A tightening above his left eye wakes him up. 2:23. Another fucking Migraine. Tom struggles with his pillow, folding it into the curvature of his neck, forcing his chin up, stretching his brainstem, upper vertebrae and chest—releasing the tension being stored there.
He relaxes. “Breathe,” he tells himself, letting go of his shoulders, dropping the weight he’d been carrying there. Once upon a time migraines signaled priority one messages traveling through folded space. Uppers, like caffeine, slow the process making the information easier to write down. Lately though, they’ve been coming on at night, when Tom’s too tired to get out of bed and needs all his strength for what tomorrow has yet to bring.
When he looks at the clock again it reads 3:32. “Thank you,” he whispers to God, the Universe and everyone else that’s listening. “Thank you,” he says, over and over again, slowly drifting into a deathlike vision where tension slithers into the base of his skull like a nest of snakes threading themselves into a superfluously important mass of data streaming throughout the known and beyond, replicating like ripples, spreading like waves, inundating Tom’s dream with holographic layers of exponentially and exaggeratedly small and mundane details.
Like Pandora, Tom strains to put Humpty Dumpty back together, and just as he thinks, “I’ve got it,” the dream topples over again and all those superfluously important details scatter into an electron field that snaps, crackles, and pops into and out from existence leaving Tom feeling a bit like Frankenstein’s monster.
Giving in, Tom opens his eyes, squinting and blinking against a single thread of photons breaking past the curtain’s edge. Reluctantly, he slips out of bed, sits up slowly and reaches for his pants. “Come,” he says, without uttering a word.
Luke barely lifts his head.
“Come on, boy,” he says again, slapping his hip this time. “Let’s go. Backyard.”
Luke struggles to his feet.
“Almost there.” Tom tries to sound encouraging. “One step at a time,” he says, leading Luke down the steep stairway, through the backdoor and onto the grass.
Luke’s breathe bursts through his lips in gusts before quivering back inside.
His mouth is dry, Tom thinks. “I’ll get you something,” he says, putting his hand up like a stop sign. “You wait here.”
Electrolytes. That’s what dying people need. Tom cracks open a bottle on his way back outside where he sees Luke stagger toward the redwood they’d planted above Opal’s grave. Luke witnessed Tom putting Opal down and now Tom was watching Luke tremble and shake and fall toward Opal’s tree.
“Try this,” he says, kneeling beside Luke’s body, pouring a capful of Gatorade through his clenched teeth. Luke chokes and swallows, but manages to lick his lips. “You like that?” Tom gives him another capful.
The day couldn’t be more beautiful. The grasses are deep greens mixed with limes and yellows. Butterflies float, birds swoop, bees buzz and bugs crawl around the yard as the sun breaks through a neighboring oak tree in all the right ways.
Luke winces and his eyes fill with pain.
“I know,” Tom says. “But…”
Opal had Cancer. It infiltrated her system before she turned two. When it came back a second time, Tom waited, until Opal’d had enough.
“Your situation is different.” Tom massages Luke’s ears. “You’ve got this,” he says, and Luke’s chest shivers. “Just breathe.” he says, watching Death swirl in like a grey cloud spreading throughout Luke’s deep black eyes.
Tom startles and Luke gasps.
“It’s ok,” Tom says, gently stroking his dog’s body. Relax, he thinks, slowing down his own breathe. “I’m here,” he says, watching Death advance until (with a final shudder, vomit and shit) Luke’s light goes out.
“So,” Tom says. “Tell me again; what’s going on?”
“I borrowed his gas can.”
Tom looks Norm up and down. He’s wearing knee-high white socks with Birkenstocks, boxer-like shorts and a white cotton T. He is retired Navy (WWII). A good guy, Tom thinks.
“Three weeks ago,” Norm continues, moving aside, as if to say: Please. Come in.
“Maybe he hasn’t needed it.” Tom sees Adele, in her armchair, facing the TV. “What’s your husband up to?” He smiles.
“Trouble.” She laughs, uncrossing her ankles while leaning forward—preparing to stand.
Norm doesn’t grin. His face doesn’t drop. As if on point, he motions with his head before opening the door to his garage.
“Maybe he’s on vacation,” Tom suggests, following Norm’s lead.
“No.” Norm grabs a red can from his shelf, nearest the window. “Something’s wrong,” he says this time, flipping the switch that starts his old Genie 9/12 rumbling. In silence they wait for the hinged, garage door, panels to complete their rise. On the other side Tom sees manicured lawns, freshly leaved trees and a quiet dead-end street. Norm squeezes between his Chrysler, pushing aside two folding aluminum picnic chairs, clearing the way for Tom.
Crossing the street, Tom Looks up at the giant redwood looming over David’s house—parent to the one he and Luke recently planted above Opal’s grave. Once on the other side, Tom takes the lead by cupping his hands against the garage window, straining to see between the slats, looking for an empty space.
“His car’s there,” Norm says from the entryway, cradling David’s can.
“Maybe,” Tom says, walking past Norm to the front door. Bang, bang, bang, he knocks then hears Norm ring-RING-ring the bell.
