"How about you apologize to the lady?" Jake said, strong and unafraid.
Instantly, the whole diner went mute. Everyone turned to look Jake, especially the red-faced old man he'd addressed.
"What?" said the man.
A nervous ache attempted to weigh down Jake's stomach, but he told it to go to hell.
"I suggest you apologize-you know, say you're sorry." He stood his ground as the old man tried with every scarlet popping vein in his head to stare him down. "She's just doing her job. She-Cindy…" Jake read her name badge, "doesn't deserve to be cursed at by some old fart with no manners or temperament."
"Mind your business!"
"Really, it's okay," said Cindy. "I was probably harsher than I should have been."
"Damn straight, blondie! Now give me-"
"No!" Jake interjected again, taking a step forward. "I'm tired of grumpy old hacks like you treating everyone like a verbal dumpster. Say you're sorry, pay your bill- your whole bill-and I'll let you leave."
"Y-you w-w-won't let me do a-anything, you sonofa-" and he raised his hand.
Jake reacted without a consideration and grabbed the arm, thrusting it back forcefully. The sudden backward momentum caught the man off guard and he tumbled against the counter. The ensuing chain reaction was chaotic-diners across the café stood from their tables or sat and stared as the man fell back, catching the edge of a large mint bowl, both it and the man crashing to the floor. The shattering of the bowl and scattering peppermints was a horrifying sound, as was the cry of pain from the downed man.
Jake stared in surprise, a look of remorse painted on his face, but inside he smiled. Got what you deserved.
"Oh my God," said Cindy, coming around to help the flustered fallen. "Are you okay sir?"
But he only stared up at Jake as he slowly got to his feet and shaking all over. "You-What's wrong with you?"
"Someone has to stand up to your bullying. You'll think twice before raising a hand to someone again."
"I wasn't gonna hit you!"
"Sure, whatever. Now-what are you going to do?"
The man was sweating, breathing laboriously. He stared at Jake, then looked to Cindy, then the entirety of the diner. No one had come to render aid or intervene. Either they were on Jake's side or they were the equivalent of your average rubbernecks who did the modern American thing and "stay out of it".
The old man gripped the counter, the contempt in his aged eyes turning to indecision and possibly fear. To Cindy he said, "I'm sorry dear." He pulled a twenty out of his pocket with his free hand and set it by the cash register. "No change." His gray eyes darted from side to side before he stepped towards the exit. Pushing the door open a crack, he mumbled something that sounded to Jake like "It's just been a bad day…"
The man was gone, but the heat of the situation smoldered in Jake's chest. A manager suddenly materialized and Jake realized he'd been hiding in the wings and listening. "Is everything okay here?" He asked the waitress.
"Yes Mr. Curtis. Sorry, I'll clean up the mess."
The manager observed Jake, the motorcycle jacket wearing twentysomething with jet black hair. Jake only regarded the balding man with a blank expression.
"I think I lost my appetite," said Jake, turning to leave. He needed to get out of there because he was beginning to feel the pangs of his familiar rage spider-webbing through his body. Even Cindy's calm innocence seemed like a weakness to him and it only fueled his anger. This was not a moment he needed to be around people. He didn't look at anyone else as he picked up his helmet from the bench by the door and proceeded to leave. But Cindy's voice carried waveringly over to him.
"It's icing outside," she looked through the large window. "Isn't it too dangerous to ride a motorcycle?"
Dangerous. Danger. The words meant nothing to him and his newfound loathing for life overflowed the brim of his emotional wall. He let the helmet drop to the floor. It rolled over a few shards of the broken bowl and rested against a single peppermint. He shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.
Outside the diner he mounted the Ducati. He inserted the small key and the engine groaned a couple of times before turning over. The dropping temperature was taking a toll on a cold engine. Once started, however, it raced to life and Jake held the brake as he spun the back tire. He didn't look back into the windows of the diner-the tableau would be the same: patrons slowly returning to their insignificant meals, dumbass manager in control of nothing, weak Cindy-nice, but weak.
Brandon. Tessie. Dad.
