Tools of the Trade

Mike Jolson’s fury over the killing of his wife draws the attention of powerful mystical beings, with whom he makes a devil’s bargain. In exchange for revenge, he will become their servant in the mortal world—an arrangement he comes to regret as time goes on.

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When Mike Jolson loses his wife to a drunk driver, he’s devastated by her loss. When the driver gets away with it, his rage attracts the attention of powerful mystical beings. He makes a deal with forces he doesn’t fully comprehend, and, in exchange for his revenge, becomes their servant in the mortal world.

Mike can’t remember what happens while he does their bidding, and loses chunks of time, forcing him to work alone in his home rehabbing business. Matters come to a head when strange things begin to happen in his “normal” life and his self-imposed isolation is challenged by new friends. Can he figure out what he’s agreed to do, and for who, before what he doesn’t know not only hurts him, but also spills over onto the new people in his life?

I woke up and grabbed for my watch. Seven in the morning, about seven hours after I went to bed. That was a good start. The date showed that it was the next morning, so I wasn’t missing days or anything. No, I’m not a blackout drunk, or on drugs, and don’t have amnesia. We’ll get there.

My name is Mike Jolson, and no, before you get cute, I’m not related to Al. I can’t play the piano. Trust me, you don’t want me trying to prove that. No one wants that.

I managed to not reach for the empty side of the bed. I count that as a victory. I still do that more often than I should. It’s been three years. I looked at her picture and made myself get up. No feeling sorry for myself, no wallowing in pity or depression. I had things to do.

I sleep on a mattress and box spring on the floor. Some say I’m a minimalist. I say I’m simple. It works for me. The bedroom is mostly bare — a collapsible clothes rack, covered in plastic sheeting, a milk crate full of books, and a large tool box with my leather tool belt on top of it. I have a small night stand next to the bed with a clock on it, and Gail’s picture. That’s about it. Like I said, simple. There’s a full bath behind a closed door.

I kicked off my sweats and got dressed — jeans, t-shirt, button flannel over that, work boots, tool belt over my shoulder, ball cap — Red Sox. I’m working in Massachusetts right now, so it seemed like a good choice. I’ve been to a few games at Fenway, it’s a good park.

It wasn’t bad for an October morning, so I didn’t need gloves or a jacket or anything. I pushed through the plastic over the door and went into the rest of the house. It’s a work in progress. Literally. But it’s better than it was when I bought it. That’s kinda the point.

The kitchen is the only other usable room in the house right now, or at least the only other finished one. I turned on the coffee pot, job one. As that started going, I went to the fridge, and pulled out eggs, bread, and bacon. Hey, I work hard, and breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Plus, it’s one of the meals I’m best at, although you have to be careful when you say that. It ends up sounding like a cheesy pickup line half the time. That can get problematic fast, let me tell you.

I turned on the radio to see if anything really important was going on in the world. I don’t care a lot about current events, but if someone declared war or something I should probably know about it. I scrambled up the eggs, went back to the fridge to get a bit of milk to add, and some shredded cheese. A bit fancier than scrambled eggs, easier than omelets. I fried the bacon, cooked the bread in the grease —it’s good, shut up. And no, I’m not really worried about cholesterol—, poured some coffee, and ate while I planned out the day.

Ever hear the one about “Announcing your plans is a good way of making God laugh”? I’m not religious, but it applies anyway.

The “news” was mostly about stars I didn’t know in movies I’d probably never see. The weather, the important part today, said sunny, cool, and bright. Perfect. I finished eating and put my plates in the sink, filled up a thermos with coffee, and let myself out. The door locks, at least. That’s one of the first things I fix in a new place. Someone stole my tools once while I was away, and that got ugly on a few levels. It was one of the first times my two lives blurred together, but that’s a story for later.

