A Lesson in Observation
There is something unsettling about a lack of society in a space created specifically for it. Empty streets always left Callum feeling uneasy. He expected to – wanted to – see more people coming and going. The mid-morning sun was already casting shorter shadows than a week before, and these spread over the street before him like a charcoal carpet, reminding him that he was in the district, the business hub, with all its towering monstrosities singing praises to the ingenuity of mankind.
The wind had shaken off the worst of its frosty dread, and winter’s hold on the populace had been broken early. His ash grey winter coat – a present from his mother, but you would never hear him admit it to anyone – fit snuggly, buttoned only once, just above his waist, showing cleavage in the shape of a fitted white shirt, and split in two by a lightly spotted grey tie, the thin variety, a cravat. Everything about him was corporate, and closer inspection of his perfectly trimmed nose hair would even reveal speckles of white powdery residue. Not one or two specks though. It looked like the inside of a morbidly themed snow globe. Having a close call like the previous night always made him feel sniffy.
There’s no way I simply walked away from that one, he thought, with a gnawing sense that he was correct. Your average up-and-comer doesn’t simply fall down a flight of fifteen stairs and walk away completely unharmed, not to mention more than eager to talk about it to everyone back at the bar he had just left.
Gotta celebrate the good luck there Cally, he told himself. Gotta grab life by the nuts, gotta scoop while it’s raining … or something like that.
Entering O’Brien’s for the second time last night, he was surprised to see the place had filled up since his departure. He couldn’t have been gone for more than ten minutes, and automatically assumed the current swarm of people to be one of those inevitably explosive situations where a set of bachelorette and bachelor parties join up toward the end of the night and hold a combined drunken celebration. The revelers were enjoying their drinks and pretending not to notice the fact that the bride-to-be was by this time so mad at the would-be-groom, that the whole wedding might as well get called off (she suspects he has been to a strip club, and he has not been answering her calls for the last three hours).
Callum had a feeling that this night was going to be brought up six years down the line during what should have been a very mediocre disagreement about simple household chores.
It is going to escalate, explode, and take the futures of a set of four-year-old twin girls spinning down the flusher with it.
Callum stopped these thoughts with a shake of his head. They were piling in fast and felt annoyingly accurate.
Shit that hurt.
He immediately hated himself for the pointed dagger that thrust its way without apology from the back of his neck to the top of his head. He walked up to the bar counter, taking no notice of the fact that no one made way for him, and shouldering his way through the relative crowd (read powder keg) garnered no reaction; not so much as a grunt. He was sure he spilled more than one punter’s drink on the way through.
He rang the bell hanging from the roof above the bar counter with the ferocity of a man announcing the end of a war – Extra! Extra! Read all ’bout it!
He stood, chest out and announced to all who would hear that he had just nearly died and would be paying for anyone who wanted to have a round of shots with him. Most of the audience only realized he was speaking halfway through, and even then, they did nothing more than calmly turn around and look at him as if wondering where he had come from.
I’ll celebrate on my own, you ungrateful bastards.
Callum licked the salt off his hand, starting off the unholy ritual of his generation, his eye caught the dark figure sitting in the corner at the only table O’Brien’s had. He had never seen anyone sitting at it. This lone wooden thing in the corner had become somewhat of a joke with the regulars.
The figure leaned forward and lifted a shot glass of its own, raising it in a congratulatory gesture.
Here’s to you Cally, he could hear the figure say, but only in his head. As the glass raised to just above the figure’s eyes, light from a passing car illuminated the liquid inside it enough for Callum to see that it was filled with … with blood. It was full right to the brim, and as the glass moved higher still, some of its morbid contents spilled over the sides and dripped to the floor. The figure stood up, continuing its congratulatory glass-raising, and started clapping its hands and making the shot glass tip and splash its contents on anyone nearby. Callum saw the figure smile even though he could not yet make out a face. The smile made him sick. It was perfect, with teeth lined like piano keys, and white as the standard contents of a snow globe – or Callum’s nose.
Through the sickening, perfect smile Callum could read the figure’s mind. “Sure did survive that fall, didn’t ya, Cally? Didn’t ya? Cheers to you … king for the day.”
Callum blinked, and the figure was gone. The table stood alone once more, as it had done for years.
Sleep had been an evasive lover after his little misadventure, and the morning after had not been particularly affectionate either. A quick sniff in the second-floor bathroom of his office building made a fathomable difference, but now he had only one thing on his mind.
Gotta get to the Doc’s office, Cally. Gotta get there quick. Oh, and try not to die on your way.
The voice inside was arrogant and taunting, and it seemed intent on creating a mess of his thoughts. He tried shaking it off, but the back-and-forth motion just reminded him of the piercing headache lingering behind his eyes as a punishment for more than a few drinks too many. It wouldn’t stop, and there was an uninvited lesson in observation going on inside his mind.
“That unhappy couple from last night died in a car accident on their way home. The Uber driver swung around in his seat when the bride-to-be threatened to jump out of the moving vehicle. He didn’t look ahead again in time to see the Golden Retriever wondering into the road ahead of him. The would-be-groom shouted, “LOOK OUT!”, and the driver jerked the wheel, causing the Toyota Corolla to hit a street sign – Slow, Children Crossing. Ironic, wouldn’t you say? All three occupants snapped their necks and died upon impact. The coroner called it a freak accident. There wasn’t even a dent in the bonnet deep enough to reach the radiator. But look on the bright side. At least the twins’ lives were saved from a trip down the flusher.”
