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

Through the window of a diner, the sunlight was not a stream but a submersion, where, in a time far removed from the present, patrons soaked up the warmth and light. Comforting as it could have been, for Frida it was simply the familiar precursor to a half-baked afternoon. This was the feeling before the work began. Heat on the skin. Bright in the eyes. Smoke in the lungs as she leaned against the old gray pickup. That truck was wearing out, but something about the sight of it sitting in the dusty old desert gave her a fantastic chill.

                “There you are,” said Davis as he swung the door open and stepped hurriedly outside, a toothpick sticking out from between his teeth. “I been lookin’ all around for you. Didn’t you hear me callin’? I just about thought you left me.”

                “Thought about it.”

                “Look,” he began, then paused. “I think we should talk about—”

                “I don’t want to talk. About anything.”

                “But what happened—”

                “I said I don’t want to talk,” she insisted. Frida looked out at the lowering ball of fire setting off explosions of mirages across the endless miles of rocks, sand, and brush. She took a long drag of her last cigarette before offering it. “I’m just tired, Davis. I’m just really fucking tired.”

                “I’m not gonna say anything. No one’s gonna hear about it from me.”

               “Better not.”

               “We ain’t got much further to go,” Davis sighed. “Maybe fifty miles, and that’s assumin’ no quakes hold us up or make us circle ‘round. But I wouldn’t count on that.”

                “I wouldn’t either.” Frida looked at him. “Anything on the radio from the outpost?”

               “Nah. Nothin’.”

               Silently, Davis removed the stained and weathered Stetson from his head before whipping his fingers through his hair. Frida remembered when it was hardly more than a buzz cut. He’d always liked his hair short. Now it was a good five or six inches. Maybe more. It suited him though, and the beard.

               “I guess we’ll just have to hope that they’re okay. If not, this whole mission is nothing but a waste of time and resources.” Frida flicked the ashes from the end of her cigarette and took two consecutive puffs. Davis squinted at her.

               “You okay?”

               “What do you mean? I’m fine.” She tossed the cigarette and pushed herself off the truck to open the passenger door.

               “You seem off,” he said. “Like you got somethin’ eatin’ at you.”

               “I told you, I’m tired.”

               “Yeah, me too. But that’s not what I’m talkin’ ‘bout.”

               “Davis!” Frida whirled around to face him. “I’m fucking fine, okay? Just knock it off with the questions!” They looked at each other for a long moment, and Frida took a breath. “I’m sorry. I’m not feeling great.”

                “We should hit the road,” Davis said after a quiet stare at the dirt. “Need to make this light count. You check the cargo straps?” He walked around the front of the truck to the driver’s side.

                “Yeah. It’s all secure.”

                Minutes later, Frida leaned back in the passenger seat, her two naked feet propped in front of the side view mirror with the wind stealing between her toes. She’d always loved that feeling since she was young, closing her eyes, imagining she was walking on the breeze.  Frida closed her eyes again, and for a moment, she almost felt that it was her father behind the wheel, and that she was a little girl, and everything would always be all right.

                One. Smell the rain.

                Two. Blow out the candle.

                Three. Smell the rain.

                Four. Blow out the candle.

                “You asleep?” asked Davis.

                Frida remained silent, listening to the strained hum of the engine. The odometer was coming up on 370,000 miles with parts stolen, rigged and repurposed from other disabled vehicles. Who knew how many miles that added up to collectively? Miles upon miles with nothing to show for it. Then again, this was a different time. Before the reckoning, miles meant something. It was a measurement between places that existed and had people and things happening. Now, miles were simply invisible points somewhere in the distance. Close or far, it didn’t matter if there was nothing at the end. It was all a globe of empty and infinite directions now.

                “Fri, I need you to navigate. The road’s disappeared.” Davis was squinting at the ground before them as she sat up, slipped her boots back on, and retrieved the map from the glove box.

                “When was the last mile marker?”

                “About ten miles ago, I’d say.”

                “Then we should be seeing it soon.” Frida scanned the skyline. “There,” she said, pointing to a distant rock formation carved by prehistoric waters.

                “Perty.”

                “Yeah. Less than an hour, Davis,” she smiled. “That’s all.”

                “You thought about what we’ll do if we get there an’…well, y’know? We keep hearin’ ‘bout these stampedes comin’ through—”

                “There’s no way that’s a real thing, Davis. Give me a break.”

                “How can you be so sure? Did you ever think ten or fifteen years ago that the world would look like it does now?”

                “Just drive,” Frida said.

                “What’s your problem?” Davis looked at her. “You’re scared.”

                “I’m not fucking scared.”

                “Yeah, you are,” he laughed. “Why the hell you always gotta act like Little Miss Badass? Nobody buys that shit, y’know.”

                “I don’t act like anything. And you’re one to talk considering you have to keep a bottle of that jet fuel by your side all the time.”

                “It’s moonshine that I made myself. It’s a goddamn art, an’ it keeps me centered.”

                “Just keep telling yourself that.”

                They each glared out into the desert. When the two-week mission had started, neither of them had anticipated hating each other by the end of it, despite cutting down the time by almost three days. It was supposed to be a simple resupply like all their others. But somehow, time had proven them to be less formidable a team as anyone had thought. Frida was done with him, and Davis was done with her. Once they got to Outpost 42 and delivered the cargo, she’d find another way back to the base. Or he could. Why should she have to give up the truck?

                “Why are you going so fast? You’re going to waste fuel.”

“It’s gettin’ dark. We can’t defend ourselves out here.”

                Giving no response to his concern, Frida took an expired oatmeal bar from her backpack on the floor and cracked it into halves. She handed one half to Davis who frowned at it.

                “I can’t wait to eat something that won’t break my teeth,” he said, accepting it. “What d’you think Bill and Jenny are cookin’ up for supper back at the base?”

                “I just want some protein,” said Frida.

                “A steak dinner sounds all right to me.”

                “I was thinking more like salmon…with a white wine sauce and steamed spears of fresh asparagus.”

                Davis leaned in with an enthralled smile. “Fried chicken.”

                “Shut up, Davis,” Frida said shaking her head. “There are just some things you shouldn’t joke—”

                “Oh, shit.” Davis’s eyes widened as he looked towards the right. The darkness had been descending upon the desert like a wave, and with it, a cloud of dust was rising.

                “What is that?”

                “We should’ve stayed at the fuckin’ diner,” Davis said, the panic in his voice elevating.

                “Just keep going. Turn the brights on.” The headlights pierced ahead into the darkening shadows before them, the ground beneath the tires throwing up dirt behind. The rumbling the two had thought was the truck riding over the unpaved land was growing in intensity, and it soon became apparent that it was originating elsewhere.

                “Is that an earthquake?” asked Frida.

                “No kind of quake I ever felt before.”

                “Maybe far away?”

                “It’s comin’ from the dark, Frida. That’s no earthquake.” The darkness and the cloud suddenly swallowed up all the world before them, the rock formation disappearing from sight. Davis cursed and suddenly cut the wheel. “We’re goin’ back.”

                “We can’t go back!” Frida yelled. “We have to make our delivery! We’re running out of time!”

                “If we don’t get away from whatever that is, there won’t be anythin’ to deliver!”

                Davis kept speaking, but Frida could hear none of it as the rumbling which was now behind them grew deafening, rattling their lungs and spines. Frida turned around in her seat and screamed a curse that could not be heard as the vibration cracked then shattered the front and rear windshields. She gritted her teeth from the pain, and Davis shielded his eyes with his arm as little glass shards embedded themselves into their skin.

                About thirty yards behind them, dozens of eyes reflected the little glimmers of light that hadn’t yet disappeared over the western horizon. There had been rumors about herds of the shadowlings having formed in the open plains and in the desert, but that had all been dismissed because no one had ever actually seen it, at least, no one still living. How it was possible, Frida didn’t know, and, in the moment, it didn’t matter. She reached behind their seats for the M16. There were only eighteen rounds remaining in the magazine, so if she wanted to make her shots count, she’d have to take them while she could still see.

                Frida aimed the rifle through the broken rear windshield, the eyes now only twenty feet behind. She watched as one by one, the pursuing eyes flickered away. The day was sending out its final feeble throws of light. Frida aimed between the last pair of eyes that remained visible, and just as they too disappeared, she pulled the trigger. The muzzle flash illuminated the space surrounding them, and a sea of pale contorted faces appeared with frothing hungry mouths and gnashing teeth. But, what was that? Frida saw something she’d never have expected or imagined in a hundred, even a thousand years. Before she could take the moment to process the information, however, she felt a sudden weightlessness lift her body from the seat.

