Patrick Kruskal sipped his coffee. It didn’t help his boredom.
He hadn’t seen his high school friend Marty, who was presently jawing across from him and letting his coffee get cold, in almost ten years.
Marty was the weird kid in school, gay when gay was even more misunderstood than it was now, a bookworm when it wasn’t in vogue, and a slacker in the least adorable way. Somehow, though, that cocktail of idiosyncrasies didn’t earn him too much grief. Patrick’s graduating class had been a decent enough lot without a mob mentality. Marty was actually well-liked because of his entertaining qualities, so any bad apples that would have tormented him left him alone for fear of backlash. He was teased for his oddities, certainly, and Patrick looked back now and realized everyone, including himself, may have taken it too far on a few occasions. But, Marty was never excluded for being strange. He was invited to parties and went to ballgames and sat with people at lunch, which helped Patrick justify his cruelty— it didn’t do any lasting damage, after all.
Patrick had gone stag to a party during his junior year at Eliana Blumstein’s house while her parents were out of town for their anniversary. He was a quiet kid, and had barely been invited, but Eliana happened to be talking about the party next to his locker in the hall and compulsively invited everyone around her. Marty’s invitation practically came with gold trim. He was always hilarious with a few beers in him and that party had been his magnum opus. A crowd that transformed as teenagers came and went surrounded Marty the whole night. His eyes widened and glistened as he pontificated about what he called “the brown note.” Whenever he said the words “the brown note,” he would poke the air with his thumb and index fingers pressed together, like he was popping an imaginary balloon with an imaginary needle, at the precise moment he hit the “b” in “brown.” It accented how ridiculous the whole thing sounded.
“The brown note makes you shit.”
Pause for effect. The party had been raucous before that line, but now you could hear eyelids click as everyone waited for Marty to continue.
”It’s a frequency that can be blasted from this weapon the U.S. military is developing, and the resonance makes you lose control of your bowels but doesn’t hurt otherwise. It’s supposed to demoralize the enemy by making them shit themselves in their trenches and caves and whatever.”
The other hand gestures during this lecture were equally priceless. Nobody told a story like Marty, and, like Johnny Carson, the best tool in his toolbox was his audience. Somehow, he always got them to play along. One guy yelled out “what’s the frequency?”
“Nobody knows, man! Nobody knows. Except the government, of course. And even they might not have the exact note down, yet. Supposedly…” And he would hang on that word.
“Supposedly… It’s below 20 hertz because you can feel those sounds, but can’t hear them.”
Everyone erupted into laughter. Patrick missed those days. He especially missed them now that it was clear that Marty had lost his storytelling abilities and was just prone to nonsense rambling. Marty had called Patrick a few days ago to ask him if he wanted to get coffee. It was an odd invitation, they had never been especially close, but Patrick had looked forward to being entertained again. He found the old familiar feeling of pity creeping back to him as he watched Marty neglect his coffee. Marty was the scariest-smartest person Patrick had ever met, but he never did anything with it. Patrick and the rest of the class went off to college, and the smartest one of them went to work at Food Lion. Then Taco Bell. The last Patrick heard, Marty was the assistant manager at one of the last video rental stores in existence, a business run almost entirely by job titles that were variations on “manager.” Fake titles meant to be fake platitudes. Marty wasn’t fake, but he didn’t seem to care one way or another.
Patrick remembered to nod and meet Marty’s eye for a moment to give the illusion of listening. He bobbed his head rapidly, smiled and faked an enthusiastic “urm-hm!” There was a running joke in high school about Marty’s “crazy eyes.” His eyes always bugged a little and his pupils dilated whenever he would get excited about something. Marty had those eyes now. Patrick looked at his phone. He’d been here an hour. Good enough.
“Hey, Marty,” Patrick interrupted Marty in the middle of a sentence about how many of… something was in the world. It was a fabulously huge number that might interest someone who had a mind for math. Someone who was not Patrick.
“Hey, Marty, it’s been great seeing you. Really. But, I have got to scoot, man. I’ll see you at the next reunion.”
Patrick picked up his nearly full cup and threw it in the trash on the way out the door. He turned and gave a thin-lipped smile and a polite nod and walked out the door.
