Excerpt from my debut novel which is now available!
She flipped through the pages in his eyes, ignoring the extraneous details, closing her mind’s eye to the flashy images she encountered, focusing intently on finding the one part of the landscape that didn’t fit with the rest. There had to be a blank page somewhere, something that prevented her from seeing who he really was. Something was missing.
Karen Sanders had been working at The Coffee Cove for two years now, and she had met many different people in that time. They all had some sort of idiosyncrasy that she could pick out by the time they left the place, and she made it her mission to find out what this quirk was each time someone caught her eye.
There had been a young man, for instance, who had come in several weeks before. Glancing to the right of the entrance, he had found the person with whom he was apparently supposed to meet and promptly walked over to the table and sat down with her. The man had gazed at her intently from the start, uncomfortably crossed and uncrossed his legs throughout the conversation, nervously run his fingers across the creases in his pants repeatedly and finally, when she had gotten up to use the restroom, he had looked down at the table, grimacing, while tapping his fingers quickly on the arms of his chair. He shook his head and clenched his fists more and more tightly with each passing second until she returned.
She was smiling as she approached the table and when she sat down, the look on the man’s face returned to the mask of contentment that had been there just minutes before. When she finally rose to leave again, he hugged her for a long while, perhaps a bit longer than friends tend to hug, and when she left the building, he watched her leave, dropping his head ever so slightly when she was finally out of sight.
Their visit lasted for twenty minutes, perhaps twenty-five, and by the time the two of them had finished, Karen could see that this man longed for more than mere friendship with this woman, while she, in her current state of boyfriend-induced bliss, had absolutely no idea. Karen didn’t need to hear a word or even try to eavesdrop on the conversation to come to this conclusion.
This instance had been one of the more obvious displays of emotion that she had encountered, but even though she had been on her lunch break and was being careful not to stare, she couldn’t help but be fascinated. That was just how she was. The people that surrounded her were always of great interest to her. She liked watching little kids run through schoolyards, smiling and laughing as they chased each other around trees, falling in the grass and getting up just as quickly as they went down. The homeless people that walked up and down the street throughout the day wore different expressions from one person to the next, and were of surprisingly disparate temperaments and sensibilities. Some appeared content with their lot, others depressed; some seemed to sleep the days away, others looked for drink and drugs to kill the pain of the day in preparation for the torture of the night.
There was always something definitive that she could draw from watching a person for a time, or from merely looking at the person for a few seconds. People in her mind tended to be that obvious, transparent; nothing to hide in some cases, unable to effectively hide things in others. There is always a way to see beneath the surface of things if you know where to look, a professor of hers had once said. That was usually the fun part for her, trying to find that habit, that look, that movement or gesture which would lead her into the nature of the person she was studying.
But the young man she was presently looking at was different from anyone else that had ever attracted her attention during her tenure at The Cove (the nickname that many people had given the place). He never did anything to warrant anyone’s looking over at him for any particular reason, the coffee servers not withstanding. Every morning, he would come in at about ten or so and, looking to his left, would go and sit at one of the metallic tables that ran along the wall on this side of the building. It was a widely-held belief among her co-workers (though she could neither prove nor disprove it herself) that he in fact had sat at the second table from the counter each and every time he had ever come to The Cove.
He was always clean-shaven and attractive in appearance with his thin, dark, wire-rimmed glasses on, and his thick, straight, dark hair cut short. His tendency during the Autumn and Winter months had been to wear a long, gray trench coat that covered most of his reasonably tall frame, so no one could really guess at what else he wore beneath it. Now, however, with Spring in full swing, and the seemingly year-round Washington coastal rain and cloud cover lifting somewhat, he seemed a bit more inclined to allow a few inches of skin to actually meet with some of the sun’s rays from time to time.
A long, beige satchel with dark brown straps was always draped over his shoulder as he came in, and when he would sit down (his back to the window), he would carefully remove the pack from around his neck and place it on the table in front of him. Unzipping one of the bag’s several compartments, he would carefully remove his laptop from the bag and set it on the table. After connecting to the outlet in the wall next to his table he would proceed to punch a couple of keys, move the scrolling button at the bottom of his computer, open up a program and then begin to type. It often seemed as though he had been thinking about what he would write before he actually began to do it, since there was rarely a lag of any sort between the time he opened the program and the time he began writing.
This is how he spent his time at The Cove. From the moment he sat down in that chair, he never asked anybody what time it was, never said a word when someone bumped into him on their way to the bathroom, never verbally asked any of the servers for something to eat or drink. None of the workers could say for sure if he had ever said a word to anyone in all the time he’d been coming here.
