9/09/2010

Nethergame - A Novel Excerpt

(Here are the first few chapters of my nearly finished novel that I've been working on for a year. I've also attached some accompanied listening if you feel up to it.)




I.

Tonight is the night that Richard prays for the first time in his life.

He doesn’t kneel at the foot of the bed or fold his hands like they teach you in Sunday school. At four fourteen in the morning, he lays on his back, his arms outstretched and his left foot sticking out from the edge of his comforter where the breeze from his ceiling fan makes that small part of his body less comfortable than the rest of him.

He could rearrange, but the old frame of his bed creaks too much and if he wakes the cat sleeping by his knee, he’s getting up to feed it dry food because he can’t afford the Fancy Feast anymore. Richard hasn’t shaved in six days because you don’t have to shave when you don’t have a wife or a job or responsibilities in the outside world. The only job he’s performing well is keeping his stubble frisky.

Tonight is the night that Richard prays for the first time because he’s suddenly very desperate, and very alone. He doesn’t know why he’s alive, or where he came from, or how he’s going to get out of the giant gaping hole that he’s dug inside his own life. He’s down to a pink slip, a check for five hundred twenty six dollars and thirty four cents, and a growing stack of bills on his kitchen table. He’s running on financial fumes.

His eyes are blank and motionless, following thin licks of moonlight on the corners of the ceiling where the drywall is peeling away. Droplets creep down the wall from the busted hot water heater in the attic. They form a puddle at the base of the hardwood under his only bedroom window, and the slight hints of mold are most obvious when the sun streams through, first thing in the morning. He gives it ten days before the ceiling buckles and he has to go to Home Depot to tell them that he didn’t buy the extended warranty on the Whirlpool but it’s only been nine months past the normal expiration and if they don’t replace it then he’s never doing business with them again, except that he can’t afford a new hot water heater in the first place, much less a new duplex.

Richard paws at the bedside table until he finds the little plastic lid that they give you to shoot the Nyquil with. To the left of that, there are three beer cans and a bottle of that cheap water you can get at his old employer, by the Zingers and the Twinkies, for fifty nine cents. His fingertips skim the table surface until he finds the actual bottle itself, and then at four seventeen in the morning, he’s gulping it in waves to make himself pass out. Too much, and he’s left laying there for another two hours, his eyes twitching behind the lids and buzzing back and forth like a hundred wasps in a mason jar. Too little, and his dream world becomes just a little too real, a little too horrifying to function when he wakes up. He has to step in to it with a certain degree of numbness. He knows the dream is coming because it’s always the same. The one aspect of his life that’s a sure thing.

He reaches over to set the bottle back on the corner of the table and misses, and then he hears the very slight sound of bubbling pharmaceutical soup leaking out on to his hardwood floor after a crashing of plastic to pierce the darkness. The first glistening tear streams down his left cheek, tickling his face, followed by the second. The third tear streaking down comes from the right eye, and he thinks it’s odd that one has to catch up to the other. Before he can see if everything lines up real good, to see if the fourth tear sheds from the right instead of the left for symmetry’s sake, his eyelids are heavy and he has his last little thought to himself before sleep overpowers his senses.

Help me.

He’s drifting off in to a forced stupor and having the same dream again, except he’s hoping to get past the black circle this time. Most of all, he’s hoping he’ll figure out why they’re both screaming.

***

Nate’s fighting exhaustion and the pull of three Bud Lights in the second to last seat on the bus back from Fresno.

It’s the trip back from the final game of his senior year at quarterback, and now there’s talk of the draft and which pro team Nate’s going to play for, and whether or not he’s smart enough to get above a twenty on the Wonder lick. They’re three hours out from Santa Clara at four fourteen in the morning, and because he threw for three hundred seventy two yards and rushed for eighty four, half the Santa Clara cheerleading squad is on the bus with him and the coaches are turning a blind eye.

Nate has the Senior Bowl tomorrow, and he should be asleep, but he’s not.
His teammates are drunk and passed out down the rows of booze-stinking leather and Mary Johnson’s lips are on his neck, but she’s long since given up on anything but slow and steady snoring, and her breath comes in little whooshes, scented with the bubblegum lip gloss she’s wearing and a faint smell of vodka. The carelessness and liberation behind those little whooshes sting Nate’s skin, and in one split second, he envies her life in comparison to his own.

Nate thinks of draws and slant routes, staring at the metal white ceiling of the bus with the roof lever that clinks and rattles every time they hit a pothole on Highway 99. He thinks of his bullet from the thirty yard line to his best receiver in the end zone during the fourth quarter with four seconds to play. There’s a random flip flop under his seat and a Lifestyles wrapper that makes him want to look away, because otherwise he’ll start thinking about who it was and who they did it with, and then he’s no better than Mary Johnson herself.

It’s been the best day of Nate’s life, but he’s still afraid to sink in next to the newest random sweetheart that’s latched on to his athletic coattails --- too terrified to try and sleep like his peers around him. He could win the lottery tomorrow and still dread the early hours of the morning. Until he finds a way to stop sleeping permanently, every night is a gauntlet.