Marty watched his last friend, once his best friend, stand up and walk out of the coffee shop. Patrick had barely touched his coffee. It wasn’t surprising— things got cold around Marty now. Marty had gulped his drink down as soon as he sat down. He could just barely taste the warmth now. He knew that would be gone soon, too. The last time he had tasted coffee was weeks ago, since he couldn’t order anymore.
He told Patrick everything he had learned over the last six months. He practically yelled it, but Patrick was barely paying attention. He just stared at his coffee, watching the last of the foam bubbles pop. After an hour, Patrick mumbled an excuse to leave and walked out the door.
There was no point in going after him. Marty looked around the gray room and tried his usual experiment. He tried to make eye contact with at least one person in the room, no matter how creepy he had to be. For a while he had been able to lock eyes with dogs, but now they turned away. Even if he were to get up and stare into someone’s eyes, it would have an eerie quality he’d never seen before a few months ago. Their pupils would be lined up, but it was like looking at a Macy’s mannequin. Their eyes would look through him, past him, like they were busy looking at something else occupying the same space as his face, like they were willing to wait on him to move instead of acknowledging him. He wasn’t invisible; people still seemed to register him as a physical object in space and time. Nobody ever collided with him when he walked down the street. They walked around him as if he was a bird harmlessly pecking for crumbs on the sidewalk. If he wanted to, he could break every plastic spoon in the little station at the front of the coffee shop where all the napkins and sweeteners were stored. No one would say anything, except “Miss, there’s no spoons over here, can I get a spoon please.” The entire world ignored him effortlessly. Not just the people, but everything. The wind. Colors. Electricity.
Marty left his trash on the table. Nobody would feel annoyed by having to clean it up. They wouldn’t even remember doing it. He walked out the door and turned toward his house. It was miles away, but he slowed his walk just the same. He knew what was waiting on him and he was determined to enjoy what little was left of his world, even as gray and silent as it was.
He hadn’t been to work in weeks, but nobody called him to come in. He hadn’t driven his car in days because he ran out of gas and his debit card stopped working last week. Paying with cash or trying to call for a new card was pointless. Ordering a new card online wouldn’t work—the mail carrier had stopped throwing his mail away last month. Now it didn’t come at all.
Marty stomped noiselessly up the steps to his apartment. He savored the slightest tingle he felt in his calves with each impact. He had left the door open. No one had entered in his absence. His landlady hadn’t asked for the rent in three months. Flies wouldn’t even fly through the door anymore. Marty’s strides stopped when he crossed the threshold. He breathed the stale air deeply.
His apartment was spotless above knee height. There wasn’t a single speck of dust on his table, his bed was made and his shower tiles were spotless, although they hadn’t sparkled for some time. He shuffled into his bedroom. The corners of the rooms in his home weren’t dark, but they remained dim no matter how much light was shed on them. Marty had learned not to look at them months ago, but now he didn’t care.
He glanced at the heap in one shadowy corner of the room. He wasn’t surprised that it was there—they had appeared long ago, although he had never dared touch them. He was, however, surprised at how big they had grown, though he felt no elevation of emotion or panic. He looked around at the other corners of the room. Piles of varying sizes were gathered at every right angle in the room.
He laughed quietly to himself. At least, he tried—all that came out was a wheezing sound. Still, he clung to it. Even spiteful, fake mirth ignited a tiny, warm flame in his center. Not that this was funny. Nothing had been funny for years. Marty sat on the edge of his bed and clasped his hands in front of him as the shadows in the corners darkened.
The sand covered the floor.
Then Marty didn’t matter anymore.
Patrick Kruscal sipped his coffee. It didn’t help him get any work done.
He sat at his desk on a Tuesday in the tiny State Farm office wedged between Long’s Hardware and a Subway. Patrick had never been into the hardware store. He’d been in the sub shop far too many times.
Patrick had felt stressed and distracted since Sunday, but he couldn’t remember what happened to trigger his anxiety. It was the same feeling as when he dealt with a particularly unpleasant customer, which was a scenario that appeared more often than not in an insurance office. He kept antacids in a drawer and prayed every day that he wouldn’t develop an ulcer. Today, though, the phone stayed mercifully silent.
