The quiet Mojave night is broken by uneven footsteps, shrouded in the deepest of darkness. Bennett Forgrave stumbles over rocks and loose sand until finally his legs give in to the pain, and he collapses. The blisters in his feet make it hard to get his shoes off; they haven’t busted but they do stick out a half-inch. He sighs as he digs his heels into the cold sand, and something about the abrasiveness soothes the fire.
Staring up into the cloudless sky, the stars look like frozen raindrops waiting for time to start again. Slowly the sand starts to sting, pulling his feet out he can feel the wind hitting the fresh openings on a few of the blisters, hours of walking into the desert with leather shoes and polyester socks will certainly kill your feet. Now he has to spit into a sock to wipe away as much of the sand as he can bear. His face chills as tears of pain and sorrow flow freely down his cheeks.
From out of the darkness a pair of eyes comes into existence. Pulling out a lighter he illuminates the rest of a small fox’s body. The kit makes its way, hunched over and limping, and shivers to a stop less than a foot away from his right hand.
“You lost, too?” Bennett whispers to it. “How long?”
The little one inches closer until it’s licking distance from his fingers. Reaching out, he pats it on the head and calmly speaks to it. He winces as he reaches over and pulls the fox nearer to him; it sits at his side like a pointed face dog. Wrapping his ripped and filthy suit jacket around it, he can feel the small animal’s heart beating hard against its chest.
“I’ve been losing for the past five months. I lost my husband first, then I lost my job with a reputable magazine, and I most definitely have lost my mind.” The tears roll freely now.

“Do you want to hear the story?”

***

“Boss man, it’s Bennett.” I try to sound excited, like getting the green light from Buster Murdock’s agent to do an exclusive is the greatest thing since the printing press. “Allensworth was a push over. I gave him the old ‘his last movie was good, but not his greatest’ schpiel, followed by your favorite, get this, I followed up with the ‘this paper can make it look like he wrote the bible’ number.”
“He fell for that?” His high-pitched laugh pierces my ear.
“Like I said boss man, push over. Now if you don’t mind I technically have another two hours left on the job so I’m going to have a bite on the company’s dime.” We both know now that I’ve called it’ll be on my dime and not his.
The tall agency building casts its shadow over the sidewalk. It’s still cold out, and when I walk into the sunlight it doesn’t do much. I think about calling James but he’s still at work; he doesn’t like it much when I call him while he’s mystifying the public as The Great Winslow, magician extraordinaire. He’s over at Long Lake Park, but I might pay him a visit.
I pass by a car dealership; all the shiny new cars taunt me with their fancy headlights and outrageous price tags. James and I talked about getting a car, but with the money a writer and a magician make we can barely afford living in the city. Of course with the luck I have my bus stop is right in front of the dealership. I wonder if they pay the city to put the bench here to subconsciously sell cars.
I light a cigarette and look around at the people passing by me. A few of the spandex-suited I-am-healthy-and-you-are-not pricks on their glorified Schwinn bicycles ride by. I blow smoke at them but they don’t notice. A little old lady across the street catches the light late and has to wait for it to turn again. The coffee shop is full of twenty-something’s with their overpriced laptops writing the next great American novel — I wish I was them.
Looking over toward Spring Rd. I can see the bus making its way toward me. The old lady better hustle; the 340 bus man is an impatient dick that wouldn’t wait for his mother. By the time I’m inside she is still a good thirty yards away, but I can’t let her wait for the next one.
“Got a hitch in your giddy-up Gran?” I hang out the door making sure Mr. 340 doesn’t drive off, but keep a tight grip on the handle just in case. She finally makes it and I let her go first.
“You’re too slow Ma’, I need to keep to the schedule, next time I’m leaving you,” he grunts.
“Such a responsible boy.” She pinches his cheek. Holly crap, he was going to leave his mother.
I pay and make my way to the back; I toss my bag into the seat next to me and pull out my ear buds. I don’t know why I’ve been on a southern rock kick but it’s taken over my life. I see two people talking across the aisle to each other, and I can’t help but put them in my mental spaghetti western.
“Dang it Martha, woot did I tell ya about following me to a standoff. Ya need to stay home and wash my britches.”
“Look Zane, I’m not yer lil housewife … anyhow I’m not going for you I’m going to cheer for Ace, your brother.”
I have to lay off the romance novels, shit gets to my brain. My pocket vibrates; I pull off my ear buds and take out my phone. “Hey sweetie, how’s the prestidigitation going?”
“I have to talk to you Forgrave.” He only says my last name when something scares him. I can hear people in the background yelling. “It’s important.”
“It sounds like you’re in the middle of a show, can it wait till we get home? I have to tell you how my meeting went today. I got the job!”
“That’s great,” he doesn’t sound too happy.
“I’m sorry James, what did you want to tell me?”
“Nothing … I love you, you know that?”
“I love you, too. What’s wrong?”
“It’s so pretty at this park. We should have a picnic.” I can hear the yells turn into screams.
“James what’s wrong? Why is there screaming?”
“It’s so … pretty.” I can hear a man yell at someone to put something down. I didn’t notice when I stood up.
“Sit down back there!” the bus driver yells.
“James talk to me, what’s—” the gunshot rings though the phone. I can hear cries and screams from the other side. They get louder and louder. I scream along with them.
“Sit down back there!”
“James!” I scream his name over and over into the phone. The bus driver yells again and I fling the phone at him still screaming. He turns to yell at me again and doesn’t see the light turn, but I do. I shut my eyes and with a sickening crunch of metal against metal I fly forward, smack into something or someone, and blackout.
I can smell the scent of cigarettes. I open my eyes, they are heavy, and I am heavy. The bed sheets are heavy, I don’t know when I got to bed but I’m in it. I look over and see the still lit cigarette in the edge of the ashtray, it hasn’t been that long. I roll over and pick it up. My eyes sting from crying. I’ve been crying since I woke up in the hospital four weeks ago. It’s hard to get up with one hand, but at least the cast gives me enough dexterity to smoke.
The living room is dark. I think it’s night, I don’t want to open the blinds. Out of habit I hit the play button on the answering machine on my way to the fridge, even though I have no intention of calling anyone back.
“Bennett, this is your father. Please call me back. I haven’t seen you since the funeral and I just want to make sure you’re ok.” His sigh doesn’t mask the tears. “Son I know how you feel. When your grandmother died … call me back when you have the chance.”
No ‘I love you’ papa? Thanks anyway. The next message is just weeping: James’ mother couldn’t speak at the wake either.

