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FICTION: The Daniel Baxter Project by Travis Lee  

Posted by Scott Wilson

1



"You don't have to do this."

"Don’t talk to me now. You’ve said enough."

"Listen to me."

"No."

"You have to listen to me."

"I’m through listening to you. I don’t care what you do now. I don’t care if you do it too. You took everything from me."

"Please."

"No. Stop. It’s my only way out."

She did it.

And later he did it too. With the boxcutter from work.



2



Detective Smith woke up around 3 in the morning. He’d been dreaming of the boy he’d never met, the dead boy he’d never meet. As he did each time he woke up, he held his hand to his chest and waited. Waited until the thump came through, muted beneath skin and bone. When it hit twice, he got up.

In the kitchen he took a bottle of whiskey from the freezer and a shotglass from the cupboard.

"You took everything from me," he muttered as he poured the glass. "Stop. It’s my only way out."

He lifted the glass to his lips.

"He did it with the boxcutter." He blinked. "The one he used at work."

He downed the shot.



3



Blood. God, there was so much blood.



4



It finally happened.

I have wondered how long it will take people to forget me after I die. I swore I’d never forget Dan. I swore that every day I would take some time to remember him, to reflect on the time we spent together, a time shorter than that longer period that’s too short as it is.

But then it went and happened: I forgot him. I guess it was inevitable. My grandfather died when I was eleven, and as I write this today marks the first time I’ve thought of him in a long, long time. For awhile there, I could do nothing but think of my grandfather. The old man had gone out at the age of sixty-eight but not due to a bad heart or natural causes. He had gotten in a car wreck. Died of pneumonia in the hospital two weeks later. I thought of why. I thought of how, as in how it could have been different, hell, how it should have been different, it should have been someone else’s grandfather, it should have been anyone, anyone else but my grandpa. Then, time passed. My thoughts of him stretched a little further…and a little further still. Until it faded, no different from my first day of school.

I didn’t realize I had lapsed in my commitment to Dan until today on the bus. I was riding home from work and it occurred to me I had not thought about Dan at all the day before. Maybe not the day before that and that’s when I realized I could not say with any degree of certainty how much time had passed since my thoughts last dwelled on my friend.

Perhaps that’s why I’m writing this. Somehow this act of sitting here in front of a computer will keep him alive. I will make a commitment, right now, as of this writing, to keep writing about Dan every day. Anything, I think, would work. Even his name, Dan, three letters of his full one: Daniel Edward Baxter.

It’s been about eight years since he died. They say we are immortal in the memories of others, so I feel that I’ve killed him a little bit more. Right before he died, I asked him to come over and play Nintendo 64. Dusting off these memories is like dusting that old thing off: you find so much joy you didn't know you had forgotten.





5



I first knew Dan in the spring of 01.

It was a miracle I didn't meet him sooner. We were the same age. Same major. Even the same dorm. I can recall having seen him a few times my first semester of college—in the hallways, around campus, that sort of thing…and I can even tell you that I vaguely recall seeing him in the big freshman-level lectures: those engineering fundamentals courses, where they truly do weed out the weak.

Spring 2001. In Knoxville. Knoxville springs are special to me. Not too hot. Not too cold. Just the right weather for enjoying the outdoors. And the girls. Yes, the ladies start taking everything out, all that hibernating sexuality unleashed. And on the hill, the sun shines brighter than anywhere else on earth. I tell you, it’s a wonderful time to be alive.

It was on one of these days that I first met Dan.

I had just emerged from a Calculus I test, in need of a victory smoke. Smoking wasn’t an everyday thing—just after certain events. I had actually quit except after tough tests, my reward for studying hard. Even if I bombed the fucking thing, I still had a smoke.

I saw him sitting there on a bench, reading a book. Nerdy looking white guy reading a book is nothing too strange in and of itself, but the man was...talking to himself. Well, not so much that. He would read, then close his eyes and say something and then start reading again. It was so loud that others were turning to look.

I had my smokes where I always kept them, in my inner jacket pocket, but when I grabbed it, I realized it was empty. I peered inside. Yep. Empty. I must’ve assumed there was still one left. I looked around. Students flocking around everything. A couple girls in short shorts. I watched them disappear inside the math building and it so happened that my eyes turned back to the boy on the bench. Still reading his book. Still closing his eyes, mumbling quietly to himself.

Shit, I thought. Why the hell not?

"Hey, you don’t by any chance have a smoke do you?" I asked, already beginning to feel like a tool.

He held up a finger. He raised his head, closed his eyes and stated a rule for finding limits.

He reopened them on me.

"What is it?"

"A cigarette. I’m just wondering if you have one."

"A cigarette?"

"Yeah. You got one?"

He pondered the question, as if it were some sort of riddle.

At last, he tapped the bag beside the bench. "In there. Top zipper. Inside zipper, right one."

I began to search.

"No, the right one," he said as I pulled out a quarter.

I got the pack, lit a cigarette.

"Thanks for the smoke."

"No problem. That’s five minutes of my life I just saved at the expense of yours. I consider it a fair trade. How about you?"

I didn’t know what to say to that. He spoke in a flat, monotone voice. It was always difficult to tell if he was joking or not. Though to be honest with you, I can't say he ever joked about anything. There was always some underlying current of truth.

"Or do your people believe that each and every minute counts?"

"My people?" I asked between silent geysers. "What exactly is my people?"

"I took the liberty of assuming you’re Muslim. Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t you all value life? Or is that some other group?"

I am not Muslim. Though my parents emigrated from Saudi Arabia when I was three, I am not Muslim. I don’t even speak Arabic that well, though I do speak it.

"I’m not Muslim," I explained to him. "I was born and raised in the States."

"That doesn’t mean you’re not Muslim," he said, a smile touching his lips. "There are many Muslims born in these borders."

"I don’t see what it matters."

"It doesn’t," he said. "I just want to get to know you. I did take five minutes off your life, after all."

"Are you a Christian?" I asked as the cigarette neared its end.

"No. Despite the fact that I was born and raised in the States."

I don’t remember what else we talked about that day, but I do remember swapping email and AIM screen names. I left him behind on the bench and went to grab some coffee and do some clean up studying. He was on the bench when I left. Far as I know, that’s where he stayed all day long.



6



Detective Smith leaned against the wall, waiting.

He had already finished one cigarette and was working on number two when the first of them passed by. Young adults, mostly. The early morning haul. Some wore pajamas, some flopped about in sandals and messy hair and unshaven beards and some still carried smells with them so foul as to be classified legitimate health hazards.

He blew a cloud of smoke. It flew over the tops of their heads in a great cumulus mass and then broke apart and vanished.

He tried to avoid looking at any of them. Upper middle class white kids whose only idea of hardship was not being able to afford the latest fashions at Christmas, which of course were the ones everyone else wore. They came here to college to get an education, but in reality, it was nothing more than a finishing school where they got a stamp on entry, a stamp on exit and an ass kick into the real world where they discovered that a degree doesn’t always equal job skills. Detective Smith found them all contemptible. He found them all a little disgusting.

This was his first time tackling an on campus assignment. He had gotten the phone call early last night, asked by KPD to come report in the morning. He had gotten the phone call in the middle of one of his section naps—take two pills, dry swallow and buzz out on the couch. That he had been coherent enough on the phone was a miracle.

Smith was on his third cigarette when the sergeant came up.

A fat, bald man, the only semblance of hair was a neatly trimmed mustache.

"Sorry I’m late." He offered his hand. "Sergeant Nicholas, KPD. How are you this morning?"

"Wonderful," Smith grunted. He crushed the cigarette beneath his boot.

Sergeant Nicholas started to laugh.

"What’s so funny?"

"We don’t allow smoking near the dorms anymore."

Smith stared at him.

"Okay. Let’s get on up there."





They went to room 713.

"This is it," the sergeant said. He opened the door on a clean room. The bed made. The computer fan humming. Stacks of movies and books against the wall. The sergeant lifted a stack of papers. "Here is the file."

Smith took it.

What they had was a suicide.

"Daniel Baxter, age twenty-two," the sergeant said. "By all accounts, a real bright kid. Had a lot going for him, ya know."

"What was the method?"

"This."

A plastic bag on the desk. Inside, a boxcutter.

"He stocked shelves at Target part time. Did it with his boxcutter. They came in this morning, found blood everywhere. When—"

"They came in? Who?"

"Other people in the hall at first. After that the RA, the police."

"How?"

"He left the door open. He shut everything off but his computer, opened the door, and went to work. Hell, it was mere chance that someone passed by, looked in and saw him sitting there. Didn’t see the blood until they turned on the light."

Smith’s eyes traced imaginary designs across the tiles.

"Photos in here?"

"Yep."

"Okay. How about motive?"

"No real idea. He had an open instant messenger window. Talking to someone named Candy3134. We also found his cell phone with a call placed to a local number some hour or so before it’s estimated he took his life."

The cell was in a plastic bag. Smith collected it.

"Names of his friends in here?"

"Everything you need, Detective. You will have UTPD’s full cooperation on this matter."

"Okay. I’ll get this stuff by evidence today and examine the case. Tomorrow or the next day at the latest, I want to start talking to his friends. His parents. His—"

The sergeant was laughing again.

"What is it?"

"Sorry, it’s early. The boy had no parents."

"What happened to them?"

"Dead. Father by cancer before the boy was born. Mother in a car wreck when the kid was just four years old. It’s a damn shame, I tell ya. That boy had it hard."

Detective Smith waited for the sergeant to finish. When he was sure, he said, "Okay. Let me get the ball rolling on this."

"Sure thing. We’ll be in touch."



7



Detective Smith dropped off the evidence at the station and returned home. He lived in an apartment in south Knoxville, a quiet residential area close enough to the countryside to be peaceful yet close enough to the city to be modern. He pulled up, got out of his car and passed by two kids hitting each other with nerf bats, no parents in sight. They zipped back and forth in front of the stairwell, pink bats connecting as if in a choreographed performance.

He reached his door. A kid screamed.

He looked over, telling himself he would not go see. Would not go see. Then he went.

Then he saw.

One of the kids lie in the parking lots with his nose busted. Blood covering his shirt. The other kid kept a safe distance, shouting for his mother. Smith watched the mother come and smack her son who started crying himself. She smacked him again. He cried harder. Then she yanked him by the ear and dragged him off and extended one arm to his injured friend.

Shivering, the child took it.

The mother smacked him and yanked his ear as well. She took both of them away by the ears.

Smith wondered how many laws that woman had just broken. He began to laugh. He laughed all the way to his balcony.

He had left all the evidence behind save one: the cellphone. They had dusted it for prints, finding only the kids’. That was expected. But it was this phone call that wasn’t too expected. He lit a cigarette and examined the phone.

It was a north Knoxville number. He got that just by reading it. But who was it? Smith let his cigarette rest on the bar and went inside. He returned with his landline phone, put the smoke back between his lips and dialed.

"We’re sorry, this number is no longer in service."

