Blair turned the key in the lock. The apartment was dark, empty, slightly stinky with forgotten garbage. The alarm beeped insistently, impatiently urging him to turn it off as he flipped on the light while shutting the door with his foot, reaching into his pocket for the control, fishing around, finding that the tear in the lining had opened up again. Shit.
He rested the over-filled bag of groceries on the hall table and rooted around in the depths of his tweed jacket, finally locating it and tearing even more of the thin, faded lining as he ripped the annoying thing out of his pocket. He pressed the button, cancelling the security alarm just as it was about to start screaming.
Breathing a tired sigh he hefted up the bag, feeling the ominous greasy wetness around his hands, the sudden savory smell; realizing his Moroccan take-out had gotten tipped up and had leaked into the bottom of the bag. He rushed to the kitchen to get the soggy-bottomed paper bag on the counter before it gave way.
Finding the leaking pot of charmoula sauce he replaced the lid, saving what he could, licked his fingers and rinsed his hands under the faucet. The kitchen still smelled of this morning’s coffee; the piece of burnt bagel he’d prized from the toaster with a fork still lay by the sink. He tossed it into the over-filled trash, wrinkling his nose, telling himself he really needed to take that out tomorrow without fail.
The TV remote was on the kitchen counter, next to a scummy mug of cold, forgotten coffee. He pressed the on button; there was nothing on he wanted to see but the sound punctured the silence, filled the emptiness. He tipped the mug of coffee down the sink then put the groceries away, working on autopilot, hardly thinking, his mind fogged and tired and perpetually elsewhere.
He looked away as he reached through the door and switched on the bedroom light, his head full of grim imaginings, refusing to acknowledge the shadowy figure he often glimpsed there, knowing it was only fear playing with his mind, knowing - if the shadow was real – that he wouldn’t have enough time left to feel afraid.
He moved to the window, shielding his body behind the wall as he peered through the blind at the well-lit parking lot below. He liked this building; it wasn't perfect, but he couldn’t afford perfect. For the money it had great security. The area outside was well-lit, there were cameras and no spooky vegetation to play tricks with the mind. His last place had been nicer in many ways; bigger, more spacious with better views, but there’d been way too much landscaping, too many trees - the slightest breeze had made the branches dance with sudden, startling, terrifying movements and cast deep shadows - too many dark places where a person might hide.
He took a good long look. There was no one out there, there couldn’t be, there wasn’t. He snapped the blind closed, stripped and showered.
Wrapping hips and hair in towels still damp from the morning and avoiding his own eyes in the mirror, he went to the bedroom, found his pajamas on the floor by the bed and put them on. Flannel pants, cotton t-shirt, two sizes too big; warm, comfortable and familiar, like a mother’s hug. They made him feel safe.
Leaving the bedroom light on, he went back to the kitchen, nuked his take-out in the microwave, opened the fridge, flipped the cap on a beer, tipped the fridge door closed with his ass and took his beer and his food to the couch. He put his feet on the cluttered coffee table, eating without tasting, letting his mind slide as he stared at the TV, watching without watching until his eyes started to close.
When he knew he was exhausted enough to fall asleep he took his takeout back to the kitchen, rested the empty bottle on the precariously tipping pile under the sink (made a mental note to make time for recycling at the weekend), flipped off the TV, went back to the bedroom and switched the TV on in there. Then he brushed his teeth and got into the big cold bed where no one but him ever slept. He fell asleep with the lights on, the TV playing softly through the night with infomercials and vintage sitcoms that slipped into his dreams.
"And so these ancient patterns, only really visible from the air, have, for a long time been assumed to be religious, messages to the Gods, perhaps, with a meaning long lost. So!” he smiled. “Before next time, I need to you find me some of the latest research on the Nazca lines and write me a brief paper.” He waited for the groans to subside. “A minimum thousand words. Come on, people! I need twelve papers from you this semester. This is a short and easy one. It just takes a little work-”
”But Blair!” Susanne Jones griped. “We’ve barely touched on the Nazca civilizations…”
”Exactly! This is not about the Nazca, it’s about improving your research capacity which, I have to say, judging from your scores on the Amazon paper, are sadly lacking. People, you’re graduates, on a post-grad study and you still don’t know how to think for yourselves. That’s why we have seminars, not so I can spoon feed you with information, but so you learn to think and debate. I want a short paper so I can see what you’re capable of finding and how you express yourself. So, go, impress me with your research skills. Remember our mantra?”
His study group intoned, “If you Google, you will find.”
Blair grinned. “Excellent. As a starting point the internet is our greatest tool, but for real research, you need to put in some serious library time. No cut and pastes from Wiki, please, people. I’ve been there myself, hell, I wrote a lot of it, if you quote Wikipedia to me, I will know and I will fail your paper. I want to see citation. This is not, I repeat, not about current research on the Nazca lines, it’s about your ability to seek and-”
”Destroy?” Helen, his brightest, favorite student said with a grin.
“That remains to be seen,” Blair smiled. “Gauging from some of your essays, that’s a pretty good analogy for your grasp of written English.” He raised his hands. “That’s it, we’re,” he checked his watch, “way over time here. It’s the weekend people, what are you waiting for? Haven’t you all got parties to go to?”
A wave of hesitation washed through the room. They all looked at Mike Mikalowski. Blair watched them, waited.
“Blair…” Mike began - none of his students ever called him ‘Professor’ or even ‘Mister’ Sandburg. He might have mostly grey hair now, but his skin was smooth and unlined. He still dressed to please himself, not the University, and had an enthusiastic, energetic youthful air that endeared him to his small group of students. They all thought of him as much closer to their age than he actually was - which was five months past his fortieth birthday.
“We’re actually having a little party at my place next Friday,” Mark ventured. “We’ll all be there and we were wondering if you’d like to come along?”
Blair felt his heart begin to race. He blinked nervously, not sure what to say.
“We’d be so happy if you’d come,” Helen said. The whole group were watching him expectantly, several of them nodding encouragingly.
“Well, I, I, I...” He shut his eyes for a second, swallowing down the shameful stutter that had sprung up out of nowhere. “I… don’t know, Mike,” seeing the falling faces, the disappointment. “Evenings are very hard for me.”
Mike nodded. Blair knew there was speculation; Sandburg’s secret life. He never went out at night, didn’t go out much in the day either, driving to the U. alone each day, from his home where no one ever got invited, eating sandwiches at his desk, drinking his own coffee. Many had tried to lure him out for weekends, evenings, lunches, even dates, but he always refused; eventually, people stopped asking. Now this. What was he going to say?
He pasted on a bright smile. “Look, uh… Let me look at my schedule, have a think about it, see if I can’t juggle…” He raised his hands helplessly. “I’ll get back to you.” The group nodded sadly, picked up their bags and slouched out together.
Blair closed the door after the last of them, slumped down at his desk and tried to remember how to breathe. The panic caught him suddenly, without warning. His throat tightened, his lungs felt like they were slowly filling with concrete as he gripped the edge of the desk, white knuckled and afraid, clamping his eyes shut, riding it out, fighting it down. Sweat broke out on his forehead as his breath escaped in a gasp, then a sob. He held his head in his hands, breathing slowly, deeply, until he had himself back under control. Fumbling for the drawer, dragging it open, he grabbed at the bottle of pills he kept there for emergencies like these. Reaching for his flask of water, he poured some into a glass, with hands that shook so badly half of it spilled, pooling neatly on the beeswaxed mahogany. He tipped the pills out on to the desk, taking two, swallowing them down.
Blair didn’t leave his office for the rest of the day. He had his own coffee, his own snacks; he had no need to venture out into the long, lonely, terrifying corridors of the faculty. Nervous of empty places, frightened in busy ones, he stayed at his desk for as long as he could, watching the clock, knowing Martin the security guard would be along at ten to lock up and make him leave, cheery and joking and so hard to deal with.
So at nine fifty-eight exactly, Blair was out of the door, his battered, beloved old leather knapsack in one hand, mace in the other, heart racing as he hurried across the well-lit, well-protected parking lot to his anonymous little Nissan: two years old, pale blue, economic, practical and exactly like a thousand others, carefully chosen to draw the minimum possible attention.
He drove straight home, too shaken from the afternoon’s panic attack to think about stopping for take-out. He wanted, needed, to be home; to be safe in his space.
His heart began doing its usual tap dance as he locked his car and prepared for the nightly dash from his parking spot to his building. It was the most stressful moment of his day, thirty-seven dark seconds when he was at his most vulnerable. Keeping tight hold to his little can of mace as he reached the door, he punched in the security code. Safely inside he closed the door behind him, pausing briefly to check his mailbox. His heart beat faster still when he saw what was in there; part terror at the implied proximity of its deliverer, part elation at the anticipated contents. Retrieving his mail and locking the box he jogged up the stairs. He always took the stairs, they were open and bright and it was about the only exercise he got these days.
