My name is Brandon. I'm a writer, cartoonist, husband, and father. This is the online space where I talk about life, family, art, videogames, and anything else that interests me. Disclaimer: a lot of things interest me.

One More Day

He stared at the thick stack of white pages. The silver pen shone dull, as if embarrassed to be there; The color coded tabs mocked him with their bright, chipper hues. “You’re serious?”

Vanessa looked down at the edge of the soggy tissue that poked out of her folded hands; it sat there, wilted but game to come to the rescue if she started crying again. She took a steadying breath and looked at him. Her wet eyes were red and starting to swell. How long had she been crying? It felt like hours.

“I think it’s for the best,” Vanessa started. Her words came out slow and steady as if she were reciting an argument she constructed long ago. “For both of us. We are not happy. We haven’t been happy for nearly two years. Two years, Jackson. After tomorrow we both have a chance to start over.”

“I can’t believe this,” Jackson said. “I can’t believe you’re springing this on me now. The night before I go under the knife for fucking brain surgery?” He stood rigid by the mantle. His chest heaved and his fists clenched at his sides. He looked like a child about to throw a tantrum. The image burned away Vanessa’s sorrow and guilt and replaced it with a frustrated anger that was all too familiar in their lives.

“You don’t get to do that,” she snapped. “You don’t get to pull the victim card in this. It’s an outpatient procedure; one we’ve been preparing for it for six months. Your work has made accommodations to retrain you in any gaps in your memory, and your video logs will fill in the rest. The doctors said that your personality will remain intact, you’ll just have to become reacquainted with yourself is all. That’s what we’ve been preparing for. At the end of it all you’ll still be you.”

“They’re going to cut me out of my own head,” he said. “Tomorrow, when I wake up I’ll be a stranger and you won’t be there. I’ll have no memory of anything I am!” Jackson’s voice cracked and for a moment she saw how much that scared him. This flash of fear was the most emotion Vanessa had seen from him in months, maybe the past year. She felt another stab of guilt.

The tumor was located in the cerebellum, but had a root digging into the medial temporal lobe of Jackson’s brain. The doctors were going to inject nano machines into the cerebellum that would to burn the tumor out root and stalk, and replace it with new tissue. Jackson was going to be fine; this kind of neurosurgery was a walk in the park, but it wasn’t without a price. The semantic memory center, that part of the brain that dealt in facts, concepts and general knowledge about the external world would be fine; but Jackson’s episodic brain, the autobiographical part of himself that recalled specific events and gave them emotional context would be wiped clean. He would have no memory of himself or his life. Of her.

She checked herself to see if this made her sad. Nope. Not one bit.

“Look,” she said. “I don’t know what you want out of your life, but it isn’t me. It hasn’t been me for some time. We stayed because it was easy – comfortable, even – but it’s not anymore. Look me in the eye and tell me that you don’t resent me. Tell me that you don’t think I’ve somehow held you back.”

He took a breath, and looked her in the eye. For a second, she thought he was going to say it. That he was going to lie to himself and her again for the sake of convenience. After a moment his eyes dropped to the floor and his shoulders sagged. He sucked in a ragged breath and sank onto the couch next to her, burying his face in his hands.

She should have been relieved with this silent admission, but was surprised to feel it sting. She fell in love with him the way all kids fall in love. Hard and fast and all consuming. To his credit, he fell just as hard. Those first few years were so intense, she hardly remembered anything else about that time other than his face, and the feeling of his fingers on her skin. Even when the physicality began to cool, she was surprised to realize that she loved him deeply and without reservation. And he loved her. She knew that.

