Life is But a Stream — Part 1
His head was pounding. No, he heard pounding on the door. Ok,both.
You gotta be joking, he thought, it’s Sunday. He grumbled and accepted the fate of his rude awakening. He shouted “Coming!” but it came out as a mumble. He gathered his vocal strength. “Coming! Just a sec!” and it came out loud enough for the knocking to stop.
He thought about going back to sleep, but the sun had crawled its way through the trenches of his blinds and was warring upon his eyelids. He surveyed the scene with blurry eyes: the familiar colors of his Looney Tunes blanket enveloped him. He laid on his couch and in front of him, the room was half-brightened. To his left, last night’s unfinished champagne bottle.
He threw the blanket off, reached under his pillow for glasses, and grabbed the bottle as he rose off the couch. He took a swig on his way to the door then stuck it out of sight next to his sink.
“Hi, what’s up?” he said, squinting out to the stark white walls and bright lights of his apartment hallways. The squinting eventually brought into focus a woman in her 40’s, the kind of rich that wore a scarf in the Texas summer. He looked for a tiny dog in her Hermes-whatever bag.
“Uhh,” she said as she flushed a reddish hue and searched for something to rest her eyes on. “I think you’ve forgotten to wear pants”. She shifted her weight backwards.
“Mm, quite,” Buddy said as he slammed the door. He found last night’s pants on a chair and put them on with a whine. Too damn early for pants. He rewarded himself with another swig of the champagne, opened the door again and saw her more clearly this time. Freshly straightened blonde (seemingly dyed) hair, parted in the middle and disturbed by a pair of large, expensive sunglasses. The richer a woman is, the more her face gets covered by sunglasses. She was dressed in all white, a tight polo and skirt, and her green eyes looked back at him with apprehension.
“Round 2: Hi, what’s up?”
“Hi, my name is Michelle. Are you…” she hesitated and read from the phone in her hand, “Baha-rutha Luck-mana?”
He glanced slowly and deliberately at the sign on his door: Bharata Lakshmana: Detective For Hire. He turned to her.
“Something like that. Call me Buddy” he said, as he stretched out a hand.
She took it gingerly.
“Thanks, Buddy. I hear you’re good at finding things”.
“Well, that’s not really–“
“I want to hire you to find my dog”
“Mmhmm, I knew you were missing a tiny dog”
“What? It’s a German Shepherd. His name is Zeke.” She ruffled around in her bag, deposited her phone, and pulled out a picture of a large dog in a sweater. A goddamned J. Crew sweater. He looked at the photo and flipped it over to find her phone number and email on the back.
“Look, lady, I’m no expert in finding animals, and frankly I don’t like most of them that much, and the slobber is kinda gross, ya know? Like, why would you put a sweater on something that slobbers? And don’t they have dog catchers for this kind of thing?”
“Dog catchers? Look, my Zeke…” and her voice drew quieter, “he’s a very valuable dog. I’m willing to give you $10,000 to find him.”
The price made his eyes widen involuntarily. He breathed a long, lazy sigh.
“Okay, I work a certain way.” She smiled. “I need 50% in advance, I don’t offer any guarantees, and I want to make it clear — I’ve never done this with animals before.”
“That’s fine — I’ve heard enough good things about you,” she said, fumbling around in her bag again. “Is a check okay for the advance?”
He nodded blankly, preoccupied with a vision of how many gadgets he could buy for the apartment with $5,000. His eyes caught the Dallas Morning News left on his doorstep: an unflattering close-up of Trump and a headline about a protest scheduled for the weekend. He bent to collect the paper.
“Hellooo?” she said waving the signed check in front of his eyes.
He snapped out of it. “Ah yes oh hi. Hi. Thanks” he mumbled awkwardly as he accepted her check. He folded and stuffed it in his t-shirt pocket gleefully along with the picture of her dog.
“So, how exactly…” she looked around and quieted her voice again, “how exactly do you find things?”
He smirked, and prepared to deliver his rehearsed speech.
“Imagine if the whole world had CCTV’s from every person’s point of view. Cameras that captured everything that happened and kept a record. Now imagine you could access that camera footage whenever you wanted, you could rewind it and watch specific parts from specific angles.” Michelle had just the look of wonder Buddy wanted to elicit. By force of habit, he drew closer to her: “Imagine being able to literally walk in another person’s shoes.”
