Spring 2007 Volume One Issue Two
The Rescue - C. Montgomery Stuart
Clouds of dust drifted across the nearly deserted street to add another choking layer to the row of boarded up storefronts, where it would lie in wait before making the inevitable return journey the next time the wind shifted. A lone figure, tall and lean, emerged from the clouds and strode purposefully toward two sun-cured and hardened men waiting on a rickety railing.
The stranger wore a threadbare coat that reached almost to the knees of his leather pants. The frayed collar of a once-white shirt extended above his coat's wide lapels; his pointed boots were scuffed and cracked; and his gloves looked like they would, once removed, lie as if his hands were still within them.
Dust dribbled from the sides of his hat like rivulets of table salt as he tilted his head back to reveal a face as ragged and beaten as his wardrobe. Eyes filled with wisdom and weariness regarded first one brother, then the other. Finally, he spoke in a voice that seemed to simultaneously sing and wail from the depths of eternity.
"Your sister needs help."
Almost imperceptibly, the brothers nodded in tandem.
"If you wish to save her," the stranger said, "the time is now."
Steve kept the Chrysler Newport humming along as he fiddled with the radio. The damn switch was always glitchy; it just took a little perseverance ... there! A distinctive guitar riff popped from the speaker in the dash and a beneficent voice began to sing.
"Yeah!" Steve shouted to no one in particular. He slapped the outside of the car door in time with the music and goaded the accelerator. The Newport jumped in response.
He'd forgotten how much he loved this car.
The brothers drove in silence with their little sister wedged between them in the front seat of their ancient pickup truck. She could bear it no longer, so she stretched forward and turned on the radio. Distorted electric guitar filled the cab for a few seconds before her brother in the passenger seat reached across and snapped it off.
She wrapped her slender arms across her chest and scowled through the pair of semicircular streaks that bore nauseating witness to an earlier ineffective attempt to wash the mashed corpses of hundreds of dead insects from the truck's cracked and pitted windshield. Ahead, the gravel road wound away into the distance, as empty as the scrubby landscape on either side. She soon grew tired of the monotony and craned her neck so that she could look through the rear window, but whatever she might have seen was obscured by the billows of dust thrown up by their passage.
They all knew this evidence of their hasty flight would be visible for many miles. If their father picked this moment to lift his liquor-sodden head and stagger to the window, he would surely see it. They also knew the odds against him doing such a thing were heavily in their favor, which was why they had chosen this particular time of day. Besides, there was no other choice if they hoped to carry out the Tall Man's plan.
Late afternoon sunlight strobed between the trees lining the sides of the two-lane highway. Steve flipped the visor over to the side and in the process, nearly missed the turn. He stomped on the brakes and wrenched the wheel to the right. The Newport skewed onto the gravel side road and fishtailed aggressively before he got it back under control.
He let out a deep breath and relaxed his grip on the wheel. It wouldn't do to have an accident, no-siree.
Darkness had fallen with the indolent sluggishness of the open prairie by the time the siblings arrived at their destination. They eased the flagging truck down to the bank of a torpid river where the three of them spent long minutes wrestling their battered old aluminum canoe off the tailgate. None of them spoke of the many trips made with this canoe that had started out joyously but ended in anger and pain. Tonight, the tired old boat was being asked to render a service far greater than any that had been asked of it before.
The youngest brother took the bow and their sister clambered after him. Once she was settled in the middle seat, the eldest pushed off from shore and hopped into the back. The brothers waited for the wallowing to stop before they began to paddle cautiously out into the main flow. They had deliberately entered the river upstream from their destination so that the languid current could carry them toward their goal while they focused their efforts on movingpaddled them canoe across to the opposite bank.
Fifteen minutes later, the keel scrubbed against the bottom. The brothers jumped out and pulled the boat into the thin reeds lining the bank. Their sister remained in the canoe while they waited silently among the rushes and cattails until they saw a flash of light on the lip of the embankment above them: once -- twice -- three times. After a pause, the pattern repeated.
Exactly what the Tall Man had told them to expect.
The eldest brother took a flashlight from his pocket, aimed it at the embankment and duplicated the signal. Moments later they heard dislodged gravel bouncing down the slope toward them. The eldest brother shut his flashlight off. The youngest held his paddle at the ready in trembling hands. Seconds later, the sounds stopped.
