EVERYONE’S GOT PROBLEMS

TabloidEveryone'sGotProblems1This story appeared in the massive horror anthology, Tabloid Purposes IV in 2007. It is the story of a middle-aged man, Evan Thourne, with a myriad of problems weighing on him who’s approached by a small, pasty man who claims to have a recipe to solve them all. Will Evan accept his help, and what will be the cost if he does? I believe I modeled the strange gentleman on a mixture of Truman Capote and the old man from Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. He was great fun to create and I credit him with all the current knowledge I have on pigeons.

This anthology was released by its editor with great expectations. Frankly, I found its contents to be mostly lackluster. Nevertheless, I was invited to attend a convention in Chicago where I was to be a guest signer of the book. It was rumored there was also to be a graphic novel adaptation for some of the stories. In the end though, not-surprisingly, none of these fond desires came to be.

 

 

EVERYONE’S GOT PROBLEMS

by

 Christopher L. DelGuercio

 

I hope you don’t expect me to apologize, Evan, because I’m not sorry–I’d do it again,” she tells him, one eye hiding perfectly behind a fallen shock of sunny brown hair.

“I know you would,” he says. “I don’t want you to be sorry but we–” he quickly corrects himself, “I–can’t keep doing this.”

Her face knots into a mock sourpuss. “I assume that you’re not planning on telling your wife about us?”

“There is no “us”, Keri, it’s just sex. You’re a wonderful girl but we were never going to end up together, you knew that.”

“Why do you keep coming back then?”

A sly smile creeps across his face. “Because I like fucking you,” he says with adolescent glee. “You’re fun. That’s all I want, though. Does there always have to be another reason?”

“Nah, you’re fun for me too, Evan. That’s a good enough reason for now,” she says. They stare across the workspace of his cubicle at each other for an uncomfortable moment. Then, after a long sip of coffee, she adds, “So, you like fucking me more than your wife then?”

Evan’s voice gets quietly strained. “Don’t bring up my wife, Keri. That’s the only way this works. I didn’t ask for any of this to happen in the first place.”

“Oh Evan, you didn’t ask for it but you didn’t turn me away either—not by a long shot. You wanted it just like me. It’s okay, no one’s around honey, you can admit it. I just want you to let go sometimes and see where it might take you.”

“We’re not going anywhere–can we just leave it at that? You can’t tell anyone in the office about us. If Tilson finds out, it’ll mean my job–that prick already hates me. He’s bound to shitcan me, andtell my wife on top of it. He’ll convince himself he’s being some kind of good Samaritan at the same time he’s fucking me.” Evan scoffs. “He’d be a good ‘fucking’ Samaritan, all right.”

Keri takes another sip. “And all this happens if just one person knows about us?” she says with a note of concern in her voice.

Evan feels his heart take a plunge. “Who did you tell, Keri?”

“I didn’t tell anyone, I swear.”

“Are you sure?” he asks her slowly.

She glowers. “Who am I going to tell? I don’t want to get you in trouble, sweetie, I just can’t say I’m a hundred percent positive that nobody knows. People aren’t blind you know–they pick up on things. I wouldn’t worry about it until there’s something to worry about.”

Evan tilts back in his chair. “I believe you, it’s just real easy for things to go bad,” he says.

“Don’t make yourself sick over it. I told you before, I’m not going to tell on you, but I can’t pretend to know how all this is going to turn out, either. I guess we’ll find out together.”

Evan sighs. “There’s nothing to find out here. No one can know, period.” He takes her hand and puts on his empathetic face. “If you decide all of this is too much and you don’t want to see me, I’ll understand.”

Will you, now?” she asks.

            *                                                          *                                                          *

“Honey, what’s for dinner?” Evan says to his wife from behind the thin wall of an open newspaper.

“Chicken,” she says. “That guy from the bank called again today.”

“They never give up, do they?”

“I guess you can’t blame them, baby. If you owed someone what we owe, you’d give them a call to remind them once in a while, too. He wants to know when he can stop by and talk to us.”

Evan shakes his head. “As if coming over here is going to somehow help us make our payments,” he snaps.

