This is a fictional short story written by contributor Luke Taeschler
“Michael, wake up. You need to take the kids to school.”
I rolled over on the couch, blinded by the light that poured through our living room window. The clock above the television read 8:00 AM. I had overslept by an hour. I stared at the ceiling for a minute before getting off the couch and walking into the kitchen.
“Sorry about that, I fell asleep watching TV last night. Network was on.”
“Oh, Network was on?”
“You know it’s one of my favorite movies, has been since we saw it together back in ’76.”
“Whatever, Michael. I asked you not to fall asleep on the couch. Think about how it must look to the kids.”
“The kids aren’t even up yet, Hannah.”
“That’s not the point, Michael. Do you think it would look good to the kids if they came down and saw their father asleep on our living room sofa?”
“Of course not, but–”
“We’ll talk about this later, Michael. I’m running late for work.”
She paused for a second and continued her frantic rummaging through her purse. Finally finding her keys, she zippered up her purse and began to leave the kitchen.
“Just make sure you get the kids to school by 8:30. And please try to cook them breakfast.” She picked up her briefcase at the door and muttered good-bye over her shoulder before walking out.
I walked to the stairs to listen to what the boys were doing. Both showers were running, which meant they’d probably be down within ten minutes. Settling on waffles for their breakfast, I threw four in the toaster. I poured some orange juice, made a coffee, sat down at the kitchen table, and switched on the news while I waited for the kids.
“Hey Dad, what’s for breakfast?”
Kyle’s eyes were bright, and his voice was lively, already wide-awake. In that respect he took after his mother, and I knew he was a morning person in the making.
Dan stood next to him, and it was clear that he was not. He was a few inches shorter than Kyle, and his hair stood frazzled on top of his head. Although awake, his eyes were not yet alive, and I had the impression that he was sleepwalking. He’d eventually discover coffee as I had.
“Hey guys, I just put some waffles in. Here’s the orange juice, but you guys have to eat quick. We’re running a little late.”
I set their breakfast down and went out to warm up the car and grab the paper. When I came in, they were finished, and I started to rush them out of the house. I had to remind Dan to grab his jacket because he didn’t like to wear one. He claimed that jackets weren’t worth it. He argued that he’d rather suffer the five minutes of morning’s chill on the way to school than be obliged to carry a jacket around the entire day. I personally didn’t object to the belief, but I was his father and I thought he was still a bit young to enter the world cold, unprotected, and jacketless. Maybe in middle school I’d let him do as he pleased. I started the car and pulled out of the driveway.
“Dad, how does the car work?”
Dan never stopped asking questions, a trait that sometimes irritated Hannah. I liked it, though. Someone once told me that raising kids was really just raising questions. I forgot who said it, but it sounded right.
“The key starts the engine and then the engine powers the car, but you have to push the pedal to give gas to the engine.” As the older brother, Kyle always sought to put his two extra years of knowledge on display. I think he genuinely enjoyed imparting the knowledge, too. When he was younger, Hannah and I always used to talk about how one day he would make a great teacher.
“But why, Dad?”
“I don’t really know that much about cars, Dan. Whenever something happens to it, I take it in to a mechanic.”
“So mechanics know everything about cars?”
“Not everything. Nobody knows everything about anything, Dan. But cars are their job, so they know a lot about them.”
“Is that all they know?”
I laughed. “No, I’m sure they know a little more than that. They just know the most about cars because they specialize in them.”
“What do you specialize in, Dad?”
“I specialize in manufacturing. We build certain parts for planes and other machines.”
“So you know a lot about machines?”
“Why did you pick machines?”
I paused, unable to come up with an immediate answer. I thought about telling him that life’s gears had turned and machines had simply found their way into my life, but I knew he wouldn’t understand.
“I don’t know, Dan. Your uncle Fred owned a machine shop, so I started working there after college.”
“Do you like machines?”
“They’re not my favorite things in the world, but they’re not bad.”
“What is your favorite thing in the world, then?”
“There are way too many things in the world, Dan. But I like books a lot. That’s why I always tell you to be careful around my bookshelf.”
