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Michael's Metaphors of Life Journal

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Carpe diem: A Short Story

“Ten damn days! They tell me I have to isolate for 10 days. I’m 90, for Christ’s sake. I don’t have ten days to spare.”

Jacob spoke to hear his own voice and vent his frustration. It was a quirk he had developed living alone for so long. A bit of an eccentricity. But fortunately there was no one around to notice.

“I wouldn’t even have gotten tested if I had not got caught in their damn contact-tracing snot-web. I should have refused and told them to shove their regulations up their ass sideways.”

It was only the third day of his isolation and already he was prowling the house like a caged animal. Under normal circumstances he limited himself to listening to the news twice a day – on the radio at Noon and the TV at 6:00 – since it was mostly a litany of the moral decay of society. But he needed a distraction so he turned on the radio early.

The Ontario government announced today new amendments to the Emergency Order to  increase public compliance with the Stay-at-Home order and stop the spread of COVID-19. Effective Saturday, April 17 at 12:01 am, police officers and other provincial offences officers will have the authority to require an individual to provide their home address and purpose for not being at their residence.

“Those S.O.B. bureaucrats in their ivory towers! Damn fools think they can legislate COVID into submission. And do anything they damn well please in the process. What was I fighting for on Hill 677 if human rights can be thrown out the window because of a bloody virus?”

You’re in the high risk category. You should stay indoors. Everybody threw that in his face. But what was the point? He had already outlived his wife by fifteen years and his only child by five years. He was on borrowed time by anyone’s estimation.

Carpe diem. At this point in his life it was the only way of thinking that made sense which was why he had openly defied the Stay-at-Home order up to now. The one remaining blessing in his life was that he lived only a short walk away from a conservation area. Every day year-round, when the weather was halfway decent, he walked the trails for two hours.

He could only cover half the distance he was able to when he was a younger man – younger meaning in his 70’s – and had to plan his route to allow rest stops at benches every 30 minutes. But his legs were still sturdy and as long as they held up he would keep up the practice. It was what kept him uncharacteristically vigorous for his years as well as mentally sharp.

But now he had to sit on his derrière for ten days twiddling his thumbs. Ten days he would never get back.

*****

Liam ran the gameplan for the morning in his head one more time. Daytime heists came with significant risks. But attention to detail was what made him good at his craft. The Stay-at-Home order had shrunk his potential targets dramatically. But he was no smash-and-grab amateur. He adapted to the circumstances and turned them to his advantage.

He had been surveilling the house and researching the occupants, including monitoring their Facebook feeds, for three weeks. The couple were both essential workers: an ER doctor and a firefighter. Both on the job today so the house would be empty. No security camera or alarm system to worry about.

The old man next door was a creature of habit and would be out for his daily walk through the conservation area down the street. The house on the other side was vacant and for sale. Nothing would be happening there under the current conditions. He would have liked to have another week of surveillance to make sure he had all the contingencies covered. But the new police powers that were kicking in on Saturday forced him to act now.

Liam tossed the half-size duffel bag into the back of his car. High-end jewelry was his objective today so the small bag would do. He checked his watch as he pulled out of the driveway. Timing was critical. He had a specific window of opportunity. He needed to arrive fifteen minutes after the old man left for his walk, a safe margin of error, and be in and out in no more than thirty minutes.

*****

Jacob had the picture window blinds closed so he did not have to see the beautiful April day he was missing out on. But temptation got the better of him. He parted the blinds to watch the birds that had gathered at the feeder in his garden. A Blue Jay had chased away the smaller Finches and was helping itself to the sunflower seeds. It’s head swiveled sideways in an inquisitive manner. Jacob followed its sightline and saw a car pull into his neighbour’s driveway.

The flame of suspicion lit in his mind. It was definitely not one of their cars. Both would be at work anyway as the wife was an ER doctor and the husband a firefighter. Someone delivering an Amazon package? The car pulled forward into the carport which ruled out that possibility. Five minutes passed. The car did not move and the driver was out of sight.

Something was wrong in the state of Denmark. What should he do? Call the police? Sure, and say what? A strange car pulled into my neighbour’s driveway. They probably received a dozen calls like that a day. By the time they showed up, if they bothered to at all, it would be too late.

