Waking to the clamor of Green Day’s forgettable "Going to Pasalacqua" wasn’t his idea of a relaxed introduction to another day. A bucket of cold water in his face might have been more welcomed; a marching band parading through the house would be at least more harmonious. Alas, he thought, there’s surely no guarantee in this madhouse how or when one will greet the day, just as one cannot often tell a teenaged progeny what to do without risking retorts such as “out of touch”, “square” or “gay”. On this particular morning, Jay was thankful that the offensive alarm sounded from within Charlie’s room down the hall, and not the night stand that lay within arm’s reach. Had it been so, the alarm certainly would be programmed to play something energetic by Paganini, a waltz by Strauss, or a Liszt dirge. As matters stood, he could only imagine the disturbing device meriting a swipe of drowsy rebellion followed by a shattering marriage with the floor.
Debating what if’s would not lessen the cacophony, so he convinced his creaking bones to arise, stumbled through the hallway, rubbing sleep from bleary eyes on the trek towards Charlie’s infamous cave. Undeterred by mountainous rubble of unlaundered apparel and remnants of the previous night’s pretense at homework, he managed to discover the screeching squawk box cowering beneath a pair of unwashed underwear, its texture equally repulsive to the touch. Gingerly rescuing the kidnapped timepiece from its odious abductor, he was curious as to why it had been set for so early. Charlie was not due at school until eight, so it was a mystery why he was standing here, disabling the electronic bugler midway through its version of reveille. No matter; this bugler is in need of a mute button. Now, how to find it?
A more alien contraption he had yet to see. Only one thing seemed to not be foreign, and that was the alarm’s umbilical cord, tethering its body to an electrical wall outlet. Mournful sounds accompanied by the swift tug confirmed the clock’s abortion a success. Aside from Charlie’s satisfied snoring, tranquility had returned to Jay’s ears. He reached over to tousle Charlie’s hair, hoping to resurrect the lump of humanity from its lethargic state. In the foyer one floor below, the grandfather clock chimed with muted military precision.
Gazing out of Charlie’s bedroom window, cardinals could be seen flitting tree to tree, squirrels industriously preparing for oncoming winter. Clouds rapidly were approaching, both seen and not. Undaunted by time, clouds traveled their own inscrutable paths, determining course and speed without ado or announcement. Amid the strangle of trees crowding his property, a whispering creek slithered diagonally from tree line to oblivion, its choppy waters devouring sunlight in its aimless voyage. A slight tinge of jealousy colored his thoughts now.
Charlie’s snores were silenced, the clock’s chime stilled, yet the clouds continued their flight path. Jay, lost in thought a few moments about stillness in movement, heard his former drill sergeant preparing his squad for their assignment. Advancing with precision, concealed by darkness, they were to proceed slower than either of them ever imagined possible. Strike hard, strike fast and cancel the resistance, is how the motto was ingrained in each member’s psyche.
Startled by a tug on his leg, he spun about, unsure what his daydreaming had been interrupted by. Looking down, he was greeted by whimpers from the resident freeloader; a rotund tabby Charlie had christened Dawdle. Odd name for a fur covered bag of ham and bone, yet fitting in a way. In moments of rare reflection, Jay thought of it as Charlie’s doppelganger. After bending over to lift the cat, thus removing its claws from trouser leg, he cradled it like an infant, massaging its belly. He began remembering Dawdle’s introduction to a lifetime of luxury and effortless, unwarranted pampering.
Charlie had found the animal scrounging through a backyard garbage can a year before, when taking out the trash. At first, Charlie felt sorry for the mangy looking animal, and fed it some scraps secretly. After a few weeks of sneaking leftovers outside, the refrigerator’s ability to retain ample supplies grew limited. Then Charlie confessed all, and the cat was grudgingly adopted as family.
Verbal arguments were par for the course, a staged test of wills, a minor part of teaching Charlie to negotiate and stand his ground. The bigger lessons would come as he matured and learned about other things in life.
Jay began thinking about how much easier this all would be if Charlie’s mother had stayed around long enough to help. Their arguments were never staged and were far from minor. Her inability to separate fact from fantasy clouded her ability to recognize how wild the lies had become, how elaborate the deceptions grew and how deep the trench between wife, husband and son had become. At two years old, Charlie had cried, cradled in Dad’s arms as the final threads of the family’s fabric were torn. She was driving into the distance, and Charlie was too young to know who of the trio was crying more.