The eldest flicked his flashlight on and fanned the beam along the scrubby bushes at the bottom of the embankment. Its pale light revealed a rather short, somewhat paunchy middle aged man standing motionless about ten yards away. His clothing was dark. He wore a pair of large wire-rimmed glasses that reflected the beam. There was a vivid v-shaped scar on his shiny forehead, tracing what must have once been his hairline.
"You guys are right on time." The man shaded his eyes with a pudgy hand. "You mind?"
The eldest lowered the flashlight, but kept it on the man's torso so that his face remained softly illuminated.
"Thanks." The man turned his own light back on and quickly played it across the trio. He stopped at the young girl crouching in the center of the partially hidden canoe, and smiled. It was a warm, guileless expression.
"Hi, honey," he said. "You must be the one. What's your name?"
The girl remained silent, but kept her eyes locked on his.
His smile faltered. "Okay. You can tell me whenever you feel like it." He tapped his chest with a forefinger. "I'm Steve. We'd better get going."
She looked up at her brothers.
They bent down and kissed her cheeks, hugged her tightly and kissed her again. She wiped away tears with the back of her hand as she slowly climbed out of the canoe. She walked across the shore and timidly took the stranger's outstretched hand.
"Everything is going to be all right now, honey," he said softly. "He won't be able to hurt you anymore." The man looked at the brothers. "You fellas have done a real good thing here, a real good thing. Your sister is going to be safe now, thanks to you."
He led the young girl up the embankment and they quickly disappeared into the night, leaving her brothers alone on the gravelly shore below.
The sun had just eased over the horizon and was spilling golden light across them as they pulled into a gravel parking lot next to an old stone building. Steve turned off the Newport's engine. The girl stirred in the sudden silence, then came fully awake and stared out the window.
"Ooh, it looks like a castle!"
Steve regarded the building. "Yeah, I guess it does at that. I thought it was more like a fortress with lots of dungeons when I went to school here."
"That's a school?"
"And it's the place you're bringing me to?"
"Sure is, honey."
"Neato! When did you go here?"
"Oh, way back, in the seventies."
She gave him a puzzled look while he got out of the car and came around to open her door.
"Your new home awaits, m'lady."
She clambered out and arched her back, stretching the sleep out of her tiny body. Steve frowned at her dirty t-shirt and jeans. They looked too small, yet they hung loosely on her thin frame. There were bruises on her arms that didn't look anything like those found on a typical kid. It was strange she'd come so willingly. The abuse she'd suffered at the hands of her father should have made her cringe whenever any grown man tried to come near her.
But the Tall Man had said she would trust him.
Steve held out his hand in what was quickly becoming a familiar routine. "Ready?"
She took it and they walked toward the school.
Sunlight slanted through orderly ranks of slender trees and across the dewy lawn, throwing splinters of gold against the ivy flanks of the imposing structure. It seemed to her the school should be shrouded in eerie mists, with a chorus of howling unearthly voices rending the stillness, like in those late night movie shows she had sometimes managed to glimpse through the railing when her father had passed out in front of the TV.
They passed through two sets of thick oak doors and stopped just inside.
"It looks exactly the same," Steve said distantly.
They stood at one end of a passageway so long that details blurred in the distance. Uniformed children moved hastily along the length and breadth of the great hall, the boys in white shirts and dark neckties, the girls in white blouses and dark green plaid skirts. None of them paid the newcomers any heed, as if they had always been standing there trapped in the rainbow hued shafts of light cast by the narrow stained glass windows lining the east wall.
Both Steve and the girl flinched as the sudden jangling of a bell caused a flurry of closing books, running feet and slamming doors. Before the staccato sounds could fade away, the hall had cleared and they were left alone with dust motes that danced in the recently agitated air.
Steve seemed to come back from a great distance and looked down at the girl. "I guess we'd better get you squared away, honey."
He led her to the nearest door opposite the windows. He had begun to raise his hand to knock when the door opened to reveal a short bespectacled nun in a traditional black and white habit.
"Wonderful," she said. "You're here." She took Steve's free hand in both of hers. "God bless you." She released Steve's hand and beckoned to the girl. "Come, child."
