Howdy Neighbor: Part 4 — Fate

HowdyContinued from: Howdy Neighbor: Part 3 — Best Laid Plans

“Look, Bart, I have no idea what you’re talking about, please, just listen to…”

“Shut up,” Bart said. His hand tightened on the grip of the revolver. “Just shut up, you sick, twisted…”

“Bart, I…”

“Did I not just tell you to shut up?” Bart nuzzled the revolver’s muzzle into the back of Sam’s head. They stood on the edge of the jetty at the mouth of the eastern end of Mystic Island’s harbor. The only illumination was from the blinking red light marking the jetty’s tip. It flashed, like a slow, solemn strobe on the black expanse of water around them.

Bart had relished the expression of surprise on Sam’s face when Sam first noticed the gun. They were riding down Hemlock Street in Sam’s car, Bart in the passenger seat with the revolver placed casually on his lap.

“Whoa, Bart, man, what’s that thing for?” Sam asked. His tone jovial, but his voice shaky.

“Take a right here,” Bart told him.

“Okay—” Sam said, elongating the word, confusion more evident in that word than fear. But when they pulled into the dark seclusion of the back roads behind St. Sebastian’s, hugging the coast past Demon’s Point and out onto Harbor Point, fear bought out the confusion in Sam’s voice. And now, on the edge of the jetty, with the gun to Sam’s head, Bart no longer wanted to see the expression on the man’s face.

“How could you do it?” Bart asked him, digging the muzzle into the back of Sam’s head. “How could you do it?”

“Do what, Bart?” Sam’s voice trembled with the effort of staying calm, the effort of keeping his tone conversational.

“Didn’t I tell you to shut up?”

Sam let out a heavy sigh. Bart didn’t need to see the man’s face to know he was crying.

“It’s time to make peace, pal,” Bart said, “Just admit to doing it, that’s all you need to do.”

“Bart, like I said, I don’t know…”

“Did I tell you you could talk?” Bart said, raising his voice and thrusting the muzzle forward. “Answer me. Did I tell you you could talk?” Bart was crying now, too. “Answer me.”

“No, Bart, you didn’t,” Sam said.

“I said shut up!” Bart screamed, and his bladder let go, warm urine trickling down his leg as he pulled the trigger.

Sam Freeman had disappeared. The police found his car parked at the Islander Health and Racquet Club. The Mystic Crier reported that no one even remembered seeing him leave. And, most likely, no one would ever know what happened to him. In fact, aside from Sam being dead, even Bart didn’t know what happened to him. I, however, do know what happened to Sam. His body fell into the water, became waterlogged, sunk a few feet below the ocean’s surface, at just pre-dawn, it was caught on a fishing boat’s trawling line, the line being accidently cut when further out to sea, breaking free before the fishermen knew there was a body on it, and Sam sank with the rest of the line’s tackle to the bottom of the sea, becoming a meal for several crustaceans.

That’s what happened to Sam’s body. What happened to his soul is more complicated. Some people believe there is a place called “Hell.” In this place, people believe that bad things happen to people that did bad things during his or her life. I can attest that this place does exist, and the real Hell is not that far from how many people imagine it to be. I can also attest that Sam’s soul did not end up there. Be that as it may, every night, Bart thought he could hear Sam screaming in Hell, Bart thinking he could hear as the Malebranche sunk their hooks into Sam and dragged him from the bubbling pits to dismember him. Sometimes, Bart couldn’t take hearing Sam’s screaming, and he would pace the downstairs of his house, glancing out the window to the house down the street. Sometimes Bart wondered if he was going to someday join Sam in the bowels of Hell. But other times, when Bart heard the screams, he slept like a baby.

It was Christmas morning. Bart sat on the living room couch as the guests arrived for Christmas dinner. Bart had barely slept the night before. Like a child straining to hear sleigh bells, Bart was kept awake by silence. He heard no screaming, and his thoughts were fixed, not on Sam Freeman, but on Sam’s daughter spending Christmas Eve without her father. And now, Bart was barely able to raise himself from the couch to greet his parents, his in-laws, and…

“Mr. Tickles,” Olivia screamed with the glee reserved for such characters as Mickey Mouse and Santa Claus.

Bart’s eyes grew wide. At first, he thought he had imagined his daughter’s scream. But her giggles broke him from the daze, and Bart stood from the couch and rushed out to the hallway, where his brother Jimmy had Olivia in a bear hug. Uncle Jimmy kept thrusting his face at his niece, calling between laughter, “Look out for Mr. Tickles. Here comes the tickler.”

