At one point or another, there comes a time where you feel trapped, desperate to awaken from the nightmare playing out before you. The sights and sounds are as real as ever, the ground beneath your feet is solid, the air is crisp, cold and clearand yet, at the same time, you know something isn't real. It feels as if you're being suspended in the sensation of continually falling without ever touching groundjust emptiness. Then out of nowhere comes the tiniest crack in the illusion, and from there it quickly spiderwebs into large, jagged, sharp splinters, until the illusion shatters like a pane of glass, and the world is very real once again.
It was quiet at first, the only noise to break the heavy stillness that lingered in the air since the slamming door had startled half the residents of Maple Crescentthe sound of seams fraying into jagged little threads, coupled with the realization that I could no longer breathe. The world around me was clear and bright againand painful. The shirt collar dug into my throat, closing my windpipe and squeezing out what little oxygen remained in my lungs. It came out as a startled hiccup and I almost at once forgot about the pain in my ear. The quiet little pops turned into louder tears as the bicycle, determined not to waver from its path, continued to roll down the slanted driveway, carrying me with it. I didn't have to look behind me to know who or what had grabbed me, the overpowering aroma of Old Spice aftershave hitting my nostrils was enough of a clue.
Fury, thy name is Bob.
You little bastard! the rich tenor voice hissed through clenched teeth, as another fat sausage hand came into view, grabbing more of the collar and giving a sharp jerk, the kind a dog owner might give to a disobedient terrier who refused to heel, though I'm sure said owner would not be acting out of the kind of anger I was now subjected to. It pulled with such force that for a moment, it felt like I'd just gotten a mouthful of thick peanut butter stuck in my throat. It was enough to lift me off the bike. As I watched it continue forward without me, wobbling as it tried to navigate on autopilot, the thick shoulder straps of my guitar case disengaged and slid off me like a shirt two sizes too big, and dropped to the pavement. It made an ugly twanging when it landed, one of the strings must have snapped I thought in the brief moment I was airborne, before coming back to Earth, falling hard on my stomach. It felt like my flesh had just been pressed against the fine holes on a cheese grater.
Daddy, no! a high-pitched voice came from the second-floor window. Don't hurt him! Please don't hurt him! I had no clue who said it; the Demin offspring all sounded the same when screaming. No, Daddy, please! Stop! the voice said again, sounding on the verge of crying. I rolled onto my back, shaken from the crash landing. My left arm felt hot, wet and sticky, my throat burned and a metronome was pounding away in my temples. Captain Bob stood over me wearing a grotesque mask of rage that surely would end up giving him sore facial muscles. He was shaking violently as if struggling against the desire to drive his tight balled fists into my faceor worse. Behind him, the big front door swung open and Eric came bursting through.
Unless the fall had given me brain damage, I saw fear written across his face, real fear, something I'd never seen from him before, while he came towards us, Michelle not far behind him. I saw her mouth move and words of some kind come out, I didn't know what exactly, because Captain Bob's looming figure was reaching towards me. Reaching for the first solid object that caught my eye, it turned out to be the rear-view mirror of Eric's lustrous navy blue two-door, my hands gripped it for leverage while climbing to my feet, just managing to avoid my father's meaty open palm.
You little shit! he yelled, brandishing a hand at me. You smart mouthed, disrespectful little shit! Eric appeared by his side a moment later, tugging at his shoulder and yelling for him to stop. It was probably the most brotherly act I'd ever seen from him. Whatever he said was hard to make out, my head was spinning, words were warped and distorted; it was a lot like watching a slow motion movie of my life. The words Eric used didn't seem to register with the foaming at the mouth monster known as Captain Bob, who jerked his shoulder away and all but shoved my brother aside. Eric's face took on a shocked, almost comical double-take as he lost his balance and fell into Michelle, who swept her long, twig-like arms outwards to catch him lest they both go crashing to the pavement much like I had. Around this time, the speech function came back online for the first time since that terrific outburst of obscenity, which now felt like a long time ago, and a lot less terrible. In truth, no more than two, maybe three minutes had passed. Time's kind of cruel that way.
What the hell I cried out, wiping something wet from underneath my nose, turning around and coming face to face with Captain Bob's hideous grimace. Two bushy black eyebrows slanted sharper than I'd ever seen them, teeth bared and clamped down on his lower lip while the tip of his meaty, pink tongue poked out of the corner of his mouth, pinched between two pointed and plaque stained incisors. His expression might've made for a great Halloween mask, though this thought was little more than pure hindsight. The rest of my sentence was interrupted by a heavy backhand slicing through the air like the blade of an axe barreling towards a plump tree trunk, and striking upside my head.
