They say that no one knows their own future. This is probably for the better, since it isn’t exactly conducive to happiness to know everything. Despite the adage, “ignorance is bliss,” the best course of action in life is to figure out what you don’t know and make your decision as to whether or not you should learn it. One must ask, is it useful knowledge? If the answer is yes, then the next step is to commit to the learning process. The future, however, is a different monster altogether. The unknown future is likewise uncertain. With a little perspective and understanding, it might be discernable, but with so many variables, the possibilities are virtually endless, at least, that’s the way it appears. The known future, on the other hand, is unalterable and therefore the knowledge is useless. One can do nothing but wait, and while waiting, either think about the inevitable or pretend as though you don’t know you’re going to be murdered by day’s end.

Such was the fate of Oscar Schmidt. His impending murder was a revelation he had upon waking on the morning before his seventieth birthday. As he lay silently beside his slumbering wife Gladys, he stared directly at the ceiling, his heart pounding a quick, coupled rhythm, mur-DER, mur-DER, mur-DER. It could have been his imagination, the remnant of a bad dream, but he knew that it was not. This was real, and he was afraid.

Oscar’s hands trembled as he pushed back the blanket, careful to let Gladys sleep. A few feet across the room and he was looking into the bathroom mirror, the door shut and locked. Perspiration was beaded like tiny boils across his forehead. The artery in his neck was pulsing visibly beneath loose skin. Oscar looked at himself, dressed in a faded white tank top and a pair of briefs, his beer belly slightly protruding between the two. Gray and white hairs sprouted from pale skin and curled over the neck of his shirt. His posture was a permanent slouch, his muscles having lost both mass and strength. His knees were swollen with arthritis. He was halfway to being bald. Age spots plastered themselves to his temples and the backs of his hands. It was as if his entire body, even the shape of his mouth, was melting.

“Pathetic,” he thought.

Whoever was coming to murder him would have an easy go of it. In his younger days, he’d been fit, able-bodied, an architect for almost half a century. He had been strong, broad-shouldered, fiery-eyed. Oscar Schmidt had been a go-getter in both his professional and personal life. In his work, if there was a way for him to take on supervisory responsibilities, he claimed them until his peers had accepted him as their supervisor. And he had quite literally made Gladys his wife out of sheer confidence. The moment they had first met, he knew she would be his, and so sure was he, that Gladys had believed it, too. Somehow, without noticing, that version of Oscar had withered. His younger self would never have been a victim of anything, much less of murder. He would never have been afraid.

With fluttering fingers, Oscar took the orange medicine bottle from the counter and tapped a pale pink blood pressure pill into his hand. He gulped it down, throwing his head back in a jerking movement that nearly sent his head spinning. Touching the sink to steady himself, he breathed deeply and checked his watch. It was an hour and twenty minutes earlier than he usually woke, but he wasn’t tired. After relieving himself and donning a bathrobe, he walked down the hallway into the living room. Oscar’s brain was busy trying to figure out who exactly would want to kill him. There wasn’t a single person he could call his enemy. Yet, he considered, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a single person who would call him their enemy. This was a terrifying conception, that someone would hate him so much they’d want to end his life. It must be someone he’d crossed without realizing it. Or, with three days to go, it may be someone he was yet to cross. Someone who was still a stranger and perhaps would always be.

How could he defend himself against the unknown? Stay in his house. Lock the doors. Shutter the windows. If his killer was to be someone he only just encounters, then sequestering himself away from anyone and everyone would be the solution for that. There were plenty of things to keep him occupied. He’d been meaning to fix the lawn mower, and the electrical in the garage needed rewiring. Oscar didn’t’ feel much like doing either of those things. What would be the point if he was going to be dead? No, he’d want to spend his final hours doing what he likes. Reading, having an afternoon nap on the deck, or doing his daily crossword puzzle.

Oscar froze in realization. His daily crosswords arrived in the daily newspaper, and his newspaper was dropped in front of his house at the end of the walk. He rushed to the door and looked through the peephole. The sun was risen enough to see the paper near the curb. He would be exposed all the way out there. The odds of some blood-thirsty murderer waiting behind a tree was unlikely though, wasn’t it? If he hurried, he could survive. Perhaps it would be even safer to remain in the open, away from shadowed corners and alleyways. Oscar had completed his crossword every day for over three years. He’d be damned if he was going to skip it just because he was about to be murdered. With three deep breaths and the shake of his head, he opened the door.

It was a warm morning in late spring, and drops of dew pearled up on the clear plastic bag around the newspaper. Oscar’s next-door neighbor Ms. Clairmont was walking her prize-winning pug named Gilbert. Oscar hated that pug. It was gloomy and gross with the face of a rusted frying pan, and no matter how many times his neighbor recounted heartwarming tales of her so-called fur baby, it couldn’t eliminate the annoyance of a dog growling and barking at him every time he stepped into his own yard. Oscar had mentioned to his other neighbor Paul the wishful thought of Gilbert running into the street. He wasn’t serious, of course. Oscar wasn’t a barbarian, but Paul had neither agreed nor disagreed. Now that Oscar thought about it, Paul had hardly smiled, which was suddenly suspicious. What did he really know about Paul? One too many backyard beers had perhaps made his neighbor seem more trustworthy than he actually was. What if Paul had told Ms. Clairmont what Oscar had said? Would that be enough to motivate her to murder Oscar? And now, she was approaching, beginning to say something. Oscar rushed in the opposite direction, excusing himself with a fluttered wave and hurried back into his home.

