The Flotsam Collection:
"You're right, everyone does have a hidden agenda, and you've realized something that most people don't recognize even if they suspect hidden agendas: that everyone else is not hunting for the same beast you are." Christine's voice was calm, her eyes unclouded.
The world tilted and I grabbed the table between us to keep from sliding out of the booth. Her expression did not change, but my pen, alone on the table, rolled slowly across the smooth surface and fell to the floor. I tried to follow its movement with my eyes but I couldn't look away from Christine's eyes.
The world righted itself and I let go of the table. I leaned over to pick my pen off the floor and by the time I sat up to face Christine I had a smile to present her.
"I was only kidding, you know," I said.
She responded with a grin and I knew I had failed.
"So was I, Chris. So was I." Her voice sounded as a bell. The words clanged: each empowered by the fading echo of the one before it, so at last all that rang in my ears was a resounding 'I.'
Christine stood, gathered her things into her arms and said, "It's been good talking with you, Chris. See you around, okay?" She turned without waiting for a response, her movements like the slicing of scissors through newspaper. I wanted to reach out and catch the trailing material of her dress, but didnít. She angled around a corner and was lost.
I couldn't shed the feeling that she knew I wasn't kidding. In the faces of passing people I detected a shadowed eeriness I'd never noticed before. Something jade-like shone in their eyes, translucent and deep, and dread trickled into me. Each person walking by added to my fear that something here was beyond my grasp, and that my only hope for understanding had just left me stranded.
I slowly put the pen away, forcing my hand to release the desperate grip I had on it, and slid towards the edge of my seat. Making no sudden moves, I stood up, slipped my backpack onto my right shoulder, and turned from the booth.
My eyes, angled toward the floor, noticed four jean-covered legs in my way, menacing in their stillness. A loud voice came from the owner of the rightmost pair of legs.
"Can we use this booth? Are you done with it?" His voice was congenial, but I felt as if any moment he would reach out and grab my throat and force me to face him. So I raised my face to look into his. It was soft and fleshy, but subtleties to the texture made it seem as though there was a ruggedness that lay just below the surface, like off-shore shoals. The girl beside him had none of the softness of her companion. Her face was sharp, a broken mirror, and for the few moments I looked at her I felt cut by her features.
"So? Are you done with the booth?" Like scavengers they descended. A hint of jade gleamed in their eyes.
"No. I mean yes. Yes, I'm done."
They took seats on the same side and I could catch the beginnings of their whisperings as I walked away. More people were in the student union than I'd ever seen before and I'd swear that I'd never laid eyes on more than a third of them. And all of them had the jade in their eyes; they were all hunting or plotting or trolling for something. And the green glow leaked from their eyes and tinted their faces with off-black shadows, making nightmares even of the people I knew.
Instead of bolting for the exit I walked slowly, deliberately, at a normal pace. My ears were alert to any noise that sounded like an alarm that would draw all of the attention upon me and my colorless eyes.
I jumped. A figure walking towards me, a girl, waved and smiled, teeth a sickly greenish-yellow from the light of her eyes.
She talked as she passed me, "I'm glad I saw you. Watch out for the-"
The rest of what she said was drowned by the clatter of someone's lunch, tray and all, falling to the ground. I turned, calling out, but she had been swallowed by the crowd.
I ran to the exit then, stopping only when the air brushed softly against my face and the sun drove the shadows away. I no longer felt a pall of fear over my heart. In the faces of the students outside I found only the normal, generally vapid expression expected.
Back through the glass doors leading into the student union I spotted a green glow, but it was just a neon sign. I smiled and turned to walk home.
The sky was the strange, comforting cobalt blue that I've only seen in cities, no clouds in the sky. I stumbled and fell, eyes shifting suddenly from the sky to the ground I was crossing. The command FREE MANDELA! was etched in the concrete below me. Graffiti from before my time.
I had tripped over the raised edge of the exclamation point. I looked at the graffiti as if for the first time, admired the hand that had carved the letters with grace and a perfectionist's crispness, noted how the edges were evened out with the surrounding concrete to make it seem like it was in the cement layer's original design. The exclamation point was rushedas if the vandal had been spotted at that moment and chased away.
