His key in the deadbolt lock.
His apartment door, which he’s unlocked at least a thousand times. Jiggling metal-against-metal but the deadbolt won’t budge and a woman’s voice calls out querulously from inside:
“Who is it?”
Who is it?
The tiny security peep hole in the door ripples with the black-and-hazel smear of a tiny, distant eye pressed against it. Jay removes the key, steps back. Confounded.
“It's ... I live here.”
“No you don't. I live here.”
Jay thinks it through. Catches his mistake. “I used to live here,” he says. “Before you. I’m sorry.”
He hears the woman, further back in the apartment, moving: “Go away! I'm calling the police!”
His Los Angeles, washed-out, uninviting, dour. Mid-city, disgorged from the 720 rapid bus, L.A. feels like a foreign country, after his limbo on the island. The squat, blunt tawny sage hills. The scream of billboards, branding, half-naked boy-hipped women you’ll never know gazing down with hollow promises, someone else’s dreams.
The rectilinear stucco sprawl.
The shimmering rivers of traffic.
The mad, quailing palms.
At the boxy, tan, Beaux Arts Hollywood Y, Jay pushes from bright flat daylight in through the side gymnasium doorway, a stark silhouette that resolves into a man, and he stands for a while with hands in pockets, watching basketball players run the court, sneakers squeaking, bark of voices, slap of bodies and limbs colliding, the sharp percussion of the ball on the floor.
He sees what he thinks are familiar faces, a couple of heads turn, with partial recognition: a vague look, half-nod, then back to the game. Flowing. Jay forgotten.
He doesn’t see anyone from Buckham & Buckham.
He turns and goes back outside, where a dim, bloodshot sun is trying to burn through the fog, fat in a nankeen sky.
ACCESS DENIED ACCESS DENIED ACCESS DENIED.
A reflection of Jay’s resignation in the matt screen of a cash machine mocks him. There’s a short line of impatient people behind him, he punches the keyboard again, sure his password is right, but gets nothing but disconsolate beeps, and denial of service, and finally backs away as the machine eats his cash card and resets:
PLEASE INSERT YOUR CARD AND ENTER YOUR PIN CODE.
The dead eye of the security camera stares back at him.
The obese security guard in the lobby is new, and doesn’t recognize him. Never heard of Buckham & Buckham, either, but the fat man admits the seventh floor is vacant and confides that building management is having a hard time finding a new tenant on account of the, you know, soft commercial rental market and, sure, okay, Jay is welcome to go up and look, the doors are open.
Upstairs, on floor seven, Jay rips protective paper from a window and lets light in on the empty expanse of what was once his workplace. There's nothing here, just the faint impression of the desks and walls of a cube farm on the dirty carpet, and the raw guts of an IT system disemboweled and splayed out of the floor at intervals.
Jay takes it all in. The quiet is spooky, and the air is stale. They weren’t kidding when they told Jay they’d erased him. He wonders: how far does it go? He’s not as upset as he should be, and he wonders why. His old life feels like a story someone told him, second-hand, unreal.
He waits, listening for a haunting of voices he remembers but cannot recall. He wonders: what happens when everything you’ve known is made a lie? And all the lies play true. Are you the sum of your memories, or a collection of consensual, verifiable facts?
He has a key to her apartment, but decides to ring the bell so as not to frighten her, and just in case she changed the locks, not wanting to repeat the distressing episode that happened at his own apartment, earlier; he hears the familiar shuffle of her fluffy slippers on hardwood flooring and, after a moment, Stacy opens the door and comes face-to-face with Jay. Evidently, it still takes her breath away.
“Oh. My. God.”
She looks good. But then, she always looks good, she works hard at it. Jay says hi quickly, moves past her, into the tiny, single-girl apartment where a hard-bodied guy in a tight back t-shirt and Prada suit stands up from the sofa like a bit character in a failed 90s crime drama. Jay can’t remember his name; it’s that guy, though, the guy he thought had moved to Houston.
“Oh my God,” Stacy says again in rising pitch.
“Hi. I’m sorry. I gotta call Vaughn.” Jay cuts his best indifferent look to hard body as he crosses to the phone, “who are you?”
“Who are you?” Prada suit asks, standing up. Now Jay remembers: the cage fighter: Juan Pablo. He’s bigger than Jay thought, and not remotely South American. And not really a cage fighter, either, Jay reminds himself. Jay’s pretty certain about it; that was just Stacy, teasing him, riffing, stoned. Wasn’t it?
Jay glances at his fiancé. Is she still his fiancé? “What’s Mr. Abs doing here?” Jay lifts the receiver from the cradle, and dials.
