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Day Two Hundred and Fifty: Ten Stories Up

January 31, 2012 Leave a comment

“Some people look into the future,” the man said, “and they see a vista of wondrous opportunity. Great branching paths laid out before them that will take them to lands unknown and accomplishments the likes of which they never imagined.” He took a drag off his cigarette and the wind whipped the smoke away as soon as it left his mouth.

“Is that so?” Devin asked, He hugged his arms for warmth and wished he’d brought a jacket or a sweater or something. Or that there was something he could do to speed this up. He’d only been listening to this guy for fifteen minutes or so, and they were fifteen minutes too many.

“When I look into the future, do you know what I see?” the man asked.

“I can’t imagine.”

“I see a dark wood, tangled and overgrown. I see darkness and shadows in every corner, covering lurking danger that could strike at any moment. Fallen leaves cover pit traps that, with a single misstep, will leave you impaled on excrement-covered spikes as the people of this dark and unholy place gather round the shrinking circle of daylight and laugh as you die in agony.”

Devin didn’t say anything. He had to admit, that was a tough little speech to follow.

The man took another draw on his cigarette. “There is only one certain future. Only one course of action I can take whose outcome is in any way knowable.” He flicked the still-smoldering butt out into the air and it spiraled lazily down, down, ten floors down to the pavement below, lost in the wash of police cars and gawkers.

The wind whistled.

“So,” Devin said. “That’s it, huh?”

The man didn’t look at him. All of his attention seemed to be on the scene below, one step off the ledge. He looked like some kind of lower management drone, in khakis and a pressed white short, with an ID badge on a red lanyard dangling from his neck. Devin wondered idly if he took the stairs, but figured the guy wouldn’t really looking to lose any weight at this point. He’d been up on the roof for about half an hour now. Someone had seen him, called the police, and that was where Devin had come in.

The movies always made this look easier. He’d do a flying tackle, but the airbag was still on its way, and there was no way in God’s green earth that he was going to jump off the edge of a building, no matter what anyone said.

There was a click in his earpiece. “Guy’s name is Alexander Norris. Got his manager down here. Says he’s been having a rough quarter.”

Devin nodded, then cleared his throat. “Hey, Mister Norris,” he called out.

The got the man’s attention. Alexander turned to look behind him, and his face was strangely calm. The knots that had been wrapping themselves around Devin’s guts drew a little bit tighter, and he licked his lips as he spoke. “Listen, Mister Norris. I get that you’re not doing so good right now. But you know, there’s no reason things can’t get better, right?”

A grin cracked Alexander’s calm expression. “No reason,” he said. “Right.” He turned to look at the gathering crowd below.

Devin was the “suicide guy” mainly because no one else had wanted to be. The state had given towns money for specialty training in this kind of thing, and he was the one who got tapped for the position. So, a week of seminars and role-plays later, Devin was the go-to man whenever there was someone threatening to blow their head off or take a street dive, which didn’t seem to happen often enough to justify the money the state was putting out for it. But he figured it was kind of like a week off, and the food was free, so he came out on top.

At least, that’s what he thought when he wasn’t on a rooftop in the middle of winter, listening to a cube drone try to be philosophical.

“Mister Norris,” Devin said, “Why don’t you tell me what it is that got you here? Maybe we can figure something out together.” He took a couple of steps closer, something that was generally not advised when the subject was about to fling himself to his death.

The crowd below was getting noisier. The police on the scene were telling people to keep away, and some jackass tried to start a chant of “Jump! Jump! Jump!” before the rest of the crowd shouted him down. The wind was still cutting through Devin’s shirt, and he wondered why Norris wasn’t shivering hard enough to fall off.

After a long time, the man said something, but it was too faint to hear. “What?” Devin shouted.

Alexander turned around again. “It was a song,” he said.

That was new. Devin wasn’t quite sure what to say to that either, so he just waited and strained to hear the siren of the approaching fire truck. The trainer had said that once the subject got going, they would usually keep talking, probably because the negotiator was the first person who’d actually offered to listen.