Stifling tears once again, he laid the cat next to Charlie and walked down the stairs, imagining that the birds, squirrels and trees were not only preparing for winter, but enjoying his sadness. In fact, they were probably amused! Nearing the bottom stair, he heard the foyer clock chime. For the first time, it sounded discordant.
He was motionless for a moment or more, looking at the clock to his left, studying its face, trying to understand what it was that kept it around. All of her shadows had been trashed or burned, ever since abandoning her dream over a decade ago. Achieving her utopia had been his life’s work, now it survived by a mere sliver. That metallic face, stoically unchanging, mocked him, just as she had mocked him with sincere lies and twisted betrayals. Just as she was unaware of how far off track she had driven this train, the clock also had no idea of how it irked. It was a machine, and had no feelings. But, she wasn’t a machine. Why, then, did she have no feelings?
Jay managed to reach the living room couch, trying to remind himself to cease this destructive habit of self-pity. Bills were due, among them an overdue mortgage payment, and his unemployment checks were gone. His savings account was approaching zero, and once the anemic checking account was drained, the dream would not only be over, but he’d be lucky to keep his own mementoes. He began looking through the newspaper at job opportunities.
An advert for men’s fashions caught his eye, jogging mental notes from that endless sea of misplaced must-do’s. There he was, sprawled on the couch, dressed for a job he’d lost to Downsizing Disease months ago, noticeably unshaven, and desperately in need of ironing. Quickly gazing at his reflection taunting from within the smoky television’s surface shocked him to his feet. This was not the man he had worked so long to become. This face staring back was a foreigner in his house, an intruder he never would give alms to nor shelter. Yet, here it was, permeating every breath, every shadow, stalking him from within, growing harder every millisecond to deny.
Put it far behind you, get those priorities in proper order, and march forward with purpose. That’s how his military leaders had trained him to succeed. Ignore the enemy’s ruse, avoid their psychological ploys, and distract your mind from their tricks. Look elsewhere to throw off their taunts. Look somewhere else, that’s it, he thought. Walls everywhere, floor, ceiling, objects collected from a lifetime of wasted servitude, but nowhere to find solace. Room to room he lumbered, until he found a window, its display of early sunlight offering respite. His eyes drank in the elixir of emotional release provided by nature’s awakening. Unlike Charlie’s somnolent stillness, this was a masterpiece, a bouquet of colorful wonder, a painting of serenity that infused and watered the seeds of movement.
There was no alteration of mood, merely a soothing masque in the air. Fighting omnipresent urges of surrender, it suddenly became easier to persevere. Torturously slow drops of sanity leaked into his shattered reality. Victory was not won in a single moment of evasion, but by staying the course, or so he managed to remember, swiveling sharply on his heels.
Feed Dawdle, scan ads for employment, wake Charlie, the routine had to be maintained. Schedules and monotonous duties had to be religiously followed and the cycle would rinse and repeat ad infinitum, until…
That was a trick of the enemy again, reinforcing negative notions. Forge ahead, he kept reminding himself, don’t focus too far in the past or ahead too much. Here and now, stick to the here and now.
Kitchen, refrigerator, leftover hambone, cut the meat, settle the cat, one mission at a time. Placing the package of ham and bone on the counter, a sharpened blade retrieved from butcher block met with satisfactory inspection. Left hand steadying the meat while carving began with his right, a small tune escaped his lips. Humming as the artful dissection commenced, waves of calm washed new emotions over him. There we are, that’s the idea, run the knife along the bone slowly, just like conducting a symphony, came the internal reassurance. The meat is almost like living tissue, be subtle and sincere with the movement. Like music, slow and gentle, it peels off with soft violin strains as reward.
Descending like tattered ribbons, they resembled red confetti against a hushed sky of blue. Spellbound by their random route, he watched them fill the space between yesterday and tomorrow. They cascaded, an avalanche of crimson snow melting against cheeks warmed by rapture. This troupe of nature’s miniature athletes danced a swooning ballet to a rhythm swaying arms conducted. Commanding focus, the baton emphasized each measure, harmonies only he could appreciate.
Cake layers of snow now underfoot, he began the second mission. Tucked away for unknown years, a shotgun slept in a coat closet. It’s time to awaken had arrived. Feeding it two servings of high powered energy bars, Jay patted his old friend and whispered that it was about to meet some new friends.
Each carpeted stair felt different than before, ascending every riser seeming an effort to his ankles. Shoe soles sank slightly into the plush fibers, imitating quicksand, threatening to delay completion of the second objective. Energizing his intent, more influence was directed to his legs, no effort spared in tempering progress with clandestine calm. Climbing this manmade mountain took an increased determination, yet it remained tactical. With the pace of a reanimated mummy, his steps were labored yet purposeful. He kept a keen eye trained on the surrounding darkness, all the while recharging resolve for what must be done. The echoes of taunting laughter that poisoned his own would soon cease. He was remedy and redeemer, hunter and hero.
