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Henry Brouchand never recovered from his wife’s death. It was less than a week after they married that he and Agatha packed their meager belongings and left Louisiana. The night before they left, Henry filled the tank of his used 1983 Mercury Grand Marquis. The rusted, sunbaked brown sedan was as pretty as a mound of dirt, but it was roadworthy. The two drove, day and night, taking turns at the wheel, as they made their way toward Southern California. Henry’s older cousin spoke of his plans of going out West years earlier. “California, Henry, that’s where I’m going. It’s different out there; we’re not treated the same way we’re treated here. It ain’t perfect by any means, but it’s far better for us,” he said. Those words echoed in Henry’s mind as he drove out West. Henry’s cousin never left his parish, because he was shot dead the following Saturday night. He had been caught red-handed in an-out-of-the-way motel with a man’s wife. Henry lightened the pressure on the gas pedal and glanced over at Agatha as she napped. The afternoon sunlight radiated off of Agatha’s long curls, creating a golden glow around her reposed, oval face. It was at that moment Henry was reminded of what he had always known: love is colorblind.
It wasn’t long after the couple reached Long Beach that Henry secured a job as a bus driver. The evening shift was the least coveted and reserved for the new drivers, but Henry never complained. Being fastidious, he enjoyed driving his predetermined route, making his scheduled stops, and returning home to Agatha thirty-eight minutes after ten o’clock each night. She would leave his dinner, which usually consisted of Del Monte canned green beans, Hungry Jack instant mashed potatoes, and a couple of pieces of baked chicken, in the microwave. And after his shower, Henry would prepare his uniform for his next shift, then slide into bed, kiss his wife goodnight, and snuggle up for sleep. It was Henry’s stable routine, in addition, to Agatha’s job promotion that allowed for the couple to save enough money to purchase a two-room, fixer-upper in an up-and-coming neighborhood on the other side of town.
Two years after their first wedding anniversary, Agatha had begun suffering from debilitating migraines. She believed the severe headaches were caused by the dry-cleaning chemicals used at work or the consumption of too much caffeine; but even after cutting back to a single cup of coffee a day, she often had to leave work early because of relenting nausea and dizziness. One late morning, while taking inventory, she became dizzy and fell off a stockroom step ladder. By the time the hospital contacted Henry, Agatha had died of a brain aneurism, then the autopsy concluded that Agatha was two months pregnant at the time of her death. The devastating news left Henry wondering, day and night, what he had done to deserve such painful punishment.
During the week after Agatha’s funeral, Henry searched the recesses of his mind attempting to find the reason for being widowed. He lied awake in the dark most nights, recalling a childhood memory, believing Agatha’s death was somehow related to the accidental death of a finch that had flown into his childhood bedroom. He remembered tossing a gray towel over the brown and white-spotted bird to prevent its escape; but when he removed the towel, the finch was lifeless. Suffocated. He wondered if this wrongdoing was the first stepping stone on the path to his wife’s unexpected death.
On the third week of his wife’s passing, Henry returned to work and delivered a brief speech to his supervisor and coworkers. “If it wasn’t for this job, the familiar routine it offers, I don’t know how I’d survive this type of heartache,” he said, before walking off to start the work day. Agatha’s clothes were donated to a local women’s shelter on a Wednesday afternoon and their house was placed on the market a week later. He could no longer live in the house they once shared; and more to the point, he could no longer afford the mortgage on a single income.
Henry soon found himself living in a matchbox-sized apartment with a bedside picture of Agatha to keep him company; since the first night of sleep, bad dreams attached themselves to Henry subconscious. But, it wasn’t nightmares that disturbed Henry as much as the loneliness he felt after waking from them. An undefinable presence lurked unseen within the little place, pressing against Henry’s sixth sense, in the same way one feels when secretly watched. The fine hairs behind his neck stood on end each time the palpable energy was felt. However, he resigned the invasive feeling to his wrought emotions and sleep deprivation. It was his way of making sense of the matter and carrying on with life.
Over the following six months, Henry developed a daily routine to keep his thoughts from returning to the past; He would arrive fifteen minutes early before each shift, conduct a walkthrough of his bus, and adjust all the mirrors with meticulous precision. Some of the other bus drivers teased Henry in the locker room, then gossip about him once he left.
Henry drove his route with routine, pulling over at every bus stop along the way; and when he had reached the end of the line, he would turn the bus around, looping back to where he had started and begin again in the opposite direction. He had recently taken a special interest in a new passenger— a young woman named Grace, who, Henry later discovered, worked the night shift at a local restaurant. Grace had an uncanny resemblance to Agatha, Henry thought. Some days later, while Henry drove his route, Grace sat near the rear of the bus reading a magazine.