So what had happened? Time. As adults we conceptualize and mark the passing of time by past, present, and future. We understand the tangential link that binds them together and how they affect one another. But the young recognize a different concept of time all together: the Moment. The Moment is a singularity. A pocket dimension in which time is frozen. There is no consequence in the Moment. Only action and reaction. The young do not understand that the Moment is a lie. We waste what we think are unlimited resources, and no one thinks they have more time than the young. So they grew up. They got married. They wanted children but decided to hold off on having them at first. They both had dreams. Jackson wanted to write the great American novel and she wanted to design video games. They would stay up late, naked in each other’s arms, talking about their plans. She would design the dust jackets of Jackson’s novels. He would write story scripts for her games. They told each other these sweet stories, promising each other that it would happen someday. They foolishly thought that there would always be more time. They were nearly forty now. Their dreams lay forgotten on a shelf, covered in dust. They still no children of their own.

“I don’t want this,” he said suddenly. His eyes pleaded with her. His voice quavered. “I don’t want you to go.”

He looked lost and confused. For the man he was – the man she fell in love with – her heart broke a little at the sight. Her eyes searched his face, trying to find that young man who stole her heart. Lines framed his blue eyes and mouth. She remembered how he used to smile, wide and genuine. His eyes used to dance when he smiled. His curly black hair had receded a little over the years and silvered at the temples just a little. She used to love running her fingers through that hair when they made love. He licked his lips in agitation. He leaned toward her slightly. She realized he misunderstood her silence and she stood and walked toward the mantle.

“You don’t want to be alone,” she answered, finally. “I know that. I understand; but that’s not the same as wanting me to stay. It’s over, Jackson. We tried our best, but I’m tired. Aren’t you?”

“But what about the video logs?” Jack asked. “You’re in over half of them–”

She held up a silver nano drive cutting off his sentence. “This will scrub me out of the footage, and delete all references to my name. It’s not perfect. In some of the logs it will seem like you’re talking to thin air, and by other references you’ll know that you once had someone in your life. You should probably record one more log tonight explaining the discrepancies.”

“How long?” Jack asked.

She looked at him, confused.

“A program like that is not easy to write,” he said. “It took you months. How long did it take?”

“Almost six months,” she said.

“Six,” he said and his voice trailed off. He blinked back his tears and took a breath. “When did you start it?”

“Two days after your diagnosis,” she admitted.

“Two whole days,” Jackson laughed. “Wow.” He snatched the pen from the stack of pages and began signing and initialing. He didn’t speak. His hand was steady, his breath calm.

The ball point scratched loudly in her ears. She groped for something to say. Anything. It didn’t seem right that the writing utensil that was ending her marriage of sixteen years should have the last word. The sudden realization of her divorce slammed into her. Instead of the elation or relief she expected she found a weighty terror settle into the pit of her stomach. The sensation reminded her of their honeymoon in Kauai when they decided to go base jumping – an activity that neither of them ever experienced. She remembered stepping to the edge of the cliff. As she looked down, gravity seemed to reach up tug at the hem of her t-shirt as if to say, “Come. Come and play.” The terror, so similar to what she felt now, asked the obvious question.

What if the parachute doesn’t open?

A hand slipped into hers. Jackson’s eyes danced and she smiled. They were forever. If forever ended today, she accepted that. They jumped. And of course her parachute opened. She stood at the edge of that cliff again, only this time she was alone.  She hoped the parachute would open a second time.

Jackson loomed into her field of vision, breaking her reverie. He was holding out the manilla folder to her. He didn’t say anything. She took it and drew a breath to speak, but held up his hand.

“Have a nice life, Vanessa,” Jackson said. He went into his study and shut the door.

 

 ***

 

Light stabbed into his eyes and his throat felt like he swallowed sandpaper. A man in a white lab coat floated into his field of vision.

“How are you feeling?” white lab coat asked.

“Thirsty,” the patient said. “A little woozy.”

“It’ll pass,” white lab coat said. “I’m afraid you can’t have any fluids for another half hour. I’m Doctor Staan. I performed the surgery to remove your brain tumor. If you’re feeling up to it, I’m going to ask you some questions to help gauge your cognitive abilities.”

He nodded.

“Just try and answer to the best of your knowledge,” Doctor Staan said.  “Do you know what year it is?”

“2056,” he answered.

“Good,” Staan answered. “Who is the president?”

“Jefferson Washington Carver,” the patient said.

“Good,” Staan said. “What is your name?”

