The Unit

By John Sheirer

“No, no, no!” Kyle cried out as he fought to keep the unwieldy monster from tipping over onto the cracked blacktop of Forrest Street.

With more strength than he thought he had, he twisted the hand truck to his left to re-center the weight, then turned the whole mess more gently to the right to get back to a straight path down the hill. As he panted from the effort, he looked above the pines and maples lining the street and noticed, oddly, that one star seemed much brighter than the ones around it. Just then, he heard a growl and the snapping bark of a dog approaching at high speed.

         Kyle felt his life spinning out of control that night. He was starting college the next day, and he didn’t know why. His parents were going away to see strangers in another state the next day, and he didn’t know why. He was struggling to complete a task that was both difficult and  pointless, and he didn’t know why.

         The life path that led Kyle to be wrestling with an enormous piece of furniture on a steep street near his home in the midnight darkness of a humid evening in late August was far beyond his understanding. He pulled along the decades-old, wood, glass, and metal entertainment center which was strapped to a rickety hand truck, the plastic-coated handle now warm from his grip. How the unit came to loom over his head in the dark was a strange story—but not as strange as it was about to get.

***

         Kyle Mansfield was due to start his first year at Vonndonn Community College the next morning, so, tonight, he planned to spend as much time as he could playing Zander Attack online with people he would never meet in person. They could be on another planet, for all Kyle knew. He wasn’t great at Zander Attack, but he could hold his own well enough to stretch a game out from nine at night until well into the morning.

         He had consumed quite a few nights of Zander Attack since graduating from high school three months ago. The summer had been a long series of nightly video games, late sleeping, bowls of cereal for nearly every meal, and dirty looks from his parents.

         All that came to an end three days ago when his parents awoke him from a sound sleep at noon to announce that Kyle had a choice to make. He could join the military, get a job, or enroll at Vonndonn Community College. Kyle considered offering a fourth alternative, continuing his summer activities into the fall until he discovered his direction in life, assuming he had one. But his parents seemed serious this time. The military scared him because real-life guns fired actual bullets, not the pixelated virtual ones on his computer screen, and he knew he wasn’t qualified for anything beyond flipping burgers.

         “I guess I’ll be itching to catch a learning disease at VDCC,” Kyle told his parents.

         “Good,” they replied, not getting his awkward attempt at a joke.

         Kyle’s sister Jenn taught part-time at Vonndonn, so she sent advice for his admissions process. Kyle and his mom went online to take Vonndonn’s basic-skills tests to see where he should start his college education. Unfortunately, the tests showed Kyle should probably retake tenth-grade English and ninth-grade algebra. Kyle’s mom was most disappointed by the reading and writing scores, considering Jenn was a published writer who taught college English classes. But Kyle felt worse about the math failure. Mr. Hernandez, his high school math teacher back in Ohio, had always been so encouraging. He was one of the many things Kyle enjoyed before his family moved to the Northeast for his dad’s job. Mr. Hernandez had told Kyle he had potential far beyond his grades. Kyle wasn’t sure if he meant it or was just being nice. Either way, Kyle thought Mr. Hernandez would be so disappointed if he knew about his rotten placement scores.

         Kyle signed up for what Vonndonn called “developmental” courses in reading, writing, and math. He knew from people a few years older who had gone to Vonndonn that these were called “dumbbell” courses. He had no illusions about his intellect, but he was still stung by his low placements. He always thought of himself as “average,” but now he was officially below that unambitious mark. Had he always been less than he thought he was? He didn’t know.

         He rounded out his schedule with Art Appreciation, because he heard it was easy, and a physical education course in jogging to try to bounce back from a summer with almost no exercise that didn’t involve lifting a spoon to his lips or operating a video game joystick. Even at his young age, those extra ten pounds would be hard to drop.

         Just like that, with a few keystrokes and his mom’s credit card number, Kyle became a rising freshman at an accredited institution of higher education. Though in Kyle’s mind, it felt like he was starting thirteenth grade.

         But all that would wait until the next day. On this night, a humid Sunday in late August, Kyle planned to sit in front of a fan in his boxer shorts and play Zander Attack until he fell asleep. Or until his alarm went off at seven–whichever came first.

         That was before he heard a knock on his bedroom door.

         “Yeah?” he called out, pausing the game in the middle of defending his mid-minor planetary alignment.

         Kyle’s father poked his head and shoulders through the door. “Hey, buddy. You know why I’m here, right?” he asked.

         Kyle shrugged. “To wish me luck in college?”

         “Sure, yeah,” Mr. Mansfield replied with a chuckle. “Good luck with that. But there’s something else.”

