Phoenix

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Prologue

Autumn 2001.
Tuesday Morning.
Salem, New Jersey.

A crisp bronze leaf drifts slowly to the ground. Its movements are uncertain, almost hesitant, as if it has a clear premonition of its fate and is desperately trying to prevent what is about to occur. Swaying, turning, pausing then continuing on its lonely journey. Finally it reaches its inevitable destiny, falling gently on top of the hundreds of similar leaves which cover the meandering curves of Oak Street on this fresh Tuesday morning. The leaf lies silent, without movement, seemingly resigned to the fact that there is no hope. Its journey has concluded. It is simply the natural cycle of life. Born, live, die. No living creature can expect to cheat death. No living creature ever does.

A sound reverberates, drifting in and out, as it is carried on the gentle breeze. At first it is indiscernible, an indistinct mish mash of voices. As the breeze grows steadily stronger, the sound becomes clearer. It is the joyful sounds of children playing, running, riding and getting up to limited mischief. This sound is the reason why properties in this particular suburb are so highly sought. Demand always far exceeds supply. This is a street where neighbors smile, wave and stop to chat; a rare thing in this day and age. Oak Street is a prime example of why people move to Salem, New Jersey. It is close enough to commute to offices in New York but safe, predictable and serene. It is America’s best kept secret; a place where kids can grow and live safely and their parents can sleep, fully at ease, at night.

Joe Hawkins lives in one of the older buildings in Oak Street. Though he has spent several thousand dollars having the house re-clad in aluminum about six years ago, the basic structure of the building remains the same. It is nearing one hundred and fifty years old.

During the re-cladding, he insisted that the structure of his house remain completely untouched. In fact, he was so concerned about his precious house that he positioned his rocking chair on his front lawn every morning at seven o’clock precisely, waiting for the builders to arrive. He would sit there silently, glaring over the top of his newspaper, as the workers went about their business. In his own distinctive words, he was making, “Damn sure” no damage was done to his precious home during the re-cladding process.

Joe’s one great love in life is the preservation of useful old things from by-gone eras. On a good day, he will joke that he aptly meets that description too. On most days he certainly feels like a relic from another time. He gains a sense of strength, of defiance, when he encounters old relics. It is like they have found some sort of magical way to endure the ravages of time and thus should be applauded and respected for their unintended longevity. He spends his free time scouring through markets, rummaging through yard sales and the like, searching for his next treasure to acquire and reclaim from the now disinterested world. It is a hobby that he finds very liberating, helping to keep his mind from dwelling on past problems for which he has lost the opportunity to remedy. Though resigned to the fact that he cannot change the past, his mind can’t help but revisit and replay situations over and over again, situations which could have had more favorable outcomes if only he had been more diligent, more pro-active. At the end of the day, rehashing the past simply leaves Joe drained and hollow. Sadness overwhelms him as he relives each tragedy which has befallen his life. Collecting distracts his mind, grants him a little peace from a chaotic and spiteful world.

Joe has another strange quirk of which none of his acquaintances are particularly aware. However, over the years, he has made no attempt to hide it. He just doesn’t talk about it. He is a very private individual. One who feels he will be wildly misunderstood by anyone he meets and converses with at length. For this reason, he keeps to himself. His determination to remain completely anti-social is the reason he has no friends to speak of. Life is easier that way, less complicated, less messy. However, his quirk remains undeniable.

When choosing a place to live, Joe searches for various characteristics. He likes quiet, peaceful and pleasant surroundings. He also prefers a reasonable climate, without the extremes in temperature. Overriding everything is one essential requirement, ‘Joe’s quirk’. For you see, Joe will only settle in a town with a name that appears to be compatible with his unique, warped view on life. The name of the place has to reflect who he is and what he is about, if it is to have any appeal to him. ‘Salem’ was just perfect, at least for his present stage in life. After all, where else would someone who regards themselves as little more than a warlock reside? By any definition, those few who know him well, regard him as some sort of warlock. He even has the obligatory black cat as a constant companion, though that is not through choice. It is more ‘meant to be’; preordained by the greater universe. Oscar was never invited into his household, he just arrived one day, taking advantage of an open window and making himself comfortable on a sitting room chair. Joe never had the heart to turf him out. Oscar was just another stray, just the same as Joe. A kindred spirit.

His house is square. A simple yet sturdy and serviceable design; seven rooms, including a kitchen, sitting room, dining room, laundry and three bedrooms. Joe’s bedroom overlooks the glorious view of colorful, century old street trees which were planted along the road by forward thinking town planners, now long deceased. The facade of the building is brilliant white. Window ledges are painted olive green as a stylish contrast. The shutters remain locked permanently open, no matter what the season or how cold the weather turns. Joe can’t be bothered with such mundane tasks as opening and closing shutters. It would send him mad. That is, of course, considering that he might already be insane, by any thinking person’s definition of that term.

Joe’s house is not huge. Cozy and comfortable would be a more apt description. The two bedrooms upstairs are no longer used, other than for storage. If the truth be known, for several years now, they have been steadily filled to the brim with an  eclectic collection of nick-knacks, papers, newspapers and notes scrawled on anything even remotely resembling a piece of paper. These rooms are kept locked at all times even though there appears to be no one desperately seeking admission. It is simply the case that Joe feels that the information housed in these rooms for future reference is too important and, most of all, private. Everything relates to the past in some way. Everything links him to the past. There are too many secrets here. Secrets Joe is determined to keep hidden. 

Joe spends most of his time living in the lower half of the house. It certainly shows. Rubbish is strewn everywhere. Pizza boxes are mainly piled up in one corner of the sitting room in a vain attempt at tidiness. Clothes are strewn everywhere; over chairs, on the kitchen table, on the floor, even hanging awkwardly over a reading lamp which stands precariously on a stained, pine side table. There is no way of distinguishing which clothes are clean and which ones are due to be laundered. In fact, the scene leaves any unsuspecting visitor with the impression that most of the clothes are in desperate need to be washed.

Empty beer cans are scattered in a chaotic manner throughout all of the lower floor rooms. The black garbage bag, set aside for them in the kitchen, is empty save for three cans correctly stowed in a brief moment of house cleaning four months ago. Six month supplies of empty bottles of ‘Jack’ are partially visible from under disheveled cushions on the sofa. They also sit on the mantle in the sitting room and on several of the window sills. There is even a large collection which completely covers the top of the television. Recent newspapers are thrown onto a haphazard stack in the corner of the sitting room. It would be a gross understatement to say that any stranger who has the misfortune to enter into Joe’s slum would quickly and correctly comment that ‘it lacked a woman’s touch’.          

From amongst the sheets and blankets, thrown carelessly in a heap on the bed, something indiscernible begins to stir. After a brief struggle, a bleary eyed, grey balding head appears. Joe frowns as he slowly comes to terms with the pain undissipated from the night before. Scratching his scalp vigorously, he ruffles his long, sparse hair into a wiry mess. Moaning, still groggy as a result of the sedatives and alcohol consumed earlier, he rises awkwardly from amongst his refuge of blankets. Dangling his scrawny legs over the side of the bed, he takes a moment to gather some breath and elusive energy. He pauses, breathing deliberately, as he waits for his stomach to settle a little and the threat of a cataclysmic eruption to abate. Slowly reaching down, he pulls on some shoes; one a brown slipper, the other a fluffy purple moccasin. Joe is completely unconcerned with his appearance. When you live alone there is no one passing judgment on your fashion sense. Practicality is of greater importance. Both shoes are comfortable and available, that is all that matters.

Eventually Joe rises successfully with a loud ‘creak’ caused by straightening his arthritic legs. He busily rubs his half-closed eyes back to life with one hand while scratching his backside, through his baggy black and white polka dot shorts, with the other. Staggering through his self-created minefield of obstacles, he moves towards the sitting room as he searches desperately for his ‘salvation’.