“I borrowed my son’s old iPod to bring to work,” Alexander said, “and there was this one song…” His face flinched, the first genuine emotion he’d shown. “It was all about… making mistakes. About being in the wrong place and not knowing how to get out.” He looked down over the edge again. “I’ve worked here for fifteen years,” he said, “and I’ve never once felt like this was what I was supposed to be doing.” He shuffled his feet and Devin’s heart leapt in his chest. “But what could I do? Pick up and start again?” He barked out a laugh, and then turned back again. Even a few yards away, Devin could see his eyes shining, the tears being pulled along by the wind.

“The song promised that someone would be there. Someone who would stand by me and help me and…” He gestured futilely at himself, at the building, at the world. “Someone who could fix me,” he said. “And all the wrong choices I’ve made.”

The moment of emotion seemed to grip him, and then, as quickly as it came, it passed. His face slipped back into the mask of indifference he’d been wearing the whole time he’d been on the roof. “But there’s no one,” he said. “My wife is off in her own little world, my kids just want to get out of the house and go to school.” He nodded down at the rooftop. “These people? They’re probably looking for someone who can do my job better and cheaper already.”

Devin took another step closer, and Alexander cocked his head in warning. He took a step back. “Don’t you have friends?” Devin asked. “People you can talk to?”

That mask cracked again, but only briefly. “No,” Alexander said. “I was never very good at that.” He took a deep breath and looked up, looking Devin in the eyes for the first time. “That’s the problem, officer,” he said. “People are unreliable. People lie. People say they’ll be there, but…”

“But they won’t,” Devin finished for him. Alexander nodded. “Well,” Devin said, taking a small step forward. “I’m here, Mister Norris,” he said. “That’s a start.”

Alexander shook his head. “No, officer,” he said. “You’re here because it’s your job. Any other day and you wouldn’t give a damn about me.” He slid his foot back, and it was right on the edge. “Not that you’d have any reason to.”

“Wait, Mister Norris,” Devin said. “There’s still a lot you can do. There’s therapy, there’s -”

“No, thank you, officer,” Alexander said. He took a deep breath, and a look of peace came over him. By the time he said, “I’m done now,” and stepped backwards over the ledge, Devin was already lunging for him.

His hands grabbed nothing but air. He watched Alexander Norris slowly fall away through the air and vanish beyond the edge of the rooftop. He was aware that he’d started yelling.

There was a long, long moment of silence. Even the wind seemed to stop.

Then the airy WHOOMPH of Norris hitting the air cushion that had been set up on the ground below.

Devin sat down heavily on the rooftop. His hands were shaking as he took the radio from its belt clip. He took a deep breath, then pressed the button to talk. “You might have told me,” he said, “that there was a cushion set up.” Then he dropped the radio and put his head in his hands.

Day One Hundred and Ninety-two: Hotline

November 29, 2011 2 comments

Carissa sat at her phone station a full minute before her eight o’clock shift started and took a photograph out of her purse. It was old, the colors muted by the years, but still resonant with meaning. Her mother, dressed in a cheap black graduation robe, holding her diploma aloft with both hands. It was a gorgeous summer day, and she stood a little apart from her mother and father, who were watching with a kind of bemused interest. Carissa’s mother had been the first in the family to graduate from college, and Carissa meant to follow her example.

And if that meant working at a psychic hotline to pay the bills, then so be it.

She picked up her headset and had it settled right as the clock ticked over. She took a deep breath, whispered, “Graduation,” and hit the flashing white button that gave her the first call of the night. The young woman on the other end was convinced that her boyfriend was cheating on her, and it took Carissa about fifteen seconds of conversation to decide that he probably was, and she wasn’t sure she blamed him.

There was only so much you could tell about someone after two years of an undergrad psychology degree, but growing up with three older sisters was a Masters’ course in how to ruin relationships. She threw a couple of well-aimed guesses at the caller – Did he sometimes hide his phone? He’s been behaving strangely, hasn’t he? – and advised her to go look for someone else, because he was just no good for her.

