The pencil pulled and tugged at its string as if it were a little dog that wanted to help, but could not.
Patrick wasn’t feeling any braver or better the next morning. But he had become far more aware of the pain in his arm and it was enough to convince him to go to an urgent care center a few blocks away. He figured the car had enough fumes to get that far. He fished out a pair of flip-flops he stored in his trunk for emergencies (such as, say, throwing away one’s shoes in a panic, he thought). He winced his way down the road and to a cushioned seat covered in purple vinyl and sat down with the clipboard the nurse behind the counter gave him. The first page was filled with yes-or-no questions with checkmark boxes beside each one. His head was swimming from exhaustion and pain. The words on the page danced. He was sitting next to a potted plant that seemed to grow in the corner of his eye and shrank back to its original size when he turned to look at it. He smelled plums and changed his answer on the “Have you had any hallucinations in the past week?” line when he determined there was no fruit anywhere near him.
He crossed his legs and braced the clipboard against the horizontal leg. It felt unnatural to hold the pen in his left hand, and his checkmarks waivered nervously in their boxes. He finished checking “no” on most of the boxes, then struggled to flip the page around on its staple with one hand. The next page was a form for standard personal information. There were blanks for an address and phone number and contact information for his primary physician. He muddled through until he came to an empty box meant for describing why he was at a hospital. He kept it simple: I think I broke my arm.
At least, that’s what he wanted to write. What actually came out of his left hand was a scrawled mess. He crossed the words out, if they could be called such, and tried again. His second attempt was no better. Nothing was misspelled, but the letters were of inconsistent size and were slanted. They also had a horrible twisting quality to them that frustrated Patrick. He crossed them out again. This time he wrote slowly. I…think…I…broke...my...arm. The letters were of a uniform size this time, but their shape was no better. They still slanted, and now instead of twisting they had a harsh angular quality to them instead of the sloping, graceful script his impeccable handwriting usually possessed. Patrick raged internally, a compound of his frustration and the throbbing pain in his arm. The letters weren’t good enough, and if they weren’t good enough—
“Then you will have to be scratched out,” he said, loudly whispering through clenched teeth. The letters shivered on the page, blurring and becoming even more unreadable. A soft voice reached his ears.
“Hon, you okay?”
He turned toward the direction of the voice. A blurry figure stood behind a blurry rectangle. He felt a heavy film on his eyes and realized that the blurriness was caused by tears, which spilled over onto his cheeks. He wiped them and saw the concerned face of a young nurse looking back at him. Her dark hair was done up in a bun with two yellow No. 2 pencils. She was giving him a sympathetic, lighthearted frown and doe eyes.
“I’m sorry. My arm hurts really bad and it must be getting to me,” Patrick said, feeling the anger drain away from him and replace with embarrassment.
“Have you got your name and address and stuff down?” asked the nurse sweetly.
“Yeah, but the little reason-why-I’m-here box isn’t finished,” Marty said, now completely embarrassed.
As she walked over to him, the nurse said her next three sentences in rapid order without waiting for response from Patrick.
“You’ve got a busted arm, right? This is good enough. Sit back down carefully and we’ll get you to the back as soon as we can.”
As he handed the clipboard to the nurse, he took a last look at his disastrous penmanship and remembered the crossed-out scrawl that covered the notes on Marty’s desk.
An X-ray revealed Patrick had bruised his arm bones in several places, but nothing was actually broken. The doctor fussed at him for having let it go untreated for so long and asked him for an answer as to why. Patrick hadn’t thought to make up a good lie and stumbled through flimsy, vague excuses about not feeling well and being too exhausted to drive any further to the hospital. He did tell a half-truth about how he hurt it while falling down stairs, but didn’t say anything beyond than that. Although the doctor pestered Patrick for answers, he never asked any truly probing questions. Maybe his story about falling down steps had satisfied the doctor or, like the motel desk clerk, he had seen enough junkies with flimsy stories that he had just become accustomed to not getting too curious.
Finally, the doctor had his fill of interrogation. He clicked on the room’s light box, upon which hung Patrick’s X-rays. The doctor put on a pair of glasses and pointed a stubby finger toward a dark blotch on Patrick’s humerus. The doctor’s Neanderthal brow folded over the top of his glasses.