"You’re not sorry," he mumbled and took a puff.





Smith sat out his evening pills. Pre dinner and post dinner.

When had he started taking the pills? He hadn’t always taken them—there had been a time when he’d showed up, done his job and gone back home. It had been her. She had made it all worthwhile. Them. Their hair the same shade of strawberry blonde, their eyes the same shade of blue. But the pills. The fucking pills.

He dryswallowed two.

He sat on the couch where they had made love. Where she had been conceived. Sat and dimmed away. A light brightened. It hurt his eyes. He had forgotten to turn off the stove but now didn’t feel like doing so and shied his eyes to the floor and waited for his thoughts to drift back in.

They often ran around. How his mind did wander. How hard it was to return to him.

It at last did. It brought with it thoughts of his new case, speculations on the dead boy. Just twenty two years old, taking his life three months before graduation. Smith sank. With a degree in computer engineering. This was no upper middle class punk doing soft time in exchange for more free time to stand in a circle with his buddies wishing the world’s ills away. It was a good degree. Smith sank further. With a lot going for him. Why had he done it?

"Isn’t it obvious?" his mouth asked.

Isn’t what obvious?

"A woman fucked him."

Smith sank even further.



8



The next time I saw Dan was in a study group. It was our midterm for Engineering Physics II, one of those introductory courses where you better not enjoy reach-a-rounds.

We had our class lists online. Emails kept flying around, mostly from people who never attended lectures who suddenly realized they might need the material covered if they had a prayer in hell of passing. I can’t stand these people. To be honest, I refuse to help them, so when I decided to join a study group, I went looking for one with the fewest cheaters.

We met in a study room over in the library. I walk in at seven and there he is, Dan, at the other end of the table. Three blonde girls in sorority jackets. And us. Already I want to leave.

"Hello," Dan mumbled, and this was the only acknowledgement he gave me. The other two girls don’t look at me. One gives me a sideways glance. But that’s all I’m getting tonight.

"Yeah, I was hoping that I got number three right," the girl to my left said.

"That makes two of us."

"What?" She looked around, as if lost. I couldn’t help but crack a smile as I took a seat and opened my book. The girl waited for Dan to answer, but he’d taken to pointing out a problem for the brunette. Her eyes wandered around. The wide confused eyes of someone who doesn’t know where they are. Or when they are, for that matter.

They settled on me.

"Hey."

I took a seat at the end of the table.

I looked at Dan. He and the other girl were knee deep in a problem.

"Hey."

I averted my eyes from the source of that noise. Maybe if I never acknowledged her she’d go away. Or maybe she’d just keep saying ‘hey’, maybe a hundred years if possible, as long as it took to get my attention.

Or maybe she’d pretend that I’d acknowledged her.

"This problem’s really giving me trouble." She thrust the book into my face, open to a page of problems. I finally look up. Brown doe eyes. Blonde hair. And she’d bent over a little bit, the top of her shirt spread wide. "Think you could help me?"

I’d love to say that I refused. I’d love to say I did not do her homework for her…but a week later, she got her assignment back. 100. I got mine back too.

85.

"Maybe you should’ve copied off her," Dan whispered in my ear.



9



After the midterm, I don’t recall seeing Dan again until the Eagle Ridge Party. UT has a reputation as a party school, as you may well know, and yes, freshmen had plenty of opportunities to drink. Usually inside our dorms, the alcohol courtesy of an older student. If they’re a friend, it’s free. Not a friend, then there’s a service charge.

Some upperclassmen in nuclear engineering were throwing a party at one of their condos over at Eagle Ridge. I was standing outside my dorm waiting for the SUV. When it pulled up, it pitched my cigarette and jumped in.

There was Dan.

"You made it. Good," he said quietly.

It was me, Dan, three guys I didn’t know and Jonathan, who knew the upperclassmen throwing the party. On the way there, we all made small talk. How’s classes, how was the midterm, stuff like that. All of us, that is, except Dan.

He kept to himself the whole trip there. We pulled up to a gate and the guard questioned Jonathan as to our business here.

"Seeing some friends," he said.

The guard had a clipboard.

"What room number?"

"312."

The guard examined the clipboard, his finger tracing. Then stopping.

"Wait a moment please."

He went to the booth and picked up a telephone.

"So much shit," a guy behind me said. "What they got in there man?"

"Your mom," the other said and we laughed. Even Dan cracked a smile.

The guard returned.

"Go on in."





The guys introduced themselves and then introduced the drinks. Screwdrivers. Jello shots, color-coded for our convenience. Red was weak, green was medium and purple was strong.

"We used a concentrated mixture of vodka in those," said a guy whose name I cannot for the life of me begin to remember.

Dan grabbed a purple one. The styrofoam cup bent in his grip.

He examined it for a second like a newly discovered artifact. Like a pile of gold he’d dug up while raking the leaves. He lifted and squeezed the cup and the shot oozed into his mouth. He swallowed, licked his lips and turned to me.

"You can hardly taste it."

Did he mean the vodka or the jello? He waved a cup at me.

"Come on. I don’t think Allah’s watching."

"How many times I gotta tell you?" I took the cup. "I am not Muslim."

I downed the shot.

Between Dan and I, we must’ve done thirty to forty shots that night. Jello and alcohol. We took out all the purple ones, most of the green ones, and before we knew it, half a bottle of Vodka was gone.

"You know this is the good kind," I remember Dan slobbering with his arm around me.

I may have asked why. I may not. I can’t remember.

"Because it doesn’t say Suh venska. If it said that, we’d be in trouble."

The night went on. Much of what happened next comes to me in blocks. It’s not solid. So, I’ll just have to tell you as best I can.

There was a balcony. I remember that. Eagle Ridge was set up high overlooking the Tennessee River. The view was beautiful, even at night. Dan and I took seats in lawnchairs and Dan scooted his close to the rail and propped his feet up there.

He had a bottle in his hand.

"You know what this is?"

I didn’t response because I figured he’d just do what most people do: go on with the answer. But he didn’t. It took me a few seconds to realize this and when I did I craned over to see the bottle he was holding on the armrest and the symbols marked across its center.

"Some type of Asian drink."

"Yes. Good. Now…which type?"

I examined the patch.

"Or do they all taste the same?" And then came a smile. Clear then. Clear today. That odd offbeat smile of his. I noticed it for the first time and it is this smile I will always identify him with, from that day to the last day I saw him to the day I see him again in the next world.

He may have said something else. Probably he did, but the next clear memory is us talking about our families. Somehow we got on this topic—don’t ask me how—and I found myself explaining why he’d never get to meet my father.

"He’s an engineer over there. Saudi, I mean."

"So you’re entering the family business?"

I laughed. I think I was holding the bottle. I think I downed a shot. I know it burned. It sure as hell did. Through the foulest taste I said, "My mother and I came here, he and my little brother stayed there. It was hard on my mother at first. You know, the changes."

"You mean not getting beaten for wearing shorts in public?"

"Not close to that," I burped. So did he. I think. "There’s a language barrier with her. My father too. I was lucky enough to get into a good school, so my English is just fine, and we began the immigration process when I was just four years old. I was ten when I got here. You know that?"

He tipped the bottle back down.

"So is your brother coming over here too?"

I nodded. "Plans to. In a couple years."

Sometime later, when the bottle was noticeably depleted as was the noise behind us, I asked him about his family.

He didn’t reply for quite some time. Opting to stare out into the dark natural world beyond us and I stared too and I remember thinking that not just hundreds of years ago none of this had been here. This university. These apartments and roads and stores. None of it. Just Indians. Their villages. Their tribes. Their way of life. No idea what was coming for them.

A beautiful land then. What about today? There’s something about it that just blows your mind. I can’t quite articulate that it is, but it’s there: in some vague abstract form that I lack the vocabulary or intelligence to describe. I think I was close to bringing this up when a slurry voice cut in.

"My parents are dead."

"Oh. Oh shit." I kept thinking about the Indians. The tribes. Their teepees. But what I thought most about was how they survived winters and thunderstorms. What they thought of the storms. How they explained it to their children.

"I’m sorry man," I said. Given my preoccupation, it had to be the most half assed attempt at sympathy ever. Luckily, he didn’t catch it.

"No need. You want to hear the story. I’ll tell it to you." He downed a shot. A lengthy shot. One that demanded one large long burp followed up by short after-burps. "My father killed himself and my mother got killed. I lived with my uncle up until I came here. Any questions?"

"I’m sorry," I mumbled.

I reached for the bottle.



10



Smith awoke. Waiting.

His alarm went off. Smith let the buzzing go on for a full minute or so before shutting it down.

"Okay then."

He got up.

In the kitchen his thoughts turned towards his childhood. One stood out in particular: a June morning in the kitchen. His mother was checking him before he went out to play—taking inventory before and after—when she asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up.

"A fireman!"

His mother lowered his hand. "Oh no no no. You need to be a doctor."

A doctor. That’s the path he’d aimed for. Somewhere along the way, he’d veered off, straight into city detective.

But not a big city detective.

Smith dumped the rest of his cheerios.

No, not a big city detective.

He shook the crumbs out.

Knoxville didn’t provide the necessary bragging rights of, say, Los Angeles or New York or Chicago or even Detroit. Tara Smith’s baby boy was fighting crime in...in a city that wasn’t even special enough to have a nickname. What kind of fate was that for her special little boy?

He had tipped the box upside down.

So she didn’t tell them he was a detective. He was a criminal profiler who traveled around the country getting inside serial killers’ minds. He could figure out how they think and he was one of only three people in the nation who could do that and of course he was the best that’s why he got all the hardest assignments and as for that silly city of Knox not special enough to have a nickname Ville, he maintained a home there. One of his many homes.

He flipped the box away and went for the milk and with the milk in hand stood staring at the cabinet.

"Why do you keep going back to those places?" he said and opened the cabinet and took the bottle of pills. Speaking of places in the past, how much had this cost him?

"It makes for a healthy day."

Screws were everywhere. Even inside hospitals. All it had taken was a male nurse with a pill habit of his own and a penchant for extra money to get Smith this collection. Stacks and stacks of pills in his kitchen cabinet.

If the people who popped him ever search your place, He yawned the rest of the thought away. They had caught that nurse and Smith did not remember his name right now but yes they had caught him and Smith had sat up nights in hotel rooms sipping whiskey or brandy and thinking it was only a matter of time before they busted his door down with a warrant and believe you me he sure as hell wasn’t going to be there when they did that with his face all plastered all over the news God what would his dear old mother think mother mother dear and old in her home zonked out twelve hours a day watching the TV and zonked out the other twelve staring at the ceiling?

He put three in his mouth. White ones. Milk carried them down his throat and he found his way to the couch where he turned the TV to nothing in particular and leaned back.



11



Yes, I'm Katie, and Daniel and I did sleep together in December 2001.

I guess I was just feeling vulnerable. I had come off a breakup with my baby’s daddy. I had kind of known Daniel through a couple classes and after a night of studying one thing just led to another.

