Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Flaws of Fate and Choice

(Author's Note: There are two elements of this story based in reality. A small South Carolina town whose economy was based on the now dead textile industry and closer to home a mysterious house that I passed a couple of nights ago on the way to work. All else is total fiction. Once again excuse the typos.)


Having lived all my life in the small South Carolina town of Tucker Crossing it's correct to assume that I have some knowledge of its long but uneventful history. This is especially helpful since chance, or maybe it was fate, deemed that I become the Tucker County sheriff right after my twenty-ninth birthday. Situated just a short thirty miles, as the crow flies, north of the state capital of Columbia, my hometown has nonetheless remained a calm and boring little oasis of old Southern charm complete with a laid back lifestyle. A few of the local residents have put those pleasant attributes to use by opening up several bed and breakfast inns which in all honesty is the town's main economic draw these days. But there are others who say we have paid a high price for such a quaint but weak way to pull people to our town.

Tucker Crossing missed out on all the rampant development because of a dilapidated two-lane road that is our one direct route to the interstate highway which the state refuses to repair. Another issue the developers have never liked is the abundance of abandoned textile mills that surround the town which could be used as sets for some post-apocalyptic movie. For those reasons we have missed out on the tacky and cheap strip malls, the larger fortress-like edifices packed with national retailers, and the congested subdivisions that blight the other small towns surrounding Columbia.

This has left Main Street as the primary business location in town. Given the town's isolation our shops and stores can often trace their beginnings back to the early twentieth century. So it was quite the event when I noticed what looked to be a new business that had opened up in the old Miller house on the corner of Main and Cedar Streets while driving into work Tuesday morning. Even with Tucker Crossing's relative isolation from the outside world, occasionally some enterprising soul will come to town and attempt to open up a business selling antiques or some other cheap nicknacks to the tourists staying at the bed and breakfast places.

I assumed that was the case when I saw the flashing “open” sign hanging from the first floor bay window. In the back of my mind I did find it slightly unusual since as long as I could remember the old Miller house had stood empty. In fact, even though I was a lifelong resident with family connections that went back even further I had no idea who these Millers were the house was named after.

Sitting on the far western end of Main street the Miller house is a two-story bay-and-gable style with a large wrap around porch. Never exactly an eyesore the old house had always shown a high degree of weathering and need of minor repair. Yet somehow its condition never got any worse despite no one living there. In fact, even though the houses surrounding the Miller place are all occupied it is curious how the neighbors, and the rest of the town's residents for that matter, simply ignored the place as if it was not really there.

Walking into the small county sheriff's headquarters I stop by the desk Mary Wilson uses to dispatch my deputies and keep track of their locations. “Mary,” I say, “what do you know about the new business that opened in the old Miller place?”

“The old Miller place? I have no idea what you are talking about Jacob.” She replied obviously annoyed that I had disturbed her from finishing up her morning duty assignments.

The old, vacant house on the corner of Main and Cedar.” I say as she hands me the duty logs from the two deputies working night shift.

Mary, like me, is a lifelong resident and while my own curiosity about the new business was slowly being replaced with my normal morning duties of quickly scanning the nighttime reports I did notice she had to actually think about the Miller house like it was something she had never seen.

“Oh, that place,” she replies, “no, I don't know a thing about anyone opening any sort of new business there or anywhere else in town. It would be nice to have some new people though.”

As I read the nighttime reports I notice one of the deputies had a run in with some local rednecks which took me completely away from my overactive curiosity. Still something in the back of my head would not let go of the strange and sudden nature of the newcomers. But I am a well trained and disciplined police officer, its been six years since I inherited the job of Tucker County sheriff when my predecessor suddenly died. As much as I dislike the idea sometimes this job has become my life, whether I like it of not, and I once again submerge myself in its daily demands.

***

Insomnia is an insidious disorder, for many who have never suffered from it there is a certain ignorant humor associated with anyone who had to deal with an abundance of sleepless nights. I have long since trained myself in dealing with it by spending as much time outside my little mobile home as possible.

During the weeknights my usual haunt is a bar called “Fallen Angels.” It is a hangout where every recent graduate of Tucker Crossing High School still living in town spends at least a couple of nights a week. There are no class distinctions, everyone from the mayor, the town's two doctors and three dentists along with the guys from the local garage and Pete's Septic Tank Cleaning Service drink and talk as if we were all one happy family.

By the time the owners Sylvia and Luke close the doors I can often go to my severely spartan home and catch a few hours sleep. When I can't, I drive all over the county listening to the radio and wondering what decisions I could have done differently in my life. It makes no difference, I always end up back at the sheriff's department headquarters, go inside my office, and lay my head on the desk and catch enough of a nap to be useful when everyone on day shift comes into work.

