Another of my published stories, it asks the question: ‘What if everyone really was out to get you?”.
I’m not sure when it changed – the world, that is. One day, you’re slogging through the 9-5 that keeps the wheels spinning and food on the table, and the next, you’re checking your cereal for poison. It’s exhausting.
I’m not sure how it started. Maybe it was a subconscious imperative, a collective neuron firing in the species, triggering the impulse to eradicate me. Maybe it was technological slippage – a subliminal broadcast that was meant to spur the masses to buy more cheese puffs, but what they got instead was the overwhelming drive to end my life. Hell, maybe it was a virus, 100% communicable and contagious, and the desire to murder me is connected to an antibody I possess. Whatever the reasons, it’s a rare day I get a decent meal, and even more scarce that I sleep well.
I almost didn’t notice. If it hadn’t been for the cat jumping on the table and helping himself to my corn flakes, it would’ve been me lying on my side on the kitchen floor, foaming at the mouth, though I didn’t know it at the time. When it happened, I remember freezing, watching the cat lay there in convulsions, and then looking up at Kelly. She was staring at the cat in fascination, and as I watched, her gaze slid upwards until her eyes met mine.
They were hard and flat, like a shark, and for a moment, I felt my bowels clench, and a finger of ice trace its way up my spine. Then the spell broke, and she smiled. She turned back to her toast, as though it hadn’t happened.
I wrapped the cat in a plastic grocery bag, and took a few extra minutes to bury it behind the shed, between two clumps of petunias. Inside, I cleaned up, grabbed my bag and my keys, and bent to kiss Kelly goodbye. She returned the kiss without hesitation, and I didn’t think anything else of it. Sometimes cats died.
The drive to work was uneventful – scores of people all jostling for position, all trying to be the first to get somewhere, eyes ahead. You never really notice the men or women in the cars around you, unless they’re making a point to be noticed, and even then, you might take a half-second out of your day to mutter ‘Jackass’, or ‘Douchebag’ at them. Then it’s back to the drive, and the radio, and coffee.
Work itself was nearly as uneventful. Not a lot of opportunities to off someone in a public setting. Sure, it can happen. I was nudged from behind while standing at the top of a set of stairs. Nearly lost my footing. Had it not been for the railing, I would’ve ended up at the bottom, looking like a fleshy egg someone had dropped from the roof.
It happened again at lunch. I had ordered a panini, turkey on ciabatta, chips on the side. When I picked up the sandwich, a long sliver of glass, sharp and wicked, slid from the bun and came to rest on the plate with a chime that only glass on glass can make. When I peeled back the bun, I found others, nestled in between turkey slices, laying there like a deadly carpet of pine needles. I paid the bill, and slipped out the back, reaching the mouth of the alley just ahead of an air conditioner that crashed to the ground behind me.
I got in the car and drove, my stomach twisting itself into knots. The cat I could accept. Pets died all the time, and not always under normal circumstances. The stairs, I got. It was easy to accidentally bump someone in a stairwell. Narrow halls and tight turns made that an everyday occurrence. The glass sandwich, and the air conditioner though, worried me. Was someone out to get me?
The thought made me snort involuntarily. No, that was paranoia. I wasn’t one of those people who believed 9/11 was an inside job, or that contrails were really clouds of experimental mind-control drugs, or that all the leaders of the free world had been replaced by lizard-men. I was rooted in reality. My father had been a carpenter, and my mother was a florist. Their worlds, and by extension, mine, revolved around a steady paycheck, and the product of their hands.
I was mid-thought when a taxi slammed into the side of my car, spinning me around. I felt my body lash against the restraint, and the airbag went off. Metal squealed, and while my vision spun, I watched the road whip by violently, and I registered the smell of coolant, steaming away and leaking.
Then it was over. The airbag deflated, and I loosed my seatbelt. I managed to crawl out of the wreck that had been my car, and take stock. My vehicle was totaled. The entire rear driver’s side had been demolished, and I counted myself lucky that it hadn’t hit the driver’s side. The taxi was still in the intersection, it front-end a crumpled wreck. I staggered over to check on the driver, who appeared unconscious, but otherwise unharmed behind his airbag. In the distance, sirens began to wail, and I could hear it getting louder.
