Part 1: The Reunion

Alan sat in the shadow of the overpass, lurking like a troll hungry for billy goats.  He breathed in the steam of his coffee; gas station swill, but it kept him awake.  He’d not slept in the past forty-eight hours.  In his car, the buzz and crackle of dispatch washed over the drone of AM sports radio and became a kind of lullaby. He had to fight to keep from nodding off, sipping coffee and digging his fingernails into his palm.  His mind was in a fog, a thick and swirling fog that made everything fuzzy and indistinct.  But in bed, his thoughts would not cease, rushing past like water on the rocks of a creek bed, tangled and swirling in the moss.  And now he didn’t even have his whiskey to dam them.

Instead, he swallowed a bouquet of pills every morning before his cornflakes.  His regimen.  It’s importance was crucial, his doctors told him.  Even a slight deviation put him at risk, one he could not afford.  He imagined the pills now, floating on his bile like pool floats. 

The medicine was meant to keep his darkest thoughts hidden, locked away.  To keep his mind from bringing them to the surface, to see them floating like bloated corpses in his memory.  The smell of burning flesh. Shrapnel in a child’s eye.  A mass grave uncovered on Christmas Eve.  Alan sipped his coffee, and willed his mind to submerge these memories, to hold them under until they stopped kicking.  To tie weights on them and push them off a bridge, until their existence melted away in a few fading ripples.

Some days are easier than others.

Eighty-Seven.  The digits flashed on his radar, and Alan sighed.  He dropped his cruiser into gear, flipped on its lights, and pressed the accelerator, muscling his way into the fast lane.  He caught up to the white pick-up, a work-truck with the logo of a landscaping company on it. It featured what looked like Alvin from the Chipmunks holding a rake like a guitar.  When the truck made no move to pull over, Alan tail-gated insistently.  In a matter of moments, the truck glided toward the emergency lane and settled to a stop.  Alan pulled in behind him.

One step closer to April’s quota, Alan told himself, imagining the lines of an Excel sheet spread before him like so many prison bars. He cracked his knuckles on the steering wheel and took a look at the license plate tags.  Still current.  A yellow ribbon sticker was plastered on the bumper, mocking him with its banal patriotism.  Alan clicked a few buttons on the laptop mounted inside his car.  Its plates were clean.  He took another sip of his coffee, and felt his cruiser rock ever so slightly into the vacuum of each car and truck that zoomed past.  Good to make him wait.  Establishes dominance.  He watched a Hummer roar past, one of those vulgar civilian models. He imagined an I.E.D. exploding the rear bumper, sending the vehicle somersaulting in a whirlwind of destruction, then swallowed the thought down into the pit of his stomach.

Alan pushed his door open from the inside, and took a step out into the full sunlight.  It was a clear spring day, the kind that reminded him of laundry detergent ads and Easter cards.  Even from the expressway, you could see trees in bloom.  On a good day, it was the kind of weather that energized an already happy mood, that made you excited for the summer yet to come.  But today, it only made his foul mood feel petty. 

Let’s hope the first one’s easy.  Let’s hope this guy’s not an asshole, he wished as he walked down the emergency lane. 

The driver’s hands were still on the wheel, tapping it nervously, maybe in time to some song that was just on the radio.  He wore a baseball cap and collared shirt, had black hair and dark eyes.  He rolled his window was down, and looked sideways at Alan from the driver’s seat.  Alan peered down at him through his aviator shades.  He clicked his ball point pen.

“Hey Officer…Whey-chowsky,” the driver intoned nervously.  “Guess I was going a little too fast, huh?”

Wichowski.  Wuh-CHOW-ski.  Alan silently corrected the man.  “Yes, sir.  The reason I pulled you over was because you were driving at an unsafe speed.  In fact, going thirty miles over the speed limit puts you and other drivers at an increased and unnecessary risk for a fatality in case of collision.  Not to mention what it can do to your premiums,” he said, with the barest grin in the corner of his mouth.  “License, registration, and proof of insurance please.”

“Yes sir, Officer.  My name’s Jim, by the way.  Jim Barnes,” he introduced himself.  “I’m going to open the glove compartment now.”

“Go right ahead, Mr. Barnes,” Alan responded. 

Barnes leaned over to the passenger side and dug through a mess of oil change receipts to find his insurance card.  “Here you go, Officer,” Mr. Barnes handed him the documents.  “Glad I got the policy renewed on time this year.”

Alan nodded.  “I’ll be back in a moment.”

He headed back to his car, checking a small mirror he’d attached to the front of his vehicle to keep his eye on drivers as he walked back to his cruiser.  He opened the door and slid back in, scanning a code on the back of Barnes’ ID that brought up information about him on his laptop.

No warrants.  Those two words were always a relief.  Couldn’t catch up on your driving enforcement quota with an arrestee in the backseat.  This guy seemed boring anyway.  If he did have a warrant out on him, it would be for something small like child support delinquency or failure to appear in court.  If he had to do something extra, he at least wanted the shit to be worth it.

A yawn crept up his throat, and Alan took another sip of coffee.  And there it was.  Something he hadn’t felt in over a week.  Pleasure.  Not a roaring firecracker like the first kiss with something new, just the simple taste of a good, bad cup of coffee.  He let it wash over him, like sun rays piercing an overcast sky.  Then the feeling was gone, and he made his way back to the car. 

“Mr. Barnes, thank you,” he handed the documents back.  “I hope business is good, because Im going to have to write you a ticket.  I know you might want to squeeze in an extra client on a beautiful day like this, but going dangerous speeds on the expressway isn’t the way to do that.”

“Oh, I know, Officer,” Mr. Barnes chuckled.  “Ain’t like that, though.  Had a contract to do part of the work for UC’s North campus.  It was a hundred miles away, so I put me and the boys up in a Holiday Inn.  A rush job, but they was desperate, so it was worth our time.  But my wife’s back home, and we don’t get much privacy sharing two hotel rooms, if yaknowwhatImean.”  His eyebrows arched like two happy caterpillars.

