Guard Duty

Copyright (c) 2008 J.D. Chapman All Rights Reserved

Like a cat, Carol perched to the side of the window and gently closed the curtains. She cautiously made her way over to the light switch and silently turned it on, adjusting the dimmer for just enough illumination to find her clothes. She eased the radio on to some gentle music, only loud enough to provide a quiet background melody. She slipped on her clothes, closed the door to the bathroom and turned on the light, and then put on her face. She looked up at the scissors in the medicine chest — her arm muscles flexing — her mind practicing a quick kick to the head, grabbing the scissors, and thrusting. But nobody was bursting in the door: she was just practicing in her head.

It was Wednesday, the middle of the week. She had arranged for Joey to stay with her mom last night as it would give her some peace and a bit of a break. Waking up alone in her apartment made her both more and less worried — although relieved from keeping an ear open for her son, at the same time nobody was nearby in case she needed help. Her nerves were on pins and needles, aware of every wall creak.

After school her mom would pick up Joey and the babysitter and drop them off here, bless her soul. Her dog’s low growling made her tense her muscles again and as she prepared to grab the scissors she leaned out of the bathroom to see Jack still stretched out on his carpet at the foot of her bed, growling in his dreams. She finished her makeup, made a wide path away from the windows and into the kitchen, snatched a container of leftovers to take to work for lunch, filled up Jack’s chow bowl with dry food and refilled his water bowl, put on her sunglasses, turned off the radio, and silently left the apartment.

As she quietly padded over to her Camaro her ears perked up to the thunks and rattles of the morning: a distant car door closing with an unconvincing Japanese tightness. She stayed alert out of the corner of her eyes for any movements — a quick flash of dark to her right drew her eyes to a spot under the fence only to see the disappearing rear end of a small black cat.

—-

She appreciated the quiet solitude of her office — in a company with a hundred employees she fortunately landed a two-person office; since they hadn’t hired the other accountant she had the whole space to herself. The busywork of clicking the payroll books on the computer all day was a pleasant kind of solace. At least the intrusions were infrequent and she could trust the people who walked in — after all the Controller sat in the office right across the hall and his door was usually open.

When his door was closed though, if a man walked into her office it would raise the hairs on the back of her neck. What would she do? When a man entered and her boss’s door was closed she always kept a hand near the intercom button just in case she needed to make a quick cry for help. In the back of her mind she always asked herself: did the right top drawer still hold the letter opener?

Finally though the day was winding down to a close, the requisitions summarized and eMailed to the service bureau, the ledger balanced, and all her eMail inquiries from the employees answered. She spent a few minutes browsing the news online while pondering what she should do after work — heading home in the middle of traffic would be a stressful waste of time and the babysitter only expected her around 9. Lacking any other great ideas, she supposed it might be a walkabout the mall again.

—-

Darryl marked time in the security booth and sighed, tossing the GQ magazine to the floor. Eight-thirty: just another half an hour to kill in the box, then a quick sweep of the mall, and then home to a well-deserved beer. Maybe the baseball playoffs would be on tonight. He was bored shitless. He was so bored that he could precisely follow the spots of dust drifting inside of his eyeballs. He curled his index finger to his thumb — making an “OK” gesture — applying pressure on his nail while pressing it against his thumb. He put his hand next to his coffee thermos and released the peg of his thumb. Plunk: the thermos resounded satisfyingly, still half full of coffee. It had the tone of metal and glass with the tailing reverberation from the vibrations passing through the liquid. It sounded like plunking a dead baby.

“Hey Darryl” a crackling voice came over the walkie-talkie. He picked it up and jammed in the talk button, “Yes sir,” he answered in his talking-to-the-boss voice. “I’m taking off a little early. Can you close up?” “No problem,” Darryl answered, tilting his head to the side, wondering why his boss was such a jerk. He added “Have a good one,” just to kiss up a little. He plonked the walkie-talkie back onto the counter and sighed.

Staring up at one of the monitors he toyed around with a joystick to pan around for anything interesting. It was the usual crowd: women with small children, strollers, and middle-class America wandering across industrial-grade carpeting and marble floors made from plastic. He panned over to the escalator; sometimes the slanted mirrors underneath it would treat him to the interesting sight of a woman passing close-by in a low-cut dress. Hmmmm, no fun under the mirrors this evening. He scanned up parallel to the ceiling: it was a challenge to see if he could make out the signs hanging from the storefronts all the way to the far end of the mall — it was an eye test to tell how sleepy he was, if he was still focused, if they had cleaned the camera lens recently. At the end of his shift, however, it all just looked like blurs of orange and blue neon. His mind played a momentary trick on him as the illusion from the semicircular vault of strip-lights made him lose his balance.