No one knew. No, I don’t think that. That Arab looking guy might have known. Maybe.

I can tell you I talked to Daniel right up until it happened. There was never once he called that I wasn’t there. No, I don’t think he was messed up. He seemed okay to me.

One of the things I think I’ll always remember about Daniel, besides the...you know...was how cocky he was. I mean, I’d known cocky guys before but Daniel was cocky with the "cock" part emphasized. He just kept talking about how good he was all the time. He never shut up about that. Nope he didn’t.

So we had sex. I don’t remember much of it—we were so drunk. It was after we’d been studying for our EF 102 final, exam and we went back to his dorm. Daniel got a bottle of Jack. We mixed it with Coke, drank...and I remember that I did like him before we started drinking. It was something about that cocky attitude of his mixed with his very childish yet sophisticated sense of humor...or something like that. It attracted me.

You know, come to think of it, in many ways he reminded me of my baby’s daddy. They are so very similar people, but I’d say Daniel is way more cocky than he could ever be. That ego! I tell ya!

One of my clear memories from that night is him using is finger to stir the Jack and Coke together and putting it up to me. I put it in my mouth, sucked off the taste. Later he kissed me. I tugged at his pants and next thing I’m lying on the bed and he’s doing his thing.

I told a few of my close friends about it. No one else though. I’m not sure who he told. People found it, but you know how it is: nothing stays a secret forever. Sooner or later everything comes out in the open.

When I found out about what happened...I found out through Facebook. Yeah...Facebook. I saw in someone’s status message about how their prayers would be with Daniel forever and I remember thinking to myself "Who? Daniel Baxter". I went to his profile and saw for myself.

I don’t think of him much anymore. Sometimes at night when I’m laying down to go to bed I think of him. When I’m passing by Eastbrook Hall, I think of him. I think of him and that night we shared together.

And I miss him. In that night, I saw the great person that he could have been. I...I don’t want to say anymore than that. I saw it in him. The fire, I guess you might say. The fire. God how I wish I could tell him that.

God how I miss him.



12



Smith had interviewed a few of the boy’s friends and was now waiting for the results of the cellphone examination.

He had laid in his chair until ten or so when the pills’ effects wore off. He could not quite remember how they wore off. He never did. He just remembered lying there with his eyes closed and then standing at the cabinet reaching for the bottle.

He hadn’t popped today. It was after ten. Jesus, he was way overdue.

Then slowly it came to him and he closed the cabinet and after much self-conferencing waded to the bathroom and showered and returned to the cabinet and after a short conversation found his way to his car and over to the forensics department.

The autopsy on the kids’ body was still a few days away. Both the autopsy people and the forensics department hired UT Students. As he waited, he wondered if they’d send the boy out to the body farm. They’d need parental permission.

His parents were dead.

Well, they’d need guardian permission.

His guardian was dead too.

So did they need permission?

The body farm. Smith had never been there himself. But he knew about it. What Knoxvillian didn’t? All those bodies. Just decomposing. He couldn’t imagine setting anyone out to do that. Was that this boy’s fate? Perhaps he ought to ask the little lady behind the desk about it.

The little lady. She kept jotting things down in a notebook half her size.

Smith drifted away outside and lit a cigarette. He alternated each puff between inhaling and not inhaling. He kept track of this, and at the last inhale, a woman’s voice called out to him.

"Detective Smith?"

He let it out his nostrils. It left behind an itch.

"Yes?"

His nose scratched it. The sneeze was fierce. Uncovered. Snot in a schizophrenic pattern on the sidewalk.

He followed her back inside. The chief examiner informed him in plain tones that they had completed the diagnostic of his computer and provided Smith with a sheet reading what they had found.

"How about the hard drive?" he found himself asking the sheets.

From behind them, "The hard drive will stay here until an immediate member of the young man’s family is ready to claim it. If none of them do in an appropriate amount of time, we will turn it over to the city who will decide on the best course of action."

He lowered the papers.

"Appropriate amount of time?"

She nodded an uh-huh.

"How long is that?"

She looked at him.

"Why don’t I take it?"

"Um, I’m not sure if that’s within regulations."

"It is," he said quickly. "As the detective working this case, I can take it."

"I’m...not sure I follow you."

Oh, you’re sure, he thought. I can tell by that look on your face.

"As the detective working this case, I can use any piece of evidence I might feel helps me solve it." One eye crunched. He straightened it out. "The computer’s coming with me. End of story."

She eyed him for a moment. Then said, "Let me talk to my supervisor."



13



You want to know about Katie?

Well, I guess I can start by telling you what Dan told me: they fucked. It was that sort of sloppy drunken fucking that reminds us that we’re animals while at the same time reminding us of just how much of our inherent nature we’ve lost in the process of civilization.

Did you know we’re the only animals that have to learn how to fuck? Dan told me that once. I’m not sure if I believe him or not. It does make sense though. He has that going for him. He always made perfect sense, even when you thought he was full of shit. Especially when you thought so.

She and Dan had taken some classes together. As far as I knew, they were just study buddies. Hell, as far as I knew, she was just another starry-eyed girl looking to gyp a smart guy out of a few solutions to problems more complex than what to cook for dinner.

She was practicing for married life, in other words.

We were all studying together one night and she and Dan went off to their own part of the library. From then, I heard nothing else from either of them for two days. It was two days later when I offered to pick Dan up for dinner at Applebee’s. He was pretty quiet on the ride over. When we ordered. When the food arrived. A little ways into the meal, he piped up.

"I got laid this weekend."

"Really?"

"Yeah. Some girl I know."

"Some girl."

"It was awfully special."

We laughed.

"Before you put a ring on her finger, maybe you can tell me her name."

"Her name." He chuckled. That smile of his came back. "Okay. If I tell you, you must promise not to tell anyone else. Okay?"

I promised. Of course I did. Who wouldn’t?

"It was Katie."

"Katie?"

"Yeah."

Katie. That girl. Katie.

Over dinner Dan described to me what had happened. The sentence that stands out the most to me was his reaction.

"It was amazing. Really fucking cool."

He told me she was good in bed. He did not elaborate on how, but I think we both can fill in the blanks here.

Dan and Katie didn’t hang out much after that. Whenever I saw Katie, she was as friendly as ever but there was never any Dan around her. Not that I saw anyways. I think it was our final exam that year which really stands out to me: Katie came in first. It was spring and like any spring at UT, the girls really bring them out. Katie was no exception. I remember seeing her come in. Seeing her sit down. And seeing her sit there, dressed in a pair of green shorts. Well-toned mocha legs. A round chest in a plain white shirt, the girl was a tomboy but she was the sexiest tomboy I ever saw.

Dan was next. He came in to these things as he always did: his hair a mess and his clothes two days old going on three. He carried a smell with him. The smell of someone who’s been up all night studying.

He nodded at me. Then he looked at Katie. Katie’s eyes widened. She kept staring straight ahead and Dan passed by. Looking. Waiting...perhaps even considering. But whatever it is he thought about doing, it didn’t matter. Katie was having none of it. As he passed on by her, she flipped open her notebook to a blank page and read words that were not there, studied a subject that was a subject to anyone watching from a distance.

And Dan? He stood there for a few more moments. He stood there...and with all the spark of a newly set off glacier, he went to his seat.



14



The computer tower sat beside his kitchen counter. The monitor atop it. Smith was on his couch sipping coffee and watching the Weather Channel’s five day forecast unfold.

"Rain," he mumbled between sips. Rain.

The day’s work was not yet done. The computer sitting to his right was but a piece of it.

"Okay then," Smith said. "After the coffee."





He parked in Hess Hall’s firelane and got out. Herds of students passed in many directions. But no one noticed. Nobody saw an area detective parking in the firelane and getting out of his car, adjusting his jacket and looking up at the seventh floor as some approximation of the location of death. They had already moved everything out. He knew this. By looking up he might justify his purpose for being here to whoever would question him, that whoever being the audience watching him or the students pretending not to notice him.

Pretending. Just pretending.

Smith carried a small piece at all times. He casually flicked open his jacket. The piece stood out in the open. But no one noticed. Nobody saw his gun in his holster. They pretended not to notice it.

Pretending. Just pretending.

Smith gripped the gun. Would they noticed?

Would they?

Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes, he thought without warning and started laughing. He laughed so hard he collapsed against the car and at last this brought the attention he wanted. People passing in different directions glanced at him and Smith’s head shot up and when those wide eyes cradled in scarlet focused on them they turned away and pretended again.

But that’s fine. After all, they had noticed.





The door to the boys' wing was under lock via a student ID card. He walked through the lobby and waited at the corner. Across from him two girls sat at the desk chatting. One had her laptop open. She pointed at it and they giggled. He waited. A tall boy carrying rackets passed him. Still he waited. But watched and as the boy approached the door, Smith jogged up behind him.

The boy’s only awareness of Smith came when he held the door open. Smith grabbed it and wordlessly and sightlessly they rode the elevator up. The boy and his rackets departed at the sixth floor. Smith at the seventh.

He still had a key to the room. He veered left and went inside and let the door shut and lock behind him.

"You did it with the boxcutter you used at work," Smith whispered.

They had done a thorough cleaning job. All the blood was gone. The bed was stripped and not a possession of his remained. Daniel Baxter had exited this world in blood. And now his blood had gone too. Along with everything he owned.

Smith sat on the bed.

The desk was across from the bed. It too looked clean. As if they had switched all the furniture with brand new models. It made sense. Surely word was out by now. Who wanted to live in the same room where some guy killed himself? Sleep in the same bed? Sit at the same desk? And that blood? Can’t you still see it there on the floor? Right there on the floor?

With a grunt he rubbed his forehead.

Where had the boy done it? In the chair. So he sat there. In the chair.

The phone had been right here, he thought. As for the boxcutter, let’s say it was right over here. The computer of course was here, the keyboard here, and little Danny boy facing it.

"Yes," he cooed. "Facing it but certainly not liking what he was seeing."

Or hearing.

That had been a north Knoxville number. Daniel had talked to somebody before he died. Well, correction: he had talked to somebody before he killed himself. Somebody.

Smith grabbed at the spot where the phone had been. He shaped his hand close to the shape of a cell phone and held it to his ear, careful not to let his fingers fold in too much. A tight grip. But don’t destroy the damn thing.

He waited. He waited for the words.

He didn’t wait long.



15



Dan’s uncle died in the summer of 01.

Dan had talked about doing a co-op that summer but I think the prospect of lounging around in a nice home rent free without having to work for three months appealed to him.

I was not so lucky. I did get a co op that summer. But I guess I was lucky in a way: I got it over in Oak Ridge. That’s all I can really talk about: the location. Because everything else was fetching coffee and watching. I watched them do their work but I was not allowed to interfere in any way. They called it a learning process, but the only learning I did was from the textbooks I’d grabbed from the library. Differential Equations. Calculus II. It’s never too early to get a head start. Especially with Diff Eq.

