Cynthia watched two lone figures downstairs in the food court, one turning to leave the mall and one remaining at a table by himself, the one sitting at the table a big man with a bald head that Cynthia had seen many times before now riding his bike sometimes right through the food court entrance doors. Eventually, she would recognize all of the regulars, would fabricate their origin stories and their motives for being there and interacting with one another without ever properly knowing them, and soon they would populate her already crowded imagination until she'd have no choice by to try to forget about them altogether. She was a writer, and with it Cynthia new that she could never truly switch off such a high-powered perception. These people were as real to her as any of the characters that she'd created in all of her creative writing classes.
And every evening after class she would ride this elevator up to her family's penthouse and gaze down at the inhabitants of this mall, the shopping center connected but a separate entity from this high rise building that was home to her and to dozens of other professional office spaces. This was where she lived with her family, in a dwelling that resembled nothing more than a rented beach condominium of sorts. The beach, Cynthia thought about now as her and everyone else in the elevator car were swallowed-up in the darkness of the elevator shaft around the sixth floor, all of them riding the tube now with no more visual input than their own thoughts, than that surf that broke on the shores of Cynthia's imagination.
She thought about how this glass and steel structure was in fact so alien from a beachfront resort, and she recalled how strange those resorts looked when juxtaposed against the sand, sitting there as if having been placed awkwardly against the wrong backdrop. And she remembered now how from the inside those beachfront resorts, the presence of the beach itself was always a shock when she would walk from the front door and opened the sliding-glass balcony door of her father's condominium, gasping as if never truly ready for the beach to be there, no matter how many times she'd seen it. She should write a story about that, she thought.
But Cynthia knew that such memories were reserved only for those privileged enough to experience them firsthand, like herself and her sisters who all lived under the luxurious wing of their father's success. And from their father, her sisters had acquired the same business-savvy skills in real estate that allowed them to raise and support families of their own, the two women marrying up and moving on from this strange tower in which they'd all been raised. Cynthia gained no such insight being the artist of the family, the black-sheep middle child of three sisters who themselves did what they could to nudge her into the real world.
But writers can never move into the real world until they were comfortable with the ones that they were creating. She should write a story about that as well, she thought, and then she lost her balance suddenly and fell into one of the two businessmen who rode the elevator with her. After apologizing to the man for having drifted off, she wondered why these men were going to their offices at this time of night in the first place.
Immediately a story formed itself out of the void, and it had to do with drugs and prostitutes, with after-hours executive parties in which these businessmen were entertaining clients from overseas.
Okay, she thought. This was one of those times where she wished she could shut it off. But doing such a thing was like applying the brakes in a vehicle that was already moving at too high of a speed, carrying her as the passenger of her own imagination just a little further than she would've wanted. Then in correlation with her desire to stop the forward progression of her writer's mind, the elevator car came to a stop on the fourteenth floor.
And there came the calm that Cynthia had always found so fascinating, yet never thought to write about. It was that sense of solitary purpose once the car had stopped, the one that had nothing to do with where she was in life or to where she applied her mind, for her only thought during those seconds when the door opened again was how long was it going to take for this passenger to leave. She'd try to guess which direction in the corridor the person would turn upon exiting, and rarely was she right.
Then the doors would close, and like rain her thoughts would soak her again, her mind flooding with background stories and conflicts, with the story of this businessman to her left who remained in the elevator once it started up again. But before her mind could mercilessly exhilarate out of control again, Cynthia felt the momentum of the elevator car change again, the G-forces working against her body as much to her surprise the car stopped only two floors higher. The doors opened, and there stood yet another businessman of approximately thirty, his hair a sculpted duel wave of platinum blond, clipped short and combed perfectly above his ears, and he was staring down at his mobile device.
"This one's going up," the first businessman said to this new potential passenger, and Cynthia sensed a certain discomfort from this first man that she hadn't noticed before now, as if elevator travel was somehow a source of anxiety for him. But this new businessman looked up from his mobile device, and upon hearing the news of which direction the car was going, he hesitated only briefly before stepping inside. Cynthia, lost in her Zen state between floors, listened to the exchange, fully invested on the matter at hand.
