Susan A. Wright
The fog curled around the townhouse, seeping in through the window cracks. Jackson rolled over in bed, cursing the thinness of his blankets. The coldness of the mornings always burrowed into his cocoon of sheets, awaking him hours too early and souring his mood. Each day announced itself with a monotonous grayness and the crisp air imposed a false cheerfulness.
Forcing himself out of bed, Jackson stumbled to the window and peered through the torn shade. The cloudy, foggy morning seemed to stretch through the glass to brush its cold fingers against his chest. Lately, Jackson had difficulty recalling the appearance of a sunny day. Chilled, he turned and retreated to the bathroom for a lengthy shower.
Reporting downstairs a half-hour later for breakfast, Jackson attempted to deflect the quiet shadows by turning on the television. The morning news boomed into the room, filling the empty air with a sterile solemnity. The newscaster detailed the breaking story of a murder which had been executed around midnight. A shooting. Two dead. The charred bodies found in a burned car. Jackson shuddered to learn the incident had occurred only blocks away. What was wrong with the world anymore?
He was afraid of the answer.
Gulping his first cup of coffee, Jackson sighed at the violent news. The crime rate in his neighborhood had increased two hundred percent in the last three years. His home had been broken into six months ago, but since he owned nothing of value, nothing had been stolen. Jackson had added extra locks to every door and window in the house, but he failed to dispel his feelings of uneasiness. He never felt safe.
Noticing how low the can of instant coffee had gotten, Jackson decided that, much to his horror, he would have to make a trip to the store. Leaving home was a major undertaking. He stared at the discolored, warped kitchen linoleum for ten minutes, attempting to work up enough nerve for the venture. What if someone accosted him on the street? What if he died on the sidewalk only feet away from the pseudo-safety of his dilapidated house?
He reminded himself that thoughts like these could only make his meager life more miserable. Being laid off from his factory job had dealt a crushing blow to his self-esteem, and life had wilted slowly ever since. His goal had become not to be debilitated by fear. No need to torture himself with paranoia. Donning a moth-eaten winter coat, he marched out the door like a soldier in a victory parade.
The fog partially screened him from view as he strolled down the broken, concrete sidewalk. A few tufts of brown grass jutted up between the cracks. The plants had tried hard to live in the hostile environment but had lost. Jackson exhaled heavily. As the light rain soaked its way through his clothes and saturated his soul, he assured himself he was invisible. Yes, he thought with a smirk. Hidden from both the good and the bad.
From behind him, Jackson heard footsteps echo against the run-down townhouses. Quickening his pace, he told himself the person was likely another man on a mission for coffee. Still, when the footsteps increased into a jog, Jackson broke into a sweat. After all, the street stayed deserted until noon on most Saturdays. Why would anyone else be out and in a hurry?
Reaching the corner convenience store, Jackson rushed inside to hide himself in the farthest rows of food. With exaggerated interest, he applied his attention to the cans of coffee and tried to slow his heart rate. However, before he could stop shaking, a teenage boy burst into the store and pointed a gun at the clerk. Whatever sense of reality Jackson had managed to retain since the break-in vanished.
“G-give cash . . .” The youth seemed to grow frustrated. “Give me c-cash!” He swayed, and the hand holding the gun shook.
The clerk grew pallid as he opened the cash drawer and drew out a sparse pile of bills.
“You got more!” In his rage, the youth spit as he shouted.
“No,” the clerk replied in a tremulous voice. The fluorescent lights mixed with his pallor to give his skin a greenish tint. “It’s mornin’. I don’t have no more.”
The youth snatched up the money and ran out, ramming his arm against the doorframe as he exited. Moments later Jackson heard shouting, followed by a gunshot. In a detached way, he realized he should be afraid or at least concerned about the possible murder outside. Instead, he felt like he was a camera—a cheap video camera recording his existence for a low-grade documentary destined for early morning airplay.
That was it.
