Dan left his endless rows of boring bottles and went over to Bellingham's desk. Bellingham was a serious sports freak, and his workspace was decorated with layers of pennants, stickers, ribbons, hats, and memorabilia.
Bell sat down in his chair and opened his e-mail.
"Here's something hot and sweet to go with your coffee, my friend."
Bellingham opened a message from Usocalfan1 and scrolled down to the end of the page.
"Check this out."
Attached at the end of the message was a pinup photo of a curvy California blonde with boobs the size of Dan's head. She was sitting on a bench in a baseball dugout wearing nothing but a USC cap and a sunny smile.
A caption underneath the picture read;
"OK, I'm awake now."
Bellingham laughed. "Good. Now slam the rest of that coffee and get finished up so you can get out of this blasted hellhole and go start your weekend." He waved his hand at the bottles. "You can leave when you get done with those stupid things."
Dan guzzled his cup of espresso and went back to work. He finished with his bottles in about fifteen minutes, said goodbye to everyone, and took off.
He left the lab and walked up through the warehouse, past rows of storage racks stacked high with boxes, tubs, drums and other odd containers, all filled with various nasty chemical powders and liquids. Two forklifts rumbled back and forth in the aisles, putting away finished products and picking orders for shipment.
Dan paused in front of the research and development room across the hallway from the warehouse area and peered through one of the small, thick windows. It was foggy with humidity and Dan couldn't see much, but he could hear a steady, high pitched whining noise coming from the other side.
Something strange in the room caught Dan's eye. He looked closer.
Dan turned around, startled. Desdegarian was standing behind him, just a few steps away. Dan hadn't noticed him while he'd been walking through the warehouse.
"What are you doing?"
"Nothing, Mr. Desdegarian. I was just getting ready to leave and go home."
Desdegarian always gave Dan the creeps, even when he was being pleasant. Or trying to be. Mr. Desdegarian was never very personable, even in his best moods.
"Good. Enjoy your vacation."
"Well it's only half a day. But thank you anyway, sir. I will."
"Don't forget you have to work next Saturday."
"I'll see you Monday, then."
"Yes, sir. Goodbye."
"Goodbye, Dan." Desdegarian walked across the hall and disappeared into the storage racks, on the trail of the forklift drivers.
Walter the warehouse manager was sitting by the loading docks with his feet up on his desk, reading a Hammacher-Schlemmer catalog.
"See you later, Dan."
"Goodbye, Walter. Don't work too hard."
Walter smiled. "Don't worry, I won't."
Walter went back to his catalog, studying some quirky gadget that had caught his attention.
Dan drove out of the parking lot. He glanced in his rear view mirror at the sullen gray building he had just left behind. It gave him the creeps, too.
No matter how great Dan's day was going he always felt just a little better the minute he walked out the front door, as if a heavy burden had been lifted from his shoulders. But that brief sensation of relief only lasted until the next morning, when he had to come back.
Dan had been working at Chemical Concepts production facility #1 for almost seven years, and for most of that time he had never given much thought as to what might be happening outside of the pleasant little laboratory where he carried out his daily duties. He wasn't required to. And he didn't really want to, for that matter. Dan chose not to dwell on the ambivalent feelings he often had about his job. He couldn't if he wanted to keep making it to work every day.
But he would hear things about the plant from time to time. And he had seen things. Things he couldn't ignore.
Dan watched wisps of curling steam and smoke rise from the tall exhaust stacks on the roof of the building and drift away into the sky. He could always smell the strange odor that the stacks emitted everywhere in the plant, and for blocks around outside. He could smell it in his car at that very moment. It was an awful, nauseating stench, like old and crusty road kill warmed up in a microwave.
It smelled like death.
Dan held his nose until he hit the highway and then rolled his windows down to let the bad air out of his car.
Andy was waiting on the playground when Dan arrived at the Meadows. There were some other kids around too, but Andy wasn't playing with them. He was just sitting quietly at the bottom of the monkey bars letting some sand run through his fingers. When Dan pulled up he got into the car without saying anything.
"What's the matter, kiddo?" Dan asked him as they drove away.
Andy didn't answer. Instead he stared out at the knee-high rows of light green corn passing by his window as if he were deep in thought. Much deeper than a boy his age should be.
"Andy, what is it?"
"Something's bothering you."
"I don't want to tell you about it right now."
"Will you later?"
"Let me know when you do."
"I will. But right now let's go get Aunt Colleen."
Dan was surprised at how grown up Andy sounded. Surprised and a little worried. He didn't want Andy to grow up too fast.
Dan got back onto the expressway and started driving out to his parents' house.
The suburbs west of town seemed to grow just a little every year, creeping ever closer to the horizon as they slowly covered the endless prairie sprawling beneath the bright blue skies beyond the city.