The only time he would ever come close to deviating from this pattern would be whenever one of the employees would finally go over to his table and ask if he would be ordering something. At this time, he would always pull out a twenty-dollar bill with a note attached to it and hand it to the man or woman who had come over to his table. According to the other workers, it always read, “Please use this to buy me as many cups of regular coffee as this will allow. Keep the change.” Always the same message, always written with the same black ink pen in the same neat handwriting. Without awaiting any sort of comment or response, he would always immediately resume his typing as though no interruption had ever occurred. When the server had brought him his coffee, he would always nod his head slightly in appreciation, giving no other acknowledgment to the server or to what he or she had just done for him.
Karen, in all her time at The Cove, had never waited on him, but found herself curious as to who he was. Even as she worked and was helping or “studying” other customers, she continually found herself looking back over at him. It was always the same thing. Seeing him come here day after day, doing the same things struck her as more than a little odd. Plus, by virtue of him engaging in this same routine every time she saw him, she didn’t have anything else to go on. He never talked with people or met anyone here, so she couldn’t draw additional information about him from such events, and he never seemed inclined to take a break from whatever it was that he was writing either, so she never had opportunities to see if anything else was of interest to him besides his computer. Why does he always have to be writing?
She turned to her right and saw Janet, one of the managers, pointing to her watch. Looking at her own, she saw that her lunch break was practically over. Gathering the remainder of her lunch and stuffing it back into her bag, she stood up and walked to the back room behind the front counter, where she placed her lunch bag in the refrigerator. After a few moments, she came back to the front of the shop and began to wait on customers again.
Business had been slow at The Cove thus far, but it was a Friday and it was still early yet. Fortunately for her, the real business always seemed to begin just as she was leaving for the night and everyone else was looking to start their weekend off on a fun note. But there was always something for her to do, even if business was poor. If she could clean up the areas surrounding the coffee machines a bit, she did; if there were some tables that looked like they could use some cleaning up, she did that too. Sometimes she would walk around the shop to see if things had been misplaced or if someone had taken one of their magazines and thrown it in the trash, or even dropped it on the ground, as many customers seemed to be in the habit of doing.
It was exciting for her to work in an environment where she could interact with many different sorts of people all day long. Working forty hours a week at a coffee shop wouldn’t make her wealthy, she knew, but it was work that she could take pride in doing. The pay was decent and she had been very money-conscious in her younger years, so she had her share of funds in reserve to pay all of her bills and still have plenty to use for fun. She always joked around with the customers and her co-workers when time allowed (and whenever one of the other managers wasn’t looking), and because of her attitude, the days at work generally went very smoothly and quickly.
Six-thirty soon came around and she got herself ready to go home for the night. It was the middle of May, so the sun would still be out for a couple more hours now. She liked knowing that while she worked most of the day, she could still drive home and be able to enjoy some late-day sunshine. Her stomach began to growl a bit now as she made her way to the front door, but she knew that she could wait a little while longer until she got home before eating anything.
As she headed for the door, she looked to her right and saw that the man was still there at his computer, seemingly unfazed by his surroundings, by what she guessed would be abject hunger by this point, and without any apparent regard for how long he had been sitting there in that uncushioned metallic chair. An amused, yet uncomprehending smile came across her face as she shook her head and turned back towards the door before making her way out into the evening.
* * *
An energetic tune danced its way out of her speakers as she drove home, her window all the way down and the late-day sun streaming into her car. Occasionally glancing over to the right as she drove, she caught glimpses of the Puget Sound at the various intersections that she passed, seeing the streets disappear downhill until there was nothing but water, hills and trees. She had lived in Tacoma nearly all of her life, her family having moved there from Bremerton when she was just two years old. Now, nearing twenty-four, she couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
Perhaps her favorite street on this side of Tacoma, if not the entire city itself, was 30th Street. Beginning in the north end of town and extending eastward, clear down to the waterfront and Old Town, this road captured the beauty of the city more than any other. Whenever she had the time and the inclination, she would drive several blocks west of The Coffee Cove, turn right and head towards 30th Street. Turning right again, she would find herself on her favorite part of the street itself. There was a slight decline in the road and for a few blocks she saw beautiful, colorful, well-kept houses—many of which bore no resemblance to any of the others ones that stood nearby—with front yards and vibrant flower bushes growing around the fronts and sides of most of the houses, each of which stood a ways from the curbs themselves.
Many of the houses looked as though they had been built many decades before, not because they were run-down to any extent, but because of the style in which some of them were made. The majority of the houses stood tall and narrow, some with old-fashioned wooden shutters to cover the windows, accessible from their second-story windows, and a few brick houses boasted their own simplistic beauty with their mix of earthen bricks and mortar. There was even a house with four columns across the front, holding up the balcony above, as well as one with a chimney made entirely of rocks. From the top, the rocks were small and rounded and held together by mortar, and as the chimney continued downward, the rocks grew larger. Shortly before reaching the ground, the rock chimney gradually spread out like the base of a tree in a child’s drawing and seemed to spill out onto the ground instead of reaching it uniformly. Such were the defining characteristics of this street that made it so charming and memorable to her.