She made a face and drew back from the smell of champagne. “So you’re saying you can look into the past, instead of look into the future? How is that useful?”
“I’m saying history repeats itself, and I can see all the reruns. I’ll be in touch” he said as he slammed the door on her face again. That was a cool line, he thought, pleased with himself, he’d have to use that again. He headed toward his work desk, stopped, wagged his finger to say no, and walked to the champagne bottle thinking “Naahhhh”. He tossed the newspaper in the trash.
He dropped onto his couch with the bottle in hand and pulled out the picture of the dog. He held it up to his eyes to block out the sun coming through his windows. “Hmmm if I were a white privileged sweater-dog, where would I go?”
When he awoke again, Buddy checked his phone and saw it was near 11 AM. Much more appropriate time for pants, he thought. He also noticed a missed call from Mom.
His hangover remedy having worked splendidly, Buddy arose from the couch and resorted to some water. He thought about calling back his mother, but he was afraid of the questions. The small ones were worse than the big ones — he hated having to explain what he’d been doing the past few days, and especially what he’d been eating. Had he been staying safe? Was he studying for the GMAT? Why doesn’t he come home this weekend?
As he stepped into the bathroom for a shower, he took off his shirt and caught a glance of himself in the mirror. The lazy lifestyle of the past few months had caught up with him — the first signs of a beer belly were blubbering near his waist. The rest of him was toned, and lanky thanks to his 6’3” frame and slouch. Buddy figured he now had the body of a middle management drug dealer, sans the tattoos. He stepped into his bathtub and drew the shower curtain.
Still, he couldn’t get his parents out of his head as the water was coming down. He was thinking back to their trip to Rome when he was in high school, standing in the middle of the Roman Forum. He would play his favorite game, pretending to see a Roman general walking through the Forum, Caesar’s footsteps going this way and that right in front of his eyes, the Forum alive with the sounds of hundreds of Romans paying their respects, selling wares, arguing. He was remembering running through the Coliseum steps and looking back, laughing at how long his Dad was taking, when the familiar vision came.
He was ripped from Rome, he was seeing through a child’s eyes now, his hands were tied and he wore dirty clothes. He was being led from behind in a grimy, green hallway, by a faceless adult into a room with the master. He walked through a door with disjointed symbols, written in shapes he didn’t understand. The master was waiting there with a hot brand. The symbol on that brand growing red, the terrible boar with bloody tusks. The adult removed the buttons on the child’s shirt and exposed his bare back, faced him towards the master, and took hold of the brand. The sound of the sizzle drew so close.
Buddy was shaking his head vigorously when he came out of the vision, he had crushed the soap in his hand. Damnit, he thought, goddamnit, as he felt his mind slipping again. What was the crap his therapist told him? Sing a happy song, concentrate on remembering the words. Shaking with desperation, he started “the itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout, down came the rain and washed the spider out… merrily merrily life is but a stream?”
“Gahhh, whatever!” he screamed, pounding his fist against the ceramic shower wall. But it had worked for now, the vision was gone, his mind was his own again. Buddy let the hot water relax him for a bit longer as he stared at the silly shower curtain his friend had gifted him for the apartment. Rows and rows of clownfish against a misplaced yellow background. He stepped out and stood at the sink, palms held tensely on the sides of the basin, staring down into the bowl. Finally a drop of red came out from his nose and stained the pristine white. He looked up and studied himself in the mirror: he tried to practice his smile.
When Buddy left the apartment he had already emailed Michelle a standard service agreement and called her to find out the last place the dog was seen — her address. He went downstairs and asked the parking attendant outside for his car. From the condos where he stayed, he had a good view of Victory Park in Dallas. Today, he saw the normal sights: semi-hipsters riding around on bikes looking for the next great vegan brownie, tourists mulling around the AA center, looking betrayed by the summer sun, and families taking their annoying kids to the Perot. It had been a while since he left his family’s suburbia but Buddy wasn’t yet used to characters underscoring his urban existence. People downtown were always trying to be something without knowing what, while people in the suburbs had given up becoming anyone else.
Buddy was observing a group come out of the nearby stationery shop when his car pulled up. A Tesla was the main luxury he had afforded himself with the money from his detective work. He thanked the driver, got in the car, and immediately called his therapist.
