a short story in nine parts.
A ringing office phone snapped Treat back to the present and he returned to his desk. Most of his coworkers had left for the day. A slab of manuscripts sat atop the desk, what he jokingly referred to as the Lovecraft Mountain of Madness. The red message light on his phone flashed. Another author with questions. He gazed at the computer screen: 4:25 p.m. Close enough, he thought. The message would keep until Monday. Last thing Treat wanted was a half-hour debate with an author about the proper use of past perfect .
He knew too well the arduous commute that awaited. Peak volume on the 708 with the addition of travelers headed out of town for the weekend. Treat shut down his laptop and, grabbing hold of a shoulder bag and jacket, strode toward the elevator banks.
The hot and humid summer air assailed Treat’s face the moment he stepped outside, a bitter contrast to the air-conditioned exterior. Treat’s joy at having escaped the office immediately faded as he glanced across the street and watched the 708 pull away. Typically, another bus would arrive in ten minutes. But this was Friday, where gridlocked roads and overheated vehicles made for spotty commuter service at best. Eight blocks west, at 14th and Walnut ran the 9 bus, an alternate to the 708 but with local stops. If he walked fast, Treat could reach the bus stop of the 9 in as many minutes. Usually he wouldn’t bother. His commuter existence was built on a simple routine—to and from work via the 708. Why mess with routine? Except that he wanted to be out of Combustible as quickly as possible. Standing at the sidewalk and pondering whether the trek to the 9 was worth it, Treat gazed upward. The 29-story Hammer Building and its neighbors towered over him like immobile behemoths. He felt momentarily cold despite the outside temperature. Deciding to abandon routine, Treat began walking toward Broad Street.
By Combustible’s standards, the walk from 5th to 14th via Walnut was, as a matter of course, nonthreatening. He’d walked the path many times, day and night, when he’d lived here. Treat passed the Washington Hospital at 7th and the Theatre District, a three-block stretch of traditional and avant-garde performance centers. Small businesses and restaurants, as well as several vacant buildings, stood hunched between the theaters. Treat likened Combustible to a modern-day Hydra. Each fallen business seemed, more often than not, to be replaced by two more. Treat looked at the strangers he passed, each, like him, moving with urgency and determination. A sea of nameless faces.
The white Impala crept slowly toward 10th and Walnut and rolled past Treat. A passenger from within the vehicle tossed a half-full soda can toward a trash receptacle. The throw missed its mark by over a foot and the can landed on the sidewalk before rolling back into the street.
“Asshole!” Treat yelled out to the Impala as the car blew through a red light and vanished. The soda can slowly rolled further into the busy street and was smashed flat by a city-owned recycling truck.
The late-afternoon sun continued to burn. Any previous cloud cover had long since passed, and the temperature was expected to continue to rise throughout the evening. Tiny beads of sweat ran from Treat’s neck down the small of his back. His forehead was also aglow with perspiration. Five more blocks, he reminded himself, determinedly.
NEXT: Skylined continues.