The penguin never stopped changing colors but it always kept its smile.
Will Hudson sat on his back staring at the ceiling and thinking about tomorrow. He wondered how Emma would do when he wasn’t there to hold her hand. Odds were high that she’d pitch a fit, but she’d live. Eventually she’d get back to the habit of not needing Daddy by her side in order to fall asleep. She was four, not one, and she needed to be a little more independent like her twin sister.
Sometimes he’d fall asleep next to this bed staring at the Dreamlite show above him. There were two of them, actually. A penguin and a unicorn. Will wished he had come up with an idea like this. A new spin on night-lights. Putting lights into stuffed animals that shoot up on the ceiling and immerse the kids’ rooms into some kind of dreamlike night-sky fantasy.
Maybe they need a writer to make a series of books based on the animals.
Will thought that actually wasn’t a bad idea. Of course, publishing for the most part had been put on hold lately. Just like a lot of things. When the end of the world starts to happen, people don’t see the real urgency for things like publishing new books.
He started to slide his hand out of Emma’s grip but she grabbed at it even harder. He let out an impatient sigh, then settled back in.
There was a list of things he needed to do tonight. As always, his urgency level was at a ten. Just like it had been for the last few years. Three, four years? Well, definitely four years. Definitely since the twins had been born. But even before.
The penguin kept grinning as it danced with the unicorn. Good for them. It was better that he kept his urgency level and let the rest of the family—at least the girls—feel like everything was okay.
Everything is okay. The girls are healthy and we have a home and we are all alive.
There were lots of families who couldn’t say that these days.
Still, those same clouds always seemed to cover him, turning even the most sparkling lights above into grays and black. He closed his eyes and wondered if he was making the right decision. To leave his family now, in the midst of the chaos happening all around them. The Chicago area hadn’t been hit too bad—there had been some bad tornadoes in central Illinois last summer, and the winter so far had been brutal. But it was nothing like the rest of the country. Especially both coasts.
Random nuggets of thoughts fell all around him. There were too many to focus on individually. They all added up to a hailstorm battering down over his head.
Soon he heard the faint breathing from the bed next to him. Will slowly pulled his hand away from her grip and then moved up on his knees. He could see Emma’s sweet, round face positioned straight up toward the lights. Once again, Will felt this tug at him, this sad little pull that told him not to leave her. To not leave them. Especially tonight.
He moved over and gently kissed her forehead above her closed eyes. Then he moved a few feet across the room on his hands and knees to the other bed. Ashley was buried in the blanket, her blonde locks covering the portion of her face that stuck out of it. Will brushed those locks back and then gave her a kiss too, staring at the beautiful angel beneath him. She shifted and pulled away like she always did. Emma was the affectionate one, Ashley the feisty princess. Their big sister, Claire, was the comedian and the commander of the troops.
God watch over them. Watch over all of them while I’m gone.
The thought felt strange. Prayers like these had stopped coming. They used to be regular. But a lot of things used to be regular. They didn’t seem so urgent now simply because they didn’t seem to do any good.
If you ever hear these prayers please hear them now.
Will stood up and then began to walk out of the room. Feeling another wave of dread washing over him.
Another wave . . .
He wondered how many times the word “wave” had been uttered in the last six months. Many times. Too many times.
They said the west coast had been due for a tsunami like the kind that hit Japan back in 2011. That’s what everyone had been saying since last summer, but Will could never remember hearing one person ever mention it before both of the tidal waves struck. Maybe because it didn’t concern him. Or maybe because he lived in a Chicago suburb, far away from the desolation in southern California and Washington.
Most people don’t expect the worst to happen until it already does.
Will looked back at the twin beds and the two precious lives sleeping in them.
Most people don’t happen to be novelists who always imagine the worse.
He slipped out of the room and pulled the door behind him, telling himself he’d see them again very soon
Novelists can also lie to themselves very easily.
A week earlier, before he even knew he would be leaving to head down to the South, Will had dreamt about the graveyard again.
Will never knew how he got there or where the there happened to be in these dreams, but he knew it was a place full of headstones. Hundreds of them. Black things sticking out of the ground like bruised thumbs. The ground itself was uneven for some reason, and this simply contributed to the nightmare. It always felt like the world was starting to bend all around him. He might be sitting on the ground and see the graves surrounding him, or he might be running up the hill searching and out of breath. It didn’t matter, because soon enough, things would go bad. Things in this dream always turned bad.
In this particular episode, Will found himself sprinting over dead grass and feeling hot and frantic and wet. His back and his arms and especially his legs felt drenched. Not from sweat but from something else. He had an idea what it might be but he didn’t want to dwell on it. The throbbing, burning sensation in the back of his neck surely had something to do with it. But he was running from something so he couldn’t check his clothed arms or legs to see if it really was blood he was feeling coated in. It felt warm and sticky and the longer he ran the weaker he became.
The thing he was running from was getting closer. Will knew this from the noise it was making.
The little laugh.
