Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Atticus awoke sharply to a particularly loud crack of thunder. It was a sound that he was beginning to get used to, but forty years of sleeping with both ears open made the habit hard to break. He glanced at the red numbers on the little digital clock he'd bought for himself the day before, and sighed. 4:30. Could be worse.
He groaned as he sat up, rubbing his eyes wearily. Another bolt illuminated his sparsely-furnished room, with the still packed up boxes stacked tall in one corner and two empty bookshelves standing next to the door like sentinals. A thin coating of dust still lay on the dual windowsills, from the house's long emptiness before they'd moved in. Atticus resolved to clean as soon as he had the time, or sometime eventually, at least.
The long downstairs hallway of the brick house was empty. He moved along it silently, headed for the kitchen. A soft clicking greeted him as he made his way in, and a wet nose shoved itself against his hand. The dog was trembling, scared stiff of the thunder. He scratched her soft ears and made a comforting noise, which sounded so strange coming from his own throat. The lightning flashed again, and Dragon dashed back under the table. She cowered in her dog bed, and Atticus sighed. He was no good at this comforting thing.
He flicked on the kitchen light, and moved to the sink. The dishes from all three day they'd been there were piled in the sink, and takeout containers overflowed from the white trash bin. He vaguely considered starting breakfast, but then realized that they were out of eggs, and the toaster hadn't been unpacked yet, and the diner wouldn't be open for another half-hour, at least. The dog's wet nose found his hand again, and he scratched her almost subconciously, mulling over the situation.
He wondered if Ben would mind leftover pizza for breakfast. Probably not, come to think of it.
Another crash of thunder sent the golden retriever skittering under the table again, and Atticus wondered how Ben was doing. The boy had been doing better, as far as he could tell, but an illness like this could reverse in a moment. He sighed, and headed upstairs to check on the boy.
The old wooden stairs creaked wearily as Atticus went up. The second door on the left was cracked open, and the orange night-light shone through like a beacon. Atticus pushed it open with all the quietness of a man who's long known how to move unheard, and stepped in.
He made slightly more noise when he nearly fell on his face. He cursed under his breath, and warily let go of his death grip on the doorframe. Water. There was water all over the floor. A quick glance upwards told him why as a water droplet hit him in the face
The roof was leaking. He wiped his face with the sleeve of his nightshirt, barely refraining from cursing again. Bloody American craftsmanship! And in the one place in the house where it actually mattered! Ben needed dry air, for...
Ben. He glanced over at the bed, and was relieved to see his young charge still sleeping. The twelve year old's small frame was twisted all around the blue-checked bedspread, and both of his pillows had somehow migrated to the floor. But he was still breathing, and still sleeping, and that's what mattered at the moment. The two de-humidifiers next to his bed were both still functioning, though the puddle was beginning to reach the one on the far edge. Another drip hit him in the back of the head, startling him. He sighed, and went back downstairs.
He wasn't entirely sure if they'd unpacked a bucket, or if there even was a bucket to unpack. Atticus eventually grabbed his tea kettle off the stove and a towel out of the downstairs bathroom and creaked his way back up the stairs.
Benjamin almost stirred this time as another huge flash of lighting broke the sky. He twisted another rotation, wrapping his bedspread more tightly around himself. He mumbled something as Atticus set down the tea kettle where he thought the drip was. One of Ben's feet was sticking out from under the covers now, and Atticus almost smiled. And then another drip hit him in the shoulder. The smile vanished, and he went back downstairs.
He returned this time with the frying pan. The dog followed him upstairs, tail tucked between her legs. She slid across the wet floor, suprise and fear painted on her face. He rubbed her head again as Ben flopped one arm out, still sleeping, looking for his pillow. Atticus handed it to him, and in a moment the boy was still again.
And then the splash of water in the puddle hit his ankle, and he knew there was a third leak.
All he could find this time was a teacup. By this time, the kettle was beginning to get full, and the dog smelled wet, and there was a fourth leak somewhere, he was quite sure of it, because a full half of the ceiling was shining with water at this point, and he went downstairs to get another teacup.
Nearly half an hour and his full tea set, two cocoa mugs, a couple of dirty glasses and a cereal bowl later, Atticus sat on the now-mostly-dry floor, leaning against the annoyingly-damp wooden door and staring at the absurdly-wet ceiling and feeling almost helpless. Ben had started coughing, and no matter how many times he emptied the teacups, the room wasn't getting any drier. The dog picked it's way through the teacup maze on the floor, headed for the closet as lightning flashed again, and in a panic Dragon knocked two of them over. Atticus sighed, and grabbed another towel from the pile he'd set outside the door. He hadn't felt this frustrated since... well, for a very long time.
He didn't know why this was bothering him. He'd stayed in leaking houses hundreds of times, many times worse than this. It barely crossed his mind anymore; if it didn't mess with his mission, it didn't matter. He'd always been able to deal with it himself. Why was this different?
He threw the wet towel at the bathroom across the hall and stared upwards. He was retired now. The mission wasn't what mattered anymore; he knew that. He'd spent the past year trying to convince himself of that, but forty years is a heavy weight to shake off.
Lightning flashed. Ben coughed. The dog wimpered, and Atticus swore under his breath. Bloody rain, bloody leak, bloody retirement. He wasn't himself without a mission.
Or maybe he was himself, and he had yet to figure out what that looked like.
He sat back, taking stock. Who was Atticus Knott? Not a spy anymore, not a retiree, technically, not even who he'd told them he was. Just an old man who'd spent his life learning what to do in situations that he would never encounter again. He didn't even have a family anymore.
He sat in silence for a moment, listening to the rain hitting the roof and the drips falling into the teacups, and thunder rolled in the distance, and Ben was breathing softly, with the same sick rasp to his voice that had brought them both to America, and to this bloody leaking house. This bloody leaking house that was going to keep him sick, with this bloody rain that had followed them all the way from England and this whole bloody situation, and Atticus wished that he just had to steal someone's briefcase so it would be over, and he could get on with the next bloody mission.
And then it hit him.
Ben. Ben was his mission. He was in another country, in a leaking house, with unknowns on every side and the odds against him, and he had an objective and a base and a full town to recon and two people to report to and quite possibly some enemies. And maybe, he barely thought, he did have a family, kind of. He twisted his ring around unconciously as he mulled it over.
And quite suddenly, he was alright.
“Alright.” He stood, stepping around the near-overflowing teacups to pick up his twelve year old charge. “Come on, Ben, we're going downstairs.”


Dana said...


...That is to say, I like it. Different for you, but I like it. Interesting character, and the introspection is great. Good job!

Mike said...

Wow! Very thought-provoking. Excellent work!