“See,” Amelia said to Bart, appearing beside him, “Mr. Tickles was just Jimmy’s mustache. I told you it was nothing.”

The End

Howdy Neighbor: Part 3 — Best Laid Plans

HowdyContinued from: Howdy Neighbor: Part 2 — Mr. Tickles

Bart Robbins stood outside of Islander Heath and Racquet. The wind blew the autumn leaves. Some leaves applauded in rustling whispers, others dropped from the branches and ran off on the breeze. The crisp fall air made the world seem somehow larger, the shadows darker. Bart waited in the shadows, just out of the reach of a streetlight’s glow. He saw Sam Freeman’s gray Corolla parked in the center of the lot. Sam was in the health club, just as he said he would be.

For weeks, Bart thought about Sam Freeman’s blood spilling, painting on the walls, pooling beneath his body. He often thought about bludgeoning him, maybe strangling him, but there was too much of a chance that something could go wrong, that Sam Freeman might be able to fight off Bart. Sam’s death would have to be violent, but it would have to be foolproof. Should he torture him? Should he force Sam to watch him harm Sam’s daughter, as Sam had harmed his? Should he…

“Another beer?”

“Huh?”

“You want another?” Sam asked, draining his bottle of Budweiser.

“Um, yeah, okay,” Bart said.

“All right,” Sam said, standing from the couch, “That’s what I like to hear.” Sam and Bart were in Sam’s finished basement watching Game 4 of the ALCS between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. Sam returned from the bar at the end of the room with two more beers.

Bart’s senses were razor sharp, a hyperconsciousness, nothing was escaping his perception. He had mentioned to Sam in passing, about a week ago, how they were neighbors and they never really got to know one another, maybe they should catch one of the playoff games. “Sure thing, neighbor, come by, I got some pops chilling behind the bar,” was Sam’s response. And now, Bart watched him, noting every little detail, gathering every piece of information about this guy. Know thy enemy, eh? Bart smiled his best hey, Buddy, grin as Sam handed him the beer. Keep your enemies close, eh?

In the basement’s corner, an exercise bike was almost completely hidden beneath a shroud of jackets, and clothes, and such. “Seems like those things always end up as a coat rack sooner or later,” Bart said, nodding toward the bike.

“Yeah, well,” Sam said, opening his beer, “Best laid plans and all, I guess, huh? I thought I would work out more with the exercise equipment right at hand, but of course you know what they say about best laid plans. I never touched the thing, so I got a membership at that Islander Heath and Racquet. You know, that place out behind the drive-in. I like it there, out of the way and all, not too many muscle heads. I find it easier to exercise with a schedule, same time each day, you know? With that thing there,” he nodded toward the bike in the corner, “it was too easy to find excuses not to exercise. If you actually get out to a place, it’s more motivating. Only problem is, it’s usually dark by the time I get out of there and back home. Christ, I’m so busy lately that if anything ever happened to me, I wonder if my family would even notice I was gone. Know what I mean?”

“Absolutely,” Bart said with a grin.

Outside the Islander Health and Racquet, Bart kept his hands in his jacket’s pockets, his right hand gripping the heavy steel of his father in-law’s revolver. What a production it had been to get that thing out of the old fart’s gun cabinet. First, there was Amelia’s suspicion when he suggested that they go and visit her parents. Then there were the three times he had to pretend to need the bathroom, looking for the chance to steal into his father in-law’s office, snag the gun cabinet’s key from beneath the ivory elephant on the book shelf, unlock the glass doors, and “borrow” the silver .357 snub-nose revolver. Then, of course, he had to find the bullets in the cabinet’s drawer, and then return to the den with the hunk of metal stashed in the waist of his pants and digging into his gut.

“Are you feeling all right?” Amelia asked him.

“Huh?”

“Are you sick?” she asked, nodding in the direction of the bathroom.

“Um, sick? Yeah, I guess I don’t feel so hot.”

“Do you want to go home?”

“I think that would be best,” Bart said, shifting in the seat, the gun digging deeper into his abdomen.

Bart saw the health club’s door open. Is that Sam? It looked like him coming out of the building. The man passed beneath a street lamp. Bart saw his mustache and his hair plastered to his forehead with sweat, steam rising from his shoulders as his body cooled in the night air.

Bart glanced around the parking lot. No one around. He darted from the shadows and toward the gray Corolla. “Howdy, neighbor,” Bart said, his voice heavy, as if his words were a mouthful of warm water.

“Bart,” Sam said, raising his eyebrows, surprise evident in his voice. “What’re you doing out this way?”

