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

The Falling – Chapter Eighteen

EIGHTEEN: Hell’s Kitchen – Midtown, 1941

Detective Broome sifted through the smoky rubble. Already, whatever evidence might have been recovered would probably be nothing more than ash anyway. Still, he kept digging. Buster Broome had lived in the same apartment for five years now, ever since he got his badge. He felt like he’d been after Kaspar Delancey since day one, which was not so far from the truth. The two men shared a symbiotic relationship by that point: with one predicting the other’s move and vice versa, but neither could ever finish it. The closest Broome had come was that night at the Flatiron Building. But he didn’t have the guts then.

Every time he passed the Flatiron at the corner of 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue he couldn’t help but recall moments from his youth. With his friends, chewing bubble gum and waiting for girls’ skirts to blow up from the draft of the underground trains. That was the windiest corner in the entire city. Usually, the boys were chased away by the officers and their clubs, but every once in a while they’d be lucky enough to see what they had waited so patiently for. Every little detail seemed so simple back then. At times, this case had been no less fun; the prospect of catching Kaspar Delancey with his skirt over his head was thrilling. Broome knew it would be unavoidable, even if some of the other guys in the precinct had begun to doubt it months ago.

“Well?” Oster dropped his hand onto Broome’s shoulder. “What have we got here?”

“It’s as done as it’s going to get,” Broome mumbled with a hidden delight. He made sure to keep his foot exactly where it was so as not to draw attention to where he stood.

“But is this our man?”

“Ours? Oster, you know this one’s mine.”

“Don’t be such a romantic. This is the worst serial killer New York has ever seen. There’s no way you’re doing this alone, Broome.”

Detective Broome had yet to point out that the scorched building was actually his own. And he didn’t plan on mentioning that this was far more complicated than a simple cat-and-mouse relationship. It had never been that simple. And even when the inevitable day would come when he would catch Kaspar Delancey, he knew the two of them would still never be free of one another. It went much further than the cop-and-robber mentality. It was vengeance, pure and simple.

“Right, Oster. You got it.”

Sergeant Oster covered his face; the smoke was becoming too much to bear. He made his way back out towards 11th Avenue where the sporadic red and blue lights lapped the wet brick walls. He stepped carefully over whatever charred evidence might have still been left to investigate. As soon as he was gone, Broome kicked the blackened mirror away from under his foot. He bent down and picked up the small, metallic egg that he hoped Oster wouldn’t see. He examined it closely; the unmistakable key design on the side of the egg was definitely the piece of evidence Broome had been hoping for, and the inscription only made it that much more palpable. Kaspar Delancey was a fool if he thought this was over.

NEXT CHAPTER

The Falling – Chapter Seventeen

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: Midtown Comics

The taxi pulled up right outside the entrance to Midtown Comics. Sheldon immediately recognized the images of Superman, Spider-Man and the Hulk on the store’s second floor windows, but he was unsure about most of the other colorful characters. He’d never read a single comic book in his life, and he was a little confused as to why Tommy would take him to the place.

But Tommy needed to speak with Jesse, to pass on the vital information that the boy had leaked. He didn’t want to take the subway, even if the 96th Street Station had only been a block away. He knew Sheldon would want to take his time down there, with all of the trains clacking and the wind blowing through the tunnels. A cab ride down Park Avenue – with block after block of innocuous offices of dermatologists, dentists, chiropractors and plastic surgeons – would sufficiently quell any wide-eyed enthusiasm. Tommy sat in the back of the taxi nervously, replaying in his head the conversation he’d just had with Sheldon. He wasn’t sure what to make of it, and the feeling was not entirely unlike eager anticipation, as though he’d just won the New York Lottery and was about to have the giant novelty sized check passed to him.

They entered the front door, and walked up the single flight of stairs that led into the store. Tommy directed Sheldon to the rows of new comics and pulled an issue of The Incredible Hulk off the shelf and handed it to the boy. “Here,” he said. “Read this over. There’ll be a quiz on the material later.”

“Okay,” Sheldon said timidly. He wasn’t sure what Tommy had meant by a quiz, whether he was joking or if he’d actually planned it out in advance, but he graciously flipped through the book anyway.

Tommy knew Jesse would be in the back office, and he bypassed any security measures that Pond or Germ would surely have let slide anyway. “Jesse!” he yelled and banged on the office door. “We need to talk.”

Jesse opened the door. “Tommy? What are you doing here?”

“I’ll tell you what I’m doing here. I’m letting you in on a prime little nugget of information I garnered this afternoon.”

“Prime nugget? Is that a saying now?”

Tommy didn’t answer; instead, he let himself in and closed the door. He sat on the couch and wasted no time in parlaying to Jesse exactly what Sheldon had said earlier. “I think Patrick killed Natasha.”

Jesse dropped his empty, over-sized plastic Thor mug onto the floor, and leaned back in his seat, as though winded from a punch to the stomach. He didn’t know what to say; he was speechless up until the Mighty Thor had finally stopped spinning. “What the hell are you talking about? Where’d this come from?”

“The kid told me so himself!” Tommy exclaimed. “Remember what I was saying this morning? About how all this bad stuff started happening as soon as I found that letter?”

“Yeah,” Jesse said. “But I thought you were only joking.” He got up from his seat, grabbed the mug and placed it back on the desk. He came around to the front of the desk and leaned against it, wiping his brow with his sleeve.

“At the time I was joking. Mostly. But maybe the truth of it all leaked into my subconscious?”

“You mean like a sixth sense?”

“I thought sixth sense meant seeing dead people?”

“You never even saw that movie, did you?”

“No. But only because that asshole on the subway ruined the ending for me.”

“A sixth sense is really just a general clairvoyance, Tom.”

“Not the dead people thing?”

“Trust me. I read forty comic books a week.” Jesse shook his head so he was thinking straight again. “Seriously though. You’re saying that Patrick Kohn has come back to New York to rub us all out? That’s crazy talk, Tommy!”

“Is it? Think about it Jess. What were the chances that Patrick’s toilet seat business just happened to be set up in the same warehouse as your art show? I’ll bet he had it all planned out years ago. Is it really so far-fetched?”

Jesse considered the facts. Patrick’s sudden disappearance ten years before. The heartbreaking death of Natasha Seward. And Edith Galloway. That letter. The plane crash. The warehouse in Jersey. “Yeah, it is. Tommy, it’s just a big coincidence.”

Tommy turned to the stuffed Spider-Man seated beside him on the couch, but the web-slinger was being no more cooperative than Jesse. “So why would the kid say something like that to me? He must’ve had some reason to believe or he wouldn’t have said anything at all.”

“Maybe he was just screwing with your head?”

“Why would an eight year old want to screw with my head?”

Jesse shrugged his shoulders. He didn’t really understand how and why kids did anything. He watched them come into the store and had to wonder sometimes how they ever managed to dress themselves.

“I’m telling you Jess, he had a look in his eyes. Like he was scared of something.”

“Really?”

Tommy thought about it. He recalled the exact moment less than an hour before, and he tried to find anything in his memory that he might have missed at the time. “Actually,” he began. “He wasn’t scared. He just told me very matter-of-factly. Like it was information that couldn’t be disputed. Like it was something he’d known for a long time.” Tommy got up from the sofa and cracked the office door open. He looked out across the store to where Sheldon was standing, right where Tommy had left him. The boy was still flipping through the same comic book, studying it intensely. “There’s something wrong with that kid though. I think Patrick really messed him up. But maybe it’s just because he’s an only child?”

Jesse stayed right where he was. “Tommy, we’re all only children. Me. Kate. Patrick. You too, ever since your brother died.”

“Yeah. My brother.” Tommy closed the door again and lowered his voice. “How far back do you think this thing goes?”

“What thing?”

“With Patrick. Do you think he had something to do with my brother as well?”

“Like I said. I think you’re crazy Tommy. But that’s just my personal opinion.”

