The Care Package was first published in Reading Hour, Volume 5, Issue 5 in October of 2015.
It's included in the short story collection An Unsated Thirst available for PURCHASE.
Larry Hunt opened his door and walked into the brisk morning air. The trees on his block were vibrant. Reds, yellows, and oranges. Far outnumbering the few patches of green that remained. Fallen leaves lay scattered across the yards and sidewalks. The day was chilly, not yet cold, but definitely a noticeable difference from the high heat of the summer months. Larry shivered and zipped up his fleece. The hair on the back of his arms clung to the sleeves as his arms moved beneath them. The air was dry, full of electricity and static.
Larry shivered again and clutched the envelope more tightly against his body. The letter-sized envelope was yellow and heavy duty, a forever stamp graced by Madame Curie stuck to its upper right corner. A clumsily written address, scrawled as if by the wrong hand, stretched across the center. No return address. The envelope could not come back.
Larry stepped off his stoop and began his eight block walk to the mailbox. The weight of the envelope was both a comfort and a curse. There was no way he could lose track of such a hefty envelope. It was a solid weight in his hand. He held the envelope so tight that its edge pushed into his palm. It felt far heavier than the thirty notes inside.
The morning sun peeked through the branches overhead, its blinding light intermittently shaded by the trees that grew along the street. Oaks, elms, maples. They all provided the same comfort. The same sense of not being trapped in a world of concrete and cruelty. Sidewalks that would have once been flat when built now rose up like rolling hills in a meadow. The concrete pushed heavenward by the slow and tireless heaving of the roots beneath. It was a quiet morning. Few people around. No one to watch his sojourn. No one to see him shake, pulsed by tiny vibrations of anxiety.
“Of course it has to be cash, you damn fool. Do you think these are the kind of people who want you to send a cashier’s check or your credit card information? They want you to know nothing about them and for them to know nothing about you. That’s how these things work.”
Teddy’s tone had been akin to lecturing a small child on the realities of the universe. Teddy, a long time drinking buddy who enjoyed Miller Lite in tall boy cans. Teddy, a Dale Earnhardt look alike who would be unnoticeable if he didn’t look so out of place everywhere he went. Teddy, the man who knew how to take care of things when things needed to get done.
Larry shifted his focus back to the world around him. He couldn’t let himself do that. He couldn’t let himself think too much about what he was doing. It was crazy. It was absurd. If he thought too much about it he would probably lose his nerve. He would probably turn around and walk back to his house, and that would solve nothing. It was better to distract himself. Better to catalog and analyze the world around him, rather than the memories and thoughts inside his head.
Old Mr. Cavanaugh worked in his front lawn, raking up the few leaves that had already fallen. The old man had worked in a factory back when people still worked in factories. He had put in his time and finally retired on the insistence of his wife. Old man Cavanaugh had once said he considered it the biggest mistake of his life. He had been working his entire life. It had not made sense to quit just because his time on this world was growing late. The old man stopped his early morning raking just long enough to wave hello to Larry and exchange pleasantries. Larry returned them, but did not stop walking. He did not want Cavanaugh to see the cold beads of sweat that covered his brow.
Life had been simpler in the Navy. They told you to get up, you got up. They told you to eat, you ate. They told you to shit, you shit. Every part of a person’s life had been directed, out of their control. Every minute was timed and planned. One did not have to think in the Navy. As long as one got their work done in a timely and satisfactory manner, one was free to do whatever one wanted. As long as whatever one wanted was exactly what their superiors wanted them to do. There had been something comforting about having absolutely no control. Something nice about being a single cog in a much larger organism. Larry missed the Navy. Larry wished he had stayed in like some of his friends had. But that time had come and gone. The greatest comforts had seemed like the worst prisons at the time. Larry shook his head as he walked. There was no use in dwelling on things three years in the past.
Cross a street. Turn and look both ways. Childhood drills that never really go away. There were no cars. No one in their right mind would be moving so early on a Sunday morning. The neighborhood would soon come alive. People walking in their Sunday best, the smell of frying bacon, the laughter and pounding feet of children as they rushed down stairways. Soon the neighborhood would be like an old Folger’s commercial. But not yet. At that moment all was quiet. Just the soft breeze moving tree branches like the skeletal hands of death rubbing together in anticipation. The tinkling of wind chimes played a sad melody in the cool crisp air.
“This has to be taken care of. This is not something that can be ignored.” Teddy had been most insistent, and he was right. This was something that could not be ignored. “I’ll take care of this. I know some people, people back east, people who know about garbage.”
There was no doubt that Teddy did. Teddy knew about these things. Teddy knew people. Teddy was quiet about his work. He rarely talked about it unless coaxed with friendly words and offers to buy a couple more rounds. Larry had heard him talk about work only a few times during the long years of their friendship. Teddy worked for himself, but himself worked for the government.
