It wasn’t until the day after next that Edward Kind realized each day had been an exact repetition of its predecessor. What caught his attention, however, was not his watch’s weekday indicator remaining on Tuesday, not his schedule unchanged from the one previous, nor even his work documents’ digital stamping with yesterday’s date. Even as the conversations in passing at the office and later with his family at the dinner table remained the same, he remained oblivious. Though this all would have proven to be an extremely odd and noticeable occurrence for the average person, for Edward Kind it seemed only as a vague repetition, if not completely ordinary.

The thing about Edward Kind was that his life was already quite monotonous. He was just a family man with a wife, Marcy, their three kids, Adam, Kevin and Lois (in that order), a chocolate lab named Suffix, a fat cat named Schooner, and one hamster whose name changed with the days to whatever fancied Lois at the time. They lived in a brick, suburban house upon which was a mortgage he’d gotten at a fixed rate of 4.3% that would be paid off in only twelve more years—if they kept their payments ahead—just in time to send Adam to the university. Every morning, Edward would wake up at 6am, dress, and drink his coffee. He would eat his bacon, eggs, and cheese rolled up in a tortilla as he drove the practical family sedan to the metro station a mere fifteen minutes away without traffic. He’d catch the red line at 7:35am, stop to make a connection, wait on the platform for another seven minutes, and then be on the blue line at 8:10am until he reached the inner city. From there it was only a ten-minute walk to Edward’s office which was located on the second floor of a nine-story building. He was always there fifteen minutes early and always left five after five, following his customary phone call to Marcy informing her that he was on his way home.

After a reversal of the same route, Edward would arrive home no later than 6:30pm where he’d find Adam and Kevin doing homework. Lois would be either helping Marcy with dinner (as much as a five-year-old could) or be playing with her dolls. It was Edward’s duty as the protector and provider of the home to walk Suffix and pick up his excrement before and after dinner. The children would tell him about their day which was almost always the same. He’d say nothing of his own day generally for the same reason, and Marcy would keep him up to date on what’s on sale and where and why whatever it was was needed. He’d kiss and hug the three children before putting them to bed, and then, if somehow the dishes were washed and laundry folded before 9pm, Edward and his wife would do what every married couple promises to never let become infrequent and boring. It was.
Two days before the day after next, Edward Kind had already prepared his breakfast, driven to the metro station and was attempting to scan his gate pass. At first, he thought it was some sort of malfunction, but after five attempts, he realized that there was indeed something wrong with his pass that was keeping the gate from opening. Disturbed at the intrusion on his routine, Edward Kind demanded to know what was wrong with his pass and approached the station manager.

“I demand to know what’s wrong with my pass,” Edward said. The station manager swiped the pass in his computer and informed him that it had expired. Edward Kind, after a shake of his head, then paid for a new pass and was let through the gate, but not in time to board the red line at 7:35am. Edward watched in a stunned silence as it disappeared around the rail. He would have to drive to the connection in time to catch the blue line at 8:10am.

Edward Kind didn’t make it in time to board the blue line, however, as traffic became more congested with each mile marker he passed into the city. He would have to drive the whole way, arriving to work one hour and thirty-six minutes late. He had never been late before and was overcome with a feeling of helpless frustration at how much his routine had been shifted by such a trivial thing as an expired metro pass. By the end of the day however, things had returned to normal, and at five after five he informed Marcy that he was coming home. Edward followed his general custom of walking to the metro, taking the blue line to the red, then getting off at the platform where he always had before. That’s when he remembered he had driven that morning, and his car was all the way back at the office. Unable to reach Marcy on the phone, he was forced to hail a cab. He arrived home at 6:41pm.

Edward sat eating his meatloaf as his boys informed him of the unlikely demise of some comic book super villain, his daughter described the picture she’d drawn in kindergarten, and his wife informed him of the new hairdresser at her favorite salon. Though it crossed his mind, he did not tell them of all that had happened to him. Once the children were in bed and the house was clean, Edward and his wife found themselves alone in their room before 9pm, and so, in the observation of tradition, did as married couples do with the same vigor and energy that newlyweds vow against.

