Stars blinked out one at a time as sunlight spilled over the morning sky. Orange fanned away the blue and violet of last night’s slumber as a yellow halo outlined the towering mountain range. Blades of golden dawn cut through the vignetted bedroom window of his apartment, ushered in by the digitized crescendo of Clair de Lune; his alarm melody of choice.
Music touched his consciousness before sight. Swirling about his auditory cortex in the key of C.
Eyelids lifted, allowing luminous to touch his eyes. Cognizance attempted to burrow deeper into his subconscious, but light grabbed hold and pulled it free. He lifted his head, eyes adjusting to —
-After everything I did for you-
— the light. He took in a deep breath as he felt for dried sleep in the corner of his eyes. He pinched away the crusted cement as he —
-You were always there-
-I don’t owe you anything-
— flicked the crust away as his focus turned to his phone. Volume of the alarm built with every note. Every chord. Every measure of a song he once called his favorite. Now it served as the piano hammer responsible for smashing his nightly dreams. He wanted to change the alarm tune, but why ruin another song? He slid from his covers and swiped the alarm dead.
The shower pelted his naked back. Water traced around muscles and moles, hair and bone, before coming back together as it circled the drain. He stood, hand braced against the faded pink tile. Chin teetering toward his chest, his eyes focused on nothing at the bottom of the tub. While his vision saw it all, his brain failed to process. Stuck between reality and —
-I just needed someone with an open ear, and you couldn’t give it-
-No, I paid that last month. Yes, I did!-
-She’s a flake, what did I expect?-
-They’re obviously lying. You’d help them out if-
— he reached for the upside-down shampoo bottle. There couldn’t be more than a cap’s worth left. He squeezed out not enough to fully wash his head, but enough to let him do the same tomorrow.
The flair of red plastic flashed to life as the car in front of his braked. He reached for his drive-through coffee stashed in between the front seats, wrapping his cold fingers around the cup just as the red blinked off and the car accelerated. He abandoned his attempt at caffeine to retake the wheel with both hands.
Sunlight lingered in the space between visor and doorframe, blinding him no matter how he fiddled with the fold-down contraption. He blocked the light with his opposite hand.
-I did too pay. I’m looking at my deposits right-
-You were strung out and threatening to kill yourself-
-Speed limit’s 45 you dip shit!-
-I’m depressed and you call me a bitch-
He ducked his head down in unison with his darting hand as he managed a pull of coffee. It tasted burned. It always tasted burned. He didn’t know why he continued to go to the same spot. Old habits.
Traffic continued. He set his morning accelerant down into its circular cubby, the aroma of black coffee sticking to his upper lip. Like chopped garlic to fingers, the smell of house blend would remain into the afternoon when he’d replace it with mustard and hard salami. Old habits.
-I was always there for you-
The black bars of a spreadsheet reflected off his glossy eyes as he typed into the prison cell of his job. From time to time the screen would flicker with a cresting wave of distortion running down the screen. The continued reminder of the tropical beach vacation he’d never have. It gave him a headache. He pinched at the bridge of his nose, squeezing his eyes tight as if a reset button hid away in tear ducts. Opening his eyes wide he blinked away a migraine. Outstretched arms holding back a surging mob.
He looked about his cubicle. Anything to give his rods and cones a break from the tube monitor’s blurry color scheme. A wasteland of paperwork, a broken space heater, and a miniature Zen rock garden. Someone gifted him the small rectangle of sand and stone at the last office Christmas party. He gifted them a bottle of tequila. Picking up the small rake that came with the garden, he drew letters in the sand, all the while wishing he still had the bottle of tequila.
-Why are you getting upset?-
-Another rejection letter isn’t a big deal. Just another on the-
-Once I pay that off I’ll be able to start saving for-
Heavy breathing approached his cubicle, accompanied by the rustle of khaki forever caught between heavyset thighs.
-can’t be a friend?-
Jerome, the office manager, stood at the entrance of the cubicle, waiting for him to turn around and acknowledge his presence. He tapped pudgy fingers on the top of the cubicle like dipping-sticks into sauce.
-You said you changed but it’s more of the-
-pile. But I’ll show them. It just takes one-
-that move. Get it paid off. God, I don’t know how I’m-
-fake plastic body to make up for your fake personality-
He looked up from his garden of Zen. Every grain of sand a thought in his mind.
“Need to see you in my office,” Jerome said, a heavy mouth breath between seemingly every word.
He nodded, setting his miniature rake down. He let Jerome swish ahead and turned his bulbous monitor off. The screen dying with a quiet bellow deep within the bowels of the machine. The fluorescent above flickered its sickly green light. Everything in the office threatened to induce headaches or seizures or nausea or depression. He stood and followed Jerome, keeping his eyes on the ground. Thankfully the carpet didn’t flicker.
“We’ve had some customer complaints about you,” Jerome said between labored inhales. His boss caressed the desk like the arm of a lover, refusing to make eye contact.
-fair weather friends-
-give them something to complain about-
“Clients,” labored breath, “I won’t say which ones,” labored breath, “have said you don’t seem interested when on the phone. Distracted seemed a shared sentiment.”
