
It was a particular feeling that I'd get of seeing the same place in different circumstances or from another mindset, or when the origin I was coming from was different. For example, in the mornings, I'd take a bus from my and Grandma's apartment to the train station a couple miles away, then I'd ride the red line to its last stop. After getting off, I'd make my way through the auditorium of the station and go to a donut chain where I'd drink a ton of donuts and coffee all through until the afternoon. I could only do this because I got there early, as they stopped serving donuts at 11 and switched to their lunch menu. So there were lots of people, you know, coming and going, and heading to work. I'd always be in a rush to do this, since I was really hungry, and so in that space of time everything to me was an obstacle as I made my way from home to the donut shop.
The way the train station looked in the mornings, when I'd head for the far escalator going upstairs from train level to the lobby, compared to how it felt later in the day when I was going home — it was almost an entirely different place. That upper level (it being the entrance, instead of the exit, when I was returning in the evenings) was not the same upper level I'd encountered early in the day.
When I was exiting the station in the morning, the people entering looked totally foreign and whack-o to me. Why were they pushing to go into town when I had just left it? It was almost incomprehensible to imagine that I would actually be just like them six or seven hours later. At that time, I would view the people getting off the trains into the station with the same strangeness of feeling. The up escalator, which I valued and wanted to get to so much in the morning, was later on in the day just something in the way as I tried to get to the down one, and I would actually think, 'Where did this goddamn up escalator come from and why does it have to be in my way?'
I never got used to seeing the same place from two different circumstances. I could never think, 'I'll pass through this way later today and everything will be the opposite.' I find it scary, for some reason.
I'm glad though, that, throughout my life, on the whole, no one ever liked me. I'm lucky, I think. When no one's ever liked you, you can do whatever you want. You expect to not be liked automatically, so you don't ever try to do things that will please people or make them want to be around you. Life would've been a lot tougher if I'd ever known what it was like to have someone really, really like me.
I’ve got some money, but taking care of Grandma puts a definite damper on my dating possibilities. It's good to have money. Like Grandma always says, money can't buy happiness, but happiness can't buy jack. I don't know if I'm lonely, per se. Scratch that -- I'm incredibly lonely. But I at least have Grandma for company.
Not that she'd be too bad off without me, on account of the fact that my good job offers actually pretty OK life insurance. I just mean that being alone for so long is tough. And what I mean is that, ah, Jesus FUCK, it hurts. Oh my GOD, it hurts.
This really got to me at some point a few years ago, and I got sick, which lasted for maybe six months. There's an army surplus store down the street from our apartment, and for a long time I'd think about how nice it would be to nail a length of rope above my bathroom doorway, wrap one end around my neck, and handcuff myself behind my back with those real heavy, clanking metal handcuffs that I'd get at the army surplus place. Then I'd just have to stick a chair in the doorway, stand on it, and kick it out from underneath me and -- voila -- I'd be outta here! I've heard of people having all kinds of traumatic experiences. Just even thinking about what it was like when I felt that way almost causes me to cry and howl out. I guess that means that that entire stage of my life was a constant traumatic experience.
I even called up my student loan place, because though I'd only been to college for a little while and dropped out, I still had a butt-load of loans that I was paying back. (All the debt with no degree, great going!) So I'd called them up and asked them if I, the person with the loans, were to die, if the loans would die with me. I did this for Grandma, to make sure that if I did kill myself, I wouldn't be screwing her over and leaving her with a ton of stuff to worry about. That's the last thing she needed. So the person on the other end of the phone got very quiet, and then told me that no, the loans wouldn't die with me, so that gave me some more motivation to keep going.
There was no way I could think of what it'd be like after I was gone. The one thing I did think about, though, for some reason, was my obituary. My feeling about this is that most everyone would be really let down by their own obituary. I used to read them all the time in the paper, and the one I remember most was this one in the corrections section. It said something like, "The obituary for Mr. Whatever last week stated that he is survived by his son, Julian. This was a mistake. His son passed away last year." Isn't that sad? That's just about the worst obituary I've ever read.
When I was sick, it wasn't like I was helpless throughout it all or anything. I did tell Grandma about some of what I was feeling and asked her what I should do. Like could I get help? Or was there a doctor I should go to? Some special kind of person, not our family practice guy who was approaching a gazillion years old? She said it just sounded like faggy nonsense.
I'd told someone at work about all of this, about feeling bad, Carl, a black guy with a head like a basketball and a thick, I mean really, really thick Canadian accent, and he'd told our boss! About me! About something I'd said in private! I got told to take a pill once a day and I stopped having those thoughts, but life wasn't really getting any better. Oh, I enjoy it, for sure. I just don't see much that's left for me. Maybe a wife and some kids could be a nice thing to look forward to.
The main thing is that I haven't had a girlfriend in my whole life. When I was in fifth grade, the cutest girl in the class, Rachel Watson, had asked her friend to ask me to be her (Rachel’s) boyfriend. Obviously, I was flattered. But another girl, more
homely, named Maggie, had asked me earlier that day (pre-puberty, I was a hit with the ladies) if I'd be HER boyfriend, and I'd told her no. That I wasn't looking for anything. That I was a man, and I needed to be free. I'd seen this guy on TV say something like that. It was just a preview for some upcoming episode of a show I couldn't give a crap about, but it sounded cool. And manly. I didn't have my dad around, so I learned on TV how to be a guy. Mostly Baywatch, Power Rangers, that type of thing. But the truth was that I thought Maggie was way too homely and unattractive for someone like me to go out with.
But anyway, since I'd already told Maggie no that day, I couldn't very well go right ahead and say yes to Rachel. Maggie's feelings! She'd know I'd been lying, that I didn't like her that way, and that I'd jumped at the chance to get something better and, believe me, that kind of thing can cause serious damage to a person's self-worth, even for the rest of their life!
So, I'd turned Rachel down. Then the school year ended, and that was the end of it. Puberty came in sixth grade. Then for the next ten years, I didn't approach any girls. I'd gotten such a big head. All I thought was, hey, the cutest girl liked me once and asked me out, so it could happen again, right? That's how it worked, for guys like me?
You wouldn't believe this, but the one date I did get in high school, with a girl I'd been secretly (it wasn't really a secret, everyone knew, it turned out, but I didn’t know that) in love with and pining over for three years, was only set up because the girl had just been dumped by her boyfriend and was desperate to make him jealous! It sounds bad, but I swear it's true. I was so pathetically, obviously in love with her, something I thought I was hiding pretty well, that as soon as she needed a rebound to make the boyfriend jealous, she knew she could come to me. This was because, other than the boyfriend, I was the only guy who thought this girl was worth a second look. I thought she was my type, that the boyfriend was wrong for her, that she'd come around and realize that I was the only one for her and she the only one for me. I thought she was secretly lonely, and I could help her.
I'm almost forty, and I've only had a sort-of sexual relationship with one single person! Oh, I'm glad the young me can't see me now.
Basically, there was and is nothing about girls that doesn’t confuse me. There was another girl, when I was eighteen, who I wasn't remotely attracted to, named Vanessa. She was, and I mean this literally, she was big-boned. My best friend in high school, who sat next to me in homeroom, would look at her some mornings, then lean over to me to say, “Dude, she gets bigger every day.”
Now that I'm pushing 380, I see how that was a mean thing to say. Especially because she was, truly, big-boned. She couldn't help it. Me, I'm just plain old fat. A fat, creepy loser. Ha ha! I'm glad I can say that now, because for a long time it was very hard to acknowledge that, yes, I'm fat. I would call myself “big” or “heavy,” but I dunno who I thought I was kidding. I'm fat. Fats-o. I even have a raccoon tummy. I'm not going to lie and say I have a thyroid problem, either (which I hate when fat people use that lame-ass excuse).
I've been on both ends. I was skinny as a rake as a kid and now I'm huge. How did I get this way? Grandma used to always tell me that I couldn't have dessert, which I LOVED, until I'd eaten everything on my plate. So I got doubly screwed there, having to finish off the entire dinner plate and then eating all of the dessert on top. Maybe if she would've just given me dessert I wouldn't be as bad off as I am now.
There are lots of things you can't do when you're fat, but the main thing I miss is going to the movies. I can't fit into the seats any more. There's a lot I could say about the movies and how much I love them. I like all kinds of movies. Some you saw always had a way of taking really messed up people and making them seem loveable or worthwhile or something. And you could tell that whoever made the movie loved those characters too. Sometimes a whole lot. And it made you think that if whoever made this movie thought these really messed up people are beautiful or lovable, maybe they think I'm lovable, too?
There are lots of things you can't do when you're fat, but the main thing I miss is going to the movies. I can't fit into the seats any more. There's a lot I could say about the movies and how much I love them. I like all kinds of movies. Some you saw always had a way of taking really messed up people and making them seem loveable or worthwhile or something. And you could tell that whoever made the movie loved those characters too. Sometimes a whole lot. And it made you think that if whoever made this movie thought these really messed up people are beautiful or lovable, maybe they think I'm lovable, too?
We even had a movie shooting around here once. There was some big actor in it, like George Clooney, I dunno. He had a reputation for being a nice guy, approachable, you know. During breaks in the filming, when there'd be a huge crowd of onlookers standing nearby (the local paper got ahold of the shooting locations each day and put them up), this actor would come over with a big smile and wave, shake hands, sign autographs. And this is the part that kills me. Guys would charge up to him just to bother him and say, "Hey, man. I'm a big fan of your work."
I wonder, what the hell was the point of that? The guy is a multi-millionaire movie star. His movies are incredibly popular. Obviously, people are fans of his work! You know how I know that? Because he's a goddamn multi-millionaire! The free market has spoken! So, when you see someone famous in public and you make such a big hub-bub about interrupting them to tell them you're a huge fan, that's just a big, fat waste of everyone's time, OK? The US dollar has already made it very clear.
As it stands, nowadays for breakfast I have two large bowls of cereal, probably about three or four servings a bowl. Lunch is usually two hot pockets or lunch meat sandwiches (cheese, ham, bologna) with chips. For dinner I order out a lot and always get the Weebler's special three medium pizzas with one topping, each for $15, finishing it off with cheesy bread sticks. For snacks, I can eat an entire bag of chips in one sitting.
Then on the weekends, it's a breakfast with six to ten pancakes with half a cup of syrup, eggs, bacon, and/or sausage. A big coffee with lots of sugar. I also crack an egg into the coffee because it makes it shiny and gets me my protein. My snacks before lunch are peanut butter or chips. I can polish off a jar or two of peanut butter in a day, one spoonful at a time. Lunch is fast food or a big sandwich with chips, soda, you get the idea. Then, for dinner, just like during the week, I have my pizzas.
How do I afford this? It's easy when you never go out. And don't forget to add the half of a two-liter bottle of vodka a night. So, a liter of vodka. Then, sometimes, I like to wash that down with pickle juice shots.
I have nerve pain in my legs when I stand for too long and my sweat smells like almonds. I'm pretty sure that means diabetes? Part of me wants help and part of me just gives up and eats.
I even remember the exact moment: I had no idea I was fat, or couldn't admit it, maybe, until I was walking down the street one day and this black kid yelled out, “Yo, fat guy!” I looked around for the sad sack who garnered such little respect that someone would address him as a fat guy, then realized that the kid was looking right at me. He wanted to sell me some candy, because I was fat.
Back to Vanessa. I'd sometimes like to tease the girl, who was very straight-laced and kind of a prude, and I'd flirt with her in the hallways, or give her a wink, and usually she'd just roll her eyes and smile a little, like she was annoyed but still found it kind of charming. I'd even sometimes call her my girlfriend! But she was in on the joke. Like, how could I, such a good-looking guy, ever be flirting with her? And how lucky was she? What a hilarious concept! Ha ha! And we both knew it. Then I'd carry on with my day, maybe whistle a little as I went down the hallway, and go find my best friend to do whatever it was we did during school.
I didn't think about her much, and it was all pretty funny until, one day, over Christmas break, I got a postcard in the mail. A postcard from Egypt! With all this
customs signage and stamps and stuff I'd never seen before in my life. And it had a picture of this pharaoh on the front holding hands with a woman beside the Nile River, one of those pictures you see that's done in hieroglyphics, sorta, and there were some snakes and lambs and whatever around.
Then, on the back, there was a picture of Vanessa! With her whole family! And they were standing in the middle of the goddamn desert and smiling and waving at the camera. And under the photo, it said, “Missing you and wishing you well. Can't wait to see you again.”
Then there was a little heart drawing and inside of THAT was her NAME! Vanessa! To be honest, I was floored. A kid like that, my position, what was I supposed to do? The only thing I could do: I never spoke to her or looked at her ever again, and we graduated a few months later. I've seen pictures of her now and she looks smaller and sleeker than I remember.
When you're fat, the worst part of your day is always wiping your own ass. That, and the questions I didn't know or think I'd be asking myself one day, like, “How much can I slouch while sitting without making my breasts look really big?”
And then there's the pooping, in general. I've taken some horrendous shits in my life. I mean, I heard this story recently of a guy on a flight coming out of
Washington D.C.? He pooped in the bathroom and messed it up so bad that the plane had to be TURNED AROUND. They couldn’t even fly the goddamn thing anymore. I've never had it that bad, but, man.
And because there's more of me, my underwear doesn't fit right. It's like the waistband gets all rolled up into a tube. It doesn't sit where it's supposed to and, goddamnit, it's always moving on me. I mean, I can't just ignore it. It bugs the heck out of me.
I haven't been able to wipe while sitting for over a decade, also on account of the fact that I have very short arms to begin with. When I go number two, I have to stand up, hike one leg up on the edge of the tub, do some inner thigh stretches, pick my stomach up and shift it left or right, so that it's out of the way, then stretch with all my might to reach my butthole. I have to go through this routine for EVERY WIPE.
Before that, when my size had increased enough to make wiping not only difficult but also painful, I developed a technique where I wedged my right wrist against the back rim of the toilet seat, for leverage, and reached as far forward as possible with my fingers to wipe. Eventually, my diameter increased even more, and I had to find new workarounds.
So now any time I leave the house, I pack a quart-sized Ziploc bag with ten to fifteen folded homemade baby wipes. And a wooden tablespoon. After a shit away from home, which I always try to avoid, but sometimes you just, well, anyway, I wrap a wipe securely around the scoop end of the spoon, reach back, wedge my right hand against the seat, and stretch the spoon along as I wipe backwards. This allows almost complete cleaning and scrubbing from my balls to the upper part of my crack. For the occasional splatter shit, it also covers from butt cheek to butt cheek.
A typical shit takes six passes with the spoon and wipes for that sparkling clean feeling and the mental and emotional comfort that no shit stink is pouring forth from you. If you're careful, and the shit isn't too messy, you can unwrap a wipe after its first pass, fold the shit inside of it, re-wrap it around the spoon, and get another pass out of the thing.
Eventually, when I was around 19 or 20, I did get into college. Not too far from home. Grandma saw this place being advertised on TV and billboards so she figured, hey, might as well get me out of the house for a couple years. These places were supposed to be super easy to get into. My high school grades were bad, and Grandma said this might be my only chance. The admissions department said that my bad grades didn't matter, that they saw something in me. I thought, well, that's generous of them. That's actually quite a nice thing to say.
We went through the whole thing, the whole shebang with the admissions people. They showed me and Grandma those great slick brochures about how much money I'd be making once I got out of school and went off to be a businessman or
salesman or something. I wrote my admissions essay as this story told from the point of view of a sponge. I just thought, what else am I supposed to write about?
Don't ask me what it was actually about, I couldn't tell you, but the admissions department I guess saw something in there that I certainly didn't. I never really wanted to go to college, though. Because I figured I could probably just get a job like at the loading dock and be happy, which is what I ended up doing anyway and, yeah, I'm happy. You could say.
The school was this super fundie-liberal place, and I got put in a dorm room with a guy and a girl. The school claimed not to “see” gender. They said it was a “construct.” Tell that to a bunch of horny eighteen year old boys and girls forced to share bunk beds. I think the main reason they did it was that it made more sense for them, somehow, financially.
And me and my roommates shared actually a pretty decent little apartment with a living room and our own bedrooms and things. I'd figured that I'd last maybe a few days before I made such an idiot out of myself or got so sick with anxiety that I'd drop out. I did end up dropping out, but not within the timeframe where I could get any of the tuition back that I'd paid, or actually that a couple investment banks had paid for me in loans, but I took the brunt of that. I took a bath on it.
My two roommates, to make things even more terrifying, had both been good friends and known each other since childhood and were, no joke, incredibly good-looking. They both had a significant other; she was long distance with her boyfriend from home who had taken time off before college to make some money at a local shop or something, and the guy had already picked up a girlfriend in the, I dunno, week that it must have been since he'd arrived? He’d wasted no time and this made me feel doubly bad.
One day I stepped out into the living room with nothing on but a towel and my not-yet-too-fat but pretty ugly body hanging out of it, and there was this girl sitting on one of our school-issued plasticky couches watching something on CNN.
I tried to cover and run, but she turned to me with these eyes that weren't particularly colorful or anything, more like if you put a dropper of black ink into someone's eyeballs, but it felt like they were actually looking at me, like interested in who I was and why I was standing there. Most people had always looked at me with a sort of oh-my-what-I-feel-so-goddamn-sorry-for-you or oh-Jesus-how-horrible-it-must-be look or they just seemed kind of repulsed.
But this time it actually felt in my bones like someone saw me and was interested or was maybe even just looking at me the same way they'd look at anyone else, which is something that I'd really have appreciated at the time.
And, get this, she said “Hi” to me, and didn't even turn away afterward, or anything! She kept looking at me and waited for me to respond. She wasn't trying to get away or even seemed uncomfortable at realizing who she was talking to. Oh, boy, I wish I could say that next she smiled, but actually I don't think I wish she had because by now this had already been almost too much for me to handle. And a smile? On top of all that? Would've been, just, man.
So she got up to shake my hand, which was still sort of a weird new formal thing that we eighteen and nineteen and twenty year olds were still getting used to, and this was my first sign that this girl was different. She looked smart. And had a smart face, and she looked kinda, I dunno, fancy? And stylish. She had super long legs and long black hair that covered the sides of her face and her shoulders. Her skin was totally smooth (mine was too, actually, except for my back, which was and still is covered in acne. Other than drinking, I get relief on cool nights when I like to sit by an open window or with a fan blowing on my back with my shirt off and let the cold air blow over my painful body acne and give myself some comfort) and she had this long face, like a very adult face, where her jawbone curved down and on both sides sort of looked like a banana. It was very long, and curved, and when the jaw bones met at her chin both ends pushed out a little bit so that she clearly had a pretty prominent chin there. That was also very attractive.
One last thing, her nose was sort of big, and long, and when I first met her I was sure she was Jewish. Turned out her family was just from Chile. Who knew. Her having a long nose, as a woman, only increased my sense that she was both intelligent and wise. Later, spending time with her, I would always, always feel like a little boy. She was poised, sophisticated, and was basically just the epitome of a woman.
I don't want to give you her name, but after this meeting we ended up hanging out once or twice by ourselves. She'd only had one boyfriend in all her life, and had just broken up with him. For being so beautiful, she'd never kissed a boy until she was 17, that boy being her ex-boyfriend, and I'm pretty sure she'd also only slept with him. Apparently she'd cheated on him, then broken up with him, and he wrote her a letter saying he'd kill himself without her. Whatever that was meant to do, I guess it had backfired.
I knew enough that, when she was around, I mostly tried to ignore her by acting like I didn't care if she was around, or what she was doing, or anything. Whenever I walked into a room, I would look at everyone except her, and then, when she came up to me or I ran into her, I would act very surprised, as if she was the only person in the room who I hadn't realized was there. In secret, though, pretty much every second my brain was screaming, “OH MY GOD! THIS GIRL IS. AH. WOW. SO, SO AMAZING!”
Then, one night, the most incredible thing happened. I was in my bed, asleep, late on a Friday night -- I didn't go out because I didn't have any friends, and was too ashamed to ask my roommates if I could tag along with them (usually I'd sit on my bed and cry, shaking with anxiety while I heard the voices of my roommates and their really fun new friends through my door as they laughed and partied in the living room) -- when I got a knock at my door. It was her. She'd been out with my roommates and I think she was sick of sleeping on the couch whenever she spent the night, so she woke me up and got into bed with me. I didn't know where they'd been, but I could smell a whole lot of vodka on her breath.
This went on and off, her getting into my bed in the middle of the night, for the next few weeks, and every night I'd go to bed, wishing with all my might that I'd wake up in the dark to her crawling up to me. And when this did happen, I'd pray and pray that she'd smell like liquor.
It was like a dream. Obviously, I wanted more, I wanted sex, but I was terrified, too. Grandma used to tell me I was doomed from the start because my mom got pregnant with me when she was on the pill.
I might as well give you her name, even though I'll tell you soon why I didn't want to. It was Amy. After a month or something of just sleeping in the same bed, she would come over, we'd kiss a little, and one time we sort of had sex. I stuck it in, but she didn't want me to stay in there. After it was over, I asked her how she liked having sex with me, and she said, “We didn't have sex.” I asked her what she called what just happened! She said that my penis was inside of her, but it wasn't sex. Jeez, I was more confused than ever.
There were a few times when she came in just to sleep in my bed, and she didn't smell of liquor at all. These were the times I didn't like -- she'd never do anything with me! So I hoped and hoped for the scent to be there, for it to overcome me, making me feel a little sick and pretty bad that she was drunk and I wasn't, but if that's what it took, then, well.
We didn't ever really get to talk. I didn't know if she was my girlfriend, or what. All I know is that being in whatever that in-between place was was horrendous. I couldn't stand the thought of her. Every morning I would wake up, and it would be like a lottery whether I would be in extreme pain or not. Even when I was lucky enough to wake up feeling all right, there was no way of knowing how I'd be a few hours later, and then a few hours after that. When it got really bad, which was pretty much every day, I'd go on long walks around the neighborhood by myself. It didn't help as much as I thought it would, but it did get me out of the house. I tried to focus on other things. I'd make a list of five things I could see, five things I could hear, and five things I’d feel. Then I'd make a new list, then another one, and on and on and on. I tried to focus on my feet, on the houses nearby, anything to not have Amy in my head.
I was skipping all of my classes. Not that I would've gone to them, anyway. The idea of sitting in a room full of strangers, and the beginning of the school year when everyone has to go around and introduce themselves, terrified me enough that I basically just bided my time until I'd be forced to leave. I didn't think it would be a good idea to pursue other girls, I’d told myself, because I felt like I would be wronging Amy. I was waiting for the day when she, or maybe via a message through my roommates, would tell me that she wanted to be my girlfriend. Until that time came, I would be loyal only to her, in case I screwed anything up.
The weirdest thing was that everything about her caused me a huge amount of pleasure and equal amounts of pain. She was interesting and beautiful in every way and so was everything associated with her. Even the holes and tears in her leather bag she used as a backpack were really interesting to me, and made much more beautiful by the fact that they were hers and I didn't know where they came from or whether she'd put them there on purpose. Did she notice them or care about them at all? I could see her in a magazine, stone-faced, looking super elegant, dressed all in leather on the arm of some rock star, just looking really cool.
It all went bad really quickly. I had never experienced love that way in my life before or since. Even to this day, I'm confused about whether I was actually in love.
I think I was, but the way it'd always been described to me didn't match up at all with what I was feeling. I'd never read or saw or heard how much it really, really hurt. The experience was SO painful, how could it be this being in love thing that everyone talks about? I'd like to set the record straight on the whole thing and say being in love was literally the worst and most painful experience of my whole life.
A couple times I started to ask her where this was all going, or told her that I thought I really, really liked her, and she'd just smile and get this glazed-over look in her eyes. Then she'd kiss me to get me to shut up. Eventually she stopped coming into my room, then stopped coming over altogether. It was all too much, with her and the student loan debt piling up, so I figured I'd cut my losses and dropped out pretty soon after. I didn't ask my roommates why she wasn't around anymore, I was never really friends with them and I think they thought she was crazy for doing anything with me.
And then everything after was somehow made way, way worse by the fact that I couldn't get over her at all. I still haven't. It's not like I haven't tried, I just don't know how to go about it. We stayed up late watching movies a couple times on the weekend instead of going out and never really talked. I thought it was great, like, we didn't have to go out, she got me, we were just enjoying each other's company and the movie, and we didn't need to say anything. This was a part about love that I'd heard about loads of times. The truth was that the whole time this was going on, I was boring the hell out of her. She didn't relish in those quiet nights like I did, basking in the fact that we didn’t need to speak in order to spend quality time together. She found them strained and awkward. "He hardly ever says a word. I'm so bored I could cry," was what I overheard my roommates saying she'd told them. People can be so mean.
