II Kramer’s Kompound
II Kramer’s Kompound
The day still hung grey with the morning fog, though it had lifted considerably so that visibility on the ground remained quite clear. Peter and Priscilla exited the back door of Dooley Downs and now pounded the distance across the mangy back yard towards the rear of the briar encrusted northern fence line. The briar was a combination of wild boysenberry and raspberry bushes entangled in a long clump-like structure engulfing the entire northern fence line, possibly the result of some well-intentioned housewife’s jam canning ambitions gone awry. With over thirty years of growth, there was now no reasonable method of eliminating the monstrosity short of high ordnance and demolition. Peter sometimes wondered how much fence wood actually still existed.
The enormous thorny patch served a bonding significance of sorts for the Dooley family. The source of their favorite exclamation was derived from the bush’s general name. Mr. Dooley spoke aloud one day of the possibility of trimming back the whole thing while pushing his children on the swing set. Rather than using the lengthy “boysenberry and raspberry bushes,” he shortened it to “briar bush.” Peter and Priscilla thought he said “brear bush” and the term had stuck with them as an exclamation within the family and several insider friends. Sometimes terms like “brear” caught on amongst the general population and everyone used it just to fit in with each other, such as “cool” and “irregardless.” The Dooleys felt proud that their word remained under the radar of popular culture.
A few years back, Priscilla found a thin patch in the briar near the back end of the northern fence line. It was barely noticeable, but a loose board in the fence exposed a portal to the property beyond. The kids occasionally used it to explore the sparse woods that surrounded Dooley Downs. It also functioned as a short cut of sorts, as one could bypass a portion of the curving road that led into town. Lastly, it served as the only feasible access from this side of their property to the back entrance of Kramer’s Kompound, a reclusive war veteran seen by few, but who remained on amiable terms with Dad. Dad occasionally brought Kramer supplies from town for a few extra bucks and once in awhile went to the Kompound to knock back a few beers with the vet. Though Peter and Priscilla had never actually met Kramer, his home was their destination now. They now needed adult help of the unconventional type.
Just as the two of them reached the loose board, they heard a scrambling on the front fence connected to the house. Aunt Gretchen had barely managed to pull herself up onto the fence by her elbows and chin. Garbed in her typical thick blue yarn knitted sweater, matching floppy sun hat, and thick horn-rimmed glasses, she struggled to maintain the position while attempting to gesture and articulate some form of communication to them, but merely managed a gurgling screech while briefly shaking a fist. She clearly saw the two at the fence line with her wild blazing eyes, long wild kinky red hair fluttering in the light breeze. Peter knelt there with the briar attached board lifted as Priscilla readied to pass through the opening, freezing briefly to contemplate their Aunt’s fence line antics. Finally, Aunt Gretchen’s strength gave out. With her last verbal gargle, she fell to the ground out of view. Quickly, the twins rushed through the briar-fence passage and into the lightly wooded land on the other side.
“You kids don’t know what trouble you are making for yourselves,” they heard their Aunt cry distantly. “You can’t avoid this!”
But avoid it was exactly what they intended to do. The woods were comprised primarily of birch. Though there stood a good ten to twelve feet between most trees, the varying colors of brown, black, and white from the trunks coupled with the green foliage and grass did a fair job of obfuscating movement. They stayed to the hilly part, avoiding where it descended to meet the curving road. Five minutes into their journey, the far off tell-tale sound of Aunt Gretchen’s behemoth of a car grinded its way angrily along the road towards town. Would she try to head them off? Would she return to Dooley Downs with police? Would she garner up a posse to hunt them down? The possibilities were dizzying. One thing dawned clear in the twins’ minds: their lives had changed forever. Something had happened to Dad. And now they were on the lam, truant from school, fleeing from an Aunt determined to be their guardian, and in the woods with no food or shelter. Since he remained a town obscurity, Kramer’s Kompound sounded like the most logical of the options before them.
The day brightened as fissures appeared in the fog layer above. Their destination lay just over the next rise. It would lead them down near the roadside, but nobody would suspect a recluse like Kramer to aid and abet diminutive criminals… at least they hoped. The other hope was that Kramer would help them at all. Rumors, among those that entertained such notions, persisted that the old war vet hoarded a cache of old Vietnam-era weaponry: pistols, rifles, machine guns, mortars, grenade launchers, napalm, bamboo splints, and sharp sticks. Someone had even gone so far as to suggest that he harbored a tank in a special underground bunker. Nobody really knew because nobody ever saw him, except Dad. And since his existence remained a quirky mystery, nobody bothered to risk their necks investigating the matter.
Cresting the rise, they saw the compound below, a dark patch of mottled green set off from the road one hundred feet or so. The complex consisted of several half-length telephone poles set up in a pentagon and draped completely in dark shades of camouflage netting, almost completely obscuring everything beneath. The twins noticed with some sense of solidarity that heavy briar from the roadside snaked around the exterior of the outpost, though trepidation quickly replaced the feeling as they approached and saw the heavy barbed wire that mingled with it. Some sort of multiple antennae device was attached to the top of each support pole, possibly a motion sensor system or other type of security contraption. An eerie absence of noise pervaded this place, steeped into the light carpet of leaves that dusted the grass, into the tree trunks themselves, and even into the crisp air surrounding them – which wasn’t still at all, as a light breeze brushed their cheeks.
