Who's Watching The Watchers?
“They’re always watching,” Uncle Russ said, pulling a beer from the cooler beside his feet.
“Who?” I asked, swaying in the tire swing.
“Them.” He pointed at the gate.
I looked over and saw nothing but a whitewashed fence. “I don’t see anyone.”
“Well, of course you can’t see them if you look straight on, they hide in the shadows and in the periphery. Haven’t you ever thought you saw something out of the corner of your eye and you turn and then there’s nothing there?”
“Well, sure,” I said, digging the toes of worn Keds into the dirt.
I pushed my hair behind my ears and focused on my feet, looking for movement from the corner of my eye. “I don’t see anything,” I said after a few moments.
“Of course you don’t, I just pointed them out. They’re hiding.”
“Why would they hide from me? I’m just a kid.”
He chuckled under his breath. “Kids certainly see them better than adults.”
“Then how can you see them?” I swatted a mosquito that landed on my thigh and studied the smear of blood.
“I’m not right in the head, never have been,” Uncle Russ stated, draining the last of a beer before opening the next.
I knew he was right; Uncle Russ was schizophrenic, at least according to my mother. I often heard my mother complain to my father about Uncle Russ.
“I know he’s a war hero, but can’t we keep him away from Cindy, I don’t like the stories he tells, I don’t like how close they are.”
“What am I supposed to do?” my father asked. “He’s my brother, he lives here, and he has just as much right to this house as we do.”
“It’s summer, why don’t we enroll Cindy in a dance class or the Girl Scouts.”
My father laughed harshly. “We are talking about our daughter, right?”
“You could make her.”
“Well, you could too.”
“You’re the man, you supposed to be the one that sets down the rules. You could make her stop spending so much time with Russ, he’s crazy, he drinks too much, and won’t even take his medicine.”
“Am I crazy?”
“No, I …”
“Well, I grew up with Russ, he has an active imagination and that’s not such a bad thing for a kid. He’s never hurt anyone.” He paused. “Okay, he’s never hurt anyone outside of the war, but he was getting paid to do it then and sending money home to pay for my college. Relax.”
“He’s filling her head with crazy ideas.”
“Kids are supposed to have crazy ideas, it’s our job to point them in the right direction.”
I spun the swing wondering if the motion would help me locate them. “So do you see them? I mean not just in the corner of your eye?”
“Yes, sometimes. Mostly I see the movements on the outskirts of my vision, but sometimes I see them up close and personal.”
“What do they look like?” I asked, stopping the tire by digging my feet deeper in the gutter underneath.
“They look a lot like us. Their eyes are bigger and their noses and mouths smaller, but pretty much like us.”
“You mean like the aliens from outer space? I saw a show on TV that showed drawings of aliens and they were gray, had huge eyes, and not much of a nose or mouth.”
“No, I’ve seen those pictures too, but these don’t look that severe. They have hair and they wear clothes, mostly suits, but they aren’t small and gray like the drawings.”
I pushed off again, pondering his words, and letting the movement of the swing rush wind through my hair. I wasn’t well adept at discerning the age of adults, but I knew Russ was older than my father. I glanced over at him and felt overcome by the swelling of love in my heart. Uncle Russ had been my favorite uncle for as long as I could remember, I had others on mother’s side of the family, but they never spoke to me as Russ did. Uncle Russ spoke to me as though I was an adult, he didn’t ask about school, grades, or extracurricular activities, he was more interested in what I read and thought, than what others thought of me. “So why do they watch us?”
“It’s their job. Sometimes they help us, they sure helped me in the war, and sometimes they lead us astray, but you can never, ever trust them. Mainly they are here to observe and report, but sometimes they appear to assist you in doing something good or something very, very bad. You do know we’re living in two worlds here?”
I nodded. “You’ve told me, but I don’t always understand it.”
He leaned back in a ratty, water damaged, wooden chair and pulled off his cap, dropping it in the pile of empties beside his chair, and scratched his head. “Okay, there is the world you know, the TV, the shopping, the schooling, the wars, but underneath all that is another world. Underneath all you see and know is a world where everything is orchestrated. Is your dad going to get a promotion? Well, it runs through the channels in this world and a decision is made, but underneath, before the decision is made here, it runs through another world. Is he a good employee, a good person, did he help the woman with the broken down car during the storm? Things like that, and then, depending on what they decide underneath, your father gets a promotion or he doesn’t.”
“So they’re good? I mean they must be good if they saw him helping that woman.”
