Hi folks, if you’ve arrived here from reddit nosleep, I just want to let you know that the following story is NOT a sequel and it is NOT horror. That said, I do hope you enjoy it!
In the video game section of his local Wal-Mart, Robert was overwhelmed.
There were so many titles. There was Blood God 5 and Final Conflict. There was Assassin’s Assistant 2 and Grand Larceny. There were sports games, puzzle games, and some sort of marriage simulator. There looked to be every game in the world except the one he was looking for.
He ran his fingers through his thin, white hair and fiddled with the top button of his cardigan. He finally saw an employee and approached him.
“Excuse me,” he said, “do you have Machine Gun Bible Camp?”
“I’ll be right with you,” said the man, without looking up from his phone.
“Sure, sure,” said Robert. “I’m sorry, I just get so lost with these things — “
“I said I’ll be right with you.” He was a big guy with a trunk-like neck that stretched his collar. He still had the scattered landmines of teenage acne on his forehead.
“You need help, sir?” said another worker, this one thinner and with a better-fitting uniform.
“If you can,” said Robert. “It’s called Machine Gun Bible Camp.”
“Are you sure you don’t mean Machine Gun: Late For Work? Machine Gun Bible Camp is the crossover web miniseries. It’s not a game.”
“Oh, of course. I didn’t mean to offend you.”
The employee laughed. “It’s OK. Let me guess — this is for a grandkid?” He walked past the rows of games until he came to a giant cardboard display that had several copies of Machine Gun positioned to look like they were blasting out of a cannon.
“My goodness,” said Robert. “It was right in front of me the whole time.”
“No problem at all, sir.” He handed him a copy.
Robert smiled and thanked him. He left, walking past the thick-necked lout who was still engrossed in his phone.
Robert didn’t want to be a bitter old man but he also couldn’t ignore what he saw every day. There were good people in this world but they were losing the war. Besides the punk employee there was the jerk driver who didn’t stop for him in crosswalk. There was the distracted barista who couldn’t be bothered to explain what was in the signature drink. There was the woman at the Social Security office who treated him like a child. And now there was the thick-necked punk employee again, this time grabbing Robert from behind as he walked through the front door.
“Nice try, old man,” he said as he squeezed Robert’s arm like a pit bull on a twig.
“What is this all about?” said Robert, wincing.
“I was watching you the whole time.” The punk dragged him back into the store. A security guard joined the scene by grabbing Robert wherever he could.
The punk lifted up Robert’s cardigan, revealing a copy of Machine Gun: Late For Work stuffed into his waistband.
“I was going to pay!” said Robert. “I got confused.”
“Not too confused to tear off the magnetic tag,” said the punk. “They think because they’re old we’ll take it easy on them. It’s not like you were stealing food, old man.”
“Please,” said Robert. “can’t you just ban me from coming in again?”
“Oh, we’ll do that, too.”
The room where they kept shoplifters was apparently behind the electronics section. Robert stared at the ground, not wanting to make eye contact with the young man who’d helped him, but it was too late. The helpful young man’s expression looked wounded.
“Gunna touch yr ass again n squeeze yr nipple.”
Paulette found this text message easier than the previous one to decipher. It seemed that teenagers changed their slang whenever adults started to catch on to what they were saying. The previous one, for example, contained the opaque but vulgar-sounding “tgsck.” Part of her didn’t want to know what it meant.
But a bigger part of her did or else she wouldn’t be doing what she was doing. This act — cowered in a room of her own house, nervously listening for footsteps, feeling the irresistible but morally questionable urge to read the words lighting up the phone — betrayed a relationship while solidifying it at the same time.
Paulette was in her early 50s. She had a plump, pretty face and hair with more pepper than salt. She knew the honeyed traps men set for pretty girls. It was important for her to spy on her daughter, she told herself. She needed protection from her own naivete.
But what if it was too late? Did she even want to know if Sara was having sex and, if so, using protection?
She didn’t. But she had to. She continued to scroll through the messages. Her apprehension turned to anger when she saw the next one: “When your mom leavin again? Last month was fun” followed by a smiley face making what looked like an obscene expression with its tongue.
Paulette stomped to her daughter’s room and pounded on the door. Normally insouciant to her mother’s summonings, Sara ran to answer it, expecting to hear that the house was on fire.
“You promised me!” said Paulette.
“Huh?” said Sara. Her eyes went to the phone in her mom’s hands. She reached back to her own back pocket and cursed when she found nothing there.
“Can you respect the few rules I give you? This is my house. Do you know how hard I worked to get it? I don’t want you sneaking people here.”
“Mom, it wasn’t a big deal — “
“No! This is really bad! Did you throw a party?”
“No. There was no party.”
“Oh,” said Paulette. “Well that’s even worse! Just him and you? Where, on the couch? I hope it was at least in a bed — “
Sara frowned and pushed past her mom into the hallway. Her initial shame at being discovered gave way to indignation at being snooped upon.
“So what!” said Sara. “Where were you that weekend? Do you even talk to that guy anymore?”
Paulette punched the drywall next to her and dented it. “Don’t even try it. You know you fucked up. I’m keeping this.” She held up the phone.
