Chapter 1 of 21 (New Chapters every Friday) To find other chapters, click here: The Willow, a serialized novel.
She watched them – all of them – all of the time. That’s all she could do. Watch and wait. If they were tuned in, then she could nudge them ever so slightly along. They saw her sometimes in their dreams. But they never understood what they were seeing, or why. Sometimes she cried silent tears, as her mind flowed with their fears, their useless running in circles, but mostly she watched. That was her job. For now, that’s all she could do.
The walls were the first thing he noticed. Padded.
Struggling to lift the haze covering his mind he saw that the room was white. Where is the light coming from?
He’d seen these kinds of rooms before. He put people in them to protect them from themselves. Why am I here? Who put me here?
Too weak to wage a battle against his own mind, he shut his eyes.
“Marcus. Marcus, please.”
An irritation was keeping him cognizant. He had had enough. The world was not worthwhile anymore. I just want to rest. Just let me rest. But some desperation was gnawing at him; keeping him from his peace.
Where is this light coming from? The room was white. Padded. No lights. No doors. Just a box. A box with an irritation. What is that? Just let me rest.
But he couldn’t rest. He needed answers. He needed to think clearly. He needed to remember. And then all of a sudden he saw her – his wife. His beautiful wife was sitting next to him. She was laughing wildly at his jokes, until all of a sudden her face went pale. What happened? What did I say? What did I do?
Elizabeth sat in a chair next to the window. The smell was getting to her. It always did. So she looked out of the window and imagined she was sitting under the tree in the middle of the parking lot. Who plants a tree and then surrounds it with concrete. This was a Weeping Willow. Elizabeth knew they planted it as a shade-giving tree, but there was no one to appreciate its brilliance here. It was beautiful, with a thick trunk. The tree reached nearly 70 feet high, and its branches spread out another 50 feet wide. Its leaves looked magical as if out of a painting, and it offered up both strength and a sense of sadness. With everything going on around it, it was just in the way. It was something that people had to walk or drive around. It was all alone. Just like her.
Elizabeth imagined sitting under the Willow and she could smell the bark. The rain had enlivened the leaves and they brought moisture to her hands and face as she let the droplets fall and run over her skin. This fantasy was as close to heaven as she was allowed to get. This was her escape from the pain smothering her awareness on her side of the glass.
1 – 2 – 3, 1 – 2 – 3. Sam nodded his head to the beat – just a casual nod, not a full commitment. Miles was blowin’ on ‘All Blues’ in the periphery of his thoughts. It was Sunday morning and this was the way that Sam always spent his Sundays.
He scanned the paper. Politicians lying, check. Police brutalizing, check. The oppressed crying, check. No one really understanding each other, but everyone having an answer, check. Sam was not an activist, but his mind was active. Sam was a cop. A black cop. The world he lived in made it hard for him to live. But he had Sundays, and that was his day. He was lucky to have it. Sunday’s were a luxury in his world. But he had put in his time, thirty-two years on the force, and no one was going to take this from him.
Sunday’s were about him and the ‘Prince of Darkness.’ Miles wasn’t a contemporary of his, but that didn’t matter – his dad liked him.
At some point, maybe nineteen or twenty years old, around the time he decided he was going to be a cop, because that would put all of the pieces in order in his transition from boy to man, he had looked at his father and tried to copy him – all of him. His father was what being a man was all about.
Now he sat in his father’s black penny loafers, with his father’s sleeves rolled up only two rolls, while drinking his father’s black coffee and reading an actual newspaper while Miles’ ‘Kind of Blue’ played out in the background. And he nodded his head in the same way his father used to nod, not all-in, but just vibing on the periphery.
Sam’s father had died shortly after he had joined the force. Gang related. Funny thing about ‘gang related’ is that no one realized most of the gang’s clientele were white. It was simply looked upon as black on black crime, with a black Uncle Tom police officer trying to keep the peace. It’s always more complicated. But complications are difficult for headlines, so he was left to carry his father’s legacy in his mannerisms, and his rituals – his Miles, and his black coffee.
