Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Stranger Danger
By Brian Bridges

Chapter 1

    The company’s New Years Eve party was in full swing. Jack had never felt better. It was as if his life was finally taking a positive turn. Up until now, things hadn’t been in his favour. Adopted by abusive parents, out on his own by the age of 16, no known family anywhere, and anybody he considered to be friends had come and gone, usually taking a piece of him each time. It wasn’t until he got hired on with this company that he met some people who truly seemed to care about him. Honest people who were not just looking out for themselves. Being around them gave him a sense of security and made him feel like he was a part of something. It was a welcome change from his lonely and isolated past. A welcome change indeed...

    “Jack, catch!” Jack looked up to see his co-worker, William, tossing a peanut his way. Instinctively Jack went to catch it in his mouth, but it hit him in the cheekbone and bounced under a chair. The group laughed and William tossed one to the next person. William was studying to be a psych major. He insisted his name only be pronounced William, rather than Will or Bill, because William sounded more professional. He wanted people to take him seriously when he took on his career in psychology. He was also Jack’s new closest friend. William and Jack had just clicked when Jack started working with him, and it wasn’t long before they were hanging out on weekends, playing video games or playing pool at the local sports bars.

    “Mind if I sit down?” Jack looked up again. It was Miss Melody Belle Leary. Jack’s heart skipped, “Hey! Yeah, sure! When did you get here?”
    “Just now. Have I missed anything?”
    “Nothing yet,” Jack smiled.
    “Careful, Jack,” William cut in, “She’s quite a catch! I hope you have better luck with her than you do with peanuts!” A few people laughed.
    “Peanuts?” Melody gave Jack a smiling quizzical glance. Jack was embarrassed.
    “Hah. It’s nothing. How are you?”
    Melody Belle Leary started working at the company about the same time as Jack. She was, he believed, the prettiest girl he had ever met. Over the course of their working together, they had gone on a couple outings with co-workers, but Jack hadn’t worked up the courage, yet, to ask her out on an official date. However, he had been planning it for a week now, and told himself tonight would be the night. ...Maybe.

    As the evening went on, the co-workers played games, watched some TV, ate food, and did all the usual party activities. The countdown eventually began and the corks flew at midnight. Jack felt like he finally had a real family.

    It wasn’t until around 1:00am that people started leaving. Jack and Melody were walking to their cars and with one deep breath, he summoned up all of his courage.
    “See you later, Melody!”
    “Yeah, later, Jack!”
    “...Hey! Erm--actually--so are you doing anything tomorrow night? Or I guess tonight, technically? The night of January 1st?”
    Melody smiled, “Nope, no plans. Why?”
    Jack tried to keep his voice from wavering, “I don’t know. Do you wanna do something? Dinner maybe? I know Brad, the manager at Amedeo’s Italian Cuisine. If you like Italian, that is. Yeah? No?”
    Melody showed no sign of hesitation, which was a relief, “Yeah! Yeah, that’d be fun.”
    “Cool. When would you like to meet?”
    “Whenever. Just text me.”
    “Okay,” Jack started walking backwards to his car, and gave a wave, “I’ll see you then, then!”
    “Yeah, see you then!” Melody waved back, and each turned to go their separate ways. Jack smiled and made a joyful hop off the curb before getting in his car.

    The thoughts of Melody and dinner that night were the only things that kept his mood up driving home. The night sky was a hazy gray, with no stars, no moon. The air was thick with fog and cold as ice. This was the part Jack hated most. Leaving his friends--his family--behind. It was always hard. Even leaving work each day was a challenge. His life alone at home was dreary. His neighborhood was sketchy. His house was run down. There was little or nothing to look forward to at the end of each day.

Jack let out a sigh.

