Tuesday, November 17, 2015

COMING HOME by Eric Price

Sometimes the worst situations can make us thankful.


“Would you like anything to drink, sir?” the flight attendant asked.

“Another gin and tonic. Thanks.” This was going to be hard, but the gin made John not care…for now.

“This is your captain speaking. We will be touching down in St. Louis in about an hour. Current weather is eighty-five degrees with eighty percent humidity. Some scattered storms are in the area, heavy storms are expected tonight.”

If he only knew. He handed his credit card to the flight attendant. “You’d better make that two.”

He emptied the first 3 cl gin bottle into the plastic glass filled with ice, and topped it with tonic water. Three hurried gulps drained the first glass, and he reclined his chair to savor the other bottle.

As the plane descended to Lambert Airport, it passed into dark storm clouds. The windows went from dry to a sheet of rain.

“This is your captain. Welcome to St. Louis.  Local time is 3:05 p.m. If you’re catching a connecting flight . . .”

John tuned the rest of it out. 3:05, huh? He would have guessed half past 6 looking out the window. Typical St. Louis weather.

In the airport he looked at Amber’s flight information. He checked the status of her flight on the message board. Another hour. I guess I’ll get a bite to eat.

In the restaurant he ordered a beer and a cheeseburger. How was he going to react to seeing her after all these years? She was his sister, but with a six year age difference, they never felt like siblings. Cousins maybe. Second or third cousins, once removed, by marriage was more like it. Even after all they had been through together.

He finished his burger and had another beer before heading to Amber’s gate. When he saw her, he could tell she had aged. But will she have matured? Her auburn hair was shorter than he remembered, and the tattoos covering her left arm were new.

She ran and wrapped her arms around him. As if not feeling the awkwardness five years brings, not to mention parting on the terms they did.

She pulled away, her eyes glassed over with tears. “I can’t believe this. I just can’t believe he would do it. I just. . . I can’t believe it.”

The same reaction she had had when he called to tell her the news. He didn’t know what she couldn’t believe. Hadn’t they grown up in the same house? John had expected something like this for the past fifteen years. Yet his precious sister, their favorite, found it unfathomable. She should have known them better. But she never did have a strong grip on reality.

“We’re supposed to call Officer Lowery when we get to the house,” John said. “Let’s talk about something else for now. How is the paper going?”

“Great!” She sniffed a drip from her nose. “I’m editing the Travel and Lifestyle sections now. It makes me wish I had more time to get out and see the world. But I’ll just have to settle for living vicariously through the writers for now.

“I read your new book. I liked it, but do you ever think you’ll get tired of all the aliens, and write something a little more down to earth, Space Boy? Maybe a column about New England for the Travel section? You know, many people from San Jose have never been to Maine.

“With all the authors that live in New England, I’d have trouble writing anything unique.”

They paid for a rental car and hurried through the rain to spot 47, neither of them thinking to pack an umbrella. Amber drove, joking that Jack’s breath smelled flamable.

“Why did you move to Camden anyway? Looking for inspiration.”

“No. I just wanted to get away from here. Everything around here got so stagnant. Everyone seemed to know me. In Maine, I can walk down the street and no one tells me about how their son read all my books, or asks me to sign a cocktail napkin.

“New tourists come in every spring, summer, and fall. The winters everyone seems to pack up and go to Florida, so I feel isolated. That’s when I get my best writing done.”

“I could never stand to feel alone. That would drive me nuts.”

“Then it’s a good thing people stay in California year round. When was the last time you were home to see Mom and Dad?” He realized what he said, but it was too late. Words couldn’t be unspoken. The worst part was, he didn’t mean for them to sound as hateful as he knew Amber would take them.

She glared at him. Just when he thought she wasn’t going to answer, she said, “Christmas. The year before last.”

“I’m. . . I’m sorry. I said we wouldn’t talk about it until we got to their house, and then I brought it up. I’m sorry.” And their first meeting in five years had been going so well.

The rain had traffic stop and go on I-70. Jack tried to make small talk, but Amber didn’t seem interested in sharing a rental car anymore.

He supposed she had her reasons for not coming around. God knows he hated his father, but he still came to visit three or four times a year for his mother’s sake.