         “Oh,” Kyle said. “What’s that?”

         “Remember when we got the new TV in June?” his father asked.

         “Got the what when?” Kyle asked. But then he remembered. “Oh, crap.”

         “Yep. Oh, crap,” his father said. “You said you’d do it as soon as you could.”

         “I know,” Kyle said. “I’ll do it tomorrow.”

         What Kyle had promised to do back in June was to get rid of the enormous entertainment center that had held the ancient family TV for so many years.

         “Your classes start tomorrow,” his father reminded him. Kyle remembered without the reminder. “And we’re going to visit Ron and Diane in New Hampshire for a week. We’re taking the SUV, so you won’t be able to use it.”

         “Who?” Kyle asked.

         “Your mom’s friends from college,” his father said. “They reconnected on Facebook this summer. Nice people. Kind of political but not in your face about it. Plus, they live near a lake and the weather’s cooler up there right now. Your mom and I have been talking about going there for weeks. You don’t remember?”

         Kyle shrugged.

         Mr. Mansfield sighed. “The bottom line is that if you don’t do it tonight, it probably won’t get done ever.”

         “Would that really be so bad?” Kyle asked.

         “Yeah, it would,” his father replied. “Because your sister is coming to stay in the basement next week while she does her Teach of America job and works on her new novel. She’ll need the space, and that big hunk of junk will be in her way. Besides, it’s the principle of the thing. You promised your mother and me you’d do it. So, you should, you know, do it.”

         When his parents had finally joined the Twenty-First Century and upgraded to a wall-mounted, flat-screen TV, the old piece of furniture became expendable. Kyle’s father had given the two guys who had delivered the new TV a $20 bill each to lug the entertainment center into the basement based on his memory that Kyle had once said it would be a good place to keep his CDs and DVDs.

         “Dad,” Kyle protested back then, “I was, like, nine years old when I said that. No one even has CDs and DVDs anymore.”

         “Oh,” his father replied. “Well, then your job is to make sure you move it to the street corner down by Route 67 before Jenn moves back in the fall.”

         “The street corner?” Kyle asked.

         “Yeah,” his dad replied. “Somebody always takes whatever crap gets left at the street corner. I think they pick it up and sell it all at flea markets. It contributes to the economy.”

         “Okay. I guess that’s plenty of time,” Kyle said the previous June. But it wasn’t. “Fall” had come far too early on a hot August night. And as Kyle knew his agreement had come due, the night was getting late.

         “What time is it?” Kyle asked his father even though he saw the numbers on the digital display as he closed his laptop.

         “Almost eleven,” his father said. “It’ll take ten minutes. Do it now and you’ll still get a good night’s sleep before you have to get up for class.”

         “Do you have the keys to the Explorer?” Kyle asked.

         Mr. Mansfield tossed the keys on Kyle’s bed before his son could even finish the question.

“Thanks, buddy!” he said, and he was gone before Kyle could think of an excuse to put off the inevitable.

***

         Five minutes later, Kyle stood in the basement, staring at the entertainment center and weighing his options. He didn’t even know how to begin. He couldn’t just pick it up. The thing was six feet tall, just as wide, and about two feet deep. Half of the front was a glass door that wouldn’t stay closed, and the other half was a series of drawers and wooden cupboard doors that also flopped open without reason. If he slouched, Kyle realized he could use it for his own casket.

         Kyle did remember long ago asking his father to let him use the entertainment center if they ever got a new TV. The unit contained multiple shelves that would have been perfect for his growing collection of discs. But those discs went to the dump five years ago, long after they were covered with the dust of a wifi home. The family may have been late in buying a smart TV, but his mom worked online half the time, so they had pounced on wireless internet earlier than most families. All those little flying-saucer-shaped discs were long since obsolete.

         Weirdly, Kyle suddenly missed his CDs and DVDs, feeling a nostalgia he didn’t quite understand. You can’t hold wifi in your hands, he thought.

         “Stop it!” he said to himself, shaking off his silly melancholy and studying the real problem before him. On the way to the basement, he had passed through the garage to pick up the hand truck and a roll of thin rope that his father used for projects around the house. He was able to get the hand truck’s metal tongue under one side of the unit by wobbling and jiggling it with one hand and wrestling the hand truck with the other. He was nearly ready to quit right there, but surprised himself when he got it wedged in on the eighth try.

