The Big Bash
Yash Seyedbagheri is a graduate of Colorado State University's MFA program in fiction. A recipient of two Honorable Mentions from Glimmer Train, his story, "Soon," was nominated for a Pushcart. He has also had work nominated for The Best Small Fictions. Yash’s stories are forthcoming or have been published in Café Lit, Mad Swirl, 50 Word Stories, and Ariel Chart, among others.
Doctor of Bullshit
Nick finds this all laughable. Pathetic. His father is trying to redefine things, create a narrative predicated on perfidy. A man respected for his title. Doctor. The apotheosis of prestige and privilege.
The truths: Westham is an empty diploma mill in West Virginia. Take me home, country roads, full of crap.
His father cares little for truth. Facts. Or for nutrition management. He lies about his life, his expertise. He has a never ending coterie of women whose minds he manipulates, whose bodies he values and discards. The father seeks solace in laziness, lying astride a couch, playing with himself. Dictating orders to those around him. Namely Nick, the twenty-something college student. Nick’s age, station matter little to the father.
Nick is a young nascent writer, a college graduate. But to his father, he is just a gofer. A gofer whom his father was responsible for conceiving. Of course, he’s also a gofer with his mother’s sickening moral attitudes. Ethics. Nick’s father reminds him of this, tells Nick that ethics didn’t earn a degree.
Use people, he says, voice a nasal growl, as if this is the chorus to some sick song. He repeats this chorus the day he receives his diploma in the mail.
His father keeps relishing his victory, talks of opening his own nutritional center with this degree. He thinks of commodities valuable and insidious: Vanity. Recognition. Competition vanquished.
Nick likes the art of creation. Of human enjoyment of art. Whether it’s his stories, or paintings, or music.
His father is a master of creating dreck. He moves the diploma around, tries to get the empty and hollow diploma mill to bind his thesis in book format. His laughable thesis.
The truth: Nick earned that degree. He did his father’s homework. His father couldn’t find a coherent sentence with two hands, a flashlight, and a probe. Nick did his father’s homework, fettered by guilt, father’s words a fusillade: Bad son. Do your duty. Daddy loves you. Father a narcissist, who swung between charm and rage, jollity and Herculean fury.
Good son. Bad son. Selfish. Senseless dreamer.
Nick has relished the moments of jollity, cowered during the tempestuous lectures that rose from his father’s mustache, a creature in and of itself.
Meanwhile, Nick tries to create. To flee the father. He applies to MFA programs, ensconces himself in the tender prose he’s written for years. His father asks no questions, save for telling Nick that he is crippling his father’s dreams. Spend less time on writing, he proclaims, without thought.
Nick keeps writing. Nick considers telling his father this truth about the diploma mill. A good son would. But he’ll never be his father’s notion of the good son, a toady. A meek loser. But he needs simply to survive, to hang on, a day by day process. If he can survive a day sans a lecture, he’s in bliss.
His father lives on in his dreamworld.
His father hangs his diploma prominently above the fireplace. Of course, he tells Nick to discard his dreams first. He brags of his feat to his friends, even as Nick reads on and on about this diploma mill. He derives an innate pleasure knowing this school is as valuable as a three-dollar bill. It’s a power he can hold over his father, store for the right occasion.
Of course, Nick figured out that his father would live these cycles in perpetuity. No change, no metamorphosis from anger into parental love. No transformation into something stable and whole and tender.
If only he’d known years ago, a thousand tears dried, a thousand angry words uttered, dissolved in the dustbin of his history.
His father keeps clinging to paper moons of illusion.
Nick’s father rents a cap and gown. He needs good graduation pictures, he says. He needs not speak the real reasons. The pictures add prestige, grace, verve. They’re a fig leaf for perfidy.
Nick tries to extract himself from the situation. He gets called bad son again, submits after a fight, after words are issued. Bad son, I should disown you, the phrases spilling from his father’s mouth, as they have before. Familiar. His father’s lecture leaves him wounded like a man on a train track, body parts severed, needing reattachment. Nick just needs peace, tenderness, love. What’s to lose? His father is the one digging his own hole of lies. It’s cold pragmatism, giving in, but soon enough Nick will say adieu to that.
Nick keeps striving for his own success. Each word he writes is more than an emotional note. It’s a means of escape, a combination that he must crack. Which school will accept his combination? Which school will promise him liberation from his mustachioed Pharaoh of a father. He tries to imagine himself, successful. Living a life that is not predicated on father’s orders, but on his own ordered needs and wants. Love, friendship, creation.
Nick takes pictures of his father in august settings, concealing his reluctance. The state Capitol building steps. In the gardens next to the old train depot. Nick takes the pictures, while laughing, watching this scene unfold. His own life is still to be unfurled. He is young, his father aging like the leaves on the vast oak trees, turning to flame. Nick imagines something true and real, snapping the pictures. He imagines himself a year from now, two years from now, somewhere far from his father. Someone new and different. Someone in a writing program, in a state full of energy and joy. Not like this place, where people ride the buses wearing reserve and misery like their worn-out parkas.
He imagines himself making new friends, being able to create a life of his own, all the while snapping pictures of his father. Cap turned in one direction, and another. Tassels visible. Diploma in his father’s hand, of course. A mighty fortress is my father’s lies.
Nick hopes his own life can come into being. He doesn’t want to pretend, to create his own life in the dells of his consciousness. A life he doesn’t have yet. To dream seems so pathetic and putrid sometimes. Dreamers can be great artists and they can be the users, the abusers.
Nick hopes beyond hope, taking picture after picture of his father, his mustache bristling over a victory without shape or substance.
He hopes, but hope isn’t enough.
William Womack is a freelance writer who specializes in short stories. He has been writing for ten years and is currently working on his first novel. Womack is a lover of history and archaeology and does volunteer work in museums. He will soon feature on a podcast which will discuss authors and the writing process. It is set to debut in April of this year. William Womack lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.
As he drove hurriedly down the street he couldn’t help but notice the sun was shining. It was supposed to be a cloudy day; there was even a small chance of rain. He liked the rain. Rain, darkness, and clouds; these all fit his personality. The sadness that permeated his life was still very much there. After all these years he had finally just gave in to the realization that it was just a part of him. It was who he was, sadness. And he could never figure out why. Emma had always said he needed to see someone. “Get to the root of the problem,” was the line she repeated many times. She repeated the same things over and over every time she brought it up. It was always her that brought it up. “Don’t you want to be happy, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be over this sickness you have?” Those were her go to words. He never really saw it as a sickness, just sadness. And it made him wonder why she stayed with him. Why stay with someone who was miserable? She said she loved him. It must have been true considering they had been together for three years now.
He wondered if the sun was an omen; a light at the end of the tunnel. If it was good news maybe it could be the springboard he needed to start enjoying life. Maybe he could start living life and stop just letting it float ever so slowly away from him like a boat leaving a dock. Or maybe the light signified something else. If the news was indeed a worst case scenario it could be deliverance. Maybe it could be a way to slip away from life with no consequences. He had thought of suicide many times. In fact it was just another part of who he was. He thought of it every day, several times a day, but he knew he didn’t have the courage to do it. It wasn’t an option and even though he was an atheist every time he let the thought run through his head he couldn’t escape the realization that no one can be one hundred percent certain of anything. What if he went through with it and there was a god? What if reincarnation was true and he came back as a cockroach or even worse, an accountant. Even if he was certain he couldn’t die like that. For all his faults there was one thing he wasn’t and that was a quitter. But this wouldn’t be suicide would it? If he did have a serious illness and just let it take him that would not be quitting. In fact it would be quicker and less painful, no drugs, no long string of doctors visits knowing the inevitable was coming soon anyway. As he pulled into the doctor’s office the idea started to form in his head.
Pulling slowly into the parking spot he put the car in park and shut off the engine. The ideas filled his brain. And the chance of him not having this illness no longer occurred to him. It was like he had already been informed of his fate. And he knew exactly how to deal with it. He would leave. He would leave this life, his job, his girlfriend, and everything that comprised the life he lead, the life he hated and didn’t know why. That was the answer. The disease would be his deliverance.
Checking in at the receptionist and waiting to get called in the time never flew by so fast. Everything was flashing before his eyes, the scenes playing out like snapshots in his head. His mind was no longer set on finding out whether or not he had a deadly disease but on what he would do when he heard the news. Again, a short flash of time and he is sitting in a doctors office and hears someone tell him to come in.
“Hello Mr. Rockwell,” said the doctor with an even tone. He answered with the same even keel, “Dr. Orwell, how are you?”
“Quite alright” was the answer. The doctor wasted no time in delivering his message.
“Mr. Rockwell, I’m afraid it is as how we feared.” Dr. Orwell continued on in the vein of someone delivering awful news. “The good news is that with heavy treatment this is something you can survive.
He didn’t want to hear this. “Doctor, you mean to say something I can survive with heavy treatment or something I will survive with heavy treatment?”
Rocking back in his chair Dr. Orwell said, “Well, there is never a hundred percent chance of anything, but you would have a fifty-fifty shot at beating this, that is with you following the treatment regimen to the letter.”
More of Raymond’s plan forms in his head as he asks his next question, “So I’m guessing that would include drugs and other quite uncomfortable procedures?”
Dr. Orwell with a steady voice answers simply, “yes.”
He knew the conversation could not have ended there but the next thing he knew he was in his car pulling away from this place of deliverance.
Thoughts ricocheted inside his brain like a pinball. He pulled into the parking lot of an old abandoned department store. Was this his decision? Was this how it was going to end? He remembered how unhappy he was. He remembered how the rest of his family was already dead, lost in a car accident. His mind moved to Emma and how she would feel. He hadn’t told her he had been going to the doctors. This would kill her. But maybe he could save her by leaving. Everything around him ended badly, this could be her deliverance as well. Without him in her life she could move on and be with someone who was happy. This would be the best for both of them. As he pulled out of the parking lot and started home he had come to his final decision.
On the drive home he thought about how he could tie up all loose ends and leave. He had to tell Emma, that was a necessity. He didn’t want people looking for him like he was missing. He wanted to be left alone to die. Should he call work? No, they didn’t need to know. They would call Emma after he didn’t show up anyway, she was his emergency contact. What he was going to do was another question. That answer came easier than any other. He was going to go to the only place that made him happy.
His parents were always strict when he was growing up. He never got to go to the big parties in school. He had never been more than thirty miles from his house until his senior year in high school. That was the year they finally let him go. His friends were going to Myrtle Beach and he was going with them. His first taste of freedom opened something within him. He loved the beach, the fun, and the adventure. Spring break of that year was the last time he could remember being truly free, truly happy. This was where he discovered writing as well. He enjoyed writing. It got him through some of the bad times. Short stories, poems, and essays filled his computer. He dreamed of penning a great novel and being beloved and admired by his heroes like Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan. Maybe his memoirs could posthumously achieve this. That would be his final task, writing the story of his life.
The inside of his apartment looked like what you would expect from a place inhabited by a couple in their early thirties. A women’s touch easily observable, pictures of friends and family on the side tables, fake flowers sat atop the bookcase, and a particularly frilly, aggressively pink blanket strewn across the back of the couch. Walking across the living room he picked up the picture of him and Emma on their first vacation together. Behind them you could see the giant billboard advertising the tiger experience at Barefoot Landing just outside Myrtle Beach; their faces frozen in a perpetual smile. He knew looking down at this picture this might be the last time he sees her smile and it would be from a photo. But he could not think on that now. He had to pack for his trip, his journey to the promise land. It would be quite an easy decision on what to bring. Aside from the essentials like a toothbrush, clothes, and other assorted needs he packed several of his favorite books for inspiration. Evelyn Waugh, Martin Amis, and Saul Bellow novels had helped him get through life in a way. He read when he was sad, when he needed a friend, he even made it a point to read for at least thirty minutes every time before he sat down to write. Several notebooks were thrown into his bag along with a handful of pens. Finally, he slid his old, dirty laptop into its case and laid it on top of his dad’s travel bag. He had kept this bag when his father died. He didn’t quite know why. His father had taken this small blue bag with its yellow logo of an eagle on its side every time he went away on business or vacation. He would now take it with him to escape this life he so despised.
He knew he didn’t have much time before Emma got home. She left work regularly at four and glancing at his phone he saw that that was a mere twenty minutes away. Being packed, all he had to do was tell his girlfriend of three years that he was leaving and never coming back. He sat down upon the couch with its blazingly pink blanket and thought about what he could say to make this as quick and painless as possible. But before he realized what he was doing he had pulled his phone out of his pocket and had dialed his work number. This was not part of his plan. He could just hang up now and no one would ever know.
“Thank you for calling Puzo’s Distributing this is Lance.” His voice was cordial enough for someone expecting a client.
He kept his cool as much as he could and soldiered on. “Mr. Cruet, its Raymond.” “I’m just calling you to tell you I quit.” He could not believe he came out with it like that, so quick, so straight to the point and as the last part of the sentence left his throat his voice trembled like it had never before.
There was a brief pause before his boss answered this unexpected resignation. “Raymond, this is Raymond Rockwell?”
He tried to regain his composure as best he could. “Yes, I’m out, I won’t be in tomorrow or any other day, I’m done.”
Mr. Cruet desperately tried to find an answer to why one of his employees was quitting so suddenly; after all Raymond Rockwell, while not at the top of his profession always pulled in good numbers and never caused any problems. “Raymond, why are you leaving us so suddenly, is there is a problem?”
He wanted nothing but to be done with this conversation and so he ended as quickly as he could. “There is no problem, I’m moving on, and that is the end of it; thank you for your opportunity, goodbye.” It was like ripping off a band-aid, if the band-aid had been on your skin for eight years of your life. He hung up on his boss, the man who had taught him quite a lot about what he knew. He was through; he was done, that part of this insane business was over. Now if he could just tell Emma, he could start the last leg of his life.
He never thought to call what was left of his family. He had one grandmother and two uncles on his mothers side but only spoke to them around Christmas. There was no need to bother; Emma would let them know when the holidays rolled around. As for Emma, she would come through the door at any minute. What was he going to say to her? Before the first thought could be formed in his head he heard the sound of a key being slid into the lock of the door. She was home and he now had to perform. He knew it was going to be ugly so he just let it all go in one long burst.
As she walked in he said, “I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you but, I’ve been going to the doctors. I’m sick and I’m dying, and I’m leaving you. I want to die alone.”
She just stood there with a look that seemed to be equal parts shock and disgust. Emma said all that she could think to say, “Is this a joke, you’re not leaving.”
Raymond tried to make the retort as definitive as possible. “I am leaving. This will be good for you. You deserve better. I just want a chance to clear my head.”
“This is insane,” Emma screamed. “You can at least tell me what’s going on. What do you have, can you be cured?”
Still trying to get through this conversation as quickly as possible Raymond answered defiantly, “The doctor said I have a fifty-fifty shot at living, but I chose not to fight. I want to die.”
Emma, still shell-shocked from the unexpected admission said in a much calmer voice, “Is this what you think of life, of me? You are just going to leave and lie down like a dog and die?” The tears that had been streaming down her face now began to wet her shirt. Raymond, unable to say anything else grabbed his father’s old bag and his laptop, slid past Emma like a stranger on a crowded street and left the apartment without saying another word.
Reaching his car he threw his bags into the back and got in. There was no hesitation, he instantly put the key in the ignition, backed out of his parking space and was gone within seconds. The highway was only a mile from his apartment complex and once he turned onto Highway 74, the road that led to Myrtle Beach, the pressure he felt telling Emma he was leaving her fell away immediately. He was now on the open road and heading to freedom. He screamed to no one but himself,” YEAHHHHHHHH, I CAN DO ANYTHING!!!” It was like some dam had broken within him; a dam that was holding in emotions, and dreams. He felt liberated. All questions had now been answered. He knew where he would go. Care’s Sea Inn was the hotel he stayed in when he had his first taste of freedom over a decade ago. He knew what he would do when he got there. Raymond wanted to pen the story of his life. With the life giving beauty of the golden sand and massive ocean he would have plenty of inspiration. And finally he knew how he would die. Hopefully, his memoirs would be complete before the disease took him. If not then he would at least enjoy his final moments being in the place that gave him his fondest memories.
Turning on to the A1A in Myrtle Beach Raymond could see Care’s Sea Inn scrawled across the tall gray building. There had only been one hotel building with the Care name last time he was there. Now it had expanded into four separate hotels. Raymond Care was a frat boy who took the money his father left him when he died and opened a hotel on the strip in Myrtle Beach. He would follow his father in death not long after. The Sun News, the local newspaper of record read, “Hotel Owner Parties Himself To Death”, the day Raymond Care died. Care had used what was left of the money after buying the hotel to buy drugs and party with any college co-ed he could find. He was found dead on the bed of a top floor room of the hotel that bore his name, the needle still in his arm.
Raymond Rockwell always thought it was some sort of omen that he shared a name with this man. He thought of him every time he thought of suicide. Raymond Care lived a life he wouldn’t mind living, having fun and going out quick. Now he was pulling into his hotel. Walking through the double glass doors he approached the check-in desk. An old lady with snow white hair was sitting behind the desk reading. Her name tag read Elli. He stood there waiting for her to notice him.
After several moments of being ignored he said, “I’d like a room please.” Finally, looking up from her novel, she spoke with as little emotion as one could imagine,
“For how long?” she said.
He had wanted to stay here as long as he would be alive, but could not remember having the conversation with his doctor about how long he would live without treatment. “Can I get the room for a month?”
Again the receptionist answered with a voice of immense disinterest, “yeah, credit card and I.D.”
He pulled the necessary things from his wallet and handed them to Elli. “May I have a room that is as high up as possible please?”
Elli, the receptionist, again with as little fervor as imaginable answers Raymond, “yeah, here you go, room 1607, elevators are down the hall.”
As he takes back his cards he thanks her to no response. He thought to himself if he were to reach that age he hoped he wasn’t that standoffish. But then again he wouldn’t have to worry about that and losing his life while still young didn’t bother him. Taking the elevator up to the 16th floor he turned right and found room 1607.
Putting the room key into the slot he didn’t know what to expect. It had been years since he had stayed here. Opening the door he walked in and found it was exactly as it was those many years ago. To the right up against the wall was the queen sized bed. He thought to himself that this could indeed be his death bed. Beside the bed was a small desk where he would write his memoirs. On the desk sat a tiny lamp that looked like it had been sitting there untouched since he was last there. Straight ahead was the bathroom and over to the right beside it were the sliding doors that lead to the balcony. This was the first thing he wanted to do; to open those doors and look out into the vast ocean that always gave him comfort. Every time he came to the beach he would sit out on the balcony of his hotel at night and stare at the moon and the waves smashing against the beach. Now he was here and he could sit and stare at them for the rest of his life. There were no more work days, no responsibilities, no one else in the whole world he was beholden to. His life was his own.
After gazing at the dark blue ocean for what seemed like an eternity he decided to lie down and get some sleep. It had been a long day. But his past was no longer apart of his life. From now on his life was about him and him only. He would pen his story and let this disease that ravaged his body take him away. Raymond Rockwell slid out of his clothes and fell into bed and the last thing he thought of before falling asleep was no matter how dismal his life had been up until then the final chapter would tell of a joyous man.
Upon waking the next morning he thought about going straight to his laptop and beginning to write the story of his life. Instead he walked to the sliding doors that led to the balcony and stepped out into a day that was bright with sunshine. The waves crashed against the beach like they perpetually did; the sound of which made him feel at home. Again, giving thought to sitting down at the desk that held his old laptop he decided to eat breakfast. The hotel did not offer anything until lunch so he went across the street to a coffee shop that luckily had some sandwiches and croissants. Taking an egg and bacon croissant and coffee back to his hotel room he sat down for the first time and began to write.
Raymond believed that any good autobiography should begin with ones parents. Finding this easy to write, his fingers pressed down upon his old Hewlett-Packard and he typed the first words of his memoirs quite easily. He didn’t need to write any further outlines or notes for his book. He had been working on those for years. Raymond simply started putting words into his computer.
Ever since he started to write he would always say the words as he typed them. It helped him weed out the good from the bad. “Mother was an engineer.” He sighed knowing this was the first sentence of the only book he would write.” He always liked to start stories and essays with short, extremely blunt sentences. His teachers had never approved of starting this way, but he never changed this. After this opening sentence he flew through the stories of his parents telling of their births, to their careers, and finally ending with the car crash that took their lives along with Raymond’s younger brother. It was his first day in Myrtle Beach and he had rough drafts for two chapters. It was eight o’clock. He had been writing uninterrupted for nine hours. Saving his files, he closed his laptop and decided to get a drink.
Pressing the button for the lobby, Raymond knew he didn’t have to go far to find a bar. There was one in his hotel. Every time he had visited it looked same, but always had new staff and a new name. The elevator doors opened and he walked out to the right and went down the long narrow corridor that led to the hotel bar. The walls of the hallway were painted light blue and had assorted ocean themed decorations like life buoys and mini lighthouses as many other hotels did that sat right on the beach. Coming to the door of the bar he noticed the theme continued. The bar was now named, The Ark Beers Hotel Lounge. There was picture of an old man with a long white beard on a very large boat carrying kegs of beer and cases of liquor. Raymond laughed to himself and said, “I guess Noah wised up and got rid of the animals and brought what was really important this time.” Opening the glass door and stepping inside he saw that nothing had changed about the look of the place; just as always. The walls were painted that same blue the hallways were and had the same types of décor. To his left there was mounted a small figurine of a man with a captain’s hat reeling in a large fish. Straight ahead there were old lifejackets and diving equipment pinned to the wall. And above his head there was a seven foot long sail fish mounted over the entrance. The bar was to the right and in between it and the dining room there was a four foot blue wall that separated them that looked like it could be knocked over by a very aggressive sneeze. As he approached a chair at the bar a short, bald man that looked to be in his late 30’s or early 40’s turned to greet him.
With a huge smile on his face he said, “Hey there, welcome in, what can I get you?”
Raymond answered as he did on most occasions such as this, “Gin and tonic please.”
“Sounds good to me,” answered the man behind the bar. Mixing the drink and putting it down on the bar along with a thin cocktail napkin the bartender began with the obligatory server, customer conversation. “So what brings you to Myrtle, are you on vacation or are you one of the seven locals around here?” he says with a large grin spread across his small round face.