He heard Jakyla, the office manager, speak with a customer at the cubicle across from his. He smiled a little to himself, knowing she would have to get him to do the real paperwork, and he’d get a free commission. In return, he’d make it clear that he worked “with” Jakyla to get the sale, and Jakyla would look like Queen of the Go-Getters. He loathed talking to customers. His acid reflux flared up when they had problems or the company wanted him to go to a convention or something and bother people to buy insurance from him. Jakyla had her pitch down, though. She didn’t say the exact same thing every time, but it was always the same gist and always ended in success.
Patrick’s pitch was weak at its best times, and uncomfortably awkward otherwise. Jakyla had given him a thousand pep talks about being confident. It wasn’t that Patrick couldn’t believe in himself or trust himself—he just didn’t want it like Jakyla did. His numbers hovered just below average most of the time, which was apparently just enough for corporate not to bother to reprimand him.
The people at her desk seemed to be a married couple, a man and a woman.
“We also offer an accidental death,” Jakyla said professionally.
“What is that?” the husband said nervously.
“Oh, honey, it’s just part of the life insurance policy,” Jakyla said in a “pish-posh” sort of way. “It just adds some extra benefits in case of accidental death. Can I ask you kindof a scary question?”
The couple nodded hesitantly.
“Do you ever do anything dangerous in your work?”
The men always took the bait. They wanted to puff their chest, and Jakyla’s tone made them feel like it was safe to do it.
“Well, I fly a lot,” the man said. The woman curled her arm around his. “I know it’s not the most dangerous thing, but I do it a lot, and… well…”
Jakyla smiled at this part. “Most of our customers take the accidental death with much less dangerous lives.”
After a few more minutes of schmoozing by Jakyla and awkward paperwork talk by Patrick, the couple stood up, hugged Jakyla, and walked out the door convinced they had secured their future.
“How do you do that?” Patrick asked.
“Do what?” Jakyla said after she was sure the couple could no longer see her waving from the parking lot.
“They hugged you! Who hugs an insurance salesperson?” He said incredulously, knowing that she was not technically an “insurance salesperson.”
“Because I gave them what they wanted,” she said flatly. “And in their minds, that makes me their friend. Insurance isn’t a thing, Patrick. It’s a concept at best. It’s not a blender I can stick vegetables in and show off. I have to make them love insurance, and that means I have to make them love me.”
Amazing, Patrick thought. “Why do you believe in this so much?” Patrick said out loud.
Jakyla was a talker, which certainly helped her in her line of work. But, she was quiet for a moment while she looked at him, then the floor, then back to him, obviously trying to formulate an answer to a question that was much more complex than Patrick understood.
“I don’t,” she said. “Of course I don’t believe in insurance. There’s nothing to believe in. But, I want to do this.”
“Do what?” Patrick asked.
“Sales isn’t really my dream, Patrick. But, this—” Jakyla gestured around their little office, “—is where the dream starts. There are offices above and beyond ours that that I will work in. I am sprinting there as fast as I can, Patrick. I refuse to kiss anyone’s ass. That’s what they expect a woman to do. But, I’ll be a machine.”
She stared at the floor. She didn’t look up when she continued.
“One day I will be the decider. I tell myself every time I look in the mirror in our shitty little office bathroom.”
Patrick’s gut felt queasy from guilt and the gallon of coffee he’d forced into it. His stomach gurgled and he tasted burnt bean breath in his mouth. It was time to replace the guilt with a sandwich. He’d done nothing in the first half of his day and he usually didn’t care about rewarding himself for doing nothing with lunch, but today was different. Not different enough, though, to not to stuff his wallet in his back pocket and stroll out the front door, careful not to catch Jakyla’s judgmental eyes. Still, he took a moment to stop and say, “you’re gonna do great.”
Patrick knew everyone by name in the Subway, and they knew his order by heart. On the way in, he saw a “now hiring” sign that hadn’t been there yesterday. He frowned at it and furrowed his brow as he pushed the door. The bell made its usual jingling sound and Madge came out of the back. She wiped her hands on her apron, smiled and put on a pair of plastic gloves.
“The usual?” she asked, beaming at her favorite customer.
“Yeah, sure. But lay off the banana peppers,” Patrick said, doing an incredibly awkward impression of a noir detective.
