Greetings and welcome to Dinosaur Bear,
It’s been a bit of a strange period for Dinosaur Bear since I last posted over a year ago. To be honest I was quite close to closing the blog down in that interim. It wasn’t because of any disillusionment with the blog itself, but rather with a seemingly endless slew of technical issues and malware attacks. These coupled with increasingly.. lukewarm technical support left me a bit disgruntled with the whole situation especially since I wasn’t feeling much of an urge to write in the first place. But here we are, Dinosaur Bear is now 11 years old and still kicking.
Originally I had intended to do my now-typical resurrection of the blog via a spooky story for Halloween. The premise of this story came to me in a dream. However in typical me fashion, I got bogged down in the details and it didn’t happen. I still like the story and I still have the framework to recall it, but as is obvious it won’t be seen for this Halloween.
That said, just working out the concept of the dream-turned-story did ignite that little writing spark in me. So today I’m going to be sharing another story that can trace its core aspects to late night thoughts, if not a dream itself. It’s not meant to be a horror story, though there are disconcerting elements to it so reader discretion is advised. I call it “Returning Home.”
The crunch of gravel beneath the rental car’s tires was shockingly familiar to Alex despite the fact she hadn’t heard the noise more years than she could remember. Big city life coupled with a reliance on steel-railed subways had all but removed the acoustics and sensations of rural travel. But sure enough, as if this was a road she took every day the sound resonated with her. Funnily enough, there had been a point long ago – so long ago in fact that it felt like and arguably was, another chapter of her life – that she had taken this road every day. Of course she wasn’t driving then, it was either Mother or Dad. Each of them had employed their own style of maneuvering one of their two old beat-up yet reliable vehicles on the winding gravel road. Mother had always been the safest and most responsible of the two while on the route, but Alex had always preferred riding with Dad at the wheel. Despite his vehicular antics, which would always draw Mother’s ire, he had brought more joy to the otherwise mundane experience of returning home. The rental car, a fancy late model with bells and whistles that Alex wasn’t entirely sure how to utilize was a far cry from the old “farm wagons” as Dad had lovingly called them. But the road, well the road was much the same. Though fewer people lived out here these days those who did made sure that the road was as cared for as a country road could be. The county had scarcely done their part in the past and Alex saw no signs that their efforts had increased over the years. No, this was a road by farmers and for farmers. But Alex wasn’t a farmer, at least not anymore. Perhaps she never had been.
The land and home to which she was returning wasn’t even hers anymore. It had been swiftly claimed in court proceedings she was too young to understand by a distant and seldom-spoken-of Uncle who promptly sold off most equipment and adjacent fields, leaving just a small plot of land with the house itself, before promptly leaving that to stand empty for nineteen years. Alex wasn’t sure why he hadn’t sold the home. Perhaps it was out of some fleeting homage to family? It had served as a generational home on her father’s side for some time after all. Whatever the reason, her Uncle had cared for the property with an absentmindedness and bare-minimum approach that was just enough to keep the state assessors at bay, but did little to stop the march of time and Mother Nature against the old wood frame house. Alex had heard in correspondence that the house was in poor condition, but hadn’t seen the house since being swept away one cold January night so long ago. As the house wasn’t hers and she had no knowledge of what had become of their possessions, she had never had much reason to return to it. Sure, she thought of the possibility many times over the interceding years, but it was such a long trip and to be truthful she saw little reason to disrupt the few memories of the house that she did have.
That had changed a few weeks ago when her Uncle’s attorney had wrote to her that the house was finally being sold. A contractor had been doing a sweep of the premises to determine whether the land would be more profitable with the house present or demolished when they came across several forgotten personal items. The Uncle had taken his share which naturally had amounted to anything of even passing value, but per the attorney there were still a few things in Alex’s old room that could be claimed. Her Uncle had “generously” offered to ship these to her, at Alex’s own expense of course, but Alex had opted instead to retrieve whatever they were for herself. Under most any other circumstance she would have let the past remain where it lay, but the prospect of what had once been her home being ground into dust and debris was enough to spark this one last trip. So here she was, earned PTO ticking away just as the miles did, wheel in hand, retracing a very old but familiar road. In many ways we never leave the life we lived as a child behind and for Alex this road was a just as much a path into memory as it was the summation of the dirt and stone that crackled beneath the wheels.
The car’s satellite radio could have picked up stations from all over the world, something Dad would probably have found fascinating considering that in her memories there were at most two FM stations that reached out this far and they were only half static on a good day. She thought there had been an AM station too, yet it always seemed to be looping something about the weather or another such topic which was overwhelmingly boring to her younger self. Yet despite these technological advances she road in silence. There was no music track for this stage of the journey, no host who could properly pass the time. Alex wanted – in truth needed – the silence. The clattering of gravel was all she could handle. It wasn’t that the road made her nervous – the further she drove the more she innately remembered its ebbs and flows and occasional hairpin turns that made you wonder just what the original route planners had been thinking. Instead she was scared of the prospect of returning to this place in a more abstract nature. Home can be the safest place on Earth. Where family and hearth guard against the tides and torrents of the outside world. But what happens when home itself becomes the danger? When the crashing waves that battle against the walls are somehow safer than the dark and deceptively placid waters that pool within? Alex shook herself against the thoughts. There was no danger to be found ahead besides the apparent possibility of stepping through rotted wood. The peril that had lurked there was gone, it was just a forgotten structure of nail and timber. She was an adult and this was just an errand. Nothing more.
