Chapter One: The Dark Man, The Old Man And A Boot
Luke Peter slept fitfully in his bed because a dark man stood atop a telephone pole while a cold wind blew. He had a corncob pipe clamped between his teeth and blue smoke made a halo around his head. The dark man’s yellow eyes narrowed while he stood atop his tall perch, his mind working away at the boy’s heart. A dog bayed anxiously on the street below and the dark man hissed between his teeth. Luke’s long limbs tangled in his bed sheets and comforter while his heart throbbed into an irregular beat. The dark man meant to kill the boy. He meant to stop Luke’s heart and sometime in the morning or possibly in the afternoon, he’d be found, bathed in sweat and ice cold. The medical examiner would scratch ‘Congestive Heart Failure’ even though Luke was a sixteen year old in the prime of life. He’d be buried in the suit he had once worn to his mother’s funeral while his father fought back tears. The dark man nearly would have done it if it wasn’t for a worn, rawhide laced, cracked leather boot. The old boot sailed, end over end, and nearly struck the dark man in the thigh. That had been enough to cause the dark man to recalculate his murder attempt. He was an unknown element. He was the shadow lurking at the fringes of his prey’s mind. The fact that someone knew of him and knew enough to try and stop him from conducting his errands was distressing. The dark man dispelled like smoke from a snuffed out candle. Luke’s heart rate slowed in his chest and his sleep became less fitful.
Having your heart clenched and compressed by a psychic hand isn’t good for your health, even if it doesn’t kill you. Luke’s body understood this fact even if Luke, himself, did not. The golden sunlight spilling in past his drawn curtains was like daggers driven into his eyes. He slapped his hands up to his face to block out the light and the sudden movement caused his stomach to protest. He could taste acrid bile seeping at the back of his throat. He swallowed it back and found himself swallowing it again and again. His eyes were watering from the pain of the light, but also because his sinuses were flared up, making him want to breathe out his mouth. This confluence of events was leading to one of two logical conclusions: either he vomited up last night’s Pizza Hut on the carpet in his bedroom or he navigated his way to the bathroom and upchucked there. Rolling on his side and letting loose onto his carpet seemed reasonable, but Luke figured that he wouldn’t think so after the deed was done.
He picked his body up like a very old man might get out of bed and he found that his legs had become mutinous overnight. They tingled and ached and he found that they were ignoring half the commands he gave them. The action of gingerly lifting himself up from his mattress had turned his stomach into a roiling sea and it was crashing up his throat. He couldn’t waste time on getting his legs under some semblance of control. He made his way, on his hands and knees, to the small, dingy bathroom at the end of the hall. Luke and his father hadn’t lived in a mansion by any means, but Luke might have sworn that he had traversed the entire length of Buckingham Palace on his way to the bathroom.
Inside the bathroom, Luke purged in big, heaping gasps and it had actually made him feel better. His brow was sweaty, pasting his brown hair to his forehead and his eyes had a watery film.
“No more. No more.” Luke whispered into the small bathroom. There was a small, high-hung window filtering in cool blue sunlight. Luke frowned and cooled his feverish face against the cool porcelain toilet and there, he glimpsed up toward the sink and spied his mother’s ceramic figurines. Neither him nor his father had the heart to box up any of her things. They remained untouched, collecting dust and grime. There was the smiling, little farm boy with a frayed straw hat cocked back behind his ears and a water-stain and soap scum halo blossoming beneath him. There was a one-legged gnome with a sagging belly, a pointed, red hat and an open wheel barrel where his mother had put her wedding and engagement rings when she washed her hands. She had been buried with those rings on her fingers. He closed his eyes, but the memories had slipped through, regardless. It was torture thinking about it, but the sight of his mother in her coffin reefed with a bouquet of red and white roses was like an sore on the inside of his mouth. He couldn’t stop tonguing at it. Suddenly, Luke didn’t want to be in the bathroom.
He forced his legs to obey him, forced them to take his weight and then wobbled out of the bathroom. His legs managed to buck his will while on the stairs, but he was able to seat himself before his knee could belt on their own. Downstairs in the kitchen, the tap was running and there was the clatter of dishes. Luke could smell dark-brewed coffee mixed with the smell of a fried egg with minced onions. His stomach churned faintly at the smell, but he had no want for the bathroom. He just clapped his hand against his stomach and massaged it softly.
“Easy. Easy.” He whispered to it, sounding a little like a horse trainer without meaning to.
At this point, in a normal father/son relationship, Luke would ask his father to stay home from school and his father would give Luke a suspicious stare, put a hand to Luke’s forehead and then consent to him staying home. In a normal father/son relationship, there might even be a promise from the father to check on Luke. Luke and his father didn’t have that kind of relationship. It wasn’t that Luke disliked father, he actually loved his father, he just didn’t trust him. What Luke didn’t realized and probably might have if he ever made it into a college psychology course, is that his situation with his father was so textbook that first year Psychology students might refer to Luke by name. In that psychology class, Luke would learn about a term called Deflection.
