The passage of time carries a strange way of both easing and sharpening pain. We forget those days that hurt us. This goes on until one day, you get a hollow feeling in your stomach which reminds you that the past could be pushed away, but nothing is forgotten forever. Jack contemplated this as he found himself laying up in a bed. Running his fingers along the sheets, Jack shivered in recognition. These used to be his sheets. Light streamed in through a slit in the blinds, dimly lighting a room that held all the tools of his old trade. Razor sharp knives hung from a rack on the wall next to a cork board covered with targets and tips. In the back of his mind Jack knew something was missing from his old home, but it took him a few long minutes to place it. The smell was fresh and clean, there was a sound of footsteps racing back and forth in the hall and voices echoed up from the dining room. The musty smell of failed dreams found itself banished by the vitality of the house.
Smiling despite himself, Jack stretched out and felt the ache in muscles he hadn’t needed in years. Everything ground to a halt when the door to his room opened just a crack and a small mischievous face appeared in the slim opening beneath a mop of sandy blonde hair, “Daddy says to get up, big brother.”
Time stopped. All the good feelings that came from hearing life in a house long bereft of home lost any meaning. Joseph Goodbody was dead. Joseph Goodbody was standing on the other side of the door as though he had never died.
Bouncing into the room, Jack’s little brother leapt up onto the bed and stretched out in a tiny imitation of his elder brother, “You gotta get up ‘cause dad says we’re going to California to do a job.”
“Aren’t you a little too young to be going out and working with father?” Jack found himself dumbly repeating his response from long ago.
Joseph turned his gaze away, avoiding Jack’s gaze, “Dad says I need to be ready in case he needs me.” Jack remembered feeling the wind knocked out of him at that. Was he such a failure that his father needed to prepare his twelve-year-old brother as a replacement heir?
Jack wrapped an arm around his little brother and pulled him closer, keeping his arm around him tightly, “Maybe father isn’t always right, kiddo. Maybe you should just sit this one out and let me go with him on my own. You can come along when you’re older, but this one is too dangerous.”
Joseph wriggled out of Jack’s arms and bounced up and down on the bed, “It’s time ta wake up, boss. We’re here and the client is lookin’ at ya funny.” Stan’s deep booming voice came out of his little brother’s mouth, echoing around the small room. Struggling awake, Jack rubbed at his eyes and took in his surroundings. Their trip had ended during his siesta, the last few days of driving blurring together in his memory into an endless tedium of drive through windows and bathroom breaks.
The small house sitting in front of their parked van certainly had been nice once upon a time. Jack presumed the day the current owners had finished building the thing was sometime around when God had just finished creating the world. The bushes in front of the house were in danger of evolving into small forests, various branches having gone beyond encroaching on the path and were now asking for toll from pedestrians. The paint peeling on all sides had formed parachuting clubs, falling onto canvas laid down below. On the left side of the house was three stripes of paint where someone had started to paint and stopped suddenly for no apparent reason. On closer inspection, as Jack got out of the van, the paintbrush had been left on the blue tarp and had merged with it at some point. The paint can, still opened, had solidified into colorful concrete sprinkled with dirt.
The old man who had hired him was waiting impatiently on the front step as only an elderly man can. He hadn’t moved and his expression was technically vacant, but his entire face had started to droop downward thanks to the relentless pressure of gravity. When he woke up in the morning, his default face was that of disapproval. “You sure took your time getting here.”
“We had to drive out from New York.”
Without any further acknowledgement of that statement, he turned to go back into his house, “Well, let me show you around.” The mood of old people, much like the weather, often changed in an instant and as the old adage said, if you didn’t like the weather then it was time to go home and sleep. Unfortunately for Jack, this was not an option.
Gesturing to Stan, he walked toward the porch, pushing through bushes and stepping into the front door. What he found was a complete nightmare and a dream all at the same time. Stacks and stacks of newspapers and magazines lined the wall in the hallway. From his viewpoint, Jack could see the stuff starting to overflow from the living room. Looking down, the floor had a nice dark grey carpet. At least, Jack assumed it was grey until he moved his foot and saw a hint off-white where he the carpet had been distubed. This was an all-day job, if not an all week job. Jack adjusted his glasses. There was no guarantee they would even get paid.
“Do you still want to keep all of these magazines and newspapers?”
“I still have them, don’t I?”
“Fair enough.” Order from chaos. Jack followed the elderly man around the house and listened to him ramble about what he wanted done, noting the virtual impossibility of putting two houses worth of stuff into one tiny house. As the list went on and on, from basic cleaning to fixing the lethal kitchen cabinets that looked like they would fall off and kill someone if they weren’t mended, this was quickly becoming a full on renovation. They would make it work, however, and the work began in the living room. With some persuasion they managed to get their client to camp out in the kitchen while they cleaned.
Jack surveyed the stack of old TV guides which were both outdated and unneeded in a modern television age. Against the far wall sat an old television, yellowed with age and probably not able to even get any channels these days. It sat in the middle of a large wooden cabinet that had two enormous empty shelves on either side, their doors opened wide like massive wings. Originally, they were intended for movies, but these would do for the TV Guides. In rapid order, by date they vanished into the two shelves and the shelves were closed. On the table to the far left lay an innumerable number of knick-knacks and curios. Some of them appeared to be made from silver and worth a lot of money and some of them were toys from fast food places. There was no apparent rhyme or reason to their position, but there was plenty of space under the table.
