Chapter 16

Neil felt a pang of guilt in his stomach. As he sat on the floor in the hallway of Tom’s building, he wondered if he was making the right call.

After seeing his father, Neil felt nothing but a driving need to rectify everything. He needed revenge for having his company, his life stolen. Rebecca deserved it. He knew that Conrad needed to pay for all of it.

But now that he sat here, waiting, cooling down, all he could think is how his presence here would put Tom at considerable risk. Neil was still a danger to others and after finding out that Conrad’s men were sniffing around his dad’s place, he worried that he might have wound up back on their radar.

The variables left Neil’s head spinning. Steadily getting more and more anxious, he could feel his pulse quicken as he considered everything. What is Conrad was watching? What if someone in the building sees called security? If the police came to escort them out, this could go badly for all of them. People would probably die. He didn’t want that.

If he was being honest, he could do this without Tom. He was just looking for an excuse to reconnect with someone and he was doing it without any regard to their safety. He was being selfish. Guilt set in. He realized this was a bad idea. Standing up, he mumbled. “Yeah, this is a bad idea. Time to leave.”

As he approached the stairwell, he could hear someone coming up. The footsteps got louder as Neil scrambled around looking for another way out. There was no other stairwell. None of the windows looked like they opened. The door swung open. On the other side of the door stood Tom.

Neil held his breath, contorting his face in anticipation of Tom’s reaction. There was none. Neil looked at Tom quizzically and realized that Tom was looking down at his phone, completely oblivious to his surroundings. Tom walked with a slow shuffle, and a resignation in his step that showed just how worn down he had become. As he put his phone in his pocket, he continued to shuffle his feet and stare down, giving the impression his neck carried the weight of the world.

Neil felt sorry for his friend. He felt a great deal of guilt, knowing that he was at least somewhat if not mostly to blame for Tom’s current state. This wasn’t the happy-go-lucky friend he once knew. He would only bring Tom down further. It would be better if he let Tom be. Left him to heal. Still undetected, Neil decided to sneak out before Tom noticed him. Neil swallowed hard. He could feel a lump in his throat as he decided that he needed to cut his last friend in the world loose. As Neil made his way to the door, he was shocked to hear Tom speak.

“Oh hey man. You really, really shouldn’t be in here. I’m sure you’re harmless and just need a safe place to stay, but there’s good options out there and security might bust you up if you sleep here.”

Gasping, Neil stepped back. Was he really that unrecognizable? He noticed Tom still looking down, fumbling with his keys and the door. Tom looked right at him, his eyes showing a glimmer of recognition. Cocking his head, Tom spoke. “Neil?”

Unable to find the words, Neil hesitated, trying to swallow that lump down. It was all he could do to keep from crying. Tom started walking toward him.

“You know, you remind me of someone really close to me. Someone who passed away. Can I buy you a cup of coffee or at least make sure you get to a shelter, for your safety?”

Tom reached his hand toward Neil’s shoulder. Forgetting himself, Neil almost let Tom touch him before recoiling and shouting.

“No, Tom, don’t touch me!”

Tom spun towards Neil. His mouth fell open. The words practically fell out of his mouth.

“Neil? How.. um, what?”

As Tom continued to mumble incoherently, he balled his fists and raised them. His jaw tightened. Tears started to well up in his eyes. His arms started to flail. He started to fidget. His mouth opened and closed a few times as if he was starting to say something but couldn’t bring himself to. Neil couldn’t tell if Tom was looking to hug him or punch him. His body language alternated between anger, fear and relief.

Tom finally managed to get a few more words out.

“You’re alive?” he asked.

Neil looked down at his feet. He didn’t want this, but the cat was out of the bag. Now that his plan to sneak away had fallen apart, he knew he was caught. He was somewhere between guilty and embarrassed.

“You’re alive? Just – um, what the fuck? You’re alive?”

Tom stepped towards Neil, hands outstretched to shove him. Neil jumped back.

“If you’re alive, who did we, Where were, um – what, um – Fuck, what in the hell, man? People mourned for you!”

