Ben Hennesy’s “The Red Point Dilemma”
Ben Hennesy is an author, playwright, and co-founder of the Chalkboard Theatre Project. His fiction has appeared in The Pitkin Review, River River Journal, and The Champagne Room and will be featured in The Weird and Whatnot and Planet Scumm this coming October. He usually lives in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania with his wife and the pride of stray cats that have adopted them, but is currently sheltering in place with his family in Ovilla, TX where he has adopted the hobbies of mask making and cutting his own hair.
Without further ado, and with both great pleasure and honor, we present you his story:
The Red Point Dilemma
Tara’s second home and primary address for tax purposes was a well-kept two story in northeastern Philadelphia, a modest testament to sound financial planning.
Its smallish porch had a classic design of early 1920s black and white hex tiles arranged in an offset chessboard pattern, a sharp backsplash to the crimson, silk envelope she found resting at her front door when she returned from her first vacation in ten years. It had been a fun enough weekend, at least that was what she told herself. She spent three days “down the shore” (as Sam would have said) at her beach house in Ocean City to celebrate the buyout of her startup, a buyout that her accountant had described, with raised eyebrows, as “robust” once the offer finally came through.
“Jesus.” He pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. “What the hell are you going to do with all of that?”
Tara shrugged. She honestly hadn’t thought about it.
Her accountant, a man she’d never seen express any emotion that didn’t fall on a spectrum between concern and boredom, was literally sweating with excitement. “You should celebrate. I know I’m going to celebrate. I mean–in all transparency–I’ll probably take a fucking European tour or some shit when the check comes through.” He looked up at her, wild eyed. “You should do something.”
She didn’t know what she would do, even if she were so inclined.
“You should go down to your beach house at the very least. You know. Take a weekend. Buy a bottle of Champagne.”
“I don’t know. Invite Kendra. What does she have to do now?”
Tara wasn’t going to invite Kendra.
“Then invite fucking Sam. I don’t know. Just do something for god’s sake.”
Tara took her accountant’s advice to heart. She celebrated. She didn’t invite anyone to go with her, of course. She hadn’t known whom to invite. Kendra wasn’t an option. She was a business partner, a former business partner, in fact. Not the sort of person one takes on a weekend celebration. Sam, for his part, was completely out of the question.
When Tara returned from her vacation, appropriately browned and comfortably high on vitamin D, she found the letter waiting for her on her front porch. Her name was embossed across the front of the envelope in bold text. She wouldn’t have known to look for a return address, but even if she had, there was none listed.
She opened the envelope, after some fiddling, in her kitchen. In it was a piece of dark red cardstock that bore a single sentence, handwritten in precise calligraphy. It read: Your Red Point Balance is 300.
It was a strange correspondence. Stranger still was fact that it was a letter at all.
Tara couldn’t remember the last time that she remembered hearing of anyone receiving a letter, let alone receiving one herself. She vaguely remembered, as a Year 1 or Year 2 student, writing out something that was consolidated with her classmates’ drawings and scribbles then packed away in a much larger envelope, shoved into a magic box, and sent out into the ether as a part of some school sponsored soldier correspondence program. This was before the postal service was dissolved. She never received a response.
Frankly, she was surprised that there was even a service around that still delivered the things.
She hid the letter away, tucking it behind a folder of old business receipts in the filing cabinet in her master office.
A second envelope, identical to the first, arrived a week later.
Tara noticed it when she returned from an afternoon sunning herself by the pool at the local Jewish Community Center. She wasn’t Jewish and had a pool of her own (two pools actually: one at her Philadelphia home and another shared pool that she could access when she was visiting her condo in south Florida), but she had read an article on managing personal transition that recommended putting yourself out there during a season of change.
To connect with people, it said, you have to put yourself out there. It’s the only way to build a new network. No one is coming to find you. You have to go out and find them.
Tara picked the letter up quickly off her porch, casting a cursory glance at the quiet street around her. She took it to her master office, and filed it, unopened, next to the first.
Lounging in her rec room later that evening, a glass of Mendoza in hand, she found herself unable to forget about the letter, equal parts curious and annoyed. One outlier, after all, could be written off as an accident. Two was a prank at the very least. Possibly something worse. The whole affair was interfering with her attempts to enjoy her well-earned leisure, an enterprise that–Tara was finding–required a considerable amount of attention.
She checked the video feed on her home security network and reviewed the previous 24 hours, but after sifting through 32x time lapse of the past day, all that she saw was her gardeners replanting her front beds with fall flowers, the contactor bringing in deliveries of fresh tile for her second bathroom, and the pool man park his van and proceed into the backyard for the weekly cleaning.
The letter seemed to simply appear. Sometime around 1:05AM.
When the third letter arrived the following week–the same crimson envelope, same embossed text, same anonymous, impossible delivery–she began to take the matter seriously.
She snatched the envelope off her porch and darted into the house. Like a rabbit. Like a mouse.
She thought about that moment much later, when she was hunched over a gas station toilet, vomiting clear water she had drunk only an hour earlier into the bowl: how she darted into her house like a rabbit. Like a mouse. She pictured herself standing on her porch, bent at the waist, nose twitching, eyes moving quickly across the horizon, looking for the shadow of a hawk. It was a summer day. Her lawn was well-trimmed, a comfortable shade of green, except for that one spot in the corner near the rock garden where the grass thinned, the part of the lawn that never got enough light. In her mind’s eye, she saw the woman who was returning from a dinner with former business contacts, smartly dressed in a professional grey outfit. She saw the very moment that the woman the woman in the gray outfit noticed the envelope, sitting there innocently on her porch. She saw how the woman’s eyes changed, how her pace quickened, how she stumbled when she cut across the lawn (despite her heels) in that one part of the yard where the paved path curved inefficiently in a decorative arc, how she reached the porch and saw that she was in fact right. This was another letter. The look in the woman’s eyes.
Tara revisited this scene vividly, if briefly, between heaves, before the nausea took her again and she leaned over the toilet, emptying her stomach.
This was later, of course.
When Tara saw the third letter sitting on her porch, she picked it up. She hurried into her master office and pulled the letters from the filing cabinet, arranging them in sequence on her desk, the first stowed neatly in its opened envelope.
She opened the second letter.
In it, again, was a single piece of paper with the same calligraphic script. It read: Your Red Point Balance is 272.
There was no branding on the envelope. No SC code. No Feed Source. Nothing except for her own embossed name and the handwritten card. She spent the rest of the afternoon querying her Network for information on Red Points and letter deliveries. She called her security provider and spoke with a particularly unhelpful woman with an unidentifiable (but heavy) accent who ran three diagnostic summary reports and insisted Tara’s systems were working perfectly. She pinged three former work acquaintances who used to run companies in parcel transportation and distribution logistics to see if they knew of any startups that might be trying to bring letters back. She spent hours wiki-ing the history of post. All of her were efforts in vain. There was nothing to be found.
The letters, it seemed, simply shouldn’t exist. And yet, here they were. She checked her Flow. Everything was in order. She inquired into her Line Service status and everything came up normal, even when she paid to escalate her query through a secondary audit. Her Holdings and Comp seemed to be fine. No hiccups in her Filings for the past three years. No IDT flags. Her Social and Credit were clean.
She opened the third letter.
It said: Your Red Point Balance is 231.
Her heart dropped into her stomach.
Tara was immediately annoyed with her heart. There was no clear reason that it should be dropping into her stomach. As far as she knew, these Red Points were a metric as meaningless as the number of blades of grass in her front lawn. Her heart couldn’t help it, though, of course. It was a biological reaction–animal, even–a perfectly understandable reaction for her body to have when faced with the disaster staring up at the Tara from her desk, the kind of disaster Tara had spent her entire adult life strategically avoiding: The Downward Trend.
She spent the afternoon pacing in circles around her kitchen island. A conversation with her accountant proved completely fruitless. “Red Point Balance?” he said, “What’s a Red Point Balance?” He peered over his glasses, staring at her through his screen. The look in his eyes made her shift in her seat.
Without meaning to she said, “I’m okay. It’s okay.”
He adjusted his glasses.
“It’s fine. I’ll take care of it,” she said, ending the call.
After, she poured herself a glass of wine, settled herself in her guest office away from the letters, and weighed her options.
- She could ignore the letters.
It sounded easy enough in theory, but in practice … no. They had a point of origin. They had a meaning. Their meaning was both quantifiable and also somehow about her. They weren’t the sort of thing one ignored. It wasn’t how life worked.
- She could tell someone about the letters. A friend, maybe. What friend though? Someone, at least. Kendra, maybe. Or Sam.
Again, no. At least not yet. After all, what would she say to this person, to Kendra? To Sam? She remembered the look in her accountant’s eyes, and he was someone she paid to talk to her about matters of this sort. She wasn’t going to involve other people.
- She could engage professional help to find out about the Red Point Letters.
This idea seemed more promising.
Maybe that was it. That might be the idea.
As the sun set beyond the tree line in her backyard, Tara fell asleep at her station, a list of names and potential contacts in the investigation field on her screen.
That night, in her dreams, storm clouds followed her wherever she went, red paper fell from the skies. When she asked Sam to help her, reaching an arm out from under a mound of letters, he looked at her curiously and said, “Help? You don’t need help.”
They arrived on a weekly cadence. The fourth letter came one week to the day from the third. On the morning it arrived, Tara opened her front door carefully, fully expecting the crimson envelope. And there it was. She dashed out in her bathrobe and plucked it from her porch.
It read: Your Red Point Balance is 227.
