The following post, by J.L. Balderama, is the seventh installment of 10, 12th Street Online’s first serial novel. It is being written by five authors, each of whom write two chapters each. You can read the first six installments here. Check in each Monday for a new post.

Hello?”

Mike hears a woman’s voice from far off somewhere behind his head. He’s facedown in bed, his cheek mashed into the pillow, limbs splayed in a dead-man’s pose. A chalk-figure pose. When he opens his eyes, he sees lines of gray and yellow, the light coming through the bedroom’s blinds, striating the carpeted floor.

Wait. He doesn’t own blinds. And he refinished his floors last year. Hardwood.

In one movement he pushes against the bed and flips himself up and over to sitting. He needs his glasses. Where are they? He feels around on the nightstand. Please oh please let them be—ah, yes, here. He slips them on and takes stock of the room: big bed, big ugly armoire, closets with mirrored doors on his right, a round table and two chairs off to the left, a coffeemaker on a plastic tray. He’s in a hotel. He could use some coffee. There’s a buzzing in his ears. Somewhere around the corner there’s a low, incessant hum, which he presumes to be a mini fridge.

How’d he end up in a hotel?

“Hello?”

The voice comes from around the corner. Echoes in the bathroom. It’s definitely a girl.

“Hello?” he answers back.

“Hello? Hell-ooo?”

“Hey!” he says. “I’m in here.”

“Hello? Ugh, Jesus Christ.” He hears the plastic thwap of a cell phone slamming shut. She comes into the bedroom.

Oh, dear.

Vague flashes of memory. He and his buddies at Joe’s in the Village. A table of girls, all college age, too young, too unbearably hot. Pitchers of beer, rounds of shots. His table, rowdy. Sideways glances from the girls. The flipping of hair. Mikey—that’s Mike No. 2, out of four at the table, all his friends are called Mike these days (what’s up with that?)—dares him to go over and say something to the girl in the red dress.

It must have worked.

Exhibit A: Girl, wrapped in a towel.

Exhibit B? He scans the room. Yup, O.K., there it is: red dress crumpled on the floor under the round table.

He wishes he could remember what it was he said.

She tosses the phone onto the bed. He sees that it’s his.

“Who’s Katherine?” she says.

Oh, fuck. “Huh?”

“Katherine. She’s called, like, three times in the last 10 minutes.”

“And you answered the phone?” He bends to pick it up. “This is my phone, right?”

“Yeah, I answered it. Fuckin’ woke me up.”

He examines the girl. She is slim and pretty, but she slouches in a way that is unseemly. What was her name? Anna? Alice? His head suddenly hurts.

“And what did Katherine say?”

“She didn’t say anything. That’s what’s fucked up. She hung up every time.”

“I imagine,” he says, “she was expecting to get someone else.” He doesn’t try to hide that he’s annoyed.

He gets out of bed and starts picking his way around the room, retrieving shoes, pants, socks. The girl drops her towel and looks at him with expectation. He feels a throbbing in his groin, but he’s not going to encourage her. At least, not until he can remember her name.

Alix? Alexa?

In the bathroom he finds his shirt, drenched, plugging up the sink.

“Hey! Why is my shirt in the sink?”

“You barfed!”

He barfed. Great.

“So, hey,” she says, slinking around the bathroom door, hanging there off the side of the frame like a monkey on a tree. “Who’s Katherine?”

It’s none of the girl’s damned business. But he knows he’s not going to see her again.

“My ex,” he says.

“Ah. That figures.”

* * * * *

Later that morning, Mike Banning, P.I., sits in his office. Computer on, notepad by the phone for quick scribbling, a cup of pens, his Glock semiautomatic stashed within easy reach. Work is the one part of his life that’s not a total mess. There’s a wall of steel cabinets, alphabetized and ordered by date, and another batch of files, open cases, in a smaller cabinet under his desk. At any given moment he knows the location of every item in his office, down to the last unsharpened pencil and cell phone battery and photograph and canceled check. He never understood how other P.I.s could be so sloppy, the theory that clarity could come amid physical chaos. This—clean, efficient—is the only way he knows how to do business. Time is money and he hates to waste a minute. Time is even, on occasion, a matter of life and death.

That’s one thing Katherine never got: When he was on a case, time was precious. His brain was tuned, every moment, to the task at hand. He didn’t have the mental space to worry about her worries when he was already worried about getting his own job done. Call from every airport? Call from the hotel? Call when he wiped his ass? Please.

