Talking to Stiffs

The bar doors swing open and shut with a slow pattering across the floor. His shoes are barely tied and he almost trips over his laces but finds balance against the side of one of the booths. If someone were sitting in that booth, he’s sure they would stand up and try to take a swing at him, like everyone else does at these kinds of places. That’s why he gave up on stopping in during the evening. People are friendlier in the afternoon.

The bartender stares down at the stumbling man with the poorly laced shoes. He tries to pull himself onto a stool while the bartender wipes the rim of a pint glass. The stumbling man has to balance himself on the edge of the bar and firmly plant his foot on the ring around the legs of the stool to even see over the bar, let alone get onto the damn thing.

“Been drinking already, Roger?” the bartender asks with a raised eyebrow.

“Yeah, well, you know how it is. Hair of the dog and what not” the small man retorts. “Just a glass of the usual, my man. Just a glass of the usual.”

The bartender sighs and shakes his head, like he doesn’t normally deal with guys having fun earlier in the day. “I don’t know, Roger. Seems to me like you’ve had enough already.”

“Come on, man. Not like you’re getting a lot of business right now anyways. I see more life during my day job,” Roger belligerently snaps back. “Come on, just one pint. For the road.”

“Fine, one pint,” the bartender answers back pointing his index finger to Roger. “But promise me you’re going to stay off the road.”

“Scouts honour,” Roger replies with two fingers in the air.

Roger was never a boy-scout.

*****

Six in the evening rolls around before Roger finally gets out of bed. Maybe that last pint at the bar wasn’t the best idea. He has no idea how he got home or where he left his car. All he knows is he’s got to get going. He’s on the night shift this week. His clients aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, except a little sour and smellier, but his boss still doesn’t like it when Roger’s late. The moody prick.

There’s coffee still in the pot but God knows when it was made. Fuck it, there’s a microwave, and you can’t taste the staleness once you Irish it up a bit. Roger fills his travel mug and picks up his keys from off the table. Beside his keys is a Scrabble board with words scattered across. Wonder what the guys are up to, anyways. Last time they tried to play, they argued over the word “fibula.” Roger insisted there was an “H” at the end of that word. He’s not sure if he actually believed that or if he just wanted the three extra points. Watson finally got fed up, took all of his letters off of his tray and spelt out “alienation” on the board, declared he was the winner, and walked out of Roger’s tiny bachelor apartment.

Roger left it on the board. Could never figure that word out.

*****

“Well look who finally showed up,” the moody prick declared as soon as Roger walked in through the swinging doors. “Nice of you to join us. At least you remembered your lab coat this time. We won’t waste another fifteen minutes having you wander around the building looking for one.”

Asshole. Roger shuffles through the lab with his coffee in hand, up to his step-stool. His first client of the night already lying in front of him, awaiting inspection. Roger takes a sip of his Irish concoction and pulls out his Dictaphone from his lab pocket.

“Caucasian female. About age thirty. Bruising along the neck and around the jaw-line.” He places his coffee down and wraps his tiny hand around her jaw; just like her assailant would have wrapped his hand. “Jaw’s broken.” He gently pulls open her mouth. “Missing teeth along the front of her mouth. Five along the bottom. Three along the top.”

Roger tries to lean in forward to get a closer look but his weight shifts the wrong way and he tumbles to the ground like glass shards from a bottle thrown against a wall. Roger lies stiff on his back for a moment, trying to catch his breath. He looks at one hand. His Dictaphone broken in half but still recording. He muddles out a raspy “fuck.” He looks at his other hand which is still holding a bottom jaw missing five teeth along the front. He smacks his head back against the cold ground squeezing his eyes shut and gritting his teeth. “Shit, fuck, damn, goddamn, fuck, shit fuck.”

He opens his eyes to see the moody prick standing over him. His hairy arms jutting out like two sideways “V’s,” his fists firmly planted on his hips, his black and grey checkered tie hanging off of him like the pendulum of a clock.

“Jesus, Roger! How fucking Irish is your goddamn coffee?”

Moody prick.

*****

Roger hates being put on cooler duty. But after the fiasco with his first client and what’s left of her bottom chompers, he understands. The cool air sobers him up usually. Just fucking boring. No one to talk to.

Sifting through recycled organs wasn’t what Roger had signed up for. Stiffs always fascinated him and he liked to explore things. You know, taking things apart to see how they work and then putting them back together. It started with an old walkman he had back when he was in elementary school. Stiffs aren’t like walkmans, though. You can’t take them apart to figure out what’s wrong with them and then put them back together to see if they still work. Well, at least not in Roger’s line of work.

Roger’s been in the cooler for about twenty minutes. The job’s simple enough: check the dates that the organs were dug out of the stiffs, if it’s been so many months, then they’re no good and it’s time to toss’em. One thing Roger has a problem with, though, is that the dates are all numerical. Roger’s never been good with numbers – or putting them in logical order. That’s why he likes biology: science with words. He looks at the random numbers on the organ’s labels, counts on his fingers to figure out the months, and then realizes that he was looking at the day. Or maybe the year. Month, day, year? Year, month, day? How the fuck does this work again?

The cooler door pops open and Roger looks over to see the moody prick walking in with a clipboard under his arm. He hopes it’s a new assignment but knows we never get anything that we want in life.

“Roger, what the fuck is going on?” he asks looking down at the clipboard. “I can’t take any more of these screw-ups. Last week it was forgetting to drain the fluid before making the first incision. Goddamn stain still won’t come out of the roof. The week before it was breaking your scalpel and losing the broken piece while making an incision in a subject’s neck. Now this. Do you just hate working here?”

“What? No? I love it here!” Roger stops to examine his current surroundings. “Well, not in here here, but I love it in the lab.”

“Well, I’ve let this go on long enough. You know our policy here. Can’t be three-sheets-to-the-wind, even if you are on night shift. Either get some counselling or you’re fired.”

*****

She crosses her legs all coy, pretending she doesn’t realize that Roger has been staring at her porcelain white legs since he walked in. She’s pretending she doesn’t realize her appendages are a pair of sensual satin sex-magnets. She stares across to Roger from over her thick, black rimmed glasses.

“Roger,” she continues. “I asked you about your childhood. Please, tell me what was it like.”

“What’s there to tell,” Roger shrugs. “I got picked on all through grade school, I turned invisible in high school, I hoped university would be better. It wasn’t. What else do you want to know?”

She scribbles on her pad and looks back up to Roger. He feels a sudden surge of blood through his veins when her soft, blue eyes peer back towards him. Those eyes were like ice, the kind of ice that you would skate on just before Christmas dinner. They were welcoming and kind and made Roger think of happier things and happier times.

“What about your parents?” she questions.

“My folks? They were alright. Well, my mom was. Dad bailed when I was young. Like seven or something. Mom remarried when I was in high school. Dated the guy for a long time too. Good guy, but I never called him dad.”

“Did you not feel close to him?” she tilts her head.

Roger can tell she’s interested in him. Maybe as much as Roger’s interested in her. Her voice got a little higher too, not as monotone as the last few questions. Roger got the sudden urge to tell her that his step-dad was a heavy drinker and the first to give him a sip of hooch. He has the urge but also has no intention of telling her.

“I did but he never felt like a dad, y’know? More like a buddy. Like the neighbour who’s a little older and really cool.”

She tilts her head the other way and taps her chin with her pen. “Was he a drinker?”

Damn, Roger has to tell her now.

“Well, yeah, but no more than any other drinker. A bottle of beer when he got home, bottle of JD on the weekends. Normal stuff, y’know?”

“Did you ever drink with him?”

Roger knows she already knows the answer to this. Why is she making him say it? Roger tries to stay quiet for a second. He knows he’s becoming a bad stereotype, a textbook case of a functioning alcoholic. He wants to prove he’s different, but if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck…

“Yeah, almost every weekend until he died,” the thought of his step-father’s death always made him uneasy. Roger’s trying to hold back the tears thinking of watching the doctors pull the plug on the man too young to have a liver as damaged as it was. He was only in his fifties when he died, but he looked like he was eighty. The doctors always told Roger that it was liver damage that did it, but that explanation was never good enough.

Roger must not have been holding back his tears well enough, because she pipes up. “We don’t have to talk about this anymore. Let’s talk about your job. Why did you want to start doing this?”

Roger sniffs and wipes his eye, feeling the wet residue welling up in the wrinkles underneath. “Biology. It was the only subject in school I was good in. Well, English too, but not as good as biology.”

“So, why not work in environmentalism? Or with marine life? Why in a morgue?” the icy eyes continue to pry.

“People are more interesting than plants or fish.” Roger wishes that this session would just fucking end already.

*****

Roger grabs the cold face lying in front of him and moves it side to side, inspecting the perpetually open eyes. This one’s still fresh. The neck hasn’t stiffened up yet and all the limbs are easy to move like the joint of a G.I. Joe from the ’80s. Roger inspects the whites of his client’s eyes and leans forward to move its hair off of his client’s forehead. “Well, my friend, what happened to you exactly?” he questions as he inspects.

He moves to the rectangular, metal plate with his array of tools and his thermos of Irish coffee. He takes a sip of his coffee before reaching for his scalpel and shines it in the light, looking for smudges and fingerprints. Reading the medical charts only makes him question the cold body’s predicament even more. The only thing that makes sense on it is the name: Anthony Vito. No physical signs of what went wrong. “Well, Tony,” Roger puts down the medical chart, “Let’s take a peek inside and see what your squishy bits look like.”

The scalpel slides across Tony’s bare chest, evenly parting the diamond shape hair and following down the treasure trail to his navel. Roger moves the scalpel back to the top of Tony’s chest and slides the blade along his collar bone, again down at the bottom of his belly, and opens the flaps of skin like the arching doors of a church.

“Well, pal,” Roger continues. “Your ticker looks alright. Lungs are in good shape. Kidneys and liver looks like they should. Huh, and I thought my problems were bad.” Roger reaches down, deep into Tony, and feels around for that loose bit that will let him take his liver out. The squishing noise, like squeezing Jell-O between your fingers, got louder and louder the more Roger moves his hands around. “I’m sitting here, griping about my therapist, trying to figure out if she’s interested because she’s interested or because she’s getting paid. And here you are, lying cold and slowly getting stiff for seemingly no reason. I hate these ‘unknown causes’ cases.”

The liver feels like a wet steak left on the counter for too long. It slides around in his hands, but he’s able to keep a grip and lobs the organ down onto a chrome plate. He breathes heavy from his ordeal, wiping the sweat off from his brow and leaving a bloody streak across his face.

“I know what you’re thinking, buddy,” Roger continues. “She’s my therapist, of course it’s only because she’s getting paid. But I don’t know man, these past three weeks with her have really been something else. It’s like she knows me better than I know myself. I can tell her anything and she just gets it. And I’ll tell you another thing, Tony m‘boy, I bet she wouldn’t get pissed and storm out of my apartment like a little bitch if I cheated at Scrabble.”

Roger leans over his chrome plate and starts cutting off small pieces of Tony’s liver. He makes the incisions slowly, working in silence and nodding his head while he takes glances back up to the cold body lying in front of him.

“You know, man, I should just tell her, shouldn’t I? What’s the worst that could happen, right?” Roger pats Tony’s cold shoulder, “Thanks for the talk, man. We should have guy-talk more often.”

*****

“Excuse me?” she asks, her blonde eyebrow rises as if Roger just told her he’s into bestiality. Probably just to save face and keep the professional facade.

“I really mean it, I do, I can’t stop thinking about you, nobody listens like you do, no one gets me like you do, I need you in my life,” Roger explains.

“Um, thank you. Thank you, Roger, for your honesty, but, don’t you think that maybe this is just a manifestation of a bigger issue?” She acts like she’s trying to analyze him, but Roger knows she’s just looking for the best way to tell him the same back.

“I don’t think you get it,” Roger pleads, digging for a straight answer from her. “I know what’s going on. You can tell me. I only have like two more required sessions. We can be together.”

She takes off her glasses with a huff and crosses her legs. Her face is stern enough to make a drill sergeant uncomfortable. “Roger, I hope you trust me when I tell you that this is actually a very common reaction in patients, especially ones in your predicament. Let’s talk about this and try to understand where this is all coming from.”

Roger leans back in his seat and breathes slowly, trying to comprehend why she’s rejecting him like this. Is she just trying to keep her job and denying herself the happiness that Roger knows only he can offer. “But, the things you say. The way you understand me. I only want to make you as happy as you’re making me.”

She shakes her head. Her hair tied back bobs back and forth like the swinging tail of a golden retriever, only she doesn’t look as happy as the retriever would be. “Roger, I’m married, I have children, I have a whole life. Those are the things that are truly making me happy right now.”

Roger’s breathing gets heavy and the pressure in his eyes are almost unbearable. “But… But… I don’t think you understand. I… I… I don’t think you really get it.”

She leans forward, her face with the fake compassion that she’s been displaying during all the other sessions looking up at Roger. Her eyes were like the kind of ice you fall through and drown under. “I do get it, and it’s okay, Roger. You could have this kind of happiness too. With someone else, of course. As long as we keep up these sessions, we’ll get to the root of your issues and you’ll be able to have a happy life in no time.”

Roger wishes this session would just fucking end already.

*****

Still with no logical explanation, Tony lies in a cooler, baffling all the scientists in the lab. Roger walks up his stool snapping his latex gloves on and picking up the medical chart.

“Well Tony,” Roger begins. “My colleagues have found nothing off with your liver, your kidneys, nothing odd in your blood, and virtually no reason for you to be lying here. What’s up man?”

Roger opens the flaps on Tony’s chest to see an empty inside. All of his organs had been removed and his ribcage juts out like a couple of freshly blown bubbles.

“Can you fucking believe how she rejected you?” A voice asks Roger. Roger peers away from Tony’s torso to his face, but sees no movement. Roger looks away to grab his thermos and when he looks back, Tony is propped up on his elbows, looking at Roger, with a smirk on the right side of his mouth and his eyebrows high enough to reach his hairline. “I can believe it. It’s how all women are. Give them everything, have your heart broken, it’s like they don’t get that guys have feelings too, right?”

Roger tilts his head like a dog being given a command he’s never heard before. “Yeah, well, I wouldn’t know. That’s the first time I’ve ever said that to a woman.”

Tony shakes his head and gives a low chuckle. “Yeah, well, that’s just the nature of women, man. You were probably too soft. She wasn’t getting it.”

Roger shakes his head quickly. “No, she told me she gets it.”

“Well then, my friend,” Tony continues. “You probably just projected yourself wrong. She probably thought you were just another yahoo looking for love in all the wrong places. You need to show her how serious you are.” Tony reaches across the table and hands Roger his scalpel. “You know, they’re not going to notice one missing utensil. Get your point across, nice and clearly. You deserve to be happy, after all.”

*****

The glare of the evening sun stings Rogers’ eyes as he stumbles across the field and bumbles into some of the stones. He thinks he remembers how to get to his step-father’s stone. Something about a tree on the west side of the cemetery. He continues across and tries to balance himself on one of the stones with his forearm. He looks up as sees the tree just a few feet away. He lifts his bottle and takes another swig before launching himself off the stone with his arm, almost losing his footing.

He stops underneath the tree and looks up to it, the sun glaring between its branches and into his face. He walks across the aisle of stones, tapping each one on the top and counting out loud until he hit five. Number five. Larry Lucero.

“Beloved father and dear friend,” Roger reads out as he stares at his step-father’s stone. “I fucked up big time, Larry.” Roger takes another swig. “I really fucked it up this time.”

Roger plops down next to the stone and leans his back on the side, looking down to where his step-father is buried. “Goddamn bitch. Fucking told my boss that I wasn’t getting any better. I only saw her for like, what, six weeks? Maybe seven? What the fuck does she know?”

Roger raises his knees up to his face and lays his head down on top of them. He wants to hold back his tears and look like a man in front of Larry, but thinking about her blonde hair and the ice in her eyes made him weep worse than when he watched his step-father take his last breath and stare into nothingness.

“She just didn’t fucking get it,” he muddles out between sobs. “We could be so happy together. I need her. I could be such a better person if only I had her.”

“Quit crying you fucking baby,” Roger hears a voice from underneath him. The ground starts to thrust upwards like a volcano is about to erupt underneath. The soil breaks apart and a hand reaches up, plants itself back onto the ground, and pushes up the rest of its body. First the shoulder, then the head, and Roger realizes who it is that’s crawling out of the ground.

He’s still in the same blue suit and white shirt. His hair is messy and has bits of soil embedded into his scalp. His brown tie hangs while he tries to brush off the dirt. “You going to give me a swig of that whisky, shorty, or you just going to sit there with your mouth hanging open?”

Roger looks down to his bottle and hands it up to Larry.

“That’s the stuff,” Larry comments after a mouthful of the golden liquid. “Now, what the hell are you griping about?”

Roger sits for a moment without the words to answer his step-father. He has to remain still and process the words before he can give an answer.

“My, uh, my therapist,” Roger begins. “I told her that I loved her and she rejected me. And now I’m out of a job.”

Larry plops down next to Roger shaking his head. “Hah! Leave it to women to fuck with your head and leave you for dead like she didn’t do nothing wrong. I’m tellin’ ya, if it weren’t for booze, women would have been the death of me.”

Roger gives a quick chuckle before Larry hands him the bottle of whisky and takes a small sip. “Yeah, well, I’m totally fucked now. And you know what’s the worst part? I don’t even care about the job that much anymore. Any idiot can find some work. I just wanted her.”

“Well, did she know how much she meant to ya?” Larry asks.

“What do you mean?”

“That scalpel that Tony handed ya.”

“How did you know about that?”

“Not important. What’s important, there shorty, is that you get your point across. Women love it when a man is assertive. And they really love it when a man tries and tries again until he gets what he wants. No woman wants a pussy little whiner who cries into a bottle of whisky after a rejection. You just need to go back there and get your point across that much louder. She’ll appreciate it and be in your arms like you’re Humphrey Bogart.”

Larry always knew how to put things into perspective.

*****

The candlelight illuminates the small table in the bachelor apartment. Silhouettes of Roger and his guest creep across the wall like projections from an old film reel. Two places are set for dinner and Roger is smiling wider than the horizon.

