SLC -> ATL (November 2011)

Home was 1600 miles away, yet Owen had never traveled outside of Salt Lake City. His whole life had been the hospital and the extended-stay hotel where my wife and I struggled to bottle-feed him, change his diaper, and get him to nap in his pack ‘n play.

Waiting for the adoption paperwork to take him out of Utah, we became sleep-deprived hermits. Days blurred into nights. Nights blurred into days. I thought a lot about caffeine and little about Thanksgiving until our parents asked if we’d be home in time for turkey. After telling them “It’s not looking good” for what seemed like weeks, the powers-that-be at the state-level approved our departure the day before the feast. As excited as we were, we couldn’t secure last-minute tickets on the busiest travel day of the year. We settled for an almost empty flight Thanksgiving morning.

The journey to Atlanta began after three hours of sleep. For such a tiny newborn, Owen made a lot of noise. He cried as I carried him and his car seat through airport security. When we placed the bags of baby needs on the scanner’s conveyer belt, a TSA agent abandoned her post and approached us. “Oh my gosh! He’s so adorable!”

I’d never taken a baby through security before. Was I supposed to walk through the metal detector with him in the car seat? I secretly hoped so. I was still nervous holding someone so fragile.

A veteran agent read my confusion and instructed me to walk through the detector with Owen in my arms. I did as he asked. Everyone let out a collective “Aww” as the baby rested his head against my shoulder.

The detector emitted an aggressive beep.

After a few waves of the wand, the three of us boarded the plane and claimed a row in coach. Owen was asleep before the safety demonstration. A cautious optimism of a trouble-free flight came over me, but my hopes were sadly shattered by a dirty diaper over Arkansas. My wife fished out changing supplies and sent us to the lavatory.

To this day, I can’t tell you how I changed that diaper. The tight space afforded little room for maneuvering, and I didn’t lay him on any germ-infested surfaces. I only remember sweating and a perturbed flight attendant knocking on the door as we finished. We’d been in there for 45 minutes, and we were about to land.

The plane taxied to the concourse. Feeling beyond exhausted, we gathered Owen and our things. The underground tram and long escalator to baggage claim delivered us to more than our luggage and grandparents-in-wait. It delivered us and our first son to a family made new.

James Shannon (Winter 2003)

During my senior year of college I interned at a newsweekly alternative paper called MetroBEAT in Greenville, South Carolina. It was a lot of fun, and I learned quite a bit from the experience.

One of the writers I got to know best was James Shannon. I recently Googled him to see how he was, and I unfortunately learned he’d passed away back in 2015.

Below are notes I took during the internship that recount the stories we covered and adventures we had.

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“The Eyes Of Joe Jordan”

“The Eyes of Joe Jordan” was the first story Kenneth Hamner worked on with MetroBEAT news editor/writer James Shannon. Every paper has a cover story usually written by James Shannon. The news section has the weekly column “Shannon’s Law” written by James, “Left Hook, Right Hook” by Roxanne Walker and Ralph Bristol (a “Crossfire” style battle between two radio hosts who look at local and national issues), and “The Sound, the Fury, etc., etc.” by S.C. Davis. Following the news section is the Week at a Glance section where MetroBEAT picks the highlight activities of the week and reports them. Arts is next. This section deals with visual arts and arts agenda; Amanda Lang contributes a lot of articles to this. Film is next with Matt Brunson; it tells what is playing and does quick and 1-2 lengthy reviews of current movies. Food section has reviews. Music section is usually done by Dan Armonaitis and freelance writers; they do album/concert reviews, and they also preview upcoming concerts, list local music events, etc. The miscellaneous section called Etc. has the syndicated articles (dream zone, astroscope, crossword, news of the weird), the calendar of Upstate events, and sports watch for local sports calendar.

With everything coming together at the office after the move, James and Mr. Hamner got down to work on January 9 following several slow days. They headed over to Joe Jordan’s photography studio on East North Street. Jordan is a former council member from the second seat who had close to eight professions before he became a professional photographer. He is also a WWII veteran and fought in the Pacific theater. Jordan told them his life story and showed us photographs that included:

  • Grace Kelly in the Biltmore house up in Asheville
  • Joanne Woodward sitting in a car just before her movie career took off
  • President Ike pinning a flower on himself in Charlotte
  • LOTS of old pictures of Greenville, including a picture of Furman when it was just starting to be built on its current location
  • A picture of an illegal casino getting busted – this one is a classic

The Joe Jordan story was on the front cover feature for the Jan. 14th edition of MetroBEAT. Chris Haire asked Mr. Hamner if he learned anything from observing James conduct the interview. He told him that he learned that each question should require more than a simple “yes” or “no” response. By acting interested in the conversation and allowing the interviewee to talk openly, they will answer any question. Sometimes, the interviewer has to ask two or three lead in questions to get to the question they really want answered, but by making the interviewee comfortable, getting information is not a problem.

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“He’s Back” / “Judgment Day”

On January 20, Jim was absent from the MetroBEAT office. Mr. Hamner thought nothing of this since he regularly had to go to the doctor’s office to care for his cancer-stricken wife, but he called around 11 a.m. to be picked up (James’ car had broken down during the move). Mr. Hamner volunteered to pick up Jim from his apartment. On the ride to the office, Jim says how he is having trouble with his article on the Sanford inauguration. Jim spent a lot of time with him in informal settings. “We’d have conversations just like you and I are having,” Jim told Mr. Hamner. He then said he thought Sanford was going to have a rough four years since he wasn’t the party’s first, second, or third choice to be the republican governor for the state.

As they exited the car, Jim invited Mr. Hamner to attend a luncheon/strategy meeting with Jessie Jackson on January 21st. Jackson was in town to attend the Greenville County Council meeting because the county did not observe Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a paid holiday. Jim wanted to spend some face-to-face time with him. Mr. Hamner agreed to go with him.

The next day, the two headed to Allen Temple off Augusta Road and attended the meeting led by Jesse Jackson. There were about 20 people within the room. Jim, Lynn the photographer from MetroBEAT, and Mr. Hamner were the only white people in the entire place. What they saw and heard were things kept behind close doors. Only black community leaders usually are allowed to these types of meetings (there were 2 black Board of Education members, a county council member, and a mess of preachers from black churches). The press and those not within the inner circle are pretty much barred from these meetings.

Lunch was served cafeteria style in the dining room around 12:30. There was a definite sense the hierarchy in the room. Jessie Jackson was the first to get his food followed by his two main assistants. Black community leaders and religious figures were the next group to get food. The press, consisting of Jim, Lynn the photographer for MetroBEAT and Mr. Hamner, were the last to be in line. Since Mr. Hamner was the intern, he was the last to be served.

