The Space: A Short Story (Updated)
This idea popped into my head between last night and this morning. I talked it over with Lady Aravan to nail down the idea, and wrote it today. Hope you like it.
Ralph Ebbets gripped the phone tightly in his damp fist, hating the whining edge that crept into his voice. “Honey, I packed my lunch today, and – “
His wife’s voice cut him off sharply. “Oh, heaven’s sake, Ralph,” and he hated the way she used his name as a contemptuous weapon, against which he could raise no protest for it was but his name, “your son is going back to school today and he wants to have lunch with his father before he leaves. Can’t you change your precious routine for one day?”
Ralph knew the battle was lost, had known it the moment the phone rang and he heard his wife’s voice informing him of the new lunch plans. He fought grimly to retain his dignity as he capitulated, knowing that it didn’t matter much since Sandra knew he didn’t have any left, at least as far as she was concerned. A pair of muttered sentences later and he was off the phone, able to return to his work but now committed to leaving at 11:45.
The distraction of knowing that he was going to be leaving midday interrupted his concentration throughout the two hours he had before he needed to leave. The precise ordered lines of the spreadsheet gleaming whitely at him from the monitor as always, but he had trouble returning to his task of filling in the neat little boxes with the numbers that waited patiently on the reports in front of him. A sudden jolt of concern over whether he should take Route 2 or the interstate to reach the restaurant would interrupt him, or the dilemma of whether he had time to make a new mug of tea and allow it cool enough to finish before he left, or some other thought conspiring to destroy the ordered rhythm he normally enjoyed in his world of balance and precision.
It was with a mixture of relief and irritation when he rose from his chair at 11:40, giving himself five minutes to don his coat, take the elevator to the lobby, then descend the two flights of stairs to the subterranean parking garage where his car awaited him. For five minutes he worried and wondered over whether he should take the interstate or Route 2. As his car nosed out slowly into the drab grey light of the day, Ralph Ebbets saw that it was already 11:47, and anxiety plucked at the tatters of his soul.
“Hey, Pop, didn’t expect you to show up.” Chris gave his father a brief hug as Ralph shrugged out of his long woolen coat, the material trapping his elbows to his sides so that Ralph could only squeeze ineffectually at his son’s waist. “I know you don’t like leaving work during the day.”
Ralph answered with an absent nothing as he flashed a barbed look at his wife across the table. Sandra’s defenses were formidable, however, and the dart flashed uselessly off the walls of her self-regard as she kept her eyes elsewhere. He settled into his chair while his wife and son continued the conversation they’d been involved in before Ralph’s arrival, something about Chris’ school. He gingerly took the menu from the table in front of him and looked down its offerings, searching hopefully for a turkey sandwich on white toast with lettuce, a single slice of tomato, and a thin sheen of mayonnaise and mustard to match the neglected and useless lunch left sitting forlornly on his desk. He was unsurprised that there was none to be had.
Sandra’s tone cut through his concentration, as she knew it would since she used her veiled-edge tone, the one she reserved for discussions of her husband in front of him. “I’m just thankful that you aren’t studying accounting like your father,” she said, “or else you’d be condemning yourself to a life of numbers and columns and spreadsheets for the rest of your life.”
“There are plenty of numbers in engineering,” Ralph interjected testily, but Sandra dismissed his statement as mere quibbling with the flick of four fingers of one hand.
“Look at him,” she went on, “forty-five and already looks older than my daddy.” Ralph’s teeth clenched at daddy, a word that should be forbidden to a woman over forty. Only the truth of her words prevented him from mounting any defense against her. With his soft paunch in the middle and the tonsure he’d developed on the top, he did look older than her father, whose silver hair was dignified and shoulders still set square at seventy.
“Hey, Mom, c’mon,” Chris said in his mollifying tone, “leave off him, OK? Pop’s fine. Just needs a little exercise, eh old man?” His son’s comradely elbow didn’t nettle him the way Sandra could, and his words settled the married pair into the dormant state common to his visits. The talk returned to Chris’ schooling and the position Sandra’s father was going to give him at the firm when he graduated next year. The pleasantries continued through the meal, until Ralph began to worry about which road he should take on the way back to the office.
Ralph glanced worriedly at the clock on his dashboard as he pulled into the shrouding darkness of the parking garage below his building. He had just three minutes to park the car and return to his office, or else he’d have taken too long for lunch. The knowledge that it was unlikely to matter to anyone in the building was immaterial: it mattered to him.