My truck was also where I’d parked it, not something I take for granted. I have a locking metal cover for the bed, and store some things there, too. I work alone, mostly. Occasionally I get to a part of the job that just can’t be done solo, but I can usually find someone for a day or two. I do have a few friends, and hell, I can always just go down to Home Depot and pick up a few “temporary employees” in the parking lot. But today I could do on my own. I unchained my ladder and stood it up against the house. Currently, the house was a sort of faded beige, but that was something I’d fix later. Seriously, beige? Who thought that was a good idea?

I made sure the ladder was steady, and climbed up to make sure there were no surprises waiting for me. There weren’t. I went back down the ladder, back inside, got my tool belt on and went back up. Yes, it might have been quicker to go out with it on, but I’m not in a hurry, and I prefer to make sure things are set. I can move faster without the tool belt. Sometimes, that’s important.

The house wasn’t huge, and I had a whole day ahead of me. It wasn’t quite light yet, but almost. Close enough. The house had enough land around it that no one was right next door, and it was a weekday, so I figured I could just get started.

Ripping up shingles isn’t hard. It can be monotonous, but it was easier than it should have been, anyway. I don’t know when they last had the roof done, but it had been a while. I’d yank the shingles up, walk them to the edge of the roof, toss them in the dumpster I rented, repeat. Here’s something a lot of people don’t know. When you work with shingles, they leave behind bits of asphalt I’ve always thought of as crumbs. That’s what they look like. If you let them get under your boots, you can have a nasty fall, followed by a slide, followed by a much longer fall. I prefer not to do that, so I walk with a kind of careful, brushing motion with my feet as I go. It’s a technique that works for some kinds of fighting, too.

I enjoy my work, and I’m pretty much used to being alone now. Mostly. I keep playing with the idea of getting some of those earbuds and some music, but I like being able to hear what’s going on. About an hour in, I sat on the peak of the roof and took down my thermos from where I’d left it on the edge of the chimney. I cover that with some scrap wood when I’m working, it makes a decent table and stops stuff from falling in that I’d have to clear out later anyway.

I sipped the coffee, enjoyed the October sun, and looked around. It was an average neighborhood in small-town America. There were trees, yards, a church steeple rising up above everything a few miles away. It was a nice view, really, and one most people don’t get to see. I have no problem with heights, obviously, and this was a nice place. Hayden, Massachusetts is a lesser known suburb of Boston. No important battles were fought here in the Revolutionary War, so pretty much no one who’s not from here has heard of it.

Cars passed on the streets below, as the normal office types went off to try for that next promotion. I felt sorry for a lot of them. Some of them deserved that kind of life, and some of them actually enjoyed it, so they were on their own. But a lot of people spent their days at a desk under florescent lighting because they either didn’t know they had a choice, or were too scared to try something else. To follow what their heart told them was what they were supposed to be doing. Ok, done waxing poetic, back to work.

A few hours later, I had the shingles all off, and the tar paper under them gone, and had gotten almost all of it in the dumpster. I don’t care who you are, you’re occasionally going to miss. That’d be the kind of thing an assistant or an apprentice would clean up after you, if you had one. Or a partner that didn’t do heights and ladders. Me, I’d clean it up towards the end of the day. But for now, lunch.

Back in the kitchen, I heated up some soup. I’d found a decent bakery in town, and sliced off a few pieces of bread to go with it. Ok, canned soup isn’t exactly gourmet, but it’s cheap and quick and, if you know what to get, some of it’s pretty damn good. After lunch, I got my work broom and some rope, and went back to the roof. The rope I tied around the chimney. The broom I used to get rid of as many of those asphalt crumbs as I could, to get the new stuff laying down as smooth as possible and so I didn’t fall to my considerable pain, if not outright doom. Not that a fall from here would probably kill me these days.

After I had a clear work space, I spent some time examining the wood of the roof. I’d done that from the inside, of course, but it didn’t hurt to double check. It all looked good, no rot, breaks, or pieces that needed replacing. Sometimes things go more or less simply.

