Chapter Two: Jack Can’t Lie

You can’t tell a story that isn’t true, even if it’s all a lie, and believe in it when the voice inside tells you otherwise.

Jack stared at the ceiling.

It was two fifty-nine in the morning, Jack guessed, the night held fast the world outside his apartment as the street lights cast an amber glow through the window on the walls surrounding his bed. He often woke like this, not from troubled sleep or insomnia but because his body decided it was time.

The alarm began to ring on the nightstand.

Jack listened to the tune, feeling the faint vibration as the phone doubled it’s effort to wake him, but it was pointless since he no longer needed it.

Jack didn’t intend to be so acute to this moment in time, it’s just the way his body responded to something which happened nearly every morning, but Jack enjoyed beating his alarm to the punch, it was easier to wake out of his own accord rather than rattled by the effervescent jingle that marked his waking hour.

Jack remained still for a minute longer, allowing the alarm to sing, it would happen any moment. The silence was pushed back by the reverberating melody since no one in their right mind or in this financial zip code would be up at such an ungodly hour.

Jack knew it wouldn’t be long now.

The anticipation was almost as good as the sudden sharpness of the sound, Jack knew that, but what was even better, was what it meant.

Whaaaaaap!

The sound was enough to jolt the dead out of their graves or, at least, to force a reluctant dreamer, who allowed his alarm to play for too long, back to the land of the living. It was as if a hammer had been dropped from five feet and struck the wooden floorboards, head first, would be.

For a long time, Jack thought this sound was all in his mind. He believe that he’d knocked the old candle or pill-shaped stereo off the nightstand in his groggy effort to silence the alarm, but, when he searched for the items on his nightstand, they were all accounted for and not a single thing was on the floor below.

There were times when the sound brought him out of a terrible dream and Jack began to equate the noise with a ghost, theoretically living in his room and theoretically enjoyed making loud enough noises to wake him from the nightmares but Jack ruled that out when the nightmares were gone, when he began waking a few minutes before his alarm went off, and the sound didn’t end.

Whaaaaaap!

As if someone punched the floor with a iron fist, Jack felt the aftershock of the impact through his bed.

This time, Jack smiled and reached for the alarm, pressed the snooze button, just incase he drifted back to sleep before putting his feet on the floor, and rolled to his back to ponder the ceiling, once more.

Jack couldn’t decide why he enjoyed the loud thump on his floor so much. It could be he was glad that someone else shared his suffering, to be awake before the rest of the city bothered. Possibly it was that the alarm, attached to the crashing sound, no longer had its desired affect on Jack because he was already awake and ready. The last could be that it made him feel less alone because another human shared this moment in time with him, three in the morning, even though the person responsible for the thumping against his floor was certainly less than amused to be doing what they were doing, rather than sleeping, because of Jack.

To be certain, there were no rooms under Jack, he was on the first level of the small, older complex, or at least the rooms underneath him weren’t for rent. Jack only knew this because there wasn’t a way to get down below the first floor except by a special key, which he assumed belonged to the property manager or something of that sort.

If it is the manager, Jack thought, I should be a little more cautious in how I find amusement.

But it’s not like they could kick him out for waking up early. Blame it on the old bones of the building, which allowed sound and movement to be transferred between rooms as if they were separated by paper walls and wire strings.

Waking at three in the morning wasn’t a crime.

Jack never researched the validity of his belief, that someone did live under him, as he never heard sounds or saw anyone going to or from the basement to support his claim, but it was easier to believe that then the other scenario, which was that his complex was haunted by a ghost who didn’t appreciate Jack one bit.

Jack balled his fist and rubbed the dust bunnies from the corner of his eyes.

His body ached, mostly from the whisky but also from an ex whose visit last night ended after twenty sweaty minutes, it’d been awhile since his body had worked as hard for anything.

It would have been better to spend the night alone, Jack thought.

Not that he didn’t enjoy seeing his ex, it was just that seeing an old flame was like lighting a candle and placing it at a distance. The heat and passion that was once familiar but mysterious and exciting because it was hidden somewhere inside, was now outside of him and it would never bring back the warmth to his chest as it once had. Now, such visits, were only a checkmark on a box that sometimes ran overdue, the empty square with the words copulation next to it. If Jack had the choice, he’d wish away the need but it seemed this was impossible, to manipulate the basic instincts, whether he found himself in love or not, mostly being the latter.

Jack moved cautiously to the kitchen, which was only a step from his bed in the small flat, and greedily drank the glass of water he’d set out the night before.

Yes, Jack thought, if I had it my way, I’d give up the distractions, including the whiskey.

Jack moved throughout his morning routine with ease, or so he thought. From a distance, it was like watching a hallucinating rhino attempting to climb out of a wooded swamp. Things were knocked over and spilled, dropped but luckily didn’t break, and eventually, feeling very much accomplished, Jack was at his computer some forty-five minutes later.

This was the reason for such an early morning, to be at his desk and working before the light came up on the world outside and it was time to run off to work. Jack, unfortunately for him and his downstairs neighbor, was a morning person. Which, to Jack, was in itself a form of a curse. He would give anything to be the kind of person who could focus after work, so he didn’t have to wake before the rest of the world, and it would make his social life a little easier to navigate or it might develop it because he really didn’t have much of a social life to speak of. But it didn’t work that way, not for Jack, the morning was his time to listen to the voice and the only time he could hear the voice was when everything else was quiet.

Too much noise would gather in his mind from the news, commuting, working, then repeating the first two, possibly an errand or two attached, before he was back in the lonely square flat with old wood floors where the laptop taunted him from the corner or the room, daring him to try again this late in the day but he couldn’t. The static in his brain was too loud, as if everything that happened since waking caught in a basin and the only way to drain it was to sleep or drown the voices with whisky.

When Jack woke, the basin was empty and he waited to absorb the voice, fingers ready.

Which is where Jack sits now, after fumbling through the start of his morning, in the less than comfortable chair in front of the dull glow of the laptop.

Jack read the last few lines of what he’d written the day previous.

It was a story he’d been recently inspired to write, a tragic story of betrayal which took place in a small town outside of the city. It was about a successful woman, with a powerful father, and the young farmer, with meager beginnings and a father who’d taught him everything he knew.

Jack was in a chapter where the farmer, Seth, was writing in his journal, Seth’s troubled loneliness trembled through the ink in the form of a poem, which Seth often turned to in the solitary work of farming in a small town, where there were too many words but no one to listen to them.

The poem began easily enough:

Lonely are the nights

Lonely are the days

Lonely am I, in so many ways

Jack read on to its completion.

It wasn’t Jack’s work, or Seth’s work for that matter, but rather a poem by Jim Foulk that ended tragically, as most sad things do. But what inspired Jack about this specific poem was the story Reagan told him, about the suicide of a young man in Minor about three weeks ago, his body was found on the site where a new prison was being constructed. The poem was pinned to the victims chest, whose body was found underwater in a ditch. Apparently the pumps which kept the water out of the ditch had been tampered with and allowed the flooding, concealing the body for a short time but it wasn’t drowning that ended the victims life, it was poison. Cyanide to be certain.

Anyways, they never found a killer or motive and eventually labelled it a suicide, because their was enough evidence backing that conclusion, stating that the victim tampered with the pumps himself, then tied himself to rebar in the ditch and placed a pill of cyanide in his mouth, which he bit into just as the water began to cover his body.

It was dramatic and alarming. The idea that someone would drown and poison himself, while holding onto a poem that seemed to say something about his situation, was elaborate and premeditated. Almost as if the kid had planned his own death for a very long time.

Jack didn’t know whether to believe it was suicide or murder but Reagan was a firm believer that it was murder and, in her own Nancy Drew sort of way, was trying to put the pieces together in her spare time. Reagan believed it was just a way of the city cutting ties to a case that didn’t matter enough to keep paying their men to figure out what really happening the the kid. By labeling it suicide, the only thing left was to sweep it under the rug. Which the city did, quickly, because there were more important things to focus on like traffic problems, rampant construction, and bringing in more big business.

But Jack put that aside for the moment, the poem and the lyrical quality of the murder/suicide was enough to inspire Jack for the idea of this new story of a lonely farmer’s comeuppance.

Jack knew how Seth’s story would end, before it began and it was a troubling thing to carry when you’re writing a story because Jack didn’t want it to end that way and frequently fought to bend the story to a happier conclusion. But every time Jack wrote a few paragraphs, diverting from the natural course of the story, against the whispering voice in his mind, he read them in disgust and quickly deleted them. You can’t tell a story that isn’t true, even if it’s all a lie, and believe in it when the voice inside tells you otherwise.

Seth would eventually murder his lover, when he realized he was just her toy, a play thing that she’d been amused with after a family vacation in the flatlands, east of the mountains. Seth didn’t understand what he had with the woman was just a fling, he believed it was love, and the realization that she was playing him for the foolish farmer, made him angry but the additional knowledge that she was sleeping with other men, instead of true to him as he had been to her, would drive Seth to insanity.

Jack hated it when his characters became violent. It made Jack feel dirty after writing the horrifying scenes where the anger and the madness climax but that is what the voice inside told him to write and Jack couldn’t tell a lie.

Jack typed the rest of the poem, which Seth was writing by pen in the drafty loft above the barn, to the glow of a single bulb hanging on a string, the smell of manure and feed prickling his nostrils.

Lonely are the seasons

Lonely are the years

So lonely am I, that it brings tears.

Lonely is this place

Lonely is my life

Lonely am I, that I reach for a knife

Lonely is this court room

Lonely is my sentence

So lonely am I that I ask for repentance

Seth wrote this while wincing at the muffled screams from the corner stall far below, a teardrop fell on the page from the sound and the cries of his angry, betrayed heart. Seth closed the journal before grabbing the real knife and heading down the steps of the loft.

Jack wrote out the scene as fingers flew to the keys on the board, everything vivid and clear, so much so that Jack should have been alarmed, but he wasn’t because he had little choice in the matter. He’d learned long ago not to contradict or to take his own path because it didn’t work, he couldn’t write without the voice. Even now, under the whisky headache and too little sleep, the voice was clear and demanding.

Ten harrowing pages later, an alarm sounded from Jack’s phone.

The cheerful tune filled him with irony after writing such a morbid piece of literature and Jack released his hands from the computer to silence the alarm. It was time to leave for work.

That’s the way it was for Jack, most days, because the option of not writing, even though most of his stories lay incomplete in a folder on his laptop, would be to choose insanity. The voice wasn’t quiet when he didn’t write, instead it became louder. The only way to lower the voice to a tolerable muffle was to allow it breath on a sheet of paper and release it from it’s mental captivity, otherwise- Well, Jack didn’t know what would happen otherwise, actually. And he didn’t much feel like trying to find out what would happen because part of him knew that he was in danger of becoming the characters he wrote about. In some small way, every person that filled his pages was a piece of himself, seeds of his own thoughts and sometimes the fruit of those seeds was not something you’d want your parents to know about, or anyone for that matter.

Another tone, a single bell, chimed from Jack’s cell. He reached for the phone and smiled a bit at the notification on his lock screen.

A new message from a girl he’d been chatting with on a dating app for the past couple days.

Most conversations on the dating apps would fizzle out before they even began, Jack had learned, and it was normal to match with someone after a few minutes of precarious and well intentioned swiping – left for no, right for yes – but often the actual messaging part lasted as long as a ‘Hello’ and maybe a ‘How are you?’ before it died shortly after.

