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Jacob sat slightly higher at the table than his friend, Sunny, with whom he was speaking. Sunny’s hands were placed flat on either side of the cloudy orange tabletop as he listened intently to the dream being recounted.
“She was waiting for me in the back of a small restaurant, kind of like this one, at a table, opposite an empty chair, and her friend Barbara sat to her left. She was smiling a hidden kind of smile as I walked up to her.”
“You could walk, in the dream?”
“Yes,” nodded Jacob, “and when I sat down Claire leaned back and crossed her arms, like this.” He folded his arms against his chest and tilted his head back, peering at Sunny through distrustful eyes. “I don’t remember how it got started, but I had a book in front of me, uh…”
After ten seconds or so, Sunny said, “A textbook? A paperback?”
Jacob raised his eyes to meet his friend’s. “No. A schedule book, you know, a—what do you call those things?”
“A day planner?”
“Yeah, one of those, all filled with events and plans. Every day had a box filled with notes, the entire year was mapped out for us with dates, vacations, parties, family visits and stuff, even big celebrations like New Year’s Eve in Times Square. I kept flipping through the book for the best days, and reading the day’s events to her, trying to convince her, but she didn’t smile or move really.”
“Convince her of what?”
“I don’t know,” he laughed. “Impress her, maybe. To make her fall in love with me.”
“What was Barbara doing?”
“She might have been helping me look for days.” Jacob stared down at his plate, at the half-eaten pile of french fries and swirl of ketchup. “I woke up before Claire gave me an answer.”
Sunny followed him past the counter and register, then helped push his electric wheelchair over the ridge in the doorway. They listened to the Classic Rock station on the ride home while Jacob nodded to the music, throwing punches at the air and shouting, “Alright,” when the songs got good.
“God bless you, brother,” Sunny waved out the window and sped away, the taillights blinking on in the blue evening haze. Jacob watched the grey Chevy shrink and blur into the stream of humming vehicles, then spun and motored up the walkway toward the ramp and front door.
All he had to do for the rest of the day was shower, get dressed, eat dinner, and go to sleep before ten o’clock. His job at Makermart required him to be there at six sharp so he could scan the boxes after the flow team unloaded the morning deliveries. After work he had basketball practice on Wednesdays and Fridays, and if he didn’t get enough sleep he’d be drowsy and lagging on the court.
The simple task of showering and putting on clothes took Jacob approximately three to four times longer than an able-bodied person. Once he completed this process, he checked his phone, and seeing no new messages or calls, wheeled over to his desk, removed a bottle of tequila and plastic lime from the drawer, and commenced watching an episode of Attack on Titan on his laptop. A team of warriors flew through the trees raining hell on a malevolent giant who had the power to regenerate his limbs and organs. Jacob poured another shot, threw it back, and squirted some lime juice in his mouth. His thoughts drifted to Claire and the dream again. There may be some truth to it, he thought. Sometimes he felt like he was trying too hard, and if she wasn’t into it, so what, there’s plenty of fish in the sea. Then the green of her eyes washed over him, melted his indifference into a renewed determination to win her. “I love her,” he’d say to himself, “but she better know I’m liquid metal.”
The boxes dropped onto the conveyor and slid over the silver bars, the worn cylinders roaring, then faintly whistling, as the cardboard rolled past, and Jacob’s coworkers loaded the pallets on either side of the line. He used his manual chair there since it was easier to maneuver in close quarters. Once a pallet was ready to go out to the floor, the worker would raise a hand and he’d shoot over and scan the barcodes on each of the boxes. Not the most awesome job in his opinion, but at least he could listen to music, and the people weren’t all unbearable.
“But it don’t make no difference,” he sang under his breath, “Cause I ain’t gonna be easy, easy. The only time I’m gonna be easy’s when I’m, killed by death…”
“What you listenin’ to today, Jake?” his friend Shane asked, but he just kept singing and scanning the boxes.
When ten-thirty came around he grabbed his lunch and rolled outside to the employee smoking area on the south side of the building. Early December in Milwaukee, the clouds of vapor billowed out from Jacob’s lungs as the turkey sandwich on his lap began to freeze. He watched the cars gliding past beyond the creek encircling the hill on which the Makermart sat, and let his eyes drift down to the icy water. The edges were frozen, jagged white borders constricting the dark green current, winding through the dense woods before the highway. He didn’t move for a while, only sat, listening. Then, at ten fifty-five, he quickly ate the frosty sandwich and wheeled back in to help stock and zone items on the lower shelves.
The Dial n’ Go shuttle picked him up at two and took him straight to basketball, and his mother’s friend, Susan, the woman he lived with, picked him up from there. “How was practice?” she asked, folding the wheelchair and preparing to stow it in back of the van. “You look exhausted, did you eat your lunch?” Jacob hoisted his right leg inside and reached out to close the passenger door, pausing a moment to consider answering her question. “Never mind, then,” she said when the door slammed shut.