Reaching his door, sliding the key in the lock, reaching inside to flip on the light before slipping inside. Slamming the door shut, locking it against the world with a sigh of relief, he leaned back against it, dropping the junk mail and fast-food flyers to the floor and retaining only the one, large, hand-delivered envelope which he clutched tight to his chest like the most precious treasure.
Which of course, in the context of his sorry parody of a life, it truly was.
Blair wiped his palm across his face. He was tired; of course he was. He’d been at the library since five am, unable to sleep, incapable of lying awake in his bed, unable to stand the flickering shadows cast by the TV that seemed to move and wander around his room. Unable to turn off the TV, to be alone in the silence and the dark.
So he’d come to the library to work and to savor the latest mail drop, hiding himself in a dimly-lit corner behind a pile of books, where he tipped out the precious contents; precious, but heartbreaking.
“Hey Mom,” he whispered to the images laid out on the table, lit bright with the light and color of a tropical sun. Bali, he read. No specific location just: In the Tejakula region, teaching English to local orphans, taking classes in batik and silver-smithing.
“Ah, Mom,” Blair smiled. The cold, bald words on the printed page still managed to convey Naomi's essence, shining a brief light into his dark and terrified world. The pictures, taken on a long lens, showed her skipping with little girls in peacock colors; running for a ball along a long, golden beach; riding a bicycle down a street lined with frangipani and banana trees; running from the rain with a magazine over her head, her long silk sarong, wet, and sticking to her legs. He touched his finger to one laughing image. She never seemed to change, never aged, his beautiful mom, such a force of nature. For a moment, he indulged his favorite fantasy, of grabbing a plane to her last known location, finding her, telling her everything, then disappearing together, deep into the jungle somewhere, somewhere they could never be found.
He closed his eyes against the threat of tears. He couldn’t do it, he wouldn’t. After all these years. He was doing this for her, all for her; burying himself alive so she could live. The regular delivery, showing her life in another world, was his reward, an incentive to keep playing by the rules. He wiped his hands across his face again and checked the clock: seven am; his building would be open and so would Starbucks and he really needed coffee.
Mission achieved, he carried his maple-syrup latte and lemon muffin back down Franklin, cutting past green lawns and trees resplendent with red and orange leaves, to his office, all the time resisting the urge to cast nervous glances over his shoulder, at the street, at the parked cars, at the relaxed and comfortable people around him, strolling, reading, hurrying off to morning lectures. Nothing new in that, paranoia had been his constant companion for years, except that lately, quite suddenly, it had gotten worse, much, much worse. It was like he knew that someone was out there, watching him.
But why? There was no reason. He’d done everything that’d been asked of him, he’d kept his side of the strange bargain. So why this sudden sense of terror, of impending doom? Had something changed? Or had ten years of constant stress and loneliness finally taken their toll? Was he finally going insane?
Hurrying back now, as fast as he could. He was out of breath, a diet too high in sugar and caffeine, a too sedentary life. He ought to get to the gym, to the pool, cut down on the junk food. He was almost at his building now, the lofty, colonnaded Bynum Hall which reminded him a lot of Hargrove; hell, it even had a fountain. He sped up, scurrying faster toward his goal despite the stitch building in his side, feeling the predator’s eyes on his back - a hunter, gathering speed, moving in for the kill - suddenly desperate to be inside, behind closed doors. He broke into a run, up the steps and through the door. Finally back in familiar surroundings he hurried down the corridor, dragged himself upstairs to his office, fumbled his keys. Then, blessedly, he was finally inside, the door closed, leaning back, catching his breath.
He was nuts, going nuts. He was crazy, there was no other explanation. In a perfect world he’d go see a shrink, talk to someone, anyone, but that was against the rules. He staggered to his desk, sat down hard. He was sweating. His seminar group would be here at nine, in forty minutes. Forty minutes to clean up, change his shirt, drink his coffee, eat his muffin, calm down, collect himself, prepare himself to face another day.
Parked on the corner, the man in the blue Taurus - who had unobtrusively tailed Blair home last night then followed him back to the university this morning - shook his head in disgust. He’d had Sandburg under surveillance for days now, not wanting to make a move until he’d known what he was dealing with. The guy, from what he’d learned since he’d gotten here, was an easy mark. Apart from this morning’s earlier start he’d followed the exact same routine every day, staying mostly invisible, living the life of a loner, seemingly afraid of his own shadow.
He had good reason to be afraid.