“He’s home,” Norm says, and both men stand quietly for several long counts.
“Ok.” Tom pulls out his phone. “Let me look into it,” he says, walking Norm back to the sidewalk. His wife, Adele, is across the street, in their driveway, wearing a long, white cotton print, pajama slip. Norm crosses to stand beside her. Tom watches them while waiting for Dean to answer.
“What can I do for you today?”
“Well.” Tom pauses, not sure how to begin. “Norman thinks David’s dead.”
Tom can hear Dean’s keyboard clicking away. “Yes,” he answers. “Hasn’t seen David for a couple of weeks.”
“Hmm,” Dean says. “I haven’t received his rent.”
“Is that unusual?”
“For him.” Dean pauses. “Looks like,” he says. “Unit 1787 pays… always… two weeks in advance.”
Tom digs out his keys. “I’m going in,” he says, unlatching David’s deadbolt.
“Did you knock?”
“Yes,” Tom says, hammering the door this time, until he hears something in David’s house fall to the floor. Hesitating at the handle, about to thumb the latch, Tom takes a deep breath. “Management,” he yells, cracking open David’s door. “Oh-ewh,” he says, having walked in on Death before.
“You see him?”
“No.” Tom looks through the house keeping both of his feet outside. “I think I smell him though.”
“Better call the police.”
“Wait,” Tom says, stepping across the threshold. “David has an aquarium. Yep,” he says, with some relief. “Fish are dead. Living room and kitchen are clear.”
“He’d be in his bed,” Dean suggests.
“Right.” Tom moves toward the hallway as if he’s walking through the wode, at midnight—don’t want to startle any wildlife, he thinks, popping open the bedroom door.
“What was that?”
“First bedroom is clear,” Tom says. “The door was stuck.” He turns around. “Master bedroom is open.”
“What do you see?”
“Nothing,” Tom says, “Looks like David tinfoiled his back windows.”
Dean sighs. “Let’s send someone,” he says, but it’s too late. Tom had already dismissed Norm, accepted the “aquariums” smell and walked down the short windowless hall to stand at the threshold of David’s bedroom.
“Fuck,” he says, jumping out of his skin.
“I’m driving down.”
Tom doesn’t say anything until he’s safe, outside in the fresh air. “Luke died this morning,” he says, closing David’s door behind him.
“I’m so sorry.”
“It’s ok. He had a long life.”
“That doesn’t make it easier…”
“I know,” Tom says, looking back, across the street, at Norm and Adele.
“The older the dog,” Dean continues, “the bigger the hole.”
“I’ll leave here in fifteen.”
“No,” Tom says. “It’s ok. Really. I’ve got this. I’ll call you when I know something.”
“Ok,” Dean says and Tom slips his phone back into his pocket.
Norm and Adele are the only people who’ve ever lived in their unit. A man developed their street back in the 80s, and it appears that Johnny Cash is right; Leslie is a tough SOB. Still, doing business in Modesto left a bad taste in his mouth and he gifted the project to his sister. He never intended to return, but she fell in with the wrong crowd and died prematurely—leaving the property to him.
“Shame,” Adele says, shaking her head. Neither of them gets up from their aluminum picnic chairs and no one smiles.
David isn’t the first friend they’ve lost. But, Tom thinks—looking at them sitting beside each other like they’ve done for decades— they’ll feel this one every time they open their door. A patrol car rolls onto the street. Tom nods as they cruise by and waits for them to park, adjust their belts and approach him. Police are nervous creatures. They enter every situation as if their life is at stake. It’s the uniform, or at least that’s where it begins. “I called,” Tom says.
The officers size him up. “Where’s the body?”
“Master bedroom,” Tom says. “Far end of the hall.”
The junior officer goes inside while the lead scrutinizes Tom like he looks familiar. No bueno, Tom thinks. An obscure familiarity with law enforcement creates tension. Unlike civilians who assume you’re another parent at their child’s school, shop at the same grocery, drink at the same bar, or whatever…cops assume that they’ve placed you within their cuffs before.
“Nick’s barbeque,” Tom says.
“Right,” The lead officer says, dropping his guard just as his partner comes back out from David’s house pinching his nose and covering his mouth, using his hand like a mask.
“Gooey brown leather,” he says. “You want a look?”
“Been there,” the lead officer says. “Hey…” He turns toward Tom. “You’re an X Files guy, right?”
The ambulance arrives following a midsize white sedan. A busty woman, with red hair and dark mysterious lips, steps out in high heels, a tight skirt suit and matching blouse. She checks in with the officers, says a few things to the paramedics and then walks back to her car. Tom moves in for a closer look. “Do you need a mask?”
“I have one,” the coroner says, popping her trunk.
Tom watches her lean against the rear quarter panel, raise her feet (one at a time) and slip off her heels. Then, after shimming into a Tyvek suit, she laces up her sneakers, adjusts her 3M respirator, walks up to David’s front door and disappears inside his house. Tom looks, but Fox Mulder is nowhere to be found.
“Choose one,” the coroner says after having the body removed. Tom takes the brochure. “They’re certified.” She leans back against her car. “Biohazards,” she says, shimming back into herself before readjusting her hair.
