by jaimie l. elliott
It was as if his eyes had never adjusted from the brilliance of the sun. Osmond sat on the sofa, the silence of the room a death to him. With deadened fingers, he brushed away the tears streaking down. An unbidden image of Zachery's bloody face came to mind and another sob tore through him. He choked back his grief and staggered to his feet.
Jeanie had refused to speak since the accident, shutting herself in the bedroom. Shame kept him from reaching out to her. So many thoughts, of haunted regrets and shattered expectations. He should be doing a number of things. Responsible things. Instead, he stood incapable, terrified of making any decision, torn between a desperation for his wife to take charge and the fear of facing her.
The unmistakable sound of a door opened caused his heart to quicken as his perception separated from his body, a wretched Lilliputian locked behind the watery eyes of an oversized, organic puppet. He clutched the back of the sofa. The pressure in his head continued to increase as his heart hammered against his sternum.
Jeanie walked past him, calm and composed. She turned into the kitchen. "What do you want for dinner?" she shouted from around the bend.
Osmond shook. Only the furniture kept him upright. His voice caught in his throat.
"Is chicken okay?" she yelled again. When he did not answer, she poked her head into the living room. "I said, is chicken okay?"
He was astray in her emerald eyes, his tongue unable to formulate a response.
She arched a brow. "Chicken it is," she mumbled. She disappeared back into the kitchen.
His arms gave out. He tumbled to the rug.
The aroma of herbed chicken hung as a veil. Osmond sat slumped at the kitchen table. He watched Jeanie labor over the stove, her movements graceful and precise. She hummed a tune he thought familiar, but the lyrics escaped him. Tentative, his quivering fingertips reached out to her back. He lowered his arm, defeated.
"Can you go tell Zach that dinner's ready?" asked Jeanie, her face away from him, her voice pleasant. "I think he's playing upstairs in his room."
Osmond sobbed. Jeanie turned to him, her face creased with concern. "Honey, what's wrong? Are you okay?"
"Jean--," he choked out. He shoved his hand into his mouth as another moan wracked his body. Teeth clamped down. A copper taste stung his mouth.
She knelt beside him. "What's wrong, Osmond?" She gently removed his hand and then stroked his hair with a tender caress. "Did something happen at work?"
"Please stop," said Osmond, sniffling. "You can't ignore it. It happened. Jeanie, it happened! I know it's my fault, but we have to accept it."
"What happened?" She stood, her eyes narrowing. "What did you do?"
He hung his head. "I deserve this," he whispered. "I'm sorry, Jeanie. I know it's my fault that Zach's dead, but we--,"
"No," said Jeanie, her voice soft yet forceful.
"I said shut up."
"No! No! NOOOOOOO!" she roared, her voice rising to the heavens. She clamped her palms over her ears, her eyes squeezed shut. She sundered the angels circling above with all the anguish of motherhood bereft.
Osmond cowered, clutching his bleeding hand. The screams, assailing his soul with each mournful howl, battered him until his wife's voice and legs faltered, the chicken burnt to a blackened mess. Even then, he hung back, afraid, ashamed. After a time without end, he watched her gather herself up and return to their bedroom. Alone.
"Hi David. It's Osmond. Yes. Yes, I know I sound terrible. Listen, I'm sorry for missing work the last couple days... No, I didn't get a chance to read my email. David, listen, I won't be back to work for a while. It's my son. Something bad happened. Something terrible. I-- we --"
He pivoted, the receiver glued to his ear, and saw her standing there. He froze, strangled by the phone cord.
His heart ached seeing her disheveled, her eyes red and swollen, her body mummified in a worn, white bathrobe. She appeared gaunt, broken, as frail as an eggshell.
His eyes never left her. "Huh? Sorry David. My son? I-- I-- we're all sick here. We've come down with some bug. The doctor recommends a few days bed rest. Yes. For all of us. Yes, it's serious. Yes, we'll be... we'll be all right. It'll just take time. I'll try to at least read my email, if I'm feeling better.
"I gotta go David. Thanks. I'll pass it on. Bye."
He unraveled himself and, in an almost maternal way, lowered the receiver into its carriage. "Jeanie--"
"Guess you caught what I have," she interjected in a raspy croak. "I hate to ask this of you, but you seem better than me. Can you make breakfast?"
He paused. "Of course," he said in a hushed voice.
"And make Zach's lunch, too. He doesn't appear sick. I'm not sure why you told your boss that. He'll be late for preschool, so you better get moving."
"Jeanie." The despondency in his voice filled the room.