His shoulders hunched unconsciously as he drove under the massive ceiling of concrete and steel as the ramp drew him further down among the rows of parked cars. Once, when he’d just finished his first three years at the insurance company and was thus allowed to park in the garage beneath the building, he’d thought about the tons of steel and glass and concrete and people above him in his little car, gravity pulling all of that weight down and down above the hollowed-out hole in the earth where he and his car sat. The vision of it all collapsing inwards had given him the shakes for a moment until he firmly put it out of his mind by doing a quick balancing entry for a hypothetical amount of deferred rent on a long-term lease. That had calmed him, but on some level he was always aware of that feeling as he drove into the lot.
He slid slowly down among the ranks, past all the prime spots near the first level’s stairs as normal, until he sighted his normal spot, the same one he parked in every day. It wasn’t one of the better ones, as he no wish to compete for it daily, yet was still on the first level. When he arrived every morning at or near 7:20, there were never any cars near his space, and he would back in calmly and surely and walk with satisfaction to the nearly empty floor where his office sat waiting to enfold him and hold him until the evening.
He felt a sudden rise of joy in his heart when his spot appeared to be still empty, awaiting his return from an unaccustomed midday trip. The sudden rise made the falling feeling even worse as he realized the SUV parked next to his space was hiding the car crouched there, in his space. Ralph frowned and drove on, further and further into the depths of the garage.
This is why I don’t go to lunch, he thought petulantly. All the people that did drive willy-nilly during the day would pull into whatever space was open, and leaving during the day meant that he always ended up driven down into the bowels of dripping beams and girders searching for some spot among the latecomers and castoffs. It just upset his routine, and the routine was very important to Ralph Ebbets.
Ralph awoke the next morning, thin vestiges of yesterday’s dark clouds that had hung over him all day still remaining. He turned the alarm off testily, feeling tired from a sleep that wasn’t like his usual rest. As he slid on his slippers, he thought reassuringly of the Tuesday morning that awaited him, arrayed neatly like a checklist just waiting to be ticked off.
Walk downstairs; feed dog.
Pick up the rightmost box of cereal; fill bowl; return cereal to leftmost position and herd boxes back against pantry wall.
Add milk; eat cereal.
Rinse bowl and return to leftmost corner of sink.
Pack lunch; prepare tea.
Return upstairs; brush teeth, turn on shower.
Shower: soap first on washcloth; wash chest, then groin, then right leg, then left, up left side to armpit, down left arm, switch to right shoulder, down arm and back up to armpit, then upper back then lower back. Flip washcloth; scrub face. Rinse. Shampoo. Rinse. Repeat as necessary.
Towel off; comb hair; apply deodorant; shave; rinse face.
Dress: underwear on; pants from rightmost hanger; shirt from leftmost hanger; belt. Socks to match belt, shoes to match socks.
Return downstairs; pick up lunch, keys, and tea.
Enter garage; open car door; deposit lunch in front seat, tea to cupholder; sit, start car. Open garage door, back out, close garage door.
Enter parking garage.
Back into space.
Ascend stairs to lobby; take elevator to 11; punch in access code; enter office; turn on computer; put lunch on desk.
Ralph Ebbets sat, knuckles white as he clutched the steering wheel, unable to tick off part of his mental checklist. His eyes were sharp as they stared hatefully at the car that sat, alone in the entire row, in his space. There were a multitude of spaces available, better ones than this, yet here the car sat, in his space as if it belonged.
He was sure that it was the same car from yesterday. Bluish-silver, non-descript newer sedan with the vanity plate in front even though it didn’t need one there. He’d passed only a handful of vehicles in the garage, and there were all manner of open spaces directly by the stairs, but instead this interloper was here, in HIS SPACE.
Several minutes later Ralph backed his car into a different space, two over from his normal one. He seethed inwardly at people who parked in corporate garages and left their cars there overnight, like the spots were their own personal garage. He banged his door on the concrete wall that wasn’t supposed to be there when he parked, gritted his teeth, and stomped upstairs.
Ralph navigated his day testily. He’d forgotten his lunch in the car, and had needed to clump down in front of everyone to go retrieve it. He somehow managed to shift an entire line of data in his spreadsheet so that the numbers he’d spent most of the morning entering were in the wrong place. He’d even bungled the formula for vetting the numbers he entered and didn’t notice until he’d turned in the work to his boss, who had to coldly inform him that there was an error and that he should look into what he’d done. He snapped moodily at the girl who placed his mail in his inbox about interruptions.
