Chapter 1

THE CHANGES WERE small at first. When the doorbell rang, it was always a dear friend you’d love to see or a Girl Scout selling cookies you’d love to eat. But then, suddenly and without warning, on Tuesday maybe once a month or every two months, it might instead be someone trying to tell you the benefits of converting to Mormonism and you’d have to listen for several minutes before you closed the door because you didn’t want to seem rude. It was very inconvenient, because maybe you were cooking something and you only answered the door because it needed a little while to cool, but then it needed to be stirred and you know it’s in there waiting for you, congealing while you stand at the door.
    There were more things. After I had a shower, the door to the bathroom sometimes wouldn’t shut properly. Now, ostensibly this was because the heat and steam from my shower had caused the wood fibers to swell so it would not fit in the doorframe. Ostensibly.
    I wasn’t employed, for reasons which will soon be made clear, but I knew of people who were employed and when their paycheck direct deposit was due to come through on a Thursday night, often it wouldn’t actually come through until Friday morning or even Monday, meaning they’d have to put off vital purchases or perhaps pay a thirty dollar overdraft fee because their bills somehow made it through while their paycheck didn’t.
    Who was behind all of these things? I felt certain that it was someone; someone with access to Mormons, wood, and banks. My name is Oscar, and I decided it was up to me to find out who. This is the story of how.
    I started small. I’m not going to recount my entire life for you though, so I’ll just spare you the suspense and tell you that I did grow to a regular adult size over a period of many years.
    I began my investigation with small actions. I wrote a letter to the editor of one of my local newspapers, explaining and complaining about everything changing. I kept writing the letters, until eventually they published one in the Letters to the Editor section. There was no investigation, though, and much to my disappointment, nobody went to prison. Not yet, anyway; that happens later.
    After that letter was published, I began to get the impression that I was being followed. For most of my life I’d had that impression, actually, but now I started to get it more, and not just when I was walking out late at night and the sound of my own footsteps would frighten me.
    The kind of inconvenient changes I’m talking about started happening all the time. Other people didn’t see it and so they went on about their regular business like nothing was changing, but it was clear to me; I have a good head for changes that nobody else can see, and I’m always alert. Some might say too alert, but they will be the first ones to be eaten by a bear while I would be straight into my bear-proof safe room to wait for rescue.
    When I went to the store for my weekly shopping, they no longer carried my favorite brand of orange juice, Sunshine Juice. The only brand which they had in stock was Sunlight OJ, which has ‘50% more real orange pulp.’ I hate orange pulp, and I’m not ashamed to say so.
    I’d always been loyal to that store, even though there were other stores closer, partly because they had all the brands that I loved, but mostly because they were one of the few stores that hadn’t banned me from shopping there (bans mostly based on unfounded accusations, I assure you). So I made an effort to enjoy their new juice, but after a few days of closing the curtains to hide myself before straining the juice through a paper towel just so that I could enjoy a cold drink with my breakfast such as any free man is entitled to, I decided it was time to take my business elsewhere.
    For the first time in years, I went to a different store. While I was driving there, my head began to ache. I imagined what it would be like if someone got there first and took all of my juice. I could almost see it happening; I saw the villain pushing me to the ground and taking the juice from me. I saw him standing over my broken body and pouring the juice – my juice – into his own mouth. The more I thought about it, the more my head ached. I knew there was nothing I could do about it until I got there, though, so I did my best to ignore the thoughts. That’s not an easy thing to do when your mind insists on showing you them over and over. Headaches like that had been increasing along with the inconveniences. Usually the headache would come, and then the inconvenience. Not all the time, but enough that I’d sometimes scream into a pillow from the combined injustice and physical pain of it all. My head had been hurting for hours on the night my screaming pillow lost a few of its feathers. Not all of them, but enough that I had to get rid of the pillow, because when they took the feathers out who knows what they could’ve put in. After that, I tried my best to keep it in instead of screaming – I didn’t want to let them know how the things they did affected me.
    Even though the store was a new place, I didn’t feel nervous once I arrived. I knew there were cameras watching, and that if I were being followed then the cameras would catch the follower. Theirs was an organization based on secrecy, so it seemed unlikely that they would be so bold as to follow me into the eyes of a network of cameras. I got about halfway through the store feeling that way before I realized that if whoever was following me had the sort of connections I suspected, they wouldn’t need to follow me in person; they could just as easily watch me through the store’s cameras.
    There was a small clothing section in the store, which was well suited to my needs, and I crawled under the racks of pants and shirts. When there was no more cover available above me, I pressed myself as close to the shelving as I could, to avoid the cameras, and made my way towards the back of the store where the juice and tea were stocked.
    I was pleased to see that this store still carried my favorite, Sunshine Juice, and there wasn’t a single carton of the pulp-heavy Sunlight OJ in sight. Sadly – for someone else – they only had one carton left, and I was going to have that carton all to myself.
    I began formulating a vague plan to pour the juice all over my naked body when I got it back home, but when I opened the refrigerator door and reached for the bottle, it took a step away from me towards the back of the shelf. I held still, since I didn’t want to spook the juice further. If it got away, who knows where it would have gone to? Nobody knows what goes through the mind of an orange juice carton, or what they do when not under the watchful gaze of humanity (although I have often had certain suspicions about it).
