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Authors: Bentley Little

Dispatch (36 page)

BOOK: Dispatch
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We remained here in our homes and our habitats, going through the same paces we usually did. It was at first frustrating, then dispiriting and finally despair-inducing.

I'd been depressed before, but always in the back of my mind I'd known that my friends were there for me. Now, though, I felt isolated, alone. As far as I was concerned, my friends were nothing more than holograms, fake people created to keep me company. I felt like I was living in a fucking video game or something, and I looked with suspicion upon everything I saw, heard or did.
Don't trust everything you hear. Or see
, Henry had told me when I first arrived.
Only trust what you read.

He'd known what he was talking about.

Henry, I was pretty sure, was a real person, a real Letter Writer. Was he as powerful as I was? I didn't think so, but that hardly mattered. He'd been placed in a position of authority by the Ultimate or one of his underlings—

the Old Ones

—and while he might have sympathy for me, his loyalty was to his boss.. He was not about to bite the hand that fed him. Even if he was brave enough to do such a thing, I'm not sure he would really want to.

So while he was nice to me and I liked him, Henry was my enemy.

Still I kept writing.

One day, I wrote the same letter over and over again, in longhand, then on my typewriter, then on the PC, then in longhand again, all day long, until my brain was numb and my fingers hurt, Perhaps repetition would get the job done. Hell, as any politician knew, if you repeated something often enough, people eventually came to believe that it was true. Letter Writers took advantage of this all the time, particularly when writing to newspapers' editorial pages.

But it didn't work this time. I awoke the next morning in my same house, drove to work in my same black car, nodded to Stan in the parking lot as both of us shuffled dejectedly into the building.

Finally, I decided one day not to get out of bed. What was the point? I lay there beneath the blanket, staring up at the ceiling, thinking of the future, and all I saw before me was an eternity of sleeping, eating, reading, writing, mindless, endless rote and repetition. I might as well just stay here. There wasn't any punishment I could receive that was worse than what I was already experiencing.

I remained there all morning. No one called; no one came to get me; I was all alone. I got up only to take a piss. At first I didn't even want to do that—I'd piss in my fucking bed; who gave a shit?—but then I realized that I couldn't just lie in it forever. I'd have to change the sheets, put new ones on, wash the old ones ... Just the thought of it made me tired. So I shuffled into the bathroom, took a leak, returned to the comfort of my mattress.

Sometime in the midafternoon, half in and half out of the near continuous sleep state in which I'd been hovering, I heard a sound from the living room: the clanking of metal on metal.

The mail slot next to my front door.

A letter had just been delivered.

For
that
I got out of bed.

I tried to hurry. I wanted to see what the mailman looked like. But by the time I'd reached the front door, unlocked and opened it, he was gone. I ran outside in my underwear, hoping to see him walking up the block or even driving away in a truck or van, but there was nothing; the street was deserted. It was also silent. The fake noises I heard each evening from the other houses were nowhere to be found, and the usual sounds of a suburb—dog barks, bird cries, car engines driving by, kids playing, babies crying—were not there. Literally, the only noise I heard was my own breathing.

I quickly ducked back in the house.

There was a white envelope lying on the floor beneath the mail slot. I picked it up and immediately recognized the handwriting, though I hadn't seen it in over a year.

It was him.

The Ultimate.

I tore open the envelope. On the sheet of paper inside were three words:
I always win.
Enclosed was a photograph of James Baldwin lying on a bed, his eyes wide open and staring, obviously dead. The cause of his death was not readily apparent, but whether the technical reason was heart attack or pill overdose or strangulation, I knew who'd really killed him.

I always win.

I let the photo fall from my hands, the paper, too. I didn't even have the energy to tear them up. I slumped to the floor. He was right. He did always win. How could I have ever thought otherwise? He'd been able to see my dreams since I was a kid, and he knew everything I did. Like Santa, he saw me when I was sleeping; he knew when I was awake. He'd created this entire alternate universe, luring Letter Writers from all over the world, and he'd been doing it for centuries. God knew how old he was. Who was I to think that I could best him in anything?