"What, Osmond?" she snapped. She tilted her head, her green eyes piercing him.
"I feel like crap," she said. "I'm going back to bed."
His tears mixed with the peanut butter as he spread the creamy brown across the pallid, supple bread. He severed the crusts. He sectioned the sandwich into quarters. With three carrot sticks and a juice box, he placed the contents into a Spiderman lunchbox. Meal in hand, he shuffled, stumbled to the car in the garage. He sat for a while staring into space. When he turned the ignition, he knew not where he was going or what waited his return. He was still afar from himself.
He decided to roam the neighborhood, down random side streets, strolling past manicured lawns, turning around in cul-de-sacs. He was stunned by the absurdity of it all. When he determined he had meandered for long enough, he made the gloomy journey back. He abandoned the lunch on the passenger seat.
He returned to his vigil on the sofa. He was a man of sand, eroding, grain by grain. He waited to be consumed by the tides of time and circumstance, to wash back into the sea of oblivion.
Jeanie stood over him, still sickly but determined. She placed her fists upon her hips. He gaped at her uncomprehending.
"Damn it all, it's bad enough that you're skipping work," she lambasted. "But our son, Osmond? You think I'm just going to turn a blind eye as you teach him your bad habits?"
"I'm sorry," he mouthed with a silent breath.
"It might just be preschool, but it's important. He has to attend, just like regular school. It's more than just an education. He needs to learn responsibility. You have to act as a role model. You're his goddamn father!"
He became aware of his breathing, almost panting, through his wide open mouth.
"I apologize for my language, but I'm really pissed. Osmond? Osmond, are you listening to me?"
Jeanie threw her arms up in disgust and then rubbed her temples with her pale, right hand. "Fine, be that way. I don't feel well, Osmond. Is it so much to ask that you take care of things once in a while? Hell, just even once?" She stomped back to the bedroom. She paused just before heading down the hallway. "I sent Zach to his room to read. Check up on him every few minutes or so." Her face hardened. Osmond felt his gut twist. "Tomorrow," she warned, "I don't want to hear any stories from our son about joyriding around the neighborhood."
He rose from the couch, his body unsteady, her angry eyes burning into him. He trod upstairs. He paused at the doorway to his son's room to gaze helplessly at the emptiness.
Another blue sky morning, another uneaten breakfast. Another peanut butter sandwich, quartered and de-crusted. Another trio of carrot sticks. Another juice box.
Another moment, isolated behind the steering wheel, his mind a fugue. Somehow, she knew. She saw with oracle eyes. Paranoid, he glanced in the mirror. His trembling hand put the car in reverse. He barely avoided a teenager driving reckless and fast through the neighborhood street. Too numb to protest, he proceeded to the school.
He entered the line of cars, teeming with respectful parents and dutiful children. Only the greater terror of Jeanie kept him from bolting. The cars jerked forward, one-by-one, each depositing their beloved burden. His panic rose until it clogged his throat. His stomach churned and he broke out in a cold sweat. The Lilliputian screamed in abject fright, its fists bashing against the windows called his eyes. His car crawled to a stop. He could not move.
A door in back slammed shut. He started with a jolt. He swiveled his head around to see who could have exited the vehicle.
He saw a mother and her daughter leaving, not his car, but theirs, the one parked behind him.
Swearing, he sped out, brimming with rage and sorrow, returning to the house.
The phone rang just as he opened the kitchen door. The number of the preschool lit up on the answering machine LCD. Apprehension iced his veins. He debated not answering. Reluctant, he picked up the phone. "Hello?"
"Mr. Naff?" The tone was feminine, replete with disapprovals and accusations.
He cleared his throat. "Speaking."
"Did you just come by to drop off your son Zachery at Happy Time Daycare?"
"Yes," he replied without thought. He cringed.
"Sir, are you familiar with our drop-off policy?"
"I-- I am not," he lied. "My wife usually drops him off. I mean, has always dropped him off." His fight-or-flight reflex kicked in. His right leg quivered.
"Sir, we have a problem."
He tasted bile. He remained mute.
"Please return to the school immediately," said the voice.
"Why?" His voice was edgy, interfused with hysteria and guilt.
"Mr. Naff... you didn't sign in your son. We cannot be legally responsible for him unless you sign him in. You must return immediately so we can capture your signature and the time you dropped him off."
"Okay," he mumbled.
He carried the tray to their bedroom. Having not slept in his bed for the last three days, the room seemed peculiar, almost foreign. It smelled of dust. His finger moved to flip on the light switch when Jeanie's scratchy voice said, "Keep the light off, please. It hurts my eyes."