It was high enough to be a child’s giggle and low enough to be absolutely terrifying. It sounded like it was laughing and choking at the same time, and the noise kept getting louder. He looked behind him down the hill but couldn’t see anything.
He had arrived. He was finally there but now what? Where was he supposed to go?
Everything felt absolutely real, of course. It always did at the moment, always up to the second he was jostled out of sleep somehow.
Standing in the graveyard, he thought of an image from one of his favorite films. Since he didn’t know he was dreaming now, naturally his mind could have thoughts within thoughts. Visions inside dreams. He was a writer, and this place was like a grand canyon full of creativity and darkness. He pictured the climactic scene at the endless cemetery in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Where the bandit named Tuco came upon all the graves and began frantically searching for one, all while Ennio Morricone’s score kept building and building and building.
Just like Tuco, all Will could see everywhere he looked was row upon row of gravestones.
He tried to suck in air but it didn’t seem to be coming. The panic always set it because he knew he was looking for something alive in this endless sea of death. Nothing bright stood out, however. Nothing hopeful could be found.
The sound echoed again. The cackle. That’s the word that came to his mind. Some kind of perverse gurgling cackle closing in behind him. High and screeching but so very off.
He looked behind him and couldn’t see anything but he felt and heard whatever this thing was chasing him. Then the ground gave way and for a brief moment he was floating, then snapping and breaking on the bottom of the hole he’d fallen into.
Blackness covered him for a moment, but he fought it and opened his eyes to see the rectangular outline above him. The daylight was almost gone but there was still enough light to see the figure hovering at the edge of this pit. It was short. Some kid. A boy maybe eight years old. Will couldn’t see the face but he still heard the laughter and he yelled for the kid to stop but he wouldn’t.
Will closed his eyes, finally beginning to realize this wasn’t happening. There was no wound on the back of his neck. No blood covering his back. No creepy kid towering over him. No graveyard and no terror and no hole . . .
Something whacked him on the head. He opened his eyes and saw something white lying on the ground next to him. As he started to pick it up, another flying object hit the wall next to him.
Another. Then another. All white with dark specks of dirt on them.
Will tried to stand but couldn’t. His legs were broken. He caught another object in his hand and then realized what he was holding.
One more plopped down next to him.
They were white furry boots. He knew them well because he’d been there with Tricia when they bought them at Target. White winter boots for the girls. The bigger ones for Claire and the smaller ones for Ashley and Emma. They didn’t look new anymore. They appeared muddy from being outside.
The laughter above him began again, and now he knew why.
The fading light of day was playing tricks on him.
The boots weren’t muddy. They were bloody.
Bloody enough to choke him awake on that early Monday morning.
“You’re up early.”
Will turned from the Macbook on the kitchen table and saw half-opened eyes approaching him in the kitchen. Tricia wasn’t much of a morning person but he knew she’d gotten up simply to check on him. Their alarm clock was whichever twin decided to wander or run into their bedroom any given morning. Normally their eldest daughter woke up before anybody else, sometimes even as early as six, and headed downstairs to turn on the television and open up the family laptop to play Animal Jam. A little after eight Will would take Claire to school ten minutes away, dropping off his second-grader on the way to his office nearby.
This morning was different. Because of the dream, of course. And because of this feeling inside that felt more anxious than normal.
“Yeah, I couldn’t sleep,” Will said.
Actually I don’t want to sleep.
“The girls aren’t up?”
He shook his head. Will was already halfway finished with his cup of coffee, wishing he could get those images of the boots out of his head.
“Did you have another one of your dreams?” Tricia asked.
She said the word “dreams” as if she was talking about a faraway city with a foreign-sounding name. Will had never used the actual term “nightmare” with her simply because he didn’t want her worrying. But she knew, of course. She knew the dreams weren’t fun and interesting to talk about.
Will looked up at her from his seat, then offered a sigh with a “yeah”.
“What was it?” she asked, her voice still barely audible.
“You’d rather not know.”
“It’s because of those stories you write,” Tricia said as she checked her phone charging on the counter near the sink.
“I just finished a bio for a baseball player.”
He wanted to add that it had been years since working on a bona-fide horror story, but it didn’t matter. Will knew it was difficult for anyone to keep track of all his different projects, whether they paid or not. He usually just told Tricia about the ones that paid. Or the ones that might pay.
“It’s probably just the holidays and the stress,” she said with her back facing him.
Tricia had come down to check on him and found he was okay. He wasn’t foaming at the mouth or coloring with Crayons over the walls or roaming around in the backyard naked. Will realized that Tricia probably had none of these thoughts enter her mind when worried about him, but that was what he pictured insanity looking like. His wife coming downstairs to check on him and discovering him in a corner finishing a second bag of Cheetos with bright orange fingers and mouth.
If I’m gonna go nuts I’m gonna take some Cheetos with me for the ride.
The sound of a thud came from upstairs. That meant one of the girls was up, probably Claire since she loved bolting out of her bed like some kind of paratrooper hopping out of a plane. A door opening, another door closing . . . Familiar sounds both of them knew well.
