"The Day I Played with Fire"
a short story
Gary Baker, February 2014
The rain was soft, much softer than I expected it to be as I lay there, blood dribbling down across my gaping eyelids, wondering if this was success that I was finally feeling.
It started days ago. Too many, if you ask me, but for relevancy I'll keep it to a minimum. I want to say it began all suddenly and out of the blue, but in all reality it didn't. I had seen this coming for weeks, months -- hell, I'd seen this coming years ago, not that I had ever admitted it right out. I did cry out for help, though, don't get me wrong. I didn't let fate take me lightly. My shoulders had been increasingly white over the last few weeks, and neither the hype nor the meds did anything to alleviate as much.
Three days back I was at work, sitting in on a meeting with my boss as I geared up for a promotion of sorts.
"Craig," she said, with that all-too-familiar scowl of approval set upon her cheeks, "don't forget that you represent us, this store, when you go there." She sat back in her black leather office chair, waving her gilded pen like a baton between her dexterous right-hand fingers, and crossed her leg like a stereotypical cubicle boss. She was the kind of boss people would search for years to work under, not sexy and thus not someone people rumored about as having slept around to get to where she was. She was competent, and that showed through her every demeanor, whether it was her loose-fitting pin-stripe slacks, or her semi-mustache that appeared every time she'd been up late trying to reconfigure something that would increase sales.
She was talking about my transfer. It was purported to be something to help me ease into the higher-ups, almost like a stepping stone that no one else was willing to bat an eye at me with. I was lucky to have her as my superior, much more so to have her be willing to take this big of a risk on my development. If I failed, she would forever be marred by her mistake in vouching for me, and she made that clear from the get-go. Almost a 'no pressure, but if you don't succeed you won't be ruining just your own life' kind of moment.
But really: no pressure.
Things changed from there. As I worked the next day at the store I was transferring to, I met the new bosses that I would be under for the next segment of my career, and found out I wasn't as perfect as I had been talked about.
"Look, kid," the new superior pointedly stood when there where seats to be sat in, "we don't just need someone to fill the shoes of someone for a while, we need a good. Hard. Worker." He turned to the door, then and led the way to my new abode, a place where the hardware and the good old nuts and bolts of the store could be found. With a wave of his hands, he indicated the spread of my new domain, "this isn't just some department of yours," he wavered on obedience training as though I were some mutt out of the pound. "This isn't even your new home. It's our backbone, and if it doesn't move right, neither does the rest of our little contraption. You got me?" Suddenly he smiled, all eager-to-please and beaming with delight, "but I trust you'll do the right thing, don't you worry."
It took me an hour to learn the new way of things, even though I was doing anything but the job I was transferred to do, and by the time my lunch hit I was ready to call it a day. I eagerly pushed into the oddly-circular room where I had placed my bag and tore into my lunch: a mere toasted bagel with Skippy and strawberry Weston jam, as I ate the words of my latest book as well. It was then that my phone buzzed. At first I ignored it, thinking it anything but important, and dove back into the other world just pages beneath my nose.
The hero was valiantly staggering through a dark, murky hallway, where the bestial juggernaut golemn had laid it's final trap. My heart was racing as I followed him, seeking answers in the authors tone, knowing something bad was about to happen and yet not able to tell Lord Graedel what I thought it might be. The hallway was obliviously dark, the sewer water fogging the scene as he tread deeper and deeper. He gripped the hilt of his sword when he heard a noise -- and my phone buzzed again, shattering the illusion.
It buzzed a second time, and then a third, and finally a fourth, before settling into peaceful calmness again as I reached for my second bite of an awkward bagel PB&J. Something was up, and it set me on edge, though I hadn't the slightest as to why. So I flipped open my phone, saw the six missed messages, and felt that electric jolt of anxiety that normally accompanied the fear that someone had died, or was dying and needed to talk to me of all people to say their last words via text or some shit like that.
What I got, instead, was something way out of left field: "Craig, the bank called", "wtf is wrong with you? can't you pay one godam bill?!", "this is ruining our credit you dumbfk!!!!"
I didn't even have the capacity to read the rest, nor to acknowledge the bad spelling like the English major that I was deep inside. It felt like I was having a heart attack. My veins had turned to ice, my heart into a rave-like beat sped up via Garage Band or Music Pro or some software like that, and my breathing reflected that of a dead mouse. Finally I un-clenched my throat and inhaled as if I'd been under water for ten minutes, and clatteringly dropped my escape to the table. My world was over. I was going to die.
It took deep breaths, controlled as if I'd had an asthma attack like when I was a kid, and took serious forces to bring myself back to reality. I told myself that everything was going to be okay, that my life wasn't over, and that I was surely the butt of some douche-bag joke played by... no, wait, they wouldn't joke with me, they never had and probably never would.
The panic then returned and took another series of moments to bring back under control. No amount of alcohol could solve this for me, and besides that I was midway through the toughest day I had had at work in ages. I wasn't just there to work, I was there to make an impression. But fuck whomever expected me to be calm in a time like this: my life was ending and I had to get away.
I tried the book again, but couldn't concentrate. I tried force-feeding the remainder of my breakfast, lunch and dinner, all one meal of a bagel with peanut butter and etc, but found my appetite gone and my diseased stomach a turbulent organ of chaos at that point. So I threw the rest away and clocked back in.
The next few hours went by as though slowed down by the hand of some sick deity trying to mess with my head more than had already been messed with. Minutes felt like hours and hours like days, until, finally, I found the seat of my hatchback and sighed so loud I may as well have moaned with ecstasy. In seconds I had thumbed the radio onto full and had the engine turning over, when I overheard the news of impending rain.
