The sweat pasted brow of Shannon 'The Cannon' Ford, glistening.
It's usually pretty hard to get a good nickname. Shannon "The Cannon" had one of the best I'd ever heard. When we were kids at school all he ever wanted was an awesome nickname. And he wanted one that rhymed. He had a fifteenth birthday party and invited all his friends and told us all we shouldn't buy him any gifts under any circumstance. At the party he sat us all down and explained that the only present he wanted was a nickname and we could all save our money if we just gave him one and stuck to it. We agreed. The only rhyme with Shannon we could think of was cannon.
For thirty years he's been The Cannon, and despite his lanky frame, glasses and slight social awkwardness, his nickname is still cause for reverence and mystery amongst everyone he meets who doesn't know the origin. In reality it's doubtful whether The Cannon is capable of shooting any heavy objects at high velocity, or for that matter any other acts of above-average strength. But that's the thing about The Cannon, when he wants something, he simply works out how he's going to get it, and then he gets it.
This explained how we got to where we are now.
The Cannon's face staring blankly back at me, eyes bulged, unfocussed.
There comes a point in life, for some, when you realise that you're lonely. For The Cannon this had come a few Sunday afternoons ago when he was using his tongue to hunt the last few drops of soup that lingered near the bottom of the bowl. It was a sunny afternoon outside, but inside that living room there was a cold air that even a well-worn dressing gown couldn't block. When you realise that you've already seen the same decade old, feel good, Sunday afternoon movie from the same seat in the same pyjamas, something happens to a person.
'I'm lonely,' said to us the man with house walls decorated by sixteen designer prints and one photo of his mother.
These two words had been preceded by a good deal of poignant silence, to seem prolific. Unfortunately a crowded, noisy bar isn't the best place for such important revelations to be made and the words were not heard. Instead, they capitulated downwards, splashing into The Cannon's glass and sinking gently into its pale depths.
'What?' I mouthed, loudly.
The Cannon looked forlorn, staring into the woodwork and willing himself to become stuck inside it. Ryan, a potential background character up to this point, glanced at me with a 'there's something wrong here and we should do something about it' look that I would swear he'd stolen from my wife. I was surprised he'd managed to find where she hid it. There wasn't time to ponder though, as something was quite clearly depressing The Cannon and it was the duty of Ryan and me to find a solution. The two of us began looking by quickly finishing our beers and then wordlessly took a guard of honour on either side of The Cannon and walked him from the pub and out onto the snowy streets.
In the background a drunken Asian man emerged from the dance floor, scavenged the last half of The Cannon's unfinished glass and swallowed down its contents. A second later, he choked.
We staggered along the slippery sidewalk, the three of us, trying to make sense of our foreboding dispositions. It certainly felt to me that something significant was in the process of occurring. We discovered a local park and lumbered up some narrow steps into a gazebo to shelter from the cold in the shadow of the city's clock tower. The night wasn't still young, but it wasn't old. It was middle aged; having gone past what it was originally trying to achieve without much success, yet with still enough time to try something new. In the background, to signify some dramatic effect, the clock struck one with such unnecessary force that the digit rocked visibly before tumbling to the ground and plonking into the snow.
The Cannon moaned sadly, quietly. The kind of moan a mother lion would make if its litter had been trampled by wildebeest during a stampede. He was suffering a pain that wasn't physical, but hurt like it was.
'I've wasted my whole life,' he told us, 'I've achieved nothing.'
Ryan and I looked at each other, confused. When you go into town for a night out you don't really bring with you the tools required to defuse a personal crisis. The situation was unreal.
'No man...' I consoled him.
'No' echoed Ryan.
'...I mean, not nothing, there's got to be at least one or two small things you can say you achieved.'
'No,' The Cannon stammered stubbornly, 'Nothing!'
The seconds passed with nothing left to say. Everybody looked at the floor.
'So...' started Ryan, the yellow canary of awkward silences. Nothing. More minutes passed.
'So what will you do about it?' I asked him.
'Don't know!' he pouted.
'Stop being so childish!' I scolded, rapping him across his knuckles with a ruler.
'I want to fix it. If I could have my time again, I would do everything differently.'