The last thing that he wants on the night that he’s broken his future wide open is to have the dream, but he knows it’s coming, just as he knows he’s going to fall asleep very soon. When his eyes droop, he’s feeling it --- a tickle on the backside of his sinuses, it’s setting in, and then he’s drifting along on cruise control at fifty five with the rest of his team, just as the bus driver spikes his coffee with a fifth sweetening of Jose Cuervo.

At four seventeen, the last thing running through Nate’s conscious mind is that he’s finally done something good, something right, that his real family would be proud of, except they don’t exist. He’s finally hoping he’s done something that will change the scene that plays out in his head, because tonight is a big night, and if the dream is going to change on any night at all, it would be this one.

Nate starts to breathe in unison with Mary Johnson, except instead of bubblegum lip gloss, there’s a coppery trickle in his mouth. It tastes like blood.

***

Jake is about to win, and it’s the highlight of his weekend.

The Grand National is really strutting its stuff alongside the Porsche just outside exit two on the Jersey turnpike, and the turbo charged engine starts to roar when Jake pushes it in to sixth gear. They’re both cruising along at a good one hundred twenty miles per hour, and the old guy in the Porsche misses his window.

It’s finally starting to shift from a total of sixteen lanes, eight on either side, and at exit one, it’s a two lane highway and Jake has the leverage he needs to smoke the cocky bastard next to him. He uses the shoulder and fires on the accelerator until he’s blazing past the Porsche with a guitar lead from Ozzy Osbourne blaring through his subs.

After almost twenty straight minutes of wide open, gas guzzling mayhem, the lights of New York City have faded on the back skyline and he’s been racing this prick the whole way. He’s finally put eight hundred yards of pavement between his rear bumper and the headlights of his rival, and the Porsche’s driver has given up. Defeat.

Jake meets up with the driver of the Porsche off the exit when he finally catches up in the parking lot of the Motel 6, and Jake can’t help but smile as he pockets three hundred dollar bills. He thanks the young guy for a good race and wishes him well. He tells him to lay off the clutch in fourth gear, because it’s holding him back.

He doesn’t think he can drive another mile. His adrenaline rush has three minutes left, tops, and then he knows he’s going to be a zombie before his head fills up with the place that he visits every night without moving a muscle.

His hands are shaking right along with the heavy engine block as he cuts the ignition, and within moments, he’s swiping his card at the front counter and he has his duffel bag, a room key, and a continental breakfast for thirty nine ninety nine as long as he checks out before ten.

Jake has only had the Grand National running for less than four hours, but he knows that as of five minutes ago, he’s reached a level that’s going to take him to the next circuit. He knows he’s bound for the Busch leagues and a stock car that bellows like a dragon when he stomps the gas. He knows, without a doubt, after outrunning a car with twice the power of his Buick, there’s no way Jake’s ever going to lose another race again.

At four seventeen in the morning when Jake’s washing his face with complimentary soap, complete exhaustion kicks in with ruthlessness. The hot water on his skin only makes it worse, and Jake collapses belly first on the mattress, half of his face oozing with a slick, moist film of lathered chamomile, and the other side smelling of cleanly rinsed apple freshness.

Jake’s starting to dream and when he feels the summer wind on his shoulders, he swears he smells the faint hints of barbecue.



II.

They wake up and they know all three of them are stuck here until they wake up again.

It’s always the rushing of the cool stream, and Nate opens his eyes first. The grass bank is soft and enveloping, and the first instinct is always stay, rest here, you can stay here forever if you’d like, but Nate hasn’t trusted that voice since he was little. Jake and Nate always have to shake Richard to stir him, to get him up and off the bank of the river so they can get downfield to the cookout. Richard always wants to stay and sleep in the grass.

They walk as always, and they’re quiet at first. The only thing they hear is a droning of crickets and bullfrogs; the only thing they feel is a fresh breeze that whips about the hayfield, unsettling the flora until the air about them is interlaced with the wisps of dandelions.

They’ve never asked for each other’s names. Richard knows Nate’s face, and Jake knows Richard has a tattoo of a vulture on his shoulder, and Nate knows Jake’s favorite food is crawfish gumbo, but they’ve never learned each other’s names. Dream friends don’t exist, and so they don’t need real names. Richard knows his logic is shaky on this, but mostly he thinks about something else while he’s here.

They’re there to teach you something, to illuminate your personality and reveal your inner workings to your mind’s eye. This is what Nate’s shrink tells him.

They’ve been taking this walk for over twenty years, always these three, sometimes a fourth or fifth, but the others never stick around for long. The only ones who matter are these two, but I don’t need to know their names. If I find out their names, they will disappear. It’s just symbolism. This is what Jake’s “dream analyst” came up with after two hours and a hundred and fifty bucks.

So that’s what they do when they fall asleep at night. Richard and Nate and Jake, ambling along the length of the stream among dandelions under a swelling sun, nameless to each other, the breeze just light enough that it feels like it’s kissing you in the mouth when you’re walking in to it.

They pass children playing and laughing with each other, faceless old people with sundresses and canes and fine hats. There’s the smell of barbecue and pitchers of lemonade, and there are the sights and sounds of people in a simple time and place, except none of it feels right and Nate and Jake and Richard want nothing more than to rid themselves of this place forever.

They walk, and as they approach the edge of the field and the laughter of the children is nothing but a faint whisper on the wind, they see her. In these few minutes, they try to learn about each other, even though they’re convinced that the other two aren’t really there. They avoid the subject of names, references to the real world, or anything but speculations about the girl in the black dress. Mostly, they talk about sports.

