The Radio Man I, or: A Man Wakes Up Every Morning

(originally published in Sanatarium Magazine, Issue #38)

He woke up, again, to the same alarm as always: static hiss of radio underscoring the accentless newsman as he said, “…he went to the gun locker, opened it, and took out the rifle.” He slapped the radio off before he heard the rest of the story and pushed himself up out of bed. Sarah shifted on the mattress next to him, an airy sigh slipping from her lips as she curled up in the covers. She never heard the newsman, no matter how many times he said the exact same thing. They’d had a fight about it, once. She always heard a rock song, from Oceanrest Rock & Blues Radio. The same song, every time…something by Nine Inch Nails, but he couldn’t remember the title. He only ever heard the news report, the same news report, over and over again.

“Steve?” Sarah’s voice was sleepy-soft.

“Yeah?” he asked, pretending not to know the question. Pretending not to have heard it every day for as long as he could remember, going back more days than he had any reason to keep counting.

“Could you make breakfast for the kids? I had a late night.”

“Sure.”

The form of her was invisible beneath the sheets, but he knew she smiled. It was a small smile, no teeth showing. He’d maneuvered a glance at it on one of the hundreds of days that were all exactly alike. Within minutes, she’d be back in the depths of sleep.

*****

He scrambled eggs in the frying pan. They spat oil and sputtered as he chopped at them with the spatula. The dog, Shep, wove between his legs excitedly, as if expecting a helping herself. He stared at the pan, listening to the sound under the sizzling eggs. Radio static, in crescendo. The clock on the stove blinked to 7:35 AM.

The television flickered on in the living room. The news anchor sounded exactly the same as the Radio Man, sounded exactly the same as his boss, sounded exactly the same as how many other people he’d met living the same day over for months on end. The anchor leaned toward the camera, “His wife, author Sarah Clarke, was still sleeping when the slaughter began.”

He walked over to the set and turned it off. He stared at the blank screen until the smell of burning eggs brought him back to the stove. He swore he saw something move behind the black veil of the dead screen, but he could never make it out.

*****

He didn’t remember buying the gun. He remembered the code to the safe, the number he punched into the keypad to unlock it, but he didn’t actually remember buying the thing. It was as if it had always been there, waiting, whispering in his dreams.

The safe was in the closet of their bedroom, on the opposite side of the house from the twins. He remembered it being there when he brought them all home from the hospital. Had it been there when they’d moved in? Had it been there when they bought the house and he carried Sarah over the threshold like a second wedding?

The question hurt his head. He walked back to the kitchen, closing the door quietly behind him.

*****

Amy was up, first. She came out of her room so fast she would’ve crashed right into the wall if he hadn’t been there to catch her. He’’d learned that from the first few times the day repeated: same time, every morning, Amy careened out of the room fast as a bullet right into the wall. Being there to catch her saved him twenty minutes of crying. It saved her a nasty knot on the side of her head, too.

“Watch it there, kiddo,” he said, smiling down at her.

She was very small and young and knew little about pain.

She pulled herself out of his hands and ran toward the kitchen table. “You’re coming to the play tomorrow!” – not a question, a statement. Amy had a role in the school play, and had been increasingly excited about it during the lead up. She was bubbling over. Except tomorrow never seemed to come. All her enthusiasm was trapped in the present, imprisoned in the same endless morning.

“You bet,” he whispered back, knowing she couldn’t hear him.

Charlie came out of the room next, rubbing his eyes. “I don’t wanna go.”

Steve reached down and ruffled his son’s dirty blond hair. “Too bad, Chuckie man.”

“It’s a stupid play.”

“It’ll only be one night. You’ll be fine.”

Charlie grumbled his way into the kitchen and sat down at the table. He poured too much ketchup on his eggs.

*****

He brought them both a glass of milk and half of an English muffin with peanut butter and jelly. It was what they had in the house: milk, eggs, English muffins, peanut butter, jelly, and four cans of tuna. Groceries had been tight. Everything had been tight since they’d discovered they were having fraternal twins instead of a single child. It didn’t help that Sarah hadn’t had a successful book in four years. Or any book at all. A sales job in telecomm wasn’t enough to feed a family of four.