'All those things that I didn't do, I would have done, and I wouldn't have done the things that I did. I would play with Lego more as a child and read more books as a teenager. I...' The Cannon's head began to rise with his imagination powered conviction. 'If only I could have my time again!'
'You can,' whispered a sultry female voice from behind. We all turned to look at the stairs to the gazebo where a dark woman in eastern-attire was gliding towards us. 'It is not too late.'
I stared at her and it dawned on me, messily. It trickled through my hair onto my shoulders and down my arms. I grabbed The Cannon by the elbow.
'You want to change your life?' I asked him. He nodded dumbly. 'Well think about it: what have you been doing wrong so far.'
'Wasting my time.'
'Right, and now you want to know where all that wasted time goes.'
'Well, I know.'
'You know what?' asked Ryan, fighting against the annihilation of becoming a background character.
'I know where all the time goes.'
'Where?' asked The Cannon.
'It's about a ninety minute drive down the highway. There's a huge storehouse there. That's where they keep time. I've seen it on the way home from some of my trips out south.'
'And if we go there I can get my time back?' The Cannon was optimistic now.
'Yes,' purred the lady, 'Your friend is correct.'
'Well, let's go!' cried The Cannon.
'Now hold on,' Ryan said, being the realist, 'we can't just drop everything and leave for a road trip. I mean, fuck, yeah, road trips are awesome, but we've got to be responsible. We don't even have a car here!'
'I'll drive,' she said, 'we can take my car. It's a Lexus.'
We all agreed.
'No shit,' I told her, 'You're the best guiding spirit ever.'
Two high-beams cut into the night. The resulting ribbons of darkness fluttered to the ground and settled before they were blown apart again by the speeding Lexus and back into the night.
In the back seat there was a clink as Ryan and I celebrated the beginning of the road trip with a drink. Outside the scenery flew by, always in the opposite direction to us. The rain fell intermittently, first light, then heavy, like our evening. The windscreen wipers swiped clumsily at drops of water before being overpowered by streams of rain. The resulting symphony played in harmony with the synthesiser and string. The balance remained as we drove further. Around us the houses began to thin out and started hiding behind hills and knolls. The trees started forming packs and growling at us. The road was becoming wider and darker, windier and colder. I shivered.
In the front seat, The Cannon had sobered up and become more serious. He sat up in his seat, determined. The dark rings beneath his eyes revealed how fatigued he was. The initial excitement of the trip was wearing off, and the weight on his shoulders was crushing him into the leather seats. He sighed.
'Are you worried?' she asked him.
'You seem tired.'
'I am tired.'
'Why don't you sleep more?' The question was an innocent one, with no hint of malice or a darker understanding of the true meaning of the word, just the literal interpretation.
'I sleep too much,' he responded. 'You can't take everything literally.'
He sunk further into the seat, the leather stretched and squealed. He could feel the metal of the car floor through the now thin lining. The circles under his eyes grew darker.
'What makes you so tired then?' she inquired.
'Wishing, mainly,' he chuckled dryly; a respite from the rain.
'What do you wish for?'
The Cannon tried to smile, enjoying the attentions of an attractive woman, but the subject matter at hand was too bleak.
'For a lot of things really: a better life, the undoing of mistakes, for companionship.'
'Is that all?' There was a small pause; a silence developed which was draped over the internal argument. Quietly, it was lifted again:
The Cannon said, 'I spend most of my days wishing I was never born.'
'Oh,' she stated, as if the answer had been expected but had still caught her off guard, 'no wonder you are so tired, if you spend all your day wishing I can hardly imagine how you have time to do anything else.'
'I find ways to deal with it. I don't sleep much. My bed is too cold,' his shoulders slumped as he talked, being crushed. The seat cracked and split and he slipped through it now, resting on the cold steel of the car's undercarriage. That too began to strain. She furrowed her brow in worry and placed her hand on his knee to comfort him. He sat up straighter, 'but there are ways to keep sane,' The Cannon said.
The seating returned to normal.
'Like what?' she asked. He didn't respond. She put her hand back on the steering wheel.
After a moment, he spoke. 'It's embarrassing...'