The bottle of pain killers is easy, still in his shorts pocket from the night before. Still containing a few more days respite. A source of liquid is harder to find. Tap water is out of the question. The mere suggestion of drinking that ‘piss’ would be enough to offend his sensibilities and incur the full force of his ill-tempered, unbridled wrath. Something strong which warms and clears the throat is what his heart desires. He tries several bottles of Jack Daniels, dispatching each losing candidate to a different spot on the floor with a casual, hate filled throw. Finally, he finds a bottle from behind a cushion on the couch. Holding it by the neck, he sways as he raises it above his head. Catching a narrow beam of light, seeping through a crack between the curtains, he illuminates its contents. He smiles as he discovers it still contains one more mouthful of precious elixir. Taking an inexact handful of tablets, followed by a Whiskey chaser, he completes his goal of trying to self-medicate some relief.

Joe’s pain is constant and relentless. However, he is well aware it is not life threatening, not for him at least. It is an all too familiar pain which stabs viciously at his chest, causing him great discomfort. He has experienced this pain many times over the years though, in the past, it has been far less severe than its current inflammation. Joe is well aware of its cause, well aware that there is no doctor in the world who can cure what ails him. He has become an expert, untrained practitioner, who has become adept at self-treatment without doing self-harm. However, he is unsure of how to alleviate the pain this time. Though he won’t admit it, this more ferocious pain scares him greatly. He is well aware the pain will pass, just not quite sure when. It has never lasted for weeks before; usually only minutes, maybe hours at most.

“So what are you planning to do, just ignore your pain? You know what it means, why don’t you do something?” asks the familiar voice of the man seated in the only comfortable arm chair, located on the other side of the sitting room. The man is young, probably in his early twenties. He is dressed in a stylish leather jacket over a white T shirt. Grey trousers fail to hide his expertly polished leather shoes. His dark brown hair is slicked back with grease. His deep brown eyes glow with smugness. If, by chance, his eyes were filled with anger and self-loathing instead, their similarity would be unmistakable, they would be identical to Joe’s.

Joe holds the bottle by the neck as he shakes his head, trying to ignore his brother. His vision remains cloudy; a major concern. Joe has developed, over the years, an ability to view situations clearly. To walk his way through what he can see in order to identify problems and try his best to alleviate any adverse situations. His inability to see the current situation with clarity prevents him from being able to promptly rectify his problems. He knows if he can’t overcome his problems, then other people will suffer too. Many people will suffer. Many people will die. The painkillers and alcohol, though deadening the pain a little, are certainly not helping his situation at all.

“You can’t ignore what is going on,” Stanley implores as he stands lithely, brushing the creases out of his trousers. “You must act and act now!”

“Shut up!” Joe says as he stares into his brother’s eyes. “What do you expect me to do? This is too big. This is just too damn big for me, for anyone.”

Joe’s brother returns the stare with pleading eyes. He wonders how Joe’s sanity and strength are holding up. He has grave fears for his younger brother’s mental state. After all, Joe has been through an awful lot since this all began. He has seen more tragedy than most during his lifetime. Stanley decides to change tack, “Hey, brother. Never forget. There is always hope. You must not......”

Joe fumes, all his emotions bubbling to the surface at once, “There is no damn hope! There is no such word. That emotion, that God damn sensation is lost to me. All that remains is pain, misery, death and ..... and .....”

“And what?,” Stanley enquires partly through interest and partly to see if he can generate some measure of fight in this tired old man staggering awkwardly in front of him.

Joe looks at Stanley as rage courses through every cell of his body. Coolly he talks in a calm, clear, yet strangely manic voice. He leaves his brother with little doubt as to his state of sanity. His voice rises in intensity with each word uttered, “And with any luck there is another God damn bottle of this fine beverage to help deaden the pain. All I seek is a blissful stupor of ignorance so that I don’t need to continue to listen to your pitiful drivel and meaningless piffle!”

