The Quest for Juice (Paranoia Book 1)
THE changes were small at first. When the doorbell rang, it was always a dear friend you’d love to see or a Girl Scout selling cookies you’d love to eat. But then, suddenly and without warning, on Tuesday maybe once a month or every two months, it might instead be someone trying to tell you the benefits of converting to Mormonism and you’d have to listen for several minutes before you closed the door because you didn’t want to seem rude. It was very inconvenient, because maybe you were cooking something and you only answered the door because it needed a little while to cool, but then it needed to be stirred and you know it’s in there waiting for you, congealing while you stand at the door.
There were more things. After I had a shower, the door to the bathroom sometimes wouldn’t shut properly. Now, ostensibly this was because the heat and steam from my shower had caused the wood fibers to swell so it would not fit in the doorframe.
I wasn’t employed, for reasons which will soon be made clear, but I knew of people who were employed and when their paycheck direct deposit was due to come through on a Thursday night, often it wouldn’t actually come through until Friday morning or even Monday, meaning they’d have to put off vital purchases or perhaps pay a thirty dollar overdraft fee because their bills somehow made it through while their paycheck didn’t.
Who was behind all of these things? I felt certain that it was someone; someone with access to Mormons, wood, and banks. My name is Oscar, and I decided it was up to me to find out who. This is the story of how.
I started small. I’m not going to recount my entire life for you though, so I’ll just spare you the suspense and tell you that I did grow to a regular adult size over a period of many years.
I began my investigation with small actions. I wrote a letter to the editor of one of my local newspapers, explaining and complaining about everything changing. I kept writing the letters, until eventually they published one in the Letters to the Editor section. There was no investigation, though, and much to my disappointment, nobody went to prison. Not yet, anyway; that happens later.
After that letter was published, I began to get the impression that I was being followed. For most of my life I’d had that impression, actually, but now I started to get it more, and not just when I was walking out late at night and the sound of my own footsteps would frighten me.
The kind of inconvenient changes I’m talking about started happening all the time. Other people didn’t see it and so they went on about their regular business like nothing was changing, but it was clear to me; I have a good head for changes that nobody else can see, and I’m always alert. Some might say too alert, but they will be the first ones to be eaten by a bear while I would be straight into my bear-proof safe room to wait for rescue.
When I went to the store for my weekly shopping, they no longer carried my favorite brand of orange juice, Sunshine Juice. The only brand which they had in stock was Sunlight OJ, which has ‘50% more real orange pulp.’ I hate orange pulp, and I’m not ashamed to say so.
I’d always been loyal to that store, even though there were other stores closer, partly because they had all the brands that I loved, but mostly because they were one of the few stores that hadn’t banned me from shopping there (bans mostly based on unfounded accusations, I assure you). So I made an effort to enjoy their new juice, but after a few days of closing the curtains to hide myself before straining the juice through a paper towel just so that I could enjoy a cold drink with my breakfast such as any free man is entitled to, I decided it was time to take my business elsewhere.
For the first time in years, I went to a different store. While I was driving there, my head began to ache. I imagined what it would be like if someone got there first and took all of my juice. I could almost see it happening; I saw the villain pushing me to the ground and taking the juice from me. I saw him standing over my broken body and pouring the juice – my juice – into his own mouth. The more I thought about it, the more my head ached. I knew there was nothing I could do about it until I got there, though, so I did my best to ignore the thoughts. That’s not an easy thing to do when your mind insists on showing you them over and over. Headaches like that had been increasing along with the inconveniences. Usually the headache would come, and then the inconvenience. Not all the time, but enough that I’d sometimes scream into a pillow from the combined injustice and physical pain of it all. My head had been hurting for hours on the night my screaming pillow lost a few of its feathers. Not all of them, but enough that I had to get rid of the pillow, because when they took the feathers out who knows what they could’ve put in. After that, I tried my best to keep it in instead of screaming – I didn’t want to let them know how the things they did affected me.
Even though the store was a new place, I didn’t feel nervous once I arrived. I knew there were cameras watching, and that if I were being followed then the cameras would catch the follower. Theirs was an organization based on secrecy, so it seemed unlikely that they would be so bold as to follow me into the eyes of a network of cameras. I got about halfway through the store feeling that way before I realized that if whoever was following me had the sort of connections I suspected, they wouldn’t need to follow me in person; they could just as easily watch me through the store’s cameras.
