Episode 53: Thursday – Jacky

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Jacky was famished. He felt Krista’s rump pressed up against his and he heard her soft snoring, followed by a loud elongated growl in his stomach. He decided it was time to get up and eat no matter how much he wanted to just lie there and feel her body pressed against his. The curtains over his bedroom window where partially open, letting an oblong ray of light with particles of floating dust shine across the room and onto the opposite wall. It was still early.

He thought about what he should make for breakfast. He would have to cook for two. If he was this hungry after a night of sex, she would be as well. But he didn’t feel like cooking. The neighborhood was peppered with coffee shops and restaurants, all of them serving up delicious breakfasts. He decided they would eat out. He put his hand on her shoulder and leaned down to kiss her.

And stopped.

Something wasn’t right.

What is that? Something isn’t right here. What is it?

He moved his head closer, sniffing her shoulder and it came to him.

Her perfume. There’s something different. It was musky.

He was sure her perfume had been musky the night before. In fact, he could remember commenting to her about it and she’d replied that is was called Aphrodisiac or something like that and it was intended to turn a man on. What he smelled now was like—roses or something heavily fragrant. And definitely not musky.

He couldn’t imagine her getting up during the night and changing perfume.

Why would she do that?

She moaned quietly, a satisfied sound after a deep sleep. She was waking. He pressed deeper against her and kissed the side of her neck. The silhouette of her smiling lips and closed eyes fascinated him. She wrapped her arms around his arms and said, “This is the way I like to be waked up.” In a single blurring motion, she tore out of his arms and was on top of him, bearing down on his erection. “And this is what I like to do when I wake up.”

***

Half an hour later, she was snuggling up to him with her head on his chest. He loved the feeling of her breath on his skin, the heat of her body and the silky feel of her hair on his arm and shoulder. She had an appointment with one of her clients in the afternoon so they had the morning together. He caught a whiff of her perfume. Still the flowery scent.

“That’s weird,” he said.

“What’s weird?”

“Your perfume.”

“My perfume’s weird?”

“Well, no. I like it. But last night it had a musky smell and this morning it smells kind of…like flowers.”

Krista was quiet for a moment and Jacky sensed a change in her breathing.

“That happens sometimes.”

“What happens?”

“The perfume interacts with skin and body oils and the fragrance changes. Plus, we had some pretty steamy sex and the sweat from that can really change things.”

He wasn’t sure if she were serious or not. He’d never heard of fragrances changing from body interaction before but then, he never wore perfume, not even aftershave or deodorant. It was something his mother had discouraged.

“So, the fragrance can change that much. I mean, the musky smell was really strong.”

“It can be like two different scents altogether.” She rolled over and pulled him on top of her. “I have to leave soon and I can think of something I’d much rather be doing than talking about perfume.”

He forgot about the perfume.

***

Ever since Krista had started driving on cruise, even on city streets, she hadn’t gotten a single speeding ticket. Before cruise, it was two or three a year. And those were just the handful of times she’d been caught. The problem was her tendency to drift off into thoughts when she drove. She was aware of the roads, the other cars, the intersections and the lanes but the more exciting the thought the harder she pressed on the gas pedal. She was still aware enough to stop for signs and red lights but sometimes the braking was a bit of a breath-stopper if the thoughts were really exciting.

On cruise, she was fine. And right now, she needed fine. Something as inconsequential as her perfume. Of course he would remember the perfume from his “night before” which was a week ago for her. Laying out the clothing she’d worn that night wasn’t a problem—but the perfume? She thought that maybe she should stick with just one scent from now on but there was something about this whole situation that went much deeper than how she smelled around Jacky.

She was in love with a man she could see just once a week. Or was that true? Maybe she could have relationships with all seven of them. She’d be seeing seven men. Changing each day to match each of their personalities. And one of them was a woman in a man’s body. They were all so different than Jacky and it was Jacky she was in love with, for everything he was. But she was starting to realize that he was so much more than just Jacky. He was part of a sort of solar system of personalities spinning around a center. Of what? What was really at the center of their personalities? Could they really be seven separate entities with just the one thing in common, their body?

And if she just saw Jacky one day a week? What about the other six days of her week? In effect, she would be single on those days. She would be alone. How long could she be with a man she could see just once a week?

She would be seeing him that night and it maddened her that this was something that she couldn’t talk to him about. That she would have to work it out on her own. She would be lying next to him, knowing something so crucial in his life that he knew absolutely nothing about.

These were her thoughts as she drove through a top sign without seeing it.

***

The afternoon dragged, each second trudging on like hours, the hours casting a long dreary shadow into days. Jacky thought it was strange how time could fluctuate with mood. He just wanted to get out of the mall, get home and spend the evening with Krista even though she wouldn’t be there until around eight, as though just the fact of being home would speed time up.

He still wondered about the perfume. He asked one of his gallery regulars, a mid-age woman who wore distinctive—sometimes overly distinctive—perfumes about the scent changing after it was on someone’s skin. She told him that, yes, the best perfumes could change with body chemistry, “But, no, I don’t really think something as strong as Aphrodisiac could react with anyone’s body to smell flowery. It’s just not a flowery perfume.”

Why would Krista lie to me about something like that? Why would she change perfumes through the night?

It didn’t make any sense to him and the more he thought about it, the more it drove him crazy that there was no logical explanation. He touched the top of his head. The bump was completely gone, the cut healed.

The bumpit’s not something anyone would forget. Why can’t I remember?

“Shrug it off,” his mother had said. Each time he’d done that, it made it easier to forget again until, eventually, he didn’t even have to try to forget, it just happened.

But now he wasn’t forgetting. Whatever had caused the bump on his head was likely serious enough to have caused a permanent injury, maybe even death. And Krista, for whatever reason, had changed perfumes during the night and then lied to him about it.

But why?

That night, when she came over to his place, he was going to find out.

***

Krista was an hour late and Jacky was beginning to worry. He was tempted to call her but he didn’t want to appear to be interfering or controlling. As much as he was sure that he was in love with her, he didn’t know her enough to know if she were always punctual. But she was starting her own business and so far she was doing great so he expected that she would be professional and being professional meant being on time. But he wasn’t one of her clients. And maybe she was with a client, working late. But he was sure she would have called him if she knew she was going to be late. But maybe the battery was dead in her cell phone. Maybe it was in her car and she couldn’t get away from work to get to her phone. Maybe her phone was dead and she was caught in traffic. He wasn’t sure which client she had to see today but he knew that at least one of them lived out of town, probably a one or two hour drive.

He finished up his latest batch of images and turned off his laptop. He walked to the window and looked out over the park. He figured that he’d likely taken over ten thousand pictures in there over the years. It was a peaceful, inviting place. He loved that there were always people, even at night. And he’d never heard of anyone getting mugged, robbed or murdered in the park. It seemed to be away from everything else in the city, as was the whole neighborhood. It was something he’d always wondered about, that the neighborhood seemed to be like an island floating in the ocean of the city, unseen and unnoticed. He rarely saw strange faces in the park or on the streets or sidewalks. And when he was biking, he noticed immediately that, when he crossed into the streets beyond the four corners of the park, it was like crossing into another world, a world less friendly and less familiar.

Where could she be? It’s almost an hour and a half. Why hasn’t she called?

It still bothered him that he didn’t feel right about the perfume. It was too much, too much to expect him to not notice and then pretend that he believed her story about body chemistry changing the fragrance into something completely different. She wasn’t telling him the truth and this time he wasn’t going to just shrug it off and get on with things like he had all his life. This time he was going to face it head on and find out what had happened.

Why did she change her perfume? Why did she lie to me about it?

Night settled peacefully over the park. The street lights had fewer bugs circling each night as Fall crept closer to winter and the temperatures fell lower each night. He noticed that there seemed to be more runners and joggers at this time of the day than at any other. But then it made sense, more people were off work in the evening and had time to run. And maybe that was one of the things that made the park safe at night: so many runners. People in great shape and in great numbers. Muggers beware!

Where is she?

He was beginning to feel a seed of panic in his stomach. Krista wasn’t inconsiderate. She was the kind of person who, if she knew she was going to be late, would call. Even if she had to use someone else’s phone. Jacky was worried. He had her number on his cell phone and all he had to do was call her and find out why she was late. It was OK to do that. They were seeing each other. He had a right to worry about her, a duty to worry about her. He walked back to his workspace and picked up his cell phone. He swiped it on and pressed for his contact page. There was her name. There was her number. All he had to do was press on it.

Do it.

He pressed her number and put the phone to his ear. It buzzed a few times before a voice came on. It was a woman’s voice. She sounded stressed. But it wasn’t Krista’s voice.

“Yes?”

There was a sadness in her voice, a lifelessness that chilled Jacky. His stomach knotted.

“Is that you, Krista?” But he knew it wasn’t her.

Silence.

“Who is this?” said the voice.

“My name is Jacky. I’m a friend of Krista’s.”

There was another silence. Jacky was certain that he could hear sobbing, very faintly, muted.

“Is something wrong?” he asked. “Is Krista OK?” The knot in his stomach tightened. He knew something was wrong. Krista was in some kind of trouble. “Hello?”

The sobbing became louder.

“I’m Kasia, Krista’s sister.” Silence. “There was an accident.” The voice weak, faltering.

Oh no.

“She was always so…” A subdued moan. “She…she drove through a stop sign. A truck hit her. Krista is…she’s dead.”

The connection died.

No.

He fell to his knees.

No.

He stared at the wall, shaking his head slowly.

No.

He stayed on the floor, on his knees, staring at the wall until it was the time and he fell forward and sprawled on the floor, asleep.

***

Downstairs, Natalie, still weak from her heart attack and slightly dizzy from the drugs, slept on her chesterfield, the one she’d snuggled up on so many times with all her children.

 

 

 

Episode 52: Wednesday – Jax

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Why are my feet so sore? And my legs.

Jax reached under the blankets and rubbed his feet.

His left leg felt like it would spasm at any moment. He stretched and wiggled his body around until he felt his leg relax. His back was sore as well.

Must have had some active dreams…like, running a marathon or something.

It wasn’t long though before recent events washed over the pain in his legs. He’d always been driven by the hope he drew from Ratlas, knowing that if he kept listening to the message and passing it on that someday people would listen and create a world without plastic, a world that he would have helped create by spreading the message. .