Raymond was taken aback by the question, not because it was out of the ordinary; he should have been ready for such enquiries, but because he had not thought of what to tell anyone who might ask. Creating a new life for himself he told a half lie. “I am a writer. I’m just here to hang out, and maybe do a little work, I don’t know, we will see.”
The bartender, seemingly more excited than Raymond was expecting shouted, “Oh great, well good luck to you!” “I don’t read much but, I admire someone who has a creative mind like that. I wish I could do something like that,” the bartender bellowed.
“Well there is no reason you can’t,” Raymond replied. As he said this, a small woman with dark brown hair came bursting out of the kitchen with two plates full of food. Raymond could not help but gaze across the room to where she was taking the order. She passed the small dilapidated wall that separated the dining area from the bar and turned right and bypassed one table only to arrive at her destination. There sat an old couple he had not noticed when he came in. The old man sat there with a look of excitement upon his face, napkin in lap, ready to devour the meal he had ordered. He was bald, expect for the sides of his head, the hair seemingly clinging to breath as he was. Wearing a white shirt with brown stripes, he seemed to burst with life as much as he seemed to be about to burst out of his top and matching brown pants.
The old lady wore a long, purple dress, with anchors on it. She sat in her chair, not quite as excited as the old man, but with a look of definite joy on her face. Her hair was white as the placemat that sat in front of her and she wore glasses that matched her grape coloured, boat themed dress.
The bartender continued the conversation as Raymond turned around again, “I don’t know. I have nothing to say.”
With a small grin Raymond replied, “That’s what everyone says.”
“I’m Arthur, by the way,” said the balding bartender.
Raymond leaned forward to shake the man’s hand and introduced himself. “Well now we are friends in my book,” Arthur said. “What do you write, Raymond, novels, stories?”
Again, Raymond having not anticipated such a question came up with a quick answer not entirely true but, not quite false either. “I am writing a biography, it’s on an obscure figure you’re probably not familiar with.”
“Sounds good,” Arthur replied.
The waitress returned from delivering the food to her table and leaned across the counter on the corner where the staff area met the bar.
“How are William and Carrie?” asked the Arthur.
“They’re fine, they are always fine,” came the retort.
Arthur continued on,” This is our new friend Raymond, Liz why don’t you say hey.” Without looking up from her phone Liz said a very unenthusiastic hello. Raymond returned the greeting with the same lack of fervor not wanting to meet anyone else. Sensing Arthur was the talkative type Raymond excused himself and went out the door that led to the beach. The hotel had a large patio that looked out onto the beach. He came to the edge of the concrete and was about to step into the sand when he heard someone yell out.
“Hey, did you just check in?” Raymond turned to find two young, blonde girls lounging on the plastic chairs by the door of the bar. They could have been confused for identical twins at first glace but as he came closer he saw they were not. Although they did dress a like in short white shorts and bikini tops, one blue, one yellow, they were distinguishable in another way. One girl had a tattoo of an eagle across her chest, the others tattoo was simply of wings, no bird. Both girls had a cup in their hands that resembled something you would see in an old gladiator movie.
“I checked in last night,” Raymond replied.
The girl with the wings replied, “yeah, we thought you must be new, we know everyone here.” “I’m Annie and this is Alexa.” Alexa lifted a hand in greeting. Raymond, with his mind on other things returned the greeting and said,” nice to meet you ladies,” and went back inside.
Raymond was not in the mood to talk but was in less of a mood to be sober so he took his seat back at the bar. The old couple was still enjoying their meal.
“Another one of these please.”
“Sounds good, Raymond,” Arthur shouted with a big smile on his face. While Arthur was making his drink Raymond gazed around the dining room again. He saw that the old couple had already gone. He thought it funny considering he just saw them as he came in. Arthur handed Raymond his drink and with one gulp he took it all down.
“Well, I have to get some sleep; you can put it on the room, yes.” Arthur answered with an emphatic, “sounds good!”
Walking back up to his room Raymond thought of nothing but shutting his eyes so he could get up early and work on his life story. Slipping off his shoes he got into bed and laid there staring at the ceiling listening to the calming sound of the waves hitting the sand. Soon his eyes became heavy and he drifted off to sleep wholly content for the first time in many years.
Raymond’s second day at the beach started off much better for someone trying to pen their memoirs. Eight o’clock and he was up and immediately at the computer relating the early parts of his life. When he was a kid he lived a pretty normal life. Going to school, playing in the back yard of his house during summer, and making friends he thought he would have forever made up the majority of his existence. He enjoyed his life like most children do even if they have a terrible one. When you are a kid you don’t know any better, but his life was perfect. His mother and father loved each other and he had a brother to play with and share life with.
It was his teenage years that life started to go chaotic. Most teenagers think life is hard and unbearable but his actually fit the bill. He was sixteen when he was told his father had cancer. Raymond was sat down on his parent’s bed and told that chances were his father would not be around much longer. After that day his mother seemed different. Not just worried and upset but, she changed in a way that didn’t seem normal. She was never herself after that day. One morning Raymond walked out of his house to go to school and the first thing he saw was his mother standing on the porch smoking a cigarette, arms folded and a look upon her face he had never seen. She looked like a defeated person, like her husband of twenty years was already dead and now she couldn’t go on. She had never smoked in her life as far as Raymond knew. The sight of this shocked him almost as much as the revelation that his father might not survive his disease.
But, as it turns out life never seems to run out of surprises. His dad came home one day and announced he was cancer free. It was a miracle! Raymond listened as his father relayed the message his doctor had told him; the chemo had worked and he was going to live. He wasn’t completely out of the woods yet but, now chances were he was going to live to see his children get married, have kids, and he would grow old with the only woman he had ever thought about loving.
And he did live; for four more years. Raymond was twenty when the car crash took the lives of not only the person he had once had come to terms with he might lose, but the lives of his entire immediate family. There was no illegal activity, no one to blame really. A man slid through the intersection due to brake failure or that was the official report anyway. His car collided with Raymond’s family’s car and killed everyone inside. Raymond wasn’t there because he was arguing with his dad that day. They were all going to get ice cream and he stayed behind.
Raymond wanted to stay in the dorms at college even though he lived five miles from there. His dad was insisting he stay at home to save some money. But Raymond wanted freedom, freedom from the man who not that long ago he could have lost forever. He just wanted to be out of his parent’s house and have the full college experience. Now they were all gone. Raymond couldn’t help but blame himself after the wreck. “Was dad not paying attention because he was mad at me?” “Did I cause the accident?” Raymond had kept these feelings inside since that day.
He couldn’t write anymore that day. Raymond saved his file and went down stairs for a couple drinks at the bar. The first thing he saw when walking through the door of the Ark Beer’s Hotel Lounge was the old couple. They were sitting at the same table wearing the same clothes from before, only different colors. The man’s shirt was still white but with blue stripes and blue pants. The old woman was wearing the same dress as before with the anchors but, in a pretty green color. It looked like a deep blue green you would see sparkling on the ocean.
Making his way to the bar he noticed that apart from the old couple he was the only one there again. Arthur was cutting limes at the bar with his back turned to Raymond, his bald spot shining in the light of the bar.
“A G&T Arthur, if you don’t mind.”
Arthur whirling around to greet him, said, “Hey, Raymond, good to see you again, sounds good.” As Arthur turned to make his drink Raymond was startled by Liz bursting out of the kitchen carrying two plates with steaming food. She was headed for the only table there, the old couple with the consistent fashion sense.
Feeling more at home and accomplished due to his getting some writing done the past two days, Raymond sparked up a conversation with Arthur as he finished making his drink, “So has it been as slow as last night?”
Arthur, always seemingly very positive answered, “Oh, there has been people in and out all day, how is your work going?”
Raymond, now with his guard down a little said, “I did a little writing today, I’m happy with it.”
“Hey, sounds good my friend!” Arthur answered empathically. “I’m still jealous of that, I wish I had a story inside me somewhere, but my life is just a little too boring for that, but hey, I’ll take what I’ve got here at the bar.”
Raymond, repeating what he told Arthur on his first night, “Everyone has a story to tell, you just have to sit down and let it out.”
“Yeah, sounds good to me”, came the reply. Raymond not being able resist the sounds and smells of the ocean excused himself,” Listen, I’m going to take my drink outside and enjoy some fresh air for a while okay?”
“Sounds good, Raymond,” came the reply.
Walking out onto the hotel patio, looking out to the ocean Raymond failed to see the blonde girls sitting on the same beach chairs from before. “Hey man, back again?” “Oh, hello ladies,” Raymond tried to sound like he wasn’t happy to see them. They were extremely attractive even though they were a lot younger than Raymond and most likely out of his league on his best day; holding up the same antique cups from before they shouted in unison, “cheers!”
It made Raymond happy to be talking to them. He had planned to be tucked away in his room for the most part during his short stay here but, now that he had the attention of people he had never met he felt a little more alive. Raymond couldn’t help but fantasize about being friends with them. Not only because they possessed a sexual appeal anyone would notice but, because they seemed so happy, and had a contentment about them like nothing could upset the life they had carved out for themselves. He pictured in his head that he was their age and was sitting in a beach chair right beside them, talking endlessly and laughing at everything that they saw.
Being too shy to strike up any further conversation he went back inside to the bar. Upon entering he noticed the same scene he had seen his first night. The old couple was sitting in the same chairs enjoying their meals. Taking a seat at the bar Arthur offered him another drink. “Ready for number two, Raymond?”
“Yeah, go ahead Mr. mixologist.”
“Sounds good, I know how you like ‘em.” Arthur said.
Raymond leaned back and finished what was left of his first gin and tonic of the night and laid the empty glass on the bar. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed an empty space where the old couple should have been. They disappeared again. There was no way they finished eating and paid their bill that quick. He had just come in from the beach and they were still eating. He would be lying to himself if he didn’t admit this had peaked his interest. How were they leaving so fast that he didn’t notice them? “Arthur, who are the old couple that was sitting over there, do they stay here in the hotel?”
“That’s William and Carrie; they’ve eaten here every night for a week. They must stay here; no one ever comes to this place unless they are staying in the hotel.”
As Arthur said this Liz came out of the kitchen and leaned against the end of the bar. “Well, I’m done for the night,” she mumbled.
“Why don’t you stay for a drink, Liz”, Raymond’s shyness melted away. He wanted to know about the old couple and their waitress might have some information. Liz, with the quickness of a supermodel turning down the chess club president, said,”Gotta head out, see you tomorrow Arthur.”
“Have a great night.” Came the reply from the bartender.
Raymond didn’t know why but he was intrigued by the couple that had made their way out of the bar on two consecutive nights without him noticing but after a couple more gin and tonics he forgot about them.
“I think I’ve had enough for tonight Arthur, stick it on the room will you?” “Sounds good,” came the reply from the giddy barman.
Early the next morning Raymond found himself sitting at his desk ready to recall another part of his life. He had not looked forward to reliving the death of his family but he powered through and painted that picture as best he could. Now it was on to another dreadful chapter in his struggle.
Lily had brought the sun into his life. The sadness that lived deep within him disappeared for the short four years he knew her. From the second they met he loved her. There was something about her that no matter what she said or did he could find no fault in her.
They shared everything. Their hobbies were the same, their likes and dislikes matched perfectly. Everyone they knew said they should hate each, that they were so alike they should have never gotten along, but this wasn’t the case. Outside of work there was no moment they didn’t spend huddled together doing something. Raymond wouldn’t have believed it if he could step outside his life and see how wonderful he felt. But he couldn’t so he just lived in his fantasy, enjoying ever moment with Lily and dreaming up more fun adventures they could share together when they weren’t.
The day it had ended Raymond had come home with brochures for skydiving. Lily had a streak of adventure just as strong as his. He had not known it at that moment but he would never lay eyes on her again.
Her disappearance baffled police. No clues, no evidence of foul play was ever found. Raymond was even a suspect for a short time. She had been seen leaving work and was never seen again.
Raymond let his imagination run wild with theory. The most plausible answer was she was abducted and…….He couldn’t’ write it. He had seen those shows on TV where the local girl, popular with everyone in the community gets taken and is never returned to her family. They all ended the same. They were all the same.
If he wanted to write his story he had to go on, it was too important to leave out. She was likely abducted and violated, killed and dumped in some thick deserted wood. The police actually told him this. This was her most likely end they had said. There was very little hope of finding her. He remembered how nonchalant they were about the whole process. But he didn’t let their theories get in the way of making his own.
He wondered if he had been good enough. Had she just left him and didn’t want a big scene. Was it possible she was out there somewhere, happy and living a new life? If this was true he was happy for her. At least she would be was safe and secure. Maybe he just didn’t give her what she needed. Maybe he had been too overbearing, too quite, too loud, too anything. He played any trick he could play with his mind just so she could live, if only in his head.
He still thought about her everyday. Even when Emma came along he still thought of her. It made him feel guilty but there was never any moment he imagined he might prick the vein of her memory and let her flow out of his body forever. She would be there always, washing his memory with the most wonderful times of life, and consequentially polluting his head with her demise. She became part of his sadness.
He couldn’t put any more writing in on the day. It was time to go visit the little place of refuge downstairs. Raymond needed a drink or ten after his work today. Hoping Arthur wouldn’t ask how it went today, he headed for the elevator.
Like a soldier guarding the castle there Arthur stood ready for his next customer. “Raymond!!!!” “Ready for another G&T I see!” he belted out.
“Well I’m always ready for one, but I wouldn’t ever get anything done if I had as many as I wanted.” Raymond joked. He had always had a good sense of humor. It got him through the day sometimes. No matter how dark or bleak the situation he could always find a way to make people laugh. Having been writing on his own life it was himself he needed to make laugh now.
Taking number one on the night from Arthur he headed for his nightly visit to the beach. This time he noticed the two blonde girls lounging on the patio. Alexa and Annie were on their usual chairs with their usual cups. Their tattoos seemed so out of place for them. He didn’t really know them but Alexa’s eagle and Annie’s wings, both prominently displayed between their breasts seemed something you were more likely to see on a biker. “How are you tonight ladies?”
“Oh, hey guy!” Alexa was always the one to speak first. Annie followed with another hipsterish greeting, “Hey, man how is life treating you?”
Raymond was never the most open person but he was starting to feel at home at the hotel quite quickly. “Its not too bad, I’ve been doing a bit of writing.”
“You’re a writer?” Alexa asked with some degree of interest.
Raymond not wanting to take credit for something that wasn’t true, answered,” no, not really, just trying it out.”
“I see.” Annie replied, always laconic.
He couldn’t help but have that feeling of exhilaration with being near them. He seemed to feed off their youth, but at the same time felt out of place around them. Being the shy man he was he fought off the urge to continue the conversation and went back inside to his now usual seat at the bar.
The old couple William and Carrie was at their same spot eating their dinner. Arthur was head first into the cooler, cleaning it when Raymond hopped on his chair. Just as he was about to take another drink Liz came cascading out of the kitchen with her things, always looking ready to take flight from the bar. “Well, I’m outta her, see ya tomorrow.”
“Aren’t you going to finish waiting on William and Carrie?” Raymond asked.
The answer surprised Raymond like everything about the couple did, “they left already, no more people for me wait around here for.”
Turning around in his bar seat, Raymond gazed upon the empty chairs where not thirty seconds ago the old couple had sat. They had sneaked out of the bar again without him noticing. Raymond now too curious to control himself asked,” do they pay their bill before leaving.”
Liz, looking at him like his head had just exploded answered, “of course, they have been eating here every night, do you think we would let them back in if they left without paying.”
“Do they stay in the hotel?”
Liz, again bothered by the question replied, “how would I know, I assume so, who would come here if they didn’t.” With this she picked up her things and headed for the door. Arthur with his head still in the cooler never heard I word of the conversation.
After a couple more drinks Raymond went back up to his room. He couldn’t get the old couple out of his head. How do they leave so fast? It’s like they vanish into thin air. Maybe they are ghosts he thought, but he didn’t believe that junk. The last thought that ran through his mind before drifting off to sleep was William and Carrie floating through the ether, haunting the hotel. But the smile that this gave him disappeared when it made him think of the people he missed so much; the people that were taken from this planet too early. He knew he no longer had room for death in his life.
The sun rose and brought a soothing warmth to Raymond Rockwell’s Myrtle Beach hotel room that morning. He had no plans of deviating from his routine of getting up and going straight to his computer to continue penning his life story. The disease that racked his body lay dormant and didn’t keep him from living a normal life for now. But as he rose from his bed his first thought was not of his project but of the old couple he kept seeing in the downstairs bar.
William and Carrie had been there all three nights he went down to have a drink after writing. The strange thing about them was that they seemed to disappear every night. All three nights Raymond had been sitting in a chair at the bar with the couple, probably in their eighties, sitting not ten feet behind him. And all three nights they vanished without him seeing them leave. One second they were there and the next they were gone. Old people don’t move that fast, he thought.
For some odd reason they overtook his desire to write. He wanted to meet them. He didn’t know why. They had to be staying in the hotel; locals wouldn’t be eating at the Ark Beers Hotel Lounge, especially not two people on their way out of this life. It was a beach bar for young people cutting through to the ocean.
“I’ll just take a quick peek around the hotel and come back and do some writing.” he thought. Leaving his room he looked around the floor where he was staying. Putting his ear to the first door he heard nothing. He repeated this process several more times until he had listened in on every room on the floor. Coming up with nothing he hit the button to go down to floor fifteen.
Floor fifteen proved to be a little more interesting. Listening in on room 1505 he could hear Alexa’s voice. “I know but do you think I should wear the blue top or the yellow one. Not wanting to eavesdrop anymore than he already had he moved on. Sticking his ear to every door he didn’t hear anything that might make him think there was an elderly couple inside.
On the sixth floor he heard people having sex. On floor four he overheard an argument with a married couple about where to send their kids to school. On floor three he recognized another voice. Annie was speaking into the phone just loud enough for him to hear, “I’m wearing what I always wear Alexa!” Continuing on he checked floors one and two to no avail.
He thought about trying the front desk and asking if they knew William and Carrie. Making his way to the lobby of the hotel he saw Elli sitting there with her book. “Excuse me,” Raymond said, remembering how standoffish she was when he had checked in.
“I was wondering if you knew an older couple that is staying here, they are about seventy-five or eighty.” He realized he didn’t have too much more information to give her and as he was thinking of how else to describe them he got his answer.
“No, I just check people in I don’t get to know them.”
Knowing there wasn’t going to be much more information coming from her he left the front desk without another word. He cut through the bar on this way to the beach but there was no one there. The door was unlocked but the lights were off and no one was behind the bar. Stepping out onto the patio he scanned the beach. There weren’t many people out today, a big surprise considering the sun was out and it was warm and a perfect day to lay out.
He decided to head back up to his room and think of a plan. Undertaking this search had given him a little excitement. He had wanted to be an explorer when he was kid. Raymond had imagined himself discovering new wonders of the world and finding treasure worth more money than the crown jewels. This gave him a new adventure. The couple had taken over his thought process. He had forgotten about his writing for the day.
Upon entering his room the first thing his eyes fell upon was his computer. “I really should be writing.” he thought. Lying down on his bed he stared at the ceiling wondering who this old couple was. He spent the rest of his day thinking, pondering, obsessing over them. Drifting off to sleep he had passed his first day in the hotel without writing a word.
Waking up the next morning Raymond went straight to putting his ears to the doors of the Care’s Sea Inn guests. His floor again proved disappointing. On floor fifteen he heard Alexa on the phone again;” I don’t know, I just think we should go shopping first, so we don’t miss out on anything!” Floor seven he heard a sound of a phone ringing in one room but no one answered it. The couple from the fourth floor had apparently made up and decided where their kids would go to school because Raymond could hear them laughing hysterically through the door. On three, Annie was on the phone again just like her friend on fifteen. “I think we should hit the outlets first.” Moving on Raymond began to think all of floors one and two were empty because this was the second day he hadn’t heard a single sound from any room.
The day ran on like this. He checked the beach, the lobby, the coffee shop across the street; all to no avail. Lost in his obsession with finding the old couple Raymond Rockwell walked up and down the strip in Myrtle Beach the rest of the day. He never saw the people he was looking for.
Again the sun was already beating down upon his head when he woke the next morning. Opening his eyes he felt a sensation he could not remember having felt in a very long time, if ever. Raymond didn’t know what it was, but he did know that he was ready to face the day. This was something he was not accustomed to. Normally, he set his alarm at least an hour and a half before he had to get out of bed so he could talk himself into living another day. He would lie there and stare at the ceiling asking himself questions like, is it worth pulling my feet from under the covers and laying them on the ground? Why bother with going to work and being a productive member of society? This was no problem today. He got right up and showered, put on his clothes, and left his hotel room to find William and Carrie.
The routine remained unchanged. Raymond listened at all the doors on his floor. The results didn’t change either; he heard nothing that made him think an old couple occupied any of those rooms. He pushed the down facing arrow to descend to the fifteenth floor, oblivious to why he had come to Myrtle Beach in the first place. His memoires completely forgotten, he rode down the one floor to fifteen.
As the doors opened to let him on to his next set of rooms two people stood directly in front of him, side by side, as they were ready to block his way. He recognized them immediately as the couple he had been looking for. They stepped on to the elevator and stared at Raymond like he was their long lost son.
“I’ve been….” Raymond was cut off mid-sentence.
“We seem to have sparked some interest in you Raymond.” William spoke with calm, even tone.
He didn’t have a clue as to how they knew his name; he was just enamored with the fact that they were standing right in front of him.
“Not just a spark but a lust for life has opened up in you in your quest to find us. If only you could put this effort into living life, living for your passions, living for the people you love, the people who love you.”
Raymond couldn’t move, he couldn’t divert his gaze from the old couple he had been chasing.
Carrie spoke now, with a voice you would expect from a loving grandmother, soft and comforting.
“You have a passion inside your heart Raymond, don’t turn away from it. Chase life, chase love like you chased us these couple days. Your time on this planet does not last long, and you don’t know how much you have left.”
He didn’t know if that was a reference to his disease; eschewing the fact that they shouldn’t know this information either, or just a simple platitude. Either would have made sense. It didn’t matter at the moment. He closed his eyes and realized in an instant that he wanted to live. He couldn’t let this disease take him away. He had a purpose; he had Emma, and his sense of adventure and his dream of being an explorer, a world traveler. A quitter he was not.
