“Go Away Zone” – Sample

‘I thought it would have been shinier.’

‘What?’ Lolita raised a single eyebrow in the way that, weeks ago, Beckman felt only she could, before remembering that all women had some form of “Really, dufus?” disguised as something less overtly condescending / challenging / disbelieving*. (* delete as applicable).

He pressed on regardless. ‘I thought it would have been, you know, shinier. More metallic.’

‘Is that really what you think?’ There was no actual eyebrow this time, but an eyebrow lay buried in the tone.

‘What do you want me to say?’ (He’d learned that this is a good standby phrase, given no man on Earth ever fully knew what any woman was thinking, even one he might be betrothed to.)

‘You could accuse me of joking. Teasing. Lying.’

‘I may not know all your foibles, but it doesn’t strike me as a joke, and it can’t be a lie.’

‘Why can’t it be a lie?’ she asked.

‘Because we met on account of you calling me dishonest.’

‘I said you were likely to be.’

‘Either way, you’d be a heel to lie to me. Plus, if we’re getting married, that kind of thing needs a bedrock of honesty.’

‘If you’d ever let me plan the date.’ She rolled her eyes.

‘Sure, hijack a discovery like this,’ he waved a hand towards the apparently empty space five yards in front of them, ‘To kick my ass about your hot topic.’

‘Trust me, honey, when a girl hears wedding bells, there is no other topic more important.’

‘You might have warned me about that.’

‘For a guy who’s seen half the country and met like a million people, you don’t know a hell of a lot.’

‘Enough with the flattery.’ He flashed a grin.

She poked her tongue out.

Such was the not unfamiliar coda to their exchanges—and he loved her more for it. It kept him young and vibrant—not that he’d felt anything like young and vibrant during the past decade. He’d been on a trundling treadmill until she’d veritably jabbed the Stop button and sent him careering backwards into her arms.

He returned his attention to the lack of a view they’d come here to witness.

Well, I was only being honest—I did expect it to be shinier. Grander. Strangely alien.

Blame a guy for having unrealistic expectations based on a misspent youth in front of the TV?

He paced warily, taking extreme care not to get too close to something he couldn’t see or touch. Or smell. Or hear. Or taste, even if he got close enough, which he was in no way tempted to do.

Are you tempted? Of course you are. A tiny part. Come on—curiosity—it’s how we’re built. It’s what drives innovation. An inquisitive mind is a great mind.

Except you are a lightbulb salesman in a small town in Arizona. Edison you are not. He used a brilliant scientific mind. You want to do the equivalent of poking a sleeping lion with a short stick.

Well, part of you does. A tiny, tiny, stupid part.

Plus you poked a few lions already this year—and look how that turned out.

Kinda well, actually.

We only remember the good stuff—the happy days. Not the dumbass things we did along the way.

You got lucky.

Miss Lolita Milan was eyeing him simultaneously with interest, love and an almost maternal disbelief. The man-boy had a new toy.

Very lucky.

Except the man-boy wasn’t sure how this new toy worked. Or what it was. Or where it was.

‘How in hell have you all kept this a secret?’

‘We don’t want to be the new Area 51. I like a man in uniform as much as the next girl—’

‘You never met my father,’ he warned.

‘—but a thousand of them turning the town into a circus is nobody’s idea of fun. Come on, Beckman, you know Sunrise—’

‘I thought I did.’

‘—and we’re a keep-ourselves-to-ourselves kinda place. Besides,’ she said with a shrug, ‘Maybe it’s gone now.’

‘Gone?! You brought me here to show me something you can’t even see when it is there, and now say it may not be there any more. And how would we know? Maybe it is a joke.’ His eyes narrowed and he moved closer to her. ‘Is that it, honey? Wanted to laugh at the new guy? Bring him to a dead end road, spin an apocryphal tale and watch him skulk around like a curious cat, afraid of a mouse which may or may not be dead?’ 

He tried the single raised eyebrow thing, but failed dismally. It wasn’t the first time he’d tried, and he always failed dismally, but it didn’t stop him trying—for one very important reason.

He was an idiot.

She didn’t rise to it. She’d learned not to, because (1) she knew he was joking and (2) she also knew he was an idiot. One she dearly loved.

Instead, she stepped in and put a hand on his upper arm. ‘Beckman, I am deadly, deadly serious. For one, I thought you’d be interested, and for two I don’t want you absentmindedly wandering in there one day and poof!

He gazed at where her eyes were habitually shielded by reaction sunglasses, well-used to the impression of being able to see beyond them, took her hand from his arm and held it tenderly in his own.

‘A guy really knows it must be love when his girl doesn’t want him to inexplicably vanish from the face of the Earth.’

‘Certainly not while he still has her car keys in his pocket.’

‘Ah. The truest of true love.’

‘And definitely not until he’s changed his Will.’ She fought a smirk. Even an idiot could see as much.

‘I have virtually nothing to my name, but it’s all yours,’ he countered.

‘I believe that is the dictionary definition of marriage.’

‘Ah. The hot topic. It’s been at least two minutes. I was worried.’

‘I’m pleased you’re worried about me. I mean, I’m worried about you.’

‘Going in there?’ He jerked his head towards the thing neither of them could see, and which may not be there in any case.

‘Of course. Come on, you don’t poke a sleeping lion with a short stick, do you?’

Absolutely not. Never crossed my mind.

‘What about a long stick?’ he wondered.

She tilted her head down to reveal raised eyebrows over the rim of her glasses. After the Tongue Poke, the Disapproving Schoolmarm was her second favourite weapon. Perhaps it was the man-boy’s fault for doing or saying so many things that warranted its use.

Or perhaps because he deliberately provoked it, finding it deeply adorable.

Or possibly because he was an idiot.

She was his own sleeping lioness, and he always had a proverbial short stick in his pocket. In the past weeks, he’d elicited many purrs, some growls, the occasional roar. Once—no, make that twice—he’d been clawed. Yet he still carried a stick.

Because you’re an idiot.

But at least you know you are, so that’s all good.

Love will do that.

So, any time in the last romantically-barren decade wouldn’t have been disastrous to have diced with poof!, but right now was Dumb with a capital DUMB.

He kissed her to remind himself of those capitals.

And yet…

He turned to look at the Whatever It Was. She put hands on hips, indulging him, and they gazed towards the point in space where Strange Things Happened. Allegedly.

He became aware of her watching him, as curious of him as he was of it, as he sought even a flicker of evidence to dispel any remaining notion that this represented one big hoax. Just a sign, a grain of truth. Sunrise’s version of The Turin Shroud; something to give bedrock to belief.

After five minutes, the September sun climbing towards its warm zenith, he was turning away when something happened. Nothing grand, nothing alarming, but enough.

Only a flicker, six feet above the ground. A pixelation. A glitch in The Matrix. As fast as it came, it went. The view of the scrub desert and distant mountains hazed, oh so slightly. As if Whatever It Was winked at him, at them.

He turned to Lolita. Her eyebrow rose again, this time in a “Didn’t I Say?”.

His mouth opened, a guppy fish at feeding time, and he pointed involuntarily.

Day One, when he’d met Saul Paul for the first time, the eye-patched tow-truck driver had pulled Shakespeare from his mind, as easily as putting on a hat, but as unexpected as if he’d been a frog uttering the words in Aramaic.

There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Saul had been obliquely explaining the mere facts of his own unannounced arrival, and the presence of Sunrise itself: on a normal day, pretty startling occurrences in themselves.

But this—the Whatever It Was? If poor Horatio had encountered this he would have shat pineapples.

Lolita sashayed over.

