By Yvonne Harbison
Jack Collins had never been much for worldly possessions, so he had raided his parents’ storage shed for everything he thought he might need to survive. What he now owned was roughly thirty years out of date, but mostly operational. If he figured out how to use the blender enough to break it, he would consider replacing it. Until then, he didn’t mind; some things were timeless, and the seventies had put out some great music just to prove it.
The last box from storage was half empty and accordingly tossed up onto the top of the stack that lined the kitchen wall. Or at least it was supposed to be a kitchen. Eventually it would be. Right now it was a storage unit with a fridge, stove, and cupboard space. The yellowed dome glow seemed particularly dull when splashed over mothballed cardboard. A stab at the switch killed the light as he left the room. He ended up in the larger living room where it was brighter, had a view, but was still just as empty. The threadbare couch kicked up dusty protest when he sat down.
“I need a new couch,” he informed the silent room. He also needed a TV or a stereo, just so he could talk to himself out loud without feeling like a freak.
For the first time in his life, he had to worry about larger things, like seven hundred dollars a month in rent – garbage and water paid – and who knew how much in food. He was used to junk food and fast food and stolen food, so the details of budgeting were still a little vague.
The young man picked up the newspaper filched from a house at the end of the block – their fault for letting them stack up – and flipped to the Want-Ads. Jack wanted a job. A real job. Day-in, day-out spent doing the same boring thing, predictably, with a predictable pay-check at the end of the week. He wanted real work, real money, including real taxes and all the gouging. It was new, infinitely normal. And somewhere in that paper, he told himself, it was just waiting for him.
“Hey, I heard you’re hiring?”
“I’m not. I just fix cars.”
The grease monkey’s perfect deadpan gave Jack pause. He decided to wait out the joke and the quiet dragged on. Awkward. He shoved his hands in his pockets and started to step back out of the garage again. “My mistake.”
That’s when the guy under the hood of the Mariner looked back at him, half-toothless smile in place. He bobbed his head at Jack. “Yeah, we’re hiring here. Boss is back in a few, go wait out in the lobby.”
Sitting in a little plastic chair, waiting his turn, Jack felt out of place. He fidgeted, tapped his foot, looked around. The shiny SUV was still parked in the shop with the hood up so he could see the parts. He had worked on his parents’ cars since he was eight years old, a Toyota and a Ford, and now he drove an ancient Chevy. He knew cars inside and out, driving, hot-wiring, fixing. But that big rig up on blocks had parts he hadn’t seen before. It ran the same, but it was different. Curiosity flared even as caution settled. He was a long way from being able to afford school, but his hands itched to go prod into that foreign looking engine. Maybe he should have tried that contractor back on fifth and Laurel instead; hammers never changed.
Fighting the morning drudges, his eyes scratching like sandpaper, Jack remembered why he preferred life on the road to being a working schmuck; hotel rooms didn’t kick him out of bed until at least ten-thirty in the morning. He was used to no one caring where he went or how he spent his time. He never had to check in with a boss before or worry at all about fitting in with new people. Growing up on the road with his family, there had even been days he woke up in a different city than he had fallen asleep in.
Now his shifts started at eight AM. His alarm clock kept inching its way closer to the time he was supposed to be at the garage and further from the seven-thirty he had originally set it for. It felt like he stepped into someone else’s life every morning. Normally the feeling faded away by noon, when he would usually have been awake, but it still caught him by surprise when he walked around the same apartment every night.
“I hate mornings,” he informed his reflection. Somehow, the face that looked back at him was a damned bit more awake than he felt. The job was probably to blame for it, or maybe the regular meals that didn’t come from a paper sack lined with artery-clogging oil. The pizza he had bought last night called to him from the refrigerator, because pizza was supposed to be eaten cold and the day after it had been cooked. Jack splashed water on his face and shuffled off to find breakfast. He had just enough time before he would have to head out for work. If he drove, he would be late because of traffic. Instead, he would run. It was close enough, and nobody ever complained about a sweat-soaked mechanic changing the oil in a stifling hot garage. Just another day of the normal that Jack was slowly getting used to.
