by Kristen Lee Knapp
Walt made it up the hill and doubled over, trying to catch his breath. His chest, gut, legs, feet ached that way only the chronically obese could understand. Everywhere the sun touched his skin it felt like a new exciting rash was cropping up. He sat in the tall grass. A long blade opened a red gash on his hand; he cursed and sucked it clean. Flies whizzed past his ears, little black ants crept up his shoes and into his socks. Why were they making him come all this way? That eager for him to repeat himself, he guessed.
Thunder coughed in the distance, made him get up and start moving. They were waiting for him not too far from where he'd stopped, just on top of the next hill over.
Kaeda smiled and folded her hands in her lap. "Hi Walt. Thanks for coming."
He dug some sweat from the pits of his eyes. "No problem," he said, catching his breath.
Yusuf grinned, tugging at the end of his goatee. "You know better than to lie to us."
"He came a long way," Kaeda gently chided.
Anna looked at them both, to her left then right, then at Walt. "You feel like you've been summoned. That we're here to judge your case."
Walt rolled his tongue around in his mouth, his lips felt cemented shut.
"Please don't," said Yusuf. "That's not what this is about."
"You don't agree with my lifestyle, you think it's an abomination. Fine. But you can't ask me to just forget that."
"Granted." Yusuf leaned back in his stool and smoothed the chest of his long red robe. "All we want is for you to listen to us."
"I've done that." Walt shifted from foot to foot, his arches were burning.
"Please relax. Take a seat." Kaeda's eyes indicated the empty stool.
Walt sat, winced when the wood bent under his weight. "I know you're frustrated," she said. "We've had our differences in the past. But this is the last chance you've got before we leave."
"I don't understand you," Anna said. "Why are you doing this?"
Walt shrugged. "Why do you have to?"
"You came here for a reason," Yusuf said. His perfect white smile cut starkly against his red robe. "No one put a gun to your head. Why bother?"
"No reason." Walt adjusted again, the stool whined in protest.
All three watched him in silence.
It irritated Walt to try to look between them; instead he just stared at the ground and swatted at the tickling bugs.
"Why don't you tell us about your world?" Kaeda asked.
"It's whatever I make it." He threw her a defiant, angry look but she only smiled. "I like the '38 best."
Walt rubbed his eyes. "Feel like I'm explaining myself to my parents." He took a deep breath. "Los Angeles in around the mid twentieth century, just before the war. Fully composite -- trolleys, grocery stores, apartments, insurance agencies, the works."
"The what?" Kaeda asked.
"Everything," Walt said.
"What do you do there?" Anna asked.
"The usual noir stuff." Walt frowned. "Film noir, you know." Still nothing, he rolled his eyes. "How the hell am I supposed to talk to you people anyway?"
"Please be patient," Yusuf said.
"You know. Philip Marlowe, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, that sort of thing. Crimes. Mysteries. I'm a private detective there."
"So it's a fantasy land?" Anna asked.
A quote flew in from the left field of Walt's brain. "Well, fiction in all its forms is always intended as realistic."
"And that's what you want to stay behind for?"
Walt looked at Anna. Her face had flushed bright pink, her fingers clutched the yellow fabric of her robe tight at the knee.
"Well, that much is obvious," Kaeda said. "But Walt, think about the allegory of the cave."
"Is the lecture starting now?" Walt sighed and looked up, pretending to be interested in the billowing clouds and blue sky. "What about it?"
"The people chained in place, unable to move. All they see are the shadows of things on the wall. That's their entire world, fake noise and shadows."
"That's me, I guess. Fat, dumb Walter doesn't know any better, right?"
"No, that's all of us," Kaeda said. "Every human being on this planet." She glanced at Anna distractedly. "The irony is that we could always be in a cave, so to speak."
"Bullshit," Walt said.
"Is it?" Anna's tone sharpened.
"What would mankind look like today had our primitive ancestors remained sedentary?" Yusuf asked. "If the thirst for knowledge and exploration hadn't taken us to the ends of the earth?"
"Weren't they just hungry?"
Kaeda smiled patiently. "Now you're being obstinate."
"What's waiting for us out there? What's so special?"
A long silent pause opened between them. Anna gathered her robe and stood. "Go back to your cave," she said then walked away.
"Sorry," Yusuf said. "She cares a little too much."
"Yeah," Kaeda said. "About you, us. The Journey."
"Why? I'm happy. What do you all want? That's not enough?"