“Maybe I am crazy. But I’ll tell you what I’m not: I’m not naïve Jess. It’s naïve to think that everything’s a coincidence. What’s the real reason Patrick came back here? Where is he right now? What’s he doing today that he can’t even watch his own kid?”

“I don’t know what he’s doing. But I’m pretty sure he’s not sitting around planning out our great demise. You need to stop trying to connect Patrick to Kaspar Delancey. They’re not the same person.”

“Sure they are. Why would I have come up with the idea in the first place? It must be that sixth sense thing again.”

“So you’ve got murder theories AND super powers now? Why can’t you just let things be as they’ll be Tommy?” On the desk sat the many comic book sculptures, the ones that were considered evil. They were the objects that John Galloway couldn’t seem to take his eyes off of a week before. Jesse removed one of them from its display holder; it was a semi-transparent cube, and it fit perfectly in the palm of his hand.

“What is that?” Tommy asked.

The sunlight came in through the window behind Jesse, making the cube glow in his hand. “This is the Cosmic Cube.”

Tommy had to shield his eyes from the reflection.

Jesse slowly twisted the object around with his fingers. It sparkled like a square disco ball. “Whoever wields the Cosmic Cube can use its power to reshape reality. The impossible can be made possible.” He liked the feeling of it in his hand. It was hard to tell whether or not Jesse actually believed the words he uttered. There was conviction in his voice. But then again, he did read forty comic books a week.

It didn’t happen often, but Tommy had no idea what to say.

Jesse blew the dust off the top of the cube before placing it back down on the desk, back into its reserved resting spot. “It’s really no more conceivable than what you’re proclaiming Tommy. I think Patrick’s words just got you all freaked out. You know, what he said about the falling.”

“Maybe I am freaked out. But you still can’t explain the warehouse.”

“And you still can’t accept the coincidence, can you?”

Tommy slumped back into the sofa and considered his options. He knew Jesse wasn’t going to voluntarily believe him. He would have to come up with an idea that could maybe do the convincing for him.

Jesse was already making a move for the door. “Are we done, Tommy?”

“How about you come to the warehouse with me then?”

“In New Jersey?”

“Yeah.”

“Right now?”

“No. Tonight.”

Jesse paused. He opened the door and took a look at Sheldon himself. He tried his very best to see Patrick in him. He challenged himself to recognize any of the same qualities that he’d always known in his friend. But Patrick had never seemed so lonely. So quiet. So unhappy. Jesse thought about high school, and how those days can seem like the unhappiest days in the whole span of every human’s existence. But Patrick Kohn had never once seemed so gloomy. Jesse certainly had, but not Patrick.

For the moment though, Tommy still believed he had Jesse’s full attention.  “We’ll go there tonight and find the answers we need,” he said.

Jesse continued to stare out beyond the threshold. As if feeling the eyes on him, Sheldon Kohn looked up at Jesse. He recognized him, and smiled the world’s thinnest smile.

“He seems so sad out there,” Jesse said to Tommy.

“Sad? That kid is sadder than Christmas lights in June.” Tommy got up and stood beside Jesse, getting a look himself. “He does seem to like the trains though. I’m lucky I found something today that could perk him up.”

Jesse knew he wasn’t prepared to go back to New Jersey. But maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe it wasn’t the same warehouse that held his art show one year before. Maybe it wasn’t the same place he’d seen Edith Galloway for the very last time.

“Well,” Tommy said. “Why don’t you think about it Jess? Maybe you’ll come around.”

“Maybe,” Jesse answered slowly and turned to Tommy. “And maybe you will too.”

“I always do eventually,” Tommy said. But Jesse wasn’t really sure what he’d meant by those words. Tommy’s phone buzzed in his pocket, and he removed it to check the caller ID. It was Patrick. “Well, look who it is,” he said, holding the phone up for Jesse to see. The two of them had exchanged numbers earlier in the coffee shop so Patrick could call when he was ready to pick up his son. Tommy had no other reason to exchange numbers. He answered his phone, and spoke with only a few muffled grunts and confirming mumbles. “We’re at the comic store,” Tommy said.

Pause.

“Yes. With Jesse.”

Pause.

“Fine then.” Tommy put his phone away and turned back to Jesse. “Patrick’s coming. Is it all right if I leave Sheldon here with you?”

Jesse said it wouldn’t be a problem, and Tommy disappeared as quickly as he could and without another word.

~~~~~

When Patrick did arrive, Jesse didn’t want to seem overly cautious. But he was. He didn’t want to let any nervousness slip. But he did. Jesse knew himself well enough to know that he was the worst liar in Manhattan, and the city certainly had a generous helping of bad liars, so he made sure to keep the conversation as brief as possible.

If Tommy’s crazed account was somehow even partially true, Jesse simply wanted to get the boy out the door as quickly as possible. Patrick thanked him. Jesse said it was no problem. “Actually,” he said. “It’s Tommy who should get the majority of the gratitude.” He knew he had already said too much.

Patrick wondered where the boy’s blue mittens were; he had them when he left that morning. Sheldon said that maybe he forgot them in the back of the taxi. Jesse took note of the look in Patrick’s eyes, but he wasn’t sure if he was reading the reaction properly. Quickly, Jesse reached for the comic shelf, handed Sheldon a stack of Invincible Iron Mans, and perked his ear toward the office, pretending that the phone was ringing his name. Forget New York; Jesse Classen just might have been the worst liar on the entire eastern seaboard.

Jesse glided over to the window, his favorite viewing spot, and peeked out from behind the cardboard Incredible Hulk. He watched Patrick lead Sheldon by the hand out along Lexington Avenue, towards Grand Central. He thought he caught Patrick sneaking a look back to the comic shop window. He replayed the conversation, as concise as it was, in his mind. And he was certain Patrick must have dropped some hint somewhere within his minimal words.

And then Jesse realized that by his suspicion alone, he was simply following Tommy again. He’d done so his whole adult life, why wouldn’t he now? Like the Cosmic Cube, it was unfathomable the amount of power that man had.

~~~~~

Jesse was about to lock the door when the phone rang. He had already set the alarm, flicked the last light off, and had the key braced in his hand.

“Midtown Comics,” he said with his usual greeting.

“Jesse! It’s me.”

“Tommy? What’s up?”

“Do you remember that scene in BLANC when the detective returns to his apartment and finds that Kaspar Delancey has burnt it to the ground?”

“I guess so. Why?”

“I think you already know why.”

NEXT CHAPTER

The Falling – Chapter Sixteen

CHAPTER SIXTEEN: Manhattan

An hour later, Patrick and Sheldon were waiting under the blue awning of the Beacon Hotel. The morning’s snow had already been swept off the awning by the hotel maintenance crew. Sheldon was wearing an I♥NY t-shirt under his winter coat; the white cotton shirt was still so new that it hurt his eyes too much to stare directly at it. From the opposite side of Broadway, Tommy poked through the Fairway Market fruit stand, watching the two of them out of the corner of his eye. He was sickened by the market’s sub-par selection of apples. Worms were practically squiggling around under the dusty, brown skins.

“Tom!” Patrick spotted him and called out, yelling over the busy traffic. Tommy tried his best to ignore him for just another few seconds, but he finally gave up on the fruit and hopped across Broadway, jumping through the median and over its knee-high chain fence.

“Ah, finally! Thanks Tom. We really appreciate this.”

“Both of you?” Tommy asked in jest, but still hoping for the boy’s agreement on the matter. He wouldn’t receive any eye contact, much less a verbal response.

Patrick was already hailing a cab, eager to get a start on the morning’s business. Tommy noted how much he looked like a tourist, for only tourists hailed cabs in New York as though they were mimicking what they’d seen on a movie screen. “So you’ll show him around the city Tom? I can’t think of anyone better for the job than you.”