                The ground before them had suddenly opened up with a thunderous groan, and the nose of the truck was tipping over the edge. With equal ferocity, a floor of solid rock charged up from the depths, catching them midfall. Both Frida and Davis were slung around the cab of the truck like dead rats in a flooded sewer. Then, just as quickly as it had begun, the earth became still again, followed by the sounds of small rocks and pebbles settling until even the rumbling of the herd had become silent. Frida looked up at the edge, the taillights of the truck revealing what she’d thought couldn’t be real. They looked back at her, hungry and milling about in agitation, bathed in red brake lights.

                One. Smell the rain.

                Two. Blow out the candle.

                Three. Smell the…

                Some unknown time later, Frida could see the glow of day through her closed lids. Every piece of her body ached as she sputtered a dusty cough. Her face was somehow against the floorboard of the cab, and the sickly-sweet odor of antifreeze filled her nostrils. She coughed again before reaching a blind hand to grab the shifter and wriggle herself up. A dirty tarp covered her body, and she pushed it off.

                “Davis.”

                Relaxing her body for a moment, she looked ahead and found the truck to be vertical, standing on its grill with its rear tires leaning against the cliff face. A river of pale blue sky was visible between the walls of the chasm that had been formed by the apparent earthquake. Her vision blurred, and Frida clenched her eyes shut and open again several times.

                “Davis.”

                Frida was finally able to turn her head to see that the driver’s seat was empty, and she momentarily forgot her pain. She tried to yell his name, but she couldn’t get a full breath while folded in her current position, legs on the seat, back against the glovebox. Using her elbows, she pushed harder until she was upright.

                “Davis!” Why wasn’t he answering?

               She estimated that they’d fallen fifty to a hundred feet, the lack of dimension the sky possessed making it nearly impossible to accurately discern any distance upward. The ravine stretched right and left, far and wide, until both directions made sharp turns. Frida looked herself over, finding only a few cuts and bruises, relieved that, to her best guess, she had no broken bones. She wondered how long she’d been unconscious. Long enough for the sun to be high again. Perhaps six hours? No more than eight or it would be dark again, unless she’d been out for twelve or more hours. There was no way to tell for sure.

               And where the hell was Davis?

               A thought suddenly overwhelmed Frida’s mind, and frantically, she scooted herself up and out of the truck, lied on the ground for a moment, then stood to view the truck bed. Her blood tingled, and her stomach knotted as she found the cargo gone, the straps that had been holding it into place unhooked. Swiveling her neck, she looked all around for the steel container. There was nothing on the ground but leaking fluids from the mangled engine. Frida began searching in widening circles around the truck until she found herself several meters from where they’d landed. No container. No Davis.

                “He must have it,” she thought. “He has to have it.”

                The only logical explanation to Frida was that he’d come to much sooner than she had, thought she was dead, and taken the cargo with him to find a way out. There was no way to tell which direction he might have gone, however, as there were no tracks to be left behind on the solid rock.

                “He would’ve tried to head northeast towards the outpost,” Frida said aloud. Realization striking, she reached for the radio. If she could reach them…No. A piece of metal was lodged in the center of it. She’d have to make her own way. A few moments later, she was holding her compass open in front of her but watched in dismay as the arrow spun around once, then twice, then ticked from north to south in slow repetition. She would have to guess. The position of the sun was unclear, but the direction of the truck suggested that the ravine ran east to west. She would have to hope that Davis had made the same deduction.

               Frida returned to the truck to retrieve her backpack and found their last five-gallon water can to have leaked at least half its contents through a crack in its side. This left her with an inventory of her compass, two water bottles, her father’s combat knife, three oatmeal bars, a small medical kit with two sterile bandages and five alcohol swabs, ten feet of paracord, a roll of duct tape, a tactical light for the rifle, the tarp, a sack of dried lavender seeds and leaves, one signaling mirror, a book of matches, four torch rags, one flare, and two five-gallon cans of gasoline. Unable to take both the water and the gasoline, she taped up the side of the water can and attached one of the cargo straps to work as a shoulder sling. She then emptied her two water bottles and filled them with fuel. The M16 she would carry at the alert, muzzle towards the dirt, the way her father had instructed her to do when patrolling on foot.

                Frida began walking, trying to stay within what little shade the depths of the chasm provided. The bedrock that had risen was jagged in places, the prehistoric lines formed under pressure and heat running across the walls and through the rock. She considered what kind of odds there were that she would be the first human to see what the earth had been mixing and mashing together in its belly. Of all the people that ever lived, she was the one to see it. Except for Davis.

                Her hopes that Davis had come that way were keeping her vigilant for signs of confirmation. Perhaps he had left some signal behind for her, though that was unlikely if he’d thought she was dead. Why wouldn’t he have checked? He had been a medic years ago. It wasn’t as if he didn’t know how to check for a pulse. Frida felt a splinter of anger poking through her concern for Davis’s welfare. If roles had been reversed, she would have never left him behind unless she knew with complete certainty that he was dead.

                The sun was well on its way to setting now, and a hot breeze was flowing through the chasm. Her breathing felt thick and heavy as the heat filled her nose and lungs. It was excruciating at times as her heart would not permit her to breath slower. Frida had to continue. If something were to happen to Davis and she did not press on, the delivery would be a failure. Outpost 42 would know by now that something had happened to them. Perhaps they would send out a search party. Perhaps they already had. Perhaps they’d found Davis and had gone back when he told them she was dead. Davis pissed her off sometimes, and she’d never restrained herself from pissing him off right back. Maybe this was his way of getting rid of her. Maybe he’d never liked her in the first place.

               “No,” she thought. “He wouldn’t do that to you. Not after all this time.”

               Frida and Davis had never been late on a resupply run in the year and a half they’d been running routes together, a fact they prided themselves on. After a while, the whole thing had become almost easy, and she wondered if this was all the product of their own complacency. They’d taken their time, searched and scavenged longer than was necessary. They could’ve made it to the outpost well before dark if they’d just kept going. Whose idea was it to stop, anyway?

               “I gotta go,” Davis had said.

               “Huh?”

               “You know…I gotta go.”

               “The world is a man’s pisser, isn’t it?” she’d asked. “Pick a place. Any place.”

                “I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout pissin’.” He’d raised his eyebrows to help convey his meaning, and Frida had grimaced.

                He’d had to take a shit. That’s why they stopped. Fucking grown man couldn’t wait.

               Frida thought of the herd, of the perplexing thing she’d scene. It was a terrifyingly incredible thing, and the vision of the hundred or more shadowlings stampeding toward the truck would be forever imprinted into her mind. However, what would haunt her until the day that she died was the sight of mounted riders. They had been masked, wearing dark trench coats with white bands around their left arms. How something of that nature had happened, the taming of shadowlings, was a jigsaw of a mystery. Shadowlings were an inhuman breed of four-legged beasts, terrorizing the world by night, haunting the mind by day. They had come what seemed out of nowhere except the shadows. There was no explanation of their evolution other than the drastic change of the environment, but even that was a weak conjecture.

               Four years earlier, Lee Howard Hamilton had been the first person to ever survive a shadowling’s attack. They usually hunted in small packs, rarely alone. In Hamilton’s case, it had been a lone shadowling. Hamilton had managed to shoot it in the head, but not before it had bitten a chunk of meat from his leg. The wound itself wasn’t mortal, but the bite was festering. Within ten minutes, a human would usually be paralyzed, and their blood vessels would begin to petrify. To find a person that had died of a shadowling bite was the stuff of nightmares. Hamilton survived by chewing on lavender seeds, or so the story goes. Why he decided to chew on them or even had them at all was anyone’s guess. Either way, it worked, and the lavender flower suddenly became more precious than gold, while Hamilton became a legend who disappeared into obscurity. But the memory of the riders made her shudder, and Frida considered that there perhaps was something to fear greater than the monsters.

                The blue sky above was turning purple and gray, the chasm becoming dark much faster than she’d expected. Who knew how far Davis might have gotten? She wondered if the whole idea of catching up to him was foolish and cursed for being stuck in a hole in the goddamn ground. Frida began searching the rock wall for any large crevices that she could wedge herself into until it was light again. As the sun was nearly gone, she found one and quickly hung the tarp over it as a curtain and sprinkled a handful of lavender leaves on the surrounding ground, crumbling them between her fingers. It was a large enough opening to keep her pack by her stomach and the rifle pointed out. With the light mounted on it, she would be able to illuminate any threats and get her shots off quickly. Hidden in the wall, she was safe enough and had to only hope not to get buried alive by another earthquake.

                The ravine was eerily silent, the darkness so thick that she could hardly discern between her eyes being open and being closed. Every sound of the smallest rocks settling kept her at constant alarm. Frida breathed, resting her face against the rock. It was cool to the touch, the way it had been when she had gone rock climbing with her father as a girl. She’d been flat against the wall then, too, but only to listen. He’d rested the side of his face against the rock next to her, his steel eyes meeting hers, and he’d smiled.

               “What do you hear?” her father had asked.

               “I don’t know.”

               “Listen closer.”