“You got it, boss,” Madge said as she snapped on a pair of loose-fitting latex gloves. She grinned, pressing her wrinkles up close to her eyes. Patrick smirked and kept his brow low. He liked being called “boss,” even if she was joking. He put on his best cool office-worker tone of voice-- which an outside observer might describe as “unintentionally-but-nevertheless-annoyingly-elitist.”
“I saw the sign on the way in. You guys must be doing good if you can afford to hire new blood,” Patrick said while leaning against the counter.
Madge was looking down as she sawed his bread in half, but he could see her forehead wrinkle.
“No, one of the little good-for-nothings just stopped showing up.”
“No. The other one.”
“Did he work on the weekends?”
“No, you knew him. The guy. What’s-his-name.”
Was it Tommy? Timmy? It was a strain to remember. Patrick stopped thinking about it.
Madge sighed. “Anyway, if you know anyone looking for a job, send ‘em my way.”
She rang him up at the end of the counter and gave him a cookie on the house. Patrick took it back to the office and sat alone at his desk to eat it. He caught Jakyla’s eye once. She just shook her head at him. Is a sandwich the only work you’re doing today? her judging eyes asked.
His drive home was uneventful aside from the cubiclenaut’s curse of being in 5 o’ clock traffic. His walk from his drive to his front door was uneventful. His unzipping of his coat was uneventful. His dinner was uneventful. The television was uneventful. It was a perfect evening. “Peace and quiet is the dream of the insurance man,” he opined to himself. He raised his Apple Jack beer, brewed right there in Appleton, and toasted nobody.
He slept a dreamless sleep.
He didn’t know it, but Patrick’s definition of “vigor” was weaker than most people’s. Still, that’s how he described his mood at work the next day as compared to Tuesday’s: He had more vigor. He worked up the courage to make a couple of cold calls, one of which even had a modicum of success. Patrick’s definition of “success” was also weaker than most people’s-- he didn’t have to actually sell any insurance on a cold call to call it successful, but merely make the voice on the other end of the line seem generally non-irritated by the end of the conversation.
He beamed a little too proudly after hanging up the phone on his second call. Jakyla shook her head. Patrick decided that was getting old.
“What are you doing tonight?” Jakyla asked.
“Same thing I do every night,” he said, doing his best impression of The Brain from Pinky and the Brain. Jakyla didn’t get the reference. She even seemed a little annoyed.
“You need friends,” she said.
Patrick was long over being shocked by Jakyla’s forwardness, by her rudeness. Still, he must have looked offended, because her face softened when he raised his voice.
“I have plenty of friends!” Patrick retorted. “You’re my friend!”
“Well, of course I’m your friend,” Jakyla said, sternly but nurturing. “I meant that you have to make friends. We’re friends because we work together and it’d be awful if we didn’t know each other. We have to be friends.”
There were few activities that sounded more unpalatable to Patrick. He liked his quiet little life. He liked his clandestine lunches and falling in love with sitcom characters (although the idea of meeting a group of friends at a bar in real life terrified him). The green burning in his chest he felt whenever a customer yelled at him returned. He felt his face fall, and Jakyla frowned in sympathy. Then he straightened up.
“You know what?” he asked with a little rise in his voice. Jakyla raised her eyebrows.
“I’m going to call my old friend Marty. I haven’t seen him in years.”
Jakyla clapped her hands together rapidly while keeping her palms pressed together. A grin spread across her cheeks. Patrick rolled his eyes and turned back towards his non-work.
Patrick parked his Chevy pickup in the space under Marty’s apartment and shut the engine off. He didn’t know what Marty’s car looked like, so he had no way of knowing if he was home without actually knocking at the door, a thought that made anxiety fill up and spill over inside of him.
He didn’t know why he was here. Stupid Jakyla, that’s why. He had called Marty’s phone a week ago and didn’t get any answer, so he left a message. He’d called again the next day, but gave up after that.
“Why did you stop?” Jakyla had asked, even though it was clearly none of her business.
“Because he didn’t return my call.”
“What does that matter?
“It means he doesn’t want to talk to me!”
“Or, maybe he’s hurt. Don’t you think you should check on him? That’s what normal people do, Patrick.”
