First draft, first two chapters of a fantasy novel about the modern American man: Clement.
The Citizen of Spalding
Clement Fancywater’s face lay squished, sideways, into a brown, spittle-dotted pillow, the encroaching brown sheets, and a loud afghan, which were gathered at his chin in his fists. His eyes were still shut against the infusion of dawn light which filtered down from the basement window through a tacked-up matching brown pillowcase, his mouth open mid-snore.
The alarm whined to life with its sudden insistency. Clement only groaned and opened his eyes a bleary slit to take in the blocky numbers glowing on the display. 6:15. He hefted an arm up and over, brought it down with a crash onto the top of the alarm clock, successfully stopping the racket.
In six minutes, it buzzed back to life and Clement’s eyes slit again. 6:21. They watered, puffy and red, and once he pushed with a finger at the button on top the alarm, he rubbed at his gray eyes with his fingers. Oh, he felt like crap. He regretted now, as he always did, all the Coke, the pizza pockets, the hours and hours being looped into one more round, one more level, one more board, of Warcraft or Zelda or Tunnel Greed. He sat up on the edge of the twin bed and found his leg wrapped in a game controller cord.
Clement sighed at the cord, began extracting himself from it with one hand as he ran his other hand back through his brown, short, yet not recently barbered, hair. Then both hands found their way to rub at his face stubble before working their way back to his eyes. It couldn’t be all exhaustion. Must be allergies, as well.
6:24. Twenty-one minutes to be out the door and even then he’d be lucky to be on time for the Monday meeting. He stood, stretched, and then slumped across the room, shuffling through the discarded clothes and past the sparse furniture, to where a curtain separated his living space from Mom’s and Dad’s storage. It was also delineated by the abrupt end of a berber carpet still showing signs of imperfect carpet knife skills.
His feet thumped on the stairs, which creaked, his hand now lifting the edge of tee shirt to scratch at his lower back. When he turned the knob and pushed open the door at the top of the stairs, he squinted into a pervading sunlight. The air was filled with a dusty, golden sunshine, the smell of coffee, the sound of eggs hitting a hot, buttered pan. Clement shuffled across the hall and disappeared into an identical, brown door with purposefully-weathered brass handle.
6:29. The guest bathroom filled with the sound of the showerhead bursting with water and then exploding on the porcelain of the bathtub, and steam, and Clement reached for the fragrant, Easter green bar of soap as water poured over his face. When he emerged into the hallway in a cloud of steam and spring fresh, a laundry basket of neatly folded clothes blocked his path. Clement hefted it up, careful not to drop the towel wrapped around his waist, and carried it down to drop it onto the disheveled, twin bed.
In the dim, he dressed in a button-down and pleated chinos, and pressed a few nubs of toilet paper into the blood droplets along his jawline. The doorknob at the top of the stairs rattled and then the door opened. Clement looked up as he fished a tie off of a hanger and Florence saw him there, in the murk, poised before the rolling closet they had bought together at Target. Clement saw her, silhouetted against the natural light, crumpling and folding down the top of a brown paper sack.
“You’ll be late,” she called down, matter-of-fact.
“I know, Mom. Got it under control.” He took the tie with him in his hand, grabbed a black back pack from beside his bed, and rushed the stairs two at a time. Florence moved to the side to let him join her there, in the doorway in the hall. Clement took the lunch she was holding out to him, but staying standing in the close quarters.
“You going to have breakfast?”
“I’m gonna be late, remember?”
“Yes, but you need breakfast.” Florence used one thin arm to scoop Clement into a side-hug and used her other thin hand to pat the small mound of Clement’s stomach. “You’re getting skinny.”
“Mom, I look pregnant.”
“Oh!” she scoffed at him and kissed him gently on the cheek. They said together, “Growing boys need Mama kisses,” and she gave his tolerant recitation a look. Into her curled fist, she said, “And happy birthday.” Now Florence gave a weary smile, one mixed with both indulgence and worry, and Ernest came lumbering quickly around the corner at the end of the hall.
“Son!” he shouted, his arms raised and a grin on his face. “Happy birthday!”
“Dad.” Clement smiled back, more tolerance, and allowed himself to be lifted into a bear hug. “Thanks for that,” as Clement smoothed down the front of his shirt, brushed at his chinos. “I didn’t even remember this morning…”
“But thirty is a big year!” Ernest boomed, his look incredulous.
“Oh, Ernest, leave him be. He needs to get into that rush hour traffic.” Clearly, rush hour traffic was abhorable and dangerous.
“But breakfast!” Ernest stuttered after them, as Florence guided Clement to the front door. “Your mother made you an egg sandwich!” Now Florence released Clement and linked arms with Ernest, where the two stood framed in the front doorway as Clement walked the sidewalk to his car.
“I put it in your bag!” she waved after Clement. “With your lunch!”
