The Underground (part one)

It’s one thing to hate insomnia, and another thing to have to live it. John had moved past hating and on to accepting it as a normal part of his life. Rather than dreading going to bed, he simply incorporated the extra hours into his daily routine. Sleep came when it did, and when it didn’t, he would walk around the city. It was a chance to see faces of the world he would otherwise remain ignorant of.

Tonight was no different. His wandering brought him to a club below street level. The Underground. Perhaps a bit too literal. But it was something new. John’s beard and rough skin clearly put him in his late twenties heading towards forty, but the doorman checked his ID anyway. In fact, he spent more time on it than seemed reasonable. Eventually, he handed it back.

“Haven’t seen you before.” His voice was deep and gravelly, but not threatening.

“Nope,” John agreed. “First time here.”

The doorman kept eyeing him. “You sure you want to go in?”

“Why wouldn’t I?”

The doorman shrugged as though the reason were obvious. “Go ahead. Enjoy your night.”

John wasn’t sure what to make of the man’s comments, but he wouldn’t let it him stop him. If anything, it made him determined to check the place out. He walked through the door, making sure it closed behind him to cut off the doorman’s gaze.

Inside, the place was dark and crowded. In spite of the number of people, it was surprisingly quiet. Music – he guessed dance music from the late 80s – played over the sound system, but even it was not overly loud.

He found an open stool at the bar, and sat down. After catching the bartender’s eye, he ordered a beer and looked around the room.  Almost immediately, he noticed a woman down the bar looking directly at him.  There was no smile, just a look of mild curiosity.  Long, straight, dark hair.  Loose fitting white shirt.  Jeans.  Attractive, but not making any attempt to draw attention to herself. He tried to ignore her staring and continue his survey of the other customers.

It really was an odd place. It looked like it was meant to be a nightclub, but everyone acted like it was a small, unknown hole in the wall. A place you’d go to for a secret rendezvous. With so many people, however, it could hardly be that.

“I haven’t seen you before.”

The woman was next to him. She must have asked the person who had been sitting there to move.

“You’re the second person to tell me that.” He tried to act nonplussed by her continued interest.

“Well, it’s true.”

“I suppose it is.” So far, this was the only thing that made him uncomfortable. Maybe the doorman was warning him about her.

“My name is Cailín.”

“Hi, I’m John.” Whatever was making him feel uncertain, he didn’t want to be rude.

“John. That’s a nice name.”

“Nothing fancy. Your name is intriguing, however.”

She laughed. It was a kind sound, but he didn’t understand what had prompted it. “I say something funny?”

“No. Or at least, I know you didn’t mean to. My dad gave me the name. He didn’t have much of an imagination. It means ‘girl.'”

“Oh. Yeah. I guess I can see why that would be funny. Still ‘Cailín’ sounds better than ‘girl.'”

“I guess so. I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

His early unease dissipated, he found her pleasant company. “So what’s so special about this place? The doorman seemed to want me to stay away.”

“Him? He just likes to be picky about who comes here. Probably likes the power too much. As for The Underground, it’s just somewhere people can get away from everything. Here, your other life doesn’t matter. Nobody here knows what you do, or what responsibilities you have. None of that belongs here.”

“Sounds nice.” And it did. A place to escape. “But there are lots of places you can do that, aren’t there?”

She laughed again. Still friendly. “Perhaps, but I don’t own those other places.”

“I didn’t realize . . .”

“Why should you? You haven’t been here before.”

“I guess I wouldn’t expect the owner to just be sitting at the bar like any other customer.”

“Ah. Well, I created a place I would want to go. No sense sitting in an office when this is where I would want to be. Besides, it runs itself. Not much for me to do.”

“I see.”

“No, you don’t. Not yet. But I understand your confusion. For now, just enjoy yourself. That’s what this is here for.”

“Alright.” John expected her to leave, now that she had introduced herself, but she stayed next to him. Her presence refused to be ignored, and he couldn’t stop paying attention to her.

A new song started, and Cailín suddenly grabbed his hand. “Dance with me.”

Maybe it had been a request, but he found himself dragged halfway to the dance floor before he even fully understood what was happening. He decided he didn’t mind and followed her lead. No one else was dancing, but she obviously didn’t care. She leaned against him, only a little shorter than he was. Even while he wasn’t sure how to take all of this, she betrayed no awkwardness. She seemed to be in this moment with no thought beyond it. He found himself feeling envious of her ability to relax into now.