On the other side of the yard I walked under some blossoming trees. The blooms were white and small, divided into five petals, and were faintly transparent. The ghosts of flowers.
Once I noticed the blooms I saw them in every tree on the way to my dorm. My eyes fed upon the reds, pinks, and whites enshrouding the branches.
A part of the sidewalk caught my shoe and I fell to the ground, catching myself on my knees and hands. I looked back and saw that there was something written in the cement. Another FREE MANDELA! This time I had tripped on the N. Much less care had been taken with this inscription. Rough edges abounded and the exclamation point trailed off at a right angle.
Last year this sidewalk had been blocked for re-paving. Why would somebody have written this then? Do they persist in writing the message out of habit, the words having lost all meaning? Was there a stranger reason I would never know?
Approaching my dorm I saw someone kneeling in front of the building. The man picked out a spot on the sidewalk and then removed something from a canister beside him. A moment or two was spent with his hands affixed to a spot on the ground, moving from side to side as if testing the texture. And then he would crawl to another spot and repeat the process.
About twenty yards away from the person I saw a Band-Aid on the sidewalk spread over a crack, positioned so that it was at the center as if to hold the two pieces of concrete together.
I followed the trail of Band-Aids to the guy placing them, finding only his short, copper-red hair to distinguish him. It was parted off-center.
"Hello," I said.
His head moved to take in my shoes.
"Hello," he returned, laying another Band-Aid on the sidewalk.
"What are you doing?"
"What does it look like I'm doing?" His head only moved half the distance to meet me face to face, so his bangs hid his eyes. His mouth was sensuous, his nose thin and noble, and both seemed fragile. His voice was not antagonistic.
"That's an inane question," I replied.
"I'm putting Band-Aids on the cracks in the sidewalk," he said, unruffled, moving to find another unbandaged crack.
I stared at him. He ignored me, or was simply unconcerned with my presence. His calmness, the precision of his unwrapping and placing of each Band-Aid, irritated me.
He sighed. "I'm healing the city's wounds."
"These cracks are the effects of nature. The respective heat and cold of the seasons."
"Are they?" Another Band-Aid.
"You can't possibly be planning to cover the whole city with Band-Aids."
"Look, the city doesn't feel pain."
He kept placing Band-Aids with the same exactness as before. I walked past, deliberately stepping on those Band-Aids in my path, grinding my foot, even, to get them to come loose. At the entrance to my dorm I turned back and saw him carefully fixing what I had disturbed. He looked up at me then. His face was sadness, his eyes shining blue through a few strands of copper. I turned away and walked into the dorm.
The only mail in my mailbox was a plain envelope, brown and unsealed. Campus Mail. I turned it over in my hands after pushing for an elevator but waited until the elevator doors closed behind me before opening the envelope. Inside was a piece of stationary from the University Affairs office. It was blank. On the back I found a hastily written note:
Call 3-4543 at first opportunity
The envelope didn't have my name on it. Neither did the note, so I assumed it was misplaced. I folded it neatly and put it into my back pocket so I'd remember to hand it in to the front office on my way out.
The elevator doors opened onto the unusually bright hallway of my floor. Theyíd finally replaced the darkened, fading, and dead lights we'd had ever since the school year started. The brightness was foreign, though, and not as comforting as I'd expected. I had to shield my eyes as I made toward my room at the end of the hall.
There was a note from Christine on my door asking me if I would meet her for dinner at seven. Her handwriting was shaky, so much so that I only recognized the message as hers after reading the signature. Underneath was a note from Jess saying she came by to see me and that she'd no doubt see me at the student union later.
A song of an unfamiliar band was on the radio as I entered my room. It took me a moment to remember that I hadn't left my radio on this morning like I usually did. At least I thought I hadn't.
I slid my backpack off my shoulder to the floor next to my computer and left to go to the communal bathroom. Covering my eyes again with my hands, I reminded myself, as I always did, that I'd agreed to make this sacrifice for a single and shouldn't let the uncleanliness of it bother me.
