I’m breaking the speed limit in the Prius, heading for the South Jetty to drown myself, but I need to say goodbye to someone first.
I push James icon on my phone and pull up in front of a vacant lot beside the house I used to rent in Astoria. The Prius engine dies automatically. James’ phone is ringing.
A skanky black cat trots up and jumps on my hood. His nails click as he lands. He walks silently toward me leaving smudgy footprints.
Jame’s voice comes through the car speakers, “Yeah.”
I set my phone in a cup holder. “Someone’s trying to kidnap you. Grab your keys and get out of the house. Run to the car. Drive to the police station fast as you can. ”
“Yeah, I’m not kidding! Go. Hurry! I’ll stay on the line.”
“Got to find my keys,” he says.
I open the glove box. Two cans of cat food are left. I’ll open both.
“On the floor by the foot of your bed.”
“Won’t be there.”
“Just go look. Hurry!”
I open my window, put my arm out in the usual way and the proud little thing marches up my arm, rubs his matted fur against my face as he climbs down to my lap and curls up.
“Herpes, you little tramp.” I sneeze. When he first came to my patio door demanding attention I had no idea I was allergic. First it was just itchy eyes.
I open both cans of cat food with an old round-bladed device I remember from childhood when it was shiny and had a place in my mother’s kitchen. I dump the catfood into a plastic bowl that’s usually sliding around on the seat beside me. Smells like fish. Herpes springs to his feet and begins that delicate gobbling technique. His ribs are showing again. Poor little thing, out here starving. “I’m sorry I can’t feed you again,” I tell him. “I won’t be coming around anymore.”
I try to pet him but he doesn’t allows distractions while he’s eating.
He has a worn leather collar with a dangling ring that must have held a happy tag with his real name on it. Once. I wonder who he was.
He finishes the whole pile of food before I’m ready to say goodbye, then steps back into my lap to let me pet him. Three times is all. Then he jumps out, lands confidently on the road and looks up at me.
“Goodbye, sweetheart,” I tell him. “I wish I could…”
A van rumbles by and scares him away.
I put the two empty cans in a plastic grocery bag, twist it tight, tie a knot and set it on the seat beside the bowl. Someone else will have to take it to the trash.
“Good call,” James says. “They were right by the end of my bed. It’s spooky how you do that.”
“It’s just luck,” I tell him. But lately I wonder. This time it was an image of his keys. Sometimes there’s no image, just a wordless thought. “Get in your car. Hurry!”
I hear his feet on the old wooden floor at Grandfather’s house. Actually we called him, “Ojiichan,” not Grandfather, but it means the same. The door of the old Ford slams. Low pitch. The starter churns.
The sun isn’t up yet. Jetty Road looks empty as I make a right turn onto it.
“Yo,” James says. “You there?”
“Yeah. Drive straight to the cop station. You know the way?”
“Take a wild guess,” he says.
He was arrested for underage drinking in front of Starbucks not long ago. In broad daylight.
“I’m not saying you’re a moron, James, but now that you mention it…. God, I love you.”
“Ditto, but no need to get all… Whatever. Hey, I never-one knew they kidnap teenagers. You sure about all this?”
“Yeah.” I wake up a few neurons with a neurofeedback technique I learned in a research lab at Yale. They kept asking me if I’d ever been hit in the head. No. I can make an EEG trace jump at will. I learned it with electrodes pasted on my head, staring at squiggly lines on a monitor. Trial and error, bottom-up science not the mythical top-down BS they preach.
Neurofeedback wakes you up like coffee, but some people have memory loss. I should be so lucky.
“Keep an eye on the road behind you,” I tell him. “Somebody could be following.”
My peripheral vision is strange now. The trees… swishing past on both sides of the road. They grab my attention as if they were in the center of my field of vision.
“Nothing’s behind me,” James says.
I ease off the Prius’ gas pedal, pass a crow on the dotted line and watch it hop away in the rearview mirror, wings our angelic. Tough immune systems, those little guys, eating roadkill and living to tell the story.
“The kidnappers are Frameshift goons,” I say to James. “That’s my theory. They’re trying to recruit me.”
“Like into the Army?”