The patient opened his mouth. He closed it again.

“I don’t know.”

 

 ***

 

Jack stepped out of his apartment building and checked the time. His meeting with Esther wasn’t for another hour and a half. It would take him a little over twenty minutes to walk the distance between his apartment and Esther’s office; there was a great coffee shop right around the corner from the Aegis Publishing building. He could stop in for a cup of coffee and work on the new story for a bit before his meeting. He checked his satchel one more time to ensure that his manuscript was there and stopped to take it all in again.

He had an editor. His book was going to be published in six months. Sure, it was a small publishing house, but that didn’t matter. Someone was paying him real money to print his words. He lifted his face to the sun and drew the brisk November air into his lungs. He knew it was a bit on the cliché side, but he didn’t care. When life feels like a dream, stop and drink it in just in case you wake up.

As he walked down the street his phone buzzed in his pocket. He glanced at the screen and saw it was Mom. There was a time in his life he wouldn’t have answered the call. He would have felt put out that he even had to make the decision in the first place. Since the surgery, though, he answered all of Mom’s calls. Even when he didn’t feel like it.

“Hi, Mom,” he said.

“Hey, Jackie,” his mother said on the other line. “How was your meeting?”

“It hasn’t happened yet, Mom,” Jack laughed. “I’m headed that way now.”

“I just wanted to let you know that I love you and we’re so proud of you,” she said.

“Thanks, Mom,” Jack said.”I love you too. Give my best to Dad.”

“Sure thing, honey,” Mom said. “Talk to you soon.”

No sooner did he hang up the phone did he get another call. Then he got a text. Then an email. It was like this all the way across town. The old Jack would have ignored them all. He would have promised himself to get back to each and every one of them later. He never would. The new Jack answered each call, each missive, with a compulsory tenacity as he made his trek across town right up to the doorstep of Elemental Coffee Company. After one final text, he switched his phone off and went in. As always the rich smells of the coffee house struck a chord in him that sent the caffeine monkey on his back into a frenzy. The insanity of the morning commute had long passed and now the coffee house was populated by smattering of artists, students, and wayward 20-somethings without much in the way of responsibility other than burying their nose in a book.

Jack often looked on this last group with a smattering of envy. He had no memory of himself as one of these people. The logs Jackson recorded didn’t really focus much on this time of his life – probably because the details of these years had a lot to do with the Woman. Ah, well. No use dwelling on a past he couldn’t remember.

He took note of the artists in the room. There were three in all. There was writer, like himself. A young man hammering furiously at the keys of his MacBook, all fire and indignation. He probably fancied himself the next Hunter S. Thompson. Who was Jack to judge? Maybe someday he would be. He silently wished the young man luck as he turned to a young Indian woman recording musical scales on neat staffs. She had a small black case by her knee, and Jack wondered briefly if it were a violin or a ukulele. He watched for a moment as she carefully plotted each note. She stopped looking at her work, and tapping her pencil on the page. Jack realized that she was tapping out the beat, and probably playing the notes back in her head. The art of composing music fascinated him. Whenever he had the rare opportunity to see it in action he was a shameless voyeur.

He left the composer to her work and looked to the last artist, a designer of some sort. She had a sketchbook open on the table before her and she was drawing something on a tablet. The light spilling through the window lit her auburn hair in shades of flame and gold. He found that color striking and he filed the image away in his mind for a character to be named later.

“Hey, Jack,” said the barista. She was pretty, fresh faced with a silver ring through one nostril and her golden hair plaited in a braid that wound around her skull. Strands had come loose at the temples, and there was a light sheen of sweat on her brow. Her gray v-neck tshirt was stained in spots from splashes of milk and coffee.

“Hi, Aubrey,” Jack said. “Rough morning?”

“Yeah,” Aubrey said with a tired smile. “One of my fellas called in sick, so we were short handed when the zombie hordes arrived for their morning jolt. Shit went sideways for a while, but we’re back on track. I’m going to have to have a firm conversation with Ben about the difference between a hangover and the flu.”

