Viewfromtheside gave “Something I have never done before” as a writing prompt this week. I love that premise. The fish-out-of-water theme is one of my favorite writing devices. So I decided to share the first chapter of a story I had squirreled away, The Other Place. I know it is a bit long, but I hope you ENJOY….
The Other Place
When he went to bed at 3:42 A.M. everything was all right.
Chick was bushed. It had been a long night at the club. He’d stopped three fights. (But one not quickly enough. He was nursing a sore spot on his chin from some john’s right cross. He’d have a bruise in the morning.) He’d gotten a dozen people into cabs, and had poured enough coffee into a dozen others so that they were O.K. to drive home on their own. The low point of the evening had been when Colby, the owner of the club, had given him a load of crap for taking a five minute break and getting a beer — one beer — when there were customers out side.
Oh well, screw it. Chick planned to sleep away the morning and start the whole damn thing over again when he woke up.
But he didn’t sleep in late.
At 6:04 a screech of alarm filled the room.
Chick jumped to a sitting position and tried to focus his still sleeping eyes. The words “What da…” left his lips as he tied to find the source of the noise. It was really loud, but it wasn’t a general alarm. The apartment building wasn’t on fire or anything. His eyes and ears zoned in on a what looked like a small propeller on the chest of drawers across the room. He stumbled to his feet as he heard a bang from the room above and a woman’s voice shouting. “Alarm clock, you idiot.” He got to the propeller and focused enough to see that there was a round clock face set into the middle of its too thick blades. He picked it up and tried to find the off switch but his eyes couldn’t seem to adjust enough. He gave it a swat but the damn thing still screamed at him.
Shrill as it was, it wasn’t so loud that he couldn’t hear the angry muttering from the woman above, or her loud foot steps as she trudged down the steps toward him. With one quick angry motion she slammed open the door, crossed to him at the dresser, tore the propeller clock from his hands and switched off the alarm. “Glad to see you made it home all right.” She said as she fussed with the clock, making sure she had completely turned off the alarm, and not just put it in snooze mode.
Chick looked at her — or tried to look at her, his eyes still wouldn’t clear — “Get the hell out of my room, lady!” with as much of his bouncer voice as he could manage after two hours sleep.
At the sound of his voice the woman looked up at him. Her face fell in horror then she panicked and threw the clock at his face. “Stay away from me!”
The clock hit him in the right temple as he tried to duck out of the way. “Jesus!” He stammered as he half fell back. He had one hand to his his brow and the other out toward her. “Get the hell out of here, NOW!”
Caroline, the woman, shook with fear. She did not recognize the tall, muscular man standing in front of her, but she knew why he was here. They had done it. After several warnings and reprimands they had finally come through on their promise/threat of exiling her no-good, cheating, husband, Clay to The Other Place. This, she supposed, was his replacement from that side.
And she had hit him with the alarm clock.
In all the years with Clay, no matter what he’d done, she’d never thrown anything at him.
“I said get out of my room!” He barked at her.
“It’s not your room.” Caroline said as calmly as she could.
“What?” He yelled back at her. But Chick was beginning to come out of his fog of sleep. He knew this wasn’t his room. He was a bouncer, he didn’t need to get up until 3:00 in the afternoon, so he didn’t have an alarm clock. He certainly didn’t have a heavy brass alarm clock made to look like a boat propeller. And the room was smaller than what it should be. Chick had an efficiency apartment. It had two rooms, a bathroom and a bedroom/living room/ dining room/kitchen combination. This room was just a bedroom, it didn’t do double duty as anything else.
He stumbled backwards away from the woman until his leg hit the bed. “What’s going on here?” His voice was still loud and demanding but now there was uncertainty, almost panic, too.
“Please calm down and lower your voice.” She realized that they were making too much noise. If they woke a neighbor with their arguing they’d be reported. She last thing she wanted was a peace man coming by to give them a warning.
“I don’t want to calm down.” Chick told her just as loudly. There was way too much weird shit going on in this situation. If he knew anything, he knew that the loudest dog was given the biggest berth.
A car came down the street fast and came to a noisy halt in front of the house. Caroline’s stomach sank. She didn’t know what the penalty was for hitting your husband’s government sanctioned impersonator, but it couldn’t be good. “Look, I’m sorry for throwing that thing at you.” She was sorry, and not just because she was going to get in trouble for it.