Tricia walked into the family room next to the kitchen and turned on the television. Will had only been going through emails and hadn’t bothered checking any of the news sites or even any social networks.
“Hey—isn’t Columbia close to where your relatives live?”
Will looked up to the see the television screen and saw the phrase “Breaking News.” Then he read the information on the bottom.
Columbia, South Carolina. Over 100 Presumed Dead after F5 Tornado.
Suddenly he wasn’t thinking of those bloody boots anymore.
Will stood up and walked over to the television centered in the dark wood entertainment center. He let out a curse without thinking about it but didn’t get the usual “we don’t need that” from his wife. She was surely thinking the same thing. “How close is Columbia to Greenville?” Tricia asked.
The scene on the television showed a reporter walking into a neighborhood that had been completely leveled. Everything was gone. Every single thing. Obliterated. Pieces of homes and furniture and belongings stood in mounds behind him.
Will thought of Aunt Nancy first. Then all the rest of his relatives.
“It looks worse than that tornado that hit Missouri years ago,” Tricia said. “Remember that?”
Will didn’t respond. He had gone back into the kitchen to grab his cell and call his parents. When he picked it up he noticed the three missed calls from MOM & DAD. He suddenly felt a bit nauseous and suddenly didn’t want to return their calls.
It’s not Greenville it’s Columbia so maybe they’re just calling me to let me know they’re fine.
It didn’t make sense. A tornado—an F5 tornado—in January? In of all places South Carolina?
Then again, the one-two punch of the twin tsunamis last summer . . . Yeah, those sure didn’t make sense either. Will had lost track of the death count for those, but it had crossed the 100,000 mark. Then there were the names of hurricanes bashing the eastern coast that sounded like a list of dates from hell. The death count was much lower, but the devastation was still there. One was heading straight toward the keys right now. The news had been covering that. Until now.
The phone felt heavy in his hand.
Breathe in. Hold on a sec. Prepare for bad news.
Will glanced over at the screen again. Wreckage. Ruins. Nothing but waste. Another day dawning with news of the world wreaking havoc on someone somewhere.
Staring at it, Will felt his skin crawl as he realized something truly terrifying.
The images he watched no longer scared him. They had become as natural as watching Dora with the girls. Just another natural disaster as routine as a morning cup of coffee.
He dialed his parents and waited for them to pick up.
Arcade Fire didn’t help his mood, but it sorta summed up a little bit of everything as it played in his car on the drive to the office. Will had forgotten just how nihilistic their album “Neon Bible” happened to be. Then again, maybe he had never looked at in that perspective. He knew that art in whatever kind of form (music, movies, literature, visual arts) managed to capture you at the exact place you happened to be in life. A teenager reading a story was quite different from some forty-something like himself reading the same one. Every breath you took was a little different than the one you took the day before. In this case, Will was breathing in the bitter cold of a sub-zero Chicago day and remembering those hot, racing teenage ones.
Wish I could go back just for a brief moment.
He wouldn’t stay. God, no. He wouldn’t want to relive much of them. He simply missed the moments in his life when he didn’t have a thing to worry about. He used to actually be that daft to walk around believing that, too. Then suddenly, boom. The weight of the world biting into his shoulders like a pair of vampires on each side.
“Mirror, mirror on the wall. Show me where them bombs will fall.”
The end of the world. Even before the whole Russia-North Korea madness and the Ebola epidemic in Europe and the African drought—he had felt this end-of-the-world sort of feeling. Heaviness with breathing. A sense of falling out of a plane without the chute and without any sense of how he got pushed out. This steady, daily shoving of his sanity and his soul.
Music often felt like a parachute opening up behind him, slowing down his fall a bit. The songs always changed but the solace they provided remained the same.
“Keep the car running.”
He loved this song. Sometimes he’d hear it and resonate with lyrics about men taking him away and needing to stay away and the weight pressing down and the river so deep.
The good news he could celebrate or at least reflect on was that Mom and Dad had said that so far, it looked like his relatives were okay. The monstrous tornado hadn’t touched them. Will knew that he should be happy, that he should be thanking God for this news. But he didn’t want to. No, it was more than that.
He didn’t want to.
He felt young again and feeling rejected by the most magnificent girl he’d ever met. Maybe that was a horrible metaphor to use, but that was the one that came to his mind. He felt a rejection and now didn’t want to even acknowledge this former friend and former love.
God’s left us for some reason.
Some—well, a lot of people these days—rejected the notion of God even being there. But Will couldn’t go there. Not yet.
He pulled up to the curb on the street where his office happened to be. Will often joked that he should have a Panera Bread business card to hand out whenever people asked if he had an office. Yep, there you go, and if you send a Fed-Ex just put my full name because one of the guys working there is named Will too.
Not far from the Panera Bread stood the office building he used to rent from. Will looked at it every day with the goal and reminder and hope that he’d be back there. But really, he could work from anywhere. Open the Macbook and slip on some headphones and connect to Wi-Fi and boom.
