Linda L. Zern
Story #2 – Rough
Here's a short story I've written for my creative writing workshop. The characters are no one you know, will ever know, or have ever known. It just ain't true.
My husband sat bathed in the lime green glow of one of his computer screens. I slung my book bag
onto his desk and kissed him on the back of his head.
“Hey, you know what I just realized?” I reached for a Chocolate Kiss from the stash of candy he kept in a plastic cup next to his computer mouse. The cup read Analysts Do It With Their Real Parts.
“I just realized that I can’t remember what color your face is. I haven’t seen you in natural sunlight in a year and a half,” I said, leaning against the desk next to his chair.
“The true color of my complexion is the least of our worries. We’re going to have to sell the house and move.”
“Because it wasn’t Nick.”
The printer started to click and tremble, getting ready to spit out a single printed sheet. I knew not to expect more than a single page, because any more than that and the machine tended to go into a convulsive nervous breakdown.
“What do you mean it wasn’t Nick? I saw him. I saw him on CNN with my own eyes. Heather, his very own sister, saw him too. We saw him.”
“Nope. You saw someone that looked like Nick. And I can prove it to you.” He reached behind me, pulled a sheet of paper from the printer before it could jam, and handed it to me.
There, in pixilated color, was the picture of a young soldier kneeling in the sands of some unidentified Iraq desert. The young man had my husband’s nose, his eyes, and his smart aleck half smile. He was kneeling next to the bits and pieces of a giant bust of Saddam Hussein. Saddam looked smug. The soldier looked liked he’d just pulled down the statue of a ruthless jerk. The soldier was our son Nick.
Except that he wasn’t.
The caption read, Staff Sergeant Shane Maxwell of Engineering Battalion 504 outside of Fallujah, posing with the remnants of . . .
The rest was a blur. I felt lightheaded.
“Oh my God. We have to move,” I said.
“That was my take on it,” he said.
“I told everyone that I’d seen Nick on CNN. Everyone. I called my mother in the home. Heather told everyone at school.” I squinted harder at the picture. “This is a picture of Nick. It’s got to be. I ought to know my own son when I see . . .”
“No, it really isn’t.” He pointed to his computer screen. Reuters had more pictures of the same scene, more pictures of the soldier named Shane, squatting next to the giant head as it rested catawampus in the sand.
“Maybe, they got his name wrong? His unit? How about the wrong desert?”
The desk shook as the printer shimmied. He printed off yet another picture. I yanked it out of the printer. It still read Shane Maxwell.
“No. It can’t be true. I told everyone at CHURCH. I made it sound like the heavens of CNN had opened, and that I’d had a flipping vision. I talked about prayers and voices from above. I sounded like Joan of Arc of Kissimmee Park Road.”
I took a breath, noticing that my husband had his eyes closed and that the light of the computer screen had gone a pale yellow. It made him look like he had jaundice.
“We have to move,” I said.
“Either that,” he said, hesitating, “or we take this to our grave. Do you understand what I’m saying?” He stood up and grabbed me by the shoulders. “No one and I mean no one is to ever know. We go on as before.” He flopped back down into his desk chair.
I caught his eye in the light of the Goggle homepage. Something about his reflection bugged me.
“Hey, wait a minute.”
I looked more carefully at the reflection of my husband’s face. Then I looked at the Reuters picture in my hand. I looked at my husband’s face again. “This kid has your nose.”
“You mentioned that already.”
He took the picture out of my hand and leaned back in his desk chair. The chair squeaked like a hamster wheel in need of WD-40.
“He kind of has my nose,” he said. “I guess he does, maybe around the nostrils, a little bit.” He sounded unsure or maybe worried.
I looked over his shoulder at the picture.
“Hey,” I said. “Those are your eyes, mister.”
“How can you tell? He’s squinting. It’s pretty sunny when you invade a desert. It tends to play havoc on the squint lines.”
“No. I mean it. That kid could be our kid. I thought it was our kid. I stood up in church and claimed that I’d had a spiritual experience via CNN. What the hell?”
“Okay, sure, if you don’t look carefully, he looks a little bit like Nick or me.”
“No, dear, he could be our Nick. Maybe a twenty-five, twenty-six year old version of Nick.”
“What are you trying to say? Don’t answer that. And that concludes this episode of Looney Tune TV. If I’m lucky,” he mumbled, jumping to his feet he grabbed the candy cup, and started to unwrap a Kit Kat bar.
“Where are you going?
“I need a coke. I can tell this is going to make me thirsty.”
I followed him into the kitchen, one of the pictures of Shane Maxwell wadded in my hand.
“You know what?”
“Don’t sigh. I hate when you do that.”
He stood in front of the refrigerator, pressing his forehead against the stainless steel door.
“And don’t do that. You’re going to leave a forehead print. But, come to think of it, that might be okay. I might need the DNA.”
“DNA?” He did a good job of sounding weary. “Because?”
“Because apparently the kid with the big nose and squinty eyes— that look just like your big nose and squinty eyes—appears to be a love child from your checkered past.”
“Babe, I know you’re worried about Nick but a love child. Really?”
