Calvin Schroeder and his friends walked back through the woods laughing about their little adventure. They were thick, hearty men and could attribute their weight to all the beer, steaks and fried food they ate. Exercise for them was hopping in and out of their boats or climbing the bleachers at a high school football game. They all wore flannel, jeans, work boots and ball caps on their head. Their hats were embroidered with a brand of tractor they liked or the number of their favorite NASCAR driver.
Though they had slowed to a stroll, their hearts still thudded in their chests from the brisk jog they took through the woods in trying to surprise Barnaby. If they had been fitter they would have found him sooner but their poor diets made them slow and loud.
Barnaby, not built like his father was shorter and leaner. Though less athletic and coordinated than Barnaby, his father considered his son to be scrawny and frail or at least that is what he wanted to believe.
Behind drinking and fishing, Calvin most favored spending a good deal of his time rationalizing how poorly he treated Barnaby. Calvin’s own father had mistreated him and so he in turn treated Barnaby with similar harshness. Calvin knew he acted difficult. At times he even admitted to himself he treated Barnaby cruelly. As Barnaby grew older however and continued to succeed, his father rationalized that his manner of upbringing must not be flawed and so he continued down the same path. He passed the point of no return. He could never admit he had made mistakes with Barnaby or that he could have done better. Any attempt to warm his ways and improve their relationship might be interpreted as an admission of guilt and he was too stubborn to bow and make amends for any injustice he had ever inflicted on his son. Therefore he continued treading like an arrogant dictator down the same cold path and provided for Barnaby the minimum necessities.
Did he need to go out of his way on such evenings to torment Barnaby? No, but it impressed his friends and provided amusement for them as they thought they were having some good-natured fun with Barnaby. They didn’t understand the true animosity Calvin felt for his son.
Calvin wrestled with his conscience as they walked. If he hated Barnaby so much, why couldn’t he at least leave him be and why did he have to hate him in the first place? Because he loves his mother and wants to be with her. Barnaby screamed for her the day Calvin threw her out and so Calvin sought to purge him of his “momma boy” ways but it didn’t work. The moment Barnaby turned eighteen, Calvin returned to an empty home and a note.
Barnaby had packed up the things he bought, and left with the car he purchased. Everything else to which Calvin may have contributed remained. Calvin had no sense or warning of Barnaby’s plans to leave. He stood in the empty room with a confounded expression!
Anger accompanied the humiliation of having his own son run out on him. He would have to explain to his friends why Barnaby had bolted. He would have to craft a lie so the neighbors and community didn’t conclude he really was the terrible man they speculated he might be. College provided a simple enough answer. He would tell them Barnaby had gone away to school. That wasn’t what happened though. Barnaby ran away to mommy, the woman who sought to betray him; sought to betray his secret.
Calvin hated his ex-wife and hated as much how Barnaby took after her. Deep down Calvin wanted to sour Barnaby as his father had soured him. Make Barnaby hard and bitter so his mother would not recognize him as the sweet child she left behind. She would not welcome him back if he were as corrupted as Calvin.
He did not succeed though he tried his best. He took things from Barnaby, punished him, poked and prodded him and belittled his mother but Barnaby resisted. He turned his life over to Christ, caught rides to Sunday school and stayed away all day while Calvin chose to drink. Barnaby asked for nothing. He did not ask for friends to come over, he made no Christmas lists, wanted no rides to the movie theater and did not ask to see his mother.
Calvin noticed Barnaby did his best to live independently but every rare instance Barnaby came seeking approval, Calvin seized the opportunity and stomped on him. He could not bear to see his son, his ex-wife’s child, succeed where he had not!
His plan didn’t work and his son while bitter reserved his resentment for him; not to the world or to his mother. Calvin knew his son would hate him. An acceptable sacrifice, but he needed his son also to hate the world as he hated it. He needed him to be as bitter, angry and resentful.
