The sandwich remains uneaten and forgotten, long since ravaged by mold. Beside it, the milk in the glass is nothing but crusty, yellow mud. The lunch now a mockery of what once was.
He leans against the doorway, peering into the fruitless dark of his son’s room. Clothes cling to his skin. Thirty minutes prior, he stood within the foyer, dripping in static silence after stumbling in from the rain. He realizes that nothing carries weight anymore. Except maybe his sodden clothes.
He wavers. A car passes somewhere in the night. Light cuts rudely through the room; shadows jump stiffly about the walls, scurrying into corners. Stuffed animals squat atop the bed, solemn smiles unflinching across their faces. A sliver of headlight touches the uneaten sandwich, illuminating the plate like a stage. It fades away—the show over, curtain drawn on yet another day. He hesitates, breath snagging in his throat. Eventually, he backs away.
He forgets to take his loafers off and like frightened mice, they squeak across the wood floor. In the hallway, he freezes and absently touches his cheek. Something vague flits pass his eyes. He blinks and peers through it—too busy grieving to take notice.
His wife’s hand, barely perceptible upon his elbow, leads him into his bedroom. A time existed when her touch soothed him; now she is nothing but a phantom, much like everything else. She peels the clothes from his skin; they fall heavy to the floor. He stands naked, shivering in his loafers, her eyes unable to warm him. “Come,” she whispers and pulls the covers back from the bed.
He plummets face first into his pillow and dreams, still wearing his loafers.
He drowns under the bridge, tied in cord, wrapped in linen, weighted with stones. A rush of icy fluid fills his nose and mouth as he submerges, singing him like liquid fire. The linen entangles and constricts his limbs. Crystalline patterns soon flutter within his tomb; quickly he realizes that he will never again be able to grasp his own tears. He thumps the bottom of the river, stones sharp into his back, ice in his lungs lending an odd, displaced sort of serenity. How he wishes to slip his eyes shut a final time, but his linen tomb suddenly jerks back to the surface. The fire within his lungs burns out; his cords somehow undone, the linen and stones stripped free. He finds himself drifting upon the river’s surface now, under that dark and brooding bridge. The shapes flutter before his eyes again. This time, he snatches those tears into his palm. Something breaks the surface alongside him; he gropes for its swollen form. The tears, however, leave his grip slick, and he watches it float away. Its misshapen head bobs the river. Water fills its blackened mouth.
He chokes upon the memory of his languishing dream—along with the ice water in his lungs. Limbs spasm, desperate to stay afloat in the current of his reverie. A coffee cup shatters, bringing him back around. Eyes snap—the crystalline tears gone, replaced by the image of his wife. He gasps, clutching at the linen blanket hanging from his shoulders. Still naked beneath it, still in his loafers. Brain dull. “How did I get here?” Words equally laggard.
His wife scrutinizes him, then rises from the table to get a dustpan and broom. The shards littering his feet sweep easily into the pan; the remainder of their life, not so much. “I woke you nearly half an hour ago. You walked into the kitchen without saying a word and fell asleep at the table again. Then you had another bad dream.” She glances at the floor. “You twitched around pretty good. Thankfully your cup was empty.”
He says nothing. Listens to the scrape of broken ceramic against tile, its sad plunk into plastic.
“Aren’t you concerned about this?” she asks, not bothering to lift her eyes. Shards are much more important when nothing else remains.
His throat constricts, full of icy water. “About falling asleep that way or…the dream?” The last word lingers, thick and black.
“You tell me.” But she knows a real answer will never follow.
He shudders. “I couldn’t save him again,” and wraps himself in his linen shroud.
Her fingers entwining his own are meant to soothe; sandpaper against his skin, they instead scratch. He fidgets until his wife turns to him, her weak smile like a smudge across the chalkboard of her face. She used to glow, he thinks, but now her color has been robbed. He cannot bear to look anymore.
“Robert? Do you appreciate watching your son suffer a dull aching pain?” their therapist prods.
He tosses his wife’s hand aside. “What?”
“Robert? I asked if your wife appreciates you walking in the rain.”
The therapist’s office spins a moment. “I don’t know,” his mouth puckers. “I just…walk. I don’t know how else to answer that.”
“Perhaps you can start by addressing it with your wife.”
He watches the therapist flatten the frill of her skirt, her fingers slender, smooth. He wonders how scratchy they might be. “I suppose she doesn’t appreciate it,” voice trailing like vapor along the walls. His eyes roaming, cloudy. “She’s always left drying the foyer after me.”
“That’s hardly the point,” his wife whispers.