“Bruising’s not as bad as a break, but it takes longer to heal. Athletes get them a lot. There aren’t really any treatments—you can’t put a cast or anything on it. This many bruises could take up to a year to fully heal for teenagers. You’ll take even longer, probably.”
The doctor circled one of the blotches with his finger.
“See, you’ve got all these little bitty fractures where the surface of your bones smashed against the stairs.” Patrick winced on the word “smashed” and the doctor paused for a moment, before adding “or whatever.”
“All you can do is take it easy, maybe put some ice on it. But, it’s going to hurt like an asshole.”
Patrick made a face at the doctor’s strange word choice. The doctor ignored him and scribbled on a prescription pad with his doctor scribble, which was still somehow better than the monstrosity Patrick had handed over to the nurse behind the front desk. The doctor tore the slip off with a fluid flick of the wrist he had done a million times.
“I’m giving you a prescription for the secret shit. You said you were taking a few days off, yeah? Well, go get this, get in your car, get into your house or whatever, take one of these and don’t get back in your car.”
Patrick took the slip and looked at the doctor’s caveman eyebrows. His arm hurt. He wondered if this doctor was the reason the motel clerk didn’t bat an eye at junkies.
“Don’t worry. I’m hiding for a while,” Patrick said. The doctor grunted without looking at him.
The doctor also gave Patrick a sling to help him keep his arm still and protected. Patrick was already getting better at doing things one-handed, especially driving. He didn’t know what he would have done if he’d bought a stick shift instead of his safe little automatic Impala. He parked outside his motel room and looked all around for a few minutes like he had this morning before shutting off the engine and getting out. He didn’t know what he was looking for and he hoped to keep it that way.
Patrick filled his ice bucket and used the protective liner to make an icepack for his arm. He took two of the “secret shit” he picked up from the 24-hour pharmacy next to the emergency care clinic (a nice little racket that was, he thought). It was a long time before he was able to fall asleep, but the exhaustion from his arm pain had given way to a numb relaxation, and that felt like a victory to Patrick.
Peace is the dream of the insurance man.
As soon as Hjalmar was in bed, Ole-Luk-Oie touched, with his little magic wand, all the furniture in the room, which immediately began to chatter, and each article only talked of itself.
Patrick had eaten a pack of peanut butter crackers from a vending machine in the hospital waiting room, but had eaten no other food since he fled from Appleton. He didn’t feel like changing that today. The painkiller bottle he had picked up from a CVS between the hospital and the motel warned him to take the pills with food, but he didn’t much care to heed it, nor to heed the warning not to take more than two doses in a 24-hour period. It was a half hour before the pain in his arm dulled again. It was another half hour before he started feeling dizzy. It was another hour before he heard the first whisper.
He wasn’t quite sure he’d actually heard anything. When he heard it again, he assumed it was just the muffled, airy sound of a tire going through a puddle in the parking lot. But the third time he heard a word.
He sat up in bed quickly enough that his arm hurt even through the painkillers. He thought the whisper came from the opposite end of the room, where a waist-high set of drawers was attached to the wall. It was covered in big panels with wood patterns printed on them. The paneling had chipped off in some places, revealing cheap, porous cork sticky with glue.
One of the drawers rattled. The rattling was accompanied by a breathy, rumbling sound, like a man clearing his throat. Patrick was too drugged to be startled, but his mouth hung open. Patrick had assumed there were vermin in the seedy motel, but he hadn’t figured on vermin large enough to open and close drawers and certainly not any large enough to make deep, guttural noises.
The drawer began opening and closing rapidly, clacking shut in a staggered rhythm. Patrick became aware of a voice accompanying the clacking.
“I said, do you know how pressboard is made? They cut through a tree with an axe.”
The drawers were talking. The goddamn drawers were talking. If he ever told the story to anyone it would be funny, but the reality of seeing it happen in front of him was terrifying. The furniture continued talking without waiting for a response from Patrick, its one drawer opening and closing with each syllable.