“Hey, Shaira. It’s Buddy.”
“Calling me on a Sunday. You must miss me more than usual.”
“Yeah, yeah, listen. The vision came back today. I was in the shower, thinking about my parents.”
“No, shut up. I was thinking about a trip we took together in Rome, back in like high school. Before the incident, ya know? Before I started getting visions, and suddenly it came to mind.”
“The hot iron brand?”
“Yikes. Did you sing?”
“A new-age Itsy Bitsy Spider?”
“Good, good. Are you feeling under control now?”
“Uhh — I think so. Hold on a sec, I’m merging.”
“And here I was thinking you only left the apartment to see me.”
“I’m on a case actually!”
“Wow, either the client was hot or you really want to waste the money on something.”
She laughed. “Listen, try to keep your mind off of those old family trips. Maybe if you’re recalling your own childhood, it can trigger a memory of the child in the hallway. If you feel the memory coming, push it away. We talked about how, right?”
“Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense. Thank you, again.”
“Did you get any closer to figuring out where the child is?”
“No, nothing. Same green door. Symbols, maybe a language? Close to Chinese.”
“Okay, well, if you call me again today I might have to charge you.”
“I’m sure it’ll be worth it.”
“I would analyze that response as slightly flirty.”
“All your first dates must enjoy the psychoanalysis so much.” There was a pause and he wondered if he had gone too far.
“Screw you.” They laughed heartily this time.
Conversations with Shaira always lifted Buddy’s spirits. She took his visions and resultant nosebleeds seriously. Shaira was also the only one, other than his parents, who knew about the full extent of his odd abilities, including their origins.
Buddy started thinking about that night years ago in Delhi, when it happened. He remembered the smells were different each hour of the day in the old town. Late at night, the lingering aromas of jilebi and grilled meats, by the Jama Masjid, mixed with the trace scents of throngs who had passed those streets just hours before. He remembered stumbling around, drunk, trying to concentrate on the signs of closed shops in front of him, hoping to find someone that could show him to the main road. Then, he saw the alley that made him so curious, the blue door left just slightly ajar to invoke his curiosity further, the mystery inside.
“Take exit 21A for Parker Rd” his navigation system told him, spurring him out of his daydream. Thank god for autopilot, he thought. He took his exit, following the rest of the directions to the edge of a posh, walled-off neighborhood. Cars were speeding by on the main road, set against a backdrop of unsavory strip malls that progress hadn’t bothered to visit. Wild wild west compared to his downtown den.
He drove up to the corner gate and told the guard he was there to visit the Garner household. As the guard called to confirm, Buddy noticed he was grimacing at him while on the phone with Michelle. He was trying to give him back the stink eye when suddenly he was no longer in his own head.
He was having a vision. Sitting in a tiny stucco building looking at a computer screen with CCTV footage, patting his big belly while looking at the dregs of pot roast he must have devoured. Buddy realized he was seeing from the guard’s eyes, just as his post-roast bliss was cut short. A brown Honda Civic approached the guard booth. He stood up and went to the door as the driver rolled down his window.
“Can I help you?” he heard the guard say. The driver of the car actually looked similar to Buddy: same long, shiny hair and babyface look. He was holding a cone of soft-serve ice cream, and he would lick it slowly as he talked to the guard. A friend was in the passenger seat, phone too close to eye level, as if about to record.
“Sup?” the driver said, with every ounce of fake swagger he could muster. This set the kid in the passenger seat giggling uncontrollably. The guard continued to stare. “Yea, we’re looking for Mr. Oppenheid. Peter Oliver Oppenheid?” as he took another lick of his ice cream.
“Alright, wait right there,” the guard grunted, as he turned to his computer and started to type in O-P-P-E-N when he suddenly stopped and turned to yell at the kids.
“P.O. Oppenheid? Poop in head?! Seriously guys?!”
This set the kid in the passenger seat giggling again, while the back window rolled down to reveal another kid’s exposed butt. Before the guard could react, the driver said “Oh never mind, we found Mr. Poopenheid!” at which point everyone in the car burst into laughter and the guard erupted out of his chair, clutching for his walkie talkie to alert the guards at the other gate. Still, he wasn’t fast enough, and all he saw was the Civic reversing at top speed, that naked buttocks doing a little jiggle of happiness before the window closed. He looked down at the spot where the car was and saw the ice cream cone that the driver was licking ever so menacingly.
