Quitting

The captain’s office was smoky.  The man never opened a window, though she had to admit to herself that it wouldn’t have helped much; the outside air wasn’t any clearer.  She took a deep breath before opening the door.

He looked up only briefly from his desk.  “Did you get him?”

“No.”

Now his gaze rose and stayed on her.  “What?”

Her dark coat was still zipped all the way up, the large collar covering the lower half of her face. But she knew he had heard her just fine.

When she didn’t respond, he spoke again.  “How have you still not found this guy? This is the sort of thing you excel at.”

“Oh, I found him.”

“But he’s not dead?”

“No.”

The captain put down his pen, leaned back in his chair. “Why not?”

She tossed the folder containing the file onto the desk. “Because I’m done.”

He looked genuinely surprised. “What? Why?”

Glad her clenched teeth were hidden from view, she took out her freelancer license and threw that on the desk, too. “The gun is mine. I’ll be keeping that.”

Stammering, he tried to find a threat. “You can’t… What did you… If you walk out, I’ll have you… You’re going to be seen as an accomplice.”

She stabbed a finger at him to keep him in his seat. “This case is crap. You probably know it. And I’m not going to be a part of it.” Before he could say anything else, she turned, left his office, and escaped into smoke-filled night.

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.

Loss

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you,” I replied to the complete stranger in a suit.  As the stranger walked away, I wondered – not for the first time – what I was supposed to say.  I wasn’t sorry he was dead.  He had been abusive to both my mom and me.  At least verbally and psychologically.  I suspected physically, too, but I hadn’t seen that personally.  I wasn’t sorry at all; I was happy.  I suppose that makes me a bad person.

My mom felt the loss.  In spite of everything, she said she loved him.  Her tears were real; I had seen them often enough to know.  For her sake, then, I acted sorrowful, played the part of the grieving step-son.

I clung to that “step-“.  Step-son.  Step-father.  I even used the phrase step-husband, but not in front of her.  My real father had to have been a better man, a better person.  If only he hadn’t died when I was an infant, how much better would our lives have been?

So when people expressed sorrow for my loss, I chose to understand it as sorrow for the loss of my real father.  For the life we would have had.  For my childhood.  That way, I could say “thank you” and mean it.

My mom came over to me and put her arm as far around me as she could.  I returned the gesture, putting us into half a hug.  Her eyes were red and watery.  “How are you holding up, honey?”

“I’m okay, mom.  How are you doing?”

“Oh.  As well as can be expected, I guess.  Thank you for being here.”

“Of course I’m here.”

“Well, I just know the two of you didn’t always see eye to eye.”  My mom, the queen of understatement.

“Be that as it may, I’m here for you.”

“You know he was proud of you.  Always bragging to his friends.  He did love you.”

“I know.”  Why argue?  She was in mourning.  I wasn’t going to fight about reality right now.  My mom needed me, nothing else was important.

She pulled away and gave me her serious look.  “He did.”

“I said I know.”

“Why don’t you believe me?”

“What do you mean?  I already said I did.”

“Uh huh.  But I can tell you don’t mean it.  A mother can always tell.  I think you should leave.”

“What? Mom, that’s crazy.  I want to be here for you.”

“But not for him.  You shouldn’t hold grudges, especially against the dead.  Forgive and move on.  I thought we taught you better than this.”

“That’s not fair…”

“If you want to help, leave.  Let me grieve without your disapproval making things worse.”

I was stunned, confused as to how things had gone so wrong so fast.  But it was clear she wasn’t kidding.

“Okay, mom.  I’ll go.  Just know I love you.”  I gave her a hug she didn’t return and left the funeral home.  One last way for him to ruin our lives.