The girl looked up at him. A tear escaped the corner of her eye and dropped to her cheek. "Thank you, Steve," she said, then followed the nun into the room. She stopped with one hand on the door handle and turned back to face him.
"My name is Katie."
There was a hint of a smile, then the door swung shut with a click that echoed down the cavernous hall.
Steve stood by the door while the soft murmur of voices from the many classrooms began to seep into his consciousness. Eventually he turned away and started to walk slowly, deeper into the school.
The great hall smelled of chalk. His shoes beat a slow, strangely familiar dirge on the polished granite floor. Memories of years gone by hung palpably in the air and a sense of unease began to creep up his spine. He stopped and gazed around while rubbing the back of his suddenly itchy neck. Everything about the school was exactly the same as he remembered it, but it was too familiar, too perfect.
He started to walk again and soon reached the end of the hall and the stairs that led down to the senior boys locker room in the basement. He laid his hand on the worn, scarred plaster where the rail joined it, felt for and found what he knew was there. He stared at the freshly cut initials in the wood, let his fingers slowly trace the shapes.
Sounds of laughter and quick admonishment wafted up the stairwell. Steve hesitated, then slowly began to descend. An ominous dread grew stronger and stronger with every step, but he did not falter until he reached the bottom.
Weak naked bulbs hung above the gloomy passage leading to the lockers. The bulb nearest the base of the stairs flickered on and off, as it had the day he'd carved his initials into the handrail.
He forced himself to step through the pale pools of light on the stone floor, as an actor might move from spotlight to spotlight on an otherwise darkened stage. He kept a hand on the paneled wall of the staircase to steady himself as he approached the arched entryway, through which came a series of barely suppressed coughs and a snickering laugh he instantly recognized.
How can this be possible?
The air was thick with the unmistakable sting of freshly exhaled tobacco smoke. He eased his head around the frame of the entrance to the locker room until he could see the interior. On a bench at the center, in a cloud of blue smoke, sat two boys. The one facing him was tipping back a wrinkled paper bag, his lips pressed to the brown neck of the bottle protruding from it.
And the other boy...
No one paid Steve the slightest bit of attention as he fled from the school and jumped into the Newport. He stabbed the key into the ignition and tromped on the gas, throwing pellets of gravel across the manicured lawn in his need to get as far away from there as possible. He drove recklessly until reason returned, then eased off and pulled into the next parking lot he came to. He sat with both hands locked on the steering wheel while his heartbeat gradually returned to normal. Only then did he let go and shut off the motor.
In the ensuing silence, he tried to rein in his turbulent thoughts. He ran his hand along the curve of the steering wheel, an old friend he hadn't seen in decades.
This is impossible!
He'd been driving all night; why hadn't it occurred to him before now? He looked at the wheel more closely. The striped faux fur was stained where he'd dropped a joint and it had burned, right after he'd bought the garish accessory to jazz up the otherwise boring interior of the old Newport his father had given him for his birthday at the beginning of his senior year. He glanced into the rear view mirror, then whirled and stared into the back seat.
The musty old sleeping bag was draped over the seat as always.
It can't be!
Yet here he was in the car he had driven during his final year of high school. He fought back a rising flood of panic.
This car was junked nearly thirty years ago ... how can I be here again?
He couldn't be.
He'd been in his condo last night, making the final preparations, and the last thing he remembered was....
The Tall Man.
The Tall Man in his impeccable suit had appeared at the door to his bedroom and told him someone was in desperate need, then....
He had been in this car, driving to the river, hurrying to pick up the girl.
The girl needed his help.
He would give it.
Somehow he was back in his final year of high school. There was no other explanation; the Newport had been totaled before graduation.
He looked at the odometer.
It had never reached 93,000.
His parents must still be alive.
But not for long.
That has to be it!
He had helped the girl escape her abusive father, now he would help his parents escape their deaths.
I can save them!
He had to try.
Steve reached for the key -- and stopped.
In front of him, across the parking lot, was the bookstore where his mother had -- still worked. In his rush to get away from the school, this was where he had ended up. Should he go into the store, try to warn her? Would she recognize her son, or just see a half-bald lunatic telling her she was about to die? He knew he had to do something, but what?
