Friday, December 2, 2011

No Surprises

Today I offer a rather dark bit of flash fiction. If you're already depressed, don't read it. If you do read it, I leave it to you to decide how the story really ends.

Jeremy exhales slowly, trying not to cry.

He stares at the picture hanging on the wall in front of him. It's a family picture taken during a trip to Hershey, Pennsylvania. In it, Jeremy has his arm around Jeanine, her curly red hair blown diagonal in the breeze. In front of him stands Eric, at ten years old, in his favorite Star Wars T-shirt. The sun glances off his hair — red, like his mother's, but lighter and shorter — giving him a devilish half-halo. His freckled cheeks have started reddening from their day in the sun. Next to him is little brown-haired Ronnie, almost eight, eyes half-closed from blinking at the wrong time. His big smile is missing a front tooth, and his dimples are so deep that they could be mistaken for a smudge of dirt on the photograph.

That sunny day seems so long ago; the family in that photo looks so happy.

Jeremy's eyes sting. The image blurs. He closes his eyes, creating two wet parallel lines down his unshaven cheeks. He rests his hand on the cold, gray lockbox sitting beside him on the couch, cooling his damp palm.

He wonders what Eric and Ronnie are doing right now, hundreds of miles away. Wonders what kind of summer vacations their new step-father takes them on. Wonders if they think about him as often as he thinks about them. He wonders if they miss him.

Moments pass. The furnace kicks off, and the sounds of weeping fill the small apartment. He can't stand to listen to it.

On the cabinet where his TV used to sit is a cheap digital clock with a built-in CD player that holds the last CD from what used to be a large music collection.

Jeremy stands, still sniffling and gulping for air. He pushes the Play button and advances the Radiohead CD to the fifth track. The first notes ring from the small speakers as if from a tarnished celestial harp.

He returns to the couch, his last convulsions dying to whimpers, and pops open the lockbox.

  A heart that's full up like a landfill . . .

He removes the revolver, holds it in his lap, and stares at it. Stares and listens.

    . . . a job that slowly kills you . . .

It wasn't the job that killed him; it was losing the job. First, he was "down-sized" from his corporate job. Then he took that minimum-wage fast-food job; that restaurant closed down a week ago.

Meanwhile, bills came due, payments were missed, collectors came knocking—

But Jeremy knows these are scapegoats. He got where he is — sitting on his couch, caressing a revolver — because he is a failure. He failed as an engineer. He failed as a husband. He failed as a father.

He failed as a man.

  . . . bruises that won't heal . . .

He wonders what Eric's and Ronnie's lives will be like after he's gone. How quickly will they get over his death? How will it affect their relationships with their children?

With Jeremy's grandchildren. Grandchildren he will never meet.

In a rush, he imagines all the moments of their lives he'll miss: birthdays, graduations, weddings . . . .

But no. They're better off this way. His life insurance will take care of his boys better than he could. He had paid only half his child-support payment last month, and another is due. And he doesn't have any way to pay for it. For anything. All the money is gone.

Better to end it now, before he defaults on his insurance. Before they shut off his electricity and repossess his car. Before he's evicted. It's better to end it now, and give his children a future, instead of becoming just another deadbeat dad, another loser.

He lifts the gun. It feels heavier than it did just moments before.

  You look so tired and unhappy . . .

He puts the barrel in his mouth. The bitter metallic taste makes him salivate. Its smoky, unctuous, unnatural odor makes his nose twitch.

  . . . bring down the government . . .

His hands tremble. He closes his eyes. More tears flow, but silently.

  . . . they don't, they don't speak for us . . .

The gun sits uncomfortably between his teeth. His tongue touches the bitter front edge of the barrel, where the bullet will come out.

  . . . I'll take a quiet life . . .

His quivering fingers are trying to turn themselves into jelly. He flexes his whole arm trying to keep his fingers stiff, and it makes his shoulder ache.

  . . . a handshake of carbon monoxide . . .

He squeezes his eyelids together. His face is hot. He fingers the smooth trigger under his finger. He concentrates on the music.

  . . . no alarms and no surprises . . .

He takes what he knows will be his last breath. He pictures his sons smiling at him. 'I love you,' he thinks.

  . . . no alarms and no surprises . . .

'And I'm sorry.'

  . . . no alarms and no surprises . . .

He forces his entire body into stiffness, fighting against trembling. Little by little, he puts pressure on the trigger. He feels it moving back . . . back.

BANG! Someone is knocking on the door. BANG! Jeremy's body jerks abruptly. BANG!

  . . . s i l e n t . . . s i l e n t . . .