Confinement

There was a time I watched as this played out in front of me and I questioned the purpose but those times have passed, I have learned it is better to silence the mind and simply follow the cues. Nothing here can harm me, I no longer worry.

The alarm is a set of chimes, the tone and number of their call is precise and the same as it was each day before. My eyes open to the ceiling. Gray, featureless, no lamps. The room is lit softly from the window, the only light allowed here is that which comes from outside.

I don’t bother looking for the source of the chimes, they will end after thirteen tones, just as they always have.

I exhale as the final note plays and rise.

In the room is a small desk with a screen and a keyboard resting atop. The screen is black. A black leather couch rests on the opposite wall of my bed. The walls are bare. The carpet is plush, a beige that reminds me of some natural element that I can’t remember.

Thirty seconds from the last chime is all I have before I must go clean, or else my privilege is lost for the day. I rise without hurry from the bed, flipping the gray comforter from my legs, and leave the room.

In the bathroom, I wait. From my calculations, I have ten seconds before it happens. I stand in front of the sink, a square mirror hangs above, reflecting my image back. At least, I think it’s me but I don’t remember. Steel gray walls surround me. A glass corral conceals the shower. All of it is clean.

There aren’t handles on the faucet in the sink or the shower. No cleaning supplies, brushes, or combs lay about. There is nothing here that shouldn’t be.

The last three seconds extinguish as I wait, prepared.

A tone sounds. After which, a square in the wall extends toward me. It’s a drawer without depth, a flat surface like a platter. On the drawer is a toothbrush, it glimmers at me, sparkling clean.

I grab the brush. The drawer disappears into the wall and I wait, unthinking, with the end of the brush poised near the drawer. Another tone. This time a cylinder emerges from the wall, extending perpendicularly. With my toothbrush underneath, the nozzle lays a quarter inch of tooth paste on the bristles, and retreats back into the wall.

A second later, the faucet turns on, and I’m ready. A splash of water, then the tap stops. After this, I have ninety seconds to brush my teeth before the next spatter of water comes, this time it lasts for ten seconds. It allows me to rinse my mouth and the brush before the drawer spits out from the wall, I place the brush its cradle, and the drawer pulls back again.

There was a time I watched as this played out in front of me and I questioned the purpose but those times have passed, I have learned it is better to silence the mind and simply follow the cues. Nothing here can harm me, I no longer worry. It is only for my good and if I do not wash, breakfast will not come. I figured this out the the hard way.

There are fifteen seconds now for me to undress. I pull off my black athletic shorts and strip the tee off my back, both are of the same color and material. I set them on a shelf near the toilet. Soon, a rectangle opens, it hisses, and the garments are sucked away. I stand naked in front of the glass doors to the shower and looked down. My penis lays flat against my scrotum, it’s color consistent. The hairs surrounding are short and trim, as are the hairs that cover my legs. A shiver runs up my body as I wait.

A pneumatic sound and the glass door slides open. I step in. The door closes behind me. It is locked now, the door, I’ve tried to open it before but it is not a trap, only to keep the water inside the compartment. At least, that’s what I assume.

The shower head comes to life. The spray embraces my skin, a perfect temperature, not too hot or cool. Nozzles emerge from the wall. Shampoo first, then conditioner, finally comes body wash. I scrub thoroughly. My scalp, face, arms, chest, pits, legs, and feet. Moving quickly through these, I save my anus, balls, and penis for last, spending more time on them than the others. I don’t know why, there is some primal urge that forces me into this routine. As I wash my penis, I feel a prickle of electricity run through my stomach, but I force the feeling away. Last time, when I pursued this sensation, the water turned icy and I shivered the rest of the day because of it.

Two minutes later, I am rinsed and the shower head stops. Not one drip continues from the end, it is completely dry. Large squares open from each wall, the ceiling, and the floor of the tub. There is a gurgle from the vents and they come to life, whipping warm air at me from all directions. I stand with my legs spread and run my hands through my hair to help it dry quickly. After a short while, I am dry. The shower door hisses open and I step onto the cold floor.

On the shelf, where I placed my shorts and shirt, lays a pressed white dress shirt, gray slacks, black tie, black belt, and a shining pair of black shoes.

I quickly dress and check myself in the mirror one last time. My black hair is trim and appears combed, though I haven’t touched it. My eyes are silver, the same color as the walls. My body is overall thin but there is muscular definition to my face, neck, and shoulders. After this moment, which I know is the last moment I will see myself for the day, the mirror fades away and becomes part of the steel gray walls.

I walk from the bathroom and the door shuts behind me.

From there I enter the only other room in the flat. It resembles a kitchen but there isn’t a stove, sink, or microwave. It is empty except for a small square table with two chairs. The same gray walls surround all sides, nothing hangs from them, with a single window opposite from the table. I sit at the chair which faces the window and the empty seat across from me.

As usual, I contemplate the seat and the window, both useless. The blinds are drawn and the seat vacant.

Natural light floods through the slits of the blinds but, otherwise, nothing else is to be seen. I am not allowed to approach the window, because the blinds will fold over and close all light from the room, I’ve tried. I like the light, so I have not attempted this again.

The seat is a question in itself. It seems out of place because it is only I who occupies this place and I cannot sit in both chairs at once. However, I have the option to sit in the other chair, if I choose. This is the one thing I have a decision in, everything else is left to their discretion. Still, not once have I had company, one chair always remains empty, and I hate it for being here. It reminds me of an emotion I cannot recall, like standing at the edge of a dark hole, an emptiness whose depth is without measure.

Three minutes pass, as I sit at the table. I do not know why I have so much time without anything to occupy my thoughts but it’s always this way. I press away the questions of what lays on the opposite side of the window, the empty chair and table, but they come flying back at me as if they intend not to go unnoticed.

The bell rings, a ding-dong, and I rise from my seat.

Tracing my steps back through the room, I stop where the hall turns to my right, leading to the bathroom and bedroom. To my left is something that is only here three times a day, a door.

I step towards it.

It is a door unlike the rest, all of them automatic, because, on this one, is a handle. Another decision I have yet to mention, is that I can choose to open the door or watch as it fades away, a minute later. But I do not count this as much of a decision because my stomach growls in hunger and forces me to grab the handle, as I have always done.

I open the door. On the other side is a young woman. She is wearing a navy blue uniform dress that rises to her neck, culminating in a white collar. Her face is fair and her features smooth, framed by shoulder length black hair. She is younger than me, I can tell, no lines at the edge of her smile or eyes as I do. In her hands is a metal tray with a lid over it’s contents. Next to the lid is a thermos of steaming coffee.

A fragrant smell of living things strike my nose, drifting toward me from a warm breeze at her back but her hair does not shift in the wind. Behind her extends a concrete walkway, it travels straight and is bordered by green plants and tall trees. The sunlight tips the trees in gold but leaves the walkway in the cool of shadows. There is no one else in view. No buildings except for my own. The only thing that exists is the path which leads from my door, a path that I will always wonder to which it leads, but I am not allowed to travel its length. There is a stab of pain in my heart at the thought, similar to the sensation the chair gives me.

“Good Morning, Cornelius.” The woman says. Her tone is harmonic and her syllables well placed. Her face shows no emotion.

“Good Morning, Tabitha.” I return the greeting.

“Here is your breakfast.” She extends the tray. “The coffee is black. A light roast, just the way you like it.” She adds.