'It's ok, I won't laugh,' she smiled coyly, in a way that seemed familiar and warm, 'Tell me.'
'I try to find a better place. Somewhere I can feel happier, where harsh reality can't bring me down...'
She watched him talk, waiting for him to go on.
'... I don't really... I don't think you understand me.'
'No... I understand you.'
For the first time today, The Cannon smiled. They smiled together.
For the other senses: the aromas of bouquets, a low hum of excitement.
The Cannon's palms clasped together. A unique smile on his face. His head turned to watch.
The Cannon was not smiling. The driver's door opened and he watched longingly as she gracefully seated herself behind the wheel.
'That should give us enough fuel to get there easily,' she told us, starting the car cleanly at the same time. We drove off.
'Good, I'd hate it if we encountered some major problem just as it seemed our objective was in reach,' I said. Ryan looked over at me and I closed my mouth before I said anything else. We both were encouraging The Cannon to keep up the conversation with this woman, so we returned to our own world in the back seat.
'Is there anything else we need to worry about?' he asked, 'anything else that might prevent us from getting there?'
'Do not despair,' she said to him, unworried, 'the journey is never easy, but it is always achievable. We will make it to our objective'
'It seems all my journeys never go to plan,' he complained, 'they always start well enough but before long everything seems to go wrong and it becomes hopeless. I always give up after that.'
She smiled sympathetically at him.
'Life is tough.' She glanced over at him, keeping the car straight.
'Is it?' he asked, unconvinced. 'I don't find it hard, I find it repetitive. Every day is the same.'
'Doesn't that make it hard?'
'Why would it?'
'It just seems it would be challenging trying to do everything the exact same way every day. I know I wouldn't be able to do it, I'd want to break out of the cycle.'
'What!' His tone rose aggressively. 'No! I don't try to do everything the same way every day, that's just the way it happens!'
'How hard could it be to do something different?' She shot back.
'That's not what I mean.'
The windscreen wipers picked up their pace to match the torrential rain now falling. They gained on it and took the lead. We watched their celebratory dance on the windscreen. The downpour did exactly that. The whole car shrunk smaller as a cacophony of water spilled onto it. The roar drowned out the music; its last bubbles barely made it from the speakers to the surface.
We built up enough speed and drove into the night, hitting it head on and facing no resistance. It now surrounded us. We drove on.
A wide yawn broke the silence.
'We're almost there,' she said.
'I can't stay awake much longer,' muttered The Cannon, 'but my mind is racing.'
'What's in your thoughts, sweetie?'
'I can't stop thinking about all the things I'm going to do when I get my time back.'
'Like what? What do you regret most?'
'So many things... but mainly... there was this girl...'
'Ah,' she chuckled a little, 'who was she?'
'Her name was Susie-May.'
'Tell me about her.'
'I loved her,' said The Cannon.
'I should never have let her go. She said, "do you want me to stay?" and I said "It's up to you" and she said "I'll stay if you want me to" and I said "go".'
'You wish you'd said "stay"?'
'Every day I wish...' His lips curled. Wishes were a bitter subject.
On the horizon we could see it: the tip of our destination. As we drove closer it came into view. It was magnificent, though difficult to make out against the dark night sky. Lightning flashed around it helpfully, illuminating its enormity. It stood sixty stories tall; a giant, round silo sticking straight up from the ground. Other than a few sheds and small buildings around it there was nothing large nearby, making its size more obvious. There were warning lights embedded on the sides to keep planes from flying too close. We turned down an access road and headed towards it. She parked the car beneath its presence. We got out and looked up, craning our necks back to see to the top and gaining nothing but awe and vertigo.
Ryan and I started looking around to find the entry; the other two were behind. From the corner of my eye I saw The Cannon reach for her hand. In the rain they followed us hand-in-hand as we circumnavigated the huge, concrete mountain in search of a door.
It didn't take long before we were passing through two well maintained automatic doors. Inside the lobby was warm and well lit. Clean, rarely used couches sat against the wall next to pot plants all designed to match the interior decoration. At the desk sat an elderly man in a blue security uniform. He gave us all a welcoming smile. I put mine in my pocket. He looked like he'd been expecting us.
The Cannon glanced at his watch.