No need to panic, for all he knew the accident could be days away, or even weeks.
But it wasn't.
Steve felt his heart stop.
The fresh initials in the railing.
Cutting class to have a smoke with his friend in the locker room.
It would happen today.
Nostalgia assailed him the moment he stepped inside. He went straight to a table by the front window so he could watch for his father. A waitress came by with a pyrex coffee pot in her hand.
"Hey ... Linda!" he blurted out.
"How'd you know my name?"
"Uh ... a friend told me about you. He said Linda was the prettiest waitress in the place."
She smiled. "Well, thank your friend for me. What'll you have, mister?"
"Just coffee, thanks."
She filled his cup, dropped a pair of creamers on the edge of the saucer and left.
The restaurant was filled with kids skipping classes they thought too boring, hiding behind masterfully expelled lungfulls of noxious smoke, unable to admit to themselves they were here because they were too embarrassed to reveal their lack of knowledge in front of their classmates. Steve had been one of those kids, and here he was again.
He knew who he was.
He knew where he was.
He knew what he had been about to do last night.
Then he'd been talking to the Tall Man about a girl who badly needed his help, which he was more than willing to give. It was the most natural thing in the world. He had done it, and Katie was safe.
And now he knew when he was. But if he had only come to help the girl, why was he still here?
Again his thoughts led him to one conclusion:
I'm here to save them.
The door to the restaurant opened and his parents came through. Old instincts kicked in and he slouched down in his seat with a squeak of worn vinyl. They didn't look in his direction as they took the table behind him. He slowly squirmed back up, feeling foolish. Then he heard his mother's voice, right behind his head.
"I don't know what you want me to do, Carl."
"Rein him in, that's what. When did he start smoking?"
"Are you hungry? I'd like something to eat."
"Don't ignore me, Ellen."
Steve heard air expelled in exasperation. "I don't know, Carl. He probably learned it from you."
"It's all my fault, isn't it? The father who doesn't discipline his son. What a goddamn cliche."
Linda moved by. Steve heard his father order coffee for two. Liquid splashed into cups, then Linda walked past once more.
"Cliches get that way because they're true," his mother said.
"I'm warning you, Ellen. Don't push me or--"
"Or what? You'll hit me?"
"Don't be stupid, Carl."
Steve clenched his teeth, afraid to breathe.
Finally his mother said, "He has talent, you know."
"What? That recording crap he does with those pot smoking buddies of his?"
"The tapes they make sound really good. I'm telling you, Carl, Steve has a real gift."
His father snorted. "Anybody can push buttons on a tape recorder."
Steve heard her sigh as his father slurped noisily from his cup. "Just once it would be nice if you could give him a little praise."
Steve heard the striking of a match and then a deep inhalation as his father lit a cigarette. Seconds later, smoke drifted past Steve's face and he had to hold his breath and pinch his nose to keep from coughing.
"I know, I know," his father said. "I just don't know how to talk to him. I don't understand all that electronical gobbledygook he keeps spouting."
"Carl, Steve just has a gift for that kind of thing, like you do with your hands. You're a wonderful carpenter, and your gift keeps food on our table. You should be proud of Steve. He's your son, after all, isn't he?"
"I know," his father said. "He really is a whiz and I am proud of him. I'm just worried that he's going to get into trouble if he keeps hanging around with those hippies."
His mother giggled. "It's nineteen seventy-five, Carl. They're not called hippies anymore."
"Hairbags, then, or space cowboys, or whatever the words are in those dumb songs they listen to."
She laughed out loud. "He'll be fine. We just have to give him time to figure things out. After all, he's only just turned seventeen."
"We can't sit by and hope he'll get it, Ellen."
"He won't if all you do is yell at him."
"I don't know what else to do. I can't speak his language."
"No parent speaks their child's language. You just need to find something the two of you can do together, something that interests you both."
"Like what? Shouting?"
"No, although both of you are really good at that."
A spoon clinked against the edge of a cup. It sounded like a gong as Steve strained to hear what his parents would say next.
"I've been thinking," she went on after a long pause, "why don't you offer to build him some speaker boxes? He's always going on about how the ones he has are so terrible and how he can't afford better ones."
