Old Man Branson Wakes Up
by Charles C. Cole
In the wee hours of a hot summer night, Branson’s “old-man” bladder woke him from a delightful dream of human-powered flight, where he and his wife Gladys were flying quietly over a large heard of grazing antelope. The married couple didn’t so much soar as they hovered like drones, without the humming, feeling stealthy and unnoticed. With a hypersatisfied twinkle in her eyes, Gladys squeezed Branson’s hand.
After everything they’d been through — his mother’s dementia, her sister’s suicide, their son’s drug arrest — they were finally having a care-free vacation from all of the world’s troubles. He could see a majestic waterfall in the distance, which made him think of running water, which made him think of toilets flushing. Then he awoke. He wasn’t angry; it was fun while it lasted. Gladys had looked so contented. He looked at her asleep beside him in the bed and hoped she was, improbably, having the same dream.
Branson stood up and glanced over their café curtains at the darkened neighborhood. He noticed the glow of the dome light inside his Ford Escape. Probably a door ajar, he thought. When they’d finished grocery shopping last evening, Branson had felt so tired, like the wind had been knocked out of him, that he’d asked Gladys to take the keys and drive them home. In fact, he’d headed outside to catch his breath in the passenger seat, even while she was still unloading the cart onto the check-out conveyer belt.
He grabbed her booklight, book and all, so as not to lose her page, and headed down the carpeted staircase. When he fumbled with the light switch, the hardcover New York Times bestseller fell with a THUMP. They didn’t use nightlights because they weren’t bright enough, and they didn’t leave random ceiling lights on because Gladys insisted they kept her awake, as if they prevented her from bedtime closure.
In the mudroom, Branson slid his feet into his untied sneakers, unlocked the side door, and burst outside. A tall, skinny post-teen male in a hoody was stretched across the driver’s seat, poking around the console.
“See anything?” said a girl’s voice from the back seat. “When I was a kid, they’d leave money everywhere.”
“Excuse me?” was all Branson could manage.
“Damn!” said the boy. “I thought you said they were sound sleepers!”
The two stood swiftly and closed the car doors.
“The dome light was on,” said the girl.
“I noticed,” said Branson.
“You don’t have any cash on you, do you?” asked the girl, without a beat.
“Meredith? What are you doing?”
“He knows you?” hissed the boy.
“Maybe in the house?” asked Meredith. “No kidding, we’re in a slight financial bind, and I figured you wouldn’t mind helping us out, after what happened with your son.”
“You mean that he went to jail for doing just what you’re doing.”
“He was robbing total strangers, Mr. C. He didn’t know how they’d react if he got caught. And he had a gun. And he got caught.”
“I think the two of you should probably go now,” said Branson. “I’ll give you a solid head-start. The police station is on the other side of town, but they might already be cruising the area.”
“We really need the money, and we’re not gonna find it anywhere else tonight.”
“I told you, we don’t have money. This isn’t a bank.”
“You can either help us,” said Meredith, “or I’m going to send my friend inside to look around. We can’t leave empty-handed.”
“It’s not too late to walk away,” said Branson.
“Is your wife still sleeping?” asked Meredith. “We wouldn’t want to bother her.”
Branson reached around the door, locked it, and shut himself outside, between the invaders and his wife.
“That was pretty stupid, man,” said the boy.
“Unless he has the keys in his pocket,” said Meredith.
“I don’t, not that you’re going to get close enough to check.”
“This whole night is bringing me down, Mer,” said the boy. “This is not what you advertised.”
“Shut up,” said Meredith.
“I’m going to give you to the count of five to leave, then I’m ringing the doorbell like a fire alarm.”
“And risk your wife?” asked Meredith. “I don’t think so.”
“Meredith, you’re a bright woman when you want to be,” said Branson. “Tell me, do you see the camera mounted over the porch light? It looks like a black-glass cereal bowl attached to the house.”
“Bastard!” said the boy. “I’m outta here!” He ran to the end of the driveway and watched for approaching cars. “Come on! It ain’t worth it, yo!”
“Listen to your friend.”
“Your son got me into drugs,” said Meredith. “I was clean until he came along.”
“I’m sure he forced you at gunpoint; he was like that.”
“That’s not even funny. I loved him, when he wasn’t high or drunk or craving more drugs. He was a good kid in high school.”
“I remember,” said Branson. “And for many years before that.”
“I could go through you like a snowplow, old man, but you’re not worth it.”
“Next time you see him, say I was thinking about him.”
“That thing,” Meredith said, pointing at the camera, “is it recording? Am I as good as caught?”
“There’s no audio. You can say you saw the dome light on and were trying to save my battery. It would be my word against yours, if I wanted to press charges.”
“But you won’t.”
“Not this time. Next time, yes. I’ll save the footage from tonight. If anything happens to my wife, my house, my cats, my car, then you’ll be the first person the police call. Or maybe your parents.”
“They moved; they didn’t want anything to do with me.”
“I’m truly sorry.”
“I believe you.”
“Then believe I have a phone in my pocket, and my finger is hovering over 911.”
“We’re leaving. Don’t call the cops,” said Meredith. The two ran. From down the street, Meredith cursed, “Life sucks!”
Copyright © 2019 by Charles C. Cole