At 6am, Edward was woken by his alarm. Remembering that he had left his car at work, he called ahead for a cab to take him to the metro where he would catch the red line at 7:35am. However, when he exited his home, he discovered his car sitting in its place, just over the dark spot on his paved driveway. Edward gave the cab driver a tip for showing up, then drove himself to the station. As he scanned his pass, the same problem occurred, and again, Edward demanded to know what was wrong with his pass.

“I demand to know what’s wrong with my pass,” Edward said. The station manager once again informed him that it had expired and issued him a new pass. Edward, perturbed that such a thing was possible, informed the manager that he had just received the card yesterday. Upon viewing the expiration date on the laminated card, Edward was forced to concede against his own recollections. A moment later, he was once again watching in stunned silence as the red line scuttled away.

Edward was one hour and thirty-six minutes late again and apologized to his supervisor for being late two days in a row. His supervisor was confused, and said he’d never been late to work before.

“You’ve never been late to work before,” said Edward’s supervisor. Equally confused, Edward said nothing and returned to his work. At five after five, Edward went back to his car and drove home, arriving at 6:54pm. Edward sat again eating his meatloaf, listening to his boys inform him of the unlikely demise of the comic book super villain, his daughter describe the same picture she’d drawn in kindergarten, and his wife inform him again of the new hairdresser at her favorite salon. Though it crossed his mind, he did not tell them of all that had happened to him, nor that he already knew what they had to say. The same routines were followed, and Edward and his wife slept together again.

The day after next arrived, and Edward woke at 6am, prepared his breakfast, drove to the station, and scanned the metro pass to walk through. This time, it opened because he’d had the forethought that morning to borrow Marcy’s. Edward smiled in comforting satisfaction as he boarded the red line at 7:35am, arrived at his connection at 8:03am, caught the blue line seven minutes later, and after the ten-minute walk to his office, found himself seated at his desk at fifteen minutes to nine.

Over the next few hours, it seemed that all was normal to Edward Kind. He attended his meetings, submitted his paperwork, and put the day’s mail aside to open at the end of business. It was just before 3pm, however, that Edward received a call from a nurse at the general hospital. There had been a terrible accident.

“Mr. Kind,” said the nurse at the general hospital, “there’s been a terrible accident.” Edward listened to the information of his wife and children driving the minivan through a busy intersection, of glass shards and mangled aluminum and clouds of powder from inflated airbags. He hung up the phone.

After considering the fastest means of travel to the hospital, Edward Kind was running the twelve blocks down the sidewalk. His tie flailed behind him like a boneless appendage. What entered Edward’s mind as he ran were all the possibilities of what could have happened. He wondered what had caused the accident, why he hadn’t asked for details. It wasn’t, he thought, for a lack of caring. Edward reasoned that he was simply unprepared for this. It had never occurred to him that the fabric of his life which had been woven with such worn and fragile threads would be rent apart. He had only eight more blocks to prepare now, for it was never too late to prepare. Edward decided to think of the worst case scenario, because it seemed to him that worst case scenarios never happen when they’re preconceived.

Edward was out of breath and drenched in sweat when he arrived, shouting his wife’s name and that he was her husband.
“Marcy Kind! I’m her husband!” Edward gasped. “Where is she?” The head nurse insisted he calm down, though her orders were not enough to quell the need to see that they were all right, to see his sons discussing their favorite boy things, and his daughter doing what girls like to do with their dolls. He needed to see Marcy’s eyes look at him the way they did and hear how her voice sounded when she told him things. All this would happen again, he thought. They were normal, and unusual things didn’t happen to normal people.

He sat for almost thirty minutes by the nurses’ station, waiting for the doctor to make his appearance and informing him that, though some injuries were sustained, they’d all be good as new. Edward would go in, first to the kids, tell them a joke, make them laugh. Forget it all had happened, as if it was just a bad dream or some unsubstantiated scare. Then he’d go to Marcy, her neck in a brace, a cut on her lip. Perhaps a black eye. But she would give him a warm smile, pleased that he was there. They’d all be thankful. Maybe they’d start going back to church on Sundays, say prayers before bedtime. They’d be better people because of all this. They’d be stronger, wiser, closer. But when the doctor arrived, none of that happened, and Edward found himself trying to summon the definitions of words like blood loss and spines and fractures; words he knew but suddenly found impossible to translate into understanding.

