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An Open Door
It was the last day of a long and sultry July, when the atmosphere is damp and insects swarm , congregated in faintly humming clouds, that I ventured through the abandoned and eerily quiet roads of a quaint and tiny town on my bicycle, and a distinct purpose weighed on my mind for this journey. I tried not to linger too long on these streets lest they bring back painful memories and cause me to turn around. Nevertheless I couldn't help but notice several little shops, most of which looked to have been vibrant in days gone by but now appeared empty and lifeless. I finally found myself at the footstep of the town's sheriff's department which included the ancient, crumbling jail house. Paused, at length, to consider my options and determine, once and for all, if I really should enter the gray, glaring, and scrutinizing structure that loomed over me. I took a second look at my surroundings, which had gone almost unnoticed by me as I approached, deep in thought as I was, and not wanting a reason to turn back as I had done before. But as I turned to look, it became clear that nothing had changed since the last time I had come this close to going in, save the disappearance of the snow, which, I remembered, had given the exterior a soft, carpeted and almost welcoming look, so contrary to what I knew lay inside. The grass on the lawn was neatly cut so short that there appeared to be almost no grass at all, or that the pavement had simply been painted something of a greenish hue, and indeed there were patches, like missing puzzle pieces, in which the green had faded or died altogether. Encircling the grass was a gray chain link fence which made me feel as though I too were locked away, with only a distant vision of life beyond this God-forsaken place--beyond this decay and utter desolation whose very doorstep I wavered upon--all there was to see was the steaming, darker-than-ebony pavement upon which laid a few poorly constructed and unkempt houses scattered about. This was all to be seen for miles. Presently the door which I had almost forgotten swung open with a whine, revealing a man short in stature, about mid-sixties, I thought, whose mousy brown hair was interrupted around the middle at the top, where it glistened in the sunlight which was let in by the opened door. He smiled at me a moment, and I made a half-hearted attempt to return it. It certainly wasn't a creepy smile, more like the kind of smile one expects from their grandfather or someone older--kind of a warm, inviting smile that seemingly has not been brought on by any particular occurrence. But still this smile pervaded my frame and I gave an involuntary shudder, which I disregarded as a reaction to the strong gust of air conditioning I had just received by the opening of the door. He, as if knowing me personally and my purpose for coming by, invited me in and I, as if in a dream, followed behind him, suddenly realizing that I had decided it best to come inside after all.
The room was surprisingly well lit. I had pictured a dark, dungeon-like place, but the florescent bulbs on the ceiling gave a whole different atmosphere to the antechamber I had just entered. We made our way down a seemingly endless hallway, plain, with gray walls, and blue carpet with flecks of . . . something . . . in it. The tall wooden doors had gold name plates on them, which was not at all like what I had envisioned inside this place. It was so much more formal than anything I had seen thus far.
The little man (who I was following like a little dog) and I thus far had not exchanged pleasantries. I was just about to speak up and properly introduce myself when we arrived at our destination. It was a door, uniformly matching the others, but without the name plate. He motioned me into a cramped little office which looked as if it were made of filing cabinets, simply stacked one on top of the other. Papers were scattered in disarray. Indeed it appeared as if a heavy snowstorm had struck this poor man's office, and he was just sorting through the debris.
Presently I realized that under the mound of fluttering pages was a desk. To this desk the strange man scurried and began shuffling and sifting through it all, as if trying to straighten things up before I saw the mess. Too late.
"Thaxton, I presume?" He said calmly, not pausing to look up. That was indeed my last name. Taken aback I confirmed in a wavering voice that this was my name. He nodded with a slight smile. His voice had caught me by surprise. I was expecting a soft, maybe even a squeaky voice. Perhaps this is because he reminded me of a small rodent. The way he shuffled around amongst his accumulated belongings and lived in a little habitat reminded me of the mice my mom and I had trouble with back home.
The voice I heard was deep and low, not booming, but I could feel the vibrations in the air around my head, and rising through the ground up into my feet. As I recovered from the shock of his voice and his words, the strange little man handed me a sheet of paper, a sticky note. Scrawled on it was a number, the number of a jail cell. I looked up, in utter disbelief, into the man's eyes. They were a misty gray. I didn't know a person's eyes could be gray, but his sure were. Shaking myself from this reverie, I was about to ask how he could possibly know so much, but he spoke before I could gather my words. "You are here to see Mr. H. Thaxton, are you not?"
"Yeah, but . . ."
"So follow me!" He hurried out and continued leading me down the hallway. How irritating. I sighed, and followed behind once more. He plodded along ahead of me, and didn't even turn around when he said, oh so casually, "I'm glad you came in today. I was afraid you would leave again the way you did last Valentine's Day." This time I was adamant. This was starting to get ridiculous, not to mention creepy.
"How do you know m-"
"Shhh!" He hushed me and I stopped short. With a wave of his hand as if introducing me he gestured towards a large steel gray door that I hadn't even seen coming. The color and style matched the outside I was so familiar with, but it was totally at odds with the wooden doors and carpet of the interior. For some reason it held my attention, and it felt like the whole building and everything I had seen thus far revolved around this door, this entry to the unknown. I couldn't say why we had to be quiet when going into this mystifying portal; perhaps the guy just wanted me to quit asking questions. But whatever the reason I bit my lip and fell in behind him once more.
A sudden rush of warm, perhaps even putrid air accosted me upon my entry. I took a good look around where I had finally ended up. Beige tiles were covering the floor, the walls and the ceiling. It was hard to tell whether or not beige was the original color. There were six jail cells in total. Three on one side of the room and three on the other. For some reason I didn't believe I would actually come this far. I had honestly expected myself to chicken out, and yet there I was, in a rank, stuffy, small town jail house, about to come face to face with my greatest fear, and my greatest wish: my dad. I feared that he would hate me.
As I stood there, hands in pockets, heart drumming against my ribs, the words Mom said came through especially clear. He never wanted either one of us. "Why not?," I would ask. She would sigh and raise her eyebrows, and then she would think for a good long time before answering. "He's just a lost soul. There's nothing we can do to help him." I wanted so much to believe her. I ached with all I had not to ever have a reason to see him. I was too young to remember everything he put Mom through, and how she felt the day he left. Growing up, I never missed him. He didn't deserve either of us. But now....
My reverie was broken by the jangling noise of keys. The man was holding a ring full of what appeared to be a whole prison's worth of keys. He held one up. It was brass and darkened by age, neither special nor very large, and yet I somehow felt it held the rest of my life in its grasp.
"Shall we go in?" He asked cheerfully as if the moment held no importance for me at all. And yet I grinned, beginning to like this crazy little man. He seemed to have a slight bounce in his stride as I followed him towards the one final door that would forever change my relationship with, and perception of, my father.
Seemingly for years we meandered in the direction of the door. I couldn't believe what was happening. In a dream-like state my body put one foot in front of another without any effort, or even any thought from me. In fact my whole body felt positively numb from the anticipation.
About a millennium later my body robotically stopped my feet for me and the man inserted the little key in the door. A click ensued, ticking down the seconds to my first encounter with someone who should be so prominent in my life. Another click. Keeping in time with my heartbeat. A third click. I thought I could sense movement inside the cell.
Fourth click. The door swung slowly open on its hinges. I was hesitant at first to go or even look inside. A slight nudge on the shoulder caused me to look over, and I saw the man smile encouragingly as he held the door open for me. I took a breath, held it, and crossed the threshold to the rest of my life.