Sunday, April 15, 2012
Under the Crimson Shade
“I wish you could go with me,” he said. “Just like the old days. But, you’re just not up to it anymore.”
His large black lab/American bulldog mix was getting old. She was pushing the limit at twelve and the wear and tear of age was showing itself more fully every day. She had trouble standing. Then, she would have trouble sitting back down. It seemed that every joint in her once sleek body was knobby and stiff, and her black coat was now peppered with gray.
“You know we’re going to have to put her down soon, right?” Walter’s wife, Karen said from her easy chair a few feet away. “She’s just getting too bad.”
“I know. It’s just so tough to do. She’s the second girl to steal my heart, ya know. You and her. You’re the only two women for me.”
“I know. I love her too,” Karen added.
“It seems so weird. You spend all those years caring for her, paying all the vet bills to keep her healthy. You give her your heart. And then, a day arrives when you have to intentionally take that life away. It’s so unfair.”
His eyes were tearing up as he thought about it. The dreaded event was making his heart ache. He needed air, and he hadn’t gotten his walk in yet. Late as it was, he decided to hit the pavement.
“I’ll be back in about forty minutes,” he told Karen.
“Where are you going so late?”
“I need to get my walk in. I didn’t get a chance any earlier.”
“But, it’s after eleven, and it’s pitch black out there!”
“I’ll be careful.”
She turned and looked at him. “You better! Hey! You need to go change if you’re going out in the dark of night!”
“I’m fine.” He hadn’t really considered it, but he had on a pair of black sweat pants, and since it was a little cool, he’d thrown on a black hoodie. Even his walking shoes were black. “Besides, I like being invisible.”
“Walter,” Karen said with a concerned tone. “Don’t be so reckless. If drivers can’t see you, you could get hit and killed.”
“Nobody’s on the road tonight, and I’ll take my flashlight. If anybody comes driving up, I’ll make sure they notice me. See you in a few…and I’ve got my cell with me.” He said this last as he headed out the door, stuffing the phone in the hand pouch on the front of his sweatshirt.
He heard her say something about how she still thought he should change as he closed the door behind him, but he just kept going down the steps and across the driveway to the street. The cool June air felt good in his lungs and the quiet of the evening was soothing to his soul. It was just what he needed.
It really was dark out. There was no moon and the sky was overcast, so no stars either. He could make out the road in front of him, but not much else; maybe a few porch lights and a street light down the road. He didn’t mind the darkness though. It cut down on the stimuli invading his brain. It gave him a chance to sort out all the stuff that had thrust itself into his mind earlier; during the day when his work demanded all of his attention. Darkness was just fine with him as long as he could keep himself on the road and see enough to always know where he was, and that much he could do.
He had been walking every day since the first of the year. It was all that was left to him after his once strong legs had begun to fail him. When he turned forty, ten years ago, things started to get hurt. First, it was a disk in his neck. Then, it was a stress fracture in his foot. Finally, his Achilles Tendons started to give out; one tore completely and required surgery while the other was simply strained enough to hurt all the time. He figured it would tear eventually, but he was trying to delay the inevitable. Now that he was fifty, he could no longer play basketball and he had to hang up his softball cleats after the last tweak he felt in his left leg. Cycling and walking were all that was really left to him to do consistently, so he committed to doing it everyday. He had to find something to keep himself active. If he just sat down and quit, he would turn into a cholesterol balloon.
A breeze was blowing lightly pushing the unseasonably chilly air around his face and neck. To keep the chill at bay, he pulled the hood up over his head and trudged on; limping with each step. It was incredibly quiet with only the slight rustle of the leaves waving in the wind. Off in the distance a dog was barking. In the woods across the cornfield on his left, he could hear a coyote yapping. Otherwise, there was not another sound. Despite the disconcerting feeling caused by the coyote, he pulled in a big gulp of air and let out a sigh: “Ahhhhhhhh.”
The only thing that could make the walk any better would be if Karen had joined him. He loved to walk alone, especially at night, but he enjoyed his walks even more if his sweetheart joined him. They had been married for thirty-two years, but he still cherished her and longed to spend time with her. She embodied the concept of a soul-mate. Sure, her once raven hair now required regular coloring to stay dark, and she might have a few crow’s feet around her mesmerizing eyes, but she still rang his bell anytime she was around.
