On a cloudy weekend afternoon Martin drove his pickup a few hours away, to a town farther up the coast, one that is marginally larger than his own village, and found a store that is somewhere between an antique shop and a battered-goods store. They had chairs and a table for a few bucks, pretty vases at a steep discount. He spent forty bucks and loaded up his purchases in the truck, small bits in the passenger seat, larger items in the bed, then headed back. During the drive he glanced at the mostly-ceramic haul next to him and started telling himself stories about each piece.
World’s Okayest Dad mug ended up at the store after the father fled, in the middle of the night and with a battered suitcase. The mother was relieved to take his belongings, box after box, to the used-goods shop.
The picture frame with the twin sisters at graduation was left behind during one of the many moves. The landlord’s wife took the forgotten junk over last week, having tired of the lost-and-found box that no one ever asked about. The sisters were now running a coffee shop, on the other side of the country, and didn’t even realize they were missing this picture. One of dozens they had always around.
Some stories, Martin told himself, needed to be happy ones.
He drove and thought and plotted and cursed his brain. Behind the wheel, twisting through picturesque landscapes, Martin was free to come up with detailed stories, his brain in overdrive as it supplied oodles of tiny bits of trivia that rendered a fictional reality. But as soon as he made it home, had walked into his living room and plopped down in front of his typewriter, his brain seized up in mental constipation.
He drove past the turn that lead home. The truck wound up the twisting road and ascended the hill that was to the east. At the crest of the range, the truck left the paved roadway and trampled half a mile of short grass toward the abandoned warehouse.
Martin’s phone buzzed as he passed a large oak tree. The alarm he had installed there had been silent until now, so Martin figured that his little hideaway was still safe from snooping eyes.
He parked the truck next to the old building and transferred his purchases inside.
Then he began to smash them. An old baseball bat destroyed World’s Okayest mug. The bat came down time and again until the letters were unrecognizable, then Martin crunched the remains with his boots until the mug became powder.
The mallet shattered the first chair. Martin smiled as the legs splintered, the wooden pieces whizzing by his ears and bouncing off the plastic safety glasses.
"I hate you," Martin screamed as he tossed broken pieces of brick at the line of vases. His aim was good, and each throw sent glass shards flying. "Why can’t you write?!"
After half an hour the floor of the warehouse was covered in pieces of junk and Martin was out of breath. But he was smiling.
He got a broom from the corner and swept the day’s carnage into the center of the room, a spot where the cement floor was charred and covered in ash.
When he was done piling the wreckage of the day, Martin put the broom back in the corner and picked up a red canister. This he flipped over for a few seconds and splashed the pile of debris in a few ounces of foul-smelling clear liquid.
Martin looked at the pile. He couldn’t help but feel like the garbage was taunting him. His hands moved on their own: the red container came up over his head, tipped over, and Martin was covered with the pungent liquid. He shook the container, confirmed that the last few precious drops have splattered on top of his head, and tossed the can aside.
"Is this it?" He asked the air, quietly. "Is this all that is left for me?"
Martin dug a hand into his pocket and pulled out a flip-book of matches.
A faint gasp from the doorway distracted Martin and he dropped the matches.
A teenage boy, somewhere around fourteen years old, stood in the doorway. He held a blue-and-yellow bicycle in front of him as a shield. This was someone Martin had never seen before.
"Hey," Martin said and waved to the kid. "Are you lost?"
The boy’s head shook but he said nothing.
"Private residence, kid, move along."
Another shake of the head.
"Damn it. Get outta here!"
The kid winced back from Martin’s outburst, but he shook his head once again, in defiance.
"Fuck it," Martin muttered mostly to himself, locked eyes with the boy and spoke up. "Enjoy therapy, kid!"
He bent down to the pile where the matches landed, picked up the small book, tore one stick off and held it down against the sulfur pad with his thumb.
Martin looked back toward the door, his last act of compassion for this world, as his finger was starting to drag the match against the harsh cardboard. Heat flared against his thumb and just as quickly subsided.
The doorway was empty, the kid nowhere to be seen. Martin looked down at the smoldering match and swore.