Back home, and the afternoon presses down upon his shoulders. His wife leaves wordlessly for the market—their therapy session tragically useless. He has no intention of attending another.
He starts a shower, the hot water blinding. Soon the stall fills with the steam of a shattered life. A cerulean sky swirls down the drain along with every vestige of happiness once held in his eyes. He cries, allowing soap and hot water to steal it away. When he hears his son’s voice, his knees buckle.
Daddy don’t leave me alone
The gurgle of the drain creates its own resonance in unison with the rush of water; the white noise floods his brain. He cringes as a voice surrounds him, reverberating against the slick tile, echoing in the mist. With a trembling hand, he pushes the shower door open. Silence, save the pitter-patter of water; silence, save the slow throb in his head. “Karen?”
Closing the door, the white noise plays with his ears once more.
Daddy don’t leave me alone
Water fills his screaming mouth. He slams the door open this time, stumbling out from the bathroom into the hallway. Drops to a knee, retching bile hotter than the water he just escaped. Through blurry eyes, he glimpses something vague flit pass.
This time, he takes full notice.
The formless shadow dissipates inside his son’s room. He staggers forward, skin feeling heavy on his bones, halting at the doorway, unable to cross its threshold. He gawks at the ruined sandwich, so lonely atop its plate, and the diseased milk. The voice in his son’s room ratchets in strength; a thousand dissonant shrieks rip through his head.
They sit face to face. She wishes to touch him, realizing what once remained of him is gone. A delusion, much like everything else. “So what happened?” Karen’s tone thick with exasperation. She wraps her arms around her chest.
Robert shrugs. “I heard him.”
“Him? You mean Sean?”
“Yes, of course. Sean. Who else?”
She grimaces, the stifled breath within her chest unbearable. “Robert, our son is dead.”
He shudders, wishing himself wrapped in linen. “I heard him, Karen. He can’t be dead if I heard him,” he says matter-of-factly.
She carefully considers her next words, wondering when he will realize their life has been mercilessly hanging by a thread the past six months. “He isn’t coming back to us, Robert. No matter how much we want it otherwise, how much our heart tells us he’s still here…no matter what you thought you heard…he’s not coming back to us.”
He blinks, eyes glazing over; he wishes he could walk in the rain. “He was always a good swimmer. The river, it—”
Her stifled breath explodes; a wall juts between them. “Dammit, let it go! Sean is gone. He isn’t coming back to us. It was an accident. He slipped on a rock, struck his head. You said you couldn’t reach him in time. Even if you could have…you can’t swim. You could do nothing!”
“There it is.”
Karen withdrew. “There what is? Do you think I’m saying I blame you?”
“You don’t have to. We could go to that shrink forever and she wouldn’t be able to extract what you just spat out. You do blame me. It’s in your eyes. Questioning why I allowed Sean to walk those icy rocks. The disgust you have that I’ve never learned to swim. It’s all there. It’s always been there.”
“No, Robert, I blame you for not letting go! I blame you for turning our son’s bedroom into a memorial. His belongings…pack them away. Just do it already. The constant reminder…is it really needed? Isn’t it already painful enough?” She sobs, thick, rolling. “For God’s sake, Robert, throw away that miserable sandwich! I understand not doing it the first few days after it happened…but it’s been months now. He’s not coming back to eat it. Sean is not coming back to eat that fucking sandwich or drink that fucking milk! What has happened to you, Robert? Instead of picking up the pieces, you’ve become the pieces.”
He stares off into the hallway. A vaporous blob hesitates in the center, almost as if in waiting. Just the right height for a little boy. Just the right spot where his son would sometimes kiss him goodnight. He touches his cheek, allowing his fingers to linger. “He can’t be dead if I heard him.”
He refuses to do it, refuses to discard the sandwich or dispose of the milk. He has become oblivious to the fetid stench poisoning his son’s room. His senses, much like his mind, shut down a long time ago.
His wife goes on with therapy over the weeks that follow. Without him. He believes that a shrink should not go probing around inside his head. Not when his dead son speaks to him every day.
He hears his son in the morning, above the sizzle of bacon in the pan. Above the long drip of coffee into its pot.
He hears his son in the thick of night as heat pings the baseboards, and boughs outside the window creak and sway. Always a whisper. Close; still so far away.
He hears his son most from the memorial once the boy’s room. Wispy verbiage, here then gone; a cursed hymn echoing dolefully inside his brain.
Daddy don’t leave me alone
The more his dead son speaks, the more Robert loses his mind.
“Are you going for a walk tonight?”
