This short story was written for the same workshop as The First Rule, but this one took a darker turn. The theme for the assignment was to write about time travel. The other story was my more traditional attempt, but I wanted to try something different and came up with this. I wrote a third story that I’ll post here eventually.
A Fathers Love
Darkness surrounded me, only glimmers of shadows shifting through the blackness. Sounds echoed around me, muted and dull, and I struggled to recognize the steady beeping I heard over everything. Voices murmured nearby but none spoke to me.
I smelled the sickness clinging to me as it had since I was first diagnosed, the cancer eating away at my stomach. Nothing could be done but delay the inevitable so I elected to forgo the chemo and the sickness I knew would come with it, the same sickness I watched Allison go through as the breast cancer ripped through her. Of course she had done it for mealways for methinking to prolong our time together, months spent watching her lose her hair and appetite, hovering over the toilet as the retching overwhelmed her, until finally she was able to rest. Now I would join her in the afterlife. After the pain I had been through, I was ready.
Someone grabbed my hand and my delirious mind wondered if it was Rachel or Nick before deciding that it would be neither. Rachel had receded after her mother died, disappearing into some dark depression like a slug avoiding the light. Nick I knew I would not see Nick again, not even in the afterlife.
Ray, someone said, squeezing my hand.
I squeezed back or tried to. Not much strength remained. I couldnt even open my eyes any longer.
Ray! Are you still with us?
Attempts to speak failed so I tried to move my head.
Good, the voice said. I heard the relief in the words. Theres something we need you to do before you go. Just one thing
I listened, a knot forming in my stomach as I did. Then the beeping stopped.
I blinked open my eyes and looked around. The room was dark but traces of familiar sunlight slipped through the slats of bamboo shades pulled down along the windows. A ceiling fan twirled lazily overhead, soft breeze of stale air breathing on my cheeks reminded me of waking every morning next to Allison.
I jerked my head over and saw her lumpy shape in the ocean blue sheets, sheets she just had to get since they matched the paint she loved so much. I swallowed back the lump in my throat as I leaned over and kissed her gently on the cheek. She stirred slightly, rolling over so that I could just see the edges of her face, and I kissed her again, this time on the lips, ignoring her stale morning breath.
Dreaming. I was dreaming.
As I looked around, I saw that this was our room just as it had been, only years earlier. Before the sickness and the cancer had stolen her from me. Before Rachel had disappeared, receding so that she was almost as dead as her mother. Before the trial, before Nick had
The thought caught in my throat as a memory returned. I was dying. I remembered the stench of my sickness, remembered the steady beeping of the monitor next to me as I lay in the hospice bed, and remembered the strange and urgent request.
I leapt out of bed with energy I had not had in many years. Not a dream and not deadnot yetbut something different, an unexpected chance to set something right. I didnt know how much time I had here, how much time remaining, only that they had told me that in these final moments, moments that normally flashed by as you died, I could step off briefly into my past. Time would stretch out, they said, but only for so long. Maybejust maybeit would be long enough for an opportunity, long enough for a chance to make a change.
I didnt know if there was any significance to where I stepped off, only that my time at the stop was limited. Linger too long and I would be pulled away, missing a period of flashes. Linger long enough, and everything would fade.
Hurrying toward the faded white door that I never had a chance to refinish, I hesitated and turned back to Allison. This would be a much better last memory of her than the one I had, the one where the cancer and the chemo had stolen the flesh from her bones, her face sunken and hollow so that she looked more dead than alive, her hair only thin wisps
I looked at her face, held her in my eyes for only a moment, and brushed the strands of hair off her face, kissing her again.
Tears streamed down my cheeks as I hurried down the stairs. Blurry pictures lined the staircase, snapshots of the kids and our family taken over the years, pictures that still hung in our house. I wondered who would take them down when I was gone?
As I reached the bottom of the stairs, the door opened and Nick entered. I froze on the stairs, watching him, looking so much like the man I last saw, but different too. There was not the angerthe indifferencethat would be there later. Large aviator sunglasses covered his eyes, his hair was short cropped and combed over, and he wore a baggy sweatshirt with DSU written in faded letters across the front. Now tall and solidly built, he served as a reminder of myself from years ago, so different than the scrawny teenager he once had been. How had we turned out so differently?