“What are you doing up so early?” asked Gladys who was in the living room.

“Couldn’t sleep,” he muttered, removing the protective bag from around the paper and taking a seat in his armchair. It faced east towards the back yard, the view through a sliding glass door usually bright and reviving. He couldn’t feel it this morning as with other days, however. He wasn’t dead yet, so why did he feel so disconnected to life? Never mind all that. There was a crossword to do.

“Coffee?”

“Yes, please.”

“Sugar?”

“You know I drink my coffee black,” he frowned.

“Oh, that’s right. I forgot,” Gladys said, shaking her head. The woman was four years his junior, yet she was showing signs of aging far beyond even his years. The slower movements and more calculated sentences he could tolerate. The forgetfulness, however, was pushing Oscar to his limits. He looked up from the crossword at his wife. He couldn’t decide if he loved her the same way that he used to. Of course, he loved her. There was no question. But the reasons, he felt, had possibly changed. He would be dead soon, and the desire to know why he still loved her after forty-three years pervaded him. Gladys had always been a fine and happy cook. She was a wonderful mother. Was a fantastic lover, at least up into their sixties. She’d always been beautiful to him, even now as age had caressed her.

“What’s the matter, Ossie?” she asked. “Are you all right?”

“Showing unfeeling resistance to tender feelings.”

“What?”

“Showing unfeeling resistance to tender feelings,” he repeated, ignoring her confusion. “Eight letters. The second is a ‘b’. The last is an ‘e’.”

“Oh. Um…Obdurate,” she said after a few seconds of thought.

“Obdurate?”

“Mhm. O-B-D-U-R-A-T-E.” How the woman could remember the most obscure words that no one ever uses but couldn’t remember that her own husband drinks black coffee every day for decades, he didn’t know. “Johnny and the kids will be here around four this afternoon.”

“Johnny who?” he asked. Gladys froze.

“I mean…Jimmy. You know who I meant.”

“I don’t want a party, Gladys,” Oscar huffed.

“But it’s for your birthday,” she said, approaching with their coffees.

“I want peace and quiet for my birthday. Our son drags those brats of his in here and all hell breaks loose.”

“Oscar, they’re our grandchildren. You shouldn’t talk like that.”

“And that new wife of his…What business does a thirty-nine-year-old man have marrying a twenty-two-year-old woman?”

“Times are different now. We have to accept them.”

“No, we don’t. We didn’t even get to be at the wedding. We gave him life, dammit.”

“You had a heart attack. There was no way we could get on a plane.” Gladys sipped her coffee. “What’s the matter, Ossie?”

“Nothing.”

“You couldn’t sleep, you’re getting angry about things that don’t matter at all. This isn’t like you.”

“How do you know what I’m like? You don’t even know how I take my coffee.” Oscar tossed the newspaper onto the floor and left Gladys alone.

Maybe Oscar was exhibiting anger because he didn’t know how to express his increasing concern for his wife’s failing memory. Maybe it was his frustration with the crossword puzzle, his completion speed greatly reduced over the past six months at least. Or perhaps it was because Gladys was right. He wasn’t feeling like himself. He wasn’t acting like himself. Sure, he truly hated having his dimwitted grand kids around, but he loved them all the same. The thing that angered him the most, however, was his inability to control himself and his feelings. Oscar had long been considered a man with a patient disposition. He was always tactful. Contemplative, not reactive. But things were different now, weren’t they? His life, no matter how little of it was left, was threatened. Doomed.

Oscar went back to bed until the sound of a car horn disrupted his sleep. It was afternoon, and his son had arrived. Despite his bone-saturating desire to simply ignore them and roll over, he pushed himself up and back onto his feet. He looked through the blinds at the shiny black SUV the little cockroaches emerged from. There was the blond strumpet in high heels and bug-like sunglasses on her face. There was his wealthy son, the ringmaster of a collapsing round top. Oscar wondered if this was evidence that nothing he ever did in his life mattered at all. Perhaps this was fate’s sadistic sense of humor, to shame an old man facing the eternal miscalculation.

“Happy birthday, Pop!” said Jimmy, arms extended to embrace his father.

“It’s not my birthday,” Oscar muttered as they hugged.

“Mom, Dad, I’d like you to meet Bridgette.” Jimmy presented his young wife to his parents. The woman displayed a big-toothed smile, but to Oscar’s surprise wasn’t painted up the way he’d imagined. Perhaps a little bit of eye shadow, and that was all. Just like Gladys.

“So nice to finally meet you!” Gladys said. “I’m so sorry we couldn’t make it to the wedding.”

“It’s all right. We were just relieved that you were okay,” said Bridgette. “No wedding is worth risking someone’s health. Especially someone so important.” She turned to Oscar. “I’m so happy to meet you, Mr. Schmidt.”