Jack used to get annoyed by this. It made the whole act of trying to use this format of finding a suitable mate as boring and pointless as it was exciting, and mostly it was just confusing. Confusing because it was so different, like shopping for a girlfriend online; with only a few less than professional photos – most girls smiled with drinks in their hands and Jack never understood why, were all girls low key alcoholics or was that the only time they were ever comfortable enough to have a photo taken? – a banal line or two about themselves, their obligatory location, and possibly where they worked. No sounds, no movement, no catching each others eye from across the room. No sweaty palms or terrible opening lines that you had to think up fast because the girl might leave before you get a chance. Instead, you got to inspect the prospect without them looking back and there was all the time in the world to think up something clever to tell them before pressing the send key.

It was strange and fucked, if you asked Jack, extremely fucked.

Jack sighed.

Even though it was what it was, Jack had few better ways to find a date. It could be exciting, sometimes.

Jack unlocked the screen and read the message.

It was from Sara, a sweet girl with a kind face and brunette hair, also a nurse which Jack admired. She was an avid reader, which Jack always looked for in a woman, and dabbled in poetry, even winning a local competition a year back. To Jack, she might as well have been published because, even though he wrote voraciously, he had not actually entered his work into anything other than the folder labelled ‘Writing’ on his laptop.

They had sufficiently passed the boring phase of ‘how are you’s’ and moved on to planning to meet, which was this evening in fact.

sara: I love the Bookstore! 7 works great for me. Here’s my number.

Jack smiled. He smiled in spite of the fact that this same scenario had played out dozens of times in the past year and, regardless of the temporary joy, it had yet to bring any lasting establishment to his life.

Beggars can’t be choosers, Jack thought. But the image of watching a homeless man sifting through trash somewhere along 1st Ave flashed across his mind and Jack recounted the phrase. In no way does a beggars take everything he’s presented with, a beggar retains his humanity by exercising his right to choose, even if it’s between a moldy piece of hamburger or a half eaten corn dog. Jack also remembered one time he was in Belltown, walking to his bus stop with leftovers from a very nice restaurant in his hand, when a rough and luckless appearing beggar confronted him with a cup, asking for change. Jack didn’t carry change or cash of any kind, it simply was poor ethics, but instead, presented with an opportunity to do some good, offered the delicious leftovers to the man with the cup. The man with dirty fingers looked at the bag warily, Jack elaborated which restaurant it came from and that it was steak, mashed potatoes, and macaroni, but the man, annoyed, simply glared back at Jack before turning his cup toward another person who was approaching.

So, yes, Jack thought, Beggars are choosers. Humans are choosers. And its been his choice to continue this mild level of madness that dating has turned into, especially when you’re in your late twenties, as Jack is, and his decision to meet with Sara tonight.

Jack saved the number. Wondering if he should text her before the date or if he should simply wait until after or if for some reason she was late. It was always confusing to him, this narrow timeliness of things, that there was a ‘too soon’, a ‘too late’, and somewhere in the middle was the absolute perfect time to contact someone. But Jack did as he always did, because he really didn’t care, and texted her directly. Mostly for fear that he would forget in the course of the work day. It was easy to forget about someone you met online.

Jack: Hey it’s Jack! See you at 7 🙂

Jack typed out the words, cringed slightly, then deleted the entire thing. A few seconds later, he typed the exact same message again, sans the smiley face, and pressed send.

He locked the screen, grabbed his jacket, and hoped he wasn’t late for the number 3 bus.

Whether it was the impending date or the morning writing, Jack completely forgot that he was supposed to meet Reagan tonight, not Sara.

Chapter One: The Problem with Being Early

Jim didn’t stop to wonder if this was another wind that precedes the disaster he’d anticipated, even as he suited up into his rain slicker and rubber boots, but he should have.

Today is the day, Jim thought.

The day he’d come into the world fifty-six years ago and, instead of presents or celebrations, his birthdays were now marked by a new pain that punctuated his age. That was the way it was since forty, a new pain in a new place, sometimes a revisit with an old one, but it always happened on the day of his birthday. Superstition, maybe.

Jim called it shitty luck and everyone knew that shitty luck was better than no luck at all because no luck meant the universe had given up on you and at that point you might as well start digging your own hole, you’d be in it soon enough. There’s no place in the world for a man with no luck at all.

At forty it was the sprained wrist from a game of basketball with the boys at the gym. Forty-three was a broken big toe, courtesy of the steel leg of his coffee table. Forty-six was a big one, he’d fallen twenty feet after stepping on a faulty scaffold plank that snapped in two. Lucky for him, there was a pile of full garbage bags sitting below, bags that should have been taken out that morning but the laborers were too busy smoking in the porta-johns to be bothered with cleanup. It turned out alright for Jim, he ended up with a snapped tibia and six weeks of X files reruns, rather than dead.

Yes, thats the thing about shitty luck, there was always a silver lining and nothing could go all wrong. Had Jim been a man with no luck at all, the bags wouldn’t have been there to break his fall and, if they hadn’t been there, then Jim wouldn’t be here to celebrate fifty-six years of shitty luck that’s kept him alive, barely at times, to see himself get old.

It was six in the morning when Jim pulled his dirty pickup to the Shell station. November had it’s way of sleeping in and so did the people in this city, Jim thought as he put the shifter in park in front of the glowing convenience store.

The sign outside the station said the place was a twenty-four hour establishment but Jim didn’t need that sign to tell him what he already knew, he’d been coming here for six-months now, ever since he started working on the new prison up the road, and it was here that he bought his morning provisions.

The truck door squealed in the lonely chill outside the convenience station, Jim lifted the door on it’s hinges to close it securely. He’d been meaning to fix those hinges but it seemed there was never enough time to pull the door off and do it, and there was no way he was going to take it in to one of those overpriced shops in town that rape you with labor charges while they give pennies of what they make to the illegals working in the garage. No, sir. If there was one thing that was worse than being too lazy to fix things yourself, it was paying someone to do it for you who turned around and took money right out of the pockets of men who were too scared to stand up for themselves.

The swinging glass door to the front of the store jangled far too cheerfully for the kind of day it was shaping up to be on the other side of the glass, looked like rain and wind and so cold you wished it would just snow but it wouldn’t because it never did.

When the three bells tinkled, Jim smiled in spite of himself almost as if the bells had wished him happy birthday, it would be the first of the day if that was true. Roger saluted Jim as he walked in.

‘Allooo my friend.’ Roger said, too cheerily for six in the morning.

‘Aye, Roger.’ Jim waved, and quickly began his route through the three aisles of the shop, each filled with their own fucked up science experiment of food, which was both appalling and delicious at the same time. Like a fat hooker, Jim thought, you wouldn’t want your buddies to know about it but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t be fun, even if it did leave you feeling ashamed and sick afterwards. But Jim was a creature of habit and its hard to stop something once you decide you like it, and Jim liked the provisions he found here. Pick something you love and let it kill you, Jim thought ironically and chuckled at himself as he grabbed the apple pie that was wrapped in waxed paper and shaped more like a hot pocket than pie. Let it kill you.

There were two more things he would need to get through this day, a bag of the Jalapeño sunflower seeds and coffee. Jim pulled up in front of the second item, feeling a bit nostalgic in the middle of his morning ritual but was immediately ripped from it when he saw the vacant hook on the shelf. Blood was rushing up his neck, the way it always did when he knew his routine was in danger of collapsing before it even began.

‘Roger!’ Jim said loudly toward the register, keeping his voice just below a yell.

Roger scuttled from around the counter and waddled his short round frame toward Jim, his brown face and mustache twitching nervously as he tried to smile at his seeming distraught customer.

Roger wasn’t his real name, but thats what Jim started calling him when he couldn’t pronounce the Ethiopian name on his badge, but Roger liked the name Roger so much that he took it on as his own, shortly after changing his name tag to its English counterpart of his former name.

Roger was sweating mildly, as he normally was, when he pulled up next to Jim.

‘What is it sir?’ Roger said in abbreviated english.

Jim was pointing a finger at the empty space on the shelf, where there should have been at least two or three jalapeño flavored sunflower seeds. Jim’s finger trembled a bit, not out of anger, but lack of caffeine which he was already overdue for because of this hiccup in his morning route. He should be tasting fresh coffee against his lips right now but instead there was this.

‘Where are they?’ Jim demanded.

Roger followed Jim’s pointing finger to the space on the shelf, then back again to the disappointed gray face which was a striking contrast to Roger’s younger chocolate face.

Roger was inscrutable, the roundness of his face seem to throw all of his expression into varying degrees of smiling. Jim had learned to tell the difference between one smile to the next because they ranged from angry to happy and everywhere in between. Roger was smiling in a concerned way now.

‘I should check in back.’ Roger said kindly but remained standing there as if it was a question rather than a statement.

Jim and Roger eyed each other for a nervous moment, not quite sure what to make of things but, finally, Jim nodded, realizing this was in fact a question.

‘Please check.’ Jim said.

But Jim knew, from the look that Roger had given him that there were no more of his favored flavor of seeds in the back, and the admonishment of that fact sent a shiver of discontent through Jim’s bones.

It happened from time to time, this break up in the normal cycle of things, but it always felt like the first time when it did and Jim didn’t like that.

The way Jim saw it, the sun rose every morning and the stars came out every night – if it wasn’t cloudy, which it was most nights – other than that, there weren’t many things a man could count on each and every day. In a way, that was why he had a routine, that was why he protected it and made sure nothing got in the way of that but if the convenience store, which never ran out of his seeds, ran out of his seeds, which were a substantial factor to his morning routine, then what things could you count on in a world like that? Nothing thats what and Jim would be damned if this wasn’t a rough start to turning fifty-six. They say that blessings come in threes, well, for Jim, it was always the opposite. Shitty luck came in threes, two of them insignificant before the big one hit, like the strong winds preceding the hurricane, little warnings before absolute fucking disaster.

Jim felt his palms growing cold and moist.

Enough of this, Jim thought, I can’t go down that rabbit hole today.

Roger emerged through the colorful bead curtain that divided the store from the back room, waddling quickly and sweating even more than he was before, as if he’d torn through the entire store for the Jalapeño seeds, and his hands were empty.

‘Sorry, sir. No more. But these are very good.’ Roger said, pointing to other bags like peppered or salty or whatever other flavors that might as well have not existed to Jim because he was already walking away.

Will just have to do without, Jim thought as he grabbed the extra-tall paper cup and stuck it under the coffee spout. He pulled the lever, watched as the black liquid filled the cup, and the cloud of steam carried it’s spicy scent to his nostrils, perking his mind. It was like foreplay, Jim thought and laughed at himself, as if the coffee was coming on to him. Which it might as well cause nothing else had in quite a long time.

Jim walked up to the register with only the pie and the coffee, minus his seeds. To some, this missing piece of his morning might not seem like a big deal but to Jim it might as well have been like knowing you wouldn’t get another drink of water for the rest of the day. Why? They were the only thing that kept Jim from smoking for the past seven years, it gave his mouth something to do when he should have been putting a cigarette to his lips, and he’d had those seeds every day for the past two-thousand five-hundred and fifty-five days, thats why.

Jim glanced at the multicolored, rectangular packs behind the counter, the fleeting desire to buy one and start smoking again flashed across his mind because it seemed to him if you couldn’t have one then you might as well give in and have the other, going without either might as well have been like asking himself to hold his breath for the rest of the day or until he could find a store that did carry the seeds.