“Sure Patrick,” Tommy began unenthusiastically. “By the end of the day, this kid will be an honest to god New Yorker.” He ruffled Sheldon’s much-too-neatly-parted hair with his fingers. Sheldon tried in vain to move out of arm’s reach, and still without a word he shoveled his hair back into place with his big blue mittens. “He’ll be swearing like a pro by the time I’m done with him!”

“I hope not,” Patrick challenged him. “Just make sure he takes his medicine.”

“Medicine?” Tommy shuffled away from Sheldon as though he was carrying the plague.

“For his asthma. He’s got his bronchodilator inhaler in his bag.”

“His whoozzit whatzzit?”

Sheldon unzipped his coat, lifted his t-shirt and pulled the inhaler out of his fanny pack. Tommy recalled when the boy pulled his inhaler out in the coffee shop a week ago. He didn’t, however, spot the fanny pack before. Tommy rolled his eyes and pulled the boy’s shirt back down. “Kid, you’re going to make me look like a tourist by association with that shirt and that pouch.”

The taxicab screeched to a stop. Some slush from the curb sprayed out onto Patrick’s shoes. “Be good,” he instructed his son, not believing for a moment that the boy could possibly find trouble on his own. Tommy knew the words had been meant for him.

Patrick shot into the back seat of the cab, sticking to it like a fly. The cab drove north along Broadway and within seconds it was indistinguishable from the rest of the city’s yellow cars.

Tommy and Sheldon looked at one another, each waiting for the other to make a move. Tommy broke first. “So Shelly, where are we off to?”

Sheldon ignored his newly acquired nickname. “I’ve never been to New York before,” he said quite simply. “I don’t know what there is to do here.”

“You can do anything you want in this city. Anything at all. That’s what makes it so great!”

Sheldon looked at him, waiting for a list of possible options from which to select. Tommy gripped the pole of the hotel awning to test its strength. “We could start by climbing this pole. Kids like to climb, don’t they?”

“I don’t know.”

“You are a kid, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Do you like climbing?”

“Not really.”

Tommy looked north to West 75th Street and south to Verdi Square. He imagined that he could easily kill an entire day within the three-block span, but he was pretty certain Sheldon would be bored within minutes.

“You hungry?”

“We ate breakfast already.”

“What did you eat?”

“Fruit.”

“Fruit? From where?”

Sheldon pointed across Broadway back to the fruit stand.

“Come on! Kids aren’t actually eating froufrou fruit salads for breakfast these days, are they? How about a hot dog?”

“For breakfast?”

“Sure! Hot dogs are a crossover food. You can eat ‘em any time of the day.” Tommy directed Sheldon’s attention down the street. “Gray’s Papaya is only two blocks that way.”

“Isn’t papaya a fruit?”

“That’s just the name. They‘ve got the best hot dogs in the city.”

“But I don’t want a hot dog. I already ate.”

“So we’ll think of something else to do then. What did you do for fun in Seattle?”

“I liked it when my dad took me to see the trains.”

“Trains?” Tommy asked, confused by the boy’s answer.

“And I have a train set in our garage at home.”

“You mean you had a train set. Watch your tense.” Tommy never had a problem correcting anybody, even if it was a motherless child who’d just had his entire life ripped out from under him. “So what are you, some kind of enthusiast?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Do you like trains?”

“Yes.”

“Let’s start there then. I think I know just the place we can go. Follow me!”

Tommy immediately took off, oblivious to the amount of attention that was required when escorting a boy through New York City. Sheldon had to run along behind Tommy just to keep up. Through no fault of his own, Sheldon assumed that these promised trains would be waiting for him mere footsteps ahead or, at most, just around the corner. But two-and-a-half blocks later it was obvious that would not be the case. It wasn’t until 77th Street when Sheldon finally spoke up. “How much further is it?”

“What do you mean how much further?” Tommy couldn’t understand how New York might have seemed no bigger than the tiniest of Seattle suburbs in Sheldon’s unassuming eyes. “We’re going up to 97th Street and then we just have to cut through the park. The trains are only another couple of blocks after that.”

“Where’s 97th Street?”

“Well jeez, Shelly. We’re at 77th now. Do the math.”

“I don’t understand.”

“The whole city’s numbered! You can count from Houston to two-hundred-and-twenty, can’t you?”

Sheldon looked at Tommy, as though he was speaking in some crazy outer-space moon language. Like he was asking the kid to walk to the sun and back, or to Mars at the very least. Truthfully, the solar system was a much easier concept to most eight-year-olds than metropolitan grid systems.

“Is it okay if we sit down?” Sheldon asked. “My feet are tired.”

Tommy huffed in much the same way he’d expected to hear from the boy. They crossed the east side of Broadway and sat on a bench beneath the morning shadow of one of the median’s tall London plane trees. “Do you want to take a cab from here?”

“My feet are tired.”

“Yeah, yeah. I heard you.”

They sat there for a few minutes longer. There were no further words exchanged between them. Of course Sheldon was not used to being thrown into the care of a complete stranger and Tommy had never had to act as tour guide for the under-eighteen crowd, so they were simply doing their best to feel out the situation they had both been forced into that morning.

“What was your name again?” Sheldon asked.

“That’s a good idea,” Tommy said ambiguously.

“I don’t understand.”

“I mean maybe we should start from the beginning,” he said. Tommy held out his hand. “The name’s Thomas Mueller. I’m a washed up novelist.”

Sheldon reached out and they shook hands. It seemed silly to him, meeting a man he’d already met, but he hoped the handshake would only bring him to the trains that much faster. “Sheldon Kohn. I’m in the third grade. Pleased to meet you.”

“It’s nice to meet you too, Sheldon.”

A man came up to them and immediately asked Tommy for a cigarette. “Do I look like I’m smoking?” Tommy asked him, insulted.

“What’s the harm in asking?” the man wondered.

“If I was a smoker I’d have a cigarette. And if I had a cigarette I’d be smoking it. But I’m not and I don’t. And I don’t and I’m not, so fuck off already.”

“Fuck you too!” The man walked about ten feet away before asking another non-smoker the exact same question.

Sheldon looked up at Tommy, his eyes wide with caution. “My dad warned me you’d be using a lot of swears today.”

“The way I see it Shelly, is that kids have to pick ‘em up sooner or later. And the sooner the better. Less questions, right?”

“I guess so.”

A silence grew between them once again, sneaking up from unknown recesses. “Do you want to give me a swear word?” Tommy suggested. “It doesn’t have to be one of the big three.”

Sheldon didn’t have any idea what the three worst swear words might have been. They all seemed equally bad to him. “I don’t curse,” was all the boy could say. “And neither should you.”

A blonde twenty-something woman jogged up onto the median, and came to a stop right in front of them. She pulled out her phone, although where it might have been pocketed was a mystery to Tommy since her clothing left virtually nothing to the imagination. She was wearing brown yoga pants and a tight shirt that exposed her belly button. The steam from her sweaty body was thick in the crisp morning air. Sheldon noticed the amount of attention that Tommy was paying to her and he asked him, “Do you know her?”

“No. But I wish I did.” Tommy turned to Sheldon and cracked a smile he hoped the kid would understand. He failed miserably. “Have you ever had a girlfriend, Shelly?”

“No. I’m just a kid.”

“Kids can have girlfriends. I had a girlfriend when I was a kid.”

“Do you have a girlfriend now?”

“I did until a few days ago.” Tommy had thought about calling Rachel, but he was afraid he would have to leave a message. The pressure of leaving the perfect phone message was too much. Tommy didn’t know where he and Rachel stood, but the wrong message could decide it for him, and he wasn’t ready for chance to play any part in it. “But I’m not sure what you’d call it now.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Neither do I, Shelly. Neither do I.” Tommy considered his statement for another moment. “And I’ll tell you, I don’t think I ever will.”

Sheldon could only stare at him blankly.