Dan exited the highway, turned off the main road and made his way through the twisting, freshly paved lanes of the Rockwood Ridge housing development. He found the street he was looking for and turned the corner. Then he drove down the block until he found mom and dad's house and turned into the driveway.
Dan's father was in his garage practicing his golf swing. He put his club away and came outside when he saw Dan arriving. As soon as Dan put the car in park Andy pushed his door open and jumped out of his seat and up into his grandfather's arms.
"Andy! How's my handsome little guy?"
"Wow, you're getting big, buddy boy. You almost knocked me on my ass, you little bull."
"I'm strong, too," said Andy, flexing his arm. "See? Like a rock."
"That's just a potato yet, son. We've got to practice your throw some more."
"Can I spend the night?"
"Sure, if it's okay with your father."
"It's fine with me," said Dan. "As long as it's all right with you, of course."
"Of course it is. Looks like you're staying, little fella."
"Cool. Thanks, daddy."
"No problem, kiddo. So how are you, dad?"
"Well, I can't complain. Doesn't do much good when I do, so why bother, eh? How about you? That's some sunburn you've got."
"Yeah, I fell asleep by the swimming pool over at Carol's. Is it that bad?"
"You look like a lobster that just got invited to dinner. And you look like something's bothering you too. I mean, besides that horrible sunburn. So what's wrong?"
"Andy, go on inside, I'm going to stay out here and pick your dad's brains for a while.."
"I'm going, I'm going."
Andy ran up the driveway and through the garage into the house.
"I'll bet you a hundred bucks I know what it is that's bugging you, Dan."
Dan sighed. The only thing worse than hearing his dad use that tired old expression over and over again was knowing that he was probably right again.
"She's gone, Dan. Gone for good. Quit thinking about her."
Dan felt a warm breeze on his shoulder. It made the tops of the trees sigh and ruffled the tufty wisps of hair on the top of his father's head.
"It was my fault that she left."
Dan's dad gave him a disapproving look. Dan tried not to laugh.
Whenever Dan's father got that scornful expression on his face all of his wrinkles would come scrunching together at once, making him look like one of the dancing raisins in those old commercials.
"What are you guffawing at?"
"Nothing. Sorry, dad."
"It wasn't all your fault, son. Sure you did some things that were wrong, but so did she. Everybody knows that. You know, I'll never understand why in the world she left you for that damned knuckle dragging ape she's living with now."
"I have no idea. She just likes him better, I guess."
"Well that just goes to show you what lousy taste she has. Why in the world do you still care about her, anyway?"
"I don't," Dan lied.
"You just need to get your mind off the whole business once and for all and move on. You've been spending way too much time cooped up in that little apartment of yours. Don't you have friends anymore? You used to have a lot of them."
"I've still got a couple of old friends but I hardly ever hear from them."
Dan's dad clapped his hand reassuringly on his son's shoulder.
"The friends you keep the longest are always the best ones. Don't worry, they'll come around when you least expect it."
"You know, one thing you could do to keep busy is come see your folks once in a while. You don't visit us nearly enough. Come down here to the end of the driveway for a minute. I want to show you something."
Dan followed his Dad down to the sidewalk.
" Look down there."
Dan adjusted his glasses. He could see trucks and excavators working in a field down at the end of the block.
"They're building a playground down the hill in that old field you used to hang around in when you were little. You can come over and take Andy down there when they get it finished. They should be done sometime next month."
Dan watched the bulldozers and dump trucks roaming around and turning up the dirt in what was once a quiet meadow surrounded by thick forest. Dan still had fond memories of playing football and tag down in that field when he was about Andy's age. And of sneaking cigarettes and pot off in the woods a few years later.
"You know Dan, It's amazing how fast the time goes by. I remember when everything around here was just farmland and forest. Now you have houses, highways, shopping centers, apartment buildings, and all kinds of shit springing up everywhere you look. There's just no place to go to get away from it all."
"I wouldn't know where to go."
"That's what I'm talking about. Come on, let's go inside so you can see your mother."
"How is she?"
"She's doing real well. Oh, damn!"
Dan's dad stopped in his tracks and slapped his forehead.
"What is it?"
"Happy birthday, son! Shame on me, I almost forgot! Sorry, Dan."
"Oh, that's all right dad. Don't worry about it."
Dan wasn't really all that upset. He had almost forgotten about his birthday himself.
"It's actually not until Sunday, you know."
"Doesn't matter. Happy birthday anyway. Happy thirtieth."
"Of course, son. Remember, life begins at thirty. You're just hitting your stride."
Dan's mother was feeding Andy some homemade peanut butter cookies in the kitchen.