Clement lifted the paper sack in a perfunctory goodbye, hoping his car would start quickly and get him off the suburban street and away from all the old family friends with their invisible eyes at the window blinds. He noticed there were no other twenty-year-old cars out at the curb, filled with junk and pocked with the nicks of accidents past. He threw the back pack and the lunch sack onto the growing pile on the passenger seat, cracked the top of the sack so that he could get to the egg sandwich. The [CAR] sputtered to life, and Clement shifted into gear, whined away from the curb.
On the freeway, the glare of a low sun slowed traffic into an accordion of stopping and going. Clement lowered both visors and then used his left hand to shield him from the orange beam of light in his eyes. The morning was a brutal clear, the sky washed out and empty from horizon to apex. The only thing besides a snaking line of taillights six wide, the backsides of brown, brick buildings, and a ruffling of dewy grass, was the full-sized billboard which signaled Clement’s exit, up ahead. Exit 55B, Frances Blvd, Downtown Spalding, and a forty-eight foot wide set of coneflower blue eyes advertising Hydrasine allergy relief eyedrops.
Clement drove up the freeway ramp, down a couple streets, and into a compact parking spot in the underground parking deck. On foot, he slid through the maze of suite numbers on floor three and through an employees-only metal door to his ergonomic rolling chair in a retired janitors’ closet which served as the switchboard room for Shay Montclair, PhD, ObGyn. The closet was now the office for the switchboard attendant and scheduler, or, as Clement quoted sardonically to anyone who asked, the administrative assistant. Clement didn’t stop at the front desk to say hello to his more extroverted counterpart, Harriet. He would see her in a few minutes at the Monday staff meeting. Instead, he dropped his bag at his feet, took the flashing light on the phone as evidence of messages he would have to notate, and groaned at the clock before rising again.
In the staff kitchen, he fished his personal mug out of the sink of dirty dishes and standing, tepid, soapy water and rinsed it off before filling it with subpar, fresh-and-yet-burnt-tasting coffee from the shared pot. He found a carton of World Coffee D’light flavored creamer with the name Sandra markered on the front and stood blocking his actions with his backside out of the fridge as he glugged the creamer into his cup. That would help.
Down the hallway and through the door just as Dr. Montclair, standing at the head, started in on her weekly pep talk. Her eyebrows were raised in his direction, her glances tracked him around the room to the only empty chair at the long table as she shared the funniest anecdotes of last week’s clients. “And this weekend, let’s see…” she referenced a clipboard sitting on the table in front of her, flipped up a few pages and tucked them behind. “This weekend we had three babies.” The staff buzzed appreciatively, impressed. Harriet gave Sandra a knowing look. “Jacob James Rutheford,” a light applause and more knowing looks shared between nurses and billing. “Devin Trevonte Wilkes, and Page Katherine Combes.” And more light applause.
Clement smiled at whomever looked over at him. Babies were good, right? Healthy babies, yay. When Jordan, the only other male employee and nurse’s assistant, looked over, Clement gave him a nod and a lowering of the eyebrows, along with a grunt.
Forty-five minutes later, Dr. Montclair passed her loudly-painted “sharing baton” to Skylar and Clement was suddenly more awake then he had been all meeting. Skylar was a nurse, not long out of school. She always wore her long, platinum hair straight down the back of her purple scrubs, her playful bangs framing a heart-shaped face, candy-apple lips, and deep blue eyes. Clement was aware he wanted to eat her lips. He also knew he didn’t stand a chance. She had a boyfriend, which was great for her, because Judith had put Clement off relationships for the rest of his life.
Why was he thinking of Judith, now? This was think-about-Skylar time. This was stare at Skylar and nod while imagining eating her lips. Why not? Everyone else was smiling and staring as she said, “So Dr. Montclair put me in charge of finding the inspirational quote of the week. So really, I couldn’t really find one that would say exactly what I wanted it to say. So I said what I wanted it to say and I wrote it down and now I am going to quote it to you.” She smiled around the room, tucked her hair behind an ear bearing a gold hoop, with a perfectly manicured hand. She cleared her throat and looked down at a small piece of paper.
“’We must never-ever give up our thirst for adventure, our curiosity for the new, or our willingness to take dangerous steps simply for the sake of exploration.’ Thank you. I’ll post it on the bulletin board in the hall.” Her face flushed crimson and she curled up onto herself with her shoulders, looking out the tops of her eyes around the table.
Then Jordan chimed in. “Well, now, I dunno’. I mean, I think there’s something to be said for settling down.” Jordan was truly obnoxious. Clearly, he had enough lips to eat that he could just trash anybody he wanted to.
Harriet, seated next to Skylar, gave Skylar’s arm a little pat as she said, “Oh, don’t be mean. Skylar’s quote is wonderful.”