Panning back down to the shoppers he grew bored of the same fashions — jeans and blouses, jeans and sweatshirts, a few men in suits. A woman standing at a window display of mannequins caught his eye: damn she looked familiar. He sat up straight as he recognized Carol. Damn. He opened the thermos, emptied the rest of it into his coffee mug, and screwed the semi-metallic lid back tight. It had been several months since they had separated and seeing her made him uncomfortable — he didn’t really want to be reminded of her. The memory of her bitchiness made his lower chest tighten as if he had swallowed a handful of kleenex. He curled his index finger, pressing against his thumb, and plunked the thermos again. It gave back a sharp metal and glass sound vanishing nearly immediately like an empty bottle of whiskey.

Darryl thought back about when he was in love with Carol. He knew from the start that the relationship would be trouble: she seemed to think that she was a higher class than the salary she earned. Although he enjoyed her in bed, it was no longer a desperate need as when he had been a younger man. She thought she was giving him too much; he was saddened that he couldn’t monetarily provide what she was expecting. It was a difference in class. Plus she was in a tough situation from the breakup of her previous marriage: she had a young kid to take care of, her ex was negligent on support, and he always felt that she was squeezing in a tiny bit of time for their relationship between work and her kid. He finally just had to tell her that it wasn’t going to work.

She had thrown a fit. “Who the fuck do you think you are?” was her attitude. She may have even said that. He tried to be low-key and kind, but he also knew that she was just acting out, it was no big deal, everyone got dumped a couple times in their life. He just let her blow off steam. Eventually he picked up his keys, said he needed some air, and left his apartment. When he returned she was gone; she had taken all of her clothes and he never saw or heard from her again.

Carol reached into her purse and pulled out her sunglasses. It wasn’t excessively bright in this part of the mall but wearing her glasses gave her a certain sense of privacy — it kept strangers from stealing her soul. A bright red and white tartan pattern caught her eye so she approached the design in the window: she stood in front of the Benneton store and gazed at the cashmere sweaters on the mannequins. After a couple minutes elapsed she had no idea why she was stuck in front of this display. She knew that she had a hundred things to do but still froze in place, as if she were about to become a mannequin herself. Maybe it was the simplicity and beauty of the display, the nice pleated slacks, and a wonderfully fuzzy sweater. She sighed out loud — she could never afford a single thing that she fancied. The sigh reminded her of fifty things at once: she had to pick up Joey at school tomorrow at 3:00 and shuttle him to day care, she still had to finish the quarterly report for her boss at work, the dog needed to get groomed, and way back in her mind she wondered if she shouldn’t just sell the dog to somebody with the time to take care of a pet. She had to get home and pay the babysitter; she opened her purse and glanced inside to see if she had enough cash. Sigh, just barely enough. That meant that she’d have to swing by the bank tomorrow to withdraw some more.

Suddenly she got a shiver up her spine and her neck tingled cold; she turned slightly and rolled her eyes to the side, becoming stiff. It felt as if somebody was maybe going to pounce on her. She inhaled a gulp and held her breath, clutching her purse close. She started walking — not panicked, just striding — a change of scenery would be good. She glanced over to one side, then to the other. She passed a mirror and used it to catch the reflection behind her. Nobody was following. She slowed and stopped at Victoria’s Secret, sighed, and casually looked back in the direction from where she had started. No, nobody was following her. She realized that she was still squeezing her purse to her body… she relaxed her shoulders. She still felt a bit neurotic though as if she was being watched. Damn it. She didn’t have time for this — she had to get home and clean up around the house, pay the babysitter, and make lunch for Joey to take to school in the morning.

A man ambled by in a suit and tie — she stared into his eyes for his love, but could see that another woman owned his heart: he was married. No potential there. She turned back to the storefront window and forced herself to meditate, relax, and untie her shoulders. She flipped her hair to the side slightly and walked some more, catching a view up ahead of somebody typing on a laptop computer… a younger man. His head was down engrossed in his writing. Damn idiot, he was probably authoring pornography or writing some phony love letter to a heartstricken teenager. Again a disembodied presence lurked about her, the awkward blank feeling of some interloper. It was heightening her evolutionary sense of being chased by a predator.