"You even fucked this up," he spoke softly, his voice laced with amusement and despair.
Martin tossed the book of matches down onto the pile and walked outside. The boy wasn’t out there, and there was no sign of him.
Martin got into his truck and drove home. He showered, clothes on, then stripped down and tossed his drenched clothes into the washer.
He pulled out a bottle of whiskey, poured half a glass, and got drunk.
He woke up sitting on the living room couch in the early morning hours, just as the sun was coming up and hitting his face. Martin had a pounding headache. He stumbled into the bathroom, threw up a few times, then went into his bedroom and collapsed in bed.
A practiced routine.
Martin slept until eleven, when an alarm on his phone rang and woke him up.
"Shit," he swore and ambled into the bathroom.
Martin didn’t want to be late to work. He showered and was out of the house in a hurry. He grabbed an already packed lunchbox from the fridge and jumped into his truck.
The truck still smelled of gas, and Martin remembered last night, the pile of debris, the matches, the boy. It wasn’t a dream. He did try to kill himself. Or, at least, thought very hard on the topic.
Martin pulled a cold container of coconut water out of the lunchbox and drank it down slowly, in small sips, over the twenty minutes it took him to drive into town.
Martin worked in a used book store, which mostly meant that he made coffee for people. Their main clientele only browsed books as they sipped lattes. Martin hoped not to meet too many of them this morning, with last night’s self-inflicted hangover.
There were already three cars in the parking lot of the bookstore: one was Lee’s, the other two had out of state plates. Coffee-sipping tourists, Martin concluded and sighed.
He parked, locked up the car and walked around the bookstore, to the employee entrance in the back of the building. Here the sun was hidden by the loading dock overhang and Martin was able to take a few moments to breathe. It was a cold morning, but Martin was sweating profusely. He was worried, anxious, still dehydrated.
He didn’t enjoy working in such a condition. Or, maybe, he just didn’t enjoy working here. The familiar thoughts swum around as Martin got his breathing under control. The panic washed away, slowly.
Martin sat down on the edge of the dock, his feet swinging down into the empty bay. Martin pulled a banana out of the lunchbox and slowly ate it. A police cruiser drove by, a hand inside waved to Martin. He waved back.
The backdoor swung open and Lee popped her head out into the loading dock. "Hangover?"
"Yeah," Martin replied.
"OK. We got a shipment in," Lee waved her hand back towards the bookstore, "why don’t you take that for now."
"Sounds good, will do. Thanks." Martin waved to Lee and slowly started getting up.
"Yeah, yeah. Call me over next time, eh?"
"Sorry, Lee, not one of those parties."
"Still can’t write?" Lee looked up at Martin with sorrow. Martin towered almost two feet over his diminutive boss and was the designated Long Being of the store.
The shipment was a dozen boxes of books that were sent up on a regular delivery. Martin would have to unpack them, enter them in the system, then he’d put some of them out on the shelves on the floor. Others were shelved in the store’s hold section, their buyers notified automatically.
Working in the back was quieter and Martin could keep the lights low, something that he sorely needed today. It was the sort of job that Martin found doable in his current state. He started going through the boxes, one by one entering them and piling the books in the cart, sorted by their section. That, interspersed with getting coffee, took up an hour.
Lee was out front, running the store and the coffee station at the same time.
A family – father, mother, and two young boys – entered the shop when Martin was scanning books into the system. Lee greeted them. She struck up a conversation with the mother, Fiona, and learned that the family was in town on vacation, here on a road trip from the East Coast. Martin overheard most of that.
One of the boys looked to be about twelve. The other, about fifteen, Martin recognized from last night. This was the boy who stood in the doorway of Martin’s private warehouse and watched as Martin set out to kill himself.
Martin quietly worked and listened to the women’s conversation. He learned that Fiona was married to Ted, and their two boys were named Barrett and Patrick. It was Patrick that Martin saw last night, at the secluded warehouse.
Fiona said that the family drove in from Idaho this morning.
Last week, Martin came up with a short sci-fi story about a traveling salesman of teleportation devices.
It was an idea he began to toy with on the drive to the nearby falls.