I leaned against the side of the taxi, and tried to catch my breath. My vision was starting to clear, shapes and colors finally sharpening at a distance. I hoped I didn’t have a concussion. The intersection was clear. I had been driving out of my way, trying to organize my thoughts when I was hit, and I didn’t expect much traffic. Still, I could hear the sirens getting closer, and I realized someone must’ve witnessed the accident.
Stay or go? The question circled in my brain. Maybe it was the rattling I took, but I was starting to give the whole ‘the world is out to get me’ thing some serious weight. The sirens drew closer, and I scrambled to latch on to a coherent thought.
If I ran, I risked serious complications from any injuries I might have incurred in the accident. Kelly would worry, then feel betrayed. Where would I go? If I stayed, I risked exposing myself to whatever was going around. What if the ambulance was hit while I was in it? What if the janitor in the hospital crimped my IV? What if, what if…the thought trailed off as the siren grew to a blaring crescendo, then cut off. The street was bathed in red and blue. A paramedic in blue overalls jumped from the cab and rushed towards me.
“Are you okay, sir?” He didn’t wait for me to answer, and instead, grabbed my arm, and pulled me towards the double doors in the back of the ambulance.
His partner had opened them, and was stacking and sorting medical supplies. I followed reluctantly behind the slim blond man while I watched the other paramedic pull out a syringe, and poke it into a vial. He drew a bit of fluid out, and withdrew it, then tapped the needle a few times, to get the bubbles to float to the surface. Satisfied, he stood patiently by the ambulance.
“What’s that for?” I heard myself ask. I stopped halfway to the waiting vehicle.
“Just something to help calm you down. We’ll give you a little shot, and you can nap in the back while we drive you to the hospital.” He said.
His partner had noticed we had stopped, and had begun to cross the blacktop, needle in hand. I backed away. It took a bit of force to wrench myself from the paramedic’s grip.
“No thanks, I’m fine. Just check on the other guy, and call me a cab, and I’ll be on my way.”
The other medic had crossed over half the distance to us, and I noticed him speed up. His eyes were hard and flat, and I remembered Kelly. I backed away, nearly stumbling over my own heels, and the man with the needle started to jog my way. His partner grabbed for me, and I managed to duck under it. I turned and ran.
I ran hard, and I ran fast. I ran though empty lots and dark alleys, under heavy canopies and across traffic. It took a couple of minutes before I heard one of the men behind me curse, and the other calling for him to stop. Still, I kept running. I ran until it felt like my lungs would burst, until every muscle was a quivering mass of jelly, and then I ran a bit farther. When I finally stopped, it was in an empty house at the edge of town.
I had managed to kick in the boards covering a window with a strength born from panic and adrenaline. I slithered through on my belly, and fell onto a dusty floor that was spongy from years of neglect and exposure. I lay there, my body burning from the exertion, sweat pouring from me like someone had snapped the valve off a faucet. When I finally gained my breath, and it no longer felt like my heart was going to tear free from my chest, I listened.
Outside, I could hear the distant sound of traffic from the city proper, and the occasional rattle of shingles when the wind would kick up. Behind the house was an empty lot, long overgrown, and if I held my breath, I could even hear the tall stalks of grass brushing together. Other than that, nothing.
I sat against the wall, and waited another five minutes. It was still quiet outside, and I risked a peek through the opening I had made in the window. Sunshine colored the world, and for the moment, no one was trying to get me. Nothing moved in the street, nothing moved in the house. I was safe, for a time.
Those first few days were confusing, and terrifying. I had a few close calls, because I didn’t yet understand how this new world worked.
The first thing I did, when I got my wits about me, was call Kelly. It was a short call, out of necessity. My phone had been in my pocket during the crash, and I had forgotten about it until the haze of terror and confusion had washed out me. When I finally remembered, the battery was struggling to hold on. I dialed, and hoped she picked up quickly.
Then phone rang twice before she picked up. “Hello?”
“Hey, it’s me. I just wanted to let you know I’m okay. I had some things to do, but I should be home later.” I hoped that was enough.