‘I know; “I told you so”,’ he offered.

‘So can we go? You look like you could use a root beer, and I sure do.’

‘We simply get on with our lives?’ There was disbelief, maybe childish disappointment in his voice.

‘What else did you expect? Play with it?’

‘It’s just…’ He didn’t know what it was just, except that it was. It felt like a colossal anticlimax to walk away.

‘Beckman. Darling. You’re new round here. This is part of the tour, the full disclosure. In Sunrise we do get on with our lives. What’s the alternative?’

He opened his mouth to offer some alternatives that would (1) definitely be made up on the spot, (2) probably not be well received, and (3) likely have been ventured and rejected many times before by more qualified—or at least more longstanding—people than he.

He closed his mouth. She kissed it, to mollify him.

It helped to pour water on the challenging questions he had, which were legion, but not on his inquisitiveness.

She slipped a hand into his and led him back to the car. He glanced over his shoulder. The view remained unassuming; the tarmac single track road petered out into wilderness, as if abandoned mid-construction. It certainly served no purpose, led nowhere. Or at least nowhere that could be identified, quantified or any number of other -fieds.

‘What do you call it?’ he asked, trying to sound disinterested.

‘The Portal.’

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Accidental Valentine - A Sunrise short story

Accidental Valentine

Beckman’s heart sank as a familiar figure entered the café.

There was no point in trying to look away, bury his nose in his coffee cup, or whip up a book to cover his face.

Note to self: always carry a book.

Tyler would notice him. It was a foregone conclusion, because (1) like he, Tyler would be scouring the room for potential customers, (2) things always went right for Tyler, and (3) Beckman’s personalised license plate would stand out in a small parking lot.

Of course, it wasn’t impossible that Tyler would notice him and ignore him. Maybe even make do with a courteous nod.

Courteous—Tyler? Ha!

At times like these, the Jaws theme wormed into Beckman’s head. He caught the moment Tyler painted on a good-natured expression, bypassed the short register queue, and lasered-in on his co-worker.

Beckman initiated a look of cheery humour, sipped his traditional beverage nonchalantly, and waited to feel the soft impression from multiple rows of sharky pearly-whites.

‘Crossing boundaries now, Becky? Tsk tsk.’

Despite many years of Tyler Quittle’s innocent-yet-offensive nickname, it never bounced off him without an unseen wince. He’d given up hope that the man would finally realise his gentle jibe had no effect. Or would get bored with it. Or come up with something, if not better, then at least different.

So, ignoring the term of non-endearment (as usual), Beckman focussed on the allegation of territorial infraction. Tyler had made an error because he didn’t get it. Like he didn’t get women. Or Beckman’s vastly different persona. Or the concept of generally being pleasant.

‘Afternoon to you too, Tyler. I get where you’re coming from, so put away the wiseass. Yeah—so this branch is not inside my sales patch, but it’s not verboten. Neither is taking a damn holiday in the Rockies. I’m drinking coffee, not trying to steal your precious customers.’

Tyler Quittle’s perfect blue eyes, set into his roguish face, narrowed, as he sought bluff in Beckman’s defence. Then, eyeing Beckman as if he’d throw a punch or morph into a unicorn, he eased into the moulded black plastic seat opposite. ‘Sure?’

Beckman merely sipped his brew. ‘Do I look that dumb to sneak onto your territory?’

Tyler nodded slowly, accepting this at face value. ‘Be a damn sight easier if you weren’t obsessed with this damn place. You know—coffee’s coffee.’

The nerve of the man.

‘I happen to like Coffee Planet—okay? So I’m about four miles over your border? Live and let live. I’ll be gone in two minutes.’

‘Cos if I catch you pitching to—’

‘Blow it out your ass, Tyler.’

‘Easy, Becky, easy.’

They mentally circled each other for a minute. Beckman sipped his soon-to-be-too-cold brew.

Tyler drummed his fingers on the table. ‘Any hot plans tonight? But—why do I ask, huh?’ He smirked.

Lesser men would have put their fist through the man’s face. Luckily, the angel on Beckman’s shoulder had long-ago blinded the opposing devil, using robes searingly white and starched, causing the little red guy to topple five feet to his death and impale himself on his trident for good measure.

‘Just a regular Friday, wind up the working week. I won’t ask about you.’

Nonetheless, Tyler grandstanded, ‘Having Valentine’s at home with Jennah.’

‘Jennah? Wow. That’s over a week now. Is that a record?’

‘Can it, Beckman.’

‘Barely once a decade we get a woman—besides Miss B—at the office, but you don’t hang about. And she’s sticking with you even after her two-week locum stretch? Kudos to you, Tyler. Kudos to you.’

Tyler’s gaze again drilled into Beckman’s soul, searching for the flannel, but Beckman was too good at fake pleasantry to be discovered. Ten years alongside T. Quittle had oiled his battle armour nicely.

‘Well—she knows a good thing. Knows how to keep a guy happy too. We’re getting takeout and I’m watching some hoops with a few beers.’

‘You old romantic.’

‘If she’s happy—fine.’

‘Let’s see if she’s still curled up with you this time next year. Or even month.’

‘Like I’d take dating advice from you, Becky. About as much use as taking tips about the job. What are you—about half my total?’

‘I don’t watch other people’s sales numbers, Tyler. Waste of time.’

Tyler sneered. ‘Yeah—too depressing, I guess.’ He patted the table like a drum, then rose. ‘Have a beautiful weekend. Say hello to your lizard.’

Then he left.

‘It’s a leopard gecko,’ Beckman breathed to nobody.

 

Arizona’s February twilight was falling as he reached his apartment building. It had been a pretty slow week—only 1122 miles—but he was looking forwards to getting inside and shutting out the over-commercial wash of hearts and flowers which subsumed society.

A delivery guy stood at the door of the apartment opposite. Not the parcel or takeout kind—more individual. The only clue that he was a delivery guy was that he was delivering something. Something with a smell. A good smell.

‘Thanks,’ EJ said. Beckman sensed she meant gratitude, but that her heart wasn’t in it—like she’d ordered a new wristwatch and in the meantime suffered a lower-arm amputation.

‘Have a good night,’ Delivery Guy chirped.

‘Yeah.’

Beckman nodded the customary Never Going To See You Again hello-goodbye to the guy as he passed, then returned his attention to EJ as she lifted the two bags inside her doorway.

‘Hi, EJ.’ He’d never been told what EJ stood for, nor asked, nor expected to find out. EJ liked to be called EJ, and probably only her parents or boyfriend knew the E and the J of it. She lived across the hall, she was pleasant, she took in his deliveries while he was out (he was usually out, but equally ordered little), and they exchanged more conversation than he did with, for example, delivery guys.

‘Hey, Beckman. You’re home—means it’s the weekend.’

He flashed a smile. ‘And Valentine’s, don’t forget—although I see you didn’t forget. Or Jerome didn’t forget.’

She tried to respond with a smile, but it turned upside down pretty quickly. ‘Thanks. My idea. Bad idea as it turns out.’

He moved closer, curious. ‘You okay?’

She sighed a tornado. ‘We broke up.’

‘Today?’ he asked in disbelief.

‘Yeah.’ She shrugged. ‘He took offence at me wearing the trousers and organising a romantic night in. Told me not to waste money on a fancy private chef home order.’ She gave a maudlin chuckle. ‘Final straw. So, here we are. Hundred bucks worth of overeating stomach-ache for me tomorrow.’ She pushed a strand of long brown hair off her forehead. ‘He sure picked a day.’

‘That sucks, EJ.’ He offered the most sympathetic look in his arsenal.