               Frida had closed her eyes and focused all her thoughts on the sound. It was a hush, like the flow of water, and a rhythm like the heartbeat of the earth. She listened again now, eyes closed, and she smiled.

               One. Smell the rain.

               Two. Blow out the candle.

               Three. Smell the rain.

               Four—

               Small rocks ground together beyond the tarp, then again, and a third time. Frida’s eyes shot open, and she halted her breath. Footsteps were slowly drawing closer, and she pressed back into the crevice, one hand on the light, the other on the pistol grip. Silently, she flipped the safety off, and prepared to squeeze the trigger.

               Four. Blow out the candle.

               “Frida?” a voice whispered.

               She froze.

               “Frida, are you there?”

               “Davis?” she finally replied breathlessly. “Is that you?”

               “Yeah! It’s me! Are you in the wall?”

               Frida reached out and turned back the tarp. Unable to see, she simply felt his hand on hers, and despite her anger, she couldn’t help but to inwardly acknowledge the relief that his touch gave her. Davis knelt beside the crevice inside the tarp.

               “What the fuck happened to you?!” Frida whispered a yell. “Why the hell did you leave me?!”

               “I didn’t leave you, Fri. Not really, anyway. I just went to look for a way out. I was comin’ back, but I guess you woke up and started walkin’ before I did. I knew you must’ve come this way since we didn’t run into each other.”

               “But why did you take the cargo?”

               “It just seemed like the smart thing to do since you were passed out. Whatever’s in there isn’t as heavy as you’d think, actually.

               “Wait…How are you walking around right now? It’s pitch black.”

               “Still got my night vision goggles from a couple years ago when we moved into that military base. You didn’t get a pair?”

               “No. I didn’t.”

               “Well, you need to when we get back.”

               “Who says we’re getting back?” Frida asked, and Davis said nothing. “Look…What happened up there, I don’t know if I can believe it all.”

               “I know. I thought the herd thing was far-fetched myself, but I guess it’s true. Wild ain’t it? At least we know we’re safe during the day. Out here, shadowlings are the only thing to worry about, and we can outsmart those things easy.”

               “Davis, I don’t think—”

               “We should probably stop talkin’ for now,” he said. “Let’s wait ‘til it’s light.”

               Despite her desire to share what she’d seen, she couldn’t disagree with him and remained silent.

               A few hours later, the sun had returned enough to emerge from behind the tarp, and they both took turns relieving themselves behind a boulder.

               “Nice work gettin’ the water,” said Davis. “I brought the gasoline. We can swap carryin’ them every once in a while, if you want.”

               “Sure.” Frida looked up and around the rock walls. “We just need to get out of here. You know earthquakes come in threes, right?”

               “So they say.”

               “It’s true.”

               “Earthquakes happen so often you could divide them any which way, and that’s how it’ll look. Threes, fours, tens, whatever.”

                “Do you have to argue about everything?” Frida asked, folding her arms.

                “I wasn’t arguin’,” he said.

                “Yes, you were. What the hell is your problem?”

                “What the hell’s your problem?” he demanded. “I walked ‘round this ravine in the middle of the goddamn night lookin’ for you, and I didn’t have to.”

                “No one asked you to,” Frida said.

                “No one needed to ask me to. I want us to both get out of here. We’re a team, Fri.”

                “Goddamn it! Stop calling me Fri!” She clenched and shook her fists.

                “But I’ve always called you Fri,” he said, puzzled.

                “And I’ve always hated it! So fucking stop it!”

                Davis shifted his weight, his hat cocked back on his head. He took out an old handkerchief and wiped the sweat from around his neck, then folded and returned it to his back pocket. Frida went to her backpack and began zipping everything up.

                “Are we gonna talk about what happened yesterday yet?”

                “Nothing happened,” she said without looking at him.

                “No?”

                “I’m walking now.”

                Frida stepped off once again toward the east, and Davis shook his head with an exasperated chuckle. She began to wish he’d just kept going the other direction, that he hadn’t been so gung-ho about teamwork and leaving no one behind. She was fine without him. Saner, anyway. There was no denying her relief when he appeared last night, however. But there was no admitting this to Davis.

                The two of them walked slowly along the floor of the chasm, the intermittent wind gusts beating the heat into their bones. Davis led the way for a short distance, then moved back behind Frida to avoid outpacing her. All the while, they remained silent except to warn each other of dips in the rocks or loose stones. Frida tried to think of a way to describe the riders on the shadowlings the night before, but was already struggling to maintain a calm, steady breathing pattern. Speaking would only worsen it.

                “Let’s take a rest,” said Davis.

                Without protest, Frida leaned against the rock wall, her forehead and cheeks streaked with dirty sweat. Though they both felt as though their throats were coated in sand, two sips of water each was all they would afford themselves. There seemed a fair amount of water at the moment, but if they weren’t careful, it could easily be gone by the end of the day, and there was no telling how long it would be until they reached a drinkable water source.

                “Here. Have a piece of gum.” Davis held out half a stick, and she accepted with quiet thanks. “You doin’ all right?”

                “Yeah,” she nodded. “I guess. How far do you think we’ve been walking? Four or five miles?

                “At least.”

                “We’ve got to get out of this ravine, Davis,” Frida sighed. “There’s going to be another quake soon. We both know it.”

                “Yes, ma’am, there certainly is.” A stranger’s words echoed down to them from the clifftop, startling them as they each pressed against the wall.

                “Hello, down there.” A man’s voice, deep and full called down. “I see you folks are in a bit of a predicament.” Frida and Davis looked up to see a heavyset man with a graying beard smiling down at them, a cowboy hat shadowing his eyes. The hem of his trench coat flirted with the edge of the cliff.

                “Who are you?” Davis asked.

                “I might ask you two the same question,” he responded. “After all, you are trespassing on my land.” Frida and Davis looked at each other.

               “We’re stuck in a ravine in the middle of the desert,” said Davis. “How are we trespassing?”

               “This is my desert which makes this my ravine,” he said. “So, I’ll ask you one more time. Who are you?” The man sighted in on them with a large, scoped rifle. Frida moved to aim the M16. “Oh, I wouldn’t do that, little missy.”

               “Look, we’re just travelling from Santa Fe to get to Deming,” said Frida. “We’re nobody.”

               “Quite a ways from the beaten path to be nobody.”

               “We got lost.”

               “Sure, you did.” He chuckled. “What’s in the box?”

               “What box?” asked Davis.

               “The metal box you’re trying to hide. What’s in it?” Davis said nothing. “I said, what’s in the damn box?” The man’s voice growled.

               “We don’t know.”

               “Where’s it going? And don’t tell me Deming.”

               “We’re trying to get to Outpost 42,” Frida said. Davis inhaled sharply and shook his head at her.

               “Outpost 42,” the man repeated. “I know the place.”

               “We’re on official government business, and we can’t afford any more lost time. Can you help us out of here?”

               “Government business? What government?” he laughed.

               “The United States government,” she said. Davis put his head down.

               “The United States government doesn’t exist.”

               “Yes, it does.”

               “Not out here!” The man yelled down angrily. “This is Shadowrider Territory, and we are the government!”

               “We?” Davis asked, “Who is we?”

               He smiled from behind his rifle before lowering it. Without a word, the cliff quickly became fully lined with masked figures in dark trench coats, white bands around their arms. Each held a weapon of some kind from swords and knives to pistols and submachine guns.

               “Shit,” Davis said under his breath.

                “We’ve got eyes and ears everywhere,” the man continued. “We knew you were coming. That’s why we sent the welcoming party last night.”

                “What’s he talkin’ ‘bout?” asked Davis.

                “I should’ve told you,” said Frida. “Last night when we were being chased…they were riding the shadowlings.”

                “Ridin’ them?! And you didn’t tell me?!”

                “We’re only interested in the cargo,” the man said. “Just hand it over, and we’ll let you be on your way.”

                “We’re federally mandated couriers,” Davis answered. “We won’t be handin’ over anythin’.”

                “Suit yourselves,” the man shrugged, handing his rifle to the masked man beside him. “Let me ask you though, how long will that water last you? A couple of days? How much food do you have? Starving to death is more painful than it sounds, you know. I’ve seen plenty of it out here. Who knows? An earthquake might close this whole ravine back up. They’re very unpredictable. Of course, that may actually be better than starving to death. Quicker, at least.”

                “If we did give it to you,” said Frida, “how would you open it? It’s locked.”

                “A lock is a lock is a lock,” he answered. “Anything can be broken into.”

                “This is a militarized cargo box,” she continued. “It’s rigged to blow if its tampered with.”

                “That even smells like bullshit.”

                “It’s not.”

                The man above crossed his arms and began to pace back and forth in a small limping line. “Do you know what’s in that container?”

                “It ain’t our job to know,” said Davis.