Calvin had returned home from his long day of work to see Barnaby’s car missing as usual from the driveway. It was his 18th birthday and Calvin had no problem with Barnaby’s absence especially since he had not bothered to buy him a present. He grabbed a can of cheap beer from his refrigerator, plopped down in his leather recliner and reached for his cigarettes on the end table. With any luck he would pass out before Barnaby got home and he could avoid the disapproving glare. Instead he found a note on top of his cigarettes, right where Barnaby knew his dad would find it. Calvin unfolded the note card.
I’m gone dad. I won’t be here to trouble you further. I think you know where I’ve gone. I’m sure you are angry as well but deep down you know this works out best for the both of us. It was a hard life but one day I will forgive you. I know you don’t think you need it but perhaps one day you will. Barnaby.
Calvin balled up the note card and threw it in the fire place. He ran to Barnaby’s room but found everything intact. The sheets and pillows remained on the bed. The lamps and furniture were all present. All that was missing were his clothes and Barnaby had purchased most of those. Barnaby took nothing which Calvin provided and Calvin felt cheated. He hungered for an excuse to go after him and take back what was his.
He gritted his teeth, dragged on his cigarettes and crushed his beer cans in his hands. Forgiveness? He needed no forgiveness. He wanted respect and appreciation but not forgiveness. In his mind he had done nothing wrong.
Calvin and his two friends jumped the ditch and pulled down the tail gait of the truck they had left parked on the side of the road. They opened their cooler and cracked a few icy beers to quench their thirst.
“Man that tastes good!” one of them exclaimed after he chugged down a quarter of the can.
“Yeah, it’s hot out here,” the second man replied. He pulled off his John Deere hat and wiped his brow with the cold aluminum.
“I remember coming down here when I was younger and sneaking around the old house.”
Calvin nodded. “I can remember when it burned down too. They say the old owner’s son burned it down after his father passed away to collect the insurance money.”
“Shh, do you hear something?” the burly man with the John Deere hat asked.
They all remained still and could hear coming down the road towards them the sound of footsteps on the gravel. They looked at each other.
“You think its Barnaby?” one whispered.
Calvin reached into the tool box and pulled out a long, heavy duty flashlight and shined it down the road. The yellow beam reflected off a man in dull armor walking towards them. Calvin and his friends took a step back but Calvin did not lower the flashlight. The armored man held up his hand to block the light from his eyes. Metal ground against metal as he withdrew his sword from his scabbard but he did not slow.
The light illuminated the bones beneath his skin and they saw his skeletal hand as he held it in front of him.
“Let’s get the hell out of here!” the large friend shouted. He bounded around and jumped in the passenger side of the truck. Calvin leaped behind the wheel while the other man dove into the bed. Calvin fired the truck, threw it into gear, and sped away kicking up a large amount of dust and debris as they fled. The armored man, fearing for his life, swung his sword and struck the side of Calvin’s truck as they passed. A spark from clashing metal sent Calvin’s friend, who hid in the back, scrambling to the other side.
The soldier removed the gun from his shoulder and took aim at the fleeing iron monster, but when he pulled the trigger the gun did not fire. He uttered a profanity and examined the firing mechanism but in the dark he could see nothing.
He watched as the truck sped away and then satisfied he had dispatched the danger, sheathed his sword and continued down the road.
Doris sat in an old rocking chair much like the one she used on her porch and watched a T.V. show with poor reception. She had no cable, and no satellite and so had to rely on her television’s rabbit ears and the slumped over antennae on the roof. She got but three channels and two of those came in fuzzy part of the time but since she was unaware of what she was missing, she was content with what she had.
Her chair sat next to a leather recliner far more comfortable than her rocker but Doris chose not to sit in it. The chair belonged to her husband and no one had used it since he left. A five inch tall stack of National Geographics stood next to an ashtray filled with his cigarette butts. His black Bic lighter lay next to a crumpled pack of cigarettes.
