No turning back, again.

The dull orange and yellow Midwest sky glowed through the windows, casting a yellowish hue onto everything in the house. Christine Ritter looked up from the desk she sat behind and admired the pale beauty before her. One last sunset. Tomorrow began a new decade. The end of the 70’s and the start of the 80’s. She hadn’t given the idea much thought, but there it was… change was inevitable.

She tore away from the color streaming through the windows and examined her desk. Envelopes lay stacked in neat piles, some to be paid, others to be mailed, and a few that had to wait. Still, others were stuffed with colored sheets of paper filled with threats. Every month the piles shifted in size and substance, but the last collection continued to grow, despite her best efforts. One envelope with hospital letterhead, sat alone, perched upright, where she had last scanned it. The edge was ripped open, but contents were not read. She already knew what it contained. The pink sheen of the letter inside was telling enough.

She had made a mess of things, once again, and the consequences continued to stalk her. How much simpler it had been years ago, when she was still married to Fred. His government job covered the bills, and then some, so she didn’t need to continue working as a nurse. But the more Fred advanced in his all-consuming career, the more she felt alone, even after the kids were born. Days stretched into weeks, weeks into months until it was hard to tell when one day began, and another ended. Often, it fell on her to raise the kids, Joanna and Jonathan. Her gaze flicked up to a picture on the wall.

Her frozen smiling image stared through the almost translucent sheen of a glass frame. In front of her stood Joanna, sporting a grim look of determination, and Jonathan wearing a typically mischievous grin. Not present, as usual, was Fred, lured by the siren song of a government paycheck to abandon his family. Resentment bubbled up, forcing her to turn away.

But that was a convenient excuse. Even with Fred around, unhappiness lingered like a toxic cloud. He resented her for reasons she had no control over, and no means to correct. Their marriage had been the climax of a whirlwind romance, between a young expatriated British nursing student, and an Ivy League lawyer. Oh, those had been heady days, a far cry from the hardscrabble life back in England, and the venomous relationship with her cold-hearted mother.

But for every ounce of joy she extracted from her existence, there came a pound of misery. The honeymoon ended when Fred took her to meet his family back in the homestead in Massachusetts. Instead of welcoming her as a new daughter-in-law, the Ritters treated her like a mistake and made it clear their son had erred in bringing a British tramp into their private social circle. The resulting crisis isolated Fred from his family and soured their relationship.

The birth of Joanna, and Fred’s success as a government attorney, quickly masked the difficulties they were having. But after Jonathan was born, all the old problems resurfaced, except now, Fred began to treat Christine as if she had somehow ‘trapped him’ in marriage — words Fred’s mother had thrown in her face at their last meeting. The growing bitterness and resentment sent her reeling, not just because it was unfair and untrue, but Fred’s reaction (like his family) had been evocative of how her mum reacted after her father’s death.

Scared, and alone, she escaped with the children. But like many of her trade-offs, the terms were unbalanced. The loss of a comfortable middle-class life was not made up by a paycheck-to-paycheck existence trying to make ends meet on a small-town nurse’s salary. For some time, she considered going back to England, where she’d grown up, and her elderly mother still lived. But there the bridges were burnt as well, and besides, the kids were US citizens, not English.

That always seemed to be the recurring theme in her life. Fate or bad decisions slammed doors in her face, such that once a path was chosen, or forced upon her, the only option was to go forward. No turning back, again.

The desk was in order. Everything should be where it could be dealt with.  Just one more item to deal with. She opened the drawer and withdrew a handwritten note. Tri-folding the message, she slipped it and a key into an empty envelope. Flipping it over, she wrote on the front, “Joanna” and left it centered on the desktop. After pulling the cover down, she stood and made her way to the kitchen.

Joanna lingered at the sink, drying the last of the plates from dinner. The sixteen-year-old was tall, thin and pale, in every respect like Christine, except for the hair. The long gorgeous black mane hung loose, down to the small of her back. Nothing comparable to Christine’s short red locks. The color and texture were Fred’s, as was her grit and determination to get things completed the way she wanted them done. All Fred. It would carry her far; farther than her own dithering ways had managed to accomplish.

“You finished, love?” Christine asked.

“Yes, Mom,” Joanna answered without looking at her. “I would have been done sooner, but as usual, Jonathan wouldn’t help.” The pique in her voice was evident.

She tried not to laugh, remembering all the times her own brother Sean had mysteriously vanished when chores needed attention. “I will say something to him,” she announced.

“I wouldn’t waste my breath. He doesn’t do anything.”

Because you don’t know how to ask. Ah, poor Joanna, so strong and efficient in many ways, but clueless about boys.

“Not to worry, love. Let me handle it.”

