Paul’s mother poked her head inside his darkened room. His back was to her, but the hallway light cut a shaft of illumination that bisected the bedroom.
“Are you awake?” She asked the prone body, back still to her, curled up as if undisturbed on the bed
He had been for nearly two hours. “Yes,” he said. He tried to keep his voice even to disguise the sadness that had once again swept over him, as always, unbidden. He had awakened from a dream of his sister, one where she had been five years old instead of one-year dead. He couldn’t recall much of the dream’s detail, but he knew and could still feel she had been happy in that mind-conjured world. She had been alive, and waking from the dream crushed him all over again, as it did each time. Allison came to him often in his dreams and as a girl of all ages, and every waking filled Paul with the same pain of having let go of her the first time.
“No school today,” Paul’s mom said.
“Okay,” he said, but she had already disappeared and shut the door. The room was once again absent of all light. Even the crack of light beneath his bedroom door winked out as his mother extinguished the hall lamp. He always kept his blinds closed and curtains drawn tight in the night. He didn’t want to chance anyone spying the blacker shape that more and more often lingered in the corner, floating, its body stretched beyond the height of floor to ceiling so that it stooped as it floated. With arms outstretched.
The Straw Man.
He was always with Paul, now, it seemed, either as the shadow-black manifestation that now loomed over him in this dark stillness, one always heavy with some measure of dread, or as a passenger occupying its own dedicated corner of Paul’s mind. The presence of the Straw Man both unburdened Paul of his sorrow and weighted him with an ever-present and staggering yoke of loss.
True, the creation of the Straw Man was intended as a tool into which Paul could channel his pain, sorrow, and rage, but the more he gave this ethereal, mental construct, the more substantial it seemed to become to Paul, who, in turn, felt increasingly insubstantial. As if the real and imagined were exchanging lifeforces.
Of course, Paul knew this to be a load of crap. Whatever power the Straw Man had over him, it was Paul himself who allowed the exchange to happen. He was the facilitator, and he had to remember that he, too, had the power. Nevertheless, such reminders did not preclude his periodic desire to give in, to give up, to float away into the oblivion that swelled within the Straw Man as hydrogen fuses into helium to inflate a star against the crushing effect of gravity. Because maybe, just maybe, the Straw Man could take him to Allison and allow him to be part of the life she should have lived.
Finally, Paul said, “Go away,” and felt the density of the air in his bedroom become less so. Peering into the room’s shadowed corners, there was no longer any space that shone deeper and darker than the rest.
The Straw Man was gone. But he would be back because Paul needed him—needed him in much the same way as an addict needed his fix.
Already, Paul knew he had more than enough to discuss today with his therapist.
~ ~ ~
Paul descended the stairs still in a sleep-fueled daze. Having already been awake for more than two hours, he was still held tightly in the throes of exhaustion and quasi-stage-one slumber. He needed coffee.
Paul cinched tighter the belt on his robe, finding comfort and warmth in the plush, green fabric’s firm embrace. Gray light spilled in through the kitchen window, bathing his mother and the room where they routinely broke bread in a glow that revealed details with little more quality than that which might be seen through a pale shroud. His mother washed dishes at the kitchen sink, staring out the window that had become fogged along the lower sill by rising steam from the hot, running water. She seemed to not regard anything in particular. Her actions, scrubbing and rinsing and drying, seemed automatic and her gaze held little to no regard for anything specific. This was her comfortable routine, one that reminded her she was still a mother and wife, but where once the view through the wide window from which she observed the flow of time—dawn to afternoon, afternoon to dusk, dusk to night, winter to spring to summer to autumn to winter, again—might have shown her the reality of a welcomed and expected future, now, her gaze, if anything, was perfunctory, informed by little more than habit. The window was once her opening to life as it should be. From it she had watched Paul and his father play catch, performed the little yard work their small plot required, and stood together at the barbeque grilling burgers and hot dogs. So much life the window had revealed, but the world outside now seemed static, unmoving, ever a reminder that she—they—would never watch and experience Allison living the life she should have had with them.
A plate of scrambled eggs and toast sat on the kitchen table, still steaming, filling the space with a savory, slightly sulfurous odor of broken, cooked yolk. Paul sat quietly and began to eat. His mother seemed oblivious to his presence, but he was slowly becoming accustomed to that. His father would have left for work at the Millers Gap Post Office shortly before sunrise. For now, it was just Paul and his mother alone in a home as somber and devoid of life as a mausoleum.
Finally, Paul’s mother set aside the final plate needing washing from last night’s dinner and noticed for the first time Paul’s presence in the kitchen. She said nothing, merely squeezed his shoulder as she left to return to her bedroom upstairs. Paul wanted to say something, but even after more than a year, he didn’t know what words to say. “Good morning,” sounded hollow and trite and false, and none of them talked about the pain and sorrow and guilt they all felt. They never talked about anything real. Paul only felt safe doing this with his therapist, and even that amount of opening up after Allison’s death had taken time and persistence on her part. She once told him that he held his feelings locked away as if inside an intricate Chinese puzzle box. He smiled at that, knowing it to be only partially true. No, he locked everything down and away inside an impenetrable vault, the combination to which he had forgotten years ago.
~ ~ ~
Paul expected to hear from Leo or Kyle at any moment. In the meantime, he sat on his bed and sketched. He was alone, he sensed. The Straw Man was not present. Paul knew well enough that he should have absolute control over the entity he himself created, but ever since he had given it “life” by pouring into it as they came his negative emotions and thoughts, the Straw Man seemed more and more to take on a life of its own.
Of course, Paul knew this was bullshit, yet another way his mind tortured and betrayed him.
As he sketched, he listened to the bare branches of the tree just outside his bedroom window scratch and claw the house’s siding like marionette fingers set frantically adance by the storm’s gusting winds.