As I polish my zombie novel The Unpeople, I’m pushing forward with a new novel Ride for Life.
Ride for Life follows two main characters. “Kidd” is a young man new to social work and several hundred miles from home for the first time in his life. John Birmingham is new to the system and wants to learn to ride a motorcycle. Cerebral Palsy, mental retardation, and poverty in general are obvious and difficult hurdles to which both men must contend. But, just as Kidd and Birmingham are beginning to understand each other, Birmingham disappears. Kidd sets out to find Birmingham and find Birmingham’s true identity while seeking his own identity.
Read chapter 1 here
Chapter 6 hopefully gives the reader a look at how those receiving “entitlements” live. We also find out that someone around Birmingham already knows Birmingham’s true identity.
“Wait up,” Kidd yelled. However, he received the exact response he expected, nothing. His wobbling client could not hear him. That did not stop him from trying out of sheer habit.
The hall walls were as bare and bland as its main entrance. Kidd wondered if peacock woman painted her body because of the sterile nature of where she worked, or if stark contrast to her surroundings were mere coincidence.
Trained from childhood to notice escape routes and subtle human interactions, Kidd took in the room numbers as he jogged passed. Three doors lined either side before the hall jogged to the left and out of sight. Each door was as brown and plain as the one opposite it. Though the first door to his left had a cheap black ‘1’ nailed to its center, the door facing it had ‘17’. Having assumed a method to the seeming disjointed numbers, Kidd expected to see ‘2’tagging the second door on the left. However, it had a duct taped ‘8’. Across from it, a door with a nailed silver ‘12’. In no mood to question his organization’s system on his first day, Kidd shrugged and caught up to John Birmingham, or the man he knew until then as Mr. John Birmingham.
He tapped his client on his sticky shoulder. John turned. His eyes widened and he gurgled a hearty chuckle.
“Which room number…” Kidd started to ask but bit his lip when he realized his mistake. He thought a moment, trying to decide how to request John’s apartment number, but found no reasonable signs to use or create. Left with no other alternative, he held out his hand in hopes his client knew what he wanted.
John stopped. His staff followed suit. He looked down at Kidd’s open hand and then up at his staff’s face. Cocked eyebrows said all that needed said; John did not know what he wanted. Then they stared at each other.
Kidd was caught again in Mr. Birmingham’s eyes. They glowed with an emerald fire he was certain he had seen somewhere before today. Rather than flipping through his memories of eyes, Kidd’s mind floated toward the glowing gems two feet away.
They’re so green. They’re so familiar. Who is this guy? It’s almost as if I can see straight through them into his soul. But that’s…that’s just…strange.
And why do my legs suddenly feel cemented where they are? What’s wrong with me?
It’s just first day jitters. You’ll get over it.
John blinked, breaking their connection. Kidd shook his head as his thoughts flushed down its plumbing. Once back to reality, Kidd emphasized to John that he still held his hand out.
Only chuckles filled the air. Chuckles, and the sour breath of months of neglect. Kidd’s nostrils curled. He shook his hand a few times, still unsure how to request the apartment key for the number.
Hand over hand, Kidd grabbed his client’s gritty cuff and pulled the key from his hand. There was no resistance. He held up the key to show the shaggy beast of a man what he really wanted this whole time, taking care not to look directly into his eyes. A droplet of spittle stabbed Kidd in the cheek when John burst into cackling.
With his full-bellied gurgling, fragments of months of street debris shook free and drifted into the air. Some fell to the floor. Kidd’s stomach churned. He tempered his breathing to lessen the inhalation of particles to which he did not want to know the origin.
Using reading the key chain as an excuse, Kidd took a step backward.
“Number fourteen,” he read aloud to his deaf audience. Given an apparent mismatching of numbers on the apartment doors lining the gray hallway, the key chain only helped with exact door. It did nothing to help determine where “#14” was or how to find it.
With calm returning to him, Mr. Birmingham held out his hand just as his staff had done moments ago. Kidd smiled, knowing exactly what he meant by it. He returned the key and its key chain. His face said “good luck” but he did not speak. Off stumbled John further down the hallway. Kidd shrugged.
He’ll find his apartment about as fast as I will anyway.
It was the next door to the right.
