I sit in silence every morning, waiting," Cooper said, clutching the coffee mug tightly and swirling the dirty liquid around gently. "It isn't necessarily a conscious thing, mind you, but it's pretty obvious what I'm doing."
"Why do you say that?" Don asked softly, his carefully trained voice avoiding any tones that might be construed as judgmental.
"Because that's what I'm doing, waiting," Cooper replied, fighting to keep the irritation out of his voice so that Don wouldn't make one of his obvious notes in his damned notebook. Don looked at him thoughtfully.
"And what are you waiting for?"
"That's the strange part," Cooper said, "I'm waiting for me."
"Really, how so?"
Cooper sighed and chewed thoughtfully on his upper lip. He could feel Don's unblinking eyes staring at him, waiting.
"It's a long story."
"We still have 40 minutes left in the session," Don said looking at his watch. "Is that long enough."
"Well, then how do you happen to be waiting for yourself every morning?"
Cooper set the coffee mug down on the table next to the arm chair and leaned back, lacing his hands behind his head.
"When I was 10 years old, I badgered my parents into letting me take on this paper route," he began. The sound of Don's pen scratching diligently on the pad of paper was maddeningly loud, but he struggled to shut it out and continue. "It wasn't a daily paper, just one of those weekly throw-a-ways . I think it had some creative name like The Advertiser. Anyway, I wanted to earn some extra money to buy something ...shit, what was it? A raccoon, I think. I'd just seen a Walt Disney film about a boy who raised a pet raccoon and I decided I wanted one. My parents didn't really want me to have one. They figured I'd abandon it like I had my parakeets or my Sea Monkeys. It wasn't the same though. Sea Monkeys are just brine shrimp. They're boring. I let them dry up. A raccoon would have been different. It would have been a companion."
Don's pen picked up speed.
"But ," Cooper continued, "I moped and whined and cried until they agreed to let me have a raccoon, on the condition that I pay for it myself. Now, raccoons cost $30 and my parents paid me 50 cents allowance every two weeks. I guess they figured I'd never be able to save the 30 bucks so they wouldn't have to deal with another abandoned pet. But then I approached them about the paper route.
My mother was opposed to it. Said I was much too young for that kind of responsibility. Said I'd never be able to get up early in the morning. She also said that it wasn't safe for a young boy to be riding around on his bicycle before sunrise. I'd be hit by a car or dragged off by a child molester. My mother was a master at imagining and conveying the terrors awaiting unsupervised children. To this day, I can't accept a stick of gum from anyone without a tinge of guilt."
Don't pen scratched furiously. Cooper frowned.
"It was dad who finally said I could get the paper route. Said it would be good for me. Said I'd learn that money didn't grow on trees. I really hate that cliche. It's a stupid analogy. He's the one that one that spent years of his life trying to figure out how to get rich quick in effortless schemes that always backfired. Anyway, I got the paper route.
It was the evening before my route was to begin. My mom bought me this electric alarm clock with a god-awful buzzer. Damn electric clocks have no character. They don't even tick. They just hum and glow. And then when the alarm goes off it's like being sapped with a cattle prod. So, I had my alarm set for 4 a.m. and my bicycle all loaded with the folded newspapers. I could have used rubber bands and rolled up the newspapers. That would have been easier. But rubber bands cost money. And I'd figured it out that I would be that much closer to getting my raccoon if I didn't squander my earnings on luxury items such as rubber bands.
Anyway, the bike was loaded down with the newspapers. I think there was a hundred or so. My dad had mounted this huge ugly basket on the front of the bike. The damn thing was so packed with newspapers, that even I had doubts as to how well I'd be able to navigate it. It was one of those Sting Ray bikes. Well, at least it looked like one. Remember those. They had the tall handle bars and the banana seats. Sting Rays -- named after those underwater things on Sea Hunt. Don't know why. They didn't look anything like a sting ray. Mine was a generic version, anyway. It looked like a Sting Ray but it was called a Play Bike. It was cheaper than a Sting Ray.
I went to bed early. It was still light outside. I was too nervous to sleep. I tossed and turned and sweated. Every 5 minutes or so I'd glance at that electric clock buzzing away the seconds. It was torture for me to go to bed early. When I was a kid, I was a night person. I'd stay up as late as possible. And I dreaded getting up in the morning. On weekends I'd sleep until 11 or as late as noon. Getting up a 4 a.m. was a major sacrifice. But I really wanted that raccoon.