It really was a bit cold, especially for June. Even with the hoodie, he was getting a little cold, so he wished he could pick up the pace a little. Unfortunately, his weakened left Achilles tendon would only go so fast. Regardless, he started pushing it a bit harder. He thought maybe he could get his heart pumping a little harder and it would warm him up.
He had gone about a quarter mile south on his road, and was passing through a small clump of brush and trees that you’d be hard-pressed to describe as a woods when a vehicle buzzed by.
“Whoa! Crap!” he spouted as he jumped in surprise. “Where’d you come from?” he asked the dark SUV as it sped away. “I didn’t even hear you coming!”
He wasn’t sure if he’d just been so caught up in his own thoughts, or if these newer cars were just that much more quiet, but he’d been taken completely unawares when the thing rushed past. It must have been his thoughts because even the headlights hadn’t caught his attention. After stopping for a moment to catch his breath and slow down the pulse that was definitely rushing now, he determined to be more attentive for the balance of the walk. So, he limped on.
He was passing a couple of houses now; one on his right and one on his left. Both homes were completely dark. It was a Friday night, so they were maybe out to a late movie or a club, or maybe they were even out of town for the weekend. It was the start of the vacation season after all.
He realized that all of the houses on his road were dark. Apparently, he and Karen were the only ones left in the neighborhood. Briefly, he wondered if that meant that they were the only ones without a life. It was a fleeting, sarcastic thought that he quickly dismissed because he loved his life. They had raised two beautiful girls who were now raising families of their own, and they had a solid plan for their future that included lots of travel and a likely retirement to some warmer climate. God had been good to him, and he was thankful.
He reached the end of Hickory Road, his road, and then turned left onto McGregor Road. As impossible as it seemed, this new road was even darker. There were no street lights or porch lights at all, and it was just as quiet. Even the house with the three obnoxious dogs that barked incessantly at him was still. It was so dark and so quiet that it was surreal; almost as if he were in some other dimension. A guy could get disoriented if he wasn’t careful in a situation like that, but if it got too bad he still had his flashlight. He could just click one button and bring himself back to reality.
It was a quarter mile walk down McGregor to the right turn onto Mitthoeffer Road, and the trees seemed to encroach from both sides like the jaws on a vise tightening on a block of wood. Their huge, shadowy forms were barely discernable, but still gave off an eerie feel; brush was growing up around their feet like fuzzy shoes. A creek skirted the right side of the road, and Walter could hear the bubbling of the water as it flowed over rocks, sticks, and fallen tree limbs. Something rustled in the weeds nearby; a raccoon or a possum or even a coyote. He couldn’t be sure.
A sense of unease crept in and suddenly, he was feeling a little bit less secure. Being out there all alone in the dark began to play with his sometimes overactive imagination, but he suppressed it the best he could and pushed on. He was a grown man, fifty years old; he wasn’t going to be rattled that easy.
An owl hooted over head in one of the trees. A twig snapped on his left. He realized that he may be the only human out on the road, but he was far from alone.
As he passed the encroaching copse of trees, the road became even more secluded. There were even fewer houses on this stretch of road, and the ones that were there were set far back behind hay fields or bean fields, or rows of corn. It was dark. It was chilly. It was secluded. He could have been back at home in his recliner, sipping a Diet Coke and watching Leno, but instead he was legalistically making sure he got his stupid walk in again. Regret was creeping past his previous enthusiasm for walking; holding hands with the unease.
When he turned right onto Mitthoeffer, he saw brake lights on the other side of the bridge. It was a simple bridge with short concrete walls tailed by steel guardrails on each side over that small creek that was skirting McGregor; maybe fifty feet across and only maybe one hundred feet from the corner. As he had rounded the corner, he had begun to get sort of freaked out in the darkness, but when he saw the people standing in the red light cast by the back of the black Escalade, he felt a sense of relief. He knew it was an Escalade because of the shape of the tail lights, but whether it was black, dark blue, or even a red he couldn’t be truly sure. He assumed black because they always seemed to either be black or white, and this one definitely wasn’t white.
