Emily pushed the keys at a steady rhythm. Having finished her work for the day, she spent her final three minutes typing a string of meaningless letters and numbers. She shut down her computer at exactly 5pm. She gathered her half-eaten salad from the fridge and tried not to make eye contact on her way out the door, avoiding the inevitable invitation to happy hour.
The backdoor of the office delivered her into the alley, a half-block closer to her bus stop. When she glanced in the opposite direction, she spotted a dump truck. The man at the back of the truck pressed the lever to lower the lift and the dumpster landed with a clatter. He spotted her, smiled and waved, like he’d been expecting to see her, like they knew each other, like the moment he’d been waiting for had finally arrived.
Emily felt fear prick her skin, and she took off, walking swiftly in the opposite direction, afraid to look behind her. At the sidewalk, she took a right and wished hard that someone would join her at the stop, but the bus showed up quickly and she boarded, fumbling for her pass.
She spared herself the hassle of politely looking to the back of the bus for another open seat and allowed herself one of the handicapped spots in the front.
A woman looked up and startled at the sight of her. “Aren’t you supposed to be in jail?”
Emily furrowed her brow and shook her head.
The woman, still frowning, said, “Oh, OK. My bad.”
An elderly couple beside her spoke quietly until the old man said loudly, “Even blood has two colors,” and the old woman agreed.
Emily lifted herself from her seat and moved backward as the bus skipped forward. She felt rubber drunk, boneless, moveable.
When she looked out the window, the man in his garbage truck again paused at the entrance to a different alley now. When he waved, Emily felt like someone shoved the skin of her face in the direction of his hand. She felt the cartilage of her nose drag left and then pop back center. She let out a cry and looked around. The man across the aisle appeared to be locked deep inside his phone. Panic formed a mass in her chest and divided into her limbs. I imagined it, she told herself.
The man behind Emily took a phone call and his insistence distracted her. He kept saying, “Generally, I do both….Generally, I do both… Both…. But generally, I do both.” She waited for a clue as to what the man was referring to, but he clung to his abstraction.
When Emily got off the first bus, the tracker said the second bus wasn’t due for 12 minutes. Emily ducked into the corner store and considered buying a bottle of water or a granola bar or one of the green bananas stacked near the register or a bag of pineapple-flavored beef jerky or a packet of almonds or a new charger for her phone to replace the one that dropped its connection and left her in constant fear of being stranded, powerless. She placed a bottle of lemonade and a bag of Skittles on the counter and asked the clerk for a BINGO scratch-off ticket, her favorite because it took the longest to reveal whether she’d won or lost.
At the bus stop she drank half the lemonade in a single gulp, and remorse set in for the money ill-spent. She dug in her pocket for a penny, and came out with a dime and set to scratching off the ticket against the side of the bus shelter. She’d scratched off three of the 16 BINGO numbers when she heard a honk. The garbage man had parked his truck across the street and waved again. She felt her vision go black, and her legs loosen beneath her. She reached for the wooden bench in the center of the shelter, and landed unevenly. She heard the squeal of the bus brakes approaching and she forced herself to stand and climb onto the bus with the center of her focus still prisoner to the darkness, only the perimeters fuzzily lit. She grabbed people’s shoulders, blind. People shrugged her off and told her to watch it. The bus hadn’t moved forward, and for a moment, she worried the driver was waiting for the man in the truck to make his way across the street and board. She clutched a seat, waving her hand forward to make sure no one occupied it, and folded down, her head in her hands. She waited for her vision to supply information again, dim and skewed. She tried to see out the window, looking for the garbage truck, but she saw only an even row of sedans edging the curb. She pulled out her phone to text a friend and typed in the message, “I’m being followed. On the 66,” but she didn’t send it. She talked herself into believing she was overreacting. She didn’t delete the words she’d entered, but she closed the messaging app and opened the tarot app instead. She pressed shuffle three times and then chose her cards.