“Like a contractor, you know, someone who knows how to get in touch with the right people to get your house built.”
Another street. Larry started across. Before his first step hit the ground he heard the frantic ringing of a bell and an adolescent bellow of warning. Adrenaline rush. Larry raised his head and dodged as a bike whizzed past down the street. Its rider, a pinched faced twelve year old, his local team baseball cap worn backwards and a large bag of Sunday papers hanging from his shoulder. The boy turned to curse at Larry as he sped past, but once he got a clear look the boy’s eyes widened and he turned back, his mouth still closed, and rode off down the street. Larry did not recognize him. He was not the neighborhood’s paperboy. Probably just passing through on his way to his own delivery area. Larry settled his breathing, let his beating heart slow, and continued walking towards his goal. How had he let himself get so distracted? He needed to keep himself focused. He needed to keep his mind clear.
“Be sure to take care of Amy. Always watch out for Amy.”
That is what Larry imagined his mother would have told him, if she could have before she slipped away forever. It had been his mother’s mantra when he was a child, beaten into him by its repetitiveness. His mother had been gone for two years, but it still drummed inside his head.
“Protect. You must protect your sweet innocent sister.”
It was like an order from a C.O. It was not something that he could question. It was a fact of life. It didn’t matter that Amy wasn’t really sweet or innocent. He had been born the older brother and that’s what older brothers did.
Amy had always been a stubborn child. No one could ever tell her what to do or how to live. It took all of their mother’s strength just to force her through college so she could have a real job, a real life, not be like their mother. Amy looked nothing like their mother. Their mother had been dark haired, short, homely, quiet, and subdued. Amy was blonde, tall, loud, and undoubtedly a looker. There was one thing she had in common with their mother. She was undeniably attracted to douchebags and assholes. The lineup of boyfriends Larry remembered from their time in high school were all the same. Kids who thought they were big shit because they had nice cars and nice clothes. The kind of guys who wrapped their arms around a woman like they were giving her a headlock. The kind of guys who thought they were the center of the world.
It was too bad. Amy had been a sweet girl. Obnoxious at times, but caring. She had always just wanted someone to care back. Larry cared, and their mother had cared, but it wasn’t what she was looking for. Larry could understand. There was a difference when the person wasn’t obligated. That had always been their mother’s problem. It had to have been hard for her, and lonely, raising two kids on her own. She had done the best she could, but had always craved what she had been denied. Their mother had been desperate to be in love. Amy never had a good role model.
When Larry came back from the Navy to live with and take care of their mother, he had discovered that Amy hadn’t really changed. Yes, she had grown into a beautiful and confident woman. Yes, she had a good job at a marketing firm. Yes, she had a nice car. Yes, she had a fancy apartment in a posh neighborhood. But the douchebags still remained. A reminder that perhaps it was all a just a veneer surface. Proof of the cracks that still existed in her psyche.
A car drove slowly up the street from behind him. For the briefest of moments Larry had an uncomfortable feeling that the driver was watching him, following him. He refused to turn his head to look behind him. He was just being paranoid. Nobody could know. Nobody had any idea. Well, nobody but Teddy, but Teddy could be trusted. The car drove by up the street, neither speeding up or slowing down. A dusty blue four door Hyundai Excel, a fat middle-aged black woman at the wheel in a Sunday dress and hat. Larry chuckled to himself and his own paranoia, but he quickened his pace as he crossed another street.
Soon his chore would be done. He just needed to hold himself together and control his thoughts for a little bit more. Larry tried not to dwell on the delivery of his envelope. He tried not to think too hard about what it contained. One step after another. Each bringing him one step closer. Study the cracks on the sidewalk, watch the clouds blow across a slowly brightening sky, think about the breakfast that he would make when he got back home. Eggs, sausage, pancakes, and a big glass of orange juice. It all flitted through Larry’s mind in the blink of an eye. Look at the world. Think about whatever you want. Just don’t think about what you’re doing.
“Everything will be taken care of, don’t worry about it, there’s nothing to worry about.”
Teddy had told him that so many times that he had actually started believing it. He had never liked Nick. There was something about him that just made you instantly dislike him.Something in your subconscious, something from the ancestral days on the savannah, that just told you to beware of that kind of person. Amy had been dating Nick for a year. From the very first time Nick had shook his hand, squeezing harder than Larry just to show he could, Larry had known that Nick was nothing but trouble.
Nick was an ex-Marine, not big, but imposing. He was a good looking guy. His haircut remained in the classic jarhead shave. He tended to wear sports jackets over tight jeans and a tight shirt. There was something in the way he moved, something that went beyond being sure of yourself to being cocky about yourself. He was tall and handsome. When he talked to you he had the uncomfortable trait of staring you right in the eye, never averting his gaze. He made Larry uncomfortable as hell. He made Amy swoon.