I used the rope to haul up rolls of tar paper, and spent a while tacking that down, then started actually replacing the shingles. Roofing is always hard work, but it’s brutal in the summer. That was why I was just as happy to be doing it in October. I had a good day and was really in the zone. Shingling isn’t hard as long as you know what you’re doing and don’t screw up the way you lay them down. Do it right, they keep water from getting to the wood. Do it wrong, you’ll get rain and melted snow doing bad things to your roof as soon as they can. I finished the shingles off just as twilight was setting in. Not a bad day’s work, if I do say so myself. A shower and a beer sounded great, and were part of that plan I was talking about earlier.

I made sure I wasn’t leaving anything up on the roof, and then went down, tossing a few more bits of trash to the dumpster. I’d come back up tomorrow and double-check everything. Feeling very satisfied with myself, I half-climbed, half-slid down the ladder, and landed lightly on the balls of my feet.

I turned away from the ladder, which was when I noticed the man in the suit standing there. I’m not wild about uninvited guests, and I’ve had very little go well for me when suits were involved. I frowned at him, and didn’t bother to hide my irritation. “Help you?” I asked. My framing hammer was still looped around my wrist by the tie-line lanyard. You always tie off tools when you’re working up high. That way, if you drop them 1) You don’t have to climb back down to get them and 2) they don’t land on someone’s head.

I gripped my hammer a bit tighter. At 5’10” I’m not the most intimidating guy, but I’m in damn good shape. The suit didn’t seem to care. “Mr. Jolson?” he asked.

I thought about asking who the hell else was going to be here, but decided I’d go with polite. “Yeah. Who’re you?” Ok, more polite, at least

“My name is Riley. I represent the Solstan family.” He waited for me to be impressed. I wasn’t from here, so I had no idea who they were. The moment passed, and I didn’t react with awe or whatever he was looking for, so he went on. “Mr. Solstan has heard about your work, and would like to discuss a project with you.”

“Mr. Riley, I don’t work for hire. I don’t do remodels for clients. Are you sure you’ve got the right guy?”

Riley was a really thin guy in a light grey suit. He had pale hair, thin glasses, thin lips. He looked like a stiff wind might blow him away. Sadly, there was no breeze. I guessed he was around 40, but I could have been off either way a few years. He gave me a humorless smile. “Mr. Jolson, Mr. Solstan is aware of your reputation for… independence.” He hesitated over the word like it left a bad taste in his mouth. “He’d like you to join him for dinner tonight to discuss the project anyway.”

What the hell, I didn’t have any plans anyway. “Casual ok? What you see is about what I got for clothes.”

He made another disapproving face. I was racking up the points with this guy. “Wear whatever you think appropriate, or you’re able to.” Yeah, he didn’t like me. That was ok, I wasn’t wild about him so far. “We’ll have a car here for you in an hour, if that’s acceptable?”

I shrugged. “Sure. But he knows whatever this is probably isn’t going to end up with me working for him, right?”

He gave me a smile I didn’t like but couldn’t read. “That is between you and him. I’ll make sure the car is here.” He left and walked back down the driveway to his car. It was getting dark, but I thought it was a Mercedes, maybe a BMW. Something like that. I went inside to clean up. Hell, I’d eat someone else’s food to listen to a job proposal, even if I was almost guaranteed going to turn it down.

It didn’t take me long to get cleaned up. I shower fast. I even found a decent shirt on the clothes rack after all. I took a quick tour around the house to make sure everything was secure, locked up, and sat on the steps by the front door. I could see the driveway from there, and the light by the door was enough to read by. I manage to find new authors through recommendations from people, and then I tend to tear through their books. Currently I’m on Craig Johnson’s Longmire series. I hear they made it into a tv show, but I don’t have a tv.

I was being amused by Walt and Vic when a dark car pulled into the driveway. The man who climbed out looked like he’d been around the block a few times. His nose had been broken at least once, and he had an old scar by his left eye. “Mr. Jolson?” he called.

“Yep. Right with you.” I put my book in the truck, locked that up, too, and walked over to him. “Thanks for the lift.” I reached out to shake his hand. “Call me Mike.”

