Spring 2011 — THE POTOMAC

Preferred Reality
   Austin Bruce Hallock

In the afternoon of his day off, Vic set out walking. He was only headed for the nearby grocery store, but it had taken some effort to rouse himself for this little bit of fresh air and exercise. He had meant to go earlier, during the morning's lingering coolness, but he'd allowed the Internet and e—mail to distract him. Now he was unhappy with himself for spending so much time inside.

Approaching the parking lot of a dry cleaner's, Vic watched a man open the hatch of an SUV and remove a bundle of laundry. The bundle was awkward, and the man had to use both arms to carry it, so he left the hatch up and hurried into the cleaner's. Passing right by the rear of the open SUV, Vic noticed a black briefcase lying in the back. It looked expensive — some kind of reptile leather, a golden combination lock.

Vic had never stolen anything — not in his adult life, anyway. Sure, as a kid, he'd sneaked an extra cookie from his grandmother and maybe snatched a Crayola from a schoolmate's 64—pack, but all that was in his immature past. As an adult he was not in the habit of trying to get away with things. He believed in a civil society in which people behaved themselves — not because of the threat of punishment — but because they understood it was the best way to live. He paid his taxes, he obeyed the speed limit. He often mused that, if everyone shared his philosophy, there would be no need for locks and passwords or even cops. Though he preferred to act as if he lived in a world that honored private property and upheld public trust, he held no illusions. He understood that he did not reside in his preferred reality. So he locked his apartment and guarded his social security number.

Vic's first thought on spotting the briefcase was that it would be an inviting target for a thief and that the guy with the laundry was stupid to leave it exposed like that. He could see the man now through the glass door, his back to the parking lot. Vic's second thought was not fully formed, for suddenly, without thinking, he seized the briefcase and hurried off. His ensuing thoughts were a jumble. Had he been seen? Was someone following? Did he look like a thief? What was in the briefcase? What had come over him?

Pulse pounding, he looked back. No one seemed to be following or even watching. He hurried down a side street and then into an alley. An alley, of all things! Wasn't that where thieves always retreated? If he were noticed here, in his old T—shirt and carrying a plump briefcase, wouldn't he appear even more suspicious?

What to do next? He exited the alley at another street and circled back toward his apartment. He took a deep breath and tried to appear natural while hurrying. Sweat ran from his armpits.

But by the time he arrived at his apartment complex, a tingle of thrill had begun to temper his fear. This was way too easy, he thought. He also thought: This is not me. This is so not me! He flew up the stairs. Key in hand, he reached for front door and saw that it had been kicked open. Wood splinters bristled from where the deadbolt had been.

"What's this?" he huffed, then rushed in. Coming from sunlight into the dimness, his eyes were slow to adjust. In his haste, he bumped into a big man carrying his computer and monitor. The monitor fell with a crash.

"Shit!" said the man, assessing Vic with a contemptuous glance. "Out of my way, motherfucker!" With one beefy arm, he shoved Vic aside and disappeared through the open door, the computer under the other arm.

Vic looked down at his cracked monitor. His own fractured image stared back. After a stunned moment, he stumbled over to the dining table to open the briefcase. "This had better be good," he said, shaking his head.

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