Someone mumbled, “It’s not even a real quote,” as Sanda said, “But I think Jordan makes a point.” Clearly all these people had settled. “When you’re young,” a patronizing smile at Skylar, “it’s good to dream, I guess, you know, in order to determine where your life might go. But the reality…”
“Well let’s just say,” cut in a woman named Marge, “settling is an art we all learn to master.”
“What do they say?” mused another nurse, a Gwen. “Dreaming is for fools?”
“Oh, it can’t be all that bad!”
“It’s true though; I wanted to be a musician but then I was pregnant. I don’t want my kids to feel like dream-wreckers. They sort of became my dream. Things change.”
There was a lull in the conversation where each person present was looking inward and Doctor Montclair looked serenely from face to face. Then she spoke with phony calm and a smile. “Perhaps being happy or peaceful in your present circumstances is admirable, but I agree with Skylar.” Several heads nodded here. “Great accomplishment and true successes—not to mention the most lived lives—come from adventurers who refuse to settle.”
Dr. Montclair then started in on her parting remarks, which were always point-blank factual statements and goals for the week. Just then, Clement’s cell phone vibrated against his leg. He knew a few people could hear it, judging by their looks at him. He thrust his hand down into his pants pocket and wrestled with the device for the button on the side that would silence it. When it shuddered still, Dr. Montclair was still talking, still on Monday’s synopsis. Several seconds later, Clement’s phone began vibrating against his leg, again. His office mates repeated their looks, multiplied, and Clement repeated the struggle in his chinos pocket.
Only a couple sentences later, the phone vibrated back to life. Harriet hissed across the table at him, “Why don’t you go take care of that?”
Clement slid backwards out of his chair and slunk across the room back toward the door. He mumbled a “Sorry,” as Dr. Montclair went on, her eyebrows again raised at his retreat.
He had already missed the third call, so he stood in the hallway inspecting the face of the phone. The phone number that showed there under the words “Missed Call” was incomprehensible to him. A local number, by the area code, but otherwise unrecognized. He turned and walked along the hallways, past the patient rooms, toward his janitors’ closet. Just as he opened the heavy door, the phone vibrated in his hand. He clicked the answer button and raised it to his face. “Hello?”
“Is this Clement, uh, Clement Fancywater?”
“Yes. Can I help you?”
“I’m sorry I kept calling. I, uh, had a feeling…”
“I’m a nurse at Spalding General. I’m calling to tell you that your parents, a Florence and Ernest Fancywater, have been in a car accident. They were brought here, and you need to come in.”
Clement had never, even during the mess of his divorce from Judith, the escapades leading up to it, the crashing of his career, the bottoming-out of his American dream, or the gray hinterland that made up the latter half of his twenties, felt quite like this. It was as if someone had opened up his head and poured a thick goo inside. His nose and cheeks tingled, his face had the sensation of swelling. The rest of his body was completely numb and everything about him was paralyzed.
After a space of time, a space of time which Clement had no concept of, the nurse asked through the phone, “Sir?” Clement was surprised to find the phone still there, next to his ear. Her voice made him startle and he removed the phone from his ear, stared at it blankly. Where was he? What was happening? Then he heard her, again, at a distance. “Sir? Are you okay?”
He brought the phone back to his ear and the simple motion felt difficult and painfully prolonged. “What? I don’t understand.”
“You need to come to Spalding General. Do you have transportation?”
“Yes, I… Wait! What are you saying? What has happened?”
“A car accident…”
“Yeah, I know! I mean, are they alright?”
“I’m afraid you just need to come in and we can talk to you.”
“What do you mean?! They teach you to be that vague in nursing school?!” The line was silent. Clement was breathing hard, but he could sense that the nurse had not yet hung up. Clement ran a hand back through his hair and started to look around for his car-related-things, an anchor to moor him to leaving and driving. Keys! Before he bent forward to pick them up, he mumbled, “Sorry. I’m freaking out.”
“I know, sir. Please drive carefully. Maybe get a friend to drive you?”
Friends? Sure, he would find his way to the alternative reality of Tunnel Greed social video game, locate a few of his “friends,” and ask them to drive him. In an elf cart or by tunnel horseback. To the healing grounds of Marmook. That would be really helpful. It was then that several of his old flesh-and-blood friends’ faces flashed before his mind’s eye and he winced, cursed the nurse who conjured them. They had lifted off with that layer of his life when Judith went. When almost everything went.
Clement snapped up the keys, pocketed his wallet from the top drawer of his desk, and snatched up the backpack. He hefted it over one arm and jogged back down the halls to where the meeting was just dismissing. Gigi, the office manager, fielded questions at the doorway while Dr. M floated away toward her doctor duties. Clement pushed his way toward the front of the crowd of slow-moving coworkers and interrupted without listening to a word.
“Gigi, look, I have to go.”
“Clement, you don’t have the right to…”
“I got a call from the hospital. It’s my parents.”
“What? Are they sick? I don’t…”
But Clement was already past her, down the hall, and quickly out the back door.
