Good Luck Charm
by Ron Collins
Jim Clayton was only two minutes late as he stepped out of his car and slammed the door. But two minutes is two minutes.
Manowitz would notice.
He saw a golf ball wedged against a crack in the curb. A never-ending string of traffic rushed by. He picked the ball up and turned it over in his fingers. It was new, pure white, and crisply dimpled. A good luck charm, he thought, as he slipped it into his pocket. He needed every help he could get.
Straightening his tie, he walked through the parking lot and into the lobby of Charley’s, an upscale restaurant near the newly renovated Town Square mall.
The maître d’ smiled at him. “How many?” he asked.
“I’m here with Mr. Manowitz,” Jim responded.
“Ah, yes. He is waiting.”
Jim followed the maître d’ through a field of tables covered in white linen. They passed a gently splattering fountain built on a gray marble pedestal. The aroma of roasted meat and vegetables rode on air moved by a row of ceiling fans that turned over so slowly Jim could see every blade. He felt the golf ball as a lump against his thigh as he walked. It made him feel silly all of a sudden. He didn’t know why he had picked it up.
“Jim,” Manowitz said with a smile.
“Sorry I’m a little late,” Jim replied.
“It is no problem.”
Adrian Manowitz was the president of the bank where Jim worked. He wore a dark gray suit and a white shirt with silver piping. His steely blue tie matched his eyes, and just the right amount of silk rose from his breast pocket. He was older than Jim, probably fifty-five. His hair was nearly white. His watch cost something close to Jim’s annual salary.
Manowitz had a martini, so Jim asked the waiter for a gin and tonic rather than iced tea. Manowitz ordered a grilled chicken plate. Jim pondered the politics of his selection prior to choosing salmon with a side of broccoli.
The waiter took their orders without writing them down.
“I wanted to talk to you about your work,” Manowitz said. He had not risen to his position by being indirect.
“You’ve been with us for eight years.”
“Yes,” Jim replied. “I started behind the counter.”
“But you’ve moved regularly, passed through the trust department, investments, foreign currency. You went back to school for your MBA, and you have been the loan desk for almost two years.”
Jim nodded. “Sounds like you know me better than I do.”
The waiter brought his gin and tonic.
He sipped it before placing it back on the white linen.
“I’ve been watching you,” Manowitz said. “Everywhere you’ve been, you’ve left behind an operation that runs more smoothly than when you arrived. I think you have a very big future with us.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“The manager of a branch in New Mexico is retiring in a month. I would like you to take that job.”
“It’s a good start–they’re remote from the rest of the company, and that makes it hard to keep control of them. I think you should run the whole region before long, really. I need someone to do that. But you really need some branch experience before I slip you into that role. So I think we do this for a year, and see how it goes from there.”
Jim sipped his drink again, letting the taste of the gin bite against the back of his tongue.
“So, what do you think?” Manowitz asked.
“I think it’s a great opportunity. Very unexpected.”
Manowitz gave a controlled smile, and swirled his martini. “Good things happen to people who work hard, Jim.”
“I’ll have to talk to Susan about it.”
“Sure, I understand.”
But his expression for just that first moment had been dour. His lips had curled downward, and his eyes had faded into black pinpoints. Adrian Manowitz most certainly did not understand that Jim would have to talk to his wife before he picked them up and moved them a thousand miles west. Adrian Manowitz was a man of action, a man who decided things then let the world fall in place around him.
Jim felt the golf ball warm against his thigh. He put his hand on his leg and lifted the ball up through the looseness of his pants. Was he imagining the smell? Faint and exotic, a smell that brought him odd images of heat and rain and thick forests?
“Take a day or two,” Manowitz was saying. “Whatever time you need. Let me know when you’ve made up your mind.”
The golf ball cooled, and the smell was gone. Jim fought a grin. He must have imagined it.
The food came, and they ate.
They talked about Europe’s struggles with the euro, and about the congressional bill that would raise taxes. They talked about their personal finances, Manowitz recommending a pair of stocks he was pretty certain would rise over the next six months.
The job in New Mexico didn’t come up again.
