“I really don't think -” I said.
“I know that,” she said dismissively. “I've known that for years.”
Internally I sighed, resigned to the old adage that it wasn't worth the cost to fight with her. “Okay.”
“I said okay. Buy it.”
“I did!” she said with a snort. “It's a good deal.” She looked down at her tablet, dismissing me from her attention. I simmered inside, the flame ticking up a little higher than normal. My wife, Alicia, hadn't always been the shrew I saw before me today. She used to hide it better. I suppose she can't be entirely blamed. When we married I'm sure she'd been influenced by my optimism about the company I worked for and how far I might be able to go. It was a focus for me. Being married was just...expected. We'd gotten along all right, but then as I said...she hid herself better before. The company, like so many others in countless small towns, had closed and moved its operations overseas. That had led to a series of jobs that hadn't quite the potential, but I had hoped...and she had turned bitter. Now I worked in a small company that, while paying the bills, wasn't going to give us any of the opportunities I'd envisioned early on.
One could think she felt cheated. Of course, I'd also feel compelled to point out that if her reason for marrying me was what she could get from me....
I stood slowly from the uncomfortable chair that had been designated as mine, letting out a slight groan as I was wont to do when standing - or doing many things, at my age. I crossed the room through the small, awkwardly laid out house, to the master bedroom. Dominating the right-hand wall was a closet that ran the width of the room. Just to the left of the door was a tiny space that was not much more than a closet – truthfully. I've heard people say they have a broom closet for an office, or something similar. This room...someone really had taken the idea of a four-foot by four-foot room, added a little space to either end and called it done. I'm not sure why they ever made it; there was no practical use unless it predated the closet on the other side of the room.
Of the entire house, this little alcove was mine. The detached garage was powered, but unheated, and so not very useful as a place to be. I'd had thoughts of fixing a space for myself, but I'd somehow lost that battle. There was a single extra bedroom that was overloaded with Alicia's shrine to the movie Gone with the Wind. There were dolls under glass domes, movie posters, display cabinets filled with all kinds of memorabilia of questionable provenance – even a doll house-sized replica of the house from the film.
Even though I think she genuinely loved the movie, and somehow identified with the actress who is so beset in the film, I think there was a second motivation to fill this space in particular - her ogre of a mother. Sylvia Rickart, Ogre Queen, lived in a trailer park just a few miles from us, but it was even odds if they were speaking to each other at any given time. Sylvia could find fault with a great many things at a moment's notice – a trait her daughter had learned well. Alicia's wastrel brother parked cars in our yard that he claimed he intended to fix. The main question was when he'd gain enough knowledge to actually repair anything, or the motivation to lift more than a beer can.
I sat down in the wooden chair in my little space, made smaller by the tiny table I had shoe-horned in. Atop the table was my serviceable but worn-down computer. I'd hand-built it because the packages that were sold were so much more money. In addition they included lots of software I didn't want, but had to pay for in that purchase price. Alicia hated my computer. I think she saw it as a rival. It's probably why I had it here, in this tiny space just off the master bedroom - so she could nag me off it from the comfort of the bed.
You might think that she's a stupid woman, but she would be the first to tell you she isn't. She'd studied hard and gotten her nursing license; she just hadn't wanted to actually use it. When convenient, her views were very old – that I should support her. I suppose in the modern age, the idea could appeal to the ego of some men. I was not one of them. Instead, I lived a life of quiet desperation, slowly being consumed by my marriage and my inability to change my programming.
I glanced at my computer with that thought. Yes, I was as much a slave as my old PC was. I powered it on and waited as patiently as I could for it to boot up, then checked the balance of the credit accounts, which were as close to their limits as I'd feared. Alicia would shop until the cards melted from use, given the chance. She would mutter that I didn't make enough, but fly into a rage if reminded of her own lack of a job.
“Look at this house!” she'd snarl. “You don't have anything to complain about with this house. Christ! If you'd quit fooling around with baseball and do something that made us a little money, maybe it wouldn't be like this!”
She was wrong, of course. Yes, we didn't have much money – I didn't have a lot of use for an excess of money. My needs were simple, although perhaps I'd have more desires if I had more spending cash? Who knows. I switched over to my checking account and took note of the balance. Then I finally did something that made me smile.
I was the commissioner of the local recreational and travel baseball league. It gave me great pleasure to watch the games, to manage the resources to make sure the league would be there in the future for other kids. Two years ago we'd finally been able to expand to include a softball league, which I was quite proud of. I wasn't necessarily a big fan of children as a rule, but I did appreciate those moments that a unifying experience, like a team sport, provided to those little, selfish minds. Those moments when they cheered on a teammate, bucked one up who hadn't been able to come through – or most importantly, showed good sportsmanship to a member of the other team. I liked seeing the growth in them.
In order to appease Alicia, I'd become an umpire at some point and worked a few games a year for the pittance one received as payment. I wasn't on duty today, but I kept my gear in the car for emergencies. The theater says the show must go on, and so must the game – weather permitting!
I smiled to myself as I took in the day's slate of contests, though I think I had them memorized. The teams were all named after colors, and today the Blue team would battle the Orange team. Both were well coached with good players. The two were headed to a showdown for the trophy at the end of the rec season, which ended right around the time school let out for the year. Then travel league would start up, and the competition would become truly fierce. This was a pretty big deal for us, though. The week-long tournament helped keep a lot of kids busy with something to do and a place to be during testing week.
Ensuring I had my wallet I headed toward the front door. Alicia sat on the love seat, not quite wide enough to physically occupy the whole seat, but her whole stance still warned off anyone from joining her.
“I'm heading to the field,” I told her.
She snorted without looking at me. “Going to make some money or just wasting time?”
“I'm the backup umpire today,” I replied, my internal temperature rising again.
She didn't reply, other than to raise the volume on the TV a few notches. I left without another word, walking quickly to my durable but tired old sedan. One could be forgiven for wondering why I stayed. Guilt and weakness, perhaps, in a great circle that fed on itself endlessly – or in computing terms, an infinite loop. My parents had been domineering, controlling every aspect of my life as a child. I had clothes marked for days of the week, and others labeled for special events. Punishments could range from withholding the little affection there was, all the way to whipping stripes on my skin with a belt. Frequently, there weren't many degrees between one end of the punishment spectrum and the other.
It's probably why Owen and I hadn't been able to make things work. While my parents were coldly controlling, his lone parent was an alcoholic with a penchant for flying off the handle over belly-button lint. That's what we used to call small things, belly-button lint. If you dropped a sock on your way to the laundry, Owen's father would indict you for it. He and his bottle of Black Velvet would pass judgment. It always involved screaming, and frequently pain of some sort. In a way, Owen and I were both programmed to follow the rules, to not draw attention and to go with the flow.
My mood turned melancholy, as it always does when I think of Owen. He had lived three doors down from me, and the summer we turned fourteen we made a discovery while skinny dipping down at the old Mill Road pond. We discovered we weren't like the other boys. That we liked looking at boys rather than girls. That we liked looking at each other - and even entertaining the thought of touching one another. It had been a painfully long summer, filled with fear and hope and longing. It had taken us until the very last week before school started to share a hasty kiss beneath a wilting shade tree.
I was pulled from these bittersweet thoughts by the shrill sound of Alicia, in her housecoat, standing on the porch and hollering at me. I rolled down the window.
“Edgerton's has ice cream on sale. Get me two pistachio!” she said sharply, clearly displeased to be repeating herself.
“Okay,” I replied to her backside. She closed the door hard behind her and I muttered, 'Bitch' under my breath as I had so often to my own parents. In a way, I had the same fear of her as a youthful me had had of my folks. Because of that, I kept my backtalk to mutters, and largely to myself.
I keyed the ignition and pulled away before she could come back out. Of course, that was patently silly. I hadn't left home without my electronic leash in years, now. The phone felt like a brick in my pants pocket; a reminder that I couldn't run far enough to get clear of her voice.
The fields are laid out something like a four-leaf clover. We have the fields for the younger kids closer to the center – they aren't at all likely to be hitting it out of the park and into the other fields. Then there are intermediate fields set beside the ones for the high school-aged kids. I pulled in right behind the concession stand, in a spot marked clearly for the commissioner. It was probably the one thing I felt silly about in my position, yet I liked not having to hunt for a parking space. The back door opened to the concession on the left, straight in a staircase went to the second floor where the announcer sat, and to the right was a storage area for extra equipment in case a family couldn't swing a bat or mitt.
“Hiya, Stan,” the parent working the concession stand said in greeting.
I waved. “Nice to see you. How does it look today, eh?”