The rain pelts the glass, turning the street into a twinkling kaleidoscope. Its chill permeates straight through into Robert’s core. “Yes. I believe so.”
His wife’s exhalation is sharp and taut, something his mind used to be. Her reflection trembles in the glass. He looks away, eventually slipping into his loafers. “If you step out that door, Robert, it’ll all be gone. I’ll throw it away. The fact I’ve respected your wishes this long is sheer madness. Our lives need to move forward.”
His hand hovers above the knob. “You wouldn’t dare do that to him.”
“No, I wouldn’t. Not to our son. I’d do that to you.”
“You’re so cruel,” he says through clenched teeth.
“Only as much as you’ve been to us.”
The door slams; a cold rain swallows him, sluicing his face with biting truths. He walks and does not stop. He drifts like mist between street blocks, flickering in and out beneath the tremulous glow of streetlamps, his wife’s threat long forgotten. Eventually, he comes upon the river, jumping the railing along its banks. His loafers sink into muck.
Tonight the river grumbles, slapping the shore. Rain riddles its churning surface like bullet holes from an unseen marksman. The high grass yields to him, the angry congregation of the river filling his ears.
Daddy don’t leave me alone
His son’s voice is here yet should not be. It belongs in his room, where the heat pings through the baseboards, where scores of stuffed animals keep hollow-eyed vigil while he is away. His son’s voice belongs there; where one day he will thank his father for making that sandwich. Where one day the boy will eat it in appreciation, without the need to hurry along.
Tonight the river grumbles while his little boy cries.
Rain fills his mouth.
He peers through the clotted dark, struggling to keep his balance in the foyer—his sodden clothes dripping.
This time, he pries his loafers from his feet and shambles through the hallway. A chill raises his flesh; a figure wafts beside him, grotesquely swollen, lips crudely blue. Robert brings his fingers to his cheek, waiting for his kiss. But it does not come. The silhouette gazes at him with eyes long devoured by the river and nods toward his son’s bedroom. Robert stumbles to its threshold.
A car screams in the night. Light rips through the room; shadows pounce, rending the stuffed animals lining the bed, strewing their innards in cotton shreds. He gapes, wondering if what he sees is real. Then he notices it…a ring staining the dresser’s surface.
And the sandwich…gone.
He storms into his own bedroom, roughly shoving through the phantom. “What have you done?”
Karen waits coolly, sitting cross-legged at the end of the bed. “I’ve moved our lives along. Don’t act so surprised.”
He shivers, aching for his linen tomb. “He never touched his lunch. He never touched his lunch! He’s going to be hungry when he gets home.”
Her eyes churn. “Goddamn you.”
“Our son could never slow down, could he? I took time to make his lunch. He could’ve taken the time to eat it.”
“You need help, Robert. Please…oh please, listen to me.”
“But Sean never listened to me. Did he? Did he, Karen?”
The rain drums upon the roof. The ghost in the hallway moans.
Daddy don’t leave me alone
“If he ate his lunch, maybe things would’ve been different. But he was in a rush to meet his friends that day.”
Karen’s brow wrinkles.
“No one ever listens to me in this house. Not you. Not Sean. He never ate his lunch. He rushed out…and I followed after him.”
She rises from the bed.
“I asked him to stop, Karen. Asked him to slow down. Nine years old. He should’ve shown more respect. But he ignored the lunch I made him. He rushed to be with his friends. They were more important.”
She covers her mouth with shaking hands.
“I followed him down to the river. He always used the bridge as a shortcut. We always used the bridge as a shortcut. All I asked of him was to stop. All I asked of him was to eat the lunch I’d made.”
“What are you saying, Robert? Jesus Christ, what are you saying?”
He hears the river grumbling in his ears.
“I grabbed him by the elbow, but he tried to pull away from me. My own son.”
He glances solemnly at his wife. “He tried to pull away.”
He hears his son crying in his head.
Daddy don’t leave me alone
“I don’t ever remember picking up the stone.” He raises a trembling hand above his head…and drives it down toward the floor. Again, and again, and again.
LEAVE ME ALONE!!
She collapses to her knees, sobbing. The truth looms before her, now a grey, shadowy wisp of the man she used to love. She cannot find air for her lungs. She cannot breathe life to the grief upon her lips. Robert’s hands wrap around her throat. “I’m sorry, Karen,” he whispers as his grip tightens. He gazes upon the vaporous blob watching from the hallway. Just the right height for a little boy. “Tell him I never meant to do it.”
© Copyright 2013 Joseph A. Pinto. All Rights Reserved.