The debt had worried him until the calendar stopped moving. Now it seemed like a funny joke. If a collector called, he would cheerily give them all the appropriate information and hang up the phone, knowing nary a dime would go missing from it. Another of the fringe benefits of not having a future.

“Never put off till tomorrow,” he muttered to himself, watching his children eat. It was a joke he’d made, before. It wasn’’t funny and it wasn’t aging well.

“You’ll break,” the dog had the Radio Man’s voice. Its mouth didn’’t move, but Steve could hear it in his head. “They all break, eventually. One way or another. What do you think you have in you? A couple more months, maybe a year? How long can you make the same breakfast every morning?”

He glared down at the dog and found it jumping up and down around the kitchen table. Charlie slipped it a palm-full of egg and ruffled its ears. The animal glanced back at Steve with mischief in its eyes. Charlie loved the dog, of course. Charlie couldn’t hear it whisper in his head.

*****

How many times had he done this? How long had he fought? How many ways could he avoid doing it? How many times could he wake up in the same bed and hear the same news report and decide not to let it happen?

Over. He just wanted it to be over.

*****

The bus picked the kids up a few minutes late. 8:39 instead of 8:30. Of course, after the first few times Steve had just started taking them out to the curb at 8:35ish. He waved them aboard the yellow bus and watched it drive away.

There was one thing he hadn’t tried, yet, but he didn’t want the kids to be home if it worked.

*****

Sarah was still sleeping when he tip-toed back into the bedroom. He went to the gun locker, opened it, and took out the rifle. It was a 30.06 and held five bullets. He loaded it up and listened to the safe sing static in his ears. It was always static. Static and the radio voice, out of every pore of the world. The dog had the voice. The stray cat had the voice. The birds had the voice. The mouse scurrying across the sidewalk had the voice. He could hear the news report shivering beneath the earth’s skin.

But problems do have solutions.

He left the bedroom with the gun and walked out to the backyard. It was a quiet neighborhood. The only sound was the pop and crackle of the thing living inside the air, the rustle of leaves scratching each other like record needles. He took a deep breath.

His teeth felt strange against the barrel, like biting into a piece of flint. It was cold and hard and it made his enamel itch. He closed his eyes and fumbled for the trigger with his thumb, awkwardly hunched over the gun. He tried to block out the gritty texture and the coppery taste of metal. He struggled not to gag. His thumb found the curved edge of the trigger, and he heard himself whimper.

He squeezed the trigger.

*****

The radio man said, “He killed his son, first, splattering blood across scrambled eggs like watery ketchup” and Steve reached out and slammed his hand on the alarm clock. He rolled over and pulled Sarah close to him, feeling her body ease into his. She helped his lungs expand. The alarm clock turned back on. “His daughter tried to run away, screaming for her mother, but he shot her in the back of the throat before—”

He turned away from Sarah, grabbed the alarm clock, and wrenched it from the wall. He pushed himself out of bed and threw the clock on the floor, watching its plastic pieces break apart to reveal electronic guts. He picked up the remains and threw them down, again, watching them shatter and spin away from each other. The floor was covered in debris.

“What the hell are you doing?” Sarah sat up in bed.

Steve swallowed air to drown the fire in his chest. “I’m sick of it.”

Sarah seemed small in the center of the mattress, caught in the whorl of sheets. Her voice seemed smaller still. “My parents said…if we have to…”

He shook his head at her, bull-like, “No. That’s not—I’m not living in a basement with two kids, the dryer banging around all night, living behind walls we make out of shower curtains.”

Moving would be a waste of time, anyway.

“Just until I finish the book," she offered.

He took a deep breath and started picking the shattered radio pieces up from the floor. “It’s fine,” he muttered. He bit his tongue to stop himself from talking about the news report, the Radio Man, the repeating day. She never believed him, anyway. “Keep writing. I’ll figure it out at work. We’ll figure it out.””