“Well, that’s why you’re the boss, right?” Jack asked.

“Right,” Aubrey snorted. “The usual?”

“Please,” Jack said.

Aubrey moved with the mechanical efficiency of a person who has served too much coffee in her life. “How’s the poetry coming?” Jack asked.

Aubrey shrugged and cast a guilty sidelong glance at Jack. “Not as well as I’d like. When I sit down to write, I can’t seem to get out of my own head, and I’m sitting down to write less and less these days.”

“I’ve been there,” Jack said. “But keep at it. If it helps, writing is a lot like sex: it’s exhausting, sometimes painful, and riddled with feelings of inadequacy, but ultimately fulfilling.”

“Sex is not always fulfilling,” Aubrey said.

“I guess from the female perspective that can be true,” Jack said. “But it helps when both partners are on the same page.”

She stared at him for a moment. “Puns? I’m disappointed in you for groping at such low hanging fruit.”

“I’m not sorry,” Jack said. “Sometimes the low hanging fruit is the most ripe.”

She handed him his coffee. “There is a wisdom in your analogy, I suppose. But you forgot one more similarity between sex and writing.”

“Oh?”

“Both can be performed naked,” she smirked.

This sort of banter was common in their exchanges, but it was harmless. For starters, Aubrey was a lesbian. So even if Jack entertained romantic notions, they were lost on her. He didn’t, though. He met Aubrey and her wife, Chezare, in a local writers’ circle right here in this shop. They were the first new friends Jack made after his surgery. They were the first new pieces of his new life and he treasured their friendship.

Jack saluted her with his paper cup. “Well played,” he laughed. “I expect a email this week with a new poem.”

“Yes, Professor,” she saluted.

On a whim he decided to sit at a table across from the designer. He did this for two reasons: first, because he really wanted to steal a peek at what she was working on. He couldn’t see it from the counter, and anyway graphic art is something best admired up close. He also wanted to take some notes about how that hair gleamed in the shaft of sunlight. Descriptors like that don’t come along often and it’s best to write them down so you can use them later.

Glancing at the sketchbook, he stopped. Depicted was a single character in several positions of action and rest. A thin girl in worn clothes and leather buckles; goggles were strapped to her forehead, ready to protect her eyes from a dust storm or some other natural phenomenon. Her face was smudged with dirt and in each drawing her head was held high, and her hair caught in an unseen wind. In spite of her slight form she looked strong, and proud. She reminded Jack of a Willow tree. Always swaying and bending to the elements, but refusing to break.

“Excuse me,” said a voice. “Can I help you with something?”

Jack pulled his eyes away from the sketchbook to the face of the woman. The light lines at the corners of her mouth and around her eyes told Jack she was about his age, and that she was no stranger to laughter. She was actually quite stunning, if he was being honest. He realized that he was looming over her.

“Oh, God, I’m so sorry,” he said. His ears began to burn as he took a step back. “You caught me. I intended to steal a glance at your work on my way to my table. It was a lot more interesting than I expected.”

She looked at him for a long moment as if trying to tell whether or not he was telling the truth. Finally, she smiled and said, “Well, as long as you were looking at my sketches and not down my blouse, I think we’re okay.”

Jack nodded his thanks and sat at the table next to her. “What’s her name?”

“Rust,” the woman replied.

Jack arched an eyebrow. “An interesting name. Does she have an interesting story to go with it?”

“The details are still fuzzy on that front, but I think so,” the woman said.

“In a broken land on the mend, I met a girl named Rust,” Jack began, looking at the sketches. “Her father named her the ruin of his life, but she was the renewal of mine.”

The woman stared at him.

“Sorry,” Jack uttered an embarrassed laugh. “I make up stories for things I see sometimes. It’s a habit I’ve recently developed. I’m a writer.”

“Are you?” the woman asked. She turned to him, interested. “Have I read anything you’ve written?”

“Probably not,” Jack admitted. “Unless you read a lot of online journals or sci-fi fantasy anthologies.”

“I do read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, actually,” she said. “But no anthologies. Mostly novels.”