I really don't know how to explain it other than to use this word that I saw on ER last week on the TV, which is "besotted." I think it's because it sounds like "sweat" is in there somewhere. I had given up and thrown my arms in the air to these feelings I had, and I was completely soaked. I'd cry and sob and wet my clothes from sweat and wiping away tears and when I wasn't crying I could start to just by thinking about her. Then it also felt like my brain was soaked with all of this shit I was thinking about her, really nice things, but also some really horrible stuff. It was like someone had dumped a huge bucket of water on me that was also filled with love and it pretty much took over my entire life.
I remember hearing that there was a guy once who said that smell is the strongest reminder of memories. Like, if you smell something it can make you think of your childhood right away. Well, that guy was clearly not alive before MP3 players were invented and music was everywhere. Because when Amy would come over, for some reason, Bony M was usually playing on my laptop, and now whenever I listen to Bony M, I can barely breathe.
Basically, the reason why I finally left was that any time one of my roommates mentioned Amy I'd start getting all red and hot and my neck would get splotchy and I'd have to go lay down. And when, on more than one occasion, they mentioned something about an ex-boyfriend of hers or a guy she was hanging out with, I'd have to excuse myself to go throw up right away. I did hear one story, from my girl roommate when she was really drunk, and it was about that ex-boyfriend of Amy's who'd threatened to kill himself if she broke up with him. He'd taken Amy's virginity when they were in high school, and now he'd dropped out of college and was back living at home. He was still trying to get back together with Amy and, rather than feel nauseous at someone mentioning him, I felt a weird sort of kinship with him. Like, we had both been messed over by this girl in some way, and both felt that we should be with her. At least I wasn't alone in the world on that count. Maybe Amy just went through life finding sad guys like me and him who'd fall in love with her and then ditch us. That would make her a pretty horrible person, which made me feel a little better about things, even though at this point I wasn't under any illusions about her being a perfect person.
One thing that would make my feelings about the situation better, I think, would be if I knew she was out there feeling the same way as me. Even if I never saw her again, or knew where she was, and we could never be together, to at least know that she had the same longing that I do would make getting through life a lot easier. Or maybe it wouldn't. I don't know. I wish I could fool myself. Since I'll never see her again, and I have no idea how she feels, I could just imagine that she feels how I want her to and convince myself that that's the truth, since she'll never be able to prove me wrong, and it would basically be the same thing as if it were really true. In a way. But I can't believe a lie like that to myself, no matter how much I want to. And I really, really want to. I still hold out a deep hope inside of me every day that I'll get a phone call, or she'll show up at my job, and tell me that she was wrong, she made a mistake, was confused, and that she loves me more than anything in the world.
I think about Amy every day, and I think about this as I sit in Elvis's barber shop, getting my hair buzzed and my unibrow waxed. I believe that all men can be divided into two groups: those whose hairline on the back of their neck tapers off in a straight, horizontal line, and those who have that little widow's peak thing that hangs down into the back nape of their neck. I have the first kind. It's more masculine. You see it on athletes, weight-lifters, presidents.
Grandma used to tell me that if my hair sworled in a counterclockwise direction, I was more likely to be gay. She'd seen that on TV somewhere, I think. Same with the length of my pointer finger compared to my ring. Something to do with testosterone, when you're a baby, still inside your mom. The straight taper had her convinced for a while that I was a real man, but once every few months she'd have a look at my hair sworl and the comparative lengths of my fingers. Hairline. Check. Hair sworls clockwise. Check. Ring finger is longer than pointer finger. Check.
I disappoint Grandma enough already, at least I didn't have to disappoint her even more by turning out gay. I guess the best evidence I could have given her would have been to get married, but I'm still working on that. Jeez, you get married for a whole lifetime. What's wrong with waiting a little? No one else seems to get that I've got all the time in the world.
And then there are all these gay people getting married. I mean, good for them. But I'm totally against gay marriage. And it's because I really like gay people. I think that, basically, being gay is passed down from parents to their kids, and probably the only reason why there are gay people is because gay people in the past had to hide it for so long, and they got married and had kids and a normal life, and so kept passing on the gay DNA or whatever. But when gay people only marry each other and don't have any kids, the gay DNA isn't going to have anywhere to go! It's just going to die out with the gay people. I predict that in 50 years there won't be any more gay people in America, and for that I'm very sad.
I'm thinking about all this when I see this sorta wondrous girl walk in to the shop. She steps over to Elvis and gives him a big smooch on the cheek. He switches off the buzzer, gives her a wet one on the mouth, and grabs her butt. He nuzzles his big nose, his huge nose, his nose that looks like an oversized lemon sitting on his face, into her cheek. They smile at each other, like, I mean, I can't even...
Elvis asks me to remind him what part of town I live in. I say Dedham. He asks what street, and I say Collins. He asks which apartment, and I say the Verdant Gardens. His girlfriend lives there too, he says. Not right near me, but on the opposite side of the complex. I face a graveyard wall, she the bustle of the Ventura Commons.
Elvis tells me that some tweakers have moved in to a nearby apartment.
Technically, they're his girlfriend's neighbors. A couple. They've been giving the girlfriend and her sister a few scares lately, mostly screaming and yelling and fighting over girlfriend-boyfriend stuff.
They've also invited some unsavory characters around, and the guy has a bad habit of standing off to the side of the porch that both units technically share, but he just stands there, smoking cigarettes, staring at whoever happens to be hanging out without saying a word. God, it makes me sick to think about! Usually, he just stares at the girls, but sometimes he locks eyes on the guys, real surly, and tries to stare them down.
So Elvis asks me if I can keep an eye out, especially for the guy. He asks me if I've ever seen them. Or do I know them? Me? How -- what? No way. How could I? I'm on the other end of the complex for Christ's sake!
He looks at me sort of odd for a second, then says that if anything funny goes down I should take care of it. Will do, I say. He says I should, like, sit on them, or collapse on them, or something. Then he laughs.
I think, what the hell, Elvis? I've been a good, loyal customer to you for years, and you're making fun of me now? Haven't I always tipped well, and been friendly? What makes me deserving of such a remark? In the past, I'd invited him a couple times to come to a barbecue at my place. Even considered asking him out for a beer. I hadn't done it yet, but I'd been thinking about it for a few months, and I'd been meaning to. But now? No, sir. Not after you hurt my feelings. Let's see how you like that.
The next day when I'm at work my boss, George, calls me in. He is going gray and ruddy and has always been a bit on the heavy side. Sometimes, when we're standing around waiting for some coffee to brew in the back office, George does these interesting ballerina movements where he spins around and gracefully palms the air. I just smile and nod my head. I don't know if he used to be a ballerina or not, but it weirds me out all the same.
I'm just in the middle of signing for some new air conditioners, window units for the students' dorm rooms, but he looks stern. Once he gets me alone, he shows me a little DV camera with a tape inside. He hooks it up to the small TV on his desk and my stomach drops.
Oh, God. It's an image of me, seated at my little table desk. He must have seen me. Jerking it. Slapping the ham. Doing hand-to-gland combat. It's what I do all day long, and I'm done for. But, what the hell -- a camera? That's got to be some kind of, I mean –--Look, he says. Tweakers.
He fast-forwards the low-res black and white tape. Then he stops, and I can make out a trio of young Rastafarian types entering the loading garage. My garage. The time stamp on the video says it was in the middle of the night. Two boys and a girl. They could be, almost definitely are from the homeless community in town. They usually stay there, in their shelter on Totten Pond Road, but ever since someone spray-painted the words “RAT'S NEST” in big black bubble letters all over the front of the building, the homeless got mad and have started to come out more, get bolder.
These people are able-bodied, young. What reason do they have to be homeless? Or on drugs? But they are, unmistakably.
As they pick through various items that have been delivered but never left the safety of the garage -- microwaves, bottled water, textbooks -- I think, are they doing this on purpose? The whole homeless thing? Is it something that's considered cool,now? I've seen young people, you know, around the neighborhood. They like their beards, now, and their secondhand clothes. Some of them, I honestly can't tell if they're actually homeless or some trust fund kid having a weird little freak-o bit of a rebellion, but this has gone too far. What do these kids have to steal for? Do they not think, even consider, who built those microwaves? Who shipped and received them? They have a place they're supposed to be. Don't these people think about that? God.
George and I nod to one another. He has this nice little sign near his desk that I like, printed out in white paper with black letters that says, “My cubical is my secret land of make-believe.” We don't even have cubicles.
The tape pauses. I don't know what comes next. He furrows his brow, so I do, too. We both look pretty serious. I think the look means, “We both know what we gotta do, if it comes down to it,” but I really have no idea if that's what the look means and, if so, exactly what we'd do if it came down to it. I head back to the garage to give Carl the update, along the way asking my boss as casually as I can if, just out curiosity, the cameras will become a permanent fixture, and how long they've been there. He looks at me and raises an eyebrow but says nothing more.
Back at home, I'm thinking about Elvis's girlfriend and whether she's happy and warm and safe. Those fucking, goddamn fucking tweakers. Why can't they leave other non-tweaked-out people alone? Okay. I know. Everyone's got problems. Lord knows, everyone's got problems. And maybe people turn to drugs, but, I mean, this drug? The one they're all on? It just makes you selfish. Literally, that's it. That's all it does. It turns all of the selfish parts of your brain on and shuts down anything else that thinks about other people.
And it's hard to feel bad for anyone on it because, obviously, it turns everyone into great big giant assholes. I try to be a nice guy to everyone I can. There's no reason not to. But if someone comes at me or someone I love? Well.
I'm not saying I'd kill anybody. Sure, my life isn't too great, but cast myself into the lot of those tweakers, those dog-shit-for-brains? Yuck. I'd only kill someone if they threatened to kill me or Grandma, or if they did something to Grandma that eventually killed her at some point down the line. Like if she got her foot run over by a bicyclist and couldn't walk, and had to use crutches and in the icy winter months still had to walk herself down to the corner market to get her paper, and on the way her crutches, which she was already pretty shaky on, slipped out from under her, and she fell and cracked her forehead on the pavement, and sustained enough of an injury that she had to go to the ER, and while in the ER the doctor made some retarded error and mixed up an IV dosage with her medication and she was so clearly not supposed to be on that IV dosage, and this sent her off into a kind of shock and renal failure that killed her, who would I kill? It'd have to be both the biker and the doctor. I'd murder them both. But maybe I'm just saying that because it's Grandma we're talking about here.
I do think that if I found the right woman, and she cared for me, I'd feel the same thing for her that I do for Grandma. I just want a good woman who will love me,
even though I know I don't deserve that love. If I ever find this woman, I will give my life to her.
Sometimes, especially when I'm sitting at work, I just get lost in all this in my head. I'm in the middle of something, and I look down at my feet, or my stomach, and I go, woah! I have been thinking for an extremely long time! What time is it, anyway?! Then sometimes to get out of that, especially if the thoughts are making me feel really crappy about myself, as they usually do, and I know this sounds sort of nutty, but I'll just think to myself:
-You in there!
-Can you hear me?
-Cut it out, and get back to whatever you were doing!
Then the voice at least quiets down for a little while. But, sure enough, pretty soon I'm back to thinking about this, that, or another thing. Oh, if I could just turn it off!
I wouldn't mind it so much if I was really smart or something. Since at least then I could have the thoughts and maybe go:
-These thoughts are, indeed, very interesting, and I ought to tell people about them! This could potentially change the world or at least be very, very cool!
But mostly I think about stupid shit, like Electra Minxx, my favorite porn star, and what she's doing throughout the day. She's very active on social media. Or I'll think about this ridiculous mole I have on my face, right in the middle of my left cheek, and how I could find a way to get it off just to be a little less gross. Or I think about my weight.
It wouldn't even be so bad, I don't think, the weight thing, if my stomach and pecs weren't so big. It'd be okay if I was just a big guy. But, everyone has something about themselves that they wanna change, so I could always -- okay, I'm doing it again. It's the voice getting at me again.
Sometimes it can be nice, though. Sometimes nice things pop into my head, or I can make the time pass by thinking about different memories. What I do like to think about most is when I was really little, riding in the car with my mom on late fall afternoons. Everything around me would be nice and dim and gold and orange and I'd be so happy. Whenever I asked, mom would take me out to run errands with her.
There was something we came up with that we'd always say to each other, whether we were in the car or it was time for bed or I was feeling bad. She'd say it to me first, and it went like this, “I absolutely and totally love you. I completely believe in you. There is nothing wrong with you and never has been. I promise that I will always love you and never, ever leave you.”
Then if we were in the car we'd squeeze hands and I'd say, “Me and mom, out on the town!”
Those were the best. Afternoons in the car, just me and mom.
I'm having one of my good days, my favorite days, a Saturday, when I hear a dutiful knock at the front door. I was hoping to spend the morning with a plate of banana French toast, whittling away at the box set of a show I've been watching, and then maybe going to my room to jack off for a little while.
The show is Law and Order. I've learned a lot of stuff about life from it. I also wear my Law and Order t-shirt that I bought off the TV during a marathon a couple years ago. I could sit here, in my chair, and watch Law and Order in my Law and Order t-shirt for days. Then, on top of that, I can pretty much always rely on being gently launched back to sleep by a jerk-off and a soft, slow R&B song on the stereo. That's a good time.
I generally do not ever answer the door, on account of the fact that Grandma gets plenty of visitors and most definitely does NOT want them seeing me on account of my appearance and personality. However, after a few more ring-a-dings and knocks, I take it upon myself to put on a pair of pants and make way for the front of the apartment. I've got bed head and a bit of banana on my shirt, but it's like, hey, this is my house, and you're showing up unannounced, and I'll look how I darn well please.
What I see on opening the door is interesting because it nearly causes me to vomit. There's a woman, I think, standing in her underwear with this stained t-shirt hiked up around her belly and tied in a knot in front. Actually, I think she's wearing short shorts. But yeah, ok, I get it. It's warm outside. But this girl is FAT. The belly hanging out under her t-shirt sort of looks like a rind of ham filled with cottage cheese. It's, just, yuck, and I want to slam the door shut right in her face, but when I finally look back up at it, her face, it's all red and swollen and splotchy with tears. Her hair is all messy and matted, too, like she doesn't even try a little bit to look nice, and it's as if the crying is pouring from every part of her head.
So I give her a moment.
And the next thing I know, she's off babbling. Like most women, right? She says she's Elvis's girlfriend's sister and there were these freak-o's at her apartment just now and she doesn't know anyone around here and she hopes I'm the right apartment because her sister wrote down a number for her to go to if anything strange happened and she couldn't tell if the number said 17 or 11.
So I do this thing that I've seen guys on TV do when a lady gets all babbling like this, and I shoosh her as I put my hands up flat in the air above my head and lower them down bit by bit. And it works! She shuts up. Thanks be to the Lord, right?
She looks at me, then pushes her glasses, which have almost completely fallen off, up the bridge of her nose, and I see that she's got these eyes that are, well, that are shit-colored. And one of them is this eye that rolls all the way in toward the middle of her face and God does it make her look totally, absolutely retarded!
So I'm like, is she looking at me, I can't tell, is she finished, what do I do? And where's Grandma when you need her? She looks for a second like she's gonna start getting all huffy and puffy with the crying again, so I just say,
-I know Elvis.
And she says, You do?
And I go, Yeah.
And she asks if she can come in. So I'm thinking, I've never had a girl over to my place before, and she's not the ideal or anything to be the first one, but I can work with this, and I'm really into this show, you know, it gives me more pleasure than basically everything else in the world combined and I don't, repeat, do not want you to come in between me and that. I sorta start telling her no when she, yes, starts CRYING again and says something like, Please please please I really don't wanna go back to my apartment right now and I'm scared to death and I just moved here and seriously though I have nowhere else to go.
So I tell her the truth, which is that Grandma won't let me have any visitors if she's around so I say I gotta go check. And oh jeez, she asks if she can just please step
inside for a moment while I go check and jeez Louise I just nod my head and say right-o.
Now she's in the apartment. Actually inside. The first girl that's ever been in here that's, well, I can't say “invited,” exactly, but the first girl that's asked to come in so she can see me. She wants to be in here with me! Just us alone! And I have waited I can't even tell you I've wanted this so much for so long and it is just such a thrill for it to finally be happening. Who knows if there's a God, but if there is, he was definitely around that day.
Now I've gotta search for Grandma.
Most of the time, when they meet for the first time, guys are really afraid of coming across as creepy while girls are really afraid of coming off as crazy. It seemed like this girl had no intention in trying to hide her part, which was fine by me. I'd given up trying to hide my creepy behavior long ago, because it was just way too much work. It's better to just be yourself and either come off as creepy or not. I normally come across as creepy, but what can I do about it? That's just me. I'm sorry.
Anyway, back to Grandma. I know she's not in her bedroom, since it's right next to the front door and obviously if she was in there she would've gotten up and answered the knocking. No go for the kitchen, or my bathroom, and obviously not where I was sitting, comfortably, ten minutes ago, watching my show. So there's one last thing to check. I leave the kitchen, go down the hallway, turn toward the front door, and go into Grandma's room. Then her bathroom.
I am FORBIDDEN from ever going in here, mainly because one time I walked in on Grandma when she was standing naked over the toilet clipping her toenails and she accused me, ME!, of peeping on her. Me? What? And how? This was just so wrong and a million other things that I don't even know -
Before that I never used this bathroom much, anyway, and don't have many memories of it other than me walking in on Grandma or when I was little and she'd plop me down on the toilet seat and kneel down to my face. She'd be drunk, which is how I got to know what vodka smells like on someone. Then she'd stare at me a long time, and then she'd go,
-Slap me, Wade!
And I wouldn't wanna, you know, and she'd keep saying it, and I'd keep saying no, then I'd start crying because, duh, I love Grandma and don't wanna hit her or do anything even remotely bad to her even when I get really, really mad! So, she'd say it a couple more times, and I'd get really sad, and afraid, and so I'd, you know, hit her. Just a little with my palm, more like a swipe or wiping motion. Not enough to hurt her or anything, or what's what I thought, anyway.
But she'd get REALLY mad and her face would turn all white and she'd -- SMACK! -- hit me right back across the face. And that hurt. That stung, especially when she'd hit my ear or the tip of my nose and she'd yell at me, Why did you hit me, Wade?!
And, so, I tried to explain, but then she'd sort of hit me again, even harder this time, and she'd say something like, How dare you hit me! I'm your grandmother! Fuck!
I'd say sorry sorry sorry and I thought you asked me to and she'd ask if I'd lost my mind, misplaced my globe, and I'd try to tell her she just asked me to but I guess she couldn't remember. Maybe it's because I hurt her so much it made her forget or maybe I just imagined that whole part up.
So I'm in there, and I look around, take a seat on the toilet, which has one of those print fabric things tied around the top of the seat. This one's got all these race cars on it because I ruined the old flower print one when I was little and had a bad case of food poisoning. It was bad, but I remember that summer had been so boring and it was actually the most interesting or spontaneous or exciting thing that had happened to me in weeks so I at least felt okay about that, but then Grandma got so mad that she threw her keys at me and made me clean everything up and that was no fun at all.
I wish I could forget all that stuff Grandma said to me, or lots of the other things she used to shout. I carry them around with me. I'd like to have different things in my head. Like maybe just a bunch of pictures and music. Words are always ruining your thoughts.
I look at myself in the mirror and part my hair a little to the left and step out of the bathroom.
The girl is now standing in the kitchen and pacing around, stabbing at her cell phone screen with her pointer finger over and over. So I say what's wrong and would she like to watch some TV. She does this little noise, like, Ehhh, but really high-pitched and God does it annoy me. So I sit down and keep watching my show. Before I know it, I've got my hand inside the strap of my boxers and I'm playing with my bag, but I realize that this isn't something you do in the presence of company so I subtly smooth my hand back out.
After another minute passes, I hear her shouting into the telephone, really pretty frustrated now. What I get from her is that someone, or some people, showed up at her apartment. People she didn't want around.
Where I get really interested is when I hear her call them tweakers! Who are these kids, 20 and 30-somethings, who are all hooked up on this drug that makes them act this way? Never mind the side effects, the hallucinations, getting all twitchy and impatient and all.
Plus, and this was just something I'd heard, I couldn't confirm one hundred percent, but apparently the only way to take the drug was to syringe it into your forehead. Right into your eyebrows, at the prefrontal lobe. And then your eyebrows fall out! Oh, my God! That would make you look like a monster.
I can't understand why it's all blown up like this outta nowhere. I mean, don't get me wrong, being selfish can be a whole lot of fun. This I know. But, first of all, most people are pretty selfish already, and it's just so selfish to want to make yourself more selfish, is what I think.
Kids on this drug, I guess it's called tweak, are these idiot burnouts who just go around having a good time and only caring about themselves! I mean, they steal, hurt, and maim people, even attacking their own friends and family members to get what they want. And what do they want? Cars, getting wasted, a grade in a class, I don't even know. I don't really want anything. Except my own family. But I wouldn't wanna hurt or steal from anyone to get that! That's not the point.
If I'm getting the jist of it, it sounds like the tweakers that live in our very complex have been trying to get into this girl's place. For what, I don't know. She isn't very pretty and doesn't seem to have much money, but to each his own. It isn't until she sets the phone down, finally, that this girl starts making some sense.
She says, Hi.
I turn around in my seat.
-I'm sorry. She starts to walk out.
-Wait. Uh, Dev.
I kind of want her to leave, but I can't be a total jerk.
-Can I help, or...like...?
She stops at the door.
-Look, we just had some pretty creepy people move in below us. They've been bothering me, us. Elvis and my sister are away, so it's just been me.
-I'm glad you were home. I'm glad you were home or I don't know what I would've done with myself.
-Happy to help.
-Do you know my sister well?
-Here and there. Elvis cuts my hair.
-I mean, I've invited them to come by a few times, you know, for a barbecue or something, but so far it's only been Grandma and me at those.
Her eyes pop open really wide and she reaches for the back of her neck.
-Right, you're -- I know who you are now.
-You invited us by a couple of weeks ago? I wanted to...I asked Elvis, but he said, A party? What's he gonna do? Lock us in a room and rape us? Ha ha.
I feel my face get real hot. She giggles but then right away purses her lips together. That was really mean, and I want her to leave.
She gives me a smile and waves as she walks out the door. I give her my serious look and nod goodbye. Then I go and sit down in my chair and sob until all the snot and wet runs into my mouth.
I've been drinking a bit, and since I'm feeling honest, I'll tell you about my real first sexual experience. Which wasn't something I actually experienced. To explain: I came out of my bedroom once when I was eight or nine, this would have been a little after my mom died, and found Grandma banging some guy on the sofa. The sofa where I watch my shows. The guy saw me, and he stopped, and got embarrassed and tried to get up, but Grandma told him to quit being such a wuss and to keep going.
She told me to stay there right where I was and to watch and learn, so I did. This then sort of became a thing with Grandma, where a couple times a month she'd have a man over, usually it was an old, pale, bald guy around her age, and she'd make me watch them screw. Or, not exactly make me, but they'd do it when I was around and she didn't try to hide it or anything. Each time it was a different guy, maybe because each time it happened the guy got so freaked out that Grandma was always having to find new ones.
I hated Grandma for that, and I hated her making me watch. It was gross. It definitely made me not want to have sex for a long, long time.
...And so here's something...after many more beers...Grandma came back tonight with a bunch of groceries and I helped her bring them up...and she said something seemed...a little different about me...and I went NO and she said did anything interesting happen today and I said NO WAY...but she said...she'd heard...I'd had a visitor...heard from a neighbor friend...ha ha...she asked if I had a little girlfriend now...and I said no...and she...she said she knew the girl...she'd seen her around...and all she could say was that girl looked like she needed to get screwed...oh my God...I don't...but...underneath this all...I was smiling...I don't know how I contained myself...
...I went back into my room and looked at myself in the mirror...and I was sort of like man...you know...you know you're drunk when you've been admiring yourself in the mirror for a long time...ha ha!...uhwhoahhhhhhhhhhh...