Dan and I talked off and on. With me busy at work and him busy playing his Playstation, we had little time. We mostly chatted on AIM. In the days before Facebook. Before everyone and their lives were summed up in 200 KB.

Dan seemed in high spirits. I guess. Whenever I asked him what he was doing, he would act kind of weird. He kind of clammed up and sputtered something about reading or playing video games or watching movies. One time I joked that he really knew how to live life to the fullest. After his reaction, I never joked like that again.

His uncle went at the end of July. Heart attack. Dan never told me the specifics. All he kept repeating was that it had been a long time coming. His uncle never took care of himself, smoked, drank. Ate shit all the time. Dan had to cook his own food or suffer his uncle’s greasy terrors.

They buried his uncle and that was it. If Dan were upset, he never let on. I personally think he was. How could you not be? But Dan was like that though. He kept himself to himself and he did it really well.





16



"No," Smith whispered and that was the end of the words. Had he spoken the boy’s words? He thought so. And with that, Smith set the phone down and reached to the other side of the desk.

Where the boxcutter was.

His hand hovered over it. The boxcutter here? He thought on this. No. No. It was…

Smith shot up.

"Did he plan it?"

If he’d planned it out, he’d have the boxcutter on his desk near the monitor. If not…

Smith got up, went over to the nightstand. He lifted and returned to his desk.

Did he say anything before he did it? Smith thought on this too. No. He did it with the boxcutter he used at work. But he did it silently. Not much for words was this Daniel Baxter.

Down. He sliced down. He turned his arms over. The veins burst and the blood came spraying out and it covered the floor where it flowed out and dried up on the carpet in long serpent patterns. Then he slumped there and sometime later he died. Either from suffocation or unconsciousness brought on by blood loss and then heart failure, either painfully or painless or he was just as unaware as Smith was and the detective preferred the latter. He preferred the latter because he didn’t want to think a college boy had thought this through so well as to know what would happen exactly after he cut his wrists.

Well why not? He knew the method of delivery. Is it that much of a stretch to assume he knew the method of death as well?

Razors to wrists, he thought. Who doesn’t know what that does? Come on.

So what happened next?

He cut his wrists…and then he died. Just died. There was still an autopsy coming. They had that to look forward to.

"Okay. So in the meantime," he wandered over to the nightstand and waved his hand over it. His fingers released at the right height and Smith started pacing around the room. That Arab had said that the boy had gotten laid once. Had they done it in here? Over there on the bed? Or somewhere else? He hadn’t specified.

Smith was standing at the bed. Looking down but thinking nothing of substance. Nothing coherent, nothing that he could seize and understand. He stood like this for several minutes. Then a thought appeared. A coherent one. A real one.

A desirous one.

"I need another pop."

He chuckled a soundless chuckle. Then left the room.



17



Dan and I lived in Greve Hall our sophomore year. Sophomore year, the year we met Caleb, Davis, and Andrew. The year Dan took an Arabic class.

I almost shit my pants when he told me that. Him. Taking Arabic. Incredible. Was it his foreign language requirement? No. He

"—just want more hours."

"More hours? Fair enough, I guess. Not for me though. How many you got now?"

"Eighteen."

"Eighteen? What the hell for?"

"Arabic adds twenty one. It’s a four hour class."

"You’re going to dead before the semester’s out. I guarantee it."

I did guarantee it. The man was taking twenty one hours. Four of those hours was EF 201. Another four was Organic Chemistry. Three more was Differential Equations. Diff Eq.

That was a doozy. If you ever want to feel like a total idiot, go spend a semester in that class with Dr. Doozy himself as a teacher. Dr. Nicholas "Doozy" Farmer. I’ve never had a teacher like him before or since. He ported around this big bucket of soapwater and a sponge. Each class he began by scrubbing off the board. But his method wasn’t one dip, total wipe. It was dip scrub dip scrub dip scrub until the board was spotless. And if Doozy was feeling forgetful that day, if he left a spot, he’d stop in the middle of his lecture to correct it.

It and the entire board. Dip scrub. Dip scrub. Dip.

Dan liked to tell him he’d missed a spot in the middle of his lectures. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But when it worked…it worked. He’d drop whatever he was talking about, usually something unrelated to math, and scrub the entire board down. While he did this, it was all we could do to keep straight faces. Sometimes there was nothing we could do. Sometimes you just have to laugh.

When Dr. Doozy worked out math, it seemed to me he was bragging rather than teaching. Look what I can do. I said look at it, you worthless fucking undergrads. It reminded me of that scene from Fight Club where Tyler Durden tells his recruits that they are not precious unique snowflakes. They are made from the same organic matter as everyone else. None of us were unique in that class. Our quiz scores came back low every time.

One time just before a quiz, Dr. Doozy stepped out of the class. While he was gone, Dan went up and drew Dr. Doozy's round likeness on the board. Doozy spent a good thirty minutes cleaning the board.

Dan got a C in the course for that stunt.

As for the Arabic class, I helped him when I could. To be too honest, I’d lost a good deal of mine from my years living here. Not in the "I can’t understand it" way. More like my desire to speak it. You’d think being in a foreign country would make me eager to speak my mother tongue with someone else. Yes, you’d think that…but no. I avoided Arabs like the plague. There were a couple times when people on campus came up to me and started babbling that throaty shit. I feigned ignorance. I just…it wasn’t me. It wasn’t my thing to be a guinea pig on whom people test their abilities of my mother tongue. No thanks.

Dan never pulled any of that shit. He knew better. Hell, he was better. He was the best when it came to that shit. What questions were asked were the ones I asked. We were down in the library studying Organic Chemistry. We were sitting on a table—this was back before the couches—and I asked him how Arabic was going. I made him show me his book and his homework.

There was one word circled in blue ink. Beside it, "Homework or housework? God only knows."

"What?" I showed it to him.

"He translated that as homework and housework."

"It’s homework."

"But he said it’s work you do at home after school." There was that smile. That fucking smile again. Man. I can’t tell you how much I miss it. "At home. You know. In your house."

There was one thing that stands out to me about that semester. It relates to…you know. Anyways, he was in a sulky mood during one study session. After prodding him, I turned to cajoling and he simply pulled out a sheet of paper and showed it to me.

It was his Arabic midterm. He'd made a D. Beside work done in pen were misspelled English words and Arabic scrawled in the maternal hand of a native speaker.

"Well, at least you passed."

"I didn’t."

"What do you mean?"

For awhile there I thought Dan wasn’t going to answer me. I had not seen him like this before. It had no precedent.

"I should not have. I failed that test, but because the teacher thinks I’m a nice guy, he corrected enough to give me a D."

I looked at the paper again. Some of Dan’s work had been blatantly changed. In particular, homework was crossed out. Housework above it.

"Well," I said pointing out that correction. "You do do it in your house."

"I don’t have a house," he said gravely. A second passed. Then we started laughing.



18



Back home Smith poured himself a glass of wine and sat out on his balcony with the radio on the rail. Local music played out towards him. He had the bottle beside him and as he finished the first glass he abandoned the glass to its fate beside his bargain bin lawn chair and turned his attention to the bottle. He cupped it in two hands as he drank like a desert refugee and the radio’s antenna. Tilted twistwise in a tombcolored sky.

The sounds it issued slid towards static. The buzzing disorientation. A signal of an absence of center, of location. Of reality. From within this chaos there came a voice female in its sound, wretched in its tone.

"Cookies? Why would I want those?" it began. Then it shifted. The static did shift too. Out. Gone. Only her voice. Clear. Here. Here. "Every time I have done something nice for you, but what have you done for me?"

Here. Here.

"I don’t care what you think. You can cry. Go ahead."

Right fucking here.

Smith set the bottle back down.

"Don’t you tell me about that," he mumbled. "Don’t you dare."

She began counting. Forwards to eleven, backwards to negative fifteen. There was a whine. A squeal like a dying bagpipe. Then it was gone. She was back.

"I’ll have you forever then. Take me now."

They were under an oak tree at Cade’s Cove. He held out the ring to her. "I love you."

Static crashed in. When it scurried out, "I love you too.

"I will be yours forever."

Smith picked up the radio. The signal twisted through songs and static and musical jingles so phantom as to be another world’s altogether. He slammed it on the ground. It cracked.

Right beneath static, a man’s voice told him the day’s weather.

"You fucking bitch." Smith said and slushed the last of the wine.



19



Other than his wife, Smith sometimes thought of cancer. His maternal grandmother had died of cancer. Ovarian when she was just thirty five years old.

In the years since his wife had gone and taken the boy he would never again see, Smith thought about contracting cancer and dying. He knew different feelings. Chief among these: his feeling that suddenly everything mattered. All the quaint concerns, rendered meaningless by nature’s way of keeping the numbers down. He had heard the stories of course. The stories of people diagnosed with cancer or other terminal illnesses, given six months to live, people who went on to open homeless shelters or finally write that great American novel. People who shrugged off the what ifs because when you understand that you are going to die what ifs no longer exist. There are no ifs. Simply whens, one when to be exact. One final when. The stories didn’t end there though. After pursuing their dream, their cancer went into remission. They had faced down the devil and lived to tell of it. Smith hated this part. Smith avoided thinking about this part. Of what use was a remission to him? Thus brings the second thing Smith knew: everyone’s feelings toward him would change. No longer would they be rude or dismissive or wait for their turn to talk as they pretended to give a shit about anything he said. No longer would they ignore his calls or gossip about him behind his back. No longer would that little shithead down at the station give him that knife behind the smile Good Morning Sleuth. None of it. Everyone would be nice because that’s what you do to someone who’s dying: you try your best to ease their passage. And he’d lie there on his deathbed surrounded by strangers temporarily playing the parts of friends. He’d lie there knowing the guilt they felt and he’d go, he’d jump out of this world with a smile on his face.

Remission? Smith knew nothing of remission.



20



Yeah, I did work at Starbucks. I chose the one on campus in the library because I liked seeing the students who came in. They reminded me of my grandchildren. And whenever I talked to one of them, they always took time to talk back to me. I know they were just being nice, just passing the time from ordering their coffee to getting their coffee. Well so was I. I was just passing the time. That’s pretty much all I got to do these days. Pass the time.

You know that thing where we take their names and write it on the coffee cup? That was my idea. I thought it up after we accidentally gave some guy a mocha when he ordered a cappuccino. That helped us know them.

It’s the only reason I would know this boy’s name. You know, until you showed me a photo, I didn’t put two and two together. We didn’t take their last names, you know, so it’s hard to know exactly who they are.

Daniel Baxter. Yeah. He sure did come in a lot. Me and him used to shoot the shit all the time. Sometimes we’d even hold up the line! I remember this one time during finals when the line was going out the door and me and Daniel were just standing at the corner talking about cars. What type’s good to get, gas mileage versus crash resistance and all that other stuff! And you know what the best part is?

I didn’t even own a damn car!

