The Falling – Chapter Twenty-Eight

TWENTY-EIGHT: Seventh Street – East Village, 1947

How peculiar it was that as Kaspar Delancey lay face-up on East Seventh Street he could recall only the good that had ever touched his life: his first piece of Coney Island saltwater taffy melting on his tongue; his father opening the front door the day he returned home from the war; the apple tree in his backyard; tickertape parades; sitting on 23rd Street with his best friends, watching the girls’ skirts blow with the wind; riding the cable cars to Battery Place. The falling snow cleansed his soul, even as his mind was preparing to set his one last sin free. The heavy flakes danced upon his one good eye, but he did not blink them loose. The snow graced his cracked lips with a moment of wet respite; it tickled, but he could not bring himself to lick it away. That one last memory was slipping from his grasp, like trying to keep an ocean liner from leaving port, almost out of his grip entirely.

It was the other cop, Sergeant Oster, whom Kaspar had just wrung the life out of, as though the bullet wound would not have been sufficient. Kaspar left the bloodied man on the station platform before hustling back up to the street. Buster Broome, tenacious as ever, was still on his trail, and Kaspar knew as soon as he spotted it that the parked car with its engine running would be the fastest way back to the South Street Seaport. It was a United Nations limousine of all things, but there was no driver inside. Maybe he had run across 33rd for a pack of Lucky Strikes? Or maybe he’d stopped for an impromptu photo of the Empire State Building? Whatever the reason for such fortuitous charity, Kaspar did not consider it for long. He settled into the driver’s seat and closed the door without anyone suspecting anything. But before laying his weathered sole on the pedal, Kaspar stopped himself. It wasn’t out of fear because he knew for certain he would never be caught, especially if Broome was the only one who insisted on doing the chasing. That detective was the only person to come close, but Broome would surely have to admit defeat sooner or later, wouldn’t he?

Kaspar turned and released the key, and the engine slowly sputtered into silence. Maybe South Street was exactly where Broome would look for him? Maybe Kaspar should head uptown instead? Or leave the city entirely? No. He’d rather die than give in first. Opening the door, he stepped back out onto 33rd Street. There was a buzz in the air, but there was also an eerie silence; it was the kind of feeling one gets the moment before something horrible hits, before there’s a chance to do anything about it. And that’s when Kaspar Delancey saw him: Buster Broome was standing on Fifth Avenue, his pistol drawn, no more than two hundred feet away. The two men stared at one another, both knowing what they wanted to say but neither willing to utter the first word. Kaspar stepped back an inch, just as Broome inched forward a step.

But no one around them paid any attention to either man. One woman turned her head up, noticing something in the sky. Another man pointed. The buzz in the air grew louder, the unnerving silence ever quieter. There was a scarf floating gently on a breeze, like a bird with no particular destination. Something else followed behind it, something much heavier than a bird. One man muttered something to Jesus. Another said something incomprehensible to God. Kaspar knew neither would be able to help. A woman shrieked. Another fainted, hitting the sidewalk hard. But not nearly as hard as Evelyn McHale hit when she fell from the sky. Falling eighty-six floors from the Empire State Building’s observation deck, Evelyn McHale crashed into the roof of the parked limousine with a heavy thud. If Kaspar Delancey had not second-guessed himself he would have been just as dead as she. As Manhattan crowds often do, they gathered quickly. People shouted, and Kaspar only had a moment to see her body, smashed into the husk of the automobile, posed elegantly like she had meant to land just so. Her lips still wet with life; her eyebrows smiled as if having a pleasant dream; her suicide already a work of art. Kaspar reached out for her just as Broome finally reached for him.

~~~~~

So many times he had cheated death, and for what? Just to lie helplessly on East Seventh staring up at the snow and waiting for everything to simply stop? That didn’t seem fair at all. The flickering light outside McSorley’s Old Ale House seemed to be the one indication that life still persisted. Drunken men hollered wildly inside.

With his mind now a clean, blank slate, Kaspar brushed the snow from his face and sat up. He couldn’t recall when or why he ever decided to lie down in the middle that street. Kaspar had no idea if the detective had ever managed to catch him; in fact, the name Buster Broome no longer had any meaning to him. Nor could he recollect the reasons for why he had forgotten all of the atrocities he’d ever committed. But for some reason, as his thoughts and his world slowly faded away, Kaspar Delancey was finally thinking of himself as a better man.

NEXT CHAPTER

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The Falling – Chapter Twenty-Seven

PART V – Epilogue

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN: Riverside Park – Upper West Side

ONE WEEK LATER.

Undoubtedly, it had been the longest tennis match in the history of man. Between the time the match begun and the time it ended, Patrick Kohn had seen the sun rise and set in a dozen different countries. He had married, honeymooned in Venice, and watched as his wife suffered through two miscarriages before they finally had a son to call their own. He worked as a shoe salesman, a limousine driver and an investments advisor. He bought a house in Seattle. He was involved in three car accidents, two of which were his own fault. He set up a model train set in his garage. He read forty-three books, most of which had been adapted into movies he’d already seen. He put on thirty-eight pounds. He’d been the victim of both mail fraud and a bomb threat. He found fifty bucks on the bus but it had blown out the window when he opened his wallet, along with another fifty he was saving for a haircut. He watched his wife die from a brain tumor. He sold his house in Seattle and bought an apartment in Brooklyn. He made friends and lost friends and found friends again.

In the time between his first serve and his last, Thomas Mueller had written six novels and had articles published in every major American literary magazine. He dated and/or slept with thirty-one different women and saw his favorite hockey team win one championship. He grew two inches. He walked every single street in Manhattan and he had been to Staten Island one time on a dare. He played the New York lottery once and won sixteen dollars, spending all of it on chocolate milk at the CKY Grocery. He discovered he wasn’t the man he thought he was. He loved friends and hurt friends and found friends all over again.

It took Patrick ten years, four months, seven days, one hour and thirty-three minutes to defeat Tommy, but he had finally done it. The two men sat together on a courtside bench, guzzling water and catching their breath.

“I didn’t think I would ever beat you,” Patrick said. “I thought you had me there.”

“I had you ten years ago, but I guess you’ve learned a few tricks since then. That’s quite the backhand you’ve got now.” Tommy wiped the sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his Rangers sweater. Even though it was a crisp November morning, he still should have known better than to wear a hockey jersey for a game of tennis. But Tommy didn’t care about a sweat-stained sweater and he didn’t care about losing the match to Patrick. He had only suggested they meet that morning at the once-familiar Riverside Park tennis courts for one reason: to apologize. “Listen Patrick,” he said slowly with a lump in his throat. Tommy knew that the only way he was going to say it was to just let the words thump against his teeth and stumble out of his mouth. “I’m really sorry for everything that happened.”

The only reason Patrick had agreed to play tennis that morning was so he could accept Tommy’s apology. Still, he let his friend carry on a little longer first.

Tommy continued. “I know I can be a big, mulish idiot sometimes, but I had no reason to treat you the way I did. The truth is I realize now that all the shit that happened in the past few weeks was only inevitable. You were wrong when you told me about the falling. Because the reality is that I had already fallen. It was ten years ago when you left us all.”

“That’s not true Tom,” Patrick finally said.

“Sure it is. For me, it was worse than when my brother died because I replaced him with you, but when you left there was only a void.”

Patrick still couldn’t shake from his memory the image of the boy with his head buried in the school locker. That was the first time he’d met him. Thomas Mueller did not cry often, but he had never been very good at hiding his tears. “But that was such a long time ago, Tom.”

“Don’t we all hold onto things a little longer than we should sometimes?” Patrick knew it was true but he still did not have an answer. “Why’d you come to New York with us if you couldn’t stay forever? Sometimes I felt like it would’ve been easier if I had left first. Not that that would ever happen.”

Finally, Patrick considered the mistakes he made years ago, the same ones that had obviously hurt Tommy so much. “When we’re young, I guess we don’t think things will matter as much as they do. All the small, selfish crimes we commit. The microscopic damages are never quite so insignificant.”

Mince Wilson had said the same thing to Tommy, only using very different words. It’s entirely possible that Keekee Kaufman and all the rest would’ve agreed upon the inevitability of Tommy’s needs surpassing their own. Certainly Rachel would too.

After a long moment Tommy said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about what I should say to Rachel.”

“What have you come up with so far?”

“I thought I’d tell her that even if everyone everywhere left everyone else forever, I’d still never leave her.” Patrick turned his nose up as if there was an unpleasant smell in the air. “No good?”

“Tom, that’s awful. That’s like a line from a movie.”

“I’ve got more. You’ve just got to let me get warmed up first. Here we go, how about this: You’ll always be the same old someone that I knew. Won’t you believe in me like I believe in you?”

“What’s that from?”

“It’s Billy Joel.”

“Come on Tom, you’re a writer! Have you told her you love her?”

“Not in so many words.”

“It’s only three words Tom. And if you really mean them, they’re pretty darn good ones. I’d suggest starting with that and seeing where it takes you.”

Tommy realized that if he had the same talk with Kate or Jesse they probably would have given him similar advice. Either that, or just told him to shut up and be a man. But Patrick Kohn always had a way of making everything seem possible. It was the same as when he pulled Thomas Mueller’s head out of that locker in the ninth grade and it was the same as when he said he’d go anywhere with Tommy, even when he knew Tommy’s version of anywhere would only ever be New York.

“I’m glad you’re home Patrick,” Tommy said. He held his hand out and the two men finally shook.

Patrick took a moment to admire the Upper West Side apartments peeking out from just behind the trees. It was quiet enough to hear the Hudson River to the west. “Me too,” he said.

Breathe out.

NEXT CHAPTER

The Falling – Chapter Twenty-Six

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX: The One Man Show – Harlem

THREE YEARS EARLIER.

It was probably the nicest fall morning that Leyland could recall since he arrived in New York. Truthfully though, he felt each day was unavoidably better than the last. But this was different. Seventy-two degrees. No humidity. There was a special feeling in the air, a smell in the breeze. It was perfect. He was preparing himself for a book signing that morning even though he told his agent on numerous occasions how he hated Tuesday signings. For some reason or another, all the perverts and stalkers and nutcases seemed to come out on Tuesdays.

Leyland was right there when it happened. He was at the Downtown Dunkin’ Donuts at Church and Murray, shaking some sugar into his coffee when he heard it. The coffee rippled menacingly. The low rumbling was the kind of noise that instantly indicated something was wrong. Outside, people screamed. A few cars banged into one another, their drivers justly distracted. There was a stream of conversation unlike any Manhattan had ever heard. Word got around fast. The North Tower had been hit.

Fifty minutes later, he was unrecognizable amongst the masses crowding the streets and sidewalks for a good look. But five minutes after that, Leyland stood out like Cleopatra’s Needle, the sixty-eight foot tall Egyptian obelisk in Central Park, as hordes of people ran as fast and as far away from the falling South Tower as they could. Yet he remained standing. He anchored himself to the blacktop, watching the second building come down, swallowing itself up into its own dust and dirt. He didn’t run. He didn’t panic. As the mess of everything that once was blew towards him, he contemplated what it all meant, even considering the possibility that he may have made a mistake when he decided to come to New York.

Amidst everything, he reached out and caught a paper in his hand. The paper was just one of millions, maybe billions that were within the World Trade Center’s walls. Most were probably incinerated. But this one piece of paper flew from somewhere within the South Tower right towards him. As the chaos enveloped him, Leyland read what was on it. It was an email, sent the night before and printed out at 8:43 that morning:

From: Yolanda Higgins [yoliggins@hotmail.com]
Sent: September-10-01 11:56 PM
To: Rondell Greene
Subject: Sorry
Ronnie,
I’m so sorry for everything that happened this afternoon. You must know I never meant what I said to you. If you still want me to, I’ll wait for you at the One Man Show after work tomorrow. I’ll be there at 7:00.
-Y-

Leyland didn’t know why the email had been printed, but he could only assume that Rondell Greene would not have lived to make his seven o’clock date with Yolanda Higgins. Although Leyland was not the intended recipient of the message, he was quite possibly the only living person who was aware of its existence.

Obviously, the book signing had been cancelled, though there were no notices sent. It was one of the things about that morning: there had been far less communication on purpose, for much of the information that New Yorkers would normally have emailed, instant-messaged, telephoned or printed posters for had no need to be sent or received. It was all understood in a unique way on that Tuesday. Like most, Leyland returned home much later than usual. It was impossible to catch a cab or ride a bus. Most people did not want to go into the subway stations. He ran like a crazy person out of Downtown, across Midtown, through Central Park and into Morningside Heights. He looked back every minute or so, but the smoke was consuming everything behind him. It was as though he was running to avoid being wiped from existence too. He’d lost his cell phone somewhere along the way. Television and electronics stores were crowded with people, both inside and on the sidewalks, somberly watching the flickering screens in the front windows. He’d never seen so many people crying. And yet the sky remained startlingly blue that day.

Once at home, he called Kate and Jesse and his family in Seattle to let them all know he was safe. But after that, even before showering the thick grime away, he pulled out his phone book and looked up the One Man Show. It was in Harlem, maybe a half-hour’s walk from his apartment.

Tom’s Restaurant was open, its television sets were crowded with patrons. Kate and Jesse were at their usual table, waiting for Leyland to arrive. He pressed his hand against the window when he saw them. The glass seemed to bend more than it should have. Leyland went inside, but he only sat with them for a few minutes. He was shaken, but there was a strength about him that needed to keep moving.

“Where are you going?” Kate asked when he got up from the table. She didn’t want to tell him how much she needed him at that moment.

“Harlem.”

“What the hell for?”

Leyland pulled the folded email out of his pocket and showed it to them.

“I don’t understand,” Jesse said. “You’re going to meet this girl? Why?”

“I don’t know really. I just think I need to. To make sure she’s okay.”

None of them were big believers in fate, and on any other day this would have seemed like extremely bizarre behavior, even for Leyland. But on September Eleventh, the air was thick with inexplicable decisions and unquestioned actions.

“I saw the towers fall. They were falling right in front of me. I’m not going to let this madness be only reason for getting out of bed this morning. Today has to have been for something.”

With that, he headed to the mysterious One Man Show café. He didn’t know Harlem even had cafés, but there it was, right between a laundromat and a fried chicken restaurant. It was an odd little place. Like many other businesses in Manhattan, it had an innocuous façade, a feeling of anonymity poured out onto the strangely tidy sidewalk. The One Man Show was a wholly different world inserted deep within the ghetto’s intricate latticework of gangsters and prostitutes and garbage and drugs and fake storefronts and stolen taxicabs and ignorant travelers. Inside, there was not a soul in view, but he could hear the din of a television from one of the back rooms. He followed it. There must have been twenty people crammed into that tiny manager’s office, each one smelled worse than the last. They watched the television without a word but still did not hear Leyland enter. He knocked on the door frame and waved the email that he never once let go of.

“Does anyone here know a Yolanda?”

Every head in the room turned to him. They didn’t seem to comprehend what the stranger was saying. “I’m looking for Yolanda Higgins. Is she here? Does anybody know her?” He would have believed he was talking a different language if the big man who looked like a hound dog hadn’t expunged himself from the crowd and approached Leyland.

The man explained to Leyland that Yolanda Higgins was a regular patron at the One Man Show café. No one had seen her, but it wasn’t really a surprise considering how many plans would be changing without notice on that day. So many patterns shifting. The man’s big eyes were extremely wet, and Leyland could tell that even underneath a day’s worth of tears, his eyes were always that wet. Without warning, the man threw his arms around him. It was unexpected, but Leyland didn’t fight it.

When he finally relaxed his grip, the man said, “I don’t know if Yolanda will show up tonight, but you’re welcome to stay if you want to.” He returned to the back room, rejoining his associates. “There’s coffee and beer behind the counter too if you’d like,” he added. “Help yourself.”

Leyland stood in the same spot for another few minutes, trying to make sense of everything that had happened. He had been preparing for his book signing only a few hours ago and now suddenly he was standing in a Harlem café while the city teetered on the brink of ruin. He knew he should have run back to the coffee shop to be with Kate and Jesse, but he stayed there instead. He poured himself a glass of water, realizing then just how thirsty he was. He sat down at a small table for two and he made the decision that he was not going to wait for whoever Yolanda Higgins might have been. Instead, he chose to write. Starting on the back of the filth-ridden email, he soon moved on to some napkins and scrap paper he found behind the counter. The remains of the towers still smoldered as Leyland wrote about everything he never thought he knew.

~~~~~

Leyland had written the entire first draft of The Manhattanite inside the One Man Show. After a couple of months, he had really started to abhor that café, but he knew he would never get any real work done at the coffee shop, since everyone in his life knew that they could find him there. Besides, the One Man Show had surprisingly better coffee than anywhere in Morningside Heights.

He hadn’t seen the big man with the sad, wet eyes since the first time he entered the café. He supposed that he never actually worked there. That day felt like such an incredibly long time ago. It was almost as though Leyland had imagined everything that happened on the day of the attacks, but the One Man Show had an ability to generate its own strange illusions at times. There was no other place in Manhattan quite like it. The nondescript Harlem café seemed to lure the city’s most blatantly volatile visionaries. Bohemian bull-shitters who had been talking about change since the Sixties but had yet to act on any of their complex, albeit completely delirious, talk of revolution. Leyland knew that if any of them had ever intended to change their worlds, they would have been down in the Village fifty years ago, rather than hiding in a dusty coffee shop in Harlem. Still, Leyland sat among them. He drank their coffee and used their toilet. But he was not really one of them. They paid him no attention either. They were far too busy trying to transform the world with their wasted ideas.

The second time Leyland came to the One Man Show he brought his writing pad with him, continuing right where he’d left off on the flimsy napkins. Kate and Jesse didn’t understand the sudden fury with which he had decided to write, but they did not question it. They knew better than to question anything he wished to embark upon. The scratching of pencil on paper was the only sound that would carry him through the story he wanted to tell. He wasn’t at the café to amuse anyone but himself. This new book was not meant for anyone else. It was not for recognition’s sake, not to make a name for himself. That had already been accomplished. And he was not writing for the purpose of saying something profound and prolific to entertain the masses. It was just for him. It might have all seemed very righteous and noble, but that was exactly where Leyland’s biggest flaw lay. He thought only of himself any more. The truth was that for the first time since coming to New York, Leyland Mueller was beginning to lose direction. The falling towers had shaken something loose deep inside of him. His girlfriends no longer served any purpose, and he gave them nothing more in return that was of any greater consequence than a night or two of guilt-free sex. And most of the time, it was nearly impossible to find someone who desired anything more than that.

But on one mild December day, just as Leyland’s writing was hitting a wall, he felt a pair of eyes watching him. There was a girl seated across the room. She sat just like everyone else around her, but while the crowd remained unnoticed in an unremarkable flurry of being, this particular girl was so still that he was convinced she must have been there just for him. Amidst a room full of idiots oblivious to the two of them, they had been exposed to one another.

Her eyes were extraordinary. Her eyes were not the same as any of the other girls Leyland had known. Her eyes were not forgettable. To him, this was the most important staring contest he had ever been a part of. If a blink could result in losing her, even for just a microsecond, he did not want to risk it.

And then he blinked. And she was gone.

