First Chapter (Possibly) of a project I'm working on.
|A shadow fell over Brad Foley’s computer monitor. “Did you watch last night,” it asked. “Or this morning?”
A phone rang in the adjoining cubicle. Brad looked in that direction before turning his attention to David Anderson, the shadow’s owner. “Not yet.” Inwardly, Brad sighed. He’d answered the same question three times already this morning. He was seemingly the only person in America--in the world, perhaps--who hadn’t tuned in.
Anderson’s eyes went wide. “Are you kidding?”
Brad rubbed his temple, sipped his coffee. “We were at Mercy General all night. Emma’s mom…”
“They didn’t have a television in the hospital?”
The other man considered. There had been a television set, of course, in the Emergency waiting room. He’d seen a crowd gathered around the set when he’d visited the vending machines. “Only in the waiting room; we were in triage by the time it started.”
Anderson frowned. “They streamed it live too--didn’t you have internet access?”
Brad placed his coffee mug on the small desk. He looked up at his coworker. “I was just a little busy, what with my mother-in-law and her chest pains.”
A strange look came over Anderson’s face, like that of a man snapping out of a daydream. “Brad, oh shit, man--I’m sorry. It’s just, I…” David Anderson shook his head. “How is she?”
“She’s doing better, thanks.” Brad leaned back in his chair. “So this show, it was really something huh?”
“Brad…,” David smirked, shook his head, “I don’t know that I can even describe the experience.”
“Oh, come on. It can’t be that different from everything else on television.”
Still smirking in a way that Brad found irritating as hell, David said, “Just wait, man. Just wait…”
Somehow Brad made it until lunch without again being accosted about the new show (and what had it been called? Horizons? Horizon singular? He couldn’t recall.) He walked to the commissary, noted the buzz of excitement in the usually subdued lunchroom. Everywhere he looked people were chatting away, neglecting and in some cases completely ignoring their food. It sounded to Brad less like a business lunch commissary and more like a high-school cafeteria the week before summer vacation.
“Can you believe this?”
Brad turned to find Haley Stronk, the customer service manager, standing beside him. From the look on her chubby, perpetually red face, she was as disconcerted by what she saw as was Brad. “I’ve never heard the lunchroom this loud,” he offered.
Haley nodded. She scanned the room, her brows narrowed. “This is strange…does this have to do with that show?”
For a few seconds, the pair stood silently, just inside and to the left of the commissary door. The volume of the chatter in the room increased, slowly but steadily. “You know, I think I’m going to get lunch down the street.”
“The Chinese Place?”
Brad nodded. “It’s a little loud in here for my taste.”
“Mind if a fat old woman tags along?”
For reasons she couldn’t fathom, Haley was thinking of her high-school science teacher when Brad spoke up. “It feels like it does right before a storm.”
Haley considered this. She watched the slats of a white picket fence blur by on her right and thought of her teacher again. Mr. Orlando, his name had been. Why was she thinking of him, of all people, now? “Like when you can smell the ionized particles in the air...right before a storm.”
Brad nodded. “Right. But more than that even. It’s like you can feel that the atmosphere is restless…” He shook his head. “I don’t know…”
“I know what you mean.” Haley considered elaborating on this, decided against it. It wasn’t necessary, after all, to describe the feeling accurately; it was enough that they both felt it.
Haley watched the passing trees and telephone poles slow to a crawl. She looked ahead and saw Hunan Gourmet just ahead. Again, she thought of Mr. Orlando and wondered why.
Brad pulled into the small parking lot on the side of the concrete building. Haley used the top of the car door to help herself out of the small vehicle. She wished, in hindsight, that she’d insisted they take her Navigator. When they’d left work, though, she’d been happy enough just to be in the company of another human being who wasn’t currently obsessed over a stupid television program.
Did they still call them television programs? She didn’t think so. They were TV shows now or just shows. When Haley had been a little girl, her family had owned one black and white television set. The dial on the wood casing had boasted thirteen channels, nine of which actually received anything (if you count channel ten, which came in sometimes, and never clearly.)