Normally this would have been a bad thing for me, not being one to enjoy it full-on like the rest of those I worked with, but this time I relished the idea for some sick reason that I had yet to decipher. So I drove home with the odd music of a lonesome oldies station playing as my backdrop to a dreary, dark night, which only further brought my mood into the shitstorm of what was to come. I felt the sorrow of a blues singer who'd lost his lover to a doctor in Manhattan, I felt the regret of a country singer who'd left home to see the world only to find out he left his best girl behind, and actually felt the pain of a man playing the harmonica to the beat of jazz flutes and percussion as he sang melodious tunes of a girl who'd died on her way to meet up with him where he'd planned on proposing.
By the time I got home to my apartment I was practically bawling but, choosing to 'be a man', instead held it in and grit my teeth against what should have been otherwise expressed right then and there.
I made my way to the door, just then, and entered into a dark living room where I quickly found a note from my best friend, roommate and lover of over ten years, claiming: "hun, please stop avoiding my parents, they are just trying to help you. They didn't mean to type it the way that they did, and are sorry for that. Please talk to me tomorrow when you get home." She had then penned in with another color of ink at what seemed last minute due to her handwriting "PS: please be quiet coming in, I work at four a.m. and I know how you stumble around at night when you aren't thinking. Love ya!"
Yeah, right. So I bedded down on the couch, heart racing once again, and eased into sleep as fluidly as green branches might catch on fire.
The next day came like the last in that I learned more about where it was I would be staying for the next segment and also more ridicule by those with whom I would be working. Lunch came without the everlasting throes of fear induced by malicious texts, which were so sarcastically missed, and I found refuge in knowing that my hero somehow survived his plight by expecting the beast to be in the shadows instead of the murky, glowy sewage, and had thrown himself into harms way to avoid the worst of it all. He was wounded to hell and back, though, and walked away dripping neon waste with more than just a few scrapes as he limped back into the light of day again, valiant and heroic as ever before, knowing he had vanquished the worst of his problems while down in the deep.
The rain then started at just about the same time that a customer was telling me how bad I was at my job, all because I refused to take a clearly fraudulent return. She didn't rest there, either: no, she claimed I was a 'hell-hole of a human being' and that I have been should be ashamed of even existing.
So I smiled and told her with a straight face that I was; and I meant it. She was right. I had no reason to argue with her about returning a brand our company had never carried, nor about how our company would not allow returns into cash without the receipt nor tag being present. I was a pitiful human being. I failed on bills, I avoided stressing situations, I was heavily taxed when thinking about any sort of finance, and fuck it all I was a man, treating a woman with anything other than complete reverie.
"You're right: I should be hanged," I told her in my own mind, and walked off without saying a single real word edgewise, much to my dismay. The day then passed by as quickly as ever, until the closing supervisor came in and relieved me of duty so I could thankfully head home in pouring down rain.
I bit my lip as I phased into my car, not even aware of the water that had already drenched me in the fifty feet I had walked to get there, and felt the metallic blood well up onto my tongue. Then my phone buzzed again.
I didn't even have to read it, as the next two came in one after the other from the same "You Know Who" name. Apparently I had changed both her parents names to the same nuance as each other, though I knew not when. What then threw me was when the phone began to ring that incessant "carry on my way-yward so-ooon, there'll be peace whe-n you are go-oone" and I was not in the mood for Styx at all just then.
"Yeah?" I answered.
"Craig," came the voice of her father, the husband of my co-signer, "just the man I was wanting to talk to." I wanted to say 'no shit, that's why you called me' and thus felt like a complete ass for even thinking that. The rain on my rooftop drowned out the sounds of birds that would have lightened my mood just then, and so I felt myself dropping even further as the man went on. "Look," he said, suddenly all serious, "we need to figure out what's going on with that loan of yours." Of course it was my loan when it came down to me needing to start paying it off, despite my financial inability right then, whereas it was always our loan when they told others about how they had helped me go abroad all those years ago.
"Yeah, I know, I've been trying to contact the bank," I lied, "but unfortunately I keep working hours where I start before the bank opens and I get out after they close." I gave a pause to let that sink in. Realistically I had worked those hours, but only for the last couple of days. In all reality I had no excuse for leaving it unpaid, despite the heart-race that it gave me whenever I so much as thought of it. "I can call their regional hotline, if you'd like?"
He sighed audibly, making it obvious that I was the male organ out of the two of us. It wasn't as if I didn't already feel that way, but hearing the aura of someone who absolutely despises you kind of puts an extrasensory damper on things that becomes hellishly hard to describe. "No -- just," he sighed again, angry with me as had become the usual, "go in when you have a chance. You remember how long it took to sort this all out when you had to call them after the college lost your records. We don't want that again." He grumbled to someone in the background, and came back with the sound of his fingers coming off the microphone. "I trust you'll get this sorted out, Craig. Talk to you later," and abruptly hung up.
I wanted to die right then, and it felt like I was -- with how heavy my heartbeat had become, still sitting in the parking lot of my new workplace, with more water heaving onto my car than a typical car wash could have done for twice the usual pay. I hated everything. I was avoiding bills that affected more than just myself, I was too wet-behind-the-ears for the job I hadn't even fully transferred into, I had been called out on being the worst of human beings in all of existence, was avoiding the dentist where I could get my two root canals taken care of all because I had a fear of the sounds their tools make, and had found myself locked in a steel box on wheels...
...while rain slicked the roads.
In an instant, I knew what had to be done.
It was a good fifteen mile ride before I chose the place I would do it at, all with the ruse of making it appear like a normal accident. So I hit eighty, my usual 'I'm in a hurry' speed, as I came upon my exit, and gripped the steering wheel with white-knuckled hands, my breath coming in nonexistent inhales and my heart making one long hum in my chest.
Then the guardrail hit the front bumper.