Edward Kind had been thrust into singularity.

Edward decided to think of the worst case scenario, because it seemed to him that worst case scenarios never happen when they’re preconceived.

Over the next several hours, he was led like a blind man in a maze, aware of what was taking place but having no perception of where or why or what next. There was a chaplain who prayed with him, though Edward had already determined the uselessness of it. Two police officers informed him that his family had been killed by a drunk driver who had also died in the crash. A counselor consulted with him on the disposal of his family’s remains and left him with a pamphlet listing the steps of grief and how to cope. The next day, he opened Marcy’s address book listing all their relatives, though the names were as familiar as the ones under “z” in the phone book. He told them all, and they all told him they were shocked and sorry as if they’d been the ones who’d killed them. In a stroke of luck, the local funeral director informed him of the current buy-three-get-one-free special on the most comfortable coffins. His first word in that sales pitch was “coincidentally”.


Edward Kind buried his wife and children four days later.
That following Monday, Edward woke at 5:45am to walk Suffix, then drank his coffee and ate his bacon, eggs and cheese rolled up in a flour tortilla. Edward found each step through the house labored, forcing himself through silence that filled the space like sludge. He drove the fifteen minutes to the metro, caught the red line at 7:35am, waited at his connection for seven minutes, and then boarded the blue line. After making it into the city, Edward made the same ten-minute walk to his office arriving fifteen minutes early. At 5:05pm, he left work. He was about to call Marcy and tell her he was coming home but stopped since she would never answer. When he arrived home, Suffix had gotten into the garbage and had defecated on the floor. Edward scolded him and cleaned up the mess. He fed Schooner, changed the litter box, and checked on Lois’ hamster. It occurred to him that he had no idea what to call the rodent, so he named it Hamster.

The next day was the same, and the one after that. It seemed that every twenty-four-hour increment had become only separable by the different food he microwaved for dinner each night and the shows on television that put him to sleep. If anyone visited, he didn’t answer the door. If anyone called, he ignored the phone. A week later, he had the beginnings of a beard. He still had not entered his children’s rooms, leaving everything as it had been the day they’d died. Marcy’s silk nightgown remained at the edge of the bed, neatly folded in preparation for the night that never came.

Some weeks later, notices of overdue bills began to arrive in the mail and subsequently land in the trash can with the paper boxes of Chinese delivery. Edward had noticed the food beginning to pack the weight on around his midsection and face. One day, the garbage man left a note asking if he would like all the dead flowers to be taken off the porch. Despite walking past them every day in his commute to work, Edward had forgotten about all the bouquets and wreaths constructed of flowers and condolences. He likewise kept forgetting to write a response on the note, and so they all just sat there rotting.

It was on a Saturday without any particular relevance that a deep and intrusive knocking erupted on his front door. Edward stumbled over Schooner to reach the door and opened it to a middle-aged woman in a suit and a white lab coat. Her hair was pin straight and her glasses as circular as quarters. She introduced herself as Dr. Valerie Gunther.

“My name is Dr. Valerie Gunther.” Edward had never heard of her.

“I’ve never heard of you,” he replied.

“That’s all right. I’ve heard of you, Edward Kind, and I can help you get your family back.”

Edward sat listening to Dr. Gunther in his living room explaining the scientific process of her claim. Edward didn’t believe a word of it, but felt he had nothing to lose.

“I don’t believe a word of it, but what do I have to lose?” Dr. Gunther gave him only one warning.

“You must not stray from the path. This is my only warning.”

In his living room, Edward Kind was laid back several hours later on his recliner. A computer with three monitors was set up, countless colorful wires jutting out from the back and snaking to a headpiece that crowned Edward’s head. He hadn’t asked for an explanation of how it all worked, and Dr. Gunther did not offer one. It was as casual a transaction as in a convenience store. Edward listened to the clicking of keys then the buzz of circuit boards and hard drives in action. Dr. Gunther instructed him to focus on his wife, on his children, on their home, on their last day together. Edward did so, his eyes closed, his mind as busy as the computer. Then she informed him he may experience some discomfort.