Silence clanged in the short corridor.

‘You got anything planned?’

He knew she’d asked out of politeness. It was impossible to live opposite Beckman Spiers and not notice that there was nothing to notice.

‘You know—feet up, order a takeout. It’s just a Friday.’

‘What a pair, huh?’

‘Yeah.’

Yet he hadn’t moved his key towards the keyhole. He felt something in the air. An approaching unknown, but not like the spectre of Tyler. In fact, if there was a tune playing in his head, it was more like that of an ice cream truck turning into the street.

‘Look, Beckman, this is crazy, but do you want to save yourself a phone call—and me guilt and indigestion—and give me a hand with this?’ She gestured to the bags, whose mouthwatering scent was now as much a feature of the environment as the unexpected uncomfortableness of the situation.

‘Er…’

‘Not like a date,’ she clarified with a smile.

‘Just neighbours sharing a bite.’

‘Sure. Ignore the 14th part. Just… a Friday.’

What’s there to lose? She’s nice enough. And I am hungry.

Sure, she might stab me with the kitchen knife as in loco revenge for simply being a man—but that’s pretty unlikely.

He smiled. ‘Sure, EJ. Shame to waste good food.’

 

While EJ hustled up crockery, Beckman gazed around the living area.

She collected mice.

There were plastic ones, metal ones, enamel ones, glass ones, woollen ones. Big, medium, small. Singly, in families. On the shelves and the window sill and the table and the floor. A hand-drawn sticker of a mouse poked its head out from a semi-circular black sticker on the skirting.

It was much more… cutesy than he expected of her—certainly for a self-proclaimed trouser-wearer and dinner-orderer.

They sat.

She slid a Bud across the table, and raised hers. ‘Thanks, neighbour.’

He shrugged. ‘I would only have sat across the hall and worried if you’d be okay.’ He drank. ‘You know—laid awake, waiting for the anguished wails of the unfairly dumped.’

‘Oh, don’t worry—I dumped him. Seems like the way to a man’s heart isn’t always through his stomach.’

‘I think the problem is that the stomach is always receptive, but the brain isn’t. Anyway—his loss.’ He realised that could be misconstrued as A Pass. ‘The food, I mean.’

‘I did good, huh?’

He devoured another mouthful of perfect pork belly. ‘Gourmet take-out may be my new favourite thing. If I ever get the occasion.’

‘Maybe if we’re both still single, your place same time next year?’ Her wink said that the words were good-natured yet serious.

‘Another Valentine’s to remember for all the wrong reasons? Let’s hope not.’

‘Another?’ Her brow furrowed.

‘I mean—remember for the whole non-Valentine’s, must-try-harder feeling.’

‘Oh, don’t worry—I’ve had a few.’

‘I hear you.’

Just please don’t ask about them, EJ, okay? I’m having a nice platonic face-stuffing here, trying to keep your emotional head above water. Let’s not go dredging up my dating history, huh?

‘Sounds ominous, Beckman.’

‘Nope. Ominous implies a departure from the norm. It’s just another mid-February day.’ He drained his beer. ‘I certainly never got dumped on this day in history, so you’re one up on me there.’

She snorted. ‘Go me. Ring out the bells.’

‘Hey, I’m no expert, but you’re probably better off. It’s worse when you can’t see the warning signs and end up living a lie. If Jerome wasn’t Mister Right, then better to find out sooner than later.’

‘That sounds like it comes from the heart.’

He shook his head. ‘Saw it on Oprah.’

She sniggered. ‘You—Oprah?’

‘What can I say? Ten years of motel TV and too much time.’

‘So, not at home most Valentine’s?’

‘Like I said—it’s a day. Some are in the hearts-and-flowers, candlelit dinners camp; those without the means, motive and opportunity aren’t.’

‘Well, I left the candles in the cupboard. That would have been too weird.’

‘Yeah.’

She held up a mollifying hand. ‘Not that you’re not a nice guy, Beckman. I’m sure you’d be the chocolates-and-kisses type—for the right girl.’

‘Thanks, EJ. Five years of taking in my oversize mail and saying howdy, and suddenly you’ll break bread on a momentous day and say sweet things? Jerome is an ass.’

‘Was.’

A worry lanced through his brain. ‘He is gone—right? Does he have a key? I mean—’ He looked around nervously.

‘What’s up? Chill out.’

‘If he catches me, I bruise easily.’

‘Catches you? We’re having a friendly dinner.’

We know that.’

‘He’s not a violent guy.’

‘To women, maybe.’

She shrugged. ‘You’d hold your own.’

‘Suddenly I’m punching him on your behalf? After two beers and bellyful you paid for?’

‘There are two kinds of men, Beckman. The white knights, and the ones the white knights save the maidens from. Which are you?’ She smiled knowingly.

Jeez. In that case, reckon I need to head down to Horses And Armour R Us.

‘Well, now you put it like that…’

‘Relax. I’d probably punch him first.’

Collecting mice and throwing punches. Interesting combo, EJ.

She collected up the plates. ‘Men, huh?’

‘Yeah. Sorry for us.’

 

After dessert, he steadfastly remained at the table, hoping she wouldn’t want to retire to the sofa. That would be too cosy, and risked the impromptu get-together crossing into another dimension—a more Valentine-y one.

Not that it wouldn’t be welcome—very overdue, in fact—and EJ had many attractive qualities.

It just wouldn’t be right. Too opportunistic. Too rebound. Too not-white-knight.

But the nice guy approach has hardly reaped stellar rewards, has it buddy? Maybe it’s time for a change. Maybe get down off that high horse, shed that armour, and take a chance once in a while?

But those leopard spots are glued on pretty fast. Besides, “nice guy approach” implies an actual strategy—a mask. A plan, a front.

You’re just Beckman, Beckman.

So they had coffee at the table, talked about mice and take-outs and his life on the road and her life behind a computer screen and noisy Mr Hubbish upstairs and little of consequence.

And he wondered if, should they be at his apartment this time next year—as she’d joked, he might go crazy and put a candle on the table. Get a box of chocolates as a surprise. Ask her about the E and the J.

He might even tell her he had monochromatic vision. It didn’t make a difference—she was clearly a brunette with brown eyes, slim, and about a hand shorter than he.

And apparently doesn’t take a single guy for a loser.

Ten o’clock chimed on a small, tinny, mouse-themed clock.

‘Maybe this is one to remember for the right reasons?’ she suggested.

‘It beat being alone, for sure.’

‘Thanks for being my white knight.’

‘As I recall, you whistled up the horse anyhow. Besides, what are neighbours for?’

Her face lit. ‘On that…’ She rose and went to the next room, came back with a box.

‘I remember now.’ He smiled. ‘Being my PA.’

She waved it away, and set the box down on the table. ‘What is it?’

He examined the label. ‘Some fancy new save-the-planet washing soda. Mom insisted on sending it.’ Then he regretted revealing that his maternal relationship was more like that of a teenager than a mid-thirtysomething. Except it wasn’t—they seldom spoke, and she certainly wasn’t his mollycoddling supplier of necessary household goods. This had been an “Okay, mom” concession.

‘White knights gotta remain white, huh?’ he added, hoping she’d laugh and break the cringing embarrassment.

She did laugh.

Roll on February 14th next year. Hopefully she’ll be a maiden, but not in distress.

That would be one in the eye for Tyler. I can’t think EJ would be the waiting-on-her-man-while-he-lounges-around type, but another evening like this—maybe with Cupid in the room—is much more “Beckman”.

Don’t get ahead of yourself, sonny.

‘I should go. I’d be kidding if I said I had things to do, but, you know? You jog early, right?’

