“The deal better go through, and I mean spotlessly,” said the silver haired man. “Your job’s on the line here. Don’t forget it.”
Andrew felt like a soldier standing at attention before the large mahogany desk. He stared into the center of his boss’s face, focusing on the thick white bristles of the man’s mustache.
“Yessir,” he chirped, fighting the impulse to click his heels and salute.
The old man leaned back in his chair and gestured for him to leave, which he did smartly.
The deal was simple, he knew. It was something he had done dozens of times; so often that it no longer required thought. When his younger coworkers asked how he finished tasks with such ease, he described it as being like a great free throw shooter. “You figure out the technique, then do it so many times that there’s no longer any thought involved – it becomes muscle memory. Eventually it becomes routine.” But even the greatest shooters miss from time to time, he thought as he shut the door to his office. And this one’s for the game with less than two seconds left.
Andrew knew his boss was a perfectionist. He was a man whose demeanor shifted between a balance of two extremes – exceptional geniality, and fiery anger. Employees of the corporate executive frequently questioned the man’s sanity.
He had been the lead man for decades, Andrew knew. Whatever his mental temperament, the man made money for the company. Heaps of it.
Andrew, on the other hand, wasn’t climbing any rungs on the corporate food chain. He was smart enough to get through business school with a GPA that made him attractive enough to hire by firms with entry-level positions. A hard worker, he pushed himself up the lower ranks and into middle management, until the current became too strong to swim further. Regardless of effort, his position never budged. He was continually fighting just to keep what little progress he had made.
Nothing was going right in his life lately. Two years ago he and his wife separated. She caught him sleeping with one of the ladies at the office who worked under him – a brown-skinned twenty-something from a country south of Mexico. He tried to explain to his wife that he didn’t love the woman. “I love you,” he told his wife, “and only you.” But the pressures of work, the long hours away from home, the slowing of their sex life since the birth of their son Ian – all these factors had stressed his mind and body to the brim. Andrew had found a kindred spirit in Becca (the woman he cheated with). They both experienced the same hardships at work, usually together. She understood him. One day, when the opportunity arose, they gave in to each other without thought. It was a moment of mindless passion that he regretted and promised to himself would never occur again.
He wasn’t sure that he believed his own explanation. His wife, Liz, certainly didn’t.
Ian, now nine years old, visited him on the weekends at his one-bedroom apartment downtown. The poor kid had no friends in the area, and Andrew felt sorry about the boredom he knew his son suffered through during every stay. Sometimes he thought it might be better for the kid to visit less often – maybe one weekend a month. The kid’s got to have time with his friends. What kind of a childhood is one without weekends with friends? But he wanted – no, he desperately needed to be a part of his son’s life. He couldn’t stand the thought of becoming a stranger to his own child.
Last week, drinking alone at a sports bar within walking distance from his apartment, he resolved to take on bigger projects at work. Maybe, in a few months, if he proved himself enough, he could ask for a raise and be able to afford a small home in the suburb where Ian went to school. Then, visiting him wouldn’t be an issue. He could even see his son occasionally within the week.
Unless a miracle occurred on this deal, he knew, that dream might never be realized.
Andrew hated his luck. He hated everything his life had become. What happened? He often wondered. Everything was going so well, until one mistake, just one god-damned mistake.
Shadows blanketed the city streets when Andrew departed work. The Sun’s edge barely peeked over the horizon, creating a fuzzy pink and yellow glow in the evening sky. Andrew checked his watch – only 5:15 pm. The days were getting shorter.
He slowly descended the steps at his building’s entrance, not really stepping but letting gravity pull him downward. His legs braced stiffly and fell against each step. The clop of his heels echoed off the tall grey buildings, and rolled over vacant streets. Andrew stared at the ground in front of him.
“Excuse me, sir!” a woman hollered from behind. He walked on without looking, unaware that she could be speaking to him. “Sir! Hey you, the only guy around!”
The words tumbled in his mind, unanalyzed – then he stopped.
“Uh, yes?” he turned.
“It’s for you,” she said, fully extending her arm and pushing a cell phone under his nose. He recoiled.
“Um, no. No I don’t think so.”