Taking careful aim, Joe throws the empty bottle at his brother. His accuracy is exceptional considering his intoxicated state. The bottle somersaults and flies straight at his brother’s head, causing a curious reaction. Instead of hitting him squarely, causing considerable injury, the bottle travels straight through him. Stanley’s body changes, becoming a shower of sparkling dust particles. This metamorphosis occurs from head to toe until all the star dust falls steadily to the carpeted floor and disappears without a trace. Nothing is left of his brother. The bottle hits the back of the armchair and bounces harmlessly onto the floor. Laughter echoes through the room as Stanley continues to taunt his brother in Joe’s empty, yet crowded, mind.

Joe turns away. His shoulders slump with a sensation of melancholy which slowly spreads through his body. The noise resonating in his ears is something he has never experienced before, something inhumane. It is a screeching, buzzing sound growing steadily in intensity. It is unrelenting as it builds to its ultimate crescendo.

Throughout the house, near every open window, Joe has placed dozens of different wind chimes in order to help dampen any imaginary sounds his mind might normally hear. There are ones with metal cylinders, another with glass butterflies. Several are ceramic. One is made from discarded cutlery. Joe’s wind chimes are installed in such a way that they operate effectively, even in the absence of a gentle breeze. If there is no wind, he simply switches on strategically placed fans to activate the chimes. This process is normally extremely effective and fulfils Joe’s yearning for a noise interrupted environment. The detailed steps he has implemented at least dampen the noises from which he seeks sanctuary. It is his way of making the most of the bad hand which life has dealt him.

Moving swiftly around the room, he switches on fan after fan until all ten are activated, creating a mini whirlpool of wind and a terrible racket. He stands with hands on hips, frustrated, head bowed, drained of meaningful ideas. This new sound is impossible to block out. It is a powerful, droning sound, filled with fear and horror. It is a sound that will not be denied, a sound which refuses to identify itself. It is a foreboding sound which Joe both respects and dreads greatly. It is the sound of an approaching ‘shit storm’, the likes of which the world has never seen.

Joe’s epic staggering leads him back to the faded curtains drawn tight at his sitting room window. With a quick movement he opens the curtains, revealing a bright sunny autumn morning. He becomes aware of his mistake instantly as his eyes scream out in pain. He squints and moans loudly as he closes the fabric with a flourish. Suddenly, a little clarity appears in his mind. He begins to realize that some of the noises rattling through his tormented brain might be coming from his surroundings, rather than being figments of his furtive imagination. He focuses momentarily, trying to locate the source of the sound. Finally his brain deciphers the direction and cause of the unnecessary disturbance. There is someone pounding on his front door. He shakes his head as he wonders what more this day can bring.

Changing direction, he slowly shuffles towards the front door. Joe grabs at his eyes in obvious distress as he yells, “Okay, okay already. I’m coming for God’s sake!”

The pounding continues unabated as Joe stumbles across the sitting room floor once more, lacking any sign of genuine coordination. Successfully negotiating the one step to the front door, he reaches for the handle. Looking down he sees Oscar sitting, staring at the door. Oscar turns and stares at Joe with his bloodshot eyes as a tuft of fur drops quietly from his mangy skin onto the floor.

“Don’t you start,” Joe says quietly to his only friend, the twelve year old scruffy, black cat. Lashing out in Oscar’s direction, he flicks his slipper at the cat. Oscar quickly scurries away, out of sight, emitting a disgusted squeal. After all, he was only trying to help.