There was a small clothing section in the store, which was well suited to my needs, and I crawled under the racks of pants and shirts. When there was no more cover available above me, I pressed myself as close to the shelving as I could, to avoid the cameras, and made my way towards the back of the store where the juice and tea were stocked.
I was pleased to see that this store still carried my favorite, Sunshine Juice, and there wasn’t a single carton of the pulp-heavy Sunlight OJ in sight. Sadly – for someone else – they only had one carton left, and I was going to have that carton all to myself.
I began formulating a vague plan to pour the juice all over my naked body when I got it back home, but when I opened the refrigerator door and reached for the bottle, it took a step away from me towards the back of the shelf. I held still, since I didn’t want to spook the juice further. If it got away, who knows where it would have gone to? Nobody knows what goes through the mind of an orange juice carton, or what they do when not under the watchful gaze of humanity (although I have often had certain suspicions about it).
As I waited, planning my next move in this game of cat and juice, I saw that there was a red glove gripping the back of the orange juice carton. My gaze followed the glove up an arm and to the face of the man who had come to take my Sunshine away. The man stood in shadow behind rows of juice cartons, but I thought I could make out a blank face with dark glasses, which I imagined covered cruel eyes. Then I saw the name ‘Ron’ was printed on his green stockboy’s smock, and I realized that he was simply a store employee checking and changing stock. I relaxed and closed the door.
I waited patiently while he filled the shelf full of juice again. When I looked back, I saw to my horror that the whole shelf was full of Sunlight OJ and my coveted carton of juice was gone.
I peered behind the cartons into the stocking area, but there was no sign of the stockboy, so I went to the customer service desk to have the orange juice situation rectified. Behind the desk, a short, beetle-like man with a ‘100% satisfaction guaranteed’ button on his vest eyed me nervously, looking worried about the prospect of me approaching him and asking a question.
His eyes darted to either side, but as I walked up to the counter and he saw at last that there was no escape, he gave a heavy sigh, rose to his feet, and asked, “Is there anything I can help you with?”
I saw a sign on the wall behind him that promised service with a smile, and I wondered if his training in that area had perhaps been neglected. It was no matter to me, though, I was not after smiles.
“Yes,” I said, “I believe you can. I’ve come to lodge a complaint.” I had doubted my position, but my confidence grew as I spoke to this spineless man, and I knew I was in a position of power. I, the customer, was surely right. “I came here to buy my favorite brand of juice, Sunshine Juice. There was one carton of it left, but when I reached for it, a stockboy named Ron took it away and filled the shelf with Sunlight OJ.”
The man behind the desk opened his sleepy eyes enough that I felt pretty sure he was almost definitely awake. “You’ve got a complaint about juice?” he asked. Then he looked like he remembered something from long ago, and adjusted his demeanor. I think maybe he smiled, and then said, “Um, you must be mistaken… sir. Ron isn’t at work today; he’s taken a sick day.”
“And besides, sir,” he went on, speaking more lively, “juice isn’t my department, but I’m sure we don’t even carry Sunshine Juice.”
I could see that I wasn’t getting anywhere with this guy, who seemed eager to just get back to sitting down comfortably again and thinking about what sort of condiments he might have on his fries that night; he would say anything to get rid of me. I wasn’t going to give up my juice without a fight just because of this guy’s French-fried potatoes though, so I said, “Alright, maybe it is as you say, and maybe I didn’t see what I saw. That remains to be seen.” I put my hand palm down on the counter, to show that I meant business. “But I want satisfaction, sir, as that button on your vest has been promising me the entire time I’ve been standing here, so if it wouldn’t be too much trouble for you to check your stock records, I’d like to know when you last carried Sunshine Juice.” I wasn’t normally that assertive, but routine kept me calm. Not having my juice for several days, coming to a different store, and having to have a conversation with a stranger were all great deviations from my regular routine.
“That’s not something we’re allowed to do…” Then he seemed to consider how long it might be before he’d be able to sit again if perhaps I wanted to speak to his supervisor. “But of course I want you to be satisfied, sir. Now, let me just access the records,” he said, and began typing. I knew I had him then; the records would expose his lies about the juice.