...I looked at myself some more...and could almost ignore it...almost ignore the...the...huge, the big...the thing right there out in the open...the hideous...such a gross thing...the huge mole...it's on my cheek...above my lip...it resembles a Rice Krispie...kids in school would ask me if I could feed them...they hadn't had breakfast...ha…
...But if I turn it away I can see my bald spot...in the mirror...the one on the back of my head...so it's one or the other...a shape like a lima bean...so many...too many fucking mirrors in here how could I not see it...this mole and this bald spot...if I could...just...I've thought about it...thought about...if I had a gun...a pistol at just the right angle...pointed at my face...some straight line...the mole to the bald spot...I
could blow them both...both away with one shot...blow those two things away and be rid of them...so when I died...my head would be perfect...no one would look at me in a casket and see a mole or a bald spot...they'd forget all about them...maybe not perfect but not so gross...so deformed...and old-looking...
...I go out into the dining room now...and Grandma's there...with this...this guy...okay...I dunno why she lets me around him...probably because she hates him...and thinks I'm the only...only thing that can make him stop wanting to come around...and there they are...just...talking...
...She knows I'm drunk...she knows it and that's why she's ignoring me...she's telling him to ignore me too...and so I look at them...look at them talking and what a thing to do so easily...I get...I'm so jealous...how do people...just...talk...like that...?...just converse...as if it were the most natural thing in the world...they're so good at it...why can't I...they make it look like it's just...so easy...something they want to do and not that they have to do and are compelled to do and hate doing...life would be so much easier if...I could just...
...I feel sick...and my eyes are burning and I wanna siddown and God oh God who did why did someone leave a glass of water there it's just oh no now I have to go into the bathroom again...and how could...and how could...
I always have funny dreams when I get drunk, and during last night I remember there being some things about Paulie, my old dog, dying, and he was lying in a big pile of beautiful naked ladies with big boobs, and all of the ladies were looking up at me with their eyes big and chins small.
One I remember really well is of me sitting on the floor, watching TV, and Grandma comes over and kneels down in front of the set, blocking the way. Then she's looking really sad. Like, I haven't seen her so sad since when I first came to live with her after all the stuff with my parents went down. And she starts to talk but, like what happens a lot in dreams, there's no sound. So, I pick up the TV remote and I point it at her head. Then I hit the un-mute button, and all this stuff starts coming out of her.
She says she loves me and she hates me just as much! Over and over again. Then she becomes a melting ice cream sandwich on a sidewalk. With a little baby duck inside of it. The sandwich. And then, again, she says it. I love you as much as I hate you, I hate you as much as I love you. Next, this is the weirdest part I guess, she turned back into herself and stood up but ended up way below me, like, underground, but I could still see her, and then, out of nowhere, she roundhouse kicked me in the face! That's when I woke up.
I've got a cold wet cloth hung around the back of my neck as I walk into work and an ice pack wrapped around my head in a mackie cap. This is something I do pretty often due to my weight, and it can be a long walk from my car to the dock. I often enjoy a cool cloth or ice pack on my body in order to combat the constant
overheating, sweat, and swamp ass. Today it's necessary because my whole head feels as though it's dried up and shriveled and, along with yanking my eyeballs so far back in their sockets that I'm sure they're going to get sucked into my brain, I've got the sense that it, my brain, is begging me for something wet to soften it up. So I happily oblige.
The loading dock light isn't on like it usually is and when I open the sliding metal door into the garage I don't see anyone at the receiving desk. The lights in my boss's office are off, too, so I walk past it into the main library. The stacks on the floor where we work are usually deserted, and this time is no different. Our floor is filled with self-help books, guides on mental health, that sort of thing, and no one reads those any more. I walk along several aisles of stacks, and the overhead motion sensor lights click on in each aisle one-by-one in alignment with my forward steps. I call out, Hey!, but no one answers.
I figure I've had enough of the library, and so decide I might as well get back to work. As I turn around, there's this SWOOSH sound and someone comes around behind me and cups their hand over my mouth. I panic for a second but, seeing the skinny, hairless, brown wrist in front of me, I know it has to be Carl, so I laugh and twist him forward, almost sending his little body into a somersault!
I pick him up and, seeing that he's most definitely not laughing or happy about this, ask him what in the goddamn hell is going on around here. He stares up at me all bug-eyed with his mouth hanging wide open and motions for me to go toward the office, so I pick him up and off we go.
The tweakers have returned. This is what I see on the paused picture on the TV screen in front of me. My boss figured out how to play the camera tapes through the old wide-screen set so we've got a pretty detailed image to look at now. Carl and my boss move around the room we're in sort of stiffly and just stare at each other all vacant and wide-eyed. Then they stare at me, then back to each other, and with a nod from both, the image on the TV jerks into motion.
It's three tweakers, like last time, but now there are three boys and no girls. They're prowling and skulking around, obviously tweaked, kicking things over on the dock and pushing each other around. They hardly even look at or talk to one another, just have at the stuff. It's total selfishness given form. One of them pries open a box containing sweatshirts printed with the school's logo. These were headed for sale at the campus bookstore, and when another tweaker comes over to check them out, he gets pushed away! There must be between fifty and a hundred sweatshirts in the box, and that guy doesn't let his friend, if you could even call him that, try a single one on. Like I always say, people are just jerks, for the most part.
Still though, if someone did that to me, something that rude, I'd just respond how I always have: smile, keep my dignity, knowing that it's really the equivalent of an unwanted little animal rubbing up against your leg. Or a bully trying to rankle you, to get you to become all mad. What I mean is, you know how dogs sometimes like to hump peoples' legs? Well, whenever I was around one of them, a humper, they'd always be drawn to me. I'd be there just being quiet and all, and then, outta nowhere, I'd be getting mounted and/or humped! And everyone would laugh and tease me and I'd be the butt of the joke, you know? But in those situations, you've got to keep your cool. Because, deep down, I know that I'm better than all the rest and no insult can ever hurt me with that knowledge in the back of my mind. I may be hurt, enraged, embarrassed inside, but I'd just smile, give the person their satisfaction, because I'm secretly plotting out my revenge, inside.
When I snap back, I see all three guys on the screen huddled around this box that they've just torn to absolute shreds. There's styrofoam and paper and cardboard all over the place and, finally, one of them reaches down into the box and pulls out a...well...this massive, sort of, well, I can't really tell what it is at this moment. For a second it looks like a giant head.
The tweakers get all excited and start pushing each other around and going at the very next box. Same thing. Giant head comes out, goes right next to the first one. They're getting on to the third when I sneak a glance at Carl, but his eyes are still fixed to the TV and, without even looking away from it, he sticks up a finger up to tell me to clam it. I shrug, Okay.
Then, about five seconds later, one of the tweakers suddenly jerks around. Then he faces the camera. He's actually looking up at it! Like, into the lens! I always thought those things were pretty well hidden, they're so small now, but this guy has some sort of paranoia-induced sixth sense right now which has made it obvious to him that someone was watching. He looks a little longer, then -- get this -- he smiles! And does a little wave!
The nerve of these guys. It's like they think whatever they do, no matter how stupid or selfish or meaningless, it's just A-okay! Just, you know, give a little wave! I close my eyes and shake my head, and when I look back up at the screen I get a really sick kind of wavy feeling in my stomach. Like a wave of nerves has risen up to my throat and then crashed back down into my belly.
The heads. There they are. They have faces. Heads and faces with no body. Fuck! These are the busts we had coming in, the really fucking fuck expensive ones that I was supposed to be looking out for!
There they are, these super important and really very, very costly busts of the school's presidents dating back to like what I don't know a hundred fifty goddamn years or something ago. God-damnit-fuck! I was supposed to receive these personally on Friday and make sure they were put away and safe but in my haste to get home and see Grandma and get a jump start on the weekend I'd forgotten.
So, all because of me, the school, its founders, its board members, all would be disgraced. Who knows where the busts might end up? Probably somewhere totally horrible and embarrassing and shameful for all of us.
This is it. This is my ass. I can't remember the last time I've felt so crappy so quickly. I've let these guys down. I'm a fucking loser! Whatever made me think I was
qualified to do a job like shipping and receiving? I should be out somewhere mowing lawns or mopping up a school cafeteria. That's seriously all I'm good for. I can't do a damn thing right.
The head honchos at the school are gonna kill me and maybe even fire my friends, too. All of this, coupled with the hangover, makes me feel like I have to go yuke right then and there but as I start to reel away, both Carl and George hold me back. I can't stand to look either one of them in the face. I've tried to be a good person, a good worker. I should have tried harder. Even Mom would probably have been ashamed. I'll never forgive myself for this. Never ever. When have I ever messed up so bad?
I vow to make a change right here and now, to take a turn for the best. I'll become a better worker and a better man. A moral man. A responsible one. Not only will I not let anyone down ever again, partly to avoid having to feel so sick to my stomach as I do now, I'll even go so far as to make myself into a more honorable person. I'll sit at my desk, after arriving ten, no, fifteen minutes early, punctually, always, and focus on nothing but my job until I clock out. These people have been kind enough to give me a job, a good job, and I've been ungrateful.
No more sneaking trips to watch some TV in the staff lounge. All that time I'd spent sitting on the toilet, not even going, just for the hell of it to waste time. No more. Have you ever spent long periods sitting on the toilet at work, just because you're sad? Well, it was time for me to buck up, quit that habit.
And no more stealing. Ever. Not even a pencil here, or a pushpin there. If before I couldn't keep any promises to myself, now would be the chance for there to be a plot twist in my life, so to speak, that would become my everlasting, solemn vow.
It's as I'm making this decision that I notice Carl wincing at the TV screen, his outstretched hand acting as some kind of shield to guard him from the image. A moment later he turns his head away, but his hand still stays out, as if turning his huge head away hadn't been enough. George, meanwhile, just stands. I look at him, then the TV.
The tweakers are all standing close to one another, sort of jostling, and then one of them steps back a bit and takes something out of his jacket that appears to be a gun. It's then that I notice the tweakers are arguing over one of the busts. Two of them are doing this tug-of-war with it, each holding onto an ear, yanking the other tweaker forward, then being throttled back, and the bust meanwhile is held specariously between them.
Then, next thing I know, the third one, the guy with the gun, points it at the other two and shoots them one at a time point blank in the face.
And the bust goes down. Whatever it was made of, why ever they were fighting over it, the fact is when it hits the ground this thing shatters. Into dust. As if it had just been a giant snowball, or something.
Well, so, anyway, now the other two are quite plainly dead. The guy with the gun spends the next several minutes dragging both of the bodies off-camera somewhere, maybe a trash can? I don't know.
Then, get this, he takes one last look at the security camera, gives another friendly wave, and shoots right at us! At it! The camera! I jump back when it happens, I'm so startled.
Carl's bent over on his knees gripping the edge of a desk and crying. My boss is stoic. Stern. He picks up the little gray remote and shuts the TV off, then chucks it across the room into a little waste can. I think I'll say something like, But, sir, how is that supposed to help anything?, but he starts in.
-All right, boys. So, this happened. This...here...is something that...happened. Now, what do we do about it? That's the --
I start in with a, What the f--, but he gives me a look that stops me. I realize I've interrupted him, that the question was rhetorical. Sorry.
Carl, weepy, can't bring himself to say anything except that it's still just as bad as the first time he watched it, and my boss can't quite come up with what to do next.
I realize something, start to ask a question, but my boss answers it, says the bodies have been disposed of.
I decide to go for a walk around the library for a few minutes, taking a stroll and holding onto the cold steel scaffolding until, clinging to a bannister as I descend some stairs in the bitter outside air, I stagger away from the building and go to my car.
My mind whirls and clanks like the crappy alternator I have under the hood. I remember a few times to think, Hello! Hello! Hello!, but it's a strain and soon I'm back in the swirl and the dark.
I think it's appropriate, here, to recount the one and only “real” date I've ever been on, the one with the girl who was trying to make her boyfriend jealous. I left some things out.
We'd been set up by a gay boy in our class named Jordan who'd been asking and begging me to let him fellate me since we were freshmen. I always said no, obviously, because I didn't wanna do that stuff with a guy. I hadn't even done it with a girl. Plus, it always felt like he was messing with me or something. So, I guess by getting me a date, since he was best friends with this girl, he thought he'd get into my good favor somehow.
Okay, actually, the truth is that I told him I'd let him suck my dick if he got me a date with the girl. But I never let him and I'll tell you why.
So the big night came. I picked her up and we went to dinner at a Korean place nearby, then she suggested that we go to my house.
We stopped by her parents' to get her car, plus she wanted to get some clothes. So she followed me back to the apartment where I lived with Grandma and we parked, kissed on the sidewalk for a little while, then went toward the complex and went through the front gate up to the apartment. I was excited, this had never happened, and on and on and on and on and on. It was especially great because I knew Grandma had gotten tanked and passed out earlier in the night, so that was taken care of.
So, we were at the front door and she said, Eww, what's that?, and pointed at this softball-sized toad that used to hang out at our complex. I'd named him Henry and it was his second year there.
Anyway, I explained that he's all right, I'd knock beetles off the overhead light for him to eat and stuff. I wasn't allowed to have a pet so he was the closest thing I had and I had a lot of affection for him. She looked down at her sharp high-heeled black dress shoes, walked over to him, looked at me, and, with very intense eye contact, proceeded to quickly stomp on Henry many times over.
Now, at that point, I experienced several emotions. Mostly shock, anger, and rage. Poor Henry.
I shouted at her, Wha! Wha! Why did you do that!
To which she replied, I wanted to make you mad so you'd fuck me harder.
I was speechless, and as I tried to process what had just happened, I told her to get out and leave my property and not come back. A girl's going to do that to someone's toad? Someone's pet? On a first date?
She lost it, we yelled back and forth, I sprayed her with the hose and she finally left, only to show up twenty minutes later topless on the deck in the common area out
back. She had walked from down the road and pulled something like six pickets down from our fence to get in the back yard.
The cops came, she cried her way out of trouble with them, and then left.
Since this was high school and all, there wasn't really anything that the cops could do to her. I wanted her to go to jail, or something, anything, for killing Henry and harassing me like that. I asked the cops, What if she does it again? And all they said was that she probably wouldn't, but if she did, then at that time I could call them and they'd take care of the situation. But, I was like, what good would that do when I'm already in the situation!
What I learned from this is that the cops can't ever really do much. Unless the college administration had decided to cover up the tweaker killings over the weekend, which it seemed like they were doing, there was enough evidence there for cops to swoop in and protect everyone. But unless someone's done something really bad to you, they, the cops, can't do much. Then when someone finally does do something bad to you, something that's worth calling the police over, at that point it's too late. Now that something really bad had happened, couldn't we just agree to get rid of all the tweakers once and for all? Or at lease those living in our complex?
These people know what they're getting into. It even says it right there on the bottle:
May exacerbate selfishness to the point
where murdering someone seems like an
So, screw those guys. It's time for me to just focus on taking care of me and my own.
What I mean about the cops is that, even though there are tweakers around, and even though some of them are willing to do THAT, that thing one of them had done at the college, and even though some of them were very possibly living in our apartment complex, there's nothing we can do about it because these ones near us hadn't actually done anything to us yet.
There we were, innocent bystanders, just wanting everyone to get along, do their part, and here are these freak-o tweakers who, I'm sorry, are not worth a square inch of the fat off Grandma's rear end, and they're doing this thing that only leads to hurt and sabotage and, now, murder. And they might be living in OUR complex! What can I do?
All the police would do, can do, is roll their eyes and drone, Call us when they've done something. But -- they have done something! Right before the camera's very eye! Those tweakers in the school are capable of murder, and so all tweakers are, is how I see it.
Coming home later I pull up in front of the complex and, in my haste to get up quickly to my place, where I can cry and sleep or slap my dick around for a few hours, bang into the curb. No matter. No matter, no matter, no matter. More pressing issues are at hand.
Coming down the walkway to my door I notice someone standing outside on the welcome mat. Dev.
I blow past her and swing open the door, immediately on a search for Grandma. Today she could be at the arboretum, or maybe the pool. Oh boy. I hope they haven't already gotten to her.
I scout all of the rooms, including her bathroom and, satisfied, walk back toward
the front entrance. Dev has followed me in.
-Have you heard from my sister? Or Elvis?
-When was the last time you did?
-Is there something you wanna tell me?
-It's just, I...I came back home the other night, the night after I'd been over here, and my sister was supposed to meet me. Meet me here at home. But she never showed up, and, um, I found this --
She reaches out to me with something small and square-looking in her hand.
-It's her library card. Her keychain card. I found it out in front of my apartment.
She winces. --Yeah. Near where they live.
-Did you try CALLING her?
-Of course. I tried them both. He doesn't pick up either.
She frowns. --They won't...they both got clean two years ago. Off this stuff. When it was weaker.
-Ho, wait a minute.
I need a moment to process everything.
-You're telling me Elvis used to tweak?
-I need a, uh...I need a drink is what I need.
I gotta tell you, at this point, after a few beers, even Dev is starting to look kinda good. I let her stay over again because she still can't reach her lousy sister, and because I'm feeling a little scared myself. I don't much feel like being alone after what I witnessed on the TV today.
It isn't until she heads off to the bathroom and I get up to grab another beer that I realize how tipsy I am. Not drunk yet, just tipsy. I think about her, there in the bathroom, but this time in a totally serious, non-gross way. It would make sense that she's thinking about me right now, as she was just talking to me and is in my bathroom in my house under not quite normal circumstances, but I'm dying to know just what she's thinking. I've been told that people in general don't think about you as much as you think they do, so you shouldn't worry about it too much, but I call bullshit on that.
It seems like whenever I leave a room and come back in, everyone shushes up as though they'd just been talking about me! Whenever I pass by a group of people who are laughing together about something, my just being near them causes them to shut up and feel nervous. And when you're as messed up as I am, you're probably the poster boy for what people think about when they're down, like, “I'm having a really awful day. My dog got sick, and I wanted sausage but the supermarket is out of the only kind of sausage that I like, my favorite type of meat overall, but at least I'm not that Wade guy!”
Sometimes I just wish that there was less of me, like I didn't take up so much space here on Earth. At least then I'd have a shot of staying out of peoples' way and not being seen.
But I'll take it, I don't mind. Like I say, people can think all they want about me. I'll take it. Because I know that there are things about me which no one else can see and which I can't even see yet, and that gives me a lot of comfort. That'll get me through pretty much anything.
How else do I know that people actually think about you a lot? Because I do it! I've been thinking about Dev this whole time. And I know I may be messed up, but I can't be all that different from everyone else out there.
I feel expansive and generous and more drunk when she comes back into the room. She sits down and I look at her with the back of my hand pressed into my cheek. She is so sweet.
-What do you look for in a guy?
-I've been thinking about it a lot, and, I think I know exactly what girls want. Or most of it. Do you think I can help you? Do you want my help?
I sit up, my legs to one side.
-I want to tell you that I find you very interesting. Very, sort of, darling, I guess. And I wanted to know if there was anything I could help you with. Maybe some
pointers or something. Just from one grown-up to another, I mean. I dunno. It's just something I've thought about.
-Yeah. I get the feeling you don't have a lot of experience with men. I don't have a lot with women, and, well, if the conversation were reversed, I'd sure like to have the same opportunity.
She's a nice girl. I'll give her that. My feeling? She probably doesn't want much more in the world than to settle down with a regular guy like me. Someone who she'd feel lucky to be with. Someone who would see past all her ugliness and care about her in a deeper, more complex way. I think everyone wants the same thing, which is to have a nice little life, with a nice spouse, and one or two nice kids, and for things to stay that way forever.
-Well, the first question I'd have to ask would be: how did I get so lucky to have a man, such as yourself, offer me --
-Oh, it's no problem --
-No, really --
-It's no problem at all.
-So, Wade. Do you have a girlfriend?
I put my hand to my mouth to stifle a laugh.
-Oh, wow. I'm flattered. I -- just -- ho, dang -- I'm sorry, I don't think that you, and me, that we --
-I see. So. You think I'm interested in you? Is that it?
I wonder if she's ever had a boy kiss her? Or felt loved? I wish, sort of, that I could be the one to do that for her, but that attraction, the really important thing, it just isn't there, you know? Maybe if she has some questions or some...I dunno...she seems like she's lonely.
She is lonely. I can tell. But I'd like to help her some way, I...maybe...I could help her with her loneliness. I could set her up? I don't have any guy friends, so maybe that wouldn't work. I could help her set up an online dating profile? I'd never do that, personally, it really seems like it's for losers, but I don't have to tell her that, I'd keep mum about it, and maybe she'd actually get something out of it. I’d set it up, she'd find a guy, probably a guy that's fat and gross like her, and they'd both feel like they finally found someone who's like them, and they'd fall deeply in love, and they'd say, Thank you, Wade, and their kids would write me thank you cards every year for getting their mom to finally get off her behind and go out there to find a guy, and maybe I'd even be the best man at the wedding, but I wouldn't want to be too close to them or anything, so I'd probably politely leave after the ceremony. I mean I wouldn't want them to think I'm interested in any kind of ongoing long-term friendship or relationship of some kind...I could just sit by, resting on my laurels, with the knowledge and satisfaction that I'd put two hopelessly forlorn, lost, unappealing people together, had taken something poor in the world and shined it up to something lustrous...and there would be babies because of what I'd done.
-Well, sure. I know I have my problems, but I think you've already started to get to know me and see past them.
-Are you interested in me?
All I can think to do is to avert my eyes. I don't want to be cruel.
-So you think, with all of your problems, that I'd be interested in you. But, there's absolutely no way you'd give me the same benefit of the doubt.
-I've got problems, but I can fix them. And they're not that big of a deal. In the larger sense. I just have so many good things inside me that you'd be able to ignore all this other stuff.
-Other stuff? Are you kidding? Wade. That other stuff...look...that stuff? It's you. That's what you are. You've got these problems the same as everyone else.
-I personally disagree with that.
-If you think you can just be this detestable, gross person that you are and women will be attracted to you anyway, and will fall head over heels in love with you, that it won't matter how you look or act, you -- just -- you need to become a tolerable human being, bud. You are not special. You are not a prince or a genius.
I try to start to talk, but I say nothing.
-Let me finish. Life is not a sitcom. You can't be a fat loser with nothing going for him except an all right job and then have a smart, beautiful wife. If you want a sophisticated, artistic girl, start becoming sophisticated and artistic yourself! Just look at you! I'm guessing you don't want a fat girl --
I shake my head, no, no I do not.
-So why not stop being fat yourself? You think it's all fine for the guy to be fat and unattractive, and to not work out, and he should expect to get a beautiful, interesting woman to take some kind of notice of him? Why would she? You think it's still all right for the guy to be gross and the girl to be pretty? Because that's how the world works? All you're going to do is, if you're lucky, attract women who are just like you. And guess what? You'll still think you're too good for them, and that eventually someone will come along and see your true value. Well, guess what, Wade? I've been married. I've been married six times. And I bet you don't even have a clue what getting to that point takes.
I flick my hand out at her.
-It's amazing how big and yet small your ego can be all at the same time, she says to me.
She gets a scowl on her face and walks toward the door. Before she slams it, she turns and says,
-I think you'd be immune to tweak, if you ever tried it. You're already as self-centered as can be.
Well. This just goes back to what I've always said, that people who are brutally honest are always more into being brutal than being honest.
I wake up in the night to a creaking outside my bedroom door that sounds like a heavy person taking one, two, one, two big deep breaths over and over. I turn on the light next to my bed with the little coolie hat on it and check on the noise.
As I pull the door open, Grandma slumps toward me and almost goes straight to the floor, but I catch her against my chest. Her eyes are rolling in her head and she's having trouble getting any words out until, after asking her what's wrong about fifty different times, she lets out a groan,
I chuck her over my shoulder, start bawling my eyes out, and run to grab the land line.
She smacks me on the back a few times and when I look at her she eyes me pleadingly and croaks,
-No, no ambulance. Idiot. No insurance. No money.
And I'm thinking, great, Grandma didn't sign up for her premium again, and, hello, isn't this what the government is for? So when old people like Grandma are sick
and poor someone can take care of them other than good old Wade who can barely afford himself a bottle of Drambuie every few months?
I've got the weird disorientation that comes after waking up without a full night's sleep. Nap fatigue. So I follow whatever she says. I think about earlier in the day, being in the school, then seeing Dev, and it seems impossibly long ago.
I'm about to say, Come on, Grandma. There's being frugal and then there's this and this is something else. You can't tell me what's wrong but this looks sort of like a life or death situation to me, and you really wanna rely on my driving abilities here, you wanna risk that so you can save a thousand or whatever bucks?
But I've never been one to go against what she says, and I'm not about to start now, so I snatch up my wallet and keys.
