is illegal for me to write this. My paper is contraband, the
possession of which is an incarceratory crime. My pen is a computer
stylus dipped in homemade ink. I scratch this here, knowing
that there is only one copy of my words. It exists just right
here in front of me on paper that can be burned or ruined by
water or fall apart with age. At the very least, it will not
be deleted by some prim, dusty-collared civil servant at a terminal
in a darkened room. This story is too important to be censored.
Some types of crowd control don't require truncheons and riot
was the Colonel who first told me how people used to write on
sheets of paper instead of just onto a computer screen. We are
meant to think that paper is a wasteful vice. It is said that
once, long ago, messages were written, not typed. Computers
used to have machines attached to them that could print text
is an old story about a city mouse and a country mouse and how
they changed places to learn how truly different life can be.
When I was young, I got the impression that country mice were
backward people, and that outside of the city lay a wasteland
of joblessness, poverty, and boredom. My mother would bewilder
me with stories of towns so small that cousins married cousins,
brothers married sisters.
the time I was old enough to think through such nonsense, there
was not much country left to see. Suburbs grew and grew until
the space between cities was an uninterrupted residential and
commercial sprawl. The wilderness that was left wasn't inhabited.
Once virtual education became compulsory, people had to move
where the technology was. As far as the National Education Initiative
was concerned, there was no excuse for bringing up a child in
an area that the wireless broadband data signals didn't cover.
There were no country mice anymore.
came home late from an afternoon walk one Saturday to find a
stack of boxes outside of my neighbor's apartment. She had apparently
passed on the night before. The walls were thin, and I had listened
to her descend into madness for quite some time. It was dreadful
to hear her shuffling and retching on the other side of my pantry.
I saw them remove her belongings that morning as I was headed
out for my usual breakfast. All she owned was a few items of
clothing, a computer, and half a bottle of perfume. They looked
new neighbor's boxes were metal instead of plastic. The new
occupant was not to be seen, but the door to the apartment was
ajar. I walked in and turned the corner. It was the identical
mirror-image of my own apartment. Bedroom, computer room, bathroom,
"Hello?" I called into the main living area. There
was no answer. I looked in the bedroom and found another small
stack of the odd metal boxes. The lid of one was open and I
peeked in. All it contained was a smaller oblong box and an
unlabeled plastic bottle.
jumped guiltily at the click of a lock behind me.
I can help you with?" A tallish man in his early fifties
stood watching me with spectacled eyes over a bearded smile.
I stuttered out a greeting, caught off guard. He let me get
out my embarrassed excuse that I was just welcoming my new neighbor.
He was apparently not the least bit upset at the intrusion.
To the contrary, his smile was instantly likable. He had an
elsewhere sort of voice.
hello. It's good to see that people here are friendly. The last
apartment I lived in was full of
" he raised his hands
and shook his head gently, searching for the right word, "
this, I smiled as well.
when he extended a hand to me did I realize that Pyndan was
I replied, trying it. He nodded confidently. "Julian Lightfall."
to meet you. You're not, by any chance, of the Denver Lightfalls,
that I know of," I replied. My own family were the only
Lightfalls I had ever heard of. "I've never been that far
west. Are there Lightfalls out there?"
knew a George Lightfall that used to own a gas station in Vail."
was a moment's awkward silence. He shrugged, evidently satisfied.
would offer you something to drink, except
" He gestured
to the pile of unopened boxes. Recovering my dignity at last,
I realized that I was being rude. I held up my hands.
not at all. In fact, can I help you with those?"
winning smile returned. His beard seemed to creep up his face
when he grinned.
It didn't take long to bring all of the metal boxes inside.
Some were surprisingly heavy. They were roughly made, and appeared
to be mass-produced from pieces of cheap sheet-metal. As I set
one down, a sharp burr under one edge sliced into my finger.