She regarded the man who'd chosen to stand just inside of the doors as they closed, near to where the climbing lights of the floor indicators moved in sequence. And comparatively, this man seemed much calmer and worlds more collected than her once only travel companion. From him came an air of authority and control that launched such a tangle of background stories in Cynthia's mind that she couldn't stand it anymore and held her hands to her ears.
"Are you all right?" the new passenger asked her, and then he smiled at her, keeping his eyes on her longer than she would've liked.
The seventeenth floor made itself known with a single chime and another shift in G-forces. The doors opened, and much to Cynthia's relief, both men exited.
And there it was, she thought, or perhaps didn't think at all. The closing of the elevator doors worked to pinch-off all of the stories of debauchery that were haunting her, and now she was moving away from the possibility of any of that being a reality. Here was the Zen of elevator travel, those few moments when all that was required from her was to occupy the space without thought, in the calm silence of a mind desperate only to reach its destination. She knew how this story was going to end, and she was well aware of which direction in the hallway she would go once the elevator stopped on her penthouse floor.
It was startling to Steven as he turned the corner on that late summer night, the front tire of his bicycle catching the curb and nearly causing a spill as the random activity caught his attention and jolted him from his meditations.
A man was emerging from the driver's side of a car parked in a driveway, standing to meet a woman and a child who were walking toward him from the curb, and he could've sworn that the man was carrying a gun.
And what a contrast this burst of life was when compared to the silence of this suburban neighborhood, lined with single-story brick homes inside which most people his age had the good sense to be in bed in front of the glow of their television sets by now.
But Steven let the scene in that driveway pass over his shoulder with the rest of the neighborhood, giving those people no more significance than he would have given any of the other parked cars and garbage cans and stop signs that he passed with each strong push of his pedals.
He took in a lungful of the night air and enjoyed the freedom of this neighborhood ride. After all, it was his plan all along to tap into this feeling, to rediscover that which made him so happy as a kid to pedal his red Mongoose through his own neighborhood streets. He could still see David and Peter and Clark and Lenny, all getting on their bikes and pedaling alongside him to catch up, as free as any humans could ever be, or would ever be again.
The Mongoose was long gone, and Steven was now riding a brand-new $99.00 Roadmaster that he'd bought over the weekend at the local Wal-Mart. And he had to admit, the bike was taking the imperfections of these streets better than he would've thought. The bike was red, because it had to be red, and the bike looked just as modern and sturdy as all of the other bikes that hung from the racks at Wal-Mart, even the ones that the salesman said were reserved for the more serious cyclists.
He'd therefore expected the bike to fall apart right out from under him by the end of this ride. But by then, the bike would've already served its purpose as the gateway to his remembering. And so he loosened his grip and slid his hands off the handlebars to drive only with his fingertips, turning them ever so slightly to the left and to the right to create those broad, semi-circular patterns from one curb to the other that he loved to make as a boy. And he felt saddened suddenly by the effort that this was all taking, the absolute chore that it was to clear his adult mind just long enough to enjoy the simplicity of this ride.
The sense of wonder that he was attempting to conjure wasn't lasting long, but was rather coming in waves of memory with varying degrees of clarity, images with just enough potency to convince him that if he tried hard enough, he could quite possibly pedal his way all the way back to the beginning.
Steven began to wonder if he should've at least purchased a helmet and some reflective clothing. But that's not what a child riding through the night would even begin to think. And so he pushed the concern to the furthest most grownup corner of his mind with the rest of his adult concerns, the ones that were all fighting for position to get in front of these fresh new ones.
There should be only one concern tonight, Steven thought, and that concern would be to make sure that he filled his tires with just enough air to make all of the jumps that he had planned.