Most of the calls were like that. They were people with fairly ordinary problems who just needed permission to do what they were probably going to do anyway. Those callers were entertaining. There were some, though, that made Carissa’s heart heavy and kept her staring at that picture of her mother all the longer. The people who called for real trauma, for answers that she couldn’t really give. Is my father okay in heaven? Will my baby boy ever get better? When will I ever feel normal?

For those calls,she leaned on the cloudiness of the future. “Events have a way of unfolding,” she’d say, “and none of us can be absolutely sure what the end will be.” She would reassure them that life, on balance, does get better and that a brighter future was waiting for them if they were willing to go get it. Which was not advice that was privy only to psychics, but it seemed to make them feel better.

After a few hours of angry lovers, people who wanted to know about Life Beyond the Veil and a few folks who seemed to just want to talk, Carissa took her final call of the night.

“Welcome to The Psychic Connection,” she said. “I am Roxinda and I am at your service.” Countless movies and TV shows had taught her what people expected to hear from a psychic, and she was sure to deliver – a voice that sounded like she smoked too much, a name that was just exotic enough, and a trace of an accent that had no clear origin. “Let me part the veil and reveal to you what the future holds.”

The person on the other end waited nearly long enough to make her think the call had dropped. Then he spoke. “You’re a liar,” he said. He sounded exhausted. His voice cracked, and seemed to be coming from far away.

“Why would you say that?” Carissa asked. She’d been accused of not being a real psychic before, of course. There were the skeptics who tried to test her and the angry family members who were upset that their mother or brother or son was allowing some so-called “Psychic” to make decisions for them. Carissa had some sympathy, of course. She wasn’t psychic, and she was pretty sure none of her co-workers were either. They were all just really good at figuring people out, cold reading and making the vague and speculative sound precise and prophetic. They weren’t allowed to reveal that, of course. Admitting to not actually being psychic was the fastest way to lose the job, and right now Carissa needed what little cash she could scrape in.

The man on the other end of the phone sighed, and it was heavy and tired. “I know your type,” he said. “You let us give you our money and you wave your hands around and tell us what we should do. and then you hang up, and nothing is ever your problem again.”

Carissa blinked. That was a new approach for her. “Perhaps you could tell me about your problem,” she said. “I feel a great sense of urgency, of a great decision that needs to be made.”

He laughed, and it was a single, short bark. “You could say that, yeah. Yeah, a decision.” He paused, and Carissa could hear the short scrape of a lighter being lit. “I sure do have a decision to make,” he said around what ha to be a cigarette. He exhaled, and it sounded like wind in her ear. “I’m on a bridge,” he said. “A good high one. And I’m just about ready to jump.” He took another inhale. “And it looks like a long, long way down.”

Carissa’s insides froze as he spoke. Part of her wanted to keep him on the line, to keep him talking. But she had no idea what to say to him, no idea what she could say to keep him from jumping. And if she should say the wrong thing? If she said something that made him want to jump? Her mind froze up, and throat closed. After a moment, he said, “You still there?”

She took a breath and had to try a couple of times. “Yes,” she said. “Of course I’m still here. I… I would…” She swallowed, hard. “Sir, perhaps you have called the wrong hotline?”

This time his laugh sounded genuine, if still dark and bitter. “That was good,” he said. “Nice.” Another exhale. “No,” he said. “I called you and I wanted you.”

“Well, then,” she said. “Tell me what I can do for you?” All of her lines fled from her head. She knew what her psychic persona should ask him, but she couldn’t make it come out. Finally she settled on, “How can I help you?”

“You can give me back the life you people took from me,” he said, and all the humor was gone from his voice.

“Sir,” she said. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.” Carissa reached down and grabbed her purse from the floor. “What do you think we did to you?” She started rifling through her bag. There was a notebook and a pen in there somewhere, she was sure of it.

“You’re the psychic,” he said. “You tell me.”

