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Day Fifty-seven: Mistaken Identity

Arthur was waiting in line to buy beer at the convenience store when he felt a heavy hand tap him on the shoulder. He turned and saw a large man, his face scowling and red and unshaven, who said, “Yeah. I thought so.”

Then he punched Arthur in the mouth.

On the floor and holding his split lip, Arthur tried to ask the guy what the hell his problem was, but it was too late. The man was already stalking out of the store. The other customers were very carefully pretending not to notice the guy who just got socked in the mouth and went back to scrutinizing jars of peanut butter and loaves of bread.

“Did you see what that guy did to me?” he asked the clerk. He took his hand away from his mouth. There was less blood than he expected, even though it felt like his lip had exploded. He touched it again and winced. “Did you see that?” he asked again, his pronunciation soft and strange. The clerk just looked at him with barely concealed disgust. “What?” Arthur asked. “Why didn’t you stop him or something?”

“You can pay for your stuff and get out, mister,” the clerk said. One hand was edging underneath the counter. “Or you can just get out. Your choice.”

Arthur bent down to pick up the beer off the floor, stood up, and dropped it on the counter. The quick change in elevation brought throbbing pain to his jaw, and he wondered if he should go to a doctor. “Just ring up the damn beer,” he said.

The clerk didn’t move. His lip actually curled before he said, “I don’t think so. Why don’t you take your business elsewhere?”

Arthur, his hand still holding his jaw, wanted to shout. He looked around for support, but the other customers were still ignoring him, except when they shot furtive, disgusted glances his way. “Jesus Christ,” he said. “The hell is wrong with you people?” No one said anything. He looked back at the clerk, his mind racing for a threat. “I… I’m calling my lawyer,” he said, wishing he had something better.

The clerk actually spit on his own floor. “Yeah,” he said. “Your lawyer. You go on and do that, then, you sick fuck.”

Without another word, Arthur staggered out to his car. He looked at himself in the rear-view mirror – as he thought, his lip was swelling up and had a cut on it that felt like it should have been a lot worse. “Son of a bitch,” he said. He put the car in gear, turned on the headlights, backed out of the parking lot and headed for his hotel. His mind was racing with all the things he should have said to that snot-nosed clerk but didn’t. What he kept coming back to, though, was that he had no idea what had just happened. By the time he got back to his hotel room, he was almost in tears.

He looked at his face again in the mirror and cursed. This wasn’t going to help him in the interview. Two more days of driving to go, and there was no way this would be unnoticeable by the time he set foot in Barbeau Pharmaceuticals. “Shit,” he said. “How’m I gonna explain this?” He had to wipe his eyes clear and get a grip on the bathroom sink. Okay, he thought. Think. What do I need to do first? He couldn’t call the police, as much as he wanted to. He was leaving at six in the morning for another fourteen hours in the car, and hanging around to fill out police reports would mean missing the interview. And if he went to a hospital – same thing.

He went back into the room, picked up the phone, and dialed out. After a minute, a groggy voice answered. “Hello?”

“Jim! I just got punched in the mouth by some jackass in a convenience store, Jim, and I have no idea what this hillbilly shitkicker wanted! Then the clerk, this little punk-ass kid, he practically kicked me out of the store, and for what? I didn’t do anything!”

“Who is this?” Jim slurred.

“Jim, it’s me! It’s Arthur!”

“Arthur, right,” Jim said. “You said you got hit by a clerk? What?”

“No, some guy in a convenience store just decked me out of nowhere and now I have a split lip and an interview in two days and this is completely fucked up, Jim!” There was a moment of silence on the other end. “Jim?”

“Hey, Art, where are you?”

Arthur picked up the hotel stationery. “I’m at the Stillwater Hotel in Ridgebourne. Why?”

“Ridgebourne,” Jim said. “Hold on a sec.” From the sound, Arthur could tell Jim had gotten up and moved to the computer. He heard typing and a couple of mouse clicks. “Okay,” Jim said. “What do we know about- Oh, hell.”

“Jim? What? ‘Oh hell’ What, Jim?”

“Um, Art – you might want to check the local news.”

“What? Why?” He reached for the remote and turned the television on. He flipped through channels until he got to the eleven o’clock news, which was running a special extended broadcast.

“…are asking people to remain calm and not overreact,” the anchor was saying. “Craig Wilburn has been taken to an undisclosed location following his release from the county jail. Several death threats have already been received by authorities and they are concerned for Wilburn’s safety.”

Arthur put the phone back up to his ear. “I don’t get it, Jim. Who the hell is Craig Wilburn?”

“He was acquitted on six counts of molesting little boys,” Jim said. “The article I’m looking at here says that the jury wasn’t convinced by the State’s physical evidence and set the guy free. But the mood in the town is…”

“They all think he’s guilty. Okay, fine, what does that have to do with me?”

Jim paused for a moment. “Have they shown a picture yet?”