Tom’s voice steadily got louder as he continued.

“We thought you were dead. I thought you were dead. It’s been months! MONTHS.”

Neil could feel his face getting red. Still looking down, he spoke softly.

“Tom, you’re right. This wasn’t fair to you. I shouldn’t have come here. I shouldn’t have come back at all.”

Neil turned toward the door to leave.

“Wait. Damn. I’m so angry with you right now. Yeah, you should leave. But what good does it do if you vanish again? Just, just come in – I’m glad you’re alive, but I’m so angry at you. But I can either be pissed off at you while you’re a ghost or I can be pissed off with you while I know that you’re alive and safe. Unless I kill you myself – I’m so furious.”

Tom unlocked his door and opened it.

“Just get in before I change my mind or before a neighbor calls the cops because I’m arguing with some homeless bum who broke into the building. Shit. I’m so angry. Just get in.”

Neil kept his head down, nodding in agreement.

“For what it’s worth, Tom, I did have my reasons. If you’re willing to listen, I’ll explain,” pleaded Neil.

Tom threw his hands up in the air and walked into his apartment. Neil waited cautiously allowing Tom to create some space. He walked into the apartment. He continued to plead.

“I need to ask a favor.”

Tom spun towards Neil. He was now uncomfortably close. Neil could feel Tom’s breath on his face.

“Oh, here it comes,” Tom replied with a cynical mix of anger and sarcasm. “You pretend to be dead all this time and you come back because you need something? I think you do need to leave.”

“No, no. It’s not like that. Stop. There’s something seriously wrong with me. It’s part of why I kept away. You’re going to want to keep some distance while I’m here. The favor I want you to do is for your own benefit. Just don’t get too close.”

Tom recoiled abruptly, practically jumping back with a grimace on his face, showing his disgust.

“What kind of something wrong? Are you sick? Contagious? Carrying some disease?”

Tom started to look around at his hands and arms, scanning them with his eyes.

“No, not like that. I’m not sick. Well… I’m not infectious. Something is really wrong with me, just keep your distance.”

Tom shook his head and flailed his arms, miming his confusion. He glared at Neil. The silence only made the tension worse. Neil had no idea how he’d react. After 30 seconds that felt like they lasted much longer, Tom shrugged.

“Alright, I won’t come close. Nobody’s gonna want to be close to you anyway, you stink. So, let me grab a garbage bag or something and put it down on the couch so you can sit, because there’s no way those clothes are touching my couch.”

“Well, you could let me have a shower, Tom.”

“I could, but I’m still deciding whether this is all worth the trouble.”

Tom left the living room of his apartment and wandered back in with a garbage bag. He walked toward Neil slowly. It was too close. Neil stepped back while Tom put the garbage bag over a chair.

“Well, that should keep the chair clean,” explained Tom. “So, let’s hear it.”

“I don’t know where to start.”

“Start at the beginning. It better be a damn good story.”

“Well, what DO you know?”

“I know the cannon blew up, I thought you and Chuck died. We had funerals. I successfully lobbied the board to set up a Neil Collins physics scholarship and continue my employment with the promise that I wouldn’t sue them or disclose anything about what went down. I’ve been working on the cannon with my head down since then.”

“A scholarship?”

“Yes. They offered me a ton of money, but I just wanted to do what I could to maintain some kind of career and dedicate something major to my best friend.”

Neil looked down again. His vision blurred by tears, he looked away and wiped his eyes against his forearm.

“You humble me, Tom. I don’t deserve your friendship. I never did.”

Tom’s body language conveyed skepticism.

“Stop stalling.”

Neil nodded.

“So, I was IN the cannon when it exploded. Conrad and Chuck wanted me dead. The only thing that kept me alive was the fact that Chuck messed with the phase because he thought it was amplitude. I guess he thought that it needed more oomph in order to kill me. And, in all fairness it almost did. I have a slim recollection of being a walking skeleton with flesh and muscles just hanging off of me.”

Tom winced with a look of squeamish disgust on his face. Neil stopped talking until Tom could compose himself.

