It was a quiet night in July, unusually damp for this part of Southern California.
Dark clouds were sporadic and tough to consider with severity: It hadn’t rained in months. In fact, I could remember only two times in the last year that drops of water had fallen from the sky: one was my move-in day, the other was Halloween. The novelty of the threat amused me, not deterred nor prevented me from taking the late evening stroll I had become accustomed to, and so I set off down the footpath at my usual time in the usual direction.
My mind, like my physical body, delighted in exercise and in the deliberate release of inhibition, especially after a long day counting numbers and drawing lines. It was like a fresh breath of air after a cramped train ride, and I much enjoyed letting my thoughts wander, as my body did, before gathering them up again and heading back in the direction of my home.
Tonight was no exception, for I had spent most of a beautiful day indoors, relentlessly scrutinizing the accounting records of my newest client. I found comfort in arithmetic: two and two always made four, and anything reduced by zero remained itself whole. The omnipotence of logic, unfailing and invulnerable, and in this case blunt and brutal: my client had less money than he needed to stay in business.
I had yet to deliver the verdict, but the jury was no longer deliberating. There was no jury. Addition and subtraction were judge and jury, and irrefutable logic would be the executioner. Death by arithmetic.
It was more imagination than the situation called for, but I did what I could to keep things colorful. Numbers were only black and white, but I could hardly complain about that aspect—it was why I enjoyed the work I did. So I looked to my nightly ambling as an opportunity to unshackle my creative mind, and it took to the chance like an eager house dog on a walk.
Thoughts and ideas sped through my mind at such a rapid pace that I hardly paid them any attention, I just let them breeze through and continued feeding my senses, taking in every sight and sound as I strolled down the lamp lit street. It was only the recurring observations that stuck with me for any period of time, and of these themes one resonated above all:
The stark contrast between the busy sunlit streets of this suburban neighborhood and the desertion of its nocturnal antithesis.
I walked down familiar sidewalks, now abandoned after well-to-do families had dined and departed to their separate quarters, all behind drawn curtains and closed doors. There were no giddy school children being rushed into the car by their parents; no sprinklers showering vibrant front lawns; no excitable dogs yipping from behind picket fences; no amiable postman delivering greetings and packages to the residents of the neighborhood. All signs of life had vanished on these deserted suburban streets, and it was rare that I ever encountered another living soul during these routine nighttime excursions.
This and other things I deliberated as I took my respite from the burden of rational thought, but on this night it was not without consequence: in my distraction I had ventured very far from home. A crack illuminated the night sky, followed swiftly by a roaring thunder and an immediate downpour upon my ill-prepared self.
The feeling of cold rain on my face had an instantaneous affect and my mind fled back to the logical processes that always provided such safety and comfort. Two options presented themselves: I could either sprint home as fast as my legs would carry me, or else I could temporarily take shelter and wait for the storm to pass.
Lightning split the sky again.
I gripped my hat and looked left: there was an empty concrete patio, illuminated by a single bulb above the doorway and covered by the overhang of an otherwise inviting residence. I split in the direction of the house and leapt up the single step to the porch, landing safely and somewhat damp under the shelter of the awning.
I turned to face the storm and considered the unlikeliness of my current situation. Not only was it a rare bout of inclement weather, but it had occurred at a time which found me further than I had ever walked during my evening rambles. I was for the most part unfamiliar with this neighborhood, and though I knew the general direction I had gone in and was certain I could find my way home, the prospect of such an attempt in the current elements was unappealing, and besides that I felt confident the storm would abate momentarily.
I wrung my hat and shook it as I patiently waited.
The clap of thunder shook the porch and must have masked the sound of the opening door, for as it settled into the hillside a voice spoke from behind me.
“Caught in the rain, are ya son?”
I turned and found an old man standing in the doorframe, dry and warm behind the screen and looking amusedly out at the storm and at me as I stood with my hat in my hands.
“Er, yes,” I said after recovering from the surprise. “I cannot say I was expecting it.”
“That’s probably why it happened,” he concurred. “Come in, dry off, and let the storm pass. I’ll make some coffee.”
Before I could protest he shoved the screened-section of the door in my face and stepped aside to invite me into his hallway.
“Thank you,” I said, wiping my shoes thoroughly on his mat before setting foot inside. “I would remind you that your offer isn’t necessary, but I would rather express my gratitude and warm up a bit than feign resistance from the cold damp porch.”
“You’re certainly bright,” he said. “Probably the brightest one caught in this rain.”
“A small consolation,” I muttered.
I followed him down a dark hallway into a brightly lit kitchen, almost blinding in comparison to the rooms surrounding us. The rest of the house was dark, and the only two lights seemed to be in the kitchen and on the front porch, both likely old and covered in cobwebs, based on the sickly yellow they emanated. I took a seat in a rickety chair and was surprised it held my weight, then turned my attention to my benefactor.
If he wasn’t ancient, he certainly looked it. Tufts of thin white hair grew from various locations on his pale and spotted head without reason or pattern. One eye squinted so tightly I doubted he could see out of it, should it ever open, and in my presence it never did. A severe under bite left his bottom teeth protracted beyond his upper lip, and a sharp yellow tooth, twice as large as any of its neighbors, remained outside his mouth even when it closed. Breathing caused his entire apparatus to tremble, and before speaking he would gasp and chomp his teeth together, as if calling his muscles to attention before putting them to use.
He leaned on the back of the chair in front of me and snapped twice before politely offering coffee.
“Black,” I said. He turned his back and began to rummage through his cabinets to gather the ingredients. A pot of water sat ready on his stove and he turned the knob and lit a match to ignite the burner. The antique looking French press he pulled from his cupboard did not seem out of place. Eventually a scalding cup was placed in front of me, next to an undisturbed copy of the day’s paper.
The front page bore the headline: Local Killer Sentenced to the Gas Chamber.
A booming thunder rattled the rooftop tiles.
I read the subtext: