Daniel’s Door

Daniel’s Door

The door was locked. Of course it was locked. Why wouldn’t it be locked? You need three keys to open it. The doorknob is a glass skull. And the door is engraved with strange symbols. When you come across the only door on the third story of your new home that is, of course, down the street from a cemetery, it’s going to be locked.

“Dad!” I yell down the stairwell. I don’t know if he can hear me; this house is really big. It’s bigger than any house we’ve lived in before. It looks like a small castle from the outside so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by a mysterious door.

“Dad! Did you know there’s a locked door up here on the third floor?” I look but don’t lean over the banister. It’s a little rickety. Dad’s going to fix that up real good. He’ll make it look great, then we’ll move again. “Dad!”

I see his head, just his head, tilt up from the bottom floor. (First the cemetery, then the door, now a disembodied head. This is only going to get worse, isn’t it?) Dad’s face is flushed red; he must be carrying something heavy into the house.

“Daniel! We’re a little busy down here. What is it?” he barks. He gets snippy when he’s busy and he forgets to eat something.

“There’s a door up here on the third floor. It’s got weird stuff written all over it and a glass skull for a doorknob. It’s locked. Do you have the keys?”

“What do you mean ‘keys’? I didn’t even know there was a door up there,” he says.

It’s a little strange that he doesn’t know about the door. He’s an architect with an eye for detail. That’s what mom says, anyway. He’s got, what did she call it? Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? With dad being so particular about things, mom likes to amuse herself by messing with him, like when she leaves the cap off the toothpaste. It’s mostly amateur stuff, although I’d hate to see what she’s capable of when she puts her mind to it.

“I’ll take a look at it later,” dad’s voice floats away with his head.

I try to look under the door but the quarter inch or so doesn’t give me much to work with. It does seems bright in there, though, more than sunlight can account for. Looking out the nearest window I can see nothing but grey sky. So, it’s definitely not sunlight. Is it a portal to another dimension? Something catches my ear.

I press me ear against the door so hard I’m going to bruise my cheek. It’s worth it, I decide. It’s worth it because there’s definitely someone in there. Find the three rabbits, they’re saying over and over. I peel my ear off the door slowly. Should I bother mom and dad with this? I thumb my lips. No, they’re busy. I can handle this.

Normally, I’d be bored with our new house by now and I’d be out exploring the neighborhood for the rest of the day. Okay, two or three days, over which time mom and dad think I’ve run away. But I’ve been twelve years old for five months; you’d think they’d trust me to know what I’m doing by now. I don’t know how many times I’ve told them that explorers aren’t runaways. They’re simply curious people. The local police don’t seem to understand this either. I’ve never wanted to be a policeman. They just obey orders.

I trundle down the winding staircase. My feet slap the first floor and I whip my head around. Dad’s out at the moving truck and mom’s in the kitchen looking around. She’s either lost something or planning a joke on dad. Not my problem.

“Mom!” My voice startles her and she clutches her shirt. She turns towards me. Before she can ask I put it to her. “Have you seen any rabbits around here?”

She closes her eyes and shakes her head. “Why on earth are you looking for a rabbit, honey?”

I put my hands out to stop her there. I dip my head. I don’t want to get snippy like dad. “Just, please, have you seen any rabbits?”

Mom looks out the back door into the vast, lush, but overgrown garden. “No, I haven’t seen any, but I’m sure there are some around, in a vegetable patch I imagine. This is a big piece of land.” Still staring out the door, she continues. “This one’s going to take a lot of work.” I don’t think she’s talking to me anymore, but then she returns her attention to me.

“Why don’t you go read a book instead? There’s a collection of classic fairy tales in the study just off the foyer,” she directs me. Is she kidding?

I burst out the back door, a butterfly trying to race a bullet. Time is of the essence. At least I think it is. Wait, what if I’m dealing with a ghost? What does time mean to the dead? Question for another day. Finding myself surrounded by shrubs, flower beds, and broken pots, my eyes scour the ground for a rabbit. Nothing here in the backyard. I’ll have to go further afield.