The keyboard was one of the quiet models that make hardly any sound at all when you type, so I made the keyboard sounds in my head while I watched his fingers on the keyboard.
Tap. Tippity-tippity tap. Tappity. The noise grated in my head. Tippity-tap. Still he typed, and each key press slammed into my brain. I covered my ears, but it made no difference. Tap, tap, tap, on and on. I had almost reached the point where I couldn’t take it anymore and would be forced to flee the store, when he turned the monitor in my direction and touched his finger to the screen.
“You can see here that we had a shipment of Sunlight OJ just yesterday and we haven’t sold very much of it since then, so the shelf has been fully stocked.”
I looked at him. He looked at me. We had reached an impasse. I knew, and he knew that I did, but he wasn’t going to let on that there was anything unusual, which was why he was showing me fake stock records. He had exceeded his usefulness to me, and I thanked him for his time, which is the polite thing to do even when someone is actively working against you.
As I turned away, he stopped me by saying, “Sir?”
I turned around, expecting that he’d changed his mind and was going to tell all of his secrets – or at least the juice-related ones.
“It shows here that we haven’t had Sunshine Juice for months now,” he said. He looked at me with understanding in his bloodshot eyes that wanted nothing more than to not be seeing. “Maybe you need some rest, sir.”
Rest. Now that was an idea. I supposed I did need sleep, after the stress of the juice and just anybody knocking on my door and the time my house key didn’t quite fit in the lock at first but then it did. That kind of thing builds up. Maybe it had made me confused about the juice. I left the store, passing the cash register where a cashier was bagging up several cartons of Sunlight OJ for a customer. I felt a surge of anger at that stranger who was offering financial assistance to my enemy, but just as quickly as it had come, the anger went away. He was probably just a guy like me, making do with what he could, and so I did not go over to him and tell him what I thought of him.
It was late when I got home from my juice journey, so I went to bed without drinking anything at all. I laid there thinking about what had happened. Did I really see the juice I wanted, or did I just think I had because I wanted it so badly? Why did Ron take it away from me? I felt restless, and I couldn’t get to sleep, but then I woke up, so I guess I could, as is often the case when you tell yourself you can’t do something.
That morning I called my good friend – my only friend – Winslow, who was always able to help me figure out something that I couldn’t puzzle through on my own. He would wear a problem like a dog with a bone, until he was licking at the marrow of it. When you have a broken leg perhaps that’s not such a good quality, but in all other problems he was always a great help to me.
Before I called him, I first sat and stared at the phone for a while, because I’m never quite sure how to start a phone conversation. In the movies you’ll sometimes see a lady in a bathtub with flower petals floating around her while she calls her friends ‘just to talk.’ I can’t call without a purpose, though, and sometimes even when you dial with a purpose you forget what it was by the time the call connects, which is how I came to find myself saying:
“Oh hi, Winslow, I just called to talk.” I giggled a little, like I was in a bath surrounded by flower petals. I fumbled around the conversation for a little while until I remembered that I’d wanted to ask him if he’d come over because I really needed his help with something I’d feel more comfortable discussing in person.
Later, my thoughts about the way things were changing for the worse were interrupted by a knock at the door. I looked out the peephole even though I was expecting Winslow, because you never know, but of course it was him. He entered the door eyebrows first, as I liked to say about him.
“Winslow, things seem to be changing,” I began. Right away, I saw recognition on his face as he raised his hands up to stop me, and I felt relieved because I had worried he would think I was crazy when I told him what I suspected; I had even prepared a story about how much sleeping I’d done already if he happened to tell me I just needed some rest.
“Oscar, stop there. I know what you’re going to say,” he said. “I know I’ve been distant lately, it’s probably been weeks since we talked.”
“Months,” I clarified. Although I knew it was the fault of my nearly crippling social anxiety and growing paranoia that we hadn’t talked in so long, I was prepared to let him think it was his fault and I was willing to accept his apology for it too.
“Months, then,” he said. “It’s just been so inconvenient to get around to see you. The bus timetable has changed so that I’d have to get up way earlier in the morning to come here, and then the bus takes me through all the suburbs so everyone else can go out for their shopping; the trip takes hours now. I’ve got my car, of course, but you know I switched to electric recently – you didn’t? – well, I switched, but the battery needs some kind of tune-up because it only holds enough charge for short trips——”
“That’s just it,” I said, stopping him before he could really get started with the apology. It wasn’t important anyway. “That’s the thing I wanted to talk about. It’s inconvenient to not have your car holding a good charge, right? And the bus timetable, that’s pretty inconvenient too?”
