by Jamie Ashworth | 3,558 words
You can see all of Crayport from Caron’s Hill. There’s Main Street, all brick and cobblestone. Just past it is Bright Beach with swarms of tourists on its soft sand. To the left you can see Crag Cove, its sharp rocks and ugly views keeping it deserted. Even up here, you can hear folks laughing and having the time of their lives. This place is a paradise. The Plan calls for it. Of course, it’ll call for that to change one day. I can’t worry about that though: the Plan doesn’t call for me to.
I was up there, one July morning, when a younger fella, maybe twenty or twenty-five, came charging up at me. He seemed a little fat to be racing around and was wearing a jacket in the middle of the summer. Still, he acted determined and, to an old man like me, might have even looked intimidating. He made so much noise, you’d think he ran all the way through Crayport to see me. When he got closer, he leaned against a tree to catch his breath and wipe off some of the sweat. After panting a while, he demanded to know if I was the one he was hunting down.
Unfortunately, I was. Once that was cleared up, he announced that he was Ron Nercine and knew who I was, what I did, and who I worked for, all in a tone that implied that none of those things were good.
That didn’t worry me. I’d been a caretaker of the Plan for forty years. Generally, when folks stumbled onto part of the Plan and got bent out of shape, I calmed them down. So while Nercine ranted about all the diabolical activities he figured I was responsible for, I went into autopilot and denied everything, just as charmingly as you can imagine. After all, I just do a few dull chores on behalf of the town.
By the time I finished talking, Ron caught his breath and settled down a little. He even seemed self-conscious, finally peeling off his jacket and tucking it under his arm. I had nothing to worry about on my account. When it comes to the Plan, I’m easygoing. I even offered to walk him through town when he asked directions back to his hotel.
On the way down, I pointed out some notable buildings and talked about their histories. I could have recited their futures as well, but that might have set him off. Not that it would have made a difference. As we passed Bright Beach, he glared at everyone, spat frequently, and muttered loudly.
“It’s one of those places, isn’t it? The smell of sand, sunscreen, and cigarettes. The same conversations starting over before they’re midway through. Blaring music. Howling children. Hot dog stands everywhere. Parades all day. Fireworks all night. It’s the summer everyone remembers but never had, isn’t it?”
Realizers, as we call ‘em, tend to overestimate the originality of their observations. They expect everyone to be bowled over by their insights, no matter how clichéd. I guess it’s not exactly professional, and I am supposed to be the patient type, but forty years can make you tired of some things. Of course, forty years make it easy to act impressed, too. It came so naturally to me that I barely paid attention to what I was saying.
Nercine snorted, but I could tell my reply satisfied him. Don’t misunderstand: the Realizers have a point, superficially. We made Crayport for a certain impression. Nothing blew in by chance or popped up by itself. After a lot of research and debate, we placed wrappers on the ground, planted weeds in the park, and pounded cracks in the pavement. That was all completely true. Still, there was nothing malicious about it. Most folks don’t remember life before the Plan, but they’d welcome us if they did.
Toward the end of Main Street, Nercine explained how he found out about the Plan. He always suspected events of being too convenient. He dismissed these feelings at first, but as he grew older he began to investigate. His story, typical for Realizers, had me drifting in and out of attentiveness.
“This might seem insane,” he said, “but sometimes I think this whole town was slapped together, just to cover up some catastrophe. And sometimes, I think the whole world was built on top of something so horrible that they don’t want us to know about it.”
“I don’t think you’re crazy,” I said in a tone universally reserved for crazy people. “It seems as plausible a theory as any.”
He seemed unsure where to go from there. Like all Realizers, he expected me to be the mastermind of the entire Plan. Too bad for him. I just work my little corner of the thing. All I really know is that helping with the Plan is how I take care of my people. I wish I could tell folks like Nercine that, but I doubt they’d believe me.
We reached the hotel with him still lecturing on his theories, though he seemed to be losing conviction. He’d point out flaws in his own arguments and dismiss points in the middle of making them. So when I told him ‘goodbye,’ and ‘good luck,’ and ‘call me if you need anything,’ I felt like he wasn’t a problem anymore. It was a relief. Whether a Realizer is a pain in the ass or not, I don’t care to kill anyone just for having the wrong idea about the Plan.
