Aisha Taylor was rudely awakened in the misty morning hours before dawn by someone pounding insistently on her door. Pulling her bathrobe around her, she stomped to the door, muttering, "Who the hell be knockin' at my door this time of day? They better had a damn good excuse!"
She opened the door and found Derek leaning up against the frame. He'd obviously been drinking all night and could barely support himself. The smell of cheap whiskey wrapped around him like the shell on a crab, and when he looked at her, his eyes were like pools of blood with a blackened coin in the center of each one.
"What do you want?" she demanded.
"Baby, I need me a place to stay. What say you help me out a bit here?"
"You got your nerve just comin' here and askin' me sumpin' like that," she snapped. "Now git on out of here before Ronnie sees you like this."
"Ah, baby, don't you be like that. I'm hurtin' here. I need some help."
"All you need is to git yourself a job and straighten yourself up. You be drinkin' yourself to death!"
"Cain't I just stay one night? I can sleep on the couch and you don't even have to tell Ronnie I'm here."
"You think he won't know?" She glared at him and forced the emotions that were threatening to float to the surface back down where they belonged. This wasn't the same Derek she'd fallen in love with eight years ago. That Derek had been a kind and gentle lover. When Ronnie came along, he turned into a kind and loving father.
But something happened to him after the steel mill cut him loose. He snapped completely. Charging into his foreman's office he'd accused the man of being a racist so and so and a brown-nosing son of a gun. Of course, his language had been a trifle more colorful. So instead of just being laid off for what would have been only three weeks, as time would eventually determine, he lost his job completely.
That was four years ago, and he hadn't held a job for more than a few weeks at a time since. It had been several months since he'd even tried. In that time, his trim muscular frame that always made Aisha think of him as an ebony god had started to go to fat. Somewhere along the line, he'd developed jowls. And he stunk worse than the alley behind Jimino's Restaurant.
"Just go," she said. "And don't be comin' here no more. I got nothin' to say to you."
Derek slammed his open hand against the door frame hard enough to make the wall shake. Aisha flinched and instantly felt ashamed that this man could have that effect on her. He spun on his heel and stalked off into the morning fog. The sun was just starting to peek over the horizon.
There was a time Derek had thought he was going to be a baseball star. He'd been good enough. Nobody ever doubted that. But that was just a dream, and there's no place for dreams in the lives of people like Derek Taylor. Halfway through his junior year at San Diego State, he was hitting .407 and had gone the whole year without a single error. Unfortunately, his grade point average wasn't as good as his batting average. When it dropped to 1.36 after the previous semester, the coach warned him to get his grades up by midterm, or he'd be cut.
Derek absolutely knew the coach would never cut his best player over something as stupid as a GPA. So it came as a real surprise after he flunked three of his four midterms that the coach called him into his office and asked him to return his uniforms.
It was a memorable argument he had with the coach that day. Sure, he'd been surprised when the coach cut him from the team. But he was flabbergasted when the pompous SOB had him arrested for assault. Hell, it was just a love tap. He didn't even hit the guy that hard. If he had, Coach Woodbury would have been filling out the police paperwork from his hospital bed.
Naturally, since he was Black, the jury found him guilty as charged. It never once occurred to him that the fact that he'd busted the coach's jaw had anything to do with the verdict. That's when he got his third surprise. Instead of just tossing him into the can for a few months, the judge offered him a choice. Do hard time, or enlist in the Army.
That was a no-brainer. How difficult could four years in the Army be? He'd still be in fine shape to play ball when he was done.
Aisha watched her little boy shoveling eggs into his mouth and let the love she felt for him push away the dirty feeling her encounter with Derek had left in the pit of her stomach. There was a lot of Derek in Ronnie, but so far it was only the good parts. She refused to let herself ask how long that would last. Let nature take its course.
"Hey, buddy," she said. "Got a big day planned at school?"
"Me and Jeffrey are going to play cowboys and Indians."
Two things about his answer took Aisha by surprise. For one, nobody played cowboys and Indians anymore. That was something out of her childhood — not his. But even more astonishing was that he'd started hanging out with a rich White kid. When did that happen?
"You and Jeffrey? I thought you tole me that boy was no good."
"Not any more," he said. "Now we're friends. Who was at the door this morning?"
Aisha's heart felt like it stopped beating for a moment. He'd been awake for all that. How much had he heard?
"Nobody. Just some salesman."
"Ah, come on, Mom. Salesmen don't come callin' at people's houses at four o'clock in the morning. How come you be telling me that?"
She bit down on her lower lip hard enough that she tasted blood.