For a second, Will followed Arcade Fire’s suggestion and kept the car running. Another song played, and he carefully listened to the words.
“Not much chance for survival if the Neon Bible is true.”
Maybe the world had moved away from the Psalms and entered straight into the book of Revelations. Maybe this really was the end of the world. People weren’t being raptured but they were just falling into ruin. God had changed his mind on the whole pre-Trib post-Trib sort of thing and had just said forget these idiots.
He grabbed his phone and checked it for a moment. The latest email filling it was from his agent Victoria. She was wondering if he could talk later today.
Since Big Brother was surely watching him (or maybe just Bigger Higher Power), the ominous church organ on track four began to play right on cue.
Talk later today.
Nothing else. No trivial or fun comment.
Usually Victoria was answering his questions, saying she was following up on the whole WHERE’S THE CHECK? question he asked weekly. But an email from her. Without anything other than whether they could talk.
Will uttered that four-letter-word Tricia really, truly loathed. He kept it held at bay for the most part. But he knew. He knew the news and he’d been holding out hope. More so than just the little petty desire to get his office back. No, this was hanging by a rope on the edge of a mountain after slipping off. Feeling it tighten all around his waist. And seeing the frayed rope begin to snap apart.
Get over it Will you didn’t just get wiped from the face of the earth by an F5.
He shut off the music and the car, then slipped out to head to his office that smelled like fresh baked bread.
There was one thing he hated worse than worrying about money.
It was realizing he could be so self-absorbed with the worry. Enough to block out the rest of the collapsing world.
He would work some and talk to Victoria later and find out what the damage was and then figure out what to do like he always did.
Arcade Fire blared out in his brain.
“I’m gonna work it out ’cause time wont work it out.”
Time was the enemy and lately, it hadn’t liked Will very much.
For calls like this, he needed his second office. That was his SUV, which for now he hadn’t started to save gas. The prices had started getting crazy high again so Will could bear the cold for a while. It wasn’t zero degrees outside, so he could live. He just didn’t want anybody overhearing his conversation with his literary agent, nor did he want to be the annoying guy in the restaurant blabbing on and begging those around him to listen.
Victoria Beaumont had been his agent for the last ten years. She had helped him get a good deal that allowed him to write full-time, but soon enough that deal tended to overshadow everything else. As so many mid-list authors like himself suffered from the changes in publishing, Will and Victoria tried to figure out what to do. Navigating the publishing waters as they called it. Co-writing and ghostwriting were the natural solution, one that Will had been doing well at. Had been doing well. Had as in past tense. As in yesterday or yesteryear.
I just want to hear the truth and figure out what to do.
Even though Victoria lived and worked and came from New York, she still was pleasant and didn’t have that unapproachable, no-nonsense attitude that lots of other agents and publishers in the Big Apple seemed to have. Will had always said he liked Victoria because she was a lot like him. Professional yet patient. Cooperative and courteous. She didn’t mind him thinking out the box like he often did, and he didn’t mind her reining him in when necessary.
Five years ago he’d handed in a manuscript to Victoria. A terrible manuscript, one that went nowhere that should have stopped at chapter two. He gave her all one hundred thousand words, ninety of which were dreadful. Instead of her emailing or calling him and saying that he’d lost his marbles writing this crap, Victoria had simply and politely told him that it might be a bit of a struggle to sell this story and to see whether they could fix it. Will still often thought of that diplomatic response whenever he thought of his agent.
She picked up right away and they made small talk like always for a few moments. Will didn’t want to show his desperation every time he spoke with her, but many times he just couldn’t help it. Today was one of those days. Talk about the weather and the kids and the disaster in Columbia and then Will had to get to business and ask.
“So I bet you have some news,” he said. “And I’m betting it’s not so good.”
“So yes,” Victoria said with her east coast accent that wasn’t too over-the-top but still noticeable. “I did talk with Susan.”
That was his editor from Simon & Schuster. The editor he usually talked to when working on the edits for a book or possible new projects. Victoria and Susan talking had something to do with the contract. Or money.
“They decided to cancel the memoir.”
The needle in the balloon went POP.
Will didn’t say anything right away.
“Susan feels awful and tried everything she could to prevent it from happening. They just decided there was too much money already out there and to cancel it without risking the sales.”
This was a book he’d worked on for the past four months. Six, if he really wanted to be honest. A memoir about famed Red Sox pitcher Reed MacCarron. It was one of those tell-all sort of tales that the public was going to love. The bad boy who redeems himself at the end and goes out on top. Yes, Reed was still a headcase and working with him had been quite the ordeal, but it was going to be worth it.
“Publishing houses are canceling many releases. The industry has been put on hold with everything happening. This isn’t about you.”
Will didn’t need an explanation from Victoria. He understood. He had even known this was coming.
“I’m so sorry, Will. I know we were hoping not to hear this. I honestly thought there was a chance—it’s baseball. Everybody loves baseball. The world needs baseball, especially now.”
