V.

John woke up in the morning the way he usually did. His alarm went off and he rolled over to turn it off. He sat up on the edge of the mattress, rubbed his face, then stood up and did the stretching exercises he had been given by the doctor. His back was always sore and stiff in the morning, and he needed to stretch just to be able to move without hurting. The stretches were difficult, though, and often hurt a lot in themselves. When he stretched, he could hear things cracking and popping, and the very sound was painful. But he did it, because he knew it would feel better when he was done.

After his stretches, he went out to the living room, where Vern was already mostly dressed and drinking coffee with his first cigarette of the day. John got his own mug, then sat down at the card table across from the boy. Vern was buried in his textbook, but looked up after a few moments and rubbed his eyes.

"Sleep okay?" he asked.

John breathed in Vern's smoke. He almost liked the smell of cigarettes, but he hated the way it smelled when it was left on clothing. Invariably, the scent of stale cigarette smoke reminded him of meat, and not in a good way.

"I slept fine," John replied. He wasn't lying: His sleep the night before had been dreamless and for him, a dreamless sleep was best. He disliked his dreams very much. Whenever he dreamed, he usually spent most of the next day feeling uneasy and uncomfortable in his own skin. He thought this might be because he never understood what his dreams were about, and it disturbed him that he could invent things that he didn't understand.

"That's good," said Vern. He took another drag at his cigarette, then stubbed it out in a cut-glass ashtray John had given him for Christmas the year before.

Vern bent over his textbook again for a moment, then gulped down the last of his coffee and stood up.

"I need to get going," he said, mostly to himself. He had pulled on a pair of pants and the tee-shirt from the day before, but his eyes looked pale and undefined without their liner and he didn't have shoes on. He shuffled back into the bedroom.

John sat alone at the table for a moment, finishing his coffee. Then he stood up and went to take a shower.

He scrubbed his body carefully in the shower, moving cautiously because his back still hurt from sleep. He washed his hair and brushed it when he got out, then pulled it back into its customary tail. It would dry in the elastic. He would then go back to the bedroom and dress himself.

He had a uniform: Jeans; his brown jacket; one of a selection of subdued and badly aging polo shirts; black, dark blue or gray socks; and his shoes. He didn't usually think while he was dressing, and if something unusual happened while he was in the process of his morning ritual, he often became very confused. That was why he usually waited until after Vern had gone before starting on his shower – so there was a very low chance of being interrupted.

But just as he was pulling on his pants, the phone rang. John jumped and stared through the door to where the gray phone hung on the wall. After the second ring, he stood up and slowly walked across to answer it.

"Hello," he said, softly, haltingly.

"Hi," said a voice, shrill and young and female. "This is Jennifer. I'm looking for Carrie – is she there?"

"No," said John. From the first sound her voice, he found himself building a mental picture of Jennifer, then of Carrie. Jennifer, he thought, had dark hair, long and straight. She was a little overweight but wore tight tee-shirts anyway. She liked pizza. Carrie was taller and more blonde, a little like Chelsea but nowhere near as buxom and much more dour. Carrie probably danced ballet.

"Um, who is this?" asked Jennifer, a note of uncertainty coming into her voice. "Do I have the right number?"

"N-No," said John. It took him a few moments to get the word out.

"Oh, mister, I'm so sorry," she said quickly.

"It's okay," John started to say, but before he could finish, she'd already said "Have a nice day," and hung up.

John placed the phone carefully back onto the receiver, then turned and walked in a daze back to the bedroom. Before he realized what he was doing, he'd already undone the zipper and buttons of his pants. He was unsure why he was undressing himself, but for some reason his body had begun to do it.

He shuddered and quickly jerked his pants back on. He hated when his body did things he didn't tell it to, like when his hands sometimes shook when he was tired. He had worked too hard to regain control only to lose it again.

He pulled on his shirt, socks, shoes and jacket, then looked down at his feet and realized that he had put on one gray and one blue sock. He sat down on his mattress and undid his shoes, then took off both socks and took out a pair of black ones.

He found that he was still thinking about Carrie and Jennifer. Maybe he had seen them around town. He probably had – he walked too much to miss many people, when anyone was out. He wondered why Jennifer had been calling Carrie at that time of day. It was still fairly early and if Jennifer was as young as she sounded, she should have been on her way to school.

A horrible thought struck him. What if Carrie was sick? Perhaps Jennifer had taken a few seconds before school to take out her cell phone and call her friend in the hospital. What if Carrie had cancer or meningitis or some equally horrible disease? Or perhaps she had been in an accident, riding on a motorcycle with her boyfriend, and was now laying in traction, every muscle screaming in pain? He knew what that felt like, and he would not wish it on anyone.