Tough start to fifty-six, Jim thought, tough start.

Roger scanned the items and in a few short wordless moments, Jim was on his way out the door, the tinkle of the bell seemed a little too cheerful now, given the scope of things.

Jim’s mind was already thinking of what would happen next, it was better to be prepared than to get blindsided by whatever the universe was stirring up for the path ahead, there was no telling what it might be but Jim knew that one unlikely thing was like the first bead in a necklace and beaded necklaces always had more than one bead.

A few minutes later, Jim was in the dark, gravel lot where all the workers parked. Jim’s truck was the first of the pack it seemed, that was the way it always was, because, to him, if you weren’t at work at least a half hour before work began then you were late, and Jim was never late but no one else shared his fever for punctuality.

It was a couple minutes past six, the customary time for him to show, but today felt different and it wasn’t cause of his birthday, no, it was the absence of the seeds that he should be throwing a handful in the side of his cheek right about now but he wasn’t.

That’s when his cell rang.

Jim looked at the caller ID hoping it was a telemarketer so he could silence the phone and return to his pre-work contemplation but it wasn’t, it was his boss.

‘Aye, Mike.’ Jim spoke into the receiver.

‘Jim. Hey, sorry to bug you, are you here yet?’ Mike asked.

‘Just parked, whats up?’ Jim said.

‘Do you mind suiting up? The pumps failed sometime last night and the south end of the facility is under two feet of water and I need someone to start dewatering down there so we stay on track for concrete this morning. We’ll use the backup generators while we wait for the electricians to get here and figure out what the hell happened to our power.’ Mike said.

‘Sure thing, boss.’ Jim said.

‘Alright, thanks Jim. You rock.’ Mike said happily.

Jim hung up.

Mike didn’t have any idea it was Jim’s birthday, no sir, but it wasn’t like Jim made it public information either. Still, Jim wished the first call of the day would have been a birthday wish from his kid or maybe his brother. It wasn’t that Jim had anything against Mike, he was a good boss younger and smarter, it’s only that he didn’t much care for him being the first voice he’d heard over the phone this morning.

It was the trouble with growing old when you’re alone, when your kids are gone and the wife packed her bags a long time ago, that you stopped hearing voices you wanted to hear, rather they were only voices of people who acknowledged your existence. Which, for Jim, it was alright because being needed was good enough, a man who wasn’t needed was soon dead. We’re all beasts of burden and if there’s no more burden, the beast withers away soon after. Right now, Mike needed him, the whole project needed him, and that gave Jim purpose.

Thats why you show up early, Jim thought, because sometimes theres an emergency to be taken care of and being there in time did more than just make you look like a hero, it padded the wallet too. That’s what Jim was taught when he was a kid by a man who’d been as old as Jim is now, early bird gets the worm.

Jim left the warmth of his truck, welcoming the chance to get a jump on the day, and braced into the chilly November wind. It was amazing the water wasn’t frozen in a day this cold but Jim knew the temperature was just a few degrees above freezing because it never got that cold, not anymore.

As Jim walked to the job shack, which was a shipping container converted into a living space complete with a heater and a microwave, he didn’t think about this as unlucky, because it distracted him from the start of his day and he was glad to do anything to take his mind of the fact that he had the urge to light a cigarette and there were plenty of men on a construction site to bum them off of too.

Jim didn’t stop to wonder if this was another wind that precedes the disaster he’d anticipated, even as he suited up into his rain slicker and rubber boots, but he should have.

The prison construction site was a large one, shape like and L, stretching east and west with a little extension toward the south from the east side of the building. That’s where the lowest point in the structure was, it was also the muddiest because they hadn’t laid down concrete in that section yet and it was November, which meant it rained damn near every day.

Two feet of water was a lot, depending on how far it stretched, Jim knew before looking that it would be the footing trenches that were underwater because thats were all the water collected in the same way mountain water gathers in a deep, low spot forming a lake. Thats what the footing trenches turned into when you didn’t keep the pumps going, they turned into a lake except there weren’t any ducks or fish swimming in these, only rebar and wood formwork.

It took Jim all of ten minutes to get three pumps in place along the hundred and twenty foot edge of the building site, it was the trenches that were flooded, just as Jim had guessed. A few minutes later, Jim connected the generators and the pumps throbbed to life in the brown water. It wouldn’t be long before the water was gone, Jim thought.

Rain began to fall in a drizzle, gathering on Jim’s safety glasses and hazing the view in front of him under the glow of his headlamp. The clouds were turning purple above him, the way it did in November when the sun came up but there were too many rain clouds in the way to let the golden light through.

Jim was the only one at this side of the job site, his boss was probably in morning meetings up at the field office some hundred yards away, and since it was still forty minutes till shift start, no one else was around. The low growl of the generators and the distant drone of the freeway were the only sounds that broke the hushed silence of the drizzling morning that was quickly turning to a steady pour. In a sense, it was a perfectly normal day in late fall, except today was the day Jim had been born, fifty-six years ago, but nothing else was any different that almost any other day.

As the water level receded, Jim watched and lost himself in thought.

Jim was still waiting to find out what kind of pain would mark his birthday this year and thought briefly that he might be out of possibilities for new pain, he chuckled, but it wasn’t true. There’s always room for more pain.

Jim wondered if his little girl would call him today, she did most birthdays even if she didn’t call much otherwise. She wasn’t really a little girl anymore, Lisa had turned into a young woman, now married with a kid and a life of her own somewhere down in sunny California where it didn’t rain. She never did take to the rain, Jim thought, even thought she was born here, the rainy season hung over her like a heavy weight around her neck. Jim was glad she’d found a place where she felt more at home, even though he didn’t see her much anymore because of it, and it seemed like the sunshine state was good to her.

Unlike his daughter, Jim liked the rain. It felt good to be standing out here in the predawn, with raindrops rattling against his hard hat and rain jacket, it was nature’s embrace. Water is life, Jim thought, and we just have more of it here than most places.

Jim wondered about a lot of things during the twenty minutes it took to pump the water out of the ditch, to where the formwork and rebar was clearly visible again, because watching machines work doesn’t do much to occupy the mind and the only thing left is self contemplation, which Jim wasn’t fond of. Self contemplation was a cousin of self pity and regret comes after, thats why Jim liked to work with his hands and stay busy because it left little time for him to think about things that he didn’t like to think about.

Jim began walking the length of the ditch to inspect it for anything out of sorts, something he could alert Mike to, because water could break or move things out of place and you couldn’t put concrete in formwork that wasn’t right. Sometimes boards broke or rebar shifted or the edges of the ditch caved in. Mike would be certain to ask Jim if he’d seen anything and Jim would be damned if he didn’t have a clear answer when the time came.

Jim walked along, the circular glow of his headlamp cutting a path through the darkness and the falling rain, glancing at the ditch every few feet. The water wasn’t completely gone yet, there was still a foot or so in some spots which were lower than others. Jim made a mental note to move the pumps to those low spots, once he’d finished walking the length of the ditch.

Jim saw it toward the east end of the ditch.

Something unfamiliar was protruding from the brown water, on Jim’s side of the formwork. He leaned down for a closer look but between the darkness and rain and beads of water on his glasses it was hard to get a clear image. When he saw it at this distance, he still didn’t believe what he was seeing, so he took off his safety glasses just to be certain.

Only two inches of the sneaker, pointing toe first, was breaking the surface. Kids and trouble makers, druggies and transients, often threw things over the south fence, which ended up on the job and sometime landed in the formwork like this, but this was strange, because if it was only a sneaker, it would be floating or laying sideways or anything other than toes up, perfectly still in the water.

That was the troubling part, the stillness, because the water, even though it didn’t look like it, was being pulled toward the pumps and loose items would follow the subtle current. But the visible part of the sneaker didn’t move.

Jim hopped down in the ditch for a better look, trying to talk himself out of what he thought he was seeing because he didn’t want to believe it. So, he just told himself he was going to pull the shoe out of the water, because it was only a sneaker and sneakers had no place in the formwork and that was that.

When he grabbed hold of the sneaker he realized two things. The first was that the shoe was not empty, as it should have been, something inside of it didn’t allow the material to give when Jim closed his fingers around it that felt distinctly like the grooves between toes. The second thing, the more important thing, was that the shoe wasn’t alone, there was another shoe right next to the one he’d first seen and neither of them were empty. And there was a third thing, when Jim pulled on the two of them he realized they were attached to something much larger.

Jim was a practical man. Two plus two equals four, if you eat too much of Aunt Rudy’s pie you’re bound for a stomach ache, when dark clouds are on the horizon its going to rain. And when theres two sneakers in a ditch, underwater, and they aren’t empty or floating, it can only mean one thing.

Jim stood in the water, the dirty brown stuff came up mid boot but his rubbers kept his feet dry, and he looked at the shoes for a few minutes, while the water slowly descended, revealing bit by bit what the sneakers were attached to.

First it was jeans, then a muddy gray sweater that had brown stains all over it, above was a bloated face with the jaw cocked open slightly and the eyes were open, as if the person was trying to say something or maybe they were screaming.

The image sent a shiver through Jim.

The rain intensified as the water descended around the body, leaving it open in plain view, but Jim had yet to acknowledge what this meant. Jim was in a state from seeing such a horrifying face and his hands were trembling, this time it wasn’t because of a lack of caffeine.

The body was tied to the rebar and formwork, which kept it from floating to the surface long ago, with the hands together in front as if the person was praying or pleading. Underneath the hands was a plastic card, like a flash card, with writing on it.

Jim needed to do something or call someone because thats what you did when you found a person in the bottom of a ditch that had obviously been placed there against their own free will. But Jim had never seen a body on a job site in all the thirty years he’d been laboring and it struck him that they never covered something like this in orientation or safety talks, maybe they would now.

Jim reached for his radio and called Mike.

‘Go ahead.’ Mike said, clearly annoyed and clearly in the middle of morning meetings.

‘Theres something out on the south footing you have to see.’ Jim said.

‘Can’t it wait? In a meeting right now.’ Mike said.

‘It’s a body.’ Jim said.

‘Now’s not the time to be messing with me, Jim.’ Mike said. Which was warranted, Jim infrequently pranked the team because thats what you do when you’re older than your management and its the only way of showing that they weren’t entirely smarter than you. But this wasn’t a prank.

‘I wish I was messing with you, Mike. Should I call 911 or do you want to do it?’ Jim said.

Silence.

‘I’ll do it. Stay were you are Jim, we’re coming out.’ Mike crackled over the radio.

Mike didn’t have to tell Jim to stay where he was, he’d lost feeling in his legs a long time ago and wasn’t quite sure if he could climb out if he wanted to, until the wave of alarm passed.

Jim leaned down over the praying hands of the body, his eyes looking toward the card that was between the fingers and the sternum of the body, the words were obscured by a thin layer of mud and Jim couldn’t quite make them out. Jim thought of wiping the mud away but he’d seen enough crime shows to know that would be tampering with a crime scene and he wouldn’t want his finger prints on the card or body or any of this.

Jim felt the overwhelming need to read what the card said, as if the fact they they were partially visible was its way of taunting him, and he couldn’t turn away before following through on the impulse. So, he took another route and pulled off his hard had and filled it like a bowl full of water from a puddle to the side, then poured the water on the card. The water swept the dirt from the card’s plastic surface and the black typewriter font was clearly legible on the white background.