I nod and take the tray. This is the moment I should return to my room but I hesitate.

“Will I be allowed to leave today?” I ask and search her black eyes. They tell me nothing.

“Not today, Cornelius. It is still too dangerous. Maybe tomorrow.” She says, her tone is without inflection.

“You said that yesterday. It seems peaceful out. I could keep close to home.” I say.

Tabitha nods but it isn’t agreement.

“It may seem that way, Cornelius. But we are safe here, beyond what we can see are dangers I cannot explain. This is for your own good.” Tabitha says at last. As she speaks, she moves to the side and we both gaze down the path that leads from my door.

The breeze ripples the leaves of the bulbous shaped trees and square bushes. Nothing else moves. No animals stir or call. The path is clean, there isn’t a speck of debris anywhere. I cannot see where the path leads, before long it descends and drops out of sight. In the daylight, it looks inviting and I feel lust rising in my chest, even though I know what Tabitha says is true.

“Where do you go, when you are not bringing my food?” I ask her at last.

“Secrets are our only way to remain safe, Cornelius. You must not ask questions of this nature. Knowledge brings danger. I am your doorkeeper and I am here to keep you safe, what I do beyond that does not matter. I exist for this alone.” Tabitha tells me.

I nod and look down at the tray. The scent of the coffee rises to my nostrils and awakens my craving.

“Would you like to come in?” I ask her.

“I cannot keep watch on your door if I join you. You must understand this.” She replies.

“Why do I have two chairs?” I ask her.

“Because a table is not complete without it.”

“But the chair remains empty. It’s excessive. I don’t like looking at it.” I say.

“One day, the chair will be filled and then will you understand. But you must be patient.” Tabitha says and folds her hands across her stomach.

“I have been here for a long time, Tabitha. Not one is coming. There is no one here but you and if you will not come in then I will sit alone again today.” I say.

“One day, it will be safe again, you will walk the path and others will join you. But you must put these thoughts away, they can only harm you, and you will be lonelier because of them. For now, you must remain inside and safe.” She tells me.

“When will one day come?” I ask.

“You must go back inside, Cornelius. The door is about to close.” Tabitha says firmly.

I nod and step backwards, not wanting to turn my eyes from her. Once I’m past the door, it closes automatically and disappears. I am locked in silence.

I return to the table and set the tray down. From the window filters white light, the warmth I’d seen at my door is extracted from it, and it glows pale and soft around the room.

After I’m seated, I lift the tray, releasing the scent of freshly seared vegetables, eggs, and a single biscuit.

I grab the biscuit and peel it apart. As I do, something falls from its center to the ground. A thin strip of paper. I scoot back and reach under the table to pick it up. It is folded and blank on either side. When I open it, there is a single word scrawled upon it’s surface in black ink.

ESCAPE, it reads.

The note does not alarm me. In fact, I receive this same note every morning, only at breakfast, tucked away in a biscuit or muffin, under my coffee, or wrapped in a tortilla. Similar one word messages, all of them. Such as; FREEDOM, UNTRUTH, DISBELIEVE, LIES, HIDDEN, GO. I do not have the courage to ask Tabitha where they come from, I do not want her to worry. As she said, I must remain here, it is unsafe for me to leave, and I believe her.

I place the strip of paper on my biscuit, butter over it, and eat it, as I have done each morning before.

Little Nightmares

”They’re coming”, he said, “Giant rats.” He stared up at me with enormous golden eyes. It was Saxon, the cat I had as a little girl. He looked right at me. Then he licked his lips and walked away.’

‘Start from the beginning.’ Dr. Johansen said slowly.

The two of them sat across from each other in a shadowy corner of the office. The doctor was near the large desk and the young woman opposite of the doctor, nearest the door. A faded burgundy carpet lay between and underneath their chairs. A small table stood to the side with two sweating glasses of water perched on its surface. The walls were white and bare except for a framed university degree which hung high above the desk to the rear of the room.

‘Before I went to bed, I sealed the blinds and closed the drapes.’ Cara said.

‘This is part of the dream?’ Dr. Johansen asked.

‘No. Before I fell asleep.’ Cara said.

‘I thought you wanted to talk about the dream?’

‘I do. I just want to point out what I did beforehand.’

‘Is it relevant?’

‘It’s important.’

‘Why did you close the blinds?’

‘Because of the streetlamp.’

‘I see. Continue.’ Dr. Johansen encouraged.

‘The room was dark, except for slivers of light that got around the edges of my drapes. I’ve always hated those. I’ve thought about taping the drapes to the wall but I never quite follow through.’ Cara sighed.

‘Let’s stay on course with the dream.’ Dr. Johansen said.

‘I just want to say again, I always close the drapes. Always.’ Cara said, nodding to herself while swaying gently from side to side in her chair. She was nervous, she hated talking about her dreams, giving them life beyond her sleep made them more real, but she was the one who called Dr. Johansen. It was too late to back out now.

Dr. Johansen shifted her pantsuit, pulling at the ruffles, straitening a pleat. Cara was her final appointment for the day, one she dreaded. When Cara’s eyes dropped to her hands, as she formulated her next words, Dr. Johansen glanced at the clock. It was almost five. At six she was meeting colleagues for dinner, a business dinner. The kind of meeting that can shift one’s career. She needed something, anything to stimulate her practice, and this opportunity just might do. Maybe then she could stop putting ad’s on groupon for discounted sessions, which is how the young woman sitting across from her had come to find Dr. Johansen in the first place.

The doctor stifled a yawn and looked back at Cara.

Cara’s hands were clasped together and she turned them over and over as if she was folding towels. Her platinum eyes where distant, tired, fretful. Only Cara could understand the weight of what she was going to tell Dr. Johansen and she feared that, no matter what she said, the doctor would only prescribe medication or set up another appointment. But there wasn’t time for more appointments.

‘It was the house on Heckler Avenue.’

‘Your dream?’

‘Yes.’

‘Is Heckler Avenue a real place outside of your dreams?’

‘Yes.’ Cara said with certainty, then recanted. ‘Well, I don’t really know, yet.’

‘Okay, the house on Heckler was in your dream?’

‘No. I was in the house.’

‘Go on.’

‘It was dark. Darker than my room is at night, even if I was to tape up the drapes. I couldn’t see anything.’ Cara took a long breath before continuing. ‘My left hand was on a railing. It was made of wood, smooth in places but littered with nicks and scratches and pealing varnish. It was old. My feet were on steps, steep and short, leading down.

It was very quiet. So quiet I could hear the way the air shifted throughout the room. It wasn’t a draft. No. There were things breathing down there, on the main floor. Things.

I held onto the railing and struggled to step down the stairs. It always seems like I have trouble moving in the beginning of the dream. Do you ever have trouble with that, Doctor?’ Cara asked.

‘I don’t dream much.’ Dr. Johansen lied.

‘Oh.’ Cara mumbled. ‘That’s very strange. Richard says everyone dreams. Everyone dreams, every night.’

‘Who is Richard?’

‘He’s the old black man in my dream.’

’So, you were struggling down the steps?’ The doctor directed the conversation again.

‘Yes. My feet were heavy. I felt as though going down the stairs might be harder than going up, like someone switched around the laws of gravity.

After a while, I made it to the bottom of the steps. I could only tell because- remember it was completely dark, I couldn’t see anything- my feet landed on a wide space, tiled, it was very cold. I nearly tripped because I didn’t know where the steps ended and my weight- oh, well. So, I held onto the post at the end of the banister to keep from falling.