"I don't know anything about that stuff."
"But Steve does. He could design them and you could build them."
Linda came back and topped off Steve's cup, then went to his parents' table. "You folks ready to order?"
"What do you want, Ellen?" his father said.
"Actually, I'm not really hungry anymore."
"Me either. I really should be getting back to work anyway. Sorry miss, just the coffee."
"Can you run me down to the post office and bring me back, Carl?" his mother said. "We're out of stamps at the store, and I have a lot of orders I need to ship today."
"Okay, but don't take too long, I'm nearly late as it is."
He heard Linda tear off his parents' bill, then she passed Steve's table once again. Coins bounced on the table behind him, then his mother and father walked past and out the door.
It took Steve a moment to realize they had gone. He jumped out of his seat and headed for the exit, but Linda intercepted him before he could get there.
"Sir. Your bill."
"Oh ... sorry."
He fished in his pockets and came up empty-handed. "Look, I have to go do something."
"You owe us fifteen cents, sir."
"It's really important. I'll be right back, I promise."
Linda grabbed him firmly by the forearm. "I'm sorry sir, I can't let you leave without paying."
"I said I'll be right back. Cripes, we're talking fifteen cents here."
"I'm sorry, sir. If I let everyone leave without paying, I'd be out of a job."
"I'm sorry, I promise I'll be back."
He shook himself free, then bolted out the door. When he reached the parking lot, his parents were nowhere to be seen. He ran to where he had parked, but the Newport was no longer there. He searched frantically until he saw his father's new Datsun idling at the red light on the corner. Steve started to run and shout.
It was too late. The Newport cruised into sight on the cross street. He knew he and his friend were in it. He heard the chirp of tires and looked back just in time to see the Datsun pull into the intersection -- through the red light.
Steve was suddenly in two places at once....
...with arms outstretched, hands locked on the wheel of the Newport, reliving the sudden excruciating pain as the steering wheel cracked apart under the pressure of his rigid arms and sudden deceleration....
...and watching helplessly on the sidewalk as the massive Chrysler plowed into the side of the tiny Datsun, crumpling the driver's side like a sledgehammer on drywall....
The force of the impact carried both cars across the intersection. The Datsun was crushed into an unyielding light standard, pinned between it and the Newport in a sickening instant of screaming tires, shattered glass and tortured metal.
It had happened again.
He had not been able to stop it.
He dropped to his knees, held his head in his hands, and cried out in anguish....
Steve got off his knees, staggered to the corner and stood unsteadily near the battered vehicles. He watched his younger self fumble across the driver side window sill and slide out of the Newport. Blood streamed down the bridge of his nose from a gash on his forehead. He fell in a heap on the road.
Steve reached up and ran his fingers along his throbbing scar.
People rushed to offer aid. One helped his friend climb out of the wrecked Newport, miraculously unhurt.
Then leaking gasoline ignited.
There was no huge fireball like in the movies, just a muffled whump and flames were licking up the sides of the mangled Datsun. Everyone who had begun gathering around jumped back.
Sirens pierced the air.
Steve watched the flames quickly engulf both vehicles. Through the growing heat haze, he could see his younger self being pulled away from the flames. Steve turned and stared at the Datsun. He could see that his mother and father did not move even as the conflagration reached them and began to consume their bodies.
He'd refused to believe it, but what the coroner had said was true. His parents had died on impact and there was absolutely nothing he could have done.
Steve wandered aimlessly until sunlight waned and chill air began to crawl under his clothes to suck what little warmth he had left out of him. He tugged at his thin jacket, pulled it tightly around his torso, then began to search for shelter of some kind.
He knew this neighborhood. There was an old hotel nearby. He and his friends would cut class to go sit in the lounge, drink watery draft beer and laugh at the suckers who were back in school at their creaky wooden desks being lectured at by some cranky old nun in her penguin suit. No celibate old nag would ever teach them about the ways of the world, no siree Bob. How pointless school had seemed then.
How pointless everything had seemed after the crash. He had pursued his dream of being a recording engineer with obsessive vigor and had achieved the success his father had always said would never come. But even as the record sales mounted and the accolades poured in, Steve had remained empty inside. He had reached the rarefied heights of his profession, but there had been no one to look upon him with pride, and he had no one to blame but himself for the crushing emptiness of his soul.
