Pulling from the archives again this week as I was working on a longer piece last week and have no time for a short story.
This was written not long after we moved to Charlotte when I was feeling a bit out of place. Couchsurfing.org was more or less how I made friends in the area. I've only used it for social events, Jason Foux used it in his travels over the Eastern half of the US. You can read about that journey in his book An American Walkabout (also in ebook format).
(There is a mention of a silent place in this story. I actually took that tidbit from talking with Jason about his walkabout.)
Seth gave the bathroom mirror a quick glance. It took only a second for him to decide the damage wasn't severe. He ran his comb through his dark hair to smooth out a few rough patches and walked straight towards the front door.
One thing Seth hated was being late. His family joked that Seth had been a stickler for time since he was born. He was the only one of his siblings to be born on his due date. Not only was he born on the doctor assumed date, he was born at exactly 12:00 am, not one minute late or early.
"It's only a Couchsurfing meet up or whatever you call them." A voice called from the couch. "Not like it's a date or anything. Hell, there won't even be a single girl there."
Seth looked at the scruffy figure that was his younger brother, Kurt. Kurt, with his messy blonde hair and baggy army green t-shirt was the opposite of Seth.
"Yes, it is a dinner with a couchsurfer, but he's new in town and I don't want to leave him just sitting there." Seth said. "Common courtesy is not to leave people waiting."
Kurt shrugged and continued playing the video game without continuing the conversation.
Seth shook his head and opened the front door.
"I'll be home around nine or so." He told his brother. "Call if you need anything."
Kurt didn't bother acknowledging his brother but kept his gaze focused on the brightly colored screen. Seth risked a quick glance at his younger brother's prosthetic leg.
"You sure you don't want to come?" Seth asked. "It'd be good for you to get out. Your--"
Seth barely managed to stop himself before he mentioned the word 'psychiatrist'. Kurt was still sensitive about having to go to therapy and hated any mention of the fact that he had come back from Iraq anything less than perfect.
If Kurt caught the unspoken words, he didn't let on.
"Nah, I'm good." He waved his controller towards the television. "Got a few buddies that'll be getting online soon, so I'm going to play with them."
Seth wanted to say more, to tell his brother that staying holed up in Seth's small apartment wasn't good for anyone. He wanted to tell Kurt to make friends that were in town, to call their mom, to get out to PT sessions more, to maybe start applying for jobs, or at the very least volunteer somewhere to have something more than the damn game system. Seth wanted to tell him it wasn't good that he hadn't left the house in the four months since he arrived, unexpected and unannounced on Seth's doorstep. Seth wanted to say all of that but didn't. He was going to be late.
Kurt was still on his mind as Seth drove to a local bar and restaurant called Mortin's. It was a small place, practically hidden in the uptown corners of Charlotte, North Carolina. Seth weaved through the traffic, knowing almost by instinct where he was going. Seth hadn't been born in Charlotte and, as far as he knew, that put him in the majority. Most the Charlottonians he'd met where transplants from other places.
Seth's job kept him driving the streets of Charlotte for the five years he'd lived there. He knew the entire city and that's why when a visitor to Charlotte contacted him on couchsurfing.org, he knew exactly what place would be nearest to where the guy was staying and still have awesome food that wouldn't break the bank.
For Seth, couchsurfing had been a way to meet new people when he first moved to Charlotte. It was also his way of traveling on the cheap. When he'd gone to his cousin's wedding in Arizona, Seth was able to stay at a local couchsurfer host's house. That way he was able to meet a new person and got his own room instead of being crowded in a room with three other relatives. Seth had used couchsurfing for several of his vacations, always having a good time with locals who were more than happy to put him up and show him around their town.
He frowned as he thought about the changes since Kurt had come to live with him. Seth hadn't been able to host any surfers since Kurt came. He could have easily put someone up on his couch, but Kurt still had severe nightmares sometimes and Seth didn't want to explain to every newcomer why his brother sometimes woke up screaming.
It wasn't that Seth begrudged his brother the extra room. Kurt had been through a lot out in Iraq, though he'd never told Seth the extent of it. All Seth really knew was his brother's convoy had come upon a cleverly concealed IED. Kurt was the only one from his vehicle to survive the ten hours it took for help to arrive. Kurt's leg had been crushed and burnt to the point where amputation had been the only option. When Kurt was medically discharged, instead of going home to their parents' house in Maine, he'd gone straight to his older brother.
"Guess he's my permanent couch surfer." Seth said to himself. "Too bad I can't get him to see the sights."