Everything remained intact as it existed when he still lived with her. She knew he wouldn’t return. She didn’t keep everything in place hoping he would return. She did it so she could still remember him sitting in his chair and pretend he still watched T.V. with her. She even turned on the game shows he liked to watch, ones she didn’t even care for, and listened to the sounds as she washed her dishes. Occasionally she would even light a cigarette, set it to burn in the ashtray, and let the living room fill with tobacco smoke to feel he sat there still. When feeling especially lonely, she would carry on conversations with him or ask him about a show playing on the tube.
Her loving daughter tried to take her away many times but Doris wouldn’t go. She could not leave the memory of her husband behind. As the house began to fall apart and her daughter’s objections grew more profound, Doris cut contact off with her. She stopped answering the phone and when her daughter and son-in-law showed up on the front porch one day, insinuating she would be forced from her feeble dwelling, Doris called the town sheriff.
This last straw broke her daughter. In her mind her father had abandoned Doris and her mother like a lunatic clung to his memory even choosing to live in squalor to do so. Humiliated, her daughter left with her husband and never returned.
Doris loved her daughter and Doris knew she shouldn’t be living in such a terrible place but she couldn’t leave. Her hope for the impossible tied her there. Before her husband left, they did all they could to maintain the house but once he left she lost the will to cut the grass, paint the porch, or even dust. Sadness sapped her will and her social security checks did not provide enough income for repairs. As the authorities could not find or pronounce her husband dead, she had no access to his life insurance or company pension. Her daughter stopped sending support checks after the incident with the sheriff but Doris would not have cashed them anyway.
She had not dusted in years and not vacuumed in months. She still washed the dishes from time to time but only a plate or two. As a feeble old lady she didn’t do much to soil the house but years of neglect took its toll. She existed in a home in which you would not want your mother or grandmother to live. You wouldn’t set your grandchildren on the floor to play in a home like Doris’.
She spent most of her time looking out of the window. She was old, alone, poor and living in a condemned home, but she still possessed a strong will to face each day and she wondered what power moved her to get out of bed every morning. She did not want to die but did not know how long she could continue living in such a manner. Sooner or later someone would remove her or the house might fall down and kill her.
At night she kept the kitchen dark because she did not want anyone to see her inside if they should be driving by and she especially did not want any ghosts loitering at the woods’ edge to stare at her as she washed her dishes.
She pushed herself from her chair and shuffled her feet into the kitchen. You could hear the grittiness of her dirty floor as her slippers scraped over the linoleum. She grabbed a glass from her cabinet, blew into it to remove any loose dust lingering at the bottom, then filled it with tap water. She took a sip. The taste of the hard, iron filled water didn’t phase her.
She opened her creaky screen door and took a seat in her rocking chair on the porch. Perhaps she would catch a little weekend traffic going up and down her road.
The wasps in her porch roof sat huddled, upside down, on their nest but the rest of the woods’ insects were buzzing and chirping with activity. The faint smell of cigarette smoke drifted out and the memory of her husband cursing at the T.V. as he watched his beloved Redskins lose filled her. She rocked over her loose boards for a while but when no cars came by, she decided she would go back in and finish her T.V. program.
As she stood, she heard a rustling near the woods. She eased over the porch railing and peered down the dark road. She heard at once several voices but saw no one. A second later she heard three loud thuds and saw the brake lights of a vehicle appear in the dark about one hundred feet down the gravel drive. The headlights burst onto the road in front of the truck and it sped away in the opposite direction. She watched the vehicle until it turned the corner and flew from view.