Chapter 2

“You look nice!” Jack said, greeting Melody at the restaurant. It was an understatement. She looked amazing.
“Thanks! You too.” She said, stepping up onto the sidewalk in her green dress and tan jacket. Her arms were clasped together, purse in one hand, and she let out a shiver. Jack was quick to open the door for her.
“I’ve never been here!” She said.
“It’s one of my favourite places. I come here at least every other week, I think.”
Jack led the way up to the bar counter, ignoring the, “Wait to be seated” sign.
    “There’s Mac,” He said, then hollered out to the man behind the counter, above the noise of the crowd, “Hey Mac!” The tall bald man stood upright and turned around to face them.
    “Oh...” Jack stammered, “Sorry--I thought you were someone else!”
    “No worries.” The man said. Jack felt a little silly now. The man looked just like his usual bartender from behind. Jack tried to steer around the awkward moment, “Would you like to sit at a booth? That’s probably best, huh?”
    “Sure, yeah,” Melody smiled, “Whatever you want is fine.”
    Jack waited for a greeter to approach and let her direct them to an empty booth. When their waitress finally came he said, “Hey, are Brad or Mac working tonight?”
    The waitress replied, “Uhh--Sorry, who?”
    “Brad? The manager?”
    “Oh. Sorry, I don’t know. Umm--I’m kind of new here. Would you like me to find out for you?”
    “No, no. It’s fine. He usually gives me a discount, but it’s no big deal.” Again, Jack felt silly. They placed their orders and began talking about work, and recapping the New Year’s party, and eventually got into more personal things such as their likes and dislikes, hobbies, and amusing anecdotes. Jack was just starting to feel like the date was going well when he suddenly knocked over his drink. It ran across the table and right into Melody’s lap! She let escape a suppressed scream and quickly moved to the very edge of the booth’s seat.
    “Whoa!” Jack exclaimed, frantically looking for a solution, “I’m so sorry!”
    “It’s fine,” Melody said, reassuringly. They managed to get it all dabbed up and resume their evening, but by this time Jack felt so embarrassed and insecure, he could scarcely enjoy himself. It was one of the only times he looked forward to going home. Here he was, trying to make a good impression, trying to show her he had connections, trying to be a cool guy. Instead, he had mistaken a stranger, made himself look like a cheapskate, and also come across as a clutz. Awesome. What a wonderful first date.

    They finally left and Jack sulked all the way home.

Chapter 3

    It was a new day. Perhaps a second chance. Jack’s spirits had risen from the night before. Things would get better from here.
He had gotten up early but still managed to be a couple minutes late for work. Fortunately he didn’t have to open that morning. He walked inside and made his way to his desk.
    “Morning, Paul.” He said to the man in the lobby as he passed by. The man turned to look at him.
    “Excuse me?” He said politely. Jack jumped.
    “Sorry! I thought you were my co-worker.”
    “Sure, maybe if you worked here.” The man replied.
    Jack was a little confused and just assumed it was a joke. He gave a polite laugh as he walked into the back room. What on Earth? What a strange coincidence, to have this happen twice in less than 24 hours. This man, too, looked just like his co-worker from behind. The face also had a similar resemblance, but it was off. It was not as symmetrical as Paul’s.

    “What’s up, McJackerson!” William said as Jack walked over to his desk. It was ironic that William called everybody by nicknames since he insisted they use his full name.
    “How was the d-a-t-e?” He spelled out each letter.
    “Kill me.” Jack said, “Just get it over with.”
    “That good, huh?” William grinned.
    “That good. It was humiliating.”
    “What happened?”
    Jack let himself drop bonelessly into his office chair, “I went in trying to be date savvy, and came across as awkward, a cheapskate, and a clutz.”
    “Ouch.” William grimaced, “I told you it was too early. You’ve gotta build up some self-confidence first, man! You’re so down on yourself all the time, and looking for fulfillment in a girl isn’t the answer.”
    Sometimes William’s studying to be a psych major made him annoying. Not really. But he did tend to give out lots of advice as to how people should behave and what was wrong with them--even if they never asked his opinion.
    “I know,” Jack said, “And I think you ought to diagnose yourself for once and realize you’re crazy. A girl like this comes once in a lifetime, and I’m not going to lose her just to ‘figure out who I am’.”
    “Suit yourself,” William said, “But don’t say I didn’t warn you! I think you should just let her go, swear off girls for a while, and decide what you want to do with your life.”
    Jack let the conversation end there, and turned to get some work done. William was fun to hang out with, but when it came to girls, he was kind of a killjoy.

