Writing: The Rest of Them

Another of Chuck Wendig’s awesome writing prompts today. this time, I rolled a combination of “noir” and “zombies.” Here we go:

With his remaining functional eye, Bostwick Hardcastle looked over the decomposing dame leaning on his door frame. She had curves all right, but they were falling to the floor as fast as he could take them in.

“What can I do you for, beautiful?” he asked.

She blushed and her cheek peeled away like a mutton steak.

“My sister,” she wheezed through lungs like Swiss cheese. “I need you to find her. She’s in L.A.”

Hardcastle frowned and a piece of his forehead hit the desk with a plop, revealing smooth pink skin underneath. He grabbed a hat from the rack and slid it down over his brow.

“Give me the lowdown, lady. Make it fast.” Or he was liable to out himself.

“Sabrina Benson. Thirty-three. She telegrammed.”

“Give it here.” The paper was worn from a thousand foldings and moist with smears of decaying flesh. Hardcastle made a note to wash his hands before lunch.

BEARDED FOX MOTEL IN LA. BEENIE.

A puff of post-mortem gas escaped the woman’s derriere and Hardcastle stifled a gag. The hazards of working with Zees.

“I went to the address, but no one answered,” she gasped.

“She’s alive?” asked Hardcastle, his voice a tad too animated for a dead guy.

“Yessssss,” said the woman, her tongue momentarily catching in her remaining teeth.

“You want me to save her?”

“I want you to bring her to me… in any condition.” This did not sound good.

“Mileage and fees are sixty-five. In advance. Extra if I have to chase her.”

“You’ll have to chase her.” She slid a single bill across the table where it stuck from the goo of her rotting flesh.

“Keep the change,” she added. It was twice his usual fee, but he had a bad feeling about this one.

“When it’s done, bring her here.” She dropped a business card on top of the bill. A beauty salon, of all places. The woman no longer had salivary glands, but a viscous liquid dripped from her mouth as she turned to leave.

After the door clicked closed behind her, Hardcastle turned the bolt and drew the shades. The combination to his safe was 3-15-53: Day One of the apocalypse. He would never forget, even if the putrid brains of every Zee forgot the concept of date and time.

He pulled his kit out of the safe and laid out the contents. More creams and powders than on a working girl’s vanity. He paused, concealer sponge in hand, to consider if there were women of the night in ZeeTown. He’d never been outside late enough to find out.

Hardcastle sponged gray makeup onto his forehead and layered a putty scrap over the top to simulate decay. He put away the kit, then pulled out a spray bottle and a can of sardines, one for each pocket. Sardines were the best meal you could hope for, post-fifty-three. High protein, quick to eat, and the smell didn’t draw Zees like fresh food. But sardines were pricey on the underground market. Today’s job would feed him for just about a week.

“Once more, unto the breach,” he said in a practiced raspy wheeze, staggering out into the hallway.

*                                *                                *

The sun felt good on his face, though it softened the putty in his disguise. He peeled off the false eye socket and tossed onto the passenger seat. At sixty miles an hour, no Zee would notice.

He saw a handful of cars on the road; enterprising Zees driving erratically with windows buttoned up tight and improvised air conditioners welded to the back. Mostly, they waited to drive after dark, when the air cooled and their slimy backsides didn’t slide on hot vinyl seats.

Nearly all of the living in L.A. had been bitten during the first wave. Two million people living right on top of each other made the city easy pickings. Zees came from hundreds of miles to hunt. Caravans of live people fled during the day and caravans of dead people streamed in at night.

He’d stayed, at first, to protect his family. As much good as that had done. He’d stayed, later on, to rescue the hidden stragglers he’d found. Six in a theater, living on rats. A pair of kids living in a Metro train, sneaking packages from vending machines and automats across the city. A lone woman camping in the silent arboretum.

He’d guided them to the pier in Long Beach where a tender made its nightly rounds. It was rough getting there, and some days you couldn’t make it past the horde of Zees, but if you did, it was the prettiest sight you’d ever seen. The RMS Caronia, patrolling the Pacific for unbitten survivors.