“I’m so glad that you finally agreed to have dinner with me, Becky,” says Roger. “I hope you like your meal. I wasn’t sure if you were a vegan, or a vegetarian, or if you like chicken, or beef, but I’ll tell you what I figured. Pasta. Everyone loves pasta.”

His dinner guest at the other side of the table stays quiet.

“Is everything alright dear?” Roger asks. “Is your food alright?”

Another moment of silence from his guest.

“I know what’s wrong.” Roger stands and walks over to his date. He gently wraps his hand around her chin and tilts her head back. He examines the stitches across her neck and runs his fingers along the pathway. “Nope, all that’s all alright. I know, you need a drink, right? Sorry, there’s no booze in the house. I don’t touch any of that stuff anymore. I can make you a cup of tea if you like?”

He walks to the kitchen, letting her head drop to the side and her eyes roll down to stare at the floor. “You know, I’m so happy now. Sorry, I just need to say that, I’m just really happy now, and it’s all thanks to you.”

Roger peers around the corner from the kitchen. “If you want, we can play Scrabble after dinner. I got to warn you, though, I can be a bit of a scoundrel and cheat a bit. Hope you don’t mind.”

THE SUIT

Vvvvvp… Vvvvvp…

Rorschach’s eyes crack open only to be introduced to a pitch black room and the glow of his cell phone sitting on his bed stand. It’s three in the morning.

Vvvvvp… Vvvvvp…

Serves me right for leaving my cell phone, he thought. If I turned off my ringer, I could just sleep but still know who called.

Vvvvvp… Vvvvvp…

“Ugh… Hello?”

“Rorschach! You gotta get over here, quick!”

He recognizes the voice on the other side of the call. That raspy, old voice that you can only get from years of smoking cigars and drinking bourbon.

“Herschel, do you have any idea what time it is?”

“No clue at all, kid. But seriously, get over here, quick! You gotta see this!”

He wants to go back to sleep but Herschel sounds worried. Not that this isn’t a usual thing for him, seems his neuroses is only getting worse with age. But he sounds scared – really scared. But, I’m not getting up this time, Rorschach thought. These middle of the night phone calls are getting really old really fast. I’m done with this. No more.

“K, I’ll be right over, Herschel.”

*****

Rorschach gets to Herschel’s apartment about fifteen minutes after the phone conversation ended. It’s dark and damp outside; the fall rain has been relentless this past week. Rorschach steps into Herschel’s condo dripping wet; luckily he was able to walk right in, Herschel never locks the door when he’s expecting company. Rorschach walks through the hallway and into Herschel’s living room, which doubles as an office. There are books scattered all over the floor and the bookshelves have been pulled away from the walls. Herschel’s desk chair had been moved to the kitchen and all the files from his drawers have been pulled out and thrown all over the place. Sheets of paper are still swaying down like oversized confetti. Herschel’s been looking for something.

After about ten seconds of standing in astonishment at the mess, Rorschach finally spots Herschel in the doorway to the kitchen. Herschel still has his sweater and slacks on: he hasn’t even tried to sleep yet.

“Alright Herschel,” Rorschach begins with a flabbergasted sigh. “What did you call me over to see?”

Herschel takes Rorschach by the arm and leads him to the only thing in the living room that doesn’t have paper products pedantically plastered all over it: Herschel’s desk. Herschel juts both arms forward to present Rorschach with the empty desk, like Rorschach should see what Herschel sees.

“I’m… I’m lost,” Rorschach says. He tries to read the old man while determining which mental health facility to bring him to. “What am I supposed to be looking at? What do you see that I don’t?”

“It’s not what you see, it’s what you don’t see, kid,” Herschel blurts out with his index finger pointing to the much taller young man standing next to him. A few seconds of silence pass before Rorschach finally shrugs and looks down at the crazed old man. “It’s gone! It’s gone! Can’t you see that it’s gone?!”

Rorschach nods his head in agreement staring at the empty desk. “Yep, knew it all along. Your mind is finally gone.”

“Quit being a smart-ass,” the sharp old man snaps back. “My computer, you schmuck! My computer’s gone!”

Herschel walks towards his desk rubbing down his moustache, then adjusting his thick rimmed glasses. He places fingers on his desk and taps it twice before continuing. “I left it here before I went to get cigars. When I came back, it was gone. I checked all around the place for signs of forced entry. The door was fine and still locked when I got in. The widows hadn’t been opened and were still locked from the inside. Nothing else is missing, nothing else is broken, just my computer!”

How Herschel could tell nothing else is missing in this chaotic mess is beyond Rorschach’s comprehension. Rorschach looks around the room from right to left trying to briefly confirm Herschel’s observations. He looks back down to the tiny old man with a shrug. “So, what happened then?”

“I’ll tell you what happened, kid. It’s the goddamn feds!” Herschel declared with a point of his finger and a stagger to the front window. “I know it’s them. It’s gotta be them. How else could someone have gotten in and out without any trace? They got ways, y’know! They tried pulling this same shit in ’56 under that putz, McCarthy, putting me on a goddamn black list. I doubt they ever stopped watching me!”

Rorschach walks over to the window, with his hands in his pockets digging for his keys. He’s had enough of this conversation.

“OK, that was 50 years ago. The government doesn’t black list or follow anyone anymore,” Rorschach tries to reassure Herschel, knowing his efforts are useless and he’s just setting himself up for another rant.

“Like hell they don’t! Since they passed that Patriot Act nonsense, they’ve been all over me like Newt Gingrich on a cheap hooker with a corndog. Look, there’s one of them suits right there,” Herschel points out the window at a shadow behind the giant oak tree in the front yard. The shadow has no form, let alone resembles the shape of a human, and stretches across lawn under the light of the streetlamp overhead. The shadow is completely still and gives no hint that it was alive or conscious. It just continues to lay there.

“Look, you need to get some sleep. Go to bed, and we’ll talk about this in the afternoon,” Rorschach starts to walk towards the front door. “Meet me at the diner on fifty-third and third. 4pm. Don’t worry about it, Herschel, there’s no one there.”

And with that salutation, Rorschach is out the door and walking to his car. Herschel, still standing at the window, continues to stare at the ominous shadow on the lawn, waiting for it to move, waiting to confirm his beliefs, not seeing Rorschach walking to his car, which is parked two doors down. And not seeing that across the street from Rorschach’s car is a man in a black trench coat, smoking a cigarette, standing in the cold fall rain in the middle of the night.

Rorschach stares at the man from over his car for a curious minute. The man drops his cigarette on the concrete and stamps it out. He looks up and spots Rorschach staring at him from across the street. The man gives a tip of his fedora before sauntering off down the street in the rain down the opposite direction of traffic on the one way street. Rorschach gives his head a quick shake at the thought that he may have believed Herschel for even those few seconds.

*****

I think he’s finally losing it, Rorschach thinks to himself. The crazy old man probably hid the computer on himself so he could call me over. What’s gotten into him lately?

It’s been months since Herschel has written anything let alone had anything published. Rorschach continues thinking about how he’s going to deal with his dear mentor for the rest of his drive home. Rorschach knows Herschel’s normally on edge and has that permanent anxiety-like energy to him, but he normally sleeps and he’s usually really neat and tidy. What’s going on with him?

Rorschach gets back to his apartment and quickly realizes Herschel’s got him all wound up. No chance in hell he’s getting back to sleep now. He sits on my bed and peers across to his bookshelf. He reads all the spines off all the books down all four shelves from left to right until he finds it. Third shelf down, six books in. Keeping Enemies Close by Herschel Bernstein. The first book he ever read cover to cover. The book that made him interested in reading and writing. The first time he realized he connects better with fictional people than real people. Some people consider this book kind of lowbrow because it reads more like pulp magazine stories than it does like “real” literature. But it’s so much better than any other spy or detective story he’s ever read.

I’ll start reading this one again, he thinks. That book always calms him down. I have to finish my column for the New Yorker tomorrow. Along with meeting with Herschel for what I know will be a long coffee-chat, I know tomorrow’s going to be a long day.

*****

Herschel paces around his condo for another half-hour after Rorschach leaves. He doesn’t want to leave the living room/office a mess, but he doesn’t have the energy to pick it up. So he leaves it and heads up his stairs to his bedroom.

Sitting down on his bed and pulling off his slippers, Herschel looks over to his dresser and sees an old journal he hasn’t looked at since he bought his computer. He knows there are empty pages in it still, so he picks it up and pulls a pen from his shirt pocket. He remembers the days when he’d spend hours with his nose in a journal, frantically writing like he wanted to keep up with every thought before they were obliterated by the next. Every thought was worth the space on every page, he didn’t want to miss a single iota of an idea.

The journal opens to a blank page towards the back of the book. He clicks his pen and hesitantly presses it to the page. But his hand doesn’t move, just keeps pressing down harder and harder. Frustrated, Herschel throws the book against a wall and shoots back out of his room and down the stairs.

Back in the living room is an old typewriter on a shelf next to his desk. It’s the typewriter that Herschel wrote all of his earliest published stories on: essays for The New Yorker, features for Vanity Fair, memoirs for Playboy. The golden years. Herschel places the typewriter on his desk and threads a blank sheet of white paper through it. With a ka-ching he cracks his knuckles and tells himself he’s got this.

He stares at the white sheet. He breathes slowly, blinks, and stares. His mind begins to wander and he thinks about his old magnum that he used to carry with him when he lived in Hell’s Kitchen. All his neighbours were mob kids. Not hot-shots, but kids. The kind of kids who would whack anyone walking just to prove he was a tough guy.

He looks across from his desk chair and spots the old gun on the shelf that he pulled the typewriter from. He reaches over, picks it up, opens up the cartridge and sees there are still bullets in it. Damned if he knows if the bullets still work.

I don’t need to do this. This is what the feds want, isn’t it? Herschel thinks to himself. See what old Herschel’s going to type up this time. Find something new to prosecute him for this time. Well, sorry fellows, but not this time. Fuck this paper, fuck this typewriter, and fuck you suits. I got fighting years left in me and I’ll fight ya with everything I got.

You wait and see…

You wait and goddamn see…

*****

It’s quarter after four when Rorschach arrives at the diner. It didn’t take him long to find where Herschel was sitting, all he had to do was follow the smell of cigar smoke. He always smokes before he sits to eat, or sits to write, or sits to have coffee. Rorschach finds him sitting at a far corner booth playing with coffee creamers, trying to stack them on the table. The smell of the open kitchen overpowers Herschel’s cigar smell as Rorschach walk by. The smell of hot cooking oil, deep fried breading, and sizzled meats float through the air. The sounds of clinking utensils, cash registers printing up receipts, and cooks yelling “ORDER UP!” fills his ears as he continues his walk over to the booth with brown upholstery, covered in blue and purple polka dots. The table doesn’t even look like it’s been wiped down yet. Herschel probably didn’t wait for a waitress to walk him to a seat, just helped himself to the furthest corner he could find. It’s sunny for a fall day, light peers through the window behind Herschel creating streaks across the table.

Rorschach sits opposite to Herschel at the booth in the far corner of the diner. The coffee-creamer tower Herschel had been constructing for the past fifteen minutes waiting for Rorschach topples over like a sandwich board in a wind storm the second Rorschach sits down. He’s late and Herschel always hates it when he’s late.

A waitress with hair red like a Merlot, a blue blouse with white lining around the buttons and collar, lips that naturally match the colour of her hair, and a label pinned to her blouse letting everyone know her name is Dorothy stops in front of the gentlemen’s booth. Her bust shakes as she pulls her notepad from her apron and clicks her pen, asking for the two gentlemen’s drink orders.

Both men order coffee, but before Rorschach can get any words out from his mouth, Herschel leans forward and points across the restaurant.

“You see, take a look at him,” Herschel whispers like a spy from one of his novels. “I swear to God that suit’s been tailing me all day.”

Rorschach goes to turn and look to where Herschel was pointing. He got about half-way when Herschel shot his arm across the table and grabbed Rorschach’s shoulder.

“Don’t be so obvious you goddamn putz,” Herschel whispers through his gritted teeth and scrunched up nose. Rorschach thinks about what his next move is going to be for a second, then stretches his shoulders like he’s a sixteen year old on a movie date then twists his back and yawns wide enough to see last night’s popcorn kernels still stuck in his molars. He looks behind himself to see a man in a black trench coat and a black fedora hat sitting three booths behind facing the two curious gentlemen. The man in the coat and the hat is reading a newspaper and has a plate of French fries and garlic toast in front of him. While Rorschach continues his exaggerated stretch, he sees the man fold and put the newspaper down on the table, pull out a pen, and start to write on it. Maybe Herschel’s paranoia was contagious, but Rorschach could almost swear it was the same man he saw outside of Herschel’s house the night before, smoking a cigarette in the rain. But, Rorschach wasn’t about to add more sugar to Herschel’s diabetes-inducing cookie mix.

“Herschel, just because a guy’s in a suit doesn’t mean he’s a fed,” Rorschach tries to reason with Herschel knowing the stubborn old man is only going to snap back.

“I know that kid,” the old man begins. “But everything about that screams something wrong to me.”

“Everything about you has been screaming wrong to me for ten years, yet I still hang around.”

“I thought I told you to quit being a smart-ass,” Herschel’s eyes suddenly widen and his eyebrows rise as he stares past Rorschach. “That fed is talking to that cute red-haired waitress and pointing at us.”

Rorschach raises an eyebrow and slowly turns to see the Cabarnet-haired waitress walking from the suit’s table and towards the gentlemen. Herschel picks up a napkin and starts tearing at its edges while Rorschach continues to stare down the waitress as she walks closer and closer to the table.

“’Scuse me, gents,” she declares as she reaches behind Herschel and closes the blinds behind him. “How’s the coffee situation here?”

Both men assure the lady that their coffee is fine and she continues making her rounds around the restaurant. Rorschach watches the waitress as she turns a corner and leaves sight. He turns his head slowly to face the old man, sitting red-faced with a shredded napkin in his hands. Herschel drops his head and sighs deep.

“Maybe you’re right, kid,” Herschel says at the tail-end of his sigh. “Maybe I am going koo-koo. God, I’ve been writing this shit for so long I think I’m living it now. I guess that’s what happens when you’re a washed up old man.”

Rorschach reassures his old friend that everyone goes through things like this every once and a while and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Herschel reaches for his coat and pulls out a pack of cigars. He pops one in his mouth and lets Rorschach know he’s just having a quick puff and he’ll be back in a minute.

Herschel slides across the booth, getting ready to stand up, and spots the suit getting ready to leave as well. The man looks right at Herschel from across the aisle and tips the brim of his fedora to him with a smile from only one side of his mouth. The man turns and heads toward the door. The curious writer in Herschel couldn’t help but stop at the suit’s table and peer at what he was writing on his newspaper. Herschel sees the page open to the crossword puzzle, and all would have been fine (hell, he would have finally started to believe that no one’s been tailing him) if he hadn’t decided to peer in closer to see what the man had filled out.

11 Down: R-O-R-S-C-H-A-C-H

Herschel’s eyes almost pop out of his head as he reads his friend’s name on the suit’s crossword puzzle. He pops his head up and peers through a window to see the suit walking away from the diner.

This cocksucker isn’t about to get away from me, Herschel thinks. He runs down the aisle, through the front door, and into the parking lot and peers around for the man in the black suit.

Herschel runs through the parking lot in the direction he saw the suit saunter off to. He almost can’t believe that he was right all along.

This guy has been tailing me and has a vested interest in not just me but in Rorschach as well. I’m going to get to the bottom of this.

He slows down his pace and continues walking down the sidewalk trail, trying to imagine which way the suit would have walked off to. The concrete is dry now and covered with brown and orange leaves that crunch as he walks across them. He stares up at the red brick buildings as he passes them, wondering if the suit has jumped into one of them.

He comes across a break between the old apartment buildings and spots the suit leaning against a wall, smoking a cigarette, in the alleyway. Herschel continues across and hides against a building just outside of the alley, trying to peak in to see if he’s about to run off. Herschel slows his breathing and exhales away from the break between the buildings; he doesn’t want the steam from his breath to give away his position. From around the corner, he can see the black-suited-fed-bastard still leaning against the wall, one foot raised and planted behind himself. The suit continues smoking his cigarette slowly as he lifts his sleeve to check his watch.

Herschel figures the suit must be waiting for someone. Probably more black suits. Probably a whole car load of them getting ready to ambush him.

“Well, not today buddy-boys,” Herschel quickly says to himself. If he’s going to strike, he knows the time is now.

After two heavy-breaths Herschel quickly turns and start power walking into the alleyway. He calls out the smoking suit who’s looking down at his shoes. He finally catches his attention and he looks up at Herschel with a curious raised eyebrow.

“Why are you following me?” I ask him. You’ll never goddamn believe the answer.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, sir,” he replies with a slow shake of his head. He looks honest enough, but Herschel know better. It’s always the honest looking ones who’ll stab you in the back first.

He’s stalling me, that’s all. The longer he can act confused and keep me explaining myself, the sooner his carload of buddies can arrive and take me away. Well, fuck that and fuck him, because I got his number. I already knew he’d try to pull something like this. I knew it, I fucking knew it.

Herschel pulls old faithful, which he tucked into his pants behind my back. She’s been loaded for fifty years, time to figure out if she still works. His arm stretches out and he takes aim, dead set at him as Herschel slowly walks forward. Now the suit’s scared; Herschel can tell he’s scared. He has his hands jutted forward as if he were trying to push Herschel back, his shoulders are slouched and his chin is pressed against his collarbone, his eyes are wide open and he’s shaking his head, begging. These fuckers never beg. Herschel knows he’s got his fucking number.

“Please sir, I don’t know what you want. Just, please, don’t,” he begs like a goddamn coward. “Do you want money? I have money, take my wallet, please sir.” He reaches towards his back pocket, trying to trick me into thinking that he’s going to give me his money, but Herschel knows better. The suit’s trying to pop Herschel before he gets the chance to pop him. Herschel’s not going down so fucking easy.

Bam!

Bam!

Bam!

And the prick hit the floor before he had a chance to pull one on Herschel.

*****

Rorschach get to the alleyway just after he hears three shots. Most people would turn-tail at the sound of gunfire but he knew Herschel was in trouble and he wasn’t about to abandon his friend. He takes two steps forward to see Herschel standing, arms to his side with an old six-shooter in his right hand, and on the cold pavement in front of him is the man in the black suit from the restaurant. Rorschach’s old friend looks up at him with tears in his eyes, like he just realized what he just did.

