On the evening of August 1, 2012, in his first truly free hour, Andre LeDoux tripped over a soccer ball. He twisted himself away from the concrete, landing awkwardly in the soft grass of the apartment courtyard.
"Are you okay?"
A little girl and her father came running up. The father offered his hand. The girl did the same at first, but recoiled, wrinkling her nose and pinching it between two fingers.
"Daddy, he stinks like pickles!" she said.
It was true. The shoes were to blame. Andre's uniform was stuffed away in his backpack, trapping its smell. But there was nothing he could do about the sharp vinegar tang coming from his shoes.
"I'll be fine," he said, standing on his own, lanky but steady.
He picked up the girl's ball, smiling politely as he handed it back. She tried to take it in one too-small arm, failing to get a grip but refusing to expose herself to the stink.
"Don't be rude," her father said, reaching past her to take the ball. "I'm sorry, she usually has better manners than this." Andre waved him off and turned away.
"It beats smelling like a fryer," he quipped, already walking up the stairs to his second floor apartment.
Only once the door was closed did he allow himself to wince. He pulled up the end of his shorts to examine his knee. His almond-brown skin was torn and already oozing blood. He limped across the living room to the bathroom, one hand covering the wound, just in case. No sense in staining the carpet.
Andre carefully wiped the debris from his knee with a soapy facecloth, then dabbed it clean with a damp paper towel, which he stuffed into his pocket. He peeled open a bandage and covered the wound, then washed his hands clean, using only a trickle of water.
Easing the bathroom door open, he then tip-toed into his bedroom.
Door closed, Andre sat on his bed, checking his shorts for stains. There was a little blood on one leg, but not much. He pulled them off over his shoes, flinging them into the dirty clothes hamper by his door, followed by the bloody face cloth, then the filthy black polo and matching mini-apron from his backpack. Andre retrieved a pair of jeans from his dresser and pulled them on slowly, careful not to disturb his bandage. Now decent, he grabbed his backpack and returned to the front door.
"Hey, I'm home," he announced, before trudging into the kitchen. His mother, Celine, sat at the small dinner table, facing away from the door. She inhaled a ragged breath before running the sleeve of her shirt across her face, then set down a small pink paperback. Turning, she smiled at Andre, eyes still puffy and red.
"Hey, pup," she said. "How was work today?"
"Are you okay, Mom?"
"Huh? Oh, I'm fine," she said through a sniffle. "Just reading a sad part, don't worry honey. I look like a mess, don't I?"
"You're fine, Mom," he said. A pause hung heavy in the air. Andre sucked at his lower lip for a moment.
"I brought dinner from the shop," he announced, pulling two plastic-wrapped sandwiches from his bag.
"How much did you spend?" she asked, already moving to retrieve her purse. Andre held his hand up.
"Don't worry about it," he said.
"Andre, you're sixteen," she said. "You don't have to pay for your mother's dinner."
"Thursday is my turn to cook, remember?" he smiled. "And I didn't feel like cooking tonight. Besides, employee discount. It's nothing." Celine smiled.
"We did a good job with you, didn't we?" Andre's expression grew taut. He nodded. Again, a heavy pause.
"Can I get some quarters for the laundry machine?" he stammered. "I should wash my uniform."
"Of course," she said, walking into her bedroom. Andre strode to the table and picked up the book Celine had been reading. It was a copy of Ulysses by James Joyce, spine broken and cover dried past the point of flaking. He'd never read the story, but he knew this book well; it was older than him. He flipped open the front cover and read the sharpied note written inside.
I am a Flower of the mountains. Put me in your hair like the Andalusian girls used and kiss me under the Moorish wall.
Ever your love,
A breath caught in his throat. He took another, slower, to help it pass, then flipped through the book. Out fell a photo of Celine and Ruby. Celine wore a modest peach dress, and Ruby was in a black vest and white blouse. Ruby clutched Celine to her. They both held a big knife, cutting through a small, round cake which read "Happy Wedding" atop. Andre touched Ruby's face. She hadn't changed much over the ensuing years. He gave himself a moment to linger before closing his eyes, taking a deep breath, setting the photo on the table, and...
"Oh pup, are you okay?" Celine said. She set her purse down and embraced Andre tightly.
"I'm fine, Mom," he said. He clenched his entire body down on a shiver, trapping it deep within. Celine picked the photo up. She too touched Ruby's face, gaze growing distant, eyes already misting.
"I remember that dress," she said. "It was the bridesmaid's dress I wore to my cousin Erica's wedding. That was before you were born. And your ma, Ruby, she borrowed that whole outfit from the theater department. Did I ever tell you that?"
"No," Andre lied. He knew every detail of this story. And he was happy to hear every word again.
"We were so broke, we had to buy a cake from the grocery store," she said with a wistful chuckle. "I was still in grad school. She was working at that bookstore downtown, the one that closed when you were little. We were married in the university theater. All of my friends from the English department brought alcohol, so we had to order pizza. The deliveryman knocked right after we said 'I Do.'" Celine sighed and looked up. "It was perfect."