As the ding of the elevator door let him know he was at his destination he realized the old couple had vanished again. Right in front of his eyes this time, they had gone. His first instinct was step off the elevator and look for them but he knew they would not be there. Glancing at the floor number he saw he was on three.
“That’s strange, I hit fifteen and I never saw William or Carrie hit any buttons.”
Annie stepped on the elevator and greeted him.
“Hey man, I was just going up to meet Alexa, what are you up to.”
“I, I don’t… really know, just living life.”
This excited Annie, “Yeah man, I know what you mean, all you can do is live and hope for the best right?”
As she said this the door opened to floor fifteen and Alexa hopped in.
“Hey guys, I hope I didn’t miss anything.”
“Chill out miss drama queen,” Annie said while rolling her eyes.
The next stop on the elevator was Raymond’s floor.
“Number sixteen man, I assume this is you,” said Alexa.
Raymond stepped out on to his floor without a word of goodbye to the girls. He slid his room key into his door and opened it. His time at Care’s Sea Inn had been short, it had been fun, but mostly it had led him to realize he wanted to live.
His pursuit of William and Carrie had reminded him of his childhood. He thought about the times he had spent with his brother exploring the woods behind his house; the memories of him and his dad watching documentaries on explorers on television. Chasing after them had awakened his lust for life. He knew what he wanted, he knew his destiny, he was alive again, and he was free; free from the depression that had lingered so long within him.
His decision to leave and go back home had come easily. As the back of his head hit his pillow he knew that he would be checking out of Raymond Care’s hotel tomorrow morning. The hotel owner’s fate of a young death would not be his own. He would drive home, start fighting for his life and start living like every day was his last whether he had a fatal disease or not.
Checking out of the hotel he began to form a plan in his head. He would drive straight home, tell Emma his whole experience in Myrtle Beach and ask for her forgiveness. She would take him back. He had been distraught about his diagnosis and acted impulsively. He knew now what he did must have put an enormous strain on her. He was selfish and out of line, but she would forgive him. They would be back to their normal selves emotionally and begin to fight his disease. “She’ll forgive me,” he thought.
He would get his old job back too. They would understand. He had had a moment of craziness. He was reliable. The company could rely on him. They would take him back.
Getting into his car he felt good. He had gotten this out of his head. He would live like a normal person again. When you’re told you have a debilitating disease you fight; you fight with all you have and this was what he was ready to do now. He could beat this.
He had made it almost all the way home on one tank of gas. Pulling into the station he realized he was only ten miles from home so it was no surprise to see someone he knew.
“Charlie, hey man!, his excitement at being back home was overtaking him; “Charlie, it’s Raymond!”
His old friend of twelve years had looked at him like he was a disease. “I thought you had gone, what are you doing here.”
“I’m back in town; I’m heading home now to see Emma.”
Charlie looked unaffected, like he was looking at someone he had never seen. And as he turned to go into the store he looked back one last time holding an expression upon his face that gave Raymond a grim feeling.
Raymond felt confused by his old friend’s actions but could not focus on anything but getting back on the road to home and seeing Emma. It took him another fifteen minutes and he was at his apartment. He looked up at the second floor window where he and Emma had cuddled together and watched the rain so many times. Raymond didn’t think to grab his bag from his car, he just ran upstairs to meet his girlfriend of four years. Opening the door he found the apartment empty. The one person he was most excited to see upon his arrival was not there. “She must still be at work,” he thought.
Not wanting to waste another minute of his life he decided to call his work and get his job back while he waited on his companion. Lance Cruet answered the phone like he always did, in anticipation of a new or satisfied client.
“Thank you for calling Puzo’s Distributing, this is Lance.”
“Mr. Cruet, its Raymond!” He had no thought that he might not get his job back. “Listen, I’m back in town and would like to come back to the company, I know you could use someone with my experience.”
Lance Cruet spoke in the tone of someone who was speaking to an old enemy. “Mr. Rockwell we do not currently have any positions available here at Puzo’s Distributing, further more I would not consider hiring you if we did. You left your position without notice and without an explanation as to why you were abandoning your job.”
Raymond tried to cut in, astounded at hearing this. “Lance, I had…….,”
Mr. Cruet continued, “This is not something we can tolerate here and I do not wish to hear your side of the story. Thank you for calling Puzo’s Distributing, have a good day.”
This marked the second failure since he had been back. First his friend turns his back on him, literally and now he had no job. But somehow, when thinking of Emma those things didn’t matter. The prize for wanting to live was her. She had stuck with him for three years even though he lived his life with depression. He realized now that he had not appreciated her or any of his life for that matter. That would all change. When she came home, he would tell her everything. He would tell her everything he had done while away, everything that made him want to live, and everything that was going to change. He was going to start living.
Emma walked through the door and stared at him in shock. The look upon her face gave Raymond a slight pause but he knew what he wanted. He knew what he had to say, what he wanted to say.
“I’m back Emma; I’m back and I’m sorry.”
“Well, why are you back,” she said, still standing by the door.
“I realized I had made a mistake. Leaving was the worst possible thing I could have done.”
Emma, with a slight twinge of venom to her voice exclaimed, “Yes it was, what a stupid thing to do! It was the dumbest thing you could have done. But you didn’t answer my question, why are you back?”
“I want to live, Emma. I want to be with you. Being away from you made me realize what I had, and I don’t want to lose that. I want to fight this disease and go on and live life with you.”
“You already lost me Raymond.” Emma’s retort was cold and void of any emotion he was used to seeing her express. “You lost me the second you left. How could you expect me to live not knowing what happened to you, were you ok, were you getting treatment, was this all just a way to get away from me?” “Had I made you unhappy?” “I didn’t know, and you left me remember, I couldn’t go on with all those questions. When you shut that door, I watched you from the window putting your bag in your car and driving off. The second you were out of my sight you were out of my heart.”
Raymond not wanting to be dealt another failure on the day tried to state his case. “Emma, I will do whatever….”
“You will leave this apartment Raymond. You will leave and never come back here. I don’t want to see you, I don’t want to hear from you, I don’t know you………and I don’t think I ever did.”
This last admission was too much for Raymond Rockwell to bear. As Emma took one step to her side to give him room to get to the door he obliged. He did not look at her, he just stared at the floor for several seconds before he said, “I’ll get my stuff when you are at work.” And with that he walked out of the door of his apartment again, this time not knowing where he was going.
It had been three weeks since Raymond had come to reclaim his life. Rejected by Emma and his long time place of employ he had concentrated on getting everything out of his old apartment. It took longer than it should having due to the fact he had to wait until Emma was gone to collect his things. One more trip and he was done. He hadn’t known why he was bothering, considering he had decided to take his own life. He had lost what he had come back for and he couldn’t bear the thought of the disease killing him any longer. Not that long ago that was the plan, to just let it take him. But now it made him sick to think he would die like that. He would rather die by his own hand than some random bunch of vicious molecules.
Walking in to Emma’s apartment; the one he had not long ago shared with her, he remembered his former girlfriend had a stash of sleeping pills in the medicine cabinet. She had had trouble sleeping a couple months ago and the doctor prescribed her medication that was too strong for her. She had only taken the one after having a bad reaction to them. But Emma was someone who would never throw anything away and he knew they would still be there.
Opening the cabinet his eyes fell upon the bottle of medication he was looking for. Taking them in his hand he felt a power he had never experienced. He now controlled his life again. Neither his disease, nor his depression, nor anyone in his life had any hold over him. He would not be remembered as someone who succumbed to illness, he would be remembered as master of his own fate.
Opening his mouth and disposing its contents into his body he twisted the top back onto the bottle and walked into the kitchen. He threw the empty pill bottle into the trash and went to the refrigerator. Emma had two bottles of Pouilly-Fuse unopened in the door. This had been their favorite wine. They had drank it at every special occasion together; birthdays, anniversaries, and even on the first night they met. Raymond uncorked both of them and sat on the couch with the wine and a glass.
He sat and thought on his life. It seemed like everyone he ever knew flashed across his mind at least once. All the tragedy, all the sadness played out in his head. At that moment he forgave himself. He forgave himself for the person he had become. The depression had taken hold of him and he had lived his life not knowing how to break free of it. And it had affected every one he knew, everyone he had a relationship with, everyone he came across. But now sitting on his former couch he let it all go.
After his started the second bottle he became drowsy. He leaned his head back on the couch with its loud, pink blanket and let the memories take him away. They were no longer his memories but strange caricatures of experiences he knew he had taken part in but he couldn’t recognize. The car crash that killed his family became a hot air balloon taking them all up into the bright blue sky; the news story of his only love being missing morphed into a documentary on their wedding and all the pomp and circumstance that came with it.
Old friends flashed by eyes, he saw schools he went to, his favorite bookstore. The life he once knew played out in his head. It was like watching a movie, not for the first time but, like seeing your favorite film from childhood many years later. But, slowly the visions started to fade and so did Raymond’s strength. He closed his eyes and uttered his last words, “I don’t care….Elli.” His wine glass fell from his hand, spilling the wine within. Raymond had lost his battle.
Emma got home around the same time she always did. She showed no concern, hate, shock, or any other emotion as she called the police. Raymond was a bad memory, an attack on her comfort and safety. Him leaving her left an impression she did her best to file away in the deepest parts of her psyche. It was almost over now.
As the body was placed on the gurney she was asked what had happened, how she found him, all the normal questions that are asked when a person shows up dead before their time. They were all forgotten when she told them he had deadly disease. There was no further reason to investigate. He had died of his illness. This is what went into the report; this is what the police believed, and what Emma believed. He had died of his illness.
Raymond had wanted to go out on his own terms and be remembered for taking his life into his own hands, to be remembered for taking his own life like the owner of Care’s Sea Inn. But his legacy was much different. The rare times Raymond Rockwell was mentioned by co-workers, former friends, or anyone else it was always said he had died of his illness.
The Ballad of Jimmy S:
A Tale of Terror and Woe Told in Five Dramatic Parts
Jimmy S measured each and every step with a full foot length between the heel of his front foot and toe of his back.
He measured the steps using his size ten and a half feet that had worn the same brand of Marcoliani cashmere/silk blend socks and wing-tipped shoes—Alfred Sargents with a lace closure for easy on and off, a suede and fabric lining to ensure no blistering, and a lightly cushioned insole that massaged his feet with every step he took—since he could remember. Since anyone who knew Jimmy S could remember. He had pairs in every color they were offered in: antique chestnut, black, burgandy, and even a white pair purchased during an ill-fated shopping trip in the eighties.
To this day, he still looked in his wardrobe and wondered what had come over him.
He'd thought time and again what lengths he would go if he had to find another supplier, if, God forbid, they went out of business, and he had to find a new wing-tipped shoe altogether. To him, nightmares were made of this; it gave him shivers and woke him up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night.
Those size ten and a half feet were attached to legs—with a thirty-two inch inseam—that wore the same style of dress pants—Givenchy—for as long as he did his wingtips. Attached to those legs were a forty-inch torso, and attached to that torso were thirty-eight inch arms, which wore the same white pinpoint cotton shirt—never striped or pastel—, vest, and jacket. On top of the torso sat a head—shaved close to the skin and brushed forward in a style that most men who were in a balding way favored—that was still somewhat delightful to look at. The head held amber-colored eyes, a largish nose, and a full set of lips. While the individual features might have looked average at best if they were put on anyone else, his English-Spanish ancestry as a whole had an unnerving effect on the populace of womenfolk. At around fifty, his skin sagged slightly, but not enough to give his face too much character, definitely not enough to make anyone conclude he had been afflicted by the palsy. His body was rounder than it had been in his thirties, and even up until his mid-forties, but still managed to give women all over the world something to think about as they watched him on their television screens.
The only change he ever allowed in his choice of clothing was that of neckties and hats. He'd wear a regular tie and fedora, depending on the occasion, and bow tie and Homburg—Jimmy S had never even once considered a Bowler, or the silly Porkpie, or even worse, the Cowboy hat—if he was feeling particularly plucky and felt like a cosmopolitan man of action, a man of international intrigue. However, he'd never sink as low as opting for anything he deemed ordinary, such as being caught in public in a turtleneck, or coordinating with a paisley necktie, or the sporting of any pastel whatsoever.
Pastels were entirely off-limits.
He'd only wear coats if the weather deemed appropriate, and sometimes he'd bundle up in an unbelievable amount of layers to ward off anything Mother Nature threw his way. Growing up in the Northeast had caused this undeniable habit. He'd sometimes wear the minimum black wool coat, but most oftentimes he'd bulk up underneath it with more, including a coat that was once his father's as well as a leather motorcycle jacket that was given to him by a paramour.
(It goes without saying here that he was just as quirky in the bedroom as he was in his routines. That's what the women in his life—most notably his second wife Sofia the Spaniard—would have one believe if they were to tell about his odd yet awe-inspiring sexual proclivities over a cappuccino.)
Sometimes he used his ebony-shafted walking stick with the solid 14K gold cap that was encrusted with Swarovski elements, sometimes not, which was always paired with his winter attire.
People who had contact with him in the small village where he lived during his time off from filming on a daily basis couldn't help but notice his peculiarities such as the walking stick in bad weather and the vest-less linen summer suit in warmer weather when he came back to the village. Most people kept their distance from Jimmy S, and they knew just enough about the inner workings of the situation to avoid pointing out any of these oddities. Along with being an eccentric, he was also a rather well-known actor working under the pseudonym of James Steele, who starred in McGuff and Friend and who had entranced millions in his devilish, yet satirical, characterization of his Golden Globe, Emmy–winning television alter ego.
On one morning the second day back from filming the ninth season of McGuff and Friend, when the rhododendrons and azaleas bloomed in jewel-toned hues of magenta and lilac, and the air crisp with spring and rain, Jimmy S took the weather into serious consideration when choosing his attire for the day. Some may have called him fussy, or fastidious, or even persnickety, but he considered himself simply a man of good taste and vigilance.
Firstly, he checked the weather on television, after turning it from Channel Four I-Team news that played a clip about a gas main that had exploded in downtown Manhattan. He watched for a moment, feeling stimulated and compelled to watch more. Hairs prickled all over his body. However, he had other matters to attend to and found the Weather Channel in HD after a few more clicks. From the nightstand, he took a bottle of prescription painkillers from the drawer, noted he had only a handful left, and washed down a few with a crystal glass of lukewarm water that tasted awkward and stale. The painting of Our Lady of Perpetual Help on the far wall looked down at him like he’d just picked his nose and made a meal of it.
He missed Buenos Aires and Catalina something terrible, but he had to get his old routine back in hand. His head still throbbed and the injured area above his ear still tender to the touch. For the time being, what happened in Buenos Aires had to be forgotten, the hows and whys of it all, but the conspicuous scar above his right ear begged to differ.
Waiting for the pills to settle in his stomach, he watched for a moment and listened until he heard the information he needed. He then went down the back stairs and stuck his head out the servants' entrance in back of his family’s stately manor to double check it, and then out the front door to triple check. Before opening the door, he cocked an ear and listened for his father, hoping to avoid the old man.
After all his checking, he decided it was a regular suit kind of day. Small sprinkles of rain fell from the sky—he found it was the same weather at the front door as it was at the back—but it was nothing his Mario Talarico black canopy umbrella with a hand-sewn leather handle couldn't manage.
He had a schedule to keep, however, and he dressed with both care and haste. His television role had recessed for the summer, and it excited him to resume his springtime routine in the village where he had lived since he was an infant. He set the Fedora firmly on his head, tilted to the right ever so slightly to cover the distressing scar where hair refused to grow.
An echoey knock resounded on the great oaken door in the main foyer. Jimmy S looked around for a servant of any type to beat him to the punch, but none came running like his father paid them to do. The knock continued and Jimmy S swore it grew louder and louder, and when it finally reached a deafening crescendo, he reached for the door knob. The noise came to an abrupt halt.
He pulled the door open with some effort, raised his other arm up in a sweeping gesture with his umbrella held out and bent down into a slight bow, and said, “I beg you, do come in!”
A light chilly breeze ruffled the fabric of the umbrella and his person, but nary a person stood before him.
He didn’t think so. Perhaps it had been a servant knocking about somewhere else in the grand estate. Instead of standing alone like an imbecile in the great foyer, he shook off the feeling of foreboding and went about his day.
As Jimmy S turned to leave, he felt a pair of hawkish eyes burning into the back of his neck. Stevie Sr, his lifelong antagonizer and father, stood in the library doorway—William Blake’s painting A Vision of the Last Judgement just behind him—with his eyes fixed on his eldest son.
Jimmy S recoiled slightly as he met him. His father, Stephen Charles Anthony Stanhope, known to his closest relations as ‘Stevie Sr,’ was imposing and stately as his home. Jimmy S knew there was an active volcano just underneath the surface, lava skipping about under the skin and through his veins, preparing to erupt at any moment given the precise atmosphere.
“We must put something to bed, boy.” A hint of a the Queen’s English still existed after many years still, and the subtext in his words caused Jimmy S to tremble ever so slightly.
“What would that be?” Jimmy S said, guilt-ridden of what he didn’t know and terrified of the same.
“Rumor has it that you’ve been quite a handful on the set of McGuff and Friend.”
“What do you mean?” Jimmy S said and shrank back. “Who told you that?”
“No one of any consequence, mind you. It’s rumored about that you’ve seen Stevie Jr.”
Jimmy S couldn’t, for the life of him, meet his father’s eyes.
“Well, what do you have to say about it?”
Swallowing, Jimmy S raised himself up, with some help from his umbrella, to look his father in the eye. Without any prompting, he raised a hand to rub the healing wound on the side of his head as he gibbered on uncontrollably about what had happened on set.
“Yes, I’ve seen him, Father. I saw him once on a street corner in London, and I’ve seen him several other places around the world. I hate to admit this fact but I’ve seen him here and there for years. A few weeks ago, when we were shooting my last scene in the season, I saw him standing below in a crowd of people. I took a step toward him, but I only realized a moment too late that I had walked off the platform. I woke up in the hospital the next day, but I don’t remember much of my stay at the Hospital Británico de Buenos Aires.”
“Fifteen feet to the concrete below, was it? It’s impossible that you’ve seen your brother. However—” Stevie Sr looked down at the newly waxed parquet floor. “—we must put this matter to rest before it gets worse. You’re not well and you haven’t been for some time. Do not think for a moment I haven’t noticed.”
“No, I haven’t been feeling well.” Jimmy S hated admitting this to his father, who would no doubt hold it over his head until the end of time. However, it was remarkable that his father never once mentioned Jimmy S’s sinful transgressions or the grave disappointment the heavenly father must’ve felt. In all the thirty-two hours he’d been home, he’d made sure to avoid this elderly man and his legendary tirades at all costs.
“Do not worry. I shall take care of it.” His father turned and squeaked away to his study.
“I’m sure you will,” Jimmy S said, the whisper barely leaving his lips, and he turned to leave the manor, umbrella in hand, feeling the day would not be as auspicious as he had planned.
After leaving that dismal tête-à-tête with his father and shaking off that damnable feeling of apprehension, his first order of business would be to walk with purpose—men of his pedigree never traipsed or strolled or sauntered—two blocks to the east, which was almost a quarter of a mile, or five hundred steps approximately, plus the two lane road he would have to cross at Wilcox and Paxton, which he would take four steps across. The road down was as grueling on the shins as the climb back was on the calves. On the corner of Wilcox and Geary sat Danny Fox’s Pub & Kitchen, which was aptly named after the old fox Danny, who had come from the old country when he was but a wee lad.
Danny’s musical brogue held him enraptured every single time. Jimmy S loved the stories the bartender enthralled him with every time he stopped in for a Classic High Ball made with his favorite whiskey and just a smidgen of ginger ale. This particular drink seemed to be the favorite in Japan when they had filmed an unsatisfying episode of McGuff and Friend, where he’d had been forced to have several lengthy conversations with the writers about quality. Conversely, on an especially trying day in his neighborhood, or when his father was being especially peevish, Jimmy S would instead order a Macallan M—the 1824 series Danny kept squirreled away especially for him—on the rocks—and drink it in a few practiced, if not dramatic, gulps. He’d then order another with a snap of his fingers, and maybe he would say, “Barkeep, another” even before he had set the glass down on a paper coaster that might or might not depict a quote, a joke, or an advertisement.
Even before the finish of raisin and sultana flavors took over his palate.
On that crisp spring day, Jimmy S found himself in the exact place he knew he’d find himself on a crisp spring day: Danny Fox’s Pub & Kitchen on the corner of Wilcox and Geary. The pub sat diagonally located from the Mitchell B&B. The bed and breakfast proudly displayed a “Washington Slept Here” sign in the foyer and was the home of the best pancake breakfast this side of the Hudson.
By the time he reached the pub, the drizzle had cleared and a light fog had settled over the low-lying areas of the village. Jimmy S grimaced, knowing that if the fog didn’t clear when he walked back to the estate; it would impede his progress significantly. He would have to watch out for more than just the length and number of his strides.
The complexities of Jimmy S's behavior started around the time he was fifteen. This devolvement could’ve began earlier and blamed on pubescent hormones in his preteen years, but in reality, could be nailed down to one solitary, isolated event: his mother had cast the stereotype of wayward fathers aside when she went out for cigarettes and never came back. The only memories of her available to Jimmy S during his entire adulthood were of the lit Nat Sherman cigarette that hung from the corner of a scarlet, Chanel-lipsticked mouth, a tumbler of bourbon on the rocks, and a brunette bouffant that had outlived its time and had fallen out of favor with women her age. When he thought about his Latina mother, Alejandra, all he could picture was high dark hair, curlicue smoke tendrils framing her smooth caramel-colored face with deep-set burnished eyes, and her reclining body on the chaise lounge in the darkened, fashionable drawing room. He remembered what she had always called him: mi corazón, meaning ‘my heart’ in Spanish.
