“45 states voted today to bar Syrian refugees from entering the United States. The migrant crisis is one of unforeseen size, with over half a million displaced Syrians seeking new homes inside the United states. President Obama spoke to address the crisis, urging states to reopen their borders and not to give in to fear, because doing so-” Michael’s hand hit the radio power button on his dashboard and the woman with the disturbingly unaffected voice stopped talking. He rolled his window down a few inches, then reached under his seat to find the lever that reclined his seat. He pushed it back with the weight of his body, then folded his arms across his chest.
A cold cup of coffee sat in the cup holder. The other cup holder was stuffed full of receipts and business cards, scraps of paper and gum wrappers. There was probably something important in there or else he wouldn’t have held on to it, but whatever it was obviously didn’t matter now. And actually, looking around his car, which was full of empty fountain drink cups from drive-thrus and empty plastic water bottles, he held on to a lot of things. Michael could always tell when he needed a break, because his shit would be cluttered. His house would get messy, with dirty dishes piled up in the sink and a bunch of newspapers scattered across the yard inside the front gate, his bed unmade and his sheets with that grubby feel that means they haven’t been washed in far too long. The messiness of his house or his car always matched the messiness of his mind, he liked to think. His therapist had told him that was often the case with people she saw, and becoming aware of it hadn’t necessarily helped him be a neater person, but at least it was something tangible that helped him understand what kind of place he was in at any given time.
A crow landed on the hood of Michael’s Honda Civic. The paint was chipping away and the bumper right in front of the hood was dented in too many places to count. The crow’s feet scratched against the metal as the bird wandered around, poking its beak to and fro, picking up the dried leaves that had collected on the hood from the tree above and putting them down again, realizing that this recently shed bio-matter was not the food he was looking for. The sun streamed in through the tree’s branches and into the windshield, but the air was cold that day and the sun didn’t bother Michael. He checked the time. 12:56. Only 4 more hours to go, and he seriously doubted anything was going to come up on a Tuesday afternoon in one of the richest residential areas of the city. Still, the rich people liked to think their stuff was safe while they ran around all day, doing god-knows-what but some of them probably working in big buildings downtown, and others just fucking around and shopping or spending their spouse’s money. It’s how these things went. Michael knew. He’d grown up next to privilege his entire life, and while not entrenched in it, he knew lots of people who were. It wasn’t their fault, these folks, that they were so afraid and insecure about their stuff getting stolen or destroyed. Wealth bred that kind of fear. He’d seen it first hand.
He watched the crow continue to creep across the hood. Soon, it was joined by another one, who started doing the same things the first one did, messing around with the dead leaves. These guys really didn’t learn. 1:00 on Tuesday afternoon. Greg was supposed to arrive today. The week had flown by, and despite Michael’s every attempt to ignore the prospect the day had bitterly arrived, taunting him with its perfect fall weather and low-key job assignment. Michael reached for his phone. Ever since he’d talked to Greg, he noticed he paid a lot more attention to his phone. The mysterious call from Arizona didn’t help that fact; after a few days without a follow-up call he supposed it had something to do with the task Greg had roped him in on. In that case, if it did have something to do with that guy, he wanted nothing to do with that Arizona number. He’d deleted any existence of it from his phone entirely when he’d woken up the next morning, with a mouth dry as straw and a headache that seemed more induced by the stress of it all than by the alcohol. But he couldn’t stop Greg, the rat bastard. Every time he called him or tried to get ahold of him and talk him out of this stupid plan, all Greg would say was that he was coming, and Michael should be ready to take some time off work to search for this girl because there was no other choice. And Michael hated it. He was being conned, but deep in his heart he knew that Greg was right. He really didn’t have any other choice, if he wanted to live a safe life, and finally sleep through the night, God, he would love to sleep through the night again. He’d grown so accustomed to being irritable and miserable, and hating everything anyone asked of him that he almost didn’t remember what it was like to feel at peace with himself. He was so damn miserable, he’d finally admitted one night over a couple glasses of whiskey. He had no choice, not unless he wanted to stay this way until he died.
