James Scott

 

AWAITING APPROVAL

            The first thing he knew for sure was that he sat behind a mahogany desk the size of a casket. Then he saw his hand in one of the drawers, and buildings and streets out the window. He somehow knew this was Kansas City. His body was warm in the sun. He wore a suit. His tie, loosened, fell across his shoulder. These things he also knew.

            It took a moment to move. The open drawer contained a stapler, fancy metal pens, sticky notes, and six empty pharmacy bottles. He lined the bottles up on the counter like shotgun shells. The labels had been peeled off.  

            Still seated in a large leather chair that swiveled, reclined, and rolled, the man whose last Cerebreeze pill expired in his blood, sweated through his pores, and became part of his nails and hair, flipped the nameplate on the desk over so he could see it. Broderick Powell. He checked his wallet, impressed by his wad of cash. His driver’s license confirmed his name was indeed Broderick Powell. He shook his head as if he could fix himself by motion alone, like jiggling the handle on a broken toilet. Even Broderick Powell, who would be the first to admit he was no genius, knew the brain was more complicated than a toilet.

            He’d come out of it once before. One early morning after a long night, Broderick took the two blue pills offered by a coworker with a greasy black ponytail protruding from a Chiefs winter cap. Broderick shook them together like dice. Despite his coworker’s advice to the contrary, Broderick swallowed both pills dry, felt them clacking down his throat. When he’d emerged from the drug’s effects, his work had been finished and neatly stacked in front of him, invoices on one side and bills the other. The guy with the greasy ponytail was giving Broderick the stink eye, but still sold him a dozen pills at the end of their shift.

            The empty bottles glowed in the late afternoon sunlight. He stood up, away from them, and ran his hand across his clean-shaven chin. He paced his office, which was larger than most apartments he’d lived in. In a photograph on top of the desk he stood next to a beautiful red-haired woman on the deck of a ship. He wore a salmon-colored polo shirt and white linen pants, buffeted by the wind, and Broderick Powell shook his head at himself until he saw the look on the face of the woman, holding a white sunhat tight to her head, a black bikini top, a khaki wrap slung about her waist. Her eyes were not on the camera, but on Broderick.

            Memories and images began to come to him, fast and dizzying at first. He felt nauseous, seasick. Little by little, the images began to slow enough for Broderick to pick them out. He ran from a police officer, his hand gripping a paper bag full of cash. He lit the fuse on a firecracker jammed between the abdomen and waist of a G.I. Joe figure. Awkward sex in the back of a dirty minivan. The buzzing fluorescent lights at his father’s funeral. Standing on the wrong side of the railing of a highway overpass, waiting for a car to come, hoping he could time it right to hit the ground just before the car got to him, a fail safe, but no headlights penetrated the darkness and as his legs began to grow sore he climbed back to the sidewalk.     

            The images wouldn’t stop. Setting fire to a couch on the railroad tracks and watching the autumn-colored sparks as the train smashed it to pieces. Doing cocaine from a sickly-looking girl’s protruding ribs. His brother, Glen. He remembered Glen leaving home when Broderick was thirteen or fourteen, slapping him on the side of the head and dropping an eighth of weed in his lap. The summer before, maybe, stoned and skipping rocks into the ocean in South Carolina, where their creepy uncle owned a home. Glen said something and handed Broderick a rock. Broderick flicked the rock into the waves, where it skipped twice and disappeared with a disappointing plop. Glen screamed at him, cuffed him on the lip, splitting it at the corner, telling him he’d given him the rock because it looked like Abraham Lincoln. Exactly like Lincoln, he emphasized. Broderick had not been listening when Glen told him. The weed and the waves had hypnotized him. Broderick spent the rest of the vacation wading in the waves with his face close to the water—he’d never learned to swim—looking for the rock, hoping the waves would bring it closer.
           