His father, Stevie Sr, once a strong patriarch and the family’s anchor, suffered a nervous breakdown a couple of years later, both from the stress of his wife walking out on him (she had allegedly landed in the French Rivera) as well as the brandys he threw back like ice water on a hot summer day. (Jimmy S was certain the secret of Stevie Sr’s successful longevity was staying completely and utterly pickled.) Not to mention Stevie Sr’s newest hobby was collecting sacrosanct art. Soon afterwards, Jimmy S found himself responsible for his younger brother, his junior by one year, Stevie Jr, to whom he was quite close.
On a summer day during the solstice when the sun had poured down its sweet honey and dried up the roadways and flora in the village after a drenching downpour, the final nail in the coffin of Jimmy S's life was driven in on the eve of his nineteenth birthday when Stevie Jr hanged himself in the bathroom with a cheap extension cord he’d no doubt pilfered from the servants’ quarters. Jimmy S found his brother with a puffy, bruised face, eyeballs bulging, and a swollen tongue protruding from a tooth hole that would never, ever take another breath of God’s pure, sweet oxygen. After finding, or rather stumbling into, his brother's body, Jimmy S sat next to the porcelain tub with his brother for an immeasurable amount of time, while Stevie's bestockinged feet brushed against his shoulder and reminded him from time to time of the unspeakable horror as it twirled and whirled from the cord hanging from the light fixture.
Not that Jimmy S had noticed in his woe and terror, deep and unfathomable as it was.
Finally after many minutes—probably many hours—Jimmy S cut the extension cord from around Stevie Jr's neck with Stevie Sr's straight razor he’d procured from a bathroom in the north wing and let his brother's body fall to the floor in an unceremonious plop, which would've hurt like the dickens had Stevie Jr been alive to feel it. Once the ambulance crew had arrived—it was still unclear who had called them in the first place—they'd found Jimmy S sitting on the simple but elegant white Egyptian cotton bath mat from Nordstrom’s with his head reclining on a teak spa seat, reciting lines from the off-Broadway production of Naughty Marietta.
Two police officers visited the estate of Stevie Sr that disastrous day. Constable Leonard Rickey wore a uniform of the most unbecoming polyester blend, and Detective Caroline Saunders, who had to be the most unfeminine, homely woman Jimmy S had ever noticed, wore a pantsuit that should have gone out with the morning’s trash. The two members of the village’s constabulary had ruled Stevie Jr’s death a suicide. However, in the years that followed, Jimmy S’s time on McGuff and Friend—where he played a quintessential, aging CIA operative foremost, a lover of women secondly, and a true Renaissance man all the way around—allowed him to character act in such a way that this expertise told him that it had not been a suicide at all, that his younger brother had been murdered.
“This man killed hisself,” echoed throughout the upstairs hall when the medical examiner got a load of Stevie Jr’s rigid corpse.
In the quantitative sense, Jimmy S begged to differ.
He had seen Stevie Jr from time to time afterwards whether it on a busy street corner in London or on the last remaining set of McGuff and Friend before it happened. He’d asked around to cast mates, grips, and negligible persons on the set if anyone had seen Stevie Jr, but all of them developed worrisome looks, whispering amongst themselves when they thought he couldn’t hear, and cut a wide berth around Jimmy S during the remainder of the shoot. He could just imagine their snickerings when he took that illogical step off a platform right before Bobby, his stunt double, could take over the scene.
After his mother left and Stevie Jr committed his final act, his father spiraled downward into a delicate emotional state. With a father who had been going on and on about things with a newfound religious fervor and a brother who was no longer drifting through the land of the living and blowing through his trust fund like a prairie wind, Jimmy S fell victim to circumstance. Peculiar behavior began to show itself in many aspects of his life, but most noticeably in his personality and routines.
At first, he amused himself with disorders such as anal retentiveness and narcissism, but finally settled on obsessive-compulsive disorder because that ailment described him best. He felt he was too nice to be narcissistic and too untidy to be anal retentive; OCD for him, however, was more than a passing fancy, but less than a full-blown obsession. He very nearly could be compared with his mustachioed co-star Billy Underwood who played the role of Connor Friend. He didn't wash his hands many times a day like Billy did while imagining billions upon billions of germs procreating in their own sexual dance on his skin. Nor did he do any of the other things that frequented OCD, like repetitive thinking, ritualized eating, or honing in and focusing solely on the Catholic-themed statuary and paintings present all over his father's home. No, he didn't measure his words or numbers as he wrote them on paper like Billy did. Nor did his OCD take a turn for the worst; his disorder was passably manageable unlike Billy’s had become when they were both up simultaneously for the Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series in the Drama category.
Be that as it may, and regardless of their individual diagnoses, both Jimmy S and Billy Underwood sank into a level of depression and haunting OCD rarely seen by those who weren’t permitted to bask in the limelight of celebrity after twenty-six-year-old Josey Yarborough had won the award for her amateurish and soppy portrayal of a teenager in Diaries of a Runaway.
High definition television had done nothing for her crows’ feet and aging pores.
Unlike his co-star Billy Underwood who washed his hands and slathered on hand sanitizer with fervor so devout it would put a flagellating Benedictine monk to shame, Jimmy S measured strides, counted them, made them his life’s work. Steps, strides, they were all the same. The strides never wavered and stayed the same length, roughly two and a half feet, but it did stop him on occasion from frequenting certain shops and places along his way. It also caused some problems in both his instep and ankle, deformities that could've been easily remedied had Jimmy S agreed to orthopedic inserts; but a man of esteemed taste and sophistication such as he could never agree to Dr Scholl's in his expensive wingtips with the premium leather uppers.
The bell tinkled as he strode into Danny Fox’s Pub & Kitchen, shaking off the peculiar cold that had settled into his body as soon as he crossed the threshold. The pills made him woozy and he swore he might have hallucinated a time or two—especially when Stevie Jr had visited him in the hospital and he’d been trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey— when the worst of the headaches affected him after that dreadful, on-set accident when he fell right onto his head. He chose to ignore the cold instead. He took his customary four steps to his favorite barstool, two stools over from the left and seven from the right.
Except this day, a stranger sat there.
Jimmy S’s demeanor changed from bright and jovial to dark and chaotic in the time it took him to blink his eyes in disbelief.
Danny Fox waved him down toward the other end. “Ah, Jimmy S, what can I do ya for?” the bartender said in a hard-to-detect Irish brogue. Danny’s bright face smiled at Jimmy S from behind the bar, and after a flurry of movement, Danny set a sparkling tumbler and the white polishing cloth down on the bar and leaned forward. His shoulders hunched forward, and Jimmy S caught a vague whiff of uneasiness rolling off the man. “Weren’t expectin’ the likes of you for at least a fortnight.”
Jimmy S smiled at Danny’s use of the word ‘fortnight’ that held such distinct and dramatic flair.
A man after his own heart.
His mood lightened a bit.
Even so, Jimmy S felt his limbs sizzle, as if the world as he knew it had slipped sideways and tumbled into the ether because this strange man had the absolute audacity to sit on his stool.
In his pub.
In his town.
Attempting to ignore that fact, Jimmy S replied, “I’m conspicuously unemployed for the next six months. We wrapped up the last episode early and finished the season. Vacation started early for me, Danny boy. Today I believe I’ll have a Classic Highball in celebration.”
“Sure thing, Jimmy S. Ninth or tenth season?”
“Can you give me a hint at the goings on? I’ve been reading about it online. And how are you? Heard you took a nasty fall. Are they going to kill you off?” Concern flashed across the man’s features.
Jimmy S flinched. “I’m sorry I can’t tell you that that, Danny Fox. You know the rules. You must watch like everyone else.” He raised his arm and waved his hand in the air, something akin to jazz hands, but not quite. More like a polite brush off. He removed his black Borsalino fedora and laid it gently on the barstool to the left of him, effectively stopping anyone from sitting there in the nearest future. “And on a side note, I’m in tip-top shape. My head only aches now and again.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t break something like a leg or a foot.”
Jimmy S nodded, thankful for that.
“Jimmy S have you met Steven here?” Danny motioned to the stranger that took up residence in his spot. Curiously, Danny looked from Jimmy S to the stranger and back again, worry turning down his mouth and creasing his forehead.
Jimmy S eyeballed the stranger who sat on his stool through a sideways glare. Without bothering to turn his head, he said, “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”
“Steven here is on sabbatical from his day job, but hasn’t yet yielded to the temptation of telling me the reason of his travels to our small village,” Danny said. He set a paper coaster down in front of Jimmy S and set his drink down gently along with an additional napkin and a fresh bowl of pretzels.
The man called Steven scooted down toward Jimmy S and left one barstool between them, the customary distance in a quiet pub, close enough for delightful conversation yet far enough away to keep boorishness at bay.
“Yes?” Jimmy S asked. “I have a dreadful feeling you would like to begin a conversation with me.” He looked down at his drink and felt like he should sip rather than gulp it. Something emanated from the man called Steven, whether it was just bad feelings or weird mogambo, Jimmy S couldn’t be sure. One thing he could be sure of though was that he wholeheartedly, at that very moment and for reasons unexplained, wished he had his mojo gris-gris—made by the Louisianan hoodoo man in the French Quarter, who he’d met on location for an episode the first television series he ever starred in, Life with Edward and Anita St. James—in his watch pocket that he’d carried since Dr. Lenoir “Boogie Boy” Hehe had given it to him.
He’d hoped, upon his arrival at home the day before, he’d unintentionally stuck it in the top drawer of his priceless antique credenza from the French Renaissance period where he kept artifacts and mementos and trinkets from his days on the show as well as other goodies that were important enough to keep but unimportant enough to forget, but he knew he’d inadvertently left it behind in Buenos Aires, presumably at the hospital where a nurse had stripped him of all his personal effects. It wasn’t the good luck he needed at this very moment from the mojo gris-gris either.
“Strange weather you’re having,” the man called Steven said.
“Is it?” Jimmy S said, knowing full well the fog rolling in was strange. Again, Jimmy S looked at the man from the corner of his eye and found he could size the hazy man up collectively by doing so. He blinked a few times to clear his vision and laughed to himself how very cliché it was to come across a stranger in a pub! In fact, McGuff and Friend had covered that very thing in the Season One, Episode Nine!
The man called Steven was purely nondescript. Copper-colored eyes, blondish-brown hair that circled a balding top, average nose and lips, a face that refused recollection. He looked to be about Jimmy S’s age, but since the man called Steven was so ordinary, Jimmy S had a difficult time pinpointing the man’s age. He could be thirty or fifty for all Jimmy S could tell. Like Jimmy S, he wore no wedding ring, not even an indentation or tan line proclaiming a recent relationship effort. The man called Steven was of average stature and even wore the most unremarkable, if truth be told, embarrassing and ill-fitting suit Jimmy had ever seen save for the hobos on the streets of San Francisco, a city that was proud of its vagrant population. These San Franciscan hobos would dig used cigarettes from public ashtrays and disgustedly re-smoke them...the same hobos who partook in deviant mating rituals in the alleyways behind neighborhood CVSs.
Jimmy winced at the mere thought of the repugnant behavior from the San Franciscan hobos and looked at the man called Steven, who could very well be a hobo in Jimmy S’s estimation.
Except for Danny Fox telling him this Steven fellow worked in the film industry.
Dressed in brown?
If this man called himself an actor, then Jimmy S was an average, ordinary man who was not the focus of public attention at all, but was a poultry salesman at a farmer’s market working among the commoners!
“No, sir, it is not.” Jimmy S couldn’t help himself. He felt he must be rude to this fellow in order to stave off any more conversation, but Jimmy S soon found the man would not be thwarted by Jimmy S’s bad-mannered words alone.
It would probably depend on corrective, divisive action.
“Would you be interested in hearing why I’m staying in your village? You look like a man in need of a story.” The man’s tone neither held interest nor boredom and he spoke in a slight monotone, a story that Jimmy felt not too particularly keen on hearing. “I can promise you, Jimmy S, it’s a story you’ve never heard the likes of before.”
“Do I? What is it you think you can tell me?” Jimmy S jerked a rude thumb to the bartender, who in Jimmy S’s estimation was keeping his ear out toward their discussion, hungry for juicy morsels. The man kept him waiting, however. Jimmy S felt anger surge through him at the thought, and made himself take a few deep breaths so that he would not act in any way untoward in respect to this newcomer. Instead, he focused on twirling the platinum ring—on his index finger of his right hand—with the flawless two-carat solitaire diamond in the center that his first wife, Wendy the Brit, had designed for him to give him on their first and only wedding anniversary paid for in its entirety with his American Express Black.
Jimmy S looked up at Danny, who refused to meet his eye. Uneasiness crept along each vertebra in Jimmy S’s spine and coiled around his throat like a boa constrictor, restricting words like “Posh!” and “Tish!” and “Bloody hell!” that were left like orphans on the tip of his tongue.
So much for a pithy retort.
The man called Steven signaled to Danny he was ready for another and added, “Get Jimmy S another of whatever it is he’s having.”
The men enjoyed a companionable silence while Danny went about making the two men’s drinks.
“Have you noticed anything different lately?” Steven said.
Jimmy S thought back to that unfortunate step off the platform in Buenos Aires and felt the throb of the scar on his head. “I make it a habit to notice the smaller things in life. What some men choose to ignore, I choose to notice,” Jimmy S said as Danny set fresh drinks in front of the men. Jimmy S thought on the man’s statement for a moment, yet couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
“The fog’s starting to roll in, so I’m going to take this as my cue to leave. I apologize that I don’t have time tell you my tale, Jimmy S,” the man said and stood from his barstool. “I’m going to make a run for it. However, you should hurry. You might just find your way home.”
The man just smiled a strange smile at Jimmy S, one side of his mouth going up into a devilish grin, the other side, however, remained mobile. He got up and left so quickly Jimmy S doubted for a mere moment that the man had ever been there in the first place.
“I don’t know about him, Jimmy S,” Danny said. “He was odd, that one, but he’s right. It’s a regular Scottish haar.”
“That’s what my Scottish mum called them. A haar is a thick, wet sea fog.”
Jimmy S nodded and turned in his barstool to look out the large plate glass window at the New England haar that dampened Jimmy S’s spirits. “I cannot put my finger on it, but something is definitely off with that man, but it reminds me of a strange story.”
“’Course it does, Jimmy S.”
“My old philosophy professor, Dr Julius Dearbourne, I believe was his name, once walked into a classroom where I sat waiting for his arrival. When he reached the podium, he just stared at us agog. It felt like a literal eternity, but in reality it was only a minute or two, and then he turned and walked out of the room. Nary a word from his lips the entire time.”
Danny nodded and waited for Jimmy S to continue. Jimmy S swirled the last remaining liquor in his glass and studied it for a moment.
“At first, the students thought it was a great day. Two minutes and done. I began to collect my belongings when something strange and terrible happened.”
“Do continue, Jimmy S.”
“Seconds later, he appeared in front of us and began to lecture. Yet it wasn’t a lecture exactly. In that painstakingly long hour, Dr Dearbourne talked about himself, reliving his life one painful minute at a time. Never made eye contact with any of us except for the back wall. He was so enamored with that wall that I had to turn around a few times to look at who he was talking to, but there was never anyone there.
“The students first became amazed and enraptured by all the terrible deeds he described, but then horror settled in.” Jimmy S chuckled, took a sip, and crunched on an ice cube. “No one had any idea what was going on, but let me tell you, it scared me deep down to my soul. I was so shaken by the professor’s diatribe that I never thought I would recover. I wondered if I had swirled down into the abyss and was just a victim of a serious hallucination. I asked myself over the coming days if I was on the brink of psychosis. Extraordinary thing though, a haar, as you called it blew in from the coast that day—” Jimmy S paused a minute and continued. “We found out a week later that poor Dr Dearbourne had been the victim of a heart attack and his body had been found. Dr Dearbourne’s cats had made a meal of the poor old bugger.”
Danny sat the towel and glass he’d been polishing down on the bar. A worrying expression crossed his Celtic features and stared at the man in front of him.
“And no one missed him for an entire week?”
“Apparently not.” Jimmy S thought back to the time of his formal college education when he and Stevie Jr went to Harvard. Jimmy S had waited a couple of years, spending quality time honing his acting skills in off-Broadway productions, before his brother graduated from Brillantmont in Switzerland, where Stevie Jr spent most of his time building homes for Habitat for Humanity, nursing blisters and fighting calluses, and phoning his brother how someone of his esteem had fallen off the proverbial moneyed wagon. Then Jimmy S thought of poor Dr Dearbourne, lying prone on his kitchen floor, surrounded by famished felines and gnawed to the bone in some places, metacarpals and metatarsals gone.
Lying dead when his students thought him alive.
His thoughts moved back to his brother, for approximately five seconds, give or take a few, Jimmy S missed Stevie Jr something terrible, and as misbegotten and tragic the event of Stevie Jr’s death was, it simply seemed surreal. When he awoke from sleep in the mornings, he felt the unjust demise was a passing dream, but then the thought of his brother hanging haplessly from a cheap extension cord would bring Jimmy S to his legendary knees.
After several minutes Danny interrupted Jimmy S’s reverie. “That’s an odd story, Jimmy S. I’ve heard of people dyin’ and then people see them afterwards. Like their ghosts show up for a last hoorah.”
Jimmy S nodded.
“Did you notice anything odd about Steven, Jimmy S?”
“He reminded me of someone. He was anything if vaguely familiar.” When Jimmy S thought of the man’s face, a flicker of recognition, and just when he grasped who Steven reminded him of, it was lost in a flash. The foggy expanse outside had no doubt brought a hazy, dreamlike quality into the pub, and Jimmy S was lured into its exotic yet dubious quality for the time being.
After a long moment, Danny nodded, looking down somewhat, but Jimmy S could feel Danny’s eyes on him.
“He could’ve been a dead ringer for you, Jimmy S.”
“Surely not, sir!” Jimmy S felt a cold chill settle over his bones, and he laughed despite himself. He felt his nose dripping and reached for a napkin.
“What’s so funny?”
Jimmy S wiped his nose and he saw a bright red smear of blood in sharp contrast to the white napkin.
As he held the napkin to his nostril, he spoke in a somewhat nasal tone, “Remember Janet Alderwick?” Jimmy S referred to his ever sardonic co-star who played his supervisor on McGuff and Friend.
“Your co-star who plays Hilary in the show?”
“Yes, that’s the one. I once bled all over her during a romantic scene. Nosebleed. We always had a rough go of it even on a good day, and I was astounded. Absolutely astounded, I tell you, that the writers wrote a romantic scene for the two of us. All I can say is that her lawyer found that a nosebleed was not an actionable offense and not cause for a lawsuit.”
The two men laughed.
“I think the fog is a signal that it’s time to return home, Danny my boy.”
“It was good seeing you, Jimmy S. Be careful out there. The fog has a way of helping people lose their way.”
“You too, my friend, and thank you,” Jimmy S pulled his Bottega Veneta leather two-fold wallet out of his inside suit pocket and laid it on the bar. He checked the napkin and saw there was a great decrease in blood. “I think it’s stopped.” He walked around the bar and threw the bloody wad into the garbage can, not even dreaming this might be a sanitation hazard. He grabbed the wallet from the bar and slid his American Express Black to Danny, a worrying expression deepening as he picked up the card and ran the tab. Jimmy S couldn’t help but notice the entirety of Steven’s drinks had remained untouched.
After Jimmy S signed the slip with a flick of the pen, he stowed the card in his jacket pocket without putting it back into his wallet. He took his hat from the barstool and set it on his head. He stood, tipped the fedora to Danny, and took the prerequisite steps to the door, stepped over the threshold into the dense, foggy air that seemed to settle on the sidewalks and streets in the village. Only the spooky tops of the trees were showing, as if they were submerged beneath an ocean of velvety cotton. Jimmy S hoped it would clear before he reached the estate.
Looking down, without taking the initial step two-and-a-half foot step, he realized he could see neither his black wingtips nor his upper thighs, nor anything below his shoulders. He took a step and walked blindly toward the next corner, counting all the while—which, if truth be told, saved him from miscalculating and falling headlong into the sidewalk—and wishing to God he’d brought, at the very least his genuine buffalo horn derby cane for weather-related occasions such as this one.
Part Two: Rising Action
At the corner of Wilcox and Paxton, he looked from side to side, as if it made any difference to him because that damnable fog bank had settled on the village like a fantastical specter. Menacing as it was, Jimmy S strode across the street and silently executed a prayer to the heavens that no conveyance should come his way and plow him over in the street like a peasant.
How would the paparazzi cover that degree of humiliation? He could see the headline on TMZ now: “James Steele, Star of McGuff and Friend, Exits Stage Left by Means of ‘85 Toyota Corolla.”
He grimaced and dared not think of it, and instead took the required strides to his house on the hill. His calf muscles screamed in agony from their lack of exercise and his mind screamed in bewilderment when he replayed his conversation, or lack thereof, with the man called Steven. His mind jumbled and tumbled and could make neither heads nor tails of the time spent at Danny Fox’s Pub & Kitchen. Then it dawned on him, clear as the sparkle of dewdrops on blades of grass during a spectacular sunrise.
He looked across the street in the mist and saw Steven, or Stevie Jr rather—really only his hand, shoulders, and head—standing there, all drab and unremarkable and lumpy in his brown suit. Stevie Jr waved slightly and began up the hill. Jimmy S watched his disembodied head of his brother bobble up the fog-laden walk for as long as he could. He snapped out of his trance, foolishly wondered if a ghost could or should have a stylist, and began following him.
Oddly enough, he felt the fog swirl around him, almost caressing him, and for a few moments he felt as though the vapor could be alive. He laughed at himself and his unreasonable nitwittery. A tendril of fog reached up and stroked him on the cheek and he swatted it away, which was impossible since it was fog and it had no substance. He was taken aback for a moment, but instead of fretting over the mist and the possibility it was copping a feel, he had more urgent matters to attend.
“Stevie Jr!” Jimmy S yelled, pointing at the fellow with his umbrella. “Stop!” He had no idea why exactly that he wanted the apparition to stop or what he would actually say if Stevie Jr had. He took two uncounted steps toward the man, and in his haste and distraction—and more notably the fog—he tripped on the curb and landed flat on his face.
When he finally awoke from his unconscious state lying prone in the middle of the road, he looked up, bleary-eyed and bleeding. Blind as a bat in the nefarious fogbank that had settled on the village, Jimmy S felt around for his trusty umbrella. Once he got himself upright, he perceived the man he knew as Stevie Jr, a much loved brother who’d lost the fight with an extension cord and the will to live on that fateful day so long ago, had disappeared into the darkness and deceit of the fog-addled cobbled lane.