I walk along the edge of the property where there’s a craggy, makeshift rock wall. At the furthest corner of the property I come upon a collection of statues. A fish, a dog, an owl; it’s like a petrified zoo. Whoever lived here before was weird. Whoever’s in that room doesn’t have time for this, so I turn away. I turn away and catch a glimpse of a small stone rabbit. Could this be what the person in the room is talking about?

I pick the statuette up and turn it over and over searching for a key. Nothing, so naturally I smash it on the ground. It crumbles into small grey chunks and dust. After seeing that there’s no key inside of the statuette, I wonder if mom and dad will be upset that I’m breaking stuff. I don’t usually do things like this so it’ll give dad something new to yell at me about. A thought like that would usually make me sad, until I see something poking out of the ground nearby. Clearly not a rock or a stick I tug it out of the ground and shake the dirt off of it. It’s a skeleton key, as in, it’s made to look like it was made out of bones. It’s metal, of course, and caked with soot. Someone tried to destroy this key. Obviously they failed and tossed it away. Careless. This has to be what I’m looking for.

I have to find two more keys to open the door. It seems I’m not looking for actual rabbits so my eyes dart around the landscape, searching for another stone rabbit. A good mystery isn’t going to just give itself up so easily, though, so maybe I should be looking for something else that looks like a rabbit. I’ll have to hurry; the sky has gotten darker. It’s either getting late or it’s going to rain, hard.

The yard around the house is bigger than I thought. I’ve circled the perimeter three times now and I can’t come up with anything else. There is this one knotty tree with its roots all gnarled at the ground. Maybe I am looking for an actual rabbit. I look for a rabbit hole and it looks like there may be one. It’s not too big but then I don’t know how big the rabbits get out here. I stick my hand into the abyss which winds up being nothing more than a deep gouge in the earth. I have to admit I’m a little frustrated. I lean against the tree and toss my head back.

Ow! There’s a huge knot in the bark and it bites me. I spin around and give it a glare as if it should know better. Only – I tilt my head to the right – it looks kind of like a rabbit at this angle. There must be a key around here somewhere! I circle the tree, looking up, then down, then up. What’s that on that branch? A rabbit’s foot? And there’s a key chained to it. I’ll have to climb and go out on a limb for it, maybe even jump for it. Mom always calls me her little monkey. It shouldn’t be that hard.

About eight feet into the canopy I try to balance on the branch. It’s not strong enough and I hear an audible snap. I leap for the keychain, grabbing it with one hand while latching onto the branch with the other. I swing, a chime in the wind, and the branch breaks completely. I sail, first like a paper, then like a rock. Landing on my back knocks the wind out of me. I’m okay but I could have done without that happening. Why do action heroes in the movies always look like they don’t mind being nearly blown up? At least I have the key. I open my hand. It’s a regular key, a little rusty. One more to go.

I stand up and brush the debris off me. I don’t know where to look next or what I might be looking for. My face scrunches up to one side. I know, mom, I know; Your face will freeze like that if you keep making that face. Watermelon seeds sprouting in my stomach, getting cramps if I swam after eating, Santa…I don’t know if I can believe her anymore. No more than I believe what just skittered across my feet.

A white rabbit, or was it a bolt of lightning? It was moving fast and dodged into the shrubs a few yards away. I put one foot in front of the other and I’m there not nearly as quickly. Here little rabbit, I try to coo. I need your help. After rustling through some brush, it bolts again, back towards the house then makes a sharp turn to the right. It’s in and out of the groundcover. I’m never going to catch that thing! It’s like it’s late for a very important…hmm.

Why don’t you go read a book instead? There’s a collection of classic fairy tales in the study just off the foyer, I remember mom saying. Let’s see; a white rabbit, a collection of fairy tales, and now I’m the bolt of lightning. I’m in the house so quickly the thought of maybe being able to catch the rabbit after all gets left behind. I zig, I zag, and I’m in the study. I run a hand along the books lining the shelves. The sweet smell of mom’s dinner wafts in the room and it threatens to distract me. It’s foolish to undertake an adventure on an empty stomach – that’s what mom always says – but I don’t know if time is running out. Besides, mom’s concoctions might smell good but they can be inconsistent. My eyes and hands continue their search.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Found it! Can it really be this easy? (Not that I haven’t spent most of my day on this.) I pull the book so hard it slips out of my hands and thumps against the floor. A long gold key with its bow fashioned into a heart tumbles across the floor. I don’t question the key-maker’s motives. I’ve found the three keys!

