Concept: The Castle on the Hill

The first time her husband, Alfred, punched her, Anna Modena stayed on the floor for a while, not because he followed up the punch with a swift kick to her rib cage but because she couldn’t believe what had happened. She’d been punched and kicked before. Her father had done it plenty when she was growing up, but she had never expected her father’s ghost to come alive in the man she had married. She had escaped one horror to land in an atrocity. She couldn’t win.

After her wedding night, she learned to adjust like she had adjusted with her mercurial father. She was just 17 years old then, but she felt much older when it came to rules of the world around her. She knew that she couldn’t talk back to a man, that she should do what she was told the first time, and that she should always be on guard for a punch. These rules helped her stay on her feet and kept her alive, but it was her imagination that kept her sane.

She didn’t care much for anything except for her daughters. Those four girls provided the only welcoming light in the dim, double-wide trailer they rented at the end of Victoria Lane in Norwich, Alabama, a small town wedged against the northern edge of Interstate 20 just west of the state line between Alabama and Georgia. Megan was the oldest at 13 and reminded her of herself when she was young except that she had stayed in school and planned to go to college to be a doctor. Brittany, a child whose conception still brought Anna nightmares, was 12, just ten months younger than her older sister. Christina and Emma likewise were close in age only separated by 18 months at 10 and 8, but Emma’s difficult birth had put an end to Anna’s child-bearing days at the ripe old age of 23. She didn’t know what else she was good for and neither did Alfred.

The afternoon sun pushed through the heavy curtains in her living room exposing the dusty air that surrounded her as she sat in the old chair that formed one end of the semi-circle in front of the TV. The vinyl-covered cushion sighed under her weight as she shifted to get more comfortable. A man and woman argued on the talk show that played quietly before her, but she mostly ignored it. The girls would be home soon. That brief interlude between the girls arriving home from school and her departure for her job was her favorite part of the day. With Alfred at his day job, she’d have the girls to herself as she did every day during the school year.

A large vehicle grunted outside, but it didn’t slow down in front of her driveway, so she knew the bus had yet to arrive. Disappointment washed over her. If the bus was early, she’d have more time with her girls before she left. Instead, she feared it’d be late, and her precious time with them would be rushed. Finally, the roar of an exasperated engine surged and stopped near her mailbox. The exhale of the brakes gave Anna hope that she’d soon see her children. The bus roared to life again and ambled away from the stop, and as the noise of the vehicle faded into the distance, she could hear the animated cackles of young kids talking and laughing as they walked down the main street through the neighborhood.

Tiny, muffled voices arrived at her door, and Anna tensed as if she were waiting for intruders. She still felt overwhelmed with joy when her daughters returned home even though it happened like this every day. She missed them. She hated not being able to spend the evenings with them like the other mothers did, but her job put food on the table. She waited.

The door knob glinted in the dull light as the door swung open and Christina poked her head around its metal edge. The sunlight from outside enshrouded her like an angel descending from heaven. “Mama?”

“Chrissy! How was school?”

A smile wrapped around Christina’s face when she finally saw her mother sitting in the living room. “Okay,” she replied in the universal response she gave to every inquiry about her school day.

“Mama!” Emma shrieked as she trailed her sister through the door.

Both girls ran to Anna and wrapped their arms around her. She kissed the tops of their heads and hugged them close.

“Do you want a snack?” she asked. They shook their heads eagerly. Anna stood up slowly. The bruise on her left hip screamed at her and made her catch her weight on her right side. She almost tumbled over, but she steadied herself on right leg shuffling toward the tiny kitchen with her youngest daughters in tow.

She peered out the front window as she walked to the kitchen. The next bus would arrive soon she thought as she grabbed packets of crackers from the mostly-empty pantry and sat them before her eager daughters. As she poured them some milk, she heard a bus rumble to a stop outside her house again. Its air brakes hissed in a momentary pause before it rolled on down the street. Anna tensed and took a deep breath.

It took longer than usual for Brittany to open the door. She stepped through it quickly shutting out the flash of outside light before Anna’s eyes had a chance to adjust. Brittany had a grim look on her face as if her backpack contained some unbearable weight. She said nothing to anyone as she made a beeline for the bedroom she had once shared with her older sister. Her youngest daughters stayed quiet, but Anna could feel their eyes on her.

“Finish your milk,” she said finally. “And clean up your mess.”

The crinkling of the plastic wrappers seemed louder than it should have been as the girls busied themselves with cleaning up. Anna sighed and returned to the chair in the living room relaxing for one last moment before she had to leave for work. The girls joined her and sat on the floor before the TV.

“Why don’t you turn it to a cartoon?” Anna suggested. Christina gladly obliged and the girls sunk, zombie-like, into the odd world of a cartoon that Anna didn’t recognize. Anna smiled at her girls basking in the glow of the TV. Emma peeked over at her at one point but quickly returned her attention to the cartoon.

Anna wished she could sit there with them until it came time to put them to bed, a luxury she only experienced when one of them was sick, but work would beckon soon, and she’d trudge off down the street to catch the bus into town while Brittany put herself and her sisters to bed before Alfred came home. The monotony of her life weighed on her, threatened to pull her under. She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment and it all disappeared, not her daughters, but everything else. This other life, the one she wanted, existed out there. It kept her sane for she would otherwise crumble to the earth amid the sea of insults and bruises and despair.

A heavy knock rattled the thin door on the trailer. Anna opened her eyes to see the dust swirling in the light that broke through the curtains near the door. Christina and Emma looked back at her as if they had never heard an unwanted knock at the door, their expressions startled and uncertain. Anna winced at the pain in her throbbing hip. She stood up and stutter-stepped before she steadied herself and walked to the door.

When she opened the door, a short, stocky man dressed in all black stood before her. He wore a baseball cap with an unrecognizable logo on it and reflective sunglasses that captured the startled and puzzled expression that Anna felt at that moment.

“Good afternoon, ma’am. Is Mr. Modena home?”

“No, he’s at work. I’m his wife. Can I help you?”

The man tightened his lips across his face as if he were upset that Alfred was not home.

“Please give this to Mr. Modena. It’s very urgent.”

“What is it?” Anna tentatively took the paper from his hand. She looked at it as she waited for him to explain it. The tiny words crammed onto the pages befuddled her.

“It’s an eviction notice. You’re six months behind on your rent. The landlord has filed a motion to evict you.”

The rest of his words failed to reach her. She stood there watching him speak, his stern jaw flexing each time he mouthed a word. She felt like she was watching a muted TV. He finally pivoted away from her and returned to the SUV he had parked on the street. She wavered in place for a moment before she stepped back into the comforting darkness of her living room. She shut the door behind her. The girls, enthralled by the cartoon, ignored their mother. Anna took a deep breath and walked into the kitchen where she deposited the notice in the trash. It was time to leave for work.

 

Concept: The Other Side

The flat screen TV hung in the waiting room in Dr. Travis Martin’s office, perfectly centered on the beige-colored wall. The Today show filled the screen brightening the matching, drab chairs that formed one end of a rectangle around the TV with the ambient light that flashed from the screen. A glass table sat in the center of the collection of chairs in the waiting room covered with a fan of magazines that had been carefully organized the day before after the office had closed. Janice, the meticulous owner of the reception and waiting area, sat patiently behind the counter pecking away at the computer before her. She glanced askew at the muted TV and sighed. Another long day awaited her.

At 7:10 AM the first patient of the day arrived. Charlie Peck, a dapper young professional who commuted into the city every day, bounded through the door like a man on a mission. He was late, as usual, but he commanded her attention like she had been the one who had disrespected his time. He didn’t apologize for being late, and Janice liked him less because of it. She judged the doctor’s patients not only by the condition of their teeth, this was a dentist’s office after all, but also by how well they kept to their appointments. She’d heard all manner of excuses in her two decades of working for Dr. Martin, and she’d learned who deserved her leniency and who did not. Charlie did not.

