He Walked Away
Peter Echerbrook was neither content nor desperate. He was born in one of the many townships throughout the country that contributes next to nothing economically and whose political influence has dried up along with the contents of its wells. Sometimes there isn’t a good reason for why something doesn’t matter anymore. Sometimes ghosts smile with rose-colored cheeks. Like his town, Peter Echerbrook was simply born forgotten with the predestination that he possess neither the character nor the capacity to be memorable.
The name of the town, you ask? It occurs to me that Peter Echerbrook’s birthplace should fall under some kind of ironic norm. Perhaps it was something archaically religious like Antioch or Babylon but probably not because Peter Echerbrook and his family were not religious. He never let the refreshing water of faith seep through his soul; never felt the embrace of his father benevolent in any regard. In fact, by all manner of observation Peter Echerbrook behaved as if he had never heard of a God or his servants. Not to imply that Peter Echerbrook was an evil man, but simply to state that religion did not interest him and that religion was never made available for him to profit by. More likely, the town’s designation was something exclusively American, something like Greenville or Springfield. A town that offered delightful social trademarks like the Old Time Diner and Grill on Central or the corner drugstore owned by “Big Jim,” the sickeningly sweet older gentleman who has four grandchildren and loves his wife. The kind of storeowner who greets his customers with a nod and a smile and if he knows you, says, “How’s life? You give up yet?” The average customer replying, “I’m getting close.”
Yet Peter Echerbrook had his own quiet, inherited ambition, so he could not abide comfortably in such an unwittingly indifferent community. Maybe Peter Echerbrook’s ancestors or a handful of distant relations (whom he did not know) had made something of themselves and thus passed on the gene that made Peter Echerbrook feel so remarkably alone with hope. So it was that Peter Echerbrook did not shy away from the gaze of strangers on the street as would other young men raised and sheltered amongst the patriotically cliché. Peter Echerbrook was prone to routine and staring and never let himself feel strongly toward anything. I’m sure some of you would like to lie and say the same of yourselves. In truth, the hamlet in which Peter Echerbrook was raised barely exists in the mind of the modern times, for it had an often repeated name, and resided in a hillside that an average number of people passed through on their way to a much bigger and better life. The grass there was green but rough and the air was clear but tasted somewhat stale as if to discourage quiet contemplation or regular epiphany. The town had no comforting diners or classic corner drugstores but instead housed several fast food options and selfish commercial gas stations made available to the medium-sized populace that remained always defiantly polite in passing.
Peter Echerbrook’s parents were unspectacular and hardly worth mentioning because of their acute lack of worldly desire. Silence was the dominant teacher in the Echerbrook household, silence, not for dislike of conversation but silence attributed entirely to an unspoken understanding between Peter Echerbrook and his parents that he should be every little bit like the model son magazines and cultural stereotypes had prophesized. Peter Echerbrook was never scolded or threatened, never ignored or unloved. One look at Mr. Echerbrook and a person knew that underneath his docile gaze lay a fearsome stare able to quell the most violent of insurrections. Mr. Echerbrook never used this talent. If he knew about it, then maybe he would have been a General or a Professor; if his family knew about it than they did not deem it necessary to mention. Instead, Peter Echerbrook’s father was polite, appropriately old, and worked at an office that did some very important things for the city though his family never knew exactly what those things were. As a teenager, Peter Echerbrook had a few close friends that were discreet and un-burdensome. When his parents would walk into Peter Echerbrook’s room to make sure he wasn’t up to any funny business, for that was what they were told good parents did, they would see Peter loafing about with his friends, or by himself, it made little difference, and they would say:
“We should do something?”
“I don’t know…Go for a walk?”
After a while Peter Echerbrook’s parents stopped checking in on him.