The world can go to hell, he thought, speeding out of the parking lot. The bike fishtailed the moment he arced out into the street. But Jake smiled, using balance and simple run-of-the-mill bike riding experience to stabilize the machine, throttling the gas forward. Three blocks down State Road, finally away from that annoying diner and its useless denizens, he thought of his dad.
"You're useless, Jacob," he'd said earlier, finger in Jake's face. "And I don't know what to do with you anymore."
"Do with me? What's that mean, anyway?" Jacob Senior, eyes red (as they always were these days) and breath radiating with the aroma of Old Milwaukee, stepped closer to him as they stared eye to eye.
"It means…nothing. Just like your whole life." He drained the last of the beer he was holding, followed by a deep breath and an exhausted sigh. "Your mom dies last year and you don't go to her funeral. You lose your job last week for stealing-lucky your ass isn't sitting on cold steel in jail right now. The list goes on. And Tess…"
Jake's eyes narrowed as he accelerated the bike down the frozen river of the winding street, the black ice an indifferent challenge.
"What about Tessie?"
His dad turned, then stopped, looking back at his son with an inquisitive ponder. Then he grinned, keeping his eye contact with Jake as he pulled his L&M's out of his pocket and fishing one cigarette out of the soft pack. He lit it, then used it to make a point.
"Hmph. The list goes on for you, boy." Jake watched him cross the room and push the play button on the answering machine. Suddenly, his girlfriend's voice materialized, and he could feel how deeply wrought with hindrance and tears her words seemed.
"Hey Jake," she paused, "look, I didn't call your cell because-hell, I just couldn't. You're a mess and I can't fix you anymore. I know you've been through so much, what with your mom. And Brandon…" A longer pause this time. "I'm going to my grandma's in Modesto. You're just going to have to grow up without me. I'm sorry, so sorry. Big bye." Click.
"The list goes on," Jacob Senior repeated as he reached for another beer.
Jake sped around a corner sans caution and thought gladly about how good it felt to backhand that can out of his dad's hand and take one last look in those shocked eyes before wordlessly storming out of that house for what might've been the last time.
His beautiful red-headed Tessie had dumped him, left him alone in this fresh winter. Hot tears threatened to distort his view of the road but he forced them back. He wasn't about to die out of weakness. If anything, it would be out of decided total abandon and relished hate of this world that would take his elevator car down the shaft into hell. His way.
Why? Why had she done it, though? He knew he'd been a hack so far in life; but after everything, her abandoning him so acutely enlisted him right into the ranks of Loser's Anonymous. My God! He thought, now idling at a stop sign, the tendrils of hot exhaust in the frozen air encircling his body. She knows I've tried to get it together, but all I get is poison from this world. And Brandon, after all…
He stopped the thought by spinning the throttle as far as it would go, the back tire teasing the ice into a large plume of an abominable snow-peacock's tail. Several seconds passed before the tire received traction and he was jolted forward through the intersection. He gave no thought to the small blue hatchback that nearly hit him, the sound of a high-pitched horn being leaned on uselessly quickly fading away.
Brandon's face appeared in Jake's mind suddenly, and a new thought occurred to him: How long would it be before he forgot what his brother looked like without having to pull out a photo album? But the answer came with a daunting bare-limbed sycamore that nearly took him out when the bike came too close to the edge of the street. Forgetting Brand's face might not be an issue if he died today.
He wondered now what this planet held for him anymore as he steadied the machine once again. Was there anything good left in this world? His heart was pounding out rhythmic beats of tribal proportions. The stress seemed to be ever-increasing and he felt his blood pressure swell.
The Ducati stretched around Stillhouse Pond, the road ceasing to be State Street and becoming Rambler Avenue. Jake's subconscious seemed to note the increasingly thick plates of ice that shingled the small roadway, yet his active mind kept that fact on the backburner.
An IED on the side of the road. A squad of five occupied the Humvee including the open-turret gunner topside. IED. What the hell does IED even stand for? Damn it Brand-
A split-second too late Jake's persistent subconscious thoughts finally melded with these and…
The bike suddenly has no traction. There is just sliding. Bad angles, bad angles. Riding is all about angles, leaning and balance. Control is relinquished to nature suddenly and fear races through his veins like ice water. But so does a thrill.