“Yes, it’s quite inconvenient, that’s what I’ve been saying,” he said, with one eyebrow rising in the direction of wariness.
“Well, that’s not all, just listen. Everything is inconvenient lately. For example, the other day my key wouldn’t fit in the door.”
“That is pretty inconvenient.” Now you would certainly have described his eyebrow as ‘perched’.
“The keys did fit right afterwards, but that’s not all, that’s not all.” I sprang to my feet and began to pace. Now I would convince him, I could feel it. Winslow’s other eyebrow had heard the call of duty and began its march to higher on his brow, but I didn’t let up. “A few days ago the store I usually shop at stopped carrying the Sunshine Juice that I like; they only carry Sunlight OJ now. Sunlight OJ has fifty percent more pulp than before.”
“And you hate pulp,” he offered.
“Yes, I hate it. I can’t imagine why they thought it needed fifty percent more than whatever it had before, because now it’s like putting a solid orange in a glass with the skin still on. I could do that on my own. What I can’t do is produce a delicious and reasonably priced pulp-free free-range orange juice. I’ve been pulling the curtains closed and crouching down behind the counter like an animal – not that an animal would be in my house drinking orange juice, not while I’m alive – just so I can filter out the pulp without my neighbors looking in, as they might do.”
I felt my eye twitching as I waited for a response from Winslow. I wondered if he could see it; I knew what he would think if he could.
“Oscar, man, there’s no need to come unhinged about it,” Winslow said, as his brow furrowed under the effort of keeping his eyebrows aloft. “Sometimes companies stop selling products, or they switch one product for another that they think might sell better. They had a contract with the maker of Sunshine, the contract ran out and they didn’t renew it; whatever. Just relax about it, it’s only juice. Go buy it at another store.”
“I wish I could,” I said mournfully. “I went to Jack’s Grocery Mart, and I nearly had a carton of it, but then a stockboy took it out of my hand, pushed me down, and filled the shelf with that twenty-oranges-in-a-carton Sunlight stuff.”
I stopped pacing and looked Winslow squarely in the eye, but he wasn’t backing down. I shifted from one foot to the other and back again, and then admitted, “Alright, he didn’t push me down. But it was on the shelf, and I had already claimed it, and he took it away from me just the same as if he’d broken into my house, taken it out of my refrigerator, then weeks later sent me an envelope in the mail which held only a ransom note made from letters cut out of magazines and a single photograph of his genitals resting on the carton to show his primal dominance over me and the juice.”
“But, just so we’re clear,” Winslow said, “he didn’t actually push you down, right?”
Winslow sometimes had an annoying habit of bringing up absolutely irrelevant details in the middle of an important conversation. It was best just to ignore him when he was like that. “So, considering his genitals on my juice,” I continued, “I went to customer service to report him since I’d seen his nametag even though he was hiding in the shadows, and they told me he was out sick. Had been all day, they said! ‘Dead for a week, sorry,’ I bet they’d say if I went back now and asked.”
“If that wasn’t enough,” I said, “I got the customer service guy to check stock and he said according to the records they didn’t have any Sunshine Juice at all, and hadn’t for days, but yet I had seen it right there on the shelf and nearly held it in my hand. He told me I needed rest! As if not having enough sleep could cause you to hallucinate a juice theft.” I gave a short laugh, to show that the very idea was ludicrous.
“Don’t you see what this means?” I asked. His eyebrows told me that he didn’t, so I took it upon myself to explain. “It’s proof, Winslow! All the time there are inconvenient things happening to you, things that you just shrug off as being a part of life. You miss the bus by ten seconds and then have to wait ten minutes for the next one, which happens to be a bus just for bus company staff and they won’t let you on. So you walk home, and on the way a car splashes through a puddle and soaks you, because today – quite inconveniently, by the way – it happens to be raining. Who drove that car? Who made it rain? You reach for an apple in your fruit bowl and find that it’s full of Gala apples, which you only kind of like, and you’re pretty sure that this time you had only bought Granny Smith apples; where then did the Gala apples come from?”