“What I mean is that women are complicated and mine is no exception. She’s got the shifty eyes of a card shark and a face as unyielding as one of those British royal guards. You know those guys with the big fuzzy hats? Rachel’s just like that. She can infuriate me like the mosquito you can’t seem to swat but she’s also my best-kept secret. I hate her and I also feel like I should love her. But I’m not entirely sure if she loves me. So maybe I did love her, maybe I used to. Maybe I still do, or maybe I’m just waiting to.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Kid, if you had your own catch phrase that would definitely be it.”

“What’s a catch phrase?”

“You know when your dad always says, “I’m the world’s biggest jerk for abandoning my friends?” Well, that’s his catch phrase.”

“I’ve never heard him say that before.”

Tommy had to stop himself from opening his mouth again. He knew that if they sat there any longer he’d only continue to spout negative and partially untrue feelings about the boy’s father. Probably with a few more carefully selected swear words tossed in for effect.

He thought the answer would be obvious, but Sheldon carefully asked anyway: “Have you ever kissed a girl before?”

“Well, duh! Of course I have!”

“What’s it feel like?”

Tommy had to think about it. “Where do I start?” Of all the words he’d ever written, he never once had to describe what kissing a girl really felt like. “The first time I ever kissed a girl I went in too quick and we both broke our noses.”

“How did you do that?

“I honestly have no idea. But it turned out she already had a boyfriend. He threw a punch at me when I wasn’t ready, breaking my nose again.”

Sheldon squirmed. Who knew kissing would be so much trouble? Tommy angled his head just right to show the boy his crooked nose. “My only advice is: when you’re finally ready, just make sure you’re not kissing the wrong girl.”

The woman in front of them had tucked her phone away, and was stretching her body tight. The cropped shirt clung to her breasts like the tight skin on a ripe nectarine. Beads of sweat streaked from her chest to her belly. She turned around to lean over the railing again. Lifting her right foot up high to stretch her leg as far as possible. As she bent forward, she looked back to see Tommy and Sheldon sitting across from her; she smiled at the two of them before standing up straight and picking up her run where she’d left off.

“Are you sure you don’t know her?” Sheldon asked again, but he would get no further response. Tommy continued to watch the girl as she hopped across Broadway with a deer-like prance.

He shook his head back to reality. “Come on Shelly. Let’s get moving.” He didn’t hail cabs often but Tommy was good at it, maybe the best in the city. The two of them climbed into the back of the first taxi that appeared. “Ninety-seventh and Madison,” he barked at the driver.

The thick, gruff cabbie was born and raised in Brooklyn, but Tommy Mueller made him feel as though this was his first day in the city. “You got it pal,” he said gregariously, stepping hard on the gas and swerving out into the traffic.

They had only moved a couple more blocks north before the taxi found its way wedged into the morning’s muddle of cars. Sheldon stared at the First Baptist Church, its pointed red towers reminding him of a toy castle. The draft of air coming towards them from the old Zabar’s building pleasantly filled the cab with the aroma of smoked fish and cheese.

Tommy sneered at Sheldon’s I♥NY t-shirt as they idled. He hated those shirts. He thought the city should establish some sort of screening process for people who bought them. Or a questionnaire at the very least. He disliked it when tourists bought them, but he disliked it even more when he had to see tourists wearing the shirts on the sidewalks of his city. Drinking his coffee. Walking through his Central Park. Sitting on his subways. They didn’t love New York as much as he did. They never would. When he was a little kid, he wore his I♥NY shirt every day, because all he ever knew was that it was completely true. “Is this right?” he asked, tugging at the boy’s shirt. But Sheldon was just as confused as he’d been all morning and had no response for him. Tommy pinched the collar of the shirt between his fingers. “How much do you really love New York?”

The boy took off his mittens and unzipped his coat all the way. He looked closely at the big letters on his chest. He didn’t care much for the shirt; in fact, he didn’t even really know what it had meant. “My dad bought it for me.”

“Listen, I don’t think for a moment that you’re buying all your own clothes but you must have an opinion on the matter, don’t you? How do you really feel about New York?”

Sheldon wanted to look inside Tommy, to try and figure the man out. Just last week Sheldon had built a model train and he finished writing a school report on sugar cane. He had good grades in school so he knew he wasn’t stupid, but Sheldon really had no idea what Tommy was talking about most of the time. He turned back to the window. He didn’t know Tommy very well yet, but he already knew he didn’t want to disappoint the man. He didn’t want to tell Tommy that he was already feeling sick from the cabbie’s erratic driving; he was too embarrassed to show weakness around him. It wasn’t all that different than being on the playground; he only wanted to be liked. Tommy just happened to be a good twenty years older than all of those other kids. Sheldon considered the question again. How did he really feel about the city?

Out the window, Sheldon noticed two old men with sunken eyes sitting at a bus stop, completely unmoving. They could have been sitting there for the last forty years for all he knew. He spotted a bookstore with its shelves of dirty paperbacks out on the sidewalk. What was stopping people from simply taking them all for nothing? Was that the idea? Were the sidewalks a free-for-all in this city? There was a diner with a handwritten sign on the window that read, “NO MILKSHAKES!” It seemed like a mean thing to be bragging about. He saw a woman wearing a long black vampire cape carrying the biggest paper bag he’d ever seen. The vampire walked past a peculiar man who was looking for something on the ground, as though he’d dropped a coin. He was on his hands and knees with a look on his face like he just might die if he didn’t find whatever it was he was searching for. And there was an older man and a younger woman arguing. She was flailing her arms around a lot, mad at the man for something. He was smoking a cigarette as though he didn’t care a whit about his upset companion. He flicked the cigarette at her feet before yelling something Sheldon couldn’t make out; although he was certain he didn’t want to know what the words were.

Sheldon turned back to Tommy. “I don’t like it here,” he said. “Everything and everybody seems so strange and mean.”

“Including you kid.” Tommy thought it was impossible that anyone could not love his city just a little bit, and it was an insult if they should ever criticize it.

The taxi began moving again, lurching ahead slowly before suddenly taking off at a torrid pace. The weathered tires humped the sidewalk’s edge. Slices of Manhattan zipped by the window, before they once again came to an impulsive stop at 87th Street. Tommy pointed out the doorman in front of the Montana Apartments. He explained to Sheldon how the two of them once got into a fistfight, right under that very awning.

“Why would you do that?” Sheldon asked bewilderedly.

“Well, I was stumbling up this sidewalk one fine evening when I overheard that ass-clown complaining about his job. He said some crap about how the Upper West Side could suck his — how this neighborhood wasn’t exactly to his liking. I stopped and asked him to please apologize to me and all other New Yorkers for his obscene thoughts.”

“Did he?”

“No, he didn’t. He took one look at my sweater, and he said the Rangers sucked. Right to my face he said that! He said he was an Islanders fan through and through. Well, as you might have assumed, I was a little drunk that night.”

“I wasn’t assuming anything.”

“Well anyway, let’s just say I couldn’t let it go. And let’s just say he took a swing at me. And it goes without saying that I hit him right back. I cold-cocked him. I knocked his stupid little hat off. He fell into a puddle and got his stupid striped coat all dirty.”

“Really?” Sheldon looked at the doorman as the taxi idled in traffic. He shrunk in his seat a little, hoping the man in the hat and striped coat wouldn’t see them.

“That’s what Jesse told me anyway. I don’t really remember much of what happened that night, but I still sneer at this guy when I walk by here.” Tommy rolled down the window, stuck his head out and shouted, “Hey! Islanders suck!” The man recognized Tommy instantly, and yelled something back their way.

Sheldon was worried that Tommy would be yelling at people all day. He wasn’t sure if he could take much more yelling.