The yards on either side of the street would suddenly meet with a four-foot-wide sidewalk that separated another stretch of grass that sat just beyond it, which extended to the curb. This portion of the street was the most captivating to her because for several blocks it was lined with trees from beginning to end: trees that stood tall and graceful and whose branches were so long that they stretched across considerable portions of the street itself. In one small section towards the end of this stretch, the branches of several trees extended so far that they actually met with the trees directly across from them, creating a kind of canopy effect as she drove beneath them.
Watching the little bits of light breaking through the cracks above reminded her of a time when she had gone camping with her parents when she was four years old. She couldn’t remember where they had traveled to, but she remembered walking around in their campsite one day and suddenly looking up after having noticed spots of light scattered across the ground. She remembered standing there, gazing up at the intermittent streams of light that came through the high-reaching trees, and turning slowly in circles for a minute or two, searching for every last one of the rays that seemed to come from some distant land that lay above the treetops. The dust in the air floated in and out of the rays, thickening them, giving the rays an almost magic-like feel as though each bit of light was seeking to break through the world of darkness that lay beneath the trees. Every day, these rays would light up the area just enough to make it look like it was mid-morning, even though it was really early afternoon.
The mixture of the two put her at ease then: the trees standing tall and stretching their arms above her and her family as if to protect them, the rays of light coming through to brighten up their world below. She felt protected in this space and she felt safe with her family; she felt like she was home. It was the earliest memory that she had of anything.
Much as it did back then, this scene still had the same effect on her today. There was something soothing about driving beneath this miniature canopy. It didn’t matter what the circumstances were, she never hesitated to drive down this street every chance she got, even if it was out of the way (and it often was).
The Twin Creeks apartment complex sat in the north end of Tacoma, and was comprised of several hundred apartments, two tennis courts, a weight room and a pair of pools (one indoor, one outdoor) that seemingly always needed attending to. As she pulled into her parking spot, Karen climbed out of her car and walked down the concrete path in front of her until she came to a stairway and made her way up to her apartment on the second floor. After fiddling with the lock for a moment and giving the door a good shove, she pushed through the doorway and into her apartment.
Turning on the lights, she immediately opened up one of the sliding, wooden hanging doors on her right that opened into a small closet. On the floor lay a bookshelf that had once rested atop an old dresser of hers when she was a child. Taking her keys and purse, she placed them on top of it and peeked around the corner to the left at her answering machine. The small red light blinked twice at her as she walked around this tiny nook and into her kitchen.
She opened up the fridge, exchanged the remainder of her lunch for a bottle of water and looked around as she shut the door and took a sip. The small kitchen quickly gave way to the charcoal gray carpet that covered the rest of her apartment, and directly ahead of her lay a small, circular, wooden dinner table and two chairs, both of which faced out towards the balcony just beyond. Along the railing were four terra cotta pots with various plants spilling over the far edge, perhaps in an attempt to avoid her dirty, eighteen-speed bike that rested against the railing beneath them. The metallic black color had long since begun to fade through years of use, and her excursions into the muddy trails of Point Defiance, as well as to other areas affected by the Northwest’s mixture of dirt and rain, had left mud cakes so thick in some places that she dared not try to remove them. Bikes weren’t made to be kept clean anyway.
Crossing the living room, she passed through the doorway directly to the right of the front door and into her bedroom. Kicking off her shoes, she sat down at her desk and wriggled her toes some as she turned on her computer. She smiled as more sun shone into her room through the window above her desk as she began to check her email. One message appeared.
It was from Rachael Taylor (Rachael Kensington now, she had to remind herself), the best friend that she had made while in college, as well as her former roommate in this complex until she had gotten married five weeks before. She was now living in Shoreline, a suburb of Seattle about an hour north of Tacoma, and was getting acclimated to her surroundings rather well. She and Robert wanted to know when would be a good time to get together with her and Mark for dinner sometime. Karen shook her head and grinned as she responded. The two of them always had to ask what everyone else wanted to do instead of ever suggesting anything. She told them that Wednesday night would be all right with her and she suggested they eat at Hong’s Teriyaki Bowl.
Making her way into the front room, she walked over to the answering machine, pushed a button and began to listen to the first message.
“Hi, Karen. It’s me.” She moaned and walked back into the kitchen upon hearing her father’s voice. “I was thinking that you and I could go and have lunch and maybe walk around down by the waterfront sometime this weekend. Got to take advantage of all this sun while we can, you know. Anyhow, I don’t figure to be doing very much tonight if you want to give me a call. Otherwise I can just call again in the morning. Bye.”
The second one was from Mark. “Hey babe. I got a call from Matt at work today and he said that he and Monica are going to head over to The Firehouse tonight with a friend of theirs. He wants us to come along. I said that I was game and that you probably would be too, so I told him we’d be there around eight or so,” he said. She checked her watch. It was a few minutes after seven now. “Call me when you get this message and we can figure who gets to drive and who gets to drink, all right? Bye.”