College still, before all the messiness, back when Allison and I were simply thrilled that he seemed to have emerged from his difficult phase, never minding the fact that he rarely smiled. Only the barbed piercing through his eyebrow just visible over the top of his sunglasses served as a reminder of those times.
Even now I still saw him as he once was, the quiet child, our first born.
He glanced over at me and said nothing, closing the door silently. For a moment, I thought this just a memory, a dying mans wish to see his son one more time.
Nick, I said his name with as much warmth as I could muster.
The images at his trial had challenged my love, images so graphic and brutal that I could not bear to watch. Thankfully Allison had been too sick for court by that time, always able to believe her sons innocence. The trial had disabused me of that, seeing the faces of the women he had killed and brutalized, the flat way he had stared ahead during the trial, the lack of remorse on his face. Always I wondered what those girls fathers must feel, the sense of loss and the anger.
All of that rushed through me as I saw him. Could I really somehow change any of that or was it already too late? Deep down he was still my boy. How could you stop loving your son?
And if I could change that somehow, I had to try.
Dad, he said, setting his backpack on the floor near the door before walking into the kitchen.
I followed him, uncertain what I would say. Son, in a few years you will become a serial killer
If he hadnt already.
Instead, I walked over to him as he reached for a bowl and pulled him into a hug. I love you, Nick, I whispered. A flood of emotion washed over me as I said the words and my eyes welled up with tears again.
He stiffened and I held him for a long moment, knowing this couldnt possibly change anything, only knowing that I never said it to him enough, never as much as I felt I should.
I kept hoping he would soften and hug me back.
Eventually I let go.
I opened my eyes. The room was different, but still my bed. Heavy velvet curtains that Allison just loved hung over the windows, light still managing to find its way through. I heard the fan overhead before I felt the air blowing on my face, stale and sour, like day old sweat. Rolling over, I saw just an empty hollow where Allison should be.
Sitting up, I glanced over toward the tall dresser and saw the small tube television perched on top, the TV we had for years before it finally failed and we bought the small flat screen. Shoving myself out of bed, I had the nagging memory of something that I was to do. Dressed in nothing but blue boxers, I staggered toward the dresser and pulled on a shirt and jeans, glancing in the mirror atop our long dresser as I did and seeing a face that seemed both too young and too old and needing a shave.
Only then did I remember.
A rush of memories flooded me. I didnt know if anything had changed during the last step off but doubted that a simple hug would be enough to change his future. Would this step off be any different? Would I have enough time to make a difference and save all those women? Save my son?
I hurried to the top of the stairs and paused when I heard the sounds of laughter coming from the kitchen, that of Rachel and Allison giggling at some joke they shared. I smiled and started toward the stairs to join them when I heard a soft cry coming down the hall.
Following the sound to Nicks room, I looked past the sign telling me to Stay Out and knocked, waiting for him to call me in, wondering as I stood there if there was anything I could say that would change who he would become, would change the monster he had turned into. Could I bring back the boy that I remembered?
Had he ever really been the boy that I remembered?
When he didnt answer, I twisted the handle on his door and entered anyway. Nick looked up at me, the guilty expression on his face flashing quickly to anger as he jerked the sleeve of his black shirt down. But not before I saw the way he scraped the box blade across his arm, not before I saw the lines of crimson on his arm, and not before I saw the tears at the corner of his eyes.
I never knew that he cut himself like that. Suddenly his preference for long sleeves, even in the warmer months, made a twisted sort of sense.
I blinked, knowing that I should have known, should have taken the time away from work, from the stack of papers that always needed to be reviewed, to simply spend time with him. Even now I could not change that.
I told you to stay out of my room! He stood and tried to push me toward the door, but this Nick was barely fourteen and had none of the strength he would grow into, none of the strength he would later use to capture and torture those girls.
Holding my ground, I put my hands out. I considered hugging him again, but that would only make me feel better and would do nothing to calm him, especially since I was the only one who remembered our last hug. How long had it been to him since he last felt that affection?