The place looked foreboding and impenetrable. From prior knowledge, the main entrance to Kramer’s abode on the other side consisted of a steel barred, barbed wired, chain locked gate. A large wooden placard had been attached to it, declaring in stark hand printed red paint: “Kramer’s Kompound.” Flood lights mounted on the front supports trained their lenses on the approaching drive. Peter always wondered at the name on the gate. “Kompound” was a clear misspelling of the word “compound,” meaning a fortress or base of operations. This begged the question as to whether or not Kramer’s name was actually spelled “Cramer.” Had Kramer misspelled his base on purpose, possibly for aesthetic reasons? Or was he possibly illiterate? Maybe the shell shock of the war had overtaken his sensibilities. The jury remained undecided on the subject, as Peter had never mustered enough courage to ask Dad.
Now, Peter was taking a chance, but he surmised that any soldier worth his salt wouldn’t corner himself, compound or not, without an escape route. If it was a tunnel, then they could spend their lives searching the woods and not discover the entrance. Even if Kramer’s contingency plan was a tunnel, they knew he owned a dog --- a big black Doberman --- and a dog likely would frown upon using a tunnel for passage. There must exist a doggie door at the back of the compound facing the woods, allowing the Doberman access to the woods in order to hunt game, or to generally just sniff around and do business. Peter now mentioned this to Priscilla, who subsequently agreed with his reasoning on the matter. They moved in closer, scouting the barbed briar with their eyes for anything unusual.
The twins suddenly became aware of a soft, but harsh panting behind them. It hit Peter at once why the area appeared so still: the sounds of birds or other background animal noises were completely absent. Both kids froze in their tracks, not turning around, but trying to with their eyes. Terror washed over them as they began to suspect that Aunt Gretchen just pulled a ruse on them. She had merely driven past them to the vicinity of Kramer’s Kompound, then doubled back to catch them off their guard here. She stood behind them now, leering and panting, boney arms raised above her turquoise hand-knitted shawl, ready to grab them. A metallic click sounded. Priscilla felt the sudden urge to pee. Peter felt all hope wither away. They both knew that sound even though they had ever heard it in person, thanks to TV. That was the sound of a gun hammer being cocked. Aunt Gretchen had a gun.
“You two are a little out of your element, I reckon.” That wasn’t Aunt Gretchen’s voice. They turned around despite themselves, jaws dropped. Standing before them like a weird cowboy scarecrow, gun now being drawn down and holstered, was Kramer and his Doberman, the source of the panting. Kramer chewed a toothpick, tossing it from one side of his mouth to the other with his tongue. He towered above them, thin and wiry, dressed in big black boots, camouflage cargo pants, matching vest, with a white tank top underneath. Strapped around his waist hung a black leather belt with a holster, cradling the polished steel hand cannon he just put away. Slung over his left shoulder, a hunting rifle rested. Beneath his camouflaged cowboy hat dripped long greasy salt and pepper hair, spilling past his shoulders. Below the hair, similarly colored stubble roughened an already craggy and sunken face. His eyes blazed piercing blue, like they had seen stars burn out, but there was a softness behind them that deepened with each passing second.
“You’re Tim’s kids,” Kramer stated as a realization more than a natural fact. His voice was rough, a smoker’s voice.
“Uh, Tim? Who’s Tim?” Peter treaded lightly. There was no telling what the war had done to Kramer. Quite possibly he was experiencing flashbacks and now recalled some old war buddy. It must be tough living in more than one world, Peter thought. He looked at Priscilla for guidance, but she looked out of her element, just like Kramer had observed.
“Your Dad, Mr. Dooley. I recognize you now. You’re his kids.” Kramer’s Doberman sat patiently next to his leg, panting lightly.
“Oh, yeah, that’s us,” Peter managed lamely. He suddenly realized that he had never known his father’s name. He had always been Dad. Dad even signed his name “Dad,” at least as far as Peter or Priscilla had ever observed.
“Woof!” The dog’s bark startled Peter and Priscilla, causing them to flinch. Kramer remained steadfast, but his eyes narrowed some. The kids trained their eyes on the dog, waiting.
“WOOF!” The dog panted heavier now, his tail wagging excitedly. But he wasn’t looking at either one of the kids. His eyes glued themselves to the canvas book bag slung around Peter’s shoulder. Does he sense the symbols in the envelope, Peter wondered? Does he sense their magic?
“WOOF!” The Doberman stood up, tail upright, slightly curved, and wagging.
“Snarf,” Kramer cautioned his dog.
“WOOF! WOOF!” The dog bounced slightly on his front legs, back leg muscles wound up like springs. The kids looked at each other worriedly, then back at Snarf.
“Snarf!” Kramer growled more forcefully.
Something now squirmed within Peter’s book bag and he realized now that it was heavier and thicker than before he had placed the two envelopes inside. What was happening? Were the symbols growing? Were they coming alive? Peter raised his arms up further and looked down at the bag, suddenly wanting it off of him but too terrified to act upon his wishes. The struggling in the book bag became more intense. A black furry head popped through the corner of the flap.
“Oh my God!” Priscilla shrieked.
“Gaaahh,” Peter blurted.
“SNARF!” Kramer scolded.
“Bo bo!” Bo Bo exclaimed, trying to get out of the bag. Somehow with the turmoil at Dooley Downs, Peter hadn’t noticed Bo Bo sneaking into the book bag, nor the extra weight as they made their escape. He was openly relieved, a smile spreading widely on his face, yet in the back of his mind he felt ashamed for not thinking of saving Bo Bo while they had fled. Unbeknownst to him, Priscilla felt doubly so, on both levels. But cats, with their independent demeanor and relaxed ways, were often taken for granted and overlooked in times of stress. Most people retained a sense that they were very astute at taking care of their own affairs and saving their own skins.