* * *
On the other end of Main Street, my team worked from an old stone house. It had been built by Crayport’s purported founder, Captain Joshua Arborry. Who knows, maybe he really did live there. I like to imagine his home existing for hundreds of years. It’s comforting when things survive history. It gives us the hope that we might survive as well.
Inside was a sunny, open place. The desks and chairs looked so ancient they might’ve come off of Captain Arborry’s ship. The only things out of place were a couple of computers and a row of file cabinets. I set my hat on top of them since the Plan didn’t call for a coat rack. The floor creaked as I walked to my desk, though my associates liked to joke that it was me doing the creaking.
Three of us worked there. Sally and George were young, at least compared to me, and they bickered like brother and sister. They even took turns feeling confident and uncertain. Due to my seniority, I was allowed to be the wise one. Nobody wants to be old and foolish.
I got to my desk and, hearing me, Sally bounded by.
“New diet this week!” She stood in profile and made a big show of sucking in her belly. “How am I looking?” Sally looked like she could hold her own in a bar fight and would enjoy it. Lord, she was gorgeous for that.
“Wonderful as usual, my dear,” I smiled a grandfatherly smile, as I sank behind my desk. “But aren’t you and George mixed up?”
“Mixed up?” She let her stomach go with a pout.
“Well, the other day he was boasting about joining a gym.”
“Showed me his bicep and everything.” I said, feebly flexing my own.
“Fine then,” she turned back toward her own desk. “I didn’t want to be the health nut around here anyway.”
I chuckled benevolently. “Don’t tell George, but I think you got the better deal.”
She sat at her desk, looked up at me, and smiled. I pretended that it was out of desire. After all, the Plan doesn’t deny a man his delusions.
The rest of the morning went by quietly. Sally and I had plenty to do while George was out sharpening the rocks on Crag Cove. When I wrapped up my paperwork, I noticed the silence and wished he’d get back soon.
In the middle of that thought, I felt him at the door. He wasn’t making a sound, but a sense of energy surged through the building. The office seemed louder and brighter. Sally and I looked up from our papers as George burst in, panting and grinning.
He was always smiling and tried to keep everyone else that way. So he’d make goofy faces until you turned away. He’d rattle off terrible jokes until you walked off. If nothing else worked, he would pretend to walk right into the wall, or slam his hand in the file cabinet, or trip and fall over his desk.
George would kill himself one day. He would leave a wife and a daughter. In the office, we would act shocked and pretend to wonder why. Exceptions cannot be made for these things. Even for a loyal employee, the Plan is the Plan. George and Sally and I all knew that is how things go. There is no getting around “how things go.”
George would die. Sally and I would be affected in our own ways: she, feeling sympathy, I, feeling guilt. Sally’s resolve to continue my work (as if it really started with me) would comfort me as my own end approached. Eventually, I would make her an obscene and absurd proposition. She would say that she was not offended, though she would grow colder toward me. When I died, she would fill my post more effectively than I ever had.
At the moment, though, George was spinning in his chair, his arms and legs thrown out. He babbled and Sally laughed loudly. Seeing me watch them, the two clowns scrambled back to their work, their faces strained by looks of innocence.
“All right, for real this time, I’ve got an important errand to run,” She said with a lingering chuckle.
“I don’t believe it,” said George with a snarl too sour to take seriously. “There are no important errands around here.”
Sally rolled her eyes as she gathered her papers. “I’ll be at the town hall. Somebody requested copies of some 19th century property records…”
I grabbed the end of the desk with one hand and my heart with the other. Sally and George were laughing before I could even say anything. “Oh no! They’re on to us! My God! The whole house of cards is coming down!” And I would have said more, but I started laughing along with them.
* * *
A few hours later, George turned from the clock to announce it was quitting time. Then he bolted to the door before Sally and I could look up. With what I hoped was reluctance, Sally cleared her desk and took her purse. I almost stood up, but then decided not to.