There was a rapping on Michael’s window. He started, flinging himself to an upright position and squinting at the window the noise had come from. A man stood outside, his hands both crammed into his front pockets, looking at the ground and waiting for Michael to acknowledge him. Michael fumbled, then rolled down his window the rest of the way. He put on his over-the-top nonthreatening voice, the one he used for the rich neighborhoods. “Howdy. Can I help you sir?” he mustered up all the friendliness he possibly could.
The man outside his car continued to look down. His shoulders, clad in a beige sweater that looked soft and expensive, with the emerging collar of a plaid button-down tucked expertly over the sweater’s neck, were drawn up to his ears. His hair was a sandy blonde, and thinning near the crown, Michael noticed. Still, he looked young, like one of those young parents that had started swarming the place with the most recent tech boom. He likely had a wife who needed a full-time nanny even though she stayed home all day, and a baby with some weird name that wasn’t actually a name that wore diapers more expensive than Michael’s entire wardrobe. Finally, the man looked up, squinting through the brightness into the dim interior of the car. Michael immediately regretted not having cleaned out his car that morning, surely this guy was looking at all the shit scattered about. “Yeah, um, I wanted to see if I could get your help with something,” the man in the beige sweater said.
Michael looked at him, peering up at his face, partially blocked out by the sun hanging low behind him. He usually didn’t get approached during a shift, unless he was actively walking around an area and people mistook his jacket for a cop uniform, like he suspected they had that day at the park with the hawk in the tunnel last week. “Sure,” said Michael, trying to retain his air of friendliness when he was completely unprepared to meet whatever high standards this guy obviously had. “What’s going on?”
Before he could finish his question the guy had Michael by the neck. Michael choked on his own spit; the man’s grip was stronger than he looked. The guy looked Michael directly in the face, staring into his eyes with an intensity that was terrifying. He was obviously not afraid. Suddenly, he clocked Michael across the face. The blow sent blood gushing through his mouth, either from his nose or from his lip, he couldn’t tell the difference but the taste of salty pennies flooded his mouth, his throat. The man in the beige sweater kept his grip tight on Michael’s neck, keeping his head steady and preventing it from flinging too far to the side in response to being hit. “You better find her,” the man spoke through gritted teeth. His spit sprayed Michael in the eyes as he over-pronounced every syllable. “You better fucking find her, or else it’s over, Slip.” Releasing Michael’s throat, the man roughly threw his hand backwards, causing Michael’s neck to whip violently to one side and then right itself again atop his shoulders. He sat there, in shock, blood dripping from somewhere on his face onto his chin and down the crevasse of his open jacket. The man in the beige sweater turned around, put his shoulders back into their locked position near his ears and stuffed his hands in his pockets, looked both ways and walked across the street with the aloofness of a young guy who didn’t know what to do with his new life in the big city.
A handful of leaves fell from the tree above Michael’s car and landed on his hood. Two crows stood watching him. They hadn’t moved the entire time, Michael realized. They weren’t even spooked by the sudden movement of the attack. In comparison, Michael felt like a complete coward. He continued to watch the guy walk away, but he never looked back towards the car. Michael rolled up his window, and plunged his hand nearest it into the space between the seat and the door. In the pocket there, he waved his hand around until he found what he was looking for, a few crumpled brown napkins, probably left over from a coffee run somewhere. He put the napkins to his face and let the blood soak them.
He wasn’t Slip anymore.