He was almost ready to begin praying for Carrie, to get down on his knees there in the bedroom and beg God to spare her such pain and suffering, but he didn't do it. He scolded himself, half-speaking, half-thinking. He was being stupid again, imagining other people's lives and then compounding his foolishness by thinking he was right. He stood up, then sat down on the mattress again and finished lacing his shoes.

He felt so stupid for building that doubtless-false scenario for Jennifer and Carrie. He didn't know them. He probably hadn't met them, probably hadn't even seen them. Without thinking, he clenched his right hand into a fist and slammed it into his left bicep.

He jumped a little from the pain, then stared down at his right hand. Why had he done that? It was just as stupid as praying for Carrie. He shut his eyes and took a few deep breaths to steady himself. He couldn't do this so early in the day. It would not make the day better and would only leave him feeling miserable.

Slowly, he moved out of the bedroom to the card table, then picked up the composition notebook. Still moving slowly, he opened it to the next blank page and began to carefully write down everything that had happened so far that day, concentrating on the call from Jennifer and his reaction to it. He had to put everything down for Marian. She needed to know.

After he was done, he flipped back to where he'd written about Haylie. He read it again, then went back to the first page of that part and read it once more. He shut his eyes and remembered the way her face glowed white in the sun, the way she moved with such care, trying too hard to be grown up. Everything about her was healthy, he realized. She was not just a little girl, a lost little girl he had returned to her home. She was healthy and beautiful, and that was why he was still thinking of her. That, and the fact that he had actually been able to help someone, instead of being the recipient of help. He had done something that had, possibly, saved her from something much worse. He was aware of the fact that there were three registered sex offenders in town, though he didn't really think of it all that much. It came to mind now, though – what if someone like that had gotten to Haylie?

He couldn't even think of it. He couldn't stand to even think of her being hurt.

He checked the time on the stove. It was ten thirty, and in fifteen minutes, he needed to meet with Marian. He would need to go up to her office by the hospital, towards the cemetery but not actually past it. he was glad he wouldn't be passing the cemetery again – he might have been tempted to do something foolish, as he had yesterday.

He flipped through the ten remaining blank pages in the composition notebook. He knew that they would be filled by the end of the day. He would have to go and buy another one soon.

He sighed and sat back in his chair. The thought of buying a new notebook caused two conflicting emotions. He hated leaving behind an old notebook, but at the same time, he loved the tabula-rasa feeling of a new notebook. He ran his thumb up and down the spine of his old notebook reflectively.

He heard a door opening in the hall. The noise made him sit up straight and come back to his surroundings. He realized that he had bent almost halfway over, cradling the notebook with his body, his back setting into a stiff and uncomfortable position.

He stood up and flexed his shoulders, then gasped from the pain as his vertebrae snapped to with small popping sounds. He knew the sounds were only caused by the fluid between his joints, air bubbles in the liquid popping, but the sound hurt and his back hurt.
Always, his back hurt. Not always badly, and not always mildly, but it always hurt.

He walked to the door of the apartment, opened it and stuck his head out into the hall. He was just in time to see the Green's sixteen-year-old daughter starting back up the stairs.

"Sorry," he said. "I thought… No." He moved to go back into his apartment.

She jumped and turned to face him. John stopped cold. He couldn't remember ever making eye contact with Annabelle Green, but they made eye contact now. It was only for a moment, but for just that moment, her eyes met his. Then she looked down at the floor again.

"Sorry to have disturbed you," she murmured, then turned back and walked slowly back up the stairs.

John clutched the doorframe a little tighter. He felt nervous. She had never spoken to him before, ever, not in the entire time he had lived in the building. To be fair, he had seen her a handful of times at most, but still. This was unprecedented. He watched her walk up the stairs, her figure tiny, compact, dressed in plain clothes that wouldn't have looked out of place sixty years before. She held her hands close to her legs. Her hair hung straight, halfway down her back. She held her head tipped slightly downwards, as if constantly in supplication or deep thought. But she soon disappeared into the upstairs.

When she was gone, completely gone, John retreated into his apartment. He shut the door and leaned against it. He wondered why Annabelle had chosen today of all days to talk to him for the first time. What had made today so special? Was it that he was no longer such a stranger to her? Was the time he had passed her in the street the week before the tipping point that made him recognizable? Or had the words simply flown out, unexpected and unwanted? Had he caught her in a moment of vulnerability? He didn't know and couldn't guess.

He looked over at the clock in the kitchen. 10:17. He needed to hurry to meet up with Marian. He put his notebook into the bag on the side of his bike, then started up to the hospital.