“Tough game,” he said with a chuckle. “Andy says the boys have been ragging each other a little in school all week.”
I presumed Andy was his son. I didn't know all the parents and their kids, except by sight. Names were usually hard for me to keep hold of, for some reason. Faces I could generally remember, though I did make an exception for some folk.
“I'm looking forward to it myself!” I said with a grin. I headed up to the announcing booth over the concession. It was right behind home plate and gave a great view, except for the netting to catch foul balls. On the field one parent-coach was chalking the lines while teams warmed up on either side of the outfield, throwing the ball back and forth and chattering excitedly. There was a fun tension in the air, a feel of anticipation.
“Hi, Stan. Watching from up here, today?” Glenn, our announcer, sat on a folding metal chair in front of the microphone and switch panel that operated both the PA system and the scoreboard.
“Just wanted a look,” I told him with a smile. I walked over to the eight by four opening in the wall – pulled up on a hinge – to look down on the field. I glanced at the bleachers to either side, taking in the chatting parents and relatives. Small kids darted between adults or played their own games on the grass between fields. On the orange team's bleachers sat a man - one that I had known would probably be there. One that caused me to think back with regret.
Back then, Owen had just turned seventeen and I was a few months shy. We had forged strong bonds in the previous three years, and I do think we were in love. We had taken to meeting at a small coffee shop downtown, one with an outdoor space for sitting. We didn't dare hold hands, though I know I desperately wanted to. In those heady days of possibility, the thought of touching Owen was something that took up a great deal of my time. I was barely surviving, I felt, on the smattering of kisses we'd managed.
“We could apply to college in New York City,” Owen had said, a sly look on his face. “We could walk around just like other people, then. All we need are the grades and we could escape, don't you think?”
“What about our parents? How do we get that by them? They won't pay for something like that!” I had told him, excited by the idea yet tripping over the details. If ever there was an apt time for the saying 'the devil is in the details' then that was it.
“All we need are the grades, Lee,” he'd said. He'd always called me Lee, never Stanley. Never Stan. Never the cringe-worthy Stan-the-man. “Our parents, as wacko as they are, can't argue against making grades, right?”
It seems so logical, so rational, and yet there was a part of me that was utterly convinced that both our parents could happily find a way to interfere with our earning good grades. They might even do it just because they realized we wanted it. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more certain I became that it would take no more than that to make them line up against us. There is nothing quite like a miserable person who has decided that their life will be measured as a failure. The resentment toward their children, who had yet to succumb to failure, had been enough for my own parents to make me as miserable as they were.
As the school year had worn on, I'd felt the pressure increase exponentially. Owen and I worked harder than I think we ever had, in school. Perhaps we felt it, even then, that our only chance in life – to have a life – was to escape the clutches of our parents, the small-mindedness of the people that surrounded us, and the restrictive, crushing thought of remaining in this rotting town with its veneer of respectability.
We didn't make it out. Instead, we were found out. I could still feel the hope being crushed from me as my parents, and Owen's dad, received letters from our guidance counselors. They were full of praise for all our hard work and how they had been helping us with our dreams of attending school all the way in New York City. I can't describe the jumble of emotions and accusations that rolled through my home that evening. Everything from my not being smart enough for a college, to being too lazy for college, to how selfish I was to think of going so far away from the people who claimed to have sacrificed everything for me.
Owen had gotten a much blunter response. His father, whose true motivation other than drunken meanness was a mystery, had beaten him to within an inch of his life. Our dream crushed, Owen and I had a hard time looking at each other. We couldn't see the other without thinking of our lost future. Our will to live our own life had been snuffed out, replaced with my subservient programming and...I don't know what, for Owen. I suppose, in a way, we turned the key on our own prison at that time. We ended up in the same town, never quite daring to try again.
I was shaken from my thoughts by Glenn, announcing the starting line ups.
“Taking the field for the Orange squad, at first base is....”
I glanced back once more to the Orange bleachers where Owen sat. He'd had two children, by all accounts average kids. I had felt a mantle of finality settle on me when he'd married. Perhaps somewhere I'd still harbored hope. By all accounts Owen, who could have become a despondent, horrible person like his own father had instead been a gentle soul, kind to most. I had no doubt he'd cared for his wife and family, both emotionally and materially. His wife had died young and he'd not remarried. The kids had gone on divergent paths as adults. The son had left for California, and the last I'd heard was working as a tattoo person. I guess they call them artists, now. I never cared much for tattoos. I don't know if he was a success at his chosen craft, but he'd done what we couldn't – he'd gotten out.
His daughter, Amanda, had followed the path of so many pretty, small town girls. She'd said yes to a boy, and no to her future. In her day she'd said yes to a great many boys, or so the rumors went. She'd had three children; it was anyone's guess if they all had the same father. I didn't have much of an opinion either way – small town rumors are sort of like sand on a beach: impossible to have a beach without sand, and impossible to have a small town without rumor. Her kids all had the same huge smile. Not Amanda's, no. But Owen's.
The oldest of Amanda's children, a boy, was already in college. He'd been smart, and I'd imagine tough as well, as he had some sort of hearing loss. He had these things that sat on his skull behind each ear to amplify sounds. Anything that makes you different also makes you a target, more so in a small place. He'd been an avid ball-player and I used to enjoy watching him play. He'd grown into a bear of a boy, bearded and who knows what he was in college for? I suppose it didn't matter – he'd escaped, hopefully for good.
Amanda's daughter and youngest son were probably two of the most beautiful children you might ever hope to see. The daughter had chestnut hair that fell in natural waves, surrounding a bright, open face. People might describe her face as having a 'freshly scrubbed look', and that would be accurate. Her external beauty ramped up when she flashed that huge smile that went from one side of her face to the other. A lot of people, even smiling their widest, can't take up as much real estate as she did. Cait, though, really did look like there might be a hinge somewhere, hidden in her neck, and that the upper half of her head might swing all the way back. It was the most gorgeous smile I'd ever seen on a girl; one that reeked of Owen.
Her little brother, Bennett, had the same face. His hair tended a bit more to a dusty brown, but it had some of the waves his sister did. His grin was just as wide, but with a bit more mischief in it that befitted his nature. He was short for his age, just five foot two in his first year of high school, and I thought he might be like that for the rest of his life. Owen had hit his growth spurt when he was eleven, towering over the rest of the class until around eleventh grade. Bennett had to be about thirteen, maybe fourteen, and I thought he wasn't going to get the height of his grandfather. Just that gorgeous smile.
Owen attended his grandkid's games, for the most part. He was the manager of Edgerton's supermarket, but that didn't always mean he could stay for a full game. Weekend games were easier for him, but with the end of school on the horizon, his store was busy selling all the trimmings for graduation celebrations, cookouts and of course, beer. Lots of beer. Given we were of an age, I'd have thought he'd have turned toward retirement. I'd retire, but then I'd be home all day with my wife. No matter what wrongs I have committed, that was a punishment too far.
Living in a small town there is lack of things to do when you reach a certain age. Many of those things boil down to drive fast and fuck, crude as it may be to say. The boys on the field today could probably accomplish one, but not the other as of yet. Legally, at any rate. I like to think it helps to keep the unwed mother count in the town down a bit, but who really knows?
While I'd been lost in my own mind, the game had started. I was brought back to it by the sharp ping of the bat – something that sounds fundamentally wrong at a ball game – and the ball rising high into the air. It was a pop fly in a bad spot. The center fielder was coming on hard and my heart rate climbed as I watched the exciting contest between ball and player. I leaned forward, fingertips pressed hard into the edge of the sill. The batter was running to first, as he should be, but his pace was not confident. He wasn't sure if he was going to be out, or if he should be running hard to try and make it to second, or if he should be satisfied with a single. With a grunt the center fielder, a boy about the same height as Bennett, threw himself into a leaping dive and caught the ball!
The fielder lifted his gloved hand in the air, showing the umpire the ball. The umpire signaled the batter was out and the uncertain stride slowed to a walk as the batter headed back to the dugout. Glenn called the out over the PA, announcing the center fielder's name. I didn't retain it. The boy got up off the grass, didn't brush his orange uniform top off, but sauntered back to his position with a swagger of confidence. I smiled to myself.
I descended to the concession stand, which was busy with purchases of hamburgers and hot dogs, sunflower seeds and Gatorade. Exiting through the back door, I made a loop of the active games going on at the other fields. I started with the tee-ball game, which is where I thought kids were actually cute as they wore their uniforms and bumbled about, trying to learn the rules. Or perhaps, simply to have fun throwing the ball, running around and getting dirty. Either way, they were pure joy to watch.