Up ahead, a bump materialized out from the darkness, and so he stood on his pedals and picked up speed to hit the bump and pull up on his handlebars. And as planned, this series of movements sent him up and sailing over a good three feet of untouched concrete before landing with a cushioned bounce, a bounce that required only the slightest correction of his handlebars. This excited him, but a young boy would never celebrate such a small feat as was that jump, would never think to distinguish that jump from any of the other thousands he'd already made or planned to make, and so Steven moved on without fanfare.
Approaching an incline in the street now, Steven could see that he was about to connect with the main boulevard up ahead, and so he stood again on his pedals and picked up just enough speed to make the incline and stand with his bike between his legs. And upon arriving, he marveled at how deserted this boulevard actually was at this time of night, far from the gridlocked morning mess that made a winding trail of fiery windshields all the way down to the Interstate on-ramp. The businesses along this street were lit up as if open, but in fact they were far from it, and Steven folded his arms and stood there with his bike to enjoy this special solitude.
And it was here that he noticed someone else engaged in the same activity at the same intersection, just a few yards over to his left, only he was sitting quietly on a bus-stop bench. The individual sat with his arms outstretched along the back, a large and foreboding man with a bald head, wearing a tattered jumpsuit that revealed an even dirtier, stained undershirt. And leaning against the garbage can was a bike of his own, a red Huffy.
Steven wanted to nod to this person, wanted to acknowledge that perhaps they shared a mutual enjoyment of night cycling. But this man paid him no mind, instead staring out into the night behind what seemed to be a veil of thoughts so thick that it blocked out any awareness of his surroundings. Then his head dropped, and his arms fell from the back of the bench, and within moments this bald giant of a man was standing and reaching for his bike, mounting it finally to pedal off down the sidewalk with a slow and rhythmic cadence.
And that was the last time Steven had ever expected to see this man.
Only the following afternoon, as Steven drove home on his usual route in the stop-and-go wall of red brake lights, he spotted through his passenger's-side window the very same red Huffy bike with its front tire tucked into a bike rack outside of a public library. The bike was parked there by itself, strange to Steven at this early-evening hour, and he wondered if perhaps the bike had been parked there all day. The library was more than likely where the man had worked, but Steven wanted to think otherwise, wanted to believe that the bald giant on the red bike was perhaps some sort of mad intellectual.
Maybe this man arrived at this library every day just to sit quietly and comb through academic journals in his particular field, or maybe he engaged in long shifts of writing that would produce a finished work of his own, a biography, or a novel of fiction.
And so that night Steven took another solitary bike ride to have his questions answered, eventually finding himself at that very same intersection. But the bus-stop bench was empty tonight, the garbage can not working to serve as a prop for the red Huffy bike.
Alone again, Steven thought, alone as the only member of this new club of neighborhood night cyclists.
And Steven would've been content to call it a night right there had it not been for the sudden materialization of the red Huffy, coming up the sidewalk now with the large man rocking slowly from side to side with each casual turn of the pedals. This time the bald giant was wearing a backpack, and immediately Steven figured the bag to be filled with his work, with books and drafts of pages scribbled with red-pen edits. The bike passed directly in front of Steven as he stood there with his bike between his legs, so close to him now in fact that he could see that the man's eyes were still vacant and lost, staring ahead, or perhaps staring at nothing at all.
But within only a few more yards the man stopped pedaling and applied his brakes, sliding off of the bike seat and standing to catch his breath for a moment before leaning his bike against the bus-stop garbage can. He took his seat on the bench, again resuming the posture that Steven had first seen, with both of his arms stretched out along the back of the bench and his chin held up high as if he were a king that was leisurely surveying his sleeping kingdom. Steven held back the urge to approach this man, not wanting to disturb his meditations on some particular subject, or his efforts to work his way out of a potential plot problem in his novel.
Yes, Steven thought, this man was a writer. No other possibility made more sense to him now than this, that the bald-headed man with the red Huffy and the backpack and tattered jumpsuit was in fact a brilliant man who'd chosen to work independent from the world. His solitude, Steven concluded, was more sacred to him than anything else in the world.
But Steven had to know.
Which was why the next afternoon, when Steven saw the bike parked again outside of the public library, he turned out of his gridlocked commute back home and parked.