            Broderick Googled a map to his own house and found his car by walking the lines of the parking garage and pressing the alarm button. He smiled at these small victories. They made him feel like a detective. Broderick was surprised to find out he owned a new-smelling Infiniti, black on black, with an elaborate stereo/dvd system. His cell phone sat in the cup holder and he flipped through the numbers, hoping for someone he’d known before this—this what? He’d woken up in some strange places before, forgotten weeks at a time while on meth in Nebraska, ‘shroomed for a month straight in Iowa until he got so dehydrated he couldn’t talk or eat or even piss, but this was something new. Under the Vs he found Vincible, a name he recognized, a face he could picture, stubbled and emaciated, and dialed the number. 

            “99 percent of precincts reporting and I ain’t found shit,” Vincible said, with no greeting. 

            “What?” Broderick asked. 

            “C-breeze. No one’s got any. I’ve tried everything—trust me man.” 

            “Vincy, what is going on?,” Broderick said. “I’m working at some desk, with a secretary and an office and a tailor touching my dick so many times it couldn’t be an accident and I’m driving a goddamn Infiniti for fuck’s sake.” Broderick turned the key for emphasis but the engine merely cooed to life. 

            “Brody?” he said. 

            “What?”

            “Are you back?”

           Broderick backed up and gunned it through the parking garage, the stereo tuned to some light rock. The Cerebreeze Broderick enjoyed the mellowness of Peter Cetera and Chicago, opened the sunroof and belted out some Meatloaf. Sober Broderick flipped the tuner button until he landed on some thrash metal. “What’s going on?”

            “I’m so glad,” Vincible said. “I’ve got a boner. Seriously. You’ve been this Broderick dude for the last year and I was thinking you, the you you, was gone.”

            “A year?”

            “Yeah, man. Even more. Like, fourteen months. Fifteen months.”

            Broderick followed the map towards the suburbs, the soothing female voice of the GPS system not unlike a phone sex operator he’d talked to two or three times a week when he’d briefly sold dimebags of shake to high schoolers. Before two white-hatted football players beat him up and stole his wallet. “What happened, though?” he said. “How did I get all this shit?”

            “You don’t remember anything?”

            “Not from the last year. I remember coming to Kansas City, staying with that girl, that rave girl…”

            “Tilly. She’s the one who got you the job in the mail room.” Vincible explained Broderick’s swift rise up the corporate ladder, and Broderick remembered his efforts to go clean for the job, because he didn’t have cash for someone else’s untainted piss. A mailroom in any company, no matter how big, was not a good place to avoid drugs.

           Vincible told him about how the drug had made Broderick sleep an hour or two a night, and the rest of the time he’d spent learning everything he could about the business of dealing and trading plastics. Broderick had always some small level of charm, but the Cerebreeze made him focus it on buyers and salespeople instead of dealers and waitresses. His reward went from a cheaper bag or a free slice of pie, at best followed by a quick fuck in the bathroom to promotions and a huge year-end bonus.

           Broderick went silent for a long time. He could hear Vincible breathing on the other end of the phone. The roads grew nicer and nicer, less potholes, fresher paint on the centerline, more trees.  

            “Did he have my memories?” Broderick asked. The whole thing was freaking him out, like when he was a kid and he used to sleepwalk into his parents’ room and talk to them. He would tell them about people with names he’d never heard of, conversations and arguments he thought he’d had with them. Often, he would ask for Pepto Bismol for a stomachache he thought he had, and would wake up with pink residue on his lips and tongue and smeared on his pillowcase.

            “Sort of,” Vincible said. “It was weird. He knew everything you knew…” In fact, the Cerebreeze Broderick knew a lot more than the unadorned Broderick, but most of his memories were locked away. The Cerebreeze Broderick did his research, though, and caught up to the regular Broderick in a matter of days. The regular Broderick was easy enough for people to forget or ignore, so even when he changed utterly and completely, no one took much notice. 

            “Why don’t I know what he did?” Broderick asked. “I looked over some papers on my desk at this job, and I have no idea what the hell they mean.” 

            “I don’t know. Maybe you do and you just need some time to remember,” Vincible said.

            “Do you think so?” Broderick asked.

            “No,” Vincible answered.

            The directions had reached their end. He turned the Infiniti up an inclined drive—the mailbox beside it decorated with a scripted number 26—leading to a brick-faced house with well-maintained lawns and flowerbeds lit by carriage lamps. “I got to go, Vincy,” Broderick said,  “I’m at my house.” 