Haley pulled herself from her reverie. Inwardly, she sighed. As if reminiscing about the golden age of television hadn’t made her feel old enough; now her impromptu lunch companion was calling her “Ms.” She dug deep and smiled in spite of herself. “It’s Haley,” She gestured toward the restaurant's entrance. “Shall we?”
The Hunan Gourmet was nowhere near as loud as the office commissary had been, but it was loud nonetheless--louder than usual. The air-conditioning notwithstanding, the atmosphere in the small eatery vibrated with the same raw, kinetic energy as did the air outside. And there was something else...something Haley couldn’t quite put her finger on, though it made her think of her old science teacher again.
Eight slightly unsettling minutes later, the pair walked out into the early afternoon sunshine. They’d taken their meal to go. Neither had anticipated doing so, but the almost manic energy of the chefs and servers had informed their silent agreement on the subject. There was a small park at the end of the street; without speaking, the duo started toward it.
Once settled on a bench, their lunch perched between them, Brad asked the question. Only it wasn’t really a question at all, more a request for confirmation of a fact already deduced.
“You didn’t watch, did you?”
Haley had wondered when, if ever, one or the other of them would acknowledge the obvious. She found she was both relieved and a bit embarrassed that he’d asked first. She shook her head. “No.”
Brad sighed. It was a troubling sound. “I figured.”
A curious fly lighted on the open container of lo mein. Haley shooed it away; neither made any move to eat. “I guess I don’t have to ask?”
The young man (maybe not as young as she’d assumed, though--she noted hints of grey creeping into his temples) shook his head. “I was at the hospital with my wife. Her mother had chest pains.”
Haley grimaced. “I’m sorry. Is she okay?”
A strange look crossed Brad’s face. “She is, thank you.”
Haley tried to choose her words with care. She failed. “What the hell is going on?”
“I have to call my wife.” Brad fumbled in his pocket for his cell.
“Is she at work?” Haley understood that in the age of digital streaming media, it didn’t really make that much difference. “Maybe she didn’t watch.”
Brad was holding his phone to his ear. He held a hand up in the universal “give me a second” gesture. He shook his head. “She’s home,” he mouthed. “Shit,” he looked at Haley. “Voicemail.” Then, into the phone: “Baby, listen...I know this is going to sound strange, but if you haven’t already, don’t watch that new show everyone’s talking about. I’ll explain when I see you but please, trust me, okay? I love you.”
With the tap of a finger, Brad ended the call. He placed the phone back in his pocket.
“If she didn’t watch this morning, odds are she hasn’t watched yet.”
“What is it?”
Haley wasn’t sure if her coworker was talking to her, or just talking aloud. By the unfocused and yet somehow purposeful look in his eyes, he was deep in thought. She watched him come back to the here and now. “It’s killing me. There’s something, something besides the restlessness in the air...something that’s just slightly off.”
Something that’s just slightly off. Haley couldn’t have put it better herself. Something was off, something essential and fundamental. It wasn’t off enough to betray itself though--not easily, at any rate. She nodded her agreement. “It’s as though it should be so obvious.”
As one, Haley and Brad looked up to see a man in a business suit speed-walk by. They returned his greeting, though he’d already passed by the time they did.
“Someone’s in a hurry,” Brad said.
“Late getting back from lunch, I bet.” Some part of Haley rebelled at the idea of wasting her mental energy on so trivial a subject when the world suddenly seemed just slightly off. Still, life always went on, she supposed. No matter what was going on.
“Either that or he’s running for the bathroom.”
“Mm-mm. No, that fellow did not have the look of a man hurrying for a pee.” Now, rather than feel guilty about diverting her attention from the matter at hand, she took pleasure in it. It felt good to work out an easy mystery, as opposed to the important one she and Brad were puzzling over.
Brad grinned. “You know, I suppose you’re right. Hey, you’re pretty good. You should have been a detective.”