Katherine had problems. It’s why she couldn’t write. She couldn’t focus. She’d made all these claims before they were married—she didn’t mind that he traveled a lot, no, not at all; she needed the solitude, the room of her own and all that shit. He’d gotten her text message the day before: “Two years.” Christ. Now that she was alone, she couldn’t leave him be.

Yeah. Poor Katherine. She had major problems.

“Hey, Mike?” Jay, his partner, pokes his head around the office door. Jay is good-looking, balding, works out a lot but can’t quite shake his paunch. His wife cooks too well. Jay has a family. He’s found a way to make it work.

“Hey, what’s up, Jay?”

“You hear about that kid who jumped off that building uptown yesterday?”

“Yeah.”

“We just got a call from a guy, claiming to be the kid’s dad. Says he’d like to retain our services. Says he doesn’t trust the police to do their job.”

“Oh, yeah? He say what he was after, specifically?”

“Just a hint. He said it was a ‘sensitive matter.’ Said there might be a suspect he didn’t trust the cops to chase down. Said he’d like to come in, to talk about it.”

Mike swivels to the computer and brings up his calendar. “All right. See if he can come in today, around 3.”

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The following post, by J.L. Balderama, is the second installment of 10, 12th Street Online’s first serial novel. You can see chapter one here. We’ll be publishing a new chapter each week.

Ballard fell.

A human body falling from a height of a hundred and fifty feet takes three seconds to strike the ground. Ballard had seen a statistic once, that a child dies every three seconds. He’d heard a song—a poem?—that said it takes three seconds to say “I love you,” much less time to say “I’m sorry.” That meant three seconds or fewer in which one person could change another’s life.

The morning of the bat mitzvah, it had taken three seconds for Ballard to decide: This would be the first day, or the last day, of the rest of his life.

One, one thousand.

Ballard fell.

Ballard’s name, his mother once told him, meant “a dancing song.” He’d tried, when he was younger, to puzzle out the sense in that. People danced. Songs didn’t. Songs sang and people moved. Ballard, who usually kept to himself, had little use for dancing. But songs were poetry. Songs moved him in ways that people rarely could.

Ballard favored opera. Now those were songs that sung. He’d had an uncle, a diplomat in Rome, who from the time Ballard was eight shipped him CDs every birthday. Ballard grew into adolescence with La Traviata and Salome, La Gioconda and La Bohème. He thrilled to the love songs of Rodolfo and the tragic Mimi, who sang as they mingled among the toy sellers and chestnut vendors of the Quartier Latin.

He liked to act out the parts. When he was twelve, he recruited Cameron, a golden-haired boy from his sixth-grade class, to help. Cameron was a flutist in their middle-school band, so Ballard figured of any boy, he would understand. Ballard drew all the shades in his room and handed Cameron a necktie.

“It’s my dad’s,” he said. “For your eyes. In this scene, we have to pretend it’s dark.”

Cameron looped the tie around his head, pulled it tight, and waited. Ballard turned up the music and took Cameron’s hand. Che gelida manina!” he sang. (“What a cold little hand!”) But Cameron’s fingers were not cold—they were warm and supple, just as Ballard had imagined they would be, the way they moved so nimbly along the flute. Inspired, Ballard lifted the hand and pressed it to his lips.

Blinding light.

“Ballard!” His dad’s voice. The man stood there, looming in the doorway, silhouetted against the sun.

Cameron snatched back his hand, tore the tie from his eyes and shoved it toward his friend. “I have to go.” The boy pushed past Ballard’s father as the old man entered the room. Ballard tried to speak but was cuffed by a silencing hand. He clutched at the tie. Beyond his father, the front door slammed.

Two, one thousand.

Ballard fell.

“Maybe it means a song for dancing.”

Jeremi.

Jeremi was a boy who knew how to figure things out. Ballard had been struck by this right from the start, when they’d been grouped together in the Gifted and Talented track in fourth grade. Jeremi was always the quickest at solving puzzles, like the logic grids the teachers passed out during recess on rainy days. He was the quickest to raise his hand at a question, the first to finish his quizzes, the first to walk to the front of the class, drop off his test, and walk away.

Jeremi always seemed to be walking away from Ballard. Jeremi, with his lilting gait, his easy, waifish grace. And then one day at lunch hour, when they were both in the eighth grade, Jeremi gave Ballard the surprise of his life. He walked his way.

