Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost…
Charlie Chaplin, “The Dictator”
Rain smacked the windshield with fat heavy blobs. It fell in a constant dull thrumming rhythm. Thunk, thunk, thunk. No matter what speed the wiper blades passed, the view of their outside surroundings only ever lasted a second. The briefest glimpse, then all the shapes and colours would melt, bleeding into each other, washed away again in the next wave of downpour.
Not that it bothered Daniel. He had no interest in what was outside. They’d been driving through the city for hours. Boredom and resentment painfully stretched his patience, like a balloon ready to burst. Making up his mind long ago that he would hate it here, block after block of interminable grey cement had done steady work to ensure that opinion became a fact. He’d grown accustomed to the sylvan surroundings of their forfeited home, beautiful and priced to make you bleed. Here, he found the over-bright colours of storefronts garish by comparison, ostensibly designed to sucker those too world-weary to care if the advertising was false.
An old friend had suggested guided meditations on YouTube might work when he felt like this. He’d practiced a few, liked them. Even if they only seemed effective when he was already happy. He tried to imagine one now. Okay. First step. Think of your breathing, that felt good. Okay. Second step. Fuck the second step. His mom wouldn’t shut up. She prattled away in the front seat. Her words shaded with an optimism her voice didn’t believe.
“You’re thinking too much.”
His sister’s voice floated across to him in the back seat of the car. All around, boxes filled with items took up the available space, artifacts from a life left behind on their way to the next. “How can you say that? You can’t even see me through all this shit.”
“Daniel, don’t swear.” His mother scolded from the front of the car.
“I can barely breathe back here, Mom. You expect me to be all happy go fucking lucky when I’m gonna die from lack of oxygen.”
His father added to the chorus. “Shut-up, Daniel. We’re almost there. You’re being dramatic. What you’re referring to as shit back there, is everything for the kitchen. So unless you want to eat off a newspaper, stop complaining.” Continuing he muttered to himself. “This whole thing would have gone smoother if we could’ve afforded a moving van.” Daniel could see enough of the front seat to watch his mom fretting and wringing her hands.
“Grant, you know I’ve been trying to get a job while you’re between yours.”
“I’m not between anything, Beth. Those fuck-ups at Balanced Life threw me under the bus.”
“I just wish you’d try to relax. We are doing the best we can.”
“Yeah and we’re doing great aren’t we? Chewing through my savings and renting when we were on our way to owning. Everything is fucking great.”
Daniel let the arguing of his parents become a buzz in the background and occupied himself by tunneling a path through the boxes to his sister in the seat opposite. Finally, shifting enough out of his way, he spied her small form, curled up next to the window, reading from an e-reader. “I can’t believe you like that thing so much. What ever happened to books? People just appreciating paper pages?”
Kate looked up from her reading with a smile on her face. “When’s the last time you read one, Daniel?”
He chuckled. “Good call. Well whatever, they’re a fad.”
“Like social media?” she offered, still smiling.
“You’re a smart-ass. You know that, Kate?”
“Better than a dumb-ass.” Kate went back to her reading, leaving Daniel glaring through the tunnel at her.
Sighing resignedly he sat back in the seat, crossing his arms, and went back to looking out the window. Kids could be so mouthy sometimes.
Daniel woke up groggily; the vehicle had stopped moving. He didn’t know when. The rain still pounded down outside but at a short distance from the car. They’d parked under a small roof’s cover which created a dry patch.
“We’re not there yet are we?” he said to no one in particular. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes he tried to make out where they’d stopped.
“No, but almost,” Kate answered.
His senses returning, Daniel could see his sister with her back to him on her knees looking out the window.
“We just stopped for gas and Grant had to go to the bathroom. Mom says we are about ten blocks away. This is actually where our new school is. You can see it out there.” She pressed a finger against the fogged glass of the window.
Uninterested in the school, mention of the bathroom called attention to his bursting bladder. He really had to piss. “Wait here okay. I’m just gonna take a leak.” He stumbled out of the car, not realizing how numb and cramped his legs had become from sitting too long. Stopped, rubbing and slapping his thighs to bring back the feeling, he scanned the parking lot.