The complex tonight is dark and feels sort of off. It takes me a minute to put my finger on why, until I realize that there's complete silence around. There are some shopping carts parked near the bottom of the stairwells, like usual, but the regulars who normally hang out by the pool are not to be found.
We make it out through the front gate and I see an odd thing: three or four cars all parked out disaster-movie-style in the middle of the street. Stopped, not parked, because their engines are still running and the headlights are on. Odis Redding's voice carries lightly through the air from a car's stereo. I start thinking, wow, these are easy pickings, also I could go for a bag of Twizzlers, and what the hell's going on here?, when Grandma smacks me on the back of the head and I snap out of it, heading for our little Ford.
I help Grandma in, laying her down on the back seat, get in myself, and the next thing I know, I hear a bunch of people screaming at me! To start the car! I pop my head up to look in the rearview mirror and see a crowd that's come outta nowhere and is barreling down on us from down the street. I know enough to know that when people come running at you with blood-curling screams, it's best to look out for number one and get the heck outta there, so I pop the keys in and start pulling away. That's when I hear an even worse noise -- this grinding of metal on metal like when your brakes are way old and due for a change, except it's even worse, and it's right there next to me.
As the screamers get closer and closer I see a burst of sparks raining down onto the sidewalk from the passenger side of my car. Grandma is none too pleased.
Now I really need to get away, but when I look in the rear-view again the screamers are practically right on top of us and are now being followed by a whole OTHER group! I can just make out in the dark that they are, most definitely, actually being chased by the other group, and not followed, because the second group, I can see now, is, no doubt about it, comprised of eyebrow-less fucking tweakers.
I quickly get out of the car and run around to the other side as Grandma yells all kinds of new and interesting insults at me from the back seat. Now I realize what I've done. The front tire is totally flat, and the hubcap's all smashed up, I guess because of when I'd smacked into the curb after arriving home from work. So, great. This is, pretty much, a raw deal. And now I have a bare tire rim on my hands that would make a hell of a racket and a show and just come on I can't drive a Ford down the street looking like this.
Ok, so, now how do you feel, Grandma, about skimping on those few bucks? Because now not only can we not get you to the hospital, but we're also being barraged by a bunch of crazed selfish people and we can't drive away and oh God what should we do?
I think the crowd running to us has given up any hope that we could be their salvation with the obvious sorry state of the car, so they go off on a detour which buys me and Grandma some time. She's pretty understandably upset at the little light show I'd put on a second before, but I pull her out of the car and swing her over my shoulder.
I dunno how long this crowd has been marauding around, but it's gotten to the point that they've circled back around and when they see me again they start screaming and coming toward the apartment! With the tweakers in tow. I scramble to the front gate and try to work the keys out with one hand while the other grips onto Grandma as she smacks me again and again on the back and howls at me for, I don't really know what, maybe just for being an idiot.
It ends up being one of these moments where I don't realize for a little while how scared I am, all I know is that I can't get the darn key in the gate lock. Our
apartment complex is cheap and old so we don't have an intercom or buzzer system but that doesn't stop Grandma from trying to page all of the mailboxes, her being in such an odd state and all. And, so, when I say that the crowd is gaining on us, I mean that I flash a look to my left and see them running full speed at me across the driveway. I guess people can run really fast when their life is in danger.
And so anyway, I have Grandma beating up on me, and then now all of a sudden some strangers are, too! The group running away from the tweakers is trying to get into our complex! And shouting and smacking me in the head and calling me a moron and trying to get the keys out of my hand and into their own because, excuse me, obviously someone who doesn't have thirty years' experience opening this dumb gate can do it so much better than I can and, damnit, just as I twist the key and, crack, the lock busts open and I push the door forward in a lunge, the keys are knocked from my hand. And down they go and at this point I'm what you might call “in the moment” with terror so all I can think of to do is to get Grandma back somewhere safe.
So I yank her up and sprint -- or at least what I think of as a sprint -- for the stairs that lead up to our place. There are people pouring in behind us now and there's not much we can really do to stop them. I just have to make sure they don't come anywhere near us. The screamers are trying to shut the door to make sure no tweakers get in, but there are still screamers outside trying to find refuge in the complex, and some tweakers have definitely already gotten through in the mix, so the whole thing is a mess.
Up the stairs we go and it's like a scene out of some action movie down there! Literally just people streaming in! It's only a matter of time before the tweakers start to bust through in full force, so down I go through the hall to our apartment, full speed, and then through the gaps in the railing I look over and see, one floor beneath me, someone familiar. Elvis! And his girlfriend! And nope they don't have eyebrows and holey moley do they look scary and they sort of smile up at me and start to come my way!
Next thing I know, I'm standing in front of our door, trying to yank Grandma's keys out of her fist as she makes me promise not to call an ambulance, and then I look down the hall and see Dev running right at us. She's flailing her arms and crying out like a crazy person, and I can see why a second later because Elvis and his lady friend caroom around the corner. They're going so fast that their momentum takes them right around the corner's edge and into the railing and the girlfriend hits it first and Elvis comes after and nails her so hard she flips over the thing, she's falling to the floor below while sort of pinwheeling through the air from the hit she took, and I'm like, Dev?, Hello?, I think your freaking sister is falling and about to be really badly hurt. But Dev takes one look behind her at what's happened and starts running at me even faster, and now I'm scared she's gonna nail me, and she's shouting my name, Dev is, which I think is pretty cool, and she's my damsel in distress and I've gotta help her, so I lug the door open finally and toss Grandma in, gently, and start running toward Dev.
Then I see in Elvis's face, the face that always seemed pretty nice, I guess, even though it's hard for me to think of him in a good way after how he treated me before in the shop. I don't like to hold grudges, but I do, so that's what I do. But there's his face, and he has no eyebrows, and he's smiling, and I can tell just how bad he wants to get into my apartment and steal all of my stuff and probably beat the crap out of me and Grandma just for kicks, 'cause it'd just be fun for him, and he'd also do it to Dev, probably, and but then I do the only thing I can think of doing, which is sort of based off this thing I heard on Law and Order, from an episode I saw when I was little, and it had this bald Zen Buddhist guy in it. And anyway this phrase, which is, “You'll only be free once you can accept pain,” sort of pings into my head, and so I run at Elvis full-stop ready for anything, and he's running at me, and Dev is close enough that I think probably she can get into the apartment fine on her own now, but I've got this business to attend to.
And that look is on Elvis's face, like he's sorta crazy, and really happy to see me, but it's like the happy face the bullies at school would come at me with, only to show that they were excited because they could go on and hurt me or embarrass me or something. And I know that there's something really, really bad behind it, that look, but...to hell with it. I'm big, and I can take him. I think.
So there's this corridor, and I'm running full-tilt, and Elvis is coming at me, and this is it, but he's gotten bigger, somehow, I don't know, exactly. But I start to think
that maybe this isn't such a good idea, and, I'm ashamed to say, I stop right in my tracks, do a reverse, and start running away.
Now it's back to the apartment, but he catches up with me quick, and at the last moment when I'm about to reach my door and get in there faster than hell, I know that he's right behind me. So I turn around, and he's definitely bigger. Not just fatter, but taller, too. And I'm screwed.
He stands there, stops, and looks at me. And then he laughs, to himself, and I mean he's goddamn guffawing and slapping his knee and shaking his head and all, and he comes toward me, just as I finally get the door open, and Grandma and Dev call out my name, and I look up at Elvis, and he's towering over me, and I do the only think I can think of, which is to jump up at him, and I swing my head up and forward, toward his big stupid lemon-shaped nose, and I do my best to crack it, to destroy it, and then I'm out cold.
Even though it happens all the time in movies and on TV, getting knocked out is actually a really, really bad thing. Your brain isn't meant to go unconscious, even if you get a concussion, and if you stop being awake, it means something's gone really wrong. Most people who hit their heads and black out never wake up. Even if you do wake up, you could have a stroke or your brain could be bleeding and you could end up dead pretty soon. Basically, if you lose consciousness for any more than a split second, and even then, you should go to the hospital right away. This is something movies and TV have gotten wrong for a long time. I learned all this, well, I can't quite remember where.
So I'll tell you that I wake up a little bit later, and it isn't like waking up out of a sleep or anything like that. It hurts like hell, and the look on Dev's face isn't one that's happy to see I've come to -- she's still too horrified that I passed out for as long as I did.
There are still a lotta sounds outside I can make out. People screaming, but not in terror. It's more like, I guess, an excited way. Every time I hear a sound it makes my head throb so hard I think I'm gonna puke. Then I see Dev looming over me.
-We need to get you to an ambulance. Right now.
-I'm awake now...shut up. I'm fine.
-How do you feel? Stand up.
I prop myself up, and then try to push the rest of me up with one arm, but everything in my vision looks like it's whooshing by really fast and I fall over. I also realize that, some time in the last few minutes, I also shit myself. Great.
-What happened? Where'd I go?
-You got him good. Head-butted him and conked the both of you out cold.
-I head-butted Elvis? Where's Grandma?
-She's in her room. She's resting. And yeah, you definitely did head-butt him and you definitely broke his nose.
-We should get you out of here. We have to. You're lucky you're not in a coma.
-How does it feel?
We sit there over the next forty something minutes, listening to the carnage outside. Grandma and I both have dead cell phones, and Dev can't get through to 911. There's a dial tone and nothing else. Then the power goes out.
A couple times there's a tug or a yank on our front doorknob, but then whoever did it goes quiet and quickly passes on. They were probably looking for easy pickings. But there can't be that much more of the complex for them to all go through. I peer out between some flimsy venetian blinds and see people running all around the building. The bodies of non-tweakers lay strewn around in random order.
Some of the ones who are still alive are without clothes, both women and men being chased and taken down by tweakers and forced into all manner of, I'll just say, “obligations.”
The rest of the scene shows mostly what you'd expect -- TVs, clothes, microwaves, artwork all being lifted out of apartments and trucked on down the street, the thieves howling and hooting into the night as they run off with their plunder.
Dev lights some candles and I go check on Grandma. I can't really remember too well what's just happened to me, and also can't remember most of the past few days, when I think about it. My head feels like it's going to explode and now I think I can't talk so good. All I really know is that I'm seeing stars and Grandma looks like shit and Dev is terrified. Then there's a knock at the door. Before I can cover her mouth, Grandma answers.
-Who is it?
-It's me, a voice calls back.
I softly pick up Grandma and set her down next to Dev in the main room. I look at Dev and we both get up quietly, slowly, and move over to the peephole. Standing on the welcome mat is Elvis.
He looks bad. He's sniffling, his eyebrows are gone, his eyes are all gone red, but he does have on this really nice leather jacket. And a whole box behind him filled with stuff. Plus his nose is pretty much you could say inside of his face now. I don't even know how he's breathing.
-You guys should check this out!, he says, lifting up the lapels on his jacket. I've been a barber for fifteen years and I coulda never, ever afforded one of these!
I'm having some trouble getting my words together, so Dev speaks for both of us.
-Elvis, go away.
-I wanna see Dev.
-'Cause I want to, that's what for.
Then I see him through the peephole, for the first time, bring a syringe up to his forehead and quickly pop the needle into his skin, just above one eye, then the other. This gets him juiced up.
-I wanna see that fuckin' fatass now.
I look over at Dev. She's crying. I press myself up against the door and shout, as tough as I can,
-You're one to talk, Mr. Really Ugly Fats-o Jerk!
He pauses for a second and then taps himself on the head.
-Is that really who I think it is?
Dev speaks up, Where's my sister?
-Come out here, I'll show you.
-Yeah, right. Fuck you, Elvis.
At that, Elvis gets pretty mad. He takes a step back, lunges at the door, and when he hits it both Dev and me are sent falling back onto our asses. Grandma has come into the room and she tugs on my arm. She's all pale now and speaking sorta slow. I can understand her okay. Elvis starts up again,
-I'm fucking getting in there. This is the last apartment and it's the one I want the most. Either I'm getting in there or I'm calling up my boys to help out. You fucking hear me in there?
Maybe it's the drugs? Or something? But I can't figure out what the fuck he's saying. Like, the words are there, I hear them -- but -- just –
Grandma speaks to me now, says, Sweetie, you've got to go out there.
-You've got to save us. Go do something.
-You want me to leave you guys?
She starts to sit up.
-If you don't do something now, he's going to come back with a group of men and they'll tear my door down.
Dev speaks loudly now, Are you serious? You want him to? Out there? He'll get killed.
-Better than all of us.
-Grandma, do you really want me to do this?
-Ma'am, that's a horrible thing to say.
-What? Let him do some good for once in his life.
-You're sending him to die.
-He won't die.
-Yes, he will.
-Excuse me, he's my grandson. I wouldn't send my own grandson to be murdered!
-Holy shit, are you a crazy lady!
-Don't speak to me like that. Wade, make her stop. Make her stop speaking to me like that!
All this commotion is making me feel kinda dizzy and I'm having a hard time getting things together in my head. I get up, but then I'm down again. I wake up a few minutes later. There's puke all over me, and now I'm feeling really, really bad.
-You blacked out again.
-For how long?
-Ten minutes, maybe.
-It's all that drinking he's been doing.
-It's because he hit his head.
I sit up, Where's Elvis?
-Still outside. He says more people are coming.
Grandma and Dev are both looking at me like, even though I've probably got some brain damage or something pretty bad at this point, it's still up to me to figure out what to do. So that's what I've got to do.
Dev puts her hand on me, says, Hey, can I show you something?
She leads me back into Grandma's bathroom. I follow her, but now it's hard for me to walk, too. In a straight line, I mean. But I try not to let her see.
She stands up on top of the toilet seat and looks to where a little bay window is carved into the wall.
-Can this open?
-I've never done it.
-Well, can you break it? Or something?
She steps down and offers me to take a look.
-I think I can fit through there. I think your Grandma and I can both fit through.
I stand on the seat and she shows me.
-Look, it's only a couple feet down to a ledge that leads out to the swimming pool.
And I think all of those guys have had their fun out there. It's all trashed and filled with junk, see? If we can get to the rec area, we can use the back entrance way to get out to the parking lot. And from there, who knows, maybe --
-I can't fit through there. No way.
-You kidding me? I wouldn't even get my shoulders through.
She just looks at me and says, I'm sorry.
-I mean, do you have a better idea?
-No, I'm -- I'm having some trouble -- no, I do not.
-Look, your Grandma's sick. She should've been at the hospital hours ago. She could die.
I love Grandma. It's hard for me to ask this question, but I do: But what about me?
-What about you? Look, okay, this is sort of the only thing that we can do right now. We're all alone, and our phones aren't working, and no one's coming to help us. Once we can get somewhere to get help, we'll come back for you right away. We'll probably be back here tonight even. But this is it. It's the only plan.
I look down at my hands and notice that I can't feel any of my fingers.
Grandma's sleeping as I sit down next to her. The floorboards, creaking under me, wake her up.
-Grandma, you're gonna go with Dev. You and Dev are gonna go together. Through the bathroom.
-There's a window in there. Dev's gonna take you out and get you to a hospital.
-What about you?
-I'll be fine. I'll wait here for you guys to get back.
-Honey, I didn't mean it before when I said you should go out there. I didn't mean it because what if we can't come back?
-Don't worry, Grandma. I'll take care of myself.
-How's your head?
Dev, standing by the front door, motions over to me. We look through the peephole and there's Elvis and five or six other guys standing in the hallway. Like usual, they're shoving each other around, laughing, really hurting each other, just for fun, and Dev says she can make out that they're planning on how to break in. A couple of them have guns, I see now, and they're all about to inject into their foreheads, and Grandma is about unconscious by now. I pick her up and walk with Dev over to the bathroom. If I'm going to die soon, which I might, then nothing on my body really matters much anymore, and I can't feel my hands or my feet much anyway, so I punch out the window and pull out the big hunks of glass away to make it safer for the girls.
I want to say goodbye to Grandma, but she's asleep now and probably won't wake up for a while. I tell her that I love her. Maybe if she was awake she'd say it back, but I don't think so. Still, I know she loves me all the same.
Dev gives me a hug and actually looks sort of sweet, like a little kid, with her eyes all puffy and wet like they are now. It reminds me of how the other kids would look when we'd all play out in the snow for too long when we were little. Maybe if we didn't hear the door being busted down she'd stop and say she was sorry for how she talked to me before, maybe she'd say she was too harsh, but there isn't any time left, and it doesn't really matter, anyhow.
Dev hops up on the bathroom seat and is already out the window when I get Grandma cradled in my arms. I lift her up toward Dev, giving Grandma a big fat wet kiss on the cheek. Then I say bye to her. Grandma wakes up a little, enough to stagger along with her arm around Dev. I climb up onto the seat and, just for kicks, make totally sure that I can't fit through, and I'm right, there's no way. But before I climb back down I see Dev, with Grandma clutched to her chest, hopping down off a nearby ledge, then running through some wet patches of concrete surrounding the community pool lit up by moonlight, and then they step into a big spot of black, and they're gone.
Back in the living room, I wish I could turn on Law and Order. I pick up a couple of chairs and the sofa and push them up against the front door, against the barrage of bodies that thunk into it over and over.
I think of my mom, and I think of what she always used to say to me. I can't remember what it was now, my head's all messed up pretty bad, but I remember it was really nice and loving. And I think, hey, that's pretty all right that one person said such a nice loving thing to me at one point in my life, and meant it. Like, sure, maybe it was just my mom, but there's all different kinds of love out there in the world, and some people don't even get what I had, so that's actually something pretty special to hold onto, is what I realize. And plus, someone might even feel okay about dying, is what I realize, if they've had a person say something to them like what mom said to me, because, honestly, other than maybe having kids or saving a bunch of peoples' lives or something, what could be better?
Dying isn't so scary when you think about all the people who have done it before you. So, to heck with it. I'll open the door for these guys. Won't give them the satisfaction of breaking in. I'll fight them myself, to give Grandma and Dev some more time.
And if I die, so what? Believe it or not, when I was a kid, I did have a group of friends. Or at least neighborhood kids I hung out with from time to time. And facing death seems like when all your friends have jumped off the pier into the ocean and you can see them out there waiting for you. I've been brave before, I know that. I've seen pictures of mass graves and dead bodies - they did it. They all made it through death, even the kids, and they can't all have been braver than I am. If they could do it, so can I.
So here I go.
George Nikolopoulos is a speculative fiction writer from Athens, Greece. His short stories have been published (and/or are pending) in "Gruff Variations" Anthology, Mad Scientist Journal, QuarterReads, SF Comet, Bards & Sages Quarterly, "Up and Coming – Stories by the 2016 Campbell-eligible Authors" Anthology, "Sci Phi Journal", Unsung Stories, 9 Tales from Elsewhere, "Clash of the Titles" Anthology, Szortal, Stella's Literary Bistro, Diasporic Literature Spot, as well as many magazines and anthologies in Greece and Cyprus.
His children's fantasy novelette "The Three Princesses" has been published in Cyprus and his poetry collections "Glass Boats" and "Missed Opportunities" have been published in Greece. He has been a semi-finalist in the Writers of the Future contest. He blogs at georgenikolopoulos.wordpress.com
A Rise to the Surface by George Nikolopoulos
As I often do at night, I am at the Observatory, looking at the planet surface on a silver screen. The surface is lethal and has been so for a million years.
I stare at the Blue Planet, shining in the night sky. When the atmosphere and the water of our own planet began to evaporate, our people dreamed of flying there to colonize it. Strange ships were built, capable of traveling through the void between worlds.
The mission failed. Our planet died. We retreated underground, where there was still water to be found. We built cities to live in, until we could find a way to reverse the destruction so we could walk on the surface again. My ancestors built their city in a deep cavern under a hill; we are still living down there.
As dawn breaks, I see a strange creature rolling over the plains; though I have never seen anything like it, I believe I know what it is. As it approaches, it seems gigantic. I am not sure what I expected an alien to look like, but I certainly did not expect it to look like this.
It is coming close to the hillside above me. Its belly opens. Several much smaller creatures emerge, though they are still larger than our own people. What is going on? Are the small ones its children? Is it giving birth on the planet surface?
After watching the creatures for a while, it finally dawns on me. The large one is just a machine that moves. I know we used to have machines like this, in the old days. The aliens are the small ones who came out of the machine's belly.
They are all white, with big round heads and shiny black faces. I can discern no eyes, ears or nose-slits; I wonder how they can see and communicate. Their bodies are large and bloated. They have two arms only, and two legs.
I am over-excited. I feel my upper body expanding, then contracting. I have to share the knowledge. I know there used to be a machine for communicating over long distances, but no one has needed to use it for thousands of years and it is long dead now.
I continue watching the aliens for several hours. They walk around clumsily, gathering dirt and pebbles and putting them in little boxes. As night falls, they get back into their machine and leave.
I walk back to the City-Under-The-Hill. A grey city with grey houses, grey people walking the grey streets. I feel the ocean breeze on my skin as I walk along the shore. I wonder what it would be like, sailing the ocean; they say there is another city on the far side. But no one can cross the ocean, no more than one can walk the planet's surface; strange beings roam its dark waters.
I do not pass by my house; instead I walk to the house of my instructor, Runner. He was named so because in his youth he was once so excited that he ran, like people used to do in the old days. I would have loved to see him run, but it was centuries before I was born. Runner is an old man now; no more running for him.
I knock at his door and wait. After a while he opens it. He greets me with a smile, showing his multitude of teeth. I tried to count them, once, when I was younger and he had dozed off with his mouth open, but unfortunately he woke before I had managed to count them all. They say he is a thousand years old -- I do not believe it, but he must be close -- so I guess there must be nearly a hundred teeth in that mouth.
"What brings you to my doorstep, Stargazer?" he says, after a long pause. He motions me inside, indicating that I can sit down and get refreshed before I reply. I am still so excited about the news I bring that I almost spill it out right there at the doorstep, but of course I am not that rude.
I am Stargazer; I chose that name myself on my hundredth birthday, at my coming-of-age ceremony. I have always wanted to go outside and see the stars. I know it is impossible but I still dream about it, sometimes. That is why I am so often at the Observatory. It is the only place where I can look at the surface; a relic of the old days, when our people still thought it would be possible to return up there someday. I am the only one who goes to the Observatory now; Runner was the one who showed it to me, but he is too old now to walk that far.
I enter the house and sit on the sofa. He goes to the kitchen; after a long while he comes back, bringing me a cup of boiled water with herbs. One cup leads to another as we engage in idle conversation, and before I know it several hours have passed and I have not spoken about my great discovery yet.
In the end, he politely raises an eyebrow; I finally get to tell him about what I saw at the Observatory. His eyes widen as I speak, showing his amazement; he does not say anything until I finish speaking, however.
"I would give everything to meet the people from the Blue Planet," I say in the end.
He is puzzled. "Why do you say that?" he says. "How do you know the strangers hail from there?"
"I just know."
He sighs. "I thought I taught you better than that," he says. "This is not an argument."
I shrug. "The old ones believed that the Blue Planet can sustain life," I say. "You taught me so yourself. That is why we coveted it, when our own planet started to die. Where else could they be from?"
It is not only that. The Blue Planet has been haunting my dreams; I know deep in my bones it is the place where the strangers come from. But I am not going to tell him about my dreams and my hunches; and my reasoning seems to satisfy him.
"You should wear a suit," he says.
A suit? We wear a piece of cloth around our genitals to protect them when we're sexually active; we wear gloves on our lower hands during ceremonies. But what is a suit?
He reads my expression. "A space-suit," he says. He stumbles over the unfamiliar word. "The old ones had crafted space-suits so that we could walk the surface if the need arose. But there was never a need, so they are still stored near the Observatory."
My mouth hangs open. "You mean that I can wear a space-suit and just stroll to the surface?" I say. I feel betrayed. "You knew I have always dreamed of going outside and yet you never told me."
"You were impetuous in your youth," he says. "That was why you reminded me of myself. You wanted to go to the surface, but there was no reason for you to go there -- only danger. Now, however, there is a reason that I can see."
Though he tries to hide it, I sense he is just as excited as I am. He gives me instructions on where I can find the suit, and how to wear it, and how to find the hidden path to the gates that lead outside, and the procedure for opening the doors safely and closing them again behind me. We meticulously go over everything we know about the surface. A couple of days pass while he instructs me, so then we are hungry and he brings food. We eat four different kinds of bread and a vegetable pie he bakes for the occasion. Another day passes while we doze, digesting the excessive quantities of food.
I finally leave his house, shaken. Now that my dream seems to be within reach, I begin to feel afraid. Can I survive the surface? I meditate as I walk, trying to get in touch with my inner feelings.
