I woke up that morning with a gruesome headache. My brain felt too big for my skull, and my stomach felt like a small lizard had died in it. The sheets were moist and clammy. I was cold. Yes, I had a hangover.
My eyes rolled around and focused on the bedside clock. It took me several seconds to conclude that, despite the inky sky outside the open window, it was late morning.
Sitting up and watching the dark red curtains puff in and out against the window screen for a minute, I couldn't help thinking of a gigantic mouth--breathing in, breathing out, in and out.
The air smelled like wet dirt, and I could hear rain and a low rumbling noise. It must have been thunder that woke me. I hauled myself out of bed.
The notepad fell off the bedside table when I bumped against it, but I didn't bother to pick it up. I'd been scribbling on it before falling asleep.
I paused to let some dizziness pass, then stuffed myself, with difficulty, into the jeans I had left on the floor. Jeez, I'm getting fat, I thought as I struggled with the button.
As I was closing the window, which faces the front of my little bungalow, I noticed that someone was standing on the porch. It was a guy in some sort of bluish-gray uniform, but I couldn't see him too clearly because of the shrubs that grow to the side of the window. Now what?
I stumbled out to the front door and looked through the peephole. His back was to me. He had dark hair and thin, brown arms and was smoking a cigarette. He had on what looked like a short-sleeved mailman's shirt.
Opening the door and clearing my throat, I said, "Uh, hello?"
"Oh, hi," he said, turning around and flashing me a grin. "Mailman. I forgot my poncho today. Maybe I could stand here a minute until it lets up?" He was about my height, skinny, in his twenties, I guessed. His teeth were very white, but what got me were the eyes. He had the type of dark eyes that people call "piercing," but more so. I couldn't remember seeing eyes like that before.
"Yeah, OK," I said, reaching into the mailbox and pulling out some bills and a catalog. He grinned again. Stupid kid. I gave him a little smirk and then closed the door.
After dropping the mail on the kitchen counter, I took two Tylenol and started to brew some coffee. When it was done, I poured a cup and stood gazing out the kitchen window while I sipped it. It burned my mouth a little, which actually felt good. I was finally waking up.
There was a whole list of things I should do, I knew: shower, work on my résumé, make phone calls. But the thought of doing anything made me feel tired.
It was still drizzling, maybe even a little harder than before. Could the guy still be standing on the porch? I wondered.
There he was, puffing on the cig, when I opened the front door again. "You can come in if you want," I found myself saying, though I wasn't quite sure why. "Have some coffee."
He flashed the grin again. "I'm not supposed to," he said, then glanced up at the sky with those little black dots. "But I guess I might as well. For a minute. That sky is scary, man."
"Yeah," I said, "I heard there were tornado warnings."
"Oh, Maaan," he said, tossing the cigarette butt onto the lawn.
He followed me to the kitchen. He sat on a stool at the counter, and I poured him a cup of coffee. "What's your name?" I asked.
"Juan," he said.
"Cool," I said. "Mine's Jon." He smiled and shrugged. I felt like an idiot.
Juan took a sip and started looking around the kitchen. "You're home from work?" he asked.
"I'm not working right now," I said. "I lost my job a few days ago."
"Ah, that's tough," he said. "You been to college?"
"Yeah, I've been to college," I said. "Why?"
"You'll find another job easy if you have that degree," he said. "I'm going to college soon. Study accounting and party with all the horny women there. What kind of work you do?"
"Public relations," I said. He looked at me blankly. "I work with the media--newspapers, magazines, sometimes TV--to promote products for a company," I explained. "I write and I talk on the phone a lot. Or at least I did."
"Huh," he said. "What happened?"
"You mean how did I lose my job?"
I didn't like his nosy question. But then I decided, What the hell. "My boss didn't like my work," I said. "He didn't think I worked hard enough or fast enough to push his stuff. But they were stupid products. Nobody could have done any better."
" 'Products'.... What were they?" he asked.
"Grooming products. Like hair spray. For men. Hair spray that didn't work."
