Part 1, The Game: Chapter 1

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Chapter 1

Rolling sushi was hard work.

James still felt the burn in his forearms at the end of every shift. A few shifts per week at only four hours per shift made it tough to get into a groove. The constant eye-watering aroma of vinegar didn't help. It clung to his skin and never fully fled until after a long, hot shower.

James rolled his wrists and shoulders, then hung his apron on the rack at the back of the shop. "I'm heading out," he called.

"Aight, Prez!" Yuuhei shouted, cashing out the front register. "Off to the big white box again?"

"Yeah. See you."

"Hang loose!"

The back alley was chill and dark, the stink of trash from the bins almost corpse-like. The moon was behind a wisp of cloud. James hurried toward the street, pulling his collar up.

His cell phone buzzed. Probably another text from Dawn. He jogged across the street and slid into his Honda. As he started the engine, his writer's subconscious offered a haiku.

unread messages
unstable tower piled high
callous architect

***

It was nearing midnight by the time the Joseph Stenton Care Facility loomed up. James parked across the street. The cloud cover had increased, a bite of ozone hinting at rain. The only illumination was the streetlights. Even the care facility was dark, save the lobby.

"Good evening, James," said the nursing station clerk.

"Hey, Carol." James scrawled something in the guest log that might have been his name.

Carol smiled. "Well past visiting hours again."

"You won't tell on me?"

"Cross my heart."

"Thanks."

James took the elevator up four floors and walked the lifeless corridor, hollow steps echoing. Over the years it seemed his shoes were gathering dark layers from the floor, piling up like unwanted text messages, each stride minutely heavier than the last.

Room 459. Last week's flowers still sat on the corner table. The slats in the blinds were open, though no moonlight trickled through. Only the anemic green of the heart monitor lit the room.

James sat in the visiting chair and took his mother's hand.

"Had a shift at Tokyo Sunrise tonight," he said, squeezing her fingers in a ritual that always bore the same result. "It's getting a little easier, but working with sushi turns me off eating it. A greasy burger would hit the spot."

James soon ran out of conversations he could have by himself, sat in the dark, and gazed at his mother for a bit longer. Lying in a bed for years had not greatly diminished her beauty. If you could look past the feeding tube and respirator, the only thing missing was the spark.

"Well, take care." It sounded as stupid as every time before, but it was necessary.

The trip back to the lobby was faster. Outside, the wind had picked up. The macabre skittering of leaves was disturbing: unquiet revenants of autumn. James stood for a moment near the entrance.

Breathe in peace, breathe out everything.

"Hey."

A feminine shape leaned against the wall, an outline but for the glow of a cigarette which fell to the ground and was stamped out. She stepped into the small pool of light from the lobby doors.

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