“Winds in the east, mist coming in,
Like somethin’ is brewing and about to begin,
Can’t put my finger on what lies in store,
But I fear what’s to happen, all happened before…”
– Bert, Mary Poppins
How does it begin? It begins with a game. A game for the end of the world is how it will begin. Past, present and future tense all knotted together, but still there, somehow.
The Raggedy Man arrived before dawn but he hadn’t always been there. He was wiry and gangly, like some almost movie star from the age of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. His hair, slate gray and dirty. His face tan and lined. He wore a collection of jewelry chains and battered dog tags looped about his neck like ancient talismans. His jean jacket was faded and adorned with buttons from concerts past and other arcane symbols now made meaningless. He wore a pair of jeans that hung off him loosely, finishing in faded boots; expensive when bygone days of high-end boots were the currency of the realm.
If you’d been out that cool, misty late spring morning when Laguna Beach wasn’t overrun by the crowds, when the morning mist and gloom mix with the golden sunshine and the salt in the air, you would have tagged him as a member of the tribe known as homeless. Maybe a chieftain. Not a pawn, most definitely not a pawn. A headman. A war leader. A street judge. One who carried weight, though he was invisible to the likes of you and me, passing by that misty morning.
He set his shamanic staff down beside the stone picnic table and laid out the board and pieces, whistling a tune. The tune was on pitch. “Perfect pitch,” one with an ear for such things would have barely commented as they passed the old men and the homeless who set up their boards on the stone tables in the early morning mist and salt, waiting for the heat of the day and an opponent to distract them from the inevitable march toward death. Once the pieces were arranged and each had been touched the proper amount of times by placing one long and dirty index finger on the very top of each Black piece, The Raggedy Man sat down at the stone bench on his side of the board. The side that faced the seaside town. He liked to watch the people and suggest things as they passed by. A pleasant distraction while he’d wait for his opponent to make his move.
“It’s important to be distracted,” he said to himself. He had that kind of voice that was world weary, a bit of a grate to it, but mesmerizing nonetheless. The kind any casting director would always be looking for to pitch high-end luxury automobiles. The knowing voice of the urban insider who’s just a step ahead of everyone else in ‘the latest thing’ department. The kind of voice people listen to and don’t question.
The Raggedy Man folded his hands and waited.
An hour later his opponent crossed the street, leaving the small seaside town proper of coastal Laguna Beach. His opponent was big. A construction worker type. Wide shoulders and a broad chest. Like that of a knight, or maybe a Viking, a warrior of some type. His opponent wore jeans and big timberlands that made his already looming height even taller. The Opponent crossed the grass verge and the Raggedy Man could see the close shaved sides of his head, the soft blondish-red goatee. The piercing blue eyes. The face of a character actor from the nineteen fifties. The big good natured sunshine smile of the simple everyman, beaming and determined to do the right thing all at once. No matter what.
The Raggedy Man shook his head slightly and smirked.
The big man approached, standing over the stone table. The Opponent studied the board for a moment, his blue eyes noting all the pieces, and then in the smoothest of motions, slid onto the stone bench and placed his large feet and massive legs under the table.
The Raggedy Man held out both hands, just above the chess pieces, fluttering his fingers like a child greedy for chocolate. A prodigy at the piano. Like Liszt must have done to have played that instrument so damned well.
The Opponent looked up and nodded once at the Raggedy Man.
“I suppose you want Black.”
The Raggedy Man rolled his eyes. “I’m always Black.”
The big man, the Opponent, frowned good naturedly and shrugged slightly, really only to himself but because his features were so large the motions were telegraphed to everyone nearby and anyone watching afar.
“May I move first?” asked the Raggedy Man.
“It’s why I’m here,” said the Opponent, not lifting his eyes from the board.
The Raggedy Man placed a dirty thumb and forefinger on the piece he intended to move. It was a pawn. All the pawns were different. As though each was from a different set. Or a different world. He took the gray, green dead-eyed pawn between his thumb and forefinger and moved it into play. In the distance, the doomsday horn down at San Onofré Nuclear power plant began to wind up into its end of the world wail.
He’d known all that day he was going to drink again that night. Holiday saw it coming from a long way off. Like an afternoon storm or a strange town out in the middle of nowhere, off on the horizon, coming at you along the interstate as you speed toward it. Inevitable. But, when things end, reasoned Holiday, there’s nothing left but to get real drunk.
Some pot clattered to the floor of the coffeehouse, ringing and dinging, hollow and empty, like the sound of some bell greater than itself struck once and now slowly fading.
