An ice age thawed every time I blinked my eyes. When the paramedics got there they asked where the ‘EDP’ was. I guess they meant me. They put a needle in my arm and everything got worse. The blinks came more quickly. I dreamed with each blink, and each dream evaporated like a forgotten aeon.
It went on and on — the prophesied hell Chill spoke of.
Until it got better.
I recall a flash and the hallucinations were gone, washed away in a tsunami of consciousness. The surface of my brain was covered in fresh, new, pink skin; it made my scalp tingle.
It felt so good.
“You need to get out of here.”
White sheets. A curtain. Linoleum. Fluorescent lights. An emergency room, I reasoned. Kelly leaned over me, her hands on both sides of my face, forcing my head to turn and look up at her.
“I gave you a little bit of a treatment. Not a full one, because it’s one of my own and I need it. I would have given it to you back at the office, but my boss got there early and called 9–1–1. So get up and get out of here before they throw you in the State Hospital or whatever they do with junkies and crazy people.”
“What’s going on?”
She drew the IV needle from my arm without ceremony; the tube ran to a syringe in her hand. She disconnected the syringe and stuffed it into her pocket. “Get up!”
She pulled me to my feet, pressed my wallet into my hands. “Here. Let’s go.”
“Where did you get this?”
And we left. Right out the sliding glass doors. No one seemed to notice.
In front of the hospital she said, “I don’t think anyone ever turned him down before. I can respect that you did. But you’ll die if you don’t do what he wants. Go find him. Make a deal.”
And she walked away–just as Beth pulled up.
Beth leaned into the passenger seat of her sedan and called to me through the open window, “Joey!”
“Beth? What are you doing here?”
I looked around for Kelly. She was gone.
“What are you looking for?” Beth said. “Are you hurt or something?”
“I’m fine,” I said and opened the passenger door. “What are you doing here?”
She made a face I knew, like we were married again, and she wasn’t happy about it.
“Nice to see you, too. Do me a favor and change your emergency contact information.”
“They called you?”
“Honestly, Joey, who else would they call? What happened? Are you okay?”
“I think so. No, yes. I feel great.”
She looked at me, studied my face. “Get in the car. I’ll give you a ride.”
She pulled up to my place. We sat, the car idling.
I reached for the door, then stopped. “I was thinking. I know you’re with what’s his name. I’m not trying to horn in on that. I just — when we were married, it felt like there was always something around the corner, something more I couldn’t get my hands on. I wanted… more. And I didn’t want to settle down, have kids, buy a house — because I thought, you know, what if? Maybe you felt like, I don’t know, you weren’t enough for me. But it wasn’t that at all. You were the best thing in my life, and I’m sorry. I’m sorry I let it all get so screwed up. It wasn’t you. It was me. It was all my fault.”
She was looking at her hands, limp on the bottom of the steering wheel.
“I know you see it that way,” she said; she looked over at me like I were a very sick child. “But you’re wrong. That’s not why I left you, anyway. Look. I loved you. I still love you. But you are not the man I want to be married to. I want the house, I want the kids, I want the life. I want all that. I don’t want you. You… don’t work with all that. What I’m saying is: it’s not that you want too much. You don’t want enough.”
This was a conversation we’d never had before.
In the absence of my reply, she shrugged and said, “Or you don’t want anything bad enough. I don’t know. Either way…”
I took a breath and opened the door.
“You’ve given me something to think about,” I said, dumbly. “I have a lot more time on my hands now, so, that’s good, I guess.”
She touched my leg. “Please… Please take care of yourself, Joey.”
I put my hand on hers. “Thanks for the ride.”
I was fired from my job, so, instead of going to work that night, I went to the diner and waited. I drank coffee and tipped the waitress over and over again, all night and into the next morning. I walked around town and came back. Ordered breakfast. Waited. Beer. Coffee. Waited and waited. At some point, whatever Kelly gave me began to wear off. That day became another. In the diner. Around town. Back again. The waitress seemed nonplussed by my behavior, like she’d seen it all before–the actions of some lame Sisyphus pushing his coffee cup to the edge of the table.
Finally, a breeze blew in from the door, and there he was. Mr. Chill. He walked over to my table. With every other step he took, I blinked one of my eternal blinks. He sat down, and I begged him to give me another chance. “Help me,” I said. That’s when he gave me the pills and the address and made an appointment with me for the “Morning.”