Everybody sat down at the table and started eating their chicken and salad. Jessie Jackson was sitting perpendicular to me at the head table no more than three feet away from Mr. Hamner. After the blessing Jesse grabbed his utensils, started cutting into his chicken, then set them down on his plate. He got up and started talking while he was walking around the room. He talked for almost 2 hours straight. He didn’t touch his food once.

Jessie started off his speech with a very slow, confident voice that had you hanging on each syllable. By the end of the speech, he was loud and unrelenting in his message. His followers and the community leaders would follow every sentence with a loud “MMMhmmm” or “yes.” By the end of the first hour, though, they had subsided significantly. Noticing this, Jessie would pep them back up by saying “Can I get somebody to testify?” The whole room did. “MMMMHHHHMMM. YES!”

The content of his speech concerned the MLK holiday debate we saw tonight. He used metaphors. Jessie offered a number of ways to get the MLK holiday recognized, but the points he kept stressing and making the audience repeat several times in unison was “Research, Educate, Negotiate, Demonstrate.” This means recognize a problem and find out its details (Research), tell other people about it (educate), try to solve it peacefully and quickly (negotiate), and then if that fails take more extreme measures to get your message across, mainly picketing (demonstrate).

The meeting ended around 2:30 in the afternoon. Jim and Mr. Hamner left the meeting agreeing that they saw outsiders of the movement rarely get to see. What they saw was not for their eyes, and the only reason they witnessed the meeting is because Jim is a friend with Mrs. Lonnie Gibson, an outspoken black county council woman. It was great being an observer during Jesse’s meeting, and Mr. Hamner learned quite a bit from it – from race relations to grassroots political movements.

When county council started, one of the steps was occurring. Carrying American flags and pictures of MLK, the beginning of the “demonstration” portion of the holiday grievance had taken form. Jesse had organized it so every attendee at the meeting (minus the press and myself) would recruit people to demonstrate for the holiday, and people would continue to demonstrate at every meeting until the county adopted MLK’s birthday.

Mr. Hamner thought the demonstration had little effect on the council since many members had already made up their minds on issues prior to the meeting. No amount of public outcry will change their minds in one night, but as the weeks passed and the demonstrating continued, it became impossible to ignore. With the rise of civil disobedience, Jesse said that meetings will eventually be impossible to conduct as the crowds grew larger and more impatient, and the issue will finally have to be resolved.

Mr. Hamner had a number of opinions on the holiday/Jesse Jackson issue. They are as follows:

January 22, 2003

I believe Greenville will eventually recognize MLK as the democratic council woman said earlier, but I don’t know if this plan will work. I think the community is unorganized and too decentralized to push this issue till the next MLK day – never mind the next Flag Day. I heard lots and lots of pep talking today. I question it’s steam, though.

January 23, 2003

Before the meeting even started, I thought the council members had an idea on the significance of the holiday and what it meant to the community. However, the council members had their minds made up about the issue before it was even discussed. All the talk about not having the resources to fulfill pay role is a bunch of baloney. If they wanted to celebrate the holiday, they could find the resources to do so. Their actions and comments disgusted me.

January 26, 2003

The Greenville News reports that business within the area will suffer due to this MLK holiday issue (http://greenvilleonline.com/news/2003/01/26/20030126295.htm). If business does start to hurt within the area, Greenville will finally catch up to 2003 and “have” the money to do the right thing – adopt the holiday.

January 30, 2003

I’ve been thinking about the burning bridges comment for some time and
addressed the issue with James today. He recounted a small story where he
could have burned a bridge of his and refused to. Not to save the source,
but rather to keep his integrity as a journalist. A politician’s
representative (who will remain nameless) said some comments concerning
Sanford that could have damaged the reputation of the politician he was
suppose to be supporting. The Sanford camp found out James had these
comments and wanted him to report them in an issue of MetroBEAT (this is
when Sanford was running negative ads against opponents). James, however,
refused to run the comment despite being friends with Sanford. MetroBEAT has
a policy that they report the news, not make it. By making the news instead
of reporting it, people would be looking at James and refer to him as “the
guy who printed that quote” rather than being known as James Shannon.
Despite refusing to print the quote, he still remains close with Sanford and
maintained his bridge and his integrity as a journalist.

February 19, 2003

I’d like to write some final thoughts on this on-going MLK saga before I pass out for the night. (http://greenvilleonline.com/news/2003/02/18/200302181631.htm)  I think it is very obvious that this issue will not die until supporters of the holiday get their way. This is the craziest thing I’ve ever got to witness in local politics, and I wish the council would recognize how they are in a no-win situation. With business leaders lining up in support of the holiday too (http://www.greenvilleonline.com/news/2003/02/17/200302171498.htm), this will eventually get passed, and if this is a just world (which does manage to happen from time to time), the political careers of individuals who seek high office will be dashed.

Mr. Hamner was not the only person with opinions on the MLK holiday issue. Following the publication of “He’s back!,” MetroBEAT received the following letter:

Your opinions on the Martin Luther King holiday do not reflect the majority opinion of the citizens of Greenville County. You lambasted the Counsel members who voted against the resolution, but you had no negative comments about Jesse Jackson, who like King, is a moral degenerate. My mother always asked me when I told her “everyone was doing it”, “If everyone jumped off a cliff, would you jump off too?”. Just because the rest of the nation and this State has jumped off a cliff honoring King, doesn’t mean Greenville County has to follow. I, for one, will be at the next Counsel meeting supporting the defeat of the resolution supporting a King holiday. Jesse Jackson and his crew want to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds. Is it not clear to you that blacks are trying to force their black cultural heroes on all of us who are resistant to this and to destroy Southern heritage? What is sorrier than Jesse Jackson are the whites who would abandon their heritage and jump on the politically correct bandwagon in order to make a dollar. Check out www.mlking.com if you want to know the truth about Martin Luther King. It is surprising to me how the MetroBEAT stays in business.

The email sent to MetroBEAT seemed to reflect the popular sentiment of the Upstate. On January 30, a poll on the Greenville News website claimed that 37.9% of the people who volunteered to submit a response wanted the county to recognize MLK’s birthday. 62.1% did not want the holiday recognized.

Observing and assisting James Shannon on the MLK holiday articles taught Kenneth Hamner several important things. First, it demonstrated the relationship between local government and the local media. It is the responsibility of the media to cover the activities of the government to promote the democratic process. As the opinions surrounding the MLK holiday issue show, there are different organizations and sectors of citizens who support or oppose the holiday. The media has to objectively report the news to inform people on the issue so they can form an opinion that will affect their community and local government. James Shannon did this reporting, and as a result, it helped promote the democratic process on the local level.

