Don Carpenter (Freedom 2022)

Don Carpenter
Redemption of a Wasted Life
 
Darnay woke to the daylight of an early August morning coming through his apartment windows. He turned to the side and wrapped his arms around the blanket of his messy bed. Closing his eyes wouldn’t help the exhaustion Darnay was feeling. He tried every morning to go back to sleep, but Darnay’s mind wouldn’t let him. It was morning. It was time to get up. He knew it wasn’t healthy to only have five to six hours of sleep per night, but that’s all Darnay’s brain would allow him.
 
Darn went to his box of Lucky Charms and slowly took out a handful to eat and then repeated that eight times. He had to ration how much cereal he had because the box needed to last until his Saturday trip to the Almoral Food Bank. Darnay didn’t have milk with his Lucky Charms because his gallon also had to last until Saturday. It was therefore only enjoyed as a beverage.
 
Darnay then went to his phone to catch up on things. A small bit of happiness came when he saw the seven-day forecast. Nothing but 70-degree weather in the week ahead. There wouldn’t be the emotional and physical stress of triple-digit temperatures as happened last week. That was something to celebrate.
 
Darn then caught up on news through various websites. His quirkiness showed as he visited a site and then did something to prepare for the day. Visit a site, brush his teeth. Visit a site, load his laptop into the computer bag. Visit a site, get dressed. Darnay knew sane people would complete all the tasks and then focus on surfing the Internet. But this was how Darn’s brain worked.
 
He soon threw the computer bag’s strap over his shoulder, checked to make sure everything was off in his apartment and looked at the two pictures of his parents. Dad had been gone 20 years, while it had been seven for Mom. He blew a kiss towards the photos and sighed deeply. The pain was not what it once was, but Darn would be with them tomorrow if he could.
 
Darnay was on his way to the Logan Center on the Almoral High School Campus. It was a gym with a walking track which doubled as the small town’s community center. It was always open to the public and Darn spent a couple of hours a day there. There wouldn’t be anyone at the Center this early in the morning which would allow Darn to let his emotions out if he had to.
There also wasn’t anyone out walking in the seven blocks from Darnay’s home to the Center. This also made him happy as having to talk to someone might set off those emotions. He kept his head down, while walking-not even waving at traffic as he usually did.
 
A quick stop at the ATM was on the agenda. Darnay didn’t change banks when he moved to Almoral after his mother died. The only way he could take money out was through the ATMs of Almoral’s banks.
 
He typed in his PIN, requested a withdrawal, and waited. But the currency didn’t come out as the light for the receipt slot blinked instead. Something was wrong. Darnay grabbed the receipt before it had been fully printed.
CHECKING WITHDRAWL ERROR.
 
Damn it. He did the whole process again. The receipt light blinked again. Checking Withdrawal Error again. Now fear overcame Darn’s mind and body. Was his money gone? Was his bank not letting him withdraw?
 
Darnay did his best to fight that fear by putting the card back in and asking for a balance inquiry. A third receipt came out saying the money was still there. So that was good. Darn chalked everything up to this ATM being quirky as it had been a couple of times in the past year.
 
He walked kitty corner across the street to the convenience store. Darnay didn’t like frequenting its ATM as it had a more expensive fee and the town gossips playing cards didn’t need to know how much money he had. But this was the only option. It took forever for the ATM to complete the transaction, but Darn finally had his money for the week.
 
Darn’s parents had taught him when he was little that if you go into a store to use the restroom, you should buy something. Anything. Darnay felt that also applied to ATMs so he bought a can of Pepsi.
 
Walking to the Logan Center meant walking past Nolan and Megan’s house. They were a couple in their late-20s and were well known in Almoral. Megan was the junior varsity basketball coach and had just celebrated the birth of their second child. There was a realtor’s sign in front of the home. Darnay had seen the listing online. Nolan and Megan were asking $219,000 for the one-and-a-half story house.
Darnay’s emotions were still frayed from the ATM scare and as he walked by the realtor sign, Darn felt disappointment and shame control his heart and mind. Nolan and Megan were about half of Darnay’s age and already so much more successful in life than he had ever been. They both had solid jobs, had already owned one home, and were now looking for another and had two young children to watch grow up.
 
Darnay would be 52 soon and could not say any of that had been part of his
experience. Christ. What a waste of a life he had been.
 
Darn knew he had to put those thoughts out of his head. He turned north and picked up his pace. It was only two more blocks to the Logan Center. Once there, he could let out any emotion his brain desired. Several cars were driving past him after either attending Mass or dropping kids off at the daycare. Many of them waved, but Darnay either had his head down or simply didn’t acknowledge the kind gestures.
 