The key jingled around in John’s hands as he struggled to grasp it firmly between two shaking fingers. Then Kidd listened and watched as he scratched key to doorknob trying to steady his hands enough so that the key would enter its hole, its home. John’s face contorted into twisted shrapnel with concentration. A moment later, Kidd reached out his hand to assist.
“Ay,” John screamed, securing his new precious key against his chest. Plumes of dust floated into the air.
To show willingness to allow John to attempt independence, Kidd raised his hands in defeat and stepped back. Wet chuckles drooled from John as he returned to his task. Scrapes and scratches continued for what seemed like forever.
What does she mean “that’s not his real name?” What’s not his real name? John? Birmingham? Both? Why did they even choose that name? It’s not like there are too many John Doe’s walking about the city. There certainly aren’t any others in The Club according to the files I had to read this morning. That is, unless John Birmingham, or whoever he is, is not the only person here that has an alias.
But “John Birmingham” was on his official records in his file. You can’t just plaster a name on official files. What does that peacock woman know that I don’t.
My boss kept using John’s name like it really was his name. Even corrected that physician a bunch of times. Couldn’t he see she was getting agitated? Maybe that’s what he was going for. Then again, he doesn’t seem the type.
Then who the hell is this “John Birmingham”? Well, I know a lot so far.
First, this is not his first stint in the system. He spent some time in the system about a year ago. Granted, there’s no proof he had been in the system before a year ago.
There’s no proof he wasn’t either. Before one year ago, there’s just nothing. It’s like Mr. Birmingham, or whoever he is, just popped into the world at his ripe old age of, what was it? Fifty-four, I think.
He showed up at The Club a year ago and was in the hospital for some time to “stabilize.” Because of what, I’m not sure. Then, he disappeared again into the ether somewhere.
Next, he showed up again recently, apparently, in better shape than his first intake. However, if this is better, I can’t even imagine what he looked like then.
The police were called for a safety check.
Other than that, not much. He has mild M.R., but so does everyone here, some form of muscular disease, can’t speak, can’t hear, and that’s about it. Oh, and damned if he wants to ride a motorcycle.
Why a motorcycle? Doesn’t he realize the challenges? Wonder if he’s ever ridden one before.
The image Kidd tried to paint of John Birmingham riding his Harley on the open road sent a strange feeling down his spine. For some reason, his image had John wearing a helmet with a visor too dark to see into. He tried to imagine John riding without his helmet, but could not. Part of him preferred not being able to since he did not have to look into his client’s emerald eyes.
Pulled from his thoughts, John stood inches from Kidd. His smile had faded. Even behind layers of grime and months of bushy unkempt beard, he saw irritation percolating. He flung the key at his staff with his back to the still closed door. Underneath the layers of neglect, his angered and pained red face was still visible. Looking down, Kidd found the tip of the key scuffed. The front of the doorknob to #14 showed more wear and tear than before, also.
His other half, folded in his pocket, panged with sympathy for John. Try as he did, he still failed. He knew this was not his first flustered failure. Moreover, it probably would not be his last.
It took a moment to fit the key into the lock. Both key and lock hole were quite banged up and dented. Once it went, he stepped out of the way.
He bowed, waving John Birmingham in the most polite and silent “Welcome home” he could think of. John’s emotions skidded back to smiles, though his exaggerated shaking suggested his irritation remained below the surface.
He chortled as he patted Kidd on the head playing along with the formality. Kidd smiled. They understood each other.
Inside the apartment was just as bare as the rest of The Club’s interior. White walls bled into cheap gray carpeting. The only decoration was a sofa with as much experience and stains as John himself had. From where Kidd stood in the doorway, he could see into the 1970’s style kitchenette with the same wear as the sofa. To the left snaked a hallway he assumed led to John’s bedroom and bathroom. Then again, many assumptions thus far today that he thought chiseled in stone were inaccurate.
Normally one would consider such a small apartment uninhabitable. However, Kidd had just moved out on his own, into a new city. His studio was actually smaller than his client’s. As he panned the room, he found John standing quietly just staring back at him.
“Well,” Kidd said, “Welcome home, Mr. Birmingham.” Or whoever you are.