“Well, not an axe, usually. Nobody really uses axes for anything other than Christmas trees anymore. More of a saw. Did you know trees don’t have blood? Not really, anyway. They got sap. It’s like sticky blood. Sometimes it oozes out when the saw goes through.
“Anyway, pressboard is like a bunch of different bits of other trees that get dried and mashed up together, then they spray it with glue and cut it into new boards. Can you imagine if they did that with people? Take all the little bits of them nobody wants—sweep up all the lopped-off fingers on factory floors and appendixes from hospitals and the shinbones from people who step on landmines, drain the blood out of them and then mash them up into new, cheap people? Wouldn’t that be so weird?”
The dresser’s voice was like a nasally game show host’s. Its cadence was quick but clear and its tone was gleeful as it skipped along its morbid analogy. Patrick heard a new whisper coming from near the door. The shade on a lamp shook—quivered, really—and whispered again.
The room was silent for a moment. Even the manic dresser had shut up for a second to pay attention to the little lamp, who was now the only light in the room. It was as if the whole world was paying attention to a little lamp who quivered and begged to be touched.
The first time the lamp cooed its request, but this time it was more urgent. Even under the circumstances, it seemed like a strange thing for a lamp to say. Why wasn’t it asking to be switched on or off? Why was it merely asking to be touched?
The request now bordered on desperate. Before it had finished begging, a jagged maw tore open on the metal door. It moved like a mouth, its screaming mixed with the loud metal creaking of its lips.
“I CAN’T TOUCH YOU NOW”
The words were a horrible monotone, louder than Patrick could ever imagine something to be. It didn’t hurt his ears, but he felt the sound assault his body. The words seemed to fire out of the metal mouth and crash into the walls.
“I CAN’T TOUCH YOU NOW”
The word “now” hung in the air, growing louder and louder. Patrick couldn’t breathe and he felt the weight of the word crushing him. He felt himself lose consciousness.
Patrick woke to gray light peeking from behind the room’s ugly curtains. The furniture stood quiet and undisturbed, save for a slight tilt in the lamp’s shade that may have always been there. The pill bottle lay beside him on the bed, its big ovular tablets spilled onto the sheets. Patrick scooped them back into the bottle, tightened the lid, and squinted at the tiny text on its side.
MAY CAUSE VISUAL AND AUDITORY HALLUCINATIONS
How the rain did pour down! Hjalmar could hear it in his sleep; and when Ole-Luk-Oie opened the window, the water flowed quite up to the window-sill.
Patrick gingerly moved out of bed. The clock radio next to the bed read “11:13” in red, accusing digits. He was starving, which was a relief to a man who suspected he couldn’t feel anything but anxiety anymore. He spread the split in the curtains as far as the padlock would let him. The sky was bright, but overcast with a thin layer of gray clouds that gave the world a mute, shadow-less light.
The bottom fell out of the clouds half an hour later. Rain had always had a calming effect on Patrick. The fat heavy drops plunged into the parking lot pond, causing hundreds of little ripples. It was beautiful. It was the opposite of sand.
Patrick had wondered why there was a set of three steps that led up to a high sidewalk outside his room, and now he knew. The motel was in a basin created by the surrounding sloping fields, and after a few hours the parking lot started to look like a small lake. The water got high enough that water licked at the bottom of his door and soaked the ugly carpet.
New movement caught the left corner of his eye, and he turned to see what it was. Something turned furiously in the water. The thrashing thing slowly floated closer to Patrick’s window, and when it got close enough he could see a wing. It was a small brown bird. It had maybe fallen from one of the few thickly-barked trees around the motel grounds.
The thrashing slowed, then finally stopped. The little brown bird floated on top of the water and swirled between the parked cars. Patrick closed the curtains. The familiar green burning ignited in his chest.
“Do not be frightened, and you shall see a little mouse.” And then he held out his hand to him, in which lay a lovely little creature.
The flood waters were still draining, trapping Patrick in his room. He had begun to feel compelled to inspect the corners of his room. Today, he widened his inspection to include under the bed, where he found two things: A gold wedding band and a pair of military dog tags. He briefly considered turning them in to the front desk, but the thought of facing the eerily distant clerk/owner-for-all-he-knew with a one-sided conversation about whether the motel had a lost-and-found box filled him with anxiety and dread. He decided to merely place them on the bedside table for the cleaning staff (if there was a cleaning staff) to find when he checked out (if he ever checked out).