He finished the rest of his shift on autopilot. Barely there. The steam from the espresso machine washed over him, leaving him with a feeling that he could just disappear inside all of it. As if that brief cloud was a moment between worlds. A place he could just hide out in for a while and be someone else. But there was a line of order tickets thirty-six mochas deep. Thirty-six mochas real.
“Are you listening to me?” asked Stephen. His boss. The manager of Ground Zero. “This is what I need…”
And then he said a bunch of other stuff.
Holiday couldn’t think.
I don’t want to think, was what he told himself. Heard himself say to no one inside his head.
Because to think… was to think about her.
And she was gone now.
Had been gone for two weeks.
Gone for good.
That’s what she said on the phone that morning. Two weeks ago. He’d gone to an acting class at the community college. He’d called her. She’d sounded tired. Out late the night before.
When he asked why, why she was tired, she just sighed and said, “It’s over, Holiday.”
And he’d known then.
Known he’d drink too much.
He finished his shift in steam and late afternoon, last of summer, golden, almost orange sunlight, surrounded by the heavy aroma of brewing coffee as Gordon Lightfoot, the coffeehouse guitarist they’d, she and he, had named such, strummed his guitar. She and him when they were together, her and he, their lovers’ secret joke. As Gordon Lightfoot started to play on that last Saturday afternoon of August, Holiday finished his shift.
Everyone else on the afternoon crew knew it was over between them. She’d worked there also before she’d left for college.
He took off his apron and made for the exit. The night crew already taking their places. Cash register. Brewer. Pastries. Bar. Milk. Bussing. It was a large coffee house in a high end entertainment complex. It was Saturday night and life was moving on quickly. First dates. Date night. Dinner with friends. Movies. Hanging out. The last mochas at midnight, the bar still thirty-six orders deep as customers raced in before the night crew got all the doors closed and locked. Outside, Holiday turned one last time in the early twilight of late summer to look back at the store.
They were all just kids. The ones who worked there. His co-workers.
He was no longer one of them.
Had never really been one of them.
He was almost thirty.
He was finished.
They were just starting.
Like she was. Away at a four year college. A new romance with a new someone, just starting to discover the new and beginning to forget the old.
I’m that guy, he thought to himself. The guy who gets left behind. The guy who gets forgotten.
And then he walked away into the crowd, passing through all of it and its life as he forgot that some distant bell was struck.
Holiday pulled into the grocery store parking lot, feeling fuzzy and dull. The last of the day was disappearing into the near west, behind Santa Catalina Island down in the ocean beyond the coast. From the heights of Viejo Verde, the small suburban enclave where he lived, you could see the long island riding out in the middle of the ocean, even though the coast alone was over ten miles away, and then there were another twenty-eight miles, as the song goes, out to Catalina across the sea. Day was over.
It’s over, thought Holiday as he entered the large grocery store still thinking of the girl he loved. It was quiet. It was Saturday night. The families who populated the large McMansions on the hill above his condo had done their shopping, and now the grocery store would ride out the night until just before two, when the late night crowd would make their last beer runs after partying down in Newport. Even buying food to cook and soak up the booze.
And then what?
It was an all-night mega-chain grocery store. The Market Faire. It would go on until dawn. Until the late night crew came in to re-stock what had been purchased and taken away, and to wash down the sidewalk outside in the pre-dawn night. As though the night before had never been. Never was. Never more. He’d gone in to the mega-chain, giant box grocery store every night since she’d gone.
And even before, when they’d still been an item. Holiday and Taylor. After she’d left his house late. She was only eighteen. She couldn’t stay out past midnight. Her mother’s rule. Hard and fast. But then she’d gone off to college and who knew how late she was out now. But he knew she was out now. With the new whomever. Creating new secrets for just the two of them.
Holiday stood in front of the beer in the liquor aisle.
All the beers seemed so fun and inviting. Each bottle a picture of snowcapped mountains or monster truck special advertising. Or ripped dudes jet skiing with hot babes laughing. The last of the summer marketing campaign beers.
He had a memory. Brief and fleeting. He’d bought one of those special marketing cases of beer at the beginning of summer. A camping trip a bunch of the kids from the coffee house, her age, his co-workers, took for the night, out in a local park backed up to the Cleveland national forest. He remembered hoisting that case, looking at that perfect jet skiing couple and thinking life was good right now. He had a beautiful girl and although they weren’t Jet Ski people, they were having fun in their own way. Life had looked pretty good, then.
