No matter what anyone said, jet-lag was a real thing. The kind of jet-lag experienced traveling from Kazakhstan to Atlanta, Georgia was the worst in Jack Montgomery’s opinion. Arriving too late to check in at the CDC, he instead took a cab the twenty-five miles to his single-bedroom apartment outside of Sandy Springs. By the time he unlocked his door and tossed his bag and briefcase on the battered leather sofa, one of two pieces of furniture in the living room, it was nearly 2 am and all he wanted to do was fall into his bed and sleep for a week. The case bounced once, falling to the floor, and spilling its contents. Two pages of his preliminary report stared up at him, peeking from the pile of papers. Both were photographs of children asleep in their hospital beds. Round angelic faces poking from beneath their slim covers, some clutching fuzzy stuffed animals. Asleep for nearly three months, they were some of the first of those suffering from “encephalopathy of unknown etiology”--otherwise known as “we haven’t a fucking clue.”
Jack shook his head, the bed’s siren call losing its grip so confronted by the stark reality of their affliction. He walked to the bar, pushing several unopened moving boxes out of his path, and poured three fingers of bourbon into the nearest glass. Stumbling back to sit on the sofa, he set his drink on the second-hand IKEA coffee table, and bent down to gather the weathered canvas case and the report.
The trip was a waste of both his time, and the Center’s resources. Not because it wasn’t important, but because no one knew what the hell to do about it. The doctors and nurses on the ground had everything covered. “Everything” consisting of keeping the patients comfortable and the IV’s filled. Without a clear cause, everything was considered. The uranium mines in nearby Krasnogorsk were ruled out as an environmental cause almost immediately due to the fact that no one in that town suffered from the malady. One by one the researchers also eliminated infections, poisons, viruses, biotoxins, and pretty much everything else they could think of. Regardless, twenty-five percent of the residents of Kalachi--most of them children--were suffering from a severe case of “you’re fucked.”
Sleep wasn’t going to come easy tonight, even with the jet-lag. Jack reached for the remote and turned on the television, knowing the late-night infomercials would do the trick. Instead, he was greeted with a breaking news report. He took a long sip of his drink, then listened for another disaster in the making, turning the useless wedding band on his finger.
“Once again,” the bottled-blond newsreader said with forced gravitas, “The Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed 62 miles north-west of Nice in the French Alps in an apparent act of suicide by the co-pilot.”
“Great. We not only have to worry about the planes and terrorists, but now the damn pilots are even trying to kill us.” He surfed the channels, hoping to find something a little cheerier to watch, finally landing on an X-Files marathon.
The morning light streaming in through the window was so bright it buzzed, vibrating his brain like the inside of an angry beehive. Jack sat up, holding his head as the buzzing grew more insistent. The gauze clouding his mind cleared enough to locate the external source of the noise. He grabbed the cell phone from his briefcase, bumping his head on the coffee table and spilling the remainder of his drink. “Son of a bitch!” he said, now attempting to do two things at once, and failing miserably at both. Giving up on the spill, he answered the phone.
“Morning, Mason,” he said, rubbing his temples.
“Morning, buddy,” Mason said, unnaturally buoyant for this early in the day. “How come you didn’t call me for a ride from the airport when you got in?”
“It was pretty late. I didn’t want to put you out.”
“Of course,” he said, “what else could it be?”
“Don’t start, Mason,” Jack said. The comforting friend routine was getting stale. It would be so much easier if everyone just let him be.
“Okay, okay,” he said, Jack imagining the man holding his hands in front of him for protection. “I was just calling to see if you were coming in today. You know...to work?”
“What time is it?”
“Quarter to one.”
“Shit!” He stood suddenly, barking his shin on the coffee table that was now apparently trying to kill him. “God-damn it.”
Mason laughed, and said, “Don’t sweat it, Jack. Sally said to take your time. She knows the trip was hard on you.” Not as hard as Sally was when she was in a mood. Nominally his superior, his position was fluid enough she often had to ask rather than order. When she did order, though, it wasn’t pretty. At all.