She’d all but convinced herself of this by the time she spotted the entrance to the long driveway. Even in late fall the trees still obscured the house, thick as they were. Alex couldn’t remember if the gate blocking her passage was the original or not. Perhaps it had been painted at some point, as something felt different about it. Regardless, everything else in the landscape before her matched her mental picture nearly perfectly. The gate was chained as the attorney said it would be, but that was more to prevent stray cattle or the wind from opening it. There were few people in these woods and fewer of them still were the kind to trespass. Alex carefully unwound the rusted chain and was relieved to see that there was indeed no lock barring passage. The gate was heavy, but she pushed it open without much difficulty. She guessed that one contractor or another had recently oiled the hinges as the gate was unexpectedly quiet as it was hefted open. Once the way was clear she drove the rental up the driveway that was once hers. Unlike the road, the driveway was in a state of deep disrepair. It was just as much weed and grass as it was gravel at this point. Absent interference it would be entirely consumed by wood and field within just a few more years. She felt an unanticipated sadness at this. Surely after all this way it wouldn’t be a driveway that broke the floodgates she’d so carefully constructed over the years? If that cognitive structural failure was to happen it had to wait, for as she was grappling with these thoughts she rounded the bend and for the first time in nearly two decades saw the house.
In some ways it was exactly as she remembered, yet in others it felt like she was seeing it for the first time. Aside from the equity in the farm her parents had never been particularly wealthy, but they had done their due diligence in maintaining the house which was already quite old by the time Alex was born. But now its guardians were gone. Time had done a number to the facade, but as she drew closer Alex could tell that the elements had gotten to the interior in some places as well. Strangely the site of the home in this dilapidated state brought forth less emotion than the faded driveway had, though Alex had a suspicion that some level of shock was involved in that seeming non-response. The soft crunch of fall grass ceased in time with the rotation of the wheels as she came to a stop just beyond the front porch. This porch had once been a center of life on cool spring days and warm summer nights, but now it was stripped clean of all signs of life. Even the paint which she had once joyously helped apply was now mostly gone. It was a porch in the literal sense alone, there was no welcome to be found here any more. As she opened the driver’s side door the car chirped at her to remind her to take the key fob. This was something she still wasn’t used to. New cars had forgone the keys she remembered in favor of something akin to a garage door opener. She dutifully grabbed the small device before closing the door, the car giving a brief honk in response that almost sounded happy against the silence of the woods. Perhaps the car was excited to see the country for the first time. But that was silly, it was just a car. Alex reflected on just how she was stalling by thinking about hypothetical vehicular emotions and then turned to make her way to the front door.
Much like the porch, the door had borne the brunt of time. She didn’t spend much time examining it however, as she was keeping with her forward momentum under the fear that her emotions might catch up to her at any moment. With only a minor tremble she reached out and grasped the cool metal of the handle. With a bit of a squeak it turned in hand and the sound of the old latch clicking followed soon after. It was unlocked, just as the text message said it would be. She couldn’t help but smirk about this. She couldn’t imagine leaving her apartment unlocked and unattended for even a few minutes despite the fact that her building had reasonable security measures. But this was a different world and in some ways even a different time. The air moved differently here and there was something in it that lacked the brutal pace of the vibrant city – but which also concealed things beneath its docile current. The door swung open with the whine she had expected from the gate before gently coming to a rest against the entryway wall. The spring door stopper Mother had insisted be installed so long ago was apparently still doing its job, though it was now visibly rusted even beneath a thick later of dust and its hard plastic cap had cracked with age. Alex paused for a moment to take a deep breath of the outside air. She wasn’t even sure why she had done this, and in fact the motion had been carried out entirely by that deeper part of her brain that we can only scarcely understand let alone control. With the cool afternoon air still in her lungs she stepped across the threshold.
The interior of the home was only marginally warmer than the outdoors. All the utilities had long been shut off and with no occupants and no running water there was little reason to keep the place heated. Her Uncle is unlikely to have paid for it even if there was. The air was, however, heavier in here. She instinctively knew that part of his weight was of her own creation but at a more physical level the floating dust was thick. So thick that the rays of the sun cut through the open windows into the darkness beyond like brilliant bursts of flame. Alex closed the door behind her, bringing with it the silence that only those who have stood in a long abandoned home can truly understand. An oppressive urge to quickly break this silence spread over Alex as she began walking toward the stairs in fashion that ensured the old floor boards would groan even under her fairly diminutive frame. In other places the creaking wood might have felt ripped from the pages of a horror novel, but here it was welcome against the dreaded silence. As she passed noisily to the base of the stairs, she entered the primary junction of the first floor. To the left was the kitchen, to the right the living room. Both were almost entirely barren, though a few boxes and tool-marks here and there suggested the recent presence of the aforementioned contractors. She had spent many hours prior to her arrival deciding on just how much of the house she wanted to explore. She had came down on the side of going to her room and promptly leaving after that. Standing here alone only reinforced that idea. Loosening her shoulders and shaking her hands a bit in a fashion not unlike an Olympic diver before the descent, she took another deep breath – through her nose this time – and glanced downward at the floor in advance of climbing the stairs. It was then that she noticed the dark stain embedded in the wood beneath her.