Normally in a situation such as this, I should go home and remain isolated for twenty days, contemplating all angles in order to make the right decision. This time there is no need; I make my decision right there on the spot.
Even if I have to risk everything to fulfill it, I cannot throw away my dream. I cannot remain down here and pretend that nothing has changed.
But there is still something I have to do before I go. I have to get the blessing of Shadowchaser, and I have a feeling that this will not come easy.
She greets me as an equal and a companion. We have been paired since puberty; the elders calculated that our cycles of sexual activity would intersect a couple of centuries later, giving us the prospect of having children. This was too wonderful an opportunity for the elders to miss; our good fortune is that we had always been fond of each other, so it was a happy arrangement for us. Now there are less than eighty years left before we can consummate our relationship and become a proper couple.
I glance at her chest. Her nipples are protruding, her breasts bulging; she is not wearing a loincloth yet, so her sexual cycle must be just starting. I will not be sexually active for another ten years -- we will be finally attuned on the cycle after that one -- but the thought is strangely arousing, for a fleeting moment. Then it passes, and I am myself again.
I tell her about my quest, as I've already begun to think of it. Her face is set in stone. "You have been poisoned with knowledge," she says.
I know her beliefs but I respectfully disagree; knowledge is a gift, not a poison; and yet I understand that I have indeed been poisoned. I have been poisoned with glory. The glory of our people's past; our past tastes like dust and ashes in my mouth. We lived on the surface. We gazed at the stars. We were proud.
We were alive.
Now there is just this grey City-Under-The-Hill. We used to communicate with the other colonies, but they have been silent for hundreds of thousands of years. Or it is us that have been silent. Silent as the tomb.
She does not share my sentiments. She is not interested in the past; she is happy with things as they are. "If you meet these aliens," she says, "it will be the end of us."
"They have come to save us," I say.
She shakes her head. "You cannot really believe this," she says.
I do not. I know they have not come to save us; it is possible that they are not even aware that we exist. But they will save us, one way or the other; I feel it in my bones also. And yet I do not want to tell her about my feelings, either.
I reach out and take her four hands in mine. Our eight arms entwine. "I have to go," I say. "I am sorry that you do not see things the way that I do, but disagreement is healthy among couples. Still, I will be back. Will you wait for me?"
To this she agrees. She was born to wait, as we all were. A million years underground have prepared us for a lot of waiting.
As I take my lonely road to the surface, I turn to look back towards the city. For twenty heartbeats, I pause. Then I turn and start walking again.
Fredrick Obermeyer enjoys writing science-fiction, fantasy, horror and crime stories. He has had work published in NFG, Electric Spec, Newmyths, Perihelion SF, Acidic Fiction, the Destination: Future anthology, and other markets.
THE BIRTHDAY BOY by Fredrick Obermeyer
When Trevor Tillwell awoke, he found himself in an unfamiliar bedroom with walnut wood-paneled walls.
Where am I? Trevor thought.
He looked down at himself and screamed. Somehow he had shrunk during the night and his clothing had changed. He was wearing a gray T-shirt and blue briefs. Last night he had gone to bed wearing no shirt and tan boxer shorts.
His body didn’t feel right either; he felt smaller. Unnerved, he rolled out of bed, rushed out of the bedroom and down a narrow hallway. Nearby the door to a bathroom lay open. He rushed in, flicked on the light switch, looked at the cabinet mirror and gasped.
He appeared to be twelve years old again.
Fear exploded inside him like an artillery shell. He touched his face, nose and cheeks, wondering if this was some kind of dream. But no, it felt real.
He distinctly remembered going to bed in his apartment down in Santa Monica. It had been July 17th, 1979, his birthday. He had just turned twenty-one and was a man with long, blond hair and a beard and mustache.
But when he looked down at his arms and legs, they were no longer hairy. His hair was cut short, his beard and mustache gone. He tossed off his shirt and pulled down his briefs. All the hair on his chest, belly and pubic region was gone.
“Oh God,” Trevor said. His voice sounded prepubescent. “What happened to me?”
Shaken, he threw his clothes back on, walked out of the bathroom, crept through the house and said, “Hello?”
No one responded.
Unable to recognize the place, Trevor walked into the kitchen and saw some mail lying on the nearby counter. He picked it up and looked at the recipient’s address on the first letter; it said Paul Varderoy, Los Angeles, California, a name Trevor didn’t recognize. He fingered through the mail: an electric bill, a political ad that endorsed Ronald Reagan as the next President of the United States and a catalog from Montgomery Ward.
He dropped the mail and looked to his left. A calendar on the opposite wall said the month was July, 1980.
But that was impossible. It was still July, 1979.
Distraught, Trevor darted into the living room. Several pictures were lying on a mantelpiece above the fireplace. A gaunt, balding man, a woman with frizzy brown hair and tortoise shell glasses and three children, two girls and a boy occupied many of them. None of them looked familiar, however.
Trevor walked over to the TV, clicked it on and turned the knob to channel two. Tom Brokaw’s face appeared on the screen and Trevor watched the Today Show for a minute before he learned the date.
July 17, 1980.
“That’s impossible,” Trevor said.
Not only had he turned into a child, he had skipped a whole year. He shut the TV off and took several deep breaths.
There has to be a logical explanation for all this, Trevor said. Maybe someone slipped LSD into one of my beers last night.
He strode back to the bedroom and looked around. Shorts, socks and shoes were lying in a pile on the floor. He threw the clothes on and checked his shorts’ pockets. He found some loose change and a leather wallet with twenty-five bucks in it. But no driver’s license, no college ID, no credit cards.
Concerned that someone might show up and kick him out, Trevor decided to leave.
He put the wallet back in his pocket, opened the bedroom window, climbed out of the house and ran down to an adjacent street. Once there, he slowed down.
As Trevor trudged down the sidewalk, he contemplated what to do next.
I have to go to my apartment and figure things out, Trevor thought.
Trevor walked through a large residential neighborhood until he came to a bus stop. He asked an older black man sitting there if the line led to Santa Monica and he said it did. When the bus arrived, Trevor got on and paid the fare with change from his pocket. He sat near the back and looked out the window, wondering what in the world was happening to him.
* * *
When Trevor arrived outside his apartment complex, the building was no longer there. It was now a parking lot.
He stumbled away from the lot and walked down the street till he reached a phone booth. He slid inside, grabbed the telephone book hanging there and thumbed through it, looking for his parents.
Much to his relief, he saw that their address and telephone number was the same. But his own name wasn’t there. He tried looking up his girlfriend Marilyn’s number, but he couldn’t find her in there either.
He took a quarter from his pocket, put it in the phone and dialed his parents’ number. Ten rings passed, but nobody answered.
Disheartened, he hung up and decided to visit his parents. Maybe they had an explanation for all this.
* * *
When Trevor arrived at his parents’ house in Pomona, he froze. The house looked different. The paint color was lime green instead of navy blue and another floor had been added over the garage.
Feeling unsteady, he walked up to the door and tried it. It was locked.
“Mom, Dad?” Trevor said. He knocked on the door.
A few seconds later, the door opened. His mother looked down at him and cried out.
“Mom, it’s me,” Trevor said.
She covered her mouth with one hand and staggered back as if she had been slapped.
“Honey, what’s wrong?” he heard his Dad say. “Who is it?”
Trevor frowned and stepped into the house. He glanced at a nearby mantelpiece and saw a family portrait. His mom, dad, himself as a kid and another older girl with braces. But that didn’t make sense; he had been an only child. Had they adopted a kid without him knowing?
“Honey, what’s wrong? Is it one of the--”
His father appeared in the living room and screamed.
“Dad, Mom, what’s going on here?”
“No!” his mom said. “You’re dead!”
“Dead?!” The word slammed into Trevor like a tsunami. “I’m not dead! I just turned young! I don’t know how!”
His mother wailed and turned away. Looking angry, his father held her.
“Is this some kind of sick joke?” his father said.
“No! I’m your son Trevor! Remember?”
“That’s impossible! Our son died in a plane crash on his twelfth birthday along with his sister!”
“No, I didn’t die then and I never had any sister. Last night when I went to bed I was twenty-one and when I woke up today I was twelve--”
“Get out of our house right now!” his father said. “Before we call the cops!”
“Get out!” his mom said.
Trevor burst into tears, ran out of the house and down the street.
I can’t be dead! Trevor thought. Can I? Could I be a ghost? No, that’s impossible. I feel alive.
Trevor stopped at the street corner and wiped his eyes. He looked down the street and saw the local library a few blocks away.
An idea came to him.
He composed himself, walked into the library and asked to use the microfiche machine. His father had said that he had died on his twelfth birthday. So if this was 1980 and he had skipped a year, that would mean he would have been twenty-two. Twenty-two minus twelve is ten years. So if he was right, then he died on July 17th, 1970. He asked to see the reels for July 18th, 1970.
When he got it, he threaded the reel through the machine. He scanned the microfiche and quickly found an answer. His heart nearly stopped as he found a front page article and saw a picture of himself and the girl in the photograph.
“Two Siblings’ Lives Claimed in Tragic Plane Crash,” the article headline read.
He stared in shock.
The article stated that Trevor Tillwell, 12, and his older sister, Mary Beth, 15, were killed in a plane crash outside a California air field. Their parents had allowed him to ride in a plane with his sister as a birthday present. Somewhere along the way, a freak malfunction had occurred and the plane crashed in a forest, killing the pilot and two children.
Trevor sobbed and put his right hand on his forehead. He wanted to vomit, he wanted to scream. He didn’t know what he wanted.
“Are you all right?” a librarian said.
Trevor burst out of the chair and ran out of the library.
One block down, he collapsed behind a post office and vomited.
It’s not true! Trevor thought. I’m not dead! I’m having some kind of nervous breakdown or something! I’ll just go to bed and I’ll wake up and everything will be back to normal.
Somehow, though, he had a feeling that nothing would be normal again.
Uncertain where to go, he spent the rest of the day walking around the city. He thought about going to one of his friends, if they even still existed. But would they react the same way? If they thought he was dead, he might only make them upset as he had done to his parents.
By nightfall, he was hungry and tired. He stopped at a pizza joint and had two slices of pepperoni.
With no place to stay, he went to a nearby park and laid down on the bench. Seeing a cop patrolling the nearby area, he fled into the woods for around a half mile, hid behind a tree and fell asleep against it.
* * *
Trevor awoke, gasping. He looked up and found himself on a park bench. It was early morning, the sun barely up.
When he looked down, he saw that he was wearing sandals, red shorts and a white Adidas T-shirt. He looked at his hairless arms and touched his face. He was still young. When he looked around, he realized he was in a different park.
Trevor saw a cop coming down the walkway. He rolled off the bench and walked past the officer, trying not to look suspicious. As he passed, the cop glanced at him. Trevor slowed down and looked straight ahead.
The cop kept on walking.
He waited a few seconds before looking back. The cop had walked on down the path. Trevor stopped at a tree and reached into his pocket to check his wallet. But he found that he had no wallet or money on him.
Damn, Trevor thought.
A sick feeling arose in the pit of his stomach.
Beyond the park was a newspaper vending machine. He walked over to it. A man was taking out a paper. As he closed it, Trevor reached in, grabbed a paper and ran off as the man said, “Hey!”
He ran down another block into an alleyway and checked the newspaper date.
July 17th, 1981.
Another whole year had passed. Shaking, Trevor read the front page headline. Jimmy Carter was still president and in heated talks with the Soviets concerning strategic arms control.
Trevor checked the other pages, wondering if the date was a misprint. But no, each alternate page of paper gave the date as July 17th, 1981.
On the verge of tears, Trevor rolled up the paper, stuck it under the crook of his right arm and walked down the street.
What had happened in the space of a whole year? Trevor wondered. Surely I couldn’t have slept a whole year on a park bench. Am I still supposed to be dead? Or could I literally be skipping through time like a stone?
Trevor went down to the nearest library and checked the microfiche machine. Even though a year had passed, he still had the same obituary dated 1970. But this time it only mentioned his death. Mary Beth Tillwell was nowhere to be found.
He left the library, feeling confused. Hunger gnawed at his stomach. With no money, he couldn’t eat or take the bus or do anything.
A gas station/convenience store lay a hundred feet down the road. Trevor walked in and checked the aisles. When the cashier wasn’t looking, he grabbed a Snickers bar from the candy aisle, stuck it in his pocket and walked out.
As he walked down the adjacent street, he saw a Coca Cola can lying on the ground and a thought occurred to him. If skipping years was some kind of pattern, was there any continuity to the skips? Or were the timelines changing irrevocably with each jump?
What if I put the theory to the test? Trevor thought.
He picked the Coke can up off the street.
* * *
A half hour later, Trevor arrived at a dump named Platski’s. He walked through the large rows of wrecked cars and piles of junk, his stomach still aching from hunger.
He knelt at a spot under a crushed red car, dug a hole with his bare hands and dropped the Coke can in it. He pushed the dirt back over it, then took a stick and stuck it in the ground. Once it was secure, he searched around the dump till he found a dirty white piece of cloth. He carried it back to the stick and tied it around the part that was sticking, then covered it.
If the pattern remained the same and there was any sort of temporal continuity, then the can should still be buried under the car this time next year.
* * *
After waking up the next time, Trevor headed back to the dump. Along the way a bank sign gave him the date.
July 17th, 1982.
When he arrived at the red car, he checked for the stick and flag. They were still there, although they had fallen to the ground. He leaned in and dug the mud out of the hole. The Coke can was still there.
Trevor picked it up and looked at it. Once he finished, he put the flag back up and walked away.
He cleaned his hands in a nearby gas station bathroom. On the way out, he bought a paper and checked the front page.
Instead of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan was the president; Yuri Gagarin was the USSR Premier.
Trevor frowned. He hadn’t kept up with the news that much, but hadn’t Gagarin died back in 1968? Now he was the leader of Russia. And what had happened to Jimmy Carter? He had won the election back in 1980, but now in ’82 Reagan was in the Oval Office.
Things had changed. Perhaps each timeline was its own isolated entity. But it couldn’t be if the can was still there. Or could there be limited continuity with each passing year?
Curious, Trevor went to another library and did some research on the current history. During his study, he noticed some minor differences.
Once again, he had died with Mary Beth in 1970.
There had been no Watergate scandal and Nixon had remained president until early 1977. Carter had bowed out of the 1980 election. Instead, Ronald Reagan had run against Ted Kennedy and nearly lost. Apparently in this timeline there had been no Chappaquiddick.
Trevor skimmed through some other articles, noticing several other small discrepancies in recent history.
He spent the rest of the day researching the past twelve years and found more changes, but nothing that had radically affected the world.
Tired, he shut off the microfiche reader and stretched his stiff arms. He considered trying to sneak upstairs and sleep in the library, but some of the librarians had given him looks and he knew that he couldn’t stay there.
He left the library and bought a hot dog at a nearby stand. Since he was still underage, he couldn’t sleep at a hotel without an adult.
After searching one of the local neighborhoods, he found a runaway shelter and checked in for the night.
Trevor was booked in a large, open room full of cots. He took one and laid down, wondering if there was any way he could stop the time skips and return to his normal age.
After pondering the matter for a while, he decided to see if he could stay awake and beat the pattern. He looked up and focused his eyes on the ceiling.
By midnight, his eyelids were fluttering. He got up to the bathroom several times and tried to stay awake by splashing cold water on his face. It didn’t seem to help, though.
He sat down in one of the bathroom stalls, intended to relieve himself. But before he knew it, he dozed off.
* * *
When Trevor awoke, his back was killing him and his right eye was swollen shut. He found himself inside a different bathroom stall.
I must’ve fell asleep on the toilet, Trevor thought.
He took a quick piss and checked his new clothes. He had a white shirt, a denim jacket and pants and a nylon wallet with three hundred dollars, no driver’s license or credit cards. Two fifties and four twenties had dried blood on them.
What the hell happened to me? Trevor thought, his heart racing. Did I get in a fight and kill somebody?
He tucked the money and wallet back in his pocket, left the stall and checked himself in the bathroom mirror. He still looked twelve. But now along with the shiner he had a split lip, bruised cheeks, a broken nose and a large scar over his left eye.
Disturbed, he left the bathroom of the Burger King he had been sleeping in and hitched a ride back to the dump. It was a scorchingly hot day and Trevor sweated in his denim jacket and jeans.
When he arrived at the red car, he gasped in fear. The stick and flag was gone.
Trevor cried out and dug his hands into the hard-packed ground. But when he dug deeper, he found no Coke can.
“Please no!” Trevor said. “Please!”
Wailing, Trevor ripped the surrounding ground up, hurting his hands. Still the can was gone.
Tears stung his eyes as he stood up. He kicked the red car and sent pain shooting through his foot.
“No, no, no,” Trevor said to himself.
He rushed out of the dump and down the street to the nearest newspaper vending machine. Livid, he kicked the glass out, reached in and grabbed it, cutting his hand in the process. The nearby pedestrians looked at him like he was crazy.
“What the fuck are you looking at?!” Trevor said.
The people stepped away from him.
Trevor strode away, smearing blood onto the newspaper with his cut hand. He read the date and the main headlines.
July 17th, 1983.
Daniel Callister was the US President and Leonid Brezhnev was the USSR Premier.
Feeling sick to his stomach, Trevor threw the paper in the nearest trash can and clutched his bleeding hand.
He couldn’t take it anymore; he didn’t want to live as a kid in some crazy world that kept changing every time he woke up.
People on the street gave him strange looks as he staggered down the street. One lady in a blue jogging suit rushed over and said, “Are you all right?”
“I can’t, I can’t…” Trevor broke down, crying.
Trevor collapsed in her arms and closed his eyes.
* * *
Later, Trevor found himself in a nearby hospital. Trevor remained silent as an intern stitched up his cut hand.
He knew what he was going to do. He was going to kill himself. There was no other way out of this nightmare.
When the intern left the exam room, Trevor snuck out of the hospital and roamed the streets. It was nighttime and Trevor trudged down an unfamiliar neighborhood, neither knowing nor caring about his destination. All he cared about was dying.
He stopped at an overpass with a drainage culvert running beneath it. Shaken, he looked down at the nearly dry bottom. He put one foot over the railing and looked down again.
One jump and it will all be over, Trevor thought. But suppose it isn’t? What if I kill myself and wake up on July 17th, 1984? Or what if I really do kill myself?
In that moment, he felt his resolve to end his life weakening. Despite the temporal incongruities he had endured, he found that he didn’t really want to die. He just wanted things to go back to normal.
He pulled his leg back over the railing and squeezed his good fist.
Think, Trevor, what can I do to stay here? he said to himself.
The answer soon came to him.
Stay awake, he thought. Yeah, but for how long? As long as you can. It might not work, but at least he could try and fight this phenomenon.
He walked away from the bridge and entered a nearby pharmacy. There he stocked up on caffeine pills and coffee. After he paid for them, he took double the recommended dosage and drank several cups of coffee.
Time passed slowly. Trevor kept himself awake by roaming the streets, punching himself occasionally, drinking more caffeine and taking more pills.
He stayed up all night and into the morning of July 18th, 1983. Sleep-deprived, the world grew blurry and indistinct. He lost track of his location and found himself dozing off in an alley. But he slapped himself and forced himself to stay awake. He couldn’t fall asleep and time jump again.
The next day he staggered around like a zombie, wanting so badly to sleep but knowing that he couldn’t.
Finally, after nearly being awake for forty-eight hours, he collapsed inside an arcade and blacked out.
* * *
For the next eighty years, the pattern continued. Every morning, Trevor would wake up the following year on July 17th in a different place. Oftentimes it was in L.A., but sometime he would wake up outside the city. And he was always twelve years old.
Every time he read the paper, he would find different leaders, different facts, different issues. Historical events changed so frequently that after a while he only checked the newspapers for dates.
Eventually the constant changes wore Trevor down to the point where he felt like an alien amongst humans. Clothing styles changed, technology changed, the English language changed. He became increasingly isolated and scared, hurtling through an unknown world that became more strange and complex with each passing day.
But on July 17th, 2063, he found a small ray of hope.
He was browsing the classifieds in a newspaper at a corner café in Burbank when he saw an ad that intrigued him.
“Are you having problems with time? Feel like you’re skipping around the clock and can’t stay in one place for very long? Come to the Temporal Support Group at the Bakerman Hill Church basement, Tuesday July 17th, 2063. Serious inquiries only please.”
Trevor chuckled, wondering what kind of nutcase would hold a temporal support group. Was it like an AA meeting? Yet at the same time, a sense of curiosity filled him. Could other people really be suffering from time problems like him?
It couldn’t hurt to check it out.
* * *
Trevor arrived at the church basement a little after seven-thirty that night. The place was dimly lit and smelled of old cigarettes and lemony floor polish. Chairs had been set up in front of a lectern and a few people sat around chatting and smoking. One of the guys was a Luminal wearing a clear jacket. He had neon yellow and green light track line patterns grafted into his skin and looked like a walking stoplight.
A short, portly woman with curly blonde hair and a charcoal gray business suit walked up to him. Unlike many of the people there, she had no body mods, no tattoos, no earrings, no obvious signs of genetic adjustment.
“Hello,” the woman said, and held out her hand. “My name is Dr. Madison Rallerdan.”
Trevor shook it reluctantly and said, “Trevor Tillwell.”
She looked him over. “Let me guess. You’re a year skipper.”
Trevor’s eyes widened. “How did you know?”
“I scanned you with this when you came in.” She took out a small scanner from her shirt pocket. “It detects abnormal time fields in people.”
“Can you help me stop it?”
Rallerdan put the device back in her pocket and said, “I’m not sure. Each person’s case is unique.”
“How many people have temporal afflictions like mine?”
“Well, hundreds, maybe more. And I’m finding new cases every month.”
“Why are you--”
“--helping them?” Rallerdan smiled. “Because I had my own affliction. For years I only lived two or three hours sequentially a day and then skipped to the next. After a while, I thought I was going crazy.”
“You said ‘had.’ Did you cure it?”
“Not exactly.” She led Trevor over to a small case near the lectern. “I created a drug called BQ-297. It’s what I call a limited temporal stabilizer.” She opened it a bottle full of green and blue capsules. “In my case it let me live a full day, but I was stuck here in 2063 and kept looping back to the beginning at the end of the year.” She spread her hands. “But that was me. If you take it, it may cure you or it may give you a few more days in each cycle or…”
“Or?” Trevor said.
“Or it could make things worse,” Rallerdan said. “Or it could even kill you like it did to Anthony Trantanelli.”
“What happened to him?”
“He was a twenty-five year old who looked eighty and his body generated extra hours in each day that he lived. He came to me for help and I gave him the drug. But what I didn’t know then was that he had an undiagnosed heart condition. He dropped dead less than an hour after I gave him the first pill.”
Trevor frowned. “I don’t have any pre-existing conditions and I’m not allergic to any drugs.”
“I’m not denying you anything, Trevor. I just want you to know all the risks before I give it to you.”
Trevor took one of the pills from the case and looked at it. Was it worth the risk? If it could cure his problem, then maybe.
“Could I take it?” Trevor said.
“If I medically clear you, then yes,” Rallerdan said. “But first I have to run some tests and do further scans on your time field.”
Rallerdan performed a physical exam on him in the back room and judged him fit to take the drug. When she finished, she left and came back with a paper cup of water and one dose. Trevor popped the BQ-297 capsule into his mouth, drank some water and swallowed it. He stood there for a moment. He didn’t feel any different.
Afterwards, Rallerdan scanned him with the device.
“It seems stable,” Rallerdan said.
“What does that mean?” Trevor said.
“Well it means that it hasn’t affected anything yet.” She rechecked her scanner. “The drug might not work until you hit your next time jump. Or it might not work at all.”
“Great, so I’ll jump ahead again.”
“Relax, it may still work.” She gestured outside the room. “There’s a cot in the next room. Go lay down and relax.”
Trevor sighed, walked to the next room and laid down on one of the green army cots in the room. He didn’t feel sleepy. Outside he heard Rallerdan talking to the other members of the group.
He sighed and closed his eyes. Before he knew it, he was asleep.
* * *
Trevor awoke with a gasp. He shot up and looked around. He was back in the strange bedroom with walnut wood-paneled walls.
Trembling, he looked down at himself. His arms had hair and felt bigger. He raised his shorts and looked at his genitals. He had pubic hair.
When he stood, he felt slightly taller. He ran over to the bathroom and looked. Now he looked slightly older, around thirteen years old.