“What? No, mom, what if work calls? What — how am I going to talk to people to study?”
“You’ve got a job now. Pay for it yourself. Who needs me, right? Just do whatever you want.”
“Mom, please… Can I at least send some texts first?”
“No! In fact why don’t you just — go to your room.”
Sara almost laughed at this. “I’m not a little kid.”
“Then just get out of my sight.”
“Mom. Please. Let me text Jesse. I love him, mom. I’m sorry he snuck over and I lied to you but please.”
Paulette almost softened but reminded herself to stay angry. “No. Write him a letter. Call him from a pay phone. But this has been confiscated.”
Sara went into her room. Instead of slamming the door, she left it open as she flung clothes from the closet. She yanked an old duffel bag from under the bed. The bag was Army issued, a bit musty but in good shape. The last name on it was the same as hers but not Paulette’s. She stuffed it full of jeans and shirts.
Her mother pretended not to care. “You are really too old to be throwing tantrums.”
“Not a tantrum. I’m leaving.”
“Oh sure. Over to your boyfriend’s? That can’t happen. You’re still a minor.”
“No, not him,” said Sara. She would have loved to go to Jesse’s, but there was no way his parents would allow it. “I’m going to grandpa’s.”
Now it was Paulette’s turn to stifle a laugh. “You — you can’t go to your grandfather’s.”
“Why not? Just because you never get along doesn’t mean we don’t.”
“When is the last time you even saw him? How are you going to get there?”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Sara. Realizing she was now the one with righteous outrage fortified her conviction. She tied an alternate pair of shoes to the outside of the duffel bag and put it on her back.
She went to walk out of her bedroom but her mom stepped into the doorway. Her make-up was a mess. Veins contoured on her forehead. She screamed “Fuck,” went down the hallway to her own room, and slammed the door so hard that dust floated from the ceiling.
Sara reached for her phone and cursed, again, when it wasn’t there. She grabbed some coins out of a bowl near the front door and left.
From the corner store, Sara tried to call her boyfriend but he was at work. She called her friend Tracy and waited an hour for her to finally arrive. Tracy’s car was a Ford Tempo that looked like it had spent an entire spring underneath the most pollen-producing plant in the western hemisphere, one that also harbored birds with healthy digestive systems.
“Hey, it’s the invisible woman,” said Tracy.
“I’m sorry. I saw your text, I just… I’ve been busy with my play.”
“Don’t give me that shit. It’s Jesse, isn’t it.”
Sara shrugged. “But I did want to call.”
“You look fairly stable for someone who just got kicked out.”
“Oh my god… Wait until you hear. I didn’t get kicked out. I left. You won’t believe what that bitch did this time.”
She relayed the story as the car motored onto the freeway. She liked the freeway because it was elevated and she could see all the way across town. It represented escape.
Sara had dark hair and a face dominated by a wide, expressive mouth. While speaking, she’d occasionally purse her lips and move them to the side so far they almost touched her ear.
Tracy had blonde hair with a flower perpetually stuck in it. She had a firm jaw that made her look absolutist. She looked quite different from Sara but also quite similar, since they both had a thrift-store bohemian fashion sense about them.
“Look,” said Tracy, “This doesn’t have to change anything. We’re still traveling come summer?”
Sara didn’t reply.
“Wow, really?” said Tracy. “Two years of planning and you’re selling out for some dude?”
First my mom, now my best friend, thought Sara. Was she just everyone’s punching bag today? She wished she had some way to contact Jesse.
They arrived at her grandfather’s house. The neighborhood seemed rougher than when Sara had played in it as a kid; the yards more overgrown, the dogs less friendly. It was a Saturday but there weren’t many children out, no tricycles swooping down driveways, no kids playing catch.
Sara got out of the car, threw her bag on the curb, and leaned back down to her friend. “There’s something I haven’t told you but I can’t talk about it right now. I still want to travel but this might make things different.”
“You want him to come with us. It’s supposed to be US.”
“But you don’t even know him!”
“Whatever. I guess I’ll hear from you next time you need something. You’re welcome, by the way.” The car lurched into gear and sped away.
Sara’s eyes stung with tears. All the day’s stress bared down on her. She was not some puppy dog that couldn’t stand to be without her man for a couple of days. It wasn’t like that. She was pissed at Tracy for thinking that..
She also wasn’t some whore who used her family home like a bordello. She was even more pissed at her mom.
She needed comfort. She grabbed her bag and walked to the door.
The doorbell played a creaky, three-note tune. Sara waited.
As the emotions of the fight with her mom faded, she thought about the logistics of her situation. She was now even farther from her job, which her mom had been driving her to. She was also farther from school, though luckily there were only a few days left for that.
She listened for footsteps but didn’t hear any. She rang again.
In the driveway was her grandpa’s Lincoln. It was the same one she rode around in as a kid. She and her cousins would wrestle each other on the back seats as the car zoomed around at 50 miles an hour.
She knocked again and put her ear to the door. She regretted her decision to make the visit a surprise.
Someone coughed from inside the house. It was a short, muffled bark that grew into a phlegmy hack as its owner slowly moved towards the door. She couldn’t hear footsteps, just this cough like ripping paper moving through the house.