His home wasn’t safe. The outside world wasn’t safe. Nowhere was safe.
* * *
Four hundred miles. Jackson knew he was a fool and did not care. The piece of junk he called a car seemed ready to fall apart in the road, but he kept driving. He realized he was nearly committing a crime by driving so far with so little sleep, yet he balked at the idea of stopping. After nearly wrecking, he accepted that although the motels ate his money, he had to give up for the night.
Pulling into the parking lot of the closest cheap motel, Jackson hesitated before climbing out of his car. Why was he doing this to himself? He had thought and rethought his blind rush across the country. Everyone knew running helped nothing, but no amount of logic saved him from himself. He felt his paranoia creeping up on him, casting a shadow that engulfed him. Jackson stared at the weathered, peeling billboard towering above the building. The sign read “Stop the Abuse Now,” but he could no longer tell which kind of abuse the sign meant. His smile was bitter. It didn’t matter.
Once he attained a motel room, he took refuge in the bathroom with the hope of a hot shower. Yet as he stripped off his rumpled clothing, he began staring at his reflection in the spotted mirror. Standing naked in the illumination of the fluorescent light, he had to admit his best years had passed. Not that he was old, because he was only in his late thirties. But he no longer recognized the sickly body he saw. A balding head, stark skinniness, weathered skin. Laugh lines surrounded his eyes, but he could not remember laughing. He thought that maybe he should care, but he failed to work up the energy.
Jackson climbed into the cold, porcelain bathtub and turned on the shower, hoping the tepid water would wash away his thoughts. He imagined the ants crawling around the tub laughed at his wasted body even as they washed down the drain.
* * *
Jackson finally ended up in his hometown, living in the old RV parked in his mother’s backyard, but it hadn’t helped him any. He felt as though he had no identity anymore; the fates had damned him to an invisible cell with tangible boundaries. Regardless of where he ran, his fear followed. Slowly paranoia had erected a prison out of his makeshift home. Stepping across the threshold caused a sensation like a heart attack.
Jackson had long since stopped watching television. The soulless piece of equipment seemed to mock him as it revealed a growing number of violent crimes. People failed to understand the meaning of death. What made it so easy for these murderers to pull the trigger? Jackson refused to accept insanity or lousy childhoods. His own childhood was a storm of abuse bundled into a fist, but he had never killed his schoolmates. His fear slowly carved “loony” into his forehead, but he didn’t walk into restaurants with AK47s and take his revenge on innocents. He could no longer watch the carnage as people wasted lives. The violence crawled into his brain and poked around with needles.
Jackson couldn’t pinpoint the day he first began falling asleep curled up in a ball. If only he could disappear. A lost entity, he had entombed himself in his bedroom. Although he could no longer stand to go outside, his greatest dream was to walk into the ocean and dissolve in the waves. Wash out with the tide, oblivious to humankind and its terrifying rush into damnation.
The world was too much with him.
Susan A. Wright is Associate Professor of English for Campbellsville University. Her areas of interest include fiction, poetry, rhetoric, and composition studies. Former publications include the Scrolls of Magick: The Land of Faerie, which took 2nd place in The Great Southern American Novel Contest; “Reader Agency in the (Re)reading and (Re)writing of Japanese Graphic Novels,” presented at the Queen City Comics Conference; “Dungeons, Dragons, and Discretion: A Gateway to Gaming, Technology, and Literacy” in Gaming Lives in the 21st Century; “Invader” in Low Implosions: Writings on the Body; “To Write, With Love” at The Watson Conference; “The Self-Righteous and The Sinner-Saint” at the M/MLA Conference; “Our Lady of Love and War” in Treasured Poems of America; “Rose of Sharon” in Crossroads; “My Pegasus” in Creative Kids; and “RSVP Continues to Analyze Local Sites for Handicapped Accessibility,” in Elizabethtown’s The News-Enterprise. She received a doctorate in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Louisville.