He hadn’t even gone to work for months. It seemed pointless, now.

“I’m sorry,” he dropped the radio innards into the bin at the foot of the bed. “Just…work stress. The boss. We haven’t had a cost-of-living raise in years and…nevermind. I’m just sorry, okay?”

She nodded, not replying.

“I’m so goddamned sorry.”

“Come here,” Sarah reached out with open arms, “let me hold you.”

*****

One day, to kill the monotony, he told the kids to skip school and go to the zoo with him. He snapped at Amy when she tried to turn on the car radio, smacked her hand harder than he wanted. She didn’t cry, but she looked up at him with wide, scared eyes. The tape deck grinned at him, spat out a tape like a tongue. He grabbed it and threw it out the window, watching it shatter against the road behind them.

The day was muffled and distant inside his head. The kids jumped around and took photographs on disposable cameras, snapshots of big cats and exotic birds. Steve tried to keep his eyes on his feet, feeling the gaze of every animal branding his skin. Monkeys howled at him, teeth bared, “His daughter tried to run away! His daughter tried to run away!”” Their laughter chattered in his head. One of them threw crap at him, spattering his slacks with their shitstain.

The kids got tired and grumpy and started to whine, so he took them to lunch at a cheap burger place down the road. His wallet was out of cash, so he paid on a credit card. The kids’ faces got gross with condiments, their fingers sticky. Steve wiped them off with sanitary napkins despite their arguments. Amy was particularly against it. ““Daddy, stop!” she yelled, drawing the attention of parents at another table. As if they were any better. As if their children were so polite. He wrangled Amy still and wiped her mouth with the moist towelette as she squealed.

The overhead speaker snickered at him in Radio Man static. “The only way out is through.”

“Come on, let’s go,” Steve muttered, angrier than he wanted to sound. He grabbed his children by the wrists and ferried them out of the restaurant. He sat them down in the back of the car and locked them in. He paced around the parking lot for fifteen minutes before he joined them, begging God or the Universe or anyone for an answer, for a tomorrow, for something to do.

A young woman, maybe fifteen or sixteen, walked around the side of the lot. Bleach-white hair sat mop-like on her head, the sides shaved clean down to the scalp. She was fatally thin and smelled of unwashed summer heat. She scanned the parking lot until her eyes fell on him. “Sir…?”

The stench of her made him recoil. He fished a couple crumpled bills from his pocket.

She took the money and ferreted it away in the folds of a tattered, XXL hoodie. “Thank you. But that’s not what—”

He was already walking away, unlocking the driver’s side door of the car and sliding into the seat. She stood outside the burger joint staring at him, something behind her eyes making him think about police detectives or psycho-analysts. He turned his keys in the ignition and tried to clear her smell out of the back of his throat.

“Daddy?” Charlie asked. “Who is that?”

“Doesn’t matter,” he mumbled. It didn’t feel like a lie.

*****

One day, he told Sarah, and she didn’t believe him. He told his boss, and he didn’t, either. He told a therapist and she prescribed him drugs. He told a cop and spent the day in a cell. He told anyone that would listen and nobody did. There was no point in keeping it secret, day after same-day. The Radio Man didn’t seem to care, either.

“Tell everyone!” fifty televisions called out inside a Wal-Mart, “Tell everyone and maybe they’ll start tuning in to the same channel!”

*****

Shep slept on the floor in front of the dead TV screen. Steve stared into the flat black and drank espresso. Something moved behind the screen, inside the darkness, he was sure of it. He just had to see it. It was part of an answer. It had to be. Because there had to be an answer and he had to find it. He finished his fourth coffee of the morning and heard Sarah open the bedroom door.

“What are you doing out here?”

“Called out for the day,” he answered, his words caffeine-sharp. “Needed time to think.”