He stopped on the way to the kitchen, his attention caught by an alcove shelf built into the wall. He had a single picture frame in it, the frame was new but the picture was old. It was folded and faded. He had seen it a thousand times and only bought the frame to try to preserve it, save it from the various folds and wearing of his wallet.
A happy family stared out at him, packed close together in the center of the picture so more of the background made it into the shot. Behind them crowded the rocky formations and trees and rolling hills of the Lower Falls in Yellowstone National Park, the sights of a family vacation back before the world went sideways on them. It showed his mom, his dad, his little sister and him, all looking happy and normal. Jack stared at his younger self, remembered all the hopes and dreams that he had harbored as a fourteen year old kid. They disappeared a few months after that photo was taken.
Jack poked at the glass over his little sister’s pink little face. Six in the photo, she had insisted on taking her princess costume along for the camping trip and she wore it almost every day that week. It was looking a little tired by the time they had found someone to take a picture of all of them, but still sequins survived enough to sparkle in the picture, bringing the waterfall mist forward with more tiny rainbows on her dress and Dad’s shirt as he held her still for the picture.
Jack felt the pang of loss as he studied the picture. They were all gone now, his parents dead and his sister wherever she had ended up. He had left Angie with their aunt after their dad died, hoping to go find his own way so that she would find hers. Anything to keep them both from turning into their parents.
He only had the one picture of them all and since putting it behind glass, he hadn’t really looked at it, left it forgotten on the shelf he passed by every morning. There was a month-old layer of dust around the frame, he noticed for the first time, and also for the first time, he noticed finger smudges in the dust. Like someone had grabbed the frame and picked it up.
Jack stared at the tiny faces in the old photo, tried to hold back the creeping paranoia. Rather than clean the smudges, Jack picked up the frame – careful not to otherwise disturb the dust – and carried it with him to the kitchen. He hung it on a painted-over nail in the wall where it would be harder to notice any dust.
The blonde caught his attention. They usually did. He had developed the impulse to hide from ghosts over the years since his mother had died. This ghost was tall and too young, flirting with Sam at the front desk. Almost-familiar laughter echoed out into the shop, dragged Jack out from under the beat-up Impala he was elbow deep in. Wiping his hands on a towel, he edged into the lobby in time to see the young woman hand a credit card across the counter. A gold one. Sam thankfully floundered. He was new a week ago and not too fast on the upswing. College-boy didn’t know how to run the card reader.
“I got this,” said Jack. He jerked his head toward the shop in a not-so-subtle hint for Sam to clear out. The kid was the only guy in the shop that Jack could pull rank on; so far it worked every time. The credit card was passed over to Jack.
“She’s in bay six,” said Sam. Then he was gone. Jack frowned and looked to the computer screen, saw the ticket for bay six. When he was satisfied his co-worker was nosed into another propped-up car, Jack handed the blonde customer her card back without scanning it; the name on the front of it wouldn’t match any ID in the purse crouching on the counter so he didn’t bother to ask.
“You can pay for this,” said Jack.
“I am,” she said. Jack stared at her. No longer trying to win-over the cashier, her stubborn offense faded. She was hardly out of her teens and about as threatening as a kitten. Slender shoulders lifted and fell, her long ponytail bobbing. “Fine. You pick it up then,” she said.
Jack scowled as he fished out his wallet. If it had been anybody but his sister, he would have called the cops for the badly-performed fraud. “I work here. Don’t go causing trouble if you’re going to come around, Angie.”
“I know you work here. I know where you live, too. Figured I’d come round for dinner if I didn’t see you here,” Angie said.
That caught his attention. Jack hadn’t exactly advertised his address. He definitely hadn’t told his little sister where to find him. She shook a finger at him.
“I found you, man. Me. If I could find you, don’t you think They could?”
Jack rolled his eyes, frustration mounting. He got a little rough on the register as he shoved his own money into the drawer to cover his sister’s tune-up.
“Dad’s dead. They aren’t after us.”