“Really, sir, you must answer it! He can help, and he won’t talk to anyone but you.”
As she spoke he appraised her, thinking that she must be a crazy homeless person. He observed her hands, looking for any indication that he might be in danger.
The extended arm did, in fact, hold a cell phone. An old one, he could see – stout and thick with a stubby antenna at the top. It flipped upward like a clam shell. It was one of those phones sold early in the mobile phone craze. Primarily a phone with texting capability; it was not a miniature computer that could call people.
He looked past her arm, then to her face, which he noticed was younger than his own, but not youthful. Maybe his wife’s age – late twenties to early thirties. She had brown hair that looked dirty and unbrushed, but assembled hastily into a bun on the back of her head. There were streaks on her cheeks, and he couldn’t tell if they were from dust or smudged makeup. She wore a dress – grayish blue cut off at the arms, floor-length skirt, and a collar that reached her neck. Her bare arms were the most immodest part of her appearance.
He was instantly attracted to her.
“Okay,” he said, and grasped the phone with trembling fingers. She stepped backward and crossed her arms, her stare held him intently and he looked away. “Hello?… Yes this is he… Who are you?… No, tell me your name…. How do you know about that?” He scowled and turned his back to the woman. “Well, what do I have to do?… How do I know you’re telling the truth? That I can trust you?… What? Hello? Hello?” He glanced at the miniature screen. “He hung up,” he said as he turned back.
She was gone.
Andrew was right about his son. Little Ian despised visiting his father every weekend. Friday afternoons often became a contest of hide and seek between Liz and her son, whose ability to compact himself and avoid sight had earned him the nickname “little Ian” among his classmates.
He hated the nickname, and would kick his friends in the shins when they dubbed him so. In addition to being smaller then the other boys his age, Ian possessed an elusive quickness with which he evaded vengeful blows and could skirt away unharmed. Once he was out of sight nobody could find him. Not even the recess chaperones seeking to discipline him after the other boys had tattle-taled.
Liz and Andrew had never fully explained to their son why they had stopped living together. Ian could only remember the day when the two of them sat across him at the supper table and informed him of the fact.
“Why?” he asked.
After a moment, “because there are some things your dad and I need to figure out.” Ian could tell by the tone of her voice that the discussion was over, and she would not answer any further questions.
He thought about that day often, and he wondered if they were trying to figure him out. It bothered him that his mother seemed unchanged by the absence of his father. She carried on around the house in the same fashion, cooking dinner for him every night, watching television with him before it was time for bed. She tucked him in and kissed his forehead before clicking off his bedroom light, and she drove him to and from school or friends’ houses every day. Her face was the same face, it never changed.
In second grade his teacher showed photographs to the class of famous artwork and monuments. When she held up a picture of the Egyptian Sphinx, Ian pointed and said, “that looks like my mom, only she’s got a nose.” The class laughed but Ian’s expression was somber.
Ian’s dad, on the other hand, seemed to become a different person. He had the same smile, the same firm grip when they hugged, the same stern yet concerned voice – but his activity increased. The man never seemed to sit still – always tapping his foot or drumming his fingers; standing up suddenly and retreating to the other room, returning sometimes only minutes later and other times not for hours. Ian noticed his father’s hair was graying on the sides.
They also had trouble talking. Andrew only responded to his son with two word statements. “That’s nice… atta boy… oh, really?… mmhmm.” Sometimes he didn’t respond at all, but continued to stare off at nothing in particular.
Visiting his father was boring, but it wasn’t because Ian thought his dad was dull, it was because he was never present. Andrew and Ian were only together when the boy arrived, when they ate, and when he left to go back to his mother’s. Every other minute of the day his father spent in the bedroom, barricaded behind stacks of paperwork on a coffee table converted into a makeshift desk.
When he got sick of television, Ian paced the six steps between the apartment’s living area and the bedroom’s doorway. He stomped and sang and narrated strange tales he had invented with weird voices that varied in volume, all in a desperate attempt to get his father’s attention.
He knocked over a floor lamp, once, causing the bulb to shatter against the wall. Andrew scolded him and told him to be quiet, but never left his seat. Ian was reprimanded by a muffled voice behind a thin, plaster wall.
