This star exploded.
A hundred years or so later, one of the resulting cosmic rays entered the back of Raymond Wiench’s right hand as he worked at his desk. It sailed through the skin and flesh, just as it had sailed through planets and clouds of interstellar dust, without hitting a thing — and then, purely by chance, it smashed into an atom of the identity chip embedded there. This atom in turn collided with other atoms.
As a result, there occurred a glitch in that identity chip. A small thing in a person’s life.
Raymond hit the speaker.
“Ray? Hi. Chas here. Listen, I’m going to need those sales figures soon, if you can pass them along to me here.”
“Yeah, I sent them to you an hour ago. They should be in your files.”
“You did? Let me see… oh, great. Just give me a second. Oh, yeah. Here. Yeah. Here on page, uh, five. Do you have it up?”
Ray typed. “I do now. Page five?”
“Yeah. The Ling account?”
“I got it. Is something wrong?”
“Well, maybe not wrong. Missing, maybe. I got a note from Gutty saying they sent Ling a note for additional funds owed, when they returned those copiers. I don’t see it in here, though.”
“Oh, I know what you’re talking about. No, Gutty sent that to the subsidiary. I think it’s on page two or three. Just scroll down. It’s there somewhere.” No use in trying to get Chas to do a search, Ray knew.
“The subsidiary? You mean the Calgary office? I thought that was on page five, too. Yeah, here. But I don’t see the funds there, either.”
“No, not Calgary. Did you look at page two and three? If you don’t see it there, you can look in attachment four. I know it’ll be in there, anyway, in the attachment, listed along with everything else. Everything shows up there.”
“Yeah, if you can find it. Page four? No, I just don’t see it. Listen, Ray, why don’t you come on over here. I want to get this straightened out before the end of the day.”
“I didn’t say page four, I…” Ray gave up. “Yeah, OK, just let me close up here, and get over there. Want me to smuggle anything in there to you, over there in high-security country?”
“Just the usual. They’re more worried about what we might smuggle out, I think. Bring your gym bag; we’ll stuff it with IOU’s.”
“Sounds like a cunning plan. See you soon.”
Ray locked down his computer files and snagged his jacket from the doorknob of his office; he wouldn’t need to come back. He’d just catch the tram home after talking to Chas.
His hand caught in the sleeve as he put his jacket on, and he paused in his doorway until he got it on. He nodded at Maureen as he passed her desk, but she was talking on the phone and didn’t look up. That was good; Ray never knew what to say to people just in passing.
He took the second hallway on the left all the way to the glass door at the end. There was a scanner mounted on the wall next to the door, and Ray waved his hand over it.
The door didn’t open. He pushed at it. It didn’t move. Frowning, Ray waved his hand over it again, more slowly. “Oh, come on,” he said. Still, nothing.
“What the..?” He looked around, but there was no one nearby that he could complain to. He tried the scanner a third time, but the door remained closed.
What now? This had never happened to him before.
He waited by the door, for what he didn’t know, for a short while, and then retreated down the hall again, glancing back at the door from time to time, as if it would suddenly apologize and open wide. He passed his own door and turned in. Maureen was no longer on the phone.
“Strangest thing,” he said to her. “The scanner wouldn’t open the door. I was off to see Chas about something.”
Maureen looked up, puzzled. “You’re cleared for that section.”
“Of course I’m cleared for it. But the thing didn’t open. The scanner must be broken or something.”
“I’ll call maintenance.”
“Thanks.” He picked up another phone from Maureen’s desk and punched in Chas’ extension.
“Yeah. I thought you’d be here by now.”
“Me, too. The scanner on the door must be broken. It wouldn’t let me into your section.”
“Well, that’s odd. I never heard of such a thing.”
“Me neither. Maureen is talking to maintenance now.”
“It may take a while for them to fix it. I’ll get the door for you.”
“Thanks. I’ll be back there in a minute.” He turned to Maureen, who had already finished her conversation.
“Maintenance said there’d been no complaints,” she said.
“Until mine,” he said. “Chas is going to let me in this time. I guess they’ll have it fixed by tomorrow.” He went back down the hallway.