There is a particular kind of paralysis response that we’ve all felt at least once over the years. We may not wish to think of it, never mind give it a name, but we know it all the same. It’s that surge of raw unfiltered human emotion that awakens within us with a speed that cannot be calculated by the machinations of law or science. For some it spurs from trauma itself, for others simply from the fear of it. Whatever the cause of this primal human paralysis, it is something that we collectively know and experience in shadow. This stain evoked such a response in Alex. As if nails were driven through them deep into the joists of the floor below, her feet were suddenly incapable of movement. Had there in fact been nails causing her such wounds it’s unlikely she would have noticed the pain. No, she was in a much deeper and darker place where physical injury couldn’t possibly reach. Fortunately, no such nails existed and with that tremendous will that we pull up from depths of ourselves in response to this unspoken paralysis, Alex was able to quite literally jerk herself back into the present, her stance stuttering so notably that she had to lean against the wall – the faded wallpaper clinging to her palm in a manner that suggested mildew beneath its frail outer layer. Her vision was spinning but that primordial desire to flee, freeze, or fight was sinking just as quickly as the nauseous acid in her throat was rising. Her higher consciousness once again in control, she fought against retching and stayed herself by instead focusing on slowing the pace of her rapid breathing which had automatically elevated to an unsustainable rate at some point in the past few moments. As her trembling slowly faded into a masking numbness she inadvertently saw the stain again. This time, however, the emotional barrier was able to snap shut and hold that primeval paralysis in place. For how long Alex couldn’t say, but she knew that even the titanium clad barrier of the resistant mind would fall away if she stayed here too long.
So, skipping over the diver’s preparation this time she began to ascend the stairs. Here and there the wood steps were punctuated by smaller dark stains. Quickly branching onto a different mental path she tried to recall whether the floor below and the stairs had been carpeted. She believed they had. When the carpet had been removed was unknown to her. Perhaps it was a recent effort on the part of the contractors, or perhaps it had happened long ago in an effort to pretend nothing noteworthy had ever transpired here. Before this thought could wrap back around to what caused the stains Alex realized that she’d reached the second floor of the house. Aside from the small flickers of dark stains and vague notions of long-forgotten carpet she didn’t even remember making the climb. Her body’s numbing agents were already fast at work, pushing back against the unwelcome insinuations of this environment. She rounded the worn banister, the cap still wobbling in place as it had when she was a child. “Dad had always meant to fix that” she said aloud to the empty hallway, though in an unspoken inner voice she pondered whether some things were fated to remain broken. Returning her gaze to the task before her she saw that the doors to her parents room and the upstairs bathroom were where she expected them to be. On a lighter occasion she might have laughed at this thought, it’s not as if doors could just up and move of their own will after all, but today was no such occasion. She moved down the hallway, this time taking more care than she had in the entryway. She’d been warned that unfixed leaks and opened windows had weakened the structural integrity of the place and the last thing she needed was to fall through the floor this far from help. She moved silently past her parents’ room, the door was closed and she had no intention of opening it. Rounding the corner as she had done so many times before she saw the two remaining doors. At the far end of the hall was her brother’s room. Just before the closed door to his room lay another dark stain in the floor. She felt the acrid surge in her throat again, but pushed it down almost as quickly as it came. The other door – the closer of the two – was slightly ajar. This was her room. Or rather it had been.
On closer inspection she both realized and remembered why her door wasn’t closed like the others. The lock and frame had been torn asunder by repeated blows. This wasn’t recent vandalism. Alex was suddenly able to recall with a disturbing acuity what had inflicted this damage. In what had by now become a reflexive gyration away from dark thoughts she pondered why no one had ever bothered to fix the door, but then again no one ever really had reason to, had they? Using just the tips of her middle and index fingers Alex attempted to push the door open. She was scared of this door in some way, afraid to touch the old faded wood with too much of her skin. Unfortunately for that precautionary side of her the door wouldn’t budge. Over the years the floor had warped beneath it, or perhaps the old damage had misaligned it. The result was the same either way, and so with some deal of hesitation Alex used the full brunt of her shoulder to push the door past the catch. Once the door was seemingly convinced that the woman before it wasn’t going to cease in her efforts it opened with a shudder, loudly slamming against the wall. Strangely Alex couldn’t remember if there had ever been a door stop in her room. If there had been one it was gone now. As she took stock of the room she noticed that the air here was wet with decay and it didn’t take her long to realize why. Two long creases had opened in the wallpaper, one on the slanted ceiling above and another beneath the window she had once needed to stand on her tip-toes to see out of. The weather was slowly doing the work of erasing the home, never mind property values or inspections. In time nothing would be left one way or another.