But now, there was just emptiness and silence. He sat, staring at his laptop, waiting for Ratlas’ message, but there was nothing. No music from the convergence of all that inhabited the internet, the comings and goings and interactions and postings and comments and emails and articles and videos, every bit and byte from the billions of souls pouring out their happiness, misery, joy, consternation, curiosity, hopes and fears, questions, doubts, findings, worries, every feeling and thought. He stared into the screen, waiting, hearing nothing, feeling nothing.

He was alone—swamped by silence. For the first time in his life, he was afraid. For the first time in his life he felt meaningless, that his life was pointless and that he had no purpose.

He stared at the screen for hours before it occurred to him that he hadn’t checked the blog.

Sure enough, there was a comment. It was from Simon Pierce. Blood rose to his face and made the vessels in his forehead stick out like crimson vines on red brick.

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More than anything in the world, Jax wanted to kill Simon Pierce. He wanted to jump up and down on his chest and feel his rib cage cracking and collapsing under his feet. He wanted to feel Simon Pierce’s organs squashing into mush. He wanted to spit in his face as he pulverized it with a baseball bat. He wanted to hurt Pierce, make him feel pain, humiliation, remorse, fear. He wanted to bare Pierce’s psyche in front of a mirror and show the monster how inconsequential he was.

Blood vessels in his hands bulged with fury. He breathed deeply, slowly, malevolently.

He needed to kill Pierce. It was no longer a matter of being ordered by Ratlas, or plugging the leak of pollution into the world that Pierce was. Now, it was a matter of just wanting him dead. He wanted—needed—Simon Pierce dead and he wanted to be the lucky person to make him dead.

Dead. Dead. Dead.

He rebooted and tried to recreate the sign-in screen that had given him Pierce’s address but he couldn’t do it. He wondered even more about whether or not he’d actually seen that screen. He wondered if he’d just imagined it.

Maybe it was just a dream?

If it were a dream, then it was the only one he’d ever had that he could remember. He knew that he’d dreamed before. In fact, he could sense the variety and intensity of his dreams in his waking state but he could never remember happened in them. The knowledge of them was just…there.

And just how crazy was it to think that the monster lived in the same building as him?

He re-read the comment.

So, Simon Pierce…you won’t meet with me in the field of consequence and own up to the devil that you are. Then, somehow, I’ll have to hunt you down.

He thought about this. He wondered how he was going to hunt down Pierce. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of angry parents and others had tried to locate him, but no one had ever succeeded and the vitriol had continued to pour into the internet. But somehow Jax had to do better. He had to be smarter. He had to be the one to find Simon Pierce and kill him. He was sure that it was the only way that Ratlas would ever contact him again. It was the only way that he could continue to be the messenger.

Being the messenger was the center of his universe and he wasn’t going to let scum like Simon Pierce destroy that center.

***

After hours of cruising the internet and tracking down obscure search tools to use in his search for Simon Pierce, he’d come up with nothing. It was like Pierce didn’t exist, like his books just magically appeared from no physical source..

As far as the internet was concerned, Simon Pierce existed only as a series of books and complaints about the books. There was an email address but it trailed off into a barrage of servers that made it impossible to locate.

And there were the smart-ass comments that he’d made on Ratlas’ blog, defiling the word and its message.

Bastard. How would he know if people are reading my blog or not? And what would he know about hope? Simon Piercethe biggest pit of hopelessness in the world. And why is he thanking me? How could I possibly have helped him write his masterpiece?

It struck him like a thunderbolt.

Masterpiece? He’s written a masterpiece?

The word reverberated in his mind.

Masterpiece.

Simon Pierce had written a masterpiece, a book that would likely cause thousands, millions to give up hope.

He must be stopped. I must find him. I must kill him. I need Ratlas’ help.

He sat in front of the laptop, hands at his sides, opening his mind and feelings, listening for the sounds that only he could hear. He sat for hours. It was nearly the time. He hadn’t eaten all day but he wasn’t hungry. He was tired. He felt drained both physically and mentally.

And then he heard it. It was faint at first, like a far off sound of pigeons cooing. He slowed his breathing, relaxed his body. The sound grew, interlaced now with a something that hinted of waves crashing into cliffs, not loud, but subdued and far off. He heard children laughing, horns honking, icebergs sliding into the sea, buildings crumbling under the impact of exploding shells and then rebuilding, oceans swaying under the weight of plastic and disoriented aquatic life and light from the earth and the sky shining up and down on the plastic and absorbing it into nothingness. And Jax smiled and nearly laughed. Ratlas was back.

It has not forsaken me.

“Jax MacDonald, I am the message that crawls under your skin and swims painfully in the well of your indifference until you accept my message and carry it to the world.”

Carry it to the world.

“You are not to worry, Jax MacDonald.”

I am not to worry.

“The evil that is Simon Pierce will be dealt with.”

Dealt with.

“You are my prophet.”

I am.

“You will be saved. The world will be saved.”

I’m going to be saved. We’re all going to be saved.

“You’re tired. Go and sleep now.

I must sleep.

***

Krista watched as his facial features changed. The changes were subtle and weren’t so much physical as the compilation of a series of physical changes, the tightening of muscles in the left cheek, the lifting of an eyebrow over the right eye, a miniscule relaxation of the jaw. They were barely visible but added together, the face of Jax MacDonald transformed into the face of Jacky Carson.

She mentally went through a checklist of things they’d done the week before and looked at the chair beside the bed to make sure that the clothing was exactly what Jacky had last seen her wearing. Everything was in order.

Krista laid her head on Jacky’s back, slid her right leg between his and closed her eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

Episode 51: Tuesday – Jackson

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Jackson woke up to a rumbling stomach. He was starved to the point of nausea. He assumed that he must have had some abnormally calorie-burning dream. It seemed strange though—before going to bed, he’d eaten half a pound of chicken wings that he’d picked after his walk in the park.

The park. He played back his walk in the park like a movie unfolding in his mind.

It wasn’t a big park, but once he was in the center, the trees blocked the view of buildings on all four sides. To Jackson, it was like being in the middle of nowhere, cut off from the outside world. There was a square at the center of the park with a fifteen foot high granite sculpture. It looked like a giant donut with spikes. He wondered about its significance. A warning against junk food? You can have your donut, but you can’t eat it too? There was no plaque with an explanation or a name for the piece—just a fifteen foot high granite donut with spikes. He sat on one of the four benches lined up in front of it and stared through the hole in the sculpture at the trees with their faded leaves pasted against a metallic gray sky. He closed his eyes and listened to the sound of joggers and baby carriage wheels. Wind rustled the dry leaves on the grass and in the trees all around him. A man and woman talked quietly as they passed behind. He heard a group of children laughing on one of the paths leading into the square. Someone sat on one of the benches to his right, someone with plastic shopping bags, someone who breathed deep and desperately.One too many cigarettes, I’m guessing.

Someone sat on a bench behind him. He heard the sound of texting and imagined a young man or woman with their head buried in their phone, oblivious of the park. The volume of footsteps and chatter grew slowly until the square resounded with human activity, bustling all around him, roaring with the presence of other people.

But he sat quietly, unperturbed, eyes closed, calm. He felt like he was a part of it all. He savored the aroma of perfumes and aftershaves, dying leaves and autumn flowers, unchanged diapers, food from the bistros and restaurants.

Popcorn. Someone’s eating popco

He’d stayed there till dark, reveling in the presence of people. He’d felt like a cork bouncing around in a sea of humanity, letting himself be carried along by the flesh and bone tide. On the way home, he’d stopped by a restaurant for wings. He’d picked them right down to the bone.

Why am I so hungry?

He decided to have something different for breakfast today, something big and filling—eggs and bacon, toast and coffee, home fried potatoes and baked beans. And he was going to eat it in one of the bistros, in clear view of everyone, as part of the crowd.

***

He was slightly disappointed that he’d been the only customer in the bistro. He’d wanted to be around people, eat breakfast with the buzz of conversations and the clinking and clacking of people eating, and they could have looked at him all they wanted. But the food had been great. He’d let the hugely overweight Lebanese man behind the counter talk him into the “big” breakfast: eggs, home fries, bacon, ham, sausages, toast and coffee. And beans.

For the first time in his life, Jackson was stuffed. He’d never eaten so much. He’d never imagined that he could eat so much…sticking always to balanced, sensible meals. Years before, he’d designed some courses for a retired nutritionist and his diet had propelled from healthy to obscenely healthy. He smiled as he sat down on the bench facing his flat. It felt good to be stuffed. Every time he burped, he tasted the totality of the flavors of his breakfast mingling in his stomach to create a beautiful culinary experience.

I’ve been missing this all these years? What have I been doing, wrapped up in work every day, living indoors, ordering things in, sending things out, hunched over a computer day after day? Afraid to go outside. Afraid to be seen. Afraid to interact with people in the flesh and blood of their real presence. Jackson Gabriel, it’s time for a complete overhaul of your life. And that starts right now.

***

He sat down at this laptop. He had no new courses on the go. Mostly, he was evaluating course outlines, maintaining his e-commerce website and compiling reports. There was nothing he was doing that he couldn’t put on the back burner for a few weeks. He had a new message to send to his clients, one that he liked much better than the first one.

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Yes, much better. More direct and conversational.

He clicked Send and waited. Sure enough. He smiled as he opened the email from Jody.

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Jackson smiled as he wrote back to Jody.

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He read the message over several times, savoring every word, before he clicked Send, smiling wider by the minute.

Take that Jody Blake. Wish I’d done this years ago. Wish I’d taken vacation years ago. Wish I hadn’t spent my whole working life cooped up in this flat. Wish I hadn’t always been such a chicken shit when it came to people. Yeah, Jody Blake, take that.

He laughed out loud and his body shook as he laughed. It occurred to him that he couldn’t remember laughing since he was a kid. This made him laugh even harder. He laughed until his cheeks were sore and his lips twitched. He wasn’t sure how long he laughed but it felt good, like a dam of repression collapsing and flooding through the downstream of his life.

He felt light and free. He didn’t have to deal with Jody anymore. Sure, there would be one last email from him and that email was likely to come soon. But he didn’t have to answer it if he didn’t feel like it. Jody was no longer one of his clients. He was someone else’s problem Jackson was free.