In the eyes of society, Peter Echerbrook was only a proper and diagnosed teenager once. He only ever committed an act of rebellion against whom he was expected the one time. This of course was the day in his sophomore year that Peter Echerbrook did not come home from school. By the time the relevant authorities and his parents found him (sometime around 10 PM), Peter Echerbrook had walked fifteen miles down the interstate heading out of town. When the squad car pulled up just behind Peter Echerbrook’s shuffling figure illuminated by the penetrating glare of the headlights, Peter Echerbrook’s father silently exited the vehicle and patiently approached his son. His son continued to march away from him. When Peter Echerbrook’s father grabbed Peter’s shoulder and spun him around, he found the face of a confused puppy, a wounded animal, a boy who had walked away from his home and cried for several hours without any real goal. Peter Echerbrook’s father showed no surprise, though he felt a fair measure, and waited for a conceivable explanation. Peter Echerbrook’s father remembered the conversation going something like:
“I’m sorry. I was just being stupid. It won’t happen again.”
After which, Peter and his father walked calmly back to the squad car and after a few easy questions at the station, went home. When in reality Peter Echerbrook espoused a great deal more:
“Who am I?” Peter choked.
“What?” his father queried.
“Why can’t I say how I feel? Why don’t I know what I want? Wh—why do I wake up crying at night … and not know why?” Peter pleaded.
“I …um …” his father stuttered trying to grab his son’s shoulder and leave the moment behind them.
“You have no idea do you? You don’t even understand what I’m talking about. I’m not your perfect son right now so you don’t even talk to me, do you?” Peter paused. “I can see it in your face! I hate you. I hate this city! LET GO OF ME! I HATE YOU!”
After which Peter Echerbrook’s father dragged him back to the squad car and after a series of unanswerable questions, returned home to that ambivalent silence that could help no one.
I don’t know how Peter Echerbrook was supposed to have slept that night, but he did. Even though all the walls felt no more than two feet away from his bed, and the night air seeped through the window, closing its ghostly fist around him as he sobbed violently while clutching his head. In the morning, he looked in the mirror and saw the inky remnants of his fingerprints tattooed on the side of his face and forehead. Peter Echerbrook didn’t remember getting his fingerprints taken, or even what it meant, but he felt their absence as assuredly as if they had burned them off. It’s strange; the things that people define you with.
Of course, rumors spread around town, and for a good while people got the impression that Peter Echerbrook was in some way dangerous or disturbed. Behind their doors, the neighbors and the school faculty talked about the strange, quiet deviant that inhabited their humble town. In their heads they all wondered what would possess a boy to walk down a freeway away from everything he has ever known, and asked themselves if they had ever possessed the courage to do the same.
His senior year of high school, Peter Echerbrook had repaired whatever was broken that day between him and his parents and the town could not recall a time they didn’t consider Peter Echerbrook one of their own. Peter Echerbrook had spent many hours in plain view of the neighbors on his street; he even made it a point to ask his parents about their day, and other ordinary behavior a content young boy engages in when he has nothing to hide. Only Peter Echerbrook’s father looked at him from a distance, for even if he couldn’t remember what his son actually said to him that night, he could still see the glimmer of a chaotic yearning in his son’s eyes from time to time, and he felt fundamentally that his son had never had any use for him.
Looking back on his high school experience, Peter Echerbrook could say that he went to two parties and stayed as close to the door as possible at each. He made jokes to the drunken girls that accosted him and when they implored to know whether or not he was having a good time, he responded with an honest, “Yes.” All in all, more content to watch than act. Throughout his schooling Peter Echerbrook joined no clubs and attended no sporting events. He achieved passable grades for which he received no added reward from his parents and the only award he ever brought home was the lackluster white certificate of the honor roll. The Echerbrooks never felt quite proud enough to put the bumper sticker testament to this accolade on the family car. The only time Peter Echerbrook dared to venture outside of his sheltered world once again was when he engaged in a fleeting love affair with a girl. The few times he cared to recollect on this time period in his life, he only ever recalled the end of their relationship when he wrote her a short letter to finish what he inexplicably knew was destined to end. The letter read in as many words:
It has become unnervingly clear to me that both of us are content with the thought of never saying what is most uncomfortable for us to say.
They never told each other that they loved one another; there would have been no point. It was true, but the truth is never the place at which one wants to start, especially when one is expected to express some degree of affection. Love avoids the truth at all costs and Peter Echerbrook only ever knew the bitter truth of his own reality, which he could do nothing but earnestly try to avoid. At least … that’s what he told himself.