She called the private investigator that she had contracted earlier that week and was alarmed when she was redirected from his Best Call Number to his Receptionist. “Tell him to come by immediately,” she told mousy man on her screen, adding, “and tell him when I call, I expect to speak with him.”
The Investigator arrived three hours later, sweating and stinking of whiskey. It was like a bad crime novel.
He examined the envelope and pronounced, with authority, “Well, this is definitely a letter.”
He dusted both the envelope and its cardstock for fingerprints and ran a DNA kit on a segment of the envelope’s corner but came up with nothing. “These guys are pros,” he said.
“These guys?” Tara asked.
“Sure.” Her investigator shrugged, covering his mouth. “Probably some sort of operation.” He didn’t seem to be saying it because he thought it was true. Tara thought he was saying it to fill the silence, to get her to stop watching him work.
He combed through her security feed, noting, as if he had forgotten she had told him about the letters’ delivery method, how strange it was that the envelope seemed to simply appear on her porch around 1:05AM. He left an hour later, after combing through her front lawn for shoe prints, promising to follow up with a contact he had in the parcel shipping industry.
Her investigator’s inquiries proved as useless as Tara’s. “I just don’t get it,” he said on a call later that evening. “There’s nothing out there. Nothing.” He took a short drink from a cracked white mug and winced. “I mean, this outside of my wheelhouse, alright? Like some weird exclusive shit. I mostly do cheat jobs, you know? Follow and photo stuff.” He sighed. “You want my advice, put a call in to the precinct on harassment claims. But I’m not seeing anything out there on this. Don’t know what else to tell you.” He smiled at Tara. “Look at your face. I wouldn’t worry about it. It’s probably a bad joke. You know? You want a detail? I can get a detail on your home. Won’t be cheap, but I can do that.”
Tara did not want a detail. And she did not take her investigator’s advice. She placed a negative review on his profile page.
She filed the letter with the others and went to the next name on her list.
Tara’s fifth investigator presented himself with much more presence and confidence than the previous four. By the time she reached out to him, she had received eight total letters, and the downward trend in her Red Points continued. She was beginning to get desperate, was even starting to consider calling Kendra. Not Sam though. She still wasn’t considering calling Sam.
Tara’s fifth investigator insisted on meeting her in public at what she thought was a rather upscale restaurant for a PI consultation. He arrived, on time, in a crisp, brown suit. He introduced himself as Joe. Joe Something. He examined the letters seriously and asked a series of fairly strong follow up questions after she described her situation. He wrinkled his brow with concern, but not an alarming amount of concern.
“Yeah, I’ll admit, this is a first for me,” he said. “But that’s the job. You never know what people are going to come up with next.”
He insisted on meeting again within the week, before she expected the next letter to arrive. He wanted to use the time to appropriately research Red Points and paper correspondence on his Network. Tara told him that he wasn’t going to find anything. “I’m sure I won’t,” he said, winking. “But that’s the job.”
She was proven right when he came by her house the two days later. “You were right,” he said. “Nothing on paper correspondence. Nothing on Red Points.” He didn’t seem put off by this. “It’s going to be tough work. But that’s the job.”
She took to calling him Joe That’s-The-Job. Of her investigators, he was the longest employed and ended up with the highest total billing.
“I could sit stakeout tonight. You’re expecting the next one tomorrow morning, right?” Joe asked.
“I don’t expect any problems, of course. I’ll just keep watch. See what I can see.”
Tara thought that was a brilliant idea. At Joe That’s-The-Job’s request, she helped him identify an appropriately innocuous stakeout spot.
Tara watched as Joe set up his stakeout through her bedroom window. He was in a small electric car, top of the line in its class. A different vehicle than he had driven previously, she noted. Likely paid for (at least in part, she was sure) by the substantial retention fee he had negotiated. It was the sort of car that would go completely unnoticed in her neighborhood.
“I need at least 30 days up front for a case like this,” he had said sadly, almost apologetic. “I hope you understand. I can’t plan on making any progress immediately and need the security if I end up having to turn away other cases. Unless, of course, you don’t want this to be an exclusive arrangement.”
Tara did want it to be an exclusive arrangement. Joe was exactly what she was looking for, the sort of person imagined when she thought of “private investigators.” That is, before she started hiring them. He was polished, confident, unflappable. The fact that he was asking for more money than she had been initially prepared to offer was itself almost a comfort. She felt like she was finally working with one of her own: a professional.
Her screenpad began beeping at her from her bedside table. A call from Sam. She watched it flash until it finally went to message.
She opened the message immediately. Sam’s face filled the screen. He was outside somewhere. People were laughing in the background. Music was playing. His hair was rather a mess, Tara thought.
He smiled at her. “Just checking in. So you never tell me anything anymore, I guess. I heard about the sell. Must have been good to get you to finally put down the old screenpad and spreadsheets.” He looked offscreen, waving someone away. “Hey. Call me. I have some ideas I want to talk to you about. Good ones. Real opportunities this time. Would be nice to have a little mother-son time. I …” he looked off again, “I have to go. Call me.” And then he was gone.
I love you too, Sam, Tara thought as she settled into bed.
Joe woke her up the following morning before the sun had risen. In his hand, a red envelope. He hadn’t seen anything. “I don’t know how they could have slipped by,” he said. He paced around her living room, distraught, but not (Tara thought) too distraught. Not over-distraught, given the situation. He was the appropriate amount of distraught.
Joe took his coffee black.
“I sat on the mark until 3AM before I started getting the sense that something wasn’t right. 1:05, you said. 1:05. Very specific. When I found the letter, I reviewed the recordings.” He took a long pull at his coffee. “Nothing. No one approaching. No cars in or out. No one on foot. Even the gamecam. It never triggered.” He waved his hands. “No movement,” he said, by way of explanation.
Tara knew how a gamecam worked, but she didn’t tell that to Joe That’s-The-Job.
He sat, staring into the corner of the Livingroom.
“So …” Tara prompted, “What’s next?” Joe stared at her. “What do we do next?”
It seemed to Tara that Joe suddenly woke from a dream. He looked around the Livingroom, down at the floor, then back to her. “Next,” he said, tapping his foot. “Next, we get creative.” He smiled at her. “I mean, that’s the job, right?”
He left her, promising to follow up the next morning after he ran his footage through a series of diagnostics and did a full audit on his equipment. Tara already knew what the results would be but was glad that she would see him again so soon. She didn’t begrudge him his thoroughness. After all, that was the job.
She opened the letter as soon as he left.
It read: Your Red Point Balance is 122.
Four days before her 11th letter, a full three weeks into Joe That’s-The-Job’s investigation, Tara found a white envelope waiting for her on her porch.
She was en route to a hydroaerobics class at the time. Tara was working hard to compartmentalize her experience of the letters, to keep it a discreet and walled off segment of her life. To at least act like it wasn’t happening. That had been Joe’s suggestion.
She found it hard though, to motivate herself to go outside. She was increasingly exhausted. Her mind had become a calendar. When she woke, her first thought was how many days she had until the next letter. Four more days. When she sat down at her kitchen island to eat a hastily nuked meal, four more days. When she went to bed, often early, her last thought before drifting off: just three more days.
“You have to give yourself something to do, a hobby, a distraction, anything,” Joe had said. “You can’t let this thing beat you into the ground.”
Tara tried. She set up meetings with old work acquaintances. Lunches. Dinners. At worst, it would be a chance to catch up. At best, maybe she would find an opportunity to help them, a distraction. Even if only as a consultant. Even if only on a volunteer basis.
The first of these meetings was a lunch at a high-end steak house in central Philadelphia that she knew well. Tara arrived a half hour early, as was her habit. As soon as was seated, though, she knew that coming had been a mistake. She was shivering even though her table was next to a decorative fire pit. She could feel other patrons and wait staff staring when she walked past them to place her drink order at the bar when no one came to take it. When she looked up from her menu, it seemed to her that faces glanced quickly away, looked up towards the ceiling, intentionally avoiding eye contact, perhaps embarrassed for her, perhaps ashamed to see her sitting there in public. Their noses flared and wrinkled. It was as if her Red Point Balance was stitched into her clothes, written on her skin. She fumbled for her wallet to pay for her gin and tonic and thought that she saw the server roll his eyes. Tara left before her client arrived, and sent what she knew were transparent excuses along with her apologies for the tardy cancellation notice to his admin.
She withdrew from the other two appointments as soon as she got home. She took a hot shower. Her skin itched like it was trying to heal, like it had itched under the bandage when she had foot surgery all those years ago. When she scratched it, she left red marks on her arms.
On the day Tara found the white letter on her porch, she was so focused following Joe’s advice, on trying to act like nothing was happening, that she almost passed right over the white envelope without noticing it. When she caught sight of it out of the corner of her eye, she jumped back as if it was a snake, coiled and ready to strike.
It was plain and unadorned. It had a transparent, plastic film that covered the letter within. Under the film, her name and address were printed in thin script, followed by the words URGENT. OPEN IMMEDIATELY.
Tara took the letter inside and called Joe. He picked up after the second ring.
“Don’t do anything. I’ll be right over,” he said.
He arrived within the hour. When Tara buzzed him in, his tinny voice sounded almost excited through her PA, “Can you get the door?”
“The door?” Tara asked.
“The door. The door,” he replied.
Tara got the door. Joe carted in three boxes on a hand truck. “Where can I set up?” He gestured down towards his boxes. “In the kitchen? Can I set up in the kitchen?”
He was sweaty, wearing track shorts covered in dried paint and a stained tee-shirt. He had a wild look in his eyes.