You got to drink last time.
Picking up her phone, she took a seat on the couch against the far wall and dialed Mark’s number.
“Hey babe,” he said in his smooth voice. “So are you picking me up?”
“Well, you’re going to end up drinking more than me anyway, so I may as well be the one to get us home in one piece, right?”
“Well, you know me,” he chuckled guiltily. “You’re so smart to remember that I can hold more liquor than you.”
She leaned her head back against the wall and sighed away from the receiver as her eyes widened and rolled simultaneously. “I guess I have to play to my strengths, don’t I? All right, then. I’ll pick you up around 7:30.”
“Great. I’ll be ready.”
“All right. I’ll see you later.”
She hung the phone up and walked into the bathroom and looked at herself in the mirror. She stood five-foot-six inches tall, and had straight, shoulder-length blonde hair and large brown eyes. Her small, low-cut blue t-shirt fit comfortably over her slender body and medium bust, falling just short of her waist. Even beneath her dark blue jeans, one could see that her lower body was trim but muscular from being so active. Her hair was a tad frazzled from the day’s work, but she could fix that easily. As she ran a comb through her hair, her eyes began to get irritated by her contacts again, so she changed them after she finished with her hair. Blinking fiercely as she continued to look in the mirror, she went over the rest of her appearance. The shirt was still in good enough shape to make it through the evening with everyone, and she was always comfortable in pants (she rarely changed out of a pair once she started the day in them), so she decided to wear the clothes that she had on. She reapplied her red lipstick and sprayed some perfume on her neck before deciding she was ready. It was 7:15 when she walked out the door.
Arriving at his place ten minutes later, she walked up to the front of his house and rang the doorbell. She walked around on his porch while she waited, checking on the peeling green paint that appeared at various points on his house. Mark said that the people who had owned the house before him had failed to mention that the paint was in such poor condition when he bought it from them. Karen argued that he ought to have asked about it, even if he really did know nothing about paint and (clearly) couldn’t tell by looking at it how old the job was; she also pointed out that he ought to have inspected the area more thoroughly anyway, even if he was too embarrassed or too naïve to inquire about it.
“There you are,” he said as he opened the door and poked his head out. “You’re driving, right?”
“Of course I am. Who else is going to?”
* * *
The Firehouse was a brewery and restaurant that sat just off of 6th Avenue on the way downtown. As far as hangouts went, it was one of the more popular places in the area for the students at the nearby University of Puget Sound. The two-storey brick building had an old feel to it: its weather-worn facade gave it character as well as a dark sort of beauty, and two lines of tall, bronze, pointed metal bars extended out from the front of the brewery, before turning inward and enclosing the premises, connected by a small gate in the middle. A dozen metal tables, each with blue tabletops and maroon seats, sat on either side of the entrance, and to the right, a three-pronged maple tree extended out over the street while providing shade for the weeds on the curb.
Karen and Mark arrived at a little before eight and saw everyone sitting along the wall to the right. Matt and Monica were sitting on a long bench against the wall that extended from the front wall to a partition near the back, and waved them over to their table when the two of them arrived. Their companion turned around and quickly turned back after a moment.
The entrance opened into a long, expansive room filled with wooden tables, booths and thin, polished chairs, a few of which had stiff leather cushions. The floor could have been composed of the original floorboards that were used at this firehouse when it first came to be for all anyone knew, considering the scrapes, grooves and fading that this already light wood had acquired throughout the years. Some of the tables and chairs rested atop several ragged old rugs, all of which had lost the majority of their color many years before and looked so thin that they could have been mistaken for being a part of the floor itself.
The wall to the left of the entrance (the only one of the four that was not brick, as it was not the furthermost point on that side of the building) contained a couple of framed pictures of the engine house during its heyday, both of which were to the left side of the grill, while a much larger picture stretched across the top of it. A black and white, egg-like half circle, with an almost sketch-like quality because of its age, it pictured six old-time fire trucks sitting out front of the station with volunteers at the ready. Narrow wooden bars ran from top to bottom as well as from side to side across the picture, giving the appearance of looking through a window at a time long since departed.
“Hey guys,” Matt said with a smile as the two of them approached. He had met her in his junior year when she was just a freshman at college. He had been one of the Resident Assistants for her hall that year, the outdoor adventure dorm on campus, and the two had become friends throughout the course of the year. He had been one of her favorite biking buddies in the two years that followed, and had been one of her best acquaintances during her years at college.
“Karen, Mark,” Monica began, “this is Ashley.”
They both said hello and made some room for themselves at the left side of the table, Karen sitting next to Matt on the bench, Mark sitting next to Ashley, who caught her breath momentarily. Their waitress came over and took their orders and inside of twenty minutes, each person at the table had consumed three shots of various kinds of liquor. It wasn’t long before the group was loosened up and enjoying themselves.