The taxi continued towards its destination, but the conversation in the backseat had come to an end. North of 87th they passed the Wing King’s. As the cab turned east on 96th Street, they snickered at a guy selling sparkling, pink purses. Piles of black garbage bags were lined along the sidewalk like a solid plastic barricade. A little person was begging for change outside of a hotel, using a plastic blue sand bucket rather than a hat. They passed a few more churches and Sheldon wondered why there seemed to be so many in Manhattan. Upon crossing Columbus Avenue, the green and white swath of a snow-covered Central Park had come into view, always a welcome relief from the city’s tapestry of concrete, steel and glass.

As the cab crossed Central Park West and drove into the park, the city had all but disappeared. The stone walls along the side of the road barely kept the monstrous foliage at bay. Soon, the walls also gave way to sheer cliff faces, the greenery kept out by a mere chain link fence. The concrete peak of Mt. Sinai loomed beyond the treetops. Emerging from the tunnel below the East Drive, the gridlock of traffic was the most obvious sign that they would soon be re-entering the civilized world. A hint of a playground could be seen to the south; the glistening handles of a ladder at the top of a slide; the chains of swings hanging from the top bar; the ears of a colorful giraffe. The crowds parted like a curtain, as though the intermission was over and the next act was about to begin.

The driver stopped at 97th and Madison, exactly where Tommy had requested. Sheldon still wasn’t sure how far they’d traveled, but the preciseness of it all astounded him. Tommy dropped a handful of bills into the driver’s hand before reaching across Sheldon to open the door. “Let’s go,” he said, nudging the boy out onto the sidewalk. So far, there had not been any sign of any trains. Tommy led Sheldon into the Dunkin’ Donuts, as though completely forgetting why they had come all this way in the first place.

“What about the trains?” the boy asked.

“Just grabbing a coffee first,” Tommy responded. “Should I get one for you?”

“A coffee?”

“You gotta grow up fast in this city kid.”

It seemed that every customer in the dusty donut shop was wearing hospital scrubs. It was strange to Sheldon, as strange as anything else he’d already seen that morning. He wondered if there was some sort of dress code he and Tommy were not adhering to, but the two of them were served nonetheless.

Tommy brought the coffee cup to Sheldon’s mouth. “You want a sip?” The steaming, shimmering brown liquid smelled something like a strange sort of hot chocolate, but it was hard to tell what it was that made it any different. Still, he tasted a sip and tried his best to pretend he didn’t hate it. He was trying his hardest to grow up fast.

“Yea or nay?” Tommy asked, twisting his wrist from a thumb’s up to a thumb’s down. “Needs some sugar, doesn’t it?” Tommy grabbed some sugar packs and tore them open with his teeth, dumping the white crumbs into the cup. He didn’t stir them in, but Sheldon wouldn’t have known any different. “You know, my feeling is that you can tell the most about someone by the way they prepare their coffee.” He put the plastic lid on, covered the opening with his thumb and carefully shook it until the sugar dissolved. “Do they add cream? Milk? Sugar? Vanilla? Cinnamon? What order to they add their ingredients? Do they stir the coffee or do they shake it? I’ve never met anyone else who shakes their coffee, but that’s just my thing I suppose.”

Sheldon had learned a lot about Tommy so far, but none of it seemed to have anything to do with coffee.