What are you doing, Nick? I asked instead.
He pushed on my chest, steering me toward the door. I turned and let him barrel past me and caught him as gently as I could as he nearly stumbled, lowering him to the ground. He looked up at me, his dark eyes petulant and hurt. Still a child in my eyes.
Why do you hurt yourself like this?
What do you care? You wouldnt even mind if I was gone. Probably wish I was never even born, he said.
The words hurt. Even after all we had been through, after learning what he had become, we had never wished for that. Always I held out hope for his redemption, even thinking he had found his way when he reached college, putting the rebellion of his teen years behind him. Looking at him and knowing what would happen, I knew that he never got past the hurt I saw in him now.
But what if he was right? What if he hadnt been born?
I couldnt think that way. He was my son and I loved him. In spite of everything he had become, I loved him.
I knelt down in front of him and held his gaze. Talk to me, Nick. Talk to your dad.
His eyes turned defiant. You dont care what I have to say.
I tried to put my arm around him but he shrugged it off. Is there someone you will talk to? I asked. I didnt know how much time I had before I was dragged away. Clearly not as much time as Nick needed, but maybe I could start him in the right direction, get him to start opening up. Do what I failed to do all those years ago.
How had we not seen how he suffered? How had we missed the way his eyes seemed tormented? Where was the boy I remembered?
Nick just shook his head. You never believe me anyway, he said.
What do you mean? I asked, but as I did, I knew, suddenly remembering the offhanded comment he made all those years ago, the one he said and immediately denied.
Dont worry about it. I know I dont.
He stood up and turned toward his bed, throwing himself down and rolling away and refusing to turn back. I watched him, my stomach knotted, thinking again of the way he stiffened at my touch when I caught him in the kitchen, thinking of the boy who always hated being hugged.
Finally I turned away.
I awoke to the fan blowing hard, as if set on the highest setting, the downrod practically shaking. Why had Allison turned it up so fast? The air stunk like old socks and rotting leaves, a smell that was both disgusting and familiar. The curtains hanging over the window were cracked letting in bright light that caught on dust motes swimming through the air.
Allison was already up and had tried to make the bed around me again. I smiled, thinking that it must be a weekend since my alarm hadnt pulled me from sleep, and got up and dressed quickly, eyes seeing the stack of folders on top of the dresser that I needed to review this weekend, before heading downstairs.
The rest of the family sat around the table in the kitchen. Allison wore her faded flannel pajamas and smiled when she saw me and brushed a strand of her hair away from her eyes as she leaned in for a morning kiss. Rachel sat in a t-shirt and shorts, her head bent over a coloring book, crayons splayed across the table, the bowl of cheerios neglected in front of her. Nick wore only his orange swim trunks as he sat stiffly at the table, eating slowly and deliberately. A coloring book was in front of him as well and he colored furiously.
As I touched him on the head and tousled his hair, memory of my purpose nearly staggered me.
You swimming today, Nick? I asked. I didnt remember this day and didnt know if I had always asked that or if this was a new conversation.
Allison looked over at me from the sink, a quizzical expression on her face. Todds dad is taking the boys this morning so you can get some of your work done.
I nodded absently, watching Nick.
Can I go swimming, daddy? Rachel asked. She didnt bother looking up from where she colored. Nick reached across the table for a color, trying to grab the one she was using. Hey! she shouted.
Sure, honey, I said, pushing a different crayon into Nicks hand as I turned my focus to him, not knowing why I had stepped off here. How much time did I have left? Are you excited to swim?
He shook his head. I didnt remember him being this sullen. Had Allison always known? Had my work kept me from seeing what he needed?
Dont want to go with him, Nick said. He reached across again and grabbed at Rachels crayon. When she pulled away, he flung a fistful of them at her.
Allison turned and waved a spatula at him. Nicholas! she shouted.
His face turned into a deep pout and his face clouded over.
You go pick up those crayons and say sorry to your sister, Allison demanded, tapping him on the shoulder with the spatula.
I said I dont want to go! he shouted.