‘Yeah. I not wake you?’

‘No. Besides—when am I here?’

‘Sometimes, just at the right time, I guess. Thanks for company.’

‘No sweat. Thanks for the invite, EJ.’ He scooped up the box and went to the door.

‘Beckman?’

He turned. ‘Yeah?’

‘It’s “Ellie”.’

He nodded. ‘Then thanks, Ellie. Gimme a knock if you need a friend. Or if you over-order again.’ He risked a wink.

She winked back. ‘Sure.’

‘Happy Valentine’s, neighbour.’

‘You too, neighbour.’

He let himself out.

 

The tingle of warmth didn’t let up as he unpacked his trusty shoulder bag, checked the vivarium to top up Bogie’s food and water, kicked off his shoes and allowed the Tonight Show to murmur into the room.

Ellie?

I was thinking Elizabeth, so that’s a result. Wonder if it’s shortened, or given like that?

And the J?

Maybe that’s for next year.

Again, don’t get ahead of yourself, sonny. It’s a non-solitary, non-sucky February 14th. Hang out the flags for that at least.

His cell phone rang.

I didn’t give her my number? Or did I—before—for emergencies? I’ve seen this kind of thing in the movies. The unspoken connection. One of them makes the first move, the evening recommences. Valentine’s accidentally catapults proximate dwellers into tender embrace…

Heart pulsing, he looked at the screen.

It was Tyler.

If he gloats, let him. We did alright here too.

He sighed, and thumbed Accept.

‘Free advice, Becky—steer clear of women.’

Thanks for the context.

‘Evening to you too, Tyler. Besides, you don’t mean “women”, you mean ‘commitment”. Even a whole week’s worth.’

‘She walked out.’

Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

‘Jennah? Can’t figure why,’ he lied.

‘The beer and hoops was a test! She thought it was a joke. Unbelievable.’

‘Yeah. Unbelievable’s a word.’

Tyler scoffed. ‘Women, huh?’

Beckman grunted noncommittally.

Dead air.

‘Thanks for the bulletin, Tyler.’

‘You get any?’ A snort. ‘Why do I ask?’

‘No. Like you, I didn’t get any. And now I’m hanging up.’

‘Steer clear, Becky. Steer clear.’

‘Thanks for the PSA.’ He hit the little red icon and tossed the phone onto the sofa. Glanced across at the door.

Shook his head. ‘Men, huh?’

 

Read Beckman’s full adventure HERE.

Oswald - A Sunrise short story

Oswald

A Sunrise short story

The rain finished lashing the car as Beckman approached the outskirts of town.

That’ll save on the carwash for another week.

He looked around the black-on-black interior.

Maybe not on the vacuum though.

A few minutes later, he eased the now-whiter Caddy into one of many free spaces on the lot of The Pegasus Corporation. Again he wondered why Mr Malvolio had chosen premises with such a surfeit of parking area. Seldom was there more than a handful of people onsite, and there wasn’t even anything like a quarterly staff meeting or annual shindig on the warehouse floor. Of course not—that would take up valuable time and money. The salesmen knew what they had to do—what other missives could be necessary?

He locked up and went inside the bland, boxy two-storey building. 

The comfortingly familiar tap-tap-ting of Miss Broomhead’s old typewriter floated into his ears as he walked up the single corridor leading to the bijou office suite.

I wonder if she actually prefers archaic technology, or if Ol’ Stingy won’t spring for a new one for his dutiful PA?

‘Afternoon, Mr Spiers.’ Her hands paused in mid-air.

‘Hi, Miss Broomhead.’ Today, her beehive sported two hairpins tipped with enamel bees. He was never sure whether these occasional items were (1) included for comic value, (2) a function of kooky individuality, or (3) an indication of appalling fashion sense.

Of course, he could have asked her, but that would have meant asking her.

Conversations with Miss Broomhead were on a Business Level Only. He didn’t know why—they just were. There was no contractual clause, nor previous faux-pas as a guideline. They merely hadn’t had a personal conversation during his entire tenure, so starting now would just have been odd.

The typing resumed—tap-tap overlaid with the chink of her two red bangles.

“Conversation” over.

He scanned down the line of dark wooden pigeonholes set on the opposite wall.

Hallwork, Yong, Quittle, Bludge, Rattertonhurst, Gusp, Zowl, Spiers…

…Gusp?

He leant in.

Where was Follic? Had Cad Follic’s pigeonhole been moved?

He checked all forty apertures.

No.

Had Cad Follic unexpectedly moved on to pastures new? Perhaps ones where the roster of employee benefits numbered in the positive integers?

‘Miss Broomhead?’

Hands paused. ‘Yes?’ A faint, querying smile on un-showy but precisely lipsticked lips.

‘Cad Follic no longer with us?’

‘No, Mr Spiers. He was attacked by a tiger, the day before yesterday.’

Beckman blurted out an impromptu laugh at the stupidity of it.

Her brow furrowed. ‘I don’t think it’s very funny, Mr Spiers.’

He swallowed hard. ‘No. Er… that is… I mean.’ He pointlessly ran a hand through his hair. ‘Really? Wow.’

‘Yes. He was pitching to a business client. The man’s pet tiger took offence at Mr Follic for some reason and… well… he’s no longer with us.’

No longer with us? Us=fired/quit, or us=six feet under?

Same outcome.

‘And Mr Gusp…?’

‘Is his replacement. He started yesterday.’

Beckman nodded robotically. ‘Uh-huh.’

She offered a querying look, and when he wasn’t forthcoming with anything tangible, she resumed punching ink onto paper.

Wow. Poor Cad.

Hang on?

Does that mean…?

He was above me in the Salesman of the Year rankings. Surely I’m up a place now? Surely. Mr Malvolio would never transfer Cad’s sales tally across to this new Gusp guy—it would be unfair advantage, not to mention uncharacteristically generous of the old swine.

Wow.

Woo!

I’m up a place! Best year yet!

He restrained himself, just in time, from punching the air. Instead, he collected his pay check advice from the pigeonhole and headed out to the car park.

An unfamiliar car had arrived, and exiting it was a new face. The face was barely five feet above the ground. The body was stocky, the hairline very receding. Beckman reckoned the guy was easily fifty.

This guy’ll be a pushover.

He slowed as they approached each other. ‘Gusp?’

The guy stopped and cocked his head. ‘Yeah?’

‘Spiers.’ Beckman jerked his head back towards the building. ‘You the new guy?’

‘Yeah.’ He offered a fat, taught hand. ‘Oswald Gusp. Taking over Cad’s territory.’ He shook his head sadly. ‘Sorry old business.’

Beckman hung his head in sympathy, while still not ready to accept the facts at face value.

Was Cad eaten? Mauled? Blinded? Had his Salesman Patter cranial lobe been gored? 

Either way, this was the competition now—or at least one of them. One of Pegasus’ forty road warriors.

I hope you know what you’re in for, Oswald.

Plus, note to self—Google “how to defeat an angry tiger”. Can’t be too careful out there.

‘So, uh, welcome I guess. Where were you before?’

‘I was… uh… kinda in the delivery business. But the same package every time.’

That didn’t compute, so Beckman went with, ‘Sure, well, good luck.’

Oswald nodded. ‘Thanks, Spiers. See you around, maybe. Got to check in with… Walter, was it?’

‘Warehouse? Yeah.’

‘Yeah. Good. Gotta fill the old trunk, ready to pick up where Cad Follic left off.’

‘Absolutely. See you around.’

Oswald nodded curtly and ambled off, chunky legs moving awkwardly, like a triceratops.