Seth sighed and pulled into Mortin's small parking lot. It was a sort of after work hangout for Seth and his buddies and Seth felt relaxed just walking into its familiar oak paneled room. He waved to a few people he knew and looked around for the guy he was supposed to be meeting.
It didn't take him long to spot Ardin. Seth knew almost everyone who went to Mortin's and it was easy to pick out who didn't belong. It didn't hurt that Seth had seen a photo of Ardin on his couchsurfing profile.
Ardin stood and waved, ensuring Seth would see him sitting in the back booth. Being it was Thursday night, the place wasn't that full.
Seth walked towards the back of the room and shook Ardin's hand before sitting down. A waitress Seth knew came up and took their order before disappearing behind the bar.
"So, you're visiting the area? Any particular reason?" Seth asked. He found asking an open-ended question people knew the answer to made conversations between strangers flow better.
"Sort of visiting my old stomping ground." Ardin scratched the black and gray stubble on his chin. "Haven't been back for many years."
"You're from Charlotte originally?" Seth leaned in.
Ardin shook his head.
"I used to live here many years ago." Ardin said. "But I'm not originally from here."
"No one is." Seth quipped. "So where are you from originally?"
Seth took in the guy in front of him as he spoke about his hometown in California. It may have been his training, but Ardin seemed ill at ease. Ardin's dark brown eyes glanced around the room as if waiting for someone or something to happen. Seth guessed Ardin was at least in his mid-fifties. What little hair the older man had left was more salt than pepper colored. The man's hands fluttered when he spoke, going back and forth with every word. His clothes were comfortably well worn but of good material. Seth got the impression that Ardin was a man who spent a lot of his time traveling, though he couldn't guess what his profession would be.
The waitress brought back their drinks, a local beer for Ardin and an ice tea for Seth. The older man gripped his beer, taking a long gulp before setting it down and worrying the edge of the label.
"I saw on your profile that you've been on the road for a while." Seth said. "Early retirement and out to see the world?"
Ardin gave a chuckle and shook his head.
"Something like that." He said. "Been living a life of leisure, so to speak. Wanted to see the world, but settled for the US."
"Where do you call home?" Seth asked.
The brown eyes darted towards the door as someone else came in. Seth followed Ardin's gaze before the older man quickly looked back at Seth.
"Don't really have one." Ardin admitted. "I travel so much that I didn't see much point in having a mortgage."
Seth heard the slight lilt when Ardin had said 'travel'. He leaned towards Ardin without realizing it. All of his training was kicking in. Something was off about the man and Seth had to pinpoint it.
"Not a bad way to live." Seth said. "I don't get to travel as much as I'd like due to work, so I can't wait for retirement. What did you do in Charlotte before you retired?"
Ardin gave an uneasy smile and leaned away from Seth.
"This and that." He said. "Didn't have an education to speak of, so I mostly did manual labor jobs. Can't say I miss it."
"What do you miss?" Seth jumped at the unspoken words in Ardin's voice. "What do you miss so much in Charlotte that you're coming back to visit?"
"Nothing, really." Ardin's face flickered for an instant with sadness. "I was just on this side of the US and thought I'd stop in to visit an old friend but she…well, that friend isn't here anymore."
"She must have been born in Charlotte then." Seth said. "Because the only people who stay here now are those who came from somewhere else."
Seth gave Ardin a smile which put the older man at ease. Seth was good at that, always had been and he'd realized just in time he'd almost put an end to their conversation.
He gave Ardin a once over, taking special care to memorize the man's face. Seth began an easy conversation about places he'd traveled and before long Ardin was completely comfortable, joining in with his own tales when he had been somewhere Seth mentioned.
When the food came, Seth excused himself to go to the restroom. Ardin dove right in to his french fries without a word.
Seth walked casually around the corner, trying not to give away the buzzing he was feeling in his entire body. Once he was out of sight of Ardin, he pulled out his cellphone and punched numbers he knew by heart.
"Come on!" Seth said into the phone. He slammed the slider back into place when he got a voicemail instead of a person. This was not something he wanted to leave to chance. He only had one other option.
The second number, Seth had to pull out of his contact list. He wondered if it meant something that he didn't know his little brother's cell number by heart.
"Aw, man, you're not calling to check in on me, are you?" Kurt asked with mock irritation. "I am a grown man, you know. Fought for our country and everything. I think that entitles me to stay home alone."
"Kurt, I have a huge favor and I don't have time to argue about it." Seth said. "I need you to go to Joseph Massachi's house right now and tell him to meet me at Mortin's."
"Your date going so bad that you need a retired cop to come rescue you?" Kurt was joking, but Seth could hear something Kurt never would have admitted. There was an undertone of fear in his little brother's voice.
