Time and Again
By Tom Foster
Jan. 3rd, 2016
“You don’t get to stop this.”
His shoulders shook from the force of his sobs, his sorrow great enough that it felt as though his heart was breaking in two. Not once in the past decade of his life had he felt this way, so bare, so emotionally powerless. Everything had been closed off until now, and that dam, built up after so many years of bitter disappointment, had finally broke.
He was feeling for the first time, and it was in front of the last person he’d want present when it happened.
“Not now,” he breathed, the foggy plume of breath escaping from his lips hanging on the crisp air for a moment. “Not now, when everything needs to go right.”
“This one wasn’t yours to save Larry, not now and not ever.”
“But why?” Larry breathed, still looking down upon the still, inert form of the woman he’d noticed so many times since coming to this little side of the road town. She was so peaceful in her stillness, so serene that he could almost convince himself that she was asleep. But the lack of any movement from her chest, the utter absence of breath escaping her lips, it was more than obvious. She was gone, and for the…..
“I can’t remember,” he said in a small, pitiful voice, “I can’t, remember, how many times.”
“You don’t want to know.”
He wanted to rise up and smack the hell out of this person, this unknown force wearing a human skin. All he wanted right at that moment was to find something hard and heavy to beat him down and show him what it felt like to wear a human form. But Larry already knew the danger of such an act, and knew it was pointless as well.
But still, he wouldn’t mind trying again.
“I’ve done everything right so far,” he said, still on his knees over the old woman, Sadie her name had been, “I’ve done everything right and people have been better off. I’ve made a difference goddammit!”
“And you made one for her too,” the man said, his voice seemingly sincere, “You gave her what no one else had given for a very long time.”
“What?” he croaked, “What did I do that made her life better?!”
He just wanted to wake up and find this had all been a dream. As he closed his eyes he
felt the hot tracks of tears staining his cheeks, wetting the beard stubble that had developed on
his unshaven cheeks during the past few days. This had become tiresome a long, long time ago, and he just wanted it to end. He knew the path he wanted now and it yet it seemed so far away, and unreachable in a sense that he could not adequately describe. He wanted something so good and pure that he’d been willing to change everything to get it.
And all he could say was that he’d tried.
He needed to sleep, to just go to sleep and not wake up. But then he’d tried that too hadn’t he? Nothing worked as it should have any longer.
“Larry,” said the other, his voice calm and still infuriating all the same, “It’s time to go.”
“No,” Larry said, shaking his head, a sniffle causing him to grimace as he stayed where he was. “I can’t leave her, I won’t.”
“She’s not your responsibility Larry, not now, and not ever.”
“Well then whose is she?!” he shouted, rising swiftly to his feet as he faced the handsome visage of the tormentor without a true name, the one person in this entire godforsaken town that could recall everything that he’d done from one day to the next. He had better since than to strike the individual, he’d tried that too with disastrous results. His left eye still twitched a bit as he thought about it.
“She’s mine,” he said calmly, his hands stuffed in his pockets much as would be expected on a wintry, bone-chilling evening such as this. The streetlights just barely cast their light in this direction, painting the two of them in the sickly, pale orange light that seemed so normal. This night it was no less, but the shadows it cast upon the other’s face were deep and unnatural in that moment, almost as if he was something born straight from the darkness, a shadow that had assumed human form. Larry could almost believe this was true, but wouldn’t bother entertaining such a fanciful notion at the moment.
“Are you here for the town, or for me?” he almost snarled.
The stranger, no he wasn’t a stranger, not any longer, stepped forward as he went almost nose to nose with Larry, his breath fogging up between them as he spoke.
“I’m here for whomever I’m assigned to Larry. In your case, I’m a glorified sitter.”
“What about her case?” Larry asked in a dark tone, his anger still boiling over as he pointed behind him, “What are you to her?”
“To who?” the other asked. The audacity of the question caused Larry’s jaw to drop as his anger spiked yet again, his need to hit something, someone, anyone, outreaching his common sense as he whirled around to point at the fallen woman, only to realize suddenly and without any understanding that the spot where Sadie had fallen was devoid of a body. She was gone, just gone, without a trace and without anything to show she’d even been there save for the imprint of her body upon the thin skein of snow and ice that she’d collapsed upon.
