If life is a highway, Chuck Wendig runs a disreputable dive bar right off of the exit ramp. This week's flash fiction challenge involves three of the following five words (cockroach, bottle, box, tax, fountain) plus a vampire in some way, shape, or form. My story is called "Nobody Understands Anybody".
It was a pleasantly warm fall day, the sort of day that makes you think nature is trying to pull a fast one. I came out of the lobby, emerging from the fake reflected warmth into the honest sunshine, wanting to eat my yogurt and fruit sitting on the gorgeous stone fountain that made the front of our building, an ordinary insurance company in Nowhere, New Jersey, look a little bit like a location in a James Bond movie.
It was a popular destination for those of us who couldn't afford to dash to Chipotle every day- spend 20 minutes or so eating, then walk or just sit, absorbing some rays and looking at people before returning to the fluorescent world of spreadsheets and budgets and phone calls. I saw lanky Tom, who worked in my department, talking on his phone in a hissed whisper. I sat down near him, but not too near, opening my yogurt and decidedly not listening.
"Look, I have to go," he said. "Yes. I know. I'm sorry. Yes. OK. We can talk about it when I get home. Yes. OK. Fine."
He looked puzzled for a moment, then lowered the phone from his ear, shaking his head slowly. His dark hair was mussed, like he had been running his hands through it.
"Hey, Tom," I said.
"Hey, Jules," he said. "I'm sorry you had to hear that."
"We all have those moments," I said, trying to sound cheery. "I guess I don't have to ask how you are."
He barked out a laugh. "No, no you don't."
I looked at him, in stained Dockers and a dress shirt that was starting to come untucked. I wanted to take care of him, like you would a lost dog.
"Is it Caroline?"
He took a long sip from a bottle of Orangina.
"It's Caroline, it's the baby, it's this place, it's everything. I really don't know how to deal with it." He looked pained. He was staring down at the ground. I watched the sunlight hit the little fake gem on top of my shoe.
"I'm sorry, Tom. I wish there was something I could do to help."
He looked up at me, his face full of hope.
"Me too, Jules."
He finished his drink and got up to put it in the trash. His walk was slow and unsteady. He seemed unable to look anyone in the eye.
I waited for him to sit back down. "Being a Dad really sucks the life out of you, huh?"
He laughed again, harshly, indicating the opposite of laughter. "Yeah."
He paused, then continued.
"It's so taxing- there are a hundred problems that you don't know the answers to, and she doesn't know either, and the kid, the kid is just constantly unhappy, and you don't know why. I love them, I love them to death, but it's like they are these vampires, just draining you of your essence. You feel like a total failure, all the time, and I'm not sleeping well, and then she calls me today and starts yelling about how I bought the wrong wipes, and now she's out of them, and she's too tired to go to the store, and..."
He stopped again. It sounded like he was swallowing back a sob.
"I just had this thought, this image, of just taking the whole box of wipes and just throwing them at her. And you know I'm not like that. I'm not that kind of person. It really feels like I'm losing it, Jules."
I didn't know what to say. I had met his wife at the Christmas party, a short, dark woman who looked me over with suspicion. It was off putting, because I hadn't done anything yet.
"You're not like that, Tom. It's just a thought. It's like that comedian says, if you haven't contemplated murder, you haven't really been in love. I'm sure you're just going through the same thing every new parent does. You'll be OK."
"I hope you're right," he said, his voice tight. I could picture holding him, letting his tears fall onto the shoulders of my jacket. I felt this compelling need to comfort him, to tell him that I would listen, that I wouldn't yell. I had never thought about him romantically, but suddenly, there on the edge of the fountain in the sun, I pictured him telling me about it over a drink, and then following me home to my tiny, sad apartment. I wasn't going to do it. I wasn't that sort of person. But I could see it.
He cleared his throat and stood up. "I'm going to take a walk," he said. "I need to clear my head."
"OK, Tom. I'll see you back inside."
I watched him walk away. He seemed broken. It was so sad that his wife didn't understand him. Or maybe it was Tom who didn't understand her? I scraped the last bit of yogurt from the bottom of the container. Maybe nobody understands anybody.