Wednesday, June 6, 2018
Epicenter by. Jesse Lynn Rucilez
September 1st, 2016.
Stark City, Oregon.
On his way to the bus stop, Martin Jericho decided to have breakfast at The Stark City Cafe. The tired old man knew he'd been under constant surveillance since the last incident—which resulted in several broken windows—but refused to live his life like a hunted animal. Besides, it had been almost two years.
Just a quick bite before I go home, damnit. In public. Like a normal person.
Of course, the P.O.P. team in the van across the street wouldn't be too thrilled, but Martin didn't care. They could always deduct the cost of his meal from his next isolation check.
“Miss?” Martin asked for the third time, prompting the teenage hostess to raise her finger like a disapproving schoolmarm.
“We're full right now. It'll be at least a ten minute wait.”
Would it be asking too much for you to look up from your phone tablet or whatever it is while we talk? “All right.”
“Name and number of people in your party?”
“Jericho. Party of one.”
“Jericho, okay. Wait over by the door.”
Sighing, Martin turned and walked to the waiting area. Two wooden benches faced the restaurant, both already taken by customers. Martin smiled. No one smiled back as Martin leant against the wall. Feeling self conscious, he reached into the front pocket of his gray parka and extracted a small book of classical poetry. Soothing, comforting; just what he needed.
Good old Longfellow...
All in all, Martin had a pretty good life. Not a life he'd ever envisioned for himself, but a decent one, nonetheless. He worked for the government as a nightwatchman downtown. He had his own office in an empty building surrounded by a chain-link, barbwire-topped fence. The place didn't need a guard, which made it ideal for Martin. He didn't even have to patrol the floors, though he often did for the exercise. From eleven at night to seven in the morning, Monday through Friday, Martin sat in his cozy office, reading or watching T.V. The P.O.P. paid him well for this and gave him premium insurance. At first, they'd insisted on giving Martin an armed escort to and from work each night. But after eighteen disaster-free months, Martin had begged for the autonomy to ride the bus like a grown, free man. Wanting to keep Martin content, the P.O.P. acquiesced. He'd earned it, they felt, and Martin agreed.
“Jericho, party of one. Table's ready.”
Martin looked up, smiled, and walked toward the hostess.
“Hey, wait a minute!” a young woman called. “We've been waiting longer than that guy!”
Finger raised, the hostess looked past Martin. “Sorry, but this guy's by himself. You have three people in your party, and a two-seater just opened up.”
“Well, give us the table and grab another chair from somewhere! It's not rocket science!”
The hostess gave Martin a weary look. Embarrassed, Martin looked down.
“Just hold on. I'm sure a three-seater will be ready soon.”
The angry young woman snickered. “This is bullshit!”
“You don't like it,” the hostess replied, “go to McDonald's.” Then, to Martin, “Come on.”
“Thank you, miss,” Martin muttered, following the hostess through a maze of tables. Behind him, the young woman cussed and argued with her friends about whether or not to leave. But Martin hadn't meant to cause any trouble, and wished the hostess would've given them the table instead.
Too late now, I guess.
Before this decent yet isolated life, Martin had lived an ideal one. He'd met and married his high school sweetheart, Alma Rankin, in Eugene, then moved to Stark City after Alma got hired as a librarian for the Stark County School District. Martin also worked for the school district as a bus driver. He and Alma loved children, and had two of their own. Dennis and Dianna, who had both married in their twenties and blessed them with grandchildren. They'd lived in a beautiful brick house in the Dibert District, the children and grandchildren visited often, and their golden years had indeed seemed golden. Then Alma got sick, and the luster began to fade.
“Here ya go.” The hostess gestured at a table in the middle of the restaurant.
The hostess didn't reply as she plopped a menu down and walked away.
Sighing, Martin peeled off his parka, draped it over the chair, and sat facing the entrance. Waiters and waitresses bustled around him. To his left sat a married couple; she heavyset and fussing with their three children, he sullen and cowed. One of the kids had smeared grape jelly all over her face, one banged a fork on the table, and the third screamed for no apparent reason. Resisting the urge to smile at the parents, Martin looked away. He knew how they felt, but they didn't seem too agreeable at the moment. To his right sat a couple in their thirties; both slender, well dressed, and somehow detached from their surroundings. The din of rattling silverware, idle banter, and smacking lips filled the cafe.
“Good morning. What'll it be?”