                “Of course, it isn’t. Well, let me enlighten you,” he said. “Inside that box is the greatest scientific breakthrough of any importance in the modern world. It will improve everything for everyone, everywhere.”

                “You don’t strike me as the type to care about the wellbeing of other people.”

                “I’m a part of this world just like you, aren’t I?”

                “A different part,” Frida said.

                “We don’t even know who you are,” said Davis. The man nodded.

                “Yes, you’ve got a point,” he said. “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Lee Howard Hamilton. You may have heard of me.”

                “We’ve heard rumors.”

                “Most of them true. Where is the credit I deserve for finding a natural antivenom for a shadowling bite? Oh, well. I don’t care about fame anyway. Fame doesn’t mean anything in a world like this. My only interest is what’s good for all of us. What you have in that box is the key to a new dawn of civilization.”

                “Unless it’s another moon, I don’t know how that’s possible,” Davis said.

                “No, not a moon. There was only ever one of those, and the government’s destruction of it cost the world everything.”

“It was accidentally destroyed while conducting lunar nuclear tests.”

“That’s what they told us, but we know the truth.”

“Conspiracy theories,” said Davis. “There’s no proof of that.”

“At this point, does it really matter what you believe?” Hamilton asked. “We can’t replace it. It’s too late. That’s why what you have in that box is so important.” He ran his fingers through his beard.

                “What is it then?” asked Frida.

                “It’s a seedling, the first of a new genetically engineered species of grain that can grow in any soil, in any climate, with varying amounts of water and light. It doesn’t grow according to any seasons, but all year round. Simply put, it’s the answer to the world’s food shortage.”

                “Then why are you trying to steal it if it’s such a good thing?”

                “Do you know what’s at Outpost 42?” he asked. “It’s the entrance to an underground facility where biological experiments are conducted on all types of species of animals. They develop viruses and the vaccines and the viruses to kill the vaccines

                “But why? What for?” Frida asked.

                “Control. Control of you. Control of me. Control of us all.”

                “You got no proof!” Davis yelled.

                “No? Where do you think the shadowlings come from? Not out of the shadows like people say, I can assure you of that.” The man laughed until he sputtered into a cough. “You don’t know which side you’re really on.”

                “We’re mandated couriers for the U.S. government,” said Davis, “and we’re not goin’ to—”

                A deafening gunshot reverberated through the chasm, and Davis’ entire body bounced against the wall behind him then onto the ground, an exit wound gaping in the back of his skull.

                Blood and bone were splattered onto Frida’s face, and in a sudden panic, she screamed, pressing her body against the wall. She began to cry tears of hate and fury. There wasn’t a modicum of cooperation left within her, but what was she to do?
                “I didn’t want to have to do that,” said Hamilton with a frown. “It’s always important to get a good understanding of one’s situation for just such a reason. I hope you understand yours.”   

               She couldn’t allow herself to feel it. She couldn’t allow herself to be the victim he wanted her to be. There was more to this than the cargo or her life or Davis’s dead body. There was no more room in the world for weakness. She turned her head against the stone wall.

               “Listen closer,” she thought, her eyes closed. “What do you hear? What do you hear?

               One. Smell the rain.

               “I hear them.

               “No, Frida. What do you hear beyond them?

               Two. Blow out the candle.

               “I hear…the wind.

               “And?

               “The earth…it’s unsettled…

               Three. Smell the rain.

               “Yes.

               “The earth is shaking…

               “Yes.

               Four. Blow out the candle.

               “The earth is—”

               Frida’s eyes snapped open to see a small pebble trembling at her feet, then another and a third.

               “It’s a quake!” someone yelled from above. “Get back! Get back!”

               Frida looked up at the river of sky again, appearing almost like a flowing stream between the swaying cliffs. Hamilton and his band of shadowriders had disappeared from the rim of the chasm. She was about to die, and all for nothing. There was no way to change it, and in this knowledge, Frida forced herself to be still. Her final moments wouldn’t be wasted panicking. What was the point? She was about to be swallowed up into the earth. And all because Davis had to take a shit.

                “Look there,” Davis had said. “An old diner. Who knows? Maybe someone left some toilet paper behind.”

                “Just don’t take forever, okay? We’ve got to get to the outpost before dark.”

                “I know that, Fri. It’ll only take a second. Or two.”

                They’d pulled up slowly to the single cubed building with chrome and aluminum edging around the windows and roof. The sun had reflected off the diner and into their eyes giving it the appearance of a giant, dumpy gem. There’d been a dry layer of pale dust on everything, and their hands had left prints on anything they’d touched.

                “Holy shit. There’s power here.” The lights inside flickered on.

                “How is that even possible?” asked Frida. “Even if there was a generator, wouldn’t it have rusted or something?”

                “I don’t hear a generator,” said Davis.

                “This is fucking weird. I don’t know about this place.”

                They’d walked around cautiously from the front to the back, Frida carrying the rifle and Davis with his pistol drawn. The place had been stripped long ago, even of silverware, cups, and cooking equipment. Davis, who had searched down a short hallway, suddenly cried out.

                “Davis! What’s wrong?” Frida rushed to him, only to find him grinning.

                “They’ve got toilet paper.”

                After taking another look for supplies and finding nothing, Frida went back outside. She’d walked slowly around the truck, checking it for any leaks or damage that might cause any upcoming problems. Jumping up onto the bed of the pickup, Frida had begun checking each of the four straps holding the metal container in place. That was when the lid of the box had caught her eye. It was slightly ajar, unevenly locked. She’d knelt down, examined the gap, and after failing to press it closed, determined the only way to fix it would be to unlock and relock it. She’d typed in the one-time-use, seven-digit code into the electronic pad. It had beeped and lit up green. She’d opened the lid.

                What Frida saw was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen in her life. Simple and perfect and lovely.

                One. Smell the rain.

                Two. Blow out the candle.

                Three. Smell the rain.

                Frida closed the lid and hated the world.

                Davis had never seen what she had seen, and now he was dead for protecting something he could have never fathomed. A decade ago, the thought would have brought her to tears. However, a decade ago there were no shadowlings, no Hamilton, no worldwide quakes, and the moon was still illuminating the night sky. The moon had been Mother Nature’s way of comforting the little humans that flourished on Earth when the sun was gone. But the little humans had killed her, and the moon had been soon to follow. Death had become nothing but an occasion as remarkable as a hiccup. Hold your breath, and it goes away without another thought until the next one.

               As though there actually existed a thing called fate or destiny, Frida survived the second quake. She didn’t bother reasoning why or how. The ravine had narrowed by several feet, but there was still room to walk through. As the walls had shifted, large pieces had crumbled, and as though a stairway to heaven, a steep grade was formed that could be climbed back up to the surface.

               Frida stood slowly to her feet, her knees unsteady, but she continued walking upwards with the locked metal box in her arms.  The sun was beginning another descent, casting fingers of color and light through a few distant clouds. She had seen it before when she was young, and her memory replayed the sound of her father’s voice as he’d read aloud from his poetry collection on the front stairs of their home. There was a particular poem that he was always sure to read no matter what. This poem by Longfellow was perhaps his favorite of them all.

               Tell me not, in mournful numbers,

               Life is but an empty dream!

               For the soul is dead that slumbers,

               And things are not what they seem.

               Life is real! Life is earnest!

               And the grave is not its goal;

               Dust thou art, to dust returnest,

               Was not…

               “Was not…Was not what?” Frida stopped walking.

               If there had ever been a question in her mind about how the worst things happen to regular people, it was answered now. She had been born in reasonable comfort. She’d gone to a good school, had a loving father who loved her more than any two parents could, played softball and field hockey, made up tunes on an old guitar, dreamed on a porch swing during midsummer nights about the wonderful future. Now, twenty years later, she was ascending from what had been a certain grave into a barren desert. The world had changed, and so her life had changed. She wanted to say it wasn’t fair. She wanted to say that there was something about it all that shouldn’t be happening to her. It was a life that belonged to someone else. Now, she realized that she had been that someone else all along.

                Frida continued until she reached the top and looked around. The stone formation that had served as a landmark was almost invisible in the distance. In the opposite direction, the diner glimmered, murky and fluid behind the rising heat. Frida sighed in relief and started up a quick pace with the newfound hope in sight, and she imagined quite clearly how refreshing and cool it would be inside with running water and electricity. She could hide there for a while, hide the box until it was safe again, until she could decide what to do with it. Hamilton might have been a murderer, the ringleader of a gang of evil shadowriders, but it didn’t mean that everything he’d said was wrong. She’d seen inside the box herself, and it had killed her trust in anyone.

                Frida had closed the lid and hated the world. It was a feeling she’d not ever experienced before, and she was torn between the beauty of what she’d seen and what she was surrounded by. All that she’d become accustomed to around her was now sickening. There was and would never be anything more wondrous than what she’d beheld in the box, and when she had returned inside the diner, she couldn’t contain her disgust and rage any longer. She’d smashed the mirrors with the buttstock of her rifle, smashed chairs and broken shelves. Davis had run out to her, wrapped his arms around her as she wept malicious tears. And he hadn’t asked her why, as though he’d already understood.