Lonely are the nights

Lonely are the days

Lonely am I, in so many ways

It was just a poem. But the combination of the bloated body and the lyrical consequence of the words brought hairs up on Jim’s neck, as if they were written for him but he supposed that’s just how poetry was.

Jim found feeling in his legs again and started to move away from the body, even if just a few feet. He could hear excited voices coming his way and looked to see reflective vests and headlamps bouncing his way from the direction of the field office.

They would take it from here, Jim thought.

Jim tried to not to think about the body and the words on card or the fact that the kid had obviously been murdered, the tie downs to the rebar cage ruled out suicide, Jim knew that from the crime shows and it was only logical.

What Jim did think, was that it turned into a bad way to start year fifty-six and it was the first morning of his life when the first person he saw at work was a dead person.

Yes, it was a rough way to start off any day and an even rougher way to start a new trip around the sun, Jim thought.

Jim didn’t think about the whispers of the troubled wind that precedes the storm, the one that was coming for him, no. He’d forgotten completely about the seeds that nearly derailed his morning before this happened, and he forgot about how trouble always comes in threes, but even if he had remembered, he would have added this event incorrectly and wouldn’t be ready for what was coming for him.

But Jim had already forgotten all that, because there was only one thing on his mind now.

As the management team approached the scene and clamored with alarmed voices, sirens wailed in the distance, and the only thing Jim could think about was how badly he wanted a cigarette.

A Couple Degrees

John’s eyes flicked around the bathroom in suspicion. He stomped to the bathtub and ripped the shower curtain aside, hoping he would find the culprit hiding there, but he only found more shampoo bottles staring up at him from the corner of the tub.

All the things that John could have said string together so easily, now that he no longer has the time to say them.
“It’s over”, John whispered to himself, barely able to meet his eyes which reflected back in the dimly lit bathroom mirror.
The lines under his eyes were deeper and more pronounced than they had been just a few weeks ago. John squinted and watched the way skin at the edges of his eyes bunched in horizontal lines.
A singular window in the bedroom let in the soft afternoon light, which struggled around the bend, into the lampless bathroom where John stood. The dreary ambience was a comfort to him. It hadn’t been the best of times, when he left home nearly three weeks back, but the road was better even if the hotels, like this one, had been less than hospitable along the way.
John stared into the gray, empty sink. Two paper wrapped miniature bars of soap sat quietly at the edge, accompanied by equally small bottles of shampoo and conditioner. To the right of those, also in miniature fashion, was a bottle of lotion. John realized how much he had in common with these little throw away versions of larger replicates, which each traveler kept at home in bathrooms not at all unlike the one he occupied. How easy it was to only use what one needed from these hygienic products, then toss the rest and mostly unused part into the trash. It was complimentary after all. That is how John felt, a complimentary addition to the lives he passed through. Never a mainstay but rather a product to be partially consumed then tossed aside once he was no longer needed to fill the gap between where one was and where they were going.
John wondered how many of these little bottles were used every day, and what happened to them once the travelers had used all they needed? There were countless motels that lined the highways and surrounded airports across the US and it seemed that none of them were at all likely to ask their guests to kindly rinse the bottles and place them in the ascribed waste basket for recyclables.
A waste, John mused, but a negligible one that neither found time or purpose in the thoughts of busy people always on there way. It wasn’t like him to consider such elements of the human incapability to understand how things like plastic really did not go away, whether their contents were used entirely or not. The particles that create even the smallest of squeezable containers, such as these, were stubborn to live and refused to decompose in any natural way. Yet most of these creations would find their way into the natural world, buried in earth like a seed but gave life to nothing. John wondered why he should care or why he even gave it thought. If it wasn’t for the fact that he too felt used only for temporary supplement, as if he would fall away and decompose from the memory of their lives, then he might not have considered the bottles at all. Damn the process and damn the environmentalists too, he thought.
John wanted to live in a simple and completely ordinary fashion. Finish school, get a career, find a woman, buy a house, and start a family. There weren’t ulterior motives when he was fresh out of college, the world was his for the taking. Now, he was incapable of understanding what it was that he had wanted back then, which seemed so long ago. Why was it so difficult for one to revert back to his old way of thought? He’d learned too much. It was impossible to turn away from the truth that whispered to him from every corner of the world he found himself. A dark agent following him in the shadows, never seen but always felt.
John’s eyes flicked around the bathroom in suspicion. He stomped to the bathtub and ripped the shower curtain aside, hoping he would find the culprit hiding there, but he only found more shampoo bottles staring up at him from the corner of the tub.
John walked back to the mirror, placed his palms down on the counter, and stared at the reflection. His pupils were dark and wide, nearly squeezing the color from his iris. They seemed empty and endless at the same time. He wondered what one would find if they were small enough to travel through the portal of the eyes and continue on the brain, peering into the different corridors like window shopping in a mall. If one found something of interest they might step inside an idea and give it a closer look. John wondered what it might be like, if there were silent shelves or if it hummed and beeped like the data centers he’d worked at in his early twenties.
John turned from the sight of himself, refusing to think about things that didn’t make any difference in his life after the idea was exhausted.
In the same way, he tried not to think about Lynn. She must have been nearly eight-hundred miles north of him by this point, somewhere in the flatlands of Montana just east beyond the mountains. It was only two weeks ago when she left for the last time and even though he’d told her it was alright, now it seemed that it was anything of the sort. Why did leaving always have to be so hard?
John never appreciated the ideas she flooded him with during the time they spent together. He believed it was a phase she would grow out of, something they would laugh about as grandparents as they grew old by each other’s side in matching rocking chairs on a porch in rural Oregon. However, Lynn never showed signs of growing out of it. She lined her desk with books on small farming, hydroponics and the like, and it was the stake she drove between them that eventually split them apart for good. She was a suburban girl driven toward hippy idealism. Their conversations drifted towards consumerism and the in-sustainability of the new age. Topics that John was reluctant to talk about because it felt so negative and pessimistic, it shut him down entirely until they didn’t have much for conversation during the final days of their relationship. Lynn told him about her plans to move away from the city and start something a different life. A life lived for the good of the planet. That was all she cared about, the good of the planet. It was this distant and ideal future that pulled her from him as the moon pull the tides away from the shore. What was left behind in her wake was this strange emptiness that could only described as absence of what should have been.
In the beginning, John had been certain it would be the last time he would date anyone. Lynn would fill the emptiness that only became more vast and indescribable as age had pressed its lonely fingers around John’s heart. There was an unmistakeable connection between them that John understood as the draw between two souls that were meant to share their existence. Lynn was the rising sun coming to warm his heart from the cold and darkness he’d suffered before her slow trajectory above the horizon. Now, it felt as though she’d been eclipsed by her own ideals, which aligned with her path, forever blocking out the light and drifting below his world without a promise to return.
John turned from the bathroom and plodded to the kitchen. He grabbed his pack of Marlboros and turned it over in his hand. Lynn hated his habit of smoking and he’d made a genuine effort to put it away, but without her to point out his weaknesses he felt it necessary to fall away into their outstretched arms.
John stepped outside into the blistering Nevada heat. It was six in the evening and the west facing door of his room let him out into the full brightness of the burning star. The parking lot in front of him was empty except for a few cars. A silent highway bordered the lot, only distant taillights could be seen wavering in the distance as the heat warped the edge of the earth.
John pulled a cigarette from the pack and walked around to the backside of the building, in search of shade.
It was day one of his journey to Colorado. He was on his way to a new career and a different location where one might start over again, uninhibited by the past. Thats what he really needed now, was a fresh start.
John was to begin in three days at Silfien Energy. It was an apprenticeship, and, at the age of thirty-two, he was reluctant to begin again in a new field but the job boasted a healthy salary. The residential construction he was familiar with had dried up in northern Idaho and he’d been searching for months for anything that would pay his bills and give him a fresh start somewhere new. Somewhere far from Lynn.
Beads of sweat welled up on his forehead as he stubbed out his smoke and moved hastily back to the shelter of his room. Once inside, John felt relieved of his thoughts of home, Lynn, and the life he was leaving behind. He picked up his laptop and opened a folder on the front screen, it was the pdf of the new employee handbook for Silfien. The heat encroached the room and he sat the laptop down, walked over toward the air conditioner, and dialed thermostat down a couple more degrees.
The day was July 23, 2017.

Ivan

The little beast sensed my movement. I froze. His eyes didn’t blink and I wondered just how long he could go without doing so. A tickle of sweat ran down my temple and I realized for the first time I was actually not just a little bit scared but more or less frightened out of my mind.

Ivan

Sorting The Waste

Hello, my name is Ivan. I’m twenty-two years old and a janitor at the Oregon Zoo.

One might be wondering what a janitor might have to say, then again most do not unless of course a janitor is needed to fix or clean something. I’m only writing this because Penny said I needed to or rather she said that I should, but I don’t think she meant right this very moment. However, I cannot be certain that there will be time for this tomorrow or that there will even be a tomorrow for me. This is why I find it necessary to tell the story of how one finds himself in a situation such as myself before it’s too late.

Penny said it was necessary for me to introduce myself first so that anyone who is reading this might see the world as I saw it or at least understand why I saw it that way. I’m not very good at talking about myself but I’m going to try because she said so.

Sadly, I’m not the average hero one reads about in a book and I would apologize for this but it’s really none of my fault. My shortcomings are not ones that can be taught or unlearned, and can be accurately described as genetic malfunctions or variations. Much unlike the super hero who is at least pleasing to the eyes, my portrait is more likely to end up in the missing persons section of the newspaper or the “before” shot of a weight loss client, never to be on the cover of a comic book or movie or wherever hero’s might be displayed.

I’m out of shape to be conservative but most would just say I’m fat. I’m not entirely certain where I stand on this issue, so I will just say that I don’t have an opinion. My physical characteristics are something I might blame on my parents because I imagine they were overweight and its my inheritance to carry on their legacy but I’ve actually never met my real parents. So I can’t be sure.

Because of the hectic nature of the past couple weeks, I haven’t been able to shave and I don’t know if that bit of information matters much. It’s just that, for a lot of guys my age, it can be problematic to go any length without a razor but for me its not. I’ve never been able to grow much facial hair and when I don’t shave, my stubble just looks like fuzz or maybe blonde colored lint but thats as close as I’ve ever been to having a beard. The fact that I’ve been unable to shave is not a big deal, other than my need to confess that I am not only overweight but unable to grow a beard as well. The combination makes me look like a twenty two year old infant posing as an adult. If there’s anything worse than being large, its being large and without the ability to grow a beard. Fat guys with beards are actually some of the world’s favorite people, I’ve noticed. Like those guys from Duck Dynasty or Zach Galifianakis, could one bring themself to watch guys like that on TV if they were babyface blubbers? I think not. I mean there’s always people like Jonah Hill, who are famously fat and beardless, but nobody actually loves Jonah Hill. They just love to laugh at him, to which I can relate.

As I write this, my blonde hair is falling in front of my eyes and I have to push it behind my ears to keep it from blocking my view. I haven’t cut my hair in almost a year and is only recently grown long enough to cover the length of my neck. It was a personal experiment to see if anyone noticed but, from what I can tell, no one has. It’s not straight or wavy but somewhere confusingly in between and would never qualify as charming or dashing like the hero in a lot of tales. My hair is usually quite greasy and pasted against the sides of my head, no matter how many times I wash it. To be clear, I haven’t given it much attention of late either. Just like the hair on my face, it has fallen into neglect. More because of the prevailing situation I’m caught in than laziness because I’m really quite a tidy person. Tidiness is one of the few things I’m actually good at.