Joanna harrumphed, tucked the last plate away and hung the dish towel on its holder. She turned, and said through gritted teeth, “I’m sure he’ll do whatever his mommy says.” The contempt on her face was unmistakable.

Christine hated that look, reflective of a well-known fact: Jonathan was her favorite. What chance did the straight-laced, humorless girl have against her polar opposite? At least their relationship wasn’t as cold as the one she had with her mother. But even so, it was a tad more than sullen indifference.

Before Joanna could slip past, Christine reached out and touched her shoulder. The girl stopped and fixed her with a questioning look. “I love you.”

The young girl searched her eyes for a moment. “I love you too, Mom.” Then she slipped away toward the stairs.

Christine felt her eyes water but wiped it away. Joanna was strong. Far stronger than Christine had been at the same age.

She walked into the living room, and spotted, sitting sideways in his chair, her youngest, Jonathan. The boy’s wavy hair lay stacked on his head like it was trying to escape the hand running through it. He looked up from his library book, one of several piled near him. “Hey, Mom.”

“Jonathan,” she stated, with as much gravitas as she could muster. “You were supposed to help Joanna with the dishes.”

“I did,” he said with a shrug. “I carried them to the sink.”

“You were supposed to help clean them.”

“Technically I did,” he said looking back at the book.

“Washing and cleaning the dishes involves more than just carrying them to the sink.”

He looked at her sidelong. “Oh, I see. Thanks for the clarification.”

She walked over and stood next to him. “What are you reading?”

“The World According to Garp.”

“What’s that about?”

He stared up at her with an exasperated look. “Why don’t you read it yourself?”

A flare of annoyance sailed through her. That was so much like Fred. “Never mind.”

He quickly backpedaled. “It’s a complicated book to explain in simple terms.”

“I see.” The boy was being pretentious, but not far off the mark. She read out of obligation, not for recreation. But she also saw the hurt on his face, knowing that he had, once again, made her out to be a simpleton.

“Sorry, Mom.”

She patted him on the head, then knelt next to his chair. “Be nicer to Joanna.”

He smiled and rolled his eyes. “What else did she accuse me of?”

“No, Jonathan.” She caught his chin between her thumb and index finger and turned him to look directly at her. The brown-eyed gaze stared at her through thick glass lenses. “I’m serious. She is going to need you, even when she says she doesn’t.”

“Okay,” he answered with a confused expression.

She stood and started to walk away.

“Are you okay?” Jonathan asked.

She stopped and looked at him. “I love you. Good night.”

“Goodnight, Mom.”

With weary legs, she trudged up the steps toward the bedrooms. Jonathan was smart, far outstripping most of his classmates, and had even skipped a grade. He loved the change, but Joanna did not. Now her little brother was in the same grade as she was. Still, she protected her undersized and underage sibling. They were good kids and deserved better. If she hadn’t been so rash to run-off, maybe she and Fred could have worked something out. But she stopped that thought train. Too little, too late.

She paused at a picture of her mom and dad. As if he was withholding the punch-line of a joke, Joseph Patrick Flannery sported a mischievous grin, like that echoed in Jonathan’s pictures. He was fun, and humorous, in a way she could not resist, making her a daddy’s girl. That stood in stark contrast to the grim visage of Clara, her mother, who stared with dark forbidding at Christine. The look sent shivers down her spine.

When she was sixteen, her father died, and the all the warmth in the family went with him. Clara recoiled when Christine reached out to her and filled the space between them with sullen silence, and stinging rhetoric. Unable to fix what didn’t exist, a few years later she escaped to America to become a registered nurse. Days after finishing her training, she met Fred. A few weeks later, they married. After a quick honeymoon, and he whisked her off to meet his family in Massachusetts. That’s when the trouble started.

Christine sat on the bed, and reread the letter received from Fred on her birthday, the 20th of December. When she had first seen it was from his law firm, a tingle of fear went down her spine. Those fears were confirmed by finding a court order demanding custody of the kids. However, that wasn’t the only malice in the envelope. No, Fred had been busy, thorough, and determined. Other notes included a marriage annulment, and an inquest to the INS to investigate her naturalization status. But the pinnacle of the malicious onslaught was a letter convincing the state to revoke her RN licensure. Like a good lawyer, he had slammed all the doors and shut all the windows.

As night poured into the room, she dropped the papers on the bed next to her and reached for the IV needle. With practiced precision, she found a vein in her left arm and slid the catheter under the skin. No need to sterilize, this time. With her right hand, she adjusted the morphine drip then lay back staring out the open window. The last slivers of light slipped away, and the room and everything in it filled with darkness. No turning back, again.

 

 

 

 

Family Business: An excerpt from Jonathan of Jamesville High

Kip ran sprints alongside Jake. “You ready for Centerville?” Jake asked between gasps.

“As ready as I’ll ever be.”