The next time I looked around, the room had changed. Twilight was beginning. A gray light was hovering over everything as if the room was made of the stuff they put in clock hands to make them glow in the dark.’

‘Radium.’ The doctor said.

‘What?’ Cara asked.

‘Radium. It’s what makes clock hands glow in the dark. No matter, go on.’

‘Oh. Okay. So, things in the room were glowing but they were glowing a grayish blue.

There was a long couch against the right wall, a fire stove and hearth against the wall in front of me, a dinner table and chairs in an open room to the left which connected to the room I was in.

There was a desk, too. It was in a strange place, the middle of the main room, next to where I was standing. There was a stack of papers on it’s surface, the papers were glowing too, slightly brighter than anything else in the room.

I walked forward, in between the desk and the hearth and the long couch on my right. It was an open space, maybe a twelve foot square. And I just stood there and waited. I felt a chill. A breeze, coming from above. I looked up, expecting a hole in the ceiling to the sky but it was just an old ceiling fan. The fan was missing a blade. Every third revolution, and it turned slow, it screemed like rusty hinges.

Then a rumbling began. I thought it was an earthquake at first. But the room didn’t sway. It just echoed with the drum of falling hooves, like a pack of horses in the distance. The rumbling and the scream of the fan. Rumble, scream.

I was staring up at the ceiling fan when I heard a voice at my feet.

”They’re coming”, he said, “Giant rats.” He stared up at me with enormous golden eyes. It was Saxon, the cat I had as a little girl. He looked right at me. Then he licked his lips and walked away.’

‘This was your childhood cat?’ Dr. Johansen asked.

‘Oh yes. He was such a good cat. I loved him dearly.’

‘What happened to Saxon?’

‘What do you mean?’ Cara asked, alarmed.

‘How did he die?’

‘Oh he’s not dead. Not really.’

‘You said it was your childhood cat.’

‘I did. He’s sixteen years old now.’

Dr. Johansen nodded and pretended to make a note of it, while motioning for Cara to continue. She checked her watch, the session would be over soon.

‘The rumbling escalated, louder and louder.’ Cara said and tapped her fingers rapidly on the arms of the chair, the sound echoed in the empty room. ‘I heard little high pitched squeals, like bats, but I knew it had to be the rats Saxon warned me about. The room began to shake. I heard them run under the floorboards, above the ceiling, in the walls. Dust was knocked from the sheetrock. The room pulsed as if it was alive.

I became weak. I’ve never been so scared of anything in my life. My knees went numb and I collapsed onto the couch, so that I was facing the room. Any moment, I believed, the rats would find their way through the house and eat me alive, I knew it was me they were coming for.

I felt something against my lower back, creeping between the cushions, touching the bare patch of skin between the bottom of my shirt and the top of my pants. It took me a moment to realize that is was a nose. A cold, wet, despicable nose. I writhed and screamed and tried to get off the couch, but something held me there. I didn’t have the strength to get away. Oh, you can’t even begin to imagine, Doctor! I could smell it’s foul breath on me and I knew the teeth weren’t far behind.’ Cara said, trembling, as her voice pitched to the octave of a frightened child.

‘What did you do?’ The doctor asked, calmly.

‘I did the only thing I could do, the only thing the dream would allow me to do. I reached behind me and grabbed the snout of the rat and ripped him from the couch. Only his skin was entirely smooth and metal, not a hair on him.

Then I realized, it wasn’t a rat at all but a revolver. You know, the kind of pistols detectives use. It was loaded. For some reason, I knew it was mine but I don’t own a gun.

The next moment, the rats fled. The rumbling stopped. It was silent again.’ Cara said, her eyes dropped to something on the floor. She never met Dr. Johansen’s eyes at any point when she spoke.

A soft, singular beep from the doctors watch broke Cara’s concentration.

‘Ahh. We’ve run out of time.’ Dr. Johansen said, feigning remorse.

‘But I haven’t told you half of the dream yet!’ Cara pleaded.

‘We’ll have time for that in the next session. I would extend this one but I already have commitments tonight. You understand?’ Dr. Johansen said apologetically.

Cara nodded, still staring at the floor.

‘Well, I’m going to recommend this for your sleep.’ the doctor said, handing Cara a pharmacy note. Cara grabbed it without looking at it and didn’t speak.

Dr. Johansen cleared her throat theatrically.

‘Shall I put you down for the same time next week?’ Dr. Johansen asked brightly.

Cara shrugged.

Dr. Johansen, taking this for agreement, penciled Cara into her calendar and closed the notepad. She stood and walked to the door, expecting Cara to follow. Cara didn’t, she kept looking at the floor, at the same spot underneath Dr. Johansen’s desk.

‘Cara! You must be going now. It’s not fair to make me late for my other appointments.’ Dr. Johansen pleaded.

Slowly, Cara rose from the wide backed chair, her small frame barely visible over the top, from where the doctor was standing. Then Cara turned, clutching her purse with both arms as if it was a baby, her eyes turned downward, and shuffled toward the door.

When Cara finally reached her, the doctor spoke.

‘Is something wrong, Cara?’ Dr. Johansen asked politely, not wanting to lose a chance Cara would come back for a full price session.

‘You remember the drapes?’ Cara asked.

‘Yes, how can I forget. The ones you always close before bed.’ The doctor assured her.

Cara turned her face up, she was a good foot shorter than Dr. Johansen, and looked the doctor in the eyes.

Dr. Johansen noticed how startlingly brilliant Cara’s eyes were. A sheer platinum, flecked with diamonds, ringed with dark gray. They were captivating, stunning. Especially for such a sullen woman.

Cara stared at Dr. Johansen for a moment. Then spoke with a voice much deeper, stronger than before.

‘The drapes were open when I woke up.’ Cara said and walked out the door.

Dr. Johansen shut the door to her office and collapsed in the chair at her desk. She suddenly felt very heavy and buried her face in her palms, massaged her temples, and tried to press the day away. There was work to accomplish tonight. A research job would mean she could give up this lousy office and her lousy clients, she could be part of something bigger, something that might change the course of psychology. Better yet, the future. She had to nail this dinner with the board.

Dr. Johansen scooted back in her chair and opened the desk drawer over her lap. She pulled out the bottle of generic alprazolam, anxiety medicine she began taking a year ago, and shook out a couple pills. Then she deposited the bottle back in the drawer and slammed the drawer shut.

Dr. Johansen screamed.

Under her desk was a dead rat.

Somewhere outside the building which housed Dr. Johansen’s office, Cara walked home slowly in the driving rain, still clutching her purse to her chest with both arms. Her eyes were distant, intent on nothing, as the edges of her lips curled into a smile.

For Better

The swinging door hit my chair so hard that it shoved me into the table I was already pressed too tightly against and my mostly full beer launched a hoppy spout like the snort of a great whale from its mouth with a trajectory for Alice’s face.

It was the first date when I asked her the question.

Nervous, searching for topics to cover, things that we could expand our lungs on, and mostly just sounding like I was interviewing her for a job that she hadn’t officially applied for. I’ve always been like that, rattling off words from my mouth in rhythm like the steady clap of a machine gun, bullets replaced by question marks, coming in such rapid succession that one might get caught with too many and tangled in the long arch of the symbol, like a lamb pulled in separate directions by multiple well intentioned but untimely shepherd hooks.