'Good morning,' he said to the guardian, 'how are you?'
'I'm well,' he nodded in response. The Cannon nodded back, and then he spilled the pleasantries.
'Look, I want it back,' he begged. 'Please, let me have it back. I'll pay you. I'll do anything if you give it all back to me.'
The guardian smiled sympathetically, his eyes showed mournful bemusement.
'I'm sorry... you can't. it just can't be done.'
The Cannon turned around to face us. He looked to his guiding spirit for assistance, but she was nowhere to be seen.
'No!' he cried, 'don't leave me!'
Her voice filled the air:
'I've brought you this far, now it's up to you.'
The Cannon looked around desperately, not moving.
'Jesus, Shannon, I'm not going to leave you. This isn't fucking Star Wars.' She was suddenly next to the guardian's desk, punching him in the stomach.
Using the distraction The Cannon ran into the lift and Ryan and I followed him. In a panic he stabbed at the close door buttons.
'Go!' she screamed as the doors closed. We watched as the guardian tackled her to the ground. An alarm started shrilling. The lift rose and The Cannon sniffled.
Each of the lift buttons had a corresponding letter next to it. We headed up to level nineteen, which was the second 'F' level. We piled out upon arrival and started running down the dark corridors. Doors lined the walls every few metres. Each solid looking door had a glass window top-centre. Next to each door was a sign. We ran until we found the right one, with the label that said 'Ford, J. – Fordham, W.'.
'This is it,' announced The Cannon, grabbing the handle, 'this is the restart of my life.'
The door handle didn't turn.
'It's locked!' he said, eyes watering in disbelief. We gazed in through the window and could see hundreds of boxes, all tagged with a name. We could see the one that said 'Shannon "The Cannon" Ford' on it. It was the biggest in the room. He banged on the door, willing it to open; half crying.
Footsteps in the distance quickly grew louder as three guards came at us. Ryan and I stepped back, hands in the air. One of them watched us, the other two approached The Cannon and each put a hand on his shoulder. The Cannon bawled.
'I want it, I need it! Please!'
'Come on, please, come with us,' urged a guard.
'No,' the cannon refused, 'I need my time back!'
'Time?' asked a guard, confused, 'what are you talking about?'
'My time is in there. You store time here,' The Cannon told him.
The guard chuckled, unsure of whether he was serious. 'We don't store time here.'
'That's absurd,' said the other, 'Time is not stored here or anywhere. You can't physically store time; that's crazy... it's impossible!'
'You... You don't store time here?' The Cannon moaned.
'No,' said the guard. 'We store dreams here.'
'Oh shit, yeah,' I said. 'They store dreams here, not time, sorry Cannon, I always get them mixed up.'
'Oh...' said The Cannon.
We let the guards walk us back to the lift and they escorted us outside. The woman was standing in front of her car smoking a cigarette. We walked up to her feeling sorry for ourselves.
'They store dreams here, not time,' The Cannon told her.
'I'll never be able to have my time again. I'll never be able to redo all those mistakes. I'm still going to be lonely. I'll always be lonely!'
Susie May opened her arms and hugged him to her.
'Shhh,' she consoled him, 'you're wrong. I'm here for you. I did go, but now I'm back.' She gripped The Cannon tightly and they kissed.
'I told you you'd achieve your objective,' she beamed at him.
Next to me, Ryan shed a tear.
'Well,' I said to him, 'I guess The Cannon found what he was looking for after all.'
'It was worth a trip after all,' Ryan replied.
We stood and watched them embrace as the rain pattered out and the sun began to rise.
Church bells ringing. Everyone's gaze is watching Susie-May walk towards The Cannon. She looks so beautiful, and I'd never seen The Cannon look so happy. I'd never seen The Cannon... Everything flickered. The living room is filled by the sound of ringing bells. He looks out of place, sitting at the altar in an old dressing gown. The Cannon's gaze is faltering. I try to stand by him in support. The room shook and she was gone. They were all gone. The Cannon sat on his couch.
He echoed his own words:
'I try and find a better place,' he told me
The Cannon looked at me for advice; I looked back at him sadly. I told him, 'They store dreams.'
I flickered out.