Sean put the bottle to his lips and gulped down some of the dark red liquid. There was a light burn on the way down that settled in his empty stomach like a mass of molten lead.
“So much sugar in this shit it might kill me,” Sean said. He laughed humorlessly. The alcohol content was about 20%, or 40 proof, but he knew it was what was slowly killing him.
Repressing the urge to vomit Sean gulped down a few more mouthfuls. It tasted like a watered down, but sugared up cough medicine. Perhaps that’s what it was. He had calculated it out and per volume of alcohol it was the cheapest booze in the corner liquor store, the only one that still let him in.
It was a few years ago when he did the calculations. Today he had problems counting past six when laying the crinkled one dollar bills on the liquor store counter. Hazily he remembered calculating forces on the fin in a wind turbine, trying to reduce weight while increasing the harvested energy. He gulped down some more of the sugared drink to destroy the memory. It was another person who did those calculations and he didn’t believe in ghosts.
There comes a time when Sean knows if he drinks any more he’ll just pass out and get sick. At the same time Sean knows that he risks losing the precious remaining liquid. It is the biggest decision of his life. After one more gulp Sean hides the bottle. He tries someplace new since the previous night someone discovered his old spot.
There were more people on the street than usual. Either that or he finished his drink earlier. He couldn’t tell. Things were blurry and the sidewalk had a funny way of suddenly twisting in an unexpected direction. He bumped into a man in a suite.
“Excuse me,” the man muttered. Sean stumbled on but became aware the man had stopped and was staring at him.
“Sean?” the man asked, almost to himself. “Sean Whittier? Is that you?”
“No,” Sean said. “Sean Whittier died years ago. Leave me alone.”
Sean turned and started off again. He felt a hand on his shoulder.
“What happened?” the man asked. “When I last saw you there were a dozen engineers working under you.”
“Listen friend,” Sean said. He tried hard to focus. The man was familiar. “Listen, uhm, Don? Listen, the man you knew died a long time ago. His company got bought out by a large oil company in ’09 and they killed his division. Then his wife died. Then his house was taken away. No house, no phone, no returned calls, he died.”
“But you’re brilliant!” Don said. “I looked up to you more than anyone else at Highpoint Power. You can bounce back! Just try. Live.”
“I live,” Sean said. “I live for the next bottle of cherry booze, or Mad Dog when I can find the money for the expensive stuff. That’s it. There is no other life.”
“If life means nothing, why don’t you end it quicker than this long, slow suicide?” Don asked. “Jump off a bridge and have a few seconds of complete freedom. Why not? If life is some awful. I’ll tell you why not. Deep inside the Sean I knew still lives and hopes. There are dreams still there. That’s why.”
“Nope, he’s dead, the dreams died with him,” Sean said. “Good bye. Maybe I will end it. But not tonight, I still have a bottle stashed away, so I still have life.”
He stumbled forward a few paces then went over and sat down against the wall. He half passed out, only dimly aware of the world passing by.
Sean wasn’t sure how long he had been there when he felt a tap on his shoulder. Most likely a cop. They didn’t let him stay in one spot very long. He opened his eyes.
“Hey Sean,” Don said. “Here.”
Don held a sandwich out to him. Sean grabbed it and eyed him suspiciously. Ignoring the look, Don sat down and brought out his own sandwich. He pulled a couple of bottles of water out of a bag and handed one to Sean.
Sean ate the sandwich greedily. The heat in his stomach died down, but was replaced by a weight. When he finished Don handed him an apple. Taking a bite from the apple, Sean looked back over at Don. Don had eaten less than half of his sandwich.
“So, what’s this about?” Sean asked.
“Maybe Sean Whittier is dead, but I’m not going to let the man who now lives in his body starve to death. Here, there’s a few bananas and a couple of apples in here. Also a bag of carrots.”
“Bananas and carrots, ha!” Sean said. “You think I’m some type of health nut?”
“Oh yes, and some nuts,” Don said. “A couple of bags of almonds.”
Sean took the bag.
“I say you have to put in at least a little effort,” Don said. “I’m not going to preach any more, but think about it. How’s the head?”
Sean had finished the water bottle and was opening a second one. He turned to make a sarcastic comment when he realized his thoughts were a little clearer. He stopped and just stared at the water bottle, a puzzled expression on his face.”
Don let out a small laugh. “A little food and some clean water can go a long way. I can help even more.” Don reached in his pocket and pulled out a small cell phone.”
“This is an old cheapo,” Don said. “I put 5 minutes on it. If you try to sell it I bet you won’t even get enough to be able to buy a bottle of that vile shit you drink. I put my number on it. You need another meal, call. Some clean clothes? Call. A bath? Call. Need help? I’ll help with anything except getting you more booze. Just call.”
“Why are you doing this?” Sean asked.
“There once was a poor kid who never had a father and who watched his mother drink herself to death. He did well in school and so got lucky to pick up a job cleaning toilets and emptying the trash at a fancy start up,” Don said, staring off into space. “An engineer at the firm liked the kid. He encouraged him and made him an assistant. He told the kid to go to school and gave references. The kid took some night classes and the engineer moved up to project lead. Finally the kid got a grant and left to finish his education. That was over a decade ago. I now own a startup and bust my ass to keep it up and running. Do you know why I do it?”
Sean shook his head.
“Because an engineer once made the effort to take a poor kid under his wing,” Don said. “I can’t do anything for you if you don’t want it. You have to want it. Sean has to wake up and dream again. He had big dreams at one time. Dreams for himself. For the world. For a kid from the ‘hood.”
Don stood up. He still had a quarter of his sandwich left. He handed it down to Sean. “Here my friend,” he said, “save it for later.”
Sean watched the retreating back of the man. He looked down at the phone in his hand. He began to remember some of the dreams. He remembered some of the work he once did and the bright assistant who helped him. He reached for his bottle to rub the memories out but was surprised to taste water instead of cough medicine. Instead of washing away the dream, it washed away a few more spider webs.
The tears came. When he was able he’d walk to the free shelter down the road.
The hidden bottle lay forgotten.