Martin looked up to see a thin young man standing beside him. Flushed. Out of sorts. Pen and notebook in hand. Picking up the menu, Martin smiled. “Hello. How are you this morning?”
Martin's smile faded. “Oh. I see. Well, I'll start with coffee, please.”
“And for breakfast?”
“I just sat down, sir. I'll need a minute.”
“Right.” Rolling his eyes, the waiter left.
Guess I'll just order the special, whatever it is. Feeling somewhat guilty, Martin set his menu aside and moved his cup to the edge of the table. Trying to make this harried young waiter's life a little easier, whether he appreciated it or not. Ahead of Martin sat two large bearded men wearing dirty overalls. They looked like farmhands; mean and hungry in the soft light. Martin looked down, reached into his coat pocket.
Martin smiled as the waiter began to pour. “Thank you, sir. I'll have the breakfast special.”
“Sure.” The waiter didn't make eye contact as he walked away.
Martin frowned at the table. This was a mistake, he decided, pulling a small, framed photo from the pocket. I should've just went home and made my own damn breakfast. Or sent the P.O.P guys to get me something. It's not like they'd ever say no...
Martin stood the photo against the condiment rack. In it, Alma smiled, frozen in time at age thirty-one. Her hair hung in dark blonde curls, her blue eyes sparkled with delight. Remembering, Martin's frown became a grin. Whenever he felt stressed or anxious, Martin either read poetry or gazed at Alma. It always helped, just as his doctors had assured him.
Good old Alma. Always there for me... Gazing at his late wife, Martin warmed his hands around the steaming cup. The world is so cold nowadays, Alma. People are too damn busy with their gizmos to just sit and talk anymore. And they can be so rude. It's like they've forgotten how to be decent to each other...
Martin looked up, scanned the room. The married couple busied themselves with their children; she wiping jelly from her daughter's face, he soothing the screaming toddler. The yuppies to his right had retreated into their own little worlds; he murmuring into his earpiece, she digging through her purse. Even the grizzled farmhands had a phone out, chuckling at something Martin couldn't see.
I miss our Sunday morning walks, Alma. I miss getting everyone together for those big family dinners. I miss playing with our grandbabies and not having to worry that something dangerous might happen if I get too emotional. I miss driving that rusty old bus. I miss not knowing that the P.O.P. even exists. Most of all, I miss you. But I'm trying, Alma. Doing my best. I know I shouldn't be sitting here right now. I know what a burden I've become. I just needed a break from the isolation. I needed to feel like a regular Joe for a change—
Coughing, Martin looked up. A cloud of vapor drifted across his face. Cherry scented, like flavored tobacco. Waving it away, he saw that the yuppie woman now held an electronic cigarette. Large and squarish, it reminded Martin of the curved pipe often depicted with Sherlock Holmes. He chuckled, shook his head, and looked at Alma.
“Hey!” the heavyset woman yelled. “You can't smoke that in here!”
The yuppie woman looked over. “Excuse me?”
“Excuse you, is right. You can't smoke that in here.”
“Well, thanks for the tip.”
Another cloud of vapor appeared. Sighing, Martin sipped his coffee.
“That's just rude!” the heavyset woman said. “Take that crap outside!”
“Lady, it's not cigarette smoke. It won't hurt anybody.”
“Really,” the yuppie man said. “You should be more concerned with those screaming brats.”
Setting his cup down, Martin winced.
“What?” the heavyset woman gasped. “Don't talk about my kids, you uppity bastard!”
“Then mind your own business, Shamu.”
Martin shook his head. See what I mean, Alma? See how they are?
“Why don't all of you shut up?” a gruff voice said. Martin looked up to see the farmhand to his left glaring at the yuppie woman. Malice glimmered in his hard eyes. A tense moment passed, then the hostess appeared on Martin's left.
“Why is everyone yelling? What's going on over here?”
Nothing even remotely important. Again gazing at Alma's bright, loving eyes, Martin sighed. As he exhaled, a slight tremor rippled over his coffee.
The heavyset woman pointed at the yuppie woman. “That broad's smoking in here!”
“Oh, please,” the yuppie woman muttered.
“Actually, we're minding our own business,” the yuppie man said, “and this obese baby-factory keeps yelling at us.”
“Baby-factory?” the heavyset woman cried.
The yuppie man smirked. “That's right, fatso!”
“Okay, wait a minute!” Finger raised, the hostess shook her head. “Everybody calm down!”