Still dressed in his workday suit and tie, Steven entered the library and began the pantomime of casually browsing the stacks, placing himself finally just close enough behind the bald giant to observe without his being noticed, watching the man as he sat at one of the public computer cubicles typing away with great agility.
Steven repositioned the books in front of him to make the perfect peephole through which to examine the computer screen over the bald giant's shoulder.
But it was only a video game.
Standing suddenly from his peephole, Steven felt betrayed, embarrassed that he'd given so much credit to this man, thinking that he possessed genius when in fact he was just a lonely man who played video games. No works of great prose were on that computer screen, no indication of any document of any kind. The bald giant was simply, and now tragically so to Steven, just passing his time.
And so as the weeks rolled by following Steven's revelation, he found it odd that he was now seeing the bald giant more than he'd ever. He saw the man no less than a half-dozen times around his neighborhood, at the local supermarket where he spotted him pushing a basket as he gazed at the shelves, on random streets and in scattered parking lots where Steven spotted him pedaling slowly in a circle. Even the red Huffy had become a landmark now, always at the library when Steven passed it every afternoon on his way home from work.
Solitude. Alone at the library. Exploring empty parking lots in the middle of the night.
But as the days went by, Steven began to understand this behavior, and it was precisely what Steven had intended for himself all along. Where Steven had failed trying to tap into that mysterious corner of his mind, this man had now surpassed him in both experience and opportunity. Such was the bald giant's life, a life that began in practice long before Steven had ever thought to attempt such a thing for himself.
And Steven began to wonder if perhaps no one listened to this man as well, if maybe when he spoke, no one even attempted to understand his worldview. He wondered if perhaps the man was being ignored, and if what he was doing now was nothing more than just holding his cards close to his chest. Steven wondered if this man was married, like himself, and he wanted to know if this man had kids of his own, kids who like their mother had established that nothing of any importance would ever come out of his mouth.
It was enough to put Steven back on his bike that very next night to cycle past all of the sleeping storefronts again along the boulevard, out of his neighborhood altogether to ride under the orange glow of the highway overpasses. He'd made it as far the mall, a total of three miles, when out of fatigue and hunger he chained his bike outside of the food court and went inside.
He stopped and stood in the center of the food court, slowly turning to scan his options, trying to find a counter that wasn't being wiped down for the night, when among the scattered shoppers who still remained, Steven spotted the bald giant sitting at one end of a table with the other end hidden behind a column, and he was engaged in some lively discussion. He was speaking with his hands waving expressively before him, his eyes and facial expressions and nods of affirmation telling Steven that the bald giant had in fact some interested company there, if only Steven could see who that company was. But now a janitor was obstructing Steven's view of the other end of the table, lifting a bag out of a trash receptacle and hoisting it over his shoulder to be dropped into a tremendous, rolling barge of a cart.
Steven waited for the mall worker to finish the task and move on, to push that cart away from between where it separated himself and the bald giant's table to reveal what would perhaps give him some idea of what a friend to such a wandering soul would look like, or if he, or even she were no one more than just a fellow vagabond in tattered clothing.
He wanted to join the conversation, if for no other reason than to serve as a gateway to speaking to the man himself, this mysterious bald giant on the bike who it would appear was articulate after all, who had a mind filled with ideas and opinions that he wished to express.
And then the mall worker's cart moved, and with it, so did Steven's expectations.
No one sat listening across from the bald giant, regardless of the fact that the giant was still attempting to explain something, something that seemed to be a story of consolation, a gesture to a friend who was not there at all. The bald giant was smiling as he spoke to this phantom, reassuring it with this gesture that everything was going to be all right.
Steven imagined himself to be sitting across from the bald giant, there in that chair hearing those words of consolation, being told that everything was in fact going to be all right.
The orange glow of the parking lot lights played with the streaks left behind by his windshield wipers. And so Paul leaned in closer to the windshield and rested his chin on his steering wheel, squinting his eyes to block out everything but the lights beyond the glass. As a result, the lights turned into tiny north stars of Bethlehem that floated in suspension above the trees.