“Ha! In another dimension, maybe,” Haley smiled. “Although I’ve always been a Sherlock Holmes fanatic.”
“The latest BBC adaptation is fantastic. Have you seen it?”
Haley nodded. “Benedict Cumberbatch is fantastic--and easy on the eyes, but Basil Rathbone will always be Holmes to me.”
“We should start back.” Brad looked at the untouched cartons of Chinese food. “Did you want to eat?”
Brad sighed. “Well, let’s go. And who knows--maybe we’ll solve the mystery of what’s off on the way back to work.”
Haley stood. She gestured for Brad to proceed her. “After you, my dear Watson.”
“Where is everybody?” Brad glanced at his watch; it read twelve-fifty. Ordinarily, a small group would be crowded around the smoker’s outpost next to the building’s south entrance, getting in those last few puffs before returning to work. People would be seated at the outdoor picnic tables chatting and gathering the remnants of their lunches. The small, oft-changing group of women who walked the perimeter of the building for exercise would be making their way across the parking lot by now. So, where was everybody?
Haley was quiet in the passenger’s seat. Brad could tell by the look on her face that she was puzzling the same question. She looked at her watch.
“What time do you have?”
Having just checked his watch, Brad said “Ten-to-one.”
For a moment the two sat, the engine of Brad’s car running being the only exception to the silence. A truck careened down Adams Avenue, doing sixty-miles-an-hour, at least. Two heads snapped, as one, in that direction.
When it had dopplered by, Haley said. “Everyone sure seems to be in a hurry today.”
Brad nodded absently. “I think I should go home.”
His passenger turned, concern evident on her face. “Don’t leave me here alone.”
The comment struck Brad as odd (off, if you will.) He wasn’t leaving her alone--there had to be two-hundred-fifty people inside the building. He knew what she meant, though, and wished desperately that he didn't. Were there really two groups of people, now? Those who’d seen and those who hadn’t? The second group, he mused, had to be disproportionately smaller. He wondered before he could stop himself, which group his wife was currently a part of.
“Why don’t you go home for the rest of the day too. I’ll drop you at your car.”
Haley shook her head, her eyes wide. “My keys are in my desk.”
The fear in his coworker’s eyes troubled Brad, but it also irritated him, just a little. Surely they’d built this whole situation up in their imaginations. Were they seriously sitting in his car, afraid to return to work because something seemed off? People were excited over a new TV show--inordinately excited, to be sure, but that was all.
Then why are you going home to check on Emma?
“I’ll walk you to your office,” he said, “And then I’m heading home. I think you should too.”
Haley nodded. “Thank you, Brad.”
They exited Brad’s car and started for the abandoned smokers’ outpost and the south entrance to the building. As they approached the door an eighteen wheeler flew by on Adams. Its left side traversed a pothole, resulting in a sort of drumroll created by nine bouncing tires. The jostling of the truck’s nearly empty trailer made for an acceptable cymbal-crash.
The walk to Haley Gronk’s office proved unnerving, though ultimately uneventful. The building was still abuzz. It was as though, Haley thought, the entire staff had been dosed with amphetamines. There was nothing at all intimidating or dangerous-seeming in their manner; they were just over-excited.
Like little children; not misbehaving, necessarily...just overexcited.
All the same, the situation gave her the creeps. Her coworkers weren’t children jazzed on pixie-sticks; they were grown men and women.
Haley opened her office door, flipped on the lights. Brad waited in the doorway, his cellphone to his ear, as she retrieved her keys. She watched him end his call; he placed the device in his pocket. “Voicemail again,” he offered.
She felt a pang of sympathy for her coworker. He was obviously more affected by all of this than was she. Yes, it had been a very strange morning and yes, things did indeed seem a bit off-- but surely all this excitement (unsettling as it was) would wane soon enough. People, after all, weren’t designed to stay excited for very long. Everything would be back to normal before she knew it.
That’s all well and good--so why are you going home?