The weather was bleak and overcast, as it had been for the past two months, and Martin decided to go to the local falls. It was a large parking lot and a half-mile cemented walkway on the edge of the waterfall. People lined up behind the mesh fence and took pictures of falling water, fog, rocks, and the odd bird.
Martin sat on a bench at the bottom of the walkway, the very end of the cement footpath. It was covered in a persistent and heavy fog. Tiny rivulets were running along Martin’s water-proof jacket within seconds of coming there.
Martin sat and thought of what a depressing place it was. He wondered, what would it be like to teleport? To have the ability to be anywhere in the world in the blink of an eye.
Shortly thereafter, Martin had the idea for a story. It was about a salesman of teleportation devices.
Martin thought of a human demonstrating various teleportation devices, pods, to a curious alien.
Each of them was wearing a universal translator. They spoke in their own languages, they heard in their own languages. The translator picked up the others’ voice, tuned it out by playing cancelling wavelengths of sound, and simultaneously played translations of the alien’s speech.
There was a disagreement about the price. Or, more bluntly, the salesman was being robbed by the lying alien. This is gonna get funny, Martin thought. He sat on the bench and thought of the world of the salesman, the motivations behind the robber’s actions.
Martin was having fun. He had not had a brainstorm like this in weeks, months. He imagined the story unfolding in front of him.
It froze Martin. He became aware that if he left, if he stood up and changed environment and became a walker or a driver now, each with their associated concerns, he would lose this connection he had to the story. Martin could not let go. The first great idea in weeks, and he had to continue it while being soaked by a roaring waterfall.
Martin sat and explored the world for hours. Tourists came and went, cameras clicked on and off. Some were pointed at the immobile Martin. His eyes flickered, seemingly over the water-beaten rocks of the riverbed, but Martin was really light-years away, engrossed in a struggle for survival between aliens races.
He felt the cold, and eventually it ate into him so far that Martin could not follow his own plot. The fantastic world he was imagining started to falter. Its rocky foundations of western-comedy-slash-steam-punk-slash-star-travel began to evaporate, and Martin could not continue thinking about them. He looked around. It was dark. His legs were shivering. Martin was freezing.
With monumental effort Martin pulled himself up, then fell back down as his atrophied legs cried out in pain. He had not moved in hours, his clothes entirely soaked, his body frozen, Martin let out a half-sob, half-scream of pain, again and again.
The second time he tried to stand, he managed it and hopped up the cement stairs, into the parking lot, toward his vehicle. It was one of a few left in the lot. Martin got in, turned on the engine, revved the gas a few times and waited patiently while the RPM needle hovered in the 5K range. Soon warm air began to come from the vents. Martin pulled out of the lot and onto the road home.
The road was narrow and twisty. There were no spots to pass, and Martin found himself stuck behind an eighteen-wheeler. A ubiquitous sight in these places, a big rig carrying something through this area and never actually stopping in town. Martin wondered what was in it, but also swore at its very presence. His drive home was taking longer and longer, and despite the car’s heater, he was still shivering.
By the time Martin’s car was parked in his driveway, the fantastical story and the world behind it were gone. Martin had lost all interest in it, and now only anger filled him. He threw himself into the shower and stood, in his clothes, under the steamy water.
Martin lost faith in his creation, in the characters, the situation, the world. Every inch of the story he had imagined, now crumbled as Martin found hairline cracks of doubt in every idea. The cracks grew and ran together and darkened his vision. Martin hated everything about the world of the teleportation-device salesman.
Martin stripped his clothes off, tossed them on the floor of the bathroom, and showered until his skin was burning. Afterward he tossed on a robe and plopped himself down in front of his typewriter. He stared daggers at it. Nothing came, of course. Martin sat and stewed in his emotions.
After an hour, Martin went into the kitchen for the whiskey. He wept for the too-short happiness that was destroyed by his merciless doubt and fear. He eventually forgot about the world that he imagined at the foot of the waterfall, but he did not forget about the pain of loss, the destruction of a beautiful dream.
The vacationing family left the bookstore not long after getting their coffee.
