Mr. Past Tense

Reflections GS

“Reflections” by Gabe Hales

I’m in love, Sam thought as she shivered in the frosty morning. Looking at her image in the camera of her phone, her eyes proclaimed it—glassy and distant, soft edges around the pupils. How many times has it been now? Two? Ten? Did it matter?

She checked her next-bus app. Two minutes away. Does Jamie know? He’s got to a least suspect it by now. It’s not like I’m what you’d call subtle. Sam pulled her hair into a ponytail as she spotted the bus rounding the corner.

A straightforward approach suited her so much better, anyway. Why bother screwing around with all the small talk and brutal second dates that should never have been? Waste of everyone’s time. The second date, Sam had learned, was when the chronic jerk tended to show his true colors, after he’d started raking his nails on the bottom of his best-foot-forward bag of tricks. This was when the rapidly-revealing douchebag would blurt out anything from the ridiculous (“Well, I am from Georgia, so I’m a little bit racist. People from here wouldn’t understand.”) to the pathological (“I’m so excited for you to meet my mom.”). Things tended to end abruptly. Hey, if there’s a connection, then by all means, sign me up—Sam was willing to pounce like a lioness—but if it’s not happening, then see ya, Mr. Past Tense. Wouldn’t want to be ya.

Those guys weren’t the issue, though. Sam, now in her late twenties, felt she had mastered the art of placing herself in close enough proximity—and frequently enough—to successfully cultivate any relationship she desired.

The bulk of Sam’s complications emerged from the gray area after things got started, that zone where sunny vows were made and shattered, where trust was cultivated then torched. These were men—boys, actually— who’d disappointed Sam, people who’d led her to believe they were worthy of her emotional bounty only to eventually fuck her over and therefore necessitate getting fucked themselves to atone for their bullshit.

Years ago, when Sam moved away to college and the mist grudgingly dissipated from her teenage years, she came to the realization that her stepdad had employed such a wide array of emotional tools in the art of grooming and manipulation—gifts, attention, threats, assigning guilt and responsibility to her alone—she vowed to battle them all, to strike back for her cause each time and every time.

Sam would’ve probably agreed that her most impressive operation was that involving Mike, a nice-looking redhead she’d met in the beer garden of a hockey game. Each of them a recently-graduated 22-year-old, Mike was Sam’s first foray into the adult assets of cars, jobs, and a little bit of money. And until she caught him cheating during month five, they’d been having an absolute blast. He’d surprise her at work with picnic lunches enjoyed at the waterfront park, text her sweet, funny poems or Snapchats on nights they spent away from each other. At one point, Sam had convinced herself of their enduring love so adamantly, she’d begun doodling favorite children’s names during dull work meetings. Whether in Mike’s presence or not, Sam could feel her love emanating from deep in her core, convinced that anyone who stepped into its aura would feel the intensity.

The flame was doused cruelly and decisively one morning as Sam lay in bed while Mike took a shower. His phone, on the table across the bed, buzzed with a text. Even now, all these years later, Sam wasn’t sure why she’d decided to roll to Mike’s side and be nosy, but she’d opened the message to see a picture that was ninety-nine percent bare, in-your-face boobs and the rest a grainy, out-of-focus head towering in the distance. The text below read, “Miss you. Love, the Girls.” A quick scroll through their photographic correspondence was all it took to make the affair unquestionable, especially the selfie Mike had sent boob girl showing a body part that he had to have enhanced in Photoshop, because, well, Sam knew its proportions fairly confidently.

Following that unanticipated moment of clarity (and several days spent sobbing and cursing in her work bathroom stall), Sam resolved to stick around for another two weeks to formulate and execute a solution. She didn’t want to leave a Google trail, so she spent her evenings sipping Pinot Gris and fast-forwarding through YouTube true crime episodes, perusing old episodes of Dateline and 20/20 for the poisoning tips and tricks of the now-incarcerated. By her fourth evening of research, she’d concluded that anti-freeze was the perfect elixir—sweet, light, and unassuming when stirred into a gin and tonic or Diet Coke.