I whip across the house back towards the staircase. I almost knock dad over, forcing him to drop the box he was carrying. Clishhh! Must’ve been the breakables. Mom tries to grab me by the arm with half her heart and fails. I’m the white rabbit now, too fast for her. I barely hear her say dinner’s ready. It’s like a something I heard once in the past.

My sneakers screech across the floor so I don’t slam into the door. “I’m coming,” I whisper loudly to whoever’s inside. With a shaky hand that can barely contain a childlike curiosity – but remember, I’m practically an adult now – I try the various lock and the rusted key is first to match the tumblers. The skeleton key is next, though I had to jiggle that one a bit. I break out the heart key; I’m so close! But the lock sticks and I’m turning, turning, turning. I back off and wring my hands because I don’t want the key to break. I force the lump in my throat down, put my fingers on the key, and turn gently. Clack! The seal is broken. The door creeks open an inch. What will I discover? I take frightening doorknob in my hand and push.

The room is flooded with the light of two rectangular lamps posted on a tripod, the kind dad uses when he’s working in a basement or attic. The voice? It’s coming from the window directly in front of me. I walk over to the sill where I find a plastic device the size of my hand. It has various buttons, almost like some kind of phone but not really. I think I’ve seen dad use this thing to remind himself of important stuff. But why is he whispering, Find the three rabbits? Are they…are they messing with me? I spent all day on this!

“Daniel, dinner’s ready. Come eat,” I hear my mom call from the depths. A freight train is running through my head.

I trudge down the stairs one-step-at-a-time. It’s not a death march; I’m taking my time trying to figure out what I’m going to say and what I’m going to do. It appears I am up against enemies with no conscience. I don’t know what to do about that.

At rock bottom, I put my hand on the banister and swing myself towards the kitchen. Mom and dad are sitting at the kitchen table. Some kind of slop is steaming up the place. I force my shoulders down and narrow my eyes.

“Whose. Idea. Was It?” I demand.

They look at each other, look at me, then at each other again. They simultaneously blame one another. Then dad tells her, “I told you it was a bad idea.” My mother’s head and shoulders slope.

“I’m sorry, honey,” she implores. “I just didn’t want you disappearing like you always do. Just once I wanted our first night in a new house to be the three of us having a nice family dinner.”

“Did you help her?” My clipped voice aims for dad.

“Well, yes, Daniel,” dad confesses. “But I only made the door and set things up. Your mother was the mastermind.”

“Actually, it’s quite funny,” mom smiles. “Your father wanted the door to look real. He really took his time with it.” She smiles and puts her hand on his. “It almost wasn’t ready in time.”

I walk towards the kitchen table, yank my chair out, plop myself down, and yank myself towards something that’s probably poisonous. What a waste of time. I’ve had friends who see a therapist and I never knew why. Now I get it. Now they’re going to get it. I draw a deep breath, a dragon about to breathe fire.

“The next time we move,” I begin, stabbing a piece of meat with my pitchfork, “I am so running away.”

 

All Rights Reserved © May 2020 John J Vinacci

Memories of the Ice Cream Man

Memories of the Ice Cream Man

There are not a lot of memories I can call dear. I’ve been around the Sun four dozen or so times now and I admit that it hasn’t all been unicorns and rainbows, though I did live in Hawaii for several years. As it happens, most memories are mired in a struggle against existential grief, apparently satiated only by worldly pleasures such as candy and ice cream. As a child, these items were not as plentifully provided by my parental units as I or any other child would have liked. Instead this task fell to the local ice cream man who, simply by virtue of his wares, was a saint.