Either she hadn’t heard about the accident, or didn’t care, because the next thing she said was “Okay.” Then she hung up.
I pulled the phone away from my ear, and thought for a minute about calling John, or my mom. I scratched both of those ideas, and stuffed it back in my pocket. I slid back to the floor beneath the window, and waited. Sometime in there, I dozed off, despite the fear that still ran through me like a low thrumming thread.
When I woke, it was night. I crawled from my hiding place into night air that smelled cool and crisp. Crickets chirped in the empty lot near me. In the distance, the sounds of traffic had slowed enough to be able to make out individual cars passing in the night. I rubbed sleep from my eyes, and looked up at the moon, sitting placidly in the sky, and took comfort in its immutability.
I made my way home. I walked through darkened lots and backyards, and across suburban streets where I knew the residents would be cocooned in their homes for the night. It took some time, but eventually, I could see my home, a two-story house between two others of similar architecture. Curse of the suburbs, my father used to call it.
I let myself in through the back door, careful not to let it bang shut behind me. Our room was upstairs, and I crept in, wary of any movement from Kelly’s sleeping form. I grabbed some clean clothes, and snuck back downstairs, to use the second bathroom. I peeled off my clothes, and started the shower, climbing in when it was just right.
I was in long enough to rinse my hair and a quick layer of soap off, before the water suddenly changed from mild to hot. I stepped away from the water, sucking in a breath. In the time it took to do that, the water changed again, from hot to boiling. It touched my leg, and a shriek of pain escaped my lips.
I jumped out of the shower, not bothering to push the curtain to the side, and getting caught in it. It and the rod came off the wall with a ‘sproing’ sound, and I landed on my ass on the bathroom floor. I had used my hands to brake my fall, and I could feel my palms were slick with baby oil. It only took me a minute to put it together.
At some point, Kelly had figured out I was home, and shut off the cold water to the bathroom. That done, she managed to sneak into the room and coat the floor with oil, in the hopes that if I wasn’t boiled alive, I would get out and fall, and crack my skull on the floor. If I wasn’t such a klutz, and hadn’t ended up wrapped in plastic that slowed my descent, it would’ve worked.
I got up as carefully as possible, dried myself off, and began to pull on my clothes.
“Mike?” she was calling me from just outside the door. I didn’t doubt that there was a very good chance that she had some other thing in mind for me. Maybe a toaster to toss in the tub, or a knife for my neck.
I finished getting dressed, pulling on my shoes and socks last. When I was done, I crouched just behind the door, and decided what to do.
“Mike, honey. Do you want something to eat? A sandwich, maybe? I can make it for you, you know.”
I had no doubt she could. I doubted very much that I would survive it. I ignored the part of me that was trying to wrench itself free over everything that had happened, let alone the enormous betrayal perpetrated by my own wife. I screwed up my courage and spoke.
“Yeah, sure, that’d be great. Hey, can you come here for a minute? I need a towel.”
The door opened, and she stepped in. I threw my weight against the door, and it slammed into her. She scrambled for purchase, but the slick floor betrayed her, and she went down like a sack of potatoes. I heard a solid ‘thunk’ when she hit the floor, and just like that, she was out. I checked her pulse to be sure. It was still there, but she would be out for a while, I guessed.
I stepped over the woman I had known for fifteen years, and went to the kitchen, where I made myself a sandwich, sans glass or poison, and washed it down with a Coke. When I was done, I went upstairs, and grabbed my spare bank card and a few other things that I stuffed in a backpack. When I was done, I left the way I had come in.
Outside, the night was still cool, the moon was still staring down. I knew tomorrow, that the world would go on, working without me contributing. I started to walk.
I started by sleeping in alleys, hiding my face with a hooded sweatshirt. I had cleaned out half the bank account, but hadn’t taken anything too valuable from the house. I left the car because I hadn’t wanted her to report it a theft. Attracting anyone with a firearm to me just seemed like an enormously bad idea.
It took some time, getting used to my new life. I had to avoid even areas thick with the homeless, because they seemed just as inclined to off me as anyone else, and more than once I narrowly avoided losing my windpipe to a jagged shard of glass.
