by John Atkins
When a California mudslide buried his younger brother, Jeffrey became the last member of his clan. For more than thirty-six years he wandered through an urban wilderness to find work and keep alive the memory of a family tree several centuries long. It’s my destiny. I must fulfill my destiny.
Jeffrey awakened to a dark apartment. The power was off, and he feared he had overslept. My destiny awaits. The carrier of the saddle pack must rise and make sure the family credo is never forgotten in this unruly land. I wonder if it's time for lunch.
But there was no time for food. Quests demand immediate attention. He dressed, grabbed his pack, and wandered into the sun-drenched darkness of his daily routine.
Jeffrey’s journey led him to a nearby park where prophets preached, campaigners crusaded, and beggars beseeched. He set the pack on an empty bench and approached a passing businessman. “What time is it?”
“Exact time. My work is important. Give me the exact time.”
The well-dressed man grunted as his pear-shaped silhouette trudged along, blending into
a swarm of well-dressed, pear-shaped silhouettes.
"Je ne peux pas travailler avec vous," Jeffrey shouted. "I can never work for you. It’s good you did not offer me a job."
A woman approached. Mid-twenties, average build, preoccupied with something staring at her through the screen of a smartphone. “I don’t care who you know,” she said. “You’re an idiot and I don’t date idiots.”
Jeffrey tapped her on the shoulder. “Can you believe that guy? Thinks he’s too good to give me the time.”
Without missing a beat, the woman pulled pepper spray from a pocket of her designer jeans and rained hell down Jeffrey’s face. “I told you,” she said to the phone. “I don’t date idiots. Now stop calling me or I’ll tell your mother you wear her panties to church.”
“Mon Dieu, lady.” Jeffrey tried to claw the demonic fire from his eyes.
“It’s 11:17,” she answered, her gaze still fixed on the tiny screen that commanded her attention. She stopped at the corner to tell the device she'd die before it saw her naked. Then she turned right and vanished.
Jeffrey squinted through eyes that didn’t want to open and found his pack. Feeling around inside, he grabbed a near-empty bottle of water and prayed to long-dead ancestors there was enough to wash away his pain. Jesus freaking Chesterfield. Destiny is hard.
Maybe I should drink more. At least I’d sleep better.
“Mister. Hey, mister.”
Jeffrey followed the voice and saw what appeared to be a young boy, no older than seven, tugging at his shirt.
“Qu'est-ce que tu veux, kid? What do you want?”
“I’m hungry. Gotta dollar for a donut?”
“Gee, mister. It’s just a buck.”
A woman walked up and tussled the boy's curly blond hair. “Dammit,” she said, “What did I tell you?”
“Don’t ask,” said the kid, as if reciting a line from a primer.
“And what did you do?”
“I asked,” the boy mumbled. “Sorry, Mamma.”
Jeffrey squinted at the woman. She was large, round, and angry. He started to ask for the time when she gave the youngster's head a swat.
“Now,” said Mamma, an unconvincing smile on her face. “Try again.”
The kid stood tall and rubbed his head. He pulled an official-looking five-blade scout knife from his pocket, contorted his face to mimic Mamma, and pointed a crud-coated blade at Jeffrey. “Hey, mister. Gimme a dollar.”
His blurred gaze moved from the boy to Momma. “Get it from her.”
She glared at Jeffrey for several seconds. Her point made, Mamma said, “Bastard.”
“At last,” he bellowed, lifting his outstretched arms to the heavens.
Their business concluded, Mamma grabbed the boy’s hand and waddled away.
“Thank you, Mamma,” Jeffrey shouted. “Nous sommes tous des bâtards. We all are bastards.”
Mission accomplished, he returned to his apartment, stopping at a local market to pick up a cheese sandwich and new bottle of whiskey. Jeffrey deposited his pack in its place of honor, the floor beneath a hand-drawn banner that read, “Fils de bâtards, unissez-vous.” He smiled and agreed. “Sons, forever.”
“Well done,” he told himself. Jeffrey closed the blinds and poured a drink. Lifting the glass to an invisible gathering, he exclaimed, “To family and destiny. As I live, so lives the undocumented lineage of Henri IV.”
Jeffrey drained his celebratory beverage, and then another, continuing until most of the whiskey was gone. He dropped to his knees, thought about the day, and gave thanks it lasted less than an hour. He fell to the floor, rested his head on the hard saddle pack, and closed his swollen, red eyes.
Just before he passed out, Jeffrey exhaled, “Family is lonely. Destiny is hard.”
John Atkins is a lifelong corporate geek, retired from the profession but still enthralled by the insanity of strategy meetings. He is editor of Corrales in FOCUS, a quarterly general interest magazine. His work appears in in Love, Sweet to Spicy: A Corrales Writing Group Anthology and 50-Word Stories. John spends most days lost in conversation with a computer screen, two dogs, three horses, one pony, and a wife who loves him despite his curmudgeonly ways.