“Dr. Martin will be with you shortly,” she said as Charlie stood before her at the counter after he had checked in. “Please have a seat.”

She kept a professional demeanor, but she quietly seethed. She hesitated for a moment before telling Dr. Martin that his first appointment had arrived. His next appointment slot remained open, so the doctor had time to make Charlie wait. She glanced at Mr. Peck as he fidgeted in the waiting room obviously annoyed at having to wait. He likely had to get downtown soon, but he was always late and constantly rescheduling and moving his appointments like only his time mattered. Time was money for Dr. Martin, and by extension, it was for her too.

The hygienist, Richard, walked up to the reception area and peered into the waiting room. “Is Charlie checked in?” He pursed his lips and widened his eyes behind his wire-frame glasses. Richard was a burly man who almost busted through his tight-fitting lab coat. He looked like a linebacker who squeezed into a suit after a game.

“Yes,” Janice replied. The hygienist looked at her a moment and then to Charlie behind her.

“Mr. Peck, do you want to come on back?”

“Yes.” Charlie shot up from his chair and darted toward the door as Richard opened it. As he walked by Janice, Charlie gave her a wan smile, which she returned in the affectless way she did when she was annoyed.

She peered out into the empty waiting room for a brief moment before she returned to the computer in front of her. A game of solitaire awaited. Had she been paying attention to the parking lot, she would have noticed the black car pull into one of the spaces in front of the office.

Charlie Peck lay back in the dentist chair fully reclined as the amiable hygienist chatted away as he checked each bright white tooth in his patient’s mouth. He poked and prodded with the sharp metal tool and made small talk with his muffled patient. Charlie managed only a word or two as the hygienist switched tools or applied suction to the pooling water in his mouth. The one-sided conversation carried through the office just like any other early-morning start to the day.

Dr. Martin listened to chatter and footsteps through his office from a nook behind a wall at the top of the hall leading to his exam rooms as he reviewed his appointment schedule on a laptop. A dim light cast a shadow over his back, but he could see just fine. He had refrained from turning on the overhead fluorescent lights because he disliked the artificial blast of cold light and how it made his skin look. Florescent lights only made bright white teeth look better. Everything else looked sickly or dead. A vision of a cold, dead hand flashed before his eyes, but he shook it off.

His hygienist, Richard, continued his one-sided conversation with Charlie. Richard’s voice boomed and carried throughout the entire office. Sometimes, his laugh startled Dr. Martin as it rattled off the walls. His loquacious and amiable assistant softened his patients up before he waltzed into the room and had a more serious discussion with them about cavities and gum disease. He focused on the problems his patients faced, while Richard talked about his grandkids and his beloved Duke Blue Devils.

Richard laughed heartily disturbing the relative calm in Dr. Martin’s nook. The doctor shook it off as he heard the ding of his front door opening, but he ignored it because he knew Janice would take care of it. His next patient wasn’t due until 8:30. Tuesdays were always slow. He returned to his laptop briefly before Richard interrupted him.

“Hey Boss, you ready to take a look?” Richard asked.

Dr. Martin looked up and gave a restrained smile. “How’s he look?”

“Good. Nothing’s changed since his last visit. More plaque build-up though and some gum recession. Otherwise, looks good.”

“Okay. Let’s have a look.” Dr. Martin stood up and pulled a pair of latex gloves from box near his laptop and followed the bulky hygienist to the patient room down the hall.

“Good morning, Mr. Peck,” Dr. Martin said as he grabbed a rolling stool and had a seat next to his patient.

“Good morning.”

“Anything new with you?”

“Nothing–”

“Dr. Martin,” Janice said as she walked through the door. “There are two men here to see you.” She looked pale and frightened, but Dr. Martin felt more annoyed than concerned.

“Okay. What do they want?”

“They said it’s important.”

“Are they patients?”

“No. They need to talk to you.”

“Find out what they want, and tell them I’ll be done in about ten minutes.”

“They can’t wait.” Janice looked positively frightened.

Dr. Martin paused for a moment. This was his office and no one dictated what he did, but Janice’s persistence concerned him. Nevertheless, he replied, “Tell them to wait.”

“I don’t think we can do that, Dr. Martin,” said a deep voice that belonged to a man who appeared at the door to the exam room. The man, tall and sturdy with a crew cut, had a stern look on his face. Dr. Martin could see another similarly-sized man behind him. Neither had a friendly smile of any sort to suggest that their business was pleasant.

“I told you that you cannot come back here…” Janice protested.

Dr. Martin sized up his visitors and waved Janice off. “It’s okay, Janice,” he said to her as he turned toward the men. “How can I help you?” His felt his own voice tremble as if the solid foundation he stood on had begun to teeter.

“I’m Detective Lance Burgess with the Stamford Police Department, and this is Detective Reginald Featherstone. We’re going to need you to come with us,” the first man said as he flashed his badge. Both men nodded.

“Now?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so.”

Charlie had sat up and wheeled around toward the two men. Janice shrunk into the corner as the blood drained from her face, and Richard stood behind the detectives with a grim look on his face.

“I’m in the middle of an appointment here. Can’t this wait?”

“No, you can either come with us willingly or we can arrest you right here.”

“What is he being arrested for?” Janice wailed.

“Ma’am, this doesn’t concern you,” Detective Featherstone said.

“What about my checkup?” Charlie asked out loud. He seemed dumbfounded and at a loss for words.

Dr. Martin looked at him and then said, “Richard, can you finish up with Charlie?”

“Yes, Boss,” he replied from the hallway.

The detectives looked tense. The stern looks on their faces remained chiseled in place as Dr. Martin stood up. He motioned for them to leave the room as he stood behind them, but they merely moved aside of the door way and kept their eyes on him. Janice looked at him in horror, but he ignored her. He nodded his thanks to Richard, but his affable hygienist looked just as frightened as his receptionist.

In the hallway, the detectives flanked him on either side while Detective Burgess spoke to him in a low, serious voice. He didn’t really listen to what the Detective was saying about his rights. Silence sounded good at that moment. A lawyer couldn’t help him right now. He followed them out into the parking lot and the second detective opened the rear door to their car for him. He sat down in the backseat and buried his head in his hands. He didn’t look up for fear that he’d see Janice standing at the door gaping out at him or his next patient walking into an office that he’d likely never see again. His hands trembled, but his resolve remained firm. He’d say nothing.

Concept: A Thin Line

Ed Warner stood, precariously, on the building’s edge looking down at the tiny cars below. He could barely make out the small dark dots of the pedestrians’ heads, but he knew they were there. No one could see him, at least from where he stood. No one ever saw him. He gasped a breath sucking in a sob that desperately wanted to escape his throat. A warm breeze buffeted him making him teeter ever so slightly. The weight on his shoulders threatened to topple him over the ledge and send him onto the cold concrete far below. He pushed himself against the wall cupping his palms against the rough, rock facade. Deep breath.

He fixed his eyes straight ahead at the horizon trying to gather his thoughts, which flew through his mind like a flock of nervous birds. No coherent thought could land. His wife fluttered before his eyes, her own eyes damp and pleading. His two daughters wept at her feet shrieking like crows feasting on a carcass. He shook these thoughts from his frittered mind focusing instead on the deep blue sky that hung overhead. The gentle sun warmed his face. He tried to smile one last time to enjoy the sunshine, but his face froze in fear.

His mind ricocheted back to the moment he knew this would happen, that he would meet the same fate as his mother. That day, likewise deceptively warm and sunny, began with a trip to the beach with his wife and young daughters. While his wife frolicked with the girls near the edge of the foamy waves of the Pacific Ocean, he sat further back on a plush beach towel already littered with sand and frowned. A melancholy mood beset him. The beach had done nothing to cure that.