At night, he had nightmares that weren’t quite nightmares that he could never quite remember. He thought he recalled a scraping pain and the burn of raw skin. And tunnels. He remembered the sensation of speeding through a looping, twisting black tunnel that felt like it had no end. Night was a restless marathon. Naps were better. Patrick shimmied under the covers. He kept the TV on low, as always, as if it was some sentinel that watched for evil things slipping under the door. The sense of security it provided hadn’t been as strong since he had his furniture hallucination, but he kept it on, anyway. He kept the comforter on the bed despite all the warnings he had heard about the horrors hiding in hotel comforters. Its extra weight put a serene pressure on his body, like amniotic fluid in a womb.
Patrick felt comfortable, but not relaxed. He could feel the ring and the dog tags beside him. It wasn’t an uneasy feeling he would get when he felt like someone was watching him. It wasn’t even really annoying, like when insomnia struck and he could hear every dripping faucet and every hum of the big central air conditioning units outside his apartment. He’d once bought a digital clock and couldn’t sleep for a week after plugging it in. When he Googled his problem, he found an article about how scientists say blue light is a signal for your brain to stay awake, but red light was mostly ignored by the brain, which is why many digital alarm clocks used red numbers on their displays. His new clock had a bright blue display, and his sleeping problems ended when he chucked it into the trash. The rings and tags were the same, signaling for attention from the bedside table, telling his mind to stay awake and keep running at a million miles an hour. To keep falling through those dark tunnels.
He reached over and plucked the wedding ring from the table, grasping it between his thumb and index finger. He looked for personalized markings—a date or a name or a favorite Bible verse—but found none. It was just mostly smooth gold with a little wear from years of use. What was the implication here? It wasn’t baffling to Patrick that the lackadaisical cleaning staff hadn’t found it, but he did wonder why they had ever been left here in the first place. Were the people they belonged to in this room at the same time? Did they both belong to one person?
Patrick put the ring back and laced his fingers through the chain on the dog tags. It was the same kind of chains that banks use to harness their public pens to the public desks in their lobbies. He raised his hand, and the tags came with it. One of the tags had a rubber ring stretched around its edges to keep the tags from clinking together. He took this one in his other hand and straightened it parallel to his eyes:
Every line on the dog tags except one was an instruction for after the soldier’s death-- the name would go on his tombstone, 0the number was so he could be officially declared dead and the “CATHOLIC” line was so he could receive a proper funeral. Only the blood type held out hope that he would live.
Patrick put the tags back on the nightstand with a soft clink and picked the ring up. He brought the ring close to his face and squinted. He could barely see that the ring was engraved, but he couldn’t make out the letters. He shifted the ring so that it laid flat on his palm, which helped his eyes focus.
There was a date—presumably a wedding day—and the name “Leah Alice Hall” inscribed inside, followed by a single word: “Mouse.” It seemed like a condescending pet name to Patrick at first, but he felt guilty about judging the relationship of two strangers. In this hotel room, Gregory Hall had called Leah Hall “Mouse” for the last time. He’d said it as an insult instead of an affectionate name one too many times, and she threw her ring away and left. Then, he took off his tags and left a little part of himself in the room, too. Then he went back to the desert with new tags and a hand devoid of gold rings.
But, the room seemed like a strange place for a couples’ getaway, even for a couple that loathed each other. The motel was the opposite of romantic. It was small, the beds were stiff and the rooms were just a little dirty. Maybe the Halls committed a crime together and drove as far as they could, like Patrick had, finally stopping at this little motel. They had already burned their drivers’ licenses and credit cards. Now, it was time to get rid of the last bit of identification.
“I can’t do it,” Leah says, standing over the toilet with her ring clamped tightly in her fingers.
“Yes, you can,” Greg says with patience. “You just need a minute. Do you want me to go first?”
Greg raises his tags in the air a little, showing Leah his sacrifice.
“No!” Leah says with tears in her eyes. “You can’t get rid of those! They show how brave you are!”