He didn’t say anything. He was a bit too far away. He figured when he got to the edge of the bridge, he would flip on the flashlight so as to not startle them. It was so dark that they couldn’t know he was anywhere around.
He could see four of them silhouetted by the bright red lights. One man was on the left by the edge of the road, and he was facing the other three; one smaller man flanked by two larger guys. They were parked facing the wrong way on the left side of the road, and Walter was walking up on the right side. They were talking, but he couldn’t hear what they were saying. Strange as the situation was, he had been so relieved to see people that it hadn’t yet occurred to him how odd it was for them to be where they were…when they were.
As he reached the bridge, he raised the flashlight and was about to click it on when the small man just ahead raised his right hand. A flash erupted from where his hand should have been, and the loud pop reached Walter’s ears at almost the same time. The man on the left fell over backwards into the weeds.
“What the…?!” Walter blurted and dropped his unlit flashlight.
The three men that were still breathing on the other end of the bridge turned in his direction.
“What was that?” said the shorter man. “Somebody’s over there!” Then, he pointed in Walter’s direction. “Go get him!”
Walter was only a smudge in the dark against the blackness of the night, but he wasn’t truly invisible. Very quickly, a number of thoughts rushed through his panicked mind: Should I run? No. I can’t. Should I fight? Dumb idea. HIDE!
He could see the two bigger guys head in his direction, so he made the split second decision to jump over the metal guard rail and hide in the weeds. He grabbed it with both hands and hurled himself over. The drop was on a slope and about six feet down.
Shots ricocheted off the guard rail.
When he landed, something let go in his lower left leg, and he crumpled to the ground; rolling into the weeds. Pain shot up his leg and exploded into his brain. Grabbing his leg, he stifled a scream, but he knew he didn’t have time to worry about his leg at that moment. He had to get moving, so he rolled over and crawled as fast as he could deeper into the brush, weeds, and brambles. After he’d gone about twenty feet, he stopped; lying very still, he listened.
“Did you get him?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Where’d he go?”
“Off in those weeds down there.”
“Then go get him!”
“I can’t see squat!”
“Okay. Go get the flashlight out of the glove box, and then go get him!”
“Hey! I found something.”
He had heard enough. He couldn’t stay where he was, they’d find him with a flashlight. In fact, it might have been his own flashlight that they had just found. He had to make another quick decision. He knew he needed to stay low, but which way should he go? They’d expect him to just head directly away from them. He needed to move on an angle. There were the trees and the brush by the creek. That mess was thick. If he got in there maybe he could keep away from them and hide in the dark.
Rolling over, he got back up on his hands and knees and crawled as fast has he could through the overgrown grass and weeds toward the creek. A light flashed overhead, so he dropped to his belly, but kept moving with an army crawl. He knew he was leaving a trail in his wake that would be too easy to follow, so he had to get to the woods!
Reaching the edge of the creek, he slid down the bank into the water. The cold stream soaked into his hoodie and through his sweatpants. It was very cold for June, but it felt good on his hurting leg. Scooting up stream, he moved through the water sideways; using his good leg to power each lurch. He could hear someone in the grass now. A light was darting from side to side.
“Where are ya? Come out. Come out, wherever you are.”
He found no humor this evening in the lingo from the childhood hide-n-seek game, so he kept quiet and kept moving. Reaching the woods, he clamored up the bank and into the trees. Along the way, his hand landed on a large stone. He grabbed it up and kept going.
It was a small woods; maybe only fifty feet from side to side, but it was full of brush and stickers. He didn’t care because when you’re running for your life, you don’t mind the small pokes. However, he suspected the other guy would mind. He’d be able to hear him coming.
More quick thoughts raced across his mind: I’ll never out run him. If he comes into the woods, I’ll not get away. I’ve got to try to fight back. Hide. Hide and wait.