His wife had promised that a day off from work spent at the beach would cure all that ailed him, but it didn’t. Instead, it brought into sharp relief the anguish and despair that riddled his heart and mind. He’d never feel normal again, or he never had felt so to begin with. He couldn’t escape the clouds even on a bright, sunny day.

As his daughters, slick with seawater and dotted with bits of sand, giggled and ran from the encroaching waves while his wife snapped photos on her phone, Ed knew then that he couldn’t do this to those he loved, that he couldn’t contaminate their lives with his presence. He knew first hand what it felt like to grow up with a parent embroiled in the quicksand of depression. His mother had died a slow death before his eyes from his earliest memories. He had never known her to be happy, and hence, he had never been happy either as if her woes were his cross to bear.

A high-pitched squeal caught his attention. His wife swung one of his daughters around and around, both of their arms extended as his wife pivoted in a tight circle. The sun caught his daughter’s face at just the right angle when she spun furthest from him and she glowed like a little angel sent down from heaven to save him. He felt like smiling as she shrieked and started to loll her head in dizziness, but all he could do was tighten his lips across his teeth. His other daughter bounced up and down near them pleading for her turn. His wife’s laughs filled the mostly empty beach, and despite the glee of his young children, Ed felt empty, too.

His heel scraped against the grainy ledge shocking him back to the present as he thrust himself against the wall behind him to retain his balance. The ground wavered below him, and for a moment, he thought he wouldn’t recover. His heart rate spiked and ragged breaths escaped him before he levered back onto the ledge. The warm breeze had stopped leaving nothing but the faint sounds from the streets below to assure him that he was still alive. He tucked his chin to look at the world beneath him.

The shorter building across from him cast a shadow onto the street below. The sun had settled well past mid-day, but the buildings, crammed together like mottled, irregular teeth kept the streets in the shadows except for a small window of time each day. He’d fall into that darkness, a fate befitting of someone who had always battled it. A gloomy wave washed over him. Gravity beseeched him. He wavered on the ledge drunk from his own misery.

An image of his mother appeared before him. She said nothing, but she looked at him with that dismal, meager frown she had always worn. He could not conjure up an image of her smiling because he could not be sure she had ever done so. What kind of life is one in which a person never smiles? Why prolong such misery?

He’d been the one that found her, stiff and pale in the deep, bone-white bathtub tucked against the wall of her bathroom. The blinds had been turned down casting the weak overcast light from the window onto her such that she looked like an apparition. Her eyes were shut like she was sleeping, but her lips, the eminent purveyors of her truth, were frozen in that ever-present grimace.

He could only see her head, slightly turned toward the entrance, and the tops of her bare shoulders when he finally opened the door to the bathroom. He called out to her quietly, but she didn’t move. She refused to acknowledge his presence, which wasn’t far from the ordinary in the last few weeks of her life. She’d grown more withdrawn with each passing day often hiding in her dark bedroom for hours at a time. As a young teenager, he should have been happy to be removed from his mother’s spotlight of attention, but Ed longed to engage her and rid himself of the foreboding feelings that overwhelmed him at times.

When she didn’t respond to his words, he crept closer to the tub, each step confirming his worst fears. The long, rectangular room felt like a stretched hallway whose walls were closing in on him. His heart raced and his breathing became erratic. Before he touched her cold body, he wanted to cry out, but he didn’t want to accept the harsh reality before him. He almost crumpled onto himself when he finally stood over her.

She lay in her white underwear, which matched the phosphorus glow of the tub, with streaked crimson stains on either side of her. Her wrists were upturned on each side with dark, gelatinous slits across them, exclamation points on a life not lived. His whole body shivered like a cold, winter breeze wafted through the closed window on the other side of him. His hands trembled as he reached out to touch her. He pulled his hand back, and then, he forced himself to shake her slightly. He whispered to her as if saying her name would thrust him from the nightmare.

When she didn’t open her eyes in that lazy way she had adopted after years of medication, when she didn’t whisper his name in that raspy voice that had replaced the motherly timbre of his childhood, and when she didn’t sigh in exasperation as she had for much of his life, he knew she was gone, that death had finally relieved her of her burden. What burden he did not know. Him maybe?

Another stiff breeze scattered the image of his mother across the sky before him as Ed recoiled to the present. His heart sank further. After all these years, he finally understood his mother. Life, like a hungry lion in pursuit of an exhausted prey, eventually overwhelmed it’s target, a slow death of a thousand cuts. His mother simply preempted the inevitable rather than suffer the indignity of living. For years he had resented her, hated her even, but now, he had some semblance of empathy with her.

A tremor wracked his body. His cupped hands pulled away from the wall at his back, and he could feel the earth pulling him into her bosom. He hesitated, stalled. The voices in his head waged a war of reason and emotion and hope and despair. The battle had been fought time and time again with nothing more than a stalemate until this very moment. He wanted it to end in the worst way. He wanted peace, final peace, just like his mother had found so many years ago.

A tear escaped his eye and trickled down his cheek. As if some internal dam had broken, more tears followed. A bleating sob forced its way out, and the tremors began to overwhelm him. He had lost control of his own body much like he had his life. The affront became unbearable. He bent his knees slightly and then propelled himself over the edge.

The shock of being suspended in the space above the street shocked him. His instincts kicked in and he grasped for something to save himself, but he only squished air between his fingers. He kicked his legs for purchase and swung his arms as if he could somehow fly like a bird. The windows on the building next to him smeared into some blurry canvas devoid of any vivid color. He couldn’t breathe as he watched the the tiny cars grow bigger and the dark dots turn into the upturned heads of pedestrians. He wanted to scream, but nothing came out. He fell faster and faster until his mind mercifully faded to black.

Concept: The Puritans

WARNING: The following post contains sexual situations and references to drug use. If you find such things offensive, then it’s best to skip this post. Otherwise, thank you for reading.

CONCEPT: A British couple relocates to suburbia in the deep South in the U.S. where the clash of cultures leads to an identity crisis within the community exposing long-running rifts and a vein of deep-seated hypocrisy that threaten to tear the small community apart.  

Stephen Cummings peeked through the blinds of his front window onto his unsavory brown lawn. The bright sunlight forced him into a squint as he peered out beyond his mailbox to the houses across the street in his uninspiring cul-de-sac. He hated the sameness of his neighborhood. He hated how all the houses were only slight modifications of the same insipid design. Brick facades featured only slight color variations in the largely red-brick community. Tepid colors adorned the bowed siding that wrapped around each of the mass-produced homes. The brown lawn, a byproduct of the winter season, made it all uglier, disgusting even. He sighed. He still did not like his new neighborhood. He missed the charm of his former neighborhood in New England.

Even the mailboxes were the same, completely devoid of character. Faux iron poles with cheap aluminum boxes painted a shiny black stood like ornate chess pieces at the foot of every driveway. His neighbor across the street took a particular liking to his mailbox, often cleaning and shining it like some participation trophy he’d been given for moving to the neighborhood. Stephen shot a look across the street. The Willards’ blinds were all open as if Tom Willard were inviting everyone to see into his perfect home. On such a bright day, he could see through the front windows and out the back of their house. He couldn’t see any movement. Nothing exciting ever happened there.

Stephen smirked. He didn’t like Tom Willard, either. That pretentious, self-righteous son-of-a-bitch grated on his nerves from the very moment he introduced himself one day as Stephen bent over to retrieve his newspaper from the curb. Tom had a cheesy, bushy mustache with a chubby dad sartorial style and a overly-strong handshake that suggested he tried too hard to get respect. When he spoke spittle flew with reckless abandon, and he often smacked between words, which drove Stephen mad.