"If we can't even start the Journey right," Yusuf took a long breath, "how are we going to get there?"
Nothing left to say. Walt couldn't make them understand the perfect quiet, his solitary world, how could he? They'd never been alone -- really alone even once their whole lives. When they'd been in school, at worship, playing games, eating together, Walt had been raising skyscrapers, laying tracks, pulling a whole city out of his subconscious, populating it with people of his own: friends, acquaintances, enemies, families, everything. They were like real people in every way except that he knew they weren't, and that made the difference, whatever it was.
Yusuf and Kaeda said a genuinely nice goodbye before they walked off, same direction Anna went and Walt walked back in the direction he came. Looked like the rain missed them completely; the bruise-colored clouds were already gone.
Walt rifled through the newspaper, adjusted his heels on the edge his desk, rolled the cigarette around in his lips. Watched the way the smoke rolled over the words. Too hot to do anything else, even with the fan in the corner rumbling as loud as any propeller. Stuffy in here, the smoke and the moldy books and old files in the cabinet and something else, maybe honeysuckle.
Someone knocked on the door, so soft it had to be a woman. "Come in."
A girl walked in, didn't bother closing the door behind her. The little green gems of her eyes, the fat red lips, pretty except for the metal in her cheeks, welded prim and hard.
"Mister Keyes," she said, pressing her small hands together at her waist.
"That's what the door says."
She looked a little put off. "I'm Sam Hammett," she said.
"Sam as in Samuel?"
"Samantha. Can I sit?"
"You can try."
She sat, crossing her mile-long legs tight. "I have a problem, Mister Keyes. I hear you're good at solving problems."
He folded the paper, tossed it on the desk and leaned forward. "No. You probably heard some of that, some of the opposite too."
"You do solve problems, don't you?"
"Solving problems and making people happy are two different things." Walt leaned back again; the chair gave a satisfying creak.
Her jaw clenched quickly. "Are you always this combative with prospective clients?"
"Uh-huh. I don't waste my time on bad programming."
Sam drew a long slim cigarette from her purse, nestled it between her fingers. "It'd be generous to call my husband a husband. We're acquaintances at worst, business partners at best."
"Don't get all sentimental on me." He gave her a light.
She sighed smoke, a practiced gesture. "I don't want you to misunderstand me, Mr. Keyes."
"The ring and the priest and the rest were just formalities. Our business came first."
She hesitated. Didn't like getting interrupted apparently. "Construction."
He grinned, she didn't seem to like that either. "If you make me wait for your point any longer my newspaper might burn a hole in my desk."
"I want you to tail my husband. I want to know what women he's seeing." She paused. "I'm not vengeful. I love power, and Thomas Hobbes said that knowledge is power. His affairs can't jeopardize our broken marriage, but they can endanger our business. You might be able to frighten him into a little discretion."
Walt put out his cigarette. "That's all?"
"I'm willing to offer a sizeable sum. How far do you think you can stretch two hundred dollars, Walter?"
He didn't like the way she said his name. "Pretty far, if I change 'em into two hundred ones and lay them end to end."
Sam smiled a little. "We're in business then."
She gave him twenty down before she left.
The whole thing stank to high heaven. No private dick worth his salt would bother with a case like this, too fishy, could be dangerous -- exactly the sort of job Walter took. In any business you need a niche and Walter didn't mind the reputation that went with it, the nastier the better. Too many dicks out there looking to pull cats out of trees and find lost wedding rings.
He got up to go but stopped to check the mail. Bills, notices, court appearances. He stopped on the last envelope, the one from the real world.
It could wait, he decided, taking his hat off the hook and stepping out the door.
© 2011 Kristen Lee Knapp
Bio: Kristen Knapp is an author/student living in Jacksonville Florida with his girlfriend Kaity. Kris's stories and poems have been published in Allegory ezine, Moon Drenched Fables, Bewildering Stories, Yellow Mama, War of the Worlds: Frontlines, Planet Magazine, DemonMinds, Snap!, Realms, Golden Visions Magazine, Silver Blade, Residential Aliens, Liquid Imagination, The Nautilus Engine, Redstone Science Fiction, and in the anthologies Alienology (The Library of Horror Press) and Weird Enclaves and Black Pits (Fight On!). He has also appeared in Aphelion on five previous occasions, most recently The Way of Children, July, 2010.
E-mail: Kristen Lee Knapp
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