JUST AN OLD MAN
Jeff Potter had been trying to text message the girl he'd left behind when the bars on his i-Phone's flat-lined. His heart slowed, as though slowly breaking. Maybe the battery died? "No Service" came the answer. He looked angrily out the van window. He'd been seeing nothing but boulders, pine trees and snow-capped mountains for miles and didn't like any of it. He wanted box buildings, sweeping power lines and neon lights. Especially light. Everywhere, there should be light.
Then he glimpsed a pretty road sign and a mountain towering up behind it.
"WELCOME TO MONITOR COUNTY! LAND OF DREAMS!"
But the mountain was the real signpost, a spectacle he couldn't take his eyes away from, a powerful force, as strong as when he first laid eyes on Karen Hale and then couldn't stop thinking about her. The difference between the two was that Karen filled him with love. The mountain filled him with sickening fear, like rounding a schoolyard corner and meeting a gang of bullies. The way it towered into the tarry blue sky, its summit like a glittering knife point, almost human in the way it stood, arms folded, sneering, forever taller than you.
Jeff tapped his i-Phone. Maybe it would come back to life. "No service" was as good as "You're dead." He wanted to throw the stupid thing through the van window. As he stared at the mountain-and it stared back-he wanted to turn to Mom and Dad for help.
"Let's go home!" he wanted to cry out. "Now! As fast as we can! Please!" But they'd only think he was whining like a kid. It was so hard to say anything. Every time Jeff opened his mouth, the words stumbled out stupidly. He'd said too many dumb things already. He gazed at the mountain as it grew taller behind them. "Be silent. Be safe." The words sounded inside his mind like the notes of a bell. But they weren't his.
With each passing hour and winding mile down into a blue valley shaped like a gaping mouth ringed with sharp teeth, Jeff more and more regretted his silence.
Late afternoon found Jeff with his parents in a small touristy pinewood restaurant waiting to be served. By now, Jeff's courage had risen again: Now I can say it: ‘Let's get out of here! Let's go back to L.A. now!'
"It's so beautiful here!" Jeff's mother Marsha suddenly blurted, her papery face beaming so hot, it looked like it would burn away. "I think we'll like it! It's like living inside a storybook!"
Now she'd done it. She'd all but committed them to staying. Jeff stared at his lap, concealed his horror-struck eyes behind black wings of hair. Moms always knew your thoughts, somehow. They looked in your eyes and read every word.
He closed his eyes. There was the mountain, its black shadow proudly painted across the red of his eyelids, burned in like a camera flash.
Every time you close your eyes, I will be here . . . you will never sleep again.
Finally, the server came. Andrew Potter, Jeff's dad, ordered a rib-eye steak. "Well done," he emphasized, his once-booming voice strangled by recovery into a whine. Mom shook her head and pursed her lips disapproving. Dad shrugged her off as he shoved the menu at the server. He'd once been addicted to alcohol and power. Now he was addicted to food and unhappiness and people laughed behind the back of this tremendously fat and silly man.
Jeff hated being seen with Dad. As an act of rebellion, he'd starved himself to bean-like skinniness. In return, people whispered jokes about how the two of them looked like a piccolo next to a tuba. Jeff felt hopeless: Every word and every deed came back to bite him somehow. All doors locked. Nothing but fire beyond.
The server was a rope-muscled redheaded hippie whose tee-shirt bragged "I'D RATHER BE CLIMBING" (and, considering his distracted manner, he meant it, too). The shirt was illustrated with another toothy mountain, but not a mean one like that weird sentinel to the west, that middle finger in the sky.
Then just as he turned to take Mom's order, the server looked across the dining room. His freckly face opened into a big smile.
"Mr. Bartok!" he cried. Then he took off, rudely abandoned the Potters to take care of another customer.
Wha the fuck . . . ? Dad's eyes once stared at the world with an eager ferocity that shivered the air. Now they looked confused and helpless from within their fatty slits. Gone were the days when Dad was always seated and served first before everyone.
For a second, Jeff thought the server was talking to empty space. Was that a large white pair of hands tearing open a black slit in? Was that someone stepping through? The space snapped shut with a cracking hum, like electricity.
It was just an old man. An old man seated at the table by the window, watching the daylight fade.
An ugly sucker too, the skankiest old coot Jeff had ever laid eyes on, with a face like a clear plastic pouch crammed full of dirty white rags. Time's razor had slashed a million wrinkles. Wiry hairs sprouted from his ears, bristled out his nose and lined his wattles. Thank God, he wore shades. Old people had ugly eyes, like red pits. Hope he keeps those glasses on.