With the napkins to his face, he looked around the neighborhood, scanning the windows of the houses for any signs of witnesses. The entire thing had been so fast, he doubted anyone had seen him get clocked. A black and white cat stood poised on the sidewalk near his car, watching him with its paw drawn up mid-step. He wondered how long it had been standing there. Delicately removing the napkins from his face, inspected the damage in the smudged rearview mirror. The blood had been coming from his nose, he determined, but the bleeding seemed to be slowing now judging by the sluggish black ooze that crept from his left nostril. He wiped up the remainder of the blood as best he could, his nose swelling up like a lopsided balloon, and gingerly squeezed it in various places on the bridge to make sure the bone wasn’t broken. When he determined it was still in one piece, he rolled up his window and started the key in the ignition. The engine sputtered to life. As he rolled slowly through the residential neighborhood, with its front lawns and organic vegetable gardens and stoops full of prickly succulents erupting from clay pots, he scanned both sides of the street to make sure the man in the beige sweater wasn’t near by. They had taken off in opposite directions, but Michael didn’t know this neighborhood that well. For all he knew, the man could have ducked into the park this street ran into, and looped back around. He glanced behind him every few feet or so. No sign of the man.
Pulling over again on another empty stretch of curb in front of some newer, larger houses, Michael reached for his cell phone, which he had tossed into the passenger seat earlier. He had three missed calls from Greg, and a text message. Opening the text message, he saw it was sent over an hour ago. “where are you” it said, no question mark. Michael called Greg, who picked up on the first ring. “Where are you?” he repeated. “I’m at your house, man. 542 60th, right?”
Michael sniffed, feeling the blood begin to trickle again. “Yeah, that’s the one. Sorry. I got caught up. I’ll be there soon to let you in.” He hung up before Greg could say anything back. Glancing at the clock, he noticed it was only 1:30. He needed to leave his post to go let Greg in. Usually, nobody cared if he dipped out for a quick lunch or coffee break. This wouldn’t be any different, but after his rogue attacker walked off, he felt weird about leaving his assigned area so early in the day. He still had a few good hours of sunlight left and he wanted to use them to his best advantage, but he had agreed to be Greg’s reluctant host. “Fuck.” He muttered, throwing his phone back down into the fabric-upholstered passenger seat and checking his mirrors to make sure he was safe to pull out before flicking on his turn signal. He was always extra careful about his driving in these neighborhoods, you never knew when some rich lady would decide to pitch a fit about how fast you’re driving down the street her house happens to be on. Those “Drive Like Your Kids Lived Here” signs were plastered fucking everywhere here, those fucking idiotic signs.
Crossing busy Claremont Avenue and turning onto 60th street shortly after, Michael saw his driveway was occupied by a brown van he didn’t recognize, so he pulled up to the curb outside his house instead. The door to the van opened, and Greg stepped out- a 30 pounds heavier, grayer haired Greg than the one he knew. The guy’s short-sleeved button down shirt was left sloppily half untucked, his hair rumpled and jeans creased like he’d been sleeping in his clothes. Greg waved awkwardly as Michael got out of his car and slowly walked up the driveway, his face much grimmer than Greg’s blankly smiling one. The air was getting cooler now, a brisk wind had picked up with the sinking sun. Michael nodded in Greg’s direction, where his old friend was still waving awkwardly like he didn’t know what else to do.
“Michael,” Greg was the first to speak, and he did so when Michael was still far enough away from him for it to be an uncomfortable distance. “How are you, buddy? Long time no see!” He maneuvered the door of the shitty brown van closed with a series of pushes and pulls, which looked like a task in and of itself, then strode in Michael’s direction to meet him. Before Michael had time to reply, Greg had thrown his heavy body against his in a hug that was entirely too tight for comfort and for the nature of their relationship. After Greg had sufficiently squeezed him, Michael pried his way out of his grasp and looked Greg in the face. It was then that Greg finally noticed Michael’s bleeding nose, and the swelling he suspected had begun creeping up towards his eye since he felt his vision get less and less sharp on the left side between the last time he’d checked out his injury and now. “What the hell happened to ya, man?” He asked with exaggerated incredulous concern, holding Michael at arm’s length to get a better look at him as a grandmother might to a grandchild she hasn’t seen all year.