Somehow I managed to drift off to sleep. Seemed like minutes. Next thing I knew that damned clock was sending wave after wave of shocks through my system. I slapped it off and stepped out of bed. That's when the first wave of dread swept over me."
Don looked up from his scratching pen, one eyebrow raised in an uncharacteristic emotional reaction.
Cooper nodded. "I'd never been totally awake at 4 a.m., at least not long enough to register any emotions or reactions. I'd layed all of my clothes out the night before. I pulled them around me, grabbed a flashlight and went out to the patio where my bike was waiting.
I've always assigned human emotions to places and times in my life. Maybe emotion isn't the right word. There's just this atmosphere or feeling places take on. Smells, temperature, light and sound combine to create an entity. Maybe it's just a memory. But, I felt it that morning. The familiar was foreign.
I wheeled my bike to the front yard. There was this heightened sense of awareness. Every sound was magnified. The gate latch boomed down. Cold metal struck cold metal. The shriek of the gate and the scratch of gravel as it swung open scrapping along the driveway. It was spring, but there was a touch of winter holding onto the pre-dawn. I remember a mist floating around the line of streetlights dotting the road. It reminded me of this Outer Limits television program I'd seen. Remember that program?"
Don smiled and nodded.
"Well, there was this one show where an entire neighborhood had been transported over night to another planet. That's what this morning felt like. I was alone for the first time in my life. I peddled into the night, fighting this constant urge to look over shoulder. An adult would have recognized it as mild paranoia induced by the newness of the experience. But I was only 10 for Christ's sakes. I peddled that overloaded bike down the dark streets with the breath of Satan himself breathing down my neck and laughing. And I don't even believe in Satan. But that morning, I did. It seemed logical and rational that he would exist.
I'd figured the route out in the reasonable light of day. I'd park my bike at the head of each block and deliver the papers on foot. Luckily it was one of those papers that are delivered free to everyone in a neighborhood. Every house got one so I was spared the labor of trying to pinpoint subscribers. It was a simple route.
I parked the bike, loaded several papers into a bag I'd strapped to my shoulder, and begin walking along the first street on the route. It was like being on a movie lot after hours. The house fronts seemed like facades, carefully painted on the front and propped up with two-by-fours and sandbags on the back. I began tossing the papers on to steps of houses. The dark windows of the houses stared at me like cold fish eyes. An occasional porchlight cast a feeble glow onto the sidewalk, giving me just enough light to fight back the panic I felt and start running. When I finally emptied the newspaper bag, I did run, icy wind whipping my face and the devil laughing even louder as the newspaper bag slapped against my thigh.
I managed to zig-zag my way through the suburban streets, tossing paper after paper in the direction of porches. Many lodged in bushes and trees. But I didn't care. As I worked the route, the panic grew. And by some strange trick of the clock, it didn't seem to get any lighter. It seemed like hours since I'd left the warmth and familiarity of my bedroom. So, I began imagining that I had indeed been spirited off to another world -- a world of perpetual darkness and endless streets.
It was toward the end of the route that the panic eased a bit. It was a rural part of the neighborhood. The lines of houses were broken by stretches of fenced pastures where horses slept standing up, shifting occasionally in a pre-dawn stupor. Perhaps it was the presence of other living creatures that soothed me. I began enjoying the strange world I had been thrust into. A surge of power swept over me as I wheeled along broken sidewalks and thought of the faceless people trapped within the silent houses. And for a few delicious moments, I was free from fear.
But then it dawned on me that I didn't recognize where I was. I swear to God that I was passing houses that didn't belong in my neighborhood. I mean, it was my neighborhood, but it wasn't. And I knew that neighborhood well. I'd been all over it on my bike -- in the daytime. But this world of shadows and undefined shapes wasn't part of the place I knew.
I reached into my bag. There was only one paper left. All I had to do was deliver it and the route would be finished. And, there was only one house left. It was a small house, a shack really, surrounded by ancient trees. That's what was so odd about it. The area was farmland turned into suburbs. There weren't any trees. At least there weren't any mature trees. These trees would have had to have been growing for at least a hundred years. It wasn't right. I knew it wasn't right, but I had one last paper. I walked up this overgrown path to the house. It was old. Even in the darkness I could sense how old it was. But at the same time it seemed new. It doesn't make sense, but at the time that's exactly what it seemed like.