The crystal blue sky that adorned this particular morning gave an illusion of warmth in the brisk, cold winter day, but Stephen didn’t care. He spied his newspaper on the curb and seeing that the sidewalks were abandoned, he ventured out of his front door in his bathrobe and slippers. He just wanted to get his paper and get back to the kitchen and read it while he drank his coffee and waited for the others to get up.

A cold breeze wafted up his robe and stung his balls. He shivered and pulled the robe tighter around his naked body as he hurried down the drive and back up to the house. On the way back, his robe caught the side mirror of one of the cars parked in his driveway and tore it away for a moment exposing his largely hairless chest and part of the grove of pubic hair above his penis. He quickly untangled the robe and clasped it shut swiveling his head around to see if anyone was watching. He exhaled indignation. He didn’t want to give his sanctimonious neighbors yet another reason to complain.

He hurried past the other car keeping his robe tight to his body with one hand, and as he closed his front door, he glanced out across the dead lawn one more time just to make sure none of his neighbors were chronicling his brief misadventure. They seemed to always have something to say about what he did in his own home. The sun winked at him knowingly and glistened in his eyes in spite of the bitter cold.

He adjusted his robe in the foyer, tightening the cord around his waist. He walked through the main room as quietly as he could, but he heard a snort and, then, a groan. He paused and looked at one of the two sofas that formed a right angle in the room. One of his guests, Bridget, lay on her back still asleep. The blanket that covered her had shifted exposing one of her breasts. Her husband, Sam, slept soundly on the sofa perpendicular to her. Stephen considered her for a moment and then continued to his kitchen.

After he filled his mug with coffee, he sat at the breakfast table on the other side of the kitchen against a wall of partially-closed blinds and opened up the paper. He still had an affinity for newspapers despite the fact that the news was readily available online. He loved the smell of the paper, the smudging ink, and the sense of accomplishment when he made it through each of the sections. He’d tried the online version, but it seemed infinite. He like the finite nature of a physical paper, and he felt smarter reading an actual paper, a prominent indication that he was an informed person.

He had made it through the front section and part way through the sports section before his wife, Rainey, traipsed into the kitchen. As usual, she wore nothing. He eyed her above the paper as he took a sip of his coffee. Never a morning person, she looked like she was sleepwalking.

“Good morning,” he said. He kept is voice low to avoid waking Bridget or Sam.

She paused for a moment, turning her squinted eyes toward him. “Good morning.” Her low voice was raspy and rough. She grabbed a mug from the cupboard and poured herself some coffee.

“How’d you sleep?”

“Like a baby.”

“Fun night.”

Her eyes opened wide for the first time. “Oh yes.” She gave him a mischievous smile as she sat down in the chair beside him. He put the paper down and admired his wife before he leaned in to give her a kiss. Her dark, red hair hung down her shoulders and teased her breasts. He looked at the bright red hair between her legs and smiled at her before he leaned back into his chair and resumed reading his paper.

“Did you already eat?” she asked after a few minutes.

“Not yet. Waiting for everyone else.”

“I’m famished.”

“Do you want me to make some pancakes?”

“That sounds wonderful.”

“Should we wait until everyone gets up?”

“Once they smell those cakes on the griddle they’ll get up.”

Stephen smiled as he put the paper back down. He wondered if his cooking was really that good or if Rainey simply liked the fact that he cooked and she didn’t. He could never be sure.

“Alright, loads of pancakes coming up.”

“Yay!” she said in a hushed voice. She remained seated nursing her coffee as Stephen began moving about the kitchen to prepare breakfast. He tried to be as quiet as possible, but after a few minutes Bridget walked into the kitchen with the blanket wrapped around her shoulders. Like Rainey, she looked terribly exhausted.

“Good morning,” she mumbled.

“Good morning. Did we wake you?” Stephen asked, genuinely concerned.

She managed a smile. “No, I had to pee.”

“Good morning,” Rainey said as she stood up with her cup. “Do you want some coffee?”

“Most definitely,” Bridget replied.

Rainey pulled another cup down from the shelf and filled both hers and Bridget’s with the hot brew. She walked over to Bridget and handed her the coffee. Bridget cradled it in her hands and inhaled the sweet aroma.

“You look chipper this morning,” she said, smiling as she looked Rainey up and down.

“Thank you,” Rainey replied as she leaned in and kissed Bridget on the lips. “That was fun last night.”

Bridget’s smile widened, “I’m still exhausted.”

Stephen let out a subdued laugh as he turned back to the griddle on the counter. “Both of you were phenomenal.”

“Why thank you, Mr. Cummings,” Bridget said in a mock British accent.

Everyone tried to mimic Stephen’s and Rainey’s accents, but they largely failed at it in his opinion. When he and Rainey had lived in Massachusetts, the Yankees were better at it, but since they had moved down South, the locals seemed to have no idea how to enunciate in a proper British accent. He had largely rid his vocabulary of British words that raised questioning looks from Americans to avoid the mockery, but he had not lost his accent or even tried to lose it. Americans typically trusted him more when they heard him speak. It was only after they got to know him that the doubts crept in.

The aroma of the batter filled his nostrils as he poured it onto the griddle. The oil crackled and spat at him as the eight circles slowly moved from runny to solid. He flipped them once and waited patiently for them to cook. Rainey talked to Bridget behind him.

“We should start waking the others. I don’t want the pancakes to get cold,” he said to no one in particular.

“Okay,” Rainey replied. She turned to Bridget. “I know how to get Sam up.” Bridget laughed.

Stephen turned as his wife walked out of sight into the main room. He chuckled to himself. Bridget had shrugged the blanket off and sat at the table drinking her coffee. He returned his attention to the griddle flipping the pancakes once more before he moved them to the plate and poured more batter onto the crackling surface.

After he had a pile of pancakes on the plate he carried them over to the table by Bridget. She smiled and said thank you as he straightened up and looked for his wife in the main room. He could hear Sam moaning, but couldn’t see him for the back of the sofa. A crescendo of groans peaked and stopped as Rainey stood up from the sofa. She licked her lips and wiped the back of her hand across her mouth.

“There you go,” she said.

“That felt great,” Sam’s disembodied voice said.

Sam’s hand reached up and grabbed one of Rainey’s breasts. She slapped it away. “That’s all for now. Time to eat,” she said as she walked away.

“That’s what I’m trying to do,” Sam laughed. He sat up and looked into the kitchen. “Stephen, you’re cooking already?”

“Yes, we’re having pancakes. Won’t you join us?”

Sam hopped up, still naked, and walked toward the kitchen just as Stephen walked back to the griddle. He looked Sam up and down, pulled a towel from the counter, and draped it on his still-erect penis. “Might want to holster that cowboy.” He laughed as he walked to the counter.

Sam smirked and walked away. He returned to the kitchen dressed in his jeans and a t-shirt and joined them at the breakfast table. He eyed Rainey as he sat down next to his wife. He forked some pancakes onto his plate and began eating with the rest of them.

“Rob and Betsy up yet?” Sam asked after he had a couple of bites.

“I haven’t checked on them,” Stephen replied. He had almost finished his two pancakes.

“Probably still hungover,” Bridget interjected.

“I bet. Fucking Rob snorted half my stash last night.”

The table fell silent for a brief moment as everyone looked at each other. Stephen swallowed his last bite. “You shouldn’t have brought that stuff over here,” Stephen said.

“Why not?” Sam asked.

“We’re not into drugs,” Stephen replied.

Sam’s face dropped as it morphed into a look of incredulity. “We fuck each other like animals and you’re not into cocaine?” He laughed at his own observation. “Come on, it helps us relax and get into the mood.” He flipped his hand toward Bridget to include her in his reasoning.