“I heard college recruiters will be there.”

“Yup, that’s the word–West Virginia, Pitt and Ohio State, to name a few.”

“So which one do you want knocking on your door?”

Kip shrugged. “Don’t care, so long as they do.”

“I hope it’s Ohio State. That’s where I’m going.”

“You’re that sure?” Kip asked, looking at him sideways.

“Hey, I’m a legacy. My old man was in the class of ‘87, and he gives them lots of money.”

Must be nice. “Doing well, is he?”

“People need cars, don’t they?”

Right, and everyone came through Mike DeLong’s Ford dealership. “I guess so.” He stopped to catch his breath.

Jake looked over his shoulder. “Say, is that Megan?”

Kip turned and saw a hunched figure, shivering on the metal bleacher seats. Like a shadow, everything about her was dark–black hair, black clothes, nails and lipstick, except for the eyes, blue as arctic ice, and just as cold. My sister, the human icicle. He walked toward her.

“Come to watch practice?”

She rolled her eyes. “Hardly. I need a ride, and you have a car.”

“Why don’t you hop on your broom and ride home?”

“Hah, hah. Jerk.”

Jake stepped around Kip. “Hey Megs, you’re looking fine these days.”

“Shut up, shitbag.”

Jake raised his hands defensively. “Wow, do you kiss your mom with that mouth?”

Meg’s eyes narrowed, but she said nothing.

Looking at his watch, Kip said, “I have another ten-minutes.” He saw her shiver again. “Here,” he slipped off his sweatshirt and handed it to her. “Put this on, before you freeze to death.”

She looked away, ignoring him. He pursed his lips and looked at Jake. “C’mon, Jake. We have some more sprints to do.” Jake turned and started walking away. Kip draped the sweatshirt across Meg’s shoulders anyway. As he stepped away, she shrugged, and it fell on the bench.

Shaking his head, he turned away and felt the probing fingers of the cold November air. No good deed goes unpunished.

Twenty minutes later, while running sprints, he stole a glance and saw Megan still sitting, but with his sweatshirt over her shoulders.

Honestly. Was that so damned hard?

 

By a quarter to five, practice finished. Kip couldn’t find Megan anywhere. Maybe she found a ride home? Nah, nobody would take that risk. He walked to his car, a ten-year-old Dodge Charger. The green paint still gleamed, though scratches and rust spots marred the overall finish. I hope to God this thing starts; it hates cold weather. He put the key in the door and a shadow appeared next to him. With a start he turned to see blue eyes glaring at him.

He frowned. “Is there some reason you can’t let people know you’re there? You almost gave me a heart attack.”

“You need to have one for that to happen,” Megan groused.

Kip ignored the comment and unlocked the doors. A sandy colored head appeared on the other side of the car.

“Hey Kip, can you give me a ride? I have to go the gym downtown.”

Kip winced, Sam had known he was going there after dropping Megan at home. It was hard to say no. “Can’t you find anyone else to take you?”

“Of course not,” Megan growled. “No one would be caught dead with a creeper like him.”

Sam retorted, “Since you look dead anyway, it shouldn’t be a problem. What do you say, Kip?”

He sighed. “All right, get in.” Sam flashed Kip a grin and slipped into the front seat.

“I’m not riding with him,” Megan stated.

“Not now,” Kip said. “You won’t be in the car with him for long, and you’ll be in the back seat.”

“No.”

“C’mon Megan, stop being a jerk. You wanted a ride; I will give you a ride.”

“Either he goes or I go.”

“You’re being an ass, stop it.”

Meg turned away and began walking toward the street.

Kip turned and shouted at her, “I’m not the one being unreasonable here.” She kept walking.

Dammit! Serves her right. He opened the door and slipped into the driver’s seat.

“What’s her problem?”

“You, it seems.”

“Me? How so?”

Where do I start? “Forget it. Let’s go.”

Sam watched Megan disappear around the corner. “You know, she wouldn’t be half bad looking if she didn’t dress like a corpse all the time.”

“Shut up. I don’t want you talking about my sister.”

“Sorry.” He dug into his pocket and pulled a small plastic package full of pre-rolled joints. “Since we don’t have Mother Teresa with us, let’s have a toke.”

“No,” Kip said. “You know I don’t do that crap anymore, and don’t smoke in here. It stinks up the car.”

“Man, you’re a downer.”

“Whatever.” I couldn’t give a shit. If you weren’t my cousin, I’d kick your ass out of my car. With a roar, the car started. Thank you Jesus!

A Rock in the Pond

Kip lay in bed, eyes closed, as his mind ran in circles. One more day to the homecoming game, meant one more day to impress the college scouts. Football plays and lingo rolled around in his head, defying his attempts to fall asleep. He needed rest, but it wouldn’t come. Voices carried from the darkness, adding to the noisy chorus already ringing in his brain.