He heard the ding and saw the message. It was from Jody. He opened it.

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Jackson laughed out loud again and decided not to respond to the message.

Time to drive him nuts with a little silence. I wonder if he’ll get in touch with Roy to find out if I’m still working for him. Screw this, time for a walk in the park.

***

The morning light spread a warm buttery glow over the trees and buildings. It was an unusually warm autumn day and most people wore t-shirts and shorts, except the seniors, who hunkered down on benches in heavy fall jackets. Jackson noticed that, where there were two or more seniors on the same bench usually glorifying the past and condemning the present and wondering where it’s all going, they were silent today and sat on their benches just staring at the unfolding of what was shaping up to be a beautiful day.

Jackson sensed an underlying optimistic energy and wondered if that might just be his own feelings overlaid on the park. He wouldn’t have to deal with Jody Blake anymore. Not that Jody had been an unusually bothersome client but there had always been a stilted air in his messaging and it had always irritated some deep-seated part of Jackson’s psyche to see the man dressed in a suit in his kitchen during Skype meetings. Their business relationship had never been friendly, more like detached and impersonal. The feud between Jody and Roy had for the most part been amusing even when it put some additional stress on him.

He could understand how Jody’s wife would have left him for Roy. But it was a beautiful day and Jackson didn’t have to deal with Jody Blake anymore.

He wondered if he would see the girl he’d talked to the last time he was here. That had been later in the day and she was probably in school now. He wondered where Roy was going to go on his vacation. Probably someplace warm with palm trees and green ocean water. He wondered about Mrs. Gilbert’s apparent miraculous recovery from her heart attack. He wondered why he hadn’t visited her in the hospital, why it hadn’t even occurred to him. Visiting her would have been the right thing to do. She’d always been good to him. She was one of only a few people with whom he’d ever had regular in-person contact. Visiting her would have been the normal thing to do.

But he hadn’t.

Why was that? Why didn’t I visit her?

He stopped suddenly. He’d been thinking so hard and for so long that he hadn’t even noticed where he was going. And now he faced something he’d never seen before: the other side of the park. He’d walked right through the entire park. He looked at a row of buildings similar to the ones on his own street, most of them three story brown and red brick buildings but most of these buildings were both commercial and residential with galleries, coffee shops and craft stores at street level and rentals above.

He made his way slowly to a crosswalk, continuously looking from the sidewalk to the buildings and to the sidewalk and to the buildings. He felt a deep excitement, a thrill of discovery and a sense of freedom. He wasn’t bothered by the people he passed, even the ones who looked straight into his eyes, their faces expressionless or amused. He knew that he wasn’t acting normal, that his excitement was showing but he didn’t care. He was beyond that now. That was a habit he’d outgrown. He was the new Jackson Gabriel, fearless stroller of sidewalks and insatiable bistro customer. As he crossed the street, sensing the cars stopping on either side, he felt a sense of power he’d never felt before. He was in charge here and his legs were guided by his mind to glide him over the crosswalk and onto the sidewalk on the other side of the street. As he stepped from the pavement to the concrete, he felt a sense of elation and empowerment. How many times had he looked out his window at the park and seen the tops of the buildings that towered over him at this moment? How many times had he seen the tops of these buildings and never consciously wondered about them? For years, these buildings had been right in his face but if someone had asked him a few hours ago what was on the other side of the park he probably would have said, “Sky.”

He went into a coffee shop and ordered an expresso and a ham and cheese bagel. He sat by the window so that he could watch people walking by. He was amazed at the people. He’d never really looked at people before and never really thought about them. But not anymore. He stared right into the eyes of pedestrians and he was sure that he made more than one of them feel uncomfortable.

Back on the sidewalk, he decided to take the long way home. Instead of going through the park, he would take the sidewalk. He’d always seen the park as a busy place throughout the day and into the evening but he’d never noticed the human traffic on the sidewalks on the other side of the street from the park. He would have had to look straight down from his window to see that…and the movement of people around the benches, bushes and trees in the park had always been a magnet for his eyes.

It was early afternoon and the sun was high in the sky. People were taking off their jackets and slinging them over their shoulders. Those who were fresh outside wore shorts and t-shirts. Street traffic, as usual, was light with more motorcycles and bicycles than cars and trucks. The only vehicles that appeared with frequency were buses that were almost always practically empty. He noticed pigeons perched on eves and ledges. They seemed to melt into the architecture and give it sound with their soft cooing. There was a sense of life and vitality all around him, a closeness of humanity that was assuring and comfortable. He didn’t know any of these people but he felt an affinity to them. He wondered why he’d never felt this before, why he’d always felt like an outsider.

But then, wasn’t that what his mother had taught him? Wasn’t that what he’d felt so many times when things had happened that he couldn’t explain, most recently, the bump on his head. How did that happen? It should drive him nuts, not knowing. But it didn’t. It never had. He’d always just shrugged it off and gotten on with things. His mother’s words: “Let it go and just get on with things. There are things that don’t need explanation in the life of someone as special as you, Jackson. You’re different and your experience of the world will always be different than the people around you.”

And maybe that’s why he always felt so nervous around other people. They were different. And he was different.

But not today. Today, he was right here in the midst of them, sharing their sidewalk, their park, their air. Nobody was looking at him as though he were weird. Nobody stared. Mostly, when they met his eyes, they smiled. He felt like he belonged here on the sidewalk with them. A middle aged woman in a blue sundress smiled at him as their eyes met and he said, “Beautiful day today.”

“It certainly is,” she said as she walked past him, still smiling.

If Jackson had had wings at that moment, he would have spent the rest of the afternoon soaring in the sky over the park.

***

After supper, he stood in the window looking down at the park. He saw everything differently now. He felt like he was looking at something that was a part of himself, something familiar but at the same time surrounded by an aura of newness and adventure. He decided he was going to start questioning things more often. It was too late to do anything about the bump. He wouldn’t even know where to start. But there was a difference with the bump. Before now, he would have forgotten about it. But not this time. This time he was going to write these things down, keep a log and maybe over time figure out what was happening when bumps mysteriously appeared on his head.

And he decided to put the travel plans on hold for a while. He had a whole new world to explore right here in the neighborhood that had been virtually a mystery to him for over a decade.

For the first time in ages, Jackson was excited to the core.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Episode 50: Monday – Jack

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Episode 50

Jack woke up feeling good. He remembered his date with Valerie. A coffee shop. The Tinker. The second time he’d stood her up. He tried to remember what had happened to spook him that time but the memory was long gone.

Traumatic enough to have caused amnesia? But what about the cuts, bruises, scrapes? A lifetime of trauma? I don’t think so.

His thoughts turned back to Valerie and he smiled to himself. 

I’m going to be with her again. I’m going to spend time with her in real life. I’m not running anymore.

He’d broken down a barrier. He wasn’t sure exactly what that barrier was but he understood now that he’d always been looking for an excuse to run—searching the location, the people, anything that would trigger the alarm and send him into the street in panic. 

He wondered about that. He wondered why it was that he’d always felt threatened. Why he was so sure that some agency or organization was out to get him. He’d never done anything to warrant being seen as an enemy of the state, or an enemy to anything or anyone. The evil organization in his comic strip was fictitious, something straight out of his imagination. The chances of his having hit on something that actually existed in the real world were non-existent. And if he had, he very likely would have been “eliminated” years ago. 

What happened to make me so damned paranoid?

He couldn’t think of anything. Probably something that had happened in his early childhood and he’d long since forgotten about it. Like he’d forgotten so many things in his life.

Why do I forget?

He thought it might be related to something his mother had said to him. She’d said so many things about accepting things, about moving past “details you can never understand.”

What details? What can’t I understand? Why can’t I understand them?

The bump. 

Why can I never understand that? I know it was there. Why can’t I remember? Why can’t I understand? What’s going to happen if I start understanding these things?

Jack’s entire body froze. He felt a cold slice of energy slashing down through his spine and into the backs of his legs.

What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen if I remember? 

He knew this was the key. If he started to remember things, something was going to happen. He knew it. He wasn’t sure if it would be good or bad but he tended more toward something bad because he’d tried so hard all his life to not allow it to happen.

But the feeling that there were others close by and unseen was something that had always been there. Sometimes it had been strong, sometimes weak. Lately, it had been a bit stronger than usual but it hadn’t affected him as much as it normally would because, suddenly, there was something new in his life: Valerie Vine. For the first time, there was a woman in his life.

A woman. This was something he’d never thought would happen. He’d never invited it, never gone to bars or events to meet women. He couldn’t even remember being in a situation where he would meet women. It just didn’t occur to him. It was like the instinct to mate had always been somehow subdued. His mother had never said anything about it. It just wasn’t there. Until Valerie Vine had come into his life and even then he’d put off anything from happening for so long. But not anymore. He’d finally broken through the paranoia and stayed for the date. And tonight, he had another date with her. Time now, though, to put everything else on hold and get to work on his strip.

***

It was strange. He hadn’t worked on the strip for a while. He wasn’t sure how long—it had been longer than any other time he could remember but it didn’t take much to get back into it. It was like the script had been writing itself in the back of his head.

Bobcat’s eyes were wide and fearful as she said, “The Fourth Prerogative!” The lettering spilled into the next panel where she thrust her cell phone in front of her as text appeared showing the rest of the group repeating her words and thrusting their cell phones so that they all touched in a circle as they repeated, “THE FOURTH PREROGATIVE!” In the next panel, a dazzling light emerged from the connected cell phones. Cougar and Bobcat’s faces appeared almost maniacal as they stared at the light. The next panel showed the outside of the tree house with light spilling through the windows and through cracks in wood slats of the walls and roof. A beam of blue light smashed through the roof of the tree house, shattering bits of wood and metal, and the beam blazed into the night sky in a panel showing the massive tree and the house, and miles to the right of the tree, the Tryanny motorcade, its lights shining ominously along the road.