He could feel the words she wanted to say, feel them like static around the hairs of his arms. You shouldn’t skip work right now, maybe, or: we really need the money. But she kept the words to herself and set about making her own clone of the kids’ breakfasts. Eggs, English muffin, milk. The tuna sat in cold cans uneaten. He refilled his mug while she ate and sat back down in front of the screen.

“I’ll go back in tomorrow,” he said, feeling her eyes still on him. “I just needed a day off.”

“You deserve one. I’m sorry about…" a pause, more words unsaid, "I’ll start freelancing again.”

“We’ll figure it out,” he waited for the screen to pulse, for something to writhe inside it.

Shep roused with the smell of food. The squeak of dog-yawn made Steve wince. Radio Man came through Shep’s mouth: “Police won’t comment on what the man said, but one local neighbor said it was ‘disturbing.’” The dog panted a couple times and trotted to the kitchen.

Steve kept staring at the screen.

Sarah did her writing outside, that day. In the quiet neighborhood with the nice grass, blissfully unaware of the thing vibrating under the skin of the world. Steve just sat in front of the television, eyes glued to the blank, endless black. The kids came home, troubled their mother, and went to bed. Sarah came back inside, laptop under one arm and children’s toys under the other.

“Nice show.”

“Trying to meditate.”

“Okay, then.”

She vanished into the bedroom, where he could still hear her fingernails clack against keys. The clock ticked forward. 9:30pm, 10:00pm, 11:43pm…it rolled over to 12:00am, 12:15am, 12:23am. Steve felt his breath get short. It was tomorrow. A smile crept across his face and he started giggling. 1:17am. He jumped up off the couch with a laugh and——

“…but his behavior had been bizarre leading up to the incident…” he turned over in bed and shut off the radio. A sob wracked through his body, and something hot lashed back at it. He stood up.

“I’m going to kill him,” he muttered, pulling on a pair of beaten sweatpants and a t-shirt from under the bed. “I’m going out there and I’m going to kill him.”

It was such a simple solution, he couldn’t believe he hadn’t tried it, already.

*****

He walked out into the front yard and the grass smelled like disinfectant and absence. He wasn’t sure if Sarah would follow, and it didn’t matter anyway. In less than 24 hours she would forget anything she’d heard him mutter that morning. For her, a rock song would play on the radio and she’d curl back up in bed. He crossed the lawn and reached the sidewalk.

Shep was there, waiting, staring up at him. A stray cat sat next to her, staring with the exact same eyes. Their mouths opened at the same time and a rush of static washed through his head. Radio Man came out of their mouths: “You can’t kill me, here. You can’’t die. Haven’t you figured it out? Go to the gun locker, open it, and take out the rifle. It’s easy when you do it. Wake up and it will be tomorrow.”

He rushed the animals and they scattered, running along green grass in different directions. He roared after them. When he turned back around, he saw the blond homeless girl staring at him from behind a tree. Her hood was up, but the look and the smell were unmistakable. “What the hell are you doing?” he snarled, stalking toward her, hands balled into fists. “Did you follow me? Did you follow me to my house?””

She retreated as quickly as the animals had. Something about her didn’t make sense, but he couldn’t place what.

*****

Oceanrest Rock & Blues was in a tiny building on top of a hill northeast of town. It took him four hours to walk there. He could’ve taken a car, but he didn’t. The time gave him space to breathe, to brood, to let the answer solidify in his head. He had to kill the Radio Man. That was the only other option. Then it would finally be over.

He expected to find a reception desk when he threw the door open, but there wasn’t one. There wasn’t anything. The place had been torn apart. A dented air vent hung from the half-collapsed ceiling, exhaling cool, sweet air into the dusty room. The remains of four destroyed chairs lay scattered across the floor like limbs after a bomb.

His loafers were quiet against the floor as he made his way into the station. Broken wires like nooses hung from everything. Ceiling tiles had been pried away to reveal leaking pipes and busted vents. Something had come through here and destroyed the place. He found no one waiting in the hallways as he went. The building was catacombs-empty.