In fashion not unlike the driveway Alex found the thought of her old room fading away quite unsettling and so she went to work of finding these few objects her Uncle had claimed were there. At first glance it seemed like he had either been mistaken or lying – both were equal possibilities with that man. The room was all but empty, just an empty bookshelf and the pieces of her old bed frame were all that remained. Then the closet caught her eye. When she had been younger she was scared of this closet and would always ask her parents to inspect it at bedtime. Mother would always belittle her for this and explain to her daughter’s scared and childlike mind that such fears were a waste of everyone’s time. Dad, on the other hand, would make a grand show of things and together they would defeat any would be monsters time and time again. She had forgotten these nighttime escapades entirely and realizing this made her wonder just how much else she had lost to the mists of her childhood. In some ways the house was a crypt keeper of these memories, a thought she didn’t care to ruminate on for long. Instead she walked over to the closet and with an almost embarrassing amount of fear that some long-dormant boogieman might dwell within, she swung open the small double doors. With no electricity to rely on the closet was quite dark, so Alex produced the small flashlight she’d picked up at a gas station in the outskirts of the city. The brilliant glow of the bulb easily illuminated the small space and revealed two cardboard boxes which quite obviously had not been here for long. One was small, about the size of a shoe box. The other was larger, perhaps the size of a small nightstand. Alex nudged open the larger box first, if only because some part of her still feared there might be a monster hiding in the confines of this space. As Mother would have both expected and stated, there was no monster in the box. Just a collection of old books, folders, papers, and various other items that suggested this box housed what was once sitting on the now empty bookshelf. She then turned to the smaller box and her hand hovered over it for a moment before lifting one of the flaps. On seeing what was within Alex gasped with a breath that pulled from the deepest portions of her lungs. There, among various pens and pencils and other small items which had came from her now missing desk, was Sam. Sam the Seagull, Flying Ace and Squawking Extraordinaire.
Sam was quite possibly Alex’s oldest friend. Long before her brother had come home with Mother and Dad she’d fought against the loneliness of the countryside with Sam. Even now she wasn’t quite sure where Sam came from. She had an inkling that one of her aunts had brought Sam home from a trip to the far away coast decades ago, but the truth was that where Sam came from never mattered to much to Alex. What mattered most is that he had made his way to her in one way or another. Sam was, of course, a stuffed animal – and while many children of her time had found friendship in the likes of bears, or dolls, or other such similar creatures Alex hadn’t personally known anyone who was so attached a seagull. Comically, it wasn’t until Alex moved to the coastal metropolis that she’d ever even seen a real seagull. But now she was quite used to them and their antics, though none ever quite captured her heart or attention in the way Sam had. Sadly Sam had been lost on that cold winter night. She’d cried for him for days if not weeks. In some ways she’d cried more for Sam than she had for anything else that happened that day. A childhood friend, be it of flesh or cloth, is a special sort of bond that we only get a limited number of chances to make. Alex had made hers and he had been lost. But no longer. She picked him up immediately and hugged him tightly to her chest, tears immediately welling beneath her tightly closed eyelids. Sam smelled of dust and on reopening her eyes for a closer inspection she could tell he was quite filthy and deeply faded, but he was still Sam. She could, and would, restore him to the best of her ability. To be truthful Sam was on the one thing she had hoped was waiting for her here. Sure, she would carefully look through, recall, and preserve the other items as needed, but Sam was her proverbial holy grail. Despite the tenets of society instructing her otherwise, she happily danced Sam in the air before her, the flashlight casting his birdlike shadow onto the ceiling in a way that brought a youthful smile to her face.
Sam and Alex, friends reunited with a bond that cannot be broken by time alone, danced their childlike dance until Alex accidentally knocked over the flashlight, sending the closet into haphazard semi-darkness and reminding her of where she was. With Sam in hand she no longer feared the dark, but in a practical sense it did nudge her responsible side into reminding her that the fall daylight would soon give way and leave the whole house in darkness. She lovingly gave Sam the Seagull a few head pats before nestling him under her arm. He would be getting the VIP carrying treatment as they left, a dark box was no place for a free bird such as Sam. Being careful not to squish Sam too much, Alex stacked the boxes together and determined that while they were a decent load it wasn’t anything too cumbersome to carry down the stairs. She set the boxes down in the main area of her former bedroom, flicked off the flashlight, and closed the closet doors. She lofted Sam onto her shoulder, the “Seagull’s Nest” as she once called it – as her shoulder was one of Sam’s most favored vantage points – and crossed the room to look out of the window. The sun was indeed begging to wane in the sky above the dense treeline. She could feel a cool draft coming through the window, despite the fact that they were unbroken the filthy old panes could no longer hold up against the outside like they once did. After she was satisfied by the view she half turned her head to Sam who despite having lost some of his rigidity with age had managed to stay on her shoulder – a feat helped by the fact that her shoulder was now much larger than it once was – and spoke in the tone of a foreman, “Alright apprentice Sam, let’s get these boxes loaded into the utility vehicle.” Her rental car was a far cry from a utility vehicle and she had never been a foreman of any sort, but her ability to slide back into childlike playfulness with her friend brought her a warm sensation in her stomach that fought back against the darkness of this house in a way that numbness never could. Alex turned away from the window and this warmth, which just moments ago had seemed so stalwart, turned into an icy coldness in the pit of her stomach. Her room had changed.