Sam prepared and served Mike beverages that weekend with the enthusiasm of a newlywed, administering the toxin in carefully measured portions. She had given Mike a big enough dose of ethylene glycol by Friday night to keep him sweating and cramping through dawn. Then, her manufactured angst impressively on display, she played the dutiful nurse while allowing him a brief, poison-free recovery period.

Sam could barely stifle a laugh that afternoon when he told her that, while he was definitely on the upswing, sex would have to wait, for perhaps as much as a day or two. He was so sorry but try to hang in there.

Please. That night, as Mike slurped down another slug of poison in a strawberry milkshake, Sam concluded that any further tainting posed the risk of permanent kidney failure. The exercise was complete. She waited for one of his more brutal rounds of heaving and moaning to gather up her personal items, stand at the bathroom door, confess and frostily dump Mike’s red swollen ass. His muffled whimpers and gags echoed in the bathroom as she left his apartment.

***

Sam smiled faintly at the memory as the doors of the bus whooshed open, her shoulders relaxing from the rush of warmth on the biting January morning.

“Hi, Jamie.”

“Morning, Samantha.”
The first rider again this morning, she sat in her usual spot diagonally behind him, the one reserved for the handicapped and elderly. She’d only had to give up her seat once; surely most people could tell she had something real going on with this guy and understood that they should leave her… them… alone.

He was so beautiful. And sweet. That’s what had snagged her, his nerdy, self-conscious sweetness and his ability to always say just the right thing when she could tell he wasn’t trying to. He listened patiently as she rambled about work or a lame friend, once nodding and chuckling the entire trip downtown while she vented about her phone provider, and while part of Sam considered such one-sided banter a waste of their valuable time together, the rest of her loved that Jamie’s questions were so thoughtful, that he would bring up things she’d talked about weeks ago.

Then, there was the incident last Tuesday, the milepost event that had rocketed Jamie the bus driver to heights not previously scaled during Sam’s adult pursuit of romantic connection.

She’d boarded the bus that morning feeling particularly unattractive due to an angry pimple situated in the crease beside her gold nose ring. It was as if a competition had ensued between human and alien bodies, together forming an inflamed, hideous beacon to illuminate the battle.

“You look nice today, Samantha,” Jamie had said. “Not sure what it is, but you look nice… but not that you don’t look nice other days, but….”

“Right, keep talking.” She pulled off her scarf and stuffed it into her backpack. “Are you serious?”

“I’m serious.”

“Must be this huge zit next to my nose, huh?”

“Nope, don’t think so.”

“Just, you know, seems like my face might make a few people cross-eyed today.”

“Well, hey, as my grandfather once said, ‘A tree is known by its fruit, not its leaves.’”

Sam gasped loudly, startling them both.

“What’s wrong?” Jamie said.

“Nothing.” She was quiet for a second, breathing deeply to calm herself. “Um, it’s just a little crazy, because my grandpa used to say that too.”

“Wow, that’s funny.” Jamie switched on a fan, forcing him to speak louder. “Does he live around here?”

“Um, no. He died when I was ten.”

“Oh, sorry.”

Grandpa Bill was the only person, male or female, who had really loved Sam, adored her, in fact, and the only individual without any sort of twisted agenda. When she first realized this, it made her feel sad and shocked and damaged, but it was still true. Her lonely trajectory and penchant for bad decision-making may quite possibly have turned out differently had the man stuck around another fifteen years, even ten.

Yet now, here was this guy she’d gotten to know in the strangest of ways, using this folksy old saying that she hadn’t heard before Grandpa Bill or since. It was that moment when Sam realized she had to be careful.

She watched him smile and say hello to everyone who stepped on, hoping at some point he might have to strap someone into a wheelchair spot and provide her a longer, nicer look at him. It only happened once and she stared shamelessly as he performed the task with a smile.

“How was your evening last night? Sam asked as the last rider cleared her line of sight. “You were gonna call your mom, right?” She pulled out her ponytail band, hoping he’d see her brown hair cascading down her shoulders when he turned her way.

“Yeah, which I did, for 43 minutes according to my call log. You might think that’s a good thing, except she starts repeating herself after about six minutes and telling me how lonely she is. And what am I supposed to do—move in with her?”