It was bright outside. Jim put his hand in his pocket on the way to the car, and the golf ball seemed to leap into his palm.
Things snapped into sharper focus.
Jim had 20/20 vision, but when he wrapped his fingers around the ball’s pebbled surface it was as if everything changed.
The body language of the ladies walking down the street rang out loud and clear–two were friends, the third was tagging along and being miserable underneath a string of steady smiles and lilting laughter. A cop in a patrol car whizzed by, cursing and screaming at the idiot in front of him. Jim heard him through the rolled-up glass of the cruiser’s window. The cop’s voice was harsh and violent. A moment later the lights came on above the roof. He felt the sharp presence of people behind him.
Jim opened his car door quickly, and got in.
It was quiet as a church here, though since he hadn’t been to church since he and Susan had been married he supposed he shouldn’t use that analogy. It was hot in the enclosed compartment. A thin sweat broke out on Jim’s forehead. He started the car, and the air conditioning kicked in and he immediately felt better. The car seemed to insulate him from the sensations he had been feeling.
As he pulled away from the curb, though, he saw a young woman walking up the street. Twenty-five, maybe. She wore a beige office suit, and carried a black purse looped around her shoulder like a bandolier. Her black hair was cut into a short bob, and her lipstick and makeup was crisp and professional.
She passed him as he pulled away.
A man followed some fifty feet behind her.
The man was older, maybe Jim’s age–thirty-five or so. Other than the fact that his hair was pasted down to his forehead he did not stand out. Actually, Jim found the man most remarkable for the simple chameleonic unremarkableness he carried about him. Only if you paused to really look at the man would you would see he wore jeans, tennis shoes, and jacket that was obviously old. But why would you take that moment to look at this man at all? He was nobody. Invisible. Jim felt the golf ball blaze against his thigh, though, and felt drawn to this invisible man. In the space of Jim’s glance the man became something dark and grotesque–brown mottled hair suddenly covered his body, his arms grew longer and disjointed with claws at the end of prehensile fingers.
Jim slammed on the brakes. A horn blared behind him, and a Jamaican taxi driver shouted obscenities that Jim couldn’t understand.
The walking man-beast hesitated, startled by the sound of Jim’s squealing tires. Jim stared at him, but there was no longer greasy hair, no fangs, no drooling spittle dripping from a lolling tongue. He was just a man rather than a wolf or a man-beast or whatever Jim had seen him as. The man continued on, giving an anxious glance toward the woman who was still walking away.
The horns blared again.
Jim wiped his sleeve over his brow, and drove into the flow of traffic. Damn. He had to sleep more. Or maybe it was the gin. Gin for lunch was always a bad idea. Or maybe …
He pulled the golf ball out of his pocket as he drove on and turned it between his fingers. With a fit of anxiety, Jim hit the power window, and waited until the glass dropped low enough before tossing the ball away.
He felt better already.
It was forty-five minutes from work to home, a span he had clocked nearly every day of his professional life. It was the right time for him. On the way into work, forty-five minutes was enough to put his mind back into the game. He used it to set his goals for the day and play forward the way he wanted to address certain issues. Heading home, forty-five minutes was enough to forget everything that happened at work, and prepare to enjoy the evening. Shedding his work, he called it. He shed his work like a snake sheds his skin.
Today there had been a lot of skin.
Susan was unloading groceries from the SUV when he pulled into the driveway. She was in real estate, and was dressed in a black pantsuit with a turquoise scarf around her neck. Her thin blonde hair was short and styled back behind her ears. Her nose was small and upturned, and her eyes had that watery quality that made them seem alternately blue and then gray.
“Hey,” she said when he got out of the car. “Good timing. I’ve got soft drinks and beer in the back.”
“Your wish is my command,” he said with a lighthearted bow at the neck. Jim opened the hatchback and gathered cases of drinks.
“What’s that?” Susan asked.
“That.” She balanced plastic bags against her hip and pointed at the back of his car.
The golf ball was wedged in the small space between the body of his car and the molded airfoil. Jim’s blood ran suddenly cold.
