It’s Wednesday morning and Jack doesn’t feel so good. He got home early enough from the restaurant, so he can’t blame staying out late with Liz and Josh and Alice as an excuse for feeling crummy. His head hurts and his sinuses are full of gunk, he’s kind of dizzy and he wants his mom to be here bringing him tea and orange juice and toast, instead of being in Florida, sunbathing. More immediately, there’s a light hurting his eyes, a rainbow of color. He painfully turns his head to see the Winnie the Pooh night light shining cheerfully at him. He doesn’t remember plugging it in last night, but he must have.
It takes way too much effort to heave himself up so he can reach over and unplug Winnie, but he manages. Before he does, he thinks he hears Winnie say: “You’re going to be late for work.”
“Great,” he thinks. “Now I’m hallucinating.” He looks at the clock. His hallucination, or Winnie, was right. He is going to be late for work. He swings his feet over the side of the bed, then grabs the wall for support as the floor comes rushing up at him. His pants are lying in a puddle of cloth by the side of his bed. He leans over and fumbles in the pocket to find his cell phone. Looking at the number display hurts. Everything hurts. He scrolls down to “work” and hits the call button.
“I won’t be in, ” he tells the receptionist, his voice coming out in a croak so bad he doesn’t even have to try to make it sound worse. “Good,” she says. “Keep your germs to yourself.”
Jack falls back to sleep in a feverish fog, and spends the next two days in bed, rousing himself only to find cold tablets and juice, to make tea and eat toast. The only bright spot is that he is either too sick to hear his landlord tap dancing on his ceiling, or the landlord has given up his new hobby. Whenever he wakes, though, it is to the bright rainbow of color from the night light, and although he remembers unplugging it when the light irritates him, he never remembers plugging it back in. Friday morning dawns with the realization that he’s starving hungry and that he can breath through his nose and that his cell phone is ringing, and probably has been ringing for quite some time. “Hello?” His voice sounds perky even to him.
It’s the receptionist. “Oh good, you’re better,” she says. “I thought I’d have to phone for a temp.” Jack gets to his feet, wishing he’d had the forethought to sound sick, and pulls on his work clothes. They’re crumpled from spending two days on the floor, but he can’t make himself care. When he tosses the empty cold tablet bottle into the garbage, he sees that the expiry date was several months ago. Oops.
Jack checks the mirror before heading out the door. He looks pretty presentable, despite his shirt and pants being rumpled, and he looks like he has been sick. His nose is chafed and his eyes are bloodshot. Jack nods at his reflection in satisfaction. He’s learned that it doesn’t do to look too healthy after being off sick. He works with suspicious people. He walks out of his apartment with a spring in his step, greets the dog in a good natured way, and heads to the bus, surprised by the dog’s reaction. Rover didn’t bark or anything, just wagged his tail in an ingratiating manner.
The landlord, watching from above, calls to his wife: “You’re right. There is something wrong with the dog.” She comes out to look. “There’s something wrong with that Jack,” she says. “He makes me nervous. You’ll talk to him, won’t you?” “Tonight,” says the landlord. “When he gets home from work.”
At work, Jack clocks in and makes his way to the mail room. He pulls on his smock and sorts through the mail, arranging it for delivery, floor by floor.
“Nice break?” his boss says, coming in, then has a look at Jack’s face and back-pedals. “You’re not still contagious are you?”
“Hope not,” Jack tells him. “I wouldn’t wish this on…” he’s going to say “you,” then back-pedals himself to say “…my worst enemy.” An unfamiliar name in the mail catches his eye. “Peter Andrews?” he asks.
“Fourth floor,” his boss says, not even pausing to think.
“New guy?” Jack asks. The boss gives him a quizzical look. “No,” the boss says. “been here awhile.”
On the fourth floor, Jack steers his mail cart through the cubicles, dropping off and picking up, making excuses for his absence, enduring the attitudes of the least of the junior executives and clerical staff towards himself – the mail boy. Soon the only mail still to be delivered is that addressed to Peter Andrews. He comes through the cubicle corridor, and there is an office that wasn’t there before, a niche with solid walls built into the corner of the previously open floor plan, taking up the windows. An unfamiliar man in an expensive
suit, a guy about his age, comes out to meet him. He’s got a huge smile on his face, and Jack thinks, “who is this chimp?”
“Jack!” the person says. “How are you doing?”
“Fine,” Jack says. “Mr. Andrews?”
“Mr. Andrews? What’s wrong with you?” the guy says, holding his hand out for the mail. Jack hands it over and turns to go. “Hey,” the guy – Peter or whoever- continues, “you guys off to the Bar None tonight?”
“Us guys?” Jack asks.
