This time Josh Bartlet couldn’t shake it off.
The heavy rain and howling wind had morphed into harrowing flickers from his childhood and then dovetailed out of the dream into shadows outside the bedroom window. All of it highlighted by a lightning flash and a feeling it was all catching up to him.
Soon the room was spinning and wouldn’t slow down until he finally sat up, reached over to the nightstand, grabbed the standby glass of water, gulped it down and ever so slowly took stock. With the electric clock flashing on the nightstand as well, he could see that the power had gone off and may have just come back on. Gradually the sound of the pounding rain began to taper off, the howling receding as well and it all faded at first light.
But it took more time until he could talk himself out of a sudden chill that was neither brought on by the weather nor the fact that the heat pump must have turned off for a while. It was almost spring in the Blue Ridge, the climate was temperate and a brief nighttime storm was no big deal in these parts, so there was no way to account for being chilled.
Trying to apply common sense was his fallback position, had worked so far and gotten him to this point. But still the chill wouldn’t quit.
He reminded himself that as a features writer in a small town his bent was to pull back, watch and listen from a safe remove, not ever to go off half-cocked. He was good at watching and listening. Probably one of the all-time best. It was the advent of another Monday and nothing of any consequence could have brought this on.
But that didn’t help either. He could still swear something was off kilter.
He sprang out of bed, got out of his pajamas and, though it was way too early, shaved, showered and got dressed. “You are what you do,” he muttered to himself as he combed his hair. “Get off it, assess the damages if any, make yourself useful. And try to make sense.”
It was a small one-bedroom frame cottage off the country road to Lake Eden, nestled in a grove of oak and hickory trees. A rental which suited him fine, except for the fact that the owners were on the road half the time and he had to do minor repairs, which he wasn’t half good at, or call somebody in. Meaning, as far as his reality tack was concerned, he could check for any damage to the roof and whatnot.
He padded down the hallway, opened the front door and was immediately confronted by a huge limb that had splintered off the Bradford pear tree and was blocking the entrance. There was nothing for it but to go out the back door, circle around, climb over the porch railing and tug at the branch until it cleared the steps. Though he was slight of build, he was still young and healthy and this task would accomplish something and get him off his ill-founded anxiety. And so he set about hoisting the limb up shoulder high and shoving it over the railing. Then it was simply a matter of hauling and dragging it behind the wood shed and leaving it there propped against a rusty wheelbarrow.
Returning to the front porch, he looked up at the point where the limb had been cracked open and severed, perhaps by the lightning or the strong wind gusts or both. Inadvertently, he thought of portents and omens but quickly dismissed those notions out of hand.
He reentered the house, moved straight to the kitchen and made himself a breakfast of bacon, eggs, toast and coffee, determined to continue to think logically. But despite himself, he recalled a recent interview with a retired physicist who claimed that beneath the surface, there were restless factors at work, invisible sub-atomic particles colliding and breaking apart that he called quarks. The physicist also claimed this theory was also a matter of fact and had been thoroughly tested. Josh hung on to this notion. As an avid film buff, his thoughts also drifted to the first sequence of The Wizard of Oz. When the story opens on yet another pleasant day in Kansas, Dorothy, her little dog Toto and Auntie Em are as happy as can be out on the farm. Presently, Miss Gooch comes by on her bike snarling and snapping at Toto as usual. It’s all perfectly normal. Dorothy is totally unaware of what was afoot. Had no idea it is was the quiet before the storm.
Try as he may, there he was, at it again. He walked back out onto the front porch to check things out once more and keep focused. Averting the remnants of the damaged limb, he saw that the overcast skies and deluge of the night before had given way to a dry, sparkling Carolina blue. The mountain range in the distance was glistening as the greening continued to move up the ridges, lighter shades eclipsed by darker shades, eventually culminating in a deep, vibrant emerald.
He shifted his gaze well over to the right and caught sight of Amanda, the tousle-haired 12-year old next door, running to the mailbox in her bare feet. She plucked out what looked like a few greeting cards and waved them shouting, “Hey, Mister Josh! Guess what?”
