Hardy was exhausted after a long day at work, so when it was time for him to go, he grabbed his hat and coffee cup, said goodbye to Mrs Runce, and walked out into the hallway of 270 West Broad Street to catch the 5:27 train. He was almost halfway out when he realized that he’d left the lid for his cup on his desk. Normally, that wouldn’t have been that big of a deal, but he still had most of a full cup, and he was looking forward to drinking it on the train without having to worry about dumping it on a stranger’s back. So, he turned around in the hallway, something he had never done before, and walked back into the office.
Mrs Runce lifted her head up from the desk. She had a shocked look on her face.
“What are you doing back?”
“Hello, Mrs Runce.”
He started to walk to his office, but she stood up. She wasn’t exactly blocking his way, but her intentions were clear.
“What are you doing back?” she said again.
She definitely sounded nervous.
“I left the lid of my coffee cup on my desk. I came back to get it.”
She giggled. He had never heard Mrs Runce giggle before.
“Ah, well. You made a mistake. People make mistakes, right? We could have taken care of that in the morning.” She didn’t move.
He started to sidle around her, and while she didn’t stop him, she looked more nervous the closer he got to her.
“People make mistakes,” she repeated. “It’s okay. Go catch your train.”
“I’m trying to fix my mistake. Is that okay?” He was beginning to get upset at her unusual attitude.
“But you… you’ve never come back. You’re not supposed to do that.”
Now he was completely confused. And when he was confused, his blood pressure went up, and he could feel adrenalin dribbling into his veins. He didn’t like feeling like that. He took his hat off, because sometimes its deep blue pattern calmed him down. Sometimes. Things were already shaping up to be a pretty bad Monday, and he didn’t want things to get any worse.
“Is something wrong?” he asked. He pushed past her into his office but her eyes got even wider. Then he felt something in his head snap shut. He decided, ‘So what if it’s not normal? I’m just going into my office for a moment. I can still make my train. I have at least twenty-four minutes. No, twenty-two. And a half. But I still have enough time.’
There was nothing unusual happening in his office. It was exactly how he’d left it, down to the lid laying upside-down on his desk blotter. Nothing strange happened when he picked it up, either. When he walked back into the reception area, though, Mrs Runce was on the inter-office phone, and she had one hand up in front of him. He could hear everything she said, though, and she didn’t try to hide it.
“Yes, Mr Johnson. He had already left. Then he came back.”
“Yes, I know that’s not supposed to happen.”
“No, I’m really not joking. Can you come out?”
She listened to something going on at the other end for a minute and a look of severe exasperation (or perhaps constipation) crossed her face. Finally, she said, “I’ll keep him here,” and hung up. When she looked up at Hardy, her eyes looked a little more normal, though she still looked like she was expecting him to pull a knife any minute.
“Mr Johnson will be here shortly,” she said, in clipped and officious tones.
That was also strange. She’d never been anything but polite and friendly to him.
“You weren’t supposed to come back,” she said. “That wasn’t part of your…”
Mr Warren Johnson strode out of his office and filled up the hallway. “What a surprise!” He held out his hand but Hardy didn’t shake it. Instead, he just stared at it for a few seconds.
Then he looked up.
“I just came back for my coffee cup lid.”
“Yes, yes, yes, but that wasn’t expected, you see.”
“I don’t understand. I have to catch my train. It leaves at 5:27.”
“Oh, that’s been all taken care of.”
Hardy asked what he meant, but Mr Warren Johnson was no longer paying any attention to him.
“Mrs Runce, is this the same problem that we had with Collins?”
“It’s not as serious, Mr Johnson. I think a simple job is all we need.”
“You always know best, Mrs Runce,” he said, laughing and pointing at her. “You always do, you know that?”
Mrs Runce laughed and said, “At least it was almost a year this time. It’s getting better.”
He threw an arm around Hardy (still not looking at him) and said, “This will only take a moment. Everything will be okay.”
Hardy was exhausted after a long day of work. It didn’t help that he had put in nearly an hour of overtime, but like all days when he was busy, busy, busy (in Mr Warren Johnson’s words) the day went by so fast that he didn’t even realize it was after six until Mrs Runce told him that he could leave. So he grabbed his hat, left his coffee cup on his desk (it was almost empty, anyway) and left to catch the 6:23. He almost had to run, but he made the train on time and was miraculously able to find a seat. After tucking his bag safely beneath it (and sticking one foot through the straps, something he taught himself from watching the others on the train), he settled down to wait for his stop.
The train wasn’t too crowded today, which made him happy. Actually, everything about today seemed to make him happy. He wasn’t quite sure what had put him in such a stellar mood. Usually on days like this, when work was so monotonous that he could barely remember half of what he did, he would feel bitter on his way home. But today, he sat, smiling under his blue hat, and absently stroking his goatee. Soon, he knew, he would be home, and Elizabeth would be finishing supper, and they would eat a pleasant meal as the sun set beyond the city.
The train lurched once before it stopped. That usually upset him, as well, since he could not understand why they couldn’t park the train in the right place every time. But today, he was able to blow it off. He left with the rest of the passengers, walked down the stairs to the sidewalk, and trotted the two blocks home. Everything was exactly as it always had been, exactly as it should be, until he put his key into his apartment door and it refused to turn at all.