“Same idea.” Should I tell him? Not while he’s driving. “You shouldn’t drive and talk on a cellphone, you know. Under normal conditions, I mean.”
“Pot calling da kine black.”
“No, I got a hands-free setup. Matter of fact, I’m driving right now. To the South Jetty.”
“Some of us drive Ojiichan’s old Ford, you know.”
A motorcycle’s coming at me in the other lane. One loud headlight. It passes with the infrasound of an old Harley. The wide back tire, long chrome pipes slanting up. I wanted to ride one of the old beasts before I died. My legs wouldn’t be long enough though. I bet.
“What’s the South Jetty?” James asks.
I shouldn’t have brought it up. “It’s a rock wall that goes out between the ocean and the place where the Columbia River dumps in. South side. When are you moving in with the Hadano’s? That was supposed to happen three months ago.”
“I don’t know, pretty soon,” he says. “But you don’t have to worry about it. I told the social worker I’m living there now. Mrs. Hadano backed me up.” James shifts into Mrs. Hadano’s voice: “Yes, James is moved in already. Part of da family.”
“The Hadano’s are rare people,” I tell him. “Don’t make them lie for you.” I hate to nag. “How close are you getting to the police station?”
“I’m looking for a place to park,” he says. “Holy Smokes. There’s this Haole dude in a rental car. Following me, I think. I’ll find out.”
“What type of car?”
“Yeah, he’s tailing for reals. I turned up an alley and he’s coming behind me. Driving that thing you drive. The Prepuce.”
Prius, James. “Lucky thing. OK, when you get out of the alley, turn right, go 20 feet, stop and put it in reverse. You’re going to ram him the instant you see him. Go for his right front tire. Mess it up so it can’t move when he turns the wheel. Then drive away as soon as you can.”
“That’ll ruin my car.”
“No it won’t. The Ford’s a tank compared to a Prius.”
“You better be right.” He takes a deep breath. “I got it in reverse. Here’s the dude’s bumper.”
There’s a crunch and the sound of glass.
“No prob,” James says. “I’m driving away.”
“The dude’s running after me on foot.” James laughs.
“When you get to the cop station, don’t park, just drive up close to the front door, jump out, leave the car and run inside. Fast as you can.”
“Do they let you park out front? I don’t need another ticket.”
“Use your head, James! Kidnappers are killers. Do exactly what I tell you, for God’s sake!”
“I was just asking.”
He gets quiet. Any expression of anger was off-limits in our family. It didn’t matter if you were saving someone’s life or destroying the ozone, anger meant you were wrong. You got silent treatment.
“Where are you?” I ask. “Talk to me.”
“Side of the road, basically. In front of the cop building. I’m leaving the car, like you said.”
The car door slams with memories of Ojiichan, the first Buddhist Priest on Oahu. I took his alter back to Okinawa after he died. That was the first I’d heard of his fame in Japan. The Buddhists called him, “One of The Five.” I don’t speak Japanese and my translator didn’t speak much English, so I couldn’t figure out who “The Five” were. But it’s an interesting coincidence that our ancestor, the great Samurai, Musashi, wrote The Book of Five Rings.
“I’m inside,” James says. “There’s this lady here, but she don’t look like a cop.”
“Hand her the phone, I need to talk to her.”
I hear a woman saying she’s busy. She tells him to take a seat. Here it is. That feeling. I’m telling you, I want to reach through this phone and strangle her. What’s wrong with me?
“She’s too busy,” James says.
“Tell her somebody’s trying to kidnap you.”
He does, and she gets on the line. “This young man tells me he’s the victim of a kidnapping attempt and you’re his older sister. Is this information correct?”
“Yes.” I give her my name and the highlights, trying not to sound like the teenager I still am. She agrees to keep him in a safe place until a police officer can talk to him. That’s all she can guarantee.
A squirrel darts out into the road ahead of me and I swerve to miss it. I shouldn’t be doing seventy on this narrow road.
The phone reception gets sketchy as I drive into a dirt parking lot near the South Jetty. Logs outline the perimeter. A dirt slope leads down to the river beach ahead of me. I could drive down there and get stuck, but I’ll park. Save somebody the headache of pulling my car up the slope when they figure out it was the dead girl’s ride.
