A Thousand Miles From Home - Part 10




Don’s date had gone amazingly well. He and Karen had closed down Java Joes and moved on to a all night diner.

They talked about their childhood, shared stories about their high points and their low points. They discussed music, movies, books, and entertainment in general. Don was pleased to learn that Karen wasn’t a fan of reality television. Karen was pleased to learn that Don didn’t get Twilight.

It wasn’t until almost four o’clock in the morning when Karen dropped Don off at his hotel. And Don didn’t invite her up, but they did share a kiss. Short, yet intimate. Interrupted, possibly cut short, by an ambulance and three fire trucks screaming by.

Something was going on, Don thought for a fleeting moment. That wasn’t the first emergency vehicle they saw that night. It seemed that the police and the fire department were out in full force, but Don didn’t give it much thought. Karen certainly didn’t say anything, and this was her town, so it must be par for the course.

The next morning Don woke late. His alarm had been buzzing for at least twenty minutes before it pierced the veil of sleep that kept Don snuggled deep within his blankets. But once Don realized what it was he was hearing, he turned, saw the time, and leaped out of bed with all the grace of an Olympic gymnast weighted down by a vest made of bricks.

His first order of business after standing in the shower long enough to get himself clean, and throwing on some clothes, was to call Ollie’s cell. He got and automated message that told Don in no uncertain terms that the user’s phone was currently not available, meaning that Ollie’s phone had been turned off. Don wasn’t sure why Ollie would turn his phone off, but it meant that they might have to skip breakfast.

Don pulled on his shoes, grabbed his bag, threw on a jacket, and left the room. Ollie’s was next door. Don pounded on Ollie’s door for a least three minutes before it was opened by a disheveled Ollie, still in yesterday’s clothes.

“What the French, Toast?” Don said, pushing his way into the room. “You got a girl in here? You cheating on Susan?”

“What?” Ollie asked, wiping the sleep from his eyes with the heels of each hand.

“Have you even been to bed? You been partying all night?” Don asked, looking the room over, walking into the bedroom, looking into the bathroom.

“What are you talking about?” Ollie asked, yawning.

“Look at you! You’re still wearing yesterday’s clothes.”

“Oh, I fell asleep reading on the couch,” Ollie gestured towards the couch where a book lay on the floor.

“Well, you have about three minutes, so hop to it.”

“Three minutes?”

“Yeah, let’s move.”

“Three minutes for what?”

“For work, dumb ass. We are late!”

Ollie looked at his watch and all drowsiness drained away. “What? I don’t – my phone! Why didn’t my alarm – ” Ollie began to tear the place up, looking for his phone, finally finding it laying in his laptop bag. Ollie gave it a try and it didn’t power on.

“Crap,” Ollie said, last night coming back to him. “I was talking to Susan, I ran out of batteries, then someone was scratching at the window and this lady in a dress was walking across the street and the police showed up. Crap!” he said again. “I forgot to plug my phone in!” Ollie gestured to Don, “Give me your phone, I need to call Susan.”

“Oh no, pal. You know the rule. My phone is for emergency use only. It’s a prepaid phone. I can’t have you using my minutes.”

“This is an emergency. I always call Susan when I get up and before I go to work.”

“Then you’ll have to miss it today. Call her from work. Come on, we’re late. Or didn’t you hear me say that earlier?”

They had never before been late to work during this entire trip. It embarrassed Don that they would be today. It looked unprofessional, and that’s not how he wanted to look to these people as he tried to sell them on the idea that Columbus would make their job easier. And there was Ollie, staring blankly at his phone as it lay dead in his hands. Don had to get him motivated.

“Let’s go, dude. Get dressed,” Don started clapping Ollie into movement.

Fifteen minutes later, Don and Ollie were roaring down the road in their rented Ford F-150, Don behind the wheel, Ollie in clean clothes with wet hair and a expression of well controlled panic on his face.

It took the two longer to get to GCS this morning than it did yesterday. They were forced to pull over a total of five times for police cars, or fire trucks, and once even an ambulance, screaming by down the road at speeds that Don envied.

“Susan’s gonna be worried,” Ollie was saying as they pulled into the near empty GCS parking lot.

As they pulled into the lot, they passed by an odd looking group of people who were just milling about near the entrance. Don tried to get a look at them as he shot by them, but his mind was more focused on getting to work

“Dude, we’re here, you can call her once we are in and settled.” Don pulled into one of the guest spots right up front.

“Yeah, I know,” Ollie said. “I just don’t like to make her worry if I don’t have to.

Don and Ollie used their badges to get inside the building, and were a little put off by the emptiness of the place as they made their way to the training room. For the first time since arriving, Don realized how empty the parking lot was.

“Where is everyone?” Don asked as they walked into the training room.

“What are you talking about?” Ollie asked, dropping his stuff and picking up the phone at the front of the room.

“I mean, where is everyone? There’s no one here.”

“Sure there is, I heard people answering phones out on the floor as we came in. They don’t have a big morning shift. Most of that volume is handled in Kansas.” Ollie started dialing.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Don said, feeling a little uneasy.

“Crap,” Ollie said, placing the handset back in its cradle.

“What?”

“No answer,” Ollie scratched his chin. “Why wouldn’t she answer?”

“Maybe she just didn’t hear it ring. Try her again.”