When I had to (when I couldn’t eat from dumpsters anymore), I ate in diners with very few people, always away from the window, and in the back. If I didn’t disguise myself perfectly – never looking up, hood up – I found myself throwing my food away, and occasionally stealing someone else’s when they left for the bathroom.
I panhandled when I could, wearing a ski mask and the excuse that I was a burn victim. That seemed to throw most of them off the idea of who I was, though some insisted on looking under the mask. Those I had to scare away, usually by screaming and carrying on until I had turned enough heads to be an embarrassing situation for them.
In the meantime, I tried to figure out what had happened. I would visit the library when I had the chance, under the same circumstances, and hide myself in the stacks, where I could read uninterrupted. Nothing much ever came of it, though I did consider myself better educated than before.
In all, this was my world for the better part of two years. I hid, and the world moved on as though Mark Jacobs had never even been a part of it. Then Cammie came along.
In the beginning of the third year, I had holed up in the abandoned house I had first discovered in my flight from the homicidal paramedics, and managed to make it livable without being noticeable. Tarps behind the boards kept the worst of the cold out, and stacks of books I had bought, stolen, or printed out lined the walls along the floors. I kept a small pantry in one corner that held dried and canned goods, and a can of cash I was saving for emergencies.
I had been out for the day, trying to add to my rainy-day stash, and trying to cop a meal at a new diner that had opened up, though that had been a bust. I had yet to find a place that let a man in a ski mask just walk about freely and browse. Even the burn victim story didn’t work in retail.
I was considering plastic surgery, and then reconsidered. I thought about what the surgeon would probably do to me, and I killed that line of thought. I’d thought it before, and it just ended in circles. All of it was just something to occupy my mind as I walked the mile back to my ‘home’ anyway, and I was only half-invested.
The grass in the lot had grown taller this year than the others, and I could see that someone had matted down a path in it, looking for an entrance to the house. I followed it around, listening as I walked, trying to filter out the sounds of grass brushing on grass from anything outside the norm. A nagging voice in the back of my head was telling me that now I was being actively hunted. I squashed it.
I crept to the window in the back, the one I had cleared enough to let me in and out without too much trouble. Unfortunately, it meant anyone else could find the way in just as easy. Still, it was the only solution, considering what a trip to the hardware store would net me. I didn’t see the advantage of having to dodge hammers and screwdrivers for a couple of hinges and a lock.
I peeked in, just enough to see over the sill. I heard the humming before I saw my visitor. It was high, and tuneless. Sounded like a child’s voice to me. I scanned the room, and saw her then. She was small, just under three and half feet tall, and thin. She was wearing a child’s white sundress that was smeared with dirt. I watched while she kept humming to herself, wandering around the room. Occasionally, she would pick up a book, flip through the pages, and then drop it, all interest lost.
I watched, trying to figure out how to handle the situation. I had never had visitors before, and I figured she must’ve wandered here, one of the children of the other street people. It posed a dilemma for me – let her wander off, and tell others of this place, scare her into never coming back, or try to talk some sense into her, and hope she didn’t come back.
She wandered into my pantry corner, and opened the cabinet the previous owners had left. Her humming stopped, and something dropped to the floor. It was a teddy bear, ratted out, and missing an eye, but well-loved. I watched her fish a bag of jerky and a water bottle out, and sit on the floor. It didn’t take long for her to finish half the bag. I watched her snack, and decided to make my move. I was hoping for ‘persuasive adult’.
I crawled in through the window, ski mask still on. I wasn’t taking any chances. She had picked up her teddy, and was holding him close while she watched me enter. At least she wasn’t scared. The more I thought about it, the more I was sure scaring her would only end badly with me. I flashed momentarily on a mob with pitchforks and torches marching to Frankenstein’s castle, and squashed the mental image.
When I was all the way in, I stood up, walked over to her, and smiled.
“Hi.” I said. “Can I sit?”
She nodded, and I took a spot on the floor, a few feet away.
“Are you lost?” I asked.
She shook her head.
“Where are your mommy and daddy? Won’t they be looking for you?”
