At an early age, I realised that there was something wrong with the world. My first best friend was nine when he fell victim to measles, the last recorded case to result in death. Perched beside his hospital bed, he told me of his fears for what was waiting for him. He asked why we live, and why we die. But the question that troubled him most wasn’t what was waiting for him, or whether he would be missed, it was whether he had done in his short life, what he was meant to do. At nine years old, I couldn’t answer him. And no one else possessed the kindness to even know the questions that he needed answers to, too tangled in the cruelty that would take a child from the world.
Whenever I spoke of my feelings, of the strangeness that existed, that there was more than the world we saw, the people I told were not forgiving. I was ridiculed by friends, earned concerned eyes from parents and asked not to speak of it by my teachers.
When I was eleven, I discovered another who shared my questioning of the life before us, who sought to dismantle the perceptions that my eyes and ears would have me believe, who showed me that reality was the lie I didn’t know I was telling myself. His name was Heinrich Galli. The book was A Guide to Life: The Misdirection of the Human Psyche. Composed of fifty-six gigantic chapters, it described everything that I had felt, especially my growing belief that my life would not be merely another imitation of those that surrounded me. Despite being a fellow resident of Virginia, we had never met, but I felt connected to him. Someone who understands this life we live. This existence.
I read that book every night for four years, tucked under the covers, dreaming of the life ahead of me. He gave me a reason to question what others accepted, to believe I might find what I was looking for. But I couldn’t hold on to it forever. Abruptly, the public writings of Heinrich Galli ended, and so finally, aged sixteen, I ventured to his home where his wife told me that he had taken his own life. I was so scared, so devastated by the barbaric loss of a beautiful mind that I began to conceal my views, fearing the path that I had started on. And yet the connection I felt with Heinrich Galli was only strengthened.
Time is different as you get older. Hopes unrealised. Promises broken. You look back at something from ten or twenty years ago and you can’t believe it. Can’t believe it happened that long ago. Can’t believe that moment is over. That you will never exist in that time again. Never feel how you felt, never be who you were. Things can bring you closer to it, a song, a smell, a photograph. But it’s over. You can never go back. That moment is lost to you forever.
Nothing hurts more.
* * *
I opened my eyes wide to force myself awake. The shift from sleep to consciousness was like being pulled from drowning in the ocean deep. I hung over the edge of the bed, retching, desperately straining to hack up whatever was slowly suffocating me. I heaved for breath, oxygen gradually filling my lungs. Another breath. Until I was panting, my heart racing.
Dread filled my gut as my nightmare came flooding back to me. I tried desperately to shake off the rotting nausea and come to my senses. The hairs on my arms stood on end and my legs trembled furiously. I prayed for her face to stop haunting me.
I pulled back the sweat-soaked duvet and jolted upright. Next to me, Jeri lay soundly sleeping. As I took a long, deep breath in and out, a little unease lifted with it. But when I closed my eyes, I still saw her terror as she was dragged across the concrete floor away from me. Felt the burning of her fingertips as they were ripped from mine. Heard Jeri’s scream as she left without a chance to say goodbye.
Fighting the urge to burrow under the covers where it was safe, I clamoured out of my warm bed with clumsy footing, stumbling across the thick pile carpet and out of our bedroom. I threw Jeri a final glance as I left, face covered by blonde hair, but it was enough to reaffirm she was safe and I pressed on towards Emily’s room. Scraps sat up, jumped off the bed and followed me, as always by my side. After a few steps, I saw Emily’s tiny arms clutching the teddy that I brought her back from New York last spring. It was nearly bigger than her, but she hadn’t let go of it all week. Scraps gave two barks to check on Emily but she didn’t wake.
I pressed forward, and then lingered outside Kyle’s room. My head told me to be rational, that everything was fine. I tried my best to stay calm, visualised Jeri waking up and telling me to stop acting stupid and go to sleep. But they couldn’t all be ok.
I prowled into Kyle’s room, fists clenched and ready for the worst. I dodged a different action figure or playset with each footstep, Kyle’s bed almost in sight from behind the alcove. Scraps let out a bark. I waved my hand to quieten him but he did it again. He wouldn’t stop. I stepped closer, my eyes fixed on that alcove, and my foot landed firmly on something sharp. I clenched my teeth to stop from yelling out and forged ahead, getting closer, my heart beating faster with every step.