Today something felt different.
After his mother threatened to ground him from visiting his friends and playing video games for a month, Ian reluctantly materialized at the front door, fully packed and ready for the weekend. When they arrived at the entrance to the apartment building, Andrew wasn’t standing outside waiting to greet them. They waited ten minutes and called his cell phone several times without success. Finally, Liz buzzed the landlord to let them in, and escorted Ian up to the fourth floor residence herself. The door was unlocked so they let themselves in.
“Andy! You here?” Liz bellowed.
“In the bedroom,” came the muffled reply. Ian noticed the door was closed.
Liz said goodbye to her son, kissed him on the cheek and warned him to be on his best behavior. She left him standing just inside the entrance.
The silence pressed against his head. Ian heard his own pulse.
“Dad?” he said, stepping toward the bedroom at the opposite end of the flat. The carpet suppressed his footfall. A slight ringing rose in his ears. “Daaaad?”
A stifled mutter from the bedroom. The door burst open.
“Hey son!” his father galloped into the room. His mouth stretched into a smile so wide that Ian could clearly see the man’s gums protruding past his lips. “I’m so glad you’re here! Oh, my, it’s so good to see you!” Andrew pounced upon his son, and wrapped him in a bear hug that almost smothered the small boy against his chest. “Oh Ian, I love you so much!”
Ian said I love you to his father’s armpit.
“Let me look at you,” he said, and held Ian in front of him at arm’s length. The boy tried to speak but couldn’t catch his breath. Just over his father’s shoulder the Sun was setting, its light entered the room through a window in the bathroom and fell upon his father’s back. The glare reflected off the apartment’s white walls and Andrew’s starched dress shirt, causing the man to glow before his son’s eyes. Ian was forced to squint; he blinked uncontrollably.
His hair looks white. He thought.
A ringing came from the bedroom – it was a ringtone the boy had never heard before. “Oh, excuse me son,” Andrew said, “gotta get that.” He stepped back into the bedroom and shut the door. A shadow passed through the room.
He could barely make out the silhouette of a distant airplane passing by the window.
Ian awoke on his father’s couch as if from a nightmare. He sat up with a jerk, shoving away his quilt and rubbing his face with both hands. There was no sweat, but he panted heavily.
He had already forgotten the dream that had shaken him.
His heart fluttered and his pulse pounded drums in his ears.
The television had been left on. A vampire with long fingers and pointy ears stalked across the screen; shadows cast across his face, carving high cheek bones and pointy teeth into a silhouette that crouched over a sleeping babe. The music was building into an eerie crescendo as the fanged shade descended on the child.
Ian switched it off.
He lay back down and let out a deep sigh. He shut his eyes and tried to calm his breathing, telling himself there’s no such thing as monsters.
As he drifted off, a muffled cry pressed behind the wall of his father’s bedroom. He sat up again, looking over the back of the couch in the direction of the noise. Yellow light spilled underneath the bedroom door. It angled around the corner and stretched to touch the edge of the couch. Ian stood and followed it. He stepped as lightly as he could, letting the carpet absorb each footfall. As he neared the door, he looked up toward the bathroom window.
No moon. Not even a star illuminated the night sky.
Ian pressed his ear to the door. His father was talking, that was clear, but the boy couldn’t understand anything. The voice was subdued and, Ian thought, sad.
“Fine,” Ian heard him say clearly. The voice cracked as though choking back a sob. After a few seconds of heavy breathing, Ian heard the distinct clack of the phone being snapped back into its clamshell shape. The light went out. Ian returned to the couch.
Andrew arose earlier than normal the next morning. The smell of frying bacon fat and the spattering sizzle sounds that accompanied it awoke his son several minutes later. Ian opened his eyes, tricked by his senses into believing he was back home with his mom. Instead of being greeted, however, by the protective poses of super hero posters throughout his bedroom, Ian’s first sight was his father’s bony back hunched over a steaming skillet; with elbows jutting outward like unfeathered wings.
“Good morning!” Andrew shouted over the sounds of cooking, a bit too loudly. “Hungry!?”