Maggie pours a package of bread crumbs onto a green plastic dish. “We’re going to be okay, right baby?”

Evan doesn’t answer her. Maggie walks over to her husband, still shrouded in the evening edition, a million unsaid words on the newsprint between them. “I need you to tell me we’re going to be okay, Evan. I have to hear you say it.”

“We’re going to be okay,” comes out from behind the paper.

Maggie lets out a disgusted huff. She takes three eggs from the refrigerator and returns to the plate of breadcrumbs on the counter. She cracks two open and drops them into a bowl. “We’re not okay, are we, Evan?”

“Magpie,” he pleads, “I just told you we’re fine. I’m trying to read the paper.”

“This is exactly the problem!” She tosses her hands in the air. “There’s something wrong, can’t you feel it? You don’t talk to me, Evan. We don’t really talk anymore. Is it the money? If you tell me it’s just the money, I’ll feel better, but don’t tell me you can’t see it, too.

“I always felt that you could see right through me; right down to who I really am. I love that about you, and I love being the only one who can look inside and find you, too. But sometimes I look and I don’t see you, not anywhere. If you love me, tell me the truth–what’s wrong? I’ve been trying to figure it out. I want to know, Evan, even if it hurts.”

Evan pounds the newspaper into his lap. “What do you want me to say, Mag? Do you want me to lie and tell you that things haven’t changed? Do you want me to tell you that I see you the same way as I did when we first met? I don’t. I was a kid for christsakes! I’ve grown, you’ve grown, we’re different people–worse things can happen. You want me to look at you the same way I used to? Do you know what I thought that first night at Shanahan’s? I could have cared less if you were capable of independent thought—you were a pretty face and even prettier tits. I was twenty-two, Maggie, that’s what we’re supposed to think. You looked like fun, so I went over to talk to you. I was surprised as hell when you actually talked back. You were fun. You were smart, too—I wasn’t expecting that. You could cook, you liked to play in the snow, and you knew the entire starting lineup for the Mets. You were interesting and complex and wonderful and how could I possibly look at you the same way? Why would you even want me to?”

Evan exits the kitchen abruptly, folding the paper and burying it under his arm. Maggie, fighting her tears, whispers, “Because I miss being the pretty face.”

“I forgot about the meeting tonight,” Evan calls from the foyer. Maggie walks to the front door. “I promised someone special I would go to these things, remember?” He offers her a smile and she responds in kind. He kisses her cheek. “I’ll eat later. I love you.”

            *                                                          *                                                          *

The room is hard and dark. The air stinks—an amalgam of cigarette smoke, cologne, and chewing gum. The metal skeleton chairs form a tight circle underneath the skylights in the center of the room. An unshaven cluster of men take turns telling their stories with the only common thread being the alcohol and the unmistakable timbre of regret resonant in their voices. Evan never speaks, he only listens to them.

Why does Maggie make me come to these godawful meetings? She knows me–I’m not like these people. I’ve been a hell of a lot drunker than I was that night and made it home, I know when I’ve had too much. Jesus, anything goes wrong after you’ve had a couple of drinks and they brand you with a scarlet ‘AA’. Sometimes it’s the other guy’s fault, you know. Sometimes it’s nobody’s fault—that‘s why they’re called accidents. But you take a drink and anything bad at all happens, you’re to blame—it must have been the booze.

A young man in a ballcap and jeans slumps in his chair. He takes a drag of his cigarette and finishes his story.

These people have all bottomed out somewhere down the line. They know it, they admit it–they need to be here. I come here for Maggie.     

The meeting ends. Evan exits the tiny room with an entourage of men. They carry on loudly, the way the wounded are apt to do, after an orgy of catharsis like this one. They’re not bad people; they’ve just made bad choices. He would suggest that they all go out for a beer if he thought any of them could handle it. But he knows they can’t so he stops off at the bar alone.

I’ll have one, he thinks to himself, just to show them all that I can.