Tommy offered another sip, but Sheldon decided to refuse from there on out. “All right then. Next stop, trains!” Tommy proclaimed boisterously, and the two of them ran back out to the sidewalk.

~~~~~

Even before they arrived at Park Avenue and East 97th Street, Tommy noticed how much Sheldon had perked up. The kid’s big blue eyes grew even bigger as soon as he heard the clacking of the trains up ahead. But when Sheldon stopped at the railing overlooking the tracks, the train had already disappeared, swallowed up into the cave below his feet. The exposed tracks stretched out north along the island, cradled crudely within Harlem’s dilapidated tenement buildings and over crumbling parking lots. There was not another train in sight.

“How long until the next one?” Sheldon asked.

“I don’t know,” Tommy replied. He bragged to most everyone about the wealth of information he knew regarding his city, but it didn’t take long for the kid to stump him. “I guess we’ll just wait for it.”

“I don’t like waiting.”

“Come on Shelly, you’re six years old! What do you know about having to wait for anything?”

“I’m eight.”

“Is there a difference?”

“There’s a big difference!” he exclaimed. “When I was six all I ever did was watch cartoons and play army men. Now I like trains.”

“Seems like one rung down on the cool ladder to me, Shelly.”

“Why do you keep calling me that?” he finally asked.

“It’s just a nickname. Haven’t you ever had a nickname?”

“Nope.”

“Hasn’t your dad ever called you Slugger or Chief or Squire?” Tommy always wondered why his own dad had chosen to call him Squire when he was younger. He didn’t really care though; it was still better than Leyland.

“No. Do you have a nickname?”

Tommy considered all of the names that all of his ex-girlfriends had ever called him but they probably weren’t the most appropriate names to be throwing into the middle of the conversation. Instead, he gave Sheldon a little piece from his past. “When me and your dad and our friends were younger, we had a limit to the number of E-names we could use at one time.”

“I don’t understand.”

“What I mean is that it was always Jesse this and Katie that and Tommy this and Patty that. All the E-names in our group were getting a little ridiculous.”

“Who’s Patty?”

“That was what we called your dad. But it was me who decided that I would be Tommy and Jess would be Jesse. From that point on, Katie and Patty were only to be called Kate and Pat. Or Patrick, if we felt like being more formal. I’d been Tom or Thomas for most of my life and I was ready for a change. I wanted to ride with Tommy for a while.”

“Seems like you make a lot of the rules around here.”

“Rules are what keep everyone in line Shelly.”

“But I don’t want an E-name either. I don’t want to be called Shelly.”

Tommy considered the alternatives for a moment. “Well, how do you feel about Poindexter then?”

Sheldon only had a couple of seconds to think about the name change before he was distracted by the rumbling below him. His little hands grabbed onto the railing and he strained his neck as far out as possible to get a better view. Tommy lifted the boy up by his armpits and held him on the top bar. A chain-link fence behind the railing separated the sidewalk from the tracks and Sheldon’s fingers clawed the dirty, rusted metal so intensely he almost bent them in his exuberance. Suddenly, the MTA train burst into the outside world. Sheldon’s head nodded up and down as he counted every car that zipped past, thundering along the tracks and out into the distance.

Tommy recalled the first and only time he sat on that train. It was the first time he ever saw New York with his own eyes, that familiar skyline he’d always seen in movies and dreamed about was suddenly right there in front of him. Patrick, Kate and Jesse had never told him, but they all sat back and watched Tommy that day. They were so impressed by the complete idolization of the city he was beholding. Sometimes the memory of seeing the great city for the first time would come back to him. It would return in fragments at the oddest moments. When he caught himself staring at a stranger on the subway or when he wrote a sentence that left him breathless. That would be when he saw the Empire State Building again. Perhaps he would be selecting an apple from the grocery or watching a butterfly dance outside his window. He could be slicing into a thick steak or rinsing his toothbrush under the tap and suddenly the Chrysler Building would appear again. The moment he first lost himself in Rachel’s eyes was when he remembered seeing the twin towers for the first time.

Sheldon felt the same in that moment; he was fixated on the train below him.

When the train finally disappeared, the boy turned to look at Tommy and thanked him for the greatest gift ever. With their eyes locked, Tommy was trapped in a sort of father/son moment he couldn’t explain. If he could have explained it, he would probably have described it as a big brother moment at the most, or a friendly uncle moment at the very least. Either way, he wasn’t sure if he liked the feeling.

Tommy said, “When I was a kid, all I ever wanted was to be here. I’ve explored every dirty corner of this city, and every day I still feel like there’s more I need to see.” He turned to Sheldon expecting a specific look in return, a look that would lead to the boy telling him about the kinds of things he wanted from his own life. He hoped that Sheldon might formulate the answers for wherever it was he wanted to discover, the type of girl he hoped to fall in love with or which mementos he would save in a cardboard box so he might experience them again when he was older. But there was no look. “It’s all right,” Tommy said to him. “You’ll figure everything out when the time comes.”

Soon enough, another city-bound train appeared in the distance, through the Bronx’s gray haze. And just like the first, this one also disappeared under their feet. 97th Street vibrated a little more, welcoming the newest visitors into the city.

“Where do they all go?” Sheldon asked, pressing his face as far into the grimy chain-link fence as possible, trying to see into the tunnel below them.

“They all converge in a magical place known as Grand Central Station.”

“Can we go there next?”

“Why would you want to do that?”

“To see the trains.”

“You just saw them.”

“I want to see all of them.”

“If we stand here long enough, you will eventually. Now don’t get whiny. Your dad told me you have a tendency to get whiny.”

“No he didn’t. You just made that up.”

Tommy looked at his watch. “Isn’t it about time we gave you your medicine?”

Removing the inhaler from his fanny pack, Sheldon sucked back a couple of short bursts of air. “Thatta boy,” Tommy encouraged in his best friendly-uncle demeanor. “It’s no fun being sick, is it?”

Sheldon shook his head.

The first thought that came to Tommy was of Natasha Seward. He didn’t want to say anything, but for some reason he did anyway. “I’m sorry that your mom was so sick. I knew her too a long time ago.”

“My mom was never sick.”

“What’s that?”

Sheldon inhaled once more, not responding to the question.

“You don’t believe your mom was sick?”

“No.”

Tommy persisted. “Do you know what cancer is?”

“I don’t think she ever had cancer.”

Tommy wanted to laugh, but knew it would have been inappropriate. He moved in closer, like a detective digging for information from his key witness. “So what do you think happened to your mother?”

Sheldon took one last inhale with his device before putting it back into his pouch. “You have to promise to not tell my dad,” he spoke solemnly.

Of course Tommy wouldn’t tell Patrick any secret. The best secret was one that he didn’t have to share with people he didn’t trust. Tommy even surveyed the sidewalk to ensure no one else was within earshot. “I won’t,” he agreed enthusiastically.

“I think my mom got killed.”

“Your mom was killed.” Tommy corrected. “Why would you think something like that?”

“It’s my dad.”

“What about him?”

“I think he did it.”

“Excuse me?” It wasn’t so much that Tommy didn’t hear the words, as it was that he simply wanted to hear them again.

“I think dad killed her.”

Breathe in.

Kaspar Delancey, you glorious bastard, Tommy thought. You’ve struck again, haven’t you?

“But you can’t tell him I said that,” Sheldon quickly reiterated. “You promised.” Tommy watched the boy for another moment as Sheldon looked out to the horizon waiting for the next train to roll into view. Tommy carefully considered his moves. Sheldon was so unruffled by his own confession it was obvious he hadn’t just made it up; he must have been thinking about this for a while, just waiting for the right person to talk to.

Tommy knew there wouldn’t have been anyone better than himself. He put his arm around Sheldon and led him down the sidewalk towards Park Avenue. “Poindexter my boy, you just might be my good luck charm. Follow me!”

NEXT CHAPTER

The Falling – Chapter Fifteen

PART III – The Revenge

CHAPTER FIFTEEN: Tom’s Restaurant – Morningside Heights

ONE WEEK LATER.

When winter hits Manhattan its attack is unrelenting. What begins as a cleansing snowfall blanketing even the ugliest streets with a white serenity soon turns into a chaotic slop of wet, gray grunge and grit. The snow continues its pursuit of tranquility however, but it will never stand a chance, disintegrating into the grubby traps of tire treads and footprints. Like a new pet, winter is loved for its first few precious moments, but it is quickly tired of by anyone but the most devoted, and it becomes an unwanted beast, requiring a constant audience to manage its disorder. Yet, even as the clouds pull themselves apart like torn denim and as the glass and concrete towers take advantage of a moment’s bleak respite by scraping the open sky once again, the city still braces itself for the next imminent wave.

Tommy no longer ventured down to the CKY Grocery. He popped in one day when the store had no Spartan apples at all. Believing the Persian man had a personal vendetta against him, Tommy brusquely discontinued his patronage. Now he habitually grabbed a thirty-five cent banana with the morning paper from a Broadway newsstand. The bananas were always arranged upright, and Tommy could not help but make-believe they were tiny yellow skyscrapers. And even though he carefully selected the firmest of the bunch, Tommy’s chosen banana was still guaranteed to be brown by the time he reached the coffee shop.

Kicking the slush off his sneakers as he entered the coffee shop, Tommy realized his regular booth was currently three-quarters full with brash university students. He spotted a girl sitting alone at the counter, an aura about her. She had a guitar case and a backpack at her feet. Her hair was just long enough for the beginnings of a bleach blonde mohawk. She had tattoos up and down her arms, words that seemed to act as warning signs for the unsure. One in particular, on her left forearm, stood out to Tommy: FALLING. Sharona had played at a Morningside Heights hotel club the night before, and she paid the manager fifty bucks to let her sleep on the stage for a couple of hours. Had she known that Jesse Classen lived only a few blocks away, she might have called him instead.

Tommy tossed his banana peel and its cocooned, mushy brown stump into the trash. He sat down next to her. She was just planting the last syrupy bite of waffle in her mouth.

Tommy was justifiably mystified, “Waffles? When did they start serving waffles here?”

“I asked for them,” she said simply, not even turning her head. Sharona had never been bothered by strangers making small talk. She was actually flattered by how often it happened.

“I can’t remember the last time I got something I asked for,” he said. Tommy shook the newspaper to loosen it up. Intuitively, he always opened the New York Times to unveil the literary section; today it opened to the obituaries instead. He flipped back and forth until he found the review for The Manhattanite. He didn’t know why, but Tommy wanted to read it out loud to this girl beside him. “The key to reading any review, whether it’s for a movie, restaurant or book, is to read nothing but the first and last sentences.” He cleared his throat in preparation for the self-assured, ostentatious event. “Imagine for a moment that you are looking forward to reading Thomas Mueller’s much-anticipated sixth novel, The Manhattanite…”

Before he could finish, Sharona snatched the paper from his hands. As counseled, she read the second of the two most important sentences: “Now try to imagine yourself wishing that Mueller had chosen instead to stop at five.” She dropped the paper and looked at Tommy, his mouth hanging open with incredulity. “You’re right. That’s one succinct review.”

Without a fight, she released the paper back into Tommy’s hand. He began to read the entirety of the review, finally spurting out, “I don’t believe this horseshit! Who wrote this review anyway?” He double-checked the reviewer’s name, but failed to recognize it.

“Why so concerned?”

“That’s my book. I’m Tommy Mueller. And this asshole writes about me like I killed his parents or something.”

“Do you know the difference between a critique and a criticism?”

Tommy ignored the girl’s pondering completely. “The kid who wrote this review is probably some uneducated intern who thought On the Road was brilliant.”

“Who are you, Truman Capote? What’s not to like about On the Road?”

“I guess I never could appreciate the fact that Sal ever left New York.”

Sharona thought for a moment. She recalled the conversation she had had with Jesse two weeks before; when he told her he was thinking of leaving New York but he was afraid of what his friend Tommy would think. “So the book tanked Thomas. So what? It happens to all of us.”

“People don’t want different. They can’t handle change. They want everything to stay exactly how it’s always been. The same old comfortable crap packaged in the same familiar font as the last book.”

“Are you saying your other books were crap?”

“Of course they were. But they were intentional crap. The Manhattanite was supposed to showcase my real talents.”

“You might have wanted to think about the title then.”

The Manhattanite? Tommy didn’t think there was anything wrong with the title.

“Well,” she began again. “I don’t know the first thing about agents or editors, but what did yours tell you?”

“She told me my readers wouldn’t like it.”

“Well, there you have it, my man.” Sharona gulped down the last cold drop of her coffee. “You can’t let it slow you down though. I’ve had terrible reviews too, but I didn’t let them get to me. I still had something worth saying. Don’t you?”

“I thought I did. That’s why I wrote this book.” Talking to this girl made Tommy think about Rachel. He missed having conversations like this with girls like Rachel.

“So write another one then. You’ve done it before.”

The two of them enjoyed one another’s silence for a few minutes more. Tommy reached for a menu for probably the first time in ten years, and was a little surprised to see waffles right there at the top of the list. He asked the waitress for exactly that, but was told that the kitchen stopped serving them at eleven. He was never in the habit of paying much attention to coffee shop waitresses, but Tommy was certain he did not recognize this one. He ended up ordering his usual, having to carefully explain exactly what his usual was. How could she understand? This middle-aged mom working the part-time job to save some money to put towards her kids’ college funds. “Everything’s so different up here at the counter,” he said to Sharona, and noticed that the crowd from his favored booth was now dispersing. He gathered his still-wet clothes into his big hands. “Do you want to move over there with me?”

“I don’t think so,” she said. From somewhere, Sharona pulled out a few bills and plopped them on the counter. “This girl has got to get moving. If I stay in one place too long it’s inevitable that I’ll start loving it too much.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“You tell me.” Sharona slipped her coat on, covering up the tattoos. Disguising the things that defined her the most. Tommy could only stand and watch as she slung her bag over her shoulder. “Listen Thomas,” she began. Instantly, Tommy knew the following words would be the last ones she would say to him. The women he knew always used that same tone just before they left a room. “Manhattan is not for everyone, you know? And it certainly is not the center of the world.” She picked up her belongings. “Just make sure you treat your friends right, okay?”

Tommy was right; Sharona walked right out the door without another word.