            “Hello?” Broderick said as he stepped inside. A thin flowered carpet led down the entranceway to an unlit room. The floor was patchwork slate, and the walls were a creamy orange. On a glass table between two mirrors, Broderick found mail spread out like playing cards, addressed to him, and a note in swirling letters, “At Yoga!  XOX- Ana.” He sat down on a leather couch in front of an enormous flat-screen television and flipped through the catalogs, chuckling at the prices, eight thousand bucks for a bedside table. As he got further into the magazine, however, his living room began to come to life with prices, exorbitant prices—ten grand for a dining set, eight for a small bar. The furniture had been purchased as part of a promotion featuring zero interest for the next two years, and indeed cost more than a year’s salary from the old mailroom job.

           Curious, he opened some of the letters. Bills, all of them. He owed the Infiniti dealer four hundred and eighty dollars for the next month. The mortgage company asked for fifteen hundred. All in all, if Broderick added up all the bills for the day, he would have come to the nice, round number of three thousand, eight hundred, sixty three dollars and nineteen cents. It would have covered the rent in his previous apartment for over six months.

           Still, Broderick thought he could handle this, this new life. Why not? Wasn’t this the American dream? The new American dream? To wake up with your work done, your money earned, your place assured? He thought of the story his mother used to tell him about the shoemaker and the dwarves or whatever who would make his shoes for him while he slept. Broderick remembered asking his mother why the cobbler didn’t go to bed at six every night. He couldn’t remember the moral, or how that poor man got his comeuppance. Broderick knew his would come.

           He could have run. In most cities he knew shady men who would buy almost anything for cash and he could sell the car, the electronics, and live in Mexico. Not only that, people would mourn the loss of the rising plastics star, his girlfriend would be broken-hearted, and when he didn’t return they would assume the worst, and he imagined her crying at his empty grave, unable to move on. These thoughts cheered him. He suddenly realized he was hungry, and unlike before he put himself into this state, he thought he might actually have some food to sate himself.  

            In a fridge set in a shining and space-aged kitchen he found some Italian leftovers and heated them in the microwave. On the counter, birthday cards stood like an army. Exhaling and waving a hand in front of his face to cool off the cheese from the veal parmesan, he read one. No one he knew. He read the rest, finally coming upon a card signed simply, Mom. It must be his girlfriend’s mother, he thought, and sat cross-legged on the floor and read the card in the light from the open refrigerator. “Dear Ricky, These have been such wonderful days after so many disappointing years. I am so proud of you. I’m certain your father would be, too. Looking forward to seeing you and Ana in June, if not sooner! Happy, happy, happiest birthday! Love, Mom.” 

            His mother. He hadn’t spoken to her in almost sixteen years, but the Cerebreeze Broderick had found her in a matter of minutes. A few phone calls, a few heartfelt apologies—“I don’t know what came over me for so long”—and they agreed to have lunch. Lunches turned to dinners turned to visits.

            Broderick slammed the fridge and sat in the darkness. He walked through the house, staring at the paintings on the walls, the photos in expensive frames of vacations he’d been on. His memories didn’t hold the locations—St. Croix, Hawaii, Montana, Chile. He touched them, his fingers leaving an oily residue from the veal parmesan. Even with shut eyes and the images in his head, he couldn’t remember the feeling of the misting rain on his face on top of the castle in Scotland or the joke that made him laugh next to the Acropolis or the reason he wore a splint on his finger on the Great Wall. More than anything—or less than anything—he couldn’t remember the woman who stood next to him or in his arms in all of the photos. “Ana,” he said aloud, trying it out, the name echoing down the hallway and he followed the ghost of the sound upstairs. 

           His bedroom was approximately the size of his childhood home, a massive, tracklit, plush carpeted, lushly painted palace. In the bathroom, after admiring the whirlpool and glass-doored shower, he lifted his shirt and saw tan lines from sun he’d never seen. Outside of a fancy haircut and some cologne, he was the same guy. Wasn’t he? Somewhere in his brain, he still had all that stuff.