                The distance between Frida and the diner was closing more slowly than she’d anticipated. A familiar sound began to drone quietly, and she looked over her shoulder. In the distance, a large mob of shadowlings were bearing down on her with the creeping darkness. Frida began running awkwardly with her hands full, panting as the winds picked up again. The dust and dirt were forming clouds around her, and to her dismay, the visibility of the diner began to decrease. Her heart felt as though it might burst as each breath was accompanied with sand. Her legs were aching and trembling with exhaustion, and she begged them to continue, almost tripping over herself at times. Still quite a distance away, the diner disappeared completely. The dust storm had darkened the sky, and Frida’s eyes burned with tears. There was no shelter. There was no hope. She continued to run for a few moments more, then halted, realizing that she had completely lost any sense of direction. Without the diner as a reference, she might very well have begun to run in a circle.

                Frida dropped to her knees, a destitute at the mercy of an unforgiving universe. She stopped expecting. She stopped planning. There was only to wait. She sat down on the ground, eyes closed, as the wind swirled around her. There was nothing more to listen for.

                One. Smell the rain.

                Two. Blow out the candle.

                As quickly as it had begun, the winds died, blanketing an eerie silence over the desert. Frida looked up, the remnants of a flaming sky still visible in the distance, and the diner far away. She could here the shadowlings behind her, footsteps approaching slowly.

                “No more running,” said Hamilton, approaching from behind. He walked around to face her, and she looked up at him. “Open the box.”

                “Why?” asked Frida.

                “Because, despite what you might think, I don’t like killing women.”

                “But you do like killing.”

                “It depends.” He took a knee beside her. “I didn’t like killing your friend. I didn’t dislike it, but I didn’t enjoy it.” Frida folded her hands in her lap. “Open the box.”

                “You don’t want to see what’s inside,” she warned.

                “Yes, I do.”

                Hamilton waited several seconds before pulling a pistol from inside his trench coat. Frida looked around her as the shadowriders surrounded the two of them, mounted on their shadowlings whose snouts were muzzled with iron and chains.

                Frida reached out to the box and entered the one-time-use, seven-digit code into the digital pad, and the light turned green. She presented it to him silently, turning the box to face him. He holstered his pistol and reached down.

               As she watched Hamilton, the remainder of the poem sprang suddenly into her memory, and she smiled.

                Dust thou art, to dust returnest,

                Was not spoken of the soul.

                Three. Smell the rain.

                “This means a new beginning for all of us,” said Hamilton, brushing the dust off the lid.

                Four. Blow out the candle.

                The final etchings of twilight stretched out from the horizon.

                Five. Smell the rain.

                Hamilton opened the lid and looked down at the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen in his life. Simple and perfect and lovely.

                Six. Blow out the candle.


OTHER SHORT STORIES
BY STEPHEN DANIEL RUIZ

Enter: OBLIVION

Studies In gray.

THE SALESMAN

It wasn’t until the day after next that Edward Kind realized each day had been an exact repetition of its predecessor. What caught his attention, however, was not his watch’s weekday indicator remaining on Tuesday, not his schedule unchanged from the one previous, nor even his work documents’ digital stamping with yesterday’s date. Even as the conversations in passing at the office and later with his family at the dinner table remained the same, he remained oblivious. Though this all would have proven to be an extremely odd and noticeable occurrence for the average person, for Edward Kind it seemed only as a vague repetition, if not completely ordinary.

The thing about Edward Kind was that his life was already quite monotonous. He was just a family man with a wife, Marcy, their three kids, Adam, Kevin and Lois (in that order), a chocolate lab named Suffix, a fat cat named Schooner, and one hamster whose name changed with the days to whatever fancied Lois at the time. They lived in a brick, suburban house upon which was a mortgage he’d gotten at a fixed rate of 4.3% that would be paid off in only twelve more years—if they kept their payments ahead—just in time to send Adam to the university. Every morning, Edward would wake up at 6am, dress, and drink his coffee. He would eat his bacon, eggs, and cheese rolled up in a tortilla as he drove the practical family sedan to the metro station a mere fifteen minutes away without traffic. He’d catch the red line at 7:35am, stop to make a connection, wait on the platform for another seven minutes, and then be on the blue line at 8:10am until he reached the inner city. From there it was only a ten-minute walk to Edward’s office which was located on the second floor of a nine-story building. He was always there fifteen minutes early and always left five after five, following his customary phone call to Marcy informing her that he was on his way home.

After a reversal of the same route, Edward would arrive home no later than 6:30pm where he’d find Adam and Kevin doing homework. Lois would be either helping Marcy with dinner (as much as a five-year-old could) or be playing with her dolls. It was Edward’s duty as the protector and provider of the home to walk Suffix and pick up his excrement before and after dinner. The children would tell him about their day which was almost always the same. He’d say nothing of his own day generally for the same reason, and Marcy would keep him up to date on what’s on sale and where and why whatever it was was needed. He’d kiss and hug the three children before putting them to bed, and then, if somehow the dishes were washed and laundry folded before 9pm, Edward and his wife would do what every married couple promises to never let become infrequent and boring. It was.
Two days before the day after next, Edward Kind had already prepared his breakfast, driven to the metro station and was attempting to scan his gate pass. At first, he thought it was some sort of malfunction, but after five attempts, he realized that there was indeed something wrong with his pass that was keeping the gate from opening. Disturbed at the intrusion on his routine, Edward Kind demanded to know what was wrong with his pass and approached the station manager.

“I demand to know what’s wrong with my pass,” Edward said. The station manager swiped the pass in his computer and informed him that it had expired. Edward Kind, after a shake of his head, then paid for a new pass and was let through the gate, but not in time to board the red line at 7:35am. Edward watched in a stunned silence as it disappeared around the rail. He would have to drive to the connection in time to catch the blue line at 8:10am.

Edward Kind didn’t make it in time to board the blue line, however, as traffic became more congested with each mile marker he passed into the city. He would have to drive the whole way, arriving to work one hour and thirty-six minutes late. He had never been late before and was overcome with a feeling of helpless frustration at how much his routine had been shifted by such a trivial thing as an expired metro pass. By the end of the day however, things had returned to normal, and at five after five he informed Marcy that he was coming home. Edward followed his general custom of walking to the metro, taking the blue line to the red, then getting off at the platform where he always had before. That’s when he remembered he had driven that morning, and his car was all the way back at the office. Unable to reach Marcy on the phone, he was forced to hail a cab. He arrived home at 6:41pm.

Edward sat eating his meatloaf as his boys informed him of the unlikely demise of some comic book super villain, his daughter described the picture she’d drawn in kindergarten, and his wife informed him of the new hairdresser at her favorite salon. Though it crossed his mind, he did not tell them of all that had happened to him. Once the children were in bed and the house was clean, Edward and his wife found themselves alone in their room before 9pm, and so, in the observation of tradition, did as married couples do with the same vigor and energy that newlyweds vow against.

At 6am, Edward was woken by his alarm. Remembering that he had left his car at work, he called ahead for a cab to take him to the metro where he would catch the red line at 7:35am. However, when he exited his home, he discovered his car sitting in its place, just over the dark spot on his paved driveway. Edward gave the cab driver a tip for showing up, then drove himself to the station. As he scanned his pass, the same problem occurred, and again, Edward demanded to know what was wrong with his pass.

“I demand to know what’s wrong with my pass,” Edward said. The station manager once again informed him that it had expired and issued him a new pass. Edward, perturbed that such a thing was possible, informed the manager that he had just received the card yesterday. Upon viewing the expiration date on the laminated card, Edward was forced to concede against his own recollections. A moment later, he was once again watching in stunned silence as the red line scuttled away.

Edward was one hour and thirty-six minutes late again and apologized to his supervisor for being late two days in a row. His supervisor was confused, and said he’d never been late to work before.

“You’ve never been late to work before,” said Edward’s supervisor. Equally confused, Edward said nothing and returned to his work. At five after five, Edward went back to his car and drove home, arriving at 6:54pm. Edward sat again eating his meatloaf, listening to his boys inform him of the unlikely demise of the comic book super villain, his daughter describe the same picture she’d drawn in kindergarten, and his wife inform him again of the new hairdresser at her favorite salon. Though it crossed his mind, he did not tell them of all that had happened to him, nor that he already knew what they had to say. The same routines were followed, and Edward and his wife slept together again.

The day after next arrived, and Edward woke at 6am, prepared his breakfast, drove to the station, and scanned the metro pass to walk through. This time, it opened because he’d had the forethought that morning to borrow Marcy’s. Edward smiled in comforting satisfaction as he boarded the red line at 7:35am, arrived at his connection at 8:03am, caught the blue line seven minutes later, and after the ten-minute walk to his office, found himself seated at his desk at fifteen minutes to nine.

