James goes to pick up his daughter, bearing a terrible secret; by Brennan Lombardi.
His stomach made an unsettling growl, and he felt a sharp pain as if he was about to pass a kidney stone. James fumbled in his jacket pocket for the Imodium bottle and took two big gulps before putting the lid back on. After he slipped the bottle back into his pocket, he unzipped his jacket halfway down and reached inside his interior pocket for his six-shooter revolver, afraid he might have lost it since leaving his house. James was tempted to pull it out and make sure it was fully loaded again but fought off the compulsion for fear of neighbors and passersby witnessing him with a deadly weapon.
After zipping up his jacket, he turned around and checked on his infant son, who was sound asleep. So quiet and peaceful, he thought. James would do anything to trade places with him at that moment. Whatever he was dreaming of at that moment probably didn't consist of poverty, loneliness or the slow release of death. Through his eyes, the world was still a spacious and cozy crib, with enchanting animals and elaborate designs hovering over you to keep you entertained.
James closed the car door as quietly as he could and bolted to the front porch in order to escape the freezing wind. He knocked three times before hearing footsteps approach. When Kate opened the door, she tried to hide her astonishment.
"Hey Jim!" she said with a wide grin. James attempted to smile too but made an awkward smirk instead. "I was expecting Helen to come, but it's good to see you again. How have you been?"
"I'm good. I'm hanging in there," he replied. "Helen isn't feeling well so I'm picking Jess up a little early. Hope that's okay."
"Oh no! Is she sick?"
"Her stomach's upset. How was the party?"
Kate let out a major sigh. "Ugh. I am so glad it's over. But everyone had a great time." She noticed his hands were trembling. "Do you wanna come in for a minute? They're having cake right now."
"No, I can't. I have run to the store and get back home." Kate nodded with understanding, but James could see she was still slightly shaken by his demeanor.
"Okay," she said, still smiling. "I'll run and get her." When she came back with Jess, his daughter seemed even more surprised than Kate to see him.
"Dad? I thought Mom was supposed to pick me up."
"She's not feeling very well. We have to get back home to her."
"But I'm not done eating cake..." she whined.
"I know but we have to get back."
"Can I stay just a few minutes?"
"Hun, this is not the time. We have to get back." He hoped he didn't sound as agitated as he was.
"How about I get you a slice for the road," intervened Kate. "Can we do that?"
"Okay..." Jess said, peevishly. When Kate came back a slice of cake on a plastic plate covered in Saran wrap, Jess took it with both hands and started walking towards the door.
"What do you say, Jess?" said Jim.
She turned to face Kate and said, "Thanks for inviting me, Mrs. Holland."
"You're very welcome." She turned her gaze to James. "And hang in there. I know something good will come along."
"I appreciate that," he replied. "Have a good day." He grabbed Jess's hand to let her know it was time to go.
"You too," Kate said. "And tell Helen I hope she feels better."
"I will, thanks." He and Jess turned and walked toward the car.
"Goodbye," said James without turning around. Despite having a decent excuse, he knew Kate had felt uncomfortable around him and seemed very suspicious, but by the time she discovered the real story, he'd be long gone anyway. Still, he was bothered by the fact that he didn't sound more persuasive. If I could legally scam people for a living, he thought, then I can sure as hell get someone like her to believe me.
As they approached the car, James told Jess to get in the back seat and not make any noise because her baby brother was asleep.
"Why is Sam here?" she asked.
"Because we're headed to grandma and grandpa's."
"Why?" Jess whined again. Looking at her through the rearview mirror, he knew her interrogation wouldn't subside until he either gave her enough details to make his story sound plausible or she was able to catch him in a lie. Like father like daughter, he thought.
"I have to meet some people in the city today, so I'm leaving you and Sam with them until I get back." Helen would often leave the kids with her parents while she went shopping or visited with old friends, so he knew (or at least hoped) Jess wouldn't ask too many follow up questions. "I packed your toys and some clothes if you need them," he continued.
"How long will you be gone?"
"Just a few hours. I'll be back in the evening. Can you behave while I'm gone?"
"Yes. Can I call Mom?"
"Your mom's not feeling well. I'll let you call her later."