I was his plaything. He kept me around for my amusement value.

All of a sudden, I was determined to put a stop to that. Maybe I couldn't go up against the Ultimate in a fair fight, but I could throw a wrench into the monkeyworks and make sure that I was no longer a participant, that I could no longer be used. I thought of what Henry had said when I was looking for a way out of the Kyoko debacle:
One of you is going to have to go.

I could opt out.

It was a big step, a final step, a nonreversible step, but it was the only act of defiance left to me.

As the afternoon turned to dusk and dusk became night, I sat there on the floor, thinking through the ramifications of what I was considering, trying to figure out not only if I
should
go through with it but if I
could
go through with it. Was I brave enough to act?

In the end, I decided that I had nothing to lose.

I considered calling Stan, telling him of my decision, but I told myself he wasn't real, and though I hated myself for it, though I knew that he
was
real, that he had thoughts and feelings just as valid as my own, that he was as physically solid as I was myself, I could not get past the truth of his origin, could not consider him an actual human being.

I stood, walked through the darkened living room to the kitchen, drank an entire half gallon of orange juice, ate the last piece of leftover frozen pizza.

Then I sat down in my den.

And started on my suicide note.
 

*16*

I awoke in a hospital in Anaheim.

I was in a room with two other patients, both of them old men and both of them watching the same
Oprah
show on two different televisions. My mouth was dry, completely parched, and when I opened my lips and tried to speak, I couldn't. My throat felt as though it had been scrubbed with sandpaper. I knew there had to be some sort of button I could press to call for a nurse, and my fingers fumbled around at the edge of the bed until they encountered a small plastic rectangle attached to a piece of cord. In the center of the rectangle was a button, and I pushed it.

Seconds later, two uniformed nurses hurried into the room and over to my bed, followed quickly by a doctor. I motioned to my mouth and my throat, tried to talk again and ended up coughing, gagging, nearly throwing up. One of the nurses, the older one, held out a bottle with a curved sipping straw which she adroitly placed between my lips.

I had never tasted anything finer than that small trickle of cool water.

I wanted to drink the whole bottle, but she pulled the straw away from my mouth after a few seconds. "Not too much," she advised. "You won't be able to keep it down at first."

"Do you know who you are?" the doctor asked, shining a penlight in first one eye and then the other.

"Of course," I told him.

As it turned out, they didn't. I'd been discovered without any identification, lying unconscious on a bus stop bench, and had been brought directly to the hospital. If I'd had a wallet, it had been stolen, and the next course of action was going to be to take my fingerprints and see if the police could use them to identify me.

But now I'd awakened.

"How long was I out?" I asked after giving them my name, address and pertinent personal information.

"You've been here for two days. We estimate that's how long you've been in the coma. A day or two longer, perhaps. At the outside."

"But what's the date?" I asked.

"February twenty-third."

"No, I mean the year."

The doctor frowned but told me.

I'd been gone for a year and a half. I'd half expected to have been gone only a day—or ten years. But of course, the times had to coincide. We'd watched their television, heard their radio, read their daily newspapers.

Theirs?

Ours.

I was back.

But had I really been gone?

I wasn't sure.

It seemed almost like a dream, everything that had happened, and surrounded by doctors and nurses and patients, by the hard facts of everyday existence, the surrealism of that life seemed ever more fantastic. Did I even have any letter-writing ability? Did anyone? Or was that something my brain had made up, the intricate delusions of a mentally ill mind? Perhaps my entire history, everything I thought I recalled was false, illusory. I could be a New Jersey construction worker named John Johnson who'd had some type of breakdown and imagined he was a magic Letter Writer from California named Jason Hanford.

I was subjected to a series of blood tests and CAT scans. I was left on an IV drip but allowed to eat a small meal.