Over the next few hours, it seemed that all was normal to Edward Kind. He attended his meetings, submitted his paperwork, and put the day’s mail aside to open at the end of business. It was just before 3pm, however, that Edward received a call from a nurse at the general hospital. There had been a terrible accident.

“Mr. Kind,” said the nurse at the general hospital, “there’s been a terrible accident.” Edward listened to the information of his wife and children driving the minivan through a busy intersection, of glass shards and mangled aluminum and clouds of powder from inflated airbags. He hung up the phone.

After considering the fastest means of travel to the hospital, Edward Kind was running the twelve blocks down the sidewalk. His tie flailed behind him like a boneless appendage. What entered Edward’s mind as he ran were all the possibilities of what could have happened. He wondered what had caused the accident, why he hadn’t asked for details. It wasn’t, he thought, for a lack of caring. Edward reasoned that he was simply unprepared for this. It had never occurred to him that the fabric of his life which had been woven with such worn and fragile threads would be rent apart. He had only eight more blocks to prepare now, for it was never too late to prepare. Edward decided to think of the worst case scenario, because it seemed to him that worst case scenarios never happen when they’re preconceived.

Edward was out of breath and drenched in sweat when he arrived, shouting his wife’s name and that he was her husband.
“Marcy Kind! I’m her husband!” Edward gasped. “Where is she?” The head nurse insisted he calm down, though her orders were not enough to quell the need to see that they were all right, to see his sons discussing their favorite boy things, and his daughter doing what girls like to do with their dolls. He needed to see Marcy’s eyes look at him the way they did and hear how her voice sounded when she told him things. All this would happen again, he thought. They were normal, and unusual things didn’t happen to normal people.

He sat for almost thirty minutes by the nurses’ station, waiting for the doctor to make his appearance and informing him that, though some injuries were sustained, they’d all be good as new. Edward would go in, first to the kids, tell them a joke, make them laugh. Forget it all had happened, as if it was just a bad dream or some unsubstantiated scare. Then he’d go to Marcy, her neck in a brace, a cut on her lip. Perhaps a black eye. But she would give him a warm smile, pleased that he was there. They’d all be thankful. Maybe they’d start going back to church on Sundays, say prayers before bedtime. They’d be better people because of all this. They’d be stronger, wiser, closer. But when the doctor arrived, none of that happened, and Edward found himself trying to summon the definitions of words like blood loss and spines and fractures; words he knew but suddenly found impossible to translate into understanding.

Edward Kind had been thrust into singularity.

Edward decided to think of the worst case scenario, because it seemed to him that worst case scenarios never happen when they’re preconceived.

Over the next several hours, he was led like a blind man in a maze, aware of what was taking place but having no perception of where or why or what next. There was a chaplain who prayed with him, though Edward had already determined the uselessness of it. Two police officers informed him that his family had been killed by a drunk driver who had also died in the crash. A counselor consulted with him on the disposal of his family’s remains and left him with a pamphlet listing the steps of grief and how to cope. The next day, he opened Marcy’s address book listing all their relatives, though the names were as familiar as the ones under “z” in the phone book. He told them all, and they all told him they were shocked and sorry as if they’d been the ones who’d killed them. In a stroke of luck, the local funeral director informed him of the current buy-three-get-one-free special on the most comfortable coffins. His first word in that sales pitch was “coincidentally”.


Edward Kind buried his wife and children four days later.
That following Monday, Edward woke at 5:45am to walk Suffix, then drank his coffee and ate his bacon, eggs and cheese rolled up in a flour tortilla. Edward found each step through the house labored, forcing himself through silence that filled the space like sludge. He drove the fifteen minutes to the metro, caught the red line at 7:35am, waited at his connection for seven minutes, and then boarded the blue line. After making it into the city, Edward made the same ten-minute walk to his office arriving fifteen minutes early. At 5:05pm, he left work. He was about to call Marcy and tell her he was coming home but stopped since she would never answer. When he arrived home, Suffix had gotten into the garbage and had defecated on the floor. Edward scolded him and cleaned up the mess. He fed Schooner, changed the litter box, and checked on Lois’ hamster. It occurred to him that he had no idea what to call the rodent, so he named it Hamster.

The next day was the same, and the one after that. It seemed that every twenty-four-hour increment had become only separable by the different food he microwaved for dinner each night and the shows on television that put him to sleep. If anyone visited, he didn’t answer the door. If anyone called, he ignored the phone. A week later, he had the beginnings of a beard. He still had not entered his children’s rooms, leaving everything as it had been the day they’d died. Marcy’s silk nightgown remained at the edge of the bed, neatly folded in preparation for the night that never came.

Some weeks later, notices of overdue bills began to arrive in the mail and subsequently land in the trash can with the paper boxes of Chinese delivery. Edward had noticed the food beginning to pack the weight on around his midsection and face. One day, the garbage man left a note asking if he would like all the dead flowers to be taken off the porch. Despite walking past them every day in his commute to work, Edward had forgotten about all the bouquets and wreaths constructed of flowers and condolences. He likewise kept forgetting to write a response on the note, and so they all just sat there rotting.

It was on a Saturday without any particular relevance that a deep and intrusive knocking erupted on his front door. Edward stumbled over Schooner to reach the door and opened it to a middle-aged woman in a suit and a white lab coat. Her hair was pin straight and her glasses as circular as quarters. She introduced herself as Dr. Valerie Gunther.

“My name is Dr. Valerie Gunther.” Edward had never heard of her.

“I’ve never heard of you,” he replied.

“That’s all right. I’ve heard of you, Edward Kind, and I can help you get your family back.”

Edward sat listening to Dr. Gunther in his living room explaining the scientific process of her claim. Edward didn’t believe a word of it, but felt he had nothing to lose.

“I don’t believe a word of it, but what do I have to lose?” Dr. Gunther gave him only one warning.

“You must not stray from the path. This is my only warning.”

In his living room, Edward Kind was laid back several hours later on his recliner. A computer with three monitors was set up, countless colorful wires jutting out from the back and snaking to a headpiece that crowned Edward’s head. He hadn’t asked for an explanation of how it all worked, and Dr. Gunther did not offer one. It was as casual a transaction as in a convenience store. Edward listened to the clicking of keys then the buzz of circuit boards and hard drives in action. Dr. Gunther instructed him to focus on his wife, on his children, on their home, on their last day together. Edward did so, his eyes closed, his mind as busy as the computer. Then she informed him he may experience some discomfort.

“You may experience some discomfort,” said Dr. Gunther, and before Edward could ask what kind of discomfort, a bolt of force pummeled through his sternum and into his spine. His ribs quivered, and he thought for a moment that his heart would explode from the pain in his chest. But as quickly as it had begun, the inner quake was over, replaced by a fuzzing of his eardrums that he could feel pulsing from the center of his head. Edward felt his limbs relax, then more core and more chest. His neck no longer held his head, but rather was relieved by a perceived lack of gravity. In his vision, a tiny hole appeared, a white void growing like an enveloping cloud, consuming him, until it had become the universe.

Edward was standing, or what he thought was standing, for though his feet were below him, there was neither shadow nor depth to judge his surroundings by at first. After several moments, lines and shadows began to form in small particles. There was a shelf, a window, a chair. It was his living room, the one he’d existed vaguely in for the past few months, except it was not gray or quiet. It was alive, and from the kitchen, Edward heard voices familiar and exhilarating. He entered quickly, and there at the counter was Marcy, her ivory smile, those glimmering hazel eyes. Her black hair fell as it usually did about her shoulders, framing the dark cream of her skin.

Edward sat at the dinner table eating his meatloaf, discussing with Adam and Kevin about the unlikely demise of their favorite super villain who was half man half crustacean living atop a giant skyscraper in the center of the city. He imagined Lois’ drawing as she described it, a sun over their square house, and outside the house were all of them including Suffix, Schooner, and the hamster DeeDoo. Edward asked Marcy about anything new before she could tell him, and he listened about the new stylist named Karen who came all the way from some fancy cosmetology school in New York.
Edward and Marcy ushered their children through the process of preparing for bedtime. They joked and played along, landing everyone in their beds like airplanes. Together, they washed the dishes, saying very little, though it was just fine, and together they went upstairs, moved to the bed, and made love.

The alarm woke Edward at 6am. He dressed, prepared his breakfast, then was about to get in his car when he remembered the pass problem at the metro. He considered what Dr. Gunther had told him but concluded that getting the pass would only keep him from straying on the path. He returned to his room to retrieve Marcy’s pass. From there, all was as normal.