“Yes they are,” she said. Her tone promised that she wasn’t just positive, she was convinced by hard facts she would just love to lay out for him. “They don’t give up just because somebody dies. Targets die all the time. And Dad didn’t die.”
She was crazy. Jack had never known just how far gone his family was somehow, until that moment, surrounded by the relative normal of the shop, where no one knew or cared about who was out there watching them. The last thing any of the guys would understand was an alphabet soup of cover-up conspiracies. Crazies like that in his family were sure to get him canned if she started yelling fire in the middle of the lobby.
“I’m at work. Don’t…”
“He was killed, Jack. That’s not dying,” Angie said. Jack shook his head as she started warming up her argument. He punched a few keys and refused to look at her.
“They’ll bring out your keys when they’re done with the car.”
“Jack! You know I’m right!”
“Since I paid, I’m keeping the receipt.” If he ignored the crazy, it would go away. Transaction completed, Jack started logging off the computer to keep his sister from getting any bright ideas about borrowing it. She slapped her hand on the counter in front of him and he had to look up at her again.
“Don’t tell me you’re just going to ignore the facts.”
“Look, Angie. Dad died. As far as I care, the crazy died with him.”
He cringed at the way her voice had raised. If that kept up, someone from the shop was sure to hear, even over the radio. “We’ll talk about it later, okay? Just go away. I’m at work.”
“I’m waiting for my car.” It wasn’t surprising to see the princess regally cross her arms and glare down her pointy little upturned nose at him. Jack shrugged it off.
“Fine. Keep your mouth shut and sit down over there. And stop chatting up the guys. They’re too old for you.”
“Sit!” Jack pointed toward the plastic chairs, anger finally slipping out. The teenager – seventeen, to be exact – huffed and slouched away to a corner to wait for her keys. Jack moved back to the garage, checking on bay six without letting his sister catch him at it. It was up on hydraulics, oil being changed as part of the tune-up special. Jack couldn’t help it, caught himself running his own system-check on the car. He didn’t recognize it, knew it was probably stolen. If she had picked up what their aunt had trained into him, his baby sister could clone a VIN in under two hours. The car was nothing flashy, just an old Nissan with a bad paint job; it would fall through the cracks until she was done with it.
The methodical examination stopped when Jack spotted fluid along the brake line. It could have been anything; just a spill from one of the guys working on something else. Or it could be bad. Jack wouldn’t let himself find out. He caught Sam and pointed it out silently. The kid’s eyes bugged.
Jack left the barely caught problem to Sam to fully investigate. Despite a lifetime of preaching from his parents, Jack figured he could count on a mechanic to fix a customer’s car. He returned to bay four and the Impala, his mind distracted by his sister’s presence. The close call with the brake line sat heavy on his shoulders.
That afternoon, when he got home, Angie was parked outside his house waiting for him when Jack walked up to the door. He had to admit he was impressed; he had thought he had covered his trail pretty well when he left, so finding out that she really had tracked him down carried as much pride as it did challenge. He let her follow him inside without a word, tossed his jacket on the couch and headed for the kitchen to grab food. Angie wandered in behind him, made herself at home, touching the walls and the sparse furniture and judging the hell out of him. Even with his head in the refrigerator, he could hear her thinking. She finally made her way to the kitchen.
“You got a new couch,” was all she had to say apparently. Jack shrugged and replaced the milk carton he had just been drinking out of.
“I got tired of the spiders crawling out.”
“It’s not like it was used ever.”
“Once a year.” The family had, once upon a yesteryear, gone home for Christmases to an empty house, off the grid. Empty of everything but furniture, books and toys. It was no different from their usual bouncing around hotels and campsites, but Jack remembered that house as home. He thought it had belonged to their grandparents on somebody’s side, but he couldn’t remember any more. The curse of being born first was that his sister didn’t seem to care. Jack wondered if it was even still there. They hadn’t been back to the house since the year after their mother had died.
“You need to get over that,” said his sister. He looked over at her, openly confused by her observation.
“Mom. That house.”