“You can call him Oscar,” said Jimmy.

“Or Dad,” laughed Gladys. We’re all family now.”

As this brief exchange took place, Oscar’s frown was involuntarily deepening. Who the hell were they to speak for him? Where the hell was his respect? He was going to be dead soon for Christ’s sake! But they didn’t know that. Only he did. He was alone in this knowledge, and with that realization, the isolation made him hate his singularity. It wasn’t fair. Not to him. Oscar turned away from them and entered the kitchen. Nobody followed him, and he was glad because it gave him some modicum of validation for his anger. They didn’t care. Even if they knew he was to be murdered, they wouldn’t care.

Oscar had turned the water on and was standing at the sink for no apparent reason. He decided to drink a glass of water. It was hot water, and he enjoyed the unpleasantness of it. This would not do, however. None of this would do. He had to get out. Get away. Far away.

“I’m going for a drive,” he announced as he exited the house, not waiting to hear any protest.

Five minutes later, Oscar was on the highway, the three skyscrapers of his hometown appearing as though they’d been plunged into the earth rather than built up from its surface. He recalled the time when they hadn’t existed, the city flat and unassuming. He’d helped build them, with reservation. Yet, there are amounts of money that speak louder than principle. Was he a sellout? So what if he was? It was for his family. Almost anything could be justified for the sake of family. Even now, driving away from them all, he reasoned that it was for them.

Oscar had never particularly cared for O’Neal’s Tap and Barrel, despite it being his childhood friend’s bar. When he went, it was out of obligation on either O’Neal’s birthday or St. Patrick’s Day. After his friend passed away almost a year ago, however, the place was intolerable. It was too small and poorly lit, noisy, and the only people who went there were cantankerous old townies. For some reason, he now felt an unexplainable urge to go there, never mind his impending murder. In fact, he almost felt he would be safer there than in the company of his own loved ones. Oscar was sure that somewhere he’d heard that sexual assaults were more often committed by people the victim knew as opposed to strangers. It stood to reason the same applied to murder.

                He took the downtown exit, and parallel parked across the street from the bar. Oscar chuckled to himself after looking both ways before crossing the street, humored by the irony of checking for cars, as if it mattered now. The black metal door swung open at his hand, and he entered, a trio of strangers seated across the room at the bar turning to look at him. He was the stranger now, Oscar realized with some satisfaction, and he placed himself at a good distance in a booth to the right. The lights were still dim in there, most of the illumination glowing through slats of the window blinds beside the entrance. The lingering scent of burnt tobacco permeating from every fixture in the establishment. Photographs of drunk and vivacious patrons decorated the walls, a few old portraits of some unknowns hanging intermittently among them. All these things he recognized from the last time he’d been there, except for the mounted head in the center of the largest wall. The jaws of a crocodile spread open, as if about to snap up any unsuspecting bar guests who stood beneath. The glass eyes were equally hungry. Ravenous for the taste of blood. For the taste of life.

                “What’ll you have?” asked the bartender, approaching the booth.

                “Pabst,” he answered still staring at the dead reptile, and she nodded and turned to walk away when he said, “Bring me two.”

                Would it be poor form to beat the murderer to it? To do himself in? Drinking himself to death couldn’t be too horrible. But then how could it be his future to be murdered as he knew it was? Murdered…The word cycled through his mind. Murdered for no reason. He wasn’t a bad guy. He’d never hurt anybody, not really. Not devastatingly. Oscar wasn’t religious, wasn’t political. Live and let live was the most accurate way to describe his sentiments on social structure. Was it worse, however, to be murdered for a reason than for not? Justification for murder is like throwing darts at a moving target. If you’re lucky, it sticks. But most of the time when it does, it’s never a bullseye.

                As the bartender delivered Oscar’s beer, the door to O’Neal’s opened, sending a projectile of light through the bar. A young man entered, closed the door behind him, and glanced around. Oscar thought little of him as he walked towards the blinds covering the large window overlooking the sidewalk. He stared out for a long moment, his hands in his pockets, then turned and walked casually to Oscar’s booth and took the opposing seat. Oscar looked up at the man, seeing him as no more than a boy. Clean shaven, bright black eyes, straw-yellow hair, and a dimpled smile. The shiner on his cheek and cut on his lip seemed almost purposeful in some strange way, the completion of a statement.

                “Can I help you?” asked Oscar after they’d stared at each other for several seconds.

                “My name is Wayne. I’d like to buy you a drink.”

                “I have a drink. Two of them.”

                “A better one.”

                “There is no better one,” Oscar chuckled disdainfully. The shadows of the three men at the bar fell on the booth. They walked toward them quietly, and Oscar realized they’d shown some keen interest in the young man since he’d arrived.

                “Whatever you do,” said Wayne, “don’t stand up.”

                “What the hell are you doing here?” said the tallest of the three to Wayne, a mustachioed man with long stringy hair poking out from under a sweaty bandana. He leaned over them, resting his weight on dark knuckles. The other two crossed their tattooed arms and puffed up their chests beneath squinted eyes.