“Oh, Bo Bo!” Priscilla rushed over and snatched Bo Bo from the bag, squeezing him tightly against her neck and cheek. His purr arrived swift and loud.
“Damn fine cat you got there,” Kramer remarked, shifting the toothpick in his mouth to the other side. “A might bit friendly, I might add. Snarf seems to be taken by him.” He reached down to scratch Snarf’s neck scruff, calming the dog.
“Wuff,” Snarf concluded agreeably. And with that he retired to just panting for awhile, though he never took his eyes off of Bo Bo, not even as the subject changed.
“What’re you kids doing out here. It’s dangerous.” Kramer glanced broadly around, apparently surveying all the danger around them.
Peter recovered. “We’re being chased. We need help.”
“Being chased, huh?” Kramer seemed unconvinced.
“Dad… I mean Mr. Dooley… I mean Tim…” Priscilla struggled.
“What she’s getting at is that our Dad has left or has gone missing,” Peter clarified.
“Well make up your mind. Has he left or has he gone missing?” Kramer’s left eyebrow raised while the other remained motionless. Peter found the gesture fascinating and slightly frightening.
Priscilla collected herself. “We’re not sure. All we know is that, if our Aunt Gretchen has any say in the matter, he won’t be coming back! She’s chasing us! She wants us to live with her! We got this letter…”
“Shh, shhh. That’s enough now.” Kramer raised his hand to calm her. “Let’s take this inside. The woods have… ears… and eyes.”
Peter and Priscilla failed to quite grasp what he insinuated, but Kramer glanced around furtively as if they were under surveillance. Gently, but swiftly, he led them to a thinning in the briar and barbed wire barrier, very similar to the one at Dooley Downs. Kramer swept it back with his bare palm. Although it looked real, this portion of the briar was fake, much to the surprise of the Dooleys. Beyond stood wire mesh fencing with a somewhat small hinged door. Kramer reached for something in the side pocket of his cargo pants and suddenly there issued a click from the door. It swung open silently on its own. Kramer motioned forward with his free hand. The twins looked at him, then at each other, then ducked and passed through into Kramer’s Kompound.
They all stood in what passed for Kramer’s living room. The twins waited patiently while Kramer read the letter from Dad that arrived that morning. Going through the secret back entrance at the perimeter, Peter and Priscilla had been startled and fairly disappointed by the place. They’d expected to see bazookas lying around, missiles stacked up, and crates piled here and there overflowing with belts of menacing bullets, possibly a tank peering from the shadows of a fortified garage pill box. Instead, they had entered into a flat, empty yard of hard packed tan dirt. The only things visible were two buildings of questionable wood plank construction reinforced here and there by sheet metal, aluminum siding, and chicken wire. They both looked the same size, but one was probably just a garage judging from the vehicle sized door that seemed to open upward, but which was currently closed. Besides, Kramer had motioned them to the other shack-like structure. Peter and Priscilla had stepped carefully on the ground, mindful of any trip wires or land mines that might be lurking about, but Snarf had bounded joyfully ahead of them and Kramer had prodded the kids gently along. Now Kramer stood before them, stroking his beard stubble and mumbling incoherently as he peered intensely at Dad’s letter.
Peter and Priscilla finally got tired of standing and searched for a reasonable place to sit down. Pushing aside some sporting magazines, some outdated newspapers, a monkey wrench, and what Priscilla thought must be a dried banana peel, the twins managed to clear a spot on the beige futon and huddle together. A large, shellacked wooden wire spool sat before them impersonating a coffee table. Almost every observable inch of its top surface was covered with paper scribbling, magazines, newspapers and clippings, assorted ammo, various soda and beer cans, crusted plates, writing utensils, overflowing ash trays, cigarettes and their boxes, melted down candles, and other assorted detritus. The walls were faux oak wood paneling adorned with army recruitment and old rock n’ roll posters. A tattered and drooping American flag was stapled to the ceiling. Two square plastic recycling crates next to the spool apparently served as stools. Beyond this windowless room hung a beaded curtain that led to a tiny kitchen and a green army blanket curtain that Kramer had said led to the “latrine,” which they supposed meant the potty. Supposedly, Kramer slept on the futon?
“Hmmm, now this is really something, isn’t it,” Kramer finally articulated. Still examining the letter, he went on: “Now how is it that you kids know there is something fishy about this? It says here that you should be with your Aunt right about now.”
He peered at them over the reading glasses he had put on when they had handed the letter to him. Somehow, even with his hard appearance, his army/hunting attire, and his still equipped guns, the glasses softened him… made him look wiser, almost teacher-like.
“She did come for us,” Priscilla answered, “we ran.” She held and stroked Bo Bo, who gazed cautiously at Snarf on the other side of the room. Snarf appeared clearly enamored with the cat, but respected the feline’s space. There may still be time to explore a relationship.
Peter took over the explanation: “She didn’t have the keys. And when we didn’t let her in she got rather violent, banging the door, yelling, and generally carrying on. We couldn’t go with her. Besides, she has a history of trying to take us from Dad.”
“Yup,” Kramer agreed. “Tim told me of the court case. He let on that things weren’t exactly agreeable between the Dooleys and Aunt Gretchen. She was your Mom’s sister, no? Seemed to think Tim was responsible, or something to that effect.”