John Birmingham cocked his head in incomprehension. Biting his lip to come up with ways to explain what he wanted say, he pointed to John. Then he pointed in a circular fashion at everything in the room they stood by and pointed back at him.
A cry in the general direction of a “Really,” pierced Kidd’s ears in the tiny closet of an apartment. He nodded. Mr. Birmingham stood motionless with his head still cocked to one side waiting for what seemed to be a rescinding of his staff’s statement. Kidd nodded again, raised his eyebrows, and smiled.
“All this is yours, sir.”
Behind caked on grease and grime bubbled up tears in John’s eyes. One fell, leaving a slightly less blackened canyon in its path. Kidd nodded a final time and waved John to check out his new home so he could catch his own tears before his new client witnessed them. John stumbled off to the kitchen.
Kidd turned away. He looked up at the ceiling to dam up his tears to find an empty light socket for central lighting.
He thought about motorcycles, about his new apartment, about the mess he made outside underneath the tree, anything to keep his tears at bay. He found it difficult to fight them back. Every time his thoughts drifted to something other than his new client’s solitary tear, John screamed in excitement over discovery after discovery. Then his phone vibrated.
He rolled his eyes knowing it was his mother again to finish what she started earlier. He wanted nothing more than to ignore her longer, and though she did not know he had a free moment of time, the part of his conscience speaking in her voice told him she did know. Therefore, he answered without looking. It was his boss.
“Mr. Birmingham made it home safely, I presume,” he asked. Kidd was not sure how, but he swore he heard his boss’ wide smile in his voice.
“Good. Good. How’d everything go?”
“Uh,” he wondered if he should bring up his vomiting episode. “Fine, I think.”
“Excellent. Listen, I’d like you to stop by my office.”
“Since it’s so close to quitting time for you already, and I assume you’ll be wrapping it up with Mr. Birmingham if you haven’t already. Why don’t you stop in first thing tomorrow morning, before you head over to his apartment?”
“I can do that, sir.”
“Brilliant. Is there anything you need from me in the meantime?”
He considered mentioning the bulb-less light fixture.
“No, sir. I don’t think so.”
“Brilliant. Brilliant. Then I’ll see you tomorrow, bright and early.”
His boss hung up first.
“Oh,” screeched the man otherwise known as John Birmingham. He cocked his head and pointed to Kidd’s phone in apparent wonder of who just called.
John’s brow curled in incomprehension.
“Oh, right,” he remembered the futility of his speaking to his new client. Trying his best to describe his boss in miming fashion, he wrapped his hands around his head as if tying a bandanna. Then he pointed to his face and suggested a big bushy beard, though his boss’ beard in no way rivaled that of John’s. To which John nodded and giggled his wet giggle.
From there, Kidd pointed to John and pretended to wash his arms and his greasy straight hair that fell just below his ears all around his skull. He nodded. Then John nodded, too.
“Well, go,” he spat in a mocking tone to his client, pointing toward what he assumed was a bathroom just out of sight. John just looked at Kidd. He wondered if John really knew what he told him to do. He wondered if his client knew how to shower, or if he had ever showered independently.
Against his will, their eyes locked. John’s gaze bored through his retinas into his skull and tickled memories just out of reach.
Who the hell is this guy?
Though he wondered and it ate at his brain matter, it did not concern him in an uncomfortable way. Sure, he wanted to know who this John Birmingham was and why he felt so familiar. He also wanted to know why they called him John Birmingham and what his real name was. At the same time, it did not trouble Kidd immensely. Instead, it simply left a wanting curiosity lingering and meandering around inside him as a monk through a quiet garden.
Shaking his head, he broke the spell. He held up his hand and waved for John to follow him toward the bathroom. He did.
After a longer than he hoped for explanation of what the bottle of shampoo was for, how to use the perfectly square bar of soap, and that he was not to come out until he scrubbed everything, Kidd turned on the shower and closed the bathroom door behind him. Whether his client would bathe appropriately or not drown in the tub chided him while he waited.
For the first time since his workday began, he found himself with nothing to occupy his attention. A sudden wave of tiredness swept over him. A single buzz rattled his leg. It was a text from his mother.
“You’re just as ungrateful as he was.”
