Brady Wilkes slouched on his couch in front of the TV, chain smoking and nursing his fifth beer of the day. What little hair he had left was dark gray from oil and sweat; deep creases emphasized his permanent scowl. He didn’t care what was showing on the tube. It was mostly for the noise, not that it helped. It used to. Was a time the sound of sitcoms and movies could drown out his thoughts. He could laugh away the horror of what he had done. What they had done. Lately though, nothing helped. The memories crowded in and became unmanageable, insistent. They wanted recognition. Memories were greedy like that. Cigarette ashes fell haphazardly. What did it matter if the carpet was a disgusting mosaic of ashes and crumbs and stale beer. Visitors were rare years ago; now they were nonexistent. He preferred it that way. No small talk. No niceties or buying chips and dip. No sharing the beer. It was a lifestyle he had chosen and cultivated over the years. He wasn’t happy, but happiness was out of the question. He didn’t deserve happy. Didn’t even look for it anymore.
News takes the wildfire express in small towns. Brady had heard about the visits to Mrs. Keller. How upset she had been when Thom and then Maddie and Robbie had visited her. He wasn’t sure why they went to see her in that old folks’ home though. That detail wasn’t part of the gossip. Just that the old lady had to be sedated following a major meltdown. She’s off her rocker, that one, Brady mused. She’ll be talking about things best forgotten one of these godforsaken days. His memories clamored for attention. His thoughts moved dangerously forward.
Brady shook his head, sending that way of thinking into the corners. His bloodshot eyes peered through the cigarette smoke at the TV; some murder movie was on. It wasn’t important. He’d seen it before. He’d seen them all before.
He glanced around his neglected living room. The one luxury he allowed himself, if you’d call it a luxury, was a cat. He’d had many cats over the years. Always one at a time though. When each one eventually croaked or ran off, he’d find a new one. There was no shortage of feral strays lurking in odd places around town. The latest was a coal black demon he called Flak. That cat could destroy anything within a ten foot radius without so much as a howdy-do. He could do some serious damage to furniture and tender flesh alike just because he felt like it. Brady liked that. An evil, always defensive cat suited him.
The subject of Brady’s introspection was curled up at the other end of the couch. He lifted his head and studied Brady through yellow eyes. The damned thing can read my mind. Brady knew better than to reach out to pet him. His scarred fingers curled around his lukewarm beer. Flak yawned and flicked his tail; eyes becoming slits. Thoughtful. Watching. Brady’s cats over the years had run the full range of cat attitudes. Sweet, wary, loving, indifferent, and playful. Most had been playful. Not Flak. Flak was none of those things. Flak was a hateful ball of menace. Brady fed and watered him and gave him a warm place to live. That was it. Brady sometimes missed the cuddly ones. But Flak fit him better. Fit the type of person the town made him out to be. The type of person he was on the inside. He hadn’t always been like this. He had a girlfriend in his younger days. Had dreams. He had ambition and love and warmth. Those things disappeared when he thought he was choosing right over wrong. When he thought he was righting a wrong. But he was the one who was wrong. They had all been wrong.
Flak’s morose stare was a constant reminder of just how derailed Brady’s life had become. Good ol’ Flak, he thought. My conscience finally paid me a visit in the form of this accursed hellcat. The tip of his cigarette flared once more before he crushed it in the overflowing ashtray. He’d had enough. Enough of this movie, this beer, this smoke, this cat’s accusing stare. He got up and stretched, old bones cracking. He knew full well sleep wasn’t on the agenda tonight. Every night.
He was so damned tired.