~~~~~

Tommy read the review in the newspaper at least fifteen times over, trying to find something that made the negative parts redeeming. It wasn’t long before Kate and Jesse entered; she threw her bag on the seat next to Tommy but sat across from him with Jesse.

“Why don’t you ask Tommy?” Kate said to Jesse, continuing whatever conversation the two of them had been having before they entered the coffee shop.

“All right,” Jesse started. “We just saw this dog eating some dog food out of a bowl, and I said to Kate that I always thought dog food looked pretty tasty.”

Tommy was stumped. “Was that my question?”

“Do you think dog food looks delicious?”

“Well, believe it or not Jess, I’ve never eaten dog food before, so…”

“That’s not what he’s asking,” Kate interjected. “It’s not about whether you would eat it; just, do you think it looks good?”

“Dry or wet?”

“Either.”

“I’d have to say…sure. The dry stuff looks like cereal and the wet stuff kind of looks like beef bourguignon.”

“See?” Jesse said to Kate. “I told you.”

“You’re both crazy,” she said, throwing her arms up in defeat.

Jesse’s eyes lit up when he saw the newspaper spread out before him. “Hey. Wasn’t your review in here Tommy?” He reached for it but Tommy pulled the paper back towards himself.

“No. I think the guy who was supposed to write it died before he could.”

“What? Really? That’s horrible!”

“Yeah. It’s a fucking tragedy.”

“Tragedy,” Kate mimicked. Tommy could tell from her tone that she had already read the review. “That definitely sounds like a good word to use.”

Tommy turned to the window, but Broadway was extraordinarily quiet that afternoon. He would curse at the falling snow outside but he didn’t want his friends to think he’d completely lost it.

“You all right Tommy?” Jesse asked. “You seem a little bothered.”

Tommy should have known better than to assume his two best friends would not read him so easily. “I don’t know how to say this guys, but I think I’m falling.”

“What?”

“Remember what Patrick told me? He said that everybody falls at some point. And he said that I was next.”

“I don’t think he said you were next specifically,” Jesse analyzed.

“Come on,” Kate said. “You don’t actually believe Patrick, do you?”

“The point I’m making is not whether I believe him or not. The point is that Rachel’s gone and, according to the New York Times, my novel clearly sucks.”

Jesse needed clarification. “Wait, I thought the review guy died?”

Tommy ignored the question entirely. “Don’t you see? All of this shit started happening as soon as Patrick came back.”

“What shit?” Kate asked. “That’s two little things Tommy.”

“Oh sure! Little to you maybe, but what about the guy it’s happening to? How do you think I feel?”

“So are you saying that Patrick Kohn came back to New York just to ruin your life?”

“Maybe. Or maybe he’s just starting with me.” Tommy leaned closer towards the two of them and lowered his voice as though the coffee shop was wired. “Maybe you guys are next. And perhaps Natasha’s death was not quite as cancerous as we were led to believe?”

Kate and Jesse turned to one another. Tommy’s ominous suggestion seemed a little too peculiar, and much too malevolent, even for him.

“I’m sure Patrick was only joking,” Kate said. “Nobody’s fortunes or misfortunes can be predicted as simply as that. Why don’t you just ask him when he gets back?”

“Where has he been anyway? I haven’t seen the guy since the day he showed up.” Tommy never did tell his friends that he spotted Patrick with that strange man on the street the week before.

Jesse was already mixing some salt and pepper together on a napkin. “He said he had to go back to Seattle. Something about business.”

Tommy questioned the story. “Doesn’t that sound suspicious to you?”

“He operates a business Tommy,” Kate noted. “That sounds like a pretty reasonable excuse for not being here.”

Tommy didn’t like to think about the day ten years before when Patrick Kohn had seemingly vanished forever, but a part of him hoped the same thing might have happened again. It was strange how Patrick had resurfaced so suddenly; odd how he could stomp back into their world tossing around hints of things to come, only to disappear all over again. To Tommy, it felt as though things were back to normal with just the three of them in their coffee shop. He wanted everything to be the way it was, but everything good seemed to have a sour note to it now.

“And what about you Kate?” he asked. “Where have you been lately?”

“Writing. Quitting that job was the best thing I could have done. I’ve gotten so wrapped up in it, and accomplished so much already.”

Tommy was proud of Kate and the creative surge she was experiencing, but he knew her well enough to know she had not yet said a word to her husband about the subject of their marriage. Of course, he couldn’t stop himself from asking anyway. “What about Gene? Have you spoken with him yet?”

“Just the mundane husband/wife stuff. He tells me the garbage stinks and I tell him to take it outside.”

“Ah. Marital bliss!” Tommy exclaimed. “It’s what we’re all striving for, isn’t it?”

The waitress finally came to refill Tommy’s coffee. But she neglected to take his dirty plate away. He doubted whether the crusted remains of egg yolk could ever be washed off that plate. And before Kate or Jesse could order anything for themselves, she had already disappeared again.

“I think you need to say something to him,” Jesse said to Kate. “It’s eating me up inside and I’m not even in that relationship.”

“Guys, listen. What I have with Gene…it’s comfortable. I’ve decided to stick it out for now only because that’s what’s easiest for me.”

Jesse couldn’t believe it. “That’s the worst reason Kate. You’ve got to come up with something better than that.” He knew better than to suggest anything along the lines of divorcing her husband and getting back together with Patrick. Mentioning things once to Kate was one thing, but mentioning things repeatedly was a surefire way to make the woman do exactly the opposite.

Besides, Kate was already changing the subject. “How are things going with you and Mr. Magoo, Jess? Has he made any more appearances?”

“Not yet, no.” From the corner of his eye, Jesse swore he saw Sharona out the window, hailing a cab from a snow bank on the other side of Broadway. Whoever the girl was, she was definitely carrying a guitar case, but she had jumped into the taxi before he could get a better look. Jesse had been so preoccupied the past week wondering what John Galloway must have been planning that he had yet to consider his own next move with the enigmatic Sharona. He certainly wasn’t ready to go looking for her poster on the streetlight quite yet. “I stopped by his place again, but there was still no answer.”