He was still rubbing the spot. “Yeah?” He said with sarcasm, “Me too.”
The door bell went off down the hall.
Caroline hesitated and it rang again.
“You gonna get the door or you gonna wait for them to break it down?”
Caroline ran for the door and Chick sat down on the bed. He wondered how much trouble was he in? Was it possible that he’d broken into this house and fallen asleep in some one else’s bed without knowing it?
He heard the lock in the door click open and two women talking. The angry woman, the one who’d lobbed the propeller at his head, was calmer now, chagrined. The other woman was excited.
Caroline led her into the room and shrugged at Chick. then disappeared down the hall way again.
“O.K.” The second woman said in a very fast, very businesslike manner. “First, I apologize. I was delayed. I should have been here when you woke up to explain things, but… Well… I was delayed.” She was in her fifties and all the rushing she’d done this morning made her normally well made up face and hair look mussy and dank. She had large blue watery eyes that she dabbed at with a linen hanky. And she kept biting her lower lip so her lipstick only held on to the edge of her lips.
“Look” Chick said emphatically, “I don’t know where I am, I don’t know how I got here, I don’t know who that lady is, and I don’t know who you are. But I didn’t do anything wrong. And what ever is going on… I’m sorry.”
Caroline had come back in for the end of his disclaimer. She handed him a zip lock bag filled with ice chips wrapped in a dish towel. “My name is Caroline McAdams, this is my husband Clay’s bedroom, and you’re not in trouble.” She gave him a thin smile — it was all she could manage under the circumstances — and indicated to his face. “Put the ice on your forehead before it begins to swell.”
Chick did as he was told with the ice.
“And I’m Lucy Dingle.” The chipper, other woman told them both. “I’m your case worker.” She blinked her watery eyes toward Caroline while inclining her head toward Chick. “And, well I suppose you’ve guessed that Charles here is Clay’s replacement.”
“The name is Chick, no one has called me Charles since I was five.”
“Well, dear,” Lucy said as she fished into her large hand bag and pulled out a pair of glasses in a hard leather case, “your name is Clay now.” She handed him the glasses.
“I don’t wear glasses.” He told her, but this morning it sure felt like he needed them, his head ached and his eyesight has still not cleared.
“Put the glasses on, dear, there’s a good boy.” Lucy said with authority.
“Clay wears glasses.” Caroline explained.
“I don’t want to be your husband.” Chick argued. Then he realized how rude that sounded and amended it with a muttered “no offense.”
Caroline gave him the same brave thin smile and said very quietly, “Well neither did Clay, lately.”
“So what’s the deal here?” Chick asked. “And where IS here?” The birds had awaken outside the window and were cooing and twittering their welcome to the new day. Clearly he wasn’t in his little apartment on the 10th floor of a city block.
“Well,” Lucy sat on his bed with a flop and patted her brow with the hanky. “You see, 46 years ago the Freedom of Meanness Act went into effect. Each citizen was officially given a bank of 25 Meanness Event Warnings. If a citizen uses up his bank of warnings certain actions, by law, need to happen. The citizen needs to be removed from Crystal City and sent, as punishment to the Other Place.”
“Badham” Chick whispered. He knew all about the Freedom of Meanness Act. His biological parents had been reprimanded and sent to the Badham before he was born.
“Yes, Badham.” Lucy confirmed perkily. She plunked her large bag between them and began to pull out various contents from its interior. She found a black leather e-book and flipped it open and on. She took a second to review the file before turning back to them. “Well, it seems our friend Clay has had almost double the amount of Event Warnings allocated by FoMA.” She looked over to Caroline who was leaning against the chest of drawers and trying not to shake. “Its my guess that there would be a lot more if you’d filed any complaints.”
There wasn’t much accusation in Lucy’s statement, but Caroline grew stony at the reprimand. “I was under the impression that what happens inside the walls of my house was my business.”
Lucy shrugged and returned to her paperwork. “Well, as I say we had too many other E.W.s not to act.” She fixed her watery eyes on Chick and smiled. “We did a search in Badham and came up with you.” She looked at her e-book and read the report: “82% achievement record, 93% learning index, clean record.” She blinked back to him. “And you’ve got a similar build and coloring to Clay. You’ll do nicely.”