I walked past the softball game, which was knotted up at three runs apiece. I watched for a moment as the pitcher twirled her arm for that underhand – perhaps underhanded – pitch that whizzed into the catcher's mitt.
“Strike!” the umpire called out. I don't think I could hit a ball thrown like that. I couldn't hit much, these days.
Gradually I made my way back to the game that was truly interesting to me, the Blue and Orange match. It was three to two, Blue when I leaned up against the wall, just to the right of the concession window. The fellow up to bat for Orange was huge – easily topping six foot. The Blue pitcher looked over his shoulder, where Bennett stood on second base. Bennett, displaying one reason why I loved to watch him play, burst into a silly dance that did nothing but aggravate the pitcher.
The pitcher turned and fired toward the plate, and the big kid pounced, hitting a hard line drive to right field. Bennett was off like a scared rabbit, rounding third and stretching his legs for every bit of drive they could give him. The player in right fielded the ball on a single hop and fired an absolute cannonball toward home plate. Much like his teammate in center field had done, Bennett dove headfirst for home plate as the ball flew high over the catcher's head. Bennett popped up, grinning and not bothering to dust off his uniform, picked up the previous batter's bat and bounded toward the dugout. As the game wore on, Bennett continued to remind everyone on the field that this was a game. I glanced at Owen, sure he'd be laughing at the boy's antics, but he'd left. Probably due to that sale the supermarket had on. I turned back to enjoy the show.
Bennett took over as first base coach and promptly put his teammate in a headlock. Then, bored between pitching changes, began to lift and drop his helmet on his head. Then he stood on first base as if he were a runner, momentarily confusing everyone. After he went on defense, it was more of the same. I had to cover my mouth during the fifth inning when the Blue team had a runner on first, a batter ready to swing and Bennett playing second base. As the pitcher wound up, the runner took off from first. He'd have been in there, had it not been for the batter fouling off the pitch. The runner stood up, dusted his pants lightly, and turned to return to first. Bennett decided the fellow needed an escort back to first, jawing the whole way.
Along about the bottom of the sixth inning, Brian Downing showed up, and I mentally sighed. Brian was a man who had repeatedly slept with Amanda, Owen's daughter, but never married her. For better or worse, though there was no real doubt it was worse, he was likely the children's absent parent. Horrible to say, but being absent was probably for the best. He worked odd jobs around town, but never for long. He frequently possessed a scraggly beard, clothes that were ill-fitting, yet somehow managed to charm his way into some people's beds. I can't truly judge anyone harshly, considering the cage I kept myself in, but I did wonder what Amanda saw in Brian.
Bennett had moved to right field and he was, as the old song went, watching the dandelions grow. With a seven to three lead, Orange had the game in hand for now. Due to rules about how long a child could pitch, Orange was changing out their pitcher for a boy with poorly fitting pants, as if he'd lost weight since they'd been purchased, and sporting glasses. He was a rarity as he threw left-handed, and could put it over the plate – things which could be mutually exclusive at this age.
“Look alive, right field! Get in the game!” Brian called out and laughed to himself. Bennett looked away from him, glancing over at the center fielder, who stood with his arms folded while the new pitcher warmed up.
“Right field! Ho! Right field, look alive!” Brian hooted out again.
Brian was standing just past the dugout, right about where the infield dirt gave way to outfield grass. I started to walk toward him. He was a distraction, yes. He might be drunk, which would give me leverage to get him to leave. But if you want the truth, the one I could never say to a living soul, he was embarrassing Bennett and I didn't want that. Wouldn't stand for it. Bennett couldn't control who'd fathered him anymore than we can choose our eye color – although these days, that's questionable what with the things they do with contacts. Still, I wasn't going to stand for it. I'd lived with enough of it myself.
“Wake up, right field! Look ready!” he called out as I approached.
Bennett finally turned to look at Brian and said, “No one's talking to you.”
Brian put his hands on top of the four foot high chain-link, gripping it as if he were thinking of trying to leap over it. It might have been amusing to see him try, but if he face planted there were consequences, possibly, with liability. Again, in my deepest heart, it was really because he'd embarrass Bennett.
“Mr. Downing,” I said conversationally. “May I have a word?”
Brian's forearms tensed as if he was going to ignore me and make good on the attempt to hop the fence, but then he paused and let out a belch before turning to look at me. His brows drew down slightly as he gave me a once over. When I got within four feet I was assaulted with the smell of body odor and something alcoholic, though I have no idea what. Likely it was several things.
“How's work these days, Brian?” I asked.
“Not enough. Pay's shit,” he said and spat to the side. “You need something done?”
“Not as such, no,” I said as I closed the distance and lowered my voice. “Just this, Brian. You're drunk in public. Around children. If word got out, it might be tough for you to keep the jobs you have now. In your best interest, why don't you walk home and sleep it off?”
He coughed lightly, hawked back and spit on my shirt. “Fuck you, Stanley. I'm here to watch my kid.”
Rage boiled inside me. I glanced toward the field and was relieved that the game had resumed. Bennett glanced toward us, but the exchange had been quiet thus far. I wanted to hit him. I wanted to rub his face in the sputum he'd spat onto my shirt – which I was gamely ignoring. Of course, I wasn't programmed that way. My rage was impotent. There was also the fact he was probably thirty years my junior and I wasn't exactly in fighting trim.
“Did you drive here, Brian?” I asked instead.
“I'm calling the police, Brian. I'm going to tell them you're drunk and driving. You should go home. Sleep it off,” I told him. Perhaps because of my cursed programming, I didn't even try to avoid his punch. Truth be told, I was a little surprised. I fell over, more from that surprise that from the force of the blow. He snorted and stepped over me, walking toward the parking lot, and presumably his vehicle.
“Jesus, Stan! You okay?” asked Joe McGuire, coach of the Orange team. He'd come running from the dugout I suppose, after Brian had thrown his punch.
“I'll live,” I said as I struggled to my feet. He put an arm under me and eased me up, for which I was grateful. “He was drunk. I'll need to call the police.”
“Better do it now, Stan. He's getting in that truck of his. Get them down here, I'll witness that he hit you, sure as shit!” He placed a hand on my shoulder as I wobbled slightly. “Sure you're okay, Stan?”
“Certainly,” I said with none. “Right as rain.” I withdrew the brick of a phone from my pocket and dialed the local police to report Brian and his drunk driving. It was a short conversation, and I walked back toward the rear of the concession building as I did so, in order to limit the gossip generated by whatever tiny scraps of conversation some busy-body might overhear.
Once done, I went into the building and grabbed a paper towel to wipe off my shirt. It was disgusting, to say the least. Looking out from behind the counter I was dismayed to find that the game had ended. I groaned to myself as I'd been looking forward to watching. Damn Brian Downing to hell.
The next team was already starting their warm ups, and a parent-coach was using a rake on the infield dirt. I spotted Bennett, unlikely as it sounds, playing leapfrog with boys from the Blue team, whom the Orange had just beaten. I exited the rear of the building and went to my car. I kept a bag in the trunk in case of emergency, and a change of clothes was included in that kit. I rummaged for a moment, coming up with a clean tee shirt. It wasn't really my style, but it was better than walking around with that wet spot from Brian Downing on my front.
Donning the tee, I walked around to the front of the concession and, glancing to see that Bennett was hanging about, I ordered two cheeseburgers. Sometimes Bennett seemed reluctant to leave the field, choosing instead to play with other kids on the sides of the field or playing scratch on one of the fields not currently in use. That was against the rules, but I had a soft spot for the boy, and I turned a blind eye to his fun. I don't think there was any real reason Bennett stayed other than he was having fun with the other kids. I had a clear conscience that he wasn't mistreated at home, at least not by his mother. Brian might be another matter altogether.
When my order was ready, I sat down on the Orange bleachers – which were now for the Red team – and popped the top of my Coke, while leaving a bottle of Gatorade by my feet. I don't care for the taste of Gatorade. When I had my first colonoscopy I was told to dissolve some medicine in a jug of the sports drink in order to clear myself out. I nearly made myself sick, and ever since I cannot abide the scent or taste of the stuff.
“Hey, Mr. Fielding.” I turned, pleased to find Bennett looking at me.
“Hello, Mr. Turchin. Well played out there,” I said and tipped the top of my can toward him.
He grinned, not quite showing his full smile. “Did you see Brady's diving catch in center?”
“I did!” I said, smiling at him. “That was an excellent play. I also saw you field that shot at second,” I said, pointing a finger at him. “That ball could have just eaten you up. Well done.”
“I had it, easy,” he said, his smile breaking his face and his body language that of confidence. “I know that hop. I was ready for it.”