“I guess…well (-tell him what I think of him-) I guess I have had some problems concentrating ( — come crawling back — ) lately. I mean at home — “
“Hey now,” Jerome pushed back from the desk, hands defensively deflecting what might be said in his direction. “No personal details.”
“I wasn’t — “
“I mean I wasn’t going to — “
“We just need you to get your head in the game. Leave your home life at home.”
-don’t see the real you but I do-
-can’t lose the job. I really need it-
He held back a sigh. “Yes, sir.”
“You think you can do this? Been here for 12 years and I’d hate to lose you because your head wasn’t on straight.”
“My head’s on straight, sir.”
-show him a straight head-
“That’s what I want to hear.” Jerome’s hands returned longingly to the front of the desk. “Why don’t you take the rest of the day off, think about things, come back fresh tomorrow.”
“I’m okay. I don’t need extra time to think.”
He nodded. Standing, he reached for the office door when —
“One last thing.”
He looked over his shoulder to Jerome. Jerome still refused eye contact as he traced fingers over lacquered grain.
“We’re gonna have to dock you for the half-day.”
He chewed at his lower lip, pushing down whatever he wanted to say and instead said, “I understand,” and left.
Faded traffic barrels directed his car onto the highway. His mind elsewhere, instinct took control of the wheel as the aged Plymouth merged. Eyes on the road ahead, he saw nothing but the inside of a half-dozen conversations. Voices of local radio bantered over speakers yet he did not hear a word. His mind traced lines in mental sand around stones of anguish and rocks of feeling.
-was alone and just needed a friend-
-can’t afford a half day off-
He leaned into the radio, pushing numbered buttons more of habit than of desire to hear something different. The 2-button stuck. It always stuck. He threw his weight into the neighboring 3, forcing the lodged button to pop out as its caught spring squealed like a plastic pig with its tail pulled.
-won’t bother you again-
-here 12 years and you’re sending me home?-
-finally, make it can tell them to shove it-
His mind floated between conversation and time, leaving the shell of his body to navigate traffic. A phone conversation from last week. A soccer camp from his childhood. A discussion that never happened yet he thought about often. An event five fabricated events into the future. A secret conversation that could have occurred in the past. His mind transcended time and space and universe and dimension —
-sorry I ever met you-
-don’t need your bush league job-
-wish I hadn’t met you-
-be telling everyone you knew me-
-miserable human being-
-world hates me-
Brakes screamed as his soul-searching consciousness slammed back into his matryoshka shell. Metal twisted into metal. Sparks popped and burst over a sheering hood. His head slammed into the steering wheel.
“Just follow my light, sir. Yeah. There you go. Okay, good.” The paramedic clicked off the penlight and slid it into his front pocket.
He sat on the edge of the ambulance, legs dangling over the rear bumper like a child in an oversized booster seat. The rear doors blocked most of his view. The fuzzy green splotch in the middle of his vision left over from the penlight blocked the rest. He tried to blink his eyesight back to normal.
“Surprisingly doesn’t look like a concussion,” the paramedic said. “Nasty bump on the forehead. Probably have a welt for a few days.” The EMT knelt down and studied his eyes as if searching for clues he might have missed. Or perhaps he saw a glimpse of something deep inside of his soul so terrifying the EMT’s eyes couldn’t look away. “I’ll be right back.”
The paramedic left. Behind the first responder, the remains of his Plymouth twisted into a guardrail. Hood crumpled into a metallic wave, shattered windshield glistening over it like snow under a midday sun. He ran his fingers over the gash etched into his forehead, tightly dotted with medical stitching.
He looked back into the bowels of the ambulance. He’d never been in one before. Looked pretty much like he expected. But brighter. Much brighter. It gave him a headache. But at least the lights didn’t flicker.
“Here you go.”
He turned to find a cup of coffee extended out by the EMT.
“Didn’t know if you’d want cream or sugar. Put one of each in.”
He hated cream and sugar.
“That’s fine. Yes. Thank you.”
He took the coffee. His hand shook. Waves of sandy brown swirled in the cup, threatening to tidal over the edge before he steadied the caffeinated tide with his other hand. He sipped.
“Tow truck’ll be here in about 20. We can call someone to pick you up or I’m sure you can ride with the driver and catch an Uber from there.”
He just nodded. Adrenaline pumping yet with nowhere to go it flooded his brain in numbness. A strange sense of quiet took over. He didn’t know if he should offer thanks or worry. He sipped his coffee. “I’ll ride with the driver.”
He sat on his couch, stiff and erect as if an imaginary teacher might call on him at any minute. The powered off television reflected his image in its black ink screen. A shadow looking in on him from a foreign reality. Numbness remained, filling his mind one percolating drip at a time. A mind void of thought. A zen garden free of cresting sand. He had craved as such for so long, yet did not know what to do with the accidental gift. Sitting up as quiet as a ghost, he went to bed.
He remained in bed for what could have been hours or possibly just minutes. Streetlight streaked in through the windows, casting hard light across the subtle ravines and stalactites of a popcorn ceiling.
-After everything I did for you-
He fell asleep.