The temptation to crawl back in bed was overwhelming. If something had happened to him, until I saw it, it wasn’t real.
I took one last step forward and stopped. Kyle was safely huddled up with an action figure his Dad had bought him. I took a much-needed breath, gently prised his fingers apart and laid the figure on the desk. Outside the room I shuddered hard, filled with relief that they were all ok. I didn’t know what was more unbearable, the nightmares or the warped sense of logic I was left with, stalking the house, terrified of what I might find.
Scraps looked up at me, waiting to follow my next direction. I led him downstairs and left him munching a treat in the kitchen while I checked the doors and windows were locked, and then I checked again, unable to let the niggling feeling of protectiveness rest. Leafless branches tapped against the kitchen window from the wind. All was safe and well in my home. Except for Scraps. I kneeled to him to stop him barking but he wouldn’t so I stood--
--I climbed into bed, trying not to wake Jeri. I lay by her side and edged my body closer to hers. I inhaled the perfume that still clung to her skin, perfectly combined with her own natural fragrance. She was at peace, so beautiful. All I wanted was to watch her sleep. If anything happened to her, I don’t know what I would become.
I peeled back the covers and took the opportunity to gently rest my hand on Jeri’s shoulder, careful not to wake her. I closed my eyes. Her skin was just as silky to touch as I remembered it. I wanted to hold her, imagining my arms wrapped around her body. I let go, tucked my hands under my pillow and lay my head on top to pin them down. My eyes opened and I lay staring at the blank wall, hours passing before my body finally gave in to sleep. Without the weight of Scraps’ small body on the bed, I seemed to rest well.
* * *
Early morning light poured in through a gap between the curtains but I buried my face deeper into the pillow to hide away from the harsh intensity. I rolled over and reached out to Jeri but found only an empty bed. 7:30am. I had slept in for the third time this week. I slipped on my dressing gown and spent ten minutes alone in the attic before I went downstairs for breakfast. I heard Jeri’s soft voice before I saw her. An image flashed in my head of her standing beside me, holding my hand, head tilted away from me, her skin cold. A moment later and she was gone.
Even awake, I couldn’t escape it. I felt sick.
I lingered in the kitchen doorway, not wanting to interrupt Jeri as she held Kyle at one side and Emily at the other. “Listen to me.” She pulled Kyle’s cheek to face her. “Listen, he made you both happy. He wouldn’t want us to be sad, now would he? He’s gone. So, we need to forget about it now. Ok?”
Kyle gave a reluctant nod, gazing into the distance, but Emily didn’t respond, tears running off her cheeks. Jeri saw me and motioned towards the garden door with her head.
I followed a trail of blood smeared across the garden pavement to a metal trashcan that stood at the end. Blood covered the inside and the tip of Scraps’ nose poked out at me. I turned my head in disgust. Some of the blood from the bin managed to get onto my dressing gown.
I heard Jeri’s footsteps approaching from behind and she stopped next to me. “What happened?” I asked.
“I don’t want to know. It was horrible. I… I think the shelf fell on him.” She held her hand to her face trying to stay composed. I fought the urge to hold her.
“Are they ok?”
“I think so, considering. They’re shook up pretty bad. Kyle found him.”
“Oh no, the poor kid.”
Jeri tried to smile “I’ve talked to him about it, tried to make him feel better. I think they just need to forget about it now,” she said and made her way back into the house before I had time to object.
I tied the trash bag, replaced the metal lid, went inside and washed myself until I was clean. I felt my own eyes welling up. I remembered buying him as a puppy, how happy Jeri was, how excited Emily and Kyle were the first time they saw him.
Despite waking late, I took my time dressing in my shirt and pants, each button a labour and a blessing – as much as my own thoughts were an anvil pressing me harder and harder into the ground, I would suffer it for the time alone. Downstairs, Emily’s eyes were wide with excitement; grin indented into her cheeks, all over the bowl of cereal she shovelled into her mouth. Kyle twirled his spoon slowly through the milk without taking a bite. I perched at the oak dining table in between them and seized two pieces of toast. Jeri brought in a second plate of toast and laid it on the table. She gave me a sympathetic smile and sat down next to Kyle.