Osmond set the tray on the nightstand. "It's too dark in here. How will you eat?"
"Open the shades," she requested.
In the dying light, the room seemed gray. Even so, Jeanie winced at the relative brightness. She appeared even worse than before, her hair stringy, her face ashen. "Can you see to Zach's bath tonight?" she asked.
Osmond shifted his feet. "You need to see the doctor."
"No doctors," she replied, her voice firm.
"Jeanie, you've never avoided doctors before--"
"It's just the flu," she interrupted. "There's not much they can do about it. I just need some rest. I'll be fine in a few days." She ignored the food. "Can you send in Zach? I want to say goodnight to him."
Osmond turned away. A teardrop glistened in the faint light as he replied in a broken voice, "Sure, honey." In the hallway, he shouted to the vacant house, "Zach! Zach! Your mom wants to talk to you." In a hoarse whisper, he murmured, "Come see your mother."
The bedroom door slammed shut behind him, startling him. With leaden feet, he proceeded to the bathroom to fill the tub. Over the gurgling water, he imagined hearing giggles and laughter and better times.
The days progressed and resentment simmered within Osmond. Jeanie continued to be confined to bed, a once spry woman now emaciated. Only her eyes remained strong, and still she knew. When he took shortcuts, no matter how trivial, her haggard voice admonished him with alarming recognition. So he stood in the kitchen, searing salmon and steaming cauliflower, a meal for himself, a fictitious boy, and a wife who would not eat anyway. Three plates, one plain white, the second cracked and blue, and the third child-sized with a faded picture of Pokemon, rested on the counter next to the stove.
He had no option but return to work, relocating to his home office, as the bills piled up. When not working, he lost his remaining hours performing chores and perpetuating the fable. His anger festered and he began avoiding his wife. Their interaction devolved to twice-a-day feedings. She only spoke to him when he overlooked something, when he fucked up the mythology.
And he waited. He waited for the preschool, for the police, for their relatives, for someone to penetrate the flimsy facade. No one came. No one called. He raged that the world played along, each day the tension growing, ready to sunder at any moment.
Osmond slammed the spatula, splattering salmon skin across the stovetop. His mind preoccupied, he growled, "Do you want chocolate milk or apple juice?"
"Chocolate milk, daddy."
He spun around, nearly upsetting the pan onto the floor.
An empty chair. An empty table.
He disintegrated. He sat heavily, his head rested on his forearms.
Osmond finished with the living room, part of his weekly ritual, as he vacuumed and dusted, wiped and reordered. He adjusted the picture of Zachery hanging on the pale blue wall. The room seemed so soundless and bare. He then walked listless to the kitchen, to continue with the next set of chores.
On the table with the foil torn off was an empty plastic yogurt cup. A child's spoon rested aloof a mere inch away.
A stab of rage broke through the anesthetized shell he called his soul. He crumpled the plastic with his angry hand and tossed it into the garbage. Emboldened, he marched to the bedroom. He swung open hard the door.
Jeanie, her cheeks sunken, gazed at his seething form in the doorway.
Osmond loomed over her. He searched for the words, his fists at his sides. He had never hated her, not even during the worst of times, but now a fury gripped him with such a passion that the world spun and his heart thundered in his ears.
He could do nothing. He swallowed his anger and rued his impotence. He turned away when Jeanie's hand grasped his wrist with unexpected strength.
Their eyes met and all the ire dissipated in an instant, quenched by her steady stare.
He touched her cheek with the back of his hand. She nodded and let him go.
Osmond closed the door behind him, gently this time. As he made his way to the kitchen through the living room, he kicked something soft. On the floor was a ragged stuffed monkey, a favorite toy of his son's. Only then did he realize the television on, happily showing a rerun of Sponge Bob.
They still did not question him when he signed out Zachery. After all this time, no one gave him odd looks when he buckled his pretend son in the child seat. He drove away, a forgotten pair, a ghost child with a ghost of a father.
Osmond inhaled deeply, content within his thoughts. Brilliant blue teased through the treetops. He pictured Zachery with his dark hair and azure eyes, sitting behind him, babbling about all things important to a four year old. "Did you learn anything new today?" Osmond asked with a wry smile. He imagined Zachery answering in an excited, high-pitched voice, discussing the finer points of finger-painting or the hazards of romping through the playground, chasing and being chased, of naptime and rugs, of Suzanne the girl with ponytails who liked him even though he thought her icky, although Vincent liked her but she thought him dumb, and Ms. Kaughman told Vincent to behave, but he didn't and he got in trouble, and we all laughed. Well, I didn't really laugh 'cause I kinda felt bad for him. He's my friend, sort of. But he started it when he pulled Suzie's hair and she cried real bad. He's not so nice sometimes. I think he has a brother who's mean to him and--"
Osmond glanced in the mirror and the voice ceased, the child seat vacant.