“What does all of this have to do with the orange juice?” he asked, trying to divert me.
“I’ll tell you where the apples came from,” I said. “They put them there.”
“And don’t ask me who; I don’t know who. But they’re doing it, just as sure as I’m sitting here talking to you. The orange juice is the key, it’s the first time I’ve seen it happening, the first time I’ve had proof. When I held the carton in my hand…” I saw his eyebrows marshaling for another assault against his forehead, and corrected myself, “or at least nearly in my hand, I held proof of it. The man in the shadows is one of them, or he’s working for them. For some reason they’re doing these things to make life inconvenient for all of us, one little bit at a time.”
His eyebrows came back down.
“Oscar, you know you’re being paranoid again. I can see your eye twitching.” Crap. I had tried my best to hide it. “When you miss the bus, it’s because you didn’t leave early enough. If you get wet on a rainy day, it’s because you didn’t carry an umbrella. And if a company stops selling orange juice, it’s not because they’re out to get you. Have you been taking your Psylocybin?” He asked, directing an enquiring look at me from beneath his eyebrows. I looked away, fidgeting with books on a shelf, but he persisted. “Have you?”
“Alright, no,” I relented. “I haven’t been taking them. I don’t feel like myself when I do. I felt calmer, sure, and I didn’t feel the desire to fasten all the locks on the door or keep a knife under my pillow when I go to sleep, but it’s not me. This is me,” I said, lifting up one of the couch cushions to reveal a ball-peen hammer underneath. “That’s in case they come while I’m watching TV.”
“You always get this way when you don’t take your pills.” He sighed, and went on. “Remember when you felt sure the milkman was going to steal your girlfriend, so you attacked that guy with a shattered milk bottle like it was some kind of child’s bar fight? And you didn’t even have a milkman.”
I remembered it.
“And then, after that, in the institution when you refused to eat for weeks because there might have been leprosy-infected armadillo meat in your food——”
“Armadillos are the only wild animals which carry the bacteria that cause leprosy,” I interrupted, wanting to at least state my case.
“You nearly died of starvation,” Winslow said, unconcerned about how near I came to contracting leprosy. “I can go on, but I don’t think you need to be reminded that you’ve only recently been allowed a provisional driver’s license or that the District of Colombia has forbidden you to go within a hundred feet of the Museum of Natural History.”
I heard a noise in the kitchen.
“Do you hear that?” I asked.
“I didn’t hear anything,” he said, believing that I was trying to change the subject. “I want to see you take your pills.”
I put my finger to my lips and pulled the hammer out from under the cushion. Winslow stood up from the couch and I took a step towards him with the hammer in my hand.
“Ron is in the kitchen,” I whispered to Winslow, with my mouth right beside his ear. I pointed to myself, then to the kitchen, and put my finger to my lips again, indicating that I was going in there quietly. He moved so that he was on the other side of the coffee table from me.
I walked quickly to the kitchen entrance, and pressed myself flat against the wall. Ron was in there, rummaging through my things. What did he hope to find in the kitchen? Or was he tampering with my food? Perhaps cocaine planted in my sugar bowl, and an anonymous tip to the police. I didn’t intend to give him the chance to carry out his plan, whatever it might be. I was acutely aware of the weight of the hammer in my hand, the solid wooden handle topped by the metal head. I had practiced many times with it, first painting little faces on the heads of nails and then pounding them into wood. My experience with that taught me that a hammer is very good at smashing heads.
I steadied my breathing and spun around into the doorway with the hammer held ready at my side. Nobody was there. The window was open, though, so I went to it and looked out. I didn’t remember opening the window, but nobody was outside. I knew I had heard someone. How had Ron escaped so quickly, without giving himself away?
Winslow came up behind me, took the hammer from my hand and then backed away, holding it in front of himself.
“There is nobody in there,” he said to me from the living room. “I can’t handle it when you’re like this. Take your medicine, Oscar. Let me see you take them.”
I looked at him. I looked at the hammer. I flexed my hand, where the hammer had just been.
“That’s my hammer,” I said, and moved towards him. He moved back, raising the hammer along with his eyebrows, and I stopped. I reconsidered. I knew what that hammer did to heads.