“So then why didn’t you specialize in books, Dad?”
“Well, Dan, it’s not always that easy.”
“Dad, we’re here!” yelled Kyle. He was the most observant and focused member of the family, always on his game. I hooked a quick right into the parking lot before passing the school.
“All right, boys, have a good day. And think of something to do when I pick you up.”
Kyle hopped out of the car and began walking to school, but Dan stayed back for a second. “Can we get ice cream, Dad?”
He kissed me goodbye and hopped out of the car. I watched him run to catch up with Kyle and walk into school side by side before driving away.
* * *
When I got home I tossed my keys on the kitchen table and made a sandwich. I flipped through some television channels before turning off the TV. The laptop screen caught my attention on the other side of the room, reminding me of the resumes and emails that I needed to send. I ignored it and opened a secret draw in my bookshelf and grabbed a pack of rolling papers and a pouch of American Spirit tobacco— the only secret I had. I left the house through the back door to smoke the cigarette on the deck.
When I re-entered the house, I heard my phone ringing on the coffee table. I saw Hannah’s name in the caller ID, considered ignoring it but then decided to pick up the phone.
“What are you doing?”
“Not too much. Got back from dropping the kids off about an hour ago. I’m reading right now.”
“Reading? I thought you said you were going to call the head hunter today, Michael.” She spoke as though she were reprimanding a child. She seemed to believe that, for some unknown reason, the headhunter would disappear if I did not call this minute.
“No, Hannah, I said I would call the headhunter sometime this week. I’m waiting on a callback from my last interview. I don’t want to hire a headhunter if it’s not necessary. We can’t afford it unless it’s a must.”
“Michael, it’s been two months, I think it’s time to start pursuing some new options.”
“Ok, Hannah. Please don’t tell me how to find a job. You’re a realtor, it’s a bit different.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“It’s supposed to mean that you’re a god damn realtor and that I’m in manufacturing. That’s all it’s supposed to mean.”
There was silence on the other end of the line. I took a sigh and collected myself.
“Listen, I’m going to go. I have to send out some more resumes. I’ll see you home for dinner.”
“Good bye, Michael.” She hung up the phone before I could say goodbye.
I closed my cell phone and tossed it on the coffee table. I lay down on the couch and closed my eyes, losing myself in the silence.
* * *
I heard my cell phone ring softly in the background.
“Michael, where are you? It’s 4:00. You were supposed to pick the kids up from school.”
I did not mention that I had just woken up, but I had been married for twenty years and my voice sounded raspy and slow.
“I just got a call from Dan’s principal. There’s been an accident.”
I swung my legs off the couch. My eyes stared forward into the fireplace.
“Michael, I said there’s been an accident.”
“Hannah, what happened?”
“I don’t know. I just got a call from the principal. Just go over to the school and see what’s going on. I’m leaving work now.”
“Ok, I’m heading over.”
“I’ll meet you there. I hope he’s ok, Michael…Michael…?”
“I’m here. I’ll meet you there.”
Eight hours later, I sat at my kitchen table. My eyes were locked on my plate as I picked at the dry, cold chicken with my fork. We had been silent for five minutes now. Hannah stood on the other side of the kitchen. She was in her frayed lavender bathrobe and wore her glasses. She held a cup of tea in her hand, and her stare remained fixated on the refrigerator. Her eyes were pink, but their color took a back seat to the swelling, and bags had already begun to form below her hollow eyes. She sniffled but didn’t move for a tissue. Other than sipping her tea, she remained motionless. She had not looked at me since I sat down at the table.
“He was so curious, with all those questions. He always wanted to learn. He had so much more to experience. He was only ten.”
I continued to pick at my chicken, eyes locked on the plate.
“He was your favorite.”
“You’re a monster.”
I thought about saying more. I wanted to tell her that I resented my career and resented my life, and that she had changed and that I had changed, and that all I had been living for was to see Daniel and Kyle grow up happily. I wanted to tell her that I would have taken Daniel’s place and been hit by the car. But, it was pointless. Dan was gone.