The server wasn't bugged one bit by the old guy's ugliness. He fussed over him like he was a cuddly grandpa. "Mr. Bartok! How are ya? Good seein' you! How was winter up in Alpine Canyon? Will Annie be joining you?" The weird part about this conversation was that the old man didn't say boo, just smiled and nodded as the server yattered on, like he was a ventriloquist and the server was his dummy: "What'll you have? Hungry? Just green tea? Comin' right up, sir!"
Jeff's Dad waved as the server zoomed past. The server snapped a look at them. "Oh! Sorry!" Not. "Be right with you!" Wouldn't. Got my own priorities! Dad's eyes sparked with some of that old temper, the anger that had once made the world snap to.
Mom's happy eyes turned anxious. She grabbed Dad's arm. He was one beat away from stopping his overtaxed heart for good: "Andy, he might be the resort owner!"
Dad glared at the old man who now gazed serenely out the window to the east, across the road and the meadow beyond to where honeyed evening sun brushed the fir-covered hills and the blue sky turned an uncomfortable shade of violet (another thing Jeff didn't like: the colors around here were too strong, thick and runny, almost tropical, like syrup or bright melting crayons; or like the insides of a freshly opened cadaver).
The old man wore a perfectly black feathery suit from neck to toe. Silver hair frothed from his large head down to his shoulders. A hooked nose with flaring nostrils loomed over a sweeping mustache. An old tree stick leaned against the lacquered pine wall nearby.
Dad sniffed, tapped Jeff on the knee and winked: "Now there's a face that wore out two bodies!"
The server slowed for a second as he rushed by. The old man slightly turned his head, his huge ears almost perking like a cat's.
Daaaaaad! Jeff gaped in horror. Jeeez! What a thing to say!
Jeff's dad went on sincerely: "Don't ever get old like that." He patted his huge belly. "All this BS about staying in shape and living to a hundred is just the diet industry picking your pocket. Live fat! Die young! Eat life! That's my motto!" Dad shook with laughter. His face turned jolly red. "‛Live fat! Die young! Eat life!' That's rich! If I was still in TV, I could sell that!" Then his face fell sad again because he was not in TV or much of anyplace anymore but here, in this nowhere.
The server returned, unfriendly and unapologetic for his poor service. He finished taking their orders: Mom, chicken salad; Jeff, tofu salad; Dad ordered another bottle of non-alcoholic Clausthaler. "This beer and wine list wouldn't get a cat drunk," He told the server. "Dog piss and grape juice," he added when the server had gone.
The Potters waited. Mom tried to break the strained silence with lame comments: "I'm sure we'll be fine once we move into the house Mr. Garner's got for us." Her eyes danced, feverish with a future only she could see. "You've never lived in the country before, Jeff. Give it a chance! You might like it!"
Dad checked his i-Phone. No service. Not here, at the end and bottom of the world. He looked out the window at the darkening hills and said, "I bet they'll put some cell towers up there," referring to his new employer. "Garner says they own most of the county now."
Jeff looked out the window. As though on cue, the old man took off his sunglasses and gazed calmly over at the Potters, as though he had something to say.
His eyes sparkled from deep within the sockets, an unearthly blue glitter Jeff had never seen anywhere, not in jewelry, not on the sunlit sea, the cloudless sky or even the power suits Dad had once so proudly worn. But their coldness was familiar. The same coldness you found in the eyes of wolves.
And they were fixed on Dad, as though they could see inside-
A waking dream flooded Jeff's mind: the old man standing over Dad, pounding open a trench in Dad's head with his ugly stick thunk thunk crunch until skin and skull broke through Dad's thick gray hair; blood and brain oozing out gray and chunky; Dad staring up at the old man with slack dumb amazement, mouth open; the sour odor of blood; the old man's look of calm brutality-
Jeff slapped his hand over his eyes to wake up. The mountain flashed on his eyelids. When he looked again, Dad was staring at the floor with that same slack look. Their eyes met. Jeff understood. They'd both dreamed that very dream, together.
But the old man had lost interest. His grave attention had returned to the evening sky: I'm boss here. Just so you know.
"What's with you two?" Mom smiled nervously. She hadn't seen it. The world was still wonderful and beautiful to her.
Dad shook his head: "It's been a long drive." Then he leaned over and whispered reassuringly, "It's just an old man."
The server finally swept down with three plates balanced across his arms; Dad's steak lay half-sunk in a pool of bloody water.