Chas was waiting at the door, his puffy red face creased with a open-mouth, toothless smile. He opened it from his end as Ray approached. “I probably shouldn’t let you in. Maybe the scanner knows something I don’t,” he said, leading Ray back to his office. “Or maybe it’s just the darkness of your skin, blocking the ID chip from the scanner. Next time show it your hand palm up. That might help.”
Ray smiled thinly. He reminded himself that Chas wasn’t trying to be offensive.
“Actually,” Chas continued, “I had the scanner reprogrammed myself. All this talk of you being this hot up-and-comer, all work and no social life, makes me fear for my job. I got to keep you down somehow.”
Back in Chas’ office Ray quickly located the information Chas needed, and printed out hardcopies for him, of both page four and the attachment.
“You don’t need to print that out,” Chas said. “I know where to find it, now.”
“Yeah. This way, there’s no way even you can lose it again.” The printer stopped humming.
Chas waved vaguely at his desk. “You underestimate my clutter. Well, thanks anyway, Ray.”
“Sure. Are you set for the day?”
Chas looked around. “Yeah, I guess there’s nothing that won’t wait until tomorrow. Oh, and I got to get home early tonight. Marcie’s bringing some bigtime clients over, and I got to make a dinner to make angels sing.” He grabbed his coat from the back of his chair. “I’ll walk out with you. Unless you were going to wait around in the hallway, hoping to accidentally bump into Sovanna again.”
“It was an accident.” He’d ran right into her, and they clung together for a moment, so they wouldn’t fall. He remembered her scent, her skin against his. And had she clung a bit longer than necessary? He was sure of it.
“Yeah, right. So, has there been any follow-up on that project?”
“Well, not yet.”
“What are you waiting for?”
“Nothing I can do,” said Ray. “Company policy is very clear on that point.”
“Oh, people have bend that rule, more often than not,” said Chas. “It’s just there for lawsuits. Maybe you’re just afraid to break out of your eggshell. Or maybe you’re just worried about bringing a white girl home to mommy. But come to think of it, your mom lives in Phoenix, right? And really, Sovanna is more brown than white.”
“I’ll take the time to unravel your point later,” said Ray. “I just want to get home, now.”
“‘Later.’ When’s the last time you had a date, Ray?”
Just before they reached the reluctant door it opened, and Ray’s section manager came through.
“Hey, Laura,” said Chas.
“Chas.” She walked on.
“They must have fixed the door. She was able to get through,” said Chas.
“That was quick,” said Ray.
They went through the door and down the hall. Maureen was no longer at her desk, but her work continued uninterrupted; K.L. was there now, talking into the same phone Maureen had been on. He waved at Chas and Ray as they walked past.
Together they burst through the Rudman Corporation’s main doors, and together they hunched up their shoulders against a sudden gust of cold air.
“Should have worn a heavier jacket,” said Ray. He looked up doubtfully at the narrow strip of sky visible between the tramstop awning and the doorway of the building. It was a dirty gray, with fast-moving clouds.
“The damn tram’s only a couple of meters away,” scoffed Chas. “And yours is already here. I hope the northbound is along soon. Marcie will kill me if dinner is late tonight.” The tram doors were already open, awaiting the shift.
People filed in, and Ray followed. But when he passed his hand under the reader, a red light started blinking, accompanied by a disagreeable beeping sound. Ray stopped.
“What’s that?” said Chas, stepping up beside him.
“I don’t know,” said Ray. “It doesn’t seem to want to accept my ID.” The light and the beeping finally stopped.
“Pass it through again.” Ray was already doing so. The light blinked again, and the beeping began once more.
“Huh!” Ray said. “I don’t know what else I can do.”
“Better get off, and figure it out,” said Chas. “There’s a line forming behind you.”
Ray got off the train, but that simple movement brought with it no epiphanies.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Chas said, finally. “I don’t know what we can do.”
Ray looked around. “Something must have gone screwy with my idplant,” he said.
“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” said Chas.
“Neither have I, but it’s simpler to believe that my idplant has gone bad somehow than to imagine that the scanners on all these doors and trams have just decided to stop reading mine, and only mine.” He backed away from the track as the tram doors whooshed closed. It began moving away.