Matt, Ashley and Mark had, by this point, launched into a discussion about the different pieces of jewelry that they were wearing. Ashley had inquired about Mark’s snake ring on the middle finger of his right hand, and he told her that his grandfather had given it to him when he was in high school just before he died. She held his hand and gazed at the ring for a good long while before finally commenting on the tiny, jeweled cross that she wore around her neck. She boasted that a friend had bought it for her while at Westminster Abbey one day a number of years back. Matt said that the only thing he had ever worn on his body, besides clothes and a watch, was a ring pop that he had bought once when he was in junior high. He had proceeded to crack one of his rear molars in half when he went to bite into the candy, and had vowed to never again touch hard candy or rings of any sort.
“Of course, that all changed when I asked Monica to marry me,” he said with a chuckle.
More and more people continued to flood into the restaurant as the evening wore on and some of the locals began to look for a new place to party. Ashley, by this point, was in a daze as she stared at the wall, though she would occasionally glance over in Mark’s direction and smile at his antics. Much like her, the rest of the group watched with interest as Mark raised the curtain on his latest performance. He had begun to do play-by-play commentary on a battle of wits that he thought was taking place before him—Snoopy versus Socrates. Marv Albert couldn’t have made the whole spectacle seem any more ridiculous.
The temperature quickly began to rise and it began to feel like a packed concert inside. Even in Tacoma, in the middle of May, the weather outside couldn’t possibly have been much cooler, comparatively-speaking, but Matt and Monica soon got up and headed for the exit, saying that they needed some fresh air.
Ashley continued to stare at the wall, but with less intensity now and with less frequency. Her attention was beginning to be drawn towards many of the couples around her, including Karen and Mark. She began to fidget and quickly got up and wandered to the back of the bar to get a hard cider. It took her five minutes to get to the bar, order and receive her drink and make her way back to the table, but by this time only Mark was sitting there.
Karen had begun to perspire at this point, so she headed for the ladies’ room on the other side of the brewery to freshen up. Leaning against the counter she peered into the eyes of the face looking back at her. Not bad; I guess the alcohol isn’t really affecting me tonight. Taking out a tissue, she wiped the parts of her face and neck that were glistening before wetting a paper towel and dabbing at those same areas. She put her hair up in a bun after a moment and walked out of the restroom.
Coming out of the bathroom, she met with the ever-increasing throng of patrons that had squeezed themselves inside the brewery by this point. She wondered if getting back to her table might actually take more time than the trip to the ladies’ room had taken in the first place. As she drew closer to the table, she saw that Matt and Monica had not returned yet and that a new couple was forming before her eyes. Mark and Ashley had moved to the other side of the table in order to sit on the long bench, and were now kissing.
She stood at the edge of the crowd and watched for awhile, perhaps half a minute, surveying the scene. The kiss wasn’t some brief, accidental response to the alcohol in either person’s system, which would have ended quickly if one of them didn’t want to kiss the other. Instead, it continued on, neither of them interested in stopping nor being worried about whether or not she might see them. A strange smile began to rise at the corners of her mouth as she walked over to the table.
She knew that Ashley was attracted to Mark and had been from the outset. Upon their arrival, she had seen her dreamlike gaze as the two of them were introduced, and she had noticed how Ashley had stopped breathing momentarily when he had sat down next to her. Her chest had gradually begun to rise and fall more distinctly as the evening progressed, as she had tried to maintain a calm demeanor, and the mild flushing of her cheeks had begun long before she had begun to drink. Liquor always made Mark a more honest man, she knew, so when he had told Ashley that his grandfather had given him the ring he was wearing, she knew that he had lied to her when he had told her once that he’d bought it at some jewelry stand in a mall once. If he could lie about something as simple as a ring....
“Enjoy,” she said, smacking her hand across the back of his head and turning around to head for the door. Karen didn’t hear Mark curse under his breath and do his best to stand up and try to catch her, and it wouldn’t have interested her to hear Ashley moaning because of the pain she was now in from Mark’s face smashing into hers. She had made her way out the door and had abruptly said good night to Matt and Monica before he finally burst out the door himself. They tried to ascertain the meaning of all this from him, but he ignored them and continued to stumble after Karen.
He repeatedly called after her as he went down the sidewalk, until he came around to the right side of the building. Entering the parking lot, his head beginning to spin and his eyes blinded by the two lights that hung from the side of the brewery, he began searching for her car. Tripping over a crack in the pavement, he landed hard on the ground, the right side of his face taking the brunt of the blow. Dazed, drunk and now in considerable pain, he rolled over onto his back and lay there in the middle of the parking lot, looking up into the night sky as he dabbed several fingers against his lip. Bringing these into the light, he saw a combination of Ashley’s crimson lipstick and the blood from his cut.