In true fear Alex instinctively stepped backward, Sam toppling off her shoulder in the process – though her panicked mind only partially noticed his fall. Her back pressed against the window which felt different, the frame no longer felt as withered, the wood less soft from decay. This tactile sensation is what brought the reality of what she was seeing to the forefront. She was still in her room, but it was no longer empty and bare and rotting. It was filled with warm incandescent light, the wallpaper was bright and colorful, the furniture was all where she remembered it, and spread over what was seconds ago a rough and damaged wooden floor was a vast and comfortable rug. “This is my room.. this is my room.. this is my room..” was the only thought Alex could muster, the small trio of words on repeat like a broken phonograph at the back of her mind. Truth be told, she was correct – she was still standing in her room, but it was as it had once been. This was her room of nineteen years ago. If there was any doubt as to what she was seeing, with the knowledge of one who was standing in the infallibly familiar quarters of their bedroom she turned and sure enough, saw the old calendar on the wall with its featured display of airplanes. Even as a child Alex had been fascinated by flight. Sam played no small part in this and Dad had always fostered her passion in the ways that a country farmer could. Mother had been more dismissive of her prospects, but never Dad, and never Sam. That she was now an aerospace engineer was due just as much to their encouragements as her own efforts, and make no mistake, despite the pragmatic reality that Sam was Alex, Alex was also Sam, and so she considered his support to be unique to her own lived experiences. But her mind couldn’t focus on that for long, the planes were little more than blurs when compared to the date which lacked the X’s – drawn in a child’s hand – that took up the squares of all the dates before it. It was January 5th. This was the day everything went wrong. The end cap to this cold thought, a cold that was far more insidious than the howling January winds, was the realization that she was looking at herself. There, happy and content in the middle of room, working with crayons in fierce determination on the outline of what appeared to be a helicopter was Alex. She was ten years old, and tonight was the night her world would end.
Unbeknownst to her adult self, she’d been pressing herself firmly against the wall and window in some desperate bid to back away from the room before her. This increasing pressure led to an audible pop as the lower pane of the window, which was old even then, developed a small crack in the lower right corner. This startled Alex, both the adult and the child, and for the first time the younger noticed the older’s presence in the room. “Who are you?” came the soft yet pointed voice of the younger Alex, the adult still too mired in shock to respond faster than the child. The older Alex’s thoughts raced at a speed that even her beloved planes could scarcely hope to achieve. For all her years of healing, of growth, of learning, of becoming strong, she felt as though she couldn’t answer this child’s simple question. Though it wasn’t so simple was it? Her pace unbroken, the younger Alex didn’t wait for a response, “This is my room, Mom says its rude to go into people’s rooms without asking.” The older Alex knew this to be true, though she also knew that Mother didn’t follow her own advice. “I-I.. I’m a f-friend” the elder Alex finally managed to respond. “Oh, ok!” came the rapid fire response of a child who had yet to learn the dangers of the world. In this room, in this house, Mom and Dad kept her and Brother safe, and if the strange woman was a friend then surely she must be a friend. No strangers allowed here. Before the older Alex could even begin to think of a rational next response or question, the young chimed in: “I’m drawing a helicopter, it’s an AH-64 Apache.” The young girl said this with such boldness, confidence, and as the older Alex noticed – total correctness – that she seemed to be the dominant force in the room, not her older self. The elder Alex suddenly recalled being infatuated with the Apache as a child and took pride in knowing more about attack helicopters than any of the boys in her grade did, though they would never admit it she relished the truth of it nonetheless. “Anyways,” the young girl continued, “I bet you’re here to see Dad right? He said the lady from bank would be visiting after Christmas.” The older Alex understood that this might be a hook she could seize on, though she was still in a panic as to just how to proceed with even basic body movements at the moment, so once again the younger Alex gave her no chance to respond before loudly shouting “DAAAAAAAAAAAAAAD, the bank lady is here! I am teaching her about helicopters.” The loving summons of her father brought so many recollections to Alex at once that had she not been trapped in what had to be some strange nightmare she may well have cried. As she heard the sure-footed steps of Dad ascending the stairs she suddenly and violently pinched her forearm in the vain hope that she’d just fallen asleep from stress, or at this point having fallen through the floor and rendered unconscious would be better than if this was real. But as her father pushed the undamaged door fully open and looked not at the younger Alex, but straight at the terrified woman who was pressed against the window like a cornered animal she knew this was more than just a dream.