Michael looked a way, and again squirmed to get out of Greg’s overly-comfortable grasp. Touching his left nostril with the back of his hand, he saw that it had, in fact, begun bleeding again. He patted his front and back pockets for evidence of a tissue or napkin crammed deep inside one of them, but found nothing. “Here,” Greg said, reaching inside the front pocket of his own jeans and pulling out a folded tissue that looked surprisingly clean and unused, something Michael wouldn’t expect to come out of Greg’s pants. Greg must have noticed the look of incredulity on Michael’s face when he passed over the tissue, because he immediately offered an embarrassed explanation, “I get nosebleeds a lot, especially when I travel.”
Michael, still holding the tissue to his nose, nodded at the van. “Yeah,” he said, his voice muffled under the pressure of the blood-absorbing paper, which, he now noticed, was becoming soaked faster than he expected. “What’s with the hippie van? Thought you were flying.”
Greg looked at the van, then looked down, his hands in his pockets. “Yeah, about that…turns out I uh, it made more sense for me to just drive than to pay for a flight. I think United’s got some monopoly on flights from the East Coast now, you wouldn’t believe the price of a ticket to come out here! Just a one-way ticket, it’s, you wouldn’t believe it,” he stammered.
Michael looked at him. “Wait, wait. Driving from Rhode Island? Are you fucking kidding me? That had to be a hell of a lot more expensive than a plane ticket, especially in that beater van that you’ve had since what- high school? And a one–way ticket? Come on, you gotta know when you’re going back, Greg. I’m not gonna let this turn into some thing where you end up crashing on my couch for the next six months, alright? If we’re gonna do this it better be fast, and I want you out and back to your life right after. No clingers on, I’m only doing this to be over with it and have anyone remotely related to the situation out of my life for good.” There was only silence from Greg, as he continued to look at his shoes. Michael realized he’d been a little overly harsh right off the bat. “Sorry, man. I didn’t mean to be so harsh but this is pretty much still a complete shock to me, and I don’t really know what to believe and you driving out here seems suspicious and all- well, the not flying part does, and I don’t want to get caught up with anyone who’s in trouble with the law and end up getting busted for something myself, you know? I just want to make things right, and get back to living.”
Greg was quiet. Then, out of nowhere, a massive beaming smile broke across his face, as unexpected as sun through the clouds on the most miserable of days. “No problem, buddy. Listen, I just want to make sure it’s ok that I crash with you. If it isn’t, I’ll get a motel or something.” He spoke fast, with a saccharine enthusiasm usually reserved for little league coaches. “I mean, Kelly thinks I’m staying with you, but if you decide you don’t want the burden of an extra body here,” he looked over at the house, sizing it up then nodding in approval, “nice place, by the way,” then furrowing his brow and turning back to look Michael directly in the eye, “it’s fine if you want me somewhere else. Really.”
Michael waited. Greg continued to furrow his brow at him. There was something about him, his energy was all over the place, the ups and downs in the conversation thus far were already exhausting. Greg was acting like a kid with ADHD, or someone whose mind was racing really, really fast, who was amped up on- “You on drugs?” Michael said it before he could stop himself. He almost took it back, but instead swallowed and looked intently at Greg, regretting every syllable.
Greg’s eyes widened, his eyelids stretching so far in either direction Michael thought they might rip and his eyes might just come undone and fall out of his skull. “Slip,” Greg said, stretching the word out so long Michael wanted to just shake it out of him and get it over with quicker. “Why would you even say something like that? Of course I’m not on,” he quickly laughed, as if the accusation was so far from the truth it was purely comical, “I’m, how could you think I’m on drugs? I’m not on…my mental state, see, it’s just a little fragile right now. I’m pretty shook up, Slip. Before I left, one of his guys gave me a little scare. That’s all,” he shrugged.
