Sunday, April 22, 2012

Free Short Story -- The Other, as Just as Fair

The Other, as Just as Fair
By Sean Taylor


“And sorry I could not travel both…”
-- Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”


Twelve miles to go. Eight to the city limits then another four to Alan’s apartment.

Allison Reisner pulled her rented Maxima onto the shoulder of Highway 76 and stopped the car. Without turning off the ignition, she drummed the fingers of the right hand on the steering wheel, then ran them through her hair, tugging softly on a handful of thick, short, sandy blonde tangles, and letting out a loud sigh.

“Damn,” she said to the deejay droning on about the Colorado dryness. “Damn, damn, damn,” she said again and pushed the button to change the station to the blandest, most forgettable smooth jazz she could find. “What am I doing here?”

She knew she could take Jared and Joshua back by force. She had the power. Nature or God or Fate or Whatever had seen to that. Whatever force had or power or person had given her super powers has dropped into her lap all she needed to rip the ambient moisture from her Alan’s body and render him unconscious, then take her children back into her arms, load them into the car and just keep driving out of her ex-husband’s reach for as long as her money held out.

There was nothing he could do to stop her.

Except remind her that she was a hero. That she had made “that choice” almost a year ago. That her own chosen code of right and wrong, of self-limiting, was the very thing that would ensure his continued, legal theft of her children that he had never carried inside him, for whom he had done little more to sustain than spare a few minutes before bed, roll over to her side of the mattress, and donate the raw materials needed to aid in their creation.

“Trust me. We’ll win this eventually,” her attorney, Donald Winder, had told her repeatedly. “Even with the loss in a state court, we can appeal. Just don’t do anything stupid. Please, just wait.” Then he’d grab her hands and make her look him in the eyes and add. “For the kids’ sake, okay.”

He’d definitely call this stupid, she knew, crossing the state to see Alan and the boys in spite of the no contact clause. And maybe it was. But Donald wasn’t a mother. He couldn’t feel the raw instinct that compelled her to fight for her young. If it was stupid, it wasn’t her fault she was acting the fool. It was a natural, instinctual stupidity that drove her.

She checked her watch, staring for nearly a minute as the dolphin hands click-clicked around the ocean-painted face. Four fifty-seven a.m. Yellow wrapping paper with Mother Goose on it. And a powder-blue bow. Jared had even helped her unwrap the Mother’s Day gift three years ago to reveal the cheap, tourist-shop watch he and Joshua had picked out with Alan’s money.

“It won’t do any good, you stupid idiot,” she said, listening as the jazz underscored her voice. “If you’re not going to take them, you’re just wasting your time and money driving out here.”

She reached for the duffel bag in the passenger seat and thought of putting on the costume hidden inside it. Another night as Ambient Sky to impress the local law enforcement and drum up sympathy for her plight. But she decided against it, shoving the bag into the passenger side floor. No. She had come to see the boys, not to play the hero.

After testing the shift to make sure the car was in park, she pushed open the door and stepped out into the arid morning. No hint of the coming day lurked beyond the horizon. Only the Denver lights from the incandescent heap of 24-hour convenience stores and lit-up high-rise office buildings cut a slice out of the darkness.

She leaned against the car, the door open and intruding into the empty interstate, and grabbed a cigarette from the pack of Slims in her pocket, and ignited it with the cheap lighter she’d picked up an hour or so back at the Quik-Stop Shop. What would Alan think of that, she wondered, and the thought brought a smile. He’d think she was losing it. That’s what he’d think. Eleven years without a cigarette, all without the help of a patch or medication -- just pure human determination to quit and not endanger her children they were trying to conceive -- and then after just four months without the boys she was back up to a half a pack a day.

“I can’t do this!” she shouted, tossing the cigarette onto the ground. She looked into the sky and glared. “I’m doing the right thing here. I am. I know I am.”

Stars blinked overhead, but said nothing. Allison squatted to retrieve the cigarette then brushed it off. “Fine. Be that way then.” Jerking the lighter from her jeans pocket, she quickly re-ignited the undamaged smoke stick, as Alan had called them. As she returned the lighter to her pocket, her watch beeped twice, signaling the changing hour. She took two long drags of smoke and closed her eyes.

“I guess it’s now or never, hero.”

She grabbed the cell phone from her waist, flipped it open, and said, “The jerk’s house.” The phone beeped its obedience and dialed the ten numbers to reach Alan.

“Hello,” he mumbled after a few rings.

She didn’t respond. She could hang up and let him think it was a prank or a wrong number. Just get back in the care, turn around, and take Donald’s advise.

“Hello?”

One last puff. She spit the cigarette onto the highway.

“Anybody there?”

“Alan?”

He didn’t respond.

“Alan?”

She heard him sigh loudly enough to come through the line.

“You’re not supposed to call here,” he said.

“I need to talk with you.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“But I really --”

“You’re not supposed to call here, Allison.” She made out a long, deep breath. “You’re already violating the ruling as it is.”

“They’re my kids, Alan.”

He paused.

“Alan, please.”

“Then do what’s best for them.”