1“I don’t wanna remember the war. I just wanna be with you,” Greg says back in the deepest, gravest voice that Patrick can muster.
Now that Patrick was aware that he was voicing his fantasy out loud, he cringed at the melodrama of his imagination. Then he laughed a little. He put the tags and the ring next to him on the bedside table, happy to have a couple of imaginary friends.
He felt cold metal on the rough fingers in his sleep that night.
It is incredible how many old people there are who would be glad to have me at night,” said Ole-Luk-Oie, “especially those who have done something wrong. ‘Good little Ole,’ say they to me, ‘we cannot close our eyes, and we lie awake the whole night and see all our evil deeds sitting on our beds like little imps, and sprinkling us with hot water. Will you come and drive them away, that we may have a good night’s rest?’
Patrick did little more than stare out of a window on Friday. He spent the day humming a song he couldn’t remember.
Trailer for sale or rent.
Rooms to let, 50 cents.
No phone, no pool, no pets.
I ain’t got no cigarettes.
He tried leaving a well-labeled tip in the window, hoping a cleaning crew would come.
About two hours of pushin’ broom
Buys an eight-by-twelve four-bit room.
I’m a man of means, by no means
King of the road.
They didn’t come.
Third boxcar, midnight train,
Destination, Bangor, Maine.
Old worn out clothes and shoes,
I don’t pay no union dues.
If he had been honest with himself, Patrick would have welcomed anyone in his room when he got back, tip in their pocket. Even the owners of those salty, gritty fingers, if only to look them in the eyes and know their names.
Despite being exhausted, Patrick could not nap. His brain chattered incessantly about anything—things he had not given thought to in months or years.
Patrick had a little sister named Wilson, whom he spoke to about three times a year. She had long objected to being called “little” because she had not been “little” for a long time and their four-year age difference didn’t mean much now that they were adults. As children, though, it had been obvious, especially with a four-inch height difference between them.
I smoke old stogies I have found
Short, but not too big around
I’m a man of means by no means,
King of the road.
Patrick was meek and passive in his adult life, but as a child he had fancied himself bold. Sometimes Patrick wondered if it had just been fantasy, and he had actually always been mild.
I know every engineer on every train
All of their children, and all of their names
And every handout in every town
And every lock that ain’t locked, when no one’s around.
When Patrick was eight years old and Wilson was four, their mother took them to a new playground that opened next to the old Sticky Finger Freddy’s BBQ restaurant. To kids, it looked like an adventure: Wooden bridges connected towers and turrets with slides, ladders led to acrobatic obstacles. The place looked like a castle with colorful plastic playthings in the place of trebuchets and a spongy Astroturf track instead of a dirty moat. When they arrived, both children ran straight from the car to a rubber-covered ramp-- the castle’s drawbridge.
It would have been perfect if it hadn’t been crowded with children who were all as excited as he was to conquer the fortress. As he passed through a tower a little too excitedly, he bumped into someone playing a large plastic tic-tac-toe game built into the wall.
“Hey!” yelled the boy Patrick had just bumped into. The boy stood up, revealing an intimidating athletic build, despite the boy being only about a year older than Patrick. A younger boy that bore a slight resemblance to the athletic boy turned to look at Patrick, but didn’t say anything. He had yellow eyes, which Patrick had never seen before. He couldn’t help but stare at them.
“You ran into me, retard!” the athletic boy said angrily. Patrick cringed at the “r”-word, but said nothing. His eyes snapped from the young boy’s yellow eyes to the older boy’s brown eyes. It was clear the two boys were brothers.
Not wanting a confrontation, Patrick ignored the boys and tried to move past them. He only made it half a step before the athletic boy caught him by the arm forcefully and pulled him back. The yellow-eyed boy stared.
“I said you ran into me,” the boy said angrily while making aggressive eye contact. “Are you retarded and deaf?”
Patrick’s flight instinct won over his fight instinct, and he wrenched his arm away and ran away. The boy didn’t catch up to him again, although Patrick didn’t look behind him to see if he had followed. He followed the river of children through the winding, interweaving attractions until he spotted his sister, tiny in the swarm. She caught his eye, too, and smiled brightly. Patrick felt the anxiety in his gut from his recent encounter disappear and he smiled back.