“Go on. See you two in the morning. I’ll just stick around a little longer and polish off some odds and ends.”
“You sure?” George poked his head back in, sheepish at his attempted escape.
“I can wait and give you a ride,” said Sally. “It’ll be dark soon.”
Apart from the implication that I was too old to hobble a few blocks home, it was pretty flattering. Even so, I waved them out of the building, urging them to have a good time, enjoy the evening, and say “hello” to the wife, dog, etc. And without further protest they went: George on his bicycle and Sally in her car.
After they left, I rushed to the file cabinets while fumbling with my keys. I lowered myself to the floor—a little shakily, I’ll admit—and unlocked the bottom drawer.
This particular drawer, unlike all the others, was not so crammed full as to lurch open without provocation and vomit papers everywhere. It only contained one folder. And, in contrast with every other folder in the office, it only held a dozen or so papers.
I brought them to my desk. A few were brittle and yellow, though some were still crisp and white. Most were tattered and dingy. Each had the same sparse arrangement of words in the same typeface. There’s no telling if they had one author or several. These were the few correspondences from above me that I, ignoring policy, refused to destroy.
If I was ever confronted about them, I supposed I would blame forgetfulness or foolishness. I was supposed to burn them. Maybe I held on to them because it was an important order or maybe I just felt like keeping it. Sometimes, I worry about forgetting the Plan. But having it in black and white means that whether its pleasant or not, it exists.
I don’t often need to buoy myself up that way, but when I do, reading the letters always does the trick. At that moment though, I couldn’t find any peace from them. I sat there and tried until it became dark outside. I knew I wouldn’t get any comfort. So I put the letters back in order, closed the folder, and returned it to its drawer.
Outside, Main Street was empty. The lights were off in the apartments above the shops. I expected to hear crickets chirping, wind rustling, maybe even a fan buzzing in the window, but all I heard was my own footsteps. The quiet ought to have suited me, but I didn’t like it. That sort of silence feels like everyone and everything in the world’s been yanked away and I’ll never find real, solid people ever again.
That was why I wasn’t sure if I should be relieved or terrified when I heard a shout behind me. It was my name, so I couldn’t help but turn around. My fingers were cold and tingling and my heart was thumping dangerously hard for a man of my age.
There was Nercine, running to me again. The chill left my fingers and my heart settled down. It was a relief to see him still out of breath, still swearing, still wound up as ever. I’m supposed to assume a patient attitude toward Realizers, and honestly, I genuinely felt that way at the moment. Nercine’s commitment to the Plan seemed as good as any.
He was still a block away, but the night was so tranquil that it didn’t feel right to holler. So I gave him a wave and smile as I waited for him to catch up.
“Quiet, isn’t it?” I said when he reached me. “Guess we missed the fireworks.” I tried to put him at ease, but he didn’t get the joke. It had barely cooled since morning, but his hands were crammed in his jacket pockets and his collar was turned over his cheeks. He started to talk, then stopped.
I didn’t say anything. I went into what George calls my “benevolent grandpa mode” and nodded. Nercine walked hunched over, staring around at nothing in particular. Sometimes, he’d say a word or two that I could hardly hear. We’d gone a ways before Nercine scraped a whole sentence together.
“Throughout my entire life, I have watched myself drive off friends without knowing why. I have lost jobs for no reason. I dropped out of school just because. I’m always doing things I don’t understand. I just want to know that I am doing things for good reasons.”
“It’s hard when you can’t seem to act the way you know you should be acting.” I said as sincerely and non-committally as I could.
“I have no idea what to do,” he said. “I really wanted to be proven wrong.”
“I looked at the old records in the town hall just to see when it all became fake. I expected to see everything change naturally. They never did. On paper, nothing here has ever changed. There’s even a spot on the 1753 map for the strip mall downtown.”
For a second I considered what to say to Sally about the sloppy job, but my immediate concern was coming up with a plausible excuse for Nercine. Quite a few went through my head. They were all terrible, so it was a good thing we reached his hotel before I could say any. I doubt any of them would have helped.
