The Stranger with the Key

He was the go-to guy. The go-to for passports, licenses, or, if you wanted to do it all yourself, a birth certificate of a dead infant; always guaranteed to be of your vintage, give or take a few years.

     So, there I was, sitting across from him, sliding documents back and forth, hunting for a name, me undecided and him a little frustrated.

     ‘Just pick one,’ he hissed.

     But I couldn’t ‘just pick one.’ One needs time to be reborn. It isn’t something to rush as though you’re going for coffee. There are unique blends and tastes. Different textures. Different results. If it’s rushed, what happens then to the trash you’ve left behind? Is someone likely to find that single bag of rubbish, so carelessly tossed away into the back alleyway? What if the contents spill out and someone finds that one piece of evidence to blow it all out of the freaking water? No, I was not going to just pick one.

     I pushed another certificate across to him, and he pushed another document back. The table was warm; the early morning burned in, killing off the frost from the night before.

     ‘Usually, I meet with people who are running away from someone. I don’t buy that from you.’

     So unwelcome, I thought.

     ‘You’re not panicked,’ he said.

     I met with his eyes. They creased in the corners; his black eyebrows were perfection. No one had eyebrows like him. Lines creased his forehead, carved by Mother Nature’s precision. His words dangled in the air, waiting patiently for an answer. It wasn’t a conversation I welcomed.

     I slid the certificate back in his direction. ‘Have you got any others? I’m just not feeling it.’

     ‘Not with me, no.’ His eyes locked onto mine, illuminated by the sunlight, and for a moment, I found him attractive. ‘Not on short notice. The friend of a friend said you were desperate, and that you had cash.’

     I couldn’t afford these emotions. Ignore his good looks and get on with it. ‘And my friend of a friend said that you had some quick options. I’m not seeing what I need here.’ My finger pointed at the table, poking at its worn body.

     A sigh escaped as he reached into his pocket for his cigarettes. He perched one between his fingers, throwing the half-empty packet onto the table. He ducked his head to light it, waved out the match, and added the stick to the unused toothpicks. A steady stream of smoke floated in the dusky air. ‘Maybe if you just tell me what you need then,’ he said, his eyes latching on to mine again, his voice calm.

     And so I told him as he hung his head low over his coffee, nodding now and then, meeting me with a glance between my clumsy, sometimes useless words. He understood; his eyes reflected my grief. There was no one left to care about us anymore but the stranger sitting across from me. Maybe he’d lost someone too, and maybe things didn’t matter so much anymore. A new beginning—one without the emotional baggage—is sometimes a necessity for survival.

     He finished his coffee in silence beside the warm window, squinting out to the rising sun. Brilliant pink hues stretched thinly between patchworks of cloud above the commuters.

     ‘Once you do this, there’s no going back,’ he warned. His finger traced the wood grain on the table, right near the Jamie 4 Joel scratched inside a crooked heart. ‘You know that, right?’

     ‘Is this your usual disclaimer, or are you generally more abrupt with strangers?’

     ‘No. I usually have the client’s money by now.’ He shuffled his papers together, abandoned names from years ago, probably forgotten amidst the lives so busily lived. Were we sinning? Forcing the dead to reach beyond their graves, against the will of God Himself? ‘I’m thinking you’re not really wanting this.’ His words pricked something asleep inside me—something I’d rather ignore. ‘But then, taking someone else’s identity isn’t for the light-hearted either.’

     I stood with him, watching the papers being shoved into a plastic folder. It looked out of place with his singlet and Orioles cap—wrong state. It gave his birthplace away, and his loyalty. I wondered if I should tell the one who favored himself so discreet, of his mistake. Instead, when his eyes met with mine again, something softened.

     ‘Give me two days then,’ he sighed.

     ‘It’s all I have.’

     Does he have a family? I thought it unlikely a man like this has a connection with anyone.

     He looked down at me and said, ‘I’ll be here in two days, same time. I take my coffee strong, no sugar, barely white. I never meet with a client twice. The first coffee was my treat, but everything after is yours.’ He cocked a black eyebrow. ‘You need to think about this.’

     And before I could answer, the tiny gold bells chimed over the glass door before it banged into its frame. Morning workers started their march into the café, readying for Groundhog Day and work-hour slavery.