“I guess so,” Chas said. He clapped some warmth into his hands. “But what can you do about it now?”
Ray pulled his phone from his jacket pocket and dialed information, and got the right number at Treasury.
“It’s ringing,” he said. “They’ll probably be able to just push the reset button and I’ll be set.”
The phone stopped ringing, and Ray listened to the message.
“This is the Treasury Department’s idplant help line. Please call back between 9 am and 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. If you have an emergency or a question, press 1.”
He pressed 1.
“If you wish to make an emergency transfer of funds to your chip, press 1. If you would like to request a chip for a minor, press 2. If you would like to change your chip’s security functions, press 3. If you have a problem that has not been listed here, please press 4 to leave a message. We’ll get back to you within three business days.”
So Ray pressed 4, and left a message. He handed the phone back to Chas with a glum expression. “They’ll get back to me within three days.”
Chas put it back in his pocket, and glanced at his watch. “Great. What now?”
“I don’t know,” Ray said. “But here’s your tram now.”
“I can catch a later one,” Chas said. “Come on. Let’s go back inside, where it’s warmer.”
They went back into the building, swimming upstream against the shift hurrying to catch the northbound. In the lobby, they stopped. Neither one looked at the other as they pretended to think about the problem.
“If I had the time, I could ride with you to your stop, pay for you. Or wait for a taxi to get here, pay for that for you. It’s just that..”
“Oh, I understand, Chas. I’ll think of something else.”
“You know anyone with a private car?”
“No. Do you?”
“I think the CEO has one.”
“Very helpful.” Finally Ray said, “I guess I could just walk home.”
“Walk?” Chas said.
“Yeah. If my idplant is still screwed up tomorrow, I’ll just call in sick.”
“Yeah, but walk? How far is it to your place?”
“I don’t know, exactly. It’s the seventh tram stop.”
“Hmmmm. Maybe we could figure out how far it is by calculating it from the speed of the tram,” Chas said.
Ray smiled. “Do either of us know how fast it goes?”
Chas had to smile back. “I guess not. It’s not something that comes up in conversation very frequently, is it?”
They were silent again for a time. Then Ray said, “I’m sure it’s not far. I’m sure I can walk it in no time.”
“Do you know the direction?”
“Well, I don’t know east or north or what, but I can just follow the tram tracks, right?”
“Yeah, I didn’t think of that,” Chas said. “I guess that would work. But, you know, it’ll be cold, walking home.”
“Yeah, you’re right about that. Hey, I’ve got my sweat jacket in my locker. That would help some.”
Happy to have at least part of a plan, Chas was happy. “Great. Let’s go.”
“Oh, you don’t have to come, Chas. You better get going. I appreciate your show of solidarity, though.”
Chas looked stricken. “I hate to just..”
“Hey, it’s a walk home, right? I’m going to get my jacket. See you tomorrow.”
“All right, then, Ray. Call me when you get home. Good luck.”
Ray left him at the stop and took the elevator to the sixth floor, where the exercise facilities were, the weight rooms and the small pool and the squash courts and the stationary bicycles. He turned right into the locker room.
Then he stopped.
Sovanna was hopping around on one foot as she put her sweatpants on. “Hi, Ray,” she said. She sat on a bench so she could slip her pants on with more dignity, her eyes flashing as she looked at him, and a small smile touched her lips. “I didn’t know you were still here.”
“You want to play some squash with me?” Sovanna crouched and concentrated on putting on her shoes, not looking at him, perhaps almost as nervous about the topic as he was.
Ray’s mouth went dry. He should say yes. Why not? He had time. They could work out, then go for dinner. He’d get a chance to really get to know her, and who knows what might develop between them? He’d thought about the possibilities an endless number of times. And then she could help him get home. The fact that Chas had been too busy to help out could actually have been a stroke of luck, perfectly timed.
“Ah, no, thanks. I just came to get something.”
“Oh. Well, maybe another day,” said Sovanna. She looked at him, and his eyes caught, then fled her gaze.
“Yeah, sure,” said Ray. “Uh, thanks, for asking, anyway.”