“I don’t know,” he said, exaggerating the difficulty he was having with the drinks in hopes of getting her to move along. He didn’t want to talk about it. “I’ll look at it when I get these drinks inside.” They walked to the kitchen, and he set the drinks on the counter before returning to the car alone.
Late afternoon shadows spilled across the garage. It seemed unnaturally dark and still. The golf ball was still there.
Son of a bitch.
He bent to peer at it.
Jim had thrown the ball hard. He had seen it bounce against the concrete and ricochet off a gray-slabbed building. There was no way it could have wedged itself in the airfoil of his car. And yet, here it was, sitting silently in its place.
It came out of its nook without any effort. He rolled it in his palm. It was cold, and smoother than a golf ball ought to be.
He stepped out of the garage to see it in natural light. He heard the distant voices of kids playing in a yard down the street as he held the ball up to examine it. It wasn’t really a golf ball, now, was it? Strange. It had a few little dimples, but was otherwise smooth. How had he missed that? He brought it back down and turned it in his palm. It seemed to be changing as he watched. Indentations scored only one side now, and the other side seemed, what the hell was going on? It was almost as if an eyeball were staring back at him now, complete with a green iris and black pupil.
In a blink the ball was back to a standard golf ball.
Hair rose on his arm. He gripped the ball hard in one hand, then on a lark he bounced it. It sounded firm and bounced just like a golf ball.
Christ, he thought. Am I going insane?
Not knowing what else to do, he put the ball into his pocket and went inside where Susan had unpacked the groceries and was getting out plates for dinner. A newscast played from the 9-inch television they had mounted under the cabinets in the corner. The kitchen was an open design, with gray stone tiles and white countertops. Jim sat on a chair in the dining nook.
“How was your day?” Susan said.
“Good.” He watched her work, trying to ignore the lump of the golf ball on his thigh.
“Are you going to tell me about your lunch or are you intending to leave me in the dark for perpetuity?”
“Oh. I’m sorry. It went really well. Manowitz offered me a new job.”
“Branch manager.” He paused to watch her reaction. It was a good one. She hesitated, then put the package down. A smile grew on her face. “Cool,” she said.
“It’s in New Mexico.”
Color rose to her cheeks while voices from the television filled the silence. “What am I supposed to do in New Mexico?”
“They need real estate agents there, too.”
“I’ve been working Tipton County for six years, and I’m only just now getting comfortable.”
Jim shrugged. He didn’t have to say that his salary was nearly five times hers even before his bonus would be added in. The branch manager job would mean substantially more.
“You could quit.”
“And then what? Raise our kids?”
“Let’s not go down that path again. We agreed–”
“I know.” She held up her hand. “I know. We agreed before we got married. I understand completely. No kids.”
Susan turned to the counter and pulled two salad bowls from the cabinet. She poured iceberg lettuce and carrots from the bag, pausing to pick out a few of the juicier pieces of white lettuce for herself.
Heat blazed from his thigh.
A boy, maybe eight years old, burst through the door to the garage. He wore a baseball hat that fit down on his head like a skull cap, and his t-shirt was full of dirt. “I’m hungry, Mom,” the kid said, wiping his hand across a punky nose.
Susan didn’t miss a beat. “You’ve got to get cleaned up before you can have any dinner.”
“I know,” the boy complained as he ran toward the bathroom.
“Who the hell was that?” Jim said.
“What?” Susan craned her head to look at the television set, then back at Jim. “I don’t know, I didn’t see it.”
“The kid–” Jim stopped himself short. He ran his hand along his thigh. His leg was warm, but the ball was cold to his touch. What the hell was going on?
He looked up at Susan, then stood up.
“Where are you going?” she said.
“Just a minute,” he mumbled.
He went to the bathroom, but didn’t see the boy cleaning up. He walked down the hallway, peering into each room, seriously expecting to find a kid lying on his bed with his hat at an angle, and throwing a ball against the far wall.
There was no child in any of the rooms.
“What are you doing?” Susan had followed him. Her expression was a mixture of worry and aggravation.
“What do you mean nothing? You look like you expect a lion or tiger to attack at any moment.”
“I’m sorry. It’s …” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I’ve had a really long day. Can we just have dinner and see if we can get the evening off to a fresh start?”
