Every Sunday without fail, Matthew Volpatti left his apartment and rode the bus to the lake east of the city. It was a forested natural lake despite being surrounded by the metropolis. Between the parking lot and the lakeshore, stone picnic tables sat on concrete pads in an evenly spaced row along the strip of mowed lawn. A short wooden dock jutted into the lake, but no one swam in the lake. It was muddy and shallow and the scare of leeches and the like. Owing to the marine climate, the trees grew thick and tall. A narrow, paved path swung through them, following the perimeter of the lake. Matthew made a point of never bringing his mobile phone so he wouldn't be tempted to read work emails or go on social media. Sometimes he sat at the tables. Sometimes he walked along the path. He always bought a hotdog from the same nameless vendor. To Matthew he was a familiar face but to the vendor Matthew was just one of many, so the weekly transaction was strictly an exchange of currency for food.
On this Sunday's bus ride, a teenage pair continued their giggling and cuddling from the moment they boarded, and an elderly pair took alternate bites of a shared sandwich. Both couples were equally annoying, and Matthew was first off the bus when it arrived at the near-empty parking lot in a downpour.
Because the picnic tables were sopping wet, Matthew took his hotdog to eat under a dripping tree. Three weeks had passed since the first day of spring, but the forest was dark and cold. Lichen hung in the branches like dirty rags. Vestiges of snow were dark with gnarled twigs and dead needles fallen from winter's storms. He stood with his back against the trunk, his folded umbrella resting against his leg. A large discharge of water fell from above. He crammed the wet wiener into his mouth and flicked the drenched bun into the trashcan. He paused to regard the rain-soaked wind thrash the lake when he was met with prowling thoughts of work.
Working out of his apartment, he spent ten to twelve hours a day on his computer as a code writer, not counting answering emails and attending virtual meetings. He sat on a gym ball for exercise. He streamed movies on an old monitor just for the company of it. He mostly ordered takeout. A few months earlier, he was given an intern who was constantly screwing up, and Matthew had to work twice as hard to get his tasks done on time. His complaint was met with his project leader sending him a series of links to video lectures for Matthew to improve his cooperative skills. The blue-lined links sat in his inbox insistent and unopened.
Matthew had come to the city as the company's intern for one semester, midway through his degree in computer science. He didn't know anyone then nor could he say he knew more than a few people now. And yet, he hadn't always been melancholy. His childhood was a happy one, never without friendships, prosperity, or familial stability. He and his sister, who was his senior by eighteen months, were akin to twins. Their sweet surprise sister arrived eight years later. They lived in a house on a sunny street with a swimming pool. Tragedy struck midday on a sidewalk when a drunk driver ran down his older sister who was only seventeen years old. The aftermath came in a chain of events that Matthew's brain failed to put into sequential order. His dad lost his job as an insurance salesman, became an alcoholic, and moved back east. His mom devoted herself to working as a realtor, heading up the local MADD division, and defying her age. The pool turned green and slimy. There was a divorce. The house sold. Matthew ran away to university and incurred a vast amount of debt. His younger sister took to the streets and became estranged from the family. When he moved away for good from his childhood city after graduating, he kept the pictures he had of his dead sister in the Cloud and out of sight.
The weight of work and the rain was not letting up and he decided to take the next bus back to the city. The driver he'd come to dislike for his jovial spirit greeted him aboard. He spun the wheel with his broad arms and, as if he'd been storing up the entire conversation in his head, it unwound. "You hear about the new arena? It's going to be something! All sustainable! Green Promise, they're going to call it."
Everyone knew the planet was on the brink of disaster, and it wasn't as if a lowly bus driver could do anything about it. "I heard that," he muttered, though he hadn't because he didn't care about what corporations chose to do, or what not to do. More to the point, he was averse to sports. His thoughts returned to the monthly review that was scheduled for early tomorrow morning. He needed to remember to show his appreciation for the boring job that lacked vertical advancement but which he should be grateful for.
The bus stopped and a woman jogged up the steps, flashed her pass to the driver, and met Matthew's eyes.
"Matt?" she said.
It was Katelyn Horvath, and she was as beautiful as she was fifteen months ago. Her golden hair was heaped on her head and her eyes were as he remembered, the same grey-blue as his. He had been living full time in the city for almost three years when he met the part-time barista. She was training to be an actress. They went out for a few weeks, but it was at a party with her many friends jamming, smoking dope, and doing fatuous improvisations where he knew she wasn't the right one.
"Katelyn. How're you doing?"
"Crazy as ever." She sank into the seat beside him. "I think I'm about to get a really big break. I have an audition at the Paragon Theatre today."
Their thighs were practically touching and Matthew's heart began to pound. He shifted his body toward the window and peered through the steamy pane while she continued to talk about the show and the theatre and her actor friends until her stop arrived.
"Call me!" she said and hustled to the rear exit. Over her shoulder she exclaimed, "I sure hope the director is going to be there!"
Matthew watched Katelyn stand on the sidewalk, awaiting the bus to pass by. Her nose was bigger than his and he imagined stroking it with a single finger. Her lips were thinner than his and he imagined enveloping them in his thicker ones. Yet, there were the necessities of life to consider: his job, rent, and student loans. He arrived at the same conclusion as he had when he'd broken up with her. Eventually, an actress wouldn't understand such banalities. But she asked him to call her! He remembered that he had deleted her as a contact. After slightly more thought, he rang the cord for the bus to stop.