As if absent from his body, he seems to watch himself in a movie as the scene unfolds. The motorcycle goes one way, Jake goes another. He doesn't understand how it happened, only that it worked itself out that way. All feeling is blurred into a dream and he doesn't feel the icy paved road as he slides across it on his back, yet he is jarred back to reality when he suddenly impacts against some kind of post.
With no time for assimilation, he realizes he's holding a mailbox in his lap; the sting of hot blood running down his left ear. He blinks away the blurred vision and peers over in the direction of his fallen Ducati, just in time to see it come to a stop after sliding across the frozen pond.
He lays there unmoving, cradling the mailbox like a Christmas present, bleeding and staring over at his silenced but steaming bike. Hot engine against frozen ice. The thought is barely completed when the skin of the pond breaks and his bike is consumed as the body of water takes ownership. The perch will never appreciate that fine piece of machinery, he thinks and laughs, his first reaction to the accident. He wonders if he has brain damage, but he can still recall the date, the current US President and his birthday. He pushes the mailbox off of him and tries to move, anxious to see how many bones he'd broken.
A sudden shriek pierces his eardrums and he winces back against the post.
"Are you okay? I saw the whole thing- Oh Lord, you're bleeding something fierce!"
An older woman's faced materialized before his own, so close he thinks she's about to make out with him. All he sees is an excess of rouge makeup curtained by snow white hair and adorned with the most enormous glasses he'd ever seen on a human being. He doesn't want to make out with her and the outrageous thought is accompanied by a second bout of laughter.
"Dear Lord, you're in shock boy," she says, pulling him by the arm. "Come on, get inside so I can look at your head."
It seemed to take forever to get to his feet, his legs felt as if they were full of gelatin instead of bones. He fell twice on the slick walk to the porch, scaring the hell out of the large-spectacled elderly woman. By the time they begrudgingly reached the door his laugh was deflated and all he could feel now was the deep ache in every part of his body. He steals one more glance back across the street and into the pond and groaned.
"Motorbike is done for, young man. Now get in here."
A few minutes later he was sitting on a paisley-patterned sofa, hot tea between his hands and gauze covering the top half of his head. How she'd managed all of that so quickly he didn't know. That time was spent mostly arguing that she didn't need to call an ambulance. He told her he'd take the bus to the hospital and get checked out, promised even. "Two-dollar trip versus a thousand," he'd reassured.
"Baloney. I'll drive you. My husband should be home any minute now."
Jake decided to concede and took a sip from the steaming cup.
"It's Earl Grey," she said.
"Is Earl your husband?"
She laughed. "The tea-it's Earl Grey."
"Oh. Actually it's the best I've ever had ma'am."
"You should have been wearing a helmet. Shouldn't have been out there at all! What's the matter with you anyway. Do you have some kind of death wish?"
"Sometimes I run with scissors and then jam them into the toaster," he said, hoping to lighten the mood.
Her stare was instantly serious. There was pain in that mask, and Jake's recklessness caught up to him in that visage. "Sorry. No ma'am I don't have a death wish. And I'll fix your mailbox."
But the woman only turned away in her chair. She was very silent now and he heard a sniff. He noticed she was staring at a photo that was propped up on the side table next to her.
"I didn't mean to upset you," said Jake.
She slowly turned to face him again and her oversized lenses amplified the tears welling in her eyes. "You didn't upset me dear. You just remind me so much of my grandson. We lost him recently."
"I didn't realize-I'm very sorry for your loss," he said, Brandon's face now in his own eyes. "Was it an illness? If you don't mind the inquiry, I mean."
"An illness?" She said, pulling the glasses from her face and closing her tired eyes. "No. An illness I could almost understand. Our Andy was killed serving a tour in Afghanistan."
The words fell like lead into Jake's skull. They hardly processed, mainly because he hadn't expected them to come out of her mouth. At first he was speechless, numb. Brandon. But she only turned back to the photo and remained as silent as he.
"My brother was killed in Afghanistan. Recently."
She turned to him so quickly he nearly jumped. "When? When was your brother killed?" Her eyes were aquifers of pain, large and emotional. The intensity of the question drilled into Jake.
"Um-a couple of weeks ago. His name was-"
"Brandon Spencer," she finished.
Jake stared, confused. He was stricken mute. "That makes you Jake Spencer. Am I correct?"
He only nodded. She handed him the photo. When his eyes beheld it, he could hardly believe what he was seeing. It was an Army photo of a platoon, Second Platoon, Alpha Troop. He knew it well-the same photo hung on the wall in his dad's living room. Brandon was in the photo on the far left. Smiling. Proud. He was with his brothers in arms.
"Our Andy is the one in the middle, holding up the left side of the American flag."
He shifted his gaze to see Andy, but reverted back to his brother. So alive! Jake wished he could jump into the photo and embrace him, pull him back through the wonderland glass and into the present. The magic of the moment almost convinced him it were possible. Tears of anguish streamed his aching face.
"We heard that someone in town also lost someone on that patrol, but we never found out who…" her own words trailed off in despair's dark carriage. She dried her glasses and put them back on her face.
He didn't know exactly how long he sat on that sofa holding and gazing into the photograph, only that it did something to him. One thing he never believed in was happenstance; this was a sign from some otherplace-specifically for him, on this day, in this nice woman's home across from the cracked pond that ate his motorcycle. On the day he might've killed himself. He stood and set the frame gently back in its place by her chair. She just sat there with her eyes closed, hands folded in her lap.
Finally, he spoke. "Thank you so much for this, ma'am. You don't know what it means to me today."
"Oh, I have a pretty good idea. This has hit my husband Mitchell pretty hard as well," she said. "He loved that boy with his life and now it's like his heart has stopped beating. We raised him, you know. His parents were both killed in a car accident out on Route 17 when he was only four. Mitchell stepped in and became a wonderful father."
As she spoke of her husband, and of her grandson, Jake's eyes followed a series of photos across the back wall. He stopped at one in particular and instantly his head begins to throb. A photo of an older man with his grandson screams at him. He sees the man and his mind begins to unveil something just out of immediate reach.
My husband should be home soon.
Jake knows this man. But who-?
…and it's like his heart has stopped beating.
And something softly-spoken from earlier registers.
It's just been a bad day.
"Oh, God," Jake says in a deathly hush.
"What's that, dear? What's wrong, is it your head again?"
Just as he found it difficult to stop looking upon the visage of his passed brother, he couldn't disengage his stare from Mitchell's photo, built and regret clawing their way through his nervous system in judgment. Less than an hour ago he'd treated that man with such hatred and cruelty.
"I have to go," and he moved quickly to the door. The woman, taken aback, stood from her chair. "You can't leave yet in your condition, not without a ride somewhere."
"Sorry, it's just something I have to do this very moment. The bust stop is two blocks down-I'll be okay, really." And though she continued to protest he was out the door and down the street in a moment.
Jake knew he couldn't face the man Mitchell, grandfather and father to Andy. Not in the sanctuary of his own home. Not after earlier.
He was in a state of complete bewilderment; the smallness of the world seemed insanely small right then. One thing was certain-this couldn't be a case of "what a small world this is". He didn't believe in coincidence in matters of this kind of significance. Brandon and Andy were from this town. He remembered his brother mentioning that in an e-mail, but Jake didn't know if the two had been friends.
Jake leaned against a telephone pole. He'd briskly made his way back to the State Street intersection in some amount of time that had been lost in space. There was no traffic on the frozen road and the wind was picking up exponentially. The forecasted winter storm was drawing into the town and its icy breath bit into his lungs. His body ached deeply and his head hurt, but it was his spirit that felt wounded. Not long before, he'd been bitter and angry towards the entirety of the world, a victim of circumstance and situation. Yet the wound that now bled through his eyes in the form of steamy tears was self-inflicted.
Somehow he had to make reparations for the tangled mess that was his life. And-God help me, he thought-he had to beg Mitchell's forgiveness. But that was easier said than done, as life tends to prove like a backhanded slap across the face.
