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by Ben Nardolilli
Reuben always felt more important when he walked around with his laptop case. Often he did not need it to carry a computer, but he still left the apartment with it, because he wanted to use it to hold a book or some papers. No matter what he had inside of it, the case made him feel important. He believed that as soon as his fingers gripped the handle, his feelings of added significance began. Walking with the laptop case slowed him down and made his steps deliberate. With every move, he had to compensate for the shift in weight. There were no idle steps to be taken, no directions taken out of fancy. If he passed by a flyer, saw a menu, or caught a glimpse of an attractive woman, Reuben would keep on walking without stopping. As long as he had the laptop, he walked as if there was work to be done, even if there was not.
He liked to fantasize about what other people would fantasize about him. When he rode the Metro and sat with the case on his lap, he held it tightly to his chest. Reuben would look around the train car to watch the reactions. Did people think he had a bomb? Or perhaps they thought there was something valuable zipped up and hidden from the world to see. Maybe his computer had secret nuclear codes on it, or the laptop case was being used like a suitcase from the movies, carrying bundles of hundred dollars bills unmarked for negotiations. Yet, all Reuben was really holding inside the case was either his laptop or some legal pads, both containing the notes to a novel whose growing sprawl and reach threatened to derail its actual writing.
One day Reuben was on his way to the library, where he did his best work. The library had free internet, restrooms, electricity, and air conditioning. Whenever he was there, he did not have to spend the money he otherwise would have to back home. Reuben was bored with the people on the train, so he took his laptop case and held it close to his body to see if he got anyone’s attention. He tried to make himself a suspicious person with a suspicious package, but was unsuccessful. The other commuters looked at him, shrugged their shoulders, and went back to their newspapers, books, and listening devices.
Reuben noticed that there was one passenger who continued to look at him. He was wearing a trench coat and had a small hat on his head. Reuben stared back at him and the man put on a pair of dark sunglasses. Now Reuben could no longer tell if he was being observed or not. The man unfolded his newspaper, brought it up as if to read, and used it to block the view of his face. Reuben soon missed the man’s attention, so he fiddled about his laptop case, going through the pockets and gripping the sides. He unzipped it, looked inside quickly, then zipped it up again. Reuben’s tactics worked and the man put down his paper and observed him. The man realized that Reuben had caught him once more, so he put the barrier up again and pretended to be reading.
The train arrived at the Virginia Square station and Reuben got off. He made sure that his case was zipped up first, and then headed out. When he got to the gates and put his ticket in to leave, he looked to his side and saw the man. Reuben smiled at him, hoping that it would show he was not really a threatening character and was only pretending to be one. Instead of smiling back, the man walked away and did not leave the station with Reuben. He tried to hide a look of panic and went into a nearby phone booth. Reuben waited for him to come out, letting a stream of other passengers pass him by. The man did not emerge, so Reuben decided to leave the station and go to the library.
He whistled as he took the escalator up to the street and walked a couple of blocks to the main country library. The weather was sunny and only a few clouds dotted the sky. The rush hour was over and there was time before lunch would break forth. Reuben found the sidewalks largely empty and the traffic manageable at the crosswalks. His idyll ended, when he reached for the glass door to the library and in the reflection saw the man from the subway behind him, complete with coat, hat, and sunglasses. Worse, he was approaching. Reuben pretended not to be startled and charged right into the building.
Immediately, he went to the left and hid in the area for the books that the library no longer wanted and was selling. Behind a turning kiosk filled with old romance novels and travel books for visiting the Soviet Union, Reuben looked out to see where the man was. He crouched down behind a book covered with the picture of a debonair millionaire in a tuxedo embracing a brunette with pearls around her neck. From this position he could see the strange man walking up the steps of the library’s central staircase. He still had his sunglasses on, looking around the building and unsure of where to go. Wearing the shades dimmed his vision. He misjudged a step and tripped slightly. Reuben laughed and realized there were other people around him.
Once the man was on the second level, Reuben went out and followed him up. Writing the novel could wait, he was curious about who was tracing his steps and trying to track him down. He quickly went up the stone staircase and made sure to turn around to see if the man was watching him from behind. Reuben got to the second floor and sprinted over to a few short bookshelves next to the copier machines. It was hard to run with the laptop case, since its rubber handle made it wobble, but he got over. Once he felt it was safe, he looked around to see if the mysterious man was following him. Reuben made a quick glance at the fiction section, the large print section, and then over at the reference section.
Right by the encyclopedias was the man. Reuben hid and hoped he had not been seen. He wondered what he had gotten himself into. He had only been playing a game to shock and frighten others in order to amuse himself. No there was someone who thought he was a terrorist, carrying around a bomb, possibly ready to blow up the library. Why anyone would want to blow up the library, he had no idea, but Reuben figured that the man probably had no idea either and was only following because he wanted to stop an attack. If Reuben had walked into a church, parking lot, coffee shop, or office building, he would pose the same threat. As long as he had looked suspicious and treated his laptop case as a suspicious package, the man would be after him.
When the man went over to look at the computer lab by the reference section, Reuben made his move. He walked, then ran, over to the cover of the shelves filled with large print books. When he was safe he realized that he had made a mistake and should have just taken the stairs down and left the library when he had the chance. Now, he was trapped on the second floor. Over the tops of the books, he saw the man walking through the library in his direction, his sunglasses still on. Reuben wondered if he was already being reflected on their dark surface as an image part of the greater picture of the library. The man came to his section, and turned into the row just before him. When he passed by, Reuben left the book cases and went out into the open towards the elevator.