Watching James Shannon also taught Mr. Hamner the laziness present in reporting news. Many television reporters and writers from the Greenville News were on hand to report the happenings of county council. Television showed sound bite clips that did not show the magnitude or scope of the proceedings since the reports were brief and contained few specific details. The Greenville News articles did a better job at reporting specifics, but they were short articles and suffered from the same problems plaguing the television broadcasts. MetroBEAT, however, reported specifics and details the other media outlets did not report. For example, MetroBEAT was one of the only media outlets stating that Jesse Jackson would return to future county council meetings in Greenville. When Jesse Jackson and his followers also slept inside County Square in protest to the proceedings of the council, the other media outlets had already left. According to James, he had called them all back inside to cover the story.

Jesse Jackson and Kenneth Hamner on January 21, 2003
Jesse Jackson and James Shannon on January 21, 2003
Jesse Jackson being interviewed by James Shannon on January 21, 2003
Jesse Jackson speaking at the luncheon/strategy meeting on January 21, 2003
Jesse Jackson signs up to speak to the county council on January 21, 2003
Jesse Jackson heads into the county council on January 21, 2003

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“Strom at Rest”

While researching a Wal-Mart labor dispute in Aiken, South Carolina, Mr. Hamner and James ate lunch in Edgefield, South Carolina. The signs in the city said it was home of ten governors, but the place was awful and looked depressed. People stood around the square for no reason at all. James took Mr. Hamner around the city, pointing out important Thurmond landmarks such as the spot where Strom’s father killed a man during an argument. When they reached a statue of Strom, an old black woman passed them and said, “That man is not MY hero.” They both agreed with her.

After circling the square, they walked into a restaurant and were served hamburgers and French fries by Strom Thurmond’s second cousin. She claimed to be related to him on both her mother and her father’s side. She also told them where his hospital was located. He had just moved there less than a week ago and showed us a picture of him in his custom built apartment. The place looked like the oval office with a United States seal painted into the ground and a desk placed in the middle of the room. James and Mr. Hamner thanked the woman for her assistance and drove to the Edgefield county hospital. While they were there, they found out what Strom’s living conditions were like, and they found out interesting details like what he had for lunch the day he moved in.

The visit to Strom Thurmond’s hospital taught Mr. Hamner that one can get exclusive information while doing fieldwork. It also taught him that Edgefield is not a happening place to be.

The hospital where Strom Thurmond resides in Edgefield, South Carolina.

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“Safe?”

From the Greenville News
February 20, 2003

“Trooper’s son accidentally shot with father’s service weapon”

By Andy Paras
STAFF WRITER

The bullet that killed the 8-year-old son of a Highway Patrol trooper this weekend came from the father’s service weapon, Greenville Police Chief Willie Johnson said today.

Johnson said preliminary results of the investigation indicate that the shooting of Yaquan V. Sabb was an accident.

Yaquan was shot with a handgun while at his father’s home near J.L. Mann High School Friday night. Johnson said one of his two older brothers was with him when the gun went off.

He said they are waiting on the results of forensics tests to determine whether the gun was fired by the victim or his brother.

The boy’s father, Ricky Sabb, was off duty and not at home at the time of the shooting, authorities said.

Kenneth Hamner had no role in the production of this story. He was only an observer. But what he got to observe is noteworthy enough to include in this portfolio.

James Shannon was very moved by this story since it involved the death of a young boy. Writing this article was a personal experience for him, much like producing Bowling for Columbine was a personal project for director Michael Moore. James thought this story was important to write to prevent future accidents similar to this one mentioned in the article.

Mr. Hamner learned that the media can affect the reporter just as much as the reader. When a story moves the reporter, it can open their eyes as well as make society and government consider its actions.

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“Town Without Pity”

Prior to the start of Kenneth Hamner’s internship, James Shannon received an anonymous letter from a police officer in Easley, South Carolina. A copy of the letter is included in this portfolio, and it got James interested in doing a story about police brutality in Pickens.

While researching the story, James stumbled across a man who has had his rights violated by the police. There were some young adults blasting their car stereo in front of this man’s house, and he told them to turn it down. As they were leaving his neighborhood, they hit him with a beer can. The man headed towards the car, then the driver hit the man with his car and knocked him to the ground. He called the police about the incident, but they refused to arrest the driver and said there was nothing they could do. The man got a lawyer to sue the police, so the police reacted by arresting him on Christmas morning in front of his wife and kids. He spent the night in jail, and when he was released back to his family, the cops continued to harass his family.

James stumbled across a similar case where a man had his rights violated by the same police force. Harold Jr., an 18-year-old auto mechanic, was standing out of his girlfriend’s apartments and got jumped by some teenagers. After the attack, Harold Jr., went to the police to file a report to get his attackers arrested, but then the police claimed that the attackers did not attack him. The police arrested Harold for filing a false report. To make matters worse, Harold spent 20 days in lockdown with hardcore druggies and other big time offenders of the law. All this kid did was file a police report, and it wasn’t even a false one according to him.

Harold’s story and the Christmas guy’s story have similar elements even
though both men and circumstances are different. The police in both situations sided with the criminals without considering the facts, and both men had been unjustly arrested. According to informants who approached James, the police are trying to protect drug dealers who are paying them off.

Despite numerous interviews and extensive research, James could not verify the corruption charges. When Mr. Hamner asked him why he just didn’t run with the material he had, James said, “I can’t find an angle.”

Mr. Hamner learned that articles can take a lot of time to research and develop. Busting major stories take lots of evidence, and acquiring that takes time. Though it is the duty of an investigative reporter to report hard-hitting news that affects the community, proper steps must be taken to maintain journalistic integrity and to avoid libel lawsuits.

Harold Jr. with his father and mother on February 6, 2003

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Kenneth Hamner picked James up from his apartment on February 4 and headed down to Aiken, South Carolina to cover a Wal-Mart labor dispute. Some employees of the Aiken Wal-Mart wanted to create a union. Though Wal-Mart claims to not be anti-union, the manager of the store, Tim Mallet, tried to block the formation of one. He told the employees attempting to form the union that they were not allowed to talk to each other about anything – work related matters or personal matters. He justified this action by claiming they were violating solicitation laws.

James and Mr. Hamner figured he was trying to stop the workers from discussing a union. When one employee refused to follow the rule and continued researching and discussing a union, Tim fired her, claiming she broke gift certificate policies. The matter ended up in court, and the Wal-Mart employees wanting to unionize were represented by two union lawyers. Wal-Mart had sent down a lawyer notorious for busting up unions. Tim sat by his side.

Tim looked like a stereotypical bad guy in court. He had slicked back blonde hair, a gold suit, and a smirk on his face throughout the entire hearing. When James and Mr. Hamner cornered him during a recess, he refused to talk to them, saying “No comment.” He still wore the smirk. When he left, James described him with swear words.

