I forgot where I put my car keys.
Which in and of itself isn't unusual. I'd been forgetting a lot of things lately. Then again, I'm not alone in that.
It manifested in my father first. He came home in his usual foul mood. We heard the door of his Accord slamming in the driveway, the bell on the predatory cat warning us nervous little birds of his approach.
You become one of two people when you grow up around an angry parent. You either end up angry yourself, adopting that same aggressive attitude with the people who care about you, turning their lives into a living hell, or you wind up accommodating the son of a bitch that's terrorizing you, a nonstop "walking on eggshells" charm offensive of Are you okay? and Is everything alright? — constantly trying to placate them so you're not the one they go off on next.
"Goddamnit!" My father Ron shut the front door behind him with a bang.
"Everything okay, Dad?" My little brother, Ronnie Jr., looked up from his dinner. He was in that second category, an appeaser. Though I could hardly criticize him.
So was I.
"No, it's not okay," Dad fumed. "It's crap, is what it is." Raising his arm, he hurled the folded newspaper he was carrying at Ronnie's plate of SpaghettiOs, sending the processed pasta crashing in an ugly orange mess onto the kitchen tile.
"Clean that shit up," Dad shouted to no one in particular as he walked into the kitchen, sliding the family-size bottle of vodka from across the counter where it maintained permanent residence, an always-available staple, like flour or cooking spray. Pouring a large glugging shot into the Fiesta glassware, he plunked in an afterthought of ice from the fridge and took a greedy brooding sip.
"What's wrong, Dad?" I asked. My voice was soft, placating. It was my turn to try and quell the beast. "Didn't your interview go well?"
"It didn't go at all," he said, fortifying himself with another sip.
"What?" I was surprised. This was the interview that was meant to put his seven-month streak of unemployment behind us, perhaps even harken the return of the not-always-so-completely-pissed-off version of our father. "Why? Did they cancel it?"
"Shut up, James."
"Dad?" I was inviting his fury but my curiosity overtook me.
"No, they didn't cancel it." I caught a glance of my father's eyes and realized he wasn't angry at us. Not any more than usual at least. He was angry with himself. His voice descended into a whisper. "I forgot to go."
"What?" I was repeating a question. A scream-able offense.
But my Dad didn't scream. He was too rattled.
"I was sitting at the Starbucks with my coffee," he said, his quiet explanation sounding more like a confession. "And I was going over my resume, asking myself what they might ask me, figuring out what I'd say back to them and…"
"And what?" Ronnie asked, my Dad's troubled pause still hanging in the air.
"I just got in my car and drove away. Decided I was hungry. Went and had lunch. A Wendy's drive-through. Sat in the parking lot in my car and ate a double-cheeseburger." He shook his head, trying and failing to make sense of his actions. "I had this feeling there was something I needed to remember. I tried to remember. I really did. I just...couldn't."
Later that night, I laid in bed, worrying. If there was one quality my father possessed, it was a perfect memory. Names. Anniversaries. Birthdays. How many times had he woken me on my special day to remind me "Well, you've been given another year, and taken one of mine."
He could remember every slight against him, the full name and middle initial of every person who committed it. Time, date, and prevailing wind direction.
Staring at the digital clock in the darkness, mentally counting back the hours until work the next morning, I wondered if maybe there was something wrong with him.
Aside from all the things that already were.
I woke up in a panic. The clock said 9:23, and we were supposed to be at the shop no later than 8:45. I hurried out to the living room, where my dad laid passed out on the couch, and into Ronnie's room.
Ronnie had been working with me at Nautilus Subs for the last three months. I'd started there as an assistant sandwich maker in my sophomore year. I'd impressed them enough with my punctuality and sub-making skills that when an opening came along, they were happy to believe my lies that my little brother was just as hard a worker as me.
He was sprawled in bed, half-submerged inside the blankets. He'd slept that way ever since we were kids and shared both a room and bed together. We lived in a small two-bedroom apartment because my Dad kept getting fired. That was before the police started showing up almost every weekend.
My mom used to tell us we lived in a small place on purpose, so that we could all enjoy being cozy and close. She was always making up silly things like that to rationalize our situation. We were little though, and both adored her, so we happily bought her incredulous explanation.
"Ronnie, we're late."
I shook him from a dead sleep. All that was visible through the tangle of blankets was that stupid star tattoo on his neck. I'd warned him about getting it, telling him the old man would kick his ass, which he did, but Ronnie was unrepentant. Maybe it was his only way of fighting back. Perhaps whatever small measure of satisfaction it gave him was worth the beating.
Slowly waking, Ronnie rolled over, looking me over through groggy eyes. "Late for what?"
"For work, you idiot."
"Work?" He squinted, confused. "Where?"
"Don't be funny. You're in enough trouble with them already."
"Trouble with who?"
"Get up, you jerk. I'm not covering for you again."
"Leave me alone." Ronnie turned over and went back to sleep, immovable.
Screw it, I thought. I had to get going. I needed this job. I was trying to save for college so maybe one day I wouldn't have to crank out endless cheese and salami "Captain Nemo's" for the lunchtime rush. If Ronnie was determined to get fired, I couldn't make excuses for him anymore. Throwing on my jeans, shoes, and "Our Subs are SUB-stancial" T-shirt from the bedpost, I ran to the front door, reaching across the hallway table for the keys to my Tercel.
