[Before you read this chapter, maybe you'd like to read the one before it: in which our hero encounters a Traffic Jam.]
When reality swam back into focus I was still on my back, still staring up at the sky. Six feet above me two tiny reflections of myself stared back from the lenses of a familiar-looking pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses.
“I shoulda figured I’d see you here eventually Price,” said the man behind the glasses, squeezing out the words in the tone of someone scraping gum off the bottom of his shoe. He held a bottle of water out over my head and let go. My hands flinched up to catch it, but not fast enough; the bottle smashed square into the bridge of my nose. It didn’t break anything, but it hurt like the dickens. I winced and grabbed the bottle from ground, my wounded pride melting away as my fingers relished the chill of condensation on the smooth plastic. I took a sip that turned into a gulp and before I knew it half the bottle was gone. Officer Brown pulled the bottle away from my mouth and said, “Take it easy Porkie. You wanna make yourself sick?”
My memory of the previous five minutes started to return. “What happened?” I asked as I tried to sit up.
“I figured you could tell me.”
“Frog,” I said.
“Well you’re just a regular Einstein aren’t you?”
“What did he do?”
“Hard to tell. He’s gone missing, along with the deputy mayor and a security guard. And there’s a room in there with blood smeared all over the walls. I don’t mind telling you, I’m hoping it’s his.”
I took another deep swig from the bottle and started to feel more like myself again. This wasn’t necessarily an improvement. “He’s missing?”
“Yeah. You know anything about it?”
“The only thing I know is that he called me a little while ago screaming like a maniac. I figured something was up. But I wasn’t expecting-”
It wasn’t until then that I really got a good look at the scene I had stumbled into. Apparently the missing deputy mayor and security guard weren’t the end of the chaos Frog’s “mission” had caused. Large chunks of masonry and splintered pieces of two-by-fours littered the street in front of City Hall. But the debris hadn’t come from City Hall itself. Instead there was another building across the road, a three-story brick affair with no remarkable features save the gaping hold that had been smashed out from the inside. “What happened?” I asked.
“Not a clue. I’m guessing your little friend might be able to give us some sort of answers when we find him though.”
“Frog wouldn’t do something like that,” I said trying to sound more certain than I felt. “He’s got his little quirks, but a bomb?”
“Look closer Sherlock,” Officer Brown said.
I did. And at first I didn’t understand what he wanted me to see. But then it hit me. There were no scorch marks, none of the rubble was blackened or smoking. Whatever had blown out the wall of that building it hadn’t been an incendiary device.
I finished the last of the water and struggled to my feet. “Frog didn’t do that,” I said.
“Well you would say that wouldn’t you? But we still want to know where he is. If he tries to contact you, let me know, got it?”
“Yeah. Sure thing dad.”
Just so you know, I wasn’t employing some weird version of sarcasm; Officer Brown really was my father. Though as you can maybe tell we weren’t exactly what you’d call close.
He was nice enough to give me a ride back to my car though he made me sit in the back like a perp. He didn’t say another word to me the whole way, and once I was out he spun his squad car around and headed back toward City Hall, sirens blazing.
By now most of the people who had been sitting in the traffic jam had figured out that the line wasn’t going to move any time soon and had either gone to find a detour or decided that wherever they were going wasn’t that important. I looked down at my cell phone and saw that it was nearly three o’clock. It had been almost three hours since I had left the parking lot, and I wasn’t much closer to understanding what kind of trouble Frog was in. One thing I did know. It was something big.
I was about to slip the phone back into my pocket when it buzzed twice in quick succession letting me know that I had an email.
It was from Frog. I opened it right away, but the message didn’t make any sense. And I don’t mean “The bigfoot is in the azaleas,” kind of not making sense. As far as I could tell it was just a bunch of random words. Knowing Frog like I did, I figured it was some kind of code, but the sun was still burning down on me I could feel my body aching for rest. I wasn’t in any condition to play cryptographer. So instead I got in my car, nosed out into traffic and headed for home.
As I drove it occurred to me that I should be feeling something. Frog was missing, and from what it sounded like on the phone, probably hurt. With two other people missing and the not-explosion across the street from City Hall things were looking very bad indeed. But somehow the facts weren’t clicking into place the way they should have. None of it seemed real. It was all too much, as if my brain had taken one look at the situation and thrown up its hands in confusion.
I made it back to my apartment and stumbled into the bliss of air conditioning. I gulped down two glasses of ice water, peeled my sweat-soaked clothes from my body and stepped into a cold shower. By the time I was done, the fatigue that had been building up during the day hit me like a fist and I fell into my bed and slept.
I woke to the braying sound of my phone’s alarm going off and dragged myself groggy from the bed. The events of the previous day swam back into my mind as I tugged on fresh clothes, and for a moment I wondered if it all might be a dream. Then I picked up my cell phone and looked at Frog’s nonsense email again.
Is this the real life? the song swam through my head. Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality.
No escape. That was me. Trapped in a fat body, stuck in a dead-end life. And now the one guy who had made it all a little more bearable was gone.
It was then it hit me, really hit me what losing Frog meant. And as I drove through the darkness toward the harsh fluorescent glow of The Other Place I remembered the first night his special brand of crazy had broken into my dull dull life.
It had been two years, though it didn’t seem like so long looking back on it. It was a summertime, on a night not much different from this one, hot and sticky with humidity, the stars overhead hidden by clouds the weather forecast said were hauling in rain by the bucketful.
I had been working at The Other Place for about six months, and I had begun to fall into a rut: clean the floors, stock the shelves, talk to the maybe six customers who came in each night, and in between-times thumb my way though forgettable fantasy epics and fat Stephen King paperbacks. That night started like most any other. I swished the mop across the floor, shoved crinkling bags of chips onto shelves and thumbed through a Robert Jordan novel I’d read twice before without much interest.