"This is important." Seth said. "He's three blocks away on North Pine. White house, blue--"
"I can't." Kurt's voice was flat. "I know where he lives but I can't go."
Seth bounced from one foot to another and counted backwards. He was trying not to get angry with his brother.
"There's someone here I think Joe knows." Seth said. "I can't do anything without being absolutely sure. Please, bro, this is important."
Kurt began to say something but Seth cut him off.
"I already told you I can't argue." Seth said. "I tried to call him, but his cell is turned off. I need him here in less than an hour. I wouldn't ask if it didn't matter."
Seth hung up his phone before Kurt could reply. He knew if he were gone too long it would put Ardin on edge again and that was the last thing Seth wanted.
Back at the booth, Seth slid into his seat. Ardin had already demolished most of his food and Seth could see the older man had ordered a second beer.
It was all Seth could do to continue on with the conversation, but somehow he managed it. Their food was completely gone as well as several drinks when Seth finally gave up hope. He was so sure he was right, but had no proof. Without proof his hands were tied.
The waitress came back with the checks and the two men wrapped up their conversations.
"Great meeting you." Ardin said after putting cash into the black vinyl check holder. "I'm glad you were able to come out tonight. Though I have to admit I wasn't too sure about the place you suggested." Ardin chuckled. "This was a notorious cop hangout back when I lived here. Being around the boys in blue always made me nervous."
Seth managed a smile he didn't feel like giving. Every cop instinct he had yelled that the man in from of him was not Ardin Hamilton, as his profile had said, but Oscar Chapel, a man wanted in connection with a bank robbery committed ten years ago. All he had to go on was a blurry camera photo and a sketch artist drawing that he had seen several times when he joined the force. He needed positive identification and he only knew one man who could provide it.
Ardin and Seth walked towards the door together, saying their goodbyes and promising to keep in contact via couchsurfing. Seth's only flicker of hope was that Ardin hadn't caught on to Seth's hunch. It was possible to track Ardin down again via his CS profile and Seth fully intended to. He was just angry that Kurt couldn't follow through on the one thing he needed him for. If he could have gotten Massachi down to the bar, it could have been over with that night.
The men stepped aside as the door swung open. Kurt's messy hair and lopsided smile greeted Seth. Joseph Massachi, imposing figure that he was, though the man was retired now for three years. He was every inch a cop and every inch the cop who had been on the case of the Wachovia branch bank robbery ten years prior.
Seth had seen Massachi's crime book several times from when Massachi was Seth's training officer. Massachi kept a binder of cases he was somehow involved in but hadn't been solved. Seth remembered the bank robbery more than others because Massachi's wife had been a teller at the bank that day. It was a bit personal with that particular crime.
"Hey, Kurt, Joe!" Seth smiled but tried to keep from getting overly excited. "This is--"
"Oscar Chapel, you bastard." Massachi's voice was more surprised than anything else. "How stupid are you to come back to Charlotte?"
Ardin's face paled as he faced the former officer. Seth was certain Ardin didn't know Massachi, but hearing the name he thought he dropped off long ago was enough to cause the sudden pallor.
"Are you sure, Joe?" Seth asked. "No mistake."
"Of course I'm sure!" Joe roared. "I don't go around accusing just anyone of being a bank robber. And I know you're pretty damn sure too or you wouldn't have had your kid brother risk life and limb to wake me up!"
Seth glanced at Kurt to see if the 'life and limb' reference had caused any reaction, but Kurt was still smiling, looking far too pleased with himself.
"I knew I shouldn't have come back." Ardin mumbled. "I suppose this was a set up?"
Seth shook his head and gave the man a sad smile.
"No, this was just a coincidence." Seth said. "I was just planning on welcoming you to Charlotte."
"I'll go along." He said in a resigned voice. "I'll even sign the confession. The fact is…well, I don't have much need to go back out on the road anymore."
Massachi was still glaring at Ardin, so the older man turned to face Seth head on in the hopes that Massachi's dark eyes would stop trying to bore holes in him.
"The woman you came back to see?" Seth asked a partial question.
Ardin nodded and his sadness came back.
"My wife." Ardin said. "I was stupid to take that money but I was so sick and tired of us living paycheck to paycheck. When I took it…she refused to go with me. I couldn't just stay and get arrested, so I ran. Stayed off the grid for a while by using the cash only in places they don't ask for id. In '04 I found out about CouchSurfing and just did that for a few years. No one really cares who you are, only who you say you are."
Ardin turned towards Joe and held out his hands.
"I'm not a bad guy." He said to the frowning ex-cop. "I didn't hurt anyone at the bank. The gun I had wasn't even loaded."