He reached the corner and there it was, its buzzing neon sign garishly declaring its presence for all to see. He climbed a pair of crumbling concrete steps, pulled the scarred aluminum lobby door open and stepped into a warm cocoon of light. The lounge entrance beckoned and he took a few unconscious steps towards it, then caught himself and turned away. He rubbed his hands as he approached the desk, smiling widely ... and was disappointed when there was no sign of recognition from the clerk. But why should there be? He was nearly three decades older than the teenager this person knew.
"Can I help you, sir?"
"Yeah, I'd like a room, just for the night."
The clerk eyed him carefully. "You got no luggage, mister?"
"Eh ... the wife threw me out. Had a big fight, you know."
The clerk relaxed a little and pushed a yellow registration card and clear barreled Bic pen across the cracked Formica counter top. "Familiar story. Sign here."
Steve picked up the pen.
"That'll be twelve bucks, in advance."
Steve put down the pen. "I don't seem to have any money."
"Another familiar story." The clerk took back the card and pen. "Clear out, chum."
"Isn't there anything you--"
"I said clear out, or I'll call the cops, capisce?"
Steve raised his hands and took a step backward. "Okay, okay, I'm going." The clerk reached toward his phone and Steve hastily withdrew to the street.
It was fully dark. The sidewalk had emptied of pedestrians and would soon be refilled with the denizens of the night. The wind had picked up and was noticeably colder. He pulled his jacket up around his ears and plodded along until he came to a break in the storefronts. Steam rose about twenty yards in from the street.
It would be warm.
He hurried down the alley toward the billowing cloud. As he got closer, he wasn't too surprised to see a huddled form sitting right in the middle of the grate. The man was in tatters. He looked up at the sound of Steve's approach and stared with rheumy eyes. After a moment, Steve lowered his gaze, mumbled an apology and turned away.
"Hold on there, buddy. No need to run off like that, there's more'na 'nough room."
Steve faced the stranger. "You sure?"
"Don't pay taxes on it, so can't really claim it's mine. Siddown and warm yer tush."
Steve lowered himself onto the grate. "Thanks."
"Don't sweat it."
Steve sat in silence while the steam slowly banished the chill. He glanced over at the man, who flashed a toothless grin.
"Come here often?"
Steve shook his head. "First time."
"Finest accommodations around, if you got the price."
"Yeah." The man stuck a pinky in his ear and twisted it around like a chimpanzee using a stick on a termite hill, then pulled it out and examined his catch. "You got a story to tell, otherwise you wouldn't be here now, wouldja." It was a statement, not a question.
"You wouldn't believe it."
The man finished scrutinizing his finger and wiped it on his torn jeans. Steve wondered if he'd be surprised to learn that kids would one day pay good money for clothes like that, minus the ear wax.
"Don't really matter if I do," the man said. "You just gotta tell it if you wanna keep warm." He leaned back against the building like he was settling in for an evening's entertainment.
Steve wrapped his arms around his knees. "Well, okay then."
He told the man everything.
How the Tall Man had appeared in his condominium.
How he had helped the young girl.
How he had watched himself kill his parents.
The man sat quietly throughout the tale. When Steve finished, the man said, "Don't sound like it was really your fault, bub. Yer dad ran the light."
"But I wasn't watching closely enough. I might have been able to avoid them."
"You always look for people to run the light every intersection you go through?"
"I do now."
"Yeah, since the crash. But before that, you were like everybody else." The man stuck his arms straight out and held an imaginary steering wheel in the air between them. "You get behind the wheel, you gotta trust the other guy is gonna follow the rules, else you don't put it in gear, right?"
"Yeah, but -- "
"No buts, partner." The man dropped his hands. "That's the way it is. That's the way it's gotta be, else you'd never leave the house."
"Mostly I don't."
The man furrowed his brow. "No way to live, friend."
"Yeah, well, you're probably right."
It occurred to Steve that the stranger hadn't once raised the issue of how he had come through time to be sitting here sharing his grate with him. "So, you buy my story?"
"I've heard bigger whoppers."