I can’t believe you’d tell me that. He kinda began to disappear a few months before, I think. I stopped seeing him as much. Sometimes he didn’t say a word to me. I just chalked that up to having a bad day. We all have them you know. Everyone does…but what else can I say? I’m really sorry to hear that. He was just a young man with so much in front of him. His entire life, you know. It’s hard to even imagine that, but that’s how it is I guess. You know…all the people who can give us something, dead before they have anything to give.



21



Smith set up the computer.

He did it in the living room. He closed his curtains. Turned off the lights. And fired up the system.

Daniel’s computer was an HP. Not one of the new flatscreens. This baby had been purchased before those became the standard style. No. This wasn’t it at all.

Windows XP loaded. Smith sat in his chair and laid a pack of cigarettes beside the keyboard and took one and lit it and let himself be drawn up in the gray waste he expelled.

The first thing Smith noticed was the background. A snowy forest. Smith guessed the time to be dawn though it very well could have been dusk. But dawn. He thought dawn.

The next thing Smith noticed were the files. They covered the left side of the desktop. He had the usual—My Computer, Recycle Bin—and then there were folders. Some named. Some just New Folder. There were the files. Word documents. Rtf. A few text files. Some zip folders. Smith sat smoking and staring at the screen, staring until it began to shift and blur together and near the end of his cigarette he looked over towards the balcony.

He walked out, extinguished it and turned back to the door. The radio beside it. Smith looked down at the radio while thinking of the desktop. Slowly he made it his way back in and stepped into the kitchen. He grabbed a cup, filled it halfway with water and returned to the computer. He lit another cigarette.

He clicked on the first New Folder and found several files .smc in extension. Clicking on these brought up a list of possible programs, none of them providing any clues as to their purpose or function and he closed this and moved on.

One file was named ‘games’. In it he found a legion of zip files and .cue and .bin files. There was a program here, PSX. Its logo the shape of a Playstation. Smith understood. He doubleclicked up a menu and then exited out and returned to the desktop.

Smith spent some time smoking and moving the mouse around but he opened nothing else. He looked at the desktop time. It listed 9:30. Night or morning, either way it was wrong. It was afternoon. Late afternoon at that.

He clicked his tongue. At some point today he was supposed to head over to the station and deliver a preliminary report to his supervisor. What he’d gained so far from his investigation.

Smith shook his head. What investigation? The boy had killed himself, called a



22



number in north Knoxville, a number that—

The cigarette drooped down. He pitched it in the cup and dug through his wallet. Not there. He dug through his pockets. Not there either. Where? Where?

In his room he had a dirty clothes basket but however Smith’s clothes usually found the floor, two of three days after he put them on. He rummaged through separate piles, some as old as two weeks and stood staring at them. He did not remember which pair of pants he’d put on but did remember that it didn’t matter.

He had the god damn phone.

Now where was that?

Smith found it in the kitchen. Near the cabinet. It was sitting in front of a spice rack holding one full bottle and four otherwise depleted. It was still on. It had been on this whole time.

He brought it out of hibernation. A set of numbers proclamatory in the pale emptiness. Smith returned to his computer and lit another cigarette. He tracked the number.

It listed an address. North Knoxville.

Smith finished his cigarette. He sent it swimming with its brother and started another one. When he finished this, he took the cup to the balcony and poured it over the edge without looking and set the cup on the rail and went back inside. He pocketed three more pills and headed to his car and took off.



23



I guess now’s the time to tell you about our other friends.

From my sophomore to my senior year we had a group of friends we called The Group. We met on the third floor of Greve. We called ourselves Third Floor Greve Hall Group. Our junior year we all moved to the eleventh floor of Morrill. That made us the 11th Floor Gang, Gang being an apparent upgrade from Group. A group is any collection of people, total strangers. Gang on the other hand, gang means you all know each other on a first name basis. The 11th Floor Gang.

I think I already mentioned Caleb, Davis, and Andrew. Let me explain. Caleb lived down the hall with Davis. Caleb was a nice enough guy. Nice enough for someone who we later diagnosed with social anxiety disorder and who later diagnosed himself with adult onset autism. He never wore deodorant. He spit when he talked. We were pretty harsh on him sometimes, but after all’s said and done, I got to say he’s a really great guy. I saw on Facebook where he’s now working as an auditor in Nashville. I hope to see him again. Maybe when I can get the time or the will I’ll go see him. I just wonder how he’ll handle what happened to Dan.

You see, Caleb did not handle stress well. One time Davis found some sorority girl’s cell phone over by the rock. Rather than return it or at least inform the girl he had it, he decided to have a little fun. He sent a text message to her entire call list announcing that she was horny. Announcing that she wanted to give a blowjob.

Some people took her up on it.

Others wondered what was going on. One guy called. He was her friend at a party with her wondering just who the hell this was. Davis being the sort of guy he is said he was a high ranking attorney investigating a national security claim against her. The guy just paused for a second. Then he said, "Dude who the fuck are you? For real." And Davis hung up.

We decided to head out that night. On our drive over, Davis remarked about tracking of cell phones.

"They can pinpoint our exact location!"

"Oh come on," I said. "Why would they do that?"

"She reports it as stolen. They’ll track who’s using it. I did impersonate her after all."

"Yeah," Dan mumbled. That smile. Damn. "I bet they’re waiting for us in the parking lot."

We went to a Taco Bell. What Davis just worried about, Caleb seizured over. He kept babbling out them tracking us. He kept begging for Davis to turn off the fucking cell phone.

"Have you seen Enemy of the State?" Dan asked him.

"Yeah. It’s a good movie," Caleb said innocently.

"You know how good their satellites are?" He lifted his hand up at the sky. And whatever satellites might have been tracking us.

Which for Caleb was all of them. He began squirming and his ranting took on a fiercer tone. Davis eventually removed the battery and decided to use it as his Europe phone if he ever went there. It was one of those brands where you could just insert a SIM card. A brand with the international man in mind.

You know something, although our group ended in hatred, as I’ll later tell you, I valued all the time I had with them. There’s this poem by Edgar Allen Poe, this poem that ends with "the hero is The Conqueror Worm". The Conqueror Worm. It conquerors us all. It awaits us all and what do we have but time? Time and the people we care about. When the two are mixed, that’s the meaning of life. That answer to the question which everyone’s been asking since man stopped having to hunt for his food.



24



Smith found the house. He cruised by it at the speed limit. It was a two storey brown home with a large front porch, small frontyard and large backyard. It stood on a corner. A chainlink fence wrapped around the perimeter, Smith caught something on the gate and stopped to a crawl.

Hanging over the lock was a sign: NO TRESSPASSING.

Smith examined the house. Some of the windows were boarded up. The screen door was missing a screen. He drove around and parked a couple blocks down and strolled down the sidewalk. As the house shifted close into his view its dominance a striking opposition to the rest of this neighborhood he ducked over and crossed several yards and hid behind a tree. At a soft count to three he turned and climbed over the fence and made his way up to the backdoor. He looked behind him. Nobody was there. He turned back to the door, picked its lock and eased it open on a kitchen.

He stepped inside.

Fresh cabinets their almond knobs like unblinking eyes at the watch. The rest of the kitchen did not fare so well. The floor was chipped and dirty and broken dishes lay clumped in one bowl of the sink and a blackened rag hung over the other. Smith peered in. Stains of untraceable origin streaked from the edge to the drain in which sat a porcelain cleft it edges dulled. Senile in old age.

He left the kitchen and down a hallway to the foyer and here there were more streaks on the walls and gaps where pictures had once hung. He peeked in the living room. There was a single matty chair but of its occupant there was no trace and Smith left this room and stood at the foot of a set of stairs.

He listened. He heard something. A creak up there. He listened harder, but it was a creak with no companions. He unhooked his gun. He put on foot on the bottommost stair. Listening. Waiting.

In eleven years as a detective he had shot one person: some Mexican holding up a gas station over on Chapman Highway. That had been pure luck. He had been getting gas and looked over to see the dark man who couldn’t speak English sticking a gun into the face of a darker man who spoke even less English. The rest. That had been pure luck as well.

Though, he thought. If you are planning on shooting someone, you better make sure he poses a threat. Smith let this thought flow through his mind and among all his internal shouts understood one thing if nothing else: if anyone appeared right now at the top of the stairs, he would shoot them. No matter who they were or what they looked like. He’d just shoot. And do nothing else.

He lowered his head. Counted to four. Then he crept up the stairs hugging the right side and more of the upstairs hallway came into view. A door at the end. Light beneath it. He stood in the hallway and ticked off five and then crept to the door and pressed his ear against it.

It nudged open at his touch. He suppressed a yelp and kicked the door open and bust in with his gun ready. The same sort of thought rolled over in his mind: If anyone were here right now, he’d shoot them.

But no one was here. Yes. No one was here.

But their belongings sure were.

A mattress lay beside an open window, its sheets piled at the foot. Several pots for cooking lay against another wall and the only other feature in this room was dresser and its attached vanity mirror. Items all over it. Little figurines of ballerinas or witches or dogs and concrete statues of turtles or frogs or fisherman but here at the end were pictures of anonymous people yet not so

The boy!

Smith grabbed the frame. Daniel Baxter stood in it. An older woman beside him.



25



If I may be permitted to say so, we broke the dry campus rule a lot.

Which is cooler: buying your alcohol while underage or buying it with your legal ID? I think the legal ID part is only cool once: on your twenty first birthday. All of us met when we were eighteen, nineteen.

All of us turned twenty-one together.

Andrew was the first to turn twenty one. Let me tell you a little about him: he came from money. He denied it of course. It’s hip to be working class, yes, but Andrew’s father owned a three storey house and over one hundred acres of land and five vehicles and a boat and God knew what else. He was a hotshot pharmacist over in Nashville. He owned his own chain of pharmacies. Cavalier Drugs. Perhaps you’ve heard of them.

I met Andrew through Caleb and Davis. He was a nice enough guy. Always quoting Arnold Schwarzenegger and asking us to come over and watch movies with him. His favorites were Kindergarten Cop and True Lies. Especially True Lies. The man couldn’t get enough True Lies.

What I remember about Andrew the most was his change. It began with the drinking, really. Our sophomore year. Sometime in December we all went to a party over in Jefferson Apartments hosted by this friend of Andrew’s. There were lots of people there, lots of girls, and we chatted some of them up and drank sparingly while Andrew and his friend played a game of cards.

With Vodka.

Now this was no ordinary Vodka. This shit was nine dollar Svenska Vodka, the type of shit you prayed you never drank. Straight from the bottle, win or lose Andrew took the shots. I don’t know how many shots he took. To be honest, I was so interested in this cute little brunette I didn’t even know he was drunk.

Until he pissed on the floor.

Dan was over on the couch playing Nintendo 64 when it happened. He described it to me as being really engrossed in this game, getting ready to destroy the last alarm and bungee jump off the dam when he heard this…trickling sound. He looked over. First he saw Andrew’s dick. Then he saw Andrew’s face, a most pleasant smile plastered on it.