James gets back on the phone. “Hey.”
“Listen, I’ve got leukemia.”
“Cancer of the blood,” I tell him. “Odds are, it’s going to kill me in a month or two. But you need to understand, the kidnappers are after me, not so much you. They only want you so they can force me to work for them. But I’m not doing it. I haven’t got long to live anyway, so…”
“What the hell are you saying?”
“If I kill myself, I won’t have to work for those people. I can’t stand what they’re doing to the world. I won’t be part of it.”
“This can’t be happening.”
“Listen, James. None of this is about you. If we’re lucky, they’ll leave you alone once I’m gone. You won’t be valuable to them when I’m in heaven.”
“You can’t kill yourself. You can’t do that.”
“I’m dying one way or the other.”
“They must have drugs. People get rid of cancer all the time.”
“Not M5b. The stats are dismal. The chemo makes you sick as a zombie. Your hair falls out. I’m not doing it.”
“But you got to try.”
“No. You need to try. Try not to get depressed when I’m gone. Try to find something to believe in so you’ll be a decent influence on the world when you’re famous. All this stuff about no God, no good, no evil. Forget it. It’s bull. You’ve got to believe in something. Something that’s not so brittle it breaks when the aliens land.”
“What?” He gasps.
“Atheism and fundamentalism are brittle. They’re both going to break… when the facts come down.”
“I can’t believe this.” He’s on the edge of tears. I know the sound.
“You’ve got heavy responsibility on your shoulders. Listen to me. Nobody has more influence than a rock star. Nobody in this world. You were born to be famous. You’re like John Lennon. You’re a genius with melody, James. Literally a genius.” I’ve never been able to convince him of that. “You’ve always made me so proud. Everything you write. And you got the singing voice to match.”
“I’ll be listening to your stuff. And watching you – from the moon, I think.”
“The moon?” He’s crying now. Normally he cries over great songs and sad movies, not real disasters. Disasters make him stronger than most people. Usually.
“Who’s going to be the only friend I ever had, Johanna? Who’s going to make sure I don’t party all the time? Who’s going to bail me out… of jail next time?” My phone goes dead.
I try to call him, but a battery icon flashes for a second then disappears. The phone was plugged in all night. I look at it in my mind and see 100% at the top, above the old woman’s number.
This close to the Jetty, I’m starting to feel a little hesitant about suicide. James and I didn’t even get to say goodbye. It’s cruel.
I remember Ojiichan saying that our existence isn’t real. Get rid of all attachments and nothing can hurt you.
I hear a Sabbath School teacher reading from a little pink Bible, “All things work together for good to them that love the Lord.”
But I never was able to become a true fundamentalist. Not quite. I came close for a while but… whatever. I’ve always felt a little jealous of those people. It’s like the UFO club. I want to believe but those things just don’t show up for me.
I’ve got the jitters. I’m going to breathe water, that’s all. It’s the least embarrassing way to do this, and to be honest, I’m more afraid of embarrassment than drowning. It’s a Japanese thing, I think. Completely genetic.
I get out of the Prius, face the cold salt wind and walk toward the tall, curving breakwater. Its beauty is gone today. I put it side by side with a mental image from the last time I was here. The sun was up, but otherwise the images match.
I was standing right… here.
I wonder if beauty is still there when you can’t see it.
M. Talmage Moorehead
If you want, you can read this story from page one (beginning with Johanna’s chapter 0). It starts here.
If you want to be notified when each of my novels is done (possibly before the sun goes supernova) please join my list here. (No spam or sharing of your info – ever.) You could also download my e-book on fiction writing while you’re at it, if you want the thrill of your life. Just kidding. The e-book’s pretty decent in its own way, I’d say. One person really liked it.
Also, please email a close friend with my URL: http://www.storiform.com. Think of the sweetest, most interesting and beautiful nerd you know. Warn her that the story’s in progress.
Thanks, I appreciate your generous nature and inherent goodness of character. No, seriously. You’re a writer, right? OK, then. Take the compliment. (My wife finds it difficult to take any compliment. She’s got a logical reason to explain the precise inaccuracy of whatever nice thing you tell her. Plus she’s gorgeous. What a combo!)