    As I waited, planning my next move in this game of cat and juice, I saw that there was a red glove gripping the back of the orange juice carton. My gaze followed the glove up an arm and to the face of the man who had come to take my Sunshine away. The man stood in shadow behind rows of juice cartons, but I thought I could make out a blank face with dark glasses, which I imagined covered cruel eyes. Then I saw the name ‘Ron’ was printed on his green stockboy’s smock, and I realized that he was simply a store employee checking and changing stock. I relaxed and closed the door.
    I waited patiently while he filled the shelf full of juice again. When I looked back, I saw to my horror that the whole shelf was full of Sunlight OJ and my coveted carton of juice was gone.
    I peered behind the cartons into the stocking area, but there was no sign of the stockboy, so I went to the customer service desk to have the orange juice situation rectified. Behind the desk, a short, beetle-like man with a ‘100% satisfaction guaranteed’ button on his vest eyed me nervously, looking worried about the prospect of me approaching him and asking a question.
    His eyes darted to either side, but as I walked up to the counter and he saw at last that there was no escape, he gave a heavy sigh, rose to his feet, and asked, “Is there anything I can help you with?”
    I saw a sign on the wall behind him that promised service with a smile, and I wondered if his training in that area had perhaps been neglected. It was no matter to me, though, I was not after smiles.
     “Yes,” I said, “I believe you can. I’ve come to lodge a complaint.” I had doubted my position, but my confidence grew as I spoke to this spineless man, and I knew I was in a position of power. I, the customer, was surely right. “I came here to buy my favorite brand of juice, Sunshine Juice. There was one carton of it left, but when I reached for it, a stockboy named Ron took it away and filled the shelf with Sunlight OJ.”
    The man behind the desk opened his sleepy eyes enough that I felt pretty sure he was almost definitely awake. “You’ve got a complaint about juice?” he asked. Then he looked like he remembered something from long ago, and adjusted his demeanor. I think maybe he smiled, and then said, “Um, you must be mistaken… sir. Ron isn’t at work today; he’s taken a sick day.”
     “And besides, sir,” he went on, speaking more lively, “juice isn’t my department, but I’m sure we don’t even carry Sunshine Juice.”
    I could see that I wasn’t getting anywhere with this guy, who seemed eager to just get back to sitting down comfortably again and thinking about what sort of condiments he might have on his fries that night; he would say anything to get rid of me. I wasn’t going to give up my juice without a fight just because of this guy’s French-fried potatoes though, so I said, “Alright, maybe it is as you say, and maybe I didn’t see what I saw. That remains to be seen.” I put my hand palm down on the counter, to show that I meant business. “But I want satisfaction, sir, as that button on your vest has been promising me the entire time I’ve been standing here, so if it wouldn’t be too much trouble for you to check your stock records, I’d like to know when you last carried Sunshine Juice.” I wasn’t normally that assertive, but routine kept me calm. Not having my juice for several days, coming to a different store, and having to have a conversation with a stranger were all great deviations from my regular routine.
     “That’s not something we’re allowed to do…” Then he seemed to consider how long it might be before he’d be able to sit again if perhaps I wanted to speak to his supervisor. “But of course I want you to be satisfied, sir. Now, let me just access the records,” he said, and began typing. I knew I had him then; the records would expose his lies about the juice.
    The keyboard was one of the quiet models that make hardly any sound at all when you type, so I made the keyboard sounds in my head while I watched his fingers on the keyboard.
    Tap. Tippity-tippity tap. Tappity. The noise grated in my head. Tippity-tap. Still he typed, and each key press slammed into my brain. I covered my ears, but it made no difference. Tap, tap, tap, on and on. I had almost reached the point where I couldn’t take it anymore and would be forced to flee the store, when he turned the monitor in my direction and touched his finger to the screen.
     “You can see here that we had a shipment of Sunlight OJ just yesterday and we haven’t sold very much of it since then, so the shelf has been fully stocked.”
    I looked at him. He looked at me. We had reached an impasse. I knew, and he knew that I did, but he wasn’t going to let on that there was anything unusual, which was why he was showing me fake stock records. He had exceeded his usefulness to me, and I thanked him for his time, which is the polite thing to do even when someone is actively working against you.
    As I turned away, he stopped me by saying, “Sir?”
    I turned around, expecting that he’d changed his mind and was going to tell all of his secrets – or at least the juice-related ones.
     “It shows here that we haven’t had Sunshine Juice for months now,” he said. He looked at me with understanding in his bloodshot eyes that wanted nothing more than to not be seeing. “Maybe you need some rest, sir.”
    Rest. Now that was an idea. I supposed I did need sleep, after the stress of the juice and just anybody knocking on my door and the time my house key didn’t quite fit in the lock at first but then it did. That kind of thing builds up. Maybe it had made me confused about the juice. I left the store, passing the cash register where a cashier was bagging up several cartons of Sunlight OJ for a customer. I felt a surge of anger at that stranger who was offering financial assistance to my enemy, but just as quickly as it had come, the anger went away. He was probably just a guy like me, making do with what he could, and so I did not go over to him and tell him what I thought of him.
    It was late when I got home from my juice journey, so I went to bed without drinking anything at all. I laid there thinking about what had happened. Did I really see the juice I wanted, or did I just think I had because I wanted it so badly? Why did Ron take it away from me? I felt restless, and I couldn’t get to sleep, but then I woke up, so I guess I could, as is often the case when you tell yourself you can’t do something.

Click here to read Chapter 2, where you’ll find out that perhaps everything isn’t as it seems, and that even an entire box of hammers may not be enough to protect Oscar from them. Or click any of the links below to download the full book for free right now.

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