After I had taken my pills to his satisfaction, and I had assured him that I would continue taking them, he left. When the door shut, I opened my hand and looked at the pills I had palmed; I had pretended to take them for Winslow’s benefit. They didn’t seem like much; two centimeters, white, oblong. They certainly didn’t seem like something I needed. They did get rid of my paranoia, but it left my mind feeling cloudy, my thoughts vague, as if the paranoia was an essential part of me that was being blocked out.
I knew I wouldn’t have been able to hear whoever was in my kitchen if my mind had been coated by the chemicals in those pills; who knows what they would have done to me and Winslow if I hadn’t been ready with my hammer and my months of training. All the pills were actually good for was getting rid of my headaches, which I was definitely having a lot more of recently, but the tradeoff wasn’t worth it. I turned my hand upside down over the trash can and let them fall into it.
Winslow had taken the hammer with him, so I got another one from my box of hammers and placed it under the couch cushion. The next time they were in my kitchen, I would be ready.
Later, I sat in my bedroom, looking at the wall. This was the sort of thing I knew people might call crazy, so I had my house locked up tight. I had my bedroom door locked too, so just in case somebody happened to drop by and peek in through the letterbox then the most they’d be able to do is look at the closed door to my bedroom and imagine that I might have the wall covered with pictures and notes relating to longer waits for tables at restaurants, gloves that shrank in the washing machine, missing juice, and all manner of inconvenience. They’d never know for sure, though, and no court could force me to testify against myself.
I looked at ‘Ron,’ represented by a crude drawing of a man in green. Since I felt he was at the center of it all, I had placed him literally at the center of it, in the middle of the wall with a circle drawn around him in red marker. It wasn’t my best idea to draw directly on the wall, but I could always put a poster up to cover the red circle later.
Around Ron I had taped pictures of orange juice, bus timetables, and my house keys which several days prior had not fit in the lock for a few seconds, so I had to jiggle them around a bit to get in. These were the things I felt for sure Ron was somehow involved with.
I only realized it after the orange juice incident, but when my keys wouldn’t fit in the lock I did get the feeling as if I was being watched, and the more I thought about it the more it seemed I was being watched by cruel eyes from behind dark glasses. Winslow might sometimes have felt as if his words fell on deaf ears, but I had taken what he said into consideration. It was true, coincidence does occur. The juice might have been coincidence. His car battery troubles might be coincidence. Any manner of things might be. How could my ill-fitting keys be something that just happened, though, without outside interference? Moreover, since the evidence convincingly showed that there was a third party involved, how could anyone have had access to my keys to alter them?
It would have to be a very fine, precise alteration; it couldn’t be so much that they wouldn’t work at all, but only just enough so they’d usually still work and would only occasionally stick for a moment making it so I’d have to turn them slightly one way and then slightly the other several times, with the whole world watching me, judging me as an idiot not able to get into his own house, hammering on the door and weeping with shame. I kept my keys next to the knife under my pillow at night, and in my zipped pocket during the day, there’s no way anybody would be able to get to them.
As I turned my brain upside down and shook it for a solution, I heard the mail dropping through the letterbox in my front door, and my mind made the connection. My business mail always came to my post office box, and when I last took my key ring out to open that, Ron or an accomplice must have taken my house keys, altered them, and replaced them while I was reading through my mail. I licked a stamp and stuck it near the drawing of Ron to remind myself of the new connection I had made, untaped my keys from the wall, and headed to the post office. Someone there would have seen what happened, and if not then I knew they had a security camera that was always watching from its perch in the corner of the ceiling and blinking redly at me.
At the post office I chose the shortest line, and immediately as I arrived in the line the clerk at the counter went into the back room to find stamps for the customer he was serving.
When he returned from the back room several minutes later and delivered the stamps, the clerk walked away from the counter, and, passing another clerk, said, “Going on lunch, the counter is all yours.”
“No problem, Ron, I gotcha,” came the reply from his colleague. The hair on my neck stood up; the clerk’s name was Ron, just like the stockboy who had removed my juice. He cast a backward glance at me as he donned his hat and exited the counter area. What could it mean? Where was he going? Were he and the Ron from the supermarket partners? Was he even now on his way to my house to look at my wall of information and glean what I had been able to piece together about their partnership while I stayed at the post office on a fool’s errand of getting a surveillance tape that would be mysteriously missing or erased if they even allowed me access to it?