“You may experience some discomfort,” said Dr. Gunther, and before Edward could ask what kind of discomfort, a bolt of force pummeled through his sternum and into his spine. His ribs quivered, and he thought for a moment that his heart would explode from the pain in his chest. But as quickly as it had begun, the inner quake was over, replaced by a fuzzing of his eardrums that he could feel pulsing from the center of his head. Edward felt his limbs relax, then more core and more chest. His neck no longer held his head, but rather was relieved by a perceived lack of gravity. In his vision, a tiny hole appeared, a white void growing like an enveloping cloud, consuming him, until it had become the universe.

Edward was standing, or what he thought was standing, for though his feet were below him, there was neither shadow nor depth to judge his surroundings by at first. After several moments, lines and shadows began to form in small particles. There was a shelf, a window, a chair. It was his living room, the one he’d existed vaguely in for the past few months, except it was not gray or quiet. It was alive, and from the kitchen, Edward heard voices familiar and exhilarating. He entered quickly, and there at the counter was Marcy, her ivory smile, those glimmering hazel eyes. Her black hair fell as it usually did about her shoulders, framing the dark cream of her skin.

Edward sat at the dinner table eating his meatloaf, discussing with Adam and Kevin about the unlikely demise of their favorite super villain who was half man half crustacean living atop a giant skyscraper in the center of the city. He imagined Lois’ drawing as she described it, a sun over their square house, and outside the house were all of them including Suffix, Schooner, and the hamster DeeDoo. Edward asked Marcy about anything new before she could tell him, and he listened about the new stylist named Karen who came all the way from some fancy cosmetology school in New York.
Edward and Marcy ushered their children through the process of preparing for bedtime. They joked and played along, landing everyone in their beds like airplanes. Together, they washed the dishes, saying very little, though it was just fine, and together they went upstairs, moved to the bed, and made love.

The alarm woke Edward at 6am. He dressed, prepared his breakfast, then was about to get in his car when he remembered the pass problem at the metro. He considered what Dr. Gunther had told him but concluded that getting the pass would only keep him from straying on the path. He returned to his room to retrieve Marcy’s pass. From there, all was as normal.

Edward Kind answered his office phone just before 3pm.
Tears were blistering his cheeks as he ran, faster than the first time, curses of bitter betrayal and anger filling his cheeks like the air he gasped. They were dead, and again, Edward was thrust into that wretched singularity.
It was all the same—the doctors, the police, the funeral director, the graves. The difference, however, was that while he mourned and the flowers rotted, he waited.

There was a knock at Edward’s door.

“I’ve been waiting for you, Dr. Gunther.” The doctor already knew.

“I already knew,” she said frankly. “I’ve been waiting for you as well.”

Dr. Gunther entered the house and together they sat in the living room as before.

“Why did they die again? Why didn’t they stay alive?” Edward demanded to know.

“You strayed from the path, Mr. Kind, as I told you not to the last two times.”

“What do you mean the last two times?”

Dr. Gunther held in her breath before telling him the truth of it all. Edward saw.

“I see.”

“You have a choice to make now, Mr. Kind.” Edward chose.

The alarm woke Edward at 6am, and he slapped his palm down upon the snooze button before opening his eyes, before turning to his side and taking in Marcy’s sleeping visage. The blankets over her rose and fell softly with her breaths, the lashes of her eyes fluttering slightly with her dreams. Edward decided to never leave that place again, that to stay was safety. Quietly, he scooted himself off the bed and into the hall, stopping at the rooms of his children to look in on their peaceful figures before sneaking downstairs and into the kitchen.

There were eggs to be scrambled, strips of bacon to be cooked, pancakes to be mixed and griddled, and he did it all within thirty minutes, setting five places at the table with silverware and glasses of orange juice. As he did all this, it occurred to him that there was no need to stay in the house, to keep them there hoarded away, and an energy Edward had never felt before filled him with the happiness that only a regaining of what had been lost to eternity could produce. He thought about all they’d do with their new lives, with his decided freedom. They’d go to the park and walk the trails stretching through the trees by the river. They’d take a vacation to Florida like Marcy and he had been meaning to do for the past eight years. They’d go get ice cream and spend the evening under the illumination of the drive-in movie, curled up together in the car with popcorn and hot chocolate. He wouldn’t stray from the path. He would make his own.