As was often the case, Ballard was sitting alone, beneath a maple tree. He was reading a book, and, certain of his solitude, began to hum a melody.

“Hey, I know that song.”

Ballard froze. “What?”

“That song. It was in a movie I just saw. What’s it called?”

“‘Sull’aria,’” Ballard replied. “From The Marriage of Figaro.”

Jeremi seemed impressed. He actually sat down, in the grass, by Ballard’s side. They had an entire conversation about Le Nozze di Figaro—who had composed it, how Ballard knew it. And so they became friends.

Ballard guessed from the start that Jeremi was merely humoring him. That he tried to parse meanings with Ballard—“What kind of name is Ballard, anyway?”—simply because he was kind. That he spent time listening because he knew Ballard would otherwise sit alone, that Ballard kept to himself because he was queer, and therefore shunned. But it tortured Ballard to be so close to this boy and not to know: Was it more? He would sit at lunch and patter away about La Bohème and all the rest, and all the while wonder if Jeremi might be wooed, if he might in fact be just like him.

He was not. In the boys’ room after school one day, Ballard made a clumsy pass, putting a hand on Jeremi’s cheek as the other boy fussed with his hair in the mirror. Jeremi swung twice—first to bat away the hand, then to connect with Ballard’s cheek, sending his friend to the floor and the shocking cold of the filthy tiles.

Ballard was stunned into stillness. Jeremi stood for a moment, breathless. And when Ballard moved to stand up, rather than offer a helping hand, Jeremi stepped around his friend and left him sitting, shaking, alone.

It takes fewer than three seconds to say “I’m sorry.”

It was Josephine’s bat mitzvah. Jeremi’s sister. Ballard wasn’t invited, but he knew Jeremi would be there. They hadn’t talked for a week. Ballard had stopped eating. He barely slept. For seven days, he hadn’t listened to a single bar of opera.

He pushed past a gaggle of girls squealing near the elevator. The band was warming up to go on. Brownies were being passed on silver trays. A child with hair the color of corn silk was running wild and ramming into things, colliding with the help and sending grown-ups to their knees. Ballard scanned the crowd and saw Jeremi at a table surrounded by girls. As Ballard approached, Jeremi spotted him and frowned, displeased.

“Ballard. Shit. What are you doing here, man?”

“Can we talk? I need to talk.” Ballard’s voice began to crack.

“Sure, sure,” Jeremi said. “Shit, don’t start crying here.”

He hustled them out to the balcony. The party was only on the tenth floor, but still they had a view. Ballard looked up through the tunnel of buildings reaching toward the sky.

“Jeremi,” he said, his eyes stinging. “I just wanted to say. About what happened.” He squeezed his eyes closed. The one still bearing a mark from Jeremi’s hand throbbed at the effort. He’d rehearsed in front of the mirror at home, and he’d wept then, too.

“Hey, man,” Jeremi said. “You don’t have to cry. I’m cool if you’re cool.”

Jeremi put a hand on Ballard’s shoulder. The band started to play. Ballard reached up and touched Jeremi’s hand, turned to face him, and began to sway.

“I hate this music,” Ballard said. He made an effort at a smile. “But I feel like dancing. For once. Don’t you?”

Ballard reached as if to take Jeremi in his arms, but Jeremi backed away.

“No, man,” he said. “You can’t do this. Not here.”

Ballard’s arms dropped. The air felt cold. His cheeks had chilled as the wind whipped against his wet face.

“You should probably just take off, man,” Jeremi said. “It’s my sister’s big day. She’s trying to keep it friends only and all.”

“Friends only.”

“Her friends, I mean.”

“O.K.,” Ballard said. “Just give me a second.”

He turned away to catch his breath and heard Jeremi’s footsteps hastening back inside.

Ballard faced the railing. He grasped it and leaned forward, testing his weight on his hands. Below him, the world looked small.  Small, but full. There were so many people, darting in and out of traffic, moving in ripples and swells, as if carried along by a current. The city would never miss him, he thought. There were plenty of people here. Enough that every three seconds, without anyone noticing, someone could simply—take off.

He began to sing softly. “Addio dolce svegliare!” (“Goodbye, sweet awakening!”) He threw a leg over the bars. “Addio dolce svegliare!” Applause rang out from behind him as the band broke off its playing. He stood poised at the edge, his chest thrust forward, hands clinging to the bar behind him. We’ll see, he thought. He opened his arms. He let the air take him.

Addio dolce svegliare!”

Three.