Sovanna did up her left shoe and stood up. “You’re sure?”
“Yeah, I have to get going.”
“Yeah, OK. Well, goodbye, then,” Sovanna said. Ray waved as she left the locker room. Ray looked after her, kicking himself. He could catch her. He could dash after her, and tell her he’d changed his mind.
He turned to his locker.
He suddenly said, “Oh, shit!”
Ray swept his hand over his locker, then gave its handle a sharp violent yank. Locked, of course.
He could ask Sovanna to lend him a jacket.
Another tram was starting to pull out when Ray arrived back at the stop. The passengers — Ray recognized a couple, but didn’t know their names — slipped into the heated interior and were whisked away. As it pulled away from the stop the tram brought along behind it a gust of cold wind and some very dry, long-dead leaves. Ray crossed his arms. And when the tram was out of sight, sliding smoothly around the side of the Rudman Corporation building, dark against the sky, he started to follow, moving one foot and then the other.
He walked closely along the tram track, so he couldn’t get lost. It was sunk lower than the surrounding ground, perhaps gradually beaten down by the weight of tram after tram, so Ray walked along the lip of the raised ground next to it.
The wind was not strong, but it bit. Soon Ray was walking half hunched over, with his arms folded protectively across his middle like a boxer who has taken a fist in the gut. He was still cold. The wind numbed his ears and swirled in chilly eddies around his exposed neck, and pressed his thin pants against his thighs, stealing the warmth of his legs. Even his eyeballs were stinging with cold, and soon he could see little around him through the patchy film of tear-water that covered them.
Ray walked. He exercised regularly in the company gym — not as often as he should, perhaps, but regularly. He soon found that exercise in the open winter air was different. He could feel the indrawn air chilling him from within, and spreading out from inside. He could not imagine ever being warm — or hot! — again. What it would feel like to unclench his muscles in warm relaxation.
Ray walked on, crunching gravel. Was he making any progress? How could he judge his speed? He looked back over his shoulder, and saw with dismay that the Rudman building was still a dark hulk close behind. He could still see the yellow warmth of the tram station. He faced the wind again and tucked his chin down and walked on.
He thought, after a while, that he could feel a faint tremble in the ground. Before he could think about what it might mean, a huge gray shape leapt into being at his shoulder with a whistling roar of wind. Ray stumbled away and the tram rushed past him, car after car stirring up the foul grit at the edge of the track, and finally passed him as he stood there terrified, and then swept on ahead of him.
When he felt able to continue his walk, some moments later, he did so further away from the track.
Ray walked on, casting squinting, wary glances towards the track now and then.
He breathed the air. He felt it enter his nose, whisper down his throat, enter and fill his lungs. Now, it didn’t seem quite so cold. It tasted… what? Not sweet. “Fresh” didn’t cover it. Thinner than it should be, but somehow it energized him. He thought he could feel the air entering his lungs, the oxygen being liberated from it, the life spreading through his body, riding his blood. Maybe it was just the shock of his near-death encounter with the tram.
His eyes seemed clearer now too, though. Maybe he was just getting used to the chill air. His eyes had been aimlessly unfocused on the ground at his feet, but now he looked around him. On either side of the tram track were three or four meters of open space, with scattered gravel and uncut tufts of grayish grass and bits of broken concrete and small puddles of water and bare areas. And past the open areas were houses and what seemed to be small shops, their backs to him. dark against the gray sky except for an occasional window — yellow windows in the houses, white in the shops.
The sun was setting as Ray passed a station. Two people waiting there tried not to look at him as he trudged past. Ray avoided looking at them as well, and breathed easier once he was past. He couldn’t see the sun itself, hidden behind a building off to his left somewhere, but there were streaks of orange and red in the clouds overhead, brighter the closer to the absent sun they were. The sky itself seemed alight with fire, though the wind was still cold.
He looked back to the ground with dazzled eyes, back to the broken concrete and the grass. Although there had been no snow for over two weeks, the grass in the shadows was stiff with the chill, and made a curious munching sound as he walked on it. He began angling towards such patches, just to hear the sound again. He could even feel the crunch of the grass under his shoes.