The beam struck the bottom of a cloud with a splash of iridescent blue light that rained down on the Tyranny motorcade. As their dark cars were soaked by the rain they transformed into a dull pulsing blue and the SUVs began to beat like blue hearts faster and faster and the dull blue turned bright blue, brighter and brighter. The motorcade ground to a half in the middle of the road and the car doors flew open. Men in dark clothing staggered out and fell to the road, gyrating and screaming. After a few minutes, they went still and then stood up shakily and stared at the scenery around them. They looked at each other with confusion, as though they were strangers. Some walked uncertainly from the road and into the wheat fields on the other side of the ditches, snagging their clothing on fencing, too disoriented to cry out in pain, just moving into the fields and disappearing. Others followed the road like newborn zombies. Two of them just fell to the pavement and sobbed.

And that was what the Fourth Prerogative did. 

Bobcat’s eyes filled the frame, the scene on the road reflected in them, with the caption:

It makes them forget!

Jack’s hand froze over the paper the second he finished the exclamation mark.  

It makes them forget! 

I need to talk to Valerie.

***

Time had been a kick in the ass for the Tinker Coffee Shop and Bistro. The walls were cracked and yellowed, the tables and chairs covered with peeling veneer, and whenever he or Valerie put their hands on the table it sloped enough to spill coffee from the coarse grey mugs.

But he was with Valerie in the second place he’d run away from her and this time he hadn’t run. He’d told her about the ending for his latest Unseen episode, which he hadn’t published yet. He wasn’t sure how to broach the history of forgetfulness in his life. He was sure she would think he was crazy. She told him she loved the ending.

“And it fits so well with their philosophy of not actually harming anyone,” she said. “The bad guys just forget who and what they are. They can start new lives. Maybe good, maybe bad. They still have free choice. Brilliant, Jack, brilliant!” She pushed her coffee mug across the table top closer to his. “But you don’t seem too happy about it. You seem tense. You don’t still think that I’m with them, even though I am, but that I’m going to shoot you or anything, do you?”

 It took a few seconds for her words to sink in before they both laughed. 

“No, I don’t think you’re going to shoot me. If you were, you would have done it long ago, probably for standing you up so many times.”

Her smile widened as she pushed her mug closer. 

“There’s something about the ending that kind of relates to my own life.” He took a deep breath. “And I’m not sure how to explain it. I’m not even sure if you’ll think I’m sane after I try to explain it.” He squeezed his hands around his coffee mug. The tips of his fingers turned white. 

“Jack, you’re an illustration artist who thinks a secret organization has been watching you all your life and wants to eliminate you for some unknown reason and this has caused you to stand me up on date after date until now.” She leaned in closer over the table. “Jack, I already know that you’re insane.” She smiled. “Now, tell me what’s going on in your head, crazy guy.”

He smiled as blood ran to his head and he felt it flushing his cheeks and forehead. “All my life, I’ve been forgetting things.”

“We all do that, Jack.”

“No. I mean seriously forgetting things, things that I shouldn’t forget. I had a bump almost the size of an egg recently, and a cut that must’ve bled a lot. It’s almost healed now, but I don’t remember how I got it. I mean, there’s no way I could’ve forgotten something that must have been excruciatingly painful and bloody. I should have a clear memory of the incident. It should be painfully etched in my memory. It should be something I’d love to forget, but can’t.”

Valerie stared into his eyes. She didn’t say anything and her expression was completely non-committal. He wondered if he’d said too much…if she was sure now that he was, in fact, insane. He felt insane. After a few minutes of silence that seemed to emanate throughout the room, she spoke.

“It was your head, Jack. Maybe the jolt to your head caused a sort of amnesia and you forgot the accident. That wouldn’t be unusual and it wouldn’t make you crazy.”

“But it’s been all my life. Ever since I was a child things have happened that anyone else would remember. Valerie, I don’t remember losing any of my baby teeth. Not one. I’ve had cuts and scratches, bruises and pulled muscles that were just there and I couldn’t remember what happened to me to get them. I’ve waked up sick as hell with the flu or a cold without any of the symptoms first, just full-blown into it. But I’ve always just shrugged it off. My mother taught me to do that, said I was different and that I’d just have to accept certain things and forget them but I’m not sure if I can do it anymore. You say I might have some kind of amnesia from the bump on my head but it’s just happened too often. It’s something else, and I have no idea what that can possibly be.”

Valerie slid her hands over the tabletop and cupped them around Jack’s hands. “I’m sure there’s some rational explanation for this. In what way did your mother say you were different?”

Jack thought for a moment. “She said that I would perceive things differently than other people, that I had a brain condition that made my brain function differently than others but that it wasn’t dangerous or debilitating or anything…it just meant that things would happen that seemed to have no explanation or didn’t jibe with the experiences of other people and all I had to do was just accept it and get on with things. But…” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “…it’s getting harder and harder to do that. I want to know what’s wrong with me. I want to know if there’s a cure or some kind of therapy or program I can get into. I want to know what caused the bump on my head. I want to remember that.” He pulled his hands away from Valerie’s grip on them, put his elbows on the table and propped his chin on his fists. “You said there was some kind of discrepancy about my birthday and that’s why I was flagged for investigation. What was the discrepancy?”

Valerie’s eyes squinted slightly as her posture stiffened. She knew that she had to be careful. Whatever was going on in Jack’s mind could jeopardize him and the six other personalities. She needed to talk to Natalie soon. It looked to her like things were heading toward some kind of flash point with Jack and she wondered if the other personalities were experiencing the same thing. “It was nothing really. Just different birth dates from the hospital. We see that all the time. It’s just some administrative foul-up. The hospital records are messed up and sometimes different dates get sent out to different government departments. Like I said, it’s pretty common and I can’t see how it can have anything to do with you forgetting things.”

“I need to know what’s going on, Valerie. I can’t keep ignoring it. I need to know.”

Valerie motioned with her finger for Jack to come closer. They leaned toward each other and she kissed him lightly on the lips. Jack’s eyebrows rose. 

Valerie smiled and ran her right hand over the side of his face. “I’ll check at work tomorrow and see if we have anything unusual on file but I doubt there will be anything.”

Jack barely heard a word she said. It was the first time a woman, other than his mother, had kissed him. 

***

It was almost the time and for the first time ever Jack didn’t feel the least bit tired. He could still feel Valerie’s lips, the closeness of her face and her hand passing over his cheek. It was something he hadn’t expected and something he’d never given thought to. He’d lived his life in fear of something that didn’t exist, an unnamed threat that, after all these years, he realized never existed. All these years, the real threat had been himself, his unreasonable fear. No one was after him. No one was trying to trap him. No one was watching him through nanobots in his socks. No one was tailing him on those rare occasions when he ventured outside, like to run away from a date with Valerie. 

It was all just in his mind and he had to do something about that.

At exactly midnight he fell asleep still feeling the kiss on his lips, her hand on his face.

***

Her face glowed red from the stop light hanging in the center of the intersection, highlighting the light wrinkling of her forehead, the heaviness of her eyes. 

Something’s happening to him. Natalie’s training isn’t working. He’s starting to think for himself, to question things. Need to talk to her…soon.

 

 

 

Episode 49: Sunday – Jackie

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Episode 49

Jackie was just finishing washing her breakfast dishes when she heard the familiar knock. She hadn’t expected it so soon and immediately felt a rush of guilt for not visiting Mrs. Gilbert in the hospital. She strode to the door and opened it.

“I’m so sorry, Mrs.…” The guilt vanished immediately, replaced by amazement. “You did recently have a heart attack, didn’t you?”

Natalie laughed heartily. “Yes, I did Jackie. But, it turned out to be more of a warning signal than a threat. Mind you, I will have to make some diet changes and take some medication, but all in all, I’m feeling very good.” She crossed her arms. “Just thought I’d drop by and see if there’s anything you need.”

***

Jackie smiled as she closed the door. It was as though nothing had happened to Mrs. Gilbert. She was as vibrant as always and not the slightest dimming of the sparkle in her eyes. She still felt bad about not visiting her in the hospital but she knew that Mrs. Gilbert understood. 

That’s one tough woman. But you really should have gone to the hospital to visit her. Why didn’t you? Why didn’t you go to the hospital to visit her?

Jackie knew there was a reason, a very exact reason for her not visiting Mrs. Gilbert but she couldn’t define it. It was there, lurking somewhere just under the surface of all the excuses she might try to make up like “I wasn’t feeling well.” “I was trying to deal with a crazy lady.” “I’m kind of preoccupied with getting my sex changed.” There was something else, something familiar even. 

What is that? Why didn’t I visit her?

She sat down at her laptop and stared at the blank monitor for a few minutes. She didn’t feel like researching sex changes today. She didn’t feel like writing. She let out a long dissatisfied sigh, stood up slowly and walked to the window. It was overcast with that amount of gray that could go either way, rain or just more cloud. For some reason, she started to think about the weather forecast. It appeared on her custom tool bar, the temperature and the condition—whether it was rain, sun, cloud, or snow. She seemed to recall it forecasting clouds for today. She wondered about the usefulness of a forecast when all she had to do was look out the window and there it was, the weather: sunny with clouds, heavy rain and high winds, light snow. 

What’s the use of a weather forecast? 

Almost as soon as the thought came into her mind she was distracted by the milling crowds of people in the park. Nothing ever stopped the park people from going to the park and doing their park thing. The runners would run in hurricanes if they had to. The bench warmers would bring plastic and umbrellas if they had to. The baby walkers would walk their babies because they had to, or go nuts. A thought suddenly popped into her mind. 

She’d never gone for a walk in that park. She’d never sat on one of those benches. The park had always been like an enclosed glass container that, when you shook it, the inside would fill with weather and people would do things in that weather. It was never something that she felt was a part of her, other than something she observed every day and, over the years, had seen the same people coming and going and doing their park thing. She wondered why she’d never given them names and it occurred to her that she’d never even wondered about any of them, what they did when they weren’t in the park, where they lived, what kind of buildings they lived in, where they worked, what their families were like. And she was a writer.

Shouldn’t I be looking at people and asking myself those questions? Shouldn’t I be curious? I’m a writer for god’s sake. I should be down there mingling with those people, observing them closely, listening in on conversations, taking notes, getting to know a few people and asking them about the others. 

She knew the seniors who spent their days on the benches eager to talk to anyone who would listen would have much to say about the area and likely most of the people who were regulars at the park. She could learn so much from them.