"He’s uncircumcised, if you wanted to know," Dan later told me.

I did not in fact want to know. I really don’t know how Dan could go around Andrew again without picturing that outfitted dick of his. I really don’t.

We tried to help Andrew to the couch but he was more interested in the floor. He shook us off and ran into a bedroom and locked the door. We pounded. From behind it we heard gurgling and when he finally opened it he was sprawled on the floor, a trail of vomit leading from the dirty clothes basket to his mouth.

"Jesus Christ Andrew!" Davis said.

We carried him back. First we carried him to the jeep which Dan drove home. Then we carried him from the jeep to the lobby where the hall director stopped us. I remember she was a pale old thing. Dan and I used to joke that every day she was looking more and more like a ghost, so when she finally croaked she'd just shed her clothes and run around haunting us.

"What's wrong with him?"

"He just had a little too much to drink," someone, I think Davis, said.

She threw her hands up. She grunted. And returned to the desk while the two night duty desk assistants watched us in awe. Watched us lug this skinny drunken wreck past the security door and to the elevator.

We carried him to our floor's lobby. We sat him up on the couch.

The host had come with us and the two of them spent the next several minutes trying to convince Andrew to go to bed. It was pretty tedious. Then Caleb opened his mouth.

"Is he going to die man?" He was asking me. I have never seen such fear on a man's face. Not before or since. God help him, it was so sincere. We rode him for this for awhile, but looking back, I really regret giving him shit over this.

"No no no," Dan said. "Don't worry Caleb. He'll be okay."

"I don't want him to die," Caleb said, his words the speed of a weedwhacker. "Andrew he's been my friend since we were in third grade. I just don't want him to die man."

Andrew began to sniffle.

"Dude knock it off." That was Davis. Always handy with the soft touch.

Andrew went to sleep. Well, maybe went to sleep isn't the right way to describe it, but you know what I mean. Anyone who's done their fair share of drinking knows what I mean. To the rest of you, I can say...Andrew left us. He went on a short vacation. Didn't even remember to pack.

"Please God no!" Caleb rushed over and grabbed his friend's chin. "Andrew come on man! Andrew come on! Andrew! You gotta wake up man no oh God no this isn't good man don't do this to us."

Davis smacked him.

When reminiscing on that night, we tend to overlook that part. Especially Davis. I don't think he knew it was coming. Sometimes your hands just have minds of their own. That excuse would never hold up in court, but it's true.

"What? Man?"

"Caleb calm down!"

"I--"

He reared back his hand.

"Calm. Down."

"I just...please tell me he's going to be okay."

"He's going to be okay."

"I just..." Caleb knelt beside Andrew. "I just don't know man. I just don't want anything to happen to him. He's my best friend. Please don't let anything happen to him."

I was still too in awe of the scene to see that Davis had turned to slapping Andrew. On one fleshy connection or another the drunken fool woke up. They coached him into staying awake. We carried him into his room.

We got a sleeping bag and put him inside that. They left except for me and Dan and as we were at the door, we both turned around.

Caleb was kneeling beside Andrew. His head bowed. Mumbling to himself.

I looked to Dan. He looked to me. He pointed up into the closet and the two of us unfolded another sleeping bag.



26



Smith lowered the frame. What to do with it. Whoever was here now might be coming back.

He stood there for a long time. Neither thinking or not thinking. Just there in his own little box, his brain detached from his head. He may have stood there a good six minutes before he stepped from the frame.



27



You may be wondering if Dan ever got depressed about his uncle. All I ever heard on the subject came out of his mouth over a few beers one Saturday night in spring of 2002. I asked him offhandedly if he missed his uncle. How was he taking it?

"I don’t have to worry about going home over the summer," Dan said, the bottleneck resting between his eyes. "But on the other hand, I have to find someplace to go on Spring Break. So..."

He finished this train of thought with a shrug, and as far as I remember, that’s all he ever said on the matter.



28



Smith went back home and turned out on his balcony. Cigarette in hand.

Radio against the wall.

Ashes accrued. They fell off. Straight down onto his balcony. His cigarette flame was nearly gone before he took another puff and picked up the radio. The cigarette in his lips.

The radio on his rail. He tuned through static and got the local talk radio and stood smoking not paying it much attention. He tried, oh yes he tried, but try as he might not to think of that bitch he did anyway. He might as well have dangled a cigarette out and challenged himself not to smoke it. In the house he had once called home he had made love to her on a love seat he had once called his own. Once. Now both the house and the love seat had new owners. The house repossessed by the bank, the love seat God only knew where. He finished this cigarette. He finished another. Then he went back inside and took two more pills and fired up the boy’s computer.



29



Andrew, yes, let’s go back to Andrew for a second. He and Dan had a falling out in the fall of 02, the fall semester of our junior year.

Andrew was not an engineering major. He was not an anything major. The guy bounced around from political science to economics and finally to history. Oftentimes we were up studying and he was up watching movies. And drinking.

His alcohol consumption waned a little after that incident in Grand Forrest. Then later it came back with a vengeance during final exams that semester. He had invited us all up to his room to see a movie—I think it was Dumb & Dumber—and we found him with a case of beer he’d smuggled in by removing all the cans out of the box and stuffing them in his backpack and then waiting by one of the side doors for someone to come out and slipping in through their wake.

Let me stop here and tell you that Andrew had an older brother and one younger sister. The younger sister Davis had the biggest crush on. I don’t know why. To this day, I don’t know what he found so wonderful about that girl. I mean, she could be nice, but it was the kind of Sunday morning church nice to the slut with the four kids by four different men. Smile at them in front of Jesus, give them the finger when He was looking elsewhere. That sort of thing.

She had an eating disorder. I remember that. I remember that real well. We knew about it pretty early on, and it was due to this that Dan ran afoul of her.

That girl didn’t really like anyone. It wasn’t like that. Again, it was being pleasant for the sake of harmony…not any real "like". Honestly, I don’t think she liked anyone, not even that poor bastard she ended up marrying.

But she got along with Dan. They got along. Until Dan made that joke. Oh yes. That fucking comment he made. I’ll never forget that. I don’t even know why someone would say something like that, but in his defense, she was giving him a lot of shit for no reason and I suppose it just sort of popped out. Of course, knowing Dan he could have been harboring it. He knew of her eating disorder just like the rest of us. Maybe he had created this one night and saved it up, for the eventuality that she’d run her mouth to him. If so, smart man. Real smart man. Just another reason to admire the guy.

We were at their house one weekend spent running around Nashville. That’s worth a story if you want to hear it but for now let me just say this: she was giving him hell about some cookies he’d taken without asking, cookies in a Tupperware container on the downstairs stove.

"Those are our cookies, Dan!"

She had a way of emphasizing certain words.

"It’s okay," he mumbled.

"But those are so many cookies!"

He shrugged and ate one.

"I just can’t believe you’re eating so many cookies!"

She looked around to us for support. And that’s when Dan replied

"Well they have calories, so you won’t eat them."

We all started laughing. All of us that is, except for Patricia. She stared at Dan agape and in hindsight, I knew that’s when it happened, that’s when Dan was marked public enemy number one in the Carter household.

I’ll go ahead and say it right here: I think Andrew’s family fucked him. I think they fucked him over completely. And what they didn’t take of his mind, the opportunistic fucks he ran with did, especially later on when the cocksucker had stopped talking to all of us, me included. Am I bitter? Yeah. A bit. Bitter that a friend of mind turned against me for no good reason when I tried to help him. Bitter that when it happened his entire family stopped talking to me. And Davis. Caleb they kept around because he and Andrew had been friends since third grade, but that was even worse: they used the poor kid like a punching bag. They only kept him around for the same reasons you might keep a pet monkey: to watch it jump. To make it jump, and if it really needed a little assistance, you had a pellet gun full of salt rocks.

Yes, his family. Like I said, he had an older brother. I was never around the older brother long enough to get an impression. All I knew of him was he was an engineering major, but no ordinary engineering major like those fucking proles: he was a NUCLEAR Engineering major, a NUCLEAR Engineering major who once took thirty-one, count them, one two three thirty THIRTY-ONE hours of classes in one, count it, one semester.

I don’t know if he saw the world in hierarchical labels. But the people around him sure as fuck did.

The reason I bring him up is because I think he was Andrew’s biggest problem. Andrew was the little brother. He was in his older brother’s shadow, and sought to emulate him as much as possible, but when he failed…well, he failed hard. He couldn’t be as great as his brother, no doubt doted on by his parents, no doubt held up as a symbol to little Andrew every time he screwed up, no doubt held up as a symbol now by Andrew himself in those lonely sober times when that small voice in the back of his mind whispered to him that it wasn’t too late to turn his life around, it wasn’t too late to right his ship and he was too much of a pussy to ever do it so he drank and he drank and he drank some more.

He drank a lot that night.

He had an exam the next morning. Three beers in, we brought this up to him.

"Aw fuck, that’s the next morning!"

Davis was taping him. As far as I know, it’s still on his hard drive. Somewhere.

You know, I’d love to say that we honestly tried to convince him to stop drinking so much, but…you know how it is. You watch a car wreck. Or you watch someone walk casually down a slippery staircase, and you know you should tell them to watch out, but that robs you of the fun, doesn’t it? And it was like that with Andrew. In that way, I guess we’re all guilty for what eventually happened to him. Hell, even his dear friend Caleb was laughing at this, of course Andrew wasn’t puking. He wasn’t puking.

Yet.

Dan and I cut out early to the library. Dan worked a job as a student assistant in the computer labs, which amounts to telling people that Ctrl+P means Print and confiscating the occasional uncapped drink. I was down there near him, studying for a Diff Eq II final that I had in a couple days, when the doors banged open.

Andrew walked in.

Well…maybe walked in isn’t the right description. More like he stumbled and jerked his way over to the desk where Dan was, and I came over and it went like this.

"Dude Dan, what’s up man?" He offered his hand in an overhand fashion.

Dan reciprocated, using his best "bro" voice.

"Not much A-dawg. I see sobering up wasn’t in the cards tonight."

"Sober? Dude who gives a fuck?" He gripped the edge of the desk, swaying.

"What are you doing down here?" I asked. I offered a hand, but he managed to straighten himself.

Through half coherent babble I discovered he was studying with a girl he liked. An Indian chick he (and many, many other guys) messed around with. He stumbled back upstairs and the rest of the story I got from the grapevine.

He puked.

A few times. He was lucky enough to have chosen a seat not far from the restroom and ran there each time he had to do so. The girl he was with never questioned what he was doing, and when he came back mumbling that he "just had to go", she never questioned him. Not much in the brains department, after having met her exactly once, it’s that strong. I can say that about her. Not much indeed.

We ended up emailing Andrew’s professor under his real email, password given to us freely, claiming that we were sick and asking him if he could please postpone the exam until Thursday morning. He did. Andrew took it sober. Andrew made a C on it sober. And that’s the grade he passed the class with.