His happy reverie interrupted, Jack shut the refrigerator and started busying himself with putting together some kind of dinner. He hadn’t expected to cook for two so she would be stuck with whatever he could find. “Angie, I swear, I’m going to have you locked up.”
“Mom didn’t die. She was kidnapped. That’s why we can’t go back to that house or they’ll get us too.”
The familiar line of paranoia had come directly from their father. What he had never seemed to understand, and what Jack figured his sister never would catch on to was that a person didn’t survive a three-hundred-foot nose-dive off a cliff in a car. There wouldn’t have been any pieces left to kidnap once the engine exploded. Jack could still see the fireball that had been kicked up by his mom’s car hitting the exposed gas line that ran down the ravine to the housing development at the other end of it.
He had been a teenager then. They had been only a few cars behind her when her brakes had failed, sent her careening off the cliff. Jack and his dad had been first on the scene. Somehow the eight-year old Angie had slept through the entire thing in the backseat of their car. She pretty much hadn’t woken up since, always arguing the bullshit Dad had taught her instead of opening her eyes.
Blood pressure slowly on the rise, Jack chopped a tomato in half as his sister prattled on about kidnappings and conspiracies. The fruit was hardly recognizable as she pushed him slowly toward the edge.
That was his breaking point and he was either going to kick her out or start shouting like a lunatic if he let her keep on rambling. He slammed the knife on to the counter before something was chopped that he didn’t mean to. “You get that Dad’s dead, right? You left his body in the morgue. He’s not curled up taking a nap in the trunk.”
“Dad’s ashes are in the trunk.”
Okay, that wasn’t normal. Jack seemed to freeze, staring at his little sister with his mouth collecting flies. Angie gave him the princess-look and told him he was being a moron.
“What else was I supposed to do with them?” she asked.
“Scatter them? Bury them. Anything.”
“That’s what I was going to do, genius. You gotta get a permit to scatter them where Dad wanted.”
“What? Where?” Jack had to challenge the lie; Angie getting a permit was bullshit in verbal form. They had never paid attention to permits when their father was alive, whether hunting, camping, or double parking. Why would they start now? Angie didn’t seem to notice, confused Jack by offering up her most sincere expression, the one that she reserved for those times she thought he was an idiot.
“Yellowstone. He heard they had wolves,” Angie said. Jack was surprised that she had thought it out. He had been certain her teenaged brain had done something crazy, but finding out she had actually been thinking of their father’s wishes shook his confidence. Angie didn’t seem to notice and carried on. She said, “I wanted you to come with me. To take care of Dad, I mean.”
Jack had to process that. He had to weigh it out against his life, or whatever it was he was trying to build. If he left work to cross the few hundred miles to Yellowstone, the garage would find someone else to take his place. He would lose the apartment and everything in it without a job. Angie didn’t like it when he pointed out the logic to her. The concept of a real life made no sense to her. Not that Jack could blame her, because it was all still new to him, but he was at least determined to figure it out.
Angie argued and argued, around and around in circles, with their dinner forgotten on the counter behind her brother. She poked at his life, mocked his empty apartment, his playing house by himself, called him names, waved her arms and stamped her foot. Jack’s temper held, out of pure resignation; the teen was a force of nature and when she set her mind on something, she got it, or she left a tornado in her wake.
This was why he had left in the first place. If he didn’t get around her, she would cause as much hell as it took to get her way. He let her wear herself out, arms crossed and jaw set as he let the words flow over him, annoying and rankling and insulting. The benefit of being older was remembering what it was like to be seventeen, reminding himself that she didn’t even really know what she was saying.
“Jack! It’s our dad! You won’t even help me with this for him?”
“I’ll help, Angie. But Dad’s dead. He’s not worried about how long it takes me to get a few days of time off to drive to Yellowstone. You can stay here until then, alright? Not like you have anywhere else to be. I’ll take the couch.”
It took a little more haggling, but Jack managed to talk her into the idea. They settled down to dinner peaceably enough. He distracted Angie, asked where she had been the past few months since Dad’s death, what she had been doing. She had been all over, she said, new places, new people. She liked the coast and had made some real cash one weekend, honest labor by the shore selling sea glass and shells to tourists out of a lean-to some squatters had built on the water.