He hadn’t liked how she’d said the word as if he wasn’t normal. The truth was quite the contrary: He was supremely normal. Still, Jakyla’s opinion stuck in his head and he had always been susceptible to her disappointment. He had become increasingly worried as the week wore on. The worry cut into his TBS viewings and soured the taste of his Apple Jack. Patrick’s third call to Marty had gone straight to voicemail. He finally grudgingly decided Jakyla was right and made plans to check on Marty the next day.
Patrick stood outside of Marty’s door, trying to calm himself.
Marty had been the weird kid in school, the insufferable know-it-all who managed to draw a crowd at parties. He was like Mr. Toad from The Wind in the Willows, one of Patrick’s favorite books from childhood, with his strange manias and wild talk. And, like Rat and Mole, he had tolerated him in high school because it was fun to be able to say you had a friend who zooms along the Thames to satisfy his motorcar obsession or, in Marty’s case, a friend who held week-long unofficial seminars about Japan’s obsession with horse-racing simulators.
Patrick knocked. Silence. He tried to ring the doorbell, but it didn’t work.
“Marty!” he called, his voice squeaking in his throat. He knocked on the door again, but his arm felt weak and he wasn’t making much noise. “Marty, are you in there? Are you alright?”
Patrick put his fingers around the doorknob, but didn’t twist them. If Marty wasn’t home, and Patrick had been right about him simply ignoring his calls, then this was about to be a crime. Ingress into a home without permission is considered breaking and entering, even if the doors are unlocked. It was the only real crime small towns like Appleton had, aside from drugs: Meth heads would get desperate and walk through parking lots and residential neighborhoods, trying doors and stealing things from the open cars. They never smashed glass or jimmied locks, but police still called it “breaking and entering.” Patrick had memorized all of this to try to scare people into buying insurance, although he’d never actually had the guts to go through with it. The condescending wag of Jakyla’s head flooded his imagination. He made up a curse word under his breath.
He turned the knob and the door gave. The unlocked door swung open to an apartment that was too dark for it to be in the middle of the day. It was too bright outside to see inside, so Patrick cautiously crept over the threshold, being wary of imaginary traps and homemade security devices. He had read about would-be burglars killed by spring guns wired to doors. He winced as he walked through the door and slumped his posture in relief when it became evident that crazy-eyes Marty wasn’t quite that crazy. Yet.
Patrick had never been in a silent room before. Even spaces that most people called “quiet” usually have some small background noise like a family of tree frogs or the hum of outside powerlines. Patrick couldn’t even hear the whooshing whistle of a central air conditioning system. He did hear the blood rushing through the veins in his ears. His heart was pounding and the sound was so loud that he felt amazed he could ever hear anything else.
The apartment would have been nearly pitch dark if it weren’t for the sunlight pouring in through the open door. He thought at first that the shades were drawn tightly or that the windows were boarded up, but when he walked close to a window to the left of the doorway he could see that it was painted black. Several coats had been applied. He started to walk to another window to see if it was the same way. On the way he tripped on something strong enough to make him stumble but soft enough to give and not cause any pain to his foot. He looked down and squinted.
The entire floor was covered in dirt. Patrick gaped at it in shock. A small wedge of floor was uncovered in front of the door, just large enough for it to swing open into the apartment. Otherwise, it was at least half a foot high as far as he could see into the dark room. Some of it had gathered in piles near the walls. It looked as if it was climbing up the legs of a coffee table nearby. Against his better judgment, he knelt down to have a closer look at the floor and found that it wasn’t quite dirt after all. It was coarser and drier and more homogenous than soil. It was seemed of a higher quality than dirt, like playground sand.
Patrick tapped his finger through menus on his phone and downloaded a flashlight app. The sharp white light let him make out a kitchen on the eastern side of the room that was spotless aside from the sandy piles on the counters. On the left side of the room was a den with a television, couch and a desk. The half-buried coffee table was here, too.
Patrick called Marty’s name again. The only response was an echo that reverberated too long for such a small space. He spun around quickly to face the open door. He had been looking over his shoulder the whole time, his imagination expecting to see Marty’s silhouette in the open door. In his hand he would be clutching a homemade murder weapon and a severed head.
