The following takes place between 3am and 4am
I redialed the telephone as I threw the car into gear with a ferocity somewhere between “numb” and “furious.”
“Your mission is to rescue this man and protect him for the next two hours. He will be giving you your next assignments. He is located at nineteen oh one south Oneida Street, Green Bay. A picture will download momentarily.”
While the picture downloaded, I punched the address into the maps app one handed, navigating out of the hotel parking lot. I went right and sped across the Dousman Street Bridge I’d jumped off of less than an hour before. I didn’t look right or left, only straight ahead. I didn’t want to be reminded of this place.
The phone beeped to signify that the download was complete, and I booted up the picture. It was the game’s coordinator, the one who’d given the briefing earlier in the day. Same sunglasses, red hat, linen shirt, jeans, and Jordans. The picture didn’t look new; did he own any other clothes?
Left on Broadway, and the downtown mocked me with its happiness. It seemed that every other brightly lit storefront was a bar or restaurant, and over the growl of the engine, music and laughter drifted through the night air. Even the furniture and clothing stores were open and looked like they were hosting parties. I growled my frustration, angry enough to match the engine, and pounded my fist on the wheel.
The car tore past an old, tall brick building. Public school office. I’d paid for this car just a few blocks away. My whole reason for being in this town, the whole damn journey had started less than twelve hours ago and a couple hundred yards to the right. Less than half a day, and it felt like weeks.
Weeks ago since I’d been happy.
More or less carefree.
At the very least, OK.
I punched the steering wheel again, as hopeless, unreasoned anger surged through me. I wanted to do something evil. To cut myself. To break something beautiful. To hurt someone. Just to relieve this overpowering ache of fury and guilt and helplessness.
I blinked back the tears I didn’t have, but knew I should and dug around in my bag for my phone. I flipped it open and dialed the number I knew by heart. A pause before hitting “send” and Keith’s words came back to me: “If you tell him what I told you, you’ll put the idea in his head even sooner.”
Why did I believe Keith?
This would be a VERY careful conversation.
I hit “send.”
The phone rang, and rang, and rang. And rang. And rang again. Panic grew with every ring.
Finally a groggy, slurred voice answered. “Yeah?”
I didn’t know what to say. I was so damn grateful just to hear his voice again that I couldn’t speak.
“Yeah? Who…who is this?”
“Tim,” I said gently. “Hey.”
He swallowed and his voice was stronger when he spoke again. “Sam.”
“Yeah, it’s me.”
“Why the hell are you callin’ me? And atone in the morning?”
Oops. Vegas was two time zones behind Green Bay. I’d woken him. For a moment the thought of watching him sleep again choked me up.
“I…” I thought of Keith’s warning again, crazy as it was. “I had a bad feeling is all, wanted to know you were all right.”
“I’m not alright and you know that. Shit, you’re the reason why and you know that, too.” His voice grew mean.
“Just wanted to check on you is all. Make sure you’re still…that you’re ok.”
“It’s not appreciated, Sam. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m gonna go back to bed.” There was a rustling noise like he was laying down again.
“Wait. Wait.” The thought of not talking to him right now was painful and panicking.
“I…I miss you.” There it was, heart on the line. And yet, my heart wasn’t on the line, because it was calculated to keep him on the phone. I didn’t say it because I wanted to have a heart to heart conversation with him, I said it because I didn’t want to disconnect.
“Probably should’ve thought about that before…” His voice trailed off. “Well, you probably should’ve thought about that.”
“I’m sorry, Tim. I know saying that doesn’t change anything, just like it didn’t the last time I said it, but I want you to hear it again.”
“Apology not accepted. You can’t just kill a part of me and make it all right with a ‘sorry.’”
“I know. I can’t take it back and I wish I could.”
I pressed the phone to my chest and stared out at the night as the Mazda plowed through it. I breathed deep. Seemed like I hadn’t gotten a chance to do that very much recently. I put the phone back to my ear. “Good night, Tim.”