A line of trees planted as a windbreak were to the west of the Logan Center parking lot. As such, Darnay didn’t know if anyone was there. He badly wanted the Center to be empty.
 
“Yes!” Darnay cheered. He smiled and his heart and mind embraced happiness. No vehicles, no scooters, not even a bicycle. Darn looked around with giddiness which drew him to the sun. It was now shining brightly through the clouds. The sky looked magnificent and Darnay wanted a picture of it.
 
When his phone’s camera came up, it was in “selfie” mode. Darn went to change that but looked at himself first. His glasses made him look good and hid the bags under the eyes. His recently cut hair made him look successful. But that hair was an odd color. Part brown, part grey, part faded black t-shirt.
 
As Darnay looked at himself, the thoughts of only a few minutes ago came back with them hitting much harder.
 
Look at you. You’re going to be 52 soon. Most folks your age are celebrating their kid’s starting college or a new job, or are preparing for a wedding, or welcoming a new grandchild into the world, or are making plans for a new home or are preparing to spend the winter in Arizona.
 
You? You’re happy because a public building is empty so you can be alone. You don’t have anything the others have, and you never will. You’ve wasted your life and it’s too late to do anything about it.
Darnay opened his camera bag and threw the phone into it. He quickly walked the final yards to the Logan Center. The lighting was based on motion and the four banks of lights turned on consecutively as Darn walked across the gym.
He put his bag on top of the small set of bleachers the Center had. He then walked around the gym in no direction, often moving in circles as his body was led by a disoriented mind.
 
Darnay wanted to cry. His eyes tried to fulfill that wish but could only manage a couple of tears. So, his body reacted in other ways. Darnay felt pains in his chest. Prior experience told him this wasn’t a heart attack. It was the anxiety from all the emotions this morning. His left arm felt numb and his back ached. Darn then felt a little dizzy as his whole system seemed veering out of control until it crashed.
Then the tears came. This wasn’t crying. This wasn’t sobbing. This was weeping. These were dehydration causing tears. Darnay let them flow as the rest of his body reacted to the suffering he was experiencing. There was no harm in letting the breakdown happen. The only people who could possibly see Darnay were folks in the high school office. Darnay looked at the security camera as both rage and sadness overtook him and he screamed.
“Look at me! Look at how I live!”
 
Darnay turned from the security camera and looked at the Center’s north wall. His mind and body started to calm down. Darn walked over to the bleachers, pulled his laptop out of the bag, turned it on, connected to the high school’s Wi-Fi and went to the Iowa Help Chat website.
 
This was Darnay’s third time at the site and he knew how to do the preliminaries. Darn answered each question the same as earlier including the one which asked if he had tried to take his life before. After giving a “yes” to that, Darnay clicked on the dropdown for the next question.
 
It asked how Darnay was feeling, and he clicked on “I’m really struggling right now, but I think I can get through it.” Darn sincerely felt that way even after this last emotional collapse. For as much as his mind tortured him, there were still moments when Darnay thought things would still be okay someday.
The final question asked Darnay to describe what he hoped to accomplish in this chat.
 
“I had another breakdown this morning. Just now, in fact. I’ve enjoyed talking with you guys before, but today I want to be free. I want to feel like I did before Mom died, before I stopped being of any use to my friends, before the pandemic, before today. I don’t care if I must be in a home for a little while, if I must file for bankruptcy, move to a new town, whatever. I want to believe I have a future again. I want to feel happy again. I want to break free of feeling this way because the next time I breakdown, I might not have the strength to bounce back. I know you can help me.”
 
It was the most detailed answer Darnay had ever written for that question.
Darnay submitted his information and waited for a counselor to start chatting. He still had some tears, but they were minor ones. The kind a person cries when they know it’s time to move on.
 
Darn walked around the Center for the next 10 minutes. He was worried the chat was busy and no one would be able to talk. But after another lap around the building, there was a message from Marylin.
 
“Hi, Darnay. I’m happy to hear from you again, but I can tell you’re upset. Let’s talk and see what we can do today.”
 
Tears again formed in Darnay’s eyes, but if tears of hope existed, that’s what these tears were.
 
Don Carpenter is from Cascade, Iowa. He started his writing career in 1995 by covering Iowa high school football and spent the next 20 years writing about the schools of eastern Iowa including 10 years in the newspaper business. Non-fiction will always have Don’s heart, but he’s enjoying fiction more with every opportunity he has to write it. In his spare time, Darnay turns into an old man who yells at clouds and then feels lonely when they don’t yell back. Along with that, he enjoys British sitcoms, historical documentaries, old pro wrestling shows and being amazed his Cincinnati Bengals recently played in the Super Bowl.

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