“Yeah,” Will said.
“She’s going to work on the cancellation agreement and send it to us. There won’t be any of the first advance that needs to be paid back of course.”
They had struggled to pay for bills in November. The following month which featured Rudolph and Frosty and Santa turned out to be quite the financial adventure (nightmare). And now this.
Will rubbed his hand over his jaw, feeling the few day’s worth of stubble.
Six or let’s just say five months of income washed down the drain. Slip slurp gone.
“At least we know, right?” he told Victoria.
“I just hate this.”
His agent wasn’t an overly emotional person but he knew they were in this together.
“I told you my family’s money problems are not yours,” Will said. “Look—I’ll figure something out.”
“You always do.”
She wasn’t being patronizing, and Will appreciated it. Even before the west coast got bombarded and all the other things in the world started happening, publishing was a tough business. They always talked about what he could do and how he could survive. But nowadays, the word “survival” took on a whole new meaning. Survival meant walking away from the biggest wave of the century with only the clothes you were wearing. Nobody was going to shed a tear for some writer getting a book canceled.
“I keep telling myself that there are families that have lost loved ones, you know?” Will said. “I have to keep that in mind.”
“Of course. Yes, you’re right. But that doesn’t change the fact that you have a family you have to provide for. And you worked hard on this book.”
If only you knew.
His inner voice had the patience of his twins. A four-year-old whining and complaining. Sometimes he wished he could put himself in a big, fat timeout.
Will tried to temper his sigh so it wasn’t too loud over the phone. They spoke for a few more minutes about the details of the cancelation agreement. Normally in the past there would be several projects that they might be thinking about and targeting or waiting to hear news on. But this had been it. The baseball memoir had been the last writing project he’d heard about.
“I’ll certainly be in touch,” Victoria said trying to sound hopeful.
“Sounds good. Thanks.”
But really, it didn’t sound good.
Nothing about this day had been good. And the daylight hadn’t even faded yet
Adulthood was like having a bank account that changed every single second of every day. Sometimes you’d check and find twice as much as you expected. Then the next moment you looked in the account you’d discover it was overdrawn.
“Life is never as sweet without the sour.”
Will loved that line from the Cameron Crowe movie Vanilla Sky. He’d seen it again not too long ago and found the trippy, melancholy movie good for his soul. Maybe since he’d felt the sting of loss recently. Or maybe because he’d enjoyed too much wine while viewing it.
The thought of wine sounded pretty good to him. Actually, no. Something stronger. At least a thick dark beer, the kind he avoided these days since he also wanted to avoid the thick belly hanging over his belt. The fading light of the day and the cold and the lack of direction told him to grab a beer. It would give him a chance to clear his jumping-off-a-cliff mentality and be able to explain to Tricia the reality of the situation.
So first things first.
The Irish pub was pretty much on his way home. He’d have a couple and then would head home to the circus that usually greeted him around dinnertime. Will tried to figure out how exactly to tell Tricia. This was his first question. Then he’d need to figure out what the solution would be. Or could be.
Here’s our problem and here’s what I’m going to do to fix it.
It was as simple as that. But figuring out the solution was a lot harder than naming the problem.
Will entered the pub and found more people than he expected. It was actually pretty crowded for a Monday afternoon before five. Was nobody working these days? The tables were all full so he took a seat at the bar. A couple of older men who definitely enjoyed the heavy stouts were sitting on one side while a man younger than him sat by himself on the other. The Hispanic guy wore muddy work pants and boots along with a thick coat over a hooded sweatshirt. He gave Will a friendly nod as he sat down.
A television above them had CNN on with reporters updating the situation in Columbia, South Carolina. The volume was down but still audible. The lone figure next to him watched the screen and appeared to be carefully listening to the latest updates.
“Now they’re saying almost one-hundred and thirty people died,” the man said in a slight accent.
Will shook his head without saying anything. He didn’t want to be rude but he also didn’t want to chat. The bartender came over and Will ordered some kind of IPA on tap
“I’m heading down there on Sunday.”
Will looked at the stranger and didn’t seem to understand the statement. “Where? South Carolina?”
“Yes. For the relief efforts. I have a sister and brother-in-law who live down there—close to there–and they are having trouble finding people to help with the clean up.”
“Yeah, I bet. The rest of the country is having to clean up after itself,” Will said.
“It’s not good.” The dark eyes of the stranger kept watching the screen.
“That’s an honorable thing you’re doing,” Will said.
“No, it’s not like that. I’m getting paid.”
Will gave him a nod as his beer came. He took a long sip.
“But you’re still going down there,” he said to the man. “You’ll still be helping people out.”
“I’m going down because my sister asked. They lost some people from their church.”
For a few minutes as they both stared up at the screen in front of them and sipped the beers below them, Will and the manmade slight conversation. About the tornado and about the coming hurricane down in the keys and about the rest of the disasters. Tough eyes and a tanned, hardened face gave no hint of joy or hope.
