Ray approached the deep green bed of carpet grass that circled all the edges of his office park like a mote.
He saw tiny cracks in the cement ridge lining above where flakes and paper specks mingled with old oil stains and glimmers of fading white from a painted-over grid.
Stepping up, over the ridge, he felt the squelchy give of padded earth beneath his feet.
He passed an old tree with gnarled bark patterns resembling bunches of faces with too many eyes.
The plot at the base of the tree was a perfect soil circle where the slender trunk disappeared to welcomed roots beneath.
His dress shoes clacked as he skipped diagonally down to pavement beyond the grassy mound.
There would be no traffic here, he knew.
This quiet, tree-lined street was where he always began his walks after working all day for the Church and then his self-appointed job.
Looking west, he smiled as the sun’s last rays kissed his neck and face.
He turned and started walking the other way.
All in view was lit a peaceful gold and amber red, while stretching shadows crossed the glow like skeleton silhouettes.
The shadows’ placement meant he was getting a later start today than usual.
He blamed Jolie.
Yet his focus drifted from the day’s quota of work and tense misunderstandings to a strange, small trickling sound . . . a tiny river gushing from a burst pipe up ahead.
A young woman, dressed smart in slacks and blouse, stepped to the road just beyond the flow of water.
She spun and hurtled toward Ray like an asteroid.
He almost froze, but caught himself in time to will his feet to keep him moving.
As the woman rifled past, Ray felt caught up by her current like fresh debris in a tornado.
He might have seen the beginnings of a smile touch her face, though it could have just been daylight’s final glimmers filtered through the blurry edges of his vision.
She appeared to beam with strength and life.
Yeah, I’ve started a business . . . sort of.
Something tells me you’d be great for what I’m planning.
I know this must seem so weird, me asking if you’d be interested.
I mean, I don’t know you, but I just have this sense about you.
He saw in a flash the two working side by side, deftly tag-teaming all manner of decisions via power meetings in boardrooms at crunch times.
She would keep him moving, and help him organize his work in ways he had never known possible.
As Ray neared the end of his quaint asphalt sanctuary, roars of crossing motors from the busy street ahead slowly morphed to angry growls of vicious animals.
These, he knew, were sent each night to weary his focus and kill all sense of the peace he had hoped these walks would bring.
Did unseen drivers care at all that their blarings were now ripping Ray from his dreams of partnership with the regal woman who had passed?
Of course not.
No one cared.
The sun was gone.
Skipping ungracefully to the sidewalk, Ray turned and came to a thrift shop called Happy Hearts.
It was odd seeing all the lights out.
A little farther, and the dim outline of the Church began to loom thick in the distance.
Hazy blue and purple twilight painted five enormous structures tunneled by walkways and strategic garden groupings, all surrounded by acres of the Church’s own parking lots, streets, and signals.
Ray came to a halt and stood in place, imagining himself as some lone warrior gazing over from above and far away at a foreign palace planted firm and safe at the center of its kingdom.
Thoughts like unwelcome ticker tape struck in familiar time, resurrecting a garble of old arguments Ray had long failed to lay fully to rest.
These indignant ghosts all crowded and cried, vying for his attention as he continued to gaze across at the majestic buildings and landscape.
Refuting the arguments, he knew, would be like swatting at a swarm of incoming bees.
Yet the alternative, he also knew, would be far worse.
Just to pull in extra . . . the ones who don’t even really…
Why should you have to…?
How could you be okay with…?!
The ticker tape wound down and crunched apart where it always did.
He reminded himself he was being unfair and too judgmental.
He remembered some of the Pastor’s recent words.
To stew this way, he knew more than anything, would prove unlivable for long.
He forced himself to continue walking, feeling a light breeze cool the nape of his neck from behind.
Gradually, the programmed squabbles began to fade, along with their dark accompanying still-frame shots and warlike sounds.
Poison drained from bottles.
Ray took a deep, deep breath.
It’s not your fault.
It’s no one’s fault but mine.
I should have tried harder.
If I’d just told you . . . or just been able to say it better!
Had his whole life really been reduced to a single lie?
Had playing innocent all these years convinced him he was actually some sort of martyr?
More like a coward, and not very smart.
He sure felt far from Jesus.
His mind spun like a cobra from its mirror trap, stretching out flat until he could no longer understand or believe he was this particular person walking this street in this City in this world . . . this fool ever fighting to hide himself, always smiling wide while teaming with revolving clusters of the evilest little plans.
The call came from deep enough within to snap Ray back to the here-and-now like a thunderclap.
But how could this be his life?
And how could he prove to himself for good it was no one else’s fault?
Tired, his focus collapsed away from ledges far too shaky to rest his weary soul.
But I should have tried harder!
I should have told you…
He glared now at the approaching Church, feeling the heat of his own blood as his fists clenched firm against his will.
It’s broken, and you’ll never fix it that way.
You keep trying to sync up all your dead pieces to make something alive!
But that’s all you’re used to.
That’s all you know.
Suddenly, a man appeared as if from nowhere, inches from Ray’s face.
“Hey!” sounded a chipper, adolescent voice.
Ray’s inner play again was shattered.
He squinted, failing to quite decipher the stranger’s face.
“Hi,” he heard his own voice say.
The stranger seemed to be creeping even closer in the near darkness.
Years of experience playing both roles in such scenarios had taught Ray there were but a handful of reasons one might be stopped like this in the street (and almost all akin to sales).
“Hey, I’m from the, uh, church over there,” ventured the stranger. “We just got out of service. You ever been?”
Inside, the awful riot crashed itself back to life.
I work for them!
But you would never…
They make me do things that…
Trust me, it’s…
Oh, but then if I don’t explain, you’ll accuse me of witchcraft.
You’ll say I’m trying to make you suspicious, which is the same as putting a curse on you to deceive you, right?
Let me guess: You’ll call what I’m doing “of the devil . . . earthly, sensual, demonic.”
But Ray was alone, facing a silence far more vicious than any loud, careless engines.
A young man had passed by moments earlier and surprised him.
That was all.
Neither had spoken.
Starlight shown above in patches wherever City lights allowed, as evenly spaced as graph paper.
As Ray came to the private street leading down to the Church’s main entrance, he felt a familiar twinge erupt near the side of his right knee.
He chided himself for having forgotten his running shoes for one too many walks.
A blue car, shiny and new, putted up from the Church’s parking lot to meet him at the intersection.
He leaned in to press the button to cross.
The smiling, middle-aged woman behind the wheel waved him on.
As he gingerly stepped out in front of the car, the light across from it turned green.
He swore silently, and scrambled to get out of the way, wincing at every step as his flat, hard dress shoes drummed fast along the concrete.
It’s not her fault!
She doesn’t know!
She’s trying to be considerate.
Perhaps to escape the throbbing now strobing up and down his outer leg, Ray’s mind blasted away to imagine a group of formless future aliens unearthing a particular fictional movie the Church had just put out.
He considered how odd an impression the film would leave.
For though rather violent at points, its angrier dialogue had been stripped of all edge and curse words, prompting those distant lifeforms to perhaps scratch their possible heads at such phrases as: “What the heck, Jones!” “Ah, fill your belly!” “I don’t give a fig!”
It’s not so bad.
People like it.
It’s making so much money.
Who am I to criticize?
Turning the final corner to end his suddenly agonizing stroll, Ray entered again the peaceful street behind his office park.
Though the same little river continued to trickle, he saw no sign of the amazing woman from before.
How positively serendipitous it would have been to find her there awaiting his return.
But Ray was alone, talking to ghosts of those who had passed him by.