"Mmm," Andy drooled. "These are awesome. Thanks Gramma."
"You're welcome sweetheart. Oh, hello Dan! Happy birthday, dear."
Dan gave his mother a hug and a kiss. "Thank you, mom."
"So what's new, handsome?"
"Oh, not much."
"What have you been up to?"
"Working a lot and hanging around with my little buddy here, mostly." Dan tousled Andy's hair as he munched on a cookie. "Other than that, not a lot. How's your hip doing?"
Dan's mother had a bad hip joint that had been causing her problems for some time. She was supposed to have an operation in early September to have it replaced with an artificial one, but in the meantime she had been suffering from chronic pain, which was sometimes quite severe.
"Better. Much better. I went in for another checkup with doctor Darius a little while ago and gave him an earful. He told me to just be patient and wait for my operation, but I told them there was no way I was going to go through all of this pain for another two months. And so we had a long discussion about chronic pain, and pain management and all of those damned pills he's been making me take and, well, now I have this."
Dan's mom picked up the edge of her shirt. A small white box was fastened around her waist with a Velcro strap. A thin transparent tube led away from the box and disappeared into her waistband.
"All I have to do is push this button,"
Dan's mother pushed a shiny blue button in the center of the box and closed her eyes.
"And the pain goes away just like that. Ahhh."
"Well. That's great mom."
"Would you like some cookies, Dan?" Or some leftover ham? We had ham and mashed potatoes last night."
"Sure, I'll have some cookies. Thank you."
The cookies tasted great, just like everything that Dan's mother made always did.
"Aren't these good, Andy?"
"Yep, I've had five already."
"How about a banana?" Dan's mother offered. "Have a banana, Dan. They're good for you. Bananas are full of potassium. Oh, by the way, Aunt Colleen is here."
Aunt Colleen came into the kitchen. She was wearing a big floppy hat with flowers stuck in the hatband, and loads of colorful, noisy plastic bangles and costume jewelry on her wrists and around her neck that clicked and rattled every time she moved.
"Danny! How good to see you," she said as she walked in. "Are you okay? You-"
"Yeah, I know, I have a sunburn. So how are things in California?"
Aunt Colleen had moved to Sacramento to be with her new husband about five years ago, and had made herself at home right away.
"Oh, I've been keeping busy as usual. I've got my painting and sculpting projects. I'm always busy with those. I had another gallery show last month as a matter of fact. And I've been donating to my causes. Did you know that there are polar bears drowning in the arctic?"
"No, I didn't know that. I thought they were good swimmers."
Dan's dad came up into the kitchen and sat down at the table with Andy.
"Hello there, John."
"I was just telling Dan about-"
"I know, the polar bears. Don't let me interrupt you."
"Now where was I? Oh, yes. They do swim well, Danny, but so much of the arctic ice is melting on account of that terrible global warming were starting to have. You've heard about that haven't you?"
"The poor things are just falling into the sea and drowning because they can't find enough solid land to stand up on. Isn't that awful?"
"I was just terribly upset when I heard about it. You know how I've always loved animals."
"I know. How are your cats, by the way?"
"Well, I've got nine of them now. And I love them all dearly but they're getting so expensive to feed. And they're such an unruly bunch. Always scratching." Aunt Colleen bared her teeth and clawed the air with her skinny hand. "Always scratch, scratch, scratching up everything."
"I've gotten into wine tasting. That's a lot of fun."
"Yes. Every year the wine club in Sacramento has a big taste off, and all the vineyards out in the wine country send in samples of their best. I've been on the judge's panel for a while now." Aunt Colleen laughed. "Some of it is pretty good stuff. I had to have Marty drive me home last time. So what's going on with you, Dan?"
Aunt Colleen smiled at Dan and waited for him to answer.
Dan stared back at her, feeling rather strange.
The sunshine coming in through the kitchen window surrounded Aunt Colleens' stringy brown hair and her funny hat with golden beams of light that twinkled and reflected off of the walls and the ceiling. Her long white dress fluttered in the breeze as Dan's mother opened the sliding glass door that led to the backyard and went outside.
Dan rubbed his eyes.
"What's the matter, dear, are you okay?"
"Oh, I'm all right. I just felt kind of dizzy for a second. I'm fine now."
"I don't think Dan has been feeling all that well lately, Colleen," Dan's dad said. "He's had a pretty rough year so far."
"Well do you remember how He and Carol were separated for all that time?"
"Well they made it final in March. They're divorced now."
Aunt Colleen folded her hands and gave Dan a sad look.
"Oh, Danny. That's terrible. I'm so sorry."
"Thank you, Aunt Colleen. Don't worry, I'll be okay."
"I hope so, Danny. I hope so."