“I think we’re living in the end times,” the man told him.
Will didn’t respond. He’d heard enough about all that. Maybe they were and maybe they weren’t. Knowing whether that was true didn’t change a thing.
With his first beer disappearing far too fast, Will ordered another and then decided to ask this man a question filling him. He’d been asking a lot of questions like these for a while now. It wasn’t a big deal to ask. The worst that could happen was that someone could not respond. Or say no.
“Are they still looking for more people down there in Columbia to help with the cleanup?”
It was just a random idea, a simple question. Will figured it didn’t hurt to inquire.
What was the absolute worst thing that could happen from asking?
The evening period between five when he usually got home and eight when all three girls were finally asleep was always the toughest part of the day. Will figured it was because somehow they had a secret stash of Mountain Dew and Ecstasy that they got into right before he got home. Opening the garage door that led to the family room usually brought loud and colorful explosions. Claire would pop up and give him a hug as soon as he stepped through the door, telling him something silly one of the boys did in her second grade class. Emma would wander over to him saying “Daddy!” and hug him and then ask for his phone. Ashley might look at him with her “meh” glance but usually would be focused on one of her dolls.
Dinner was rowdy and the odds were fifty-fifty that all three girls would be sitting at the table with them. With lots of screaming and sometimes crying or whining or laughing or throwing food. It was a little bit of chaos that sometimes calmed down by the time the girls got into their beds. But their moods and energy and willingness to obey were all a bit like the wind outside. You never knew which way it was going to blow and how fierce it might be.
Will’s joke to anybody who listened was that the girls often led him to drink. After the recent incident and the subsequent talk with Tricia, Will had realized that it wasn’t such a funny thing after all. There was always a little bit of truth in every joke, right? It was only recently that Will had discovered his means of surviving those dinnertime hours and trying to relax was by getting the wine to do it for him. This realization didn’t change any habits, however. He’d get around to that whenever life slowed down.
It didn’t matter who was screaming because they were all screaming for him at different times. Will was watching the news and waiting to tell his wife the news, but he knew it had to be in those eighteen seconds between the time the girls went to bed and the moment Tricia started to drift asleep. She’d get comfortable on the loveseat watching a cooking or a fashion reality show. The loveseat was only large enough for two, so their female Shih Tzu was the only one to share the love.
“Daddy come downstairs!”
Bedtime was close and he couldn’t wait. To get this stuff—this awful adult life-is-hard sort of junk–off his chest. Then he could check it off and start making plans.
A couple of blinks and a couple of glasses of wine and the little girls were asleep. Or in the words of singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen:
The time ticked down now before he lost his wife.
“Hey, so I spoke with Victoria today.”
This got Tricia’s attention since they both knew what that might mean. There was no resting on her side, nor was there any channel-surfing.
He gave a look that he knew told her everything. Her body seemed to deflate for a moment, her head tilting and her eyes focusing closely on him. She suddenly had a familiar look on her face, too. The are you kidding me look.
“They’re canceling the book,” Will said without any emotion.
The emotion came from her as they spoke about the realities of everything for several minutes. He didn’t expect Tricia or anybody else outside of the publishing world to understand the realities involved inside it. He understood her anger and confusion and simply tried to stay calm and collected. Those two words didn’t describe him, not deep down, but right now his anger and frustration wouldn’t help the situation.
Exasperation. They’d crossed that border a couple of years ago. This was a new one entirely. Desperation? Desolation?
It all depends on the context.
In the context of this room, the one with the juice-box stained carpet and the sofas hiding Cheerios and Cheez-Its, then it definitely could be put into the emergency category. But in the blinding light of the rest of the world, one that kept cracking apart like poorly made peanut brittle, they were fortunate. They still needed to be thankful.
“I told you I have some good news,” Will said.
In the past, Will would have used humor as a crutch. They were past that point, too.
“I found someway to earn some money,” he told her, then added “Not at the warehouse.”
The warehouse excursion had been an interesting few weeks. A neighbor had gotten him a job working nights at ten bucks an hour packaging different types of food samples from big companies like General Mills and Nabisco to go to supermarkets all over the country. Items like cookies and chips and more cookies that hadn’t been released yet would be packaged and then shipped out. Will hadn’t really earned that much money but he had gained probably ten pounds. They also never needed to buy another Oreo cookie again for as long as they lived.
The warehouse job had been temporary in between a couple of projects. Once he landed the baseball book deal, Will had been even more thankful to be able to write.
Yet the doubts had hung overhead like vultures.
“What are you going to be doing?” Tricia asked.
“Relief work down in South Carolina. Helping to clean up the mess.”
“You’re going to South Carolina?”
She wasn’t happy. Not in the slightest.
“Yeah. I’ll be able to see my relatives, too.”
“When? For how long?”
“I leave Monday,” he said. “I don’t know for how long.”
Tricia was wide awake now, sitting on the edge of the couch facing him and wanting a better explanation. “How did you hear about this?”