Jack turned to Stan, “Go and grab the organizers while I figure out some way to organize these things. It’s like the concept of order is something that only occurs after the words Law and to this guy.”
Stan grunted and headed for the door. Turning his attention back to the detritus, Jack surveyed the buildup from a lifetime of collecting with no cleaning. Toy, toy, priceless memento, toy blood stained dagger, toy, monkey’s paw…Jack let his mind flow back through the list, examining each item in turn. This may have been a more interesting choice than Jack realized. Stan came back in with a stack of plastic containers. The containers that Jack filled became completely disorienting. On the left side were innocuous knick-knacks, like the aforementioned toys and cheap pocket watches. On the far right was the monkey’s paw and the other things that most people would never have anything to do with, like the bible written in upside down Latin.
“Oh yeah, picked this old thing up when I went to Hell.”
Jack perked up at that, “You went to Hell?”
“Sure, it was swell, I love visiting Michigan and that was a lucky find there.” Jack examined the book, which appeared to be trying to inch off the table, before adding it to the appropriate bin. ‘Lucky” is not the word that Jack would use to describe finding such a book. Horrifying, perhaps fascinating in the right mindset, but surely not lucky. The television room was mainly cleaned up at this point and that left the study. Jack turned to the door on the far wall. Opening it, a flood of papers and books streamed out into the now clean television room. Jack shuddered. On the inside of the door lay an impossibly large room with records strewn everywhere.
The old man sat down on the couch and pulled out a remote, “Gonna watch my stories while you work.” The screen remained black no matter how many times the old man clicked away at the remote. Whatever he saw tickled the old mans funny bone, however, as he started laughing uproariously at a volume Jack doubted he was capable of. Well, this was a shovel job. At least, at first it would be. Jack trekked back out to the van and grabbed the snow shovels. Most of the rest of the afternoon was spent putting books on shelves, and papers in folders, and folders into file cabinets. What caught Jack’s eye as he worked was how many of the documents pertained to the Five Families; documents dating well back into the nineteenth century that, if he had more time on his hands, he would have loved to read. Many of Jack’s clients were a mystery to him, but none so much as this man. Much as Jack expected his clients to respect his privacy, he respected theirs as well. Those questions he had would have to wait for another time, when they weren’t working for this crazy old man.
They barely had any time left to get to the upstairs bedroom and by the time they did, the sun had begun to sink lower in the sky, kissing the horizon and bidding farewell to the workday where you can see without lights.
Jack opened the door to the bathroom and instantly closed it, his face a pale white. Stan shot him a questioning glance, “We shall never speak of this again.” Stan nodded and started packing up equipment.
Jack stepped gingerly back downstairs and found to his surprise that the whole kitchen smelled like brownies. The old man was standing next to a steaming tray of the most aromatic brownies Jack had ever smelled. Smith smiled at Jack, “Consider this payment for the work, Jack.” Jack tried not to frown too hard and an awkward moment came and went. “Oh, I’m just kidding. Here’s a check as well. I think you’ll find it most generous.”
Jack took the check and examined it carefully before tucking it away into his pocket. Looking up, he noticed Smith looking him over sadly. He must have appeared confused because Smith finally spoke after a long silence, “You really don’t remember me, do you?”
Shaking his head, Jack adjusted his glasses, “I know you have a lot of records having to do with the Five Families. I know you’re connected to them, but I’m not involved in that world anymore. I’m a cleaner now, and nothing else.”
“That wasn’t your attitude last time you were out here in California. You were much younger, that time. You came with your brother and your father, but you left with just your father.”
Jack paled and grabbed Smith by the collar, causing him to almost lose his grip on the tray of brownies, “What do you now about that trip to California? I can’t remember any of it! Tell me…please.”
Smith pressed the tray of brownies into Jack’s chest until he took it from him. Walking back into the living room, Jack could hear him rummaging around before he came out with a manila envelope, “All the answers you want are in this envelope but I warn you, you aren’t going to like the answers. Only open it when you’re ready to know the truth. If you want to be free of that world, you will never open it, but know that the answer is here for you.”
Jack took the envelope without another word and left. Smith looked down. The brownies had also vanished, along with the tray he had put them on and with no sign of their imminent return, “That boy is just like his father. They say family never changes, but the Goodbody family is just absurd.” Stan poked his head into the kitchen and tipped his hat.
Smith waved to the door, “Oh get to driving, you great lug. It’s a miracle my house is still standing after you were in here.” Stan hurried out the door, careful not to hit the frame and fulfill Smith’s complaint on the way out. Once the rest of the tools were in the van, Jack slid in next to Stan. He was eating the brownies and trying very hard not to enjoy it.”
Jack leaned back in his seat, slowly chewing on a brownie and eyeing the envelope with suspicious glances, as though he expected it to light on fire. They sat in the van, not moving for a long time with Jack making no motions towards opening it. Stan took his time lighting a cigar, keeping an eye on Jack the whole time.
“Oh, just drive already!”
Stan nodded suppressing a grin at the sulky outburst and started the van on the path home. He got lost in five minutes because Jack wasn’t giving directions.