A FLASH OF RED - AJ HAYES
“Morning, sugar,” the bus driver said in her big, cheery voice. “And how are you doing today?” Charley murmured a soft, “Good morning.” He liked the driver, although her loudness and large gestures and white teeth stirred his mother’s voice within him.
He saw her; sitting at the kitchen table, white sunlight behind her, looking at him over the rim of her glass, big and bold, wearing her broad grin, her brows arched like swords. Sometimes the clear fluid in the glass would catch the light, break the morning sunbeams into rainbows that illuminated her collection of bruises: arms, cheekbones and neck patched with plum colored new wounds and the fading green of old.
“Moderation, Charley," she would say. "Stay small, my little mouse.”
Good advice, Charley thought. It had worked for him for 52 years – not for Mother, though, no, not for her.
“And where are we off to today, Mr. Excitement?”
The driver’s voice scattered his thoughts and Mother, waving a cautionary red-nailed finger at him, vanished.
“The park,” he said, “the museum.”
“Dinosaur bones, cobwebby stuffed critters? You sure that ain’t gonna be too intense for you?” Her chuckle reverberated. “You’ll be needing a transfer then. The usual route is all tore up by construction.”
As she handed him the slip, her glance swept over his brown suit, brown tie and chocolate brown wing-tipped shoes.
“Honey, you got any other color clothes?”
He was about to say that he liked brown, when two other passengers climbed the steps into the bus. The driver boomed a greeting at them, obviously dismissing Charley from her mind. That often happened to Charley. He supposed that he was just not interesting enough to hold people’s attention for long.
He walked along the aisle, choosing his seat. Not the front, no, never the front – too visible, too conspicuous. Certainly not the back, that’s where all the jagged people sat, the unruly ones – the ones who called him Mouseman. He, as usual, chose the middle rows – the quiet rows.
As he sat down, something rustled. He looked on the seat beside him. The headline startled him. One word captured his eyes.
He shivered a little. The word seemed to glow, bright and black, its edges crisp against the gray-white background of newsprint.
He carefully folded the paper and slid it under the seat. He relaxed when the word was no longer visible. Charley didn’t like strong words like that. He fingered the blade of the knife – whittler, he hastily corrected himself, the whittler – in his jacket pocket. It was the only thing his father had left him. Charley didn’t like to think about his father. His father never spoke to him. Never – except in the occasional nightmare.
Six months ago – when he had been fired – his boss’s voice had reminded him of those nightmares. His boss’s voice had made the same echoes in his mind that his father’s did.
“I’m sorry, old buddy; nothing I can do. Corporate decided to job out the bookkeeping. Outsource, you know? We looked and looked, but there’s just no place left for you here, although I did manage to get you a great severance package. It should hold you over until you find something else.”
There was nothing else. He had answered ads, made phone calls – nothing. He could feel it in the interviews. The way their glances slid to his face and then slipped away. He could detect it in their averted eyes as he left.
At least Eleanor didn’t know. He kept the family books so it had been an easy matter to conceal it from her. Eleanor never suspected that he wasn’t going to work when he got on the bus every day. Mild, loyal, Eleanor didn’t suspect a thing. She wouldn’t until the money ran out in a month. He didn’t know how he would quiet her when that happened – how he would save her from her fear.
“Maple Street. This is your stop, you playboy, you.” The bus driver’s voice startled Charley. He hadn’t realized so many blocks had passed. “Like I told you, walk straight up the street for six blocks and you’ll see the bus stop. Don’t get lost now.” The doors hissed shut behind him. Charley looked around.
The neighborhood looked fresh. Early morning sunlight fell on small lawns revealing the faint tracks left by yesterday’s mowers. The houses stood at the back of their lots, protected by their white picket fences from the orderly progress of the sidewalks. In the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the curb, maple trees thrust toward the sky, one per home. The driveways harbored autos – compact Japanese and American models – plus tricycles, bicycles and basketball hoops, all resting silently in the early morning brightness. The whole picture pointed to new families, young marrieds and children. The energy level of the place would grow as the sun rose farther into the morning and the children emerged from the houses. He had often wished that he and Eleanor could have had children. Charley liked children.
The sidewalk rose in a gentle slope, cresting toward the middle of the neighborhood and descending from there to the bus stop at its end. As he walked, Charley noted the identical mailboxes in front of each lawn. They each bore the name of the family whose home it was. Charley thought the mailboxes were nice. Names were much homier than anonymous street numbers. The trees were pleasant. He liked the way their summer blooms stood out against the dark green of the leaves.
The word overpowered his vision.