He laughed and rubbed his eyes, leaning back to let the lights and the trees outside of Building D in the apartment complex all come back into focus.
He was exhausted. Of that much he was certain. But how he'd arrived here, sitting with his car shifted into park and staring at some lone window in an apartment complex he'd never been to before, he couldn't quite figure and could in no way contribute to any kind of exhaustion.
This was simply the end of a timeline that had placed him there, naturally and not as a result of any conscious decisions he'd made. After all, Paul thought, animals that hunt are instinctively drawn to their prey. And in the silence of his car there he began to wonder what exactly goes through an animal's mind at the moment that they find themselves gone suddenly from their resting position to being quite literally on top of some prey.
He wondered if in the time between the animal's triggered instinct and the inevitable end result, which always left the animal panting and with a bloodied mouth, if there was any real memory of the hunt itself at all?
Or was it comparable to something like a blackout, Paul thought, similar to the way in which humans enter a room and then not remember why they'd gone in there in the first place? He began to think of their family cat, who was far away in another neighborhood across town, and of how the cat locks onto birds fluttering outside of his living room window before jumping and leaving scratches in his lap as the animal stops to stand frozen in the window like a work of taxidermy. He wondered if, as with those birds, was it possible that the slightest of movements could trigger the lunge of any natural predator?
Paul found his way back out from the wilderness of his thoughts, back to his immediate surroundings, there inside of his car in that strange parking lot as he stared up at Building D.
His last clear memory was of being at his local drug store about thirty-five minutes ago, standing in line two places behind the man that would trigger this strange hunt. All at once, scattered memories began to connect like links on a chain, and he recalled now how he had taken the hard turns in this unfamiliar neighborhood, how he'd memorized every street sign. He remembered how he'd kept a safe distance behind the car as not to spoil his reveal.
But like now, he also remembered asking himself what in the hell he was doing, if what he wanted to do was just to make this person aware that he was being followed. Yes, he had wanted to teach this man that sometimes bad behavior could trigger a response from a completely uninvolved, total stranger. He wanted to elicit fear, and this was precisely why he had yet to shift his car out of park, why he hadn't even considered leaving the parking lot in favor of keeping an eye on the movements up in that third-floor window.
The shadow of the man moved back and forth up there, and Paul could only figure that the man was placing down the Coronas that he purchased at the drug store, the same Coronas that he watched this man carry up those three flights of steps to the balcony near his front door.
Paul leaned forward again in the driver's seat, and he began to imagine what possible furniture configurations existed up there, what obstacles might be in his path once he decided to enter that apartment to do whatever it was he was that his instinct had led him there to do next.
And there was that word again: instinct. He leaned back, and again he thought of the animal in the midst of its hunt, wondering if in the throws of instinctive behavior do animals even know that they're acting on instinct? It was all so very interesting to him what it was he was obviously becoming, and he liked the idea that if anything were to come of this sudden fit of stalking, it would be a better understanding of the animal kingdom of which he tells his son often that they are both very much a part.
Yes, a first-hand, predatory experience would be the perfect topic of conversation to have with his young son tonight. And he knew that the boy would be interested because at some point the discussion would turn to talk of guns. The boy loved the feel of the weapon that Paul had purchased and shown him, an extension of himself as he pulled the trigger and made the empty cylinder turn and hammer to snap down on the empty chamber.
Paul reminded himself again to always keep that cylinder empty, to make sure that the bullets were removed from the gun and placed out of reach before his ex-wife would arrive to deliver their son to him tonight.
And he had so many other surprises for his boy tonight, such as the big bag of chocolates and hard candies that he'd purchased from the drug store when it was his turn in line, just moments before he would get back into his car and start driving far out of his way to sit in this parking lot. He had planned to share the chocolate with his son, and then use the individually wrapped hard candies as poker chips. He was going to teach his boy all about the thrill of winning, even if it meant a small series of winning poker hands.
He wanted to explain, however, how through violence one could remove an opponent altogether.
But who was he to explain such a thing without ever having done it himself?