                “I’m meeting with my friend, of course,” he said, calmly gesturing to Oscar who shook his head, determined to not be murdered by something as ridiculous as a few angry bikers.

                “I don’t know this kid. He just sat down out of the blue.”

                “I wasn’t talking to you old-timer. I was talking to this little maggot.”

                “Come on, Ike. Is name calling really necessary?” Wayne asked. “Seems a bit childish to me.” Ike smiled and stood straight.

                “That mouth of yours keeps getting you into trouble. Maybe you didn’t get the message last time. Do I need to make my point again?” He lifted the front of his shirt a few inches to reveal the handle of a pistol in his waistband.

                “There doesn’t need to be violence,” said Oscar, surprising himself.

                “If that were true, you’d see us all sitting in a field singing kumbaya with daisies in our hair.” Ike leaned in, locking his bloodshot eyes with Oscar’s. “You see any fucking daisies?”

                “It’s all right,” said Wayne. “I’ll leave. Just as soon as I get what I want.”

                “You ain’t getting shit, motherfucker. I already told you before.”

                “Then I want to talk to Cochran.” Wayne’s jaw was set, his eyes firm. “Let’s see what he says.”

                “Oh, yeah, we’ll see what he says, huh?” The three of them laughed. “You ain’t talking to Cochran. In fact, in a minute, you won’t be talking to nobody. Get up. We’re taking a walk.”

                “I will speak with Cochran. In person. Right now.”

“You’ll get the hell up, or I’ll get you up.”

                “I won’t ask again,” Wayne said in an apparent warning. The air moved without interruption, the loudest thing in the room for several taut seconds.

                Ike had been considering his options, and once he’d settled on an action, he reared his fist back. Just as he was about to strike Wayne, glass shattered from behind Oscar, and a burst of blood halted Ike’s attack. He cried out, his hand a limp, bloody mess through which a bullet had apparently passed. Wayne jumped to his feet, grabbed the biker by his beard, and revealed his own pistol, the muzzle pressing mercilessly into Ike’s temple.

                “Drop your guns. Now!” Wayne ordered the other two. “Stay right there, lady,” he yelled at the bartender who halted from running to the back room. The men followed his instructions, and looking at Oscar, Wayne motioned to the guns with a nod.

                “What?” Oscar stuttered, trying to comprehend what was taking place.

                “Get their guns,” he said.

                “No! I don’t want any part of this!”

                “It doesn’t matter. We’re too far into this. Now, pick up the guns.” Wayne was calm, his voice almost soothing in a reassuring way. It made Oscar feel a reluctant trust, and he did as he was told. Wayne then had Oscar zip-tie the bikers’ wrists as they were seated at a table in the center of the room.  The bartender was ordered to wrap up the injured biker’s hand. Wayne took a cell phone from his pocket and dialed a number before holding it to Ike’s ear. “Tell him I’m here, waiting for him.”

“Fuck you.”

“Tell him.” The faint ringing of a phone could be heard from the little device, then a man’s voice answered.

“Wayne is back at O’Neal’s,” said Ike. “He’s got us at gunpoint with a sniper on the roof. Says he wants to speak with you.” They all remained motionless as Ike listened, then said, “Yes, sir. I’ll tell him.” Wayne ended the call. “Mr. Cochran says he’ll be here in ten minutes.”

“Excellent.”

Finally, it was quiet, and they were all sitting tensely, watching Wayne for an indication of what might happen next. He was looking again through the window, gave a hand signal, then turned back to Oscar.

                “Have you ever broken into a safe before?” Wayne asked him.

                “Broken into a safe? I’m an old man! Why would I be breaking into safes?”

                “You were an architect, yes?”

                “Wha…How did you know that?” Oscar narrowed his eyes.

                “Proper execution requires proper planning, one hour for every 2 minutes as a matter of fact. That’s a statistic, but I’ve found it to be quite true. You understand a thing or two about planning, don’t you, Oscar?”

                “How do you know my name? What the hell is all this?”

                “It’s important that you remain calm. If you want to live past your birthday, you’ll follow all my instructions completely and without hesitation.”

                “You’re full of shit,” Oscar accused with a wavering voice. He already knew he was going to be murdered, so what did it matter if he listened to this sociopath? He was a dead man walking. If anything, he should try to save them all, be willing to sacrifice himself for these younger people still with their lives ahead. Oscar glanced at the bikers and wondered if maybe they didn’t deserve to be saved. He was no one to determine such a thing, however.

                “You’re here, caught in a very precarious situation instead of staying at home with Gladys and your son and grandchildren. I’m sure at this point you wish you’d stayed home, but it’s too late for that. There is only here and now. So, please, answer my question.”

                “You already know everything about me,” said Oscar, folding his arms. “You tell me.”

                “For us to work together, there must be trust. I know the answer, but can I trust you to say it?”  

                Oscar looked closely at the young man, at his slight smile and twinkle in his eye. That was the face of a man who held all the cards, or at least, of a man who wanted you to think he did. Oscar had never been a gambling man, but was there any way to call his bluff?