“I hope you don’t have a good night, Sam. Ever again.” The line went dead.
“Love you,” I whispered. The tears I should’ve had at the beginning of the conversation appeared without warning.
I couldn’t blame him for hating me. If I was justified in myself, he had just as much right.
“Are you going to be alright?” The nurse had asked.
“Fine,” I replied, answering on autopilot as I signed out.
She smiled and handed me a flower. “I’m glad to hear that. We give these to everyone as they leave. Just a little reminder that you’re still beautiful. This was just a minor detour in your life. Still, if you need counseling, you have our number, please call.”
I stared at the flower as I stood out on the sidewalk. I studied the number and curve of the petals, the veins, the slightly ragged edges, the texture of the stem, the point of the thorns. Hell of a trade. Gained a flower, lost my soul, regained my normal life. No one could tell I was going around without a soul.
I let the rose drop to the pavement and walked down the street, dialing Stephanie to come pick me up.
Fury washed over me for a moment, and then I let it wash back out. I replaced the phone in my bag and refocused my attention on the road. Nothing else to do now.
The houses on either side indicated I was in “the hood.” They were peeling paint and siding, the wooden porches rotting away, doors and windows all in a state of disrepair. The yards were mostly dirt and weeds, and piled high with broken children’s’ toys and broken furniture. Lights were on in many of the houses and rap music and angry shouting filtered out of alternating buildings. The short street was bookended by bars, seemingly too no-collar and working class for the kind of disrepair I saw here. I had a feeling that the inhabitants of these houses didn’t know any kind of collar other than the ones that came on massively oversized Sean John polos.
I turned right onto Ninth, and the hood continued. Why did such macho looking men walk such small ridiculous looking dogs up and down the same stretch of sidewalk over and over?
I sat at a red light for what seemed like forever. I would’ve run it – there was no one coming on either side for miles and I was feeling rather uncomfortable about sitting in the middle of Green Bay’s version of Brooklyn in a racecar – but there was a black and white facing me from the other side and I didn’t want to waste any time on a ticket.
Ninth Street was marginally nicer than the end of Broadway I’d turned off of. The houses didn’t ALL look like crack dens. The further up Ninth Street I went, the less it looked like a ghetto. It was still shoulder to shoulder ancient middle-class mansions, but they were in a decent state of repair. There were even businesses that didn’t look like fronts for chop shops numbers rackets.
Left onto South Oneida, and it actually looked suburban. People lived in these houses that didn’t get into line-ups on a regular basis. The houses were mostly dark, and the tree-lined street mostly quiet, the canopy a darker black than the sky due to the street lights beneath.
The street was peaceful, no other cars, no people, just me and the car and the road and the warm wind streaming in through the warm windows.
Red light at a massive intersection, and I had an opportunity to look around. Stadium to the right, sitting in the middle of a parking lot big enough to comfortably park a few Boeings. And the stadium wasn’t that small either. To the left was a big old-looking brick building that also looked like a stadium. Not the modern temple of excess tax dollars kind though.
The app said I was here.
I doubted I was.
At green, I rolled through the intersection, my head swiveling side to side, looking for…something…anything…
The old stadium had a small ticket building in front of it, big illuminated letters saying “Brown County Arena” on the roof. I knew the stadium to the right was Lambeau Field, home of the Packers.
Driving slowly forward, another stadium came into view. A hulking monstrosity that was mostly white metal and massive sheets of glass.
That was probably the place…
I turned left at a war memorial and drove down a short street, turning right into a parking lot next to a massive warehouse-style practice building that given the proximity and color scheme probably belonged to the Packers.
The parking lot was mostly full. A look at my phone told me the hour was already fifteen minutes over. Probably wouldn’t lose anything by taking a moment to survey the area. I pulled the battered Vortex from my bag and moved the lens slowly over building. The second floor was a ribbon of glass running along the outside, and through it I could see concession stands, waiting areas, people. People running, shooting, walking away from fights they’d lost.
Lots of people.