Walking up the cracked, weedy sidewalk of 257 West Elder Street was unreal, like I was looking through a foggy lens. My old home stood a small double house painted beige with forest green shutters and a green door to match. Our porch had peeling paint and a fat golden retriever, two things that drastically contrasted with the hard packed snow and vicious guard dogs of my other home. I took it all in, the overgrown grass, the single tree in our front yard, the small chain link fence in front of all the houses, the cars parked in rows down the side of the street. It all felt new again, yet familiar and comforting at the same time. It felt great. I climbed the stairs to my door slowly and patted the chubby pile of fur on the head.
"Good boy, Charlie," I said before knocking on the door. Almost instantly, the door flung open and the screen door shot out, slamming me in the face.
"Oh, dear!" My mom came out in a flurry of worry. She had a right, as she just smashed me in the face with a screen door. "Oh dear, Carson, I'm so sorry! Oh your nose, are you alright? Come inside, let me have a look."
I smiled at her and stopped clutching my nose. "Mom, I'm fine. It's so good to see you." I stepped through the doorway and gave her two years worth of missed hug time. When we broke she was slightly teary eyed but grinning like it was her first time seeing me again. We went inside and I unloaded everything that had happened in the past two years. I told her about my latest training, the missions I had gone on since we last talked, and my recent promotion. I held back all the scary parts and the whole mess with Cook. Alaska sounded a lot better in the mom-appropriate story version.
"I'm just so glad you're home," she said, still smiling. My mom was short; around five foot four, with brown curly hair that hung only slightly shorter than mine. She and I looked nothing alike; she always told me I got my looks from my father, but my personality from her.
"Now, I have a surprise for you," she said. "I told the school that you were coming back to Brampton, and they said they would be delighted to have you come in and give some guest speaking about your experiences. I told them you would be honored to come in and talk." Dilemma. I would love to come in and talk, had I not been nearly caught up in the middle of a drug related scandal and betrayed by my hero. I couldn't tell my mom, though. I told her I would go and we went out for lunch. I had my favorite, a turkey club with fries and a pickle. I hadn't had real food in so long, I savored every bite. My mom and I talked about everything. We talked about what I was going to say, all the things we would have to do while I was home, what I was going to wear, and what I was going to do with my hair. She always protested my hair.
Being an only child has its advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that because nobody else is in the house, I'm always her 'perfect son.' Things are great when I'm home. Where it gets touchy is when I'm not. My dad left us when I was less than a year old. My mom had to pick up extra jobs and struggle to make ends meet. Growing up, this was normal, but it wasn't until I was old enough to understand all she went through for me to truly appreciate how amazing of a person she was. She bent over backwards to make my life as normal as any other child's. Because of this, her life centered on me. If I was away, she was totally alone in a small house in a residential suburban neighborhood in Bramford, Ohio. Her life was lonely. I felt like I needed to make up for lost time in the gaps that I was home. We went home and settled on a date for me to come in to school. After a night of playing chess and watching old movies on TV we went to bed. The next few days were the same. Mom and I went out and ate together, hung out around the house, I helped her with some house work projects, and we found things to do in our down time. Charlie, the lazy dog on the porch, mostly hung around and got pet when he could. He didn't need much to be content.
Being home was great, but of course there was something stirring beneath the surface. At nights I would lay awake and wonder about the whole Cook thing. What did my dream mean? Was there really a hatch that lead from our base to that of the Russians? What had really happened in the tent? There was no chance he could have channeled into my thoughts or anything like that, yet the visions seemed so clear and so real. All the destruction, all the pain and all the sorrow. All the chaos. I would lie on my mattress in total darkness or pace around in my room, my mind racing, my thoughts slowly driving me insane. On my fourth night home the thoughts totally got to me. I had to get up and go somewhere. I crept out of the house and put on my sweatshirt and some cargo pants, instinctively strapping my knife to my left ankle. The cold of the black steel bit my flesh.