Hardcastle had an open invitation to come aboard, but thinking of those kids in the train, the hidden people out there, and his own kids, he couldn’t… wouldn’t leave the rest of them.

He swung his wood-paneled wagon into a spot at the Bearded Fox. The place was full of Zees sleeping off a night of hunting – he heard their resting moans from every open window and door. Pressing the mangled putty back onto his working eye, he closed the car door with a slow click.

There were ways to tell if a human was nearby using smells and sounds, but the most reliable method was to follow the water. No Zee needed water to live, so when Hardcastle spotted a vulcanized rubber hose snaked across the courtyard and into a window, he knew where to find Beenie.

He knocked gently. Shave and a haircut, so she would know he was a live one.

“Beenie, let me in,” he whispered.

“I’m fine. Go away.”

A nearby shuffling froze Hardcastle in his tracks. A Zee wandered out of a room to watch him. He took a few strips of putty from his pocket and dropped them on the ground.

“Shhhsshshooottt,” he lisped, “Lossst anothththther onnnne.” The Zee went back inside.

“Beenie, honey. We gotta go now. It’s getting crowded out here, doll.”

The door swung open and Beenie stepped outside. If her sister had curves, then Beenie was a goddamned sine wave. Twenty-five never looked so good on a woman… except Beenie was covered in bite marks. Old ones, new ones, in-between ones. At least fifty that he could see.

Hardcastle stepped back as she flicked her hair over her shoulder and crossed her arms.

“You’re bitten,” he said, the fake socket falling to the cement as his eyebrows crinkled.

“Yessiree bob.”

“But you didn’t turn into…”

“Nope.”

“But how?”

“None of your beeswax.”

Hardcastle felt a breath of wind behind him. He turned to see a half-dozen Zees approaching. He extended a hand to Beenie.

“Come on, we gotta run.”

She tapped her foot impatiently and kept her mouth set.

“What are you doing? They’re not going to let you out of here, kid.”

“No, they’re not going to let you out of here, mister.”

A bloated hand clamped down on Hardcastle’s shoulder, spinning him around. Behind him, Beenie continued lecturing.

“Twice a month, my sister sends some private dick over to rescue me…”

Hardcastle kicked and fought. He reached for the spray bottle of hydrochloric acid in his pocket, the one he’d used a hundred times to dissolve eyes and other body parts.

“…as if I don’t have this well in hand.”

The spray bottle was gone. A female Zee on his right had it. She sprayed and a stream of clear liquid hit his arm. He screamed as it ate through his jacket, then through his skin.

“Every one of you rides in like a knight in shining armor, keen on saving me…”

Hardcastle’s back hit the concrete. He lashed out at the things above him. A few leaned in to bite. Others pawed at him with ineffective limbs. He saw the flash of gold badge hanging from the shirt of one Zee. Another had a holster under his shredded suit jacket. He scanned the group; cops and PIs, all of them.

“…and not a single one of you checks the date on the damned telegram.”

And now, through the pain and fear, an image of the telegram came to him. Something familiar about the date stamped in the upper right corner. March 15, 1053. Day One. She’d been here for over a year, gnawed on but unturned.

“Caronia,” he rasped, not faking this time.

Hardcastle felt teeth on his shoulder. His skin stretched as they clenched, then it gave way with a pop.

“Yeah, I’ve been there. Bunch of sissies floating around in circles.”

The pain dulled and the sounds of the world became watery and muted. Beenie leaned close as the color washed out of Hardcastle’s world. He barely felt the tickle as she whispered in his ear.

“You gave it the old college try, dollface, but I’m the gal who’s gonna save the world.”

Writing: True Pokemon

Chuck Wendig has a fantastic flash challenge up at his Terrible Minds blog. Go. Read. Enjoy.

My random rolls were True Detective and Pokemon:

Detective Pikachu knelt beside the body, his furry head hanging. The dead boy was about nineteen, buried waist-deep in the soft ground of the sand trap on hole nine.