James and Mr. Hamner left before the verdict was given, but victory has already been achieved in a way. Having a court listen to a labor dispute like this is a big deal for South Carolina.

James Shannon will publish an article on South Carolina unions as more cases get resolved in court.

Three women who tried to form a union at Wal-Mart in Aiken, South Carolina

September 11th (Fall 2001)

“Hey, fire!” a group of students yells cheerfully when they see the television footage in the Cultural Center (Harmoniecomplex) Hall. Many students and employees run into the television that is set up by the doormen every Tuesday when they’re on their way to the cafeteria. It’s set to CNN. When the subtitle “Terror Attacks In The US” appears on the screen and they realize the size of the tragedy, their joy is replaced by other feelings. “Now the Americans know what it feels like for once…” someone mumbles without really finishing the sentence. “But all those innocent people,” someone else protests. A teacher makes a gesture to his students – you can tell he can hardly believe it himself – that the lecture is going to continue. Someone else has one more look at the screen and yells “Ha, rocket shield, yeah right” and goes up the stairs. All mobile phone conversations around the university buildings only seem to be about one thing. “No man, no joke, the whole World Trade Center is gone,” one guy yells into his phone. An American student is on the phone crying in the hall of the Cultural Center (Harmoniecomplex). A meter and a half behind the television screen, two students continue making copies like nothing happened.

Although every citizen of Groningen head the news about the attacks filled with disbelief, the news struck 21-year-old Kenny Hamner extra hard. The young American, who studies in Groningen temporarily, was a powerless spectator as his countrymen were struck by terrorist attacks. In addition he was worried about his friends and family. “My mother works as a stewardess and I have friends who live in New York. Only after a couple of hours I could get in touch with them and I knew they were okay. Next to that I heard my uncle was in a plan during the attacks, but nothing happened to him luckily.”

The American exchange student exchanged his house in Georgia a couple of weeks ago for an international student house in Kraneweg. The moment of the events Kenny was at the university. “I was on the internet when I suddenly got a message from an American friend. He told me to put on the television because something terrible had happened. I quickly looked for another American student, and when we finally found a television, we saw the images. I was deeply shocked. Something like this isn’t possible, I thought.”

The student visited a friend in NYC only two months ago. They also visited the World Trade Center. “I knew how big those buildings were. When you see the images they look smaller, but they’re really incredibly tall. It’s unthinkable that these buildings have disappeared.”

John McCain (Winter 2000)

During my freshman year of college, a hall mate asked what I was up to.

It was a weeknight. I had homework. I was ready to get talked into something.

My hall mate was really into politics and invited me to go to the local airport because a politician was going to make an appearance there later that night. I wasn’t politically active then, but it beat reading Thomas More’s Utopia. Plus, there was going to be free beer.

I honestly don’t remember much from that evening. I found this Weekly Standard article by renowned asshole Tucker Carlson that recounts the events better than I could. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s three in the morning and hundreds of people are dancing inside a hangar at the Greenville-Spartanburg airport. Thundering techno-pop-disco-soul music blasts from enormous speakers in the corners. Spotlights cut through a haze of smoke to project purple and blue psychedelic designs onto a back wall. There’s a small hot-air balloon tethered near the door, a Greyhound-sized tour bus festooned with bunting parked across the concrete floor. The air smells like beer and cigarettes and sweat. No one in the room seems to be over 22. A lot of them are jumping up and down drunkenly in place and shouting: “John McCain! John McCain!”

For the reporters wandering in, bleary-eyed from hours on a charter flight from Manchester, it’s like stumbling upon some weird, secret Southern ritual. John McCain has just won the New Hampshire primary, and this is supposed to be his first post-victory political rally. Instead it feels like an after-hours rave. Or intermission at a Dead show. It feels subversive.

And, in a way, it is. John McCain has been running for president for about a year. Scores of reporters have written hundreds of stories about his campaign, most of them positive, many of them fawning. Yet in that time virtually nobody who covered McCain — or even who worked for him — seemed to believe that McCain had a chance of beating George W. Bush for the Republican nomination, much less of becoming president. The perception began to change shortly after lunch on primary day. The first exit polls came in around 1:00, and immediately caused mild panic at McCain headquarters. The data seemed to show McCain with as much as a 20-point lead over Bush. McCain strategists assumed that the numbers must be ridiculous, and worried that a subsequent 5-point victory (widely considered optimistic the day before) would look like failure by comparison.

As it turned out, McCain won the primary by 19 points. CNN declared him the winner at 7:00 P.M. Minutes later, Bush guru Karl Rove called McCain’s hotel room to concede. John Weaver, McCain’s political director, scoffed when he heard Rove was on the line. Weaver detests Rove, and was irritated by what he considered the arrogance of the call. “Tell him that consultants don’t concede to candidates,” Weaver said to an aide. “Have Bush call himself.” Bush soon did.

As I write this, John McCain’s casket is on its way from Arizona to DC for burial. I didn’t agree with him on everything, but as others have extensively noted, he served his country well.

1936-2018

“Best. Date.”

When she pulls the gun out of her handbag, you can’t help but laugh. It’s so tiny and cute. You’re also surprised guns come in pink.

“I said, shut up and start the car!”

Her high-pitched voice reminds you of Minnie Mouse. You laugh again because you think all this is funny.

“You think all this is funny, asshole?”

She leans across the passenger seat and places the barrel against your cheek.

“Here’s what’s going to happen.” She flips strands of dirty blonde hair behind her shoulder. “First, you are going to shut up. Shut up, shut up, shut up! I’ve listened to you blab incessantly for the past two hours. I’m tired of your talking. I’m tired of your voice. I’m tired of you. And after you shut up, you’re going to put the keys in the ignition and drive this piece-of-shit car to the nearest ATM, and you’re going to get me some money. And then we’re going to keep doing that until I say you can stop. And if you don’t shut up or start the car or give me my money, I’m going to be tired of your breathing.” She pauses then shrieks, “Do you understand?”

With the gun digging deeper, you peer into her eyes. Those deep, blue eyes had been the first thing you’d noticed when Jasmine Stone’s profile popped up on your phone’s dating app. They’d reminded you of your ex-wife’s eyes, and that had excited you.

She moves the barrel to your temple. “Asshole, do you understand me?”

You politely remind her that you aren’t supposed to say anything.

“Jesus… Nod!”

A voice inside you whispers, subtly reminding you that you should feel differently than you do. There is no fear or anxiety or any sort of feelings of mortality. Just those blue eyes.

As you nod, the pressure from your temple disappears. “Take a right out of here. Do as I say, and don’t do anything stupid!”