"Hey!" Dad jabbed his finger at the plate. "What's this? When I said well done, I meant well done! What, do I look like a vampire?"
"Sorry Mr. Potty. I'll fix it right now . . . ."
The Potters rushed through dinner without another word. As they left Jeff glanced over one more time and thought he saw the old man melting into the darkness outside.
A few hours later, Jeff had had enough of sitting with his parents in their tiny cabin. There wasn't even a TV in this dump. No, not like the old days, Dad had sighed. Back then, he'd rent the whole goddamn resort. Hell, he'd own the place! Fire that server! Eighty-six that creepy old black bird! Put some real booze on the menu!
Meanwhile, Mom painted a pretty future for them: Everyone they met seemed to love Monitor County. They would too! Jeff could make friends at the school down in the valley. It was a new start!
"New start for what?" Dad sipped his Clausthaler and belched. "They hired me for shit work. Me! The guy Variety called ‘Captain Entertainment!' Is this what I went through recovery for? The guy who created the Interpol International franchise! Five top-rated separate series, bigger than CSI . . . ."
He'd go on all night like this, scratching at his failure until he bled tears. It was so much more fun when Dad was bellowing from the top of the world. That Jeff could respect, even when Dad was on a binge. Now. . . .
Jeff blurted out he wanted to explore the resort. Dad knew he was lying and tried to hide his hurt feelings. Mom nagged Jeff to wear his jacket and take the flashlight with him. "And watch out for bears!"
Watch out for bears? Shit. I hope get eaten by one.
God, the darkness was awful. Even with the flashlight to guide him, Jeff managed to trip over every rock and root as he hiked up the trail behind the resort. L.A. nights were only a few stars in a soft blue sky. Here, zillions of icy stars glittered, embedded in a coal black above black treetops that swayed and moaned in a wind-driven chorus. Everything was too much here: the mountains too high and jagged, the valleys too deep and blue.
At trail's end Jeff came upon a wooden gazebo built at the bottom of a rocky slope. From inside he could see far back down the hill to where cabin lights dotted the darkness. Windblown branches made the lights flicker. Jeff zipped up his jacket tight around his throat against the late spring cold.
He didn't want to think about being stuck here, so he sought memories of his old junior high and the girl he left behind: impossibly beautiful blond hottie Karen, the only thing that made fourth-hour American History not-boring. On his last day, he gave her a poem he'd half-written from a rap song--he loved her, she was beautiful and it broke his heart that he'd never see her ever again, but all she had to do was call and there he'd be! ("Forever!" it ended with triumphant tragedy.)
Stooooopid! Instead of jumping into his arms like she had in his dreams, Karen turned red and giggly. Then she turned around and passed Jeff's poem down the lunch table. Jeff nearly fainted as though his fly had split open allowing his junk to fall out. Soon all he heard was merciless laughter and all he had was a memory that would ruthlessly sting all his life.
Still, there were other memories, memories of fantasies. His hand slipped into the roomy pocket of his low-riders and found his cock. He stroked it back and forth against his thigh and aroused a favorite pillow dream: Karen ripping her blouse open, her full tits leaping out into his face while words poured honey-like out of her mouth-
Just as he felt himself surging toward the brink, he heard a big hum coming from behind. At first he thought it was Karen's voice humming-
Something cold and liquid hit him in the back of his head, soft like a water balloon. It blew through his skull, soaked into his brain. He saw arctic blue and he had a sense of flying through the sky. His cranium buzzed and his eardrums swelled. The balloon blasted out through his forehead, taking Karen's image, leaving behind creamy pools of chill that floated around in his brain.
Jeff's hard on shrank, his balls rolled up and he slumped against the gazebo frame. The watery blue balloon, shaped like a blood cell, float away down the hill. It split into two shimmering orbs as it weaved among the pines. The orbs drifted back and forth in tandem. One of them blinked off and on, once. Like a winking eye.
Holy shit, those are eyes! They had no head, no body, but they were eyes alright, flying by themselves on invisible wings, gaily sweeping and weaving among the trees. Then they vanished, into the rear wall a cabin . . . the rear wall of his cabin.
Then, from up the hill behind him, branches snapped and footsteps fell. Huge black shadows slipped around the boulders, heading for the gazebo and the meal standing inside, waiting to be eaten-a bear? Get me outta here!
Jeff tore out of the gazebo. The flashlight slipped from his grasp. His low-riders fell down and so did he. He clutched his belt, bumping from tree to tree, nearly impaling himself on sharp broken branches.