The sudden squeal of brakes turned Jake's attention from his interior thoughts to the bus that was slowing to the bus stop that, as it turned out, was only about twenty feet away. He pushed himself off the telephone pole, half afraid he'd be stuck to like that kid's tongue in A Christmas Story, but it wasn't, and he approached the side of the rumbling bus as the driver opened the door. He thought the driver might look down on him with judgmental eyes, seeing through him and his many faults. But he only gave Jake a half-glance as he boarded. There were only two other passengers, neither of which gave him any attention. The warmed air instantly felt amazing and he almost spun around and back into the cold air, the undeserved comfort almost too much to bear.
What the hell do I do now? Jake tapped his fingers against his knee, staring through the window but not looking at anything. What family I have left has no use for me lately and I have no job or girlfriend anymore. All I've been since Mom and Brandon died is a selfish brat. Dad's been right about everything. Dammit-what's wrong with me?
The bus was now slowing near his neighborhood. A swell of inspiration rose in him as he thought of going home. He could start anew by making amends with his dad. The idea wasn't an easy one to follow through with, but he had to start somewhere. Brandon had gone through a period of rebellion and troubles when he was younger before the Army, so Jake knew it was possible to build a life into something more than it was.
The bus stopped, but Jake did not rise from his seat. He suddenly had somewhere else to be. Upon seeing that no one was getting off at this stop, the driver continued the journey into town. Jake spent most of that time with his eyes closed and thinking about how much he really did love his family. That, and his newfound appreciation for life with a sprinkle of disdain for a bad attitude he wore like a baseball cap, made him open his eyes when he saw he was close to his destination. The bus stopped again, and this time he rose.
Ten minutes later Jake was standing in front of a small strip of businesses holding his motorcycle jacket tight to his body against the chill. He stared up at the sign above the entrance to the place he'd approached, considering the possibilities the place held for his future.
A door pushed open from the inside and a large man leaned out. "I was just about to close up. The weather's a bitch today. Were you here to talk to someone?"
Jake took a moment, looked back at the sign, and said "Yes I am."
Two weeks later, the front door to a house on Rambler Avenue opened and Mitchell Sturgis stepped out onto his front porch. The sun was bright and uncommonly warm, but he was glad for a break in the wintry days. He stooped to pick up the morning paper and rose again, now staring out at Stillhouse Pond. He'd always liked that pond. Every time he looked at it he thought of Andy, and a vice gripped his heart. They'd spent countless hours fishing on the bank when Andy was a young boy. Immeasurably priceless memories.
His gray eyes rested on a dark spot in the glistening ice. Though it had frozen over-a scar remained near the center of the small pond where a motorcycle had fallen through.
It had been that young man from the diner. When Mitchell had found out about that boy-Jake, his name, apparently-he'd reacted with a kind of shuddery rage. It had taken Mary nearly two days to calm him down and show him that a higher power had brought the two of them together twice in one day. She said it had to be a providential sign from above. Two angry people with something in common had clashed in order to see themselves clearly-so she'd said, anyway.
Mitchell laughed, and then caught himself immediately. He hadn't laughed since they lost Andy. He sighed, but the short laugh had felt good. At least the kid fixed the mailbox. They'd never seen him do it, so they assumed he came very late at night, but the box had been fixed and was not as good as new.
He looked down at the paper and noticed there was a loose piece of paper folded in half and stuck inside the rubber band. He pulled it out and opened it, reading the short memorandum. Something new swelled inside him and he read the name for which the letter had been written and to whom.
Mary was by his side suddenly and quietly read over his shoulder. She whispered the words as she read, "From the Department of the Army, to Jacob Dean Spencer, We'd like to thank you for your decision to enlist into the Uniformed Services…"
"Oh my Lord," she said with a hand on his shoulder.
Mitchell felt the familiar sting of emotion that came to him anytime someone made this decision, especially someone he knew. He turned the paper over and scrawled on the back were the words Mistakes can be fixed, and this seems as good a place as any to begin.
"We're going to send care packages to this boy when he deploys one day, Mary."