           He laid down on his bed. On the bedside table were several leather folders, and he slid one from the stack, studying the columns of figures, types of plastics and order codes, calming himself every time he became frustrated or angry. He stared. He read the words over and over, repeated them out loud, but still they made no sense. 

            A low vibrating noise alerted him to the garage. He thought of feigning sleep, but he had only removed his tie and his button-down before the redhead from the photos entered the room, her cheeks flushed, hair pulled back, dressed in black tights and a billowy white top. She hardly looked at him as she walked in. She said, “You’re home early.”

            “How was yoga?” he answered and mentally gave himself a point for remembering to ask.

            “Fine,” she said and threw her shirt into the closet, where it fluttered to the ground, and stripped off her pants, underwear and all, without a second glance at him. Catching his stare, she smirked. “Like what you see, Mr. Powell?”

            He couldn’t say anything. This was the first time he’d been sober around a naked woman since—well, perhaps ever. Her breasts swung free as she removed her bra, and he admired the impressions left by the straps, and the soft V of her hips, the lighter, hidden freckles now exposed, the thin strip of pubic hair, as well-kept, he thought, as the lawn outside. Everything in this life was neat and tidy with well-defined edges. “Yeah. Jesus, Ana,” he said. “You’re beautiful.” He’d never said such a thing before.

            She laughed in an odd way and padded into the bathroom. Broderick wanted to press his palms into the dimples above her ass, to take her in the bathtub, send the water rocking over the rim of the tub and across the floor. 

            “Are you taking a bath?”

            “Hadn’t planned on it,” she said. “Gary and Liz are coming for dinner tomorrow night, don’t forget.” 

            “Hadn’t planned on it,” he said, and chuckled. Things would be okay—great even. He could make do at work until either he unlocked those brain nerves or got fired, as long as he had this woman to come home to. 

            Ana popped her head out of the bathroom. “Are you okay?” she asked.

            “Yeah, why?” he said. Then, as an afterthought, he added, “Baby.” 

            “I don’t know—you parked on the other side of the driveway, you left a mess in the kitchen—just that kind of thing.” 

            Broderick’s skin prickled. He felt himself starting to sweat, the moisture building more as he tried not to. The new Broderick probably never sweated, he thought, not knowing that one of Cerebreeze’s unfortunate side effects—one of many—was intense perspiration. The new Broderick had tried several prescription antiperspirants, to no avail.

           Not wanting to screw anything else up, Broderick kept quiet, finished undressing and slid under the sheets. The comforter billowed so high he could no longer see the open door to the bathroom and he pounded it down with his forearms and propped his pillows up. He passed the time by studying the paintings and photos visible from the bed as the shower droned in the background. 

            Ana, her skin raw red from the hot water, emerged from the bathroom with one towel wrapped around her head, another around her torso. She sat at the edge of the bed and applied lotion from a bottle on her bedside table. Broderick rolled over onto his side. The lotion smelled like honey and vanilla. 

            “You brought Summer in, didn’t you?” she asked. Broderick said nothing. “Jesus, Ricky,” she said, “you can’t leave a little dog like that out all night.” She kept applying lotion. Two minutes later, she said again, pointedly, “Ricky, you can’t leave a dog like her out all night.” 

            Sighing, he flipped back the covers, waited a second for her to notice his erection, until he realized she wasn’t about to, and pulled on his boxers. This other Broderick must be a real pussy, he thought to himself, and as he tromped down the stairs, not even sure where the dog was, he became angrier and angrier. He flung the door open, and when the sound echoed through the house, he wished he hadn’t. Maybe this other Broderick did this on purpose, left him with all this crap, mortgages and car payments and a girlfriend who wouldn’t even fuck him in the tub and talked to him like he was a waiter. 

Something rattled in the kitchen, and Broderick found his phone on the hardwood floor. It was Vincible. 

            “Vincy.”

            “Call me God, buddy. You remember Kamikaze?” Broderick did remember Kamikaze, a former Cal-Tech chemistry major that hated his nickname and reminded them every time they saw him that he was, in fact, Chinese. Kamikaze made his money creating the fake perfumes and colognes that they sold in drug stores that said things like, ‘If you Love Chanel No. 5, you’ll LOVE… Channel 1.’ His real income, however, came from aping pharmaceutical drugs, which he did with limited success. “Our old friend has whipped up a batch of Cerebreeze,” Vincible said, “and I just drove out there and procreated some for you.” 