“You and Alice and Liz.” Not Josh, Jack notes, and his heart sinks. “I’m free tonight!” the guy says, “so I can come with you!” Jack gives him a sickly smile. The guy doesn’t seem to notice, just keeps yapping in an excited way as if Jack should be thrilled to hear what he has to say. “Brenda’s off on some wild ladies night, so I get to go play!” Finally he notices Jack’s lack of response, and manages to misinterpret it, entirely. “I’m just kidding,” he says. “Can you imagine Brenda stuffing money into some guy’s jock strap? No she’s going out for dinner with her parents and grandparents, and told me I didn’t have to come.” Jack just wants to get out of there. He steers his mail cart away. “I get you,” Peter says. “Work is work and play is play. So, I’ll see you there tonight, right?”
Jack isn’t sure if he nods or not. When he gets safely down to the mail room, his boss takes one look at him and tells him to go back home, before everyone else gets whatever it is he has, and not to come back until his doctor clears him to come to work.
That night, Jack makes his way to the Bar None. He can’t not go, even though he doesn’t think he wants to know who will be there. He sees Peter sitting at their table and resignedly makes his way over. He can’t see Liz, which worries him, and he’s almost glad to see Alice, which worries him even more.
Then Liz comes from the bar, holding a large frothy drink in one hand and his favorite beer in the other. She’s back to being the Liz who drinks, he sees, and he can’t stop the huge grin from taking over his face. She grins back, plunks down his beer and shows him her arm. There’s a red mark on it that will probably turn into a bruise. “Next time you get the drinks,” she says. “Look at my arm!”
“Did someone hit you?” Jack asks, ready to kick some butt.
“Just jostled me,” Liz says. “An accident. But I banged into the bar.”
Liz puts her drink down, then pops herself onto Jack’s lap. “You could offer to kiss it better,” she says. Jack likes this Liz, he thinks, making a show of kissing her arm.
Alice asks Peter where Brenda is, and the conversation starts revolving around Peter, and Brenda, and wedding plans for Peter and Brenda. Jack drinks his beer, left out of this new dynamic again, not knowing what they know, his good mood evaporating. Liz moves over to sit in her own chair, and Jack hears himself asking: “Do you know my friend Josh?”
They all look at him, faces blank. Even Liz.
“No, who’s that?”
“Buddy from high school,” Jack says.
“Right,” Peter says, laughing. “If he was a buddy from high school, don’t you think we’d know him? What, you had other friends besides us?”
Liz and Alice join in the laugh, and Jack just feels sick. Liz’ laughter dies down faster than that of the others. He sees the concern on her face as she says: “You don’t look so hot.”
Touched, he makes an effort to smile. “No, I’ve got a cold. I think I’m going to head home,” he tells her. “Call me,” she says.
Later, Jack ponders her words. Call her? She’s never said: “call me,” like that. What does she mean? He makes his bed properly with clean sheets and gets rid of all the snoggy kleenexes scattered around the floor. He finds a last cold tablet under his water glass and takes it even though it’s probably expired too. He plugs in the night light, and is not rewarded with any kind of rainbow glow. The bulb is burned out. He pulls the night light from the wall, and then, even though he knows he’ll see Peter’s photo in the high school annual instead of
Josh’s, he checks it out. Peter’s there, all right, looking a smarmy eighteen year old version of himself, and there’s no Josh in evidence at all. Jack wants to cry.
Jack turns off his bedside light and stares at the ceiling until he drifts off into that fun house corridor of a dream, with clowns and walking dolls hiding behind closed doors, the voices of Pat and Josh crying out for help; the construction sounds that make him unhappily aware that the corridor is getting bigger all the time. The hammering gets louder and louder until Jack awakens. The sound is coming from his door. He is startled to his feet and he stumbles to the door. He lurches it open and there stands his landlord;
“For Pete’s sake,” his landlord says, “what the hell is going on down here?”
“I’m sleeping,” Jack says, confused.
“Then what is making all the noise, all the screaming and laughing and thumping?” the landlord asks, his voice rising with every word: “Night after night, then we get a break for a few days, and now it’s worse than ever. I can’t sleep, my wife can’t sleep, and the dog is hiding in the closet, probably peeing on my shoes, terrified. What the hell are you doing down here?”
“I’m sleeping,” Jack says, again. The landlord looks past Jack into the room. It all seems peaceful and quiet.
“Maybe you’re having a nightmare,” Jack suggests.
“Enough is enough. I want you out,” the landlord tells him. He stumbles back to his own door, where his wife waits, looking frightened. He puts his arm around her shoulders and they go inside.
“Crazy people,” Jack says. He gets back in bed, but knows he won’t sleep. He remembers Liz saying: “call me.” She probably didn’t mean at 2:43 in the morning, but Jack gets out his cell phone and finds her number in the directory and pushes the call button anyway.
Meanwhile, Liz, at her apartment, is having her own nightmare. Locked in that nothing world, she struggles against unknowable terror, hearing the voices of Pat and Josh, voices she should recognize, but somehow doesn’t. Another voice is calling her, the same voice that’s called her before, and all she can think is: “Jack! Take Jack!”
TO BE CONTINUED!