Opening the bathroom door, I heard the rustling of feet. I turned to leave, but I needed to go badly, so I decided I could handle another person in the bathroom. When I turned the corner to pick a stall I noticed that each was filled except the last one. I started to turn back again, to say the Hell with it and take the chance of exploding on the way back to my room, but I was desperate to take a shit. I steeled myself as well as I could, using most of my concentration to control my bowels, and made my short walk to the last stall appear dignified.
I slammed the door open, locked it on the rebound, tore my jeans and underwear down, and managed to sit myself on the toilet in time. I realized then that the top of the toilet seat was still down. I bit back a yelp of surprise and stifled myself until I could throw the lid back, almost ripping it off the hinges.
I was sitting there, recovering, when something brushed against my shoe. I looked down to see a slip of toilet paper resting next to my shoe. It read, We need to talk.
I looked to the stall to my right as if I'd be able to see through the glossy, red metal to the person beyond. Upon consideration, I decided I probably would not want to be able to do that.
"Excuse me?" I said, leaning my head down closer to the opening between stalls. I noticed that the man in the next booth was wearing black, patent leather shoes.
A hand laid another piece of toilet paper down, without pause, and the patent leather shoe pushed it into my stall. It read, I said, 'We need to talk.'
"Oh," I said. "About what?"
Another piece of toilet paper fell and was shuffled over. Do not trust the Empire cabs.
"What are you talking about?"
Another piece of toilet paper slid over. They are assassins.
"Okay. Thanks." At this point I was ready to run from the bathroom half-naked, but it was then I noticed a lack of toilet paper in my stall. I stood quietly, unlocked the door so I could leave in the fastest manner possible, and picked up the pieces of toilet paper I'd already received and used them. There wasn't enough, so I kept asking him questions.
"Is that all?"
"What else is there?"
There are two groups trying to get you on their side. Wipe.
"Which are you from?"
I wiped once more and I was done. I flushed the toilet and walked quickly from the bathroom to my room, hands shading my eyes in a salute. I looked back every few steps to make sure no one followed me.
The first thing I did upon entering my room, besides locking the door and washing my hands, was walk over to the answering machine. The song on the radio was Iron Maidenís "Killers" and, by the time I reached the answering machine, I realized that I'd never heard that song on the radio before. I tentatively looked over at my radio and confirmed that the switch was set to CD.
The Iron Maiden CD case was lying beside the radio. I stopped the CD and removed it from the player. I opened the case to return the CD, but there was another CD in its place. Dark Side of the Moon. I took the Pink Floyd CD case from my collection and opened it. Inside was a Cars CD. I paused in the midst of reaching for The Cars CD case.
Why would somebody take the time to do this? I went back to the door to check that it was locked, and then deadbolted it. I opened the closet door and rifled through my clothes. There was no one there, or under the bed.
I finished cataloging the CD titles. Was someone leaving me a message? Along with Killers and Dark Side of the Moon, there were The Cars Greatest Hits, Bright Red, Pieces of You, The Stranger, Cure For Pain, Panic On, and Nevermind. Taking all the CD cases to my bed I sat down, set them in order, and tried to figure out the meaning of the titles.
Killers. A warning that my life was in danger? Dark Side of the Moon suggested I should be wary at night. The Cars would be a reference to the cab assassins, if I believed what Iíd read in the bathroom. Bright Red? Blood to go along with the pieces of me left by the cars. Then there is a stranger who would cure my pain. So, I should panic.
And Nevermind. The case was empty. Did that mean I should forget the message? That the person decided I shouldn't know what was going on? Or did they just steal the CD? I was feeling more confused than worried, so I lay back on my bed and stared at the ceiling, trying to make out the faintly discernible constellations of glow-in-the-dark stars a previous resident had left. The sun's heat drove into me through the window and I felt sleep grabbing hold. The white ceiling blurred and I drifted in the warmth.
The cold flowing from a crack in my window woke me up. There was only darkness outside, tinted from below by the streetlights. It was six-thirty. I remembered the answering machine and sat up to hit the play button.
"Hello, Chris, this is Jess. I need to talk to you. Call me back at 3-4543."