Martin, from the back of the store, watched them cross the street and pack into a dusty station wagon. There were two identical blue-and-yellow bicycles strapped to the rear of the car. Two taller bikes were on the roof, next to a black hardshell.
"Lee, did they say they just got here?"
"This morning, yeah. From the East Coast, somewhere. Long damn drive."
"I saw that young kid, Patrick, last night, along 40th." Martin fudged on the location, but the warehouse was technically on 40th. And the kid had to have been on 40th at some point.
"Huh? You sure?" Lee walked over to Martin. "How much did you drink?"
"Nah, saw him before I got drunk. Him and that bike," Martin pointed out the window.
The station wagon still sat across the street from the bookstore. Lee looked first at Martin, then the car.
"Think they’re casing this place?" Lee said.
"Very funny. Hell no. Just… why lie about a thing like that? Why say they just got here, when clearly Patrick was in town last night?"
"People, man. People." Lee’s favorite line, she used it very often at work.
"There’s something here," Martin said.
"Maybe they stayed east of here, along the ridge maybe, and the kid biked here," Lee offered. "Not far at all, and a level road…" She looked concerned. Martin appreciated her humoring him.
"Yeah. Or Fiona misspoke," Martin conceded. "There’s a simple explanation, I agree with you."
"Sure. Your mind does like to find stories in everything, doesn’t it?" Lee smiled at Martin.
Martin finished the rest of his shift without talking about the strange family.
But he thought of it the whole time. The kid, Patrick, he was at Martin’s warehouse. Him and his bike.
Who was lying, the kid to his parents, or his parents to Lee? Which seemed more likely? Martin tossed the ideas around in his head as he went about his almost brain-dead work. At times, this job helped to produce some of Martin’s best writing. The NYT listing, the award nominations, and as so on. But today, it assisted in Martin’s understanding of this weird situation he found himself in.
Martin clocked out and waved toward Lee. She would close up in a couple of hours. Might call Martin, she said. Martin smiled and nodded at that.
He drove home in a daze.
At some point during the day, Martin jumped to a strange thought. He wondered if Fiona and Ted, the travelling parents, were in fact DEA agents, and that Lee was being surveilled for her drug-smuggling operation.
There was no evidence for this, of course, but Martin could overlook that minor inconvenience.
He sat at the typewriter and poured out the story, just as he saw it unfold. Lee became a Southern Belle named Constance, she ran a drug empire manned by angry rednecks. Martin typed and typed, hour after hour.
The world he saw, it was appearing on the page now, line by line. The characters Martin saw, they were taking form through various interactions Martin picked out for them. He showed where they lived, where they fought, where they loved, where and how they died. Galveston, Texas, their Capitol.
The phone rang. Martin continued typing. The phone rang again. Martin looked at it, noted the strange area code, and picked it up just out of curiosity.
"Lee! Where are you calling from? Your number…"
"This line is bugged and they’re tracing my call," Lee said in a very matter-of-fact way, like she was reading off a list of books in an order.
"Umm. What are you talking about?"
"Martin, gonna get real with you," Lee said. She drew a breath and began. "Some of my friends make bombs. Using the bookstore shipping network, I mailed these bombs to various congressional assholes around the country. And then these assholes died. Do you get me?"
"Fuck, Lee, you’re not serious. That’s… Why? Why are you telling me this?"
"I like you, man. You’re good people. And I wanted to finally be honest. And I know the TLA is listening, but it doesn’t matter, they’re not gonna find me."
Martin’s doorbell rang. He got up, still carrying the phone, and opened the door. A trio of windbreakers stood on his doorway, an acronym in white on the front of their jackets. The man in the middle was holding up a badge and an ID. The man on the left was Ted, the father from this morning.
Lee hung up the phone on her side, so Martin listened to static as the Agent in Charge started talking.
Lee bombed people?
Martin looked back at his manuscript and felt bile come up in his throat.
He walked away from the open doorway, ignoring the agents as he did so, and came over to his desk. Martin picked up the typed pages, the short stack of work over the past six hours, brought it over to the fireplace, and tossed it onto the burning logs.