Excellent idea. Another tremor rippled through Martin's coffee.
The hostess turned to the yuppie woman. “Look, e-cigarettes are still cigarettes, so you'll have to go outside.”
“Yeah!” the heavyset woman agreed.
“Sweet baby Jesus.” The yuppie woman rolled her eyes. “I'm surrounded by white trash.”
“Wait just a goddamn minute, lady!” the farmhand yelled. “Who you callin' white trash?”
Oh, no, Alma. Another tremor. This time, the cup vibrated against the table.
The hostess turned to the farmhand. “Stay out of this.”
The yuppie woman let out an exasperated sigh. “I only wanted a few frigging puffs! Who knew it'd turn into a national emergency!”
“We're not gonna stand for this harassment,” the yuppie man said. “I demand that you comp our breakfast.”
The hostess jerked toward the yuppie man. Her jaw dropped as a smile of pure malice appeared on the yuppie woman's face.
“Fabulous idea! We're not paying a cent for such lousy service.”
A mistake. Martin closed his eyes, gripped the table with trembling hands. He wanted to slouch, but his shoulders had become petrified. He wanted to scream but his jaw had locked, his tongue frozen to the roof of his mouth. He felt cold, chilled to the bone, yet sweat glistened on his forehead.
“Come on, don't threaten to walk out,” the hostess begged. “Let me talk to the manager. Maybe she'll comp your mochas...”
“Just the mochas?” the yuppie woman blurted. “Just the mochas?”
“Well, like, yeah...”
“Oh, this is going on Youtube,” the yuppie man said, holding up his phone.
“Don't tell me you're filming this?”
The yuppie man grinned. “You bet I am.”
“Hey!” the farmhand yelled. “If they get free food, so do we!”
“I don't see why they should get free anything!” the heavyset woman added. “If anybody deserves a free meal, it's me and my poor babies for having to breathe that gross smoke!”
The hostess threw up her hands. “Aw, shit. I better get the manager...”
Mistake! Visualizing his late wife, Martin's inner tremors spread outward; rippling through his hands to the table and the very chair he sat upon. He'd felt this a few times before, building like a psychic orgasm. The first time it happened, Alma had just returned from her last grueling round of chemotherapy. Though sick and exhausted, she'd somehow found the strength to smile. Watching her, holding her hand, Martin couldn't bear it. Couldn't bear the thought—or sight—of his dear wife lying there in so much pain. Struggling to breathe. Fighting for her very life. And as he'd wept, as he'd prayed, he'd begun to tremble. He'd trembled until the explosion came, shattering the vase Dianna had brought, spilling dirt and daisies onto the pristine hospital floor.
As the argument raged on, an electric hum arose in the background. The overhead lights flashed and went dim. Every table in the cafe jumped an inch off the ground. Silverware flew. Plates rattled. Drinks fell. Everyone either gasped or screamed. Several noses began to bleed. One older man collapsed, pawing at the pacemaker in his chest. Then they began to murmur and shout, turning to each other with questioning or accusatory faces. Some stood, some sat, but all felt a thick current of fear.
“PLEASE, ALMA!” Martin bellowed as his muscles relaxed.
Hands over her mouth, the hostess backed away. The heavyset woman reached for her youngest child as her husband wrangled the other two. The yuppie couple gaped at Martin, then at each other. Stunned, the thin waiter looked down at his stained crotch.
“Help!” a woman cried. “My husband's pacemaker stopped!”
“Him,” the farmhand said, pointing at Martin. “That's where it came from.” His friend nodded and, glaring, they both started toward him. “Must be some kinda freak.”
“Sorry!” Martin whispered, afraid to confront the havoc he'd caused. “My mistake!”
Fists balled, the farmhands had taken two steps each when an austere, amplified voice rang out: “MR. JERICHO.”
A collective gasp arose from the cafe. Both farmhands stopped dead in their tracks.
“Help!” the old woman cried. “My husband!”
“Oh, shit,” someone muttered.
Why, oh, why didn't I just go home? Still trembling, Martin opened his eyes to see Alma smiling in the picture, her face aglow with love and understanding. But try as he might, Martin couldn't return her smile. Not now. Perhaps never again. Instead, he looked up, saw a man standing in the doorway. Tall and broad-shouldered, his bald head gleamed in the morning light. Rather than cliché black he wore dark gray; the color of brooding storm clouds. An ominous, officious man, with a megaphone in his left hand and a gun in his right. A large pistol, equipped with a laser sight and silencer. Martin thought he recognized him, but either way, this man meant business:
“My name is Special Agent Felix Novak. As a duly authorized representative of the United States Government, under the Paranormal Offender Program, I hereby order you to cease any and all supernatural activities or display of paranormal abilities in the presence of the general and innocent public. Do you understand this order, Mr. Jericho?”