“But that was then,” Holiday muttered to himself and left the rest unsaid.
On the speakers Rick Astley was crooning about never giving up, never letting someone down. Never running around.
The one hit wonder burned within Holiday’s soul.
Holiday moved along to the hard liquors.
He selected a bottle of store-label vodka. The big plastic liter size.
Don’t want to have to come back. Don’t want to drive drunk, he thought. No, I don’t want to do that at all.
Then he was holding a same-sized bottle of store label bourbon.
“I’ll need cokes. Gotta have some cokes for the bourbon.”
Juggling cases of beer and liter bottles of liquor, he went in search of a case of coke and then finally made it up to the register.
Terri the cashier smiled and said, “Hey, Holiday.” She cast a quick glance at his supplies and Holiday knew, even though she was trying to hide it, he knew exactly what she thinking. It wasn’t bad. What she thought wasn’t bad. She didn’t condemn him. She was dating a firefighter. He drank a lot when he had time off too. Times were mostly good, then sometimes the firefighter drank too much. Then, not so good. He blamed it, the firefighter did, when he sobbed, shaking and convulsing in Terri’s arms after he’d drunk all the booze, he blamed it on the job.
And she just held him.
Because what else was she gonna do? Who else would have her and her kids? Or at least that’s what she thought. She didn’t see herself as pretty as she was.
What she did see as she looked at an overloaded Holiday, as some country western gal crooned about being just a shotgun girl devoted to her man, over the blaring speakers of the Market Faire, what she saw in Holiday was a decently good looking guy who was funny and sad at the same time. She knew he had another life besides just working in a coffee house. She knew the pretty little girl he’d run around with for the summer was gone now. Until recently she had had her hunches about the girl being tied to Holiday’s nightly liquor run, but now looking at the two liters of hard liquor and the thirty pack of beer, she knew the girl was indeed gone and that Holiday would be back into the store, alone, again and again, night after night. He’d been like that before the girl, back when he’d had a broken arm and he’d bought a jug of the cheapest wine every night along with a pack of smokes. But he’d been funny, joking about how he’d broken his arm. He’d made them all laugh around the registers and some of the bagger girls thought he was cute, but they all wondered how he drank an entire jug of cheap wine every night.
He liked to paint, he’d told them.
“Pack of smokes, please,” he asked Terri. Terri gave her keys to some high school kid who opened the cigarette case and got Holiday’s brand. “Better make it two,” he mumbled.
He knew this binge would go deep. Long and deep.
* * *
With Terri’s goodbye lost somewhere behind him, he stepped out into the hot summer night and the buzzing sodium lights that loomed over the parking lot. An American flag undulated in a small breeze that would often come up in the first of the night, following the bottoms of the land and the rising hills that led up from the coast along the train tracks. But now, it was still hot. Holiday loaded the supplies into the back of his teal colored MG, and knew that as soon as he went home he’d be alone.
Maybe forever. Maybe that was it. Maybe he would never have anyone like her again.
He cut the thought off and opened the case of beer and pulled out a can. Being in the parking lot was like being next to people. Being part of something. If he didn’t leave just yet, he could stay and listen to them as they went into the store. He was still a part of the human race. He popped the beer and took a long gusty swallow. The sudden buzz that followed after a hard Saturday of making endless mochas, steaming milk and clearing tables, was instant.
He didn’t feel so bad.
He put the beer down inside the trunk and lit a cigarette after tapping the pack briefly. He took another long pull of the beer, almost finishing it. Then he smoked and watched the parking lot and felt alone and not so bad about it.
I’ll have to go on now.
I’ll have to find a way now. On my own.
He drank, finishing the beer. He had a good buzz.
A mile later he was home. He pulled into the garage and drank another beer standing under the florescent light inside, fighting the night. He could hear a few of the neighbors, but it was mostly a quiet neighborhood and so he smoked and watched the stars reveal themselves in the blue of deep space above.
I should find someone new.
I should find someone now.
I should find someone for right now.
Once he got inside the townhome, he put the beer away and mixed a bourbon and coke, laid out the ash tray on the coffee table and both packs of cigarettes. The jazz station was still on as he’d left it that morning before work, playing softly from the paint spattered boombox he kept in the kitchen.
He turned it down low. He’d want to hear it later when he woke up. There was something comforting about listening to jazz all through the night. When he woke up drunk, he’d hear it and feel less alone.