She remained at her porch’s edge for a moment wondering what those people were doing in the woods and why they fled. Occasionally thrill seekers drove down to Haven Beach road at night and stared into the woods hoping for a quick scare which the gullible and weak minded usually received. They often saw things that weren’t there. She turned to go back inside when she heard the faint crunch of footsteps approaching her home in the dark. She flattened herself against the wall of her house and peeked around the corner but saw nothing. She heard the sound of each step as it ground into the gravel. They did not near quickly enough to alarm her nor did they approach slowly enough that she might think someone was trying to sneak up on her. These footsteps belonged to someone out for a general stroll. Of most concern however was whether these footsteps had caused the truck to speed away.
Doris bent low and opened her screen door. She swore its creak could be heard for miles in the still air and she “shushed” it like a child. She squeezed through without opening it any further and still crouching low, made her way to the kitchen window above her sink. She raised her head a few inches at a time and peered through. To her shock, the Spanish soldier strolled into view as he had many times on the road at night. She had not seen him in years but he looked no different than the previous occasions. The man did not look in her direction nor acknowledge the house in any way. He kept right on walking towards the beach with his gun slung over his shoulder.
Barnaby lied stewing in bed next to his sleeping wife. He went over various scenarios and all their possible outcomes in his head of how he better could have handled the encounter with his father and his friends. He knew he had made the proper decision. If he revealed himself he would have been vulnerable to their ridicule. They would have teased him over camping in the woods or running and hiding like a child when he heard them coming. Pretty much any explanation he gave would have been twisted and turned for their amusement and no way would any one of them listen to his legitimate explanations. Like pack dogs, they’d have tore into him with their good ole’ boy ribbing and heard nothing else but their own words and laughter.
He did not like anyone believing he was a coward but he understood his situation would not have improved had he jumped out, so he took comfort in the fact his pride did not get the better of him.
Still he couldn’t ignore his father and friends’ effort to go out of their way to harass him and though these were men old enough to be grandfathers, they had no trouble foregoing their maturity for a chance at scaring Barnaby. Though Barnaby was a grown married man, he still appeared as a child in their eyes because of the belittling way in which Barnaby’s father spoke of him. His father had no problems putting him down in front of either his friends or Barnaby’s friends and upon occasion even did so in front of Barnaby’s children.
If it were not still for a sense of misguided appreciation he felt he owed to his father for his mediocre upbringing, he would have cut ties with the man years ago. He felt obligated though to continue acting civil at least for the mere reason that his father had provided him with food and shelter until he turned eighteen. His father provided nothing more. Barnaby did not participate in sports as a child because he had no means to get to and from practice. His father chose not to buy him a car and so he rode the bus for most of high school until he could bum rides home from his friends. He eventually got a job and through the kindness of his co-workers and obtained transport to and from work before he could afford to buy his own car.
He was so proud he had paid for it himself and hoped his dad would be equally proud of him for obtaining the money on his own but he exhibited no pride. His dad seemed even angrier Barnaby had proven able to obtain something without him and so he ridiculed the car and criticized Barnaby for getting ripped off in his purchase when in reality Barnaby had secured a very good deal.
At that moment Barnaby decided he no longer loved his father. He had clung to the hope his father would turn the corner and begin to appreciate Barnaby as a man if he could not do so as a boy, but right then Barnaby knew it would never happen. His father would not allow himself to love Barnaby. Calvin would either hate him for what he couldn’t achieve or hate him for what he could. It didn’t matter.
At Barnaby’s wedding, his father criticized Jules’ family for going cheap on the drinks but he himself refused to pay for the rehearsal dinner and left the bill for Barnaby’s mother and her husband to pay. He stayed long enough to eat his free meal and drink and then left as though the Super Bowl were about to start. Barnaby had no problem in seeing him go. He had dreaded all night the potential embarrassment of watching his father stumble around and belittle everyone.
During the reception his father gave a toast for appearance sake and half-heartedly joked that Barnaby was a burden he was glad to relinquish to Jules. Those who did not know Barnaby’s father well laughed and applauded at the end while the others who saw through the façade, clapped with false enthusiasm. Yes, Barnaby and his father had a poor relationship which grew worse year after year.