Stephen paused and took a breath before he responded. He and Rainey had reluctantly included Sam and Bridget into their parties only because Bridget was so attractive to both of them. Sam was something of a wild card, unpredictable and selfish, but he was part of the package, for better or worse.

“All I’m asking is that you don’t bring it here. Do it at home before you come here if that helps,” Stephen replied calmly.

Sam looked at Stephen and Rainey. Then, he looked at his wife for support. She offered none. “Fine. If we’re going to invite the Pastor again, then I’d rather keep it to myself anyway.”

As if on cue, Pastor Rob Davis and his homely wife Betsy walked into the kitchen. Stephen jumped up. “Rob, Betsy, can I interest you in some pancakes?” He picked up his own plate and carried it to the sink to make room for the couple. Both of them moved slowly. Rob winced at Stephen’s words like he had shouted at them.

“Thanks, Stephen, but I think we’re going to have to go. We feel terrible and I have a sermon to deliver tomorrow,” Rob said, his voice croaking. He stroked his forehead as if to emphasize the pain. He leaned forward a little as if he might vomit at any moment. Betsy didn’t look any better. When Rainey stood up at the table, Rob noticed her nakedness and turned away. Betsy did the same.

“Do you mind if we go now, Sam?” Rob said without looking toward the breakfast table.

“Right now?” Sam asked.

“Yes, please.”

Sam seemed agitated as he looked Rainey up and down. He rolled his eyes at Bridget, and she gave him a meager, pleading smile.

“Okay,” Sam sighed. He took one more bite of the pancakes on his plate and stood up. He flipped his napkin on top of the food. “Bridget needs to get dressed.”

Bridget grabbed the blanket and wrapped it around her shoulders before she disappeared into the main room behind Rob and Betsy.

“Did you enjoy the evening?” Stephen asked the anxious couple trying to shush away the awkwardness that had settled across the room.

Rob looked at him as if Stephen had spoken in a foreign language. Then, it seemed the question registered. “Uh, yeah. It was…fun.” Stephen watched him grab Betsy’s hand and squeeze it.

Bridget dressed quickly as Sam put on his shoes at the breakfast table near Rainey. Stephen walked over to the coat closet and retrieved the visitors’ coats and hats. All four bundled up quickly without many words among them. Sam and Bridget kissed Rainey goodbye. Sam shook Stephen’s hand before Bridget gave him a peck on the lips. Stephen and Rainey gave the Davises a wave as all four moved toward the door.

Before he opened the door, Rob turned back to Stephen. “Hey, Stephen, do you know if Willard is home now?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t see him when I got the newspaper this morning.”

“Don’t worry, Rob, he won’t recognize you in that hat,” Sam laughed.

Rob grunted his annoyance. “Tom doesn’t miss a thing. If he sees me leaving here this morning, there’s no telling what he will start saying.”

“Just tell him you were here to save Stephen and Rainey,” Sam retorted. Both Sam and Bridget laughed, but no one else did. Rob quickly opened the door and the two couples hurried to Sam’s car. Rob and Betsy slumped down in the back seat as if some paparazzi had their cameras trained on them. Stephen could see Sam’s lips moving rapidly as he backed out of the driveway almost knocking down the terrible mailbox. Stephen shut the door before the car pulled away and exhaled a sense of relief.

Rainey approached him as he stood in the foyer. “I’m going to shower. Care to join me?” She didn’t wait for an answer but turned and walked up the stairs. He watched for a moment before he darted up the stairs after his wife.

Concept: The Words We Cannot Say

An incessant beeping noise permeates the room, a chirp really, but it’s irritating nonetheless. My nerves are already tattered like an exposed wound, and this noise just puts me closer to the edge of losing it. I take my breaths, just like the therapist said, but they don’t help. I want to punch the machine until it stops, but I don’t want to raise any concerns among the doctors and nurses that come and go from my wife’s room. They’re here to help her, not me, but I wonder how much longer it will be before I need help, too. I cover my eyes with my hands and rub them until I see spots.

“Mr. Soczek,” a slight voice says in the darkness of my palms.

I look up and there’s a nurse standing before me. She’s an older woman who reminds me of my late grandmother, but she has gray hair that is tied back in a ponytail, not the dyed-brown bouffant that my sweet grandmother wore. She smiles slightly as if she’s waiting for me to acknowledge her presence, but the room still spins around us.

“Yes,” I say, and I know I sound exasperated because I am. The last 48 hours have been a roller coaster of emotions. I put my hands on the arms of the chair I’m sitting in as if it will stop the spinning.

“Dr. Kaufman will be here in about 30 minutes.”

“Is that what he said?”

“Yes.”

“Last time he said that, it was two hours.”

“Mr. Soczek, please understand that Dr. Kaufman is a busy man. He has patients all over the hospital. If an emergency comes up, he will be delayed.”

“I understand that, but my wife needs him now.”

“She’s stable now. There’s nothing he can do other than wait to see how she recovers from the surgery. Only time will tell.”

I look past the nurse to my wife laying on her back and unconscious in the bed behind her. Bandages cover her head and part of her face. Her eyes are swollen shut, and a breathing tube snakes down her throat. The chirp of the machine continues, amplified by my anxiety. I think I see her twitch, but my vision is so shaky that I cannot know for sure.

“Mr. Soczek. Mr. Soczek.”

I drift back to the nurse and look at her a moment before I realize she’s still talking to me. “What?”

“Why don’t you go outside and get some air?”

“I don’t need any air. I’m fine.”

“You look like you haven’t slept for a while.”

“Do you know when she will wake up?”

“She has a lot of injuries. It’s best that she sleeps for a while. It will help with the healing process.”

“Is she blind?”

“I don’t know. Dr. Kaufman can discuss the prognosis with you.”

“Is she going to make it?”

“She’s stable now. The worst has passed, but you should discuss this with Dr. Kaufman.”

“When will he be here?”

“As I said, I expect him to be here in 30 minutes or so.”

I run out of questions to ask her. My mind is whirling through the last few days, and the lack of sleep has affected by ability to think clearly. The nurse looks at me for a moment longer as if she expects me to grow another head or something, then, she sighs slightly before she turns and walks away. I slump back into the chair as the door to the room swings shut behind the nurse.

I look at my wife for a moment, and I swear to myself that I see her twitch, so I get up and go to her side. Her bruised and bloodied hands, at least the parts not covered with bandages, lay by her side. Casts are wrapped around both of her arms. An IV needle is taped to her left hand. I look up to the bag hanging by her bed and watch the fluid drip slowly into the funnel that feeds the needle.

The drops remind me of our honeymoon. It rained the whole time we were in Costa Rica. Some days the rain tore through the jungle like angry bees battering the large leaves on the vegetation, and on others, it trickled from the sky and lazily dripped from the gutter above our balcony making a plopping sound that drove us both mad when we tried to sleep at night. It was too hot to close the windows, and since the air conditioning only worked sporadically, we had to choose between the annoying sound or broiling in our own sweat. It wasn’t a great way to begin our marriage.

I turn back to Bree, and a wave of gloom overwhelms me. I gently touch her hand fearing that I might upset the complicated mass of tubes and needles that loop across her body. I find some exposed skin near her pinky and I rub it with my thumb. I wonder what she will say when she wakes up. If she wakes up.

After a moment, I return to the chair, and the weight of the last 48 hours collapses on me. I lean into the back of the uncomfortable chair trying to get some rest. It’s inflexible with a prickly, coarse material that covers a stiff frame. My head lolls against the wall, and I shut my eyes. Sleep beckons me, but I’m afraid to go to sleep. What if Bree wakes up? What if Dr. Kaufman comes by and I’m asleep? I shut my eyes anyway unable to win this battle any longer despite that damn chirping noise.