            “Damn, Vincy,” Broderick said, “didn’t you just say how good it was to have me back?” 

            Vincy coughed. “Well, yeah. So you don’t want it?” Vincy said. “I’m on my way to your house right now. I’ll be there in like ten minutes” He hung up. 

            Outside, his feet freezing on the wet grass, he called for the dog. The yard stretched beyond the reach of the light of the house. He wondered why Vincible would rather have him missing, popping Cerebreeze. He understood that his connection to Vincible had been mostly gathered around a bong, or a line, or a small packet of H, but he still figured they were friends. He had disappeared from Vincible’s life for years at a time, then would come home from loading maple sugar onto trucks in Vermont, say, and present Vincible with a handful of cash in exchange for a bag of pills that looked like a packet of Skittles. The rich and boring and drugged-up (in a different way) Broderick would always need Vincible. This thought, and the wind pushing its way through his thin cotton boxers, made him shiver. 

            The dog waited behind the oak tree, where Cerebreeze Broderick would have found it immediately, sitting in a hole of its own making. Broderick called again, and the dog sensed something different in its master’s voice, and went to investigate. Its master always brought treats.

           Broderick heard the faint tinkling of dog tags and found the dog in the dim light on a run between two of the many trees in his backyard. She was small, a cocker spaniel, and she rolled over for him, expecting the treat. Instead, he rubbed her belly. From movies he’d seen and stories he’d heard he expected the dog to bark and snarl at him, seeing him for the stranger he truly was. She panted. He picked her up and unfastened her collar from the run. 

            Ana stood in the kitchen in a small t-shirt and soccer shorts, eating a pear, lit by the dimmed track lighting. Broderick made a show of kissing the dog and set it on the ground. 

            “You were coming down here anyway?” he asked. 

            Ana dropped the core in the trash and threw her arms around him, her hair damp, skin still warm from the shower, slick with the lotion. “It’s your night,” she said, and kissed him. He stuck his tongue in her mouth and she laughed. “Come on,” she said. “Be serious.” 

           The waitresses had always told him he was a good kisser.

           “You’re cold,” she said, and rubbed his shoulders. “Best get you to bed.”  

           Broderick nodded. The refrigerator gurgled and Broderick realized he’d never had a refrigerator before. Such a simple convenience, and yet he’d always had a Styrofoam cooler and maybe—maybe—an old quart of milk swimming in the half-melted ice.  He watched her firm body as she pressed a series of numbers on a keypad.

           “We need to use this more. We paid for it,” she said. “You coming up?” 

           He looked at the clock. “In a couple of minutes,” he said. “Please don’t go to bed without me.”

           She looked at him with her head cocked before turning and going upstairs. 

           His phone vibrated on the counter. “Vincy?” Broderick said as he answered.

           “I’m outside,” Vincible’s voice said into the phone, and Broderick could hear it rumble outside as well.  

           “She just turned the alarm on,” Broderick said.

           “So?” Vincible said.

           Broderick explained that—like everything else—he couldn’t remember the code.  
Heavy breathing came from the other end of the line. Vincible’s head appeared in the dog door. “Hey man,” he said and it echoed across the kitchen. Despite a massive speed addiction and a diet that consisted of Hawaiian Punch and broccoli, Vincible couldn’t pull himself through the small space. His oily hair, an indeterminate color, and his pock-marked skin were all that was visible while he strained to look up at Broderick.

           Broderick pulled up Summer’s dog bed and sat on it as he told Vincible all about how the memories had come rushing back to him, about the bills and the papers from work, his plan to stick it out until he got fired, and “I fucked Ana” followed by minute fictional details, and how “It was awesome.”
“So, do you want this stuff or not?” Vincible said.