I got up and walked to the sink where I placed the plate and glass. Then I heard footsteps behind me and turned around to see Kyle enter the kitchen. Pretending like the last few minutes didn’t happen, I walked over to him and got down on a knee.
“Hey buddy, how are you doing?” I said, giving him a hug. He looked at his mother, the swollen, pink eyes and sniffling nose. He buried his head into my shoulder and started to cry again. I wondered if he had heard any of our conversation. I prayed that he hadn’t and rubbed his back.
“It’s going to be ok, Kyle. Everything’s going to be ok.”
I picked him up, his head still buried in my chest. I looked at my wife before nodding to her and walking out of the room.
Upstairs, he changed into his pajamas as I sat on the foot of his bed. I remembered how when Kyle and Dan were younger they used to share the room. I imagined Kyle trying to fall asleep while staring at his dead brother’s empty bed, and I thanked God that we had caved in and let them each have his own room.
“Where do you think Dan is right now, Dad?” He slipped under the covers and pulled them up to his chin.
“He’s somewhere else now, Kyle. A better place.”
“Mom said that he’s in Heaven. Is he in Heaven?”
“Yes, Kyle, he’s definitely in Heaven right now.” I felt tears beginning to surface and furrowed my brow. I couldn’t fall apart in front of him. Not yet. I needed to be there for him.
“Does that mean I won’t get to see him again?”
“Not for a long time, Kyle, but you’ll see him again someday.”
“Do you promise?”
“I promise promise,” I said, as I leaned in to kiss his forehead. “Good night, Kyle. I love you.”
“I love you too, Dad. Good night.”
I stayed seated on the bed, staring at Kyle, staring through him, thinking about what I could do, what I should do. I was the father, I was the protector, but I had nothing to offer. No plan, no action, nothing. So I sat and stared.
“Are you ok, Dad?”
“Yes. I’m ok, Kyle.”
“Just remember that Dan’s in a better place.”
“I know, Kyle,” I said, as I rubbed his legs over the comforter.
“Dad, I think I hear Mom crying downstairs.” I listened, and sure enough I heard her crying, sniffling as though she still hadn’t blown her nose. “Go help her, Dad.”
“Ok, Kyle, I’ll help her. Goodnight again. I love you.”
“I love you too, Dad.” I kissed him on the forehead again before getting up and walking to the door.
“Good night, Kyle.” I turned off the light and walked to the stairs. At the foot of the staircase, I took a deep breath and grew frightened, frightened of everything that I wouldn’t be able to offer.
* * *
Hannah had moved from the kitchen. She sat curled up, a small sniffling ball on the couch, wrapped in her robe with her tea resting on the coffee table. I sat down next to her and put my arm around her.
“Hey, come closer,” I said, pulling her under my arm and into my body.
“How did this happen, Michael?”
“I don’t know, Hannah. It just did.”
“It’s our fault. We could have stopped it.”
“Don’t do that. It was an accident, Hannah.”
“I shouldn’t have been working. My shift ended an hour early. I stayed to send out extra mailings to try to recruit new clients.”
“You couldn’t have known. Anyone would have done the same.”
“But, I could have saved him.”
“No you couldn’t have, Hannah.”
“But, I was his mother. I failed. I’m failing, even with Kyle. He hasn’t said anything to me. He came downstairs and went to you. He wanted you to take him to bed, talk to him, console him.”
“Hannah, stop it. You know they love you. You know you give them so much more than I can.”
“I’m supposed to be their mother. Their guardian angel. The one who makes the world safe.”
“We both are, Hannah.”
“But I’m supposed to do it more, supposed to do it better. I’m supposed to raise them. I’m supposed to teach them.”
“You do, Hannah. You do.”
“I didn’t get to teach Dan enough. I won’t get to teach him anymore.” She buried her head deeper into my chest, and I squeezed harder. I kissed the top of her head and stroked her hair. I began to cry, slowly at first, but then harder and more uncontrollably. We sat there, huddled together, thinking of our dead son and our sleeping son, our cries and tears blending into a uniform offering.