         He awkwardly wrapped the rope around the entertainment center and the hand truck, dropping the rope multiple times and having to retighten it again until he was reasonably certain that all the doors and drawers would stay shut. He only knew how to tie his shoes, so he did a simple bunny-ear knot to secure the line. Remembering the “double-dare-knot” trick his mother had taught him long ago, he added another knot with the bunny’s ears. To be safe, he kept going until he had quadruple-dare-knotted the whole mess.

Kyle grasped the entertainment center by the front and back near the top and gave it a shake. Though the doors seemed secure, the rope shifted limply around the frame. It would never last the trip across the basement floor, let alone into the garage. So, he looped the rope over the top, threaded it through his handiwork, and repeated the process until the unit was covered in a tangled mess of knots. Kyle then stuffed the remaining rope into a section of the entertainment center, hoping it would stay secure there.

         Then he stepped back to assess his work.

         “That’s really shitty,” he mumbled. But he thought it might be good enough for now. Maybe. Kyle didn’t know.

         Then he grabbed the top of the unit, leaned back with all his weight, and tilted it backward. The hand truck handle almost slipped out of his sweaty hand, but he held on, pivoted, and staggered backward toward the hatch stairway. Once at the hatch, he discovered that the unit was a too big to fit in the stairway. Even with his remedial math skills, he knew that he could undo the ropes and remove the hand truck to subtract its inches. He squeezed through the gap between the stairway wall and the unit and made his way up the stairs where he could stand on the top step, bend down, bear hug the top of the unit, and drag it up toward the backyard. Twice he scraped his knuckles on the hatchway wall, nearly drawing blood, and once his foot slipped, almost sending him and the unit sprawling down the stairs. But he somehow managed to keep hold of it and drag it far enough so that it rested on its side just beyond the top lip of the hatchway and on the grass of the backyard.

         Kyle flopped back onto the damp grass, panting. A light rain had fallen earlier that afternoon, but the sun came back out to steam away most of the moisture. The grass felt hot on the back of his bare legs and neck. He gazed into the sky for a few minutes and remembered how he used to sneak into the backyard when he was so young that he wasn’t allowed outside the house by himself and lie back to stare at the stars and wish aliens would come and take him away. He hadn’t thought about those wishes for so long, but they felt surprisingly immediate and powerful now as he reflected back over the years.

         What am I doing with my life? Kyle wondered, horizontal in that back yard grass again, now, when everyone around him seemed to be an adult who knew what was expected while he could barely muster the motivation to shower most days. He realized with a pang of shame that he hadn’t mowed the grass once all summer. His mom and dad alternated the two-hour task on the back of the riding mower while he slept half the day away and played Zander Attack for the other half. He was stunned that he had become such a stereotype of a lazy, entitled, upper-middle-class kid who sponged off his parents and had no idea how to make the transition from child to grown-up.

         His sister was only eight years older than Kyle, but to him, she seemed lifetimes ahead, more like a third parent than a sibling. Jenn had earned a master’s degree, taught college classes, and written two books, the second of which won several big awards. Soon she would move into the basement and work on a third book while she tutored kids at the high school where Kyle had just graduated as part of a program that sounded like a superhero training academy: Teach for America! And that was in addition to her gig at Vonndonn. VDCC was lucky to have her. Her books sales gave her enough income to live anywhere she wanted, but she chose to be close to her family and work at jobs that would help make the world a better place. Kyle wondered if he would ever have the vision his sister showed. He’d settle for half.

         And then sweat slid from his forehead into the corner of his right eye. The stinging made him sit up and rub it even though that didn’t make it feel any better.

         “Gotta keep moving,” Kyle muttered to himself.

         He retrieved the rope and hand truck from the basement, got the unit tied and more-or-less settled again, and rolled it through the lumpy back yard, around the garage, and onto the driveway behind the family’s big Ford Explorer.

         His recent experience with the hatchway steps made Kyle cautious, so he popped the back hatch of the SUV and eyeballed the size of the opening.

         “Well, shit,” he said. The entertainment center obviously wouldn’t fit into the back of the vehicle. Kyle contemplated the back seat and even the top rack. But the back seat was even smaller than the cargo area, and he would need at least two helpers to hoist the thing atop the SUV. He glanced at this parents’ bedroom window on the second floor, but it was dark. Of course, they’d gone to bed just after his father’s reminder about the entertainment center. Kyle wasn’t about to wake them for help now. He considered calling some of his friends, but most of them had already packed up and left for colleges and universities all across the country.

         Kyle stared at the entertainment center mounted on the hand truck. Then he looked out into the darkened street. The neighborhood council had voted to remove all the streetlights a few years ago. “Light pollution,” they had called it. Kyle hadn’t given it much thought at the time, but now he wished for just a scattering of lights to guide him.