It was a drastic change from the hustling and stealing they had grown up on, and she had done it on her own; Jack was proud of her for it, even if it only lasted one weekend to the few months that he had managed alone. Angie settled down after their meal, even volunteered to do the dishes. She seemed to have fallen in love with the dishwasher, which Jack somehow thought to be a good sign.
He took the couch, like he promised, and her car was still in the driveway in the morning, like she promised. A raccoon thumped onto the roof in the middle of the night, staggered around drunk and made a racket. Her screaming fit told him she would never forgive Jack for the existence of the neighborhood raccoon, but she was still there in the morning.
The next day, Jack took Angie to work with him, rather than let her burn down his rental prattling around on her own. And he thought it would be a good idea to get a step ahead of her, in case she decided to go around him and force him to leave. He hoped by introducing them, he could keep his boss on his side if she went around plying her con-artist trade. He didn’t trust her to play as nicely as she had said she would.
The guys at the shop loved the teenager’s energy. She flirted with most of them and won points by knowing a thing or two about cars yet still let them show her how to properly wield a wrench. To his shock and his sister’s absolute joy, when he asked his boss for the time off, it was granted. Angie looked like she was happy enough to have kissed the old man there in the middle of the shop floor. She was less enthusiastic about having to wait a week to let the schedules be rearranged, but she seemed accepting of the plan.
She was still high on the success of her mission, bouncing along beside Jack as they walked home for lunch. The whole reason she had come to find him, she said, was to get him back on the road, to take one last road trip with him and Dad. If he didn’t keep his word and they didn’t leave in a week, she would have to resort to drastic measures. Jack just shook his head and smiled as she confessed to it.
Angie’s joy seemed to die once they got home. Jack was just tossing his jacket on to the couch when he noticed her crouching in front of the bedroom door – the bedroom that she had previously claimed for the next week. She picked up a piece of string from the floor in front of the closed door. Her face had gone white. Jack tried to shrug it off.
“The cleaning lady doesn’t get here until Tuesday.”
Angie didn’t rise to the bait, the joke falling flat in the sudden silence of the room. The longer Jack waited for the explanation, the more he figured he didn’t need one, but he didn’t like the way his mind had filled in the blank.
He had spent the past few months not looking over his shoulder, not letting himself wonder at the odd misplaced set of keys or fingerprint smudge on the window sills. The guys at the garage didn’t worry about that stuff, so he didn’t let himself think about them either. His rented home was his safe zone. Angie had never stopped worrying, though, still clung to the way their parents had brought them up. Now there she was, in his space, getting scared about something he could only guess at.
“What?” he asked finally.
“I put this up here,” said Angie. She held the string up near the door-knob to the room she had been about to enter. It was the basic alarm system their parents had taught them so early on. Long-honed paranoia crept on Jack, fueled by Angie’s apparent certainty. First the photo frame, then his sister’s car, the noise on the roof that morning, and now a tripped warning inside his house.
Jack looked around the barren apartment. Nothing looked out of place, aside from the pile of blankets and pillows on the couch where he had slept.
“The A/C probably knocked it down, Ange. Forget it.” Jack wished it was as easy as he had tried to make it sound. His wide-eyed sister backed away from the door. Her intent was clear; as far as she was concerned now, the whole place was poison. Jack herded her toward the kitchen to check that room out as well. All that waited for them there was a pile of dirty breakfast dishes. The photo on the wall caught his attention. The two faces of his parents looming over the shoulders of a younger version of himself, and the pint-sized little girl that would forever be his little sister in that Halloween’s princess costume, now stared back at him. Ghosts with a warning.
“I’m leaving,” said Angie.
“Yeah, get your stuff,” said Jack. He pulled the photo off the wall before following her from the room. He met her at the door with his jacket over his arm and car keys in hand. “We’re taking my car.”
All original work copyright Yvonne Harbison 2010 – 2020