He leapt off the bus two stops west of where Katelyn had departed. Her stance at the curb indicated that she was crossing the street, so Matthew crossed the street to look for the theatre. He was less than five kilometers from his apartment, but this was the first time he'd found himself in this part of the city and its seediness surprised him. There were bars on the shop windows and doors. The sidewalks were crowded and noisy. The wind gusts swatted his umbrella, but Matthew continued his pursuit eastward, dodging people, sandwich boards, parking meters, poles, and the homeless holding signs and joggling cans. Growing tired of the bustle, he turned down a side street and came upon a bar, and because his goal to find the theatre now felt ill-conceived and he didn't want to go back to his apartment early, he went in.
Between the set of two doors, the vestibule was dark. He entered through the second door and conspicuously arrived in the middle of one large room. The brighter side of the bar had one table that stretched the length of it, which was occupied by a group of boisterous men. Matthew took a seat at a small table in the room's dark side. His back to the small grimy window, he waited for the bartender.
"What can I get-cha?" The bartender tossed a coaster onto the table.
"I'll have a Manhattan," Matthew said.
Someone repeated Manhattan and someone else said something about being lost, and the laughter grew loud and cruel. The bartender jerked his head toward the men, confirming that they were jeers directed at Matthew. Refusing to be further intimidated, he took a breath and a chance. "I'll have a bourbon."
"We got whiskey. Neat or Rocks?"
"On the side," he said, having once heard it said in a movie.
Matthew was not a drinker, but he put one cube in his glass and downed the shot. His throat burned and a half a minute later he was warm all over. The men had settled down and turned their attentions back to themselves as if they were a family. Although it would affect his food allowance for the week ahead, he raised a finger and ordered a second, which he swirled with his palm between swallows. He was a little unsteady and his eyes were foggy and warm, but he liked how his thoughts had been emboldened and reduced to a simple list. Pay his tab, kill time by walking back to his apartment, and tomorrow ask for a raise.
As he stood at the cash register, the table went silent as if again he was put under their scrutiny. He tucked his bank card back into his wallet and swung around. "Fuck you," he shouted and strode out the pair of doors and onto the street.
Although it was still dreary and grey, it was brighter than inside the bar and the rain had weakened. He returned to the main street and realized he'd left his umbrella behind. It would be impossible to go back for it. Angry with himself for deviating from his Sunday routine, for thinking that he and Katelyn could start dating again, for downing two drinks, for hating the job he had trained four years for, for his estrangement from his parents and baby sister, for his daily misery that he had a suspicion that he was not without fault in shaping, he yearned for the safety of his apartment. He leapt off the curb into an icy puddle and ran across the street.
In an instant, tires and brakes were squealing and Matthew was knocked down. A bystander appeared, hoisted him up by the shoulders, and walked him back to the sidewalk. Propped against a lamppost, Matthew surveyed the damage. His bloodied palms were burning. His jeans were ripped open at the knee, and his neck and shoulder hurt. He wasn't sure about his head.
"You ought-ta get that looked at," said the cab driver who'd helped him. "I can take you to the hospital."
"It's okay, thanks."
"Suit yourself," said the cab driver and drove away.
Matthew started to shiver, but no one stopped. How long had he stood there? Long enough for the hunkered-in fog to unexpectedly lift and for the sun that was low in the horizon to burst through the clouds. His eyes were blinded. He lowered his head and felt for his wallet. It was gone. He straightened up in a panic about what to do. Five figures stood in front of him. With the sun filling his eyes, he couldn't see their faces, only the shapes of a man, a woman, a little girl holding a balloon on a string and two older children. The boy and a girl leaned their shoulders into one another as if playing a game. They were giggling and admonishing at the same time.
"Are you okay?" the woman said.
"I lost my wallet."
The brother and sister stopped their game and the girl pointed to the street. "It's there," she said. "I see it." She bounded onto the street.
And Matthew thought No! No! No! No! He couldn't bear it. His heart was racing. Why weren't they doing anything to stop her? Didn't they know what happened to families the moment tragedy struck? They implode.
"I got it!" the girl shouted, waving the wallet in the air.
A car pulled up next to the curb and she had to scoot around it to give the wallet back to Matthew.
She held it out to him, but when he reached for it, she didn't let go. The sun shone on her face. It was so bright and spectacular Matthew couldn't turn his eyes away. She was Annabelle. He knew it was his sister because of the nineteen freckles on her ski-jump nose, the small gap between her two front teeth, and the seashell cup of her ears. In that vision of her, he felt an overwhelming sense of love and of being loved. He saw Annabelle stretched out on the chaise lounge, rating his cannonballs thrown off the diving board, his mom bringing them iced tea on a tray, and his younger sister floating with her water wings while they waited for their dad to come home from work. The accident didn't happen. His life hadn't stopped being filled with unconditional joy.
"You're welcome." The girl released the wallet and hurried to join her family.
Matthew watched them walk in the direction of the sea and the sunset. A happiness that was consequential to the day, yet inexplicable to him, welled up from every bone.
He put his wallet back in his pocket and limped toward the traffic light. On route, he discovered the Paragon Theatre, identified by its painted lettering on a glass door sandwiched between a grocer and a pawnshop. He rushed past it and crossed at the light. While he waited for the bus to arrive, the clouds thickened with the heaviness of rain. Stepping onto the bus, he was met with a crush of people with their bags and canes, strollers and packs, filling the aisle, and he recognized the stench and dankness of it just as it was. The driver, who didn't make small talk and kept his eyes on the road and whom Matthew was fond of for those very reasons, nodded him aboard.