Heading in the opposite direction, Beckman couldn’t help slowing as he passed Oswald’s car.

It was a burgundy Lincoln Continental, post-Moon landing, pre-Beckman birth. On a bad day it might get parked across two different time zones. He peered inside. There was a booster cushion on the driver’s seat.

He watched the diminutive newbie disappear inside the building and eyed the acreage of Detroit iron.

Compensating for something, Oswald?

A couple of miles from his apartment, Beckman caught sight of the Caddy’s odo tick onto 99,996.

Not wanting to let the moment absentmindedly pass him by in the morning, he went round the block three times until the magic figure appeared, then rolled up to his apartment building and disembarked for a night in a familiar bed.

As he whipped up some food, fed Bogie the leopard gecko, and turned on the TV for background company, his mind ticked over what Oswald had said.

How could you deliver the same package many times?

If you were a pilot? A musician (at a stretch)? If your employer was really bad at matching orders to customers’ delivery addresses?

He set his ageing laptop on the table and Googled one-handed as he munched through pasta.

It didn’t take long to come up with results for Oswald Gusp.

His mouth fell open. His lower jaw might well have hit the tabletop with a comedic ‘Clang!’ 

He pushed the last of the dinner aside.

He absolutely, categorially, one-hundred-percent didn’t want to, but he pressed Play on the video anyway, curiouser than a cat with a death wish.

From the video’s thumbnail, he knew exactly what to expect, and didn’t want to see it—or need to see it—but saw it anyway. And when he’d seen generally what he expected to see, he unaccountably didn’t stop, not even when he saw specifically something he thought he’d probably see. Yet, having seen it, he was caught like a rabbit in the headlights—watching, disbelieving, pondering, then repeating the sequence until it was blindingly clear that he wasn’t dreaming, hadn’t been told the wrong name, or Googled the wrong name, and that he’d actually done what he’d done and seen what he’d seen. More than that—his eye had not been drawn to Oswald’s less than statuesque hight, nor to his significant pate. Something much worse.

His mouth was still hanging open, now drier than the Atacama.

He filled it with beer, then slapped the lid of the laptop down and tried to expunge from his mind what he’d just found.

He’s just another colleague. Just another name on the roster, another position on the rankings. Merely a different Schmoe to compete with, and, hell, probably hardly bump into, ever.

All the same, that’s a VERY different line on the resumé.

Did Malvolio know about that? Had Miss Broomhead followed up the references?

He doubted it. Her ultra-conservative head had been remarkably un-exploded that afternoon.

He took a moment, gazed at the TV screen, tried to let its dance burrow into his mind and wipe out the afterimage of Oswald’s past career.

Eventually, the more palatable world of fiction subsumed the frighteningly real discovery of his new colleague’s previous métier, and the evening returned to some kind of normalcy. 

Even so, he did set an especially early alarm. 

The clock on the wall in Miss Broomhead’s ante-room ticked round to 07:30.

He never considered it her own space per se, rather the Styx through which one had to pass to enter the realm of Mr Malvolio. Seldom did anyone get called into the CEO’s office—Beckman had only seen it twice—and the only time anyone looked forward to it was when they thought they might have hit the jackpot of Salesman of the Year. Such a man would walk in a mere mortal and return as a god, never needing to work again. Certainly never again needing to encounter Oswald Gusp and his… startling secret.

He carefully (some might call it “furtively”) leafed through the items on Miss Broomhead’s desk. Quickly he found Oswald’s resumé in the OUT tray. Handling it as though the paper itself was soiled, he checked the Previous Employment section.

“Package Delivery Services” – 2004-2017

Well, you’re creative with job titles, Oswald buddy.

He carefully replaced the paper where he’d found it.

‘Hey Beckman.’

He jumped three feet in the air—a feat which would have stunned his grade-school gym teacher. Beckman was no Bob Beamon.

He even managed to simultaneously turn towards the owner of the voice. Maybe the teacher had merely needed to switch his methods from encouragement to shock tactics?

‘Jeez, Wilbur! You wanna kill off a second employee within a week?’

Wilbur held up a hand. ‘Sorry, B. What gives? Why so early? Not like you.’

Beckman gestured at the desk. ‘Clearly, trying some industrial espionage before anyone arrives. Why you in so early? Not like you either, I might say.’

Wilbur held up the other hand. ‘Busted, okay?’

Beckman glanced up at Wilbur’s hat, which was almost always a baseball cap, and certainly different every day. Today’s legend was “INSERT HEAD HERE” with an arrow pointing downwards.

Probably a wise choice for an unusually early start.

‘You were coming in here too?’

‘Yeah, but something different.’ Wilbur checked around. The office was still patently empty. ‘The new guy.’

‘Oswald? Me too.’

Wilbur’s hands dove into his pockets. ‘Oh. Well. Cool.’

‘Resumé?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Why?’

‘Thought I recognised him.’

‘Recognised him?’ Beckman’s mind did cartwheels—many not pleasant.

‘Yeah.’

‘But I thought he was an…’ Beckman also checked around redundantly, and lowered his voice, even more redundantly. ‘… “adult performer”.’

‘Oh. Yeah. Then it is him.’

Beckman’s face instinctively creased into distaste, which he quickly shook away. After all, it wasn’t a crime—neither to be a viewer nor a… participant. ‘You know him?’

‘Know? No. Know of? Yeah.’

‘You’ve seen…’ He tailed off deliberately, thrust his eyebrows up.

Wilbur pointed. ‘Then so have you.’

‘Only last night.’

‘Ah.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Okay.’

‘Yeah. Guess I… misspent my youth elsewhere. That’s all.’

Wilbur nodded slowly. ‘Yeah.’

Silence blew through.

‘Is it on there?’ Wilbur nodded at the desk.

‘Yeah. “Package Delivery Services”.’

‘Ah. Right. So he’s not… ashamed or nothing. Not hiding it.’

‘He’d have trouble hiding…’ Then Beckman stopped, realising the word “it” could be misconstrued.

Too late. Wilbur, who could have construed it, didn’t.

‘Yeah,’ he chuckled. ‘Trouble hiding that.’ 

At which point Beckman was transported back twelve hours and Oswald’s unconcealed secret flashed through his mind again.

Thanks Wilbur. Trust you to be a jock about it.

Beckman sighed. Best not to be holier-than-thou ass and try to rise above it. Wilbur was a good guy—the best thing to a friend he had at Pegasus. Besides, if you couldn’t laugh about something like this, what hope was there? It was probably the most exciting thing to happen at work since Paulson Foss had inexplicably told Mr Malvolio what he (and pretty much everyone else) thought about the guy, and been fired on the spot. Foss was lucky—Malvolio could have simply let his pet Gila monster Bruno loose, and washed his hands of any unfortunate poisonous bitings which might have transpired.

Beckman forced a chuckle. ‘Yeah. I think it’s safe to say Oswald isn’t built in proportion.’

‘Bet he gave loads of glowing references. All from people called Candy or Lolly, happy to confirm that he was able to deliver packages twenty-four seven.’

‘He’s trying to cure headaches now—back then he was more likely to give a girl one.’

Get your mind out of the gutter, Beckman Spiers. This is a co-worker.

His face fell. Creditably, Wilbur’s did too.

‘We all got secrets, B.’

Beckman nodded, even though he personally had an entirely skeleton-free closet. ‘You won’t tell I was…’ He pointed at the desk, and around the office.

‘Course not. I mean, I was too. You know, just confirming it was him. Idle curiosity, is all.’

Beckman nodded more vehemently. ‘Sure. Past is past. Like you say, we’ve all got something.’