Patrick and his sister stayed together for the rest of the day. There was no conscious decision, no discussion. They just went to the same places at the same time. They slid down slides. They climbed rope ladders. They crossed bridges with burning sand beneath them. The sand had always been there. On the beach. On the playground. Filling the vole holes in his backyard. It had always been there, and now Patrick could remember his younger self staring at the sand, as if he was waiting anxiously for something to happen. Nothing ever did. Sand is boring, and it grinds away anything it touches. Twenty years ago, Patrick watched a drop of sweat trickle down the bridge of his nose and drip off the tip. It fell between the slats of the bridge and disappeared, a little part of him swallowed in the sand.
Patrick and his sister took a sharp turn onto a walkway that stretched into the open sun. As Patrick’s eyes adjusted, he saw there was another walkway about 15 feet away. It was parallel to the one he was on. Across from him he caught a yellow eye.
“Wilson,” Patrick said in a whisper-yell, grabbing his sister by the jumper. His sister gave him her attention, but not without a momentary angry glare. Patrick pointed across to the boys on the other walkway.
“I ran into those guys earlier. They’re mean. Stay away from them, OK?” He pleaded with his sister.
Before she could answer, they both heard the athletic boy’s fierce, condescending voice stab across the sandy pit between the walkways.
“It’s rude to point!” he crowed while pointing back.
Patrick shooed his sister onward, glancing back at the boys for a moment. The big one was still sneering. When he rounded the corner and lost sight of the boys, he let his breath go in a relieved whoosh. He and his sister played until the sun was low and red in the sky, and all the tired children moved towards rope ladders and slides to the castle exit. Patrick and his sister joined them on their journey. To an adult, the playground would have seemed a small thing, but to children it felt like leaving the castle behind to make the journey home on the miles-long moor.
The exit, if the playground even had such a thing, was the same large bridge they entered on, built over a dry, shallow ditch that was obviously only there to give the bridge something to stretch over. It was wide enough to accommodate the army of children crossing it all at once. Patrick kept pace with the throng, but he was becoming vaguely aware of an obstruction on the other end of the bridge. He plodded with his head down until he could see that the obstruction was exactly what he feared it would be.
The two boys stood with arms crossed, blocking Patrick’s and Wilson’s path. They let all other children walk by, all of whom were too exhausted to wonder why these four had stopped. The athletic boy stood tall. The other boy tried his best to look intimidating, but paled in comparison to his brother. Despite his attempt at confidence, he appeared small and weak next to his brother.
“Where’re you goin’?” the tall boy said in that way only confrontational children who have spent hours building in their anger do. He was all energy and no substance. He had nothing clever to say, his questions made no sense-- but none of that mattered. He was boiling and he wanted a fight.
Patrick didn’t have anything to say back. No matter how they moved, the boys would not let them past. He felt his fists clench and his blood run hot. He felt fear prickle its way along his spine and poison his stomach. He felt the green burn.
What happened next haunted Patrick for the rest of his life. He regretted it more than any other single moment. He struck pre-emptively, charging towards the smaller boy. When the young boy realized all of Patrick’s rage was focused on him, his yellow eyes widened and their pupils dilated in fear. He tried to throw up his hands in defense, but they did nothing to stop Patrick from grabbing both of the little boy’s shoulders and shoving them with all of his anger and fear and strength. The boy slammed to the ground, gagging as he tried to find his breath, then wailing in pain. He clutched an eye and Patrick was sure he saw blood gushing from it. At the moment he engaged the yellow-eyed boy, he saw his sister charge the tall boy with her arms flailing. He did not know how well the fight had actually gone, and he did not care. The bleeding, screaming boy on the ground was enough of a distraction that Patrick was able to grab Wilson by the arm and run through the crowd of children, who were now more interested in what was happening with the foursome.
Patrick ran serpentine across the rest of the bridge, desperately trying to disassociate himself from the fight. When Patrick was convinced the boys weren’t chasing them, he stopped, and his sister stopped with him. They wiped the tears from their eyes and cleaned themselves up the best they could. They both walked back to their mother, but never told her anything. They never saw the boys again. Those scared yellow eyes never left Patrick.