Buenos Aires, the capital and largest city in Argentina, was by far Jimmy S’s favorite place to visit, to wander around in Palermo—a veritable melting pot of sorts and the home of brilliant culinary masters and the most fantastical art in all Bohemia—and stroll through the Botanical Gardens and the Latin American Art Museum of Buenos Aires. If he had the time, he would wander alone the down the footpaths through La Recoleta Cemetery for some much needed solace and introspection. If he was feeling especially antsy and libidinous, he might take an evening stroll at the water’s edge in the trendy, urban area of Puerto Madero.
On one particular occasion, he strolled along the water with his arm entwined with a beguiling enchantrix at least twenty years his junior named Catalina Dominguez, who thought of him as a dilettante and told him so time and again. (They’d shared so many bottles of Catena Zapata Nicolas Bordeaux that he didn’t bother with counting steps, but despite that, deep down in his subconscious, he’d counted a total of two-hundred-and-fifty-six.) Catalina had been the most enchanting creature he’d met during his nine years filming McGuff and Friend all over the world, even after considering the magical entrancement of Zendaya the Zimbabwean princess.
During that extraordinary night with Catalina—one for the record books—Jimmy S experienced a night like no other, which included witty repartee and a great appreciation for her general wantonness. With that being said, the following day his accident had been one of many accidents or happenings on the set. Nothing that day had gone normally, whether it was the inhabitants of neighboring buildings complaining about the constant explosions during that day’s taping; not enough extras had shown up for the last scene; or Billy Underwood accidentally knocking the intrepid Janet on her hateful ass and slathering himself with antibacterial afterward. (It was unclear if Janet had contacted her lawyer of this terrible yet uproarious mishap, but she seemed more offended by Billy’s need to decontaminate himself after touching her than being physically accosted.) Not to mention Jimmy S’s sighting of his long-dead brother—looking as young he had on the day of his death—dressed not unlike he had been in Danny Fox’s Pub. When Jimmy S saw his younger brother standing below next to a murder of grips, he was momentarily stupefied and took a step toward him, which ultimately caused the unsightly head wound and the ride to the hospital in the public ambulancia. There wasn’t much about it that Jimmy S could remember, including the week he spent convalescing in a private room. To make matters worse, Jimmy S recalled that Stevie Jr had been standing over his bed a time or two. For that he was certain, even in his drug-addled brain.
It wasn’t embarrassing enough that all the news outlets in the States had snatched up the story like the unlimited jumbo shrimp deal at the local Sizzler. The writers of McGuff and Friend rewrote the scene before to reflect Jimmy S’s real life accident as Season Nine’s wickedly effective cliffhanger, one that would undoubtedly garner attention at Jimmy S’s expense.
Did someone push McGuff off the platform? Did he live or die? Well, dear couch potatoes, you won’t know until Season 10!
With the phantasmagoria of the previous hour a mere memory, Jimmy S stumbled into his dressing room without bothering to turn on the light. He held a handkerchief to his re-bloodied nostril and hoped to God the pain would subside. And his mucked up palms from feeling his way to his house! Dear God, what if there was bruising? What if he had two black eyes?
He stepped out of his sodden trousers on the way to the casual dress section of his wardrobe. While standing in the large closet in his soggy silk boxers, he inspected his roughed up hands and his knee, which was as bloody as his nose, and decided it was bad enough to bother a servant for ointment and a Band-Aid. He pulled out what he thought were a pair of Loro Piana cashmere lounge pants from the shelf, but instead, he’d pulled out a pair of skinny jeans from the Gap.
He gasped in horror as he put the offending garment back on the shelf, far, far in the back. He was convinced, at the time when a borrowed pair had been given to him on the set of McGuff and Friend, that he’d fallen into a bourgeoisie stupor when he’d agreed to wear them. If he hadn’t, he would’ve faced certain ridicule after he’d torn a hole in the back of his trousers when he misjudged the staging area’s steps and tumbled unmercifully down, his posterior taking the brunt of the fall. Billy Underwood had come to his rescue, pulled him behind a door, and slapped a pair of jeans into his hand.
“Wear these until you can get to your dressing room,” Billy Underwood had said and pulled out a bottle of hand sanitizer. In Jimmy S’s shock and mortification, he’d agreed, but after watching Billy slather on the disinfecting gel, he couldn’t help but wonder exactly whose jeans Billy had given him. After pulling on the stiff fabricked garment that was at least two sizes too small and too skinny in the calf area, he’d hurried along to his dressing room half-zipped as quickly as his size ten-and-a-half feet and bruised rear end could take him.
Pulling the correct pair of lounge pants down from the shelf, he limped out of the wardrobe into the main part of his bedroom. He trod along the French Aubusson rug that had undoubtedly been in their family for generations, before plopping unceremoniously down on the down comforter and bronze-colored King Chani Lei duvet that he’d chosen for himself as a parting gift after his untimely divorce from his fourth wife, Renate the German, several years before. Large throw pillows were precisely placed along the headboard, including European shams in gray and linen and throw pillows made from the finest silk.
He realized a bit belatedly that it was probably almost tea time and his father would be expecting him shortly. He glanced up at the Howard Miller Windsor Cherry clock on the wall and saw that he’d either forgotten to wind it again, or he’d missed tea completely and most likely part of dinner.
How could that be?
He’d left for the village at eleven o’clock precisely and stayed no more than an hour at the pub. The clock showed ten-thirty. He watched the brass pendulum swing to and fro in a hypnotic beat, knowing he was sure to have wound the clock that morning. He reached over on the nightstand and retrieved his wristwatch and saw that it reflected the same time as the clock on the wall. Cold washed over him as he sat benumbed on the bed wondering what could have happened to the last five or six hours of his life.
Reaching for the prescription bottle, he rattled a few out of the brown bottle. A sense of déjà vu settled over him. After seeing he only had a handful left, he made a note to call in his medicine the next morning. He dreaded the thought of visiting the pharmacy and wondered if he could have a servant pick up his medication. He didn’t think so; he would have to show a valid ID for the quote-unquote ‘controlled substance.’ He mentally calculated how many steps it would take to get him there, and realized he would have to circle the block three times in order to make it perfectly and exactly to the front door of the still-independent Mulroney Pharmacy, one of the few stores CVS hadn’t squeezed out of business like a python squeezing the entrails out of a hapless tribesperson.
The silken sheets felt like heaven to his sore, pitiful body, and sinking further into the pillow top mattress, he let the angel bedding ensconce his every crevice. Even though the bed swaddled him as if he was a newborn, Jimmy S could not be curtailed. He slid his feet in a pair of slippers and ran the length of the hall, down the south twin of the wide marble staircase, and into the foyer, past the marble statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who seemed to be glowering at him, even though her head was bowed, her eyes were shut, and her hands were held up in everlasting prayer. He had hated that goddamn statue since he was in short pants and looked up at the Blessed Virgin Mary in icy disdain, but felt guilty at once for perverting her true intent.
A chill seeped into his bones and he shuddered. Had the bucolic mansion ever seemed this cold to him before? Had Mary ever seemed so un-virginal and out-and-out bitchy? Goose pimples popped up all over his body and the air buzzed electric.
He stumbled through the great arched double doors made of forged iron and carved oak that had once been on an English castle that had been laid to waste—by Irish malcontents no doubt—and found himself under the spacious porte-cochère.
Stevie Jr stood alone, starting at Jimmy S from the driveway. The haar blanketed around him, and again, Stevie Jr was only a ghostly head. For long moments, the two, one with his feet planted firmly on the ground and the other an ethereal creature that floated just above the surface, stared at each other until a noise from somewhere inside the manor brought Jimmy S back.
“Jimmy S, is that you making such a racket?”
Jimmy S whipped his head around to the sound of the raspy voice coming from the direction of the sitting room. The familiar plunk of his father’s walking stick came soon after. He turned back but Stevie Jr was nowhere in sight.
His father reached him in the foyer after many seconds of shuffling. The tall, hawkish man towered over Jimmy S. Stevie Sr had dressed in his dutiful evening attire of a dark suit, no doubt from Ermenegildo Zegna, a white pinpoint, heavily starched dress shirt, and his emerald green Forzieri ascot that he only wore on the most exceptional of occasions. Jimmy S snuck a peek at his father’s Alessandro Démesure alligator leather oxfords, but knew this wasn’t Thanksgiving or Christmas. Not his Gucci or his everyday Testoni’s, but his Démesure’s.
“You’re expected in the salon. We’ve been waiting for you for nearly an hour, and I was just looking for a servant to fetch you.”
Jean-Luc, his father’s prized, crotch-sniffing standard poodle, came to stand next to the old man. His father made a palsied hand gesture and Jean-Luc the Impolite sat next to him.
His father noted Jimmy S’s appearance at once. “Why aren’t you dressed? And what in God’s name happened to you, boy?” The old man focused keenly on Jimmy S’s swollen nose and blackening eyes.
Jimmy S bristled and shriveled at his father’s words, the pain of his ghastly trauma forgotten, whether from the pills or his father’s scorn he didn’t know. In that one millisecond, he was transformed from super-celebrity-Emmy–winning status to a six-year-old child who was caught drinking out of the commode. The only other person who could make him feel so flustered and bungled was Luna the Italian, his third wife and a harpy, the worst among the lot.
A servant, her name was Soledad, or Simona, or Saturnina, came running up with a note in her hand. She handed the slightly crumpled paper to Jimmy S, bowed slightly, and said in broken English, “There was la llamada...a call for you this la tarde...this afternoon while you were out.”
Jimmy S beamed at the sweet lady, thankful for all his time on set in Spain and Argentina. “Your English is flourishing. Well done.”
She gave him a small smile at his praise and backed away from him.
He looked down at the note and felt his father’s glowering stare, feeling the weight of it and all the disheartening years of Stevie Sr’s distaste in his becoming an actor—not just any actor, mind you. His father’s ultimate dream had been for his sons to be part of the idle riche and to enjoy all the fruits the lifestyle promised. He also knew the besmirching frown sent a clear message to Jimmy S to discontinue cavorting with the help.
“Do go get dressed, Jimmy S. We can’t wait all day.” Stevie Sr turned on his heel and his cane plunked and plonked his way back to the sitting room, Jean-Luc trotting happily after his master.
“Yes, sir,” Jimmy S said to his father’s backside without having the chance to read the note, all the while wondering why his father demanded he meet him in the parlor. The note in his hand would remain unread until he could reconvene in his quarters upstairs and be alone with his thoughts on what turned out to be quite a tumultuous day.
Part Three: Falling Action
When Jimmy S entered his room, he walked straight to his laptop computer situated at the desk in the far corner. The desk sat in front of the great windows that offered a view of the front lawns. He rarely used the computer, only sending an email here and there; he had no real need for cell phones and the like.
He sat down and turned the foreign instrument on, waiting for it to ‘boot up.’ After a few minutes, he brought up his browser and typed in ‘Legendary Star James Steele Accident,” and waited for Google to work its infinite magic.
The first thing he saw was a photo of him on the side of the page with a Wikipedia article, stating that he was an American actor, his birthday, height, and a list of his previous spouses. Also listed were articles and interviews written over the past ten years, including his lurid affair with a makeup artist on the set of McGuff and Friend. One People article in particular caught his eye: “The Most Unusual Man on Television.” He clicked on it and realized it was article written a few years back where the author wrote about his various peculiarities, even going as far as using some of his more famous quotes against him. After perusing the article for several moments, he felt violated and hit the back arrow out of pure irritation.
After several clicks and rewriting his initial Google search, he finally came upon the infamous YouTube video of his accident. He watched the wide screen shot while the video buffered. He enlarged it so he could see it more clearly, but he didn’t want to see the fall really, wanted more to see the people standing below.
And as sure as the sun was in the sky, his younger brother, Stevie Jr, in his drab brown ensemble, watched Jimmy S take that notorious step off the platform.
When Jimmy S finally made it to the sitting room with carefully applied concealer to hide his earlier accident, he walked toward the group, his feet landing on the beautiful Clark Sickle-Leaf carpet from the William A. Clark collection that his father bought anonymously at an auction for tens of millions while on a weekend excursion in Washington DC. His father never told him how much he’d spent on the floor covering, because he’d never been one to buy and tell, and more importantly, only the Philistines of the world would engage in that sort of boorish behavior. However, the brilliant red hues and the craftsmanship always left him somewhat agog, and he wished he had something like that to marvel on while in his own living area.
What he wasn’t agog with was the enormous pale blonde woman dressed in sorcerer’s garments sitting at the head of a small oak table that had been brought in and placed in the center of the room. The Nordic Amazonian wore a burgundy velvet dress with long bell sleeves and a crown of sorts, something one might see at a Medieval Faire, and had long, dark fingernails and an overly painted face. She reminded him somewhat of wife two-point-five, Ingrid the Swede, who he divorced a number of days after marrying. Several other carved chairs were placed around the table where he found Billy, Janet, and Norman.
What in the blue hell were his co-stars and producer doing in his home? At almost midnight, no less?
But that blessed note took over his thoughts.
Meet me at 3 am at Wuthering Heights, was all it said. An unpleasant pit formed in Jimmy S’s stomach as he thought about the long-forgotten staircase and the long ago smell that had assaulted his senses.
The idea to bring McGuff and Friend to life had been the brainchild of producer Norman O’Loughlin, the producer of a long string of award-winning TV shows since the early 1980s such as HAZMAT, Collapse of the Empire, and HBO’s Sex Warriors. McGuff and Friend had been under serious consideration of the major network television executives for quite some time before it finally got off the ground. Jimmy S, Billy, and Janet had all been part of a new series pilot, which was called Friend and McGuff but never aired, although some say that clips could be found on YouTube and other questionable places online.
Fast forward a few years later when the trio met up again for a re-filming of the pilot, much to Jimmy S’s chagrin. Jimmy S wanted to take the role, and knew that for someone of his stature, he had to make it appear he was a hard sell. Honestly, phone calls from his agent were few and far between, and sometimes, when the mood hit him, he felt as if he had become an imposter. Movie and television roles were going to much younger actors, such as Josey Yarborough, Adrian Atkins, and Carmen Rubio. Jimmy S kept up the pretense, however, involving many back and forths from his agent and lavish gift baskets from Norman for Jimmy S to even consider going back to work for him. Jimmy S, a somewhat prominent and notable actor at the time, had been promised the moon and stars, and Norman did not fail to deliver.
McGuff and Friend had the ability to be one of the longest-running shows on television, perhaps even surpassing the Law & Order franchise. During his stint on the show, Jimmy S had taken two Golden Globes home for Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series-Drama and four Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, beating Billy Underwood out for the coveted spot, respectively.
Except once, but Jimmy S had a legitimate explanation for that calamity.
The show itself won an outstanding number of Emmys and Golden Globes as well, beating out the likes of Game of Thrones and whatever Netflix decided to throw at them. McGuff and Friend was, in one word, a success.
At the present moment, Jimmy S couldn’t help feel that his time had run out on the show. It was something he did not care to admit to himself, but undoubtedly, there it was. He had no idea what the writers had in store for him in Season Ten, and his accident might have just been Norman’s justification to force him into early series’ retirement with all the pomp and none of the circumstance. Of course, Norman would whitewash it for the world, and according to the annals of television history, Jimmy S would do nothing else but fade away into Prime Time obscurity.
Jimmy S took a step toward the group, unsure of what to do next, and he could hear the patriarch of the family dawdling behind him, the plunk and plonk of his cane echoing off the hardwood floors. He took a seat next to Billy Underwood, who slightly backed away from him, while taking the hand sanitizer off the table and slathering a big wad of the smelly alcholic stuff all over his reddened hands.
“Don’t worry, Billy, I’m not about to touch you.”
Billy didn’t say anything to Jimmy S and even refused to meet his eyes.
Janet sighed in pretentious boredom. She, like Billy, refused to look at him.
Never missing a chance to make her uncomfortable and stick a toe into the pool of her never-ending civil suits, Jimmy S said, “Janet, my you’re looking lovely this evening. How are the kids? Alice and Toby, was it? And how is that dear husband of yours?”
Janet looked over at him, sighed again, and never being one for small talk, said, “It’s Tory, Tor-ree, and just so you know, they’re fine. We’re all just fine.” She looked up at Stevie Sr, who still stood behind Jimmy S, and said, “Can we get this show on the road or what?”
Jimmy S swallowed hard at the impending sit down he knew his father would undoubtedly see that Janet received, but no harsh words of censure came from the old man’s lips.
“Norman, how are you?” Jimmy S said, looking over at his long-time friend and producer, who always looked like an unmade bed to Jimmy S.
“I’m fine, Jimmy S.”
Not one to ignore the proverbial elephant in the room, Jimmy S asked, “Have you decided if you’re going to kill me off next season? Is that why you’re all here? You’ve all no doubt noticed a decline in my mental state and this is your version of an intervention?”
“Nothing of the sort, Jimmy S,” Norman said, and like Billy and Janet, refused to meet his eye. “Your father invited us all here for something else entirely.”
“My father?” Jimmy S said, stunned into a momentary silence. Then he turned on the only stranger in the room, the pasty woman who sat directly across the table from him. “And who might you be?”
“I’m Madame Evanora DuBois, owner and operator of the Spiritualist Church of the tristate area. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Jimmy S.”
“The pleasure is all mine, Ms DuBois,” Jimmy S said. To his father he said, “Are we going to participate in a séance?” Jimmy S was dumbfounded. His father, who purported to be a religious zealot and had a painting of Caravaggio’s Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence—undoubtedly his pièce de résistance—hanging above his bed, had put together this little occultist shindig in Jimmy S’s honor. He was literally shocked into quietude that his father hadn’t called the parish priest from St Michael the Archangel in to exorcise the demons from both this mansion and Jimmy S’s person.
“Please call me Madame Evanora.” She smiled at everyone. “Well, then, shall we all take a seat and get this ‘show on the road’?” Madame Evanora said, a pointed reminder that there was only one person who had not yet taken a seat at the table. “Do sit down.” She motioned for Stevie Sr to sit.
Jimmy S cocked his head and noticed the awkwardness that emanated from his father’s demeanor. Stevie Sr was always comfortable in almost any highborn social situation, and for some reason, this small thing bothered Jimmy S.
“Before we get started, I must tell you there is a $50 cost per person. I only accept cash. On arriving here, I noticed a few ATMs conveniently located in the village. Unfortunately, due to a few issues, I cannot take checks or credit cards at this time. ” Madame Evanora smiled. “Also, there are a few things I have to go over before we get started.”
Stevie Sr cleared his throat. Everyone looked up at him. “I don’t believe I’ll be partaking in tonight’s venture. I have other matters to attend. Madame Evanora, I trust you’ll do what I asked.”
Before anyone could reply, Stevie Sr turned on his well-heeled foot and kerplonked out of the door toward his study, undoubtedly to enjoy a cigar, a glass of brandy, and a prayer to the Almighty.
“Very well,” Madame Evanora said and continued. “I have created a very safe space for all of you tonight. I’ve lit candles and have placed crystals in targeted areas in the room to enhance our experience and create a psychically-charged atmosphere. I had to do this to facilitate communication between loved ones who have crossed over. I believe the human spirit lives on after death and will do so in a variety of ways.”
“Will we be using a Ouija board?” Billy asked, reaching for the sanitizer again.
“No,” Madame Evanora answered, eyeing the Purell bottle. “We will have to join hands, though, and I will be acting as a spiritual conduit.”
Billy took in a lungful of air and let out a harsh breath, pulling his hand away from the bottle.
Jimmy S reached over and patted Billy’s disinfected hand. “If I can partake in this alleged séance, so can you. You can dunk yourself in a vat of bleach when this is over with.”
Billy snorted and jerked his hand away. “I will for you.” He leaned in closer to Jimmy S. “Just so you know, you owe me a bottle of Macallan M from your private stash.”
Jimmy S nodded. Billy, with the puffy eyes and reddened face, was at the point in his life that any scotch would do.
“I want the 1824 bottle,” Billy said.
Of course he did.
Madame Evanora cleared her throat. “I ask that you turn off all cellular and electronic devices. Please note that I will ask you to leave if you participate in sarcastic commentary, rude remarks, or abusive language. I cannot allow any video or audio recordings since the privacy in this circle must be well guarded. It’s not every day I meet famous people.” She smiled. “We will open up the séance with a prayer for protection, and welcome those who have crossed over to visit us. All I ask is that you’re receptive to the frequencies we’ll receive from the Other Side. Please join hands.”
Everyone, even the recalcitrant Billy, joined hands.
“We have come together today to contact the Spirit World, especially to contact the younger brother of James Steele.”
Jimmy S cringed at Ms DuBois’ use of his screen name. He swore he heard a light snicker from Janet’s direction. He looked at her and grimaced. He hated the name his agent picked out for him so many years ago, a name in direct opposition of his given name.
The medium continued. “We ask that Stevie Jr join us during this time and would like to contact us through a series of raps on the table. Stevie Jr, are you with us today?”
Jimmy S glanced around the table and felt Billy’s hand tremble slightly. On the other side of him, Norman, however, remained as stoic as ever, his eyes fixed on Madame Evanora. Behind the medium, Jimmy S watched as a younger, pre-death Stevie Jr came into view, slowly at first and soon his transparent figure became solid.
“I am here, Madame Evanora!” the specter pronounced, standing behind the medium dressed in his unspectacular brown attire.
No one noticed the spirit in the corner by the large glass case.
No one except for Jimmy S.
“I sense another presence in the room.” Madame Evanora scrunched up her face as if she smelled something bad. “It hovers but does not approach.”
“Stevie Jr is here.” Jimmy S’s words faltered a bit when he realized this was the closest he’d come to his brother since his dead body had dangled in the bathroom, not counting that day in the pub.
Madame Evanora looked around nervously, craning the head that sat on a lanky neck this way and that. “He’s here?” Her voice grew in pitch and volume. “Here in this room? Where? Where is he?!”
“He’s standing right behind you, Ms DuBois,” Jimmy S said.
“Madame Evanora, if you will, Jimmy S,” Madame Evanora said, the ‘S’ sounding like a snake hissing.