We were seated in the corner table at The Lot, a tiny Italian restaurant on the eastern fringe of Ballard. A corner table seems like a great thing. In fact, I was overjoyed when the host said that the corner table was all they had, unaware or too distracted to notice that he cringed when he offered the table. I piped up immediately, before Alice, my date, could say anything. I had asked her out to dinner and I had chosen the restaurant to meet, and it seemed the proper thing to decide where we sat, if there were any choice given, which it seemed as though we did. The host slowly grabbed menus from under the pulpit as if he’d had a sudden onset of lower back pain, glanced uneasily at us when he came upright again, and nodded, as if realizing that we wouldn’t be swayed, which was correct, but at the time, I had no reason to think any different and only took his slow movement for physical disability.

I held my place for a second, allowing Alice to lead, not because I thought it gentlemanly or chivalrous but simply because the low lighting was very discreet and she was wearing shorts. I did try my best to keep my eyes level with the back of her head but she wore her brunette hair down and curled, my eyes slipped down her hair like kids on a twisting slide at the playground, then I saw the tag sticking up from her tank top and my eyes stopped suddenly and I fought the very urgent need to either fix the tag or alert her to the rogue label.

‘Here we are.’ The host said.

His voice came from very close, thats because I’d been so intent on Alice’s back I forgot to look up until I was a foot away from the curly head teenager. He smiled uncomfortably and took a cautious step back, mumbling something about excusing himself. Alice was turning to sit and didn’t see the exchange, which relieved me and I moved swiftly to my seat, thanking the host who turned and left us to ourselves for a few short moments.

The corner table, if you can call it that, is a nook in the wall toward the back of the establishment. To my left was the wall. Behind Alice was a wall. To my right was the bar, not two feet away, so small was the aisle that waiters had to turn sideways and hold trays over seated guests while avoiding the bar crowd which had its own surging movements like the waves of an excited sea. Directly behind me and to my left, were the swinging doors from the kitchen, from which streamed a torturous scent of marinara and parmesan that made my head swim, but the doors did more than allow the mouthwatering aroma of Italian cuisine to my seat, which I realized shortly after.

‘Well.’ I said, sighing a breath of satisfaction and grabbing the menu with both hands. Alice just smiled and looked down at hers.

‘This place smells amazing.’ She exhaled. The clink of glasses and guys at the bar describing in great detail the symmetry of last week’s girl’s gluteus drowned out Alice’s little voice. I strained to listen, edging up to the table and crouching over its edges.

‘What was that?’ I asked, raising my voice a little but trying to keep it at a becoming level.

‘I said, this place’ she raised a finger and half twirled it in the air ‘smells amazing.’

‘Oh yeah! It does. Whats your favorite-‘

I was cut off by something colliding with the backside of my chair which shoved me a little further into the table and rattled the glasses which were filled to the brim with water. I twisted to see who the assailant was but the only villain I saw was the shadowy blur of the swinging door and a sweating server dancing between tables with a tray full of lasagna. I sighed and turned back to Alice.

She was giggling and looking down at the menu.

‘Well that’s fun.’ I said, trying to keep my humor and failing.

‘It’s perfect.’ She said, but something far too interesting kept her eyes on the menu.

I was only bumped by the doors three more times before we ordered drinks and food, lasagna for Alice and fettuccini for me. We both ordered cheap beers and I was glad when she ordered first because I hate spending outrageous money for half way decent beer, usually defaulting on the three dollar cans, and it seemed that she felt the same.

We tapped our glistening Rainiers together, mine slipping a tiny bit from my hand, and I realized that my palms were sweating more profusely than the can. After a healthy chug and still not knowing quite what to say, I launched my frontal assault of questioning, but in the back of my mind I wanted to warn her about the tag.

‘So you’re a nurse?’ I asked.

‘Yeah, pediatric ICU. I love it.’ She said, running a finger around the rim of her can.

‘Why?’ I asked. Ruckus from the two nearest barstools broke out and flooded my voice.

‘What?’ She said. Alice leaned closer, over the table, the cut in her top revealed just enough and I tried not to look but it was too late. She caught me, I played it off like I was looking at her can. It didn’t work.

‘What do you love about it?’ I asked.

She was quiet for a second, thinking about it.

‘Its just an amazing feeling, helping tiny humans survive an untimely or complicated birth. Watching them grow and get strong and finally released back to their parents. Its a beautiful thing.’ She looked down at her beer, turning the tab a couple degrees. ‘It’s tough too. Sometimes they don’t make it. Sometimes the worst happens. I guess it makes me more grateful on a daily basis, you know, that I was lucky enough to have a simple and successful birth. That I’m alive.’ She finished and took a swig. I copied her.

‘You’re job impacts you a lot?’ I asked.

‘Yes and no. I try to leave work at work because it is a lot of weight to carry, if you keep it stuffed in a bag and lug it around everywhere.’ She said.

‘It’s sounds like it’s hard to keep from bringing it home.’ I said.

Alice shrugged.

‘You caught me.’ She offered.

I realized that maybe I should delve into a lighter subject, since this was our first date and I barely knew her and this obviously wasn’t the easiest thing to talk about. But I guess I’ve learned that many people don’t get the chance to talk about the things that affect them on the day to day basis and I tend to open up space for that, forgetting that it can have a negative affect on the atmosphere altogether. I started to panic. Imagining she’d go home with little Tommy or Bethany or Isaac or Sarah on her mind, little humans she grown attached to but didn’t make it in the end. Babies that she’d probably already cried over and had more tears to shed if the right memories were brought to the surface like an oil spill riding the turquoise waters of her thoughts. Thats not how I wanted her to remember me. What I wanted was her to remember what a great time she had and that maybe, with a capitol M, she would want to see me again. I switched the subject.

‘Do you-‘

SLAM!

The swinging door hit my chair so hard that it shoved me into the table I was already pressed too tightly against and my mostly full beer launched a hoppy spout like the snort of a great whale from its mouth with a trajectory for Alice’s face. It all seemed to happen in slow motion, I saw the surprise in her face, the tiny flicking movements of her perfectly separated eyelashes as they batted away the initial specks of flying beer. The rest of the spout turned over in the air, like watching an astroid spinning in the weightless universe, then all at once it collided with her face and chest. I was mortified. My hand crunched around the beer can, nearly folding it. Alice didn’t make a move, except looking down and gauging the damage with indifference. I expected her to cry out. I wanted her to be angry, maybe yell at the server or barge off madly to the bathroom to fix herself. Instead, while cheap suds dripped down her chin and into her shirt, she did the thing I never thought would happen.

Alice laughed. The full, happy, not a care in the world, the beer might as well have been a cool shower on a hot day, kind of laugh. Her head tilted back and her smiling mouth opened.

Too frightened to understand, I could only do one thing. I laughed with her. We laughed like two kids, stoned in the back yard, watching youtube videos of bad lip-syncing. It was the most relieving and beautiful thing that has ever happened to me on a date in my life. To this day I still think that you should laugh like you have beer all over your face, but no one understands except Alice.

We laughed until our sides ached. Until the server came over with our food and looked at us suspiciously, thinking that maybe he should warn the bartender that we’d had far too much to drink already.

We were wiping away tears when Alice pointed to something near me.

‘Can I have one of those?’ She asked.