He mumbled and walked back to his chair: “little shits”.
Buddy was pulled out of the guard’s head and couldn’t help but smile as the guard was still looking sideways at him, probably wondering if he was the same kid with the ice cream. Just as he was hanging up the phone call with Michelle, Buddy pretended to be licking a cone. The guard did a double take and looked up for a split second in anger but Buddy had already stopped. Buddy was let in and he started making his way to the house number Michelle gave. He rolled past expansive suburban houses with bright green lawns and vibrant trees. Everywhere was a BMW or Mercedes parked outside, and the odd spattering of basketball hoops amid rows of uniform mailboxes and iron fences.
3340 Arbor Lane. He had reached Michelle’s house, which bordered the neighborhood wall. She had told him earlier on the phone that the yard door would be open and he could take a look at the dog house. Buddy figured she didn’t trust him enough to leave the house doors open. He pulled into the driveway and parked, wondering if he would get hit with a vision just by sitting here. How the hell was he supposed to see through a dog’s eyes anyway? He sat there biting his nails for a few minutes, just waiting, until he grew bored. Time to pretend to be a detective again, he thought, as he walked to the yard door and swung it open.
The yard expanded backwards and to the right, until it hit the brick perimeter wall, while the left side was separated from the neighbor’s yard by an iron fence with large gaps. Most of the space was on the right, where the Garners had installed a wooden play place for the kids. He didn’t need a vision to know it had caused splinters. It being summer, there was also an inflatable pool, glistening in plastic pink polka dotted glory. Then, Buddy saw the dog house. He made his way there tentatively, not knowing when a vision might strike him and freeze his tracks.
It was annoying, not being able to control his reluctant gift. Usually, he could have visions while thinking about someone and retracing their footsteps, standing in a place they had been before. Sometimes, he wouldn’t receive the exact replay he needed, but he could rewind or forward the “footage” until he knew exactly where the person went. Other times, he couldn’t control it, and he just put together the pieces when he was back in his own eyes. That was the most true detective work he performed. And he never knew what someone else was thinking in a vision — he just saw what they saw and heard what they heard. It was a worldwide library of blurry home movies at his disposal — but no ability to pick when and where he’d watch them.
When he reached the doghouse, he bent down and looked closer inside. Nothing left behind, no signs of any damage or a struggle for the dog. Just a doggish smell when he stuck his head inside, and a bone a few yards away on the grass. Buddy was sitting there on his knees, in front of a dog house, wondering what the hell he was doing, when he realized something. He looked around for any signs of people, checked twice and thrice that no one was looking, and then got on all fours like a dog. He crawled his way a few feet from the front of the doghouse, and took out the picture of Zeke that Michelle had given him. He studied it for a few seconds, trying to visualize the dog, and started to crawl towards the bone when he realized he was out of his head again.
But he wasn’t in Zeke’s head; in fact, he was looking at the dog trot over to his bone from another man’s eyes. He was walking into the yard carrying a lawnmower, wearing a red t-shirt and jeans. The dog rushed over to the man and started barking, running around in circles. The man came in without closing the door behind him, and he patted Zeke on the head, which set him still as he looked up at the hand patting him. “Good boy, good boy”, he heard the man say, before he started rolling his lawnmower across the grass. He turned to see that the dog followed along behind him patiently, tongue out, looking at the grass fly off to the sides as he mowed it. Suddenly, he stopped in his tracks as something caught his eye. Two Asian men of middle age, dressed in casual clothes and carrying gym bags, were waiting by the open yard door. Zeke barked and growled repeatedly, and Buddy heard the mowing stop as the man asked what they were doing there. One of the men explained that they were repairmen who came to fix the satellite, and started walking to the back of the house, asking for the back door to be opened. Zeke was still barking as the man walked in front of him and told the dog to stay. Buddy saw the man shake hands with the repairman near the back door and introduce himself as Gary. He started to converse with the repairman, asking when the Garners had hired him and so on, when Buddy’s vision went black for a second.