As the song came to an end, she took a step back and looked into his eyes. “Thank you.” Kissing him lightly on the cheek, she turned and walked back to the bar.

*     *     *

John didn’t remember how he got home when he awoke the next day. Light streamed into his window, the sun already high in the morning sky. It was after eleven. Grateful once again that his boss was understanding, he quickly got dressed and caught a bus downtown to his office.

From the building, a number of people were streaming out to grab lunch. It was a typical sight for John. What was new was seeing Cailín walking out of the building, too.

Without hesitating, he walked up to her. “Hi, Cailín. Why are you down here?”

Her expression held only confusion. “I’m sorry? Have we met?”

Now it was his turn not to understand. “It’s me, John. We met last night at The Underground.”

“I’m sorry. I’ve never heard of The Underground, and we have never met.”

“But . . .”

“And my name is not Cailín, it’s Colleen. Now please leave me alone, or I will call the police.”

Nothing about her body language suggested she was joking. She genuinely did not know who he is. Maybe she really wasn’t Cailín. But he was so sure.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bother you. Please excuse me.” He walked quickly into the building and took the elevator to his office.

Teiwaz – Warrior Self

The rune is a simple arrow pointing up.  It signals the spiritual warrior, the energy of such a warrior.  Thus did it become, in my mind, the warrior self.  In this sense, we are all spiritual warriors.  We all do battle with the self.

The hardest fight is with the self.  Overcoming your impulses and your own doubt is the only challenge that really matters.  Wrestling with God is easy by comparison.  There is nothing anyone can do to you, not even God, that can be more hurtful than what you can do to yourself.  You know your biggest fears, your deepest doubts, more thoroughly than anyone else does.  You know them from the inside and can use them against yourself in ways others cannot even fathom.

It is a solitary struggle.  Try as hard as you might, you cannot escape yourself.  And all the help others offer can do nothing about the nagging worry your inner self can bring to bear in opposition to you.  At 3 AM you have no one else to help you fight for yourself.

Even if you win, the challenge is always waiting in the wings to be rejoined.  Every setback risks an “I told you so.”  And yet, without the fight, without the willingness to wrestle with the self, what is left?  What else would we have?

Life is about pushing forward, about bringing something from nothing.  We begin as nothing and struggle to make something.  It is against the self that we must work.  Though we fail, it may be enough to know that at least we did not give up.

Writing on the Wall

Three words were written on the cement barrier near the Student Union’s bike rack.  Each letter was drawn carefully in pink chalk and outlined in blue.  They would have been bright against the dull grey at first, but the color had been whittled away by the wind after a few days.  It didn’t say who they were to or who they were from.

She wondered if the person the words had been meant for had seen them.  Did they know who sent it?  Did they know it had been aimed at them?

Three little words.  “I miss you.”  It was so specific, so personal.  Perhaps a parent had left it there for their son or daughter, just starting college, so they would see it and feel a little less homesick.  Or maybe a significant other had written it at the end of a weekend visit from a school in another state.  They must have known the person it was meant for would see it.  Recognize the lettering.  Know it was for them.  She hoped so.

Or maybe it was the universe itself, taking the opportunity to talk to her.  Maybe she was missed.  It seemed unlikely, but why not?  After all, here she was, reading the words.  The message could be for her after all.  That would be nice.  It would be nice to think someone missed her.  Even if the person who had written them was directing them at someone else, the universe put her here, right now, so she would see them.

As crazy as it seemed, she smiled a little.  She was missed.  It didn’t matter by whom.  All that mattered was that it was true.  And she decided that it was.

Bad Guys

“Have you thought about what you want to do?” Manny asked.

As Joe picked up another package and threw it into the back of the white, unmarked delivery truck, he gave Manny a questioning look.  “What do you mean?”

“I mean after this.  What do you want to do?”

“You mean, after we get through cleaning up and getting rid of the body?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh, I don’t know.  Go eat a raw steak?”

As they went back inside, Manny’s expression twisted with disgust.  “Gross.  Why do you want to do that?”

Joe sighed.  “I don’t.  It was a ridiculous answer to a ridiculous question.  Can we just get this done?”

Without even looking, he knew Manny was pouting.  A small part of him felt bad, but only a small part.  Manny always started this sort of thing, and it always made the work take twice as long.  Probably his way of coping with the mess.  But Joe couldn’t cope with it until it was done.  The faster the better.