Before there was any time to acknowledge the stinging sensation, a second backhand connected with my cheekbone. This one was hard enough to tear my lip and bloody my nose as another bomb went off inside my ear, sending me crashing into the two-door. The cool blue metal seemed to tremble and buckle underneath my weight, an act for which Eric was sure to freak out. Compared to the barrage of abuse I'd just suffered, Eric screaming at me seemed a welcome change. As my head lolled to one side, I spied my bike at the bottom of the driveway. It had tipped over and come to rest on one of its handlebars. One of the wheels was spinning, slowly and without purpose. Eric meanwhile seemed to have recovered from our father's shove and reappeared at his side, gripping his shoulder harder than before, shaking him back and forth and speaking in that strange out-of-body tongue I'd heard fly past my own lips before.
Captain Bob's mouth dropped while he shook and flopped in my brother's grip much like a child shaking a ragdoll. Stop it, he said, more out of surprise than anger. This only made Eric shake him harder, saying something about how his beating me to a pulp wasn't the answer. Two brotherly acts in one day, a new record I couldn't help thinking as I leaned against the two-door, wiping a red-streaked palm across my face while little droplets of blood dripped from my nose and pitter-pattered on the ground below. It didn't seem to be too serious, nothing felt broken but did I ever hurt something fierce. The whole left side of my face glowed red and pulsed while my heart pounded away in my chest, trying to keep up with the rest of my body. Just my luck, I barely caught a breath before Captain Bob broke free from Eric's grip once more and headed for me. Out of nowhere came an idea, striking me much like the brilliant flash of a bee sting. Any attempts at negotiating a peace treaty were long dead and buried now. I honestly feared that if my father got hold of me again, my head was apt to end up through the car window.
Captain Bob was a stern disciplinarian, unafraid to dole out corporal punishment wherever he deemed fit. Despite that almost barbaric outlook, he had until now never been this violent of a man before, even after one too many scotch and sodas, which was a regular occurrence. That version of him now appeared to have suffered a critical systems failure, leaving behind this possessed creature. If I was to avoid any further injuries, something would have to be done, something I up until now had refused to ever consider, even when pushed to my limits.
Whatever was left of my rational thought seemed to scream at me No! Don't! a seemingly futile act while I brought my foot up, and aimed for my father's already weak knees. Acting impulsively can more often than not end up shifting the situation from bad to worse very quickly, and from there it's only another small step to full blown chaos, but when running on surges of pure adrenalin, even the most illogical of ideas can seem genius as your brain reverts to the most primal reptilian instinct we have: Fight or flight, kill or be killed, survival of the fittestsurvive was exactly what I intended to do. I drove the flat of my shoe through the air, and scored a direct hit on my father's kneecap.
The hideous grimace broke almost at once and seemed to roll right off his face like a drop of sweat. His eyes bugged so wide I thought they would pop from their sockets. Ah! Captain Bob cried as his knee turned to one side and swept his weight out from underneath him. He landed hard enough on his ass to make the excess fat on his arms and torso jiggle like something suspended in Jell-o, letting out a cry of pain so loud, the neighbors across the street were peering through their windows, watching that Demin family. He was too far away to tell for sure, but I bet old Mr. Wilson's face matched those of Eric and Michelle's: Glassy-eyed and vacant with jaws hanging so far down they looked dislocated; shocked into silence. It was the kind of face that needed no words. The look in their eyes said more than enough:
What have you done?
Somewhere in the process, everyone seemed to have forgotten my actions that triggered this showdown. It also seemed that I'd forgotten how to breathe. My lungs felt heavy and clogged, like they were full of quick-dry cement. I struggled to make that first gasp for air; it came out in a sort of choked gargle. Evil Mr. Hyde was gone, retreating from whence he came, and now mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll, sometimes known as Robert Phillip Demin, was back, looking like nothing more than a small and sad little man sitting on our driveway, his stubby legs outstretched away from him, hands on his hip, moaning in what could only be great pain. Curious, I thought. Usually by now, the little voice would be rubbing my nose in whatever shitstorm I'd gotten myself into, but all was quietat least for a little while.
When the little voice finally did speak, it wasn't that of my conscience, but of my little sister, standing by the open door with a lock of hair wrapped around her little finger. She looked outright terrified. Is Richard in trouble, Daddy? At first the question sounded ludicrous, until I began to wonder if she had even seen anything happen. I looked at her, then up at the big bay window from where the frightened scream came. There was Kevin, peering over the lip of a pillow at the fracas below. His small eyes seemed to shimmer, and then they disappeared from view entirely. I couldn't answer, couldn't even move my lips, let alone form a cogent answer. The gravity of the situation was much clearer. It slammed into me like a ton of bricks, my stomach knotted and I suddenly wanted to vomit, doing everything in my power to repress the salty lurch building in my gorge. Eric moved towards our father and very slowly, helped lift him to his feet. Michelle lent a hand too. When he was standing on his own, he shook off the support and looked right at me. There was no emotion to him at all, just a blank, empty stare.