James started the car and, while driving away from the town he had made a life for himself in, he expected to reminisce about his old life but he only felt emptiness inside, as if a dark shadow kept hovering over him and the vortex was sucking all of his memories and feelings out of him one by one. Every moment with his wife and kids before today felt like hazy memories from his childhood, which he didn't want to dwell on either.
"Dad, did you bring my coloring book?" asked Jess.
"Yes, it's in your backpack." Jess unzipped her backpack on the floor in front of her and pulled out a large coloring book and a container of crayons. Sam was still sound asleep. James hoped both of them would stay occupied while he listened to the final score of the Mets, or any team for that matter. Just hearing someone steal second base or make a home run might bring him solace.
When James didn't find the Mets playing on the radio, he settled for the Chicago Cubs and listened to the announcer rave about their recent home run. He thought this would clear his mind for a little while, but his old life came creeping back in. Everything he had worked hard for, his job, his fortune, his family, was all gone now. Who thought my whole life would change in two weeks?
James wished he could blame losing his job and his million-dollar stocks on the Wall Street banks, greedy consumers or the government in general, but he knew that he and other bankers like him caused the recession too. By convincing clients with bad credit or low income to borrow a ludicrous amount of money, or Sub-Prime loans, to buy houses and cars they would never be able to pay back, he persuaded them that the American dream was still possible, the same dream he was able to live as long as the borrowers signed their own death warrants and they were bundled up for investors. However, when all else fails, America, like the crewmembers on the Titanic, will always save the prominent people first before rescuing everyone else. America was founded on greed, so why should it stop now? And if you can't live the American dream, what's the point of living in America? Or living at all, for that matter?
Regardless, James still had a glimmer of hope that he would eventually find another job and get his fortune back, either by applying for another company or maybe starting his own. It all seemed possible, at least until he decided to sort through Helen's phone that day with a gnawing suspicion that she would look for someone else since he had nothing left. He might have been able to tolerate her ardent messages if they hadn't been sent to and from Jay, his longtime friend and neighbor; someone he loved more than his own brother.
In spite of her betrayal, the affair made sense to him the more he thought about it. If Jay was close to James, it was only natural he would become close to his wife and children as well. He was a widower and she was a lonely housewife with a workaholic husband, he realized. I should have known sooner. Especially when Jess bonded more closely with Jay than with her own father. Even though he didn't want to accept it, a part of him, like a father's approval, was glad she chose someone he held in high regard.
It was admirable that Helen didn't break the news to him at the lowest point of his life. But, on the other hand, if they were lovers for over a year and she had planned to move in with Jay like she said, he wondered why she didn't she ask him for a divorce long before he lost his job. Did she consider ending it at some point, he wondered, or did she simply not have it in her to confront me? He finally concluded that it was just another mystery to Helen's decision-making process he would never fully understand and pushed the nagging thought away as much as possible.
James spied Sam, who was still asleep, in the rearview mirror and saw Jess working on her coloring book, being as careful as possible not to go outside the pictures. He knew she was in the "zone", which reminded him of his college days when he pitched. Once he reached a certain state of mind, his eyes never left the batter and no amount of commotion from the crowd could distract him. Someone could have walked right up to him and clocked him on the side of the head and he wouldn't have seen it coming. From the moment the batter stepped up to the plate to the moment he left, James observed every subtle movement by him and calculated what kind of pitch to throw or whether or not to walk him. Finding the "zone" was like climbing a sheer cliff, but once he was there he felt invincible.
By discovering this ability at a young age, James was able to receive a full-ride athletic scholarship, get accepted into a top tier MBA program and then offered a lucrative job. The "zone" had taken him further in life than he had ever imagined but it seems to have disappeared lately.
As James approached a tollbooth, he remembered he had his EZ pass with him but decided to pay with cash. If an APB had been sent out, he could easily be tracked through a tollbooth or any credit cards he used, which is why he also took his remaining cash from his checking account before picking up Jess.
"Dad, can I call Mom now?" Jess asked. She had finished her drawings and not a single color had overflowed outside the lines.
"Your mom hasn't responded to my text messages. She's probably sleeping right now."
"You said that an hour ago."