“Ah, well maybe you’ll read something soon, then,” Jack said. “I’ve got a meeting over at Aegis Publishing in about an hour. My first novel will be published next year.”

“Congratulations,” the woman said. “So do you mind if I write down what you said? It actually helps give shape to a side plot I had.”

“Yeah, but I’ll have to charge you a licensing fee,” Jack said.

The woman blinked.

“I’m kidding,” Jack laughed, raising his hands. “How much of an asshole would be if I charged you for words inspired by your work? Take it, by all means. The words were yours before I spoke them.”

“Thanks,” the woman said as she scribbled the riff on the sketch of Rust.

“So what is it for?” Jack asked, gesturing to the drawing. “Work or pleasure?”

“It began as pleasure,” the woman said. “Then I had the crazy idea to put this concept for a role play video game online as a crowdfunding project and the enthusiasm was overwhelming. Now it’s a lot of work. I’m doing all the coding, art, and writing myself. A musician friend is composing some music for it in her spare time. We plan to launch it on Steam at first and port it to consoles if it does well.”

“Sounds rough,” Jack said. “I love RPG’s but I don’t let myself play them very often. It’s way too easy for me to get sucked in.”

“After this, I may never want to play one again,” she said with a laugh. She studied him for a bit.

“What?” he asked.

“Nothing,” she said. “You just remind me of someone I used to know a long time ago.”

“Hope that’s not a bad thing,” Jack said.

“Not at all,” she said. “We had some good times.”

“Good,” Jack said. “You know, for a minute there you looked at me like you knew me, and I got really nervous.”

“Why is that?”

“Well, it happens sometimes,” Jack said.

“Are you that popular?” she asked with a smirk.

Jack liked that smirk. He smiled back. “Not at all. Have you ever heard of Declarative Amnesic Syndrome?”

She nodded. “That’s when you know things like math, reading, and history but don’t recall anything about yourself right?”

Jack nodded. “About six months ago I underwent neurosurgery to remove a tumor. I woke up perfectly functional, but with no recollection of who I was, where I came from, or what I did for a living. It’s not uncommon that I run into people for whom I have no memory at all, and have to explain to them why I don’t know them. Half the time they don’t believe me, and even when they do they look at me like I’m a dragon with 5 heads. It’s awkward no matter how the scenario plays out. For a second there, I was afraid you were a former acquaintance and I was acting like we’d just met.”

“No,” she said. “You’re off the hook there. This is our first meeting.” She looked at him for a moment. “So you really had to learn to be yourself all over again? What was that like?”

“Surreal. I spent the first week in cognitive identity rehab. I had all of these video logs I recorded for myself and others from people in my life telling me who they were, and offering up memories of our relationships.”

“Sounds sweet,” she said.

“You’d think so,” Jack said. “But I had no emotional connections to the faces telling me these stories. For those first three months I would run into someone on the street that made a log, and they would expect our relationship to just pick up where it left off. They dump all of this information on you and then send you out into the world as if you’ll just slide right into your old life like riding a bike. Some of it is easy. I spend most of my day as a copy editor, so I didn’t lose out on those skills. I didn’t forget the English language, grammar, usage, or formatting.  It was easy enough for my company to reacclimate me to the projects in my portfolio, and turn me loose to do the job. On a personal level, though, the rehab doesn’t work so well.”

“How so?” she asked.

“Because the rehabilitation process doesn’t account for context,” Jack said. ” When I met my parents for the first time after the surgery, they hugged me and all I felt was an uncomfortable violation of my personal space. Rehab handles information fine, but doesn’t give it any value to the person receiving it. Intellectually, I knew they were my parents, but it wasn’t until a month of dinners, movies, and long conversations over bottles of wine that they started to mean anything to me. I didn’t even really begin to love them – to identify with them in that familial way – until about a three months ago. I’ll never tell them that. I wouldn’t want to hurt them, and I really do love them. Now anyway.”

“I thought conditions like yours just stripped away the memories,” the woman said. “They say that you’re still the same person underneath.”