“I had to, kid. He was after us,” Herschel says as he looks down to the gun in his hand. “Can’t believe this fucking thing still works. Fuck, I didn’t know it worked to begin with. I’ve owned this thing for fifty fucking years and this is the first time I ever shot it.”

Rorschach hears the sirens in the background. He has no clue who this man is lying dead in front of him, his blood running across the concrete like a spilt glass of milk. But he knows that Herschel will never get away with saying that he was threatened by this man. This may very well be the last time Rorschach get to stand next to my dear friend.

Herschel gives a quick chuckle and says, “This would make a great story, wouldn’t it, kid?”

The Meat Freezer

The warm feeling of my breath against my frozen hands was what woke me up. My eyes were barely cracked open before I heard the screams. The blood curdling type of screams that immediately sends your body into panic mode. The adrenaline surge from my flight-or-fight instinct got me wide-awake and immediately assessing my situation.

I was handcuffed and the cuffs were wrapped around a steel bar that usually holds meat hooks. Between me and the next hindquarter hanging, there were two support beams that ran from the freezer’s floor to the roof, giving me only a small range to slide the cuffs across. My feet were barely touching the ground.

The sound of more loud screams pierced through the walls. I leveraged myself on the tips of my toes and started sliding the chain of the cuffs back and forth as hard as I could, hoping some steel on steel friction could get me loose. The scrams got louder and closer, and I started rubbing harder and faster. I didn’t know who that butcher was taking care of next but I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of seeing me trapped still.

The chain of the cuffs snapped and I fell to the ground, knocking the hanging cow carcasses that surrounded me. The carcasses continued to sway as I stood up and noticed that the screaming stopped. And it was too quiet.

The freezer door clicked as I pushed against it and slowly slid it open. I peeked through the crack, checking to see if anywhere was down here with me. The room was dark, but the stairs leading back up to ground level were illuminated still by one small, glowing orange light.

My foot slipped as I took my first step out. I didn’t fall, but it was enough of a slip to catch my attention. A long red streak ran from the freezer door right to the stairs. I followed the trail and saw more smears along each step. When I finally made it to the ground level where the butcher shop front was, I found the butcher and his two employees.

One employee was sliced open from his collarbone to his groin. His chest was opened up like a book and his ribs protruded out like stalactites in a cave. His intestines were pulled out and wrapped around his throat and then tied to a longhorn hanging above the meat’s display case. He swayed back and forth like the hindquarters in the freezer.

At first, it looked like the other employee only had a screwdriver punched through the back of his head. The back of his skull fragmented and mixed with the brain and blood and matted all through his hair. As I got closer, I could see the screwdriver came out the other side and lodged itself into the butcher’s chopping block. He guy had both of his hands stapled to the butcher block with two of the longest knives in the shop. This was an execution.

I found the butcher by the cash register. When he was alive he was easily four-hundred pounds and had a belly that practically hung to his knees. The belly was split open like a cantaloupe. His legs and shoes were drenched in a blood and fat soup mix that has the consistency of a thick mud that stuck to the bottom of your feet. Both of his shoulders had knives stuck into them that popped out the other side and stuck into the wall behind him. There was also a pair of garden sheers stuck into his mouth and opened up. The sides of his lips wrapped around the blades started splitting and bleeding where they lay against the metal, looking like a large jester’s smile.

This was a slaughter and all I could think was that either whoever did this was still there and waiting for me, or bolted and left me to take the blame.

I ran for the back door and kept running through the town’s industrial park and ran into the first payphone I saw. The sun was about totally set and the shadows of the warehouses and factories loomed over me while I crunched myself into the glass box and picked up the receiver.

I called my editor.

“Jumping fucking Christ, Harmond,” he said to me. “You sound like you just saw a dead body.”

“Three actually,” I replied, barely catching my breath. “The butcher and his two staff. Fucking slaughtered, man. I’ve never seen anything like that before. Holy fuck.”

“Shit, you’re fucking serious,” he muttered back, sounding like he barely believed what he was saying let along what I was saying. “Who the fuck… Just fucking… It wasn’t you, was it?”

“Christ no!” I yelled back. “The fat fuck locked me in the meat freezer. Handcuffed me next to hanging beef carcasses.”

“How the fuck did you wind up there?” he asked.

“The butcher didn’t like me snooping around,” I answered. “Got really mad when I asked about his daughter’s disappearance. Next thing I know, I’m waking up in a fucking freezer with a killer headache.”

“Wait, did you say you were handcuffed?”

“Yeah.”

“Either this guy’s got some freaky fetishes or the cops know what he’s doing,” he sighed hard. “Careful with these fucking small towns. Everyone knows everyone. This butcher probably played football with half of the police force. If he was responsible for anything, the cops probably know and are trying to cover it up as much as he is.”

“Do you think one of the cops could have killed the butcher?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “Just be fucking careful. Look, I’ll wire you some money. Whatever you need. Just get the fuck out of that place.”

“Do I really want to gamble with having that psychopath wanting to follow me back home? What if he’s hunting me right now? He didn’t kill me back there, but what if he was waiting for me. What if he’s watching me right now?”

“Get a fucking hold of yourself!” he yelled. “What if he didn’t know you were in that freezer? Besides, staying in that shit-hole town isn’t going to help.”

“But if I do have this psycho’s attention, at least it stays here and doesn’t follow me home,” I checked my pockets for any semblance of money other than the change that butcher didn’t take out of my pocket. “Well, my wallet’s gone, which means no money. Even if you wire it over, I’ll be fucked. The hotel room’s paid for the next few days. I’ll try to lay low there for a while and nothing happens in those few days, I’ll head back.”

“Does the car work still?”

“Knowing my luck, the butcher sunk it into the bottom of the lake. I have no idea where it is.”

“Alright. I’ll drive in. Just lay low. No cops, they’ll think you were responsible, or worse, try to finish what the butcher started. Don’t talk to anyone until I get to town, then we’ll get the fuck out of dodge. Alright?”

“Ok, thanks Sam.”

“A dead writer is no good to this magazine, Harmond. Don’t do anything fucking stupid.”

Sam hung up before I did and I heard the phone click. The wind picked up and blew hard against the glass box I was crunched into and was the only sound I could hear.

The walk back to the hotel was long and it was only getting colder outside. My breath hung lingered in front of me and the fog got thicker the further I walked. I could feel myself stepping against the concrete harder with each step as I hurried to back to the motel, jumping at every shadow that moved and every branch that rustled in the wind. It felt as though every street light I walked under, there was a second shadow just steps behind me. Like in every shrub there were a set of eyes watching me as I walked by.

The motel was one of those two storey roadside stops where out of town businessmen stopped at to strangle hookers. My room was on the second floor, and as I walked up to the door I could see through the window that there was a light on. I stood close to the door, tried to hear any voices inside, when the door swung open and there stood a brunette with hair that waved down just beneath her shoulders. Her green eyes were hidden behind a pair of round glasses. She had one of my black button-down shirts on. The tops three buttons were undone.

“Fuck, is this your room?” she said to me. “Look, the door was unlocked, I’m just hiding out here from a john who decided to bring a rope and some chloroform to the party.” In one smooth motion, she pulled out a switchblade knife, the blade clicking out just as it reached the front of my face. “I cut his balls off and I wouldn’t hesitate to cut yours off too. But you don’t seem like the type to try and hurt someone for kicks. You actually looked damaged. It’s the normal ones you gotta look out for.”

I pushed my way back into the room and shut the door behind us. “How long have you been hiding in here?” This was my only gauge to know how long I’d been out for.

“Just a couple of days,” she replied. “No one’s come knocking. Place was a fucking mess though. You gotta keep better care of your stuff. This was the only shirt that wasn’t on the ground and stepped all over.”

No one came knocking because they had already been by even before she got into the room. At least two, maybe three or more, days that I had been out. No wonder Sam seemed so excited on the phone. I usually check in with story progress every day. I was only supposed to be there for a day, maybe two. I wasted a week trying to track down the fucking butcher, spent three days locked in a meat freezer, this story was way more trouble than it was worth.

“Hey, what’s your name,” the girl asked.

“Harmond,” I answered.

“Oh, you’re that writer guy snooping around about Grace’s disappearance.”

“What?”

“Small town. Everyone knows what everyone is doing everywhere and all of the time. Probably not used to that in the city where you came from. But once the population drops below a ten thousand, you’re at the scrutiny of all your neighbours, and all their friends, and all of their family.”

“So you know about me being locked in a meat cooler then?”

“Shit,” her eyes bulged and her head tilted. “I knew Maurice had a temper, but that’s over the top.”

“The fat fuck was going to kill me.”

“No he wasn’t,” she stood pointing her index finger at me. “He was probably trying to scare you, but he could never hurt anybody. Be it a nosey reported or his own daughter, he could never kill anyone.”

Then I remembered what I just ran from. She didn’t know. And now I had to tell her.

She didn’t take it lightly. She sobbed so hard I could barely make out what she was saying. I guess he was a customer once or twice. He actually treated her decent. I guess that’s rare when you’re in her business.

Against my better judgment, I left the room to get some ice and a couple cans of soda. The ice machine grinded like a table saw about to fall apart. The pop machine shot out cans that were actually hot. I had to wait a couple of minutes before I could pick them up.

Then I heard it again. The screaming.

I dropped the ice bucket and ran back to the room. The door was open when I got there and I looked in to see the top-half of the brunette lying on the bed, her arms spread and her eyes still open. Her bottom half was on the floor beside the bed. Her legs were crumpled, like a cripple’s when he falls out of his wheelchair.

On the wall above the bed, in red smears painted on with that looked like a pallet knife, was written, “Tag, you’re it.”

With barely enough time to finish reading what was on the wall, I could see the red and blue flashing lights coming through the window. I ran to the bathroom, but the window wasn’t big enough for me to jump through. Two officers were already in the living room when I stepped back in. Their guns were drawn and my hands were up.

I got down to my knees as the one cop started to cuff me. He laughed when he saw the cuffs with the broken chain still on my wrists.

This wasn’t my first time being arrested. Hell, it wasn’t my first time being arrested for something I didn’t commit. Comes with the territory I guess. I write about crime, I wind up walking in on crimes, I wind up getting blamed for crimes. I wonder if this happens to other writers who do what I do.

I knew the routine well. They read me my rights and I chose to shut up. When they asked about a lawyer, I said not yet. It always looks bad when you lawyer up right away. It’s right up there with refusing a breathalyser.

The room they stuck me in was a touch bigger than a broom closet with a single table in the middle of the room and two chairs on either side. Two detectives, one perp, one lawyer. Made sense. The fluorescent light fluttered a bit every few minutes. The walls were painted a flat white, like an insane asylum.

The detective came in and unzipped his blue track jacket. He sat across from me and started reading a file, flipping papers, trying to look like a ton of ground work was done before he even got there.

“What are you reading?” I asked. “And be honest.”

He sighed. “The Sunday comics. I keep them on me when something gruesome comes up. Around here though, we don’t see much of this. Dead animals, for sure. Hunters killing off season, maiming animals’ bodies for kicks. But murders….” He sighed even heavier. “I’ve never actually had to investigate one.” He looks up at me. “You’ve had to look into a lot of these. They usually this brutal?”

I shook my head. “Nothing I’ve ever written about has been this… creative, I guess. Usually gang wars, drive by shootings, some sort of surface explanation as to why it happened. These have absolutely no rhyme or reason.”

“Except that you were at both scenes when they happened,” the detective interrupted.

“I was…” I dropped my head, hoping the detective wouldn’t see me getting choked up. “What… what was her name?”

The detective looked up at me like I just asked him where’s Santa Clause. “Who? Oh, the girl in the room? Grace something or other. Well-known hooker in town.”

Grace?

“Sir, how well did you know Maurice the butcher?” I asked.

“Uh, I dunno, not that great. Most of us working on the force here only arrived when we got our jobs. This is one of those towns where the population is so small that the province actually sends police from other towns to full the precinct. I’ve only been here six months or so. You hear some crazy shit, but I don’t let if faze me.”

Sam wasn’t usually wrong about things. But he was way off on this. The butcher came at me when I asked about his daughter because he knew exactly where she was and what she was doing. He had no ties to police, and you can buy handcuffs anywhere. Sam had me thinking so much about this town and a looming conspiracy that I had no time to think about the murders happening around me.

“The way you’re talking to me gives me the impression that I’m not being charged with anything,” I pointed out.

The detective nodded his head. “Witnesses at the scene say they saw you by the ice machine when they heard the screams. And there’s no way to place you at the butcher shop either.” He smiled at me. “Getting one hell of a story out of us, aren’t you Harmond? You came here for a missing girl case and now you’re sitting in a town where the murder rate just shot up four-hundred per cent. I gotta ask, what was so interesting about this case? The missing girl?”

“I wanted to look at the effects crimes and tragedies have on smaller communities,” I explained. “I’m always writing in the bigger cities. Murders there are as common as popping zits. I wanted to go somewhere where losing a life still had meaning.”

The detective nodded his head. “You came to the right place.” He stood up and adjusted his belt. “Well, like you said, you’re not being formally charged with anything. I’ll get you your release papers, I’ll need a couple of signatures from you and you can be on your way.”

The detective left the room. I could see him stop for a moment in front of the door. There was a small window in the door at about head length. I could see the detective’s head through the window. He nodded a bit, then there was a pop and all I could see on the window was a large, red smear.

The lights started to flicker and then we were cloaked in black for a second. Then the emergency power generator kicked in, lighting everything in crimson. I walked up to the door and saw that someone drew two eyes and a smile in what was left of the detective’s brains.

Peering through the doorway, opened just a crack, I could see that no one was in the hallway: alive or dead. Another red trail smeared along the white floor made a map of where the detective may have been dragged to. I started following the map when I heard another scream and saw a woman running towards me. She wasn’t in a uniform. She wasn’t armed. She was crying and screaming as she ran, coughing and losing breath.

She stopped and grabbed me. “They’re all fucking dead!”

She looked over her shoulder and kept running. Down the hall where she ran from, I could see someone walking toward me. Tall, broad shouldered, dressed in a black jacket, black gloves, and his face was covered with a simple, plain black mask off of a Halloween costume. He had a gun in his right hand that he raised and pointed at me.

Click Click…

Like a robot processing a simple command and not moving his head, he threw the gun to the side and drew a knife from a belt holster and continued walking towards me.

Someone grabbed my arm and I turned.

“Run mother fucker!” screamed the woman who ran by me before.

We start running. I peer over my shoulder and see the tall man in black is still just walking, his knife swaying with each step he took.

“There’s a… back door… just down… this hall,” she huffed out. “My car’s back there…” And she started coughing again, losing her footing and falling. I stopped and grabbed her by the arm and pulled her up. And we kept running.

We made it to her car and I jumped into the passenger seat. She kicked on the ignition and started driving toward the parking lot’s entrance. Standing there was the tall man in black. Standing completely still and waiting.

And she sped up. “Not today, mother fucker!” she yelled as she floored the gas pedal, hitting the man in black straight on. His body exploded like a water melon with a stick of dynamite stuck into it. Blood smeared her windshield and I could hear his head rolling across the roof and smack the back windshield where his mask got caught on her roof rack.

She pulled over. “Ha! Nailed that son of a bitch!” she blurted out as she stepped out of her car. She walked to where the mask hooked onto the roof rack. “Let’s see who this cocksucker is.”

She pulled off the mask to reveal the detective. His head wound was still fresh and bits of the skin off of his head flapped as she slipped the mask off. The head dropped and hit the concrete, splattering more of his blood and brain on the ground and leaving trails of hair as it rolled.

I was too busy staring at the detective’s head to notice her dropping her lunch on the concrete with a cough and a heave. She was wiping her mouth with her sleeve as I looked back. “Holy fucking Jesus Christ what the fuck is going on,” she sobbed. “Was detective Ramirez that psycho?”

“No,” I replied. I walked over and tilted his head to show the gun wound that opened his head up like a split cantaloupe. “He was dead well before you hit him. I have no fucking clue how he got him to stand there like that.” I reached down and picked up the head. There was a metal wire embedded into the back of his head, like a sculptor would use for a life-size piece. “When the fuck did he get time to do that?”

Her steps clicked slowly as she walked up behind me. “What the fuck is going on?”

“I have no idea,” I replied. “But I feel like I need to call my editor now.”

We start driving to a near-by payphone that she knew about. On the way, she told me her name was Sandra. She only just got hired this police station a few weeks ago. She was working on the police website.

I called Sam and told him everything that happened in the police station.

“You have to be fucking kidding me,” he said. “And you saw all of it?”

“Saw it? I had to fucking survive it!” I yelled back. “What the fuck did you get me into sending me to this goddamned place? I’m being stalked by a guy now who likes turning dead bodies into action figures.”

“Are you sure he’s a guy?” Sam asked.

“Broad shouldered, tall, walks slowly, a little bit of a limp. He as hunched over a bit too,” I explained.

“Either a guy or one butch woman,” Sam laughed.

“I’m not fucking laughing, Sam,” I snapped. “Are you still coming into town? I don’t think I can take this girl’s car to get out of here.”

“Be there in a couple of hours,” Sam answered. “Meet me at the elementary school. The doors should be open. No one locks shit in a town like that. Stay inside, stay safe and I’ll drive up to the front door.”

“You know the elementary school here?” I asked Sandra.

“Yeah, everyone who grew up here went there,” she answered.

“That’s where my editor is picking me up,” I said. “Can you drop me off?”

She agreed, saying that the school was only a few blocks away.

We get there in about ten minutes. Orion Elementary School is written in bold letters above the front door. Every window is dark and the trees rustled against the chain linked fence lining the schoolyard. The wind was getting colder and flakes of started floating by.

“Alright, thanks for the ride,” I said. “I don’t know what you should do, but I really need to meet my editor. He’s going to get the fuck out of here…”

“You think I’m just leaving you?” she interrupted. “Nu-uh, whoever the fuck that was in the freaky-ass mask probably knows who I am. Everyone knows everyone in this town. He’s probably in my house now waiting to cut me up. Until this gets figured out, or I find another police station where everyone isn’t dead, where you go, I go.”

We walked into the school together. Sam was right; the doors weren’t locked. The two of us walked through the hallways and peered at all the class photos hung on the wall.