She resisted the urge to sigh. That was always a favorite line whenever she tried to fish for information from people, and it was a hard one to get past sometimes. “Very well,” she said, laying on the accent a little thicker. “This is not the first time you have called us,” she said. The notebook was at the bottom of her bag, of course. She pulled it out and started looking for her pen. “One of our number has helped you in the past.”

“Very good, Saturn Girl,” he said. Carissa didn’t get the reference, but she caught the tone. “And how do you think that turned out?”

She found the pen and quickly scribbled a note on a piece of paper. “You are troubled.” Guy on phone going to kill himself, she wrote. “Your problem remains unresolved.” What the hell do I do? “You are searching for answers to a question you do not know how to ask.” She leaned over to Lizette, the girl who sat next to her, and slid the note onto her desk. “You wish to know -”

“What I wish to know,” he said, “is where the hell you people get off?” The anger in his voice was a good sign, at least from a psychic point of view. Angry people were less careful about what they said, more prone to letting information slip. She tapped the note, and Lizette waved her off. She was on a call of her own, and it looked interesting.

“We are merely conduits,” Carissa said. “We look into the mirror darkly and interpret what we see.”

He barked out a laugh again, and she could hear him lighting another cigarette. “A mirror darkly,” he said. “That’s a good one. You people steal my wife from me, my job, my friends, and all you can do is mis-quote the Bible at me.”

“Sir, I assure you. We stole nothing from you. All we do is advise.”

“Advise?” he said. “You people advised me that my wife was cheating on me with my best friend. You advised me that my boss was planning to get me fired. What the hell kind of advice is that?”

Carissa looked over at Lizette, who had just tapped her on the shoulder. She pointed at the note and mouthed, “Seriously?” Carissa nodded, and Lizette started to write her own reply.

“I am sure that it was advice given in good faith,” Carissa said. She took the paper from Lizette, who had written, Find out where in her loopy handwriting. Carissa gave her a thumbs-up, and Lizette got up from her station. That was a surefire method of getting a supervisor’s attention, and usually not in a good way.

“In good faith,” the man said. “You mean you were making shit up.” His voice was getting tired again. The anger was draining away from it, and Carissa wasn’t sure what that meant. “You were just doing what you do – taking my three dollars per minute and pulling answers from your ass.” He sighed into the phone, and the hairs on the back of Carissa’s neck went up. “I should’ve known better.”

She could picture him. He sounded middle-aged, and the wife and job comment seemed to point that way. He smoked, and that gave her an image of a thinner, sallow man. Standing on a bridge, looking down on the water below. Probably wearing the clothes he woke up in that morning. The tips of his shoes – his sneakers – would be peeking over the edge, and the wind would be cold and wet. She wondered if there was anyone else on the bridge, and why no one had stopped to see if he was okay. It was only 10:30, after all. There should be some traffic. She wrote on her pad, High bridge, little traffic? – and passed it to Lizette, who was showing the original note to the floor manager.

“Sir,” she said. “I understand you are upset. The waters of the future… they can be treacherous. Even we who see can sometimes only see poorly.” She glanced up at the floor manager, who made a twirling motion with his finger over the note. More. “But no matter what we see or do not see, the future is ultimately up to the choices we make. And perhaps a lonely bridge in the middle of the night in your sweatpants is not the best choice right now?” Carissa cringed a little. She always did when she guessed blindly like that.

There was a silence on his end, and she thought for a moment that he’d jumped. Then he said, “How did you know that?”

She wanted to say that he’d given her all the clues. That her uncle had lost his job a year ago, and he was still on the couch, in sweats and a dirty t-shirt lamenting the unfairness of it all. That the caller was probably clinically depressed by now, and one of the features of depression was not caring for one’s appearance. She wanted to say that she had studied this kind of thing, that they’d talked about it in class. That she’d woven the image together out of guesswork and hope.

Instead she said, “My eyes give me the visions. All I can do is trust that they are right.”

And she hated herself for it, even though it worked.

“Please, sir,” she said. “Give life another chance. Tell us where you are, and we can send someone to help you.”