Manny was still quiet, but he wasn’t moving any more quickly.  This wasn’t better.  “I always go for a drink or 5 after these jobs.  You want to come with me?”

The change was immediate as Manny perked up.  “Really?  That sounds good.”

“Okay, but the place I go closes kind of early, so we have to hurry.”

“Sure thing.”

The body was already moved, but a lot of the mess remained.  The work started going faster now, though.  In fact, Joe thought it was the quickest he’d seen his partner go.  He wished the idea had occurred to him sooner.  Before long, all traces of blood had been removed.  Joe pulled out a picture of the room from before.

“Move that table,” he pointed, “over to that wall.”  Manny did it.  “Perfect.  Don’t you think?”

Walking over to him and peering at the photo, Manny nodded.  “Yep.  We’re good.”

They got in the truck and drove away with Joe at the wheel.

Manny gestured to the back with his thumb.  “You think he was a bad guy?”

“They’re all bad guys,” Joe replied.  “We don’t get called if they’re a good guy. Or if they’re rich. Same thing.”

“Rich guys are good guys?” Manny was puzzled.

“As far as we’re concerned, they are.”

Silence descended as Manny thought about it for awhile. Joe simply enjoyed the peace.

They pulled up to a grey, unremarkable building.  A door opened, and Joe backed the truck up next to it.  He and Manny got out and grabbed the bag holding the body.  It was always heavier than it Joe expected it to be.

Through the door, it nearly looked like an operating room, except for the door leading outside.  Inside there was a lot of metal, all of it clean. They put the bag on one of the tables in the room and nodded to the night man, making sure he had seen them.

Back in the truck, Joe headed for the bar.  He couldn’t get that first drink fast enough.  Nor the second.  In fact, he was so focused he nearly forgot Manny was with him until the other man spoke again.

“You can’t be right.”

Joe nearly jumped in his seat. “What?”

“What you said before, about the rich being good guys.  You can’t be right.”

“Okay, why not?”

“I saw someone in a really expensive car run someone over once.”

“What kind of car was it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then how do you know it was expensive?”

“I just do.” Manny was clearly getting agitated. “Anyway, he ran this other guy over. No reason.  That’s not good.  And nobody did nothing.”

“There you go.”

“Where?”

“Nobody did anything.  Did the cops chase him?”

“No.” Uncertainty crept into Manny’s voice.

“See? Nobody else thought it was bad. If you or I had done that, the cops would have been all over us.  But not your rich guy. See?”

“But that don’t make it right.”

“Maybe not.  But if society treats it like it is, then I guess it is. You and I, Manny? You and I? We’re bad guys. We clean up other bad guys. Maybe someday other bad guys will clean us up. But the rich? They’re different from us.”

“But why can’t we change it?”

“Because nobody wants to. Except maybe people like you. And nobody listens to you.”

Obviously distressed, Manny looked like he might burst into tears, but he didn’t. He just sat silently as Joe continued driving.

When they finally stopped outside the bar, Manny turned to him once more. “You listen to me, don’t you, Joe?”

Joe nodded. “Yeah, Manny, I listen to you. But nobody listens to me, either.”

“I’ll listen to you.”

“I know you will.  Now let’s go get some drinks.”

Eclipse #2

“This is a nice place,” James said as he took his seat. “Not too fancy, but nice.”

“I wanted to have one last dinner together,” Paul replied.

“Last?  Is something happening? Are you going somewhere?”

“We all are. With the eclipse tomorrow.”

“What?”

“You know, the end of the world.”

“Can I get you something to drink?”  The waiter had appeared at their table.

Without pause, Paul answered. “A bottle of your best Cabernet Sauvignon, please.”

“Certainly, sir.”

James looked at his friend with disbelief.  “You think the world is going to end tomorrow?”

“That’s what the eclipse means.”

“We’ve had eclipses before, you know.”

“Indeed.”

“And the world hasn’t ended.” Paul didn’t go in for practical jokes, but he was smart, so James wasn’t sure what to make of this absurd idea.

“Correct.”

“So why do you think this time will be different?”

“Oh, it won’t be.”

“So you’re kidding.”

“Nope.”

“Here you are, sir.  Would you care to inspect it?” The waiter was back with a bottle in hand.