Peter Echerbrook never went to college. Someone told him that to go to college one must aspire to be something. Peter Echerbrook had no aspirations he could name or remember now and thus inadvertently chose to be a man; just a man held firmly by the town in which he was born. To most, sheltering is a comfort. The ambition Peter Echerbrook had once possessed and shown outwardly had been all but killed behind the closed doors of his exceptional suburban home. His parents were content with his decision, not because of their own mediocre dreams, but because Peter maintained the relatively prestigious and sustainable position of Assistant Shipping Clerk at the local Wal-Mart. Besides the silence in the Echerbrook household had been growing steadily more tangible for years.
So it was that Peter Echerbrook went to work and came home to an air conditioned apartment, and went to work and paid for the air conditioning, and slept and awoke no different from yesterday. If Peter Echerbrook minded this routine he never told anybody, and if he still wanted to escape, then he acted like he had forgotten why.
The only real pleasure afforded Peter Echerbrook were the short afternoon walks to the gas station two blocks away from his roadside apartment home. Peter Echerbrook would walk every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday to Max’s Gas Station on 7th Street and Maple Avenue at five o’ clock. It gave Peter Echerbrook a guarded impression of freedom and self-determinacy to both start and complete these voyages from his solidary residence on alternating days. But more than this, the trip helped relieve the undue anxiety building up inside Peter Echerbrook once again. The familiar pressure was a persistent omen to Peter Echerbrook, accompanied with the annoying sensation of a swelling balloon freely floating around in his brain. I’d imagine he had felt this sensation irregularly since his high school days. Peter Echerbrook remained willfully ignorant of the cold reality and the debilitating effect of his affliction, choosing instead to tell himself that his position at work invited enough of both physical stress and hierarchical jealousy to inconvenience any normal man, and Peter Echerbrook was committed to being just that. The pressure was familiar, reminding Peter Echerbrook, regardless of how he chose to feel, of his foiled escape down the freeway.
As Peter Echerbrook for the first time in years grew more and more strained in credit to his peculiar, incurable ailment, he couldn’t help but find himself unusually irritated that Tuesday when he walked into Max’s Gas Station to make his usual purchase: a cold bottle of Coca-Cola in a clear glass container and a pack of spearmint gum (which he devoured in a mere afternoon out of habit). Peter Echerbrook bought these items as only a man enraptured with his own mediocre discovery could. I’ve always preferred the taste of Coke bottled in glass over the annoyingly artificial flavor of plastic or aluminum. Peter Echerbrook stumbled upon this sweet combination without trying; a cynical man would say that this was the only beauty allowed a man such as Peter Echerbrook. But I can’t really choose a side so, anyway, he liked it.
Dread boiled up inside Peter Echerbrook as he approached the cashier’s counter, staring sheepishly at the familiar clerk, pleading for recognition, unsure of whether or not he could bear to hear the question he knew was com—
“Any alcohol or cigarettes today?”
“Not for me,” said Peter Echerbrook with a humorless smile.
This was the conversation Peter Echerbrook was subjected to every time he left his house, thinking at one time about the day previous and the day ahead. Though he was used to it, today Peter Echerbrook couldn’t help but despair.
Shouldn’t he recognize me!? he shouted at himself. Isn’t there anything about me that’s noticeable?
As he brooded home that day, Peter Echerbrook resolved to change himself, determined not to correct or inconvenience anyone else, but to somehow amplify his presence. Something Peter Echerbrook knew he could not do but wouldn’t dare to let himself recognize. When Peter fell asleep that night he dreamed that he was looking out of the window of a rocket ship suspended amidst a foreign skyline. Below him, Peter could see an entire planet, an entire race, frozen but preserved forever in ice. Before he woke up in a panic, Peter Echerbrook remembered firing his ship’s missiles down upon the hopelessly imprisoned population and thinking that just maybe he could save a few souls by fire. I think dreams tell us more about our future than our past.