Um, hell no.

“Anyway, always a challenge, you know?”

“Oh, I know, trust me.” Sam watched how his hands gripped the wheel, how the dimple in his cheek creased into that adorable half-moon dent when he greeted passengers. “Me and my mom don’t talk much.”

“Really? Yeah, ever since my dad died, all my mom does is shop,” said Jamie. “She got a nice life insurance payout, so now she just buys stuff and puts it in her closet. My dad wouldn’t have stood for that. Morning!” He watched a pink-haired teenager swipe her pass. “Which I guess is why she’s doing it now, you know?”

Sam really needed to work on listening to Jamie when she first saw him. No idea what he’d just said. Besides, she was a little distracted by a thought she’d been obsessing over for weeks and had finally decided to bring up today.

“So, just curious,” she said, “how often does Metro switch up drivers’ routes?”

“Kind of depends.” Jamie pumped the brakes as the articulated coach barreled down the hill. “It can be anywhere from three months to six months to a year. Like with me, I’ve been on this route for three months. I love it, but it’s kind of far from home.”

10624 Republican Street, thought Sam.

“Which is why I’m pretty stoked that I got a new route in the north end starting next wee…”

“Wait, what?” Sam’s face flushed. “I, I mean, that’s great.” She realized she was standing right next to him, up front hugging the post behind his shoulder.

“Yeah, like I said, this route’s awesome, but…”
“Will you go out with me?” The words came out so suddenly it sounded like someone else was saying them. Sam’s heart surged with a jolt of adrenaline.

“Ha! Wow!” Jamie’s voice bounced off the driver’s side window as he merged the huge vehicle onto the viaduct. “Um, wow.” He glanced up at her, then back at his mirrors again. “I’m a little startled by that question.”

Why shouldn’t he be? Her assertiveness was unusual, but it had been her go-to tool for attracting Nick, Aaron and a small group of other also-rans. The fact that neither Nick nor Aaron had ended well, was beside the point. Nothing but sheer determination and planning had wooed each of them.

“You usually ride this route to the last stop downtown, right?” said Jamie.

“Uh huh,” Sam said, even though it was four stops further than where she’d gotten off prior to meeting Jamie.

“How about we talk after everybody’s off the bus?”

“Sure,” she said, floating two steps back into her seat.

It’s true that Nick had never officially become her boyfriend, but she’d still invested a good eight weeks into cultivating their bond. Not easy either, considering Nick was a co-worker and Sam’s first pursuit following the Mike debacle. After arranging to run into him in various places around work—the elevator, the cafeteria—the flirting had gained enough momentum to where she was ready to ask him out. She spotted him on the sidewalk in front of work one Thursday morning, nuzzling and groping some woman with expensive boots while clutching their matching Starbucks holiday cups.

Sam knew the deal when two people were together in the morning, and she’d carelessly allowed her anger to cloud her attention to detail. It wasn’t hard to find Nick’s desk, but procuring the hog penis to place inside the top drawer had proved difficult. Like an idiot, she hadn’t noticed the security camera and had been subsequently terminated. She’d also received a call from the cops, who eventually let her off with the warning that any further stalking incidents would be met with criminal charges. Luckily, the pig balls she’d put in his backpack had never made it into the police report.

Jamie pulled the coach into a bus zone along the curb, switched off the ignition and stepped out of the driver’s bay. “Are you sure you want to go out with me? We only know each other from a 20-minute distracted conversation into downtown every day.” He stood over her, so she stood up to face him.

“I’m sure,” said Sam too enthusiastically.

A thick silence followed.

“Um, okay, well, are you interested in coffee, cocktails…”

“Cocktails are good. Always good to have cocktails, yes.”

“When’s a good day for y—”

“Tonight.”

“Um, uh, well… hell, why not! Tonight it is. Let’s see, ever been to Bin 47?”

“Nope, but I can find it.”

“Meet at 7?”

“See you then.” As Sam brushed past him, she kissed him lightly on his stubbled cheek. He smelled clean, clean and wonderful. “Um, do you mind opening the door?”