He opened all the windows and he could smell the night coming on as the fog rose up through the gullies and valleys down toward the coast. He could smell the perfectly manicured and fresh cut landscape right outside his window. A perk of having a homeowners association that paid for community gardeners.
I should call her, he thought.
And he thought about that, and all he could hear was her saying to him again, tiredly, “It’s over, Holiday.” He knew that girl who’d so expectantly seduced him last year was gone now. She was expectant for someone else.
He turned on Forrest Gump. He always kept it saved on the DVR.
He smoked and drank too much.
Later, after midnight, he woke up on the couch and caught the last of Saturday Night Live. It was a rerun and the singer of last years ‘it’ band barely warbled his way through last year’s hit.
No wonder they’d cancelled the tour halfway through the summer.
He’d passed out somewhere after Vietnam during Forrest Gump. The battle had been especially interesting to him that night. He’d dreamt about it. About being there in ‘nam with Tom Hanks. About organizing a counter attack from the left flank. About overrunning the VC ambush. In his beer soaked dreams he’d been in battle. He’d felt alive. Like it was fun to be in battle even though everyone else was very frightened and dying. It had been fun to him. A game.
In the deep of the night, on toward 2am, he watched late night cable until he finally turned it off and just drank in the dark listening to jazz and the intermittent musings of the lonely DJ.
The three days that follow are lost.
Moments float and surface on the memory-sea of those lost days like escaped flotsam from some recent wreck now lying in the seaweed and sandy bottoms of the ocean.
The wreck of himself.
There is a moment sitting on the kitchen floor. Sprawled and hitting the vodka straight from the big plastic bottle.
There is a moment when he sits in the garage all day with the garage door closed listening to the car radio because the boombox is getting really bad reception. When he walks back into the house, he’s sure it’s four o’clock in the afternoon but it’s actually six in the morning of some other day. He drinks until nine, watching the morning golden, listening to old cassette tapes of Garrison Keilor’s Lake Woebegone. The stories are beautiful and they make him cry for the people in them. And he drinks more and wonders what it would be like to leave this place and drive to Minnesota. To look for that lake town and find someplace like it. To just live there, knowing all that they knew about themselves and how they thought and lived because Garrison Keillor had already explained everything Holiday would ever need to know to live among them.
In the afternoon, the late afternoon, he goes to the store for more supplies. He’s shaking and nervous and he’s waiting for Terri or whichever cashier it was who refuses to sell him more booze. He doesn’t get any but he pulls it all off and says nothing. When he gets back he can’t even remember which cashier he’d been shut down by. He watches Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and passes out at questions and awakens during the bath scene.
Both go on to have huge careers.
Who am I? he thinks later, during a quiet moment, sitting in his big chair. He smells smoke and looks around for his cigarettes, making sure he hasn’t left one lit between the cushions.
It’s later, when he’s staring in the massive mirror that covers one wall, drinking a beer and smoking, when he arrives at that conclusion.
Someone somewhere is screaming outside.
At first it sounds like it’s outside, but when he turns the TV back on, it’s Oldman and Roth who are screaming for Hamlet on the television, during the final battle.
And then the end. Tim Roth and Gary Oldman waiting to be hanged at dawn’s first light.
Tim Roth says, “It could have been something more, y’know.”
He hits play again and starts the movie from the beginning.
When he wakes up it’s three am. It’s dark and cold and even the jazz station is silent.
KLF is gonna rock you.
“When was the last time you ate?” he asks himself.
He gets in the car and drives through a thick fog to Del Taco, feeling distant and achy as mist swirls and clutches at the beams of his headlights.
He buys tacos, a burrito, and a big giant diet coke from the one manager running the place. It takes the manager a long time to get the order together and he apologizes, telling Holiday that no one decided to show up for work that day.
Holiday drives off into the foggy night.
I’m finished, he thinks. I can’t drink anymore. Time to stop now.
As he’s driving along the quiet street leading back to his neighborhood, surrounded by the dead of night and a thick fog, a man wanders out of the swirling mist and onto the road as Holiday speeds toward him. The man had stumbled out from the trees alongside the road, noticed Holiday, almost careening now toward the MG.
Holiday narrowly misses him and spills his taco in his lap.
“Drunk!” screams Holiday above the roar of the engine, feeling strange and out of place. The fog swallows him and he wonders if the incident, the man on the road, actually ever happened.
Back at the house, he pops another beer and watches an old version of Julius Caesar in black and white until dawn.
At dawn there was smoke in the air and Holiday rose smelling it, his head pounding. Wan light filtered through the venetian blinds in his bedroom. There were beer cans everywhere.