“The point is,” Peter continued, “she didn’t have the keys. Even if there was half a crock to that jazzed up letter, Dad would’ve given her the keys to Dooley Downs if he really was going to leave.” It still felt weird to him to hear his Dad’s real name spoken.
“Go on,” Kramer urged.
“Dad would’ve never pulled a stunt like this. How would he suddenly just patch things up with that ugly bat after all she’s pulled? We haven’t even heard from her in over six months, since the court case. The court case… TO TAKE US. Dad’s always been on the up and up with us. He’s had problems coping with Mom’s death and all, but he’s always loved us. He wouldn’t do this. I don’t know how to explain it. He just wouldn’t.” The events were catching up with Peter. He started to feel very sad about all that had taken place. Priscilla took over to bolster their case.
“Look at that letter, Mr. Kramer, sir. That’s printed, from a computer. We don’t own a computer.”
“Maybe he used someone else’s,” Kramer countered mildly.
“Maybe. But why? Dad hand writes everything!”
“That’s his signature, isn’t it?” Kramer held out the letter so they could see Dad’s signature. “Got all of his special symbols on it, don’t it?”
Priscilla felt herself crumple. Kramer didn’t buy their reasoning. He was an adult; they were just kids. She looked at Peter. He leaned over on his knees and stared at the floor. A large Arabian rug covered most of the old, stained ochre colored carpet of the living room. It looked faded and dusty, what could be seen of it. Scraps of paper, magazines, empty cans, vacant cigarette boxes, and other byproducts of consumerism littered the floor. Clearly, Kramer lacked basic housekeeping skills. Maybe Dad had picked it up from Kramer. Their house was only slightly better.
“Relax, kids. I’m your friend, sure as I am Tim’s. But I’m trying to give you insight into how adults perceive things. Adults are going to believe this letter over your story. And if there is no evidence of your Dad to contest it, you will be going to live with your Aunt Gretchen, sooner or later, like it or not.”
“So what do we do?” Priscilla tried not to sound desperate, but it came through as such anyway.
Kramer looked down at her over his reading glasses. He carefully folded the letter and handed it to Priscilla. He gently removed his glasses and put them in one of the many assorted pockets on his vest. There was something tired about his silent motions. Even Peter noticed, now shaken out of his daze. He removed his scoped hunting rifle off of his shoulder and placed it on the wall mount opposite the futon. Then he hunkered down on one of the crates by the coffee table. Pulling a cigarette from one of the many partially filled boxes on the table, he contemplated it for a spell, then stuck it in the corner of his mouth and lit it. Dragging in deeply, Kramer looked at the tattered American flag drooping from the ceiling. Priscilla thought she saw his eyes tear up, but when he looked back down at them they appeared clear and dry. Kramer remained silent for a few moments more, flicking ashes from his cigarette into an overflowing ash tray on the coffee table. The anticipation over what he was about to say grinded on the childrens’ nerves.
“That,” Kramer finally announced, “is something that you need to decide for yourselves. I can’t do that for you. I think your Dad may have told you something to that effect before. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t help. I can offer you my life experience and maybe a couple other things. One other thing I can do is explain the choices that you have before you, which are very few.”
Priscilla and Peter looked at each other, then back to Kramer, silently accepting his offer.
“The first choice is easy, relatively speaking. You go turn yourself in and live with your Aunt Gretchen… however, you live with her for ever after.” Kramer noted by the look on the twin’s faces that the first choice was clearly not an option.
“The second choice is much more difficult and filled with uncertainty. The second choice is to keep running, find out what happened to your Dad. There’s no guarantee of success. You may still end up living with Aunt Gretchen, answers or not.”
“We run,” Peter stated emphatically. “This whole situation is a great big dogalog. Dad’s in trouble. We need to help him.”
Priscilla looked at him and nodded vigorously. Clearly, the choice had been determined. Kramer examined them carefully and then continued.
“Alright. It seems you’ve chosen a quest.”
“Brear,” Priscilla said in awe.
“Like fate?” Peter asked.
“Nope, nope.” Kramer took another drag off his cigarette. The smoke poured from his mouth like a dragon as he spoke. “Fate is when you have no choice, and it usually ends poorly. Your positions are a little more like destiny, but even that implies a fixed outcome. Nope, you two are about to embark on a full-fledged quest, the outcome of which will, in part, be decided by your actions. But there are a lot of uncertainties.”
“You mean adults?” Priscilla asked.
“That’s one uncertainty… a big one. As it’s a Monday, not a holiday, and barring any teacher conferences, I’d say you two are truant.”
“Yeah,” Peter confirmed sadly. “Dad was supposed to take us to school this morning. But he never showed up last night, obviously. He’s always been there to take us to school. We’ve never missed a day unless one of us was sick… never.”
“So, since you are truant, adults you encounter are going to wonder why you are out of school. They are not going to be sympathetic. In fact, some may try to turn you in to authorities. Plus, you’ve got your single-minded Aunt to contend with, who is actively looking for you both. She might have gone to the cops already. There might be a posse organizing right now, determined to hunt you down and bring you to the scales of justice.”
“Wait a minute,” Peter interjected, “that letter is a fraud! Nobody could seriously believe it!”
“As I said before, adults are not going to believe your story over Aunt Gretchen’s, especially without your Dad there to back it up. To other adults, that letter says it all. Now, they probably will search for your Dad, but if he can’t be found, it’ll just be prolonging the inevitable.”