He was exactly as she remembered. Right down to the shade of his 5 o’clock shadow. His worn but cared for clothing accented by his friendly face and hair that was greying perhaps a little earlier than it should have for reasons Alex the younger did not yet understand. Though he was still across the room from him she could already smell the workshop on him. As it was winter his time was mostly spent indoors preparing things for spring and with those preparations came the smell of all things mechanical and industrial. She had forgotten this smell, or perhaps it would be better said that she had buried this smell. Yet in this moment it was just as familiar to her as the cavalcades of the gravel had been. His eyes didn’t stray from the older Alex, removing all chance that he was looking beyond her through the window. No, Dad saw her and in doing so he smiled. “Hi ‘Lex.” he offered in the same manner he always had. No one had called her ‘Lex since, well, since today.. if she really was in the past at least. Yet for her father this was always his most loving name for her and she knew it and loved it all the more for that fact. Mother had never used it, and her brother would sometimes use it in poking jest, but for Dad it was always earnest and heartfelt. “Hi Dad.” she gave in response, the words coming more easily than she had anticipated. She could already feel tears welling in her eyes, her vision becoming watery at the edges. Had she died? Was this her heaven, her hell? “Now look what you did there ‘Lex, you broke your window.” he said with no sign of anger in his voice – if anything he seemed bemused by the situation. “Yeah I suppose I did, sorry Dad.” came her meek reply. He clasped his hands together with a pat that briefly drew the attention of the younger Alex, though if the child could understand or even hear the words of the adults’ conversation she showed no signs of it and quickly returned to her drawing. “We could have fixed it together, but we both know there’s no time for that.” he said, his smile faltering slightly toward the end. “But why don’t you stop pressing yourself into a pancake on that wall and come sit down with your old man.” he finished this half-command by gesturing to Alex’s bed. Even if Alex had wanted to stay pressed up against that wall, on hearing her father’s voice she was no older than the young girl sitting in the middle of the floor, with crayons, paper, and clipboards all strewn about on the vast colorful rug. “Sure Dad, I’d like that.” and on saying his Alex meant it with every ounce of her soul. Whatever this was, be it a fever dream or the afterlife, she made at least temporary peace with it for the chance to speak to Dad one more time.
Once the two were comfortably sitting on her bed, which was soft in the way that only old hand-me-down mattresses can be, he gave her a pat on the leg. “I’d love nothing more than to hear how you are ‘Lex, to hear your story in your own words, to know you’re ok. But I can see it in your eyes, even now as you try to hold back those alligator tears..” she couldn’t help but smile as he said this, causing the tears to silently overflow down onto her cheeks “..I see that you’re doing just fine. You and your brother were always the best of us ‘Lex, and it makes me so damned proud to see how you’ve grown.” Air caught in her throat as the tears began dropping down onto her jeans, her sobs low but loud enough that the younger Alex should of heard them, yet she never turned from her drawing. “How can you be proud Dad, you weren’t here to see it.” she managed through the heavy tears. “Wasn’t I though?” he replied with a calmly collected voice which hid the fact she may well be speaking to a ghost. “What do you mean? You’ve not been here since..” and here she allowed for a long and painful pause that he didn’t interrupt “..well since this happened.” He placed a hand on her shoulder that was as firm yet caring as she knew it would be. “Of course I was ‘Lex. Maybe not in the ways you wanted, or even needed, but think real hard and you’ll know it’s true.” He was right of course. It was true. She’d known deep down that when he’d been taken from her that he wasn’t truly gone, just there in a different way. They all were. One of them drug her down, but the others lifted her up. “Yeah Dad, I guess I know, but it wasn’t fair. None of this was fair. I should be visiting you today, not this empty old house.” He gave her shoulder an affirming squeeze, “I know ‘Lex, but life ain’t fair. I taught you and your brother that from the start. Yet that ain’t what matters. Look at what you’ve done for yourself despite this. I’ll be damned ‘Lex you make the planes you once dreamed of. For ages man looked to the sky and now thanks to folks like you we command it.” Fresh sobs broke out despite Alex’s best efforts. For the first time in her adult life she was knew the feeling of a parent who didn’t just love you, but who was also proud of you. “But I’d give it all away Dad, all of it, to have things back. I’d do anything to fix it.” and here, for the first time, her father let his smile fade and a strange neutrality fell over him. “Well ‘Lex, I suppose that’s your choice to make.”