“Obviously we need to re-sod the infield,” I told him sagely. He chuckled.
“Bennett,” I said. “As good as this is, I can't eat a second burger. My eyes were too big for my stomach. I'd hate for it to go to waste. Would you like it?”
He tilted his head slightly, a mere splash of red in the very tips of his cheeks. “I'm sorry about...you should have hit him back.”
I frowned lightly. “I'll remember to bring a rock with me, next time. Now, that burger won't eat itself, though that would be entertaining.”
“Can you imagine?” he asked and laughed. I nudged the paper plate toward him and he accepted, eating the burger with gusto. It's a ritual. It's not that I worry he doesn't eat, not really. I do know his mother is never present at games, and I do know that Owen will treat him to a cheeseburger whenever he can stay for the game. I merely fill in when he has to be elsewhere. Cheeseburgers at ballgames...it's American. Every boy should have that chance. It was an innocent fiction, but one I could live with.
“Are you staying to watch the second game?” he asked, ketchup on his cheek. I handed him a napkin, pointing to my own cheek. As so often happens with people, he wiped the wrong cheek and I had to tell him it was the other side.
“I was thinking of it. I was...asked to bring home pistachio ice cream. I understand there is a sale on. And you?”
“I'm going to the movies with my grandpa tonight,” he said. “They have a late showing and he's been promising to take me.”
“Did he leave for work?” I asked.
“He said he needed to make sure things were set so he could be gone without worrying,” Bennett replied.
I nodded slowly and glanced behind me at the parking lot. I can't say for sure that I glanced at the space Brian Downing's truck had been parked in, but I may have. My mind certainly went there. “Bennett,” I said slowly, still forming the question – and wondering how smart is was to ask such things. “Bennett, is...Mr. Downing always like that?”
I glanced at the boy's face, and noticed something I'd seen before, but perhaps wasn't sure how to interpret. It was a form of stress – but because of the question or the object of the question? His gaze looked furtive, his eyes betraying something of a hunted or fearful look. “Well,” I said hesitantly. “I'm wondering how he may act with your mother, or you and your siblings. Does he act the way he did with me today? Or the way he was calling to you while you were on the field?”
Bennett fidgeted a bit and glanced out at the field, his attention drawn by the metallic ping of the bat hitting the ball. We watched as the fielder snagged the sharply hit ball, tapped the ball in his glove and threw just a moment too late, letting the runner beat the play.
“Mr. Fielding? Why do you always get me a cheeseburger?”
He wasn't looking at me, though I did feel a bit flustered. I suppose the truth, or something close to it, was the only real answer. “When I was a boy, your grandfather and I were...close friends. I suppose I see some of him in you. I think he'd be pleased that I do for you what he would, when he's here.”
He faced me, eyes squinting slightly from the sun. “That's what he said, too. I told him you buy that stuff whenever he's not here and act like it's some kind of mistake.”
I smiled, flushed with embarrassment. “I guess it is a bit silly. You're smart enough to figure out such a simple gambit.”
He sighed lightly. “Brian has hit my mom before. She doesn't let him come around anymore, not for a while now. He...says he's my dad. I don't believe him, though.”
“I can see why you wouldn't,” I said softly. “Do you mind if I ask another question?”
“I've noticed you stay at the field long after your games are over. Why is that?”
He looked at me, squinting a bit again. “You know this is weird, right? If you wanted to stalk me, why don't you just follow me on Instagram?” He grinned afterward, taking the seriousness from his words.
I chuckled. “I suppose it does sound weird,” I agreed. “Forget I asked.”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I get where you're coming from. My gramps asks the same things, sort of. I hang at the field 'cause my friends are here. Things are okay at home. Mom is mom, and she's pretty good at that, I guess.” He paused. “If you're asking if I'm okay, then yeah. I'm okay.”
I nodded, smiled and patted his shoulder. “Well,” I said with a sigh. “Did you plan to stay for the second game?”
“My friends are playing, so probably.”
“Well, why don't you find me when the game is over? Since we're both going to the store, I'll drop you off.”
One side of his mouth pulled up with good humor. “Thanks.” He stood to join some kids, no doubt to play a scratch game.
“Oh. Looks like this is abandoned. Make good use, won't you?” I said, handing him the Gatorade.
He accepted the bottle with a smile. “You and my grandpa, you're so alike. Thanks!”
I watched him as he ran to a group of boys, many of whom had just competed with each other less than an hour before. Bennett rubbed his chest through his uniform and said in a silly voice, “Rub my nippo, fi dolla!” His friends broke down in giggles as he repeated his sales pitch and I chuckled to myself. Some would probably chide him for using what could loosely be considered an Asian accent. I could understand it if he was actually making fun of something Asian, but as it was he was just being a silly boy.
Still laughing, they got down to the business of choosing up sides and starting all over again. It's the beauty of a game, I suppose. You can switch the players and places around and get new outcomes each time. I made my rounds of the fields again, chatted with a few parents and made sure checks were ready for the umpires who'd crewed the fields that day.
I was ready to leave, as the lights were coming on for the final game. I knew I'd delayed too long as it was; Alicia would be madder than a wet hen that she had no ice cream, as yet. I spotted Bennett in short order, playing some sort of game with two other boys, though I'm not sure anyone – least of whom the boys themselves – could have explained the game.
I dropped Bennett at the store and got the required ice cream. As I walked to my car, Owen called to me. Strange, all these years later, his voice still makes my heart race just a little bit faster.
“Stanley,” he said, closing the space between us.
“Owen, how are you?” I ask, placing the ice cream in the insulated container in the trunk of my car.
“I'm well, thank you. And you? How are...things?”
I glanced at him, studying his face for a moment. I could still see the face I loved so well, hidden in the fine lines and crinkles.
“About the same.”
He nodded slowly. “Bennett said Brian made a scene at the field.”
“Oh. Well, nothing I couldn't handle,” I said with a little chuckle.
“Thank you for looking out for him.” Owen paused, began to turn and then stopped. He wasn't quite looking at me when he said, very quietly, “Do you ever wonder....”
I turned to face him fully. “Wonder what, Owen?”
He glanced at me and then shook his head with a rueful smile. “Just thoughts from an old man. Nothing, Stanley. Nothing.” He turned to head for his car, and I felt a panic rise in me.
“I do wonder, sometimes,” I blurted, causing him to stop turning from me. “I wonder what would have happened had we gone to New York City. I wonder about that a lot.”
He stayed still for a moment. The fading day fell to a hush around us. It was almost as if the years were unspooling, bringing us back to that moment where we could have made a different choice. What would have been different?
“I wondered that, too. Sometimes.” He paused and looked at me askance. “At night, when I'm home alone. That's when it hurts most, I think. But...my kids were good kids, even if they didn't turn out the way I'd wanted. My grandkids....”
“Bennett is fantastic. Cait is...beautiful.”
He nodded slowly, smiling to himself. “They are, on both counts.” He looked at me sadly. “If only we could have it all.”
“Gramp! Movie starts in twenty minutes, come on!” Bennett hollered from Owen's car across the parking lot. Owen chuckled and waved at him.
“Duty calls.” He cleared his throat. “Thank you again, for looking out for him.”
We parted awkwardly, or at least it felt that way. After all this time, he still felt something. Amazing. I meditated on that for a moment as they drove away, before returning to my prison for the evening.
My arrival was not greeted with warmth, but merely statements about wasting time and making her wait. She even managed to change her tone enough to make it sound as though I should feel bad, that she was whining in such a way that I should feel for her. It was a manipulation that I should be immune to by now, though it still made me angry.
“Maureen called,” Alicia said from her perch on the love seat. Her throne, is what I called it privately. Maureen O'Hara was Alicia's oldest and perhaps only friend.
“Oh?” I asked, careful not to sound dismissive.
Alicia took on a positively mean-spirited face. “She said that Downing guy spit on you.” She looked at me with contempt. “And you just took it. Then he punched you. And you just took it.”
“He's thirty years younger. What would you – or Maureen – have had me do?” I asked, my voice filled with exasperation.
“Stand up for yourself, maybe? It'd be nice if you grew a spine before you die,” she said with a snort.
I almost told her that I'd called the police, but to her that would be one more sign of weakness. Anything I said to defend myself would be to no purpose, or none that was worth my time. I walked to the fridge and looked inside for any leftover beer to help cleanse parts of the day from my palate. As I searched, Alicia waddled by.