Juan snorted. "That's what you were writing and talking about on the phone for your job? That's funny, man. I'm sorry."
I gave him my fake smile. "Yeah, real funny," I said. "But it paid well."
"Guy must have been a real prick, huh?"
"My boss? You could say that. He's a rich prick, too--the worst kind. Born on third base and thinks he hit a triple, you know?"
"Oh man, I know."
"He's only two years older than me, but he lives in this big house on Bentsen Avenue, drives a Porsche. The guy's got everything but a brain. And a heart. He just wouldn't listen to reason."
"Bastard was born to money, right?"
"His father owns a bunch of radio stations, including Hits 109."
"Oh, man, really?" Juan said, opening his dark eyes wide.
"You like that station?"
"I know who you're talking about," he said.
"It must be that guy.... Bentsen Avenue, you said?"
"Big white house, like the president's house or something?"
"Yeah, it has big columns on the front."
"My dad--my dad. He fired my dad, also."
"What? What do you mean?" I asked.
"My dad was a gardener. He liked working outdoors. He worked for that guy. Said his Padre owns radio stations. One day my dad was hanging a big basket full of plants over that glass porch thing. My dad fell off a ladder and broke right through a big window. My dad was cut up kind of bad. But Mr. Bastard--Gallagher is his name?
"Morris Gallagher Jr., right," I said, astonished.
"He said it was my dad's fault. Called him clumsy, told his to clean it up--the blood and everything--and then fired him, man."
"That does sound like... Mr. Bastard," I said, stunned by the coincidence. "I can't believe this. Actually, on second thought, I can. Your dad should have sued him."
"My dad wasn't like that," he said with a voice that suddenly sounded old and bitter. "He didn't break any bones. Just some cuts."
"I'm sorry." This Juan person was getting to me. Plainly, he was more than a dumb kid; how much more, I hadn't fathomed yet.
"Wait here, I want to show you something," I said.
I went to the bedroom and found my notepad on the floor, with the letter I'd written on the top page.
"This is something I was writing last night, when I couldn't go to sleep and was drinking shots," I explained, handing it to Juan. "It's not something I'm going to send; I just wrote it to get some feelings off my chest. Somebody might as well see it. You might think it's funny."
I looked over his shoulder and read it silently along with him:
Today, while looking out my window, I saw a weasel get crushed by a passing truck. Naturally, my thoughts turned to you.
Consider this letter to be your annual performance review.
It is beyond me how you expected anyone to promote that shit--the mediocre crap you and the other cretins who run the company impose on the unsuspecting masses.
That you would even conceive of marketing such things is a reflection of your depraved ethics.
What deluded thinking went through your roach-brained cranium when you decided it was my fault you didn't get the kind of exposure you were looking for?
There's a psychological term that explains why you blamed me for the whole mess--projection.
You think firing me is the end of it? That now you're off the hook?
Just wait til the next time we meet--and there will be a next time, I guarantee it. You'll see me when you least suspect it, when your guard is down. Maybe at that little bistro where you and Barbara enjoy so many long, leisurely lunches. And then I'll give you a going away present, the gift I wanted to give you on my last day at work--my fist in your pointy little face.
I'll try to remember to send some flowers up to Room 36M--the critical trauma-care ward at the hospital.
Hope you enjoy the slow-drip morphine cocktails they serve up there.
Well, I'm off to therapy now. Have to keep working on the uncontrollable violent outbursts I seem to keep having.
We both giggled a bit over the letter, and I noticed that my headache was gone. Then Juan said, "You should send it to him, man. You should punch him out, too, big guy. For real. You know you want to."
"No, no, not really," I said. "Besides, I could get sued or even arrested for sending a letter like that."
"Man, you've got to send it. You've got to prove to him that you've got some balls. My dad, he always said you got to show them they can't hurt you. Not really. He said they can beat you, they can screw you, they can break your bones, but they can't never, never destroy what you got inside. You have to show him what you got inside. Send him the letter, man."