“Yeah, I’m sure that’s it,” Ollie said, picking the handset up. “Wait, what time is it?”

“Eight fifteen,” Don answered, looking at his watch.

“So that makes it seven fifteen at home. Karen said the girls didn’t have school today. She’s probably sleeping in. I don’t want to wake her up.” Ollie put the handset back in its cradle. “I’ll try her again in an hour. She needs to sleep.”

“Good idea,” Don said. “I guess I’ll go for a smoke.”

“Yeah,” Ollie said, pulling a book from his bag. “I’ll be in my office.”

Don smiled as Ollie left the room. Don checked the pockets of his jacket, fearing for a moment that in his haste to leave the hotel that he’d forgotten his cigarettes and lighter. He didn’t, and he sighed in relief.

Soon Don was sitting alone in the smoking area, enjoying his second morning in North Carolina. This was usually Don’s favorite part of the day. Sitting alone, taking in the morning. Nothing to do but smoke and swim around in his own thoughts, which were centered on Karen Walters this morning. He was starting to realize that he didn’t want to leave her. He thought he would like to live in North Carolina, if she would have him. Heck, even if she gave him a fraction of interest he thought he would move here. She was worth it.

Just then, Joe the Maintenance Guy came and joined Don. And as was his usual modus operandi from yesterday, the man didn’t say one word. Just walked out, lit up, and looked out over the lot with his back to Don.

Don started going through a mental list of what he’d have to do before moving to North Carolina. First and foremost he’d need to talk to Mike and to his bosses back home to see if some kind of transfer would even be possible. If it wasn’t, Don was sure he could find something out here. Even if he had to flip burgers. Next, he’d have to find a place to live. That meant coming up with at least first and last month’s rent. That was going to be tricky.

“What’s going on with that guy out there?” Joe said suddenly.

Joe’s deep voice cut into Don’s train of thought and it took him a moment to come up with an adequate response. Which eventually turned out to be, “What?”

“That guy out there,” Joe was pointing with his right hand, using both his index and middle finger, his cigarette between them, to a solitary figure standing at the other end of the lot. Whoever it may have been was too far out to make out clearly, but it looked like a man in what may have been a jumpsuit, like someone who works for a landscaping company. It looked like he was moving slowly their way.

“Maybe he decided to walk to work today?” Don said.

“Yeah, maybe,” Joe said. “I don’t like him.”

Don smiled to himself and went back to his thoughts. First and last month’s rent. That wouldn’t be easy. He’d have to save up some cash. That actually wouldn’t be too bad. Don made decent money, and he didn’t live an extravagant life style and didn’t have much in the way of debt. So it wouldn’t be too hard, but it might take a month or two. Don could wait that long.

“I don’t like the look of him,” Joe said, again breaking into Don’s thoughts. “He don’t feel right.”

Don looked up, feeling a little annoyed and the interruption. “It’s just a guy walking through – ” but Don stopped. He still wasn’t close enough yet to make out more than just a guy in a grey jumpsuit, but the way he walked … it seemed wrong somehow.

Just then a small car, a red Mini Cooper, one of the new ones, pulled into the lot. It passed the guy, turned right, and found a parking space. The car stopped and whomever was driving shuffled about in the car for a bit. Don noticed that as the Mini had passed the guy, he had turned and began to slowly follow behind the car. It was eerie they way he moved. Don got to his feet and stood next to Joe, the two of them watching the scene unfold in silence.

The driver of the Mini got out of her car, Don couldn’t make out who it was but she was obviously female. She bent back into the open door and wrestled around with something. Don wondered who she was.

“Tracy Zeck,” Joe said, as if reading Don’s mind. The receptionist.

The groundskeeper slowly made his way to Tracy as she backed out of the driver’s side of the car, pulling a couple of bags out with her, a large purse, and what looked to be a plastic bag of the type you’d have your Wal-Mart purchases in. She shut the door and then fumbled about a bit, juggling the bags, her keys, and a cup of coffee. All the while, the shambling landscaper moved closer and closer.

Don started to feel a little on edge. He wasn’t sure why, but he felt that it came from the landscaper. Joe was right, he just felt wrong somehow. Don wanted to shout out to Tracy. To tell her to move. To warn her of the danger. But what danger? What really was going on here? Don wasn’t sure. And something inside him said that yelling, drawing attention to himself at that moment would be a mistake.

Joe took a step. One step. A step towards Tracy. Don could see that Joe was just as on edge as him. Don also noticed that Joe was holding a knife. A pocket knife. The blade still folded into the handle. It seemed that Joe didn’t even know he was holding it.

It was then that Don realized that this unease that he was feeling was the same exact feeling he had had the night before last when he watched the drunk below him in the hotel parking lot. It was also then that he noticed the sweat that broke out on his brow, despite the cool breeze.

Tracy finally got everything she was carrying situated and started to walk towards the building. But then she noticed the guy moving towards her. She stopped and turned towards him.

Don and Joe were just spectators as the landscaper approached Tracy. She looked relaxed, like she recognized the guy. Then she suddenly went tense and rigid. Everything around them had grown quiet. No bird song. No sound of cars. Just the wind. The wind and a series of guttural groans. Groans that Don realized were coming from the landscaper. And then, suddenly cutting through the silence, the sound of Tracy screaming.

To be continued . . .



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