It wasn't particularly deep, but it began to bleed immediately.
hang on," he said. From his pocket, he produced a set of
keys. Each box was held shut and locked with a simple wire closure
and padlock. He started unlocking them and pulling each one
briefly open. Inside were a variety of items that I did not
recognize. More tablets, smaller boxes, other things I couldn't
identify. He faced me after a moment.
he said, holding out his hand and motioning that I give him
mine. He tore a small plastic bag open and poured a white powder
onto the cut. It stung and I tried to pull my hand away, but
he held on with more strength than he looked like he should
be able to generate. In ten seconds, the bleeding had stopped
and the cut had scabbed over. It was the strangest feeling,
to have healed so quickly. I looked up.
coagulant," he said, noting my confusion. He explained
further as the medicine worked that he was a doctor and had
been hired at Our Lady of Penitence hospital for their trauma
and emergency unit, which seemed to turn over employees like
a short order cook turns over pancakes.
expect me to keep this stuff with me in case I need to go on
a call from here instead of the hospital." He pointed to
the box and I peered in to see the remainder of its contents.
I didn't recognize any of it. It certainly could have been medical.
There were more plastic pouches of the powder and a set of nondescript
metal tools. I looked up and smiled dumbly. He was watching
huh? Interesting. I've never known a doctor before. I always
wanted to be one when I was little
pretty much the same as any other job." He looked at the
droplets of my blood on his linoleum floor. "Just a little
messier at times. That, and your annual performance review includes
phrases like 'survival ratio'."
shook my head. "No thanks."
man." He laughed agreeably.
you at least get a nurse?"
sure," he said, rolling his eyes. "She's a leggy,
six-foot brunette named Ted."
this, we both laughed. His bedroom was facing the side of the
apartment complex that got direct sunlight in late afternoon.
He had two perpendicular windows in his corner unit, and through
one of them shone a warm, bright parallelogram.
you care to come back tomorrow for supper? By then, I'm sure
I'll be better company. I haven't really had a chance to unpack
was clearly a polite dismissal.
I said. "I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot of each other.
Braintree's not nearly as big a place as it seems at first.
You're constantly bumping into the same ten people over and
over. I'm sure you know what it's like, having lived in Denver."
was facing the window when I said it, and it took a moment to
Oh, yeah." He smiled again. I realized awkwardly that I
was being rude, and hoped that by offering him my hand this
time that it would make up for it.
then, Dr. Pyndan, great to meet you."
actually," he replied, distantly, "Dr. Calabas, but
please call me Pyndan."
shook his hand again and he closed the door behind me. I wasn't
sure, but I thought I heard the same strange click from earlier.
It wasn't a noise I recognized from my own door, which appeared
to be identical to his. I supposed he might have a different
type of lock, or it may just have been my imagination.
home was unit 6W in an apartment building with a street number
but no name. Everything about it bespoke a grinding, casual
indifference. It was an unimportant street in an unimportant
neighborhood, but to have the means to live alone was of great
importance to me. In my three rooms I felt like the lord of
a small but meaningful kingdom.
utilities of the building were strangely prioritized. Water
pressure to the showers was weak and inconsistent, while the
kitchenette faucet had enough strength behind it to scour your
hands and splash out of the basin and onto the floor. The wiring
to the overhead light fixtures would sometimes flicker and jolt,
but the building's electric heating system gave off so much
heat that I routinely had to open my windows even in the winter.
the other floors of my complex lived a wide variety of men and
women of various means. Some rooms were home to singles like
myself, rented to fairly successful unmarried men who had managed
to claw their way up the economic food chain. Other units held
small groups of women who lived collectively, or laborers who
lived four to a bedroom and slept in shifts.
creativity by which the inhabitants of Boston found living arrangements
was elevated nearly to the level of contact-sport. I heard at
night, through the thin walls, sounds of love and war from above
and below. Infants would come and yowl for a few months before
learning how to talk, and then turn into children who bounced
balls along the hard-surfaced hallways. Teenagers brought the
smell of sex and sneakers, adults the scents of parenthood,
ethnic cooking, and old age. Between all generations existed
the low-level hum of life in close quarters.
the bottom of the stairs lived a Hispanic couple with a small
infant son. The baby was weirdly quiet, and often I would nearly
stumble into them before noticing that they were there at all.
His mother was a young almond-skinned woman who had ripened
with childbearing into a round fertile sort of fatness. She
had large feet and enormous, depthless brown eyes. Next to her
lived her brother and his wife, who had three teenaged boys.
above my apartment dwelt a retired couple whose plans to move
to warmer climates had evidently been curtailed. With them lived
their widowed sister-in-law, whose husband had been murdered
a decade ago in prison while doing a ninety-day stint for embezzlement.