Trevor stared at his reflection in the mirror, not knowing whether to feel happy or sad. At least there had been some change, but he was right back where he had started. He walked out of the room and checked the TV.
It was July 17th, 1980.
He sighed with utter regret.
This was going to take a while.
* * *
And sure enough it did.
Trevor had to wait another eighty-three days to see Dr. Rallerdan again, skipping across year after year, repeating the cycle. When he went to the church earlier than 2063, the support group hadn’t been formed yet.
When he finally met Rallerdan again in 2063, she sat him down in the church basement.
“This is good,” she said, scanning him.
“Good?!” Trevor said. “Nothing’s changed except my age! I’m still shifting through time.”
“But you’re growing older each time. If we can get you to twenty-one, you might snap out of the cycle and go back to your normal life.”
“So you’re saying I have to live through this cycle another seven times?”
“And how many days is that?”
“Well let’s see. Eighty-three days times seven cycles is five hundred and eighty-one days. So it’s only a little under two years.”
“That’s assuming other unforeseen complications don’t occur or the drug stops working.”
Trevor buried his head in his hands. It wasn’t fair. Rallerdan put her hand on his shoulder and rubbed it.
“I know it’s tough, Trevor, but you can make it. Just keep thinking about the goal, okay?”
Trevor looked up at her and said, “Okay.”
Rallerdan handed him another pill and a cup of water and he took his medicine.
* * *
Seven cycles later, Trevor returned to the church as a twenty-year old man. His heart raced with excitement as he walked down the stairs to the support group.
But when he saw Dr. Rallerdan, the grim look on her face told him that the news wouldn’t be good.
“What is it?” Trevor said, frowning.
“We need to talk,” she said, and led him into the back.
She sat him down on a cot and took a spot next to him.
“I’ve been examining your case for a while now and I think I understand what happened.”
“I’m going to die, aren’t I?”
“Not necessarily. I think what may have happened is that in another timeline you did die on July 17th, 1970. But right at the moment of death, either you pushed your mind or it was somehow pushed into another timeline where you never got in the plane and lived to be twenty-one. Your transferred consciousness wiped out the original one and you continued to live on in the alternate timeline.
“But this time jump might have caused a delayed ripple effect that activated on your twentieth birthday. Once it kicked in, you started bouncing across alternate timelines and living only one day in each of them. Some were quite similar and some weren’t. But when you fell asleep, you bounced to the next birthday.”
“But why did I become twelve instead of turning twenty-two, twenty-three and so on?”
“The ripple effect might have also caused your body to regress temporally to the age of twelve. When I gave you the first dose of the drug, it restarted your aging process. Each time you went back to 1980 and repeated the cycle, you aged one year.”
“So what’s the bottom line?” Trevor said.
“If I give you another dose of BQ-297 and you go back to July 17th, 1980, I believe you’ll turn twenty-one and die immediately.”
Trevor’s breath caught in his chest.
“So there’s no way out.”
“As I said, not necessarily. I could be wrong. There’s the remote possibility that you may survive more cycles and live for a number of years like this. But in my opinion, another reset will almost certainly kill you. Then again, it’s all theoretical. The last reset might snap you back to July 17th, 1979 and you may resume your original life. But as I said, it is extremely unlikely.”
“I’d say less than a ten percent chance.”
Trevor shook his head.
“There is another option,” Rallerdan said.
“What?” Trevor said.
“Don’t take the drug. You can continue to live one day a year. If you don’t get hurt or sick, conceivably you could live a very long time. Possibly even until the end of the universe.”
Trevor gawked at her.
“So either I live one day a year for eternity or I go back and risk dying. What kind of choice is that?!”
“I’m not saying they’re good choices, but they’re the only ones you have.”
Trevor grabbed a coffee cup and threw it at the wall. Rage made him tense up and he pounded the cot with his fists.
Why can’t I have my old life back? Trevor thought. What did I do to deserve this shit?
Rallerdan took his arm and said, “Easy, Trevor.”
Slowly he began to calm down and stop hitting the cot.
“If you want to risk taking the drug again, that’s your right,” Rallerdan said. “I just want you to know the truth.”
Trevor snorted and rubbed his eyes. “Some truth.”
“I admit it’s not right and it’s not fair, but it is what it is.”
“What do I do, Doc? What’s the right choice?”
“I can’t tell you that, Trevor. You have to decide for yourself.”
Trevor sighed and said, “Do you think in the future you could come up with a new version of the drug that might help me return to 1979?”
Rallerdan frowned. “I’m not sure your case is curable, but I’ll do everything I can to help you find a way back.”
“So it’s a death sentence if I take the pill?”
“In all probability, yes.”
For a few minutes, Trevor pondered his options. Finally, he came to a decision.
“Then I won’t take it.”
“I will keep looking for a cure, Trevor. Believe that--”
“It’s all right. You did everything you could to help me and I appreciate it.”
He reached out and hugged Rallerdan. She put her arms around him and kissed him on the cheek.
“Good luck, Trevor.”
He stood and left the basement.
* * *
When Trevor awoke the next day, he found himself lying naked on a waterbed in a strange bedroom. The room was hot and a ceiling fan spun lazily around, blowing stale air through the closed up room. A small computer lay on the nightstand next to him. He reached over, opened it and checked the date.
July 17th, 2064.
Trevor sighed and closed the computer.
So that was it then. The first day of the rest of his life. Eternity faced him and he didn’t know what the hell he was going to do about it.
Trevor rolled out of bed and threw on the torn white undershirt, underwear, socks, ripped blue jeans, black leather jacket and boots that were lying on the floor; he found seventy dollars, a Swiss army knife and some loose change in the pants pockets.
He finished dressing, walked over to the nearby bureau and looked at his twenty year old self in the mirror.
It may not be a perfect life, but it is a life, Trevor thought.
And he was going to make the most of it.
My name is Jacob Dimuzio, a young writer living in Chicago's North side Rogers Park neighborhood. Graduated in the Spring 2015 class from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with a BFA. Slings coffee to pay the bills.
Scoop/less by Jacob Dimuzio
So the only thing you have to know is, Scoop’s narcoleptic. Also, she’s a chick. Like five nine with brown hair, pretty cute too, if you ask me, but she’s totally crazy. Really, all you got to take away is that Scoop’s crazy. I mean, Scoop’s a narcoleptic.
Actually there’s two things you gotta know: Scoop was the one.
I don’t say that to sound cheesy or ‘klee-shay’, like Scoop used to say. It’s just, it wouldn’t be fair to Scoop if I left it out. Or maybe it’s not fair if I kept it a secret the whole time, which I guess in a way means it’s not fair to Scoop.
Scoop, the one with narcolepsy. Or is it Scoop, the one, with narcolepsy. I don’t know and since Scoop’s off in somewhere, I probably won’t find out.
Because story telling isn’t my thing and nothing I want to try out and never would all of eleven months ago. Two years ago was life like always. Twenty three months ago was life like never before. Two years ago was me sitting down in early morning darkness after every shift, watching the clock for the sun to rise, right on time everyday, and then I would rest my head. Which wasn’t much different than the years and months before that. Scoop told me something I wish I’d heard when I was a child, that for every second you watch turn on a dial, you miss a hummingbird drinking through a straw. Honestly I have no idea where she got some of this stuff she had stored behind her mouth, but every time it opened, something good came out. She must’ve stashed them in her cheeks, like a chipmunk around November.
Do you know anything about narcolepsy?
I know one thing about it, and that’s that Scoop’s got it bad. And what Scoop does is fall asleep. Everywhere. Just: standing on the bus eating a dry-ass muffin—BAM—sleeping. Crumbs everywhere. Missed stop.
It’s pretty severe, doctors won’t let her drive a car, be an astronaut, a deep-water welder. Which is really unfortunate, since Scoop’s blood is mostly gasoline and all she wants to do is drag race on go-carts or sky dive. She’d be perfect a hundred leagues above or below where she’s at now.
Total opposite of me eleven months ago, day and night; Scoop says, says I’m pure vanilla. My name was supposed to be Phil but my father never had the best spelling so I go by Flip. I look like my mother, take after my grandfather. What my Aunt says, apparently granddaddy was a moist tissue in the wind, no backbone to anything, shotgun wedding fella. Not that I think Scoop’s being mean on purpose with that, it’s just she’s got a thing about honesty. If we’re not honest, then there’s the beginning of the end. That’s what she said after telling me I’m vanilla.
The end of what?
God, you’re so vanilla.
Then she laughed and fell asleep. That was the first time I met Scoop. We were at a mutual friend’s house, guy named Johnny who does my job a block over. Oh ya, I work a convenience store, Security Guard, 6 P.M to 3 A.M Wednesday through Sunday. It’s really a liquor store with a shelf for pretzels and chips and the location aint great, stuck between a set of tracks and another set of tracks. Only other thing on the block is another liquor store — that’s where Johnny works. My boss is a big hunk of Eastern Europe, Ardo, and if he likes anything it’s taking stock and straightening labels on the bottles. Johnny’s place is like our bizarr-o world; we sell Hamms, they got PBR kind of thing.
Anyway, Johnny’s kitchen way back when, there’s Scoop with her head against the wall, dead sleep in a wicker chair and me, hearing that laugh over and over again and hoping I didn’t kill her somehow. Johnny grunts and explains her situation.
Where’d you find this chick, Johnny? I grabbed a can from the fridge, carefully edging around Scoop’s relaxed form, not wanting to stir a hair on her.
She’s a regular shoplifter over at the shop, he said, looking over his shoulder at her. She never keeps anything though. I think she likes the thrill.
What does she do?
She stuffs her bra with those little liquor bottles.”
No, I mean for work.
We let her drool for awhile, kicking back cheap beer. While she was out, we might have talked about politics, or sports, or reindeer. I wasn’t thinking about much else but the girl in front of me.
You sick? Scoop asked me when she suddenly came to, snorting loudly and violently in the small air of the kitchen.
No, why? I asked, taken aback.
Johnny laughs, Naw, Scoop, he says, He always look like that.
Still, I ended up making a thing of going to Johnny’s house after I learned Scoop made it a regular thing. He had a dart board so it was easy to spend the days we weren’t working playing 301 and waiting for Scoop to maybe show so we could play 301 while she juggled darts and erratically fell asleep. Not that Johnny was doing any waiting. I’m sure he was using his time more wisely, probably honing his dart game. Shit, he was good. And I would politely and somehow kind of lightly sip my beer.
Dainty, Scoop said one night, you sip like a princess.
That’s the thing, too. I realized that first day we met, Scoop ain’t never gonna be with a guy like me. If I’m vanilla, she’s chocolate, and everyone knows those two flavors can’t mix cause they don’t make nothing new, just watered down versions of themselves, either a little less vanilla or a little less chocolate. And no matter what I am, my father never raised a kid to water down chocolate, you know, like speaking about people.
But things don’t work out how you plan them.
A week later and I go, Hey Scoop, you know I work down the block from Johnny?
At the junkyard? She was reading a thick book labeled Street Carnivals and Chess.
No, no. The other shop, Ardo’s Goods? My fingers wouldn’t stop fudding about on the table.
So if, ya know, you ever want to visit me when you’re visiting Johnny. . .
I don’t visit Johnny, I steal things from his place and he tries to stop me.
(Do not!) Johnny’s voice came from around the corner where he sat on the toilet, door open. Scoop rolled her eyes at the threshold.
Well, whatever you do, if you want to stop in at Ardo’s, I mean, I’m usually not doing anything.
Are you asking me to steal from your work?
Just if you wanted to visit, I guess. Scoop smiled big at me and closed her book.
You’re a nice dude, Flipper. She touched my arm and I wasn’t even mad at the nickname.
If I was a bigger man, or Scoop a littler woman, I’d have kissed the hell out of her right then.
But the next time I was at work, Scoop showed. It was a sunny Wednesday, I remember since it was slow and even all the railway winos had come in to get their afternoon fix. Now they littered the broken sidewalk like crumpled candy wrappers.
Ardo was walking up and down the two aisles we have and muttering.
We are missing three bottles of tequila, Esse, he said to me.
Those punks that rattle around the junkyard, probably, I said, moving off the wall I had been leaning against. You know, the ones those two brothers Ricardo and Junior run with.
I think you’re right, Esse. That stupid little social club.
I think they like the word ‘gang’.
A gang? Them? Ardo snorted. You go back to my country, Ese, and then you’ll see the gangs. What do they call themselves again, Esse?
Hair Trigger Boys, Ardo.
Hair Trigger Boys. What a stupid name, Esse.
Kind of sounds like a boy-band, huh? And Ardo, you’re not even Mexican, why you keep calling me that? What are you, French?
Ukrainian, Esse. But you got to take care of these punks, huh? What do I pay you for, huh?
The bells on the door jangled and in walked Scoop in a summer dress. God I almost fell right down. Ardo, true hound dog he is, shot like a bullet to her.
Hello, darling, lovely girl, what can I do for you, please, call me Ardo, short for something longer. Scoop gave out a little laugh that sounded like perfect wind chimes you only hear out in the country, and she pointed at me.
I’m actually here for Mr. Flip, but it is very nice to meet you Mr. Ardo.
For Flip? Oh, come now darling, you don’t need a young buck like him — inexperienced in love and magic — would you not rather have me? Can you hear my accent? I am foreign, eh! Exciting!
Ardo gave a deep bow and lipped her hand, getting another giggle from Scoop.
Shove it, Ardo, I said.
My dear, dear pardon, Esse! I never meant any harm. You know it’s just an old man’s ramblings. You understand darling, he said, turning back to Scoop. She gave a deep bow, mirroring his actions earlier.
And no harm done, but you must know, Ardo, old men are the very sexiest of men, Scoop said.
Ardo laughed a big bellyful of sound that only people born abroad in hardship can do and walked into the back room.
The shop is all yours, lovebirds! He shouts from behind the door, but Flip! Watch for that social hair club!
Scoop sidled up next to me, Well, hey, she said.
Well, hey, I said back. Scoops hand grabbed the fabric of my uniform and demanded a tour of the store, so off we went. Even when we passed the little bottles of liquor, her hand stayed with me.
Time with Scoop was becoming easier now. One time Johnny was out of town for a family wedding, and me and Scoop spent all day sitting on his stoop cause we had forgotten. It was hot and sticky and the sun was staring us right down and Scoop was staring straight back. I kept telling her, Scoop, you know that’ll make you blind.
So what? My hearing will get better.
What are you going on about, crazy lady?
Lose one sense and the rest are heightened, don’t you know that, Flippy?
You’re making stuff up again. That’s just fairy tale crap.
Hell no I am not, she said, chop-chop syllables like a machine gun, Witchitaw: 1974: Marty Richebey: Lab Tech: loses the entire sense of hearing from a workplace incident where a mislabeled chemical reacted explosively in the routine experiment Mr. Richebey was performing, giving off a tremendous bang. After a recovery period, Mr. Richebey claimed to see sound waves bending the air, and could taste the electric hums that come off of tall power lines. Doctors scanned his brain and were shocked to find his brain region understood as the hearing center was being overrun by the taste and sight regions, like a neuron ground offensive.
A rumbly truck bucked its way down the street.
What in the hell?
That’s all I managed. She smiled though and looked away from the sun finally. Looked at me.
How do you remember that, crazy lady?
I don’t know, growing up narcoleptic people always assume things are too dangerous so they stuff you in a room full of pillows with a book, tell you it’s a good time to just rest, as if resting isn’t something I do six or seven times a day. Like resting will make me not fall asleep based on a whacked-out neurotransmitter. She trailed off and with her shoe scraped a pebble into the stoop.
Scoop, I said as the sun fell below the buildings, I would never stuff you in a room with pillows and make you read.
She laughed at that.
You know what, I said again, Lets us do something fun tonight. Johnny’s either ignoring us or dead so screw him. C’mon kid, I said getting up and looking down the street with my chest out and shoulders back. Let’s go get ours.
If that’s not straight out of a Hollywood movie, right?
That night Scoop drove for the first time and I taught her. We walked over to the fences of the junkyard. I know the night guy, Timmy, since it’s down the block from work. For ten bucks he gave us a gallon of gas and a little hatchback that someone had plowed into, all the doors missing. Scoop loved it. We couldn’t go on the roads. I was too scared and Timmy would’ve knocked me out if something happened.
I started her off with a few pointers and showing her how to hold her feet, how the key turned. She shivered a little when the engine started. I saw it. We started out by driving in the circle of dirt in front of Timmy’s trailer and Scoop getting used to the wheel, then soon she took us into the forest of scrap piles—I showed her the high-beams since one of the regular lights was busted from an impact.
What about the blinkers, Flip? How do those work, she asked. She was looking around the cassette buttons.
We don’t need those, Scoop, were not getting pulled over in here.
I want to really drive! She said, voice cracking like a child. It was such an unexpected and raw sound my hand flew and touched her on the shoulder, just for a second, and then it was back on my own knee. She laughed at that, a sound so much like before, and I did it again, but better this time, kept it there, and told her to clip the little knob on left of the wheel up and down for the blinkers. We rolled long and smooth around the corners, yellow blinkers clicking left and right. I noticed I could feel my blood moving, like the actual pumping, everything thick in a way. She cruised around the piles of scrap in style. I wasn’t even nervous, the city lights by the fences glowed in bursts like trees in an apple orchard, and even when the gallon ran thin and the engine sputtered dead, we didn’t speak or nothing once but let the stars move in.
Hey Flip, Scoop was saying as I walked her home. She had taken my arm with hers and connected them at the elbow while we were walking.
If this is gonna happen, you better at least hold my hand like a gentleman, Mr. Flipper, she said, which, in her defense, before her coming over, I was walking like three yards at the edge of the side walk, edging the curb with my rubber shoes. It was kind of like a game where I would see how long I could balance for without going over.
Hey Flip, she said though, what if one of us in really in a coma, you know, in real life. And this whole world and everything in it is just in their brains; like, what if you’re in a coma and you’ve just dreamed all of me up? What if you wake up, and what if I disappear?
Scoop, I said suddenly afraid of this exact possibility, I don’t think I’m the one in the coma. If anything, you’re the real one and I’m the imagination thing.
She looked at me.
I mean, I don’t know nothing of what you talk about, I said, I couldn’t be the one in a coma cause how could I imagine you saying it if I don’t even know what it is?
I stayed up that night long after Scoop’s form had started dreaming next to me, staring up into the darkness and hoping I wouldn’t wake up somewhere else.
A few days later and I ask Scoop to go out, like a real date with dinner. I figured this would be good, considering the possibility that I now might be in a coma and really dreaming all of this, and dammit, if I’m dreaming I might as well do some stuff. After that night in the yard things went back to normal on concern with me and Scoop and Johnny. He thought it was funny we waited so long on his stoop. But some things had changed, like now Scoop leaned into me if we sat near each other, and other stuff I can’t think of. I waited till Johnny went to piss and thank god Scoop was awake, so I lean back in my chair and say Hey. Next, I meant to say: Scoop maybe we should go to that dinner place that’s got the good pasta and I can pay because I think you’re totally worth paying for, but instead I said: Scoop I’m not working tomorrow night. Wanna get a movie and order a pizza? I remember she looked at me for a second, then asked me my address and told me not to order the pizza. She wanted to cook.
Next day it’s the middle of the afternoon. I’m scrubbing the toothpaste stains off the walls of my bathroom sink. I had no idea the amount of energy it takes to gouge out toothpaste from the inside of your sink. I don’t think I’ve ever had to do it.
I had been cleaning since the night before, just pausing to sleep. So I got the kitchen and the bedroom and finally gathered up the recycling to leave me here with a scrub pad in hand waging war on the paste stains. And in walks Scoop, a whirlwind of frying pans and grocery bags following in her wake.
I come out into the kitchen and was like Hey tiger, you didn’t have to bring all this. I mean was it a lot of trouble?
She was like Did you just call me tiger?
I wiped my pants with my hands but didn’t really dry anything, just made my pants wet.
I helped her unpack the bags, and she told me about a kid that stole her orange on the way to the bus so she chased him down a few blocks with all the pans and bags in tow.
Not like I cared that much about the orange she said. I just thought he looked a little pudgy. Could do with a run. I sounded like the first rehearsal of middle school percussion though.
What if you had fallen asleep while running, cause of, ya know? I asked. Could’ve really hurt yourself, Scoop.
Could’ve really hurt yourself, Scoop, she said back.
Scoop never liked talking about her thing. She never thought of it as bad, even though everyone me included probably told her it was. She said it’s more like her head fills up with helium and everything gets white behind her eyes for a bit. Then she wakes up, usually minutes later.
She only fell asleep once making dinner that night, only it happened while she was leaning over the burner, setting the bottom frilly part of her shirt on fire.
I’ve had worse, she said after, just need a little burn gel from her purse, practically a medikit handbag.
Didn’t matter I almost had a heart attack while she was out, throwing my can of beer at her shirt before getting my head back and sloshing her with water. I definitely let the food burn, but fuck it. Fire was the theme. We got a pizza.
Then there was the Saturday when the ceiling fell on me: You might call this a bad thing, but looking back I don’t know if I would’ve done anything different. It was me and Scoop at my place, something that had been happening more and more since that dinner. Earlier, she told me she was worried on account of all bad things happening in threes. I asked her what she meant. She said, that shirt I burned when I fell asleep? You remember? That was the second of three “incidents” (she air quoted) with fire and my sleeping.
Things have to go in threes? I asked. I told her she was being nuts, overly superstitious. She made me unplug every unused appliance I had in my place.
O.K, I told her, so what was the first incident?
That’s that, I guess.
Then Scoop had been reading, but she’d passed out with her head leaning against the wall. Definitely drooling, ya know, and I’m playing solitaire with real cards when I get a hint of something. It wasn’t anything I could place right away, but it was something to notice. Something that shouldn’t be here. It was familiar, too, which made it worse not knowing.
It was still on that boundary of human sense. Like, once Scoop was telling me about these rods in your eye that are good for seeing in the dark, and about how we can’t see that far in the dark cause we also got cones—which sounds messed up, right—and since we got these cones there isn’t enough room for a lot of rods. If someone holds up a candle at the far end of your vision and steps back, you can’t see it anymore. Unless you get more rods. So there’s this word, Scoop knows it, like ‘absoluted thresholding,’ and it means the smallest amount of something that can be identified by our noses or eyes or whatever.
So that’s where it was. I barely noticed anything out of place, but a caveman part of me was slowing powering up, starting to sound some alarm bells.
I thought I’d smelled smoke. So I start to check the oven, did I turn this on? I check the toaster, nope. But it’s getting more, I don’t know, present—just more there in the room. I start walking towards Scoop, see if I can shake her out of it cause I know something isn’t right.
I’m a few feet from the table and--
I’m on the ground. O.K. I can’t see out of one eye, and, wasn’t I doing something? Cooking? It’s hot, like when the oven’s on. Why am I on the ground? Should I get up?
That’s what my head was like at the time, messy.
I go to get up and I can’t. And it’s so warm. Enough to make it hard to breath, but it’s not bad.
Am I moving? That’s the last I remember.
Turns out the floor of the unit above me collapsed, my ceiling, collapsed onto me. Turns out, that apartment had had an electrical fire from too many plugs being in at once.
And Scoop, Jesus, I would never believe it if it was anyone else, but Scoop woke up to the ceiling falling, pulled me out of a tangled mess of brick and drywall, fireman carried me down eight flights of stairs. There were witnesses, not that I needed them to believe it.
She should be in wars, man.
Or the Red Cross, the way she CPR’ed me to life.
Point is, Scoop should be doing a lot that they don’t let her do.
Since my floor was covered in ceiling and my ceiling was on the floor, my landlord gave me the key to a little shack of a house, an extra property that doesn’t get much love from anyone. I don’t want to call it a miracle, since Scoop tells me that word has a lot of weight to it and it can’t be thrown around all willy nilly, but me coming out of that rubble with only a scar above my eyebrow is pretty impossible. Improbable, Scoop corrects me.
What is a miracle is when I got the keys to that shack, Scoop agreed to move in with me. I think it’s O.K. to say it for that. Now Johnny was coming over to our place, shooting the shit like always, and even got a magnetic dart board for a house—warming present. Things were good, moving along nicely.
I don’t want to say too much about it, but this was that gold moment in my life, you know? The one that everyone talks about when they’re old and nothing’s left but to fade out, the one that meant something. And I think it does. I think it did. I’ve always felt a little like a fixture in life, like a big old bridge, something that’s always there day in and out. When you wake up you know it’s there cause it’s always been. I was there for people and not really for myself, does that make sense? Scoop was the one who lit the dynamite on that one.