She hadn’t even lived through some of their father’s worst behavior. Coming home drunk every night. The screaming matches. Broken lights, furniture, dishes. All the nights Jack lay awake crying, trying to be quiet, afraid to make a sound. How old was he four? Five? Their house became a regular stop by the police on Friday and Saturday nights. The next morning his father would hold him, still reeking of the night before–stale whisky, cigarettes, vomit–and promise it would never happen again. Promise he would get help. Broken promises, broken hearts. This all happened before Amber.

After her birth, everything slowed down. The drunken nights went from every night, to every week, to once a month, to almost never. The police found new weekend routs.

Amber pulled the car into their parent’s drive and dialed Officer Lowery’s number from the slip of paper Jack handed her.

“He said he’ll be here in five minutes. We should wait outside.”

The rain had stopped. Jack got out and walked around the house. He grabbed the branch of the old ash tree where their tire-swing had hung. The branch still had a worn spot where the rope rubbed.

The garage behind the house, where bees once built a hive, had a fresh coat of paint since Jack had last seen it. He and Amber discovered the bee hive only to have a swarm of angry bees attack. That day they found out two things: Amber had an allergy to bee stings: and Impalas could hit 110 with their father behind the wheel.

The brick sidewalk leading from the garage to the back door still had a chipped brick. When that brick broke, Jack’s father had cut his foot. Jack had never seen so much blood. He thought his father would die. Part of him hoped his father would die— if a small boy can really hope such a thing.

The side yard that housed their swing set and sandbox when they were young, and a pool when they were teenagers, had been turned into a garden. Jack picked a red tomato, wiped it on his shirt, and took a huge bite. Nothing like a home-grown tomato.

He found Amber sitting on the rusted porch swing. It squeaked with each movement, back and forth. Jack climbed the three crooked blue steps, and walked along the porch. The boards still creaked in all the same places. His old bedroom window still had the shinny outline of the faded metallic sticker from the fire department. Next to it, a less faded American flag sticker with “United We Stand” printed at the bottom.

He joined his sister on the swing as a police car pulled into the drive.

Officer Lowery waved to them before getting out and hefting his weight up the porch’s stairs. Jack and Amber had known Officer Lowery all their lives. He liked to tell them about how he had lived in the house before their parents bought it.

“Jack. Amber. It’s good to see you again. I wish it could be under better circumstances, though.

“Are you ready to go into the house?”

“I guess we have to be,” Jack said.

“Officer Lowery,” Amber said, “are you certain someone didn’t kill them?”

“We’re certain. The suicide note matched your father’s handwriting. We have no evidence suggesting anyone forced him to write it.”

“I just can’t believe he would have done this,” Amber said.

“Are you serious?” Jack snapped at her. “Didn’t you grow up here? Remember when he held us all hostage? He came home after a two day binge, barely able to walk. He took his shotgun and made us go to our rooms. He ripped all the phones out of the jacks. And he sat in the livingroom screaming about how no one cared about his problems. “When he finally passed out, Mom snuck us out of the house and used a payphone to call the police. “I wasn’t able to sleep for over a week.”

Jack stared at Amber, letting the memories flood her. Officer Lowery said nothing. He had been one of the arresting officers.

When he thought enough time had passed, Jack said to Amber, “You don’t even know how bad it could get. He slowed down a lot after you were born. Mom made him promise to quit when she got pregnant. And I think he really did try. All you ever saw were his occasional outbursts. I saw him drunk every night.”

“Jack, I–” But she didn’t finish. She just wiped the tears from her cheeks. “Let’s go in.”

Their shadows flashed on the front door, and a loud crack of thunder shook the porch under their feet. A downpour of rain soaked the street in an instant. Officer Lowery unlocked the door and they entered.

Jack had prepared himself to see the worst, but the scene had been completely cleaned.

“Your mother’s body was here,” Officer Lowery said. He pointed to a spot on the floor next to the couch. “She had a shotgun blast to the stomach, and one to the head. We figure he shot her in the stomach…and sat in that rocking chair to watch her suffer.”

Jack followed his gaze from the floor to the chair.

“He must have written the suicide note as he watched her die. I can show it to you at the station, but he writes dialogue between your mother and himself in the letter. It reads more like a journal than a suicide note.