It was never a simple choice. I analyzed, over-analyzed, backed away and analyzed some more. I did this for months; almost a year following the incident. The loss, the grief and no longer having anyone reliable to hold me accountable was a freedom I was actually unprepared for. What would this do to me—this choice? To be anyone but myself, to leave the past behind for a second chance to be me . . . the irony wasn’t lost.

    

He sipped his coffee.

     His dark eyes met mine from under his furrowed brow as his hand slid the documents across our preferred table. Jamie and Joel’s love was covered up today, the pressing matter sitting pensively over their future. Were they still in love, I wondered, picking up the sleeve of papers and photos. Did they have children or parents still alive? Were their lives plastered on social media for the world to see? I wondered how easy it would be to type in Joel and Jamie, the city, the café, and hit enter. What would I find?

     ‘You’ll need to delete any trace,’ he said.

     I looked up. Was he reading my mind?

     ‘Your presence on social media. You’ll have to delete it.’

     I nodded. If Jamie and Joel could be found with a few simple clicks, then my life was open slather. I’d lived online, worked online for years.

     ‘Facebook especially,’ he said as his cigarette lighter flipped shut. He’d probably purchased it with my last fee, and now I was footing the bill for his coffee. A smile reached his eyes, creasing their corners as cigarette smoke curled between us.

     ‘I don’t have Facebook anymore. Deleted it years ago.’

     ‘Twitter, Instagram, the obsolete Tumbler, Flicker, emails, passwords, accounts, computer games.’

     I held up my hand. ‘And I have been. I’ve been slowly going through them.’

     ‘Too fast and people will notice.’ He paused. ‘I looked you up, you know. You’re everywhere. You wrote some books once—ironically dystopian, don’t you think? Not to mention the ghostwriting that isn’t so anonymous anymore. Some pretty pictures on your web page’s bio, too.’

     ‘I’ll fix it tonight.’

     He nodded, knowingly. ‘Are you sure you wanna do this?’ He shrugged. ‘Just saying you seem to be throwing a lot away. Most run from physical problems, not ghosts.’

     ‘Ghosts of the past can be just as deadly.’

I dropped the documents on the table and spread them out. A  stain of drying sauce seeped through a birth certificate. Camille. Died twenty-nine years ago at only a few months old. Could I do her justice? Did I look like a Camille with my clear green eyes and wavy hair? Did her nose develop the slight Roman bump I scrutinized every morning?

     His own soft nose crinkled at the oily stain as I thumbed it off. ‘Sorry,’ I muttered.

     He took the certificate from my hands and waved away the apology. ‘No one ever loved Camille,’ he said. ‘She won’t be missed.’

     My heart sank.

    

Between our secret meetings, I flicked the off switch and held my distance from everything familiar. Relationships were no longer permitted—not if I was serious about disappearing. Not with myself, and certainly not with others, he’d said. And I found myself adding silently: not with him. He’d be my only contact from now on—work aside, of course—to pay for our early meetings that were seemingly drifting into the lunch-hour rush.

     Walking outside: eyes to the ground, deliberately avoid contact. Answer one question, get a free pass from another—avoid inquisitiveness. Take a day off from the madness of work. Make it routine to dodge suspicion. Exchange routine for a late movie or walk. Make it just noticeable enough that nothing sits out of the ordinary—rest in a park just long enough to sift through the jumbling thoughts and helplessness. No more, or they’ll notice, he said. No more, or they’ll pull you back—back to the reality of life, he said; nothing but a brutal prison for those like us, never letting us escape.

     But only if you’re serious. Only if you mean it.

     He understood.

     Keep going to restaurants—keep it to a minimum, but still do it. Always, always pay cash. Cut up the credit cards. Lose the online presence. Pay bills on time—no reason then for authorities to track you, he said. Stay hidden in plain sight. Stay low. Say nothing to attract attention. Take day trips in the car, on the train, and go hiking. That way, when the time comes, they’ll put it down to a holiday you said nothing about. And always smile.

     Smiling …That was the hardest part.

    

‘How was work today?’

I smiled at his question. He’d finally changed his cap to a plain black one months ago. The last thing to go. ‘A bloody shambles, of course,’ I said, stealing my favourite TV line.

     I was still smiling. Was something changing in me?

     He slid another plastic cover over the table. The Joel loves—or was it Jamie? Time fogged over memory as the dark varnish hid the scratches. The thick sheen bounced the sun just at an angle clever enough to deceive those new to the café. The forever love, carved for eternity’s attention was gone today, just like Camille all those years ago. Just like the others in the plastic slip; those names strangers paid to steal for reinvention. Had Joel and Jamie’s love died with the faded scratches now covered by the need for new impressions? Did it even matter?

