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Jeff Houlahan
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Strange Attractors

 

By

 

Jeff Houlahan

 

 

 

 

 

“Are you ready, Mr. Fontaine?”, he asked quietly.

The two men were in a white, concrete room sitting on the only two plastic chairs in the room.  A tape recorder was on the table between them and the faint click and hiss of the revolving tape was the only sound in the room.  One man had dark hair cropped close to his scalp and was wearing a white shirt and dark slacks and a navy blue tie that he had loosened at the neck and had a navy suit jacket slung around the back of his chair.  He looked across the table at the second man who was staring down at his hands in his lap so that his longish blonde hair fell in front of his face.  He was wearing a yellow black-lined hockey jacket, jeans and an ‘I’m with the band’ baseball cap rested in front of him on the table.  The dark-haired man spoke again.

 “I know this is tough but it’s best if we hear your story while it’s still fresh.”

The dark-haired man waited but it was as if the other man hadn’t heard.

“How did you end up driving?”

…“Mr. Fontaine?”

“Andrew’s Dad called me at lunch.  Said that our bus driver was sick and wouldn’t be able to drive.  That we would all have to make sure our kids got to the game on their own. I told him that I had a Class B license and I could drive if that would help.”

He looked up for the first time and the deep crow’s feet at his eyes belied the baby face and long hair. 

“I drove school buses for a couple of years after I got out of the Forces.”

 “So, you offered to drive?  And everybody was good with that?”

“Yeah.  You know how it is.  It’s a 90-minute drive from Carp to Greeley and any parents that want to see the game can hop on the bus.  Only kid that didn’t come was mine.”

His voice caught on ‘mine’.

“Why wasn’t your boy there, Mr. Fontaine?”

“His mom wouldn’t let him come.  He had a big exam the next day, Friday, and his marks haven’t been so good lately.”

“You were okay with that?”

He shook his head but didn’t speak for several moments.

“Nah, I wasn’t ‘okay with it’ but I don’t win any of those battles.”

“But you still decided to drive?”

“I didn’t find out until late in the afternoon that Mitch wasn’t going and by then I couldn’t back out.  Kind of wanted to see the game anyway.  Greely’s got the best high school hockey team in the region and I wanted to see how we stacked up.”

 “So, did you have to arrange to pick up the bus?”

The man shook his head.

“No, they parked it at the school and left the keys with the secretary.  I could leave it in the school parking lot when we got back and just drop the keys at the depot in the morning.  Tomorrow’s Saturday and they weren’t going to need the bus until Monday.”

So, did you go straight to the school?

“Pretty much.  I had to stop at the bank and pick up some cash for the weekend.”

So, the bus is there when you get to the school and you had no problem getting the keys and getting on the road?”

He shook his head.

“Sam and her dad were a couple of minutes late, but they always are.”

“Sam?”

“Only girl on the team.  Smart, tough, quick.  Be the best player on the team if she was a little stronger.  As it is, she gets powerplay time.”

The man paused and looked up.

“What about Sam?  Do we know?”

 “I’m sorry, Mr. Fontaine, we haven’t heard any details—they’re still trying to sort things out.”

That wasn’t exactly true.  Sixteen were dead, seven were at the hospital and one of them looked like he wasn’t going to make it.  There were only two females on the passenger list they had put together and both were dead.  There were three people who hadn’t needed to be hospitalized, all adults. He allowed a short silence.

“So, the drive there was uneventful?”

“Yeah.  Roads were fine.  Not too much traffic.”

“How many on the bus?”

“Not sure exactly.  There are sixteen kids on the team but Jake wasn’t there so there were 15 kids and a bunch of parents.  Carol and Frank King, John Francis, Mike’s dad, I forget his name…I don’t know, maybe 11 or 12 parents.”

“You didn’t keep a list?  Just to be sure you didn’t leave anybody behind?”

The blonde man looked up from his hands.

“I knew how many kids and which kids.  The rest of them are adults.  They knew what time we were leaving.”