***

Something startles me awake. When I open my eyes, I’m staring at the ceiling of the hospital room. The hanging ceiling tiles, perfectly square with irregular perforations, look down at me knowingly. An unsettled feeling comes up from my gut and I jerk up into a sitting position. I had leaned over in my sleep and rolled onto my back against the hard, cushioned arm of the chair. My back screams at me and I groan back. I stretch my arms out just as Dr. Kaufman walks through the door.

“Mr. Soczek, you’re awake,” he says. He seems surprised.

“I just dozed off.”

“I came by earlier, but you were asleep. The nurse said you wanted to talk to me.”

It took a moment to process what he said, but then, I remembered I wanted to talk to him about Bree. “How is she?” I shift my eyes from him to my wife, but I return to him when he responds.

“Well, the surgery was successful. She’s stable, but she’s still in serious condition. We managed to stop the internal bleeding. She has multiple fractures, a punctured lung, and both orbital bones are fractured.”

“Is she blind?”

Kaufman stops and looks at me strangely, but maybe it’s just the remnants of sleep affecting my perception of his mannerisms.

“I did not detect any damage to the eyes, but we won’t know for sure until she’s awake.”

“When will she wake up?”

“She’s in a drug-induced coma. We need to keep her that way for a while. She needs to rest to help her body recover.”

“So she won’t wake up until next week, when?”

He gives me another odd stare before he answers. “Let’s give her a few days and see where she is. Then, we can determine when we can back off on the sedatives.”

I breathe a sigh of relief.

“Your wife, she’s a tough lady. I think she’ll pull through this. It may take a while, but she should fully recover.”

I muster the best smile I can for Dr. Kaufman. He nods and glances over at Bree one more time before he ducks through the door and disappears into the hallway. I look over at her and I wonder what she will say when she wakes up.

***

I managed to get away for a bit after the doctor visited us. Since I didn’t have to worry about Bree waking up, I decided to go home, our home, not the place I’d been living for the past few weeks, and clean up. I’d been in the same clothes for several days and hadn’t showered or slept. I felt disgusting. After my shower, I fell onto Bree’s, I mean, our bed and slept for a few hours. I don’t know what time I went to sleep, but when I woke up, it was late morning. I awoke in a panic, but then, I recalled my conversation with Dr. Kaufman and relaxed. Another shower helped.

Before I left to return to the hospital, I called Bree’s parents and her sister and let them know what had happened. I had to apologize repeatedly for waiting so long to call them, but I explained that I’d been out of it because I was so worried about Bree that I didn’t even think to call them. It didn’t help that my cell phone was shot and I hadn’t had time to get another one. Her family lives in Northern California, so it will take them a few hours to get to San Diego to be with Bree. That will give me time to get my shit together.

***

I don’t know what I expected when I returned to the hospital. I guess I thought there’d be more activity in Bree’s room as the doctors worked to bring her back, but when I stepped through the door to her room, all was quiet. She lay there in the darkness with only the faint overhead light illuminating the upper half of her body. I sit down in the uncomfortable chair again and just stare at her. I think of things to say when she wakes up. How do I make this all better?

As I’m rehearsing the things I’ll say in my mind, someone pushes the door to the room open hesitantly, and I see a large man in a tight-fitting sports jacket step into the room. It must take his eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness because I don’t think he saw me at first. He looks at Bree and then scans the room until his eyes land on me. He nods and steps toward me. Another man, similarly large, follows him.

“Mr. Soczek?” he whispers.

An anxiety comes over me when I see the badge glimmering on his belt. Police. “Yes,” I reply.

“I’m Detective Swanson, and this is my partner Detective Manous. Can we talk to you out in the hallway for a moment?” He continues to whisper as if he will wake Bree up, but each word he says sends a chill down my spine.

I nod and stand up. I look at Bree one more time before I follow the rotund officers out of her room. They step down the hallway a bit and I join them in a small huddle near the door of the room down the hall from Bree.

“Thank you, Mr. Soczek,” Swanson says.

“You’re welcome,” I reply. “What can I do for you? I’ve given my statement to the police already.”

“I know, and we’ve read through the reports, but we have more questions if you don’t mind,” Swanson says.

I don’t feel like I have any choice, so I nod my head in agreement.

“The report says that you arrived at your home at 10 AM on Tuesday after you didn’t hear from your wife. Is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“And you two are separated. Is that correct?”

I don’t like the word separated. We weren’t separated. We had just decided to live apart for a while until things settled down. “We were living apart for a bit, but we had planned to move back in together. Things were getting better,” I reply.

“When was that going to happen?”

“Next week.”

“Why next week?”

“I don’t know. That’s just what we decided.”

“When did you decide on that?”

“This past weekend.”

Swanson looks at Manous. Something passes between them, and it raises my anxiety a bit.

“That’s the last time you saw your wife before the incident, correct?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know why anyone would want to hurt your wife?”

“No one would want to hurt her that I know of, but this was a robbery.”

“How can you be so sure?” Manous asks.

“Look at the house, it was ransacked.”

Swanson nods, but Manous doesn’t seem convinced. I fidget in place. My back starts to ache from spending so much time in that damn chair. I hear footsteps behind me, and I look back just as a nurse goes into Bree’s room. My anxiety level rises more.

“How is your relationship with your wife?” Swanson asks.

I pause a moment before I respond. I look from Swanson to Manous and back again. “What do you mean?”

“You lived apart. What happened?”

“We’ve had our ups and downs just like any married couple. We decided to try some time apart to see if that helped us.”

“Helped you?”

“You know, absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

“Did it?” Manous interjects.

“Yes. We are still deeply in love. Our time apart made that very clear.”

Behind me another nurse enters Bree’s room. I feel very anxious. I look behind me as her door shuts. Swanson asks a few more questions and I respond absently. I forget the questions and my answers as soon as they are spoken. I’m worried about what the nurses are doing in her room. I shift in place and a creeping nervousness shimmers down my back.

“I’m sorry detectives, but I need to check on my wife. Do you have any more questions?”

“Not at this moment, but, Mr. Soczek, if you think of anything we should know, please give us a call. Here’s my card.” He extends his hand and gives me a business card. I look at it briefly before I stuff it in the back pocket of my jeans. They smile as I shake their hands before I turn and go back to be with my wife.

Concept: Leaving Arizona

Red Connor’s headlights flashed on the large blue sign up ahead to the right of the Interstate. The sign sparkled in the beam of light, glowed really, as he sped toward it. The blue became deeper and the words, despite being blurred by his tears, became clearer. The cartoon image of the sun with exaggerated red and yellow rays shooting from the horizon sat below the words “Leaving Arizona.” He wiped his nose with the back of his hand and breathed an unwarranted sigh of relief. He watched the sign welcoming him to New Mexico come and go. No matter how far and how fast he traveled from Phoenix, he couldn’t escape. He knew this, but he kept his foot pressed on the gas pedal and his eyes focused on the largely vacant road ahead of him.

The hum of the car’s engine surrounded him, soothed his frayed nerves. He sunk back into the supple leather seat of the luxury sports car. He remembered when he bought the car and how it made him feel. He loved the way the seat wrapped around him and kept him snugly in position when he zipped around sharp turns. The steering felt firm like he was gripping the road with his own two feet. The low profile of the car gave him confidence that he could handle any turn, and he did. He’d spent many weekends just driving through the desolate canyon roads of northern Arizona testing the limits of his driving skills. How else could he stamp out the anger that swelled inside him.

For a moment, only the glow of the dashboard provided him any light inside the car. Either side of the freeway was vacant as the darkness swallowed him. He felt safe in that moment as if he hid behind a giant cloak and no one knew he was there. That’s the way it’d have to be from now on. He had no one but himself to blame for what he’d done.

