This story does not start with dialog; not whisper, exclamation, or shout. It starts with a cold, rainy day, as stories were meant to start.
Jackson stood under a leafless tree in the park across from his office, holding a wet newspaper over his head and feeling sorry for himself. That he had just lost his job was unfortunate, but he would find another one. What really bothered him was how his boss had called him Jack. That was not his name. He had never introduced himself that way, not once encouraged a nickname. Maybe it was insignificant to other people. To Jackson, who seemed to be losing control over everything he cared about, his name was the one thing he thought he could still hold on to.
He gave the rain another 15 minutes to let up, then took the bus instead of walking. He bumped into someone and almost dropped his backpack. Slumping into an empty seat on the bus, Jackson looked away, tracing the rain lines flowing down the window as if they were trails on a map. He found himself wishing he could get away from the city, go hiking again with Amy. It would be foolish to call her, and he was almost home. Blocks away, an empty apartment on the second floor for a man who was nearly 35 and who was tired of feeling double that, most of all today. He walked so slowly up the stairs that he counted each step twice, lost track at over a hundred from the sidewalk and knew it was even more. It was not until he was inside, taking his coat off and checking that his backpack was dry enough, that he realized his cell phone was gone.
Jackson sat down, rubbed his eyes, waited. He listened to the clock tick and tick and wanted to fix it. It had been 5 minutes slow for days. Numbers and time, he thought. They were his, something he had owned, mastered in a way few could conceive. Yet he would not reset the clock. Each tick was like a jab reminding him that something was wrong, out of balance, and he could not focus his mind enough to know what it was.
"Jack", his boss had said that morning, and before he heard the rest he was disarmed, no desire to defend himself to what might follow next. Stan Davis was in charge of special projects, and Jackson had been working with his superior long enough to know not to ask what that meant. Jackson's job was to unravel secrets, but everything he touched was laced with them. Stan viewed the paper stacks on the desk and continued. "So much unfinished work. Your desk is layered with lost opportunity, now. But you had worked a miracle once, when we first brought you in."
"Maybe it was only coincidence. I just got lucky," Jackson had offered unconvincingly, but Stan was already shaking his head as if burdened.
"It wasn't luck," Stan had said. "You can lie to anyone else, but not to me." And then, after a pause: "I'm not happy about letting you go."
Now, back home, Jackson listened to the rain outside, a gathering storm, and wondered if it was only the budget cuts or something different. He knew Stan had believed in him, fought on his behalf, but Jackson had such a string of failures that he questioned it, doubted everything. Small events could introduce larger change, like ripples on a pond. While focused on other tasks he had missed the wave rolling through his.
The wind shifted again, pushing hard against the window. There was a balance to all things, a symmetry between actions, objects, and nature. Even change as tiny as the wind direction would light up around him, and in that moment he could read the patterns of the world like a book. As a child he had sensed it, but it was at age fourteen that he had felt it as a physical force, when his father had left and not come back.
He put the memory away, set his mind on the effects of the wind, blocking out the lost job and the missing phone and the sound of the clock. Buildings rose, roads were paved, cars crossed the city, and all through the complexity nature compensated, keeping the world held together. Today something was happening on the streets below: a truck's engine joined the wind, a man yelled, and more sounds passed by, unrecognized. Jackson knew there was a mathematical consequence for it all, but today it was no use. The threads of time were too twisted to be unraveled.
He closed the window and walked to the kitchen, putting some water on the stove to boil for tea before emptying his backpack on the counter. There was his notebook, paperback novel, three dollars in loose change, and a half-empty bottled water, but still no sign of his cell phone. Jackson cleaned the counter and let his mind wander, retracing the steps of his afternoon from the office through the rain and bus and home. He had not been paying attention, but now a memory came back, as if he was seeing it fresh: a man on the bus, the person he had bumped into. Instinctively he checked the back pocket of his pants, but his wallet was there. The kettle began to whistle as he turned to look for a cup.
Jackson's home phone rang, and for a few seconds he did not know where it was coming from. He rarely received calls on his landline anymore.
"Hello?" he said, after he had found the receiver on the kitchen wall. There was a moment of dead air before the man on the other end spoke.
"Greetings, Jack. Misplaced anything?" Jackson didn't have to check the caller ID to know the man was calling from Jackson's own cell phone.
"Thanks for finding it," Jackson said. He was already on edge, so he kept talking to avoid the uneasy feeling he had. "I'm glad you called."
"Me too," the other man said. "You see, I was able to call someone else from your phone's contacts. I would never have found her otherwise."
Often you can't let your heart admit it: the truth is right there below the surface but you hide from it, stubbornly wishing it is all fine. So it was with Jackson. He suppressed a rising fear and asked the question, even though he knew there were only four people in his contacts.
"Who?" Jackson said. "Who did you call?" He started to work out in his head how to track this man down, how to get his phone. "Who are you?"
"I need something from you, some information from your office. So it's only natural that you need something from me. We can do an exchange."
"Need? I don't need anything. Look, keep the phone," he said, frustrated. "I'm hanging up," Jackson started, but he was interrupted quickly.
"I have Amy, you idiot." At those words Jackson froze. Where earlier in the day he had walked as if in a daze, now his whole body was alert. Someone was playing games with him, digging through his life. It surprised Jackson to hear Amy's name from a stranger, but it was revealing. This man, whoever he was, only had pieces of the story, and to Jackson that brought a little comfort to what was proving to be a tiring day.
"You're lying," Jackson said. He decided to leave out that he had not seen Amy in well over a year. "Why should I believe anything you say?"
"Because I know how you got your job. I was the one you stopped, and since that day I realized how much stronger I could be with your help." Jackson could hear a passion in the other's voice that scared him. "I was your terrorist, Jack, your fateful discovery. And you interfered." More anger then. "Years gone because of your precious insight. Well, that is the past. I have something new in mind, and you're part of it."
"What do you want?" Jackson said, accepting that this call was more than chance. Only Stan should know about the events before he was hired. Hired and then, just today, let go. On the walk home Jackson had not yet settled on what to do next, and now this. He could not concentrate. His head hurt and his ears were ringing. Suddenly he realized the kettle was still whistling, screeching now and no longer background noise.
"Be at the 1400 block of Third Street in an hour. Bring your work laptop and badge. I will have you followed so don't make any other stops." Then Jackson heard the man laugh. "Not that I expect you to. For someone without any friends you were surprisingly difficult to track down."
Jackson hooked the phone back to the wall and reached over to finally turn off the stove, his hand shaking. The desire for tea had left him. He hurried to grab his bag and tripped over something as he tried to leave the kitchen. Looking down, he saw the knocked over cat food bowl. Jackson reminded himself again that he really should put it away before people asked where the cat was. How long had it been now, 14 months? He had promised himself he would wait ten times that, but then escaped in a job whose description itself proved she had been right to leave.