That was my plan in the dark and early hours of Wednesday morning. I had drove around and surprised both the night shift deputies who had parked behind one of the abandoned textile factories and gone to sleep in their cars. After scaring both of them to death and having the best laugh in the process I decided to head back into town.

My route takes me past the old Miller house where I notice light coming from every window and see a figure staring out the first floor bay window. I immediately pull over to the side of the street and stop out of a sense of job-related duty. As I get out of my car and walk towards the front door I am flooded my what could be a memory or a hallucination of me as a child walking past this house at night.

The old theater was still open then and I am walking home after seeing some movie. The Miller house was dark and empty as it had been all my life but I was overwhelmed by some presence that I believed was watching me from inside. It felt neither good nor evil but there was the impression that it was somehow judging me. Being around the age of twelve I ran off in abject fear and somehow erased it from my memory.

Walking up the steps I fight off the irrational urge to runaway again. Out of instinct I place my right hand on my pistol while with my left and I turn the ornate doorknob, push the weathered front door open, and step inside.

“Hello Sheriff Allen,” a beautiful raven haired woman says from behind a small counter situated in the corner of the house's foyer. Dressed in a simple but alluring peasant-style blouse and long brown skirt she looks like a gypsy that could steal both your heart and money. Her smile is open and friendly but I could not shake the idea that she somehow knew more about me than I could ever guess. “It's awful early in the morning but you are welcome to look around all you want.”Her accent was definitely not southern but it had a musical lilt that was almost hypnotic.

Both my voice and brain shutdown for a few seconds leaving me looking like a fool. When both come back I sound like a shy teenager who had never talked with a girl. “Just saw the lights on and you in the window, I felt it prudent to stop by and check things out.”

“By all means,” she says still smiling, “you can call me Chloe. If you need anything or have any questions I'll be right here.”

Stepping into the first floor living room every conceivable space is occupied by some item. I see antique furniture, paintings of all sorts, musical instruments, books, fine china, various weapons from swords to ancient rifles, early phonographs, children's toys and so many other items my mind goes into overload. Every room I walk through is as crowded with things as the first one I saw, not only that, I realize everything is one of a kind.

By this time my mind is so overwhelmed I completely ignore the fact that as I step into a room with only one entrance I find Chloe already there. “We have much to offer but I have a feeling you will find something special upstairs.” She says in a kind and subtle way that deep down is in actuality a stern order I am unable to disobey.

There to meet me on the second floor is a blond version of Chloe. “Hi, I am Lacey,” she says in a sultry voice full of sensual energy. Where her sister below looked like the girl next door, Lacey's was exotic and dangerous. The vibrantly colored dress she wore emphasized every curve of her body and combined with her come hither expression I quickly felt my own blood begin to boil. “You may find something interesting down the hall in the last room on the left.” She said in a disinterested manner utterly dissolving my growing animal lust.

If anything the second floor of the old house was even more packed with strange and interesting objects than the one below but my focus was on the mysterious item I was assured was important to me. Stepping into the room Lacey directed me I immediately see what she was talking about. The room itself is empty except for an old chair with an ornate picture frame resting on the seat. But it was the picture that stunned me to my core. The picture was of my high school girlfriend, Emily Altman, holding a strangely familiar child. As I stepped closer a story unfolded in my head counter to the actual events that tore us apart.

After graduation I foolishly joined the army and ended up serving a long string of combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. During that time all my ideals and beliefs melted away under the nightmare of wars waged primarily for the benefit of rich people. Emily instead went off to college in North Carolina, and a few years later met and fell in love with the man that would become her husband. For a couple of years after I returned to Tucker Crossing and became a deputy sheriff I made every excuse to talk with Emily's mom, Sally Altman. I never fooled the old woman who took every chance to remind me her daughter was quite successful and happily married.

While looking at that strange picture of Emily and that baby a new story unfolded to me in what I would call a waking dream where I skipped the army and went to college myself. Sometime later Emily and I run into each other at a high school reunion and quickly fall in love. The child she held in the picture was our first born and while I somehow knew this alternate version of our lives was no happily ever after, it was the way things were suppose to have happened.

“The item is yours for the taking if that is your desire.” A new voice said behind me.

I turn and see another version of Chloe and Lacey but with red hair this time. Instead of the open and friendly nature of Chloe or the raw sexual nature of Lacey this identical sister was stern and unforgiving. Nothing about this situation made any sense and ran counter to my training as a police officer where control meant everything.

“What do you mean the item is mine if I want it?” I ask partially confused but yet unable to believe I was looking at some incredible miracle that could erase my mistakes and allow me to have a real life.