“So, once the smoke cleared, Chuck was going to put me out of my misery. And I was suffering so badly, I was so hurt I would have begged him to end it. But before he could, he was electrocuted.”

Tom nodded. “Yes,” he cut in, “I saw him. I still see him in my sleep. That’s an image that will stick with me,” he paused, looking down. “But, wait. You look fine now. And you don’t even need a cane. I know it’s been months, but that’s not possible. What you’re describing wouldn’t heal in years.”

“Yeah. So, I didn’t realize it at the time. In fact, I lost some of my memories for a while, probably from the shock of it all. I wandered around for a bit and found myself in a fugue state down in skid row. But when I accidentally electrocuted a would-be mugger, I was not only fully healed, I remembered everything.”

“Accidentally electrocuted?”

Neil had been trying to avoid this part of the discussion. He nodded.

“Um, yeah. That’s why you need to keep your distance. I’m some kind of – I guess – a human lightning rod or generator or something now. Everyone I’ve touched since the accident has been fried.”

Tom looked skeptical. This was a pretty unbelievable story. Neil hoped he would continue to bear with him. Undaunted, he kept speaking.

“So I went into hiding. I’d spend the days sleeping in abandoned buildings or under overpasses and I’d spend the nights wandering around to keep my mind off everything.”

“Ok, so even if I do believe this story, you expect me to believe that you couldn’t pick up a phone? Say something like ‘Oh Tom, I’m alive, I’m ok, but I’m dealing with stuff right now so don’t worry but don’t come find me’ or something like that?”

“Well, I can’t actually pick up a phone. Pretty much anything electronic blows up in my hands.”

“I guess that would explain why the buzzer is out of order downstairs.”

“Not cause of me. I waited for someone to leave out the back and snuck in. You just live in a shitty building with a broken buzzer and no security.”

“Better than an underpass, Neil. So. Okay, say I buy this all, why didn’t you come sooner?”

“I didn’t know what kind of risk would be involved. Whether Conrad was watching, whether he’d come after me. Or you. I figured that if I were dead, it would be safest for everyone that I care about. For that matter, I didn’t know how close I could physically get without harming anyone.”

“Okay, Neil, Okay. So why now? This all makes sense – until you showed up on my doorstep. If it was safer to have us believe you were dead, why are you willing to risk my life now?”

“I accidentally ran into my father last night. It went poorly.”

Tom recoiled in terror. “Is he dead?”

“No, not that kind of poorly. I kept my distance.”

“Thank god. So, how did he react?”

“He floated between lucidity and dementia. The lucid part of him managed to figure out that I wasn’t dead at all, which I thought was pretty cool. Unfortunately, I learned that he’s been hiding and living with the fact that Conrad scammed all of us. He knew dad wasn’t mentally stable and tricked him into selling our company.”

“Aha. You came here seeking revenge? Shit, same old Neil. You threw the plan and caution to the wind just to get back at Conrad, didn’t you? Hasn’t your revenge cost you enough?”

Neil looked down again. He nodded.

“I was actually just thinking that as you came in. I saw how downtrodden you looked, and realized that I did that to you. I almost got out of here before you noticed.”

“Well, you shouldn’t have come at all. You’re sick.”

“You’re right,” Neil nodded in agreement.

“Well, it’s time for you to go now. I want nothing to do with this. I’ve heard you out. I’ve given you a fair chance and at best you’re feeding me a line of bullshit and at worse, it all comes down to revenge, yet again. Look at you - you have this sick need to blame Conrad. Seriously, how long until you figure out that you’re the source of the majority of your problems?”

Neil’s heart sunk. He opened his mouth to say something, thought for a bit and realized that Tom was right. Hell, Neil came to this decision himself right before Tom showed up. He should have stayed in hiding. This revenge was consuming him. Nodding, he turned around and walked out of the door.

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I am Sinewave: Spark

Written by Richard Belzile

Updated semi-infrequently

I am not a professional author, this is my novice attempt at creating a novel in an episodic fashion. Comments, critiques and compliments accepted.

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