Caretaker Chapter 1: The Death of Thomas Waldo
“Hey what’s your name?”
“You do have a name don’t you?”
“Scared?...I’ll start then.”
“My name’s Thomas.”
“Yourrrr FIRREEED!” Thomas wiped off a bit of his boss’ spittle that hit him in his right eye as the southern franchise owner did his best Vince McMahon impersonation. After two months of loyal service at Jumbo’s Burgers and Wings he’d been terminated, ending his longest ever term of gainful employment. Unfortunate.
As the rancid, beer battered breath of the Tennessee native washed over him accompanied by an alcohol fueled verbal dress down, Thomas had to wonder what he’d done wrong. He managed the two week probationary period with an uncharacteristic lack of foul ups and he was just now starting to find his place with the rest of the staff and adjust to the workflow. It was a menial, and grinding job, waiting tables, taking orders, cleaning after hours, and rotating stock. He was technically a “floor attendant” but his job seemed to encompass all grunt work more senior employees didn’t feel like doing at the time. He worked long hours and wasn’t paid enough, but it was a job and one he was trying his best to keep. So why was he fired?
As the flames raged behind him and singed the hairs on the back of his neck he knew “why”, but he didn’t know the justification. He hadn’t started the grease fire. In fact as his fingers awkwardly fondled the cold metal of a fire extinguisher, he could say he was actively trying to prevent it, at least before Houston Ford walked in and decided that enduring a public beratement was a better use of his time then preventing a restaurant from catching fire and potentially burning them all alive. He felt the extinguisher leave his weak grip as Bernadette claimed it to battle the budding inferno. The forty year old single mother was the hostess and always had a handle on things. She gave him a thumbs up as she subdued the fire to mere embers in an instant. Good old Bernie.
“Don’t you look away from me boy!” Houston took his face in his meaty palm and wrenched it back toward his attention. Houston was a large man in every way. Tall and overweight, but the arms of his tight button up bulged with more than just the fat from a sedentary lifestyle. “He used to play football” as he never shut up about, often rambling about his exploits in a drunken haze at closing time. He even displayed his old trophies in a glass case out front. Thomas could feel the rough texture of his superbowl ring indent his right cheek.
“I’ve had it just about up to here with your shit!” Houston bellowed. He raised his other hand above Thomas’ head. “That’s what’s wrong with your generation! No respect!”
“Don’t you sass me son!” Houston released his face causing Thomas’ head to jerk backward. “You always show up late and can barely do your damn job right! And now I find you destroying company property!”
“But-” Thomas started before being cut off again as Houston continued his rant. He was innocent. Him and Bernie had walked in on the old stove already smoking. It was decades past its prime and caked in a layer of blackened grease that no amount of dawn would be able to remove. It’s wiring was bad and Bernie had been petitioning for months to have it replaced to no avail, but Houston was in one of his moods. He needed blood and Thomas was on the chopping block.
“And don’t think I haven’t noticed how short inventory’s been lately! That’s coming out of your check!”
A flatout lie now. Thomas could name at least three other people more guilty of skimming than him, including Houston himself who often compt his own meals as an “owners perk” and then there was Richie who often munched on fries fresh out the oil, but that didn’t matter. He was getting fired anyway, why not make him a scapegoat for that as well. That way insurance might cover the missing stock.
“Get the hell out of my sight!” Houston roared letting a final drop of saliva splash against the bottom of Thomas’ chin. Thomas walked away defeated and unemployed once more.
“I’ll talk to him hon.” Bernie said as she cupped his head in her palms. “That old blowhard’s just angry. I give him a week before he realizes you’re the only one willing to clean the kitchen and stalls. He’ll be begging to have you back.”
Thomas looked down at the shorter woman with just a hint of grey at her temples She’d been like a second mother to him. A real mother. He’d met her while she was volunteering at a local food box. He’d fallen on hard times out on his own for the first time and she’d taken pity on him.
“Head home and cool off.” Bernie advised, breaking the hug. “I’ll have one of the boys bring you over some leftover meatloaf.”
“Thanks.” Thomas said. He scratched at few lingering wisps of hair on his chin. “But I think I’m sunk. Houston never liked me and I’ve seen him chatting up the new girl. No amount of clean stalls can beat a perky chest and a tight ass in his eyes.”