He whirled back on the other, fully intent on voicing his objection as well as a few expletives that he knew would not insure the other’s friendship, but as with Sadie, the man was gone. Larry sputtered as he took a startled step back, frustration showing plain upon his outraged features as he looked once more to where Sadie had been. Not even a small wisp of steam had risen from the spot, nor had he heard anything or anyone move.
“Go back to the hotel Larry,” the other said, his voice maddeningly close, “Get some rest.”
Frustrated and angry as he was, Larry couldn’t deny that this was good advice, that after a day spent doing as much as he could he was exceedingly tired. Maybe he should just back to his hotel and get some rest. At least there he seemed able to avoid the other for a short amount of time.
Every step he took back to his hotel felt as though it was a step in the wrong direction, a step backwards so to speak, and yet he couldn’t find any other direction to go. He was stuck, much as he had been for longer than he could really remember. The world would be here tomorrow, that much was certain, but it wouldn’t have moved on. That was the worst certainty.
* * *
He’d always been an early riser, but as his eyes opened slowly, almost painfully so, Larry Goodkin had to wonder if keeping them open would even be worth it today. It had almost seemed worth it yesterday, and the day before, and many days leading up to that, but today he felt the weight of what he could only describe as the weight of responsibility on his chest, a forceful presence he’d felt in the past but always ignored on principle. Too long it would seem that he’d denied fate, as it had finally come round to collect its due from him.
Most people would have expected to get bitch-slapped by a thing such as fate, but the situation he found himself in was one that felt more akin to a continual barrage of slaps, kicks, punches, and even a few cup-checks that he’d failed miserably. In short, life was at the current moment, and in the same day, kicking the ever-living hell out of him aside from when he was doing something right. Then it felt almost right, complete in a way that he’d not felt in much too long.
Inhaling through his nose he listened patiently to the announcers on the radio as they debated over the virtues of “Wild Thing” a song that Larry had once enjoyed in his youth, but now felt was a bit over the top for an early morning wakeup call. The title alone seemed to imply a youthful, carefree existence that was years behind him, but still he was a creature of habit and could not help but listen as he rolled out of bed, grimacing at the cold feel of the hardwood floor beneath his feet. He’d asked the elderly couple that ran the inn if they could muster up an area rug or two for the chill flooring, but they’d replied, with smiles no less, that they offered complimentary slippers that were quite cozy. What the hell kind of place did that sort of thing anymore? Had any place ever done anything so crazy?
At first he’d thought of course a place such as this would offer such a service, nestled into
the wilderness and cut off from the world that existed just around it as it was. Kalama wasn’t so
isolated that it was considered BFE, but it was definitely far enough away from a decent
restaurant or bar that Larry had felt like reaming his agent for bothering to book him in this go-
nowhere town. Mike had assured him however that thanks to the convention taking place just
down the road in Longview that hotels were hard to find for even the most noteworthy authors and minor celebrities. When he’d asked why he wasn’t being afforded a better room Mike had told him that he needed to sell a few more books before he reached first-priority status. Larry had almost launched his cell phone towards the nearby highway at that remark.
Rising to his feet he winced at the cold chill of the floor, wanting only to jump back into bed and forget that this day had ever happened. He’d done that too, only to realize that the days would keep rolling on. Plus, the innkeepers would eventually begin to knock on his door wondering if everything was okay. They were kind old folks, but also a little nosy.
The radio announcers went on with their morning spiel as he slowly, methodically shuffled his way to the bathroom, seeking relief and then the ice cold shower he knew was coming. If this was hell it was damned cold, and nothing seemed poised to ever warm up. There had been a moment though, with his publicist’s assistant that he could….
No, nope, nada, she tolerated him, thought his work was good enough to read, but that was it. She was moderately attractive and seemed like a lot of fun in theory, but their personalities were just too different, too….
But why not?
Only a few moments later the cold shower he endured took all such thoughts away for a while.
* * *
“Here, it gets a little gummy when it gets too cold.”
Larry pushed his hot, almost steaming plate of biscuits and gravy over to the old woman, nodding as she smiled at him in such a way that his heart clenched. He was doing his absolute best to not look as though he pitied her in any way, he’d learned that lesson some time ago when Sadie had clocked him hard enough to leave a well-defined bruise under his jaw. She didn’t take kindly to pity or to condescension as she’d explained not long after. Thankfully she had at least apologized for almost breaking his jaw, but it had been a valued lesson.