‘What’s yours, B?’

‘Huh?’

‘Your little secret?’

‘Secret?’

‘Misdemeanour.’

‘Hmm?’

‘Little thing in the past. Slight untruth on the resumé.’ Wilbur leant in.

Beckman thought quickly. ‘Nothing. I got nothing.’

‘Nothing?’

‘Nothing.’ He shrugged.

Wilbur narrowed his eyes, then smiled. ‘I reckoned so. Paragon of virtue, you, Beckman. You always said, I always knew.’

‘Certainly no… unmentioned previous… entertainment-related roles.’

‘No. Sure. Me either. Well, I mean, I did, but, you know.’

Beckman unavoidably recoiled slightly. ‘Entertainment-related? You?’

‘Sure. I used to mix with the ladies.’

Don’t get jealous now.

‘ “Mix”.’

‘Relax. I was a vision mixer on Miss World for ten years.’ Wilbur smiled knowingly at his wordplay.

‘That’s solid, Wilbur.’ He looked around. Go on—ask. ‘Did you, you know…?’

‘Get any?’

‘Yeah.’

‘No.’

‘Right.’

‘Yeah.’

Beckman nodded at nothing in particular. ‘So, to work, I guess.’

Wilbur straightened his cap. ‘I guess.’

‘Yeah.’ The clock ticked. ‘About Oswald?’

Wilbur brightened with excessive interest. ‘Yeah?’

‘He starts at zero on the sales chart, right?’

‘Sure. This because it means you’re up one place now?’

‘No.’ Beckman coughed. ‘Well, yeah.’

‘You’ll do it, B. I have faith. Tenth year for you this year. Gotta mean something, right?’

‘Still a ways to go. But, yeah, I guess seventh place is my best yet. Might be in with a shot.’

Wilbur smiled cruelly. ‘Oughta release a few more tigers, huh?’

‘Across state, sure.’ Beckman replied with a false impish grin. He’d never knowingly cheat to win the prize. He was probably the only guy at Pegasus who wouldn’t bend the rules to get the annual gong-and-passport-to-retirement. He also knew Wilbur knew that too.

‘Wonder if they put the poor cat down.’

‘Hope so, for Oswald’s sake.’ He clicked his fingers in annoyance. ‘Shoot. If I’d known right away, I could have brown-nosed Malvolio into taking over Cad’s territory. Heck of a lot better patch than my tumbleweed breeding ground.’

Wilbur nodded. ‘What’re you gonna do, huh? Easy come, easy go. At least no tigers out your way.’

‘Hope to hell not.’

‘Snakes though.’

‘And more than twelve-inch ones.’ Beckman winked. ‘See you around, Wilbur.’

‘See you, B. Sell well.’

Beckman headed out to the Caddy, keen to put all thoughts of wildlife—desert-dwelling, garden-dwelling, or trouser-dwelling—out of his mind.

First order of business: coffee.

It was just after two in the afternoon, while Beckman was gallivanting through his fifth Coffee Planet serving of the day—trying to convince himself he’d be able to meet Oswald in the future without glancing downwards—when his cell rang.

‘Wilbur?’

‘Hey, B.’

‘This is unusual. What—we make a mistake?’

‘Huh? Oh, no—it’s him.’

‘Okay.’

‘Okay.’

‘So?’

‘So? Oh, yeah. He was just here.’

‘You didn’t say anything?’ Beckman interjected, suddenly horrified.

‘Say? That? No. No—he was just putting in a huge stock order. Need to get a semi-trailer loaded.’

‘Oswald? On his first day? A semi-trailer!’

Walter’s sigh veritably puffed through the speaker. ‘Yeah. Said he went back to the tiger guy. Cad never closed the sale. Guy was keen—maybe out of pity now. Anyway, he’s this hot shot—wanted to put the product on his employee benefit medical plan. Got a lot of employees. So—semi-trailer.’

‘Ah, snap.’

‘Yeah.’

Beckman pushed his own sigh down the mouthpiece. ‘Thanks for calling, Wilbur.’

‘Sure. Thought you should know.’

‘Yeah. Thanks.’

‘Beckman?’

‘Yeah?’

‘Puts him back above you now.’

‘Already? Ah, snap,’ he breathed.

‘Sorry, B.’

‘Yeah. Thanks Walter.’

‘Sure.’

Beckman thumbed the End button. Drained his coffee.

Shook away the disappointment.

‘Easy come, easy go.’ 

Six Sales AZ - A Sunrise short story

Six Sales, AZ.

Five sales. In one day.

Pretty stellar if you work in a car dealership.

Not so hot if you hawk boxes out of your car at ten bucks a shot.

Still, all things are relative.

Beckman stood, gawping apparently mindlessly, with the words on the menu board nothing more than hieroglyphs before his eyes.

His mind hopped between his less-than-stellar work performance, and the recent sight of a charred hulk of a building which should have been his latest Coffee Planet stop-off, but not even he liked beans roasted quite that dark.

So here he was, in a random café a block away, seeking alternate beverage arrangements.

Five is not great. But it’s better than zero, which is what you had two hours ago.

So—what to drink? What to drink, now that the de-facto rest stop is mostly ash in the atmosphere?

‘Can I help you, sir?’

He snapped from the impromptu reverie.

Her head was cocked to the side, no doubt curious as to why this gormless stranger was spending most of the afternoon selecting a simple beverage.

She barely shaded five feet, had long brown hair, and wasn’t wearing the employee-branded polo shirt. But he clocked her knapsack, her chirpy demeanour, and put two and two together—though he left it unsaid.

There was something else too.

She had buck teeth.

Beside a river somewhere, a gummy beaver was struggling with a chainsaw he’d had to buy from Home Depot. Poor little guy.

If she lived in a log cabin, it would be too funny. Luckily, he’d never find out. She was pretty enough, but (1) he liked his lips in their current state, (2) his chat-up small talk was so rusty it would take ten gallons of WD-40 to loosen up, and (3) he’d only be in town for a couple more hours. The peripatetic life is no cradle for romance.

Plus he was being cruel. He was hardly a matinee idol specimen—at least she had a distinguishing feature—he had none.

‘Just… picking something out.’

‘Try the coffee.’

He smiled. ‘You work here—you’re biased.’

There was a beat in which she wondered how he knew, and he got a self-satisfied glow from knowing, and knowing how he knew. It wasn’t rocket science: the emergence from the Staff door, the zipping up of the hoodie, the wave from the guy behind the counter.

Was she impressed? Did it matter?

You’ve got maybe ten years on her, buddy. It’s not cradle-snatching, but even so.

She shrugged. ‘Only part time. And I’m not on commission. And I’m off today now, so I won’t get your tip.’

‘No—not coffee.’

Not here.

Her hand gestured over the wooden board above the counter ten feet away. Someone approached, surmised that Beckman wasn’t the beginning, end, or entirety of the queue, and passed by to make their order, in a commendably faster-than-glacial pace.

‘Mocha, tea, sodas…’ She flashed a querying eyebrow.

He wanted to make it plain that, as a thirty-seven-year-old man, he was very adept at Reading Stuff, but didn’t want to come across as an ass.

‘Is that your hand?’ He indicated the faux chalk writing. That was a flat-out guess—his observation skills had limits.

‘Yeah. If only I’d used magic decision-chalk though, huh?’ A toothy grin appeared—a white Stonehenge—but there was a twinkle in her eye too.

Bet she makes a packet in tips.

Probably shade your commission too, road warrior.

All while in the same spot.

So not your vibe.

Did I just use the word “vibe”? What am I—twenty?