Without waiting for an answer, he rolled his boxes into Tara’s kitchen and began to unpack them, spreading their contents out across her island. They contained a laboratory of complicated equipment, metal and plastic implements covered in glass tubes, switchboards with multicolored lights, a canister attached to what looked like a stovetop burner that began to fill the room with the smell of sulfur, a large screen that reminded Tara of an old computer. He connected all of it through an intricate arrangement of wires and copper tubes. One of the canisters of compressed gas started hissing and he rushed over to it, fiddling with knobs on its neck.
“Um,” Tara finally said. “Um.” She reprimanded herself. She should have more control over herself here if anywhere, here in her own house.
“Almost done,” Joe said, without looking up. “The letter? Is it still on the porch?”
Tara went to retrieve the white envelope from her master office. When she came back downstairs, and Joe looked up at her from his makeshift laboratory, his eyes went wide. “Drop it. No! I mean set it down. Set it down carefully.”
Tara froze in her tracks. Unsure what to do.
“Set it down. On the floor. Carefully,” Joe repeated miming the action as if he had a letter of his own in hand. “Slowly,” he said. “Then back away.”
Tara set the letter down slowly, her heart racing. Joe watched her hand as it moved through the air. When the envelope was on the floor, she scurried to the far corner of the room putting as much distance between her and the letter as possible. She collapsed down into a pile. She was breathing heavily, like she had just finished a mile jog.
Joe quickly donned a thick apron, a facemask and goggles, then approached the envelope slowly with a device in hand. He said something, but Tara didn’t hear it. He held the device over the white envelope and stared at the screen on her kitchen island. When the device finally beeped, he pulled a large set of what looked like plastic serving tongs and began trying to slide them under the envelope where it rested on the floor.
“I said you might want to go in the other room.” Joe pushed the letter here and there, following it across the room, finally using one of his boots to hold the letter in place while he worked the tongs side to side. The envelope bent, its plastic crinkling, and Joe froze in place, his spine straightened for a moment. When nothing happened, he resumed.
Tara’s heart rate was beginning to slow. “What the hell?”
“Urgent. That’s what it says right? Open immediately. Off schedule delivery. It’s an escalation. An escalation …” Joe stopped short, the envelope finally secure in his tongs. He lifted it slowly off the ground and carried it into the kitchen, watching it while he walked. “Let me just …” he began awkwardly trying to set the letter in a recess of a machine that looked to Tara like a toaster powered by steam, covered in too many tubes and vents. His tongs were too wide to fit in the opening. He slowly eased the envelope down, bit by bit, wincing when it fell from the tong’s grasp, dropping the last few centimeters to the bottom of the recess.
He leaned on the island for a moment breathing heavily, then, looking down at his bare hands, cursed, and rushed to the sink, flipping it on with his elbow and soaking his palms under running water until steam began rising from the basin. “A towel,” he said. Then he shouted at her, “Towel!”
Whatever vague danger Joe feared, this was a step too far. She was not going to allow herself to be shouted at. Tara straightened the ruffles and creases in her shirt. “Excuse me,” she said. “If you need me to do something, you can ask.”
“Towel.” Joe said again, more quietly this time. “Please.”
“One of mine? Or did you bring something specific in that kit of yours.”
“I brought some” he gestured with his shoulder. Steam was rising from the sink. “Box on my left. Quick. Please.”
Tara retrieved a towel from the box and ripped opened its plastic covering. She held it over the sink while Joe dried its hands. “Thanks,” he said. “Oh.” He gestured towards her hands. “Drop the towel in the sink. You should wash too.” He turned on the water full blast and Tara obliged while he put on an elbow length pair of gloves. Just when her hands were beginning to scald, he turned off the water, handing her a fresh towel to dry.
“There,” he said. “Good job. You did good.” He was sweating. He put his hand on her shoulder, but his eyes fixed on the envelope sitting in the toaster.
“So.” Tara held the towel over the sink, “Should we not use soap then?”
Joe shook his head, turning his attention back to her. “No. No. I mean, maybe. Not now. Not yet. And leave the towel the sink.” He walked over to the toaster and began flipping switches on its side.
Tara put on her mother voice. The sort she used with Sam when he was being particularly hysterical about one thing or another. “You seem to think I should be worried. Should I be worried, Joe?”
A low hum began to fill the room, rising slowly in volume. Tara’s hair started to frizz. Her skin prickled. “Well,” Joe said, staring at his monitor, “We’ll know that soon enough.”
For the next four hours, Tara’s kitchen boiled and throbbed. Ammonia stink wafted into the ceiling and up to her second floor. She spent most of that time retracing in excruciating detail the path the white envelope had taken through her house since it arrived on her porch that morning, sometime around 1:05AM. “Just in case,” Joe said.
After what seemed to be an impossibly comprehensive battery of tests, Joe’s computer monitor finally pinged, like a microwave at the end of its cycle.
He shook his head at the monitor. “Nothing. No known chemical agents, no combustibles, no microbes – not even the kind you’d expect would hop over from our fingers or the porch. No skin samples or oils, which makes zero sense if you picked it up. No organic compounds of any kind. Not even paper. Seems to be a synthetic compound derived from petroleum resin.”
He shook his head again. For the first time since she began working with him, Tara thought that he seemed unsure. He smiled weakly, “but all that means no disaster, at least. No kaboom. No coughing blood.”
Joe tugged off his gloves and stretched his back. He walked over and snatched the letter from the claw of a ball-like device covered in cameras and tossed it in Tara’s direction. She made no effort to catch it as it tumbled to the floor.
Tara retrieved the letter from the ground, slowly. She was exhausted. The four hours of alarms and electric humming and the smell of burnt eggs, of walking and rewalking her home, of laboriously noting each surface that the envelope had come into contact with, of staring at her hands, waiting for them to begin to blister: the four hours had left her drained of venom, of curiosity even. She wanted to lie down and sleep. But that word, kaboom, kept playing itself over in her head.
Joe removed the apron, pulled the goggles from his forehead and set them on the table with a clatter. “Coffee? You want some coffee? I could use some coffee.” He helped himself to the tins next to Tara’s kettle, rummaging through them until he finally came across the coffee.
“Coffee?” Joe asked again, dumping a generous spoonful into a mug. He set the kettle to boil.
Tara fired him.
They fought. Joe showed a greater degree of emotion and investment in the case than she had been expecting, but when he saw that there was no changing Tara’s mind, he began slowly moving the equipment back to his car, mumbling to himself.
Tara oversaw the whole affair from her front yard. She would not be alone in her home with him again. Neighbors peaked out at the scene through parted blinds. For the first time in weeks, Tara was thankful for the sense of being watched.
When he was finished, Joe followed her back to her door. “At least let me know what it says.” He worked he jaw side to side. “You have to let me know what it says.”
Tara didn’t reply. She began to push her door closed. He held it opened. He fixed his boot on her threshold. “Excuse me,” Tara said.
Joe watched her, his hand still on the door. Tara thought he was trying to make a point of some sort of another.
“Move your foot.” She nodded her head, gesturing out at the neighborhood. Across the street, the woman who drove the brown car from three doors over was walking her dog, pausing nosily, glancing over. Tara didn’t want to have to say it: you better go. She didn’t want to have to meet Joe on those terms, on the terms of a man’s hands holding her door open. “I said move your foot, Joe.”
He tilted his head to side, almost curious, then slowly, deliberately, Joe moved his foot. “You stopped going through your security feed, right? At arrival times? At 1:05. You stopped going through security.” When she didn’t respond, he smiled. It looked to Tara like his smile was trying to be disarming. It wasn’t. It was the opposite of disarming.
Joe removed his hand from the door. “Look at Letter 10 arrival night. Call me. Tell me what the white letter says. I’ll tell you what I saw.” There was something troubling about the way he stared at her as he spoke. Tara realized he hadn’t been blinking. He hadn’t blinked once during their conversation. “Watch the tape,” he said. He wiped his eyes. Then he turned and walked calmly back towards the road, stepping directly on her grass as he went.
She watched him from her reading room window as he drove away.
The letter inside the white envelope was printed in a small, professional looking typeface. At the top, it bore the letterhead of Wallace and Shannon Associates along with a toll-free number.
It was a short letter. It said:
Based on our records, you may be eligible for a Red Point Consolidation. Wallace and Shannon Associates specializes on Consolidation Loans, Balance Audit, Appeals Representation, and other Red Point Services. For more information, please complete the attached form and one of our specially trained Agents will walk you through our service offerings and assess your eligibility for our programs.
Take your life back today.
Wallace and Shannon Associates, LLC
Tara immediately called the number listed in the letterhead. A young woman with a confused, slightly distressed smile answered. She insisted that Tara was calling her personal line. She had never heard of Red Points. She worked for the Art Museum. She was completely unfamiliar with Wallace and Shannon Associates and only had the vaguest idea of what an LLC was.
“Thank you for your help,” Tara said.
Tara called her security company and had cameras installed inside her house covering all entry points. She upgraded her plan for constant home monitoring. She paid extra to escalate the service order so it would be taken care of that afternoon. The techs wrinkled their noses when they came in her house. They returned with bandanas covering their noses after dropping the equipment in the receiving room. The place still stank of Joe’s experiments.
When they left, Tara pulled out cleaning supplies and began scrubbing her kitchen island. It would be another two days before her cleaning lady would come by and she refused to live under the imprint of whatever it was that had happened that afternoon any longer than absolutely necessary.
She spent the rest of her evening with a wet rag and spray bottle in hand.
When she was finished, her hands were raw and wrinkled. Her left pinky fingernail was turning purple and felt loose. When she pulled at it, it came off.
Tara stared at the fingernail in her hand. She placed in on the bathroom counter, next to the sink.
“Ok. That’s enough work for today,” she said.