Edward Kind answered his office phone just before 3pm.
Tears were blistering his cheeks as he ran, faster than the first time, curses of bitter betrayal and anger filling his cheeks like the air he gasped. They were dead, and again, Edward was thrust into that wretched singularity.
It was all the same—the doctors, the police, the funeral director, the graves. The difference, however, was that while he mourned and the flowers rotted, he waited.

There was a knock at Edward’s door.

“I’ve been waiting for you, Dr. Gunther.” The doctor already knew.

“I already knew,” she said frankly. “I’ve been waiting for you as well.”

Dr. Gunther entered the house and together they sat in the living room as before.

“Why did they die again? Why didn’t they stay alive?” Edward demanded to know.

“You strayed from the path, Mr. Kind, as I told you not to the last two times.”

“What do you mean the last two times?”

Dr. Gunther held in her breath before telling him the truth of it all. Edward saw.

“I see.”

“You have a choice to make now, Mr. Kind.” Edward chose.

The alarm woke Edward at 6am, and he slapped his palm down upon the snooze button before opening his eyes, before turning to his side and taking in Marcy’s sleeping visage. The blankets over her rose and fell softly with her breaths, the lashes of her eyes fluttering slightly with her dreams. Edward decided to never leave that place again, that to stay was safety. Quietly, he scooted himself off the bed and into the hall, stopping at the rooms of his children to look in on their peaceful figures before sneaking downstairs and into the kitchen.

There were eggs to be scrambled, strips of bacon to be cooked, pancakes to be mixed and griddled, and he did it all within thirty minutes, setting five places at the table with silverware and glasses of orange juice. As he did all this, it occurred to him that there was no need to stay in the house, to keep them there hoarded away, and an energy Edward had never felt before filled him with the happiness that only a regaining of what had been lost to eternity could produce. He thought about all they’d do with their new lives, with his decided freedom. They’d go to the park and walk the trails stretching through the trees by the river. They’d take a vacation to Florida like Marcy and he had been meaning to do for the past eight years. They’d go get ice cream and spend the evening under the illumination of the drive-in movie, curled up together in the car with popcorn and hot chocolate. He wouldn’t stray from the path. He would make his own.

The sound of steps in the living room pulled Edward’s attention back in, and he hurried to scoop portions of eggs onto each plate with the bacon and pancakes. “I’ve got breakfast on,” he called with a smile, anticipating the surprise on Marcy’s face. Edward stepped through the doorway and into the living room where she was seated on the couch facing the window, unresponsive to his words. “Marcy?” Moving around the couch, his eyes fell upon her face, and the granite of joy that had been sculpted suddenly disintegrated into a heap of rubble and dust.

Where Marcy’s face should have been was a featureless sheet of skin stretched over a shapeless frame. She sat with her hands folded, unmoving, unseeing, unhearing. Edward fell back against the wall unable to breath, strangled by his horror, his lungs shriveling like grapes under an unforgiving, desert sun. He floundered with his hands, moving back toward the kitchen, unable to avert his eyes, unable to comprehend the sudden catapult from immeasurable happiness into infinite madness.

“Adam! Kevin!” Edward bounded up three steps at a time, down the hall to their rooms. Personless forms sat upon their beds in his children’s pajamas. “Lois!” Entering her room, the arms of nobody cradled a stuffed kitty cat as if it still offered security. He shut their doors, then shut himself away in his bedroom, falling breathless upon the carpeted floor of the spinning reality.
“Dr. Gunther!” Edward cried out as if to god. There was no answer.
Edward screamed and cursed, wept and crawled, then finally lay at the foot of the bed staring at the ceiling. It had been hours he felt and in a hopeful courage ventured out to see if perhaps he’d been wrong in what he’d seen, knowing that he had not, and proving it to himself. Eventually the well of tears ran dry, and exhaustion set in, sending him into a black, dreamless sleep.

Edward was shaken awake still on the floor of the darkened bedroom, and when he looked up to see Marcy’s face, he jumped back and away from her. She furrowed her brow, puzzling at him.

“Edward, what are you doing on the floor?” She smiled and kissed his cheek before pulling him into a sitting position. “I have dinner ready. The kids are anxious to see you.” Marcy stood up and disappeared into the hallway from where the voices of Edward’s children were echoing. He emerged slowly from the room, looking around to see that all was as it was supposed to be. Downstairs he found his family at the table, waiting and smiling.

“You’re all here? You’re… you’re all fine?”

“Of course,” Marcy laughed. “Just like every night. Come sit so we can eat.”

Edward knew he had ventured into the unknown when he created his own path and explained away the day’s freak occurrence as the reaction of reality to his aversion. It needed only to balance after being shaken.
Once the meatloaf was consumed, the discussions had, and the children tucked in, Edward and Marcy made love. The dim glow of a streetlight cut in through the lace curtains of the window, and Edward was convinced that all would be well from there. The universe had fixed itself, and it was that self-assurance that finally lulled Edward into sleep as the shadows of branches danced across the ceiling above them.

At 6am, the alarm buzzed again, and again Edward slapped it off, looked at Marcy sleeping with her hand on his chest. This time he wouldn’t get up, he thought. This time he wouldn’t move. Her head was nuzzled against his shoulder, and he held her hand, feeling the warm breeze of Marcy’s exhales over his knuckles. An hour later Edward opened his eyes again having drifted back to sleep, and a lock of her hair had settled under his chin. He looked up, wishing he could see through the ceiling into the sky. It was then that Edward noticed that the subtle breeze had stopped. The body in his arms was still. When he couraged a glance down at Marcy, the bridge of her nose, the curve of her cheekbones, the shadow of her brow had all been smudged out again, and the horror filled him once more. Unable to contain himself, he cried out in panic, jumping out of the bed and backing out of the bedroom. The thing moved to a sitting position and rose mechanically and without character or effort before the feet shuffled across the room. It followed Edward down the stairs and took its place once more on the couch.

Dr. Gunther had warned him about straying from the path so far as he had. It was volatile and unstable. Edward had taken the chance anyway, determining that there was just as much a possibility of her being wrong about it as much as right. It was a wager he’d made and lost.
Edward Kind decided to return to the path.

Edward’s family transformed back to their normal states that evening, ate the meatloaf, said the things they would say, slept soundly. Edward stayed awake, sitting, watching his wife sleep, drinking one glass of whiskey after another. None of it was real, he thought. It was just the skipping record of reality.

As the birds began to awaken in the twilight outside, he clicked off the alarm, for he was already awake.

Edward Kind dressed, drank his coffee, and ate his bacon, eggs, and cheese rolled up in a tortilla as he drove his practical family sedan to the metro station about fifteen minutes away without traffic. His metro pass failed, and he received another from the station manager after being informed that it had expired. Edward watched through bleary eyes as the red line moved away, and he walked slowly to his car. Edward sat silently in traffic, emotions weighted by the inevitable, and words weighted by the emotions. He arrived at his office one hour and thirty-six minutes late, though he saw no reason to present himself to his supervisor and apologize.

Edward remained in his office, excusing himself from his meeting. At noon, his coworkers invited him to lunch, but he declined, preferring to go alone to the bar down the street. Between shots of bourbon, he watched as the second hand of the clock on the wall ticked by, the minute hand begrudgingly following.

It was just after two that Edward returned to his office and the mail boy was rummaging through his cart outside his door. Edward took his mail, not returning the smile that the young man offered. He thanked him, sat behind his desk, then stared down at the correspondence. As his eyes studied white and manila envelopes with blurred vision, his fingers moved on their own, reaching out to them, nudging them apart. Then in the middle of the pile, he recognized a handwriting, and with an exalted explosion of passion snatched up the envelope and tore it open to reveal its contents, a single sheet of paper. Edward read the letter line by line.

This was the moment that Edward Kind realized each day had been exactly the same as before.

Once finished with the letter, he sat perplexed for several moments, then without a word bolted from his office, through the halls and down the emergency stairs, for there was no time to wait for elevators.

Behind the wheel of his car, Edward swerved in and out of the city traffic, pushing the limits of his possible speed until he came to an intersection where he cut left, then right again. The tires spun, losing their traction, and he found himself spinning towards a minivan.

Weightlessness. Glass shards and mangled aluminum. Clouds of powder from inflated airbags.

Edward Kind lay staring up at the sky, bright gray with spots of blue. Like inverted clouds. Approaching footsteps. Voices of panic and control. His eyes and a line of blood descended from his ears. Then the sky was obscured as a face looked over him.

“You did it, Mr. Kind. You did it.”


OTHER SHORT STORIES
BY STEPHEN DANIEL RUIZ

Enter: OBLIVION

Studies In gray.