Sam lived alone. It just made things easier. He had a girlfriend once. She lived with him, and worried about him, and counted the minutes until he would come home in the evening. She constantly called him from her job to make sure he was safe. But you are never safe as a cop. The gun made sure of that. So he mostly lied to her, until one day he told her the truth, “I’m never really ‘safe’ babe.” And she demanded it was the job or her. So he picked the job. The job was his connection to his father, and he couldn’t give that up.
For a moment Sam’s mind drifted back to her. Martha. It wasn’t really a black girl’s name and he reminded her of that often. Sam let out a little laugh. Hearing himself laugh, everything came in to focus. He saw himself sitting there with his coffee and his paper. For the first time, he asked himself – am I living? Or just playing a role?
Opening his eye’s again Marcus saw a small rat shoot across the floor. It was desperately looking for a way out of the room. The rat kept crawling up the wall and falling back down again. Then it saw Marcus and stopped.
They stared at each other for a good ten seconds, Marcus trying to crawl out of his medicated stupor. The rat suddenly let out a roar and bared two giant fangs as it looked ready to attack.
Marcus jumped up throwing his arms in front of his face to protect himself. He waited. He could almost feel his flesh being ripped apart in anticipation of the moment. But, nothing happened. He was fully awake now, shaking in fear. Putting his arms down, he saw that he was again alone in the room. Where did it go?
As he stood there he realized that the room was just slightly higher than he was. He could just barely extend his hands above his head.
“Marcus. Come on Marcus, please.”
“Sometimes in our lives, we all have pain, we all have sorrow, but if we are wise
we know that there’s always tomorrow” – Bill Withers belted from the radio.
I can’t handle this.
“I like that song, mommy.”
“I like it too; I just don’t want to hear any more music for a while.” Martha didn’t know why she was even doing it? Single mothers don’t drive their wild children on camping trips. But, she needed them, needed them to know her, and she didn’t know how to get them away from the video games and the television without them hating her for it.
“Gags!” Brett yelled as he slapped his sister Daisy on the shoulder. A slap was good. It meant he was feeling friendly. Normally, it was a full fist to the belly. But, why do you have to call her that freakin’ name, thought Martha. Gags was what Brett called Daisy when he wanted to remind her that she has down’s syndrome. As if she needs constant reminders.
They were headed for camp grounds her father had taken Martha to nearly 30 years ago. They need a father – well, that’s not happening anytime soon – I can do this. Walter, at the sporting goods store, had showed her how to put the tent together and she was sure it wouldn’t be a problem. Keeping the team together while she was doing it, however, was going to take some work.
“Gags,” yelled Brett, “look, a supernova!” Daisy turned and looked out the window and Brett gave a good hit to the back of her head.
“Please, guys! Mama needs to keep her eyes on the road.”
“Do you even know what a supernova is?” asked Daisy.
“Shut it, Gags.”
“It’s when a star collapses and makes a giant explosion,” told Daisy confidently. Martha smiled.
“Mom, I think my stomach is gonna explode like a supernova!” yelled Brett.
“Well then put Fang away already!” Fang was Brett’s alter ego that made him chug Pepsi and hit his sister.
“What is the matter with Fang?” asked Daisy.
“He just loves you too much sweety, and doesn’t know how to express it?”
“What?” Brett raised his hand to Daisy, staring her down for a second, before deciding to just put his fist back on the seat.
“Two for flinching,” said Daisy, giving him two pats on the shoulder.
Martha sighed… then smiled.
“Marcus. Come on Marcus, please.”
He felt an itch on the back of his neck, but though he tried scratching it, it seemed he couldn’t locate the exact location.
Static began to crackle loudly. Where is that coming from?
“Heeyyy, yeah. Heeyyy, yeah”
Is that The Doors?