Right now, I’m wearing coveralls which are stained from harsh detergents and all sorts of nasty things that smear ones coveralls when one works as a janitor, things that the wash can never take out. This is my work uniform. Underneath the coveralls, I’m wearing my favorite band tee shirt, which is Creedance Clearwater Revival. Its a shirt I’m quite proud of. Although it doesn’t really matter in the scope of things as they are now, I just wanted you to know that there is no greater band in my opinion. Thats why this is just one of five CCR shirts that I keep, I wear one for each day underneath my coveralls at work. Today, I’m wearing the one where John Fogerty is mid air raging down on the guitar like the musical madman that he is. Its my favorite of the five. My only request is that if I don’t make it through the next twenty-four hours that these shirts go to someone who loves CCR just as much as I.

I’m writing to you now at one in the morning on a Tuesday, because it might be the last chance I get to tell this story before I go and I’d like to think that someone will read it one day, someone like you. Maybe you’re even someone I could call my friend, if I live long enough to meet you.

There is a bit of a predicament, you see. A situation that took many previous episodes to lead up to, something that will take a lot of explaining even though my time is running short but I must tell you the whole story if you are to understand any of it at all.

We have a lot to cover, so we’ll begin at the beginning. It all started back when I was nine years old, doing what most nine year olds do when they want to increase their chance of privilege and decrease their odds of sitting in the corner or writing their name a thousand times on a wall, I was doing my chores. That’s when everything changed.

It was the end of a blazing summer day and evening was rolling in as the sun fell below the horizon. All the windows were open in my parent’s house and fans were working frantically throughout to move the stale air, in hopes to bring the temperature down to a moderately survivable level by the time we all crawled into our beds.

I remember vividly, the way only a child might recall, the seductive jingle of the local ice cream truck as it made it’s last revolutions around our neighborhood and closing its radius with every passing moment. I’m not sure why it sticks out so clearly, even though the things I hear is what this whole tale is built upon, but I think it’s something to do with the fact that not once in my childhood did we ever buy ice cream from that truck. I would still be a bit sore about that if it wasn’t for fact that I learned to associate that jingle with the creepy parts every film where a child goes missing or someone is killed, which has made me suspect anything that sells products on wheels.

Aside from the musical notes of the ice cream truck, there was the soft ripple of laughter from kids playing evening games of frisbee or whiffle ball or whatever game they might have invented in the low light.

The faint rush of vehicles in the distance could be heard, some nearer than others but it seemed that none of them ever drove past our house on Holly Street. Maybe that had something to do with the fact that our house was at the end of Holly street, which was in fact not really a street but a cul de sac.

I heard my parents talk in the kitchen as they chatted about things a nine year old doesn’t really understand like the DMV, taxes, work, or whatever. They never indulged details about these things to me and that’s a good thing because I wouldn’t have cared in the first place. I only remember that the DMV was bad because they wouldn’t let one of their vehicles, a rust bucket mini-van, to be out on the road because it smoked to much. Which I remember thinking was odd because neither of my parents smoked and it was strange that they owned a van that did.

In the living room a few of my younger brothers and sisters played with Legos and fought over who could build the best dog shaped monstrosity. In the basement the older ones were playing noisy video games of little people who jumped up and down on the TV screen to music not at all unlike the tune that came from the ice cream truck. More of my brothers and sister’s were in the yard playing like the other kids, some knocked around a soccer ball, others in a sand box with miniature plastic construction equipment, and others more lost than found in a game of hide and seek. No matter what they were doing, I was certain that all of them would be too dirty for bed when that time came. That was no fun because each of them would need to bathe and make sure there was no sand in their ears by the time their sleepy heads hit their pillows.

Back then, it didn’t seem strange to have so many brothers and sisters. I suppose, as all children do when it’s all one knows, that whatever situation one find oneself in as a youth is normal and everyone else who has it differently is something rather odd.

It was the second Tuesday of the month and that’s why I was doing chores instead of out in the yard dirtying my jeans or getting sand in my sneakers. I liked doing my chores on the second day of every second week, because it gave me plenty of time to warm up to the idea of doing them. There were fourteen of us kids in all and we each took turns doing the little things that alleviated the trouble on our parents. I was the ninth youngest of the lot.

I had just finished up cleaning in the kitchen, swept up the errant Cheerios that didn’t quite make it into the mouths of my siblings, and mopped up the floors which was mostly a sticky mess of orange juice and grape jelly. After I put away the broom, the mop, and the bucket, it was time to take out the trash. A part that I reserved for the end of my chores, more so because I could linger outside for a bit without my mom hollering out the window at me to come back inside and finish up the rest.

Plus, I wanted to save the easiest of tasks for last because it seemed like the right thing to to when you have to do chores after a hot day.

After I properly shelved the tools involved with my kitchen area sanitation, I marched over to the garbage cans and pulled them from under the sink. There were two different cans. One was for basically everything you couldn’t decide how to throw away, which always smelled a bit moldy and sometimes like cat vomit. The other was cleaner with metal cans, empty soda bottles, and boxes from the many shipments that arrived at our house.

I never liked to make more trips than necessary so I always took as much as my little arms could carry, this usually involved piling the garbage bag with the moldy stuff on top of the bin with the loose cleaner stuff. Then I would bump down the halls all the way to the back door where I would set it all back down again, open the door, and bump my way through the opening to the back deck.

The dumpsters stood in a little gated area not too far from the left side of the deck, at close radius with the parked mini-van that smoked too much, and just out of view of the kitchen window. Which was good because neither of my parents would be able spy on me and tell me to hurry up if they did, I hated when they did that because it seemed like someone was always telling me to hurry up.

I repeated the process of setting down the bins, opening the gate, and fumbling my way into the dumpster corral until I was faced with four large dumpsters in which I was to sort the trash. This was the first time I had ever seen the new bins. There had been a change in garbage company over the past couple weeks and my parents tried to upload a gigabyte worth of instructions to my brain about which items of trash belonged in which bin, something about them being color coded. Once I stood in front of the bins, all of them opening from the top which was eye level for me at the time, I entirely forgot what it was they were trying to hammer into my skull. I stood in the garbage corral gazing at the bins and wondering what kind of person doesn’t put labels on things and why it seemed so much easier to just sort by colors, something I still don’t understand.

I picked up the white garbage bag which strained by the strings and dripped something wet and brown and entirely awful smelling out the bottom. It took some swift maneuvering to avoid dripping it all over my shoes and if I had, I would not have heard the end of it from my mom. As if staining my sneakers with the putrid water was not enough punishment in itself. I hovered the bag just above the ground before I managed to swing it over to the side and set it there for later.

First, I wanted to get all the loose trash taken care of. It was getting dark out now and I could barely make out the color of the bins in front of me. One was white and it stood out like a beacon, the other two looked more or less the same color in the darkness. But I knew it was imperative that I figure out which was which before I started lobbing all the trash into them or I would never hear the end of that, either.

I stepped up to the bins and opened the lids, stretched up on my tiptoes, and looked inside. I hoped that their contents might leave clues as to which trash went where but, much to my dismay, they were all empty. Now if that wasn’t a bummer, I didn’t know what was. It never happened before that trash was empty on a Tuesday but I realized it was possible with the fancy new bins, the schedule of the garbage man had changed as well.

So, I did what any nine year old might do under the circumstances when its getting dark and you can quite figure out which bins are the proper ones to put each item of trash in, I just started lobbing cans and bottles into whichever one seemed to match the color on the outside of each article of trash.

“That doesn’t go there.” A raspy voice called from behind me as a glass bottle went sailing from my hands into the white bin.

I swung around and expected to see my dad standing behind me, hands on his hips with that little bit of a smirk he wore whenever he found a chance to correct me, but he wasn’t there. No one was. Odd, I thought. Maybe it was my own mind judging me because of my uncertainty in the situation.

So I went about my business, starting where I left off. I checked the labels, put white bottles and cans in the white bin, the red ones in the red bin, and the blueish stuff in the blue bin.

This worked out fine until I came across a green labeled can and I was at quite a loss with were to put it until I saw the taller green bin gleaming in the corner. I hadn’t noticed at first. Ahh, I thought, missed one. I moved to the green bin and pushed open the lid. It was a bit taller and I was unable to see inside but once I opened it the worst smell I’d ever been exposed to smacked me in the face and made me dizzy. I nearly lost my balance in the process. It was then that I realized green trash must be the worst smelling of all, even worse than the brown water trailing out of the garbage bag behind me.

However, I needed to finish the trash and began again, tossing the green labeled stuff into the green bin.

The sound of someone clearing their throat pierced the night air.

“Ahem”, the voice said crisply, “I said, that doesn’t go there.”

I whipped around, this time hoping to catch my dad before he vanished again but he was nowhere to be seen. This frustrated me because there’s nothing worse than someone playing a practical joke on you when you’re just trying to do your chores and get it over with.

So, I marched to the gate and swung it open but there was nothing behind. Then I looked up at the back porch door and it was just as closed as I’d left it.

“Hey, over here.” The voice called again, this time from somewhere inside the dumpster corral.

I wheeled around, stared into the darkness which had tightened its grip on the space and willed the practical joker to be seen. There was nothing and no one.

“Where are you?” I asked firmly, believing one of my siblings to be the culprit. I moved to look behind the bins, nothing. Then I dove low to search under the dumpsters, barely missing the brown river from the messy garbage bag as I pressed my chubby stomach against the ground, nothing. No tittering, no scrambling feet. Nothing.

“No.” The voice came again, this time sounding very much irritated. “I’m up here, Chum.”

I wheeled around to face the voice but I didn’t see any human. There was, however, a raccoon on the fence above. This frightened me because I’d heard my parent’s talk about how aggressive these animals could be. A week ago, a neighbor had to fight off a pack off three with a broom. What’s worse, as my mom told it, the little beasts tore the broom from the neighbor’s hands and took off with it. As if the worst thing an animal could do was take someone’s broom from them and not even have the decency to bring it back.

Now, I didn’t have a broom and there was nothing in close range to defend myself with. Which always seems to be the case with things like brooms or rakes or shovels. I’m always tripping over them somewhere for no good reason but when I actually need one to save my own skin from a savage beast, it’s nowhere to be found. I wondered what the raccoon might take from me since I didn’t have a broom for it, maybe it was after blood this time. The thought set my skin to boil.

I backed away along one of the dumpsters, giving the animal a wide berth, as it pranced along top of the fence and hopped down onto the trash bins in which I had been throwing all the recyclables. Then the raccoon raised up to stand on its back legs and faced me, it’s front paws hung in front like little hands. The beast looked me square in the eye.

I’d never been this close to an animal who was not on a leash or at least civilized, except at the zoo and at the zoo they had barriers to keep this sort of thing from happening. I did my best to keep my cool but my courage was quickly draining like the air from a balloon with a freshly torn hole. I started to back away out of the garbage corral, certain the raccoon was about to pounce at any moment.

I returned its stare and in the dark we held the space between us with, like an invisible game of tug of war. At this point, the wood fence that surrounded the garbage corral might as well been made of iron and topped with Constantine wire because I felt like a prisoner faced with the bandit eyed creature in front of me.