“Oh yeah. Sure.”

As she stepped down onto the sidewalk, Sam was invigorated, tingling with an endorphin overload. She knew this one would be different than all the rest.

***

Sam flittered about like a teenager before prom as she got ready. Actually, she’d only heard that teenage girls flittered about as they dressed for high school dances, because she’d missed that whole experience. Her stepdad, Frank, barely let her leave the house, and when he did, it was usually to pick up Taco Bell, smokes, Lucky Charms or some other shitty cereal that he always seemed to be scarfing down, the bowl resting on his gut as he watched The Kardashians.

Frank had always procured his own booze, of course, since at the time, Sam was in high school and too young for that errand. It wasn’t exactly like he was all that particular about what he poured down his rotting gullet, anyway, especially prior to paying her one of his drunken nighttime visits.

Sam chose her favorite scoop-neck angora sweater. Just the thought of his stench as he pawed at her—a mixture of cheap tobacco, cheaper alcohol, and Old Spice—made Sam turn to two entities. When it was happening, her body became a ghost, allowing her mind and heart to wander off and be somewhere—anywhere—but where her physical being lay suffering.

Well, fuck him, she thought she thought as she fumbled to find her favorite red lipstick, no one says I need to waste one second of emotional juice on that fat fuck ever again. She only wished his death would have been far longer and rampantly more painful than the heart attack that had stricken him while sleeping and anticlimactically culled his sorry ass from the herd of the living. Still, Sam recalled how it had taken every last morsel of willpower to not spontaneously burst into an unhinged laughing fit upon hearing the news of his death. It wasn’t so much that she was happy, just that she found it wildly amusing that the dude had died and lost all muscle control on the same bed he had used to ruin her life.

Sam’s souring mood evaporated when the Uber pulled up. She walked briskly to the curb and climbed in. “Bin 47, please,” she said to the driver, hoping he’d seen her put her earbuds in and get the message. Evidently he did, cranking the volume on his musical selection.

Is that Kenny Loggins? Oh, my god, it is. Sam hated Kenny Loggins, but to be fair, it was mostly because the guy was Aaron’s “guilty pleasure,” always popping up on his Spotify lists. Another one that began with promise, Aaron was Sam’s first real boyfriend. She’d met him halfway through Freshman year at college, at a point when she’d resolved to blow off all the worthless counseling and put the whole Frank thing behind her. Even more crucially, it’s when she swore she’d never be a victim again.

What had spooked Sam about Aaron was the increased frequency with which he started talking about his ex-girlfriend, Kate. Oh, Kate was so beautiful and so patient and liked sports and on and on. It had gotten so relentless that Sam finally reached her tipping point and, for the first time, decided to battle the inescapable scourge of male duplicity.

Setting up an email account in Kate’s name, Sam began a digital correspondence with her dirt bag soon-to-be ex. Message after nauseating message, Aaron flirted and whined and waxed nostalgic about the things he missed from the past and hated about the present. For his comeuppance, Sam had arranged a face-to-face meeting/ambush at the most logical place: a Starbucks near Kate’s condo.

Dressed just like the old girlfriend had promised, in his favorite dress and wearing her hair back on one side the way he’d always liked it, Sam watched Aaron’s face rapidly blanch, draining of all pigment upon recognizing her. She took a sip of her Americano and laid into him, oblivious to anything but her rage and its dazed source. The yelling was one thing, but a small bit of blood was apparently too much for some alarmist asshole who had decided to call the cops after she scratched Aaron’s face.

Cited for disorderly conduct and third degree assault, Sam was still convinced she’d have been let off with a warning had they bothered to learn the full story. She did enjoy the mandatory community service however, volunteering to work with single mothers while sprinkling in a little instruction in the art of revenge to her eager audience.

In the backseat, Sam snapped out of her daydream as her car pulled up in front of Bin 47. With one last look into her phone, Sam decided that, truthfully, she’d never looked hotter. The physical manifestation of a woman in love was superior to the most dazzling necklace, hairstyle or form-fitting dress.