That number sounded familiar. I took the letter from my pocket and checked it. The number was the same. I knew it was probably too late, but I decided to call the number anyway. I could always leave a message on her answering machine.
"Chris, why did you take so long to call?" It was a voice I didn't recognize, gravelly and male.
"I was sleeping."
"I'm glad you called, Chris, because-"
"How do you know my name?"
"You got the letter?"
"Well, there you go." His voice was urgent. "Now I have to tell you-"
"But how did you know it was me who called?"
There was a pause.
"Who am I talking to?"
"Who is this really?"
"Really, this is Chris." A click had sounded while I was speaking. "Hello? Hello?"
I put the phone back on the receiver. It rang almost immediately, but as soon as I answered the caller hung up.
I unlocked and unbolted the door, locked it behind me, and traveled to the bathroom using my hands to block the light.
There were no sounds that I could hear as I entered the bathroom. There were no feet showing in the stalls. I had the bathroom to myself. I picked the stall closest to the exit and relaxed. No need to rush this time.
I had just started to go when I heard a noise coming from the stall next to me. Two black, patent leather shoes slowly descended and came to rest on the floor of the next stall. A piece of toilet paper was placed next to the shoe and pushed over to my stall. It read, We need to talk.
I noticed at that moment that there was no toilet paper in this stall, either. It was a trap.
Another piece of paper was pushed over. This one read, Hello? Are you Chris?
I sighed as I picked up the two sheets of toilet paper. "Not this again."
Another piece of paper quickly followed my comment. Again? You were contacted before?
"Yes, by the Montresors."
The next message was written entirely in capital letters. EVERYTHING THEY TOLD YOU WAS A LIE!
"They told me that I couldn't trust Empire cabs. That they were assassins."
The next message was back to normal. No, that is a lie. The cabs you can't trust are the American cabs. They are the ones that are hunting you.
"They told me that my life was in danger." I almost had enough toilet paper.
Well, that is true, I admit, the next message read. I had enough paper by that point. Just as I was ready to flush the toilet I saw another piece of toilet paper slide over and stop next to my foot. It began, You should join with us. The Fortunados care
I flushed the toilet, then darted from the bathroom and ran to my room.
Another message was on my door. It was from Jess and said that she had stopped by, again, and she still really needed to talk to me. The phone started ringing and I managed to reach it before the answering machine picked up.
"Chris, is that you?" It was the same male voice as before.
"Yes, it is," I yelled. There was a click as they hung up, and I dropped the phone back in its cradle. I put my jacket on in a hurry and glanced outside to see if it was raining, but I saw Jess instead, walking down the street away from the dorm. A cab was sneaking up behind her and, though I couldn't make out the name on the side of the cab, I felt terror. All the details of the scene stood out in bas-relief, outlined in black and unchangeable. I opened the window and screamed, "Jess! Watch out for the cab!"
She turned at the sound of my voice, but I didn't think she understood what I'd said. The cab increased its speed and a side door opened. I yelled again as the cab slid up beside her. A pair of hands reached from the door and yanked her out of sight, and the cab disappeared around a corner.
From the bottom drawer of my dresser I retrieved a jackknife that my father had given me. I put it in the inside pocket of my jacket and left to go meet Christine at the student union.
Outside the air was crisp and a breeze ran its way through my hair. At the corner I saw that the Band-Aids were still in place, a bit dirty now, rust colored. I knelt down on one knee and peeled the Band-Aid off in one fluid motion. A dark liquid welled up from the crack in the pavement.
I swallowed and tossed the Band-Aid over the welling liquid, then stood and walked away at a sedate pace, not wanting to draw attention to myself and the bleeding sidewalk. I crossed the street, but this sidewalk was also covered with Band-Aids, stained by something I did my best to ignore.
For the rest of the way I kept my eyes to the horizon and the sky. I focused on the trees, trying to engrave the blossoms in my memory. More than ever they seemed phantoms, dreams of a past Spring, their colors too faded to be symptoms of the current season.