She hesitated long enough to let him know she wasn’t pleased. “Sure. It will be ready in a minute.”
They went back to the kitchen.
His peripheral vision caught a face that appeared on the television. It was a sketch of a man with wild eyes and short hair combed stiffly down in the front. The newscaster’s voice said the man was five-ten and a hundred fifty-five pounds. The image changed to a high school yearbook photo of the young woman he had seen earlier.
“Cammy Williams was twenty-one years old…” the newscaster said.
“I need to talk to someone regarding the Cammy Williams murder,” Jim said into his phone. Even though he was alone, he still dropped his voice to a hushed whisper. Police made him anxious. That’s just how it was. But he had talked to Susan all night about it, and in the end he agreed with her.
He had to tell someone what he had seen.
He hadn’t told her about the golf ball, of course, or how it might be making him see weird crap, though he had told her how the sight of Cammy Williams made him think of a lamb, and how the aura of the follower had seemed so monstrous.
“And you know I don’t think of people that way,” he said at one point.
She had put her hand on the side of his face, kissed him, and told him she knew. And she did. Susan was the one person in the world who actually took the time to get pretty much everything about him. It was why he loved her, he guessed. The problem, though, was that deep in his heart Jim knew the truth, and the truth was that he did see people just like that. He was gregarious and open to the general public, and he got along with pretty much everyone he met. But that was because he listened well, and enjoyed the art of conversation. People might meet Jim and speak with him and have a wonderful time, but when pressed afterward they would likely not say much of anything about who Jim Clayton really was other than they knew he was a good guy and fun to be around. He kept himself completely guarded in the central core of his being. He had his ring of defense, and it was hard and unyielding. And inside the ring of defense he knew for certain that people were absolutely just like that–capable of being monsters like the man walking down the street.
The phone clicked through.
“Detective Haijo, here. Who am I talking to?”
“Jim … Jim Clayton.”
“And you have a tip on the Williams case?”
“Yes. I, uh, I saw the stalker following her.”
“Tell me more.”
“It was earlier in the day. He was, I don’t know, maybe thirty steps behind her.”
“And where were you, Mr. Clayton?”
“Just outside Charley’s. The restaurant.”
“I see. Excellent.” There was a silence while the detective jotted notes. “And are you sure it was the stalker?”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure.”
“What do you mean?”
“What makes you so sure?”
His palms were sweating, and he felt like he was in the 5th grade talking to the principal. In no way was Jim going to tell the officer he just felt the guy was bad, and he certainly wasn’t going to reveal he had imagined the guy as a drooling bigfoot with bad teeth.
“Well, for one thing he looked like the mock-up I saw on television.”
“Good. Okay. And?”
“What do you mean?”
“You said ‘for one thing.’ Do you have any other reason to think he’s our man?”
“No,” Jim said probably too quickly. “Just a figure of speech, I guess. Sorry about that.”
“No problem. Do you have anything else to add?”
“No,” Jim said. “Just thought you would want to know.”
“All right. Thank you for taking the time to call. Can I get your contact information in case we need anything else?”
Jim gave the detective his work, home, and cell numbers, then hung up. Thank God that was over. He felt better. Just getting this off his chest brought him a sense of peace.
He glanced at his watch as he left the house. He was only five minutes late.
He was stopped at the traffic light at 5th Street and Madison when the woman pulled next to him. The county assessor’s office was to his right, and a McDonald’s was across the street. She was maybe twenty, smooth-faced with black hair curled in a floppy do. She smoked a cigarette, and seemed to be rummaging in her purse as she came to a stop beside him.
“Crap,” she said as she sat back.
He tried not to look at her, but from the corner of his eye he saw her draw harshly from her cigarette. The car was an old LeBaron that had clearly seen better days. But when he glanced her way a second time, it changed to a shiny convertible, and the young woman was now wearing a dress that exposed one slim shoulder, her hair short and styled down across her face, her lips red and her eyes covered by a sleek pair of sunglasses.
The light turned. Her car moved forward, and suddenly it was the LeBaron again, blue and white with a crumpled dent at the front and rust at the wheel wells.
