It’s eight o’clock in the morning. I am face to face with the family dog. Peaches, we named her, had her mouth poised to lick my face. Narrowly avoiding a slobbery smooch, I lightly pushed her back before she could make contact.
“Not today, Girl,” I said.
An older dog, Peaches glared at me through filmy cataracts and unwavering eye contact. She barked loudly to benefit, in part, her partial deafness, which I interpreted as “get out of bed.” I wasn’t willing to experience the ensuing headache that would follow another round of her barks, so I got up.
My bangs, previously matted to my forehead with the assistance of my oily skin, fell over my eyes as I arose from my slumber and stretched my long, pale arms to shake off the remaining shrouds of sleep.
A chill crawled up my spine. It was freezing. I immediately wrapped myself in my covers, noticing the air vent, positioned conveniently over my bed, was pumping a steady flow of wintry air directly on to my bare shoulders. If it was any colder in my room, I would be able to see my breath. Mom was overcompensating for the Kansas summer, again.
I stepped out of bed, pressing my feet to the wooden floor, and scrunched up my eyes to guard them from the sunlight bleeding in through the window blinds. Stumbling over the piles of laundry I had left on the floor, wearing my covers as a cloak, I looked out the window.
It was a pretty day in our neighborhood in Ashton, Kansas in spite of the weakened branches on the ash tree that occupied our front yard. The tree had been a staple of my childhood for many climbs. Now, it was dying, having fallen victim to the emerald ash borer, some pesky insect, or so I heard my father say the night before. He had been going on and on about it, so I just went to bed.
Father had an irritating habit of obsessing over the smallest details. If it wasn’t the ash borer, he would be complaining that the tree was affected by an overwhelming squirrel to nut ratio. The answer was never allowed to be “the tree is just dying.” Something else had to be at play. Last night the reason became the ash borer due to a report on the nightly news. Today, it was probably going to be my fault.
The door to my room creaked open behind me. I craned my neck to accost the intruder, but no one was there. Keeping my back turned, I said, “Hello?”
I threw down the covers and snatched an old t-shirt out of the closest pile of laundry and pulled it on. Gently grabbing Peaches by the collar, I walked her out into the hallway on the way to the kitchen. Eight o’clock was typical breakfast time during the summer, so I breathed in, hoping for the sweet, savory scent of fried maple bacon to grace my nostrils. I drew in nothing but the sour sleep smell ascending from my upper lip. It dawned on me that I might be home alone.
“Mom? Dad?” I called out.
Peaches trotted over to her food bowl, which sat on the patch of linoleum floor next to the kitchen sink. On the counter space, next to the sink, there was a picture frame holding a photograph of me. In it, I was reading a book, but my eyes were scrunched up together. I picked the frame up.
Looking back, I remembered the day fondly. I was four. Mom was on the couch, holding on to my father as he watched me from afar. Peaches, a puppy at the time, was nibbling at the ankles of my Aunt Margaret, who was standing on one of her toys. Aunt Margaret held the camera.
I had tried hard to remain focused on the book, but the goofy face Margaret was making didn’t make it easy. Luckily, she snapped a picture before Peaches tripped her up, bringing her down to the ground. Hearing Margaret’s yelp, Peaches apologized by kissing her on the mouth, causing my aunt to giggle. Her giggles shortly evolved into laughter, which broke everyone else in the room.
Around that time, the camera in her hand, a Polaroid, printed out the finished product. The picture turned out crooked and a little blurry, but you could see me wince, holding back tears from laughter. In the background, you could see my parents red in the face from their own amusement.
I recalled we didn’t stop laughing or making jokes about Aunt Margaret’s tumble with Peaches until a few hours later when it was time for dinner. Even that was a challenge.
“Today will be remembered forever,” Mom had declared at the dinner table. She was holding the picture in her hand.
Aunt Margaret chuckled, “I’ll deny it in court. Besides, I am not in the picture.”
Mom’s golden locks bounced down past her eyes as she smiled. She said, “Nothing to do with you,” as she glanced at me and winked.
Mom held her statement true by placing the picture and its frame out in the open by our sink. She told me she put it there to remember her “sweet little boy”. It was always her secret weapon when we argued. She would hold the picture up as a token to remind me I was disappointing her. Good times.
Startling me, the front door of the house opened up and slammed closed. Peaches shot up from her food bowl with a flash of concern, ignoring the crumbs of food falling from her open mouth.