He figured, as he pulled smoothly out of his spot and slammed the gearshift down, that there would be no mess when he returned to work; he was a good enough employee, over-qualified, courteous, and helpful. One act of rebellion should wedge in there pretty good, and be absorbed.
On the drive, Clement become absorbed between his internal panic and the slow-moving vehicles blocking his way to the hospital. He was still angry that the nurse refused to give him even the slightest clue as to his parents’ condition. Then for a minute here or there, he wasn’t angry because he was so extremely worried and preemptively sad that there was no room for anger. He did a lot of uncharacteristic honking.
At the hospital, he followed signs to Emergency and pulled his car up into the valet section. He fought the feeling that valet was exciting. He jumped out of the car and gave the valet an apologetic look as he handed over the keys and jogged into the building. One desk, two desks, and at the third desk the receptionist was able to direct him to the proper nurse’s station in the ER. He tried to focus in on her directions, but ended up jogging first one way down B hall and then the other before coming to it. Two nurses were behind the chest-high counter. One was on the phone, the other was making marks on a clipboard.
“Excuse me?” he said pointedly to the nurse with the clipboard.
She pulled her eyes from the page. “Yes?”
“I’m here to see Florence and Ernest Fancywater? Someone called me?”
The nurse on the phone indicated with a hand gesture that she was the one who had indeed called him and would be with him in a second. The second was more like a minute, and by the time she was done with her phone call, Clement was doing what amounted to the pee pee dance. Yet, when she hung up and met his gaze with hers, he wished the call had lasted longer. There was something resolute behind her eyes, something intense and frightening and it made Clement’s stomach drop, gave him the sensation of floating.
“Yes.” His mouth was so dry he could hardly say it.
“Come on, then.” She motioned with her head for him to follow her and he realized, with the awkwardness that accompanied a gesture she must make hundreds of times a week, that she, too, was afraid. She dropped him off at a waiting area, a nook on the side of a wide, windowless, powdery tiled hallway lined with doors, indoor lighting strips, and littered along the side with empty gurneys and various steel carts. She would be back with the doctor. Clement was abandoned into the semicircle of plastic-padded chairs but he found he could not sit. So he paced until the doctor came.
Although he would later recognize the nurse, Cindy, in the hospital cafeteria, he could never remember what this doctor looked like, or even how old he might have been. The doctor said, “Your parents were brought in after a car accident. They were hit by an underslept driver, by the looks of it.” He paused here and Clement noticed a ringing in his ears. His eyes were rapt to the doctor, his mind stubbornly creating a grisly scene of his parents’ car being crashed into, from a vantage point hovering above the passenger seat. A solid mass plowing into the dashboard, the windows shattering into their plasticized sheets, his parents throwing their arms up to cover their eyes, but not in time. The screams. “You mother died in the ambulance on the way here of multiple injuries. Your father died of heart failure shortly after arriving.”
Clement was no longer rapt on the doctor’s face. He was just trying to catch his gaze on anything, as the room twisted and turned around him. He would later recall taking wobbly steps backward and eventually slumping to the floor, bile rising in his throat.
An Archaeologist, a Marine Biologist, and an Astronaut
Clement’s face was squished, sideways, into the brown, spittle-dotted pillow, the encroaching brown sheets, and a loud afghan, which were gathered at his chin in his fists. His eyes were still shut against the infusion of dawn light which filtered down from the basement window through a tacked-up matching brown pillowcase, his mouth open mid-snore.
The alarm whined to life with its sudden insistency. Clement groaned, clenched his eyes tighter, smacked at the alarm clock with his heavy, right hand open in a slap. He knew, by the alarm, that it had to be 6:15. It was painfully quiet in the house. Clement could feel the quiet in the rooms above him pressing down like wool on a hot day. He lifted the pillow, slid it over his head, and weighted it down over his skull and ears.
Somehow, he still heard the alarm when it sounded six minutes later, like song through water. It pierced his cat nap, his exhaustion, and the faux down in the pillow. He lifted the pillow, felt a rush of cooler air, to glare at the clock and its blocky, digital numbers. 6:21. Another smack, more on-target with the aid of his sight, and the alarm silenced again. Could it really be morning already? How many hours had he slept? How many minutes? How much was wasted on grief? On anxiety? On gaming distraction?
After takeout Chinese and the evening news in the family room last night—oh, his mother would be frowning down from heaven at the state of it—Clement pulled another fifty or so books down from the wall-wide shelving unit. All week, Clement had leafed through his father’s history books, reading notations in the margins, the underlined passages. They had shared a love of history, once. Clement, too, had read many of these books. Then Clement had found a section of journals. Journals, he called them internally, for lack of a better word. He read these more carefully, discovered that there was one journal, in particular, that was of value to himself. It was the voice of Ernest, calling out across the years, distilling history and his own story into one massive compilation of thoughts, notes, copied items, and personal exposition.