That summer Dan stayed in Knoxville, as did me, Andrew and Davis. Davis worked as a desk assistant at Hess Hall, I got on working with Dan in the computer labs and Andrew…Andrew lived in his brother’s apartment at Knoxville Place. Later Davis managed to illegally make a key to his desk assistant room and he crashed there on a sleeping bag.

That summer I got laid for the first time in college. Dan and I were leasing a room over at Crossing Place, you may now know it was Gateway, and there was a party next door and this blonde girl who was looking for something exotic to throw it to her. I guess having dark skin classified. As much as I chalked it up to my friends later, I can honestly tell you that I remember nothing about the sex. Nothing save kissing, putting her down on the bed, and waking up the next morning with her rotten breath assaulting my face. I never talked to her again after that.

Dan had worse luck in the romance department. He was never the sort of guy to go chasing after girls. There were a few though. We threw a party at the end of the summer. He ended up getting really drunk and kissing this fat girl who he invited back to his room. They kissed a little. As to what else happened, your guess is as good as mine: she left the next morning. Dan said they didn’t fuck and I believed him. What reason did he have to lie? She was fat, sure, but she wasn’t hideous. She was one of those rare fat girls who can still maintain a certain level of attractiveness. Dan never saw her again either.

Andrew calmed down on the drinking that summer. Then our junior year began and he completely lost it. The first real incident occurred when he tried weed. Weed. There’s nothing wrong with it. I’ve tried it a few times myself. Nothing wrong with it at all.

But Andrew tried it and drank some whiskey and passed out on the couch at someone’s house. One of those nameless fucks I mentioned earlier. He showed us pictures the next day of him lying there with drawing all over him. These friends of his had drawn on him while he slept.

"Maybe you should start drinking alone," Dan offered, and for all that was worth, well…it was the only advice any of us offered him. We liked to see wrecks. What can I say? I know I can’t defend myself at this point, not this long after everything’s said and done. We watch the cars crash. And we watch the victims burn.

Davis got it in his head to create a weekly email called "The Adventures of Andrew the Dumbass". It disappeared around September. Around the beginning of the semester.

Around the time Andrew ran into the woods.

Dan wasn’t there for this. Andrew had begun ignoring him in July. I never got the full scoop, suffice to say Andrew was starting his downward spiral and I think a little part of him knew it. But when this part spoke up so did another, another who blamed people around him. Another who attacked Dan for some reason or no reason at all, it really makes no difference. He needed a target. Dan became his target. We all did, in time.

There was a party at Crossing Place. Some girls Andrew knew. I was the elected DD that night, so I got to watch as Andrew lifted a bottle of Jack Daniels and a bottle of Budweiser and funneled both down his throat, sucking down the heinous mixture at the end of a lengthy pipe not much different in appearance from a hollowed out dildo.

The puking came later. We took him in my car back down and when we were stopped at a red light, he ran out into the woods. We chased after him. He wasn’t hard to catch as he was passed out a little ways ahead. We carried him back to the car and Davis and some other guy held him down while I drove us back and we all helped him to bed.

Well, the next day we’d had enough. We held an intervention for the stupid son of a bitch. His sister came. So did that guy who helped Davis hold him. They talked about how he needed to quit drinking, what he had done last night, he acted a little embarrassed, a little innocent, a little blah blah fucking blah. He promised to change. We believed him. He told us what we wanted to hear. We listened. And as they say, the rest is history.

That next summer Andrew got arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct. This coincided with his failure out of UT, his parents revoked his vehicle and forced him to live at home and work at Sam’s Club to pay back the money they’d poured in to his legal defense. He eventually came back to UT majoring in economics only to later change his interest to general studies and is now just taking classes. That’s where my knowledge of Andrew ends. And I think it’ll stay that way.

Andrew and Dan quit being friends in fall of 2002. I remember a few weeks after the intervention we were at lunch without Dan.

"You know Dan, he’s really weird," Andrew said.

Caleb and I said nothing. Davis just nodded slightly.

"What’s his deal, you know?"

No, we didn’t know, but Andrew apparently did: while Dan and I were studying in the library stacks, he took a break from formulas and looked at me, that smile of his crooked. Knowing. Needling.

I lowered my book and waited.

"Guess what? Andrew removed me as a friend on Facebook."

"Why?"

He shrugged.

"You sure seem upset by it."

"It’s fortunate I didn’t have a knife and an anatomy book in my room," he said, that smile growing.

"Well, something’s got to be up his ass."

And that was the end of it until the Florida game. The Gators Vols rivalry. It always brings a big turnout, and while football wasn’t exactly Dan and mine’s thing, everyone else was going and we figured, why the hell not? It’s kind of like going to a zoo in many ways. You have the guys screaming obscenities at the refs, obscenities at the Gators players and coaches, the Vols player and coaches, and probably a few camera men working the stadium for CBS. If they’re not up to your standards, you can always admire the half drunken sluts wading around looking for their next blank night and walk of shame.

I don’t remember who won. I don’t really care. All I remember is what Andrew did. Oh, he must've thought it was really slick. Something like this is right up that stupid fuck’s alley.

He arrived late and went around and gave us a hello and a handshake, noticeably skipping over Dan. He even gave Dan a few seconds of a stare, like he was about to. Like Dan might put out his hand. That’s what he wanted. For Dan to put out his hand so he could withdraw and leave Dan hanging. I know that’s exactly what he wanted as surely as I know the sun will rise tomorrow morning and Dan did not react and he said nothing until the after party over in Grand Forest. We were standing there by the door watching Andrew sip a coke, watching some of the guys tease him with beer cans and Vodka shots, watching him nervously refuse when Dan nudged me.

"Perhaps I should I tell him Walgreen’s is open 24 hours. Tampons are always available."

"Are you upset?"

"No," he said. But he was lying. Oh no, I don’t think Dan was devastated at Andrew’s departure. Frustrated, more like because when one member of the family dropped you, they all did. The perfect little Southern church-going cult. I just had a memory of Andrew’s father babbling on about Muslims this and invasion that and every other second he looked over at me. The Arab who is automatically Muslim. As if it somehow would fucking matter in the first place.

Dan sometimes let his frustration get the better of him. He mentioned a few times how much he hated Andrew’s little sister, ‘Daddy’s racist little brat’ as he liked to rant sometimes. It was the first time I can recall Dan losing his temper over something. Anytime Dan was angry, he always attacked it in the same cold, calm manner he attacked our Engineering problems. Not this time. The mini rants came a little at first, and near the end, they came a lot. In hindsight I can see that now. I couldn’t see it then though.

I guess it really is 20/20.



30



Smith had figured out how to play the games. Some were difficult with a keyboard, but the RPGs worked just fine. He had worked his way through Final Fantasy VI and was beginning Chrono Trigger when his phone rang.

It rang once. One generic bellset in the dark. He had laid it on the counter and went over to it and glanced at the number and looked around. It had gotten dark while he played. Smith stretched. Then he opened the refrigerator.

He shut it and left his apartment.

Smith was sitting at Sonic munching on a cheeseburger when he happened to glance at his missed calls. This time he did more than glance at the number. This time he looked at it. This time he knew.

It was the number from north Knoxville.



31



Since it happened, I’ve been asking myself when it began to happen. When Dan began to get weird. And I’ve been finding different answers.

For me, it all started that November. Dan had taken German as his foreign language requirement, and he was going to co-op in Germany that spring semester, 2003. We were supposed to meet one day by the abroad office to go do lunch, and as I approached, I saw Dan standing by the building. I remember how wide his eyes were. I remember how he kept looking around everywhere.

I remember him ducking behind the building.

I went on ahead and I glanced over at the corner and he was just standing as casual as you could be, pecking at his cell phone.

"Hey Dan."

"Oh," he said and for the space of two, maybe three seconds, his face took on a look of surprise. Then it straightened out again. "Sorry. I couldn’t see my cell phone screen in the sun."

I looked at his cell phone for a second. "Are you ready to go?"

"Um, no, actually, there’s some stuff I need to do in the library. I have to check on some co-op stuff, some stuff about Germany you know and then I have to study some stuff you know and just get some studying done. Stuff like that you know."

The whole time he spoke he did not stop pecking at his phone and now he returned to it.

That was that. Exams came up at the beginning of December. We had a few whoppers. I called Dan to study together. He didn’t answer his phone. I’d call one night, send him a text message later. Nothing. I’d call two days later. Nothing.

The first two exams came and went. I saw him over by himself in the lecture hall. I waved for him to come over but he either didn’t see me or just flat out ignored me. For the first two, we didn’t study together. I did manage to catch him outside and set a date for the third.

He never showed up.

I tried calling. What I got was his voicemail. I left three calm messages. To my knowledge, he never even heard them. I don’t know. I did not see him a few days later at the test and over the winter break he sort of dropped off. No Facebook posts. No phone calls.

During this time he was as anonymous to me as someone living in an island in the Indian Ocean. I talked to the others about this and they were facing the same thing. Davis theorized that he might be stressed. Caleb agreed, but didn’t say too much about it.

Even in this age, when someone does not want to be reached, they will not be reached. Dan was like that. When he wanted to do something, he did it. He found a way by God. I have to admit that I was angry. Of course I was. I was pissed at him. My initial worry turned to anger. I hated him for just pretending one day out of the blue that I was not here. That I was not important to him as he was to me. Didn’t he get this? That there were people in this world who loved him. Who cared about him, who would have driven into a fucking train for him?

January. A couple weeks before he left he called me. We did not discuss what happened then. We never did. He came to visit me at home. We had dinner together and spent some time going out. He seemed okay.

Then he went to Germany.

His co-op there that lasted all of three months. By March he was back stateside. We would have thrown him some sort of homecoming, except we didn’t know about it. I had no idea until one day in the library someone came up to me and flicked my ear.

"I see the love affair continues."

I couldn’t believe it. "Dan! What the hell are you doing back?"

"It got old over there," he said smiling and then things seemed okay again. He lived in a small apartment and resumed his job as a student assistant. He wasn’t very open about why he left Germany early. I only got the rest of it in bits and pieces, over beers and such.

Here’s what I got from him.

He told me the truth. Even when he started…going downhill, he was not the type to bullshit you. He said he felt lonely in Germany. Everything was different to him. The language, the customs, everything. It was like being in an alien world.

"That’s how it’s supposed to be," I told him one night. "You have to give it time to settle in."

That wasn’t an option, according to Dan. He had started having bad dreams. About moving back and forth between countries and halfway through his trip falling down a dark hole. He dreamt of us, of seeing us again and what he’d say and not always at night. During the day he had waking dreams of coming back to America in a triumphant shout of glory, getting off the plane—

"—the way the Beatles did at JFK." He blew some crumbs across the table. "Everyone’s so happy to see me. Everyone. You Davis Caleb and Andrew. How is Andrew by the way?"

Also, the other students there were assholes. The Europeans and Asians were okay. But it was the Americans. Most of them were girls. When they weren’t being catty or conniving, they were fucking men before or after professing love to their stateside boyfriends.