I thought she meant me but she was pointing to what was squashed under my elbow, a pile of napkins. I handed her one, still biting back laughter that escaped like carbonation bubbles.

Once we settled down and finished half of our meal, she spoke up.

‘What was it you wanted to ask me, before?’ She asked.

‘Oh yeah. It was nothing really.’ I said, while stuffing a forkful of noodles and alfredo sauce in my mouth.

‘No, tell me. Don’t be all shy now.’ She said playfully.

I swallowed too quickly. It was nothing really, just another one of my interrogative inquisitions.

‘I was just curious if you liked to cook?’ I said, trying not to act like it meant anything.

She chewed on her food and the question for a minute.

‘No.’ She said laconically.

‘Like not at all?’ I asked.

‘Like not at all.’ She replied.

I tilted my head to the side, eyeing her with suspicion.

‘Okay. I give in.’ She said, holding up her hands in surrender. ‘The real answer to the question is that I love good food and don’t like to pay someone else to make it for me every night of the week. So, I cook. And I’m a damn good cook. But like it? Ehh. That’s different. I do it out of my own desire to eat well and not an ambition to assemble beautiful edible things.’ With that, she knifed another slice of her lasagna.

I smiled.

‘I like you.’ I said, after awhile.

‘I know.’ She replied.

I cooked most of the time and even now I can hear the echoes of Alice barking orders, after tasting a bit of curry or sauce or whatever I was making.

‘It needs salt.’ or ‘A pinch of turmeric and a teaspoon of cumin, maybe a splash of paprika.’ or ‘Jesus, a little basil and oregano goes a long way.’ and ‘What is this? Are you trying to assassinate me by chili seasoning overdose or what?’

I would be peacefully stirring away, tasting, and thinking I’d done quite a fine job when she would walk into the kitchen, she was studying for her masters then and still wearing her glasses and a short face from reading long words, shoulder me to the side and begin making her adjustments. More this, less of that. I couldn’t argue. She was always right. What she hadn’t told me that first date was that her father was a cook for a long time and taught her how to properly make anything from hollandaise sauce to cordon bleu. I learned a lot from her.

She was always kind and never treated me ill for my shortcomings in the kitchen. Alice saw my potential and treated me as a project, one that needed care and training and consistent involvement if I were ever to ascend to her level of culinary professionalism. Well, as a professional critic that is.

Even now, as my quiet studio on the south side of the city creaks with the sound of new lovers on the floor above, I can feel her nuzzling up to me and saying, ‘Adam, you’ve really become quite the chef. I’m proud.’ Which would be poorly placed because I’m making boxed macaroni and cheese and the only thing I added was pepper, hoping the spice will sting my eyes and hide the reason my salty tears are soiling the pasta.

Alice walks about my flat in bare feet, flops on the couch and opens a book on advanced anatomy while I stir near the stove. Her brown hair lays softly on her shoulder and her blue eyes are framed by square glasses, staring intensely at words that I don’t understand. Sometimes I wish she would go and she does but only to come back again when I’m cooking or reading a novel she never approved of. It would be much easier to let her go if she had left of her own free will. If she had just told me, ’That’s it, Adam. I’m done with you and this and I’m going now.’ But that’s not what happened and this isn’t why she’s haunting me and there’s a chance I’ll find her again somewhere other than my waking dreams, for better or worse.

Chapter Three: Zip Ties

Reagan tried to jump out of the way, but it was too late, his grip was solidly around her, and he wrenched her sideways, away from the edge of the street.

Reagan Michelson smoked her cigarette furiously on the corner of 14th and Alder.

It was cold and windy but luckily it had yet to rain, though a quick glance to the south proved a dark gray movement of weather was heading her way.

She looked over the high fence surrounding what would be a new prison, the same site that David Guerra had committed suicide on November 2nd, now two weeks ago.

Murder, Reagan thought.

There was only consequential evidence proving it to be a suicide. If Guerra hadn’t been a low income man, from Nowheresville, orphaned, and little family or friends, then the city might have put a little more interest into such things. But that’s what happens where you’re no-one from Nowheresville, nobody cares.

That’s why there were people like Reagan, the bulkhead to hold the city officials accountable for it’s citizens, an unpaid liaison between the what was written in the police reports and what was true. If anyone could uncover what happened to David Guerra, it would be her.

Reagan stubbed out the cigarette and stuffed it inside one of the perforated holes of a metal stop sign pole.

She checked her watch, a square faced analog Casio, a trinket her dad had given her long ago. It was 11:57 am.

Any moment now, Reagan thought.

She opened her phone and looked over the images once more. Jim O’Donnel was a sallow man, graying red hair was matted and disheveled, the skin around his neck looked as if it belonged to a person with a much longer neck and bunched in folds, the dark circles under his eyes told of sleepless nights, and the red tinge to his skin betrayed alcoholism. In short, he looked like an overworked piece of shit. But Reagan knew you couldn’t judge anyone by their looks alone, as she twirled a finger through one of her pigtails.

She knew from the reports, that Jim O’Donnel was the first was to find Guerra, at approximately 6:33 am on that Tuesday morning, and that’s why she was standing here in the freezing cold, outside of a noisy construction site where machines with angry arms ripped apart the earth while they growled and snorted black diesel fumes towards the sky.

It was criminal, Reagan thought, to tear up the earth and build cages for humans. Especially in this part of town. Low income also meant highest volume of crime, which meant they wouldn’t have far to go once they were incarcerated, but that was not why Reagan was here, she was here to find out what happened to David Guerra.

A tall, slender man fitting Jim O’Donnel’s description walked out of a man gate from the construction site, heading north. Most likely to one of the popular lunch spots up the street.

For Reagan to stop Jim, she would also be intruding on his lunch period which would immediately strike anger in the heart of any working man, she knew that and she was prepared.

Reagan quickly strode across 14th to Jim’s side of the street, a block north of him. She always turned heads, not because she was exceptionally beautiful, she wasn’t, it was the gauges, big square glasses, and bright pink hair, tightly bound pigtails. Reagan knew that this look wasn’t exactly conducive to being taken seriously, especially as journalist, practicing journalist, but she’d lost her ability to give a fuck a long time ago. When the judgmental glances from passing cars or pedestrians came, it did little to raise a hair on her neck, she never even noticed.

Reagan, otherwise, was dressed rather normally, boots, jeans, and a puffy jacket that fell mid thigh, revealing legs which were slender and shapely.

Jim walked along in Reagan’s direction, his distant gray eyes had yet to notice her, they were lost somewhere ten feet in front of his step, deep in thought.

‘Mr. O’Donnel?’ Reagan called in a singsong voice.

Jim looked up at her, startled.

At this range, Reagan immediately knew it was him. There was a fearful look in his eyes and what Reagan didn’t realize was that working men almost never were called ‘Mr.’, and the only people likely to address them as such were the police or the IRS or something like that. It also was rare that any woman would approach Jim, much less one so young, that in itself was a strange enough to knock him off center.

Jim didn’t speak as he continued his steady pace toward Reagan and it seemed as if he was going to pass her before he halted, once he pulled even with her along the sidewalk.

‘Mr. O’Donnel, I-‘ Reagan began.

‘Are you from the government or something?’ Jim interrupted. Eying her with suspicion, the folds of his eyelids came partial down, making him seem as if he was suddenly sleepy or squinting at something in the distance, but he was staring directly at Reagan.