He walked gingerly over to the desk, trying his best to avoid the larger piles of sand that surely housed some exotic desert animal that crazy Smarty Marty had decided to adopt. He’d blacked out his windows, of course, because the beasts hated sunlight. Then the terrible armored things had paralyzed poor, stupid Marty in his sleep and sucked the marrow from his bones.
The desk was covered with books with Post-It notes poking out of their pages. Many of them were collections of children’s stories. The book with the most notes in it was a collection of Hans Christian Anderson stories. The notes were concentrated in a story called “Ole Lukøje,” written in a European language Patrick didn’t recognize and translated into English underneath. It was six short stories, each an account of a different night when the Dream God Ole-Luk-Oie visited a boy named Hjalmer. They were wandering stories with no clear narrative or point, instead relying on descriptions of wild dreams and stories told by Ole-Luk-Oie. A drawing of a boyish figure holding umbrellas under his arms was on one of the pages. The caption under the figure read:
Under each arm he carries an umbrella; one of them, with pictures on the inside, he spreads over the good children, and then they dream the most beautiful stories the whole night. But the other umbrella has no pictures, and this he holds over the naughty children so that they sleep heavily, and wake in the morning without having dreamed at all.
He cleared some of the European books off the desk to find a layer of web page printouts, many on the various incarnations of the Sandman in literature. Most were on its origins as a children’s folktale about a magical man that sprinkled magic sand in children’s eyes as they slept to give them dreams. Another page depicted the sandman as a miscreant who threw sand in the faces of restless children, harvesting their eyes and taking them to his fortress on the moon. One of the smaller books on the desk was on Greek gods; the passage on Morpheus, the Greek god of sleep, was marked. Stacks of Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comic books were piled next to the desk. The word “NO” was written across the entire cover in black permanent marker on many of the books.
Patrick angled his phone’s light up. He cried out and stumbled backwards, tripping over a pile of sand and falling on his ass. Above the desk was a corkboard covered in scraps of paper. While the desk had been cluttered, it wasn’t the madness he saw now. There were drawings.
“Oh god,” he whispered. Oh god, the hands. Long, twig-like things with tendrils at the end, drawn with a crayon over and over again until the paper was thick with red wax and wispy coronas strayed away from them. They almost seemed to glow.
Patrick collected himself off the floor and brushed off the sand that clung to his corduroy pants. There was only one room left. If Marty wasn’t there, Patrick would definitely file a report with the police. If Marty was there, lying in a pile of his own filth… Patrick wasn’t sure what to do officially, but he knew he had to get him help. There was a fine line between genius and insanity, and he feared Marty had finally crossed it going the wrong way. Entering the bedroom was terrifying; until now he had been at the mouth of the cave, but he was going deep where there were bats and bears and blind, wet things that lived their lives in darkness.
Like the kitchen, the bedroom was immaculate except for the desert covering the carpet. He flicked his phone’s light left and right, expecting to see the outline of some tall figure with a crooked neck and skeletal fingers it could wrap around his throat. His heart skipped when he caught a mirror with the light.
He stopped his wild searchlight on a deep red spot soaked into the sand on the floor. He froze, his breath rattling out of his mouth. Cold sweat stung his eyes. He slowly followed the trail around to the far side of the bed. The hole in Marty’s head was the size of a golf ball. The flashlight illuminated the inside of it perfectly, allowing Patrick to see a human brain with his own eyes for the first time in his life. The blood had drained out of Marty’s face, making it ghost-white. Marty’s mouth hung open, revealing red-stained teeth. His white eyes stared into nothing. A handgun lay beside Marty’s body.
Patrick couldn’t remember later if he screamed. He did remember falling and flopping out of the room, throwing fistfuls of sand behind him as he struggled to his feet. He vomited on the sand, which instantly absorbed it like cat litter. He put his arms on the door to steady his weak legs and pulled himself out of the apartment. He slammed the door behind him, vomited again, and scrambled his feet down the stairs. In his haste he moved his feet in a bad rhythm and lost his footing, tumbling shoulder over shoulder down the last half of the steps. The pain that bolted through his arm was excruciating, but he did not cry out. He managed to keep his head from smacking the pavement, but he was sure his right arm was at least dislocated, if not broken. His left arm found new, panicked strength, and he used it to yank open the door to his car, turn on the engine and spin out of his parking space. He floored the gas pedal and made his car leap out of the apartment complex and onto the road, smashing into the side of a Buick driving down the street. He backed up and made his tires scream in the other direction.