Marcus looked towards the ceiling to see if there were speakers in the room.
“I walked forty-seven miles on barbed wire, cobra snake for a necktie, built a house by the roadside, made of rattlesnake hide, brand new chimney made on top, made out of human skulls. Come on, baby, take a walk with me.” – Jim Morrison was in his ear.
Marcus jumped up and started spinning, stretching his arms out, and screaming along to the song, “Tell me who do you love? Who do you love now? Who do you love now? Who do you love, babe? I say, ‘Who now, who do you love?’”
The Doors were blaring so loud that it seemed to be coming from inside of his own head.
How many years had it been since he’d heard that song. The last time he heard it, he was kissing that girl, Stephanie, out behind ‘old man’ Larry’s shop. Those were the good ole days, when he had enough confidence to just walk up to a girl, and ask her to dance, but Stephanie had been a keeper. At least for a couple of years, until he left for college and she left for Africa to do some kind of missionary work. How many years ago was that now? Seemed like yesterday.
But then, along came Elizabeth. Oh, how I love you Elizabeth. He saw her face. Beautiful. Smiling. Brown hair, falling over her ears, and parted just wide enough to allow her eyes to poke through. Then, she changed. Her eyes became wide. Her skin turned pale. She was scared. What did I do? What did I say?
“I can be selfish, yeah, so impatient. Sometimes I feel like Marilyn Monroe” –Nicki Minaj sang out over the sound system. They played that song everyday.
Nicki Minaj haunted the rec center, and Sarah knew the song was for her. She couldn’t really understand what it was about, but it was filtering through her bones and giving some comfort. She was old enough now, to know the deal; sometimes daddy just needed a little time.
“I’m insecure, yeah, I make mistakes, sometimes I feel like I’m at the end of the road.” The song was Sarah’s soundtrack. Nicki was like her older sister there, holding her hand.
The first time it happened, after Sarah had given him coffee, and he had taken one sip before passing out, she had run from the apartment. She thought she had killed her father. But he explained to her that sometimes the monsters come. Just wait it out sweety, he always said. But now she was old enough to see that he invited those monsters in. He wanted them.
“Call it a curse, or just call me blessed, if you can’t handle my worst, you ain’t getting my best.” Sarah sang along through the tears.
This was a good hang out, as no one would suspect a troubled kid at the park. Now, whenever daddy would get the shakes and start yelling at the walls, she would just go to the 5th Avenue Rec. That was their meeting spot. The first time she ran away in fear, but he eventually found her there. Now, they had a grown up system. Now, she knew he’d come and get her when he was ready.
“Is this how Marilyn Monroe felt? Must be how Marilyn Monroe felt.” At least she had Nicki if no one else.
They called him Nick, and it sounded cool when they said it, so he didn’t correct them. But, he always introduced himself as Nicholas. He was not a cool kid, but his friends were the tough guys at school. That was even better than being cool. It meant that he could be himself and no one would mess with him.
At nine years old, the bane of his existence was the handshake. He always worried if they would go for the tilted handclasp and half hug, or would it be the fist bump. And if it were fists, would they do the whole one on top of the other on top of the other and then pound it, or just pound it? Or would they do the I’m-to-cool-to-be-bothered fingers only shake? Fingers only was manageable, and he would try to force that if he had the opportunity, but in his heart, Nicholas preferred the traditional, old fashioned, hands extended out business style shake. That was safe. That was clean. That wasn’t trying to be something other than the nerd he was. But it wasn’t just about the shake, you also had to look like you knew what you were doing while shaking. When the moment came for hands to meet, Nicholas would have to use part of his brain to remind himself not to bite his lips, which was a dead giveaway that he was freaking out.
Even though they all called him Nick, everyone knew that he was really a Nicholas. He told himself that the awkwardness was part of his charm. Even though everything about Nicholas was clumsy, he had a super power. He could play buckets. Anytime that there was nothing going on, the grown ups and the kids would ask him to play. He had rhythm when he played. He had style. He flowed to some other dimension. Sometimes he’d go down to the market and play and he’d always make money – more money than the adults – because when he played, his clumsy looked cute.