                “Can you trust a man to be honest with a gun pointed at him?” Oscar sighed. “I take it you need me to open a safe for you.”

“Cochran’s gonna kill you, boy,” Ike warned.

“Cochran’s going to kill both of us, I imagine. But all things in time,” said Wayne. Turning back to Oscar, “Follow me.”

The doorway behind the bar led to a hallway with two doors, the first opening to the cooler where a dozen or so kegs of beer were stored. The tile floor tried to adhere itself to the soles of their shoes, and the sound ticked and cracked with each of their steps. The second door was closed, windowless, and locked. The ring of keys Wayne had taken from the bartender jingled as he tried one key after another in the lock, his back turned towards Oscar.

“Who was that outside? The one who shot through the window?” Oscar asked Wayne.

“No one you should concern yourself about.”

“I think it is. He could’ve shot me.”

“If she was going to shoot you,” said Wayne, “she would’ve shot you.”

“Don’t you need a duffle bag or some sacks or something?” Oscar asked.

“For what?”

“The money.”

“Money is for suckers,” Wayne chuckled. “I’m not stealing money. The more you have, the more you need. It’s a psychological trap that gets you caught but allows you to think you’re getting away.”

“So, you’re an anarchist.”

“Oh, no,” Wayne said, pausing to look at Oscar. “I’m a humanist.”

“Humanism doesn’t have anything to do with money,” Oscar said.

“Exactly.”

The lock turned, and they entered into a carpeted office, typical in appearance with a desk, an old rolling chair, random papers, pens of closed businesses, an out of date computer, a calendar of the previous year.

“There’s no safe,” said Oscar.

“Come, Oscar. Don’t tell me that you forgot all about designing this building.”

“I didn’t design this—”

“They came to you at your home,” said Wayne. “All those years ago. They offered you that government contract with the condition of strict secrecy. You’re still living off the money they paid you for your blueprints.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“How do you access the stairs?”

“There aren’t any stairs.”

“So, you admit to making the blueprints.”

“This is a bar,” Oscar said angrily. “And you’ve got three dangerous men tied up out front, waiting on someone who’s planning to kill all of us. I don’t know what you want, who you are, or why you’re doing this, but if you want me to tell you anything, you’re going to explain it all to me right now.”

“Trust,” Wayne said quietly. “I know more than just what you are, where you live, more than names and dates and addresses, more than all that. I know who you are. I know all the things that Gladys doesn’t know, Oscar.”

“Leave my wife out of this.”

“All the things that will make her ashamed to even visit your grave.” Wayne paused. “Only hours to live, the precious last minutes of your life ticking down. You could be with your son right now. With your wife. You could tell them everything you’ve been keeping to yourself, to find some relief, some redemption, before it all ends. But instead, you come here, to a bar you hate, owned by a man you despised. Why?”

Oscar felt solidified by Wayne’s words. How could he have known what Oscar had only realized that morning and had revealed to no one?

“It’s you,” Oscar whispered. “You’re my murderer.”

“You woke this morning with the same shadow over your soul as I did. Two people with a merging point. Like your crosswords, I guess. You don’t need words of the same origin or language, the same part of speech or even a similar definition. Just one common letter. When that’s the only caveat, the possibilities are endless. I suppose that’s why you like them so much.” Wayne smiled. “Admit it, you felt that same strange relief I did when you realized there was no more guessing about the future, when all the letters were finally in their appropriate spaces.”

 It’s true that Oscar had been afraid, but it hadn’t been of death. Death was a fact of life, something he’d accepted over the past dozen years. It was ever approaching, silently, invisibly. Many of his friends and family had already died, leaving the world a significantly lonesome place. Perhaps there had been a shred of relief. But as an old man, which he knew he was, death wasn’t as scary as it was final. There wasn’t any undoing it. No more chances. No more reparations. No more waiting ‘til tomorrow. This is what he feared, because he’d spent his life on tomorrow. On the other side of the coin, it also meant that a lifetime of pressure was lifted. Life was heavy as it was light, and truth be told, it was tiresome. But like a child being tucked into bed, he wasn’t ready to fall asleep. Not yet. 

“The stairs are over there,” Oscar said, pointing to the corner of the room that the edge of the desk extended to. Wayne dragged it away and kneeled in the corner. With a knife from his pocket, he cut the edge of the carpet and pulled it up, folding it aside. “Under the flooring. It’ll take you down to the safe.”

Oscar stood at the other side of the room, watching Wayne make himself vulnerable. He must know. He must realize that he’s trusting Oscar to not shoot him right there. It would be easy, wouldn’t it? Wayne was dangerous. Wayne was going to kill him, had already admitted to it. His hands shook, his blood pressure elevating again. His joints ached, bringing doubt to Oscar’s mind if he could even move if he tried. It felt as though the earth’s gravity had been turned up to an excruciating level. And it was smothering hot, so unbearably hot in there. Life was ragged and miserable now, but he couldn’t bear to release it. Not willingly. He felt the poison of time infecting his veins, his cells and organs.