         The corner where his street met the more-traveled Route 67 was almost half a mile away, but it was a downhill journey. Kyle reasoned that he could push the big mess down the hill on the hand truck, leave it along the road at the corner, and then pull the empty hand truck back home. The neighborhood was nearly silent at this hour of night, with everyone sleeping in bed or nestled on their couches watching television or even plugged into the web and playing Zander Attack or whatever video game had addicted their brains to the lights and sounds and simulated action of an unreal life.

         If he started now and hurried, he reasoned, he might not even encounter a car on the deserted street.

         Kyle sighed, found a flashlight in the Explorer’s glove compartment, grasped the hand truck handle, and yanked. By now, he could wrench the unit into pushing position confidently, knowing just how to step back, shift his weight, and then catch the unit on his shoulder to keep it upright and balanced on the hand truck’s two fat tires.

         He negotiated the smooth driveway with no problems and turned right onto Forrest Street. The first few hundred yards of his journey were uneventful. He noticed just a few dim lights glowing in his neighbors’ homes, and his ear registered on thin, unidentifiable sounds skittering through the yards and trees.

         Then, as he banked left and started down the steeper section of the street, things changed. There were fewer houses here, so he slowed to a stop, held the unit with one hand, and took the flashlight from his pocket with the other. He switched it on and stuck it under his left armpit. If he leaned out to the left and craned his neck as he moved forward, he could just barely see around the entertainment center to the street ahead of him.

         The steep downhill greatly accelerated his progress, so he had to monster-grip the handle and use his thigh muscles to hold back the heavy load. He immediately started sweating again, and, of course, the sweat once again found his eyes. But now, he had no way of wiping his burning vision with both hands clutching the handle. He tried with little success to flick his head around to dislodge the sweat, but he mostly managed to make himself dizzy.

         And this part of the street wasn’t nearly as smooth as the area near his house. The asphalt surface was undulated with dips, troughs, and even some cracks and potholes several inches wide and deep. Even with constant attention to the narrow beam of his flashlight, he still had a difficult time spotting these obstructions. He avoided most by inches, but he nearly lost his grip several times when one tire would suddenly drop three inches and bang onto the bottom of a pothole and the massive, unstable load would rock side to side as he roller-coastered through a series of swells and shallows.

         Time seemed to bend in on itself as Kyle trudged mindlessly onward. He might have been moving the unit for ten minutes—or it might have been two hours. He had no idea. When, at last, he saw his destination at the corner of Forrest Street and Route 67, he thought the street was growing lighter. Jesus, maybe it’s morning already, he thought.

         That’s when he had his biggest battle with the entertainment center, nearly letting his load topple over several times before he was able to get it under control. That’s when he saw the extra-bright star out of place in the sky just above the trees lining Route 67. That’s when he heard the sound of a dog snarling and moving up behind him way faster than he wanted.

         And that’s when his field of vision was flooded with a light so bright that everything around him disappeared.

***

         When Kyle became aware of his surroundings again, the bright light was gone. The only illumination came from the stars and a streetlight fifty yards down Route 67, outside his darkened neighborhood. Kyle looked down and was surprised to see Ruby, the little, friendly dog from a neighboring family on Forrest Street, looking up at him. Kyle had seen Ruby playing in the yard with her family’s three children many times. Ruby always greeted him with a dog smile and ran a few zoomie circles around his feet when he came to say hello. Now Ruby stared at him for a few seconds, barked once, nuzzled his ankle, and then trotted up the hill back toward her home. Ruby must be in her teen years old by now, Kyle realized, but she still moved with the energy of a puppy.

         Kyle saw the entertainment center sitting stoically alongside Route 67, just a few feet into the gravel and grass berm. He saw the hand truck sitting empty beside it with the rope neatly looped on the ground nearby. He remembered dragging the unit from his basement and not being able to get it into his family’s SUV, and he remembered the wild ride as he wheeled it down the sloping street. He remembered tying the unit onto the hand truck, but now he knew that he had gone about that all wrong. His mind traced a pattern for the rope to follow around the corners of the unit and visualized three simple knots in strategic places to hold everything together securely. He could see that this process would use half the rope and be twice as strong. Kyle wondered why he hadn’t tied it this way in the first place instead of his messy and inefficient method.

         In the nearby woods, Kyle heard animals moving. He knew in seconds that there were four squirrels, fifteen chipmunks, and two foxes within a fifty-yard radius. Kyle understood the term “radius” better than he had in high school geometry class, and his mind gave him a topographical vision of the neighborhood from above as he charted his path back home. The distance, he knew, was exactly 0.456 miles, and, accounting for the hill and pulling the hand truck, he would be home in exactly eight minutes and forty seconds from the time he started.