            *                                                          *                                                          *

Track nine bumps with such zest that Evan, spitting his jaunty Caucasian flow alongside Jay-Z, doesn’t immediately notice the car trailing him. The red and blues flash inside the black rectangle of his rearview mirror, shocking him to attention. He pulls over immediately and waits. The headlamps slow on the side road and the necks of the passersby twist, hoping for a glimpse of the unfortunate deviate. Evan hates the “shame parade”, even at times like this, when he’s practically sober. Spying out from his side mirror, he sees a familiar silhouette step from the police cruiser. The officer saunters to his open window, already scribbling in a small pad of paper. The stiff felt brim of her hat eclipses the moon behind her.

“I’ll have a cheeseburger–hold the onions–a basket of fries, and a chocolate malt. You got all that? You should really wear roller skates, too.”

“License and registration,” the policewoman says.

“I would think you’d have them committed to memory by now, Officer Gridley,” Evan says, handing her the information “Why are you doing this–what do you want from me?”

She fills in the numbers she can’t remember. “I want you to get drunk, Evan. And not half-assed but really pie-eyed, blind drunk like you were before. Then I want you to crawl behind the wheel of your Nissan and play chicken with some big, unforgiving oak tree. But that seems pretty unlikely what with there being so few oak trees around here–odds are you’ll just wind up running some kid down in the street. I can’t let you do that.” She hands him back his paperwork.

“I’m not drunk. I don’t do that,” he tells her.

“But you have been drinking?”

He pauses a split-second. “No.”

She nods. “I’m sure you haven’t . . . at least not enough. When you’ve been a cop as long as I have, you can always tell. I could test you right now but you wouldn’t blow half the legal limit. I could make you get out of the car and take some field sobriety tests though—you know, walk the line, touch your nose, stand on one leg—hopefully one of your neighbors or your coworkers will drive by and recognize you, but that would just be me having a little fun.” She tears off the ticket from her pad and hands it to him. “I got you at forty-three in a forty mile-an-hour zone. Here you go, Evan, I’ll be seeing you around.”

“It’s no one’s fault, Gridley—it was an accident.”

The officer sucks in a calming breath and clamps both hands onto the car door. “Remember this, I know where you live and I know where you work. I know the bars you sneak off to and I know the streets you take home. The next time you mess up, I mean really mess up, I’ll be right behind you. When you’re on some back road at two in the morning, trying to stay between the lines like a kid with a coloring book, praying that you make it back to your house before you pass out, I’ll be there just when you think you’re safe . . . waiting. What are you going to do, Evan, when your wife’s not there to take the blame and get you out of a jam?”

Evan doesn’t turn his eyes to the officer. Instead, he says, looking straight out his front windshield, “You’ve got to stop–you can’t keep pulling me over like this.”

Officer Gridley flashes a quizzical look. “Who said I was always going to pull you over? Some night, if you’re drunk enough, I may just sit back and watch. You have a good night now, Mr. Thourne.” She turns away with a nonchalant wave.

“How is she, your daughter, I mean? How is she doing?”

The woman freezes with her back to him. “She’s eight now. She still can’t play with the other kids for long–she gets too tired. It makes her cry . . . I think you’d better go now.”

Evan hastily rolls up his window, signals, and pulls out into the street. A cold tingle dances down his spine on the ride home. That Friday night he holes himself up inside a little den in the basement of his house. He hides out in the den all weekend. He doesn’t answer the phone. He doesn’t check his email. He makes sure to see no one and that no one sees him.

            *                                                          *                                                          *

The alarm sounds Monday morning and Evan wakes up with the same rot in his belly that’s been growing there since Friday. He sleepwalks through a shower, shaves the dark wire bristles of hair that have sprouted on his face over the weekend, and slides on his work clothes. Maggie has scrambled eggs and toast waiting for him on the table and he gobbles them down without a word while she watches, Argus-eyed, from over a cup of black coffee across from him. He pecks her forehead ritually and leaves for work.

That afternoon Evan takes his lunch out by the water fountain in the square. It’s not particularly serene as many people spend their lunch break there but it’s as close to nature and serenity as you’re apt to find on a half-hour break in the city. He stares through the dimpled sheet of falling water at the sculpted rock fountain. On top of it, there’s a statue of an important man on horseback who Evan’s never heard of. He checks his watch and bites down on a hot dog.