They walk until they meet her at the seesaws. Until they talk to the girl in the black dress, everything feels wrong. Then, there’s some sense of purpose to it --- they feel like they have a reason to be here, but they don’t know what. They’ve been trying to find the answer for a long time.

She’s always off on her own, never playing with the other children, usually sitting on the end of the seesaw where she barely pushes herself off with her feet until she comes right back down with a groan of wood and metal. She’s always bobbing up and down on the seesaw plank, until they notice her and ask her why she’s by herself.

They stare and she stares right back for a long time, until Richard can’t stand it anymore and he exchanges an uneasy glance with the other two. The thought running through Nate and Jake’s head is the same. I hope he talks to her. I don’t want to. What does she want with me? I just want to wake up.

Because they see each other every night, they’ve tried going off by themselves, tried ignoring the little girl until the sun comes up in the real world and they’re forced awake by a cell phone alarm, but that never works. They can spend what feels like an eternity at the picnic tables, and they can stall as long as they want, but until they talk to her, there’s no resolution. When they wake up, it’s always seven hours after.

They’ve tried sitting down at one of the picnic tables with one of the smiling, gentle old women for hours, but all she ever does is ask them how the potato salad is, and they know they’re not getting out until they see the black hole in the ground. They’ve even tried telling the old lady that the shit is awful, it tastes like ashes, but it’s always the same result, either way. She smiles and motions towards the edge of the field, towards the little girl, and then she asks them again if they like her potato salad. The old lady’s teeth are tinged with a film of dark fluid, and her fingernails are filed to razor point, but otherwise, she could be your granny in church.

When they were little, they tried to block out the other two, to go and play with the other kids, except when they get too far apart from each other, the sun starts to go down, and the kids start looking like they aren’t kids anymore. Their backs twist up like limbs off a tree in the dead of winter and their pupils film out until they’re milky white voids. They start to hiss, to run around little Nate and Richard and Jake like rabid animals. So then they start to run, and when they get close to each other again, the kids are all giggling with smiling faces.

They think if they can get the other two little boys out of their dream, then maybe something will change --- that maybe the prison has a loophole or a different way out. But then they get this feeling of wrongness, just like the feeling that maybe they should get on their feet and start walking before the water in the stream starts moving too fast. They get across the field from each other, and the sun starts to fade away and the sky starts swirling with overcast shadows, so they run back to each other and have nightmares at school when the other kids are thinking of kickball and peanut butter and jelly with the crust cut off. This is fifteen years ago. Now, they ignore all of this and just head straight to the seesaw.

Now, at age twenty three, all three of them stick together and they always know that they have to walk up to the little girl before anything will change, before they can even start to think about waking up and getting out. It’s not worth doing things in any way but her own. She can change the dream on them as she sees fit.

They’ve tried asking her name, tried to talk to psychics and paranormal ghost experts and dream symbolists and psychiatrists in the real world who always tell them that the dream has nothing to do with their subconscious and the only reason they’ve having it every night is because they’re not being honest with themselves.

The shrinks tell them that the other two guys in their dream aren’t real.

It’s too insane for them to think about, so they just glide along and maybe that’s why, in twenty three years, they’ve never asked for each other’s names. They’re afraid that the other two might actually have names, and they’re afraid of what that might mean for them. They want to keep this place as imaginary and insignificant as they possibly can.

They’ve tried sitting at the picnic table and telling the old lady that the potato salad is excellent. They’ve tried to run away, but they end up in the same field, ten miles later. They’ve tried to drown themselves in the stream, but the water dries up. They’ve tried to bash the old lady’s head in with the potato salad bowl, but she laughs at them and spits black filth in their faces. Her cranium is made of steel, despite her elderly frailness.

The only thing that works is going to the seesaw.

They’ve tried to brainstorm in libraries on the outside, to find out who the little girl might be, or why she might be there, and even though the lemonade looks incredible when the sun shines through the pitcher and the barbecue smells delightful, neither are safe for them. They’ve tried eating and drinking, but all they get is a mouth full of ashes. So they sit and try to piece it together, but they’ve never come one step closer.

Tonight might be the night that they get some answers, but mostly they just want to wake up and run away. All three of them are paralyzed by the thought of leaving dream limbo, of having some finite conclusion to the whole thing, because it feels bad.

So, they repeat it. Night after night. Going strong on twenty three years.
They’ve left the old lady and the white-eyed, crooked backed kids behind, but their footfalls are heavy and reluctant. The girl on the seesaw beckons.

Richard first thought she was his half sister --- the one family member he had left in the world after his father hit the door on his mother and decided to knock up someone else for a change. He’s long since given up on that idea because the article he saw in the Tribune says his sister was crushed by an asphalt truck when she was twelve, thirteen years ago. He gets on a kick and thinks his half sister that he’s never met is haunting his dreams somehow, but that’s all under the bridge and he’s stopped following that line of thinking permanently. Three years of the same dream later, Richard knows she’s not his sister. His shrink disagrees with him. His shrink is an idiot.

For a stretch of his adult life, Nate thinks she represents the high school sweetheart that he misses so terribly since the accident. His lost first love.