In the darkness, I could just make out the the silver halo of fur around him, his hands or feet or eyes or anything black were barely visible. Which was a bit frustrating when the one is faced with a raccoon in a garbage corral at dusk because keeping track of where those body parts moved seemed like it would be crucial to a successful escape.

I slowly moved one foot a little further back, hoping it was a step toward the gate, but I couldn’t be sure since I didn’t dare take my eyes off the creature.

The little beast sensed my movement. I froze. His eyes didn’t blink and I wondered just how long he could go without doing so. A tickle of sweat ran down my temple and I realized for the first time I was actually not just a little bit scared but more or less frightened out of my mind.

Thats when the raccoon leaned forward in slow motion and I was certain it was bracing to make a superman leap directly onto my face. I was prepared to run for my life.

The raccoon jerked forward, stretching out its hands toward me.

“Boo.” The voice might as well have been a gunshot.

I turned and ran, right into the fence. Smacked my forehead and knocked myself dizzy as I crumpled to the ground. I’d missed the gate by a minor three feet.

Hearty laughter filled the space of the corral, the kind I’ve associated with the chubby old guy who’s served my family ice cream down at the local parlor for the last few years. It was full and disarming.

I looked up from the ground at the raccoon to see his head bobbing up and down. It looked like he was patting his own knees, doubled with laughter.

“Tell me, do they make all you young ones so skittish?” The raccoon said, with a full voice that sounded much like what I’d imagined my grandpa’s would have if I’d ever met him, full of life but a little raspy from years of cigars.

I sat on the ground, mouth agape and head a little slow from the recent collision, not quite sure what a typical nine year old would do when a puppy sized raccoon starts talking to you. But when anyone calls you skittish and you don’t believe yourself to be, its not so hard to think of what to say next.

I awkwardly rolled and stood to my feet. Now level with the raccoon, as he stood on top of one of the shorter bins.

“I’m not a scaredy cat.” I said in my most determined voice. Which, looking back now, I like to glaze over the fact that my lower lip was quivering at this point.

“Well, well. It certainly is a good thing I didn’t make the mistake of calling you that.” The raccoon said. His eyes gleamed, wet with laughing tears.

“You said I’m skittish, its the same thing.” I sharply replied.

“On the contrary, it means nervous, anxious, jittery or a list of many other things but scaredy cat is not among them.” He replied patiently, listing off the different synonyms by counting his claws.

“Hmmph.” I replied, not quite sure who was correct at this point. Then another thing came to me. “Well, raccoons don’t talk.” I added, almost proudly. As if I had revealed the answer to a little known math problem.

“Ahh. You see, that is where you are mistaken again. I most certainly am talking, and I am a raccoon. Do you see the problem with your assumption?” He spoke to me like a teacher, and did so while he stood on his hind legs.

“Raccoons don’t talk.” I said again, more to myself than anything. The raccoon most certainly was talking but I was not one to relent so easily.

“See here, Chum. I am talking and there isn’t a whole lot left to determine here.” The raccoon stated as he folded his little paws across his stomach.

“How is that possible? Animals don’t talk, people do.” I grunted.

“Look Chum, we can argue all night about who is doing the talking and who isn’t but we have something else quite important to discuss before your supervisors wonder what it is thats taking you so long with the simple task of sorting the waste.” The raccoon offered, looking quite amused but determined all the same.

“What do you mean supervisors?” I asked.

“Those older humans, the ones that tell you what to do and what not to do”, The raccoon stated.

“Oh, you mean my parents.” I said quietly.

“Well, I would argue that fact but for the simplicity of things we will just use your words and agree for now that you are correct.” The raccoon said, dismissing the issue.

“Well, I am correct.” I said defiantly, and stuffed my hands down in my pockets.

“Tut, tut. Lets not allow the trivial to distract us. There is something very important you must learn. Do you know why I stopped you in the middle of your work?” The raccoon asked.

“Uh, no” I said slowly, then quickly added, “But I know raccoons don’t talk.”

“Look, Chum, I thought we were passed that. Do you want to hear what I have to say or would you rather just believe that I am in fact not saying anything at all?” The raccoon asked and cocked his head a fraction to the right. He did a little twitching thing with his whiskers and for a second it reminded me of a mustache.

“Okay!” I whisper yelled “What do you want?”

The corral fell silent for a millisecond and I heard my siblings inside, their feet thumped up the stairs, headed for showers and I knew it wouldn’t be long before my parents noticed that I was missing. It usually takes a few minutes to realize one doesn’t have all their ducks when there are so many of them.

“Well, Chum-“ The raccoon began.

“My name isn’t Chum.” I interrupted.

“Well, what is it then?” The raccoon said, opening his hands out in front of him in question.

“It’s Ivan.”

“Okay, Chum- I mean Ivan. You see here-“

“Whats your name?” I interrupted again.

The raccoon smacked his paw against his forehead and gave out a labored sigh, not at all unlike the times I’d seen my mother do when I asked too many questions.

Then the raccoon looked back up at me.

“Look here, Chum, we can either get on with what’s important or stay here in the trivial. You choose.” The raccoon exhaled in a very exhausted manner.

“My name is Ivan.” I said, slowly enunciating the last bit. “And if I have a name, then you must too.”

“Okay, okay. My name is Theodore Oscar Radcliffe, the third. There you have it.” The raccoon said, spreading his arms wide in presentation.

“Thats a bit of a mouthful.”

“And you see why it is I’d rather focus on things of greater importance. But for simplicity, you may call me Oscar. All my chums do.” Oscar the raccoon said.

I half expected him to reach out a paw and shake my hand but instead he turned to the trash bins I’d been sorting through.

I felt a warmth, as all people do when they’re allowed the privilege of calling a person or raccoon in this case by a modified name as all the rest of their chums do.

“Well, lets get on with it shall we?” Oscar said.

“Get on with what?” I asked.

“The issue of the waste and which receptacles are appropriated for each item.” Oscar explains.

“Oh. You know about trash bins?” I asked, before I realized the silliness of the question.

“My dear fellow, I am an expert in such things. I was just making my evening rounds when I happened to hear you struggling and decided to have a look. I’m glad I did, because you might have made this quite an ordeal for me tonight if I hadn’t.” Oscar said.

“What do you mean, ordeal?” I asked.

“The ordeal of placing each item of trash where it belongs and especially not using this one“, he points a paw to the green dumpster with the disgusting fumes, “for items other than what it was designed for. Tell me, what is it exactly you know about throwing trash away?” Oscar asked.

“Well, I know that bag goes in there.” I said pointing to the trash bag and the big dumpster which is the only one clearly label GARBAGE. “But the rest of them were a little confusing, so I just matched them by the color. I assumed that’s what its for, it only makes sense.” I said, defending myself.

Oscar looked at me, his paws clasped together in front of him and twirled his thumbs.

“Yes, yes. As I have witnessed. Although, I’m not so good at what are these, colors? I have heard of them but I can honestly only be certain of things by the texture.” Oscar said.

The image of a raccoon fumbling after a shiny set of keys played over in my mind. I started to giggle.

“Tut, tut. What do you find so amusing?” Oscar says, possibly he knew what was going through my mind.

“Oh-oh. Nothing. So, colors, you can’t see them?” I asked.

“On the contrary, I am actually quite well versed with shades of color but the verity of their hue escapes me. It is not fault of my own, to be clear, just lousy genetics.” Oscar retorts, with a hint of defensiveness.

“Okay.” I said, the words he said flew past me in a blur.

“Anyways, back to the issue at hand.” Oscar hopped down and lumbered over to the bin of recyclables, and I noticed there was a slight hitch in his step. “Lets go over this, shall we?” Oscar said, more command than question. He looked much smaller at my feet while he leaned against the bin.

I nodded. Then Oscar broke into instruction.

“Grab this one. A metal item, is it not?” he pointed to an empty soup can.

“Well, its tin.” I replied.

Oscar wheeled around at me so quickly I thought he might actually pounce me this time but instead places one hand on his hip and points an accusing claw up at my face.

“You see here, Chum, you are in no position to be correcting me when it is I who is giving instructions!” Oscar blared. His claw quivered a little as the last words rumbled out.

I was stuck at that moment somewhere between fear and falling on the ground laughing. I decided it was better not to agitate him farther and gritted my teeth, stifling my giggles.

“Alright. The metal item.” I agreed with him, my hands raised defensively.

“Finally, a bit of progress.” Oscar grunted. “Okay, pick it up.”

I reached down, dangerously close to Oscar to where I could feel the warmth of his breath an nearly felt the tickle of his whisker as I grabbed the tin can. I secured the item and raised up and away from him, still not quite sure if I could trust him yet.

“Okay, what now?” I asked, as I held the can aloft.

Oscar trotted over to the red bin, its about a half step for me but it takes him about four, his left foot winced with each step. Then he tapped the side of the bin and looked up at me.

“This one my dear Ivan, is the metal receptacle. All metal items should go in this one, no matter the sub category. Whether its iron, corrugated steel, copper, aluminum, or any other manner including tin, they all go in here.” He rested on the last part, as if to clarify that he’d not forgotten that I corrected him moments before.

I stood there and nodded. Genuinely impressed with his knowledge.

“WELL?” he booms.

“Well what?” I asked, a frown wrinkled my forehead.

“Well, throw the blasted piece of metal in the bin!” He shouted and banged the red bin with a fist.

“Oh! Okay.” I said, as I nodded in agreement. Then took the single step to cover the space and placed the item inside. It landed with a ringing noise inside the empty container.

“You don’t have to yell.” I said, feeling a little sore.

Oscar just grunted and waddled back to the bin of mixed recyclables and I followed him. He pointed to the glass items and explained that they go into the same receptacle as the metal waste, which was met with another round of questions by me because I was generally confused why one would put glass in the same box as metal. Which was met with a round of short rapping on my shin with his little paw, something that happened many times over the next year because he continually found reasons to correct me. We moved on to solve the same problem with the plastic items and I learned that they go in the blue bin, this time I didn’t see the bother in questioning why this is or how someone decided that blue was the best color code for plastic, instead I kept my mouth shut and rubbed the sore spot that was developing on my shin.

Oscar would point at trash, walk over, and point to the correct bin. I would place the item in the bin and return to where we began. It went on like this until all the loose trash was sorted and the bag of moldy garbage went sailing safely into the only bin with a label on it. Unfortunately, a drop of the brown water fell onto Oscar’s head as I hoisted the bag. This was met by the most furious set of shakes, much like when a dog gets out of a bath, that I thought his fur might start flying off his skin.

After he’d sufficiently rid the water from his back and beat his little fist on my leg because that time I couldn’t hold back my laughter, Oscar had one final lesson for me.

“You see this one here?” Oscar asked, tapping the green bin with his paw.

“Yes, the terrible smelling one.” I replied, nodded, and pinched my nose for emphasis.

“Well, okay, we can stand here and argue all night about the way it smells but that isn’t important. What IS important, is that you must NEVER, under any circumstances, put any of the metal, glass, plastic, or paper products in this bin.” Oscar said, and twitched his nose at the end.

“Oooookay.” I said emphatically, clearly versed in the correct receptacles by now and not quite sure why Oscar was making such a fuss over it.