“You have been given the chance to correct your own ill conceived life choices as well as an inherit flaw in the cosmos. Millions have lived and died praying for such a chance so make your decision quickly.” The red-headed sister tells me clearly growing angry.

I turn back towards the picture but hesitate. What right do I have to change the course of Emily's life? More importantly my own actions while in Iraq and Afghanistan weigh heavily on my mind and I find myself not really believing I deserve any happiness.

“Ashley, what of our customer? Has he made his choice?” I hear both Chloe and Lacey call out.

“No, sisters,” she says behind me, “doubt and guilt cloud his mind. This one has failed.” She says and as I turn around in panic to plead my case everything goes black.

***

I wake up in the sterile and nearly empty bedroom of my trailer. My sheets are drenched with sweat and I find myself fighting off such a wave of despair several minutes go by as I stare longingly at the pistol sitting on my nightstand. The only thing that saves my life is the idea it was all a dream.

My duty to the town and years of ingrained habit soon take over. I ignore my feelings and go through the motions of getting ready for work. That is until I pass the old Miller house on the way in which looks completely devoid of any inhabitants. In the belief that seeing the house empty I will slay the active demons in my head I pull the car over, run up onto the porch and peer inside the bay window.

As I thought, the house is empty and looks like it has been that way for uncounted decades. But the police officer in me will not accept anything until I go inside.

An elbow punch to a side window breaks glass and a few second later I am inside. I am immediately bothered by the fact the layout is just like that of my dream. I convince myself that has more to do with other houses that I have visited that look similar. The air inside is musty and stale but there is an eerie silence to the old house that bothers me, almost like a residue of monumental disappointment. Knowing nothing will be settled until I march upstairs to the room I saw the picture. A weird form of fear flows through me as I slowly begin to climb the steps.

A grown man should never feel the fear and uncertainty that truly challenges his sanity but as I look into that room and see the exact chair the picture of Emily and our baby was sitting. The picture, of course, is nowhere to be found although I already knew that, I had my chance and blew it.

A numbness comes on me and I walk down the stairs and back out of the house like some toy robot a child might wind up. When I get to headquarters I take out my pistol, remove the magazine and the round from the chamber, and place it on Mary's desk.

“Mary,” I say as she looks at me with concern, “call the mayor and then the county council chairman. Effective today I resign, I cannot do this anymore.” Before she can say anything I remove my badge as well and walk back out.

Several days pass with everyone doing there best to change my mind but it's during that time I figure out a plan for my life. The sheriff of a second rate and impoverished county does not make a lot of money but I was never one to spend much anyway. I buy a motorcycle complete with saddle bags, pack a few belongings, and leave town.

In this reality Emily has found her happiness and I will not disturb her but I will be damned if I let my life pass by and not try to find some small scrap of it for myself.

7 comments:

Pixel Peeper said...

Hmmm...I've had some unusual dreams that seemed so realistic they affected my mood and behavior for a day or so.

Luckily, as I look back on my life, I find that though it didn't all work out as I planned, I would not want to go back and make different choices.

I like that Sheriff Allen decides to make some drastic changes based on his dream/vision/hallucination in the old abandoned house. There is still hope for him!

Rose L said...

I love this short story. Makes you think about choices.
And that house--I would have loved exploring it!!!

Marja said...

wow I hang on every word. The were able to put a lot of mystery around that house. Loved it. How exciting would that be if we could get another chance at important moments in life. Than things would be very different.
Love the end that he uses the experience to make a new start.
Great story writing Good one!!!!

lime said...

eerie, haunting, and heartbreaking. very well done.

Akelamalu said...

The chance to change one's past could be tempting to some. I'm glad he didn't take it but, being given the choice, it did make him change his future. I like it!

The Bug said...

Oh I loved this! I hung on every word too. And I was sad that he didn't seize the picture - but your ending was the better one. Bravo!

Beach Bum said...

Pixel: You won't believe where the idea for this story came from. Here in town, where I live, on the corner of Main and Cedar some one has opened some sort of business. In the past my wife has made several remarks about how she admires the look of that old house which until recently was vacant.

I was driving to work one night and saw that house all lit up with people inside. Now in real life it was just the owners setting up shop but it starling enough to get my mind working.

As for the fictional town of "Tucker Crossing" I based it on the town of Chester where my wife and I stayed at a bed and breakfast a couple of years ago.

I sort of based, very loosely, Sheriff Allen on many different people that I have encountered who signed up for the military after 9/11 but lost vital parts of their lives chasing a lie.

Rose: Thanks!

Marja: Thanks!

Lime: Was in a Twilight Zone kind of mood.

Akelamalu: I don't know if I would have had the strength to do the same.

Bug: Thanks!