He stopped at the rear of the cabin. Nothing behind him now. He looked for the blue-eyed whatz-it, but it was gone in the cold quiet night. Jeff began to doubt himself. Maybe it was just his imagination. Like he'd imagined that Karen Hale had loved him. Like that old man beating his father. This was just another crazy thing in his mind.
Exhausted, Jeff stepped around the corner of the cabin and saw a boy standing on the porch. A boy just like Jeff-no--
A boy almost like Jeff.
Jeff almost didn't recognize this mirror-reverse image of himself. His watch was on his right wrist instead of his left, like his reflection in the three-way mirror at Macy's. But he wasn't in Macy's and there were no mirrors here, in the forest.
And Jeff's eyes were brown. The boy's were blue. Wolf blue. Blue like the thing that had flown through his head up in the gazebo on the hill.
Jeff understood immediately. The thing had sucked out everything Jeff knew about himself. From his mirror image to his dreams of Karen. No wonder he felt so weak-
The Jeff Potter on the porch grinned at the Jeff Potter who watched from the shadows like a terrified orphan. Jeff Potter on the porch wore a bully's confident grin: Go on! Stop me! Dare ya! Dare ya double! Dare ya triple!
"Jeff!" Mom's voice called from inside. "Don't stand out there-"
No! Don't ask it to come in!
"- in the cold! Get in here! Now!"
The hologram Jeff standing on the porch winked, waved an impudent bye-bye with the fingers of his left hand and strolled inside as though he belonged.
The real Jeff stumbled into the kitchen seconds later, but the only monsters there were his parents smiling wanly from the kitchen table. Dad waved. "What's wrong, Jeff?" Mom asked.
"Oh . . . nothin'." Just me again. They hadn't seen the Other Jeff, that impossible, blue-eyed Jeff . . . never tell your dreams, man. Asleep or awake, never tell your dreams.
"Why doncha sit with us?" Dad asked. "Huh," Jeff grunted as he fought to conceal his fear as a new dark idea dawned within--anything that could fly through his head and so easily disguise itself could hide any damned place it pleased. Hide, hungry and sniggering.
And so he frantically searched for the Other Jeff in the little bedroom-nothing there. The closet-nothing there. Under the bed-nothing there.
He entered the itty-bitty bathroom. He ripped back the shower curtain and jumped, half-remembering Vince Vaughn in Psycho. Nothing there but a bar of soap that Mom would steal. Even peeing felt dangerous. As the water funneled away, he wondered: Was that a blue light shining from the depths of the toilet?
He joined Mom and Dad in the kitchen just long enough to be polite. As he pretended to listen to Mom's happy talk and Dad's grumping, it slowly dawned on Jeff what had really happened out there, in the woods, in the dark.
The realization was a triple Tony Jaa punch to the gut. There was no flying thing in the forest! That was no Other Jeff Potter standing out there on the porch!
It was all stuff happening inside his brain! Hallucinations!
That could mean only one of two things, both of them dreadful: First, he might be going crazy. His brain was frying and popping with weirdness as it roared into schizophrenic overdrive. The same thing happened to his Mom's cousin Teddy. They put him in the hospital to sit and stare all day, every day, for the rest of his life while his brain circuits melted into a white buzz.
Or maybe it was . . . a brain tumor! A fiendish cancer monster that would suck his life away until he was a hallucinating, helpless husk! He would die slowly, young and all alone, never to know a girl's touch . . . oh, Karen!
Either way, it was shit, it was bad. Tortured by those two possibilities, Jeff said goodnight to Mom and Dad with zombie kisses. Already it felt like saying goodbye. Fighting off tears, he stripped and slid into his sleeping bag in his little corner (dying of cancer . . . and still he had to sleep on the floor! Life was so unfair!)
His feet pushed into something soft at the bottom of the bag. Probably old smelly socks he'd peeled off with his feet during a long-ago camping trip. Fuck it. Jeff pulled the bag over his head, alone with his aching heart, and swooned between fantasies of impending insanity and implacable death, all melting into an awful doom.
Finally, Jeff's parents went to bed. Jeff pretended to be asleep. His parents' shuffling, their bathroom business, Dad's muttering at the burden of his body, his Mom's humming: the world carelessly going on while he lay suffering.
You just wait ‘til I'm dead, then . . . .