    Jack didn’t talk to Melody that day, since work was very busy for some reason. It was unexpected so soon after the New Year. The other odd thing was Jack kept seeing that man around the workplace, the one who looked like Paul. Was he really working there? Why hadn’t anybody mentioned it? In all the busyness, Jack didn’t remember to ask about it, but he wondered on the way home that afternoon.

    He sulked again on the gloomy drive back to his house. William’s advice on letting go of Melody just made him grumpy. This was supposed to have been a good day.

Chapter 4

Since his contact with Melody was null that day, he decided to call her up after dinner. He was still in a dull mood from the date and his conversation with William. Melody’s voice appeared on the other line, “Hello?”
“Hey, it’s Jack.” He said.
“Hey, Jack. What’s up?”
“Nothing much. We didn’t get to talk today and I just thought I’d see how you were.”
“Oh, uhh--I’m fine. How are you?”
“Fine,” Jack said with a sigh, “I’m bummed that I made last night kind of lame.”
“What? You didn’t have a good time?”
“Yeah, I did, I just--I don’t know. It was a little embarrassing, I guess.”
Melody laughed, “Oh, you mean the drink? Don’t worry about it, it was an accident!”
“I still feel dumb.”
“What can we do to cheer you up?” Melody asked, “Do you want to come over? Maybe we can make up for last night. We could watch a movie or something?
Suddenly Jack’s mood brightened, “For real? Yeah! I mean, sure, that’d be great!”
“Okay, just give me like twenty minutes to get ready. Do you want to just watch something on streaming, or rent a movie?”
“Whatever, streaming I guess.” Jack didn’t want to waste any time running errands.
“Cool, I’ll see you in a bit.”
“Okay, see you.”

    Twenty minutes felt more like an hour to Jack. He quickly grabbed his things and jumped in the car. He had been to Melody’s house once before when he gave her a lift to work, since her car had been in the shop. It was only about five or six minutes from where he lived.
    Upon his arrival, he dashed up the stairs to her apartment and gave a couple knocks on the door. There was no answer. He rang the doorbell. Footsteps sounded inside. The door opened and Jack was very surprised to see a young lady wearing pajamas. She looked similar to Melody but not nearly as pretty.
    “May I help you?” The lady asked.
    “Uhh--” Jack gave a glance past her into the house, “Is Melody here?”
    “Melody? She invited me over to watch a movie?”
    “I’m sorry,” The lady said, “You must have the wrong place.”
    Jack gave her a confused look, “Umm--I don’t think so. Apartment 23, right? I’ve picked her up for work from here.”
    “I’m sorry,” The lady said again, “There is no Melody that lives here.”
    Jack pulled out his phone, “Hold on, let me call her real quick...” He quickly navigated to her name in the recent calls list and hit send. There was a pause and he heard the dial tone. Suddenly a ringtone sounded from the pocket of the lady’s pajamas! She pulled her phone out and answered it. Jack heard her voice say hello two times, once in front of him, and once through the receiver of his phone.
    “Uhh--” Jack stammered again, “Why do you have Melody’s phone?”
    The lady, hearing his voice both in person and through her own receiver, looked up at him with a surprised and hostile expression, “Is this a joke? How did you get my number?” She said.
    “This isn’t your number, it’s Melody’s. I just talked to her like twenty minutes ago.”
    The lady backed up a ways and said, “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
    Jack stepped forward to glance in through the doorway and said in a raised voice, “Melody? Real funny, Mel!”
    “Sir, leave now, or I’m calling the police.” The lady shut the door in his face. Jack stood there speechless and confused. Was it a practical joke? It had to be...