Who would keep a thing like that, these days?
Under a bulb-missing, yellowed glow from the dining room lighting fixture, Clement read through ten or so pages of the tome before he started to nod off and abandoned it there, next to his flat Coke. He left the upstairs dark when he retreated to the basement, switched on his TV and the gaming console.
He did not know for how long he played Tunnel Greed, roamed the burrows looking for coins to collect, friends to chat trade tips, foes to hunt, clues to decipher. He was in the far reaches of Kanhoul, he knew, when he switched off the TV and began the long work of falling asleep, of staring blankly into the dark and closing his ears to the terrifying sound of silence.
Those were the reasons that in the morning, at 6:21, his gray eyes watered, puffy and red, at the glowing numbers on the clock. Clement pushed at the button on top the quiet alarm to turn it off. He rubbed at his eyes with his fingers. He sat up on the edge of the twin bed and noticed that he still had his button-down on over his tee and boxers. Also, it was buttoned one-off. He hoped, vaguely, that it had not been like that all yesterday.
Now he ran one hand back through his not-as-short, quite unruly hair and used the other to begin unbuttoning the shirt. Then both hands found their way to unbuttoning, to removing the shirt, to removing everything until he stood there naked. He scratched at his five-o-clock shadow as he scanned the room for a sign of clean clothes. In the dim light, he saw nothing. Perhaps he had left a load in the dryer? It was more likely he had left a load in the washer. For maybe a week.
6:24. Twenty-one minutes to be out the door and even then he’d be lucky to be ready to switch the phones on at 8:00. Still naked as a jay bird, he looped a towel into the crook of his arm as he passed his dresser and thumped up the stairs, which creaked, his hand now lifting to scratch at his left buttocks. When he turned the knob and pushed open the door at the top of the stairs, he squinted into a pervading sunlight. The air was filled with a dusty, golden sunshine, the smell of tepid and congealed leftovers and an overflowing garbage, the sound of the clock ticking on the mantelpiece in the family room around the corner. Clement shuffled across the hall and into the bathroom, leaving the door ajar.
6:29. The guest bathroom filled with the sound of the showerhead bursting with water and then exploding on the porcelain of the bathtub, and steam, and Clement reached for the slimy, Easter green bar of soap as water poured over his face. When he emerged into the hallway in a cloud of steam and grocery store fragrance, he looked left and noticed a shadow outside the front door, moving in and out of view behind the cream, gauzy valances.
Even though he was fairly confident that the stranger lurking on the doorstep could not see through those valences, Clement clutched at the towel wrapped around his waist and crouched forward a little, backing up to the hallway wall. He moved sideways toward the front door, alternately peering inquisitively at the shadow and taking a half-step back out of self-preservation and modesty. Someone was doing something there, scraping lightly against the door with irregular movement. But before he reached the front door, the shadow was seen no more.
It took a few minutes of pressing his nose to the creamy cloth and cracking it aside before Clement was convinced that no one was there. He turned the lock on the doorknob and then rotated the cylinder in the deadbolt. He opened the door just enough to look around the stoop. He was satisfied no one was there and was about to shut the door when a pink fluttering caught his eye. Like a spastic butterfly caught with one wing against an entomologist’s board, a paper was taped to the front door. Emblazoned across the front of it: “Eviction Notice.”
Well, yeah, he had been warned. Still, somehow, it came as a shock, it came entirely too early for him to have done anything about anything. In two months, he hadn’t packed so much as a suitcase of his own belongings, let alone any of his parents’. In fact, he hadn’t even gotten around to going into the rear of the house, except looking for Sherilyn at the post-funeral house party. That’s what it was, wasn’t it? All those people arriving with casseroles and fruit trays to stand amongst the tchotchkes and frown at him? Not talk about the accident? Say impersonal things about his parents, like they had only known the ghost of Florence and Ernest, a flat artifice of only the bland and grinning side of Florence and Ernest?
Clement sighed at the paper. He closed the door behind him and bolted it, then went in search of clean work clothes. All he found were jeans and a tee shirt with a gamer logo. He wondered if he could go undetected all day in the little janitor’s closet, at least by Gigi and Dr. M. On his way out the door, he swung into the kitchen to take a microwavable lunch from the freezer, and saw Ernest’s journal still open on the table. He hovered over it, looking down at a quote written large amidst notes from The National Conference on Civil War History and Historical Markers. The quote, re-traced until it was in thick, black lettering, read, “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live. –Norman Cousins.” Clement closed the journal as he picked it up and shoved it into his back pack where it sat among a change of clothes, a razor, a toothbrush and toothpaste.
At work, Clement answered calls, made notes until his wall was covered with Post It notes. His fingers moved over the keyboard, the ingrained sequences of keys playing out over and over without the need of his brain power. He scheduled patients, forwarded them to billing, and thought—with sudden letdown every time—of the eviction notice. He deferred planning out his evening, his tomorrow, his next week or next month, until sometime after work.
