The door shut. He lay back down on the couch and let the ceiling fan dry the sweat from his forehead. He tried to let his mind wander but it refused to go very far. He was getting a clean slate, a fresh start, a chance to do everything over again. He was getting what he had always wanted, but there was one problem. He had no clue what it was he wanted, nor where to start looking for it.
Cross-legged near the fire, they sat waiting for the man to speak. The young ones fidgeted anxiously with the cuffs of their pants or poked at the dirt with sticks. The older ones stared at the flames, the sky, each other, anywhere but the man himself. The man's eyes moved from body to awkward body, one by one, before landing on a young girl in a red sweater. He handed the book and his flashlight to the girl, and asked her to read the first page.
She could be anyone. She could be the woman sitting next to him on the plane, on the subway, on the bus. She could be his boss, or his mail carrier, or the hostess at his favorite restaurant. She could live halfway around the world, or in the apartment below his and he would never know. He was comfortable with this. He lived a life of anonymity, and this was no different.
The sign clearly stated no parking. Yes, he saw the sign, and yes, he chose to ignore it. He would only need a few minutes anyhow. He parked the sedan with its front bumper nearly touching the sign post. He walked inside the building and kindly asked the receptionist to care for the package. When he emerged from the building, he found a ticket on his windshield. With no care, he crumpled up the yellow citation, and tossed it into the gutter.
She was alone on the road that stretched for miles. It disappeared south into the mountains on the horizon and north into the horizon itself. She had left her car a mile back, but could still see the sun bouncing off its windshield. She knew it was not the best idea to walk, but she was never one to have the best ideas, and so she had set off on foot, a bottle of water in one hand and her high heels dangling from the other.
She never knew what caused a person to want to end it all. She never knew the despair that took root in someone that would create such a solitary solution. She criticized those people that would allow such thoughts to drive them toward such a selfish choice. But in the man's mind, she was the cause of that despair, those thoughts, and that choice. It was in his mind, in the midst of those thoughts, that he had ended it all for her instead.
In a race against the flame, she finished the letter, scribbling toward the end for the sake of completion rather than readability. The candle was burning through its wick faster than she had hoped. She searched the cabinet by touch, finding an extra book of matches but no other candles. The single flame was now the only source of light left in the house. She would make do. Contrary to the obvious, she was pleased with this predicament.
After placing the explosives, he surveyed the floors one final time. He found nothing of concern but a stray pigeon on the second floor pecking at the concrete wall. His demand to vacate echoed across the room. The pigeon undeterred, kept pecking. The man approached the bird and swept his hands through the air. In a flutter of feathers, the pigeon escaped out an open window frame. Then the man heard the first blasting cap explode.
He drank the last few drops and set the bottle on the curb. He had been there with the cardboard sign propped against his shins for the greater part of the afternoon. Each driver that passed he stared down, but the vast majority avoided eye contact. They changed radio stations and searched glove compartments for nothing in particular, pardoned only by a green light. By nightfall, he had abandoned the empty bottle, and walked on.
He had sat on the same park bench each day for the last eight years. He would arrive before the morning rush, stay through lunch, and leave once the sun set. He would sit through any weather, nibbling on a small sandwich, and occasionally nodding toward a passing dog who had come to sniff his feet. Otherwise, he remained quiet in his seat. On the anniversary, he thought little of the woman who had sat down beside him. Then she spoke.
The first pair of hands left the business card on a table at the library. The fourth pair left it propped against a cash register, and the seventh pair pinned it to a bulletin board. The tenth pair mailed it across the country to the eleventh pair, which tossed it toward a garbage can on the street corner. The card landed beside the can to be picked up by pair number twelve, which was the first pair of hands to call the number printed on the back.
She was standing behind him at the kiosk, both needing permits to park. His clothes were disheveled and he was shaking. Short on cash, he looked at her with desperate eyes, so she bought his permit with her own. He took the stub of paper, and ran away without saying a word. Hours later, she returned to her car and found an envelope tucked beneath the wiper. Inside she found a hundred dollar bill. Written in the corner was simply "thank you."
Even from a distance, she recognized him. Not by his face, but by the faded green oxford that hung loosely from his shoulders. That same oxford had gone missing from her husband's closet over a month ago. The man was at the opposite end of the hallway, pacing back and forth with his cell phone to his ear. He was arguing with the caller. In seconds, the dispute had ended and resulted in the man's foot denting the side of a nearby trash bin.
Her voice sounded kind, so he stayed on the line. He listened as she spoke of a new credit card offer, and humored her with questions about rates and fees, finding great comfort in how she articulated the answers. She asked eagerly if he would like to apply, but he declined. Sensing her disappointment, he quickly agreed to hear about the latest identity theft protection. Anything to keep her talking, keep her from hanging up the phone.
He began at the sink. He emptied the basin, neatly stacking the dirty dishes on the counter, and then filled it with soapy water. An hour later, he had finished. His back was sore and his fingers were pruned, but he felt a sense of accomplishment that was worth the effort. Washing dishes at the sink was a simple chore, one he had taken for granted only months earlier. Now he could not think of anything more rewarding.