The address Chill gave me is to a brick townhouse. The hills in Northwest, a nice neighborhood with lots of iron gates and stone and ivy.
It’s after seven a.m. when I arrive. A man with eye sockets like plums answers the door. He wears an expensive-looking suit that seems especially tailored for his wiry frame. The tip of a tattoo on his neck peeks out from behind his collar. He looks me over and pops his knuckles one by one–a green, tattoo-ink letter on each finger: ‘N-I-T-E’ and ‘L-I-F-E.’ He steps aside and jerks his head toward the interior of the house. I go in. Knuckles puts his fist in his palm like it’s his at-ease stance and nods in the direction of the stairs. I climb to the sound of his cracking joints behind me.
At the top of the stairs, a doorway opens into an office. The decor is sparse. On one wall is a print of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, and on the wall across from it is another painting I do not recognize depicting the same scene from the myth. A vague sense of apprehension tightens inside my chest.
Mr. Chill stands behind a dark and shiny wood desk in the center of the room. He’s facing the window, looking out at the dew-slick morning streets.
“It’s been morning for over seven hours, Joseph. I do not normally tolerate this kind of ineptitude.”
Chill turns around and smiles a forgiving smile.
“Consider this your warning,” he says.
I nod and look at the floor.
Chill sits down in the plush high-back chair behind his desk and watches me for several seconds. “Did you bring a resume?”
I shake my head.
His face is a facade of exaggerated disappointment. “What kinds of skills do you have?”
I shrug my shoulders. “I’m a janitor.”
“Do you have a high school diploma?”
“I went to OSU.”
“Oh?” Chill raises his eyebrows — a mockery of flattery. “What did you major in? Sanitary engineering?”
“Mm. That explains it.”
He looks me over like he’s taking measurements for a suit — or a coffin.
I clear my throat. “What were those pills you gave me?”
“You want more?”
I look at Chill, right in the eyes. I can’t tell if he’s really offering them to me, mocking me or doing something else entirely. I decide to say nothing.
“You’re scared. I can see it. Good. I’m giving you another chance, Joseph. How long has it been since you last slept — since I gave you this gift? Have the hallucinations started yet?”
He waves away his own questions. “The pills were just a quick fix. What you really need is a treatment. A treatment will take care of all the side effects of sleeplessness — for a little while, anyway. But you are going to have to work for it. Every time, you’re going to have to prove you deserve it. You said ‘no’ to me once. You don’t get to say it again. Do you understand?”
Chill takes a set of keys out of the desk drawer, sets them down and slides them over.
“Now, I can see you’re a coward. So I’m not going to ask anything too taxing of you for now.”
I pick up the keys and look at them.
“You’ll be my driver,” Chill says. “I expect you here at twelve a.m. everyday. You don’t get paid. You’re done when I tell you you’re done. You get your treatments exactly as often as I deem it necessary for you to receive them. Understand?”
“How — ”
“Do you understand?”
“Yes, but how — ”
“That is not my problem. Be here at twelve a.m. everyday, and you do everything I ask. That’s it. The day you don’t show — the day you tell me ‘no’ — you’re done. You get one warning about this shit. Do. You. Understand?”
I hear Knuckles behind me. Pop. Pop. Pop. Chill nods at him.
“The kid’s here,” says Knuckles.
At the bottom of the stairs is a boy, maybe seventeen. He’s tall, handsome. He has a book bag on his shoulder. When he sees Chill he looks nervous the way teenagers do.
“There he is!” says Chill. “Have you had breakfast yet? I know a place.”
I drive them to that diner. On the way, Chill asks the kid questions, tells him interesting stories. By the time they get out of the car, the kid isn’t awkward anymore.
I go park and wait. I wonder what they’re talking about in the diner. But it doesn’t matter what–I know where it’s going. The kid has a problem. A sick mother. Hospital bills stacking up. No money for college. And he has a dream. He needs more time–all day and all night–to fix his problems or to make his dream come true. Chill can ‘help’ him with that. The kid will love him–probably already does. But Chill hasn’t started squeezing him yet.
After breakfast, I drive them to Grant High School; it’s where I used to go — a long time ago, now, long before time started killing me. The kid gets out.