She was gone.

~~~~~

Leyland didn’t know why, but he expected the girl to show up again the following day. He awoke the next morning with the feeling he must have imagined it all, but he was clever enough to know he hadn’t. He sat at the small, round table for two, exactly where he had always sat. Just like at the coffee shop with Kate and Jesse and even Patrick; he was particular in that kind of way. He watched the door, waiting for her. Daring her to enter. But it was his current girlfriend, Daisy, who had shown up first that morning. She had fire in her eyes. She hated that café more than he did. Daisy came to the table, but she did not sit down; it was obvious she was not planning on sticking around long. It didn’t really matter to Leyland just what it was she was angry about, but the safest guess would have been that he had said something insensitive to her the night before. Barely listening, he bit his upper lip in response to whatever accusations were being thrown his way. He had heard it said somewhere that to bite one’s upper lip was a sign that one was hiding something. Whatever the case may have been, Daisy eventually slammed her hands down on the table and charged back out of the café. She bumped into someone on her way out the door.

That someone came and sat down across from Leyland. It was the girl from the day before, but he did not notice, already having gotten back to his writing pad.

“I don’t even want to know what that was all about,” she said to him comically.

Leyland looked up into those glorious eyes of hers. They exchanged momentary and awkward greetings before proper introductions were made. “My name’s Leyland,” he said. “Leyland Mueller.”

And she followed with, “Rachel Ponzini. It’s nice to finally meet you.”

Leyland bit his lower lip a little. He had heard it said somewhere that to bite one’s lower lip was an indication of nervousness, which was an emotion that never came to him too often. So, suffice it to say that biting his upper lip was a far more natural reaction for him.

“Leyland,” she mused. “That’s an interesting name.”

“It was my great-grandfather’s.”

Many of the One Man Show’s patrons stopped and took notice of Leyland and Rachel sitting with each other at the small, round table for two. They looked on, noticing them both for the first time. Individually they could have vanished into their own little worlds, but together they were simply unavoidable.

“Don’t do that,” Rachel told him.

“Don’t do what?”

“Don’t put your pencil down.” She pushed the pencil and paper towards Leyland, who reactively gathered them back up. “I’ve seen you in here many times before, always writing whatever it is you’re writing. And you keep to yourself so perfectly. You don’t care at all about these squabbling fools around you.”

He took in the shape of her head. Round like the ripple from a raindrop with a flawlessly pointed chin. Her complexion was almost golden under the soft lights of the café. Her brown hair curled around elfish ears, shaped like tiny crescent moons. Perfectly pouty pink lips that shone like wet paint. The scratching of lead on paper was a strangely complementary sound to the sincerity in Rachel’s voice. But it was her eyes that really captured his attention. They were like tiny wet mirrored balls of energy. They were brown. They were olive. They were black. And they were brown again. The color of Rachel’s eyes changed so rapidly, that it was impossible to distinguish the dominant one. Her pupils were at once dilated and infinitesimal. Leyland could see himself in there too. And there was a thin, squiggly blood vessel on the bottom of her right eyeball, just above the lip of her eyelid. Rachel had just enough imperfections to make her seem as though she was someone Leyland had known his whole life.

“Do you know what a group of playwrights is called, Leyland?”

He didn’t know what the right answer was because he really had no idea what she was asking.

“It’s called a plot. A plot of playwrights.”

“How do you know that?” he asked.

“I know all the inane group nouns used for identifying gatherings of the like.”

How peculiar, he thought. This brilliant girl seemed as though she might be full of trivial information. Rachel pointed to the opposite corner from where they sat, towards a congregation of egocentric dramatists. They were obnoxiously reading screenplays out loud to one another. “A condescension of actors,” she called them. Without so much as twitching her eyes, she motioned towards the front of the café where a group of turtlenecked intellectuals sipped water as though it were red wine and used words like henceforth and dichotomy. She pronounced, “A wrangle of philosophers.” And she worked her way around the rest of the room, “A brow of scholars…an illusion of painters,” all the while keeping her attention focused on Leyland.

“That information seems rather unnecessary. Where in the world would you have learned all of this?” he inquired, not really caring if she was telling him the truth or not. He didn’t believe for a second that someone like Rachel could have been from Manhattan.

“I live and breathe. I take in everything around me, and I can separate the weak from the strong. I see powerful minds being used recklessly, and I see the weak ones that will rise above. I see you. You are an undiscovered star in an exhaustively explored solar system. And I see something in those eyes of yours that I’ve never imagined before.”

Leyland stopped. “I have no idea what you just said.”

“Yes you do.”

He looked back down at his writing pad. The last sentence he’d scribbled on the page was: “Everything was possible. There was nothing in this city that I hadn’t already imagined.”

“I love your accent,” he told her. “Where are you from?”

“Montauk.”

“Where is that, Europe? I’m getting a Switzerland vibe.”

“Long Island, actually.”

“Ah. Close enough.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing. What’s wrong with Long Island?”

“If I have to explain it to you…” he started, but then decided to finish with, “At least it’s better than Jersey.”

He’d never before felt what he was feeling now. It was intoxicating. He was relatively certain she liked him, but he still did not really know anything about her. He knew that she hated these transparently erroneous revolutionists around him. He knew she liked to use big words like that too. And he knew that her eyes were the key to discovering everything else about her that he didn’t know.

“Would you like me to buy you a coffee?” Rachel asked him. “Because it’s obvious you weren’t planning on offering.”

Leyland apologized. He didn’t want to tell her that her very presence seemed to make all common sense disappear. It sounded too corny, even just in his head. Instead, he requested, “A regular coffee, please. With sugar.”

“All right then.” Rachel got up from her seat, and walked over to the counter. At the same time, those around them returned to life, as though the show they had been so focused on was now taking an intermission.

But when Rachel returned to the table, the patrons of the café once again began to take notice of the couple. She brushed her curls away from her mouth as she sipped her coffee. Leyland could tell exactly how much sugar she used by the expression on her face after every sip. He thanked her for the coffee. “But don’t think I’m going to start expecting special treatment,” he added.

“I hope you don’t think me strange,” she said. “And I’m not being presumptuous. I don’t believe myself to be anything other than what I am. I know all about the importance of benevolence.” She took another bitter sip of coffee.

Leyland leaned towards Rachel, and fixed his eyes on hers. “You don’t need to justify yourself. I was just a little stunned, is all.”

Rachel watched him as he reached into his bag and pulled out the most unremarkable pencil he could find. He sharpened it with a small pocketknife and the shavings drifted onto the tabletop. Being with Rachel was as comfortable a feeling as he’d never known before. He didn’t suffer from an obligation to entertain her. He didn’t expect anything from her. He was simply with her, and that was enough. Still, he wasn’t quite sure what he was going to tell Kate and Jesse, since it was obvious this was going to be more than a one-night stand.

“You must like writing a lot,” she asked him, although it really was more of an observation than a question.

“It’s pretty much my only talent.”

“What do you write?”

“Have you ever heard of a book called BLANC?

“I saw a movie called BLANC. Wasn’t that Scottie Pippen?”

“Shaquille O’Neal.”

Rachel gave him a look, as though Leyland was personally responsible for all of Hollywood’s poor casting decisions.

“Obviously,” he said, “it was not my choice.”

“Let me ask you this though: have you ever written anything important?”

“Important? I’ve had five novels published!”

“But what else? Is there anything you’re proud of?”

He thought about what Rachel might have wanted to hear. “Mostly just love letters to girlfriends.” He glanced up at her with a transparent spark in his eyes.

She smiled, knowing she had just the right answer for him in return. “But don’t you need to know about love in order to write a love letter?”

The scratching of pencil on paper intensified as Leyland continued, “I’ve come here every day for three months now. I thought I had something important to say the day the towers fell. But I realize now that I never really had a reason to come here until yesterday, when I saw you across the room. And I just realized that all of the shit I thought was worth writing about is really not very important at all. I’ve never really had anything to say until this moment.” He blew the bits of lead off his paper and shaved his blunted pencil some more.

The afternoon sun was breaking through the window behind him, and from inside his shadowy silhouette Rachel could still see the glimmer in his eyes. The anticipation on his lips.

“Did you know you have a freckle on your right eyelid?” he asked her. “I notice it every time you blink.”

“I didn’t know that,” she whispered truthfully.

Leyland excused himself, and he took his coffee cup to the counter for a refill.

When he returned, Rachel was drawing in his writing pad. He glanced over as he sat back down. It was a sketch of a cat, but one of its eyes appeared circular, while the other was drawn as an ‘X’:

CAT

He had to ask, “What is this?”

“This is a cat that is both alive and dead. You see, one of his eyes is marked with an ‘X’, the universal cartoon symbol for death.”

“But I don’t under–”

“It’s a paradox, Leyland. An experiment conducted in the Thirties proved that something, in this case a cat, could simultaneously be both alive and dead. The scientist, Schrödinger, placed his kitty cat in a box with a canister of cyanide connected to a radioactive device. If an atom in this device decayed, a detector would trigger a tiny hammer to smash the glass canister open and the cat would die.”

Leyland took a closer look at the picture. “I don’t think I get it.”

“Suppose that there is a fifty-fifty chance of this happening. Clearly when the box is opened the cat would be either alive or dead. But is the cat alive or dead prior to the opening of the box?” Rachel took another long sip of coffee, giving him a moment to contemplate the conundrum. “Because radioactive decay occurs at the quantum level, where events are purely random and foreseeable only in a statistical sense, there is no way to know for sure what had happened to the cat unless the box was opened. The cat’s entire existence is reduced to a statistic. A decimal point is all that keeps Schrödinger’s cat alive.”

He sat back in awe. Leyland could barely begin to comprehend everything that must have been in her mind, and he realized beyond a shadow of a doubt that he would never know all the answers. Just sitting across from this girl was almost more than he could bear. His coffee was already cold. And it was exhilarating. “You’re not really from Long Island, are you?”

Rachel didn’t waste time answering the question. “I had read about all of this years ago,” she told him instead. “I find it stimulating how there can be so much going on that we have absolutely no control over. It’s all circumstantial consequence.”

A lock of curly brown hair fell across her face. She smelled of jasmine. She blinked. As perfect as that freckle was, Leyland would have been satisfied if he never had to see it again in his life. It would mean that he’d be looking into her eyes that much more.

“Can I make a suggestion?” Rachel asked.

“Of course.”

“I think it’s time we got out of here.”

And they did.

~~~~~

When they emerged from the 110th Street Station they were only a few blocks away from Leyland’s apartment. Rachel led the way there, as if she had already learned everything there was to know about the man from somewhere deep within his eyes. But it was probably just the alcohol. They had stopped for some red wine after leaving the cafe, but ended up downing the bottle in Marcus Garvey Park. It was freezing, but the unusually mild New York winter meant they would not have to lie in snow, and the wine kept their bodies warm. On the crisp grass and beneath the setting sun, they held each other. They talked, but not about their dreams, because they were both living their dreams. And not about their desires, since nothing else mattered to them in that moment. Rachel didn’t speak of her past, and she didn’t ask Leyland about his.

They spoke of their lives; what they were doing today, not yesterday or tomorrow. Rachel liked slow music and fast movies. Leyland enjoyed just the opposite. White wine was Rachel’s favorite, while he had no preference either way. And it really didn’t matter why they’d opted for red.

In the distance between two old tenement buildings, they could see the tallest of skyscrapers peeking out from midtown. They agreed to go to the top of the Empire State Building together one day, since neither of them had never done so before. Leyland hadn’t because to him there was nothing worse than feeling like a tourist, and Rachel hadn’t due to her demophobia. She said she hated being in the middle of large crowds because she disliked the feeling of going unnoticed.

The setting sun directly behind the bare trees made their branches appear smaller, thinner than they actually were. Leyland wondered why they had never met before they did, and he knew that Rachel would have an answer for his query even before she responded with a single, eloquent word. She intimated that they were along the same lines as the cat in the box: their lives were nothing more than random percentages of possibility. Of course, it was just as he thought she would put it.

And Leyland worried where he could hope to find a love like hers again, when she inevitably left him. He had never once considered that a lasting love could ever be, so how could he possibly expect to ever find it?

Rachel didn’t pretend to want a tour of the apartment. His other women played those kinds of games; where they acted as if they were there for an actual visit, and not just the sex. Rachel wasn’t one for games, or concealing her intentions. There wasn’t anything ambiguous about her. You knew if Rachel liked you or if she did not. You knew when Rachel wanted sex, and also when she’d had enough.

Leyland woke up and felt the still-lingering heat of her body next to his. He tried to pretend for an instant that he didn’t know where he was, that he was somehow misplaced in space and time. But he was quick to shake those silly thoughts from his head when he realized that he didn’t want to miss out on a single second of Rachel. And he decided then that when he saw her next, he would tell her he loved her.

The note was waiting for him on the refrigerator, pinned beneath a Calvin and Hobbes magnet. Rachel knew he would find it there as he had already explained to her that the first thing he did every morning was go to the fridge for a swig of chocolate milk. He had no idea what time Rachel left that morning, he simply woke and she was gone. The note was written with one of his pencils, torn from a page of his writing pad and folded in half. He noticed it immediately. Drawn on the front was another picture of Rachel’s famous cat. He couldn’t tell if the cat was alive or dead. Inside, she had written the following for him:

Leyland,

In my experiences, I’ve found you only ever hurt the ones you love. The only roses that you watch die are the most beautiful ones. But even if everyone everywhere left everyone else forever, I’d still never leave you.

~~~~~

Leyland planned on going to the coffee shop to meet Kate and Jesse for breakfast. He would boast about Rachel and hoped the two of them would be just as excited about his new relationship as he was. But Jesse wasn’t there that morning and Kate was too busy complaining about her upcoming wedding to whoever this Gene Schneider person was. Leyland considered telling her that marrying Gene could end up being a mistake, but he was still too distracted by thoughts of Rachel.

Later, he passed the park where he and Rachel had shared the bottle of red wine the night before. Where they had dreamed of going to the top of the city together one day. The cork was still there, resting upon a wilted dandelion. Leyland knew that if the World Trade Center had not fallen that one day months before, he would not have ever found himself in Harlem meeting the last girl he would ever love.

NEXT CHAPTER

The Falling – Chapter Twenty-Five

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE: NYPD 5th Precinct – Chinatown

On the day Keekee Kaufman was admitted to Bellevue after throwing herself off the Triboro Bridge, she had an email waiting for her in her inbox. It was from an old boyfriend, the one who got away. Ralphie Muzatti was just as crazy as she was, but Keekee had always loved him more than anything. She knew one day that Ralphie would realize they were meant for one another, and she told herself that as soon as Ralphie decided he loved her too, Keekee would drop everything to be with him again. And even though Ralphie did make that decision to love her, Keekee Kaufman did not check her email that day. Instead, she got into one last argument with Thomas Mueller and then proceeded to make her way to the East River.

The day John Galloway crashed his car in the middle of the Holland Tunnel, accidentally killing his wife Edith, was the same day he also saved a life. From his office window he witnessed a man collapse on Pearl Street. The man had a sudden heart failure; not only did he fall onto the sidewalk, but he also tumbled down a stairwell. John called for an ambulance before running outside and he waited until help arrived. He only spent an hour in the hospital that afternoon, just long enough to make sure the man was okay, but during that time Edith Galloway had dropped by John’s office unannounced. She came by to confess to her husband her affair with the comic store clerk, but that she planned on ending it with Jesse Classen as soon as the art exhibition was over that evening. But John was not at his office, so Edith did not get the chance to tell him everything about the mistakes she had made. And by the time John finally saw her that night Edith was already too drunk to admit anything to her husband.

The day Thomas Mueller fell, there were no warning signs at all. There was nothing that would have prevented him from hitting the bottom. He would have had to look back over his entire lifespan in order to find the signs he needed to save himself. Quite literally, he had to look as far back as the day he and his brother were born.

~~~~~

There was a voice. It echoed off empty walls, a bare room. It was only saying one word, turning the word itself into a question. “Leyland?” Was it questioning the word’s authenticity? Questioning its very existence? “Leyland?”

Tommy opened his eyes. He was right: it was an empty room. There was a table. Two chairs. Two people. That was it. Tommy was seated in one of the hard, wooden chairs, still dressed as the Empire State Building. Across the table in the other chair was a police officer. His nametag read: Const. B. R. AVERY. Tommy couldn’t believe it; it was almost too stupid to be true.

“Good to see you finally coming around,” the officer said. “You took quite a hit there.” Avery was an older man, with the kind of police mustache that’s to be expected after years on the force.

Tommy was still a little out of it though. “What? Where am I?” He realized he was missing the top of his costume. The tip of the skyscraper.

“I’m sorry for putting you here in the interrogation room. You’ll notice you’re not handcuffed. This building fills up pretty fast on Halloween night, so we sometimes have to put the non-felons wherever we can.”

“Non-felons?” Slowly, the memory of throwing a punch at Patrick started to come back to him. As did the memory of hitting the floor with his own face. He rubbed his jaw. With his tongue, he could feel where his tooth should have been.

“Yeah, you lost your front tooth there. And your nose is broken. But no major damage inflicted.” Tommy felt the bandages on his nose, crusted from dry blood. Avery sorted through some papers that were laid out in front of him and he clicked the pen in his hand excitedly, as if trying to break a world record. “I’ve just got a couple of questions for you Leyland. Well one major one, really.”

“Why do you keep calling me that?”

“Hmm?”

“Leyland. You keep calling me Leyland.” Tommy didn’t notice before that the inside of his mouth was cut. He licked the blood from his teeth. The warm metallic taste reminded him of the time he got into a fistfight back in high school. He remembered Patrick Kohn sticking up for him that day.

“Would you prefer Mr. Mueller? I’m sorry, but I don’t enjoy being so formal. Never have.”

Tommy looked around for some kind of clue. If it was a practical joke, there would have to be a hidden camera somewhere in the room. If he was caught in the middle of a dream, then there would have to be something like a leprechaun, or maybe the floor would be made entirely out of marbles. But it was nothing more than a simple police interrogation room, almost exactly like any he’d seen in the movies. And there was only himself and Constable B. R. Avery and two chairs and a table. As a last resort, he looked at his own hands and was baffled by the dark ink on his thumb and index finger. “Am I in trouble here? Am I being arrested?”

“Your friend in the dragon costume isn’t pressing any charges.” Avery jotted something down on one of the papers.

“It’s a frog. He was wearing a frog costume.”

“Well, the file says dragon. But it’s not really that important.”

“If you want to know why I beat the shit out of a good friend of mine, I’ll tell you.”

“Sounds like you got knocked in the head harder than we thought. Your friend is fine. And he’s already been released. It’s you who received the worst of it.”

“What? You let him go? But he tried to kill me! He almost burned my apartment building to the ground!”

“If you’d like to file a case for a separate incident, be my guest. But Patrick Kohn is not pressing any charges himself.”

“Charges? For what?”

“Well, for tonight’s altercation and for the break-in at his warehouse.”

Tommy didn’t have anything to say. He knew that any squirming in his seat was certain to be interpreted as a sign of guilt, but he couldn’t help himself. He couldn’t believe Patrick would rat him out like that.

“But I do have something to ask you.”

“Well if it’s an autograph you want, I only sign books.”

“Uh huh. No, the reason I’ve got you here with me is because we ran your prints, and they belong to one Leyland Mueller.”

Tommy swished some more fresh blood between his teeth.

“But according to all the files we could pull, Leyland Mueller died fifteen years ago.” Constable Avery rose from his seat and leaned in closer to Tommy. “Now, can you tell me why your fingerprints would match those of a dead man?”

“Leyland Mueller was my twin brother. My name is Tommy.”