“I got you those elbow sleeves you asked for, the kind with the pad. They’re on your bed,” she called from the kitchen.
His head bowed, almost dropping on the empty plate. “How many times have I told you—politely—to stay out of my room?”
“Oh, I know…” Her attention focused on the task at hand, cracking and straining the yolks out of five large eggs for Jacob’s dinner omelet, part of a high-protein, low-calorie diet he’d started for basketball, and to help him get “insanely ripped” by New Year’s. “I thought it’d be easier than having to carry them yourself. Couldn’t help seeing those empty bottles in the trash. I wish you’d quit drinking so much, young man.”
He raised his head, stared wide-eyed at the ceiling. “Nine years, I’ve been old enough to drink. I’ll be—”
“Thirty years-old in March,” she finished the sentence with him, rounding the counter with a plate of turkey bacon and a glass of milk. “Please take it under advisement,” she smiled gently, “you drink enough tequila to drown a mariachi band each week.”
“And she’s racist, too.”
“Winters are rough sometimes,” she said, returning to the kitchen. “The soul tends to weep and yearn for light. Spring will be a time of waxing joy and renewal.”
“I’m happy to hear that, Susan.”
He deliberately waited until 8:05pm to call Claire. She picked up the phone after one ring. “Hey, Jacob!”
“Claire, how’s it going? How was—”
“Not bad, you know—sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt. I’m in the middle of inking the next SkyWench issue and it’s stressing me out.”
Jacob paused a second. “I saw the sample pages on your blog the other day. It looks amazing.”
“Well, thank you, sir. Should be one of the best ones yet. Now all I need is some readers.”
“Would you want to have dinner with me Saturday, at my place, maybe watch a movie after?” He almost added, “I can cook a mean roasted chicken with sauvignon blanc,” but kept his mouth shut.
A few hours passed, and Claire said, “Sure. I’d love to. What time should I be there?”
“Eight, eight-thirty. I’ll start cooking around eight.”
“Sounds great, Jake,” she said, possibly smiling. “I’ll see you, Saturday night.”
After work the next day he hit the gym, but not too hard since he had practice the day after that. He wondered if Claire might want to go to his game Sunday. Depending on how their date went, asking her to the basketball game could be a smart move, but if he came on too strong she might brush him off like a charity case who got too clingy. “Cute little Jacob,” he groaned, pulling himself up into a seated position on the workout bench. “He thinks Claire’s gonna be his girlfriend.” Opposite the incline and decline presses, a woman in dark grey spandex pants and a sports bra was doing alternating curls and watching herself in the mirror. He eyed her for a moment, checking out her body. Curvy and muscular, a large chest but not huge, a moderately pretty face, and straight black hair. She caught a glimpse of him, glanced at his shoulders and arms, and smiled. He smiled back, then her eyes moved to the wheelchair parked beside his bench, she flashed a confused expression, stole a glance at his legs, and turned back to her own reflection. Jacob lied down and started his next set.
Tired, tired, tired. So tired of this… Waking up to pitch black alarm, smelling filth in a soiled diaper, dragging self out of bed, washing, grooming, dressing, for another day like every other God-damned day. Another day of crawling. Susan loves, cares, and toils for him. Sunny loves him like a brother. Claire laughs and gazes at him from time to time, soft beaming starlight in her eyes, soon to fade, or fall, displaced by cloud or shadow, unknown amusement shaping lips into a grin.
“Hold up, let me scan those,” he barked at Richard, who’d started jacking up a pallet near the back of the truck.
“Sorry, Jake. Kind of want to get these done in a hurry. They should let us scan our own boxes, it’d be way faster.”
“Management wants it this way,” he said quickly.
“You’d be out of a job though, huh?”
“And what a tragedy that would be. Kay, you’re good to go, Dick.”
Half of practice was drills, exercise, and strategy, while the second half was a scrimmage game. His team went all out during practice games unless they had an important real game in the next few days. Sunday afternoon they were playing the West Allis Porcupines, so no one on Jacob’s team was very worried. The scrimmage began as usual in a fun, even brotherly spirit of good-natured competition.
“Once in a while it’s the right play to pass the ball, lame legs.”
“I’ll make sure to tell your mom that later.”
“At least Jake actually makes a shot sometimes, Danny.”
“Yeah,” his teammates laughed.
Jacob spun and launched down the left side of the court, hoping to snag a rebound and sail the ball to Nick or Max for a shot. He locked chairs with Elliot at the three-point line and fought to break free, but by then his team had possession, storming up the court where Max lobbed one in from under the basket.
Susan waited in the parking lot at four, folded his chair, stowed it in back, climbed into the driver’s seat, and started the van. “Your friend dropped by today,” she said quietly. “She left you a comic book. Said you’re cooking her dinner tomorrow night?”
He rolled down the window, spat on the pavement, and rolled it up again. “Is that alright?”