Michael waited a moment to see if he was going to say anything else. After the shrug, Greg dropped off, and he looked to Michael expecting the same thing. Neither one of them wanted to be the one to shoulder on the conversation. “Alright. Get your stuff, come inside. And move your van onto the street, this is my parking spot,” Michael said gruffly, moving towards the door and reaching for his keys, making no move to help Greg with his bags. Unlocking the door, he made sure to pick up the few pieces of mail that had come, then pushed his way inside and left the door open for Greg to follow him. Flipping the lights on, he dug his phone out of his jacket pocket and went to put it and his keys on the hall table, when he saw an envelope sitting propped up on the wall that hadn’t been sitting there when he left this morning. It was a standard size, long white envelope with “M.S.” written on the front in pencil. Michael picked it up and turned it over. It was sealed with black wax. There was a stamp in the wax seal, and he recognized the insignia. His heart dropped into his stomach. It was the same logo that was on the pin he’d found on the lapel of the women’s jacket in the tunnel, the jacket that he couldn’t shake the feeling might have something to do with this missing girl.
The door slammed shut behind him. “I’ll move my back in a second, as soon as I get all this stuff inside,” huffed Greg. Michael could smell the nervous sweat coming off him, invading the atmosphere of his house. The envelope was still in his hand, which was now quivering a bit, and Michael didn’t turn around.
“Anywhere is fine.” His voice was flat, he didn’t care if Greg felt uncomfortable. Fuck Greg. This guy was coming in uninvited, who did he think he was, anyway? He’d brought himself here, in his car, or plane, or whatever the hell way he took to get here, and nobody wanted him here, especially not Michael.
“Alright, well, I’m just gonna go take it over here then…” Michael watched Greg struggling out of the corner of his eye to roll his massive, beat-up suitcase down the hall where Michael’s room was. The suitcase looked like it belonged to someone’s grandmother 40 years ago; it was a hideous, outdated gray and pink floral print with holes worn right through the corners and a bevy of luggage tags dangling from every zipper and handle available that assuredly did not contain Greg’s information. He could practically smell the mothballs that the suitcase undoubtedly housed for the last however many decades. When he was sure Greg was preoccupied with the hallway, watching him open and close each door, a closet here and a bathroom there, Michael turned back to the envelope in his hand. He used his thumb to pry the wax seal off, ripping the thing down the middle, as he tried to ignore the uncanny coincidence of the symbol on the seal and the one on the pin and wondered who even had a wax seal anymore and where you would buy one if you wanted one, anyway. Lifting the paper inside out of the envelope, Michael noticed that instead of a normal 8 by 11 inch piece of paper folded into thirds, or even into a small square, the content of the envelope was simply a tiny piece of very thin paper, no bigger than a common receipt. The width of the paper reminded him of a receipt anyway; given how sheer it was, he was surprised it didn’t rip just by him looking it at it.
“I put my stuff in your room, Slip, hope that’s ok. You got a beer or something?” Greg interrupted, his loud voice overpowering the quiet halls of Michael’s solitary home. He was not accustomed to the sound of another person around him, so he jumped a few inches when he heard Greg’s voice. Stuffing the fragile paper back into the envelope, Michael turned around. Greg was looking jittery, rubbing his hands together in anticipation for whatever was next.
“Uh, check in the fridge. I think I still have a few from the other day.” Greg followed the instructions, heading straight into the kitchen as if he’d lived here for years and had made himself at home long ago. Michael waited until he heard the creak of the fridge door opening and saw the light flood the darkened kitchen before he looked back towards the envelope in his hand, and decided to head into the bathroom to read his note in peace.
“Be right back,” he called over his shoulder, as he strode down the hall and into the bathroom. Shutting the door behind him as the overhead light flickered to life, Michael sat down on the toilet’s closed lid. He removed the thin paper from its encasement once again, and began to read the neat cursive letters, which were so tightly-packed onto the tiny sheet of paper that they looked to be one solid block of print, instead of completely separate sentences.