I said, “Hello?”
My father responded, “One of these days, I am just going to have to chop the tree down. If I can’t enjoy the things and people I love, no one will. Maybe, they can take me down next.” It didn’t feel like he was speaking to me.
“Nice to see you too,” I said. “Where’s Mom?”
Father walked up the small set of stairs that led from the front door to the living room. When he made it to the top, he threw his briefcase to the other side of the living room, sending the papers inside flying. He said, “Oh, that is just fantastic,” as he scrambled to pick up the mess he had created.
“Where is Mom?” I said, impatiently.
Once he gathered all of the papers back inside the case, he gently placed it down on the fireplace. Moving past Peaches, who had moved swiftly to greet him, he strolled into the kitchen, planting his feet in front of mine.
“Good Morning, Andrew,” he said through gritted teeth. “Want the truth or do you want the lie? Your mother is going to be fine. I’d appreciate if you would just not ask again today.”
“What was that for? Who was Andrew?” I thought to myself.
Father stomped towards the kitchen table. With his back turned, he began patting around for something frantically.
“Well, can you make breakfast?” I begged.
Father responded, “I’m not sure, Andrew. Can I? Oh, here it is,” and held up a letter opener. The light from the kitchen fixture shined down on the blade of the letter opener as Father grinned. He looked like the Grinch. “This will have to do,” he said.
He began to approach me, the letter opener gripped tightly in his hand. “I wish I didn’t have to do this, Andrew. I really do, but rules are rules,” he said. The letter opener was pulled back, primed to strike.
“Dad? DAD?” I yelped.
Father stopped and held the blade by his side, “Can you hand me the envelope behind you? I need to open it.”
I gaped at him. Why had I thought he was going to stab me?
“Shocking, I know,” he continued, “I left the house without opening all of yesterday’s mail. I’m having a hard time keeping up with things after these last few days, Son.”
Speechless, I grabbed the envelope next to the stove and handed it to him. I felt equal parts frightened and silly for being so frightened. Father would never deliberately try to hurt me, I didn’t think.
Father grabbed the envelope, opened it up, quickly peered inside, and relaxed his tense shoulders. After a sigh of relief, he said, “That’s better. I’ll just take this with me on the way back to the hospital.” He peered down at me, a gentle look on his face, “I’ll be back to get you tonight. You’ll see her again, I promise,” and walked back into the living room to grab his briefcase.
He scratched Peaches on the back of the ear, saying, “Good girl,” before walking back out the front door, closing it behind him.
Reliving the moment in real-time, I started to reach up to wipe away the drool from my mouth, but my arms were still held down by the rock hard constraints of the red dirt.
And, I couldn’t remember, for the life of me, why he was going to the hospital.
“What did I do to deserve this?” I asked out loud to an empty waiting room.
It was the first thought that came to mind as I gazed at the metal shine of the knife protruding from my chest. An agonizing whimper sprung from my vocal cords, but the three or four people nearby paid no mind to me. The only support I received came from underneath in the guise of a cold, uncomfortable chair.
I gripped on to the handle of the offending blade. Life’s final breaths had escaped the scream from my dry, cracked lips as I searched for the eyes of my killer, but my father had left the room almost as quickly as he had arrived.
Grief stricken, my Dad had said, “It’s good night, Alan. It’s good night for good,” driving the blade deeper into my chest. He said, “I’m sorry. There is no coming back from this,” left me all alone as he passed through the double doors that led to the hospital’s ICU.
Frightened, I called out for my mother, but she wasn’t coming. It was too late. She was never going to be there for me again.
A rumbling noise filled my ears. I couldn’t hear myself think. The cloud hanging over my dirt-tomb flickered like a malfunctioning strobe light. Its flames unraveled from their fiery binding. It appeared I was about to get struck by lightning. Lucky me.
The rumbling gained momentum. I wiggled my arms, hoping to fall to the side of the dirt pile and escape its pull. My efforts were useless. The dirt hardened around my arms like a vine and held me in place. I wasn’t only going to get struck by lightning. I was being served up for the slaughter.
I looked down at the open tear in the chest of my shirt. Dried blood caked around the spot where Father had stabbed me. I hoped the lightning would treat my breast plate as its bulls-eye, popping me like an old balloon, and take me away from this awful place. But, in spite of my call for cessation, the cloud returned to a placid state snuggled up in its inferno blanket. I felt like it was mocking me. After that little bit of excitement, I was left to roast under the blaze, immobile.
