Stepping into the front hallway, Warren sniffled, peeling the hood down off of his head and kicking his shoes off. Something smelled burnt, but he let the observation hang for the moment as he pulled off his sweatshirt and hung it on one of four gold-plated hooks set in the wall to his right, beside a worn denim jacket with a faded tan hood and liner. He rolled his head, cracking his neck, and rubbed his arms briefly, soaking in the warmth of the house.
Into the living room he stalked, looking at the mid-sized flat screen television mounted on the wall, a DVD selection menu frozen on the display. Directly in front of him was an aging black La-Z-Boy recliner, his father laid back in it, mouth partly open as he snored softly under a ragged black-and-red checkerboard blanket. His lumberjack’s beard, peppered with grays and whites, made him look like a bonafide mountain man when coupled with a button shirt that matched the blanket covering his stomach and legs. A couch stood off to the right side of the small living room, a pale green number that looked like it had been salvaged from a fraternity that had gone out of fashion in the mid-to-late 80’s. In the far left corner of the room stood a small piano, several framed photographs standing on its dusty top.
Warren noticed that one was missing. A quick look back down at his sleeping father showed him that Samuel Voss had it clutched in his hands against his stomach. A half-emptied tumbler on the lamp table to his father’s left held watery scotch, and the bottle from which it had been poured stood on the curio cabinet tucked into the corner of the room opposite the piano, drained to a quarter of its capacity. His father had just purchased the bottle a couple of days earlier. “Jesus, dad,” Warren mumbled to himself, gently prying the picture free of his father’s grip. Warren looked at the picture for a long moment as he stood by his father, a gorgeous black-and-white stylized portrait of his father, mother, and himself at the proud age of fourteen. He was holding up a certificate, wearing a karate uniform with a black belt tied around his waist.
Warren quietly walked it back over to the piano and set it down, then swept himself into the kitchen through the nearby archway. The source of the burnt aroma he’d detected at the door leapt out at him, a crusted pan sitting on the stovetop. He inspected the dish, which had been left with a thin layer of over-cooked ground chuck in the bottom, along with blackened flecks of rice and green peppers. It was a simple meal, but one his father made frequently now that it was just the two of them at home. He’d made it for just himself for a couple of years before, since Samantha Voss had passed. Warren carried the pan over to the sink and set it in the bottom, pouring soap and hot water into it so that it could soak.
A tiny platoon of empty beer cans stood at attention on the sideboard, their duty completed, the foul enemy of sobriety vanquished for another evening. Warren sighed, kneeling down to fetch a plastic shopping bag from under the sink. He tossed the cans in, then carried the bag through a side door out into the darkened garage, where a hulking shape sat under a wide, bright blue plastic tarp. He glared at the shape, twin fangs of guilt and fear snapping venomously at his psyche. Yeah, Zoey, I know all too well how hard it can be, he thought as he looked at the covered vehicle. It was the final possession he’d obtained through means less than legal, and though his father had not once balked or asked how he could ever have afforded such a machine, Warren knew that its continued presence in the garage would eventually be brought up in conversation.
Warren turned away and lifted open the can crusher screwed into the garage wall, proceeding to reduce the empty cans into flattened discs, reeking of Bad Decision Juice. The scent conjured up blurry, phantom images of nights he’d spent with Zoey, the two of them running from who knew what, trying to stay ahead of the authorities. When The Zapper got snagged, it had practically been every man and woman for themselves in the superpowered criminal’s network. Even the handful of police officers and investigators who’d been on his payroll had turned tail and ratted out others within the organization in exchange for leniency and quiet dismissals from their respective posts.
He would have assumed one of them had given up himself and Zoey, had the ADA not informed him of the powered cretin who could speak to machines. Part of him still wanted to believe that, that the woman had been lying about having such a powered member within the echelons of law enforcement. Yet there had been too much truth in her words, in her tone; she’d wielded the truth like a scalpel, and cut into his fragile ego with the ease and arrogance of any given surgeon.
Finished with the task of can-crushing, he headed back inside, nearly colliding with his father. Voss senior had the crinkle-eyed, punchy expression of someone who has been too hard in sleep and wanted nothing more than to head back to that lovely state as he stutter-stepped back. “Jesus, Warren, you scared the shit out of me,” he grumbled muzzily, rubbing at his right eye with the back of his wrist. “What time is it?”