"One of them got engaged," Dan said. He was breathing hard. He took a second to calm down. "The guy she got engaged too, he proposed over webcam."

I laughed.

"Yeah, a step above instant messenger I guess. Anyways, the night before he proposed, she fucked some guy from Morocco. The night after, she was at this club grinding on three or four different guys. I think she went home with one of them."

He went in great detail on the flaws of the various Americans there. They were useless assholes in various stages of disease. I cannot repeat everything he told me because really, it was too much. Too much talking. Too much ranting and at the end of one he made sure to go into a tirade against Andrew’s family.

This time with a twist.

"They turned him against me, those fucking racist snobs," he said. His voice dipped down and up. I did notice it then, but I didn’t say anything. "Sometimes I just wish I could take mommy and daddy’s precious little brat and just punch her right in the fucking mouth."

I informed him that she had gotten engaged.

"What’d he trade for it? His fucking balls?"

There was something in that. Something I noticed even then. It was something that Dan would say. The type of statement. A comment on the situation using absurdity to illustrate his point. But it was the way he said it. The true vile in which he said it. I don’t know what to compare it with.

I’ve never heard anything like it before or since.



32



Smith held the phone for awhile. Just looking at the numbers. A thumb sat poised over the call button. He nudged it to push. Dared it too.

It lifted. The phone set on the counter. Smith went to his cabinet, pulled out a wine bottle and uncorked and drank a little in the kitchen before heading out to the balcony.

Smith got through the bottle in short gulps. He tipped it back before shifting down and watched the yard below. There were children playing. A boy chased a girl with a kite while an older woman sat on a bench laughing.

He sipped. That woman. The wife and the son he would never see again. Their problems had truly began in the first year. Before she got pregnant, Smith had sometimes thought of leaving her. These thoughts came when he was on stakeouts, when he was at the office doing nothing but fielding through Knoxville’s drunken brats. They told him that he had a better life out there. They were vague on what that better life consisted of, but they knew what it did not consist of: his wife. With her out of the picture, the voice told him, he could do anything he wanted. Those beautiful women he saw? He could fuck them. He had seen them sometimes. After he got married, he had begun to see them everywhere. Every fucking where. He couldn’t go get his oil changed without seeing something that made him pop a boner.

So he had planned to cheat on her. But that’s as far as it had gotten. Every time he masturbated, he fantasized of that gal working at the bank or that curly haired Latina women who came into the south Knoxville Kroger three times a week, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and always came in wearing those gym shorts tight enough to see the outlines of her ass an ass that just made you want to

What he remembered the most was how complacent she had been in his masturbation. Come this time, Smith had wanted to fuck every day. He had had visions, visions first seen when he was entering puberty, in that time when he noticed girls as being something other than merely "different" from boys. But her sex drive had cooled after awhile. She was tired. Or busy. Or a million other excuses that amounted to one thing. Smith knew what that. He knew very well.

Smith put a half empty wine bottle on the balcony rail and picked up the radio. A screaming ball of static. He set it on the balcony and gripped the bottle and just waited. It was coming. Only a matter of time.

Musical tunes played out over the speakers. They shifted from classical to Scottish bagpipe to God only knew what.

To a little boy’s voice.

"Eins, zwei, drei, fier," and it degenerated into her voice, her voice. Her voice. Her voice that bitch that bitch that fucking bitch here she was again to ruin everything.

"Yes, I did, and you know something?"

He already did. He tipped the bottle up.

"I’m glad you know. Now we can finally end this shit."

"Oh, you had a way to end it," he belched, looking over at the radio. "You sure did. Didn’t you?"

Each speaker reformed a face. That face she made when she knew she was wrong. That face she made when she would not admit it, rubbing it in his face, forcing him to get angry. She had stood in their living room with that expression plastered on her head, the skin stretched in various nerve needle contortions designed to mimic human emotion. But Smith knew different. He knew the truth.

There was no human emotion under there.

You could peel it off and look, and he had spent the subsequent six months doing just that, hadn’t he? She had cleaned him out. The house was hers. As well as both cars. The truck. The motorcycle. The boat. Anything she could get her hands on, she did. Even the clothes on his back.



33



On the sixth ring, he got someone.

"Hello," he called into the receiver. On the other end it sounded like a machine was running. A humming. Like a washer machine or a printer. "Hello. Hello? Hello?"

"Why do you have Daniel’s phone?"

"Hello?"

"Did you not hear me?" the voice, a female, repeated.

"I heard you," Smith said. He spoke loudly. Clearly. "Daniel lost his phone. I need to return it to him."

Silence on the other end.

"To whom might I say I’m speaking?"

More silence.

"Ma’am, are you—"

"You need to come see me."

"Who are you?" Smith shot.

"You need to come see me," and there was a faint whisper.

Then a click.



34



It’s funny the things you remember about people after awhile.

Dan liked video games. I found this one night after swapping bears. Dan often talked about his youth and adolescence when drunk and one of the biggest parts of those times were computers and video games.

His favorites were Super Nintendo RPGs. He told me a story of how his neighbors had lots of RPGs his uncle never bought for him and how during summer vacation he used to go over there, sneak in through the back door and play them all the way through.

Told me one time he was majoring in Engineering so he could go to Japan and make video games. When he posed the question to me, I didn't know what to say at first. You throw away your twenties for the hardest major possible. Sometimes you imagine how much fun you could be having, and you see things play out over the highlighted differential equations or the F you just got on a quiz.

For me, the question has two answers. The first applied when I was first in college: my parents wanted me to. They were paying for it. So I did what they said. I never entertained any thoughts of dropping out in those tough first years. After awhile, it didn't get any easier, but I began to like it more. There was some sense of pride in doing a real major, in having your weeknights booked unlike those leisure-studies majors.

The second applies now: my life. No matter what, I will always have a job. I will always be able to take care of myself. Some people can't say that. It's easy to forget not many were born into the advantages we had, all of us of the 11th Floor Gang. In some cases, it's too easy, but looking back now, it was all worth it. Every stomach cramp, every ounce of stress, every cigarette.

I wished I could've had Dan's answer. He had his goal from the start, but somewhere along the way he got derailed. Our senior year we should have grown up together. That last year I did not see him that often, even in class. I try to forget the last time I saw him, but I can no more forget it than anything else, so here it is: it was February. Three months before graduation. I spotted Dan coming into the library. We stopped and talked. He asked how the 'gang' was, though the 'gang' had been split up for over a year. Told me he was back in the dorms, living in his own room. Told me he didn't have much to do besides studying. He wanted to get together sometime, the whole 11th Floor Gang. I...I nodded. I said nothing. Then, as he started to go on his way, I made him my offer again: to come to my apartment, play Nintendo 64. I could own his ass in Bond. And he just looked back at me, smiled that smile of his...and long after he was gone, that smile is all that remains.



35



Detective Smith came to the house at night. Pills in his pocket.

He did not remember packing the pills, but he did remember not taking any. The house was quiet. Dark. Smith pulled up front, got out, hopped the fence and went upstairs.

It was empty. The picture frame lay on its side. Smith picked it up. In there he saw the old woman and Daniel Baxter and then they vanished. They vanished. Grayness blanked the photo.

"You mustn't be sad, Detective."

Smith turned around.

"Who is it?"

"Detective."

He turned around.

"You mustn't be sad."

And around.

"Here, Detective."

He settled on the picture. Her face hung before the curtains he'd put up, in their first home. The home she'd left him in. The home the bank had taken and Detective Smith found his hand on his gun.

"What is this?"

"Daniel Baxter is at peace now. He carried around such weight. The girl he was talking to is at peace as well."

"Which girl?"

"Nobody knew. Not even his friends. Daniel had been seeing her for several months, a woman twenty years his senior. She saved him from his sexual isolation, but she could not save him from himself."

The woman in the picture.

"Yes, her. Her name is Patricia Anderson. You can find her obituary the same time as Dan's."

"But what are you? How do you know?"

"I'm here to tell you Daniel is okay. It's the way things go."

"He killed himself before he turned twenty-three."

"Like I said, it's the way things go."

"Are..." Smith's fingers tapped against his gun. He made them stop. "Are—"

"You want me to be, so I am."

Smith came to his knees. He pulled the pills out of his pocket and held them up to the picture.

"Why do you show this to me?" she said.

"To see what you have done."

"What I have done? Who made the decision to leave?"

"You did. You made the decision to leave and take my fucking son with you."

"But who agreed to it? Who drove us to it in the first place?"

Smith nodded, chewing his lip. "Yep. It's just like you to do that. God. What the fuck are you, really?"

"I am what you want me to be."

"Then I want you gone!" He flung the pills away. He stood over the picture, that face, her face. Huffing. "My son. I want to see my son."

"You can."

"Then come. Make him appear."

She looked at him.

"Do it!"

"You can find him."

Smith said nothing.

"You could, if you really wanted to."

"You bitch! You fucking bitch!" He touched his gun then his lighter and lit a cigarette. He blew a smoke cloud at her. "Where is my god damn son?"

"You can find him."

Smith stood smoking the cigarette. He drew the flame down to the filter, then unhooked his lighter and sprayed fluid over the floor, up and down the wall. He took one last puff and shook the stubby cigarette at her.

"It's just like you. It is."

He flicked the cigarette and the room came to heat, light. He knelt before the woman's picture, her words playing out over his head, thinking of the boy he'd never meet, the dead boy who'd killed himself following his girlfriend. Had Smith thought differently? No. He knew Daniel Baxter, just as he knew the thing in the picture, her words endless.

"You can find him. You can find him."

The fire spread over the room. It soon took the whole house.





36



So I sit up here writing this, trying not to end it. Looking back over those years makes me feel like Dan is still with us. When I'm done with this, how long will it take me to forget again?

Caleb switched to Accounting our senior year. I think by now he's graduated, working at a small firm in Nashville. Davis graduated with me. He's working for Lockheed-Martin down in Alabama, married. With one kid, another on the way.

I did not go to their wedding. But I did send them a gift, along with a letter with all my contact information. Davis never called, he never wrote. He did add me as a friend on Facebook, but we have never talked on there. Sometimes I mean to write him a message, sometimes I mean to give him a call, out of the blue. Sometimes.

As for me, after graduation I stuck around a couple more years to get my Master's, then came out up to Washington, later, Dubai, and it's here I sit writing all this. Sometimes I'd walk through the hill, pausing where the bench had been, holding my cigarettes. I always had one available, to give someone in need.

The springs in Knoxville were the best. As were those years of my life. The money I make now is nice, but I would trade it all to be a young man again, in youth, in those uncertain years and the friends I spent them with.

I still have my Nintendo 64. I play it from time to time. I always have a second controller connected. So I think even if don't think of him, he won't be dead, he'll always be there with me. I plug in the cartridge and lift my controller, and there comes a knock on my door.

It's Dan. Ready to take me up on my offer.





THE END

This entry was posted on Friday, February 11, 2011 at 12:49 AM . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

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