In an instant everything is gone. There is nothing; not a sound, a shape, an object or a smell. Joe is simply weightless, surrounded by a dark vacuous void. It is like he is floating in the center of a black hole. Only darkness, silence and Joe exist in this realm. Everything else, that ever was, has simply vanished. For a moment Joe is content. He is at peace. Drifting slowly in his private universe, he remains calm. He is not frightened in the slightest by the darkness that abounds. Instead he rejoices in its tranquility of emptiness. In his heart he prays that this is what death will be like, once his name is finally elevated in italics to the top of the Grim Reapers scroll of doom. An eternity of nothing would be heaven; no one wanting help, no one accusing him of inaction. No problems, no voices, just nothing, just heavenly peace.

Through the depthless black, Joe sees a small creature walking towards him. Instantly he recognizes his friend and loyal companion. Oscar walks slowly up to Joe, purring as he rubs affectionately against his leg. Joe nods resigned somewhat, “I know, I know old fella. I have to face what burdens me so. I know. It is not right to hide here. It’s not right to lash out at you too when the problem is with me. I’m sorry for treating you wrong.” 

Joe sighs and belts the side of his head several times with the open palm of his hand. His action is primitive and painful though has been effective before in correcting the short circuit malfunction in his brain. Slowly his eyes become foggy then readjust as normality begins to re-appear like a billowing mirage in front of his eyes. Within a few seconds, everything has returned. He reclaims his world, reluctantly tolerating the normality returning in all its familiar glory. He glances around the room quickly, taking in his surroundings, satisfying himself that everything is right with his world. Ensuring that nothing has changed is important. His vulnerability is at its greatest when he has these episodes. Sometimes they last for seconds, sometimes for days. Thankfully this episode seems to be seconds or maybe minutes at most. Joe nods, satisfied nothing has changed, before continuing to move towards the door.

Hobbling on one clothed foot, he takes a step forward. Clenching his eyes shut in preparation for the light, Joe grasps the handle and yanks the door open as he yells, “What?”

A thin, blonde haired, well groomed man in a smart, navy blue business suit is standing on the doorstep. He is carrying a clip board looking very officious and slightly startled. The man takes a step backwards as he regains his composure and assesses the situation before him. He was not expecting to be greeted by an aggressive, old, derelict of a man scratching his crotch in a pair of polka dot boxer shorts while wearing one fluffy purple moccasin. Straightening his suit, brushing back his already immaculately moussed hair, composure restored, he moves his arm forward in anticipation to shake Joe’s hand. He says politely, “Good morning, Sir. I’m John Sparks, President of the West Salem residents group and I’d like to speak......”

Joe frowns, eyes locked firmly closed. He says angrily, “I couldn’t give a damn who you are; I’m still not buying any raffle tickets or inedible cookies made in a Korean sweat shop three years ago by some peasant who doesn’t even have clean water to wash their filthy hands with.  That is why you are here aren’t you? To be annoying, invading my privacy and the like? There is only one thing you can do for me today. You can go and piss off!”

With all the force he can muster, Joe tries to shut the front door.

John, places his shiny, size 11, business shoe in the doorway, preventing its closure. He draws a deep breath before stating his case succinctly, in a completely unambiguous manner for Joe, “Sir, you misunderstand the purpose of my visit. My conversation with you is of the utmost importance and cannot be left to another day. I implore you to at least allow me the opportunity to come inside and discuss the problem at hand, like mature gentlemen. I’m sure once we’ve discussed the issue thoroughly, we will be able to develop some form of resolution, to your satisfaction, that will satisfy all aggrieved parties in this instance.”

With anger brewing from deep in his soul, Joe slowly opens his eyes and glares down at the insolent foot blocking his door. He pulls the door open once again, moving forward as he confronts his trespasser. He asks abrasively, “What the hell are you talking about? What problem? What’s your problem?”

“This problem,” John says as he takes a step backwards. He turns and motions with his arm in a wide arc. The area he highlights encompasses the entire region directly beyond the front step, out into the front yard and beyond.