“Did anybody get left behind?

He shook his head.

“No.  Jason drove there with us but wasn’t on the bus back because his Dad lives out Greely way and it was his dad’s weekend to have him.”

“So, you figure about 25 people including yourself?”

“Something like that.”

“Okay then, Mr. Fontaine, can you tell me what happened on the way back?”

The dark-haired man had been expecting a long pause here but didn’t get it.

“It had started snowing by the third period so when the kids came off the ice we told them to hurry it up so we could get going but y’know kids…”

Anyway, it’s probably 35-40 minutes after the game before we get everybody rounded up and the gear stowed and by then it’s snowing pretty good.  But what do you do…?”

 “…nobody wants to get a hotel when they’re only 90 minutes from home. “

The dark-haired man nodded but didn’t say anything.

The blonde man looked at him for a long time then finally looked back down at his lap before he started talking again.

“Anyway, we get on the road and it’s pretty bad but not the worst I’ve ever seen.  The snow’s drifting so I can’t see the lines in spots but there wasn’t a lot of traffic and I’m just taking it slow.  The kids are making a lot of noise in the back but that never bothers me.”

He looked up again as if not sure the detective understood.

“When you’ve driven a bus full of 1st graders every day for two years you get used to the noise.”

The dark-haired man forced a smile and nodded.

“OK, Mr. Fontaine, so you’re driving, the kids are having fun in the back, the conditions are pretty bad…what happens then?

The blonde man looked back down at his hands and his hair fell back in front of his face.  He moved his hands onto the table without looking up. His left hand had a long red gash and twitched and jerked before he covered it with his right hand and then pulled both hands back into his lap. His head started to come up and then stopped.  He twisted in his chair so that he was now facing the door out of the room but still didn’t look up from his lap.  The dark-haired man could see his hands, now fists, clenched on his lap and then he started pounding his knees hard with his fists and rocking slightly in the chair.

“Mr. Fontaine?”

“Just give me a second.” It came out as a whisper.

They sat there for several minutes until finally the man turned back to the table.

“I’m not exactly sure what happened.  I think I must have gone on automatic pilot.  You know how it is sometimes when you’re driving?  You get thinking and you’re not completely focused on what you’re doing?  Anyway, I remember seeing the headlights way up ahead.  We were on a long straight stretch and I could see that something big was coming and at the same time I noticed that I was doing about 90.  Faster than I wanted to be going.  So, I edged over a little towards the side and just tapped the brakes to slow down to 70 or 80. I guess the combination of turning slightly and hitting the brakes got the back end swinging a little, I tried to correct it but overcorrected a little then tried to swing it back again and by that time it was gone and I wasn’t getting it back.”

He stopped again.

“Can you remember what happened next, Mr. Fontaine?”

“You know, I’ve heard people say that it happens so fast that they don’t really know what happened until it’s over.”

He shook his head.

“Not this.  It felt like it was in slow motion.  I could feel the back end sliding.  Twenty degrees, 30, 40 and the tractor trailer just keeps coming.  I guess he’s got no place to go.  By the time he hits us, it’s completely broadside.  I feel like I was watching the truck driver’s face for the last few seconds but that doesn’t make sense because I was facing away from him by that point.”

“The mind plays tricks, Mr. Fontaine.”

There was a knock on the door and another detective stuck his head in the door as the dark-haired detective turned around impatiently in his chair, but his expression changed when he saw who it was.

“Hey Barts, they got the guy who burned Goodie.  Holed up with some chick in China town – only took three days for him to piss her off bad enough to rat him out. Looks like a drug thing.  Thought you’d want to know.”

“Thanks Rags.  Hang around eh?  I want to hear the nuts and bolts.”

The detective nodded, pulled his head back and closed the door.

“Sorry, Mr. Fontaine, another case we were working on.”

“That the guy that got killed in the east end?”

“Yeah, Bryan Goodie.  We were pretty sure it was a drug beef, but you never know for sure.  So, you were saying…?”