"All right," she said. "You really wanna know who be at the door this mornin'? It was your poppa. That's who."
"Derek?" Somewhere along the line, Ronnie had started calling his father by his first name. "What does he want with us?"
"He was lookin' for a place to stay."
"You ain't gonna let him are you?"
"Course I ain't. Do I look like I got stupid painted on my forehead? I told him to go away and leave us alone. And I told him don't be comin' back no more."
The obvious look of relief on her son's face broke Aisha's heart. Other boys had daddies they could love and look up to. Why couldn't Ronnie?
But she knew the answer to that. Why did she even bother asking? She could point to the very moment in time Ronnie's love for his father turned sour and fear took the place of respect. One other time Derek had come crawling to her for a place to stay for a few days. Only that time she hadn't had the sense to say no. Or the heart.
She didn't know Derek was packing a gun when she let him into her house. If she had, she would have made him either get rid of the gun or get the hell out of her house. But she didn't and about the third night he was there, he was down in the living room sleeping on the couch. The loaded gun was on the coffee table in close reach.
A little after midnight, Ronnie got thirsty and came down the stairs to get a drink of water. Derek had come up off the couch like a Jack in the box, leveled the gun on Ronnie's head and pulled the trigger. The only thing that saved the boy was that at the very last fraction of a second, Derek had realized where he was and who he was shooting at and jerked the gun up to the ceiling. The bullet had shot through the plaster into the bedroom up above and embedded itself into the second-floor ceiling. It was still there.
Aisha had been tempted to have Derek's sorry ass thrown in jail for that stunt. But left-over emotions got in the way and all she did was kick him out of her house. He was so put out with how close he'd come to killing his own son that he hadn't even put up a fight. He'd merely gathered his few belongings together and walked out the door without a word. She told him then never to show his face again. Obviously, he hadn't listened.
But Derek did listen this time. He knew Aisha meant what she said about steering clear from here on out. If that's what she wanted, then that's what she'd get. He didn't need her any more anyway. He didn't need anybody.
He was down to his last ten bucks and didn't have a clue what he was going to do with himself. He had no job, no home and no future. Now he had no family. For a while he'd thought about going back into the Army — if they'd take him. But every time he came close to making a decision in that direction, the shakes would return. He'd lost his nerve, and it was the Army's fault.
Those four years had been harder than he'd expected. Basic training had been a joke. The hours sucked, but not as bad as the food. On the other hand, he wasn't paying for it, so what difference did it make? He was one of those guys who thought he could eat cockroaches if he got hungry enough. Still, the last thing in the world he'd expected during basic was that he was going to get the chance to prove that theory correct.
Actually, they weren't really cockroaches. The roaches they had in Iraq were a different breed. But they were just as crunchy.
After a road-side bomb blew up the vehicle he was riding on a patrol about twenty miles outside of a town called Ad Dawr, Derek discovered he was the only man left alive. The other guys were cast about like busted manikins, while Derek was miraculously unscathed. The radio was destroyed and the cell phone he carried didn't work out there. It only took him a few minutes to realize that he was in deep shit. Base was a forty-mile walk away and it was already late in the afternoon. He was going to have to settle in and wait for help. Once his patrol didn't report in, they'd be sending out choppers to look for them.
The one thing he knew for certain was that if he got himself caught by insurgents, his would be the next head those Arab bastards would be showing on their precious Internet site. It suddenly occurred to him what a great idea it would be to get off the highway until help arrived. There weren't that many vehicles in this neck of the woods that were going to contain passengers friendly to US Army uniforms. So he sprinted about two hundred yards out into the desert until the highway was out of sight and hunkered down behind some brush at the edge of a ravine that was about twenty feet deep.
Sure enough, just around sunset, he heard the unmistakable racket of an Apache coming up out of the south. Anxiously, he scanned the horizon, looking for his rescue from the air. There it was! Never had he imagined a military chopper could look so beautiful. When it got close enough he thought they could see him, he jumped up and started waving his arms.
Then, accentuated by the light from the setting sun, the plume from an ascending missile appeared. Another missile spewed out toward the ground from the helicopter. Derek watched in horror as the aircraft burst into a ball of flame and flaming debris scattered down across the desert.
He had been concentrating so intently on the helicopter that he hadn't even noticed the group of men about a hundred yards to the east. But they noticed him. With all his screaming and arm flailing it would have been a bit of a surprise if they missed him.
A couple of them fired a salvo of rounds in his direction, but the distance between them was too great for the shots to be accurate. They took off running after him and he bolted in the other direction. Damned if he didn't forget about that ravine.