It had been raining some twenty minutes or so before Henry noticed a man talking to Grace. He was dressed in threadbare, oil-spotted coveralls and a red handkerchief around his neck. It became obvious he was trying to flirt with her and even more obvious that Grace was not interested. Henry had seen his share of flirting on his nightly routes, attempts at romance happened often when strangers rode the bus together at night, especially when there weren’t many prying eyes around. It was a simple way of passing time and trying to win a shared a smile before reaching one’s destination.
However, greasy Casanova wasn’t too keen on Grace’s rebuff; in fact, it only spurred him to try harder. Out of frustration, Grace gathered her belongings and moved toward the front of the bus, near Henry. But, this didn’t dissuade the flirtation. He followed and sat across from Grace with continued rambling; and the more she ignored him, the more his flirtation became lascivious. Henry, taking a cue from Grace, threatened to kick the vulgar man off the bus at the next stop. This only angered the greasy Casanova. The man grabbed Grace’s magazine from her hand and threw it at Henry, distracting him from a bicyclist who had darted out into the street. Henry stomped on the brakes and gripped the steering wheel. The bicycle bounced off the bus’s rubber bumper, catapulting the cyclist into the air like a bronco rider being bucked off his aluminum horse. Gravity speared through the bus, blurring vision and yanking everybody forward to a jerking stop.
When Henry pulled to the curb, the man sprang from the bus, shouted racial slurs, and disappeared into an alleyway. The motionless bicyclist was stretched out some ten feet from his mangled bike. “Call for help,” Grace said, gathering her scattered belongings. Henry followed standard procedures without hesitation. “The police and ambulance are on their way,” he said, noticing Grace was nowhere to be found, only her magazine and lost lipstick tube were left behind.
Henry was placed on immediate leave while the city and bicyclist’s lawyers proceeded with legal formalities. During this time, Henry grew despondent. His routine became slack, unraveling further with each passing week. Since the accident, Henry struggled to find motivation to carry him through his waking hours. After cleaning his little apartment, top to bottom, he would often venture out to the park, spending hours reading the newspaper, gazing at the wandering clouds, and hoping that all the legalities would resolve themselves soon. And whenever he thought of that finch who flew into his childhood bedroom, he would press his eyes as tight as he could and rattle his head, as if trying to shake the memory from his mind. Henry continued with his new routine until the days of the week blurred together.
On an overcast Tuesday morning, Henry dressed in his only suit and tie and arrived at the address noted on a letter he had received five days earlier. He and a city attorney were to meet downtown, so Henry could once again give his account of the unfortunate incident. It was during this meeting Henry discovered the bicyclist was in stable condition and had filed a lawsuit against the city’s transportation department, arguing negligence as the cause of the accident, despite unlawfully entering into traffic. The attorney spoke in legalese, which caused Henry to squint his eyes in noticeable confusion. When Henry completed his written testimony, the attorney reviewed the statement; and in a subtle fashion, he questioned if Henry would like to change a few sentences, because there was a chance he may have recalled a few details differently. “Words matter and carry varying connotations,” he said, pushing a pen in Henry’s direction. The revision of Henry’s statement lasted over an hour. By the end of the meeting, Henry’s hand had cramped twice, leaving him to ask “Will I be able to keep my job after all of this? I don’t know how to do anything else, but drive a bus.” The attorney assured Henry that everything would be all right, then showed Henry the door.
That evening, after hours of talking to Agatha’s picture, Henry slipped into a dream that carried him into his childhood bedroom. From a ceiling view, he saw himself as a boy again, drawing a picture of two friends fishing at a bayou. A white window curtain blew in and out with the wind as he sat on the floor drawing a straw hat on one of the anglers. At that moment, a finch flew into his bedroom and landed some feet away from where he was sitting. He flung a towel over the tiny bird to prevent its escape; but when he removed the cloth, he discovered the bird didn’t move. He cradled the finch in his palm and began to weep. As he fingered the bird’s lifeless head from side to side, he noticed something strange about the feathers surrounding its face. In fact, they weren’t feathers at all, but rather human hair follicles. The boy blinked tears from his eyes and saw the bird’s face was his own. Henry awoke in a cold sweat, wiping his brow with the back of his hand, before realizing he had wet himself.
The next morning, he had an unusual thought of returning to Louisiana to buy a clapboard house and begin dating again, but Agatha had talked him out of it. His imagined conversations with her had become more frequent since the accident; he even confessed his budding attraction for Grace, which made him feeling guilty; however, he calmed his discomfort by announcing his undying love for his wife.