After another minute of small insignificance a lady in her middle thirties carrying three large shopping bags passed: she had a dashing coiffure and a fur-trimmed vest. A flash of a bag from Macy’s… Carol noticed the woman carrying it sported a fine wool pantsuit, with tasteful gold necklaces and diamond earrings. She inhaled as if she was going to sigh but then caught herself, a thought vanishing from her mind as her years of acculturation clashed with her immediate feelings of longing. Carol wondered “what does she have that I don’t have”. How is it that some women can live a carefree and easy life? Is it because men are swayed by a turned up nose and fake boobs? Is it that some men are impressed by glib conversation about culture and travel and trinkets? What man will make her life whole? How come she can’t seem to find him?

Carol exhaled slowly and started once again to meditate. Something was uncomfortably tugging at her brain — it was more like the smell from her past that disturbed her, but she couldn’t quite put a finger on it. She flashed on a memory of a man holding a knife to her side, the fear choking the air out of her lungs. Then she realized it was only a movie scene that had once scared her — she was going crazy, no man had ever attacked her. Her pulse raced and along her hairline she felt tiny beads of sweat. She stretched her neck awkwardly, somewhat like a man trying to escape from a necktie, and stamped her foot to drive the evil spirits away.

Dammit, men are assholes. Where are the guys that she reads about, that she sees on TV, that her girlfriends tell her about? Where are the guys that give you a backrub or buy you flowers or take your shoes off when you get home and massage your feet? It’s all bullshit. Men climbing a corporate ladder to brag about their new Mercedes or big penis or fancy girlfriend tart. Fucking assholes. She was beginning to fade… she stopped as her anger and anxiety smothered her and leaned back to prop herself with her hand up on a nearby column. Except it wasn’t smooth: it was rough, like bark. She looked over and saw that it was a palm tree, surprisingly enough. Her eyes followed the trunk up to the canopy thirty feet above — a spray of green with tendrils, frond shreds, and pistils, like a desert date-palm.

Wow, quite remarkable, she thought to herself. A small oasis in the middle of a commercial mall. Three large palms stretched up to the dark black pyramidal skylight above. In between the palms stood a handful of cacti or century plants or, well, she wasn’t quite sure what they were. The sense of a spirited, large, protected and quietly growing living thing was a real contradiction to the mall’s synthetic hustle and bustle. She thought how nice it would be to string a hammock between the trees — perhaps slip into a bikini, grab a beer, dangle her sandals, and gawk at the shoppers who would be ogling her. The thought made her giggle self-consciously. She had the pleasant realization that /this/ was the image that she needed to always hold in her mind… this indeed was her mental link to a permanent sort of serenity.

As her heart suddenly raced Carol stood up rigid and straight at the outrage of a sharp pain in her side — a knife? A kidney stone? She swung around to an empty apparition of an attacker and then he was gone, and her pain disappeared. Now drenched in a cold sweat she noticed that she had dropped her purse to the floor. Dammit. Strangers walked by and appeared not to take any notice. She swiftly bent to collect her belongings, feeling damp, uncomfortable, and embarrassed. Geesh, 8:45 already — she had to head back home to get to the baby sitter.

—-

Darryl glanced up from his magazine to peer at the monitor — it was empty save for a janitor wheeling a large green plastic dumpbin up to a trashcan. The bottom right of the screen clicked to 9:30 — all the shoppers should be gone by now so it was time to lock up most of the place and check for transients. He opened the drawer and removed the large circular keyring, let himself out of the guard room, and proceeded out to the escalator, a sentry making his rounds.

Along the walkway he glanced around to make sure there wasn’t any unusual activity. All of the stores had already rolled down their steel grates and as he walked past one he flexed his finger into his thumb and gave the slats a resounding thump. He listened as the sound of rattling metal sent a brief echoing through the vacant corridors. He reached the head of the escalator and bent down to the switch, lifting the plastic cover and pressing the red OFF. The escalator slowed to a stop, and then Darryl flexed his finger into his thumb and gave the rubberized plastic handrail a thunk. It made a dull rubber sound trailing off and upward as the vibration extended along the escalator.

As he wandered one of the side corridors he thought about how Carol was a lot like the sound from the escalator thump: always trailing off and upward into a vibration of anxiety. Never with any sense of her self, never with a higher calling other than to try to drive him to love her more. After the constant badgering and henpecking he simply ran out of love for her. She had become a stairway to nowhere, leading to the next floor of the mall, leading to empty shopping for the stuff of love that made no difference to the world.

As Darryl approached the central stand of palm trees he flexed his finger into his thumb and gave the nearest tree a resounding plink. It made the satisfying sound of a deep hollow metal tube.

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Categories: Surprise

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