Jack looked down at the pictures, holding the phone to his ear with one hand, and scrubbing his head with the other. “You have no idea, Mace.”
“Well, anyway...Sally said to take the rest of the week off and come in fresh on Monday.”
“Wow,” Jack said, “ a whole two days off. I’m honored.”
“You’re forgetting today is Wednesday.”
“No, I’m not. But since it’s past noon, today’s already gone anyway.”
“That’s the spirit!” Mason laughed. “How about we meet up for drinks after I get off work, and you can tell me about your trip?”
“I don’t think--”
“Not taking no for an answer, buddy.” His tone softened, and he said, “Seriously, Jack, you need to do something besides work. Start living again.”
Jack looked around his apartment at the bare walls and the unpacked moving boxes, both mostly untouched since the day he signed the lease almost a year ago. He sighed, and said, “Sure, Mace. I’ll see you at Jimmy’s around six. You get to pick up the first round.”
After hanging up, Jack thought, Maybe it’s time, and he walked to the largest stack of boxes. The one on top stared up at him like the children he spent so much time with over the last five weeks, forlorn and lifeless. The label on the side read “photographs.” He frowned, picked it up carefully, and placed it in the corner of the room closest to the door.
That one would be last. It had to be. He just wasn’t ready.
He wondered if he ever would be.
Jimmy’s was a noisy place on the slowest of days, but Wednesdays were unique. The back room was devoted to an especially boisterous version of Trivial Pursuit that included teams, cheerleaders, and betting. The front was a frenetic mix of pool, parties, and piano. Most nights the musician was female, young, and pretty; tonight, however, a rotund man with long hair and a graying beard pounded the keys into submission. There was an abandon to his playing, fat fingers hitting more keys than intended at times, that offered a simple elegance to his delivery. When Jack first walked in, he was greeted with a discordant--and in his opinion, more beautiful--rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” The man’s voice was both grating and powerful, and choked when he came to the lines:
And it's not a cry that you hear at night
It's not somebody who's seen the light
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah
“I hate that song,” Mason said as he slapped Jack on the back and sat next to him at the bar. “Same thing over and over again. Never goes anywhere.”
Jack turned, shook his head, and said, “I think that’s the point. It’s about the futility of life.”
“Whoa,” Mason said, popping a handful of peanuts in his mouth. “A bit early in the evening to go all philosophical and morose, don’t you think?” Jack winced as Mason spoke, watching the man’s hand dive repeatedly into the bowl of complimentary nuts. Jack never ate those. Working in the field for the CDC’s Global Health Center taught him the dangers of communal food sources; and besides, they were liberally doused with hot sauce in order to get the patrons to buy more drinks. In Mason’s case it worked like a charm.
“If you’d seen what I had...” Jack began, then trailed off.
“Yeah, I read the preliminary report you filed,” Mason said, shaking his head. “Sounded rough.” He brightened a bit, and said, “On the up side, Sally took your advice and is sending in a second team and some serious equipment.”
“Won’t help,” Jack said, then lifted his beer to take a drink. He stared at nothing while he drank, imagining the pure, dreamless sleep those people endured. What did it feel like? he wondered. How is that any different than death, itself?
“But you said--”
“I know what I said. What I’m saying now is that it won’t help.”
Mason watched him for a second, then said, “Jesus, Jack. Talk about morose.” Mason waved at the bartender for a beer, then handed the woman his credit card to run a tab. He picked up the bottle, took a swig, and said, “Let’s grab a booth so we can scope the ladies without looking like creepers.” Lifting himself off the stool, he pointed at the nearest empty table, “That looks good.” He winked at Jack and said, “Full view of the room.” He started to lead the way, then turned back to say, “And no more talking about work. I get enough of that at work.”
“Deal,” Jack said, and followed him to the table. He grabbed a menu from the bar on his way, saying “I don’t know about you, but I could go for some wings.”