His name was Mario if I recall correctly, which I found odd because he was Italian and coming from an Italian family I’d never heard of an Italian with that name. (Only later did I learn I was in fact Sicilian, which may have contributed the confusion.) Mario was probably mid-forties and, despite a gravelly voice, as kind and gentle a man could be without being effeminate. And although he drove the standard boxy white truck which blared tired carnival music, there was no hint of him being the serial killer we all – as adults – imagine ice cream men to be. (Okay, maybe that’s just me.)

Mario had everything – ice cream cones, ice cream sandwiches, fudge pops, popsicles, icees, shakes, candy, trading cards, even small fireworks like sparklers, poppers, caps, and smoke bombs. This in sharp contrast to the hated Mr. Softy ice cream man who always drove through the neighborhood so fast you thought he was a retiree from the Indy 500 circuit. Perhaps he knew the territory belonged to Mario, that Mario offered more than Mr. Softy’s pathetic line-up of four soft ice cream flavors, and/or that he hated kids so why did he even come around? Undoubtedly, his wife had nagged him to get a job, any job.

Mario typically came around the block anywhere between two and five o’clock Monday through Saturday. Though you could never be sure exactly when he’d come around, he would come around. He was as reliable as Mr. Softy driving through the neighborhood at 60mph. In contrast, Mario drove never more than a cool 20mph, so you usually had time to go fetch some money once you heard his music.

Funny, our sensitivity to sound was as heightened as a dogs when it came to the ice cream man. As my friends and I usually played baseball in my yard in the afternoon one of us would inevitably perk our heads up and speak in haste, “Did you hear that?” Then everyone would stop and listen. Was it just the wind? No, no. Wait to be sure…then, “ICE CREAM MAN!” My friends and I would scramble like roaches to go find spare change anywhere; in the junk drawer, between the couch cushions, behind the washer, in mom’s purse. Back then you only needed a dime and you would score something, maybe only a stick of gum; it didn’t really matter what. The only question was once we heard the ice cream man did we have enough time to scavenge any coin? It was more than once that my friends and I, too into our own little world or perhaps it was atmospheric conditions, that we didn’t hear Mario in time, in which we’d politely wave as he passed. In time, whenever we heard Mario coming we instinctively knew how far away he was and how much time we had. By that point, though, Mario’s round were becoming less frequent.

I don’t know what the average career life-expectancy is for ice cream men (or women) but certainly though their numerous transactions they come to know their customers too well, meaning, they know when children have come too far along and have discovered their libido. Can candy and ice cream really via for a youngster’s attention any longer? Not savvy to this possibility, my friends and I often speculated why Mario didn’t come around much anymore. We ultimately concluded, based on no more evidence than greying hair, that Mario was having health problems. We could understand and accept that. For what other reason could this mainstay in our lives abandon us? We certainly couldn’t ask him forthwith; our balls hadn’t dropped yet. Besides, it seemed it would have been impolite. Eventually he stopped coming around altogether. Or perhaps we all moved away. Nothing good lasts forever, but at least there was goodness to be had at all. The symbiotic relationship was good while it lasted. It’s better to reflect on that than the inevitable conclusion least such dwellings drive you mad.

I’m thankful for Mario’s venture into capitalism. He was always kind and always patient as my friends and I aggressively crowded his window, clawing at each other to be the first to order before something ran out. His persona, that corny carny music, that unmistakably box on wheels plastered with vibrant advertisements – for so long it was something certain in a world we hadn’t yet learned was completely bonkers. It was a simpler time, for sure, with no need to analyze the meaning of life, no deeper meaning needed to make sense of it all. Looking back I think we forget how much beauty there is in simplicity. A child needs little more than a shot of dopamine once the sugar hits their bloodstream. A loving family perhaps? A child can have both as long as there’s an ice cream man around.

 

All Rights Reserved (c) April 2020 John J Vinacci

The Memory of Justice

The Memory of Justice

Humberto, a low-level street hustler turned murderous drug kingpin, would insist he feared nothing. He’d been shot and stabbed many times himself, to say nothing of the deaths of his extended family members he witnessed firsthand. Just a part of doing business, really, as long as his wife and daughter were left alone. There are rules you follow in The Business and going after women and children will surely put a target on your back, not that being top dog didn’t. The smooth tongued, slick-haired kingpin didn’t fear death even as he lay on a stainless steel gurney, electrodes attached to his head, strapped down and immobilized. At least the well-lit white room seemed a sanitary place to die.

