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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

Moving On
by Andrew Porterfield

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When I enter my poky kitchenette, a stark, pungent smell of damp greets me like an aggressive guest. Even after I open the window and front door, the stench refuses to leave. A few minutes later, the smell doesn't seem so bad. On the other hand, maybe I'm just getting used to it.

In the fridge, I find a wizened old cucumber, several packs of hot sauce from Pizza Hut, two cans of Heineken and a bottle of local lager.

"Breakfast beers," I say, and take a Heineken from the fridge. The first sip doesn't taste so good, I wince but choose to brave it and I guzzle half the can.

Feeling the urge to smoke, I give my attire a quick check a pair of faded khaki shorts, an AC/DC tee shirt and flip-flops and I'm good to go. I grab my cigarettes and shake the pack, a few left. On the way out, I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror and wonder if my family would recognise me; my hair is thinning and my body is growing slightly podgy.

In the safety of the building's covered doorway, I light a cigarette and take in my surroundings. The monsoon rains have been pounding the neighbourhood all morning and the smell of rain hangs heavy in the air. Cables piping electricity, high-speed internet and telephone connections into local homes hang low like a soggy spider web, rubbish bags lie piled up below unlit street lights, and vehicles of various shapes and forms clutter the narrow street.

I look for other signs of life. There aren't any. Even the wild neighbourhood cats have thought it wiser to find a safe haven and hole up for the duration of the downpour. It's not long before I feel beads of sweat running down my chest and back. The humidity is making smoking a laborious exercise.

A telephone starts ringing, my house phone. My first reaction is not to answer it, but I decide I had better. It might be the school calling about my lift to the airport. I flick my cigarette into the street and it dies with a hiss.

It's not the school; the static on the line suggests an international call. Then a sinking feeling hits me. It's my sister.

"Hello, may I speak to David please?" she asks, even though she knows I live alone. Why she asks the same question every time she calls me, I do not know and don't care to ask.

"Who the hell else would it be?" I want to say, but instead opt for politeness; "Yes, Julie, it is I who is speaking." The beer is giving me a little buzz. I spot the can on my desk, give it a shake. Empty. "Hold on, I will be right back." I rush to the fridge to grab another Heineken. "Okay, I'm back. Chocks away."

"Are you drinking, David?"

"Of course not, what would make you think that? It's only breakfast time!"

"Anyway, how are you?"

"I'm fine. How's family life back home?"

"Oh, not so bad. The kids are doing well and little Anna is getting ready to start primary one. Anyway, that's not why I called. I was talking to John the other day and he said you're going to move. I thought you liked teaching in Korea. Where are you going now? Will you please come home? It was a long time ago. Time has passed..." she says, and lets the conversation drift into silence.

I know she's sitting by her antique telephone table in her marbled floor hallway waiting for a response. When I think she's waited long enough, and just before I wear out her patience, I ask, "So, how is the weather back home?"

"Typical, David," she says, slightly infuriated. "You've got to let go, you've got to move on."

"Sis, I love you dearly. I've told you before; you'll be the first to know when I'm ready. So, as for now, I'm letting go of this conversation. I'll be in touch," I say, and let the phone slide out of my hand to rest neatly back its cradle.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, I look around the damp ridden bed-sit; books, clothes, a large backpack and three half-empty boxes lie scattered around the room. I only have a matter of hours before I have to leave and my worldly possessions need to be packed. I pick up the can of untouched beer. The effects of the last one are wearing off and it doesn't feel good. Quickly, I raise the can to my lips and tilt it back.

Filled with the joys of beer, I pack my books and seal the boxes with heavy packing tape. Then I gather all my clothes, pile them on the bed and roll them up as tight as I can before stuffing them into my backpack.

When all is done, I take the boxes, my backpack and a small carry-on bag to the front door. Then I fish a small, slightly tattered box from under my bed and carefully add this to my small collection of belongings.

In celebration of my efforts, I down the remaining beer in the can, light a cigarette and take a deep drag. I think about the last beer in the fridge. Then I remember it's a cheap local lager and decide no, beer is the better option. Besides, the general manager, Mr Lee, will be here soon to take me to the airport.

I quickly give my place the once over to make sure it's clean, take a quick shower and dress myself in more suitable attire.

Mr Lee - Paul to the western teachers, he likes us to use his English name - arrives twenty minutes later and, without saying much, immediately loads my belongings into the company mini-van. I separate the small, slightly tattered box and my carry-on bag from the rest of my belongings and carry them with me into the front.

Both sleepy, the conversation is limited to a few observations of things we drive by; empty construction sites, a couple of drunken middle-aged men arguing outside a 7-Eleven, pretty office girls huddled under umbrellas on their way to work.

When we get out of the city, and onto the expressway, the traffic thins. Paul is talking about some new luxury apartment complex being built in the city.

"It will be tallest building in country," he tells me.

"Oh, right," I reply. I'm trying to give the impression that I'm interested but it's hard. The beer is fuelling my thoughts and I just want to stare blankly out the window.