"Go on, Zach," said Osmond, looking away. "Continue your story."
No one answered him.
"And they lived happily ever after."
Osmond closed the storybook and sat upon the edge of the bed, his back to the presence he sensed but dared not see.
"Is that how it really ended, daddy?"
Osmond flinched but kept his gaze upon the open doorway. He could feel his son's warmth behind him. He wanted to stare into those deep, blue eyes, to confirm that he was not going mad. "Stories are alive, Zach. They breathe and change over time. It's our story now."
"So you changed it," said Zachery.
The ballerina falling into the fire. The toy soldier down after her. A sequin and a tiny heart made of tin within the ashes. "I changed it for the better," replied Osmond. He turned to kiss his son goodnight and found himself alone once more. Grief played across his face. He pounded the mattress in frustration.
At the doorway, his mind a tempest, he paused. "Sleep tight. Don't let the bedbugs bite."
"I won't daddy... Daddy?"
His sanity frayed. He gripped the frame with his right hand. Resisting the urge to look behind him, Osmond stammered, "Ye-- yes, Zach?"
"Don't be sad. I think it's okay to change the story to make it better."
Osmond quivered and shook. Then his shoulders slumped and he smiled wearily. His eyes averted, he said, "I'll leave the door open and the hallway light on."
"Okay. Goodnight daddy."
Osmond gazed out the window unto the cloud-burdened street, and the way of gray defeated him. It pummeled him, broke him. He yearned for blue sky. He knew it existed, beyond the overcast, but the gray would have none of it. He fancied watching the dim world through a television screen when, with a clarity that pierced his third eye with a stabbing pain, he saw how it all related. The television screen, the window pane, the clouds above. All were barriers that did not hide truth but separated it. He could follow the beam back, shatter the glass, or penetrate the heavens. You assumed it to be true, but nothing said it had to be.
"You're lost within your thoughts again," said a raspy whisper from across the room.
Osmond almost convulsed coming out of his moment of illumination. He turned to his wife. Her withered form merged with the bed. He had to focus on her or else she seemed to melt from his view. He sighed. "You're still not eating," he said.
"I get up and snack," said Jeanie. "Usually when you're working." She closed her eyes and a brief panic tore through Osmond. "You don't have to bring me food anymore. I'm actually feeling much better. Tend to Zach. Don't worry about me."
Her words belied her skeletal body, her shallow breaths. Yet he knew that despite her false assurances, she never felt as well or looked as beautiful as she did in that sorrowful light.
In the haze of gray, he picked up the untouched tray, an eddy within the dusty air lingering behind him.
Osmond pushed the creaky shopping cart up and down the endless aisles, his shadow diminished by the fluorescent lights that barraged him from every direction. He kept reminding himself that the most expensive items were always stocked at eye-level within easy grasp of lazy fingers. Nevertheless, knowing the trick did not keep his gaze from wandering back. He became irritated with himself.
He studied the endless cereal boxes, stacked row upon row, the parade of bright colors and gaudy images. He imagined finding the right balance between what was healthy with what Zachery would actually eat. He imagined arguing with the child, the morning ritual of tantrums, negotiations, and threats.
"My, aren't you a handsome boy!" said a woman's voice behind him.
A chill ran up Osmond's spine. The Lilliputian retreated to the back of his skull. He released a box he just took hold of and began the slow pivot.
"And how old are you?" continued the woman.
"I'm almost five!" replied a familiar child's voice.
Osmond's hair stood on end. He halted before facing them and glimpsed, in the corner of his eye, the blurry form of Zachery sitting in the cart's child seat
"My, my! Such an eloquent response! You must have wonderful teachers. Your father should be extremely proud!"
Osmond's face contorted into a nervous smile and a series of tics. His neck creaked as he turned a fraction more.
She blinked and put a hand to her gasping, middle-aged mouth. Her face, caked with make-up, stared at a now empty child seat. She turned in disbelief to Osmond.
He said not a word. He returned her stare with his neurotic grin.
She walked, almost ran, away, leaving Osmond in a state of joy and wrath, of hope and despondency.