Reuben did not have a chance to use it, because the man emerged from the stacks before the elevator arrived. Reuben made a desperate leap and put himself through the men’s room door. If he had only walked through the sound would not have attracted the mysterious man’s attention. The bathroom was empty except for another man who was washing his hands and soon left. Once inside the bathroom, he found an empty stall, locked the door, and perched up on the toilet seat. While waiting, he noticed a half-drunk bottle of wine placed in the corner between the seat and the wall. Maybe they will think this was what I was really hiding all this time, Reuben thought.
The bathroom door swung open and Reuben held his breath. He looked down at the floor and saw the bottom of the man’s trench coat dangling in the men’s room air. He reached for the door, found it locked, and then waited. Reuben looked up at a vent above him in the corner and thought that maybe he could use it to get outside. But he realized it was too small to hold him. The man continued to wait outside, tapping his feet. Reuben wondered if he really was so bad and after to get him. There was a chance that the man was just following him along because he coincidentally wanted to go to the same places as him, the subway, the station, the library, and now its men’s room. If he was in any real trouble, then the man would be with other officials, brandishing badges and flashing weapons.
There was another stall next to his, meant for the handicapped. Reuben reasoned that the man was like him, he did not want to use it in case someone in a wheelchair showed up. Reuben crouched to the ground and slowly slid his laptop case into the next stall. The man outside did not seem to notice. Then Reuben unlocked the door, got on the ground, and crawled under. He was in a cramped space so getting through was difficult. The tiled floor was cold and Reuben tried not to think of what was on it. When he made it to the other side, he stood up and dusted himself off. The man went into the stall next to him and Reuben used the moment to run out of the bathroom.
He did not look behind as he moved across the second floor, went down the stairs, and out the front door. Reuben was breathing heavily and his muscles were strained, but he and his laptop case were free. When he got to the street, he turned around to see through the glass windows and doors. The man was coming down the stairs quickly so Reuben ran off. There was no doubt that now he was being followed. Reuben took off in the direction of the park next to the library. There was nothing to hide him, but he at least could put distance between himself and the man. Every couple of steps he turned around to measure the man’s progress and found he was gaining on him. In the distance there was a little league baseball game going on between some boys in red and others in aquamarine uniforms.
Reuben pressed his laptop case to his chest and picked up speed. The ground was flat and the grass neatly trimmed, so it was easy to run. He went right through the game and kicked up a trail of yellow dust in hopes of obscuring his path. The children and their adult caretakers yelled at him, but he did not care. He only stopped to see where the man was. The movements of the children were an obstacle to him and Reuben made his way over to a small grove of trees. The man managed to get around the children who were complaining about him interrupting their game, and even dodged a baseball thrown at his head. He knew that Reuben had gone in the wooded area and followed him.
When he entered the grove, he was careful to be on the lookout for low branches and roots. He was careful not to be snagged by one and tripped by the other. The man was successful in this and avoided traps that might have stopped more careless runners. However, he was not careful enough, a laptop case came out and hit the man in the face. He fell on the bed of pine needles that covered the ground and when he came to, Reuben was on top of him, putting his knee on the man’s trench coat covered chest. His hat and sunglasses had been knocked off and now Reuben had a clear view of the man who had been following him.
“Who are you?”
“I’m not allowed to say.”
“Why are you following me? What do you want?”
“Please,” he coughed, “please just take your knee off my chest.”
Reuben did so, but held him down with his hands. “What are you doing?”
“I’m just following you for training. Please, I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Training, for what?”
“I’m following you for an exercise, to see if I can do it without you noticing. It’s part of what I have to do for the agency. Don’t worry, you were just chosen at random from everyone on the train.”
“Why would you do that to me? Why would you use me like that? Spying on me?”
“Don’t be angry. I’m watched too, as part of the exercise.”
“By who?” Reuben asked.
“Look at the people in the park.”
He looked around at the other people in the park and realized he had seen them all before. On the subway car they did not stand out, but now reassembled in front of him, he could remember where they had come from. Reuben began to catch his breath and got up from the ground. The man sat up as Reuben brushed the needles and dirt off his own clothes and laptop case.
“So I guess I failed you?”
“Probably. But it’s okay. You were doing what anyone else would do. I’m the one who really failed. You shouldn’t have noticed me in the first place.”
Reuben looked around at the people in the park and up at the trees to see if anyone was hiding there. “But it’s just you?”
“Just me following you. As far as I know. If anyone else is being trained here, they’re doing a pretty good job of it.”
“I only want know, am I free to go?”
He laughed. “Yes, yes, we’re done with you now. It’s me who’s in trouble. Yeah.”
“What will they do to you?”
“Probably put me back in the mailroom.”
He put his hand out. Reuben looked at it suspiciously, then shook it. He expected an electrical current to run through him and give off a painful buzz, but there was no practical joke. When he was done, Reuben walked to the library, laptop case in hand. The man went to the group in the park for a debriefing which he heard a little bit of as he left. A woman who had been sitting on a park bench with a stroller spoke first.
“Well, you found a good target. He looked pretty damn suspicious. However, as you know, you blew your cover. Lucky he was flattered more than threatened when he found out.”
“But the training mission wasn’t a complete failure, was it?” She smiled at him.
He smiled back. “No ma’am.” The man raised the hand he had used for the handshake and at the wrist began to peel off a plastic covering. When he was done, he dangled the fake skin in the air.
“You got the fingerprints from the target. I guess that counts for something.”
“I hope so.”
“Let’s go back to base, if we see another good person on the subway, maybe we can try again.”
“Thank you. I would like that very much.”
“All right everyone, let’s get out of here. My allergies are acting up.” The head agent unlocked the wheels of the stroller and lead the way over to the subway station.
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