He pushed himself up against a tree and listened. Sure enough, he could hear someone pushing through the brambles. He could see the beam of the light reflecting off of the bushes. Interestingly, when the light hit a bush, it made it stand out clearly, but it also made everything around it seem even blacker. He spotted a place a few feet away where two trees sort of slanted across one another with a small gap in between, so he hobbled over there; he could put a little weight on his left foot, but not much. He decided to hide and wait, and if the guy missed him entirely he would wait until he was gone, but if he got close enough, he'd use the rock.
Five minutes passed while he watched the light bob up and down in the woods, and he heard the periodic exclamations of pain as the guy removed thorny branches from his shirt, trousers, and skin. An engine sounded behind him as the Escalade rolled up along side the woods on McGregor Road.
“Have you got him yet?” came the voice of the small guy in the SUV.
“Not yet,” said the sticker-ridden dude in the brush. “But, I will. I’m sure he’s in here. Somewhere.”
“Well, hurry up. I wanna get back to the party!”
The light shown in his direction, but he hid behind the tree. The man was only a few feet away and passing by while he shouted answers to the road. He had just moved between Walter and the SUV when he said, “I’m doing a grid thing. I’m moving back and…Umphh…”
Walter had slipped up behind him and clocked him over the head with the rock. He could feel the guy’s skull collapse under the blow, and the fellow dropped to his knees and then fell over, hitting his face on a fallen limb.
“What?” said the voice from the Cadillac. It was a nasally voice with an eastern accent. It was sort of like one of those dudes from that show about New Jersey that Karen watched from time to time. “Wha’d you say?”
There was a few seconds of silence, then: “Jimmy? Hey Jimmy! You there? You okay?”
“Alright. So you got Jimmy, did you?” The voice was shouting toward the woods. “I suppose you just did what you thought you needed to. I understand. He was a punk anyway. Useful. But a punk.”
Walter didn’t respond. He’d successfully taken out the one guy in the woods, but there were still two more, and they knew where he was within a fifty foot perimeter. He needed help.
“I’m not gonna come in there for ya,” said the thug. “You took out one of my guys. For all I know, you’ve got some Special Forces training or something.”
Wouldn’t that be nice right about now, thought Walter. He had no special training. He’d never been in the military. He hadn’t been in a fight in thirty-five years. He needed to find a way to get some help. That was when he remembered his cell phone. He slipped his right hand into his sweatshirt pocket and felt the empty space.
“Nope. I’m not comin’ in there. But, you know what I am gonna do? I’m gonna make use of this cell phone we found up there on the bridge.”
Walter’s heart sank. The phone must have slipped out when he jumped!
“See, my other boy here…Bobby…he’s real good with these things. ‘Cause, I think you live around here. I think you live in one of these big ole country houses, and you’ve probably got a wife and maybe some kids waiting for you back there.”
Panic began to rise in Walter’s mind and he froze. Karen!!
“I’m gonna have Bobby figure out where you live. Then, I’m just gonna go have some coffee with your wife while we wait for you to get home. How’s that sound?”
It was like his feet were nailed down. He didn’t know what to do! He didn’t know which way to go! Karen!!
“I’ll make you a deal. It’ll be a race. If you get there before I do, I’ll just kill you. But, if we find the house first, then I’m gonna kill your honey while you watch, then I’ll whack you after I see the pain in your eyes. Deal?”
At that, the SUV began to roll on back down McGregor Road toward Hickory Road, his road. HIS ROAD!
He reversed course and made his way through the woods to the perimeter by the road. Sticking his head through a wild lilac, he scanned both directions for any signs of headlights or tail lights. The coast seemed to be clear, but he was about three quarters of a mile from home. It would take him at least fifteen minutes to get there, and that was if he could use the road…and, if his leg would actually carry him. For one, he was sure that he couldn’t use the road. They would be watching for him. For the other, his leg was in bad shape. There may only be a thread of an Achilles tendon still attached. If he lost that, he wouldn’t even be able to walk. But, he had to get to Karen!
Slipping stealthily out of the woods, he crossed the road as quick as he could, still dripping some stream water from his soggy, muddy, and torn sweatpants. Greatly favoring his left foot, he waddled up a driveway and between two darkened houses. He hoped their dogs were locked up inside. Crossing a backyard, he tripped on a toy and fell hard to the ground, landing with a thud. He pulled himself back up on a swing set and kept moving.