“Sure, why not?”
The front door bell saved his sorry butt. I ran to open it, not bothering to run through my peephole safety check. I yanked the door open.
“Liz, you are never going to believe the day I’ve had.”
My best friend stood on my doorstep, one hand on her giant sack of a purse and the other hand on her hip. Her hair looked like she’d walked through a wind tunnel of hair spray, and her lips looked hand waxed.
“Come on, I’ll treat you to an Arctic Freeze at Dairy Queen,” she said.
“I can’t. I have to stay here and accuse my husband of fathering children out of wedlock.”
She laughed. “Can I help? And can this be accomplished after we have a Blizzard?”
“No, I’m serious.” I shoved the picture at her.
She smoothed the picture out, took a look, and then whistled.
“Shane Maxwell. But didn’t you tell everyone that you saw Nick?” She whistled again. “Oh man, this calls for something harder than ice cream. Come on. It’s on me.”
I made sure to slam the door behind me as we left. I crawled into the front seat of Liz’s Triumph Spitfire. She hit the gas and headed toward the Marketplace Mall. When Liz had said “something harder” she’d meant pretzels and lemonade. We wandered the mall, pretzels in hand, landing in front of Frederick’s of Hollywood.
“Nice symbolism,” I said.
“I haven’t the foggiest notion. I’m babbling, and I freely admit it.”
“Okay, so I’ll edit out every fifth word and replace it with yippy.”
“It’s not his fault,” I said, anesthetizing myself with an enormous bite of cinnamon pretzel. “The world is upside down and we’re riding the under swell of . . .” I waved cinnamon over my head, “disaster. That’s right disaster. And I’m Irish, which means I’m always waiting for the next potato famine or a long lost love child to show up.”
Liz snorted, “Please. I know your husband. He’s hiding a love child, the way I’m hiding the fact that I’m secretly married to Ben Affleck.”
I could always count on Liz to talk me off the ledge. She was two husbands and one crush on Ben Affleck beyond being as loopy as I felt.
“You’re right, as usual. That man can’t even argue with any sense. I once got mad and told him that Nick wasn’t his kid, and he looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Well Heather isn’t yours.’”
“I rest my case. What did you say?”
“I said, ‘You have no idea how to play this game, do you?’”
There was a pause.
“Nick is his? Right?”
“Have you seen Nick? Clones would look less identical to my husband.”
Laughing, she finished her Diet Coke with a wink and a finger waggle. “Don’t you remember college? He followed you around for a year before he finally got up to the good stuff. Remember I knew him first. Come on,” she said, pulling me to my feet. “I hear they had to cart off a couple of women from Dillards’s shoe department for fighting over the new Steve Maddens. Let’s hurry, the blood might still be wet.”
“Hey, babe, I’m home. Sorry, Liz and I closed down the mall. There was a sale and possibly blood.”
A pile of schoolbooks at the bottom of the stairs told me that Heather was home and probably not doing her homework. I headed toward the office.
I knew immediately that something was wildly out of order. The flickering lights of my husband’s office were dark, the underlying hum of circuitry silent. He was dead, or more likely, under arrest for having enough computer hardware and software to shoot down a government drone.
“Babe!” My voice echoed.
A lonely sound drifted from one darkened corner of his office. It might have been a moan. I reached for the light switch.
“Don’t,” he said. “We need to talk.”
“In the dark?”
He ignored the obvious.
“I’ve been thinking, and I have a couple of possible explanations for that picture.” He didn’t give me a chance to interject; his words poured out like an avalanche of pre-scripted confessions from the Montel Williams show. “I’m adopted and I have an evil twin. Shane is my evil nephew. Or there was that year that I paid for school by donating stuff, and I don’t mean old clothes. And there was that college class where we all had to do cheek swabs for the professor, but it seemed pretty sketchy since it was a statistics class. I’m thinking cloning gone amiss. Or . . .” He took a deep breath. “Then there was my freshman year, before I met you, in Professor Maxwell’s class. Pick one.”
“I thought you might go with that option.”
“You had a professor named Maxwell?”
“Before I knew you. Keep that in mind.” His voice ghosted through the dark. “I was young. I was cute. I was desperate. It was speech class. I’m a computer science engineer. I don’t do speeches.”
“Oh, I don’t know. This is a pretty interesting declaration.”
“Before I knew you. Keep that timeline firmly in mind. Pre-you.”
I sighed, thanking my Irish ancestors for preparing me for the inevitable flood of moldy potatoes.
“Great, so not only is the soldier not our soldier, well, not my soldier, but we’ve become an episode of a bad talk show. What’s the plan? Because I’m pretty sure that in the flow chart that is your brain, you’ve come up with a plan, because Liz is going to put it together sooner or later, and you may not care, but I do.”
“It was pre-you, just keep that in mind. In the great timeline of life, sequence matters.”
“Just give me the plan, because I know you’ve got one.”
Our daughter, Heather, slammed her way down the stairs and into the darkened office.
“There’s a plan? So what’s the plan?”
“We’re moving.” We said in unison.