I think it was on account of the fire that I started to worry a little more about Scoop. It was a plain and simple improbability that me and Scoop weren’t certifiably dead, not even a broken bone among us both. I felt like it was a failure on me that Scoop had to save me, I mean she was asleep, which isn’t her fault, but I failed because the ceiling fell, which isn’t my fault, but still. I was her guardian at the time.
It started off small. I mean, it was the first time I had lived with a woman for real, so I think I was a little overwhelmed. Which isn’t an excuse, but it started that whenever Scoop fell asleep like she does, I would usually move her to a place where gravity couldn’t affect her too much when she would fall. It was potentially difficult because around this time I was also encountering Scoop’s Face Plants—her word for passing out standing up, usually falling forward. They’re not common, only a few a year. We were in our little kitchen for my first one. It was quick, and it was when Scoop was walking to the table where I was sitting. She was asking me something and stopped, and I heard the rare sound of something graceful hitting the floor. It was like a rock fall but cleaner and very short.
It was a small incident, Scoop told me. She was fine, and did not like how odd I had gotten around her since that first one. I didn’t tell her that sometimes I would have horrible grips of feeling that Scoop was going to Face Plant somewhere dangerous when I wouldn’t be there to help. Like the stove top, or in front of some large and deep hole. So I began to stay close to Scoop, physically, especially when we were standing. Again, not something I was consciously thinking, but almost like how you act different around an unknown dog or cat with sharp teeth.
These measures worked well, and for a few months Scoop put up with me. It was around ten months since we moved in together, and I figured we should celebrate early for being there a year. I surprised Scoop one evening with some champagne and told her our ten-month living in this apartment anniversary is here, which is basically a year. We drank the champagne and I suggested a walk, taking her arm. It was a romantic gesture, for sure, but also had the significance of making sure she wouldn’t fall. We slowly made our way towards Timmy’s junkyard, as I subtly turned us here and there. She wasn’t fooled, telling me at one point that I better not be taking her to work. We stopped outside the roll-up gates of the yard, and I take out the silver key, a thing Timmy had let me borrow after I told him my plan of the almost-year anniversary and gave him fifteen dollars. I rolled back one gate and ushered Scoop in, her eyes wide and her lips just a little open. She asked me how I did this and I tried to wink, blinked, and tilted my head.
Just as Timmy promised, a car and a can of gas lay just within the fence. Scoop came close and we held each other looking at the rusting red. It felt good. I was calm, and I wasn’t thinking about holding Scoop up against a phantom premonition. She felt secure and sure.
We started to drive, me in the passenger seat. This car was different than the first, it’s engine was mean and would burst out speed in quick jetties. The accelerator pushed half way or less got nothing, an inch past half and the car was pumped ten-odd feet. The turn signals were busted up, the spots for the bulbs were projecting wire. It was a rough ride through the lanes. Scoop was desperately trying to maneuver the junk while getting a smooth acceleration. We switched sides and I tried it out. It was like riding a bull. I got us to a fence on the other side of the lot, and Scoop wanted to try a three point turn. We switched, and she put it into reverse and pushed slowly on the accelerator. The car lurched into a pile of tins. She backed up again and repeated.
I was looking out the window when the engine punched, harder than before, a frenzied whine of excitement—and we shot forward, smashing the fence and ripping a seam in the metal. I was screaming and Scoop was screaming and we punctured the seam, metal wire going the length of the car and ripping at us through the shattered windows.
The violence stopped in the form of a thud, and an uprooting snap for a time smaller than one second: a street light was bent badly, the fence was bent down the way very badly. A man stood on the opposite sidewalk. His eyes were wide, I could tell even from that far, and his mouth hung open like an unused puppet. Then he looked around and yelled something, running to the houses far down the block.
The car was still on. I looked at Scoop. She was unconscious and looked crumpled. I pulled her close and wrenched myself onto the hood, broken glass like security barbs. I slowly took her out. She was breathing. I was on the sidewalk leaning over her.
The police came, and the ambulance, and Scoop was awake but in pain, telling me I cried too much on her face. We were actually O.K. Scoop had to go to the hospital to be watched for a possible concussion. They said I had no physiological reactions that originate from trauma, so I was free to go after they patched up a few leaky spots on my arms and face. I talked to the officers, and told them I was driving, and if they were going to charge anyone with the damages or action it should be me. They asked me if the car was street legal, but that must have been a formality, cause they looked at it and laughed before I could answer. We didn’t have a city sticker, muffler, or license plate. They asked me what happened. I said the engine was jumpy and I hit the accelerator too hard. They asked me what we were doing, anyway. Said I was helping out my buddy Timmy by moving a few clunkers to the front gate for pickup. Asked me where Timmy was. Told them out of town, I think.
I went to the hospital but they wouldn’t let me see Scoop till visiting hours, so I sat outside on the bench till I could tell her. Time went quickly. I was thinking of how we ended up here. What had happened to the car? Was it one of her episodes? How could I have stopped it?
She was up in a bed through a set of long hallways, and she was reading. She had a nightgown of the paper type and set about straightening it with flat slides of her palm as she told me to give her a kiss, the wounded and brave soul she was. Her words.
She was going to be O.K. A big pile of air released from my throat when the night nurse told me. It wasn’t long that I brought up what I told the police. Her face kind of dropped slack and she felt farther away, even though I was still sitting against her thigh on the bed. Like she had become denser.
I didn’t want you to get in trouble, Scoop.
I don’t want you to get in trouble for something that I did, Flip, she said, not louder, but more forceful.
It was my fault, I told her. I want to do this for you. The room was blanketed in hot sunlight and the skin on my arms was baking, throbbing. She didn’t say anything for a moment.
I don’t want you to do anything for me, she forced out, loud, startling and quick.
Scoop you can’t even drive because of your narcolepsy! I said, getting oddly affected by defending this. She picked up her magazine. Silence sat like a third wheel.
I’m just trying to look out for you, Scoop, I said, standing up. It’s not my fault you have this condition, and I’m sorry I have to take precautions about it--
Precautions? She cut me off. Her eyes were full of hot sand and I couldn’t look at her. I knew what I had said. I knew it was how I felt. I just nodded.
What. Precautions. She asked. I felt like I was suddenly stumbling but I wasn’t moving.
It’s nothing, Scoop, that’s not what I meant to say.
Scoop, it’s just, it’s nothing—O.K?
I just care about you! I yelled, the force suddenly erupting from my chest out of my mouth. I just don’t want you to get hurt—to hurt yourself, to fall! It’s not easy for me Scoop. You don’t care and I can’t keep worrying if I will come home one day and find you drowned in a bathtub! I can’t Scoop, I can’t. If I could stick you in a room full of pillows and leave you there every time I’m not around I would--
And I stopped. The room buzzed in the heat, but I had goose bumps and I felt too tall. Scoop had silent rivers moving down her cheeks. It reminded me of cartoons.
She told me to leave. I did. I know why.
I came later that night to find out she had been discharged. I went home and stayed there.
She came by the house a day later. She looked like she was somehow a new thing I hadn’t seen yet. She stayed on the threshold for a moment, leaning back like a nervous snake. I moved into the hall and she leaned into me. It was a moment I would like to forget. She was going to get her stuff, and I told her I would help her. She agreed and I helped, both of us working as a desperation to be close, trying to graze elbows or knuckles on accident. It wasn’t what it had been.
People tell me I should’ve fought; they like to say it while puffing up their chest. I will nod until they mention something vague. They never understand this part of the story, and I take a lot of flak for it. I have stopped telling this story. It’s not the flak; it’s the not understanding. I’m sure it’s something in my story telling. If Scoop was here telling it instead, they would get it. But I never explain it either. I just take a sip of my beer and get up, walking towards my coat, and tell them, Boys, you learn from my mistakes: you never water down chocolate and you never repair what can’t be fixed.
Now it’s their turn to nod soberly, stare at their shoes and pretend that what I’ve told them means something.
Mark Rookyard lives in Yorkshire, England. He likes running long distances and writing short stories. His work has appeared in SQ Magazine, The Colored Lens and Acidic Fiction.
The Wells Experience by Mark Rookyard
Andrew had to give the Wells Society credit. This was more than he could ever have hoped for. He closed his eyes and let the cold wind blow in his face. He smelled salt and fish and far distant lands. He smelled possibilities. It was like nothing he could ever have imagined.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
He opened his eyes to see a woman leaning on the rail looking back at him. Her brown hair blew loose in the wind and her dress shivered about her legs. She would be dead soon. A shame, so young and pretty in a pale and delicate way.
Andrew forced a smile. This experience might be better without all the people. He should answer her. “Yes,” he said. “I never knew a wind could make you feel so alive.”
Spray flew into the air all around them and sunlight glinted on distant waves. Andrew leaned on the rail, looking out across the ocean. He never knew it would be so vast, so empty. He never knew the excitement he would feel as the great ship ploughed through the waves.
Racing towards its destruction.
Was it this knowledge that gave Andrew his thrill? Or was it the unfamiliar feel of wind and air and freedom? Whatever it was, he liked it. The experience hadn’t been cheap, but definitely worth it.
The woman tucked her hair behind her ear, looking at him with a smile. She wasn’t going away.
He tried to hide his frustration behind a smile. He wasn’t good at dealing with people face to face. The Society had said he should try and avoid speaking to people, that it would interfere with the experience. He couldn’t ignore the woman, though. He held out his hand, “Andrew Welton.”
The woman smiled, her hair blowing back from around her ear. Her hand felt small and delicate. “You’re a funny one, Andrew Welton.” Her accent was different, lilting.
Andrew couldn’t help frowning. “I am?” He felt slow and self-conscious around this woman. He didn’t like it. He liked to be alone, to savour the experience, to feel the wind and the air and the sheer majesty of the ship flying through the waves.
“Yes, you are.” She leaned back against the rail. Smoke billowed from the giant chimneys and people on the walkways pointed here and there. “A young man like you in an old-fashioned suit, spending all his time alone, so serious. A man shouldn’t spend so much time alone. It makes him thoughtful. Never a good thing.”
“Isn’t it?” Andrew blinked. It was hard work speaking to people. He thought of his room at home, the screens glaring in the darkness.
“No,” the woman smiled. “Women should think. They’re better at it. When men spend time thinking they come to unfortunate conclusions.”
“Ah.” Andrew nodded, and watched the waves far, far below. The sheer size of the ship still took his breath away. He looked back at the woman. “And what would your name be?”
“Mary,” the woman said. Her dress wrapped about her legs and clung to her thin arms. “Mary Wallace.” She looked at him a long moment, her eyes challenging. “And so you’re going to make your fortune in America, Mr Welton? Make enough to buy a new suit, perhaps?”
Andrew looked down at his suit. The designer at Wells had told him this was the fashion in 1912. He silently cursed the man. “Who knows, this might be the height of fashion in America.”
Mary crinkled her nose. “Yeah, dressing in their Granddad’s old suits could be really big over there.”
A seagull flew overhead, drifting on the cold winds. Andrew watched it a moment, trying to think of something else to say, but when he looked back, Mary was already walking away. He felt like he’d failed some kind of test, but at least he was alone again. Alone so he could think and feel.
He pulled the Wells Experience card out of his pocket. Not cheap, it had nearly cleaned out even his bank account, but it was worth it, just to feel alive.
He headed off to dinner. The sun was starting to set and the restaurant was lit with chandeliers. The band played, resplendent in their red jackets.
No sign of Mary. Good. Andrew smiled and sat down alone and revelled in the atmosphere.
Outside, the steam blew and the Titanic sailed on to its destruction.
Everything seemed so much more real on the Titanic. The food tasted more real, the colours looked more real. Even the people seemed more real, with their bright clothes and their wide smiles and their excited chatter.
Andrew sat back in his chair, watching the passengers whirl about him, their smiles wide. All of them unaware of the disaster to unfold in the next two days.
“On your own again, Mr Welton?”
Mary sat opposite him without waiting for an invitation.
Andrew took a sip of his champagne and smiled across the white table. “I’m surprised you are willing to be seen in public with me and my old-fashioned suits.”
Mary shrugged and watched the passengers milling all about her, every one of them finely dressed.
She was pale with dark hair, her thin nose perhaps a fraction too long, her ears a little large. He took another sip of his drink and joined Mary in watching the passengers. They would all be dead soon, most of them, anyway. It was a strange feeling, seeing all these people so happy and so excited, not knowing the horror awaiting them out there in the Atlantic Ocean.
But then, where he came from, these people would have all been long dead anyway, nothing but dust in the ground, so what did it matter whether they died tomorrow or if they’d lived another fifty years? No difference, in the great scheme of things.
He noticed Mary was looking at him and smiling, her lips red against her dark hair. “Thinking again, Mr Welton?”
“You caught me,” Andrew said.
“You want to go on the deck?” Mary was already standing, pushing her chair back under the table. The talk in the room was loud, thick smoke billowing up to the chandeliers.
There were more than three thousand people on the Titanic, but the sheer size of the ship meant that it never felt crowded. Following Mary out of the restaurant, Andrew could smell smoke and perfumes and hair oils and hot foods. So many sensations, he almost felt giddy with it all. Glad to be alive. This was the way people had lived all those years ago, everything so real, so immediate. Even the cold wind outside made him feel alive.
The giant chimneys of the Titanic were black silhouettes against the night sky and the moon was full and yellow.
Mary had her arms folded tight about her and her long dark hair blew in the wind as she leaned on the railing. “Can see America out there?” she said, looking into the distance.
Andrew joined her, his shoulder touching hers. All he could see was the darkness of the night. “It’s out there somewhere.”
“I think you can almost smell it sometimes,” Mary said. “A new life. Possibilities.”
The wind blew and the Titanic raced through the waves. So fast. Andrew only wanted it to slow, but the great ship ploughed on, the ocean breaking around it.
“So what is it you do, Mr Welton?” Mary still looked out across the black expanse.
“Me?” Andrew thought of home, working on the computer, takeaway cartons scattered about his desk. “I suppose you could call me a businessman,” he said.
“Ah,” Mary said, nodding her head wisely. “A man of mystery.” Somewhere behind them, there was the sound of laughter, and still the Titanic churned on through the ocean.
“And what is it you do?” Andrew asked. “What makes you want to go to America?” He felt a coldness take his heart when he asked the question. Was he being cruel in asking it when he knew what waited out there for the ship and all her passengers?
Mary leaned on the railing, looking at him and smiling. “So you travel alone to America to start this new business of yours?”
“I spend a lot of time on my own,” Andrew said. “It gives me time to think.”
“Ah yes,” Mary smiled and looked away for a moment. “But don’t you wonder what waits out there?” She closed her eyes, her dark hair flying behind her, and she breathed in the sounds and smells of a new world.
Andrew looked and imagined he could see a looming tower, a tower darker than the night, cold and careless and destructive. He touched Mary on the arm and she started a little.
“It’s getting cold,” he said. “Let’s go back inside.”
Andrew woke and looked at the date on his watch. Fourteenth of April. He ran a hand through his hair and looked out the window. Clear blue skies and a clear blue ocean spread before him.
The Titanic moved so quickly. He’d had no idea that ships could move so fast in ancient times. Somewhere out there a tower of ice waited, cold and impassive.
How could he go home after this? He felt so alive. He thought of home, thought of the darkness of the city, the lights of the hover cars drifting through the clouds.
He groaned and went to the sink, splashing cold water on his face. He’d danced last night.
Mary had laughed at his attempts, but she’d danced with him all the same. Andrew had never heard music like it. He’d laughed with Mary as they danced and then they’d sat at the table together and she’d talked about America and her home in Ireland.
He pulled up his sleeve and looked at the counter the Wells Society had given him.
Twelve more hours.
In twelve more hours he would be home. He would be working again at the computer. His inheritance would be gone and he’d never be able to save enough to come back again.
He showered and dressed and thought of Mary laughing at his suits.
The Titanic was a big ship. Andrew had no idea how big the thing actually was until he started to look for somebody on it. He’d seen the offworld ships on the news, but even they had nothing on the size of the Titanic.
He wandered through the boat deck, the reading room, the smoke rooms and the dining rooms. For hours he looked, and checked his timer all the while.
Eight hours left.
Where was she? Had he said something wrong last night? He probably had. She did make him feel nervous, the way her dark eyes would look at him. He wasn’t used to speaking to people face to face. His tongue was slow and his mind thick.
He sighed, sitting at a table while waiters dressed in black and white hurried about.
The Wells Society had said he shouldn’t speak to people. He should drink and eat and enjoy the Titanic and then open the portal and go home.
Go home with his memories.
Memories of the giant ship breaking the waves. Memories of Southampton and the Titanic leaving for open waters, thousands of people lining the decks, shouting and waving. Memories of a simple seagull flying overhead, white and joyous on the wind.
Memories of Mary.
He found her on the promenade deck looking out across the ocean, looking towards America, her hair ruffling in the wind.
Andrew leaned on the railing next to her, his hands clasped together. “I’ve been looking for you.”
“I’ve been avoiding you,” Mary said, her smile sad.
Andrew only nodded and watched white clouds scudding across a blue sky. He would miss the white clouds.
“I had a good time last night,” Mary said, still not looking at him. “It didn’t feel right, laughing and talking, and forgetting about things for a while.”
It was cold, the wind bit at Andrew’s fingers and through his jacket. Mary held a shawl tight about her shoulders.
“You never did tell me what you were going to America for,” he said.
Mary smiled and looked out into the night. “Me and my sister, when we were little, we always wanted to open a shop in America. The brave new world. We wanted to go and see it ourselves, open a shop there selling the clothes we’d made.” She laughed, sad and regretful. “We used to talk about it long into the night, make our plans. Think of the things we’d see.”
“And she didn’t want to come now?” Andrew asked.
Mary smiled. Somewhere behind them a man and woman laughed together. “I did bring her with me,” Mary said. She took a locket from around her neck and opened it, showing Andrew the picture of a young girl inside. She had short dark hair with a red bow. “She died when she was ten,” Mary said, looking at the picture a moment before snapping it shut.
“I’m sorry,” Andrew said. “It’s a brave thing you’re doing, coming out here all on your own, starting a new life.”
“Not really,” Mary said, crinkling her nose. “Not really brave. I didn’t know I was going to go through with it until I was standing on the deck watching everybody waving when we left Ireland.”
Andrew smiled. “It’s cold,” he said. And there was something about standing on the deck in the darkness, knowing what was out there, some primal force of nature, quiet and dark, waiting to destroy the greatest ship in the world. “Let’s go and get something to eat.”
He took her arm and led her to the restaurant, but before they left the deck, he had one last look over his shoulder. Were those dark shapes he could see out there? Hulking monstrosities, twisted and cruel mountains of ice waiting for unwary ships?
He shivered and led Mary back inside to the warmth and the light and the laughter.
Andrew didn’t feel like eating. He picked at his food and thought of the terror to come. He wanted the ship to slow, but still it raced on, eager to meet its fate.
“You’re doing it again,” Mary said.
“Thinking.” Mary smiled. “I’m glad we met. I was a little scared coming all this way alone. Seeing you sometimes, you look more afraid than I do.” She laughed and reached across the table patting his hand.
“I’m glad I make you feel brave,” Andrew said, and just for a moment their eyes met before he looked away.
Quiet descended over the table while the band played and waiters moved about, white cloths draped over their arms and people danced still, despite the late hour.
Andrew put his napkin on the table next to his plate. “You want to dance?” he said.
“You are feeling brave,” Mary said.
He smiled and stood, holding out his hand.
As they danced, the lights above circled. Other dancers wove past them with red dresses and black dinner jackets.
Mary spoke of America and Andrew tried to dream with her, tried to imagine a world where dreams could still exist.
“What’s that?” Mary asked.
Andrew blinked. The alarm, the timer on his arm was sounding. He pressed the arm of his suit and the alarm stopped. “Nothing,” he said, blinking and looking at Mary. He looked at her long dark hair and her deep brown eyes and her slightly too large ears. “I’ve forgotten something,” he said. “I just have to get something from my room.” He wanted to hold her, to take her with him, but that was impossible. The Wells Society would be waiting for him, scanning him and searching him for anything he tried to bring back with him, never mind another person.
He hurried away, leaving Mary on the dance floor watching him, the band still playing.
When he got to his room, he felt under the pillow, his hand shaking, and he found the portal remote. Would Mary still be there on the dance floor waiting for him? It didn’t matter, did it? Mary, all these people, were long dead to him. They’d been long dead before he came and they’d be long dead when he returned. However they died, did it really make a difference?
He aimed the remote into the corner of the room and pressed the button. A shimmer, a gleam of blue light and the portal stood there waiting, humming and glowing.
Home waited there in that blue light. Home. He would go through that light, and the Wells Society would be there waiting. They would search him and then send him on his way, all his money gone and his dark home waiting for him, with its takeaway cartons and its computer screens.
The light shimmered in the corner, enticing in its blueness.
Mary was at the table when he returned. She smiled, glad to see him, and that made him happy. He sat in the chair facing her.
“I wondered where you had got to,” she said in her lilting accent. Could he have gone home without hearing that voice one more time?
“It’s okay,” Andrew smiled. “I just had to check on something. Ready for another dance?” He stood and took her hand.
Mary had been brave, taking this journey. He couldn’t let her face the terrors to come alone.
They danced and Andrew could smell her. Jasmine and rose. Mary could be saved. Hadn’t they let women and children on the lifeboats first? He could be with her, help her through what was to come. Be there for her.
He twirled her by the hand, and Mary laughed, her long dark hair spinning and her dark eyes bright in the light of the chandeliers.
He could be with her to the end.
Milo James Fowler is a teacher by day and a speculative fictioneer by night. When he's not grading papers, he's imagining what the world might be like in a dozen alternate realities. Over the past 5 years his work has appeared in more than 100 publications, including AE SciFi, Cosmos, Daily Science Fiction, Nature, Shimmer, and the Wastelands 2anthology. His novels Captain Bartholomew Quasar: The Space-Time Displacement Conundrum and Westward, Tally Ho! are now available. Visit www.milojamesfowler.com and join The Crew for news and updates.
Where There's Smoke by Milo James Fowler
I smell it before I see him. The cigarette smoke wafts downward, trapped like a foul spirit between the morning fog and the ripples of chlorinated water, with me somewhere in the space between, struggling to finish my thirty-five laps for the day.
He watches me.
Monday was the first time I noticed him. He didn't come down the stairs from the parking lot above, didn't open the iron gate to rest his weary bones in one of the vacant lounge chairs around the community pool, didn't dip his feet in the hot tub. He just paced up there, back and forth, cigarette between the fingers of one hand and cell phone in the other, tight against his ear. Talking, smoking, pacing with sandals shuffling, glancing down at me in the pool. Arguing about something.
I didn't pay much attention. I had my laps to complete. By the end of the summer, I plan to be doing fifty a day. Nothing gets me in better shape; it's a total body exercise. By the time I go back to school in the fall, maybe some of this bulge around my middle will have transmuted into muscle across my chest and shoulders. That's the goal.
My wife, God bless her, says she likes me just the way I am. But she doesn't know what it's like to look in the mirror and see Jabba the Hutt where Matthew McConaughey used to stand. Well, maybe I was never that ripped, but there was a time in the not too distant past when my belly woke up fairly flat. But those days are long gone. Some kind of switch went off when I turned thirty and my metabolism ground to a crawl—yet my appetite refused to follow suit. Anyhow, swimming is something I can do to fight back.
He watches me swim every day.
My wife and I live in one of these horseshoe-shaped condominium complexes they've got in Southern California where they stack the units three-high, fill in the parking lot with trees and detached garages, charge criminally high homeowner's dues, but throw in a little gym and an outdoor pool just so you don't feel the shaft quite so deep. The gym's all right; we try to get down there a couple times a week. But the pool leaves much to be desired. The water's a little murky, and there are gobs of unidentifiable stuff all across the aqua-marine bottom—not to mention the stains a shade of brown you usually don't expect to find outside a restroom. Friday I noticed a bobby pin floating with some hair on it. Needless to say, I don't let my toes touch bottom, which is a great way to keep the laps going nonstop.
But like I said, I first noticed him on Monday, and he didn't really bother me. I could tell he had some kind of intense conversation going on, and the constant pacing and chain-smoking backed that up. I swam for maybe thirty minutes, and in that time, he watched me a couple minutes here, a couple minutes there, disappearing in the interim between. I didn't think that much of it.