           Broderick knew Vincible had been waiting for him to stop talking long enough to ask the question, and he also recognized that he’d kept talking to keep from having to answer it. He leaned down and whispered, close to Vincible’s ear, “You know, no one would miss you. I could say you were breaking in here.”  
Vincible withdrew his head, and tossed a brown bag containing an old Advil bottle inside the kitchen. Broderick waited for Vincible’s head to reappear, but it didn’t.

           As Vincible walked away from the house, he made a mental note to call Broderick the next day, the new, responsible Broderick, so he could collect his money. He liked the old Broderick, liked how he moved from job to job, town to town, high to low to high, without ever changing. But he liked money more. 

           Eventually, Broderick turned the outside lights on and stuck his head through the dog door. Vincible was gone. 

           Upstairs, Ana read in bed, glasses perched on her nose. “Headache?” she asked, and Broderick stared at the bottle in his hand. She waited a moment for an answer, then resumed reading when she decided none was forthcoming. 
He put the bottle on the bedside table, slid his boxers to the floor and got back into bed. 
“It’s a little chilly not to be wearing pajamas all of a sudden, don’t you think?” Ana asked. 
Broderick groaned. He thought, This pussy who’d been using his name wore pajamas to bed? Like a seven year old? He bet they had footies attached. He drew the line there, and settled into the sheets, naked, his neatly trimmed toenails silent against the material. 

           Ana marked her spot in her book and set it and her glasses on her bedside table. She began to tell him about her day, much to his annoyance, but two minutes in, he realized he was listening, and five minutes in, he was asking questions about her lunch (tapas), her friends (Marianne and Kathy), her job at the Kansas City weekly (she covered local politics), and with each one she moved closer. He told her about the tailor, and how he’d brushed up against his crotch so many times it couldn’t have been an accident, and she laughed. He reached out and touched her teeth when she did, and she closed her lips around his finger. 

           He started out careful, slow and soft, like he thought her Broderick would be. As the tension built up between his hips, though, he forgot all about his plan and hammered away, same as he always did. She had been moaning softly, like in the movies, not pornos, he thought, but like a Julia Roberts movie or something. But when he started screwing like himself, she went silent.

           Ana, in fact, was not surprised by the overzealous way in which Broderick rammed his hips against hers, but by the initial tenderness. For one of the few personality traits Cerebreeze could not curb was sexual aggressiveness. The doors that the chemicals locked also left a few doors wide open.

           Broderick tried to avoid Ana’s eyes, but she kept staring, until he had to look at her. He slowed down. “Sorry,” he said. She twisted his shoulders until he rolled over onto his back and she got on top of him. Her hair drifted into his face as she moved up and down, and it tickled, but in a way that he enjoyed. He did not brush it away. He opened his mouth and let it run across his tongue. His body convulsed and Ana stopped, sighing.     

           Ana settled back onto her side of the bed and turned out her light. Broderick kept his on, his hands over his chest, still breathing a bit heavy, staring at the ceiling. He heard her putting her pajama bottoms back on underneath the sheets. Another memory came back then, of a girl he’d liked in high school, a smart girl with black hair and a puffy red jacket that she wore all winter, her cheeks maintaining that outdoor glow all through homeroom, where he would stare from his seat in the back. One day she turned and looked at the clock, and caught him staring. She gave him a slight smile, a hint. He decided then and there to get his grades up, start studying, quit messing around with Vincible and his stupid friends. That afternoon, Vincible leaned against Broderick’s beaten Duster, a joint tucked behind his ear. Two days later, stoned and late, not buckled down in the slightest, Broderick walked down the hall to find his principal standing next to his locker, two policemen sifting through its contents with rubber gloves on their hands. The door to his homeroom stood open, and everyone had gathered near the door to watch. Through a slight gap in students, Broderick saw the smart girl’s black hair, facing away from the door, sitting in her seat, ready for school to start. Broderick turned around and ran down the steps, past the flagpole. The flag’s hardware had rung against the metal, like the tolling bells of a funeral service, and Broderick had never returned. 

