*Warning: Language and Mental Health Triggers
Martin Hall flicked a cigarette butt to the pavement, crushing it mercilessly under the toe of his worn out converse sneaker. He hated babysitting. His mother, Andrea Hall, worked two jobs and domestic responsibility fell heavy on Martin…laundry, cleaning, meals and every other household chore a teenage boy despised. Today, these tasks included playing pirate with is 10 year old brother.
“Let me have one,” whined Danny. Martin pulled a Marlboro from his shirt pocket, struck a match and took a long drag. Bending down, he blew a cloud of noxious smoke into the young boy’s face. Danny coughed and sputtered.
“See, Danny Boy? Bad for your health.” He smirked and ruffled the boy’s messy mop of blonde curls.
“Why are you so mean?” Danny pulled down his eye patch, glaring back at Martin.
“Why are you so sensitive?” Martin sent another puff of tobacco into the boy’s angry face.
Danny threw his plastic sword and toy telescope to the ground, giving his older brother a fuming, hateful look. Martin watched him storm furiously to the other side of the park. Sighing, he collected the boy’s abandoned toys and sat down on a wooden bench under the shade of a large oak tree. The day was warm. Martin rolled up the sleeves of his tattered flannel and watched Danny kick rocks in a dusty corner of the abandoned playground.
Martin checked the time on his phone. He was worried. A passing grade was needed on tomorrow’s history exam or summer school was imminent. No girls, no beach, no parties…just long hours in a sweltering classroom full of under performing, moody teenagers and one cranky, under paid teacher. He took another drag on his cigarette and viciously crushed the stub into the mulch at his feet.
Danny had wandered off closer to the edge of the woods at the back of the park.
“Hey!” yelled Martin. “Don’t go far!” He waved his hands, trying to get Danny’s attention. “Christ,” he thought. “That’s all I need is a pedophile snatching away my little brother.”
Danny looked up and jabbed his middle finger into the air. Martin grinned. “Finally, the kid’s growing balls,” he mumbled. Martin returned the gesture and watched Danny continue his ramblings.
Martin picked up the telescope from the bench. It was small and red and had a skull and cross bones painted on the side. The tiny toy had been his once, back when he was young and his father was alive. They had played together in the lush back garden of their quiet suburban home; two marauders swinging plastic swords and hunting for chests of gold.
Back then, Martin had believed in buried treasure and happy endings…and then Mr. Alan Hall, a prolific smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer.
Martin despised tobacco but he continued to engage in the nasty habit. He smoked because he was angry, because he hated his father for dying, hated the cigarettes for killing him and now he had come to simply hate himself. He didn’t care what poison he put into his body, nicotine or otherwise.
He did love one thing though…he loved crushing those fucking butts under the toe of his shoe. It was the only act of revenge he could take against the universe, besides being a bully to his little brother Danny…stupid, innocent Danny who still believed in heros and buried treasure.
Martin was able to keep an eye on Danny from his comfortable seat in the cool shade. He held the telescopic lens up to his eye and peered through. Startled, Martin dropped the scope into his lap.
He had seen someone behind Danny, standing in the shadowy gloom of the wooded border. Martin squinted and rubbed his eyes. No one was there, except his little brother, playing alone. In place of the abandoned sword, he was swinging a stick at a band of imaginary marauders.
Martin stood up and looked again through the tiny lens. Yes, there he was! A man, in a green sweater, stood at the edge of the wood, watching Danny play. Martin took the glass away from his eye and stared hard at the tree line. The man was gone.
“It must be the heat,” thought Martin. “Or, I’m losing my God damn marbles.”
He wiped the beads of sweat from his damp forehead. Taking a few steps forward, he peered again across the park. There was no man. The afternoon was quiet except for a few bird calls high in the leafy trees.
Martin wanted to go. Something wasn’t right.
“Danny, get your ass over here!”
Hearing the urgency in his older brother’s voice, Danny came running back to Martin’s side.
“What’s wrong?” The young boy looked nervously over his shoulder. He hadn’t really wanted to play so far away. It was creepy back there at the edge of the woods. And now, his older brother looked pale and worried.
“Did you see anyone?” demanded Martin.
“Just Captain Blackbeard!” Danny smirked, twirling the black eye patch on the end of his stick.
“I’m not joking!” Martin grabbed Danny roughly by the arm. “Did you see anyone back there or not?”
“No! I didn’t! I swear!” Now, Danny was frightened. “Let go! You’re hurting me!”
Martin released Danny’s arm and took one last glance at the woods. “Was that a person or just a shadow?” he wondered.