“Understood,” Alan responded, his face and tone deadpan.  He ripped the perforated page from his ticket book and passed it to Barnes.  “You have a month to pay it, or appear in court on the date printed should you choose to contest.  And be safe.  I’ve seen men like you with their skulls split open by their steering column, texting their girlfriends at 90 miles an hour.  Not a pretty sight.  But I know you’ll make a better choice next time.  Good day, sir.”

Settling back into his seat in the cruiser, Alan felt a buzz on his hip from his cell phone.  It was his sister.  Julie.

*  *  *  *  *

“Julie!”  The cry came with knocks like a snare drum. 

Noel.  Jesus fucking Christ.  Julie opened the door and peaked out.  “Wha-?” she asked through the toothbrush and paste frothing white from her mouth.  She leaned her head over the sink, spat, and drank some water from the faucet, wiping her chin with the back of her hand.  “What the hell.”

“I need in here,”  Noel told her.  “You’ve been in here, like, forever.”

“I’ve been in here like,” Julie replied, subtly mocking her roommate’s diction, “fifteen minutes.  I need to go to work.”

“You’re done now.  Go,” Noel pushed her out the door of the bathroom and shut it behind her.  Julie heard the clatter of the toilet bowl and a loud stream of piss. 

Too many people here.  Too many god damned people, Julie observed, as she had countless times, kicking her way through people’s shoes, clothes, books, laptop chargers, and ankle-biting, yippy dogs.  “Shut up, Chester,” Julie said to Noel’s cocker spaniel.  Chester growled. 

She picked up her bag, sunglasses, phone, and cigarettes, checked to make sure she had everything she needed and left, letting the door bang shut behind her.  The sun was bright, the air crisp.  Julie’s lips pulled a cigarette out of her pack. Her lighter flicked sparks into the pocket of her hands as she sucked in the first lungful, and the world shifted slightly into focus. 

Her car was under the shade of a huge oak tree, kept cool by a canopy of budding, green leaves.  The handle clicked as she opened her door, threw her bag inside, and settled into the driver’s seat, playing tug of war with her seatbelt a couple of times before it decided to let go and she clicked herself in.  Julie checked herself in the windshield’s rearview mirror.  Good enough, she concluded, and pointed the mirror back into place. 

With the windows rolled down, and the radio turned up, her morning becamealmost pleasant.  Her drink had kicked in, Red Bull and orange juice, minus the vodka.  It was Monday morning, but Sunday’s hangover had a grimy residue that the cigarettes, sugar and caffeine had almost wiped away. 

The expressway lurched along as it always did this time of day, cluttered by trucks, school busses, and mini-vans, people fleeing downtown for suburbia, going from jobs to home.  And she followed the mass exodus every day, to serve them lattes and paninis, pouring espresso for lousy tips and rent money. 

POP!  Thumpthumpthumpthud….

Julie felt the tire pop like a balloon.  Fuck.  She didn’t have time for this shit.  Not today.  Not for the very day of her ninety day review.  She pulled over, awkwardly schlepping herself across two lanes on a busted tire to do it.  She got her phone out, scrolled, and pressed. 

Heidi Sisters Coffee, Belknap Avenue,” the voice crackled.  Stephanie.  I think.

“Hey, it’s Julie.  Is Chris around?” she asked for her manager. 

“Yeahlemmecheck,”  Stephanie said the words in one quick breath, and put Julie on hold.

“—come In with your Heidi Rewards card, and earn free drinks.  With every ten drinks you purchase, Heidi Sisters—“

“This is Chris, how may I help you?” he spoke with a hint of forced cheerfulness. 

“Hey, Chris.  It’s Julie.  My tire blew.  I’m gonna be late,” Julie told him. 

“Your review’s in fifteen minutes, Julie.  I need to send it to the district manager before I can leave today.  Get here,” he told her. 

“Well, I’m here on the expressway man, what’ya want me to do?” she asked with an acid tone.  “I’ll be there as quick as I can.  Think you can give me a ride?  My tire blew, and I was riding on my spare.”

“Damn it, Julie,” Chris sighed in her ear.  “Blake called in.  There’s no one else here until you get here.  So get here.”  He hung up. 

Fuck.  She dug in her wallet for her AAA card.  But when she called, they reminded her she hadn’t renewed in three years.  And unless she could pay for a new six-month membership, they couldn’t send a truck.  Julie wanted to bluff them, but her debit card wouldn’t be able to back her up.  Not this early in the month with the rent check just cashed.

So she scrolled through her phone.  Who has a car, and will answer.  Who has a car…

She sent six texts.  Five minutes.  Nine texts.  Twenty minutes.  Fuck.

Alan.  Her brother’s name stared up at her from her phone.  She hovered her thumb for a moment.  Fuck it.  She pressed the name and listened to the electronic moan of the dialtone. 


  *  *  *  *  *

Alan grunted as he turned the tire iron quarter turn by quarter turn, each lug-nut a stubborn, rusted nub.  Sweat beaded on his face, the muscles of his forearms taut, burning with exertion.  The veins on his arms bulged.  He wiped some sweat from his brow onto his shoulder and looked up at Julie, the shadow of her silhouette blocking the sun from his eyes.  “You really should get Triple A.  I’m too busy to be your mechanic.”

“Thanks, Captain Obvious,” Julie replied with a sigh.  “My policy lapsed.  And I forgot about it.  Until today.  But yes, that’s definitely on my list of priorities.”

“You need to get your shit together,” Alan said, bouncing the rubber of the tire onto the emergency lane. 

“I’m just trying to get to work.  I pay my taxes.  I’m a law-abiding citizen, for the most part.  Cut me some slack.  I’m having a bad day,” Julie told him as she bent down to hand the lug-nuts back to him.

Alan mumbled thanks as he took one and spun the tire-iron as he attached his cruiser’s spare onto Julie’s car.  It was a good fit. 

“You need to get a real job,” Alan declared as he took another bolt and began to tighten the wheel.  “There’s an opening in dispatch.  I could give you a reference, but you’d have to pass a piss test.  But no randoms.” 

“No thanks,” Julie said.  “Not exactly my ‘ideal working environment’.  And I have a job.  Two, if you count painting.”