And he probably wouldn’t have heard. He was too preoccupied to notice the door until I pointed it out. He went in without saying ‘goodbye.’ I didn’t mind. Sure Ron Nercine was about as typical a Realizer as you’d find: over-dramatic, self-centered, pitiful, but he was growing on me. I don’t know why, maybe I was just tired. I should have been thinking about how to get rid of him, since my superiors were certain to demand it, once I reported our conversation.
* * *
Past midnight, I finally got home. As much as I needed sleep, I had to send out the report. So, squinting in the light, I started a pot of coffee and scrounged for writing materials.
I sat at the kitchen table, mug in one hand, tangle of pens in the other, and a pad of yellow paper in front of me. Normally, I’d have the whole mess summed up and submitted in a few minutes. But, my conversation with Nercine seemed too hard to put on paper. So, drinking slowly, I wrote a word here and there, and stared at the window.
After a while, even though I wasn’t satisfied, my letter was done. Folding it in half, I went out to the back porch. It was only big enough for a couple people to stand on, but it looked over the sea. Tonight, though, I went straight to the old jelly jar sitting on the corner and put my letter inside.
The bosses always knew when there was a letter for them. It never took long for them to grab it and leave a reply. I went back inside and sat at the table to finish my coffee and try to feel better.
Actually, I allowed myself unpleasant thoughts about the Plan. At my age, I should be at peace with it. I’m not young enough to rebel. Never was. Mostly, I can just brush off the bitterness. This time, I really indulged in resentment.
The Plan didn’t help many people. Nercine had grumbled about not choosing his actions and, despite being a pain in the ass, he had a point. Even if the Plan made him succeed, he wouldn’t think he’d accomplished it. And he was just the latest example.
Take George, an energetic kid, a promising worker, and its all going to waste in a year. A loss for him, for Crayport, for nothing. And Sally, who was so caring and competent. She would make so many lives better if she wasn’t tied to the Plan. Me, I wouldn’t live to see the Plan completed. I wouldn’t even be appreciated when I was gone. It took forty years of my life and would take my reputation, too.
Suddenly aware that the response had come, I stopped thinking and returned to the jelly jar. There was now a white paper inside it. I barely glanced at it. I had made my decision already. There was no reason to read what they wanted.
The only thing left was telling them. It should have been a momentous and paralyzing action. But when I sat down to do it, I felt fine. I wrote what I wanted, quick and direct.
When I finished and put it in the jar, I felt great.
An hour later, I drove to Nercine’s hotel. He staggered out to the car, too sleepy and confused to bring his jacket. I chuckled, since I had put on a heavy sweatshirt.
It was still dark when got to Crag Cove, so I grabbed a flashlight. Nobody else was around, of course. Even drunk teenagers didn’t come around. The flashlight wasn’t helping much; we stumbled over rocks and seaweed most of the way. I swore every time but Nercine kept silent. With only a few bruises, we reached a boulder near the water. Still not saying anything, we sat down and watched the tiny dark town by the sea.
I told Nercine everything I knew about the Plan. I never claimed to be a mastermind behind it, and as proof, I ran out of secrets in a few minutes. I told him about myself, about George and Sally, and Crayport. I was babbling.
“What made you tell me?” said Nercine, watching the waves.
“I decided to,” I said, “when they ordered me to kill you.” I explained how tired I was of that sort of the thing and how I told them that I wouldn’t do it.
He asked how they responded and I said that they seemed amenable. Then I stood up, took the gun from under my sweatshirt, and aimed at him. He opened his mouth and his eyes wider than I’d seen since I met him. He looked like he was trying to decide whether to run or not.
“Ron, thank you,” I said in my most soothing voice. “Thanks to you, and the leverage this has given me, Sally and George and all of Crayport will have good lives.”
I sat on the rock beside Nercine, and waited for someone from the organization to collect the body. For years I have loved the Plan. And now that I can negotiate, I love it even more.
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© Jamie Ashworth 2013
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About the Author
Jamie Ashworth is still new to being published. He hopes subsequent bios will be longer.