“More of a leg-man, myself,” Mason said, laughing at his own joke. Jack noticed that he did that a lot, and had for as long as he had known him, going all the way back to college. Mason was tall and thin, but his presence filled a room like no one else he knew. Loud to the point of almost being bellicose, he had a knack for making any gathering more fun. He was the perfect counterpoint to Jack’s staid seriousness. Especially lately.
They sat, and Mason surveyed the room while Jack checked the menu. Both actions were pointless. The bar was lousy with regulars, and Mason had already hit on most of the attractive women--and been shot down--over time. Jack knew the menu by heart, and could write it out longhand if required. At least with my nose buried in the menu, I don’t have to listen to endless questions about my mental health.
Mason stopped pretending to look at women and turned his attention back to Jack. “So...how are you doing? Really.”
“No,” Jack said, waving his hand in front of Mason’s face.
“No, as in ‘we’re not doing this now’, no.” He had grown impatient with everyone trying to help him. There was nothing anyone could do to help.
“Jack, it’s been a year--”
“Ten months, twelve days, and two hours.” His eyes narrowed and he took in a slow breath. “I know exactly how long it’s been, Mason. I don’t need anyone to remind me.” He rubbed the back of his neck, feeling for the scar. “I have an empty apartment reminding me every goddamn waking moment of my life!”
“Calm down, man,” Mason said, his voice soothing. He reached across the table and placed a hand on Jack’s shoulder. “I’m just trying to help. That’s all.”
“I get it, Mace. You’re trying to help, Sally’s trying to help, Jenna and Bill are trying to help. The whole goddamn world is trying to help, but the only person who can help me is me,” he finished by pounding his fist once on the table, rattling his bottle. It danced, almost to the point of tipping over, but he snagged it deftly before it had a chance. A few of the regulars turned their way, but the rest ignored them. Everyone’s wrapped up in their own shit, Jack thought. They don’t need mine, too.
Mason pulled away, leaned back, and said, “Fine, I get it. Not another word tonight,” he crossed his heart with the bottle still in his hand, “I promise.”
Jack watched him with one eyebrow cocked, then sighed and took a drink from his beer. “So...” he said, pointing with the neck of his bottle, “how about that one over there?”
Mason turned to where he indicated, squinted, then shrugged. “Nah. She turned me down last week.”
“Woman’s got good taste, then.” Jack tried on a smile to see if it fit. Tight, but not uncomfortable.
Mason clinked bottles with Jack, and said, “Damn straight.”
With a long weekend to fill, Jack considered driving the two hours to Greenville where his brother Bill and his wife Jenna had the perfect life with their two children. As a police detective there, Bill had a certain amount of flexibility in his schedule, and was certain to make time for a visit, but Jack knew the questions and concerns were sure to come up. Last night with Mason was almost more than he could bear, and an entire weekend of sad, sincere faces would drive him to drink.
He swirled the glass in his hand. Okay, he thought, drink more. Grabbing the remote he turned on the TV, then reached for the stack of mail he retrieved from the hold bin at the post office. Large enough to choke an elephant, most of it was junk. And bills. Always bills. The medical bills were the worst, most arriving months after he thought everything had been paid. The first one of those had a balance high enough to make him laugh out loud. “Might as well just ask for eighty bazillion dollars,” he said. “It would be just as likely to get paid.” He touched the long scar on his left arm that was the object of that particular bill. “Would have been cheaper just to take it off.”
There were twelve more just like the first, all from different doctors and specialties--five of the names he didn’t recognize. Odds were they had just been standing near his door and spoke to the real doctors once, giving them an excuse to sign his chart and try to take a slice. As far as he was concerned, used car salesmen were more honest.
Another late notice from the landlord, but since he already put a check in the mail, he threw that one away. The letter from Mark and Betsy he set aside unopened. Like the photographs in the corner, he would get to it later. In the middle of the pile was a letter postmarked from Kazakhstan dated two days before he arrived in that country. Odd, he thought. There was no return address, and he couldn’t imagine anyone there who knew he was coming. The envelope had come open at some point during transit, and was resealed with tape. If he were a prominent figure in the government he might take it directly to the FBI for a once-over and let them open it, but he was neither that important nor that paranoid. Jack ripped the letter open at the end, extended his arm, and shook the contents onto the coffee table.