The car behind honked, and Jim drove on.
What the hell had he just seen?
He felt the golf ball in his pocket, and a thin stream of panic hit him. He was pretty sure he had left it on his dresser. Or had he? Had he picked it up as part of his routine, like how he always pulled his keys off the hook at the side door, or how he ran his hand through his hair in the rearview mirror before he left? Whatever. The ball was there. That was all that really mattered.
The image of the woman was frozen in his mind–was it something real? Was it random? Did it show him her raw desire? Perhaps, he thought, it was her dream? What was the difference between a dream and a desire? All these questions muddled his thoughts.
Jim turned on 16th. The bank was down the road on Jefferson. He parked in his usual spot and got out. Straightening his tie, Jim walked into work.
The morning was full of strangeness.
He was helping a couple close on a house when the man’s head morphed into a snake-thing and he slithered around the woman’s petrified leg. He found a way to delay the process. “Check him again,” he told Lainie Fletcher, the account manager. She came back an hour later and told him they were stopping the deal due to what appeared to be a manipulated credit score. Jim gave the green light to a car dealer on a loan the dealer wasn’t going to qualify for just because he felt the dealer’s inner drive and knew he wouldn’t default. He saw the truth in every one of his co-workers, saw immediately who was here because they wanted to be and who was just biding time because they needed the job. At least that’s what he thought he was seeing.
The truth was, he still didn’t know what was really happening. All he knew for sure was that this was too much. Just way too much. What do you do with these things? What do you say to someone when you find out she sees coming to work as an admission of defeat, and that if she were true to herself she would be off running a flower boutique or a greenhouse or something else that she could do with her hands? What do you say to someone who knows in her heart that she’s given up?
By 11:00 he couldn’t handle it any longer. He got up and went to an early lunch.
He sat at a Dairy Queen and ate a Brazier Burger and fries. He hadn’t been to one of these places in years, but it felt right today. The burger was oddly sweet. Tastier than he remembered, the cheese runny and messy. He thought about New Mexico. Manowitz would want an answer soon, and he wasn’t sure what to do. It was clear Susan wasn’t huge on the idea of moving, but she would do it. It was be a huge job. A really great opportunity. Almost impossible to turn down. He wanted it. And, yes, she should be able to find a real estate job in no time. But, still. Was it right for him to be so selfish?
The high school a block away let out for lunch, and a tidal wave of pimple-faced teenagers suddenly flowed to the counter. Their voices echoed in the open space. Jim couldn’t help but watch them. He saw a pair who had just cheated on a test, and another who secretly loved his friend but was afraid to tell him for fear of rejection and fear of being outed. It felt strange, he decided, odd to see these images of kids’ lives. They weren’t dreams, so much. Kids, he decided, didn’t have enough life underneath them to have real dreams. Instead they were snippets of interest, doses of raw emotion poured into the moment. He saw another who was so concentrated on winning a swim match that Jim could smell chlorine, and then he saw another …
It was a kid in a navy hoodie. Maybe fifteen. Standing at the edge of the crowd, waiting his turn, not speaking to anyone, just there, his hands tucked into his pockets and his shoulders rounded into a nondescript shape.
“Nobody cares about me,” he heard the kid’s voice ring in his head. “Nobody fucking cares.”
A razor blade, sharp and firm, sliced across Jim’s wrist. He dropped his cheeseburger and gasped in pain. He was fine, he realized as he breath came back to him. He rubbed his wrist while an acid chill ran down his back. The boy stood there stoically, a flow of crimson blood spreading from the pocket of his hoodie to drip red onto the white tile floor.
Jim stood up and took several instinctive steps toward the kid. Their gazes locked, and the boy’s face clouded. In that instant Jim knew he had made a mistake.
“What the fuck are you doing?” the kid said in a shrill voice.
Several of the others turned to them.
He stopped, standing there in his suit and tie like a lone soldier in no-man’s land. The boy’s face grew red.
“I’m sorry,” Jim said.