“I don’t want to be some FoMA replacement.” Chick told them. “I have a life in Badham. I’m happy there. I want to go back.”
Lucy steeled herself. She’d seen this before. Some times the replacements would just rather not be bothered with a better life. “Well,” She folded her hands on her lap and spoke to him like a middle school guidance councilor, “one could argue that familiarity does not equal happiness. Or one could impress upon you that this is your big chance to fulfill your potential as a human being. But, frankly… you don’t have any choice.”
“Section 235, Article 17, states–”
“Fine.” If he was stuck, he was stuck, he didn’t feel like having this old bat reciting the code book at him. “I’ll stay. I wouldn’t want to break Article 17.”
But Caroline wasn’t happy. “Wait a minute. What makes you think he’s a better person then Clay?” She asked warily. “What did he do to get sent to Badham in the first place?”
Lucy turned her sugar coated, don’t-mess-with-me smile to Caroline. “Calm down Caroline.” She said very pleasantly.
Caroline took a deep breath. She knew better than to antagonize a FoMA agent.
“Sit down, there’s a good girl.”
Reluctantly Caroline took a seat at the opposite corner of the bed, making a triangle with Chick at the point and the women at the base. Lucy gave a satisfied smile toward Caroline and turned to Chick “Would you like to tell her Charles or shall I?”
“This blows.” Chick threw the ice pack to the center of the bed and turned away from the women.
“Then I guess I’ll tell you. Charles was born in the Other Place and raised by his parents until he was five when he was removed from their custody and sent to live at a group home.–”
Chick turned back to them to interrupt. “Which was run by two lesbians teachers who decided to move there and live with each other rather than stay here and live a lie.” Miss Karen and Miss Lynn treated him right. They took a lot better care of him than his drug addled parents ever did. “There are plenty of shitty people in Badham, but there are plenty of good ones too.”
“I thought I was giving the case history, Charles, did you want to take over from here?” Lucy smiled at him.
Chick returned the cheesy smile. “No, not really.” He turned away again. He burned with embarrassment at having his story told out loud.
“This was long before Act 71. Now children born in The Other Place are adopted back here immediately, of course, but up to 20 years ago they were assimilated back into that society.” She smiled satisfactorily to herself and glanced back at her e-book. “He did well in school and graduated from High School with good grades. He has worked a number of jobs leaving by his own will for a better paying position each time. His last job there was as ‘bouncer’ for Lucky Fred’s Bar and Grill.”
“Bar and Girl. It’s a strip club.”
Lucy’s smile did not diminish. “How interesting.”
“I some how doubt you have those here.”
“No.” Lucy admitted. “But we’ve got something lined up that uses many of those same skills.”
“Coach of an elementary school wrestling team. You’ll also teach Math and Science.”
He shook his head, how was THAT like being being a bouncer. “I can’t be a teacher. I don’t even like kids.”
Lucy was ready for that complaint. “Well, not having seen one in 20 years, I’m not surprised.”
“I don’t know any thing about teaching math and science, or coaching for that matter.” Chick told her firmly. He wasn’t going to get railroaded into doing something he had never done before.
“Clay was a real estate agent, not a teacher.” Caroline reminded her.
“Well, since he hasn’t shown a house in six months, I doubt the real estate world is going to miss him.” Lucy dealt with Caroline first. “It’s time for Clay to have a mid-life crisis and start reexamining his choices. He’s about to have an epiphany that he needs to give back to the community. He will sign up for courses at the local college to pursue his teaching career.” Her eyes were watering from reading the little screen of her e-book for so long and she dabbed at them before continuing. “You start Fall Semester in two weeks. Between now and then you are going away to a retreat. You and Caroline have to confront YOUR past indiscretions. You are going to meet with a marriage councilor and the two of you are going away to rethink and rebuild.”
“HIS past indiscretions.” Chick told her firmly. “Can we keep that in mind? It’s not my fault that this Clay shit-head was such an idiot.”
The prim look on Lucy’s face hardened. “We don’t use curse words here Charles, except in extreme circumstances.”
“Yeah” Chick said dryly. “I’ll keep that in mind.” He couldn’t help but catalog the thousands of other, more potent, curse words he could have used.
“And we’ll keep in mind that you are not at fault for Clay’s actions.’ She threw a smile at Caroline. “Wont we dear?”
