Jimmy Culver lay wide awake in his bed, eyes open, staring at his window. It was covered with his officially licensed NFL curtains, a brand new addition to his room—a Christmas gift from his mom and dad that was accompanied by a matching bedspread. The curtains were white and covered with a sporadic mixture of the NFL teams’ helmets and logos. Jimmy loved to slowly scan the curtains, taking in all the different teams. It even included the two new expansion teams, the Seattle Seahawks and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—28 teams in all. He would feel especially happy when his eyes wandered over the helmet of his favorite team, the Chicago Bears.
He had been following the Bears for three years now, watching the games on Sunday afternoons with his dad, Louis. They weren’t the best team in the league—not even close, unfortunately. But they had a young running back named Walter Payton who was amazing. Every time he touched the ball, something magical was possible. There was hope that the Bears were getting better and could soon be competing with the league elites—the Cowboys, the Steelers, the Dolphins. Jimmy’s dad told him not to count on it happening too soon, but Jimmy didn’t mind. He loved spending three hours on Sunday sitting next to his dad rooting them on. It hurt when they lost, but it was great when they won, and win or lose he always enjoyed the company of his father, who would teach him the subtle rules and nuances of the game as they watched.
Tonight, however, Jimmy was not looking at the curtains. Nor was he looking at the shadows, made by the massive oak tree right outside his window in the front yard, as they bustled across his closed curtains. On any other night, these eerie shadows would have given Jimmy, and any other normal ten year old kid for that matter, a good dose of the ‘heebie-jeebies.’ In fact, before his glorious NFL curtains arrived, these shadows caused many nights of restless sleep.
The huge limbs would sway in the Illinois wind, and the combination of the various shapes cast amidst his windows and walls, along with the noise of the tree branches scraping against the windows and the roof would kick Jimmy’s imagination into overdrive; a good night’s sleep would be nothing but a distant memory. That’s what made the new curtains even better than they already were. With all the beautiful, colorful helmets and logos staring straight at Jimmy, he no longer noticed the spooky shadows fighting their way through the curtains. Without the shadows, the noises were just background noise—nothing to even worry about.
But tonight Jimmy wasn’t looking at his curtains. He was looking past the curtains, at what was possibly outside his house, in the steadily falling snow.
“Not tonight. . .please,” Jimmy pleaded to no one in particular.
Jimmy stood and surveyed his cluttered garage. He had parked in the driveway after getting home from work, still unable to squeeze his vehicle inside. The garage had come a long way since he moved in nearly a month ago, but was still a haphazard mess of empty boxes and trash. After the initial few days of unloading everything and trying to put his new house together, he had slowly continued to chip away at the remaining boxes, amazed (and even appalled) by how much useless junk he owned. It didn’t surprise him so much that he had acquired the stuff, but that he had actually deemed some of it worthy enough to pack up and move to his new location. Never again, he had told himself. As he had unpacked, Jimmy weighed the importance of his belongings. If they didn’t have a specific use, or have a place to be displayed, they had been tossed into a giant green garbage bag, amidst old birthday cards and ten year old bank records.
I’ve come full circle, Jimmy thought. Almost forty years old and back within a stone’s throw of my hometown. He remembered how empowered he had felt—how independent—when he had chosen to pursue his college education in the distant state of Texas, while most of his friends, even his best friend Tobey Maxwell, had stayed closer to home at the University of Illinois or Illinois State. After college he had moved to Nebraska and taken a job at IBM. And now here I am, near the middle of my life, starting a new career and living in New Oberlin, a one-horse town. Hell, I don’t think this town even has a horse.
As the winter wind howled outside, Jimmy stepped over two boxes on his way into the house. They were the last two that needed to be emptied—a box of trophies from his childhood sports career (including a pair of his little league pants for some unknown reason), and a box of candles, leftovers from his relationship with Maggie. She had loved candles, been mildly addicted to them as far as Jimmy was concerned, and had left a healthy stash of them at his place.
“Hey boy,” Jimmy said as Jasper, a large German Shepherd mix with endless energy, greeted him at the door. “I know—it’s nine o’clock. Late again.” His cat Ringo apparently didn’t care that he was home. “Another late dinner for us, huh boy?” Jimmy let Jasper outside and changed into his favorite pair of flannel pants and a t-shirt.
After dinner, Jimmy sat on his couch with Jasper curled up next to him, and Ringo, who had waited an appropriate amount of time before gracing Jimmy with his presence, on his lap. He continued working his way toward the bottom of a bag of potato chips while he half-heartedly watched The Shawshank Redemption on cable television.
The phone rang, interrupting the movie. It was Tobey. “Just wanted to let you know I’m staying late tomorrow night to update some of the servers. It would be a good thing for you to stick around for.”
“Sure, sounds like a great way to spend a Friday night,” Jimmy replied. The truth was he was ready for the work week to end. He liked his new job working alongside Tobey, but was still trying to get comfortable with it. His first few weeks had been humbling, as he put in extra hours each night trying to learn the intricacies of his new profession.