The sound of steps in the living room pulled Edward’s attention back in, and he hurried to scoop portions of eggs onto each plate with the bacon and pancakes. “I’ve got breakfast on,” he called with a smile, anticipating the surprise on Marcy’s face. Edward stepped through the doorway and into the living room where she was seated on the couch facing the window, unresponsive to his words. “Marcy?” Moving around the couch, his eyes fell upon her face, and the granite of joy that had been sculpted suddenly disintegrated into a heap of rubble and dust.

Where Marcy’s face should have been was a featureless sheet of skin stretched over a shapeless frame. She sat with her hands folded, unmoving, unseeing, unhearing. Edward fell back against the wall unable to breath, strangled by his horror, his lungs shriveling like grapes under an unforgiving, desert sun. He floundered with his hands, moving back toward the kitchen, unable to avert his eyes, unable to comprehend the sudden catapult from immeasurable happiness into infinite madness.

“Adam! Kevin!” Edward bounded up three steps at a time, down the hall to their rooms. Personless forms sat upon their beds in his children’s pajamas. “Lois!” Entering her room, the arms of nobody cradled a stuffed kitty cat as if it still offered security. He shut their doors, then shut himself away in his bedroom, falling breathless upon the carpeted floor of the spinning reality.
“Dr. Gunther!” Edward cried out as if to god. There was no answer.
Edward screamed and cursed, wept and crawled, then finally lay at the foot of the bed staring at the ceiling. It had been hours he felt and in a hopeful courage ventured out to see if perhaps he’d been wrong in what he’d seen, knowing that he had not, and proving it to himself. Eventually the well of tears ran dry, and exhaustion set in, sending him into a black, dreamless sleep.

Edward was shaken awake still on the floor of the darkened bedroom, and when he looked up to see Marcy’s face, he jumped back and away from her. She furrowed her brow, puzzling at him.

“Edward, what are you doing on the floor?” She smiled and kissed his cheek before pulling him into a sitting position. “I have dinner ready. The kids are anxious to see you.” Marcy stood up and disappeared into the hallway from where the voices of Edward’s children were echoing. He emerged slowly from the room, looking around to see that all was as it was supposed to be. Downstairs he found his family at the table, waiting and smiling.

“You’re all here? You’re… you’re all fine?”

“Of course,” Marcy laughed. “Just like every night. Come sit so we can eat.”

Edward knew he had ventured into the unknown when he created his own path and explained away the day’s freak occurrence as the reaction of reality to his aversion. It needed only to balance after being shaken.
Once the meatloaf was consumed, the discussions had, and the children tucked in, Edward and Marcy made love. The dim glow of a streetlight cut in through the lace curtains of the window, and Edward was convinced that all would be well from there. The universe had fixed itself, and it was that self-assurance that finally lulled Edward into sleep as the shadows of branches danced across the ceiling above them.

At 6am, the alarm buzzed again, and again Edward slapped it off, looked at Marcy sleeping with her hand on his chest. This time he wouldn’t get up, he thought. This time he wouldn’t move. Her head was nuzzled against his shoulder, and he held her hand, feeling the warm breeze of Marcy’s exhales over his knuckles. An hour later Edward opened his eyes again having drifted back to sleep, and a lock of her hair had settled under his chin. He looked up, wishing he could see through the ceiling into the sky. It was then that Edward noticed that the subtle breeze had stopped. The body in his arms was still. When he couraged a glance down at Marcy, the bridge of her nose, the curve of her cheekbones, the shadow of her brow had all been smudged out again, and the horror filled him once more. Unable to contain himself, he cried out in panic, jumping out of the bed and backing out of the bedroom. The thing moved to a sitting position and rose mechanically and without character or effort before the feet shuffled across the room. It followed Edward down the stairs and took its place once more on the couch.

Dr. Gunther had warned him about straying from the path so far as he had. It was volatile and unstable. Edward had taken the chance anyway, determining that there was just as much a possibility of her being wrong about it as much as right. It was a wager he’d made and lost.
Edward Kind decided to return to the path.

Edward’s family transformed back to their normal states that evening, ate the meatloaf, said the things they would say, slept soundly. Edward stayed awake, sitting, watching his wife sleep, drinking one glass of whiskey after another. None of it was real, he thought. It was just the skipping record of reality.

