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A Caged Heart - A Short Story by CherAnn Wright

A heart-jolting knock on the front door invades Charlie’s Thursday evening lounge in the recliner as he watches his weekly TV show. Something about the knock's delivery, exactly five thuds, makes his heart flail.

 

Knock, knock, knock, knock, knock.

 

Each whack is spaced perfectly apart, as though a second hand on a clock is guiding it. He looks at his watch; it’s five o'clock. When an envelope slides into the room from under the crack of the door, Charlie’s right eye begins to twitch, tapping and jerking open and closed as if it were Morse code. He stares at the gray envelope with his non-twitching eye, then focuses on the red wax seal which bears an emblem. Now his hands begin to tremble. Something about the envelope broadcasts that it is only here to upset his simple, hermit life.

 

Rex, his black Labrador companion, raises his head from the doggie bed next to Charlie’s chair and lets out a hushed bark. The kind of ruff that occurs from barking through clenched teeth and closed lips. His apprehension mirrors his owner.

 

Charlie’s vision fades to murky white, then dark, and he clenches his eyes shut. Just behind his eyelids, a forbidden movie flashes in quick scenes—the one he has shoved into the attic of his mind. The clips of a past he stored away five years ago. He squeezes the lids even tighter and forces the film to stop. Go away! You’re not wanted here. The words shout inside his head.

 

It dissipates, and he opens his eyes once more and looks at the object on the floor. With a shaky hand, he pulls the handle on the side of his recliner and with long, lanky legs, folds it with a thump. His socked feet ease toward the invasion, then he bends down and picks it up with an unsteady hand. Its surface is rough, the paper thick. He reaches for the glasses that hang around his neck and props them on his nose, observing the wax seal. In the center is a two-headed lion, each head facing opposite directions as though one is looking west and the other east. Or, in the direction of right or wrong. Life or death? Their mouths are open in a roar. Or is it a scream? In the center of the lion’s chest is the letter F.

 

Charlie flips the envelope over to find that each side is blank. He uses his thumb to peel the wax seal loose, then opens the flap to reveal a shiny red interior. He squeezes his eyes shut again for a moment, trying to halt the twitching—it doesn’t work.

 

He glances around the room, as though he isn’t alone, then slides the card free and flips it open. The same emblem is etched in the top center of the card in deep shades of red and gold. Each of the lion’s heads appear far more menacing than those on the wax seal. For some reason, the reading voice inside his head shifts into a deep, menacing tone as he reads the letter.

 

Dear Charlie,

 

It’s time for you to look fear in the eye. You have been absent from your life for far too long. You’ve locked yourself away inside these walls where you no longer belong. Running from your life is nothing more than a fool’s errand.

 

Tell me, Charlie, how long are you going to live your life just passing through? Through a life that has no meaning. This search to escape your life is often only a curse of being human. But it is a quest that only fools seek. I know you believe isolation soothes you, but it only consumes you, robbing you of life.

 

This is your final call to partake in your biggest challenge yet or die chasing only what a fool would continue to seek. When the clock strikes 9:00, you must make a choice. If you don't, the freedom to live a life you've always deserved may be lost forever.

 

Charlie looks around the room as anxiety and trepidation consume him. But for the first time in years, he feels hope and excitement. His mind spins, and chills spread across the surface of his skin like tiny insects crawling as he reads the last sentence.

 

Visit the attic of your mind and dig up the courage you've buried for years. It is either face me or lose yourself forever.

 

Signed,

Fear

 

The words of the card echo in Charlie's mind. He doesn't want to do this.

 

He carries the envelope and invitation, their weight feeling far heavier than they should, back to his safe chair. Rex stands, his tail wagging in a nervous fashion. Charlie's stomach begins to churn as nausea labors against his breath. Rex moves in between Charlie's knees and plants his bottom on the floor, hugging in close to offer the emotional support he has provided for years.

 

He strokes the dog's ears and head. Rex has brought him through numerous overwhelming and paralyzing episodes. If not for Rex, Charlie would have given up entirely. He leans back in his chair and stares at the ceiling. Rex hops into his lap as if he isn't sixty pounds and lays against Charlie's chest, nuzzling his nose into the nape of his neck. Charlie closes his eyes, and the movie begins to play... again.

 

It always begins the same way—peaceful and happy. Charlie and Grace, his wife, drive down a country road as the sun twinkles through the trees on the horizon, a flashing, faded orange glow. Charlie reaches down and curls his fingers around the soft, warm hand resting on his leg and smiles. He steers the car to the right between two stone statues, one on each side of the entrance. Each is a massive, roaring lion facing away from one another.