Of course, he wasn’t angry with his father. That wouldn’t make sense. His father had no way of stopping the cancer cells from spreading through his mother’s body. His father was mortal. True, seeing a parent’s fallibility can be a scary thing for a child, but Luke understood that his father wasn’t Superman. He had caught his father sobbing at the kitchen table while gripping a ceramic bird that Luke’s mother had painted. Luke had cried, silently in his room and it hadn’t occurred to him that his father might cry, as well. Luke understood that it’d be unfair to be angry with his father for being human, but seeing his father cry with his hands around his mother’s blue and white ceramic sparrow had knocked something loose in Luke. He loved his father, but he was waiting for his father to fail. He thought of his father as being a cement dam with giant fissures running through the foundation. Luke was sure of it. His father could break at any moment. He would not put pressure on such a crumbling structure and if that meant that he and his father had become strangers in the same house, then so be it.
Instead of speaking with his father, he kept silent in the darkened stairwell lined with four year old photographs of his mother and waited for his father to leave for work. The rattling tap cut off and there were the sounds of movement towards the back door, leading out toward the driveway. Luke heard the creak of his father’s heavy boots on the wooden back steps. When he heard his father’s old Chevy putter into life, he began rubbing feeling into his legs. Luke hardly ever skipped school and never abused the system that allowed him to do it. When his homeroom teacher listed him under absent, an automated phone call was sent to his house around noon. The answering machine picked it up, but Luke’s father had never really grasped how the answering machine worked. Messages normally remained on the machine for days, to be erased at Luke’s leisure. His father typically got home a few hours after Luke, so there was no reason for Luke’s father to ever be suspicious of his quiet son being up in his bedroom.
Once his legs had awoken, he started for his bedroom but there was a repeated clanging, someone bashing the side of a metal trashcan. Clang. Chink. Clang. Chink. There was the heavy ring of the trashcan and then a smaller sound of glass bottles resettling at the bottom. Someone was right outside the house, just a little ways away from the cracked blacktop driveway and the creaking wooden steps. Luke’s first thought was the neighbor boy, Jimmy. Jimmy, a three-foot tall, snot-nosed sadist with dreams of pro-boarding, had declared war on Luke after Luke drove over his skateboard during a driving lesson. Jimmy’s war mainly consisted the occasional egging, leaving graffiti on the side of their house and generally being disruptive. Luke wouldn’t have put it pass the punk to be playing a drum solo on their trashcans. He liked the idea of scaring the little brat, but his stomach hadn’t settled enough for him to charge out, screaming his head off like an ax-wielding psychopath. The next logical solution was turning the garden hose on him. It wasn’t exactly cold enough for him to get pneumonia, but a guy could hope.
Outside, he turned the rusted spigot and bent the green garden hose, cutting the flow of water so as to release the current at the perfect moment. He crept around the house, dragging the hose behind him. He’d left from the front door, snaked around the side, through the crabby, dehydrated lawn and picked up the hose. Clang. Chink. Clang. Chink. The sound rang through the cool, morning air. The trashcans were on the other side of the wooden fence with rotten knotholes dotted through the ancient Gofer wood. Clang. Chink. Clang. Chink. Luke stole across the length of the driveway, getting to the wooden fence as fast as his tender stomach would allow. His plan was to sling the garden hose over the unpainted, picket fence, letting loose the cold water laced with its reddish rust and drenching Jimmy while Luke laughed. That had been the plan and if it was Jimmy, the neighborhood terrorist, it would have worked. Instead, the hose was suddenly snatched from Luke’s hands and Luke was snatched up by the collar. The water from the garden hose sprayed out onto the cracked blacktop of the driveway. A shaggy German Shepherd went to the flow and lapped at the current while Luke stared eye to eye with an old man with old, gray eyes the dusty color of abandoned iron. His face was lined with hundreds of thousands of little grooves and pockmarks. In the old man’s hand, there was a polished wooden cane stained a deep crimson color.
“You’ll have to wake up a lot earlier than that to catch me with my pants around my ankles, Pecker-wood. Still, it’s a fair try for such a green child.” He said and his voice was cold and dark. It was gravelly like a machine fallen into ill-repair.
Luke gripped the old man and attempted to free himself from his surprisingly strong grasp. The old man gave a wary sneer and then released Luke, shoving him away in the process. Luke’s foot hooked behind the other and he fell backward onto his behind. The jostling piqued his stomach’s ire, but his pride was the only thing severely injured. The old man stepped forward, looking down at Luke and the dog had moved to the old man’s side, water dripping from his muzzle.
“Up now, boy. Ain’t much time before they come, trying to kill you again.”