What a terrible day.
“What in the hell is your problem?” Sandra snapped after Ralph cursed at Snuffers when the Pekingese darted in front of his feet as he walked into the kitchen.
Ralph dropped his keys onto the counter with a sharp clack and huffily took off his coat. “I had an awful day at work,” he tried to snap back, but the cringe that crouched in his words rendered it more of a weak flick.
“Well Christ,” Sandra volleyed, “what happened? Your boss yell at you or something? Did you mess something up?”
Ralph answered before he thought. “Someone parked in my space.”
Flustered, Ralph blurted, “I was dealing with the auditors again. Those people just drive me crazy.”
“Oh,” Sandra answered disinterestedly, eyes already set back to the images flickering on the television in front of her. “Well, you better take your attitude somewhere else if you’re going to act like that. I don’t want to hear it.”
Ralph muttered noiselessly as he stumped upstairs to change his clothes (work pants to leftmost hanger, shirt to rightmost hanger) and brooded silently through dinner and two hours of House Hunters.
In the morning, the car was still there.
Ralph wasn’t surprised. He backed into a different space, one actually a little closer to the stairs and with the wall on his right, like his old spot had. He got out of his car and walked away from the stairs, towards the car that still waited in his place.
He didn’t know what he was looking for, what signs he might see that indicated the car had been left for two nights (instead of someone getting into the office even earlier than he, and deliberately choosing this spot over all the rest). There was nothing that he could see, no cobwebs or dust indicating a sense of abandonment which Ralph had to also acknowledge wouldn’t be present over such a short time anyway, but wanted to see. He looked at the car, newer than his, shinier and cleaner too, with its meaningless vanity plate NYLAHOTP (nyla hotplate? his mind tried to translate automatically. New York Los Angeles Hot Pee?), as it sat smugly occupying a place in his life, unbidden, unwanted, and unlooked for.
He spied a small Styrofoam coffee cup in the litter along the walls, and with three quick steps retrieved it. Looking around for observers, he crept to the vehicle’s rear, bent down, and slid the dented white cup in front of the car’s rear tire. He snatched his hand back and stood, heart beating quickly as if he’d escaped a bite from a caged animal.
The noise of tires on concrete made him turn and walk briskly towards the stairs (Nylaho toilet paper?). He moved as if he’d done nothing strange or untoward and wanted everyone to note that fact as he made his way to his office.
During the day, Ralph called his wife to let her know he’d be working a little late. Her tone was suspicious, but he explained pitifully that he needed to get caught up on a last-minute project that had come up. She didn’t seem satisfied when he got off the phone, but he didn’t care. He was going to stay two hours later than normal to check on the car.
That evening, as he left, the cup was gone. It wasn’t among the debris scattered along the walls or on the ground anywhere he could see. Ralph Ebbets had to restrain himself from spitting on the car’s hood.
The car was there the next day, and the day after. By Friday, though, Ralph had come to accept the new space he parked in. It was closer, after all, and he still arrived early enough that there was no competition for it. He was getting used to it, and other than a glance of distaste at the car that still obstinately held onto his old space every morning and every evening, he rather liked the new routine. It made him feel fresh, like he had a new start. Sandra noticed his new attitude in the mornings and questioned him about it, and his vague explanations of getting a new start to his day seemed to set her teeth on edge and narrowed her eyes in suspicion. Ralph knew better than to try to explain about the car.
Over the weekend, he thought vaguely of going into the office to see if the car was there. It was like a burden lifted off of his shoulders when he realized that it didn’t matter if in waited in the old parking space, the place he used to park in (Nile hoe tip?). He had his new space now.
Ralph slammed his hands into the steering wheel with enough force to leave bruises, over and over, as he screamed in rage. His space, his new space, wasn’t waiting empty for him on Monday morning. Instead , a car, that car, sat in his space, backed in just as Ralph himself would have, idiotic moronic stupid vanity plate staring out at him (Nilla hopped?) as it sprawled between the straight smooth yellow lines that delineated his space.