Your key finds the ignition. As it’d been prone to do for the last six months, the crankshaft turns several times before the engine wheezes alive. The car buzzes as the hood contains the loud hiss, but that problem becomes less noticeable as The Very Best Of Daryl Hall & John Oates pours out of the speakers.

Over the TGI Friday’s Endless Appetizers, you’d told Jasmine four times how beautiful she was in real life. Repeating this ensured that she’d heard you and that you were serious. As she sits in your passenger seat with her gun still pointed towards your head, her look of confidence and control make her more than beautiful.

She is sexy.

* * *

With the opening drum beats and bass notes of “Maneater” filling the car, you cross beneath a low-lying bridge. On the other side is a tall, illuminated sign advertising gas prices. The accompanying convenient store appears newly-constructed and non-descript, save for the posters plastered across its glass walls promoting fresh coffee and Coca-Cola.

“Park in that spot.” She is pointing the gun towards the store’s far end.

You do as you’re told. You turn off the car.

“Here’s what’s going to happen…. You’re going to give me your keys and wallet. I’ll get out of the car, and when I open your door, you are going to slowly get out. I’m going to be right behind you, and you are going to feel some pressure on your spine. Make any sudden movements, say anything to anybody, or do anything funny, and you’re done. Got it?”

You’re about to remind her again that you aren’t supposed to say anything. Instead, you nod.

She takes your things with her free hand then backs out the open door, never taking the blue eyes and pink gun off you. She then quickly slams her door and circles to you seemingly just as fast.

“Get out.” With a tone that is matter-of-fact but with a look that suggests empathy, she then quips, “The sooner we do this, the sooner we get out of here.”

You exit the car. The barrel pushes you inside.

The college-aged clerk sits behind the counter, fully devoted to the game on his phone. You pass through rows of candy and snacks until you reach the ATM nestled beside a tower of Bud Light cases.

Jasmine hands you your debit card and whispers, “Get as much as you can.” The pressure against your spine increases sharply.

You enter your pin. When prompted, you tell the machine you want several hundred dollars from checking.

The machine beeps and says that you can’t have several hundred dollars from checking.

“What’s the problem? Are you having a problem?”

You tell her everything’s good and type in a lower amount.

The ATM says everything isn’t good with the lower amount.

“Jesus… Don’t you have overdraft protection or something?”

You want to ask, What’s overdraft protection?

You can’t see your date, but you hear her increasing frustration as you continue to enter withdrawal amounts that produce more errors. Finally, on the fifth try, the ATM spits out some cash.

You pass Jasmine a twenty over your shoulder.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

You tell her that’s all you can get.

The clerk doesn’t notice the gun pushing you away from the ATM and back into your car. Jasmine collapses in the passenger seat. Her head rests against the dash, and she just sits there. Minutes seem to pass. She then lets out a small yet aggravated grunt.

The voice inside you whispers. It tells you that the gun is in her left hand, pointing towards the ceiling. It tells you to run. All you have to do is open the door and go. She won’t know what’s happening until it’s too late.

Your hand doesn’t reach towards the door. Instead, your hand finds her shoulder. It gives her a quick rub.

She slaps you away and shoves the barrel in your face. “Don’t touch me!” Her volume is past yelling. “Don’t you dare touch me again!”

Startled, you lift both hands in the air like you’re surrendering. You apologize sincerely. You tell her you’re just concerned. And then, for some reason, you ask if there is anything I can do to help.

She pauses then gives a crooked smile.

“Why don’t we go back to your place?”

* * *

Your car madly weaves through familiar neighborhoods, but the streets feel unusually dark. Houses you know to be full of families appear abandoned. Stores and strip malls that should be open this time of night look shuttered and neglected.

You feel both the pink gun and those blue eyes bearing down on you. They fuel you driving faster. The car rattles louder, almost drowning out Hall & Oates and “Private Eyes.” You only slow down when the approaching light turns yellow. Jasmine yells for you to go. You do as you’re told and drive through the beginnings of the red light.

“All my life, I’ve had to deal with idiots like you,” she says. “Nobody’s ever given me a break.”

She keeps talking, but you’re not paying attention. You’re so excited to show Jasmine your place, you can’t help it.

The rear of your car almost fish-tails as you swerve right into Riverside Apartments. You zip up the hill and come to a sudden stop at the end of the street, right into the space in front of your building.

Jumping out of the car, you tell her to follow you — your place has an excellent view of the river from your porch!

Leaping several steps at a time up the stairs, Jasmine can barely keep up. You reach the top floor and sprint to your door with keys in hand. When she steps out of the stairwell gun-drawn, you’re waving for her to come inside. You tell her you’ll make her a drink.

When she enters, you’re standing in the middle of your living room with arms outstretched, showing your home with pride. Breathing heavily from the climb, she scans the shag carpet that’s the color as her gun and the yellow couch scarred with holes and spills.

“Jesus H. Christ…” Her foot slams the door behind her. “How do you live here?”

You tell her you’ve been here for years. Your ex-wife had found the place.

She motions the gun in a way that instructs you to take a seat. You find a spot on the couch, and she methodically circles the room, studying all your belongings.

“You too poor to have a TV in here?”

You explain to her that ever since you converted the apartment’s second bedroom into your video game room, you’ve kept the television in there.

Her mouth displays annoyance. For some reason you still find this cute.

She approaches the fireplace where she notices a framed picture of you and your ex-wife on its mantle. She picks it up, and her blue eyes shift between the photo and you a few times until it drops carelessly to the carpet.

“Tell me what valuables you have here.”

You tell her that you have a lot of valuable things. You keep them all in the nightstand.

She motions you to your feet, and the barrel marches you towards your bedroom. You turn on overhead lights as you go through the unkempt kitchen and barren hall, and just as you flip on your bedroom switch, the side of the gun smashes the top of your head.

You collapse.

You’re not knocked unconscious, but you’re definitely shaken.

Laying curled up on the carpet, you see Jasmine’s feet quickly run across the carpet, and she frantically removes a case off your pillow. She jumps towards your nightstand and fills her makeshift goodie bag with your valuables. However, as soon as she realizes that she’s loading the case with restaurant menus and coupons printed from the Internet, she furiously spikes it to the ground.

“This shit is worthless!” She’s yelling more obscenities as her kick flips you flat on your back. While straddling your chest, the weight of her entire body drives the tip of the barrel deep between your eyes.

“Where’s your money, asshole?”

The top of your head hurts. The barrel of the gun hurts. But what hurts the most is the sudden realization that, despite everything you’ve put into it, this date may not be going so well.

Tears gather behind your eyes. It’s a sensation you haven’t felt since those many years ago. You swallow. You take a deep breath, and unlike the moment when your ex-wife opened the door with the intention of leaving your life forever, you manage to dislodge the words from your throat.