“Tom,” he said. He had a very strong grip and I could see scars on most of his knuckles. He opened my door for me, which was weird, and then we drove off. Tom wasn’t a talker, and I didn’t have a lot to say, so it was a quiet ride. I reflected on how rarely I was in a car with someone else driving, and wondered if Tom was naturally bald or shaved his head. I hoped he wasn’t shaving it, his ears stuck out a lot and hair would have helped that.

The Solstan house was impressive. It was a big place, with a circular driveway. It was two stories, and stretched out along the property. I was betting the big guy who opened the door wasn’t Mr. Solstan. He was way over six feet, and looked like he spent a lot of time working out. Looking closer, it wasn’t show muscle, like a body builder. More like a swimmer or a runner. “I’ll take you to Mr. Solstan, Mr. Jolson,” he rumbled in a deep voice. We went through an entryway and a living room that had a huge tv on the wall and into a dining room. I was halfway expecting a big formal table, but it was a more friendly setting. The table would have looked right in a lot less expensive place.

At the far end of the table, a man was doing something with a tablet. He put it down as I came in. “Thanks for coming, Mr. Jolson. Thanks, Steve.” The big guy nodded and went back to the living room.

Mr. Solstan, or that was my guess, got up, pushing the tablet to one side on the table. He came over and shook my hand. I felt a tingle when our hands touched. Hmm. Solstan had Power of some kind. I wondered what it was.

He was wearing dark grey slacks and a light blue shirt with dark shoes. The outfit looked expensive, but he didn’t seem to care that I was dressed in mid-range Sears. “May I offer you some Scotch?”

“Sure, thanks.” He poured from a bottle that might have cost more than my truck, and handed me a glass. A small, warm fire burst on my tongue and was gone in a heartbeat. “Wow, that’s good,” I said. Ever the sophisticate, me.

He laughed. “Glad you like it. Let me show you what I’m thinking about before we get to dinner.” He picked up his own glass and went out through an archway.

“You know I don’t really do jobs for hire, right? I mean, I appreciate the attention and the interest, but I want to make sure we’re on the same page,” I said as I followed.

He nodded. “I think you’ll appreciate this. And, if you won’t do it, you won’t do it.” We ended up in a large empty room which might have been a really big home office at one point, or maybe some kind of sitting room. He gestured around. “What I want to do in here, always wanted this since the first time I saw one in a movie, I want to take out most of the ceiling,” he pointed up, “and make this a two-story library. You know, lots of book shelves, the ladder on rails, all that.”

I looked at the space, imagining the project in spite of myself. “Well, I like the idea,” I said, nodding. “What’s above this?”

He laughed again. “Interested in spite of yourself, huh? It’s an extra bedroom right now, but I’d rather have the library.”

I could see the possibilities. I knew what he meant, I’d always wanted one, too. “The reason I don’t usually work directly for other people, I have a lot going on with my family. I get called away sometimes with little to no warning, and I don’t always know how long I’ll be gone.” That was true, as far as it went. Mostly. Depending on how you define family.

“That’s fine. If you do this, I’m not going to be looking over your shoulder. The whole reason you hire an expert is they’re the expert. And there’s no rush. I’m on my own schedule these days, pretty much.” He walked out of the room, back towards the dining room. “So, interested?”

I had to admit I was intrigued. I’d never done anything quite like that, but I could imagine it. “I really don’t know how much time I can give it. I’m in the middle of doing a house right now.” I sipped again. Maybe he’d pay me in Scotch? “How’d you hear about me, anyway?”

“A friend of mine, Abe Howlett, bought one of the houses you worked on.”

I pursed my lips, thinking. “I don’t think I know the name.”

“Big place over in Bedford? Near the center of town?”

I nodded. “Ok, yeah, that sounds familiar.”

We’d been talking a few minutes now and I still had no real fix on how old this guy was. Anywhere from thirty to fifty, maybe. The dining room now had food on the table. Someone had been busy while we were gone.

Roast beef, potatoes, rolls, some kind of salad, and a bottle of wine took up a good bit of the table. “I understand you like to read, too?” Solstan, who told me to call him George, asked. We spent most of dinner talking about books, when I wasn’t shoving my face full of food. Damn, it was good.