"I know but she's sick. Can you wait till we get to your grandparents'?"
"But you said I could talk to her. Why can't you call her?"
"It's not a good time, Jess. You're going to have to wait."
"That's not fair. I wanna talk to Mom!"
"Honey, she's not feeling -
"I want to talk to mom!" Jess screamed.
"Jess," he snapped, "shut the fuck up!"
Sam instantly woke up with a cry. Tears formed in Jess's eyes too. James had trouble keeping his eyes on the road. He turned around and pointed toward Sam's bag.
"Get his bottle," he commanded.
"It's your fault. You get it!" Tears trickled down both sides off Jess's cheeks. She whimpered.
James inadvertently swerved halfway into the next lane and a car right behind him honked.
"Goddammit!" he howled. At that moment, he wanted to run the car off the highway, thinking it was the best way to end everything.
Jess jolted into action, opened Sam's bag and pulled out a bottle full of milk. When Sam refused the bottle, she pulled out his pacifier and he accepted it. Then she offered him his stuffed lion, which he accepted with open arms. Sam sucked and whimpered but soon the car became silent again, and James felt the prickly pain in his stomach return. He took out the Imodium and gulped the rest of the bottle.
"I'm sorry I yelled," he said a few minutes later. Jess didn't say anything; she kept staring out her window, pretending not to hear him while holding back more tears.
"You wanna listen to the radio?" James asked.
Jess didn't reply. James found a radio station playing the latest music, not for his taste, but he figured it would calm her down. When he looked in the rearview mirror again, his gaze became fixated on Sam, who was more interested in observing a cheap stuffed animal than wondering where he was going or what would happen to him. He once again envied his son's naiveté and wished he could take back what he had done Sam's mother and, almost, to Sam as well.
He had interrogated Helen, their shouting match quickly turned physical, and he was surprised at her strength she had when she slapped him across the face and he stumbled three steps backwards. His first impulse was to hit her back but a more sinister thought overpowered him and he retreated into the bedroom to load his gun.
No second thoughts entered his head. Afterwards, James believed it didn't completely happen by his own volition. He felt like he had entered someone else's mind and was forced to watch everything through their eyes.
He marched into the kitchen, shot her twice in the stomach, and walked out. James can remember her screaming and pleading when he pointed the gun at her, but it had no impact on him. He then proceeded upstairs to Sam's room, where Sam was sleeping, pointed the gun at his son and pulled back the hammer. But this time he managed to take control of his own thoughts and lowered his trembling arm to his side; he stood there for an eternity and stared at Sam, as if he was under hypnosis. I have become comfortably numb, he thought, and knew that one bullet would make that feeling last forever, but he wanted both of his children to be with him first.
The numbness soon wore off and was replaced by that familiar pain in his stomach. He went into the kitchen for medicine when he saw Helen's body covered in blood, her back rested against the side of the counter, head cocked to one side, and the stomach pain instantly shot to the top of his throat; he bolted into the bathroom. After vomiting, the pain returned to his stomach so he walked in and out of the kitchen as quickly as possible to get the medicine. His body trembled at the image of his wife soaked in blood and he wished he could cry, scream or show any kind of emotion but nothing manifested.
He waited until enough time had passed for him to pick up Jess without seeming too early. He packed the kids' bags, drove to the bank, and filled up his car before heading to Kate's house. James tried to forget what had happened the past few hours but found it difficult to focus on anything else except his deceptive, yet lovely, wife, who was now a grisly corpse lying in their kitchen. He yearned to see her smile again, the way she did when they first met, but he blocked the nostalgia.
James couldn't stand the uncomfortable silence anymore. He may have had to suffer through it with his coworkers and neighbors but not his own daughter, especially if he never saw her again. Jess continued to stare out the window, lost in thought as much as he had been the entire trip. He wondered what Jay would do in this situation and used the most simple ice breaker he could think of. "How was the party, Jess?"
Her gloomy expression suddenly turned to bewilderment. "Huh?"
"I asked how the party was. Did you have fun?"
"Yeah, it was okay."
"Did Taylor like the Barbie car you gave her?"
"She said she already had one."
"Well I'm sure she could use another one..."