‘Uh, no. I just wanted to ask you a few questions.’ She said.

But Jim was already walking away, he didn’t have time for surveys or political activists or any of the public servants who were protesting the construction of the jail.

A few days back, he’d found a black trash bag at the south entrance, giving him a slight panic, since he seemed to have acquired an acuity for making alarming discoveries in the early morning. The bag was filled to the brim with leaflets, protesting the contractor and damning the workers for building ’The Cage’. Jim spent the entire morning retrieving pieces of paper that were strewn around the site, along the sidewalks, and a pile at the vehicle entrance. Jim didn’t have time to read what they said but he wasn’t curious anyways. A jail had to be built somewhere and it just so happened that the county owned this property and planned, against the will of some of the community, to erect the facility right here in the open.

Jim worked for the man. It didn’t matter what he built, his job changed little from day to day and the only thing that concerned him was the steady flow of paychecks, not where they came from.

Now, there was this pink haired woman, who looked to Jim like a child in a grownup’s body, and she wanted to grille him on the ethics of it all. Well, damn her and her intentions, there was no way he was going to ruin his lunch on the account of some notepad toting, political activist.

‘Not interested.’ Jim mumbled as he walked on.

Reagan hesitated for a second before trotting after him.

When she pulled up alongside Jim, she began.

‘Look, I just had a few questions that would really help me solve-‘ Reagan began.

‘I don’t give a rat’s ass what your trying to do, missy. This is a free country, I have the right to refuse your propaganda bullshit.’ Jim spat the words out the side of his mouth, his brow furrowed, and the red in his neck turned a shade darker.

‘But that’s not what I’m here for-‘ Reagan said.

‘That’s what all you people say. Quite frankly, I don’t care. I’m just trying to work and provide for myself, if you don’t like it then take it up with the city, not me.’ Jim nearly shouted and sped up his pace.

Reagan’s face bunched in confusion. She expected Jim to be a sour character but she didn’t expect him to reject her entirely, especially because he believed her to be a political activists. Reagan had been at times of course, an activist, but that wasn’t her reason for being here and she mentally kicked herself for not anticipating this side of the scenario. Reagan hated it when she hadn’t properly thought through all of the ways an interviewee could react. It wasn’t a secret that the prison was one of the most thoroughly protested projects in the region, but Reagan had focused so much on what happened three weeks ago that she neglected what happened here every day.

‘I was hoping to ask you a few questions about the death of David Guerra.’ Reagan said, the melody in her voice was gone as she rushed her words, raising her pitch against the traffic.

Jim just kept walking, at a steady clip, two or three steps ahead of Reagan.

It was an ironic sight, to onlookers, as a disgruntled looking old man in reflective green clothes walked much too quickly away from a much shorter pink haired woman, who was nearly shouting as he sped away from her.

Reagan hoped those words would bring something to life in Jim, that he would swing around and beg her to ask him some questions about that fateful morning but he didn’t, he just kept on walking.

‘Look, Mr. O’Donnell, I’m not some political activist or whatever you think I am! I’m just trying to figure out what happened the morning of November 2nd!’ Reagan shouted, as the distance between them grew.

There was still no reaction from Jim, it seemed as if the speedometer of his pace had ticked up as fast as it went, without running, and, unless Reagan started running herself, there was no way she would catch him, and what then, if she did?

Reagan had one last thing to try, though she never saw this as plausible when she parked her car a half hour ago, and it seemed as if it would be the last opportunity before she would be forced to give up. Jim might be the kind of man to report her for harassment and Reagan wanted anything other than to turn up on the radar of law enforcement but you took your chances when it was the difference between justice and letting a murderer roam free.

Reagan flipped open her small notepad while she quickened her step, until she landed on the page she needed, she’d read the lines enough time to say them in her sleep but the sudden change in events had brought her wits to a screeching halt, and she scanned the poem once more.

In an a baritone equivalent to her falsetto voice, she read the lines out loud.

‘Lonely are the nights. Lonely are the days. Lonely am I, in so many ways. Does that mean anything to you, Mr. O’Donnel?’ Reagan finished, she walked and read at the same time.

Reagan looked up from the notepad, nearly running into Jim, who’d stopped at some point while she had her eyes down on the poem.

They stood on Jefferson Street, buses and university traffic whirred by in the dismal gray, unaffected and ignorant to everything that was happening between Reagan and Jim.

Reagan watched, nervously, as Jim just stood still, as if he’d locked up or had a seizure while standing, but there was only a slight tremble in his hands, nothing more. The uncomfortable silence held the air between them.

Reagan stood decidedly out of arms reach, in case she’d aggravated Jim to violence, which she never put past an interviewee, there would be enough room to escape an unwanted advance. Jim didn’t appear provoked. His head was dipped slightly and his shoulders lost the backward pull they once had, when he pushed past her at first. It was like watching a man cave in on himself.

Did Jim O’Donnel have a hand in the death of David Guerra?

For a moment, the alarming thought brushed its way across Reagan’s mind, it was plausible since he was the first to discover the body, but she quickly discarded the notion because he had no motive and lived in a small suburban town much further south of the city, an hour drive without traffic. It could be that Reagan hadn’t discovered a motive yet, murder had its way of being complicated, but it was extremely unlikely. So, if it wasn’t guilt, then what?

Jim turned around slowly.

His eyes were bloodshot, as if he was pushing back tears, whether they were angry or sad tears was something Reagan had yet to decipher.

Jim’s eyes quickly moved to something behind her. Reagan didn’t like the alarm that sparked in Jim’s eyes, it made her uncomfortable, as if he was planning something, another reaction that Reagan hadn’t anticipated.

All at once, Jim’s eyes widened, and he lunged at her with a quickness which is conventionally reserved for a man twenty years younger. Reagan tried to jump out of the way, but it was too late, his grip was solidly around her, and he wrenched her sideways, away from the edge of the street.

A horn blasted in Reagan’s ear as something solid glanced off the back of her head, sending her vision to stars. She saw the faint blur of a snaking bus fly past her and through the intersection before things went dark.

When Reagan’s vision cleared, she was seated on the hood of a car, very near the spot she’d been hit. She looked up, feeling a bit sore but nothing else, to see Jim standing in front of her, his hands in his pockets and looking quite concerned. She blinked hard, making certain she was not lost in some dream.

‘Have I been out long?’ Reagan asked shakily.

Jim looked puzzled.

‘What do you mean?’ Jim asked.

‘Out, you know, knocked out. How long has it been?’ Reagan breathed. She brought a hand to the back of her head, expecting her fingers to grope through blood and when they only inspected a bump, her hand returning clean, she was mildly disappointed.

‘It’s been a minute or two since the bus. But you’ve been awake this whole time.’ Jim said, turning his face slightly and squinting at her. ‘Should take you to the hospital.’ He added.

‘No!’ Reagan defended a little too quickly. ‘I mean, no. I’m fine. I’m fine.’

Jim was a little stunned by the reaction, as if he’d suggested neutering to a puppy, but he recovered quickly, and his expression fell flat.

Reagan couldn’t afford any more medical bills, she couldn’t even afford the one’s she had, it was the bitch of no insurance when you lived in a country that gave you medical care before they snatched it away just when you needed it. When Reagan needed it, there wasn’t help waiting. The only thing that waited for her was a greedy little outstretched hand while treatment was withheld just out of reach in the other, because the right to live has a price, a high one, and they intended to exploit the pockets of the sick until they had nothing left to give.