“Get used to it. Computer support is not a nine to five job.”
“I know,” Jimmy said. “I’m just amazed at how different the work is from the tests I studied for.” He had passed all six of his Network Certification tests on the first try (at a hundred dollars a pop, he had made sure he was ready for them), and had been rewarded with a document stating that he was a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer.
“You’re what we call a ‘Paper MCSE.’ You passed the tests, but have no hands-on experience. Don’t worry, it’ll get easier.”
“I know. Thanks for all the help, by the way. Getting me the job and everything.”
“No problemo. It wasn’t that tough of a sell. You did pass the tests, you know.”
“Yeah, I know. And now I get to learn from the best. Count me in on the server updates tomorrow night. Are we still on for the game on Sunday?”
“Of course! Bears, playoffs, chips and salsa—just try and keep me away.”
They ended the call with a simultaneous, “Da Bears!”
Jimmy forced his mind away from work, and focused on the movie. It’s a miracle they didn’t change the ending, like they do with every other good book, Jimmy thought as he watched. Shawshank chugged along, and Jimmy stretched into a half sitting, half lying down position, with his gray and white cat still sleeping on his lap.
He thought about getting up and putting together his bed, the last piece of furniture in the house that wasn’t functional. It was a daunting task that Jimmy was not looking forward to undertaking—he had successfully put it off for almost a month now. The king size bed had a heavy oak headboard that was a pain in the butt to assemble, and always resulted in at least one scraped knuckle, whether Jimmy was taking it apart or putting it together. It was definitely a two-man job, and since neither Jasper nor Ringo had opposable thumbs, Jimmy was looking at flying solo on this particular project.
He had been sleeping on his couch every night, with his alarm clock situated on the end table. Jimmy let the warmth of Ringo and the captivating story of Andy Dufresne make up his mind for him. He would sleep on the couch again tonight, and delay putting the bed together for a few more days. Maybe Tobey would help him between games on Sunday.
He leaned slightly forward, so as not to disturb Ringo (he could nudge Jasper all he wanted—once the dog took root on the couch, you needed a crane or a dog biscuit to budge him). He grabbed the blanket from off the top of the couch, and pulled it up over his legs just enough to keep from rousting his cat. He reached across the end table to set his alarm clock for 6:45 a.m., and settled in to watch the rest of the movie.
As he tumbled toward his night’s slumber with his head resting against the back of the couch, Jimmy had no idea that he was about to get one of his last peaceful night’s sleep for a long time.
As Jimmy lay sleeping peacefully on his couch, the winter wind howled throughout the night. The small town of New Oberlin was deathly quiet, as the cluster of dark houses seemed to huddle together amidst the vast openness of the surrounding land. The harsh elements of winter seem more violent in small towns, where the absence of tall buildings and cramped spaces leaves Mother Nature with more opportunities to inflict damage.
Jimmy was in too deep a sleep to hear the wind whipping past his windows, occasionally rattling the screen doors. Jasper’s auditory perceptions, however, were a little sharper, and he would deftly inch closer to his master when anything revealed the freezing temperatures outside. The wind continued to gather strength, and small flecks of snow swirled through the air, making it hard to tell if it was actually snowing, or if the wind was just recycling the powder from the ground, playing with it while it waited for a new batch to fall from the sky.
Outside the safety of the warm houses, the town was still. All pets were safely inside their masters’ homes, and any stray animals had long ago found the warmest shelters they could seek out, from open barns to the undersides of available porches. The merciless January night had orphaned the small town, leaving the streets devoid of any activity.
As the late evening slowly passed, in no hurry to surrender to morning, the mood that hung over the town changed slightly. If any living creature had been stirring outside, brave enough to battle the winter elements, it would have scurried to the northern end of town (possibly leaving the town altogether) as a pall came over the southern edge, just where the woods began.
Where the woods gave way to an open field, a presence hovered at the border, as if it was surveying the sleeping community before it. If someone had been standing at the edge of the woods at that exact moment, they would have said that the woods were full of emotions—conflicting emotions. Desperation and loneliness, for sure, but anybody standing in a small town in the middle of an unforgiving Midwestern winter will relay that feeling. But optimism? Is there anything optimistic about the kind of evening that was hanging over New Oberlin on this night? Usually not—but tonight was different. This feeling of hope had been building for a few weeks now, starting to swell out from the center of the woods, coming to its fringes, but not stepping out into the open. No, not yet. For now, this presence was content on peeking through the last branches that protected it from the neighboring community. It could sense that better days were not far out of its reach. It had been waiting a long, long time, but its patience was going to be rewarded. Its prize was in the near vicinity—it could sense it.
The presence moved back and forth along the edge of the woods, like a wild animal pacing at the boundaries of its cage. It paced and waited, waited and paced. It was just a matter of time now. Someone would hear it, and it would feed.
Excerpted from Footfalls by Eddie Gresham Copyright © 2007 by Eddie Gresham. Excerpted by permission of 23rd St Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.