Jacob decided to take matters into his own hands. He went to the basement and retrieved his hunting rifle. He had not been deer hunting in donkey years. But he made a point of keeping the rifle in working order. On an impulse on the way to the door, he diverted into the den and retrieved his Canadian Korea Medal.

*****

Liam located the lockbox, in the master bedroom walk-in closet, in a matter of minutes. Picking the lock was a simple matter. The jewelry he was after was there for the taking. A quick search of the rest of the bedroom turned up a Rolex, stashed in the back of a cabinet, to add to his take. He hustled down the stairs and turned into the hall heading to the side door which he had forced open.

“Freeze you son of a bitch! You so much as twitch and I’ll blow your balls off.”

Liam stopped in his tracks staring down the barrel of a rifle. He did a double take when he recognized the old man next door holding the gun. He was taller than he looked from the distance of surveillance. Well over six feet with the lanky build of someone who was stronger than his age implied.

“Shit!… Okay, take it easy. This isn’t what you think.”

“Oh, so you’re not a thief? What are you then?”

“Susan is my sister. She asked me stop by and pick up a few things.”

“Bullshit! I may be old but I’m not senile. Insult my intelligence again and see what happens.”

Liam steadied his nerves and did a quick appraisal of the situation. The old man’s reflexes would be slow. If he moved fast enough, he should be able to grab the rifle, knock him out and make his escape.

“I know what that look in your eyes means. You think can disarm me? You should know I was in the army for thirty years. I’m old and not as nimble as I used to be. But the training sticks. It doesn’t take but a second to pull the trigger.”

“Alright, alright, I get it. But I’m guessing you didn’t call the police. You wouldn’t be standing here pointing a rifle at me if you had. So what’s your play?”

“Move your ass. Into the living room. We’re going to have a little conversation.”

Jacob followed, as the thief complied, giving him time to take the measure of the man. Early thirties, he judged, with the muscular arms and legs of someone who worked out regularly. He would need to keep a safe distance between them. No weapon as far as he could see. The small duffle bag he carried looked bulky so he already had what he came for.

“Sit.” Jacob pointed to an arm chair.

“I’m not your dog.”

“I’m the one with the rifle. So you’re whatever I damn well say you are!”

Liam lowered himself into the arm chair and gathered his thoughts. Maintaining control of the conversation would give him an edge and hopefully open up a way out of being caught red-handed.

“What’s your end game? You want the stuff?” Liam held up the duffel bag. “It’s yours. Take it. We both walk away and no one’s the wiser.”

“Really? Insulting the integrity of the guy pointing a rifle at you? Not a smart move.”

“Okay, you’re calling the shots. What do you want from me?”

Jacob felt empowered in a way he had not enjoyed in years. He experienced a perverse pleasure in the moment and allowed himself to savour it.

“We’re going to play a game. I ask a question. You answer. If I think your answer passes muster, you get to ask me a question.”

“A Q&A session at gunpoint? You need to get a life.”

“Don’t be a smartass or I might lose my patience. First question. How long have you been a thief.”

“Ten years, give or take. Why are you home today?”

Jacob smiled as he read between the lines.

“You’ve been watching me. I wasn’t supposed to be at home. Blame it on COVID contact tracing. I was exposed so I have isolate. Which means you’ve been exposed now. Karma is a bitch, isn’t it? That wasn’t my question. Why are you a thief?”

Liam paused for a beat as he cursed his bad luck. It was chess game of sorts they were playing. His answers, as well as his own questions, needed to be calculated to put the old man off his game and create an opening he could exploit. He could not afford to appear intimidated.

“Because it’s very lucrative. And I’ve never really been a 9 to 5 type of guy. You said you were in the army. Did you ever do a tour of duty?”

“Korean War. ’50 to ’53. I was only 19 when I shipped out. You weren’t even born then. You’ve probably never seen one of these.” Jacob pulled the medal out of his pocket. “Canadian Korea Medal. Not many of us left who got one of these. My turn. Have you ever had a real job?”

“I worked in a factory for a couple of years. Hated every minute of it. It wasn’t my calling.” Getting the old man to talk about his military service might give him the opening he needed. Reminiscing about those days could mess with his head. “So you saw active duty?”

“Kapyong Valley. 2nd Battalion of Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry. We were embedded with the 27th British Commonwealth Infantry Brigade.”