You say, “Don’t go.”

The look of anger across Jasmine’s face grows confused and complicated. “What did you say?”

“Please….” You beg, “Don’t leave…”

Jasmine looks taken back, but she continues straddling you, now pushing the gun into the bridge of your nose. “What are you saying?”

When the tears roll down your face, she stands up but continues to point the gun directly at you. More abruptly begin to flow. You can’t help alternating between moans and gasps for air. Closing your eyes usually calms you, but this time it lets everything inside you loose.

“Stop it!” Jasmine yells. “I need you to stop it! Stop your emotions now!”

It’s no use. Her directions can’t be followed.

You bring your knees to your chest and grasp yourself into a ball. You roll to your side, and the sobs keep coming.

Jasmine’s feet move out of your field of vision, and you hear her run around your apartment. When she returns, you’re still a mess. You’re about to let out another loud wail when something enters your mouth, muzzling you. You recall the taste of sock from middle school, and a roll of duct tape she must have brought in her handbag clasps it uncomfortably into place.

You flip onto your back. The side of the gun hits you across the forehead. Your head shakes violently, and while stunned, your hands are taped together. When she’s done, they can barely wiggle.

“Now,” she says, “I need you to calm down so we can wrap this up.”

As the pink gun jabs you into the living room, you barely maintain your balance. The knocks to your head grows increasingly painful, but by far the worst pain is from the leftover tear streaks. Cut across your cheeks, they feel like fire.

Jasmine grabs your shoulder and makes you stop in the center of the room. “Kneel,” she commands.

You uneasily lower yourself to the carpet and fall to the side. She doesn’t help as you squirm your way upright.

She slowly makes her way to the couch. Those deep, blue eyes you love so much are framed with a stern look.

“Before I go, we need to talk about a few things… If I had to sum this evening up, I’d say it’s been full of lies.” She grabs her chest dramatically. “I’ll admit, I haven’t been entirely truthful to you. My parents didn’t give me a porn star name, and I wasn’t looking for a relationship with you. For that, I’d apologize, but I’m not going to because you weren’t truthful to me, either. You misled me. I thought you had money. You lied to me. You shouldn’t do that to people. If you were honest and said you were broke and stupid, none of this would have happened.”

Not-Jasmine raises the gun higher with a committed look.

“I read the Bible growing up. There’s a part in there I like a lot. ‘Let us tell our neighbors the truth, for we are all parts of the same body.’ I think both of us should stop lying to each other, so I’m going to tell you a truth — I’m not going to let you live.”

The voice inside you whispers. It tries to convince you that she’s serious.

This really is the end.

She lifts herself off the couch to circle behind you. You stare at the carpet. Beside you is the mantle’s picture frame that Not-Jasmine dropped. You and your ex-wife are arm-in-arm. You are no doubt smiling, but it’s impossible to be certain. The construction-paper cosplay helmet of Iron Man covers your face.

The tape rips off your mouth, and the gun pinches the back of your neck.

“I’m going to give you one last chance to say something true before you die. If you want to apologize to me, whatever. But it better be the truth.”

Slowly, you spit the sock out of your mouth. It lands next to the frame, and you take the deepest breath you’ve ever taken.

You pause.

You close your eyes.

You say, “I had a really nice time with you tonight.”

* * *

When you come to, you are flat on your stomach, spread eagle across the pink shag carpet. Your headache is massive. Everything’s blurry.

You struggle out of the tape handcuffs and find a large bump on the back of your head instead of a hole.

The apartment door is swung open. You get to your feet but immediately collapse on the couch. To help with the pain, you know you should get some aspirin, but you honestly don’t know if you have any or where the bottle would be.

As you peer back down towards the carpet, your picture frame has company. It’s easy to miss because the pink gun blends in so well with the shag.

You fall forward to pick it up. It’s still so small and easily dwarfed in your hand. The handle feels solid, but the crude paint peels to the fingernail. It doesn’t take long to uncover “CO2 BB” engraved in the barrel.

The sliding glass door to your porch is sticky but eventually pries open. Below, the river rages. Leaning against the rail, you wind your arm back and hurl the gun towards the rapids. It spins and becomes one with the darkness. And as it disappears, you can’t help feel this had been your best date in a long time.

The Northern Dispensary (Winter 2005)

Across the street from my apartment when I lived in New York from 2004 through 2006 was a vacant building known as the Northern Dispensary. Founded as a hospice for the poor in 1827, this wedge-shaped landmark was a West Village oddity as it sat the point at which two branches of Waverly Place come together and where Christopher Street and Grove Street diverge off Christopher Park.

Throughout its existence the Northern Dispensary went through several incarnations and housed a number of disparate lives. Edgar Allan Poe was once treated for a head cold here in 1836. In 1960, the Dispensary was transformed into a dental clinic, one that would eventually become infamous for refusing to treat a HIV-patient in 1986. A lawsuit and bankruptcy followed shortly thereafter.

When I lived in New York, Gottlieb Real Estate owned the building. Its founder, William Gottlieb, left the Dispensary to his sister when he passed in 1999. William had the reputation of never selling his properties nor investing more than the minimum in restoration and management. This tradition was successfully upheld by his sister. The interior was nothing but chipped white walls, and torn down medical cabinets remained in the middle of some rooms. Given the building’s history and setting, the Gottlieb family could have made a fortune if they’d converted Dispensary into apartments, but it remained empty.

Sometimes at night I heard sounds from the Dispensary—glass shattering, fights, drunken screaming. And then, one day, I saw something.

It was a Saturday afternoon, and I was still lying in bed from the previous night’s heavy drinking. I was alone. My roommates were out of town. I got up, twisted open my blinds, and squinted out the window. The snow from the night before had stopped, but Waverly was still covered in white. Soaking in the scene when, I saw her. She was standing on the corner ledge of the Dispensary, staring down onto the street where Waverly intersects with Waverly. Was she getting ready to jump? And if so, who commits suicide by jumping off a three-story building? She did not inch forward. She did not back away. I couldn’t find it in myself to make her stop whatever she was doing. Then again, what could I have done?

A siren went off in the distance. She looked towards Sixth Avenue then turned forward, looking in my direction. Though I knew she didn’t see me, it chilled me just the same. She dipped her head and stepped away from the ledge, out of my view of the Dispensary.

That was the last I saw of her. It was not the last time I thought of her.

“On Urban Sprawl”

Mark: “Hey there. What’s your name?”
David: “David.”
Mark: “Hey, David! I’m Mark!”
(Extends right-hand to David)
David: “Nice to meet you, Mark!”
(Shakes Mark’s hand)
Mark: “Where you from?”
David: “Oh, I’m from the Atlanta area.”
Mark: “Really? What part???”
David: “Chattanooga.”