THE SALESMAN

Sid Simmons laid his head back in his wicker patio chair. The sun was still levitating above the horizon, its warmth comforting his old bones to pause from their aching. Four gold rings lay on the small table to his left, lined up together from largest to smallest, though they were all fairly large. Sid’s fingers were thick as the cigars he smoked, and almost just as brown from years of baking in the sun. He had been taller at one point in time, but even having shrunk two and a half inches, Sid still looked down on most people and was just as barrel-chested. Thick-framed sunglasses encased his eyes as he looked out over the city from the terrace of his home in the hills of Los Feliz.

An old rotary phone sat on a table to his right. It had been a house-warming present from Johnny Carson along with a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. Johnny had told him with that shit-eating grin that he’d be calling him soon. After two decades of waiting and the retirement of the late night host, Sid drank the wine and packed the telephone away. It was only during an estate sale that he’d rediscovered it and decided to wire it up again. It was a good conversation piece, though he wasn’t having many visitors anymore. He’d yet to even hear what its ringer sounded like.

    “Sid!” A man’s voice called from the house. He gave no answer and listened to his name being repeated. The voice grew closer until it was right over him. “Sidney… Sid… are you dead?”

    Sid lay there, his eyes open just enough to see his oldest friend looking down on him, debating if he was still alive or not. Perhaps he was hoping Sid was dead, and Sid worked even harder to keep his chest from moving.

    “I can see you breathing, you fuck.” Sid remained motionless for a moment longer, then exhaled loudly.

    “Goddammit, Glenn.”

    “Goddamn yourself. Why do you fuckin’ do shit like that?”

    “It amuses me… until you ruin it, that is.”

    “You wanna die? I can arrange that. I’ll even pay for the casket.”

    “I’m gonna be cremated.”

    “Then I’ll pay for the matches. Better yet, I’ll steal a book from Tito’s nightclub.”

    “Fuck you.”

    “How you been feeling, Sid? Haven’t been seein’ you around much.” Glenn sat down on the edge of another patio chair, stretching his legs out with a wince. “What’s the story?”

    “Ah, nothin’. Just haven’t been feelin’ up to much lately. I been sick some. Got one of them summer colds.”

    “What the fuck is a summer cold?”

    “It’s like a regular cold, only in the summer.”

    “Your immunity must be down. You need to start drinking more orange juice. I know this cat who does private bartending. Makes one hell of a mimosa. I’ll give you her information.”

    “That’s a women’s drink, isn’t it?” Sid asked, squinting dubiously.

    “It’s a classy drink. I been havin’ one or two every morning for the past year, and look at me.” Glenn patted his chest. “Healthy as a horse.”

    “You look like a hippopotamus.”

    “Hippopotamuses are some of the deadliest animals alive.”

    “Says who?”

    “Says my great-granddaughter,”said Glenn leaning back. “Clarise knows all about the animals. Wants to be an animal doctor when she grows up.”

    “That’s cute,” Sid frowned.

    “You shoulda had some children, Sid. You wouldn’t be sittin’ out here feelin’ sorry for yourself.”

    “I’m not feelin’ sorry for myself.”

    “Tell me the reason you been a ghost isn’t because of them dyin’.” Glenn pointed at the rings. “It’s been almost ten years now since Oscar passed away. Think I don’t know what’s goin’ on?” He stared Sid down in silence for a long moment. Finally, Sid laid his head back again.

    “You don’t know nothin’,” he responded. Glenn nodded before standing. He paced a few steps then turned back.

    “You’re sittin’ there lookin’ at them rings like they’re some kinda connection. I bet you probably talk to them, too.”

    “You’re fuckin’ stupid.”

    “You do, don’t you?”

    “What’s it to you if I do, Glenn?” Sid asked angrily. “What the hell do you know about it?”

    “We’ve known each other all our lives. I’ve been around you through everything, when you got discovered sellin’ jokes in that seedy little comedy bar. When you got your first movie deal. Then you was cavortin’ with the Laugh Pack. The four of you were inseparable, tearin’ up Hollywood like you owned the place.”

    “We did own the place.” Sid straightened up suddenly. “We lived like kings, Glenn. People respected us. People loved us.”

    “They loved the show, Sid. You were entertainers, and don’t tell me that the whole Laugh Pack thing wasn’t part of it, because we both know it was.”

    “You’re tryin’ to say it was all fake? They were like my brothers, Glenn. We weren’t the same after Jonesy died. Then Elroy couldn’t stop with the drugs, and then Oscar…”

    “I know the story. And now it’s just you. You and those rings.”

    Sid looked out over the landscape speckled with roofs of all shapes and sizes, the palm trees leaning and stretching. It was like a mountain of little oases. They weren’t real, however. Only mirages. Nothing was there that should be. The grass, the trees, the gardens, it was all planted for the sake of appearances. It seemed to him that his garden was dying, and there was no water left to quench the soil.

            “We’re old, Glenn. We’re almost to the punchline, and I’m not so sure I like this joke after all.” Sid toyed with one of the rings on the table. “You know you’re right. It was all a show, and I honestly didn’t care for that lifestyle sometimes.”

            “Yeah.”

            “It was a lot of work. People got a kick out of it, but every day was a hangover. Every stunt and charade got crazier and crazier because we had to outdo ourselves, or people would get bored. It was exhaustin’. None of us enjoyed it by the time it was all said and done.” Sid sighed. “We were almost relieved in a way when Jonesy died.”

            “Hell…”

            “That’s what it felt like,” nodded Sid. “We started out on this path because we loved tellin’ jokes. We loved makin’ people laugh. Those were the best days, before we were somebody. Back when we were nobody. I still miss those days.”

            “Well,” said Glenn after a long silence, “there’s no rule that says you can’t do that again?”

            “What do you mean?”

            “Sure, people know your name. Sid Simmons was one of the greatest comedians of the 20th century. But this is the 21st century now. It’s a different time, a different audience. You’re not somebody anymore.” Glenn smiled. “Seems to me like you don’t have to miss those days if you don’t wanna.”

            “Get outta here. You know how long it’s been since I’ve written a joke? Or even told one?”

            “There was a time when you’d never told a joke.”

            “That’s different.”

            “You’re right. You didn’t have a lifetime of experience.”

            A short while later, Sid was once again alone, pestered only by the thoughts running rampant through his mind. It was completely absurd, the idea of Sid Simmons going back on a stage, a small one, where he’d be intimate with the audience, connect personally, risk being heckled, his back to the wall. Five minutes later, he was sitting in his office with pen and paper.

            What should he say? What did people laugh at these days? He’d tuned out the comedy scene as more dick and fart jokes increasingly weaseled their way in. Sure, they were funny, but that wasn’t his style. After a half hour of sitting, Sid suddenly had a terrifying thought. What if he had lost his ability to create a joke entirely? It had always been his greatest fear but had never considered it a possibility. Like the boogie man in your closet, always there in your mind, but never making an appearance. Never that is, until he does. There was a formula to this whole thing, but his ability to manipulate it had seemingly vanished. What had he written about so long ago as a young man? What mattered to him? His eyes gravitated toward a large hutch, inside of which was his entire life.

In a moment he was there, looking, not through jokes, but moments in time. It seemed that every setup and punchline had a memory to it, a vision of people, of unique laughs, of faces and crinkled eyes, of fingers wiping tears of laughter away. As he read page after scribbled napkin after scrawled note, Sid found himself as amused as ever with the jokes that came from a place in between everywhere and nowhere at all. It seemed that, though overgrown, the path leading there still existed after all, and he’d rediscovered it.

            The following weekend, Sid stood in a dark hallway, watching a young woman tell her jokes on a small stage, the proverbial brick wall behind her. She was funny, and despite his nervousness, he found himself chuckling. He considered the space, its darkness and its depth. It was characteristically raw, and despite never having been in that particular location before, he faintly recognized the smell of booze, candles, sweat, and old vinyl flooring. Glenn suddenly appeared in the back of the audience, smiling at him.

            “You ready?” the host asked as he stepped beside him.

“Are you ready?” Sid returned with a smile. The young man chuckled and nodded before going to take the stage. Sid rubbed his sweaty palms together, feeling the four rings on his fingers, three on his left and one on his right.

            “Up next, we have a hilariously special treat for you tonight. There aren’t too many ways to introduce him because, well, he needs no introduction. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m pleased to give you a true king of comedy, Sid Simmons.”

            Sid stepped out of the hallway to the sound of whistles and applause. He climbed the small set of stairs to the stage, shook the host’s hand, and with that, he was alone under the white light. Sid cleared his throat and without hesitation, reached for the microphone.

The following day, Sid spent all morning and afternoon at his desk, working through ideas for one-liners, pondering observational setups and anecdotes, contemplating seemingly mundane situations. It wasn’t easy for him to get started, and for a good period of time, he paced his office floor, muttering to himself. In all this, however, Sid was happier than he had been in a very long time. So happy, in fact, that he didn’t even hear the ringing from the patio.


OTHER SHORT STORIES
BY STEPHEN DANIEL RUIZ

Enter: OBLIVION

Studies In gray.

THE SALESMAN