I put the phone to my head.
“It’s me,” Cookie said. I could hear traffic in the background.
“Where are you?”
“I’m out,” she said. “I was running an errand for work, when I realized: it’s over. I can’t go on this way.”
I don’t think I said anything.
“Please,” she said, “just give me this.”
“Why?” I asked, like I didn’t know.
“You have trouble finishing things,” she said. “And even when you do finish something, there’s always the next thing and the next thing. There’s always going to be something else.”
“I always want to be working on something.”
“And you never finish anything, you never do.” She stopped herself before she got too emotional. “Just to be clear,” she said, “the story I’m telling our friends is that I’m the one that broke up with you, and that it was your fault.”
“Okay,” I said. “Why wouldn’t I give you that?”
“Don’t say that,” she said. “You don’t get to say that. You never gave me anything.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Just give me this,” she said again.
“Sure,” I said again. “You’re sure?”
“I’m very, very sure.”
“Okay,” I said. “You know, I always loved you,” I added.
“And I love you,” she said with singsongy emptiness. “I just never really cared for all your, you know, all your ideas and everything.” She sighed. “I really only ever thought about how it felt walking down the street with you on my arm.”
That would echo in my head for years to come.
“Goodbye, then,” I said.
“Oh,” she said. Did I catch her by surprise? “Oh,” she said. “Goodbye.” Then she hung up.
I sat on the floor of my apartment cradling the phone for a few minutes, unwilling to move from that position. I called Mentor.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey,” he said. There was a long pause. “You should come over,” he said. “Andy’s coming by.”
I nodded, as though he could see me. “Later,” I said, hanging up.
As I pulled myself upright, I became aware of how every step took me further away from the place where I’d still been in my relationship with Cookie. I stood on the balcony as the evening leeched away the heat of the day. Staring at my hands, I felt no connection to anything that had happened more than ten or fifteen minutes earlier.
Next thing I remember I was over at Mentor’s. Jeff was there, and Andy, and three or four other people, everyone subdued. I delivered the news, but they already knew — it must’ve been clear by how my shoulders were hung as I walked up to the door.
I didn’t stay long, I thought. I had no interest in getting hammered, and though I appreciated the company, I generally did feel better when I was alone. After a round of “Sorry, man,” I left.
On the way to the car, tripping lightly in the dark — when did it get so dark? How long had I been there? — the strangest thing happened to me.
I know I’m a little crazy, but I also know exactly how crazy I am. Yet, this next thing happened.
A voice spoke to me, as plain as could be — two voices, actually, a man and a woman’s voice at the same time said three simple words: “Don’t be afraid.”
It sounded somehow like the most true thing I’d heard in years. And it sounded like an order.
It really did not seem to have come from inside my head. It seemed to come from just behind me, from my right and slightly above me. I kept walking down the slight incline of Mentor’s front yard, though I slowed, tilting my head back slightly just to check. No one was there.
As I walked around my car, got in, buckled up, I played back my memory of the voice.
It hadn’t sounded like someone trying to sooth me. It hadn’t sounded like someone feeding me a platitude about how everything would be okay. It sounded like what someone would say after they’ve strapped you into the experimental rocket sled of your own unintentional devising, explained to you what you have done, and then walked away to press the ignition when they felt like it. It was the most frightening way you could possibly tell someone not to be afraid.
“Don’t be afraid,” I told myself, starting the car, but I was, suddenly I was, I was very afraid.
Three days later, I walked out to my car — which I was still paying for, would be paying on for three more years — to drive in to work to find on the sidewalk two black, triangular pieces of canvas where my car used to be. They’d been cut from the vehicle’s convertible roof. The car had been stolen.
I called my insurance company first. They had cancelled my insurance the day before, because I’d missed two payments. It’s not like I didn’t have the money. I simply hadn’t done it. I’d been too worried about the book.
Two days later, Steve called me into his office.
“We’re not shipping this,” he said, pointing at a printout of the book I’d been working on for the past year. “It’s simply…not good. Take the weekend, and see how much of it you can rewrite. Rewrite the whole thing, if you need to.” He pulled out big chunks of it — the introduction, the fiction that I’d written, the game mechanics that I’d invented myself — and set it all out apart from the rest of it. There wasn’t much remaining.
“I understand,” I said. I stayed late at work. Jeff gave me a lift home. Every time we passed a little red convertible that looked like mine, I’d crane around to get a look at the license plate. They all looked like mine, but they never were.
“That all really sucks, man,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
The next morning when I woke up, I found my roommate asleep, half-naked, in the living room, a small stove-pot of macaroni and cheese that he’d cooked himself for dinner the night still resting loosely in his hand, tipped over onto its side, the macaroni so firmly gelled together that none of it had spilled out onto the floor, wooden stirring spoon sticking out at a nearly perfect 45° angle.
The phone rang again. Another grandparent — my dad’s mom — had a stroke. I couldn’t even drive to Weatherford to see her.
So I called Jeff, to see if he could pick me up. When he answered the phone, I opened my mouth but no sound came out. When I pushed, I got, “Juh-juh-juh-juh—”
Oh, no. I bit my lower lip, hard.
“Derek?” he said.
Breathing out very slowly, I said, “Yes,” and then, “Hey.”
“I’m not coming in for a while — maybe an hour? Can I call you then?”
“Mmm-hmm,” I said. I could hum just fine.
After hanging up the phone, I reached into my head for the places where I’d hoped that voice — those voices, any voice — might have come from. I’d just spent a year writing about angels, gothic and flashy. The voices I’d heard for that briefest of moments that night, and which I never heard again, had been some other thing entirely, and I couldn’t see how I could hack my way back the feeling of certainty I’d held when it or they had spoken to me. I’d even lost control of my own voice.
I remember thinking: I’d better be learning something.