For the first time, Joe looks around and surveys the situation outside the walls of his house. Blinking, he steps forward. Brushing John aside, gob smacked, he strives for a better look. Every muscle in his body begins to tense as he realizes the time has come. He gazes in disbelief at the sight in front of him. His brain tries to reason with the enormity of what his eyes are witnessing. However it is too bizarre, even for Joe. During his life he has seen many unusual events, which few would believe. The scale and nature of this event leaves Joe numb.

A breeze rustles Joe’s wispy hair as a voice whispers in his ear, “Hope is.......”

“Shut up!” Joe screams in anger towards his invisible tormentors.

“I’m sure we can fix the problem. Maybe if you stopped feeding them,” John says, more as a token gesture than anything else. He can clearly see Joe is not listening. Joe is wandering around, mouth gaping open, silent, in thoughtful contemplation. He knows the ramifications of this ‘sign’, though he refuses to admit to himself that there is a problem here. It is a problem too large for Joe to have any hope of fixing at this late stage, in his current state of mental and physical health. His body and soul are devoid of solutions.

On his lawn, his car, his fences, every branch of his oak tree, the road in front of his property and on all the adjourning properties they sit. All of them are behaving exactly the same way. There are too many to count. At a guess there must be thousands of pure, snow white doves cooing, all staring directly at Joe’s house as if they are waiting for him, begging with their sorrowfully eyes to do something, anything that might help avert a catastrophe.

Residents have gathered together to look at this extraordinary, once in a life time event. They are climbing on the fences, standing on the lawn pointing, in the middle of the road taking photos. Some are smiling; some are more cautious and a little fearful. All in all, everyone is looking dumbfounded, wondering what has transpired to bring about this strange gathering of doves around a single house in a quiet non-descript street. The only person without unanswerable questions flooding through their mind is Joe. He knows exactly why they are here and what their large numbers mean.

“Oh my God, oh my God!’ Joe begins to call out repeatedly. At first his words are nearly inaudible, drowned out by the incessant cooing of the birds and the dull murmur coming from the crowd. His words increase their intensity rapidly and, within a matter of seconds, Joe has the full attention of the assembled masses. It is at this moment that he turns sharply and starts to run in an awkward, slow, arthritic manner back towards the sanctity of his house. His body cannons into John’s
shoulder leaving him sprawled, bruised and shaken on the ground. Joe, inconsiderately, runs past him without offering an apology or a sideways glance. Grabbing the door handle, he slams the door shut behind him, bolting it firmly as he disappears from inquisitive eyes.
Everyone continues to stand around nervously, watching the masses of seemingly friendly doves gathered in front of them. Conflicting theories abound as to what they are waiting for. However, one thing is certain; they don’t want to miss what happens next. Maybe, at the very least, someone will explain what is happening. Everyone feels it is more important to be watching this curious sight, first hand, rather than leaving for school or work. Something extraordinary is happening in their neighborhood today and they all want to be part of it.

Police and fire crews assemble. Though coordinated, they are unprepared to deal with this strange situation. They gather to one side in a huddle. Chatting, shaking their heads, while their faces remain emotionless as they try to assess the impossible situation in front of them. The camera crews, with their media vans, begin to arrive, setting up for their first live broadcasts of the ‘Amazing Dove Incident’. Two reporters are preparing for a live cross as the whole scene changes unexpectedly for the worst.

One dove in the middle of the lawn suddenly spontaneously combusts in a ball of orange flames, causing an audible hush in the crowd. In a fraction of a second the unbelievable begins to occur. Several hundred of the doves die, raining down onto the lawn from out of the oak tree and along the line of the fence. Others catch fire, for no apparent reason, as they walk around or fly by. The fiery airborne doves begin to rain down like a barrage of flaming missiles, landing amongst the spectators, hitting some of their cars. Still more doves seem to disintegrate into balls of flame, disappearing in a cloud of dust and ash. About three quarters of the birds appear unaffected and continue to sit calmly amongst the chaos that abounds. They stare unflinching at Joe’s house. It is as if they are waiting for his return, seeking his blessed gift of salvation. They wait in vain.