‘Don’t let me keep you. You were heading out.’

She glanced at the wall clock. ‘Dale let me go five minutes early. So I guess I have room for one more.’ She jerked her head towards a table. ‘At least take the weight off, while you’re not deciding.’

‘I guess.’

She followed him over to a square wooden table where they sat on adjacent sides. She hung her knapsack on the chair back; he did likewise with his trusty shoulder bag. It went everywhere with him—Linus’ blanket, minus the sucking.

Why is she volunteering to take time out from not being bored senseless by an older, thirsty, indecisive travelling salesman to risk the exact opposite?

Is this what they call “a spark”?

Need to get that WD-40 working on the ol’ Spotting The Signs muscle.

One thing at a time. Or probably one thing, period.

‘So—you not drink coffee?’

He glanced towards the window. ‘Only Coffee Planet, and I see they had a little accident.’

‘Fire is fire—it doesn’t judge.’

‘Crying shame.’

‘For some. Not for me.’

‘Ah—I get it now. You run this place. Happy to see the competition suffer.’ He smiled to show he was only partly joking.

‘Run? Ha! No, this is Dale’s place.’

‘All the same… business must have picked up.’

‘I guess. Why the third degree? So what if one of a faceless chain takes a hit? Capitalism sucks.’

There was a hint of vehemence in her tone, but he let it lie. He’d come in for a beverage, not an argument. Yet he was no closer to the former.

‘You have a job,’ he pointed out.

‘Just until the other thing takes off.’

‘The other thing?’

‘I make jewellery.’

He’d noticed the earrings—a chain of delicate metallic spheres leading down to a small cup, like a string of coffee beans being dropped into a mug.

After The Teeth, it was the second thing he’d clocked. All the while he was—on perpetual autopilot—keeping his senses attuned for any sign that she might be a potential customer.

Nothing yet, but, hell, five sales in two hours? He’d earned a break.

He nodded. ‘And you like coffee. Or you like modelling your wares for people who do.’

‘What can I say—Dale makes a great macchiato. So—how about it?’

He sighed.

Come clean?

‘The thing is…’ He stopped, hand hovering in mid-air, his mind absent of her name—because it hadn’t been established yet.

She caught his awkwardness. ‘Jolene. Yeah, like the song.’

He had an impish thought. ‘What song?’

Her eyes narrowed. The twinkle reappeared. ‘No, I’m not biting, Mister…?’

‘Beckman. No, not like anything. Not for a first name, anyhow.’

‘It’s a doozy, that’s for sure.’

‘Pair of conversation-starters, aren’t we?’

‘You know—it helps—chatting with customers and all. So—you not a coffee guy?’

He cracked a couple of knuckles. ‘I pretty much stick with Coffee Planet.’

She arched an eyebrow.

Wish I could do that. Just the one. It’s a great weapon. No, not weapon. Tool.

‘Okay, so I’m loyal as hell.’ He fished in the inner pocket of his charcoal jacket and pulled out a wad of CP-branded loyalty cards, held together with a rubber band which was into late middle-age and in need of being put out to pasture before it twanged into impromptu non-existence and decorated the surroundings with its captives.

Her other eyebrow arched.

Now that’s just showing off.

‘They oughta make you MVP,’ she suggested.

‘And this isn’t the whole nine yards. I got a box at home. I think I’m the loyalty department’s wet dream.’

‘You should do an interview. World Record or something.’

‘Somebody will have more.’ He carefully replaced the wad, now conscious of Ol’ Stretchy’s waning health. ‘Somebody more dull than me.’

‘Dull? With a name like that? You’re just a guy who knows what he likes. Nothing wrong with that.’ She flashed a toothy, conciliatory smile. The coffee earrings danced, reminding him of his thirst.

He looked around for a server. She caught the drift, scanned the room and was less reticent in fluttering a hand at a maroon-shirted female. Quickly, with zero-hour upon him, Beckman checked the drinks menu again.

The server arrived. ‘What can I get you, hon?’

Beckman lifted his hands from the table and clasped them together.

She angled her body towards him. She brought the tip of her pencil up to the order pad.

She wants that order from you. Whenever you’re ready.

Any time now.

You’ve had ages to choose.

It’s just a drink. Pick one.

Not coffee, obviously.

‘I’ll have…’

Good start.

He bit his lip. Checked the menu again. Checked Jolene. Swallowed.

‘… a…’

‘The milkshake is very good,’ Jolene piped up, simultaneously causing and saving his blushes, which vanished in a puff of quantum weirdness.

‘Yeah?’ he asked.

Milkshake? How long has it been?

You do like milkshake. And this was by way of something different—the Beckman lame-ass celebration for the above-average end to another mediocre week.

What could go wrong? More to the point, could it get worse than the decade which has passed in the last ten seconds?

‘I will. I’ll have a vanilla milkshake.’

Woo hoo! Wow—you’ll be tying your own shoelaces next.

Maybe we did find your distinguishing feature after all—cataclysmic idiocy.

‘Great,’ the server replied, turning to Jolene. ‘You, hon?’

‘Just a latte, thanks Emi.’

Emi set off to prepare two dairy-heavy beverages.

Apologise, style it out, or change the subject?

She beat him to the punch. ‘Did you never try Coffee Planet’s milkshakes?’

He shook his head. ‘Coffee all the way.’

‘You know, they’re getting rid of those cards. Gonna be pushing their app.’

‘Why?’

She shrugged. ‘Progress. Convenience.’

‘You guys have an app?’

‘Dale only got a cell last year. Let’s say it’s not likely soon.’

‘Well, you know where you are with cards.’

‘Bit of stickler, aren’t you, Beckman?’

‘Life on the road needs some touchstones.’

‘I figured that’s what you were. What are you selling?’

Is it that obvious what I do? Do I care?

He tugged his shoulder bag off the chair, opened the flap, withdrew a brown box and set it on the table.

Jolene peered at the anonymous carboard cuboid. ‘Not coffee—or jewellery—that would be too funny, right?’ She smiled.

‘Pain relief.’

She nodded slowly. ‘Okay. For where?’

‘Headaches.’

‘And this is what you’re in town selling. Fancy box of pills?’

‘Yes—and no. No pills, and any town.’ He sighed. ‘Ideally where people actually buy.’

‘Is this what the Friday afternoon drowning-your-sorrows-in-unspecified-drinks is? I’d go straight to bourbon.’

‘Hell, it’s not that bad. Never is. Actually this afternoon kinda rescue my visit. Five customers. Five living, breathing, hurting souls.’

‘Five? Why, what is it—like two hundred bucks?’

‘Ten bucks.’

She whistled softly. ‘Jeez, I make more than that in tips.’

‘Yeah, but you don’t get to travel the world, Jolene.’ He whipped out the pack of used loyalty cards, then winced at his maltreatment of Ol’ Stretchy. ‘You don’t get to down the filters, get the stamps, burn the gas, enjoy motel sheets, and—on a good day—have a milkshake with people like you.’

On cue, Emi arrived with their drinks, glanced in his direction, and scooted away.

Probably scared I’ll change my order after all that. Don’t blame her. Should have gone for water—hard to screw that up.

Jolene was unashamedly spectating as he cautiously picked up the glass and took a tentative sip.

‘I won’t take it personally if you gag,’ she said, displaying the full piano keyboard.

Actually, this is pretty fine.

‘Actually, this is pretty fine.’

‘So, wallow away, Beckman.’

‘Actually it was kind of a celebration.’

‘Five is good?’

‘It looked like zero here, so, yeah. I’m not graced with the greatest territory. Some towns are good—maybe a hundred a day. Some not so good. But I didn’t strike out—so that’s the plus.’

