Kevin VanAntwerpen
February 13, 2010
The Cradle (Why I Don't Own A Television)

Jack Everett could not fathom why his daughter bought him a television for Christmas. Ever since his wife's death, Jack hadn't shown interest in so much as a sunday football game. "I just feel so bad for you, being all alone up here," Amber had said. "You're like a zillion miles from the nearest Wal-Mart." Jack felt that a Bud Light, his golden retriever Bunyan, and a little hard work in the woods outside were all the civilization he needed. But Amber's crooked, innocent smile was just like her mother's had been. So he kept the TV, and for at least a month and a half that damned contraption sat on it's wooden stand in the living room, doing nothing but collecting dust.

One evening in late January, a harsh snow storm set in. Jack was in the forest behind the cabin, hacking at the base of an oak tree with his axe. Bunyan was running around behind him, chasing snow flakes. The wind picked up and blew the hail so hard that Jack had to cover his face. He struck the oak tree two final times and it crashed to the forest floor.

He called for Bunyan. The weather was too harsh to work any longer. In the morning, he would drag the oak tree into the garage where it would begin it's conversation into a beautiful cradle. Amber hadn't announced the baby yet, but he knew by her giddiness on the phone: she was pregnant.

He came in through the kitchen door and removed his boots and jacket. He set his axe in the far corner of the kitchen, where he intended to clean and sharpen it later. There was a Bud Light in the fridge with his name on it. Half of it he poured into a tupperware bowl for Bunyan. The other half he sipped as he leaned against the kitchen counter. His muscles ached and his face still stung from the wind. The doorway from the kitchen to the living room gave him a glimpse of the television, idle like a sleeping beast. He looked at Bunyan: "What do you say ol' boy? Should we give that thing a chance?"

When he turned the television on, the screen filled with spastic gray static. A horrible screeching sound came from the speakers. Bunyan whined. Jack wrapped a meaty hand around one of the antennas, shifting it to get signal. For a moment, a female news anchor appeared on screen, but seconds later she was lost in a sea of static. "Damnit," Jack said. He pounded a fist on the television. The news anchor returned and went on talking like she'd never left. Jack looked at Bunyan and said, "See boy. Who said violence isn't the answer? He took his beer and sat on the couch. Bunyan curled up on the floor at his feet, and before long was snoring softly.

The news station was showing a picture: a slightly overweight man with beady eyes framed behind thick horn rimmed glasses. "Police have expanded the manhunt for Derek Webster," the anchor said. "After finding the remains of 13 year old Alicia Presley in the basement of his suburban ranch. In a press statement earlier this week, the department acknowledged that there were signs of sexual assault on Presley's body." Then there was a woman on screen. A blonde - probably in her forties, with heavy bags under her eyes. She said, "We're thankful for the closure, at least. We're praying that God will use this for his good. Now we can bury our daughter. "

"Damn this world," Jack said. He took another sip of his beer and leaned forward on the couch. This was why he didn't want a television. He thought of Amber's baby his granddaughter who was going to be born into the same world as Derek Webster. He thought of Vietnam and the year and a half he'd spent entrenched there. The blood. The carnage. He thought of that enormous oak he'd soon turn into a cradle. He finished his beer and went to the fridge for another.

By midnight, six empty beer bottles sat on the living room table. Just enough to feel a warm, happy buzz. He lay sprawled back on the couch, basking in the glow of the television. That was when he heard knocking on the back door. Bunyan woke immediately and let out one sharp bark before running into the kitchen. Jack followed, still hobbling from near sleep.

A man was outside the kitchen slider, leaning against the glass. He cradled one arm against his chest like it was broken. Jack's adrenaline began to combat the alcohol in his blood. He opened the front door and the stranger collapsed onto his kitchen floor. With two strong hands, Jack helped the man into a chair at the table. There was blood on the ground where he had fallen.

Jack pulled off the stranger's jacket. His clothes underneath were warm, wet, and sticky with blood. He lifted up the man's t-shirt to find several deep gashes and punctures in his chest ". . . car crash . . . couple of miles south," the stranger said. "Spun out on the ice. Hit a tree.

For the first time, Jack looked the man in the eyes. Then it hit him. They were familiar, blue eyes that he'd seen earlier this night, behind horn rimmed glasses. It was Derek Webster. In person, he looked less intimidating. His hair was greasy, his bangs swooping across his forehead and past his ear. He was unfit probably the kind of kid that got picked last in gym class. Jack didn't doubt for a minute that he could crush the man's spinal column with his bare hands.

His nerves were surprisingly calm.

"The phone's out with the storm," he said. He stood up, wiping the blood from his hands onto his blue jeans. "I can't call for help. I'll have to drive you to the hospital in the morning,"

"No, I can't!" Derek said. "I mean . . . I don't have the money to pay for that. Work hasn't been so great lately . . ."

"You'll bleed out like a stuck pig if you don't. Now you just wait here with Bunyan while I get you some antiseptic and gauze."

In the living room, Jack took several seconds to simply breathe. He imagined what his granddaughters face would look like. Then he unplugged the phone and strode back into the kitchen. He pushed Derek's chair back so that his feet came off the ground and shoved a thumb straight into one of his wounds. "Thought you were running to Canada, you sonofabitch? Is that where you were going?" Webster's screams were deafening. Bunyan, who was lying in the corner of the room, growled but did not get up.

Derek screamed.

Jack struck his jaw, then gripped him by his shit collar and threw him across the room, where he collided with the pantry and collapsed on the floor. That wood axe was still near the door. Jack wrapped his fingers around it. It's weight felt like power. "Tell me Webster. Did she cry? Did she scream?" His rage was like a fire on gasoline once it was lit, it simply burned higher and higher.

Derek crawled through the doorway into the living room. Jack followed. The television loomed over him like one great eye observing his judgment. "She was a slut," Derek said. "A tease. Always a tease. She wanted me. She wanted me bad."

Jack was gritting his teeth. "She wanted you to lock her in your basement and cut her throat?"

Derek started to cry. "I had to. She was weak. She didn't understand."

He lifted the axe above his head. "You destroyed her."

"I set her free."

There was a sharp crack as the blade slid halfway through Derek's skull. Blood splattered across the room, and a great spray hit the TV screen. Derek was still alive. He touched his face, feeling where the axe had entered. But then his body went limp. The life left his eyes. Blood pooled around his head. The axe was wedged so hard into his face that Jack had to fight to get it out. He dropped it on the floor and staggered to the couch.

That was why he never wanted a television. He was afraid if he saw how wrong the world was, he just might do something about it.

He picked up the remote control and turned on the television. He didn't watch the news again. Instead, some sitcom about a dysfunctional family. He wasn't paying attention he was just watching. A little while later, Bunyan came into the room and sniffed the blood. He made a disapproving whine and then vanished back into the kitchen. Derek's body was beginning to emit a warm, musty smell. Jack thought he should probably clean it up. He went to the bathroom to get some rags and a few trash bags. That was when he heard the knock at the door.

Bunyan began to bark. Jack went to the back door. A police officer was standing there, speaking into a walkie talkie. Jack opened the door. "Can I help you, officer?" In the driveway, three police cruisers sat with their lights silently casting red and blue against the snow.

"Sorry to wake you sir," the officer said. He looked over Jack's shoulder. "There's been an accident up the road and we're looking for the driver. He's potentially dangerous. Are you alone?"

Two more officers were walking up the sidewalk, their hands on their hip-holsters.

Bunyan tried to slip out the door, but Jack held him by his collar. "Yes," he said. "Just me and my dog here."