I studied the way the flames linked the clouds together like cotton tangled up in chicken wire. Every now and then a solar flare would pelt down, narrowly missing my face, and starting a small fire on the ground. I got nervous about the fires after the first few times, but they would eventually just extinguish themselves.
Curiosity about the patterns of the solar flares distracted me from my predicament. Occasionally, I could make out the dull tones of what sounded like whispers, but the flares are what helped me pass the time.
It was unlikely that my social calendar was going to fill up anytime soon, so I set aside some time to reflect on my situation. What got me here? Sure, Father held the knife. That went without question. But, why did Father hold the knife? I was a good son. He was a decent dad. It seemed like so much of the last few days had been erased from my memory like I was an Alan Quinn etch-a-sketch.
Am I still asleep?
I pushed my fliers out of my hands and into those willing to accept them within the crowd. A few either handed the fliers back or crumbled them on the ground. Most didn’t pay attention to anything I had typed on the fliers, but a small cluster snatched them out of my hands like hotcakes. I had recognized the cluster as a pack of locals around town. A lady from the group grabbed my shirt and pulled me back. I was too distracted by her yellow t-shirt featuring a giant rattlesnake to notice how concerned she looked.
She said, “You’re from the family that just moved in on Jordan Street?”
I tried to pull away but this only strengthened her grasp. Her group, donned in matching t-shirts, was also awaiting an answer from me. I said, “We moved in a few weeks ago,” and pointed to the flyer, “Have you seen my father?”
The lady chuckled to her friends, but I apparently had missed the punchline of the joke. Her lips opened up, making way for two rows of cigarette stained teeth, “Have we seen your father? Why, our neighborhood watch could smell him when entered the town.”
I involuntarily sniffed my shirt. I couldn’t’ help it. Did I have a smell?
She continued, “We don’t like a lot of change in our town and your father brought in a whole wave of change when your family moved in.”
“Well, he’s gone missing,” I interrupted, “And I really just want to know where he’s run off. I don’t know about any trouble.”
“Sounds like there is still hope for you, but I’m afraid it’s all over for your father. If he knew any better, he’d stay gone.”
I made one more attempt to pull away, but a voice, girlish, pretty, and youthful, yelled from behind me. It said, “What are you doing, Mom? Let him go.”
The angry woman released me and started in on my savior, but her demeanor had changed. She said, “I was just having a one on one with a new neighbor,” she eyed me, “Wasn’t I?”
I turned around to sneak a peek at the girl who saved the day. It was the red headed girl. I felt time stop. All of the confidence I had when I was interacting with people in line was sucked right out of me. I heard her ask “Are you okay?” but my lips wouldn’t move. I just nodded my head. What in hell was wrong with me? She looked at me like I had snot on my face, so I took the opportunity to run to the end of the line.
I reached in my book bag to pull out more fliers, but my bag was empty. I knew I hadn’t given them all away, so I darted my eyes back to the family who were in the middle of a heated argument. I worried it was about me. I saw the red headed girl standing with her arms crossed, probably more embarrassed by her family’s matching t-shirts than anything. For a second I imagined me swapping places with her and spending my time in line with the Dream Catchers, wearing matching belts on our heads but quickly shook the image out of my head. After all, I didn’t want to vomit while I was standing in line.
To make matters worse, I spotted the missing fliers in a trail on the ground leading back to the red headed girl. I was thankful for the heat because my face was too red for her to see that I was blushing when I returned to their little circle. As I got close enough to interact with her, she scooped up a flier and studied it. She said, “Does your family always look like they are staging a stock photo?”
I racked my brain for something witty. I muttered, “History may never know,” which was probably the dumbest thing I could have possibly said. I wanted to scream and run, but I figured that was not socially acceptable. To my surprise, the red headed girl laughed hysterically. It sounded like a laugh that had been waiting to be released for decades. Judging by her mother, I didn’t imagine they laughed a lot in their home.
“Sarcasm is always acceptable,” she quipped. “What’s your name?”
“Alan. Alan Quinn. I’m sorry. This is weird for me.” I started for the back of the line, feeling stupid. It was kind of like a monster was taking over my brain.
The red headed girl ran and caught up to me, “Hey, did I say something wrong? I thought we were joking around.”