But they weren't there.
My mind raced. This was not the time to forget where I put them. I tried to retrace my steps from the day before. I started down my mental checklist. Where did I put them last? Where had I been last? What day was it yesterday?
But I couldn't remember.
I glanced up at the hallway clock. Felix the Cat was shifting his eyes and swinging his pendulum tail. It was nearly 9:35. Mom had bought that clock at Target, thinking it was "just so cute." That was the year they'd diagnosed her with cancer. God, that was bad. Cancer of the…shit…what kind of cancer did she die of again?
What was I doing? I didn't have time for this memory lane bullshit. I had to move.
I ran out the door and raced to the end of the street. Seeing the bus coming, I waved it down. Fortunately for me, it stopped.
"Is this bus going downtown?"
The answer was a merciful yes. I paid my fare and made my way along the length of the bus, finding an open seat three rows down.
I turned to see a girl about my age across the aisle and one row back. She was pretty with long brunette hair. She wore a windbreaker over her pom-pom uniform. I could tell by the way she stared that she knew me.
"Hi." I nodded politely, trying to buy time while I remembered where we'd met.
"Seriously, James?" she sensed my uncertainty, and smiled, almost amused. "It's me."
"Gosh, I'm sorry. I..."
"Ginny…" She cut me off and her smile disappeared. Now she was pissed, offended in fact. She leaned across the aisle. "We went to Winter Formal together? Junior year?"
"Shit. Ginny." I smiled in recognition, trying as best I could to play it casual. "God, I'm sorry. It's been a crazy morning. I knew it was you. Of course."
But I was lying. I couldn't place her at all.
I could swear in open court I'd never met her before in my life.
The sandwich shop was even stranger. My boss, Mike, wasn't mad. He didn't even know that I was supposed to be there. I marched in there on the offensive, apologizing profusely for being late, but he didn't seem to know who I was. I could tell by the way he tried to cover his confused expression, trotting out the same nervous smile I'd used on Ginny.
"James? Yeah, well...glad you're here. You better get out there."
Everyone seemed to be in a fog that day. I kept messing up sandwich orders, somehow forgetting them as soon as I took them. I was worried I'd catch a rash of shit, but the customers appeared just as confused as if they couldn't recall what they'd asked for.
Mike sent us home early that day. Four O'clock.
Or maybe it was three?
I can't quite remember.
The news stories started appearing pretty quickly. CNN. FOX. All the big networks. It was mostly anecdotal at first. Botched surgeries by bewildered doctors, traffic pile-ups, a couple of runway airline collisions — mixed signals from the tower apparently. No one connected the dots, but it all hinted at some larger invisible pattern. A groundswell building into a critical mass.
But I didn't need to see it on news to know that. I just had to look beside me.
Ronnie had gone out earlier. He didn't say where, or when he'd be back. I was sitting on the ottoman, my father beside me on the couch.
He was staring at me, his eyes going to the TV and back again, a lost expression. He looked almost...scared. Finally, he turned back to me again.
"Do I know you?"
A different day
Ronnie never did come back.
I was worried about him, and a day later — at least I think it was a day — I called the police to file a missing persons report. No one answered in person though, and I left a message on the voicemail. I was holding a family portrait in my other hand so I could describe him. It was from a not so distant Christmas. My brother and dad and I were standing in front of a tree. There was a woman standing with us. She had a pretty smile and kind eyes. Except she didn't live here anymore. At least I hadn't seen her.
Concentrating hard, I tried my best to describe him — brown hair, medium build, star tattoo on his neck — but when it came time to say his name, I struggled. It made me sad because I couldn't remember. Worse than that, I wasn't quite sure what I was sad about. I stared at the picture for a long time until the voicemail finally asked if I was satisfied with my message.
By the time I hung up the whole thing slipped my mind.
There's nothing on the TV anymore. We have a lot of movies in different little plastic cases. I think there's a way to move them from the little silver discs into the television set, but for the life of me, I can't remember how.
It doesn't really matter, because the power's out.
People are out wandering the streets most days, and I'm out there with them. We're all scrounging, looking for food. And water. Water's hard to find. But really important I think. We can't keep drinking soda forever, and all the stores are mostly out. They're mostly out of everything.
There's a kid who's been hanging out around our house lately. Brown hair. A tattoo of a star on his neck. He was looking at me, but he didn't say anything. I didn't know who he was, and I didn't want to risk meeting his gaze. There's a lot of screams in the neighborhood, mostly at night, and the fact is, you just can't be sure who you can trust anymore.
There's a man who lives with me. He's older. Very quiet. I have a feeling I used to know him at some point, but I can't be sure.
See the truth is, I'm not sure who I am.
I have a plastic card in my wallet, but I can't quite make out what the letters mean. It has a picture of me. I'm smiling with a confidence that I don't feel at all right now, that I don't remember ever feeling.
Still, he's a nice man. We don't talk a lot, but when we do, it's very pleasant. I don't quite know why, but I'm looking forward to getting to know him better.
I found a little book in the back of one of the closets in this house. It's mostly pictures, with dogs and cats and little kids. It has big letters in it, and toward the end of the book, the letters seem to combine into words.
In the morning, when the sun comes up and it's not dark anymore, the nice man and I sit on the back patio and look at the book together.
We're teaching ourselves to read.