It starts as soon as I enter the Secretary of State’s office, the doors snapping shut behind me like teeth. It’s almost noon, but in here it could just as easily be midnight. There are no windows. A big fake fluorescent sun floods the place in unnatural light, making everything look faintly the color of piss. Outside, it’s Halloween and it’s my birthday. Inside, it’s any day of the week from nine to five.

“Hey, bub, the line starts here.”

The monstrosity who says this is wearing overalls that smell of the farm, dripping sweat like he just climbed down from a John Deere. His sausage fingers poke at the space behind him, cleverly thwarting my master plan to reach the counter before he does. Piggy eyes squint at me from between the thick folds of his sweaty face. Even after I shuffle into line behind him, he continues to gawk at me as if I was a meal that had given him indigestion.

“Thanks,” I say, though that’s not what I really mean.

“Ayuh.”

I thrust my hands into the pockets of my black jacket. My right-hand fingers the toy gun that I’ve paid twenty bucks for, a realistic but useless prop for the costume party Maya and I will be attending tonight. I meant to leave it in the car, but I’ve been racing around all morning and right now I’m lucky if I remember to breathe. All I care about is getting this shit over with so I can get on with my day.

The line stretches out in front of me, three or four service people pretending to help a hundred. Waiting in line, just to get a number so I can wait even longer.

Eyes still crawling all over me, John Deere extends a pudgy hand. He introduces himself – pumppump with the hand – but I don’t catch his name. Probably because I don’t care.

“Jimmy Dunwich,” I say, just as concerned that he remembers mine.

“I don’t like lines,” he says, deciding that now it’s okay to befriend me.

I play along. “Just a bunch of people between us and something we have to do.”

He grunts like a pig. “Ayuh, it’s an overcrowded earth, bub.”

“Oh yeah,” I say, blatantly looking him up and down, and then add, “What this world needs is a good plague.”

His little swine eyes get even smaller and he turns away from me.

I shrug, mission complete.

Though my hands are cold and slightly damp, sweat is pasting the Dawn of the Dead t-shirt to my back under the jacket. My head is throbbing, spinning almost. It’s probably the lights. While the details of my drive here are already fading – what am I forgetting? –  my heart still thuds heavily in my chest.

The building vibrates with a faint fluorescent hum. It feels like bees nesting just beneath my skin. Somewhere, something is ticking, though I can’t find a clock on any of the walls. The faded sound of what passes for music, some kind of whiny pop tune, materializes from nowhere. I think it’s REO Speedwagon.

All around me is a pitiful cross-section of humanity, a diorama crafted by Norman Rockwell if he’d been chronically depressed. There is an ancient black man, his throat scarred and covered in patches of different colored skin. An old lady in a ratty grey overcoat is infecting the air around her with the scent of lavender. She must have bathed in it. A young mother pushes a double stroller containing only one infant, which stares desolately at the empty space beside it. Someone is shouting Spanish into a pay phone beside the door. In the far corner, a cluster of junior high desks are full of lifeless people who seem to be waiting for a test.

Above it all is the metallic humming, humming of the fluorescent lights.

A nasal voice says, “How can I help you?”                 

Just ahead of John Deere, a little red-haired girl is rooting around in her straw shoulder bag. The woman behind the counter watches her with dead eyes. This goes on for what seems like thirty minutes, until the girl unloads the contents of her bag onto the counter. Suntan lotion, checkbook, lipstick, hairbrush, a phone charger. She continues to pile things in front of her, I know it’s here I just had it, until she finally spots what she’s looking for, sweeping everything else back into the purse.

“Take a number, then take a seat,” says the nasally woman.

The invisible clock continues to tick.

The lights continue to hum.

“How can I help you?”

“Yeah, bub, I need plates for my truck.”

Fumbling in my pockets for the cell phone, I’m wondering if Jimmy has called yet. Surely his mother would have reminded him. I can almost hear her voice now, vacant but dutiful: Don’t forget it’s your father’s birthday. I wanted to see him today, but it’s over two hours to the other side of the state, and Maya and I have the party.

The battery must need to be replaced again. I could have sworn it was almost noon when I got here, but the numbers still read just past 11:30.

There are no messages, there is no signal.

“How can I help you?”   

The woman behind the counter has hair coming out of her nostrils and a huge wart in the middle of her forehead. Like a third eye. I’m trying not to stare at it, half expecting that if I look too long it might just open up and look back at me.

I tell her that I need to renew my license and my plates, and then add, “It’s my birthday. I’m forty today.”