Because instinct didn't require any skill, Paul concluded. Skill was not relevant in a situation like that. And he began to wonder again if the man in the apartment upstairs knew that he was being watched.
But what was he really doing there? How did he actually plan to end this natural timeline without finishing it, if for no other reason than not to have wasted all of this time and effort? Did he remember even having a plan before taking that thirty-five minute drive out of his way to follow this man to his home?
Well, Paul thought, that man upstairs was a bully. And in the end, all that mattered was that he hated bullies. The bully's behavior in the store tonight was all it took to do it to himself, to place himself in such a dangerous position, like the last fatal movements of an animal's prey.
Paul had chosen this bully, and the only plan from here on out needed to be to bring and end to this stalk, which would ultimately mean the end of this bully. And he was simply going to walk up those steps and let himself inside of that apartment to do it. Once inside, he'd navigate his way around that furniture to get at the bully quickly and not allow him the time to defend himself.
And one of those Corona bottles would do the trick, Paul thought, would be perfect to break into a shard and shove deep into the bully's neck.
He wondered what it was going to feel like at the moment that the bottle punctured flesh.
And Paul was going to do it without uttering a single word, with only the satisfaction of being recognized as the anonymous man who was standing two persons behind the bully at the checkout line. Paul was the man that scoffed loudly when the bully had finished demeaning the cashier, the one who caught the bully's attention and made him turn around. Paul was the random person with whom the bully had made eye contact, meant to intimidate, and it was Paul's icy return stare that had come all too naturally.
But then the bully had dismissed their exchange altogether, instead turning back to the cashier and insisting that it was their credit card reader that was malfunctioning and not his card. He explained that he had gone in their every night this week and purchased the very same longnecks with that very same credit card. And he'd never been hassled like this before now.
The cashier had then insisted again, albeit bashfully, that it was the credit card.
The bully then pushed back, only this time, he'd called the cashier a name.
There, Paul thought, that was the point where his instincts had been triggered. That was the fatal final movements of his prey. The bully had decided that the cashier's dignity was his to take, regardless of the fact that this cashier no doubt had a timeline of his own, had a day of challenges and frustrations and perhaps even the smallest of pleasures.
That cashier didn't need to experience such pain tonight.
Still, everyone looked on without getting involved.
"Let me talk to your manager," the bully had said, and Paul noted that it wasn't the manager but was rather your manager.
"I'll get my manager," the cashier replied, "but don't disrespect me like that."
"It's you that's disrespecting me!" the bully returned.
A random blue-collar worker, who had occupied the first place in line behind the bully and who Paul would've thought shared in the frustration, instead turned around to comment. "This fucking kid better get his manager," he said to Paul. "Or else this guy's gonna kick his ass!"
Well, Paul had thought just then, … was he now?
He was back to Building D now. The bully was right up there in Building D, and from what Paul remembered he was by all standards a stereotype, a stocky man in his early forties in a tank top and shorts and with a sun visor that sat the wrong way on his head. And the bully no doubt had a timeline of his own, had a day of challenges and frustrations and perhaps even the smallest of pleasures.
His beer, for instance, was all that the bully wanted out of life tonight.
But the bully was in for so much more!
Only Paul was no longer even in the parking lot.
He'd gone and done it again, had pounced elsewhere like the predator that he'd become without his knowing. He was already back home and in his driveway. And again he tried to harness what little memory he could of his latest time lapse, remembering now that he'd indeed run a few stop signs in his neighborhood, and that at some point he'd reached over to the glove compartment to make sure that the gun was still in there and loaded.
Paul reached up and adjusted his rearview mirror there in his driveway, and he had a timeline of his own, had a day of challenges and frustrations and perhaps even the smallest of pleasures.
But he wasn't quite sure why it was he was now sitting and waiting in his driveway, why he was staring intently at the reflection of the curb in his rearview mirror, or why he was now holding the gun with the hammer pulled back.
He wasn't fully aware yet of what it was he was there to do next, but he knew that at some point his ex-wife would arrive at that curb to deliver their son to him tonight.