“So, you didn’t grow up here then?” Sandra asked.

“No,” I replied. “Grew up in the big city. My graduating class in high school was more than two-thousand kids. Nothing like these thirty kids in a class.”

“What got you writing about murder and all that?” she asked. “Have some traumatic childhood story where your work is helping you deal with some emotional scarring?”

“Believe it or not, I grew up completely normal,” I answered, reading a class photo. “I write because people will read it. People thrive off of fear. It helps move the economy. People are scared of bad men, so they buy houses in suburbs far from where the bad men live. They buy home security systems to help them sleep at night. They buy dogs to bark whenever strangers walk by and they buy food to feed those dogs and keep its loyalty. Fear is the oldest human emotion and it drives the market. And people need to remember what to be afraid of. And that’s where I come in.”

“Awfully cynical, don’t you think?” She asked, and I doubt she was actually looking for an answer.

“They’re paying,” I replied. “And so long as they’re paying, I’ll keep writing about gunned-down drug dealers, missing teenage girls and slaughtered humans. It sells magazines, it sells ad space and lets me live a certain lifestyle I do happen to enjoy.”

“Really? How do you deal being around death every day? Day in and day out you live in the utmost worst in humanity. Aren’t you scared you’re glamourizing it a bit? Doesn’t it ever get to you?”

“They’re subjects, that’s all. You can’t get invested in it. You can’t even recognize they’re human. That’s when you start losing sleep. You start worrying about every dark corner you have to turn. I just keep it out of my head when I don’t need it. But even I have my house in the suburbs and my dog and my home security system.”

I started walking down the halls of the school as Sandra kept looking out the window, waiting to see who would pull up. I scanned by the class photos, each from ninth grade, the last grade any of these kids spent in this school. I noticed a familiar name as I scanned by: Samuel Gibson, my editor. I had no idea that he was from this town. He never gave any indication that he had any connection to it at all. It might be why he was so adamant that I check out this story about the missing girl. My beat was usually inner city crime, murders and drugs and gangs. This was the first time I investigated a small town crime like this. I guess Sam thought this would be a good entry point for me to start writing about it. Get the people in the suburbs scared too. Get them upgrading their security systems, buying property in the gated estates, and most of all, get them buying magazines still. Remind them that there are things to be afraid of all over.

A couple of photos over from Sam’s was another face and name I recognized instantly: the fucking butcher. Sam knew him, went to school with him, I wondered if they were close. I kept scanning through and placing faces with people I met throughout the town: the butcher’s assistants, Grace, even Sandra. They all went to this school, they were all connected. One photo bothered me the most. It was a name I didn’t know, but a face I knew but I couldn’t place. He left this school the same year as Sam and the butcher. I was inspecting the photo closer when I heard Sandra yelling for me.

I ran to the front door and saw through the window a black car pulling up. Only the car didn’t stop, it sped up. Drove right for the front door. I grabbed Sandra by the waist and pulled her back as the car crashed through the front door. One of the larger blue metal doors slammed into us as we tried to run back. Bits of stone wall and ceiling dust covered us as we dug our way out from under the door. The car’s door opened and out came a man dressed all in black. I was almost too panicked to notice that he was walking straight, no limp.

He pulled out a gun from behind his back and aimed it at us. He started laughing as he pulled his mask off. I knew the face right away. This is the third time I’ve seen it now: the first time was in the motel when the girl was slaughtered, the second time was on the graduation photo. The one fucking cop in this town who grew up here turns out to get his rocks off hunting and slaughtering people.

He didn’t say a word. Just aimed and smiled. I had to distract him, even for half a second.

“What, no knife? No theatrics like the rest?” I asked him.

He started breathing heavier, like a panting dog waiting for a stick to be thrown. “I got some theatrics for ya,” he answered. “Got some nice metal bars in the back of this car to put the two of you on display once I’m done here, like two little dollies who never had a chance when big brother came by to cut off all their hair and take apart their limbs. I got a special pose for the two of you.”

From outside, someone starting yelling, “Harmond? You in here? What the fuck is going on?”

With his head turned for that half second wondering who’s yelling, I kicked out the back of the cop’s knees and he crumbled to the ground, dropping his gun on the way down. The gun rolled toward Sandra while the cop pounced on top of me with his hands around my throat. He pushed down against my trachea, he grip was only getting tighter and I started trying to push him off me, kicking out my feet and pushing against him. I was losing air fast and losing strength when I heard a bang and my face was suddenly soaked. His grip loosened as he toppled over and landed on top of my face. I pushed him off and scrambled my way back onto my feet and looked back at Sandra, holding the cop’s gun. I coughed while wiping his blood out of my eyes and looked down to see a tennis ball sized hole in the back of his head.

“Holy fuck, what the fuck happened here?” I heard from behind and saw Sam walking in through the rubble. Sam looked up at me and his jaw dropped, practically hitting the floor. “Christ man, is that your blood?”

“No,” I coughed out. “His. She’s a good shot. You got here quick.”

“Yeah, traffic was light,” Sam replied. “Is that who… uh, you know… has been killing…”

“I guess so,” I answered, still trying to catch my breath. “This is how the guy in the police station was dressed. He talked about putting us up on display with metal bars, just like the detective.” I considered my next words carefully. “Uh, apparently you know this guy.”

Sam walked slowly over to the body and turned it over. “Roger Bates. Haven’t seen him since high school ended. He was pretty fucked up while we were in school. Was the type who shot BBs at birds and when he killed one, would tie a rope around its neck and hang it from a tree. I heard he got counselling for that shit but I guess it takes a lot more than that to fix a psychopath.”

“You knew the butcher too,” I blurted out.

Sam looked back at me. “Yeah, I did.”

“And you weren’t going to tell me that you grew up here. That you were connected to all of this?”

“I was worried it would compromise the story. Small town crimes can be really juicy and I’ve never had one fall into my lap before. Seemed too good to pass up.”

“And you had me accuse the butcher of killing his daughter even though you damn well knew he wasn’t capable to killing anyone. He was violent, but he didn’t have it in him to kill.”

“It’s the whole reason you’re alive,” Sam chuckled. “Whatever, you’re alive now, we’re sitting on a gold mine of a story. Seriously, first hand survival of a small town serial killer. This magazine is going to sell insanely. Especially once you write down all those juicy details in that beautiful style of yours, horror movies won’t be half as scary or gory as this. It’s going to be great.”

“You misdirected me the whole time,” I said. “This was the only cop who had any ties to this community. The rest all come from different areas and are assigned here. You grew up here, you knew that. Why did you have me paranoid over the cops like that?”

Sam looked around for a moment, as if having a sudden urge to go down memory lane. I had no idea how long it had been since Sam had stepped into that school. But he just kept looking around, then back at me. “I was just scared, that’s all. We’ve never been this closely tied to a story. I just wanted to make sure you’d stay safe. Come on, let’s get out of here.”

Sam walked past me and back toward the broken through the front door. I watched his walk.

“Sam,” I called out to him. “How long have you had a limp for?”

Sam stopped and turned back to me. That’s when I noticed he was wearing all black, including gloves. He wiped some sweat off of his brow with his wrist then reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a nine-inch blade, the kind that could slice a man’s gut open, spilling it all over his legs and shoes.

His eyes were fixated on me, he gripped the knife’s handle like a white-knuckled driver in a road rage fit, and bore his teeth as he started heaving heavily. He took one step towards me when I suddenly remembered that Sandra was still standing beside me, and she hadn’t dropped the gun yet.

BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG! 

Sam took five slugs to his chest and fell back, thudding against the ground like a dropped sack of potatoes. I walked up to Sam and saw his eyes staring out into nothing. The knife was still in his hand, he was still gripping it like he was still on the hunt.

I reached down and gripped his wrist, trying to get him to let go of the knife, he his other hand hit my throat and wrapped around. He rolled me over and got on top, the holes in his chest dripping on my like loose faucets. I kept my grip on his wrist, keeping the knife away from me, but he grip on my neck was too strong.

I could hear clicking and Sandra crying realizing the gun was only a six-shooter.

“What do I do?!” she screamed. “What do I do?! What do I do?!”

Sam started bleeding from his mouth and it dripped, drooling like a mad mastiff. His eyes bulged and he heaved like he was fucking out of hate.

Then his grip loosened. He toppled over. He was still breathing, but he was weak.

I coughed and gagged, threw up a little blood, when I looked over at him and looked at my fist, drenched in his blood. The bullets were finally taking their toll. Sam laid there, his chest bouncing with each breath, and then with one gasp, finally stopped.

I felt the bruises on my throat and looked back at the black car, still running. I walked to the driver-side door and saw it was still open, the keys were still in the ignition and there were six metal bars in the back seat, just like the ones in the detective.

Sandra walked up to me. “Are you ok to drive?”

“Yeah,” I spat out a bit of blood. “I’ll drop you off at the cop station, you can figure out if there are any cops left in town. I gotta get going. I got a story to write.”

Stack Three

The lab’s airlock pops open and Dr. Curtis walks through the doorway, each step harder than the last. His arms swing while he moves forward in perfect rhythm with his walk. He stares down Hunter through his thick brow and heavy eyebrows, snearing out of the side of his mouth.

“Hunter, what the fuck is happening here?” he barks out.

“Air-exhaust three is malfunctioning, Dr. Curtis,” Hunter replies. “I think there’s something clogged in the vent.”

“Well, whatever it is, get it the fuck out,” the high pitch raspiness of Curtis’ voice came out.

Hunter knows that glare and snarl all too well. His first week in the lab he mixed up Petri dishes and wound up cloning ten-thousand extra stocks of celery when he was supposed to be cloning oranges. Curtis’ snear went high and his brow drooped over his eyes, like the madder he got the more that brow dropped down.

“What are we going to do with all this extra celery?” his voice was like blocks of compressed snow rubbing against each other that day. Made Hunter cringe every time Curtis opened his mouth. He got used to the raspy snear and whine over time, but that first week Hunter couldn’t believe what he got himself into taking this lab job and prayed to God it would finally rain.

The air exhausts are located at south-west side of the complex, the opposite side from where the food is grown against the east wall. Hunter, who was by the computers monitoring the air exhausts that ran along the north wall of the lab, starts his jog, the equivalent of five city blocks from where he was standing. Ait exhaust three was the furthest south and furthest west of the seven erect tubes in two rows: air exhausts four to seven ran along the outside wall on the south-west that ran diagonally along, giving the complex a triangular shape. Air exhausts one to three ran between exhausts four to seven, like soup cans stacked on their sides to make a pyramid.

When an air exhaust, or stack as their sometimes called, has a clog, there’s no computer algorithm to fix it – it has to be done manually. The air travelled from the three-cloning plantation through thick vents with fans to push the air out. Each stack also had a side airlock door on them in case anything was to fall into them. The best way to fix a clog is to cut off the air flow to the stack, climb in, reach into the vent and find what got stuck. This had to be done quickly, the Last Continent depended on all seven stacks for its air production, to lose one stack for even an hour would completely throw off the Last Continent’s air mass and pressure, enough of a change and people would start exploding. Their bodies were used to a certain air pressure. Any sudden changes in that air pressure, like losing stack three, and people would simply combust, and the more people die the more the Complex Corporation loses money.

Cloning plants for air and food didn’t come cheap. People bought fruits and vegetables each week and paid a monthly air-fee, it took up most people’s paycheques. Work was becoming scarce on the Last Continent. Most people used to work in the Nuclear Corporation facilities, but those weren’t on where the Last Continent sits now. Technically, where those sat isn’t anywhere now. Nuclear Corporations mostly made bombs. One day, they all went off. Poof went everything, except for the Last Continent, at the time called Australia. All those other countries gave up on nuclear disarmament, figuring one of them would eventually want the others’ non-renewable resources. And besides, there was big money in big fear and big weapons.

The Nuclear Corporations didn’t like that Australia wasn’t manufacturing weapons like they all were. To see a country take a pacifist’s approach was bad for business. So, they did what any major corporation would do if someone threatened it business; they tried to sue Australia, and when that didn’t work, they increased their production. So much so they needed to hire new people. Unfortunately, inexperienced people. One woopsie – and boom, goodbye everywhere.

Australia was far enough away that none of the blasts affected it, until the radiation started travelling and killed all the plant life. Before all the naturally occurring plants died off, a few scientists saved a few plants and started cloning them. They cloned enough to sustain the air mass and some food once the last bush had withered and stopped reproducing cells. Australia was mostly desert terrain to begin with, so the plants didn’t take long to die, but at the same time, people were used to not having a lot of trees around. You noticed a huge difference towards the coastline, those certain parts of the country that had forests filled with cute animals like koala bears (now completely extinct except for the few kept in the Complex Corporation’s lab to study how a lack of animals affects plant life), so most of the population began moving inland, where it was most dry but also where the Complex Corporation lab had been built. Seemed like a smart idea, be next to where the air is coming from.

A few years later, Australia renamed itself the Last Continent, as a reminder about how smart it was not to join the nuclear production fad. Most people worked normal jobs, opened stores and fixed people’s houses. Complex Corporation started buying all those jobs, and then fired everyone who worked them. Some people were outraged but knew there wasn’t much they could do: after all, Complex owned the means to let them live.

Hunter was lucky to get a job as a stack-technician, basically someone who makes sure all the stacks are working right, and when they aren’t, to fix them before anyone explodes.

It took all that exposition for Hunter to finally reach stack three. The airlock door pops open and he reaches into the main air vent, hoping he doesn’t have to climb in to find what he’s looking for. The vents are about two feet off the ground and four feet in diameter, so it’s no problem for a person to crawl in. Take some guts though, you can’t have claustrophobia and you have to not mind winding up with wind-tunnel hair.

Thankfully, Hunter was able to find what he was looking for at arm’s length in the vent. Whatever it was, it was soft, still a little warm, and heavy to pull out. Hunter has to reach with both arms, grab a handful of fabric that surrounded the soft warm thing, and push back with his foot to finally pull out what was lodged in there. It only moved in a small crawl until it reached the end of the vent, when it popped out like a champagne cork, pushing Hunter and causing him to fall on his back.

It takes a second for Hunter to realize the stuck thing landed on top of him. The t-shirt it was wearing tore and Hunter still had a bunch of the fabric in his hands. It was lying on his face and Hunter turns it over to find out it’s a person that was stuck in stack three. But that wasn’t the disturbing part.

The person lay with his arms around himself, like he was hugging himself while he crawled through. But what he was holding against himself was a bit of a tree. Hunter doesn’t recognize the breed of the tree, it’s not one that’s in the lab, so there’s no way this person broke in, stole the plant, and crawled through the vent to stack three as an escape.

Hunter picks up the plant and examines it. It’s strange, because it has prickles instead of leaves, but it isn’t a cactus, like what used to grow in the deserts. He and the corpse have to get out of the stack quick and turn back on the airflow, so Hunter drags the body by the underarm and around his shoulder, tosses him out the side door, thumping against the ground and tossing up the dust around it.

*****

Curtis paces around his office in a huff, trying to put his arms around his back like a great genius thinking about the great conundrums of existence, only his arms don’t reach all around. His arms flop to his side as he plops down into his chair and swivels back and forth breathing hard.

“Alright Hunter, no one can know about what you found,” Curtis barks out.

“People get stuck in those stacks all of the time,” Hunter replies, and he’s right. A small group of neo-environmentalists, similar to the ones that surfaced in the ’90s (who, in turn, were just imitating the ones that come out of the ’60s (so I guess these would be neo-neo-environmentalists or post-neo-environmentalists)) began protesting the Complex Corporation, saying that the plants should be liberated and growing naturally. They didn’t realize that the only decent soil that could grow plants to begin with became so radioactive that nothing would ever grow in it, let alone something that humans would want to eat from or breathe. Post-neo-meta-environmentalists have never been much for facts, just yammering garbage about the energies and mother earth – little did they know that mother earth left us all orphaned.

“I know, and the public usually never has any problem when we tell them we pulled another dead hippie from a vent,” Curtis continues. “But none of them have ever been pulled out holding a plant we’ve never seen before. Who knows where he got that from? I want a full investigation but keep your goddamn mouth shut.”

*****

Hunter remembers the first time he heard about the environmentalists. He was young, doesn’t remember exactly how young, but young enough that he wasn’t sure what to make of these people trying to say that the people who his dad worked for were evil people.

This world, with the Complex Corporation, constant desert everywhere, life constantly manufactured and synthesized by a single entity, was the only world he knew.

His parents talked about the days before the Last Continent. They both wanted to travel but never got the opportunity to. He’d listen to his parents talk back and forth about magazines they’d buy, looking at faraway lands and imagining themselves walking through exotic forests, romantic cobblestone streets, and dining at restaurants where they couldn’t read the menus. They’d talk, they’d laugh, but then mother would start crying. She missed the world. In a sense, Hunter missed the world too. He missed a world he never knew every time his mother cried. He wondered what he was missing out on.

It wasn’t long before his mother vanished. One morning, Hunter got out of bed and walked into his parents’ room and found nothing. He stood, alone, in a room he used to find so much comfort walking into. He wondered if this was how his mother felt when she thought about before the Last Continent.

He wandered through the house and found his father at the kitchen table, holding a piece of paper, crumpling the ends between his fingers and breathing heavily. He crushed the paper into a ball and threw it against the ground before storming out of the room. He’d stand on the front deck for the rest of the day, just staring out, not saying a word.

Hunter picked up the paper and uncrumpled it and tried to decipher what was on it. He was still too young to read but recognized his mother’s handwriting. Hunter never asked his father what the note said.

To this day, he still doesn’t know.

*****

The tree perplexes Hunter. He tires studying the strange, prickly plant that he found held by the corpse in the vent, but he doesn’t even know where to start. He had already studied its cell structure: rigid walls just like the other plants the factory grew. He inspected its thorns and found them to contain collagen, just the same as the factory cloned plants. Finally, he experimented with its ability to photosynthesize energy and food for itself. Again, much the same to the other plants in the factory.

Hunter becomes curious about how the strange plant will be affected by seasonal changes. He uses some of the cells in the plant to clone a full tree, small in stature, but mature enough to exhibit all the signs of any tree that would have been found in the wild.