“So, you’ll think about it?” he asked as we had a post-dinner Scotch.

“I can’t promise anything, and I don’t know when I could start. Plus you’d need permits and all the paperwork.”

“Riley can handle all that, it’s part of what I pay him for. Speaking of,” he took an envelope out of his shirt pocket and handed it to me. Inside were five hundred dollar bills and a slip of paper with a ridiculously large number written on it.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Consultant fee for coming by, and my initial offer if you take the project.”

“Well… thank you. That’s something to think about.” I guess some would have made some kinda protest about not taking his money or something, but I’m practical. Besides, it looked to me like he was doing all right. Tom drove me home while I juggled time-frames in my head. Could I do both projects?

I got out before Tom could open the door again. I really wasn’t used to that. I walked up the driveway, figuring I could still get some reading time in before bed.

“Hey, Mike.” The greeting didn’t quite make me jump, but it might have if I’d had one Scotch fewer.

The Ruiz family owned the house next door, and we’d gotten friendly. Carlos worked at a bank, and Elena did something at the hospital I’d never quite gotten straight, records maybe? Their young daughter Cathy was the one sitting on my steps. Well, young-ish. She was twenty-one, I remembered there’d been some joke about her birthday a bit ago.

“Kinda cold to be hanging out on the steps, isn’t it?” I asked. She shrugged. Her black hair was accented with pink stripes, which Carlos wasn’t fond of, I knew. There was some kind of tension over there, which I was doing my best to stay out of.

“Got the roof done today? That was fast.” She’d been interested when she heard I was redoing the house, which had been foreclosed on and then sat vacant for about six months before I bought it.

“No sense wasting time,” I answered, and sat down next to her. She moved over, giving us more space between us. “You ok?”

She shrugged again. Ah, the eloquence of the young having family problems. “You want to talk about it?” She shook her head this time. “Anything I can do?” I didn’t get close with neighbors as a rule, because they didn’t stay my neighbors for long. I bought a house, fixed it up, sold it, moved on. But the Ruiz family had been good to me, so I was making an effort.

She looked at me, started to say something, stopped, looked down at her feet, and then said something I couldn’t catch. “What?”

Cathy looked up. “Can you teach me? What you do with houses? I know it’s hard work, but it looks great. I want to learn.”

OK, hadn’t been expecting that. “If it’s ok with your dad, I’ll show you a few things. If you like it, we go on from there. I could use an assistant, but it’s going to be a lot of work if we do this. You know that, right?”

“Yeah, I get it. But you actually do something. You finish work, and you can see what you did. You’re not shuffling paper around on a desk.” Sounded like problems with the parents, but that wasn’t really my business, as long as she asked before she started working with me. Then she looked annoyed. “Wait, why do I need to ask? I’m twenty-one, I’m not a kid.”

“No, you’re not a kid. But if you’re going to start working with me, I’d rather make sure your dad’s cool with it. There is a chance you’ll get hurt, you know. I’d rather not have your folks find out when you show up at your mom’s hospital.”

She frowned at me but then nodded. “Ok, I guess that’s fair enough. When do you start working?”

“I usually get up around seven, eat, and get to work.”

Cathy stood up, and brushed her hands off. “OK. I’ll see you in the morning. You need a note from Dad?” I laughed, and she stuck her tongue out at me and left. Crisis averted?

I unlocked my truck, got my book back out, and locked it up again. I was coming in to the kitchen, telling myself for the hundredth time that I needed to buy myself a damn recliner when I heard, “Good evening, Hunter.” What was this, a conspiracy to make sure I didn’t finish my book?

There was a short man sitting on the kitchen counter. He wore a black suit, black shoes, a brilliant white shirt, and had black hair in a strange spiky cut. He was sipping from a tea cup. I knew I didn’t own any tea cups. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him.

“My name’s not Hunter,” I said, wondering how he’d gotten in and why I wasn’t worrying more about a stranger in my kitchen.