“When he finds out she has a boyfriend he’ll change his toon.” Bernie assured. “I haven’t met a college girl yet who was interested in a fifty year old man with a gut. A woman my age is barely interested.”
“But you are interested?” Thomas grinned.
“Enough.” She slapped him lightly on the cheek. “Get home, mister!”
“Yeah, yeah.” he whined as he took off his uniform vest. He walked out the kitchen and headed out into the streets of San Francisco.
Thomas had lived in San Francisco for almost two years now. He’d moved there from Oakland fresh out of college following a job opportunity at his classmates new tec business. He’d majored in graphic design and was ready to start his career creating the hottest new logos and UI for the modern climate of portable technology. At his peak he was nearly done with his second pass on a cute dog mascot for a phone app. Then him and most of the staff were fired after a month when the company was bought out by Google for the proprietary rights to a completely different software. Something that had to do with more accurately tracking search results and tailoring advertisements to them. It was a completely different project in a completely different department but Google bought it all to hide their true acquisition. At the end of the day he was out of a job and his classmate was millions of dollars richer. Since then he’d been working odd job after odd job just to make ends meet. He was close to heading home with his tail between his legs when he met Bernie. She helped him find a cheaper apartment in the same complex as her and even a new job. Until now.
The one thing that Thomas had learned in these last two years was that life wasn’t easy. It wouldn’t do you any favors no matter how prepared you thought you were. Floating from job to job and paycheck to paycheck had woken him from his idealistic dreams of success. Now he was just happy to live in a place that had running power. He meandered the streets of San Fran until he made his apartments; Kingston Isles.
He opened his front door and found the meatloaf sitting in a tuple ware container on the stove. One of Bernie’s son’s must have brought it over. He put the meatloaf in a pan and placed it in the oven for later. He would split it with Jenna tonight. At least that was one thing to be happy about. He still had a girlfriend. His first real girlfriend. It had been going on two months now and they’d even started fooling around a little. He wasn’t a virgin, but shy and inexperienced and so was she. They were finally starting to feel comfortable around each other. She was the sweetest, nicest girl he’d ever met. Taller than him with dark skin. She liked anime and cosplay. They attended cons together and she even made her own costumes. He remembered when they first met. He’d been chatting with her for over an hour while she wore a full body stormtrooper outfit. They’d exchanged numbers and emails before she took off her helmet and revealed she was a girl. Imagine his surprise when he realized while of geeking out with a fellow nerd he was flirting with a cute girl too. Maybe he’d take her out tonight instead. It would help him feel better and he might even get laid. He headed towards his bedroom to freshen up. That’s when he noticed the lights in his room where on. Had Jenna stopped by?
He heard a muffled sound coming from inside and a creaking noise. Was she moving something? He opened the door and to his horror he saw Jenna naked from the waist down. She was pinned under a much larger man with her face shoved into a pillow by a caramel colored palm as she screamed. He recognized the larger man as Markus, Bernadette's oldest son. He grunted as he pushed into her, his pelvis colliding with Jenna’s bare ass and making her plump cheeks jiggle. Without thinking Thomas leapt at him.
“Get off her!” He shouted as he collided with Markus. He wouldn’t just stand by while his girlfriend got raped! They tumbled over the side of the bed and onto the floor. Thomas was on top and used his advantage to knee Markus in the gut.
“Run!” He ordered Jenna as he went to punch Markus in the face. His fist was caught in Markus’ larger, stronger, hand. Thomas knew he couldn’t win in a fight. Markus had almost a foot on him and military training and conditioning, but he could distract him long enough for Jenna to escape. She’d call the cops and...poor Bernie. What would she do when she found out her son was a rapist? Thomas found his arm taken and yanked roughly behind his back in a simple arm lock. Markus had of course quickly turned the tables, but Jenna should at least be out the front door by now. He struggled to wrench himself free when Markus hefted him up and he saw Jenna still on the bed in complete shock. He held a pillow to herself to cover her modesty.
“Run!” Thomas said. He turned toward Markus to try and do something to get the larger man off balance again but found his head pressed roughly into the mattress.
“Tell him!” Markus bellowed.
Thomas locked eyes with Jenna. She must be completely terrified. He saw the tears stream down her face. He would try his best to protect her.
“Run..please.” he begged, but she didn’t.
“Please!” he cried, but she stayed and he recognized her expression. It wasn’t terror in being assaulted. It was terror in being caught.