Oscar found himself wanting all the things he never had before. The important things that he’d always dubbed to be the treasure of simpletons. But even more so, he wanted to give all the things he’d withheld. This was the antidote. But to do so, he would have to take something first. The question was, could he do it?

Wayne’s head burst open, his brains creating bloody trails down the wall. Oscar had never killed a man before, and he was disgusted with how easy it was. Life, he’d always known, was fragile, but never was the realization so poignant until after he’d broken it. Shattered it. Splattered it onto cheap wallpaper. Oscar stared disgustedly at the inside of a former person for several seconds before exiting the room, the gun clenched tightly in his hand.

The bikers and the bartender stared at him, wide-eyed. Without a word, he released them from their bonds, placed the guns on the table, and walked towards the front door. Ike was saying something to him, but Oscar wasn’t listening. It didn’t matter. Oscar would go home. He would hold the wife he loved, the reason for his love unimportant; he would smile at his son, and maybe he’d smile back. There was so little time and so uncertainly, the whole extent of life seeming quite long until it had passed. Where had the time gone? Why had he let it get away from him? No more, he decided. He may be an old man, but life still belonged to him.

Oscar pushed open the door of O’Neal’s Tap and Barrel, the setting light of the sun shining warmly on his face. It felt as though for the first time. Perhaps, that is the way of all last times.


OTHER SHORT STORIES
BY STEPHEN DANIEL RUIZ

Enter: OBLIVION

Studies In gray.

THE SALESMAN

“…what we have here, Bill, if you—if you let me speak, Bill, what we have here is a classic case of bait and switch. There’s no way that the White House is truly backing this, even as a declared fully partisan plan. There’s too much at stake here for both sides, too much to be lost on both sides, and what I was—”

“Leonard, I’ve known you for a long time—”

“—what I was trying to say—”

“—I’ve known you for a long time, Leonard, and I’ve always respected you until this very moment. How could you honestly believe this whole bait and switch theory when it’s blatantly obvious that the whole thing’s been concocted by the far left to distract the general public from the important issues—”

The radio clicked to silence, the cab of the semi becoming heavy with the reverberating sound of the engine. The passenger window was down about halfway, and the air was sweeping the stale out. That was how Carl liked it sometimes. Quiet, natural. The stale was new. It had smelled sweet before, but now there was the pungent odor of nothing. It had been giving him headaches, or at least, that’s what he kept telling himself. Carl hadn’t been sleeping exceptionally well, either, but it had been a boon for his travel time. Being paid by the mile, he made the most of his insomnia by cutting down his delivery times, and he found himself beginning to appreciate his restlessness.

On the opposite side of the coin, the silence was sometimes deafening. It fluctuated between soothing and debilitating, and at the worst times it was both, and there was nothing to be done except to listen to one of Linette’s old cassette recordings. He reached to the center console, selecting blindly from the collection. Once he had a grasp of one, he read the title “Madama Butterfly” handwritten neatly on the label. He smiled, knowing this was Linette’s favorite, then turned it up until it was too loud and too beautiful for him to go insane.

With the extra time on his hands, Carl had chosen to take a back road in lieu of the interstate, which, around the Denver area, was picturesque in the moonlight. The caps of the mountains glowed a chrome white, saluting the Midwest sky. Linette would’ve taken a photograph, he was sure. Carl glanced over at the collage of Polaroids stapled to the interior of the cab as though they were the kaleidoscope of life itself. There was the one with him sleeping in the back, wrapped in that old pueblo blanket she’d picked up at a gas station in New Mexico. Linette loved that thing, and they would bundle up under it together on cold nights.

Carl tried to place a name to the soprano singing on the cassette, or at least to name the song. His wife had told him at least a few times, yet he could never seem to remember until she’d told him again. Without her there to tell him, however, what was he to do? He recalled her saying it was an aria. Carl stared blankly ahead, his brain taking charge of the wheel while his thoughts steered him down other roads. Linette was beautiful. Her smile was the sunrise over the plains and the sunset of the Rockies. Her laugh was the sound of the ocean landing on a Pacific shore. Her eyes were the heavens where God himself dreamed of retirement. Linette had always been that way, when they were young and as they aged. Now, the sun confined itself to the other side of the world. The ocean stilled its waves. God took out a timeshare in Florida.

…he found himself beginning to appreciate his restlessness.

Carl shook his head, furious for allowing his thoughts to take control again. He didn’t have time to get lost or to stray from the charted course where it was safe. He clicked the selector knob back to the radio, cutting out the opera, but only replacing it with static. Carl cursed aloud as he turned the dial further to explore the empty frequencies.

A loud thump at the nose of his truck captured his attention, and a shot of adrenaline opened his eyes wide. His brakes squealed and the pressure released with a hiss. Carl began to imagine all the possible animals he may have hit. A deer or an elk maybe. It wasn’t unheard of out here in the middle of nowhere, and it was the time of year for such things. Parked on the shoulder, he reached into the back of the cab for his flashlight then popped his door open. Blood on the front fender indicated he’d indeed clipped something, yet without fur left behind, he couldn’t say for sure what. His footsteps were thick and crisp beneath his boots as he followed the beam of light across the ground. It had been less than a hundred feet, he estimated. Out of habit, Carl checked his tires and cables as he approached the rear of his 18-wheeler.