“Kip! Kip!”

He jerked awake to find Megan shaking him. “What is it?”

“Someone’s at the front door.”

Thumping and banging echoed through the walls of the house. “What the hell?”

With a groan, he stumbled upright and found his way down the stairs. The front door shook violently. With barely contained annoyance, Kip pulled a door curtain aside, and found his uncle, Sid Luckett, dressed in full police uniform.  He looked angry.

Oh great, what does he want? Kip pulled the latch and opened the door.

“About time you answered,” Sid groused. “Come with me.”

“Why?” Kip barked back. Sid acted too much like his dad for him to willingly follow his lead.

“I need your help with Josh,” Sid said, then started walking toward the police cruiser in the driveway.

Kip started to swear, but realized Megan stood behind him, peeking through the open doorway. He spoke over his shoulder, “Megs, go to your room. I have to help Uncle Sid with Dad.”

“Is Dad okay?” she asked quietly.

“Who cares,” he snapped, but instantly regretted it. She sniffled.  He turned and waved her back. “Go on, you don’t want to see him like this. No one does.”

She headed upstairs. Kip walked to Sid’s cruiser where Josh lay sprawled across the back seat. He grabbed hold of an arm and a leg, and with Sid’s help, they carried Josh up the steps and through the front door. Once inside, they dropped the inert form onto the couch. The man lay flat on his back, mouth agape, emitting chest rattling snores.

Kip stared at his disappointment of a father. “Where did you find him?”

“He was in his truck on North Street.”

“Sweet Jesus, was he driving drunk?”

“Actually, no. Someone was driving him home.”

“Good thing, he’d have killed someone driving like this.”

“Yeah, I just can’t believe some underage kid was trying to drive him home.”

Kip stared at Sid. “Say again?”

“Yeah, strangest thing. I pulled Josh’s truck over, because I thought he was driving drunk, but instead I find this seventeen-year-old kid sitting in the driver’s seat.”

“Who was it?”

“Beats me,” Sid said. But then he remembered, “Oh yeah, his name was Jonathan something.”

Kip swallowed and looked back at his father. What gives with this Jonathan kid? This was the second time in the last day he’d been involved with their family.

“Well,” Sid said. “I’d better be going, my shift isn’t over for at least a couple of hours.” He looked at his brother-in-law. “At least Josh is home safe.” He turned to leave.

A wave of heat shot through Kip, as anger dripped off his words, “Oh great, the drunk is home.  No one will be safe when he wakes up.”

Sid whipped around and shook a finger in his face. “Don’t judge the man! He made a mistake, and he’s had to deal with it ever since.”

Kip stepped closer, until just inches away from Sid’s face. “Deal with it? He gets drunk every night, and terrorizes his family when he’s sober.”

“He’s your father Kip.”

He’s a useless pile of shit. “You’re his brother-in-law, why don’t you say something to him?”

Sid blinked and stepped back. With a glance at the floor, he spoke, “He’ll be all right.” He turned and let himself out, and the door swung shut with a bang.

Fucking coward.

His father rolled over and started mumbling. Kip looked at him. “I never saw her … I never saw her …” Josh muttered into the couch cushions.

Kip turned away and shut off the light.  His dad disappeared into the darkness, with only the presence of a recurring nightmare to keep him company.

Bitterness followed Kip as he climbed the stairs. It had been almost a year since his father had nearly killed a man in a bar fight. After avoiding prison time on a technicality, he’d ended up paying a hefty fine, which took every available dime the Lawrence’s had, including Kip and Megan’s college funds. What little they had left continued to support the newest addition to the family, Josh’s drinking habit.

At the top of the stairs, he found Megan staring down into the darkness of the foyer. She chewed on the tip of her thumb, the way she did as a baby. It almost looked like she was sucking it. She turned and looked at him.  In her blue eyes, he saw not the usual iciness, but the fragile surface of a pond, into which a single stone could cause a mighty ripple.

“Is he okay?” she asked, voice wavering.

“Yeah,” he said. “He just needs to sleep it off. Go back to sleep, everything will be better in the morning.” She turned away and slipped into her room.

He hated lying like this.  Worse, the more he did it, the easier it became.  Not because he was trying to deceive, but because no one wanted to deal with the truth. Josh Lawrence was a sick man, pulling his family into the abyss into which he had fallen. Kip wasn’t sure what was worse, that that no one wanted to do a damned thing about it, or that he no longer cared either.

So he crawled into bed, and once more waited for the cacophony of noise in his head to begin.  Even if it did keep him awake, at least the racket drowned the drunken snores of a father who had abdicated his role of as parent and protector, by surrendering to the dark embrace of his guilt and the siren song of the bottle.