Down he went, and something gave way in his ankle when he landed. It wasn't broken. He could use it. But running had suddenly become an activity that hurt like hell. Fortunately, he still had the AK-47 that he'd taken from a dead Arab a few weeks back.
Instinctively, he turned to his left. That was the direction of home. It may be forty miles away and it may be a real armpit. But it was an armpit that offered safety, shelter, food and drink. At that particular moment, he was a bit lacking in all of those amenities.
The insurgents behind him hadn't given up the chase. A couple of them had dropped down into the ravine with him and the rest were pursuing him from above. He dropped behind a rock and waited for the ones behind him to catch up. As he had anticipated, that was the last thing in the world they expected him to do, and when he jumped up from behind the rock and emptied his clip into the bastards, the look on their faces was absolutely delicious.
Of course, that caught the attention of the guys above. Doing a quick inventory of his ammo, he discovered he only had three clips left, so he didn't have the luxury of throwing up blind cover fire. He also had two grenades. The two Arabs that he'd dropped were still carrying their weapons, but to get them, he'd have to expose himself to the fighters above. That didn't seem like such a good idea at the moment.
He was pressed up against the sides of the ravine as flat as he could make himself in order to keep out of sight of his friends up above. Their voices carried, echoing off the sides of the gulley, so he knew approximately where they were. They were moving his way. In a few moments, he heard footsteps directly above him. One of them said something, but Derek hadn't picked up much of the language to know what he was saying. Nor did he intend to.
Pulling a grenade from his belt clip, he pulled the pin and estimated where his target was located. It was time to call on all those athletic skills Coach Woodbury had laid to waste. He popped that grenade in a beautiful arching curve over where he thought the soldiers were standing and then shoved himself back up against the ledge again.
The explosion was satisfyingly tremendous. The dead body of one of the men chasing him landed right at his feet. The guy was carrying an AK just like Derek's and he immediately helped himself to the clips from the dead man's ammo belt. Searching the pockets on the corpse, he found a set of keys and a wad of Iraqi dinari printed during Saddam Hussein's rule. Didn't these morons know that crap wasn't worth anything any more?
Cautiously, Derek backed into the open, watching the rim of the ravine for any movement. It looked like he might have got them all. And if fate was on his side for once in his life, the keys in his hand were going to be for the truck the insurgents had arrived in.
It was starting to get dark, but there was just enough light for him to see the little man with the big gun before he was able to fire. Derek almost cut him in half with a three second burst that carved a path of blood from the man's groin to his chin.
Getting out of that ravine turned out to be a lot harder than getting in had been. The sides were steep and the rock was crumbly. Finally, after about twenty minutes of struggling, which felt more like several hours to Derek, he pulled himself over the edge. For several seconds, he simply lay there panting. Finally, he pulled himself together and slowly advanced toward the truck the insurgents had left behind. It wasn't until he was about twenty feet away that he saw the damage.
The front end of the truck looked fine. It was the back of it that the Apache's missile had blown away. They hadn't scored a direct hit, but they had made Derek's job easier. A half a dozen dead fighters lay scattered about the truck. So the missile was a cursed blessing. Without it, he probably would never have fought his way out of that ravine. On the flip side, it had taken out his ride home.
It took three days for Derek to make his way back to base. He traveled at night and holed up during the day. By the second day, the slightest movement had him so jumpy his weapon was ready at the speed of light. On the second night, before heading out for his travels, he had his first taste of Iraqi cockroach. That morning, when he'd taken shelter in an abandoned hut, he'd collapsed and passed out without taking real stock of his surroundings. He woke up late in the afternoon with two of the biggest roaches he'd ever seen crawling on him. Looking around, he saw that the place was infested with them. He hadn't eaten for two days and he was starved. They really weren't all that bad once he got past the smell.
On the third day, he stumbled into camp. Two soldiers helped him into a jeep and took him to the infirmary, where he spent the next three days. Dehydration and diarrhea eventually went away. The dreams never did. But he'd NEVER meant to draw down on his own son.
Aisha married Derek about six months after he got back to the States. He was already working over at the steel mill by then. She knew something bad happened to him over there, but he wouldn't talk about it. Not while, he was awake, anyway. He couldn't help talking in his sleep, though. And while most of his words were little more than unintelligible gurgles, once in a while a gem of information would emerge. Eventually she figured out that he had killed a bunch of people over there.
Soon enough, she discovered he'd enjoyed it. It was true. She could see it in his eyes. But he kept it to himself, so she didn't think she had anything to worry about. For two years, he was a loving husband, and for half of that time, he was a doting father.