Whenever I saw headlights I ducked into an alley or behind a car until the car passed. Only two times did cabs pass by, one Empire and one American, and they both slowed down as they passed the spot where I was hiding, taunting me to show myself. Once I drew my knife, but couldn't manage to open it until the cab was already gone.
The student union was packed. Through the glass doors everything seemed normal and, although I was prepared to defend myself, I felt that my knife wouldn't be necessary, and might even be excessive. I walked confidently into the lobby.
Then I saw the green glow. The jade glow from the students' eyes was still there. It was real. Instinctively, I almost backed out of the lobby, but I managed to move forward into the nearby bathroom instead. I stared at myself in the large mirror above the sinks. I couldn't consider going back out into the student union.
What was I going to do? Stay in here until everyone left? The place was open twenty-four hours. I stared at my face in the mirror. I stared into my eyes. There wasn't any green light. But why couldn't I have that green light in my eyes? Then I would be indistinguishable from the rest.
I'd have to be discrete. Iíd secrets and unknown motives.
I filled my mind with plots and counterplots and countercounterplots, with dark designs, and near meaningless machinations. I thought of the inscrutable.
A jade sparkle appeared in the pupil of my right eye. I almost laughed, but I kept the joy hidden. I concentrated my intentions (unknowable) and judgments (unguessable) until the light grew in both eyes.
I wanted to smile, but thought that if I did my facade would shatter. I left the bathroom. Outside the bathroom, two people, green light bathing their faces, looked at me, smiled, then continued on their way. In the crowded cafeteria I nodded to everyone that made eye-contact. I could almost feel the green light casting shadows over my face.
I found Christine in a booth, facing me though her eyes were focused on the table. She had her knees pulled up to her chest and her arms were tight around her legs. She was shivering.
"Christine," I said.
"Chris! I've been waiting for you. What I said this afternoon was-"
She stopped as she saw my face. Her body tensed and she jumped out of the booth and ran.
It was in that instant of tension, before she ran, that I realized that no jade light was in her eyes.
I yelled after her, "But I'm not one of them!"
Then I ran, in fear for my own life now that everyone else in the cafeteria had turned their heads to bear on me.
"Christine!" Her small body disappeared through the main entrance while I was only halfway to freedom. A hand grabbed my shoulder, but my momentum slipped me through the grip of that person and the several others.
Outside, the air cleared my mind. I felt free again and the fear I had felt in the cafeteria faded as I saw Christine in the distance. Back in the student union, however, I could see a slow-moving mob surrounded by a green aura. I sprinted away, following the distant shape I hoped, I prayed, was Christine, and not some phantom.
I crossed the street and a set of headlights flicked on, synchronous with a screech of tires. A backward glance revealed an Empire cab, a hooded man at the wheel. The red cab was soon at my side, its window rolled down, its taxi sign a bright white. There was a gunshot and my steps stuttered.
Another pair of headlights lit up as I ran, and another. A whole series of engines coughed violently to life. The Empire cab dropped behind me and I heard someone yell, "No! He's ours to kill!" There were more gunshots.
A blue American cab roared into action as I passed it. It slammed into the car in front of it, the cabbie suddenly falling to the side, head having blossomed red over the windows. Shots filled the air, along with the sound of crumpling metal and breaking glass.
When the sounds of violence were faint behind me I turned a corner and bent over. I was sick to my stomach. My breath came in ragged whistles. I leaned against a wall and continued moving, still feeling the need to get away. I walked, straightened myself up, and let my breathing slow, let my body calm down.
A few stars could be seen as pinholes in the night sky of the city. The sky was obscured by the electric lights surrounding me. It seemed as though the darkness was waiting, biding its time until it could descend unchallenged.
I tripped. Sharp edges hit my forearms as I threw them out to break my fall. Around my arms I could make out FRE and ELA.
A fresh, new cement sidewalk stretching out in front of me. At the other end I saw Christine kneeling on the ground. Her hand caressed the cement like the fringe of a dress. Each section between us held hastily scribbled message words. The cement was dry, though there were patches that still showed the color of wet, and there were remnants of old, yellow caution tape that my feet pushed through as I walked towards Christine mouthing each message I passed..
content copyright 2002 Andrew Kozma