© Paraschiv George Gabriel | Dreamstime.com – Dental Xray right half
By Christopher Opyr
John cracked a beer and settled back into his well worn armchair. Time for kickoff. Denver Broncos vs the San Francisco 49ers in Candlestick Park. He didn’t have any skin in the game, but he needed to unwind and it was on.
“John! He needs help.”
“Chrissake, Em. I just sat down.”
Emily rounded the corner into the living room and, gripping the entryway, straightened herself into her most imposing stance. At barely five foot two and ninety-five pounds, the pose failed to impress.
“Then get up,” she said. “This is our son.” She paused for emphasis then shifted gears. “And don’t use the Lord’s name in vain.”
“Jesus, Em,” he said. Sometimes you had to goad back, even if you were poking the proverbial bear.
John sat down his beer, careful to use a coaster (Emily insisted on it), and stood. He towered over his wife by nearly a foot, his figure lean and intimidating without any effort. Years in the Marines and a strict exercise regimen had kept the traditional middle-aged gut at bay.
“What is it now?”
“He won’t come out of his room. He’s been in there all day, just sitting and eating junk.”
“Well don’t give him junk food and half the problem is solved.”
“He says he’s hungry, but it’s more than that.”
“Yeah. He’s fat and he’s lazy. If you’d let me work it out of him I could have him straightened out in no time.”
John loved his son deeply, but the boy had no understanding of discipline. His mother had coddled him from the start and the horrors of this past summer had done nothing but make Emily softer on the boy. John had long felt the need to break Emily of the habit, but he had indulged her instead. Soon he would have to consider that his son’s needs outweighed Emily’s happiness. Nicholas needed to be taught a lesson.
“John, keep your voice down.”
“Truth hurts. The boy needs to hear it.”
“You know it’s more than that. The boy needs a doctor.”
“You mean a shrink.”
“I mean a professional that can help him cope with what he saw.”
John let out an exasperated grunt. This again. He and Em had danced this dance many times over the past two months – ever since Nicholas discovered the Hoffmans dead in an apparent murder suicide.
As on most Saturdays, Nicholas had headed over to the Hoffman residence shortly after breakfast to visit his best friend, Matt. He hadn’t had any formal plan, but John suspected his son had intended to spend the day playing jungle adventurer with Matt and thrashing their way through the woods surrounding New River.
Instead Nicholas had arrived to find the Hoffman residence locked tight and no one answering the door. Their cars had been in the drive, so, certain that they were home, Nicholas had wandered around back to rap on Matt’s window. That’s when he found the bodies mutilated and splayed out on the floor of his best friend’s room.
He had not been the same since. John had provided his son space to grieve, but when a month passed with no sign of a return to normalcy he had begun to worry. He didn’t want to be harsh and he understood Emily’s concerns, but he didn’t believe the answer lay in the finely crafted web of lies concocted by some quack head shrink. Not only would Nicholas likely come back with his head stuffed with some mother-hating, daddy-did-me-wrong nonsense, but moreover if word got out that he was seeing a psychiatrist the boy would be a laughing stock. There would likely be more damage done from bullying than healing by his doctor.
“John?” Emily crossed her arms and demanded an answer.
“No. The boy needs discipline, not some fraud enabling him. I won’t hear it.”
“You won’t hear it –“
“– No, so don’t start. I’ll talk to him, but I draw the line at head doctors.”
Emily withdrew into herself. “Okay.”
That settled, John took a swig of his beer then wiped his lips dry with his arm.
“Good,” he said, and started down the hall. As he strode by, Emily reached out and gently brushed his arm.
“Be easy on him, okay?”
He could see the pleading in her eyes and softened.
“Of course,” he said. “I’m not a monster.” And with that, he turned parting from his wife and strode down the hall.
As he neared Nicholas’s door an unease settled into his gut. Nick was talking to someone, but the conversation was one-sided, as if the boy were on the phone, but that couldn’t be right either. The cordless phone was charging on its stand in the kitchen. John could see it as he glanced back over his shoulder. Looking at it as he listened in on Nicholas he found himself more and more puzzled by the fragmented conversation.
“…says I should slow down.” Nicholas paused as if waiting on an inaudible reply, then continued.
“It was implied.” Silence again. Then:
“Well, no… but she may have a point. Look at me.
“You’re right. Odd phrasing, but still.
“Well, yes, I am. Always. Nonstop. But that doesn’t mean I’m not huge. There is no way I’ll make soccer in the fall.
“It is too important. It’s important to me. I matter here.
“Well, I don’t know, but I don’t want to be this way anymore. I don’t. Does it have to be so much?”
Nicholas’s voice trailed off, softer, slipping into a gentle whisper. John leaned closer pressing his ear against the door.
From the other side he heard a faint scratching, mixed with a barely audible gurgling. As it stopped, Nicholas spoke once more, still in that muted whisper.
“Are you sure? I didn’t hear nothing.”
He paused and the gurgling bubbled up through the quiet, along with that soft scratching. As it subsided, John could make out the faint sounds of a bag of chips crinkling, followed by footsteps approaching.