I didn’t know what was worse, Kyle dwelling on it or Emily’s obliviousness. I wanted to put my arm around him, to pull them both close to me, but I hesitated until it was too late and I couldn’t do it.
“So, what are you doing in school today, Emily?” Jeri asked, her tone exactly the same as any day when our dog didn’t die.
“That sounds fun,” I said. Jeri smiled and I liked the way her eyes lit up when she did.
“But I’m still hungry.”
“Ok, Sweetie, well what have you had to eat?”
“Toast and cereal and milk and a cookie.”
“And you’re still hungry? We better find something to fill that greedy belly of yours then.” I tickled under her arms until her screams of laughter became ear piercing and I stopped. Kyle kept staring into space. Jeri put another piece of toast onto Emily’s plate.
A mug shot of a sneering young man had appeared on the TV screen followed by the newsreader. “They let him go,” Jeri said.
Jeri detected the irritation in my voice. “People make mistakes.”
“Kidnapping a fifteen-year-old girl?”
“He was only eighteen himself. And he crossed a state line, it’s not really kidnapping.”
“Well, he deserves a second chance.”
“He took her for two weeks. Her parents must have been terrified. He should be locked up. What if it was your daughter?”
“They couldn’t track her?” Jeri took out a Cherry Pop and dropped it into her mouth. She closed her eyes as she swallowed it. “Divine.”
I took a breath. “Her damn parents didn’t put her DNA on file.” The DNA tracker was the first major project that I completed at US Tech. Each tracker could hold, remotely recognise and locate a single DNA sequence, ignoring any interference that would contaminate traditional DNA profiling.
“You don’t have yours on file.”
“Children should be on file,” I said, earning a look of disproval from Jeri.
I did my best to stay in the room – mentally and physically. Kyle had barely looked up from his bowl. “Do you remember when we brought Scraps home?” Kyle kept his eyes on the bowl but I saw them widen. “He jumped right out of the box.”
Emily giggled hard. “And he weed on your shoe, Uncle Ryan.”
Kyle’s smile wrenched at my heart.
“Ok, that’s enough now. We’re supposed to be forgetting about it,” Jeri said as she swiped away my plate with an uneaten piece of toast. “And you’re going to be late.”
I gave the kids a kiss goodbye and told them I hoped to see them soon. Jeri walked me to the door, the pleasantness that had filled her face this morning had already started to fade. She surrendered a quiet goodbye, reached her hand out awkwardly towards my shoulder and pulled me in for a hug or a kiss. I jerked back unconsciously and Jeri withdrew.
A flash of hurt appeared in her eyes before she slammed the door an inch away from my face. No time for me to say goodbye. From the other side of the door, her voice boomed with excitement.
What was she thinking? I wasn’t trying to hurt her; I just don’t understand what she was doing.
For a second, I considered giving up on my sham of a marriage.
* * *
I sat alone in my hatchback in the middle of a sea of parked cars. My eyes still felt like the lids had been peeled back and a steady tremble travelled down my body. I struggled to control my thoughts, going back and forth over the bad times. Wondering what today had in store for me. Afraid to leave the sanctuary of my car.
When I finally bolted, Jessica was waiting to greet me in the doorway of the giant rocket shaped US Tech building with Peter hanging behind. “I left you a voicemail. Bob wants you in his office in five. He’s panicking again.” She smiled at me. Her hair curled under the left side of her face. I tried not to think about it.
“I need a coffee,” I said passing through the security scanner to access reception. “You ok for one?”
“I’ll come with,” Jess said. “I could do with a coffee.”
Peter held one in each hand. “I just got you a latte,” he said in mild dismay.
“I don’t drink lattes,” Jess shouted back on her way to the coffee tap with me, leaving Peter behind the security scanner to stare down at his rejection in the form of a caffeinated drink.
The first time I saw the inside of US Tech I had to catch my breath. The curved steel arch that hung forty feet above my head was adorned with fluorescent lights small enough to look like stars. The glossy black walls featuring touchscreens and foldout tech access points were in setback in curved recesses, water fountains and coffee taps beside each one. The buzz of enthusiasm was irresistible, an undeniable epicentre of the future in the making. But now it was just another room in just another building. Its wonder wasted on me.