In the miles-long, dark space behind him, two needlepoint lights pierced the night sky and Red held his breath. He maintained his speed right at the speed limit – he couldn’t draw any unnecessary attention to himself – and gripped the thick steering wheel a little harder as the two eyes grew brighter. The car behind him traveled at a very high speed, much more so than normal on this long stretch of isolated road in western New Mexico. Red peered into his rear view mirror trying to discern the type of vehicle approaching him. Was it a police car? He couldn’t tell.

The car came upon him quickly. It’s bright lights flooded his car almost blinding him. He swallowed hard and blinked away the light before the approaching car jerked into the left lane and sped past him. Red tried not to look, but he couldn’t help but notice the clunky old Dodge Charger as it gunned by him. He couldn’t make out the driver in the dim light, but he doubted that the driver noticed him or his car. If he had, he would have slowed down or given some indication that he had seen something out of the ordinary.

The Charger’s taillights disappeared into the darkness like two evil eyes descending into a cauldron and Red felt alone again, relieved, but the red lights brought a memory to him, something deep in the recesses of his mind. His Uncle Carl owned a Charger when Red was a boy. He’d seen those same taillights disappear in the darkness before. A feeling of loneliness overwhelmed him. Shouting, crying, and the sound of flesh being slapped and punched flitted through his foggy, repressed memories. He pushed the sounds out of his mind and refocused his eyes on the road ahead, but his heart still raced like the eight-year-old version of himself threatened to burst out of his chest.

His headlights struck a bright, green sign along the side of the road that announced that Gallup, New Mexico was only two miles ahead. He felt a need to stop to get some coffee and maybe something to eat, but he knew that he couldn’t. Not now. He watched as the exit came into view and then fell by the wayside. He’d have to stop at some point or he’d get stopped against his will. Either option filled him with dread.

His phone buzzed in the console between his seats. The screen momentarily brightened his dark car as the notification floated on his lock screen. He squinted at the screen and read the text from his wife. “Where are you?” The screen went dark. Marie. What would he say to her? He blinked slowly and took a deep breath. Nothing would make this easy. He decided to ignore her text.

More traffic appeared on the road ahead of him and in the other direction. Headlights on the opposite side of the freeway washed across his car and lit his face. He glanced into his rear view mirror and caught sight of his bruised right cheek and the cut that run the length of his right eyebrow. He winced as if the sight of his wound renewed the pain, but the truth was that the pain had settled into a dull throb. He didn’t really feel it anymore. He didn’t feel anything. The adrenaline still gushed through his veins.

A mile or two east of Gallup, darkness once again shrouded him. He felt safe at that moment as if no one would ever find him. His phone lit up again with a text from his wife, each text becoming more and more frantic. He couldn’t put off texting her back or calling her. She deserved to know what had happened. She deserved a lot, certainly more than him. He didn’t know what to say to her. Nothing he said would make her understand or make the situation any better.

In a moment of clarity, Red knew he had to come clean. He had to tell the truth. There was no escaping it. He grabbed his phone from the console and pressed the button for his home screen. His poked the telephone icon and slid his thumb down to a familiar number before he held the phone to his ear.

After three rings, his mother answered, “Hello.”

She sounded groggy as if he had woken her from a deep sleep. He looked at the clock above the touchscreen in his car. It was only 8:30 PM in Texas. He swallowed hard suddenly unable to speak. Thoughts and memories raced through his mind in a jumble of confusion that only made him feel disoriented, discombobulated. The wound on his face suddenly radiated pain and a burning sensation sparked through his chest. He gasped for air inaudibly and heaved.

“Hello?” his mother said again. “Who is this?”

“…Mom…”

“Red? What’s wrong?”

His car veered to the edge of the road and his tires struck the rumble strip along the white line. He pulled the steering wheel to his left and corrected his path. He still couldn’t breathe or speak. He felt outside of himself as if he were looking down from above the car watching himself struggle to say something to his mother.

Finally, words formed on his tongue, “I…killed him. I killed Dad.”

He heard her breath hitch on the other end of the line like something had jumped out from behind her couch and scared her. “Red, please tell me this is not true. Please.”

A tear escaped the corner of his eye and trickled down his cheek. He sucked in a long breath trying to maintain his composure. The air in the car felt limited, stale. He could smell the blood on him, the residue of the gunshot.

“I couldn’t take it anymore, Mom. Not after all of the things he did to you – to us. I did it for you.”

“Red…I didn’t want that…”

He could hear her begin sobbing and he began to cry as well. He’d always reacted that way when his mother cried. He’d seen her cry so much throughout his life that he thought he’d be immune to it by now, but instead, her sadness overwhelmed him.

“What about the kids? Marie?”

“I don’t know…”

Her breathing and sobs rattled in his ear. She caught her breath. “Where are you now?”

“I’m just outside Albuquerque. I’m on my way to your house.”

She fell silent on the other end of the line. Red imagined that she had a tissue in her hand swiping away the tears that wouldn’t stop.

“Okay…I’ll be here…” Her sobs overwhelmed her again.

“It’ll be okay.” Red tried to assure her, but he knew his words were hollow, improbable. He waited for her to respond.

“Just get here…I love you, Red.”

“I love you, Mom.”

He punched the red icon on his screen and dropped the phone back in the console. The road ahead of him blurred in his tears. He wiped his face again with the back of his hand and pressed the gas pedal a little harder. His car sped up and cut through the darkness with a renewed urgency. He didn’t have much time left before the cops realized where he was or figured out where he was headed.

A renewed determination filled him as his tears dried on his cheeks. He didn’t regret what he’d done. He should have done it years ago. That much he knew, no matter the consequences.

Concept: My Father’s Daughter

As I stood in the elevator alone and watched the doors close in front of me, my heart sank. I felt my heartbeat throbbing in my throat. A weakness in my knees threatened to topple me to the floor of the elevator as it rose five stories. I feared what I would see. I didn’t want to believe it was true, and I thought, just for a moment, that if I turned around and left the hospital, refusing to see it, that it wouldn’t be true, that my father wouldn’t be lying in some hospital bed clinging to what remained of his life.

Each floor ticked off with a light chime that seemed too cheery for this place, a little ding that you might hear on an annoying child’s toy. I watched the tiny screen above the buttons change as I rode higher. My chest felt constricted and became more so as I saw three, four, and then, five appear on the monochrome display. The car came to a soft stop, and the doors hesitated for a moment before they slid open revealing another set of elevator doors across the hall and a small sofa with green plants on either side at the end of the space with the six metal doors.

I stared at the empty sofa for a moment when I stepped off the elevator. It seemed to be an odd place to put a sofa, and the plants, although lively, didn’t really make this space any brighter.Three long windows sat high above the sofa and drew light into what would have been a dark and lonely space. I could see the blue sky through the windows, brightened by the warm fall day that I had been enjoying just hours ago. Things can change so quickly.

I turned right and stepped from the plush carpet of the elevator area and onto the matte tile lining a long hallway that ran the length of the rectangular building. To my left, under the glaring, unkind fluorescent lights, I saw nurses and doctors gliding across the hall, moving from one door to another and disappearing and reappearing like actors exiting and entering the stage in some macabre play, their chatter calm and indecipherable from where I stood. None of them noticed me watching them even though I stared for a good minute or two without moving.

To my right, a waiting room had been wedged into the corner at the end of the hall. Unlike the antiseptic pathway leading to the patient rooms, this area evoked the warmth and welcome of a mountain lodge. Faux wood paneling covered the ceiling. The walls were painted a soft yellow color. Plush, tan sofas matching the fabric of the one behind me stood back to back in even lines along the walls and down the middle of the room. At the other end of the room was a fire place with a soft flame licking the gas logs behind thick glass.