At 4:20, Clement’s personal cell started vibrating and moving slowly to its vibrational beat, across the desk top. He glanced down at it as he finished up a cordial conversation with a patient via his headset. It was Judith’s number, again. He looked back at the computer screen and clicked into the empty appointment slot three weeks from now. Quickly, he managed to forget about the call. But when he hung up with the patient, his cell gave one short buzz, letting him know that he had a message. Judith never left messages. She just called back with admirable regularity until the receiver was so worn down they picked up the phone and groaned, “What do you want, Judith?”
Clement was pretty worn out, by now. He was also curious, despite himself, about what would make her leave a message. Clement looked at the clock. He usually turned the phone lines off at 4:30. With a few swift movements of his hand, he pressed in the code that turned them to voicemail for the night. Then he picked up the cell, punched in the combination for voicemail on speaker.
“Clement? Hi. It’s Judith. I know you’re never going to answer, so you forced me into leaving a voicemail. I just had a couple things to talk to you about. For one, you could have told me about your parents sooner. They were my parents, too, for a while, you know. I would have liked to have been there.” Clement rolled his eyes and gave a disgusted snort. “For two, I came across a box in the attic of some of your old things. I dropped them at the front desk at your work at lunch today. And for three, I need to chat with you, so I’ll, uh, meet you in City Center Park before your work, tomorrow. I just have some things to get off my chest. Bye, Clement. Have a great life.” How one person could pour so much acid and regret into one dramatic line, he could not understand.
He pulled his headset off and set it on the keyboard as he leaned back into his rolling chair. His eyes grazed the surface of the computer screen and he thought about clicking over to the internet, but thought twice about it since he knew all the employees were tracked. Instead, he gathered his things into his backpack, pulled a parka from the back of his chair, and walked out of the room at the moment the clock read 4:31.
At the back door, he punched out, then retraced his steps back toward the waiting room. There were no patients left, which meant the doc had really been flying today. [Harriet] still had her head set on, but was turned and reclined, chatting to Marge who sat with one hip on the edge of the long desk. Clement stood at the counter and cleared his throat. The women stopped talking to look at him. “Did a, uh, package come for me today?” He cleared his throat again.
“You mean, did Judith come by?” Harriet lifted her eyebrows at him.
“Sure. It’s back here.” Harriet kicked lightly at a cardboard box at her feet, to let him know it was there. “You want to know how she looked?”
“Great. Like she does a thousand sit-ups each morning before she runs five miles to work then through a shower and a hairdresser and a make-up artists and a fashion designers and then sharpens her claws.” She leaned forward as she added, “Sharpens them talons.” So nothing had changed, then. Well, everything had changed since she was the sweet girl-next-door Clement had started dating at age fifteen. Nothing had changed since the bizarre transformation post-engagement and mid-college.
“Can you lift it?” he asked.
“Yeah, it’s not heavy.” Harriet stood up and leaned over to get the box, looking like she felt deprived of a good, juicy conversation. As she hefted it onto the counter, she tried again. “She came in here dressed like a, a twenties flapper or something. She’s still acting, then?”
Clement circled his arms around the box and turned toward the door as he answered, “I wouldn’t know,” with a polite smile goodbye.
Instead of winding through the building and down into the parking garage, Clement wandered out the front door and onto the sidewalk beside a busy four-lane street of Spalding. Across the street, City Center Park beckoned with its expanses of lush green dotted with cigarette butts and its park benches backed against old, careworn trees and hulking, amorphous bushes. Clement looked both ways and strode out into the street, jogging out of the way of a car that honked obstinately at him as it sped past. In the park, Clement walked toward the center and found a spot in an alcove of underbrush and a few gnarled trees, out of view of his work building, out of view of the four major roads that bordered the park. He plopped the box down on a bench, slid his backpack to the ground, and sat down next to the box. Then he pried open the neatly intersected flaps of the box, noticed Judith’s handwriting in Sharpie, “Clem’s Old Stuff.”
On the top of the contents of the box sat a tan cargo vest with various pockets and loops and hooks. Clement lifted it out and started inspecting all the items in the box: National Audubon Society Guide to Marine Mammals of the World, empty waterproof logbooks, a zero-gravity pen, his old camera (a Minolta SRL with various lenses in a bulging travel case), a power-crank LED flashlight, a spelunking headlamp with extra batteries, a one-man emergency medical kit, Point It, water purification tablets, a Leatherman, a boxed set of archaeological maps, two geodes, a collapsible metal detector, a magnifying glass with a hidden compartment in the handle for a small dig brush and pick (which was still there, Clement checked), a star chart, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, 1421, 1491, a plasma globe (he wondered if it still worked), a filtering water bottle, and glow-in-the-dark star stickers with a constellation map.