“For an old dude, he sure gets out a lot,” Kate mused.

“Either that or he’s dead,” Tommy suggested.

“I think he’s just biding his time. He’s planning something.” Jesse couldn’t help it; he enjoyed believing that his relationship with John Galloway was one based entirely on fictional heroes and villains. “If only I could find out what he’s up to. Maybe I should set up a sting operation or a stake out.”

“Now who sounds like a conspiracy theorist?” Tommy blurted out. “I don’t get it Jess. A week ago you would have been happy if the guy had decided to forget you altogether. Now you want to stalk the old bastard because you’re wondering why he’s forgotten all about you? That’s fucked up.”

“I wish I could disagree with you.” Jesse cracked his knuckles under the table, just like he always did when he knew he wasn’t being rational. The three of them used to be able to solve any of their problems at this coffee shop table, but for some reason things were much different now.

Tommy knew what the reason was, and it was suddenly staring at them from outside the window. Patrick Kohn had finally come back. Even the falling snow seemed to want to avoid him as it spattered around his feet. Tommy resisted the urge to bang on the glass, to scare Patrick away for just a little bit longer.

It took Patrick no time at all to remove his wet coat and scarf and join the three of them at the table. He sat down in the empty seat, right beside Tommy. It was incredibly surreal how normal it was to have him back. It made Tommy wonder what the point was. Why did they have to spend so much time trying to forget? What was the point of questioning any of his actions if Patrick was simply going to slide right back into their lives?

“Hey guys,” Patrick said. “Miss me?”

Tommy wanted to tell him that they’d already done their missing the first time he left them. Nothing remained for a second time. But instead, he kept his mouth shut.

“Where’s Sheldon?” Jesse asked.

“He’s at the hotel. I’ve got some errands to run today, so I didn’t want to drag him around against his will.”

“Are you kidding?” Kate’s jaw dropped. “You left your eight-year-old son alone in a hotel room? Is that a good idea?”

“I’ll only be gone for a couple of hours. Should I not have—?”

“That’s Parenting-101 Patrick. Not that any of us here would know any better.” Kate was only trying to make a joke but Patrick wasn’t laughing. In fact, Patrick hadn’t much of a reaction at all; he sat motionless, staring out onto the bustling, blustery Broadway. The other three just looked at him.

“I don’t know what I’m doing, do I?”

“None of us do, really.”

“With my son,” Patrick said, ignoring Kate’s comment altogether. “I never did. Natasha was always so good with him. I didn’t even know how to hold him when he was little; always thinking I’d break his neck or something. Now he’s sitting by himself in a big New York hotel.”

“The Beacon’s not that big,” Tommy muttered for no real reason at all.

“Listen guys. I bought that apartment in Brooklyn. And I’ve got to deal with the paperwork today. Would one of you be willing to watch Sheldon for a bit?”

“I’ve got a chiropractor appointment in an hour,” Kate admitted, massaging her lower back. “Too many years in that cheap Pendulum office chair. And I’ve already waited two months to see this guy. I can’t cancel now. He’s the best in the city.”

“Jesse?”

“Patrick, I’m sorry. They need me at work today. The new books are in and there’s no way Pond or Germ can manage without me.” He looked across the table to Tommy. “But you’re free aren’t you?”

Tommy ground a layer of enamel off his teeth.

Patrick turned to his left. “What about it Tom?”

But all Tommy could say was, “Who was that man I saw you with on the street last week?”

Patrick’s brow furrowed, but no words accompanied his reaction.

“Over on 3rd Avenue,” Tommy clarified. “He was fat and eating a hoagie the size of a small child.”

Patrick squirmed away from Tommy a little bit but eventually answered the question. “Oh you mean Jules? He works at the warehouse. I just bumped into him on the street.” Patrick waved down the waitress and he asked her for a piece of toast and an orange juice. Kate and Jesse took the opportunity to order something as well, but the waitress still did nothing about Tommy’s plate. “What were you doing over there Tommy?”

“Meeting with my agent.”

“Oh yes. I saw your review in the paper this morning.”

“I’ll bet you did.”

“Sounds like the people just want more Kaspar Delancey.”

“Well, you can’t believe everything you read,” Tommy muttered. He removed the plate himself, placing it on the empty table behind him. “Trust me, The Manhattanite will catch on eventually. These things just need time.”

“I’m sure.”

“Me too.”

Kate and Jesse could do nothing but stare at the two men as they passive-aggressively one-upped one other. But the banter stopped when Patrick’s phone buzzed. Tommy noted that the family picture on the phone had already been replaced with nothing but a blank white screen. Patrick looked at the caller ID but did not answer it.

“Is that Jules now?” Tommy asked.

“Why does it seem like you never believe a word anyone tells you Tommy?”

“Because that way I never feel bad when someone’s lying to me.”

Patrick reached into his back pocket for his wallet and removed a business card. The strong smell of the leather wallet indicated it must have been brand new. Once again, Tommy failed to suppress any suspicion. Patrick slid the business card in front of Tommy; on it was the address and phone number for somewhere in New Jersey. “You can call Jules right now if you don’t believe me Tommy.”

“I’m good, thanks.”

Kate couldn’t stand it any longer. “What’s wrong with the two of you? You’re like a couple of idiot school girls arguing over whose tits are bigger! Just stop it already.”

“I don’t even know what it is we’re arguing about,” Patrick stated.

But Tommy didn’t want to hear anymore. He snatched his coat and scarf, he stood up on the bench and he stepped across into the booth behind him. It seemed easier than having to ask Patrick to get out of his way.

Jesse meanwhile was looking over the information on Patrick’s business card. “Fairmount? Wasn’t that the street my exhibition was on?”

Tommy stopped. Even though he didn’t know the first thing about Jersey City’s streets, his suspicion was officially piqued.

Kate took the card from Jesse’s hand and read the address herself. “You know what? That might be the exact same place.”

Jesse took one more look, as though the answers were somehow woven deep into the card stock. “I think it is the same place! What are the chances of that?”

“I didn’t even know you had an exhibition Jesse,” Patrick noted. “That’s an unusual coincidence, isn’t it?”

Breathe in.

At once, all three of them turned to Tommy, each with their own reasons for doing so. Tommy didn’t know what to think of the coincidence though; he was not a big believer in twists of fate or flukes or chance. Characteristically, he was not a suspicious person, but he’d never felt more wary than he had for the past week, ever since Patrick returned. One time in his life, for just a few minutes, he was sure that destiny had to be real. It was the night he snapped open the Chinese fortune cookie and found a tooth. He thought it was maybe a clue to some ancient lost fortune, but his mother just grabbed the tooth from his hand and phoned the Better Business Bureau. Wing Fung’s shut down one week later. So much for destiny.

Tommy’s friends were the most important people in his world, but his world seemed to be spinning the wrong way lately. He considered what the girl at the counter had said to him before leaving. She said: “Just treat your friends right.”

Patrick broke him out of his reverie. “So will you help me out Tom? Can you take Sheldon for a few hours?”

“Wait, did you just say hours? Because I almost said yes there.”

“Tom, would you just—”

“Yeah, yeah. Of course I’ll come pick up the little shit.”

“Please don’t call him the little shit when you see him. Can you meet us at the hotel in an hour?”

It was preposterous to think that Patrick Kohn was back in Manhattan for ulterior reasons, wasn’t it? The man was not a problem maker, but he was not a problem solver either. If anything at all, he was a problem avoider; leaving them all ten years before without a word was evidence enough. Tommy loosened his scarf and smiled at the absurdity of his thoughts. He knew all about giving the benefit of the doubt. He knew well enough that he should treat his friends right. He also knew he really didn’t have anywhere better to be that morning, so he sat back down at the table.

“I’ll be there, Patrick.”

“It’s good to be back here with you guys,” Patrick noted, holding his glass of orange juice in the air as if to toast them all.

NEXT CHAPTER