And what about just lying in the grass and looking up at the cloud formations through the branches of the trees with their fiery boughs of fall colors that were just starting to fade. What about strolling along the sidewalk and stopping to admire the wilting flowers in the gardens scattered throughout the park? 

All these years and I’ve never done any of those things. Well, time to change that.

She strode into the bedroom and changed into jeans and a sweater, put on her jacket from the coat rack by the door and went outside. 

***

Sitting on the steps outside her building, she stared across the street at the rich source of experience and conversation that was hers for the taking once she started to mingle and become part of the movement and rhythm of the park. She thought about listening to the seniors talking about their working lives and how happy they were to finally be away from the grind, or how much they missed having a place to go from nine till five other than a park bench. She pictured herself standing next to a large maple tree, looking out over a dying garden and listening to the conversation of couples and groups as they passed. She looked at a clearing in the park and imagined herself lying on her back staring into the sky with nothing particular on her mind. 

She sat on the step throughout the afternoon and evening until it was the time and went upstairs. She went to the washroom and then went directly to bed without eating. 

 

 

Episode 48: Saturday – Jac

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Episode 48

For the first time since he could remember, Jac waked from a dreamless sleep. His bed was dry, his mind and body were calm. He smiled.

***

What is this guy’s fixation on plastic? Jac chuckled as he read the blog. He wants to meet me on the field of honor and consequence? For a duel?

Jac re-read the post. He noticed that his address wasn’t used this time. He wondered about that. Maybe the crazy guy had made some kind of wild guess that wasn’t paying off? Maybe he knew but couldn’t do anything or didn’t know what to do or how to do it?

He hasn’t done anything yet except talk and taunt. If he were going to do anything, he would have done it by now.

It still nagged him that the blog had mentioned his physical address, twice. But since he was likely the only person on earth to read the blog, it didn’t matter how many times the crazy guy mentioned his address. No one except himself was ever going to see it.

Looks like the internet has gotten so big that you can hide on it just like you could hide in some remote godforsaken place on planet Earth at one time. Well, crazy guy, I guess I should meet your challenge and raise you. Whatever.

He wrote for exactly sixty seconds and laughed as he clicked the Post button.

This one’s gotta hurt. Let’s see how the little arsehole responds.

There was a knock at the door. Jac immediately recognized it: Mrs. Gilbert. He walked to the door and opened it, and there she was, smiling, twinkle-eyed and looking like she hadn’t seen the inside of a hospital in about, oh, a hundred or so years.

“Mrs. Gilbert. It’s so good to see you. And looking so healthy.”

“Well, Jac, it’s good to be out of the hospital and back home. I’ve always said, hospitals are for sick people and I’m not sick.” The words seemed to roll through the valleys of wrinkles around her mouth.

“I would never guess that you’d had a heart attack, ever. I meant to come…”

She raised a hand to pass it off. “No matter, Jac. I needed to stay focused on one thing in there, getting better. Visitors would have just been a distraction. I just wanted to check in with you to see if there’s anything you need.”

“I’m fine, Mrs. Gilbert. It’s good to see that you’re back and doing well.”

***

It wasn’t a long novel, more like a novella, but Jac was certain that Circus of No Hope was going to be one of the pivotal works of literature in the Twenty-First Century if for no other reason than the outrage it would cause. He wasn’t going to make any friends with this book and those who already hated him would hate him more and there would be many more A. Fans.

He felt good about this, that he would make enemies, that people would hate him. It constructed a wall around him that kept him safe from attaching himself to anything that might bring him all those things destined to end in tragedy and sorrow. Things like love, joy, happiness, euphoria, bliss, affection, pleasure…his pleasure was the avoidance of pleasure, the knowledge that nothing could be taken away from him because he had nothing that could be taken away.

He’d felt the horror and pain of every one of his characters in the story. He’d felt their confusion and defeat, their resignation and acceptance that it was time to die because they’d gone to the circus expecting wonders even though each of them knew at the pit of their beings that every laugh and smile, every moment of wonder and glee, was a promise to be broken in the countdown to the horror.

It would take a while to edit the book. That was always the way. He spent more time revising and re-writing than he spent writing.

If you’re going to offend, shock and piss off your readers, then best to do with grammatical correctness and a well-honed sentence.

He read through the story, making comments and highlighting passages that would need editing when he did his third pass. The first pass was a quick read to identify the big problems. He enjoyed the editing process. For him, the first draft was like digging into the ground to extract a dull and cloudy piece of stone and the successive drafts were like cutting and polishing the stone. The whole process was a revelation of chaos rendered into order and symmetry.

He had a sudden thought.

My god, I’m enjoying this.

He felt a chill.

I’m enjoying this.

It settled into his mind like ash raining from the sky, burying his mind in a smothering thought: There was something that could be taken away from him. His writing. His words. His carefully constructed sentences and paragraphs. They were all a source of joy, accomplishment, something dangerously close to rapture.

He wondered why he’d never noticed this before. He’d been so careful to keep anything that he could value out of his life, to not attach himself to anything or let anything attach to him. But all this time he’d been attached to his writing. He’d derived pleasure from it. And he’d enjoyed, almost loved, the criticism and the threats. He’d been everything he was writing against.

And the dreams. Every night. The dreams that haunted his sleep. Always the same. The circus. The families. The children. All dying. And his mother dying. Alex going away, and knowing that there was something strange about that, something that had nagged at him for years. He’d always suspected that he had something to do with Alex not coming over anymore. Bits of overheard phone conversations. The way Alex’s mother looked at him when she dropped him off.

There was a pointlessness to everything, an expiration date on the continuance of all things. There would always be a time of loss. For everything. Owning anything was futile. It would only bring pain and sorrow. No ownership was safe. No feeling of joy was safe. No sense of security was safe. And there was absolutely no value in telling this to the world. He was, in a sense, trying to own something. What was it?

What am I trying to own?

And it came to him. He was trying to own the message. He was trying to pass on a warning to the rest of the world. He was trying to stop everyone from feeling the things that had brought him so much grief and pain. He was trying to shove his own disillusionment down everyone else’s throat. He was just as bad as the crazy guy.

He sat in front of his laptop without thinking much about anything. His mind was in a space without definition. There were no thoughts in his head, at least none that were real enough to draw his attention. He was in this blank space when he felt the time coming on. It snapped him back into the real world of a thousand thoughts occurring simultaneously and one thought emerging through the depth of numbers. He smiled as his finger pressed down on the delete button. He smiled as he opened his Trash and deleted everything in the folder. His masterpiece was gone. But so was the dream.

What now?

 

 

Episode 47: Friday – Jacques

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Episode 47

Jacques loved his new see-through black bodice, his sheer black nylons and straps. They’d arrived first thing that morning. He felt sexy and powerful. He felt young and rejuvenated. His entire body tingled. He felt light and carefree and daring. He had the hardest erection he’d had in years.

Jasmine Jackson was dead. Long live the Insufferable Bitch.

He’d already set up a new website, using his Photoshop skills to make composites of royalty free images to create a den of pure sexual suffering. He used the couch with the ecstatic compressed men as inspiration, creating images of erotic horror with men tied to walls and posts, metal chairs and slabs of granite…chained men hanging upside down, their faces bloated with pleasure as women wearing only nylons and straps, and carrying whips, patrolled the landscape of beatific trapped men.

He had a Home page, a Contact page, an About page and a link to the Insufferable Bitch’s blog. He also had a tab leading to the Books page.

All he had to do now was write a book, and he already had a good start on that.

She kept him in a box. And he loved that she kept him in a box.

She said, “I know you want this as much as I do.”

And he did. He wanted her to keep him in the box. He loved her. He was her art. She could do anything she wanted to him and that made him love her more. And he loved her for what she was doing to him. Escape was impossible. He loved her too much to even think of escape. His freedom was his choice to let her put him in the box day after day.

She was an artist.

He hadn’t eaten in months. He hadn’t had water or any other liquid in months. He survived on his love for her. He lived for her art. He lived for her purpose. He was never without an erection. His cock throbbed continuously. She wouldn’t let him wear clothing. She said that it amused her to see his erection, especially when she put him in the box.

And when he watched her with any of her dozens of lovers. She tied him to a chair by the side of the bed, using ribbons instead of rope, ribbons made stronger than steel by his love for her and his need to be her art.

That was all she ever let him out of the box to do, watch her with her lovers, and he loved to watch her. She was perfect and her lovers were perfect. He lived for the ecstatic convolutions of their perfect bodies and the otherworldly music of their moans and shrieks of joy. Sometimes, it went on for days of non-stop orgasms and ejaculations, and when they were done, her lover would leave and she would put him back into the box, smiling confidently at his twitching erection.

“It will be soon,” she said.

“I know,” he said.

“My art demands it,” she said.

“I know,” he said.

“You must want it as much as I do,” she said.

“I do,” he said.

“There can be no turning back,” she said.

“I will never turn back,” he said.

And knowing the fate she had in store for him, he let her gently push his head down into the box as his erection throbbed madly with his love for her.

He re-read the opening to the Insufferable Bitch’s first book and was happy.

Not bad for first draft material. Have to go into a little more detail on the sex scene and get into this guy’s head a little more, but not bad for first draft.

He wrote for another hour before packing the Insufferable Bitch into the closet and becoming Jacques Manning again. He liked this coexistence of two people of the opposite sex, and thought it was kind of cool to have what he saw as two different personalities living in one body.

Now, as Jacques, he would read his mail while figuring out a way to close down Jasmine Jackson for good. Maybe Jasmine would have a heart attack or die a protracted death that would carry on for months and possibly spur sales of her books. He had time to figure all of that out.

In the meantime, he would start building on the Bitch’s blog. He would use the same imagery as in the website and make up stories of the author’s sadistic sex life. This was going to be fun.

He heard a familiar knock at the door.

Sounds like Mrs. Gilbert is out of the hospital.

He walked to the door and opened it. There was Mrs. Gilbert, eyes sparkling in a framework of wrinkles and looking more like she’d just returned from a cruise in the Caribbean than from the hospital.

***

Looking at Jacques in his blue housecoat, Natalie couldn’t help but wonder what he looked like in his new bodice and nylons.