"Daddy, I'm bored."
Osmond stifled a groan, Zachery hovering in his peripheral vision. Exhausted from work and chores, Osmond wanted only to sit in his chair in comfort, the newspaper unfolded on his lap. The boy acted hyper all week, pestering his father to no end. "Go outside and play, buddy," suggested Osmond.
"Come watch me!" shouted Zachery, crouched down, his hands slapping on a soccer ball. Thwap thwap thwap.
Osmond grated his teeth. Thwap thwap thwap. An urge welled within him to glance at Zachery, to make the child disappear, for just a moment, just for the briefest of silence. An immediate and overwhelming sense of shame gripped him then. He crumpled the newspaper and threw it aside. "Okay buddy. Let's play ball."
Outside, in the early evening sun, father and son kicked the soccer ball back and forth. Kunk. "Whoa there, Zach," said a laughing Osmond as he chased the ball down the slope. He picked it up from the bushes and trudged back up the incline to the grassy plateau. "Try to kick it to me this time." Zachery chortled.
Osmond kept his eyes to the ground and guessed where his son was standing. His foot connected with a soft thud, the ball skittering across the grass. As he awaited the zealous return, a sense of someone watching caused him to look upward at the bedroom window. He saw nothing, only darkness beyond the glass.
The soccer ball ricocheted off his shin, bounding down the driveway. In the corner of his eye, he glimpsed an indistinct form in chase. The sound of a speeding car rumbled from down the street.
"Zach!" screamed Osmond. Strength surged through his limbs as he tore down after. "I can't see him," he gasped in panic and desperation. "Please, God, not again." His perception threatened to separate, the Lilliputian already in distress.
He forced his eyes to focus on the emptiness behind the bouncing ball. He dug deep within himself, shattering the glass, piercing the clouds. He lunged forward, relying on instinct, his fingers outreaching to nothing.
The ball skipped across the road. The car roared past.
Osmond held the weeping Zachery in his arms. He felt his son's warmth. He breathed deeply his scent. He held the boy in a soft but unbreakable hug, all the while murmuring, "It's okay, buddy. Daddy's here. Daddy's here."
Osmond lounged in easy chair, careful not to watch too intently his son playing with his action figures on the rug. The boy vanished if he stared for too long. He turned his eyes back to the television. Ennui grasped him in its gray talons and he knew not why. Life seemed almost routine again, the summer in its dying days, yet something nagged him. He pounded his fist on the armrest.
"You should say goodbye, daddy," said Zachery as he crashed two figures together.
Osmond glanced at his son. "What's that, buddy?"
"You should say goodbye. To mommy. I did."
Osmond sat in a stupor a long while, uncomprehending. The realization dawned upon him. He rose, somewhat stiffly, and made his way to the bedroom with cautious steps.
He pushed open the door with his fingers. In darkness, he saw an unoccupied bed. He walked toward it and focused on the nothingness.
"hello osmond" spoke a faint voice almost beyond hearing.
He saw her then, a vague silhouette, only her eyes solid. He fell to his knees by her side. His hand paused above her ethereal arm.
"Jeanie," he whispered, his voice choking.
"you're going to have to do this alone," she said. "take care of zach. keep him safe."
"I will," he sobbed. "I will." He bowed his head. "I don't know what to say, Jeanie. I miss you. I'm sorry I didn't realize that until just now. Is this the way of the world, to surrender something to get something back? Where's the fairness in that? It should be me that's gone, not you." He exhaled and grimaced, his face tortured. "I want to say something grand, to say something eloquent. Something poetic. Something worthy of you. But I struggle with the words, Jeanie, and the only thing that comes to mind--," he looked up and saw emptiness, "--is goodbye."
With his fingers, he placed a wistful kiss upon the cold, vacant spot. He stood, the sound of Zachery in the other room guiding him. As he departed, his hand closed around the door handle. He paused, and then let his arm fall.
He kept the door open.
© 2008 Jaimie L. Elliott
Bio: Mr. Elliott currently resides in Marietta, Georgia, with a wife and step-daughter, where he spends much of his time working as a project manager for IBM. His first love is fantasy, although he dabbles in poetry and literary fiction as well. He won first prize in the short fiction category in the Georgia Writers Association yearly contest and has been published in Aphelion (most recently Walking the Cobblebones, September, 2007, and the Forum Flash Challenge piece, "Spawn of Osk" (October 2007)) and Swords Edge.
E-mail: Jaimie L. Elliott
Website: jaimie l. elliott
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