“Ben it’s Samantha, call me back sweetie. Phil and I are worried about you. We love you so much and we want you to get better.” Friends are supposed to say things that don’t make sense, right? I can only assume when she says get better she means from my arm and headaches.

“Forgrave, it’s Larry. I just wanted you to know that Bilton finished the piece on Murdock and it comes out tomorrow on page twenty-two.” Even the boss sounds caring. “I can send you a copy through the email if you like.”
He is such an old man, and Bilton is just going to fuck it all up. The child proofing on this pill bottle is the stupidest invention in the world. “Son of a bitch!” The damn thing flies out of my hands and two pills land in the drain.
I pop three and take a swig of my water, but they only help my hand and my head still hurts. I think the doctors think I’m going to do the same as James and won’t give me anything stronger. Those tears roll down my cheeks thinking about it; he didn’t even leave me a note. I read that statistically only twenty-five to thirty percent of suicidal people actually leave those.
I walk over and sit on the couch. The blank television reflects the digital clock behind me, 6:22 pm. James thought it was just the bee’s knees that I could read backwards so easily. I astounded Mr. Magic.
Snubbing out the cigarette and still being dressed, I grab my keys and walk out the door. I walk four blocks to the little shopping square he and I used to go to get his ‘sexy-pants’ as he called them. I take a seat in front of a coffee shop and wait for the server, normally it’s a good-looking boy who made James jealous but tonight it’s Klara.
“Hey Ben, what can I get you?” The angel treats me like a normal human being, but I can see the sadness in her eyes whenever she gets the strength to look at me. I order my usual and pull out another cigarette.
This goddamn headache just won’t go away. I should have stayed home. I tend to pass out for a while when it starts to hurt. I close my eyes while I wait for my coffee, and take a drag and feel a little woozy. The clank of a tray brings me out of it. Klara is back with my cup and a notepad with pen.
“Thanks sweetheart,” i say. She smiles and goes to help another costumer.
Taking a sip and grabbing the pad and pen, my mind goes blank of any kind of imagination. I put it back down and pick up my cup. I try to see how much coffee I can drink while holding in a lung full of smoke, I run out fast. There are teens running around the square playing with silly string, happy as can be.
A woman takes photos of them from artsy angles; a young boy and girl kiss for a picture while making half a heart each with their hands. The woman turns her attention to an elderly couple and they mimic the kiss and hand gesture. Not one to be left out, a child runs around yelling lines from a cartoon show he must be obsessed with.
I stand and leave some cash before turning around and leaving. I walk through the square and the woman snaps a photo, should have gone the other way. The flash doesn’t help my head. I say something about not using the flash or it’ll over expose the image. It’s not that I know anything about photography, one of my coworkers does, and I’m sure I heard him say something along those lines.
“Hey man, find Jesus at our church.” An old hipster pushes a flyer at me. I take it to keep him from following me and toss it the first chance I get. I don’t make it to the train tracks in time to beat the gate. My head kills me with the loud ding noise they make, and I nearly topple as the train goes by.
I try to turn but my legs won’t work. With a jolt of pain I push my hands onto my temples, as if trying to stop my head from splitting. The train noise stops but I stand holding my head, any moment that hipster is going to ask me if I’m ok. He never came, I open my eyes and find myself in an alleyway.
“What the fuck!” I jump and cling to the wall.
“Help me,” a woman’s voice comes from behind a dumpster. “Please help me.”
I can see her bare foot and a flat lying a few feet away from it. Getting the courage to walk closer I find her on her back, with scratch marks on her face and her t-shirt torn, exposing her bra. I stare at her while she mouths for help.
“Tell me again about your fist blackout,” Dr. Thurgood says, not looking up at me but at his notes.
“Haven’t we gone over this already?” I’m sitting across from him in a high-backed chair. What kind of shrink doesn’t have a couch?
“I know, but I feel you have not connected all the dots.”
“I woke up in the ally and found Patricia.” The police told me her name when they were taking my witness report. “She asked for help so I called the police.”
“What about the second blackout? You were in a bar when a fight broke out.”
“No, I was about a block away going to visit my friends Samantha and Philip Argyle, and I sort of found myself there.”