“Mrs. Gilbert.” He looked genuinely concerned. “It’s so good to see you again. Manzer told me about your heart attack. I didn’t expect you to be out so soon. I wanted to come and see you at the hospital but I’ve had some affairs that have kept me much too busy. But, look at you. You’re the picture of health.”

“Thank you, Jacques.” She crossed her arms over her chest and smiled. “I’ve never liked hospitals and I believe people recover faster when they’re not cooped up in a building full of sick people.”

“That’s a wonderful philosophy and it looks like it works. I would never dream that you’d just had heart problems. And if there’s anything I can do for you, please, Mrs. Gilbert, let me know.”

“Thank you, Jacques. I really appreciate that, but I think I’ll be good for now. I just wanted to drop by to let you know that I’m out of the hospital and everything’s fine.”

***

As Natalie walked back to her flat she wondered about Jacques. Of the seven of them, he was the one who gave her the least amount of problems. He was always the least demanding, the least questioning and the one who most easily accepted the disparities that came with sharing one body with six other people. But then, he was living dual lives on his own. A female romance writer in the mornings and sometimes into the afternoon and evening, depending on how much of a writer’s roll Jasmine was on, and the rest of the time, he was a man who often hung around laundromats.

***

Jacques spent most of the rest of the day sending out messages and writing blogging about Jasmine had becoming seriously ill, a likely outcome of having had her computer hacked.

Arial 70

He patted himself on the back. He re-read the post and patted himself again. He would give them a wonderful drama with posts following posts right up to Jasmine’s death. It would be even more mesmerizing for Jasmine’s fans, because it would be real life drama.

Or so they would think.

And now it was time for some beer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Episode 46: Thursday – Jacky

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Episode 46

It felt good, waking up feeling Krista’s rump pressed against his. He thought she was asleep until he felt her press closer, harder, and he realized that she had deliberately waked him up. 

Now this is how you start the day 

He turned and snuggled into her back, his erection sliding between her legs. She squeezed it with her thighs. 

“Someone woke up feeling frisky,” she said.

“Someone woke me up feeling frisky.”

She turned her head and kissed him and turned her body, laying on her back. As he rolled his body on top of hers, he saw her jeans and blue sweater on the chair by his bed. He seemed to remember her wearing a brown blouse and skirt. She pulled him down onto her and wrapped her legs around him. He forgot about the chair and everything on it.

***

They walked to a restaurant for blueberry pancakes and coffee. Jacky brought his camera and had taken half a dozen shots before reaching the restaurant.

He watched as Krista dug enthusiastically into her pancakes. 

“Hungry?” he said.

“Starved,” she said through a mouthful of pancakes, trying to smile as she chewed. “She sipped some coffee and swallowed. “You kept me awake pretty late last night, Jacky.”

He smiled and then looked confused. Krista noticed. 

“What is it? You look suddenly very thoughtful.”

“Um…nothing really.” He stirred his coffee with the spoon “It’s just that…well…it seems like I remember you wearing a brown blouse and skirt last night but you’re dressed differently today.”

Shit, thought Krista. A week’s difference for me, one night for him. Have to start being careful what I wear. Time to change the subject. 

“Oh…that’s…” she said. “Oh…look!” She pointed out the window.

Jacky looked in the direction she pointed but didn’t see anything unusual. “What are you looking at? I don’t see anything.”

“The brick building. See the green vines all on one side? Do they count as plants taking back the city?”

Jacky laughed and took a big gulp of coffee. “Never really thought about that. Guess I’ve never thought of that type of vine as a wild plant. I mean, we plant them so that they’ll grow on the building. They’re sort of ornamental.” He lifted a forkful of pancake smothered in syrup to his mouth and held it at the tip of his lips. “So…you have the whole day off?” He stuffed the pancake into his mouth.

“Yep,” said Krista. “I don’t have anything really pressing at the moment and just wanted to spend the day with you.”

Almost as soon as the words left her mouth, it hit her. She would have to be careful about the times she would see him. Being self-employed, she could make her own hours, but she would have to miss the occasional Thursday to make it convincing. 

“And how is being self-employed working for you so far?”

“I was just thinking about that. I love it. I pretty much get to set my own hours. If a client wants to meet at a certain time and I don’t want to, then I can just say that I’m already scheduled for that time. I love it.”

“So, did you have to reschedule for me?”

She reached over and put one finger on his arm. “Just dropped everything to spend the day with you.”

“Glad to hear that.” Another gulp of coffee. “Do you like your clients?”

“Haven’t worked with them long enough yet to really know them well, and I only have three clients so far but they seem nice. So, yes. So far, yes.”

God, she’s so beautiful. It’s going to work this time. It’s going to work.

He reached over the table and held both her hands in his. “Krista, have you ever done any modeling?”

She laughed and blushed. “No. Never, Jacky. I get nervous and very self-conscious in front of a camera.”

“You just need more camera time.”

“Jacky, I…”

“I don’t feel like going to the mall today. I think it’s time to take a break. You took today off to spend with me and now I want to take the day off to spend with you. Let’s just walk around and I’ll take pictures of you…”

Krista giggled. “I told you, Jacky, I’m not good in front of a…”

“You won’t even know I’m taking your picture. All you have to do is the kind of stuff you would normally do: smell flowers, look in store windows, walk down the street. Totally unposed. You just being you. And I’ll delete any pictures you don’t like. C’mon, let’s do it. I can tell from your smile that you’re interested. C’mon…it’ll be fun.”

She looked at him sternly, closing one eye. “And you’ll delete any shots I don’t like? You really will?”

Jacky crossed his heart. “Promise.”

“OK. But I’m not posing.”

“Right. Not posing.”

***

She posed. 

And Jacky had found a new favorite model other than flowers and plants breaking through bricks and concrete. She posed with flowers growing through the cracks of asphalt and lush green leaves sprouting out of sidewalks and the whole time she posed she laughed and he fell in love with her laugh. He could see the excitement in her eyes and the reluctance in her voice as she said, “Jacky, I’ll just make the plants look bad.” She was modest about her looks and so down to earth and Jacky knew that he wanted this woman in his life forever.

But, as she lay pressed against him after an evening of love-making, there was something at the  back of his mind, something just under the surface of everything that had passed during the day that he couldn’t bring into focus. He was no stranger to this feeling. It had been there in every failed relationship in his life, as though he knew from the start that it was going no further, that something would happen to bring it to an end. It always did.

But not this time. This time, he would make it last. This time, he would find a way to keep Krista with him. They would lead a normal life together. They would get married, live together, have babies. 

But as he thought these thoughts, that deep simmering doubt nagged at the peripheries of his mind, unseen and undefined as he sank into a dreamless sleep. 

 

 

Episode 45: Wednesday – Jax

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Episode 45

Jax read and re-read the comment.

HEY CRAZY GUY,

THANKS FOR THE INSPIRATION.

SIMON PIERCE

Inspiration? We’ll see how inspired you are when I’m killing you Simon Pierce.

He stood up and looked around at the walls, the ceiling and floor. He knew that Pierce was somewhere on the other side of all that plaster and wood, somewhere in the building, writing his hateful garbage, poisoning the minds of young people, destroying the hopes of an entire generation that was becoming aware of the danger of plastic. All of its work could be undone by one man.

He must die. I must do its work and kill the monster.

But he’d searched the entire building from the attic down to the basement. Manzer had said that none of the other flats were occupied but what if Pierce were in one of them, living in one of them without anyone’s knowledge? What if he were squatting? Jax had read about squatters. They were evil and paid no rent. They drank water out of plastic bottles. That had to be it. He was living secretly in one of the flats and Jax had to change his plan—he would have to break into each of the flats, find Simon Pierce and kill him.

He heard a knock at the door, a knock he recognized. It was Mrs. Gilbert. She was out of the hospital. He hurried to the door and opened it.

“Hello, Jax,” she said. “I just wanted to check in with you and see if everything is going well.”

“Mrs. Gilbert. It’s good to see you. Uncle Manzer said that you were in the hospital. A heart attack. How are you feeling?”

“I’m feeling quite well, Jax. I’m going to have to watch my diet and slow down on a few things but I’m feeling fine now. Thank you for your concern.” She cocked her head to the side and looked Jax up and down. “And how are you, Jax? You look a bit tousled.”

Jax gave an agitated shrug. “I’m fine, Mrs. Gilbert.” His eyes roamed the hall for a moment before settling on Mrs. Gilbert again. “I was wondering about something Mrs. Gilbert.”

Mrs. Gilbert smiled. “What is it, Jax?”

“Well…” His eyes lowered to the floor, then to the ceiling and back to Mrs. Gilbert. “Uncle Manzer told me that right now I’m the only tenant in the building.”

“That’s right, Jax. I’m going to be doing some renovations and I want the other flats to be vacant when I start them. It won’t affect you though. There was some water damage in the other flats but yours was lucky enough to escape.”

“But are you sure there’s no one in any of the other flats? Like maybe squatters or something.”

She laughed. “Oh, Jax…I’m sure they’re all empty. Mr. Joyce has been going into them on a regular basis making minor repairs before we start the renovations. I assure you that besides me, you’re that only one living in the building. Why do you think there might be squatters?”

Jax was suddenly confused and blushing. “Um…nothing really. I, uh…I read some stuff on the internet about squatters, how they break into places and just start living in them. Without paying rent. Just living in somebody else’s place. But if Mr. Joyce is checking on the other flats, then I guess we don’t have a squatter problem.”

Mrs. Gilbert chuckled. “I should hope not. But just to be on the safe side, maybe we should check out each of the flats right now.”

***

Every one of the flats was empty. No squatters. No signs of squatters. No furniture, backpacks, sleeping mats, cigarette butts or empty plastic water bottles. There was nowhere in the building that Simon Pierce could possibly be hiding and Jax was beginning to wonder about the source of the information. He remembered clearly that he’d been on Pierce’s desktop. He had no idea how that had happened except that it must have been the work of Ratlas leading him there through its omnipresence on the internet. But why couldn’t he get back in a second time? Too many questions.

It was time to go online and open himself to its directives. Maybe there would be insights on how to deal with Pierce, maybe how to find him. He needed something to go on.

***

He’d been waiting an hour, breathing deep into his stomach, his mind clear and receptive. But so far, nothing was happening. No juggled sounds or cyber music that flowed through his mind with meaning. No convoluted auditory reception that translated into messages of hope and direction. Nothing to report on his blog. No words of guidance.