           As he lay there in bed he should have been more comfortable than he’d ever been, his bare skin on clean, expensive sheets, a beautiful woman sound asleep next to him, but the more he repeated to himself, ‘Relax, relax, relax’ the more his muscles tensed. His blood felt filled with broken glass, and he held his breath in an effort to slow it down. Any moment he felt as though the shards would begin to poke through his skin. This other Broderick must get tense, he thought to himself as he sat up and dropped his feet to the floor. He opened the drawer in the bedside table, hoping for some Tylenol PM or NyQuil, praying for some Codeine or Percoset. But inside there were no pleasing plastic bottles, with their soothing brownish-orange haze. Instead, on top of neatly stacked books and two small boxes, sat a letter in a cream colored envelope with his own block letters bearing his own name. 

           “Go to sleep, babe,” Ana said, and put a cold hand on his back. 

           Broderick, wincing, his blood thicker with glass at the sight of the familiar writing and unfamiliar envelope, clicked off the light. He snatched the Advil bottle from the table, the pills clattering inside, and padded down the stairs. The dog followed at his feet. 

           He pulled one of the kitchen chairs up to the window, and watched his reflection. In one hand he carried a glass of water, and in the other the orange pill. He pushed one finger into the corner of the envelope and drew it downward, tearing the paper into a jagged mountain range. Inside, he expected to find a letter from the new Broderick, bragging about what a better him he was. Instead, three photographs fell into his hand. One showed the new Broderick, tan and smiling at a picnic, holding up a cake that read, “Happy Birthday Brody!” surrounded by friends and family. Broderick noticed how many of them reached their hands out to him, just to get a hand or even a few fingers on one of his shoulders. The second showed Broderick carrying Ana across the grass of this house, her arms thrown into the air, her legs akimbo, eyes closed, as if the joy of the new home overwhelmed her so much that she’d fainted from happiness. Maybe she had, he thought. The third photograph showed Broderick and a woman he recognized after a moment as his mother. She looked smaller, more tightly composed, with wrinkles that seemed caused by the stress of shrinking. Their arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders. Their heads touched.

           The last time he’d seen his mother had been the day after he ran out of school. He came into the house, his hands tucked into his vest pockets, and looked through the cabinets for some chips or cookies. His mother came into the room, wearing a Christmas necklace, plastic gingerbread men and candy canes interspersed with green and red beads. He noticed the necklace because he avoided her eyes. The principal had called of course, and the police, but his mother said nothing about any of this. What she said instead made him stomp upstairs to his room and grab anything of value, then into his parent’s room to do the same. What she’d said was “I love you.”

           He stood, the lines in his face more noticeable, his pubic hair a dark smudge, his hands shaking wildly in the sharp contrast of the reflection in the window. The Advil bottle glowed at his feet.

           He fetched the cordless phone from the wall and angled the receiver to see the buttons. He wiped the sweat from his palms on his bare skin and scrolled down, until he came upon the word MOM. The phone buzzed. The ringing began, pleasant and lulling.

           After five rings, a scratchy voice answered. “Brody? Is everything okay? Is Ana okay?”

           “Mom?” he said and could go no further.

           “Brody, it’s late,” she said. “Are you okay?”                

           He could have apologized to her, but he wasn’t sure he was sorry. He could have asked her if she was proud of him, or whether she forgave him. But he couldn’t trust any of her answers because she didn’t know who he was. As he realized that the new Broderick had taken away his possibilities, the limitless chances he could have had to actually do something, he felt as penned and caught as ever had.

           “It’s nothing,” he said. “Go back to sleep.”

           He replaced the phone on the wall.   

           On the floor in front of him, he set the photos and the card from his mother, and could make out the ‘Happy, Happy, Happiest!’ part because it was written in huge letters. He stuck the pill on his tongue, and washed the bitter taste down his throat, without feeling the small bundle of chemicals barreling down his esophagus. From the chair he would wait for the sunrise, or for his own disappearance, whichever came first.

 

 

 

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James Scott has published fiction in One Story, American Short Fiction, Quick Fiction, Memorious, and other journals. His work has received awards from the Sewanee and Wesleyan Writers Conferences and the New York State Summer Writers' Institute and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize several times, and the Best New American Voices anthology. James earned his MFA from Emerson College, where he was the fiction editor of Redivider. Currently, he teaches workshops at Grub Street in Boston.

 

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