How old was grandpa now? The last time she saw him was two Christmases ago. The deadbolt clicked and the door opened a few inches. It was dark inside.
“Yes?” said a gravely voice.
“Grandpa, it’s me!”
There was silence. Cool air and a slight funk emanated from inside. Sara began to wonder if she had the right house.
The door closed again. Sara’s gut sank before she heard the chain on the door slide off. The door reopened and there stood Robert, her grandpa.
His khakis were bunched up around his waist. He was disheveled, too, with yellow stubble on his face and a clownish cowlick above his ear.
“Grandpa — it’s Sara.”
“I know.” He looked at her, his glasses perched on the tip of his nose. He managed to fake a smile and shuffled backwards, opening the door wider as he did so. “You’ll have to excuse the place. It’s a bit of a mess.”
Indeed it was. There were fast food bags on the coffee table and stacks of newspapers by the door. There were empty soda cans on the counters and shelves. Every curtain was sealed shut. The only light inside was creeping in from the bathroom down the hall.
“It’s OK, I don’t care about that!” Sara brightened. She opened her arms. After a moment’s hesitation, her grandpa hugged her.
“Not that I’m unhappy to see you,” he said, “but I thought you would have called.”
“I would have. But a bunch of crap happened. I basically got kicked out.”
“Paulette kicked you out?”
“Well… More or less.”
“If only my place were cleaner. I’m just not sure there’s room here — it’s so cluttered.”
Sara frowned. This was one possibility she hadn’t considered.
“Oh,” she said. “You’re right, I should have called. I just didn’t have anywhere to go.”
Robert wrung his hands for a moment. He walked over to the couch and batted away some trash and dirty clothes. “I guess the couch might be ok for a day or two.”
Now it was Sara’s turn to fake a smile. “Thank you grandpa. I’ll make myself useful.”
Christmas, eight years prior. Sara was nine years old. She and her mom plus all the cousins were together at grandpa and grandma’s house.
The house was joyful then. The same yearly decorations adorned the walls, their datedness comforting instead of drab. Ham smells permeated the air. A cheery tree held in its branches the tiny clay figurines Sara made in kindergarten.
Most joyful of all was grandma’s presence. This would have been the year before she got sick. She had the same healthy cheeks as Paulette, plus the bee-bitten lips that she passed on to her granddaughter.
As Sara explored this memory, she noticed how much grandma and Paulette talked to one another, how engrossed and full of laughter they were. She couldn’t remember a time she’d laughed with her mom like that.
Grandpa sat on an ottoman, pulling presents from under the tree and handing them out at a maddeningly slow (for the children) pace. He played straight man to the rambunctious lot at his feet, pretending that some of the presents were meant for people no one had ever heard of. While saying one particularly silly name, he couldn’t hold it any longer and burst into giggles himself.
Christ, thought Sara, are you that dense? Did you really think it only took two years for grandpa to get over his wife’s death? No wonder the place was filthy now — he’s completely apathetic.
She threw her notebook on the floor next to a pile of dirty clothes. She’d been reminiscing in order to brainstorm on her play, but it proved too painful. She could write later; now she was going to clean. Robert had gone to lay down, saying that he wasn’t feeling good, so she hoped a clean house would improve his mood when he reemerged.
First, though, she wanted to call Jesse. Her heart jumped in her chest when there was a click on the line, but it was only the beginning of the voice mail message.
Of course, she thought, he doesn’t recognize the number. She left a message telling him where she was and to call her. She sat by the phone for a minute — what if he were to call right back after listening to the message? — but soon she felt rather pathetic and so went into the kitchen to battle the mess.
In there was a hill of milk cartons and crumby wax cereal bags suspended in the air. Sara deduced by the four legs protruding underneath it that the junk was actually sitting on top of a dining table, not floating, despite the surface of said table not being visible at all.
She picked up an empty carton. An avalanche of trash crashed onto the floor, sending chunks of year-old milk onto her pants legs. At least she could now see the table’s surface.
When she got to the counter, she saw several beer cans among the soda ones. Cigarette butts were crushed into some of them. She shoveled everything into a plastic bag that quickly filled with trash.
By the time Robert came out of the bedroom, the house was immaculate. Early evening sunlight poured through the windows onto what looked like a TV soundstage.
“What did you do with everything?” he said.
“Oh,” said Sara. “I just cleaned up a little.”
“No. This is all wrong. You shouldn’t go snooping around here.”
“I’m sorry grandpa. I figured you were — too busy to clean the place yourself.”
Robert tried to compose himself. “Yes. Thank you. Some friends of mine came over the other night. They were celebrating. I don’t drink, myself.”
“It’s OK, grandpa! You’re an adult. You’re allowed to relax.”
“Well, that is not how I relax.” He went to the windows and closed the curtains. “And thank you, but these have to stay closed.”
“That’s fine. It’s no problem. I suppose I should feed you.”
“Um…” Sara was starving. “I could order us a pizza.”
“Goodness no. Pizza is an unhealthy anodyne of the hoi polloi. Give them football and stuff them full of pizza. Simple folk.”
Sara laughed. “Maybe you’re overthinking it a little. I don’t mind paying for it.”