The white room was fading in and out of his consciousness as he straddled the past and present, unsure of where he wanted to be. Better to be lost in a memory, than to have to remember what I did to bring that color to your beautiful face, Elizabeth. What happened to your smile?
“Marcus. Marcus, please.”
What was this itch on the back of his neck? Was this the problem? Did they put something in me? Did I have surgery? Was it a chemical imbalance that made me hurt Elizabeth?
Determined to remember, Marcus made himself think back to that event. I was looking into Elizabeth’s eyes. She was looking back at me so lovingly. So absorbed in me. And then? She went pale. She screamed. What did she scream? “Move!” What? “Move!” Was I hurting her? Did they blame me? Is Elizabeth still alive? Do they think that I killed her? Do they think that it was a chemical imbalance? Oh, Elizabeth you know that I love you. Don’t you?
Marcus had enough. I have to sleep. He walked to a corner of the room and curled up on the floor. I just need to rest and then I’ll figure this out.
As he lay there, the image of Beth came to his mind.
“Beth,” Marcus stared at Beth and she at him.
Yes? She thought.
“How are we feeling today?
Really. That’s where you want to start? What’s with the ‘we?’ Are we in it together now? Beth always got irritated with Marcus, at the beginning of their conversations. That was just how she warmed up.
“I thought we could talk about your school days today. Everyone tells me that you were at the top of your class and that they just can’t understand what happened to you. How did you end up here?”
Here? Here is only part of the story. Here is only a moment in time. But, you want to hear about the beginning; about the first moments, don’t you?
“Why don’t you tell me a little about your story?”
This story began with a vibration of sorts. Well, initially it began with a thought – a thought, or a voice – or a vibration.
I was drinking a glass of water and there was this realization that I am just a machine. I was just gassing up this piece of machinery. It was troubling at first, but then this awareness began to consume me. Was I just an animal driven by instinct to feed and procreate?
Well, that just wasn’t good enough. I had to be more than an animal for there to be some purpose in my existence. I had to be something special, or else why was I able to see so much. What was the use of my sight – my inner sight – if I was just a machine, or an animal? So, I decided to just stop. I wasn’t going to play the game any longer.
“Did something in particular happen that made you feel that you were not good enough or that you were not worthy?”
Are you listening to me? It wasn’t that I thought that I wasn’t worthy. I knew that I was more – more than a zombie going through the motions of living, just having the same feelings and thoughts as every other zombie. In fact we are all better. That is what I had to prove.
Of course, being born under a star that lacked the will to communicate was the misfortune that I walked with. Misfortune – or should I say blessing? I wasn’t about to get stuck, with the philosophers, and the teachers, and the preachers singing their songs; getting excited without having a complete understanding of what they’re talking about. That wasn’t going to be me. Rather, it couldn’t be. I’m not the kind of person. I need the full story first. And even then, I’ll probably just keep it to myself.
I can’t even read a book actually, because there’s just too much talking going on. Why all this talking, as if we’re programmed to not shut up? But then, that’s it isn’t it? – Programming. Did our maker make us just to shoot shit and eat, and procreate and die? What is the point in that? No there must be an answer to the dreamer aspect of it all. Do dogs dream, is really the question that I need answered, because if even dogs dream then we really are just animals. Maybe we’re in some humongous zoo with people looking at us, laughing and eating popcorn while enjoying the fact that we really think we are something special. Special. That’s the hard part I guess. Is it part of the programming?
“Beth, I was wondering, can you pick out a turning event?” Marcus was looking very sincere so she obliged.
Well, when I finally took a stand and said enough is enough, I’m not going down like the rest – I have to know! Then, everything got worse. I decided that I wouldn’t eat anymore. That I’d stop the cycle of lies that infuse us with this understanding that we are mere robots doing our masters bidding. But that idea was like a shipwreck – crash and burn. It just made the voices louder.