At the back of the yard was a cornfield. He wasn’t familiar with the fields in detail, but he knew that if he angled to the northwest across this field, it should bring him out right across from his house. He had never been through this way, though. Being an adult, he couldn’t just ordinarily wander around in a farmer’s cornfields anymore. Regardless, he hobbled in and began to cut across rows and rows, breaking off stalks and pulling his feet heavily out of the occasional muddy bog.
He had gone about a hundred yards when he ran face first into a large spider web. Corn Spiders are large, colorful spiders that love to build huge, sticky webs in a row of a cornfield. They are largely harmless to people, nonetheless to run into one of their large webs in the black of the night, face first is terrifying. Even though Walter was normally completely freaked out by spiders, he didn’t even slow down.
After another hundred yards, he broke through the last row of corn and found himself faced with another copse of trees. A coyote howled off to his right. Another answered off to his left. He knew this little bunch of trees. He could see it from his front yard, which was about five hundred yards on the other side, so he rushed in.
Having never wandered over to these little woods, he didn’t know that the reason they were there was because of the leftover barbed wire fence that they flanked. He hit it without ever seeing it, and flipped right over. The barbs punctured his lower belly and upper thighs, and his pants got hung up in the wire. He tore large holes in the fabric as he jerked himself free. Even so, he pulled himself back to his feet and kept going, pushing through more and more rows until finally he came to the far side of the field and found himself at the edge of Hickory about two dark houses down from his own.
Keeping inside the last corn row, he moved parallel to the road until he was across from his own house, where he stopped to study the situation. He looked north. He looked south. There was nothing in any direction that seemed out of the ordinary. Cars were passing by down on Southport Road, but he couldn’t risk going down there for help. He needed to get into his own house and call the police. So, he edged out of the cornfield, crossed the road and trudged up his driveway past his wife’s Volkswagen Jetta.
Rushing up the steps, he barged into the house!
“Karen! Karen! Where are you? Help me! Call the police!”
“What’s wrong?” she said as he ran around the corner from the family room. “What’s happened? Are you all right?”
Walter grabbed his wife by the shoulders. “Are they here?”
“Is anyone else here?”
“No! Walter, what’s wrong?”
“They’re coming then! We’ve got to call the police. Lock all the doors and call the police!”
His wife snagged the cordless phone off the wall and hit the button for the dial tone. There was no sound.
“It’s dead,” she said.
“Oh my God, they are here,” he said with an oddly calm tone. “Okay. Okay. Let me think.”
“What in God’s name is going on, Walter?”
“Shhhh. Let me think. Okay. Ummm. They must still be outside. No time to run. No place to hide. We’re gonna have to fight.”
“What are you talking about?”
Grabbing her on the shoulders again, he said: “There are two men outside who I saw shoot a guy down the road. They are here to kill us because I’m a witness. We have to fight!”
Karen looked at him like a deer in the headlights, so he shook her. “We have to fight! Do you understand?”
“Yes!” she answered.
“Now, weapons….do we have any thing we can use?” They had moved around to the family room and were standing out of sight of the front door.
“I have my bow,” Karen said. She had taken up archery after a summer camp experience with the kids a few years earlier, and she’d gotten pretty good at shooting targets.
“Perfect. Where’s it at?”
“In the closet over there behind the bar.”
“That’s them,” Walter exclaimed. “Grab your bow and some arrows and hunker down behind the bar. If they get down here, I’ll try to distract them and get their back to you. Karen,” he said as he stared directly into her eyes, “you’re gonna have to shoot to kill. Can you do that?” She looked back into his eyes and nodded.
The beaten, battered, muddy, and bloody man opened his front door to find the short man standing there with a large gun pointed at his face. The other guy, Bobby, was standing behind him with a stupid grin on his face.
“So, you made it. Nicely done. And, you’re an old dude too. I’m truly impressed.”
The two stepped on into Walter’s house without being invited, the gun tip to tip with Walter’s nose as he back-pedaled into his kitchen.
“You must be one bad old dude to take out Jimmy like that.”