She saw Jamie immediately, seated at a table in the back corner of the bar. He looked nothing short of glorious, sitting there in his non-bus-driving getup of a button-down shirt, nice jeans, freshly shaven face.

“Hi Samantha,” he said, rising to greet her with a disappointingly distancing hug. “You look nice.”

“Thanks. So do you.”

As Sam pulled off her coat and settled in, she felt strangely at a loss for words. Jamie didn’t appear all that eager to speak, either.
She scanned the room, nodded and looked at him. “Nice place.”

“Yeah, I come here with friends pretty often.”

He’s got friends. That’s good, I guess.

Warm and comfortable as the bar was, it seemed oddly quiet to Sam. No music was playing and, although every table was occupied, people barely spoke above whispers. “So, besides coming here,” she said, “what do you like to do?”

“Well, hmm, I enjoy…”

The waitress appeared abruptly and took their orders—for Sam a glass of house red and for him a local IPA—and Jamie continued. “Anyway, so I like to run, let’s see, I like to eat, I like photography…”

“Really?” Sam said as the server set their drinks down, “me, too.”

“Can I show you some of my photos?”

“Absolutely.”

The room quieted further as Jamie hopped around and took a seat next to Sam. “Kind of an old phone. It’s a 5S but it takes decent pictures.”

Their shoulders touched slightly and Sam had to will herself to relax as she soaked in the warmth of his body.

“Let’s have a look,” she said, leaning into him.

Sam noticed the bar’s lights dimming. Odd.

“This one’s nice, I think,” said Jamie, placing the phone on the table in front of her.

It was a woman sleeping. Sam squinted, straining to focus on an image that appeared insanely misplaced. Is that me? No. Yes, it is. That’s me, sleeping in my bed, in my room.

“Is this some kind of joke?” Sam said. “How’d you get this?”

“Okay, hang on. Take a look at this one.”

The next image was a little faint and grainy, but she knew this was her too, standing naked in her living room, her hair wrapped in a towel.

“What kind of…”

“I think this one’s the best of all.”

As Jamie swiped to the next image, Sam noticed that the room had gone completely dark, the only source of light being a picture of Sam in bed with the guy she’d had a one-night stand with a few months ago.

“Oh, there’s a video that goes along with it, which we’ll gladly project onto the big screen if you’re interested.”

An invisible chant suddenly rose in the black, stuffy room. “Show-it-show-it-show-it!”

Sam jerked her chair sideways, its legs barking their disapproval on the sticky floor as she tried to get away from him. “You fucking…. What… ? How…?”

“I know, I know. You deserve an explanation. Lights, please!” Jamie yelled.
As the lights came on, Sam scanned the bar. Every eye was pointed at her, every face unblinking and inquisitive. She wanted to scream, to run, to punch Jamie in the fucking throat. “I don’t know what this is, but I’m leaving now…”

“Oh, please, please, Samantha. Not just yet.”

She felt two large hands push her roughly back into her chair. She looked back and saw the bouncer-sized goon. “Don’t touch me, you asshole!”

“Calm down. It’s all good,” Jamie said. “You’ll be free to go after we finish the show. It is the season finale, after all!” Boisterous cheers erupted. “You’ll have to excuse my friends,” he said. “They’ve been looking forward to this for quite a while.”

“But what kind of sick… I don’t…”

“Of course, you’re confused. Anyone would be, so let me back up. My name is Chip Mortensen and I’m the producer and host of Stalking the Stalker. Right now, it happens to be the hottest reality show on the Darknet.” He waited again while the hoots and clapping died down. “Samantha, you are familiar with the Darknet, aren’t you?”

I… I don’t know.”

Her body had gone numb.

“Well, as you may know, sites on the Darknet aren’t accessible to everyone. They’re encrypted to prevent the wrong eyes from spoiling all the fun. Yes, we must all be quite careful with our enterprise, but happily, Samantha, you’ve accumulated seven million followers throughout this season’s run. Can you believe it? Seven million! Congrats!”

Jamie called me Samantha, she thought, not Chip Mortenstone or whatever you said your fucking name was.