With the contents of the box sticking out of the top, Clement picked up 1491 and started to read. He had never gotten around to reading it. After standing in line for Charles C. Mann to sign the shiny, new copy, the crap had hit the fan with Judith and she must have found it in the drawer of the bedside table. Or the producer found it there. Maybe the guy read it. Still good, right? Clement cracked open to the Introduction and started reading.
He had a bit of a hard time with his concentration. It had been years since he read anything of more substance than the pulp fantasy that was often recommended on the internet forums he visited. He kept pulling himself back to the book, re-reading, and only stopped when it occurred to him that he could barely decipher the words on the page because the sun had set over Spalding. The garden was darkening long before the sky, which was still a pale blue at one end and a glowing, muted orange at the other. The trees and brush around Clement rustled in a breeze, the shadows around and under them already black in the dusk. He could hear the cars still circling around the park, the muddled sounds of small city life as it closes down for the night, a bird calling and a squirrel scurrying up a tree. The orange lights blinked to life at the top of the industrial lampposts, one of them in the alcove where Clement slouched on the bench, not reading.
Clement slid the box to the ground under the bench, then rolled up the tan vest. He placed it behind his head as he lay down on his back, sprawled the length of the bench with his legs bent into pyramids. Under his legs, he placed his backpack and looped a strap over a knee. He covered himself with his sweatshirt, hugged 1491 to himself under its double-lined cotton. He watched the sky as it faded into darker and darker shades of blue. He studied the branches that stretched out into the clearing, shaking with the life of squirrels and shimmering in the night breezes. They stood in contrast to the sky until they eventually became one with the night. Of course, the sky was never black, only a few lonely stars graced its face. Mostly, the sky was washed by the jaundiced glow of city life into a sickly, faded dark gray.
Clement looked for the few stars he could see, tried to identify them by their placement, their brilliance, their red and blue shifts.
He didn’t know that he slept.
He was waked by the glow of that same sky, by the slow breaking of an ominously swirling-clouded dawn. He was surprised to find himself still face-up on the bench, in exactly the position he must have fallen asleep. He was damp, uncomfortable, cold. His joints were sore, as was his back. Then again, he felt rested, finally. He was hungry and thirsty.
With a jolt, he realized that Judith would be looking for him, this morning. He had played right into her hands! He sat up so fast, a rush of blood made the world spin. And there, in the spinning world, came a man shuffling across the alcove. The man grunted an “All right, there, soldier,” as Clement strained to focus on him. He wore cargo pants that were mud-caked at the bottom, grease-stained at the top, and about as old as dirt. He wore a tattered, navy blue hoodie over a threadbare, plaid button-up shirt, and the hoodie was pulled up over his black, unruly, shoulder-length hair. He sported a full beard and moustache over an olive, dirty face with bulbous features and a large mouth. He carried a plastic grocery bag which hang limp with only a few, heavy items.
Clement hastened to gather up his bag, his sweatshirt, his vest-pillow, and to shove everything else back down in the cardboard box as he retrieved it from under the bench. With Judith on her way, an itinerant approaching him in a secluded area, and the whip of sudden wind that carried with it a cool moisture that meant rain was on the way…
“No hurry, fella’. Just want to sit down, rest me legs.” The man was already to the bench, and he sank down onto the end of it with a long sigh of relief.
“Good morning, sir,” Clement mumbled.
The man turned to look Clement squarely in the eye, giving Clement a close view of his large, dark eyes. “Good morning to you. You been here all night, then?”
“Uh, well, on accident. I guess.”
“Lucky stiff. I never get away with it.” The man looked up toward the sky and Clement followed his gaze. In the west, a deep, steely gray was building and the clouds in front of it mounted from dark to bright above them. The distant gray rumbled. Maybe Judith wouldn’t even come. What was he going to do, anyhow? Go into work covered in dew, in yesterday’s clothes, smelling of morning breath and night sweats? He returned his task to reorganizing the contents of the box so that he could close the top.
“So, tell me something about yourself.”
Clement sniffed. “Why, so you can steal my identity? Murder me and cut me into pieces based on my transgressions?” He was still working at the box.
“Do I look successful at anything, even murder?”
“Alright then, for being rude, answer my friendly question. I like stories. Who are you?”
“I’ll give you the quick version before I get ahead of this storm.”
“That’s a different question and the answer is ‘I don’t know.’ As to the primary, my name is Clement, I am an administrative assistant at an ObGyn, I lived at home with my parents—even though I’m thirty, two months ago—until they died suddenly in a tragic accident, also two months ago. I was married to my high school sweetheart out of college, an actress. She was very successful at acting, with me, and she revealed her intentions for an ‘open marriage’ and convenience marriage until after we tied that knot, her career needed a boost, and my aspirations and finances were crushed by the attack of the economy; you know the one, I bet. That same ex-wife from hell has intentions of hunting me down in this park, this very morning, so I guess you understand why I need to go, now, rudely or otherwise.” Clement folded the cardboard box’s flaps over themselves and grabbed at his backpack just as the man also solidly grabbed Clement’s backpack.