    He waited around for quite some time until he got too cold and went to his car. Another 15 minutes and he decided to give it up and go home. If it was a practical joke, he wasn’t laughing.

Chapter 5

    Any annoyance Jack had with William was gone. Right now he was his best friend and Jack needed to make sense out of things. Maybe they could go out for late-night beers and drink away this crappy day. It was already late, but Jack didn’t care. William probably wasn’t in bed anyway. He slumped onto the couch and scrolled through his contacts. Reaching William’s name, he hit send.

    A voice sounded on the other end, “Hello?”
    “Dude, so the weirdest thing just happened. I called Melody since it was so busy today and we didn’t get a chance to talk--And she asked if I wanted to come over and see a movie. So I...”
    The voice on the other end cut him off, “I’m sorry, who am I speaking to?”
    Jack held his phone up in front of him and checked the contact. It was William’s name and photo. He put the phone back to his ear and said, “It’s Jack.”
    “I’m sorry?” The voice said, “Jack who?”
    “Jack Small. Did you lose your phone contacts?”
    “I’m sorry, I do not know a Jack Small. You have the wrong number.” The voice said and hung up.
    Jack sat there, bewildered at first, and then annoyed. Why would they plan to do this? It was a dumb joke. What, were they in high school now or something? He called William back. The same voice answered, “Hello?”
    “It’s not funny anymore, dude.” Jack said, “Sorry, but I’m just not in the mood right now.”
    “Who is this?” The voice said.
    “It’s your mother! Just hand William the phone already!”
    “Please stop calling me,” Said the voice, and hung up again.

    Jack gave up. It wasn’t worth it. If they wanted to play stupid games, he wouldn’t give them the pleasure of his cooperation. He tossed his phone down, got up, and went to bed.

Chapter 6

    The next morning, Jack was determined to have a better day! ...After he told off his co-workers for their lame prank, that is. He got in his car and drove to work. The sky was bluer this morning than it had been all week. There were even some puffy clouds, which was unusual for Winter in the city. It was still cold, but the colour seemed to give at least a bit of cheer to the day.
    Jack parked his car in his usual spot and got out. He went through the employee door and rounded the corner. He was about to greet the secretary, Linda, when he abruptly froze. It wasn’t her. This new woman had the same colour hair, and same style clothing, but the face was wrong, just as with the other mistaken identities he’d seen lately.
    “What--is going on?” Jack said, staring at her.
    “May I help you?” The woman asked.
    “Where’s Linda?” Jack replied, still frozen in place.
    “Linda! The secretary!” Jack was growing impatient with this whole thing--and admittedly a little frightened.
    “I’m sorry, there’s no Linda here. Are you sure you’re at the right place?”
    “Yes, I’m sure I’m at the right place!” Jack said and stormed past her into the back room. He heard her protests calling behind him that, “He wasn’t allowed back there.”

    As he proceeded to his desk, he looked around and was stopped, yet again. Where was everybody? Every single person in the back room resembled one of his co-workers, but they were all different people. “Okay!” Jack finally shouted into the air, directing his remarks to no one in particular, “It’s a really funny joke! Hahah! Good one, guys! You can come out now!”
    The back room went silent and everybody was staring at him.
    “William?” Jack shouted, “Melody, Paul, David, I’m fooled, okay? You got me!”
    Nothing. One of the people, the one who resembled David the sales engineer, approached him, “Sir, you’re not supposed to be back here.”
    “Oh really? ‘Cause I’ve been working here for six months now.” Jack said, sarcastically.
    “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
    “Yeah, I’ll get right on that,” Jack replied and walked through the next doorway to his desk. He was halted, once more, as he stared at the man sitting in his chair. It was him. A bad impersonation of his own self. Jack walked up to him, “I would like to have my chair back, thanks.”
    “Who are you?” the fake-Jack asked, looking up.
    “I’m the real Jack, and I would like my chair back now.”
    The fake-David approached from behind, “Sir, if you don’t leave now, I’m going to call the police.”
    “Good!” Jack spun around and exclaimed, “Call the police! Let them sort this out!”
Fake-David was already dialing on the nearest phone, looking at Jack out of the corner of his eye, “Hello?” He said, “Could you please send an officer over to 247 W. Tanner Street? There is a man here making a scene and we would like him removed from the premises.”
    He proceeded to give dispatch the standard information they requested and Jack stood there, arms crossed in a defensive position. The fake-Jack had slid the chair back a ways to get some distance between them.