“Nonsense,” he said. He opened the refridgerator and stared inside it. He pulled out a plate armored with aluminum foil. He looked inside it and quickly put it back.
He closed the main door, then propped open the freezer above it. “The dinner party I hosted used all my groceries. I haven’t had a chance to go to the store.”
“You want me to go — “
“No, that’s quite alright. There’s some salt in there. If I could just find some sort of meat product. I’m thawing out the freezer now. Under that frost is something worth eating.”
“You know what. I am a — vegetarian. Like, recently. So I’m just going to order us a pizza.”
Robert closed the freezer and sighed. “All right. I suppose once in a while won’t lower us.”
Later that night, as Sara slept on the couch, the phone rang. She lept up and answered it after the first ring.
“Jesse?” she said in a whisper.
No one replied. She said hello a few more times and could only hear the emptiness of someone on the other line sitting in a silent room.
She told herself it was him and sat listening to the silence for a whole minute before whoever was on the other end hung up.
Sara woke up the next day to the smell of bacon and the sound of staticky jazz.
She stumbled to the kitchen, her hair like a peacock and her eyes full of sleepy crumbs. She stood in the entranceway and watched her grandfather dance in front of a stove as he poured some eggs onto a hot pan.
A small radio on the counter spit out a saxophone solo. Robert wore a chef’s apron over a polo shirt and khakis as he stirred eggs with one hand and played air sax with the other.
Sara coughed softly.
“Oh, good morning!” said her grandfather. “Thought you’d like some breakfast. Though now it’s more like lunch.” He spun around as the song on the radio kicked back into its melody.
“Thanks. That’s very nice of you. You went to the store?”
“To the store and back, yes indeed! I needed the exercise.”
Robert set out a single plate and put scrambled eggs, bacon and toast on it. “Where’s yours?” said Sara.
“I’m not so hungry. When you get old, you don’t need as much fuel, ha ha. By the way thank you again for cleaning everything up. My beautiful granddaughter, you’ve always been my favorite.”
“Thanks, grandpa.” She smiled at him. He’d combed his hair back but he still hadn’t shaved. At least his clothes were clean.
The bacon was burnt brittle, but Sara liked it that way. She ate while listening to Robert expound on the wonders of jazz music while cleaning the dirty pans.
“You still play the saxophone?” she asked. She always liked hearing him play, back when everyone was happier. He wasn’t exactly a virtuoso but he knew some popular songs.
“I sold that old thing a while back. Wish I still had it.”
Suddenly his movements slowed down and he leaned against the counter before moving carefully to the table. Sweat beaded on his nose and forehead. His smile was still there but it was languid and forced.
“Grandpa? Are you ok?”
“Oh fine. I’m fine. Just got warm.”
Sara brought him a glass of water. He downed it in seconds.
“Maybe we should call the doctor.”
He shook his head. “I need some fresh air.” Before Sara could protest, he’d stood up, steadied himself, and went to the foyer to put on his shoes.
“Grandpa, you don’t look so good!”
“I’ve been doing just fine on my own for many years now, thanks.” He left.
He said this last bit with a charge to his voice. Sara took it as a reference to her absenteeism. When was the last time she’d bothered to call?, she thought. She’d always meant to contact him more often. A visit during spring break, maybe, or a call on Sundays. But something always came up.
Worse yet was knowing that her mom didn’t like him. So he had neither his oldest daughter nor grandaughter for company. Sara wondered if her cousins kept in touch. The lack of pictures or holiday cards said they didn’t.
She deserved his anger, she told herself. But he looked really sick before he left. She went to go after him, then heard the car pulling out of the driveway. Well, he did have a point: He’s been just fine by himself for a long time now. But how was she going to get to work?
As worried as she was about her grandpa, thoughts about Jesse grew more nagging. Suddenly, after six months of dating, she was nervous about calling and bugging him. She decided that needing a ride was a good excuse.
He picked up on the first ring. “Yeah?”
“Hey. It’s me!”
There was a beat of silence before he said, “Oh hey.” He sounded happy, which immediately filled Sara with happiness.
“I guess you heard my message,” she said. “That’s why I haven’t texted you.”
“Hm, right. Yeah I listened to it. So when are you going back home?”
“Um, well… I don’t think I am. I’m saving up to go to New York, and I was going to ask you — “
A thump on the other line interrupted her. It sounded like Jesse dropped his phone.
“Hello?” she said.
“Sorry, I’m here. Listen, can we talk about this later? I’m helping my dad with something.”
“Oh. OK. But hey…” She had trouble saying the rest, her confidence again weakened. “I’m stuck out here. Can you give me a ride to work tonight?”
She gave him the address. Then, “I love you.”
“Sure. Me too.” He hung up.
There were three hours left before her shift. There wasn’t anything she could do about her grandpa except hope he was OK. She was tired of cleaning. She’d studied all she needed to know for the next week’s exams. And she was mad at Tracy, so she couldn’t call her.
That left one thing. She picked the notebook up off the floor and turned to a fresh page. She tried to conjure plot points, dialogue, character descriptions. Everything that appeared to her was trite or subconsciously borrowed from some other media.