“But why won’t they believe us?” Peter asked, trying not to sound whiny but feeling unsuccessful with the effort. Priscilla bore a pained expression on her face, clearly dissatisfied with their diminishing prospects of hope. Kramer finished his cigarette with one epic drag then snuffed it out in one of the overflowing ashtrays. Peter watched carefully for the smoke to come out of the veteran’s mouth or nose, but it never did, even when he spoke again.
“You see, kids, I’ve got a unique insight into the matter, being that I am arguably an adult myself. It’s like this: people are like rubber bands, see? When a person is young, they are like a new rubber band. Lots of things can happen, stretch you different ways, but you always go back into shape. Well, as you get older, all this stuff keeps on happening, see? And a person starts to get brittle and lose their elasticity. So an adult is like a stretched out rubber band on the verge of snapping… or breaking, as it were. And because they don’t want to snap, they try to impose order on life and limit the mystical and strange from affecting their lives. Oh, but they watch it on TV and read about it in the gossip magazines, because they remember on some level what it was like to be a young rubber band, but they don’t let it happen in their lives because they are afraid they might snap.”
“I’m lost,” Priscilla declared, throwing her hands up in exasperation.
“So are you saying that you’re about to snap, Mr. Kramer?” Peter was trying to figure it out because it sounded like something his Dad would concoct. He glanced at Bo Bo sitting on Priscilla’s lap, raptly watching Kramer. Clearly Bo Bo placed some stock the reasoning of rubber bands and people.
“In short, kids, it’s about magnetism,” Kramer tried to clarify.
“I thought it was about elasticity,” Priscilla tried to clarify.
“It is, but that was just a metaphor. You see, it’s about what you are drawn to and what is drawn to you. Or, more specifically, what you let yourself get drawn to and what you let get drawn to you. Most adults don’t see the transition in their lives, from kid to teen to adult. More and more they let themselves get drawn to singular ideas and ways of behaving. And, alternately and concurrently, they let the diminishing pattern of others get drawn to them. Soon, they forget what it was like to be a kid. They think when they were kids, they thought like they did as they do in adulthood. So when they hear kids question what adults are doing, they think they are exaggerating… or worse, lying.
“See, the war brought me back to remembering how I thought when I was a kid. War can do that to a person, make them realize what has passed on and been lost. I got my elasticity back, so to speak. And your Dad is one of those unique individuals who never lost his. That’s why he was… er, is such a good father to you both… and why he and I are friends. But I think your Mom’s death pulled one over on him. Instead of stretching slowly over time, he was stretched to the limit very quickly with your Mom’s passing. The only thing keeping him from snapping is his elasticity, and you two. You both help him remember how to think like a kid. And I would be surprised if he hadn’t left you with some clue or message on what to do if he was suddenly gone, like that signature of his.”
“Not too long after Mom died,” Peter said excitedly, finally catching on to what Kramer was getting at, “he put an envelope in a secret hiding place and showed us where it was. He told us to get it if there ever came a time where he wasn’t there for us. He said it contained symbols that he and Mom shared that would help guide us. We brought it here.” He began fishing in his book bag as Priscilla took over with a pressing question on her mind.
“Just what does Dad’s signature mean… those symbols? Did he ever tell you?”
“Nah, he never did… and I never asked. I never actually saw him write it, either, but I did see it on some legal papers he wanted my opinion on… you know, last Spring when your Aunt took him to court over you two. I asked him about it and he told me that he got legal permission to sign his name as “Dad” with all those special symbols after your Mom died. Apparently, there was something to it since it was all over those legal documents. But I didn’t pursue the matter further because I became preoccupied by how a person could go about doing such a thing and what kind of jangled up name I’d create for myself.” Kramer stared off at the floor, stroking the stubble on his chin, likely imagining what kind of interesting name he could adopt.
“Did you know Mom… our Mom?”
“Not like I knew Tim… I mean your Dad. It wasn’t like we ever exchanged dinner invitations. I would see them pass by the place now and again: sometimes driving, sometimes walking by hand-in-hand during the evening.”
Priscilla imagined Dad and Mom strolling together on a late summer eve, an orange glow still clinging to the deepening blue of the coming night, holding hands lightly, fingers playing with each other’s. She and Peter were barely seven when Mom died. Her memories of Mom were distant, but fond, and they centered largely on how the relationship of her parents played out before their eyes. Mom and Dad had always been happy, always romantic. They gave and laughed and played. Priscilla may not be particularly adept at articulating her feelings regarding the matter, but anyone reading her mind would understand that she knew what real love was; because she had been loved. And so it was with Peter, as well.
“After the accident,” Kramer continued, “Tim came by and introduced himself. Gradually, over the years we became good friends, even though we only saw each other once or twice a month. I think I’ve helped him through some difficult times since your Mom passed away… you know, being a buddy, allowing him to vent. The war taught me a lot about loss.”
“And how did Dad help you?” Priscilla asked.
“Groceries,” Kramer grinned weakly. “Now let’s get to this thing your Dad left you. Time’s not flying backwards.”
Priscilla noticed the abruptness with which Kramer changed the subject. She knew Dad was largely a listener and probably helped Kramer as much as Kramer helped Dad. Until Dad came along, Kramer had lived largely in isolation with the memories of the war he experienced rolling around in his noggin. All of this was probably as overwhelming to Kramer as it was for the twins, having just met and all, even under the circumstances. Besides, Kramer’s point held water. Time made friends with nobody.