         As he walked past each neighbor’s home on his way back to his own, Kyle could name them all: the adults, the children, the pets. He knew each person’s profession, along with personal details about their desires, fears, and ambitions. And he shared their feelings, felt them at a deep level, and knew what to say to each person to communicate his empathy. When he saw flickering television light through their windows, he could identify the programs they were watching, and he could make an aesthetic evaluation of each show’s quality, its appeal, and how it captured or lost human attention.

         Kyle didn’t know exactly how or why he knew these things, but he knew it was all somehow connected with the flash of light from the sky as he approached the corner to drop off the entertainment center. Something had reached down and touched him just when he needed it the most. Something had given him a gift that he hadn’t even known he was longing for. Something. Or someone?

         As he walked home in the dark neighborhood, pulling the empty hand truck behind him, he knew that he would sleep exactly five hours tonight before waking to shower and dress for his first college classes. He knew that he would make a simple breakfast of fruit, eggs, bacon, and coffee to share with his parents. He knew he would thank them for motivating him to go to the local community college. He knew that he would tell them how much he valued their guidance and that he would work hard and do well in his studies. He knew that his gratitude would move them in ways they hadn’t been moved since his birth. He knew that he would spend more time than ever with his sister Jenn when she moved back home soon. He knew that he would enjoy listening to her tell him about her new teaching job, and he’d be a helpful sounding-board as she worked on her new novel.

         He knew what he got wrong on his college placement tests and how to overcome his former shortcomings. He knew what his classes would cover and how to incorporate the new information presented in those classes with his past experiences to create a matrix for understanding math, language, art, and science. He knew that he had been given a gift that most people could never dream of. He didn’t know if anyone else had been given the same gift or if he was unique in all the world. He somehow knew that he would discover the answer to that question and that the answer would be essential to the purpose of his new gift, whatever that purpose turned out to be.

         He didn’t know if he would make new friends in college or find a girlfriend or fill his time with sports, movies, music, or games of Zander Attack late into the night, but he knew that everyone in college wondered about those things, so he wouldn’t be unique in that respect. And he knew he’d figure those things out well enough when the time came.

         Halfway to his house, Kyle saw Ruby sitting on the front steps of her family home. She watched him for a moment and then stood, turned around in a tight circle, and slipped deeper into the darkness of her porch. Kyle sensed that someone within the home had opened the door just wide enough for Ruby to pad back inside on her tough, little feet, returning to her human family and the love they shared.

         Kyle didn’t remember the specifics of what happened when the mysterious light touched his mind tonight, but he knew that Ruby had been touched by that bright light as well, on a previous night, and had helped lead him to it tonight. He now had something in common with the sweet, smart, little dog than just sharing the same neighborhood. Kyle would see Ruby again, romping through their neighborhood, and he knew that when he bent to stroke her wiry fur, they’d share something significant and powerful. He didn’t know yet what their new bond meant, but he was content to know he’d find out when the moment was right.

         Kyle didn’t know everything, but he could see a path forward that would be filled with adventure. He knew that he would meet many different people in the years to come. Some would love him, some would hate him, and many would barely notice him. He knew that there was evil in this world, sometimes even in high office where greed and lust for power led weak people to abuse their authority. He knew that he could be a part of the good in the world that would keep the evil in check. He knew he would learn from all of the people he met, and he knew he would use what he learned to help move the human race along its path to whatever might come next. At his core, Kyle was still himself, but now he knew he had a purpose beyond the next bowl of cereal, the next level of Zander Attack, the next awkward conversation with his parents. He didn’t know exactly what the future held, but he could see a path forward just as he could visualize how his street connected with other streets and roads and highways and paths to every spot on this planet and beyond.

         And he knew that the entertainment center would be gone from the corner by the time he drove to school the next morning.

Writer Biography

John Sheirer (pronounced “shy-er”) lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, US, with his wonderful wife Betsy and happy dog Libby. He has taught writing and communications for 27 years at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Connecticut, where he also serves as editor and faculty advisor for Freshwater Literary Journal (submissions welcome). He writes a monthly column on current events for his hometown newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, and his books include memoir, fiction, poetry, essays, political satire, and photography. His most recent book is Fever Cabin, a fictionalized journal of a man isolating himself during the current pandemic. (All proceeds from this book will benefit pandemic-related charities.) Find him at JohnSheirer.com.

Copyright© 2020 by John Sheirer

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