But he wasn’t sorry. Not completely, anyway. Red stains still dripped from the kid’s hoodie, and he saw the kid’s expression of fear. Jim was not sorry for his concern, but he understood he had exposed this kid to ridicule now, had created more awkwardness merely by his reaction, and he knew how well teenagers dealt with awkwardness.
“I uh,” Jim said, putting his hand in his pocket and withdrawing the golf ball. It was warm in his palm. “I thought you had lost this.”
“Do I look like someone who needs a golf ball?” the kid replied.
The rest of the kids laughed, some pointing at Jim and snickering, some of the girls covering their mouths like they were fighting the urge to lose it all. “What a freak,” a kid in the back said. “You tell him, Jeremy,” another said, punching the kid in the hoodie playfully in the shoulder with a movement more like a fist-bump than an attack.
Jeremy. The kid’s name was Jeremy.
“Sorry,” Jim said, stepping backward and returning to his greasy burger. Then it was quiet. The tone settled around him, and he glanced at the kid–Jeremy–out of the corner of his eye. For a moment he had a glimmer of hope that his outburst would raise Jeremy’s status, but the group’s jocularity was short-lived. Jeremy was alone in the crowd again, his pocket dripping red.
Jim was suddenly struck by a panic. What was real? Was the collection of kids coming to Jeremy’s aid just a dream the kid had spun from nothing, or had it actually happened? Had Jim actually gotten up, or had one of the kids projected even that? Christ. Was Jeremy actually suicidal? This was too damned much reality. Should he try to find Jeremy’s parents? And if he did, what would he say? “Uh, yes, Mrs. Jeremy’s Mom, this is Jim Clayton and I’m completely sane, but I saw Jeremy with a pool of blood running down his sweatshirt pocket and now I think he’s going to kill himself.”
His phone rang. It was Detective Haijo.
“We have a suspect now, and I was wondering if you could come here and take a look at a lineup.”
“When do you need me?”
“As soon as practical. When can you come?”
He looked at his burger, and at the kids who were now beginning to take trays of food to a row of open seats. “I can be there in twenty minutes,” he said.
It took him only fifteen minutes at the station. He stood behind a one-way mirror in a tiny room full of stale air and identified the guy. It wasn’t hard. Just pointed at the one who shuffled in with the sasquatch amble and the drooling jaws.
The rest were quiet to him, though. Which he was more than thankful for.
He wanted to get rid of it.
Jim tossed the ball into a construction zone before heading back to the office, but he knew it was back in his pocket when the visions started again.
He gave it to a guy at the bus stop when he came to the next light, but knew in advance it would find its way back. He wasn’t surprised at all when a young boy walking down the street with a balloon in his hand suddenly started to rise up in the air and went flying like Superman over the buildings.
He didn’t have to check his pocket to know the ball had returned.
Why him? Why the hell had this thing that was far more than a simple golf ball connected to him? And why couldn’t he figure out how to get rid of it? If he didn’t watch out, it could ruin him with its barrage of things he was better off not knowing. In less than twenty-four hours he understood viscerally that his wife desperately wanted kids, and that there was a kid in the school across the street who wanted to kill himself, and that there was potential evil in this world lurking under the skin of everyday people who you saw walking down the street.
All he wanted was to be alone for fifteen minutes so he could think. Was there anything wrong with him?
He pulled into the bank’s parking lot, and braced himself as he stepped out of the car. Sensations hit him like a wall of over-conditioned air as soon as he entered the building. The security guard wanted to be watching his kid in a spelling bowl. Nancy behind the counter was dreaming of a tryst in the back room with Chancy Fellows, a young intern who had just joined the group a month ago. Fellows, himself, was wearing a pair of swim trunks and a ski vest, his muscular chest bare and his hair dripping with lake water as he typed primly on his keyboard.
“Adrian’s been calling you,” Jacinta, his assistant, said as he passed. Her mother was standing over her, wagging a finger at something she had been working on. His arrival had been unexpected enough that he had seen the dark, exasperated scowl on Jacinta’s face before she put on her mask of professionalism she carried everywhere she went.
Jim waved the comment off and went straight to the restroom. He locked the door behind him, then put his hands on the sink counter and hung his head, breathing as calmly as he could.
The images were coming too fast now.