“What about the most recent one, with the young boy?” Dr Thurgood jots down a note.
“I was—I was in my apartment and found myself out in the street watching a kid,” I choke back the tears, something I’ve gotten good at. “Watching a kid bleed to death after getting hit by a car.”
“I see.” I don’t like his tone of voice, I feel him judging me.
“I didn’t cause any of that stuff.” How the hell could I?
Dismissing what I said he asks, “How are you holding up regarding James and his suicide?”
Fuck, doesn’t he know how sharp words can be? I stare at my fingernails before answering. “I’m holding up ok. I’ve started talking to family and friends about it if that’s what you’re asking.”
“That is very good, Bennett. I am glad to hear you are opening up to those who are closest to you.” He doesn’t look up again. “How does it feel having your hand out of the cast?”
“Good I suppose, makes taking my meds easier.”
“Are you following the directions given to you by the doctor and the pharmacy?” He finally looks up at me.
“Yes.”
“Good. Well I think we are done for today.” He stands up and waits for me to follow suit. “Same time next week, then.”
“Sure.” He holds the door open for me and I walk out into the small waiting room filled with fake plants and other crazies. I make my appointment with the receptionist, and take the card she hands me.
I’ve been seeing Dr. Thurgood for the last four months; he’s the first shrink I’ve ever seen so I don’t really know if he is any good. We talked about the blackouts because it was mandated by my physician, but we talked about James and the accident, too. I learned from him that the little old lady and the couple from my Spaghetti western were the only other survivors. He doesn’t want me to blame myself for the old lady getting hurt; I still should have just let her wait for the next bus.
The street outside is busy; people don’t seem to have much to do but be out and about on a Saturday afternoon. I should go visit my parents, but I hate the uncomfortable silences and the way they ask if I’m ok when I take a little too long in the restroom. Sam and Phil are probably home; I’ll check and see what they are up to.
The cul-de-sac they live in looks like something from Home and Garden. Walking up the path to 4463 is like going to visit a movie star; I raise my hand to knock when a massive throbbing in my skull hits me without warning. It’s followed closely by another that makes me double over, but just as they came they‘re gone. I’m left there still holding my head but with no pain.
“Ben?” The door opens and Phil stands in the doorway, beard tucked in his collar, looking down at me.
“I thought I dropped something,” I lie. “Don’t you hate that feeling? Then you spend five minutes like an idiot looking for what never existed.”
“I know the feeling.” He laughs and opens the door wider. I straighten up and take a step inside, but something tugs at me and I turn to catch the blinds closing in the house across the street.
“House is looking nice,” I say, looking around the foyer. “Looks like Sam won the argument on what color to use.”
“Doesn’t she always? It’s called Summer Yellow.” He leads me to the living room. “Honey! Guess who came to visit?”
“Ben, sweetie. How are you?” Sam walks in from the kitchen with a rag in one hand and a cup in the other. “Want anything to drink?”
“Beer, if you have it.”
She walks back into the kitchen and Phil leans in close. “I just bought the best fucking weed. We can toke when she goes to the market.”
“Dose your wife still not know about your bad habits?”
“Do I know about what?” Sam walks back in holding three beers, and then it happens. My skull bursts open and pain spills out instead of blood.
I’m frozen, everything slows to a crawl. The pain pushes burning tears out but I can see clearly. Samantha turns her head away from me, so does Philip. I turn my head to look at him and back at Sam, but my vision is on a delay. I look back and forth three times, but the image coinciding with the movement is still trying to get through the first action. I can’t stop my head from shaking. It’s not the image that’s too slow to catch-up, it’s my head that’s moving too fast. I can feel it now, I can feel the pain from my head moving, and the picture catches up, too. Everything becomes a blur of yellow and slowly burgundy.
As my head slows and the pain subsides I shut my eyes. I know it’s happened again. I can smell stale pipe tobacco in the air, and hear a man’s muffled anger from another room. I am no longer at 4463.
“Shut the fuck up when I’m talking, bitch.” I can hear the woman cry out when the man hits her.
“Marcus please, I won’t talk back,” she says between sobs.
“You’re talking back now bitch!”
The image of James flashes, an image of him happy and smiling. Then an image of him fearful and all alone, holding a gun in his hand. I burst through the door and find the man between the woman’s legs, her face is bruised pushed into the carpet but she can see me. Her skirt is pulled up and her panties are torn.
