Series I: Stand Off – Chapter I: Answering Was Hard Enough


Thomas woke up to the birds chirping just outside of his window. His hair was a mess; he had only his boxers and undershirt on, and he yawned a few times as he lifted himself up and sat on the edge of the bed. Both of his palms supported him up as both of his feet hung off the side. He shuddered to the brisk air flowing through the window, where the curtains sadly draped down from its hinges above it, and where the blinders sagged over it. They were poorly adjusted, which made the evening sun flood the room in thin multiple rays stopping at its off-white walls. Each ray scattered across him as he yawned a few times. He quickly snapped the last one to its end with his teeth clashing together when his phone buzzed and vibrated. It was moving toward the edge of the nightstand. He turned his head toward the phone as his eyes were adjusting to being awake, then he leaned sideways to grab it before it fell and to look at the number; it was unidentifiable. He answered it and brought it to his ear.

“Hello?” The voice was hesitant, nervous, and familiar. . .

“Yes, hello,” he said.

“Tom? It’s Kristen.”

His eyes opened wide and he immediately stood, he started to pace around the room, around the bed and around the mess on the carpet. “Oh, huh . . . hey Kristen,” he said as he avoided the clothes and the books. . .

“How’ve you been?” Her voice eased from a nervous tone into a restful one.

“I’m um, doing the best I can . . .  h-how huh, did you reach me?” He said, while now avoiding the miscellaneous items on his floor such as scissors, plastic caps from water bottles, crumpled up pieces of paper, cups and coffee mugs. . .

“Oh, this is my work phone – I thought you would’ve unblocked me by now.” She said.

“Thomas stopped.”No, you said to leave you alone; I did.” He was affixed on the chewed sunflower seeds that seemed to have missed one of the mugs. “Why are you calling?”

There was an elongated pause . . . “I just . . . never mind.” She said.

Thomas shook his head. “No wait. Uh, hold on . . .” He threw his shoulders back while simultaneously turning his head toward the pathetically adjusted shades, “what’s up?” He stared out through their creases.

“Um, yeah, so . . . huh . . .  could you just meet me somewhere – I can’t say over the phone –something happened, and . . . and well, I don’t know who else to turn to.” She said.

Thomas took a deep breath while peering through the narrow apertures that exposed segments of the sun setting down and eventually behind the redwood-littered hills. His nostrils flared at something putrid reeking in his apartment when he gazed through the apertures to see outside, passed where the bird’s nest was in the nearest tree, and the chicks inside of it, and farther passed them into the horizon. The smell was intensifying. So, he beamed his eyes toward the floor along with his body turning from the waist to search for the origin of the smell. When he carefully walked to the lamp on the night stand to turn it on, he found it within seconds, laying on the floor. It was coming from a dead bird.

Thomas was disgusted by the odor and more curious by the cause of it. “Yeah, I miss it,” he said.

He rubbed his nose to repulse the smell. It was getting to him. He started to walk toward it, studying the window to see if it somehow entered his apartment through it being opened all night. “Uhm . . . yeah . . . You huh, you can’t just tell me?” He said.

“Please?” She was subtly sobbing and he heard it through the receiver, which made him walk slower until the dead bird wasn’t on his mind. He moved toward his pants near the dead bird and grabbed them.

Um yeah; yeah, I’ll be right there. Are you still at Geary and 17th?” Thomas threw on the pants after he adjusted the phone on his collarbone as it rested against his cheek.


He heard sniffling and stressful breathing through the receiver as he walked toward his jacket that hung over the backside of his desk chair. He started looking for his apartment key. It was in his jacket pocket.

“Hang tight ok?” Then there was a silence, a silence that accentuated the noise of his footsteps as he was walking toward his shoes by the door. He bent down to tie their laces after putting them on, with the phone still between his shoulder and collarbone. He brought himself up by straightening his back. He reached for the doorknob when he thought she hung up already. So, he was about to as well until the silence broke.

“Hm’mm . . . and Tom? Thomas froze before grabbing the knob to open the door.

“Yeah?” He said.

“Thanks.” She sounded honest, not like how he remembered.

“Yeah,” he said, “I’ll see ya Kristen.”

Thomas waited for her to hang up, and when she did, he grabbed the door knob, twisted it and yanked the door toward him as fast as he walked through the threshold. He closed it with the same speed and headed down the hall to the elevator with strength in each step. He felt determined as well as anxious about seeing Kristen. She was the only girl that had ever sparked a flare inside of him, but that flare went out a couple of years ago. In the beginning it brightly shined, yet like a star, it slowly died until there was nothing left. He constantly thought about it since its death and recollecting the specifics of how it dwindled held him at the elevator as its doors opened. The ding reminded him of something else too . . . but he shook it off with an even stronger step through its opened doors and pressed the button for the ground level.

He exited the elevator and walked through the lobby toward the sliding door ahead of him. The large one-piece windows that surrounded the motion-tracking door were wet with condensation; a prelude to a brisk night ahead of him. He felt for the creases of his hood and ran along them with his fingertips until he stopped at the middle of its circumference. There was a snap from his wrists that caused it to fling up and over his head. The hood stopped at eye level, draping is adamant expression. He ignored Phil at the front desk as he passed, but as soon as he heard him say hello, he gave no response; just a slight head turn that revealed only the lower portion of his jaw and his sagacious grin.