“Alright, Madame Evanora. My long dead brother, Stevie Jr, who looks just like he did during his time at Brillantmont, is standing right behind you. He’s studying the contents of glass case holding my father’s religious relics, and he seems particularly taken by The Holy Foreskin.”
“I’m not looking at The Holy Foreskin, Jimmy S. Jesus,” Stevie Jr said, swiping a hand through his preternatural hair. “But I am bored with these shenanigans.” His arm swept out in front of him as he referred to the table of Jimmy S’s co-workers. Stevie Jr looked pointedly at Jimmy S. “Nonetheless, I do need to speak with you.”
Jimmy S chuckled. “You sent the note,” he said to the empty corner.
“Did the spirit speak to you?” Madame Evanora said unequivocally.
“Why yes he did, as a matter of fact. He said this, and I quote, ‘I’m not looking at The Holy Foreskin, Jimmy S. Jesus’.”
Part Four: Falling Action
Stevie Sr’s simple religious bearings took a southward turn around the time Alejandra left them, and shortly thereafter, he had fallen into quite a despair. Soon after, more than just the Blessed Mother statue started appearing all over the estate, from paintings to religious trinkets added to every corner in every room. With that being said, Jimmy S knew rooms upon rooms remained undiscovered in the mansion, and many of them his father had refused his children’s entry. Jimmy S and Stevie Jr had known all along that a secret passageway existed behind one particular set of bookshelves in the library on the far east wall. The lever, they’d found in their teens purely by happenstance, had been hidden as a replica copy of Wuthering Heights.
Fittingly no doubt, Jimmy S had always thought.
Stevie Jr had grabbed the book from the shelf because he needed to read it for a literature class for that semester’s classes. As soon as the bookshelf slid back, a short hallway came into view, startling the boys. Just beyond that, they saw a dark staircase. Jimmy S had no idea, however, what would be uncovered if they’d made it to the bottom of the stairs. They’d only made it a few feet inside when the sour, dank, and unidentifiable hit them square in the olfactory system, and never being one to question a terrible, rotten smell, Jimmy S went back out the way he came in and left the passageway forever forgotten.
Jimmy S never felt the same kinship to religiosity that his father did, and felt as if it were an imposed addiction on the masses. Stevie Sr’s new lifestyle granted him the most intense of pleasures, such as transcendence, absolution, and most importantly, superiority, which led to a compulsion that Jimmy S neither understood nor wanted for himself. It was when Stevie Jr took the plunge off the teak spa stool into nirvana that Stevie Sr’s love for religion categorically spiraled out of control. Jimmy S couldn’t swear to it, but he wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised had he found out that his father practicing self-repentance with a small bullwhip, even though a Pope had condemned the practice in the Middle Ages. Stevie Sr began collecting more and more mementos, some theologically transcendental and some unequivocally disconcerting, and it had no doubt drained the family’s coffers, to be sure. During that time, Stevie Sr talked non-stop about sin, his religious fervor becoming a committable offense as he surrounded himself with numerous pieces of sanctimonious memorabilia.
Stevie Sr also began searching for religious paintings and had to have paid a pretty penny for some of the more famous, albeit stolen ones.
The duplicitousness was utterly lost on Stevie Sr, however.
Was Stevie Sr also not aware that Jimmy S knew he carried a Saint Benedict medal on his person at all times? And that the Corpus and Cross crucifix, supposedly at the Getty Museum in a secured storage area, sat on Stevie Sr’s French Louis XVI nightstand?
In fact, the theft of Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence, one of the most expensive missing paintings of all time—estimated loss totaling around twenty million dollars—was covered in Season Five Episode Four of McGuff and Friend.
Wouldn’t Norman have gotten a kick out of it if the crime-fighting duo had actually found it hanging over Stevie Sr’s bed?
After some time, the acquisition of religious art had gone mostly ignored or forgotten by Jimmy S. However, he began seriously enquiring about his father’s emotional state, specifically when Stevie Sr began procuring distressing relics such as The Holy Foreskin. Why Jesus was circumcised had to have been one of the biggest theological questions of the Middle Ages, but Jimmy S was fine not living with it under the same roof. Many Biblical scholars believed the Holy Circumcision was actual proof that Jesus’s penis had committed one of the greatest sins against creation by its mere existence, and his father believed this minor detail also proved that all of humanity was infallible, especially so, if the Holy Penis discussed in the Gospel of Luke, attested to that fact.
Stevie Jr, with metaphysical authority and otherworldly chutzpah, materialized in front of the group of witless onlookers.
There was a series of reactions ranging from “oooohhhs” to “what the hells.” Jimmy S ignored the grand entrance made by his little brother’s ghost and remained in his natural state of snooty boredom.
Madame Evanora shook herself and reined in her emotions. “I command you, specter of the night, to leave this home immediately! I vanquish you!”
“Is she for real?” Stevie Jr asked his brother.
“Yes, I believe she is,” Jimmy S said, and to Madame Evanora, “Why would you want to vanquish him?”
Madame Evanora interrupted them. “Yes, spirit of the underworld, I am for real!” The spiritualist sighed. “Jimmy S, your father asked me to exorcise the spirit.”
“Why on earth would he do that?”
“I suppose he has his reasons,” Madame Evanora said. “Now, Ecce crucis signum, fugiant phantasma cuncta! The spirit world awaits you! You will be safer there than here! Ecce crucis signum, fugiant phantasma cuncta! Ecce crucis signum, fugiant phantasma cuncta!”
Jimmy S caught a slight movement to his right. Janet, who had sat there all evening feigning ennui, went stock still, let go of his hand, and passed out cold, her head making a horrible thumping noise on the floor below. On the other side of Billy, Norman let out a horrified screech and ran to Janet, knocking the chair over backward in the process. He rolled her over and cradled her to him. Jimmy S raised an interested eyebrow.
His attention moved away from the intrigue when Billy hoisted himself out of the chair and said, “Jimmy S, wonderful to see you again. Glad to see you’re on the mend, but I need to go. Got an early phone call in the morning. Don’t forget that bottle of Macallan, you bastard. Don’t get up, I’ll show myself out.” In a flash, Billy and his bottle of antiseptic lotion were gone. After a few milliseconds, Jimmy S heard the distant sound of a motor coming to life and then distinct sound of a smoky burnout on the driveway.
At the same time, Janet came back to her senses, swaddled in Norman’s arms. She realized where she was and who was holding her and pushed him away out of embarrassment.
“Janet, let’s get you to your feet. I’ll see to it that you make it home,” Norman said and removed his arms from her curvy body.
She nodded timorously and held a hand out to him. He helped her up from where she was sprawled and pulled her tiered floral Gucci skirt down from where it had ridden up past her knees, incidentally showing off a rather unladylike tattoo on her thigh.
“Good luck to you, Jimmy S,” Norman said as he retreated. With Janet hanging onto Norman’s arm for dear life, the pair quickly sprinted out the door and away from the premises.
Madame Evanora stood, glancing again at the specter in the corner. “I’ll bill you,” she said, blowing out the candles and collecting her belongings before making a hasty retreat herself.
“Well that was what I would call a soirée,” Jimmy S said to his transparent brother.
“Now, what was it that you so desperately wanted to show me in the library? Taking into account your flair for the dramatic, three a.m. was merely a placeholder? Who knew Father would be up to something such as this,” Jimmy S said, checking his Audemars Piguet Royal Oak timepiece. “Shall we sit here and wait, or shall we get this over with?”
“We can go now, Jimmy S,” Stevie Jr said. “Father should be down there now.”
“What’s does this have to do with Father?” Jimmy S said.
Sadness furrowed Stevie Jr’s brow. “You’ll see when the time is right.”
“Today, when we were having a drink at the pub, why did you introduce yourself as an actor?” Jimmy S said as he followed Stevie Jr toward the library. Speaking to a brother who had been dead for twenty odd years hadn’t been as terrifying of an experience as he had once thought it would.
“I only said it because firstly, you wouldn’t recognize me, and I didn’t want you to, and secondly, you would be more eager to talk to me since it would be common ground.”
“I see,” Jimmy S said, mulling over his brother’s words. “Why didn’t you just come to me?”
“In all seriousness, I couldn’t stop in unannounced. You would have been so horror-stricken you’d have browned your pants for sure, dear brother.”
“I’d have done no such thing!” Jimmy S said. “You’ve shown yourself to me over the past two decades. Other than ‘browning my pants’ as you so eloquently put it, what else stopped you from approaching me?”
“You stopped me, Jimmy S.”
Jimmy S stopped midstride. “How on earth did I accomplish that? And how is it you’re here now?”
“That execrable mojo gris-gris bag that you unswervingly carried on your person, Jimmy S. I couldn’t get more than twenty feet from you. You left it in Buenos Aires, and now it’s a play toy for the nurse’s son.”
Jimmy S resumed walking, wondering if he could charge the nurse with theft, and entered the library, one of his favorite places in the mansion. Over the past couple of centuries, his family had become collectors of over fifty thousand books and manuscripts, most of the newer acquisitions obviously religious in nature. Row after row of tomes, arranged not by the Dewey Decimal system but by convenience, the library held a vast array of treasures that led Jimmy S on a quest for knowledge in his youth. He read every book John Steinbeck had ever written and even spent curious hours with Shakespeare, who scared him with Titus Andronicus and the atrocious violence it revealed. He even read some of the priceless first editions his father had acquired at auction, books locked away in glass cases, such as The Canterbury Tales, the St. Cuthbert Gospel, and the Bay Psalm Book, a religious book that was printed two decades after settlers had landed on Plymouth Rock. He never touched his father’s copy of The Gutenberg Bible--one of the finished copies still in perfect condition—because he had a vague but unsettling idea of what would happen to him if he had left a greasy thumbprint on it. He spent hours upon hours in this massive room, sometimes cozying himself up in a comfortable leather chair next to the blazing fire in the stone hearth at the far end. Or sometimes he would find a quiet place in the attached conservatory to settle into one of the chaise lounges that sat next to the waterfall his mother had installed before her untimely disappearance.
“I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you, too, Jimmy S.”
“You stiffed me on the drinks today.”
Stevie Jr let out a belly laugh. “Sorry about that. Since I’ve been living as a spirit the last few years, I still haven’t mastered the whole ‘moving objects around’ bit. I’ve tried and tried and still can’t quite get it.”
Jimmy S chuckled. “I’m sure you will in another fifty years.”
“I don’t plan on being here for that long.”
At his words, Jimmy S. felt immediate loss. He’d missed this comradery desperately. Since Stevie Jr’s death, he’d felt a part of him left that day with his brother’s body.
“Would you like to do the honors, or shall I?” Jimmy S said with theatrical flair and motioned toward the fake cover of Wuthering Heights.
“Go to it, brother.”
Jimmy S took a deep breath, reached out for the book, and pulled it toward himself. The Beidermeier bookshelf as well as a chunk of wall scraped backward a few feet and swung to the right. With a flood of cool air, a dank, moldy smell accosted Jimmy S’s nostrils. He reached up and covered the lower half of his face with his shirt sleeve.
“Dear God, it’s as bad as I recall.”
“I can almost smell it, too,” Stevie Jr said, noting the look on Jimmy S’s face. “I remember it well.”
The dark staircase loomed before them. Jimmy S felt a flutter of fear. He had no idea how many steps it would take to reach the bottom, but he throttled the feeling and began what would probably be considered an ‘ill-fated journey’ to the manor’s nether regions. Once Jimmy S started down it, his eyes adjusted and he could see a dim light toward what he assumed was the bottom. Even though he couldn’t see his brother in the hazy lighting, he could feel his presence just behind him.
With each careful step down the down stairwell, Jimmy S’s nervousness grew. Even though he’d given up smoking in the nineties, there wasn’t much at the moment he wouldn’t do for either a Gran Habano No 5 ‘El Gigante’ cigar, to taste its sweet smoke in his mouth and to absorb the calming nicotine into his system, or even a Native Spirit. Hell, he would’ve given his pinky finger for a Maverick.
“We’re almost there.”
Jimmy S nodded and the pit of dread that already sat in his stomach quadrupled in size.
After a few more steps, the staircase opened into what looked like an amphitheater turned dungeon complete with a medieval mosh pit. On the far side a room that had to span the length of the house above and then some, his father sat on a carved wooden throne draped in the finest red silk, not unlike those at the Vatican. Directly in front of him sat three smaller carved armchairs, but could only see the contents of two chairs since the third faced away from him. Even in the dark room, Jimmy could make out that they were strapped down, their arms held down by ropes. He squinted and hoped for better eyesight, but all he could see was one had dark stringy hair and the other had shorter blondish hair, and both wore the shabbiest of clothing.
“Jimmy S, stop a moment. I have to warn you of what’s ahead. Once you see, you can’t go back.”
“What do you mean? Warn me of what?” Chills dazzled up and down Jimmy S’s spine.
They slowed to a standstill on the outer perimeter. Jimmy S could almost feel Stevie Jr’s hand on his forearm, propelling him to a stop.
“You need to prepare yourself.”
“Well, if I don’t know what in the bloody hell you’re talking about, how do you expect me to prepare for it?”
“I can’t. It’s something you must see for yourself.” Stevie Jr blew out a ghostly breath. “Oh dear, I think the bastard sees us. I’m sorry Jimmy S, but this is where I shall make my exit.”
“Why of all the cowardly—”
Jimmy S turned back to his father when he heard a booming voice. “What are you up to, Jimmy S? Come forward.”
A sickening throb began in his gut and worked its way toward his extremities. His bowels loosened, and Jimmy S realized his brother might have been correct in his previous assumption. Instead, he plowed ahead and faced his tormentor head on with all the pizzazz and bravado McGuff would’ve have shown, especially during Season Eight, Episode Fourteen when McGuff rescued Friend from Talibanian forces in the world’s nether regions.
As he walked nearer to the raised platform where his father sat, Jimmy S’s eyes wandered to the figures sitting there. He squelched revulsion when his mind realized who the poor wretches were who sat in his father’s grotesque tribunal. What made it even worse was he noticed the third chair sat empty, which left quite a lot to Jimmy S’s imagination.
Part Five: Denouement
Sitting in seventeenth century carved oak Wainscot armchairs, the corpses of his mother and brother sat there like monstrous caricatures of their former selves. His mother, once a beautiful woman full of dazzle and the very definition of haute couture, had met her fate at the hands of her deranged husband. The other figure, Jimmy S realized was his brother. Now he knew the truth: Stevie Jr had not committed suicide. He had been murdered like he originally thought.
“Oh Stevie Jr. No. And Mother?” Jimmy S said. “What have you done!?” His raised voice echoed throughout the room.
His father only stared at him. The deepest of chills shuddered through Jimmy S’s body, and ice, frozen and sharpened into little spears, ran through his veins.
Jimmy S ran to the dead and saw at once that his mother’s mummified head twisted upward and sightless caverns stared up at Stevie Sr. He looked to the other and saw an extension cord, once white and complete and now discolored with wires showing through, was undeniably still twisted around his brother’s neck. Both bodies were tied with leather straps to their respective chairs.
“Oh Mother! Stevie Jr!” he said and bent down on one knee. With tears in his eyes, he turned and glared at his father. “How could you do this to them? What did they ever do to you that would cause you to kill them?” By the time he bit out the last word, tears had begun to stream down his cheeks. Through blurry eyes, he saw the silhouette of Stevie Jr standing off the side and was surprised he still remained in the room. “Can’t you do anything?” he said to his brother.
The visage of Stevie Jr floated deftly toward him and laid a ghostly hand on his shoulder. “What would you expect me to do? Both mother and I have been dead for years, but her soul has already passed over. Mine, however, is stuck here for the time being.”
“We must bring both of you back. There’s got to be a way. Please...please help me.”
“I’m sorry, but there’s nothing anyone or anything can do. Jimmy S, I’m not in the habit of necromancy.” The ghost of Stevie Jr looked down and refused to meet Jimmy S’s eye.
“Enough!” Stevie Sr said and stood. “I’ll not have you blathering about like you’re daft. Talking to the air? Jimmy S, you’ve always been barking mad, but your mother was full of sin, a harlot, a vixen. An adulterer! She was not welcome in my world or any other world. She had to be put to death. Your brother was of the same ilk. Every time I turned around, he was in one scrape or another, spending considerable amounts of money on women and the drink. The only respectable thing he did in his miserable life was work on homes for Habitat for Humanity, and even about that, he complained unceasingly.
“You, on the other hand, were somewhat more respectable, but I still considered doing to you the same as I had your mother and brother. However, after your off-Broadway stint in Naughty Marietta and then starring in a handful of television shows, you were thrust in the limelight. Your disappearance would not have gone unnoticed.”
“How did you get Stevie Jr’s body here?” He’d wanted to ask that question for some time. The last time he saw his brother’s body was not at his closed-casket funeral but being zipped into a black body bag and taken away by the coroner.
“There’s a price for everything.”
As Jimmy S looked at his family in horror and the fates they ultimately succumbed to, he grew terrified in that moment and knew that only he or this malicious old devil would make it out of the dungeon alive.
In meteorological terms, a Scottish haar is defined as a cold sea fog. Most of the time it occurs on the coasts of England or Scotland during the spring and summer months, when the warm air flows over a cold wintry sea. In New England, the word ‘fog’ was used as a more general term to describe weather occurrence that was caused by water droplets suspended in the air to the point of near saturation. As beautiful as it was, everyone who lived in those parts knew it was deadly force when it came in as it had.
On this day, however, the mist that rolled over the village that day was neither a haar nor a regular fog. The thick, dense miasma traveled upward toward the manor, almost predatory in nature, and it sniffed the cobblestone road and turned this way and that in its hunt. Only low-pitched sounds made it through its density, and all other noises ceased in their late night cackle.
Since time was of the essence, the fog hurried up the driveway, flowing across the lawn, and laid in its wake a fabric of exquisite quicksilver. Once under the porte-cochère, it worked its way around a door and found a tiny sliver of light in which to slither through to the other side. As it made its way in, it journeyed through the grand foyer and down the hall toward the other rooms. It prodded and searched the library and stayed a moment, looking quite at peace there, but it had to keep to its agenda. It toured the old man’s study, where the faint scent of brandy, the cloying stink of cigars, and putrid stench of self-importance caused the fog to leave as quickly as it came.
Toward the kitchens in the back of the mansion, it found the entrance it pursued. A twin shelf to the one in the library, encased with artifacts and relics of a time long past, was not as it seemed. The fog hovered in the air and found the gap it needed. It flowed into the hallway behind the shelf, shuffled past the stone walls, and navigated down the long, winding staircase into the darkness below, never once acknowledging the odor of the passageway and what awaited it in the dungeon.
Once it arrived, it hovered behind the man that had caused so much pain, the man who was the catalyst in its eventual deconstruction and untimely expiration. After a moment or two, it saw the figures before it: two men, two corpses, and a spirit. The fog slowly took the form of a woman, and as it turned from apparition to hominid, her conscious awareness turned from corporeal to cerebral, from spiritual to human.
She was single-minded in the extreme and burning newfound feelings.
She could not control it.
Only one feeling, warring with and ultimately defeating all others, remained.
Jimmy S tore his eyes away from the remains of his loved ones and looked back up at his father, torn by the shocking realization that he had been next on his father’s chopping block and a consequential victim of his deviltry.
Relief, sweet and welcomed, flooded through him when he recognized that if he hadn’t become one of the most distinguishable men in television, he would’ve have found himself in Chair Number Three.
Probably with an ax to the head or worse.
That respite from reality was short-lived because his father stood and said, “Now is the time to make things right. Mr O’Loughlin hinted tonight that Season Nine was to be your last season on that laughable television series. Your greatest sin? You have become quite taken with yourself and now you must pay. With your death on screen, no one will notice your disappearance. They will think you went into seclusion out of embarrassment.”
“You’ve really thought this through, haven’t you?” Jimmy S said, alarm rising in his voice. He knew at that moment that his father’s cruelty knew no bounds.
“I have. I have been biding my time to bring God’s wrath and judgement down on you for your sins and crimes against this family. You’ve become nothing but a harlequin and a parasite and a ne’er-do-well. Why you must insist on staying with me during your hiatuses has me perplexed. With your ill-gotten gains and notoriety, could you not find yourself another acceptable place to live?” Stevie Sr said. His fervor grew with each syllable. “And I’ve tried to rid this world of Stevie Jr’s spirt. I’ve no doubt he has been trying to warn you of what was to come, and tonight was my last attempt to rid myself of his malingering essence.”
Behind Stevie Sr, Jimmy S noticed a fog began filling the doorway behind the imposing throne. The nebula of vapor grew and undulated and shifted until it became the figure of a woman dressed in white. Alejandra, his mother, floated toward Jimmy S to stand in front of Stevie Sr, and instead of a smile, her countenance wore the look of a warrior. Deep frown lines etched her forehead and her nostrils flared.
She pointed at Stevie Sr and her voice boomed. “YOU!”
Jimmy S started, gooseflesh prickling his skin, and noticed his father withered to a man half his size in mere milliseconds.
“Alejandra, how?” He wheezed and fell back into his seat.
“How? You do not need to know how. You only need to know death.”
If it were even possible, Stevie Sr shrank deeper into his chair and cowered at his accuser.
“Now you will know the same death as you once inflicted upon me. Upon our son.”
In the center of the room, a small spot in the floor opened up. Jimmy S watched as it grew and grew and reminded him of an old-fashioned well, except without a safety enclosure. Water sprang up from the depths and an eerie red light flared underneath. The angry water undulated and spilled out onto the floor. Jimmy S slowly backed away from the spectacle, not really worrying that this certain death was meant for him, but he did not want to get caught in his mother’s crosshairs, even if it was purely by chance. Even Stevie Jr stood well enough away at a safe distance.
Alejandra, with her ghostly hands, grabbed Stevie Sr by the collar and dragged his seemingly boneless body toward the chasm.
“Remember when you held me under the water in the bath? I thought you were being so loving and thoughtful by running it for me. The last thing I remember about my life here on earth was a mouthful of rose-scented water. You drowned me, husband, and now it’s your turn to feel the same.”
“Please, God, no...I beg of you, Alejandra. Stop this madness,” Stevie Sr said, some of the fight coming back into his body, knowing his death would be swift and certain.