After a few minutes of staring at the page, she picked up the TV remote and hunted for a show.
The woman standing near Sara wore an enormous tee shirt that stretched to her knees. Beneath that were sweatpants, finished off with a pair of Crocs on her feet. The restaurant may not have a dress code, thought Sara, but shouldn’t the planet?
Under the woman’s left arm was a Chihuaha who looked both terrified and ferocious. If her managers hadn’t brought up the issue of pets at the last meeting — thanks to some high-profile lawsuits, their official policy was to welcome all pets, even birds — Sara wouldn’t have even let her in the door.
“Is this all you have?” the woman said, pointing to a table near the restroom entrance.
“This server’s section was next to be seated,” said Sara.
“Oh.” The lady craned her neck at a table for four by a window. “Couldn’t I sit at that one?”
“That’s a table for four. And I just sat that server.”
Sara put down a menu and left. She rolled her eyes as she walked away, the dog yapping at her.
Moments later, the woman flagged down a server, Rachel, and whispered something to her. Rachel smiled and nodded, then the woman got up and moved to the table by the window.
Rachel was a couple years older than Sara. She had blond hair and looked very All-American. She walked up to Sara and said, “In the future, please let guests sit where they would like.”
“Andy’s slammed,” said Sara. “Now he’s got another table — “
“Well maybe you can take her drink order? There’s no one coming in right now.”
“Are you like a manager now?”
“I’m actually lead server now, yes,” said Rachel.
Sara tried to summon fury but felt an urge to cry instead. She suppressed it long enough to take the woman’s drink order and return with lime-garnished water (in a glass for her and in a small bowl for the doggie.)
On any normal night, she would have let the woman move seats. But Jesse had upset her. He never picked her up to take her to work, and she wound up taking the bus.
When her shift ended, she almost called him again but held strong. Instead she was going to call a taxi but found that her wallet wasn’t in her purse. She cursed and hoped it was still in her bag at her grandpa’s house.
That’s who she called next. He picked up after she said hello a few times into his answering machine.
She was sitting on the smoker’s bench outside when he arrived, his old Lincoln coughing and belching. He had bags under his eyes and the neck buttons on his shirt were undone.
“No problem, sweetie.” He sounded like he’d feel ashamed to be anything but nice to her, no matter how he felt.
“Are you OK?”
“Oh, just couldn’t sleep.”
They drove through the silence of suburban weeknight for a few minutes.
“Did you see my wallet anywhere?” she said. “I think I forgot it there. I hope I did.”
“Hm. I don’t think so.”
“Grandpa — I’m sorry I haven’t called or visited in a long time.”
He ducked his head and tried to read a highway sign as they passed under it.
“And I know you miss grandma,” she said. “I do, too.”
A red pickup truck merged well ahead of him. Robert cursed and honked anyway.
“They let anyone drive now,” he said. “Goddammit.”
Sara let him be and stared out the window at the unlit, three-story buildings of a nearby office park.
March something. Robert can’t remember the exact date. He’d guzzled two beers that left him with nothing but a headache. Nope, he thought. Not working. I need something else.
He sat at the gigantic desktop computer he’d had for years. He’d paid someone to connect it to the Internet, but he rarely went online. Tonight was different, though. He was desperate enough to try anything for escape.
The first thing he read was a blog denouncing “the media” as politically slanted and corrupt. The nerve! Mass media was one of mankind’s greatest inventions. Robert marveled at how one person could instantly communicate with millions. It was a testament to humanity’s cleverness. So what if the messages themselves were pedestrian schlock! Consider the audience.
Robert pushed himself away from the computer, disgusted. He needed escape, not to be further enraged by idiots. A thought occurred to him, but he pushed it out, suddenly frightened. The thought returned. He found himself walking to the foyer and putting on his shoes.
Soon he was driving on the west side of town. A lot of Triumph was poor and depressed, but the west side had a reputation for vice that gave it a “blighted Las Vegas” feel to it. Strip clubs flashed half-malfunctioning neon signs, security bars wrapped liquor stores in cages, flourescent bulbs poured light over parking lots of busted glass. On corners, down avenues, prostitutes waited, anxious or cheery.
Robert pulled up to a young man sitting at a bus stop.
He was in his early 20s, with black hair and a thin, handsome face. He wore a leather vest with no shirt, showing off his hairless chest.
“You want a date?” the man said.
Robert nodded. The young man got inside and Robert drove off.
“Nice night,” said Robert.
“Indeed.” First-timers were always a drag, the man thought. They took forever before finally getting to the point.
“My name’s Robert.”
Robert tried to say more but his mouth was dry. This was very difficult. He was silent for a minute. The west side gave way to warehouses and train tracks. His was the only car on the road. A waiting cop would no doubt welcome the break from routine.
“What do you have?” said Robert.
Finally, thought Bruce. He unzipped his fly.
Robert nearly crashed into a Dumpster when he looked over and saw Bruce’s dick laying out of his pants like a snake.
“Not that! Put it away please?”
“Huh? I thought you — “ Bruce was flustered. His potential customer’s nervousness was infectious. He put his cock back in his pants and hollered when he caught it on his zipper.
The scream was too much. Robert had to pull over before he crashed.