“Please. I’m here. Just outside of Denver. I need to see you.”

“You’re here?”

“Yes. I’m pulled off of 76 here.”

“I’m not going to let you see them. Not now. I can’t.”

“Alan…”

“No.”

“God, Alan. I’m smoking again.”

“What?”

“Yeah. Smoking.”

“Why?”

“You have to ask?”

Another pause. And another sigh. “I’m sorry. I know this isn’t easy for you. But…” He let the words trail off, unsaid.

“They’re my boys, Alan.”

“No.”

“At least you come see me then, face to face.”

“Now?”

“Yes, now.” Allison wiped her face. It had grown thick with beaded sweat. But not from the summer morning, she knew. “Please, before I do something stupid.”

“Allison?”

“Nothing like that, but it’s killing me to be so close and know I can’t see them.”

“Hang on.”

She heard Jared’s voice faintly ask who was on the phone. “Nobody,” Alan said. “Just a friend of daddy’s, okay.”

“Jared?”

“Hang on.”

“Jared?”

There was a clunk, like the phone being dropped against the nightstand, then hushed voices as Alan ushered Jared from the room. Almost two minutes later, Alan returned.

“What was that crap?”

“I just --”

“I know what you were trying to do, Allison. Do you realize how much trouble you’d be in simply for talking to them?”

“You don’t have to tell.”

“I requested the ‘no contact’ clause, honey. I’m the last person who’d keep that a secret.”

“Are you going to meet me?”

“I can’t.”

“You have to.”

“I shouldn’t.”

“You called me ‘honey’ again. I know it was a slip. But you did say it.”

She waited for him to speak. In the silence, she grabbed another cigarette and hung it limply from her lips, not lighting it, just enjoying the feel of it dangling and bouncing as each breath moved her lips slightly.

A light approached from up the highway, the hum of a car growing louder as it drew closer. It sped by without a second look from the driver and disappeared in a fading red glow toward Denver.

“There’s a place, a breakfast cafe on 14th and Rosewood, called Bernson’s. I’ll meet you there at six. I’ll give you twenty minutes, but after that, you turn around and go back home, okay?”

“Bernson’s. Six o’clock. Got it.”

“Right home. Okay?”

“Thank you, Alan.”

* * *

She arrived at 5:30 and took a booth in the corner, facing the door, but as far away as possible. She just needed time to read his face as he approached.

The Regency surprised her with its faux-café trimming, Continental-style breakfast buffet, and daunting list of coffee choices. Not at all the kind of place her Alan would have chosen. Busy, but not full, it catered mostly to business types who didn’t wear coats and ties, though they and the staff seemed friendly enough for that time of morning. She laughed. So, the high-strung lawyer was reinventing himself in his new city. It wasn’t just her after all.

After the long drive, she really wanted a scattered sampling from the buffet, but she hadn’t driven all night simply to eat out. And she couldn’t be distracted, so instead she ordered a black decaf and a bagel with butter while she watched the door and waited for Alan to arrive.

She checked her watch when she saw him pass in the window. Five forty-eight. As punctual as usual. On time meant ten minutes early for him. Anytime within fifteen minutes after starting time had always been okay for her. But even that had caused only infrequent arguments Not the bills, not sex, not in-laws. Only her eventual admission that she had super powers and had kept them hidden since they dated in high school, followed by her proposal that she take the time to finally see if she could put her gift to good use now that the boys were older. Only that had succeeded in driving them apart when no other marital pitfall had stood fast.

He smiled and sighed when he saw her. She returned the smile and waved him over, then shoved the duffel bag beside her against the wall and dropped her purse on top of it.

“You’ve cut your hair,” he said as he joined her at the booth, sliding onto the plastic seat. “Nice.”

She nodded. “It kept getting in the way. Once I figured out the bad guys were always going for it to jerk my head around, I decided it was safer without it.”

He grinned. “But you always hated short hair.”

“Still do. But some sacrifices are worth it, I guess.”

The waitress came over to refill her coffee and take Alan’s order. She winked at Allison as if to give the universal sign for “hold on to this one, honey, he’s cute” and then scribbled his order for the buffet and a caramel latte on her notepad and left for the kitchen.

“How ’bout you?” Allison asked. “I notice you’re getting some gray on the sides there.”

“Yeah. Rough year. You?”

She ran her fingers through her cropped hair. “Only my hairdresser knows for sure. Can’t let down my peers by showing the gray in public, not a woman anyway.”

Alan grabbed the salt shaker and passed it from hand to hand absently. “I suppose.”

She let the lull hang and took a long draw of the fresh coffee.

“Listen, Allison,” he said, setting down the salt shaker between them.

“Uh-huh?” she asked, warming her hands around the cup.

“When are you going to stop this playing around with the costumes? The boys still need a mother.”

She put down the cup. “I’m not playing around, Alan. I am a superhero. And thanks to you and the case, I’m even outed as one.” She took a deep breath before continuing. “Two nights ago, I kept a woman from getting mugged. And last week, I saved a van of retirees from a carjacker.” Her breaths quickened, her excitement rising with each memory. “And on the way here, I stopped another superpowered villain, some guy who could paralyze people with a touch. Stiller or Sleeper or something like that.”