Tara was finished with investigators after Joe. She had always been one to trust the expertise of the specialist, operating by the philosophy that any serious amount of thought spent on subjects outside of her wheelhouse was wasted energy. After all, there was always someone out there who knew more than her about medicine, finance, the law, childrearing, etc. etc. Why spend her time doing something poorly when she could simply find an expert or two in the given field and hire them? She ended up with a better result, and the expert got paid. Everyone won.
At least, that’s how it had always worked before. Now, though, Tara was faced with the uncomfortable reality that outside of this Wallace and Shannon Associates–whoever they were–she seemed to be the world’s leading expert in Red Points. Inviting in others at this point just be would be walking in circles for the sake of walking. At best it would be throwing away time and energy. At worst, it could create more Joes.
Joe called her. She didn’t answer.
She blocked his IP, but the next day she received three messages from a random number in India. All Joe. VPN, of course. She had that number blocked as well but knew that wouldn’t stop him from calling again. He was still in Philadelphia, he said. He still wanted to know what the white letter said. He still promised he would tell her what he saw if she spoke to him. “Watch the tape,” he said.
Enough was enough.
Tara keyed up the security footage from the night that Letter 10 arrived. She ran the video through at 64x speed. At around 10PM, Joe That’s-The-Job’s sleek new van parked in front of her house. He walked the perimeter, dragging wires behind him, sticking poles in the ground at the edge of her property line about every 5 feet or so. After that, he pulled a pair of flood lights and a series of cameras from his van and began painstakingly arranging them around her front porch.
After the equipment was set up, Joe sat cross legged in the middle of Tara’s porch, staring down at the tile directly in front of his ankles. He held the pose for about 20 minutes, unmoving. 1:05AM came and went without incident. No letter. No movement at all. Joe sat there like a statue, his eyes open, staring at the ground. 2AM came and went. Joe continued to hold his position.
As the feed’s timecode ticked past 3:15 AM. Joe’s head began wobbling, spastically dancing up and down in the high framerate. Then right around 3:37AM, his head dipped to his chest and the letter seemed to simply appear in front of him on the porch.
On the video, Joe looked up, seemed to notice the red envelope. He stared at it for what seemed like a very long time, even at 64x speed. Then, slowly, he stood, walked to his five cameras and, in sequence, picked each up calmly, deliberately even, and began smashing them into the porch until they were nothing but shards of glass and plastic. At one point, a cut on his hand began leaving smears of blood on the tile and debris. Tara was surprised the noise hadn’t woken her. He looked at the shattered mess around him. The timecode was ticking past 4:40AM. He then walked to his trunk, returned with a towel and broom and wiped the porch clean.
Tara rewound to 3:37AM slowing the playback to .25x seconds before the letter appeared. She found the frame just before the letter appeared and tapped the footage back and forth.
She zoomed in on Joe’s eyes until the image was almost unrecognizable. She watched them widen again and again. The looked the ocean when the tide rolled in. Something deep. Something with monsters in it. I’ll tell you what I saw.
Tara phoned a housesitter, walked up to her bedroom, and began packing.
The young woman arrived an hour later. She enthusiastically introduced herself as Jane or Janet or Jamie or Jacquie. Something with a J.
J’s hair was neon blue. She had a ring in her nose. She had a wide smile. When Tara commented on J’s tattoos, the young woman rolled up her sleeves and began going through a catalogue of the artists that had done each piece (as she put it) by name casually. As if Tara should already be familiar with them.
J was at Tara’s heels during the tour of the house, taking paper notes in a small journal as they went over the security system, emergency contacts, the pool rules, how the laundry worked, which food items were up for grabs, which rooms were off-limits. Tara watched as she noted the dates that the cleaner, the pool man, and the gardeners would come by. Her brow was knitted all the while. Her tongue stuck out sideways. “Don’t worry. Don’t worry,” J said when Tara made a point to revisit something that she thought J might find confusing. “I got it.”
Tara liked J.
When they finished the tour, Tara sat J down on the couch. “Ok. Two other things,” she said.
J nodded seriously.
“Figure out how to post this.” Tara placed a sealed, white return envelope on the table. In it, a completed inquiry form, attn: Wallace and Shannon, LLC.
“Ummm … ok.” J said. “How do I do that?”
“I don’t know, but if you can figure it out, I’ll give you another two week’s pay as a bonus.” J’s eyes went wide. Tara smiled, “Deal?”
J’s head drifted up and down in an attempt at a nod. “Deal!” she said. “Deal.”
“Good. Last thing then. There will be a red envelope on my porch a week from tomorrow. There may be a white envelope on my porch before then. Please check for them each morning. When you see an envelope open it, call me immediately, and tell me what the letter says.”
“Ok,” she said.
Tara left the next morning for India. She picked up the Red Envelope waiting on her porch at 4AM, opened it, filed it with the others in her Master Office, then took a cab to the airport.
It read: Your Red Point Balance is 76.
She dressed in plain traveling clothes and kept her head down as she passed through security. Even though she was sure that the words Red Points meant less than nothing to the airport officials and security agents around her, she kept expecting to be pulled aside and questioned by someone in a uniform. Her Red Point Balance was 76. When Tara showed her ticket to the security officer, the woman squinted at her and used her e-pen to scribble something indecipherable on Tara’s screen.
She breathed a sigh of relief when she finally made it through the boarding gate for her flight. She raised her eyebrows when the stewardess asked Tara to present her first-class ticket before she would let Tara take her seat. The woman checked it over twice then begrudgingly let Tara resume placing her carryon in the overhead compartment.
When Tara finally landed in Chennai, her screenpad buzzed violently in her pocket. She had three messages from a blocked number that she knew belonged to Joe That’s-The-Job. She set the messages’ status to ignore.
She collected her luggage without incident and boarded a train to Pulicat, where she had a house booked for the week, a nice two-bedroom situated right on the lake. A driver met Tara at the station, waving absently in her direction to acknowledge when he spotted her in the crowd. She pulled the hood of her coat down a bit farther to hide her face.
Tara had selected the house she was renting almost exclusively because of the massive master bathroom, almost bedroom-sized tile and marble suite that sported both an unobstructed view of the lake below and a hot tub. It was clearly the rental’s main attraction. Every part of her wanted to soak in the hot tub. Her very bones seemed to be aching for it.
When they arrived, Tara offered her driver a substantial tip to drive into town and purchase groceries for her, but he declined, saying only, “not right,” in broken English. When Tara asked the man to explain himself, he simply repeated “not right.” He scowled at her as he climbed back into his car and drove down the mountain.
Luckily, Tara’s rental came equipped with a basic pantry. She cooked herself a dinner of scrambled eggs and over fried onions and set a pot of rice boiling while she settled into the bath and enjoyed a glass of the brandy she had purchased, after nearly 30 minutes of hounding the stewardess, duty free. She felt her body begin to relax and fell asleep in the tub.
The next morning, Tara woke to the smell of burnt toast. It was still dark out. Her screenpad was blinking at her from her bedside table. Another call from Sam. It was three AM local time.
She swiped the call over to voicemail and got up to look for the source of the smell.
She plodded through the rental, flipping lights on and off, trying to follow her nose. As far as she could tell, nothing seemed to be on fire. The smell was ubiquitous, each room equally toasty as the last.
She only paused briefly in her quest for the source of the smell to look at herself in the bathroom mirror. She was haggard. That was the word she would use to describe the thing looking back at her: haggard. Her left eye was bloodshot red.
This was before the nausea began to take hold, but even then, she felt a wave of fevered unease, like her body was fighting against itself.
Satisfied after a half hour of searching that nothing was burning, Tara accepted that this was simply the way that the building smelled and bundled herself back up under the blankets, flipping over to Sam’s message. His face flashed on her screen. He seemed more composed than last time he called. His hair was slicked back, and his neck bore the top end of a tie that Tara thought complimented his eyes rather well. It was probably midday back home.
He spoke casually, with purpose. He seemed angry, Tara thought, like he was trying to keep himself cordial. She smiled at the screen as she watched him.
“So, you’re not taking my calls anymore, is that it? I heard you’ve flown off to Shanghai or Jamaica or some other glorious destination. Not to say you don’t deserve it, but it would have been nice to know. I could have come with you, you know. No need to travel alone. Especially at your age.” He seemed to lose his train of thought for a moment, glance around.
Pick it back up, Tara thought. C’mon, don’t lose the thread.
“I have several things in the hopper I’d like to run by you. Or just see you. You know? No need to be a stranger.” He looked around. “Well … anyways … I hope you’re well. Call me. Or send me something at least if you decide to go running off anywhere else. Don’t want to read about your death in the paper.”
And then he was gone.
Tara only left the rental one time during her week on Pulicat Lake. She scheduled several events to break up the monotony of lounging, sleeping and reading: a horseback ride through the trails around the lake, a sunrise yoga lesson, a private tour of Fort Geldaria, a boat ride on that concluded with a close pass of the Pulicat lighthouse, a photo safari through the bird sanctuary.
Tara called her travel agent and cancelled the whole package on the first day, after her first tour went sour. She was never even given the opportunity to even see the horse she was supposed to spend the morning riding. As soon as Tara stepped out of her rental into the humid morning air, riding chaps and boots at the ready, a wave of nausea hit her, and she doubled over on the porch. The woman who was supposed to serve as her tour guide watched Tara from a distance as she dry-heaved. Twice, she made to leave, but both times Tara held up a hand. It was all it took to keep the woman there.
After almost a full half-hour of bargaining with the woman, Tara won for herself, at least, a ride to the market. Her guide kept her eyes fixed on the road for the entire drive. She draped her scarf across her face.