I knew because the three of them were like a great elocution
mousetrap. They would bait you with "hello" and spring
their life stories on you in an instant if they saw the opportunity.
No detail was too obscure or private to be omitted. They would
foist on you their story, as though it were an Olympic flame
that you would carry faithfully and light in someone else's
memory when your own wick was burning out. The three of them
were like to me what I would imagine self-aware adult salmon
to be. Long after spawning and struggling, there remained only
bucolic idleness and nostalgia. The machinery of their lives
that had once blared at high volume the message: "PROGENY!
PROGENY!" now droned somewhat less loudly: "Anecdote!
first floor was inhabited by a revolving population of silent,
hard-eyed fishermen. I had never seen the interior of their
unit, but from various snatches of conversation that I picked
up from the other tenants, their apartment was as large as four
of ours put together. In it, they had fit as many cots as possible
and the men jointly paid for space to leave their belongings
and sleep when they were ashore. They did not, as you would
imagine, smell of dead fish. Surprisingly, the smells that I
would later come to associate with them were the scents of hemp,
leather, and steel wool. Unlike the other tenants of my particular
building, the boots always came off in the vestibule, the alcohol
and tobacco laid by, and loose women were dismissed firmly at
I sat that same late afternoon by my bedroom window, I watched
several heavy-shouldered men in dark blue uniforms converge
on the building across the street. They approached silently
in their cars without sounding the sirens, and left the engines
running at the curb. They spread out around the building's exterior,
some taking up guarding positions at the door. Two men in orange
vests stood on the sidewalks and pulled bystanders away to safety.
An assault team with gray body armor and plastic-shielded helmets
assembled at the front door. The building's landlord, a man
I had seen a number of times before, was herded to the door
with keys in hand. The team disappeared into the apartment building.
emerged some time later with three scantily-clad young women
and a man in handcuffs. The women were in various states of
undress; one appeared to be wearing just a bathrobe. The man
was in his late twenties or early thirties. He wore a heavy
flannel shirt and blue jeans with no shoes. There was a towel
over his face, and it was unclear whether he or the police had
done this. These four were bundled quickly into patrol cars
and whisked away, and then came the inevitable crime scene afterbirth.
Over their shoulders were slung plastic bags full of grainy
cannabis tablets. After the bags came the scales and pill-press,
then a rifle and a few pulp-paper books.
contraband was spread out on the hood of one of the cruisers
as the police organized it all. An officer who wore a tie instead
of body armor catalogued it all digitally in his tablet. A few
rubber-necking pedestrians were shooed away by the officers
in the orange vests. They shook their heads and scowled at the
building's entrance before walking past.
the offender's apartment was cleared, the bags of cannabis pills
were opened one by one and dumped into the sewer. The investigator
in charge of cataloging the evidence took the cheap pill-press
and scale and smashed them against the concrete until they were
broken and bent beyond repair.
rifle and the books were inspected carefully and placed in bags
of their own to be loaded into a patrol car. Ten minutes later,
the sidewalk and curb was clear, and pedestrians once again
passed in front of the apartment building as though nothing
computer came to life with a muted chime. I reached for the
remote control and keyed it. The blank screen lit up with a
familiar face. She was quite beautiful, and unselfconsciously
applied makeup in front of the viewer.
she said, "you there?"
here," I replied, standing up from the windowsill and moving
into the apartment where she could see me.
are you doing?"
watching a drug bust."
frowned, and arched her eyebrows for the dark brush.
so depressing sometimes."
any fun plans for the evening?"
the same as always," I said.
opened her mouth and looked at an unseen mirror in concentration.
"I'm going to the club. You should come by
considered it. Money was a constant concern in those days, but
where this particular woman was concerned I almost always allowed
her to talk me into spending more than I could afford.
I sighed. "Who else is going?"
stopped applying mascara and looked directly at me. One edge
of her mouth curled in a smile. She abruptly returned to her
I don't know. Dayton will be there for sure, and his whole crew."
She rolled her eyes and applied lipstick. "Some other people
I met last week."
could probably stop in for a drink later on
rubbed her top and bottom lips together to spread the lipstick
and puckered in pantomime of a blown kiss.
I'll see you there."
computer screen abruptly went blank almost before she had gotten
out her last word.