As the birds began to awaken in the twilight outside, he clicked off the alarm, for he was already awake.

Edward Kind dressed, drank his coffee, and ate his bacon, eggs, and cheese rolled up in a tortilla as he drove his practical family sedan to the metro station about fifteen minutes away without traffic. His metro pass failed, and he received another from the station manager after being informed that it had expired. Edward watched through bleary eyes as the red line moved away, and he walked slowly to his car. Edward sat silently in traffic, emotions weighted by the inevitable, and words weighted by the emotions. He arrived at his office one hour and thirty-six minutes late, though he saw no reason to present himself to his supervisor and apologize.

Edward remained in his office, excusing himself from his meeting. At noon, his coworkers invited him to lunch, but he declined, preferring to go alone to the bar down the street. Between shots of bourbon, he watched as the second hand of the clock on the wall ticked by, the minute hand begrudgingly following.

It was just after two that Edward returned to his office and the mail boy was rummaging through his cart outside his door. Edward took his mail, not returning the smile that the young man offered. He thanked him, sat behind his desk, then stared down at the correspondence. As his eyes studied white and manila envelopes with blurred vision, his fingers moved on their own, reaching out to them, nudging them apart. Then in the middle of the pile, he recognized a handwriting, and with an exalted explosion of passion snatched up the envelope and tore it open to reveal its contents, a single sheet of paper. Edward read the letter line by line.

This was the moment that Edward Kind realized each day had been exactly the same as before.

Once finished with the letter, he sat perplexed for several moments, then without a word bolted from his office, through the halls and down the emergency stairs, for there was no time to wait for elevators.

Behind the wheel of his car, Edward swerved in and out of the city traffic, pushing the limits of his possible speed until he came to an intersection where he cut left, then right again. The tires spun, losing their traction, and he found himself spinning towards a minivan.

Weightlessness. Glass shards and mangled aluminum. Clouds of powder from inflated airbags.

Edward Kind lay staring up at the sky, bright gray with spots of blue. Like inverted clouds. Approaching footsteps. Voices of panic and control. His eyes and a line of blood descended from his ears. Then the sky was obscured as a face looked over him.

“You did it, Mr. Kind. You did it.”


OTHER SHORT STORIES
BY STEPHEN DANIEL RUIZ

Enter: OBLIVION

Studies In gray.

THE SALESMAN

Despite his wishes, Robert Collins’ wake was a black-tie affair likely because anyone who had ever imagined the wake of a billionaire would simply expect it to be and had dressed accordingly. Unbeknownst to those in attendance, however, Robert Collins had not been a billionaire for quite some time. In fact, he had been down to his last seventeen million dollars which, to a billionaire, was equivalent to bankruptcy. His accountant, Samuel Eldridge, who had recently become wealthier than him due to his generous salary and disciplined spending, was, to his knowledge, the only person aware of this. Finding himself in such a position, Mr. Eldridge secretly outsourced the work to another accountant fresh out of school and for a fraction of what he himself was being paid. Likewise, the accountant he’d hired had no idea it was Robert Collins’ account at all and would not have believed you if you’d told him so.

“So?”

“So, what?”

“So, who’s going to get all his money?” the young accountant asked over a glass of brandy.

    “Charities mostly,” answered Mr. Eldridge. “The man needed his name engraved somewhere besides his headstone.”

     “But what about his wife?”

     “You mean Bridget?”

“Whoever the current one is.”

“She’s likely to get the house and the cars. The two Benz’s, I mean. Not the Ferrari. That one will go to his son, Jerry. She’s also got an allowance set aside for the next several years, though I’m sure she’ll blow through that in six to eight months. Then she’ll have to find a new mine to dig her gold from.”

    “They were only married a few years, right?”

    “That’s right.”

“She’s young, too, isn’t she?”

“Younger than any of his children, and his son Michael hasn’t even left the damn house, yet.”

“Awkward,” the young accountant shuddered. “I wonder what that must be like.”

    “Well, just look at her. I’m sure he figured out a way to cope,” Mr. Eldridge said with a smirk.

    “You mean…”

    “Wouldn’t you?” They snickered together, relishing illicit thoughts as their eyes fell upon the dead man’s pretty wife. 