Haley ignored the voice that had spoken inside her head. She crossed her office and flipped off the lights.
“All set?” Brad asked.
“Yes. Let’s get out of here.”
Brad swore and stepped on his brake pedal. For the third time since he’d left work, he thought of Haley. He’d told her she should go home; had he known how bad the traffic was, he’d have suggested the opposite.
There weren’t a lot of cars on the road; no more than usual for this time of the day, at any rate. Traffic was bad because what cars were on the road seemed to be in one hell of a hurry. Like the few cars they’d seen at lunch. Like the car that had just cut him off only to come to a screeching stop when the light changed.
He almost tapped his horn but thought better of it. People were acting strangely today. Becoming involved in a road-rage incident, he knew wasn’t likely to help Emma (or himself) any.
Again he thought of Haley. They’d been little more than passing acquaintances before lunchtime this afternoon; now, they shared a strange bond indeed. It was funny, and not a little unnerving, Brad considered, how quickly life can change on a person.
He only hoped he still shared that same bond with his own wife. The thought of his wife jabbering on like an excited child about a television show troubled Brad deeply. Moreso, he thought, then it should have.
Because God only knows if it will ever wear off.
The sound of a horn honking stirred Brad from his reverie. The light, he noted, had changed; the car that had cut him off was twenty-five car lengths ahead of him, at least. Wondering how long he’d been lost in thought, Brad tossed a quick wave to the driver of the car behind him by way of apology. He accelerated, faster than he normally would have.
It didn’t take long for the car behind him to become impatient. Its grill and headlights filled Brad’s rearview mirror--and then its hood did. The driver of the car, a small white SUV, rode the white line on the left of the road. The vehicle now filled Brad’s side-view as well.
A glance to his right confirmed that there was nowhere to pull over on this particular stretch of road. The steady, high-velocity stream of oncoming traffic ruled out the notion of the driver behind him passing on the left. Brad glanced at his speedometer; it read seventy-five miles per hour--thirty over the speed limit.
What’s this guy’s problem?
Brad felt his grip on the steering wheel tighten. Okay, so everyone seemed to be in a hurry today--whether or not that had anything at all to do with what seemed off he couldn’t be sure. He was sure, though, that thirty miles over the posted speed limit ought to be enough to satisfy even the most inconsiderate driver. This was a two-lane road, after all, and not the Autobahn.
Once again, he was tempted to let his anger get the better of him. The urge to jump on his brakes was almost irresistible.
But no; odds were the driver currently up his ass was just a stupid kid. And, as tempting as the idea of putting a scare into the punk might be, Brad realized such a move was not in his best interest.
The last thing in the world Brad would have expected happened, then. The driver behind him, taking advantage of a tiny break in the oncoming traffic, put on a burst of speed and thread a needles’ width of space to rocket around Brad’s small car. The wind generated by the displaced air rocked Brad and his car slightly.
Brad cringed. He drew a sharp breath through closed teeth.
Jesus, kid...you’ll get yourself killed doing that.
A car horn blared. Brad checked his rearview, felt his stomach drop. Already another car was riding his rear bumper. A glance at the dashboard showed Brad that he was still driving well over the speed limit. He sighed, put on a bit more speed.
Which, he conceded to himself, was okay. Brad couldn’t remember the last time he wanted so badly to get home.
Haley Gronk had driven about half a mile when she pulled into the parking lot of Adonis Realty. There was no way, she knew, that she would make it home without having an accident.
Something’s off...something fundamental.
Again the words sprang to mind. Yes, everyone was overly-excited; and yes, everyone seemed to be in one heck of a hurry--but it was more than that. If only she could put her finger on it…
It seems like it should be so obvious.
Having rolled up her car windows and killed the engine, Haley took a deep, ragged breath. Her hands, she saw, were shaking. She folded them in her lap, inhaled deeply. On the exhale, she closed her eyes.
Keep it together, girl. We just have to get home.