“Fuck you!” Sam bounded back up and was pushed back down, more forcefully this time. “I said don’t touch me!” she hissed at the goon. Her mouth quivered as she faced Chip/Jamie. “How do you even know about me?”

“Great question, is it not ladies and gentlemen?” More catcalls and cheers filled the room. “Well, thanks to some of our well-placed fans in the field of law enforcement, we were able to access the best candidates, all with a history of, shall we say, exuberant romantic vengeance.”

He scooted back in his chair and surveyed Sam with a long, raunchy glare. “And let’s face it, honey, you aren’t exactly hard on the eyes. Oh, I wouldn’t expect you to know this either, but you, my dear, are the hands-down favorite to be selected as this year’s Dark Star.” Chip’s arms suddenly shot into the air, a move Jamie never would’ve done. “How about that one, ladies and gentlemen?”

The audience quickly launched into another chant: “Dark Star, Dark Star, Dark—”

“Okay, okay, quiet everyone. Quiet, please. So just to give you a little nuts and bolts about the show, first we accumulated recordings of all your wonderful bus conversations with me—excuse me—Jamie. We took the best portions of those, edited in some of the lovely intimate video we attained, then re-enacted your most creative acts of retribution.” Chip folded his hands and winked at Sam. “I think you’d be impressed with the actress we chose to play you. Here, check this out.”

The widescreen TV above the bar lit up, showing re-enacted snippets of the Starbucks scene with Aaron and office incident with Nick. As a clip from the bus played, Sam saw that the actor chosen to play Jamie was nice looking but not accurate. The woman cast as Sam, however, resembled her quite closely.

“Where the hell did you find these people?”

“Oh, that part wasn’t hard at all, considering how well they’re compensated.”

The room’s lecherous faces engulfed her, waiting in ravenous rapture for anything uttered from the star’s lips. Sam just sat there, shaking as she buried her head in her hands.

“Well, Samantha,” Chip said, “thanks to the tireless efforts of our editors and staff, we think you’ll agree that we’ve created an idea for a show that will resonate for years to come. Oh, by the way, just so you know, there’s a camera over there… and one over there. Might want to fix your mascara.”

“I’m calling the police. You’re all sick!” Sam screamed. She jerked her shoulder away as Chip tried to reach for her.

“You can try, but you’ll be wasting your time. This stuff isn’t exactly offered up on the Yahoo homepage.” Laughter, mostly male, echoed from the bar’s high ceilings.

“But knowing you as we do, which is, I have to admit, quite well, I’m thinking you must still have a few unanswered questions. You’re probably wondering, how did we lure you into our undertaking? Am I right?”

Scalding white rage engulfed Sam’s consciousness. She couldn’t speak. She saw him and only him, his face at the end of a hot, fuzzy tunnel.

“The answer is, we do our homework, Samantha. We’ve accumulated a monstrous amount of data about you—your likes, your dislikes, especially your loves. Take a glance at me, for instance. We know you’re drawn to my high cheekbones, to the dimple of my chin. I am your ideal physical man. Add to that a personality you melt for and a few well-considered words and phrases, and presto! We’ve snagged ourselves a Darknet sensation. Let’s just leave it at that, yes? We don’t want to get anyone in trouble!” Scattered laughter.

Sam shot up and swung at Chip’s face, but the thug snagged her arm at the last second and pulled her away.

“Okay, okay, settle down, Samantha,” said Chip, “you’re free to go any time.”
The room was silent again, the only noise buzzing out from the neon PBR sign behind the bar.

“I swear to God, you won’t get away with this!” Sam spat in Chip’s face, turned and shoved her way through the crowd. As she found the door, she turned one last time to meet their stares. “You’re all insane!”

“Oh, Sammy, calling the pot a little black there, don’t you think?” Chip shouted, dabbing his face with a napkin.

Even after the door slammed behind her, Sam could hear muffled applause. Then Chip’s revolting voice, “And… it’s a wrap!”

On the sidewalk in the chill of the January night, she pulled out her phone. Definitely not his real name, but I need to start somewhere, Sam thought. She Googled Chip Mortensen.

By Tim Haywood