It was the only option left. I grabbed my guitar case and, ignoring the dejected bike at the foot of the driveway, began to run, the case bouncing and jolting about like a ship caught in a tempest as my shoes pounded the pavement. The Demin house disappeared behind a wall of firs and pines as Maple Crescent merged into Kings Road, Brentwood's equivalent to Main Street. Safely away from immediate danger, I rested at a stop sign, my heart beating against my ribcage. It didn't matter where I went now, the evening was still early. Nighttime would present its own challenges once the late-night hotspots rang the bell for last call, where I'd go from there is a bridge I'd have to cross once I came to it. One thing was certain: I wasn't going back. Not tonight. Then an image of the microphone sitting in QuikPawn's window flashed once across my mind like a shooting star streaking across the sky, and then was gone, disappearing without a trace as much the way I had from the house.
I ran again. And ran
Skyscrapers and office buildings stretched far above while the road ran for miles ahead. The new moon, faint and far, hid within the darkness of the sky. A scant number of stars peeked through the dark curtain, bathing downtown Brentwood in a nocturnal mystique. Scenery of a metropolitan nightlife was never dull. The surrounding beauty was far from my mind as I walked; worn out, winded and sore, towards Contrast, the only sanctuary within a five mile radius of the Demin house. My ears had stopped hurting; the same couldn't be said for the rest of me. The guitar now felt like a canvas boulder strapped to my back, making every muscle from the waist up scream. My legs felt like they were full of lead, each step towards the cafe felt like a major accomplishment. The case rolled off my shoulders and landed with a thud at the first spied table as soon as I pushed open the door, sending the attached wind chimes into a ringing frenzy. The overhead lights were dimmed against the natural brightness of the painted walls, now adorning new artwork since my last visit. Over in the far corner, two girls stared at the intricate setup of cues and balls on the red-felted pool table, too focused on their game to pay me any attention. I dropped into the first chair I saw, melting into the plush padding.
Bloody chimes, a quiet voice grumbled while a familiar face peeked out from behind the mammoth blue espresso machine. I told Alan they'd be... Damien the barista's sentence did an abrupt about-face and retreated soon as he laid eyes on me. Richard! Good God in Heaven, man, what happened? I coughed and wiped another smear of blood from my lip, which was beginning to throb and swell. I wanted to tell Damien to mind his own business and just let me sit for a while and think, but thought better of it. Hold that thought, Damien said, and set to work crafting yet another drinkable masterpiece. I folded my arms on the table and propped my chin on top, muttering something about having one of those' days. A cigarette would help right about now, I thought, before remembering with great annoyance that the few remaining Number Sevens were in my desk drawer back home, hidden underneath a stack of papers. Well, scratch that then.
A minute later, following several blasts of steam from the machine where Contrast staff did with coffee what other artists might do with watercolors, Damien emerged from the counter, balancing two large mountains of foam in two small cups on two smaller, ridiculous-looking saucers. He set one down on the table, pushed it my way, took the other seat opposite me, raised his own cup and pointed at the brimming cup I'd not yet touched. Indulge, he invited. I blinked, a little surprised at both his speed and artistic flair. Dark streaks of espresso cut through the thick foam, forming an intricate pattern of fern leaves and branches. My hand instinctively went for my wallet. Damien made a grunting noise behind his cup. Don't worry about it, he said. You look like you badly needed one.
I need a lot of things, I replied, unsure whether it was anger or fear still lingering away inside me, maybe both. I took a large mouthful from the cup and set it back down. The cappuccino seemed to be an elixir of sorts, containing the power to soften moods and words with just one sip. Things seemed calmerfor now. Thanks.
No problem. He sat in silence for a little while, and when I offered no other conversation apart from a heavy sigh or two, he spoke again with some reluctance. Richard, you can tell me to fk off, as it's none of my business, but what the hell happened? I've seen some interesting things before but never to this extent. Did you get jumped or somethin'?
No, I said, but given the way today's gone, I wish I had been. I'd have stood a better chance. Damien didn't share in the cynical chuckling. I reached for my cup again. You never did meet my father, did you?
Well no, apart from the other week when I dropped off that ad for Thrash, but what's that got to do with... He stopped and seemed to think for a minute. Then his eyes went wide, as though he suddenly understood where I was going, thus scrapping any point to finishing his sentence. Wait, let me see if I follow you on this: You're saying your dad didthatto you? he pointed at my face with a spoon from his own saucer. My only response was to sip more of my cappuccino. Why in God's name did he do such a thing? Doesn't he know child abuse is still a crime in Canada? I wanted to point out that being eighteen would instead classify the incident assault, but that only would've brought more questions I'd sooner not answer.