“No,” Walter replied. “I’m just a lonely guy trying to stay alive. Look, I’m all alone here. It’s just me.”
“Now, do you really expect me to believe that you rushed all the way back here to save an empty house? Come on. Do I look stupid to you?”
Walter didn’t answer that question, but in reality, the guy did look stupid. He had kind of a cruel, dopey face encircled by a crew cut and a little chin beard. He wore a silky fabric suit with a ruffled white shirt. He looked like an arrogant bully whose dad had money or power, or both.
Instead of answering the question, he said: “Look, we had a deal. I made it back here before you did. Just take me and let’s go, and then you can do whatever you want with me.”
“I sorta lied back there. That’s probably not a surprise to you, since you saw me whack that guy, but it is what it is.” He shrugged his shoulders like he was caught stealing a cookie. “I think I’ll stay and meet your honey. Where’s she at?”
“I’m not sure,” said Walter. He had continued to back up until he was now in the middle of his living room.
“You’re not sure? Really? Come on. Just tell me. I can have Bobby here search the house, but that’d just drag things out.”
Walter backed further into the room until he could see the serving bar in the corner behind which his wife was crouched, hopefully locked and loaded. Something brushed against his leg, so he glanced down to see old Xena reclining there with her head pulled up next to his muddy pants. She looked so sad.
“Are you gonna tell me where she is or not?”
“Fine. Bobby,” he turned toward his associate. “Go upstairs and find her.” As he looked at his brutishly large friend, he was able to witness the arrow entering the man’s neck and protruding out the other side. Bobby’s eyes bugged out, and he raised his hands to his wounded neck before falling over.
Shocked, the stubby man turned his attention and his gun in Karen’s direction. When he did, Walter lunged at him. There wasn’t much strength behind this lunge. He had only one leg to use in the effort. As a result, he only knocked the killer off balance and into the side of Karen’s easy chair. He was quicker than Walter and regained his balance, but not before the gun was knocked from his hand and skidded across the carpet.
Xena growled and let out a loud yelp behind them.
As the man pulled out a knife, Walter slammed into him again and they rolled onto the floor. He tried to hold off the knife hand and lever himself into the top position, but he had no leg strength left. The left Achilles had finally popped leaving his left foot dangling like a broken limb on an old oak. Despite his efforts and struggle, the thug got the upper hand and forced Walter down.
Karen leapt across the room in a frenzy and grabbed the man by the neck, but he sent an elbow into her ribs and then shoved her into the brick wall around the fireplace. She hit her head and slumped down to the floor.
There was another growl and another yelp.
Using his hands, Walter fought to keep the knife at bay, holding that arm and trying to punch at the man’s face. But, the man was too strong. He dropped all his weight on Walter’s stomach leaving him breathless and then punched him hard in the mouth, knocking him half senseless. Grabbing both of Walter’s arms in his left hand, he raised the knife high overhead to drive it into Walter’s chest.
There was a roar!
Xena gathered all of the strength left in her aged body and leapt at the man. She sunk her canines deep into his throat and gave him a mighty shake. Fighting with all his might, the man punched at the old dog, but still she hung on, squeezing his windpipe closed and clamping down on his carotid arteries. She pulled. She shook. She tore.
In one last attempt to free himself, the killer brought the knife down between the dog’s shoulder blades, and then he let it slip from his fingers. It bobbed there in her back as she continued to shake the man, blood oozing down through her fur. She held him though, and shook him until she could no longer feel his heart trying to pump his blood past her teeth, then she let go, and the man slumped down and lay lifeless on her master’s family room carpet.
Her last great feat of loyalty completed, she waddled over to her beaten master, licked him one more time on his cheek, and gingerly lay down next to him; her body tucked up next to his. Glancing around, she let out a sad little whimper, then she closed her eyes, letting the last of her essence slip away.
The next day, when finally the police, the crime techs, and the medics drove away, they carried Xena to the back of their property and buried her under the crimson shade of some fine red roses. After Karen returned to the house, Walter sat down and for hours he simply wept. She had always given him her heart, and now she had given him her life. She was a fine old dog, and she had gone out as she had always lived, by giving him her love.