“No, they’re not good, although sometimes they have a wicked sense of humor.” He laughed softly. “They just are. For your dad it might be did he do the right thing and should we reward him? But for another it might be did he do a bad thing? See, you can’t trust them, but you have to respect them because they have a lot of power here.”
I dragged my feet through the dirt, stopping the swing. “So why would they reward someone for doing a bad thing?”
“It’s hard to explain.”
“Because I’m a kid?”
“Oh, no. No, don’t think that, you’re far easier to talk to than adults who believe they have all the answers, they just think I’m crazy, at least you and I discuss things.” He winked. “I don’t know for sure, but I think it has something to do with the balance of the world. You’ve heard of karma, correct?”
“Yes,” I said, turning the tire to face him.
“It’s a bit like that. The world has to be balanced, there has to be bad to appreciate the good, and there has to be good to understand the bad. Make sense?”
“So these folks, these watchers, they keep their eyes on us. Now in the war I did bad things that were called good, and the watchers were watching me, I saw them quite often, and they helped me to do bad things that were called good. Understand?”
I nodded slowly, thinking, and slapped another mosquito. “Killing people and stuff?”
“Yes. You know we’re not supposed to kill?”
“Or steal or maim?”
“In war it’s different, you’re supposed to do all those things and when you do them well they pin metals to your uniform and have ceremonies. Doesn’t seem right, does it?”
“No, it doesn’t. But I guess in war the rules are different. In war you’re out there protecting me and Mommy and Daddy, you’re making sure we’re okay and that makes you a hero.”
He smiled at me and my heart swelled again. “I’ll always take care of my Cindy-bug, you know that. But if God said those are bad things, why are they good when we call it war?”
“I don’t know. Because this is America and we have to protect our freedoms?”
“That schooling is teaching you all right.” He rolled his eyes.
“Well, Uncle Russ, you protected us,” I said confidently.
“No, Cindy-bug, you were never under a threat.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I don’t either, bug, but I know when I did my worst over there, the watchers were watching. But do you know what I never saw?”
“What?” I asked, feeling a chill work through my body producing goose bumps, despite the heat of the day.
“I never saw who was watching the watchers. But one day I’ll see them, I’ve been looking.”
Cindy put down the pen and shut the journal. She didn’t know why she was suddenly so captivated by the last summer she spent with her schizophrenic uncle. She had work to do, real work, not envisioning that she, herself, could be an author, but helping those who actually had the gift and the fortitude to complete a book. Thus far all the handwritten meanderings had been focused on that last summer with her uncle. Her crazy uncle who was found dead and bloated at the base of the bridge spanning Johnson Creek three days before she started sixth grade.
She dropped the journal in a drawer and slapped it shut with too much force, the sound wave ricocheting off the wall and slamming back into her, making her jump. She picked up the folder from her desk and opened it, pacing. She couldn’t believe she had to have this meeting, she couldn’t believe they had approved the book.
Cindy had scanned the first couple paragraphs when she found the manuscript on her desk and tossed it into the reject pile, but the next day the book was on her desk again. She read two chapters and knocked on her boss’ door. “You don’t really expect me to read this garbage, do you?” she asked, dropping the bound papers on the desk.
“Yes, I expect you to read it and I expect you to get some editors, you’re going to need a few. It’s a done deal.”
“Are you serious?” Cindy asked, sinking into a chair.
“Yes, it’s going to be a best seller.”
Cindy stared at the gray haired woman across the cluttered desk. “It’s trash, it’s poorly written torture porn.”
“I know,” the older woman sighed and leaned back in her chair. “But it’s going to be a best seller, so get to work.”
Cindy glanced at the clock, looked over the changes she and the editors had agreed should be made, and felt her stomach tighten, knowing her day would be spent battling attorneys over every line. She couldn’t understand how an unknown, first time novelist could get such leeway in a contract, but her job, along with a few editors and a couple attorneys, was to work it out.
The phone on the desk buzzed and a voice spoke under crackling static. “Your two o’clock is here, Ms. Olsen, and settled in the conference room.”
“Thanks.” Cindy looked over the file again and dropped it on her desk with a thud. She pulled a blazer off the back of the chair, slid into it, and then checked her hose for runs. She buttoned the jacket roughly and took a deep breath. “It’s just another day at the office,” she said softly, picking up the file and forcing a smile on her face.