Barnaby never knew about what his mother and father argued but did understand why she never came back for him. His father had threatened to hurt Barnaby according to his mother and so Barnaby always dealt with this thought in the back of his mind when seeing his father. He hoped it was not true but his father had never shown him the love to suggest otherwise.
Barnaby knew if he had not always walked away at the height of their arguments, they would have come to blows many years ago. When his father stumbled around drunk he could see the disdain in his eyes; he could see his father’s yearning to hit him. Barnaby always backed down. He never wanted their arguments to reach a point where he had to throw fists to defend himself from his father.
Fighting was an actuality he was not ready to face; the reality his father did dislike him as much as he thought. He would not gain his father’s respect by winning or losing the fight. His father sought not to test Barnaby’s manhood but rather wanted to hurt him.
Barnaby felt his unwillingness to fight contributed to his sense of inadequacy. He knew he could fight. He had the knowledge, fitness, strength, and speed and with his father, the motivation to win, but he felt to lose control or allow such a confrontation to occur, would demonstrate weakness on his part. To fight would demonstrate a lack of mental superiority and discipline. Intelligence and self-control are what deserved respect but others would recognize this as cowardice. He would not obtain the glory one does while achieving victory with fists. Backing down made him look like a coward when in reality, through intelligence and self-control, he achieved true victory.
Barnaby was then a victim of his own double standard. He felt weak for not fighting and weak for fighting.
The day grew near when his father would challenge him. Age and deterioration approached and his father would make sure he got the fight in before he got too old to win. That said, he would not have the balls to challenge Barnaby when sober because he would need excuses both for picking the fight and for losing, should it happen.
Barnaby looked at his wife sleeping next to him. Did she consider him a man? Would she be impressed if he finally silenced his father with his fists or did she appreciate his self-control? He thought women’s minds told them they should be with a secure, mature man who didn’t fight, but he thought their hearts yearned for a strong man who could settle confrontations with knuckles, elbows, and knees. He wanted so much to impress his wife but did not want such a thing to impress her.
He nudged her shoulder. She opened her eyes and looked at him. He stared back at her concerned.
“What’s wrong?” she whispered.
“I want you to know that I’m going to impress you one of these days.”
Jules smiled and closed her eyes, “You impress me everyday honey.”
He knew she didn’t mean it but appreciated her effort in trying to make him feel good.
Calvin sat in his recliner with a glass of gin in one hand and a cigarette in the other. His big screen T.V. pulsated through the smoky haze drifting over his living room. He stared at the stuffed deer’s head mounted on his wall.
Each time he brought the glass to his lips his left arm trembled and shook similarly each time he took a drag from his cigarette using his. The cigarette burned down to his fingers as he took a long unhealthy puff and he mashed it into the ashtray. He gulped down the last swallow of his drink, set it on the floor next to his chair, then lit another cigarette for himself. He placed it burning into the ashtray then he poured another splash of gin into his glass from a plastic liter bottle sitting nearby. The night proceeded this way for the three hours since he left the woods when they saw the ghost soldier approach them.
They had driven down the twisty back roads like mad men and they did not stop until they reached town. They pulled over to the curb and let their friend who rode in the back jump up front with them.
“Did you see what he did to your truck Calvin?” he shouted as he jumped into the back seat. “He hit it with his sword! There is a gash about an inch deep! He almost got me!”
Calvin didn’t answer. He pulled away from the curb and kept driving.
“I’ve never seen anything like that!” the burly man in the passenger seat said. “That wasn’t a man. It was some kind of ghost.”
“Don’t you remember the old story of the guy who got a flat tire on the road and a man came upon him in armor with a sword?”
“That was sixty years ago!” the burly man exclaimed.
“So what?” the other responded. “Does that make a difference? The ghost was dead then and he’s still dead now.”
“I know that! What I’m saying is, don’t you think someone would have seen him again in all that time?”