“Why are you wearing a mask?” She asked. “Are you Spider-Man?”
I shook my head, and felt a chuckle come out. It surprised me. I hadn’t laughed in a long time. “No, honey. I got hurt a long time ago, and now I have to wear this.”
“Okay.” She said.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Cammie.” She held up the bear. “This is Mr. Squiggles.”
I leaned in, and took the bear’s paw. I shook it as solemnly as I knew how. “Nice to meet you Mr. Squiggles.”
I held my hand out to her next. After a moment, she took it. “Nice to meet you, too Cammie.” I said. She smiled, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Are you still hungry?” I asked.
She nodded, so I stood, and reached over her, into the cabinet behind her. I grabbed some dried fruit, another water, and a Kit-Kat. She took them and began to dig in. While she did, I thought of how I was going to get her to answer the parent question.
“Do you have any place to go, Cammie?” I asked, while I sat back down across from her. She looked up at me over the dried banana chips she was chewing on.
“Sometimes we sleep by Giorgio’s.”
“We?” I asked.
“Me and Mr. Squiggles. Mr. Giorgio sometimes gives us breadsticks.” She screwed her face up for a minute, as though something had occured to her.
“What’s your name?” She asked.
“Mi- uh,” instinct made me stop, and reconsider. I gave her my middle name. “John.” I said.
She nodded, and went back to eating. “Okay, John.”
When she finished, we sat watching each other for a time. I wondered what had led a little girl out here, and what had kept her alive all this time. I wondered if it was the same thing that had kept me going as long as I had – the simple will to live, and the hope that someday there would be an end in sight. For a time, I considered her a kindred spirit, and I was content to sit there in silence.
Finally, she yawned, and I noticed her eyelids drooping.
“Tired?” I asked.
“Follow me.” I said. I got up, and led her to a pallet I had built out of newspapers and discarded clothing. She lay down on it, and her eyes closed immediately. When she was asleep, I propped myself against the wall, where I could see the window and her. After a while, sleep took hold of me as well, and I drifted into the black.
I wake to the feeling of fingers working their way under my mask, and I recoil. I almost lash out, and check myself when my vision clears, and I realize it’s just Cammie. I pull back anyways, and pull the ski mask down tighter. She watches with a guilty look on her face.
“Sorry. I just wanted to see.” She says.
I shrug it off, and dig us out some breakfast from the cabinet. We eat in silence. When we’re done, I clean up, and sit down across from her, as we had the night before.
“Where will you go today?” I ask.
Cammi looks around, as though the idea itself is something scary lurking in a dark corner. Finally, she shrugs.
“Can I stay with you?” she asks.
I think that one over. There are two major risks with letting this little girl stay with me, the way I see it. The first is simple – what if she’s like all the rest, and tries to kill me when she sees my face? For a moment, I imagine having to fend off a little girl with a jagged piece of glass. I don’t worry that I can overpower her, but instead, about what the fallout of that might be. Would she get hurt? Could I live with myself if that happened, no matter the circumstances?
The second is harder – how do I protect a little girl from a largely uncaring and morally ambiguous world? It’s an especially difficult question when I realize I hardly do the best job of keeping myself safe. Adding another person to that equation without being able to balance my own becomes complicated, at best.
In the end, it comes down to one thing. Can I just leave another human being, let alone one so young and relatively inexperienced, to the mercies of a world that had proven to me it had no vested interest in any one person surviving? I looked at her, at brown eyes too-wide, at her face, still smudged and dirty, and decided I couldn’t. Even if it killed me.
“Sure.” I said, and try to smile the best I know how, despite the worry that gnaws at me. In the end though, you realize it’s not the worry that gets you. It’s the things you don’t see.
Noon, and we’re in the mouth of an alley, panhandling a bit. Cammie and Mr. Squiggles are standing nearby, and she’s doing a good job of convincing people that her daddy is hurt and can’t talk, and we just need a good meal.
That’s where it starts. She’s talking to a group of boys, maybe 13 or 14. One of them is shifting on his feet, and eyeing me. I start to get up, to stop what I see happening, but I’m too slow. The shifty one pushes Cammie down, and grabs the can at her feet. He starts to run, and the others follow, but not before the one in the back grabs my mask and pulls it off.