This caught her off guard, which was saying something considering her present circumstances. “What do you mean?” she asked with a waiver in her voice that had little to do with her tears. “Well, I can’t say for sure ‘Lex, you’ve always been brighter than your old man. But somethings put you here right now.” She had hoped he would continue, but after a few seconds she realized that he didn’t understand anymore than she did. Whatever he was, was just as much a memory or part of this world as the younger Alex. “You mean this is a test?” she said, “Well I s’pose you could call it that. Something mighty powerful made this happen. Mayhaps its you ‘Lex, I can’t say. But I’ve got a feeling deep down like I’ve been sleeping for a long time and I just woke up and now this is real.” She thought on this for a moment before a jolt of adrenaline lit up her eyes. “I can save you, I can save us!” Her father smiled at this, that strange neutrality fading just enough to bring back the Dad she knew. “That might be rightly so hun, but I think the question you might want to ask yourself instead is should you?” Alex visibly and physically recoiled at this question. “Of course I should, you do know what happens, TO-NIGHT right?” she angrily responded, with a hard emphasis on both syllables of tonight. “Of course I do ‘Lex, tonight is the night your brother and I die.” There was a chilling effect not only on Alex as he uttered these words, but on the room itself. The old furnace was still running, Alex could hear it, but this cold had nothing to do with the temperature. This was a cold that touches the edges of one’s soul. “And yet you dare tell me I should even question doing something?” Alex managed to ask, her voice suddenly failing her. Dad took his hand from her shoulder and gave the side of her head two soft taps with a finger that showed signs of many years of labor. “Think about it ‘Lex, if you change what happens today you might not be you anymore.” Alex wasted no time in response, “And maybe I’d be better for it Dad, if you really have been with me then you’d know just how incomprehensibly this night ruined my life, our lives.” Dad maintained his diminished smile, “You don’t look too ruined to these old eyes hun, and what’s to say that you even could change things in the long run. Fate’s got a strange way of workin’ things, whatever fate may be.” Alex pushed his hand away in a movement that she immediately regretted but which he did not appear to begrudge. “That may be Dad, but I have to try, I cannot just let this happen! And it’s not just me, it’s you and my brother too. It’s all three of us. In some way we all die tonight.” Her father let his hand drop to his lap and for the first time turned away from her in thought. “I won’t stop you either way ‘Lex, whatever put you here put you here for a reason I can’t know. But sometimes hun, what happens is gonna happen one way or another. You might put it off for a day, a week, a year. But it might just happen all the same in the end and the delay might make you pay for it all the worse.”
A sizeable pause in the conversation fell over the room. The only sounds coming from the furnace, the howling January winds, and the diligent scribbling of the younger Alex who has of yet had given no signs since her father’s clap that she was even in the same reality as the adults. The elder Alex was thinking back, her logical mind pushing against the emotional storm raging in her. What was that short story called? She had read it for the first time in undergrad. In her distressed state she couldn’t remember it until a burst of wind against the house gave her the answer. “A Sound of Thunder.” she said softly aloud, breaking the silence. “What’s that ‘Lex?” Dad inquired, seemingly unbothered by the time spent in silence. “It’s an old story, well old for me.” this brought a wider grin to Dad’s face as he understood the implication. “It’s by the author Ray Bradbury. It’s about a group who travel into the past for little more than man’s vanity, yet just by making the smallest of errors – the trampling of a butterfly – they change the entirety of the world’s history.” Her father, who was unlikely to have heard of the story but didn’t say anything one way or the other, did nod knowingly as no education gained in libraries was needed to understand the connection Alex was making. It was Alex who eventually continued, “I know that’s a weird association for me to make, since you’re saying the same thing. I guess I always was a little stubborn when it came to you and Mother.”, “Your brother too.” Dad quickly added, all while maintaining that wide smile. “Yeah, I wish I had been nicer to him Dad.” she said in a softer voice. “Do you think I could see him too?” “Nah ‘Lex I think we both know that you can only leave this room once you’ve decided what to do. Besides, there might be ghosts beyond that door that you don’t want to wake.” a melancholy fell over his voice as he said this, though he continued in a brighter tone: “Besides, if you and your brother hadn’t been in constant fits with each other I’d have thought something was wrong with you.” Alex paused once more in thought, “So you are ghosts?”, “Just an expression ‘Lex, nothin’ more.”
Next it was Dad’s turn to continue the conversation, “Now ‘Lex you’re a grown woman and you don’t need to listen to your old man anymore. But I have a feeling we don’t have much longer” he said with what she thought was a nervous glance at the wall calendar. “You need to decide what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it. I think we both see that you can either let the past be, let this play out, or you can try to change something and risk making things worse at the expense of trying to make them better.” Alex noticed she was nervously fidgeting with the down blankets on the bed, “You know Dad this might just be a dream, I have a lot of knowledge telling me this can’t be real, that you can’t be real.” “Perhaps that’s so hun, but there’s a whole lot in this big old world that don’t line up in the way we think it should. Look at me, I thought I had it all figured out, that I could solve the problems for us ‘Lex, and yet I was the biggest fool of us all.” Alex responded defensively: “Don’t say that Dad, you had nothing to do with this.” Her father’s smile turned pained at the edges, “Maybe not in the way you mean ‘Lex but sometimes the villain rises on the backs of indifferent men.” Alex felt a strange emotion at this, almost an anger at her own father for saying these words, “No Dad, that’s bullshit. Absolute bullshit.”, “Now young lady, or woman I suppose, you watch that language.” he retorted in a tone she knew well, which greatly suggested that he knew the hypocrisy of the demand, for he had once been a practical tome of curse words. This kind-hearted reprieve broke Alex’s anger against her father as she came to realize that what he was saying was true, at least in part.