Ian rubbed his eyes and sat up. When the haze of his vision cleared he saw that his father’s hair was gone.
“You shaved your head?” he said dumbly. Andrew turned to him with the same large grin on his face as the night before.
“Yup! Do you like it?”
“Not really… it’s weird.”
“Did you do that last night?” Ian said.
“Yup.” Andrew removed the skillet from the hot stove and scooped the bacon onto a pile of paper towels.
Okay, Ian thought, and walked to the bathroom. As he relieved himself he thought about the night before, and wondered when his father could have possibly shaved his head without waking him. He drew circles in the toilet bowl until the waste-basket caught the corner of his eye. Inside rested a pile of hair, so white that, at first, Ian mistook it for threads of cotton. He finished then returned to the main room.
“Was that your hair in the waste-basket?”
Andrew set two plates onto the kitchen table, each covered with scrambled eggs, bacon, buttered toast, and home fries.
“Why was it white?”
Andrew sat in front of his plate and gestured for his son to do the same. “Well, son, when you get older that type of thing happens.”
“But I just saw you a week ago and you didn’t look like that.”
“Isn’t aging great?” he stuffed a forkful of potatoes into his mouth. While chewing he said, “it just sneaks up on you.”
Although confused, the sight and smell of breakfast was overwhelming. Ian gave in to his hunger and joined his father at the table – the conversation forgotten.
When Andrew finished, he stood and stretched. “What would you say to going on a hike with your old man today?”
Ian swallowed and shrugged, then stuffed another mouthful.
“I thought maybe we’d get some exercise. The weatherman said it’s supposed to be sunny all day. Clear skies. Maybe we could pack a lunch and bring the stuff to make s’mores.”
Ian nodded as he scraped the last bite off his plate.
“Wow you sucked that dry,” his father said. “You still hungry? Want some more?”
For once, the weatherman had given an accurate forecast. Blue sky stretched from horizon to horizon without a single cloud to interrupt its color. Ian, standing on a large boulder in a small clearing, shielded his eyes from the Sun with a cupped hand. He felt like a soldier saluting the gods.
“It’s like the ocean or something,” he said, staring upward.
“What?” said Andrew breathily, slowly dragging his feet up the path a few dozen feet below his son.
“The sky,” Ian said again without looking, “it’s like looking at a really big puddle. Or a lake without current on a windless day.”
Andrew caught up to his son and rested with his hands on his knees, panting. “Son,” he gasped, “you’ve got the mind of a poet.” He coughed, squinting his eyes and turning away.
“You okay dad?”
“Yup,” he wheezed, “just a little out of shape.”
“You got something caught in your throat?”
After allowing his father a few more minutes to compose himself, Ian suggested they start again. The two hikers moved up the mountain in a dual formation that became more and more staggered as Andrew drifted behind the pace of his son. Ian was constantly moving. He chased squirrels and chipmunks, found tiny stones that he tossed into the surrounding forest and an occasional brook, swung on low-lying branches over the path. Every fifteen or twenty minutes he would stop and wait for his father in the shade, either sitting at the base of a tree or climbing it and sitting the crux of its limbs.
When they had climbed approximately halfway up the mountain, Andrew told his son to start collecting branches and kindling for the fire they would build at the top.
“You sure you can make it?” Ian would taunt him.
“Oh, don’t you worry about me.”
Ian devoted himself to the task. He loved using his hands and being outdoors. Although he enjoyed playing video games (something all of his friends seemed obsessed with), he found that he preferred to be outside, imagining and enacting his own adventurous stories. While his friends sat in front of the television pressing buttons to simulate war and conquest, Ian would go outside and scavenge for a stick proportionate to the size of a rifle. He’d carry the stick around with the butt end pressed into his shoulder like in the movies, and he’d stare along the top of it with one eye open as he aimed at squirrels, trees, and bushes who fought on the side of his enemy.
On the hike, he imagined that he and his dad were two men lost in the wilderness after being separated from their company in the heat of battle. It was just them and their wits keeping them alive in this harsh environment; with the enemy potentially lurking around every corner, and hungry wild animals (who had been eating the fresh corpses of soldiers who’d fallen on the field of battle) after them with a taste for human blood. As he saw it, the two of them had to get to the top of this mountain and build a fire to signal to their comrades where they could be found and rescued. The collection of firewood was pivotal to their survival, and so he went about the task diligently.