In the first position: Death. She knew better than to worry about this. The card heralded only a period of great change, but Emily was never sure what checking her cards so often meant for the expected timeframe of their prediction. Did the deck know she looked at a new spread every day like a horoscope? Could it control itself enough to forecast only the following 24 hours?
In the second position: the Emperor. Yes, she thought, I do want someone to confirm that I’m on the right path.
In the third position: the Devil. She trusted the wrong people. She bought candy and lotto tickets instead of saving her money. She waited for it all to catch up with her.
The fourth position was supposed to show what was working for her, but she’d drawn the Tower indicating disruptive change. She looked at the figures on the card being defenestrated, falling from the tall windows. That feeling of control dropping out rang true. Perhaps this was the way she operated best. Maybe she could embrace it.
In the fifth position: the Magician. Emily easily identified the man she believed was trying to trick her. Some cards were easier than others.
In the sixth position, she saw the Justice card and felt relief.
When Emily looked up at the LED sign, she realized she’d passed her street. She rang for the next stop and pressed lightly on the doors. She step-jumped down, not tall or strong enough to do this movement with grace.
When the bus pulled away, she looked up to find the dump truck lingering in front of her. The man inside waved and the night air swallowed her hearing. She fumbled for her phone and dialed 911. She changed direction, sticking with the main street, but the truck inched forward, close behind her. Emily tried to hear if someone was on the other end of the line, but the deafness stuck. She waited awhile and finally started talking without knowing if anyone had answered. “My name is Emily Baudot. I live at 2547 West Cortez. I’m being followed by a man in a garbage truck.” She searched for a license plate or a truck number, but it was unmarked.
About a block ahead, Emily saw a man walking his dog. She raced ahead and ended the call. She explained her situation, gesturing discreetly behind her, but the man seemed confused. She explained that she couldn’t hear anything and asked if the man would walk her the rest of the way home. “It’s only another block.”
The man nodded and they turned the corner. At her gate, she thanked him and heard the dog whimper and a gust of wind quicken the leaves above her. “Oh, thank god,” she said. She looked around her and didn’t find the truck. “Where did he go?” she asked.
“You can hear me?” he said.
“Honestly, I didn’t see the truck you were talking about, but I wanted to help. You seemed so scared. I could come inside with you if you don’t want to be alone.”
Emily navigated swiftly to a new fear. She thought of the Magician card as her hand stamped the key into the gate’s lock. “No, no. I’m fine. Thank you so much.” She wedged herself through and the man grabbed the handle and held it open.
“Are you sure? I don’t mind.” He smiled.
Emily gave up on the gate and hurried for the vestibule. “No, thank you,” she said. She unlocked the door and stepped inside. The man lingered at the foot of the stairs, his dog pulling at its leash.
“It’s always better to be safe,” he said.
Emily nodded and closed the door behind her, not stopping at her mailbox. She hurried up the stairs to her apartment and didn’t turn the lights on once she’d locked the knob, the deadbolt, the chain. She made her way to the window. The sidewalk and street stood empty, no sign of the man with the dog or the garbage truck. She opened the refrigerator out of habit and remembered the candy in her bag and then the lottery ticket. She retrieved both and ate the Skittles while scraping off the rest of the ticket by the light of the open refrigerator door, the cool air stealing the heat from her skin. The scratch-off revealed a winning number, but the prize was only another ticket: an opportunity to repeat the poor decision she’d made.
She closed the refrigerator door. The quiet dark hovered close. Emily attended it.
Jac Jemc is the author of The Grip of It (FSG Originals). Her first novel, My Only Wife (Dzanc Books) was a finalist for the 2013 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and winner of the Paula Anderson Book Award, and her collection of stories, A Different Bed Every Time (Dzanc Books) was named one of Amazon’s best story collections of 2014. She edits nonfiction for Hobart, and has taught creative writing at the University of Notre Dame, Illinois Wesleyan, Northeastern Illinois University, Lake Forest College and Loyola University.