“What,” he said. “You mean like a spirit guide or some bullshit like that?”

Carissa smiled, and wasn’t sure if she was about to laugh or cry. “No, nothing like that,” she said. “But perhaps a friend?” She gritted her teeth. “I feel that there is someone who can help you, but you feel unworthy of his help. You could call, but…”

“But I couldn’t,” he finished. His voice cracked again, and she thought he might be crying. After a little coaxing, he gave her a name and a phone number. She wrote them down.

“Thank you,” she said. “And your name?”

He hesitated before saying, “Leonard,” he said. “Leonard Wells. I’m at the Palmer Mill Bridge.”

Carissa let her breath out slowly. “Thank you, Leonard,” she said. She handed the note to Lizette, who nodded and pulled out her cell phone. “We’ll call your friend for you. In the meantime, can you stay on the line with me? Just so I know you’re okay?”

“I dunno,” he said. “At three dollars a minute…” He laughed a moment before she did. She scrawled another note to the floor manager, who would probably be able to find the right person to get the charges fixed.

She stayed on the phone with him for an hour, her accent fading as she talked. When his friend arrived, she let him go. “Good luck, Leonard,” she said. She pushed the white button on her phone, and dropped her head to her desk. Lizette and the floor manager and a few other people who had realized what was going on started applauding and patting her on the back for her work. Carissa got the rest of the night off after that. When the buzz had died down and the floor manager told everyone to get back to their phones, Carissa carefully put the photograph of her mother back in her purse, squeezed Lizette’s shoulder as she walked out, and left the call center.

She never went back.

Day Eighty-one: Sunset

August 18, 2011 Leave a comment

The email said that Flora would be wearing a red cardigan and standing by the rental car station. Chuck put down his carry-on bag and scanned the crowd. Lots of people greeting loved ones, helping them load luggage into cars and making them feel welcomed. Some flight crew on their way to a few hours of rest before they turned around and flew off somewhere else. Other folks meandering towards the rental car desk, where there was no woman in a red cardigan.

Chuck sighed. It figured. If he was going to form a suicide pact, he should have stuck with someone he knew, instead of one of those stupid websites. Lots of people whining about their problems, hoping for the Ultimate Release of Death. Most of them wouldn’t even go through with it, he was sure. Some of them talked a good game, but when the time came, he was pretty sure they’d stop short. Cut across, not along, take just enough pills to scare someone, but not enough to do the job, that sort of thing.

He really thought that Flora was different, though. She didn’t sugar-coat suicide or try to make it out to be something romantic and Goth. She saw it the same way he did – a reasonable solution to a whole boatload of problems. In her case, an abusive husband and kids who thought she was nothing more than a maid they didn’t have to pay or respect. In his case, a family fortune squandered in bad investments and real estate schemes. Fixing either problem would mean more pain and suffering than they had already endured, so they decided that the best solution was the final one. Take the quick way out with some prescription medication she stole from her sister and a picturesque seaside view. Let someone else pick up the pieces.

Well, if Flora wasn’t going to show, he could at least get a nice hotel room out of it. Reservations were already made and maybe he could get his hands on some extra-strength painkillers or something. He picked up his bag and hailed a cab when he felt a hand on his shoulder. “Chuck?”

The woman behind him was shorter than he, but not by much, and she wore a tired smile. And a red cardigan. “Sorry I’m late,” she said. “Traffic was slow and the busses backed up.”

Chuck smirked. “Not our problem for much longer,” he said. He waved the cabbie along and the man pulled away with a scowl.

“Yeah,” she said. She looked at him for a moment and then over at the cars. “You want to get the car?”

For his very last car rental it went surprisingly smoothly. The agent had the car he’d reserved and he was curbside to pick Flora up in under ten minutes. “Good job,” she said as she got in. “Though I thought you’d go for something more sporty.”

He shrugged as he put it in gear. “Why bother? We just need to get where we’re going, and this will do us fine.” he pulled out of the parking lot and headed west.