“This is a damn good flashlight,” Carl thought as the spotlight cut holes out of the darkness. There was the gravel lining the edge of the road. Rocks and weeds. The empty asphalt. Nothing that seemed to indicate he’d hit anything. “Maybe it was Sasquatch,” he chuckled to himself.

With a shrug, he turned to go back to his truck, but as the light swung ‘round, a glimmer shone from the opposite shoulder of the road. It was blood, not much, but some. The eyes of a coyote gleamed at him but with little concern for his presence as they turned to the dark, shimmering mass beside it. Carl took one cautious step closer, then another. The body of a second coyote lay at the paws of the first, breathing heavily and fast.

“Shit.” Carl shook his head, dismayed. “Shit, shit.” He wasn’t much into nature, but Linette had always been the kind-hearted one, and in her absence, he felt compelled to compensate.

He went back to his cab, took the .38 Special from the holster beneath his seat, ensured there were rounds in the cylinder, and returned to where the dying animal lay. The first coyote was no longer standing over the second, but lying in front of it, nose against nose. Carl’s throat burned and ached in his realization of what he was witnessing. Yet, with a cough, he resolved it, and steadied his gun.

“This is for the best, darlin’.” The female looked at him as her mate bled. “I’m sorry. He’s in pain.” She rested her head on the fur of his nape, making eye contact with Carl. The brow lifted and a sad whine sang out. “What do you want me to do?” Carl asked. The coyote began to lick the wounds of the other. “There’s no fixing him. There’s no helping. The closest town is about sixty miles and they don’t have a vet. Even if they did…” Resting her head again, she kept looking at him. “Just move, damn it.” He aimed again, yet she did not budge. Exasperated, Carl sighed and lowered his gun. “Ballsy little mutt, ain’tcha? Okay, then. Have it your way.”

As he turned to leave them, the coyote lifted her head and whined once more. Carl looked back, curious. It seemed to him that she wanted him to stay. He asked her this, then chuckled at himself for asking a stupid animal a question like that. But she seemed to answer. It was those goddamn eyes. They spoke a language, something that Carl couldn’t translate yet understood fluently.

“You hungry?” She didn’t move. “You’re probably hungry.” Carl went back again scrounged for the paper bag with the leftover fast food that Linette would have never let him eat. A moment later, he unwrapped a cheeseburger and tossed it toward the pair. She merely glanced at it, the bun askew and mustard smeared. “What’s the matter? You don’t eat meat?” he asked. “How about some water then?” Carl had grabbed a cooking pot and emptied a water bottle into it. Placing the pot on the ground, he slid it toward them. The coyote bared her teeth, wary of his proximity. “Okay, okay.” Carl backed off quickly, then stood scratching his head. The flashlight illuminated the blood to a glowing red and revealed a leg turned completely around.

Carl had heard that some coyotes mated for life but had never considered it more than a decision based around anything but procreation, if not a rumor. This was something else, however, something familiar to him, and he heaved a sigh. A large rock lay several feet off on the roadside and he took a seat, still watching them.

“You don’t mind, do you?” he asked her. She watched him calmly, laying her head back down on her mate. “If it makes you feel any better, he’s the lucky one. Dying is the easy part, you know. It doesn’t take any effort. No work, no fail and try again. Living, now, that’s the hard part.” He sucked at his teeth for a moment. “Like right now. He’s having a hard time trying to stay alive for you. He’s in pain. I’m sure he wants to stay alive, but… It’s just like a woman to make a man want to do things he don’t want. I guess that applies to other species… You should let me end it for him.” Carl reached for his gun, but the coyote growled again, and he held his hands where she could see. “Aright, alright. No guns. No easy, painless death for him.” He swallowed. “So, what now?”

The three sat still for a long time, and Carl listened to the breeze move across the spinning earth. Linette would do that on many mornings, except she would be in one of her various yoga positions. How she stayed in those knots for so long, he never could figure. Carl hadn’t ever been very flexible, even when she’d gotten him to try it out. Now that he thought about it, how the hell did she convince him to do yoga not once, not twice, but four times? He shook his head and laughed.

“I’m sorry,” he responded to the coyote lifting her head. “I just had a funny thought.” She laid back. “I was thinking about my wife, Linette, and her way of getting me to do things I’d never want to do and even make me think that’s what I wanted. You females are wily, and I suppose a female coyote’s the wiliest of them all. She got me eating okra. I hated okra my whole life, at least I thought I did. I hadn’t actually ever tried it. I didn’t tell her that, though. Just made it seem like I didn’t like the texture. One day she fried it up, and she made this special dipping sauce. I swear, I’ve still never eaten anything more delicious than Linette’s fried okra.” Carl was smiling at the coyote, then remembered, and he stopped. “Wily women. Maybe in a way, I always wanted to do those things. She just pulled it all out of me. And it made us both happy. I’m sure he ain’t any happier about him dying than you are,” he said, nodding towards them. She nuzzled the other coyote, licked him a few more times, then lied still watching Carl.