“Pika,” he breathed, and something in the coroner’s gut dropped.

“I know, man. Way too young,” the coroner bent down to look at the boy’s fingernails, but Pikachu already knew. No blood, no skin.

“Pika pika.”

“Yep. Just like the last one. I don’t know how he manages to leave absolutely no DNA behind. I walk through a room and the lab can pin me there two weeks later. This asshole can fuck a chicken and leave an omelet behind.”

A navy sedan slid onto the course, leaving two deep ruts in the otherwise-pristine Kentucky bluegrass. A man got out of the car and tossed his cigarette into the putting green cup.

“Hole in fucking one,” he muttered, pulling off a red cap to run a hand through his spiked black hair. “You okay, man?”

Pikachu nodded at his partner. He fumbled a tiny flask out of his pocket and took a swig.

The coroner shot Detective Ketchum a warning look. Ketchum shrugged and leaned away where Pikachu couldn’t hear.

“What can I do? These cases hit him hard.”

“He’s already on probation.”

“Shit, man. He’s getting the job done.”

The coroner shook his head and went around to the back of the body.

“Here, boys!” he called, holding up something with a pair of tweezers.

Detective Pikachu bounded over, leaning close to the tiny, red object.

“Pika.”

Ketchum nodded.

“Right. A Pokeball shard. Hot damn. This is the first real clue this guy has left behind in months.”

Pikachu went over to the sedan and got into the passenger seat. Ketchum saw the flask glint in the sunlight.

The coroner sat back on the grass, probably destroying evidence with his ass.

“What happened to him? He used to be the best. Like no one ever was.”

“You know what happened.”

“No one blames him for Misty. He knows that, right?”

“I’ve told him. But he doesn’t yet know it in his bones.”

*

The motel had placed a prominent “NO POCKET MONSTERS” sign in the office window. Detective Pikachu slid his cash across the counter with one hand while tapping his badge on the surface with the other, daring the clerk to reject him.

The guy looked long and hard at both detectives and tossed a key onto the desk.

“Room 212.”

Pikachu grabbed the key and walked out, leaving Ketchum to stare down the guy alone.

“Don’t let him shit in the bathtub,” said the clerk, spitting a wad of chew into a mason jar. Ketchum leaned across the desk, so close that he could smell the cherry chew.

“I trained him out of that years ago,” he whispered.

A brown line dribbled down the clerk’s lip. He wiped it off with the back of his hand.

“You trainers are all the same. Crowin’ about your destiny and understanding the power inside. How’s that working out for ya?”

Ketchum jerked upright suddenly, as if he’d been burned.

“Fuck you,” he said, letting the screen door slam behind him as he headed for the restaurant next door. Fuck them all.

*     *     *

Everything looks better with a belly full of waffles, and murder investigations are no exception.

On his way back across the motel parking lot, Ketchum noticed the sun setting behind the building. The color intensified from the delicate pink of a Charmander to the deep red hue of a Charmeleon.

He’d had one of those, back in the day…

Tires screeched on asphalt. Ketchum braced his feet and put a hand over his weapon. It was the local sheriff, his car outfitted in a most egregious combination of neon yellow and purple. The car slowed as the driver read the door numbers.

“Not 212. Please Jesus. Any one but 212,” said Ketchum, invoking a god in whom he no longer believed.

The cruiser stopped at 212. Ketchum broke into a run.

The sheriff pounded on the door. Ketchum heard a woman screaming behind it.

“Police, ma’am. Open the door.”

Ketchum kicked hard at the door from behind a stunned sheriff. As the door swung inward, he heard a raspy cough near his ear. Putrid breath enveloped his head, which immediately started spinning.

“Get your fucking Weezing off me,” he said to the sheriff, pulling a badge from his jeans and swinging it in the guy’s face. “Detective Ketchum.”

The sheriff held up a Pokeball. The Weezing sighed asthmatically, then flew inside.

The woman inside had stopped screaming. She bent down over a tiny yellow body on the filthy floor.