Once she'd asked him about his time in the Gulf. He'd looked right through her, said "I don't want to talk about that," and went and got himself a beer. Derek didn't drink a lot, but when he did he got despondent. She figured she was lucky in a way. A lot of guys got downright mean when they drank.
After his third beer, he'd start talking politics. And his idea of politics was that the only things Whitey didn't run — those Arab bastards did. She didn't know who he hated worse, White people or Arabs. Either way, it didn't make any sense to her.
One day, during the 2004 elections, he'd called her in from the kitchen, where she had been doing dishes. A political ad for Kerry was running and Derek was laughing like he was watching a sitcom instead of a political spot.
"Look at that goofy lookin' White mo-fo," he laughed. "That dude's dumber than the day is long. I'd rather munch down on a wad of used toilet paper than sit in the same room with that cracker. But you know what? He's the best thing we got! And thas 'cause them dumbass Democrats didn't have the balls to run Al Sharpton. 'Cause he was Black!" He shouted the last sentence and threw his empty beer bottle at the TV. Aisha knew he meant to miss. Otherwise he wouldn't have.
But he only acted that way when he was drunk, and didn't get drunk very often, thank God. When he was sober, he was kind and gentle and could make her laugh anytime he wanted to.
Until the layoff at the steel mill that got him fired. After that, he turned sour in a hurry.
Derek spent his last ten bucks on the best bottle of bourbon he could afford. It wasn't all that great. There was a place he knew down by the lake where the land jutted out into the water. A guy could sit there in the early morning and watch the sun rise over the lake in the morning, or he could sit there in the evening and watch it set over the lake. Derek loved that spot.
He took his bottle to his favorite peninsula and settled in for the night. It was midsummer, so he figured he wouldn't get too cold. And he had his antifreeze. He spread his jacket out onto the sandbar and lay down to gaze out over the water. To the north, the Canadian shores were barely visible.
For several hours, the bottle stood on the ground near his head. He made no move for it until well after midnight. He had a lot to think about and he wanted a clear head for thinking.
He couldn't blame Aisha for reacting to him the way she did. Hell, he'd brought it on himself. Maybe he should have told her about his three-day hike in the sands of Arabia. Would she have understood? Would the fact that just the sight of a cockroach was enough to set him puking make sense to her then? Would she stop thinking that he was sick just because every time he awoke too abruptly, he reached for his gun?
He couldn't blame people for not wanting to hire him, either. It wasn't the steel mill that set him off. It was the Arab prick that had been his foreman. For eighteen months, it was his job to kill these guys, and when he gets home, one of them turns out to be his boss. Now he's supposed to kiss this bastard's ass? Getting laid off by an Arab immigrant who was wonderfully secure in his job was the last straw for Derek. Not simply getting laid off. He should have killed the sanctimonious little prick like he had been expected to do in the Gulf. At least he'd be getting free room and board right now.
From that day on, his disregard for authority was painted on his face so plainly the walking dead doing the interviews could see it. For a while he'd been able to scrounge up a few janitor jobs and one cleaning cars at a dealership. But they never lasted long. Eventually somebody would do or say something that pushed his buttons and he'd shoot off his mouth. Or worse.
But why should he be thinking about that shit? The stars shone bright in the sky and there was just a sliver of a moon when Derek finally broke the seal on his bourbon. He downed a quarter of the bottle in the first chug and came up gagging, coughing and spewing whiskey. But it gave him the start he was looking for. After that he nursed the bottle slowly, making sure he had enough left to toast the rising sun.
There were still a couple of fingers of whiskey in the bottom of the bottle when the light of dawn appeared over the lake. Derek positioned his nine millimeter automatic between his legs and waited. The second the first glimmer of sun appeared he downed the remainder of the amber liquid.
Then he followed it with a nine millimeter chaser.
Aisha Taylor was rudely awakened in the misty morning hours after dawn by someone pounding insistently on her door. Pulling her bathrobe around her, she stomped to the door muttering, "Damn it, Derek, I done tole you once!!" She opened the door to a uniformed police officer who said, "Are you Aisha Taylor?"
She only nodded.
"I think you better come with me, ma'am. It's about your husband."
by Michael W. Graves
... who is a Vietnam-era veteran and computer hardware specialist, the author of three technical books (PC Hardware Maintenance and Repair, The Complete Guide to Networking and Network+, and Building Your Own Enterprise Server); his work has appeared previously in this magazine. More information is available on the author's website.