“His lab results came back with a blood alcohol level of 0.15. But he also tested positive for THC, LSD, and Valium.

“After finishing the note, we believe he shot your mother in the face.”

“Oh, God,” Amber said, covering her face to sob.

More lightning and thunder. The wind wiped rain and small hail pellets against the livingroom window.

When Amber regained some composure, Officer Lowery continued. “We don’t know the exact order of what happened next. At some point, your father reloaded the shotgun, moved your mother’s body to the couch, and called his sister.

“Your aunt called the police. She reported that all your father said was, ‘I love you, and I’m sorry.’ When she asked him what he was sorry about, he said, ‘I did what had to be done.’ I rushed here with two other officers, but we were too late. Your father had discharged both barrels into his mouth.”

Amber went into her old bedroom, sat on the bed, and started crying.

Jack left Officer Lowery in the living room and explored the house, reminiscing as he did outside. The wall where he and Amber had marked their heights each year. The laundry room that seconded as their dog’s bedroom.

In the basement he pulled the loose bricks aside to reveal a tight crawlspace meant to give access to the water pipes. As a teenager, Jack hid beer, pot, condoms, and porno mags in here. He reached in and pulled out an old, dusty, half-empty, bottle of vodka. “I guess Amber found this spot after I left for college.” He took a swig and stuck out his tongue, “Needs ice.” He took the rest upstairs and put it in the freezer.

Amber’s sniffling still came from her bedroom.

“You don’t need me here, anymore,” Lowery said. “I’m going to try to get home before this storm gets any worse.”

Jack shut the door behind him and went to Amber’s room.

“Listen, Amber. I know this is upsetting. We lost both of our parents at the same time. But if this caught you by surprise, then you were more naive than I thought.” His words came out sharper than he had intended, but once they started it felt good to vent. She stopped sniffling and glared at him. He continued, “You were always closer to dad than I understood. I hated him. I can’t remember ever liking him. You have to understand what it was like when I grew up. He–”

“When you grew up! That’s all I hear out of you. How bad you had it. It was much worse before you, Amber. He used to drink so much more, Amber. You’re just overreacting, Amber. Well I’ve got news for you, Jack, I had it bad too. These are tears of mourning for Mom, but they’re tears of joy for Dad. I’m so thankful he’s dead I can’t stop crying. I’ve never told anyone until now, but here it is: he used to molest me.”

Jack’s mouth gaped. He wished he had that vodka from the freezer. “What?”

“You heard me. He molested me. When I was young, he touched me. At first it only happened when he’d been drinking. But then it started happening when he was sober. When I hit puberty…he started raping me.”

“Amber, I’m so sorry.”

“Shut up and listen. You’re not sorry. What do you have to be sorry about? You weren’t there.

“You say I was close to him. He forced me to be close to him. I was too afraid to push him away. I was young. I didn’t know any better. I thought if he told anyone I would get in trouble. I thought if mom found out she would hate me. So I hung close to him. I did whatever I could to please him.”

She fell silent, and Jack said nothing to break it. Five years ago, he had exploded at her for not coming home more often to see Mom and Dad. He couldn’t figure out why she stayed away. He assumed selfishness kept her away. That she didn’t care about coming home because it wasn’t convenient for her.

She went into the bathroom, and when she came out, she didn’t look like she had been crying at all. Jack knew he could never say or do anything to make amends the bad blood between Amber and himself, but he took her in his arms and held her as the tears streamed down his cheeks.

Eric Price lives with his wife and two sons in northwest Iowa. He began publishing in 2008 when he started writing a quarterly column for a local newspaper. Later that same year he published his first work of fiction, a spooky children’s story called Ghost Bed and Ghoul Breakfast. Since then, he has written stories for children, young adults, and adults. Three of his science fiction stories have won honorable mention from the CrossTime Annual Science Fiction Contest. His first YA fantasy novel, Unveiling the Wizards’ Shroud, received the Children’s Literary Classics Seal of Approval and the Literary Classics Award for Best First Novel. His second novel, The Squire and the Slave Master, continues the Saga of the Wizards. It is scheduled for a November 26 release. Find him online at authorericprice.comTwitterFacebook, and Goodreads.