The puddles, too, were sometimes crusted with brittle ice, along the edges for the larger ones and completely for the small, shallow ones. He cautiously placed his foot in one, slowly putting weight on it, and watched the ice crinkle away from his shoe, cracking like thin glass. He walked on, and came across another iced puddle. He crouched down to take a look.
Just then he noticed a light — another tram coming by. Ray stood up guiltily. He would make quite a spectacle out here in the open, with no coat, a grown man crouching over a puddle. At least he wasn’t red-faced with the cold; his skin was too dark to show that.
Then the train blew past, and Ray crouched down again. Why worry, anyway? No one would recognize him, at the speed they were going. And who looked out of tram windows, anyway? He himself never did.
He examined the puddle. Some dead leaves were entombed in the thin ice, and a twig was frozen in place, half in and half out of the puddle. He pressed down on the ice with the heel of his hand. The ice groaned just a little, and then splinters began spreading out from his hand with a thin crinkling sound. He liked the cool slickness of the ice against his hand.
Ray stood up, and put his foot on the ice. It broke through, and he found that there was no water underneath; the thin sheet of water had frozen all the way through. The puddle now looked like a shallow hole filled with shards of glass. Ray took one last look and walked on. He realized then that he was smiling broadly. He’d liked that crinkling sound, the feel of the ice breaking under his hand. He kept a lookout for other ice puddles.
Soon he approached another tram station, a residential one, little more than a fluorescent-lit shelter of concrete with two newspaper vending machines, a candy machine, and a plastic bench. It looked so much like Ray’s own stop that he almost stopped short. But it wasn’t his. The word “Sweetwood” was stenciled on a small sign in front of it. There was nobody waiting for a tram. He walked on.
He inhaled again. The air bit, but it didn’t pain his lungs the way it had at first. He considered the possibility that this was a symptom of hypothermia, but he could still feel his fingers and toes, though they were a bit numb. He couldn’t bring himself to worry about it. Life wasn’t all that fragile, was it?
He walked on. Ahead of him, near the tracks, he saw three large, white and gray birds with crooked beaks. They were snatching at some kind of garbage, something in a brown paper bag, that someone must have thrown from the train.
He walked nearer to get a better look at the birds. As he approached they first danced away, as if pushed by an invisible bubble around him, but as he continued to close in they finally took to the air. He watched them climb up, up, and then wheel about the darkening sky. They made cries like kittens, or babies crying. Seagulls, he thought to himself. That’s what those are. Seagulls. I wonder how far from the ocean they travel? He wished there was someone nearby with whom he could share his thoughts,
Walking on, he looked to the side. The backs of houses, with their tiny fenced-in yards, and sometimes a low apartment building, ran in a line along the track. Back windows. Who ever looked out of them? What would they look at, beside the tram? Ray felt like an invisible man. He could stand next to the track for hours, maybe days, and never be noticed by the occupants of the house he was near.
In fact, he didn’t feel near at all. There was yellow light spilling out of the few uncurtained windows, but it didn’t reach him, walking in the deepening dusk. He sometimes heard bits of music leaking out of a house as he passed, tinny horns or a distant bassline.
He walked on, musing, on what he could not say. Something to do with distance, and family life, and warmth and loneliness. Suddenly a sharp croaking startled him, and he looked up. There was a large black bird sitting on a fence not two meters away, looking at him with cocked head. A crow? He thought so. Or maybe a raven. What was the difference? It was probably a crow; ravens sounded too exotic, somehow. But what was it doing here? The seagulls, too. Don’t birds fly south in the winter? He was pretty sure he had seen a V of birds going south, high against the clouds, maybe when he was a kid. Or had that been on TV?
The crow, or whatever it was, hopped along the fence as if to follow him, then stopped and croaked again. Ray kept walking.
He could feel the blood moving, feeding his arms and legs as they swung. His heart, he thought, was beating faster than normal, but not like during a racquetball game. No shortness of breath, no pounding. It was actually a pleasant feeling. It felt easy and right. He swung his arms as he walked. It was too bad his shoes pinched, though.