I didn't know what to say. I thought about my own father, the drunken fool, lurching from one business disaster to next, getting more and more depressed. And sitting on his ass and drinking. "They" certainly destroyed whatever he had inside.
For a second, I sort of wished I could send the letter, just like I wished I really could punch Morris in the face. But I knew there were a million reasons why it wasn't "practical," as my father would have said. Better to wait, he would have said. This too will pass.
"I can't do that," I said finally.
He turned those deep black eyes on me again. I was dizzy for a second.
"You know you want to," he said. "And I know where that bastard lives." Without looking away from me, he ripped the letter off the pad and stuffed it into his shirt pocket.
"Wait a minute," I said. "Wait a minute. I was just blowing off some steam."
Juan rose from the stool he was sitting on and started moving toward the front door.
"Now wait," I said. I grabbed his bony arm, and he stopped. He turned slowly and locked those dark eyes on me again. It made me uncomfortable, but I couldn't look away from them. I suddenly realized how bad I must look--my pasty face unshaven, wearing the tee shirt I'd slept in, my hair a mess and my eyes probably bloodshot.
We stood motionless for several seconds, with my hand still wrapped around his forearm. And then I began to have... strange thoughts. I was still looking into his eyes, but somehow I was also somewhere else.
I seemed to be sitting in Morris's office, although I was still aware of being in my own house. The office looked absolutely real, except that whenever I looked at a specific object, it blurred. Morris himself was sitting across a desk from me, perfectly in focus, but he looked odd. One eye was swollen shut; the other was open very wide and staring past me, as if he saw something hideous or terrifying behind me. I wanted to turn around or ask him what it was, but I couldn't move or speak. Morris was whispering something over and over again. It sounded like:
Flame burns among us
It didn't make any sense to me. I seemed to be dreaming, though I knew I was awake.
I managed to recover my voice, but my tongue felt numb, and the words came slowly and slurred.
"Morris," I said, "what is this? Can you hear me?"
He still didn't look at me, but he began to look even more terrified. "Who are you?" he whispered. "For the millionth time. For the love of God."
"Can't you see me?" I asked. Each word was an effort.
"This is the end of madness," he muttered, now looking down at the desk. "Stop it. Please stop it."
"Can't you see me?" I repeated.
"Sometimes I think I can," he whispered. "I catch a glimpse of you out of the corner of my eye. I think you look like me. We could be brothers or twins. Then I turn my head and you're gone. What do you want?" he said, his voice rising. He seemed to be choking back sobs. "What do you want from me?"
I didn't know how to answer his question. Instead, I said, "Look at me. I'm right in front of you."
He looked up, but his good eye didn't focus on me. He shook his head and looked down again. "Mad," he said. "I've tried everything. Every last thing." He sighed, sat back in the chair, and looked up at the ceiling. Then, without looking down, he opened the desk drawer in front of him and pulled out a black, shiny object, which he placed on the desk in front of him. I couldn't see it clearly, but it could have been a gun.
I suddenly realized that I could still feel my hand around Juan's arm. Just as suddenly the vision--or whatever it was--faded.
Juan was still staring at me. "Who the hell are you?" I gasped.
"I told you. I'm the mailman," he said in a confident tone. "Please release my arm."
I let go. He nodded to me with an amused smile, then turned and left the house. I followed him out onto the porch. The rain had stopped. He was already walking down the sidewalk, pushing his little mail cart and whistling a weird tune. I wanted to go after him and demand the letter back, but I couldn't make myself do it.
I went to the bedroom and sat on the bed. It felt difficult to breathe, so I opened the window, then lay down. For a while, I watched the red curtains puff in and out, in and out. I still didn't know what to do.
So I closed my eyes and waited.
Michael Gates, a freelance business writer and editor by trade, writes short fiction and personal essays in his spare time. His work has appeared online in The 13th Story and The Story Exchange, as well as in Think: A Newspaper of Literary and Visual Art. Michael grew up in the wilds of upstate New York, then lived in New York City for several years. He currently resides in Weird N.J. with his wife, Beth, and his son, Philip.