It’s back in high school, and he’s undefeated with a state championship and banking on a full ride at UCLA. Milly is valedictorian, planning her perfect speech for graduation. They’re both getting married as soon as she turns eighteen, going to live the rest of their lives together, and then Nate hits a pothole on prom night and flips his new Camaro, and the only thing left of her is a blue high heel and tangles of dirty blonde hair plastered against his dashboard.

Nate withdraws his application to UCLA and swears that it HAS to be her, that he should have known it was going to happen since he’s been seeing this little girl his whole life, every night, like clockwork ---- except he’s given up on that shitty pipedream, and he knows it’s not true by now. There’s no symbol, there’s no greater meaning. Milly’s gone forever, and he’s accepted it, even though he’s popping Xanax and risking his pro career to forget.

Jake has no clue who she is and he’s never had a strong woman in his life, so mostly he wonders if it’s karma or maybe he’s just losing his mind. He says hello to the gas station manager’s daughter with cerebral palsy that’s next to his garage shop in Jersey every morning when he goes in there to buy cigarettes, but he knows it’s not her, because that girl has a level of goodness to her, and this little girl makes him feel like he’s dying inside when he sees her drifting up and down on the seesaw.

“The sun will be going down soon,” Richard says.

She nods like she always does, and it’s taken three hundred sixty five nights a year for twenty three years for them to know that this is what Richard has to say for her to start moving. He’s tried “Hello, little girl” and “How about them Yankees,” but she responds to nothing else. She starts walking when he tells her the sun is going down, and that’s just the way it is, the way it always has been.

She always bobs for a bit with a somber little smile on her face, letting them stand there and sweat in the heat until she’s ready to get off the seesaw, but when she finally does, she’s walking faster than a normal little girl should be, and they’re struggling to keep up.

Her dress is too long for her and the hem of it drags against the dirt as she leads them in to the woods. By the time the hayfield has given way to nettles and the underbrush, the sun and the laughter of the old people and the smell of barbecue are gone. There’s only a dark sky and the wind doesn’t feel like it’s kissing them in the mouth anymore. It feels like a gale, a cold knife to the skin that shouldn’t feel so real because this is a dream, but here it is and there it goes, and there’s nothing Richard, Nate, or Jake can do about it except follow her further through the trees.

She stops just short of the circle of stones like she always does, the pine needles and crunching leaves yielding to soft earth and an absence of tree trunks or undergrowth. She’s standing there in her dirty black dress, her pale bare feet sinking in to the dirt, and the sky doesn’t exist anymore. There’s only blackness above ---- no clouds, no moon, no pleasant sights or smells from the summertime any longer. Now, it’s the three of them and the girl standing just inside the circle, and she’s starting to laugh at them.

Her laughs penetrate their very spirit, and just like that, bing bang boom, all three of them feel small inside. It’s the most horrible part of the dream, and it’s the reason Richard can’t bear to fall asleep sober.

The sound of stretching dirt and bending earth accompanied by her shrill laugh --- it’s a cue for the screams.

Jake and Nate start screaming, just like always, and Richard wants nothing more than to stamp out the sound, to push them to the ground and smother them until they can’t make those awful sounds anymore, but all they can do is stare at Richard with eyes wide, their faces twisted with horror.

Richard doesn’t get the chance to ask them what’s wrong (why can’t they stop screaming at him?) because the circle is starting to form. The hole in the ground inside the stones is starting to peel back and open up like a split fruit in the middle of the earth, and then there’s nothing but the gaping hole, calling to them.

That’s when the cruel laughter and the visage of the girl fade in to nothingness, and all the three of them can do, all they can focus on is that roaring chasm that’s opened up in the forest floor.

Just standing there on the lip of it with the hum and swirl of wrongness in their heads, they forget about each other --- quivering, motionless, at the mercy of the bottomless pit. It’s calling to them like the voice that tells them to stay on the riverbank and lay there when they first open their eyes in a dream that’s too vivid and horrifying to be real. The voice is inescapable.
Stay. Rest here. You can stay forever, if you’d like.

They’re too afraid to listen.

This is where each of them hopes something will change. They’re banking on a little glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, the hole will close up and they’ll wake up in the real world, never to return, and they’ll never hear the voice again. But it doesn’t happen that way.

The black ring’s call in their minds only intensifies until they feel like their brains are melting, like nails are being slammed through the back of their heads with a hammer. While Jake and Nate are standing at the precipice, they’ve reached the point in their lives where they can’t take it anymore. They want answers, but they’re in too much agony to ask the dark voice what it wants. They can only drop to their knees, and keep screaming.

Richard walks forward, keeps moving, until he’s one step away from a permanent descent in to the abyss. He hesitates, and then he knows the dream is coming to an end, that he won’t see the other two until he falls asleep again.

But something’s changed.

They have a few moments left and they feel themselves being lifted away from this place, but Richard, Nate, and Jake know that there’s a decision to be made.

Richard thinks it’s a night of firsts for him, and that maybe his prayers will be answered.

Now, for the first time in their lives, the three of them are thinking about jumping.



III.

Out of dream hell, and in to the crucible of reality.

Richard opens his eyes slowly, and he wonders if normal people feel like they’ve been hit by a truck when they wake up in the morning.

His head is still throbbing, and even though it’s faint, at the very edge of his mind, he can still hear her laughing.

