Marking Territory

The Pham household began to feel smaller as the days passed, as if his room had shrunk from a bedroom to a closet. It was no mere shift of perception, as Rick noted a larger number of cardboard boxes being shuttled in and out of his room. As he spent all his time in his room on his computer, even a trip to the bathroom felt as a visit to an alternative reality. Each new layer of boxes was inserted between his sleeping bag and foam mattress and the window, further separated him from the outside world. It was eventual that curiosity mounted, and he asked Eddie what was inside as he shuffled through the doorway with another box. Like the others, it was taped shut.

"Hey, Eddie," Rick said. "Mind if I ask what's in there?"

"Stuff Dad wants moved here," Eddie answered. "I don't care why, but I don't want him hurting himself lugging his crap."

Rick nodded as he helped position the box against the window. It was moderately heavy, but lacked the heft he'd expected. He shook the box slightly, getting no other sounds than a muffled rattling. He set it down, and decided to ask Ted directly. "He doing this to any other rooms?"

"Yeah, the master bedroom, the office, and here," Eddie said. "He wanted to do the same to my room, until I talked him out of it."

"Thanks. Anyway, how's work?" Rick asked.

"Slow lately. We're tearing down a subdivision that didn't sell. Only half the lots were developed, but it was located in the middle of nowhere."

Rick rolled his eyes, "Gee, no wonder. Who'd pay to live all the way out here?"

"I don't know but they pay well to clean up," Eddie said. "An energy company's shown some interest in the site, so we've got work."

"Shit. What'll happen then?"

"Looking for work for the crew, like always."

"Sounds rough."

"Not as rough as some of the workers, since I don't have to worry about a mortgage or kids."

"Yeah," Rick suddenly recalled something. "Say, any news about that hit-and-run last week?"

"None, but that reminds me," Eddie said. "What happened to that van of yours? You know, the Volkswagen?"

"Oh, that junker? It vanished and your parents said it turned up the river."

"I guess they did you a favor, huh?" Eddie said, grinning.

"Not really, since the insurance company didn't pay up."

"Bastards," Eddie said. "Even though managing doesn't pay that much, I'm glad it's honest work."

"More than you can say about politicians."

Eddie shrugged. "Eh, it's always been like that. I'm just glad I'm not one of those phonies."

Rick nodded vigorously, thinking of Cicero as a rare exception.

"Oh, that reminds me," Eddie said. "I wanted to thank you for hanging out with Dad. Since you've been around, he's much more excited."

"Well, I'm hoping to be out of here in a few weeks," Rick said. "He's been very generous and helpful."

"I think he just wanted someone to talk guns with. You become a gun nut or something?"

"No, but I know one," Rick said. "But your dad's nowhere near as crazy as he is."

"Where do you meet these people, man?"

"You don't want to know. That said, while I'm glad I left this podunk place, I'm glad I kept up with you."

"Well, you've been a helpful guest so far, so I can't complain," Eddie said. "Say, you need some money? I've got a few temp openings in my crew."

Rick exhaled as his mind hesitated. His own funds had almost been entirely exhausted, sucked dry by attrition and frantic spending during his desperate flight. He did not know what was in Dave's package, nor when it would arrive. It likely would be information and supplies, so he would still be in dire need of money. Simultaneously, he felt as though leaving the house would leave him exposed to the hitman and his phantom informants. The catch-22 continued until he realized he was screwed both ways, either lingering at the mercy of his condition in a house of potential victims or exposing himself while earning the funds to keep moving. His mind settled on a feeble compromise, born of helplessness and paranoia.

"Yeah, sure, but one thing. I'm still feeling under the weather and waiting for some test results to come back," Rick said. "Mind giving me a few days?"

"No prob. The job isn't brain surgery, but I just need some reliable people."

"Thanks, you're a real lifesaver, Eddie."

"Eh, no problem. What's a job between friends?"

Rick looked down the nearby hallways for any sign of Ted or Lily before changing the topic. He blushed slightly as he realized it had been a long time since the two had last shared such an experience.

"Say, you still have any of the good stuff?" he said, in a tone barely above a whisper. "Shrooms? Peyote? I've been nostalgic lately."

"No, but one of the guys at work can hook you up," Eddie replied, his face slightly reddened. "I've been keeping away from that stuff since I started work."

"Understood. Last time I tried anything heavy was when we woke up in Mr. Redfern's barn."

"You really want to wake up in a pile of horse shit again?"

"Nah, just some research for my new book."

"Eh, if you say so. Just let me know when it comes out and don't let Dad catch you with any of it."

"Don't worry about that. Say, you have some tape?"

"Yeah, top shelf in the garage. Just put it back when you're done," Eddie said as he checked his phone. "I've gotta call someone back."

Eddie walked away as Rick entered the Phams' garage. He recalled the last time he had been inside a decade ago. The clutter seemed slightly less than his own memories led him to believe, but still occupied half of the garage. The overburdened shelves were stacked like a tenement of gardening and household tools. He moved his hands cautiously through the junk, until his hands rested on a roll of duct tape. He gingerly lifted it, careful not to cause the contents of the shelf to come crashing down like an avalanche.

Once he had successfully claimed it, he returned to his room. He locked the door behind him, and retrieved a pocketknife from his bag. He removed one of the boxes he had moved earlier, and set it down on the floor. Carefully, he sliced through the tape on the top, hoping to catch a glimpse of what laid within. Instead, all he saw was the top layer of newspaper stuffing. Carefully removing it, he came upon the true contents of the boxes. Within each were ceramic tiles interspersed with old phone books, with newspaper wadding around the edges. A quick shake reproduced the muffled shifting sound from earlier.

Unsure of where Ted had acquired the desire and materials for such an endeavor, Rick quickly taped the box up and returned it to the stack. After he had returned the tape, he had more questions than answers. Curiosity buzzed on his mind, until he decided to ask Ted directly. As he left the room, he immediately noticed a similarity to the box-forts he had built as a child. The contents of each box were not junk, but makeshift cover. Ted was not merely sorting junk, but preparing for war. It was a pity Dave wasn't around to see it.