They already had the soy sauce, vinegar, and carrots at home, but they still needed soy beans, soba noodles, and salmon filets, so they stopped at the EarthWay grocery by their house. He had found the Ginger Salmon recipe on a gourmet cooking site, he told her, and thought a Japanese meal would go well with the film they were watching, plus Claire liked anime, sushi, and some Shibuya-kei music. He appreciated Susan taking him to buy the groceries. He also appreciated her finding someplace else to be tomorrow night from seven o’clock onward, so he and Claire could have the privacy they’re entitled to as responsible, non-threatening adults.
The comic she’d given him, the latest issue of SkyWench, wasn’t her best work, although Jacob respected what she was trying to do. Previous issues focused more on the clashes between Mina’s skyborn clan of sister warriors and the rock-dwelling Scorporanths that fed on human beings, often indulging a nigh unquenchable thirst for human spinal fluid. In this one all she did was fly from mountain to mountain on her Sordes, with a few of her warriors, on a quest to locate a floating island where the land was fertile and the Scorporanths couldn’t reach them. Mina ends up finding it, then changes her mind, saying life there would be, “A thunderless dream, and hence a virago’s nightmare.” Claire’s other readers might enjoy it, either way he intended to keep any negative opinions to himself.
She showed up just after eight while he was grating the carrots. On his way to the door he hit play on the stereo. He had considered listening to an album that he knew Claire liked, Stereo * Type A or This Will Destroy You, but before he started cooking went with Use Your Illusion I, not wanting to look overeager to make her happy. She stood on the doorstep, smiling, for a couple seconds, and he said, “Hey, Claire. You look… Hazardous.”
Black sweater unbuttoned down the front, white v-neck t-shirt, faded jeans, frayed at the bottom, over a new pair of sambas. No purse in her hands, gently resting at her sides, and a calm, radiant, almost sarcastic look in her emerald green eyes. Dark brown hair streaked with blonde fell over one side of her face, curled slightly beneath her chin, and flowed in a crescent to the back of her neck. Pale rose lips, round above with softly dimpled corners, delicate, ivory cheeks, and the faintest freckles on a nose sloping bravely from the quiet shadows round her eyes.
“Invite me in at your own risk,” she said impatiently.
He poured her a glass of the Merlot that Susan drank, set it on the counter in front of her, and resumed prepping the ingredients. Most of the tables and counters were about half a foot lower than usual, part of the renovation done after Susan bought the house. In spite of this, and the feature of Jacob’s electric wheelchair allowing him to elevate or lower himself somewhat, he couldn’t shake a nagging embarrassment as Claire watched him cook and talked about her friends, the work they were doing, their plans for the future, and hers, which were more like vague wishes really because she still didn’t know what she wanted to do, but she’d rather live overseas and teach English than keep slanging shirts and keychains at the mall, and listening to the same fake-azz pop songs all day.
“Don’t you have to speak a foreign language to be able to teach overseas?”
“Not really. Besides, I could always learn.”
“Where would you want to live?”
“Europe, China, South America…”
“Why not Japan?”
“I think most people already have a working knowledge of English there. If not they probably don’t need more teachers.”
“Wouldn’t you miss this place? Milwaukee isn’t the best city in the world, but it’s way better than Chicago, or St. Louis.”
Claire laughed a single, ecstatic, “Ha,” and let her head fall on her forearms, lifted it again, and finished her wine. “I just know my life here has been a tragedy.”
They ate quickly, laughing now and then at each other’s jokes. The salmon was delicious, perfectly cooked according to him, though Claire thought it was too well done. “I agree,” she told him, “couldn’t be better.” The tv in the living room emitted an obnoxious buzzing sound when the previews started. He nearly fell out of his chair trying to get to the entertainment center to adjust the wires. Unplugging and plugging them back in fixed the problem, and the film began. The Wind Rises, directed by Hayao Miyazaki. He’d almost chosen Ninja Scroll, but after some deliberation ordered this one, not wanting to risk Claire getting freaked out—uncomfortable, rather—due to the abundant violence. The movie amazed her right away, she slid over next to Jacob, who’d moved from his wheelchair to the couch, and put his arm around her.
“Farewell, Mina,” he called from the doorway, instantly regretting it until she turned, laughing, and blew him a kiss. Later, as he was falling asleep, he assured himself that it was better not to have asked her to go to his game on Sunday, better still not to have made any plans at all. Their date was good. Maybe in a few days he’d call her again.
The game was a blowout, as expected. His team, the Badgers, dominated the West Allis Porcupines for a 43 to 17-point win, then Jacob and a few of the guys drove to a nearby sports bar for burgers and beers.
“I’ll buy the drinks today, boys,” he said as they rolled up to their table.
“Why you gonna do that, Jake?” asked Nick.
“I feel like being nice, since when do I need a reason?”
Danny eyed him for a second.
“In that case I want the most expensive whiskey they’ve got,” laughed Tyler.
“Did you get lucky last night, bro?” asked Danny.
Everyone at the table stopped talking, and looked at him.
“I told your mom to keep quiet about tha—”
“Yeah, yeah, just answer the question.”
