by N. D. Coley
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
The rain continued and, somewhere, between the sound of it and the persistent hello sir, hello sirs that came from Megan, his phone vibrated and jingled. Without his permission, his right hand grabbed the bag and set it on the passenger seat.
Ian turned his head and looked into Megan’s eyes, and for a moment, his face demanded an explanation.
She tilted her head and looked at him curiously, processing his angst. “Mr. Paulson, you okay?”
“Yes, I, No. Yes, I’m fine. I just...”
“Can I get you something else?”
“Wasn’t. I. I’m sorry. Wasn’t I just here?
“You’re here most days, Mr. Paulson.”
“How do you know my—”
“Name? You told me one time.”
Megan shifted her eyes upward and chewed on a wad of gum. “Not sure. You’ve been a regular so long.”
“Uhhh, yeah. You sure you’re okay?”
Ian nodded. He recalled a discussion of déjà vu in a philosophy class in college once. The French phrase literally translated to “already seen.” The class discussion was intense, ranging from problems with temporal lobes to anecdotal accounts that could only be described as idiopathic.
The professor pointed out one case study in which a 57-year-old patient, who was closely observed for over two decades, claimed to have had duplicate experiences, down to the number of bites he took at breakfast to the exact length he scrubbed his scalp in the shower, at least a dozen times a day. The integrity of the study was called into question when the subject died of a cluster of primary brain malignancies, among other reasons.
“Déjà vu,” Ian whispered. “Devja—”
“You have a good day, Mr. Paulson,”, Megan said, drawing the bifold window shut.
Ian gripped the wheel and pulled out of the lane. The rain had passed and the fog was mostly gone. He noticed that his left arm was as dry as if it hadn’t rained in the first place. He flicked the wiper blade switch and was greeted with the screech of dry rubber pressing against auto glass. The motor had worked itself out. The rag he had tied to it was gone. He did not remember untying it.
The blade screeched up and down and up and down, and he flicked it off. Around him sat the sparsely filled parking lot: the same handful of regular cars that he always saw, no doubt the ones driven by the seniors who congregated for coffee every morning, an army of aging, determined men, uniformly dressed in khakis and Velcro shoes, poised to take the up the same tables, cross their legs, and discuss how things were better in their day, especially without the noise of cellphones and social media.
Beyond the parking lot sat the neighboring shopping plaza, an outdoor strip that was home to a corporate gym franchise and a grocery store and a family owned restaurant that specialized in Korean cuisine but was happy to cook up chicken nuggets and hot dogs for the picky child in every family.
The lights in the shops were dark, and the fluorescent signs above the dark storefronts glowed with calm and expectation. Remnants of the fog slithered between cars and cart returns, rose, and disappeared. It would be clear soon.
He drove to the next exit but was blocked by four orange cones. A sign atop the cones told him to proceed to the other exit. He turned for the south end of the lot. Four more orange cones greeted him. A cartoon picture of a smiling monkey in a construction hat held up a cartoon picture of a sign, and the sign told him to kindly use the other exit.
In the space between the passenger seat and door, his phone jingled and vibrated. Ian shifted into park and glared in the direction of the noise. “Marcus,” Ian mumbled, “I’ll get to you when I can.”
Marcus Crowley was a pain in the ass, but a rich pain in the ass. He was also dependent on the software that Ian, and nobody else, could sell him, so Ian could be a pain in the ass in kind. They were two men who were good at making each other miserable and wealthy. Between them, they created a symbiosis that could only be maintained by Jack Daniels and Advil.
Ian unclicked his seatbelt and squirmed up and onto the center console, his ass catching the emergency brake handle. He felt a soft whack against his left temple and, with the whack, came that familiar sound, the crinkling of a bag, which alerted his nose to be on the lookout for grease. Sure enough, there was that smell, a scent that spoke of butter and dough and a salty, spiced slab of dead animal served with a full helping of potatoes fried and soaked in oil. A few would, having fallen out of the container, be tumbling around the bag.