Stacy still hasn’t closed the door. “What are you doing here, Jay? Did they let you ... out?”
“What? Out of where?”
“Your mom called me and told me about the, you know, breakdown, and --”
“My mom can’t call anybody, Stacy. I told you that.”
“Yeah, well, she said that you’d say that, and that it was all part of your, you know, situation.”
Jay listens to the phone ring on the other end of his call. “Come on, Vaughn. Pick up.”
“This situation you have -- this condition -- oh, Jay, why didn't you tell me the truth to begin with? I feel like I don’t even know you, I feel like I’ve wasted --”
“Stacy, trust me on this: my mom didn’t call you.”
But Stacy’s not listening. “You did this, anyway. You were the one who didn't want a commitment. Didn't want strings, take it as it comes, well lah dee dah, Jay, lah dee dah.”
“What are you taking about? We’re engaged.”
“No. You can have your ring back.” It’s in her hand. She presses it into his palm, and the diamond bites.
“You couldn’t set a date. You didn’t want it, Jay. You know you didn’t, and now -- this -- I’m sorry but --”
“There is no ‘this.’ Let me just -- why doesn’t his voicemail pick up?”
Hard body looks at Stacy. “Baby, do you want me to take him outside?”
Baby? “GOD-DAMMIT!” Jay slams the phone down, and whirls on the Prada man. Jay inexplicably growls, “Back off, monkeyman!” and it sounds incredibly lame and stupid coming out of his mouth.
Still, Prada man drifts sideways, wary, rolling his shoulders, wiggling his fingers, taking Jay’s measure.
“They said that you might do this, too,” Stacy says. “They said --”
“What, that I went crazy?”
“No, not crazy, just --”
“The doctors. After I talked to your mom.”
“Did they tell you, what, Jesus -- they've got me in some mental institution somewhere? And you believed them?”
“... just, more, like mixed up, and ...
“TOTAL strangers --”
“... you know, and kind of delusional, baby, which the doctors said makes you think things are happening that ... aren't.”
Jay, keeping tabs on the cage fighter, shakes his head. “Stacy. Somebody calls you on the phone and says I’m in the mental hospital, says she's my mother, and you go, 'oh, okay'? SHIT Stacy, goddammit! I mean --”
“This is hard for me too.”
He tries to stay calm: “Okay. They, U.S. Marshals, took me into witness protection. They think I've seen something, or know something, I dunno, it's insane -- the whole thing has been one long bad dream -- but I’m out now, I got away and --”
Stacy is in her own aria. “-- do you think I've slept one night since you didn’t come home? Six weeks! I can't stop thinking about you, and how I had no idea you were -- your Facebook page? Is blocked --”
“Stacy, will you listen? Look at me. This is me --”
“-- and I'm just not good at this sort of thing --“
“-- You know me. Would I lie about this? I've been disappeared, and you're one of the only people I can --
“-- but I can't pretend that this doesn't like ... change everything. I mean. I can't be your nurse, Jay, I'm can’t. I'm strong, but not that strong, and you've gotta go back and whatever it is, whatever dark storm you’re going through, let them help you, well, you gotta let them get you well again and let me ... go --”
Jay stares at her, suddenly listening.
Tears streaming down Stacy’s face.
Her voice soft, soothing, the way she might talk to a child: “They gave me a number. To call. In case. Lemme,” and she’s moving to the telephone, “lemme, lemme just call the hospital and tell them you’re here, and --”
“Whatever dark storm I’m going through?”
“No.” Jay moves to cut her off and stop her but the hard body guy steps between them.
“Let her make the call,” the guy says.
Jay loses it. “You want a piece of me, Houston? Here, now?” It works. The big man takes a half a step back, frowning, putting his hands out to either side, empty.
“No. I didn't think so. Because you do not want to be where I am right now, man, because --” Jay doesn’t know how to finish this thought, so he stops, fuming, pivots, hurls the ring in his fist across the room as hard as he can and is astonished when it sticks in the drywall like one of those flying oriental numchuk whirly blades, or whatever they’re called.
And now Hard body grabs Jay and lifts him a little too easily and suddenly he's out the door, colliding with the hallway wall opposite and falling to his hands and knees, woozy. He looks up in time to see the door slamming shut. Prada man is laughing, behind it and Stacy is telling him: “Shut up. I'm calling them. We can't just leave him out there, he's sick ...”
Whatever the would-be cage fighter from Houston murmurs to her is muffled and Jay, in the empty corridor, can’t decipher it.
He gets up, unsteady.
Listens to the sudden quiet, and accepts it, and walks away. Gone.
Daniel Pyne is a writer living in California.