 “I don’t remember the collision or any noise but there must have been. I just remember that I’m in the aisle of the bus and the bus is on its side but when I look back down the aisle there is a gaping hole where the back of the bus used to be and it’s getting cold and snow is starting to blow into the bus and I’m thinking that we don’t want to let all that snow in the bus. That people are going to get cold.”

He shook his head.

“Shock messes you up, Mr. Fontaine.” 

“Anyway, Jamie’s dad had been up keeping me company and he’s still in the front left seat, but the seat has been torn off the floor and is leaning against the doors.  He was unconscious but I could see that he was still breathing.  And I couldn’t see any blood. I tried to wake him but I couldn’t. And there was no way I was going to be able to drag him out through the back, so I start working my way to the back of the bus. I’m not sure what I was thinking. I wish I could say that I was trying to figure out the best way to help but I actually can’t remember what I was thinking. I get to the back but it’s a mess. Most of the seats have been torn at least partly loose and it was an obstacle course.  One of the kids was still in the seat but I couldn’t tell…”

He swiped at his eyes with a coat sleeve.

“What couldn’t you tell, Mr. Fontaine?”

“Who it was.”

“How did you know it was one of the children, sir?”

“Team jacket.”

The detective was getting used to the extended pauses and waited without moving.

“At first I thought the bus had been torn in two, but it hadn’t completely.  One of the bus sides had held but the back end was folded back so the bus was bent in a V and there was a big hole. The truck was in the ditch on its side but one of the headlights was still working and even though it wasn’t pointed right at the road it was shedding some light and the road looked weird and uneven.  I realized after a second that the bumps were bodies.”

“Has any help arrived yet, Mr. Fontaine?”

 “No.  There wasn’t much traffic and so it took awhile.  I managed to jump down out of the bus.  Might be when I cut my hand.  The first person I get to is Ronny Gervais.  I think I knew he was gone but I started giving him CPR and...”

The dark-haired man interrupted.

“You’re trained in CPR, Mr. Fontaine?”

He nodded.

“I’ve been a coach and a trainer for Mitch’s minor hockey teams.”

“Mitch is your son, sir?”

 “Yeah, and all coaches and trainers have to have basic first aid.”

 “How long did you work on the boy, Mr. Fontaine?”

He shook his head.

“Not sure.  For a while. I stayed with Ronny ‘till the ambulances showed up.  Just couldn’t bring myself to leave him.  Big, strong kid but one of the outsiders on the team.  First year on the team and not one of the favorites.  Always managed to say the wrong thing…and not a great player.  Funny how that seems to matter to the other kids.  But, I had a soft spot for him.  He loved being on that team…maybe more than anybody.  I think he would have found his place.”

“So, you didn’t move from there until the police and ambulance showed up?”

The blonde man shook his head. They sat there for a long minute then the dark-haired man reached forward and hit the stop button on the tape recorder.

“I think we’re done here for now, Mr. Fontaine.  We’ll probably want to speak to you again, but I think we’re good for now.”

The man didn’t look up.

The dark-haired man cleared his throat.

“Have you got somebody who can come get you?”

…“Mr. Fontaine?”

The man looked up startled.

“Yes?”

“Have you got somebody who can pick you up?”

He shook his head.

“Well, we can find somebody to take you home if you need a lift.”

The man looked at him blankly for a second and then realized what was happening.

“Oh.”

“Right.”

“I can go home.”

“Yes sir.  We’re done for now.”

The blonde man just stared at his hands as if he could see something there that they couldn’t.  The detective shifted in his chair, impatient now that the interview was over. The other man began to speak without looking up as if he had forgotten that he had been dismissed.

“You had some magazines out front.”

Still looking at his hands something shifted in his face, almost a smile.

“No offense but…Discover magazine?  Not what I expected in a cop shop.  I would have guessed Sports Illustrated… maybe Time, I don’t know.”

The detective frowned.

“Mr. Fontaine, are y….”

“So, there was an article about parallel universes.  You ever heard of that?”