“...Please.” Thomas weezed as he felt tears forming in his own eyes.
“Baby...it’s complicated.” Jenna rasped.
He felt the pressure release off his head and his arm. He turned around and collided face first into Markus’ defined pecs. He looked down on him with that same face of pity and shame that he saw on Jenna. “Sorry.” he said.
Thomas ran and the last thing he heard was Jenna crying. “It wasn’t supposed to be this way!”
He shouldn’t have moved to San Francisco. That’s when his life had went into such a tailspin. He was supposed to have a cool new job, but instead he was unemployed and leaning on the kindness of others. His first girlfriend had cheated on him after just two months, and chances were he’d be on the streets in a few weeks time if Houston didn’t give him his job back. Why did life have to be so hard? He leaned his back against the bark of a tree. He didn’t know where he was. He’d just ran until he was lost and now he felt foolish. What kind of coward flees his own apartment? He should’ve kicked them out! Even more pathetic was part of him hoped they’d come and look for him. Yeah right/ They probably just went back to fucking. He wanted to be hit by a bus. Maybe if he died that would teach them a lesson.
Thomas looked up to see an older woman in an off white jacket turned grey from one too many days without washing. It was tattered and two sizes too big. She had white hair, not grey and a red squashed face full of wrinkles, but her eyes seemed forty years younger than the rest of her. A warm green with an aura of familiarity. For some reason he felt like he’d seen this woman before. She sat down next to him and he noticed a rope she was clutching. It travelled to the neck of a bloodhound that looked older than she was. It sat down across her lap and stared at him. She then produced a square of cardboard that read “Fallen on hard times. Anything will help.” on it in blue marker.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Thomas said.
“Why?” She smiled.
“I just, ummm…”
“Relax, darlin.” She said. “You’re not the first person to be frightened by the homeless.”
“I know. I just-” he sniffled and wiped his nose on the sleeve of his jacket.
“You okay dear?” the woman asked. “You look like someone just stepped on your birthday cake.”
“Heh, no.” Thomas chuckled. “My life’s just falling apart.”
“Same happened to me.” the woman said. “Came back from the war a different woman. Found out husband’ed been screwing his secretary while I was overseas and my kids wanted nothing to do with me. Tried to put me in a home, but I walked off. Now it’s just me and Jasper.”
“Which war?” Thomas asked.
“The big one. The only one that matters.” She replied. “It’s still going on now,”
“Really?” Thomas nodded. He wasn’t aware they were currently in a war. He didn’t watch the news much but he at least thought he wouldn’t miss something like that. Of course there was a good chance this old homeless woman wasn’t all there.
“You don’t believe me but it’s fine.” She patted the scruff of Jasper’s neck and the old hound kicked its leg. “You’ll find out soon enough I wager. S’part of getting older. You see the world different.”
“I wish I could get there now.” Thomas said. “Instead of just screwing up.”
“So what happened that’s got ya so glum anyways?”
“I got fired.” Thomas said. “....and caught my girlfriend screwing….well not her secretary but I imagine it’s the same.”
“Oh hon, that’s a bad day sure, but it’s nothing to be wailing in the park next to a dirty old lady about.”
“You don’t understand. This wasn’t just one bad day. It feels like everyday’s been like this since I was born.”
“Like you don’t fit in. Like you’re not living the life you’re suppose to.”
“You know how to fix that?” The old woman asked.
“Toughen up!” She cackled. “I once had to kill my own sister. Imagine how that messes with your head.”
“Rough.” Thomas said a little shaken. Was he sitting next to a crazy woman or a murderer? Both?
“I didn’t let it get me down.” She continued. She looked almost wistful as she stared into the horizon. The sun was setting and as the light cast her face in golden red for just a brief moment she seemed younger. Her wrinkles had vanished and her skin was smooth and gold as honey. “That’s all you can do.”
Jasper barked and the illusion vanished and she was back to being the old crone she always was.
“I think I should go.” Thomas said as he stood up.
“Probably for the best.” she said.
Thomas fished out his wallet. He only had forty bucks on him but it was better off in her hands. He handed it over to her and she smiled revealing a mouth full of yellow teeth. “Thank you, boy.”
“Good luck.” he said and gave Jasper a quick scratch on the head. The dog yawned and wagged its tail in appreciation.
“Good luck to you too Thomas!” The lady shouted as he walked away.