A standard A4, coarse-grained sheet of paper, folded twice, fell out and fluttered down. Jack held the open end up to his eyes, but there was nothing else inside. He set the envelope aside and carefully opened the letter, flattening it on the table. Handwritten cursive letters, formed by a thick soft-leaded pencil, lay there accusing him in English--I know who killed your wife and daughter.
“So do I, asshole,” he said, grabbing his drink and downing the remainder in a single gulp. “I did.”
“It’s not working, daddy,” Riley said, kicking the back of his seat.
“Sorry sweetheart. It’s probably just locked up.” He turned his head just enough to see her pouting in her car seat, “Do you know how to reboot it?”
“She’s four, Jack,” Beth said beside him, shaking her head, “not one of your tech geeks at work.”
“Hey, the kid knows more than I did at her age,” he protested, accompanied by the sound of Riley pounding on the tablet’s screen.
Beth turned all the way around in her seat, and said, “We’ll be at nana and pawpaw’s soon, baby. You can wait a few minutes.”
“Too long!” More pounding.
“Ugh, fine,” his wife said, unbuckling her seatbelt. “I’ll come back there and see if I can fix it.”
“Just have her hand it to you.”
“It’s strapped to the back of your seat, remember,” she said with a heavy sigh. Crawling between the front seats, one knee on the center console, her ass was beside Jack’s head. He remembered that perfect ass was the first thing he saw the day he met her, and, truth be told, the first thing about her he fell in love with.
He smiled and reached across with his left hand to slap it, but never finished the motion. The truck, a big red four-wheeler with the knobby tires high school boys in Georgia loved so much, slammed into his side of the car. Not his door, of course. That would have been a blessing. No, it hit Riley’s door full-on, folding the car nearly in half before rolling it over. Coming to rest in the ditch upside-down, the horn stuck and blaring a single soulless note, Jack winced in pain as he turned toward his wife. Her lifeless eyes stared straight at him, marking him like a witness in a murder trial. Millimeter by agonizing millimeter, he continued turning--contorting his body to see behind to his daughter. His beautiful, perfect little girl. A foot, attached to an ankle, attached to a leg, attached to...
He woke screaming, sweat flowing from every pore in his body. Flailing his arms and legs, the dream releasing him reluctantly, he swept the three empty liquor bottles off the table next to the sofa. They fell to the carpeted floor with a trio of thuds.
Jack sat up, the screams replaced by sobs, and he hugged himself tightly while pulling his hair with his fist. Rocking in his seat, he cried for several minutes. It was comforting in its way--familiar as an old pair of shoes. “It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t my fault.”
A mantra as old as his pain, he would repeat the refrain until he almost believed it.
“The asshole ran a stop sign. Happens every day. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t...”
What would his friends and family say if they saw him like this? Would they worry more, or be impressed at his ability to hold it together as well as he did? What the fuck does it matter, anyway?
Everyone kept saying it would get better. It didn’t. It only grew more distant. The pain of loss did not lessen, it did not get easier. It was there in an instant, hammering on the door to his brain whenever he remembered his daughter. Remembered her...
“At least the son of a bitch had the decency to die,” he said, his voice stronger now that he was fully awake.
Cops said he was asleep when he hit us. He sleeps forever now. Good goddamn riddance.
Jack picked up his cell to check the time. 3 am. Setting it back on the table, the phantom letter grabbed his attention again. He picked it up, turned it over, then back, looking for anything that might hold a clue as to who wrote it. What’s the point, anyway? Everyone knows who killed my family.
“Mark Wilson Peters, Jr.,” he said aloud, the sound of his own voice mocking him. “He had help, though.”
He threw the letter down, and then stood on shaking legs. The pins in his left leg were hurting, and he rubbed it while he walked to the bar. Almost empty, it still held enough to keep him numb at least through Saturday. Sunday he would set aside for recovery before returning to work on Monday.
Until then he belonged to Jack Daniels.