“So, what’s got Bob so agitated?” I still felt uncomfortable around her, but Jess never stopped acting like my best friend.
Jess leaned towards me as we walked and her eyes glowed with excitement. “The Secret Service is here.”
“Are they prepping the building or something?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never dealt with them before. Rick said they were like an army of ants when he was on the Space Lift programme.”
Rick Stenson had been my best friend since college. When it came to work and his unrelenting ambition, he could be the biggest prick when he wanted to be, but if he’s your friend, then he’s your friend for life. Loyal like a sheepdog, he’ll watch out for you, forgive anything and have your back no matter what. At US Tech, my boss, Bob had turned down my application three times before Rick persuaded him to interview me.
Bob’s glass office walls were misted up, which told everyone outside that the meeting was confidential. Jess and I walked in sipping cappuccino’s as Bob tapped in a fury against his glass desk. More new photos of his family had joined the half dozen others until there was barely enough space for him to lean. Rick and Peter were perched on the only two chairs in the room. “I got a call from the CEO’s office. There’s been a change of plan,” Bob began before giving either of us a chance to bring in more seats. “I can’t believe Washington laid this on us. He’s moved his visit. He’s coming today.”
“Today? But we’re not ready.” Peter was right. We were hardly prepared.
“He’s the Vice-President of the United States, I couldn’t exactly tell him to reschedule.” Bob rolled his eyes. “If that’s ok with you, Peter.”
Peter slumped back in his chair. “I’ll hack his diary and change the date.”
A professionalism aficionado, Rick had learned not to enter a slanging match with Peter so he opted for a tension-filled blink followed by a long stare directed at Peter, rather than the profanity of the past.
“Now,” Bob continued. “Vice President Palmer has always shown a great public support for the work we’re doing here at US Tech, and we owe it to him and to ourselves to put on our best show. Ryan, you have the lead on this. I hope you’re all ready?”
I looked around the room at Rick, Jess and Peter. In the moment, my mind was in too much of a furore to even remember what preparation we had done. I cleared my throat. “We’re ready.”
“Then get your presentations on that screen and we rehearse until we’re on at 1pm.”
Rick jumped to his feet, laying claim to being first up for rehearsal – even though me and Jess were supposed to be up first – and used his tablet to flash the first slide onto the screen embedded in the wall. Bob let out a sigh and slumped in his chair and whispered, “Do you think we can pull this off?”
“We’re at our best when we’re up against it.” I had become adept at portraying false confidence – I had put off and put off my preparation hoping inspiration would strike in the final hour, and I could barely concentrate enough to hold this conversation so the only thing coming out of my mouth to Vice President Palmer would be drivel and nonsense – but if Bob descended into panic then he would spend the precious time left scrutinising, which would only sabotage the preparation I knew Rick and Jess would have done (and Peter had both winged and aced every presentation I had seen him do).
Bob cracked his neck once on either side. “You’re right, you’re right. We’ve done the hard work, this is all about flying the flag. And you... you’ve done something very special. You’re onto bigger and better things. Now you need to help Rick get polished, and I have to make an appointment.” I narrowed my eyes in confusion and Bob cowered. “I’ve got to take Janie to the dentist. Her Mom’s visiting her sister in New York. She’s unhappy with the colour of her braces because little Daisy has yellow ones. I don’t think she’d forgive me if I cancel it again. Kids, you’ll do anything for them.”
“Hard not to.” I didn’t bother to question why he was leaving us at such a crucial time.
“What about you and Jeri? Any rugrat plans?”
Acid rose from my stomach and so far up my throat I could taste it. “No,” I stumbled over my words, the acid burnt my heart on the way down. “No, not yet.”
* * *
At exactly 1pm, the boardroom door swung open and two secret service staff left another four in the corridor as they hurried inside, followed by the man himself, Vice President Robert Palmer. The mood in the room lifted the second he entered, clearly someone you couldn’t help but take notice of. His slim fit navy suit was immaculate and seemingly immune to creasing. He smiled and made eye contact with each of us as he strode nearer, followed by another man in a suit that made all of ours look shabby, but was still made to look like something bought from the thrift store compared to the Vice President’s.