All he had in his hotel refrigerator was red cabbage. He couldn’t remember buying it, and could not fathom why he would have. He ate it raw in his underwear and went to bed. He did not see the faces of the owners of the gritty hands, but he knew their eyes were yellow.
I sing, trailers for sale or rent,
Rooms to let, fifty cents
No phone, no pool, no pets,
I ain’t got no cigarettes
Ah, but, two hours of pushin’ broom
Buys an eight by twelve four-bit room
I’m a man of means by no means,
King of the road.
Am I to hear any more stories?” asked little Hjalmar, as soon as Ole-Luk-Oie had sent him to sleep.
“We shall have no time this evening,” said he, spreading out his prettiest umbrella over the child.
The downpour earlier in the week had subsided, but never truly left. The little drizzles it left behind weren’t even enough to keep the floods from draining. But, they were enough to keep deceptively deep, muddy puddles alive on the ground and to pelt any pedestrians dumb enough to be without a raincoat or umbrella.
It wasn’t really fair to call them dumb, Patrick thought, as he people-watched through a sliver in his curtain. Was he really so smart, hiding in his room with his vending machine meals?
There was a rod-shaped object leaning against the wall under his window. The window wasn’t low enough to tell what it was, but Patrick could see it was an umbrella when he stuck his head out of the door. He snatched it into his room without actually exiting.
Once the door was locked again, Patrick undid the button-snapped strap, allowing the umbrella to partially unfurl. It was a gray color that would have been drab if it hadn’t been somehow hideous.
Patrick dropped the umbrella with a scream when he saw an eye staring at him. When he gingerly picked it back up and studied it closely, his heart leapt and his hand buckled, but he did not drop the umbrella again. He had been partially right: There were many eyes on the outside of the umbrella, but they were merely simple illustrations drawn with white lines. Patrick’s gut boiled as he looked at each eye, half expecting them to open.
He looked outside to make sure nobody saw or heard him scream. The parking lot was empty now. He wondered if everyone was hiding from something here, drawing their shades and locking their doors and eating peanut butter crackers and fighting off rough fingers in their sleep. If someone heard him yelp in their room, he could deal with that. Let them have their moment of humor.
Patrick winced for a moment, then held the umbrella as far away from his face and torso as he could before engaging the mechanism in the handle, as if it would splash acid or unleash a swarm of bees when it unfurled to its full diameter. It did neither. The underside of the umbrella was starkly blank, but Patrick did not find solace in it. In a way, its blankness was more distressing than the disgusting eye illustrations, as if there should be something there. He wasn’t even sure what color it was-- it seemed to be a gray color most of the time, but it also seemed to fluctuate between black and white occasionally, although he could never quite pin down the moments when it changed. It just always seemed to be an empty color.
How long had this hideous thing been out here? Did somebody leave it behind? Did somebody leave it for him? The last thought shot a lightning bolt of panic through him and he dropped the umbrella. He stomped on it, but could not seem to destroy no matter how hard he smashed his foot against the umbrella’s metal skeleton. He picked it up and flung it out of his door, being sure to throw it far enough to exit his window’s field of vision.
He hid under the filthy covers the rest of the day.
“There now, you can see my brother, the other Ole-Luk-Oie; he is also called Death.”
Patrick woke up in the late morning, like he had every day this week. He took a long shower, like every day this week. He was unsure of what to do with himself, like every day this week. He dressed himself and peeked out the window. A black hearse passed on the lonely road in front of the motel, followed by a line of slow-moving sedans and minivans and a police escort.
When Patrick was eight years old, his family took the first of several trips to a Florida beach that he couldn’t remember the name of. Patrick’s uncle’s father (a man whom Patrick had never actually met and who was not referred to as his grandfather) was moderately wealthy and owned a beach house there. Patrick’s mother had successfully navigated an upper-crust conversation with the man at the one Christmas family gathering they had both attended. The end of that conversation was his mother obtaining the keys to the beach house for a week, free of charge. It was her greatest accomplishment to date.