And what really terrified me was a single light illuminating one of the front windows. One glowing eye in the house's face. One accusing eye. Ok, so I could have just thrown the paper at the front door and run. It would have been so simple just to toss the damn thing and bolt back to my bike and leave behind this nightmare. But that light in the window drew me as if I were one of those moths that throws itself against your bedroom window screen in the summer. I crept toward the window. The shade was drawn to within ... oh, maybe six inches of the window sill. I inched forward and pressed my face up to the dirty glass.
It was a one-room house. There wasn't much in the way of furnishings. A couple of mismatched chairs like you'd get for $5 from Goodwill, a simple square pine table and a lamp. I was mesmerized by the room, mesmerized and horrified. Sitting at the table was an old man. I couldn't tell you how old he was. Somehow, I got the feeling he'd been there as long as the trees that hugged the house. He had his elbows on the table and cradled his face in his hands. His hair was that jaudice-yellow white color that cotton takes on after sitting abandoned in a trunk for years. He wore a faded flannel shirt and workman's pants, spotted with paint and tar. A dirty, white mug with a jagged crack down one side sat in front of him on the table. I close my eyes and I can see it all so perfectly -- a crystal holigraphic image etched on my brain.
I don't know how long I watched the man. I told you how time was distorted. It could have been 5 seconds or 5 hours. I don't know. But, I remember shifting to get a better look and my foot kicked a rock or stick. It cracked against the side of the house, echoing like a firecracker in my hypersensitive ears. I froze in terror. At first, the old man didn't move. Then he lowered his hands and slowly turned his head. I watched in morbid fascination. I had to see his face.
The old man now stared directly at me, and instead of registering shock or fear his face held this look of weary recognition. He raised a hand and crooked a finger at me, beckoning me to come in. My mouth opened to scream, but it was like one of those nightmares where you try to scream and can't. But, you wake up from nightmares.
It was as if he sensed what I was experiencing and he grinned, this awful, death's head grin. That's when I recognized him. He started to get up from the chair. I fought the paralysis holding my body in place and twirled away from the window. I managed to run. There was no sensation other than a blur of faint street lights and damp air whipping my face. I tripped over the paper bag and tumbled into a bush or hedge. Branches tore at my face and ripped my clothing. I fought as if a pack of demons had surrounded me. I fought for my life and broke free.
Somehow I found my bike and leaped onto it, immediately peddling with some newly tapped strength. As I rode, the sky lightened. Familiar sounds of barking dogs and car engines being warmed-up began to register in my brain. I slowed to catch my breath and burst into tears as I approached the block I lived in. I had the presence of mind to quell the tears and wipe off most of the dirt and twigs from my clothes before entering my parent's house. Still, my mother knew something had happened. I explained that I'd fallen off my bike. She accepted the explanation but there was a puzzled look in her eyes. I changed clothes. As I took off the paper bag, I realized it still had the last newspaper in it. I shoved the thing under my bed. Then I ate breakfast and went to school. That evening I called the newspaper and quit my first job. Neither of my parents said another word about it. I never saved enough money to buy a raccoon. The whole incident got buried in the process of growing up. That's it, end of story. What do you think, Don?"
Don looked stunned. His pencil lay dormant in his hand. "Well, er...uh... very interesting. I'm sure we'll be able to gain some insights by examining what actually happened versus how your mind recalls the incident."
"I recalled the incident exactly as it happened," Cooper said.
"I'm sure you feel that way, Cooper," Don replied flipping through the pages of his notes. "But, we now need to determine why this story explains how you find yourself...let's see, 'waiting for yourself' every morning."
Cooper chuckled and shook his head. "You don't get it do you, Don? I recognized the old man's face and he recognized me. The story's not over. I see the face everyday." He leaned over and cradled his face in his hands.
"In your mind?" Don asked with a puzzled look.
Cooper lifted his face from his hands and grinned.
"In my mirror," Cooper said, the grin turning into a painful grimace. "And I still haven't got my morning paper."