Caroline gave Chick an icy look. “We’ll do our best.”
Chick rubbed at his eyes, “Well, WE appreciate it.”
“Glasses Charles.” Lucy told him bossily.
“I told you, I don’t wear glasses.”
Lucy’s smile hardened. “Put the glasses on, dear.”
Chick finally obeyed and his vision instantly cleared. “So what’s wrong with my eyes?”
Caroline gasped and covered her mouth. He looked a lot more like Clay with those glasses on.
“When you were relocated this morning the technicians sprayed your eyes with a special formula to moderately numb the optic nerve.” Lucy told him sweetly. “The effect will wear off in a few days. You’re scheduled for ‘laser surgery’ while you are on your retreat. And you won’t have to wear the glasses by the time you get back.”
Chick looked at her, “You people are insane.”
“It is essential that you look as much like Clay as possible these first few days–.”
“Well, it’s a good thing I’m already circumcised.”
Lucy chose to ignore him. “–Fortunately Clay has alienated his close friends, his parents are dead, and his sister no longer sees him.”
“Fortunately?” Chick shook his head.
“He’s never engaged in more than a half a minute’s conversation with any of the neighbors here. You’re not going to be working at the same place. So with a little physical touch up no one should notice that there’s been a switch.”
Caroline stood up. With his glasses on Chick could see that she was crying. “I might notice.” She said bitterly, but with a calm voice.
“Caroline, you know that this if for the best.” Lucy said firmly, but kindly. “And you need to make the best of it.”
Caroline shrugged. “I always do.” She said blandly.
Lucy, satisfied with this half-hearted acceptance, turned to Chick. “And what about you Charles? Can you make the best of the situation?”
“Yes, Ma’am.” He said dutifully.
“And you’re not going to cause any trouble, or attract attention.” Lucy pushed.
“I’m glad we can count on your discretion.” She smiled at his ‘good behavior.’
“Three bags full, Ma’am.” He said under his breath.
Lucy realized that he was being sarcastic. “Excuse me?”
Chick realized that he’d gone to far in pushing back. “Nothing.” He said a little chagrined.
“No, I heard what you said and I’d like an explanation.”
Like? Demanded more like. She’d been demanding things of him since she came in the room. He put aside his chagrin and looked her coldly in the eyes. It was his bouncer stare and he knew this puffy little old bat wouldn’t hold up against it.
Caroline intervened. “It was a joke.” She told Lucy, not really sure if it was a joke. “Yes, sir. No, sir. Three bags full, sir.” Caroline’s gentle smile soothed the old woman. “From the nursery rhyme.”
“I don’t see what a nursery rhyme has to do with anything.”
“Bah, Bah, Black Sheep.” Caroline sat back down on her side of the bed, diverting Lucy’s attention from Chick, breaking the starring match. “And he is the black sheep, he’s the one who is out of the loop, isn’t he?” She turned her smile on him and raised her eyebrow a little. That added inflection told him that he shouldn’t mess with a front line FoMA agent. She might look harmless, but she could make both their lives miserable. “I believe it is his ironic way of telling us that he’d like more information. Is that correct, Chick?” She asked just as cheerily.
Chick lowered his offense a little. He didn’t want to get into trouble. And Caroline’s use of his real name had earned her enough cred that he didn’t want to cause any trouble for her either. “Yeah.”
Caroline breathed a little easier.
Lucy considered them both. She decided to use this as an instructive opportunity. “You will find, Charles, that while some gentle sarcasm is acceptable as part of friendly rapport, while more pointed sarcasm is considered offensive, and could very well earn you a meanness credit.” She smiled very hard at him. “You’ll need to watch your language.”
Chick took the reprimand. “Yeah, O.K.”
Lucy considered adding a lecture on how the proper word for the affirmative was “yes” not “yeah”, but she decided to let him slide on this. Clay, after all, wasn’t a stickler for proper language. He often employed slang. Perhaps Chick’s slippery grammar would add to his imitation of Clay.
She reached into her bag and pulled out another e-book which she handed to him. “You’ll need to study this.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a detailed biography of Clay McAdams.”