“Your painting’s good,” Alan said.  “But it’s not going to pay bills.  With a professional job, it’d be easier to buy materials.  Get a two-bedroom.  You could even keep a studio.  But this barista job’s beneath you.  Aren’t you tired of working with teenagers?”

“You mean my underlings? Not if I can boss ‘em around,” she chuckled.  “I don’t know.  I can look around.  Fill out some on-line applications.  It’s just tiresome, filling out ten applications for jobs I don’t even really want.  Art majors aren’t in high demand these days.  It sucks when ninety percent of the jobs in the city you’re qualified for are in bars or restaurants.”

“I got a few ideas,” Alan told her.  “You want to get something to eat after your shift ends?”

“Alright,” she said.  “Guess I owe you.”

Alan thumped the back of his fist against the tire and nodded.  “You’re good to go.  And don’t forget to pick up a spare.  I’ll need that tire back.  Eventually.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Julie said, and hugged her brother.  “Thank you.”  They parted, and she looked at him, her eyes creased as she squinted against the sun.  “You doing okay?”

“For the most part,” he said, kicking the tire.  “Ain’t been drinking, if that’s what you mean.”

“That’s good,” Julie nodded.  “But I mean, you feel okay?”

“Eh,” he said.  “Okay.  But I’m still fucked up.  I know that.”

“Well, you’re not the only one.  But you handle it better than most.  I got to get going,” Julie said as she opened her car door.  “Bye, Alan.”


  *  *  *  *  *

Dinner was leftover sandwiches and iced tea.  They split a day-old cinnamon roll, and drank cups of decaf with their dessert.  Julie put the coffee shop’s music mix on low, and Alan made fun of half the songs.  It was the most cliché hipster music you could imagine, “Like from an Urban Outfitters commercial,” he teased.  Alan liked classic rock and gangster rap, but not much else. 

“Hey, shut up,” Julie threw a crumpled napkin at him.  “Most of these songs were picked by me.  It has to be clean, and ‘appeal to hip urban teenagers and young adults’ so yeah, hipsters.  Hipster music is mandatory here.  But you’re welcome to plug in your own tunes if you want.  We ain’t open.”

“I just like giving you shit,” Alan grinned as he spoke, revealing the dimpled cheeks and chin that appeared whenever he smiled.  He took after their dad.  And she after their mom.  Most people were surprised they were brother and sister.  But they were more than that. 

Julie looked at her twin and tried to see through the self-assured, cock-eyed grin.  Alan’s eyes were red, but he hardly ever smoked weed.  Which meant he was exhausted, so he hadn’t been sleeping.  But then he hadn’t been drinking either.  So that makes it kind of even, Julie decided.

Alan looked at his sister, and that feeling came back.  That good feeling.  A ray of sunlight piercing through the fog of his brain, if only for a moment, but this moment lingered.  Alan bit into his sandwich, a vegan reuben.  Whatever the hell that was.  Better than anything I’d get at home.  To Alan, fast-food was a treat.  The res t of the time, it was boiled noodles, jars of spaghetti sauce, ramen, frozen meals, and cereal.  He’d learned a lot in the army, but not how to cook. 

More than the food, he realized, it was being with Julie.  Her energy.  He couldn’t explain it.  It was like when they were kids, hanging out after school, but now it was after work, and they were grown-up.  She floored him. 

“Thanks for helping me today,” Julie interrupted his thoughts.  “I love you, Alan.  I guess brothers and sisters are supposed to say that to each other sometimes.”

“I love you too,” he said.  Can’t remember the last time I told that to anybody, he realized.

He flinched for a second, but Julie didn’t know why.  She put her hand on his shoulder.  “You okay?” she whispered. 

“Yeah,” Alan’s voice cracked, and he wiped the back of his hand against his eye. 

“So you got any more hot job leads?” Julie asked, trying to break the awkwardness.  “Besides working for the five-oh?”

“Eh, I can ask around.  I’m a good reference,” he bragged.  “A lot of people owe me.”

“I’ll bet.  Hey, I’m going out back to smoke a jay.  You want to?”

Fuck it, Alan thought.   Why not?  “Okay,” he told her.  “But I got to change first.  Can’t break the law in uniform.”

“Cool.  I’ll meet you outside.”  Julie walked back toward the office, and Alan heard the door open and shut, and knew he was alone inside the building.

His clothes were in a duffel bag he’d brought in, but had neglected to change into, because of how hungry he was earlier.  With a full belly, he began to unbutton his police uniform, keeping on the tee-shirt he wore underneath.  He kicked off his shoes, shed his pants and pulled on some blue jeans.  Over his shirt, he buttoned a long-sleeved flannel that he kept un-tucked.  He wore the same shoes, some black boots in a military cut.  Then he walked toward the back of the shop and went outside.

Julie was holding the joint sideways, keeping the tip inside the lighter’s flame, grinning up at her brother.  Once it began to smoke, she held it out to him, and he inhaled.   Too much.  In a fit of red-faced coughing, he handed it back to Julie. 

“Slow your roll, dude!  You been outta the game too long.”  She passed it back to Alan, and exhaled slowly, blowing a smoke ring.  It twisted and bent in the light of the parking lot, then slowly dissolved. 

Alan took a much smaller hit this time, exhaled, and told his sister “I’m good.  Thanks.”  He already felt a wonderful sense of lightness, and felt the corners of his mouth begin to grin for no reason. 

“Yeah you are,” Julie said with a wink, and took another hit.  “You still going to that doctor?”

“Doctor Santiago?  Yeah, she’s not bad for a psychiatrist.  Don’t like all of the pills she has me on, but she told me they’re a ‘necessity’.”  

“You mean you don’t have a choice?”  she asked.  “That’s lame.”

“When you’ve spent the night staring into a gun barrel, trying to convince yourself to pull the trigger, it doesn’t matter how many pills it takes, or how many bottles you drink.  Anything feels better than that,” Alan explained.

Julie sighed.  “But you don’t feel that way anymore, right?” 