Elliot Brandon, the CEO of US Tech greeted him first. Brandon patted his arm and grinned like they were old chums. Vice President Palmer didn’t quite reciprocate, but he was respectful. Then Bob did the usual handshake and introduced himself before the Vice President moved onto Rick, leaving Bob dabbing sweat from his brow. He greeted Jess and Peter, each of them sharing a few words of welcome and comments about how exciting our work is, and then finally, he stood right in front of me.
Ok, keep it together, Ryan. Silent. Calm. Clarity.
Oh shit, what am I going to say?
My mind was an empty shell of nothingness. I had a faint recollection of something in there, something smart, or funny, or sincere. And the etiquette: I had planned to research the recommended way to talk to a Vice President, or conversation tips, but it was the last thing on my mind when the meeting was brought forward, and with him standing right in front of me, I had no idea what to say.
“Then this must be the wonder kid?” He broke my intense awkwardness, held out his hand and laid a smile on me that reminded me of how my father eased my worries away as a child.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir.” He had the best handshake I had ever experienced. Firm, but not too tight, long but not overly long, and his left hand placed gently on my shoulder, welcoming me into his life.
“So, I assume you all know who I am,” he smiled and all of my colleagues laughed excessively. “This is Agent Brody. He specialises in ensuring the security of our country is not compromised.” Brody looked like a typical special agent, wearing a black suit and tie and a white shirt (I half expected him to top it off with black sunglasses). He travelled the room shaking hands with a vice-like grip as Vice President Palmer continued, “I am very excited by the achievements that you have made. You few in this room are part of a large movement of people who are taking our country and the whole human race to new levels of prosperity: The new wave of pioneers.”
“Well, we have a packed hour for you Mr Vice President. I hope that it meets your expectations.” Bob ground his teeth awaiting a response
“Then for the next hour, I’m all yours.”
The Vice President sat at the far end of the long white table and everyone except the two secret service staff – who were positioned one behind the Vice President and one at the door – clustered around him. The boardroom was not my favourite place. The chairs too heavy, the people too distant, and the large windows let in enough sun to burn my eyes out. I wished I had been more prepared, rehearsed more, and weeks in advance. This was not the time for stumbling over words or for my mind to go blank. Caffeine in full swing, I took a breath to ease my nerves and hoped the right words would find their way into my mouth.
“Eight years ago, US Tech, the largest global government-corporate collaboration in history launched a joint initiative to develop a range of technologies for the benefit of our civilisation. Three years ago, in conjunction with NASA, US Tech provided America with the Space Lift, a phenomenal achievement that allows astronauts to be transported directly to the US Pad Space Station without a shuttle. Now, we have taken the same nanotube technology that has benefited the space programme, and applied it to everyday life on Earth. I present to you, the White Giant.”
The Vice President smiled and nodded his head in approval at the massive cylindrical building displayed on the screen before him. The architects had done a beautiful job of the design, white walls with hexagonal reinforced windows and a domed top, it towered over every other building in DC. I breathed a sigh of relief that my constant headache hadn’t affected my game.
“In 2004, the largest nanotubes were just a millimetre wide and the tallest skyscraper in the world was the Taipei 101 at 508m high. At an astonishing 3,500m high, the aptly named White Giant now stands at more than four times the world’s largest Skyscraper, peaking not far off the ozone layer.” Already on my next assignment, I had barely stopped to take a breath, but talking about the White Giant like this made me proud of the work we had done and I was thankful for that.
Rick leaned forward, “Between the White Giant and the Space Lift, we have shown how Mechanical Engineering, and this team specifically can trailblaze innovation to get things done, leading the way across multiple departments.”
Vice President Palmer pulled a face “The space lift is an amazing accomplishment, no one denies that. But it cost more and took longer than planned. It swallowed a lot of government funding from the architectural renovation programme. How do you propose to prevent such overspends in the future?”