The evening was a calm one. It cast an orange glow that blanketed the hills along route 880, and as the sun set with each stretch of shine diminishing, the orange glow sustained its presence . . . until car headlights were the only thing illuminating the road. Everything around it fell into darkness. Thomas walked to the bus stop at the corner of his apartment where alongside of its canopy was advertising a movie that had been released months ago. The poster was faded behind the sun-burnt plastic and the condensation seemed to have made its way along the edges just beside the frame.

“You know, I saw that movie . . . it wasn’t good.” A man said. He was the only person sitting on the bench at the bus stop.

“Yeah,” Thomas said, “I don’t go to the theaters that often. I wouldn’t know.”

“I wasn’t asking if you saw it,” the man said. “I just said that it wasn’t good . . . two old guys lost on the Appalachian Trail; what the fuck.”

He was wrapping his arms around himself, stretching the seams where the sleeves met the torso of his coat. The thing was hardly recognizable; it was made out of fuzzy wool that every time Thomas took a glance at the peculiar man, there would be visible shards of the fabric blowing off the coat and into the wind. It was as if the coat was deteriorating among the elements that it, otherwise, was meant to endure.

“Damn I’m cold.” He was shivering and Thomas deduced that the man was just blowing off some steam by the comment made to him.

“This ain’t that bad compared to South Jersey weather,” Thomas said, “at least here it is consistent.”

He subtly swiped his thumb on and down the side of his nose and kept glancing at him, then at the hills ahead.

“One day, it’ll be cold; biting cold, and then the next, you could swear that spring was just around the corner.”

Thomas’ attempt to settle the man’s nerves failed, he just grabbed both ends of his coat and pulled them across each other, yanking them along with his arms. The seams were about to burst because Thomas heard the tears as he adjusted the coat tighter around his body.  Thomas just laughed to himself and shook his head, motioned it down, then back up to the hills and raised it finally to the fresh crisp night sky. The bus just about arrived.

After the doors swung open, and the announcement over the intercom stated its current and next destination, Thomas pranced up the steps.  The lights on the bus were pale and florescent, which made the rubber floor look murky with dirt and grime, especially the edges of the steps where the yellow caution warning was faded and scuffed. Black streaks from shoes and their years of treading on and over each step gave character to the bus, and reflected its age. The windows weren’t clear, but blurry that caused for no reason to look out from them other than to appear disinterested in all the other bus riders, their quarks and eccentricities.

He walked down the narrow isle until he reached the seats that faced each other, granting a wider space between both sides of the bus. He sat down and reached into his jacket pocket for his phone and then reached for a smaller zipper-pocket located on the shoulder of his jacket, opened it, and pinched out his wrapped-up headphones. The ambiance of the bus eluded him. It didn’t affect how he was feeling as soon as he decided to play what he considered to be a classic band: The Cult. The fusion of black metal and punk with the grit of the Gothic counter-cultures of 1985 soon seduced his eardrums and brought him to requiem-like state. The old man finally made his way on the bus by the time Thomas hit play; the doors closed, the bus jerked forward as did the patrons with its momentum, and it drove north toward Fremont BART Station.

About an hour and a half passed when the bus arrived at Fremont BART Station at the border of San Jose where Thomas had to transfer to another bus for San Francisco.

The waiting room inside the station closed after sunset, so he sat on the nearest bench outside right as he got off of the bus. Thomas had his hands in both of his pockets and held them close to his stomach while hunched over in an effort to keep warm. He bounced his legs up and down rapidly with the front soles of his feet still on the ground to engage blood flow; another attempt to keep warm. The wait wasn’t that long, but as the night was approaching its first darkest hour, so was the weather approaching its witching hour, and it made the interim a bit more unbearable. Then a bus pulled into the lot and stopped, but it wasn’t the bus he was expecting.

The station served as a junction for commuters traveling to and from San Francisco, and this bus was fulfilling that purpose. It settled and lowered, releasing the pressurized air from its hydraulic system. There was a pause and a ding, but no announcement and the sign above the front windshield signaled off. The bus door opened allowing the people to exit and leave the station. And all of them did, except one; a guy who appeared to be drunk, and no doubt was by the time he neared Thomas. He stumbled over his two feet, moving with a steady pace and a focus that lacked any real sense of attention. His beard was well kempt, and his face was healthily gaunt. Where his brown leather jacket ended was where the plaid shirt he was wearing underneath continued to about another inch until his machine-washed jeans were revealed. He seemed well dressed compared to Thomas, and his haircut attributed much to his assumed social class. His approaching brought Thomas to take out his earbuds and drape them around the back of his neck and as soon as he did so, he heard the guy’s leather shoes clack against the asphalt as he approached closer and closer, until the noise was loud enough to stir a certain anxiety. The guy slumped forward as he collapsed on the bench right next to Thomas and as he slammed against the backrest, Thomas received a grand whiff of alcohol. The guy kept to himself with ear buds on, cursing as he was struggling to release gas out of his mouth from his stomach. They came out as sputters bubbling over his lips.