He struggles to his feet, and after he opens the bedroom window to air out the stench of mildew, he has to perform a running start to clear the mold patch in the corner of his bedroom. He takes a cold shower and shivers under the nozzle; with his Thrift Sak buy-in, he’s down to using cat shampoo that he bought three years ago. Richard thinks that some human hair products smell worse.

Richard is thinking about possible insurance scams that he can pull off and get away with, faking his own death, or winning the World Series of Poker. These are the only three avenues that he has left in his youthful cycle of desperation, and zero of them have a chance in hell of working.

So Richard walks around the turnout to his old Honda, just as the sun is starting to crest over the horizon, and he knows the only thing he can do is beg for his official job title back as a “Customer Satisfaction Engineer” at the Thrift Sak convenience store on Derby. He’s shaved his stubble.

He tries to pet his cat in the laundry room on his way out, but it shies away and hisses at him from the corner. He wonders if he can sell his cat on Craig’s List to get a tank of gas as he gets in to his car.

Richard goes five under the speed limit until he gets there. Elton John is in his CD player. He likes Elton John because he doesn’t pretend to be someone he’s not.

The neighborhood bum lingers in front of the Thrift Sak, waiting for free hand outs. The homeless man houses an addiction to Thunderbird fortified wine that prevents him from finding permanent residence. He spends most days scrounging around in the trashcans outside the front glass doors when Richard pulls up. He’s looking for scraps of half-eaten donuts and cigarette butts that still have a few puffs left to them if he can borrow a lighter.

Richard doesn’t know his real name, either. He just calls him Thunderbird, and the bum prefers it that way.

Richard slips the wino a buck on his way in. He thinks of him as a sort of affectionate pigeon --- the only living being in the world who is loyal to him. His cat prefers to be alone.

“Ey Richard! A little late today, aren’t you?” the bum asks. His voice is as rough as the burlap of his foul smelling, tattered coat.

Richard doesn’t want to tell the wino that he’s been fired and that he’s come here to grovel and beg for the chance to make seven thirty five an hour again. He figures he might be adding unneeded stress to the bum’s routine if he throws a wrench in the gears and tells him that he might not be getting a free breakfast burrito every morning at ten ‘til seven.

His boss Margaret and the young girl Sandra are working, and they’re arguing with a thug and telling him he can’t buy a lighter without identification, because people who buy lighters are smokers. Richard is here to beg for his job back because instead of arguing, he finds it easier to sell cigarettes to whoever wants them. That way, he can focus on his poker game more, and there are no upset customers. His boss Margaret disagrees, and she also disagrees with him sneaking beers from the cooler at night before he goes home.

It’s not that Richard wants to be a thief. He has to dumb his nerves and find some way to make himself crash hard, or the dream causes dark enough thoughts as it is. It was the easiest way at the time --- he hadn’t counted on being caught two weeks before his biggest card tournament. Now, he won’t be able to afford the buy-in without a job. He needs another three hundred and ninety two dollars, or he’ll be living under a bridge in a month.

He’s tried suicide once, but he’s too much of a failure to even get that one right. If you need to off yourself with carbon monoxide in the garage, it’s a good idea to start with a full gas tank. Otherwise, you’ll just pass out and wake up with a catheter in your ass. The nurses laugh at you, even though it’s not supposed to be funny --- but it sure is. One in ninety hospital beds are filled with failed suicide attempts, the nurse tells him. He’s a rare commodity as far as entertainment value is concerned.

Sandra is beaming at him with her tacky hoop earrings that dangle from her ears, as big as Olympic medals and twice as shiny. Margaret has a scowl on her face because she already knows it’s coming, and she’s unlocking the back office so Richard can follow her back there. She doesn’t want to scream at him in front of their clientele. As he passes the nacho and chili dog machine, Sandra finally loses her cool with the thug and unceremoniously refuses to sell him anything else (LOOK, sir, you can’t buy a lighter here, so go somewhere else. You don’t even look eighteen..)

Richard sinks in to one of her ratty chairs with the peeling armrests. He hates the smell of her dingy yellow-walled office and the rows of employee service awards behind her. He hates that the back of the store sits a little too close to the dumpsters, so when the sun rises in the morning and has a chance to bask everything up real good, the corridor from her office to the back receiving ramp smells like rotten burritos and cigarette ashes. Most of all, he hates her and her smug little smile, like she’s making six fucking figures managing a gas station and he’s the scum of the earth or something. She waits and scowls, and so Richard has to speak first.

“Look, I’m sorry, I know I haven’t been a completely honest employee, but if you could just give me another thirty days to prove that I want to…”

“One thousand, twelve hundred dollars and eighty five cents, Richard.” She says.

“What?” he asks. He knows what’s coming before his mouth stops moving. He should keep his mouth shut.

“That’s how much merchandise you’ve stolen from the store in your six months here. So I tell you what. I’ll hire you back, and when your paychecks cancel out what you’ve stolen from us, you can start collecting wages again.” Her voice is a frigid razor blade.


“I’m not sure I can do that. What if you took half of each check..”