"Couldn't expect the tellers or customers to know that, could you?" Massachi continued to glower. "All my years on the force and it's my wife that gets a gun pulled on her."
Ardin turned back towards Seth after seeing he wouldn't get any sympathy from Massachi.
"I traveled, lived cheap." Ardin said. "I still have most of the money I took from the bank because…well, without Marie, I really didn't need much else."
"So why'd you come back here at all?" Seth asked. "Did you think she'd change her mind?"
Ardin shook his head, his eyes filling with tears.
"I found out from her sister's Facebook page that Marie was sick." Two tears spilled out and ran down Ardin's cheeks. "By the time I got here…she died this morning. I missed telling her how much I loved her and how sorry I was. Now I really don't care what happens to me."
Seth did feel a slight pang of sympathy for Ardin, but the man was a criminal, plain and simple. To Seth, the gray areas weren't up to him, they were up to a judge and jury.
"Let's go." Seth took Ardin by the elbow and led him from Mortin's. Several cops had been watching without trying to seem like they were and Seth wasn't going to make a formal arrest of a broken man in that place. "I'll take you to station and you can make your statement there."
When Seth finally got home that night, he was mentally exhausted. They had praised him for recognizing Ardin as the robber, but Seth really didn't feel like it was anything special. Everything that day had been nothing more than a series of coincidences. Someone had once told Seth that sometimes the difference between a good officer and a great one is luck. Being in the right place at the right time and making the right decision. Still, Seth almost wished he hadn't agreed to meet Ardin that night.
Kurt was in the living room when Seth unlocked the apartment door. His brother looked somewhat cleaned up. As Seth looked around his living room, he noticed it too looked a bit cleaned up. He gave Kurt a questioning look.
"It's late." He said to his brother. "I figured you'd be in bed by now."
Kurt gave a quick smile.
"I wanted to wait up for you." Kurt took a deep breath. "I wanted to thank you."
"For what?" Seth was genuinely curious.
"For everything." Kurt took several steps across the living room. "For letting me chill here, for being supportive and not nagging me even though I know you wanted to. For…for making me realize that sometimes we get so caught up in running away from something bad that we can lose the most important thing in the world to us. I don't want to find out too late that I missed out on the one thing I love."
Seth moved to his couch and sat down, unsure of what to say. Kurt went over and sat beside him. The brothers were facing each other but Seth didn't trust himself to look at Kurt just yet.
"I need to get out." Kurt said. "That guy robbed a bank for someone he loved then went out to see the whole US before coming back to the only thing that mattered to him. I nearly died out there, Seth."
This made Seth look up. Something in Kurt's voice had caught in the last sentence.
"After that IED exploded and I was laying there, I really thought I was going to die." Kurt said. "My leg was cut and blown and burning. It hurt so much that I really wanted to die. There were pieces of body covering me and blood that was not my own. I heard praying, screaming and crying but what was so much worse than that was when I heard the silence."
Kurt took a deep breath and faced Seth eye to eye.
"My nightmares aren't so much about the explosion." He confided in his older brother. "I wake up screaming because everything goes silent. There's a nothingness out there that scares me worse than any battlefield."
Seth went to reach out to Kurt, but didn't know exactly what to do. Kurt grabbed his brother's outstretched hand in his own.
"I think I need to get out and see more of life." Kurt said. "I need to hear places and people as well as see them. I also think…"
Kurt's voice trailed off for a moment as his eyes took on a faraway look.
"I think I need to find a place that's as silent as possible and listen to it." Kurt said. "There are places like that, I'm sure of it. Maybe if I can see that silence isn't death, I can stop being so damn afraid of it."
Seth pulled his brother in for a hug, Kurt's prosthetic leg bumping awkwardly from their angle on the couch. When he finally let go, he saw his brother's smile return.
"Think I can maybe set up a CouchSurfing profile?" He asked Seth. "On what I get, I can't exactly stay at any fancy hotels."
Seth laughed and wiped at a few tears he hadn't realized fell.
"Yeah, bro." He slapped Kurt on the shoulder. "I think I can show you how to do that. I might even know a place you can start your journey."
Kurt's grin got wider.
"Well, there's this really laid back cop in Charlotte that has a bed opening up since his brother will soon be heading out of town." Seth smiled. "You can stay with him for a while before picking a new location He can show you all the really cool places to see in Charlotte."
"So long as I don't have to confess any crimes to him." Kurt snickered.
"Welcome to Charlotte, little brother." He said. "It's as good a place as any to start a new life."
My lofty dreams of being a famous & brilliant writer were literally smacked out of my head. Now I plan to fill the void with copious amounts of subpar writing!