She tucked the photo into the back of the worn novel and set it aside, then closed her eyes, still a little bit elsewhere. Andre did nothing.
"Hard to believe it's already been a year," she said.
"Yeah," Andre agreed. A pause. He stuffed both hands into his pockets, staring at the floor. "Four more and she'll be home. Probably less than that, right?" Celine nodded, but her shoulders quaked with a sob anyway.
"Mom…" he reached out to comfort her, but his hand froze mid-air.
"It's okay, pup," she said, one hand already to her face. "It's just been a long day." Andre pushed his stray hand back into his pocket, shoulders sagging.
"I'll get plates and set the table," she said, forcing a smile. "Why don't you find some music on your phone we can listen to while we eat?"
"Sure," he said. "Just let me grab it from my work pants." He turned away before closing his eyes hard, walking blind through the apartment, using every muscle in him to keep from shaking.
After closing the door, he froze, breathing deeply. Sometimes this feeling passed easily. Other times, not so much. But it lived and died in his bedroom, always. At work, his boss, Janet, had a sign that read "Leave all phones, personal belongings and emotional baggage in the office. You may retrieve them after your shift." He mumbled the words like a prayer, over and over.
He felt the tension abate after a moment. Taking a cautious breath, he pulled his bloodied shorts from his clothes hamper. The pockets were all empty. He checked his jeans again, just in case. Wallet, yes; keys, yes; but no phone.
Andre dumped the hamper onto his bedspread and started searching through the laundry, tossing each piece in after examination.
No, no, no, and no once more.
Andre walked back into the dining room and set his backpack on a chair, searching the pockets.
"What's wrong, pup? Can't find your phone?"
"I must have left it at the shop," he concluded, backpack all but turned inside out. "What time is it?" he asked.
"7:30," said Celine. Andre inhaled sharply, then made for the door.
"Gotta get it before they close for the night. Start without me; I'll be right back!" he said.
"Wait, honey!" Celine called as the door shut behind Andre. "I could've just given him a ride..."
Sweat-slick, Andre slowed from a jog to a walk as he came to the merciful shade of the shopping center. Though the sun was low in the sky, heat still radiated from every inch of concrete and asphalt. He wiped his forehead and pushed open the door of the shop.
"Welcome to… oh hello, Andre," said the woman behind the counter.
"Hi, Janet," he said. "I think I left my phone in the office, can I go check?"
"Sure," she said. Andre nodded and opened the employee door. Immediately, the smell of pickle brine hit him. Janet paid him no mind, unhooking a jangling ring of keys from a clip on her belt and unlocking the door to her office. It was more like a closet, really, packed with manuals and paperwork on metal shelving. Andre kneeled and peered under the shelf where he'd set his backpack that morning, next to a cardboard box full of spare uniform shirts.
"You know, you've been working here for three months," Janet told him. "I can probably get the regional office to let me give you a key to the building."
"You'd do that for me?" Andre asked, turning around to look at her.
"You work hard," she said. "Besides, I can't keep grooming you to be my assistant manager if I can't trust you. Any luck with your phone?"
"Not yet." Andre stuck his head back under the shelf. The phone was nowhere to be found.
Suddenly, a blue light shone from behind the shirt box. Andre pulled it away from the wall. Sure enough, there lay his phone, ringing.
"Thanks for calling it, Janet," Andre said, backing out from under the low shelf. He stood, shoving the box back into place with his foot. But Janet's hands were crossed, empty.
"Gonna answer that?" she asked. Andre stared at the screen. The caller ID showed the name "Holliday," calling from... ? He raised an eyebrow.
That's not a real phone number. Must be a glitch or something, he thought. He answered and, a little hesitant, held the receiver to his ear.
"Is this Andre LeDoux?" asked the voice on the other end. It was deep and gravely, with a strong Texan twang, not one Andre recognized.
"Yeah, who's this?" he answered, each syllable slow and cautious.
"Destiny," said the voice. Then there was silence. Andre took the phone from his ear and stared at it. He shook his head and listened again, hearing breathing and what sounded like a finger frantically clicking a mouse.
Suddenly, the screen erupted in blinding blue light. Andre dropped the phone, hands covering his face, both he and Janet recoiling.
Then a clatter echoed hollow through the kitchen, and just as suddenly as it came, the light was gone. Janet slowly opened her eyes. She was alone in the room.
"Andre?" she called. There was no response. She looked down and saw Andre's phone on the floor. She stooped and picked it up with two fingers, lifting it like a mouse that might not be as dead as she hoped. Its screen showed a cartoon of an old man holding a wrench with the word "Oops!" below.
Janet's mind was flooded with a thousand words and images, like police, kidnapping, her boss, a mountain of paperwork, news cameras, aliens, UFOs, computer hackers... With no other recourse, Janet expressed all of these ideas at once, simultaneously.