Am I going to be saved? Are we all going to be saved? Have I disappointed it by not killing Simon Pierce? Have I failed as its messenger?

Jax couldn’t remember when he’d first made contact with Ratlas but he knew that ever since that day, the only meaning in his life was carrying its message on his blog and the way he lived his life. The only plastic in his flat was in fixtures that had been installed over the years before he came to live there and he’d replaced some of the original fixtures with metal, wood or ceramics. Ratlas’ messages had been like music flowing through his body with himself as the instrument and it as the composer and conductor. His only joy was in spreading the message through his blog…its blog. There was nothing else in his life.

Now, there was only silence.

A terrifying emptiness replaced Ratlas’ message. There was suddenly no hope. Nothing to look forward to, nothing to live or work for.

There was only Simon Pierce.

“Simon Pierce, you are the cause of this. You, with your message of hopelessness. You, with your soul-poisoning words. You, killer of children. You, murderer of everything it hopes to gift to humanity.”

It was time to blog.

He opened his blog, closed his eyes and wrote.

THERE IS A GREAT CALAMITY UPON US AND THE NAME OF THE CALAMITY IS SIMON PIERCE AND THE CALAMITY THAT IS SIMON PIERCE HAS STOPPED THE MESSAGE OF HOPE AND GOODWILL AND THE CHANCE FOR A HAPPY AND PROSPEROUS FUTURE FOR ALL IN WHICH WE WILL ALL BE SAVED AND PLASTIC WILL CEASE TO EXIST AND CEASE TO POISON OUR LAND AND OUR SKIES AND OUR OCEANS WHERE PLASTIC STIFLES THE BREATHING OF THE VERY FISHES THE OCEAN WATER SUPPORTS BUT IS NO LONGER ABLE TO SUPPORT BECAUSE OF THE EVIL PLASTIC DISPLACING THE GOODNESS OF WATER AND MAKING THE OCEANS INHOSPITABLE TO ALL THAT LIVES IN THE OCEANS AND NOW THERE IS THE SENSE OF DOOM AND HOPELESSNESS THAT COMES IN THE FORM OF AN EVIL MAN WITH AN EVIL MIND AND AN EVIL PURPOSE AND HIS NAME IS SIMON PIERCE AND HE IS A DANGER THAT MUST BE STOPPED AND I THE MESSENGER AND CARRIER OF ITS WORD CHALLENGE YOU SIMON PIERCE TO MEET IN THE FIELD OF HONOR AND CONSEQUENCE TO DUEL BETWEEN HOPE AND HOPELESSNESS AND DETERMINE ONCE AND FOR ALL THE FUTURE OF HUMANITY WHICH YOU DEIGN TO DESTROY WITH YOUR MESSAGE OF CALAMITY.

IN THE MEANTIME, PLEASE REFRAIN FROM USING PLASTIC.

He wasn’t a hundred percent sure what he’d written and what he’d meant by the duel but he was happy with it and posted it, smiling to himself.

Maybe Ratlas will speak to me the next time.

He spent the rest of the evening, until it was time, staring out the window at the people in the park and hoping that he could still be the instrument in saving them.

 

 

Episode 44: Tuesday – Jackson

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Episode 44

Jackson felt better about things today. He held firm to his conclusion that there was something wrong with him and not with Roy and Jody. He might question Jody’s mental stability but Roy was solid as a rock and both of them being crazy was too far a stretch.

It was him, Jackson Gabriel. There was something wrong with him. His mother had drummed it into his head that he would have to shrug off things that he wouldn’t be able to explain. He’d done that with the bump on his head. But this time, he didn’t want to shrug it off. He wanted to know how the bump and the cut had gotten there. He wanted to know what had happened to him, when it had happened and how it had happened.

You don’t just shrug something like that off and forget about it. No matter what your mother said.

And what was going on with the meeting? How could two of his clients accuse of him of missing a meeting that hadn’t even happened and then not show up for the meeting when it was supposed to happen? Both men couldn’t have been wrong.

He’d gone through his emails. Roy was still sympathetic and Jody was suddenly apologetic and practically begging for a meeting. He sent them both the same reply.

Arial 64.JPG

It took about five minutes for Jody to get back to him.

Arial 65

It took a few minutes for the meaning underlying Jody’s email to sink it, especially the delay in working on the “new ideas.”

He thinks my medical condition might be contagious. He thinks he might catch it by doing business with me online.

For the first time in years, Jackson had a good laugh.

***

It was late morning before Roy replied to his email.

Arial 66

Jackson thought about that. Vacation. It was something he’d never thought about before. He’d never had a vacation. He just worked every day. He went right into it as soon as he finished his home schooling, as soon as he moved into the flat. Every day. For years. Day after day of work and never a break. He knew what a vacation was. He’d read about them online but he’d never actually applied the concept to himself. It was something other people did. Something that his differentness dismissed him from. A week in Varadero? A week in Macho Pico, taking in the magic of mystical mountains? A week river-boating down the Rhine, taking in the castles and bratwurst? A week at home, sleeping in every day. He wrote back to Roy:

Arial 67

He wasn’t sure if he could get his head around this idea of a week of vacation. It seemed like such a short time to take in so much. And the concept of going somewhere distant was far beyond his comprehension.

Why is that? Why can’t I do that? Other people do.

He remembered his mother’s lectures on the differences between himself and other people but that, he’d always thought, was more to do with the way he and others thought, about how they perceived the world around them and their place in it.

I should be able to take a week of vacation and go somewhere. Anywhere. For a week.

Just then, there was a knock at the door.

He walked to the door and opened without hesitation, expecting to see his Uncle Manzer but he was surprised when he saw Mrs. Gilbert standing in the hall smiling. She looked like she always did, healthy, vibrant, lively eyes and a universe of wrinkles. She didn’t look at all like she was recovering from a heart attack.

“Mrs. Gilbert, it’s good to see you. I was going to come and visit you at the hospital but I wanted to wait until you were a bit recovered from your heart attack. But here you are, home already. I mean…”

She smiled through the wrinkles and folds, arms crossed over her chest, looking robust. “I never did like hospitals, Jackson. Place for sick people and people ready to die. And I’m not ready to die. So, how have you been while I’ve been gone? Did your Uncle Manzer drop by to see you?”

“Uh…yes, he did. And everything’s been fine. No emergencies or earth-shattering events. A couple of minor work-related incidents but everything seems to be working out well now. I can’t believe you’re here already, and looking so healthy.”

“And I’m feeling just fine, Jackson. Won’t be pushing things too hard for a while. Doctors say I still need lots of rest and I’ll be making a few changes to my diet and taking some medication, but all-in-all, I’m feeling not so bad. Just wanted to stop by to let you know I’m back and see if there’s anything you need.”

“I appreciate that Mrs. Gilbert, even though I should be the one checking to see if there’s anything you need. But now that you’re here, maybe you can help me with something.”

“And what might that be Jackson?”

“Well, it’s occurred to me lately that I’ve never been on vacation. For as long as I’ve lived here, I’ve worked every day. Every single day. I’ve never gone anywhere, never traveled. I’ve been in two places all my life: the house I grew up in with my mother and this place. I’ve never been to the tropics, to Europe, South America, the Far East, anywhere. I’ve seen all these things on the internet but never even wondered about them, never really been interested. But just this morning one of my long-term clients said that he’s going to take some time off, a vacation. He’s going to relax for a while. I started to think about this and I think maybe it’s time for me to have some relaxation. And maybe travel a bit. You know, a week on a tropical island with beaches and sun and swimming pools.”

Natalie had read the email from Roy Pickering, which was why she decided to come over right away. It looked like he was serious about this vacation thing.

“Well, Jackson, I’ve never been on a vacation myself. Always thought they were overrated and heard from so many friends about stomach problems, missing luggage, stolen cameras and purses. No…I’ve always preferred to just take my vacation in the safety and comfort of my home. Put the chores aside for a while and just relax.”

Jackson wasn’t exactly encouraged by her response but the idea was taking root; he was beginning to feel excited about the idea of a week or so away from the flat if for no other reason than to just be somewhere else.

It would give him some time to think about some of the things that had been surfacing in his life lately, things that he’d put aside and ignored for his entire life.

***

Well, another fire to put out.

Natalie smiled to herself. This was something that she’d never anticipated during all the planning and all the possible scenarios that she and Manzer had envisioned and devised strategies for: vacation. The idea that any of them would take time off from the work had never crossed either of their minds, especially since Manzer had been retired for so many years and Natalie had always just existed, living on money from her parents and never having a job that would come with something as exotic as vacation. It was something that didn’t fit into their lives or into the lives of the kids but it fit into the lives of others and they should have seen it coming.

Well, Nat, don’t beat yourself up over it. You and Manzer had an impossible task and you missed a few other things that took you by surprise but you always managed to work your way through it. You always find a way.

She stretched her thick legs out as she sat in the big easy chair. She yawned. She was tired. She’d been up most of the night catching up with the emails from her kids, seeing what they were getting into, wondering how she was going to work her way through all the fires.

After driving her home from the hospital, and after him trying desperately to talk her out of leaving so early, Manzer had stayed with her a while, filling her in on what the kids were up to. He seemed sad, and there was a look in his eyes that she didn’t understand but, for some reason, it worried her. “What’s on your mind, Manzer?”

He smiled. It was a warm smile. He smiled to make her know that he would do anything for her and would always be there for her no matter what. But the eyes above the smile told her that something else was up. “You’ve been doing this for over thirty years, Nat, holding everything together, keeping track and heading off disaster after disaster. I can’t even begin to imagine how you manage to do it, the energy and dedication you’ve put into keeping their lives separate but allowing them to interact with the world around them.”

She smiled but she had a good idea what was coming and she was braced for it.

Manzer sighed and leaned forward in his chair, resting his chin on his folded hands. “It’s starting to come undone, Nat. They’re starting to want normal lives, to be able to do the same things that others do, have the same kind of lives. The outside world is starting to knock at their doors.”