The window that looked in on the recording studio dripped with opaque gray sludge. Steve reached out and touched it, feeling it cool and mud-like oozing around his fingers. He wiped the viscous residue on his pants and turned the corner.

The door to the studio hung open. Static crackled from inside the room.

Steve walked in.

The Radio Man stared at him from the center of the room. He had microphone heads as eyes and a smile that anyone in America could buy into. He tilted his head to one side and spoke in the same voice Steve had always heard, “Do you think you’ll wake up and it will be tomorrow?””

Steve charged him and put a fist in his everyman smile. His skin split around the Radio Man’s teeth. Radio Man stumbled back and crashed spread-eagle on a small, worn table. Steve rushed forward and hit him, again, this time in the throat. Electric feedback warbled from Radio Man’s mouth, loud enough to make Steve grab his ears.

“His wife was out of the room two seconds later with a small pistol from the same safe. She fired and hit him in the stomach. He returned fire, spilling all her love out of her chest,” the Radio Man was back on his feet, his voice deafening in Steve’’s head. “He was found strangling his dog on the front lawn, screaming.”

Steve dove at the man and tackled him to the ground. He was deaf and blind from all the sound, but he didn’t need to see or hear to keep punching. He lashed out with his fists until his knuckles were broken and all his skin was flayed by splintered bone. The Radio Man laughed through it all, bursts of static snicker and radio-persona crack-up exploding from his mangled face. He never fought back.

When the sound died away, Steve stood up. All the pain shrieking in his hands seemed like a distant, foggy memory. He staggered back through the empty radio station and walked out the front door, leaving twin trails of blood in his wake, dripping off his fingers.

Outside, a bird peered down at him from the boughs of a tree.

“The only way out is through,” Radio Man’s voice teased from its beak.

*****

Amy’s play never came. Charlie never wanted to go, anyway. Steve ran lines with her every morning, a rehearsal for a show that would never go up. There were always eggs and English muffins and not much else to eat. The safe whispered static in his dreams. The world whispered static in his daylight. The night ate the day and yesterday ate tomorrow. Amy and Charlie never grew older, never grew up, never complained about dating or learned about unemployment.

They smiled and laughed and sometimes they ran into walls and that was as bad as things got for them.

*****

Static sizzled under the burning eggs. Steve’s knuckles were bone-white around the spatula handle. How long had it been, now? How many times had he cooked the same breakfast?

“He went to the gun locker, opened it, and took out the rifle.”

Was it a threat, or a promise? Was it the end, or the beginning?

*****

The eggs sputtered on the pan. Shep wove between his legs. “Go to the gun locker!” the animal yipped in Radio Man’s voice, “go to the gun locker!”

Steve picked the dog up and threw it against a wall. It landed with a whimper on the kitchen counter. “What the hell do you want from me!?” he screamed, grabbing the furry animal in his hands and shaking it. “What do you want!?”

“His wife, author Sarah Clarke, was still sleeping when the slaughter began.”

He smashed the animal down against the countertop, hearing more bones splinter. “Why are you doing this to me!?”

“You’ll break,” Radio Man’s voice was quieter, distorted, coming from a broken speaker inside the dog’s body. “They always break. The only way out…the only way…”

He lifted Shep’s body in the air and brought it down again, until the Radio Man stopped talking and the animal’s corpse painted his hands red. Amy and Charlie went to stay with their aunt in Portland, and he spent the rest of the day in one of the police precincts.

*****

The voice got more persistent. He unplugged the alarm clock and the birds outside would sing the report for hours. The dog would bark it, the stray cat would mewl it. The eggs started talking to him, the voice whispering beneath the sputtering oil. The television would flick on and the Radio Man’s voice would come out of the news anchor, children’s cartoons, Tony Soprano’s mouth. It was all he heard all the time every day. It was in his head like a brain worm, eating his mind.