A horn blaring self-importantly behind him shook Ralph from his frenzy, and with a snarl he drove savagely down the spaces that separated his old space from his new one. He jerked his car into place roughly, needing to pull out and back up again several times to get it between the lines. He slammed his door onto the tail of his coat, and didn’t care when his brutal yank tore the lining as he freed it. He stalked fumingly up the row, baring his teeth at the car as he stopped, barely suppressing his desire to drag his keys in angry strokes across its unpitted paint, wishing he had an awl to jam into its tires and stab into the hood.
He looked around quickly and suspiciously, but the garage was still quiet this early. Frank stepped quickly around the grinning grille to the passenger’s side and stretched a hand towards the hood to see if the engine was still warm. Just before contact, he stopped, fingers splayed and hovering, like a man on a bet whose hand was about to pass the bars of a lion’s cage. Frank Ebbets’ fury carried him through the primitive nameless fear that gibbered silently at him in the unused recesses of his mind.
His hand dropped onto the car.
The thing was warm under his fingertips. The surface felt just ever-so-slightly slick, as if his skin rested on a millimeter-thick skim of oil. He jerked his hand back with a sudden revulsion, rubbing his thumb quickly along the violated fingertips. He looked at them quickly, but could see no trace of the substance, nor did his thumb detect any fluid. A careful sniff revealed nothing, as if whatever had been on the surface of the car had slipped instantly through his pores to leave no trace.
Frank took a slow step to his left, craning over to see inside the slightly-tinted (illegal in this state, he thought peevishly) passenger window. The interior seemed sedate and normal. A yellowed playbill lay carelessly on the seat, torn and battered looking, and only “The King” remained legible to him, the rest obliterated by a jagged tear. He narrowed his eyes to see better as he leaned slowly forward.
The lines and edges of the car seemed wrong somehow, and he noticed a fine powdery substance lining the cracks and corners throughout. Just looking at it made his mouth dry and he could almost feel the grit of sand under his fingers. Ralph Ebbets hated the beach and the relentless way the sand infiltrated every crevice, seeping into his shoes and socks somehow to cluster hungrily between his toes.
His frown called his attention to the window in front of him. Ralph’s face looked back at him, only it was inside the car, trapped inside the car with all of the sand, helpless to escape as the vehicle took prowled the night streets, looking for the right theater to present a unique wonder of a play. The face inside the car looked horrified, mouth open in silent scream as hands stretched towards Frank in helpless supplication.
Frank pushed himself away from the door as a rumbling car stole past him and descended deeper into the garage’s depths. He snatched his hands away quickly from the warm oily door. He hated this car. The loathsome thing remained coiled in his parking space, expectant but unmoving, and the pulse pounding in his temple and muscles clenching in his jaw were well on their way to giving him a headache, but Frank didn’t care. He wanted his space back. He would get his space back.
His call to Sandra telling her he was staying late ended in bitter, angry words, and he still didn’t care.
Ralph Ebbets came to work earlier every day, and left later every night. The car was always there, mocking him as he walked past it each way. He noticed little shifts in its position, as if the driver wanted him to notice that it was being moved, but only when he wasn’t there to see it (Nyla hot pink?). Despite his longer hours, he was getting less work done every day. He looked up websites purporting to provide information on drivers using license plates during work hours, to no avail. He ate his lunch in his car, watching everyone walking in the garage, waiting for someone to enter the silvery cocoon in his space.
Sandra fought with him constantly, barking about his moods and his hours, and he’d snarl and sleep in the spare bedroom. She accused him of all manner of things, drug use, affairs, criminal activity, and he ignored her every carefully aimed word. Only when she’d started crying did he notice her, and that was just to tell her to quit blubbering and leave him alone.
Ralph Ebbets awoke on Wednesday morning, a strange but welcome calm enfolding him. He went through his morning routine (Nile a hot place?) almost dreamily as he contemplated the idea that formed during the night. He was going to get to the bottom of this.
He walked into his bedroom (old bedroom) and looked for a moment at the steel box on the top shelf of the closet. Inside, nestled in carefully carved form-fitting foam, was his Glock. He’d gotten it years before, after Chris left for college, from a gun store (and vaguely remembered the bemused salesman asking what type of weapon he wanted and he’d replied a Glock, and the man continued to ask what type of gun he wanted and he’d insisted carefully on a Glock, until the smirking man had finally sold him one) of course, and kept it carefully cleaned even though he never used it. He thought about sitting in his car, just holding it, waiting for the driver of that car to come out, and then asking the driver a few questions while the driver cowered in fear.
Ralph turned away from the thought, pleasurable though it was, and coldly informed his wife that he would be out all night, and that he would return after work the following day. He turned his heel on her questions, and left calmly for work.