A cold, sinking feeling spread through Arthur’s gut. “Nnnoo,” he said slowly. He glanced up at the TV just in time to see the photo flash up on the screen and the sinking feeling became ice. His own face was staring out from a small frame next to the news anchor’s head. The hair was a little off, and Arthur was pretty sure he never scowled like that, but for all the world the guy up on the screen looked like him.

“Oh, hell,” he said.

There was a knock on the door to his hotel room, and Arthur stood up fast. “What was that?” Jim asked.

“Nothing,” Arthur whispered. “Someone at the door.” The knock came again.

“You’re not going to answer it, are you?”

“I… I…” Arthur swallowed hard. The knocking came again. A muffled voice announced itself as the hotel manager. “Ju-just a sec!” he called.

Jim’s voice was tinny and frantic on the other end of the phone. “Are you nuts? It’s probably a lynch mob! Arthur, I’m calling the police – stay there and don’t answer the door!”

“No, Jim, wait!” Arthur said, but it was too late. The line was dead.

The knocking came again. “Hotel manager,” the man said again. “I would like to talk to you, mister…” There was a deliberate pause. “Wynne.”

Arthur hung up the phone and glanced at himself in the mirror. He looked like hell, with a swollen lip and a bruise starting to spread across his face. He tried to smooth back his hair, but it wasn’t working. He stood up a little straighter and set his shoulders. Whoever this Wilburn guy was, he wasn’t him. This could all be cleared up. He wiped sweat from his forehead and walked to the door with purpose.

When he opened it, a small man in a hotel uniform was poised to knock again. The man looked up at him and lowered his hand. “Mister Wynne?” he asked.

“Yes,” Arthur said. “Arthur Wynne.” He enunciated his name clearly and slowly.

The man glanced at his swollen lip. “Have an… accident?” he asked, the implication clear in his voice.

“Actually, someone punched me in a convenience store,” Arthur said. “Your little town has a long way to go as far as hospitality.”

The little man bristled. “I see.” He straightened. “Mister Wynne, I am Riley Hensler, the manager of this hotel. I would like you to leave.” He clasped his hands in front of him. “Now.”


Hensler pursed his lips. “Mister Wynne, for the last hour, we have been receiving phone calls offering threats of physical violence against us. The callers seem to believe that Craig Wilburn,” and here his mouth twisted against the name, “is staying with us. Despite our reassurances, the threats continue, and one of my front desk clerks recalled checking in someone who greatly resembled the man in question.” He pointed to Arthur.

Arthur wanted to shake the little man. “But I’m not him!” he shouted. “It’s not my problem if the people in your town are brainless, slack-jawed sheep!”

Hensler raised an eyebrow. “I have a clerk whose life and well-being have been threatened three times tonight, Mister Wynne. She’s twenty-five years old and is a rather sweet girl.” His face went slowly cold. “I will not have my employees treated like this, and if ensuring her safety and well-being means seeing you leave, then that’s what I will do.” He flashed a perfunctory smile. “Given the unusual situation, I am willing to waive your room fee for the night. For your troubles.”

Arthur wanted to hit him, to scream, to curl up in a ball and cry. His eyes started to fill up, and he leaned against the doorjamb. “This is stupid,” he said. “I’m not him, I didn’t know who he was until tonight. I just want to sleep and go and get to my interview.” He wiped his eyes and looked up. Hensler looked unmoved.

“You have half an hour,” he said. “Then I call the police. You may in fact not be him, but I don’t think you want to spend the night explaining that to the local brainless, slack-jawed sheep with a badge. Given the choice, I think you know what’s best.” Hensler gave a shallow nod, turned on his heel, and walked down the hall.

Arthur snuffled. “Screw it,” he said. He went back into the room and grabbed his bag. He hadn’t really unpacked, since it was only supposed to be an overnight stay, so he threw things back in the bag and zipped it closed. He checked the bathroom, got his razor and deodorant and, after a moment’s battle with spite, grabbed a towel off the rack. All these went into the suitcase as well. He wanted to do more, to overturn the desk and throw the mattress out the window and write obscenities on the walls with the shoe-shine kit. But he didn’t.

He didn’t look at the front desk as he left. He just plowed through the double doors, threw his suitcase in the backseat of the car and started driving west. Maybe I can sleep in the car or something, he thought. Whatever he did, getting the hell out of this town would have to come first.

He stopped at a red light and took a few deep breaths. Okay, he thought. In a month, this’ll be a funny story to tell around the water cooler at Barbeau. Me and my new co-workers, having a good laugh about the time some cowtown South Dakota hicks thought I was a serial child molester. Good times, good times.

“Well lookie here!”

The pickup that had pulled up next to him was full of large, probably drunk men. The guy in the passenger seat had rolled down his window and was peering through the dim sodium light to get a good look at Arthur’s face. “You know who we got here?” he yelled back to his friends. Several of them started to get out of the truck.

“Oh, hell,” Arthur said, and jammed his foot on the gas.

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