One sleepless night as Henry tossed about in bed, he noticed something odd on an exposed pipe that ran the length of the bedroom. He stood on a chair stacked with several maritime history books, stretched to the tips of his toes, and had a better look. Someone had scratched A. H. 69 into the pipe’s white paint. Henry didn’t know what to make of the markings hidden behind the water pipe, and that bothered him. It wasn’t until two days later that Henry inverted the initials, realizing they were first letters in his and Agatha’s name. He then stared at the double-digit number, so long they began to look like a warped circle. “Who wrote this and why,” Henry thought. “And why hide it behind the pipe?”
The row of apartments where Henry lived was a place where renters would come and go; it was the kind a place where a person could hide out without disruption; Henry regarded his half pint apartment much like a weary traveler regards day-old bread: he rented his apartment out of necessity rather than desire. Finding no reason to dredge up the past, the manager failed to mention that a former occupant had hanged himself some years earlier.
On Aldo Holman’s sixty-ninth birthday, the retired longshoreman prepared a Cornish hen, two pieces of buttered toast, and a can of chili beans for dinner. He ate his meal with a bottle of port wine. When Aldo had finished the bottle, he undressed while humming happy birthday to himself. It was nine days later, when the manager, suspecting Aldo has skipped out on rent, keyed open the apartment door and found Aldo’s naked body hanging from the water pipe. There was no sign of a suicide note; instead, Aldo had written I.O.U. on three toilet paper squares and placed the note in between his flabby buttocks. Aldo felt a life with pancreatic cancer and a pickled liver was no longer worth living, so he decided to beat death at her own game.
However, in the flailing moments toward the unknown, Aldo changed his mind. He no longer wanted to die, but it was too late. It was this abrupt change in plans that prevented Aldo’s soul from crossing over into the afterlife. By his own device, Aldo was trapped in the little apartment with an undying urge for liberation. Unaware of how his chance at freedom would manifest, Aldo waited and watched and waited, watching tenants move in and out of the apartment with little excitement and expectation.
Henry was in the middle of a conversation with Agatha when the city attorney called. The bad news hammered Henry’s ear like a wooden stake into soft soil. And each time Henry attempted to interrupt, the city lawyer raised his voice and repeated, “Your accident cost the city lots of money, Mr. Brouchand. You should consider yourself lucky that he took the payout.”
“Well… am I able to return to work,” Henry asked, shifting his sights to his uniform, which then slipped from its hanger. The lawyer cleared his throat and began with “After a long discussion with members of the union and city transportation officials, it’s in the city’s best interest to provide you with an invitation of termination.”
“Invitation of termination? Are you saying, I’m fired,” Henry asked, feeling the wooden stake sink deeper.
“Please don’t’ be alarmed, but it’s in the best interest of the city and the—”
“But, what about my best interest? The kid shot into the street out of nowhere. It’s all in my statement; I told you what happened. There must some kind of mistake. Can’t you talk to the judge and tell him—”
“Now, Mr. Brouchand, what would you like for me to tell him? That you were arguing with a passenger, got distracted, and hit a kid on a bike, who, may I remind you, could’ve pressed direct charges against you. You should be thankful you only lost your job and not your freedom. You could be sitting in jail right now.”
“But, he was at fault, not me. You do see that, don’t you? All I want is to go back to work. Nothing more.”
“I see what happened, believe me, I do, Henry, but the judge, well, he— how can I say this, he was convinced you were guilty the moment he set his eyes on you. There is something about these types of judges. Blind, but not like Lady Justice. Do you know what I’m saying?”
“I most definitely do.”
“And, we both know how that still measures up. Good thing is, you’ll get what you’ve accrued in pension up to the date of the accident. You can return the uniforms within…”
Henry went deaf to the lawyer’s final words and hung up the phone. He sat on the edge of his bed, rubbing the bristle on his chin while trying to sort his thoughts. An hour had gone by before Henry irritated his skin to the point of pain. He stood from his bed, glanced about the room, and sat down again not knowing where to go. That night, Henry lost his job, appetite, and will to shower. He crawled into bed and listened as the city welcomed the night. Deep within his chest, his heart thumped slowly, feeling the rhythm pulse in both eardrums. And again, he remembered that little brown and white-spotted bird. His eyes welled with tears as he whispered into the darkness, “I’m so sorry… it was an accident.”
Wailing sirens woke Henry as they passed by his open window and grew faint with distance. A brisk, early morning breeze entered his room uninvited, flowing in and out through the window’s opaque curtain, billowing into a full sail, then out again. His eyes returned to the swaying curtain, realizing that he and the outside world were only separated by a white cloth, a thin veil between worlds. He moved to shut out the cold air; but before he could, the window closed with a gentle touch. Henry had no explanation for what he saw and surmised the cold air had something to do with the wood window frame contracting and closing. It was the most logical answer for what he had witnessed. Although, he had never seen it happen before.