“Do you know what this is?” a light-skinned African woman in a white lab coat asked as she held a syringe up to Humberto’s face. Inside the syringe waxed a viscous silver liquid. The doctor, Dr. Ingla, was smiling, her lips and eyes as bright as the room.

Humberto turned his head to look at the syringe, then at Dr. Ingla’s mocha face, then away. He didn’t care. It could be the sedative, it could be potassium chloride to stop his heart; what difference did it make? He just wanted to get to the task at hand.

“Just do it, puta,” the convict said.

Dr. Ingla wrapped the cusp of her hand around the bottom of Humberto’s mouth, squeezed, and pulled his face back towards her. “Don’t be rude,” she replied.

“You’ve told a lot of people you’re not afraid to die, Humberto Georgio Aruda,” the physician spoke as she slung the man’s face aside. “You’re not here to die today.”

“What are you talking about?” Humberto growled and he bolted against the restraints. “I am ready. I have made my peace. My family knows I am not coming back. Now do your job and stop playing around.”

The straps would restrain a world class powerlifter. Dr. Ingla folded her arms, syringe still in hand, and rested herself on Humberto’s arm. “How many people have you killed, Humberto?”

“Enough to find myself here. What are you waiting for?” the criminal shouted.

“Humberto,” the doctor spoke calmly, “I want you to think, think really hard, about how many people you’ve killed. Think about that number. Try to see the faces of your victims. Do this for me and you just might get to see your wife and daughter again.”

“What game is this, puta? You’re not policia or I’d already be free. Who are you? Interpol? CIA?” Humberto tried to rise against the restraints. He didn’t have as much success as rising from the ranks of a petty criminal.

“It doesn’t really matter,” the doctor said holding the syringe up to her face, “What matters is that you’re our first real test of a new criminal rehabilitation system. This experiment is going to reshape criminal justice around the world.”

She lowered the needle and widened her eyes at her subject. “Aren’t you excited?”

Nobody tests Humberto Georgio Aruda. “Whatever you think you’re going to do to me, it won’t work. Just kill me instead.”

Dr. Ingla turned her head towards the two-way mirror in the room. “Let’s begin,” she said as she returned her attention to the test subject.

“I asked you to think about all those people you killed, Humberto. We’ve confirmed twenty-nine murders you’ve personally been involved in to say nothing of all the hits you’ve ordered, but we won’t hold you accountable for those. What would you say if I took all those memories of the people you’ve killed away?”

Humberto smirked. “It would make no difference to me. Most of those people I could not care if they lived or died; many of them were examples to others. It’s just business. If you took those memories away,” the drug lord continued with cocksureness in his voice, “It would not change who I am. It wouldn’t change what I am capable of.”

Dr. Ingla’s eyebrows floated up and the edges of her mouth tweaked upwards a touch. “We anticipated this answer. I respect your attempt to goad us into simply killing you. Instead, another question: Is there something in your past that made you who you are? Or do you think who you are is just a matter of fate, that you’re a born killer and criminal?”

“Ah,” Humberto laughed, “You think you’re going to take some life-altering memory from me that set me down the path of wickedness.”

“Not quite,” the physician replied, needling the air with the syringe. “We’re going to find that life-altering memory and make you relive it twenty-nine times.”

The criminal flattened his nose and squinted at his captor. He watched silently as Dr. Ingla pierced the skin of his upper arm and pushed the syringe’s silver liquid into his body.

“What’s going to happen is that after this, after you wake up, we’re going to release you and you’re going to go home to your family and daughter. But now every time you think of murdering someone, you’ll be forced to recall your worst memory. Every time you want to murder someone, you’re going to be punished.”

The kingpin turned his head away. “I can pay you,” Humberto said flatly.

“Mmm hmm,” the doctor leaned away. “Like you pay off the local police? We paid them more for you than you paid them to protect you. That’s how it works around here, isn’t it, the highest bidder gets what they want? People like you, they always think it simply comes down to money. Too bad for you that around here it’s true.”