“I’m done,” he groaned.
He reached over and tried to shake a cigarette out of a pack on the nightstand. Empty.
In a teacup nearby he found some butts, selected a longish one, straightened it out and lit it again. It smelled ashy and old. Somewhere far off someone was honking a horn insistently. Then someone leaned on the horn and it stayed that way for a while. In fact it didn’t stop. Holiday got up, feeling dull, achy and tired. Far away from himself.
He tried to remember what it felt like to be with her. To be the man she thought he might be.
But that guy felt gone. Long gone. Whoever he was then is as gone as she is now. This is who he is.
Tired, dry and sick he stumbled toward the bedroom window.
He peered through the blinds and he could see a few people out on the narrow street that ran though the townhomes, wandering up toward the sound of the still blaring horn farther up the street. He took one more drag down to the filter, then went back to the ashtray teacup and selected the runner up. He sat down on the edge of the bed, temporarily forgetting and then remembering all at once the sound of the still blaring, distant horn. It continued without seeming end.
He searched the tangled sheets for the channel changer to his bedroom TV and when he couldn’t find it, he stood up and manually switched the old set on and then turned it off because there was no picture. He turned it on again, then raised the sound which he didn’t mean to do, then found the channel button and went the wrong direction, or so he thought, because all of the channels were showing the same blue screen. When he finally got the unseen mastery of the buttons down, he scrolled down into the primary stations.
All three showed the emergency broadcast message.
Except there was no, THIS IS A TEST message. In its place were two sentences. STAY INSIDE. And, LOCK YOUR DOORS. All three stations encouraged viewers to stay tuned to this station for further information and updates. He went through all the channels once again finding nothing but static and blue screen stations and other repeats of the Emergency Broadcast message.
This is weird, was his first thought.
He finished the runner up butt and found the bronze medalist. He lit that one and looked for his smartphone. He found it in his jeans along the stairwell. At some point during the bender he’d taken them off and left them there on the stairs as he climbed toward bed. He put the jeans on and pulled out his smartphone, finishing the third place finalist far too quickly. There wasn’t a pack of cigarettes in the pockets.
Bringing up the apps on his smartphone, he opened his news feed and found one Breaking News alert. It simply said, “President Orders Evacuation!”
Holiday went back upstairs and looked out through the blinds in the bedroom window. Still more people moved up the street toward the sound of the ongoing and annoying horn.
His mind dully grasped at straws that weren’t there.
What do I know? he asked himself.
He put on a found shirt and went downstairs. He was just reaching for the front door when the gunfire went off. Two shotgun blasts. They echoed off the close walls of the tight condo complex, reverberating along the walkways between the buildings. Instinctively Holiday was down, crouched on all fours. Waiting, listening near the front door. His vision was star bursting from the sudden effort of dropping down in the prone position. He could feel blood pounding in his ears.
The horn was still blaring.
He stood up and tried to look through the two little windows at the top of the front door. Outside he could see the small terracotta pavestone walkway and steps that led to his tiny front gate. The narrow street, a few cars. An identical version of his condo, but in reverse, on the other side of the street. A man wandered across his view for a brief moment, then swiftly disappeared behind the high hedges that ran along the low wall ringing Holiday’s portion of the condo. His garden.
Something about the wandering-swiftly aspect of the man bothered Holiday. Like the man was moving with a purpose, but haphazardly, like a drunk.
Something is not right, thought Holiday.
He flung the door wide open, marched down the steps and leaned over the gate, looking down the street at the backside of several people moving toward the sound of the horn. He could see a car up there. An SUV in the middle of the road, surrounded by Tuscan villa-inspired townhomes that rose up along both sides of the street. The SUV’s doors were open.
It’s a car accident, was Holiday’s first thought. That’s what this is all about. And then he turned, looking in the opposite direction. More of them. People. People? They came up the street toward the wreck. Fixated on the sound of the horn. Neighbors? Mostly not. Some he barely recognized from his minimal existence in the neighborhood. This was a neighborhood full of actual adults, newly married and single up-and-comers with jobs, real jobs, not coffee house jobs and some dead end acting career. People who went to work in the morning and came home in the evening. Normal people. He barely knew any of them.
Then one of his neighbors turned toward him as she lunged awkwardly up the street. He knew her. He’d seen her jogging many times before. She was good looking. A young hot mom type. He’d seen her pregnant last year. This year she was jogging every late morning. Getting her body back in shape. On weekends he’d seen her and her very fit husband, a male model type, jogging together. Pushing a jogging stroller. Normal people.
