Swept Away - Part One
A bead of sweat rolled down the left side of Alexander Sterling's face, added itself to the large drop perched on his jaw line. The enhanced weight of the salty tear pulled it away from his skin. It sailed through the air and splattered against the circuit board in his lap, sending a faint jolt of electrical arms spreading along the integral piece of equipment.
He never noticed.
With teeth clenched, face strained, Alexander lifted the violated computer component and carefully slid it into the jumbled mess of wires and circuitry until he heard it snap into place. He leaned back in relief with that done; a tension-filled sigh blew through his lips, relaxing his strained muscles for the first time in a week.
And not a moment too soon.
"Alexander Martin Sterling!" came a shrilling cry from above. "Your dinner is getting cold!"
Startled out of his relief, Alexander jumped in his chair, knee cracking against the table in front of him. The tower of his masterpiece teetered back and forth, the threat of destruction screaming out at him. He jerked forward and grabbed the computer construction, steadied it. His heart hammered away in his chest to the matching throbs of his banged knee.
"Coming mother!" he shouted back, doing his best to keep his irritation out of his voice. He failed.
"Don't you take that tone with me, mister!"
At twenty-nine years old, having his mother yelling at him to eat his friggen vegetables got tiresome fast. But, he did still live in her house, so what was a guy to do? Eat his vegetables, that's what.
After one last look at his creation, Alexander jogged up the stairs and entered the kitchen.
His mother stood there at the sink, dishtowel draped over her arm, waiting. She was a pleasantly plump elderly lady that enjoyed wearing far too much spandex given her size. He walked over, kissed her cheek, and then sat down at the table.
Mashed potatoes, peas, and a hamburger steak all drenched in gravy. Just how he liked it. As he shoveled the food, his mother took a seat across from him. She folded her hands on the tabletop like she always did when she wanted to have a serious discussion. Alexander hated serious discussions. And he knew she would start it the way she always did: Listen dear... Oh, how he dreaded those words.
"Listen dear..." she said. "Your birthday is in two months. You're going to be thirty years old. Don't you think it's time you got a real job? Maybe an apartment of your own? And how about a wife? Hell, son, I would be thrilled with just a girlfriend." She lowered her voice to a whisper. "Some people are starting to talk."
Of course. The old girlfriend spiel. Swallowing a mouthful of mashed potatoes and peas, he gave her his stock answer. "Soon, ma. Almost finished with my project, then not only can I afford my own place, I can get you a far better one."
She narrowed her eyes. "You been saying that for five years."
"And it's been true for five years. Look. These things take time. Once you get them finished, you find bugs that need worked out. Then you find the bugs, fix them, and lo and behold, more bugs. It's a process. But, I swear to you, I'm almost finished. As soon as I get done eating, I'm going to test it out and it will work. Have some faith."
A mist of tears welled up in his mother's eyes and he frowned. "I just worry about you," she said. "Is that so wrong? It's not healthy sitting around in the basement all day. You need to get out. Make some friends. You practically been down there for the past ten years."
Reaching across the table and squeezing her hand, he said, "I know, ma. There will be plenty of time for that, I swear. Just give me a little while longer and I promise you... everything will work out just fine."
As she blinked back the tears, she nodded. "Okay, son. A little while longer. I just don't want to see you end up like your brother, that's all."
Alexander's eyes dropped to his plate, partly annoyed, partly reluctant to admit she was right. His path traveled dangerously close to his brother's. It was a sore spot with both of them. His mother wanted him to avoid the same pitfalls; he himself wanting to prove his brother wasn't crazy for doing what he did. Could his determination to do just that lead him down the same erroneous path? The answer was yes, but he didn't want to admit it any more than his mother did.
After finishing his meal, he rinsed the plate and dropped it in the sink. Then he kissed his mother on the forehead, told her not to worry so much, and climbed back down the stairs.
"I'm going shopping," she said to his descending back. "Do you need anything?"
"No," he replied.
Once more in the basement, he took a moment to relish the disaster sight. Columns of clear plastic tubes dotted the perimeter; thick green gases flowed freely inside. A dozen computers lined the walls between the tubing, most running constant computations that scrolled the screens at unreadable speeds. Bunched cables ran throughout the room like giant snakes. Most of them extended from the centerpiece: A seventy-five inch television surrounded by a metal box. At the top and bottom of the box, switches and buttons flashed in a cornucopia of colors that clashed obliviously with each other.
He walked over to the table where he'd put the finishing touches on what he hoped was the last of the fixes he would need to make. He picked up the slotted container with computer circuitry and wires meshed inside chaotically, and then brought it around to the back of the towering television. Here a chunk was missing near the bottom. He slid the container in, closed it all off with a metal panel from the concrete floor.
"Done," he said. "Now to test it out."
An obese man with the jungles of Peru sprouting out his armpits and on the three orbs that constituted his stomach and man-boobs slammed the door in Katlyn Maruimatsu face. A gust of wind from the sheer force with which the man hauled the door shut blew her dark hair off her shoulders.
In that moment, Katlyn decided she wouldn't take it anymore. Her right hand wrapped into a fist and she knocked against the oak door. Then she leaned into the doorbell, finger rigid. The incessant chiming of the doorbell could be heard even here outside.
After almost a minute, she began to worry the fat man just decided to call the cops. As she pulled her hand again, the door swung open and the beast glared at her with deadly intent. A half-eaten submarine sandwich held at the man's side dripped sauce on the doorjamb. For a brief insane moment, she wondered just how that man left his house and thought to ask. His wide frame didn't look as if it could even fit through the doorway.
"What is your problem?" Katlyn demanded. "I don't even get good afternoon out and already you're slamming the door in my face!"
The man grunted like some primordial caveman that had been zapped to the future away from his cozy cave dwellings with its simple hand-painted drawings on the wall. And he looked the part, too.
"Charity, can you say charity?" Tired, frustrated, unwilling to accept the apathy that seemed to have swallowed her entire neighborhood--Katlyn hunkered down for the battle of her life. She wasn't leaving until this man saw the error of his ways and made a pledge.
She held up a clipboard with a nearly empty pledge sheet. "I'll try to use simple words so even a man of your gargantuan stature can understand. There's going to be a walk-a-thon in two weeks. You pledge. I walk. For every mile I walk, you pay up whatever you pledged."
The distant, uninterested look in the man's eyes made Katlyn want to scream at him, claw his eyes out, anything to make him get his mind off the soggy sandwich in his hand. "I'm raising money for the..." She paused. Enough was enough. Time to do what every money seeker in the world did. Time to lie. Her eyes darted at the man's sandwich, then returned to his face. "I'm raising money for the Society for the Betterment of Sandwich Making. Our main goal is to make more delicious sandwiches at a cheaper price."
Now the man was interested. His eyes sparked to life, eagerly looking down at the pledge sheet. Even if he could read, Katlyn doubted he'd bother to notice the charity was actually for the homeless.
As she walked away from the man's house a one-dollar pledge richer, the clouds overhead grew darker. It had been misting on and off all morning; the threat of storms lingered above, making her all the more irritated at the rejections she received. All around her, mid-range middle class homes kept in decent shape acted as shields, protecting the people inside from her charitable ways. Did anybody care about helping out the helpless anymore? She looked down at the paper tucked securely in her clipboard. Four people cared. Oh, wait. One thought he was helping make grander sandwiches and the other three were her parents and sister.
After ringing the doorbell at the next house, the clouds opened up and the rain slashed at the ground. She huddled close to the door, under the eave that didn't do a very good job of keeping her dry. She pressed the doorbell button again. Still no answer. Par for the course, Katlyn. You shouldn't have lied to get charity. Now you're going to pay. Insert evil laugh here. She leaned against the door, ignored her conscience. The lesser evil in this case could hardly be held against her.
Just then, the door opened and Katlyn tumbled into the house. Her shoulder slammed into the tiled floor, twisting back awkwardly. The clipboard flew from her hand at the sudden loss of balance. Someone howled in pain as if stabbed in the ass.
Katlyn looked up from the intricate patterns of the linoleum. Sitting on the floor across from her was a man about her age. His hands were rubbing at his knee where the clipboard had cracked him. He looked on the verge of tears. Katlyn swallowed air fast, trying to keep from laughing aloud. Despite the pain in her shoulder, she pushed herself into the house and closed the door.
"Sorry about that," she said.
The man, apparently having not even noticed her, looked up startled. "Who're you?"
"I'm the one with the deadly clipboard," she said, holding her newfangled weapon up. "Really, sorry. Didn't think anyone was home."
"I'm Katlyn." She glanced out the window. "Mind if I wait for the rain to pass?" He looked harmless enough. Somewhat geeky, actually.
"Alex," the man said. He stood. "And I don't care. Just don't steal anything."
And just like that, Katlyn was alone. Alex disappeared down the stairs to the basement without a second glance at his houseguest. How weird, Katlyn thought. Who lets complete strangers into their home and then just walks away? She shrugged, winced at the pain that action caused, reached up and rubbed at her shoulder.
Outside, thunder exploded.To be continued...