“The doctor’s told me when I underwent the procedure that my personality wouldn’t change,” Jack said. “That I’d still have the same tastes, passions, opinions, and sense of humor I had before. This is somewhat true, but not entirely. Meeting yourself for the first time can be unpleasant. Think about it: how much do We keep to ourselves? How many jokes do you keep to yourself because they might be inappropriate or just too abstract to explain out loud? How many opinions do you keep because the fight just isn’t worth the trouble? Now imagine if someone with your face walked up to you and started just giving you all this information without reservation. she would do so because she feels safe telling you everything. She expects you to understand. To relate. But it doesn’t work that way.”

The woman shifted in her seat and leaned closer. “But you did get there, right? You found a way back to who you were?”

Jack shrugged, and sagged back in his seat. He stared out the window. “In some ways, sure. I still love to read. I write more than I did before the surgery, but it was always his passion to write as well. I like brussel sprouts, English beers, and pretty much any asian cuisine you put in front of me. These were all things he liked as well.”

“But there are differences. One of the things my doctors suggested I do to reacclimate myself was to mimic some of his passions. Treat it like muscle memory in the hope it takes hold and provides a sense of comfort that eases the cognitive dissonance. So I picked up Moby Dick. He read it every year, like clockwork in September. About halfway through, I realized I didn’t care. Fuck Moby Dick and fuck Melville.”

The woman snorted in surprised laughter.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Jack smiled glancing at her. “I recognize the importance of Moby Dick as a work of literature. Everyone should read it once in their lives. But whatever life experience he had that created a lasting emotional resonance – a professor, late night conversations, what have you – is gone. I can’t connect with it in that way, and life is too short to read things you don’t enjoy.”

“Moby Dick made me realize that the doctors were wrong. I wasn’t the same person. Personality is largely informed by life experience and the emotional context that comes with those experiences. Just as I had to learn to love my parents again, I had to learn who I was. This realization opened up my options, considerably. Sure, I could have become the exact same person as I used to be, but why bother? Why pretend?”

“Wow,” the woman said. “So you’re telling me that you hijacked another man’s brain to start your own life?”

“Well, when you put it like that, it sounds creepy,” Jack complained.

“Because it is a little creepy,” she argued. “What about the man you were before? Isn’t there any part of you that feels obligated to be that person? How would the old you feel if he knew you thought Moby Dick sucked?”

“He’d be mortified, I guess,” Jack laughed. “But I think he’d approve. The last log he recorded revealed a lot about who he really was.

The woman grew very still. Jack continued to stare out the window, his thoughts far away. “What did it say?” she asked.

Jack turned to her, an expression of mild surprise played across his face. She felt her face flush and she looked away, embarrassed. “I’m sorry – you don’t have to answer that. It was an inappropriate question.”

“Maybe a little,” Jack admitted with a grin. “But good questions are often inappropriate.” He fell silent, and she thought he was letting the subject drop. As the silence lengthened she struggled to find something to say to fill the void.

“A lot of the video logs he recorded seemed strange as I watched them,” Jack began. “I could tell they’d been edited pretty heavily. Sometimes he spoke to someone who wasn’t there. I assumed that there was someone off camera and the microphone wasn’t picking up the other person’s voice. The last log helped it all make sense. He was married. She left the night before he went under the knife. Near as I can tell – after whatever was said between them – he went into his study, used some sort of software he’d gotten from a programmer friend to scrub her from the footage, and then recorded one last log for me.”

“He explained this in that last recording. And then he just kept talking. He spoke to the camera all night; you can watch the sunrise in the window behind him. I won’t tell you what he said. He’s still a part of me, and I don’t really know you. Certainly not enough to air out that much of my past. He was furious, at first. He kept referring to her as “The Woman,” a reference to Doyle and Irene Adler, the one criminal to foil Sherlock Holmes. Once the fury ran out though, I realized the truth. He was heartbroken.”

“Well, yeah,” the woman said, sadly. “What kind of person abandons their spouse before brain surgery?”

