The Spectral Order, Chapters 1 and 2
Nate walked halfway down a narrow alley and opened a dumpster next to the back door of a pizza parlor. He pushed open the lid and stroked his beard. A near-empty bottle of McCormick vodka sat at an angle on top of the heap with its label up. He pulled it out of the garbage, finished what was left, and tossed it back. Then something wrapped in an oily rag caught his attention. He grabbed the rag and felt the contours of a Colt .45 pistol. Nate pulled the pistol from the dumpster and held it in both hands like it was a Christmas present. He checked the magazine, which was loaded with four jacketed hollow point bullets. Another round was already chambered.
The Department of Veterans Affairs had taken away Nate’s benefits a while ago. He couldn’t even get a legal supply of Ambien anymore. Sometimes, his head felt like it was shaking from side to side and bouncing up and down all at once. Most of the time, he felt betrayed by some invisible force that was always close but never fair. He rubbed his aching temples, wishing he hadn’t smoked the last of his pot that morning and wondering what he would use next to deaden the pain.
Nothing could erase the narrative of his ruined life. He had been blown off the road in a Humvee in Iraq, losing his hearing for two weeks and suffering permanent brain damage. A few years later, half of his platoon was killed in the Hindu Kush. He returned home from that deployment and broke the jaw of a teenager who had been sleeping with his ex-wife. And then there was the dishonorable discharge, and the constant buzzing in his ears, and now he knew the government was tracking his every move, to the point where he couldn’t even return to his post office box because someone might be monitoring it.
He squeezed the warm pistol grip and looked back down the alley. A teenager on a skateboard stared at him from the stretch of sidewalk that was visible from between the building walls. The boy had black hair, dark eyes, and olive skin. Nate pointed the pistol at him to see what he would do. The boy just stood there. Nate said “Fuck you,” put the pistol in his coat pocket, and watched him skate away.
A glade between the river and railroad yard seemed like as good a spot as any. He wouldn’t leave too much of a mess, and the transients who slept in the area would find him in a day or two. They would also find the 500 dollars in Nate’s wallet that he had been keeping as an emergency fund. He reached the glade an hour after sundown. After unpacking a few things from his rucksack, he built a small fire and heated up some coffee. He coughed gently and watched the vapor from his breath mingle with the smoke from the fire in the chill night air.
Soon, he heard rustling in the nearby branches. Twenty feet away, a massive figure emerged from the trees at the far side of the glade and moved straight toward Nate. He sat down cross-legged on the other side of the fire, wearing only jeans, work boots, and a t-shirt. Nate figured he was around 6’4”, 270. He had a deep scar on his left cheek that looked like it had been caused by a vicious bite.
“Cold night to be wearing nothing but a t-shirt,” Nate said.
“Well,” the man said, “that’s just temporary.”
“Whatever you say,” Nate replied. “Want some beef jerky, or a Snickers?”
“Soon enough,” the man said.
“What do you mean?” Nate asked.
“I’ll tell you what I mean. First, you’re gonna give me that jacket of yours. Then you’re gonna give me whatever food and money you got.” He looked toward the railroad tracks. “I’ll be jumping a train right over there in a little bit. It’ll be damn cold.” He pulled a folding knife from his pocket and opened it. “Now gimme that jacket.”
Nate pulled the .45 from his pocket, shot the man in the forehead, and watched the mist from his brain spray out the back of his skull like pulp from an exploding watermelon. He couldn’t believe his luck. This was definitely better than suicide. He gathered up all his supplies and threw his ruck on his back. Then he took the man’s knife and wallet, burned all the other items that might have his fingerprints on them, and headed toward the railroad yard.
He hopped on a graffiti-splattered freight train heading east. Along the way, he disassembled the pistol and tossed the pieces into various rivers and lakes at distant intervals. He cut his hair and shaved his beard with the scissors from his sewing kit, the dead man’s knife, and a mirror. The best way to hide was to appear as who he was before everything unraveled.
He jumped off in a Chicago rail yard and started hitchhiking to New York. He was on his way to the edge of the continent.
Lana plucked a grilled cheese sandwich out of the pan and noticed she had burned one side. She dropped it onto a plate with the burned side down and carried it over to Mark at the kitchen table. Studying his thinning hair, she said, “Here you go, babe,” and she thought about the countless evenings he had spent prowling Serbian nightclubs for easy one-night stands.
A picture of her father hung on the wall next to the table. His short salt-and-pepper hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and gentle features betrayed the years of hunger he had suffered as a little boy. He told her just before she left, “What doesn’t happen on the surface is fine.”
Mark was about to spend three weeks in Shreveport with his construction crew, getting wasted in the clubs late at night and sending Lana garbled texts that she would respond to cautiously, figuring he would never change because he was ruled by ungovernable instincts that dictated the terms of their relationship. What Mark called issues, Lana called problems. There was a difference. Anything that couldn’t be reconciled with reason was a problem. At this point, she wasn’t even sure if she wanted to be an American citizen anymore. She just wanted him to eat his grilled cheese and leave so she could make the best of the situation.
“You’ll be good, right?” he asked.
“I promise, baby,” she said. “You’re my man.”
Once he was finally gone, she gazed out the window for a few minutes and watched the tide come in. Then she pulled a marijuana gummy bear from the pocket of her workout shorts and wiggled it gently between her index finger and thumb. Her body heat had made it warm and spongy. She popped it into her mouth, then poured herself a vodka press and took a few sips, keeping the gummy bear stowed safely under her tongue the whole time.
If she was going to be a human ornament, then she would do it on her own terms. She headed downstairs to the exercise room to stretch and lift weights, wondering who would hold her in his arms in the next few days. The range of possibilities made her quiver. She had to think about what she would tell him.