THE END

“2-1-20-8-18-15-15-13”

An short story from 2009.


“Watcha reading?”

“Kafka. Just started it. You?”

“Nintendo DS.”

“What happened to the book I gave you?”

“Reading hard — Mario easy!”

“You are such a Man-Child. I don’t know why I’m with you sometimes.”

“Because I’m adooorable.”

“If you say so…”

Paige set The Trial aside and sat up from the grass. Looking over Piedmont Park, a group of kids tossed a Frisbee at the base of their hill. A couple in the distance walked a terrier towards the dog run.

“Want to grab a beer or something?”

“Maybe in a moment. I’m almost done with this level.”

“It’s a really nice day. There aren’t a lot of people sitting outside Park Tavern…”

Jim took the hint. He closed the game system shut with a loud clamp. “Can I drop this off in the car?”

“Afraid somebody is going to take it?”

“You never know,” he joked.

Paige gathered her things. “You’re buying first round.”

He nodded.

Walking down the sidewalk and holding hands, Jim could feel Paige dig her sapphire engagement ring deep into his palm. She started swinging their hands playfully. He looked at her. She gave him a smile.

As they approached the street where they’d left their car, Jim noticed the metallic box-like building by the park’s exit. It was the infamous Robot Bathroom the city had installed a few years back. He’d seen it in the past, and it had always made him curious. However, this time there was no line by its entrance. 

“I have to go to the bathroom,” said Jim, quickly pointing towards the building.

“In there?”

“It’s a self-cleaning urinal that costs more than the condo. I gotta try it.”

Jim handed her his Nintendo DS and jogged towards the bathroom. He pressed a button lined by a wintery-blue light that was next to the door, and it slid open like it was from Star Trek.

“This is how people will piss in the future!”

She gave him a disgusted face but still laughed.

Inside, Jim thought the bathroom looked cold due to its excessive chrome and unnatural light, but its sparseness made it strangely relaxing and roomy. A robotic voice commanded him to close the door. He did what he was told, and Paige gave a small wave as she disappeared.

Jim walked to the toilet and took care of his business. A motion detector flushed the toilet. A motion detector gave him water with a squirt of soap. A motion detector let him dry his hands under the blasting hot air.

With a quick run of his fingers through his hair, he was ready to go. He walked to the exit, found the door’s button, and gave it a firm press. 

Nothing happened. 

He pressed the button again.

The door remained closed.

He stood there perplexed for a second, and the third time still failed to open the bathroom.

“Hey, Paige!” Jim yelled. “I’m having a little bit of trouble in here…”

“What?!?”

“I said I’m having a problem! The door isn’t opening!”

“The door isn’t opening?!? I can’t really hear you in there!”

He pressed the button again. “Yes! The door isn’t opening! Can you press the door button outside!”

“What?!?”

“Press the button for the door!”

A couple of seconds passed.

“I just pressed it! The door isn’t opening! Try it from the inside!”

“I just did!”

“…Do you think it’s stuck?”

“I don’t know! The bathroom has power and everything!”

Jim heard Paige’s frustrated sigh. “I just pressed the outside button again! I don’t know what else to do!”

“Is there anybody else out there who can help me?”

“I could go find somebody!”

“Yes – yes, go find one of the Park people!”

“Okay!” she yelled. “I’ll be right back!”

Jim cursed. He circled around the bathroom once then read the bullet-pointed instructions and rules tacked beside the door. The line saying that the bathroom had a ten minute limit gave him hope that the door would automatically open, but the deadline came and went.

He whipped out his iPhone and learned that the walls gave him no bars. Disheartened, he collapsed his back against the door and strained to hear the sounds of the outside world — Paige’s return with help, other people wanting to use the bathroom, cars speeding through the nearby intersection. All he heard was a strange silence. The entire city had gone mute.

Jim’s stomach rumbled. He got up and impatiently began to pound his fist against the door. Three knocks turned into five, and five knocks suddenly morphed into a series of kicks and yells. He quickly ran out of energy and just about fell face-first into the door. He listened again for the outside world but continued to eerily hear nothing.

Jim spent many hours pounding the door, listening, and then pounding some more. Frustrated, he eventually resigned himself to the fact that there was nothing he could do but wait for help.

So that was what he did.

He closed his eyes, and he waited.

*    *    *

Once Jim awoke, he noticed the envelope immediately. Its dark red color clashed vibrantly against the white tile floor, and it reflected wildly off the door’s brushed chrome. He hesitated for a moment then quickly crawled towards it like an unstable baby. Scribbled in capitals was JAMES BALDECCHI.

“What the hell?” whispered James Baldecchi.

He looked at the door. Had somebody slipped the letter underneath its frame? The gap between the door and floor appeared to be too small to fit much of anything.

His finger wedged easily underneath the envelope’s flap, and with a quick flick it ripped open. Only a torn white piece of paper fell to the ground. Jim picked it up and was so surprised by what he saw that he read the numbers aloud:

25-15-21  1-18-5 7-15-9-14-7  20-15 4-9-5

For some reason unbeknownst to him, he started doing the math in his head.

25 minus 15 minus 21 is negative 11.

1 minus 18 minus 5 is negative 22.

7 minus 15 minus 9 minus 14 minus 7 is negative 39.

As suddenly as he’d begun, he stopped. What were those numbers supposed to mean?

He slowly lowered himself against the door and stared at the scrap of paper for what seemed like hours but knew were minutes. He wondered: Why do some of the numbers have dashes between them and others have spaces? Why wasn’t there a 50 or 114? Why didn’t any of them go over the number 25?

Jim started counting to himself.

The letter Y is the 25th letter in the alphabet.

The 15th letter is O.

The 21st letter is U.

Y-O-U!

Jim carefully began to count the other numbers and let the spaces separate the words. When he finished, his hands began to tremble. He went back and did the string again but came to the same deciphered conclusion:

YOU ARE GOING TO DIE

The paper hit the floor. A fear Jim never knew existed shot across his body.

A slight vibration rattled his left pocket. Surprised, he cautiously reached into his jeans for his no-reception iPhone. The screen indicated the call was from an unknown number.

“Hello?” answered Jim nervously.

There was no response.

“Is anybody there?”

A high-pitched squeal emitted from the speaker. Jim swore as he yanked the phone from his ear. The sound continued for what seemed minutes. Then it suddenly stopped.

Jim returned the phone to his ear. “Is anybody there?”

“Jim?…”

“Paige!”

“Jim, it’s me! Where are you?!?”

“Thank God!” he yelled. He jumped from the ground and started pacing. “I’m still in the bathroom from yesterday! You have to get me out of here!”