She settled on the publishing side of the table and looked at the media displayed by the author’s side. The sharp publicity shot of the author showed a well-built man, with a fall of hair over one eye. In the corner of the room was a six-foot cardboard cut out of the author looking muscular and toned in a tight black t-shirt, slim fitting jeans, and cowboy boots. “He already has over two million fans on social media and the book hasn’t even been released yet,” a suit from across the table announced.
Cindy poured a small glass of water, settling in for a long day, and saw movement out of the corner of her eye. She turned and swatted at her hair expecting to find a fly, and finding no flying or buzzing insect, she shifted her attention back to the upcoming book-signing schedule of the author. She gazed at the glossy advertising posters set to be displayed in bookstores and saw a shadow move across the wall. She glanced over, saw nothing, and focused on the words of the opposing team.
Then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw a man move across the room until he was standing beside the life-sized version of the attractive, but untalented writer. She jerked her head up and she looked at the cardboard figure. There was no man and no one had entered the room or gotten up from the table. I saw a man, she thought, trying to concentrate on the meeting. From across the table another set of glossy papers were set down. “And we’ve already scheduled television interviews.”
“First we need a readable product,” Cindy interrupted. “That is why we called this meeting. We’re all pleased to know that the publicity is underway, but we have to have something to give the public.”
“The book is written,” an older gentleman, with white hair and an expensive suit, spoke from the opposite side of the table.
In her peripheral vision, Cindy saw a man moving again, this time he hugged the cardboard cut out and kissed its cheek, delicately lifting up a foot. Cindy turned her head abruptly and saw no man standing on one foot kissing cardboard.
“The book needs so much editing, it’s like it was written by an illiterate serial killer,” the editor next to her said, bringing her back to the matter at hand.
“In the first two chapters alone he uses the C-word twelve times,” she said, turning to the editor seated beside her. “Twelve, am I correct?”
“Yes, Ms. Olsen, twelve.”
“We need a better way to express that idea, some softer words, especially if your target audience is women,” she said, barely restraining her disgust with the poorly written erotic/torture novel.
“We hold creative control, it’s in the contract.”
Cindy sighed, sitting back in her chair, and suddenly seeing two men dance around the stiff photograph out of the corner of her eye. One was shifting his hips left and right, and the other was using one hand to point at the glossy image, while the other was giving her the thumbs up sign. She took a sip of water as one of the editors argued across the table.
Uncle Russ, she thought and sighed, no wonder I’m thinking about you. She stared at the schedules and photographs scattered on the table and saw a third man join the party beside the corrugated figurine, doing the bump with the finger pointer. She laughed and all eyes around the table turned her direction. She quickly covered the laugh with a cough, taking another sip of water, and apologized. “I’m sorry, please continue,” she said.
The argument across the table grew heated and the invisible men danced. Cindy remembered slapping mosquitoes, blood smears, and Uncle Russ’ words, “I did bad things that were called good, and the watchers were watching me, I saw them quite often, and they helped me to do bad things that were called good. Understand?” She felt the gooseflesh erupt on her skin and turned her head, the watchers were fully visible, at least to her.
She looked at the glossy papers on the table, glanced at the men and women arguing above the prints, and turned her gaze back to the men now holding hands and circling the cardboard image in a cartoonish dance. She heard her uncle’s words in her mind … “but I know when I did my worst over there, the watchers were watching,”
She laughed hysterically, drawing all eyes from around the table, and gasping for breath. She wiped away the tears flowing down her cheeks and stood up. “Excuse me, I have to find out who’s watching the watchers,” she said, abandoning her files as she let herself out of the conference room. She shut the door softly, despite the overwhelming need to run surging through her, and the watchers appeared, dancing around her crazily as she made her way to her office.
They followed her, miming a Vaudeville routine, one poking the other in the eye, and she grabbed her bag off the floor, pulling her journal from the drawer. “I see you and you know I see you,” she muttered, shoving the leather bound book into her oversized purse. “And I’m going to find out who’s watching you.” She slid the strap over her shoulder, looking around the office for anything else she may need, and knowing she’d never be back.
The trio stopped their antics and shook their heads in the negative.
“I know you killed Uncle Russ,” she muttered, stepping out of her office and heading toward the exit. They followed her, cavorting over one another as though a circus act. “I’m going to find out who is watching you.” She threw open the door to the street and they disappeared. She stood on the sidewalk for a moment, releasing a long breath of air, and looked back through the glass door to see the watchers doing summersaults down the hall and sliding through the thick wooden door into the conference room.