Avery huffed. “Right. But twins wouldn’t share the same prints, would they?”

“I don’t know how that works. You tell me.”

“Trust me. That’s how it works.”

~~~~~

It was another hour before Tommy was released from the station. As he was led through the halls towards Elizabeth Street, Tommy noted all of the other ghosts, spirits and specters that had been detained and were waiting for their names to be called. He didn’t feel all that different from any of them at that moment: haunting a world they were only temporarily part of.

Kate, Jesse and Patrick were all waiting for Tommy outside; the Nurse, the Hero and the Frog. Jesse handed him the lid for his costume. Tommy took it and continued walking towards the Canal Street Station without another word.

~~~~~

There was no serious damage to Tommy’s building and all those who had been temporarily homeless were allowed back inside that morning. He had only a vague recollection of spending the afternoon drinking on his couch before heading out to meet his friends at the Temple Bar. The smell of smoke hit him as soon as he opened his door. Tommy ignored the stench, picking up the phone. It was hard to dial the numbers in his bulky costume, but he was determined.

It was still just eleven o’clock in Seattle when his mother answered. “Hello?”

“Hi mom.”

“Thomas! It’s been a while since we heard from you. How is everything? Have you seen Patrick yet? Has he called you?” Doris Mueller could never ask one question without asking three or four.

And Tommy could never answer any of his mother’s questions without putting her on the spot first. Both of them were annoyed by the routine, but neither avoided it. “Mom, did you ever mix me and Leyland up when we were kids?”

Leyland and I. I can’t believe I’m still correcting your grammar. You’re the writer, not me.”

Tommy breathed heavily through his nostrils. He didn’t say a word since he knew his mother would just answer the question anyway.

She said, “You were identical twins, Thomas. Everybody confused the two of you at some point. I don’t know why you both insisted on having the same haircut. But a mother can always tell.”

“No mom. I mean, did you ever completely lose track of who was who? Maybe you put us down somewhere and forgot?”

Doris Mueller went silent for a long moment. Tommy heard something heavy on the other end of the phone, like a book falling. Or a heart dropping.

Tommy looked out his window, but all he saw was that plain brick wall glowing faintly from the street light. It was all he ever saw, but he still felt disappointed; as though he expected something more at that moment. “Mom?”

“When the two of you were just babies, you wore different colored wristbands so we could tell you apart. But they were getting so tight, you were both crying. So I took them off. It was while I was giving you both a bath. I turned away for just a moment; I think your father was calling to me from the other end of the house. I remember…it was only for a moment. When I turned back, I’d forgotten. I didn’t know who was who. But Thomas…I didn’t think it would be a big deal.”

“You didn’t think? Jesus, mom. It’s a pretty fucking big deal!”

“What’s happened Thomas?”

“Put the pieces together mom. I’m Leyland. I always have been. That’s Tommy lying somewhere at the bottom of the Pacific! Why wouldn’t you have gotten our fingerprints taken?”

“I…I didn’t think that would make a difference. Because you were twins.”

“Well, apparently it makes a whole shitload of difference. There’s a grave in Seattle with my name on it! I dedicated my first book to him. I dedicated a book to myself! Can you understand the difference it makes now?”

“Thomas, please do not yell at me.”

“I’m sorry mom, but I’ve run out of people in New York to yell at.”

Doris went silent again. She seemed to be thinking about all of the signposts along the way, but one life can have far too many to keep track of. “When you boys were first born, when Leyland was just a baby, he had always fixated on that plate in the kitchen. We had one plate for every state, but he never took his eyes off the one that said New York. I think he loved that big red apple on it.”

“But that was me, mom,” Tommy said. “It was me who loved that plate.”

“Thomas…I’m sorry. If it means anything right now, I’m sorry.”

Tommy hung up the phone. He knew he should’ve said something more but whatever it might have been certainly would not have helped any. He sunk onto his bed and considered the repercussions of it all. The weight of his soul had never been so heavy. So straining. Although it was his brother who had died in that plane crash, Tommy could not help but think it was himself lying there at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Everything he had accomplished as Thomas Mueller was a lie of sorts. Tommy had never actually graduated from high school. Tommy had never written one single book. It wasn’t Tommy who had made out with Jenny Duncan in the seventh grade; it was Leyland Mueller. God, he thought. He hated that name so very much. And now it was his own.

He forced himself off the bed, now cursing his decision for a Halloween costume. Maybe it was that unusual moment of clarity that led Tommy across the room to his dresser. Perhaps it was the lucid truth of it all that made him reach to the very back of his sock drawer, his fingers hunting for something long forgotten. From a weathered cardboard mailing box he removed a tiny stack of photographs taken the day he and his best friends arrived in New York. These were pictures of Manhattan’s most recognizable structures – the Chrysler Building, the Flatiron, Madison Square Garden and the World Trade Center. Upon Tommy’s insistence, the four of them zigzagged everywhere that day: the Guggenheim; the Chelsea Hotel; the old wooden escalators at Macy’s; Times Square; Katz’s Delicatessen; the Apollo Theater; the Empire Diner; Morningside Park; and the Alamo cube. The colors were still so vivid in the photos. His friends thought it strange at the time that Tommy would be capturing so many of the city’s landmarks. After all, the four of them had moved to Manhattan; they weren’t tourists. The buildings would be there every day for the rest of their lives. But Tommy continued to snap away until there was only one shot left on the camera. He tossed it to a man passing by, and asked him to take a photo of the four of them. This was the object Tommy intended to find in his sock drawer. He knew exactly where it was. The picture of Tommy Mueller, Patrick Kohn, Kate Prince and Jesse Classen standing outside a store on the Bowery that sold cash registers. They all had their arms around one another and their mouths hung open awkwardly, caught in a moment of extraordinary celebration. Jesse’s eyes were closed. All of their dreams were concrete, obvious, and entirely possible. Tommy could still recall the feeling of Patrick’s corduroy blazer rubbing against the palm of his hand.

And when a heavy tear rolled down his cheek, Tommy knew exactly what the photo had meant to him. Sometimes he missed the things from his childhood that he would never get back. Playing on the street with his brother. Running around with tree-branch guns. Learning to ride his bike with no hands. Their father teaching them how to spit off the overpass. When he awkwardly called a girl for the first time. His friends had always said that they’d never known Leyland Mueller, but it was Tommy who they had never really known. And it was true. Tommy sometimes caught himself yearning for a return to Seattle, just to be around everything he felt from his childhood. He was always too afraid to admit it, even to himself. As big as he dreamed, Tommy Mueller never truly thought the life he’d made for himself was possible.

Tommy placed that one photo on his desk and shoved the rest of the glossy pictures of buildings deep into the sock drawer where they came from. Turning back to the brick wall through the window, Tommy decided that if he was not actually the man he believed he was, he had a second chance to fix his mistakes. Some of the mistakes really didn’t matter all that much anymore. Some mistakes would be easy to fix, some not so. Some could be rewritten entirely in his mind. And so he wrote.

Breathe out.

NEXT CHAPTER

The Falling – Chapter Twenty-Four

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR: The Temple Bar – NoHo

Every Halloween the Empire State Building is lit orange in celebration. On that night, the night of the falling, the skyscraper’s lights blended almost seamlessly into the red-brown glow of the evening sky. The cloud cover was so low that the lights of Times Square could be seen from just about anywhere in the city; all of Manhattan was captured within its glow. It was as if a higher power had been watching New York that evening, waiting, preparing for something important to happen.

The Temple Bar was one of those special places in the city that was all about wistful memories and nostalgic visits. With its plain green awning and thick-curtained windows, the nondescript bar had a way of luring accidental first time patrons through its doors. And those who returned always did so for no other reason than to reminisce about the first time. Perhaps then it was only fitting that the four of them agreed to meet there that evening.

Eleven years before, they had slept on the train all the way from Seattle to New York, arriving in Manhattan in the very early morning. Tommy whizzed them around the city all day before finally coming to a stop outside the Temple Bar on Lafayette. Tommy, Kate and Jesse had each returned at some point since then, all three with a first date on three separate occasions. The bar had not changed much over the years, still offering plush seats at mahogany tables next to red velvet curtains and dim lighting. It boasted a magnificent oak bar that served up an impressive array of international vodkas and romantic cocktails to a bevy of haute-couture consumers. But for all of its sophistication, the Temple Bar still had the slight odor of sordid debauchery.

Surprisingly, there were only a handful of costumed patrons that night, as though Halloween had not yet stumbled upon the Temple Bar. Aside from some suggestively-clad wait staff, Jesse and Kate were the only ones dressed for the occasion; Jesse in his newly-purchased Midtown Minder getup (with the addition of a pair of tennis shorts over his suit, as he was self-conscious about its tight-fitting crotch) and Kate in her puke-green hospital scrubs. The two of them had just ordered more drinks when Tommy entered.

“Ho! Manhattanites!” he yelled, not the least bit aware that he was only mimicking Patrick’s entrance from two weeks before. Tommy was wearing a giant, foam Empire State Building costume, so bulky he had to duck through the doorway and maneuver judiciously around the tables. He tried to sit down, but failed to do so; Tommy chose to lean against the wall instead. The tip of the costume’s spire tangled with the hanging light fixtures, but Tommy still refused to remove the hat, and he called to the waitress for a Whiskey Sour even though he’d already spent the majority of his afternoon drinking.

Kate and Jesse were astounded by the preposterous choice of attire, and yet nothing else could possibly have suited Tommy any better. “Where do you even find something like that?” Kate asked, trying not to laugh.

“We found it in a costume shop Downtown,” Tommy said. His breath reeked of alcohol but there was also a smoky smell that clung to him. “Rachel was going to dress as King Kong and I was going to be the Empire State Building.”

Jesse had to ask, “Shouldn’t you have been King Kong?”

“Are you kidding me? I’m not putting on a monkey suit. There’s a stigma attached to men in monkey suits.”

“Right,” Kate agreed half-heartedly. “It’s much less reprehensible for a woman to wear a monkey suit, isn’t it?”

But Tommy had no answer for her; he was already wondering what was taking the waitress so long.

Tommy’s costume had been sitting in his closet since he bought it a month before, and the foam absorbed much of the smoke that had come in through the vents during the fire. Kate twisted her nose when she finally figured out the source of the smell. “You stink,” was all she said to him.

Tommy looked over Kate’s uniform, recollecting the story of Gene’s one peculiar sex fetish. “I don’t even want to know where that costume’s been.”

“I didn’t have time to find anything else,” she admitted, smelling her own collar for precautionary purposes.

The waitress delivered their drinks; a Mint Julep for Kate, Tommy’s Whiskey Sour and another water for Jesse. She also handed them a complementary bowl of popcorn with what appeared to be dried beets and carrots mixed in. Tommy shook the contents around to get a better look. “Jesus,” he winced. Dissatisfied, he slid the bowl across the table towards Jesse, but Jesse also refused. “What’s the matter Jess? You’re always the first to eat crap like this.”

Jesse gulped down his glass of water. “I think I ate something bad earlier,” he told them. He’d felt terrible all afternoon, ever since he decided to open the can of Time Travel Juice. He didn’t know what it was that was really in that can, but he finished every last drop of it. The liquid had a disconcerting taste, like pickled ginger or an unripe banana or licking a rusty pipe. Worst of all, there had not yet been a single hint of any temporal variation; a dark grey cloud remained hanging just above them all.

“I’ve told you before, Jess. That Wing King shit is gonna kill you.”

“I know Kate.” Jesse flagged the waitress for one more water. “But the worst habits are the hardest ones to break, aren’t they?”

Whether Jesse meant to imply something about Kate’s marriage was unknown, but Tommy certainly didn’t want to miss an opportunity to follow up with her about the proposed events from the day before. “How’d the stalking go yesterday, detective? You get any hard evidence?”

“I decided against it,” she said. “You were right. It was an incredibly stupid idea. How about you, Tommy? How far down the list of girlfriends did you get?”

Defensively, Tommy dug his hand into the popcorn and swallowed a mouthful. “You were right too,” he said. “I couldn’t have come up with a worse idea.” He wasn’t lying; he just wasn’t revealing the whole truth. And fortunately, neither of his friends cared enough to ask any more questions anyway.

Jesse excused himself to use the washroom while Tommy rooted through the bowl. He began picking out the vegetables and just shoveling those into his mouth. Kate tried to stare as far away as possible and slowly tore a napkin apart into ever-smaller pieces. She didn’t recognize the music playing, but it certainly seemed like the saddest tune ever. Her shoulders went weak. She closed her eyes for only a moment before Tommy interrupted. “What the hell?” he asked.

“Hmm?”

“I can tell when something’s up with you Kate. And something is definitely up.”

Kate’s lips parted, but no words came out.

“What’s going on?” Tommy asked.

She looked around her cautiously, as though anyone else might have cared enough to be listening in. Every mistake she’d ever made in her life came flooding back into her memory, but Kate knew even before she uttered the words that this was by far the worst one of all: “I slept with Patrick last night.”

Tommy wanted to feel overwhelmed; he wanted to have a reaction that would go down as history’s all-time greatest reaction. He wasn’t sure what that response would have been, but it certainly wasn’t what he gave up instead: staring blankly at Kate as she revealed the most awful of things. He didn’t even spit the dried carrot out of his mouth; it just hung limply from his lips. The reappearance of Patrick Kohn had infected so much already, crept so far into Manhattan’s veins, that Tommy had simply reached the point where he was no longer affected by the man’s presence.

Tommy’s reaction was not what Kate had expected either, and it certainly wasn’t helped by the absurd costume he was wearing. “Tommy? Did you hear what I just said?”

Mince Wilson’s earlier admission that Patrick Kohn was essentially responsible for the end of her relationship with Tommy had left a bad taste lingering in his mouth. He hadn’t left his apartment all day, hadn’t spoken with anyone at all until coming to the Temple Bar. He thought about what he should do next, but failed to come to any reasonable conclusion. Quite simply, Thomas Mueller was not the same man he had been two weeks before. Before Patrick’s return to New York. Prior to that letter showing up in his mailbox. The tip of Tommy’s costume intertwined with the light fixture again. Finally, he gave in and moved out of the way. “Why would you do that?” he responded at last.

And Kate almost answered him too, but noticed the Midtown Minder was on his way back to the table. “I can’t get into it right now. Just don’t tell Jess, okay? I think it would only confuse him.”

“Sure.”

“I mean it Tommy.”

“You betch’ya.”

“What are you guys talking about?” Jesse asked.

“Kate slept with Patrick!” Tommy blurted out.

“What?!?”

Kate punched Tommy in the chest, but the foam skyscraper absorbed the impact. “I hope a pigeon shits on your fucking costume,” she grumbled.

Jesse tried to process the information. “That’s awesome,” he said. “So does this mean you guys are getting back together?”

“No, it does not,” Kate responded with her mouth pressed into the glass of bourbon.

“And what about Gene?” Jesse persisted. “Where is Patrick, anyway? Does Sheldon know?”

Kate turned directly to Tommy. “See? This is what I was worried about.”

“Come on Kate,” Tommy insisted. “Jess is a grown man, not a dog. He can handle it.”

“Just please do not say anything to Patrick when he gets here, okay?”

Tommy asked, “But what are you going to say to him?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“Well, you’d better decide fast,” Jesse said. Patrick was at the entrance, trying to find his friends. He was wearing a big frog costume, complete with flippers and bulging eyes on the top of his head. Jesse waved an arm to get his attention and soon they were all reunited: the Frog, the Nurse, the Superhero and the Skyscraper.

Tommy was perplexed by the costume selection. “What the fuck is that?”

“I’m a frog. I wear this every Halloween.”

“It looks like a gecko.”

“Trust me. It’s a frog.” Patrick took a good look around him. He could barely remember ever being in the Temple Bar, but he knew for sure that it was still the same. There was a scent; maybe it was the velvet curtains, but it brought him right back to when they were just kids. When the four of them were so young and so full of dreams and felt as though greatness was nothing more than a simple matter of destiny. But then they had to grow up and figure everything out on their own. Each of them had picked up on that smell when they first arrived that night, but Patrick was the only one of them who could properly place the feeling.

“Where’s Sheldon?” Jesse asked.

“He’s at home.” Patrick ordered a beer from the closest waitress. “The woman next door to me is watching him.”

Tommy, Kate and Jesse all looked at one another. Did Patrick really just leave his son with a stranger? Had he always been so gullible?

“Relax guys. She’s got two kids of her own. Her husband helped me move in too. They’re great people. We took all the kids out trick-or-treating tonight. Hey, is it just me, or do people not give out as much candy as they used to?”

“It’s a New York thing,” Jesse said. “The health conscious parents were worried about all the candy and artificial ingredients so they started handing out rice crackers and sunflower seeds. Then the kids stopped trick-or-treating because they didn’t want any of that healthy crap, and now half the city doesn’t bother to hand out anything at all.”

“It’s cyclical,” Tommy added. “But I just go to Kate’s place for candy since Gene’s always got the best.”

Kate had been noticeably quiet since Patrick arrived. She had an aloof look about her, and all three men knew what it meant. Even the waitress noticed as she placed Patrick’s beer on the table. Patrick asked, “Guys, do you mind if Kate and I talk in private?”

Tommy was quick to remove himself from the table; the truth was that he needed some fresh air anyway, his own space away from Patrick. Jesse pecked Kate on the cheek before following Tommy outside onto Lafayette Street.

Patrick sat across from Kate, his rubber frog suit made a farting noise as it rubbed on the plush seat, but neither of them laughed. Reaching into the neck opening with his gloved fingers, Patrick pulled the famous letter out from somewhere deep inside. He laid it flat on the table, presenting Kate’s miserable printing to her. “Listen, I know we probably made a mistake last night. But please don’t say you’re sorry Kate.”

“Why can’t I apologize?”

“Because there’s nothing to be sorry for. Especially not for something so silly.”

“Silly?”

“Saying you’re still the same person you used to be.”

“Oh. I thought you were talking about the sex,” she said. “But I am the same person I was. It’s why things didn’t work out for us years ago and it’s the same reason it wouldn’t work now.”

“You’ve got it all backwards Kate,” he said. “It’s impossible for somebody to go through life unchanged. Especially here in Manhattan. I was only here for a short time but it sure as hell transformed me. I just don’t want either of us to get the wrong idea.”

Kate only wanted to tell him that she agreed, but she was finding it hard to say. She opened her mouth but nothing came out. And Patrick had already run out of words too. He knew there was more that needed to be said, but he was stumped as to how he might say it. He had convinced himself in the morning that he was so quick to return to Kate because it was the easiest way to numb the pain of losing Natasha. So why couldn’t he say that? That same sad song was still playing in the background and Patrick’s beer was already empty.

Taking the wrinkled paper back into his hands, Patrick turned it over to see the dutifully typed letter he had sent to Tommy just a few weeks before. He remembered how nervous he was as he sat down to type it. And he’d torn up eight previous drafts before settling on just the right words. Even if they had moved on or even forgotten him entirely, time had not eroded Patrick’s feelings towards his friends. For every moment he experienced, good or bad, he wished they had been there with him. For every dream he had, he hoped they could have been a part of it.

But every dream that is lost is only replaced by something unexpected along the way. Inevitably, every letter that is not sent is still somehow answered. Every moment that passes by comes back eventually. Patrick understood all of this when he woke that morning to find Kate’s message scribbled on the back of his own.

Kate hadn’t noticed until then that there was a floor-length mirror beside her. She considered her own reflection for a moment before finally asking, “Were you ever afraid of anything when you were younger?”