“No, Richard. Half of nothing. You ripped me off for half a year and you think you’re never going to get caught, so you finally do, and then you’re in here acting like we owe you something. I like you. You never talk, you never bother anyone, and half the time I think you’re going to show up one day and shoot us all like the Columbine kid, but I pretty much left you alone, and this is what I get. You’re out the door until you write me a check for twelve hundred. Got it? This is my local chain business, not some corporate Thrift Sak hack job. You trampled on my ability to feed my family when I never gave you any shit, Richard. ” She sounds like his mother, except she doesn’t have a fake larynx box and throat cancer.

“I’m sorry, Margaret. I’ll make it right, I swear, but I just need one paycheck. I might not be able to eat. Please. I’ve been having some personal issues lately…”

“Personal issues? No fucking shit you have personal issues. Did you really drink every brewsky you stole, or did you take them down to a party and act like Hugh fucking Heffner with your free booze?” She’s having fun with it now. Best to give her what she wants. As long as he has a job when he walks out of here.

“I don’t see why it matters now, but yes, they were for personal use.” Richard starts looking at the floor, and he sounds defeated. He’s been hoping to keep his personal hellhole out of the equation. Wrongo.

“Jesus, Dick. There’s no way. How do you do it? How do you go through a case like that and just show up here the next day? Are you an alcoholic? Be honest.” Margaret cares a little too much, and suddenly Richard wants to just stay fired and walk out and keep her from poking her nose in his personal business, but he’s too desperate at this juncture.

“I’m more of a gambling addict than an alcoholic, but I have to get drunk to sleep. Or take cough syrup or drugs.” He says.

Margaret pulls out his file and shreds his termination slip, and for the next week, he’s on unpaid leave to correct “performance impacting events” in his personal life. His next day of work is on Monday, and he has five days to build a bankroll with his meager four hundred dollar sum. He listens to her lecture him, to her genuine compassion for his “problems,” before he flashes her a flawlessly fake smile and heads back down the pungent corridor.

Richard smirks a little as he comes out of the back, and Sandra is stocking Doritos and Funyuns by the counter display. He gives her a little wave, she waves back, and then he’s passing by the breakfast sandwiches and slipping two steak biscuits in to his jacket pocket before she looks up again and pesters him for a date, as always. She’s too attractive for Richard to believe that she’s in his league, except she has zero self esteem and he’s already seen her naked a couple times.

“Still going to teach me to play Texas Hold ‘Em one night, Richard?” She’s batting her eyelashes, sliding her forefinger up and down her bangs before fiddling with one of her hideous hoop earrings.

Richard secures the shoplifted items of deep fried goodness and leans forward over the counter. He gives her a little grin, because suddenly, he’s getting his minimum wage job back and has a way to sustain his gambling habit.

“Margaret’s gonna let me come back and work awhile. I won’t be here much longer, Sandra. I’m about to hit the big time. I’m good enough to win millions, I promise you --- I just need a few more paychecks to take care of the bills.” He slides her a five and two quarters, and she has him some Marlboro Lights on the counter in a soft pack without skipping a beat. It’s their routine, if they even have one. He succeeds in stealing because he always pays for something else simultaneously.

“Ooh. Watch out, we’ve got a high roller alert! I guess we’ll just have to play strip poker since you’re broke.” She licks her lips and lowers her voice a bit. It’s almost comical. Richard would be flattered, but he’s too distracted to care.

“I guess. I’m about to go to the casino. You have yourself a great weekend, Sandra.” More fake smiles, more fake nuances to convince the real world that he’s a normal human being. For what? Richard asks himself, and he can’t give himself a valid answer.

“See you then, Dicky Dog.” She blows him a kiss.

“My name is Richard. Don’t call me fucking Dicky Dog.” He hates that nickname almost as much as he hates Sandra, but she has her uses.

He’s turned around without another word and waltzing out the glass doors feeling a lot better than when he came in. Thunderbird is waiting for him by the Red Box. They ease around the corner, and then they’re both smoking and eating steak biscuits.

“Mmf. Good shit, Rich. You headed to the boat?” With his crooked smile and disheveled appearance, the Thunderbird wino is more genuine than the other lot of people in Richard’s life. Richard decides to teach him to play poker, eventually. Right after he teaches Sandra.

“Down to my last chunk of bankroll, man. I’ve gotta win big and make this last. I don’t want to work here anymore.” Richard is squinting in to the sun and it’s painful for him to buy gas at the pump. It cuts in to his big and small blinds.

“Ah, well, thanks for the biscuit. Hope you get lucky, Dicky Dog.” He smiles for a grand total of three teeth.

Richard almost decks him, but instead, he walks around the store, and Margaret’s daughter is standing by the trash can with a water gun. She hits Richard in the forehead twice with a quick little spurt, spurt, and then she’s laughing.
Richard almost shudders, but he doesn’t want to hurt the little girl’s feelings. He smiles at her, covers his chest with his palm and fakes an agonizing death.

“Oh! You got me! Everything’s going dark…”

She giggles at him before she runs inside because Margaret is about to get off work, and he can hear the echoes of “I shot Richard! He’s dead!” emanating from the back hallway.

Richard exchanges looks with Thunderbird before he walks to his car, and he shrugs.
“Can’t blame her for enjoying the small things in life, Dick. She’s got cerebral palsy, you know. How long will she be around with us?” The first insightful observation out of Thunderbird’s mouth all morning.

