by Patrick Firth
The troubles had began when James down the lane had lost his house, Douglas thought as he grabbed a cane from a small barrel by the door. James’s children had sold it right out from underneath him. Douglas spat on the welcome mat just inside the door, and then ground it out with his boot. James had worked his ass off his whole life, thirty something years at the factory, and his life was stolen by his family the minute he had trouble getting in the tub. Now he lived in some Home in Windsor. At their age, life was full of little deaths and losses. Lost friends, cars, wives. Freedom. But rest homes kill, Douglas thought. And James had received his death sentence.
Douglas had watched the new family move in. He used the binoculars that his wife, Margaret, had taken with her to Holiday Beach when she was birding, and he was not. The family, the Wheelwrights it said on their mailbox, seemed industrious enough. The mother and father anyways. They did not sit back and let the movers do it all. The boy, however, let it all pass by. Or maybe he was a teen. Douglas couldn’t tell anymore. Anyways, it was the parents’ fault. They were too nice, no matter how old the boy was. Too forgiving. He saw them imploring the him to get out of the back seat of the car through the magnified circle of the binoculars. The boy sat in there anyways, in spite of them, running fingers through long, greasy hair and staring like a dead fish at some little TV. If it had been his daughter.
Then the gnome had gone missing. His airplane windmill was turned in the wrong direction. He had seen footsteps in the gravel of his driveway, leading to the garden and the back door. Who else could it be, but the Wheelwright kid?
Douglas adjusted his scarf one more time and stepped outside. A particularly frigid blast of winter air caught him as if it were laying in wait. He took a deep breath, the cold freezing his nostrils and chilling his lungs.
He had formed the snowball earlier, and placed it on the garden bench. It was where Margaret would sit with her binoculars when he was taking care of the flower beds. Even now, three years after she left him, Douglas wondered if she had been looking through those damned things just so she did not have to look at him. Was she really looking for birds? Or was she just looking somewhere else? Anywhere but.
Douglas had considered bringing the binoculars along, but had decided against it. The Wheelwrights were his only neighbours. The fields were black, the trees and underbelly of the clouds lit by Windsor and Detroit. The clouds were thick enough to blot out the stars. The only other light was the kid’s window. It was the only one he needed.
Douglas picked up the snowball and dropped it in his pocket. It was perfectly round and skinned in ice. He had poured water on it before lunch and before dinner. And then he had put the final touches on the snowball after the phone call from Lucy, his daughter. It was an exhausting procedure of trying to stop her worrying about him. Worrying meant that she would try and get everyone and their cousin to come in and take care of him. The conversation ended with Douglas saying “fine,” and hanging up. Lucy insisted that a maid come in and clean his place. That was how it began. Douglas immediately regretted giving in, but did not have the energy to call back and battle it out.
Things will be better, Douglas thought, once this boy got the message that any crap he pulled would not be tolerated. That Douglas Crawford was not some useless old git who would let a stupid kid have free reign over the house he had built forty-five years ago.
As he walked up his drive he saw another light in the distance. He settled his glasses on his nose. A set of headlights, moving, then stopped. The lights went off and then there was nothing for a moment. Just on the road. Not in a driveway. Douglas caught the sound of a door opening with his hearing aid, and the car’s interior light blinked on. Somebody got out and the door closed, extinguishing the light again. Another long moment before the headlights went back on and the car turned around and headed back in the same direction it had come. No more sounds. No more lights.
Was somebody out here with him now?
He pressed on, planting cane into snow and dragging feet along behind it. The ice under his boots was a disturbing reminder of the state of his knees, brittle and cracking. The square of light seemed farther away than ever. The drifts higher, and the wind stronger. As he trudged on he imagined his daughter’s voice in the wind, the kid’s face in the snow. Both of them pulled at his hat, tugged at his coat.
“I’m stronger than you,” he managed to say through cracked lips.
Douglas made it to James’s property line when the square of light went out. He felt a moment of panic. Could he still find the window when he got to the house? He checked the hands on his pocket watch, but could not make out the time. It was still early though. The boy was up till all hours of the night. It could not be past ten o’clock. Ten thirty at the latest. What was he up to?
Douglas decided to move along the pines that bordered the yard, though the drifts look deeper. They offered more protection from the wind, and from unseen eyes.
“Lisa?” a hushed call came between gusts of wind. Douglas bumped into a snow laden pine bough, whose upset crystals made it between his scarf and neck. He almost fell, but caught himself on the sticky trunk.
“Lisa?” Was the voice saying Lisa, or was his hearing aid picking up the wrong thing? Where was the voice coming from?
There was only silence. It was too risky to move forward.
“Lisa, you there?”
Douglas realized he didn’t have to find the window anymore. The boy had put on a winter jacket and was walking around the property looking out into the fields. Douglas moved closer to the tree, knocking more snow into his jacket.
“James,” a girl’s voice said off to his left. “I’m here.”
James? Douglas could not believe it. What were the chances of this kid having the same name as his old neighbour?
“Lisa, Christ, What are you doing?”
“Being sneaky,” the voice laughed. “Like you requested.”
“Yeah, well you were supposed to…”
“Supposed to?” she almost yelled. “I’m in the frigging fields, buried up to my knees. At night.”
“Okay, okay,” the kid said, palms up. “Just be quiet. You can go in through the basement window.”
“Great,” she said. Douglas saw the girl. Straight blonde hair spilled out of a toque, over a flimsy looking jacket more suitable to the fall. Douglas half expected her to remind him of James’s wife when she was young, but she didn’t. They met and kissed, the wind blowing her hair between their faces. The boy picked a strand off of his lips. They started to walk towards the house. Douglas’s hand fell into his pocket and gripped the ice ball. He should have made more. They were getting closer to the house. Now or never, he thought.
“Mind yourself you little rotter!” Douglas yelled through the gale. The ice ball was gone and hurtling towards them. They both looked back.
“Dad?” the young James called out.
The ice ball didn’t break up when it hit the girl in the face. She dropped on her butt.
“What?” James said, looking down at her. “You’re,” he backed away from her, “bleeding.”
“Who would do that?” Lisa said, dabbing at her smashed lip with her mitt and looking at the blood.
“Holy shit,” James said. He peered at her face. “I think you’re missing a tooth.”
Douglas stood still. She was probably in on it too, he thought. Maybe James was trying to act cool in front of her. Maybe, he thought, she was the one doing it. Stealing Margaret’s gnomes. Twisting his airplane around.
Douglas backed away from the pines.
“You see that?” Douglas heard James say.
“Look for my frigging tooth.”
“How? It’s white.”
Douglas made it back to the road. He checked back over his shoulder and saw the kid looking. Douglas thought about hiding again, but he felt so good that the prospect of being spotted did not bother him in the least. The kid had spotted him. Douglas saw a gaping mouth and pointing finger. He planted his cane and walked back through his footprints that had lost their edge in the blowing snow. Douglas heard his daughter’s voice in the wind, remonstrating him, calling him paranoid, accusing him of acting like a child. He thought of Margaret looking through her binoculars, of her eyes looking just as distant right before she died. If Margaret had not cared, then why should their daughter? Why should he? All there was to do now was to show the kid that he would not falter on the long walk back to his home. The house that was his. With back straight, unbowed from the many losses that were heaped on his shoulders.
Maybe, Douglas thought, he would make another one tonight. He was not tired. He would stay up, make another ice ball, and show the cleaning lady that he was still free.