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.

Summer Clothes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Danielle was within earshot, I called to her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She looked up with a curious smile on her lips.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“H-hello?” She says.

“Hey. Hi, Jess.”

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

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

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

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

“where were they?”

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

“Oh yeah?” she’s says.

Another silence.

“I could send them to you?” I ask.

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

“Okay. I’ll do that.”

“Which one?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, me too.” She replies.

“How are you?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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