Tara purchased supplies for the week, including two bottles of a local cream liquor. When she came out of the shop, the truck and horse trailer she had arrived in were nowhere to be seen. Tara made several attempts to flag down a ride, but when no one stopped, she simply started walking back to her rental, pausing only once in her trek to get broken directions from a wary-eyed man. He gave Tara every impression that he only stopped his car because she was standing in the middle of the road. He did not offer to drive her the rest of the way, even though he was already headed towards her rental.
By the time she got back to her temporary home, the nausea had passed. It was probably something in the water, she told herself. Part of her almost believed it.
Her days fell quickly into routine. She woke up, set the status of any messages left from Joe That’s-The-Job’s number or suspecred VPN proxys to ignore, took a bath, cooked herself a combination breakfast/lunch, tried to read a chapter or two of a book she had brought with her on the trip until she found herself staring at the words on the page, her mind otherwise occupied. Her afternoons largely consisted of running variations on search inquiries she had run over a hundred times before into Red Points and combing over her body in the bathroom. The nausea of the first day had passed, but Tara couldn’t shake the suspicion that something was off. Her biometrics were reporting normal, but she felt tired all the time. Her left leg ached. Her skin seemed redder than she thought it should. Her physician had performed a remote diagnostic on her and checked her screenpad for feed errors but told her again and again that everything seemed to be fine. She made a note to follow up for second opinion when she returned home.
Tara had two conversations with J during her first week in Pulicat.
The first happened on the fifth day of her vacation. J called at 3AM local time. Tara jumped at the ring. She had been dreaming. She couldn’t remember the dream, but it had left an imprint of sweat in the sheets. Tara answered bleary eyed, covering herself with the bedspread.
“Oh god. Sorry,” J said. Her face filled Tara’s screen. The look in her eyes shook all Tara’s exhaustion aside. J looked scared, Tara thought. She looked like she was scared and putting on a brave face; or, rather, like she was scared and hoping Tara would be able to answer for whatever it was that had her shaken.
“Sorry sorry,” she said again. “It’s just that you said to call immediately.”
Tara sat up holding the bedspread to her chest. “Is there a letter?”
“Well, no, but …” J’s eyes drifted offscreen, watching something. “Some guy showed up. Said he was family. Said he was your brother. I didn’t let him in.”
She was rambling, still staring at the thing offscreen.
“Real creeper vibe. Do-not-engage sort of vibe. Big bags under his eyes, and I mean, sorry if this guy is really your brother, but a total clown-mask-butcher-knife look. Grey sweatpants with … stains. Smelled like he hadn’t showered.” J looked down at Tara. “He said that you left something for him, a white letter. He said that you wanted him to have it.”
“You didn’t give it to him, did you?”
“No! No. Jesus. I asked him what a letter was but then he just …” she drifted off. “He totally knew I was lying.” Her eyes darted around the screen. “I mean, I was hoping you would just say, yeah that was my brother and that would be that but you’re not saying that so what is this guy and seriously what is going on?”
“Hey. Hey,” Tara cooed. “It’s ok. You’re ok.”
Tara told J that the man was a former employee of hers, one that she had hired to help with the letters. She told J that there was nothing to worry about. She said that she would call this man and tell him not to come by the house again.
“But why would he say he was your brother?”
Tara waved the question away. “He probably just thought that would make things move quicker. He’s a little eccentric, but you really shouldn’t be worried. He’s harmless.”
Tara nodded, projecting encouragement. J didn’t seem convinced. “Ok,” she said. “I’m sorry if this is all hysterical, he just really freaked me out.”
“Don’t worry,” Tara said. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Ok.” J smiled at Tara. “Thanks. Sorry I woke you up. Enjoy the rest of your trip, ok?”
“Ok.” Tara said. Then she hung up.
Tara yawned. Rolled over, tucked herself back into bed, and lay awake until the sun rose. She didn’t call Joe.
The second conversation that Tara had with J was on the last day of her first week in Pulicat. Tara had packed before noon and spent the rest of the day trying to feel comfortable in her skin. She had a ticket on the night train to Chennai and a flight scheduled in the morning. The day couldn’t pass quick enough. She was ready to be gone. The weather had not been doing her any favors. Despite the high temperatures, Tara couldn’t shake a chill that had settled into her spine. The sweat made it worse, sitting on her like a cold, sticky blanket. On top of that, her nausea had gotten worse. She was looking forward to her physical two days after she got back to Philadelphia.
Everything felt off. There was no other way to say it. She felt off. Her device buzzed while was she was soaking in the bath, trying to warm herself up. Out of habit, Tara swiped the called to silent. It was only an hour later, when she was shivering in bed that she noticed the missed call was from J. Tara pinged her back immediately.
J was walking out of Tara’s house. It was dark out. J was smiling. “Hey,” she said. “I’m about to head out with some friends but wanted to give you a heads up that I waited for that red letter all day today. Nothing. Thought you would want to know.”
“Nothing?” Tara stared at J across 8000 miles. “That’s not possible.”
J frowned. “I mean, there’s no letter. I checked a couple of times. You said on the porch, right? Nothing there.”
Tara straightened. “Did you see the man come by again, or a van on the street?”
An uncomfortable look crossed over J’s face. “Um no. I thought you said you were going to take care of that guy. Why would he be back?”
Tara placed her palm on her forehead, trying to push back her headache. “You’re right. Of course. He wouldn’t. She looked over at her packed bag. “You’re sure there was nothing.”
“Nothing.” J smiled up at her from the screen. “I’ll look again tomorrow. Maybe it’s delayed or something.”
Tara blinked. “Yeah. Maybe. Ok. Thanks for letting me know.”
J got into her car. “No problem. See you soon. Safe travels!” She closed the call.
Tara sat, looking out over the room for a moment.
She stumbled out of bed and walked to the front door. She opened it. On the threshold was red envelope.
She opened it.
It read: Your Red Point Balance is 151.
Tara sat with herself for a moment and took stock. She asked herself how she felt about this, looking for an answer that made any sort of sense. She sat and tried to have a reaction that seemed appropriate to the situation. Despair. Anger. Fear. Relief, maybe even. Relief that her Red Points had gone up. None of the emotions connected.
Nothing was what she felt. She felt nothing. She tried to have that make sense. She told herself that she was tired. That she was jetlagged. That her body was too exhausted to feel anything right now. It still didn’t make sense to her though. Surely some sort of feeling was warranted; anything really.
Then she tried to form a mental image of herself. That was when she realized that she was laying on the porch, the letter clutched in her hands. Her back was flat on wood, its grain digging into her skin through her thin night clothes. She thought that was odd, that she was laying on the porch. Undignified even. The porch was no place for her to lie. The bed would be much better. It didn’t make sense for her to stay there like that.
So she stood up.
The first call Tara made was to her travel agent. She would be extending her stay.
After that, she pulled the white letter from her bag, pulled up the number to Wallace and Shannon Associates and dialed. Maybe the art museum woman had been playing coy. Maybe Tara had caught her at a bad time. The number had to go somewhere, to someone that could explain how the letters found her here, a lifetime away. Why else would it be there?
She dialed the number. A gruff man with a heavy accent picked up a voice-only line. “Foxchase pub,” he said.
Tara looked down at the number on her screen.
“Foxchase pub,” the man said again. “Anyone there?”
“Hello. Sorry. Hello,” Tara replied. “I’m looking for a woman. She works at the art museum.”
“Wrong number,” the voice said. The line went dead.
Tara called again. Her screen flashed to life. A well-dressed man with a small nose and Asian features stood in the streets. He spoke at Tara in what could have been Mandarin or Korean or even Japanese as far as she knew. He tilted his head to the side. “I’m sorry.” Tara said. She closed the call.
Tara tried the number again and again. Thirty-seven times total. Each time a different line answered. There seemed to be no common thread. The people weren’t, as far as she could tell, tied together by gender, class, nationality, circumstance, or even humanity itself. Twice she connected with automated customer service centers, one for a utilities service in Montana, another that answered in what sounded like Russian. One of the lines she connected with was an automated message that kept repeating, “this IP cannot be contacted at this time. Please hang up and try again. This IP cannot be contacted at this time. Please hang up and try again.”
Tara called J.
“So,” she said. “Can you stay another week?”
Maybe she had been going about this the wrong way. Maybe why and what were the wrong questions all together. Maybe the correct question, or at least the best question, was how.
Tara sat at a desk in the bedroom of her rental, turning the red envelope over in her hands.
No one taught her how to build a business, how to grow and sell it. She had mentors and guides throughout her career, sure, but most of her success at business–if she was being honest–was the eventual systemization of what was at first pure experiment. A stab in the dark. Her mentors had provided frameworks for failure or success, but even those were just specific ways of experimenting, of playing the game, things to be tried in her own journey.
So what were the rules of the game then? She was abroad. That had impacted her Red Points positively. Being abroad was only one thing she had done differently the past week though. There were others. She had specifically been in Publicat. In India. She had lived near a lake. She had taken a train. She had flown on an airplane. She had ignored Joe’s messages. She had kept secrets from her investigator. She had made a point to wake up each morning and watch the sunrise. She had purchased and drunk two bottles of Drizly, the local cream liquor. She had cancelled previously scheduled leisure events through her travel agent. She had walked nearly 5 miles.
Tara snatched up her screenpad and began jotting down all the other things she had done in the past week that were new, that were points of differentiation from the previous 15 weeks.
She cancelled her flight home. She booked another week in her rental, paying twice the listed rate when the owner objected that someone was booked for the following weekend. She wrote out a list of action items and began amending her project timeline, adjusting its strategy.