He stared back at Danny and looked around at everyone. “None of your business, but yeah, I had a date last night.”
All the guys said, “Oooooh,” and started making dumb jokes, when the server walked over.
“You sound like a bunch of tween-age girls,” he yelled. “Look, the waitress is here.”
They ate, talked, and laughed for almost two hours, watching the Admirals and some other games on tv. Jacob and Danny drank shots of Jack until Danny threw up a little on his plate and disqualified himself. At home later, Susan asked how the date had gone. He declined to answer, only said, “Thank you,” and wheeled into his room.
It had surprised him that she’d consented to the date so quickly. Susan treated him like a baby when it came to normal adult activities, like going out to have a few beers with his friends, crashing at someone else’s house for a night, and spending time alone with a woman. He almost never did these things, but could remember a strange paralysis coming over her, a glassy-eyed intractability, when he wanted to do basic stuff like this in the past. Last night was no problem for her, for some reason. Maybe she finally realized he’s a real, live, grown-up human being. Or was it something different? Jacob double-checked the alarm time on his cell phone. It’s possible she sensed the truth about him and Claire, that they were meant to be together, and she didn’t want to mess with fate. Like playing with fire, he mused, dreaming off to sleep.
To the right of the black marble steps, the ramp led up to the revolving doors in three parallel segments, with a couple feet of space between them. Pushing hard up the first section of the ramp, Jacob’s arms began to tire, shoulders and triceps aching before turning to ascend the second, which he climbed more slowly, gasping at the start of each new push. Halfway up the third segment and less than twenty feet from the top, his right arm gave out, and the chair swung back to the left, and struck the metal railing with a low, percussive ring, a sound that tensed and uncoiled, sweeping out through his surroundings and permeating the ground, walls, and buildings as if they were merely air.
The front entrance had a single automatic door by the top of the ramp, yet it didn’t open when he pressed the button. Jacob clumsily wheeled in using his elbow to prevent the door from closing on him, rolled weakly past the vacant front desk, and continued across the spacious, warmly furnished lobby toward the row of elevators at the far wall. The effort required to convey his chair across the floor seemed to increase with each rotation of the wheels, his muscles felt like dead weight, his lungs began to choke on the sour air, and his head, sweating, nauseous, clouded by exhaustion and despair, sank forward and hung limply on his chest. He kept pushing. One arm, both arms, one again, both again… The lamplight in the room grew dim, and in the oaken darkness Jacob sensed the presence of his family and friends, pale, luminous figures, like spectators on either side of him, faces growing clearer, his sister and brother-in-law, with their kids, his physical therapist, his bro Sunny, Mom, Dad, Claire… They were smiling, and crying, some of them, watching him push. He raised his head. The elevators appeared, blurry and quivering, just a few yards away. The wheels squeaked on the cold tiles as he inched his way forward. Susan stood to his left, quiet like the rest, silently cheering him on. He looked at her and smiled, faced forward again, and propelled the chair onward with a final, broken cry.
The elevator doors slid open. In a moment he was strong again, and wheeled inside with ease. Four vertical rows of square buttons, twenty-five in each row and numbered one to a hundred, with several for the lower levels below, shone with amber light in front of him. He pressed the button for floor eighty-two. The car jolted and rattled into motion, swaying slightly as it rose, while the grid of lights over Jacob’s head cast bright floating circles on him and the elevator floor.
The car stopped and the doors opened. He rolled into a dim, high hallway where a woman sat at a desk in a cutout to his left. Her hair was sandy blonde, straight with dark roots, and she glanced up from her computer and smiled as he passed her. A conference room at the end of the hall, illumined by floor-to-ceiling windows, drew him to its glass wall and door, which he pulled open, awkwardly entering, and wheeling past the empty table and chairs, he parked before the center window and stared out at the city and sunset.
Above the staggered buildings, the clouds swept down in orange, pink, and purple waves, like the break of a cosmic surf, static, though imperceptibly flowing, crashing to the earth from a separate encompassing world. Within his heart, the softest change, a watered seed first parting, then peace, eternal dreams—
Knock, knock, knock.
Jacob turned as the conference room door swung open, and a man in his forties, eyes brown and steady, stepped in and walked over. “Hello, it’s nice to meet you. My name is Buddy.”
“I’m Jacob,” he answered, reaching out to shake his hand.
“Do you mind if I sit down? I’d like to speak with you for a few minutes, if that’s alright.”
“Your office, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s not,” said Buddy, pulling out a chair and spinning it around to face the windows. “This is a sort of common space, for people who work in various capacities for the one who owns the building.”
Jacob leaned forward to peer down at the avenues and minuscule vehicles not quite a thousand feet below. “He must be… rather comfortable, if he owns this place.”
“Well, yes and no,” he said thoughtfully. “Sometimes I think he’s in worse shape than the rest of us combined.” Buddy took a second to gaze up at the clouds. “You could call it a tragedy, and I tend to think of it that way, then, almost as quickly, I realize there was no tragedy, and nothing that happens was ever really tragic at all.”