The next few weeks limped along and depression had taken up residency in Henry’s mind. He no longer had the motivation to keep himself nor his place tidy; in fact, he neglected daily shaving, walks to the mailbox, washing dishes, and folding his clothes.
As Henry lied in bed, he noticed a black spider, the size of quarter, crawling along the white bedroom wall and disappear behind the water pipe. Knowing he couldn’t sleep with a spider in room, Henry stood on a chair and searched for the eight-legged crawler. Instead, he found himself staring at the hidden marking on the pipe: A.H. 69. Again, he wondered of their meaning, moving closer to the initials for a better look. In a blur, the spider appeared from the opposite side of the pipe and jumped onto Henry’s face, causing him to fall off the chair. Henry opened his eyes and discovered that he was lying on the floor next to the toppled chair. There was no sign of the spider, only its fresh bite on Henry’s left cheek.
Some hours later, Agatha sold Henry on a hot bath and close shave, and it was during this bath that Henry again notice something strange. This time, it wasn’t a slow closing window or a spider crawling across a white wall. It was a message that appeared in a foggy bathroom mirror. The moment Henry stepped out of the bathtub, he witnessed “A.H. 69 is here” being written by an invisible hand. The bathroom door opened, and the lingering mist outlined what appeared to be an old man. The aberration swept out of the room, leaving Henry questioning his sanity.
These unexplainable events had become more apparent over the last two weeks, but Henry never mentioned them beyond a whisper and never at night, because he thought doing so would confirm he was, in fact, losing his mind. He asked the heavens for a sign throughout each day, for a sign that would provide him with clear direction for his life, but the answer never came.
In the morning, Henry dressed in his least wrinkled clothes and ventured out into the world. He walked like a man with a private jet to fly him anywhere in the world at any given time, like a man who could dine in the finest, international restaurants and reside in five-star hotels without the maître d ever mentioning the word check or check-out. Henry stopped at the store with a sign that read: Big Bargain Blowout Sale. The store manager noticed Henry the moment he entered. “Hello, sir, can I help you find anything today,” the manager asked. Henry glanced about the store and said, “Rope. I’m looking for the most expensive rope you have.” Henry was shown a variety of ropes and was amazed at the many choices. Henry soon left the store with the strongest rope he could buy.
He then strolled the aisles of the local supermarket selecting ingredients needed to prepare a three-course meal for two along with the most expensive bottle of pinot noir. Upon returning to his apartment, Henry uncorked the bottle, set water to boil, and ironed his suit and tie. While moving about his unkept place, he hummed a tune, then stopped a moment, hummed a few bars more and busted out laughing with joy. He collected Agatha’s picture from his bedside table and held the frame so their eyes aligned. “Could you believe I was humming our wedding song? Oh, how you loved that melody, Agatha. Some Day My Prince Will Come. Someday we’ll meet again/And away to his castle we’ll go/To be happy forever I know…,” Henry sang, kissed Agatha’s picture, and sat the frame on the table opposite of his chair. “I’ll be right back. I won’t be long.”
Henry danced his way back to the stove, poured two glasses of wine, and brought the first course of the night to the table. He ate his garden salad and shared a wonderful and imagined dinner conversation with his deceased wife’s picture. He spoke of their courtship, thanked her for commenting on his handsome appearance, and told her how it warmed his heart to see her sleeping in their bed each night he returned from work. He poured himself another glass of wine, toasted to their love, and smiled at the thought. The dinner conversation ended with Henry returning her photograph to the bedside table and whispering, “Only God could keep us apart, my lovely, Agatha.”
After brushing his teeth and straightening his tie, Henry stood on a chair stacked with books, looped the rope around the exposed water pipe, and threaded his head through the noose. He glanced at A.H. 69 before stepping off the chair. But before Henry’s death wish was fulfilled, the rope snapped, sending him crashing to the floor. His lungs crushed of all oxygen; he lied there, embarrassed at the failed attempt. He rolled onto his stomach, mouth gaped, gasping to refill his lungs with air. Henry coughed and labored to his feet.
He grabbed the severed end of the rope, which still hung from his neck, and wondered how such a strong rope could break under his weight. There could only be one answer: “It’s my sign from God,” Henry thought, vowing never to attempt such a morbid sin again. An electric sensation swept over Henry’s body as Aldo’s ghostly spirit appeared. “Your life saved is my soul released. Leave this place while you still can,” he said, then vanished through the apartment’s front door.
Heeding those haunting words, Henry bought himself a used car the following day, loaded up his belongings that night, and drove far from that little place just before dawn. With Agatha’s picture dangling from the rearview mirror, Henry steered northbound onto the interstate, whispering Some Day My Prince Will Come. Someday we’ll meet again/And away to his castle we’ll go/To be happy forever I know….