Patrick thought about the question. “I don’t think so. When we were kids, we never wanted to be afraid of anything, did we? That’s why we did whatever we wanted.” He spun the empty beer glass in slow circles on the table top. “But now that I’m older, I realize there’s a limitless supply of things to be scared of. There’s so much more to worry about, isn’t there?”

“Yeah,” Kate agreed. “I guess that makes sense. But there was one thing that always scared me.”

“What’s that?”

“Falling in love.”

“I don’t understand. How is falling in love with someone a bad thing?”

Kate thought about her next words carefully. It was not easy for her to be so vulnerable. “People always talk about not wanting to die alone. Like it would be the worst thing in the world. But what about the people who love them? What could be worse than loving someone for years and years and then suddenly they’re not there anymore? And what if they’re so old that there’s no time left over to move on? I can’t imagine anything worse than that.”

Patrick was confused. “You’re saying it would be better to die alone, rather than hurt someone so badly? What about Gene? Why did you marry him?”

“I think maybe I always knew that it would never work out with Gene.”

“Kate, why are you telling me all this?”

“Don’t you see Patrick? When we came to New York I knew I was falling in love with you. I knew it more and more every day. That’s when I started getting scared about being with you forever. But then you left. You just disappeared that morning, leaving nothing but that letter behind. And I felt so relieved. I was happy that I wouldn’t have to go through all of that with you.”

“You were happy?”

“Sometimes I’m happiest when I’m at my saddest, if that makes any sense at all.”

“Yeah.” Patrick sat back his seat. His frog suit squeaked on the chair again. “Yeah, I think it does make sense.” He handed Kate a clean cocktail napkin and she wiped her eyes.

“Thanks for coming back Patrick,” she said with a smile.

~~~~~

There was a hazy fog over Manhattan. Where only minutes ago it was licking the tips of skyscrapers, the fog was now creeping ever closer to the streets below, engulfing anything and everything it could. The orange glow from the Empire State Building was gone, already consumed by the night’s malignant cloud. To Tommy it felt like the island was becoming ever smaller. Buildings that stood only blocks away had vanished from sight. But taxis still patrolled the streets as though nothing was the matter. Businesses continued to pile their garbage along the sidewalk assuming it would be collected as always the next day. People remained lined up at the hot dog cart; the only need they had to fulfill was that of hunger. So why was the miasmic haze making Tommy feel so uneasy?

Some drunken college kids mocked the costumes Tommy and Jesse wore as they stumbled along Lafayette Street. One of them commented on the Empire State Building suit, and failed in his attempt at some sort of erection pun. It confused Tommy more than anything and he felt ashamed of the city’s education system, how it was wasted on such witlessness. The best costumes the kids could muster were fright wigs and eye patches.

Tommy tried to sit down on the curb beside Jesse, but he found that simply lying on his back was much easier. At least the foam helped make the cold, hard sidewalk that much more comfortable. He persisted to fixate on only one thing: maybe his apartment was not intentionally set on fire after all; maybe the warehouse was not a front for some elaborate revenge plot; and maybe Natasha Seward really did have a tumor on her brain. But Patrick Kohn’s presence still continued to prove Manhattan was far better off without him.

“Don’t let Patrick bother you so much, Tommy,” Jesse said to him. He had his head between his knees, nursing his sore stomach, but he still knew what thoughts Tommy was preoccupied with. “Don’t let it consume you.”

Tommy unremittingly stared up into the dark clouds. He knew Jesse was right, but he was too impossibly stubborn to change even his own mind.

“Patrick was right,” Jesse continued. “We all fall, don’t we? I tried to be strong enough to get past it, but I’m not.” He dipped his boot into a mound of dead grey snow, one of the last remnants from the storm. It broke apart easily, quickly disappearing altogether beneath his foot. The Time Travel Juice inside his stomach bubbled and churned. “In a moment of weakness, I thought I’d found the solution to all of it yesterday. I was going to make all of us better again. I was going to fix John and Edie. Natasha. Even your brother. I thought I could maybe bring Rachel back too.” He sighed deeply, but mostly for effect. “Why do we have to grow up and go through all of this shit? I mean, what’s really the point?”

Tommy wanted to admit that he didn’t know what the point was. He wanted to acknowledge his own mistakes and all the negativity he harbored. But then he realized he had never once done so before, and he finally grasped just how hard it is to actually admit it to someone.

And just as Tommy recalled what the tattooed girl had said to him in the coffee shop, Jesse recalled what Sharona had told him on that Greenwich Village sidewalk, only a few blocks from where he sat now.

She told Jesse that nobody’s problems are so incredibly special. She said that everyone’s heart breaks at some point; everyone will make the wrong decision eventually. And she told Tommy that if he only ever did one thing, he needed to make sure he treated his friends right.

“I wish I could change everything back to the way it was,” Jesse said. “But that wouldn’t be fair to the way things are now.” He looked over at Tommy who was still stuck on his back, a fallen Empire State Building. “You know, that costume really is ridiculous,” he laughed.

“I think I’ve had way too much to drink today.” Jesse helped Tommy up and they went back inside the Temple Bar just before the fog touched the sidewalk.

Breathe out.

~~~~~

Tommy stopped by the bar for another drink before heading to the bathroom, and then once more on his way back to the table. He must have knocked into every person along the way. When he got back to the table Kate and Jesse and Patrick were all laughing. It was good to see smiles on their faces, especially after everything that had gone down over the past week. Patrick was telling them about earlier that morning and his poor attempts to explain to Sheldon why Kate had stayed the night. “I can’t believe how many times Natasha and I had to lie to that poor kid,” he said. “Sheldon’s just got a knack for walking in at all the wrong times.”

“Maybe that’s why he’s so suspicious of you,” Tommy slurred. He was sober enough to know it was the wrong time and place to go into detail about the boy’s farfetched murder theories, but he was just drunk enough that he couldn’t help himself.

“Tommy, why don’t you sit down?” Kate suggested.

“I’ll tell you why. Because my ass is the size of a city block!” he said. “I could barely even fit in the stall to relieve myself.” Tommy leaned in closer to Patrick, a little too close for both their likings. “Do you know what the bathrooms in this place could use?”

“What that?” Patrick asked, trying to push himself away.

“A nice, sparkly HyGenieSeat-3000! I gotta hand to you Patrick, those things work like a dream!”

Patrick glared at Tommy, unsure of what he should suspect.

“We installed one at Jesse’s place. I never thought I’d be a bidet man, but that shit’s pretty great.”

Patrick turned to Jesse, then back at Tommy. “The peculiar thing about that break-in at my warehouse two nights ago was there had only been one item stolen. We did an inventory check and the only thing missing was one HyGenieSeat-3000.”

“Well, it’s kind of a funny story actually,” Tommy began. Kate and Jesse fell uncomfortably silent, since they had assumed their humiliating adventure into Jersey City two nights before would remain a secret between the three of them. But Tommy was far too inebriated to keep the lid on anything that night. He confessed to Patrick that it was his own idea to break into the warehouse. But only because he thought Patrick had killed his wife and that he would be coming after them next. And then there was the apartment fire. And Sheldon’s suspicions. And of course the fat man on the street with the sandwich. And then there was the bad review of his novel, which didn’t necessarily have anything to with Patrick, but there was still a chance it might have. The more Tommy came clean, the more he found himself questioning everything all over again.

Patrick couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “What the hell is wrong with you, Tom?” He raised his normally tepid voice louder. “Is this how you treat your friends? It’s no wonder your girlfriend left you.”

Heads in the bar began to turn their way. Kate thought the music had become noticeably sadder. Everything slowed down around Jesse. They both sat, staring blankly at the two men. They knew nothing could be said at that point that would make any difference. At some point, everybody falls.

“You’re one to talk,” Tommy responded. “How do you treat your friends? You abandoned us! I was just waiting there with my tennis racket. I didn’t even have any balls because you said you’d bring them.”

“What is with you and that tennis match? Let it go Tom.”

“You and I bought Rangers season tickets too. They were in Section Fifty! Section Fifty!! I had to sell my stereo so I could afford them. But then you were gone and I had to trade them in for some crap-ass nose bleeders.”

“That’s so petty Tom. What, are you going to accuse me of stealing toilet paper from you as well?”

“Ah ha! I knew that was you!”

“Have you been harboring all of this since the day I left? I can’t believe you would actually accuse me of hurting somebody. Especially Natasha.”

Tommy was almost running out of things to say. Almost. “And goddammit, frogs are lame, dude.”

“Yeah, it’s much more awesome to be walking around in a giant foam skyscraper, isn’t it? Get over it Tom. Just get over this city already. It’s not so fucking great.”

The last head in the Temple Bar turned, as though sensing what would come next. “What did you say?” Tommy asked, pointing a shaky finger in his friend’s face.

But Patrick had enough. He swatted Tommy’s hand away and got up from the table. “This obsession you have with New York and who’s worthy enough to set foot on its sidewalks…get the hell over it.” He turned away from Tommy and only took one step before he was pushed from behind. He only brushed against a nearby table, but it was still enough force to knock over a few glasses.

“Tommy!” Kate yelped. She tried to free herself from the table, but Jesse was in her way, still zoning out. Patrick tried to hold Tommy back but it was no use. Tommy pushed him into the table again. Something smashed onto the floor.

Jesse watched the half-assed attempt at a fight. Patrick had always avoided confrontation; he didn’t know the first thing to do in a fight. Truthfully, he still hadn’t realized he was even in a fight. Tommy on the other hand was simply too drunk to register what he was doing anymore. Amid the chaotic scuffle, Jesse was recollecting the night of his art show, when he and John Galloway had fought with one another. He couldn’t help himself from pretending Patrick’s frog costume was more like Godzilla, trying to destroy the city. Battling with a human skyscraper. He had to admit, it was a pretty cool visual. When Kate spotted the smile on Jesse’s face, she slapped the Midtown Minder on the back of the head, snapping him out of it.

Somehow, Patrick succeeded in wrestling Tommy onto the floor. Caught like a turtle on his back, Tommy flailed his arms and legs without much result. The top of his costume, the tip of the skyscraper, had flown free. He managed to sit up for only a moment before Patrick established the opportunity to land a solid punch. He accidentally hit Tommy square in the jaw, and Tommy’s head hit the wall hard.

And that’s when everything began to…

fade…

to…

blank…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NEXT CHAPTER

The Falling – Chapter Twenty-Three

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE: Kate & Gene’s Brownstone – Upper West Side

In the two weeks since she scratched Chapter One onto the first page of her blank journal, Kate had almost filled the entire book. Sure, some pages were crumpled at the foot of her desk, torn out of futility and some fat black X’s were marked across them, but she had tenaciously scribbled nearly one hundred and seventy-five pages of quality fiction. Unlike Paper Fences before it, this still unnamed new novel had direction, structure and raw emotion. She was actually proud of what she’d created and was genuinely looking forward to writing more. Her characters excited her, and her scenes made her want to experience them first hand. A few times now, her eyes watered up and her vision blurred; but she loved that feeling of tearing open her own soul and transplanting the meat of herself into the page. And the best part was that she could not even feel her cramped hand or lower back anymore.

Since walking away from Pendulum Publishing, Kate had only left her desk for sleep (sometimes in bed with Gene, but just as often on the couch), meals at the coffee shop (perhaps with another trip or two to the McDonald’s for cheeseburgers. Who was counting?) and for the one disappointing adventure to New Jersey with Tommy and Jesse. She opted against donning her trench coat and following Gene on his lunch break that afternoon. Tommy was right; it really was a horrible idea. On the other hand, she knew that Tommy would still have gone through with his own asinine plan of self-discovery; as good as he was at dispensing friendly advice, he was never one to listen to any of it himself. The man was simply too bull-headed.

The box of personal items from work was still sitting on the floor below her desk. She hadn’t yet decided what she would throw away and what she would keep, but Kate was leaning towards the former for all of it. The longer you keep something the harder it is to remove from your life, no matter how important the item in question actually is. The cereal bowl on her desktop was beginning to smell. There was a cupboard full of clean bowls in the kitchen, but Kate continued to refill the same one. Now it was sticky with dried milk and sugary crumbs. She reached for the bottle of wine in front of her, but realized it had been emptied hours ago. There was something about the combination of Frankenberry cereal and elderberry wine that not only sounded great together but also created an incomparable flavor magic.

There was the muffled sounds of footsteps outside. A child’s curious voice. Kate tried to peer out her basement window, but all she could see was the darkened street and her own clouded mannequin eyes looking back at her. Her head was heavy. Perhaps she’d been awake for too long now, or needed something other than wine in her stomach.

The footsteps came closer, crunching through the snow and up the front steps of the brownstone. The doorbell chimed, but Kate did not move. Gene was upstairs somewhere so surely he would answer it. After a moment’s pause, Gene yelled for her to please get the door. The man was such an introvert that he would never bark orders at anyone, so it could only mean he had not been sleeping much himself lately. He understood that Kate’s writing was important to her, but the truth was that he also missed the warmth of another body in their bed.

The doorbell rang again, and this time Kate called up to her husband. She knew that he would always cave in first, which was part of the reason why she was still refusing to admit defeat in their marriage; he was sure to break soon. And hopefully any time now.

From her office below the front stoop, Kate heard Gene’s ratty slippers shuffling towards the door. There was some stifled chatter, but she could not make out a word of it. “Katherine!” he called. “You’ve got visitors.”

Without too much hesitation, she trudged upstairs, and was surprised to see Patrick and Sheldon. Halloween was still a day away, but Sheldon was wearing his costume again, and he was munching on a miniature Three Musketeers bar. Gene Schneider loved Halloween so much that he’d had a bowl of candy bars at the front door for well over a week now. He loved candy. He never had a single cavity in his life and he would mention it at the office any chance he got. When he was a boy, he was not allowed to go out trick-or-treating; instead, he and his brother got to stay home in their Mickey and Minnie costumes watching Charlie Brown and eating boxes of raisins.

“Hey Fart Tart,” Patrick said. It had not occurred to him that it may have been inappropriate to call Kate by her old nickname in front of her husband.

“What are you guys doing here?” she asked, her eyes adjusting to the light.

“We were just at the coffee shop for dinner. I hoped I’d see one of you there. I called Tommy but he told me he was busy and that I should come here.”

“Of course he did.” Kate wasn’t sure if introductions had already been made so she familiarized the three of them with one another.

“Kate’s never mentioned you before,” Gene stated sullenly. He turned to his wife. “I thought it was only the three of you that came here from Seattle?”

But she no longer knew what information had been shared about whatever moment in her past, so she had nothing to say in response.

There was an awkward silence for a moment and whether Sheldon had noticed it or not, he was generous enough to break it. “Thank you for the chocolate,” he said to Gene, holding the empty wrapper out in his hand.

Gene was appreciative of the gratitude. “You know, the day after Halloween last year I had two separate patients who both needed oral surgery from razor blade injuries.”

Sheldon dropped the wrapper onto the hardwood floor. It seemed to hit harder than it should have.

“Gene!” Kate snapped. “Why would you say something like that? You’re going to scare the poor kid.”

“I was only being precautionary. You need to watch what people in this city are handing out to kids.”

“That’s good to know,” Patrick interjected. “Thanks for the heads up Gene.”

Gene was content that at least somebody found his cautions helpful. “Do you know that I’ve never had a cavity?”

Kate picked the wrapper up from off the floor. “Would you two like to come downstairs? I was just finishing up for the night.” Patrick and Sheldon followed Kate to her office while Gene returned to wherever he had been to do whatever it was he’d been doing. As casually as she could, Kate asked Patrick what had come from his trip to New Jersey earlier that afternoon. He only said that there didn’t appear to be anything stolen and that the Jersey City police weren’t going to pursue it any further, only suggesting that Titanic Utilities invest in better security.

The office was dark since Kate didn’t like working with more light than her tiny lamp provided. She knew she would probably pay for it with some corrective eyewear before too long. Patrick and Sheldon both scrunched their noses as they entered. “It smells in here,” they noted simultaneously.

Kate was not easily embarrassed, and she only displayed minimal signs towards their reactions. “I suppose I’ve been holed up in here for a bit too long. Sorry. I could crack the window but it’s hard to do any constructive writing in my parka,” she joked.

Sheldon reached for one of the Spider-Man comics from the box under the desk.

“What’s with the comic books?” Patrick asked. “Are they for when Jesse comes over?”

Kate slid the book out of the boy’s hands and turned it over to present the GAP ad on the back cover. Patrick recognized the model immediately because it was exactly what Kate had looked like when he had left New York so long ago. It was the same way she looked in his memory for the next decade, until he returned. Still, his jaw dropped. “Holy—“ he started. “What are you doing on the back of that comic?”

Kate handed it back Sheldon, who could care less about an advertisement for denim overalls. He sat down on the big reading chair in the corner of the room and immediately began analyzing the story inside. “It’s not easy being a starving student in this city. I took whatever work I could get, and now I’m immortalized on the back of these funny books. Do you know that they wouldn’t even let us keep the clothes?”

“That’s a shame,” Patrick noted. He sat down in Kate’s writing chair and let out a long breath. “Sometimes I wondered about the things I might’ve missed when I left you guys. Things like that GAP ad. Or even your wedding or Jesse’s art show. And all of Tommy’s success.” He ran the palm of his hand over the rough surface of the desk. His wedding ring scratched roughly along the wood but it didn’t leave a mark. “It must have all been really great.”

Kate didn’t need long to think about it. “It was. There were so many remarkable things I’ve experienced.” She rubbed the nape of her neck as if trying to coax the memories out. “But you missed a lot of really crappy times too. I mean, New York is where I really grew up, not Seattle. Tommy and Jess and I were there for each other when we went through everything; but I still caught myself thinking it would’ve been nice if you’d been there for me too. It was hard for me to believe you were gone. You were here for too short a time to actually be gone.” Kate turned to the window. She noticed the snow had begun to fall again on 107th Street. The tiniest of flakes, like the first few stars beyond the sunset, danced beneath the street light. “I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I think I’ve been drinking too much wine.”

“It’s okay,” Patrick told her.

“No. No it’s not. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about everything.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, well…it’s true that I missed you sometimes Patrick. But mostly I never thought about you at all. God, there were so many other horrible relationships though, you wouldn’t believe.”

“I’d only been in one,” Patrick said. “I mean, I left because I finally realized I still loved Natasha. And then we got married. And then…” His thoughts drifted away a little, but Kate knew exactly where they had gone. “Well, I wouldn’t know how to start over with someone new now.”

“While I only know all too well,” Kate said.

“That’s not what I meant.”

“No. I know. But it’s true.” She looked out the window again, but the snow had already stopped. Like it wanted to happen but decided against it.

On the chair, Sheldon continued to flip the pages. He was careful with the book, knowing how to treat objects that belonged to other people. He wondered why the pages of the comic book in his hands were glossy, while the ones at Midtown Comics were rough, like paper was supposed to be. He didn’t care at all about whatever the adults were discussing.

Kate said, “I’ve dated more weirdoes than I care to remember. The strangest always seemed to be from Staten Island. The coolest guy I ever dated was a bus driver of all things. I dated a baseball player and a hockey player, but both in the off-season when there weren’t as many of the perks to dating baseball and hockey players. So no road trips with the team or tickets for box seats. Did you know in the off-season these guys just like to sit around and do nothing all day? And then there was the museum guy.”

“Museum guy?”

