October, 2016 — Ann Arbor, Michigan
This late in the year the sun doesn’t come up until seven, an hour after the end of Bill Geisler’s shift at the Comerica Building. He hasn’t bothered to ask about extending his hours further. It was hard enough convincing the building management to give him a shift-and-a-half at night, from six in the evening to six in the morning. If he tells them he wants to extend it from sunset to sunrise—well, then they’ll quit wondering about their night watchman and know that he’s a crazy old man. Anyway, Shawn who relieves him in the morning needs the work. Everybody needs work lately, and younger people need it most.
Bill walks around the big glassed-in entry area, checking doors. When Shawn shows up they talk for a minute so Bill can report that there’s been no trouble aside from a leaking faucet that Mrs. Bickel reported on the 3rd floor, and then Geisler walks out into the chill October predawn air.
He has evolved a nice routine for the dark months of the year. Half a block east on Huron, then south on Main Street. Past the old art galleries and coffee shops that have been shuttered or turned into second-hand stores and soup kitchens. Past the guys who are already starting to set up their sidewalk carts, starting kerosene burners to heat up pastries or, now that it’s autumn, roast chestnuts. One of the chestnut guys, a man as old as Geisler, has a sign up that says All Organic, Wild-Gathered Chestnuts, making a virtue out of a necessity. Bill nods to some of the people he has come to know by sight over the years, but he never stops to talk on the street.
Two blocks south, one block east on Liberty, and there’s the Cloverleaf. Geisler pushes open the door on the familiar breakfast-smells. Breakfast for dinner at the end of his inverted workday.
“Hi, Bill! How’s it going?” Kwan waves at Bill from the back, and Bill gives him a smile and nod. Darkness or not, this is the best point of Bill’s day. He ambles to his usual spot—a booth in the back that lets him see out both windowed walls of the little diner—and there his breakfast is waiting as it is every day: an egg, a slice of dry toast, two strips of bacon, hash browns, a small orange juice, and a cup of the nastiest coffee in town. Geisler can remember when a breakfast like that would not have seemed in the least unusual, but by recent standards it’s a feast.
There are other customers, some regulars who nod at him as he walks back to his reserved booth, some who are new. There are always drifters, lately: a fact he can’t help noticing. Old policeman’s training showing through. They might give him a glance, with his night watchman’s uniform showing from under the long coat, but no more than that. People mostly keep to themselves now.
It’s Friday, so Geisler slips the two coins he’s carrying from his overcoat pocket as he takes it off. He hangs up his coat carefully, making sure that only its outside is visible from the other tables. Sitting down, he picks up the white paper napkin and, under cover of the tabletop, folds his coins into it before putting the discrete little package back next to his knife and fork. The coins are two old silver half dollars, to cover the $250 that Kwan would charge for Geisler’s five breakfasts next week if he were to pay with cash.
A year ago, after some arguments, he managed to convince Kwan to let him start paying for the week ahead rather than the week just past. He knows that it helps the restaurant to have some hard money to buy supplies with for the coming week. Prices are just starting to change too fast now if you only have cash. Sometimes you can see the difference between one week and the next. And it’s not like Geisler needs it for much else.
Kwan walks over, wiping his hands on his apron, and shakes hands with Geisler. He shakes hands every time they meet. As he seats himself in the booth’s other bench, Kwan takes the napkin and tucks the coins into a pocket.
“Hey, Bill,” he says, “you hear about this new FC base in Korea? On Jeju Island?”
“No, sorry,” Geisler says. “I don’t keep up with the news much.” At least not that kind of news. If Kwan could see the kind of searches Bill Geisler does for news, he probably wouldn’t be so happy to know the man.
“Ah, yes. No-TV Bill!” Kwan smiles like his old buddy Bill is joking. He cannot imagine to what extent a man whom he sees every weekday might live in a completely different world than the one he knows.
While Geisler eats, Kwan tells him about the new base that Foreign Command is building on this Jeju place, which is apparently just fifty or sixty miles south of where his sister lives on the Korean mainland. Kwan has to get up when a new customer comes in and again when another one leaves, but he keeps coming back to ask Bill what he thinks the FC is going to do with this base, and whether he thinks there might be war. Kwan apparently thinks that all uniforms are to some extent interchangeable, and since Bill was once a policeman he ought to know something about the military.
Unfortunately for Kwan’s peace of mind, it seems pretty obvious to Bill—in spite of his complete lack of interest in world news—that even the Congress, the Pentagon, and the President don’t have the slightest idea of what the so-called US Foreign Command is up to anymore. Created after the War, already six years ago now, the FC essentially governs more than half the Earth. It’s becoming clear that, while their mission may be to protect the United States from another War, they are not very interested in being told how to do their job by the civilian authorities in the old mother country.