“How much did you know Dad? I’ll never blame you, I hope you know that.” Her father looked sad once more but gave no hesitation in his answer. “I knew enough ‘Lex, I knew enough. I tried my damnedest in some ways, but not in the ways that counted.” Alex began to insert a preemptive defense back into the conversation but for the first time her father cut her off in a commanding way, “But hun we’re drawing awful close to a line that can’t be uncrossed. Everything you’d heard and seen tonight you already knew at some level, from that helicopter yonder to my love for you. Whether your making this room or something else it’s all in here.” Her father then pointed toward her heart, and no sooner had he done this than the downstairs grandfather clock began making its long series of ominous chimes. He smiled at this, “It’s time hun.” Alex buried her face in her hands and for the first time allowed herself to cry with no resistance. She felt her father’s loving embrace, just as strong and protective as she remembered it. She wasn’t sure how long she cried but by the time she stopped the long superfluous notes of the downstairs clock had faded away. “I guess I have to leave you, and him, and.. me then.” Alex said with a red-faced and watery eyed glance towards her younger self. “I think that’s best ‘Lex, and you’ve just made me even more proud than I ever thought I could be.” and at his he let her out of the hug which only a father can give, causing Alex’s face to bunch up in a new wave of grief that she only barely steeled herself against. “I’m so sorry Dad, I love so you much, I always will.” “I know ‘Lex” his own eyes glistening a bit, something Alex thought she only saw once or twice in his life. “But don’t me sorry hun, you get your things and you get on livin’ and leave this old house behind. There’s no home left here anymore.” “Ok Dad.” was all she could think to respond as the pair stood. Alex paused for a moment next to her younger self, thinking one last time of all the things she might be able to change in this moment. Thinking of how badly she wanted to hug the little girl as her father, their father, had just hugged her. But she knew she couldn’t. As Dad had said, she was already dangerously close to creating some unknown chain of events and this world, whatever it was, didn’t have a place for her any longer – and so she passed the by young girl who no longer seemed aware of her presence.
She picked up the two boxes she’d come to retrieve and made for the door just as she’d decided. She wasn’t sure she could look at the pair in the room any longer and stay committed to this decision. But it was her father who gently tapped her on the shoulder just as she crossed into the hall, the sound of her brother’s laughter at one thing or another coming from beneath his door. As she turned back to him he proudly presented Sam, “Don’t forget Sam ‘Lex, you’d know he’d give you hell for making him fly all the way to the city.” He smiled in a manner that almost seemed to make him ethereal at his edges as she took the stuffed seagull. “Oh you know it” she said with a sincere chuckle as he placed the seagull on top of the boxes. Sam paused for a moment a decided it might be best to hold Sam under her arm again, she didn’t want to repeat his previous fall, so she placed the boxes down onto the floor and when she looked back up to thank her father he was gone, as was the younger version of herself in the room beyond. There came no sound of laughter beneath her brother’s door. Sam was in her hand, but he was old, dirty, and somewhat ragged once again. She looked around her and realized that everything was as it had been when she first arrived – with two exceptions. First, it was now almost totally dark which meant she needed to be on her way. The second wasn’t as immediately obvious, but when Alex noticed it she canted her head to the side in a manner not unlike what small children and dogs do. There, across what was once her room, mostly hidden beneath years of dirt and grime which suggested it was anything but recent, was a small crack in the lower right corner of the window.
Alex quickly turned away from the crack once she realized what it was. That was a curiosity she would dwell on another day, if it really needed any pondering at all. Using a flashlight placed under one arm and Sam under the other, she carefully retraced her steps to the car, this time the dark stains gave her no pause, be that from the diminished light, the obstructed view offered by the boxes, or perhaps because of a change in herself. Maybe it was all three, but maybe the why didn’t matter. It certainly didn’t seem like it did to Alex as she returned to the front porch after depositing the boxes in the trunk and Sam in his copilot seat. Alex closed the door and paused for a moment, looking in through the old faded window one more time. “Goodbye.” she said to those empty walls in a barely perceptible whisper.
As Alex drove down the long driveway she didn’t think it would be so bad once the fields and woods had reclaimed this place, if that was indeed what would happen. Or perhaps it would be renovated and a new family would move in, or instead it would all be plowed into the earth and crops sown over this place. She couldn’t say, that wasn’t her decision to make. She was no longer bound to this place. She stopped once more to re-chain the gate, which made slightly more noise now that the colder night was setting in. Once she was back in the driver’s seat she adjusted Sam to make she he was properly secured in his seat-belt. There was no noise other than the low hum of the car’s engine as Alex moved to shift into drive, but she paused for a moment and with a press of the digital screen the car’s entertainment system sprung to life, filling the air with crystal clear music broadcast from the skies above. She smiled and in the corner of her eye she swore she saw Sam the Seagull smile too.
As Alex pressed the pedal to begin the long drive ahead she confidently said to her oldest friend, “Alright Sam, let’s go home.”
I think there’s a lot that can be said about this story. There was a lot of emotion spent in the writing of it (not to mention time – this is the longest post in five years). I’d like to think Alex made the right decision, if there ever really was a decision. I’m also curious about just what happened that night. You likely noticed there was another major character we didn’t get to hear much from, that’s by design. Stephen King has said on many occasions that he just writes the stories for the characters, that they all live their own lives and that his pen is merely a conduit for their already existent story. On this story at least I agree with Mr. King. Alex was distinct from me, as was the rest of her family. She was presented with a choice, or the pretense of one – who are we to say after all – that most of us will never be given. But this wasn’t my story, it was hers. Though I sure felt as though I was there with her in the writing of it. I hope you all enjoyed reading it.
As always, until next time,