Kate explained how she went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art one day and met a man while looking at the pre-historic cave paintings. They talked for a while, and when they realized they were both visiting the museum alone they decided to continue on together. They breezed through the Chinese earthenware and Minoan Terracotta together before he kissed her in front of the headless Aphrodite statue. There was some extremely covert sex inside the Dendur Temple before an argument whilst surrounded by the armada of armored knights on horses. From there, they split up only to meet again in front of Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware. They shared another half hour or so together, before calling it quits amidst a collection of Salvador Dalis.

“That’s really horrific,” Patrick said, keeping an eye on his son to make sure the boy did not hear too much detail. But Sheldon was still immersed in the comic book.

“It was. That relationship only lasted one day yet it was spread across the entire history of mankind. But no matter how good or how bad a relationship is, it seems that the letting go is always the hardest part.” Or as Tommy had told her that morning in the coffee shop, ending a relationship is always tougher than starting a new one. It was almost the same thing.

“I think you might be right, Fart Tart.”

“I can’t believe you’re still calling me that,” Kate said. “I don’t think I ever knew what it meant.”

Patrick thought about it for a moment. He never really considered where the nickname came from. He called her that back in high school, but couldn’t remember why. “There’s not really a reason I can think of. I don’t recall how it started.”

Sheldon broke the awkward pause by getting up from his seat. He returned the book to the box and asked if he could use the bathroom. Kate led him around the corner. When she returned to the office, Patrick was digging around in the box himself. He held up a package of Nicorette, wondering why she had it. “You smoke?”

“No. I just like the gum. Actually, I don’t even enjoy it anymore but now I’m addicted to the stuff.”

“That’s ironic,” Patrick noted. And then he admitted, “I only smoke when I’m stressed out. Natasha always used to tell me not to worry so much because the more I worried the more likely it was that I would develop lung cancer.”

“That’s funny. She sounds like she was full of helpful advice.”

“She was. She picked me up whenever I was feeling lost. And she always knew the right things to say to Sheldon when I had no idea. I still don’t know what I should be saying to him sometimes. But I don’t feel like I changed as much in the last ten years as I did when I was with you Kate. So much of who I am today is because of the time I spent with you.”

“That’s because we’re so much easier to change when we’re young. The littlest of things affected us so much more back then.”

“I guess so.” Patrick dropped the Nicorette back into the box. “I guess that’s why I left when I did. Maybe I was just being overly-dramatic. Maybe I should have stayed in New York. But I do know that I could not have loved Natasha as much as I did if you and I hadn’t made the mistakes we had.”

Love is what happens after you’ve had your heart broken,” Kate said. She sounded like she was quoting a famous line.

“What’s that from?” Patrick asked.

“That’s something I wrote in my book.” Kate reached for the journal on the desktop; she knew exactly what page to flip to and held the open book up for him. Her left-handed printing was easy to read. The line stood out like it was the only one on the page. “What it means is you can never know what love really feels like until you’ve been hurt by someone.”

“I guess that makes sense.”

Kate snapped the book shut and sat on the edge of her desk. “You and I could never have been in love since we were each other’s first real relationship. We didn’t know anything about love. I’m still not sure if I do.”

Patrick took the journal and turned a few pages as he listened. He didn’t know if he completely agreed with what Kate was saying; he thought he did love her years ago, but he could have been wrong. All he knew at the time he left New York was that he loved Natasha Seward more than he loved Kate Prince. Of course it wasn’t fair to Kate, but an impartial love is inconceivable. “I can’t believe you wrote all of this,” he said. “It’s really good, you know?”

“It’s about friends who lose their way,” she told him, even though Patrick had not asked about the premise of the novel. “It’s about a letter that sparks a chain reaction amongst them all. And how they deal with the ever-changing feelings they have for one another.”

Patrick didn’t want to acknowledge the all-too-obvious similarities, so he didn’t. He carefully turned the pages, reading sentences at random. “It’s beautiful Kate. I can’t wait to read it when you’re finished.”

Kate wanted to finish the book; she wanted it more than anything. But as soon as Patrick said the words she found herself afraid that she never would. She was afraid it would never end, just like Paper Fences. The incomplete sequel to the unfinished debut. All her life, Kate had continuously built towards the future, but she found herself uncomfortable and unmotivated whenever that future inevitably became the present. She hoped that her procrastination would put itself off for just a while longer. Long enough for her to simply be happy.

“Thanks Patrick,” was what Kate said instead of showing any weakness. The snow had decided to come down again, and it was falling fast. The wind blowing from the tips of Midtown’s skyscrapers was directing all of the snow towards that single, lonely window. It was piling up, trying its best to keep Kate and Patrick trapped inside with one another.

“Shit,” Patrick said when he heard the heavy flakes patter on the glass like tiny hands clapping. “I think we’d better be going. Sheldon and I have to get back to Brooklyn before it gets even uglier out there.”

When Sheldon emerged from the bathroom, the trio went back upstairs. Patrick thanked Kate for letting him read her work and Sheldon said thank you again for the chocolate bar. As they said their goodbyes, Gene called for Kate from another room, claiming to have a question for her that required an immediate answer. Kate knew the tone, and excused herself from the entranceway, promising to be right back.

Patrick and Sheldon waited, but soon could not help but overhear Kate and Gene arguing about something to do with inviting people over for dinner on the weekend. Patrick did not know if Kate was being selfish for wanting the time to write or if Gene’s friends were really as horrible as she had made them out to be. Either way though, he knew that Kate did not love her husband like she used to, if she ever had at all. Patrick Kohn was never very good at putting pieces together; he’d always been much more proficient at taking them apart. But he managed to pluck that much from his earlier conversation with Kate. She said she had too much to drink, but there was still something obvious in her words. They stepped outside and Patrick closed the door behind them quickly so as not to let the flurry of snow inside.

“What are they fighting about?” Sheldon asked his father.

Patrick knew that Natasha would have had just the right answer for the boy, but he didn’t know what to say. So he didn’t say anything. The snow was quiet enough that he could still hear the stifled shouting from the other side of the door. Patrick thought about the phone call he made to Kate after he’d said goodbye to New York so long ago. He knew it would be much easier to make that call from twenty-five hundred miles away than have to explain his actions in person. Kate’s fiery temper was intimidating, and was only further exacerbated by alcohol. Tommy had no problem matching her intensity and if needed, Jesse probably could too, but Patrick had never learned how to handle a confrontation. He said nothing except, “Come on Sheldon. Maybe we should just leave them alone.”

They had made it only as far as the bottom step before the door behind them opened again. Patrick’s first thought was that he had not closed it all the way, but Kate was at the top of the stairs. “Hold on guys.” She already had her coat on. “I’m sorry about that,” she said, joining them out on the sidewalk.

Patrick wasn’t sure who was coming and who was going. And Kate wasn’t giving any indication of where she was headed. “Are you okay?” he asked her.

“I’m fine,” she said. “Do you guys want to go grab some cheeseburgers?”

“Cheeseburgers? At this time of night?”

“The McDonald’s is just around the corner,” she said, obliviously pointing in the exact opposite direction. It wasn’t as if they could follow her shivering finger anyway.

“I’ve never been to McDonald’s,” Sheldon said, looking up to his father with big eyes.

“His mother never let him eat fast food,” Patrick confessed to Kate, as though he needed to apologize.

“It’s just fast food,” Kate said. “It’s not plutonium. Come on, let’s go.”