“Not as bad,” he told her.  “I don’t mean to be a downer.  I know you’re trying to relax.”

Julie took one final drag, then snuffed out the joint out with spit-moistened fingers before returning it to an ash-filled Altoids case.  “I’m just glad we’re spending time together.  I feel like I barely see you anymore,” she said quietly. 

“I know.  That’s my fault,” Alan admitted.  “I wasn’t good for anybody for a while.  Not even myself.”

“You’re good for me,” Julie said.  “You were today.”

Alan looked at her, and felt the wetness in his eyes, dangerously close to spilling down his cheeks.  “Thanks,” he said, and looked away before Julie could see his tears. 

She hugged him close, from his side, and let go after a few seconds.  Alan breathed a ragged sigh.  “Didn’t remember how much this shit affected me.”

“Eh, you’re not used to it yet.  It’s okay.  You’re allowed to have feelings.” Julie reminded him.

Alan remembered his days in boot camp. In Anbar province, Fallujah, and Kuwait.  He wasn’t allowed to have feelings then.  Feelings could get you killed, if they made you hesitate.  Or they could drag you down if you let in an ounce of guilt or sadness.  So you learned to mimic stoicism, until it became real and you turned yourself into stone from the inside out.  What no one ever told him was that someday that stone could begin to crack, and then he’d fall apart.

“Well, I guess you gotta get back to the station soon,” Julie spoke, feeling awkward in his silence.  “I don’t want to make you late.”

“It’s no problem,” Alan said.  “I know you got to rest.  You’ve had a long day.  You want to hang out again soon?”

“Yeah,” Julie said.  “I’ll text to you tomorrow.  Goodnight, Alan.” She gave him another quick hug, and Alan squeezed her back.  He hadn’t been hugged in ages.  It felt weird for Julie to be so affectionate, but he could feel the worry pouring out of her.  She held him tight, like she was afraid he’d slip through her fingers. It made Alan feel safe. 

“G’night,” he whispered. 

Even after visiting the station, on his way home in his own car, Alan was still riding his buzz.  Not enough that anybody could tell, but enough to feel good.  It made the music in his car more fun to listen to. 

An hour later, when Alan’s head hit the pillow, he fell asleep and dreamed.

*  *  *  *  *

Alan woke up the next morning at nine o’clock.  It was the latest he ever managed to sleep.  Even if he went to bed later than usual, the alarm clock inside his brain would make him toss and turn if he did try to linger on his mattress.  Instead of sleep, he’d lay awake in a cold sweat, stewing in the juices of his psyche.  His doctor recommended he get out of bed at these times, so that his anxiety would not worsen.  If he felt sleepy later in the day, he could try to nap.  Sleep had been among his biggest challenges since the end of his deployment.

Some nights, he couldn’t sleep at all.  His mind would race.  He felt hot for no reason.  Other nights, after half a bottle of Nyquil, he’d fall asleep in a stupor.  A few hours later, he’d awake from a nightmare.  One full of bullets, corpses, wounded men and women.  Memories from the war.

“It’s a symptom of your PTSD,” Dr. Santiago explained to him.  “I know it’s very difficult, but your symptoms are not abnormal for a combat veteran.  Moderate, but not severe.”  Alan scoffed when he heard that, but Santiago ignored him and continued.  “I’m writing you a prescription for Ambien.  That will help with the insomnia.  I encourage you to write in a dream journal.  This will help you process your dreams.  If it becomes too intense, stop.”

Alan had been on the Ambien for a couple of months, then quit.  The medicine made him too drowsy during the day.  He could fall asleep more easily, but once he’d nodded off behind the wheel of his cruiser, and that had been enough.  He told Dr. Santiago as much.  She’d accepted his decision, but reminded him he could always try a lower dose if he chose to.

The dream journal he’d kept up with.  His dreams were often strange.  Sometimes they were violent, even post-apocalyptic.  Or if he hadn’t jerked himself off for a few days, he’d dream of women.  Some he knew and some he didn’t.  He’d wake up with a stubborn hard-on, then beat-off and try to sleep.  Doctor Santiago had even recommended masturbation as a sleep-aid.  It helped, but not always.  

Last night, Alan had dreamt of himself as a child.  Not that he himself was a child, but he encountered a childhood version of himself.  His child-face had been covered in chocolate ice cream, so Alan had brought him into a bathroom and cleaned his face with a rag.  In the bizarre realm of dream logic, nothing felt strange about this.  He supposed Freud would have something to say about his inner-child.  Alan wrote as much in his spiral bound notebook, the kind he’d stuffed into his backpack in high school.  He’d filled half his journal in the time he’d had it.  With his latest entry complete, he put the notebook back in its place on his desk.

He had to write his dreams down before he did anything else, or otherwise it made them harder to remember.  Alan pressed the button on his kitchen’s clock-radio, a fixture that came with the apartment.  Someone from NPR droned on about ISIS and the Kurdish militia in Iraq.  Too early for this shit, Alan decided, and switched to the classical music station.  It wasn’t the kind of music he usually listened to, but it helped keep him calm.

With the sound of piano and violin, he scooped some Heidi Sisters coffee Julia gave him into a fresh filter and placed it in his coffee maker.  He poured in half the recommended amount of water, because he liked his coffee strong.  As it hissed and bubbled, he broke a banana apart over a bowl of Cheerios, then poured some milk on top of it.  Only a mouthful remained in the half-gallon jug, so he tipped it into his mouth and threw the empty container into the recycling. 

Once he poured some coffee into his mug, he brought the steaming cup and his bowl of cereal over to the coffee table in front of his futon and sat down.  He pressed a button on his phone.  Julia had texted him.  Weird.  She usually wasn’t up this early. Maybe she hadn’t gone out last night like she usually did. 

Text me when you wake up J

Alan sipped his coffee, and put a spoonful of cereal into his mouth.  He chewed his still crunchy cereal, and began to type an answer.