“Okay then.” Oscar said, and jumped, quite lithely, to the top of the bin labeled GARBAGE. Then he sauntered away and lept from bin to bin. When he made it to the top of the green bin, he stopped, wheeled around, and held a single claw in the air. “Oh yes, one more thing. Please do not secure this contraption.” He said as grabbed the the animal proof latch on the top of the bin.

“But my parent’s always tell me to be certain I do!” I pleaded.

“Well, since you only empty the trash every Tuesday on every other week, I’m sure the mistake will be slight enough for them to overlook. Besides, I will be certain to secure it after I pass by.” Oscar said, and he bounded to the top of the fence.

“How do you know which days of the week I take out the trash?” I asked, a little taken back by the revelation.

“Very simply, I have a keen eye and know most of the details of the garbage corrals in the neighborhood. Including, but not limited to, their curators. Your little fortress here has not slipped from my attention.” Oscar said plainly, as if noting the weather.

I nodded. Then shifted uncomfortably in my sneakers and drove my hands down deep in my pockets.

“Are you leaving now?” I asked.

“Yes, I have a few more rounds to make before my evening is over. You on the other hand, must get back inside before your supervisors notice something is amiss.” Oscar said, and twitched his nose up toward the house.

I followed his gaze. The light from the second level windows emitted like a beacon through the darkness outside. I could hear the laughter and splash of water through the bathroom window from my siblings as they washed up, and realized I needed to do the same. I didn’t want to. I wanted to stay and talk to Oscar because there are so many questions one might ask a talking raccoon who has just taught you how to correctly sort waste.

“Will you be back?” I asked, as I turned back to him.

He was gone. I could hear the rustle of bushes from behind the corral as he walked off through them. I ran toward the sound and pressed myself against the fence. I peered through a gap in the slats and could barely see the movement of the dark bushes he’d just wondered through.

“Oscar?” I whisper yelled, a little more yell than whisper. The movement stopped.

“So long, Chum.” Oscars hearty voice careened though the space and I heard the quicker steps of his little feet as he hurried away.

“So long.” I whispered back, as I pressed my head against the fence. Not entirely sure if I would ever see Oscar again.

Later than night, as I laid in my bed on the bottom bunk, I wondered if the exchange with Oscar had even happened. It seemed so different and strange that one might talk to animals, admittedly I’d always wanted to.

When my parents quizzed me on why it took me so long outside, I just shrugged and told them it took me a little while to figure out the new system. Which was met with a round of questions of which bins I’d placed each item, if I had latched them all down correctly, and why on earth had I not listened better in the first place. All of which I felt certain I had responded appropriately enough to disperse any doubt on the issue but I did not reveal the truth about how I’d figured it all out.

If there’s anything thats certain about being a nine year old, in a house with too many kids that you might misplace one, its that you don’t want to start telling stories of talking animals when there is no one but yourself to verify that fact. So I kept the secret, even though it burned inside of me for air. Because I knew there would be no end of teasing, especially from my older brothers who’s imaginations had by then been dulled by things like cars and girls, and there was no point in setting myself for that kind of petty terrorism. I already got enough of that as it was.

I rolled over in my bed, and faced the bedroom window which let in a glow from the street light a the end of the cul de sac. There was a tree between the light and the window that often played tricks on the eyes, sometimes it looked like a ghostly shadow dancing in front of the glass which would send shivers up my arms and keep me awake for hours. But this time it was not like that at all, instead I saw the prancing shadow of a raccoon that looked very much like Oscar, complete with the little hitch in it’s step, before the shadow vanished and my heavy eyes fell dark with sleep.

That night I dreamt of Oscar. We went on strange and wild adventures, none of which I can quite recall at the moment. What I do remember was that for the first time since I had arrived at the house on Holly street, to parents that were not really my parents and siblings who weren’t related to me at all, I no longer felt alone.

And that is how it all started.

Summer Clothes

The holidays have rushed in like an icy draft from the door she left open in the warm, cozy house of summer, sending me scrambling to escape the cold.

Driving rain patters on the roof and against my bedroom window, filling the room with a steady hum. I glance at the thermometer in the window sill, the red line faintly holds above freezing and I wonder why it’s not snowing instead. Beyond the window lays the front lawn, in many places more brown than green, and is cropped short though no one has trimmed it in a month. Maples line the street and stretch their naked branches to the sky like crooked fingers, leaves long fallen and swept away by city workers. There is a hum and splash as a car drives by on 82nd, it’s headlights streaking in the rain and wipers struggling to keep up with the drone. I search the glass with my fingertips, its smooth and cold, and the sensation ripples up my arms and tightens my skin. My reflection mirrors back softly before the warmth of my breath blurs it and the scene beyond from view. Its December in Seattle.

I move to my desk, a flimsy secretary thing I picked up from a friend, which looks like it came from the thrifty section of Ikea and assembled by hands less trustworthy. Its wide surface holds my laptop and stacks of papers I’ve yet to complete. The fold out chair I sit in has little padding and my backside aches from the absence of cushion, I consider grabbing a pillow from my bed but I don’t – the discomfort stiffens my resolve.

It’s Sunday, weeks from Christmas and I’m settling in to write a holiday letter to my family; something I do every year. This is the second time I’ve sat here and tried to pry the words from my mind but the paper lays blank on the desk, mocking me. I have the urge to run to QFC and raid the Hallmark aisle for enough cards to send them all with nothing except a “love, Andrew” below the mass-produced text inside the right panel but I can’t bring myself to follow through. The holidays have rushed in like an icy draft from the door she left open in the warm, cozy house of summer, sending me scrambling to escape the cold. I wonder if that’s why we invented holidays, to distract us from the despicable chill and darkness of these months.

Lights are strung throughout the neighborhood, twinkling on every house and dressing their yards like roadside attractions. On the corner of Pine & 6th, behind a glass storefront, there’s and old man showing in a red suit and a large, white beard – whether its authentic or held to his face with a strap, I can’t tell. His warm voice bellows through the speakers outside as crowds gather and wait with impatient children for their turn to sit on his lap. Not far from there hangs a brilliant star in Westlake center illuminating hurried crowds as they wander to and from shops sporting knit caps, wool coats, and gloves, their steaming breath trailing behind.

The scene outside and around the city is a stark contrast from where I sit now. Fall came and went with an array of colors that dazzled my eyes, still drunk on sunshine, before winter crept in on tiptoes while I dozed off my summer hangover. The only evidence of the season within these walls is the gaudy Christmas card that my mom sent me at the beginning of the month, sitting reproachfully on the shelf next to an empty beer can, as my lack of decorating continues in my unwillingness to let go of what’s already passed.

My street in Wallingford is especially quiet this morning and I imagine most lay under covers, guarded from the gloom outside. The analog clock above my desk reads 8:13 a.m. Normally, I would still be dozing but I was awake hours ago. Memories I’d rather forget wrecked my sleep. Visions of summer flickered through the corridors of my imagination until I was lost in the darkness between illusions, waking as I grasped at the cold, vacant sheets on the opposite side of the bed.

It was late July when I met Jess, and just as quickly as the warm weather came she left in the dizzy haze of fall, back to university in Chicago. We fell out of touch then except a brief snapchat of her studying or out with friends but she doesn’t call anymore and I don’t bother. From the scarce chance that sparked our introduction, I believed the universe was pulling strings to put us together and for a time I thought she might be the one. What’s more, I never doubted she was.

I hadn’t been seeing Jess for more than two weeks before I told my mom about her, which I don’t do until there is something substantial to report. Typically, I’m flung from date to date, face to face, they mix together in a blurry memory of hair, legs, and breasts. Jess is the only one I see clearly. Her warm laughter, the lilac scent of her hair, and the way her green eyes sparkled when we walked along the sandy shores of Pacific City in August.

We met at a friend’s wedding, a small venue in Snohomish housing a bright and beautiful wooden barn by a river. The gravel parking lot crunched under my feet as I made my way to entrance, a walk paved in brick and lined with bouquets of white flowers.
I was wearing my only wedding appropriate attire – a white button up shirt, black tie, slacks, brown leather shoes, and trimmed with glimmering, gold finish watch – which passed for something much more expensive than it was.

I arrived early and alone, scanning the other early comers for faces I recognized. Music drifted from speakers above me, hung in the rafters of the barn, it was a John Mayer number, You love who you love, who you love. Small, sharply dressed circles were forming throughout the venue, people finding familiar and new faces to chat with, and asking the usual questions – who do you know? Oh I met him in college, we were room mates. She was my neighbor. I used to ride the bus with her parents. Small world.

I stood there by myself on the dust covered floor in front of a small stage, where instruments stood idly waiting for the band to play, and took in the scene. White plastic chairs sat in even rows, angling away from the podium, with a wide berth covered in burlap leading down the center to large barn doors swung wide where the ceremony would take place. A warm breeze swam through the opening, on the wind’s fingers was the smell of the hay field, flowers, and livestock.
To the far end, tables were being set. Several round tables surround a long rectangular one in the center, in front of each placement was a name card designating seating. I saw the groom’s mother hovering over them, deep in conversation with one of the servers, organizing and preparing.

I didn’t see anyone I recognize who wasn’t preoccupied with arrangements, so I grabbed a coke from the refreshments table and stepped out behind the barn. The backside of the barn was shaded from the sunlight, with a dirt road that ran along it and out into a field where I noticed the wedding assembly in the distance, as they posed for photos. There was a wooden barrel near one end of the barn, a safe distance from the doors, and I moved toward it. I set my coke down on the round, wood top and pulled a smoke from my jacket pocket. I lit it, took a drag, and leaned against the wall of the barn.

The wedding party began to move toward me with Danielle, the bride, gracefully held the lead with a bridesmaid close behind, who elevated the train. The others trailed behind, broke off or stopped to talk. When Danielle was closer, she looked up and noticed me for the first time, her face beamed and she waved.

When Danielle was within earshot, I called to her.

“Hey Danielle!” My voice sounded strained. “My god, You look amazing!”

“Hey Andrew! Oh, thank you!” she said shyly and blushed. Then she trapped me in a hug and I did my best to hold the cigarette in my left hand away from her. She released me and looked accusingly down at the fingers of smoke which rose from my side. I braced for her to scold my dirty habits when she lifted her eyes to mine and said, “Give me a cigarette.”

I falter and raise my eyebrows, Danielle didn’t smoke.

“God damnit, Andrew. Don’t look at me like that. It’s my wedding day, I can do what I want!” She pleaded and raised her fists at me playfully. Her bridesmaid, an older girl I didn’t know, stood behind her with barely contained laughter.

“Okay, Okay.” I said, as I shielded myself from her punches and pulled out a smoke. “Here you go.”

She took it and put it to her lips clumsily. I took another drag and sipped my coke. She glared at me as if I’d forgotten something.

“Are you gonna light this for me or what?” Her hands on her hips.

“Oh, shit. I’m sorry.” I laughed, her face was apprehensive with feigned annoyance. I pulled the lighter from my pocket and snapped the wheel, and the flame burst to life. I heared the click of a camera shutter and looked up, that’s the first time I saw Jess. She’s looked like a cool summer day, dressed in high top converse with faded blue jeans ripped at the knees, a snug white top with thin blue sailor stripes, and her light brown hair up in a messy bun. She held the camera up around her shoulder, the other arm crossed underneath for support, and looked directly at me but she didn’t smile. Something flickered in her eyes, that kind of connection you don’t have to explain, which trapped me in her gaze until billows of smoke stung my eyes and I was forced to blink.