Before the sun set, she had a plan. She lounged in the bath and finished her second bottle of Drizly.
The idea was to be iterative, to take stutter steps. She listed out the easiest 5 things to test and allotted them to Week 15.
- Stay in Publicat.
- Buy and drink two bottles of Drizly.
- Speak with her housesitter.
- Ignore all her blocked caller messages.
- Watch the sunrise each morning.
Aside from those five things, her practice would strictly stick to things she had been doing previously. Ideally, she would do nothing at all aside from her five things, but she knew that a week was a substantial amount of time to spend watching sunrises and drinking Drizly. Plus, if she focused solely on the five tasks, she might accidentally engage in an action to counteract their effects, like getting drunk every night, or sleeping all day. Instead she had made a list of what she was currently calling safe activities, things she had done both the current and previous weeks, things she had done both on her up week and her down weeks, that she was confident would be neutral as long as she was consistently practicing her Red Point positive tasks.
Safe activities included:
Researching Red Points.
Speaking with J.
Riding in a stranger’s car.
Watching a film she had seen before.
Evaluating a business strategy.
Transferring funds between banks.
Conducting reference checks.
Eating bell peppers.
Eating fruit salad.
Eating coconut curry.
Worrying about Sam.
The following week, Letter 16 was sitting again on the doorstep of her rental. She sat out on the front porch, took her morning tea, and opened the envelope.
Inside, the letter read: Your Red Point Balance is 137.
So, that was that then.
Tara crossed five variables off her list, picked up her bag and prepared to leave Pulicat.
The next evening Tara was 1200 miles away, dragging her luggage behind her up a dirt path, hiking from the spot on the main road that her driver had insisted she get out of the car, about a quarter mile from her cabin on the banks of Dal Lake.
Where her hair wasn’t frizzing and curling in the air, it stuck to the sides of her face, to her forehead. Her roller bag, stuffed full of her dirty clothes, bumped and shuddered behind her over the gravel and bits of broken asphalt. The trees chirped around her.
When she arrived at her cabin, she found it empty except for a lingering smell of sweat.
She locked the doors, took a shower and reviewed her list, checking off the weeks to-dos. Travel by train. Check. Travel by plane. Check. She was still in India. Still by a Lake. For the rest of the week, she would continue to work with a new female investigator she had hired in route. She would be keeping secrets from her. She had made three event appointments that would all be canceled first thing in the morning.
She sighed, watching the rains roll in and darken the skies. Now all there was to do was wait.
The next morning, she woke to find 17 new messages from Joe That’s-The-Job on her screen. She set their status to ignore.
5 days later, she stepped out of her room for the first time that week and found the red letter, propped up against the front door.
It said: Your Red Point Balance is 53.
“Look, I’m happy to stay on, but that weird guy keeps coming by. Two more times now.”
J was sitting at Tara’s table, dangling noodles from a pair of chopsticks down into her mouth. “I mean, it’s freaky, you know. It’s not like he’s doing anything but asking questions, but why does he keep coming by?”
“I’m sorry.” Tara said. “He can’t get it through his head that I’m not going to rehire him.” She shook her head seriously. “I’ll call him again.”
“Sure. But that didn’t do anything last time, right?” J scratched at a piece of plastic covering her shoulder. “You know what it is about him? It’s like he’s trying too hard to be normal. Everything he does and says is totally fine, but it’s like its work for him. Being fine.”
Tara kept her voice even. “Do you feel unsafe?”
“Um” J stirred the noodles on her plate. “No. Just weird. The whole thing is very weird.”
“Sure.” Tara said. “You know, you can always have someone come stay with you. Someone you trust. You’ll be responsible for them, but if it would make you feel better …”
“Really?!” J waved her chopsticks through the air, talking while she chewed. “That would be great. I mean, it’s just such a big house. And with this guy. You know. Like everything would be fine, of course, but that would be great.” She smiled. “Thank you.”
Tara pointed to the plastic on J’s arm. “What’s that?”
“Oh! Sorry with the convention and everything I forgot to tell you! I got this in celebration.” J pulled down the plastic to reveal a fresh tattoo, a geometric white envelope set in the middle of a sunburst design, the insignia of Wallace and Shannon Associates drawn in bold red lines overtop the image. “Cool right!? The convention is going on so I was able to book time with this artist I follow who works out of Portland. Great with linework and stippling stuff. He loved the idea when I told him what I was thinking and drew it right up! What do you think?”
Tara blinked at the image. She felt the creeping nausea she had been battling all day swell in her throat. “It’s nice,” she managed. “What’s it in celebration of?”
“That’s what I forgot to tell you. I posted the letter thing like you asked.” J took a bow. “I did some research. Did you know those old corner boxes downtown used to be for the mail? Most are sealed up, just for show and stuff, but I found one that opened, so I dropped the letter in. Easy.”
Tara swallowed, “You just left it there?”
“No! That’s the thing. I didn’t know if it would work, so I waited a day, then went by and asked the owners of the building close to it if I could get into the box. I told them I thought it was like some sort of trashcan, but then accidentally lost my ring when I was throwing trash away. The dude at the front desk had to call around but was super nice and helpful and eventually some guy shows up with a set of keys, takes me out there, opens it up. Viola, no letter.” She smiled. “Someone came by and picked it up! Crazy right?”
“Yeah,” Tara said. “Crazy.”
The next night, Tara booked a stay at a high-end hotel in Nagpur. The room was immaculate. She had been forced to sneer at the concierge in order to get her key, unfortunately. The woman insisted Tara was booked for a tiny one bedroom rather than the bridal suite she had requested. Half an hour and several phone calls later, a bellhop with saggy shoulders and a long nose arrived, shouldered Tara’s bag and begrudgingly showed her to her door.
Tara had two bottles of Drizly brought up. She sat at her screen, mapping a five-mile walk for the following day. She booked 12 rides to random nearby locations throughout the week and anticipated at least one of those rides would abandon her after drop off. She was halfway through the book she read in Publicat. An Aam Papad candy bar sat half-finished on her bedside table. It would stay that way.
The day before she was scheduled to leave, she found a red letter sitting on the floor near her hotel room’s entryway, as if someone had slipped it under the door in the night.
It read: Your Red Point Balance is 47.
Tara traveled to Canberra next. Then to Chiang Mai. Then to Cape Town. Then to Sneem. Then to Reykjavik. Then to Da Nang. Then to Niigata. Then to Alanya. Then to Aalborg.
She stayed in two-bedroom homes if she could. She stayed in cabins when she couldn’t find two-bedroom homes. She stayed in hotels as a last option.
Her Red Point Balance was 21. Then it was 19. Then it was 74. Then it was 37. Then it was 128. Then it was 92. Then it was 33. Then it was 247. Then it was 18.
After the Cape Town, she stopped calling J; simply sending along a renewal request each week before setting out to her next location.
She three missed calls from her accountant.
The first came while she was in Reykjavik. He glanced up from a screen on his desk and looked over at her. “So, I see you’ve taken up traveling. Glad you’re enjoying yourself. Call me.”
The second was left during her stay in Da Nang. Her accountant got up from his desk, went to his office door, closed it then sat down in front of his screen. “Bonsoir or whatever they say where you’re staying now.” He adjusted his glasses. “So, Sam’s calling me now. He doesn’t have account privileges, but he’s somehow sniffed out the fact that spending is happening. Kid always did have a nose for the stuff. And he’s, well, he’s bothering me, Tara. I don’t mind the bothering. I can handle the bothering. Usually it’s the clients bothering me. But I can handle the bother. Still, maybe do us both a favor and call him. Set his mind at ease. He’s, well between you me and the four walls, he’s got some crazy ideas. Frantic was what Sara said.” He looked at someone off to the side “Frantic was what you said right Sara? Not trying to overstate things.” Someone, presumably Sara, replied “That’s one way to put it.” Tara’s accountant turned back to her. “See. Frantic. I don’t do good with frantic.” He sat back in his chair. “Help me out here. Ok? Happy trails.”
The third message came while she was in Alanya. Her accountant was perfectly still. Still in a way that felt calculated to Tara. Finally, he leaned forward. “Ok. There’s vacation. Then there’s vacation. You know I don’t like talking down to people and God knows I didn’t think we’d ever need to have this conversation, but you’re eating stupid fees at every currency exchange. I mean. I can work around some of this if I have a plan. I … I think–and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but–we need to have the budget conversation. I hate the budget conversation. You know I hate the budget conversation. But I tell you Tara, you’re doing some real 20-something, lottery winner shit here.” He sighed. “Are you working through something? Need to talk to somebody? I’ll find a referral. Just … just call me.”
In Niigata, her feed flagged a vice story from home. Joseph Decansio, a PI known locally as Smart Joe, had been shot while fleeing police after they came to question him at his home in relation to a series of disappearances.
Tara had three messages from Joe That’s-The-Job on her screen. Despite the potential risk to her Red Points, she thumbed the first open.
It was seventeen minutes of audiotext. She could only stomach the first three. In it, Joe kept shouting at someone that mumbled, barely audible, in response. It was as if he was stuck on a thought, like he was trying to shout the idea out of himself. He kept telling the mumbling person to stop moving. “You gotta stop moving,” he said. “You gotta stop moving. What did I tell you? Hey! Look at me. What did I just say? Gotta stop moving. Stop moving. Gotta stop. You. Hey! Stop. Just … you gotta stop moving.”
Sam started calling again. She watched his name begin to stack in her message box with a sense of growing dread. Every time her screen buzzed, she started. The muscles in her thigh, just below her pocket began to spasm. She woke sweating, thrashing about, sure that she heard a beeping from the bedside table, only to find her screen sitting there peacefully. A constant headache rooted itself in the back of her skull and refused to move, no matter how many pills she threw at it.