Patrick and Sheldon were in no position to argue the matter any further, and the three of them hurried down Broadway through the evening’s sudden snowstorm.

~~~~~

She knew as soon as she awoke that it had been a mistake. Kate thought about leaving a note behind, maybe calling him when she got back to the Upper West Side, but was sickened by the idea of having to come full-circle with Patrick Kohn. She sat up and immediately felt light-headed. Sliding her legs out from the sheets, she was surprised to find the floor was closer than she expected. There was no bed frame, only a mattress. And there were only a few boxes in the bedroom, or whatever room it was supposed to be. There was a sink on the wall, but it certainly wasn’t a kitchen.

Kate peered out the window. There was no snow on India Street, not even a slushy puddle. It was as though Brooklyn existed in an entirely different realm than Manhattan. Maybe a whole other time period. She put her clothes back on as quickly and as silently as she could.

Kate was aware that she shouldn’t, but still knew she would tell Tommy and Jesse that she slept with Patrick. Tommy’s reaction would be a self-righteous one, while Jesse would only be connecting the dots towards the inevitability of their reunion. “You guys are just like Ross and Rachel,” he would no doubt say. Ugh.

Trying to piece the previous night together, Kate could not reach any sort of reasonable conclusion for why what happened had happened. However, she did not overlook the irony in the fact that she usually found herself at the McDonald’s after making mistakes, not before. Still, it was not much consolation.

Behind her, Patrick began to stir. Kate did not turn around, hoping he would be man enough to say something first instead. When he started snoring again she knew her stance was a futile one. She wanted to imagine that being with Patrick felt just like it used to feel, but it didn’t feel that way at all.

She sat on the hardwood floor and dug through her handbag. Aside from money, the only paper she found was the letter. The very same letter Patrick had mailed to Tommy. She knew she had held on to it for a reason. On the back of the letter, in her muddled right-handed printing, Kate wrote:

I’m sorry I’m still the same person I used to be.

-K

NEXT CHAPTER

The Falling – Chapter Twenty-Two

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO: Mince Wilson’s Apartment – Alphabet City

Mince Wilson still lived in the same old apartment building on the corner or Avenue A and 11th. Tommy was not surprised at all to see the familiar M.WILSON on the door buzzer, because Mince had always said she would never move from that spot. And she was without a doubt the least hyperbolic person Tommy had ever met; Mince never exaggerated. She never lied, never stretched the truth, and never assumed something to be something it wasn’t. And because of this, she was also always right. In fact, she was absolutely correct when she declared The Garbage Pail Kids Movie to be the worst film ever made. It was true. And when she said that The Brothers Karamazov was undoubtedly the only book anyone would ever need to read, she could not have been more accurate. She knew the best places in the city for milkshakes, borsht, sunsets and public washrooms. It was uncanny just how right one person could be. The singular untruth about her was her moniker: “Mince” was only a nickname, and yet Tommy never once discovered what her real name was. And he’d never once asked.

Mince consistently amazed Tommy. To her, the best thing about it was that she never even had to try. She was the first girlfriend Tommy had in New York and very nearly the first girl he’d ever spoken to in Manhattan. That alone was enough to satisfy him. To Tommy, having dreamed his whole life of coming to the greatest city in the world and making love to one of its native residents was surreal. In truth, there really wasn’t much that Mince Wilson could have possibly done to screw up their relationship. She always had Tommy wrapped around her finger.

Tommy pressed the buzzer. Nothing. He tried it again.

“Yeah?” said the voice on the other end, loud enough to speak over crying kids. The wonderful noise of the street traffic returned once her finger was released from the intercom.

“Mince? It’s Tommy.”

The screaming picked up right where it left off. “What?” Tommy cringed a little from what sounded like some daycare of torture.

“It’s Tommy Mueller.”

Pause.

“The guy from Seattle?”

“Seattle? Come on, I’m a New Yorker, babe!” Tommy didn’t mean to confuse her, but he also didn’t want to pretend he was anything he wasn’t. Nevertheless, the door clicked open and Tommy made his way back up the once-familiar stairs.

But the higher Tommy stepped the more unsure he had become. The details of his relationship with Mince Wilson were now nothing but watered down memories: he couldn’t recall how long they had dated or where they had broken up, and it was no surprise that the memory of where they had kissed for the first time was now misplaced. It wasn’t until he approached her door, behind which emanated the miserable squeals of malcontent children, that Tommy found one of the missing pieces. There was a fist-sized dent in the wall beside the door; the only physical evidence that the two of them had ever broken up was still waiting to be repaired. He placed his hand in the cavity just to make sure it still fit, but the door opened before Tommy could decide if it made him feel any better.

“Tommy? My goodness, it is you.” The evidence that ten years had passed had never been more obvious than it was on Mince Wilson. But maybe that was still her being truthful about everything. She was noticeably heavier, and grayed at the temples with her frazzled hair tied back in what was possibly the worlds’ most unflattering ponytail. Her smooth, dark skin had somehow worn lighter and was now covered with unappealing bumps. She was trying her best to hold on to a two-year old who, much like Tommy, did not want to be there, and she failed miserably. The kid ran off somewhere inside the dark apartment, the exact opposite direction Tommy wanted to be at that moment.

“Hey, Mince.”

“What are you doing here?” The television volume suddenly went up roughly eight notches. Some incessant cartoon was trying its best to out-yell the kids.

“Honestly, I’m not really sure now.”

“Do you want to come inside?” Mince stepped back a little in order to give Tommy access to her cave of hell.

“God no!” Tommy jumped back a little. “This will only take a minute. Can we talk out here in the hall?”

She stepped out and closed the door, muffling the noise only somewhat. Tommy noticed her t-shirt had ridden up a little above her bulbous waist, revealing the dark void of what was once the world’s cutest bellybutton. “What is it Tommy?”

Tommy decided the best thing to do would be to simply cut to the chase. “Here’s the thing. I just came back here to ask you why we broke up.”

“What?”

“I don’t want you to get the wrong idea…” The television went up again, followed by the sound of something hard hitting something even harder. Mince just ignored the clamor while Tommy continued. “I’m definitely not trying to spark an old flame or anything. I just–“

“Wait, you’re not going all John Cusack on me right now, are you?”

“Uh…um. Yeah. I guess it sounds pretty stupid, but that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

Mince almost answered immediately, but then she took a little extra time to think about it. She glanced at the dent in the wall; Tommy imagined she ran her fingers along it every day, as though it was a precious memento left behind. A trophy for surviving the world’s worst relationship.

Finally, she said, “The last time we ever ate pancakes at the Veselka. Do you remember that?”

“We ate a lot of pancakes at the Veselka,” Tommy admitted. “You might want to narrow it down for me.”

“You kept going on and on about some friend of yours. About how you were doing this with him, and then doing that. I couldn’t get a word in. I just kept eating my pancakes.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I was fed up with competing, Tommy. I just felt like you wanted to be with him more than you wanted to be with me.”

“Jesse?”

“Huh?”

“Was that his name?”

“No,” she thought back. “No, it wasn’t Jesse.”

Tommy didn’t want to say it. But he did anyway. “Patrick?” After all, Patrick was the reason why he came to Mince Wilson’s apartment in the first place.

“Yeah. Patrick. That was it.” She looked down the hall, past Tommy. As though that pancake breakfast was happening again right behind him. “Patrick always came first with you, and I just had enough of coming in second.”

“Huh.” As eloquent as Tommy liked to consider himself, he had a knack for failing to recognize the times he wasn’t. Times just like this. “Huh,” he said again with even less panache.

“We came back here. I told you what was what and that was that. You punched a hole in my hallway and then you left.”

Tommy took another look behind him. “In the wall’s defense, that’s really more of a dent than a hole,” he noted. “But I see your point.” Something ran into the other side of the door and started crying. Tommy jumped back a little more, while Mince didn’t even flinch. “You gonna tend to that?” he asked.

“I’ll get to it when we’re done here,” she said coldly. “I’ll tell you Tommy from Seattle, I actually thought we were done ten years ago.”

“I guess this was all just a waste of time then?”

Mince clutched the doorknob. Not because she was making a move towards the relative safety of her home, but simply because she felt she needed something to hold on to. “Goes to show you how little can change in such a long time.”

The city breathes out. And Tommy exhaled. Mince Wilson was as perceptive and frank as ever. Kate may have been right about the High Fidelity plan being a bad one. “Maybe Cusack was wrong,” he pondered.

“Cusack’s an idiot. And I don’t care what anyone says, that book was much better than the movie.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Of course I am.” She was never less than one hundred percent sure about anything. Mince opened her door and stepped back inside, just as the crying came to an end. “You know Tommy, you always were a chowderhead. And you still are a chowderhead.”

Mince Wilson was right. She always was. And there was nothing Tommy could do but agree with her.

NEXT CHAPTER

The Falling – Chapter Twenty-One

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE: Greenwood – Brooklyn

Jesse took the R-Train from Times Square to the 25th Street station in Brooklyn. There were some unsavory characters loitering on the corner outside the Dunkin’ Donuts, so Jesse picked up his pace. He’d never been as confident as Tommy; Tommy could walk anywhere he wanted in any of New York’s most disagreeable neighborhoods. There was a gravestone and monument manufacturer only a half-block from the cemetery, its entranceway a sort of Halloween display of graves and tablets, marking the final resting place for nothing more than discarded cigarette butts and fast food wrappers.

Jesse had never been to a cemetery. Before Edie, he’d never lost anyone so close to him. He remembered his high-school art teacher, Mr. Freyberg, who had died suddenly while walking to work one morning. A crowd of kids had formed around his unmoving body on the sidewalk, not one of them knowing what to do. Up until a year ago, Mr. Freyberg’s was the only death that had any consequence on Jesse’s life. After Edie died, Tommy, Kate and Jesse had sneaked into the funeral home on 2nd Avenue for her funeral service. Tommy claimed he had the best egg salad sandwich in his life at that funeral service. They all agreed that going to Brooklyn for the subsequent burial seemed out of the question.

Green-Wood Cemetery was an expanse of nearly five-hundred acres, and Jesse wandered under portentous clouds for nearly an hour before heading to the office for proper directions. Trudging through Lot 106 with a visitors’ map in his trembling hands, Jesse wondered whether things might be have been easier had graveyards been organized in a similar way to comic book collections. He imagined that if the dead could be slid into coffins of polypropylene storage bags with acid free backing boards, and then filed alphabetically first and numerically second into corrugated cardboard or plastic boxes, finding the appropriate marker would be a much easier task.

But as promised, the marked pathway eventually led all the way to the grave of Edith Galloway. Jesse didn’t take his feet off the path, as though stepping off would transport him somewhere he didn’t wish to be, sending him to the same place of darkness that Edie would always know for the rest of eternity. He could still read the tombstone from where he stood however, so there was really no need to get any further away from the living than he already was. The marker lacked any description, aside from Edith’s name and the dates that indicated her time on the earth. It was one year ago to the day since she died. Of course he’d thought of her often over the past year, but Jesse found it much more difficult to actually see her name etched in the stone. Jesse scanned around him. It seemed as though he was the only person in the cemetery, the only sign of life, like he was in a dream of his own creation. But in his dreams, Edie was still alive. In Jesse’s dreams it was John who had died beneath the Hudson River on that cold, snowy night. But the callousness of reality bore on.

A drop of rain the size of Jesse’s fist exploded on the rim of the tomb. Another, as full as Jesse’s heart, punched into the earth, no doubt trickling its way through the dirt until finding the coffin. In comic books, a hero seemed to die only to be brought back to life. It was inevitable, and to the vast majority of readers, almost expected. In 1993, Superman had been beaten to death by the alien monstrosity known as Doomsday. He returned mere months later, revived by the Eradicator’s Regeneration Matrix. The X-Men’s Marvel Girl sacrificed herself in 1980 to save the universe from the Dark Phoenix, a cosmic entity of unimaginable psionic power, but her body was later discovered within a healing cocoon at the bottom of Jamaica Bay, created by the Phoenix Force itself. After the destruction of Coast City in 1994, Hal Jordan went on an insane rampage, becoming the villain Parallax and using his Green Lantern powers to kill all of the Guardians of the Universe on the planet Oa. Only two years later, Jordan had a change of heart and sacrificed his life when he re-ignited the sun. Implausibly, his soul was later selected to embody the unearthly being known as The Spectre, and Jordan became the Spirit of Redemption. And on and on it goes. It’s unfair that the real world doesn’t work as simply as comic book logic. Yes, Patrick had returned to Manhattan, but even if that had once seemed impossible, it was still a completely different situation.

Jesse raised his foot and prodded the ground with the tip of his scuffed sneaker. His frayed shoelaces tickled the blades of grass. The earth wheezed as he planted his foot firmly. The grave yielded no response. He inched closer, putting his other foot down now. A wind blew around him; it twisted through his legs and arms. Jesse wanted to feel as though it was welcoming him, but he sensed the exact opposite. The wounds inflicted by the past had not yet mended; the cuts were still waiting to scab over. Either forgiving or forgetting would be the only path to recovery. He knew it at that moment, and he knew it when he watched John Galloway from the window of Midtown Comics. He planned on waiting for John to make the next move, but Jesse had yet to hear back from him about that persisting comic collection.

Jesse crouched, and ran his fingertips along the dewy grass. A brown, crusty leaf fell from the sky, seemingly out of nowhere and it had somehow disregarded the intensifying winds. The leaf landed directly on top of the grave. Jesse had less than a moment to consider what it must have meant. There was a woman’s voice behind him.

“Hello? Can I help you?”

Still crouching, Jesse turned to see a woman standing on the path, probably no older than Jesse himself. Beside her stood John Galloway. She held John’s arm tightly.

“I’m sorry,” Jesse stammered. He stood so he wouldn’t have to look up at John. “I was just leaving.”

John seemed more focused on keeping his hat atop his head than considering the reasons for why Jesse Classen was standing in front of him at his wife’s grave. It was almost as though John was trying his best to not recognize him.

“Did you know Missus Galloway?” the woman asked. She had a rich southern accent, the kind that seemed to transport listeners to another time.

Jesse glanced back and forth between the two of them. The woman clutched John’s arm a little tighter. “Edith was a friend…of my mother’s.” Jesse didn’t care if John believed him or not; he was going to call the old man’s bluff. Still, his words garnered no reaction. “But I was just on my way. Excuse me.”

“You can stay longer if you’d like to. It’s fine with me. I’m sure it’d be fine with John too.” She looked to John for confirmation.

“Yes,” the man said quietly, slowly shaking his head in agreement. “It’s fine.”

Jesse couldn’t put it together. John seemed like a completely different person. He appeared so frail, as if the wind might blow him over at any moment. He held the woman’s arm tightly, lacking the stubborn show of independence he had exhibited in the comic store’s office the week before.

“John is Missus Galloway’s husband,” the woman said. Jesse did his best impression of a stranger, trying to pretend he didn’t know any better. “My name is Esther. I’m John’s nurse.” Waving her hand graciously, Esther let go of John and she sat down on a nearby bench.

The two men stood side by side. Jesse strained his eyes trying to look at John without having to turn his head. Without a word or any care at all for Jesse, John stared straight ahead at the grave. His gaze was simultaneously intense and nebulous, and both were making Jesse uncomfortable. Jesse knew he had to say something to his enemy. The brown leaf remained static on the grave. Another gust of wind blew towards them, and Jesse told himself he’d say something to John if the leaf did not blow away. That would decide it easily.

But it didn’t budge.

Jesse closed his eyes and counted down from ten in his head; if the leaf was still in front of him by the time he reached zero he would finally speak his mind.

…Three…Two…One…Zero. The leaf had not even shifted an inch. But Jesse still could not do it.

Defeated, Jesse sat down beside Esther, collapsing onto the cold bench. She was running something back and forth under her nose, sniffing it. It was a cinnamon stick. Forgetting all about John for a moment, he stared at her with a fresh curiosity. “What are you doing?”

“My mother loved the smell of cinnamon so much she’d rub it on her clothes.” She inhaled deeply. “Sometimes on her neck too. It’s my favorite memory. I always keep a stick of cinnamon in my purse so I can remember her anytime I want.”

Jesse responded sincerely. “That’s nice.” He wished he could carry every scent with him that he would need to remember everyone and everything he ever loved. The beach. Bubble gum. Dandelion weeds. Cigarettes. Ratty old comic books.

Opening her purse, Esther carefully placed the stick of cinnamon back inside and sealed it tight again. She inhaled deeply through her nose, bringing herself back to reality. She asked softly, “You’re the young man who was sleeping with Missus Galloway, aren’t you?”

Jesse glanced quickly over to John, hoping he didn’t hear her words. It was obvious he hadn’t. “How did you know that?” Jesse asked her quietly.

“Your smell was all over that house,” Esther said, tapping her nose.

“Does he know?” Jesse asked, directing his attention back to John. The man’s back was still turned towards the two of them, his head lowered. “He doesn’t seem to remember me.”

Esther steeled herself, as though preparing to say something she did not wish to speak of. “The poor man’s mind has been slipping lately. Sometimes he remembers the littlest details about the littlest of things. Just yesterday he recounted all nine innings of a Dodgers game he saw when he was just a boy. And then he went on about some tie his father made him wear to the World Fair. This morning it was all about stock prices on Wall Street in the Sixties.”

“Really?”

“Mm hmm. But then other times, he doesn’t remember a thing. Not his name, not where he’s going or where he’s been. It’s all just blank. The way he describes it, it’s something like a white emptiness.”

John Galloway scratched the back of his head. He looked around him, as though temporarily forgetting where he was. Turning to the bench, he recognized his nurse sitting with the stranger. With the back of her hand, Esther pointed towards the grave behind him, and he turned again, suddenly remembering his reason for being in the cemetery.

“His doctor said the first time it ever happened was the night Missus Galloway died. He told me about an accident in the tunnel. Said it happened while he was driving.”

Jesse’s thoughts jumped back to the brown stain of dried blood in the tunnel. He remembered the patch of blood was shaped like a checkmark, like some sort of soulless higher power had approved the accident. “I’ve tried my best to forget everything that happened that night,” he said. “I’ve been trying for a year now, but I still can’t erase the memories.”

Esther directed Jesse’s attention towards John. He was completely oblivious to the rain that was starting to come down around him. “Do you suppose you’d be happier if you were in that man’s shoes?”

Jesse didn’t have a reasonable answer for her. He had never once wished to be John Galloway. Esther opened her umbrella and walked over to the grave. She led John to the bench and handed the umbrella to Jesse. “Will you wait here with him?” she asked Jesse. “I think I should bring the car over. No sense getting him more wet than he already is.” Jesse didn’t want her to go, and his unsteady eyes couldn’t disguise it. “Relax,” she said to him. “You’ll be just fine.” Nurse Esther left, leaving the two men together with their collective misery.

Jesse didn’t know what to say. He felt guilty for having been so suspicious of John the last time they’d met, how he had him playing the villain to his hero in his mind. But now there was a space between the two men that did not exist before. Jesse considered the white spaces – the gutters – between panels in a comic book, and how they are used to represent time. But it could be just a moment they signify, a sliver in time, or it could be a million years later or even no time at all. Sometimes they will take the reader through space and time, going into the past or perhaps an alternate reality. Maybe a flashback? Maybe the same moment, but at a different angle? Sometimes those spaces are used to hold important details; sometimes nothing at all. What they represent is never predetermined; it is determined only by what happens in the next panel.

He turned his head slowly to look at John, at first from the corner of his eye, but eventually turning his head all the way towards the man on his left. John did not move however, and kept his gaze fixed upon the grave marker. Jesse wondered about the white spaces that must be dividing John Galloway’s memories, separating one random moment from another. But then John mumbled something he couldn’t quite make out. “What was that?” Jesse asked reticently.

“It was Preston Mayne’s office.”

“I don’t understand.”

“That was when I met her. Preston Mayne had a tiny office in the Empire State Building. It seemed larger than it was though because there was practically nothing in it. Edith Harrington was his secretary, but I knew from the moment I saw her she that deserved so much more than that menial office job.”

Jesse didn’t know what to say, but he expected John would continue his story. He waited for the white space to pass, for the page to turn.

“That girl who gave me my bagel dropped the tongs on the floor. She didn’t think anyone saw her, but I saw her. I didn’t say a word though, I just threw it right in the garbage.”

It was not clear just how much time the blank space had represented, if indeed either of John’s memories were real. Jesse was spooked a little by the disconnectedness of the man’s recollections. He thought he should share a random memory of his own but he wasn’t sure where to start. Eventually he said, “When we first came to New York, Tommy and Kate and Patrick were all attending universities but I never knew what it was I wanted to do. I spent so much time, so many years just trying to discover what it was I really wanted.” It was unclear if John was listening, but Jesse carried on anyway. “I was so lonely back then, so lost, but I never wanted to tell them how I really felt.”

Finally, John turned to Jesse. He did not say a word, but with his eyes he still managed to indicate that he knew exactly what Jesse must have gone through.

Jesse smiled. “Did you know that I even tried stand-up comedy once during an improv night?” John shook his head. “No, of course you wouldn’t know that. I didn’t tell anyone about that. God, it was such a massive failure. I don’t think anybody laughed at all except out of pity. It was horrible…the vulnerability of naked nerves on that stage.”

“There was a stage…” John said. His mouth seemed exceptionally dry, even with the rain blowing up from under the umbrella. “I came home late to find the note she left for me. I wanted nothing else but to be with Edith.” Jesse gulped, not because he knew what night John was talking about, but because he was afraid of how far the memory would go before the white space in John’s mind ended it. “I was on stage with this strange masked man, in the middle of his strange city. He laughed at me, and then he punched me, and then I woke up in the Holland Tunnel. I couldn’t remember where I was going to or where I was coming from. And then I saw Edith being carried into an ambulance where she died.”

Jesse felt dizzy; he felt a cold sweat pour over him. The rain came to a stop when everything else around him froze. He was trapped in his own white space, in the gutter between the panels of his own world. He felt awful. But Jesse didn’t know if he felt that way because John was remembering what happened to Edie, or if it was because John had been completely unaware of his Jesse’s role in the whole story.

But before Jesse could decide, John continued. He seemed so much more lucid than before, as though talking about his memories made them that much more real. “After the accident, I wanted to get rid of everything that ever meant anything at all to me. The next day I took my paintings to Sotheby’s. It didn’t take me long to sell the house. I smashed all of my vintage wine from the rooftop. I tore up my Hemingways.”

Jesse hesitated for a moment. He wanted to know but was afraid to ask. He was sure John did not recognize him, so what was the harm in asking? So he did. “What about your comic books?”

John faltered, but eventually had an answer. “I talked to a man about saving them for me.” There seemed to be an awareness of sorts in his old grey-blue eyes. It was apparent that John thought his visit to Midtown Comics had happened after Edie’s death and not actually three years before. His memory either jumped around or created complete inaccuracies. Obviously, the man had never sold the Gramercy home as he claimed. And still, he failed to recognize Jesse at all.

“I lost someone important too,” was what Jesse said. But it didn’t seem to faze the man at all, as John turned back to the grave where his wife was laid. After a long pause, Jesse asked, “Did you ever sell those comics?”

John shook his head, but not to say no. He shook his head to say he couldn’t remember.

“Well,” Jesse said, recollecting the words that had been shared between the two men just a week before. “I know someone who might be able to help you with that.”

Without flinching, John reached into his breast pocket and took out a familiar business card, handing it to Jesse. It was the third time Jesse Classen had been handed that same card. “Wonderful,” John said. “Why don’t you come by?”

Breathe out.

Just as Esther brought the car to a stop, the rain halted and the clouds parted. She stepped towards the two men, surprised to see them talking to one another. “Isn’t that just the way it goes sometimes?” she spoke in wonderment. She helped John into the passenger’s seat. Jesse watched as the man wriggled under the seatbelt and clenched his jaw. Before driving off, Esther asked Jesse if he got the chance to say the things he needed to.

Jesse thought about it. “If I could go back in time and fix it all, I would.”

“Honey, that’s what everybody says after they’ve messed it all up. Just don’t blame yourself.”

The one thought that came to Jesse’s head was: Things always happen for a reason. He hated it when people used that line as a way to justify when things don’t work out the way they want them to. He hoped the nurse would be good enough to not utter such an irrational axiom. Jesse expected more from her.

But then she said, “Life has a way of going exactly the way it’s meant to.”

It was essentially the same thing, but Jesse told himself it wasn’t so bad to hear.

~~~~~

From the sidewalk, the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company looks no different than a hardware store or a keysmith’s shop. Jesse expected bright colors, posters and signage not unlike the displays at Midtown Comics, and he almost walked right by before spotting an advertisement for Telepathy Gel at the last second. He had known about the place for a while now, yet it seemed like one of those establishments spawned out of an urban legend, created solely for mystifying comic book nerds like himself.

The real secret behind the business was that the store was merely a front for a one-on-one after school learning center, where neighborhood kids could be helped to improve their writing skills. Inside the store, behind a shelf full of grappling hooks and secret identity kits was a hidden door which led to the learning center.

But Jesse was not there to bump up his high school level of education. He had heard that the best costumes money could buy were for sale at the Superhero Supply store, so he intended on stopping by the next time he was in Brooklyn. Jesse was not asked if he needed help, and truthfully he would not have known how to answer; he was simply too perplexed by all of the products on display. He studied the shelves full of Power Supplements (in large plastic vitamin tubs, but these were for increasing the users own powers of weather control, optic blasts and teleportation), containers of Unstable Mutation Catalysts, and spray cans for the application of invisibility, regeneration and steel skin. Jesse didn’t know what any of them actually contained, there was no indication on the packaging, but it was all for sale. Even the Bionic Implants (a display skeleton helped illustrate where/how the robotic attachments might be affixed) and the Villain Containment Unit, a human sized cage with an intricate locking mechanism.

Upon finding himself in the costume department, Jesse was finally approached by a forty-something hipster who claimed to be an employee. He certainly did not seem to possess any super abilities of his own, but Jesse answered him with caution nonetheless. “I’m looking for a costume,” Jesse spoke bluntly.

“Are you replacing an old uniform or will you be looking for an all-new identity?” The man had a badge on, but it was nothing more than a comic explosion that read POW! Whether this was a nametag or not seemed irrelevant.

“Uh…”

“Do you already have a superhero moniker?”

“Um, no.”

“Then a new identity it is! Don’t worry. We’ll fill out all of the necessary paperwork later. What kind of costume are you thinking? Single color? Two-tone? Stripes? Nationalistic? Maybe something dark for night patrols?”

Jesse looked around, far beyond the man who was bombarding him with stupid questions. On any other day, he would have savored the eccentricity of such a place, but he was having a hard time believing that any of what was happening was for real. Still, the man continued to stare at Jesse, waiting for an answer. “Well, I don’t really want anything more than just a plain costume. Maybe with a mask.”

“Plain, huh? How about some upgrades at least? A utility belt?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Goggles? Deflector bracelets?”

“I’m not really into jewelry.”

“Cape? You’ve got to have a cape!”

“Aren’t capes sort of, dangerous?” Jesse loved superheroes, but his fear of capes went back to his childhood when he was dressed as Batman and slipped on the stairs; he tumbled all the way to the bottom and cut his head open on the corner of a wall. He spent that Halloween night in the hospital getting stitches instead of candy.

“Dangerous? Nah!”

“I think I’ll just stick with the plainest costume you’ve got.”

The sales associate riffled through some suits on hangers and pulled out a white bodysuit with black gloves and boots. His eyes bulged, never imagining someone would pick such a boring outfit over all of the other options. “Sheesh. Who are you gonna be, Boring Boy?”

It was just as plain as the costume Sheldon Kohn had worn to the coffee shop the week before. “I might go with General Generic.”

“Who?”

“Nevermind.”

The man held the costume up in front of Jesse, proclaiming it to be a perfect fit, assuring him that it would stretch everywhere it needed to. “Alrighty. All we’ve got to do now is register your superhero name and powers.” He led Jesse towards the front counter and handed him some blank forms.

“There sure seems to be a lot of paperwork involved just to buy a Halloween costume.”

“Hey man, this is more than just Halloween. This is a lifestyle choice. Besides, we can’t have two guys running around with the same name, can we?”

“No. I suppose not.” Jesse filled out the paperwork begrudgingly, settling on The Midtown Minder for his own heroic nickname. Under Superpowers he wrote: None. Under Special Abilities he wrote: None. Under Arch-Enemy he stopped to consider his answer, but eventually decided on: None. He passed the forms back to the man and waited a moment for everything to be put in order. In that moment, Jesse noticed a small, waist-height table to his right; on the table were a dozen or so cans of Time Travel Juice. A sign indicated that drinking the juice would allow the user to move forwards or backwards through the time stream, letting him alter events of his choosing. The product just happened to be on sale too. Jesse thought about everything that had gone wrong in the last few years: Edith’s death; John’s memory loss; Kate’s marriage; Natasha Kohn’s cancer; Tommy’s failed novel. What if Patrick had never left them? What if Jesse had never come to New York with his friends in the first place? What if he could fix it all? The solutions to all of his problems might have been right there in front of him; on that table, canned and waiting to be opened. He thought about the last thing Sharona said to him, before she left him sitting alone on that sidewalk in the Village: she told him to get over whatever he needed to get over. She said, “I don’t know how you’ll go about doing it, but you need to get over it.”

It seemed to Jesse that there were so many different ways to get lost, so many ways to break apart a life. And sometimes there’s no way at all to ever fix it. Jesse took one can of Time Travel Juice and placed it next to his costume on the counter. “And one of these too,” he said.

“Alrighty,” the man responded. “I’ll just need you to recite the Vow of Heroism and then I can ring these up.”

“Excuse me?”

The man behind the counter reached over and pointed to a sign in front of Jesse. At the top it read: The Vow of Heroism, and there was a passage beneath it. Jesse looked around again, but he was still the only customer in the store. He cleared his throat and began to read: “I Jesse Classen, also known as The Midtown Minder, promise always to use my superpowers for good. I promise that I will use the items I’ve purchased here today safely and in the name of justice. I promise to remain ever vigilant, ever true.”

Satisfied with Jesse’s speech, the man announced the total cost of the purchase, wrapped up the costume and the can of Time Travel Juice, and handed them to Jesse. “Always honor the vow,” he said as Jesse walked back out into Brooklyn.

NEXT CHAPTER

The Falling – Chapter Twenty

PART IV – The Falling

CHAPTER TWENTY: Tom’s Restaurant – Morningside Heights

I was watching Tommy at the table, scribbling something on the top piece of a stack of wrinkled papers. Beside him was a closed telephone book. Kate watched him too, through the window from a safe distance across the street. Tommy was becoming increasingly harder to differentiate from the rest of the city’s crazies, Hobolicious, Gwyneth Paltrow and the like. On the tabletop sat a brown banana peel and a coffee cup that was currently being used as a receptacle for his writing instruments. Whether or not there was still any coffee in the cup was unknown, but nothing would have surprised Kate at that point.

Tommy had no idea that she was observing him.

She decided the best thing to do would be to enter the restaurant, rather than spy on her best friend from afar any longer. Tommy paid no attention to the ringing bells of the front door. Kate sat down across from him, yet still kept as much distance as she could. When Kate got out of the cab the night before, she caught Tommy crying in the back seat. He wasn’t bawling like a baby; he was wiping wet eyes with his sleeve while trying his best to shield himself with the pilfered toilet seat. Jesse didn’t seem to notice, but it had bothered Kate all night.