It’s true what they say – we’ve got a devil and an angel on each shoulder, pulling us in different directions. But the problem really is that I can’t quite tell which one is the devil and which is the angel. They both want me to get the most out of life. So what does that say?
They, the angel and the devil, both claim the other as ignorant, as traps to keep us in our place. We can live for only our own exaltation, and they call it tying ourselves to our ego, or we can fight for only the good of others, and they call it, herding the cattle, a way of keeping us in line so as not to make waves for a society that wants us locked into the system. What if I don’t want to be in place anymore? Then what?
But there, was this girl – little black girl, with her hair all grown out and heavy – she was guiding me. She was encouraging me. I think.
It’s all about breaking the system, you know. So I decided I had to break on through it. But the closer I got to the light, the louder the voices got. How to shut them up? Then it came to me. I had to handcraft my own reality. I had to separate myself. So what I did was: I stopped talking. I stopped listening. I stopped moving in rhythm with the world around me.
Yes, my mother cried. Yes, my father tried to beat the individuality out of me. But I stayed silent. Not a proud silent mind you, not a boastful silent, but a knowing silent, a resigned silent.
“Can you take me to that day – that day when you decided to end your life?”
End my life? It was not an end. I decided to change everything. Look, we are all fooling ourselves if we think that we know what’s after death so I decided I was going to find out. Death is the beginning actually. We act as if it’s the end, both the “believers,” and the “nonbelievers,” go about mourning in the same beastly, pathetic manner. But it’s the beginning isn’t it? So I decided I was ready to move on. Start at the beginning. If you want to know the truth, then you have to start at the beginning, right?
So I dug that grave. Mom kept coming out to see what I was doing. Can you believe that she even brought me lemonade? She thought I was digging some hole to China or something. I’m a little old for that – come on.
So I dug that hole – six feet. I measured it properly. But the trouble was burying myself in. That was not so easy. So I had to rig up the dirt in a couple of trashcans, and build a little levy to prop them against and to hold them up until I was read to tilt them over. Then I tied rope around them real good, lay dead in the hole, and pulled the rope hard. I did not hesitate. I was ready. I had to start the journey.
I don’t really know what happened next. I saw flashes of my mom screaming – of the paramedics over my body – of being hooked up to all kinds of wires and machines – and then finally of you, day after day coming to talk to me – asking the same questions as if my story is going to change. As if you’re trying to spark some rage in me with your flammable words. But I have already ignited the fire in my soul, and there is nothing left for you to do. All I have for you here is truth. I’ve found the answer, and I can help you find it. First you have to be brave enough to do what I did. Walk in my shoes.
“Marcus, is she responding today?”
Who is this woman who’s always coming and interrupting us?
“No, not a word. She just sits there staring at me with that smile on her face. I don’t quite understand it. It’s like she’s trying to tell me something but she just can’t open her mouth.”
Open my mouth? What have we been doing here for the last year? – Day after day, hour after hour?
“Don’t worry about it Marcus. She’ll talk when she’s ready. Put her back in her room.”
“OK. Come on Beth, let’s put your vest back on. You know you won’t have to wear this thing once you start talking again.”
No, please, not the vest. I’ve told you everything. I’m ready to go now. I’ve got so much to share with the world. I’m really ready to go now.
“Blow it slick.”
That’s what I do. That’s what I’m doin’. Just shut up already and listen.
This was James’ corner, 6th and Pike. He owned this five foot piece of the Seattle dream. Owned, not in terms of real estate, but owned like when people look at you and they know that you are in command. This was where people came to be led to another world by the tunes that he provided.
Still, he wasn’t satisfied. I shoulda took up the trumpet.
When James was in 6th grade, his music teacher asked him which instrument he wanted to learn. The sax of course. All women love the saxophone. Even at eleven he knew that. Only after getting to junior high did he discover that trumpet players got all the best parts. But it was too late. He had built his life on the saxophone.