 

"I think these lions are creepy," Grace says. "What do you think their purpose is?"

 

"To scare away unwanted people," Charlie says with a chuckle.

 

"Look at them—if you compare each lion to the location of the sun, one is facing east and the other is looking west," Grace says. "I think there's a reason for that."

 

"Maybe," Charlie smiles for a moment, then his voice takes on an eerie but joking tone. "Maybe they're telling you to stay away from this road. Orrrr... maybe they are saying one direction is right and the other is wrong."

 

Grace lifts her eyebrows and joins in with her own teasing tone. "Maybe one way is life and the other is death."

 

Charlie laughs then makes a ghostly sound. "Woooo."

 

In a more serious tone, Grace says, "It's nine o'clock. I think we are officially late for this party."

 

Charlie looks lovingly over at the brown eyes in the seat next to him, then glances at the digital clock on the dash. Yep—9:00. He picks up his phone from the cup holder. "I'd better text and let my sister know we're going to be late, or she'll freak out. You know how she is—Miss Always on Time," Charlie says.

 

"Here," Grace reaches for the phone, "You're driving. I can do it."

 

"Don't worry, I got this." He rotates the phone toward his face as it lights up, and large white numbers confirm the time again; 9:00. He begins to type the text...

 

"Charlie, watch out!" Grace screams.

 

What follows is a cacophony of screeching tires and broken glass. Charlie's body spins and flails out of control, his seatbelt cutting into flesh. The car rolls several times, then finally stops. He feels the blood rushing to his head as he dangles upside down. When he gains his bearings, he hears a faint whimper in the distance as it reverberates inside his ears. The faint cry shifts to a gurgling sound as if someone is drowning. Drowning in their own blood. He unsteadily shifts his head to look for Grace. She lets out one final gurgling breath—then silence. Her eyes are open wide and unseeing.

 

Rex nudges with his wet nose against Charlie's neck, and it prompts him to open his eyes. Anxiety clamps down on his chest like a dead weight. Rex whimpers and snuggles in closer. Charlie wraps his arms around the dog and takes a deep breath, and another, and then several more until his heart and breathing become calm.

 

He isn't sure how long he has been sitting here, but the light outside is fading into the sounds of frogs and crickets. The room around him is almost dark, illuminated only by a faint light from the kitchen behind him.

 

Rex raises his head and gives Charlie a single lick on the cheek, then jumps down. A new light illuminates the room with another faint glow, and Charlie looks at the side table next to him. His phone. The face is lit up and reveals the time; 9:00. His eyes widen, and he straightens up to look around the room. Adrenaline raises his pulse, but this time it's a different feeling. A feeling as though something is about to happen. Something good.

 

He slowly stands, and as he does, another light appears across the room. At first, it’s dim, then brightens, lighting up Charlie's face and chest. His eyes widen, and his pulse quickens even more. A smile spreads across his face, matching the woman's smile standing in front of him.

 

"Hello Charlie," Grace's voice floats across the room like a beautiful song. "It's time."

 

"Time," the word comes out raspy, and he clears his throat. "Time for what?"

 

"Time to escape this cage you have locked yourself away in."

 

"I can't. I've tried."

 

"You have to try harder. First, you must realize it wasn't your fault. You have to stop blaming yourself."

 

"You don't understand. I don't want to. If I do, then that means I get away with it."

 

"Get away with what?"

 

"With killing you."

 

"Oh Charlie, you didn't kill me. It was an accident."

 

"An accident that I caused." Charlie's voice rises as he slaps his chest.

 

"It's still an accident. I would’ve swerved to miss that deer just the same as you. And you know I would never forgive you if you hit it. So, I guess that makes it just as much my fault as it is yours." Grace smiles.

 

Charlie lifts one side of his mouth into a crooked smile. "I could never argue with you."

 

"Do you remember the two lions just before the accident? One facing east and one facing west?"

"How can I forget?" Charlie turns to find the envelope, but it's no longer on the table next to his chair. His eyebrows furrow.

 

"You remember my comment about one way being life and the other death?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Fate chose my direction, not you. But now, you are choosing death instead of life. You've given up on life. That isn't what I want for you."

 

Charlie looks down at the floor.

 

"Please live for me. I demand it," Grace smiles and winks.

 

Rex stands up from his bed and walks past Charlie, turns his body in a circle, and stands next to Grace. He wags his tail and looks up at Grace, then back to Charlie.

 

"Why do you think I sent him to you?" Grace says as she looks down at Rex.

 

Charlie's eyes widen, and a lonely tear flows down his cheek. He smiles his first genuine smile in years.

 


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