I felt the room tense. Palmer didn’t look at anyone specific for an answer, which avoided the question being aggressive, but it only put more pressure on the response. Rick – the only member of the Space Lift project team present – choked and his head dropped, clearly not about to stick up for himself. But he had worked his arse off every day against a host of bureaucratic and ignorant decisions and I couldn’t let him go down like that.
“Not everything turns out the way you want it to.” Every head in the room whipped around to look at me. Elliott Brandon eyeballed me from the other side of the desk, but I continued regardless. “The people here put their souls into their work. To do it fast and to do it right. I wasn’t on the Space Lift project, but I know enough to know that the plan and the budget set were never realistic, particularly given the lack of precedent.” Bob squirmed in his chair, eyes darting back and forth between me and the Vice President, panic all over his face.
Drawn out silence. I kept waiting for it to all go horribly wrong. To be escorted out of the building and away from the Vice President, or fired on the spot.
Palmer bobbed his head twice and returned his attention to the screen. A spark of exhilaration lit inside me, it hit me harder than it should, like six beers after six years sober. I fought the urge to say more and took the win, subtly reorienting myself before I continued.
“With six hundred floors, the White Giant houses a three-floor conference centre, seven independent exhibition spaces, state of the art research and innovation labs, and is accompanied by more sleeping quarters than a traditional apartment block.” As I clicked for the next slide the room around me fluttered like a sheet blowing in the wind. Mist rose from the floor until it surrounded me. The US Tech office walls and ceiling were gone. The long white table and empty office chairs now sat in the middle of a concrete road, towered over by buildings that reached high above the clouds, and then the clouds let out a storm. The air sweltered around me. I looked for Jeri, expecting to see her by my side but she was nowhere to be found. Unbearable screams echoed through the empty streets. I can’t lose her.
I fell to my knees.
“Ryan. Ryan Ellis.” Agent Brody stood in the shadows of a tall grey building at the far end of the white desk. His eyes locked onto mine, stern and unwavering, burrowing into my soul. His mouth continued moving but this time no sound came out.
“Ryan. Ryan Ellis.” I brushed my fingers over the oak floor that I was curled up on, Jess crouched beside me. I didn’t understand why she looked so concerned. “What happened to you?” Agent Brody said from across the desk, which now stood firmly where it belonged inside the US Tech board room. He cast a perplexed look at Vice President Palmer, it was subtle but I noticed it, and I felt like a security risk. Bob, Rick and Peter all stood up and made their way over to me at various states of pace but Brody didn’t move.
I could see the US Tech office in front of me, but the remnants of the empty street still felt fresh in my mind. “I’m sorry.” The words came out of my mouth with difficulty. “What happened?”
* * *
I reached into the glove compartment of my hatchback and swallowed another dose of painkillers. My head had been aching since I passed out and I didn’t want my Dad worrying about me. He had lived in the same five-bedroom house for fifty of the sixty-three years of his life, with fantastic gardens at the front and rear where he spent most of his time.
I handed my Dad a money tree sapling I had bought him and mid-thanking he was off to collect the materials. He returned minutes later to his cosy arm chair opposite me, empty plant pot in hand and a bag of soil at his feet. He asked about Jeri and I told him the usual, that we’re still together and trying our best. “She was very worried about you.” I had heard it all before, the worry I had put everyone through, the things people think of, not knowing whether you’re going to come back or turn up in a ditch. “We all were. I didn’t know if you were ever coming back. Or if I was going to find you dead in a ditch one day.”
“I know, Dad. I’m past that.” Saying the words never seemed to make it true.
“Three days is a long time. Do you still love her?”
“Of course, I do.”
“Then nothing else matters.” My Dad watched me carefully, waiting for me to agree.
I endured the silence long enough and changed the subject to my meeting with Vice President Palmer, and my Dad was ecstatic the whole time. He always told me how proud he was of me, and today was certainly no exception. “Guess what, Dad? I’ve been invited to the State Dinner.”
“At the White House?” I nodded and my Dad couldn’t contain his glee, asking every detail about it. He stood up, shook my hand and wrapped his arms around me. It was like being draped in a golden blanket. But soon the paint started to peel, nothing but a tin fraud underneath. Happiness, as ever, fleeting. My chest felt as though it was corroding into my stomach.