“Nothing…” he answered, and then there was silence, Bart’s heart seemingly as audible as the tell-tale one in Poe’s story. “Um… I ran out of gas down the street a bit,” he said, gesturing over his shoulder in an indefinite direction. “I feel like a bit of a jackass,” he chuckled, “and then I remembered you saying that you worked-out here, so I gave it a shot. Think you could give me a ride home? I have a Gerry-jug in my shed, and…”

“Of course, buddy,” Sam said, unlocking the car, the power locks springing from their slots. “Hop in.”

Bart darted into Sam’s passenger seat, still gripping the revolver in his pocket.

Continued in: Howdy Neighbor: Part 4 — Fate

Howdy Neighbor: Part 2 — Mr. Tickles

HowdyContinued from: Howdy Neighbor: Part 1 — Seing Red

Bart’s daughter was little help in easing her father’s mind. Any time he asked her about Mr. Tickles, she became silly and incoherent. Her response to every inquiry as to Mr. Tickle’s identity was: “He’s my friend.”

“Olivia,” Bart said, his voice distant to his own ears, “Where does Mr. Tickles tickle you?”

“All over!” Olivia laughed, twirling her arms like windmills.

Bart’s wife, Amelia Robbins, was little help in easing her husband’s fears. Amelia said that Mr. Tickles was most likely an imaginary friend. After all, the drawing looked like a horse or an elephant.

“No,” Bart said, tapping the drawing with his finger, “See, it’s a man bending over her and kissing her. Don’t you see it?” Tap-tap-tap.

“It just doesn’t look like that to me,” she said.

Bart’s wife lacked imagination.

“I can’t believe you’re not concerned about this,” Bart said.

“Bart,” Amelia said, “We never leave her alone. When could someone harm her? You’re making a big deal out of nothing.”

Bart’s wife lacked compassion.

There is an expression people use when the red sheen of rage begins to fade, and a person is again able to think more clearly. This expression is: “time heals all wounds.” This expression is accurate. For, as with such physical injuries as lacerations and contusions, an injury to one’s emotional state also mends. This ability to adapt and continue on is the beauty of life’s durability. Bart began to accept his wife’s explanation of Mr. Tickles being an imaginary friend. But, as with mended bones, there is a higher potential to injure a once injured emotional state again.

Come February, a storm dumped a foot of snow on Mystic Island. The storm was on a Friday, and come Saturday, Bart’s neighborhood was a world of glistening porcelain. Bart and Olivia were returning home from the general store at the end of the street. They walked up the street, Bart with Olivia’s hand in one hand and a coffee in the other. He was cautious not to let either one spill. All around them was the crunching stab and toss of shovels as the neighbors dug out their driveways. Snow dust glinted in the sunlight with each toss.

About six houses down from the Robbins’s home, one of their neighbors was digging out his car. What was the guy’s name? Something Freeman. Amelia knew his wife. Olivia played with his daughter. But Bart had never bothered to learn the guy’s name because… well, because the guy had never bothered to learn Bart’s. The guy always greeted him with these words: “Howdy, neighbor.” He said it now, and Bart nodded in response, slightly lifting his coffee cup and saying, “Nough snow for ya?”

This phrase, Nough snow for ya? is often used by people after large quantities of snow have fallen, and one is reduced to digging it out into heaving backbreaking piles. The phrase translates loosely to: I know you, but I really don’t want to take up my time talking to you right now.

Howdy, neighbor translates to roughly the same thing.

Meanwhile, As Bart and his neighbor exchanged their generic greetings, Olivia was pulling on her father’s hand. “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,” she said with mounting excitement. She said it continuously, until she slipped on the icy street and dangled from her father’s grip, still calling, “Daddy, Daddy.”

“What, what is it, Sweetheart?” her father said, righting her onto her feet.

Olivia pointed at the man and laughed, “It’s Mr. Tickles.”

Bart’s hands trembled and his coffee spilled from his cup, the heat seeping into his glove.

The guy looked at him suspiciously. “You all right?” the guy asked.

Bart looked down at his own hand, not feeling the burning of the hot liquid. He couldn’t speak.

“You gotta be careful, the world doesn’t need any more coffee-burn related lawsuits,” the man said.

Bart looked up at the man. The man was smiling. Bart knew the guy was smiling, even though the guy’s mouth was hidden by a mustache—that had gathered small icicles from the cold—Bart knew he was smiling because the guys dimples flexed and his eyes had that twinkle that comes with smiling. But it was a smile hidden. A gloating secret. A smug gotcha.