“I'm watching TV in the bedroom, so don't get on that computer of yours,” she said, warningly. I sighed and closed the door. I'd had some fun that day, no doubt, but I truly hated my home life. One might wonder why I don't leave. Where would I go? My wife keeps us in debt and she'd get half of my retirement account. It might be worth it for some peace and quiet, but I think she'd make me just as miserable. I'm sure she'd call me endlessly to complain. I'm sure she'd make the most trivial things into reasons to go to court.
Despondently I walked into the living room, and turned to my right. The house had obviously been designed by a wino – probably a member of the Downing line. The living room extended into an awkward space filled with bulky furniture with a floral pattern that was enough to make your head spin. It's also where we kept the liquor cabinet, and I poured myself a finger of Black Velvet; Owen Turchin's bane, no doubt, as it was his father's preferred poison. I dared no more than that; we had games the next day that I wanted to see.
The next day passed in much the same fashion. It was easiest to have weekend games as school was in session and the school teams were also going on. Bennett was up to his usual tricks, dancing as a runner at first, slapping the first baseman's butt to distract him and making his silly sales pitch from the dugout. I'd imagine being his parent could be exasperating, but from afar he was a delight. Owen sat in a folding canvas chair with a built-in umbrella. I was tempted to go down and talk to him, perhaps pick up the threads of last evening's conversation. Conversation? It was more like blurting things out that had been bottled in a dark corner for many years. Blurtation, perhaps?
Bennett and Owen were long gone by the time I ended up umpiring the night game, as one of our umpires had gotten some family news of some kind and had to leave early. I ended up being the last to leave that night, making sure to lock up the concession stand and kill the big field lights. There was one streetlight out at the end of the parking lot, but it was like a firefly in a snowstorm given the sudden change in light level. I guess that didn't affect people like Brian Downing.
“Hi, Stanley,” he said amiably enough, though I fancied there was an underlying threat in his tone.
“Brian,” I said neutrally.
“Made my life a problem, you know. Shouldn't have done that,” he said with heat building in his voice.
“You were drunk. You assaulted me.” My heart rate was up and a tremor had entered my voice.
It wasn't that his punch was anything special, it was more that I didn't have the agility to dodge anything. I stumbled backward into the side of the concession, fear spiking harshly with the realization that he could kill me.
“Should have stayed out of it, old man,” he sneered and shoved me back against the wall; I fell to my knees.
“Bennett,” I said hoarsely, but I'm not sure how I planned to finish whatever my mouth had begun to say. That I didn't want him embarrassed? That the boy clearly wanted nothing to do with him?
“Bennett,” he said in a nasty tone and viciously kicked my side. I let out a groan and collapsed against the side of the building. “He's a fucking whiner. Goddamn weakling. Everything that comes outta her has some kind of fucking fatal damage.” He pointed at me. “I'm going to fix it all, though. Get back the jobs you cost me, getting my name in the police blotter. Beat the DUI – need my damn truck!” He lashed out with his foot again and I huddled in fear, my heart beating irregularly.
He stopped, then, and looked down on me, seemingly a bit dazed. I thought, oddly, that he looked like an automaton whose program has ended. He turned then, slowly walking away, and muttered curses under his breath. I stayed on the ground, fearing to get up and fearing more that I lacked the ability. The brake lights on his truck flared, the tires spun on the gravel parking lot, and he was gone.
I'm not sure how long it took me to finally get up the motivation to stand and get to my car. Even then, not only had I not 'made his life a problem' - for it already was before yesterday - I couldn't help but mentally correct him. I'd made a problem in his life, you could argue – if you were an idiot. Brian certainly was, so I suppose that explains that. I can tell you, I did expect some sort of human kindness when I got home; but then I'd made the mistake of thinking Alicia was human before.
“Why are you so late?” she asked, once her program had gone to commercial.
I gaped at her. “I got rolled in the parking lot. He beat the snot out of me,” I said, as if she couldn't see the blood on my shirt or what had dried on my face.
“Well, what do you want from me?” she'd demanded. “I've been sitting here waiting for you. You could have called, don't you think? Did you defend yourself, at least? Or just take it?”
I felt the explosion building - one where I might just try to choke her in her sleep. I was far too meek, but the desire rose up in my thoughts. It was slithering, bright and mean. Wrapped around my conscious mind and plotting, deciding the best way to off the broad even if I'd never go through with it.
I went to the liquor cabinet and poured a drink.
“Oh, sure. Get blotto. That will help,” she snorted.
“You're a nurse. Shouldn't you at least check me out?” I asked tremulously.
“You're walking and talking,” she said, snapping the TV off. “What do you tell those brats? Rub some dirt on it, right? You're fine. Christ.”
“How is it,” I asked, “that you can despise me so much? Even to the point that you have no feeling for me when I've been injured. How?”
I heard a low growl in her chest before she spoke. “Try being married to you, for starters,” she said. “Remember how you were going to put us on easy street? We were going to transfer to Los Angeles, New York or maybe London? I passed up being a private nurse because we weren't going to be here long, remember?”
I turned toward her. “I've told you for thirty years you should have taken the job! Even if we'd left, money is always useful!”
“Well it didn't happen, did it? Why start if you can't finish? Oh,” she said with a sneer, “My mother was right. She warned me in middle school never to marry for love, and I didn't! But the old bat had you nailed. She saw through those fancy ideas of making money and leaving this black hole of a town. You want to know why I hate your stinking guts, Stanley? It's because you are a loser, and I got stuck with you and all your failed promises. Christ, I even had to tell you it was your job to propose! Goddamn loser,” she said, trailing off to a mutter before heading for the bedroom.
I did drink, then. It was always a mistake, but I think I finally understood why people did it. Why that old jackass, Mr. Turchin had done it. If I had rat poison, I might consider a finger or two of that, as well, so long as I could make sure Alicia'd be stuck with nothing but bills. Let her move in with Maureen. I threw back another slug. Or her mother. Oh, Alicia and her mother, a match made in hell. I'd often thought she'd filled that extra bedroom with crap to ensure there was no space for her mother, should she need a place to go. Given how I loathed her mother, I was fine with that situation.
I sat on the couch with a glass half-full and the bottle on the side table. I put the TV on just for noise, but I ignored it in favor of foul-tasting oblivion.
In the morning I woke on the couch, head muzzy and feeling like the embodiment of the term 'seedy'. Alicia snored from the bedroom and I was glad for the mercy of not having to speak to her. Quietly I showered, dressed and left for work. The alternative to being hung-over at work was to be hung-over at home with her. I sat quietly at my desk, a hot cup of coffee beside me. For a short time I watched the steam rise from the top of the coffee, like an advertisement. As the steam tapered off, I drank. I popped a few aspirin, and had more coffee. I wanted to put something solid in my stomach, but I didn't dare eat any of the things in the shared kitchen. A bear claw or coffee roll would probably make me nauseous; the thought of fried eggs or something similar actually made my stomach turn.
I looked over a few reports and spreadsheets, answered a few emails and generally tried to appear busy as I nursed this hangover. Such a stupid thing to do, getting drunk. It hadn't solved anything. Brian had still assaulted me, Alicia was still my wife and my life was as much in the toilet as it ever had been.
“Stan? You got a package,” Juliette, the office assistant, said to me with a smile as she rolled a small wire cart into my office with an oblong box riding atop it.
“Oh? How interesting. Thank you, Juliette. That was kind of you to deliver it.”
“No problem. Jim in Receiving popped it on the cart; it would have been a struggle to carry it since it's kind of an awkward package,” she said with a smile. “Can I get you anything? You look tired today, Stan. Are you feeling all right?”
I smiled wanly. “A little tired, is all. Probably overdid having fun at the ballpark this weekend,” I said with a smile.
“Really? Because you look like someone slugged you, Stan,” she said, taking a step closer. Shit! I hadn't really looked at myself in the mirror.
“Well, there was a small altercation at the field this weekend.” I smiled reassuringly. “I tried to catch a foul ball, just like at the major league stadiums. You know, they never show people missing and getting popped in the face by a baseball, do they?” I asked with a rueful smile.
She looked at me uncertainly, but accepted my story and excused herself. I frowned lightly as I looked at the package. The return address was smudged, but it was an overnight delivery. I lifted the box to place it on my desk and was surprised at its heft. I estimated it weighed thirty pounds or so. My curiosity overcame my lethargy and I pried the carton open to slide out a decidedly odd looking package.
It was about thirty inches long, two inches tall and perhaps eight inches deep. It was covered in excitable advertising, slogans like 'Reality Altering!' and 'New! Retron Reactor! And 'Change the world – or the universe!' The image on the box reminded me of an old Commodore 64; a wedge-shaped keyboard, with all of its computing power beneath the keys. I wondered how anything approaching a reactor could fit into such a small space. In the upper left hand corner was a strange symbol, perhaps for the company that made this item. I slipped on my reading glasses, as the symbol was smaller than the excitable print advertisements, and took a closer look.