Danielle choked and coughed smoke into my face like someone with the flu.

“Jesus, how do you guys smoke these things?” she asked me, her face bunched up as she held the cigarette away from her like a piece of moldy trash before she pulled it back, mumbling fuck it as she took another drag.

I laughed and the shutter clicked rapidly, Jess’s presence was like a magnetic pull as she swooped around us.

After the ceremony, the party began. The band crooned upbeat numbers as guests flooded the dance floor where old couples swayed and younger ones twirled and shook. I saw Jess lingering around the edge, lost in her work, the camera rarely leaving her face except to look at the screen on the back. I was out on the floor with some friends and I’d just finished dancing with one of the bridesmaids when the band started playing You make me feel so young and before I could stop myself I was headed for Jess.

“Care to dance?” I asked, holding out my hand.

She looked up with a curious smile on her lips.

“I’m working.” She offered, then looked back at her camera screen and began adjusting something.

“I’m sure you can give it a rest for one song.”

“But what if I miss something, that’s why I’m here – to capture moments.” She said, still looking at the screen, the edges of her mouth held on to a trace of a smile.

“Its one song, I’m sure the moments will wait until then.” I nodded my head toward the dance floor. “Come on.”

She looked up at me, uncertain. I held my hand out, waiting. Then shrugged and set the camera aside, taking my hand as we dove into the throng of moving bodies. We fell into step with the crowd as I spun her around and pulled her close, the warmth of her body was electricity against mine, fluttering its way to my stomach. Neither of us could dance well but for a few short minutes we pretended we could, laughing when we missed the others hand or fumbled a step. The crowd behind her blurred into a white glow until she was the only thing I could see, her smile drew me in and her twinkling green eyes held me there. In a moment I saw the flash of a what could be, her and I years from now dancing together as the center of attention at in a place much like this, with this as opening chapter to the story. My heart outpaced the beat of the music as I was struck with the possibility of what might be.

The song ended much too soon and I was forced to release her hand as we clapped for the band. A vibrating hush fell over the room as people backed away from the floor to make way for the bride and groom, walking hand in hand toward the middle. A slow, sweet rendition of Lost began to play as I looked at Jess.

“Okay, I gotta get back to work.” She pulled my tie as she passed, and smiled up at me. “Find me later?” she said.

I nodded.

Jess left me for her camera as I backed to the edge of the dance floor and meshed with the audience. My head swam with elation, alluding to the start of something beautiful but I learned later that the strength of a beginning bears no weight on how a story might end.

I remember that day with a clarity reserved for things like the password to my phone or the the pin number to my bank card, chiseled into the framework of my mind like a statue. I’m far from summer and even further from Jess in the cold bedroom of my flat. I thought it would pass by now, that I would stop missing Jess and move on but its not as simple as I’d hoped.
If I was a better man, I would have seen it coming and prepared my heart for the blow, possibly netting myself before I fell too deep. It’s too late for that now. I’m helpless in the waves looking for the solid ground I once knew before Jess came into my life. The world around me moves in haste but I feel no closer to shore, an endless sea surrounding me. All the moments we shared rise like choppy surf in the distant corners of my mind and before I can escape its path it swallows me and drives me under.

Theres something so lonely about having a memory all to myself, especially when it’s such a beautiful one, it digs down deep in my soul and buries itself in silence.

I turn back to the Christmas letter, I’ve only been able to write Dear family and friends, – the rest of the page is vacant. I drum the pen against the top of the desk and wonder if I have any words worth writing – if the people the letter is addressed to will even care. I rub my eyes, it feels like I haven’t slept but my bed doesn’t beckon me. I get up and walk into the kitchen, an empty mug in hand. I ready the coffee maker, scoop the grounds into the filter, close it, and push start. Everything seems so mechanical, cold. I check my phone – no new messages. The coffee maker hums to life, then crackles, sputters, and beeps once the pot is full. I take a steaming cup and head back to my room.

It seems hopeless that I might get any words down on paper this morning, so I avoid the desk and sit on the bed. I sip my coffee and let my eyes blur and my mind wander. Theres a dull ache in my stomach and for the first time since I woke I realize I’m hungry. I do a mental check of the fridge, scanning its empty shelves in my mind, and realize there is only a stale bagel and a couple cans of beer occupying its cool interior. Neither option sounds appetizing. There is a little breakfast place not too far from my apartment and the rain has died down a bit, I decide I could use the fresh air and nourishment. I’ll just bring my paper along incase words come after my stomach is satisfied.

I jump off the bed and dress but I can’t find my jacket, the warm one I reserve for chilly days such as this. On the hangers, I see a flimsy rain jacket I could easily use instead but the absence of the one I intended to wear annoys me. I look up and over, pull out my empty suitcase, a backpack, several pairs of shoes, a blanket, and yoga mat. It’s not under them. I slide the doors back and forth, hoping it might reveal itself if I move them enough times but it doesn’t. There isn’t much room for spare items in the small confines of my apartment, which also means there aren’t many places for things to go missing, something a person as forgetful as myself has learned to appreciate. I turn from the closet and look in the only other place, under my bed. I pull up the bed skirt and voila, there it sits tightly packed under the frame. I bend down and struggle to grip it, the frame is especially close to the ground, but I grasp it at the edges and pull. It gives a little but its jammed as if it doesn’t want to be put back in service. I pull harder. It comes free and the force throws me onto my butt, the coat splayed out in front of me. I quickly understand why the jacket put up such a fight. Articles of clothing were tucked in its folds, now laying in a haphazard trail to the bed, the sight of them hits me like a punch to my stomach. A pairs of shorts, a tank top, a tee-shirt, and a bathing suit. Jess’s clothes.

It reminds me of a night at Golden Gardens, when we watched the sun go down and talked about our dreams as the campfire crackled. I pick up the tank top, the smell of wood smoke and perfume flood my nostrils, bringing with it a wash of emotions. I set it aside and grab the rest. I remember how difficult the top button of the shorts was to unlink as we stumbled into my room, buzzed on summer and drunk on each other. The coral bathing suit, how the knots slipped so easily from their bind and from Jess’s sun kissed skin. Snapshots of her face, messy hair, the warmth of her touch, the sand that remained in my bed for weeks, and the way we slept after we both were spent.

I fold the clothes and set them on the bed like delicate artifacts and look under the bed to see if anything else is hiding below. There’s a pair of converse, far too small to be mine, and I set them alongside the folded clothes. Then I sit down in the chair at my desk, now turned to face the bed, and stare at the paraphernalia on the edge of my mattress like I’m guarding a prisoner.

There’s a storm rising in my chest and my throat feels tight. I don’t want to go over all of this again, to think about her, but its too late. I wonder what she’s doing now, where she is, and if I’d left her with anything that might remind her of me. If she thinks of me when she thinks of summer, I can’t be sure. It’s almost easier to imagine that she doesn’t, that those couple of months were just something to pass time until she went back to school and far from her life in Seattle.

I should send her the clothes or drop them off at her parents house. I doubt she will need them any time soon but they don’t serve me here. Before I can stop myself, I grab my phone, open her contact, press call, and the phone is ringing. Its 8:42 in the morning.
My hand feels foreign as I hold the phone to my ear. My heart does little circles with each dial tone. I need to calm down, I don’t want to sound like a fool when she answers. She was always the perceptive one, she could read me when no one else could, and I decide that it doesn’t matter what I do she will draw a conclusion. I solidify myself in the fact that I’m just calling to return her clothes – nothing more. Nothing more.
On the third tone, the line opens. A pause, the sound of someone fumbling with the phone, then Jess’s sleepy voice comes across the speaker.

“H-hello?” She says.

“Hey. Hi, Jess.”

“Andrew? Hey, whats up?” There’s motion in the background and I try to ignore it. She’s moving now and I wonder why she isn’t fine to talk where she was.

“I -uh- was just going through some things and I found some of your clothes.” I say.
Pause on the other end. So, I continue.

“A pairs of shorts, a shirts, a swimsuit, and your white converse.” I list them off like items on a lunch menu. “I didn’t know, thought you might like to have them back?” I say.

“Oh man. Okay, yeah. I looked everywhere for those shoes before I left.” She says, a yawn.

“where were they?”

“Under the bed.” I laugh, it sounds forced. I hate that I can’t hide the tension in my voice.

“Oh yeah?” she’s says.

Another silence.

“I could send them to you?” I ask.

“Uhh, yeah. I’ll be back in town in a week, you could give them to me then-“ she pauses, “Or just drop them off at my parent’s house.”

“Okay. I’ll do that.”

“Which one?”

“I don’t know yet.” I struggle for a laugh, it sounds hollow – distant. “I could just hold on to them until next summer?” I say before I can stop myself.

She’s silent. It’s funny how its sometimes lack of sound that says more than thousands of words. There won’t be a next summer for us, I already knew that.

“No, I’ll -uh- get them to your house. Its a little out of the way”, her parents live on Bainbridge Island, a hour away with a ferry ride involved, “Could I just mail them over?”

“Yeah, sure. That works. I’ll text you the address.” She says.

I don’t know what to say, thanks? Thanks for everything? She starts again.

“Andrew, how are you?” Theres a tenderness to her voice. She’s concerned, in a far off way that says she’s past me but wants to make sure I’m okay. That I’m not drowning over here. I am. I try to remember why I called because I’m struggling to hold back. Just to return the clothes, nothing more.

“I’m good!” I say a bit too cheerily then add, “Yeah, just struggling with the holiday bustle. I haven’t done any of my Christmas shopping yet and the clock is winding down. Its been a rainy, cold month in Seattle. I miss summer.”

“Yeah, me too.” She replies.

“How are you?” I ask.

“I’m good. Just plugging away at school, this final will be the death of me.” She says, theres a distance to her voice thats farther than the miles of ground between us.

“What is-“ I start before she interrupts. I hear a voice in the background, a deep one.

“Hey, I gotta go. It was good to hear from you. I’ll send you the address.” She says.

“Yeah, good to hear you too. Take care.” I say. Before she hangs up I hear the male voice ask, who are you talking to?

The line closes. A heaviness settles on my shoulders and I’m forced to believe that its just me in this moment. Jess is like a distant satellite, that once graced my life with her light, but before I could appreciate it, she blinked off in the distance for another revolution around the world.
I look at the clothes and realize I’d rather burn them than send them to her, my last act of courtesy. It might comfort me to watch them ignite and feel the heat of the embers – the last bit of warmth she’ll ever give me – but I know the flame will go out too quickly just like ours did.

I rub my eyes, as if I can press back the flood threatening to break. There’s no cure for loneliness in the vacancy of a love unrequited except time and the willingness to forget. I silently wonder at the purpose of love and our need as humans to be connected to one another, when it can rip out your insides and leave you a shell of the person you were before it came. It would be much easier if there wasn’t such an ambition, if there wasn’t a need. But I know, just as quickly as I have the thought that its the very thing that makes life worth the while. When love came, it thundered happily through my heart and stretched my veins until it felt as though I would burst from the pressure. The feeling lifted me off my feet and everything was easier, more beautiful, when I loved someone and felt loved back. When love left, it was replaced by its ugly opposite and I am sent reeling like an addict coming down – looking for another hit of a drug no longer in circulation. But I know there is light somewhere beyond the darkness and I won’t find it hidden in the contours of the past.

So, I grab my winter jacket, head for the door, and brace myself for the cold.