“It’s everyone’s birthday in here, Mister . . . Dunwich” she says, “Take a number, then take a seat.”

Way to make me feel special, lady. Thanks. She checks my insurance, scribbles something on the forms, and gives me the go-away eyes. I want this day to mean something – I need it to mean something – but here I’m just a number, the number 87 to be exact.

The counter on the wall says nine.

I find a chair somewhere in the middle of the room, at the end of a row, making sure that I don’t sit next to anyone. Across from me, a thirty-something woman in Tinkerbell pajamas already looks like she can’t wait to make conversation. She smiles lovingly in my direction, presumably so I can count the number of missing teeth.

From above, it’s REO Speedwagon again. The same song as before.

I can’t fight this feeling any longer, and yet I’m still afraid to let it flow . . .

“It’s the satellite,” Tinkerbell says.

“What?”

Her eyes are two wagon wheels going down separate roads, but she’s trying to fix them both on me. Words are eagerly leaping out of her mouth, like she’s been waiting for someone all morning. Waiting for me, maybe. She seems convinced that whoever speaks to her first will be the love of her life. “It’s the satellite, that’s what one of them ladies said. That’s why they keep playing the same song. Satellite’s broke, I guess. At least it’s a good song.”

“Uh, yeah.”

In response, the music coils its filthy sentimentality around us, slithering between my feet and steadily up the spine toward my cerebral cortex. What started out as friendship has grown stronger, I only wish I had the strength to let it show. For a moment it feels like the tawdry soundtrack to the love story of me and Tinkerbell. I shift uncomfortably in my seat.

“How long you been here?” I ask, though I couldn’t care less about her answer.

Her face goes vague, eyes trailing off even further into their individual paths. “I don’t know,” she says, “A while I guess.”

Then she’s just sitting there, jaw slack, eyes wide and ranging.

Maya’s voice floats into my head: patience, patience, her constant reproach. It’s become something like a joke between us. Every few months, when the urge for us to get married rises up again in her eyes, I turn with a grin and ask what’s her motto?  Patience, patience.

I’m trying to fill in the details of her face. Trying to remember where we’re going tonight. I’m trying to remember a lot of things, but there are too many people in here. Sucking all the oxygen out of the room.

“I gotta get my driver’s license, that’s why I’m here. How ‘bout you? Oh, heh, that’s probably a silly question, right?”   

The lights are humming above, those bees just below the skin.

A baby is crying, louder, louder.

“Sheri, she’s my cousin, she says I’m always asking silly questions. Silly, silly. Actually, she says stupid, but stupid’s a bad word. I think silly does okay, though, don’t you?”

Phones are ringing.

I still can’t find a clock, but there’s that ticking, ticking.

From at least four different parts of the room I hear coughing. Somewhere an irritated voice says, “He’s got the croup, that’s why he’s not in school.”

“I guess you prob’ly gotta get your driver’s license too, huh? Or maybe that sticker that goes on the car. What kinda car do you have anyway? I got an old Vega. My brother got it for me. It’s got a missing window, but that ain’t nothin’ an old newspaper can’t fix, that’s what he says.”

The ba-da-boom of fake drums, music swelling. And I can’t fight this feeling anymore

“So, what’s your name, handsome?”

The counter on the wall is buzzing. While I watch, it clicks and the number nine turns into . . . the number nine.

“Whoa,” Tinkerbell says, and then suddenly goes silent.

When I glance in her direction, I feel a presence beside me. A breath, perhaps, though cold, on my neck. Her mouth hangs open, both eyes fixed on the same location next to me. I turn to see what has finally shut her up.  

A huge skull is staring back at me.

“Shit.”

“This is the best day ever,” the skull says.

My heart is racing, boomboom, boomboom. Then I see the string leading back from behind the cheekbones, holding the skull face to a pale bald head. It’s plastic, just a mask. Of course it’s just a mask. What the hell was I thinking? The Grim Reaper wouldn’t really smell like marijuana and bubble gum.

“Yeah,” I say, “Yeah, it’s a good day.”

Tinkerbell mutters Creepy, just before turning away.

The Reaper nods, dark eyes piercing me through the plastic edges of the mask. Then he holds up a book about Halloween and begins to read: “On the last day of October, when the darkness of night drapes the sky like a shroud and the air grows sweet with the aroma of fallen leaves, the Great Wheel has completed its cycle. The time of endings – and beginnings – has arrived.”

His breath through the mask is labored and ghostly. I just stare at him.

Tick, tock. Tick, tock.