“Yes, I know, it’s your title. Do you really not remember anything?”

I took another step forward and felt something in me… rising, growing. I stumbled. “What is this?” I managed.

“You’re really trying THAT hard to keep your lives separate? You mortals never learn. Really, haven’t you read Freud? Or at least The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?”

“I… what?” I blinked, trying to clear my head, a roaring in my ears getting louder.

“You struggle so hard to pretend the rest of what you do isn’t you,” the man said. “You block out your memories in the name of denial. You called out to us. Is any of this ringing a bell?”

A part of me said, “This is why you keep going away.” My head swam, and I grabbed a chair. I managed to ask, “Are you taking me somewhere again?”

He laughed. “Oh, no, not at all. Not this time. I just popped in to warn you. Something has caused some unrest in our circles. The two lives you insist on thinking of, believing in, as two different things, may start bleeding over into each other.”

“And you’re here to help?”

He laughed again. “No, you’re mostly on your own, as you’ve seemed to prefer. But I thought a warning was the very least I could do for you. And never let it be said I didn’t do the least I could do for a mortal.”

A name floated to the surface of my sludge-filled brain, and a sliver of memory. “Karenadol. You’re supposed to be helping me. You’re the one I get my orders from.”

He looked mildly surprised. “Oh, is it coming back to you? You may have a chance then, however small.”

The flicker of memory failed, frustratingly vague. “Does your… Lord… know that I’m in danger from this?” Whatever “this” was.

Now he looked put out. “Oh, well, really, if you’re going to invoke THAT, I suppose I shall have to tell him. No good deed goes unpunished, or so I’ve heard, not that I do many myself. Take care, at least until I get instructions about whether I’m supposed to care or not.” There was no flash of light, strange sound, or anything else that would have happened in a movie, he was suddenly just not there anymore. I collapsed in a chair. I didn’t think I’d be reading after all tonight.

I eventually made it to bed, and had one of the strangest nights of my life. Nightmares that were partially memories played through my head. I knew that man, I did work for him, and it was something strange and eerie. The parts of my life I wasn’t looking at, like how I knew Solstan had Power or the speed I had finished on the roof were connected. It had something to do with Gail. Thinking of Gail was still too painful and I pushed that away.

I woke up feeling exhausted and out of sorts. I don’t usually shower in the morning, but I made an exception. I emerged still groggy, just wet also. This wasn’t looking like one of my better days. I got dressed, and stumbled down to the kitchen. I’d just gotten the coffee going when there was a knock on the door. I dreaded seeing who was there at this point, but it turned out to be Cathy.

She was wearing jeans and a light jacket, with some beat up sneakers. “This is about when you said you’d start, right?”

I nodded. “Coffee?”

“Sure, thanks.” She took a closer look at me. “Wow, rough night?”

“You have no idea.” I took one of my few extra mugs and poured for her. I took a few breaths, trying to focus at the various tasks on hand. “If you get serious about this, you should probably get some boots. They protect your feet better.” She glanced down at mine and nodded.

“What’s up for today?” she asked.

Points for enthusiasm, I thought. “Doing some work in the attic.”

“Roof, then attic. You working down from the top?” She grinned at me.

“Actually, yes, I tend to. That way I’m not hauling tools or materials past something I’ve already finished, so I’m not as likely to need to go back if I drop something in the wrong place.”

“Huh. Ok, that makes sense.”

Even that tired, my brain headed off one potentially bad route for the conversation. “Wait here a sec,” I said, and went back up to the bedroom to get tools. I could see no way inviting a twenty-one year old neighbor up to my bedroom would go well, especially when I was friendly with her parents.

I came back with my tool belt and handed her an extra hammer. “Up we go,” I said, and she followed me up a narrow back staircase. The house, or some of it, went back to the 1700’s, and a lot of it felt just sort of tacked together. We went down a narrow hallway with a ridiculously low ceiling —on my list— through another room, turned right into another short hall, and went up another flight of stairs. The attic was one large space with a window on either end, two on the far wall, and a floor that was made up of what I believed to be scrap wood hammered into place haphazardly.