“What did your brother say about it?” Dad asked, pulling me back into the room.
“He was really happy for me. He wants to drop us off in his car,” I said contorting my face.
“The jalopy?” He shook his head. “How is your brother?” Dad emptied soil into the pot, moulding it around the brown stem.
“He’s doing good, Dad. You should go see him.”
“How are Carol and my grandkids?”
“Eddie starts school next week. He-”
“I miss him.” His head tilted down and sadness filled his eyes. We had gone through this conversation many times before, but my Dad wouldn’t budge. I could understand – this world is full of enough pain, if someone hurts you, then I say they deserve everything they get – but I wasn’t even sure exactly what either of them had done that was so bad.
“Herb misses you.”
“Has he told you that?”
“He doesn’t have to.”
My Dad took a breath, deep in thought. “Does he talk about me?”
“You’re constantly on his mind.” Herb never spoke about Dad, at least he never started the conversation, and he did everything he could to change the subject.
“It’s a cruel world, Son.”
I tried to argue but the words got stuck in my throat, belonging to a version of me from long ago, not yet free of the chrysalis of naivety.
Accustomed to my silence, Dad continued, “All I wanted to do was help him. I wish your mother was still with us, she would set him straight, get him round to my way of thinking.” My chest felt tight every time he spoke of her. I was desperate for him to talk about something else. I didn’t know how he could just throw her name into a conversation. I fantasised about being dragged underground and swallowed up. If only I was alone to picture her in my head. The way I wanted to see her. The way she loved me. He kept waiting for an answer but I couldn’t bring myself to speak. “You think that’s my problem, don’t you Ryan? My way of thinking.” The pain weighed on his eyes when he sighed. “I just want to talk to my son again.”
* * *
The painkillers had worn off and Herb’s kids were guaranteed to make it worse. When I got to the farmhouse, I could hear them before I rang the bell. Even after pressing it I considered walking away.
I had always tried to see my brother and his family as often as I could. His eldest had grown out of staying over at their Auntie and Uncle’s, and the youngest two hadn’t yet had the pleasure, which meant that Emily and Kyle were our most frequent residents and Jeri would have them sleeping over every night if she could.
Carol greeted me and invited me in but I could barely make out what she was saying through the noise of kids screaming and running from one room to the next. She looked exasperated. Herb chased after his youngest, Tim, trying to trap him in a nappy. “Hey Ry, you fancy giving us a hand?” Herb asked.
“Don’t worry about that, Ryan,” Carol said. “Sit down and I’ll make you a coffee.” Herb told her not to bother because we were leaving soon. I grabbed Tim as he ran past me and I just about managed to wrap a nappy around him before he wriggled away. Herb kneeled in front of the sofa to clean smears of chocolate off it. The only time I could remember Herb getting angry with his kids was when he found his eldest daughter smoking aged eleven, which he took as a personal affront and spent weeks giving her the silent treatment.
Carol returned with a cup of coffee in hand for the three of us that Herb discreetly rolled his eyes at, then she apologised for rushing off upstairs to diffuse the chaos that had ensued, shouts and slamming doors emerging out of nowhere. Herb sat down, stretched out across the sofa, and let out a sigh of exhaustion. “I didn’t know if you would cancel our date.” When I didn’t answer he rolled his neck around. “Still pissed then. I know. Look, I’ll butt out in future, it’s none of my business.” I took a sip of coffee and stayed silent, made him work for it. “You’re gonna make me apologise, aren’t you? For shits sake Ryan-”
“Dad!” Eddie popped his head up from the other side of the sofa, apparently hiding there since I had arrived.
Herb grimaced. “For Pete’s sake Ryan...” He stood up. “I’m sorry, ok?” He said hurrying out the door. Short and sweet.
After almost three hours at the Bruiser bar, Herb had glugged away a few bottles too many at the beer-sticky bar that melded to your sleeves whenever you leant on it. Every third Tuesday of the month, we sat opposite wooden deer antlers that hung above dozens of antiseptic-tasting whiskey bottles filled to various levels, never more than a dozen people surrounding us, and the same ones every week. Herb said he liked them because they were honest folk, even though the only person he had ever spoken to was whichever person was stood at the other side of the bar. We had talked about football for most of the night, which meant Herb talked and I pretended to listen, until it had grown so thin that I didn’t bother, but Herb didn’t seem to notice, navigating his way through varying levels of excitement with zero attention on me. I let my mind drift, wondering if Herb would even notice if I upped and left. It was becoming increasingly difficult to concentrate on anything.