After a long, unburdensome silence, during which the sunset breathed perhaps its finest breath, Jacob asked, “What the hell are you talking about?”
The man looked at him as though irritated, but not by the question, nor by Jacob himself. “We only have a little time here. I’m not sure you’re going to remember this when you wake up. If you don’t mind telling me, when you were younger, did you have many dreams about running, or flying?”
“Running, yeah. I still do once in a while.”
“And did those dreams feel very real?”
“Sure, probably the most realistic dreams I’ve ever had.”
On hearing this Buddy turned away, pretending to survey the rooftops, level and angled surfaces to the right of their towering room.
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Everything. And that’s exactly why you and I are here right now. You have a terribly important job to do,” he said, meeting Jacob’s eyes. “There’s an infinity of ways to accomplish this work, but I’m afraid you alone are qualified. You’re the lucky one who is able to do it.”
“Because I’m special.”
“Yes,” he nodded eagerly.
“Because I’m the bravest boy in the whole world, and God loves me so much and He’s so damn proud of me? I’ve heard that one before, Buddy. The lady who said it ditched me to take care of someone else’s kids. I don’t need to hear that from you, and you know what? I never needed her, either. What’s the quickest way to get out of this fake-ass building?”
He didn’t respond, merely watched him for a moment with the same unfocused irritation, before fading away into blackness with the building, the city, and the evening sky. Jacob awoke to the shrill chirping of birds in the dark outside his window.
The early shift at Makermart was painful on Mondays. The majority of the flow team, and the entirety of the management, moped through the store on autopilot, performing their duties with alternating vexation and stoic misery. Jacob didn’t feel too bad on this particular morning, in part because Sunny would be picking him up at two and driving him across the river to Pointer Arena to see the MMA fights that night. He’d been looking forward to this for weeks, and so had Sunny, who’d studied Jiu-Jitsu and fought in some amateur bouts himself.
It was almost two-thirty by the time he arrived, as Jacob sat in the cold debating whether or not to call Susan. “I am so sorry, man,” he said, jumping out of the driver’s seat and jogging back to open the hatch of his Sonic LS.
“I was about to give up on you,” he laughed, “thought we were gonna miss the fights.”
“No way.” He removed a narrow aluminum ramp from the back of the car, anchored one end on the pavement, and did the same with another identical piece. “My nephew had to go to the hospital, he got food poisoning at school, toxic bologna or something.”
“Is he okay?”
“Now he is, now that he puked his guts out.”
“Thank God… Beware the poison lunchmeat.”
As they approached the Kilbourn Street Bridge, they decided to park and grab a cup of coffee and some food, and kill an hour or two along the river. “Sorry I’m such a pain in the ass,” he called back as Sunny unloaded his electric chair in the parking garage.
“You’d be worth the trouble if you bought the food more often.”
Stopping at a Ringman’s not far from the bridge, Jacob paid for their coffee and scones and they strolled down the riverwalk as they ate. Two young women passed them going the opposite way, walking a black Pit Bull mix. The taller one smiled at Jacob, who grinned and said, “Hello, ladies,” forgetting he had a mouthful of blueberry scone.
“Real smooth, bro,” said Sunny, and they veered to the right, parked and sat by the railing. The river wasn’t icy at all, even though he was pretty sure it was below freezing. The two of them sat quietly for a minute, finishing their coffee.
“I had a date the other night.”
Sunny turned. “With Claire?”
“How’d it go?”
“How do you think it went? I swept her off her feet. She’s in love with me.”
“Where’d you guys go?”
“Stayed in, watched a movie. I cooked dinner while she told me her life story.”
“What about the Sub?”
“She agreed to spend the night elsewhere, believe it or not.” He glanced to his right. “Shut up,” he said, shaking his head.
“Tell me you at least kissed her.”
“That would have been nice, though. No, we just watched the movie, talked a little, and then she left. She had a good time, though, I know that.”
Sunny peered down at the dark green water. “And you were worried about that stupid dream you had. I knew you’d be alright. When are you hanging out again?”
“We didn’t make plans. I don’t know, sometimes…” Jacob’s eyes seemed to darken as he stared down through the bars of the railing. “I think sometimes it’d be better if I lived alone. I mean stayed alone, forever.” He glanced at Sunny again. “I’m not sure I could make her happy, especially someone like Claire.”
“You said your equipment worked just fine.”
“I hate you, bro. I’m talking about long term, everyday life. Do you remember, The Death of Superman?”
“The comic book?”
“Yes, the comic book. It starts with a spiked fist beating the hell out of this thick iron door. A big dude in a green jumpsuit busts out, and starts tearing through the forest. Well, the Justice League hears about the damage he’s doing, and they come to bring him in, but he starts pummeling those guys. Later Superman shows up, and Doomsday punches him in the stomach, then turns around and kicks him through a house, clean through a house. Superman.”
“What’s this got to do with Claire and you?”