It’s just like a woman to make a man want to do things he don’t want.

“Better eat that cheeseburger before the ants get it. I heard they got big ones around here.” She glanced again at the food but remained where she was. She wasn’t eating, and he understood why. It was the same reason he hadn’t eaten. He lied to Linette about it, of course. He didn’t want her worrying. For some reason, thinking about the lie he told made him sick now.

Carl tried to leave again, but the coyote whined and yipped. “You want some company, huh? That’s what they say about misery, you know. Maybe that’s what I should call you. What do you think, Misery?”

The moon moved slowly across the sky as he neared sitting there for an hour. Glancing at his watch, it was a quarter to four. He considered his route, how much time he had to spare, and was still five hours ahead of schedule. The male coyote was still alive, and every so often would sigh, weak and strained. It’s not fair to him.

“It’s just not fair to him.” Carl looked her in the eye. It wasn’t fair to anyone. “I was right where you are, you know. My wife died, slowly. Instead of a few hours though, it took years. I watched her and held her as she fought through all the pain. She’d cry herself to sleep some nights. It was all I could do not to cry myself. Sometimes I wish I had, but she needed me to be strong for her. Someone had to. Her own body had turned on her, was killing her. And we stuck through it, with all the medicines and the treatments and operations and recoveries and thinking it was over and then finding out it wasn’t really.” Carl looked away, thoughts connecting in places they hadn’t before. “I’ve been wondering what the hell it all was for. Why all that if she was just going to die anyway? Now… you know, in some strange way, certain parts of it were the best time of our lives. In between the pain and the tears, we laughed so much, and we smiled. We had before, but, when you sandwich regular slices of good in between all the slices of bad, it was pretty damn amazing in contrast.” He looked back at her. “I guess I can understand now why you don’t want me to end it for him.” She sighed softly, and they sat silently again.

The dying coyote began to tremble, causing her ears to perk up as she cried.

“He’s getting cold. Lost a lot of blood. And it’s gotten colder.” Carl checked his watch again. Another hour had passed in what felt like only a few minutes. He wondered where the time had gone, and as if in response, the first glimmer of twilight peaked over the crests of the mountains washing everything with a dark purple haze. It took a few seconds to see clearly, but he could make out the panting of the coyote, still bleeding, still dying, and Carl became angry.

“Why’d you make me sit here like this, watching him die? I don’t deserve this. It’s not my fault that this is happening. You refuse to let me put him out of his misery.” She looked at him, motionless. “Why do you keep looking at me like that? He’s suffering, goddamn it! Can’t you see? You can hold on all you want to, but it isn’t going to change anything for him except leave him in pain longer. He’s dying. He’s as good as dead already. This isn’t about you, you know. I’ve got a life. I’ve got a job to do. I should be out there driving right now instead of sitting on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere watching a stupid coyote bleed to death in the dirt. What the hell is the matter with you? You’re a sadistic little bitch, and I’m not putting up with it anymore!”

As he stood, she growled, and as he stepped, she darted in front of him, facing him with her fangs revealed. She wasn’t exceptionally large, but the warning in her eyes was a fire, and Carl halted.

“Get out of my way, you stupid mutt.” The coyote growled again. “Move! Go on!” Still, she remained in his path. Carl drew his gun. “I’ll shoot you. I don’t want to shoot you, but I will!”

The front sight post of his pistol was aligned to the Misery’s face. Her expression didn’t change, however. She was unafraid in a way that Carl recognized, not because he too was unafraid, but because he had been the polar opposite, and a part will always recognize its counterpart. But what was he so afraid of that this coyote wasn’t? What the hell did she know that was so unapparent to him? She knew what the gun meant, and yet she remained fixed in his path. Dying didn’t matter to her. He wasn’t bluffing. But in the same measure, staying alive didn’t matter either.

“Living isn’t the point, is it…” Carl neither asked nor stated. “But dying isn’t either.” The coyote relaxed and let out a quiet whimper. “I’m sorry for hitting him. I wasn’t paying attention. It’s my own fault that we’re here.

The sky was glowing as they returned together to the dying coyote. Carl sat beside them, his elbow on a knee. She took a spot nestled beside her mate. His breathing was shallow and labored now. Then, as the first ray of morning sun claimed the horizon, he died. She nudged him a few times, licked his face, then reared back and began to howl for several minutes. Somewhere in the distance, the echo of a response returned the call. Then another, and a third and fourth. Carl listened in silent awe as they sang to each other.

Misery rose, calmly, lightly, and turned away. Carl watched her until she disappeared in the distance. Five minutes later, he was digging a small grave away from the road, and soon after, he turned the key in his ignition. The radio blasted static at him, and he jumped, fumbling with the switch. Then, the soprano began singing her aria once more.

“Freni. Her name is Mirella Freni.” Carl laughed deeply, relieving the tension in his chest as he drove his rig back onto the highway, the sunlight warming his face. “One good day, we will see,” he said with a smile. “One good day, we will see.”


OTHER SHORT STORIES
BY STEPHEN DANIEL RUIZ

Enter: OBLIVION

Studies In gray.

THE SALESMAN