Rather than responding, Jess tried to turn her attention back to the trees and mountains but James wouldn't allow it; not while he had another hour left with her.
"Can I be honest with you? I'm not meeting anyone in the city, and I'll actually be gone for a few days." He now had Jess's full attention.
"Your mother and I are having problems and we need to take some time to work things out. Can you stay with your grandparents for a few days? I'm sure they'll take you shopping." They always do, he thought.
"What kind of problems? Are you leaving her?"
"I don't know."
"Do you not love her anymore?"
"No, I love her a lot, and I always will."
"Does she not love you?"
"She did... but no matter what happens this has nothing to do with you, and we will never leave you guys. Do you understand?" He turned around for confirmation but she nodded at the floor, afraid that making eye contact might produce more tears. James knew that was the best response he would get from her. "I know I haven't been around very much, and I'm really sorry for that. But you should know... I wanted to give you guys the childhood I never had." He used to tell Jess how he and her uncle grew up on a farm and were forced to work from dawn till dusk every summer. How the majority of their childhood was spent milking cows and cleaning up their manure afterwards. "You guys are everything to me. I..."
"It's okay, dad. I forgive you." A stream of euphoria flowed through James's body, like fine wine after an expensive meal, and he felt more relieved than he had in a long time. Jess may or may not forgive him one day when she knew the entire truth, but at least she absolved him for now.
To avoid crying, Jess held the stuffed lion in front of Sam, which he had dropped earlier but now gleefully took back. She also held her hand in front of him and wiggled her fingers. Sam showed a keen interest in this new mobile toy and his own hands clamped onto her fingers as he studied them with intense curiosity.
As James pulled up to his in-laws house, another three story house in an upscale neighborhood, he remembered the first time Helen introduced him to them. He knew Helen grew up wealthy, but it made no impact on him until he saw the house she had been raised in and, at that moment, he knew he would have to become more than a small town banker if he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. Although his father in law, a polite yet pompous man, offered him a position at his prestigious company, he decided to turn it down and prove to himself and everyone else that he could make his own path. And look where that took me, he thought, right back to this goddam house.
Since both of his parents were dead and his brother lived a free spirited, gypsy lifestyle, he knew his in-laws would make the best guardians for Jess and Sam. Pressing his hand against his chest, James felt the gun inside his jacket but had no impulse to use it anymore. Whatever became of him, his kids would be taken care of and he wasn't going to interfere with that.
He stepped out of the car and opened the back door to get Sam. "Did you get everything?" He asked Jess.
She nodded and he followed her to the front porch, carrying Sam in the car seat with one hand and his bags with the other. When they reached the porch, everyone dropped their bags and James put Sam down in front of the door before turning to Jess. "I don't have time to stay. Say hi to your grandparents for me, okay?"
Jess couldn't control herself anymore and burst into tears. James knelt down and gave her a hug; she put her arms around him as tight as she could. "I don't want you and Mom to get a divorce."
"Me neither honey."
"I don't want you to leave."
"Me neither, but I have to."
"Please be back soon."
"I will," he said, feeling the sharp pain in his stomach again.
"I love you, dad."
"I love you too, hun. I always will." He kissed Jess on the forehead and had to uncuff her arms to get loose from her. He knelt down to Sam and kissed him on the forehead too. "Promise you'll take care of your brother." Jess nodded. Without delay, James knocked on the door twice, walked back to his car and drove away.
Rather than getting back on the highway, he took the winding backroads going down a cliff before pulling over to the shoulder of the road. Once he stopped, he let out a shriek and tore off the rearview mirror before bursting into tears. For a long time, James sat in his car and bawled uncontrollably.
After every last drop of agony and remorse poured down his face, he started the car again and continued driving, deciding whether he should end his life now or later. At one point, he considered turning himself in but couldn't stand the thought of his own kids visiting him in prison. However, he knew he couldn't run forever so death seemed like the best option.
Suddenly, James's face brightened and a moment of clarity washed over him. Since his children were the beneficiaries of his life insurance, the only thing he had left to offer, they would receive the benefits if his death was accidental rather than a suicide. This is the way it ends, his last thought as he jerked the steering wheel.