Only one person sat in the waiting room – an old man whose head lolled to the side on his chest as he napped on the sofa. I could only see his profile from where I stood, but I could feel his exhaustion. It emanated from him like the heat from the fire on the other side of him. He wore a red and black checked flannel shirt and had the sleeves rolled up to his forearms, which rested on his prodigious gut as he slept. His skin was pale and spotty, and his thinning white hair clung to a reddened scalp that looked as if it had been freshly sunburned. He wore faded jeans and black tennis shoes with Velcro fasteners. He reminded me of my maternal grandfather from many years ago, and I tried to smile at the memory, but I wasn’t in the mood for smiling.

“Can I help you?” a sweet, feminine voice said to me.

At first, it startled me, but as I swung my head around from the waiting area to the space in front of me, I realized that I had completely missed the reception desk that stood at the entrance to the elevators. I didn’t think anyone was there when I first arrived, or else I would have noticed her.

I looked at the young lady before me. She couldn’t have been more than 20 years old. I felt sorry for her, stuck here all day among the old and infirm and death. I was at least twice her age, and I didn’t think I could handle it if I were her.

“I’m here for Charles Parsons,” I said mechanically. I felt like I had been reciting that line repeatedly for a long time, and maybe I had. Maybe that’s what my mind worked on as I made the anxious drive over. Maybe a part of me had taken over from the part that was shattered to ensure that I could function somewhat.

“Are you family?”

“I’m his daughter.”

She gave me a look of pity, something she probably did many times every day, and peered into a computer screen I could not see beneath the counter in front of her. She wore glasses, and I could see the reflection of the bright screen in her lenses. I watched the screen flicker as she pecked and pointed until she arrived at an answer.

“He’s in 514.” She stood up from behind the counter and leaned toward me. She pointed down the hall with her right arm. “Go about half way down this hall, and the room should be on the left.”

I looked down the hall and squinted as if I were trying to see the door leading to room 514. My knees felt like they were going to buckle. My legs wobbled, while my feet refused to move at first. Somewhere deep inside me, I found the will to take that first step and I shuffled down the hall. I could feel the young lady’s eyes on me. I felt subconscious about it and tried to look normal; although, inside, I felt nothing like normal.

Each door had a number on the left side of its frame near eye level. I could see the tiny dots of Braille beneath the large printed letters, and a part of me wanted to stop and feel those tiny dots on my fingertips. I needed something to distract me from what I was about to see. Anything really. Even something I did not understand was preferable to what waited for me in Room 514.

I slowed my pace. Doctors and nurses whizzed by me. Some nodded and smiled, but most just went about their business like seeing me in the midst of their sullen ballet was perfectly normal. I could still feel my heart beating in my chest. I felt weaker, and I wondered if any of the doctors or nurses realized what was going on with me, if they would suddenly stop and ask if I was okay. I was not okay.

I stopped at one door – 512 – and took a deep breath. I listened carefully, trying to determine what was going on next door, but I could hear nothing other than the steps in the hall around me and the occasional beep or wheeze of a machine. I swallowed hard and stepped over to the next room. I took one more deep breath before I opened the door.

The moment I opened the door, a fearful image struck me – my father laying unconscious on a partially inclined hospital bed with all types of wires crossing his body. A mask with a tube connected to one of the machines covered his face. The whir and beeping of the machines sucked the life out of the room. I could barely detect the rise and fall of his chest under the blanket that covered him. His arms lay by his side over the top of the blanket, but wires and tubes attached to his skin like leeches sucking the remaining life from his body.

No one else was in the room. I moved to a chair next to the bed and fell into it. He didn’t fidget or acknowledge my presence. A wave of sorrow and fear struck me as I leaned onto the bed and put my hand in his, but it felt cold and lifeless, unresponsive. I could no longer hold back. I buried my head into the space next to our hands and cried.

I thought I heard a nurse or doctor enter the room, so I leaned up to see who was there, but by the time I wiped the tears from my eyes to see clearly, I was staring at an empty space. I looked back at the door, but it appeared to be just as I had left it with barely an inch of light creeping into the dim room from the hallway. I wiped my face with the sleeve of my shirt and turned back to my father.

He looked terrible. He had been mostly healthy after he retired and had retained much of the gusto and good spirits that had characterized him his entire life, but now, he looked all of his 75 years – worn and feeble. His skin looked loose on his large frame, and even his big hands looked frail. I wasn’t used to seeing my father as someone who was weak. It didn’t fit him, and I didn’t like it. I desperately wanted the strong man I had loved all of my life back.

I spoke to him. My voice sounded uncertain and mousy like I was a ten-year-old girl meeting him for the first time. He still didn’t move, nor did his eyes flicker to give any indication that he knew I was there. I wished my mother were still alive. She would handle this better than me; she’d tell me what to do, and I would do it. I needed that right now. I didn’t want to be the only person my father had left.

I leaned back toward his hand and kissed it. The skin on his hand felt slippery and unnatural on my lips. More tears rolled down my cheeks and blurred my vision. I felt lost and hopeless. I wiped the tears away but more came.

The door creaked behind me. The light from the hallway briefly brightened the room before a shadow stretched across the wall in front of me. I turned to see who had entered. A woman, older than me, stood in the door way, hesitating as if she had opened the wrong door. She stared at me a moment as I absorbed the whole of her. She wore loose sweatpants and a nylon jacket with a bright pink stripe that ran along her arms and over her shoulders. Her hair, stringy and rather unkempt, hung loosely above her collar. She had thick glasses and wore a lot of makeup despite her rather casual dress. Something in her eyes seemed familiar, but I couldn’t quite place where or if I had seen her before.

She stepped forward and pushed the door shut behind her but did not allow it to close all the way. “Kate?” she asked.

I struggled with recall but managed to mumble, “Yes…” I couldn’t determine if I should know this woman or not.

A half smile, somewhat pained, crossed her face. She paused for a moment as if she were waiting for me to recognize her. I stared at her intently searching my memory for those large eyes and that round face, but nothing came to me.

“It’s Tina,” she said as if her name alone were enough. She grew impatient. “Your step-sister.”

She had barely spit the words from her mouth when I finally recognized who she was. Calling me her step-sister was a stretch at most. I hadn’t seen her since my father’s 50th birthday party, and even that was a memory I had chosen to forget. We were never sisters of any kind. She was the only child from my father’s first marriage, which had ended acrimoniously when he had met my mother. My father, despite his best efforts, was not part of her life, and she slowly faded from his until she became like that unsavory relative that no one spoke of.

“Tina…how did you know he was in the hospital?”

“Ma told me.”

“How did she know?”

“They got back together.”

Her words seemed indecipherable at first and then unbelievable. My father hated his first wife. He never told me so himself, but I had overheard many of my parents’ conversations when I was growing up, enough to know that the wretched woman was an unholy burden on him. I knew immediately that she was lying to me. He would never go back to her.

Before I could refute her words, Tina moved to the other side of the bed and took my father’s other hand. She ignored me and looked at him as if she had been a part of his life all along. She had this adoring look on her face – both sad and admiring.

I wanted to stand up and slap her hand away from his. She had no right to be here. She had done nothing but cause trouble for my father from the moment she was born. She had purposefully tried to break up my parents – and failed at that – and I didn’t want her to have any part in his life now for my sake and for my late mother’s sake.

She started talking to him in a low, whiny voice and it grated on my nerves. I stood to ask her to leave, but then, my father startled in the bed and his eyes fluttered. My attention went straight to him and for a brief respite I forgot all about Tina even though she was standing two feet away from me. My surging anger shifted to hope, hope that my father would be alright and that he’d send Tina back to whatever hole she had crawled out of.