A diminutive old man in a full-length brown coat and black horn-rimmed glasses sits beside him on the granite bench, feeding the pigeons. His skin, a creamy cloth pocked by age, looks like the film that forms over warmed milk. His head is a spider web dusting of gray hair–his nose is thin and pointed, the way a pencil is. He reminds Evan of his dead grandfather. The man speaks, still doling out seeds. His is a nasally voice of higher pitch and almost inaudible.

“Marvelous birds, pigeons, wouldn’t you agree?”

Evan, waves a finger toward the statue, stained with white splatters. “I think the guy up there on the horse might disagree with you.”

The old man frowns and looks away. “Such a gregarious bird, they love to be around people. If trained properly, they’re single-minded in the completion of their task. They’re determination saved thousands of lives in both Great Wars.” The stranger shrugs in disgust. “Were you aware that news of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo was delivered to Englandfirst by pigeon, four full days before the first horses or ships arrived with it? It’s remarkable–one of the smartest and most physically adept of all creatures on earth and we despise it simply because it won’t use a bathroom.” He flails his arms and looks off again.

“Well, when you put it like that, I guess they’re not so bad.”

“They also mate for life,” the man tells Evan. “Other, more palatable species of bird like swans get credited with that trait, but pigeons are fiercely loyal as well. That’s one advantage they have on us–they never get the urge to stray. The grass is never greener than right in their own yard.”

Evan’s head lowers slightly. “Yep, they got us there, all right.”

The stranger grunts as if to celebrate. Both men now stare into the pitter-patter cascade of the fountain. “You need some sleep, Evan,” the man says.

“Excuse me—what?”

“Sleep,” the man says again, “you need it–the kind that only comes from an uncluttered mind.”

Evan laughs unhappily. “Yeah, well, I won’t be getting any of that kind of sleep anytime soon,” he frowns. “Hey, you said my name—how do I know you?” A silence follows his question. “You’re not with the collection agency, are you? Every night I tell you people I can’t give you what I don’t have.”

“I’m not from the collection agency, Mr. Thourne.”

“The bank?”

“No.”

Evan’s voice drops, “Are you one of Jakie’s guys?” His eyes dart around the square.

“Do I look like the hired muscle?” the stranger asks. “Although to divine that you’d be paid a visit from one of his leg-breakers wouldn’t be too hard. They’re notoriously impatient when it comes to debts, are they not?”

Evan’s eyes search the man up and down. “Who are you then?”

“I’m someone who’s called out to troubled spirits—people with problems—like yourself.”

“What do you know about my problems?”

“I know money, or to be more precise, your lack of it, is a problem.”

Evan scoffs at that man. “That’s no great mystery, pal. Money’s a problem for ninety-nine percent of the people in this world.”

The old man nods his head. “True, quite true, but I know about that strumpet intern that hangs all over you, too.” He motions to Evan’s building. “She practically begged you to do her the favor at the office Christmas party last year—the maintenance closet was it? You had one too many vodka tonics . . . she had about five too many. She’s a young girl, can’t be more than twenty-one, very petite. You snuck her down to the fourth floor because the closet has a lock on it, and you both dove into each other awkwardly among the scent of pine cleaner. You had trouble with the small buttons of her blouse; her pink skin made your hands shake. But after she took you inside her, the nervousness subsided, it all came very naturally after that. Tell me, Evan, how long do you think she’ll keep hermouth shut? She’s probably already told one or two of the secretaries in the office. How long do you figure before Mr. Filson hears about it?”

Evan sits, gape-mouthed, listening to the old man.

“You’re little more than an office supply to Filson. You know that. He’d just as soon replace you as he would a defective stapler. Every day he drowns you in niggling work befitting a fool, I know these things, Evan. Hadn’t you envisioned more for yourself when you took that job?”

Evan doesn’t answer.