John pressed back from the door just in time as it eased open a crack. His son stared out, one paranoid eye framed in the gap between the door and the doorway.
“Open the door.”
John sighed then butted his shoulder into the door. Nicholas stumbled back, pinwheeling his arms, then fell flat onto his ass.
“You heard me. I said open the door.”
John entered, stepping over his son, and shut the door behind him.
“Who were you talking to?” he asked as he took in the entirety of the room. It was a mess of junk food wrappers, empty plates, trash fantasy books, and coverless comics – the last just one more habit of which John intended to break Nicholas.
“No one, dad.”
“Uh-huh.” John marched to the closet and flung the door open: nothing but shirts, both hanging and wadded in a ball on the floor. “You need to clean that up.”
John turned 180 degrees and hauled to the bed, lifting the frame up as he peered under. More comics and wrappers. A cockroach skittered back from the light.
“Shit, son. You need to clean this whole room before our house becomes infested.”
“This place is a shitheap, you know that?”
“Yes. Yes, sir.”
“Well then why didn’t you do something about it?”
John locked eyes with Nicholas. The boy stood at a rapt attention in the center of the room, fifty pounds overweight, his chins jiggling as he stuttered his responses. Sweat stains leaked from his pits, and his shirt stretched taut over his expanding belly.
“Hell, boy. What are we going to do with you?”
John didn’t wait for an answer. He stepped to the room’s sole window, yanked it open, and leaned his head out, searching the yard. “Who’s out there?”
“No one’s there, dad. Really.”
“I’m not stupid, son. You were talking to someone.”
“Just myself. Really.” His chins wobbled again, and sweat beaded down his brow.
John pulled in from the window and focused all his ire on his son. “You’re hiding something. Out with it.”
John sat on Nicholas’s bed and patted the mattress beside him.
“Come on, Nick. Fess up.”
Nicholas plopped into the empty space beside his dad, the frame groaning under the sudden pressure.
“Jesus, son. Sit yourself down, don’t throw yourself down. Have some damn sense.”
“Now, who was it?”
“What the hello type of name is that.”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, they’ll just let anyone in now days, won’t they. Fuck. What the hell were you doing sneaking company? You’re allowed friends over. It ain’t late. No need to sneak them in and out.”
“I didn’t sneak anyone in or out.”
Nicholas bit at his lip, turning his eyes down. More, this bite wasn’t a simple nervous tick clamping down on his lower lip. No, Nicholas seemed to be nibbling at the lip. Almost tasting it. Finally he spoke.
John let his chin drop to his chest as he flung his head down and shook it. “Oh hell, boy.” John shook his head some more and pressed at his temples. “I don’t know what to do with you.”
“I’ll be better. I promise.” The boys eyes pleaded with him, and at last John caved.
“I know. I know you will, but I’ve had hard enough time keeping you away from the head shrinks with you just overeating. Now you’re talking to people that aren’t there. Shit, once your mother finds that out, she’s liable to sneak you off to Brynn Marr whether I consent or not.”
“Maybe that’s not such a bad idea, dad. I’ve gained what, seventy-five pounds in two months?”
“No. Fuck Brynn Marr. No son of mine.”
“That’s thirty-seven pounds a month. What if it doesn’t slow down?” The desperation dripped from Nicholas as he spoke. John couldn’t miss it. His son genuinely feared that the weight would just keep coming – that he’d what, eat himself to death?
John wanted to lay down the law. That’s how his dad had raised him and how his dad’s dad had before him. You didn’t play warm fuzzies and go for long walks and talk it out. You told your child how it was going to be and you expected they followed through with the order. Yet, looking at the fear in his son’s eyes, he knew Nicholas was no soldier. He was a child seeking help.
“Why are you doing it? It’s Matt, right?”
“I thought so, but I don’t know.”
“You can do better than that.”
“I miss him, I do, and I still have nightmares–”
“Nothing in that room room can hurt you,” John said interrupting. Nicholas needed to know that he was safe. “Not now and not ever. You understand that, right?”
“I wouldn’t be so sure.”
Nicholas tugged at his tight clothes trying to pull up his pants, and when that failed, trying to tuck down his shirt. They’d just bought him new clothes two weeks ago. John would have to hit the PX with his next paycheck. Even if he could get Nicholas to drop some of the weight, it wouldn’t be enough anytime soon. His boy deserved the dignity of proper clothes. He deserved more than that. John could see the fear in his son’s eyes, and at last he understood that it wasn’t fear of rapprochement. Something had terrified his son, not with the fear of God but with the fear of something much worse. Something darker. That just could not stand.
“Look, if you saw someone, if you think you’re in danger, you need to tell me. We’ll tell the police. They can lock him up, and I’ll guarantee you no one will touch you. I’d snap their neck they so much as looked at you wrong. You’re safe here, you know that?
“Yes, dad. It’s not like that. I didn’t see it happen, but I think they were right. I think it was a… a murder-suicide. I’ve accepted that and I’ve mourned, dad, and I’ll always miss Matt, but I’m not sad anymore.”
“So what is it?”
“I’m just… hungry…”
On to Part Two