“Who the fuck—”
I kick his face in, he tumbles and she screams. Jumping on his chest, I beat his already bloody skull with an anger not entirely meant for him. The woman pulls me off and throws herself into him, protecting him, “he didn’t meant it.”
I jump to my feet and run for the front door. Running flat-out I make it almost six blocks before it happens again, my head splits open, shakes violently, and I open my eyes to find myself in a schoolyard where a gang of cholos are beating on a younger kid.
Without missing a beat they turn their attack on the intruder. I fight back as well as I can, finding an opening I kick at someone’s stomach and make a break for a fence. They are slower than I am, and I make it a block before the first of them jump the wall.
I’m almost knocked backwards when it happens again. I don’t have time to open my eyes when hands claw at my face, and water fills my lungs. I break the surface and catch a glimpse of a backyard swimming pool before I’m transported again.
It’s almost like the universe is mad. I get flung into the wall of my apartment and land a foot from my couch. I’m breathing heavily and soaking wet. I roll to my back and pass out.
I wake up in a dark apartment shivering to the bone and still wet. The phone rings and goes to the machine. I can hear someone speaking calmly but can’t make out who it is. The call ends, and the machine beeps, letting me know it’s saved the message. I stand up slowly and walk to the bathroom, turn on the hot water and climb in.
What the fuck happened to me? Why am I all wet? Then the images seep in like smoke under a doorway. I beat a man, fought off a gang, and saved someone from drowning. All I could think of next is the camping trip I took with my dad the weekend after I told him I was gay. As he taught me to start a fire, catch a fish bareheaded, and how to fight off a bear if I needed to, he kept repeating, “You might be queer but you will be a man.”
Something tells me I need to go back there, back to that weekend. I climb out of the shower and run to the door, but I stop and hit the record button on the machine. “I love you all. I’ll be fine, talk to you soon.”
I used to run track in high school, but I would have beaten my time with the speed I was doing. I don’t know how I was going to make it to that desert, it didn’t matter. I ran past the square where Klara works, past the building where the boss man was undoubtedly still working, through the suburbs where Sam and Phil live. I didn’t stop till I got as far as the train yard, and only because I was coughing out a lung. I walked for about a mile along the tracks, through the warehouse district of another city. I can feel the ground rumble as a train speed its way behind me.
The wind it created as it passes pushes me off-balance and I fall onto the loose rocks. I am content with sitting here till it passes, but it happens again for the fifth time today. I’m pulled through the head-splitting vortex and land painfully on my ass inside one of the train compartments. Next to me lies a man in ragged clothes gasping for breath, his eyes are bloodshot and his skin is gray.
I watch him as he takes his last, shuddering breath. I shiver from the cold and the similarity in his face and James’, that peaceful expression of finally being rid of the pain. His clothes look warmer than mine. I hate myself, but I strip and pull off his pants. Feeling his still warm skin churns my stomach, and I run to the other side of the car to throw up.
Finally getting all his clothes on, the train feels warmer. I pull out my phone from the jeans on the floor. It’s ruined; I thought I could use the GPS to find my way. No need, I just need to head east and I’ll find my way.

***

“And here we are little friend,” Bennett Forgrave says to the little fox. “This is the spot where my dad and I pitched out tent, all those years ago.”
The fox looks around to make sure, then looks back as if to ask, “What now?” In answer the silence is broken once again, this time by the rumble of an engine. An SUV barrels though the sand. Someone screams from inside it. With a quiet sucking sound Bennett Forgrave is gone, and the fox is left alone.
He looks over in time to see the SUV swerve and crash into the side of a large boulder. The horn blares, screams ring, and a gunshot sounds. Only the horn can be heard as the door is pushed open. Bennett stumbles out and reaches in to help the person out of the crash. The little fox shakes its fur happily.
Sorry it took so long to get this up, Holiday Shopping is a tiring thing. Next month there will be two Niander parts and the conclusion of Marty’s story. Have a Wonderful Christmas and a happy new year.

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