“Wake up, Peek,” she whined.

Ketchum shoved her aside, her tiny blue pleated skirt flying up, revealing nothing underneath.

“Hey,” she said, pulling it down and whipping a long blonde pigtail over her shoulder. “Watch it or in the name of the moon, I’ll punish you!”

Ketchum swept the mess out of the way; cocaine-dusted Pokeballs rolled in all directions. He saw at least six – more than even his seasoned partner could handle on his best day.

Pikachu lay still, eyes open but fixed on nothing.

Ketchum dropped to the ground and locked eyes with his partner. “Come on, man. Get it together. Come back to me. You teach me and I’ll teach you.”

Detective Pikachu blinked slowly and took a gasping breath. Ketchum grinned. “That’s right, buddy. You teach me and I’ll teach you.”

*

It took ten minutes for Pikachu to start breathing normally, and another thirty for him to utter a word.

“Pika,” he croaked. Ketchum fumbled on the nightstand near his head and grabbed the water.

“Here you go, buddy.”

“Pika.”

“Yeah. Shit got real back there, didn’t it?”

The sheriff cleared his throat.

“So, uh. We all good?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll just report this one as a crank call.”

“You do that.”

“Hey man. I just want to say, I heard about what happened to Misty. Don’t put that on yourselves. It could have happened to anyone.” The sheriff extended a hand for a shake. Ketchum ignored it.

“Whatever. Just know that if we’re called back here tonight, I have to write it up.”

“Understood.”

The cruiser pulled away and the woman pulled a purse over her shoulder. She leaned down and rubbed Pikachu’s head.

“I’m glad you’re okay, sweetie. Call me.”

She got to the door, then turned back.

“I’m sorry, this is going to seem really shitty, but I have to ask. About the two hundred…”

Ketchum dug in his wallet and pulled out two crisp hundreds.

“Thanks.”

“Wait.”

He handed her two more bills.

“Anyone asks, you were with some local guy tonight.”

She giggled with a sound like the wind on the surface of a pond. The clouds parted, revealing a full moon.

“Anything you say.”

*

Ketchum helped Pikachu into the passenger seat in his car, a few more hundreds left on the nightstand to pay for the damage to the room. He looked over at his partner, the brisk night wind ruffling his yellow fur.

“You have to stop doing this to yourself.”

“Pika.”

“I mean it. One more line and I’d be driving by myself right now.”

“Pika.”

“That’s a bullshit excuse and you know it.” Ketchum tossed his cigarette out the window. It bounced along the road in a spray of orange embers. “We need to talk about Misty.”

Pikachu was silent.

“I mean it. Really talk about her.”

Pikachu’s hand moved toward the door handle. Ketchum mashed the auto-lock button. The car swerved into the oncoming lane.

“Dammit, no more of this shit, Pikachu. What happened was not your fault.”’

“Pika.”

“Yeah, you say you know it, but a man with a clear conscience doesn’t try to jump and roll going sixty on the blacktop.”

The silence stretched for five eternal minutes.

“You couldn’t have stopped Team Rocket. It was two on one. No chance. And really, in the scheme of things, a tree shredder isn’t the worst way to go. After a second or two… she was gone. Tell me you understand.”

“Pika.”

“No, really. Say it after me. It wasn’t my fault.”

“Pika pika.”

“Again.”

“Pika pika.”

“Good. I’m going to be on you about this from now on.”

“Pika.”

“No, not because I care about you. I’m just running out of fucking hundreds.”

Pikachu snorted and Ketchum lit another cigarette. You can’t fix an amputation with one conversation, but you could cauterize the wound a little here and there.

Ketchum spotted headlights in the darkness beside the road.

“Who the hell is that at this time of night? What’s over there?”

“Pika.”

“Another one? How many golf courses does this county need?”

“Pika.”

“Oh fuck, golf course. Shit.”