*  *  *  *  *

Paint rippled in muddled water.  Julie stirred her brush into one of many mason jars resting on the desk next to her easel.  They had a habit of settling there, pools of colored sunlight welcomed by drawn blinds and open curtains.  A prism hung from the window’s lock, kissing her face with a rainbow.  She mixed more paint, tested its blackness on an empty patch of her wooden palette.  Then she thickened the cracks spreading along her most recent portrait.  A web of lines spread through the painting, distorting the boy’s face like a broken mirror. 

He was the one who sat in the corner of her shop, coming in most weekdays, always dressed in the black pants and non-skid shoes indicative of another service industry professional.  He ordered a small coffee to go, headphones brought down around his collar only for the few moments between ordering his drink, paying, and picking it up at the counter a moment later.  His eyes were blue and cold.  After getting his drink, he’d sit at the counter next to the window, put his headphones back on, blow steam from his cup, and sip coffee ‘til his bus came. 

Julie could not tell exactly when this boy crossed the line from curiosity to private obsession, but it had happened.  Sometimes, she made up stories about her customers, especially ones like him who barely ever spoke.  She decided he must have more than one job, besides that one behind a cash register, prep station or fryer.  Rodeo clown.  But a sad one.  No one can tell but the bulls.

One of Julie’s brown curls fell in front of her eyes, and she hooked the stubborn lock behind her ear and kept painting, shading the shadow of the boy’s pouty lip.  As hard as she looked, she still couldn’t see the tears behind his eyes. 

Bzz.  Bzz.  Her phone rattled on the table.   Julie wiped her fingers on a messy rag, and picked up her phone. 

U up?  Alan wanted to know.

Painting.  Need a break, she told him.

Julie was still rubbing her eyes with the heels of her hands when she heard her phone buzz again.  She cracked her knuckles against her thighs, and unlocked her screen with a slide of her thumb, adding another layer to the streaked collection of fingerprints. 

Meet me at Apache?  Feel like running

The words stared up at her like a dare.  She hadn’t run in months.  But those tears aren’t exactly leaking out of my brush right now either, Julie decided.  And it’s warm again

K, but i’m not in shape.  Meet you in an hour?  Dog hill?, she asked, wondering if her jellied muscles would soon regret this.

Alan sent her a thumbs up a few moments later.  Julie tossed her phone onto her bed, and looked into the recesses of her closet, digging for a pair of sneakers, imagining spiders hidden among the shadows.    She found them in moments, crammed into the corner of her closet by a shoebox that held the Chelsea boots she wore for job interviews.    Their laces had tangled together, but otherwise they were still in pretty good shape.  A fitting testament to my sloth, she thought as she kicked off her slippers and pulled off her skirt.  Up to this point, her skirt had done a fine job concealing the hair on her legs that’d kept her warm through the winter, but now the skirt lay in a purple heap upon her floor, revealing a fine winter’s coat. 

Nobody will look.  Nobody will care, she convinced herself as she pulled her shirt over her head and pulled some shorts and a tee-shirt out of her drawers.  Terribly wrinkled, but old and worn in.  A kind of comfort only achieved when clothes reached a certain vintage.  She hadn’t been wearing a bra while she painted, so she squeezed a sports bra on and her tee-shirt over it.  Julie pulled the draw string of her shorts tight, tied a knot, then loosened it just a bit. 

It felt good with the sun shining in and the window cracked open, but she grabbed a hoodie just in case.  Then Julie realized she still had almost an hour before Alan would be at the park. 

Julie pulled her laptop open, and sat on the couch, her elbows propped on her knees, leaning over the edge of the coffee table to reach it.  She liked to balance her internet consumption, so alongside the endless feed of Facebook, she also kept a tab of the New York Times open up to feel smart and read headlines.  Jezebel to seethe and laugh about being an intelligent but oppressed woman.  Reddit, which often led to Wikpedia black holes. 

But as long as she had something to do, and a time to get off her phone or her computer, she was good about it.  Julie knew she’d been scrolling too long when she felt icky and restless.  Now she just wanted to relax. 

Everything was fairly amusing when she began.  Jokes and cartoons written on pizza boxes.  Too many talented people working pizza delivery, Julie thought for a moment.  Then she realized that’s exactly what Alan told her about her job at Heidi Sisters, and she let out a bemused half-chuckle.  Someone else had created an album of pictures they’d made with rulers and vertices, like the kind they had you do in math class in grade school, only much more complicated and with different colored pens. 

She stopped scrolling when she saw a post from the Politics section that had reached the front page.  “22 Veterans Commit Suicide Every Day.  Today, my Cousin Was One of Them.  Please Support Mental Health Research and Demand More Resources for Veterans in Need.”  Julie felt the heat of anxiety cascade pins and needles down her arms when she saw the post.  It wasn’t that she wasn’t aware of the dangers her brother faced as he struggled with his PTSD, or how he often fought against himself in his darkest moments.  But it reminded her of the guilt she’d felt when she’d still kept him at arm’s length.  Until yesterday, when the only reason she reached out to him was in a moment of desperation. 

She clicked on the self-text post.  It was a familiar story.  Her cousin had been twenty-seven when he died, back only a few weeks from eight years in the military.  He’d enlisted after he graduated high school.  Her post described how close they’d been during their childhood and teenage years.  And how much he’d changed when he’d gotten back.  The poster described how he rarely ever smiled.  That he was desperate for help, but aside from an anti-depressant prescription and monthly counseling, he wasn’t getting it.  At the end of the post, she included a link for people who wanted to donate to a veterans’ support service. 

Julie hit the comment button and wrote a short message of sympathy and sorrow, telling the poster her own brother was a veteran.  She didn’t know if the girl would even read all the replies, but she had to say something.  She submitted the comment, only a couple of sentences long but ending with a crying, frowning emoticon and a heart.  Julie closed the lid of her laptop and sighed. She looked out the window into the tree leaves and flowers, annoyed at the beauty the world could offer amidst so much sadness. 

She decided she’d get to the park early.  Meditate under a tree.  It wouldn’t do to stay on the computer at this point, learning more upsetting statistics, reading about symptoms of people who are depressed and suicidal, wondering if Alan showed those signs.  Instead, she got into her car and drove to Apache with the windows down.  Julie didn’t smoke a cigarette, like she often did when she was driving, deciding her lungs needed all the rest they could get before her run. 