“It wasn’t that,” Jack said. “Sure, he was angry, scared, and feeling abandoned, but he was genuinely heartbroken. He loved her with everything he had, but somehow lost sight of that. He made them both miserable. They wanted children. They wanted to buy a house. They wanted to go to Europe. They never did any of it. In fifteen years of marriage, they never started their lives, because he was afraid of failure and bitter with himself for his own flaws. He poisoned their lives.”

“I poisoned both our lives.”

“For a while, after watching the logs I fell into a habit. When I woke up and looked in the mirror I used to ask myself one question: What if she had held on for one more day? Would she have stayed? Could she have loved me enough hang on? I was angry at her for months- this faceless woman who had walked out on me. I even decided to look her up and confront her about her callous, selfish behavior. While the program could scrub her out of the video logs, surely there was something out there that could tell me her identity. She couldn’t erase the public records that tied us together.”

“Did you?” She asked quietly. She looked pale and wan in the morning sun.

“No,” Jack sighed. “Because I realized that who I was really angry with was myself. The real question I was avoiding asking was: Why couldn’t I make her stay? The answer still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Because I didn’t even try; because I was a self-absorbed coward. I realized that I was hanging on to his anger. His habit of shifting the blame. So I let it go. I let her go. And I started writing. And that road eventually brought me here: to a budding career as a published, though part-time, writer. This isn’t the version of the future he used to daydream about, but it’s closer than he ever got.”

“I’ve forgiven him mostly. I have to, or I’m just punishing myself. Still, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to a little bitterness. He loved her so much. For as arrogant and self absorbed as he was, she must have been spectacular. He robbed me of knowing her. Of feeling the love he felt. He robbed me of my chance to make her love me. Of my one more day.”

“So why not look her up?” the Woman asked.

“Because it doesn’t seem right,” Jack said. “She wanted a life without me in it. And who knows? Maybe I wouldn’t feel the same way about her. I do hope that she’s happy, whatever she’s doing. I hope she’s found what she’s looking for.” He looked at his watch and sprang to his feet. “Oh, I gotta go.” He stopped and looked at her after shrugging into his jacket. “I’m sorry. This was very heavy conversation to have with a stranger. I just dumped a lot of baggage on you that you didn’t ask for.”

“No,” she offered with a smile. “It was actually quite therapeutic in a way. We can all be strangers in our own heads sometimes. It’s nice to know we’re not alone when it happens.”

“I had a chunk of my brain carved out and replaced with synthetic gray matter,” Jack smiled and winked. “What’s your excuse?”

She laughed. “Just let a girl think she’s not crazy, okay?”

“Fair enough,” Jack allowed. He pointed at the bottle on perinatal vitamins on the edge of her table. “Congratulations by the way. Boy or a girl?”

She seemed startled by the sudden shift of topic, but recovered quickly enough. “A girl. Just a couple months left in my third trimester.”

“Cool,” Jack said. “I bet Dad is excited.”

She shook her head. “He’s not around anymore.”

“Ah, jeez,” Jack said, eyes going wide. “I’m sorry – ”

“It was my decision,” she said. “And probably the best one I could have made for all of us.”

“Okay then,” Jack said, and turned to leave. He stopped at the door and turned back. “I’m sorry, but I didn’t even introduce myself. My name is Jack. Jack Harkins.”

“It’s been a pleasure, Jack Harkins,” the Woman said. “I’m Vanessa. I look forward to reading your book when it comes out.”

Jack smiled. “And I look forward to missing deadlines because I’m too busy playing your game. Maybe we’ll see each other again sometime.”

“I think I’d like that,” Vanessa said. Her smile lit the room and struck Jack in the heart like an arrow.

As Jack exited the shop he felt a flutter of excitement. He stopped, raised his face to the sky and took a deep breath as he had just hours before outside his apartment. The exhaust of downtown traffic tainted the effect a little, but he didn’t let that dampen his spirits. It just let him know that today definitely wasn’t a dream and that filled him with a sense of overwhelming joy that followed him all the way to his meeting.

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