I crept out of my room, closing the door carefully so as to not wake my mom. It felt strange sneaking out of my house when I was a soldier, but I didn't want to wake my mom and I really just wanted some solitude. Most things in the house - furniture, floor, et cetera - were made of wood. This made them incredibly squeaky. I moved as a shadow across the tiny living room, my mom asleep on the green couch, barely stirring. She still had the ancient TV on, many colors of light battling each other for control of the room. A swift exit through the front door put me back out on my front porch. Charlie's huge brown eyes traced my descent down the porch steps and he let out a soft whimper. The big baby loved attention.
Strolling down the street, I had no real direction in mind. I zipped my sweatshirt up and threw my hood over my head, hoping the night air could still reach me inside the cloth. My thoughts wandered about the confines of my head, touching here and there on subjects at random, though never fully dedicated to one thing. Maybe that's just what I needed, anything but more Cook on the mind. Cars lined the residential street and a million other houses stretched down its remainder on either side. Every house and every car so closely resembled each other. Things seemed opposite in today's America. All technology was devoted to the military, the public remaining virtually stuck in one place for a few hundred years now. Sure, they had some important medical innovations, but the average man could never even dream of the things the military was accomplishing through technological means. This philosophy wasn't exactly new, just accentuated in modern day. What struck me as odd was the backwards sense of conformity. Cars, houses, clothing, food and basically most things domestic looked so similar. It was as if independent brands had died out and given way to titans of their given industries, destroying competition, and with it, diversity. I passed by brick house after brick house, all with the same walls, windows, porch and roofing. Even the decoration efforts of the people seemed sub-par. I felt like this world of one saw me as the anomaly just as much as I did it. I stuck out from the average person with my long hair, cargo shorts and grey sweatshirt. Most people in the cities wore brown or black pants and some sort of a dress shirt of a common style. Society itself saw me as an outsider, and with each conformity I noticed, my vision of myself as such increased.
I rounded the corner of the residential street and emerged in a neon jungle. Restaurants, theaters and gas stations lined this street. Here people bustled about, and the noise hit me like a brick wall. It was amazing, really, how quiet and tranquil the residential streets were. They were a stark contrast to the business hubs that hummed through the night a mere block away from them. I decided a gas station would be tonight's destination. I strolled up to the sidewalk and waited as a stampede of cars thundered by. The traffic light overhead blinked yellow, then red, and the metallic river parted before me. I jogged across, not wanting to be in the tide when it next broke free. I approached the station and was almost to the door when a nicotine craving set in. One smoke before the rest of the journey wouldn't kill me. I leaned against the brick siding of the station and felt the cool damp brick as if it were on my bare back. This sweatshirt didn't do much, did it? I fished in my pockets and found a few crushed cigarettes and a stress ball. Finally my hand met one intact, and it was on to part two of the search. I groped every pocket but came up short.
"Crap, no light," I said aloud. I heard a small flick and a tiny flame lit next to me.
"I got you, buddy," hummed a deep voice behind the flame. The stranger lit my cigarette then retracted his hand into the shadows shrouding him.
"Thanks," I said, a little confused. "Not too bad a night, reasonably clear sky."
"You're right. I almost hadn't noticed." A hulking brute of a man in a navy uniform stepped from the veil of darkness, still clutching the lighter like an insect in his massive hand. The man's hair was pale blond. His gaze met mine and a chill shot down my spine as cold as his piercing, pale eyes.
"C-Calder?" I shuddered. This couldn't be happening. He turned to me and smiled, a name tag illuminated in the pale, silver moonlight nearly exactly matching his eyes.
"Don't forget that name when you talk to my manager, buddy. Break's over, I'll see you around." He snuffed out his cigarette under a mammoth shoe and strode into the gas station. I wasn't going to let him get away that easily. The knife's cold throbbed in my ankle as I glided around to the door and inside the station. I gave the place a quick scan. A small Indian man in a black sweatshirt browsed various snack items while a woman around 19 debated name brand cold medicine or its generic counterpart. I joined the guy in the snack isle and feigned interest in some chips. I spotted the giant behind the counter stocking some candy by the register. Other than we four, the store seemed deserted. I didn't know what my plan was. All I knew was that I needed to get to the bottom of this whole mess with Cook, and Calder was my ladder down. I grabbed the chips and began making my way to the front counter. The front door suddenly swung open and a guy in a long trench coat swooped in and approached the counter. I sunk back into the snack isle and watched from a distance, unable to understand fully what the two talked about. Snack Isle Man took a step closer to me, and I heard him mumble something under his breath. I caught his eye for a moment and gave him a questioning look. He hardly breathed the words, but I read his lips.