The cars, pavement and vegetation that surrounded him suddenly became illuminated as a car turned the corner behind him and stopped a short ways from his body. Rolling over again, he came face to face with a pair of headlights and groaned as he brought a hand up to his face. As he struggled to get to his feet, he staggered backwards and to the right a little before righting himself against a champagne-colored Saturn with a bumper sticker that read, “If you can read this, you are too close.” The car ahead of him began to slowly drive forward and stopped a few feet away from him. After a few seconds, Mark’s eyes adjusted to the evening somewhat and, while still blurry, he could make out that the driver was Karen.
“Karen,” he slobbered, quickly trying to make his way over to her car, “what are you, where you going?”
“I’m leaving here and you’re leaving me. It was fun while it lasted,” she said, the last sentence smothered in sarcasm.
And without another word, she tore out of the lot, leaving Mark at the entrance.
* * *
Karen awoke with a start, her body violently jarring her upwards and snapping her out of the silent, nightmarish reverie that had consumed her for most of the night. Sitting up, she blinked furiously as she shook, trying to calm her labored breathing as the late night mental haze gradually gave way to the realization of where she was. She fought to keep her hands still as she covered her mouth for a moment. Wiping the sweat from her forehead and the edges of her hair, she tried to wait it out, tried to calm herself down. She groped around in the darkness for the cup of water that she always left on the floor by her bed and, upon finding it, took several long swigs. She reached for her glasses and looked across the room at her digital clock that glowed green—4:28. Putting the cup back down, she removed her glasses and continued to try to bring her breathing pattern back into acquiescence with some semblance of a regular heart beat.
After sitting like this for several minutes, she finally got up and stumbled in the direction of the bathroom. She felt for the light switch in her room and quickly turned her eyes away when the light came on. A half-empty vodka bottle and a picture frame adorned the table in the front room as she looked to the right. She stopped and stared for a moment, confused. She knew she hadn’t drank that much at The Firehouse, but she was out of sorts and couldn’t remember a whole lot about what she had done after arriving at her apartment. What she saw before her, however, gave her more than enough information.
Great. Congratulations, Karen. You did it again.
Going into the bathroom, she turned on the faucet and leaned into the sink. Splashing cold water on herself several times, she stopped and looked up at her reflection in the mirror. Her tired, squinting eyes were bloodshot and more than fair representatives of how the rest of her body felt. Messy hair fell across her face as she breathed for a few moments, and she quickly realized that she had vomited before she fell asleep.
Locking her arms and placing her hands on the sink counter, she leaned forward and looked more closely at her reflection. Her head had been throbbing ever since she had risen from her bed, and the images she saw were still blurry. She hated herself when she was like this, not because she hated drinking, but because she hated getting drunk like this, when she consciously chose to lose control of herself. She sighed in frustration, the smell of vodka and beer bouncing off the mirror and coming right back to her. Turning the faucet on again, she bent down for some more water, this time to drink.
* * *
Montgomery Park was a wide-open expanse of land located a few minutes from where Karen lived. Two basketball courts hugged the corner of the park, and the grass beyond them extended down a small slope about thirty yards away until it became part of the softball field below. Plenty more grass, a concrete restroom area, a few large bushes and a small playground complete with swings and a slide were found along the sidewalk to Karen’s right as she stepped out of the crosswalk and onto the corner.
Her father had often taken her to this place when she was young and needed more room to play sports. As she had gotten stronger, the time eventually came when the two of them could no longer play soccer in their small front yard, so he had started to take her here. It had also been a nice little neighborhood for her to ride her bike in as she had gotten older and rode further and further away from her house. She had grown to enjoy this more and more as she had gotten older, the idea of being a distance from her home—and from him.
The two of them hadn’t spoken for about two months now, ever since he had called her on her birthday back in the middle of March. He had made several more attempts to reach her since then, but she always seemed to sense when he was about to call and would either leave her apartment to go do something else, or just screen the calls and not pick up whenever it was him on the line. It was a lot easier for her to just avoid him. Saves me the agony and spares him the false hopes he gets about us reconciling some day.
She had loved her father like nothing else in her life up until the end of her junior year of high school. She had never really minded hanging out with him in public, going to baseball games and the like, and she had grown to like bowling over the years, just as he had always seemed to. He had made himself scarce whenever she had a friend or a boy over, but he had always volunteered to drive her somewhere if she ever needed the ride. He had never hesitated.
What the hell am I doing here?
She shook her head a little as she leaned against the back of a bench that faced the basketball courts, looking across the street at nothing in particular. It was mid-afternoon and she still felt miserable. She had forced herself to remain in her bed while the phone rang that morning, knowing that it was him, knowing that he would keep calling, knowing that he would never give up, never stop trying. Nineteen rings and five calls later, she had finally dragged herself out of bed, her head pounding mercilessly as she picked up the phone and moaned into the receiver. He had tried to convince her to come, tried to sound pleasant and unassuming, but she ignored all of that and told him she would meet him there before even thinking about it. All she had wanted then was to get him off the phone, but now she was wishing she had put up a better fight.