A flash of anger reddened Jacob’s face. “Because no matter how they try to crush him, the dude keeps getting stronger. Even Superman can’t stop him, unless he dies too.” He searched Sunny’s eyes again. “I feel like that some days, like Superman in that story. Or maybe like Doomsday. I don’t know…”
He watched the current a second longer, reached over and squeezed Jacob’s bicep. “You might be like Supergirl in that story. Come on, let’s go.”
Less than half the seats in Pointer Arena had filled up by the starting bell of the first fight. Their tickets had only cost thirty-two dollars a piece, which bought them a view from about three hundred feet away from the ring—worse than most of the people there, but neither Jacob nor Sunny was too disappointed. The first bout ended quickly, the favorite, whose reach gave him a dominating advantage, kept his stronger opponent out of range with his jab, and when he began getting tired hammered his head and face with hooks and crosses. The next few bouts lasted longer, the fighters more evenly matched, and the last fight they saw raged for all five rounds. One of the guys could draw and dodge punches with blinding speed, then he’d either counter or take his opponent down to the mat, but the guy kept breaking free, landing elbows or kicks while he got away, and the process would start over again. Both fighters were swollen, bloody, and barely conscious by the end of the fifth, when the faster guy won by decision. Sunny admitted on the ride home he probably couldn’t have beaten either one of them. As Jacob rolled in the house at just past nine, Susan asked if it was a fun trip to the art museum. “Sure was,” he nodded. “You’d be amazed how exciting flower paintings can be.”
His morning routine the following day took an extra twenty minutes, since he slipped off the seat in his shower as he was reaching for the conditioner, and in his efforts to pull himself back up, his foot got caught in the plastic suspension bands, and he fell onto the shower floor again trying to free his leg. Once he had, Susan knocked on the bathroom door in a panic, asking if he was okay. Jacob inhaled and exhaled five deep breaths before answering, “Yes, I’m fine. A minor accident, that’s all.” He lay still a while on the floor of the shower, until he was reasonably sure that she’d gone away, then resumed the attempt to climb onto his shower seat. By the time he’d finished getting ready for work, and wheeled out to the kitchen, Susan had prepared a fresh, hot breakfast of steak and egg whites, scalloped potatoes, and avocado salad.
“This looks delicious,” he said, surprised. “I haven’t lifted for a few days, I don’t need that much protein. Thanks, though, I appreciate it.”
“Figured I might as well,” she smiled from the sink, “having awoken to a loud, mysterious thud in the direction of your bathroom.”
“Yeah, I slipped off the seat trying to reach my conditioner. No permanent damage.”
Turning off the water, she placed the last pan in the dishwasher and came to the table to sit with him. “Why don’t you keep it where it’s supposed to be?”
“I do, usually. I was… Never mind, please.”
Susan gazed out the window, through the open blinds at a sparrow perched on the bird feeder hanging from a lower limb of the pear tree in their backyard. A female cardinal soon alighted upon the opposite side and frightened the sparrow away, and a minute or two later a round grey dove appeared and scared the cardinal away. She let her eyes drift down to Jacob beside her, dividing the last of the egg whites with his fork. Her left hand flew out to brush the damp yellow waves of hair back over his ear. His arm shot up to block hers and force it away.
“Please don’t touch me.” Swallowing the food in his mouth and setting the plate and utensils aside, he looked down at the table, turned to her and said, “Will you help me pack my stuff this week? I need to move out.”
Susan flinched, almost invisibly, and sat up straighter in her chair. Regarding, briefly, the kind certainty in his face, and focusing on the bird feeder again, vacant now, the seeds reduced to dotted, uneven sand between the glass, she covered his look with her own, replying, “Only if you take me with you.”
The rest of the week passed quietly and slowly. He spent his free time at home, packing in boxes the things he needed to take with him, looking for apartments online, drinking, reading comics, and watching anime. On Wednesday night, after basketball and a mildly bitter argument with Susan, Claire called to complain about not hearing back from him after their date.
“Jacob. How are you doing this fine evening?”
“I’m having a bit of a crisis, actually. I’m having serious doubts about the existence of vampires in animated films and tv series. They just aren’t scary, and vampire slaying isn’t nearly as cool as ninja warfare, cyborg-tech related espionage, supernatural kung fu battles—I’m doubting whether vampires should have a place in anime at all.”
“Sounds like you don’t understand the significance of vampires in folklore and modern literature. Were you going to call me again after our date Saturday night?”
“I was. Of course I was… You think vampire legends are important enough to make all these boring movies and tv shows?”
“Which ones are you referring to?”
Jacob thought for a few seconds. “Pretty much every vampire story ever told.”
“Dracula is universally considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written.”
“Never read it. Are you sure about that?”
“Nosferatu, Interview with the Vampire, Blade, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, all spectacular films.”
“Bloodlust was okay. I just don’t see the draw for all these fans.”
Claire shouted something incomprehensible, then checked herself and asked, in a calmer voice, “What is it you don’t like about vampire stories?”