“I know about that police officer, Gridley, stalking and harassing you like a common criminal as if it were her charge to somehow expose you. Such a pity–if she’d only been this watchful over her own daughter she would have no crusade to lead. And your wife–“

“What about my wife?”

“I know all about your wife. I know she’s unaware of how these problems weigh upon you–how they affect your relationship. I know her misgivings stem from the fact that she doesn’t understand the completely natural changes that must take place between two married people. I also know it will eventually tear your marriage apart. You have to see it, too.”

Evan’s voice is naked. “How could you know all that, it’s not possible?”

“And yet, I do know,” the man says. “The faster you can reconcile that fact, the faster I can help you.”

“Help me what?” Evan asks.

“Help you solve your problems.”

“And how do you plan on doing that?”

The old man unzips a wide grin. “Magic, of course, how else?”

Evan’s eyes squinch. “Who did you say you were again?” he asks through an incredulous smile.

“I’m someone who can get rid of all your problems, Evan.”

Wearing a look of bewilderment, Evan says, “Thanks a lot, but I’ll be okay. Everyone’s got problems, right?”

“My clients don’t,” the stranger tells him. “How would you like to wake up tomorrow morning without any of your problems?”

“Don’t take offense, mister, but I think you’ve been out on this bench with your marvelous pigeons a little too long.”

The old man’s face sours. “You presume to mock me after what I’ve told you? I lay out every sordid detail in front of you, intimacies that lie between only you and your God. I offer you the chance to free yourself from your every worry and all you can offer me in return is your ridicule?” He shakes his head.  “It seems I’ve misjudged you, Mr. Thourne–you don’t need a man of my talents after all. My time here is limited and I have other clients who are quite grateful for the gift I offer them. I
would offer you the same choice but it seems you’ve made yours already. Good day now.”

The stranger rises from the stone bench and turns to walk away.

“Wait a minute, hold on. I didn’t mean to insult you. Your offer is intriguing, but problems don’t just disappear overnight.”

“They don’t? Ever had a toothache one day only to have it vanish the next and never bother you again? Did you ever lose an indispensable item only to find it the next morning? Have you ever fought with your wife one night and then both completely forgotten what your quarrel was when you woke up?” He snaps his stubby fingers in front of Evan’s wide eyes. “All problems disappear that quickly. They may have lingered on for ages but, once their fate is decided, they vanish from existence instantly. There are still mysteries left in this world, Mr. Thourne. Only a fool would think otherwise, and you don’t strike me as a fool.”

Evan slides himself closer on the bench. “Okay, but how do you do it?”

“Science and mathematics,” the man says smugly.

“I thought you said it was ‘magic’?”

“It is magic.”

Evan shakes his head clear. “I’m afraid I’m not following you at all.”

“Of course you’re not, why would you,” the old man continues. “Magic, you see, is nothing more than science and mathematics unexplained. The instant we can quantify and calculate a thing, it ceases to hold any mystery for us. But it is still magic, have no illusions about it. Let me ask you this: What would a person living in the Middle Ages consider a bottle of penicillin to be? How would the ancient Egyptians have interpreted a nuclear blast? What would an African bushman believe about the science of photography? It’s magical simply because it’s beyond their realm of understanding. Why, once explained, should it be any less miraculous? Magic to one man is just another man’s television set.

“You believe in magic, Evan. You just have a hard time calling it by that name. Were Jesus’s miracles any less astounding once he’d explained himself? Call it religion instead of magic if it makes you feel more comfortable, but don’t pass it up because you don’t know how to define it. Believe me, the world around us has no shortage of magic power, just a shortage of explanations for it. I’ve been called everything from an alchemist to a warlock—it’s a bit sensational, I admit, but they’re really two sides of the same coin. I’m simply a man who recognizes this power. I can’t explain it, but it works, so whatever title that affords me I wear with pride. Now I’ll put the question to you once again, ‘How would you like to get rid of all your problems?’”

Evan Thourne sits quietly for a moment, busying himself with all the questions in his mind.  He probes the old man’s stone face like a grizzled gambler. “You believe what you’re telling me, don’t you? You think you’ve got some magic fix.”