The school sat across from the gas station. It took up the adjacent two blocks with its unimpressive single story of conjoined rectangles. Its walls were a standard dirty cream with orange trim, endowed with just enough windows to keep construction costs down; every inch of glass desperately needed blasting with a power-washer to remove the build-up of winter gunk and mold. At one end of the school a basketball court sat vacant. Its puddle-pocked uneven cement and torn nets provided a meager space for recreation. At the other, a parking stretch filled with tacky, leased for life cars. The highest achievement of mid-life mediocrity. Pretty much what he’d come to expect from an inner-city high-school. On the other side of their aging black Lexus his mom stood, pumping the gas.
“Honey, did we wake you up? We were trying to be quiet so you could sleep.”
Daniel waved a hand. “It’s fine, Mom. Where’s the bathroom?”
She pointed at a metal door on the side of the gas station, its bottom half green with algae. “Just over there, your father should be coming out soon.”
Daniel loped over to the side of the building, stamping out the last pins and needles from his feet. Before he could grasp the handle, the door swung open nearly knocking him over. His father, standing in the open frame, frowned down at him.
“Watch where you’re going, Daniel.”
Ignoring him Daniel pushed past, letting the door slam shut behind while his father’s disapproving eyes drilled into his back. With the door closed, he pinched his nose, hating the smell. Always, in a public washroom’s air he could taste it: that sickly sour lingering scent of chemical cleaning products, never quite doing their job. Sidling up to the nearest urinal, he made an effort to touch nothing. He never did believe those checklists assuring you the staff cleaned the place every hour. Releasing his pinched nose to unbutton his pants he breathed a contented sigh, able to relieve himself.
A lone goofy poster above his chosen urinal caused him to smirk. It colourfully advertised the gas-station’s two for one deals on super mega slurpo slushies, great to beat that hot summer heat. Now he knew they never cleaned in here. Advertising always took precedent over cleanliness, and if that wasn’t up to date, well. Doing up his pants, laughing at the sign with its cartoon dinosaur riding down a wave clutching a diabetes inducing sugar drink in its hand, he noticed a curious detail jutting out from behind one of its curling brown edges. A portion of carved writing with thick deep lines, as though someone had dug into the wall with an index-finger-sized nail. He could make out three jaggedly carved capital letters: ART.
He would have walked out there and then but burning foolish curiosity got the better of him. He could not resist taking a quick peek at what lay behind. What if it were a code for some millionaire’s bank account with enough money to make him rich? He could hire someone to kill his deadbeat dad and live happily ever after. He wished that thought weren’t so appealing. After throwing a quick check over his shoulder at the door to make sure no one had come in, he went to pull the poster off the wall. Gripping the edge nearest to the letters and pulling lightly, he’d expected it to peel off easily. Instead, only the corner’s brown flakes came away, crumbling to dust in his hand.
Why had someone fastened this to the wall? He took from his jeans pocket his trusty Swiss army knife. A gift two years prior from his father for his twelfth birthday. He knew accepting it meant accepting the constant reminders of Grant’s bottomless beneficence, but he didn’t mind. It was worth it to cut stuff. Selecting its blade, he tried again. This time edging the corner of the blade where the brown flakes had fallen away. The paper wouldn’t budge. What the hell is this thing stuck on with? He tried at the opposing corner where the curling brown paper still folded over intact. Eureka. Jimmying the blade behind the paper, this section, unlike the other, peeled away with some effort. More letters dug into the wall revealed themselves. An S, then an E, and finally a T—SET. Interesting enough to warrant more work. After a few more minutes of scratching and scraping he managed to reveal two more letters. An M and an E—SETME. What was that supposed to mean? Brown coloured stale paper continued to gather at his feet until another set of letters became viewable. He could now read: SETMEFREE. Well it’s more interesting than the usual dick jokes. It sounds more like a rock song, but no bank account. He sighed.
His progress had scraped off the top quarter of the poster, leaving a strangely macabre looking decapitated dinosaur riding a wave. The next section proved more difficult than the first. But, with determination, he could pry off little by little the paper so strangely affixed to the wall.
The door burst in loudly behind him. “You little shit!” his father raged, forming a black silhouette as grey white light poured in behind him. Standing on the shredded remnants of a now extinct smiling dinosaur, Daniel knew how he must look. “We’ve been sitting in the car waiting for you for over fifteen minutes, and you’re in here, vandalizing the bathroom!”
Daniel had no reply. Had he really been doing this for that long? “Sorry, Grant, I just had to pee and-” Not letting him finish his father crossed the bathroom and smacked him upside the head. Hard. He grabbed hold of him by the neck of his shirt and yanked. Cursing and choking as his feet slid across the floor, dragged out of the bathroom, Daniel read the last letters of his work. IAM.