“What happens next?” the prisoner wanted to know, his lip and nose snarled to one side. Dr. Ingla had simply gotten up and walked away, though, before vanishing behind a steel door. “What happens next?” Humberto yelled.

Dr. Ingla joined two colleagues behind the two-way mirror. “Run the sequencer,” she ordered stoically. The scientists observed the two monitors; one was building a visual map of Humberto’s neural circuitry and the other screen was split between measuring neurotransmitter and hormone levels and blood-flow throughout the criminal’s brain. Dr. Ingla’s lips pouted and she leaned forward to punch some commands into the computer keyboards.

“Something wrong?” one of her generic assistants asked. Every time, Dr. Ingla could not remember the man’s name.

“Dopamine and serotonin levels should be lower. Epinephrine levels should be higher. There’s too much blood flow to his amygdala. He’s recalling a favorite memory. That shouldn’t be possible.”

“But you can see exactly what he’s remembering,” the female colleague reminded Dr. Ingla of her research. “Can you display it?”

The lead scientist tacked the keyboard furiously for a quarter of a minute before the world through the kingpin’s eyes popped up on the left monitor. Humberto was at his wedding and standing before his bride at the alter. The priest was speaking in Latin it appeared, had stopped as applause commenced, while Humberto stepped forward to kiss his wife. As the newlyweds’ lips touched, Humberto’s amygdala – his brain’s pleasure center – spiked. His wife whispered into his ear, “Estoy embarazada.”

“Did she just tell him she’s pregnant?” the female colleague asked.

“This doesn’t make sense,” Dr. Ingla’s forehead crinkled. Her own epinephrine levels were rising. Butterflies swirled in her stomach as her brain flip-flopped for an explanation. The physician’s eyes ping-ponged between the monitors and Humberto strapped to the gurney.

“I get it, I get it,” she announced. “He’s so happy it scares him, scared of what the consequences could be for his family. If anyone ever chose the break the rules of The Business. Not what I expected but it’ll still work. Sequence One complete. Beginning Sequence Two…”

Dr. Ingla was talking to herself by now as her two colleagues had entered the white room to tend to the drug lord. The woman lifted Humberto’s eyelids to check his pupils with a small flashlight while the man began unfastening the restraints.

The lead physician slid into the open doorway. “What the hell are you doing? Don’t let him up yet. He hasn’t finished cycling through this memory. Stop! Let the memory cycle through.”

Humberto was already rising from the gurney, his movements not quite as sharp as usual due to the high he’d been administered, but cognizant nonetheless. “We are letting the memory cycle through, doctor, we are,” the kingpin nodded with piercing eyes and a wry smile.

Dr. Ingla’s colleagues approached her without any hint of aggression until they were beside her. Then they quickly latched a hold of her arms and forced her to her knees. The doctor didn’t understand; questions that were bouncing around in her head were now overcome with a burning in her abdomen. Humberto had kicked her so hard she spat blood a foot in front of her. The kingpin leaned sideways to catch Dr. Ingla’s eye.

“It simply comes down to money, doctor. What, you think you’ve paid the police more money than I’m going to pay them over the course of my life? You think my culture, that my people are stupid? They took your money and they’re going to keep taking my money. They’re smart,” Humberto illustrated by pointing to his temple with his fingers fashioned like a gun.

“You’re smart, too,” Humberto continued. “I can think of many applications for your work. Which is why you’re going to work for me now. Every time you think you’re not going to or that you’re going to escape me? Well…” the criminal waved his hands around the bright room.

“This can’t be happening,” Dr. Ingla streamed tears out of her eyes. “I’m just having a bad dream.” She squeezed her eyes shut trying to avoid reality.

“Ah, the difference is, doctor, you’re going to remember this one for a long time.”

Dr. Ingla looked up at her captor, slack in her body. “Please, just kill me…”

Humberto squatted down and lifted the physician’s chin up to his face. “But puta,” he cooed, “we’ve only just begun.” He stood up and moved his lips out of the doctor’s field of vision. “Don’t let her go yet, not until the memories finish cycling through.”

 

All Rights Reserved © December 2019 John J Vinacci