“That’s why I came to you–your problems called me here. How else could I have known of them, and you.”

Evan buries his face in the hewn fabric of the old man’s coat sleeve, a rapturous tide of emotion rising within him. “I want to start over again,” he says in a muffled sob. “I don’t know what you are, but you found me at the right time. You knew this was the exact moment I needed your help most. You knew that everything was coming undone for me.” There is still a hint of astonishment in Evan’s voice, but it is blanketed now with an undercurrent of gratitude. He vows secretly to never let his problems get the best of him again.

A warm smile spreads across the old man’s face and he pats the back of Evan’s head, stroking his hair as a father would his son. He takes the younger man’s hand in his own and, with his thumb, traces an intricate symbol invisibly onto Evan’s palm–all the while incanting ritually in a bygone tongue. He then puts his thin lips to the back of Evan’s hand and kisses it, completing the spell. The wrinkled worms of skin feel cool and dry to the young man. Evan submits, snuffling, and wiping the salt water from his eyes. The man takes a small paper bag from inside his coat and hands it over.

“Open it,” he commands.

Evan peeks into the bag. “What is that?

“A gift touched by God’s own hand, Mr. Thourne. Take it out.”

Evan reaches in and removes what looks to be a piece of fruit resembling a plum in size and shape. Its skin is a ruddy bruise-color and it appears to be folded in on itself several times over, giving the entire thing the appearance of being covered in red velvet drapery. Evan rubs his thumb in and around the creases, playing with the fleshy pulp.

“It grows on but a solitary tree hidden deep within the rain forests of Brazil. The native caretakers of this tree call the fruit it bears, ‘O Suco de Maravilhas’, The Juice ofWonders. Just think of it as an undiscovered medicine—the cure for your unique cancers,” The man tells him. “Eat the entire fruit anytime before midnight tonight, all but the pit—leave that in a glass of warm water by a window that faces the morning sun–and tomorrow you’ll find your life a lot less complicated.”

“It works overnight?”

“Just like magic,” the old man says with nonchalance and the wave of one gossamer-skinned hand. “When you wake tomorrow morning you will owe nothing, your adulterous lapse all but forgotten, you’ll no longer be the target of rogue policewomen, your boss will even acquire a new fondness for you. And your wife—well, rest assured Maggie will come to understand you better than she ever has in the past. And these are only the big changes.”

Uncontrollably, the last skeptical synapse in Evan Thourne’s brain fires and he asks the question, “What’s in it for you? I mean, nothing’s free, right? You must want something from me in return.”

From you?” the man asks. “Oh, bless you, child. What you don’t understand is that my payment comes from seeing those obstacles removed which might otherwise hinder the path to an individual’s happiness. There may be a grandeur to your future, Evan. How could I allow all the benefits you might bring to mankind to go untapped because of a few problems?” Then he adds, coyly, “Of course, I have a generous cliental as well. I do accept monetary forms of compensation, but only from those who can most afford to offer it. I will ask only that you never speak a word of my existence to anyone from this moment forward. I’m a selective suitor; I don’t wish to be sought out for my services. Therefore, I’m afraid I must insist upon your complete discretion.”

With the idea of his new future presently intoxicating his thoughts, Evan tells the man, “If that’s all you want, I won’t say a word to anyone.”

“Even Magpie,” the old man insists.

Evan, still surprised by the man’s inscrutable understanding of all details in his life, agrees. “Even if I did, she wouldn’t believe it. I’m not sure I can believe it myself yet.”

“All you need to do is believe, Evan. What have you got to lose, besides your problems?”

He searches himself, but nothing springs immediately to mind. He drops the fruit back into the bag before strangling the top shut. “I’ve got to get back to work. I want you to know that I appreciate what you’re doing for me, but if I wake up tomorrow and everything’s still the same, I won’t hold it against you, okay. We can always come out here and have lunch together again if you want to.”