The classical station was playing something with strings, trumpets and a piano.  What a German composer must have felt would suit the nymphs of spring and budding trees.  It helped clear some of the despair from her heart, and she struggled to focus on the notes.  I am not my thoughts, Julie reminded herself.  It was a mantra she often used when trying to be mindful, to put herself fully in the moment.  Otherwise, her thoughts could flow non-stop, and if she was already in a dark mood, that would often make it worse. 

Apache wasn’t as crowded as Julie worried it would be.  Plenty of parents and little kids around the playground near Dog Hill, but not the crowd that would be here on the weekend for such a beautiful day.  One of the good things about working weekends, Julie grinned to herself.  A few runners and bikes were already on the loop that she and Alan would be running on.  But in the meantime, Julie found the shade of a tree to sit under, crossed her legs, closed her eyes and breathed.  Her mind slowed and she relaxed, imagining her energy penetrating the space around her, searching for the oneness she sought with the universe.  And everything.

*  *  *  *  *

The canopy of trees cast lines of shadows on Alan’s car as he followed the winding curve up to the higher part of Apache.  It wasn’t a very long road, but he followed the slower pace of the park, taking his time to savor the ride.  He breathed fresh air through open windows.  A shapely cyclist caught his eye as he passed her, muscled and nylon-covered flesh on full display.  He brought his eyes back on the road, not giving himself more than a moment’s glance, but it was enough for a charge of excitement.  Then he remembered he was meeting his sister, so he thought about the trees instead, and sunshine poking through the clouds. 

Near Dog Hill, the park opened up again.  A shared path looped around the park, cars allowed to drive on one side, only in one direction, and pedestrians occupying the other.  Only cyclists had free rein to be in either lane, depending on how fast they went.  Alan got to bike sometimes as a cop, but it had spoiled him.  He wasn’t willing to spend his own money on a bike that was as good as his police bike. 

Maybe if I can find a riding partner like that chick I passed, Alan thought, and scanned the side of the road for a place to park.  He found a space that was empty, made sure nobody was right behind him, and backed into the spot parallel, giving as much space as he could to the cars in front and behind him.  Gliding into a spot this easily gave him a small dose of pleasure.  Everything in its right place. 

It didn’t take long to find Julie.  She was sitting under a tree, cross-legged.  Her eyes had a thousand yard stare, like she was deep in thought, her mind some place Alan couldn’t see.  At the sound of his footsteps in the soft grass and dried leaves, she looked up. 

“Oh, hey,” she said, tucking a strand of her hair behind her ear.  She stood and gave Alan a hug.  A strong one.  When she let go, Alan could see her eyes looked a little moist.

“You okay?” he asked.  “Looked like you were thinking about something pretty heavy.”

“Ugh, it’s not a big deal.  We’re about to go running.  I don’t want to be depressing,” she explained. 

“Well, you might as well tell me now,” Alan replied.  “Otherwise, I’m going to be wondering the whole time.”

“I saw a really depressing Reddit post before I came here,” she told him.  “About a girl who lost her cousin to suicide.  He was a vet.”

“You still worried I’d do that?” Alan asked.

“It’d be pretty damn easy for you,” Julie said.  “You’re around guns all the time.  Who knows what kind of pills you can get through the VA or your army friends.  I know I’m not close enough to you any more to keep much of an eye on you.  And I know you’re still working through all that shit you had to go through.”

“Yeah, I am,” Alan said, his tone level, jaw clenched.  He felt himself tense and willed himself to relax.  “It’s a shitty situation.  But I have people like you to help me.  And I know how depressing the numbers are, but the vast majority of returning vets don’t kill themselves.”

Julie let out a deep sigh.  “I know that.  And I try not to worry as much as I do.  But when I saw that post.  It was hard not to let my mind go to the worst-case scenario.”

“Believe me, I’ve been there.  But you know what’s a good anti-depressant?  Good for anxiety?  Existential dread?  Exercise.  C’mon, you ready?” Alan gripped her shoulder and she nodded.  “Good, let’s go.  Set the pace.”

Julie tightened the bandana around her hair, and began running down to the paved loop.  Alan followed her, giving her some time to find the right pace before he spoke again.  Talking could make a run seem faster, but Alan didn’t want to add more stress to her smoke-addled lungs until she was ready.  The fresh air helped.  Neither of them had any allergies, so beyond the stench of the Dogwood blooms, the air smelled clean and earthy. 

Their strides found a rhythm on the pavement, beating a tempo with breath and heartbeat that pulled them around the park’s miles long loop step by step.  Julie breathed in two steps, out two steps, a pattern she’d learned running track in high school.  She was told it would keep her body oxygenated, and help her find a pace that she could sustain.  It was easier then, her body bursting with energy pent up throughout the day at school, to run with a pack of her team mates through the neighborhood, ponytails bobbing like waves down each block, giggling at the stoplights, catching their breath.  Now, her body struggled to remember how to meet the demands she’d placed upon it.

First, her lungs flushed themselves of the phlegm that coated them, coming up to her mouth.  She spat to her side, and grunted, watching a glittering projectile fly into the grass nearby.  Then she felt a sharp pain under her ribs begin to emerge on her left side.  Julie imagined Jesus on the cross, his side being pierced by a soldier’s spear.  Crucify me, she cursed, when is this supposed to feel good?

“You alright?” Alan asked, sensing her discomfort by the grim line of her mouth, the clenched jaw revealed by the bounce of her bounce of her hair. 

“Side stitch,” she told him.  “Hurts like hell.”

“Slow it down a notch,” Alan instructed, “but don’t stop running. Your endorphins will kick in soon.  The body’s painkillers.  You need to push through the pain to get to the other side.”

“Yeah?” Julie wheezed.  “That sounds like something a Buddhist drill-sergeant would say.”

“A lesson I learned in basic.  Push your body hard enough, and it’ll rise to meet the challenge.  Within reason, of course.”

“That easy, huh?” Julie spoke, but kept going. 