“Michael, by the time you read this everything I’m writing about now will be well into effect. I don’t mean to alarm you, but there is very good reason to be alarmed. What you think is a simple case of a missing person is much more- this story is much larger than her, and much larger than you. You must trust me when I say that your participation in this quest is meaningful in a way you cannot comprehend right now, but that will soon become clear. Please, use discretion and caution while completing this task, and know that much more will soon be asked of you. Be ready to receive the request. Do not get caught up in the illusion that you have a choice.
Turning the letter over, Michael searched for more information. All he found was that the ink from the front side had bled significantly onto the backside of the paper, its rich blue darkness spreading out into Rorschach blots that wanted to deceive his eyes into thinking something more was there. But it wasn’t, and all there was was this short letter, which both frightened and confused him. Do not get caught up in the illusion that you have a choice. What did they mean? LH 12…whoever that was. The illusion that he had a choice? Of course he had a choice. He was making a choice right now, wasn’t he?
The door to the bathroom opened suddenly, and Michael’s wide eyes met Greg’s open mouth. He clutched a bottle of Anchor Steam one hand, with his other on the doorknob. “Oh! Sorry, man. I thought this was the bedroom- just got turned around.” He went to shut the door, then stopped and laughed a buffoon laugh. It belonged to a college kid. “What are you doing on the can, man? You forgot to take your pants off.” He shut the door without an answer.
Michael leaned over, rubbing his still-throbbing face. After a few deep breaths, the foreign concept of which seemed to stretch his chest beyond its capacity, he stood, lifted the lid of the toilet and threw the letter and its wax-sealed envelope into the toilet bowl. He watched as the navy blue ink began to seep into the clear water, turning it an electric indigo. He flushed.
When Michael came back into the living room, Greg was already sitting in his chair with the television on, flipping through channel after channel of junk. “I didn’t see anything to eat in the fridge there, but maybe we can get some pizza delivered or something,” he said, without looking at Michael, eyes glued to the quickly changing scenes on the TV. “You have like, a Domino’s around here?” Michael felt his jaw clench. His tape recorder sat underneath the table that Greg had put his beer on, directly on the wood without a coaster or anything underneath it to prevent it from leaving a ring, and Greg probably hadn’t even noticed it or thought to ask him if that was a good place for him to sit. Michael had an entire sofa and Greg chose the one chair that Michael liked to sit in. Michael sat down slowly on the couch, as if it were painful. It felt foreign under his bottom, like the overstuffed furniture at an unfriendly great aunt’s house feels when you’re a kid.
“Greg,” he said in a low voice, looking directly at the man whose eyes were flicking back and forth with each TV channel that passed through his line of sight, “I got a letter. Did you get one?”
“Huh?” Greg was still hypnotized by the TV. “Yeah I saw you got some mail. I thought you brought it in already.” He wasn’t listening.
“No. A letter. Addressed to me, but not sent here. Something to do with this girl. You get one?”
Greg began turning his head, but kept his eyes fixed on the TV. In the screen’s glow Michael could make out the plethora of stains across his shirt and pants. The guy was sloppy, and something was up with him. Maybe he was always like this, Michael hadn’t seen him in a few decades, after all, but he didn’t look like he was alright. And more importantly, he didn’t look like someone Michael felt comfortable having stay at his house, and leaving alone while he went to work. He looked like a puppy that you just know is going to piss in your shoes the minute you walk out the door.
“Um…” Greg waited for whatever TV segment he was transfixed by to end, and as soon as the first commercial slammed into the moment of space left by the program’s closure his eyes whipped around to catch up with his head as they looked at Michael. “A letter. Let me think.” He didn’t look like he was thinking very hard, or that he even knew how to think hard. He probably hadn’t used this much executive functioning in his brain since their college days. “Yeah, you know what?” His eyes widened as the memory floated to the surface of his shallow perception. “I think I did get a letter. Yeah. I got something like that. It’s um,” he paused, scratching his head, then inspecting the results under his grubby fingernails. “It’s in my bag, I think. I didn’t open it. Hang on, let me find it.” Greg braced himself on the arms of the chair and then lifted his entire body weight up to a standing position. Michael could see that the years hadn’t been kind to Greg’s body, but underneath the beer flab was undoubtedly a good, solid layer of muscle. The guy could probably still mess someone up in a fight. He might be useful to have around, actually, insisted Michael’s throbbing nose.