I couldn't remember how I'd killed myself. That seemed a major mental lapse. Did that mean it hadn't happened? Or had the shock to my body from death made me forget the last moments of my life? I was alive, but I wondered if I was alive in this world now but dead in that other one.

That first day, I was allowed to think only of my health and my tests and the small steps needed to bring me back up to full speed. But after a long night of restless sleep, reality intruded. There was talk of discharging me, and a well-dressed young woman came in to ask me questions about my insurance plan. I knew only that it was Blue Cross, knew nothing about the specific policy, but she said with my Social Security number she should be able to look it up. She returned some time later to say that I had been dropped from my plan and apparently had no insurance, and I was then forced to fill out a lot of forms that would qualify me for state and federal assistance.

Did I have any relatives? the woman asked, anyone who could assume financial responsibilities for my stay? I gave her Vicki's name, and Vicki's parents' names, address and phone number, but the line was out of service and no listing could be found for either. I gave out
my
address and phone number again in case Vicki was living back there now, but every attempt at contact was fruitless.

I tried to call my lawyers, but they seemed to have disappeared. I couldn't remember the name of the firm Vicki had used.

I asked for a phone and called the North Orange County courthouse, family court division. I still remembered my case number, and after several transfers I reached a clerk who was able to look it up. I'd wanted only an address and phone number, but I was told that as I had not shown up for my court date and even my own lawyers had not been able to locate me, I had lost the judgment. Vicki had been awarded full custody and I had no visitation rights in regard to Eric. I was never to contact either Vicki or Eric except through their lawyers.

I didn't know what
they'd
written about me, the Letter Writers, but obviously letters had been sent. I'd been made out to be some sort of deadbeat dad, and the consensus seemed to be that I'd skipped out on my court dates and disappeared in order to avoid my responsibilities. The strange thing was that the Letter Writers had made an effort to smear me and assassinate my character, but they hadn't concocted a death for me. I wondered why. Maybe ordinary people like me, the nonfamous, didn't merit a death. Or maybe other plans had been made for me.

Or maybe...

Maybe no letters had been written at all. Maybe this is simply what happened to fathers who didn't show up to court and forfeited their rights.

I asked the court clerk for Vicki's current address, but she said she was not allowed to give out that information. She did give me the name of the law firm representing Vicki and a phone number, and I called them, but they said that without Vicki's okay, they could not divulge any personal information.

Ask her, I told them.

They promised to get back to me.

Make it fast, I said.

In books, in movies, on TV, kindly doctors and a friendly hospital staff would have kept me under observation until they were able to determine what was wrong with me, until the cause of the coma had been ascertained and I was provided with treatment that would ensure it would never happen again. In reality, however, hospitals were like assembly lines, and the sooner they could get me out of my bed and onto the street, the sooner they could have the bed free for another patient. I was kept for an extra day—to make sure I didn't have a relapse, I suppose, although no one told me that specifically—and then was given an appointment with an outside neurologist for the following afternoon and released.

Having no car and no money, I started walking home. Anaheim wasn't
that
far from Brea, I reasoned. But an hour later, still in Fullerton and less than halfway there, drenched with sweat from the unseasonal humidity of the day, I decided to put up my thumb. I'd never hitchhiked in my life and common sense told me it was a dangerous idea, but I figured I'd be able to pick and choose among the people who stopped and decide for myself whom to travel with; that should keep me safe.

No one stopped.

I reached a Target store. I intended to walk inside to get a drink from the water fountain, but on my way I encountered a man dressed in white collecting money for a charity.

I suddenly had a plan.

I went inside, got my drink, then came out and stationed myself next to the door opposite the charity solicitor, the entrance rather than the exit. "Could you spare some change?" I asked each person who walked by me. It was embarrassing and humiliating, but within twenty minutes I had twenty dollars, enough for a bus ride with plenty left over for tonight's dinner, and I bought myself a bottle of Very Cherry Snapple, then walked to the bus stop, studied the routes and waited.

BOOK: Dispatch
6.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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