Because he runs his house like a fascist and doesn't tolerate dissenting opinions? I said, feeling hot behind the ears again. He and I disagreed on certain things and the next thing I know, words were said and blows were traded. It all happened so fast, it just got really out of hand. Since when has it been normal to hate one of your kids for having different dreams in life? Damien remained silent, taking in my every word with calm collection. The voice inside me took quite a different approach.
(Bullshit. Tell us how you really feel.)
Did you throw the first punch?
Did you swing at your dad first?
What? God no! All I did was curse out my dope of an older brother something fierce. For once, I felt a sting of guilt referring to Eric in such derogatory manner, as it was due to intervention from the same dope' that likely lessened, if not spared me from ending up worse for wear. Of course, I didn't exactly stand defenseless, either, I admitted. Damien said nothing, a silent invitation to continue. A loud clatter, followed by a shrill Fk it! from the direction of the pool-playing girls distracted both of us. Damien glanced over his shoulder to watch the one who'd mouthed the expletive go chasing after a runaway cue-ball, retrieve it and return it to its rightful place on the tabletop without any apology for cursing in front of other customers. Again, Damien said nothing. Despite that he was a silent listener; I found I couldn't quite make eye contact with him.
He didn't seem satisfied with this, I gestured to my injuries, and came for me, scowling like I'd never seen him before. Frankly, I was a little tired of being battered, so I stood up for myself. I paused and moved for the cup, only to realize its contents had been drained. No cop-out left this time, Richard.
Hmm, Damien said.
I didn't mean to hurt him." Wow, I must have sounded like such a wimpy twit. I would never deck him in any other situation. He's been a real jackass before, but still I never thought to take him on. I just acted in self-defense, that's all.
What are you going to do tonight? Damien asked, seeming to ignore or show no interest in trying to make the end justify the means. You're not going back.
What makes you say that?
He smiled a little. Richard, I known you a while now; if you're half as smart as I know you, you ain't gonna go back to such a warzone until some kind of ceasefire's been negotiated. Tactful metaphor, I thought. Perhaps I wasn't as poker-faced as I liked to think I was, a thought that didn't necessarily comfort me, nor did it twist like a knife in my stomach. He moved his mouth to say something else but was cut off by another outburst, this time from the other pool girl.
Hey! Barista-man, can I get another, please? At least this one sounded like she had some manners, unlike her counterpart. I found I could actually smile again, but did not look up from the table.
Be right there, Damien called back, rising and taking both cups with him. He was halfway to the little swing door marked EMPLOYEES ONLY BEYOND THIS POINT PLEASE' when he spun to face me again. Hey Richard, I gotta say one thing. Oh great, here comes another lecture, I thought. My eyes lifted to meet his. What's that?
Even if he is your father, I hope you knocked the son-of-a-bitch on his ass for doing that to you. He smirked and went behind the counter. I didn't know whether to be comforted or stupefied, to smile or not. He'd actually said that. Muy Loco indeed, I thought. Damien had been right about me thoughhe often was: Contrary to the clich maxim, home is not where my heart was, damned if I would return tonight, or even the next night. I didn't know how long I needed or wanted to be away from that compound of confrontation. Maybe I'd just take the weekend to mull things over, but not much longer. A lone guitar and a threadbare wallet with less than forty bucks was not much to survive off of for long. The old cash register at the counter rang and swallowed up yet another customer's money, soon to replace it with a cupful of liquid art. Considering the moderate prices of Cafe Contrast, the trade was not entirely unfair in my opinion.
Up until now, I'd not given the pool girls a second's thought, their existence no more interesting to me than the air in front of my face. That was, until I bothered to step out of the chair and examine some of the nearby art on the wall; a mysterious panoply of inanimate objects, skylines and architecture. Whoever created them spared no attempt to emphasize the foreplay of light and shadow. I noticed one piece unlike the others in the center of the wall; a single eye set among a white face. Hair draped across the rest of the face like a curtain as if daring me to try and look behind. At first it seemed just like the others, but what made this one stand out was the one thing the others lacked; the presence of color. The faint hue of green in the iris made a bold statement, a defiance of the status quo as set by its predecessors. I was mesmerized. Strange, it's like the eye is watching me, looking deep inside. A slight chill went down my back, yet I did not shiver, I was too awe-struck. A small card next to it informed me that the work was titled In the Spotlight.' The picture bore no name of the artist, but carried a peculiar set of letters in the bottom corner.
KMSMIt's so familiar and yet, foreign to me...
Across the near-empty cafe, the shrill voice of the rude girl came again, this time in such a frightened squeak that it captured my attention. Richard? I turned to look, immediately regretting it. She stood beside the table, clutching a pool cue as if it were a spear, looking as though she'd just seen me spontaneously combust. On her left, holding onto the other cue, with a paper cup in the other hand, was her friend, and my band-mate, looking just as horrified: Kayla Morton and Sarah Matheson.
I just had to leave those damn cigarettes behind, didn't I?