    Bridget Hanson-Collins was across the banquet hall still shaking hands and accepting condolences nearly an hour into the wake. It was, of course, all a formality. No one besides the old gardener and her husband’s second wife was truly sorry to see him go, not even her. Sure, she’d loved Rob, but much in the same way that she loved high heels or spa days or weekends in Boca Raton. It was also in this same way that she was experiencing the vacuum of his absence. However, such a vacuum would not be filled so easily were anyone to realize how little Rob had actually been worth at the end. Bridget still maintained the advantage of their accountant’s discretion, but without her husband’s employment, that discretion was surely approaching its expiration. The money—real or otherwise— was her dowry, and she must flaunt it like a hooker with her tits out.

    “Mrs. Collins, my deepest sympathies to you and your family.” Howard Leach, the rich, elderly CEO of a company that was apparently revolutionizing cellular computing technology, patted her hand. “What an incredible loss.”

    “Yes, quite incredible.”

    “And yet, an incredible gain, perhaps?” He paused for effect. “You must be under quite a lot of pressure taking over his estate. Have you considered assigning a trustee?”

    “I have, though one doesn’t simply assign just anybody to be a trustee,” said Bridget. “That sort of thing requires… well, trust, and as we both know, that is a rare commodity, especially in this room.”

“Well then, for the sake of commodity, allow me to give you some words of advice that I actually received from your husband not so long ago. We were out on the golf course, and he turned to me and said, ‘Howie,’ he said, ‘if you want to beat the other vultures, you don’t have to be the strongest; only the hungriest.’” Bridget nodded slowly, and Mr. Leach moved closer. “Vultures, Mrs. Collins. Do you understand my meaning?”

“I believe I do.”

“Your husband was a good man. If there’s any way I can assist you, don’t hesitate to call. I’d hate to see his legacy lost to the wolves.”

“The vultures, you mean.”

“Yes,” he nodded with a smile. “The vultures.”

“Thank you, Howie. I’m sure I’ll be calling you very soon.” She shook his hand once more before he moved on.

“He’s got potential,” said Michael over her shoulder.

“All this vultures and wolves talk… he’s nothing but an ass.” Bridget wiped her hand against her thigh.

“Precisely.”

“This is bullshit. If your father hadn’t been such a fool with his money and given it all away, we wouldn’t be in this position.”

…‘if you want to beat the vultures at their game, you don’t have to be the biggest vulture playing. You just have to be the hungriest.’”

You wouldn’t be in this position,” Michael corrected. “Be glad you’ve got me on your team. The others would’ve left you high and dry.” Bridget stepped to the side and stared him down.

“Let me make one thing clear to you, Michael, because it seems there’s something you’ve overlooked. The house you live in, the bed you sleep in, the luxury car you drive, the ridiculous allowance you spend, it all belongs to me, now. I might be at a loss because your idiot father found Jesus, but I am not high and dry. I may be young and play the damsel in distress, but trust me,” she said, leaning in toward his ear, “I am a wolf. I know how to survive. So, if you try to fuck me, I will rip that pathetic cock off your little boy body and shove it so far up your ass it’ll give a whole new meaning to the term ‘deepthroat’.” Michael gulped, and Bridget returned a satisfied smile to her face. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have hunting to do.”

Michael listened to her heels tap behind him as she walked away. Who the fuck did she think she was? If it wasn’t for the fact that he started believing it to be a sin, his father would’ve divorced her a long time ago. She was nothing but a stupid floozy. No, not stupid. Bridget knew exactly what she was doing. If only she’d been able to keep the old son of a bitch from giving almost everything away. Imagine if he hadn’t died. Michael realized what a stroke of luck it was for all of them. His brother Jerry had also acknowledged this, as had their sister Maurine. Their sister, Lisa, however, had chastised them for such a thought, apparently giving the three of them more evidence in the “Lisa was adopted” argument. It was a discussion that dug under Lisa’s skin, and the recollection of it forced a quiet laugh out of Michael as he approached his siblings by the French doors to the veranda. 

“She’s really turning it up today, isn’t she?” asked Maurine. “Like a bleeding shark in a school of sharks.”