He looked up then, waiting. The detective held his gaze for several seconds before shaking his head

“I don’t know anything about physics but I guess folks who do, they say that if the laws of nature work the way we think they do, then there are an infinite number of other universes out there, universes almost exactly like ours but each one differing in some small detail.”

The blonde-haired man paused, staring again at his hands. When he spoke, the detective had to lean in to hear him.

“Do you think that might be true?  Is there a place out there somewhere, where my boy gets on the bus, where his Mom doesn’t mind that he misses school to play hockey?”

The blonde man pushed himself up from the table but staggered a little bit and had to catch himself.

He gave a little embarrassed smile to the detective.

“Foot’s asleep.  I’ll be alright.”

He stamped the floor twice, hard, picked his hat up off the table, walked to the door of the concrete room, opened it and walked out.

*

All he remembered was coming out of the door to his apartment and somebody calling out his name.

“Hey, Goodie!”

 He had turned and there was a guy in a hoodie and low riders and a gun held straight out in front of him in one hand.  Probably a jig but you never knew these days – everybody was a wannabe.  The shooter’s face had been shadowed by the hoodie and he barely got a look before the bullets hit him.

He had no idea why he was still walking.  He had woken up in an alley about 4 blocks from his house and he had 3 scars that looked like bullet wounds.  One had almost taken out his left nipple, another was high on his chest just below his right shoulder and the other was high on his left thigh. 

He stood in front of the mirror in his boxers touching the scars.  They weren’t even a bit sensitive.  But they were new.  Fuck it.  Didn’t have time to worry about old scars he had never seen.  He had to figure out how he was getting Sofa off his ass.  He turned away from the mirror and walked into the bedroom and flopped on the mattress. He lay for a second with his hands laced behind his head. That fucker would kill him twice if he didn’t get his money back.  Fuckin’ hookers and tweak were gonna be the death of him.  He needed ten large. Either use it to pay off Sofa or the nut he needed to get out of town. 

He got up again off the bed and back into the bathroom to stand in front of the mirror staring at the scars. 

He wasn’t sure how long he was in the alley, but somebody had been in, maybe the cops, while he was gone, ripped the place up and a bunch of stuff was missing.  They had found his stash and taken it.  Fuckers.  They hadn’t taken the bread and peanut butter or the beer.  That was something.  And the cable was still working.

He hadn’t left his apartment in two days.  It was too fucked up.  Maybe Sofa knew he wasn’t dead and he’d be waiting.  Or one of Sofa’s boys would see him and it would be same shit, different day.  He’d gone down and stood looking out the front door window…even opened it a crack and looked up and down the street but couldn’t get himself to step out.  But he couldn’t stay here forever. 

Only one fuckin’ way to do this.  Take down a bank.  They must have 10 grand hangin’ around. Maybe more.  Maybe get lucky and it’s payday or something.

One of his buddies said that banks were easy because tellers were told to give up the cash.  It was all covered by insurance, so nobody minded handing over the money.  But he’d still need a piece.  Couldn’t go into a bank with empty hands and a hard-on and hope somebody would give you money.  He’d had one but those fuckers had taken it too. Fuckin’ dickheads.  Probably end up getting’ into it with the cops and get shot with his own gun.  Fuck that.  He’d do the shootin’ if there was gonna’ be any shootin’

Mo always had a piece.  Maybe he’d give him a loaner.  That would mean phoning him and then Sofa would know for sure he was still walking.  But he couldn’t do this without a gun. 

He went to the phone and stood with the receiver in his hand for a long time until it started with the busy signal. He put it back in the cradle, picked it up again and hit Mo’s number. 

“Yep?”

“Mo, it’s the Goods.”

There was a long silence.

“Mo?”

“Who the fuck is this?”

“It’s Goodie, man. What the fuck?”

There was another long pause.

“Goodie got done, man.  Stone done.  No doubt.”

“Well, then I’m a fuckin’ ghost, Mo.  Boo.  Stop fuckin around I need some help.”