She set the messages to ignore status, and when the week was up, boarded a bus to the airport and flew to Denpasar.
In Denpasar, Tara was initially booked to stay in a smallish three-room mudbrick home, but when she arrived, the owner, a snub-nosed Frenchman, was waiting for her at the threshold with his arms crossed. He babbled at her angrily about a Credit repo and wouldn’t let her through the door. After a brief sortie, Tara straightened her back, turned on her heels and stalked back to her rented car (she had given up at this point in booking drivers).
Her key wouldn’t open the car door. A tow truck arrived five minutes later. The Frenchman watched her suspiciously, unmoving from his post, as Tara argued with the driver. Less argued with and more argued at, Tara thought later. He ignored her, busying himself by hooking the vehicle up to his truck.
When the truck finally pulled away, the Frenchman stepped back into his building, slamming the front door with a definitive thud.
The nearest VPN-enabled Netspot was at least 30-minutes by foot.
Tara tied her coat around her waist and began walking.
Alright, told herself. Fine. It was time to call Sam.
“You had me declared dead?” Tara sat, legs crossed on ground in the middle of a park surrounded by small shops, her screen in her lap. She tried not to notice the sideways glances from people as they walked past, how the flock of women with bags suddenly hushed as they approached her.
Sam stared up from his screen. He looked like he did when she woke him at noon as a teenager, a muss of hair, dark circles under his eyes, his face older, but still scrunched and balled up the way that it always had when he was angry. “Jesus, mom,” he said. “For all I knew you were dead. You were completely MIA. Vanished. You’re not returning my messages. I’m getting spend reports from across the globe. For all I know, some goat herder slit your throat and auctioned off your Social on the net. I mean even Lawrence …”
“Who is Lawrence?” It didn’t matter if he was making sense, Tara wasn’t about to let Sam start taking that tone with her.
Sam rubbed his eyes with an infant fury, rather theatrically, Tara thought. “Your accountant? Lawrence?”
“The one you’ve been harassing? Calling nonstop. He told me about …”
“He reached out to me.” Sam paused staring unbroken into his screen, again rather theatrically. He was trying to let the revelation sink in.
Next would be the pivot to sympathy. They had done this dance before, many times. He would make some gesture towards familial links, knowing he had boxed her into a corner. She would be expected to congratulate him for winning. Her motherhood would swell. She would take care of him and thank him for taking care of her, even when she didn’t ask for it. After all, that was his motivation, right? He was doing this for her. Because he loved her. Because he was a good son.
She waited for his next move, stone faced. Sam finally looked down, “I mean, neither of us knew what was going on. Where you were. If you were even ok. If … if you were even alive. He asked me to get in contact with you. Then …”
“You had me declared dead,” Tara finished. She smiled. She tried to make her smile bitter. “It was smart.” She looked away. She wasn’t taking the bait, and that would hurt Sam. “Well, I’m not coming home. You’ll have to figure another way to fund your next venture or whatever other opportunity you have in the hopper.”
He frowned at her. “Where are you?”
“You know where I am by now.”
Sam’s mask dropped. He mirrored Tara’s smile back at her. “By the tracer, your IP is Nigeria routed through China, but I’m guessing you’re somewhere else entirely.”
“You’ll figure it out.”
“What will you live on?”
“I’ll manage.” Tara looked up. A shifty eyed, lanky man was skulking at the edge of the park, staring at her awkwardly.
“Will you be ok?” Sam was gesturing towards sincerity again. Or maybe he actually cared. Tara pushed aside the part of herself that wanted that to be true. It was the part of herself he always used when he wanted something. True or not, she had no time for it.
“I have to go. Do me a favor, though. Tell my accountant he’s fired, ok?”
And with that, she ended the call.
If she spent frugally, she had enough currency to live in Denpasar for three months. Maybe more. Long enough, at least to assess her options, to research the legal possibilities of having herself brought back to life without returning to Philadelphia. Long enough to plan next steps.
She wiped the sweat from her forehead, grabbed her bag, and walked over to the shifty-eyed man, her new landlord. He watched her warily. “So,” she said, “where am I staying then?”
Tara’s landlord insisted she pay for the first month upfront, along with a deposit to cover any damages, currency that she knew she would never see again.
He led her to a windowless room, about the size of her front porch. He didn’t make an event of showing her around. He opened the door with all the energy of a casual shrug and held a limp arm out at his side as if to say, so here it is. It was the appropriate amount of enthusiasm, Tara thought, for a room like this. It was situated in the center of a dilapidated apartment building. Tara couldn’t even count the number of stained tiles she’d passed in the hallway on the walk here. Inside her room was a twin bed, a tiny table with an old audiophone, a restroom that was smaller than her broom closet back home (its door didn’t latch), and a miniature refrigerator that had a burner built into its top. Over the bed, someone had painted the words, “Live. Laugh. Love.” in tacky gold script.
He kept glancing back at the door like he was waiting for someone.
“Does it get Net Service?”
He nodded, then suddenly shook his head. “For a fee.”
Tara handed over her first month’s rent, the deposit and the fee.
It would do just fine.
Denpasar was a nothing city. It was pretty enough as nothing cities go but had fallen into the trap of leaning too heavily into the traveler’s market. Everywhere, brown signs written in English denoted points of interest. This historic event. That whale migration viewing spot. Tara saw more of Denpasar in her three weeks there than she had any of her previous stops but was more a consequence of necessity than pleasure. Despite her landlord’s insistence, the netspeed in her room was worse than the free stuff at the public parks and tourist hubs. Plus, her headaches had been getting worse, and whether it was from the stress, the travel, or the gutter food, she had begun to develop a sort of resting nausea. If she wasn’t eating or sitting, her stomach swam. Her treks to local netspots almost invariably included a quick stop in a public restroom, a dash into a pharmacy.
Most days, she woke, crushed the bugs she found scurrying around the floor of her room, dressed, and made her way to a popular beach near her building. She spent the afternoon querying what little remained of her Network for legal contacts. She felt like a crazed, bereaved mother who had recently lost a dear child, asking after a medium. Her old colleagues ignored her outright. Occasionally, she got a prepackaged message (I’m sorry. I can’t help you with that, but let’s keep in touch), which annoyed her at first, but she gradually came to see them as a sort of kindness. It was something at least. She had to resort to reaching out to Director-level contacts who were at least responsive, if not any more helpful. “You need what?” they would reply. Or, “What do you mean you’re dead?” Or, “I’m a Comp analyst, what makes you think I could help with that?” All the conversations inevitably ended, “well … best of luck.”
Tara wasn’t content to trust to luck.
She was almost relieved at the end of the first week when she found the red envelope on her room’s small bedside table. Whatever they might mean, they were constant, which was more Tara could say about her colleagues, friends, even her body.
Inside the envelope, the letter read: Your Red Point Balance is 34.
Some small mercies, then, at least.
The following weeks were equally forgiving if no more productive. Her Red Point Balance was 41. Her Red Point Balance was 47.
Sam didn’t call her again. She had prepared a number of particularly cutting remarks that only he would understand in anticipation of another fight, but the fight never came, and she found herself equal parts disappointed and concerned. After all, he wasn’t doing nothing. He wasn’t the sort to do nothing. It wasn’t in him.
If he wasn’t calling, he was busy baiting other lines.
By her third week, the locals started to warm to Tara. Frowns, scowls, confused looks began to give way to careful waves from the man at the pan dulce stand in the commerce square, from the grocer at a corner market near her building, from the fat policewoman who patrolled the market park on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Her landlord smiled at her when she passed him on the street one morning and asked her how she was liking her room. Tara was so taken aback she didn’t know how to respond and simply nodded, a gesture her landlord seemed to interpret as positive from the way his smile widened. A stranger stopped Tara and asked her for directions to a netcafe, thanking her rather abruptly as he left, but thanking her, nonetheless.
The nothing town began to open up a bit around her. Tara noticed that faces were becoming more familiar: the pretty young girl who worked at the KFC, the dirty expat with a lovely voice who spent his mornings busking near the beach, the lady who wore clothes that seemed a bit too warm for the climate and walked her pair of French Bulldogs at the same time every morning, the uniformed old man either headed to or returning from his shift at one of the resorts that ordered and drank two McDonalds coffees every morning.
If the stable trend in her Red Points continued, and if she could get a room in a spot closer to the shore, and if she could find a way to get at her Credit or Comp (or even her Social), Tara was becoming convinced that she just might be able to make a small place for herself in Denpasar. She had more than enough stowed away to fund a few small businesses catering to travelers. She could purchase and rehab some of the buildings in her neighborhood, outfit them as cheaper rentals, hire a few locals to live in and manage them. Maybe she would even start out by caring for the homes herself: visiting the beach during the day, waving to the fat policewoman in the park, cleaning and resetting the homes between visitors in the afternoons. She could imagine a worse retirement, certainly.
All that imagining came to halt though when she returned to her room the day after her third letter at Denpasar arrived. She spent the morning at a local temple, sending out slush inquiries to random lawyers whose profiles mentioned international or family law and had a few prospects that seemed promising. After a quick nap, she was going to walk to the commerce center, grab a late lunch, and see if she had any bites.
As she rounded the corner and began walking the long hallway towards her room, though, Tara noticed a slip of paper was taped to the door.
It read: A woman named Wallace keeps calling me for you?
Underneath, her landlord’s IP.
She pulled out her screen and called him.
“She keeps calling and calling all morning,” he said. “I only have the audiophones for the old people. Even they don’t use them anymore,” he said. “I didn’t answer at first, but she keeps calling, calling. When talk to her, I don’t even know how to transfer to you. I try to give her your IP and she says she won’t call that, only this.” He seemed unnerved. He kept wiggling the fingers on his right hand. “I don’t like her voice. I don’t like it. Very hard.”
The woman named Wallace had left specific instructions if Tara wanted to speak with her. She would call again at 2PM local time the following day. It would be the last time she would call. Tara would take the call in the main office. “She said no one but you, though. She said it very hard.” His fingers wiggled. “But I can be quiet. It doesn’t have to be only you.”
Tara told her landlord she would take the call alone. His face softened and his fingers stopped wiggling. As he gave her the step by step, byzantine instructions on how to get to the main office from her room, he seemed almost giddy.
“Ok. Tomorrow then, Tara?”
“Yes,” Tara said, staring absently off into the corner of her room. “And I’m sorry I didn’t ask sooner, but what’s your name?”
Her landlord blinked. “Omar,” he said.
“Tomorrow then, Omar.”
“Ok.” Omar smiled, then ended the call.
That night, Tara received a call from Sam. Her body had been aching all day. Her arms felt like they were hanging loose from her shoulder sockets. Her back popped and stitched like a rusty spring when she twisted. He left foot was on pins and needles, going back and forth between an uncomfortable numbness and sharp popcorn tingling. She was lying in bed, rocking back and forth on her thin mattress, trying to find a position that didn’t hurt when her screenpad lit up. She swiped it to ignore and lie there another hour before she finally returned to the message, hoping at that point it would distract her wandering mind.
Sam was sitting at her table, back home in Philadelphia. Behind him, blue and red lights were flashing against the walls. He looked like a man sleepwalking, his eyes drifting uncertainly around him. His hair was disheveled, sticking up in all the wrong places. His face was shaved. He wore a loosened smart, yellow tie around his neck, his top button undone. There were bags under his eyes.
Tara’s heart dropped.
“Um, mom. Call me,” he said. “I know we have our fun, but this is different. Something’s happened and I need you to call me.”
His nose wrinkled. “I’m sorry. I just …” Someone spoke to Sam offscreen. He stood up.
“I have to go. Be safe.” He smiled. “I mean, I know you will. You always are. But still, be safe. And call me.”
He hung up.
Tara called Sam back. He didn’t answer.
She keyed up a plaintext message. She wrote out: I got your message. I love you. I’ll call in the morning.
She stared at the message. She deleted the words I love you. She looked over it again, holding her finger over the send button. She couldn’t bring herself press it. She erased the whole thing.
She wrote I hope you are ok. Then, after a moment, she wrote I miss you. Then, she wrote, we should talk. I have some things to tell you. Then, finally, she wrote, I love you.
She pressed send.
Then she went to sleep.
Omar’s office was a pile of scattered papers and opened drawers. He had opened the door cautiously, bleary-eyed, checking up and down the hallway before he ushered Tara quickly in. The room was laid out like her own, except for a small desk that sat in place of her bed and set of file cabinets in lieu of the minifridge. He paced back and forth, stepping on lease agreements and credit transfer slips, ranting offhand about the tenant in room 203 who still owed him two month’s rent, pausing only to show her the phone three separate times as if suddenly reminded why she was there.
He stopped and looked down in surprise, as if he was just then noticing records strewn out across the floor. “I’m … I was looking for something in the papers,” he said. ‘I was looking for something.” His fingers on his right hands started twiddling. “I forgot, I think, but it was …” His head darted up. “Is it two yet?”
It was 1:30. Omar’s fingers began to slow.
Tara walked Omar out into the hallway, her hands on his shoulders. He let her guide him, floating along in front of her. She told him to go home and eat something, maybe lie down to sleep for a bit. She would clean up here, she said. He nodded, looking down at the floor. When she took her hands from his shoulders and turned back to the office, he stayed fixed to his spot, still nodding, but as the door began to close behind her, Omar was suddenly in the threshold, holding the door open with his boot, leaning in, a desperate look in his eyes, a look Tara found uncomfortably familiar.
“Tara,” he said, “You should come. You should come too. I think … I don’t know this Wallace, or … I think though maybe we just have a lunch, and I can go sleep like you said, and you can come to your room, and maybe you can sleep there. I …” he looked around, confused. “It’s not right. I think.”
Tara smiled her most maternal smile, patted Omar on the arm and told him that it was a good idea. He should go down and get the car. She was going to clean up the papers, then she would be right down. They could go grab lunch together. It was a very good idea. He should go ahead, and she would see him very soon.
Omar nodded, stopped twiddling his fingers, smiled, and turned.
Tara waited a moment, listening as his steps slowly faded. When she could no longer hear him, she locked the door.
It was 1:45.
The room smelled like sweat and ammonia. In the bathroom, wet papers floated in puddles of cleaner that had been spread haphazard across the tile, bleaching the edges of a dirty bathmat that was crumpled next to the toilet. She turned on the exhaust fan, sat at the desk, and began thumbing through her feed. She noted, with a sense of quiet satisfaction, that she had another message from Sam. Her screen was unable to load it. After her call, she thought, she would find a spot with proper netspeed and see what he had to say for himself.
The phone rang at 2PM, on the dot. It was an old model, handset and all, the sort that vintage shops sold back home. Its digital bell cut through the room. Tara picked it up, held the handset against her ear.
“Hello?” a voice said.
“Hello.” Tara responded.
“I’m calling to speak with Tara.” It was a woman’s voice. Plain and unremarkable.
“May I tell her who is calling?”
The voice changed, took on a vaguely tinny quality, like a someone was holding a recorded message up to a headset. “Hello, Tara,” it said.
“Do you know who this is?”
Tara felt herself sinking into the chair; she was suddenly very tired. She blinked her eyes, working to keep them open. “Yes … I think so,” she managed.
Her right foot was on pins and needles. She felt it falling asleep. “You’re the representative, I believe. Wallace and …” She couldn’t remember.
“Wallace and Shannon Associates,” The voice began to fracture and shred. It sounded to Tara like a rhythmic beeping. Like a jet engine priming itself on the runway. “Calling about your Red Point problem.”
“Yes,” Tara said. “That’s right.” She felt something wet on her forehead and looked up. Clouds were gathering, coming together under the white ceiling panels. She held the handset up so the woman could hear the clouds, then brought it back to her ear, “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s starting to rain.”
The voice continued, spinning itself apart as it spoke, “We’ve been trying to contact you for some time. You’re a very hard woman to get on the phone.”
The rain began to fall now in earnest. She reached up to scratch her scalp. When her hand came down, it held a fistful of her own hair. She put it on the desk. She would be wanting that later. “I … uh, I’ve been working,” she said.
The voice continued, “Your Red Point Balance is very low. Very low. Luckily we have a special package for people in your position.”
Tara held some of the discarded papers over her head. Her forearms started aching. She had something important to say. She knew that. She couldn’t remember what it was. Or, rather, she couldn’t remember the words for it. She knew what it was. She saw it clear as day in her head: a red envelope, but she couldn’t pull the words out of the air. “Wait. Wait. Wait,” Tara said, “I have a question,” thunder cracked overhead. “I have a question. I just … Give me a minute. I know I can say it.”
“Take your time.”
Tara felt herself falling. Her elbow pressed into the soaked carpet, pushing water up into her eyes. It was salty. She blinked and stretched herself upwards towards the desk. She clawed at the handset.
“I can,” Tara said.
“Yes?” The voice was now more tone than words. Tara thought of a long piece of packing tape being pulled from its roller. She couldn’t move her legs.
“Why?” Tara said. It was as close as she could get. “Why is this happening?”
“Oh, Tara,” the voice said. “Let’s just talk about your options. It will be a much more productive conversation.”
“But I …”
“Tara. Do you want to hear about the package, or not?”
She did. She did want to hear about the package. At least she thought so. Tara propped herself higher. Rain was rolling down her forehead into her mouth. The salt parched her tongue. She closed her eyes.
“I … um.” She spat water. She reached up to scratch an itch on her nose but found an empty space above her upper lip. Her fingers came back red. How odd, she thought. Is this when she would wake up?
“I need to hear you say it.” the voice insisted. “And please, clearly, for our records. This is a recorded line.”
The water was at her chin. Her throat was completely dry. She took a deep breath, gargled some water in the back of her throat, and croaked the words out, one by one, as clearly as possible, slurring as she went. “I want to hear about the package.”
“Thank you,” the voice said.
Tara fell forward, dropping through the floor, down, down, into a deep pool of water, impossibly black. Tara pumped her arms but continued to fall, pulled through the darkness like quicksand. Her lungs screamed.
The ocean floor rose up slowly beneath her, white sand. When she landed, it was softly, kicking up a white cloud that danced over her.
Her screenpad lit up. Sam was calling. She couldn’t see it, but she knew Sam was calling. She reached blindly for the device and found it lying in the sand next to her.
She thumbed the power switch off. She couldn’t let him see her like this.
In her mind’s eye, she tried to picture herself, and saw a massive white body lying amongst the bones of a wrecked ship, centuries old, bits of torn cloth dancing in the currents. A massive grey fish swam by, watching her carefully. She imagined its black empty eyes. She imagined it approaching her leg, opening its mouth, pushing its needle teeth into her thigh and twisting itself side to side.
Distantly, she thought she could still hear the office above her. The rain was still falling.
She opened her mouth, exhaled thought she saw bubbles float up towards the world above her. She reached for them.
The thunder roared.
It sounded, Tara thought, almost like someone was knocking on a door.