“That would be something, Evan,” the man says, and then, picking himself up from the bench, he toddles off, vanishing in between the bustling figures and building facades. Evan digs into his pockets and, after a moment of thought, tosses a penny into the fountain before the short walk back to work. That evening he comes straight home. While Maggie cooks dinner, he wrestles with himself over the events of that afternoon in the square.

“Honey, do you believe in miracles?” he asks his wife. “Do you believe it’s possible to wake up one morning and have everything in your life be different–that all your problems could just go away?”

Maggie laughs and fumbles an asparagus spear down the drain of the garbage disposal. “What do you mean, like—POOF—and suddenly everything’s better?” she asks him. “In the movies, maybe, but not in real life. Everyone has to solve their own problems, Evan. Why? Do you wish your life were different?”

“Not all of it, you know, just parts.”

She towels off her hands and turns to him. “Am Ione of those parts?” she asks solemnly.

“I think things could be better between us, sure, but it’s nothing serious.”

“So, even if you could change some things about our marriage, you wouldn’t?” she asks, a pointed tone to her words.

“No Maggie,” he assures her. “I wouldn’t change the way I feel about you one bit. I can promise you that part of me will always be the same, no matter what.”

Satisfied, she turns the faucet back on and continues with dinner. “That’s what I thought, I guess I just needed to hear you say it.” she tells him, dropping her hands back under the chill shaft of water.

“What if you could change things, though, Maggie? What if you could make them disappear forever? Wouldn’t that be something?”

“I suppose it would. But have you asked yourself what happens to all our troubles that just disappear? Where do they go?”

He considers the consequence. “The hell if I know, Mags, why should I care what happens to them?”

She shrugs her shoulders.

“Is there something you want to talk to me about, Evan? Please talk to me. I know something’s bothering you–I can’t help if you’re not honest with me.”

He remembers what the old man said about keeping his secret. Evan Thourne is good at keeping secrets. “Oh, it’s nothing really, just a daydream I was having at work today. I’m sorry, honey, my head is still stuck in fantasyland,” he tells her.

“You shouldn’t worry so much,” she says.

“I know, things could be worse, right?”

“Things can always be worse.”

He nods in agreement. “You’re right. We could have all this and a bunch of kids to take care of, too. Aren’t you glad we never took that route?”

“I sure am,” she says.

After dinner, Evan lay in a pile on the living room couch, his nerves overloaded and singed. The telephone has been screeching all evening, just as it did every evening.

“Don’t answer it!” he tells Maggie as she reaches for the receiver. “Let it go for tonight. They’ll call back tomorrow.”

Maggie lifts his head and wedges herself underneath him on the couch. She reflexively strokes the crown of Evan’s hair sitting in her lap and forces a smile down on him. “Remember what you said, how none of this will even be here tomorrow?”

Evan chuckles back at her. That’s right, he thinks to himself. Tomorrow I’ll be free. With Maggie’s hand still stroking his head, he drops dead asleep.

            *                                                          *                                                          *

“What time is it?!” he asks. “How long have I been out?” Evan wakes suddenly in a frisson of fear.

“It’s a quarter to midnight,” Maggie tells him with a look of consternation etching her face.

“Let me up, quick, I’ve got to do something.”

He dashes to the kitchen and digs into the fridge for the brown bag. He pulls out the magic fruit and dives into its cool flesh with his teeth, wiping the thick amber juices from his jaw and sucking them off the sides of his fingers in a feral frenzy. Within minutes, he’s devoured the small fruit down to its core–a hard black pit.

He waits.

There is no twinkling light shaft dispatched down from the heavens to envelop and transform him nor is there the feeling of some inner metamorphic catalyst at work. He returns to the couch nonplussed and disappointed. Maggie is gone, upstairs to bed.

Soon, though, Evan does sense something growing within him. The feeling is an old one; one he remembers from his childhood. It feels like Christmas Eve and the promise of morning is close enough to touch and yet still miles off. And like a child, he wishes he could calm his visions long enough to fall asleep, but before he can even make the wish, it’s granted him.