Larry had tried to like Nick. He had tried for Amy’s sake. He just couldn’t get himself to do it. There was just something off about the guy. Larry had followed his gut. He had done some checking with some old friends that were still in the military. The prognosis had not been good. Nick had gone into the Marines because he had been a troublemaker. He’d hung out with the wrong crowd, been involved in drug using and dealing. Nick had continued to get in trouble several more times while he was in the service. Larry had tried to tell Amy. She had just laughed, pulling her hair away from her face in that way she always did. Nick had told her all about it. Nick was a changed man. Larry had gotten in plenty of trouble when he was younger, but it didn’t mean he was a bad guy.
Larry tried to like Nick again. He told himself that Amy was right, people did change. Larry was not the same person he once was. Nick had gone into the Marines for many of the same reasons Larry had gone into the Navy. Larry tried having more one on one time with Nick. Tried to get to know him better. He had even taken him out for drinks one time with Teddy. Teddy had hung around for only half an hour before excusing himself to go home. The next time Larry saw Teddy the statement had been short and to the point.
“You need to get rid of that guy.”
A blue bird flew in front of Larry, startling him out of the depths of his mind. It rushed by in a flash of blue and landed on a low branch not far ahead, bursting out a harsh chirp to greet the morning, chastising him for walking around at such an early hour. Larry stared at the bird as he walked by, studied its plumage, examined every facet and detail as though he was trying to commit everything to memory. The bluebird studied him back, but did not find him near as interesting, so flew off. The bluebird was safe. The bluebird was good. The bluebird was not something Larry was afraid to think about. He wished it had stayed.
He hadn’t been there when it had happened. He might not even have known about it if it hadn’t been for Amy’s roommate Leslie. She was a perky simple redhead who worked as a secretary at the same marketing firm as Amy. She had seen all of it. She had seen Nick and Amy arguing. Leslie had watched Nick get more and more frustrated at Amy. She had heard him raise his voice time and time again. She wasn’t sure where the tipping point had been. She was walking back from the bathroom when she saw Nick grab Amy by the arm and Amy shake him off. Then the punch, straight to the face, Amy on the floor, Leslie and the other patrons in stunned silence. Nick left. Amy and Leslie took a taxi home. A week later Leslie had called Larry. She was worried.
Larry had tried to talk to Amy. The things she said had scared the shit out of him. She was not leaving Nick. He had been under a lot of pressure. He’d been really stressed out. It was partially her fault. These things happen. He felt terrible about what had happened. It would never happen again. Excuses, excuses, excuses. Just like their mother used to make for their father before he finally left them forever to go spread misery elsewhere. Larry hadn’t known what to do. Amy wouldn’t listen to reason. Nick was a Marine, an imposing burly Marine. There was no way Larry could kick Nick’s ass.
Teddy had known what to do. Teddy didn’t even hesitate in bringing it up as soon as he heard the story. “There’s ways to take care of these things.” Teddy had told him what to do as they sat at Larry’s dead mother’s kitchen table, sipping tall boys. “These things can be taken care of. You don’t want to throw your own life away for some piece of trash. Garbage men clean up the trash. That’s why we have garbage men.”
Houses gave way to businesses, their doors and windows locked, slumbering until the start of the day. The big blue mailbox sat on the corner. Larry opened the hatch. He held the envelope in his hand, but couldn’t push it forward. It was absurd. The whole thing was crazy, sending the envelope through the mail. Larry felt the envelope with his hand. He could picture the contents in his mind. Three thousand dollars in cash, a picture, and a typed noted describing home address and favorite haunts. How could anyone fail to recognize what was in the envelope? How could anyone picking it up not know? The contents felt so obvious to him.
None of it made any sense. This didn’t seem like the kind of thing you could just mail off for, like the decoder rings from the back of his childhood comic books. It all seemed too simple, too out in the open. Could this really be how it was done? Was there really some box in some post office where things like this were sent? Did some innocuous looking man come in to check the box every day, walking past unknowing patrons shipping packages and buying stamps? What about the name on the envelope? Surely it wasn’t a real name, but could a fake person get a post office box? Was nobody checking? Was nobody watching?
The envelope was in Larry’s hand, poised upon the brink. Maybe all his doubts were just in his head. Maybe his anxiety was just getting the better of him. Maybe the contents of the envelope were obvious to him just because he knew what was in it. Maybe this was the way things were done, right out in the open, just under everybody’s collective noses. It really didn’t matter. Larry didn’t have a choice. He could turn around, walk back to his house, and nothing would get done. But then what?
Larry pushed the precious envelope down into the dark depths of the mailbox. It fell to the bottom with a satisfying clunk. Its contents were out of his hands. Larry felt great weight lift from his shoulders. Whatever else happened now, it was out of his control.