“Please, stop,” Callum pleaded, knowing it wouldn’t. This was him. And how can a man stop his own runaway train once it gets beyond 88 miles per hour?
“Oh, I’m not done, Cally. See the lovely little thing in the white Range Rover? See the sunglasses she’s wearing? Kinda look a size or eight too big for her face, don’t they, Cally? Know why she wears them? Know why, Cally?”
“I don’t know why,” he answered as if the conversation was not happening in his head.
“Her husband beats the living kha-rap out of her on the regular. Doesn’t take much to set him off either. Last night it happened because she mentioned that he looked tired after a long day.”
“So why does she stick around. I’ve got no sympathy for an abused woman who goes back for more.” Callum sneered as he said this, displaying his teeth. An icy breeze picked up and his gums bore the brunt of it.
“Because daddy did the same to mummy. And mummy smiled sadly but cheerfully like a dutiful wife when people asked her where she got the new bruises. Mummy laughed off allegations of abuse made by friends and family. Mummy would cling to daddy nervously whenever the cops came knocking on the door asking if everything was diddly okay, because someone had called in a noise complaint. Mummy would giggle and say that it was just the television, then cock her head to the side the way they all do when they really, really want you to think that everything’s fine. Daddy would say ‘Nothing to see here officer, have a good night’ and close the door, already warmed up enough for round two.” The voice was gaining momentum. “More than this she stays because she so loves the feel of RR branded leather on her tight ass, almost as much as she loves the look in her friends’ eyes when they see what they think is her life. She considers the thick layers of make-up and the occasional limp a small price to pay for what she considers the luxury of a trophy wife. To top it all off, she gets on her knees every night to thank Jesus that he made her pretty. This happens minutes before she finds herself on her knees again, this time saying an altogether different kind of thank you. She always hopes Jesus isn’t looking during this part.”
“Nice one!” This wasn’t so bad. Callum felt a guilty, nauseating pleasure filling him as he became more aware of every truth being pointed out to him, “Let’s do another one.”
“Alrighty, see that red Jaguar over there? See the Camel Filter in the driver’s mouth?”
Callum turned his head to see a blood red F-Type R, and sure enough the driver was smoking. “Yes, I see. Sure hope he doesn’t ash in the car. It’s a beauty.”
“Shut up Striker, this is my show, and here’s the kicker. The guy is a few minutes away from the start of Camel-Cough. Note the two C’s. The prick’s got Cancer. See what I did there Cally. Three C’s. If you want, I’ll let you know where the car is going to be auctioned off after he coughs his last. He has no family, you see. Might strike a bargain.”
Callum was getting a chill up his spine, and it had nothing to do with how far or close winter was to ending. This lesson in observation had started as his own voice playing pretend and had now evolved and sounded more like some external force talking to him.
“Hey Cally, look to the right. See that guy in the mirror?”
Callum turned his head to the right and instantly recognized himself. The department store had a spring display set up, and a gigantic gold rimmed mirror was the centerpiece.
“Yup, I see him,” he said, going along with something that was obviously not right without giving it a second thought.
“I’m gonna kill him!”
Callum staggered about, feeling light-headed.
Next stop … Shitville, The train conductor in his head announced. He swung his arms around, trying to find some semblance of balance, but only succeeded in stumbling onto the road and into the path of a certain red Jaguar.
The driver slammed down on the brake pedal and the car came to a screeching halt less than a meter away from Callum’s trembling left knee. Mr. Camel-Cough was getting out. A violent madness covered his face and seemed to distort it somehow. Callum looked around, realizing he was alone and probably seconds away from a beating.
There were no longer any fellow lunch-goers anywhere to be seen. The few people he had noticed in his immediate vicinity had all been replaced by dark figures identical to the one sitting in the corner of O’Brien’s the night before. The thing holding the shot glass full of blood. The dark figures stood up from invisible chairs as mirror images of one another, and as they rose, started applauding. They applauded the way a stately gentleman does after an impressive opera, arms outstretched and head turning to one side then the other to make sure those around him shared his admiration of what they had collectively witnessed. They all stopped in unison, then sat back down in their imaginary chairs, seeming to float in place.
“Let the show begin Cally, that was number 10, that was. We’ve all been waiting for so long Cally.”
It was the voice in his head. It was sniffy-drink-train Callum’s voice, heading full speed along the white line to Shitville, not stopping to collect $10, $50 or even $500.
“What are you?” Callum asked, his voice trembling.
“Ladies and gentlemen, won’t you join me in standing for another round of applause for your friend here. My my, it’s good to have him join us this day.”
The dark figures remained seated in chairs that weren’t there. Callum saw a few of them looking around, as if confused.
“Get up you bastards! Fuck! Nothing as good as the original, wouldn’t you agree Cally?”
“I suppose,” came his involuntary response. He tried to think about it, but resigned himself to what was coming out of his mouth. What else does one say to a maniacal voice in one’s own head?
“That’s what you’re for, Cally. Did you know that?”
Suddenly, Callum was being shaken about by the collar of his winter coat. It was Mr. Camel-Cough, and he looked peeved. Just as the first of what would undoubtedly be a flurry of punches was winding up, the man’s hand went to his own mouth instead of Callum’s. He started coughing, and fit after fit took him over, until he was on his knees, unable to hold back a flood of repercussions twenty years and two packs a day in the making.
“This is the part where you run,” came the voice.