“Listen…” she said in a hushed tone. “You don’t have much time. I got a letter in Spanish explaining everything. You need to get to the car. It’s still on 10th Street.”

“…What?”

“The letter said there was a lever hidden in the bathroom that will release the door. You need to get out of there now and –”

Silence.

Jim pulled the iPhone off his cheek. The call was still active.

“Paige?!? Paige, are you still there?!?”

The iPhone clicked. The screen went black.

Talk of the lever rejuvenated Jim, and escape made him too psyched to question how he’d gotten the call or what he’d do when he got to the car.

His eyes scrutinized each wall in rows and then columns. He crawled around the floor and placed his fingers into every nook and cranny. He even tried to move the toilet.

Hours passed.

Defeat set in.

Jim plopped into the corner behind the toilet, and his head fell on top of his propped knees. He placed his iPhone between his feet and desperately hoped for another call.

*    *    *

For the first time in his life, Jim woke to a real hunger in his stomach. He gave it a slight rub, and for a second the only thing he wanted more than an open door was a Chick-fil-A biscuit.

Jim knew he had to distract his mind. He rose to his feet and waved his hand in front of the sink. Warm water gushed from the faucet, and he splashed himself awake. He looked deep into the mirror. He caressed the beginnings of his beard and suddenly spotted the dark red envelope at the foot of the door. Even in the backwards reflection, he could make out JAMES BALDECCHI.

Cautiously, Jim walked towards the envelope. It appeared as if somebody had slipped it under the door again. He got down on one knee, slowly opened it, and removed its white scrap of paper:

20-18-15-21-2-12-5  6-9-14-4-9-14-7 20-8-5  12-5-22-5-18?

Jim started to count:

T is the 20th letter.

The 18th letter is R.

The 15th letter is O.

The 21st letter is U.

The 2nd letter is B.

The 12th letter is L.

The 5th letter is E.

T-R-O-U-B-L-E!

His brain worked overtime, quickly deciphering the remaining numbers. He cursed when he got his answer:

TROUBLE FINDING THE LEVER?

Jim gnashed his teeth as he tore into the message. Its remains fell to the ground. He yelled and banged and kicked the door again until his hands bled.

He collapsed next to the code’s white shreds and crumpled them into a tiny ball. Just as he was about to drop it into the toilet, he spotted something new sitting below the water’s surface. It was a sparkling circle with a slight blue protrusion. A thick white string was tied to it, and the string’s other end appeared to be stuffed deep within the toilet.

At first Jim’s hand recoiled to the water’s cold temperature, but then he shoved in his arm almost to its elbow. He cusped the object and quickly lifted it out of the water. He paused uneasily. He opened his hand. It was Paige’s sapphire engagement ring.

In a sudden rage Jim fumbled to untie the wet string from the ring, but the knot was tight. He pulled and pushed and grunted to get any part loose. He had no luck.

Without thinking, Jim wrapped the string several times around his hand and began to reel in its slack. At first it came out of the toilet like a handkerchief from a magician’s sleeve, but it finally got tight. Jim continued to pull and pull, and a final bit of slack jerked out of the toilet.

It felt as if he had pulled on something.

It felt as if he had pulled on a lever.

Jim’s entire body lit up. He looked at the exit, and the bathroom began to make a series of mechanical sounds that exponentially got louder. He ran and placed his hands on the door.

Suddenly, a series of sprinkler heads jetted out of the walls and ceiling. With a loud release, they sprayed hot foam everywhere, soaking Jim with the rest of the room. He groaned and flailed as the water’s temperature got unbearably hotter. He closed his eyes, and the pressure made it so hard for him to stand that he lost his footing.

His head met the toilet seat. The bathroom turned to black.

* * *

Jim came-to at the base of the sink, still dripping wet. He touched his forehead. The was no blood. He circled the knot with an index finger. As he sighed and rolled over, the bathroom door began to quickly slide shut.

“Hey!” he yelled. “HEY!!!”

He got to his feet as fast as he could and practically threw himself across the room, but he was too late. The door had shut. The bathroom remained his prison.

Jim felt something move under his right shoe. The new red envelope was different than the others. It was the size of a sheet of legal paper. He picked it up, undid the top, and pulled out a square piece of cardboard.

There was a dried red stain in the middle.

Jim’s mind raced to Paige.

He thought about the cut-off phone call. He thought about the ring in the toilet.

Horrified, Jim dropped the cardboard and backed away. He felt like tearing the chrome off the wall. He wanted to smash the toilet. But more than anything, he wanted to get out.

Jim got a running start and rammed his shoulder against the door as hard as he could. It shook and made a lingering rattle.

Jim stepped back against the wall, ran a couple of feet, and hit the door again. He didn’t care that he was slowly breaking his shoulder. The second hit had a good angle and made a small dent.

His third ram was not as hard but made a much bigger noise. It was so big that Jim slowly stepped back and realized it couldn’t have come from him. It had to have come from the outside world.

“Hey!” Jim yelled. “Hey! If you can hear me, let me out of here! I’m stuck in this bathroom!”

Silence.

“Please let me out! Can you hear me?!?!”

Just then there was deafening bang followed by something slamming against the door. The dent Jim’s shoulder had made now slightly protruded into the bathroom.

Jim was startled back against the wall. The lights flickered to black. The door suddenly slid open with a thunderous burst.

There was another bang. A bullet buzzed Jim’s ear and crashed above his shoulder. Surprised, Jim instinctively jumped towards the toilet for cover, but a sharp pain took a bite out of his left calf. He grasped the wound and yelled in pain.

The lights suddenly flickered back on, and standing in the open doorway was a short man wearing a black jumpsuit. He wore a matching ski mask.

He smiled.

“I guess this is the part where you kill me like you killed Paige.”

The man menacingly reached behind his back and approached his target. Jim closed his eyes tight. Something hit his chest. However, it didn’t feel like a gunshot.

Cautiously, Jim cracked an eye. The red envelope said JAMES BALDECCHI.

The man crouched to Jim’s ear. “Esto es mucho peor,” he whispered in a thick accent. He slowly rose to his feet and blended into the darkness of the outside world.

With the door still open, Jim finally had his escape, but he remained motionless. He had nothing left inside. All he had was the envelope.

He gathered his remaining strength and pulled himself onto the toilet seat. A flick of the finger tore the envelope’s seal, and Jim pulled out the white scrap of paper containing the coded message. His mind raced to decipher each number. He frantically repeated each letter and word.

Once Jim got to the end, he couldn’t believe it. He fell to his knees and screamed uncontrollably.

9  19-20-15-12-5  25-15-21-18 14-9-14-20-5-14-4-15  4-19!