Never one to wait around and find out for sure when I could make a rash decision instead, I left the post office right away to follow Ron. I saw him hurrying away down the street; his hat marked him out among the crowd. He didn’t look back, and he walked with a limp, making him easy to follow.
When he got to my house, I planned to take him by surprise and force him to reveal his plan. The specifics weren’t quite clear in my mind, but I’d recently bought some things at the flea market which I was pretty sure were thumbscrews and I was eager to try them out. Instead of going down the street to my house, though, he passed it and carried on further away from town.
That was unexpected. Maybe he was going to meet the Ron from the supermarket. Or maybe he was going to pass a message on to someone, that’s how these things are done. Always through middlemen, with no faces seen and no names exchanged, only a whispered message or a scrap of paper slipped from one hand to another hand (a hand belonging to someone else, he wouldn’t just be juggling the paper around like some sort of clandestine jester).
Ron passed a bus stop. There was a man waiting for the bus, huddled in the corner of the shelter, reading a newspaper with the collar of his heavy coat up around his neck. Was he huddled for warmth, or as protection against being identified? I looked again and saw that he was wearing dark glasses, as Ron at the supermarket had been.
Perhaps the message was to be exchanged here, so I walked fast to catch the whisper or snatch the paper as it was being passed. As I got closer, I noticed for the first time the gray hair under Ron’s hat. I had only seen him briefly in the post office so I hadn’t realized, but now I saw that he was an old man; the perfect cover, since nobody would suspect an old man of being involved in this cloak and letter opener game. As he walked past the man waiting for the bus, Ron tugged on his ear and sniffed. That was it; the signal sent, the message conveyed. But what did it mean? The bus pulled up and I had to make a decision; should I follow Ron, or should I go after the man in the heavy coat?
I thought quickly about the decision, which was made more difficult because I felt the beginning of one of my headaches. Suddenly, in my mind flashed a picture of the man waiting at the bus station meeting others in a dark, smoky room, huddled around a table covered with pictures of me. I knew he was the one, and I got on the bus after him.
The door to the bus closed as I settled into my seat. We drove past Ron and I got a clear look at his face. His eyes were tired and watery, and I knew I had made the right choice. He probably only wanted to finish his part of the mission and then go home to a dinner of Salisbury steak in front of a TV showing The Price is Right – the old British version hosted by Leslie Crowther, of course; this was a man with class, and I hoped that no harm would come to him when they realized it was due to his carelessness that I had found the man at the bus stop.
It was clear to me now that the Ron from the post office wasn’t the mastermind behind the plot against me, but the man in the coat on the bus was the link which would lead me to the anchor at the end of the chain. When I saw that he was looking straight ahead instead of reading his newspaper, I looked out the window and confirmed my suspicion that he had left his newspaper at the bus stop, proof that he was only posted there to receive a message and now he would be the one passing it on.
I kept a good watch on the man in the heavy coat. When he looked out the window, I looked out as well to see what he was looking at. When he napped, I napped. When he got off the bus, I got off the bus. When he went to his house, I went to his house. When he became part of a vast underground network dedicated to making my life and the lives of others less convenient for some as yet unknown reason… well, I had to draw the line somewhere. I made some plans to apply for membership, but without serious intent.
At his house, I crouched behind the evergreen bushes outside his living room, looking over the tops of the leaves and watching him. So far, there had been nothing unusual to see. The man in the heavy coat, who was no longer the man in the heavy coat and was instead now the man in cats’ paw print pajamas, talked on the phone as he made his dinner. I imagined the things that he might be saying to whoever was on the other end of the line: passing on the information that I wasn’t in my house and that it was free for breaking in and ransacking; discussing why I had been at the post office and probably arriving at the conclusion that I must have figured out their plot to make my keys sometimes almost not quite fit in the lock; planning the next move, like replacing my mouse with one slightly less ergonomic so that after several years I would develop carpel tunnel syndrome and be unable to publish my findings on the internet.
After what he was saying to whoever, I imagined who that whoever might be. Could it be Ron from the supermarket? Ron from the post office? I even briefly entertained the outlandish notion that he might not be talking to anyone sinister at all, that he could be talking to a good friend and relating how pleased he was with the way his dinner was going – General Tso’s chicken over a bed of white rice, which did look as if it was going to be delicious. I moved around the bushes and pressed my ear against the window to hear the conversation of the man in the pajamas.