When at last the landing was reached, he negotiated a position just outside of Charlie’s room, tucked into the corner the laundry basket called home. Cloaked in shadow, surveillance could be maintained indefinitely, since daylight never knew this secluded section of territory. Controlling his own breath, Jay paused and intently listened with every faculty to the deafening tranquility. An eternity of moments enveloped the space between alarm and arrival, from rude awakening to harsh reality. It stared him in the face, yet spit on him in sheer disgust. It was his turn to return the favor.
With movement he fancied as slower than grass growing, he entered the lair, scoping out a fallback position, somewhere to maintain cover and concealment, should the primary bunker become compromised. Disregarding the stench of stale socks, and rancid incense, an immediate contender was the closet. Among piles of sports paraphernalia and magazines that had been repeatedly tagged as forbidden, there was just enough space to observe for as long as necessary. Beneath the bed would provide desired invisibility, as would crouching beside an old dresser positioned in a far corner, then again, its cater-cornered situation might cramp him too much. It occurred to him that skulking beneath the bed was the best idea. Even if they had searched for him, they would not have thought to look there. Being so close to the ground, every minute sound was detected with minimal effort. Stealthily he left the hallway observation post to reposition himself where he could pounce on the unsuspecting throng of vultures who daily picked at the shell he existed in, his slowly decaying corpse of a life.
Reacquainting the twin barreled friend with a firm grip seemed easy, as was hefting it through this familiar jungle. Its weight, though considerable for someone prone to lazing life away daydreaming, did not pose the biggest hurdle. The only obstacle was the undeniable difference between it and the armament that slept with him so many nights in hastily dug foxholes. Territory, whether foreign or familiar, still had to be considered from every angle, nothing taken for granted. They could be anywhere, disguised by so many shadows, waiting for that one opportunity. One had to be ever vigilant, or chance making that one final mistake. His ears and eyes were radar, receptive to all signals.
As the sun went down, he was unfettered by concerns for a family back in the states, debts to corporations or title holders; he was a programmed automaton, devoid of emotion, set with two directives: achieve the mission, and self-preservation. No fragile feelings clouded decisions, no personal glory colored procedure. Climate, surroundings, atmospheric sounds, body temperature, these were all factors that became a graphable grid intuitively plotted upon. Smells were indicators of proximity to target, just factors in the equation. Observe, blend in, engage the target, and retreat to base. He knew his orders well, and would fulfill the mission at any cost, with failure not an option.
Feigned suspended animation was so complete, his attention so keen, that outside movement of any kind would raise his neck hairs audibly. Without the slightest twinge of muscle, his eyes scanned the immediate area for threats, peripheral nearing a full three sixty. Fresh podiatric decay stung his nostrils, along with a slight trace of an acrid electrical aroma. Buzzing through Jay’s mind were causal possibilities. Though eerily familiar topography surrounded, there was no sign of enemy. And then it happened.
Just over the ridge to the immediate right, a shuffling accompanied by a low moaning sound commanded full attention. His eyes and gun’s sight were twins trained on the approximated source. A second stir of the rubble brought the rear sight to his eyes, acquiring proper sight alignment and firm grip on the trigger in half a breath. Less than the other half breath was achieved when shots rang out. Mission accomplished, enemy now sleeping for eternity.
Charlie’s snores were silenced with finality, while more ominous clouds continued twining above. Melodious tones from the hallway grandfather clock, announced eight o’clock’s arrival. Their daily mechanical laughter sang in tune with, as if fully aware of, Jay’s own internal peals of joy. Emptying the shells one at a time, their impact reverberated like distant cymbals. One more shell was loaded while studying the success. He stood on the shore, triumphant against all odds, compleat conqueror, emancipator extraordinaire, giddy in glory. One moment of silent, peaceful breakers washed against him before he heard the clock laughing again.
Raising his sword in victorious exclamation, a battle yell erupted within. Surveying the onslaught’s remnants, his wanton handiwork signed in peerless quality, one conclusive marker had to be placed. An ominous admonition must be left as a statement of triumph and terrible overthrow.
Sword’s hilt in ground, the warrior clenched a steady thumb on its trigger. Unflinching, he fell onto his sword into sleep.
Jay never realized that the trees laughed as well.