Instead of saying anything however Sadie just smiled and tucked into the meal once again, wiping at her lips now and again as he could see the absolute contentment in her eyes. As a waitress, her name was Amelia, came by with their next order, a heaping plate of pancakes, sausages, and scrambled eggs, Larry made room for the new plates by picking up the old ones, handing them to Amelia with a smile and a “thank you” that the young woman graciously returned. This at least was a good part of the day.
“Larry? What’s going on?”
Sadie looked as though she might bolt in the next second suddenly as the voice, known to
Larry, came from behind him. Indicating that it was okay, that she could and should go on with
her meal, Larry turned around to see as Jordan, his publicist’s assistant and the poor woman
who’d been assigned to accompany him to this convention, came walking up in her usual, self-
assured manner. She was stunning was his first thought despite the fact that she wore the same winter clothing that hid away her enticing curves and womanly figure. She looked a bit confused was his next thought. Of course she was always confused when she found him here, at least at the onset.
“Hi there. Oh nothing really, just sitting down to a meal with my good friend Sadie here.”
Jordan stood at the end of the table looking down at Larry as she always did, one eyebrow cocked and the other frowning in that usual “I don’t believe your bullshit” look. He’d tried to woo her more than once since they’d been here, and each and every time it had ended badly. The last series of mishaps had left his cheeks stinging for weeks if he had to be honest, as he had tried too hard, not hard enough, and had made a general ass of himself trying to impress a woman nearly seven years younger than him and more likely to fall in love with a man her age rather than over the hill author who’d hit a slump. But there was something about her, some quality he couldn’t deny that kept him going, despite the heartache that had been borne on an unending tidal wave of meaningless, uninspired days that continued to roll on.
“Did you want to join us?” Larry asked.
Jordan paused, as did Sadie, each one of them looking at him in expectation, and in Jordan’s case, mild interest.
Which, as usual, she shook off by saying, “Um, not right now thank you, but I did get hold of” Mike, she was going to say Mike, “Mike, and he told me that we need to be in Tacoma by tonight for another signing. He’s” –going to see if we can schedule at the nearest Barnes and Noble, Larry thought, and sure enough she repeated it verbatim as he’d heard for so many different times. Sometimes the words were laced with contempt, other times they came with long-suffering patience, but as of late they’d been slightly more upbeat and even curious, as though she was attempting to figure him out and was quite intrigued by his sudden turnaround.
Larry shook his head, certain of what he was going to say and already certain of her answer, and of Sadie’s. The only thing he wasn’t certain of was where the other, he called himself Ryder, with “y”, was at that moment. Among the entire town the man was the only feature that wouldn’t sit still, and could not be understood as the others were. For some reason that frightened Larry just a little, but he couldn’t say why.
“I would love to head to Tacoma, it’s always a good turnout. But the storm that’s coming is going to close down the roads soon. I’d rather not get stuck in the middle.”
Jordan frowned, “But it’s not supposed to hit until tomorrow, and we can be there tonight.”
Larry sighed, “Trust me, it’s going to hit a lot sooner.”
It wasn’t all that often that I-5 was closed for anything other than construction, and even
then it was usually reduced to one or two lanes. A complete closure was a disaster for those who
had to travel back and forth along the widely used highway, as the long ways around were truly
inconvenient and involved traversing miles and miles of back roads that were not as well mapped
and hardly ever as capable as I-5 was of conveying people to their desired destinations. In short,
the closing of I-5, the absolute and total cessation of all traffic, would take an act of God or
something akin to what he was living through now.
“Are you keyed into a database I don’t know about?”
He always wanted to laugh when she asked this, but had learned better through many, many interactions. Instead he just smiled, “One more day spent in Kalama won’t hurt us.”
To that she actually smiled, and he felt his heart warm as he always did when she favored him with such a gesture. Good God, why had it taken so long?
* * *
“So are you here to torment me?”
The newspaper in Ryder’s hands rustled as the man straightened a page, his eyes never leaving the print that had never changed a single day since the two of them had been here. Or at least since Larry had been here.