Tilting her neck back, she closed her eyes and exhaled deeply as she tried to assuage the pain in her body, mind and soul. Traffic in this area was minimal, fortunately, and the kids in the area weren’t often interested in playing here when they could be off at a game or at the mall, so she didn’t have as much to contend with, a fact that her head gave thanks for repeatedly.
Moments later, her father drove up and parked in front of the house across the street from where she was sitting. He honked his horn and tried to wave at her, but all he got in return was her head falling forward a bit, a sour look on her face. He’d had that same powder-blue Chevy ever since the day she was born and had never stopped being proud of it and of all the places it had taken him. It’s funny what people choose to hold on to.
Jack Sanders was a tall man in his early fifties. He stood about six-foot-four and weighed a bit more than 240 pounds. His short, straight hair had started to go gray about ten years before, and he had always done very little to try and hide it, but he always wanted to have his mustache as dark as he could get it. His carefully-tended full beard was almost entirely gray as well, with inflections of its original brown color showing up here and there, and his leathery face made him look much older than his years. The wrinkles around his eyes and the heavy eyelids nearly hid his hazel eyes completely. He strode across the street with his familiar, leisurely jaunt, as though all the time in eternity was on his side, and as though everything and everyone would never cease to wait for him. His smile had never been entirely convincing to just about anybody he knew or had ever met. It always looked like a puppeteer had reached inside his body and taken control of his facial expressions, only instead of producing a smile, it looked more like a toothless grimace.
“Hi, Karen,” he said as he neared the curb, stepping swiftly onto the concrete as he headed towards her.
“So what do you want?” she responded, staring straight ahead.
“Then why did you want me to come here?” she interrupted, standing up and taking a step towards the street.
“Come on, Karen,” he pleaded softly, taking a few steps after her. “Please don’t be that way.”
“What way, dad?” she spat as she turned to face him. “How else do you want me to act toward you? Do you have any idea how much I don’t want to be here with you right now? And then you tell me that there’s nothing you really want to talk about?”
“Karen, that’s not what I meant. I—” he tried again.
“No, you know what?” she began before dismissing him with a wave of her hand and turning around to walk towards her car. She shook her head as she went over to her car and upon reaching it, turned back to him. “You were right. There’s nothing you really want to talk about because there is nothing to talk about. You didn’t say anything for twelve whole years, and then you made me wish I had never lived those twelve years the way I did. You took my life from me that day, and you know what? I don’t want it back.”
Jack kept his eyes glued to the ground while she spoke, and made no effort to try and come back with anything. He couldn’t have even if he had wanted to because almost as quickly as she had said all of this, she was in her car and heading down the street. He cast a weary glance over at her car as she reached the corner, hooked a left and was gone.
* * *
Several hours later, she finally emerged from her room for good. Getting into the shower, she stood under the showerhead for nearly twenty minutes, soaking up the cold water as much as she could, trying to wake herself up. She placed her hands upon the wall before her and leaned forward a little, letting her weight push against her locked arms and thus securing her position in the shower. Her mind was blank as she stood there, her eyes shut, breathing heavily. Come on, Karen, you can’t let this ruin your day.
After she dried off and got herself dressed, she called and left a message for Rachael, explaining that any dinner date they would be having would now only be for a party of three. Rachael was more important to her than anyone else she could think of, but she did not look forward to her response. As was customary for someone who believed in love and relationships as much as Rachael did, she would respond with great concern and ask how Karen was doing. She would do what, in her mind, amounted to cheering Karen up, although she really wouldn’t need much of it then, just like she hadn’t needed it before.
Rachael cared so much for people that she often would ignore their character when it came to events happening to them that she considered to be potentially damaging to their psyche, and instead begin to treat them as wounded victims. She meant well, as always, but her emotions would inevitably overtake her rational side and convince her that Karen needed to be helped in this time of distress. Karen’s friendship with Rachael was the closest thing to love she figured she had ever experienced, but she had never understood Rachael’s passion for relationships and figured that she probably never would. She sometimes wondered if she even could at all.
Having recovered her hunger somewhat, she went into the kitchen, made herself some dinner and sat down at her table. She looked out at the sky while she ate, as well as the branches of a prominent evergreen tree that sat just outside her place, swaying in the light breeze. After she cleaned her dishes, she sat down to watch some television for a bit and let her food digest before heading down to the outdoor pool.
Just off the street was the lobby through which one had to pass in order to get to both the outdoor pool and one of the complex’s two indoor hot tubs. There was always supposed to be someone on watch during operating hours, but no one was there at this time, which meant that no one would see her not signing in at the table in the middle of the room. I’m a grown woman and a more than capable swimmer; I’ll be okay.