Probably the painkillers.
I realised Herb hadn’t been talking for a while, and he was staring at his empty bottle of beer like it was unfathomable. “I talked to Dad today. He asked about you. He talks about you a lot, you know?”
“I can imagine. ‘I’m very disappointed in your brother’ ‘your brother is nothing like I expected,’” Herb snapped, then took a sip of his bottle of beer, the one that was empty.
“It wasn’t like that.” I paused knowing I had to choose my words carefully. “He cares about you. He wants to see his grandkids again.”
“Is that a joke? Can you imagine what he would say to them about me?” Herb shuddered at the thought.
“He wants to see you again.”
“He said that, did he?”
“I know he does.”
Herb scoffed. “You’re something I could never be, Ryan. You have a great job, a beautiful wife. You’re a success.”
I couldn’t have felt any further away from being a success. “What are you talking about? Carol’s great, your kids are the best kids in the world.”
“I know. I’m lucky, I know I am. But I’m just... I don’t know.” As much as I still felt a rumbling of anger at him despite his apology, it irritated me to see him playing himself down like that, as though he didn’t deserve his life, but he was too damn stubborn to listen to reason. Mom called it being ‘well moulded’.
“Someone has to put an end to it. Do yourself a favour and go see him.”
Herb turned back to stare at his empty bottle of beer. “I don’t need to be constantly reminded that I’m a screw-up.”
“You’re not a screw-up.”
“I’m not? Then how did I let someone steal my sheep?”
“Someone stole your sheep?”
“Five of them went missing off the farm this month. But whoever the bastard was took Eddie’s dog too.” Herb clenched his fist. “If you see anyone opening a new farm or butchers with a sheep dog, you let me know.” He slapped me on the back with his overgrown hands so hard he nearly sent me sliding across the bar. It was only when he spoke again that my fight or flight response subsided and I realised it was drunken affection. “Life is here to kick you in the ass. And as soon as you open your mouth to whine about it, it kicks you in the teeth.” Herb turned his slouch to a straightened back and with a posh pout, said “The sooner one can accept that pearl, the sooner one can clench one’s ass-cheeks and shut one’s piehole.” Herb sank his next beer that had been queuing up behind the empty one and returned to his usual slouch.
I could barely muster the energy to shake my head at him. “I’m going to call Jeri.” Outside the bar, I managed to speak to Jeri but it was brief. We never had any difficulty in conversation before and it still unsettled me. I wasn’t even sure why I called her; old habits, maybe. But I still liked to let her know when I was heading home. By the time I got back to Herb his next beer was near decimated. “It’s ten o’clock. Let’s go.” As the designated driver, Herb had no choice but to leave. A sober conversation with a drunken man wasn’t my ideal way to spend an evening, but Herb liked the bar and it was too far to get a cab. Besides, he needed a bit of a break and someone to talk to, and he was grateful, usually.
Driving home, a blanket of fog filled the roads and my lights did little to compensate. Herb had fallen asleep five minutes after getting in the car. I wondered what Jeri would be doing right now, whether she still missed me. It had been so long since I felt missed.
The lights on the car ahead blinded me. They grew brighter as it got closer. Damn it. I couldn’t see the road ahead. Couldn’t hear the engine running. I took my foot off the gas and slammed it down, over and over but the car didn’t respond.
“Herb, we’re not moving. Herb!” I prodded, poked and shook him but he wouldn’t wake. I pressed the button to start the engine again but I couldn’t even hear it trying. I reached out but my hand missed the handle and smacked against the door, limp. I shunted my arm at the door but my whole body was failing me.
I have to get out of here, I have to get out.
“Herb!” My tongue was almost dead. My head lolled. It’s over. Whatever hell I belong in, this is it. My eyes were the last part of my body to deteriorate as they rolled to the back of my head and I kissed my vision goodbye.
What’s happening to me