*****

He opened Sarah’s laptop and typed:

He went to the gun locker, opened it, and took out the rifle. He loaded it with five rounds and leaned it against the fridge as he cooked breakfast for his children. He walked back to the bedroom and kissed his wife on the forehead. She smiled faintly and turned over in bed. The walk back to the kitchen took the longest. It was time. There was no way out but through. He ruffled his children’’s hair and opened the fridge to reveal empty shelves.

His wife, author Sarah Clarke, was still asleep when the slaughter began. He killed his son, first, splattering blood across scrambled eggs like watery ketchup. His daughter tried to run away, screaming for her mother, but he shot her in the back of the throat before she could make it to the bedroom.

His wife was out of the room two seconds later with a small pistol from the same safe. She fired and hit him in the stomach. He returned fire, spilling all her love out of her chest. He was found strangling his dog on the front lawn, screaming.

Police won’t comment on what the man said, but one local neighbor said it was ‘disturbing.’ His neighbor alleges he was screaming at the dog, sobbing, ““Is this enough for you? Can this all finally be over, now?” when the first cop cars pulled up across the street.

Neighbors say Steven Clarke is a good man, but his behavior had been bizarre leading up to the incident. He’d written a grim short story on his wife’s laptop depicting a similar scene to what happened that morning, and hadn’’t been to work for two or more days. Was it a psychotic break from reality? One witness might know the truth: a young homeless girl found on the sidewalk across from his home, crusted white hair cresting her otherwise shaved scalp…

*****

He hit ‘snooze’ and climbed out of bed. He pulled on a pair of boxers and a dirty t-shirt. He went to the gun locker, opened it, and took out the rifle. He loaded it with five rounds and prayed, hands so tight around the barrel he hoped it might break. Heat burned his cheeks as he begged the universe to intervene. Maybe someone would remember something: maybe Sarah would find the document he left on her laptop, or his boss would remember him screaming in the office, or the cop would remember locking him up—they’d remember, and they’d stop him. But he couldn’t keep doing it, anymore. It had to be over.

He leaned the gun against the fridge as he cooked breakfast for his children. He wrung his hands in front of the stove and pursed his lips in another prayer. Shep looked up at him with microphone-head eyes, “After this, everything will be okay,” Radio Man promised. ““It’s easier than you think. And then you’ll all be free. All of you. They’ll be free to dream what dreams may come. You’ll wake up tomorrow.”

Steve opened the front door and let the dog out into the yard. He walked back to the bedroom and kissed Sarah on the forehead. She smiled faintly and turned over in bed. Amy and Charlie laughed from the kitchen table. Silverware scraped against plates. Footsteps crunched the green grass outside, cutting across the front lawn. Maybe it was a teenager on the way to school. Maybe it was a cop coming to gun him down. Maybe it was all in his head, anyway.

The walk back to the kitchen took the longest.

“Daddy,” Amy called, face covered in peanut butter and jelly, “is mom coming to the play?”

“She wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he replied, voice quivering like his guts.

Charlie rolled his eyes when Steve ruffled his hair. The fridge was nearly empty. Groceries had been tight for some time. Everything had been tight for some time. Sarah’s parents had an unfinished basement they could use for a while, but they’d have to bring their own walls. Tuna sat uneaten in the pantry. The sun rose at 6:45 AM and set at 8:20 PM. Everyone breaks, eventually.

Steve licked his lips and felt a shuddering breath force its way into his lungs. The children were very small and young and knew little about pain. At least this way they would never have to find out. He closed the fridge and picked up the rifle. The only way out was through. Maybe, if he was lucky, he would die from the stomach wound and it could all really be over. Maybe tomorrow could be born without him in it. Maybe the footsteps crossing the lawn were headed toward the front door. It sounded like it.

He imagined a young homeless girl, smelling of unwashed summer, swinging the door in. She would hold a knife in her hand and it would go up into his shoulder, on the inside, finding an artery on the way, and he would bleed out on the floor. His family would never know why, and eventually they wouldn’t need to know why. They would just live.

The doorknob turned.

He wrapped his finger around the trigger.