His chest hurt, and a headache was forthcoming.
How was he going to make it through the day?
Jim’s breathing sounded oddly remote in the enclosed room, and realization dawned. His head was down, but he realized then that he was standing before a wide mirror mounted on the wall behind the row of three sinks. A mirror. An image of himself. He’d shaved in the mirror at home earlier and not felt anything, but time was moving on and the thing was getting stronger and stronger. He felt the presence of this mirror like heat from an oven. What would he see if he looked in it? The idea terrified him, but at the same time he could not stop himself.
He looked up.
His dad’s face appeared where his own should be.
He saw that grin, the cold, almost sadistic curling of his father’s lips that he got when it was time to play. The veins in his father’s eyes grew red as Jim watched, his teeth became sharp and pointed. Jim’s hands gripped the counter until he thought his fingers would break.
“You’re a good boy, Jimmy,” his father said from the mirror. Jim could feel his lips move. Or could he? His tongue seemed cemented in place, yet his lips moved in the mirror and the words came to him clear as chimes. Was it his father’s voice? Or was it his own voice? “Come here and play with daddy.”
“Stop it!” Jim yelled. He ripped his hands from the counter and turned his head. “Stop it,” he whispered, covering his face.
His father’s voice was gone. Jim’s hands and arms felt like his own again, and he ran them over his cheekbones just to see if he felt like himself. He refused to look at the mirror.
This was his fear. His greatest shame.
He was his father’s boy.
Which meant he was his father, right?
“Are you all right, Jim?” Jacinta’s voice came from outside the door.
“I’m fine,” he called perhaps too quickly.
“I can send someone in if you would like?”
“No. I’m fine.”
He pulled the golf ball from his pocket. It no longer looked like a golf ball–instead it was clearly an eyeball. The iris drew tighter, and Jim felt something he might call his soul being examined.
He told Susan he didn’t want kids because they would just get in the way of his career and his ability to live his life as he wanted, and he had said it to himself often enough that even he came to believe it was true. But he was getting older, and could not run from the hardest truth, and that truth was that Jim Clayton didn’t want kids because he was afraid he would be the same kind of dad his own father had been. He was afraid that perhaps he was a monster no different from the monster he had seen in the police lineup, and no different from the one he had just now seen in the mirror.
Jim turned and threw the eye against the far corner. It bounced into a stall, thwocking against the floor and the metal walls several times before rolling to a stop on the ground.
He leaned against a cold wall.
He wanted a career. That was true. He knew that was true. He wanted to be successful, like anyone, he supposed. But sitting here in the solitary confinement of the restroom at First Federal Bank, Jim could not deny that his pursuit of position was also a built-in crutch, an excuse, a sleight-of-hand that everyone in the world would fall for–as long as he strove for the top, no one would question why Jim Clayton didn’t have a son or a daughter. In fact, the lack of children was a statement in itself, right? A cliché almost. A point that spoke to people like Adrian Manowitz.
It had been so easy to cloak his fear in his career desires that even he had eventually missed it.
He ran water over his face and used a paper towel to dry himself off. Jacinta looked up as he left the restroom and walked past her desk.
“Tell everyone that I’m out for the day,” he said.
With that, Jim left the bank and got back into his car.
He felt the golf ball return to his pocket before he hit Washington Street.
He needed to find a quiet place away from … everyone. The problem was that there was nowhere like that anywhere nearby. He thought about the interstate, finding an underpass, maybe, or a place out of town. Or maybe just a big Wal-Mart parking lot. He came to Sioux Park, a patch of green in the middle of the city that included rolling hills, basketball courts, and playgrounds.
Worth a try.
He parked, removed his tie, and walked across a field of open grass. Summer wind blew his hair around. Yes, it was silent here, silent in the way that mattered most, anyway. He could hear an elementary school recess period going somewhere in the distance, and the whine of tires and groan of a diesel truck rumbled away. The skyline of the city ran across the horizon. But he saw no disturbing images here.
He stepped into a thick copse of trees. The world seemed to fall away. Yes.
He saw the bicycle then.
And the kid.