As he rummaged around in his bags, the sounds of various zippers opening and closing at different pitches floated down the hallway. Assured that he was genuinely going through his beat-up suitcase and not Michael’s medicine cabinet, Michael decided to look for a phone book and see about getting a pizza. His stomach had been empty for the entire day, he realized. It had been that way more often than not recently, and it wasn’t that he didn’t have the cash to buy food, it was just that more often than not he just seemed to forget about eating altogether. While Michael rummaged through the various kitchen drawers where he thought he might keep something like a phone book or a takeout menu, he heard Greg return from his bedroom and come up behind him in the kitchen. His footsteps stopped, but much closer to Michael than was comfortable. Michael stopped what he was doing. He kept facing forward, but his mind began racing. If Greg were going to attack and rob him right now, could he defend himself? He glanced down at the drawer that had held his attention just a moment ago. Greg breathed heavily behind him, his nose sounded congested with allergies or maybe constricted airways from the swelling resulting from a blow to the face, just like Michael’s. Maybe Greg had been attacked, too, by someone who had a vested interest in making sure they did what they were setting out to do anyway.
Taking inventory of the contents of the drawer, he saw a barbecue lighter, a bunch of business cards for gardeners and remodelers that he’d never used, some chopsticks with the paper wrapping still on, an assorted handful of soy sauce, mustard and ketchup packets, and a box knife. Creeping his hand slowly towards the box knife, he tried to be as still as possible while still being close enough to the knife to grab it at a moment’s notice if need be. Greg continued to stand there, saying nothing, just breathing. He was probably only a few feet away from Michael’s hunched-over back, and still hadn’t said anything at all since his return from the bedroom. Michael felt his heart palpitating, and the missed beats were making him dizzy. It happened sometimes, and his shrink said it was a pretty common thing that happens with anxiety, but he was just waiting for the day he was going to pass out and his hit head on something and never wake up all because his heart waited just a nanosecond too long for its next beat.
Greg’s sneaker squeaked against the floor. Michael jumped, and grabbed the box knife as he did. He spun around, clutching the knife, which still had its safety lid over the blade close to his own chest, where it was virtually useless. Greg stood opposite him, his eyes wide with genuine surprise, with a toothbrush hanging out of his mouth, one hand frozen mid-clean, the other hand clutching a white envelope. White foam erupted from the corners of his lips and trickled down his chin. The effect was nauseating, and the dumbfounded look on Greg’s face didn’t help Michael’s feeling that he had just interrupted a very personal moment belonging to a person who wasn’t all there mentally. Greg opened his mouth, and an enormous glob of toothpaste that had been whipped to a froth fell down the front of his already stained shirt. Realizing that his mouth was full, Greg quickly shut it again, but muffled noises emanated from behind his closed lips that indicated his shock had left him unable to figure out what to do first in this situation. Moving over to the sink on Michael’s left, he spit violently twice.
“What the fuck are you doing man?” He sputtered, bits of minty foam flying through the air in Michael’s general direction. The air smelled like peppermint, and Michael’s nose burned. He looked down, just as dumbfounded as Greg had looked a moment ago, at the box knife in his hand. Jesus Christ. It didn’t even have the translucent plastic safety cover off it yet. What was he going to even do with that, anyway? Jesus.