Nicholas Weller! Allison snapped. You need to thank Mr. Roland for taking you swimming. You know he doesnt have to do that! How would he feel if he knew what you said?
Something changed in Nick and he nodded slightly as the anger seeped away. Or was pushed down; if anything, his back stiffened more.
I looked from Nick to Allison. Would you like me to take you swimming today? I asked Nick.
His eyes widened and a hopeful look crossed his face. Allison came over and shook her head. That would be rude to Mr. Roland, Ray. Let him take the boys as he planned. You can take them next time.
I watched Nicks face but it didnt change.
Allison pulled me away, toward the counter and sat me down, pushing a plate of sweet rolls in front of me but I kept my eyes on Nick. Hey, buddy I said, taking a mouthful of roll, savoring the flavor that I hadnt tasted in years. Let me take you today, I decided. Whatever work I thought needed to get done would wait. Allison looked at me, a question in her eyes but I shook my head. Its okay, Ally. I think it will be good for us.
She shrugged and turned back to the sink and began washing again. The kids kept eating, the fight at least gone from them, both focusing on their coloring again.
The doorbell rang and I looked up.
Allison walked past me, resting her hand briefly on my shoulder, Mr. Roland, she said.
Nick sat stiff and unmoving for the moments that Allison was gone. When she returned, she looked at me, eyes beseeching. Hes already here and Todd looks like he really wants Nick to come with them. Just let him take the boys today, Ray, she whispered.
As I chewed, I nodded slowly. Would anything change if I took him or did I just need to let him go, tell him I love him, and hope that he would remember that as he grew?
How could I know if anything I did even made a change?
Allison pulled Nick from his seat and led him toward the door. I caught him as he passed and pulled him into a hug, squeezing him tightly.
My heart skipped a beat when he melted toward me, letting me pull him close.
I kissed the top of his head for one last time.
The stench of rot woke me, the air seeming to slap me as I blinked my eyes open. The ceiling fan spun almost too fast overhead, whirling in a rhythmic flap, pressing the odor into my nose.
I looked around but could not see the source.
Heavy woven curtains were drawn but a bright light seeped around the edges giving the room an ethereal quality. A tall dresser stacked with papers and folders atop its surface reminded me of work needing to be done, always more work, but Allison stirred and rolled toward me, arm falling across my chest, beckoning me back to bed.
I lay there, staring at the fan spinning overhead. Moments passed, moments I knew should be precious. The memory of my steps came back to me in a flood and I suddenly understood what it was I smelled.
My own death.
Allisons arm slid down and she rutted against me, half awake. I smiled, enjoying the warmth of her body, the softness of her curves, the feel of her breasts on my chest, and I sensed myself growing aroused.
Were these moments longer, I would take advantage.
I looked over at the door and saw it propped open. Cant, Ally, I said.
You have someplace better to be? she asked, nibbling on my ear.
No place other than my deathbed. Kids, I mumbled. If I lay there much longer I would simply go along with her.
Allison propped herself up, her long hair flowing down her back, her face the youthful face of my memories. Why do you think Im trying
I blinked. I remembered this day. More than just a step off, this was a sweet memory, one of the last days without me working that we shared before we learned of her pregnancy. Of Nick.
She pulled me in and kissed me. I kissed her back instinctively, enjoying the way her lips felt pressed against mine, the urgent way her body pushed on me so that I pushed back.
A thought intruded, something Nick had said during one of my steps and I suddenly knew what I had to do.
All the steps had shown me that I could not change the past. I had never even seen the sorrow in my son, never saw the sadness he had at his earliest age. There was only one way I could help him, only one way I could really be sure to prevent what he would become.
I loved him so much, but perhaps he had been right about that.
I pushed myself back from Allison, sensing her disappointment, my heart breaking as I did. Hey, rain check? I asked, kissing her forehead. I was barely able to utter the words.
Sleepy eyes blinked and looked at me with frustration, but she nodded and rolled away, pulling the faded brown sheet up over her chest and balling it under her neck.
I watched her, feeling the air from the fan overhead spinning faster, before finally lying back onto the bed.
As the light faded, I knew there would not be another step.