The seasonal simulator is a long, cylindrical glass tube with an air locked section that rises to place vegetation inside of it and test the effects seasonal changes. This device came in handy when the Complex Corporation first started cloning trees for air and food, deciding what plants were most resilient and how to manipulate their genetic code while cloning to create vegetation so resilient that seasonal changes would not cause them to wilt or hibernate.

The tests begin and the plant is subjected to a rapid changing of seasons in a contained environment that tricks the plants cells into thinking that the seasons are changing normally. Spring to summer to fall to winter to spring again saw little change to the strange plant. None of its prickles fell, it never changed colour, it never wilted or hibernated. Exploring the original source plant again, Hunter found no dramatic genetic changes, no chemical boosters, no synthetic collagen to prevent the plant’s seasonal life cycle. It simply endured. Naturally endured.

******

There’s a bar that Complex Corporation employees go to once their shifts are over. Only the low level employees go there, in fact, none of the employees know anything about the board or the upper managers, or at least, who they assume are a board and upper managers. Fact of the matter, they don’t even know how the hierarchy at Complex works. The person above them hires them – and that’s about it.

The bar has the usual drinks, your cheap cloned water, the pricey natural water that Complex produced but didn’t give a discount to any employee (after all, almost everyone was a Complex employee, how did they expect to make any money giving out discounts?) and for the excessive indulgent, the bar serves cans of pure oxygen.

Hunter sits at a table towards the back. The waitress with long straight black hair and wearing a tight black tank-top with the Complex Corporation’s circular logo across her chest comes by and lets him know there’s an oxygen special on today. Just great, Hunter thought, in about half an hour everyone in this bar is going to be high enough to try and crawl through some of the stack’s vents themselves. All Hunter wants is a cloned water. He throws his few Complex dollars onto the table and asks for a tall glass of the cloned stuff. The waitress shrugs, like she’s surprised he didn’t take her up on the oxygen deal, grabs the money with the swipe of her hand and walks off to the front.

Looking around the bar, Hunter sees people talking, laughing, spilling water and sucking on cans so hard they collapse before the person stops to exhale. They usually cough and laugh once they let that breath out. The sound around him is like a wall, encasing him and leaving him feeling deaf. He tries to listen in on conversations, but it all comes out as noise. He has no idea what anyone is talking about, but judging by the way people suck on cans and spill water, he figures it’s nothing important.

A body drops in the chair in front of Hunter and starts talking. He’s talking loudly but Hunter pays no attention until this new being slaps the table hard and yells, “Hey buddy, do ya hear me there?!”

Hunter looks at the man and figures he’s had at least a dozen cans of oxygen. His smile causes his eyes to squint hard to where it looks like the upper half of his face is collapsing, like if you grabbed the top of a can and slowly rolled it on itself.

“No, sorry friend, I must have missed that,” Hunter finally lets out, not even sure why he’s talking back.

“I heard you’re on that case! The fuckin’ hippy dippy in stack three!” He slaps the table again and starts laughing, his chest bouncing as he heaves and gasps for air. “Did you fuckin’ know he ain’t even the first?!”

“Of course,” Hunter replies. “This has been happening for years, but…”

“And I know why this one’s so fuckin’ special!” he screams out. “You think he’s been the first found with a fuckin’ plant in his arms?! The only reason why you’re investigating this is that you should have never found him! Ha! Never should have found that fuckin’ hippy. Now Complex needs to keep you busy, make you think you’re finding something new! They’ve known for fuckin’ years!”

“So what? I’m on some kind of goose chase then?” The waitress comes by and places Hunter’s water in front of him. Hunter watches her walk away.

“Ah. You like that piece of tail, don’t ya?!” His high man’s black hair falls in front of his face, covering his forehead and hanging a bit of his eye, dripping with sweat, obviously from the euphoric excitement. “I’ll tell you what, I bet Complex is paying her to listen in to our little talk here friend.”

“What makes you figure that?”

“Cause I’m supposed to be the guy watching you and making sure you don’t get any smart ideas about that new plant. Hell, they’re considering offing you already for that unauthorized experiment you did in the season-simulator. I had to talk them out of it. Take this as a warning pal, quit nosing around. Come up inconclusive with your findings, forget you ever saw that prickly-fuckin’-thing, and go back to work. The more you shut up the better it is for you.”

Hunter can’t tell if this guy in front of him is so high that he’s making up all this garbage, or if he’s so high he just blew his own cover. A dozen cans of oxygen do funny things to a guy.

*****

The bar’s closed but Hunter stands outside by the back entrance. His hands are in his pocket and he leans against the wall next to the door, staring out into the night sky watching the stacks pump out air. He breathes deep and wonders what it was like before the Last Continent, before Complex, and wonders where his mother is.

The waitress comes through the door and walks to opposite way from Hunter. He runs up behind her and catches up, grabbing her arm gently at the elbow. She turns quickly.

“Who the f.. oh,” she begins. “My only cloned water of the night, and he didn’t even tip. Look, I don’t know why you hung around or what you were expecting, but I’m not that kind of waitress. Complex doesn’t pay me enough for that kind of shit.”

“Were you listening in on my conversation?” Hunter asks.

“What the fuck are you…”

“I need to know. If Complex is looking to kill me then I ought to know everyone who’s watching my every move.”

“Listen pal, I’m not part of your paranoid delusion or the O-2 case’s euphoric fantasy…”

“Just answer the question.”

She stares at Hunter for a minute and breathes slow. Her head spins left and right before she grabs Hunter’s hand and walks him around the corner and down a dark street.

“Where are you taking me?” he asks.

She stops in front of Hunter’s apartment building. Hunter looks up the steps and then back down at her. “So, you know where I live. Paranoid delusion, right?”

“Shut up for a second,” she blurts back. She stares at the doorway, then grabs Hunter’s arm again. “Run.”

Before Hunter has a chance to react, the door bursts open, splinters fly past his face, and Hunter starts running closely behind the waitress. Hunter can hear heavy steps running up behind him, but he doesn’t look back. Just keeps running forward, trying to stay ahead.

The two come across a bus at the end of the block. “Get in,” she commands.

Hunter hops in the side door, the waitress hops through shortly after, and a voice from the front yells “Hold on!” before the van takes off with guns shots coming from behind them, shattering the back windshield.

Hunter tries to catch his breath, and looks at the waitress. “Paranoid delusions.”

*****

The van suddenly stops and Hunter realizes he fell asleep on the drive out. He looks through the broken glass of the back windshield to see the city’s lights glowing in the distance. The side door opens and standing in front of the old warehouse the van’s parked in front of is a face with sweaty black hair hanging over his forehead, just covering his eye.

“Bet ya missed me,” he says, smiling wide.

“Should you have been driving after all that oxygen?” Hunter asks as he crawls out of the van.

“Had you going there, didn’t I? My best performance yet,” he replies, putting out his hand. “Name’s Leo, and no I don’t actually work for Complex, and no I’m not here to watch your every move.”

“But Complex is trying to kill me.”

“The big bad business isn’t the only one with spies kicking around.”

This shocks Hunter because he’s always been told no one has ever infiltrated the environmentalists. But at this point, he wonders why he’s taking anything Complex has told him seriously. “Spies, huh. That’s how you guys figure things out?”

“Well, living spies for the low level stuff,” continues Leo. “It’s easy to get an entry level job and report back basic findings. You know, lab techs, waitresses, easy stuff. The good stuff comes from those who are no longer with us.”

This is the point that Hunter realizes that both sides have been setting him up. “The guy in stack three. What you had a tracer on him? I was always supposed to find his body? Who was he?”

“Well, kind of, um…”

“The reason he had a plant in his arms was that he was a Complex spy,” the waitress steps in. “When we figured it out, we planted him with a mic and tracer and let him grab the plant and run off. He was crawling through the vent to get in and report back.”

“Why didn’t he…”

“What? Walk through the front door?” the waitress interrupts. “Number one, he was dressed like one of us. And secondly, because low-level guys like you aren’t supposed to know about these little operations. Hell, if the public found out,” she shakes her head. “People are ok with being controlled so long as it’s not in their faces and obnoxious. They’re okay with paying for air but spies are apparently still going too far.”

The waitress starts to walk towards the warehouse when Hunter grabs her elbow again. “Wait, thanks for helping me back there.”

She nods slowly. “My name’s Annabelle.”

“I guess you already know my name,” Hunter responds. “But why help the guy who got your bug into Complex? I served my purpose in your plan, didn’t I?”

“Let’s just say there’s something I like about your eyes,” Annabelle responds.

******

Hunter notices a few scratches along his face while he stares into a mirror. The men’s bathroom is on the opposite end to the front entrance of the warehouse. Hunter walked through taking in the hoards of people, standing around and talking. No one wore a uniform from Complex, in fact, Hunter only just notices he’s still wearing his as he stares into the mirror. He wipes some dust and wood fragment’s from under his collar and runs his fingers along the embroidered Complex logo over his heart. He pulls his pocket comb from his back pocket and combs back the dark hair that was sticking up every which way now. Part on the right, comb to the side, still keeping to Complex standards.

Hunter steps out of the bathroom back into the large open room that housed those who don’t believe in paying for the air that Complex provides them. They don’t realize that the only reason they’re alive is because of Complex and that they should be grateful for what they have. He hears conversations about what some other countries were like, the kind of food they made and all the exotic places they explored before the Last Continent. Always looking back and never looking to the future or paying attention to what’s happening now. Hunter starts to wish that he just went home and was killed already so he didn’t have to stand among these useless, post-neo-meta-hippie-environmentalists. If they didn’t exist to begin with then none of this would have happened. There would have been no issue with stack three, there would have been no unfamiliar plant, and Hunter would be sitting in his apartment right now huffing oxygen and staring at his walls like he did most evenings. That’s what everyone did in the evening. Was that so bad?

Hunter wasn’t about to give up his life for some flakey ideals. Through a window back where the front entrance is Hunter could see the city’s lights and knew it wouldn’t be a far walk back. With one step forward he tries to make his march back to his old life. Two steps in he looks to the side and sees a face, wrinkles setting in and frames by dark hair hinting to silver. Her eyes look over and Hunter stops mid step feeling his heart stop and his stomach climb. She smiles and tears fill Hunter’s eyes. She walks towards him, smiling still, her green eyes fixed without blinking.

“I was hoping you’d find us,” she says in almost a sing-song voice that Hunter remembers from his lullabies as a child.

*****

Hunter’s father worked the same job that Hunter works now; in case you forgot, Hunter monitors the stacks and makes sure that everything runs smooth and nothing’s blocking the air. There was never any doubt in anyone’s mind that Hunter would wind up working the same job that his father did. Hunter wasn’t very good at many things, but then again most children weren’t. They city’s children were bred to eventually work for Complex, be it in the factories or building and fixing the buildings and houses that Complex owns. One parent’s pride and joy was Complex’s future employee investment. People were given food and allowed to breathe so that Complex could continue making money for generations.

Most boys ended up with their fathers’ jobs, but rarely did their fathers ever move up in Complex. Promotions were scarce and only employees that demonstrated a unique skill or a higher than average intelligence ever moved anywhere. Hunter’s father was intelligent but he never flaunted it. At home Hunter’s father would read books that he’d kept from before the Last Continent and he’d create large mathematical puzzles for himself to solve.

When Hunter started training for his position, he asked Curtis what he thought of his father. “He did what he did,” the supervisor replied. “Not very bright, I could tell that. He didn’t talk much and was always modest about his skill set. He would just stare at the stacks’ readings, clean something out if he had to, and went home. Nope, not very bright at all, because I can tell bright people, and your dad wasn’t one of them.”

Hunter wondered if Curtis’ supervisor said the same thing about his father.

*****

“How long have you been here?” Hunter asks.

“I left a little after you turned five,” she replies.

“I know that,” Hunter interrupts. “But, I mean, how long have you been associating with these kind of people.”

“That gets a little complicated,” she continues, staring at the concrete ground and swinging her arm. She stares up, through her shaggy bangs and smiles. “I’ve always loved your green eyes. So bright and vibrant.”

“Don’t change the subject,” Hunter barks. “These people ruin everything, we have it so good back in the city, why are you here? Why do you want to ruin everything?”

“I’m not trying to ruin everything, I’m trying to save everything,” she barks back harder and louder. “You don’t know the world that I knew. You never got to hike through the Amazon or explore the African Jungles. You never got to see snow covered mountains or feel a tropical rain. None of these things I’m saying means anything to you and yet even when I say them I remember the smells, the tastes and I miss it so much, Hunter.”

“I used to miss it too, but then I missed you.”

“I’m sorry I left, and I wish I could have brought you along, but I didn’t know where I was going, I didn’t know what I was doing, I just had to leave and find… something. Anything that wasn’t cloned or manufactured.”

“So when did you wind up here?”

She looks around the warehouse and stares up at the scaffolding overhead. She smiles as she stares into the fluorescent lights overhead and stretches out her arms like she’s introducing Hunter to the world. “I found this place.”

People from all around started walking close and sitting down, staring up at her as she continues her story.

“I wandered out of the city, it was early still, I left before sunrise to make sure I still had time to write a note. I walked through our front door and I walked and just walked until I was out of the city and then I walked some more. I thought that if I didn’t find anything out here, that it was all barren waste, that at least I would suffocate and die out here. I wouldn’t have to die in that city. I walked for hours and I kept breathing, but the air felt so different. Like it wasn’t just chemicals I was breathing in, like it was simply life. Before the Last Continent, before Complex, we used to have real food that was grown from the ground, not in labs. Breathing that air felt like tasting that food again.”

She takes Hunter by the hand and walks him towards the door opposite from where he came in. It swings open and they step outside. Hunter feels his blood slow down and feels himself take a deep breath as he stares out into the field where hundreds of trees, all with the prickly leaves that he hadn’t seen until what he found in stack three, scattered out and growing from the ground, looking stronger, thicker, and greener than anything he had seen in the lab before.

Hunter takes another deep breath and holds it like he would with a can of oxygen at the bar. He feels the pressure pushing out from his lungs as he holds the breath, but he still holds it like he never wants to let it go, like he may never breathe again. She puts her hand on his diaphragm and he exhales slowly, feeling the blood move through his veins, like he was just born and this was the first breath he ever took.

“The Earth always finds a way,” she says, looking to the sky.

A smell hangs past Hunter’s nose, like the smell that arose when he put the plants through their photosynthesis cycle, but it was like if a thousand plants were all being put through the cycle at once. So potent and strong.

The air swings by Hunter’s face and he wipes the sweat from his brow with his hand, only his sweat is cold. That’s when he hears the plink plink plink around him. He looks up and sees tiny droplets of water falling from the sky.

“Complex never wanted us to know about this,” she says, Hunter barely listening as he feels the water against his face and his arms. “It’s why the city stopped expanding. They knew years ago. They only wanted to start doing something about it now.”

Hunter walks around the warehouse’s perimeter and finds himself looking back in the direction of the city. The lights of the building glow leaving a yellow ring surrounding the arc the city creates in the distance. Hunter can almost see his apartment building from where he’s standing. He thinks about his job, his couch, his television set, all the Complex run programming that would be on at that moment, the food that’s left in his fridge distributed to him by Complex, and who’s at the bar still and if the special on oxygen is still on.

Even as he stands, soaking wet and breathing deep breaths, he still feels an urge to take a step forward and start walking back.

Things I Figured Out While Going Through my Books and Getting Ready to Move

  1. I don’t like poetry

Nor am I particularly good at it either. I’ve been a part of a few poetry groups, bought a lot of poetry books, written more poems than I’ll ever have the time to transcribe out of my chicken-scratch vandalized notebooks and into a word processor to make some sense out of whatever I vomited onto the page, yet I’m always finding myself shrugging at so much poetry, thinking to myself, “I don’t really get it.”

I know I’m not a philistine, and by all means I can definitely appreciate poetry as a genre and a craft in and of itself, but I don’t connect with poetry like a lot of the poets who I’ve hung out with. There was a long span of time where I wanted to connect with poetry so bad and I wanted to be passionate like so many poets, but I realized that it’s not the kind of thing you can force. You either get it and it resonates with you, or you don’t and you’re left trying to make sense out of incomplete sentences that are supposed to carry some sort of weight you just don’t feel.

And this is how I’ve figure out I’m a terrible poet. I’ve broken it down and called it the Bukowski test. It’s like this:

In all the poetry groups I’ve been a part of and with all the poetry fans I’ve shared my poems with, I always get the same response:

“It’s very Bukowski.”

Problem number one: I don’t like Bukowski’s poems. His prose is some of my favourite ever. I read Factotum in one evening. I read Pulp over a drive home from the Okanagan Valley. Hot Water Music was my favourite book and my favourite band at the same time. But I just don’t like his poems. This probably just falls back to point number one: I don’t like poetry (but apparently I like colons).

Problem number two is that everyone who has ever told me that my poems remind them of Bukowski, did not like Bukowski. In fact, a lot of them hated Bukowksi. A few even despised Bukowski. Yet, “It’s very Bukowski,” was meant to be a compliment.

So, when people tell me that, “It’s very Bukowksi,” what they’re really saying is, “You’re kind of bad at poetry, I think you’re kind of dumb, your face is unpleasant to look at, you write entirely literally and in layman’s terms, but I find you kind of funny and kind of charming in that off-putting awkward I’m afraid of what you’re going to say next sort of way. I admire your courage for putting yourself out there like that.”

Very Bukowski.

  1. All the first books I ever read all the way through were written by celebrities

The first book I read cover-to-cover, understood the whole way through, and didn’t have to read as a part of a class, was David Cross’ I Drink for a Reason. The second was Lewis Black’s Nothing’s Sacred quickly followed by Kevin Smith’s Silent Bob Speaks. I love these books. I think they’re funny, insightful, tell a great story, and are written without any pretension. They’re accessible and meant to be consumed, laughed at, enjoyed, and revisited when there’s nothing on TV.

I came out of a university program where people were reading David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen for the sole challenge of it. I’ll admit, I even bought a copy of Infinite Jest that has been sitting on a bookcase, doubling in size from dust collections since I brought it home. It’s seven-point font and entire-book-in-itself of endnote as part of the narrative (no, not references like endnotes in other books, this is fiction and you have to read the endnotes otherwise you just don’t get the book) has been an open challenge since the name first started getting kicked around my classrooms in first year. I’ve tried starting Infinite Jest, along with The Corrections and Freedom multiple times, and I’ve always landed on the same conclusion about ten pages in.

I don’t fucking care.