Picking up on this, he turns on the radio. He's a kind enough bloke who often took me out for dinner and drinks. Yet, for all the beer and food he consumed, his daily workouts have kept his nearly fifty-year-old body trim and fit. Something, which he admitted one night after too many beers, that was due to his wife's lack of interest in him. When I told him that sounded terrible, he reassured me that it was okay. "Don't worry," he told me. "She's not interested, but my girlfriend is."

"You look tired. Wanna stop for coffee?" Paul asks a few minutes later. "There's a highway rest area only ten minute from here."

"Sure." And I did want to stop. The beer had worked its magic and the refined product was desperately looking for an exit. "I could use the bathroom."

"Good, me too," he says. Pointing to his penis, he adds, with a childlike grin, "I have to shake hands my wife's best friend." Obviously, he's not willing to bring up his matrimonial indiscretion in his state of sobriety.

Paul gets done before me, so I meet him in the café. Two chilled cans of coffee sit in front of him.

"Smoke?" he asks as he hands me a can.

We head outside. The rain is still relentlessly pounding the ground. Standing side-by-side smoking, we watch people scurry to and from their vehicles as if afraid the heavy, dark clouds might fall at any moment.

"How long you have not been home?" Paul asks.

"Oh, it's been several years," I reply.

"Wow! You mean you have never went home in a long time?"

"Yeah, it's been a while," I tell him.

Bemused by this apparent disconnection to my family, he asks a few more enquiring questions I don't want to answer. Thankfully, before the situation can get uncomfortable, the rain stops so suddenly, it's as if someone has had enough and flicked a switch. Timid rays of sunshine begin to peek through the clouds.

"Shall we go?" I ask.

"Sure, sure... Let's go," he says, and we extinguish our cigarettes into a pristine looking industrial size ashtray.

He tries a few more times to find out about my family. I'm not sure if it is an interest in our cultural differences or if he's simply being nosy, but I manage to avoid giving him direct answers to his sometimes very direct questions. Giving up on his line of enquiry, he pushes a cassette into the tape player and begins to gently sing along as he drives. I understand some of the lyrics but, with a little practise, I have learnt to tune them out.

My mental solitude sends my mind wriggling and tussling with thoughts of the small box sitting at my feet. Haunting images of the box's contents run screaming through my mind. I repeat the words of my family and friends to try to silence them. It wasn't my fault. I have to move on. And, for the first time, I allow myself to agree.

"It wasn't my fault. I have to move on," I say aloud and snap Paul out of his world of singing and driving. His obvious bewilderment makes me giggle like a little schoolgirl.

"Sorry, thinking out loud," I tell him, tying to regain my composure. I take out a paperback from my carry-on bag and pretend to read.

I've been waiting for this moment to happen for such a long time. For years, I've tried just about everything to bring it about; religion, booze, therapy and all manner of drugs but none of them ever helped. I even thought it would help to see the driver of the other car; just one chance to see the bastard suffer. But seeing him for the first time, standing sober in the dock being sentenced to ten years, had little effect. After all these years, why now? I ask myself.

Unable to fully grasp what just happened, I drop the book into my bag and strike up conversation with Paul. He tells me about some new idioms people have taught him, stopping after every one to ask me if he said it right, and I correct him when necessary. I tell him about some of the places I've been and what I've researched about where I'm going, answering his questions as they arise.

When we arrive at the airport, Paul helps me load up a trolley with my luggage and boxes, and we head off to the post office.

"Follow me, I know where it is," he tells me.

In the post office, I laboriously fill out the customs declaration forms with the sender and receiver's addresses, monetary value, contents and quantity. The first three boxes are simply books, which are going to my new school.

And then, my last box. After quickly filling in the sender's details, I pause over the recipient's address. I know what I have to do. I shake off any doubts and fill in my sister's address. In the contents box I simply write "personal effects" and in the quantity section "12".

As I slowly run my finger around its tattered edges, vivid snapshots of the box's contents flash in my mind; clippings from Sally's first and only hair cut, her mother's and my rings, photo albums filled with memories of our happiness and certificates marking the beginning, middle and end of a life I cannot return to. I take a deep breath and slide the box onto the weighing scales, quickly pay the woman behind the counter and exit the post office.

At the check-in desks, Paul and I exchange partings and reassurances that we will keep in touch. When he's gone, I flick through my passport while I stand in line. The immigration stamps that adorn its pages are the only evidence of my travels; first Poland, then the United Arab Emirates, Thailand and China. Now, I am leaving Korea for yet another destination that is not home.

"Next please," breaks my daydreaming. At the counter, I am asked for my destination. A pause. And the question is repeated.

"Lima, Peru," I say, as I hand over my ticket and passport. I like the sound of it. Lima, Peru. I think this could even be my final destination before home. "Mmm, maybe, just maybe, I am going to enjoy this one," I tell the check-in worker.

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