Paul waved his hand.  “No need. I’m sure it will be fine.”

The waiter nodded and uncorked the wine.  He poured a small amount and placed the glass in front of Paul, who made a show of picking it up and sniffing it.  “Smells good.”

The waiter seemed put off but tried to hide it.  He poured a full glass for each of them and left again.

“Do you even like wine?” James asked.

“Tonight I do.”

“Okay.  So what did you mean that this time was no different, but the world will still end?  They can’t both be true.”

“Hmm. You may be right.”

“Now you’re sounding more reasonable. No more talk of the world ending, okay? Let’s just enjoy dinner.”

“Alright,” Paul replied as he opened his menu

*     *     *

The next day, after the eclipse, the crowd on the street broke up, and James headed back to his office building. While taking off his viewing glasses, which made it impossible to see anything else, he bumped into someone on the sidewalk.  He awkwardly apologized and began walking again.  A sense of déjà vu stopped him.  When he turned around, he found that the other man had sopped as well.

“Do I know you?” James asked.

“I was wondering the same thing.  Maybe we went to school together?”

“Yeah, that must be it. My name is James.”

The other man extended his hand. “Nice to meet you. Paul.”

They shook hands and nodded their acknowledgements.  James then walked back to his office, still wondering where he had seen Paul before.

Secrets

A: We’ve been friends what, 20 years, right?

B: A little longer, I think.

A: Huh.

B: Why do you ask?

A: Just thinking about how strange it was.

B: What?

A: Well, we’ve been friends for a long time, and it’s been awhile since we’ve seen each other…

B: Too long.

A: Exactly.  Yet there are some things it’s inappropriate for us to talk about.

B: Like what?

A: Well, for instance, do you remember when you cheated on your fiancé with my – at the time – future wife?

B: Hold on…

A: I just think it’s strange that we can’t talk about that.

B: You two weren’t even dating yet.

A: Oh no.  Of course.  I didn’t mean to suggest you had wronged me in some way. By the way, have you ever told her?

B: Is that a threat?

A: Of course not.  I merely think it’s odd that such old friends can’t talk about some things.

B: I was wrong earlier.  I don’t think it’s been long enough since our last meeting.

A: Perhaps you are right.  Ah look, here’s your better half now.

C: Are my ears burning?  Were you two talking about me?

A: Indeed we were.

C: And what were you saying?

A: I’m afraid I must go and visit with others who are in attendance.  I’ll have to let your devoted husband tell you how we sang your praises.

Adversity

As they walked through the grounds outside the tower, the master ran her hands down her green robe, straightening out wrinkles that were not there.  She did it unconsciously every time she was set to begin some lesson.  Her young pupil noticed and began to prepare himself for her questions.  The boy had only been under her training for a few months, but he had already noted some of her quirks.

“What is adversity?” She began without preamble.

He knew this one. “That which tests us and makes us stronger.”

Her right eyebrow raised as she considered him. “That is your answer?  Very well.  Should we welcome adversity, then?”

“Of course.” His response was again immediate.

Her eyebrow lowered.  He had made a mistake somehow.

“And why is that?”

He knew he had to answer.  Even if it were wrong, it would be worse if he didn’t.  “Well, if it makes us stronger, it is good for us, is it not?  Should we not be glad for the chance to learn?”

Her face remained blank.  That was not a good sign.

“Should we help others?”

He had no idea where this question might lead, but once more, he did not hesitate.  “Of course.”

“But in doing so, do we not deprive others of the good that comes from adversity?”

Now he stayed silent.  He saw the problem she had led him to, but he did not see the solution.  All he could do was hold his tongue and wait on her instruction.

“So to which answer are you committed? Helping others? Or welcoming adversity? Or is adversity good for you, but not for others? Or is there another option I have missed?”

His perplexity did not recede. “I do not know, master.”

She sighed.  His flinch was an automatic reaction.  The disappointment in her sighs was worse than any punishment he had ever received from his father.

“Listen to me.”  Her voice contained a note of compassion he had not expected. “This is adversity.  Right here, right now. Your uncertainty is something that must be overcome. But I cannot solve it for you. It is not that I do not want to help, but I cannot. Consider that. We will speak again next week. Until then, continue your other studies. And reflect upon today.”

The briefest of smiles and she walked away, her long stride intentionally impossible to keep pace with and not run. So he stayed still and did not try to follow her.