For LOST IN LOS ALAMOS Beta Readers Only - Please Do Not Share.
That Time of Year
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Scott walked quickly over to the Jeep.
“How’d I even get the Jeep here?” he wondered. As he went to put the box in, he saw the plastic bags on the passenger seat and remembered that he had come to buy some things. He grabbed his bags and shut the car door.
As he walked back into the Payless supermarket across the snow carpets and the automatic doors that slid open, the wash of warmer air greeted him in a way that he had not remembered it doing earlier. With a hot latte in his belly and coherent conversation achieved, he felt ready to face that scene again. Another Ground Hog Day experience.
After grabbing a shopping cart, he went straight away to the bottled water section, chose a six-pack of big Evian bottles and a case of San Pelegrín orange waters.
“No more dehydration,” he said aloud, then hefted a case of Diet Coke into the cart.
An announcement came over the store loudspeakers like a Blue Light Special at Kmart.
“Attention, Shoppers,” the woman’s voice said. “We will be closing in fifteen minutes. Please bring your purchases to the checkout area now. Payless Cashways wishes you and your families a very Merry Christmas and Holiday Season. We will open again with regular hours on Thursday. Thank you!”
“Christmas. Huh.” Scott thought. He looked around and registered Christmas decorations and when the Muzak resumed, he heard the Holiday songs continue that he was sure had been playing when he walked in the first time. He realized they had probably been playing ever since arriving in Los Alamos. He raced through the the store grabbing frozen dinners and coffee and headed to checkout.
Scott collided with another cart, the man mimicking Scott’s own panic to get out of there. The carts clanged and scraped and the contents shifted and the man laughed, instead of getting pissed off. Scott appreciated that.
“Sorry!” the man offered, already moving again.
“Sorry!” Scott replied, offering a sheepish grin. On the end cap of the aisle he’d come around was a display of holiday treats. Scott saw boxes of Whitman’s chocolate covered cherries and grabbed one, threw it into the cart, then did a double-take because the bottom shelf was filled with fruit cakes and when he lifted one, he got excited as it was very heavy with Bourbon and the label warned of it. He knew it would be good.
His purchases made, Scott wheeled the cart out to the Jeep. He looked up at the lot lights and noticed the decorations as if he was seeing them for the first time. Then he looked around and saw Christmas displays in the darkened strip mall windows. Then the cold intruded on his feeling of dissociation from this world he had discovered before him and he slung the supplies into the back of the Jeep.
“This is a pretty fucking strange thing,” he thought, as he drove back through town. There were Christmas decorations everywhere. All through the downtown, on the lights lining the bridge and on many of the houses on the way out to Navajo Lane, the small blinking lights seen through front windows of homes and the large, colorful, and solid Christmas bulbs lining the roof gutters welcomed Scott into the present. They pushed his thoughts to the fact that he had not been present in it for a little while. “How long?” he wondered, re-seeing the lights outlining Betty’s house.
Parked in front of the house, Scott’s face was alternately illuminated by the red, white, and blue lights of Tom’s huge window flag. There was a different car parked out in front along the curb and it had Arizona plates.
Scott now remembered knowing that it was that season, but was at a loss as to why he had forgotten in, what? The last few days? How many days had he been there? He worked it out and it was only six days.
“Six days!” he said out loud. For a moment he was angry, flashing upon his life back on the beach and his own house. Then he was worried. He felt like he was losing it again through the transition from anger.
In a matter of a few minutes, Scott traversed a rugged terrain of jagged emotions that he would rather have ignored. Then he saw the picture of himself as he sat there in his Jeep somewhere in the world on the eve of Christmas and in a strange town, trying to complete what seemed an impossible job, surrounded by weird, unfamiliar people. And he hated the cold. He had never wanted to be cold again after moving from the Midwest.
And just like that, as Forest Gump would say, he saw how pitiful his thoughts sounded to himself. His eyes drifted from the scene at Tom’s to the white box lying on the passenger seat.
“Merry Christmas to me!” he said aloud. “Cheer up. At least you have a present.” He smiled at the thought of Betty and her girls packing the box full of Christmas cheer for him.
Then the Jeep’s engine idled rough a few moments and then died. The silence was loud. Scott looked at the dash and saw all the warning lights come on. He had forgotten that the engine was still running. It wasn’t now, though.
Scott turned the ignition off and and then on again. The plugs fired and it cranked and then ran. For about five seconds. In those five seconds, Scott had seen that the fuel gage was way below empty and it was obvious to him that he’d just run out of gas going nowhere.
His head flew back against the headrest and he began laughing out loud, closing his eyes. A knock on the window next to him made him snap his head forward again and then away from the source of the sound.
“Shit!” he exclaimed, seeing the silhouette of someone outlined by the lights across the street.
“Scott! It’s me. Tom!” said the muffled voice outside the closed window.
Scott composed himself and rolled down the window.
“How ya doing?” Tom asked, bending down to look directly at Scott.
Scott fake smiled and said, “Great! Thanks.”
Tom looked closer at Scott and said, “Good to hear. Saw you pull up a lot earlier. Was going to stop over anyway and then heard the Jeep cranking. She okay?”
Scott laughed for real. “Yeah. Forgot to get gas since getting back from Albuquerque. Just ran out.” Tom laughed.