They drove in silence for a long while. Eery now and then the GPS would chime in to tell them where to turn, but for the most part, Chuck drove and Flora looked out the window at the scenery. As they drove along the coast, the sun started to set. She watched it the whole time, glimmering in the water, until the last glowing red ember was gone. She turned to say something to Chuck, but he was fiddling with the GPS.

The Poseidon Hotel was a large place near the sea, with vast green grounds that sloped down to a white beach. the building was a brilliant white, stretching its arms out along the shore, giving nearly every room an ocean view. Chuck and Flora checked in as man and wife and were given a room near the end of the north wing. The bed was huge and looked comfortable, and Chuck told Flora she should have it “We’re not here for… Y’know. That,” he said. He sat down on the sofa. “I’ll take this.” They had both brought large suitcases, each one with only a single night’s change of clothes. They would do it tomorrow.

Chuck fell asleep almost instantly. Flora took a while longer.

The next morning, they had a small breakfast. Chuck stayed in the room and finished a book. Flora went walking along the beach. They ate lunch together – sandwich and salad. Flora took a nap. Chuck had some drinks in the bar.

They met in their room, an hour before sunset.

Chuck took off his shoes and changed into a t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants. Flora didn’t change, and sat on the edge of the bed, twisting her wedding ring around on her finger.

“You ready?” Chuck asked. “You brought the drugs?”

Flora sat in silence for a moment. “Chuck,” she began.

He narrowed his eyes at her. “Oh come on.” He stood up.

“Chuck, please.”

“I thought you were serious about this, Flora. I thought you were real.”

She looked at the floor and didn’t say anything.

He ran his fingers through his hair. He knelt in front of her and took her hands in his. “You’re having second thoughts, Flora,” he said. “I understand. But remember, we agreed to this. We talked about it.”

She took her hands from his. “I know, Chuck,” she said.

He tried to look in her eyes, but she avoided him. “Your husband?” he asked. “Your kids? They’ll never get any better, Flora. You know that.”

“I know.”

“You go back to them, you’re going back to a prison,” he said.

She shook her head. “I’m not going back to them,” she said. “And I’m not… going with you.”

He sat on the floor, his back against the bed. After a minute, he asked, “Why?” His voice was hoarse and dry.

Flora shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said. “I just woke up and I looked at them. Roger was already drinking, and the boys were playing those damn video games, the place was a mess and…” She laughed, almost sobbed. “And someone had tried to cook eggs. But there was just this unholy mess in the kitchen. I looked at all that and I thought about never seeing them again. Then I left the house and… everything looked different.” Her smile was small and weak, but it changed her face completely. “I looked at the world as a free woman, Chuck, and I knew that there was so much more to do.” she reached down and rested her hand on his shoulder. “So much more than this.”

He reached up and held her hand. “He’ll make your life miserable, you know that.”

“I know,” she said. “And so will my kids. But I have nothing he can sue for, and there’s no law that says I have to go home again.” She squeezed his hand. “I wasn’t late yesterday because of the traffic. I was on the phone with a group that helps women escape their husbands. They can help me, Chuck.”

They sat there for a while as the sun set. The room darkened.

“What about me?” Chuck asked. “What am I supposed to do?”

Flora stood up, turned on the light by the mirror, and took a small glass bottle of pills from her purse. She hesitated, and then put them on the desk. “Two for pain,” she said. “Three or more, and you shouldn’t drive. You’ll probably have to stay in bed for a while. More than that…”

He nodded, not moving from where he sat.

“Chuck,” she said. He didn’t look up at her. “There are better ways out.”

He closed his eyes. Flora picked up her bag and put the strap over her shoulder. She stared at him for a long while. “I’ll be seeing you,” she said.

Flora let the door swing closed behind her and walked to the elevator. At the front desk, she handed her key to the young woman working there. “My husband is getting some sleep,” she said. “I’m going out. I may be some time.” She smiled, adjusted the strap of her bag, and walked out of the hotel into the gathering darkness.