She looked at him, her face pale, her hair wild. Her eyes rolling, then beady and ferocious as she noticed him. She was wearing her super-hero jogging outfit. Tight and curvy with a colorful stripe. Now ripped in a few places. A black crust of blood ringed her perfect heart-shaped mouth. She looked at him and…
Then she came stumbling diagonally across the street at him. Holiday backed up the steps, retreating to the door as she lurched up to the tiny gate that defined his dwelling, waving claws, not hands, at him, crusted also, nails chipped, a giant wedding ring still on one badly broken finger. Swiping at him as he backed away behind the open door into his townhome and gently shut it. He crouched down feeling sick to his stomach. He waited to hear her beating on the door.
She’d looked angry.
She’d looked insane.
He crawled on all fours to the fridge and found a lone can of beer. He popped it, still hearing the distant horn.
Any second now I’ll hear her raking her fingers across my door. I know it.
Instead the horn went on with its unyielding bleat.
He popped the can and drank thickly.
She did not attack his front door.
He sat there on the floor of the kitchen, finishing the beer.
He found a butt and lit it.
When both beer and butt were done, he stood, telling himself that he felt a little better, and glanced from the kitchen to the front door. A short distance that seemed to telescope the longer he stared at the door, waiting for her inevitable attack to begin.
He crept up to the door and a moment later chanced a look into the two tiny windows at the top.
She was gone.
Holiday raced up the stairs, staying low at the top so that no one from the street could see him in the big window that looked out into the neighborhood. From his bedroom window, through the slats of the blinds, he could see jogging suit hot mom limping off down toward the still blaring car horn and the wreck at the end of the road.
“What’s going on?” His mind scrambled for an answer and kept landing on the fact that he was vaguely in some kind of trouble.
The people on the street were piling up around the bleating car, some falling to their hands and knees as they struggled to get inside. He heard a sharp series of distant pops that ended almost as soon as they’d started.
A small gun, thought Holiday. Someone had fired a small gun.
He turned on the bedroom TV and scanned the stations again.
The horn stopped.
Outside, through the slats, he could no longer see the wreck. People were crawling all over it. It reminded him of a pile of rats he’d once seen in the garbage dumpster of a restaurant he’d worked at for a little while. The wreck on the street was like a rat pile.
“Something’s not right,” he told himself again.
What do I know?
He found a small butt on the nightstand and lit it, sitting on the edge of his bed.
There’s an emergency.
He took a drag and exhaled stale smoke out into the room, watching as it filtered the morning light coming in through the blinds.
… acting weird?
He took a drag, finishing the butt and sat there turning the filter over and over. His index finger was nicotine stained. He felt dry and hollow from all the booze.
He took out his smartphone and started to dial…
But who do I call?
I could call her?
Are you okay? Something weird is happening. Are you okay wherever you’re at…
…whoever you’re with.
He thought about the chances of her saying she was wrong. That he should come get her.
He dialed her number.
It didn’t even go to voice.
“All communications are unavailable at this time due to Executive Order 19. We apologize for the inconvenience,” said the pleasant robot lady.
He tried the number of the coffee house.
He tried a few others.
He found another butt. The last serviceable one that might hold even the smallest amount of tobacco. He lit it.
What do you know?
There’s an emergency and people are dangerous. No one can come and help me. I’ll need to protect myself.
He exhaled the last of the smoke in a tight thin stream with a sigh that seemed to sum up everything unspoken, as if everything was just too overwhelming…
And, I’m out of smokes.
The shooting started an hour later. Far away and distant. Up the hill, in the nicer section of Viejo Verde where the McMansions and the dotcom-ers had purchased their starter homes. Gunshots rang out and cavitated through the gated communities like sudden thunder rolling along the ridgeline. There were wide swathes of manicured park up there where feathery willows, sculpted hedges, stunning lawns and dramatic commons nestled among stately homes inspired by someone’s idea of the hacienda and the belle époque. Three car garages. Pools. Marble floors. Man caves. Home theaters. Designer kitchens. That’s where the shooting that afternoon started.
The pop, pop, pop of a pistol.
The Bang Bang Bang of an AR-15 on semi auto.
The occasional loud Ka-Boom of a shotgun.
It went on for an hour.