“I have some gas back in the shed. In the morning you can put some in... Unless you need to go somewhere tonight?”
“Nope. Just realized it was Christmas Eve a little while ago. Gonna go to bed early.” Scott looked away to the right toward the darkened house, then back at Tom.
“Well, my wife made a plate up of her famous Christmas Paella for you.” Tom held out a large Tupperware container to the window. “Sorry we don’t have any Christmas cookies for after it. She’s diabetic and so...”
Scott excitedly took the warm and aromatic container from the man.
“Oh, man! This smells amazing! You are so nice to do this.” He swung around to put the red-lidded container on top of the FedEx box next to him.
“And don’t worry about cookies, I just received a care package of sweets, I think,” he said.
Tom chuckled. “Good deal. And she - my wife’s name is Julie - Julie wanted to let you know that we would have loved to have you over to eat with us, but my sister brought my mom over and...” He glanced back over to his house and then back and down a moment.
“So, anyway,” he continued, then raised his head to meet Scott’s eyes. “She’s pretty traditional and still lives on the Res and...” He chuckled, a bit embarrassed. She’s still got a notion about white people and we thought it would be better not to mix you up in that, bless her.”
Scott laughed. “No problem, Tom. I am thrilled to get to eat your wife’s cooking. And thank her for me. Give my Holiday greetings to them. Or, at least your wife.” He laughed again. Tom laughed with him.
“Okay, bud. You need anything else?”
“Nope! I am better than I thought I’d be after you coming over here. I really appreciate it.”
Tom rose up and tapped both hands on the window sill just like officer Jordan had done those nights before.
“Not any problem at all. A pleasure. Merry Christmas to you. Hope you enjoy your Paella and you should sleep well after that. See you in the morning anytime. It’s a red plastic five gallon tank. I’ll leave it outside the shed at first light for you if you just want to come over and grab it.”
“Thanks. I’ll fill it back up for you when I go gas this up.”
“Good deal!” Tom said as he backed away to turn. “‘Night!”
“Good night! And Merry Christmas to you!” Scott returned.
By the time Tom’s door had closed behind him, Scott was out of the Jeep and had the back tailgate up. He had to make several trips into the cold house before he could lock the Jeep up and get inside to turn the heater on in the sleeping room. He moved through the house fast. He wanted to get that heavenly smelling food into his belly. The water and all were left piled inside the front door, with the plastic wrap broken open on the flavored fizzy water.
After the Ding! from the microwave signaled that the spicy chicken dish was nice and hot, Scott stood at the counter blowing on each spoonful to cool it down before shoveling it into his mouth. It was pretty incredible. Between the added green and red bell peppers, the chicken and shrimp, the yellow saffron and big twigs of rosemary, the aroma kept inciting his tastebuds and he ended up eating the whole container of it.
Scott decided not to work late that night. Christmas Eve and all. He was full and he was tired. He was so stuffed with the yellow rice that when he finally sat down on The Pyre, his boots and socks off as the first part of the ritual, and he looked to the thick white box from Betty, he knew he couldn’t do it.
He couldn’t even lie down yet. He got his coat off and onto the clothes pile and he leaned over to set the box onto the floor at the foot of the other end of The Pyre.
Scott scooted back on the sleeping platform to the wall and crossed his legs, He hadn’t taken his dirty jeans off but he also didn’t care. He wished he’d brought his iPad with him. But with only seven to ten days there, he had thought the phone would suffice. He felt awfully deficient without both his Mac and his iPad.
His love/hate relationship with his phone didn’t make it any easier to reach for it to see the notifications on the Lock Screen. He felt he should update his Instagram, his Facebook, and LinkedIn, but what did he have to say? The whole Christmas thing was a bit hollow to him. What else? “I’m here in the Atomic City sanding drywall, grouting tile, shoveling gravel, and taking cold-ass showers. Wish you were here.”?
His heart just wasn’t in it to respond to any of it. Brent, a couple of clients, his parents, and of course, a cryptic message from Sienna just kind of streamed through his eyes and ears and then out. He was a bit curious as to why he hadn’t heard from Betty. He was relieved, of course, but since she was so into Christmas and probably wondering what the hell was going on down there...
Scott woke up leaning back against the wall long enough to wiggle out of his plastered-on jeans. He took an expensive swig of Evian, got his shirt off, and just fell over sideways and stretched his long legs out and was fast asleep before he knew it.
What transpired during his sleep, he would not remember. The neurons that fired, releasing stress chemicals and patching together memories of the day and before into dreams that might have made some sort of sense, did their thing. His digestive system was working overtime and took too much of a load from his CPU to have retained anything.
But there was an unraveling, and Scott let go of a few things that he would see their absence of later. The Three Amigos, Father Adrian, Lee, and Todd were in there as his parole board in prison. They pardoned him, with Warden Todd giving Scott his walking instructions.
One thing would not change or leave him. When he woke up, he would still be exactly where he was when he went to sleep. That was reality. That was his lot. That was what he had to work with.
When his eyes finally opened to the ceiling tiles above him, he remembered enough to think, “Huh. It’s Christmas.” But it was followed by a very unusual and revelatory thought. It was so foreign to his vocabulary that his vocal chords involuntarily croaked it out loud just so Scott could know he had thought it.
“God help me. I am lost.”