The bus stop was about a mile down Adams Avenue. Taking a moment to thank the universe that she’d chosen to wear flats, she opened her car door. Once out of the car, her purse hanging bandolier-like across her wide frame, she locked the Navigator with the keyfob. It wasn’t raining, at least, and thank God for small favors. As long as she could manage to get to the bus stop without getting run down by a hurried driver, she reasoned, she should be okay.
She’d stick to the parking lots, she decided without much conscious thought. Cars flew by on her right as she walked the length of the realtor’s property and onto the grounds of Layman Aerospace. They came and went in both directions, all of them speeding.
Where, she wondered yet again, could all of these people be rushing to? A thought occurred to her as she crested the small hill of grass that separated the Aerospace manufacturer from the producer of vitamins next door. Could everyone be in such a rush so as not to miss the new episode of the show tonight?
No. That, she realized, didn’t make sense. The Experience aired twice a day (like the administration of a drug, she mused,) once at seven am and then again at nine pm. The morning episode was, as she understood it, a repeat of the previous night’s installment. Anyone in a hurry to see the new episode would still have to wait (Haley checked her watch) another eight hours.
Maybe they’re in a hurry to rewatch this morning’s broadcast? On the DVR?
Like a fix. Haley considered this. While this was entirely possible--indeed likely, given the excitement of everyone who’d seen the show--the explanation just didn’t satisfy. If the new television show was indeed the cause of everyone’s seeming hyperactivity, and if it indeed acted similarly to a drug, then why wasn’t everybody racing home to rewatch?
Again, Haley thought of Brad. She hoped he’d had the sense to do what she had--namely to pull off of the roads. No. Haley shook her head as she walked. Brad was worried about his wife. Also, he was a man, which meant he was no more likely to pull off of the road than he was to stop and ask for directions.
Brad winced as another vehicle crossed the double-yellow line to pass him on the left; he resolved to pull over the first opportunity he got. He’d ask directions to the nearest bus-stop or maybe call a cab.
The thought of Haley driving in similar conditions brought with it a pang of guilt. Why had he suggested she go home?
Because she was afraid to stay at work without you, and you had to leave to check on Emma.
Which, he conceded to himself, was still priority number one. A horn sounded from behind. Brad bit the inside of his cheek. Again, he looked to his right. There was a gas station coming up, he knew. Or had he passed it already? It was entirely possible that he had, focused as he’d been on driving.
Again the horn sounded. The anxiety-fueled anger that had been smoldering in Brad’s gut combusted, exploding in a flaming jet of white-hot rage that threatened to overwhelm.
“All right,” he shouted into the relative quiet of his car, “I fucking hear you!” The urge to act--to do something...anything that might change his current situation--was not to be denied. In a fraction of a second, Brad’s mind considered his options. Hitting his brakes, as satisfying as the thought was, would likely cause an accident. An accident would mean police, and police reports, all of which would eat precious time.
The other choice--the only other choice--was to speed up and try to keep pace with the manic traffic.
And get home that much faster...if I don’t get myself killed….
Two things happened, then. Brad stepped down on his accelerator, increasing from eighty to ninety-five miles per hour. At the same time, unbeknownst to Brad, the driver behind him swerved to the left, meaning to take advantage of a very small break in the oncoming traffic.
For one terrifying instant, Brad caught sight of the car--a yellow Volkswagen, he noted--in his side-view mirror. He looked ahead and saw there was no way it was going to make it around him. The car in the oncoming lane jumped on its brakes and went sideways for its efforts. Brad heard a squealing-screech on his left and looked just in time to see the yellow VW drift out of its lane and into his own. He watched until the moment of impact, at which point he looked away.
Brad felt the tries of his car lose their grip on the blacktop. He looked ahead and saw the car that had been in the oncoming lane skidding into his path. The vehicle filled his field of vision and then came the impact.
The world rolled, and Brad understood that his car had left the ground. He had time to watch the upside-down trees lining the side of the upside-down road begin to right themselves once again, and then there was only blackness.