Ketchum flipped off his headlights. The moon gave enough light to drive by. He turned the car onto the grass. The bumped through the tall weeds, then glided onto the trimmed green. He kicked himself that he hadn’t opted for one of those silent electric cars instead of this old gas-guzzler that was louder than a jet plane.

He turned off the engine and put it in park.

“We’re hoofing it from here.”

The moonlight that helped a minute ago now seemed like a thousand-watt bulb hanging over them. There weren’t many trees on the course for cover.

They circled around to stay out of the other car’s headlights. The two people digging in the sand trap were oblivious to everything except themselves.

“You’re digging like an imbecile.”

“Don’t call me that. My hair looks all right, doesn’t it?”

Ketchum lifted his weapon and called out of the darkness.

“Police. Put your hands up.”

The pair in the sand cursed, dropped their shovels, and put up their hands.

“I told you this was too close to the highway.”

“You picked this place!”

Ketchum felt the revolver disappear from his hands.  He groped in the darkness, and then heard a sickening click next to his head.

“Rawr, I used Pickup on his pistol,” something cackled near his shoulder. One of the two diggers stepped into the light. Her magenta hair throwing a large shadow across the green.

“Is that?” she asked.

“It is,” replied her companion. He wailed with glee. “If only we had a tree shredder handy.”

Ketchum’s throat tightened as they both laughed.

“Luckily, the hole we dug is big enough for two,” said the woman, yanking Ketchum’s shirt to drag him toward the pit. The edge was soft and started to give; he half-slid, half-fell to the bottom. Sand poured in on top. He spat it out and flattened himself against the side of the hole.

“Toss the other one in.”

The sky suddenly lit up like lightning and stayed lit for thirty seconds. It looked light daylight from the bottom of the hole.

“Peek? That you?”

A pair of ears poked over the side of the hole.

“Pika?”

“Oh yeah. I’m fine. You Volt Tackle those two?”

“Pika.”

“That’s a fine job, partner. A night well spent.”

“Pika, pika.”

Ketchum looked up at the stars, coming back into focus as his night vision returned.

“You’re right, a lotta dark out there. More darkness to chase and one more evildoer to bring to the light, but it’s okay, man. You can’t catch ‘em all.”

Big Old List of Writing Goals

Content creation:
– Minimum: Write or edit for at least five minutes daily
– Target: 3,000 words written or 15 pages edited daily
– Stretch: 5,000 words written or 20 pages edited daily
– Write three blog posts per week
– Write three tweets per day
Content consumption:
– Read one short story daily
– Read at least one chapter in a novel daily
– Watch one hour of scifi/fantasy programming daily
Longer-Term Goals:
June-August 2014 – The Summer of Done
– Finish and polish Doc 1 with an eye toward submitting to agents in the fall
September-November 2014 – Sequel & Short Fiction Fall
– Weekdays: Finish and polish Doc 2
– Weekends: Finish one item of short fiction per week for four months using my ideas list, submit each to a paying market upon completion
December 2014-March 2015 – The Winter of Working Together
– Work with partner to write his scifi idea into a novel
April-August 2015 – Sequel Spring
– Complete a sequel to the novel finished in the Summer of Done

14 Things I Learned During the Summer of Done

We’re halfway through the #SummerofDone and I’ve learned a few things:

1) You cannot afford to be a beautiful and unique snowflake when it comes to writing. If you wait for six silent hours to yourself, uplifting classical music on in the background, no dishes in the sink, and cherubs floating overhead, there won’t be a single word on the page. Some days, if you wait until all of the children are fed and clothed for the day, there won’t be a single word on the page.

2) Older children are mightily good at caring for younger children for short periods of time. Fifteen-year-old boys included.

3) The dollar store has a buttload of cheap toys and activities that, when packaged into numbered bags and given out via ping pong ball lottery daily, become the highlight of a kindergartener’s day.

4) Except the color-your-own velvet painting with markers set. No one likes that shit.

5) The occasional pricey Michael’s crafts (tie dyed shirts, kinetic sand) are received like the Ark of the Covenant. And at $15+ a pop, you shouldn’t be surprised.