It was dark now and Thomas was still wandering the streets. He had a vague idea of where he was but pretended to be more lost than he was as an excuse not to go home. Jenna was probably gone by now, but Markus lived with Bernadette just a floor below him. He’d inevitably have to face him before the night was over and he just couldn’t do it yet. What do you even say to the guy who fucked your girlfriend. He didn’t even know Markus that well except that he was only three years younger than him and had just come back from his first tour of duty less than a week ago. He’d only met the kid a handful of times in the last year. He’d initially seemed all right and they’d even gamed together once or twice. It was embarrassing that he’d lost out to a guy younger than him, even worse that Jenna had fallen into bed with him so quickly. He had to wonder what Markus had that he didn’t.
He checked his reflection in the window of a convenience store he was walking by. Size for one thing. At 5,9 and 130 lbs Markus had him beat in both height and weight. Even Jenna had a good two inches on him. Markus had been a powerhouse and Thomas felt emasculated by how easily the younger man had handled him. He probably had him beat in certain other aspects as well. Thomas cringed as the sensation of Markus’ still erect manhood had pressed into the back of his leg when he’d been pinned. Was that what Jenna had wanted? A man’s man.
He adjusted his hair trying to wipe the bangs from out of his face. He looked at his pale skin and big blue eyes. He had a girl’s face like his sister, a small nose that was always red in hue even when it wasn’t cold out. He’d seen old baby pictures of him and his sister in matching dresses. Part of some funny joke parent’s played at the child’s expense. He sighed and rubbed his chin. He couldn’t even grow a decent beard. Two weeks without shaving resulted in nothing more than a bit of peach fuzz. No wonder he’d been cucked so hard. He slumped against the brick wall of the store as he felt himself ready to cry again...then he stopped himself. That old woman was right! He had to toughen up! He’d walked right up to Markus and slug him in the face. In front of his own mama if it came down to it. His phone buzzed. It was Jenna. He ignored it. Normally he’d pick up after the first ring, but she could stew for awhile. He didn’t want to hear any excuse she might have for him. Not when he finally had his courage up. He’d break if he even heard her voice.
He marched and that was the word. A walk wouldn’t be enough to contain how he was feeling. He marched down the street toward home, resolute in his decision. He didn’t even care if Markus beat the stuffing out of him. He had be slighted and satisfaction was to be demanded! He came to the crosswalk a block from Kingston. The light was red and a bus was coming. Out of the corner of his eye he spotted the old woman from the park. She was arguing with a man while struggling to hold back Jasper who was barking wildly. The dog yanked hard and the old woman fell backwards into the street and on top of the hound.
“Goddammit, Chuck!” She shouted as she floundered on the ground. “You spooked Jasper!” She struggled to her feet and the dog bolted when the pressure was off. Unfortunately in the beast’s panic it’s makeshift leash got tangled in the woman’s legs and she fell backward on the ground once more. The loud horn of the bus roared as it approached ever closer. It didn’t seem like it would stop.
“Hey!” Thomas shouted to the woman. “Move!”
The woman didn’t seem to hear his voice over the blare of the horn. She did see him and gave him a wave and a smile.
“Run!” Thomas said. She went back to trying to untangle herself from her hound without giving him a second thought.
“Dammit.” Thomas cursed. Against his better judgement he rushed out into the middle of the street. The bus seemed to be gaining speed as it rampaged down the roadway, Thomas could hear the loud screeching of the brakes at it tried to stop, but it was too little too late. Thomas leaped at the old woman and pushed his hands out in front of him forcing her out the path of the big angry machine. He felt the impact.
His spine lurched sideways in midair, and he could feel the bones and cartilage rupture inside of him. He landed on his back ten feet away and he felt something sharp inside his chest. He wheezed and blood flowed from his nose and clogged his throat. He heard footsteps coming up to him and he turned his head sideways to see a pair of worn black boots with scuff marks and the heel coming off. He felt something warm and wet on the side of his cheek.
“Wow. You’re still alive.” The old woman laughed. “That’s a shame. I didn’t want this to hurt.” She put the heel of her boot against his neck and pressed down hard. Thomas gagged on his own blood and saliva as the old woman cut off his air supply. Jasper continued to lick his cheek as he slowly choked to death. He could swear he saw the old woman’s face change to one much younger before he blacked out.