“Known by many names, – Samhain, Hallowmas, All Hallows Eve – it is the time of the final harvest. A deity known as the Lord of the Dead was said to gather together the souls of all men, women, and children who had died. With their sins ex . . . expee -”

“Expiated?”

“Yep, that’s it.”

“It means . . . atoned, or paid for.” I’m thinking of my son on the other side of the state, trying to recall the last time I saw him.

“Yep. With their sins expiated, they would be set free to begin their journey to the Otherworld. On Halloween, the barrier between the living and the dead is said to be at its thinnest.”

“You must read a lot.”

“Yeah. Cool shirt, by the way.”

“Thanks. You gonna get your picture taken with that mask on?”

The Reaper shook his head. “Nope, I don’t need my picture taken. Not old enough for a driver’s license.”

“So you just like smoking pot and hanging out at the DMV?”

“Yeah, it’s alright. So, when’s your birthday?”

“Today,” I say.

Killer, dude.”

“Yeah.” 

I turn my eyes back to the buzzing number nine, just in time to watch it change into a nine again. From the counter, someone is calling, “Number nine, number nine.”

Tick. Tock.

Beside me, the Reaper has returned to the book, his voice rising feverishly as he reads. “Some believed that on this day the spirits of the dead came back to the world of the living. Many of these spirits were mischievous in nature, while some even possessed an evil streak, delighting in bringing harm to human beings . . .”

While phones seem to be ringing all around me, mine still can’t get a signal. I snap it shut in a huff, resisting the urge to hurl it across the building. Maybe it was damaged when . . .

When.

The lights are humming, humming.

Number nine, buzzing.

“For protection, the priests who led the sacred rites of Samhain would wear masks to disguise themselves as spirits. This would usually trick the wandering dead.”

Wandering.

I’ve gotta go.

I can’t spend my birthday here, I gotta go.

Gotta –

(where do I have to -)

Go?

And the clock, the clock that I can’t find anywhere, is beating slower and slower. Tick . . . Tock . . . Tick . . . Tock.

“Number nine, is there a number nine?”

The Reaper is still reading about death and ghosts and masks, but I’m trying to remember something. Tinkerbell is singing along with REO Speedwagon about the feelings they can no longer fight. The lifeless people in junior high desks still haven’t gotten whatever they are waiting for. The mother with the double stroller is holding her only child, rocking him gently.

 “Is there a number ni – ”

My chair clatters to the floor.

I am whirling through the rows of waiting people. Past the counter where no one ever moves. Past the wall where the numbers never change.

Everyone is silent now, all eyes on me.

I pause at the door, so filthy that it’s opaque.

Was it like this when I got here?

I remember flashing lights. Police cars. There were police out there, and I don’t have my plates yet –

The door won’t budge.

I push and I push and I am remembering.

In the car, fumbling with the phone in my hand. Trying to get my son on the phone and his mother saying he’s at school, well of course he’s at school, can’t you give me the number all I want is the damn number all I want to do is talk to my son on my birthday.

And the door won’t budge, won’t let me out.

Jamming my hands into the pockets of my jacket, I remember the gun.

“Number nine, number nine, is there -”

This time I’m on her: “There is no goddamn number nine!!”

The gun is in her face, waving it around like drunken fool. “I am your number nine, so let’s get my license and plates, right now lady!

From the silence I hear the Reaper’s voice: “Wicked, dude.”

The woman behind the counter is calm, like I had just asked her for the time. She levels her gaze at me, without so much as blinking, and says, “That’s not a real gun.”

“Yes it is. It’s a real gun and I’m in a real hurry.”

She folds her hands together before her, almost as if in prayer. “You have all the time in the world.”

No.

“There was an accident, Mr. Dunwich. You were going too fast and you were not paying attention to the world around you. That seemed to be a recurring predicament in your life.”

Seemed.

“You died on the way to get your driver’s license.”

No, I didn’t.

But it’s all coming back to me.

The screeching tires.

Metal screaming, twisting, the breaking glass.

Lights, red, blue, red, blue.

Pain, receding into the distance like a vanishing radio signal. Light and grey and, finally, dark. And the sounds, those final sounds of the world, hanging in the words of a young boy through a telephone speaker, Daddy. Daddy, are you there? Daddy?

Everything is fading now.

As then.

And a voice following me down, down into the darkness:

“Ex . . . expee . . . expiated?” 

The doors snap shut behind me like teeth.

There are no windows, but the big fluorescent sun humming above floods the place in unnaturally bright light. Everything looks the color of piss. It’s Halloween and it’s my birthday, but here it’s just another day.

“Hey, bub, the line starts here.”

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