Yes, the writing is dense as a brick and the craft is something to marvel at like Renaissance Art. I understand the appeal of Franzen’s and Wallace’s technical skills as writers. But the writing is so fucking long-winded I can’t get through a sentence without losing my train of thought and de-railing thinking about books I’d much rather be reading right now.

This is probably something typical of a reader who grew up on TV and comic books as their first choice in medium up until college. Again, the first book I ever read cover-to-cover that wasn’t as part of a class was I Drink for a Reason and I was well into my 20s by the time that book was released, and even further into my 20s when I actually read it. That book did ignite that interest in me to look further into non-fiction well beyond journalism, which was my first writing medium of choice in my adult years, and was the start of that slippery slide that led me to stop caring about poetry and over-academic wanking and start finding books I can actually get into.

  1. At one point, I wanted to be a comedy writer

Then that horrible realization hit: I’m not funny. I think I might be quirky, and I’m neurotically over-analytical, and that worked well for Larry David and Louis CK, but they also know how to frame their quirks and analyses to be relatable, and therefore, funny. I lack those skills.

I’ve lucked out a few times hitting notes that people could relate to and getting a few chuckles, but I think my Bukowksi-charm wears out quick.

In addition to David Cross, Lewis Black, and Kevin Smith (all funny folk), I used to read a lot of David Sedaris (to be fair, I still often read Sedaris, but I went through a specific phase where I tried so hard to write like him) and my favourite comic book character was Deadpool (the comedic, pop-culture referencing, fourth-wall breaking mercenary whose yellow and white narrative boxes speak to him). Based on these influence, I wanted to bad to be a comedy writer.

I started looking into script writing and seeing what writers for SNL were like and I got into sit-coms that I felt like represented my generation. But then I ran into that problem.

The “my generation” thing.

As part of wanting to be a comedy writer, I really wanted to write the book that would be the millennials’ On the Road and Big Sur. I wanted to define the millennial experience through my unique perspective on storytelling. But the more I said that to myself, the more I fucking hated myself.

There’s an obnoxious pretension for wanting to “define your generation.” Especially with a piece of art. This is why I can’t stand Lena Dunham and Girls. It was a novel idea to start with, but the older I got the more her quirks and over neurotic analyses started to bother me. Self-awareness is a sign of intelligence. But hyper-self-awareness is a sign of narcissism. And narcissism’s novelty wears off quick. I can’t deny the show’s popularity so Dunham must be doing something right, but the drive to define your own generation doesn’t appeal to me. I seriously doubt Jack Kerouac went so far out of his way to try and define his generation. He just wrote cool stories about crazy shit he did.

Kerouac didn’t start out that pretentious. He wound up that pretentious. His fans are pretentious. Those who try to copy what he did are pretentious. People who over use the word pretentious are pretentious. People who think they’re funny for over using a word and pretending to be self-aware of over using that word are pretentious. Especially if the word is pretentious. Or a pretentious word.

I know that wasn’t funny. You don’t have to tell me. I know I’m not funny.

  1. I’m really bored with super heroes

Comic books are the reason I started reading, they’re the reason I kept picking up reading throughout my life, and remain one of my biggest influence when I write anything. Especially now that I’ve found my comfort zone playing with genre fiction, comics play a huge part in how I approach any story.

I still spend more money on comic books than I do on rent. But I’ve noticed how far I’ve strayed from the big comic publishers and the traditional comic characters. They’re more popular than ever thanks to their extra exposure in cartoons and in summer blockbuster movies, and I’m really happy that they’re so successful right now. My movement away from super heroes is actually very organic. I literally just looked through my comic collection and realized how few of them were super heroes and how many fall into either hard fantasy or hard science fiction categories.

I don’t know if I have a larger point with this point. Just an observation I guess. I still like super heroes, but I guess I know the format of sequential art to tell stories is capable of so much more than familiar franchises.

  1. Elf Quest is a very feminine comic book

I literally just figured this out over this weekend. I bought a few issues while at free comic book day because I’ve been looking for some decent fantasy and I know Elf Quest is a long standing title with a good following that is now being published by Dark Horse Comics (one of my favourite publishers).

There’s nothing wrong with it being feminine. Again, the format of sequential art is capable of a lot and this absolutely proves it. I have no larger point with this one either. I read through all the issues of Elf Quest that I bought and though I didn’t enjoy them I know there’s some solid storytelling going on. Just not my deal, nor does it have to be.

  1. Harvey Pekar made me want to be more honest

As part of stepping away from super hero comic books I got really into Harvey Pekar. American Splendor did a lot for comic books and for non-fiction. Reading American Splendor, Quitter, Our Cancer Year, and Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me was like nothing else I ever experienced before.

Most of all, it made me realize why I’m not funny and why I fell so short as a comedy writer. I’m not honest with myself. I tried to use comedy to hide from my own shortcomings and to point out the shortcomings of others. That can work to a point, but you always need to be willing to make fun of yourself first. I wasn’t ready to do that. So it didn’t work.

But reading Pekar’s work slapped a kind of sense into me that I wish was slapped into me years ago. He’s easily my biggest influence on the non-fiction side of my writing. I even hear his voice narrating along as I write these odd few essays every once in a while that I eventually publish on my blog which is regularly read by about twenty people. At least they’re reading.

As I box up my comic books, and look through the collection of novels and story collections and poetry collections I’ve gathered over my years of trying to figure this whole writing thing out, I realize how every one of these pieces of paper has somehow affected the way I write, and the way I live.

The lifestyle choices I make, the media I engage with, even the other books I get into are all influenced by whatever I’m reading at the time. And as much as this list is about things I’m not a big fan of, the piles of boxes that clutter my office floor remind me I have a lot to be stoked about too.

I should dig through my books more often.

Limited Space

There are so many small specks of light in front of me that I can’t stand back far enough to hold a complete picture. Millions and millions specks of light, so many unexplored, so many only leaving questions, so many whose existence can’t even be confirmed by looking at them. Their very presence is deceitful as time and light move at different intervals and the distance of these specks of light is immeasurable by conventional units used to gauge length of time. It disturbs me that I’ll never be able to touch each of these lights. To explore their mysteries and give each a name. But I still have to try.

The ship is the size of a relatively large apartment. When it was built, it was recommended that no more than three or four people travel in it for any extent of time. They warned of the enclosed limited space that the ship offered coupled with a lack of privacy and personal space could lead to significant conflict and possibly even a lapse in sanity.

There are two sleeping quarters on the ship. Our crew of four took turns on shift piloting the craft and analyzing data gathered from systems we passed through: two were on shift while two rested. The sleeping quarters are located toward the back of the ship and are next to the two bathing waste disposal facilities. The front of the ship is the main hull, an open space with three large windshields: one in the front and one on either side. The main pilot’s seat is situated in the middle of the hull. It’s a single seat with computer navigation systems in front. The pilot needs to see out the windshields and use the navigation computer to properly steer the ship.

The analyst’s computer is to the left of the pilot’s seat. It consists of a desk, chair, and onboard computer system with three large monitors: one that assists with navigation and direction, one that gives planetary read outs, and one that constantly analyzes the solar system the ship is in for any sudden changes or immediate threats.

Each member of the crew were trained for both piloting and analyzing, this way tasks during shifts can be changed to keep things fresh in the crew members’ minds. When someone does the same task for too long, it becomes automatic and they stop paying attention. When you’re in a crew of four, you’re thousands of galaxies away from your home planet, and there’s no guarantee of civilized life (let alone habitable planets), paying attention to everything is of the utmost importance.

I don’t know what happened in the last galaxy we travelled into. It seemed like a normal enough system: it had a star at its centre that acted as its sun and had five planets orbiting around it. The two furthest planets from the sun were gas giants and the two closest were inhabitable because of the immense heat and radiation from being so close to the star. But the planet in the middle showed signs of water and vegetation. It was the first planet that we encountered similar to our home world. We had been travelling for four years, which meant that if there were no established or intelligent civilizations on this planet, it could be colonized, our planet’s population and pollution issues could be resolved, and the crew on this ship could finally go home.

We approached this new planet, but stayed out of its atmosphere. We had no know what the plants were breathing before we could risk the ship and ourselves. I was manning the analytics at the time. Preston was piloting. We got up to wake up Daniels and Mackenzie to show them the planet.

“Roberts! Roberts!” Preston yelled out as he escorted Daniels and Mackenzie into the hull. “Tell them what you just told me! Show them the analytics!” Preston was smiling, but he was sweating too. He put his arms around Mackenzie and Daniels, smiling and talking about how we’re finally struck gold. Preston wasn’t blinking. His eyes were beat red like they were just blasted with sand.

“The planet definitely shows signs of water and vegetation,” I said. “But we still don’t have an atmosphere or planetary gas read. For all we know, as of now, this planet has a minimal atmosphere and the water and vegetation are feeding on radioactivity. I’m going to need a couple of hours for a full read out before we can even enter the atmosphere, let alone land and explore.”

Letting Preston know that it will be a while before we know if our mission is complete hadn’t hindered his excitement. We passed through what felt like hundreds of different galaxies, analyzed planets with surfaces too cold to sustain life, radioactivity that could melt a human in seconds, and surfaces submerged in liquids with PH levels of hydrochloric acid. No life, no growth, no habitation, just rocks and gas-balls floating in nothing, sustaining nothing, and revolving around nothing.

“Seriously, Roberts,” Daniels said as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “What do you figure are the chances that this rock is the rock we can land on and eventually haul half of our planet over to?”

The data readouts looked promising. I had only been monitoring them for a few minutes. Protocol read that we had to wait at least two hours before we were allowed to land. There was an incident where another crew found a planet with some of the most promising readouts in the history of our organization. It was almost four months before we found their transport ship, still floating just outside of the planets near damn-perfect atmosphere.

The crew took their miniature transport off to the planet. Once the crew landed, they immediately started sending signals back to their main transport to record their landing and exploration. The recordings from the ship told a story of the crew noticing something funny about the rock they landed on. It was soft. Almost like a sponge.

You could hear the crew start to panic when their miniature transport started sinking into the ground they landed on. The dirt and grass swallowed that transport like a headache pill. When the rescue excavated the crew’s main transport, the readouts showed that while the air had the right mix of nitrogen and oxygen and the atmosphere held off enough of the close-by star’s radiation so that the rock wasn’t a floating nuclear reactor in space. Unfortunately, they didn’t wait enough to read the planet’s air pressure and ground density. It was like a brick landing in pudding and then pulled under like it was being drug to hell.

“So far so good,” I replied back to Daniels. “We have another hour and a bit before we can load up and land. I’ll keep an eye on the readouts. If anything funny comes up, I’ll holler.”

“Stuck in the middle of nothing and we have to rely on silence for reassurance,” Daniels said.

Daniels and Mackenzie made their way back to the sleep quarters and passed Preston who was making his way back to the navigation chair.

“This is it, this is it, I know it!” Preston rambled on.

I kept my eye on the readouts, looking for even the slightest off readout that would make trying to habitat this planet difficult. Nothing. I even faked the time readout and got an extra half-hour of readouts. Nothing. Preston was still sitting in the navigation seat, rambling on and on and on.

“So, what’s the word, Roberts?” Preston asked. “Are we packing up and dropping down?”

I kept staring at that screen. It was a perfect planet. Every other planet we encountered had some flaw or some reason that it wasn’t quite right. I looked out the main navigation window and stared at the perfect planet. Not a thing wrong. Like god was handing it over to us in a silver platter. Even though we’d been travelling for so long and working so hard to find a planet like this, now it almost seemed too easy. Too perfect.

“I guess it looks alright,” I replied. “Still doesn’t feel right though.”

“It doesn’t feel right because we’re not down there yet,” Preston laughed. “Just think about it. Think about how many people we could fit on that rock. All the things we could build. The cities we could develop. I bet there’s some amazing tropical islands, untouched by people. No pollution or over-population like what happened in the Caribbean and Hawaiian islands. You’ll actually be able to get a spot on the beach and be able to lay out your towel comfortably. Shit, I don’t think those beaches have been that clean since the twentieth century, or even earlier.”

I remembered going to those beaches as a kid and wondering why so many people flocked to them. All along the horizon, you could barely see the sun or the sky or even the water. Just people and umbrellas and beer vendors everywhere. I felt like I didn’t have room to breathe. I was scared that every time I moved my arms I would hit someone I was walking past. I was scared that the people around me were feeling as enclosed as I was, they would be mad that my arm hit them when I walked by. I didn’t know how they would react. I was scared all the people around me. Even in this ship with only three other people around me, I was scared of getting in their space. God knows how someone with such limited space would react if you got into their personal bubble.

Preston was still staring off, probably imagining all the things we could do with a blank slate of a planet, when we heard the screeching from the sleeping quarters. It was like screaming and choking and vomiting all at once. Preston and I ran back to the sleeping quarters to see Mackenzie on top of Daniels. Mackenzie’s arms were pulsating to where we could see the veins clearer than we could see the pigments of his skin, his jaw was shattering, the sweat was pouring off of his head, and the drool was slipping off of the side of his mouth and dripping onto Daniels.

Nothing Mackenzie said made any sense. He gritted his teeth and growled out at Daniels while he pushed down against his throat. Daniels was kicking his feet, trying to throw Mackenzie off of his body. Daniels’ face was turning blue by the time Preston and I got into the room.

Preston and I pounced on Mackenzie and pulled off of Daniels and drug him onto the floor. Mackenzie kept fighting, swinging at us and clocking me across my jaw before Preston finally thrust his fist down into the middle of Mackenzie’s forehead. Mackenzie’s eyes rolled to the back of his head and he stopped struggling. Daniels behind us was still coughing and throwing up.

“Did you kill him?” I asked while rubbing my sore jaw.

“I don’t know,” Preston answered. “If he isn’t dead he’s probably concussed pretty good. He won’t be getting up anytime soon.”

Preston checked Mackenzie’s pulse, looked up to me and nodded. “He’s still alive. Barely. We better figure out something to do with him before, or if, he wakes up.”

Preston and I drug Mackenzie into the bathroom and latched the door from the outside so if he woke up he wasn’t getting out. Daniels was sitting up on his bed, still coughing a bit and wiping sweat off of his head.

“I don’t,” Daniels coughed. “I don’t know what the fuck happened there. I was sleeping. I wake up and Mackenzie is on top of me. I don’t know what the fuck happened.”

Mackenzie was fairly quiet this entire mission. He shone brightest while he was reading reports. He was very logically minded and loved reading through numbers and understanding data. You could tell he was most in his element while he was running data. He seemed like he was actually relaxing while he was running data. Everywhere else you could see how tense his shoulders were. We could all tell he wasn’t comfortable being with other people this close all of the time, but he never complained and he was never aggressive before. He was always polite but brief.

Preston started pacing the floor, wondering what we should do if Mackenzie woke up. Preston knew that we couldn’t land with one member of our crew losing his mind for seemingly no reason. This was probably sending Preston even more over edge. I wasn’t sure how long he could hold his anticipation for landing.

“You know, we could always leave him while we head down,” Preston suggested.

“We can’t do that,” Daniels replied. “If he’s hurt really bad, we need to help him. If he’s ok and wakes up and figures out we all left him alone on this ship, who knows how he’ll react. It could send him even worse over the edge. He could fly the ship off and leave us on this planet. And god knows how long we’ll last if he leaves us…”

“You’re wrong!” Preston barked out. “We’d be fine down there! We could probably last years until the rescue finds us. You have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about!”

“Calm down, Preston,” I stood up. “We’ll get down there soon enough. Don’t worry. We just need to know what to do about Mackenzie first.”

Preston turned and marched over to the bathroom where Mackenzie was locked. He opened the door and looked down at Mackenzie. “He won’t be waking up. He’s not our problem. Taking care of him isn’t our mission. Finding that planet is our mission. And the sooner we get down there, the sooner we can head home and start developing. If this piece of shit is the only thing stopping us I’ll make sure he’s out of the way.”

Preston lifted his boot and stomped down onto Mackenzie’s head. With a single stomp, Preston’s foot made its way through Mackenzie entirely and landed back on the tiled floor. A piece of Mackenzie’s skull rolled out of the bathroom and slid across the floor, landing in front of my foot.

Preston’s face was soaked, either in sweat or in tears or in both.  “What the fuck happened? How did I do that? That wasn’t supposed to happen. What the fuck happened?”

Preston stumbled out of the bathroom. I put my arms out to him, trying to get him to sit down. He shoved me back and I fell onto the data readout controls, crushing some of the circuitry underneath me. Preston paced, heaving heavily and wiping sweat from his mouth and off of his face.

“Get packing, we’re fucking landing,” he said through clenched teeth. “Be ready in one hour. You hear me? One fucking hour and we land on this mother fucker.”

Preston marched off to the sleeping quarters. Daniels was standing next to me, help me back to my feet and checking the damaged controls. “Asshole’s lost his mind,” Daniels said. “We gotta get him to calm down. And if he doesn’t calm down, we need to tie him down or something. If this planet’s no good, our mission is already fucked, we can’t read shit anymore. We deal with Preston first, clean up…” he swallowed hard and his lip trembled. “We clean up Mackenzie, and we figure out a best course home. We’re useless out here now.”

The door to the sleeping quarters flung open and Preston came marching out, his eyes fixated on Daniels. “Is that what you think?” he gritted his teeth and his face burned red. “You think we’re just going to turn this puppy around with its tail between its legs? Is that what you think mother fucker?”

“Preston, calm down,” Daniels tried to reason. “We’re still going to land, we’re still going to explore. You just need to mellow out a bit man, you’re acting crazy.”

“You know what’s crazy?” Preston spat out. “You assholes don’t want to succeed. You obviously don’t. Otherwise we would have landed the minute we found this place. God just handed the Garden of Eden to us on a silver platter and you assholes don’t even want to land. All of our planet’s problems can be solved with this rock. Why the fuck are we still sitting here?”

“Because you goddamn just murdered Mackenzie, that’s why!” Daniels yelled back. “Mackenzie just needed a few minutes to calm down. The anxiety of this place was probably just getting to him. You had no fucking right to…”

“That asshole was probably a vegetable after we had to fight him off of you,” Preston stepped to Daniels, staring him down like a dog fighting for territory. “Keep in mind, you’d probably still be gasping for air and turning blue if we hadn’t fought him off of you. We did what we had to do. He was compromising the crew and the mission.”