Her living room was full of customers sitting snugly around bistro tables and chatting eagerly with their neighbors. They were all there for the same reason. Once the magazine has profiled her recipe, she had trouble turning them away. Moments before, she had plucked the new supple leaves from the top of the tea bushes in her garden. A pure fresh leaf, that was her only secret. But in fact, it was no secret at all, so why her?
He read the sign on the door apologizing for the early closure. He knocked on the window, his fist falling heavily and getting the attention of the young girl wiping the counter. She mouthed the word closed and went back to her cleaning. His fist found the window again, this time pounding with intent, harder and harder on the glass, alarming the girl. She retreated to the back room, her steps in sync with his fist. Then the glass cracked.
She sat on the edge of the bed, staring at the matchbook on the dresser. She imagined herself carefully tearing the cardboard of the center match. She would drag it across the rough strip on the back of the book and watch the flame dance as it engulfed the sulfur head and consumed the stick. At the last second, before it singed her fingers, she would place the burning match on top of the book, which still sat on the dresser, and leave the room.
The knot slipped loose and the ribbon fell from her wrist. The balloon floated away, horizontally at first, blown by the breeze down the sidewalk. It bobbed and twirled, shopping the bakery window for indulgent fudge and admiring the schiffli lace gown that called though the glass of the corner boutique. And then it rose, dancing high in the sky to the footsteps of the pursuing mother and to the cries of the child who once possessed it.
He felt a tug on the line and the tip of the rod bent slightly toward the river. He was skeptical, it had been over a month since he had felt a bite, and his imagination had deceived him before. But sure enough, the rod dipped again. He pulled it back, spun the reel a few times, and then pulled back again. He was gentle and methodical, the fish was a luxury he could not afford to lose. This fish was giving its life for their own, and he was grateful.
The cabin drew tenants on a consistent basis. A body or two looking for adventure, recouping from each day beneath thin cotton sheets, feeling protected by a locked door and mosquito netting. Yet the jungle was beginning to wage war on the small structure. The perimeter was no longer passable without a machete. Nature was engaged in a slow and steady battle to reclaim what was hers. It was a battle she would win with certainty and ease.
A count of three. With the right amount of electricity, in those three seconds, the heart would stop. A count of three. Life could end in a count of three. It was imperative that his calculations were accurate. He poured endlessly over his notes, memorizing, reworking. He checked and rechecked his instruments, running tests, ensuring reliability. One misstep and he would fail. He could not fail. He refused to accept another failure.
He was the one that would steal a parking space from those who had waited patiently; he was the one who never tipped the hard-working waitress, or held a door for the person behind him. She should have ignored him. She should have walked away. But each weekday, as they walked the distance from their shared apartment building to their shared office building, her fixation grew. Walking together made her weaker to the idea of walking away.
She was glued to the screen. She had watched his black and white image cross the street and come into focus directly below the camera. His face looked tired, but little else had changed. He pushed a button on the wall, and her buzzer rang from inside the apartment. When she did not answer, he pushed the button a second time, and again her buzzer rang. Then he glanced at the camera and smiled. She knew he knew she was watching.
She slammed the refrigerator door when she realized she had forgotten the milk. "I have to go back to the store," she yelled, sending the words flying across the house with hope they would land on the right ears. A moment passed and then a matter-of-fact "fine" came hurling back toward her. She grabbed her purse and a ten dollar bill from the desk drawer. Below the money was a note. Because of this note, she would never again forget the milk.
She sprinted through the endless woods, splintering twigs, stirring up leaves. She kept running, searching for a clearing that would not come. She heard the engine just over the hill, the small voids between the trees full of its sound. But when she reached the summit, the rumble was just as distant as it had been before. Her body begged her to stop, but if she stopped, they would leave her. They needed her, but she needed them more.
He sat behind the desk, forcefully wiping the coffee stain with a wet paper towel. He tried leaning slightly to the left so his tie would swing from the knot and hover over the proof of his clumsy nature. Sadly, this did little to hide the spot that had now bled to an obscene size. No matter his effort, the stain endured, front and center on the white fabric, knocking him down in rank and locking him in the office for the rest of the evening.
Their routine was the same each night. She would wait beside him in bed, he asleep, she often reading or watching late-night infomercials, until it happened. Once a night, when his breathing would stop, she was to count the seconds. If she reached ninety, she would call for an ambulance. This she had done only once, and yet he gasped for air while she was talking to the 911 dispatcher. Tonight's episode was different.
She spent her youth living in the midst of emotional rubble. She often lost her way among the piles of unwashed clothing and lost her lunch at the foul smell of month-old leftovers. She learned quickly how to tiptoe through the shards of broken dishes without suffering from a skewered foot, and how not to leave the front door open too long for the wind would swirl in the house, turning the many loose papers into a treacherous maelstrom.
She woke with a start at the sound of the siren. She had received the flyer a month ago and was expecting this test. It was a standard procedure she had grown accustomed to living near a nuclear power plant. Although today, something felt wrong. She went to her desk and ruffled through a stack of papers until she found the flyer. The test was not scheduled until noon that day. It was 6:52 a.m. Then she felt the ground shake.