Oh god, oh god. They’ll know what I’ve seen.
Patrick drove until his gas light came on, which brought him to a motel three hours away from Appleton. He stumbled into the motel’s front office and rang the bell aggressively. He threw his credit card down, but said nothing. The man behind the front desk was quiet and never made eye contact. He just ran the card and handed him a key with a number written on a piece of paper dangling from it. He must have had enough junkies and embarrassed businessmen with their prostitutes to know how to rent a room without a word said between them.
Patrick unlocked the door to his room, turned the handle and pushed the door open, all with his good arm. He still felt pain shoot down his other arm when his good shoulder bumped against the door. He needed to go to a hospital to have a doctor look at it, but all he wanted to do right now was hide. He’d just have to keep from moving it.
Patrick locked every mechanism on the door, even the strange one at the top with the locking teeth that all motels have. He had never used that one before, and although it was easy enough to use, he had no idea what twisting the knob actually did to make the door more secure. Maybe it didn’t. Maybe it was ludicrous to think he was safe at all.
Patrick drew the curtains as tight as they could go, then threaded the top of a padlock he had retrieved from his trunk through two of the rings that kept the curtain hanging from its rod. He clicked the lock closed and adjusted the curtains a little more to make sure no sunlight came through. He didn’t have the key to the padlock; it would have to be sawed or burned off by the motel staff when he left, whenever that would be. He stuffed the bottoms of the curtains into the air conditioner under the window, for good measure.
Patrick turned on every light in the room and turned the television volume up as loud as it would go. There weren’t any cars in front of the rooms on either side of him, but he wouldn’t have cared to disturb them. He checked every corner of the room. It wasn’t exactly spotless, but he didn’t care. He wasn’t looking for dirt. He caught a glimpse of himself in the wide mirror above the sink. His face was stained red below his nose and scaly dry blood clung to him. He must have injured himself in the crash, too, and hadn’t noticed the bleeding. He felt afraid of the shower—like the trademark tiny size of this clichéd middle-of-nowhere motel’s tub would induce claustrophobia he’d never felt in his life. His head pounded from dehydration, and he gulped water straight from the sink. He cleaned most of the blood off his face before turning the faucet off again.
Patrick turned the television down when he was satisfied with the corners and the TV had developed in him the comforting illusion of having a friend in the room. He undressed, being careful of his arm. He had felt sand in his shoes when getting out of the car and would have descended into hysterics if he hadn’t immediately thrown them into the Dumpster that was six doors down. He remembered summers at his mother’s friend’s beach house as a kid, where his mother would espouse a proverb every time they returned from the beach: Don’t track that sand in here, once it gets in it never gets out. It had been a nag that Patrick shrugged off when he was young, but now it shouted at him in his head.
Patrick gingerly crawled into bed and watched television for what seemed like hours. He tried to find light programs—sitcoms and cartoons—and finally felt brave enough to turn the volume down and try to get some sleep. He clicked off the lights around his bed but kept the dim lamps on the perimeter walls burning. He had never felt more exhausted in his life, but sleep wouldn’t come easily. He managed to doze off a few times, but he had the repetitive dreams that come with the flu, the ones where you are doing the same pointless task over and over again. He could remember two from his childhood: One in second grade where he dreamed he was constructing endless tracks for Matchbox cars and another in fifth grade when he was putting fish in puddles all night. While those dreams were frustrating, they were far from nightmares. The dream he had that night was darker.
Fingers poked and prodded him whenever he closed his eyes. Hands would run down his leg or caress his wounded arm. He never saw the hands; he just felt them in the dark like he was in Appleton High’s low-budget Halloween haunted house. The students could never afford much in the way of decorations or costumes, so they relied on admittedly clever sensory experiences. Inevitably there would always be a squad of teenage girls with roaming hands who liked to giggle at blindfolded men twice their age when they leaped back in horror, terrified they had become a pervert by proxy.
He preferred the teenage hands to the gritty fingers in the dark at the motel.