Tuesday, he made another appearance, pacing, smoking, the whole routine on the phone, uptight about something. I ignored him, got through my laps, showered off and headed home.
Wednesday, I was carrying my towel to the pool and saw him standing just inside his ground floor unit, talking on his phone behind the dingy screen of the patio door. I had to pass by to reach the stairs to the pool below, and I kept my eyes to myself. It was at lap nine or ten that he came outside to pace, smoke, and glance down at me.
Thursday was the same. But on Friday, I took a roundabout route, stopping by the mailbox to send in our monthly HOA dues. I figured he wouldn't see me go that way, that I would get into the pool and be able to finish my laps before he noticed. No such luck. Halfway through lap five, he came out and repeated his routine three or four times before I met my lap quota.
Gay crush, maybe? That was my first thought.
"Why don't you say something to him?" my wife suggested when I mentioned it.
I told her I would, if he wasn't talking on his phone the whole time. If he came down the stairs and entered the pool area, I'd say, "Howdy." Or if I passed him while he was out for a smoke, I'd be neighborly. We live on opposite ends of the complex, but we're still neighbors.
I don't get cell phone etiquette. (If that's not an oxymoron, what is?) It seems rude to interrupt somebody while they're on the phone, yet it's perfectly acceptable for them to talk away at any decibel range, disturbing the peace whenever they get a call. I guess I could just smile and give him a little wave or something, but he always looks away whenever I make eye contact. Besides, if it is some kind of gay thing, I don't want to come across as too friendly and give him the wrong idea.
I'm off during the summers—the only perk to being a teacher that barely makes up for the lousy pay—so my schedule is fairly flexible. I've considered moving my swim time to another time of day, but if he's out of a job or on vacation like I am, it would be pointless. He might even be retired military for all I know. The gray stubble of his crew cut and the gold chain he wears tucked into his T-shirt give off that vibe—along with all the smoking.
I wish I knew what he was arguing about on the phone.
"Maybe there isn't anybody on the other end," my wife said with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. Yeah, that didn't help a whole lot. I'm getting to be paranoid enough as it is.
Take the other day, for example—Friday. Thirty laps down, my weekly goal met, I should have been feeling pretty good. But I got this feeling at the back of my neck as I hoofed it across the parking lot with my wet sandals squeaking, this weird feeling that he was standing back there at his screen door again, not talking on his phone, just watching me go. Of course I didn't look back; I didn't want to know if I was right. And besides, what would I have done? Smiled and waved? Maybe I should have.
Instead, I carried that tension in my gut back to our building and up the two flights of stairs to our unit. My eyes wandered down to the parking lot when I had my key in the lock. I thought I'd heard shuffling sandals approaching as I shut and locked the door behind me, but it had to be my imagination.
He doesn't know where I live.
I took the weekend off as far as my laps went, but now it's Monday again, the fresh start to a new week. I've decided to keep to last week's schedule and get my swim time in around nine in the morning. I took the direct route to the pool, and the area was as vacant as usual. I dove in and started swimming. The goal today is thirty-five laps. The place is quiet, and with every stroke across the length of the pool, I hope it stays this way.
The gate swings shut behind me. Probably just the old Indian lady who walks the treadmill in the gym every morning. But I smell it before I even hear his shuffling shoes. The stale cigarette smoke fills the space between water and air.
The NO SMOKING sign is right below NO GLASS BOTTLES.
I reach the end of the pool and flip-turn to stroke back toward the gate. He's standing there, squinting as he takes a long drag on the cigarette, blowing smoke out the side of his mouth, away from the pool—considerate of him. He makes no pretense at looking away this time when I meet his gaze.
I have to say something.
"Hey, how's it going." I do the nod—the favored form of nonverbal communication among males—and tread water.
"Not too cold, eh?" He spews smoke.
"No, it's fine." I don't mention the slime lurking on the bottom.
"Good exercise." He looks uninterested. "Down here much?" As if he doesn't know.
"Every day I can."
"Out of work?"
"Me? No, I'm a teacher." Barely even eye contact until now, and here we are in a full-scale conversation. "Summers off, you know. Gotta stay busy. Idle hands."
"Yeah? How's that go? Idle hands . . ."
My grandmother has always been a treasure trove of clichéd expressions, so this one is already out before I know it: "They're the devil's workshop."
He grins at that, baring an uneven fence of stained teeth. "Right. That's it." He spews smoke off to the side again. "So who's paying the bills?"
"While you're off work. You got some kind of trust fund you dip into, or . . . ?" Again, he leaves the blank for me to fill.
"No, nothing like that." Just a savings account I fatten up during the school year.
"My wife is working full-time now, so—"
"Hey, that's the ticket." Another grin and more smoke, this time spiraling out of his nostrils like the dragon in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. "You've got it made."
"What about you?" My right hip is getting a little sore with all the water-treading, and my leg starts to drift out of sync.
"Me?" He shrugs up one shoulder. "Yeah, I was married. Just about killed me." He looks away.
So I might have been wrong about the gay thing. He doesn't seem to be flirting with me.
"Well-uh, I should probably . . ." I mime returning to my laps.
"Yeah, don't let me hold you up." He makes no move to leave. "I should get into some kind of exercise regimen myself. That's one thing the old lady was always bitching at me about."
It was one thing to have him watch me from the parking lot, but I don't like the idea of him standing here at the water's edge. "You should try it," I offer without thinking. I don't really want him joining me.
"Maybe. But I don't think the ol' monkey would like it much."
He holds up the cigarette like it's his middle finger, as though it's all the explanation needed. I almost chuckle, but there's a humorless look behind his eyes that makes the sensation die in my throat.
"Had enough water in the Navy anyhow," he mutters.
Retired military. I was right.
"The gym's okay." I nod toward the row of oblong windows in the stucco wall behind him, where the weight machines sit alone in the dark.
He shrugs. "I guess." He turns to peer through one of the windows, ducking a little to see around the sun's glare in the glass. He frowns. "What the hell?" He goes up and plants his hand between the window and his brow, taking a good long look.
I stroke the remainder of my lap and float poolside. "What?" I frown up at him.
"What do you see?"
He stares inside, transfixed. The neglected cigarette smolders down at his side. He's whispering a prayer—that's what it sounds like at first. But then I realize he's just cursing an endless stream of profanities, invoking every member of the Holy
Trinity as well as their entire extended family.
With a grimace and a grunt, I climb out and stagger to my feet, blinking and dripping, up to the window beside him. I squint at my water-logged reflection in the glass and pluck at my clingy shorts, peering at the vacant gym inside, the blank TV's, the mirrored wall exposing our curiosity.
"Look." He jabs the index finger of his cigarette hand against the window without turning toward me. "The hallway in there."
I wipe residual chlorinated water from my eyes and lean into the window with one hand to block the glare, staring past the exercise equipment, through the glass door on the other side to the short hallway beyond and the restrooms—one for men, one for women—with a drinking fountain in between. The lights are off in there, same as the gym, but the sunlight behind me streaks inside and shines across wide granite floor tiles.
"What do you suppose that is?" His voice is low and husky; his breath steams up the glass.
At first, I can't tell what he's referring to. My eyes have to adjust to the glare on the tile. But from this angle, I think I can see something—and I don't like the looks of it.
"You mean—" I turn toward him.
"On the floor, by the women's restroom?"
"Yeah. You thinking what I'm thinking?"
I don't know. "It looks like—"
"We should check it out." He steps back from the window to fling his cigarette to the pavement and grind it under a sandal sole.
I glance at him, return my gaze to the hallway inside. "Yeah, maybe."
"You want to dry off first?" He gestures toward my beach towel, tossed over one of the lounge chairs and drifting flippantly in the breeze.
I reach for it with a frown, the image of the stained floor tiles vivid in my mind.
"You don't think—"
"Won't know what to think until we've had us a closer look." He sticks out his hand, a gesture that strikes me as foreign in the moment. "I'm Gerard, by the way."
I introduce myself, but my heart isn't in it.
"Greek?" His grip is firm, dry and brief.
"What?" I run the towel over my hairy arms and chest.
"I think so." My parents got it from a Planet of the Apes movie, but I don't tell him that.
"Well, I won't hold it against you." He winks at me.
I toss the towel back over the chair and tug on my white undershirt.
"Ready?" He turns toward the gate and the gym door beyond.
"You think we should—I don't know. Call somebody?" I hesitate.
"You've got their number?"
Oddly enough, I do. Paul, the facilities manager, painted my front door last summer, gave it a fresh coat of oil-based paint that wouldn't fade from army green to gray in direct sunlight. But my phone is back home.
"How about we see what we've got first." He cocks his head in a follow me sort of way and pushes through the gate, pausing at the gym door. He doesn't try the handle. "Got your key?" He glances back, expecting me to have it.
"Yeah." I fish it out of my soggy pocket. The pool/gym key is one and the same.
"Don't have mine on me." He steps back, allowing space for me to unlock the door.
"How'd you get in?"
"To the pool? You left the gate open."
I nod absently. The gate doesn't always shut itself completely, and I've often found it open a crack early in the mornings.
The lock clicks, and I jiggle the handle, press it down and heave the door open. Motion sensors inside kick the lights on, narrow fluorescents in the ceiling that ping and flicker to life. I step in and hold the door open for Gerard.
"Well?" He shuffles in behind me.
It's blood. It has to be. A whole lot of it, pooling up outside the door to the women's restroom, seeping out from underneath. Thick as wet paint, it's darker at the door, thinner and fermented like wine at the periphery of the puddle.
"We've got to call the police." I stumble backward, reaching for the exterior door; but instead I'm gripping the handle to the gym. How did I get turned around? And why is this hallway lurching now to the left?
Gerard grabs me by the shoulder. "Steady, neighbor. You okay?"
If what we're looking at is what I think we're looking at--
"Somebody's in there," I manage, pointing toward the ladies room.
"What's left of ‘em." He nods. The blood doesn't seem to have the same effect on him.
"I'll go—I'll call them. The police." I reach for the exterior door.
"You're gonna leave me?" He still has a hand on my shoulder. "Here alone?" But he doesn't sound afraid. His tone is more like, Are you sure that's what you want to do?
"We should call them right now."
"Before we even know what we've got?"
He wants to look, to open the restroom door and see what's inside. Morbid curiosity at its best. I'm cold at the thought of it.
"C'mon." He nudges me toward the puddle. "I've got my cell." He digs the flip-phone out of his cargo shorts and holds it up, the same one he was on all last week, pacing and smoking, talking in irate tones to whomever was on the other end. Ex-wife, perhaps? "We'll take a look, then give the cops a call. Hell, it might just be a dog or something. Some stupid kid's idea of a joke."
There's too much blood for it to be an animal. It fills the gap under the door, and it's spreading. Hard to tell at first glance, but if you use the grout between the tiles to gauge its progress--
"You want to . . . ?" We're maybe a tile and a half from the puddle's perimeter. I gesture toward the restroom door. There's no way we'll be able to open it—and hold it open—without stepping into the blood.
"Go ahead. I'll make the call."
I swallow. My throat is tight and dry.
"Don't you want to know what's in there?" He doesn't remove his gaze from the sluggish outflow under the door.
"I'd feel better knowing they were on the line, you know? The police?"
"I should call them now, when all we've got is a puddle of paint?"
"You know it's not—"
"How dumb would that look?"
"Yeah, you're sure about that?" He looks me in the eye. Again, I can see there's no feeling behind his gaze. "You know something I don't, neighbor?"
"Of course not. I mean, I don't know—"
"Then why don't you open that damned door, and we'll see." He's losing patience with me.
Why doesn't he open it himself? I guess I'm closer to it. He's kind of herded me this way, and he's standing there with his sandals spread, hands on his hips. His body language says he's in charge, and I'd better not even think of crossing him. Some kind of residual military aura.
"Don't tell me you're not curious," he says.
I guess I am. It's just that my nerves and my curiosity are at odds with each other right now.
"What if the killer is in there—" I whisper. "—still cutting them up?"
He grins at that, almost laughs out loud. "Man, you've got a real imagination."
He's right. We would hear something like that going on.
"It's fresh, like it's still . . . flowing in there."
He shrugs up one shoulder. "Can't say."
"Okay." I blow out a short sigh. Time to grab the bull by the horns. There might be somebody inside needing our help. Unlikely, considering the volume of blood here, but it's in the realm of possibility. And it's not doing them any good taking my sweet time. "Here we go."
I reach out, fingers spread to make contact with the restroom door, and I grit my teeth as I take the inevitable first step into the puddle of blood. The suction of my flip-flop's sole strikes me as the most horrific sensation I've ever experienced. Worse than accidentally stepping on cockroaches as a kid during those midnight trips to the bathroom, feeling them pop and squirt under my bare heel.
I glance back at Gerard. "Ready to make that call?"
He nods, flips open his phone, trains his eyes, unblinking, on the door before me. The blue stick figure there, round, bald head, triangular skirt—I'll be seeing her in my nightmares, I know it.
The door swings open with ease as I push, driving back the blood and skimming it off to the side, smearing it away from its true course.
"Well?" He remains rooted, keeping his distance.
"I don't—" I give the restroom a cursory glance, tracking the blood flow to the third stall, the one against the back wall. The doors to all three stalls are shut. I crouch with my arm extended behind me, holding the door open, and peer under the first stall, then the second. No one there.
"What do you see?" Gerard insists.
"It's coming from the last stall, looks like."
"Go take a closer look."
"Yeah." I glance back, nod at the door. I don't like the idea of it shutting behind me.
But he doesn't seem to comprehend my body language. "Want to hold it?"
He makes no move toward the door. "Go ahead, I'll be right here." He holds up the phone again. "Ready."
Big help he is. Maybe he just wants to step out for a smoke.
"Thanks," I mutter, crossing the blood stream to where the floor remains clean. The restroom door swings shut behind me as I step forward, one flip-flop after the other, tracking red prints across the otherwise pristine floor tiles.
That's the one, the source: stall number three. I feel like I'm on some kind of horror-themed game show. All right Johnny, show us what's behind Door Number Three! A new car? A pair of jet skis? No, just an obese neighbor on the pot with her throat cut!
I grit my teeth. Gerard's right about one thing: I do have a wild imagination. And right now, it's working against me.
I inch my way to the third stall and reach for it, doing my best to sidestep the thick flow issuing from inside, and I glance back at the door, maybe hoping for some kind of deus ex machina to save me from my fate. Nothing doing. I'm all alone in this moment, just me and my morbid curiosity—and the source of all this blood.
"Hello?" My voice echoes, jarring me. "Is someone in there?"
I press my palm against the cold stall door, applying just enough pressure to check if it's latched shut. It swings inward, creaking on its hinges, yawning open to reveal a toilet backed up like nobody's business, with red paint oozing thick, bubbling out of the full bowl, down the sides and across the floor like something from The Shining. Two empty gallon cans sit on top of the tank.
I can only stare at them, wondering why. Then I realize I don't care why. Overcome by a wave of relief at the sight—that nobody's in here bleeding to death, that it's all some kind of elaborate prank—I fall against the stall and laugh out loud.
"Oh boy." I feel lighter than air. "It's paint!" I shout over my shoulder. "Just paint!" Mixed with toilet water, thinned out a little, but it sure looked like blood at first glance.
But no, it's not paint. I would have smelled it, known what it was. This is something else.
I slide my finger around the rim of the first can, then the second. Give it a whiff.
Definitely not paint. Pig's blood? Cow's? I didn't want to think of where else it might have come from. Paul the facilities guy has been touching up some of the curbs around the complex—fire code and whatnot. Paint would have made a lot more sense. Who would have carried paint cans full of blood in here? Why?
Probably those pot-smoking punks who like to ride their skateboards into the pool and piss on the potted plants. The dropouts. Their idea of fun: create this horrific mess to scare the crap out of their fellow residents. Real nice.
Shaking my head at the whole situation, I exit the stall and head back to the restroom door. Gerard's going to have to see this for himself.
It's been a true neighborhood bonding experience, one worthy of the San Diego Reader. I feel a little bad for thinking he was some kind of weirdo. But the way he kept arguing on his phone and looking at me--
I can hear him now, just a few feet away from the restroom door. Probably standing outside and smoking another cigarette, the addict.
"Gerard?" I rest my hand on the door handle, prepare to pull it open.
His side of the argument rises in volume, and I notice another voice arguing back, a woman's, high-pitched and strained. He's obviously not on the phone. And he's not alone out there. I press my ear against the door. Snatches of their interchange come through.
Woman: "—that's what you get when you—"
Gerard: "—not tossin' me out on my ass like that. You've got no—"
Woman: "—police and they will—"
Gerard: "—have the money when—"
"Woman: "—three months already and no rent—?"
His sandals shuffle with sudden ferocity, and the woman's squeal is cut short. There's a scuffle, and something heavy slams against the other side of the doorframe. I jerk back.
Are they fighting, Gerard and this woman? It's come to blows, and from the sound of things, the woman is getting the worst of it, releasing whimpers in short bursts as each of Gerard's fists land hard.
Should I intervene? If only I had my phone, I'd call the police and--
A final thump against the wall, then everything is quiet out there. No footsteps, no heavy breathing, no more squeals or whimpers. Did he knock her out? Or worse: Did he kill her?
I'm a witness to murder. I've just heard Gerard take this woman's life. And my fingerprints—they're on everything. I'm more than just a witness; I'm an accomplice. Was all of this some kind of setup, planned from the start? And now I'm the patsy, ready to take a big fall.
Too much old gangster movie slang is whirling through my head, and I'm finding it hard to think straight. What will Gerard do now? Come in and whack me, too? I jam the doorstop into place beneath the door. It might slow him down.
Too much imagination? Not this time.
I've got to find another way out of here. But first, my fingerprints—I can't leave them behind. They would make me the prime suspect. What have I touched? I whip off my shirt and glance back at the stall with the bleeding toilet.
The stall door. The paint cans. Anything else? No, that was it. The handle on the restroom door, but I can take care of that later. For now--
I scrub the door and the rims of the paint cans with my shirt, smearing red across the white cotton. The stains won't come out, but I can toss it in the dumpster on the way back to my condo.
What if somebody is watching? What will they think? I know what I'd think: a killer's disposing the evidence.
I swallow hard, turn toward the restroom door. I notice the tracks I made with my flip-flops and scrub them away with my shirt. I take off my shoes and inspect their stained soles. I wrap them up in my shirt. Every sign that I was ever here can't be here when the police arrive.
I won't go straight home. I'll leave through the back gate once I've expunged all my prints. Only the doors are left. That's all I've touched. I'm sure of it.
That bastard. Gerard had me open each of them. He'd planned everything from the start.
I have to hurry, get out before anybody shows up. The old Indian woman might arrive at any moment to start up the treadmill. She'll see the body outside and scream, and then she'll see me with my stained shirt and I'll tell her it's just paint, but that won't matter. She'll call the police, and there will go my summer vacation, right down the crapper, as I spend the next few weeks trying to explain all of this away. As if I even could!
There's no other way out of here. I go back to the door and listen, planting my ear against it. Silence. Gerard must have fled the scene.
I hope he's not waiting for me.
I remove the doorstop and pull the door open. It skims the surface of the paint. There's a body lying on the floor outside. The upper torso is out of view, but there are the cargo shorts, the hairy legs, the sandals.
Gerard lies flat on his back. The blood congeals around him, soaking into his clothes, his skin. His eyes are shut but his mouth gapes up at the fluorescent lights in the ceiling like he's frozen mid-snore. I can't tell if he's breathing.
My shirt is stained pretty bad now, but I find a clean patch and scrub at the handle on the restroom door's interior side, the brass plate on its exterior. No fingerprints remain to be seen—not mine, not anybody's.
I creep on tiptoe across the cold tiles and wipe the handle on the exterior door. I glance into the gym; it's empty for now, but the Indian woman has to be on her way. She's always in there this time of day.
The door handle is clean. None of my prints remain anywhere, finger or flip-flop. I frown, staring down at my bare feet. Is there such a thing as toe prints? Can the police check for them?
Footsteps and voices approach as the gate to the pool area clangs shut. I look up just as two police officers head this way, escorted by none other than the old Indian woman, gesticulating and explaining something, her words tumbling out.
"Why don't you just show us, ma'am," suggests the cop on her right, a bald walrus with a mustache that could sell plenty of oatmeal.
"Yes, this way," she says, bobbing her head.
Seconds too late. I'm trapped here. If I hadn't wasted time worrying about toe prints--
"Hold it right there." The other cop, a woman with over-erect posture and a brunette French braid, holds up a hand as soon as she spots me hovering in the doorway. "Sir, please stay right where you are."
"He's—" I point lamely back at Gerard, my knees swimming in their sockets.
She focuses on his body, gestures for her partner to handle me as she goes to the stream of blood. She kneels beside Gerard and checks his vitals.
"Do you recognize this man?" the walrus cop interrogates the Indian woman. But he's not referring to Gerard. He's looking right at me and glancing at the stained bundle in my arms.
"No, I don't know him." She shrugs in a quick, lopsided movement of her frail shoulders. "He swims here in the pool—"
"Right," I nod. "And I've seen you in the gym, every day on the treadmill."
She frowns at the body on the floor and holds both of her dark, wilted hands to her face. "Will he be all right?"
The she-cop speaks into a radio on her shoulder, gives some kind of code. 10-54, it sounds like. Dead on arrival, maybe?
"Can you explain what you're doing here, sir?" Walrus asks me.
"I was swimming. I . . . was in the bathroom and—"
"What's that on your shirt there?"
"This? Oh—" Nervous chuckle. "It's—"
The Indian woman lets out a short whimper, almost a squeal. "Did you do this?" She turns wide eyes up to me. "Did you hurt this man? Why?"
I stare back at her, unable to put the right words together. "No, I—" I face Walrus.
"There was a woman here, before. I heard them arguing, something about rent. And—"
"Know anything about this?" Walrus asks Indian woman.
She nods in a series of jerks, gesturing toward Gerard's body. "This man, he is a tenant of mine. I remind him his rent is due, and—"
"They were fighting." I point at her. "She did it. She did this. She killed him."
"Killed?" She gasps, horrified. "How could I do such a thing? I am an old woman!"
"When did you tell him about the rent?" Walrus has one hand on his night stick, and he keeps glancing at me in a way I don't find reassuring.
"I tell him about the rent, I go into the gym." She rests her hand on the gym door's handle. (Smart move. Prints. I know for a fact she wasn't in the gym at all.) "I start on the treadmill, and I think I hear something. I come out, and this!" She throws up her hands.
I point at Gerard. "He tried to kill her—she was going to evict him or something, and they've been arguing on the phone all week. But she got to him first—"
The Indian woman shrieks, aghast. A familiar sound. I heard something like it through the door earlier. The cop makes a snide remark about the size of my imagination, and he tells me I'll have plenty of time to explain things at the police station.
I'm just glad my fingerprints are gone, honestly. And as for my toe prints, maybe they'll be able to clear up the whole issue for me, once I'm at the station. Do they ever check for those at crime scenes? It makes sense that they would.
What doesn't make sense is the way this old lady is accusing me of committing the crime she committed. But who's to say differently? The only other witness is lying there in a pool of something else's blood.
As things turned out, I was exonerated despite my toe prints due to a lack of evidence, lack of motive, etc. But Officer Walrus told me not to leave town anytime soon, that the authorities might have some more questions for me at a later date. Fine by me, I said, as long as I could enjoy the rest of my summer in peace before the school year started up again.
The Indian lady—Anshula, her named turned out to be—was convicted of manslaughter, but her attorney pled self-defense and the jury bought it. I probably would have, too, even if I hadn't been listening through that door. Gerard had attacked her, and she'd struggled, hitting him as hard as she could as many times as she could; but the real damage had been done by the blood on the floor. He'd slipped and fallen to his death. Talk about a freak accident.
Anyhow, I eventually forgave her for trying to pin Gerard's murder on me. In the heat of the moment, emotions were running pretty high back there, and I had every appearance of being prime suspect numero uno. Had Gerard planned from the start to kill Anshula, his landlady, and make it look like I'd done it? I don't know.
Nothing about the situation made a whole lot of sense.
But the good news is that Gerard isn't around anymore to stalk me while I swim, and I can't say I miss him. Even so, I've decided to start paying the $3.50 a day to swim at the community center down the street. The lap pool over there is a heck of a lot cleaner, and the only person who watches me swim my daily thirty-odd laps is the showtune-whistling lifeguard.
So far, it's been a smoke-free environment.