Will told her about meeting Alfonso in the pub and about their conversation.
“It’s fifteen bucks an hour. A lot better than the warehouse. Possibility of overtime. And it’s paid by the government. You know I’ll get it. I won’t have to wait forever to be paid.”
“You can’t leave us,” Tricia said. “Not now.”
The way she said it sounded like he was ditching them for some younger woman or something. Will shook his head, knowing this was going to be like this and already exhausted from needing to defend his decision.
“What am I supposed to do? I need to figure out what to do next. But that doesn’t pay for bills. You know?”
The whole money-budget-bills discussion began and soon Will’s calm and collected demeanor crumbled into the usual frantic and pissed-off one. The similar subjects and the familiar terrain. Aggravating and not particularly pretty to look at.
“I’m not leaving you guys I’m stepping foot through the first door that opened,” he eventually said to Tricia.
“What if another tornado hits Columbia?”
“It won’t. I’ll be fine.”
“What if something happens around here?”
“I won’t be gone long. Nothing’s going to happen.”
Tricia broke out into tears. Of course. That was how much she believed him. Maybe how much she believed inhim. He didn’t come alongside her and hold her or anything like that. He watched and waited and tried to figure out something to say.
“Everything’s going to be fine,” Will said.
“You need to stay here.”
“My parents don’t have any way to help us out anymore. Neither does your mother. I’m just trying to do something—anything—I can. To save our home. To just try and get by.”
“I don’t care about this home. We need you, Will.”
She didn’t say his name often, so it pricked at him when she did.
Tricia looked exhausted and worried, probably mirroring how he appeared. “There has to be other options. Is it worth it to go all the way down there?”
“I called my aunt. She might have some work for me at her office.”
This wasn’t exactly true. Will was planning on calling his Aunt Nancy soon. She had told him she might have some work for him to do. Something writing related, something he could do in any office anywhere.
Tricia wiped her eyes and her nose and then faced him. She looked overstuffed with emotion and questions. He hated to have conversations like this simply because he couldn’t help her. He couldn’t answer certain questions. He didn’t know how things were going to work out. Or even if they were going to.
To have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer . . .
Shut up interior monologue, Will thought.
“Do you want to leave?”
Her question came out of nowhere.
“What?” he said.
“Are you just using this as an excuse to leave?”
“I don’t want to leave. What are you talking about?”
“Just because of everything—because of you and me—because of what happened–“
“This has nothing to do with that,” Will said.
He knew what she was referring to. The drunken night and the morning after and the whole mess. But that was crazy. It hadn’t ever entered his mind and there was no way he wanted to leave them.
“I didn’t go searching for this,” Will said. “This came to me. Maybe it’s an answer to one of those prayers of yours.”
Will made sure to stress the last word. He also knew that his tone said back down. It said a little more than, actually. Tricia simply remained quiet.
“Why would you think I want to go? That’s unfair. “
“I know you’re tired of me saying–” she began.
“I’m just tired. Okay? I’m tired of going another month not paying the mortgage. I’m tired of Comcast calling. Seriously—I loathe Comcast. I’m sick of asking when the check is coming and I’m sick of you asking me when I’m going to know about this project or that project. We know now, right? And we know something I can do about it.”
Will was done with this conversation but he added a few nice curse words just to add an exclamation point. Her eyes looked at him with disappointment, then trailed off and landed on the half-empty glass of wine on the sofa table next to them.
“I don’t want something to happen to you,” Tricia said. “That’s all.”
She stood up and then wandered over to the stairs. It wasn’t the first time she went up them without saying good night.
And it won’t be the last.
He turned on the television and saw an update on the disaster in Columbia. Another day, another disaster. Another day ending in a fight. A day ending without getting a good-night. A day trailing off like steps moving up stairs.
Maybe this will be the last time I see those leaving me.
Will knew that they were living in an era full of lasts. A last family meal in a house right before it’s torn apart. A last basketball game in a gymnasium full of people right before it’s leveled.
The last breath someone takes right before facing a giant F5 hurtling straight toward them.
It was another symbol for their lives. This big beast coming out of nowhere and tearing apart their world. Will was trying. He was doing everything he could and trying to get by without losing anything else.
Are you using this as an excuse to leave?
He couldn’t believe she’d even asked that. Assuming that their arguments lately—the ones not concerning finances but dealing with other not-so-fun issues—were a reason.
For a few minutes he thought about it, refusing to believe it. But Will realized that Tricia was right. At least a little right.
He wanted a job, yes. But there was this part of him—this part deep down—that needed to breathe. To get away from all of this and to try on his own terms. To get away from her faith and his apologies. The financial stuff was exhausting enough. But living with all this other stuff just hovering over them.
She’s right. More than I’m ever going to admit.
There was no way he was going to tell her this. Absolutely no way. She wanted honesty and he told her he was being honest but this was one thing he wasn’t about to share.
Will was leaving to earn some extra money fast. He wouldn’t be gone long. He would be fine and so would they.
That was the story and the end of the discussion.