Jimmy S could not tear his eyes away from the spectacle. A man who he feared much of his natural life was thrown into the water, and under Alejandra’s control, he was as helpless as an infant. She threw Stevie Sr into the water and held him under. Seconds turned into minutes as Stevie Sr clawed at her ethereal arms unable to get a firm hold. Jimmy S watched as his father’s arms grew limp and his lifeless body sank to the depths. Alejandra stood at the edge of the well and watched as it closed, and soon the scarlet light dimmed from view, a signal that her work on earth had been completed.
As he looked around, Jimmy S noticed the water that had spilled over the edge had dried up as if had never existed. The stone slabs that made up the floor soaked it up as if it were a sponge. He looked up at his mother, and when he did, her face changed into a glowing orb of light. Stevie Jr met her, and with that, both of them disappeared, leaving Jimmy S alone in the darkness with nothing but the corpses to keep him company.
After the hateful night full of betrayal, vengeance, and his father’s eventual death at the hands of his mother, Jimmy S knew he wouldn’t sleep for at least two weeks. He regretted that he was in the house alone; his father had discharged all the servants for the day before the séance.
He knew he should call the police about the two corpses in the hidden dungeon. He wished he had Stevie Jr to talk to about it, or his mother, but both of the spirits had disappeared once his father had been dispatched and sent through the gates of Hell. In addition to the bodies, he had no idea how he was going to explain his father’s disappearance.
After debating it somewhat, he decided to call the police and knew that he would make the news and have to be forced to reconcile with another outrageous article from TMZ. Worse, he dreaded having to talk to that Detective Saunders again and look at another one of her atrocious pantsuits, one of nightmares and polyester.
Once the police arrived, they had detained him in his father’s study, of all horrible places, and he was forced to choke on the smells that haunted the room. His mind kept replaying the scene over and over, and it had been terrifying, to say the least. It wasn’t of any use that Detective Saunders asked him the same detestable questions over and over until he felt like losing his mind and perhaps eventually his freedom. Thankfully, the police had left at just before sunset and had removed the bodies of his mother and brother, and as he watched the coroner remove the black bags, Jimmy S felt the recurring sense of immense and immediate loss.
He tried to find safety and comfort in this home, and after the ruthless interrogation and the police leaving it so that he and his father were ‘persons of interest,’ he staggered around and wondered what to do first. He knew sleep would not come, but nowhere in the vast estate felt safe and would not for a very long time.
Finally, he made his way to his living quarters, experiencing pains and throbs throughout his body with each of the thirty-two steps to his room. His nose and cheek ached where he’d faceplanted on the concrete at Wilcox and Paxton. The Buenos Airian scar on his head thumped. He undressed and climbed into bed, and once situated between the velveteen sheets, he reached into his nightstand, shook the remaining pills out of the bottle, and swallowed them without water. Each lump of medication took its time heading down his throat, and once they were settled in his stomach, he reached over to turn out the lamp but thought better of it.
Jimmy S tossed and turned for a while, his final exit might be a long time coming. He thought about what he needed to do with his family’s estate, but realized this was neither the time nor the place to worry about such matters.
He knew one thing for certain.
He would never spend another night here in this abominable place, and upon that last thought, he finally fell into a deathful sleep, dreaming of nothing but peace and quiet.
Two small boys walked away from the stately manor, hand in hand, down the darkened stone-paved driveway and along the carefully manicured shrubbery. Even though they were dressed in short-sleeved shirts and short pants, the boys were not troubled by the damp chilly air. Their bare feet made no sound in the quiet night. The fog parted with each step they took, creating a passageway of sorts that led to a pinprick of light across the courtyard. The eldest stopped for a moment and turned back to the only lit window in the home. A glimmer of sadness crossed his features, but the younger of the two tugged at his hand to continue their path across the lawn. The eldest stayed put and refused to move another foot.
As the light grew in front of them, it ignited into a breathtaking white-yellow radiance. Just inside, the boys saw recognizable figures of people gathering, and the fog gathered itself and formed into a woman with dark brown hair and russet eyes.
Together, the children said Mama.
I’ve come to fetch you, my darling, she said to the youngest child.
The woman’s white gown moved back and forth by an inexplicable breeze and flowed around her legs and her feet. She moved toward the boys and took the youngest lovingly by the hand, and motioned for the other to go back to the house.
You still have time, my son. Remember that I love you and will be back again, she said.
But I want to go with you.
Go back to the house, mi corazón. You have a full life ahead of you and it has some remarkable things in store. Don’t worry. We’ll see you when your time is right.
The eldest boy faded from view as he protested, being pulled back toward that light in the second story of the mansion. The woman led her youngest boy away as the fog rolled in behind them and the light within slowly fell away into the darkness.
David Rogers' poems, stories, and articles have appeared in various print and electronic publications, including The Comstock Review, Atlanta Review, Sky and Telescope, and Astronomy magazine. His latest work is Roots of the Dark Tower: The Long Quest and Many Lives of Roland, available from Amazon.
More of his work can be read at Davidrogersbooks.wordpress.com. David supports all people's rights to be who they are and identify and live as they choose.
The carriage held but just ourselves
“Welcome to Timbuktu,” the voice said. It sounded bored, as if repeating this greeting for the hundredth time today. “Are you an atheist?”
I tried to open my eyes and then realized they were already open. I could feel my eyelids move. So I was in complete darkness. “Where am I? And why is it so dark?”
“The dark helps avoid sensory overload and facilitates adjustment. Also cuts down on the amount of vomit we have to clean up. Please answer the question.”
“Are you an atheist?” the bored voice repeated, a little impatient.
Sometimes I get confused and tell the truth because I can’t think of anything clever. “No, I’m agnostic. Where am I?”
“Oh, good. We don’t get many of those,” the voice said. “As I said, this is Timbuktu. For now. Last month it was Shangri-La. Next month, maybe Nirvana. In generic terms, the afterlife. It takes a little getting used to.”
Someone turned the lights on.
I climbed out of the boat. My feet were wet. As I stood up and felt water drip down my legs, I realized my back was wet, too. Had I been lying down in the boat? Memories were fading fast.
“Would you like to tip the boatman?” the bored voice asked. I saw now it belonged to a short man, bald, with wire-rimmed glasses and an extremely large mustache. He held an old-fashioned clipboard in one hand and a pencil in the other.
“Boatman?” I said, looking around in confusion and down at myself. Scuffed white tennis shoes, faded blue jeans, and my “No soup for you!” tee shirt. Well, if I had to be dead--not that I believed it for a moment--I might as well be comfortable.
“Boatgirl, then. Boatperson, boatwoman. She doesn’t much care. But she’ll be grumpy and give the next patron a rough ride if you don’t tip her.”
I spotted the boat driver, a young woman who looked about nineteen, leaning on the gunwale of a battered white rowboat, staring upstream as if none of this was her concern. The biggest black dog I had ever seen sat patiently beside her. I checked my pockets. “I have no money.”
“No problem. You can leave a metaphorical tip. Those are always appreciated. Or we can charge it to your account, if you want to tip actual money.”
“Fine, whatever,” I said. “Where am I?” This time I knew I had already asked, but I was hoping for an answer that made sense.
“Door on the far left,” Mustache said, ignoring my question. He pointed, made a mark on the clipboard, and turned to the boat driver. “Ready for the next one,” he said. The big black dog jumped in the boat behind her.
I faced four wooden doors made of age-silvered wooden planks. All closed, no lines, no one waiting outside any of them. The doors were surrounded by a short stone wall that ended a few feet above and beyond them. I looked around the end of the wall. The other side looked the same as this side. Sand and sparse grass, two small trees in the distance, and a horizon that faded into complete darkness. The light faded to darkness above, too. It was impossible to say where the ambient light came from. Behind me, Mustache and Boatgirl were repeating the routine with a new arrival.
The door on the far right was labeled Conventional Religions in large letters. The one beside it said Capitalists, Materialists, and Anarchists. Second from the left was the door labeled Atheists. The one on the far left simply said Others. Well, it felt like this probably wasn’t the first time I had been an Other. I tried the knob. The door creaked open slowly, as if it didn’t get much use.
The wall had seemed to stand alone, but the door opened on a cross between the Guggenheim and a parking garage, if it were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and M.C. Escher: tall marble columns supported endless curves, up and down, no steps in sight, and few level or rectangular surfaces except the small booth, like a toll-taker’s cubbyhole, just inside the door. Looking down--or up?--certain paths, I saw what looked like skeletons of prehistoric animals, displays of stone tools and inscribed clay tablets, rocket ships, and other items both natural and artificial. The odd curves and angles made for visual cacophony, the scale of things impossible to judge. I could not tell if the displays were tiny or just very far away. The air smelled like orchids.
“Daisy Donner, right?” the woman in the booth asked. She stared at me over half-glasses and a copy of The Brothers Karamazov.
I nodded. I was still sure of my name, anyway. The front window of the booth had a little round hole for speaking through, and the usual rectangular slot at the bottom, for sliding money or tickets through. I hoped there was no admission charge, or that metaphors were an acceptable form of currency here, too. The woman must be the source of the orchid scent, I decided--it was much stronger as I stepped closer.
“Do you have any questions?” She wore a name tag that said Flossie in large letters and below that, in smaller script, Docent. I watched her check a box beside my name in a list on her clipboard. Everyone who was anyone had a clipboard, it seemed.
“A million. I won’t ask what this place is, unless you have something to say besides ‘the afterlife.’ So how did I get here?”
“You don’t remember. Interesting. But a little amnesia is not unheard of. It will probably come back to you. I can’t tell you.”
“You don’t know?” I said, a little incredulous.
“I didn’t say I don’t know. I said I can’t tell you. But no, I don’t know. You don’t know, either, it seems, and it happened to you. Anyway, records on cause of death are not kept here. You have any idea the amount of paperwork that would entail? Storage space alone would expand to metaphysical proportions. And the army of clerks . . . I shudder.” And she did, in fact, shudder.
“You people never heard of computers? It’s the twenty-first century, you know.”
“We heard. Didn’t care much for the idea.”
“Maybe you can tell me why I’m here, then.”
She smiled, as if the chance to give an actual answer pleased her. “Why, yes, you are here because you are agnostic.” She looked at the clipboard to double check. “You are agnostic, right?”
“And apparently you never did anything bad enough to be lumped in with the capitalists. So here you are.”
“What happens to capitalists?”
“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “But from what I hear, it’s not pleasant.”
“Why do they have it especially bad?”
“Well, not all capitalists. Just the ones who valued money and profits above all else. The afterlife is all about what you believe. You’re agnostic. Seeing is believing, for the moment, anyway. So here you are, in the museum, where there are things to be seen.”
“So if I believed in reincarnation, I’d have been reincarnated?”
“If I believed in a heaven where everyone is issued a harp and angel wings?”
“Yep, that’s where you’d be. The wings don’t work, though. Not nearly enough lift. You have to respect physics here, same as everywhere.”
I thought this over for a minute. “What if you get bored with the afterlife? Does that ever happen?”
“So what happens--you’re just stuck in eternal boredom? Or worse?”
“Yeah. It’s called hell. But you can apply for a transfer.”
“Who decides if you get it?”
She jerked a thumb skyward. “Upstairs.”
“There is no god.”
“Who makes the decisions, then? Who’s in charge?”
“The Committee. Sort of a board of directors. Or Homeowners’ Association. Some of them think they’re gods, but nobody takes them seriously. Members rotate. Or so I hear. I’m just a lowly admissions clerk. Do my job, keep my head down. Otherwise, I might get promoted, and that sounds like a hassle.”
“Why a hassle?”
“Less free time. Less opportunity to work on my fantasy novel.”
I knew better than to ask what it was about.
“There’s not a lot of rules, just pragmatic common sense stuff--no stealing, don’t kill anybody, lie only if you must, and try not to litter. And don’t try to leave town. That one’s important.”
I was never very good at following rules, but now didn’t seem a good time to mention that. “Town? What town?”
“The agnostic section. You were assigned here for a reason.”
“Well, yeah. I’m agnostic. Or I was. Now I guess I don’t know what I am.”
“Once an agnostic, always an agnostic. If you wander into, say, the Southern Baptist section--well, let’s just say there’d be trouble. Big trouble. I’d have to file the report. And I hate paperwork.”
“What would happen to me?”
She shrugged. “Not my problem.” Another vague gesture upward. “Whatever they decided. Just stay where you belong, follow the rules, and everything’s easy.”
“One more thing--where’s everybody else? I can’t be the only agnostic who ever died, but I don’t see anybody else. Except you.”
“They’re around. It’s a big place. And actually, there really aren’t very many of you guys.”
“You guys? You are not agnostic?”
She laughed, a tinkly sound, like a wineglass tapped with a caviar fork. “Goodness, no, I worshipped Artemis.”
I let that sink I for a minute. “Artemis? As in, Apollo’s twin sister?”
“But I thought you said there’s no god?”
“That doesn’t stop people from worshipping one, does it? Anyway, the Olympians existed. They were supernatural beings, of a sort.”
“Where are they now?”
“Another of many things that are not my problem.”
I was beginning to think Flossie left much to be desired as a docent. “How long have you been here?” I wasn’t sure what kind of answer I hoped for.
“About twenty-two centuries, give or take.” She looked at her book, clearly growing tired of this conversation.
I didn’t know what I thought about that. I wandered off toward the display of a skeleton, the bones of an animal I could not identify, perhaps a miniature T-Rex, or maybe just a big lizard.
This must be a dream, I decided. The thought excited me, because the only times I’ve ever known I was dreaming were right before I woke up. Ergo, I must be about to wake up.
I did not wake up. Therefore, I was not asleep. Instead, then, this must be one of those mind control experiments, like something in an old episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. I took a seat on an oak bench near Moran’s “Childe Roland” painting--or what looked like it, though I assumed the original was in a museum somewhere. I stared at the lurid, turbulent painted sky, and waited for the scientist or military officer in charge to show up and explain.
I waited a long time. The scientists or generals never showed up. But people smarter than me have said absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. My not seeing them did not mean they were not there somewhere, waiting to see how long before I figured out the game. There would be a glitch in the computer program that projected the hologram, an actor who forgot his or her lines, a corner on the movie set where wallpaper peeled up and revealed scaffolds and concrete beyond. Something would give it away. I would be patient and see what happened.
Hours had passed as I wandered the museum. I was not tired. My feet did not hurt. Past the working model of a steam engine in the Industrial Revolution diorama, the hall led to snack machines, a drinking fountain, and restrooms. I was neither hungry nor thirsty, and I hadn’t needed to go to the bathroom since I got here. If this really was the afterlife, would I get hungry? Or need to sleep, go to the bathroom, etc? Apparently someone did, or these amenities would be superfluous. Did the afterlife have civilian employees?
The door in the shadow beside the drinking fountain said No Entrance, so I tried the knob. Unlocked. I entered. Was this the janitor’s closet where someone kept tools for fixing glitches?
The door led to another hallway. Of course. It was dimly lit, but the doors were labeled clearly enough. Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, etc. I kept walking, past various doors for sects and sub-sects. At least three different doors for alternate varieties of Judaism. Fourteen versions of Protestant Christianity. And so on.
At the far end of the hall, a hundred yards from where I entered, another door with no label, but the same admonishment as before--No Entrance. I opened the door.
Brakes squealed. Horns honked. The air smelled of exhaust. People laughed, cursed, and ignored me.
I was standing on the sidewalk, off Times Square, New York, USA, Planet Earth. I looked around and immediately recognized the place, somewhere on West 47th Street, in the No-Man’s-Nor-Woman’s Land between Hell’s Kitchen and Times Square. I looked around for the door I had just opened. It was gone. The nearest door was the plate-glass entrance to an espresso shop. I had been here many times before.
I knew it. I had been dreaming, sleepwalking, or hallucinating. Here was reality again. A good cup of very strong coffee would help.
I went inside the shop and sat at a table near the window. The world still had that not-quite-real look about it that comes right after strange, vivid dreams. Like you could see right through solid objects if you looked hard enough.
A man at the next table was eating a slice of cherry pie. I stared at it. Suddenly, those red cherries, the sugary glaze filling, the flaky crust--they looked like the most beautiful things in the world. My eyes followed the silver fork up to the man’s mouth.
“Looks delicious, doesn’t it?” A woman’s voice said. “Well go ahead, have a bite.”
I turned and looked. A brunette with shoulder-length hair and straight bangs had seated herself across from me while I was staring at the pie.
Normally, I would rebuff familiarities from a stranger, but everything had been so strange lately, I hardly noticed one more oddity. “Yeah. Looks like that’s the only way I get any pie, if I take a bite of his. The waiter seems to be ignoring me.”
“He’s not ignoring you, Dearie. He can’t see you.”
So I was Dearie, now. “What, he’s blind?”
“No. He cannot see you. You’re invisible to him.” The brunette stared at me a second, then said, “Oh, my God, you don’t even know, do you? I’ll bet you just got here. Welcome to the show. I’m Radcliffe. Radcliffe Hall.” She held out her hand and said, “You can call me Cliffe.”
“Here?” I asked. “Where is here?” She still held out her hand, so I took it. One shake, firm but not too firm. Her hand felt a little chilly.
“The Point of No Return,” she said. “The In-Between. The Beyond. The Singularity. Nowhere. There are lots of names for it. But what’s important is not so much where you are as what you are. In simplest terms, you’re dead. Dead as your great-great-great grandparents.”
“You mean I’m a ghost?”
“We prefer non-corporeal entity. Or differently-incorporated. Less baggage. But in the vernacular, yes, you’re a ghost. The dead are normally on the other side, but ones who don’t fit in there, for whatever reason, the ones who don’t belong there, well, they end up in the Singularity. Here, you’re just like everybody else.”
“Like everybody else?”
“Well, like everybody else who’s not alive. Dead.”
Apparently the dream, which was turning into a fever-dream, maybe a nightmare, was not over.
“You’re not dreaming or hallucinating,” Cliffe said, as if she could read my mind. “But there’s no way to prove that now, anymore than when you were alive. All you can do is wait to wake up, if you think this is a dream, and meanwhile get on with your afterlife.”
“And how do I do that, if I’m dead?” I figured I might as well play along. When in Rome. . . .
“Start by having that pie you wanted.” Cliffe reached over and took a bite from the slice of pie at the next table. Or seemed to--I saw her fork dip into the crust and filling and lift it to her mouth, yet nothing changed on the plate. The pie remained as it was, and the man paid no attention. It was a bizarre sort of double vision, like looking into a funhouse mirror.
“This is one of the advantages of being in the Singularity,” Cliffe said. “You can get away with a lot here. Eat pie. Eat all the ice cream you want, have sex with no fear of pregnancy, etc., sneak into the movies, except you don’t have to sneak, and travel anywhere you like. The living don’t see you, for the most part, and don’t believe in you if they do see you. The bureaucracy of the afterlife doesn’t care what you do. You fell through the cracks in their system, and besides, they’ve got the steady supply of new arrivals to deal with. We don’t matter to them anymore.”
“We--so you’re a ghost, too.”
“Why else do you think we’re talking? The living don’t see us. Not usually.” She paused, then asked, “How did you die?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh, my. You are new here, aren’t you?”
“There’s a gap in my memories. I’m still not even totally convinced I’m dead.”
She nodded in sympathy. “A violent death, then. Causes amnesia. And denial. Usually temporary. Or so I hear. It will probably come back to you. But trust me. You’re a ghost. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if you weren’t.”
“So how is this different from reincarnation?” I asked.
“Simple,” she said, “You’re not carnal. No longer flesh and blood. You can eat, but you don’t get hungry. Sleep, though you don’t get tired. Being hot or cold--any kind of physical discomfort, they’re all just states of mind now. You’ll learn to control them.”
“Ghosts seem to have it almost as good as superheroes,” I said.
“Better. Nobody expects us to solve crimes or prevent terrorist attacks. But there are two things you can’t do now.” She paused, as if expecting me to ask what they were. Rules of conversation and all. I did not ask. I’m not a very good rule-follower.
“One, you can’t go back,” she volunteered.
I looked out the window. The door that said No Entrance on the other side should be there somewhere. It wasn’t.
“The door is gone. You won’t find it again. At least I never heard of anyone finding it. You’re stuck here. You’re an exile.”
“What’s the other thing I can’t do?” I was intrigued enough to ask now, dream or no dream.
“You can’t change material things. You can’t make a difference here. This is their world, not ours. Kinda balances things out, I think--we can do whatever we want only because it doesn’t count. Not in this world.” She took another bite of the pie from the other table. “But you get used to it. See--if you’re dead, you really can have your pie--or someone else’s pie--and eat it, too.”
“You make being dead sound too good to be true.”
“In a lot of ways, it is. Are you going to have some pie or sit there looking sad and lost?”
I had pie.
I had always played it cautious. Never believed in much. Now the world didn’t believe in me. Maybe it was ironic, I thought, but then I realized that apparently being a ghost was in fact the farthest thing from irony. Exactly what you’d expect. Tit for tat. Poetic justice.
As an agnostic, I still refused to rule out the possibility that this was all still some trick. Virtual reality. Hypnosis. Mind control. I’d heard incredible things could be done with lasers and artificial intelligence. If this were a simulation or dream, I still figured I’d spot the flaw, sooner or later.
On the other hand, people suggested that the so-called reality I’d lived in my whole life was a simulation. And if so, maybe things that make no sense--the Schrodinger’s cat paradox, dark matter, all that mind-bending jazz--maybe those are the flaws. The holes in the story told to us by whoever is running the experiment. My mind ran in that loop until I remembered why I’m agnostic--the only honest answer to these questions is, I do not know what is really going on. And I trust no one who claims to know.
Over the next couple of weeks, I had several more conversations with Cliffe, in the coffee shop, in the park, in her apartment overlooking Central Park. Apparently, the world was pretty much still the same. I was the one who was different. Maybe this was why the rules of the afterlife said not to leave town--for your own good. I realized it could be depressing to see the world move on without you, to not even exist in what used to be your life.
On the other hand, it was also very freeing. If you’re nobody, you can do whatever you want. Freedom--real freedom, when you can do whatever you effing want--is vastly misunderstood and underrated by people who spend their whole lives doing as they are told.