That night Evan dreams. He dreams he’s making love to Maggie. She writhes in unfamiliar throes beneath him on the bed sheets. Her face, twisting from side to side, suddenly melts into that of his young mistress, alternately horrifying and inflaming him. But without consent, other faces invade and attach themselves to his wife’s body; a succession of strangers’ faces, women and men, frozen faces with dead eyes. They watch Evan back away in horror. The arms of the ever-changing figure reach out for him while its maw slowly stretches open. From it emits a low churning sound that grows in his ears. The wail of the banshee rises to a shrill crescendo and blares there until Evan snaps back to consciousness.

            *                                                          *                                                          *

Evan wakes to the sound of sirens outside the window. Before he can open his eyes he feels the presence of a distinct change.

Wait . . . something is different.

The air is unnaturally stale and the obstreperous whirring of passing cars crashes against his eardrums instead of wandering up ethereally, as it should, into the bedroom.

Something is different. The thought flashes instantly through his brain. The old man wasn’t kidding!

He raises his eyelids on a new life–a life minus his problems.

The light is muted, but Evan can see his house pictured against the skyline through the tinted window glass and the black fabric of the curtains. He recognizes this vantage point as his own driveway. A large door swings open in front of him, allowing in the rush of full midday light and sounds. The old man slinks inside, securing the door closed behind him.

“Up already, Mr. Thourne? I expected the fruit’s effect would be longer-lasting considering you waited so long to eat it. I suppose none of that matters now, though” he says, carefully maneuvering with his back to Evan’s prostrate body.

Evan makes an attempt to sit up but his muscles won’t respond. “There’s something wrong. I–I can’t move.”

The old man puts a finger to Evan’s lips. “Shhhhh, that lovely piece of fruit I gave you is the reason you’re having such difficulties. You were never meant to be awake for any of this.” With quickness belying his elderly appearance, the man jabs Evan in the leg with a syringe of clear liquid. Evan doesn’t feel the needle slip deep into the meat of his thigh. “That should take care of things until I’m finished with you,” the old man says.

He fastidiously buckles several rows of leather straps over Evan’s body as he speaks. “There’s no point continuing this ruse any longer. Thank you, by the way, for leaving the pit in the glass of water like I asked–it was a cinch for me to find. I grow weary of searching through garbage every time I have a job, so I concocted that little wrinkle to save myself some time. Mr. Thourne, do you remember when I told you that you weren’t the first? If it’s of any consolation to you now, you won’t be the last, either.”

“I don’t understand,” Evan mumbles, his vocal chords locking.

“You wanted to know yesterday how I do it—how I work my “magic”. He motions theatrically with his hands. I told you then, ‘science and mathematics’. Science in the form of the natural paralytic present in that piece of fruit which allows me to work, how shall I say it, unfettered. The mathematics aspect is embarrassingly simple I’m afraid. The equation begins with a man whose existence is rife with problems he would rather be rid of. Now these problems, mind you, have been created completely of his own volition, but he is either too blind or too arrogant to admit it to himself. He’s just arrogant enough to believe he has a future greatness in him that’s worth preserving. So I put it to you, Mr. Thourne: What is the easiest way to solve the equation of this man’s problems?” He pauses dramatically but Evan, his jaw tightening, can only respond in a burst of short, indignant moans.

“Take ‘the man’ out of ‘the equation’,” the stranger says with great satisfaction. Then the old man leans just above Evan’s face to secure the final metal pin through its grommet. Evan struggles to loosen his jaw. His lips part only slightly, but it is enough for him to whisper into the old man’s ear.

“Your equation doesn’t add up. I thought you helped people. The idea was to get rid of my problems, not to get rid of me. How are you helping anyone by doing this?”

The old man lifts the door handle and opens it a few inches. “I believe I told you, Mr. Thourne, you’re not my only client . . . everyone’s got problems.”

Through the door slit, Evan can see his wife over the old man’s narrow shoulder looking out from the bedroom window of the house. Their eyes meet a final time as she turns away and pulls down the chord of the window shade.

The stranger slides out onto the black asphalt and the back door slams shut resolutely. He motions to the driver and the hearse quietly hums out of the driveway and disappears around an abrupt twist in the road ahead.

 

-THE END-