Long Distance–Chapter One: A brief fiction
He was in a hurry. Just like always.
Subconsciously marking off his steps, Ian marched across the parking deck. He noticed the scrap of paper in his path laying on the freshly cured concrete laying midway between his car and the electronically secured doors into his building. The yellow page, marred by time, exhaust and dirt almost seemed to be staring at him—a big-eyed shelter pup longing for a place its the world. But Ian’s mind was cluttered and the temptation to stop and pick it up waned quickly.
His mind was a tunnel into which trains of thought raced, disappearing into dark tunnels. Some emerged, bursting into the light, after passing through the labyrinthine passages of his brain. Others didn’t, stymied by lights on the tracks flashing red and yellow in a symphony of creativity and fatigue. There were things that needed doing and someone else would clean up the litter.
When he entered his condominium Ian plopped down at his desk and exhaled. He pulled open his laptop and found the spreadsheet. Ian kept track of his life here—his money, his achievements, his fitness goals. He didn’t know when he had begun this chronicling of his life successes and failures. But this ritual brought him a kind of uneasy comfort. Some where along the way, life had become an algebra equation and his job was to solve for all the variables. The way he figured it, the math worked.
Once he had finished his daily entries, he packed his gym bag and headed back into the parking deck. Passing through the gray steel doors, he re-entered the moist misery of evening in Atlanta. He had a date tonight, or at least he thought it was a date, and he’d need to hurry if he was going to complete a full workout. From the corner of his eye, Ian saw the scrap of yellow paper he’d seen earlier, dancing in three of a passing sedan. The thing was hopping around, irritating him like a fly buzzing in the darkness.
Late that night, after learning that his date wasn’t really a date, his mind and body weary from long week of disappointment and long days, he staggered from his Lexus. He wondered if the demons of insomnia would haunt him tonight of if the nocturnal gods would grant him their favor tonight. Maybe he would take an Ambien tonight. But they made him feel weak and he could grab a nap tomorrow.
When the green light on the keypad appeared, he began to step forward into the cool of building. That’s when he noticed the paper stuck to his shoe. Damn. He had to shake his leg twice to dislodge it. He was exhausted and found himself more than a little pissed off at the distraction.
Laying in the bed that night, Ian realized the ghosts were there and that there would be no sleep. Not tonight. He got out of the bed and wandered to the couch. Picking up his copy of The Times, he thought he would work the crossword puzzle. But something was bothering him and he couldn’t concentrate. Thoughts of that scrap of paper kept nagging at him.
In his stupor, Ian wandered to the exit doors and found the note that was now laying just inside building. The damn thing was following him. He stood over it, casually glanced around, as if he were on some midnight mission for justice—an undercover detective in flannel sweats and a faded Widespread Panic t-shirt. In the amber of neon, he squatted, picking up the tattered scrap. Squinting, he tried to decipher its message. Extending his arm fully, he tried to focus. He could tell there was an 800-number and a message on the page. And someone had gone to the trouble of writing the note with a fat-tipped Sharpie.
Call her. It’s important.
And don’t lose this number
For the next several days, Ian asked a few of his neighbors if they had dropped the piece of paper in the parking deck. A couple of times he began to crumble the page and toss it into the trash. But for some reason his concern with returning the note to its proper owner became something of a quest. I mean, I would want somebody to return it to me, he reasoned. The page had begun to feel like some sort of holy message and he was now it’s bearer.
By mid-morning that following Monday, Ian had been unable to find the owner of the note and was now toying with calling the number himself. Maybe Alethia was waiting. Maybe she had bad news to share. Or perhaps she needed help. Ian didn’t want to get involved. She could one of those woman he had watched on television in the middle of the night—a psychic bearing a message from the dead. Worst case, she’s a whackadoodle and I can just block her number and be done with the damn thing.
For reasons he didn’t understand, Ian left the building and walked to a quiet spot across from his office. There, under the shade of a red oak, he punched the numbers into his cell. The ring was one of those hollow sounding electronic sorts of ring that made you wonder if you were calling a bad number or if maybe you were going to hear someone say The number you have reached has been disconnected. Please hang up and try….
“Oh. Hey. I’m sorry. I didn’t think anyone was gonna answer.”
“Can I help you?”
“Is this Alethia?”
“Who’s calling?” A cool reply. Some indistinct European accent.
“Ian. My name is Ian?”
“How can I help you, Ian?”
“I know this is strange,” he began. He told her about the note—how he had found it and even surprisingly, that he lived in Atlanta. Alethia didn’t seem dangerous or crazy or sad. She was calm. Later he would say her voice was almost like a balm, a healing ointment on the scars of his soul.
“I’m sorry Ian. I don’t know who wrote the note. And I don’t know who that one is for,” she said.
“What do you mean, ‘that one?’ Do this happen a lot?”
“More than you might think. That’s what we do here—well, it’s what I do, I mean.”
Whatever peace Ian had expected to find by making the call was now proving to be misplaced hope. He felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole.
“Okay. Well, thanks anyway, Alethia. Sorry to bother you.”
He started to hang up.
“Ian?” she said, her voice soft, almost breathless.
“Mistakes like this happen sometimes. But sometimes—it’s rare—but sometimes the people who call like you are really supposed to be the one calling me.”
“Huh?” Ian felt off-balance. Almost dizzy. He steadied himself against the rough thick trunk of the oak.
“Why on earth would I need to call a toll-free number and to speak to someone I don’t know who’s probably sitting somewhere on the other side of the world?”
“I don’t know, Ian. That’s the one question I can’t answer.”