“Let’s see what you got there, Peter,” Kramer said.
Peter had cleared away an empty space on the wire spool coffee table. In the middle of the clearing lay the sealed textured envelope. Without ceremony, Peter popped off the wax seal. His face displayed the surprise he felt. It was that easy? The flap of the envelope raised slightly, the seal never licked. A folded letter of strange material was tucked inside. It was some kind of paper, but it appeared to be made of corn husk or straw. Peter touched it, experiencing further surprise at the paper’s smoothness.
“That looks like papyrus,” Kramer mused.
“Pappy-what?” the twins both asked in unison.
“Papyrus: Egyptian paper. The Egyptians made paper out of the Papyrus plant. They lived on the Nile River and there weren’t a lot of trees in the desert, or some such thing. This Papyrus grew plentiful, so they devised a method of making it into paper. It’s sort of a novelty now, being that white paper produced from trees is so much the rage. I wonder where Tim obtained it from.”
Peter pulled it from the envelope and he and his sister spent a few seconds touching the smooth, sturdy texture of the strange paper. Then Peter unfolded it. A crisp one hundred dollar bill fell out onto the table.
“Peter!” Priscilla exclaimed. Peter picked the bill up, examined it briefly, and then gave it to his sister. She was the responsible one with money. He unfolded the letter and gawked at what it revealed. Each letter was carefully scribed in Dad’s odd handwriting, symbols and all. Peter’s eyes bulged in awe as he read aloud:
If you are reading this, then something has happened to me and it probably isn’t good. But now you are on your own and you need to find your way, together. You may be tempted to leave your fate in the hands of the nearest adult. I think I’ve taught you better than that and I think you would be disappointed in yourselves if you did. You are Dooleys and I think you can see the reasoning in that.
I’ve left you some money to help you get around. Be careful, it won’t last. You will need to find your path and get going on it right away, which leads to what else is in the envelope: The Sooth Jewels. One was your Mom’s and one was mine and together they showed us our path. Now they are yours and yours alone. Use them to decide your path and don’t let up until you see that path completed.
Remember, your imagination unlocks the power of the symbols, for better or for worse. But these Sooth Jewels have no power than that which you give unto them. Never forget this. I love you both and we will all meet again at some other place in some other time. Brear!
“That’s the Dad I know,” Priscilla sniffled, wiping fresh tears from her eyes.
“Yeah… brear.” Peter felt hollowness inside him. It felt as if Dad had been extracted from his heart; not the love, just his presence. Until reading this letter, recent events clung to them like a fall shadow trying to keep up. Now the shadow hung among them, inside them. There was no more running away; there was only running towards. Towards what, remained to be decided… by them.
Peter shook the “artifacts” from the envelope out onto the table. They tumbled together, clinking. The objects were small, shiny, and metallic. One was slim, a simple cylinder like a needle, but without a point. It wasn’t much thicker than one, either. It measured close to three inches in length. The other object was about twice as long, but bent into a “V” so that each side measured three inches, including its “open” side. The objects had landed on the table together, roughly forming the letter “K.”
“Look,” Peter observed, “it’s a ‘K’… as in ‘Kramer’.”
“Oh, c’mon, Peter,” Priscilla scolded mildly, jostling him in the ribs with her elbow. The fascination of the objects had washed away much of the growing sadness in her heart.
“Nah, nah. Peter’s got a point there.” Kramer was back to stroking his stubbly chin, now a clear indicator of deep thought. Peter wondered with passing how Kramer managed to keep any sort of stubble on his face at all, what with all his scratching and rubbing, but maybe that was how he kept it to length. Either that, or maybe deep thinking was a rarity for the hardened vet, a luxury of sorts. Peter decided to strike the latter. Then he dropped the matter from his mind altogether.
“You see,” Kramer continued, “Peter is already figuring out the symbolism of these here Sooth Jewels, using his imagination and such. That’s just the sort of thing Tim was getting at.” He winked at Peter. Peter tried to capitalize on the bonding gesture with a wink of his own, but merely managed to smash his eyelids open and closed in rapid succession.
“Well what do you think it means, Kramer?” Priscilla asked.
“Oh, no. Nah. This is your deal. Tim made that clear.”
“Ok,” Priscilla said, getting more excited at this new task before them. She arranged the objects so they were side by side, then sat back and looked smugly at them.
“What is that?” Peter screwed his face into confusion. Kramer remained silent.
“It’s a four.”
“That doesn’t look like a four! It looks like a ‘1’ and a ‘V’.”
“Yeah, you squib! That’s how the Romans wrote their fours, except with capital letters. ‘I’ equals one and ‘V’ equals five. You put the ‘I’ to the left of the ‘V’ and it’s like subtracting one from five, which equals four.”
“Where’d you learn that?” Peter felt jipped. They were in the same grade with the same teachers. How did she know something he didn’t?
“I have my ways,” she said smartly, mildly teasing.
“Well, what does ‘four’ mean for us?”
“Um, it means our family: you, me, Dad, and Bo Bo!”
“Well why not Mom, too?” Peter removed the straight piece, leaving the ‘V’ for five. The object was amazingly light and cool in his hand.
“Five to one, baby, one in five; no one here gets out alive,” Kramer mumbled, slightly singing. Peter and Priscilla shivered at the slow chill that crawled up their spins and settled as goose-bumps along their arms.