A red laser dot appeared on Martin's forehead. Exhausted, he slumped forward. “Please, call me Martin...”
“Do you understand this order, Martin?”
“Yes...yes, I do...”
Agent Novak lowered his megaphone. “You,” he said to the yuppie man, “go outside and call 911. The address is on the side of the building. Tell the operator there's been an electrical accident, several people have received a deep shock, a man is having a heart attack, and another man's been shot.”
“Gotcha!” The yuppie man trotted to the exit.
“Everyone else, remain calm. Especially you, Martin.”
Martin nodded. “Yes...I'm calm now.”
“Good. Now, you two, in the overalls, get over there and carry that man outside.”
Grunting, the farmhands turned and did as Agent Novak directed, carrying the old man out by his wrists and ankles while his wife wept and stumbled beside them. Once they'd left, Agent Novak addressed the remaining patrons:
“Ladies and gentlemen, everything is now under control. Everyone except Martin Jericho, please, for your continued safety, rise and walk in an orderly fashion to the nearest exit. Do this now, while conditions are still containable. I repeat, do this now.”
On the heels of Agent Novak's last syllable, The Stark City Cafe came alive with the clatter of scooting chairs and shuffling feet. Weeping, muttering, bleeding, they filed past Martin, men and women, young and old, casting fearful, spiteful glances upon him. Stoic and silent, Agent Novak kept his pistol aimed at Martin's forehead. Martin, sad and sweaty, kept his eyes on Alma. Sweet, loving Alma; his sole source of comfort.
Oh, God...what happened to my place in this world, Alma?
“How are you feeling, Martin?” Agent Novak's voice sounded dire in the near empty restaurant.
“Do you know me, Agent Novak? My...history?”
“Of course, Martin.”
Focused on Alma, Martin sighed. “Then you know I can't control it.”
“All I know, Martin, is that wherever you go, you're the epicenter.”
“You're, uh, comparing me to an earthquake, Agent Novak?”
“My job isn't to make such comparisons.”
Again, Martin sighed. Alma's eyes looked bluer and deeper than he could ever remember. No use arguing about his job... “I used to be a bus driver, Agent Novak.”
“I know, Martin.”
“I loved those kids.”
“They loved me, too.”
“I have two children, and three grandbabies of my own.”
A moment passed. Martin had never been held at gunpoint before. Under any other circumstances he would've been frightened beyond all reason. But now, Martin found it almost comforting as he took his last sip of coffee.
“I miss my wife so much.”
Still staring at Alma, Martin paused. Tears shone in his weary gaze. Sweat gleamed on Agent Novak's face.
I've run out of options here, Alma. Now I don't even know whether to say hello or goodbye. I truly don't... “I can't tell you the pain I live in, Agent Novak.”
“I sympathize, Martin.”
“Do you honestly expect me to believe that?”
“At this point, it's of no consequence what either of us believe.”
“Ah. Well, it's good that you said sympathize instead of understand. I've no doubt that you can understand another human being in pain, but no one can understand exactly how I feel.”
“I'm sure no one could.”
Martin chuckled. “You're very good at your job, Agent Novak.”
“I appreciate that, Martin.”
Another moment passed, and with it, a sense of finality.
“Agent Novak...would you mind terribly, sir?”
Relieved, Martin closed his eyes. Then the shot rang out—BOOM!—and the red laser dot on Martin Jericho's forehead disappeared.—January 18th, 2016
Jesse Lynn Rucilez was born in Reno, Nevada. Growing up, Jesse was an avid reader of Sherlock Holmes stories and Marvel Comics. Throughout his life, Jesse has mainly worked in the security industry, both in Seattle, Washington and Reno, Nevada, and taught self-defense for several years before deciding to focus on writing. Inspired by authors such as Harlan Ellison, Stephen King, and Kurt Vonnegut, he prefers to write literary horror and science fiction, exploring what he calls “the dark side of the American Dream.” More information about Jesse's fiction can be found @ http://www.jlrucilez.wordpress.com
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