Tears started to well up in Natalie’s eyes. She had no idea where they came from. She wasn’t sad or heart-broken or angry or lost or anything she could really put her finger on and say, “This…this is where the tears are coming from.” Maybe they were coming from the inevitable finally arriving, the day when all her work for so many years was coming to some sort of existential intersection where the improbable was about to become still more improbable. Natalie’s life for so many years had been guided by known factors, factors that she created and controlled to prevent the unknowns from creeping in. But now the unknowns were, as Manzer put it, knocking—and knocking hard. The outside world was coming for her kids and it was becoming obvious that there was little or nothing that she could do about it.

Manzer had told a woman about the kids’ secret. He had told her because he had no other choice. She worked for an organization that could take control of everything she and the kids had. But the woman didn’t want to harm them. She would help them keep the secret. She was in love with one of them, the most unlikely one of them. And now, another woman knew. And she was also in love with one of them. Love, something she’d never counted on. She’d isolated them from it, not let it invade their lives with all the questions and improbabilities it would bring. Love, a force stronger than all her planning and manipulating. She was no longer the only woman in their lives There were now two other women in their lives and they weren’t going away.

And Jackie was planning on getting a sex change. Natalie couldn’t blame her. She’d never been right with the world or herself. It was something that had haunted every moment of her life and Natalie had to admit to herself that she was surprised that she’d borne that anguish for so long.

And now a new thought was beginning to occur to her…just as Manzer voiced it.

“Doesn’t it seem strange to you, Natalie…that so many things are suddenly happening that seem to be bringing it all to some kind of…I don’t know…a culmination? An explosion of events that will radically change things? And it’s not just from the outside world suddenly seeping in…it seems to be coming from them…like suddenly they want to be part of the world. They’re all changing…at the same time…having thoughts and asking questions that have never crossed their minds before and, if they did, they just shoved it all to the back of their heads and continued past it. They’re not doing that now. They’re wondering about things, questioning things, not letting go and not working past the things they don’t understand.”

Natalie knew he was right. “But…”

Manzer leaned forward, so huge and, Natalie thought, so beautiful and compassionate. “I could see it in each of them when I talked to them about your heart attack, the way they kept putting their hands on their heads, feeling the bump. I’ve seen their reactions to things like that in the past. They just ignored those things as though nothing had happened, as though a bandage on an arm had always been there and so what? They’d always been able to push reality out of their minds and replace it with something they could live with.”

It came to Natalie in a deluge of memories, questions and the thousands of looks in their eyes as they tried throughout their lives to fight as desperately as she did to keep them separate, to save their own lives against something they neither understood nor knew about. And this, she knew was where the tears were coming from. She looked at Manzer, “What have I done?”

***

He read the email back for the third time.

Arial 68

That should do it. Brief and to the point and no commitment yet on the date.

He decided to hold on to it for a while—he wasn’t sure yet when he would be leaving, how long he would be gone or even where he would be going.

And that was something he would have to start working on. Right away.

He opened his browser, clicked in the search field and held his fingers over the key board.

What to enter? Vacation? But that’s likely to bring up all kinds of vacation themes including blogs about people’s worst vacations and stupid definitions of vacations. Vacation destinations? Vacation destinations. That’s it.

He entered vacation destinations. Only one hundred and thirty-seven million results. The first was Expedia. Unfortunately, it looked like they wanted him to already know where he was going and when. He returned to the results page and scrolled till he saw…

Arial 69

Just what he needed. Ideas. And it looked like he had choices for the kind of trip he wanted. He wasn’t really the adventurous sort and casinos didn’t interest him at all. Family fun was out. He didn’t know how to ski and he wasn’t interested in shopping. Romance. He wouldn’t even know where to start. The only wellness he needed was, apparently, a vacation. Beaches and sun he could handle. He’d seen pictures of pristine beaches in tropical paradises and he could see himself strolling down a beach under a magnificent blue sky with waves washing around his feet. He clicked Beaches & Sun.

He wanted something close to home for some strange reason. Mexico, Central and South America looked good. They all had tropical beaches, sun and blue skies. He spent a few hours checking out the possibilities and finally decided on the Dominican Republic with its “glowing white sand and gorgeous blue water.”

He was jubilant. He’d found a place for his vacation. He studied the images of palm trees, beaches that spread into distant horizons and vast clouds soaring into infinite blue sky. But then as he went from picture to picture, a feeling of foreboding began to cloud his vacation joy. At first the pictures showed the land and the ocean. Now, they were beginning to head into the hotels and other places where he was beginning to see things that unsettled him.

People.

Smiling faces everywhere. Singles, couples and groups of people. People sitting in thatched bars. People lying on the beaches under umbrellas as they sipped pina coladas. People running half naked into the ocean surf. People smiling and talking in lobbies. People.

He felt a sudden sense of foreboding. People. His stomach tightened. His chest tightened. His heart raced. People. The Dominican was full of people. They were everywhere. And there would be no way to avoid them.

He needed to find a new destination. A place to vacation by himself. A place with no people. A place where he could be alone to experience the…

What will I experience alone? Not bars. Not beaches. Not hotels.

He tried a new search term: Places to vacation alone away from people.

He found 9 Introvert-Friendly Travel Destinations – Quiet Revolution. That didn’t last long. It looked like some kind of workshop or cult thing to him. The other results were all for getaway-from-it-all, budget and vacations for seniors. The whole vacation concept was suddenly not the great idea he thought it would be.

He walked to the windows and looked out at the park. It was late afternoon and the park was crowded with people and pigeons. He felt like all the energy in his body had been sapped out of him. He’d been so excited about vacationing just minutes ago and now the excitement had turned into some inexplicable sense of angst. Why was he so afraid of people? This was something he’d never been able to figure out.

But then, have I ever tried to figure it out? Have I ever asked why I’m so uncomfortable around people? Has there ever been any reason for me to fear people?

He couldn’t remember any traumatic events in his early life other than his mother dying that would lead him to fear interacting with other people. He’d never had friends when he was a child but he was already uncomfortable about people then. It was something he was born with, something that went back as far as his first memories. It was something he’d never tried to deal with.

Why is that? Why have I never asked what’s wrong with me or even tried to deal with it? I know I’m different than other people. Mom drummed that into me thoroughly enough, but why would it make me afraid of other people? No one has ever tried to hurt me. No one has ever actually threatened me.

As he stared at the people in the park, he had an idea.

Maybe it’s time to go for a walk in the park.

***

What the hell was I thinking? This is such a bad idea.

A large man wearing orange skin tight jogging pants and matching top smiled at Jackson as he approached him, panting and moving sluggishly. Jackson stared at him with wide open eyes. He was sure he heard the man chuckle as he jogged past him, puffing and wheezing.

What am I doing?

Staring at the joggers back, he backed up quickly…right into a woman pushing a triple baby carriage.

“Hey! Watch where you’re going!” He could barely make out her face buried under layers of synthetic fur around the border of her parka’s hood. She pushed by him, muttering something. This seemed strange to Jackson. He’d watched this woman push her carriage with the triplets every day for over a month. He watched as she stopped the carriage and picked up one crying baby after another and patted them on the back until they stopped crying. She’d seemed so patient and composed, like nothing in the world could bother her. But he had. There was nothing good about him in the things she muttered.

He stood to the side of the sidewalk, out of everyone’s way. He stared at the joggers and walkers, the carriage pushers and the hand-holding lovers. He closed his eyes and listened to them passing. He felt their presence so clearly he could have counted the number of them in a group. He stood like that for nearly an hour until he heard a voice. It was a child’s voice. He opened his eyes and saw a young girl in a plaid fall jacket looking up at him.

“Are you alright, mister?” Her eyes registered real concern.

It took him a few seconds to put her into some kind of context that he could understand enough to react to it. “Yes,” he said. “I’m fine. Thank you for asking.”

The girl smiled. “I think you were having a panic attack. My brother has them all the time and he does the same kind of thing.”

Jackson looked into the girl’s eyes and smiled. Suddenly, the fear seemed to melt away, not completely, but he didn’t feel nearly as terrified as he had.

“He takes three deep breaths and tries to think about something that makes him happy,” said the girl. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”

Jackson reached his hand out and put it on the girl’s head. “Thank you. That’s what I’ll do next time.”

“Next time?” said the girl. “Does that mean that you’re OK now?”

Jackson thought a moment and smiled again. “Yes, I think I’m OK this time. And I’ll remember your advice if it happens again.”

“Janie.” A woman’s voice—the girl’s mother, in a matching plaid jacket—called to her. She didn’t look upset as she walked over to where he and the girl stood. “Please don’t mind my daughter. She’s been told not to bother strangers but it’s like telling water not to flow.” She looked at her daughter and said, “Say goodbye now. We have to get to the hairdresser, maybe on time for a change.”

The girl looked up at Jackson. “I hope you don’t need to do the breathing again, mister. Nobody wants to hurt you here.”

Jackson smiled again. “I’m sure you’re right. Thank you for the advice, Janie.”

He watched as the girl and her mother walked away.  He’d never talked to strangers like that before. Even the occasions he’d met face-to-face with clients online had been carefully scripted with checklists and action items. There’d never been much time for niceties—just business.

The girl had been so open and sincere, and she’d noticed him standing there with his eyes closed, which made Jackson wonder how many others had seen him there and wondered what was wrong with him: was he some kind of weirdo? A pervert? An escapee from a mental ward? Or just someone who didn’t know how to handle people face-to-face?

And now a new feeling took hold of him: he was calm, even with all the people around him jogging and running and pushing and holding hands. He wasn’t afraid of them. The nervousness was gone. His breathing was normal. The knots in his stomach had unwound and he felt a lightness that he’d never felt before.

He looked around at the people in the park. These were people he’d watched from his window for years, people he almost knew from seeing how they acted, the times they’d run for cover when it rained, the arguments over how much space one was allowed to use for sitting and for storing parcels when there was nowhere else to sit, the meetings of strangers, the meetings of old friends, the comforting of children hurt from falls or other accidents. It occurred to Jackson that he knew these people, that he’d known them for years and that he had nothing to fear from them.

In all these years, he’d never seen one of them strike or hurt another. Argue, yes. The older ones argued over the benches. But these were good people who treated each other with respect.And now, as Jackson strolled down the sidewalk deep into the park, he was one of them.

***

That night, before it was time, he bookmarked a few travel sites. He wasn’t going to rush it, but he was going to go on vacation.