When Clement looked up at him, he was shocked to see—not the bearded man with the large eyes, but a darker man with a long, sallow face, and no facial hair. Clement jumped back so that he was standing in a sort of crouch next to the bench, with his hand outstretched toward the bag he had relinquished in his alarm. He stared, as the man—who was still wearing the same outfit, had the same physique, although sort of straighter and seemingly taller—said with a smoother voice. “I am Essen.” He said it like a proclamation, in even meter with authority. His caramel eyes kept Clement rapt to them. “You are the one, and I have a message for you.” Essen held out his hand and opened the fingers slowly, where a crumpled sheet of paper sat in his palm.
“But you—” Clement pointed slightly at the man’s face. “I mean, you—”
“I am two,” said the commanding face. Then, as Clement watched with disbelief, the smooth, dark face slid sideways around until it disappeared back into the hoodie and another face—the bearded one—appeared from the opposite side. The mellower voice of the other Essen, with a changed demeanor of the whole body, coaxed, “Go on. Take it. It won’t bite.” He lifted the paper higher toward Clement’s terrified face.
In a stupor, Clement took the paper and brought it slowly up to his eyes. He was afraid to remove his gaze from Essen—or whomever the other face was—but managed to look down and read:
1) A man will be on a seat, where he will have slept all night.
2) The man will be alone in the Wide World, without parents or wife or children.
3) He will have with him his meager possessions, which will include his broken spirit.
4) He will be the man to descend to Hollow Earth and either save—or condemn—the Uplanders.
“There you have it.” Essen winked at Clement as Clement looked up from the paper. Clement was statuesque, paralyzed in fear and confusion. To make matters worse, Essen’s face was now rotating again, and the darker man appeared just as Essen’s body stiffened. The dark Essen said in his deep, oily voice, “A man will be on a seat, where he will have slept all night. The man will be alone in the Wide World, without parents or wife or children.” As Essen continued, Clement receded from his transfixion. He began computing what was being said—recited—to him. “He will have with him his meager possessions,” Clement looked down at the box at his feet, “which will include his broken spirit.”
“Hey, now. You don’t mean to tell me you think I’m this guy you’re looking for?”
“I know it to be so.”
Clement let out an ironic laugh. “That’s just silly. Don’t you have a name or something? Something more concrete? I mean, you might catch any bum…” he looked down at Essen’s appearance. “I mean, you might catch any residentially deficient person here sleeping on the bench with no family and nowhere to go. You have the wrong guy, man.”
“I know you to be the one.”
“Alright.” Clement was starting to edge away, but wondering how much he wanted or needed his back pack when he remembered that his dad’s journal was in it. Crap! He tried a new approach. “Alright. Mister, um, Essen, what do you need me to do to get my bag back?” A gust of wind came crashing through the park, flipping the leaves of the trees and bushes up so that they flashed silver. Clement looked up at the sky, much more of it now covered with a bluish black.
When Clement looked back, the face with the beard had reappeared. “Go down the hole, man. You’re the one to save the Uplanders.”
“Or condemn them, yeah. Don’t think about that, just fulfill your awesome destiny and jump down the hole.”
Essen raised the arm that was not holding the bag and pointed toward the base of a giant tree surrounded at the bottom with a thick brush over twisting roots. “It’s in there. You’ll see.”
“Okay, so here’s the part where you lure me in and chop me up into little pieces.”
“For Pete’s sake, Clement. Just go look at the hole, decide whether or not the Uplanders are worth it, and then get the heck out of dodge with your precious bag.” A flash of lightning streaked the sky just as the darkness hit the apex. It was followed by an ear-splitting peal of thunder, one that shook the ground. In the trough of stillness afterward, Clement heard a small voice call out from behind the trees, “Clement?” It was Judith. Really?!
“Okay, fine, let’s make the… make the exchange.” Essen turned and walked fast toward the tree, Clement’s bag swinging from his hand. Clement walked with him, sticking to his left side. Clement considered grabbing the bag and running, but before he could, Essen bent down and disappeared into a false wall in the brush. Clement followed.
Inside the bushes, a very tight clearing opened up at the base of the old tree, there among the exposed roots. Essen was crouching in it, leaning over a massive hole at a slant into the ground. The hole would be big enough for a grown man to enter, and the edges of it were overgrown with grass, moss, and even flowers among the leaf litter. Clement was curious how a hole so large could have been here for so long, undetected. And where was the dirt dug from this massive hole? The roots surrounding were brushed clean, the small bit of ground flat and smooth between them. Despite himself, he moved a step closer to peer inside.
Clement saw a flash of lightning reflect off of the gaping mouth of the hole, heard another deafening crack of thunder, and another, now panicked, call come from somewhere in the park, “Clement!” Then he was pushed from behind.