“You’re not a cop, are you?” said Bruce.
“No but I don’t want your penis. I was hoping you had some — drugs?”
Bruce took a few breaths, gaining control. “Like what?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never done this. Marijuana?”
“Waste of time,” said Bruce. He pulled out a baggie of small white rocks. “Let’s keep driving. You have a place?”
Robert got back on the road and headed to his house. As he did so, Bruce pulled out a glass pipe and put one of the rocks on top of it. He lit it and took a huge hit, then blew out a thick cloud of smoke.
Robert looked at the smoke with curiosity. It stunk like plastic but wasn’t entirely repulsive.
Without realizing it, he had sped up, looking forward to being home.
Three months, thought Robert. In three months he’d gone from excited novice to committed crackhead.
When Sara had first arrived, he figured he would have to quit. There’s no way he could get high while his granddaughter was in the other room. It would violate his conscience.
The high was louder than his conscience. He slipped his shoes off in the foyer, a small bag of paradise stowed in his pocket. He was being overly quiet, as if Sara might figure out his secret.
He didn’t have to worry. She was curled up on one end of the couch, talking into the phone. He paused to listen.
“That’s not right,” she said to whoever was on the other line. “Yes, I am OK. That’s all you’ll get from me. You can’t make me come home.”
She was talking to her mom — Robert’s daughter. Oh, that was a whole other disasterous topic. He didn’t have time to think about it, not tonight. He tip-toed through the hallway and slipped into his room.
He sat down at the vanity table of his late wife. Helen was her name. Her framed picture watched him as he took a rock from the baggie and put it in his pipe. He lit the rock and inhaled.
A balloon of joy expanded in his brain. He was 20 years old again. Everything was possible.
He burst into the living room, startling his granddaughter, who was still on the phone.
“Hey! You remember asking me to play the saxophone?”
“What? Grandpa, I — “
“Yeah! Jazz, remember! I should get it back and start playing again. It always made your grandmother so happy when I would play for her.”
Sara hung up the phone. He was suddenly so full of energy. His pupils looked like black marbles. Then she saw it.
“That’s how we met, you know. Our first dates were at a jazz club in New Orleans. Far away, huh?”
“Grandpa!” She pointed to his right hand, where he still held the crack pipe.
“Oh!” he said. “This is, um …”
“Grandpa, what — is that crack?”
“No. I found this. I’m throwing it away.”
He walked to the kitchen, his face twitching. He picked at his clothes and couldn’t stop chewing on his lower lip.
“Grandpa! What the fuck!” She jumped up from the couch, seething.
“A burglar must have dropped it.”
“This is not fucking good, grandpa! You’re smoking crack? What — how long now?”
Robert’s euphoria was already giving way to despondance. He needed another hit.
“No,” he said, “it’s not mine.”
Sara grabbed an old sweater from her bag. She ripped it in half while screaming, “Grandpa! You can’t fucking smoke crack!”
“Well you can’t tell me what to do!” said Robert. He moved around her at a wide angle, afraid of accidentally hurting her in his amped state. He grabbed his baggie and lighter. He went for his keys and dropped them, his hands shaking.
“This is only temporary,” he said. “It’s really not so bad. It’s gotten a bad reputation from people who don’t know what they’re doing.” He picked up his keys and started to leave.
Sara followed him to the door. “How long has this been going on? Stop! You can’t leave! You are not allowed to leave!”
Sara sat on the couch and put her head in her hands. She took deep breaths. It was Sunday evening. The final exam of her high school career was the next morning, and she needed to study. For once, she WANTED to study, to distract herself.
She pulled out her books, stared at them for a second, then tossed them aside. Then she opened her notebook to the same blank page she’d been wrestling with for weeks. She wrote, “ROBERT — age 66 — protagonist — arrogant — selfish — stupid”
The ringing phone interrupted her. Her first thought was the police. She pictured her grandpa in an overturned car two blocks away. She instantly regretted not physically stopping him from leaving.
There was a mouse-like snicker on the other end. “Grandpa?” said a man’s voice that she didn’t recognize. “Where the fuck is Robert?”
“He’s — he’s not here at the moment. Who is this?”
“Tell that old man that I want my money. No more goddamn trades. No more video games or fucking saxophones. I want my MONEY. Got it?” He hung up.
Sara snapped her pen in half. She looked around for more drug paraphenilia. Her new plan was to call the police and have Robert arrested. It was the only way to prevent him from killing himself.
After a few minutes she sunk back into the couch. It was too much.
The next thing she knew, it was morning. She got up stiffly from the couch and looked outside. The Lincoln was in the driveway. Robert’s shoes and jacket were in the foyer.
She crept down the hallway and heard him snoring through the bedroom door.
She called Tracy.
“Hey,” said her friend. “I guess you need another ride.”
“You sure you’re ready?” said Tracy. It was Monday, early afternoon. Sara had just finished her exam and now Tracy was driving her to the restaurant so she could pick up her check.
“The original plan was just to move out,” said Sara. “But nothing will change as long as I’m stuck in this town.”
“I don’t know. New York is so … intimidating.”
“If all of us went up there?”
“All, huh,” said Tracy. “Have you even talked to Jesse about this?”