Charley started, then relaxed when he realized that it was only a newspaper caught in the branches. The same one as on the bus. Probably the paperboy had tossed it into the tree and not bothered to retrieve it. Charley hadn’t liked it when the same thing had happened to him the other day. He thought he might as well get it down. If he did, then whoever came out to look for it would not have to spend extra time getting it out of the tree. Charley felt in his jacket pocket for his whittler. The brass of the nick guard felt smooth against his fingers. As smooth as it had the day he’d found it, lying in the pool of red on the carpet, under the couch, when... No! The door that had been opening in his mind slammed shut.
“Level plain, Charley. Stay small,” the sandy voice whispered.
He took aim at the paper and tossed the whittler at it. The straight blade caught the sunlight and broke it into fractured colors as it and the paper fell end over end from the branches. He looked down in mild pleasure at the two objects resting on the grass. There, he thought, there.
Where should he put the paper, he wondered. He supposed he could toss it over the fence and onto the lawn – but the grass was still dew-soaked. Charley knew he, for one, didn’t like soggy newspapers; so that was out. Onto the pathway, then. No, there was moisture there also. The porch, he could walk up the pathway and leave it on the porch; that was it, safe and dry on the porch.
The latch of the small gate in the picket fence made a quiet click as it yielded to Charley's fingers. He swung it open and walked toward the house. When he reached the steps leading to the porch, he noticed that the front door was ajar. They must not lock their doors, he thought. Maybe it was all right in this neighborhood. It seemed peaceful enough for trust. A flash of red caught the corner of his eye. Startled, he looked quickly around – a hummingbird feeder. He breathed a sigh of relief. He felt a weight in his right hand – his whittler. How did that get there, he wondered.
A slight buzzing in his ears, low and persistent, unsettled him a little as he looked at the open door of the house. He could, he thought, leave the paper on the kitchen table. That would be nice. The buzzing in his ears grew louder. He stepped onto the first step and paused.
Suppose there was a dog? Suppose the dog barked as he entered the house? The barking probably would awaken the family – before he could use his whittler to quiet the dog. Maybe the children would wake first and run downstairs. They would see the dog. Charley knew that pools of red upset children. Charley had been upset the day he saw the pools of red, terribly upset. He would have to quiet the children. He would spare them the strong emotions the quieted dog would cause in them. And the parents, he thought, what of them? What would he do about them after he quieted the children? He would have to quiet the parents, too. Like his father had quieted his mother – his large, bold, loud, bruised, warrior mother with her red lips, white teeth and laughter. The buzzing in his ears was overpowering. The weight of the whittler in his right hand was like lead. The newspaper in his left was like feathers. He turned the paper over and looked at the bright blackness of the word. Murder! He stepped onto the porch, toward the door, hearing his father’s voice whispering softly through the buzzing in his ears.
All right, Father, he thought. Eleanor, too? Yes, all right.
A flash of red and emerald and gold filled his vision, a blur of wings and a tiny shrillness of sound in his face. Charley plunged the whittler into his pocket. He flailed at the threat with both hands. The paper fell to the porch. He stumbled backwards. As suddenly as it had come, the confusion ceased. There was only empty air in front of his face – and a voice in his ears.
“May I help you?”
“What? I...What?” Charley gasped.
He saw a tall man in a white tee shirt and blue shorts, standing in the open door, staring at him with a startled, but pleasant expression.
“May I help you, sir?” the man said.
“I...I found your paper in the tree. I was bringing it in to the porch. I...” Charley said, regaining his composure a little. “There was this buzzing and something – red and small. In my face, I...”
The other man grinned. “Oh,” he said, “she’s very protective, isn’t she?” He pointed to a small bundle of twigs and mud attached to the corner of a rafter. In front of the swatch of twigs, a hummingbird hovered, its small wings making a loud buzzing sound. “She has babies. She’s very aggressive when she doesn’t recognize you.”
Charley’s breathing had returned to normal and he stooped to pick up the paper. He handed it to the man. “Yes,” he said, “yes, she is. Well,” he bobbed his head in a quick mouse-like motion, “here’s your paper.”
The man smiled his thanks. “It was very nice of you to do that.”
“Oh, no bother, really,” Charley answered, “no bother at all.” He shifted from foot to foot. “Well,” he said, “the bus...I’d better...”
The other man’s smile dimmed as his eyes slipped over Charley and slid away – there was nothing to hold his gaze. “Thanks again,” he said, closing the door with a small thump.
Charley handed the bus driver his transfer slip. “Your stop, sir?” the driver called as the bus pulled away from the curb. Charley made his way to the middle seats.
“Home,” he said. “Home.”
BIO: AJ Hayes is from San Diego and -- god help him -- good friends with Jimmy (Mad Dog) Callaway, who provides great advice and the occasional smack in the mouth with the butt of a .45.
The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury
4 hours ago