"Easy, tiger." He strode back towards the storefront and preoccupied himself with more products. More confusion seemed to present itself to me with each minute. I should have stayed in bed. Then, in an instant, the situation flipped. The man in a trench coat pulled a gun on Calder and began screaming for him to hand over all the money in the register and a candy bar. What an odd thing to demand in a holdup.
"Alright, alright just settle down," said Calder. He maintained perfect composer as he slid the key into the register, never breaking eye contact with the lunatic in front of him. The exchange was seamless. Calder handed over the money and a candy bar , and the gunman bid his thanks. Calder put his hands back up in a sign of resignation, but the gunman smacked him in the temple with his pistol. Calder hit the floor with a deep thud and the gunman made a break for it. That's when Snack Isle Man came alive and sprang at the bandit just before he reached the door. The two wrestled on the ground for a moment, but the gunman was quickly on the floor with a bloodied face and two guns fixed on his head. The Indian man had brought his own piece of the party.
"Alright, get up! Move!" The man had a commanding voice. He stowed the new weapon in his holster and drew a police badge. "You're under arrest for armed robbery and assault. Now if you'll kindly join me in my police car out front." The two went outside and more policemen stormed inside, followed by a few paramedics. They checked with the woman across the store as the paramedics brought Calder to his feet. He dusted off the dirt from his clothes, but otherwise seemed fine. The paramedics insisted on giving him an examination before turning him over to police examination on what happened. It seemed again that I was the outcast, the only one to whom nobody showed particular interest to or relation with. This, however, was only before a snide, cocky voice behind me changed my life forever.
"Didn't hurt you, did he, pretty boy?" I turned and was face to face with Cook. He smiled, missing several teeth and looking roughly 10 years older than the last time I had seen him. I acted on impulse. My hand shot to my knife, and I plunged the blade at its former owner. His hand stopped mine just short of his chest and twisted my wrist around, turning me backwards and forcing me to bend at the waist. He drew his gun swiftly and I felt the barrel press into the back of my spine in classic execution style.
"You know nothing," he said through a crooked smile. That was the first time I died. I felt the bullet explode through my skin, ripping apart my throat and tearing out more flesh and blood than I thought I had. I fell face first into a pool of myself, wondering how much longer I would see this world. I saw Cook's shoes turn on a dime and rock backwards with the kick of his gun. He blasted off six shots from his pistol. I saw the smoking shell cases fall to the ground, mingle with my blood as more thuds indicated fresh corpses. All was quiet as Cook took a few more steps towards the counter.
"Cook, they didn't need to die. We're almost done here, anyway." Calder obviously had more of a conscience than Cook.
"It matters? They were witnesses, and more importantly, a way to relieve my itchy trigger finger."
"You can't blast everything that comes your way. After all, look what happened last time you got crazy. Bit off a bit more than you could chew, huh?" I heard another thud, this one mixed with a crunch. Then I heard deep groans from someone on the floor.
"Don't you ever disrespect me like that again, understand?" Had Cook just leveled Calder? "Insubordinate trash like you is what causes me to do sloppy work. I missed his head, but with that much blood loss he'll be out soon." I felt myself slipping downward a bit, my peripherals becoming fuzzy. "Too bad I had to kill him, he could have been a valuable replacement."
"What for, sir?" said Calder.
"You." I heard a final round fire from Cook's pistol and he tossed it onto my back. "Good riddance to trash, I say." Cook strode past me and left through the front door. So he had missed my head, which was good. The bad news was that he was right about the blood loss. I was losing my grip on reality. Through the storefront windows I saw the city skyline erupt, aircraft emerging from the black sky and raining explosive ordinance on the seemingly identical buildings. Cook spoke into the radio of his chip. "Ease up on this position, I'm going to hang out and command from here. This building will be the only thing standing after the bombs are dropped." The door shut and Cook disappeared and slipped into the alley. Then my whole world disappeared and I slipped into blackness.
Dying is easy. It's coming back that sucks.