Sara admitted that she hadn’t. “I actually haven’t talked to him at all lately. Well, a few minutes. He’s busy, you know.”
Tracy wanted to tell her that anyone who cared for her would have found a way to see her, but she didn’t. Instead she said, “Fuck it. New York, New York. Start spreading the news.”
The two best friends sang an impromptu version of the Frank Sinatra classic, mumbling syllables when they couldn’t remember the words. They laughed and joked the rest of the way, comparing notes on what their ideal New York apartment would look like and whether or not it would be romantic to have rats living in the walls.
Since it was Monday, the restaurant was slow. Sara didn’t have to wait long for the manager to retrieve her check from the office. They were about to leave again when Tracy tapped her shoulder and pointed out a young couple kissing in a far-away booth. “That’s the difference between you and me,” she said. “I find that disgusting. Reminds me of insects mating or something.”
Sara laughed until she saw that it was Jesse and Rachel sitting together.
What happened next was forever seared into the pit of Sara’s stomach: Jesse’s expression going from annoyed to terrified when he saw that it was Sara who had stormed up to the table; Rachel’s smirk as she watched everything unfold; the maddening fact that Jesse had never, ever shown her such affection in public.
If this were a play, Sara would have written that her next action was to throw a glass of water in the cheating bastard’s face. Instead, she couldn’t say anything. She turned around to leave.
At the time, it was a small consolation that she heard Jesse get up from the table and try to explain things. It wasn’t until later that she actually thought about what he was saying: “I’ve been trying to call. I wanted to tell you.”
Not “It’s not what it looks like” or “We’re just friends.” He wasn’t just cheating on her; he’d completely excised her already, like a weird mole. He’d moved on to prettier things.
In the car, it was Tracy who sounded the angriest.
“We’re going to wait a few days,” she said, “then we’re going to slash the motherfucker’s tires and smear dog shit on the door handles.”
Sara stared out the window. The dried tears on her cheeks made her skin feel tight and brittle. “It’s OK,” she said.
She asked her friend to drive to the bank. “I’m going to deposit this,” she said, holding up her check, “and I’m leaving today.”
“Already? How are you getting up there?”
Sara shrugged. “Greyhound. I don’t have much luggage. Don’t need much.”
“It’ll be a lot easier in a car,” said Tracy, who then sang, “Start spreading the news…”
“Really? You’re ready?”
“No. You’ll help me drive, though, right? And what about crime? Are we going to get mugged?”
Sara laughed. “We might. Still better than this place.”
They arrived at the bank. Tracy sat in the car while Sara went inside. She came back a few minutes later in a nearly catatonic state.
“What?” said Tracy.
Sara just stared straight ahead, her brow furrowed and her mouth down.
“It’s all gone,” she said. “My account. It’s all gone.”
Even with the late spring days, it was almost dark again by the time Robert woke up.
Oh, he had stirred a few times. The phone rang once or twice. He had to use the bathroom. His mouth was parched. But nothing was worth moving for, he told himself.
Crack itself was certainly not a healthy drug, but the after-effects were brief. The craving and the twitching wore off after an hour.
What Robert hated was all the rumination afterward. Why even get up from bed? He was old. His wife was dead. Most of his family wanted nothing to do with him.
He finally crawled out of bed when a nasty headache plunged a nail into his skull. He went into the kitchen and drank some lukewarm sink water. In his peripheral vision he saw Sara at the dining room table.
The adult thing to do — and Robert had been an adult for almost 50 years — would have been to sit down with her and apologize. But instead he turned around and started walking back to bed.
“Grandpa,” she said.
He stopped and turned towards her. She didn’t look mad. She had various papers spread out in front of her on the table.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“You’re an adult, grandpa. I’m at peace with whatever you want to do. But grandpa?” She held up her ATM card.
Oh no, thought Robert. All those fantastic plans he’d concocted while high to return her money — they never materialized. But he figured he had at least another week before she would notice, by which time his Social Security check would arrive and he could replace it…
“It’s OK,” she said. “I just wanted to know. I wanted to make sure it was you and not some hacker.”
“I’ll pay you back.”
Sara made a sympathetic, patronizing expression. “I know you will. Believe it or not, it’s not that important.”
Robert opened the cabinet under the kitchen sink. He got down on his knees and dug around inside it, moving aside miscellaneous bottles and cleaners.
“It’s not OK,” he said. “But hopefully this helps a little bit.”
He reached far inside and pulled out a brown envelope. Inside it was about $300. He hesitated giving it to her, even though it was her money. The addict’s voice in his head whispered that he would need cash for tonight’s fix, so maybe he should palm a twenty and make sure that he could buy more —
“Here,” he said. “That’s only $300. Less than half. I’ll pay the rest back.”
Sara was about to hug him when the house shook as someone pounded on the door.
“I know you’re in there,” said a voice. It was Bruce.
“I’m calling the cops,” said Sara, but Robert stopped her.
“Just stay quiet,” he said. “I’ll deal with him. He’s harmless — “
The knocking stopped, followed by the clinking sound of a lock being picked. The door flew open and Bruce, clad in his hustler attire, strode inside.