“He was part of the crew!” Daniels yelled.

“He stopped being crew and became a liability the minute he snapped,” Preston yelled back.

“If Mackenzie was a liability, what’s our contingency plan then with you?” Daniels stared back and buffed his chest like he was ready for a fist fight.

“The only contingency plan here is surviving and making it back home with something to report,” I piped up. “Our controls are destroyed and we’re going to kill each other if things don’t calm down. None of us are in our right minds right now. We should all just rest for half an hour, do something with Mackenzie’s body, then try to land.”

Preston looked to me and with a complete straight face and monotone voice, he said, “Let fucking Mackenzie rot where he is.”

Without a second breath, Daniels reached back and smoked Preston across the jaw, sending Preston toppling to the floor. Preston wiped the blood from his mouth and tackled Daniels, both landing on the navigation chair, damaging the controls. The ship started moving while the two kept fighting. I tried to fix the navigations and get the ship to stop, but it had already set its course and none of the override controls were working. I looked over to see Daniels on top of Preston, both hands around his throat and pushing down just like Mackenzie had been only minutes earlier. Preston reached beside himself and found a piece of a broken computer and lodged it into the side of Daniels’ head.

A blank stare immediately overcame Daniels’ face, like he was seeing the light to the afterlife glowing in front of his face. Daniels then fell over, stopped breathing and bled across the floor.

Preston sat up breathing heavily, brushing dust off of his t-shirt. “Well, two down,” he said staring up at me. “Do you want to make it three, Roberts? Or are you going to shut the fuck up and get us on that planet?”

I looked over to the navigation controls and looked back to him. “You broke both the data readouts and the navigation controls. Nothing works anymore. There are no overrides. The only thing still functioning is the autopilot with a destination.”

“Well where the fuck are we going then?”

“This galaxy’s star.”

Preston huffed and stared up out the window. “You gotta be fucking kidding me.”

“I’m not. In about twenty minutes, this ship will fry.”

“What about the transport? Does it still work?”

“Probably.”

“Well why don’t we get the fuck in there and save our sorry asses?”

“And land where!?” I yelled. “Onto that perfect planet!? That has no pollution. No ozone depletion. No man made problems killing every living thing on that world. You want to land there and start all over again? And just keep doing the same old shit? Fuck you, Preston!” I walked over to the hatch leading to the transport and slammed the emergency launch, sending the transport floating off into nothingness, with nothing inside and direction set.

Preston shook his head. “You fucking idiot. You worthless fucking idiot. We were so close. So fucking close.” Preston stood up and walked into the sleeping quarters. He didn’t close the door when he pulled out a revolver from underneath the bed. He looked out at me and held the gun to his head, splattering what was left of his mind all over the bedding and the walls.

He toppled to the ground, his legs crumbling beneath him like a marionette whose strings were dropped. I walked into his room and all I could think about was how surprised I was that no one had gone for the gun earlier. I guess we all still tried to be professionals. That got us far.

I still don’t know what got into Mackenzie. It won’t matter though, I’m sure the outcome would have been the same one way or another.

I wanted to name all of the stars I saw when I looked outside. Touch each of those lights in the sky. But I realize that the universe doesn’t want us. Nor, do we deserve it.

On the Death of Fred Phelps

The passing of the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church ignited the internet. Within minutes of the Huffington Post sharing its first publishing of the details of the man’s death, hundreds of comments filled the feed, condemning the man for his work in establishing the infamous group who have been launched into the popular culture sphere for their extreme fundamentalist views and their picketing of soldier and celebrity funerals, pushing their idealism through shock-value tactics.

Through all the ironic puns and propositions to picket his funeral, once internet staple, who has been one of the loudest voices for LGBT equality in America, posted a message that took a different approach. George Takei wrote, “I take no solace or joy in this man’s passing. We will not dance upon his grave, nor stand vigil holding, ‘God Hate Freds’ signs, tempting as it may be. He was a tormented soul who tormented many. Hate never wins out in the end. It instead goes always to its lonely, dusty end.” Takei’s message quickly spread, already becoming a meme shared all over the internet, showing a different side to this polarizing topic and how that there’s still a more human approach.

I have never supported anything the Phelps family or the Westboro Baptist Church have ever done. Much of their misguided scripture interpretation and their hunger for public attention have done worlds of harm and not even an ounce of good. I have seen members of my family and many of my closest friends deeply disturbed by this group’s action and have even found myself thinking extremely hateful things toward this group.

It’s important to remember that all of these people, Fred Phelps included, are still people. They’re scared and are struggling to understand this world in the very short amount of time they have to figure things out, so they turned to a book that claimed to have all the answers and they took each word of these parables and metaphors and literal rules and regulations. They’re fallible and, believe it or not I do believe, they think they’re doing the right thing by pushing their doctrine. I really believe that they think that what they do is helping others and they’ve been so heavily indoctrinated that they don’t notice the amount of harm and grief they’re causing others.

And like all other people, I believe that Fred Phelps doubted himself all the time. I bet right to the very end. But I also don’t believe that as he lay on his death bed, he was thinking, “I hope God kills all the fags.” I bet, like any other human being, he was thinking about his family, his loved ones, and if he was still praying, I bet he was praying for them and not for the people he spread so much hate about.

I have no doubt he loved his family. His way of showing and expressing his love was overshadowed by his convictions and beliefs, but I have no doubts about this because Fred Phelps was still a human being. And no matter how much any human being can hate, they’re still going to love more.

A lot of the internet comments I read about Fred Phelps’ death speculated on his own afterlife and some definition of god’s judgment on this man for his life of hate. I personally have no religious inclining, I don’t believe in god or heaven or hell of afterlife. And if my suspicions are correct, then Mr. Phelps is simply gone and maybe the lack of god or heaven or any truth to what he spent his life pursuing could be his own personal brand of hell that he will never be aware of.

But the fact that our awareness of what happens once the body ceases to function makes the concept of an afterlife insignificant. What’s most important is what we as humans do in this blink of existence that’s over far too quick for any of us to comprehend. And though we cannot control what others decide to believe in and how they act upon those beliefs, we get to decide how we react to them.

My reaction is this: this will be the last time I write about the Phelps family and the Westboro Baptist Church. Whether we pay attention to them or not, condemn or question them, they will continue to do what they feel is best. I’m not advocating acceptance or pardoning or even condoling what they do. They’re like a wasp nest: if you ignore them, nothing they do will affect you. It’s a small nuisance, but one that can be easily overlooked for more important things in this life. They’ve already become a self-parody in the popular-culture canon and it’s not as if their numbers are growing exponentially as they picket more funerals. People who buy into what they do are already predisposed to this brand of ignorance.

As fulfilling as attacking this group for their beliefs might be, it’s simply another brand of hate that will still leave feelings of emptiness. If you’re really against what Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church stands for, don’t hate them. Don’t even pay attention to them. Instead, keep loving the people around you and keep accepting people everywhere for who they are. Existence is far too brief to focus on all things you hate all the time. There are too many cool things still happening in the world to be excited about.

The most important thing for me that I carry about Fred Phelps’ death is that a man died. Just like everyone else does. We’re born, we live, we learn, we grow, we die. It’s another reminder of life’s brevity and I’m not wasting it being angry anymore. Anger breeds regression and stagnation. I want to breed progress and solutions.

This Party Sucks

“Man, this is how ya gotta do your hair,” Jimmy explained to me as he began his follicle ritual. Half a bottle of hair gel dripped from his palm and between his fingers while he carefully strategized which section of hair would contribute to which rock-hard spike standing on its end. “Every time I go to the bar, I do my hair like this. And every time I get a chick’s number. I’m tellin’ ya, bro, you gotta start takin’ notes from me.”[1]

I sat on the lid of Jimmy’s toilet as I waited for him to finish up so we could finally leave. I stared up at him with my elbow on my knee and my hand holding up my face. Jimmy looked back at me through the mirror’s reflection and read my impatience. “Buddy, you can’t rush this kind of thing. It’s an art.”

I leaned against the back of the porcelain throne and rolled my eyes. I had known Jimmy since kindergarten and if I hadn’t, I probably would have hated the guy with a passion. We grew up together, went to same elementary, junior high, and high schools together. Shortly before graduation, we decided we wanted to continue the trend, so we applied to the same college. Jimmy studied to become a Phys Ed. teacher; I went into the liberal arts and majored in English.

After finishing his Michelangelo-esque sculpted hair, Jimmy turned to me and I noticed he was wearing a skin tight Hilary Duff t-shirt. I squinted my eyes and tilted my head slowly in confusion.

“What? It’s ironic!” Jimmy insisted with a half-smirk on his face.

“Wait, what? How is that ironic?”

“Cause, I’m totally not into Duff, but I’m wearing the shirt, so it’s funny.”

“That’s not ironic. That’s just kind of stupid.”

“Whatever, bro, you just don’t get it.”

“I’m studying English. If anyone gets irony, it’s me, and that’s not ironic.”

“Buddy, why do you gotta be such a geek about this stuff? That’s the reason why chicks don’t dig ya.”

“In case you couldn’t tell, I am a geek, I always have been. Almost twenty years of knowing each other and you still haven’t figured that one out?”

Jimmy shook his head and walked away. As he exited the door of the bathroom and walked towards his shoes at the front of his apartment, he added, “Yeah, but you’re not even a cool geek, like those Big Bang Theory guys. Chicks are totally into those kinds of geeks. Tonight at the bar man, you gotta tell the chicks you’re a science major, in like Biology or somethin’. They’ll totally be into you then.”

I stood up from my makeshift seat and headed for the bathroom doorway and leaned against the wooden frame around the doorway. I adjusted my glasses briefly before I answered back, “I freakin’ hate that show! And I really doubt that girls will like me better if I emulated a bad nerd stereotype.”

Jimmy finished slipping on his large, white skateboarding shoes with tattoo flash along the side. “Whatever, dude. Let’s just go. We gotta make it to the bar before 10 or else we’re gonna have to pay cover.”

Jimmy had received some notice from the girl who cuts his hair that a new bar had opened and it was going to be a hot spot in town. For some reason, he always insisted I go to these bars with him.[2] Nights at these bars always proved entertaining though. On a normal night out, Jimmy would emasculate another hyper-masculine male, drink more alcohol than Paula Abdul in an entire season of American Idol, spend more money than I had for groceries that month, and get a girl’s phone number or bring a girl home.[3]

That night was particularly cold. I had my Vans shoes on, a pair of jeans, and my black hoodie zipped up all the way. I didn’t do much with my hair, just combed it to the side a bit. Jimmy insisted on not wearing a jacket. He felt admitting it was cold was emasculating. I gave up arguing with him about it back in January; minus forty weather and he insisted on not wearing a jacket.[4]

The bar wasn’t too far from campus but it wasn’t exactly a student hot spot either. The main patrons at this establishment were oil rig workers with way too much money, cocaine dealers, and the girls who are into that kind of thing. The specified gender roles in this place always astonished me: the males were defined by what they did for work; the females were defined by who they were sleeping with.[5]

Thankfully we made it to the bar before they started charging cover, but the building was already packed with off-balanced tattoo print t-shirts and cheap looking hair extensions. The music was blaring from the speakers with a steady thump thump thump. The room was generally dark aside from the stage lights at strategic places in the bar and the moving coloured lights. I stood still for a minute and scanned the room for the possibility of an available table and the clearest path to get there. But my scanning was to no avail. I found myself a secure area against a wall, generally away from most of the other people in the bar, but still with a good enough view to people watch and have a good chuckle or two to myself.

Jimmy wasted no time once we made it inside. Before I knew it, he was no longer in my direct vicinity. I stood on my tip-toes and looked across the standing area to find Jimmy already at the drink buying counter, already with three drinks in his hands, and already chatting up two blondes in leopard-print mini-skirts. I stood back in awe as I viewed the fascinating art of the human mating rituals.

After Jimmy was done with what I’m sure was an engaging and intellectual conversation, he approached me with the three drinks in his hands: two short glasses in his palms and a tall glass carefully balanced between the two short glasses. He looked up at me, smiled, and yelled into my ear, “One of these is yours, but I don’t remember which one!”

I stared at Jimmy for a second, lowered my head slightly, and pointed at the middle, tall glass. “One of these Things is Not Like the Other” was playing in my head. “I think that’s it.”

Jimmy jutted his arms towards me slightly as I removed the burden of the third glass from his grasp. “That’s why you’re the smart one, broseph!”[6]

I leaned back against the wall, crossed my arms and sipped my anonymous cola product. Jimmy started for the dance floor with both arms in the air and his head bobbing to the obnoxiously loud bass pummelling through the speakers. I watched Jimmy on the dance floor and suddenly felt like I was documenting some bizarre Steve Irwin safari expedition.

Here, we see the bar-going-male, or homo-gluteus, perform the mating dance ritual to try to attract the attention of the females. The mating dance does attract the attention of other males quicker than it does the females, making competition fierce between the males for the opportunity to mate. Competition is fiercer than I thought it was going to be. All different breeds of the bar-going-male are present at this mating dance. The homo-gluteus-emoticus with his distinctive side combed hair that covers half of his face and his attire that is quite similar to the females’. Then there’s the homo-gluteus-Liddelous, distinctive for his tribal tattoos, which have no meaning, all along his arms and his desire for physical combat that outshines his desire for mating. And finally, the homo-gluteus-situationous, best distinguished by his desire to constantly show his abdominal muscular development and the large spikes on his head best used for defence against other males and to attract the attention of the females.

            I began to laugh out loud thinking about my expedition into the jungle of the club. Unfortunately, the wrong homo-gluteus-Liddelous spotted me giggling at the wrong time. I was then approached by a pack of three homo-gluteus-Liddelouses. The middle and clearly dominant of the group gave me a shove against the wall.

“What’s so funny, queer?”

I stared at the middle dominant for a second to try and estimate my chances for survival. His Puma sneakers were laced up tight, the seams of his pre-faded and pre-torn jeans glowed under the black light, his t-shirt boasted the name of what I deduced to be a tattoo artist I had never heard of, and his eyes stared not just at me, but through me like a bullet through a piece of paper.

I looked up, stretched my neck as far back as it could go to be able to look the middle dominant in the face. The two submissives that flanked the middle dominant were dressed virtually the same as their pack leader, but their stares weren’t as severe as the middle one’s was. I began to shrivel down as the pack descended upon me further.[7]

            The middle dominant, still shooting through me with his magnum glare, repeated his question. “I said, what’s so funny, queer?”[8]

Then, like Zeus just dropped down from the heavens, there was Jimmy, standing to my right, wielding the same magnum glare right back it like he was Dirty Harry.[9]

“Yo, you got a problem with my bro, here? Cause if you do, then you got a problem with me. Ya got me, bro?”

The middle dominant folded his arms and smirked in amusement while his two submissives looked at each other and laughed. “What, is this guy your boyfriend or something? You guys queer together or what?”

Without any warning, Jimmy wrapped his arms around me, grabbed the back of my head, clenched a handful of my hair, and laid onto me the most passionate kiss I had ever received. Our faces collided in full force then melded together. The stubble around my mouth and along my face folded into Jimmy’s perfectly shaved cheeks. It was full, open-mouthed, and tongue-inserted. His right hand groped my left breast. For a moment, I simply froze, unable to comprehend the taste of Jimmy’s tongue as it caressed mine. I began sweating in panic, trying to anticipate what would come next once Jimmy ceased to violate my tonsils. For a moment I believed that Jimmy and I were the lion and before us was Hemmingway, rifle in hand ready to annihilate us. The kiss lasted ten seconds before Jimmy pulled away and re-engaged his magnum stare against the pack.

“Yeah? So What? And if you three don’t beat it you’re gonna get the shit kicked out of you by a queer! So back the fuck up before I embarrass you in front of this entire club! Do you really want to be the dude who got his ass kicked by the guy who was just making out with another guy?”

The dominant looked back to his submissives, then shrugged at us and gave a passive aggressive “Whatever” before he walked away.[10]

Jimmy stepped in front of me and cocked his head to the right to signify that maybe we should leave. I stared at Jimmy for a second, unable to articulate how I felt about what just happened. Yes, I was alive and undamaged and there was no physical confrontation in the end. But, at the same time, his tongue was just in my mouth. I wanted to look at him differently, like what he did was just terrible. But it wasn’t. He was still Jimmy, he was still saving my ass from getting beaten by some bullies, and he was still my best friend.[11]

I zoomed past Jimmy and headed for the first exit I could find. I was putting my keys into my car door before Jimmy was even through the exit doors. Jimmy sauntered over slowly.[12] I unlocked the car doors and Jimmy got in the passenger side front seat and slouched back against the window.

As we began our drive home, I looked over to my slouched friend to whom I probably owed my life with tears building up in my eyes. “Jimmy, those guys were seriously going to kill me. I was a dead man standing. Thank you so much.”

Jimmy averted his eyes from looking out the front window and looked towards me with a cocky smirk. He then gave me a quick shove that pushed me lightly against my door.

“Quit being such a queer.”


[1] This isn’t the first time Jimmy suggested I take notes from him. In junior high he insisted that I study off of his notes for a social studies test. We were looking at current affairs and he had written in his note book “this is bullshit; a country wouldn’t bomb another country for oil.” I think my hesitation to take notes from him on anything is justified.

[2] Actually, not “for some reason.” I knew the exact reason. I didn’t drink, so I was always able to drive him. To his credit, he was fair in how he treated me when I did drive him. He always bought me pop if there wasn’t courtesy pop for DD’ers, and if we arrived late to some ‘bouncin’’ hot spot, he would pay my cover. Seemed like a fair trade at the time, but now I can’t help but feel like I was Kato to his Green Hornet.

[3] Come to think of it, Jimmy probably thought he was teaching me things. In reality, he just proved really amusing for me. Friday night television was nowhere nearly as funny as some of the things Jimmy would say or do on some of these nights. Sure, I always sat back and played the fly on the wall, but I never got involved. No harm, no foul.

[4] Got to love the over-testosteroned tough guys, always trying to prove something by doing something stupid.

[5] It’s actually astonishing how far back these people have actually set women’s roles.

[6] That’s right, folks! My deduction in identifying the non-alcoholic drink amidst Jimmy’s first round of booze is what made me the smart one between the two of us.