“Come on. We’re leaving. I have to get home and study.” He shoved the telescope into his pocket and stormed off towards the gate. “Captain Blackbeard,” muttered Martin under his breath. He smiled. “What a fucking brat.”
That night, Martin lay in bed thinking about the man he had seen through the telescope. There was something unsettling about him…not sinister, but eerie and strange. An 11th grade history book remained open on his desk, pages fluttering in the breeze from an open window.
Martin hadn’t studied. Instead, he made macaroni and cheese for dinner, cleaned up the dishes and helped Danny with his math homework. Now, too tired to concentrate and too restless to sleep, he waited to hear his mother’s car pull into the drive after her nursing shift ended at midnight.
Martin stared at the ceiling. A few star stickers, left over from childhood, glowed weakly in the dark. Sometimes, he felt like one of those lonely, leftover stick-on planets, feebly blinking in an empty universe. Rolling over, Martin sensed the telescope in his pocket. He extracted it to take a closer look.
The toy was grubby from Danny’s dirty little hands. Martin polished the lens on his flannel shirt and went over to the window. A bright moon lit up the lawn below and tree limbs cast reaching shadows across the sidewalk. It was a quiet evening. Martin felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end.
“What is wrong with me?” he grumbled.
Scowling, Martin looked down at the tiny spy glass in his hand. “It’s this stupid toy!” he thought. “I’m letting some stupid toy play tricks on me!” Martin gazed out at the old apple tree standing guard by the front gate. A pirate flag, tied to one of the ancient bows, fluttered in the breeze and the plastic sword lay abandoned on the grass.
“There was no man in the park today,” Danny muttered. “I’m tired. I imagined it. I’ve watched to many documentaries about kidnappers and pedophiles!”
His heart beat faster as he put the glass up to his eye and peered into the night.
Milly, the neighbor’s cat, silently stalked unseen prey by the corner of a hedgerow across the street.
The spy glass revealed Mr. Kaufman, pulling his oversized trash bins out to the curb. Martin watched as the man extracted a small bottle of alcohol from his jacket pocket, slugged it down and buried the evidence at the bottom of the barrel. “No wonder his car is always banged up,” thought Martin as Mr. Kaufman stumbled up his cobbled front path.
Next door, Richard Bateman’s sprinklers kicked on, sending shimmering sprays of water across the moonlit grass. There was a water ban due to lack of rain and everyone wondered how stealthy Mr. Bateman kept his lawn so green.
Martin pointed the telescope over to Mrs. Jaqueline Smith’s tidy white cape house. Her husband was away but someone else’s car was in the driveway. There weren’t any lights on and the shades were closed. “I might keep this toy,” thought Martin. “Could come in handy.”
He swung the telescope’s view back to his own yard and adjusted the focus for a closer look. Martin gasped and dropped the spy glass to the floor. He slid down, his back against the wall and watched the red cylinder roll away across the floor. “No!” he whispered. “It couldn’t be!”
The man was back, standing under the apple tree by the front gate. Martin’s breath came in ragged gasps. He was sure it was the same man in the green sweater he had seen at the park. “What the hell is going on?” thought Martin. “I’m losing my mind!” He sat for a minute, taking deep breaths, fingernails gripping the floorboards.
Off in the distance, a dog barked a message into the night. The air ruffled Martin’s window curtains and cooled his flushed face. Finally, he crawled across the floor and retrieved the telescope. His hands were shaking. Martin was sure that this time, the man in the green sweater was there…and he was also sure of something else. He recognized him! He knew him, just as he knew his own face in the mirror.
Martin stood slowly and went back to the window. Only shadows remained under the apple tree by the gate.
Martin raised the telescope to his face and looked through the lens. His stomach churned. Staring back at him was the man in the green sweater…and that man was Martin’s father.
Mr. Alan Hall raised a hand and waved at his son. Martin could hardly believe his eyes. His father looked happy and healthy instead of emaciated from cancer and chemo. Martin lifted his arm and waved back. Alan smiled and Martin could feel that smile, like a warm embrace…like the love of a father holding his son.
A breeze rustled the leaves of the old apple tree and Mr. Hall dissolved into the shifting winds of the evening’s ether. The pirate’s flag continued to flutter, a beckoning marauders in the silvery night.
Martin removed the telescope, shoved it in his pocket and roughly wiped a tear from his face.
Danny mumbled and coughed in his sleep from the bedroom next door. Martin went to check on him, kissed his forehead and pulled the covers tight before returning to his room.
Laying down on his bed, Martin looked up at the faintly glowing stars stuck to the rough and bumpy ceiling. After a minute, he reached over and knocked the packet of cigarettes from his desk into the bin, taking the telescope from his pocket and setting it in their place. Suddenly, the universe didn’t seem so empty.