6) Some authors find that spoken words stop their flow. Some like to have the murmur of conversation in the background. Some like to drown in a sea of words, clawing their way out by flinging them at a page.

7) There are actual human beings who behave like cartoon villains and wreak havoc on your life and your family for personal gain. That same person might endorse you on LinkedIn afterward. And then your brain will explode.

8) COBRA costs $1,800 a month. Unemployment benefits are $2,000 a month. Even with severance and savings, that equation does not work for very long.

9) You need to have less than $2,000 in assets to qualify for food stamps. No matter how little income is coming in.

10) The local food shelf requires no proof of income, but their website is terrible and it’s unclear how to get assistance.

11) Like the woman in this article, it’s weird/shaming/awkward to have a late-model fancy car, yet need help to get through a tough time. If the car is paid off, do you sell it because of a month without work? What about a year?

12) A trip to the beach is free. July 11th is free Slurpee day. A local casino gives out free comedy show tickets hoping you’ll stop to gamble (you won’t.) The library has free passes to AAA baseball games. Home Depot sometimes gives out free hot dogs and water at lunchtime.

13) The promise of selling a novel in the future does not put money in the bank now.

14) You still have to keep writing, no matter how screwed up things become.

The Summer of Done

I have a problem with finishing things. The epic fantasy novel I began when I was ten has moved through seven states and two continents over three decades… and it’s still not complete.

In 2014, I took a huge leap. I finished a couple of short stories and submitted them for publication. Of course, the result was a whole mess of rejections, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that I’d finally finished a writing project. Each outgoing submission was an endpoint. Publication is a bonus, not the goal.

In the spring, high on this newfound feeling of doneness, I fell into a pattern of dashing out short stories and sending them off. And while each one was a victory over procrastination, some of them weren’t really, truly done. They deserved the rejections they received.

This summer, I’ve vowed to finish a chunk of work that has languished, undone. I won’t be submitting anything, anywhere for the entire summer–no matter how intriguing the project. I won’t be starting any new writing–no matter how compelling the idea. No flash fiction, no writing prompts, no “what ifs.” Two preselected novels and four short stories are the only items I can touch.

And so begins the Summer of Done. See you in September.

#SummerOfDone

Not *My* Woman

The picture is of a couple, from behind, walking away from us. We think we recognize her hair, his bald spot, the ubiquitous jean/blazer combo. It doesn’t matter who they are. The wind has scooped up the hem of the woman’s dress and revealed her bare buttocks.
An acquaintance shared this photo with a lewd comment about the woman not wearing undergarments. I challenged him.
Would you — I asked — share a similar photo of your own wife?
Of course he wouldn’t… not *his* woman. But over the course of the next five messages, the litany of excuses began:
1) She’s famous. Somehow, women in the public eye are undeserving of respect to their bodies. I recognize that my ideal of a famous or non-famous woman being able to lay topless on a beach without fear of someone snapping and sharing an image is unrealistic; however, I think we can all agree that this woman did not intend for her dress to go up and her derriere to be made public. Therefore, we should respect her intent.
2) She should have known better. Should she have known that the wind would blow? Or that a crass photographer would exploit her bare bottom without her permission? Or that a newspaper would encourage the photographer by paying for the photo? This is so close to an examination of a rape survivor’s clothing and route choices that it gives me goosebumps. Somehow, it is her responsibility to control a photographer’s trigger finger. Or the newspaper’s buying policy. It’s her fault.
3) I didn’t take the photo. The implication here is that since he didn’t take the photo, he bears no responsibility for sharing it. That perpetuating a little violation against a woman is not as bad as originally committing it.
I continued to push and the conversation devolved into what it always does online, a bunch of people shouting me down with increasingly bizarre and misguided arguments. One man cried out that “butts” were not his pleasure, and that ears were his fetish… complete with a recurring description of how exactly ears turn him on. One woman said she blamed the amorphous “media” for publishing the photo, but our friend sharing it was no problem at all. Another woman jumped in to belittle my focus on institutional misogny — claiming that I was fiddling while Rome falls. Someone else started talking about eugenics… I left before someone invoked the ghost of Hitler. But I spoke up. I tried.