And in that hour the rat pile around the wreck ceased. It ceased as the people-rats lurched away from the pile in the center of the tiny street and headed down a sidewalk between two buildings of attached townhomes. A sidewalk that Holiday knew led to the far edge of his townhome complex, The Vineyards. If those people continued that way they would crawl up a hill, cross a wide dead-end four lane street bisected by a median filled with cut hedges and palms and other flowering tropical plants. On the other side of that wide street and dead end they would find a hill leading up into the expensive neighborhoods.
Later, from the high windows in the bedroom of his townhome, as the day reached its hot, smoky orange peak, he could see those people from the wreck, from the rat pile, crawling up that landscaped slope, lumbering off across the wide road and into the expensive neighborhoods on the hill above. After that he couldn’t see them anymore.
The gunfire continued. At times its intensity rose in pitch and urgency only to drop off and then seem altogether gone. Then, suddenly it awakened once more with renewed vigor, only to again fade. As he listened, Holiday could hear the level of gunshots getting weaker and weaker with each fresh restart.
By three o’clock, Holiday was crawling the walls for a smoke. He’d seriously considered driving to the store. A quick, mad dash through whatever was going on out there. But the MG was a convertible, he’d reasoned. If there were more of those crazy people out there on the way to the store, the canvas top wouldn’t be much of a defense against them. So he let the plan go and waited, watching out the windows and making occasional forays into drawers and the small walk-in closet and other hiding places, in search of forgotten cigarettes.
Then he saw the smoke. Black and thick, rising up like a blistering pillar in the hot, still air of that end of summer day. It rose up into the hazy blue sky, rising in front of the high, billowy, white thunder-bumper cumulus that built up in the afternoons during late August and early September, out over the desert and the mountains.
There was no one on the street below his townhome. All the rat-pilers had gone up into the expensive neighborhood, toward the place of diminishing gunshots. Wherever that was.
“Go for it,” he heard himself say. “Now.”
He wasn’t thinking clearly.
Or maybe I’m thinking about it too much, he told himself as he found his keys under the couch and entered the dark garage. Maybe that’s all I can think about right now. Cigarettes. Maybe I’m not seeing things clearly. Maybe whatever’s happening is localized. Maybe just up the street there’s a cordon of fire trucks and cop cars and help. And cigarettes…
LOCK YOUR DOORS. And, STAY INSIDE.
He opened the garage door and backed the little MG out into the courtyard where all the other townhomes attached to his had their garages. The garages all looked out into the same enclosed space, reminding Holiday of a courtyard in a castle. Or at least it reminded him of movies, he told himself, in which there had been castle courtyards. He couldn’t actually remember ever being in one. Just seeing them on TV.
He drove out onto the street that ran the entire North-South length of the Vineyards. Another street on the opposite side of the complex ran the same length. Two smaller connecting streets at each end created a large rectangle. The entire complex was ringed by an inner and outer perimeter of attached townhomes. He headed toward the palm-lined entrance up near the community pool, beyond the wreck and the Rat Pile.
He slowed the MG, its engine sputtering and growling temperamentally as he passed the wreck. There was blood everywhere along the smashed and shattered SUV.
Bullet holes in the windows.
Stunned, Holiday stopped next to the bright metallic orange new model SUV. It looked like something straight out of the dirt streets of some war-torn third world country.
All that blood…
Where did it come from?
Closing his mouth he put the MG in gear, listening to it grind as he’d missed the exact finesse one needs to perform the shift the difficult little British sport car required. He drove up toward the main road of the complex and doglegged right and then left toward the palm lined entrance to the community.
He turned left at the entrance and drove up the hill toward the intersection and the main road that led back to the big box chain grocery store. The Market Faire.
At the top of the small hill where the wide main road led to a dead end, below the McMansions on the hill above, there was a body in the intersection.
There wasn’t much left of it. Bloody drag marks made a trail that led away from it. Like it’d been hit by a car and the blood trail had gone on for ten or more feet across the two white stripes marking the crosswalk. But there was little left of the body that was still body-like. What was left looked as though a bomb had exploded inside and blown the person off in one direction. A moment later he saw a dog’s head nearby and followed the trail to where the dog’s body had also exploded.
This is bad, thought Holiday and gunned the engine. Real bad.
Driving fast to the Market Faire, the bi-plane sound of the MG’s rattling engine drowned out all those images of blood and blown out bodies he’d seen on the street. For a brief moment of speed, he let the MG blow away everything as the wind and the noise felt cleansing and momentarily good. As though there was nothing other than speed and noise.
Like I could drive down to the beach today and forget everything, he thought. Like I could buy a six pack… a twelve pack, and just drink at the beach and listen to nothing but the waves. I could smell the salt down there and feel the sand beneath my feet as I scrunched my toes.