Cliffe shared the apartment with a living woman who didn’t know she had a roommate. The woman, Cathy, was a corporate attorney who was determined to be a CEO or Chair of the Board. “Real workaholic, hardly ever home, and then just to sleep. Alone. So she’s no bother. Another advantage of being a ghost--you don’t pay rent. Not that you really need an actual apartment, or domicile of any sort, as people don’t see you and you can ignore the weather. Still, if you can have in one of the best places in the City, why not?”
I didn’t know if the apartment was the best place in the city, but I didn’t argue. I could never have afforded it when I was alive.
We sat on the balcony and drank tea and admired the leaves turning scarlet. “So where are all the others?” I asked. “Other ghosts, I mean.”
“There are very few of us. I assume you did something you weren’t supposed to in the afterlife--ate the forbidden fruit, read the forbidden book, opened the forbidden door--and got kicked out. Or just wandered down the wrong path and got lost. Happens rarely, and only to true misfits, as far as I can tell. Not everybody gets to be a ghost.”
“Still,” I said, “there should be a lot of ghosts. Considering all the people that have ever died, if even one percent of us wind up back here as ghosts, there should be millions of us.”
“No. We fade away after a while. Or so I hear. I know a ghost who’s been here since the 1490s. One of Columbus’s sailors. Claims he was, anyway. Kind of a jerk, too. Must’ve been a real hell-raiser back in the day. That whole bunch was nothing but trouble, I guess. Anyway, he’s so insubstantial, you can’t see him unless he stands in broad daylight. You’d think shadow would make him easier to see, but there he just blends in. So that’s how it goes. We fade. Then one day, poof. You’re just gone. That’s what I hear. Never saw it happen.”
“How should I know? Nothing, I guess, the big zero.”
I nodded. Oblivion. As an agnostic, that’s what I always figured death was.
“Don’t you ever miss it?” I asked. “Being alive, I mean?”
“Of course. The thrill of danger, for instance. When I was alive, I was afraid of heights. Being up here would have made me uncomfortable. Now, well, that thrill is gone. But then, I’m not shut up in an office staring at a legal brief on a computer, either.”
I nodded. She made a good point.
“Speaking of missing things,” Cliffe asked, “any luck on remembering you’re old life? Or death?”
“Just flashes. A big room, lots of people listening and watching me.”
“Like a theater?”
“No, more like a classroom. I was a teacher, I think. Math, maybe. And sometimes in the street, I see a face that reminds me of someone. And dreams.”
“What happens in the dreams?”
“Just vague images. Nothing I can make sense of.”
“Don’t worry. You will.”
“Actually, that is what worries me. I’m afraid of what I might remember.” I paused and decided I knew Cliffe well enough to ask, “What happened to you? How did you become a ghost?”
“I was an accountant, once upon a time. Just an ordinary drone in the lower levels of mortal hell, otherwise known as an insurance company. I died in a car crash--a drunk ran a red light. In the afterlife, they tried to put me in the capitalist section, even though I explained accounting was just a job, not a philosophy, a way to put food on the table and pay rent. Nobody listened--capitalists are as capitalists do, I was told, and so I was was partly responsible for every sick person who died because the company refused to honor their responsibility to pay for treatment. I was partly responsible for the demise of the planet, because the company took the premiums customers paid and invested in other companies that were destroying the rainforest. And so on. I couldn’t disagree, but I asked, So what was I supposed to do--starve? Nobody answered.
“Anyway, the bureaucracy of the afterlife put me with the other capitalists, in the accounting section. I had to spend 18 or 20 hours a day generating reports, the same half dozen reports, day after day. Talk about passive aggression. Complaining was useless. So I jumped. Right out the window of the 22nd floor. I didn’t know if a person could commit suicide in the afterlife or not, but I decided to find out. Next thing I knew, I was in Manhattan. Been a ghost ever since. I guess the afterlife doesn’t want me back. At least not badly enough to send anyone to get me.”
Over the next couple of weeks, I saw only one other ghost. Or at least, I assumed he must be a ghost. He strolled through Macy’s, casually taking whatever he wanted from the men’s department, trying clothes on in front of the big mirror at the end of the aisle, without bothering to use the fitting room. No one seemed to notice, except me. The clothes somehow remained on the racks, even after he’d taken them. That ghostly double-vision again. He had an extremely cute butt, but I didn’t talk to him. I was never the extra-sociable type who starts unnecessary conversations with strangers, alive or dead. I did decide that I, too, might as be a well-dressed ghost, but I went to In God We Trust, a boutique in Brooklyn that had cool shoes I could never afford when I was alive. At least, my vague memories included no such luxuries. Differently-incorporated or not, it felt like I should do something to pay for what I got, so I took a hundred-dollar ghost-bill from the purse of a rich, obviously way-too-entitled woman and tucked it into the pocket of the harassed clerk who made attempt after futile attempt to please her. The poor clerk wouldn’t be able to spend ghost-cash, but maybe it was good karma. If karma still worked in the In-Between. I figured it did. Still do, as a matter of fact.
I slept on rooftops, a different one every night. Weather and the rocks in tar-and-gravel roofing were no bother for a non-corporeal entity. Hovering a millimeter or two above the surface was comfortable enough, yet it provided the reassuring illusion of lying on a horizontal plane. I enjoyed the view of the half-dozen or so stars and planets I could see clearly through the light pollution.
I had dreams every night. Vivid, jumbled images that made little sense when I awoke. I didn’t know why ghosts had dreams. Or even slept. Some of the many things I didn’t know. I still half-suspected this was all a dream, so the dreams would be dreams inside a dream. Or a hallucination inside the dream. Or vice versa. The kinds of questions that lead to headaches, not answers.
But one dream began to recur and grow clearer: someone is trying to kill me. I can’t see his face. He chases me down a dark hall at night, toward a bedroom. I run around a corner, through a doorway. I always wake up when I go in the room.
Days, I looked for a job. Not the kind of job that pays money, for which I had no use, but the kind of job that earns you a sense of place and purpose in life. Or in death. Or in the In-Between. It was hard, because material objects and the living were impervious to my advances.
Except they weren’t. Not entirely, as I eventually discovered.
I sat on a bus-stop bench, watching the lights change and people hurry across, and the cars slamming on brakes or accelerating instantly to ridiculous speeds the instant the lights changed, as if they all actually had someplace important to be. An old lady carrying two grocery bags nearly as large as she was started to cross. I knew the light was about to change before she would make it halfway. Please, no, I thought. All the drivers in front of the lines of traffic seemed more interested in their phones than in the other humans. The old lady was about to be squashed like a bug. I stared at the Walk light. I thought, Don’t change, don’t change, don’t change.
The light stayed on. The old lady made it across the street. I tried again, and found I could speed up the change when no pedestrians were crossing. I spent the whole aftermost tinkering with the crosswalk lights and traffic lights.
I had a job. Crossing guard.
If I could cause changes in the material world, could I become visible to mortals, even for a few seconds? There should be a Handbook, to answer such questions for new ghosts, I thought--but we are not supposed to be here in the first place, apparently, so it would have to be an underground publication. And a limited edition, since there are so few of us. I resolved to talk to Cliffe about it.
I chose the restroom at the mall as the place for my first experiment in materializing. My friend Julie--at least, she was my friend when I was alive--was shopping for new shoes, so I waited for her to make a pitstop. I know, public restroom, seems a little sleazy or stalker-ish, but materializing in front of someone else seems like a thing you need to try in private. Going to her house seemed even sketchier.
I concentrated, held my breath, and became visible, in a transparent sort of way. Julie screamed and ran from the restroom, her unrinsed hands still soapy. I screamed and followed her, seeing the image fade in the mirrors as they flashed by..
The figure that half-materialized was not me. At least, not the me I remembered. A teenager with totally different eyes and hair.
Maybe this was the universe’s way of telling me that the person I used to be was dead. Really dead. Even as a rebellious ghost, if I wanted to be seen, it had to be as somebody else.
Still, I could produce some visible manifestation that the living would notice, if only for a few seconds.
When I told Cliffe about my discoveries, I could tell she was more impressed than she let on. “It’s not unheard of, but I never saw anyone who could really change the material world,” she said. “Just be careful. Power is dangerous, no matter how much or little.”
“More dangerous than powerlessness?”
She shrugged. “What danger? We’re ghosts. Exiles from the afterlife. What’s anybody going to do to us? Also, meddling in mortal affairs is probably against the rules.”
“Well, if we always followed the rules, we probably wouldn’t be here, would we?”
Cliffe nodded and sipped her tea.
I’m having the dream again. The one with the face I can almost see. I run down the dark hall, through the doorway.
This time, I don’t wake up when I enter the bedroom. The man behind me turns the corner. The light falls on his face. “You cheating scumbag,” I say, in a low, dangerous tone, and pick up a floor lamp and jab it at him. The shade tumbles off and rolls across the floor. He pauses for a moment. I turn to the startled redhead, who sits in shocked dismay on the bed. “You can have him. All yours.”
I swing the lamp again and he falls backward, stumbling over the shade. I turn to go. “Daisy, wait,” he says, and then I know his name is Ryan. He jumps up, grabs my arm, and twists. I pull away and stumble, banging my head on the viciously sharp corner of the dresser.
After that, blackness. And the wet bottom of a boat.
I woke up. I knew who had killed me. Or, at least, who was responsible for my death. “Everything will change, now,” I said to the stars. I found that the emotion of my dream had translated into vertical motion. I was drifting five hundred feet above the Chrysler Building.
The next morning I told Cliffe, “I’ve got some haunting to do. I think I’m going to be a very vengeful ghost.” She didn’t bother telling me to be careful this time.
I couldn't remember just yet where Ryan lived. Cliffe assured me memories would return gradually. But it didn’t matter--I remembered one thing about him--he liked to ride trains. I waited in a station that felt somehow familiar, felt right. I waited hours, every day for a week. I brought a book. I found being a ghost made me more patient.
Ryan showed up on the eighth day. He stood at the front of the crowd. When I heard the rumble of approaching wheels, I marked my page, closed the book, walked across the platform, and pushed him in front of the train.
Don’t judge me if you’ve never been killed, even accidentally, by your cheating boyfriend. Trust me--it really, really pisses you off. I mean, seriously.
A few moments later, Ryan came crawling out from under the train. I stared, then immediately realized what had happened.
“So you’re a freaking ghost, now, too?” I said. Alive, he had looked tall, blond, and Nordic. Or so I used to think when I was alive. Now he just looked skinny, pale, and cadaverous. Probably a shift in my perspective as much as his appearance.
He blinked stupidly. “Daisy? I’ve been looking for you. I wanted to apologize. I’m so sorry about what happened.”
That was Ryan, all over. He’d learned well the lesson that it’s easier to apologize than to learn from your mistakes and avoid screwing up. Sometime, his apologies were even sincere.
We talked for a minute. As it turned out, Melody, the girl with whom he was cheating on me, also thought she was the only one. She proceeded to stab him in the heart with a barbecue fork right after I died of the head injury.
“That’s just like you. You deprive me of the opportunity for really satisfying revenge,” I said, and walked away. At least, I wasn’t going to listen to another one of his BS apologies.
Is it still called haunting when a ghost does it to another ghost? No matter. I was a part-time crossing guard and full-time ghost now, with all the time in the world and nothing to lose. Ryan was in for a few very rough train rides.
And, as the poet said, more or less, since then, ‘tis centuries, yet it feels shorter than the day I first surmised the train was headed toward eternity.
"You okay rabbit?” Too scared to answer, I stare ahead at the hideous lime green wallpaper painted with specks of dandelions. Mom’s idea. When she was here, I’d make a face of disgust at the sheer sight of it, now, it made me cry. Dad wouldn’t take the hint, so I stand and flush the toilet watching until the red water turned translucent again. I open the door and I must have looked like a deer in headlights. With no way out and an urgent desperation, I tell him my dilemma. I could sense his disinclination, he was confused, as was I. I always thought mothers were supposed to be present for this kind of thing. His calloused hand gathers mine and he sits me down on the sofa. He calls my two older brothers, Sam and Pete. He tells them what’s troubling me and I begin to cry, the salty water tingling on my tongue as the ache in my stomach grows.
“Should we take her to the hospital?” Pete asks.
“Should I call Diana?” That’s Sam’s girlfriend, the only girl that comes around. Fear vibrates throughout my body. If no one knew the answer, what would I do?
“What would mom do?” The house goes silent, only the distant Christmas harmony coming from the antique radio could be heard in the living room.
And there it was, the answer, what would mom do? I look up at dad whose warm aging face looks back at me in reassurance. I smile through the tears wiping them away. Like mom, I was becoming a woman, it would all be okay.
My brothers sit beside me peppering kisses on my hair, wiping away my tears. I smile, the heavy rock weighing down my heart dissolving.
“We love you Sofia, we’ll do our best.” And I believed them.
A sudden pungent smell assaults the air. My face scrunches up and I peak around to the kitchen. Just as I suspected, smoke begins to emerge from the oven.
“Dad! The turkey!”
“Dang it!” He rushes to the kitchen and we burst into laughter.
“Dinner at the diner it is,” Sam says.
We laugh some more and run after dad to the kitchen to help and in that moment, I think of mom and smile. She was with me all along.
Cheyanne Boone believes that we need authors which bring happiness and adventure to those who enjoy partaking in reading. Her Wattpad stories have reached over twenty thousand views and are still climbing every day. She is on track to earn her bachelor’s in creative writing from Full Sail University in two thousand and twenty-one.
Enter the Blackwood’s Estate
“There you are!” Mrs. Blackwood called out as her husband pulled open the gate. “We had begun to wonder if you had decided to not take the job.”
“Oh! I apologize Mrs. Blackwood!” Seraphina rushed to reassure the older lady dressed in a fine silk dress, blonde hair in an updo, and pearls wrapped around her throat. “You see, it was just harder than I had first thought it would be, to find the house.”
“Play nice my dear, Lily and Hadrian have both just finished their dinner, as such in a few hours it will be time to put them to bed.” Mr. Blackwood said with slight scolding to his wife, tuxedo made of silk hugging his broad shoulders, and black hair slicked back. “Though do keep an ear and eye out for them.”
“Of course!” Seraphina rushed to reassure as she entered the gates and moved up toward the house. “I promise to take great care of Lily and Hadrian, I also promise to keep a close eye on them!”
“Then we shall get out of your hair.” Mrs. Blackwood said with a warm smile as she took her husband’s hand. “Do make sure to keep all doors and window closed and locked my dear.”
Seraphina easily settled into the large living room before the fireplace, all doors had been locked and the children asleep, so with monitor placed in front of her, she relaxed. The creaking of elder and oak trees that surrounded the estate filled the silence, only broken by soft snores and slow breathing coming from inside the house, it was in this silence the soft padding of footsteps from outside were dampened and unheard by Seraphina.
“You sure this is the right house?” A deep hoarse voice whispered. “I mean the lights are on, so someone’s home.”
“If you shut your trap and listen for once,” another male voice shot back with venom. “You would have known that the only residence currently home are the babysitter and kids.”
“Shh! You idiots are going to get us caught before we even get in!” A third voice snarled with warning, as the first one stumbled over a large piece of wood and slammed into a side window. “Now you did it…”
Seraphina’s head shot up as a loud bang echoed from the far-right window in the living room, fear filled her being as she shot to her feet and turned to the side where the surveillance cameras were set up. Whispers of thought filled her mind as she took in the sight of three broad males standing outside with their faces covered by black masks, all thoughts halted as she ran toward the children’s room; she had to keep them safe.
“Lily, I need you to tell me if your parents showed you a hidden safe room.” Seraphina began trying to keep her cool, she knew getting the children hidden before calling for help, it was well known that old Estate homes had hidden rooms, at least she hoped this one did. “This is very important.”
“Mommy showed brother and I a hidden button inside their closet that would open in a hidden room.” Lily answered sleepily blonde curls mused, blurry blue eyes watching her with confusion, as she clutched her teddy to her chest. “Why?”
“There is no time little one, I need you to go there now while I get your brother.” Seraphina ordered softly as a crash filled the silence as the burglars broke into the kitchen, though a thought as to why the alarms hadn’t sounded filled her head for all of a moment. “Go, now Lily!”
“What’s going on?” Hadrian whispered in fright curls of inky black falling into his green eyes as he looked up at her.
“No time, you both need to go to the hidden room.” She ordered again as she began to push both children down the hall and watched as they clutched one another’s hand, but neither looked back as they ran into their parents’ room.
“Now to call the police.” She whispered, voice trembling as she hid behind the door, hand reaching for her cellphone, only to freeze. “You had got to be joking.”
“Man, I am telling you this place is a treasure chest, we will be rich boys!” A hoarse voice whispered outside the door where she hid. “And to think Charlie here only had to reset the alarms for thirty minutes.”
Seraphina squeezed her eyes shut before taking a deep breath as she crept to the window inside Lily’s room, her only choice was to get outside the house and reenter from the broken sliding door they had broken in from. Her phone rested in a small space in the kitchen that most would overlook charging as she had relaxed in the living room, to think it could cost her so much now.
Seraphina slipped through the bedroom window and quietly walked around to the broken sliding door in the kitchen, it was heart stopping to pause as she listened to the three men in the room across from her. Before she knew it, she had reached the broken sliding door and slowly moved inside and to the side for her phone, her adrenaline keeping her unaware of the wounds she gained.
“Hello, there are three intruders inside the house, please hurry, I am at the Blackwood estate with two small children.” She got out once they picked up before having moving to hide in the pantry and await the arrival of the police, the next twenty minutes seemed to be set at a crawl as she waited for help.
“Too bad you only cut the alarms for a set amount of time, could have really robbed this place.” The hoarse voiced complained with a shake of their head. “What the hell was that?!”
“The cops! We got to go man!” The second voice shouted already rushing out the window with the others following. “I knew we should have looked further for those kids and babysitter!”
Seraphina breathed a sigh of relief, finally feeling the pain from the cuts on her hands and knees from scrambling through a broken sliding door; but the happiness overwhelmed her, the children and her were safe. The gratitude shown by Mrs. and Mr. Blackwood caused her to fill brave, like a hero, even as she waved goodbye more than ready to end the day of her first ever job.
Timothy Weldon is a 20-year veteran of the United States military. His service took him across the country and across the world, as he served in almost two dozen foreign countries from Western Europe to Central Asia, operated within two U.S. embassies, and conducted almost 50 arms control inspections throughout the former Soviet Union. Weldon is fluent in Russian, having worked as an interpreter and translator.
Timothy is also an accomplished writer with several short stories in the publication pipeline for 2020. Timothy resides in San Antonio, Texas where he enjoys watching American football, spending time with his family and three dogs, and writing.
The Most Valuable Piece
It took Jimmy’s eyes a moment to adjust once he entered, but as soon as they had, he spotted Richie waving to him from a corner booth. He made his way over, hands in his pockets, eyes cast down. Richie stood and shook his hand.
“Thanks for meeting me, Jim. I really do appreciate it. I know this all sounds a bit crazy, but I just gotta get that painting,” Richie said.
“Are you sure this is what you want to do?” Jimmy asked as he pulled another cigarette from his pack and lit it. “I mean, I understand the nostalgia and all, but come on, this seems pretty risky.”
“Look, Jim, I get it. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the way love is, ain’t it? Crazy? Look, after all that happened, and all she and I went through, I just don’t want her making a dime off of my mug.”
“Ok, ok. Just go over it again, let me hear the plan.”
“So, it’s a small gallery, over off 5th. Some kind of showcase of up and comers, you know? She’s got a few paintings there. The actual show and bidding are supposed to begin after some kind of introduction of the artists at seven. We still have those security uniforms left over from that job we did for Vinnie. I figure we go there around 6-6:30, slide in, wait for the clear, grab it and get out. Easy peasy.”
“Easy peasy, huh?” Jimmy frowned as he took a long drag on his cigarette. “Dammit… Ok, fine.”
“Really, Jim? Really, you’re gonna do this for me? I knew it! I knew I could count on you, man,” Richie clasped his hand tight and gave him the kind of half handshake, half hug that he was known for throughout the rougher sides of town.
Richie and Jimmy arrived at 6:15 in their security guard disguises and walked right through the front doors. No one even questioned their presence. They wound their way, side by side, through the various exhibits, and rounded a corner that opened into the area with the painting in question. Right in the middle, there was that painting, Richie standing in all of his nude glory for the world to see. And just in front of the painting was the artist, dressed in a long, black gown, hair pulled up into a bun, sipping on a glass of wine. Richie grabbed Jimmy and pulled him back around the corner.
“Holy shit, Rich, you didn’t tell me it was a nude,” Jimmy said as he stifled a laugh.
“Shhh…,” Richie held a finger up to his lips. “She’s gonna hear you, asshole. No, I left that part out.” He peeked around the corner. She was still in front of the painting. “What is she doing, just standing there?”
“Obviously, admiring her, and God’s, handiwork,” Jimmy said, smiling.
Richie held his finger to his lips again and looked back around the corner. A couple of men in black suits approached the artist.
“Ms. Romano?” one said, approaching.
She broke her attention from the painting, “Yes?”
“We just wanted to apologize for the inconvenience. We gave the delivery drivers strict guidance on what paintings were to be picked up and brought here.”
The artist looked back at the painting and ran a hand over the canvas. “It’s quite alright, I understand that these things sometimes happen. I suppose it is time I should get rid of this piece. It only serves as a reminder of someone that I can’t have.” She tilted her head to the side and ran her eyes over the whole of the painting, even as her hand ran over its surface. “It’s just. I guess I’m not quite ready yet.”
The two men studied her for a moment and the way she regarded the painting. The man that had been doing the talking up until now bowed his head and cast his eyes downward with pursed lips, “We completely understand, madame. We’ll take it to the back and have the driver return it as soon as possible.” He grabbed her by the elbow and led her just out of Jimmy and Richie’s earshot.
Richie’s expression went blank.
“Rich, it’s now or never, man, let’s go,” Jimmy said, turning the corner.
Richie caught him by the arm. When they met eyes, Richie just shook his head. “No. No, man. She can keep it. I can’t do this now. Not now.”
H. E. GRAHAME
IAN MANUEL REILLY LANDIVAR
JOHN C. KRIEG
RUTH Z. DEMING
WILLIAM KEVIN BURKE