It was an Ouroboros: a snake, eating its own tail. It was an ancient symbol, something I remembered from my younger days. It was meant to imply infinity or wholeness. No actual company name on the box, however. Curious.
Even more curious, why was this sent to me? Slipping the glasses off and setting the box aside, I referred to the shipping box and the plastic sleeve on the front that contained the shipping label. It was puffed out slightly, indicating paper stuffed behind it. I peeled the sleeve open and removed an invoice. I unfolded it, and slipped my reading glasses into place. It looked like any other invoice, except where the sender's name and address should be was the symbol from the case – the Ouroboros. Beneath the symbol, in a very sober font it read 'Ouroboros Inc.' I looked down into the manifest and read the single line item for delivery: 1 (One) Retron Powered Inter Dynamic Key System. The price was smeared out.
I set it aside and wondered how it had come to be addressed to me. It was shipped overnight – I wondered if I had drunkenly ordered something from the television the night before? I didn't recall anything, but maybe that was the point. I looked down on the box with curiosity. I didn't remember the last time I'd ordered something for myself. I pulled the flap open on the left side and slid out a truly odd contraption.
It did strongly remind me of an old Commodore system, but the keyboard was very strange. I glanced at the keyboard attached to my work PC for the sake of comparison. This...Retron device had no set of function keys running along the top. It also lacked a tab key, shift keys and a caps lock. Instead of numbers along the top, with their accompanying symbols, there was a keypad on the side. Print Screen, Screen Lock and Pause were also absent, as well as Page Up and Down. In a vertical row on the right end, where the letters ended were the keys Insert, Delete, Home and End. No return or enter key; no control keys.
“Who designed such an awful keyboard?” I wondered aloud. Examining it from all sides I found no power cord, nor a place to plug one in. I examined the empty box, and likewise found no cord. How does it work, then? There wasn't even a cover for a battery compartment – the thing was sealed tight.
Placing it on my desk I pressed a red button on the upper left. It resembled something I might have seen in the seventies, circular red plastic with some kind of pattern on the inside. On top was a black circle. Once I pressed the button down, it began to glow and the circle was revealed to be an Ouroboros. How interesting. Did it, in fact, have a small reactor of some kind to power it? Or was it like a device that has a battery, running down until the item is useless?
Along the top of the keyboard a thin, clear panel rose with deliberate slowness, and then unfolded several times to create a screen roughly double the size of the keyboard. It was fascinating. This company had developed flexible screens! To the point that they could be folded for storage and unfolded for use! The idea was enough to let me push aside questions about where the machine had come from and focus on what it might be able to do.
The screen winked into life, showing the Ouroboros symbol which then spun at an ever-increasing speed until it flew apart, and I was left with a blinking cursor on a bare field. Huh. In the current age I had expected something far more graphically intensive. I wondered what this machine was for. It wasn't hooked in to anything with for communication. Glancing over the keyboard I saw no way to access settings of any kind. I looked the box over, but found no directions, nor was there a manual of any kind.
Maybe my hangover was making this harder than it needed to be. I sipped my coffee and then, struck by a silly whim, I typed on the strange machine.
I have no hangover.
The words floated on the screen, glowing serenely. I glanced down at the keyboard and thought, With no enter or return key, insert would seem the logical choice. I tapped the insert key and glanced at the screen. The words flashed for a moment, then were gone. I'm not sure what I expected, if anything, but I decided I would go get a bottle of water from the kitchen to help my head. When I stood it hit me that my hangover was gone. I frowned and touched my tender head to find it was no longer bothered by the alcohol from the night before.
A feeling as if my brain were being exposed to light...picture the planet Earth, and a line demarcating where night is transformed into day. It felt like that, a line moving front to back, and where it had passed my brain felt active and alive. Not only that...the slithering, bright, mean thoughts about Alicia reared up in my mind. What if? Could I...delete her? Or would that be, perhaps, where the 'End' key came into play? I was pulled from my dark thoughts by a sudden increase in chatter in the bullpen outside my office.
Hurriedly I powered the machine off, watching in fascination as the screen folded in on itself. I slid it back into its box and then replaced the unit in the shipping box. I didn't have any explanation for doing so, not on the surface. Underneath, though, I felt it important to hide, to keep it secret for now.
Glancing at the box, now tilted beside my briefcase, I wiped my hands on my trousers and stepped out of my office. Juliette, normally the dray horse of the office, had a hand over her mouth and tears standing in her eyes.
“Juliette?” I asked, feeling a bit dazed at the sight of her being upset. “What's wrong?”
She looked at me and wiped her eyes, but they refilled quickly. I moved to her side, bracing her by the shoulders and pulled a tissue from her desk for her.
“Thank you,” she said miserably. “I just can't believe it. I can't believe they're dead.”
Anyone who died in town would be known to most residents. A cold line ran up my spine as I wondered who had passed.
“Who died, Juliette?”
She looked at me. “Brian Downing shot his wife and kids. Amanda, Cait and Bennett are...are...dead!”
Her words knocked the wind from me and I stumbled as if struck.
“Stanley!” she said sharply, pulled from her grief ever so briefly as she tried to steady me.
“Where did you hear this from, Juliette?” I asked, my voice hoarse.
She shook her head slightly. “The news just broke, Stan. Jim in accounting was reading his phone and it popped up. It's awful, Stan. Just...awful.”
Owen. My God. Dear Cait and...Bennett. My heart skipped a beat, then a few more before suddenly lurching into motion as if it had held its breath for as long as it could. I mumbled something to Juliette about leaving for the day, then collected the things in my office as if on auto-pilot. As I passed through the corridors I could feel the news settling over the offices like a film, marring the ordinary work spaces with a creeping horror. I drove my old sedan to the supermarket, only to find Owen had left. Of course he had. He would be alone, besieged by funeral arrangements and well-wishers, and what was I to add to that? A long-dead romance and a dormant friendship that would suddenly become relevant on the darkest day of his life?
Fool. Worse, a useless fool. Though I didn't want to, lacking other places to be, I went home.
“What are you moping about?”
I looked at her dully. Perhaps she didn't know. “Amanda Turchin and her two youngest were murdered, Alicia. It's a tragedy.”
Her cheeks jiggled and her lips set oddly. “Well, the kids are better off, I guess. Better that than to be stuck in this dead-end town in a dead-end life.”
I stared at her for a moment and then turned, walking into my back room.
“What?” she demanded of me, but I didn't answer. I sat in the bedroom for just a few moments, marveling at the human being I'd become. What I had allowed. I heard Alicia's phone trumpeting out its obnoxious ringtone, and then the dull murmur of her speaking. She waddled into the bedroom a few minutes later.
“They're having food down at the church hall. Some kind of mourning, bring the community together kind-of-thing. I'm going to take a shower.” She paused and looked at me, opened her mouth as if to say something, then closed it. She turned and walked back out of the room and I heard the door to the bathroom close and the water turn on.
All she cared about was the food. Not poor Amanda, whose gift to the world, as best I could see, was her children. Two of the most gorgeous, nicest children you could ever hope to meet. The anger slithered across my conscious mind, and I growled. I stood and walked with purpose back through the house and out to my car. I pulled the Retron out of the trunk and retreated quickly to my alcove. I pulled it from the box. Lacking space in the tiny room I moved to my bed, sat down and turned it on. I watched as the screen unfolded, still feeling a sense of wonder – how did they do that?
The Ouroboros flashed on the screen, twirled in place until it exploded and I was left looking at the blinking cursor. I took a deep breath and let it out. My hands shook, forcing me to type slowly.
My wife is Alicia Marie Fielding.
I stared at the script for a moment. I looked down at the keyboard and heard her hateful voice in my mind. Those beautiful children, and she thought they were better off? I stabbed down, striking the 'End' key.
The first thing I noticed was the sound of the shower was gone. I stood and set the Retron aside on the bedspread and wiped a hand over the bridge of my nose which suddenly itched. I was on some sort of precipice, trying to decide if I should walk through the house and see if my wife were...gone? Deleted? Ended? Or had I gone mad and already fallen off the precipice? I must be mad to believe a magical keyboard had just removed her from not just the shower, but my life as well. Wiping my hands on my trousers, I slowly left our bedroom and stepped into the kitchen, which gave a clear view over the dining room table and the living room beyond.
Alicia preferred busy patterns. The wallpaper had always made me feel slightly nauseous as it had vines and flowers that almost seemed like they were moving. She did the same with the furniture, and frequently her clothing. Our kitchen had been a clutter of small appliances that had simply been replaced rather than cleaned. It was one reason my credit cards were always close to their limits.