On that Thursday, Peter Echerbrook walked confidently back into Max’s Gas Station and inadvertently stumbled upon the robbery that would receive media coverage for the next five days. Like an actor missing his cue. Upon entering the store, a gun was placed casually to Peter Echerbrook’s throbbing temple by a silent, unimposing wingman, or whatever you call it, standing just to the left of the store’s entrance. Numb, his head already splitting, Peter Echerbrook waited for the inevitable screams and the sudden pistol whip that all those movies cautioned him would follow in such a predicament, but none came. Instead, he heard a deep, passionless, yet frightening voice reverberate off of his ear drums, “Retrieve your items, sir …”
The strange statement originated from the man standing in front of the counter that Peter Echerbrook had just noticed, who, at present, was lazily holding a small revolver to the nose of the teary eyed and stuttering clerk. The man emanated an extreme form of societal deviation uncommon to the vast majority of the irrelevant citizens in Peter Echerbrook’s birthplace, and it didn’t help that he was holding the weapon in his hands as if unaware of the weight, as if bored with the task, as if in possession of some kind of secret he was overtly trying to share with whoever would listen. Peter Echerbrook couldn’t help but feel guilty that he had begun to hate the store clerk with every alternating day, but he couldn’t convince himself that he’d get a chance to apologize in the future.
Shaking, hands raised in subservience, Peter Echerbrook shuffled to the back of the store mechanically, trying to think of nothing, and indeed retrieved his cold Coke in a glass bottle and his bitter spearmint gum and hesitantly returned to the standoff at the front of the store. As he approached, the voice commanded just above a whisper, “Wait …”
In response to this non-obvious signal the human statue by the door sprung to life, advancing with certain, almost faithful steps to the counter. From his side the servant withdrew a can of gasoline, wetting the counter and the hyperventilating clerk, creating a river flowing slowly and silently to the back room. Peter Echerbrook shivered as he realized how routine and tedious the event seemed to be in the eyes of the two intruders, and shuddered again with what felt like recognition though he didn’t know why. The clerk tried to mumble a protest but only managed to sputter,
“Listen buddy, you don’t have to do this … I know you … this isn’t you—”
The Voice silenced the clerk deftly by bringing his index finger slowly, yet menacingly, up to his lips. Turning for the first time, the voice stared down at Peter Echerbrook, who had unwittingly sunken to his knees, with empty, fierce eyes. The Voice glanced at Peter Echerbrook’s soda and unnervingly let out one short laugh, adding, “My favorite. How did you know?”
Spinning around suddenly, the Voice struck a match, flicking it at the all too combustible clerk like one would flick a bothersome ant on shirtsleeve. As the clerk fought against the pain all around him, the flame ignited the counter and the open cash register. The untouched money inside only added a brightness to the blaze, illuminating the Voice’s familiar face. The Voice somberly chuckled to himself for a few moments before reaching down and taking Peter Echerbrook’s Coke, adding politely, “Thank you.”
The Voice then spun round for a second time and shot his assistant straight through the head, sending red rain to inadequately quell the fire he had started. Sauntering away from Peter Echerbrook, the voice slid off one leather glove from his right hand, transferring the beverage from his left, and took a long sip of the opaque liquid, mixing fingerprints with specks of blood on its transparent surface; unmoving, Peter Echerbrook stared at the bottle illuminated by the annoying fluorescent lights that are so common in convenience stores. Peter Echerbrook had never wanted to stop being himself more badly in his life and as he watched until the bottle became a mere outline floating in the air by the darkening street corner as the sun finally set, it occurred to Peter Echerbrook that the voice was almost soothing. Kneeling at the front of the store, the smell of burnt flesh in his nostrils, viscous blood pooling around his knees, Peter Echerbrook stared at nothing in particular and whispered,
“Take me with you.”
And Peter Echerbrook answered in a soothing tone,
Peter Echerbrook turned his attention to the dying blaze as the inevitable authorities began to trickle in. The cops said nothing; most were in shock, seeing as most had never seen such a sadistic convenience store robbery. In fact, to them, convenience stores were meant to be an unspoken break from the seeming monotony of parking tickets, not a violent reminder of the undefinable cruelty of men. So when they asked Peter Echerbrook if he needed help they were sincere about it.
“Hello sir. Sir? What’s your name? Who are you?”
“Hey Ed, that’s the Echerbrook kid isn’t it?