“Yeah, us! We just saw him,” the man blurted.
“Well maybe we did!” the burly man replied and turned to look out of his window. “Maybe we did.”
“What should we do about it then?” the man in the back seat asked.
“What do you want to do about it?” Calvin grumbled. “Talk to the Gazette about it like all the fools did sixty years ago? Be made fun of in the community? Heck they all think we’re a bunch of drunks already. We need to just keep quiet.”
“What about Barnaby?” the man in back asked. “What if he is still in the woods?”
“We’re not going back!” Calvin exclaimed putting an end to the conversation. The other two exchanged anxious glances but said nothing.
Calvin continued to smoke and drink hoping to ease the anxiety coursing through him. He never knew he could experience such fear. He felt like the specter came for him for something he did long ago. When the ghost drew his sword Calvin felt his time was over. He was sure he would die and he knew a nice place did not await him.
He swallowed his gin and poured himself another shot. He didn’t want to move, look at the television or Heaven forbid, out the window. Fear crippled him. He had not experienced it to this degree since he was a young boy when he ran from his father’s abuse. Not since he physically overcame his father and saved the fearful little child inside of him had fear taken him. Now he felt the scared, insecure child resurfacing and he hoped to drown him in alcohol.
The next morning Barnaby’s car crawled by his father’s house but he did not stop. He wanted to confront the man but did not want to admit to him that he had hid so he kept driving. His relationship with his father was like the cancerous black eye of a potato. It needed to be carved out and he would have to dig to the core. His father’s existence would gnaw at him just as his own existence tormented his father. What it all came down to, Barnaby wasn’t sure. When it all began he couldn’t determine; perhaps the moment he took his first breath, when his mother loved and nurtured him. Maybe this is when the anger and jealousy within his father began to grow.
Barnaby continued to drive and cool his mind. Eventually he ended up back at the woods. He seemed to be drawn to them, and as he drove down the gravel road, kicking up dust, he noticed Doris sitting on her front porch. He stopped and she watched him exit the car and make his way into the front yard with a smile.
“Did you go into the woods last night?” she asked like a grim general questioning his subordinate.
Barnaby nodded. “I did but I did not make it too long.” He didn’t crack a smile.
She didn’t smile or offer any indication of an “I told you so.” “What happened?”
“Some people came looking for me trying I guess to scare me. After that I was too angry to continue.”
Doris nodded and looked at the woods. “I see. Who were these people? Do you know them?”
“I do, but it is irrelevant who they are. Just immature men out for a good time at my expense.”
“I saw a truck pull away quickly last night down the road. I would say those were the same people.”
“Probably,” Barnaby frowned. “It probably was,” he mumbled and shook his head with frustration.
“I think their plan backfired though.”
“What do you mean?”
“They aren’t the only ones I saw last night,” she pointed her arm which looked much like a withered branch, at the road. “My lost traveler returned not long after the truck I heard sped off.”
“What lost traveler? The one looking for his ship?” Barnaby asked amazed.
Doris smirked. “I think your friends got a dose of their own medicine.”
“You think they saw him?” He shook with excitement.
“They roared away and only a minute later he came strolling down the road. I’ll admit I wasn’t in the mood for conversation so I went back inside when I heard him coming, but I’m sure though they saw him.”
Barnaby’s smile stretched wider than the grill of his car. Part of him was disappointed he did not get to witness the ghost if Doris spoke the truth, but the remainder took pleasure in the fact that his father’s friends were frightened.
“You made my day, Doris!”
“Did I? A long time has past since I did such a thing for anyone. How about you make my day then and not go back into the woods again?”
Barnaby grimaced and felt that pang of guilt that comes with disappointing someone. “I’m sorry but,” he hesitated and glanced at the woods. “I uh…I gotta go back.”
Doris gazed up at him once more with her ancient stare, “Then do me a favor and ask my husband who or what killed him?”