Reagan thought briefly of the medical bills which sat on the top of the fridge at home, most of them with blocky red letters which read NOTICE, it was her mom’s home because, at twenty-five, Reagan still couldn’t afford to live on her own, not that she didn’t like living with her mom, it just wasn’t as glamorous as she would have wanted. But very little had turned out the way Reagan wanted.

That was the problem with a journalism and english major, the only people who paid for a person with an education like that was in fact the person who was naive enough to believe they could make money with such a degree, by way of student loans that seemed to grow with each passing year, rather than shrink. That was fine by Reagan, each day students sold their souls to careers they neither wanted nor believed in, and she had decided long ago not to join the herd which everyone sped to be a part of. Money meant little to Reagan. Except when people wanted to take it from her, which happened more often than not and usually in higher volume. Like medical bills.

‘Why did the bus just drive off?’ Reagan asked, rising from her seated position on the hood of a car that was neither her’s or Jim’s. She checked her hair in a nearby, storefront reflection, realized her hair was crooked, and she surreptitiously straightened it.

Jim raised an eyebrow. His face seemed rather agile, expressions jumped into place like trained acrobats, easily moving with sudden and fluid skill that Reagan wouldn’t have expected from a man who had a face that looked like a paper bag someone had crumpled then tried to smooth again, unsuccessfully.

‘Why would it stop?’ Jim asked.

‘Because it hit me!’ Reagan’s voice leapt an octave, sharpening the hit me part. ‘There should be some responsibility for that! Don’t you think?’ Reagan finished while rubbing the back of her head.

Jim laughed. It was a thick one, the kind you cringe and wait for the person to break out in a fit of coughs and feel very much relieved when they stop laughing before it happens.

‘Why are you laughing? Does this seem comical to you?’ Reagan nearly shouted, the shame she felt in the shadow of Jim’s laugh was worse than the dull ache in her skull.

Jim halted his laughing abruptly, which he struggled to retain, and looked away until he regained control. When he turned back, his face was unreadable even though his gray eyes were smiling.

‘The bus didn’t hit you, missy. The mirror was coming right for your head, because you walked right off the edge of the sidewalk – don’t you know walking and reading next to a busy street isn’t a good idea? Anyways, when I tried to get you out of the way and you jumped – well, you leapt backwards, right into that.’ Jim said, all in a drawling monotone which peaked in places of emphasis.

Jim pointed to what it was that had collided with the back of Reagan’s head, she followed his pointing hand, and her eyes landed on small, green tower at the edge of the sidewalk. It was a parking kiosk.

Reagan’s heart dropped a little, feeling more sheepish by the moment, and suddenly she wanted very much to be alone. It was one thing to be hit by a bus, a person could be angry about that and, even though it was her fault, one could place the blame beyond them self, but it was quite another thing to be so scared of the person that was trying to save you from yourself that you jumped fast enough in the direction of something as solid and immobile, as a parking kiosk, that you knocked yourself silly. Quite another thing entirely.

Reagan contemplated the kiosk for a moment longer, not feeling up to turning back to Jim or continuing their engagement or interview or accident or whatever it had turned out to be. But her embarrassment soon turned to anger, as it always did, and she still had a job to do.

Jim was still smiling comically, as if he expected her to find the whole thing as hilarious as he did, but when he saw the look in her eyes, his face drooped like a child who realized he’d not accurately gauged the way one would react to a prank.

‘Mr. O’Donnel’ Reagan forced her voice to a professional rigidity ‘Why did you stop when I read that poem to you?’ Reagan asked. She patted her pockets for her notepad and felt the heat of anxiety when she realized the pockets were empty. As if on cue, Jim extended a hand with the notepad and pen, Reagan’s notepad and pen, which had been hanging at his side this entire time, ever since he scooped it up after failing to save Reagan from herself.

‘Thank you.’ Reagan mumbled as she took her things.

Jim’s expression turned dark and placid, not leaving much for Reagan in the form of clues. He didn’t answer the question. Rather, he began breathing as if a weight was placed on his chest, sporadic exhales and inhales which shuddered, the way they do when someone is very cold. Jim’s hands seemed to find a new depth inside his pants pockets.

‘Are you alright, Mr. O’Donnel?’ Reagan queried, a concerned wrinkle broke the surface of her forehead.

Jim nodded, staring at something on the ground, as he had when Reagan first saw him, and pouted his lips, like he was munching on words and preparing to spit them out. Instead, the only the he spat was a large stream of brown liquid that splattered on the pavement angrily. Reagan, while holding back the urge to heave, silently wondered how anyone could hold so much saliva in their mouth.

‘Look, missy, it’s about half way through my lunch break, and even though this has been a pleasant, albeit surprising, experience, I’m hungry. So, if you don’t mind, I’ll be on my way.’ Jim said, readying himself to leave.

A light went off in Reagan’s head because, yes, of course, Jim was hungry and that’s what she’d anticipated, planned for, and executed, though little else of this interview has gone as she’d imagined.

‘That’s right, you are hungry!’ Reagan said, the tone of her voice was as if she had only just realized that someone could in fact be hungry, ever. And Jim looked at her as though maybe he should be scared but didn’t know why yet.

‘Come on, lunch is waiting for us.’ Reagan said, ushering Jim toward a burger and shake joint just off the main road. Jim was reluctant and held his place.

But after a bit of coaxing and finally, asking Jim if he was the kind of man who would allow a perfectly good meal to go to waste – he absolutely was not – only then did he agree to come along but he did not agree to answer any more of Reagan’s questions.

The restaurant had an open layout with a single counter to the side, where orders where placed, a larger than necessary television on the far wall, playing a Quentin Tarantino film, and high tables and stools arranged haphazardly throughout. Jim and Reagan sat at a table opposite of the counter and Reagan quickly made her way to the side which faced the television, as to eliminate the obvious distraction it would pose to her efforts.

Their food was ready when they arrived, in fact it was in danger of getting cold, because Reagan made certain they would have the food ready by noon, exactly.

It was 12:16 when they walked in the restaurant.

Jim ate quickly, as if he was angry at the meal for being outside of him. Reagan tried not to watch or listen for that matter, but failed at both, losing her appetite in the process, and when Jim had finished, Reagan’s meal was still mostly intact, whereupon she offered it to him, stating that she wasn’t hungry, which was true but had not been the case when they first arrived. Jim took her meal and before long, it vanished too.

After Jim wiped the grease from his lips and seemed satisfied, Reagan opened her mouth to speak and words nearly slipped out before Jim held up a palm to silence her.

He sipped loudly on the straw in his Coke, holding the palm to her the entire time, until there was nothing but the sound of sucking air echoing loudly from the paper cylinder, underneath a load of ice, until finally he set the cup and the hand down, and looked Reagan in the eye.

‘Thanks.’ Jim said laconically.

He burped, loudly. Then he looked at Reagan’s wrist, to the masculine square Casio, and checked the time. Reagan followed his eyes, the muscles inside he jaw flexed involuntarily, it was now 12:26. Jim’s lunch break was only a half hour.

‘Can you answer my question now?’ Reagan asked, slightly annoyed.

‘What question is that?’ Jim asked, even though he knew.

‘You stopped when I quoted the poem that was found on David Guerra’s body. Why?’ Reagan said.