Peter Echerbrook stared.
“You mean Stephen Echerbrook’s kid?”
“Yeah. You know … the weird one.”
The officer’s tone changed to subtle suspicion though his face remained as kind and impassable as ever.
“I know this is hard, you’ve been through a lot, but I need you to try and give me a description of the guy that did this. Can you do that for me? Can you do that for this poor bastard that died tonight? Did you know the clerk?”
Peter Echerbrook thought.
“Look, we’re not going to get anywhere like this. Can I get you anything? I mean, they have everything here. Ha! Just a little joke … maybe you want to laugh? Huh? Mr. Echerbrook, are you OK? Do you need to go with the ambulance? God damn it—have we checked this guy out yet?”
Peter Echerbrook smiled.
“What are you smiling at?”
In the papers, the arresting officer said that after about ten minutes of questioning Peter Echerbrook candidly admitted his guilt with a kind of restrained pride, though I doubt the officer would ever really be able to comprehend what he saw in that moment. That night just meant the officer’s name in the paper and a press conference in the morning. To Peter Echerbrook it meant that he walked away for the second moment in his life and this time … he smiled.
Peter Echerbrook’s parents didn’t visit him in prison or attend the series of trials that eventually led to Peter Echerbrook’s conviction. They tried quietly to erase the memory of their son and the years they spent not knowing him, but it’s hard to forget without an explanation. Of course, Peter Echerbrook’s parents were offered a plethora of explanations as soon as they stepped out their door every morning from the neighbor, the coffee shop cashier, the bank teller, their co-workers, their relatives, their friends, friends turned enemies, and even from strangers. But Peter Echerbrook’s parents would never be able to accept any explanation beyond their own failure, for they were of the kind to feel guilt even when blameless.
A week after his arrest, which felt more like a whole month, the town began to simmer in gossip. Neighbors repeated the same telling tale amongst each other, each claiming a different origin, some claiming credit as its author.
“Did you hear the story about the Echerbrook boy?”
“We all have, I think. You’d have to be dead not to have heard it.”
“No not that. The one about him at school.”
“Oh, what happened?”
“Apparently when he was in school, around twelfth grade, there was a fight between two boys—”
“Oh, he fought somebody?! No wonder he did what he did.”
“No! Let me finish. He wasn’t in the fight, he just watched the fight. The strange thing was is that while the boys fought he was laughing. Laughing so loud and so long that the two boys stopped fighting and ran away. All the kids ran away. They tried to make him take counselling after that.”
“Well that is strange.”
“Shows he’s always had a few screws loose. Doesn’t it?”
So the people rested through justification they could not prove authentic, but accepted as the scapegoat for even harsher truth. Somehow, Peter Echerbrook didn’t seem far enough away.
When his parents finally decided they wanted to see their son, even if it was just the once, they met a man with empty, fierce eyes at the end of a dirty abandoned corridor with nothing at all to say. Though he never looked at him, Peter Echerbrook’s father felt his son’s stare nonetheless, and became acquainted with a manner of silence wholly more malicious then the type he grown so contented with as a tool over the years. Peter Echerbrook’s mother on the other hand looked at her son for a fleeting moment and turned away out of fright. Perhaps she thought she’d looked into the wrong cell. I do not know. For any reason, she aimlessly wandered the cell block in which her son was now contained and looked for other people’s sons instead. They did not stay long, and did not wait for Peter Echerbrook to show any sign of remorse or memory of his former self. Their footfalls echoed throughout the recently unoccupied hallway as they left and Peter Echerbrook rose to witness the detached finality of their departure. Fixating on their hunched posture and embarrassed gait, Peter Echerbrook could see his parents clearly for the first time: two unremarkable beings accidently united out of thousands on this swirling rock, too scared to admit their unhappiness. I can almost see them, solemnly removing Peter Echerbrook’s picture from the mantelpiece and converting Peter Echerbrook’s room into a spare bedroom for family guests that would somehow make the room feel normal again. If I didn’t know him better, I’d almost feel sorry for Peter.
And so it is that I continue to smile inside my jail cell, for whatever time I still have left; Peter Echerbrook’s mind, body, and voice finally free.