“Yeah. Some people do have it worse than we do.” Richard says.

As Richard mashes the accelerator and pulls out on to the 109, he swears he’s heard from someone else about that girl’s illness before, but he can’t remember where.

It soon leaves his mind as the lights of Caesar’s Palace beckon to the paycheck burning a hole in his pocket.


IV.

Jake has no arms or legs.

That’s the first thought that enters his mind as he attempts to peel himself off of the motel bed. There’s a hardened layer of soap film on one side of his face, and he’s looking at his hands and watching his body move, but he can’t feel his extremities because he’s been passed out sideways and slantways for nine hours. He’s numb all over.

He’s grown accustomed to waking up in awkward positions, with half of his muscles asleep. He’s used to opening his eyes and feeling like his entire body has been fucked by a gorilla.

He’s not used to hearing distant laughter in his head, and he hates that the little girl’s face is still burned in to his mind like it’s been branded against his brain with a molten cattle prod.

He sits on the edge of the bed for a good twenty minutes, waiting for the tingling numbness in his fingers and toes to go away. He pokes the top of his hand with his pocket knife to see if he can feel it yet, and even though it’s a mile off, his nerves do faintly protest. ‘Ouch, that’s sharp, quit doing that, asshole!’ his muscles tell him.

Another twenty minutes, and the cruel laughter is finally starting to dissipate. Jake is suddenly afraid, because she’s never stuck around in the real world for that long before. He silently wonders if he’s going insane.

Jake hearkens back to the time when he was a little kid, when he could open his eyes and forget about the girl and the hole in the ground instantly after waking up. He misses being able to bounce back from the dream like it’s nothing, of running out to his bike and racing down the steepest hill in town before his mom has even had a chance to tell him to brush his teeth and is all of his homework done?

Jake checks the clock on the TV guide, and it’s a little after eleven. He’s missed the continental breakfast.

As he makes the walk outside and hunkers down in to his Grand National, the roar of the engine cylinders breathes life in to his day for the first time. Jake sees a Corvette speeding by the Motel 6 in fine style.

Jake is up to sixty in a few seconds, and he’s reaching for his wallet.


V.

Nate is getting drilled at the Senior Bowl.

Here comes a three hundred and fifty pound linebacker, wrapping his tree trunk arms around Nate’s waist before he pulls him down as easily as a stuffed animal at a carnival. To finish everything up, the ogre rams his beefy shoulder in to the small square of Nate’s back, just as he’s falling to the green, and then his helmet is flying off and bouncing down the fifty one yard line.

The hum of the crowd grows in to a dull wave of exhilaration at Nate’s expense. Two more plays, and the fans will have a verdict. They’re piranhas, driven blood drunk by the smell of Nate’s impending defeat on the field. The pile of players ---- muscle and testosterone --- the crushing force threatens to overwhelm as Nate is brought to the ground. With each giant that rises to their feet after the whistle, Nate’s teammates are more and more downtrodden.

He squints at the rays of sun blasting through his helmet and coughs out a long, sticky mixture of blood and saliva at the forty eight. There’s a chunk of his lip in there somewhere. A thread of it catches on his facemask and then it flickers and dances between the rungs with his heavy breathing.

Nate stands up just as the burning pain on the side of his face really kicks in full force. Part of the skin of his cheek has been shredded on the Astroturf, and little specks of his spilled wound dot up and down the white painted hash marks. More fuel for the frenzied fans.

Nate swears he can hear a little girl giggling in his ears, and he’s been distracted the entire game. The heat of the California sun blisters the backs of his ears.

The small plastic receiver embedded in his earlobe sounds like it’s coming from somewhere in Asia because her laughing is overpowering his coach’s play calling. Nate is seeing stars, pulling his helmet back on, and they’re out of time outs. The play clock is ticking.

Thirty four seconds left.

Nate and the others in his huddle, the athletes headed for the NFL who will only play on his offense for the remainder of this one game ---- they’re looking to him for answers. They breathe like lumbering ancient steam engines on their last leg. They’re drained of stamina and resolve, having been run to death by a voracious defense for forty minutes. They crave leadership with desperate stares. They want the quarterback to make an amazing play and spoon feed them all a higher draft spot at the NFL scouting combine.

They feel like twelve rodents running through a hallway of mousetraps.
Here are more giggles, more mind flashes of black pits and white-eyed children in a field. It muddles the coach’s voice in his ears.

“Try to drop back in to the shotgun and run a skid. You might be able to hit Crosby or at least get us in field goal range.” Coach’s voice sounds far away.

Her laughing is ripping circles through his brain.

Here’s more California sun and the roar of drunken football fanatics.

Nate isn’t looking so hot after two halves of options and draw plays. They’re running him in the shotgun now, but despite the fact that he’s a good five feet behind the center, the defensive line has upped the ante to compensate for his adjustment. Nate is infuriated that his offensive line is making him look like a second string player in front of the top NFL scouts.

He gives up on the coach’s shitty play calling. He gives up on his right offensive right tackle, Marcado, from Santa Clara’s biggest rival school who just so happened to make the Senior Bowl as well.

Marcado hates Nate because Santa Clara stole the conference title from him in his senior year in Fresno.