“Good question… I think the bad guys get on my nerves a little bit, in a way they’re not meant to. Villains are evil, threatening, destructive characters, that’s what makes them villains, but vampires have this weird fog around them, like they’re supposed to be, uh…”
She heard him snapping his fingers. “Seductive?”
“No, not seductive. Intriguing. There’s always some mysterious cloud surrounding them, and we’re expected to be so intrigued by them. I couldn’t care less what they do in the catacombs of their shadowy old mansions, in Transylvania or wherever. The main characters seem drawn to them, mesmerized somehow, I don’t get it.”
“You’re not suspending your disbelief.”
“I shouldn’t have to.”
“They can fly, sometimes, turn invisible, run super-fast, they’re incredibly smart and strong, not to mention immortal—”
“Not impressed. Give Spiderman a few thousand stakes, he’d exterminate every last one in less than a year.”
“To each his own, Jacob. When are we hanging out again?”
They decided Friday night would be good since he planned to start moving his stuff out the day after. Because of Claire’s artwork, he thought she’d enjoy a visit to the Art Museum, but the suggestion made her laugh and say she’d seen enough portraits and naked goddess statues in grade school. In her opinion the Potawatomi Casino was a better place to go. She got paid on Friday and she’d been working extra shifts to have enough to buy Christmas presents for her family and some of her friends. Jacob inquired as to whether or not it might be wiser to postpone their trip to the casino until after she had bought the presents, to which she replied by saying she’d be outside his house at eight, and if he wanted to come with, then he shouldn’t be so critical.
The apartment he chose was in King Park, about a twenty-minute drive from Susan’s on the Lower East Side. The fastest way to get there from her house was probably to take State Street across the river, past the highway, then cut over 14th to Juneau Avenue, and South a couple blocks to the Warsteiner Meadows apartment complex. He spoke to the manager on the phone for a solid half hour on Thursday afternoon, listening to the myriad reasons why Warsteiner Meadows was an ideal place of residence for an individual with “special needs,” who may require “additional support,” and “extra assistance,” while “settling in to his first independent home.” The guy sounded nice enough, but thoroughly demolished Jacob’s long-since-exceeded tolerance level for condescending, self-satisfied disability jargon. Before hanging up the phone, and without using profanity, or even raising his voice, he asked if the manager would personally be willing to help him in the bathroom when the need arose. He hesitated for a moment, and politely declined, before Jacob admitted this was merely a formality and he could easily make do on his own.
On Friday morning, as a result of an especially bad hangover, he took a full hour for lunch, sitting outside at the top of the slope overlooking the winding creek, bare woods, and highway. He drew some puffs from his e-cig. The echoing rush of broken air rolled up through the trees from the cars and trucks speeding by about a quarter-mile away down the hillside. There had been times like this before, at different, crucial points in his life, when he’d had to follow through on a decision that would change everything, yet the more he searched his memory for those times, the harder he looked at his past, the more rapidly they slipped away, their roots dissolving into soft, cloudy pools of vague recognition. The only thing for him to do was move forward. Behind him lay nothing. All he had or could hope to have depended on his doing what the tremulous flame in his heart kept telling him. Be strong. Stand up. Get on with your life.
A light green Toyota Highlander pulled up to the curb outside Susan’s house at 7:15pm. The pulsing dance of the music’s bass line flooded in through Jacob’s windows. Wheeling over to the closest one, he split the blinds and peered out at the car in the streetlight, the beams from other traffic flashing silver off its hood and windshield. “Who the hell…” he wondered, while also thinking Claire may have borrowed someone else’s car.
Coasting down the walkway toward the street, he saw the passenger window open and heard Claire’s voice yell, “Sorry, I’m early,” over the fading music. As they left for the casino he learned that she’d traded with her brother, her Volvo in exchange for his SUV, for the next few months, or until one of them wanted to trade back.
“Hope you didn’t do this just so you could haul me and my chair around.”
“Not really. That may have been part of it. So what if I want to drive you around, you don’t want to hang out with me?”
He glanced over to gauge the seriousness of the question. “Maybe I do. I just don’t want you going out of your way to, uh…” He looked down at his knees and uncreased brown boots. “To accommodate me. I could have fit the chair in your own car anyway.”
“I thought you were taking your electric one. Someone’s pissy tonight.”
They drove in silence for most of the way. After ten or fifteen minutes he asked what she was listening to when she pulled up to the house. She didn’t tell him, just turned the stereo back on and let the album play. As they swung into the parking lot she asked if he wanted her to drop him off at the front entrance, but he said no, they should find a spot and walk in together.
Inside the place was loud, chaotic, and aglow with hazy neon brightness, fluorescent webs of tubes and screens and flashing, melting shapes among the rows of slot machines and above on the walls and ceiling. Kaleidoscopic patterns breathing in and out their various spectrums of electric light. He felt dizzy at first, and failed to hear Claire when she asked what he wanted to play. She gently squeezed his shoulder and asked him again.