He might have missed the kid if it weren’t for the bike. The boy was laid out on the other side of a tree where the ground sloped away, hidden by the crest of the hill and long grass that needed cutting.
It was Jeremy, the kid from the Dairy Queen.
The hoodie was still on him, and as Jim drew near, his heart clenched. One sleeve was drenched crimson.
Real blood. Or was it?
The other arm was folded away, a hunting knife dangling from an open palm.
“Jeremy!” Jim ran to the boy.
Jeremy groaned like he was drugged, and tried to wave the knife.
Jim threw himself to the ground, straddling the boy and pinning the kid’s arm to the ground to take the knife away. Jeremy didn’t have any fight in him. Blood flowed freely from the kid’s left wrist. It had been slashed with two perpendicular cuts.
“Jesus, Jeremy. What have you done?”
He grabbed the kid’s arm, yanked the sleeve down over the cuts and pressed his hand down. Pressure and elevation, he thought. He raised Jeremy’s arm.
“Dooon…” Jeremy slurred.
Jim began to pick the boy up. He would carry him to his car and throw him into the back. That’s what he would do. He would run him to the hospital. As he reached around the boy’s neck and back, his grip came off the boy’s wrist, and blood flowed everywhere. There was a pool, he saw now, a red, sticky pool. How much time did he have before the boy bled out?
Not enough. Probably not enough.
And the boy was heavy, too. Jim would never be able to drag him to his car.
Time slowed, then.
He smelled the odor of the blood and the grass and the summer breeze that carried fumes from the city around him. He felt his heart beat. His phone, he thought. He grabbed it and dialed with one hand as he held Jeremy’s arm up with his other.
“Help,” he said when someone answered. “Help me.”
Susan came home as soon as she heard. He was sitting at the kitchen table when her car pulled into the garage, a glass half full of scotch and water in front of him. He had wanted the drink at first, but found the taste didn’t help him, so it sat there, leaving a sweat ring on the table. He rolled the golf ball back and forth.
“Are you okay, honey?” she said when she came through the doorway. She wore a short-sleeved blouse and a sleeveless vest over crisp white pants.
Very professional. She had been taking clients on a run through the upper north side.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m fine.”
She came around the table behind him and wrapped him in a backward hug. She smelled faintly of the perfume she always wore. The hug felt intimate and safe, and when she was done she trailed her fingers over his shoulder as she sat next to him.
“That must have been awful.”
He nodded, rolling the ball from his right hand to his left.
“Is the boy going to … be okay?”
He nodded again. “They think so. He lost a lot of blood. Kid was white as a sheet when they got to him, but he’s supposed to be okay. Physically, at least.”
“That’s good.” She touched his hand. For a moment he wondered if that touch would set the golf ball off again, but he wasn’t surprised when nothing happened. He had made a decision on the way home, and since then the golf ball or eyeball or whatever the hell it was had been dead as a, well, dead as a golf ball.
“I need to take that job,” he said.
She gave a close-lipped sigh. “Yeah, honey. I know you do. It’s too good to pass up.”
“But I need to talk to you about something else.”
“I need to talk to you about having kids.”
“It’s okay,” she said. “I mean it.”
“No, that’s not it,” he said, mad at himself for already skirting the issue. He looked at her then, facing her with full eye contact. “I mean, I do want to talk to you about kids sometime, but what I really mean today is that I want to talk about me.”
She waited again.
This was it. One step further and there was no turning back. He felt tears well from so deep inside him that his chest hurt. Perhaps there would be kids later. Perhaps. He hoped there would, anyway. But first he had to deal with this thing inside him. He had to talk to someone, perhaps even to someone professionally. But first he had to tell the one person in this world he could really trust.
Jim rolled the golf ball to his other hand, and the weight of the world lifted.
“I need to tell you about me and my dad,” he said.
Ron Collins has contributed over 50 stories to professional publications including Analog, Asimovs, and Nature. He is a Writers of the Future prizewinner, and has won a CompuServe HOMer. His most recent publications were in Kris Rusch and Dean Smith’s Fiction River anthology How to Save the World, Mike Resnick’s Galaxy’s Edge, Analog , Asimov’s, and a Flatiron anthology.