I’m disoriented for a minute, bright light flooding into eyes that had been partially shielded before. I lunge for him, and miss, and the boys take off down the sidewalk. I stop to pick up Cammie, and set her on her feet.
“Stay here.” I say. I don’t wait for a reply.
Three years of anger boil up in me, and I take off after the kids who have stolen not just a dinner, but my safety, and maybe the safety of a little girl. They haven’t gone too far, and I realize I’m catching them fairly easily when they turn into an alley. Everything screams at me to forget it, let it go and go home, but I ignore it. I follow.
I skid to a halt in the darkness. The boys are there, waiting. I meet flat eyes, and cold stares, and realize they’ve seen my face. One of them has a knife – just a small thing any kid might carry – and he lunges for me. I twist out of the way, and use his weight to smash him into the wall, and hopefully daze him for a minute.
Too late though, and the other two are on me, kicking and clawing. I feel a sharp pain in my back, and cry out. My knees give, and I hit the pavement, borne under their weight. I can feel a spot just above my kidneys getting warm and wet, and I hope it’s not too deep.
One of them sinks his teeth into the cloth over my bicep, and bears down. I stifle the scream, and lunge backwards, and feel my elbow connect. There is a cry, and part of the weight is lifted while the kids nurses his mouth. One left, and he’s aiming for my kidneys again with a long rusted nail he must’ve found on the ground.
I twist out of the way for a second time, and wonder how many muscles I’ve pulled. I smash my fist into the back of his head, and he goes down. I stand there for a minute, fighting for my breath back, hand on my knees. The kid with the busted mouth has run out the other end of the alley, and I’m left with two on the ground who don’t look like they’re getting up any time soon.
When I get my breath, I cast about, finally finding the can (still full, thankfully), and my ski mask. I pull the latter on, and adjust it until I can see out of the eyes, then turn to leave the alley. Cammie is waiting.
“Thought I told you to stay put.” I say, not meaning to sound angry, but still wound up from the fight. My side aches, but I think the bleeding has stopped. Hopefully I won’t catch tetanus.
She looks up at me. “Mr. Squiggles was worred about you.”
I sigh, and ruffle her hair. “Let’s go home.” I say. It doesn’t even strike me as odd to refer to the old house that way. As our home.
We walk home in silence.
We’re eating dinner, when she stops, as she sometimes does, and screws her face up. She’s been thinking about this one.
“You look okay.” She says.
I freeze mid-bite. It takes me a minute to finish the mouthful of food. She saw my face, and I didn’t even realize it. I watch her, but she’s tucking back into the burger I had her buy. We finish dinner in relative quiet, crickets and distant traffic singing a lullaby. I walk her to the pallet, and she looks up at me. I see nothing of the flat grey look I had seen in countless faces before.
“Can I see your face?” She asks.
My heart stops, and cold fear ripples through me.
I know I’m caught between several hard places. If I say no, she’ll just try to look. If I keep denying her, she may even just leave, and after having real, human companionship for the first time in a long time, I didn’t know if I could take that.
If I say yes, she may try to kill me. Maybe not outright, because it didn’t always work that way – just in adolescents or the mentally ill, so far – but eventually. My mind went back to how easy it was for a grown man to hurt even a teenager, and I quailed at the thought. Better I left before that happened.
In a third part of me, buried deeper than it had been before Cammie, was the feeling of ‘why not?’. Why not show her? You’re tired, right? Tired of running, of hiding. Tired of pretending to hope for an answer, tired of no company. Get it over with.
I weigh them all, fight with all of them. In the end, it’s a snippet of a poem, Invictus, that settles me.
“I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
I take a breath, and close my eyes. I can’t look into those eyes if they change. I lift the mask. There was silence, and then a small hand touches my cheek.
“You look okay.” She says.
I pull the mask back down. I don’t want her to see me cry. After a while, I can hear the soft sound of her breathing deeply. I lean against the wall, and take a deep breath of my own.
I feel sleep creep in, pushing away the pain and fear.
I let it all go. I would let the night sort it out.