Everyone else in the family managed to have fun, they told Patrick. How could he have found a way to make sun and beach and seafood and a free vacation house a miserable experience? At the time, Patrick had merely shrugged. But, in the intervening years, he had formed an answer he never shared with anyone:
Florida is unsettling.
The first unsettling thing to note about Florida, Patrick said in his multi-pointed presentation to nobody, was that it is not California. Despite their similar climates and topographies, Florida and California are jagged contrasts of one another because of their populations. California is the land of the young. Of the foolish decision. Of the destitute vacationer stealing sandwiches from grocery stores. Florida is where the rich go to die in comfort. Every day, Patrick saw expensive hearses with huge motorcade escorts travel slowly down the beachside boulevards. His family saw a place of sun, while Patrick saw he was surrounded by death. Quiet, hot, gritty death.
Still, Patrick was determined not to be a “stick in the mud,” as his father called him, and to avoid the incessant teasing of his sister for being a mope. He went to the beach. He numbly built his sandcastles and waded in the briny ocean. He played the part of the beachcomber to the best of his thespian ability. But, it wasn’t enough-- his family remained put out with his frowns and sighs every year until the old, rich man who owned the beach house died from years of Italian meats clogging his arteries.
After each of their trips to the beach, Patrick and Wilson would forget to take their sand-filled old tennis shoes off outside the house’s front door, prompting their mother to give the same lecture about sand-filled old tennis shoes every time.
“Take those shoes off!” she would yell over pots of shrimp and Old Bay seasoning boiling on the stovetop. “Once sand gets in, it never gets out!”
Sand, Patrick thought coldly in the present. He’d never go to a beach again. The sand had been only a fraction of the ordeal at Marty’s apartment, but somehow it had been the thing that stayed with him all week.
Patrick was starving. The vending machine was no longer enough. He put on clothes, got in his car, and drove to the strip mall, where filled the tank with gas and found a local pizza place called “Pizazz Pizza,” Patrick frowned at the terrible wordplay, then realized, that he could have just had a pizza delivered to the motel. He walked to the restaurant’s counter wearing a pair of sunglasses and a gray baseball cap he found in his trunk, like he was buying pornography. He approached the counter, and the teenage girl on the other side looked up at him with that null teenage expression that usually annoys the hell out of adults. Patrick was unfazed by it.
He ordered a meatlovers with pineapple, then immediately regretted it. Meatlovers and pineapple was his signature pizza order. He had been acting as if he was being tracked (although he had no evidence to suggest it) and making a conspicuous pizza order felt like a mistake. But, hiding had made him feel better ever since the incident at Marty’s apartment. He had felt shadows behind him since then, brought on by fear and pain and hunger. He fixed his pain problem at the hospital two days ago, and he was going to fix another one right now in front of this surly teenager.
The girl must have seen distress on Patrick’s face because she did that sudden perk-up that waitresses do when they suspect that they’ve been too rude to a customer and aren’t going to get a tip. Patrick did not meet her cheery stare as he handed her cash for his pizza. A visible bead of sweat formed on her brow, and it occurred to Patrick that he must be coming off as creepy. He did not care. The girl cleared her throat.
“Looks like it might rain,” she said nervously.
Patrick managed a “hm?” that came out like a grunt.
“It’s pretty overcast outside,” the girl said with strained cheerfulness. “And, the air is thick, you know? Like, it’s hard to breathe. It rains out here like crazy this time of year. Where you from?”
Patrick considered not telling her, and then realized he had no idea where he was now. He had just picked a direction as he fled Appleton and drove as far and as fast as he could. Aside from the clinic, a gas station, and this strip mall, there was nothing but fields and power lines around his motel.
“Appleton? Isn’t that way upstate? What are you doing down here in Sandburg?”
Patrick gaped, his mind exploding with disbelief. He ran out of the restaurant, ignoring the confused cashier trying to tell him he’d forgotten his pizza. He didn’t return to the motel room. He turned his car toward Appleton, which now seemed so much safer than the place he was in now, and did not stop until he arrived. He parked in front of a house he did not know on a street he did not recognize. The mailbox said “Sesling,” a name that tugged on his memory.