“What are you working on, Tommy?” she asked carefully.

“Check this out,” he said, sliding the papers across the table not concerned at all when some of them flew away from the pile. The top sheet had nothing but a list of women’s names on it, some of which Kate recognized, but most of them she didn’t. “I’ve spent the morning compiling a chronological list of every girlfriend I’ve had since moving to New York.” He drew an invisible line with his finger, from the top of the page to the bottom. “It starts at Mince Wilson and goes all the way down to Rachel Ponzini.”

Kate pushed the papers back to Tommy. It was astounding to think how Tommy could actually recall all of the information he was presenting; Kate didn’t realize he’d had such a copious number of girlfriends over the years. “I’m sorry I asked. Because now I have to ask: why the hell are you doing this Tommy?”

“I’m not really sure yet,” he said. He leaned back in the booth and scratched his head as if only just realizing the mess he was making. “I thought this might be useful. Like it might help me try and remember the person I used to be. The person I really am. I actually thought it might be cathartic.”

“Sounds like the emergence of a spectacular mid-life crisis to me,” Kate said. She signaled the waitress, making the universal hand sign for coffee: a hand in a claw shape, and slightly twisting it at the wrist. “Honestly though, I figured I’d have beaten you to it.”

“Me too.” Tommy opened the phone book beside him. The coffee shop’s dusty tome was quite a few years old, and it sat at the front on the cashier’s table, barely used by anyone anymore. Flipping through a couple hundred pages, Tommy stopped and jotted a number and address down beside one of the names on his list. “You ever wonder why there’s no email book? You know, like a phone book but with email addresses instead.”

“It’s probably because that would be a horrible idea,” Kate responded bluntly.

In record time, the waitress arrived with a fresh cup of coffee. She almost topped up Tommy’s cup before noticing it was full of pencils. She joked, “Should I bring you another cup or just some more crayons?”

“Just the coffee, thanks.” Tommy replied, wondering when the coffee shop waitresses started getting so snarky. He glared at her as she approached another booth with her coffee pot. “What would be so horrible about an email book?” he finally asked Kate.

“Oh, I don’t know. Would you be happy if just about anyone in this city could email you?”

“I already get emails from people I don’t know. And you know what I do? I delete them. I’d much rather get email spam that I can delete than have to answer phone calls from people I don’t want to talk to.” Tommy flipped through another handful of pages in the directory until he found the next name on his list. “I tell you,” he said, jotting the number down. “People take their emails far too seriously.”

“You might have a point there, Tommy.” Kate recalled one of the last conversations she had with Dwayne Reamer. The Did-You-Get-My-Email conversation. Having gone from working in an office for eight years to a week of sitting home alone with nothing but her computer, some wine and the occasional cheeseburger was a fairly drastic change. When Kate left Pendulum a week before, she hadn’t said another word to Dwayne. But there was something about the mail room temp that Kate found herself really missing at the oddest of times. She couldn’t recall ever missing Gene no matter how long she went without seeing her husband. “Gene wasn’t home when I got in last night. I was already asleep when he finally showed up. He didn’t tell me where he was, and I never asked him.”

“Did he smell like a Jersey City hooker?”

“No. I think I did though.”

Tommy sniffed in her direction. “I think you still do.”

She managed a smile. ”It would be so much easier if I could just bust him though, don’t you think? Then we could just end the whole damn thing.”

Tommy mused. “Relationships seem to be so much harder to end than they are to start. Why is that?”

Kate thought the answer was obvious. “It’s probably got something to do with having actual human emotions Tommy.”

“Yeah, probably.” Tommy sat back and thought for a moment. He flicked his tooth with a fingernail while he deliberated, just like Rachel used to do. “Do you know that I can remember absolutely every place I’ve had a relationship end, yet I can’t remember where any of those relationships began?”

Kate shook her head, in an effort to try and find some common ground. “Nobody really knows where relationships begin Tommy. It’s all about that first kiss. That’s what we remember.”

“Well, that’s just what I mean Kate.”

“You don’t remember the kiss?”

Tommy sat back, arms crossed. His answer was obvious.

“Come on. Where did you and Rachel have your first kiss?”

“I don’t remember.”

“Tommy! It was just a couple of years ago!”

“Three actually.”

“Three can be a couple, can’t it?”

“Three’s not a couple Kate. Two’s a couple. That’s the definition of a couple.”

“No, no. I’ve always been told a couple is two or three.”

“Well, you’ve been horribly misinformed.”

“I really think you’re wrong.”

“Right. Well the next time I ask to borrow a couple of hundred dollar bills, I’ll be sure to expect a little extra for my trouble.” Tommy suggested.

“Since when do you ever need money from me?”

“It was just a hypothetical example, Kate. How the hell did this discussion get off me? The point I was about to make was: how come I can recall where my relationships ended but for the life of me I couldn’t tell you why?

“Maybe you should consider asking some of your ex-girlfriends?” Mockingly, Kate pointed at the list of phone numbers in front of Tommy. “I’m sure they would be happy to jog your memory.”

“Right. I know Keekee Kaufman would be extremely anxious to answer that phone call,” he snickered. But Tommy thought about the possibility for a few seconds longer. “That’d be a real High Fidelity moment though, wouldn’t it?”

“Book? Movie?”

“Pffft. The movie of course. I love a good book, but when a movie gets something right it’s gold.” Tommy mulled over many of the Top-Five lists he and his friends had come up with over the years. There had been some really good ones. “Maybe I should talk to them?” He looked down at the names in front of him. “Yeah, you know what? I should give these girls a call!”

“No, Tommy. You definitely shouldn’t.”

“What? But you just said—“

“If you knew anything at all about women, you’d know I was kidding.”

“Well, I’d like to think I’m capable of doing anything John Cusack can do.”

“Trust me, you’re not.” It was obvious Kate wasn’t going to change her stance on the matter. Sure, maybe the idea had just come to him, but Tommy thought it was still much better than any other one he’d had in the last couple of weeks. It wasn’t spiteful or based on revenge or born out of fear; it was simply along the lines of self-discovery. If alcoholics and over-eaters and sex addicts can have their own laid out steps to recovery, why couldn’t Tommy? Still, Kate could see the wheels turning inside his head and she wished they would just come to a stop. “Please don’t do it Tommy. You’ll only end up hurting yourself more.”

“That’s the idea, isn’t it?” Heartache is always followed by a little additional pain, like it comes free of charge. It’s all part of the human condition. Tommy was never one to dwell on failed relationships, but he didn’t mind the supplemental aching that came with them. Tommy’s Top-Five songs to listen to after a breakup (in no particular order) were:

  1.  Sunday Night by Buffalo Tom
  2.  A Long December by The Counting Crows
  3.  Say Hello, Wave Goodbye by Jools Holland
  4.  After Laughter (Comes Tears) by Wendy Rene
  5.  Come Pick Me Up by Ryan Adams

“So how come you’re not writing today?” he asked Kate.

“It’s the whole Gene mess.”

“What happened to the easy comfort you had, or whatever it was you called it?”

“Obviously I was lying,” she admitted.

“For the record, I didn’t believe you for a second. I doubt Jesse did either, and we all know he’s the worst liar in New York.”

“I was thinking of following Gene on his lunch break.”

“What? When? Today?”

“Yeah. I figured I just need to hang around outside his office when he leaves and then I’ll see where he goes. It might help make my decision easier.”

Tommy snorted. He couldn’t believe the audacity Kate had sometimes. He joked, “What are you going to do, wear some big dark glasses and a trench coat and hide behind a newspaper?” She didn’t answer with words, but Tommy could tell that his facetious summation was exactly what Kate had planned. “God, that is so cliché!” he blurted. “Do you want to borrow my trench coat or did you already stop by the Spy Store?”

“I’ve been hiding a trench coat in the back of my closet for years,” Kate confessed. “Just in case.”

Tommy shook his head in disbelief. “I know you’re probably going to tell me I don’t know anything about women, but I’m going to ask anyway: Why would you hide a trench coat for the off-chance that you’d need it to spy on your husband? That is so fucked up.”

“Well I can’t wear a coat Gene would recognize.”

“You don’t know anything about men, do you? Trust me, Gene’s not keeping track of those kinds of things. He’s got no idea what your coat collection looks like. Now, your underwear on the other hand…”

“What about it?”

“Men can always know their women’s underwear options. Heck, they even know the options other women have. But trench coats? Forget about it.”

“Okay fine. But, if I can just catch Gene in the middle of something incriminating then I’d finally have a solid reason for leaving him.”

“You already have a reason: the guy’s a weird loser with a crazy-ass mustache! AND you don’t love him! Isn’t that enough?”

“I know but -” Kate looked out the window and saw Patrick on the other side of 112th Street. He was on his phone and seemed particularly distressed about something. Patrick noticed both Tommy and Kate in the window, and held up a single finger, letting them know he’d be inside in another minute.

The two of them turned to one another. Kate was worried that they were about to get busted for breaking into Titanic Utilities the night before. Did she touch anything? Did she drop something accidentally? Were there video cameras? Oh god, they never even looked for cameras, did they?

“I feel kind of stupid now for breaking into the warehouse,” Tommy uttered. “Partly because we never did find anything of importance, but mostly because I can’t believe I let myself get so carried away.”

“You should probably tell Patrick that.”

“Are you kidding? I’m not saying anything to him! If I did I’d probably have to give back the HyGenieSeat-3000. We installed it in Jesse’s bathroom last night. It’s fucking awesome!” Because of the fire, Tommy had spent the rest of the night at Jesse’s apartment. Earlier that morning, the fire department had given the okay to the tenants of Tommy’s building, and they would all be moving back in that afternoon.

“As awesome as a toilet seat can be, you mean?” Kate pontificated.

Patrick did not seem to be getting anywhere with whomever he was talking to. He leaned up against a tree and a clump of snow fell from its branch onto his shoulder. He didn’t even bother to brush it off.

Kate asked, “Where is Jesse anyway?”

“I think he was going into Brooklyn today to visit Edie. He didn’t really want to talk about it, so we didn’t. He was still on his bed psyching himself up when I left.”

“Poor Jess.”

Finally, Patrick entered. He had his choice of seat, and decided upon sitting next to Kate. She feared it was so he wouldn’t have to look at her, angry because of what she’d done. Tommy was just happy he didn’t have to move his coat and bag from the empty seat beside him. Before Patrick returned to New York, Tommy never had to move his things for anyone.

“Hey Patrick,” Kate squeezed the words out almost against her will. “Where’s Sheldon?”

“You guys are not going to believe this. My warehouse was broken into last night. That was Jules on the phone just now; he gave a report to the police.”

Both Tommy and Kate just sat, waiting for the other shoe to fall.

“I’ve got to go over there today and assess any damages.” He slammed his fist down on the table hard enough for everything to jump, the napkin dispenser, the salt and pepper and sugar, even Tommy’s mug of pencils. “Seriously though, we only set that place up a couple of weeks ago. That’s some shitty luck.”

“Who would even want to steal a toilet seat?” Kate asked Patrick but stared directly at Tommy. Tommy gathered his pencils and paper, stuffed them all into his SpongeBob bag and threw on his coat and scarf. “Where are you going Tommy?”

“I can’t just sit here all morning. I’ve got to go check on my apartment, and then I’m off to High-Fidelity my life.”

“You’re going to do what?” Patrick had never read the book, seen the movie or even heard any such a reference before. It was embarrassingly astounding how many things Patrick had never experienced in his life, how much he had absolutely no clue about. He didn’t know who Dustin Hoffman was. He thought India was somewhere in Africa. He couldn’t name one Major League Baseball team. And purely by chance, he had never actually seen a picture of the Mona Lisa. Not even once in his entire life.

“Don’t listen to Tommy,” Kate advised. “He had a rough night.”

Tommy dropped some money on the table for his meal and said goodbye to the two of them.

“Hold on Tommy,” Patrick started. “Before you go, I wanted to ask the both of you something.”

Tommy muttered under his breath, “Uh oh…”

“Uh oh? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“What did you want to ask, Patrick?” Kate was quick to add.

“I just thought that we should all go out tomorrow night. Jesse too. Aside from sitting in this coffee shop we haven’t spent any meaningful time together since I came back. I thought it would be nice.”

Tommy didn’t want to make a flimsy excuse, but what was really so wrong with his coffee shop anyway? It was where he felt safest. “Tomorrow’s Halloween though,” he said. “All the crazies are going to be out there.”

“Didn’t we used to be those crazy ones? Weren’t we once running around drunk in New York and screaming at all the uptight people? Come on guys, it’d be fun. How about the Temple Bar at eight o’clock?”

Their first evening in New York was spent at the Temple Bar in NoHo. The four of them showed their fake Seattle ID’s and they all got in. It was a fantastic night, celebrating their newfound independence until getting kicked out at three in the morning. Jesse assumed the reason they were standing on the sidewalk was because somebody had finally found out about the ID’s. Not realizing it was simply closing time, Jesse yelled drunkenly at the bar staff. He had assumed Manhattan bars never closed.

“I don’t know…” Tommy wavered.

“Come on. We should all wear costumes too,” Patrick suggested. “What do you say, guys?”

Tommy looked over to the woman at the front cash, as if she could possibly help him out with the decision. She just shrugged and continued to count the money in the register. The framed picture of Cosmo Kramer seemed to nod, as if saying everything would be okay. “Fine,” Tommy finally said. “I’ll see you guys tomorrow night.” Tommy exited out onto Broadway with his pile of paperwork, scratching his head and trying to decide which direction to head first.

Patrick turned to Kate, now that it was just the two of them. “Why does Tommy keep acting like that? He’s been so indifferent and obstinate ever since I came back.”

“I think he just misses you,” Kate said without really even thinking about it.

“Yeah. I guess so.” Uninterested, Patrick flipped through the menu a few times before realizing he didn’t want anything to eat. He sat as far back in his seat as he could, and huffed, “Now where the hell am I going to find a costume for tomorrow?”

Kate stirred her coffee slowly, not really for any reason. “This is New York,” she said. “You can have whatever you want whenever you want it.”

“Do you really believe that?” Patrick asked.

“I do,” she said. “If you stick around long enough this time you’ll see it’s true.”

Patrick tried his best to not think about why he had ever left so many years ago.

NEXT CHAPTER

The Falling – Chapter Nineteen

CHAPTER NINETEEN: Titanic Utilities Warehouse – Jersey City

Tommy, Kate and Jesse emerged from the cab, and were hit instantly by the smell of New Jersey. The scent was like something caught between the Fulton Fish Market on a hot summer day and mildewed newspaper. Their thick-bearded driver had followed Jesse’s explicit directions without fault, but he was still a little tentative behind the wheel. After four other cabbies on Broadway said, “I no go Jersey,” (and after Tommy subsequently responded with, “I don’t blame you pal”), they finally found a driver who reluctantly agreed to take them to the once-familiar warehouse. The three of them were so calm and stiff along the way; the only signs of life in the taxi seemed to be the empty coffee cups and candy wrappers sliding back and forth across the dashboard.

Without trepidation, Jesse was the first to approach the dark building. The address was exactly the same as the one on Patrick’s business card.

Tommy paid their fare and the taxi sped off back to Manhattan. He shivered as he studied his surroundings, and slung a backpack over his shoulder. His Rangers sweater and heavy hoody would keep him warm, but he still felt a chill under his skin. The large, dark shapes slowly moving around in their vicinity did not go unnoticed by Tommy. They were probably just the homeless and harmless, but he still did not feel entirely at ease standing on the broken sidewalk, directly under a flickering, yellow streetlight.

“Where are we anyway?” Kate asked.

“Feels like the corner of Berkowitz Lane and Date Rape Avenue to me,” Tommy suggested.

Kate looked around, trying to recall the night of Jesse’s art show. “Honestly Tommy, I don’t remember ever being here. This place doesn’t look familiar at all to me. Maybe it’s not the same warehouse after all?”

“Well, you were pretty drunk that night Kate. But this is definitely the place. Trust me.”

“You know I hate it when you say trust me.”

Suspicious that they may have been walking right into some elaborate trap, Tommy called for Jesse to wait up.

Kate groaned, “I still don’t know how you convinced me to come here with you guys.”

“I’m telling you Kate, I had a bad feeling about Patrick from the start. And after his kid tells me he thinks his dad is responsible for his mother’s death, I come home to find my building in flames. Doesn’t that smell the least bit fishy to you?”

Tommy was dumbfounded by the poor response time from the firehouse. Even though Engine Company 47 was right next door to his apartment, it may as well have been ten blocks away, since the fire fighters had to suit up and the great red truck still required those precious seconds to roar to life. Evidently, living right next door to a firehouse does not make things any safer. Neighbors’ reports claim the fire started in 104, and the Middle Eastern man was rushed to the hospital, although apparently just for smoke inhalation. There was no word on whether or not his wooden leg survived the flames. Mrs. Horowitz claimed she heard a bomb go off in the apartment, hoping to substantiate her terrorist claims, but there had not been any evidence of an explosive device. Tommy couldn’t ignore the fact that apartment 104 was where he once lived with Patrick, and it was the address on the letter that had been mailed to him from Seattle, so it was not hard to figure Patrick Kohn may have believed Tommy still resided there. Still, there was enough smoke damage to temporarily force the occupants of the building’s west side out. Tommy ended up crashing on Jesse’s couch for an hour or so before deciding to gather the gang and head to New Jersey.

“Still,” was all that Kate had to say in return.

Tommy continued to present the facts. “And then we’ve got Patrick’s business being run right here? The very same warehouse as Jesse’s art show? I’m telling you Kate, it’s got suspicious written all over it.”

“Or coincidence.”

Jesse was already at the front door. The tiniest of signs above the door read: TITANIC UTILITIES. The sign was already peeling and there was a screw missing from one of the corners. Just like the garage door beside it, a burglarproof metal shield was rolled down to prevent any after-hour break-ins.

Kate asked, “You know Tommy, if this was a trap, don’t you think the front door would have been left open for us?”