“I told you before Larry. I’m here to babysit and make sure you find your way to the right path, nothing more.”
“And to ferry old, homeless women from life to death.”
“I’ve no idea what you mean.”
“No,” Larry grinned fiercely, “Of course you don’t.”
The two men didn’t talk for several minutes after that, but it was a welcome silence. There weren’t many people out and about today thanks to the wind chill that could touch a person even through several heavy, insulated layers, but still here the two of them sat. He was expecting Jordan to come walking by in precisely five minutes, but only because this was where he’d met her more than once. Ryder had never been here though, and it made him curious.
“Are you going to be here when she comes by?”
“Nope,” Ryder replied, “Because she’s already on her way.”
Larry looked up at him as the man began to walk off, “Well hell, sit and stay awhile, let her get to know you like I have. Oh yes Jordan this is my friendly neighborhood stalker, please, get to know him and by the way, do you realize this is the thousandth time you won’t remember talking to me on this corner?”
It felt dangerous to talk like this, as though his mind was trying to unravel and the only thing holding it together was his selfish sense of self-preservation. Somehow though it still felt justified. As Ryder stopped and turned to look at him in a kind of irritated, almost fatherly manner, Larry grinned again, the gesture carrying no warmth and only the mild contempt he felt for the figure.
“Just go on and be quick about your business Larry,” Ryder said as he folded his newspaper, “I’m getting bored watching you every day.”
With that the other man turned on his heel and left, leaving Larry staring after him with a
diminished grin and a very strong sense of foreboding. Where was Ryder watching him from?
He supposed it made sense, but it was also damned creepy. Before he could continue thinking
about that however he heard his name spoken again, and could not deny the pleasure that it brought him.
* * *
“Are you seriously not going to try this time?”
“Would it make any difference?”
Both men watched the old woman stumble and stagger her way along the dead-end alley, her heart giving out with each step as she struggled for every breath.
“No, it wouldn’t,” Ryder admitted, “But I’ll admit that you did her a kindness.”
“Now, or this morning?”
Ryder didn’t respond for a moment, and that was all it took for Sadie, the old woman that Larry might have never known until this day, this never-ending, continual nightmare of a day, to drift away completely, collapsing upon the ice-coated ground just outside the local supermarket. It was as ignominious end as anyone could ask for, and less than he figured Sadie deserved.
“Both,” Ryder said as he started walking forward, to presumably take care of Sadie in his own way Larry thought. He had so many questions he wanted to ask, both mundane and more existential. Being an author he knew any number of questions might go unanswered or even worse, be assigned an ambiguous reply that couldn’t be defined in easy, simplistic terms. He wrote stories that went like this, he’d never once imagined that he might be living in one.
“Do you know where she’s going?”
Ryder stopped for a moment, turning around to regard Larry in an almost solemn manner as he took his time to reply.
“Does it matter?”
Larry thought for only a moment before replying, “It might.”
The other took a breath before speaking again, “Why?”
“Do us both a favor Larry, handle your business and be done with it. I want to move on, and so do you.”
The two men looked at one another, one with irritation slowly staining his features and the other with dawning realization. Larry couldn’t imagine what life might be like after all this, but he could at least think it might make a great deal more sense.
“Any ideas on how to go about that?”
“Nope,” Ryder said, though Larry doubted this, “I’m your watcher, not your damned guide.”
Something about the way Ryder said that gave Larry chills, but then it always did when the other man was so cryptic. No matter how long he’d been here he just couldn’t get used to that.
* * *
Nothing he did was enough. It wasn’t even close, no matter how much progress he believed he was making. And he couldn’t get her to understand, no matter how much he tried to wrap his head around it. He was an author goddammit, he needed to put the words out and he needed to make her understand. But he couldn’t force another person to believe.
How did you just tell someone you were living the same day over and over, that you predict their movements down to the smallest facial tic, and could tell them everything about themselves because you’d listened so many times? She would think he was a nut, that was it, plain and simple, but he kept finding that he was tempted to try. The brown bottle of faintly watered down ale in front of him had remained mute on the subject at hand, though he hadn’t expected much from it aside from the slight numbing sensation that it and several of its brethren had bestowed upon him so many nights. One night he’d had a few too many brown bottles and been kicked to the curb, literally in fact. That night he’d passed away from alcohol poisoning, only to wake up in his quaint little room in the same hotel he’d been placed in before the snowstorm had come along.