“I’ll see you tomorrow night, Kevin,” says Mr. Chill, and pats the back of my seat to go.
Through the mirror, I watch the kid walk across the grass toward the big, brick building, and I can’t shake the sense that I’ve abandoned him to die.
“I have a job for you,” says Chill as I drive.
I glance at him in the rearview mirror and say nothing.
“That girl. The one who helped you. I’m done with her.”
I just keep driving.
When we get to the townhouse, I park and turn around in my seat. This will be the second time I’ve had to beg him.
“I’ll do anything, man. I’ll steal that box. Whatever you want. But I can’t — I can’t hurt that girl.”
Chill holds up his hand. “Are you saying ‘no?’”
“I’m saying, ‘please.’ I’m saying, ‘I’ll do the box job.’ I’ll do anything.”
He nods, licks his lips. “You are so pathetic. You know that’s why she picked you, right? And just to spite me. I asked her to find me a real player. Instead, she brings me you. The box job is off the table. You want a treatment, you do what I say. I can’t have two of you piece-of-shits undermining my operation.”
“It’s you or her. One of you gets the treatments, the other dies. If you’re merciful, you will put a bullet between her eyes. Or you can drown her in mop water. Whatever a low-life janitor does to commit murder. But do it tonight.”
I still have my keys from my old job. I find her in the breakroom, pouring coffee. She looks up at me, then drops her eyes to my hand — the fat, black .45-caliber Glock I hold against my thigh. She nods at the gun.
“Did he give you that?”
I blink and look away.
“He told you to kill me,” she says.
It’s not a question — she knows.
We stand there for a beat longer. I think about raising the gun. My hand twitches, but that’s all I can manage. She takes a sip of her coffee.
“He knows you won’t do it. He knows you can’t. He knows everything, even if he pretends he doesn’t. It’s this game he’s playing — to toy with me. You don’t even matter.”
Finally, I lift my eyes to her; they feel rusty. My head aches. I’m so goddamn tired. “What — what do you mean?”
“He knows you’re not going to do it. He just wants me to know I fucked up. That I’m on his shit-list, or whatever. So I’ll toe the line.”
She takes another sip of her coffee. “You should have done a better job of begging. You should have impressed him. What did you do, tell him to fuck off again? Whatever it was, he’s going to make you suffer now.”
My legs feel weak. There’s a chair beside me and I slump into it. My hand falls on the table; the gun rests on its surface, inert. I couldn’t pick it up again if I tried. “What do I do?”
Kelly sets her coffee on the table across from the pistol. Her voice is soft and small and she says, “You kill me.”
Her eyes are glossy.
“I’m done,” she says in the same small voice. “I can’t do this anymore. I’m done.”
She sits down across from me, clears her throat.
“Listen. It’s the only thing that makes sense. He thinks he can control us. But if you do it, if you actually kill me — that’s a freewill choice. It’s the only real choice you have.”
Her voice is small again.
“Please do it.”
“I want you to do it.”
I rub my temples. How much time do I have before the pills Chill gave me in the diner wear off completely? How much time until I lose my mind again. My stomach hurts. Every second matters now.
I push my chair back, stand and grip the Glock. She closes her eyes; crystal beads stream down her cheeks. For an infinite second, the tear drops hang at her chin, and I am trapped inside each. Trapped in thought. It’s just a second, but it tells me what to do.
“There’s a kid,” I say. “A high school student — Grant High School. His name’s Kevin.”
Kelly opens her eyes and looks at me. I’m holding the gun at my side.
“He’s next,” I tell her. “He’s going to do to Kevin what he did to us. Tomorrow night. He’s going to do it.”
I can see in her eyes that she knows exactly what I’m talking about. I can see her making her own choice.
I put the gun down on the table.
“His name’s Kevin,” I tell her again. “I don’t know how much time I have left before I lose it again. Not long, I guess. It’s okay. I’ve earned my death now. But you still have to earn yours. Remember, his name is Kevin.”
I know I’m rambling, but she nods like she gets it, so I leave.
My mind unravels as I walk. I can’t shake the sense that someone awaits me outside. So I walk like I have an appointment. A rendezvous with a stranger everyone knows.
I go to meet him.
In the dark.
Next: The Mastodon, 05.29.2015