Alan smiled, and kept following.  At Julie’s pace, he was able to feel relaxed, and take in the passing scenery.  Mothers pushing strollers, running along behind them, eyes shaded by sunglasses, body’s wrapped in thin jackets and yoga pants.  Dogs on leashes, tongues dangling.  Birds streaking through the trees in the dozens, following each other with the synchronicity of a hive mind. 

Something had broken through last night, he realized.  The dome of his depression had cracked, allowing him to soak up some of the joy that had saturated spring’s dawn.  It was easier on his day’s off to feel relaxed and in tune.  In his patrol car, he had to face the grim reality of police bureaucracy, chasing whatever metric his sergeant decided to emphasize that month.  Arrests.  Traffic stops.  The pressure was never ending.  It didn’t have the brutal exhilaration of combat, but instead a grinding, monotonous pressure.  One that would be easy to blow off, except for the necessity of collecting a paycheck. 

Alan sighed, and brought himself back into the moment.  I’m not getting paid to think about this shit, he told himself, and glanced at Julie.  She looked more determined now than pained.  They were climbing up another long curve that led back up to Dog Hill.  Almost done.  Their pace slowed with the incline, but soon they reached the pavilion that looked out over the lower part of the park, toward a stream covered mostly by trees and leaves, past the terriers, huskies and other breeds and mutts running up and down.

Julie brought them to the place where they had begun their run, and began to walk in a small circle as she struggled to catch her breath.  She brought her hands up behind her head and laced her fingers together, taking deep breaths.  Part of her wanted to put her hands on her knees, and bend over until she caught her breath, but she knew from her track days this would compress her lungs and take her even longer to recover.  She glanced at her brother. 

He gazed into the distance, to the trees and sky that met at the bottom of the hill.  Alan’s short, dark hair came to slight widow’s peak, and beneath his forehead was dotted with sweat.  He looked like he could go another couple of loops around the park before he’d be as tired as Julie felt that moment.  Alan must have felt her eyes on him, because he glanced back at her and spoke.  “You gonna puke?”

“Damn, I’m not that out of shape.  Maybe if we’d run at your pace,” she told him.  “I need some water.”

Julie walked toward a large wooden shed that housed a pair of park bathrooms.  On the outside, a little boy was standing on his tip-toes, drinking with a loud slurp.  He peered behind him, sandy blonde hair slick with sweat and dirt and ran off in the direction of the playground.

The water was cool and tasted slightly metallic.  Julie drank until she felt a little less thirsty, took a breath, and drank some more.  She put her face in the stream, and then backed off to let her brother have some. 

When Alan had finished, he walked over to an empty picnic and sat on top of it, his feet resting on one of the benches.  “You want to hang out for a little bit?”

“Yeah,” Julie said.  “Don’t have much going on today.  Already got my painting time in.  Running too.  Much more productive today than I expected to be.  You go running a lot on your days off?”

“I go running almost every day,” Alan told her.  “One of the few things that’s good for me that I can rely on to make me feel better.  I can take a day off every once in a while, if my knees start to feel sore.  More than that, I feel crummy.  Sometimes I wonder if I’m addicted to this now too,” he said as he lay back against the table, staring into the sky.

“Eh, I don’t know if that’s entirely possible.  Okay, maybe if you ran nine miles a day, lost too much weight or you couldn’t hold down a job.  But think.  If you’d been born twenty thousand years ago, you and your bros would have to be chasing down dinner fairly often.  So maybe following your biological destiny helps you feel a little more sane.  In this insane world of ours.”

Alan smiled and looked up at her.  “Never got that philosophical about it.  Oh, yeah.  I wanted to tell you.  Dr. Santiago made me promise I’d never kill myself.  So I know that’s a weird subject to bring up.  But since you were worried about it before.  She’s helped me some.  Don’t get to see her as much as I’d like.  Her case load is fucking ridiculous.  But she means a lot to me.  And I don’t break promises.”

Julie bit her lip. “That’s good.  I’m glad you’ve talked about it.  But suicide isn’t exactly a rational decision.  And in my darkest days, even I’ve fantasized about it.  I think most people have.  But just know, if you ever get close, you have people you can call.  People you can ask for help.  No one will think you’re weak.”

“I know,” Alan told her.  “Okay, so I know you came across that story earlier online, the one that freaked you out.  I heard a kind of bizarre story today on NPR on the way over here.  You know they’ve done studies on vets with PTSD involving psilocybin and MDMA?”

“Shrooms and Molly?” Julie asked.  “Yeah, I’ve heard something about that.  Didn’t know if those studies were really serious or not.  I mean, there’s all kinds of old experiments I’ve read about from the 50’s and 60’s about the government experimenting with LSD and mind control.  MK Ultra and all that.  But to help people?”

“Well, it’s not exactly the government this time.  It’s universities, hospitals.  Places like that,” Alan explained.  “I’ve read some of the testimonials.  How the subjects talk about how they feel afterward.  Even when the trip has worn off.  It’s like they’ve been transformed somehow.  They see the world differently.  And it helps them feel, think and act differently too.  I don’t know.  Maybe it’s all bullshit.  But sounds worth a try.”

“Yeah, it’s an idea to keep an open mind about.  I mean, I’ve done shrooms before.  And it does make you see the world differently.  In a lot of good ways.  But it also forces you to take a long, hard look at yourself.  Sometimes, you might not like what you see.  And the times I’ve taken too much.  Hoo boy.  You have to be careful.  It can get intense,” Julie cautioned. 

“I bet it can be,” Alan agreed. His fingernail scraped at a piece of paint that had begun to peel from the picnic table.  He wiped the fleck of paint onto his tee-shirt and flicked it away.  “The things that go on in my head sometimes.  My memories.  What I imagine.  Those can get real intense.  These studies I read about.  They say these psychedelics help people deal with these memories.  Process them.  A lot quicker than talk therapy and psychiatric meds.”