I wish I knew how to dial back the awkwardness around her. Something about the girl made me want to go home and hide. “Yeah, I guess we were,” I responded. “Do you want to help me pass out fliers?”
She shot a glance back at her family. I wondered if she was trying to hang out to spite her mother’s reaction to me. She pushed a strand of hair behind her ear and smiled, “Well, Alan, I think I would.”
The red headed girl’s name was Jessica. I know this because she told me three times in the short walk to the back of the line. I had heard her the first time, but still found it difficult to respond. I’m concerned she is mistaking my fascination with her for deafness. The few mumbles I managed also may have implied a speech impediment.
Jessica, likely in the throes of questioning why she followed me, shifted the direction of our conversation. She said, “So, Mr. Mumbles, do you want to tell me more about your dad? Maybe that will get you to calm down.”
I took a deep breath. Answering her should be easy. I said, “It’s complicated.”
She rolled her eyes. If I ever was going to get a chance to be her friend, I think I blew it. She said, “It can’t be that complicated. My father ran out on my mom when I was a toddler in case you were wondering what gave her such a charming personality. I love her, but she makes it difficult when she gets angry like that. How’s your mother handling things?”
“She’s fine,” I said. An image of Mom draining another bottle of wine had popped up in my head. Jessica frowned, seeing right through my lie. I recovered, “She’s taking it a day at a time.”
A hand gripped my shoulder and yanked me around. The owner of the hand, a middle aged black man dressed neatly in a pitch black business suit, said, “Do I know you?” I noticed a pin on his right chest pocket decaled with a paintbrush painting a globe. I said, “I don’t think so,” and turned my attention back to Jessica whose eyes were piercing me. “Eyes forward, Quinn,” she whispered.
The man persisted, “No, I am positive that I know you from somewhere. Maybe it was in a picture or a painting.” I showed him one of the fliers. He shook his head, “No, it was something much bigger. I’m sure it’ll come to me in a minute.” He was obviously messing with me, but I was too frightened to call him out on it. There was something devilishly cool and calm about the way he spoke.
Jessica forced her body to face forward; acting like the man was a figment of her imagination that would disappear as long as she ignored him. I wanted to ask her if she was okay, but thought better of pressing the issue.
The man grabbed a flier off of my stack, “What are these things for? Is it common around here to hand out family photos? Such a friendly place.”
I took a queue from Jessica and faced forward. I still didn’t know why she was freaking out, but I figured she must have a good reason.
The man bent down so only Jessica and I could hear him, “Be weary of what you see and hear for the next few days. I know you don’t want to trust me, but I know your family. Your name is Alan and your father is Reese. If that isn’t enough, Maggie is your mother. “His voice took on a darker, more sinister tone, “A man covered in shadows approaches. Please, take a look around.”
My heart was beating faster than my eyes could dart up. The whole of my body felt cold in spite of the radiating heat. Everyone in line was frozen in place. Jessica joined them still in her nervous position. I wondered if she had been frozen earlier.
“Don’t act so surprised. You weren’t paying attention and that certainly won’t do. Truthfully, your father is an asshole. You are lucky to have lost him.” I wished I had the guts to kick him in the balls, but I was busy trying not to pee my pants. I wished I could wake up from this dream. The man flipped me around. My feet were floating a few inches off the ground.
The man’s eyes shined with the blaze of fire. His voice multiplied into three different tones and volumes, “Alan, you are thinking small. It makes sense because you are small. Small minded. You aren’t just human small. You are grain of sand small.” I tried to look away, failing. My neck wouldn’t operate.
He said, “Listen to me closely. You are going to make friends and allies in the next few days. Well, they will feel like friends and allies, but they are lying to you. They are trying to get to you. You are a coward, so you will let them. On the third day, I will reappear with a solution. Can you hold on till then?”
The man flicked his wrists and raised them slowly up and down. I could feel my head moving with them. He was in control of me.
“I promise you, Alan,” he said, “You will find your father. When you do, you’ll wish you hadn’t.”
Regaining control of my mouth, I said, “Then should I just give up? Is that what you want?”
“No,” he frowned. His expression was almost melancholy, “No, Alan. I want you to find him. But, when you do, I want you to kill him.”
He snapped his fingers, freeing up everybody in line. Unfortunately, for me, that’s when I passed out.
Thomas William Shaw is an author and stage actor from Birmingham, AL. He lives with his wife, Lauren, their children, and their cats in a quiet place. Occasionally he will post about it.