You might say I was starting to hate my life; but you’d be wrong. I’d started a long time before that, winding the various threads of my despair into a ball that had now grown so large I was in danger of being crushed by it.
And then, on what promised to be yet another dull, desolate, pointless night, something across the street caught my eyes. I looked and saw that the lights that illuminated the pumps at the Circle K were blinking on and off.
At first I thought there must be some kind of power fluctuation going on, but then I realized that the lights at my gas station where just fine, and the street light across the road shone on as steady as ever. There was something going on then, something that was only happening at the Circle K.
Then it dawned on me that the flashing wasn’t completely random flickering, but seemingly steady purposeful blinks, some long some short. I looked for a pattern for several seconds before I realized it might be Morse code.
I grabbed a pencil and a piece of paper and started writing what I was seeing, dashes for long blinks dots for short.
In early childhood I had been in Cub Scouts, and I faintly recalled learning about Morse code, but the only thing I could remember from that time was how to signal SOS. But when the blinking stopped I dug out my smart phone, which was new at the time, and looked up a reference table for Morse code. It took me almost fifteen minutes to crack what little of the message I’d received and when I was finished it read, “…bored as I am?” (without the ellipsis though. I just added that to show that what I had received was incomplete. Maybe I shouldn’t have to explain this, but with Frog you never know.)
It didn’t take long to compose my reply, though when I was done it occurred to me I didn’t know how to send it.
But you do, a voice in my head said, You can do it just like he did.
I hesitated. I looked across the road and I could see him now, this strange man looking through the windows at me, waiting for a reply.
This was stupid. I could just phone him. For that matter I could just walk over there and speak to him in person. It wasn’t like business was booming on a Monday night at three in the morning. I looked at the phone, picked it up, actually started to dial. But then I stopped and slammed it back in the cradle.
I marched into the back of the store and yanked open the breaker box. All the switches were labeled with plastic punch tape and my eyes rested on the one that said “Pump Power”.
You could get fired for this, the voice in my head said. You could get into trouble.
But then I thought how much I hated my job, how much I hated my life, and I reached out a started to signal.
Dash dot dash dash: Y.
Dot dot dot: S.
Each time I clicked the switch my heart raced a little faster, but when I was finished I felt like I had done something important. I pumped my fist in the air with the pure excitement that washed over me.
Then I heard a voice from out in the store say, “Hello? Is there anyone here?”
There should be an annoying binging sound when someone comes in the door, but our buzzer had been broken since I started work at The Other Place. Usually I still heard people when they came through the door, but in my excitement I hadn’t been paying attention.
The excitement in my chest turned to cold hard fear when I stepped out of the back room and saw the man at the counter, a burly figure in the forest green of a police uniform. For a moment I thought it was him.
It didn’t really look like him of course, but there was something about that uniform that made me think of him. And even when I saw that it was another man, I had to swallow a lump of fear that formed in my throat. “I’m here,” I said, the words coming out in a kind of nervous warble. “I was cleaning in the back. Sorry I didn’t hear you come in.”
He gave me a sharp look that said, I know what you’ve been up to. I know who you are. And if I wanted to I could make things go very badly for you. All policemen can do this look, at least all the ones I’ve ever known. They might be the nicest guys you’ve ever met, but the job they have to do makes them harder, more suspicious. Some people philosophize about how there is evil in the heart of every man. But the policeman doesn’t philosophize. The policeman knows.
I went to the counter and asked “How can I help you?”
He didn’t answer in words, but pointed to the cup of coffee on the counter. I hate it when people do this. Sure, I’m smart enough to figure out what you mean, but there’s something dehumanizing about being waved at, as if a few simple words were too valuable a commodity to waste on me. To people like this people like me aren’t really human. We’re just gears in the machine, little more than human shaped robots. And if we break down, if we’re deactivated, there will always be a new model ready to replace us.
I rung up the coffee, and took his money.
“Something’s wrong with your lights,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said, swallowing hard, trying to quench the quaver in my voice. “Bad circuit breaker.”
He gave me that hard look again, but this time it went on and on, and I almost felt as if he could see directly into my soul. I swallowed hard and involuntarily glanced toward the back room, feeling the guilt of what I had just done weighing down hard on me. I caught myself and quickly looked back at the policeman, noting that his steely gaze had followed mine. He looked sharply at me once more, and I saw a moment of decision in his eyes. He slowly set his coffee back on the counter and reached for the gun at his side.
I opened my mouth to speak, but he put his finger to his lips and crept toward the back room. It took me most of ten seconds to put it together. My nervousness, the quaver in my voice, the blinking lights: he thought I had been signaling for help, that there was some madman crouched in the stock room with a shotgun.
He was crouched beside the door now. I wanted to say something but my heart was stuck in my throat. I shook my head furiously at him but he only responded with a hard-eyed stare, and then charged through the door with his gun out in front of him. “Police! Hands up!” he called out. Then for nearly a minute there was silence. I could feel my face getting red with embarrassment when he came back through the door looking slightly befuddled.
“I tried to tell you,” I said. “There’s no one here but me. The circuit breaker-”
But before I could finish my sentence he had snatched his coffee off the counter and slammed out the door. After he left I put my head down on the counter and wished he would come back and shoot me.
But instead the phone rang.
“That was classic,” the voice on the other end said.
“What? Who is this?”
“Look out your window.”
I looked, and saw the guy from across the street waving through his window and grinning like a maniac. I wanted to be angry, but there was something in the gleeful tone of his voice, in the pure exuberance of his gestures that left me with only one thing to say. “Who are you?”