“Goods?”  Cautiously.

He pulled the receiver from his ear and banged it twice hard on the table and then stood with it in his hand breathing deep, his eyes closed, the veins on his skinny arms standing out as he clenched the receiver tightly in his hand.  This had been a bad idea.  He slammed the receiver back into the cradle but missed and caught his finger between the receiver and the phone.

“Fuckin’ fuck, ratfucker!!”  He hopped up and down sucking on his injured finger.  He could hear the faint voice still coming from the receiver and he tore the wire from the wall and hurled the phone at the wall.  It smashed hard, bounced back and he had to hop quickly to avoid the receiver as it flopped back at him.  He stood in the middle of the room, his chest heaving and his fists clenching and unclenching at his side.  Fuck, fuck, fuck.  That had made things worse. Much worse.  Even if Mo wasn’t sure it was really him, he would still get word to Sofa and Sofa wouldn’t let it lie.  He had to move quick.  And still no piece.

Rudy.  Rudy his landlord had one.  He and Rudy never talked but he had heard him chatting with the new girl in apartment 3.  Showing off.  Saying if she had any trouble to come get him.  He had just the thing to take care of any problems.  She had asked what he meant and he had held out his arm like it held a gun and squinted through one eye. “Feelin lucky, punk?”  Yeah, that’s what he had said.  Like anybody would mistake Rudy for Clint.  Fat, bald, pit-stained Rudy.  He’d be lucky he didn’t blow his own dick off.  Actually hard to believe he owned a gun and had lasted this long. 

*

Goodie stood across the street, watching people walking in and out of the bank.  Might be more money if he waited a day, they probably loaded up on Fridays, people taking out money for the weekend.  But, he couldn’t wait another day.  It had all seemed easy thinking about it last night. Now his hands were shaking and he had to bury them in his pockets so nobody would see. His right hand gripped the gun and it made him feel better.   It was a good plan.  Go in the door with the hoodie down and flip it up as you walk in.  He hadn’t been able to see the guy who shot him, even looking straight at him.  No way the cameras were going to be able to see him from an angle. Shout for anybody who was in the bank to get on the ground.  Make sure to wave the gun around so everybody sees it.  Get all the tellers to lie down except for the hot one, the one with the big tits that worked the far counter.  She could scoop from all the other tellers.  Maybe get her to do it with no shirt on just for kicks. His mouth felt too dry to even grin.  Who knew, maybe she liked the bad boys?  Maybe she’d be looking at him while she was pulling out the money.  Looking at him like she wanted some of that bad boy.

                                                        *

 It had gone wrong from the minute he had opened his mouth.  He had shouted for everybody to get down and one lady hadn’t moved, frozen where she was standing.  He had whacked her with the butt of the gun and she still didn’t go down.  He had to hit her twice.  Fuckin’ twat.  The hot chick wasn’t working, some skinny fag in a yellow suit jacket with rolled up sleeves behind the counter.  And then that crazy fucker.  Look around and the guy in the ballcap and hockey jacket is sitting up tying his shoe lace.  You fuckin’ believe that?  Not even looking at him at first, just tying his shoelace like that’s what he sat down to do.   He shouts at the guy “Lay down, motherfucker!!”  Nothing.  Doesn’t even look up.  He shouts at him again and this time the guy looks up but he doesn’t look real scared.  A little maybe but not bad.  The guy just looks at him and keeps tying.  Stupid fucker.  So, he walked over and the guy just kept looking and tying his shoe.  So, he burned the guy.  One shot to the head, right through the ‘b’ in band.  Then, one more.  Fuck, fuck, fuck.  Didn’t even get the money.  Flipped out and left.  Now, he’s back here.  And Sofa knows he’s out there with no place else to go. 

 

 

THE END





Jeff Houlahan has a B.A. in Psychology, a B. Sc. and Ph. D. in Biology and has been published in Blackheart Magazine, Eunoia Review, and Apocrypha and Abstractions.

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