    It wasn’t but a couple minutes before two officers arrived. Jack was sitting in a chair in the lobby when they walked in.
    “We got a call about somebody making a scene?” The first officer said.
Fake-David and fake-Jack immediately came into the lobby, “He’s right over there,” fake-David said, “He keeps going on about how he works here, and refused to leave when we asked him.”
The officer approached Jack, “What’s your name, sir?”
“Jack Small.”
“Do you have any ID on you, Jack?”
Jack pulled out his wallet and handed his license to the officer, who looked it over.
“Jack, if these people have asked you to leave, you need to leave. Otherwise you’re trespassing.”
“I work here!” Jack said, “I’ve worked here for six months, my desk is right in the back room there, and something really weird is going on! All of these people look like my co-workers, but none of them are. I wanted to believe it was some crazy practical joke, but it’s not like my friends to let things go this far. I don’t know what’s going on.”
“Do you have any proof that you currently work here? Any documents, anybody to vouch for you?”
“Probably, yes!” Jack said, walking into the back, “Check with bookkeeping or something, I should have tax forms with my name on them or paycheck stubs, or something!”
The officer requested for the search, which was granted, but they found no mention anywhere of Jack’s name. Jack went to his desk to look for personal effects but there were none. Only photos of fake-Jack with his fake-coworkers.
With no sign of his belonging there, Jack was escorted off the premises. He walked, bewildered and fearful, to his car and just sat inside for quite some time.
“I need a doctor,” He finally said to himself, “I must be losing my mind. Maybe I’m dreaming. Maybe I’ve gone crazy.”

Jack started up the car and pulled out of his parking space. Was it his parking space? He didn’t know anymore.

Chapter 7

    It took about ten minutes to get to the walk-in clinic. Jack came here on a semi-regular basis for check-ups. His foster parents, emotionally abusive though they were, did care about physical health and had instilled in him a habit of keeping up with regular exams.
    Inside, Jack walked up to the counter, “I’m here to see Dr. Luttmer. I don’t have an appointment.”
    The secretary paused as she scanned her computer for a moment, “umm--I’m sorry,” She said, “I don’t have a Dr. Luttmer here.”
    “Do you know when he’ll be back?” Jack asked.
    “No,” Said the lady, “What I mean is, I don’t have a Dr. Luttmer in my system. No one works here by that name.”
    Jack’s skin began to crawl. Without a word, he turned slowly and walked away towards the exit doors. The world suddenly started to feel a whole lot bigger and a whole lot colder. He pulled out his phone and started dialing everybody in the contacts. Old friends, acquaintances, people from his childhood, even people he didn’t like. None of them responded to their contact names, and none of them knew Jack. Finally Jack dialed up one last resort. His own mother, whom he hadn’t talked to in maybe six or seven years.
    A voice answered, “Hello?”
    “Mom? This is Jack.”
    “I’m sorry, who is this?”
    “Jack. Your son.”
    “You must have the wrong number. I don’t have a son named Jack.”

    The phone lowered. His thumb slowly hit the ‘end’ button. His eyes stared ahead at nothing. His mind was spinning and his heart was racing. Perhaps it was some cruel trick from God. Perhaps he had really lost his mind. He didn’t know. Whatever the case...

He was alone.