He listened to Coltrane’s In A Sentimental Mood every night and dreamed about when his time would come. Well it was here. On the corner of 6th and Pike relying on leftovers given him by people who insisted on calling him slick.
James was a white guy, but don’t try telling him. He kept his head shaved and had a couple of tats to give him that multi-racial look. That’s what people wanted to see – it made his lifestyle seem more acceptable. Still, he rocked that horn like Coltrane so what did his color matter. He dressed like a 50’s jazzman, in a suit and tie with polished black slippers, but no hat, so you’d see the shave.
“You’re awesome,” said a little girl as she put a quarter in his case.
Awesome? Awesome was a dream that wasn’t meant to be. When you’re young, slumming it seems pretty cool. But when you grow up, it’s just tiresome. It just makes the days longer and the nights colder. James was forty-seven. There was nothing awesome about playing for change at his age.
“I think I’d rather you just call me Slick, kid.”
Marcus couldn’t rest. Beth wouldn’t let him. She was staring at him.
“How did you get in here?” he asked her.
“If you want to get out, you’ll need to do it now?” she said.
“You can talk?”
“Of course, I could always talk. You just didn’t know how to hear me.”
“What is going on?”
“Elizabeth needs you. If you want to see her again, I suggest you get out of here.”
And then, she was gone. He was now sure that something happened to Elizabeth. There was a reason why he was put into this room. Did I let somebody hurt her? I’m so sorry.
“I’m so sorry, Elizabeth,” he said out loud to the room hoping that she might be watching somehow.
There must be some kind of ventilation system. Otherwise, how am I breathing, and where is the light coming from? Marcus began feeling the walls to locate holes. They must be watching me from somewhere. Otherwise, how will they decide that I am better?
Marcus crawled around the room feeling every last piece of it, but he found no hidden doors – no ventilation system. Eventually, the medication was too much for him and he fell back asleep.
He heard her voice and jumped up. “Elizabeth!”
I must find a way out of here! Marcus stood up and began pacing the room. It was time to take matters into his own hands. He needed a plan. He needed to escape this place. He swung his fists at the walls, trying to punch a hole through them. But they were padded. They just absorbed his blows. He tried to rip the fabric but the material wouldn’t tear. He tried biting at it, but not even a scratch appeared.
Looking around the room, everything began to spin. He was just so confused. What is going on with me? His mind kept swirling with memories. It was hard for him to separate out the present moment. The more he tried, the more confused he became. Elizabeth, where are you? I need you?
They had met at San Francisco State University, where they sat together in the back of an English Lit class, thinking that it would be an easy A. They had proceeded to spend every day there passing notes like they were still in High School. Together, they managed to fail the class. She had wanted to drop it, but he’d convinced her that they would be able to get through it together. He’d been wrong about that.
“This is the final boarding call for Alaska Airlines Flight 222 to Seattle,” called an announcement over the PA system. What? From here?
Oh, Elizabeth. Remember when we flew to Seattle, it was a bumpy trip, but the taxi ride after was so nice. I was talking to you and you were staring into my eyes. So much love. Almost too much. And then you went pale? What happened? What did you see?
“Marcus! Marcus, Please.”
“Marcus, please, please!”
“Elizabeth!” yelled Marcus. “Elizabeth, I can hear you! Get me out of here!”
“Marcus. Marcus, please wake up,” sobbed Elizabeth into Marcus’ chest as her father pulled her away.
“Elizabeth. Dear. It’s time. It’s been three years. Marcus wouldn’t want this. Three years since he was hit. It’s time to let him go. It’s time to move on.”
“I know father.”
Caressing the back of Marcus’ neck she kissed him one final time.
“Goodbye Marcus,” Elizabeth said as she motioned to the doctor that she was ready.
I’ll see you next Friday for chapter 2.
Featured image via http://www.wallup.net