“Uh, yeah,” Bart said, not sure what he was responding to, and then he and Olivia kept on toward their home.

Perhaps it was shock that stayed Bart from immediately grabbing hold of the man’s shovel and bludgeoning him to death then and there. Perhaps it was that he would never do such a thing in the presence of his daughter—not wanting Olivia to witness the horrible sounds of the shovel splitting the man’s skull and the man’s final, futile yelp as he fell in the snow, his crimson blood seeping into the pristine white. Not wanting Olivia to see that animalistic hatred in her father’s eyes. But the real reason he didn’t react was that the red sheen had returned, robbing him momentarily of all coherence. But the sheen would fade, and he would think more clearly later. Time heals all wounds. The body has a way of healing from physical injuries, as the mind does to emotional injuries. But, as nature likes to remind us when it feels there are just too many pesky little humans around, our bodies are very susceptible to diseases, viruses, and cancer, and such. These things have a way of getting into the deepest parts of us and, at times, can even turn our own bodies against us. Time often does not heal these sicknesses. Time often makes them worse. The same is true for the mind. One disease that affects the mind in such a way is rage. Rage was preying on Bart’s mind like a cancer would on lungs, or on a man’s prostate, or a woman’s breasts. Rage would eat away at Bart until it consumed him entirely, or until he killed Mr. Tickles, his neighbor, Sam Freeman.

Continued in: Howdy Neighbor: Part 3 — Best Laid Plans

 

Howdy Neighbor: Part 1 — Seeing Red

HowdyBart Robbins’s reaction was a standard physiological response. His blood rushed from his extremities and pooled in his vital organs. His heart pounded like a bass drum. His head felt like an expanding balloon. His adrenal glands released an obscene amount of adrenalin. His thinking reverted to flashes of instinctual impulses. This physiological response is known in the science community as the “fight or flight” instinct. At that moment, Bart could have probably outrun a high school track star or maybe even have throttled a man to death with his bare hands.

Bart Robbins wanted to do the latter.

Somewhere along the evolutionary chain of human existence, after humans no longer had a need for fleeing from Saber-toothed Tigers and giant Wooly Mammoths, the fight response of this “fight or flight” instinct overrode the flight response. This overabundance of the fight instinct developed into what we know as rage. Rage developed into vengeance. There is no functional, biological need for vengeance, yet still, humans developed it. There was no functional need for the Pet Rock, yet still, humans developed it. Imagine that.

What most people may find amazing is that this response in Bart was brought on by the playful giggles of his four-year-old daughter, Olivia.

Love is another emotion with no real function. Like rage, love can also undermine a human’s lucid thought process. And it was love for his daughter, and the very thought of someone harming her, that propelled Bart into, first, a silent, panicked rage, and then into thoughts of vengeance. Bart Robbins was going to kill whoever Mr. Tickles was.

“Olivia, who is Mr. Tickles?” Bart asked his daughter.

“He’s my friend,” Olivia said.

Bart glanced down at his daughter’s drawing again. His initial response when first seeing her drawing had been his standard response to all of her artwork. “Oh, it’s wonderful,” he’d said, trying to piece together the shaky lines and the scratched scrawls of crayons into a recognizable subject matter. “It’s…” The yellow ball in the top corner was clearly a sun. Which made the green band fringing the bottom grass. It was definitely a landscape scene. “It’s um…” There was a fagot of bunched lines jumbled into what looked like bodies. “It looks just like a…” Was it an animal? A horse maybe? Or an elephant? No. There were two round oversized heads precariously perched on stick figures. They were people. One oversized head on a tall body meeting an oversized head on a small body in what looked to be a whisper… or a kiss. “It’s…” Bart’s eyes narrowed as he more closely inspected the figures.

“It’s Mr. Tickles!” Olivia cried with laughter.

“And what is it exactly that Mr. Tickles is doing here?” Bart asked. His voice was as shaky and unsure as his daughter’s drawings.

“He’s tickling me,” Olivia said, holding out her arms in a well, duh, manner.

Bart choked on his next question as if the words were a noose. “Olivia, how is Mr. Tickles tickling you?”

“With his tickler,” she cried with laughter.

There is an expression that is used to describe rage. That expression is: “seeing red.” Although this expression is most likely derived from a bull’s reaction to a red cape, it does seem, when one becomes enraged, that the world becomes enveloped in a red sheen. This red sheen can become opaque over a person’s thoughts. When his daughter showed him her picture of Mr. Tickles, Bart Robbins saw red.

Continued in: Howdy Neighbor: Part 2 — Mr. Tickles