“I’m gonna hit the Blackjack tables, clean this place out. What about you?”
“I like the slots mostly. I play 3-card poker sometimes, though, want me to come with you?”
“No, do what you want. Let’s meet back here in an hour.”
A depressed-looking Asian lady slid a chair out of the way for him, and one of the supervisors carried it behind the row of tables. He changed three hundreds for green chips and started betting twenty-five dollars a hand, bumping it up to fifty almost immediately, and at the end of the shoe he had only three greens left. “Thanks, buddy,” he said, tossing one to the dealer, and wheeling to the ATM by the nearest cage. He found Claire at a hexagon of gigantic slots to the left of the bar and told her he was headed for the poker room. An arch-shaped, pulsating banner featuring the angry face of a black bull weaving side-to-side, expelling smoke from its nostrils, loomed at the top of the machine she was playing. She’d meet him there in a while, she said, and wished him luck, then stretched over to kiss him on the cheek.
The 2-5 No Limit table he joined had just lost four players to a tournament starting at eight-thirty, leaving six players plus himself. He played aggressively for the first twenty minutes, calling and raising a number of forty and sixty-dollar bets, and before long he’d increased his five hundred dollars to twelve hundred. As soon as he decided to slow down and employ a more conservative strategy, the dealer gave him a 9-10 of clubs on the button, with three players having called the big blind. He knew enough about Hold ‘em to know he had better raise here, and that it should be a big enough raise to scare away some of the players only trying to see the flop.
“Thirty-five,” he said, pushing the chips across the line. The small blind folded, the big blind called, the next two players folded, and the guy in the 5-seat called.
“Three players in the hand,” said the dealer, a young woman with short red hair. She burnt a card and turned over J, 10, 3, rainbow. The big blind checked, the 5-seat bet seventy-five, and Jacob thought for a moment.
“Call,” he said quietly, dropping the chips in the middle.
The big blind folded, and the dealer dealt the turn card, the 10 of diamonds. The 5-seat checked.
Jacob glanced at him from the 7-seat. He had a headphone in his right ear and was reading, or pretending to read, on his phone. About twenty-two hundred sat in straight, uneven stacks in front of him. “One-forty,” Jacob said, pushing the chips across the line.
Although the 5-seat kept scrolling on his phone for a few seconds, Jacob noticed a change once he’d made the bet, like the guy relaxed slightly. He took the earphone out of his ear and eyed Jacob’s chips. “What you got there?”
“About nine, nine and change.”
Yep, he said to himself, checking his cards again. Trip 10’s with a 9 kicker didn’t look too good anymore. He shook his head, smiled at the 5-seat, and threw his cards to the dealer.
Outside the poker room an old man with his head bowed and hair down over his eyes sat on a bench, smoking a cigarette. He didn’t speak when Jacob asked for one, just held out the pack and flipped up the lid. The two of them smoked silently for a minute with their backs to the wall and tall glass windows.
“I’ve been coming here since the place opened,” he said. “You start to learn things after a while. You hear things, if you know how to listen.”
“I hear enough right now. Thousands of dollars going down the drain. What do you hear?”
Smiling faintly, he said, “The system’s rigged against us. But ever so often, you know it’s a winner, and you can bet accordingly. Bet everything you got.” With that the man smiled again, stood up, and walked away, and Jacob returned to the table.
Not much happened for the next hour. He saw some flops, bounced around the thousand-dollar mark. The seats filled up to make it a ten player game. Around eleven o’clock a fidgety bald guy at the opposite end took a run at the pot, when Jacob flopped the nut flush draw with top pair and a decent kicker. He turned the flush and tripled up to just below three thousand. At eleven-thirty he looked up and saw Claire through the glass, waving to get his attention. Pointing to his wrist, he mouthed the word, “midnight,” and pointed out toward the bar.
The last hand he played was a K-J of hearts. There was a raise of twenty pre-flop, which he called, then a re-raise to seventy, and he thought why not, I’ve had a good night. The flop came Q, 4, 10, with two spades on the board. The original raiser bet out, two-fifty, about the size of the pot. Jacob called, the other guy folded. The turn came, 9 of clubs. His opponent, a guy about his age, blue hooded sweatshirt, detached, steady eyes, looked at him and said, “All in.”
“I call,” he said back, and showed him the straight.
The guy shot up out of his seat and covered his face with his hands, forced them down, and flipped his pocket queens over. The river came, 3 of hearts, and Jacob left the table with almost seven thousand dollars.
On the way to the car, Claire asked what he would do with the money.
“I don’t know. I’ll need some new furniture for my apartment. Might buy Susan a necklace.”
Her face shone white and peaceful in the light from above the frozen parking lot. “That’d be sweet. What about me, where’s my necklace?”
They stopped behind the car, and he spun left to face her. “I was thinking about buying you a ring.”
At the entrance to the casino a scream was heard, deafening in spite of the distance of its source, and just as suddenly, the night was quiet again.