The sky had continued to darken, and now he saw the first stars begin to appear, first as uncertain sparks, lost to sight whenever he looked at them, and then with brighter and steadier fires, like welding torches on a faraway building site. Some seemed to be different colors. How could that be? Maybe it was a trick of the atmosphere. There was no one nearby to ask.
He looked ahead of him. The track ran straight on, cutting a canyon through the buildings and trees on either side. A bright light appeared on the horizon, and soon another tram was nearing him. Suddenly it slowed, then stopped. Ray guessed that it was at a station. Soon, though, it was moving again, passing him in the night in a loud rush. Then it was gone again, behind him. Going somewhere.
After a short while he too approached the station. Another residential one. “Hunnicutt.” No one there, but a section of newspaper swirled in a light breeze against a post. Hardly pausing, Ray stooped over and picked it up. He walked on, and tossed into the trash can. It felt good. Then he was past the station and still walking.
He thought Hunnicutt was more than halfway home; he remembered seeing the sign out of the tram window. He checked his watch. He’d been walking just over an hour, so another hour or less should see him home. He would take a hot bath. A long hot bath.
He was getting tired. His shoes were too hard, and cramped his feet. For some reason his left foot hurt more than his right. He could feel the muscles in this thighs, too, tightening up. But it wasn’t painful, and he had no choice anyway. He walked on.
To his right he saw a house with a large picture window. It was not curtained, and golden light spilled out onto a tiny rectangular lawn.
Next to the square of light was an old tree of some kind. Not a pine, Ray knew that, because it had no leaves. But it had a beautiful set of thick round branches, splitting off from the trunk not far from the ground. A rope hung from one branch, and a girl in a red jacket and pink pants, maybe six or seven, was swinging on the rope, sitting on a knot. Ray paused to look, with that smile on his face again.
The child didn’t notice him, standing there in the dark next to the tracks. Her long hair, black or brown, swayed back and forth, back and forth, as she swung on the rope. She clung tightly to the rope, earnestly keeping the swing going, pumping her legs up and down in rhythm.
Then he could see someone, a woman, tapping on the window from inside the house. He heard her talking, but couldn’t make out the words. The girl, after a couple more defiant swings, dropped from the rope and stomped indoors. The door slammed.
Ray resisted the impulse to play on the rope. He walked on.
The stars were out now, appearing from behind the high, moving clouds. If he stood still and looked up, he couldn’t tell which was moving, the clouds or the stars.
In spite of the pain in his foot, the cold, the inconvenience, Ray realized he was having a good time. Usually the tram deposited him at home just after he finished work, and the television news was on and he was fixing a dinner that he would eat without feeling real hunger and there were phone messages that he had to hear and mail to look through. How strange it was to finish work, and then have some time to just…walk. He walked.
And finally, up ahead, was his tram stop.
He had to break a window to get into his house. That was fun.
He took his hot bath; he felt his muscles uncramp, he felt the heat of the water seeping into his body. He nearly asleep in the tub. Then he called out for a pizza, and telephoned Chas to let him know he was all right.
“Jeez, you just got home?”
“Yeah.” Ray leaned back on the sofa and massaged his foot.
“Well, I’m glad you made it. And I’m really sorry that I wasn’t there to help.”
“That’s OK. Really.” He paused, not knowing how to say what he wanted to say. He knew Chas was waiting, unsure of what the silence meant. “Chas… do you know where Sovanna lives?”
“What, you mean the neighborhood?”
“No, I have no idea. Why?”
“I just wondered if she lived nearby.”
“Hey, Ray! Are you finally taking a step forward?”
“Well… Yeah, I think so. At least I’ll talk to her.”
“Sounds like that walk started your heart pumping. But I’m glad for you, Ray, really.”
After he hung up Ray went online, and tapped into the local library. He found a book on birds, a field guide. And a book on the trees to be found locally. He ordered them sent to his house, then canceled the request, then sat, thinking.
How far away was the library? Maybe he would take a walk tomorrow — or the day after; his feet hurt — and pick up the books himself.
“The Walk Back” originally appeared in Aoife’s Kiss.
Art by Pexels, from Pixabay.com.Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in