Jacob lost focus for a moment as the memories of that time tried to resurface. He pushed them away and returned to the matter at hand.

“You have no moral qualms about being a thief?”

“I like to think of it as redistribution of wealth. Balancing the scales between the haves and the have-nots. What was it like?”

“What was what like? That’s a clarification. Doesn’t count as my question.”

“The battle you mentioned. The Kap-something-Valley.”

The stark images of those days resurrected in Jacob’s mind against his will. He had no desire to give them life again. But maybe it would do this guy some good to hear a real war story. Make him understand how fortunate he was.

“I was scared shitless. The training I got didn’t prepare me for that madness. But it made a man out of me. What scares you?”

“Not being able to do what I’m good at. Having to earn an honest living, I guess you would say. How much do you remember about that battle?”

“Every damn minute. It started on April 23rd. The 3rd Royal Australian Regiment was on Hill 504. We were on Hill 677. The Aussies had to retreat on the 24th. We were left with our asses hanging out – surrounded and taking heavy fire. Pretty well out of ammunition and out of food too although we got some air supplies dropped in.

Liam could see that the old man was losing himself in the memories which was what he was hoping would happen. But his finger was still firmly on the trigger of the rifle as if he was back on that hill in Korea.

“It was one hell of a battle. Some of our positions were overrun. We called in an artillery strike on our own location. Took cover while the North Koreans took the brunt of the fire. Crazy, risky move but it worked. Pushed the bastards back, although it wasn’t over yet. We were still exchanging fire that whole day. But we held our position.

“Ten of our guys were killed and 23 wounded. I lost some good friends that day. But it could have been a lot worse. It was courage, plain and simple, that got us through it. In the end, it wasn’t that different from everyday life. It’s all about standing your ground.

“Some say it turned the tide in the war. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. But it damn sure made a difference. The Americans awarded us the United States Presidential Unit Citation. Believe me when I say that was rare for a Canadian unit.”

Liam recalculated his position. This man was a legitimate war hero and still more than capable of pulling the trigger. The odds were slim he would get out of this situation unscathed.

“That’s quite a story. So what now? I assume you’re going to call the police and turn me in.”

Jacob took a long look at his adversary as he debated what to do.

“I damn well should. But you’d probably hire a lawyer and squirm your way out of going to jail. They’d probably charge me for holding you at gunpoint. That’s the backasswards way things work today. Integrity doesn’t count anymore.

“You young people don’t have a clue what real adversity is. I was born into the Great Depression. Heard the reports on World War II every day when I was just a kid. I remember December 7, ’41. What’s important about that day? Pearl Harbour. Hiroshima and Nagasaki in ’45. We dealt with Polio. Influenza outbreaks in ’18, ’57 and ’68.

“All of that and we never once hid behind our doors and stuck our heads in the sand. My generation stood up and carried on because life isn’t easy and never will be.”

Jacob paused, took a long breath and shook his head.

“Shutdowns. Emergency Orders. Stay-at-Home orders. Cops given the authority to stop you just because you leave your house. It’s disgraceful! A slap in the face to men like me who put our lives on the line to defend democracy.

“Carpe diem. You know what that means? Today is all we have. It’s all we can be sure of. This COVID thing is just another bump in the road. You all just need to put on your big boy pants and get on with your life!”

Jacob saw fear begin to creep into the young man’s expression. He had arrived at the realization that he could not talk himself out of the trouble he was in. Maybe that was enough.

“I’m not going to turn you in. Leave that stuff and haul ass out of here. If you turn your life around because of today, maybe I haven’t wasted my breath. If you don’t, that’s on you, not me.”

“Are you serious?”

“Do I look like I’m blowing smoke up your ass?”

The thief left the duffel bag and beat a hasty retreat to the door looking back once as he ran. Jacob heard his car start and watched through the window as it raced down the street. He picked up the Canadian Korea Medal and used the single-toed claw to clip it to his shirt pocket.

The dark memories it resurrected notwithstanding, the heft of it against his chest strengthened his resolve. In tribute to the men he fought with, in remembrance of those who fell, in honour of the freedom they risked their lives to defend, he would stand up and defy the bureaucrats in their fancy offices.

Carpe diem and damn to hell anyone who said otherwise.