The grocery store parking lot was mostly empty. There was a flatbed truck parked far out in the lot. There were cans of food and bottles of water in a few piles next to empty parking spaces. He pulled into the middle of the lot, marveling at the wide expanse of the black top’s total lunar-like emptiness. He turned off the engine and heard a new wave of gunfire echoing off the hills surrounding Viejo Verde. It careened through the small canyon of a wilderness park that bisected the planned community. A place where mountain bikers came on the weekends to ride the trails and push themselves to the limits of recreational exertion.
He climbed out of the MG, literally, and stretched. His bones felt tight, his neck muscles thick, his stomach churned acid.
He got his wallet out of the glove compartment and checked that there was at least some money left over from the binge of previous days. There wasn’t, but he had room on his credit card.
He walked slowly across the parking lot.
Inside, the air conditioner hit him like a fresh wave of cool mountain air. Aerosmith screeched across the store about living on an edge. Repeating it over and over about not being able to help yourself. There was no one else in the store.
He went to the checkout stand and stood there for a moment.
“Hello…” he called out to the empty store. “I’d like to buy a pack of cigarettes.”
No one answered.
Paula Cole sang about cowboys.
Holiday noticed that the cash register at his station had been opened. Pried open with violence. All the money was gone.
He walked to the plastic display case that contained all the cigarettes, pulled on it as it opened easily. Someone had cleaned out his brand. So he cleaned out another brand he’d smoked before he’d switched.
“Adapt and overcome,” he whispered to himself.
He had twenty packs of cigarettes.
Might be awhile before…
He heard a crash at the back of the store.
… things return to normal, he finished.
A few minutes later, he pushed a shopping cart from the beer aisle to the hard liquor aisle. He had a few cases of beer and he didn’t take as much hard liquor as he could have because he was afraid of drinking himself to death. But it was a lot. He finished off the trip with a quick detour through the canned goods aisle, taking chili and tuna fish because he didn’t think the power would stay on much longer. In fact, he was surprised it had stayed on this long if things were this bad.
Outside the store, he loaded his groceries into the tiny trunk of the MG as a hot dry wind swept the parking lot, sending ash and smoke along the blacktop. Nearby palm trees rustled, making their white noise as dry brown fronds shook neurotically in the hot breeze.
It’s the Santa Ana winds, thought Holiday. Bad time for those right now.
He drove down the street back to the edge of Viejo Verde, arriving at the intersection where the bodies of the dog and its owner, he guessed, lay exposed to drifting ash and smoke on the street above his townhome complex. The day was both dark and orange as the last of the hot afternoon claimed it. He could see out across the valley and down to the coast. He could see Irvine and Newport and Long Beach and even Palos Verdes. He saw black columns of smoke rising along the coast in different locations. He watched the city lights coming on down near the coast as small fires burned out of control in various places. He tried to see details amongst the buildings and highways down there. Occasionally he saw the flashing lights of emergency vehicles dashing from place to place. But those lights were always moving, never stopping.
And there were so few of them.
He couldn’t hear the gunfire from the top of the hill now, up in the expensive neighborhoods. He couldn’t hear it above the sound of the loud engine of the MG. But the black columns of smoke were growing up there along the ridgeline, somewhere among the McMansions, becoming an evil black anvil over the top of Holiday’s head. He could see flames flicking upwards from the crimson terracotta roof tiles of some of the larger houses at the top of the hill.
He drove back down the small hill to the Vineyards and into his garage, closing the automatic door behind him before he turned off the car. He unloaded the car, putting the beer in the fridge, the liquor in the cupboard. He had a beer but only finished half of it while he smoked and tried to get a handle on the situation.
Now there’s a fire. Fires.
I don’t hear the fire department, and if the Santa Anas continue to blow it might get real bad, so I might need to leave.
And don’t forget the people. The Rat Pile. That Rat Pile is somewhere out there, rat-piling someone.
How could I forget that?
He bolted the garage door that led into the house, and drew the blinds across the windows. He put the safety pins in the sliding glass doors. He sealed the house as best he could.
“There,” he mumbled to himself with a cigarette clenched between his teeth.
He sat down in the large purple chair he’d bought from a rent-a-center outlet and popped a fresh beer, dragged the ash tray toward him and decided to be quiet and just listen and…
“…things will sort themselves out,” he told himself and blew smoke out across the quiet room.
Let’s just wait and see.