[7] I really know how to pick the best times to think of a good joke and have a laugh to myself. Even funnier was that my first instinct in this situation was to try and rationalize with the significantly un-evolved males that were ready to beat me into primordial ooze. Luckily, I came to my wits and realized that they have the logical strengths of a FOX NEWS reporter. I was fairly certain I was doomed.

[8] You have to appreciate that his repetition of a question started with “I said.” I guess it was a rhetorical question, so “said” would technically fit in this scenario, but I also severely doubt he was able to deduce the kind of question he was asking while he salivated at the prospect of killing little ol’ me.

[9] I could tell that Jimmy wanted this punk to tell him that he felt lucky.

[10] Jimmy later explained to me that most of the time guys who pick fights randomly like this are in fact, cowards, and just try to find anyone smaller and meeker than they are to challenge and assert their dominance upon. The minute anyone stands up to them, they back down. Classic schoolyard bully scenario.

[11] This wasn’t the first time Jimmy saved my ass from being severely beat down either. Hell, that’s how I met the guy. First week of kindergarten three other kids started picking on me because I wore glasses. Jimmy stepped in, punched one of the kids in the face, and made the other two back off and cry. He always said it was worth it because it was his first fight.

[12] He was probably looking around to make sure he wasn’t about to miss out on a girl who hadn’t seen him kiss another guy yet.

Clicking

You can tell how much someone paid for their shoes by the clicking sounds they make when they walk across linoleum. The louder and sharper the click, the pricier the shoes.

Men’s fashion is always dictated by subtleties like this. On the surface, men’s fashion is very boring: jackets, shirts, sweater, khakis, jeans, plaid, pinstripe, black shoes, brown shoes, neutral tones, straight line cuts. Very linear. But the entire premise of modern male fashion is the details in the subtleties. It’s kind of like that scene in American Psycho where all the men in the office are comparing business cards. Bone, silian rail, eggshell, romalian type, pale nimbus white. And much like that scene in American Psycho, there are those who will ensure they flaunt their subtleties.

I hear clicking all day. The clock ticks, computer keyboards and mice click, lifting and dropping phone receivers click, and most of all, the click of people walking. The louder and sharper the click, the more they paid for the shoes, the higher up the hierarchy they are.

Some clicks are so distinct, I know who it is from twenty steps away. And I can tell when they’re coming to my desk.

“Ogden,” I hear Samuelson blurt from over my shoulder. I try to make it look like my eyes are down looking at my keyboard. I’m really staring at his Italian shoes whose brand name I can’t pronounce. The stitching weaves along the top and around the toe like baroque poetry. Those shoes’ click was at the top of the food chain here, or damn well near its alpha-predator stature. I try not to look at my pair of Stacey Adams, which I had to skip a student loan payment to afford. Even then they’re a whole year out of season. I hope no one else pays attention to these details like I do.

“Hey,” Samuelson points to my shoes. “Wearing those while the snow’s all melting and gross out there? That’s a great plan. Let the dirt mess up those dinosaurs. Am I right?”

I keep my Stacey Adams in my desk drawer and I wear a pair of cross-trainers while I trek through the melting snow. When people ask me about my shoes, I tell them I’m heading to the gym. I haven’t worked out in years.

“That’s right my man,” I instinctively reply, smiling like I just got some joke at some other poor schmuck’s expense. I react this way a lot. Sometimes I don’t even hear what a guy like Samuelson says. I look for the cue, see his smile, hear his laugh, and I just join in, hoping I disguise how terrified I am every time he stops by my desk.

“Anyways, Ogden, a bunch of us are going for tapas at this whisky place a few blocks from here after work, care to join?”

Samuelson always invites me to these things. I always decline. Where the fuck do these guys get the money for these fucking things? I’m terrified to find out what their monthly tapas expense is on their budget. I don’t know if he always asks me because he genuinely likes me or if he likes humiliating me every time I have to turn him down. I try to make up excuses, but he knows where he is on the ladder, and he knows where I am.

I brush the crumbs from my peanut butter sandwich onto the floor without losing eye contact. The more I look at him, the less likely he’ll notice the mess from the last bit of food left in my house.

“No can do my man,” I keep smiling. “The wife at home,” I’m not married and live in a basement apartment, “Wants me to look after the kids,” I don’t have kids, “While my mom takes her out,” my mom’s been dead for ten years, “To show her the family cottage just a bit out of town,” I’ve never left the city.

“No worries, Ogden,” Samuelson raises his arm and it takes me a second to realize he’s looking for a high five. “Maybe next time, my man.” Samuelson walks down the hall, and I watch as he meets with another guy at the same level of the food chain as he is. They high five and laugh. Samuelson looks back for a second, still laughing. The two click off together.

I don’t pick up my phone for the rest of the day. I don’t want to talk to anyone. I spent my whole life being told that as long as I go to college, I’ll find a great job, a rewarding career, and I’ll be able to make something of myself. What the fuck have I become? How the fuck did I wind up here?

I watched my father grow through the company he worked for. He was with them for nearly forty years. Every year he had another raise. Every few years, another promotion. I wasn’t even out of elementary school when he got his first managerial position, along with the fat salary that came with it. He worked his way up, found success, retired easy, and is now remarried and living the easy life. His new wife is young enough to have babysat me while she was in high school.

“What a fucking prick,” I hear from behind me. I look back and see Adams. We started here at the same time. I have no idea what he does. I don’t think he knows what I do. I barely know what I do. “Did he ask you about tapas after work too? I don’t know if it’s managerial charity work or if he gets some sort of kick out of watching us turn him down, but I wish that motherfucker would shut the fuck up already. You know, he thinks he’s fucking charming. He thinks everyone likes him and looks up to him because of his position. You know how he got that job?” Adams wraps his hands around in a circle and starts jabbing at himself back and forth making choking noises. “World class cocksucker. Guaranteed.”

“Come on, man, how can you know that?”

“Did you know that motherfucker is two years older than we are? Did you know he joined this company six months before we did? Did you know he doesn’t even have a degree? He’s either sucking cock, or he got raped as a kid by the biggest shareholder and getting hush money.”

Adams had a strange point. He must do something with staff records. How else would he know this? He could also be making this stuff up. Either way, it’s entertaining.

“Hush money or not, he’s still higher on the caste system and we have to take his shit,” I look down at Adams’ shoes. He’s wearing cross-trainers. No shame. You have to admire that kind of conviction in a person. “What do you got going on once we punch out?”

Adams shrugs. “I don’t know man. Cheap beer and online porn probably. Why? You wanna watch?”

“Fuck no,” I reply. “But while we’re on the topic of cheap beer, maybe gather a few of the other dredges here and have a game of poker or something. My place?”

“Five buck buy in?” Adams asks.

I nod my head Adams pats my shoulder and scurries off. He’s good for getting a decent group together for cards. We drink, eat crap food, and talk about who in the upper caste we would kill first if opportunity arose. It makes my empty fridge and barren apartment on a Friday night a little less depressing.

*****

Adams took all of us Friday night. Wound up leaving my apartment sixty bucks richer (some of the dredges got ambitious and bought themselves back in a few times after busting) but promised that pizza was on him next time.

Monday rolled around too quickly. I spent my weekend either on my couch or in my bed. I didn’t want to think, especially not about work. I just finish tying my Stacey Adams when I start hearing the clicking again. Only it’s not Samuelson who walks by my desk. It’s Adams.

“Fancy new kicks, Adams,” I call out. “Is that what you did after you robbed us all blind?”

Adams looks back and smiles. “Something like that.” He dances a tap-dance-ish jig before walking back to his desk. I watch his shoes as he walks away. Italian leather, fine stitching, a little worn but still sharp. No way sixty bucks bought those shoes. At least not new. He must have an in with a warehouse or an eBay wholesaler.

And email pops up on my screen. Adams wants to do sushi for lunch. I pull out my wallet and see a ten. Enough for a bit of sushi, I can eat the rest of my lunch when I get back to my desk if I’m still hungry. It’s totally worth knowing what Adams’ secret to those shoes is.

*****

“Seriously, I know you got those on eBay, there’s no way you could afford them otherwise. Spill the dude’s username,” I pop a small piece of maki in my mouth.

“And I keep telling you, I didn’t get them on eBay,” Adams smiles.

“How else could you buy those? I can’t even pronounce the name on them.”

“It’s a secret.”

“Spill it Adams, come on!”

“You really want to know?” Adams is still smiling.

“Yes!”

Adams looks back and forth.

“I got them from Samuelson.”

“Samuelson sold you those?” I look down at the shoes. “Are you guys even the same size?”

“Turns out we are,” Adams grin grows wider with pride. “But he didn’t sell them to me.”

I drop the piece of maki I was about to pop into my mouth.

“What?” Adams shrugs. “It’s not like he’s going to miss them. Do you know how many pairs of shoes that motherfucker owns? Like thirty. All black, Italian leather. I scuffed these ones up a bit so he wouldn’t notice them. He’s not going to notice one pair gone.”

*****

Samuelson noticed. He charges toward my desk, his clicks getting louder as he gets closer.

“Where are they?” he demands. “Those were seventeen-hundred dollar shoes. That’s more than you fucking whore mother makes in a year. I saw you eyeing them up last week. You better fess up, or so help me fucking god I will have your balls.”

Adams yells out from the back. “What are you going to do with his balls?”

Samuelson looks over. “Shut your fucking mouth!”

“Or what?” Adams yells. “My balls are next?”

Samuelson clenches his fists and looks back down at me. “If I ever see those shoes on your feet, no one will find your body.”

Samuelson turns and walks away and as soon as he’s out of sight, I look back at Adams. “What the fuck was that from you?”

Adams shrugs. “He ain’t so scary.”

*****

The next day, Adams shows up to work in a pink silk shirt. Not girly pink either, power colour pink. It looks impressive.

“It was one of Samuelson’s white shirts,” Adams whispers to me by the water cooler. I try to tell him to hush as I look around to see who might be listening, but Adams keeps going. “Samuelson takes these fucking sleeping pills, right? I could teabag him with my sweaty balls after a ten hour workout and he would never know. I watched him. He was out by ten, I snuck in, grabbed his shirts, washed them with a bunch of my red soccer jerseys, and voila, brand new pink cashmere shirts for the office.”

Samuelson walks in a couple seconds after Adams finishes his explanation. Samuelson obviously heard nothing. He walks right in, grabs a paper cup, looks to Adams and says, “Great shirt man. I could never pull off pink. I got the same ones in white. Looks good though.” Samuelson actually came off sincere. No fake smile, no inviting out for tapas, no laughing with the other upper management. He’s actually impressed.

“Thanks man,” Adams replies. “I’ve been refining my taste. No more cross trainers and corduroys for me. It’s amazing how much better quality you get when you spend a little more, right?”

Samuelson nods. “Yep, higher price means higher quality. Just how life works.”

*****

I must have nodded off in front of the TV. It’s 2 a.m. and there’s a knock at my door. I get up from the couch and open the door to see Adams in a two-piece, double breasted suit, silk tie, black shoes polished so well the defining lines look white. He adjusts his tie and says, “Well, Ogden, how does it look?”

I hear a pop and some mists into my face. It stings my eyes and I wipe them. I look down to see my hands smeared in red. Adams is on the ground with a hole through his head. He’s twitching and bleeding all over my porch, and then stops. I look up and see Samuelson at the far side of the backyard, pointing a gun in my direction. He lowers the gun and walks toward me. My brain keeps screaming to shut the door and call the cops, but I just freeze in place. Samuelson walks right up to me without taking his eyes off mine. Once he’s standing in front of me, he aims his gun down and shoots again, without taking his eyes off mine.

“You can wear whatever the fuck you want, and it won’t make a difference,” Samuelson is sweating. His brow is furrowed. He doesn’t even blink. He shoots Adams’ body again. “You’re still nobody. You’re as replaceable as a stripper on a Tuesday night. As useful as a dog in a gutter. You just scrape off the bottom, hoping some shit falls off of my heel, just so you can have something that used to belong to me.” He leans in closer. “And don’t forget it.”

I can hear sirens in the distance. Samuelson turns and walks away. I hear his shoes clicking for blocks. And I stand in the same spot until the police arrive. I tell them I have no idea what just happened.

Nails

When I was a kid, I used to have to step between the cracks in the sidewalk, and only between the cracks in the sidewalk. I could only step twice between them. My feet were the exact length to fit two steps between each perfect concrete square that lined my neighbourhood from my elementary school back to my parents’ house.

There was one sidewalk piece that was a long rectangle. It curved around a corner and it had an extra crack running through it, probably from the sewage drain underneath it. Some extra moisture probably seeped into the concrete piece and split it across. It took me months to figure out how I was supposed to step through it. It required three steps and I never stepped on any of the cracks. I somehow rationalized that this one anomaly in my walk home was ok. At least I figured out how to walk through yet. Yet, I’m 27 now and I still think about that rectangle of concrete.

I don’t pay that much attention to how I walk across sidewalk blocks anymore. I don’t have to touch every button on the TV remote any time I change the channel anymore. I don’t have to sit up and lie back down three times and say to myself, “Ok, it’s time to sleep, just relax and sleep,” to get myself to relax and fall asleep. I don’t worry about falling asleep before midnight anymore. I don’t have panic attacks if I don’t fall asleep before midnight anymore.

I’m not as haunted by arbitrary measurements and guidelines as I as when I was a kid. I think I was about thirteen when I stopped needing such a strict routine in order to function. But, it’s not like I’ve been cured of all of my nervous habits either. I bite my nails. And when my nails are so short that pressing my fingers gives me a sharp pain through my hand, I chew on the skin underneath my nails.

I don’t know why I do this. It doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t taste good. It actually really grosses me out. I catch myself chewing on my nails or on my skin while I’m at my office. Once I notice I’m doing it, I stop myself and look around to see if anyone is staring. The only thing I can compare catching myself chewing my nails in public to is something like burping or farting in public. I look around to see if anyone noticed, unsure if I should excuse yourself or just leave the room, I can’t tell if anyone even actually cares or is paying any attention.

Even though all the straight faces around me surrounding my cubicle al show a sign of apathy, I’m still convinced my stench has crept its way into each of their noses and the odour of my shame reeks like a decomposing body lying in the middle of the floor.

As long as I can remember I’ve always fixated on nails. Why cuticles? What was the trigger? Sadly, there was none. I don’t know if that would make this essay any more interesting or not. It’s like Michael Myers in Halloween versus Michael Myers in Halloween 2: is Michael Myers more interesting when his killing spree has no meaning or root, or is the family elimination purpose more interesting? I’m torn either way. But regardless of the possibility of an interesting story arc, my nail elimination fascination has no significant root. I didn’t always chew on them; I picked and pulled them first. But my own nails weren’t enough, I had to pick and pull everyone’s nails. I have odd flashes of memory of lying in my crib and not being able to sleep, so one of my parents would either sit or lie beside me and let me pick at their nails until I fell asleep.

Unlike my nails, I can pinpoint the exact moment when the sidewalk crack fascination began. First, we moved houses, then I changed schools. Third grade. I came off like a happy kid, but I don’t know if I necessarily was. It was around this time when I fully immersed myself into fantasy, comic books, sci-fi, and really started trying hard when I drew. Someone who spends that much time in their own imagination can’t be all that happy.

I was eight years old, I had to deal with these new kids who weren’t my friends from my old school, this was the first year I went to Catholic school not having any idea what the fuck a Catholic was, I was adjusting to living in a new house in a new neighbourhood where I was instantly marked as the weird kid, and I started actually noticing that I didn’t talk very much to other kids. My self-awareness of how I didn’t play with other kids and that I wasn’t involved in any clubs or teams with other kids started around this time as well.

At a very young age, I realized I had no friends, but for the most part it didn’t bother me. Things were a lot more fun in my head. School was boring. Other kids were boring. Part of me wished that I would find friends who appreciated things like video games and comic books. Part of me gave up. I did eventually start making new friends and my fascination with how I should walk across the sidewalk subsided. But I still picked and chewed my nails.

It got worse my second time around in college. My nails took some serious abuse during those years. Especially while I sat in class. I was twenty-three and I couldn’t help but notice that almost everyone around me was maybe eighteen. Those who weren’t eighteen were in their forties. I felt closer in age to the baby-boomers in the room, probably because I had tried the college thing once already. I flunked out, but I still felt like I was some sort of veteran. I knew there were no bells between class blocks, I knew how to search through the bookstore and find the specific books for your specific class section, I knew where had the best coffee and which places stayed open late. But I was also aloof. I existed somewhere between not knowing how to talk to the people I was in class with and not caring to talk to the people I was in class with. I started feeling like I was in Catholic school again for the first time.

I don’t know why I’m instantly scared of people. And that’s really what it is. Sometimes my defenses go up and I come off like I don’t like people or I don’t care about them, but what I’m actually experiencing is fear. It’s probably why I chew my nails. And I chew on pens. And I chew on the straws that come with my fast food drinks.

I used to think that my chewing on pens had something to do with smoking, but I never smoked enough or long enough to form that sort of habit. I haven’t had a cigarette for probably six years now and I’ve maybe smoked a grand total of ten cigarettes in my life. I try to make it look like it has to do with smoking, but it’s always worse when I have to go into meetings, or we have staff functions, or I have to meet someone new. Freud’s oral fixation argument holds no merit, believe me there is nothing sexual about my office. My oral fixation is anxiety based. And being in an open office surrounding by people for eight hours a day is only making it worse.

If you watch people for long enough, you notice that everyone has some sort of nervous habit: they bounce their knees while sitting, they talk to themselves, they tap their fingers on their desk, they twirl pens between their fingers, they chew their bottom lips. Luckily for them, these are all subtle nervous habits. I have unfortunately drawn the highly visual and probably bizarre and inappropriate nervous habits. Looking out for people’s judgemental stares is how I got so good at people watching. When I spit out a nail or a pen cracks while it’s in my mouth, I sometimes wish that I did fart in those scenarios. I could blame that on a sudden stomach virus. Say the sushi we had for lunch tasted funny and run to the bathroom. I might earn some pity points then. But having to explain to people that I’m chewing on myself and anything that winds up in my hands because being around them makes me nervous probably breaks some unwritten social norm that I probably should understand by this point. You’d think watching people the way I do would shine some knowledge of social cues. I don’t have time for that though. I have watch them bounce their knees. I need to make sure that they’re not watching me.

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