“It’s turning out really well,” I heard him say. My heart beat faster; I now knew for sure that they were talking about me. He paused to listen to a question from the other end of the line and, with a laugh, replied, “Yes, it’s actually much easier than I expected it would be.”
I sat down below the window and leaned against the house to collect my thoughts. They were mocking me. I had thought I was figuring out their plan, perhaps even getting one step ahead, but apparently they considered their operation against me to be easy. Easier than expected even, maybe they’d done it to hundreds or thousands of people and they’d all put up more of a fight than me.
I felt ashamed that they felt they had so little to worry about from me, but I also felt my determination grow; I would get to the very core of their organization, the head of it, then I would get them to leave me alone and force them to set right all the slight wrongs they had done.
Determination and shame combined to make me warm, and I was tired from the chase earlier; I drifted off to sleep.
I dreamed of a giant red fist closing around me and squeezing me until I popped with a loud bang. I was suddenly conscious of a door slamming and my eyes opened wide to the bright light of the morning sun. I shut them immediately, because for some reason a hundred thousand years of evolution has still not properly equipped us for living on a planet which orbits an unimaginably huge ball of nuclear fire. My skull throbbed from a dream-induced headache.
I climbed to my feet and looked around the corner of the house. The man in the gray pinstripe suit had just closed his front door and was heading for his car.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to follow him in the car, so I stepped out from behind the wall without thinking. Then, with thinking, I thought what a stupid idea that had been. Now he would see me, he would know that I had followed him; he would report me, call his co-conspirators, and it would go beyond mere inconvenience – they would trap me, capture me, torture me, even kill me.
The cruel eyes of Ron from the supermarket seemed to be glaring at me from behind the surprised eyes of the man in the pinstripe suit as he saw me, a disheveled and unkempt man with sleep-heavy and bloodshot eyes, leaping from behind his house and staggering towards him.
“What do you want with me?” I shouted at him, grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him even as I shook myself out of sleep. “All I want is peace, I want to be left alone with my own things and my own thoughts, like any man deserves!”
“I don’t know what——” he started, but the rest of what he said was cut off by a piercing increase in the pain of my headache and a powerful impression in my mind that this man meant to do me harm and would do it, incongruous as that may have seemed to anyone observing the situation and seeing who was shouting at who.
“Don’t spit your lies at me,” I said to him through teeth clenched against the pain of my headache. He tried to push me away, but I was stronger. I felt the blood pounding in my head and I exulted in the power I had over them as I held him in my grasp.
They had toyed with me. They had thought me impotent against them. They had mocked me, laughed at me, derided me and considered me low. They had experimented on me like a rat in a cage, but I was no longer blind to their experiments. I wasn’t content to press the lever and receive a treat any longer, I wasn’t going to scamper around and let the small inconveniences build up until they crushed me under their weight. At last I was fighting back, and he seemed shocked by it. What incredible naiveté he must have, I thought, to have not expected this would happen. Or maybe it was incredible confidence; perhaps he and his cohorts had been acting with impunity for decades or even longer. I had no way of knowing for sure how long they had been acting even in my own life.
He struggled more in my grip, trying to wriggle out of his coat, and I pushed him back towards his house. He tripped and fell, and I heard the knock of his head against the brick of the wall. I advanced, standing tall over him and blocking his escape.
I demanded answers from him, names and information, but he only gave me a blank stare. Then I saw the red stain smeared onto the wall where his head hat hit and spreading to the shoulders of his suit, and I stepped back. I had killed him. I looked around and saw for the first time the people on the street who had been watching us, all standing as if they were frozen.
“He’s been following me,” I said to the people around. “So I followed him, and watched him, and now… he fell…”
I turned to point to him to show them just what had happened, but everything went dark. The voices from the crowd sounded fuzzy, and far off. I stumbled in the darkness and fell to the ground. I hit my head, which is never pleasant, but you should’ve seen the other guy. Someone picked me up and carried me. Walls seemed to close in.
Eventually, I came out of the darkness. I was looking up at a fluorescent bulb on a concrete ceiling. When I sat up I saw that the walls which had closed in on me were the walls of a jail cell lined with bars.