That had been damned painful he’d discovered.
“I’ve come to a couple of conclusions about you,” said a voice off to his right, a very unwelcome voice at that moment.
Larry didn’t even speak, just snorting as Ryder sat next to him, ordering his own brown bottle of beer as he adjusted his seating. If he took offense from the rude noise that had just been sent his way he hid it well.
“You’re a pussy, plain and simple.”
Larry felt like punching him just then, but he was all but certain that he’d simply fall off of his stool just then. The bartender, a big, surly man named Gil, just shook his head and walked off, obviously wanting no part of this conversation. That was okay, he walked away from a lot. The big man wasn’t much in the way of breaking up little domestic spats, only head-knocking, ball busting, skull-breaking fights that would smash up his joint. Larry could respect that.
“You’ve had all this time to figure out what to do, how to do it, and make amends, but you’ve never once thought of anything other than doing just exactly what you’ve wanted to do.”
“Did you rehearse this little speech?” Larry asked, “Should I be paying attention?”
Ryder took a swig of his drink before replying, “Nope. If nothing has sunk in by this time I’m almost certain that I’ll be extended far beyond what I was hoping on this particular assignment.”
“Who are you anyway?” Larry asked, narrowing his eyes at Ryder as he leaned closer, “Huh? Are you the angel of death? Are you a pain designed just to fit on my ass? Or are you just some crazy bastard that got stuck here with me? I mean I really want to know now, considering that you just pop up wherever and whenever you want.”
Ryder took another drink, paused, and then took another before setting his beer down
gently on the bar, turning to look fully at Larry as the other man pulled away, not liking what he
saw in the man’s eyes just then. If he hadn’t been already into his cups, as his father would have said, he would have sworn that Ryder’s eyes had turned just a faint shade of black at that moment, the darkness eclipsing his eyes entirely for just a split second. But that could have been a trick of the shadows as well.
“I am a man who is growing bored, and in that case you should be very frightened. People like me that get bored are bound to do something eventually that wouldn’t end well for any of us.”
“Take it easy down there boys,” Gil said, eyeing them carefully as he then went back to his own discussion. That gave Larry pause, as Gil had never to date said much of anything to him, not even when he got truly shit-faced and had had to be rolled to the curb. If anything Gil treated him with a quiet kind of neglect, as would a long-suffering parent who’d grown tired of reacting to an ignorant and arrogant child. The mere fact that Gil had spoken sent a chill down his spine for more than just that reason however.
“So then tell me o’ wise one,” Larry said, attempting to regain his composure, “ What am I supposed to do?”
At that Ryder laughed, shaking his head as he took another swig.
“If I was allowed to tell you that I still wouldn’t,” the man said.
“Wouldn’t, or couldn’t?” Larry said, raising a single eyebrow.
Ryder looked at him then, really looked at him, and in those dark eyes Larry saw something that made him believe that Ryder’s claim of ambiguous danger wasn’t just a boast, it was real. In fact it almost made him want to run out of the bar and start doing good things right that second. But the last bit of nerve he still had made it possible for him to stay.
“You’re not a bad man Larry, not a good one, but not the worst I’ve ever seen. But I am growing bored with this constant bullshit you seem to call your life.”
Larry took a drink, contemplating telling Ryder where he could stick his boredom, but the truth of it was, the man was right. It was a hard pill to swallow, but Ryder was correct in his assessment. It was time to change, and to do that he needed to want it. At that moment he could only think of one thing, one person, that he wanted, and that alone spurred him to look at Ryder, who had already presented his bottle for a cheers it would seem.
As their bottles clanked together, Larry spoke, “You’re an asshole.”
Ryder nodded, “And you’re a prick.”
With that they drank in silence, and it was surprisingly the best time Larry had had in the past few days.
* * *
Tomorrow, or today he supposed, was going to be a long, rough day thanks to his current
plan, but it would have to work. He had to memorize everything he planned to do, everything he
needed to do, and would have to on target with every last bit of it. But he was hoping against
hope that it would not only make his life make sense again, but that it would remind him of what life had once been about. If he couldn’t have his freedom from this day, then he would at least have those moments to enjoy for eternity.
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