“I was at group, Dad,” Warren said with a sigh.
“Okay. Well, what the hell was that noise in the garage,” his father asked as Warren sighed and passed toward the living room.
“The can crusher. I’m gonna head up to bed, I volunteered to cover first shift for Ruiz tomorrow,” Warren said, heading for the staircase beside the front door of the house.
“But aren’t you already working second shift tomorrow?” His father stood near the recliner, his hands on his hips, still looking like he was near-sighted and trying to read a far-off road sign as he tried to meet his son’s eyes.
“Yeah, I am. I told my boss I could use the extra cash, he agreed to let me ride some overtime as long as it doesn’t cause an imbalance on the overhead,” said Warren, grabbing onto the stair railing.
“Oh, okay, kiddo,” said his father, flapping one hand at him. “Good night, son,” he added, settling back down noisily into the recliner and under his blanket.
“Night, Dad,” said Warren, giving his father one last long look before taking the steps two at a time to the upper floor. From the landing, down the narrow central hallway, stopping beside the open bedroom door where his mother and father had slept together for twenty-nine years. Since his release, Warren hadn’t seen his father step into the room for more than a couple of minutes, just to grab a change of clothes. He didn’t even actually get dressed in there, instead carrying whatever he grabbed the ten total steps it took to get into the bathroom and swing it shut.
Samuel Voss didn’t believe it was right to be naked in the room he’d shared with his wife, not now that she was gone. For two years it had been a dust-encased shrine to what had been, and never would be again. Warren stared at the queen-sized bed, its covers undisturbed for a length of time he could not guess at, and wondered if his father would ever lay down there again.
I wasn’t the one driving that battletank, Warren thought, fists closing tight enough to make his nails dig painfully into the flesh of his palms. I wasn’t even on that assignment. I was in Kansas-goddamn-City, carrying out my orders. He snorted, pushing away these thoughts before heading down to the end of the hall, to his own room, and easing the door shut behind him. Unlike his parents’ bedroom, his had undergone several changes in the years between when he first went off to college and that night after group, serving no less than five different roles in the interim. At first, his mother had made it over into a general use guest room, so that he could still crash there when he came home from college on extended breaks. Gone were the sports posters and artwork sketches he’d put up, along with the belt rack where he’d neatly stacked the various ranked martial arts belts as he blazed along in his training. In their places, his mother had put up quiet, tasteful paintings and prints, each one sleep-inducing in their mundane quality.
Yet this incarnation hadn’t even lasted all the way through his years in college, becoming a cluttered work-out room for his father, equipped with a stationary bike, a treadmill, a free weight bench and a complicated weight machine that his father had purchased off of eBay that came with an instruction manual written entirely and available only in the original German. An old-fashioned surplus military cot had been purchase from an Army-Navy surplus store and shunted into the corner, and there Warren spent the summer between his sophomore and junior years of college.
When he returned the following summer, it had been transformed once more into a kind of home office for his mother, as she had decided to once again attempt to pursue a lifelong dream of becoming a children’s author and illustrator. The author portion had never taken root, but her artwork had been highly praised, and when Warren came home for the last time for a few weeks after his graduation, the writing desk had been removed entirely, making more room for a small, simple bench-style table laden with sketchpads and a painter’s easel. Hired on with a mid-sized children’s publisher, his mother had achieved a kind of next-door-neighbor of her dream, and that seemed to content her just fine.
Now, however, the room was once more Warren’s, but it was a ghost of a living quarters. He remained bedding down on the old Army cot in the corner, keeping only an ancient hope chest at the foot of the bed as a locker and a cheap Ikea dresser for his clothes. The remainder of the room stood barren, save for a nightstand on which he kept his laptop, an alarm clock and a bedside lamp. After the opulence of his private quarters in the Zapper’s headquarters, it was a hole, but he wanted nothing more than to keep things simple, manageable. It was one of the only ways to avoid the temptation to go sniffing for contacts, for a way back into the life of a highly-valued and skilled henchman.
Warren set his alarm, watched a few YouTube videos, and then closed the laptop and set it aside, plugging in his prepaid cell phone and letting it lay on the floor. As he let out a sigh and switched off the light, he tried not to think about the solitary snores drifting up faintly to his room from the living room down below.
He tried. That does not mean that he succeeded.