‘It’s a sad one, the poem.’ Jim said looking away. ‘I didn’t realize what you were talking about until you said that, for all I knew Daniel Gooda’ – Reagan interrupted with a ‘David Guerra’ and enunciated the words slowly – ‘was some inmate at the old prison and that’s what you were asking me about. Protesters come by the job nearly every day, it’s nothing new.’ Jim said.

‘So, you were the first to find the body?’ Reagan asked.

‘That’s right. I started early that day because the footing trenches were flooded, power had been tampered with, and we needed them to be dry for a concrete pour that morning.’ Jim said, then continued quickly. ‘The police already asked me all this stuff, why are you asking me again?’

‘Because I believe it was a murder, not a suicide, like they labelled it.’ Reagan said with conviction.

‘Suicide?’ Jim said, surprised. It sure hadn’t looked like a suicide to him when he saw it but, then again, he was only a simply laborer and not an investigator.

‘Yes. Suicide.’ Reagan said.

‘Hmm. That’s strange.’ Jim said, as he played with the straw in his Coke.

‘How so?’ Reagan asked. She leaned across the table and lowered her voice, even though they were the only ones in the place except for the bored looking girl behind the register who tapped violently on the screen of her iPhone while chewing gum obnoxiously loud.

‘And who are you, exactly?’ Jim asked, his tone accusatory.

Reagan hated this question, but she was ready none the less. She grabbed the old badge that was no longer valid and displayed it for Jim to see, on the front was a picture of her, before the pink hair, and looking quite profession with the words ‘The Guardian’ emblazoned underneath her photograph. She worked for The Guardian for a few short months before coming ill and forced to give up her full time position at the news company, and her life in New York, something that struck her almost as tragic as the illness. HR forgot to retrieve her badge when she signed the papers of termination, which she’d done from a hospital bed, and it came in handy in situations like this, because it gave her validation, though a thin veneer, it was enough to handle people like Jim.

Jim scanned the badge over a couple times, the way bouncers looked at Reagan’s ID whenever she found herself at a club that needed a bouncer, which wasn’t often, and the reason for skepticism was warranted.

‘Back before I died my hair, they haven’t updated my photo yet.’ Reagan defended the image. It wasn’t just that, she looked healthier in the photo, her brunette hair fell in waves around a face full of color, and thats because she was healthier then.

Jim handed back the badge.

‘So, you’re a reporter?’ Jim said, an air of contempt in his voice but might have been curiosity, Reagan couldn’t tell.

‘Yes. And often time’s that leads me to dig up details that the city didn’t have time to grasp, because they have more important things to do than solve homicides.’ Reagan said flatly.

‘Is that so?’ Jim said to no one in particular.

‘Why did you say it was strange, that they’d called it a suicide?’ Reagan asked, leaning in again.

Jim shrunk back into his chair, gripping his chin with a hand that still had a bit of grease on the fingers, and thought for a second. It looked as if had mentally pressed ‘play’ on the memory from the morning of November 2nd and his eyes flicked in tiny movements from side to side as he watched.

Finally, he spoke again.

‘He was praying.’ Jim said.

‘He was what?’ Reagan, confused.

‘Praying, you know, hands together. Like this.’ Jim said, miming a person pressing their hands together in front of his chest.

‘I don’t understand, what does that have to do with-‘ Reagan began.

‘Zip ties. Have you ever tried to break one?’ Jim asked suddenly in an ominous tone.

‘Uh, no. Should I have?’ Reagan asked, confused.

‘They’re damn tough. The only way to get out of them is to cut them or slip something out of them, but nearly impossible to break.’ Jim said.

‘Okay. I don’t see why that’s important.’ Reagan said politely.

‘You should.’ Jim said.

‘Why?’ Reagan asked.

‘Because Daniel’s hand’s were zip tied together, like this.’ Jim pressed his palms together, connecting the forearms to touching and Reagan forgot to correct Jim on messing up David’s name this time. ‘There was one here around the palms and another around the wrists. The same zip ties were around his ankles and belt, it was what kept him from floating right to the top, I assumed.’ Jim said, but didn’t elaborate that it was the crime shows where he’d learned things like how dead bodies float.

Reagan began scratching notes on her flip open pad.

‘I’ll never forget the look on the kid’s face, he looked so scared. As if-‘ Jim trailed off for a second ‘As if his face was frozen in a scream just before it got out of his mouth.’ Jim shivered.

Jim glanced at Reagan’s watch, it was time, he hopped off the stool.

‘Where are you going?’ Reagan pleaded, looking startled.

‘Time to head back to work.’ Jim said, shakily. ‘Thanks for the lunch, missy.’ And he walked toward the door.

‘Wait!’ Reagan yelled at him as he left. She gathered her things in a fumbling hurry and sped after him.

When she shot out the door, stumbling a bit and nearly hitting a couple who walked arm in arm on the sidewalk, Jim was standing off to the side of the door, a cigarette slung from his lips and he tried fruitlessly to light the tip with trembling hands.

Reagan pulled a smoke and a lighter from her pocket. She held her flame up to Jim, who ignored her and tried a couple more times to light his own but eventually caved when his lighter wouldn’t spark and allowed Reagan to light it for him, thanking her with a quick nod. Reagan lit her own cigarette, and they both breathed in the filtered silence.

It was obvious that morning of David Guerra’s death had affected Jim dramatically, even though he did his best not to show it because something in his psyche told him it was wrong to feel that way, Reagan assumed. She decided to drop the matter for now, though she wanted nothing more than to keep asking questions, because it was obvious he would have no more of it.

Reagan pulled a card from her pocket, they were old ones from when she worked at The Guardian, but they still had the correct cell number, even though the rest of the information was completely useless.

‘Here, I’d like to ask you a few more questions about that morning, when you feel up to it. The cell number is the best way to reach me.’ Reagan said, stuffing the card in Jim’s hand.

Jim glanced at the card for a second, not sure what to say just yet but he knew one thing, it was time to get back to work before he was in deep shit with the boss. Jim pocketed the card.

‘Thanks again for lunch, missy.’ Jim said, turning away.

‘Reagan, please.’ Reagan said.

Jim stopped mid turn. ‘Alright, missy. Reagan, it is.’ This time he turned completely and trotted off back to work.

Reagan wasn’t hopeful that Jim would stop calling her missy and she was even less hopeful that he would call her out of his own accord, she would give it a week before she looked him up again.

Reagan started off in the opposite direction. She made a mental check list of the rest of the day ahead, which didn’t include much, and she wished the time would pass quickly to this evening, though she knew it wouldn’t, until she would see Jack. Her heart fluttered in the way it shouldn’t, because friends didn’t let their hearts flutter when they thought of one another, but she couldn’t help herself. She was only Jack’s friend because Jack showed no interest in taking it any further than that and it seemed as though it would always be that way, she’d been waiting three long years. But having Jack in her life, even though it wasn’t the way she wanted, was better than not having him in her life at all, though, at times, she wondered if even this was valid.

Reagan opened her phone and began a text to Jack, the way she always did when she found something new and exciting, but she quickly deleted the details about her conversation with Jim O’donnell, deciding to wait until tonight to share them, before she deleted the message entirely and stuffed her phone back in her pocket when the clouds above her opened up and rain fell in drenching sheets.

A chill washed over her as she hurried to her crappy old Nissan Sentra, hearing Jim say the words, Zip ties. Ever try to break one?

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.

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.