Dad started snoring like a cartoony file. Every snore sent a puff of near-beery breath wafting across the room. Jeff fantasized what it would be like-to die so young in a hospital bed, while Dad, who really did love him, would insist on sleeping next to him. Pathetic! Poor Jeff dying surrounded by the odor of Clausthaler and the sound of-
-suddenly, the wad of socks under Jeff's feet moved. They had, in fact, done just that. They wiggled like a pair of entwined fat cold worms across his feet and crawled up his legs, pulled themselves along his naked legs with tiny claws. Jeff poked his head out into darkness darker than the one under the covers.
What the fuck? Holy shit! He remembered the animals who'd chased him down the hill. They were in here, too! A mouse? A rat? They were everywhere, carried fleas, spread the plague! This new immediate fear crowded out the other two. Jeff rose up on his elbows. Tiny claws gripped his tender skin as the mouse-thing crawled, over his groin, up his stomach.
He lifted the mouth of the sleeping bag. Two tiny points of wolf-eye blue light stared back at him. Jeff fell back. A weird creature crawled out onto his chest. It sprouted wings, grew bigger, launched itself into the air inches above his face and hovered there.
"Always in the last place you look," a smiling voice said inside his head.
"SQOOONK!" said Dad.
It looked like an insect, but no insect Jeff had ever seen in biology class. Something like a mosquito or moth, but big as a bird with two large wings that spun and hummed in the air. A long proboscis stuck out from its mouth like a hypodermic needle that could puncture steel. It had to be a-
"No. I'm not a dream!" the Insect laughed, its clear voice a cheerful echo.
It hovered in front of the boy's face as though trying to kill him with its ugliness. Jeff couldn't even scream. But he could think thoughts: What are-what do you-
"I am hungry," the Insect announced matter-of-factly, like a man sitting down to dinner. Then it buzzed away. Over to where Dad slept. Jeff could sit up and watch now, but that was all. He watched paralyzed as the Insect's eyes cast a blue light on Dad's sleeping face and bathed the inside of his open mouth. Dad awoke with a snort and saw what Jeff saw. And, like Jeff, he couldn't believe it. This had to be a dream!
The Dream dove down into Dad's mouth. The blue light briefly glowed from within then vanished. Dad pawed at his throat and tore away the glittering crucifix grandma had given him. The blue light vanished. Perfect night fell again.
Jeff could see nothing, but heard everything. He tried to scream, but his throat was frozen. Mom slept away like a rock-or, she was being kept asleep, like Jeff was being forced to listen alone to the horror. The Dream was strong. It could multi-task: control their minds while it viciously rummaged around inside Dad's body.
"Wake up! Wake up!" Jeff's mind screamed. But he was awake. Awake in a malevolence where he could do nothing but listen to Dad's death struggles, to bedsprings creaking, to the mattress jumping in its frame. The bed slats snapped. The mattress crashed to the floor while Mom slept on. The whole world slept on.
"STOP IT! STOP IT! LEAVE MY DAD ALONE! PLEASE!"
But the Insect perversely, defiantly, doubled down on its torture:
"The less you want, the more I give," it laughed.
Suddenly, finally, the gurgling and thrashing stopped. It ended so suddenly, Jeff believed for a brief second it had been only a nightmare after all. He'd wake up to a bright morning and there'd be Dad and, this time, Jeff would hug him and say "I love you!" And that was more true than anything.
But that second passed. The blue light appeared again, a beacon from Dad's mouth that lit the room. The Insect crawled out the way it went in, struggled like a butterfly from a cocoon. Bigger now, it hovered in the air, admired its handiwork: Dad's flat face, his open but empty eyes. The Insect looked full and bright. Hungry no more.
It flew back over to the boy. Jeff knew he was next so he lay down, closed his eyes and gritted his teeth shut, so it couldn't get in. (But it would. It would drill its needle through his teeth, if it had to. It was a powerful thing and did what it pleased.)
Jeff waited to die. But death didn't come, so he opened his eyes.
The Insect still hovered a foot away, its mothy wings spinning and humming, its grinning blue eyes ringed by a pulsating red circle.
The boy could keep his life. The boy could keep his blood. It only wanted to show its strength and power. It wanted the boy to know how clever it was:
Look at me. Know that I am real. Whenever you close your eyes, whenever you sleep, whenever you dream, you will find me there. You will know that I am real.
"Who are you!?"
It laughed again, a light, airy chuckle. What looked like two long fingers slowly rose up and pressed down on Jeff's eyelids, pulling them down like window shades.
"Just an old man," the Insect whispered.
(Photo and text copyright 2009 for the world by Thomas Burchfield . . . and I'm not the only one watching. . . .)
Causes Thomas Burchfield Supports
The Nature Conservancy; Africare; Capitol Public Radio