He was listening to what seemed to be highlights of a game because the volume was at such a high level that Thomas could faintly hear an announcer’s voice during the silent moments before and after his cursing.

Braun with the block to Read  –  he sends it to Giroux –  cuts left past DeMelo, then another move – “Ahhh shit!” – he’s down the center now; breaks point . . . and he scores! “FU –*burp* – CK!”

Thomas was aware of the guy’s age being close to his own, so he was cautious of any potential disorderly conduct and kept a keen eye on his movements. They were subtle, not frantic, yet his cursing was sporadic and unpredictable that had anger behind each syllable. Thomas knew too well that alcohol and anger do not mix and he was prepared for the worst.

“Fuckin’ Flyers – There was just too much footwork for Dell to catch the puck before hitting the net . . . the score is 3-1 now and the clock is running down to its final seconds in the first half here at the SAP Center – they were this close,” he reached out his arm toward Thomas and brought his thumb and pointer finger an inch apart. “I put toooo many – *burp* – years into being a Sharks fan,” he said.

He was slipping in and out of consciousness and his eyes were going from glazed and open, to rolling up and over, into the backside of his head.

“Yeah man,” Thomas said. He wasn’t trying to converse with the guy, but he didn’t want to seem uninterested to the point where it would cause any problems. He kept his line of sight on the clear night sky, but his peripheral vision focused on the drunken slob. Everything was quiet for a moment or two, until the guy started to heave.

Thomas jolted and faced him, “Hey, are you alright?”

He heaved and tossed his head forward, then back, and then forward again. Instead of Thomas getting out of his way, he stood up and began forcibly padding the guy on the back, just below his shoulders. He was about to hurl. In an instant, he turned toward Thomas and heaved a final cough that shot chunks accompanied with mucus and slime. The vomit traveled with such a velocity that Thomas had no time to react and avoid it; rather he didn’t even see it coming until it was all over his right leg and shoe.

Thomas didn’t move. He just stood there looking down at his vomit-covered leg. His face went grim and his body, stiff. The drunk passed out and collapsed toward Thomas’ side of the bench. He didn’t move after that. The bus to San Francisco arrived moments later and Thomas directed his attention to it pulling into the lot. It stopped right where the other bus had previously stopped and without a second glance, he headed toward the bus. Thomas stopped at the entrance right before hopping in.

“Damn son! What happened to you?!” the driver said, “I can’t be having drunks on this bus making a muck with hurlin’ everywhere.”

“I haven’t been drinking,” Thomas said, “that asshole over there,” he pointed over to the drunken guy passed out on the bench, “he threw up all over me as I was trying to prevent him choking on his own tongue.”

The driver gave Thomas a quick visual assessment. He looked at him first, then at the drunk in the distance. He had to shift his position in his seat to see passed the passenger seats and through the window for a decent view. He could have stood up, but he didn’t. “I hope you aren’t planning on sitting right behind me with that mess on your leg,” he said. “Come on; let’s go before he wakes up.”

“Thanks,” Thomas said. “I’ll sit in the way-back.”

The doors were closing as the bus driver pulled out of the parking lot. The initial kick of the ride jerked him up and down behind the wheel and brought Thomas to his seat a bit more quickly. About another hour passed until the bus was crossing the Bay Bridge and Thomas saw the illuminated city as it crept into view. He started to think about the last time he was in the city. It was with Kristen. He tried to stay away from the memories, but like a floodgate opening, they just poured right in. The stench fuming off his pants was acclimated to his nostrils at this point of the bus ride and it helped keep his mind off of those memories. The vomit crusted around the edges, but was still moist in the middle and it stuck to the skin of his leg as it saturated through the fabric of his pants.

“Hey,” Thomas said, to grab the driver’s attention, “can you drop me off at Geary and 17th?”

“You know that I am on a route kid?” he said.

“Yeah, but there’s no one on the bus and, well, you know.” He pointed to his leg as he stuck it out into the isle for the driver to see as he was speaking to him by using the large rearview mirror. The driver’s eyes were dancing between looking at Thomas in the mirror and looking at the road.

“I’m not going farther than the Montgomery Street Station; that’s my stop,” the driver said.

Thomas received a phone call before he could argue with him, it was buzzing. He took the ear buds around his neck and placed them in his ears, then he lightly pressed the button on the wire of the ear buds to answer.


Thomas was gazing at the many lights that brought the city to life at such an hour of the night.

“Tom?” He heard her voice, and the night’s lively ambiance suddenly became solemn and dull.

“Yeah . . .” He said.

“How close are you?” She said. Her voice had a sense of urgency behind it.

“I just crossed the Bay Bridge . . . I’m in the city. Hey huh, could you pick me up near the Montgomery Street Station? The driver won’t take me all the way to your place.” He said.

“Yeah . . . Yeah,” she said, “I’ll be right there.”


Thomas hung up and looked up at the driver, “never-mind,” he said, but he wasn’t loud enough for the driver to hear and it didn’t seem that he cared all that much anyway.

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