“And that’s more important than being a mother?”

“God, Alan, you make it sound like I have to reject my kids in order to even think about being anything other than just a mom. Lots of women work outside the home, you know.”

“It’s not like you took a job heading up a marketing department or running an office somewhere, Allison. This isn’t about you working, and you know it. It’s about what you chose to do.”

“And what if I had decided to become a cop instead?”

“Police officers can clock out, honey. They don’t usually have costumed grudge matches chasing down the people they love.”

“Neither do all --” she started but stopped when the waitress returned with Alan’s latte.

“Anything else I can get for you two now?” she asked.

Alan asked for a check. The waitress looked at him, then Allison, then at the table and frowned. “Aren’t you going to eat?” she asked.

“No. I’ve got somewhere I need to be. Just the check, please.”

The woman sighed. “Sure, both on one, or separate?”

“Separate,” he said.

The woman, whom Allison now took the time to notice was a dark-haired lady, slightly overweight and in her mid-forties at least, shook her head slightly toward her. I know, Allison thought. Tell me about it.

“This was a really bad idea. I should have known better.”

“Alan…”

“No. I should realize that neither one of us is going to change our minds. It’s better if you learn to move on.”

The waitress, whose nameplate read “Margo,” tore two slips of paper from her pad and put one in front of Alan and the other in the center of the table beside the salt shaker. Allison took hers and flipped it over.

“I can’t move on. They’re my kids, damn it.”

“I know. But they’re my kids too. And I’m going to do whatever I have to do to keep them safe.”

“Pay whenever your ready,” Margo said, and walked away.

Allison dug through her purse for her wallet, then pulled it out and grabbed a ten dollar bill and laid it on top of the bill. “And you think I won’t?”

“I think you’re not.”

“That’s not fair.”

“I think you’re too caught up in reliving some glory days you wished you’d have tried when we were younger. That’s what I think. I think you are so wrapped up in your costume these days that you can’t honestly know what’s best for Joshua and Jared.”

She laughed and reached into the bag at her side and pulled out the carefully folded costume and put it on the table between them, knocking over the salt. “So this is my red convertible and cheap, twenty-year-old blonde?” She laughed again. “Sometimes you are so stupid.”

Alan stood up. “You brought it with you?” He fished in his wallet for some bills and put a few on the table. “And I’m the one who’s stupid?”

“I could just take them, you know,” she said, beginning to cry.

“I know.”

“I could.”

“But you won’t.”

“God, I want to,” she said, using the cuff of her costume to wipe the tears away.

“I’m not an ogre, Allison. I’m just a dad. I only want my boys to be safe. Go home.”

She put down the costume. “I can’t. I’m a mom. My home is to be where Jared and Joshua are. And you’ve taken that away from me.”

Alan shook his head. “It’s too late anyway. Now that the word is out about you in the papers, we couldn’t start over even if we both wanted to. There’d always be some costume wanting to prove something.”

“Not…” she started, but let the words fade. There was nothing more to say anyway.

He sighed. “Go home, Allison. Go be a hero. Go do whatever you want to. No one’s stopping you. Go save the freaking planet if you get the chance. Just leave our boys out of it.”

Without another word, Alan turned to headed for the exit. Allison watched, wanting to jerk the moisture from his body, to pull it away slowly, first making him fall, then watching, standing over him as his skin grew dry and began to peel, then gloat as his soul left his dusty body to crumble.

“The body is mostly water,” she shouted.

He stopped. Turned. Glared. Then softened, and she saw something worse than his anger or hatred. His pity.

“Goodbye, Allison. I’ll tell the boys you said hello.”

And he left.

She sat still, no tears left, holding the costume for a few minutes as Alan passed by the window -- taking special effort, it appeared, not to look inside at her -- and walked from her line of sight and out of her life. Forever, if he had his way.

She knew Bernson’s was quiet. She knew it had grown quiet because of her and Alan. And she knew that everyone inside had to know by now what had just happened, who she was, and the choice she had made. But she didn’t care.

Margo returned and told her to keep her money, that she’d pick this one up, that “us moms have to stick together” and then patted her on the shoulders and asked if she was going to be all right. She only grunted an answer, not sure herself if it was yes or no, but it satisfied Margo, who shoved the check back in her apron and cleared the dishes away with a wider smile than before.

As Margo walked away with the dirty dishes, Allison crammed the costume back into the bag, zipped it shut, and grabbed the bag and her purse. She passed Margo on the way to the door, who asked again, “You sure you’re gonna be okay?”

“Why can’t we ever have both?” she mumbled, stopping to look down at Margo’s face and eyes.

“We only have so much love to give.”

Allison forced a smile. “But I do --”

Margo nodded. “I know. I know.”

The tiny bell hanging from the handle sang as she opened the glass double doors to go outside, but she never heard them.

© 2002 Sean Taylor

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This story is taken from the collection Show Me a Hero, publishing by New Babel Books.