Passive Privilege

This man. This very special man has come into this coffee shop expecting to work. And to work, he needs an outlet for his laptop. There simply isn’t one and he is intent upon letting all of us know that he cannot get to his critical work. Not in the loud, shouty way that would be the hallmark of an asshole. His are the subtle entitled signs of privilege.
He looks around, using his entire body in a sweeping motion to case the room. He expels a sigh audible over Tori Amos’ latest song and fifteen other conversations. He picks up a stack of Very Important Files, shuffles them around with a flourish, then slams them back down. He can’t do ANYTHING without an outlet, and yet he has not planned for that possibility.
He’s spotted me, off at a corner table. Me and my outlet. I know where they all are, and I choose a seat near one. I get here early. I charge my devices fully before leaving home in the event they are all taken. I bring a notebook, should my charges run out. I flex with the world, instead of trying to bend the entire planet to my needs.
This man is used to the world moving for him. He wants the outlet that I am using and he is staring in my direction. One minute. Two minutes. I stare back, emotionless. No invitation to sit at my table, no acknowledgement of his performance. He flicks his laptop shut and the message is clear. “I can’t work because of you.”
Me, who got here early, scoped the right table, and worked on battery until the woman behind me finished with the power. He stares at a couple chatting over coffee. A man in his twenties and a greying woman. Not mother/son — because she sits a few seats away from him, not right across. Teacher/student? He stares until they notice and become uncomfortable, which didn’t take much, because they were already halfway there on their own.
“Do you have an outlet there?” he asks, across the room, so that everyone must share in the conversation. Their discussion is interrupted by a moment of searching the wall, the floor, under the table. They shrug, but leave anyway, their moment gone.
He moves to their table, bringing stacks of files in sets of five, then his bulging briefcase, then his laptop. He, too, searches under the table, up the wall, on the floor. There is no outlet here. He makes a phone call, and I learn his name is Michael and that he’ll try Jim back in an hour. We all learn it.
Another trio finish their drinks and leave, and Michael’s next performance is to search their empty table for a power supply. On the way back, he stops at a runner’s table and says, “Not a lot of outlets here!” His problems are all of our problems. The runner pulls out an earbud. “What?” And Michael repeats his outraged statement. The runner nods and goes back to his paper. A real paper one.
Michael sits back down and frets. This is his fretting: hands clasped tight in a peak over the laptop, then down on the keyboard, he looks up, scans the tables, looks back down, hand over his mouth, now pinching his cheek, now rubbing them together, head bobbing left and right as if debating something. Every moment or so, he looks up to see who is watching him in distress. The world has not bent to him and he is lost. It feels disorienting not to get what he needs at the instant he needs it. To watch others have what he wants and be unable to procure it.
Michael is becoming frantic. He piles the folders on his keyboard, clears his throat, then re-piles them back on the table. He opens the top folder, taps the pages on the table to straighten them, then puts them back in. He makes another call for all of us to hear. He stands up, walks by each of the tables, looking again for the outlets. Then back again, looking backwards this time. I have to pee, but I truly believe that if I leave, I’ll come back to Michael using my outlet. After all, he wants it, so doesn’t that make it his?
I have to go. Like go go. I take the lid off my coffee and put it on the table in front of me. Then spread out my three napkins to take up as much table real estate as possible. I’m trying to make myself look bigger, more imposing, so that he does not approach. Etiquette here, in a suburban coffee shop, is to leave your laptop on the table while you pop into the restroom. Not the small things, like phones and wallets, but laptops can stay open while you relieve yourself.
He suddenly stands, grabbing his laptop and stuffing it into the stretching leather of the case. He sprints past me, sighing again as the show comes to an end. He drops the case onto a vacated table, looking underneath triumphantly. Michael has found his outlet. All is right with the world.

And now I can pee.