Children and adults alike begin to run in a frenzied, traumatized fashion. They desperately try to escape the carnage that is unfolding before their disbelieving eyes. Many are horrified, their brains in neutral, thoughts going blank. All they can think of is self-preservation. They clamber over each other as they run towards the perceived safety of their homes. Considering the apocalyptic nature of the drama unfolding before them, some fear their nearby homes are in jeopardy too. Some people run down the street trying to get as far away as possible from the danger at hand. Some just run, knowing instinctively they should run, yet not knowing when or where it is safe to stop.

The camera crews are nearly ready to start their coverage when the reporters pause. They hold onto their earpieces as they receive some form of message from a faceless person manning a control room some distance away. They appear distracted by the message, disregarding the incredible story unfolding right in front of them. They signal earnestly to the bewildered cameramen. Suddenly the crews begin to pack the equipment back into the vans at a brisk pace. The faces of the film crews are ashen, devoid of blood, as if they have all simultaneously seen a ghost. Their actions seem peculiar considering they have all independently made a collective decision to halt coverage of the biggest story of the century unfolding before their eyes. It is the most bizarre situation they would ever have the opportunity to cover, yet somehow, they are simply not interested.

Frantic announcements resound loud and clear over the emergency radios. There appears to be a larger story beginning to unfold; something which overshadows the bizarre events in front of the emergency services. The police and fire brigades all begin to pack up and leave. Visibly shaken, they clamber onto their vehicles. Flicking on lights, engaging sirens, they race to leave in a frenzied tangle of appliances. All are fearful. All are confused.

Though their minds refuse to acknowledge what is occurring, they all silently believe that it is something big. Something is happening at the World Trade Center in New York. The initial reports are saying there is some kind of major fire or bomb blast in one of the towers. Within minutes they are all hurrying as they hear the first frantic eye witness reports that a plane may have hit one of the towers. The story of the doves is overshadowed and lost from its rightful place as the lead story on every channel of the world’s media. From this moment on there is only one story of significance, only one story that will be covered today and in the weeks to come. From this point on, nobody will remember the strange exploding doves.

Inside the house Joe is distraught. With tears running down his face he slumps into his old, comfortable armchair as he stares in disbelief at the scenes unfolding on the television in front of him. The pain in his chest is excruciating, though he knows all too well it is not life threatening. Death will not be a source of peaceful release from the misery that he endures. The screams are loud and long, inside his head. He shuts his eyes, though this doesn’t help. He can still see them in pain, burning, moving around him in a disorientated manner, screaming for help, their arms outstretched, pleading. He says softly, repeatedly as the words catch in his throat as if they are barbed, “I couldn’t...., they wouldn’t listen....., I couldn’t......”

Oscar walks slowly over to the foot of the chair. He looks up at the only human companion he has ever known. He surveys the pain visible in his tense facial muscles and the tears rolling steadily down Joe’s face. Oscar stretches up to rub his head against his master’s limp hand as a sign of respect and comfort in a time of grief. With a deft leap he lands on his master’s lap, moving through a turn and a half before finally curling into a ball and settling. He purrs with vigor, trying to help in the best way he can, to alleviate some of the pain his friend is feeling. He has always been there for Joe in his hour of need.

Outside the house, calmness has descended. All the voyeurs have disappeared. The remaining live doves sit calmly next to the recently deceased. All the doves remain staring at Joe’s house, cooing sweetly. They all seem to be waiting for something. There is nothing Joe can do for them now. It is all too late. Their pleading eyes continue to haunt him in the darkness behind his closed eyes.

From one of the Oak trees a single leaf is shed. Carried on the prevailing wind its movements are hesitant, almost uncertain, as if it has a clear premonition of its fate. Swaying, turning, pausing then continuing on its lonely journey, it moves towards Joe’s front door. Gently it lands on the welcome mat. It lays silent, immobile, apparently resigned to its fate. It appears to realize that its life has finished. It seems to know there is no hope.