When he saw again, he could see Gary in his red shirt still chatting with the repairman. He had switched perspectives for the first time during a vision, and he didn’t know how to switch back. Buddy was seeing through the second repairman’s eyes, observing Gary closely before turning to Zeke and walking gently towards the dog, which trotted towards him as well. When they met, the man pet Zeke gently and rubbed his head to ease the dog’s suspicions. The dog looked up, eager, as the man reached down and pulled at something on Zeke’s collar without looking at it. The man pulled out some beef jerky from his bag and gave it to Zeke who promptly devoured it. He walked away towards the yard door and pulled out more jerky, offering it to Zeke. The dog walked slowly at first, looked around at Gary still conversing, and then ran for the jerky. The man retreated further, out of the door, and dropped a piece. When Zeke reached it and ate he looked up, and the man stared back at him before glancing at the door on his right. He was standing next to the back door of a white van, with a yellow decal on the door that read “Plano Best Laundry”, along with an address and phone number.
The man opened the door and there was a full, juicy raw steak waiting on the floor of the van. A small child in ragged clothes was also sitting on the floor in the back, hands crossed over his knees, eyeing the steak with a look of defeat. The man climbed into the back of the truck and gestured to the dog, showing him the steak. Zeke climbed up and started nibbling on it. He was distracted, and the man reached into his pocket to draw out a syringe filled with an opaque liquid. When Zeke looked up again it was with a yelp, as the man injected the syringe into his neck with one hand, and grabbed for his collar with the other. He yanked hard at Zeke’s collar and loosened something. Removing the syringe in a flash, he used that hand to cover the dog’s mouth. He watched without excitement as the dog’s eyes started to close and his struggle slowed — he hit the floor of the van with a thud. The boy in torn clothes looked up at the repairman with a longing desire to help the dog. The repairman raised one index finger as if to warn the child, and it was enough to avert his gaze from the canine. The repairman looked back now at what he pulled from Zeke’s collar. It was a round metallic object, and the man removed one end of it. A USB perhaps? He placed the cap back on and laughed, looking content, and when he turned it over in his hand, the symbol on it was so crystal clear. A great boar. Bloody tusks. As he held it in his hand, he pulled up his shirt from his right shoulder and matched a tattoo on his arm to the symbol on the USB.
Buddy’s mind was spinning. No, not this again. He blacked out again, and this time he went from repairman to child, back to the room with the master and the brand. The sizzle drew so close, it was so close, and then he heard the innocent scream of a child wronged. A horrible, deafening scream as tears came down the child’s eyes and the Master looked down unfazed. Red eyes in a black silhouette.
“Hey! What the hell are you doing here?”
Buddy snapped out of it. He was on all fours in the grass, nose bleeding profusely, his vision trained on the bone a few yards away. He was back. Thank God,he was back in his head.
“I said, what are you doing here?! Who let you into the Garner’s house, and what are you doing near the doghouse?” a man yelled, probably an overprotective neighbor. Buddy realized how odd he must’ve looked, brown man on all fours in the Garner’s yard, looking at a dog bone and bleeding from the nose. He couldn’t help but chuckle. He straightened out and used a cloth to wipe his nose while striding towards the concerned neighbor. The neighbor looked incredulous, expecting an answer, so Buddy stopped in front of him and made eye contact.
“Well?” the man asked.
“Downward dog.” Buddy walked straight to his car and pulled out of the driveway, leaving the neighbor scratching his head, and made his way out of the neighborhood. He was driving with his left hand, biting his nails on his right hand, racing in his mind to figure out how the bloody boar had come back into his life. It had taken a year of therapy to reach normalcy, a year of outright refusing missing human cases, after the day he saw that child vision. He never wanted to believe people were trafficking children here in his own hometown — he preferred denial. Still, Buddy should’ve known his attempts to hide from the visions would be transient. Nothing about this damn power had ever been convenient, except for the money. Least of all when he expected to have an easy time finding some spoilt dog. Buddy stopped short of the neighborhood gate and pulled out the cloth he had used earlier to wipe his nose — it was stained deep red with his blood. This was a band-aid to a bleeding that wouldn’t cease. His mind flashed to a vision of the newspaper on top of his trash.
He opened his window and chucked out the cloth. Buddy set his car’s navigation for Plano Best Laundry.