Instead of his customary scowl, he gave the car a knowing grin as he stumped past it. He worked steadily all day, completing projects that had lingered unfinished for the past couple of weeks. He smiled and greeting his coworkers as he passed them in the halls, startling a few and prompting some good-natured conversations about getting over the hump. A dark cloud would occasionally pass over his features (Not your lane to park?) but never stayed longer than an eyeblink. Promptly at his normal day’s end, Ralph shut off his lights, tipped a wave to the receptionist, rode the elevator down to his car.
Instead of leaving the garage, though, he pulled out, drove thirty or so feet, then smoothly backed into a space across from the car. Ralph killed the engine, looked at his supply of books, magazines, and carefully wrapped sandwiches, and unclipped his seat belt. He settled in to wait, for however long it took.
Most of the sandwiches were gone. Several magazines were discarded haphazardly on the floor. A book lay open but inverted, its spine cracked as it lay helplessly face-down on the imitation leather seat. The digital clock blinked dutifully over to read 11:42, and waited to update itself in another minute.
Ralph dozed accidentally, mouth slack, a thin line of drool thickening as it dried on the left side of his chin. His sleep was light and furtive, and he started awake every few minutes, eyes blazing open to fix on the car ahead of him before looking around for whatever noise awoke him. Each time he would lean back, eyelids drooping, eyes skittering back and forth before they were enclosed in darkness once more.
As the clock waited until the proper moment to display 11:43, Ralph lurched awake from some dimly heard noise. The car sat patiently across from him. He noticed something odd to his left and turned, then screamed hoarsely.
A hand was pressed against the glass, inches from his face, a plump hand with long wicked nails that tapered to curved points. Beside it the shadowy form of a head peered in through the glass, glimmering eyes the only feature that were clear as they bored into his own, arresting him as he sat helpless and quivering in his seat. Something else lay to the right of the head, long and metallic, and Ralph screamed again, knowing that only his watcher could hear and screaming anyway.
The image blurred as his door was yanked open and the voice shrieked at him.
“Where is she!?”
Ralph’s heart beat painfully in his chest as he panted. The voice, Sandra’s voice. No apparition in the night, no haunted custodian of the lot, no demon come to bear him away squirming and writhing. His wife.
The slowing heartbeat pained him slightly as it thundered in deceleration. “Honey, I – “
It was never a surprise when she cut him off. “Don’t ‘honey’ me,” she yelled, thrusting the strange object in her hand towards Ralph’s face, “where is your whore? Is that her car?”
Ralph felt slow, confused. Her? Whore? (Not yours, lame ass, hers only to play?) Huh?
He barked a laugh suddenly as comprehension dawned in his eyes. “Oh, god, not that again,” he laughed, “it’s the car, the car in my spot, I’m waiting….” He trailed off as he looked at the thing she’d thrust into his face. The black cool metal looked oily in the flickering fluorescents of the garage as Ralph saw it for the first time from this angle (always careful to never point it at himself even when cleaning). It was his Glock.
Sandra had his Glock. And was pointing it at him as she raved. Was it loaded? He didn’t think she knew how to put bullets (or was it shells? Cartridges? He was never sure which was right) in it, but what if she had? This was dangerous, very dangerous.
“Now, honey, I don’t think you – “
The loud noise the weapon made when it discharged didn’t interrupt his sentence. It was the bullet (for that is what went into Ralph Ebbets’ 9mm handgun) that cut him off as it smashed into his forehead, making a small, almost dainty hole, before exiting from the other side, creating a much larger, messier hole, from which a great deal of things that used to matter very much to the man splattered and ran down the passenger window in thick, streaky glops.
Sandra lowered the pistol, half her work done. She reached down and pressed a button on the door with one manicured nail, causing a little piece of plastic to jump from each of the other doors (and sending a small gobbet of something flying momentarily from the passenger side to land with a small splat with similar fellows on the seat). She shut the driver’s side door and stalked across the front of the car, sending a look of intense hatred to the other car across the way.
She didn’t spare a glance for the objects on the seat that she contemptuously flung to the floor with a dismissive swat of her hand, nor did she hear the splot or feel the wetness as she sat in the seat. Her face was grim and intent as it stared ahead. (Nyla hot pumps? Never your life, always his only to pay?)
She sat and waited for the driver of that car to arrive.
She could wait a long time.