He didn’t look harmless to Sara. He was skinny but long-limbed and muscular. He pointed a knife at Robert.
“Well?” he said. “You think you can rip me off?”
“It’s coming,” said Robert. “I told you I would pay you.”
“Too late for that. I’m gonna take a piece of your earlobe. For collaterall.”
Three steps and he had Robert by the front of his shirt. He pulled him close like he was going to kiss him. Instead he put the gleaming blade up to his face.
“It’s not like you were stealing food, old man,” he said. “You want to play but you don’t want to pay. So this is what happens.” He pressed the knife against Robert’s cheek. Instantly, a line of blood leaked from his skin.
“Stop!” said Sara. Bruce turned towards her.
She held out the brown envelope. Bruce looked back and forth between the two of them for a moment, then pushed Robert against a wall, where he crumpled.
Bruce snatched the envelope, looked inside it, and laughed. “Well holy shit,” he said. “You even threw in extra for interest.”
He walked to the front doorway, then turned around. He dug in his pocket for a moment before pulling out a small bag of crack.
“Just to prove I’m not unreasonable,” he said, then tossed the bag onto the floor. “It’s just business. Nothing personal.” He patted the envelope now bulging from his back pocket, laughed again, and left.
Sara went to Robert. She clutched him while he sat on the floor. He reaked of body odor. She felt his bones under his shirt. She hugged him tighter and realized he was sobbing.
“I’m sorry,” he said, repeating it several times. “I was just so lonely.”
Sara held him. “I love you, grandpa.”
She got up and shut the door like a skittish cat, unsure if anyone else was going to burst in and threaten to cut off body parts.
“I’m going to call an ambulance,” she said. “Just to make sure.”
Robert ignored her. He was focused on the bag of crack by Sara’s feet.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said. She backed away from it. “Does it — does it really make you feel better?”
Robert shook his head. “Maybe for a minute. Five minutes, tops. But then I feel worse.”
He tried to stand but couldn’t. Sara pleaded with him to be still but he insisted on rising, so she went to him and helped pull him up.
He grabbed the bag of crack, hurried to the bathroom, and flushed it down the toilet. He did it quickly to outrun the demon in his head that begged him for just one more hit.
He had not wanted Sara to call an ambulance but apparently she did. After a few minutes they heard the siren.
He didn’t want to go but felt he owed it to his granddaughter. As paramedics checked his vital signs and helped him to their vehicle, he tried to remember the last time someone had nagged him into doing something for the interest of his health.
It had been Helen, his wife. She was reclined on a hospital bed and scolding Robert for eating the clay-like chocolate pudding that had come with her meal.
“Too much sugar,” she said. Her voice was still strong. There was still some time to go before they started the intravenous morphine.
“But it’s so good,” he said. He opened his mouth and revealed a morass of chocolately goo.
“Gross!” Helen laughed and chucked the TV remote at him, which Robert dodged gingerly.
The ambulence closed its doors and left for the hospital.
The Lincoln drove like a boat, turning widely down Triumph’s pot-holed streets, sending a wake of asphalt to the curb. Despite its awkward handling, its excellent shocks and interior made for a smooth ride. At stop lights, Sara ran her hand over the faux-leather bench seats that were only now beginning to spits tuffs of cotton.
She pulled into the driveway, almost clipping the mailbox as she did so. On the seat next to her was a bag of her grandpa’s clothes, the same ones he wore when he went with the ambulance and the same ones he had on when they admitted him to rehab. She held them with her fingertips like they were radioactive and dumped them in the trash can. If he asked for him later, she’d feign ignorance.
Inside, a blinking light on the answering machine indicated two messages. The first was from Tracy. She reminded her of their promise, made only the other night, that New York was still the goal and if it takes another year, so be it. Also, was grandpa’s house now available for parties?
The second message was silent for a few seconds. Sara’s gut sank as she thought it was Bruce again but it wasn’t. Jesse finally spoke up, his voice weak and pitiful.
“Baby,” he said, sniffling, “I’m so sorry. I made a big mistake. She dumped me already. I need you back.”
The contrast between her feelings for Jesse two weeks prior and her feelings for him now was a bit alarming. That she could suddenly not care about someone she once “loved” made her think about the transience of emotions and, therefore, the human experience in general.
Then again, he had always been a shithead. She hated to admit it, but it used to make her want him more.
She deleted the phone messages and turned on the ancient computer. She started drafting an email to her mother but couldn’t finish. Later, she told herself.
She opened a word processing program and started a new file. She closed her eyes for a few minutes, not thinking but not resting. Words began to fill her head. She raced her fingers over the keyboard, writing everything down as it came to her.
Act I, Scene I
Setting: William’s house
William comes in from a cold, windy night. His nose feels frozen and he’s bent over, clutching his hip. Still, he moves fast. He has his bag of nightly escape and he can’t wait to smoke it.
Suddenly, just as he’s about to light his pipe, there’s a knock at the door. He peers through the blinds and sees a young woman hugging herself in an attempt to stay warm.
He ignores her…
Thanks for reading, everyone! I would love to write more stories like this and sequels to my most popular nosleep/reddit stories. Some donations would really help me finish them sooner!