Few things hurt Kidd more than the disappointment of his mother. Only being compared to his drunk father who beat his mother and left them for some, as his mother put it, young harlot, burned more than maternal disappointment. Unfortunately for him, she succeeded at both on countless occasions. Rather than respond, which only sent her on further, more hurtful rants, he deleted the message. Then he turned the volume up in case any important calls came through.
Important calls, he thought. Like someone other than mother would call. My boss already said what he wanted to say.
Wonder if they set him up with anything else besides toiletries.
He yawned as he floated through John’s tiny apartment taking notice of what he had, and what he needed. The bedroom, which was connected to the bathroom, had but a bed with worn sheets and a three drawer dresser. No pillow, no end table, and, looking up, another light fixture with no bulb.
Well, I know what’s first on our shopping list tomorrow.
The kitchen’s retro greens and yellows and oranges came straight out of the 1970’s as did the analog turn-dial microwave that resembled an oven in size and giant bar-handle door. Most cupboards were bare. One box of sugar crawling with several ants, a tin of coffee old enough to have been purchased by the employee who made the microwave, and a few boxes of pasta stood at attention at one bottom shelf’s front.
The living room with sofa, chair, and cube TV was just as he left it moments ago. But, in the corner, between the kitchen and the living room stood a brown door Kidd assumed behind which hid an empty pantry. It opened with difficulty. The door stuck to its jam like the last time someone opened it was the same time the kitchen was built. A loud crack could be heard as it gave way.
Finally open, his premonitions were confirmed. Four bare shelves. That is, if one did not consider the dust and cobwebs. Just as he closed the pantry door and meander about the already well-inventoried apartment, he noticed something resembling the corner of a piece of paper or envelope perched on the top shelf. Being relatively short by average male height, he could not see to the top shelf’s back and simply assumed it as bare as its lower counterparts. After all, who would stock a pantry’s upper shelf first? Pulling it down, he found it was in fact a sealed envelope with the word “open” typed on its front. Certain that the envelope was left by a previous tenant by mistake, and figuring that other tenant would not mind, he did as it requested.
Inside he found a note card. Its size paled in comparison with the legal sized envelope. He wondered why someone would use such large packaging for such a small card. What was typed on the card made Kidd drop its envelope.
“I know who John Birmingham really is. And I know who you are.”
Kidd read this typed note over and over until the words no longer made sense. He closed his eyes, shook his head to clear his thoughts, and read them again.
Who wrote this? Why are they leaving notes saying they know who John Birmingham is? And why or how do they know who I am? Maybe they want to help me find Mr. Birmingham’s identity. They might be trying to help me care for him. I probably can’t provide care for a man of whom I know nothing about. And, I would think knowing a man’s name ranks high on the list of things to know about someone who’s life is in your amateur hands. But they know who I am. And they obviously want me to know they know who I am.
Is this a threat? If so, this is hardly an intimidating threat. Just creepy.
Just as this thought crossed his mind, he looked about the kitchen and living room. Then he peered at the apartment’s front door. The deadbolt remained locked. Nobody had come in while he and John Birmingham fought to understand each other in the bathroom. Listening closely, Kidd heard nothing other than the shower still running. No one else was in the apartment. Only he and the man he knew as John Birmingham.
His heart traded turns beating hard and fast. Then it felt as if his chest stopped moving and filled with cement. Back and forth it proceeded. His eyes shot around the apartment. The note told him someone had been in this apartment recently. The envelope was the only thing Kidd did not have to wipe the dust off of when he picked it up or touched it. And no reason existed for mentioning the author knew him other than to threaten him or scare him. Its author succeeded at the latter.
With his senses heightened, his ears rang when John’s shower stopped, making the rest of the tiny apartment even smaller and painfully quiet. Kidd only had a few minutes at most before John would come out and find him staring at this strange message. He knelt down to pick up the notably dust-free envelope he dropped. As he did, his small finger scrapped across something uneven in the floor of the pantry. It was a latch.
A door opened from somewhere behind him. He grabbed the envelope, jumped up, and slammed his head on one of the lower shelves.
He hissed. Not wanting John, or anyone else, to see what he found, he shoved the note back into its home, folded it, and tucked it into an empty back pocket as he turned around to have John accost his scenes mere inches from his own face.