“I…uh.” He had nothing to say back to Greg. He’d been thinking Greg was the one with a few screws loose, and now it turned out he was the one who looked like an utter idiot. Was he being this paranoid all along? Was he always this paranoid? His heart raced. Feelings of doom, of the inevitability of his slow but steady descent into madness and loneliness started crowding his mind, his chest. He couldn’t tell whether or not he was still clutching the box knife because his hands went numb. His vision narrowed, until all he could see was white dripping from Greg’s chin onto his stubbly neck, then on to the collar of his shirt, mixing with grease stains from the fast food he’d eaten on the way here, and those grease stains mixed with even older grease stains from all the times he’d eaten a double quarter pounder and not bothered to use a napkin. Everything that was not in the narrow tunnel of his sight went black, and even when Michael moved his head about to see where the rest of the world had gone he was met only with a darkness that looked like a photographic negative. He reached out behind him and blindly found the counter. He grabbed it hard, and let the box knife fall out of his hand. He moved towards where he thought the living room should be, given all the years he’d spent in this house moving from kitchen to living room and back again. He’d probably made that trip hundreds of thousands of times, and yet now he couldn’t seem to figure out where he was going. He reached for the door frame that separated the two rooms, and he found it. This is where he would stand in the event of an earthquake, he always told himself at night when his insomnia was keeping him awake, when every minor reverberation of a passing truck made him check and triple check his earthquake safety plan.
Michael felt Greg grab his shoulder. Then, his voice, coming from another world. Not the world Michael was in. He wondered what Greg’s world looked like, and why his was so very dark. Maybe there had been an earthquake after all, and the power had gone out. “Mike, you ok? What are you doing, buddy? Where are you going? Come on, let’s go sit down. Come on. I got you, I’m going to take you over to the couch, ok?” Michael hadn’t remembered Greg having such a thick Bostonian accent. It was always just a part of his voice, never a separate attribute that he would list if he were to describe Greg. Michael felt Greg’s grip on his shoulders tighten, and push him forward, away from where he was clinging on to the doorframe like an octopus to a rock. He detached, and then he floated, guided by Greg through the dark water to the living room, where he felt the couch come up to meet him. Then, when he was seated, he felt Greg gently hold the back of his head, and push it towards his feet, until his head was dangling between his own legs. What a funny position. The tingling moved from his hands to his head.
“Greg?” Michael said. “Can you hear me?” Greg patted the back of Michael’s head.
“Yep, I’m right here buddy. I think you got a little scared. Just try to breathe. Everything is gonna be ok, you got it? Everything is gonna be ok. Say it back to me, Slip.”
“Everything is gonna be ok,” Michael repeated. It didn’t sound like his voice. Was it Greg’s voice? Was he some kind of puppet, and Greg the puppet master? Was he under hypnosis? The tingling began to die away, and in its place he regained feeling in his hands and head. “I can feel my hands now,” he said aloud, though he didn’t know why. It didn’t sound like something he would say under normal circumstances. But these weren’t normal circumstances, he realized, as the room began to come back to him, starting with the wood floor just inches away from his nose. He could see the wood, then he could see the edge of the carpet just beyond it. He could see colors. These weren’t normal circumstances at all, and all of the sudden he felt the weight he’d been carrying around, the weight he had become accustomed to carrying for so long. He felt where it sat in his chest, right in the middle. Had it always been this bad? He’d known this weight for a long time, but jesus. It was so heavy, and Michael was so tired. Suddenly, he yelped. He didn’t know why. He yelped again, this time drawing in air as if he’d been underwater for a long time. The yelps were sobs, he realized, a sound he hadn’t heard coming from his own mouth since his mother died. Greg continued to pat the back of his head, like a dog.
“It’s ok, you can let it out.”
So Michael did, he lost it all in front of a man he barely knew, a man who he wasn’t even sure could even read a book. He sobbed gasping sobs. There were no tears, just feral noises like the shrieks of young coyotes that sometimes echoed in the night here, that woke him up and made him think someone was mourning with their entire being. They were animal noises, and he was too tired to worry about their volume, so he let them come out, and he let himself be afraid, and tired, and full of dread at what was to come.