Thursday, May 28, 2009

Chapter One

Eric could smell the smoke in the air as he woke. The apartment's previous tenant must have been at least a three-pack a day man, and the bargain-basement carpet shampooer the landlord had rented to clean the place out had done little to neutralize the thick smell of nicotine. For Eric, who was still trying to quit, the smell was maddening.

Still, though, a part of him was grateful for the smell. In the hotel he'd lived in for the first month in the city, he'd woken every morning with disorientation and dread. It got so the feeling of not knowing where he was became familiar to him -- that the disorientation was expected and almost comforting. He knew that, for the sake of his own mental health, he needed to find a more permanent living situation and do it quickly.

Hence, the crappy one-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of an ancient building in what the landlord assured him was a "revitalized" neighborhood. Disorientation and dread each morning had been replaced by need and bitterness, which of course wasn't pleasant, but Eric preferred it to the alternative.

As he rose from the thrift-store-quality twin bed and stretched out his arms -- his shoulder had decided to lock up on him again in his sleep -- Eric willed himself not to go straight to the emergency half-pack of Camel Lights that was singing to him from the top drawer in his tiny kitchen. Instead, he tried to preoccupy himself with getting ready for work.

Shower and shave. Eric still hadn't quite gotten used to the shaving bit -- up until very recently, he'd taken a great amount of pride in his facial hair, which he'd had in some form or another since graduating high school more than fifteen years before. Clean-shaven Eric still looked strange to him, peering back at him from the mirror and wearing a confused look as if to say, "Yeah, I don't recognize you either, pal."

After the stubble had been raked from his face with a dulling blade, Eric grabbed some clothes that looked fairly clean from the pile next to his bed -- a long-sleeved T-shirt worn under a polo shirt, dark blue jeans, and a pair of socks that still appeared more or less white. He laced his boots and checked the time on his alarm clock -- looked like he'd have time to catch breakfast on the way into the office.

It was already warm outside, like Eric remembered Florida being warm on summer mornings. The damp air made him start sweating under his long sleeves almost immediately, and he wondered how the weather here in the middle of the country could feel almost exactly the same as the weather on the Gulf Coast. He'd expected warm summers, but the humidity? Where was that coming from? Near as he was aware, Nebraska was a land-locked state.

The police cruiser was just driving by as Eric made it out to his car, a slightly worse-for-the-wear 1994 Thunderbird he was still getting used to driving. For the first several weeks, the cruiser and Eric had ignored each other, but nowadays Eric put on a big, goofy grin and waved at the car. Its driver had yet to wave back.

It wasn't as though Eric expected he and the cop to become bestest buddies or anything (he knew it was the same cop every time, as the number on the Douglas County Sheriff's Cruiser was the same every morning), but would it kill the guy to throw a wave? Honk the horn? Flash a grin? Give some indication that, yes, he knew Eric was there and Eric knew the cop was there. Did he actually think he was being subtle?

More likely, Eric thought, was that the guy wanted to be seen. He probably waited every morning just at the end of the block for Eric to pop out of his apartment, then drove by slowly, delivering a none-too-sly "I'm watching you" message. Eric wondered how many crimes were going on while this jackass was sitting at the end of the street idling, waiting to intimidate someone he hadn't even spoken to yet.

Probably not too many crimes, really. Eric had lived in more than one big city in his lifetime, and Omaha struck him as sort of a third-grader's idea of what a big city was like. For the sheer size of it, he had yet to find a single strip club or a bar that stayed open past one in the morning. It was as if someone had taken, for example, Chicago, then thrown out all of the interesting people and Disneyfied whatever was left. All of the "undersirables" in the city seemed to be corralled in the Northeast corner, and the rest of the town was thick with fat, middle-class white families.

It actually reminded Eric of a place that was perpetually stuck in an 80s sitcom. Kids probably still hung out at the fucking *mall* here, for Christ's sake. Even the radio stations were lame, pumping out only the most nonoffensive of the oldies or, worse, the current Top-40 crap. With his first paycheck from his new job, Eric had probably spent more than the car was worth on an in-dash MP3 player, as listening to the censored-by-majority-opinion radio was bound to drive him to drink again.

So, as he started up the once-proud Thunderbird, Eric blared The Exploited's "I Hate Cop Cars" as a none-too-subtle "fuck you" to the Sheriff's Cruiser that was still creeping slowly down the street. He rolled down both of the power windows, amazed that they still worked, and again waved at the cop as he passed him and headed out onto the street.

Work was less than a ten-minute drive away, in the area that Omaha proudly called its Downtown. Two not-very-tall skyscrapers seemed to be the main centerpiece of the area, and the natives that he'd spoken to were actually in awe of the larger one, which had apparently just been constructed a few years before. It stood a pitiful 40 stories high, and looked like it was designed in a Kindergarten art class. Unfortunately, Eric had to see it every day -- he worked just down the street at a much older, more run-down iron-fronted building that seemed much more at home in the area.