“Wow, this needs work,” Cathy commented, looking around.

“Yep. Why we’re up here.” I walked her through the space, explaining the basics of what we were going to be concentrating on. We went back downstairs and out to the barn-like garage that stood at the top of the driveway. After I unlocked it, we grabbed the boards I had stored there, and went back upstairs. Getting long boards up those twisty hallways was not an easy job, and it taxed both our patience, so we took a quick coffee break after that. I talked her through how we’d be placing the tongue and groove boards to cover the ceiling joists and make the space look a lot more finished.

That was simple work I focused on for a few reasons. It was easy enough that it would give her a decent start. It needed to get done and was easier with two people. And it let me think since it wasn’t demanding.

I was still feeling very confused about my final visitor last night. I felt something like mental nausea as I realized how many things in my life I’d been ignoring, not letting myself think about. It was all tied up with when I lost Gail, I knew that. There had been so much grief, loss, and rage as that hell had happened to me, around me.

I’d put down any lack of clarity to a haze of depression. But that wasn’t right, was it? Something else happened. I met someone. I made a deal with someone. Or something. Dammit, why couldn’t I remember? It was tied to my disappearances, too. I’d lose hours, days sometimes. I told everyone else, I even told myself it was a demanding family. My parents were dead. I had an aunt and uncle and a few cousins I hadn’t seen in years. So what family was making demands?

“Hey, Mike? Earth to Mike!”

“Hmm?” I shook myself, wondering how long I’d been off in the Twilight Zone.

“I was saying, since we’re done with this part, is this a good time for lunch?” Cathy looked concerned. “Are you ok?”

I looked at my watch. It was already noon. I did my best to check out the attic, but she was right, we had finished the walls, barring the area I’d marked out for something else later. I was feeling sluggish, my thoughts slow and disconnected. “Yeah, I’m fine, thanks. Sure, take an hour if you want.”

She gave me an odd look, but left, pulling out her cell phone as she went down the stairs. I took a closer look at our work. Wherever my mind had wandered off to, the boards were fine. Everything was done right. I went down to the kitchen to make some lunch, and poked around disinterestedly. Nothing sounded appealing. I made myself eat a sandwich and kept myself busy by making a shopping list. I felt like part of my brain was breaking, or at least twisting under some kind of pressure. It was like a headache, but not strictly physical. The thoughts themselves hurt, if that made any sense.

I heard a car and looked outside. Cathy was back, getting out the passenger side of a small Toyota. I didn’t get a great look at the driver, just dark hair. Cathy waved, the driver waved back, and pulled back out and disappeared down the street. She finished off a Coke as she came in, putting the empty can in the barrel I was using for recycling. “Feeling better?” she asked.

I wasn’t sure I was, but I didn’t see a point in worrying her. “Yeah, I needed to eat, I guess. Sorry if I zoned out up there.” I pointed down the driveway. “That your boyfriend?”

I was surprised when she blushed slightly. “Something like that.” Ok, clearly something she didn’t want to talk about. I could take a hint. I spent most of the rest of the afternoon walking through the house with her, showing her what I planned to work on and why. She nodded and asked a few questions, and, I’ll admit, impressed me.

“So, this really something you want to do? I can’t pay you great, but I can teach you.” I asked at the end of the walk through.

“Yeah. I mean… it’s hard work, but I was enjoying it. It felt right, you know?” She looked at me and I nodded. That was pretty much how I felt about it.

“Why don’t you go on home. I need to pick some stuff up tomorrow, so call it one for starting up again.”

She nodded then laughed. “I don’t know, though, this commute is going to kill me,” she said as she looked across the yard at her house.

I pointed upstairs. “Mine’s shorter.”

“Brat,” she responded and went out the door. I half sat, half collapsed on the nearest chair. Too much was happening, and I needed time to try and sort it out. I thought that I’d have time to do that after I made dinner. Neither of those things happened.

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