“I’ll bite, what?” Josh shouted back, hanging on to a just-another-Monday mindset.
Amanda ran back, stopped short by her white picket fence, leaned over with her freckle face beaming, and said, “It’s the third week of spring, right?”
“That’s a roger.”
“So, you know that community school down the road?”
Josh said, “You bet,” recalling the piece he did on the theater director and the way he was able to get the middle school kids to work together like one big happy family. “And you got a big part in the spring musical.”
“That’s right. It’s starting to all come together. This afternoon I get to sing and dance and everything.”
“Terrific,” he said, hanging on to this moment of sheer pleasantry.
“At my age, did you get to do stuff like that back in . . . where did you say you were from?”
Josh hesitated. He’d managed to keep anything about his murky past at bay but continuing to be offhand was the order of the day. “Connecticut,” he said, “Northwest hills. At your age, we only did little holiday programs.”
“Did you take part?”
“Nope. Guess I missed out,” Josh said, dismissing any thoughts about holidays which would surely trigger more malaise.
“You sure did.”
Stumped for a second, Amanda came right back with, “Anyways, will you come see me?”
“Perform? You bet. Let me know when.”
“Dress rehearsal a week from Saturday at ten, matinee at two, evening show at seven and last show on Sunday at two. You can’t miss. See ya,” With her freckle face all aglow, she ran back inside her sprawling yellow frame house.
Retaining his clearheaded mind set, he walked off the steps and straight over to the Bradford pear tree. The heavy rain and howling wind had managed to snap a few smaller branches and scatter a number of leaves and buds across the lawn. Perfectly natural in the clear light of day. No portents.
He turned to his current assignment and proceeded with the business at hand. He went back inside, entered the den and spent some time finishing his list of follow-up questions on his PC. In effect, nailing down his interview with self-help guru Noah Ackerman, newly arrived from New York.
Soon enough however, he remembered the way Ackerman kept peering over his bifocals the other day, teasing him with little queries like, “So never mind me for a minute. What is your background? . . . What brought you down here -- relatives? Yes, no? So talk to me. What is your heritage? . . . Is there anything you’re willing to share so this isn’t some freakin’ one-way street? Come on, come on, give.”
“Mister, if you don’t mind, I am only trying to do my job,” Josh had countered.
In his signature pushy way, Ackerman had persisted. “Fine. If you’ve got nothing to hide, you acknowledge this is who I am and this is what I stand for. Otherwise, something really iffy is off and needs to be tackled. Am I right or am I right?”
Getting miffed, Josh had managed to brush off every one of these probes and called a timeout. He suggested that maybe if they gave it a rest they could then resume on an even keel.
Now, taking stock of his life once more, he determined that the storm and the fractured Bradford pear tree were natural occurrences. He was merely in a susceptible frame of mind last night and even the fluky chill had passed.
To complete the follow-up this morning, he would simply have to continue to fend Ackerman off, zero in on the crux of his profile and take some photos. Then, once back home, come up with a through-line, polish the piece and post it to the editor. That would be that until the next installment of his Call-of-the-Valley series.
“Right,” Josh muttered to himself. If he hadn’t committed to the story, if Ackerman hadn’t garnered so much notoriety, he had half a mind to call the whole thing off.
Still and all, he couldn’t help wondering what Ackerman was up to. After all, Ackerman was the subject not Josh. Ackerman was a new arrival. In point of fact, Mountain Vista and its cluster of Swiss chalet condos had only recently been built to accommodate newbies attracted to the quaint tranquility of this setting. It offered the companionship of fellow retirees, many of whom were also former professional people like that physicist. Which doesn’t explain why Ackerman keep working on Josh. Did his behavior stem from his retirement and treatments at the nearby Neuro-center?”
Yes. Balding, paunchy, Ackerman was the one who was ill at ease and Josh was perfectly fine, merely doing his job.
He quit stalling, swept Dorothy, the percolating quarks and sundry portents under the rug and moved on to the follow-up interview.
Nothing was catching up to him, he was safe for now, and this was just another Monday.
He repeated this mantra several times until he almost started to believe it.