“What does that mean?” Peter asked. “That sounds kinda grim.”
Kramer blinked a few times, as if coming back from somewhere very far away. He cleared his throat.
“What do doors have to do with the number five?” Priscilla asked, rubbing her brow.
“Oh, not doors that you open and close and walk through. Not in the literal sense, mind you. The Doors were a rock band during my time, my youth. They named their band after, and sung about, the doors of perception. You see, your mind is what sees, not your eyes. People forget that, so they start believing what their eyes tell them, not what their mind tells them. It goes to what you are doing with these symbols here. Each new thing you imagine about them is another perception, another door opened.”
“We have to use these symbols together, Peter, like Dad said. Mom isn’t here.” Priscilla held out her hand. Peter reluctantly gave her the piece. He felt frustrated, like they weren’t getting this thing right.
“Well, Dad isn’t either,” Peter retorted.
Priscilla bit her nail, looking anxiously at the bent object on the table. She noticed the near weightless coolness of the piece in her hand and gazed at it in wonder. Then she quietly placed it to the right of the ‘V’.
“Six?” Peter asked. “What do you suppose that means?”
“I have no idea,” she breathed softly.
“Maybe something yet to be seen? A new doorway?” Kramer offered. “The number might have significance at a future date. Remember it.”
Priscilla reached forward, positioning the straight piece against the open face of the bent one, forming a triangle.
“The pieces are together,” Peter amazed, “in a triangle. There’s a triangle in Dad’s signature!”
“Yeah, in the small ‘d’… with a small circle at each corner.”
“Me, you, and Dad?”
“Me, you, and Bo Bo,” Priscilla corrected. “It’s just us now.”
“Well what about Kramer… and Snarf?”
“Like I said before,” Kramer reminded, “this is your quest and something you two… I mean three, will need to complete yourselves. I will do more harm joining you than good. You can hang under the adult radar, I can’t. But you are getting closer and you are starting to work together.”
Peter examined the two pieces closely. “Hey, look. This straight piece is threaded on both ends. It’s almost unnoticeable. And there is a hole in the bend of this one.” They all leaned closely in as Peter rotated the pieces slowly. He took one end of the straight piece and threaded it carefully into the outside bend of the other, forming a ‘Y’.
“Now the pieces really are together!” Priscilla marveled. “But what does ‘Y’ mean?”
The room fell silent except for the soft snoring purr of Bo Bo, who had made his way over to Snarf and curled up next to his side. Snarf sat motionless, looking about the room then back down at Bo Bo, excited but clearly afraid to move. Staring at the combined symbols, Kramer suddenly realized which piece had been Tim’s and which had been his wife’s and what their joining had meant to them, where they let the symbolism lead them. However, he felt divulging the knowledge to the twins was not prudent at the moment and he decided to interject.
“Maybe it just means you should be asking ‘why’ about everything from here on out,” he offered, breaking the silence. “Maybe you’ll figure it out later, hmm?”
“Well, wait,” Peter remarked, astonishment filling his face and voice. He swiftly unscrewed the two pieces, reversed the curved one, and then screwed the two back into place. There existed little interpretation for the resulting symbol.
“Peter, it’s an arrow!”
“Yes! And arrows point the way!”
Kramer began chuckling and a smile cracked upon his face, the first of either that they had witnessed. Abruptly, he jumped up whooping, hat in hand and slapping his thigh. Snarf jumped up and down, too. Bo Bo, realizing his new hosts not to be the calm, collected, rational sort he had come to believe, skittered across the floor and disappeared into Peter’s book bag. Peter took note while still marveling at Kramer’s startling change of demeanor.
“An arrow points the way!” Kramer crushed his hat down on his head and danced into the kitchen, slapping the beaded curtain aside in a jumble. He emerged almost immediately, delicately balancing a large saucer of water, gauging speed with care. He placed the saucer in the clearing on the table and sat back down, solemn and thoughtful again. “Go ahead, Peter, place the arrow upon the water, flat-wise.”
Peter complied, moving slow and careful. He was certain that the unified metallic object would sink. And yet, it was so light in his hand. Just a hair above the fluid he let it go. The object floated, and it floated on top of the water, as if it had one hundred percent buoyancy. Slowly it turned, until it pointed toward one corner of the room.
“Well, now. That is the damndest thing I’ve ever seen,” Kramer whispered.
“It moved,” Peter added, “and it floats.”
“It floats like nothing I’ve ever seen… nothing metallic that is. It’s floating on the water, not in it. But that’s beside my point. As you might know, Earth has a magnetic field. Although it affects everything, some things show it more, like things with iron in them. If you place a thin enough needle in water so that it floats, it will align itself to the Earth’s poles, north and south.”
“And so which way is it pointing?”
Kramer pulled a small object out of one of his pants pockets and looked it. Peter assumed he was looking at a pocket compass. Putting it away, Kramer stood up and reached into his back pocket, pulling out a folded map. Peter wondered what other gadgets Kramer kept on his person. He was like a veritable Swiss Army Vet. Kramer walked over to the wall above the futon, where resided a sternly cast Uncle Sam poster accusingly pointing a finger at his audience with the simple, yet ominous, command: “I WANT YOU FOR THE U.S. ARMY.” Kramer popped out the pins holding the poster to the wall and let it haphazardly fall to the floor. Unfolding the map in his hand, he spread it evenly upon the wall and pinned it into place. He stood back, admiring the majesty of the open parchment with his hands on his hips.