Chick fingered the little black device. As a bouncer didn’t need an e-book. He couldn’t afford one if he’d wanted one. He knew that over here they loved their gadgets, but most of what came over to Badham was used, the tech was out dated. Anything this new would have cost a fortune. “I, uh,” He tried to hand it back, but Lucy wouldn’t take it. “I don’t know how to use this thing.” He admitted reluctantly. “Don’t you have it printed out some where.”
Lucy gave a little snort, “We treasure our natural resources here, Charles, a paper book of Clay McAdams’ life and indiscretions would be a waste of far too many trees.”
Caroline shifted on the other side of the bed. This was her husband they were talking about. Clay had some good qualities. Did they think she would have married him in the first place if he didn’t have any good qualities? Did they think she would have stayed with him for fourteen years if she didn’t think there was something worth saving?
“No offense, dear.” Lucy patted her hand.
She shook her head. “None taken.” She lied. “I’ll show Chick how to use the e-book.”
Well, that was one hurdle overcome. “Very good.”
Chick gave a low, grumbled “thanks.” He wasn’t used to admitting he didn’t know something. And he sure wasn’t used to having some one help him. His life had been pretty much sink or swim up to now.
“Caroline,” Lucy said evenly, “I’ve noticed that you’ve used Charle’s nickname twice so far in conversation.”
Caroline looked over to her, her eyes were brimming with tears again. “Yes.”
“Don’t you think you should start calling him Clay, dear, that is his name now.”
Caroline swallowed and ducked her head. Despite her best efforts she couldn’t help a tear from escaping her left eye. “Please don’t make me call him Clay.”
Chick looked from one woman to the next and his temperature rose a little.
How mean was this? How mean was it to sever every thread that linked this woman to the husband she clearly still loved? “Why?” He asked, a little too gruffly.
“Excuse me?” Lucy’s voice tensed again, Chick still wasn’t grasping the whole respectful tone thing.
“Why does she have to call me ‘Clay’?” Chick asked in a less offensive tone.
“Because, THAT is your name now.” Lucy let a little of her frustration surface.
“But we’re supposed to go on this warm fuzzy retreat and fall in love all over again. Why can’t Caroline decide to give me a warm fuzzy nickname while we’re there, and start calling me Chick?”
“I hardly think ‘Chick’ is an appropriate substitute for ‘Clay’.” Lucy hesitated.
“Well, I’m hardly a substitute for Clay, so it kind of fits, doesn’t it?” He picked up the e-book and held it against his chest. The unspoken offer was that he would be a good little boy and learn all about Clay McAdams, if Lucy would allow Caroline the dignity of not having to call him by her husbands name. He saw Lucy consider it. “Come on,” he coaxed with a little smile, “Chick McAdams, it has kind of a cool ring to it.”
It was an acceptable bargain. Lucy nodded. “I see you point.”
A little alarm buzzer sounded in her purse and she dug through it to find a beeper. She looked at it and sighed. It was another case. “I’m afraid I’ve got to leave you so I can take care of this.” She nodded at Charles. “Please begin studying that.” She turned to Caroline. “The Agency will, of course, settle any of your husband’s depts. Would you please gather any outstanding invoices.” The beeper buzzed again. She frowned at the little box. “I’m coming, I’m coming.” She handed both of them a business card. “Call me if there’s an emergency.” She re-packed her bag, “But,” she nodded to the beeper, “please do make sure it is an emergency before calling.” She got up and headed toward the door. “I’ll be back at 6:00 pm.”
Caroline walked her out. There was short quiet conversation that Chick couldn’t make out at the door. Then Lucy said “It will all work out, dear,” before she opened the door and left.
Caroline came back to his bedroom after watching Lucy’s car drive off. “Um.” She stayed at the door. “Are you hungry? Would you like me to fix you some breakfast?”
Chick looked at the little propellor clock. It read 6:38. “Actually I think I could use some more sleep, if that’s OK.” He gave a little involuntary yawn. “I don’t usually get up til well past noon.”
Caroline nodded. “Clay sets the alarm so he can go for a morning run. But he turns it off and goes back to sleep more often than not.” She shrugged. “I don’t think any one will notice if you sleep in.”
“Good, cause I don’t think I got more than a couple of hours.” Chick looked at the e-book in his hands, “I’m sure I’ll be able to deal with this better once I’ve had a little more shut eye.” He yawned again. And maybe he’d wake up to find this had all been a really weird, bad dream.
She straightened up. “Goodnight then.” She shut the door.