The body he was carrying was heavy. The face flopped sideways so he couldn’t see it. His arms and legs and back ached and he couldn’t breathe in enough air. Each step was impossible. Was there snow on the ground? This alerted Will for the first time that something was off. Not the shape he was carrying but the snow he was trudging through.
Wait a minute.
The figure in his arms suddenly jerked as the coughing began again. This time it was followed by blood. Will felt some of it on his face.
Where is this place?
A stumble, then stopping with knees digging into the cold ground, the body suddenly rolling in front of him. Then he saw them. All of them. All surrounding and engulfing and swallowing him.
The black graves. They were everywhere.
He realized he was searching for one to drop the body in. But where? And who was this person?
The figure lay with its face in the snow. He couldn’t make out its form and shape under the heavy winter clothes. Was it Tricia? It was heavy—too heavy to be her. Then again, he couldn’t remember the last time he had carried her like this.
He blinked and tried to get a better picture, starting to move to pull the body over and see the dead face. And just as he did—
The high-pitched buzzer beside his bed began to cry out. He quickly turned it off and then slipped out of the bed. His leaking sanity was still dripping all over him.
A quick shower and then he was leaving. Trish didn’t get out to say goodbye. There was really no need. He’d left on business trips many times before. She liked her sleep and had said goodbye last night. If she was awake, she might whisper a farewell, but he didn’t hear one. He heard the familiar creaks in the floor instead bidding him a Bon Voyage.
Someone else awaited downstairs, however.
A girl much taller than her age, more bright than the winter weather outside, more joyful than her father could ever remember being.
“You shouldn’t be up,” he said to Claire.
“You shouldn’t be leaving.”
It was only five and they had a rule for Claire not to get out of bed before six. But of course, this was an unusual morning in a very unusual last twelve months.
“We talked about this,” he said as he felt his daughter wrap herself around him.
Then she began to cry.
Kissing the top of her head felt as natural as breathing, as normal as sipping his morning coffee, as routine as saying goodbye and starting up his SUV to go to work.
This isn’t natural or normal or routine.
“Are you going to be okay?” Claire asked, that normally fun-loving, free-for-all face now wrinkled in pain. Not childlike pain but the adult kind.
“I’ll be fine. I’m not going to be gone long.”
“Not long,” he told her.
“But how long?”
“Claire . . .”
Her hug tightened around him. He could hear those soft and low sobs.
“Listen to me. Hey—look at me. Claire–“
Wide eyes glanced up at him. Will wiped the tears and then gave her a confident smile.
“This is a good thing, okay?” he told his eldest daughter. “I’m going to be helping people. Helping to sort through the mess down there. Okay? They just don’t have enough people and they desperately need help just to start to rebuild. And that’s going to be good for us, too. You know? That means I’ll have more money to buy you guys more American Girl dolls.”
“We don’t have American Girl dolls,” Claire corrected.
Yes, of course they didn’t. They had the faux kind that Target sold. But the twins certainly didn’t know the difference and Claire had never complained once about it.
Will smiled. She just couldn’t help being a firstborn.
“Well, whatever they are—they’re just as good as American Girl dolls.”
“I don’t want an American Girl doll,” she said, squeezing him again.
For a moment, Will almost lost it.
He had to breathe in and stay strong and not let her see an ounce of fear or hesitation or sadness on his face. He let the hug stay for a while and then faced her again.
“Listen to me,” he said as he knelt down in front of Claire. “You need to take care of Mommy, okay? Not just the girls—I know you’ll do that. But take care of your mother. She’s gonna need you, okay?”
For however long I’m gone.
Claire gave him a nod while she wiped tears.
“No more crying. I’ll call you later. Daddy needs this. We all need this. It’s okay. I promise you—I won’t be gone long.”
“But how long?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a week or maybe just a little longer. That’s all. I promise.”
Questioning eyes, so innocent and unknowing, looked up at him. Yet he saw her trust. Her certainty.
“Will you call me when you get there?” Claire asked.
I love this girl.
“Yes. That’ll be the first thing I do. Now listen—you go back to bed, okay? It’s early.”
“Bye Daddy.” As always, she gave him a kiss on his cheek along with the hug. “I love you.”
Some things in this life were unknown and uncertain. But those three words were as real as anything Will Hudson had seen or heard or learned in his forty-three years.
I know you do.
“I love you sweetie,” he told her.
Smiling and making sure he really looked at her for a moment. Her lanky figure then wandered back up the stairs and into her room.
The silence of the house pulled back up its blanket. It was too early for even their Shih Tzu to bother watching him. He stroked her soft fur as she slept, then glanced around the room again. Will turned off the light in the hallway next to the garage, then waited for a moment in the darkness.
Wondering and worrying. Like every morning and every noon and every afternoon and every night. Carrying the weight of these three little lives around with him. Knowing the weight could be and should be shared but not knowing quite how to do that.
He opened the door and wondered what waited outside of it.
It was probably a good thing he didn’t know.