On second down, Nate takes another snap from under center and has less than a second before a cornerback entangles him and strong-arms him to the ground. Marcado misses another block intentionally. The defender makes a mad grab to strip the ball. Nate curls up like a snail and protects it until he hears the whistle. They have one more down before the game is over. No timeouts remaining.

Nineteen seconds left.

Nate’s cheek scintillates with the shards of artificial fiber glass embedded in his face. He huddles up and flashes Marcado a look, but he doesn’t bother with calling him out on the missed block. Not enough time.

Nate’s body is screaming for relief, and he still has one more play to go. It has to be a touchdown for the win, or no one gives a shit and he’s a fifth rounder.

Nate gives up on receivers and tight ends that he can try and dump the ball off to in time before they smash his head in to the fifty again. He’s going for the scramble --- the quarterback rush that carried him so faithfully through his college career. The cause for Marcado’s grudge and game throwing tactics, because he watched Nate beat his team with it not two days ago.

Nate gets under center, and the rest of his team is out of the loop, but he has to demonstrate that he’s made of something here. He can’t be another uneventful quarterback at the Senior Bowl that doesn’t get drafted until the fifth or sixth round. He has to be a first or second round pick, or his future is over.

Nate pulls the earpiece out of his helmet and smashes it in to a mangled heap of electronic shrapnel under his cleat.

Twelve seconds left.

Here’s thousands and thousands of screaming human beings --- some hoping for Nate to pull a miracle and win the game with a Hail Mary, and the other half waiting for him to get hammered in to the fifty again, even harder than before.

A Hail Mary is out of the question. His receivers aren’t fast enough.

He can see binoculars and finely dressed business men behind the benches, separate from the beer keg mob, scouting each player, playing Batman detective. Who’s getting a first round pick and a three year salary of eleven million? Who’s getting cut from the draft altogether?

Nate doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the money.

Nate has been banking on professional football since he’s been old enough to walk.
“Red forty-three. Red forty-three. Down … set… HUT!” Nate takes the snap and drops back.

Marcado falls aside so as not to seem obvious to the coaching staff, and he lets the defensive cornerback through instantly. Nate locks his body behind the colluder and dashes forward, sending Marcado flying against the defense, until he’s blindsided by the same three hundred and fifty pound pain train that Nate’s been trampled by for the past five drives. Payback’s a bitch.

Nate drops back to strong side, and his other linemen are falling like bowling pins to the left. He’s a choice cut for another sack at the current angle, but that’s what he’s banking on. They dive for him, and he jukes his way out. A quick little dash to the left, a juke to the right, and then their hulking forms are dropping to the ground with nothing but gravity and empty hands to show for it.
He makes a break for the line of scrimmage, crosses it, and the rest of the blitz is over on weak side, trying to catch up to his unexpected scramble.
Nate’s calves have acid waterfalls in them. His lungs protest, but the adrenaline is a tsunami.

Five seconds left.

“QUARTERBACK! That’s not the play we ...” The coach trails off by the sideline as he realizes Nate is capable of doing what only a few quarterbacks in the history of football have been able to do, and so he lets the play run its course. He thinks he’s looking at the next Joe Montana. Nate doesn’t hear him because his headset kicked the bucket thirty yards back before the snap.

Nate grits his teeth as he’s about twenty yards from the last backfield safety, and then in a few seconds, the defense’s last chance leaps for him like a jungle panther.

Nate surges forward, doesn’t move to the side, doesn’t back off, doesn’t even attempt to try and evade the defender. He grinds his heels in to the turf like a mortar in a pestle, and the sickening crack of helmet fiberglass against torso pad echoes through the open California sky as Nate bores in to him with the contained rage of the past fifteen or twenty sacks that he’s suffered at Marcado’s behest.

In the moment of the collision, beads of sweat fling from Nate’s bangs inside his helmet and trickle down his face. His eyes have joined the burning acid orgy.

The dangling stream of fluid from Nate’s busted mouth flies from his helmet rungs at impact and hangs from the right pylon of the field goal marker.

It’s remarkable, the small things that one can notice in the middle of such momentous feats. Nate has blown the game wide open, but all he can focus on are dangling shreds of his blood and lip, streaking down yellow pylons at the Senior Bowl, two seconds after the game winning touchdown.

At the end of the play, Nate is standing in the end zone with an unconscious safety a few yards away. His eyes are locked on the business suits behind the benches. They’re whispering and taking notes on their little yellow legal pads. Nate can only think about the physicians and trainers that want to forge him in to an unstoppable grid iron force. Mostly, he’s thinking they’ll drug test him right away for steroids and HGH, but then they’ll find the Xanax in his piss.
Nate is certain that his girlfriend’s death and four years of doping will smell like pig slop to the swine on the news networks. His entire life will be on display by the time John Madden sits down to eat his corn flakes.

Before his one-game teammates storm the end zone and complete chaos breaks loose, Nate looks downfield and points directly at Marcado, as if to say, Yeah, I still did it, even thought you wanted me to fail.

There’s a Gatorade cooler being dumped over his head. He barely feels it, but he suspects the flavor is lemon lime.

The scouts can’t help but notice the defiance in his features. They love it.
Two hours later, three NFL teams are drafting contracts to sign him to their rosters.

The deep thump of bass drums and the wails of trumpets and screaming fans are drowned out by the cold laughter in his ears.

Nate only stares at the sun.