"Well, mine's true."
Steve snorted. "How could you know?"
The stranger shrugged. "The Tall Man said you'd be by, and here you are."
Steve forgot all about how outlandish this day had been. "You've seen the Tall Man? You've talked to him?"
"Sure. And so have you. That makes us roomies for the night. Now if you don't mind, I'd like to get some sleep. I've got a big day tomorrow."
The man laid down with his back to Steve and was snoring almost immediately. Steve took the hint and curled up on his side of the grate ... but slumber wouldn't come.
The accident and the years following played over and over in his mind. He had lived with the belief that his mother and father had been burned alive, but now he knew they had not suffered that horror. He had also believed himself responsible, had tortured himself all through his career with that belief, and the belief that his parents felt his chosen field was worthless. But what he had heard in the restaurant....
That, and the homeless man's words, began to gnaw at him.
He had taken a drink before getting in the car, but when the police had given him a breathalyser, he'd been well under the legal limit. He had been smoking pot ... or had he? They'd been driving along, his friend had pulled out a bag and started rolling, but....
He hadn't had a single toke, and only a single swat of cheap whiskey. His parents' car had entered the intersection and there had been no way to avoid them.
Tears cascaded down Steve's face.
He curled up on the hard ribs of the grate and rocked back and forth until blessed oblivion finally came.
Steve stretched luxuriously, curled his toes and extended his legs as far as they would go under the sheets. He put his hands under the fat satin pillow behind his head and opened his eyes. The fan on his bedroom ceiling turned lazily, sending gentle currents of air wafting across his face. He blinked twice, then opened his eyes wide and sat bolt upright.
He fumbled for his alarm clock, and knocked it, his notepad and a small plastic bottle off the night stand in the process. He plucked the clock off the carpet and held it in front of his face.
8:03 a.m. Tuesday, July 22, 2005.
He gingerly put the digital timepiece back on the stand.
The Tall Man came last night....
Steve threw back the covers and sat on the side of his bed and ran trembling fingers through what was left of his hair.
This is impossible.
His clothes were on the floor by his feet. He pulled his pants out of the pile ... they were scuffed, torn ... he dropped them back on the pile and examined his knees. They were freshly scabbed over. He touched the abrasions and they stung, just as they'd stung when he'd dropped in the middle of the street by the mangled wreck of his parent's car.
It had happened.
He had been there again.
He picked up the bottle and notepad, and read what he'd written just before the Tall Man came.
He dropped the items on the bed, put on a robe, then grabbed the notepad again and tore off the page. He put it and the bottle in the pocket of his robe and padded out to the living room, past the orderly rows of plaques and gold records hanging on the walls.
He stood before the trophy at the center of the mantle over the fireplace, took it down, ran his fingers along the glossy surface, read the engraved inscription:
Steve Thomason, Producer of the Year
He remembered how drunk he'd been the night he received the award, how he had embarrassed the record company and himself by acting as though it was an imposition to climb up on stage to accept the heavy piece of acrylic, how he'd dropped it at his table and gone off to one of the late night parties without it and insulted the messenger who had brought it to him the next day.
He reverently set it back and adjusted its position among the jumble of other mementos of a long and successful career, then went to the kitchen. He turned on the hot water and poured the contents of the little bottle into the sink. He used his finger to mash the remnants through the strainer, then turned the water off and went back to the living room.
He fished the piece of paper out of his pocket and twisted it until it resembled a fat loosely wrapped wick, found and struck a match, and held the paper to the flame. Moments later he dropped it into the fireplace. It smoked and curled and finally disappeared, leaving a sooty black remnant that collapsed into powder when he nudged it with his big toe.
He slowly turned and regarded the place where he had lived alone for so many years. It looked like a stranger had moved out and left all their furniture behind.
He spotted the box full of yellow padded envelopes he'd brought home yesterday and absently dumped on the coffee table. He thumbed through the demos, examining the return addresses, and plucked one from the middle of the pile. He tore it open, removed the contents and smiled at the simple hand written words on the CD-R. He picked the disc out of the jewel case and put it in his stereo. A hypnotic a capella voice washed over him as he unfolded the cover letter and read:
'Dear Mister Thomason; My name is Katie....'
- END -