This kitchen, however - my kitchen, I suppose - had none of that. It had subdued wallpaper with vertical stripes. The counter had a toaster and a coffee machine, but was otherwise bare. Over the sink was a draining device that I'd liked because it saved space – Alicia had hated it and never used it. Yet, now there it was - my space-saving dish rack stretched across the sink.
I walked in a daze to the bathroom, which had none of her personal products strewn across the counter. There was my electric toothbrush and a bar of soap in a holder; it was barren otherwise. Glancing toward the shower stall I had to do a double take. It was dry as a bone. My stomach became unsettled for a moment, but didn't quite rise up. I rubbed my hand over my mouth, trying to still the tremor in my lips.
She was gone. Perhaps she was Alicia Marie, yet her last name was no longer – maybe never had been – Fielding. An odd sensation rippled across my conscious mind, a feeling of...flaking away? Something old, perhaps no longer of use, peeling back and being shed as a snake does its skin. Alicia Marie? My mind wobbled for a moment as I wondered why that name sounded familiar. Then I had it. Alicia was that nurse down at the walk-in clinic. I had little experience with her; why had I thought of her? How strange the mind is, bringing up random thoughts and people. Exiting the bathroom I walked through the tiny, weird house. The spare room looked very much like a vacant spare bedroom. I wondered if I should get some artwork or perhaps paint it? The awkward section that sprouted off the living room like an architectural tumor held a piano. I hadn't played since I was a child, so why was there a piano?
Moments later the idea that the house had ever looked any other way was but vapors. Why was I thinking it had looked odd? Should I remodel it in some fashion? Seemed like a belly-button lint of an idea to me.
I approached the piano and sat on the bench, exposed the keys, and ever so gently played a small melody. It brought back memories of learning to play, of spending three afternoons a week with Mrs. Higgins, and how clever I thought she was to play the theme to the Pink Panther when I left. She knew I liked it. I even strutted a bit to the music.
I wondered, if Bennett would ever – and that brought me up short. My mind simply froze for a moment as the enormity of the thing hit me. What if getting rid of a hangover was just the tip of the iceberg? Could I roll back his death? All of their deaths? Dare I? How far, exactly, could this device go? Given that choice, and with the thought that this was a singular opportunity, should I only return them to the states they'd been in before? The lives they'd been living? If I were to do such a thing, wouldn't I be making choices for others, playing God? What did that make me? I was seized with a sudden despair, a feeling of my programming holding me in a predictable, horrible pattern. Living and dying alone was preferable to sharing space with Alicia, but if I could really remake things, shouldn't I? I could retire, now. I could be rich, even be a musician, perhaps.
That old saw, though...it rings true. Perhaps its why it has been used so many times. The heart wants what the heart wants, and if I was going to try and change everything – shouldn't that mean everything?
I dashed back to the bedroom, and was alarmed to smell something burning. I lifted the machine from the bed, then dropped it as the sides were extremely hot. Crap! It probably had a vent on the bottom and I was frying the damn thing! I grabbed pillows and lifted it by the sides and brought it to my alcove. Why the hell had I kept my computer here when I had an entire spare room to work with? Something to ponder later.
Then I had a horrible thought. If I turned the Retron off, what if it wouldn't come back on? The screen showed some static and my fear blossomed into something horrible, something that seized control of my higher brain functions. I sat and placed my hands on the keyboard, took one final deep breath, and began to type - but it was too late. The screen folded in on itself and I let out a small, pained cry.
I tilted the machine in its side and scanned the bottom. Sure enough, a vent ran along the entire length of the underside. Ephemeral wisps of smoke trailed from those vents. All I could do was pray it hadn't been fried. Perhaps if it cooled down I could try it later? I stared at the machine, only pulled from my wishing by the sound of my phone. Annoying thing. Reluctantly I pulled the dastardly device from my pocket. Juliette from the office. How odd.
“Stan? How are you holding up?”
I placed a hand on my forehead and glanced at the machine. “Well, I'm...not sure.”
“I understand. You probably knew Bennett from baseball, right? My nephew plays with him.”
Guilt slammed into me. I'd become so focused on hoping the machine would resurrect Bennett, Cait and Amanda that I'd forgotten they were dead. That they may stay that way. Darkness threatened to swallow me whole.
“He...was a delightful boy,” I said quietly. “Owen, his grandfather, must be beside himself.”
“I wanted to tell you that there is a vigil tonight at the community center. People will be allowed to speak about them. Maybe...you shouldn't be alone right now.”
I cleared my throat. “I only knew him from baseball. It's tragic, undeniably a...waste. But I think I'll stay in tonight.”
“Stanley...you're one of the most dependable people I know. Everyone could see how much this hurt you, today. I don't remember you leaving work for anything before. Please...humor me?”
I reached a tentative hand to touch the Retron, which was still quite warm. “Well, I suppose it couldn't hurt.”
I leaned against my car outside the community center, frowning into the evening. My mind swirled with recrimination, wondering if my chance to have righted a horrible wrong had passed – and more, wondering how many wrongs I could have righted. What if things had gone slightly differently, just a few things broken the right way? Would Owen and I have made it work? Could I have had a real relationship with Cait, Bennett and whatever the oldest boy's name was? In a very real sense I felt like I'd been robbed a second time.
“I thought that was you, Lee.”
I turned, knowing I'd see Owen – the only person to ever call me 'Lee'.
“Good God, Owen. I didn't expect you to be here. How...” I shook my head, dropping the stupid idea of asking how he was. “I'm sorry. As horrible as I feel, I can't imagine how you are managing.”
He shuffled a bit and leaned beside me on the car. “I'm not sure, to tell you the truth. In some ways it doesn't feel real. I...they have her apartment sealed off. I've called all of their cell phones, just to hear their voices. I've left stupid messages,” he said and stopped, wiping his eyes with his fingers.
I felt pain rolling from him and didn't know what to say. Instead, perhaps instinctually, I fumbled a hand out and covered his. His hand twitched, or maybe jerked back slightly, but then curled around my own. He let out a shuddering breath.
“I don't think I can go in there,” he said quietly.
“I think I understand,” I told him.
We stood like that for some time, two old men holding hands in the darkening night. The inside of the community center was filled with light, glowing cheerfully and the murmur of a crowd could be heard leaking out from the door propped open to allow smokers an exit. Yet we stood apart from the crowd and the noise, watching others who came together to comfort one another. Perhaps friends of Amanda, or families whose kids even now were feeling the hurt of losing their friends.
“When Vickie died,” Owen said softly, referencing his deceased wife, “I felt so strange. She was a good person, and I felt guilt at never feeling as if I could give myself completely to being her husband, and relief at being free from the role of a straight man. Then I felt shame for that relief. Grief for my children, left without a mother who had truly loved them. You don't really understand pain until you see it reflected in people you love.”
I squeezed his hand slightly in response, not knowing what to say.
“The only other time I'd seen it was with you,” he said softly. “After our parents....”
“Killed our dreams,” I finished glumly.
“I couldn't look at you, then. You reminded me of all we'd hoped for. Broken dreams, then, and it was real. The loss. The love we had. I even thought to...rekindle it, after Vickie but...I had the kids to think of. Trying to resurrect our relationship over the ashes of my wife's passing, and me with kids to raise...it seemed too much. Insurmountable.”
After a moment of silence I said, “I wish that we had tried, then. I don't know if I could have been a good parent, but I'd have liked to have tried.”
He nodded slowly. “One more regret.”
I cleared my throat. “Bennett was a fine boy,” I said.
Owen smiled slightly. “He was mischievous. Daring. Annoying, if you asked his sister.” He glanced at me. “He said you and I were similar, buying him cheeseburgers and things at the ball field. He liked you.”
“Well,” I said slowly. “I could say I was just filling in when you weren't there, but I liked him, too.”
“You'd have liked Cait as well,” he said with a gentle smile touching his lips. “She was excited about life. About what came next. The fire of life burned strong in her,” he said softly. His hand squeezed lightly and then let go. “I'm going to go home. It was...good to see you, Lee.”
“And you,” I said quietly.
I stayed at home the next day, calling in to work. I hadn't slept much the night before, but I ended up dozing through part of the day. In my wakeful moments I thought of Cait, Bennett and Amanda. I thought about Owen and what he'd confessed. I thought and I thought, and then I spent a fair bit of time staring at the Retron. If it worked....