She raised her latte glass in toast and they chinked. ‘To… success.’

Strong word, but okay.

They drank.

Her brow knit. ‘So, without the fire, your celebration would have been just another Coffee Planet cup? Really?’

‘Like I said, it’s an anchor.’

‘An anchor is designed to prevent movement, and you’re a travelling salesman. What did I miss?’

He held her gaze as his mind churned over the question. 

Her pupils, he was almost certain, were grey-green. Eye colours were pretty easy for him to interpret. There were only a handful of common colours, and he’d long ago matched their names to the specific shade of grey which inhabited his monochromatic world. In the pantone of real-life, for “normal” people, there were countless things he could only take best guess at. Anything which existed in a defined palette—like eye colour—was an area of certainty he held on to.

Like an anchor.

‘I never thought about it. Maybe having fixed things I can rely on—like the taste at Coffee Planet—takes away uncertainties I don’t need. Means I can put more time and energy into trying to find customers for this.’ He tapped the box. ‘So, why change from what works? Why try another coffee, maybe hate it, and have to go somewhere else to get my fix of body fuel? Time is money.’

‘So you’re not one for new experiences?’

Was there a hidden agenda in those words? Unlikely.

‘Every day is new—even the same coffee from the same store. It’s not Groundhog Day, you know?’

‘Depends where you draw the line, I guess.’

He smiled. ‘I’m trying your milkshake, aren’t I?’

‘Maybe this could be your new habit. We could be your new stop-off.’

‘Not unless you have branches state-wide.’

‘You get around, huh?’

He sipped his very-passable milkshake. ‘Hundreds of square miles of the ass-end of nowhere.’

‘To cure headaches.’

‘It’s better than a lot of shit people do.’

‘You go door-to-door?’

He shook his head. ‘Sit around. Watch people.’ He gestured around. ‘Cafés, malls, diners. Queues are good, medical centres. Anywhere people hang out, and I can spot them.’

‘Lot of killing time.’ She slugged her coffee. The large part of his body dedicated to caffeine processing gave a silent whimper.

‘Yeah. I could write a book. You know—if my life story was anything to write about.’

That amused her, and the twinkle in her eye appeared. A twinkle which might be seized upon by other guys. People like his objectionable colleague Tyler Screw-Anything Quittle.

‘Spot them how?’ she asked.

Should I open Pandora’s Box? Give away the secrets of my roaring success? What’s she gonna do, drop a cosy life in a small town for a lifetime on the road serving the Pegasus Corporation?

And what if she did? It’s a free country.

Except it would be someone else to run against in the Salesman of the Year competition.

The key word there is “man”. Mr Malvolio would never employ a mere woman. It’s unthinkable to the guy. Wow—I think we found another reason to despise the slave-driving SOB.

Anyway, where were we?

He took another sip. ‘Call me a student of the human condition. When people have headaches, all the signs are there.’

‘Then you wade in with the patter.’

He chuckled. ‘Patter is for peddlers. If I told you I’ve been doing this for eleven years, and never had a single refund or complaint, you can see why the thing kinda sells itself.’

‘I wish my stuff did.’

‘Running your own business is brave, Jolene. I could never.’

She shrugged. ‘Well, I’ll see how it goes. If only people gave off vibes, like they do for you. You know—clutching themselves in a way which means they’re desperate for artisanal metalware!’

‘You have a business plan?’

She shook her head. ‘My boyfriend gives me some ideas, but he’s not really the type.’

‘Desk job?’

‘Fireman, here in town.’

Muscled Adonis with IQ shading three figures. Twice her size probably.

Jeez—stereotype much?

Fireman, though? Should have got to Coffee Planet quicker, sunshine.

Well, if he ever needs the Jaws of Life he doesn’t need to look far…

‘Wow. Good for him. You worry about him?’

‘Nah. He gets scrapes, but don’t we all?’

He subconsciously leant in slightly. ‘Headaches?’

She eased back by a similar amount and her eyes creased. ‘You pitching to me, Beckman?’

He held up a hand. ‘Sorry. Force of habit.’

‘No. You know what? You seem like an honest guy, and yeah, Erik does get headaches, so I’ll wrap up your stellar day and take a box—okay?’

Six? Six!

Not quite ready for the annals of history, but it rescues a day of tumbleweeds in town.

He slid the box across. She dug into a pocket and pulled out an Alexander Hamilton.

‘Thanks Jolene.’

‘Sure.’

‘When—not if—it works, spread the message and maybe I’ll come back and buy you more than a coffee.’

‘I’ll do that. Just not at Coffee Planet, okay?’

‘They rebuilding?’ he asked, trying to make it sound absentminded, and failing.

‘Yeah. Worst luck.’

‘Room for everyone on this planet. From the road warriors to the… artisan metalworkers.’

‘I guess.’

‘What happened? Anyone hurt?’

‘No. One night. Place just went up—that’s the story.’

‘Last man out forgot to turn off the sandwich toaster, I guess.’

She looked away. ‘Yeah, probably.’

‘This isn’t so bad—as a change.’ He swirled the cream liquid in the glass. Noticed her earrings again. ‘You make nice stuff, Jolene. Much as I know about it.’

‘Thanks.’ She bit her lip, pensive for a moment. ‘Do you want any pieces?’

‘I’m happy with plain skin, thanks.’

‘I meant for your wife? Girlfriend?’

‘Not applicable.’ He avoided a desperate sigh.

‘Significant other?’

‘Significant mother is about the closest I’ve got.’

Jolene’s brow furrowed. ‘Significant how?’

‘She’s my mother. Isn’t that pretty significant? Take her away, and what have you got?’

‘A different mother with a less imaginative line in names for their kids?’ she suggested.

‘Kid, singular,’ he clarified. ‘You know, I never asked which of my parents actually cooked up my name.’

‘Would it matter?’

He reflected on two relationships, one merely distant, one metaphorically out near Jupiter. ‘No.’

But maybe I’ll ask mom next time we speak. Just for idle conversation. Which is about all we have anyway.

And this here was what—Kierkegaard, climate change, the meaning of life?

It was a sale, Beckman. Another town, end of another day, another week.

And, actually, a conversation not largely about headaches, sport, or the weather. For once.

Thanks for the nudge, Jolene. You’re… okay. Maybe that fire was a blessing in disguise.  

He slugged his milkshake. Time was pressing.

A thought struck. ‘You ever ask Dale about putting a small display up, with some of your pieces?’

‘Yeah. He wasn’t keen.’

‘Did you offer him commission?’

Her face lit. ‘You think he’d go for it?’

‘Is he an ass?’

She shook her head.

He shrugged. ‘So, a few bucks commission is a free lunch. Can’t hurt to ask.’

‘Thanks, Beckman.’

‘I wrote the book on commission-based business. Well, a pamphlet.’ He sipped the last of his drink. ‘Actually, on today’s sales, maybe a Post-It Note. The little ones.’

‘All the same…’

‘I wish you luck, okay? And thanks for keeping me company. Glad I hung around.’

She downed the coffee dregs. ‘I should be going too.’ She tapped the box. ‘Can’t say I’m not intrigued.’

‘Every day is an adventure.’

She stood, pulled her knapsack onto the table, put the box inside, and refastened it. ‘That’s right. Never know what you’re going to discover. See you around, Beckman.’

He flicked his hand in farewell. ‘Bye, Jolene.’

But his mind wasn’t on the departure. It was racing at the sight of the cloth badge sewn onto her bag.

The one which read, “Capitalism Sucks.”