Walking outside, she tossed her towel and keys onto a nearby lawn chair as she quickly dove into the deep end of the pool. For a lifetime resident of Washington who was accustomed to cooler temperatures and minimal amounts of sun throughout the year, the cool, exhilarating feel of the water was great. Her body quickly sunk to the bottom of the pool as she dove in, touched the bottom with her hands and then shot up to the surface before breaking out into the air. She swam a little ways until her feet could touch the bottom, and then stopped for a moment and just breathed while she looked around, kicking her legs about beneath the surface. It was so quiet here. There were no kids running around, no loudmouth neighbors calling out to their friends as they walked by and almost no traffic in the street. She smiled as she suddenly jumped backwards into the water and began to swim to the other end.
Swimming was a great relief to her, despite the workout it gave her every time she went. Here, there was no talking, no pressures, no pain. Just herself and the water. She didn’t even have to think while she swam, that’s how much it allowed her to come out of herself. She could just relax and, by virtue of shutting her mind off, lose herself in an hour or two of complete bliss as she broke the surface time and time again. Looking at nothing else, focusing on nothing else, hearing nothing else, wanting nothing else. It was a luxury that very few activities could afford her.
The narrow pool also allowed her to have some fun whenever she felt like it. Sometimes she would swim the length of the pool for awhile until she got too far in the shallow end and had to turn around and swim back; but other times, she could start on the deep end and simply slip beneath the surface and use her feet to push off, sending her screaming towards the other end of the pool like a torpedo. All she needed was to do a few strokes to keep from floating up to the surface, while occasionally kicking her feet some. Most of the effort came in the push-off, but after that it was pretty smooth sailing to the other side. She had always enjoyed being underwater.
Although relaxing, swimming around could be awfully boring sometimes, so slipping underwater felt magical to her by comparison. She suspected that being underwater somehow made people more creative, or maybe it was that the reverse effect of gravity just made people a little more delirious than usual. It seemed to her that most of the really fun and sneaky water activities took place underwater. Walking around on one’s hands became a much simpler task in the water, a person could swim around unnoticed and suddenly pull down a person’s trunks, wrap his or her arms around the person’s legs or pull that person down below, and it was always a hoot to imagine that she was scouring the bottom of the pool for sea creatures or buried treasure. There simply seemed to be more possibilities in a world where your breath would rarely last for more than a minute.
After awhile, she stopped swimming and just allowed herself to float on the surface, watching the sunset in the distance. She lightly stroked backwards, slowly gliding over to one of the sides of the pool and subsequently stretched her arms out on the concrete and rested her head against the edge of the pool. With little movement, she spent the next twenty minutes in the pool, watching the evening sun disappear over the horizon before she got up and toweled off.
After she got back to her apartment, she showered again to clean herself off and put some fresh clothes on again—a white t-shirt and shorts. It was nearly nine by this point, and with her having been so knocked out for most of the day and then having swam so much, she was feeling quite relaxed as she lay down on her couch and turned on the television. She watched several shows with little interest for minutes at a time before she finally set the controller down and closed her eyes, the sound of laughter leading her to what she hoped would be sweet repose.
* * *
Karen came into work on Monday feeling rejuvenated and full of spirit. Ready to start the week, she came in early and immediately began attending to the customers that came to the counter. She was characteristically pleasant and ready with a smile for everyone she met and, as always, keeping her eyes upon anyone that looked interesting.
“Did you have a good weekend?” Janet asked as she walked past her, taking care of a flustered old woman’s order.
“Yeah,” she responded, handing a customer his change. “I went to Point Defiance yesterday. I got some sun, fed the ducks, walked around a lot. It was wonderful.”
“Glad to hear it. How is Mark?”
“We broke up the other night,” she said as the next person, a little girl with long brown hair, braces and freckles came up and asked her for a cup of water. She went and filled up a Styrofoam cup and brought it back to the little girl and smiled. “It just wasn’t working out, you know,” she said, turning back to Janet.
“Sorry to hear that.”
“Oh well,” she said with a shrug and a smile. “What can you do?”
Turning her attention back to the register and the front of the house, she saw him come in. She guessed that he had been coming in every weekday (at least) for about eight months. Coming in with the same laptop, the same basic set of clothing, the same quiet, solitary demeanor, the same penchant for writing all day long. Maybe he’s a writer; he’d have to be in order to write that much, wouldn’t he? Seeing another customer arriving, she contented herself with this assertion and left it at that for the time being.
* * *
An hour later, Janet asked Karen to go take care of the quiet writer. She finished helping her customer and walked out from behind the counter to the right side of the coffee house. Going around a few customers and slipping in between a couple of chairs, she slowly made her way over to the man and his table. As she approached, she hesitated for the briefest of moments, looking at him. He had an intense look on his face as if he were trying to force his computer to explain some mystery to him that no one else could. She took a breath and stepped forward a bit. Let’s just see what you’re all about.
“Hi,” she said cheerfully. “How are you doing today?”