This was not supposed to happen, he thought. This had never happened to him before, and he had nothing to go by, no plan for what to do next. Anomalies like this were impossible. That was why they were called ‘anomalies.’ Since he didn’t know what else to do, he knocked. Elizabeth would hear him and let him in, he was sure.
A moment later, the door opened, but the woman opening it was not Elizabeth. Now he was even more confused.
“Where’s Elizabeth?” he asked.
“You got the wrong house,” she said, and tried to slam the door. He shoved his foot in before it closed, and when it bounced off, he forced himself in.
The apartment was the right one, there was no doubt about that. But the photos on the wall were all different. Except for one, he didn’t recognize any of them. The bookshelf was on the wrong wall, too. It also didn’t look like she had suddenly decided to move everything around on him when he’d left for work. And of course, the woman in front of him was not Elizabeth. They looked similar, or at least had the same color of hair, but except for that and a similar build, they were completely different. For starters, Elizabeth never screamed at him.
“What did you do with Elizabeth,” he asked.
“Get out of my house,” she screamed.
She looked quite ugly when she screamed. He was glad Elizabeth never screamed at him.
“This is my apartment,” he said. He was more confused than angry. After all, this was supposed to be his house. “This is Number 263, High Pine Avenue, Apartment 8, right?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’ve lived here for a year. Get out of here! Now!”
“I don’t understand.” He looked around and wondered if maybe he had somehow wound up in the wrong house, but this place was definitely his. Even with the things moved around and replaced, this was his home, or at least it was supposed to be.
“I’m not going to leave,” he said. “This is my house. Now, you explain what happened to Elizabeth.”
The door was still open behind him, so instead of answering, she ran into his chest and tried to push him out. He got one leg lodged against the doorway, though, and pushed back. And pushed again. He heard something snap, and she hit the floor and started screaming.
The police arrived a few minutes later, and he was still on the porch with the door open, sitting in front of it. He’d given up trying to get her to stop screaming at him, and she was still going strong. The first cop on the scene didn’t even bother to ask him what was going on before he slapped cuffs on him and dragged him up. It was hard for him to stand for some reason, since his leg felt wobbly and unsure of itself, but he did his best, since he didn’t want to fall over on top of the cop.
Not even five minutes after the cops came, Mr Warren Johnson showed up in a taxi. He dropped a few bills on the seat, dashed out, and ran to the cop with a worried look on his face. Hardy called to him a couple of times, but he was busy talking to the cop, who looked skeptical, at best. Finally, the cop gave Mr Warren Johnson a handcuff key and turned around to talk to the woman who was pretending to be Elizabeth. She was still crying and sniffling a little bit, but looked a little more relaxed now that one of the emergency responders was about to give her a sedative.
“Hardy, Hardy, Hardy,” Mr Warren Johnson said. “Today has just been a terrible day for you, hasn’t it?”
“I guess so,” he said. “I worked overtime, and then came back to my house only to find it wasn’t my house.”
“Overtime, right. I guess you would see it that way.” He handed the cuffs and the key back to the cop and took Hardy’s arm, holding him upright and against his side.
“Listen,” he said. “I’m going to call the office, and then we’ll get you settled, okay? I should have realized this would happen after the fix earlier today.”
“I still don’t understand,” he said. “This was my house, and now it’s not my house. Did I do something wrong?”
“You didn’t do anything wrong.” He held a small phone up to his ear. “Mrs Runce? It’s me. You know what you forgot to do, don’t you?”
“Yes, ‘oh crap’ is right. I have a screaming, hysterical woman here, and three cops and an EMT who barely know about the program. I’m going to have to buy at least one of them off, because he really wants to press charges. And all because you couldn’t check the logfile for updates this afternoon.”
“No, apparently, the woman doesn’t know about her boyfriend, and I would like to be able to say that she is never going to find out, either, but now, I don’t know. Thank you oh-so-much for that. While I’m taking care of Hardy, you need to come up with a damn good cover story.”
“Yeah, well, ‘sorry’ really isn’t good enough in this case. I’ll talk to you about it in the morning.”
He hung up the phone and walked Hardy back to the taxi. Just before they got there, he stopped and looked him in the eyes.
“I apologize for this, Hardy.”
“I still don’t understand,” he said.
“I know you don’t. In fact, we were surprised earlier at what you do know. You’re already figuring out things that you shouldn’t. You’re not supposed to self-correct, yet.”
“I’m… what? What shouldn’t I know?”
He guided Hardy into the backseat of the taxi. Then he pushed his leg (which still felt uneasy, for some strange reason) inside and shut the door.
“This will all make sense soon, Hardy,” he said, and stuck one hand out to the back of his neck.
Hardy was exhausted after a long day at work, so when it was time for him to go, he grabbed his hat and coffee cup, with the lid firmly in place so he didn’t spill it, and said goodbye to Mrs Runce. He walked out into the hallway of 270 West Broad Street on his way to catch the 5:27 train to Elizabeth, who was waiting for him. This made him happy, and happy was a thing that he liked to be after a long day at the office. He especially liked to be happy on a day like today, a bright sunny Friday. As far as he was concerned, the four days before didn’t even exist. He said a last goodbye to Mr Warren Johnson, and left to catch the train.
C.J. Casey is a writer and musician living in Atlanta, GA. You can follow his travels at http://www.bovisrex.com/.