“That would be way too obvious Kate. I’ve seen my share of slasher movies to know you can’t plan for everything.” Tommy tried the door himself, trying to roll the metal covering up with the palms of his hands. He tried to physically out-muscle the best warehouse security that money can buy, as though he was superhuman. Not surprisingly, he was not met with any success. Kate and Jesse turned to one another and both knew for sure that they would be leaving here momentarily and empty-handed. They probably should have asked the cabbie to wait for them. There was a pipe on the front of the building that only went about halfway to the roof. A rickety wooden telephone pole seemed like the best option, but Tommy questioned the safety of its tangled spider web of wires and nails. Across the street, there was nothing but a large, bare fence and a cold brick building with some undecipherable Chinese characters. “Come on,” Tommy suggested. “Let’s take a look around back.”

~~~~~

The small parking lot to the side of the warehouse was easy enough to get into. There was another door, but it too was secured with a metal screen. A large, green dumpster was pressed against one of the walls. Tommy assessed the situation, and figured if they could push the dumpster far enough, the three of them could scale the building’s three tiers to the rooftop.

“And then what?” Kate asked. “Crawl in through an air duct maybe?”

“Maybe.” Tommy tried his best to cover up his exuberance. The possibility of crawling through an air duct actually sounded pretty cool. If nothing else, the night’s adventure might serve as some excellent first-hand research for another novel.

Jesse remained as quiet as he could. The parking lot was the very last place he had seen Edie, where her husband dragged her away through the snow and tossed her into the car that would later lie burning within the Holland Tunnel. The smallest of flakes began to drift down from ominous clouds.

“I didn’t really bring my best climbing gear Tommy,” Kate noted. She was wearing her famous purple cow patterned leggings under a long, woolen sweater and a bright blue ski jacket. She looked like a homeless vagrant, but she claimed it to be her “New Jersey Drifter” outfit, which, at the time, was enough to get a smile out of Tommy. For now though, he was only frustrated at her attempts to back out of the plan.

“Why don’t you stand out there then,” Tommy suggested, pointing back out to Fairmount Avenue. “We should probably have someone on patrol duty anyway.”

“Patrol duty. Riiiiight.” Whatever Tommy wanted to call it, Kate assumed it would be better than climbing to the top of a warehouse on a freezing October night. “Should I walkie-talkie you or fire the flare gun if there’s any trouble afoot?”

Tommy did not appreciate the humor. “Don’t make fun Kate. This is serious shit. I’m not about to do any jail time for this.”

“Jail time?” Jesse asked, snapping out of his melancholy. “We couldn’t actually go to jail for this, would we?”

“It’s B-and-E, Jess. You’re in the big leagues now.”

Kate meandered back to the sidewalk and Tommy directed Jesse towards the dumpster. Their fingers nearly froze to the metal, but the two men managed to heave the steel receptacle close enough to the wall so they could climb up and grab onto the rooftop’s edge. Tommy scrambled up first and then gave Jesse a hand. From there, the second tier was easy to grab onto individually, and they both ascended to the next level. “All right Jess,” Tommy said, not nearly as out of breath as Jesse already was. He held his hands on his hips boastfully, as though he was about to reach the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro. “Now you’ve just got to give me a boost to the top.”

“I don’t know Tommy. I think I’m starting to reconsider this whole thing.”

Tommy’s arms fell limply back to his side. “Are you kidding me? Don’t wuss out on me now Jesse!”

Jesse looked up into the night sky as an airplane soared into sight; he noticed how it seemed to be slowing down. The plane vanished behind a thick cloud but it refused to reappear, as if it had come to a complete stop midair. Impossibly, even the distant roar of its engines had silenced. It was happening again: Jesse was second-guessing himself. He had to crouch down and brace himself on the rooftop. He looked back to the parking lot below him and out to the sidewalk. Kate was looking right at him with her arms spread wide, wondering what was going on.

“Hey!” she yelled, not caring a whit about their mission of stealth. “Don’t wuss out on us, Jess!”

Jesse was once again being led by Tommy. When would the inevitable separation occur, he wondered? When would he find the strength and the courage to follow his own conscience?

Tommy placed a hand on Jesse’s shoulder, just as the plane re-emerged from the clouds. “I know it’s hard for you, but I need to do this Jesse. And I need your help.”

Jesse stood back up. Without saying a word, he gave Tommy a lift to the rooftop. Perhaps there were still demons within the warehouse that Jesse needed to exorcise? If Tommy was going to be so selfish, maybe, just for once, Jesse should take the opportunity as well?

Standing atop Jesse’s shoulders, Tommy stretched his long arms far enough to reach the top of the warehouse. His fingers clasped the ledge and as he dangled, Tommy couldn’t get Patrick’s ominous warning out of his head: Everybody falls. Still, he laughed the words off, confident that he would not fall now, nor would he ever. Rachel may have left him; his novel might have been an astounding failure; he may have even been smoked out of his apartment, but Tommy was certainly not on the verge of falling. If for no other reason than to prove Patrick Kohn wrong.

Jesse pushed up on the bottoms of Tommy’s feet until Tommy had enough leverage to pull himself the rest of the way. From the very top of the warehouse, Tommy turned to see the glow of Manhattan in the distance. The brilliant blanket of light could scarcely conceal all of the dreams, desires, feats and triumphs that lay within. And yet, Tommy now felt as though the radiance was reaching out for him, begging him to relieve the city from the darkness that Patrick Kohn had brought. And he wasn’t simply being dramatic. He wasn’t being selfish or idealistic. His friends could think what they wanted to, but Tommy knew they would thank him later. New York City was not meant for everyone. It did not welcome anyone but a handful of the world’s chosen few. Tommy felt that Patrick had already been chosen once. But he was now deemed unfit to tread the pathways of the world’s greatest metropolis.

“Tommy?”

“Huh?”

Jesse was not even aware that Tommy’s attention had drifted away for the moment. “I said, how am I supposed to get up now?”

“Don’t worry so much. I already thought of everything.” Since Tommy couldn’t enter his apartment, he had the prudence to pick up a backpack and some other supplies before coming to out tonight. Kate and Jesse wondered what was in that SpongeBob SquarePants backpack but not enough to actually ask him. From the bag, Tommy pulled out a length of rope. He tossed one frayed end down to Jesse. “Grab on, Jess.  It’ll be just like Batman and Robin.”

“Am I right to assume that I’m supposed to be Robin in this scenario?”

“Correct again, old chum! You’ve always been my Boy Wonder.”

“Which version? Dick Grayson, Burt Ward, Jason Todd or Tim Drake? Which one am I?”

“What? Whatever, Jesse. I’m not about to pretend I know the difference.”

It didn’t really matter all that much to Jesse which role he was going to be playing; he just wanted to get up to the roof. As unmovable as Lady Liberty, Tommy held the rope tight while Jesse rappelled up the side of the building. Once on the roof, Jesse brushed himself off. “One of these days I’m going to teach you everything you need to know about superheroes.”

Tommy only grunted an answer under his breath before noticing the stairwell door to his left. It definitely lacked any of the security measures of the building’s ground-level entrances. Tommy had written enough warehouse scenes in his Detective Broome novels to know his best back-up plan would be the rooftop access. Without a second thought, Tommy pulled a crowbar from the backpack and wedged it into the door frame.

“Where did you get a crowbar?” Jesse asked, stupefied.

“Hardware store on Columbus. Haven’t I always said you never know when you need a crowbar?”

“I don’t recall you ever saying that.”

Using the crowbar to bend the handle off, Tommy forced the door open. Jesse shook his head, letting Tommy know he had little desire to enter first. The stairs led straight down onto a small catwalk, overlooking the warehouse floor. Through the darkness, they could make out a few rows of shelves below them, less than half-full of stock. Without hesitation, Tommy continued down the stairs, switched on the overhead lights and began to peruse the shelves.

When the lights came on, the memories instantly flooded Jesse’s mind. He gripped the railing of the catwalk. Even though a year had passed since he’d been inside the building, Jesse could still visualize everything. Every last miserable detail. He recalled the exact way that everything had been the moment John Galloway entered the warehouse. Kate drunkenly flirted with some guy at the open bar. The DJ reached for another disk. A cute photographer from the Village Voice slithered her way through the crowd. Comic books had been strewn across the floor as decoration, eventually trampled into a colorful, crumpled carpet. Edith Galloway watched Jesse with a sparkle in her eyes that he’d never noticed until that night.

From the catwalk, Jesse could see himself on the stage. He was wearing those flashy red gloves and domino mask. Jesse spent a full year working on the pieces for the exhibit, all with the financial compliments of Edie Galloway, and he wanted to be sure he looked as super as the show itself. Along one wall stood three unique twenty-foot pieces: from a distance, they appeared to be an exact duplication of three authentic and carefully selected comic book pages, but each was a finely constructed collage made up of much tinier images. Like a photomosaic image for posters and puzzle games.

Another wall of the warehouse held a life-sized corner of a city block, constructed out of wood and covered with layer upon layer of comic book pages. Black and white windows fashioned exclusively with word balloons. Gaudy sidewalks of brightly colored, jagged explosions of onomatopoeia. Billboards and newsstands of intricately layered cover pages. A darkened alley was composed of the most nefarious of images. Store mannequins dotted the street scene, each one posed as and plastered with specific character images. Some were engaged in battle with one another. Some seemed to cackle menacingly. Some simply patrolled the rooftops searching for signs of trouble. And yet, none of them seemed to take notice when trouble eventually manifested itself.

Jesse was standing on the colorful sidewalk, stumbling through his ill-prepared speech when John Galloway entered, creating such an uproar and eventually throwing his wife into the wall of giant comic pages. The party came to a sudden stop. The crowd separated itself from the commotion. Even Jesse’s friends were of no help. Kate was too drunk to do anything about it, and thanks to Rachel, Tommy had yet to show up. Even the heroic mannequins remained motionless. It was the moment in which Jesse forced himself to make the decision he had.

“I punched him,” Jesse said. His words quietly echoed inside the near-empty warehouse. He finally released his sweaty hands from the railing.

“What’s that?” Tommy asked, still picking his way through some boxes on the shelves below.

“I punched John that night. I’d never hit anyone in my entire life and then I go and punch an old man.”

Tommy came out into the light and looked up at Jesse. “I know. Kate told me all about it. You wouldn’t believe how pissed I was that I missed that. Stupid Rachel and her stupid being late all the stupid time…” He picked up one of the boxes and shook it hard. Something heavy rattled around within.

Jesse sat down now, on the edge of the catwalk. “When Sharona asked me what had happened I told her I didn’t do a thing. I told her I just stood there and watched. I didn’t move a muscle when John threw Edie into the car and killed her.”

Tommy moved to the foot of the stairs. He didn’t know why Jesse was still up there, why he wouldn’t come down to where it was safer. Perhaps Jesse thought it was safer? Just a little bit further away from his past. “Sharona? Who the hell is Sharona?” he asked, with his hands on his hips.

“Sharona was the girl I went out with a couple of weeks ago.”

“Ah. Wing King’s and Wicked.”

“That’s the one.”

“And her name is really Sharona? Like the song?”

“I think that’s her real name. To be honest, I never asked her that.”

“Why didn’t you tell her about the fight?”

“Well first of all, I obviously didn’t want to brag about punching an old man in the mouth.”

“Obviously.”

“But I think the real reason was because I actually enjoyed the moment. That fight with John…it was the most incredible feeling I’d ever had Tommy! When we were throwing punches on that stage, in the fantasy city that I’d built with my own hands…it was awful, but also amazing. I mean, he was my arch-enemy, my evil nemesis. I was even wearing a superhero costume for Christ’s sake! And we trashed it all. Everything I’d created was ruined but I didn’t care. I threw a fake garbage can at him. He knocked me through a papier-mâché wall and I hit him with a cardboard lamppost! It was so surreal, like everything I’d ever dreamed about as a kid was coming to life.”

At first, Tommy didn’t suspect coming to the warehouse would have much of an effect on Jesse, but he realized then that he probably should have seen it coming. Jesse had bottled up so much of the past year that it had to come to surface eventually, as easily as bubbles in a water cooler. But Tommy also understood that no matter how fantastic that moment might have been for Jesse, it could not possibly cover up how he still felt about Edith Galloway. “I’m sorry I missed it Jess,” he spoke solemnly.

“Am I a bad person for feeling like this, Tommy?”

Tommy didn’t have an answer for his friend. He wondered if there was anything wrong with finding a little bit of pleasure in something awful.

“And yet, the more I think about it now, the harder it is to believe any of it ever happened in the first place. The harder it is to remember what my life was like with Edie. Does that make sense?”

Tommy didn’t want to, but he couldn’t help thinking of Rachel again. “You were happy,” he discerned. “Even if she’s gone now, that’s the important thing.”

For a long moment, Jesse took another look around him. “Did you know that tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of her death?”

“I don’t know what to tell you Jess. Kate would probably say something like: ‘You’ve got to remember the good stuff from any relationship.’ I’m not sure if I believe that myself, but I guess it beats focusing entirely on the bad stuff.”

Jesse couldn’t comment on Tommy’s words, but it did sound like something Kate might say. Finally, he walked down the steps to the warehouse floor, planting his feet firmly. Maybe that was enough for now.

Tommy went back to the shelves, although he was obviously frustrated by whatever it was that he found. Or what it was he didn’t find. A few hundred toilet seats in various models and colors filled the shelves. All of them were innocuous though, and did not seem to be hiding anything suspicious. Disappointed, Tommy kicked the steel frame of the shelf unit. “Maybe there’s an office in here,” he suggested. “You know, where we can find some paperwork or something.”

“How about a business license?” Jesse suggested.

“Nice thinking, Boy Wonder! If there’s no business license that would mean there’s no business. And if there’s no business this warehouse is just a front for something else.”

The two of them froze suddenly when they heard banging at the front door, but they loosened up a little when they remembered Kate was still outside.

Tommy pointed to the front door. “Do you think we should let her in?”

“I think she’d kill us if we didn’t,” Jesse responded.

Strangely, there didn’t appear to be any sort of alarm system on the door. If there was one, it hadn’t been armed. Jesse rolled up the metal guard on the outside and unlocked the door. Kate was shivering on the other side; the hood of her ski jacket was pulled tight around her face. “About time,” was all she said as she pushed Jesse out of her way and crossed the threshold. “I think I saw Gene outside.”

“What?”

“I’m not sure, but I’m certain I saw his car drive by.”

Tommy was quick to close and lock the door behind her. “You’re not sure or you’re certain? That’s two completely different perspectives Kate.”

“Oh, shut up Tommy. Did you know there are hookers out there too? I had to hide behind a fence when I saw the JCPD coming down the street.”

“I don’t think prostitution is illegal in New Jersey,” Tommy said. “It’s pretty much a lawless state. Besides. I doubt you could pass for a hooker in that outfit. New Jersey or not.”

Kate ignored Tommy’s comment. “What are the chances that Gene’s driving around Jersey City picking up whores?” she asked. “What if he’s been doing it for years?”

“I think you’re probably just imagining things Kate,” Jesse said, acting as the voice of reason. “Didn’t you say Gene was working late tonight?”

“That’s exactly what she said,” Tommy intimated, emphasizing all the wrong words. “Can we just focus on why we’re here without creating new problems? I don’t know if you two have forgotten, but we’re supposed to be looking for clues.”

Kate tried to warm up by rubbing her hands together. “Just for the record Tommy, I think you’re totally nuts. You might have convinced Jess that Patrick’s intentions are reprehensible, but I just don’t see it.”

“Hey,” Jesse started. “I never said I was convinced. I’m just examining the particulars of the situation.”

“Right,” she said. “Like there’s a difference. You’re the easiest guy in the world to convince of anything, Jess.”

“I am?”

“My point proven,” Kate smiled.

Tommy ignored her and found a small office around the corner. The door was slightly ajar, making it easy to reach in and flick the light on. The office was nearly bare: a computer, a coffee mug and an empty file folder were all that sat atop the desk; there was a shelf unit with nothing but a ream of blank paper and a stuffed moose; the only additions to the white wall were a small I Hate Mondays poster and a free calendar from a New Jersey real estate agent that featured a monthly selection of classic cars. October was the cherry red 1963 Corvette.

“Look at this place,” Tommy said. “I couldn’t stage a fake office worse than this if I tried. It’s obvious he’s hiding something in here.”

Jesse picked up the coffee mug and inspected it closely. There was some cartoon printed on it with a golf joke that he didn’t understand. The inside of the mug had the familiar brown stains of dried coffee. “I thought Patrick didn’t drink coffee anymore?”

There was an unlocked drawer on the desk and Tommy slid it open. He ruffled through the newspapers and fliers he found inside, but again there was nothing of interest anywhere. He looked up, exasperated.

Jesse wondered, “Maybe you don’t need a business license for a warehouse?”

Tommy didn’t know much about running businesses, but he knew enough about the situation to know he didn’t like it. He walked outside of the office and surveyed everything at once. “I think this is a bust,” he finally admitted.

“I don’t know what you were hoping to find in the first place Tommy,” Kate said. “You shouldn’t let Patrick intimidate you so much.”

“He doesn’t intimidate me,” Tommy said, clenching his teeth.

“Is it really so bad that he’s back in New York?” she asked. “Why does it bother you so much?”

“It’s that letter,” Tommy reacted. “That letter scared the shit out of me. We were all so pissed when Patrick disappeared, but I thought we’d gotten over it.”

“I got over it,” Kate said, wasting no time with her response.

“Me too,” added Jesse.

“Well, I didn’t. Maybe I took it more personally than you two did. So when I got that letter in the mail, I knew I didn’t want to have to go through all those feelings again. And then there was the plane crash. The possibility of avoiding those feelings was almost too thrilling to ignore. But when he showed up at my door…well, obviously things have been getting worse ever since. Maybe you guys can get over it, maybe you can look beyond the warning signs, but I’m not prepared to. I don’t know why I hate Patrick so much, and maybe I wish I didn’t. But I do. And I don’t want to have to make apologies for that.”

Jesse and Kate tried to comprehend Tommy’s feelings, but they couldn’t. “Let’s just get out of here,” Kate finally suggested, and she made her way back to the front door.

Tommy pulled a toilet seat from one of the shelves. It was the HyGenieSeat-3000 with a Perineal Spray Attachment. “Might as well take a parting gift, huh?”

Kate was already outside. She looked back at Tommy, confused by his temerity. “You’re not seriously stealing a toilet seat, are you?”

“I am. You guys should grab one too while we’re here.”

“This isn’t a shopping spree Tommy,” Jesse pointed out. “I don’t think any of us deserves a prize for what we’ve done.”

“Suit yourself Jess,” was Tommy’s only response.

The two men were slow to exit the warehouse, knowing that any haste was certain to not make a difference anyway.

However, Jesse slowed a bit more when he reflected upon Tommy’s counsel from a few minutes earlier. “You know Tommy, you were happy once too. Isn’t that the important thing?” He continued past Tommy, abandoning his waning memories in favor of the cold outside. But Jesse had no idea that Tommy was close to answering the offered supposition. He was so incredibly close to admitting Jesse was right.

~~~~~

The three of them sat on the curb until their taxi came. It didn’t matter how cold the wind was since it had started to feel even colder inside the warehouse. None of them had uttered a single word for a few minutes. There was a prostitute sitting alone on the curb across the street, but she did not seem nearly as lonely as they.

Tommy was still clutching the stolen toilet seat. “You know,” he finally said. “Picking up hookers may not actually count as having an affair.”

“Thanks Tommy. That sure helps a lot.”

A police car coasted by listlessly, but its occupants didn’t appear to want to get involved in whatever it was Tommy, Kate and Jesse were doing outside the dark warehouse at that time of night. Tommy waved at the car, but it turned the corner and disappeared.

Tommy continued, “I’m just saying. If you’re looking for something to blame Gene for, I maybe wouldn’t try the affair card. It’s just a hooker.”

Kate didn’t feel like thanking him for his constructive insight a second time.

Jesse meanwhile, simply wanted to change the subject. “So what did we learn from this Tommy? Do you still think Patrick’s up to something? Is there an ulterior motive here?”

But Tommy wasn’t sure anymore if he did have cause for suspicion. He felt like they were so close to putting all the loose ends together and now all of the parts weren’t adding up like he hoped they would. He had every piece of the puzzle, but the only thing they seemed to form when put together was nothing more than a coincidence.

Thankfully though, the cab pulled up before Tommy had any further opportunity to admit to anything.

Each of them sat quietly during the drive back to Manhattan. They tried to put the evening’s adventure behind them, and considered their own personal circumstances. Kate would have to talk to Gene eventually, wouldn’t she? Jesse knew he needed to visit Edie in an attempt to find some closure and finally move on. And Tommy decided, maybe the first time in his life, that he would start to take a look at his own mistakes and failures, rather than pick apart everyone else’s.

Breathe out.

NEXT CHAPTER