“But you think they want to fight China?” Kwan asks. “Or North China, or whatever? Then the fallout will hit Korea, won’t it?”
“Kwan,” Bill says, eating the last bit of his toast, “if the FC decides to take care of the rest of China—and I guess that would mean taking on the Russians too, whatever’s left of them—where do you think it would be safe for your sister to be? The Moon? I hear they got a place up there now.”
Kwan laughs, thinking that Bill is making a joke again.
Stepping outside afterwards, Geisler realizes why it has gradually become so hard for him to pay attention or even pretend any interest in ‘world events’ like Kwan does. Even the War six years ago barely made an impression. None of the things that has seemed real to Geisler for thirty years now. All of that stuff seems like news from a pretend world now, like simple stories you would tell to kids and pretend it was real.
He didn’t mind talking to Kwan, though, because it made him eat his breakfast more slowly, and now the eastern sky is finally brightening.
He turns north on Fourth Ave, and starts walking the two blocks back up to Huron Street, and the Embassy Hotel—just a block and a half east of where he started at the Comerica Building forty-five minutes ago.
The world that William Geisler has inhabited since his forced ‘retirement’ nearly thirty years ago has gradually eroded until it now consists of six city blocks. Why then does it still feel terrifyingly larger than the daylight world inhabited by people like Kwan? Their world of economies and armies, TV news and nations at war—the whole children’s world of stories and make-believe. They’re not all happy stories, of course, but the scary parts are only there to make the overall effect more convincing. Outside the brightly-painted backdrops of that simple make-believe world there exists a vast and dark reality, from which the merest gust of wind, leaking through the carefully constructed barricades of normalcy, can blow a man’s life away. Or leave him wishing that it had.
Bill uses his key to open the Embassy Hotel’s front entrance, and walks up the creaking stairs to the third floor.
The Embassy is a small place, has been in operation apparently since the dawn of time, and has never been mistaken by any of its inhabitants nor by casual passers-by for a venue possessing the least shred of elegance or sophistication. There are only three rooms on the top floor in which the wiring and plumbing still function. Geisler rents two of them, with a wall removed in between to make it a “suite” of six hundred square feet. He also pays the landlord a little extra, sometimes in money and sometimes in trade, to make sure that the other room on his floor stays empty. As though the guy would ever be able to rent it.
Bill supposes that he could use that third room or either of the other non-functional ones on this floor for storage, if he had enough possessions to require it. But he’s never really acquired much stuff that takes any space. At the age of fifty-seven everything that Geisler owns would fit into two large trunks, and he would be perfectly happy to leave one of them behind. Either one.
It’s still dark in the hall as he approaches his door. Goddamn bulb is out again at the end of the hall, and no matter how many times he bitches about it to Peraza, the building manager, it always takes the man weeks to fix it. What the hell, does the bastard buy them used? Bill resolves to go find some bulbs of his own, maybe even splurge on one of the new LED bulbs, so that the damn thing will just never burn out again.
He hates this time of year, when the nights start getting long. And it’ll still be getting worse for another two months. He has to feel for the keyhole in his door, but he’s had plenty of practice.
And just as he finds the keyhole, there is a sound. It’s a sound from the nightmare that is always playing in the back of his mind: the creak of a floorboard at the dark end of the hall.
Geisler’s right hand jerks away from the door as though from an electric shock, throwing the keys against the wall behind him. Before they come to rest on the floor he has the Glock out of its holster inside his coat, and pointing toward the dark end of the hall.
In the dim light, even as his left hand is grabbing the tactical flashlight from its pocket, he sees a flicker of soundless movement.
The thing moves more quickly than thought, more quickly than light.
He fumbles the flashlight, grabs the pistol with both hands, and fires.
He squeezes the trigger five times before he realizes that nothing is happening because the fucking safety is on!
Stepping backward as he tries to thumb the safety off, he steps on the flashlight and goes down hard on his ass. Scrambles sideways to get faced down the hall again. A flash of movement, too close and too fast to react. And—too low? Can the thing somehow—
It’s a cat.
One of Peraza’s cats dashes past him, another one of the old floor boards creaking under even its slight weight as it bounds away.
Trembling, Geisler puts the pistol on the hallway floor, knowing beyond doubt that if he tries to holster it he’ll probably shoot himself. He feels for the flashlight, and turns it on. The hallway is empty from end to end. Leaving the brilliant little light on, he sets it down next to the weapon and massages his face with one hand, breathing like a distance runner, his old heart hammering in his chest.
I blew it. It would have had me. I would have died.
He stays there for quite a while, just breathing.