It was still warm to the touch, but not overly so. I had let it sit until nearly five in the evening, but I couldn't force myself to wait any longer. I'd been waiting most of my life. I pushed my keyboard aside and placed the Retron on my desk and depressed the red button to start it. There was a pregnant pause before I heard a small pop and a fan turned on somewhere inside it. I heard it as it – hopefully - booted up and made unusual, clunking noises. The screen slid up, jerking a bit, but still unfolding and displaying the Ouroboros logo, spinning until it exploded.
The smell of ozone touched my nose.
The cursor blinked on the screen.
I live at home with my husband, Owen Turchin whom I married after he and Victoria amicably divorced.
I noticed a flame merrily dancing on the bottom of the screen and it took me a moment to realize it wasn't an effect on the screen, but rather that the damn thing was on fire. I hit 'Insert' repeatedly, but nothing happened. Horror filled me. I'd had this golden opportunity for everything I'd ever wanted. The cruelest fate is to show a person everything they want, and then to take it away!
“No, no!” I yelled, hitting the 'Insert' key. I looked down, to ensure I was pressing it when I froze. Could it be that simple? Quickly I stabbed the 'Home' button. The screen flashed, static burst across, the Ouroboros symbol appeared, spinning madly and then the screen went dark and the only light was the flames dancing from its back side.
“Shit!” I screamed. I ran out with the flaming Retron, dumping it into the steel sink. I grabbed the fire extinguisher kept under the sink and sprayed the back, just enough to get it to stop. Perhaps I could still salvage it, if only to ensure the reality I had entered became mine. In my heart, though, I knew the device was done for.
“Damn it to hell,” I muttered.
“I told you not to buy that cheap thing, Lee”
I turned slowly to look out toward the living room. Gone were the plain bachelor furnishings of a mere fifteen minutes ago. Instead there was now a comfortable-looking set of leather furniture, and Owen sat in a chair with a book in his lap.
“What?” I asked, struggling to understand. I felt odd, a peeling sensation as if reality were being removed to reveal a new one. My mind was losing little things, but beneath them new, better things were revealed. Days, months, years flooded me to the point of being overwhelmed with my life with Owen. The joys, the fights, the love and the devotion that had stood the test of time.
“What's that smell?” Cait asked, coming in through the side door. She was dressed in a retail uniform of khaki pants and a polo-style top. Her hair was pulled back and she had a small plastic bag in her hand. At seeing her, my mind felt as if it had split and the part that insisted she was dead withered, charred and was gone.
“Your grandpa,” Owen said drolly. “He ordered that cheap thing from TV and it caught fire.”
“Jesus, Gramp,” Cait said, frowning and looking into the sink. “Are you okay?” She looked up at me with that fresh-faced, open expression. I put a hand out slowly and touched the side of her face, and her expression became concerned. “Grandpa?”
I pulled her to me, slowly embracing her. She put her arms around me and I felt a moment of pure grace. Memories of her birth, of her mother's struggle to raise her children and how she had finally left it to her father and I. The joy of holding this vibrant young woman, so filled with the fire of life, was an epiphany of why people chose to have children. Her hair smelled of coffee and I told her so.
“I know,” she said, smiling as she broke the embrace. “I need a shower. But look!” She showed me the bag in her hand and withdrew a package of coffee. “It's a new Guatemalan blend. I can't wait to try it!”
“Coffee freak,” Owen said affectionately.
“I'm going to go get changed,” Cait said and smiled beautifully at me as she did. Owen placed a bookmark and stood from his chair. He set the book down on the coffee table and crossed the space between us.
“Honey, are you all right? Did you get burned?”
I stared at him. His face looked the same as it had in that dim light of the parking lot the night before (What parking lot? What night?), but so different. The lines were from laughing, the eyes filled with amused affection. My mind felt (again) as if it were peeling back a veneer to show the truth underneath, revealing loving days and passionate nights that we'd shared for years. The companionship and devoted partnership we'd found together, not as teens, but as young men. Once he and Vickie had parted ways, I helped him raise the kids, when we had them. We had a good relationship with Vickie and her new husband – new husband! Husband of twenty-some years, now! For all his wrinkles, his bi-focals and slow gait, Owen was still gorgeous to me.
“Burned? Uh, no. No. I just...it startled me, I guess.”
He frowned and looked into the sink. “Bennett will be disappointed. He was hoping to play with the dumb thing.”
“What smells like ass?”
Owen and I looked at each other and then across the two rooms to Bennett, headset on his head for video gaming, I think. He was dressed for staying in, with a tee shirt and flannel pajama bottoms.
“Probably you,” Owen said sarcastically. Bennett made a faux laughing face and walked toward us. He spotted the device in the sink and groaned.
“It...caught fire.” I paused as he looked at it, and I stared at him. “Bennett?”
He stiffened slightly and looked at me warily. “Yeah, Gramp?”
I felt puzzled. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
His expression shifted to confusion. “You called me by my full name. I haven't done anything, though.”
The grace I'd felt holding Cait thrummed through my veins and I pulled Bennett to me, holding him as the parent I'd always longed to be to him. I was surprised, but perhaps shouldn't have been, that he returned the hug with equal intensity. I turned a bit from side to side, feeling him in my grip and I could sense the wide smile on his face.
“Ben,” Owen said wryly. “Did you find your belt?”
Bennett stiffened slightly, and without releasing me, turned toward Owen. “Not yet.” His tone shifted up at the end, as if asking a question.
“And have you cleaned your room, or are you – ahem – playing another game?”
I held Bennett at arms' length. “Your uniform belt? For baseball?”
His eyes grew a bit wider. “Yeah. I think I need a new one, actually.”
“The one you have is fine, but you need to clean that room,” Owen said sternly.
“Go on,” I said to him gently. “Maybe we can have cheeseburgers at the field after the game.”
His eyes lit up and his smile blossomed into the most gorgeous thing you've ever seen. “One belt, coming up!” he said happily and jogged back to the door that, I presumed, went to his room. The room hadn't existed before. (Before what?)
“You're feeling generous,” Owen said, leaning on the counter beside me.
I looked at Owen, disbelief in my eyes, but my heart was swelling. The old, the bad, the disappointing life flamed into nothingness and only the now remained. “He's a good boy, isn't he?”
Owen smiled slyly. “Those kids have had you wrapped around their fingers since you first saw them. He'll never learn to keep track of his things if you bribe him, though.” He sighed and lifted an eyebrow. “I guess it's all belly-button lint, in the end.”
I reached out tentatively and took his hand. He laughed lightly and leaned in, kissing me briefly. I kissed the husband of my dreams, made dinner with and slept beside him that night. In the morning I had Guatemalan blend coffee with my sweet granddaughter and took my good grandson to his baseball game.
I don't know how that machine got into my life, and I don't care that it seemed to simply disappear. The more I think of it, the less I can seem to recall it. I didn't need it for any of the things one might have used it for – wealth, fame or travel. Love is more pure, more desirable and I'm going to soak it in for the rest of my days.
You don't have to read this part – I promise you won't miss out on much if you do. You can happily go on to your next activity, because what I say here won't change your life.
Some people, though, are interested in how some stories come to be – and that's what I plan to tell you here.
Longtime readers may know that I used to be quite a Stephen King fan – I definitely like his tweets. But when he wrote his magnum opus, The Dark Tower series, he lost me in the final pages of the final book as a fan. I didn't read him again for years, especially his new things. It was a private war I was destined to lose, but I hung on tenaciously as he'd killed my favorite character. While the Dark Tower series was truly epic, besides that bit, it's not my favorite of his works. You might think it could be one of the very famous ones like 'Salem's Lot, or It. Both great reads, to be sure. I was always enamored with his short fiction, and one in particular.
In the book Skeleton Crew, King puts forth a story with a horrible title, called the Word Processor of the Gods. To me it's the ultimate story of wish fulfillment. Imagine being able to type into a computer and whatever you write, becomes reality? What would you change? Would you be younger, thinner, richer, wiser? Would you have the relationship you'd always wanted with the one that got away? The ideas are endless. Of course, once you start thinking about it, practicalities get in the way. For instance, would that person you loved once be the same person had you stayed together? Would the well behaved, good children you envy other parents for be the same with you as their parent?
Ever since I re-read that short story recently, I've been turning that over in my head. I've always wanted to try my hand at it, and in some ways I did with You Don't Know Me. This time, there was more direct control rather than chance, random encounter. We still have some mystery, and hey – maybe it's not the last we'll hear of Ouroboros, Inc.
Lastly I will say Cait and Bennett are based on real siblings, and Bennett actually acted the way he's described in the ball field, and was just as fun to watch as you might think.
feedback appreciated, please send to dabeagle at dabeagle.com