The finger tapped the plastic sheet. A blood-stained Band-Aid wrapped around its lined skin, and a single grey hair escaped just beneath the dirt-encrusted nail. The Orioles supporter from Baltimore never struck me as a gardener before. I found myself wondering what flowers he liked.

     ‘Have you decided yet?’ But he didn’t really wait for an answer. ‘Is there any point in asking you anymore?’

     The coffee came. No need to recite our standard orders. When did the waitress cut her hair? It made her look older than her years. ‘No,’ I said. ‘You’ve been very patient, though.’

     The lighter came out, age-worn with scratches. His thumb flicked it open, then shut, then open again as he watched the rain beat against the window. His eyes didn’t crease with his smile today, but lines were marking his face. His speckled white eyebrows, still strong and arching, didn’t move. Something else distracted him . . .

    

The answer came to me during one of those restless, late nights. One of those relentless ones we all experience when the questions are too heavy and the results unacceptable. The sheets always twist around the feet in an impossible tangle, forcing you up mid-slumber to remake the bed. Ultimately, you stub your big toe on the bedpost, curse, and wonder why you were up in the first place as the clarity seeps away.

     But not this time.  

     The bathroom light casts a dull orange over the mirror. It strengthens the blue tinge underlining the expression staring back. The nest of white hair had swapped soft waves for brittle kinks, some of them faded. Flecks of brown cut into familiar green eyes no longer clear and smooth, scoring each emotional scar with vivid perfection. Each one was a war wound of memories past—most I’d given to myself. The young woman who’d stared down at Camille, Joel, and Jamie … was invisible behind the lightly etched skin.

     When did she go?

  

    

And then there was the stranger and the coffee. The one person who made a difference to a future life now gone, and one perhaps wasted. The stranger with the key. The man with the papers in the plastic case, the baseball cap, the cigarettes he’d long since quit. The man who hid from the world as he offered others their escape.

    

‘Who did you need to become?’

     I looked into his bulldog eyes. Another winter was upon us. White hair sprouted wildly from his eyebrows as more lines bunched inquisitively together. His hat slipped over his expression, where his smile greeted his eyes. Fine creases now deep from knowing.

     It was a Poe-kind-of-morning. The seasons had passed us by in a blink, fooling us cruelly. White frays of unkempt hair, no longer thick, whispered around the traces of where he’d missed shaving, in a hurry to keep our appointment.

     The coffee arrived on the fancy stone tables. No hint of past meetings between reluctant strangers. No trace of coffee rings, no secrets, no lies. Just clean marble, shiny and reborn.       I thought for a long moment and reached for the clarity that could only come with age, and nodded. We’d finally run out of time. The lessons of life had been wasted. We’d broken that one vital rule to discover the truth.

     I took his hand. He squeezed mine back and I smiled. ‘I just needed to be me.’

Copyright © 2022.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aral Bereux is a freelance journalist, author and academic editor. She has written on many topics including AI, climate change, geopolitics, history, finance, religion and philosophy. Bereux’s writing has appeared in various online publications including Zero Hedge, AnonHQ, and Antimedia.com, and she was the only Australian author shortlisted by Lulu for her short story contribution (which you just read) to the Anthology.

Her first Watchers Series book documents a different Isis with an ideology, RFID chips, digital ID, and drones in a totalitarian world created by capitalism. Written in 2012 but conceived in the early 90s, the J Rae books in the Watchers Series document a dystopian society truly avoidable but well on the way to reality.

Also by Aral Bereux

FICTION:

Watchers- The Collector’s Edition

Uninvited

Uprising

Forbidden

Final Initiate

NON-FICTION:

The Beautiful Escape Volume Two

SHORT STORIES:

Crossing Borders – A Lulu Anthology

ONLINE:

dnewshq.com

aralbereux.com

An In The Attic Book published by In The Attic Agency

Copyright © 2021 Aral Bereux

All rights reserved.

Published in Australia by In The Attic Agency, an imprint of Indie Indie Publishing, Victoria, Australia.

https://www.intheatticagency.com

Cover art and design by Aral Bereux

Designed by Aral Bereux

Manufactured in the United States of America and Australia.

First eBook edition September 2021

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