Ian was so absorbed in his imagination that he didn’t notice how his father’s pace had continued to slow as they approached ever closer to the summit.
The ascent, which should have only taken a couple of hours to complete, ended when the two hikers plopped onto a chair sized boulder after six hours of climbing. Ian dropped his pile of timber and the backpack containing food and water a couple of paces from where they lounged.
A light breeze passed over Ian’s face, made cool by the beads of sweat dotting his forehead. He felt the steady thud of his heartbeat in his chest, and drifted back into reality from imagination when he saw the Sun’s skirts brushing against the Western horizon. He looked at his father, who sat staring at the ground between his feet.
“Go ahead and build up the fire pit,” Andrew said without looking up. The yellow glint of dusk reflected off of his scalp. “Make it as big and blazing as you can. We’ll have our dessert first.” He smiled weakly while continuing to stare downward.
Ian set about his task, feeling slightly ill at ease from his father, but not quite understanding why. He must be really tired, he thought, he’s so old now. I climbed too fast for him. He found a hand-sized rock and dug a shallow pit in the soil, then encircled it with other stones about the same size. The kindling – twigs, smaller sticks, pine cones – was placed in the center, then straddled with sticks that were slightly larger. He returned to the backpack and began to pull out the matches and cooking equipment for the lunch that would now become their dinner.
“Don’t worry about the s’more stuff,” his father said. “You just get that fire going and I’ll bring the chocolate and marshmallows over in a minute.”
Ian nodded and returned to the pit. As he kneeled before it, he noticed a large, thick cloud tumbling toward them from the northeast. Tall and grey, it reminded Ian of a giant top hat, like the one Abe Lincoln always seemed to be wearing in textbook photographs.
He lit his match and held it to the kindling until it caught the flame. As the twigs and small sticks burned he wafted his hand to blow oxygen into the pile. Oxygen is food for fire.
“I’ll be there in a sec, son. Don’t turn around, I got something for you. A surprise.”
“Okay!” he yelled back. Is this why he was so determined to climb all the way up here? I wonder what it could be! The cloud continued to approach at a surprising speed. It was almost above their mountain now. Ian decided it must be an illusion caused by being so high up.
The larger sticks caught the flame, and Ian placed even larger branches in the pit. The fire licked the dry wood, tasting its flammability, then snatched it, creating an orange blaze. The wood snapped and cracked loudly under the embrace, scaring birds out of nearby trees and bushes. Ian watched their black silhouettes flap away against the backdrop of the now half-set sun, which painted the sky a deep rose pink.
“It’s almost done dad!” he called.
“Okay,” he said, “be there in a second.”
Ian breathed deeply and felt the crisp air spread through his nostrils, down his throat, and into his chest. The cloud had moved almost directly above them now. The sun brushed the horizon in dark red.
“Okay, here I come,” Andrew said. “It might help if you close your eyes.”
Ian shivered with excitement. He heard his father rustling through the backpack; then his footsteps approaching. They stopped directly behind him. Andrew exhaled a deep sigh.
“I love you, Ian,” he said.
“I love you too Dad.”
A metallic snap, almost like a scrape.
Ian felt a thud behind him. He turned and saw his father passed out on his side, lying awkwardly on his left arm. His right hand held a .22 caliber pistol.
Ian felt numb. He removed the gun from his father’s hand and examined it. He knew nothing about guns, but he saw what looked like a bullet casing wedged awkwardly in the ejection port. A misfire.
He removed the casing and pointed the gun toward the nearest tree. He pulled the trigger. The blast startled him, and he dropped the weapon.
A brass ringtone interrupted his suspense and he screamed with a shrill before clamping his hands over his mouth. The sound came from his unconscious father’s pocket. He tentatively reached into Andrew’s shirt and removed the stubby, clam-shaped phone, and flipped it open.
This story may not be reproduced without signed, written consent from the author – me. Copyright February 2012