Julie looked up at him, and squinted through the sunshine.  She pushed herself up from the table so she was sitting right next to him.  “I can see how it could be therapeutic,” Julie spoke.  “But I wouldn’t think of it as a shortcut.  More like an experience that lets you look at yourself and the universe differently.  How connected you are to everything.  How there’s more around us than we can see most of the time.  But even when you feel oneness with the world at large, you still need to pay your bills, run errands, put in your forty hours and all that.  Which can be a bummer when you really think about it.  You start to realize how many pointless hoops society makes you jump through just to have a place to live and be a part of the system.”

“I think I got most of those things figured out,” Alan told her.  “I’ve been working steady practically ever since I graduated high school.  Enlisting, tours of duty, then coming home.  Police Academy and now the department.  Being responsible has been more your struggle, not mine.”  He nudged Julie with his elbow.  “But even you’ve gotten a lot better now that we’ve grown up a little.  No, I need to figure out a way to do all that, but not hate myself, the world or what I’ve done in the process.  And who knows, maybe some shrooms would unlock that part of me.”

“Maybe.” Julie hesitated.  “Well, if you really want to do this, I can get us some shrooms.  But I’d want to do it with you.  It’s too weird to trip by yourself.  Especially since you wouldn’t be in a lab.  I mean, we’d have to figure some things out ourselves.  And I’d want at least a couple trip sitters.  One for me and one for you.”

“Trip sitter?” Alan asked.  “Like a baby-sitter?”

“Kind of,” Julie told him.  “Somebody not on the trip that can keep you calm and ground you a little if you need to. For you, probably an army guy.  Somebody you trust.  A big guy who could keep you calm.  By force if he needed to. Just in case.  That probably wouldn’t happen.  But not somebody who would need to carry a gun to feel safe.  A chill dude.  If that makes sense.”

“I know somebody like that.” Alan told her.  “Somebody in a veteran supports group who fits that description.  Who would you use?”

“I have an old meditation teacher.  Diane.  She’d be up for it.  She’s into healing, she’d be enthusiastic about the cause.”  Julie smiled and began to laugh nervously.  “Man, I can’t believe we’re going to do this.  I’m kind of ‘eee!’” She made a noise of mock panic.  “But it’s good to go outside of my comfort zone.  As long as it doesn’t backfire.  But If it does, that’s what the trip sitters are for.”

“I’ll be honest, I’m a little scared shitless myself.  Besides booze and weed, I haven’t done much that can mess with your head.  Except for psychiatric meds.  Which can be good when they work how they’re supposed to, but from what I’ve read, they can mess you up even worse than the illegal stuff sometimes.  Oh, and I know it kind of goes without saying.  But don’t tell any of your friends we’re gonna do this.  Except Diane, I mean.  Still a cop, so it has to stay on the down low.”

“Got it,” Julie nodded.  “Hey, you ready to get out of here soon?  This breeze is making my sweat feel too damn chilly.”

“Yeah, let’s go,” Alan decided.  “You got anything to change into?  I can get us lunch.”

*  *  *  *  *

The next morning, Julie began to get ready for their trip.  Her first call, to her “travel agent” so to speak, was to her friend Jason.  He didn't usually sell 'shrooms, but she was in luck. He'd been sitting on some for a few months, but hadn't had the urge to eat them himself.  “I'm not that brave,” he told her, “but if you're ready, go ahead.” 

“You've tried these before?” she asked.  “Are they decent?”

“Hell yeah, they're decent.  Had me crying like a baby.  Careful with your dosage.  More than two grams, you're playing with fire,” Jason explained.  His voice sounded even more nasal over the phone, like Woody Allencrossed with Tommy Chong.

“That's okay, I want it to be therapeutic.  Crying's good,” Julie told him.

“Heh,” Jason breathed into the phone.  “You got that right.  I had to break up with my old lady after this last trip.  I'd been ignoring some ugliness, but the 'shrooms wouldn't let me do that any more, even after the trip was over.  About cried my eyes out every night for a week.  Better for it now, though.  You want me to come over tonight after you get off work?  Can make a special delivery, 'cause I'll be in your neighborhood.”

“Thanks, Jason.  Okay, just text me when you're on the way,” she said. 

“You got it.  See ya tonight,” he said before hanging up. 

Julie took another sip of iced tea, and then glanced at the time on her phone.  She'd taken one minute longer for her break than she was allotted, but that was a perk of being an assistant manager.  She didn't need to sweat any disciplinary action, except for the risk of being seen as a hypocrite.  But as long as he went back inside right this minute, no one would notice. 

She tapped Logan on his shoulder and told him it was it was his turn.  Then she began to ring up customers, one after the other.  When she was a teenager, all the registers had electronic buttons that would light up the register's display in a blue green light.  Then they'd used computers for a few years, typing on a keyboard and smearing their fingerprints on a monitor over and over again for each order.  Now they used an I-Pad that pivoted back and forth between cashier and customer, with a card reader plugged into its side.  Before she retired, Julie predicted they'd be scanning retinas and deducting credits from each citizen's account.  These were the thoughts Julie entertained herself with as she worked.  Somehow, her brain could engage in a surface-level conversation with each customer as she ruminated on her own inner-monologue.  Feigning interest was an under-rated customer service skill. 

When Logan returned, he took over the register, and she began making drinks, tamping espresso, steaming milk, and blending iced mochas.  This was when her mind could really take over, and create rich fantasies to take her away from the mundane moments of her work.  Sometimes, she imagined herself in a space cantina, aboard a star-ship serving drinks to all kinds of alien customers.  Or she'd be in an old west saloon.  Her imagination made these minutes go by a little more quickly, and every once in a while she'd have a good idea for a painting or sketch that she'd scribble down in her notebook before it left her brain completely. 

“Hey, Brian!” she greeted the next assistant manager at 2:30.  “Checklist is done, both of them have already gone on their breaks.  You need to eat something before you start?”

“Girl, you go home whenever you're ready.  Looks like you already got things under control,” he said with a wink as he tied on his apron. 

“You're a doll, B,” she said, then clocked out. 

In the parking lot, she texted Diane.  Wanna come over tonight?  Have something I need to ask you

How mysterious, came the reply.  My interest is piqued.  What time?

They finalized the details, then Julie texted Alan. 

It's on.  Hope you're ready