Ian’s breath left him, as if he were afraid of being noticed, like a solider sneaking through barracks in enemy territory, afraid of being shot and having his brain splatter through his skull. He shifted, an inch at a time, back into his seat. A familiar arm and a familiar bag dangled in front of him. The bag swung back and forth, the greasy paper patting his sweat-soaked forehead.
Ian giggled and bit his lip to stifle the noise. It was clear that he had been too drunk last night. He was sure he had, if only because he was drunk every night. Yes. That was it. It was the whiskey, which had morphed from its role as a simple pleasure to a necessary chemical. His skull was a vat and his brain was the specimen and his whiskey was the preservative, and it had preserved a bit too well, and now his thoughts and memories were bursting and spilling into each other, mixing and forming things that did happen in some way, but not the way he recalled.
He was just terribly dazed and hungover and, in a moment Rebekah would press her hands to his head and shake it and tell him to get up already, and she’d say the way he felt served him right for being such an awful drunk. He’d pour a full pot of coffee and slurp it from a mug, and look at Rebekah and her long brown hair and tired face and tell himself that she was not as angry as she’d looked, and then—
“Mr. Paulson, I’m worried about you.”
Ian’s neck seemed to go limp, as if his head were loosely resting on a ball joint. He looked at Megan and realized how very tired he was. Her face looked back in sympathy, and he thought something was a bit off. The shape of her cheeks was different. Was it that? He nearly caught himself squinting at her. No, maybe it was her lips. The upper lip looked cracked and caked with jagged lines of blood, and her lip had not been cracked moments ago and hadn’t he just been through here moments ago? A strand of hair fell from the side of Megan’s visor, only this time there was a streak of grey in it. Did she have grey in her hair? She might’ve. He didn’t take notice of things like this and was not sure why the question occurred to him now. He had never taken much interest in Rebekah’s complaints about the rogue stands in her own hair, but this girl, Megan, demanded his attention.
“Oh, uh. Yes. Sorry. Sorry. Rough week, ya know?”
“Do I ever.”
“Oh, not much. My friends were right, though.”
“Oh. It... It doesn’t matter.”
Ian frowned and found himself suddenly invested. “No,” he said. “It’s okay. It matters. Tell me.”
“If I had time,” she said, her eyes looking to the side. “But my friends were right. A restraining order? That’s just a piece of paper.”
“Oh,” he said, “I’m sor-ry.” He blushed. It was a strange thing to consider the calamity of someone else. He felt this, but didn’t quite let the thought take hold. “I know lawyers who... Well, I know people who might be in touch with the right kinds of lawyers. Did you—”
“Thanks, but that’s okay, Mr. Paulson. A lawyer? That’s just someone who charges a lot for pieces of paper. And a piece of paper is—”
“A piece of paper,” Ian whispered as he placed his change in his wallet and set his meal on the seat. A modest pile of garbage had formed. Crinkled wrappers and paper bags littered the passenger side. Why had he been such a damned slob? This wasn’t like him.
He was in the middle of something. Had to be. He knew what it was like to drink so much that a day went by in a matter of minutes, and he felt like that now, but not quite like that. It was the disorientation without the drunkenness, and that was scary.
Ian pulled into parking space and surveyed the empty shopping plaza. When he was a kid, it was a different building. It had been renovated when he entered high school. Before the overhaul, the parking lot had developed potholes from winter salt treatment. The sidewalks were cracked and uneven. Broken windows were boarded up rather than repaired. Everyone in the neighborhood looked on, quietly, as the plan suffocated.
In the third grade, Ian and some of his friends had snuck in the slightly dislodged front door of an abandoned department store. As the last person squeezed through, the door slammed fully shut against the frame, and would not move. They pressed on, taking in the scent of decaying commerce.
The snack bar still had the smell of hot dogs and stale popcorn. They pursued the almost vacant shelves, stepping over trash and pieces of old displays. Ian chanced upon a brand-new G.I. Joe in the toy aisle.
What happened next was disputed by Ian and his friends all the way through high school. The debate died down when they all got older and gave less credulity to their imaginations. As it happened, the boys were on their way out of the store, when the sunlight in the window gave way to clouds, and the clouds gave way to darkness.
Copyright © 2020 by N. D. Coley