Eric parked the Thunderbird in one of the many downtown parking garages, this one a little over a block away from the office. The walk was only brutal in the winter or the dead of summer, and it was now the latter. Trying to think about anything but the fact that the walk from the garage to the office was exactly one cigarette long, Eric stuck to the shadowed side of the street, still sweating slightly as he approached the door to the office.

Security Software Associates, Inc., took up the third floor of the building that Eric guessed had once been a bank headquarters. The company made enterprise-level data-encryption software, and Eric was employed as a base-level software engineer. The job was $18 an hour, 40 hours a week, and painfully boring. Eric was pretty sure he could do the work in his sleep, which, he supposed, wasn't far off from the plugged-into-an-iPod-starting-at-the-screen state he ended up in most days.

There was a small greasy-spoon diner on the first floor of the building, built entirely to cater to the several companies in residence inside. Six tiny formica four-tops crammed the small space, and a long, narrow window afforded every one of those tables a view into the kitchen. During the lunch hour, the place was always packed, but Eric never had a problem finding a table for breakfast. Most of the people in the building tended to show up right at eight, hung-over and with hair that had not yet dried from a quick dash through the shower. Eric had made a habit of showing up just after seven when the place opened -- the diner's single waitress never had to ask for his order anymore, as it was always the same. She just nodded to him as he took a seat and filled his coffee cup, then went off to tell the cook to prepare the two egg whites, dry toast, and hash browns.

He checked a couple of news sites on his phone as he sipped the first of many cups of diesel-grade coffee the day had in store. The @Omaha_dot_com version of the town's local paper didn't have too much of interest, but it rarely did. @cnn had an unintentionally amusing story about the global economic crisis, which pretty much could have been restated as one paragraph repeating "We're all doomed!" Eric vaguely remembered when CNN had reported on interesting things, like science and technology, rather than sensationalizing every bit of celebrity gossip they could get their hands on.

As he plowed into his breakfast, Eric sighed internally. He liked to tell himself that he hadn't always been this cynical, and that recent events had just made him that way. He tried reminding himself that Omaha wasn't such a bad town, really, and that there were plenty of worse places he could have ended up. This, too, was part of his morning ritual, this resigned internal pep-talk. As with most mornings, it failed to work yet again.

The waitress -- she never wore a name tag, and Eric had never asked her name -- was clearing the plates and refilling his coffee cup when Kenny plopped down in the metal-and-plastic faux-50's-diner chair across from Eric. Kenny was the guy at the office who spent more time wandering around trying to be pals with everyone than getting any work done. Though it had been nearly a decade since Eric had last worked in an office, he remembered the type well -- there seemed to be one in every workplace, and they were all, without question, as annoying as fuck.

"Hey, Big E! How's it hangin' this morning, my man?" Kenny gushed, looking for all the world like he still thought he was in the same fraternity house where he'd puked away his college career several years before.

Eric wasn't in the mood for company that morning, but really, he hardly ever was. Gone were the days when Eric could just tell someone like Kenny to fuck off. He remembered those days somewhat fondly now, and how, back then, if such a confrontation got physical, so much the better. It was one of the few (read: many) things Eric missed from his old life.

Eric sighed, wishing he could just deck Kenny right in his stupidly grinning face and knock out some of that expensive, parentally funded dental work. Instead, he forced a smirk.

"Kenny," he replied flatly.

"Toppin' off on the coffee before work, eh? Good plan, man, good plan. Think I'll join you. Darlene, can I get a cup of regular, hon?"

The waitress smiled at Kenny and nodded. For all of the shit he'd just been mentally giving the guy, Eric admitted that at least Kenny had bothered to learn the waitress's name, which put him a couple of rungs up on the sociability ladder from Eric. He knew he'd have to try to be, in some ways, more like Kenny from now on, as painful as that thought was.

"So, Big E. It's already gotta be 90 degrees out, and it's just going to get hotter. What's with all the sleeves, bro?"

Eric had already been asked the same questions several times over the summer, and he couldn't believe his co-workers had nothing better with which to occupy their minds than his wardrobe choices. Sadly, though, he still hadn't managed to come up with a decent response.

"I'm. . . not a big fan of short sleeves, I guess. I get cold easy," he shrugged. Smooth, he thought. You didn't sound like a developmentally challenged child at all, there, Chief.

"Man, I love that they let us wear pretty much whatever we want here. Last place I worked, full suits, every day, no matter how hot it was," Kenny rambled. Darlene filled his coffee cup, and he finally stopped talking long enough to pour some of the beverage into his head.

Eric took a moment to study Kenny's wardrobe du jour -- a pair of pleated khakis and a peach-colored, short-sleeved knit shirt. Was that what he was supposed to be dressing like to fit in? If so, Eric decided that he'd rather be thought of as that quiet, strange guy who never left his cubicle.

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