“Ok,” Tom says, watching her pull away.
“So…” Tom sighs into his phone. “Apparently we have to pay, in full, upfront.”
“Really,” Dean says.
“I know…” Paying before a job is completed is STUPID! And, anyone (or anything) that insists on being paid before the job is completed should be avoided—especially, Tom thinks, when they’re charging a thousand bucks to remove a mattress and box-spring.
“What choice do we have?”
“I agree,” Tom says, hanging up before pulling out his wallet.
“It feels like a lot more money,” the cleaner says, “after we’re done.” He swipes Tom’s card. “Just yesterday this guy blows his head off in his parent’s bathroom,” he says, handing Tom the reader to sign.
“What kind of person does that?”
“I don’t know.” The cleaner locks the reader inside the cab of his midsize pickup and starts rummaging through his truck box. “But,” he says. “I could have asked for double, triple even.” He removes a Stanley utility knife that looks like it’s been in service for decades.
“What’s that for?”
“Skin and bag the mattress.”
“Can’t risk contaminating the rest of the house.”
“I get that,” Tom says. “I just thought you’d slip it into a mattress bag.”
“That’s a great idea.” The cleaner stops to look up at Tom. “Do you have one?”
Fuck, Tom thinks. “No.” He shakes his head. “Regretfully, I don’t.”
The cleaner reaches under the truck box and rifles around for something. “I have this,” he says, tugging out a weathered and frayed sheet of polyvinyl that has no right calling itself a tarpaulin. “With your help,” he continues, “we can drag it out.”
Besides all the slits and holes, Tom realizes this guy has no idea which side of the tarp he might have used last. But, he thinks. I don’t want to be here all night and I don’t trust leaving this guy alone either. “Why not,” he says. “I’m burning these clothes either way.”
“Put these on.” The cleaner hands Tom a pair of blue nitriles. “Sorry,” he says, pulling a white dust mask over his head. “I only have the one.”
“No worries.” Tom unlocks the bed of his F250. “I use these for painting,” he says, tossing the cleaner a spare 3M respirator.
Tom nods. “Keep it.”
The cleaner gathers up the blankets and sheets and pillows while Tom holds open the generic oversized refuse bags, ties them off and helps carry them out front where the cleaner tosses them into the bed of his pickup, like they’re filled with lawn debris.
Next, they go back in for the mattress. “None here either,” Tom says, gripping the edge of David’s pillow-top as tight as he can. A California King is difficult to carry even when it has handles. It slips, it splatters, it spreads maggots around the room. Doesn’t matter, Tom tells himself, already tearing up David’s floors and disinfecting his entire unit—in his mind.
The cleaner pulls, Tom pushes, and the soggy mattress slides against the walls, drags around the corners, brushes through the doors, and flops into the truck’s bed. After carrying out the box springs, the two men go back in, one last time, for a final look around.
“What’s that?” Tom points out a large soggy puddle of fluid being soaked up by the carpet.
“Bio-hazards,” the cleaner says.
“Can you cut it out?”
“It has to be treated and sealed too,” the cleaner says. “And,” he goes on. “I’m not allowed to do any extra work without receiving payment first.”
Tom stares, waiting for the cleaner to look up.
“But…” The cleaner decides. “You did help.” He pulls out his Stanley utility knife and takes a knee, dragging and swiping his blade across the carpet, over and over again.
“A new blade,” Tom suggests.
“You have one?”
It’s midnight by the time Tom gets home. Kali, his puppy, is waiting at the door. She helped dig Luke’s grave earlier in the day.
“Good girl,” Tom says, leading Kali out back. She picks up her ball. Tom throws it before taking off his shoes and socks. Then, he throws it again before removing his shirt and belt.
“What are you doing?”
Tom looks up and sees his wife staring at him from their balcony. The moonlight glistens off her silky see-through slip. “Getting undressed,” he says, pulling off his pants and underwear.
Betty smiles. “I can see that,” she says.
He smiles back at her. “These reek.”
She laughs. “Ok. Edward left a package for you,” she says. “Priority one.” She fingers the words between quotation marks.
Tom laughs. “Thanks,” he says.
“Don’t be long.” Betty blows him a kiss.
“Love you too.” Tom watches her slip fall as she disappears back inside.
On his way to the shower, he sees the package near his NME board. Edward wrote For Your Eyes Only in red sharpie and “Open Immediately” in black. A maroon folder stuffed with paperwork and a cellphone is inside.
“Success,” Edwards note reads, “is like every other word in our vocabulary—meaningless! It was good hanging with you last night. Please don’t use my real face; the internet doesn’t need to know! As far as what we talked about, I wish it were that simple, but I must CONTINUE. Tell my family I love them, but it isn’t safe to make contact. You will find out soon enough, so I’m telling you now: Graveyard didn’t make it out of the library Alive. This is what she carried. Review it, like we discussed. You’ve got this! Call it fiction, call it whatever you want, just get the information out there.”
Tom lifts the slip of paper and reads the backside: “Hoist the Colors” I’ll be in touch…