“Huh,” was all he said.
“Huh?” the twins replied in unison.
“Uh-huh,” was the response.
Snarf nosed Peter’s book bag cautiously. A soft, but definitely displeased hiss issued from it. Snarf jerked back and whined, saddened over Bo Bo’s change in affection but oblivious to how he had contributed to it. Changing the subject, he turned and sniffed his master’s leg. Apparently satisfied, Snarf trotted between the beaded curtains into the kitchen, where the sounds of water slurping soon ensued.
“Soooo?” Priscilla intoned, displaying her hands palms up before her. His back to them, the physical gesture was lost on Kramer, but the verbal tone wasn’t.
“Sorry, kids, my mind was wandering. What we have here is an anomaly. You see, this map is oriented north, against this wall.” He pulled a mechanical pencil from his boot, clicked the graphite out, and marked an ‘X’ on the map. Looking over his shoulder at the twins, he said: “That’s us… where we are right now.”
He stroked a line across the map into the town of Prudence. It went off into the northwest side of the map. Kramer then turned to the kids, raising his eyebrows up and down and nodding towards the floating arrow. The kids looked. The arrow wasn’t pointing north. It was pointing in the direction Kramer had drawn, into Prudence.
“So it points into town,” Peter observed.
“Yeah, but it shouldn’t.” Kramer removed another object, a protractor, from the bottomless pockets on his camouflage cargo pants, much to Peter and Priscilla’s amazement. He leaned over and measured the angle of the arrow floating on the water in the saucer and then placed the protractor on the map to gauge the corresponding angle. Then he peered closely at the line he had drawn on the map and compared it to the protractor. He drew another ‘X’ on a spot in prudence.
“Oh,” he said, as if he had discovered something noteworthy.
“Oh?” Peter looked at Priscilla with wonder. She returned the expression.
“This arrow points towards Swenson Park at the edge of Prudence. But the first building it points to past that…” Kramer turned dramatically to them, “is Red’s Recovery Room.” He tapped the spot on the map a couple of times with the mechanical pencil for emphasis.
“Seriously?” Peter asked.
“As napalm,” Kramer confirmed. The twins weren’t too sure what napalm meant, but Kramer’s face said he was very serious.
“Where Dad hung out,” Priscilla declared. “Then we go. Maybe Red knows something.”
Peter nodded in confirmation. Kramer scrutinized their resolve and then headed for the front door. “Be back,” he said.
The room was silent. The slopping of water in the kitchen by Snarf had finished. Possibly he had fallen asleep. Peter took the metallic arrow and the letter and put it back in the envelope. He placed it carefully in the book bag so as not to disturb Bo Bo. Priscilla just blew air through her pursed lips in a silent whistle as she quietly patted her hands together. There clearly was no need for further discussion in the matter. There was little choice, even if it was coincidence. But neither of them believed it was. Things felt fluid. A meaning and a power fluttered under everything.
Kramer soon returned, holding a BMX bike in each hand and a long object between his teeth. He set the bikes down against each other and removed the object from his mouth. In two lengthy, smooth strides he stepped over between the twins and hunkered down. The object he held in his hands was a large knife in a thick black leather sheath. He pulled the knife partially out of the sheath, revealing a polished steel blade, razor sharp on one edge, rough and jagged on the other. There was a clear bulb at the end of the hilt, a water filled compass.
“This is my army combat survival knife. I want you to have it. Don’t say no. The compass on the end here screws off. Inside is a wire saw, some fish hooks and line, a needle and thread, and some water proof matches. I anticipate that you are headed into trouble. Use this to help you on your way, but only pull it against someone when you have no other choice. I repeat: do not pull this on anyone unless you intend to use it. It is an item of last resort. Take those bikes I brought in. They were for my boys, until my woman ran off with them, never to return.” A brief sorrow rippled across his face, then vanished.
“Mr. Kramer, we can’t…” Priscilla started, but Kramer cut her off.
“I said no. You take them. You go. You run and find your destiny. Listen, there is a power and it is with you. It is on your side, but only if you believe in yourselves, like your Dad said. Today is the beginning of your new lives… the ones you will make yourselves. Go. Scat.” Kramer stood and gently prodded the twins to their feet.
Peter gently lifted his book bag with Bo Bo and the envelopes in it. Then he carefully put the combat survival knife inside, making sure the sheath was clipped so that Bo Bo wouldn’t hurt himself. Priscilla looked worried, but Peter assured her with a nod that everything would be alright.
Quietly they went over to the bikes, Kramer following behind. Each twin took one and they all went outside. They headed for the front gate this time, the twins unafraid of land mines or booby traps, their minds clearly on the journey before them. Once again, Kramer retrieved an object from his cargo pants, a small rectangular box. He extended an antenna from the box and pressed a button on the box’s face. The gate slowly swung open with a groan.
Peter realized the chain locking the gate was just a ruse, a diversion for any would-be infiltrators. The impression would’ve stricken him with greater intensity had it been under different circumstances.
The twins looked back at Kramer pensively, poised on their new BMX bikes, ready to ride. Peter opened his mouth to say something, but Kramer held up his hand, silencing him. There remained nothing else to say. He swished his hand towards them, urging them off. Reluctantly they turned towards the open gate to the gravel drive beyond. Each pulled a deep breath, set themselves upon their bikes, and pushed forward. Once past the threshold, the gate to Kramer’s Kompound slowly groaned closed behind them.