“Sharks are solitary animals.”

“Sharks are solitary animals,” Maurine mocked. “Shut up and eat your shrimp, Lisa.” Lisa, armed with an overloaded salad plate, shut up and ate her shrimp.

“What did she say to you?” asked Jerry.

“Just how grateful she is that I’ve been there for her,” said Michael, taking a cocktail from a passing tray. “I think she’s going to crack soon. Could be any day now.”

“Just make sure you have those documents ready to go,” said Jerry. “I don’t need any setbacks. I’ve already got investments lined up, so the sooner I get my cut, the better. Two million dollars isn’t much, but I can make it work.”

“I can’t believe he wasted all that money on a bunch of dirty, old poor people,” said Maurine. “Ridiculous.”

“Better than wasting it on a bunch of dirty, old rich people.”

“Shut the fuck up, Lisa.”

“You guys are assholes,” said Lisa. “All you care about is money. It can’t buy any of you happiness.”

“No, but it can finance it,” said Jerry into his glass.

“There’s more to life, you know,” she argued. “I should just get up and tell everyone here the truth.”

“Go ahead, Lisa,” said Michael. “I’ll take your two million, and you can give out samples at a grocery store for a living.” Lisa stuttered for a moment, then ate another shrimp. Turning back to the others, “You know, I’m surprised Mother hasn’t said anything about any of this. I think I saw her shed a tear earlier during the service.”

“It was probably just trying to escape the cold-hearted bitch,” said Jerry. “Mother doesn’t cry for anyone or anything. Not even when Lex died.”

“Goddamn.” The four of them stood somberly together for a moment. “Imagine if he was still here. We’d all be out half-a-mil each.” The three of them laughed while Lisa leered disgustedly.

“Four hundred thousand,” she muttered under her breath.

“Would you shut the hell up, Lisa?” Michael asked. “Who invited you here, anyway?”

“Mother,” said Lisa.

It just so happened that Mother, despite how long it had been since she’d played the part, still retained the uncanny ability of hearing her child speak her name in a crowded room, and so, she turned her eyes toward the four of them. How grown they were, she thought, and how she wished she’d summed up the courage to use a coat hanger instead of always falling down the stairs. It never worked.

“Carol, what is it?” asked Denise, Mother’s thirty-two-year-old personal assistant and off-and-on-currently-on lover.

“You know I like you, Denise, and sometimes I even feel that I love you, maybe,” said Carol, “but it’s become increasingly clear to me that I should have never left Robert all those years ago.” Expectantly hurt, Denise withdrew her hand from Carol’s who subsequently rolled her eyes. “Oh, don’t be such a fucking baby.”

“I would do anything for you,” Denise declared. “I would die for you.”

“Yes, well unless you have millions stashed around somewhere that really doesn’t do me any good, does it?” Denise blinked in shock. “They say you can’t take money with you when you die, but that’s only ever poor people who say that; poor people who disguise their deficiency of ambition as an abundance of frugality and humble pride. But they’re no different than anyone else. They’d choose money in a heartbeat if you offered.”

“I love you, Carol,” said Denise earnestly.

“Love,” she chuckled. “Now there’s something worth leaving behind.”

“I need some air,” Denise sighed, rising to her feet.

“Oh, please, don’t get your panties all in a bunch.”

“I don’t wear panties. I wear boxer-briefs.”

“Yes, I know,” Carol frowned. “Well, then, if you’re going to go sulk, at least come back with a bottle of that merlot.” Denise rolled her eyes and turned to go until Carol said her name in that sweet, strangely intoxicating tone she hated admitting an affinity for.

“What?…”

“You know you’re my favorite.” Denise smiled and walked away towards the bar where Sam Eldridge was chatting with a young man. He and Carol made eye contact, nodded, and turned to face opposite directions.

How grown they were, she thought, and how she wished she’d summed up the courage to use a coat hanger instead of always falling down the stairs. It never worked.

Gloria, Robert Collins’ second wife, approached Carol leaning heavily on a cane. Her hands were wrinkled and spotted, and her face, with no more than a bit of rouge and lipstick, was unashamedly aged according to her years. “I can’t believe he’s gone,” she said, her head shaking unsteadily. “Can you believe it?”

“When was he ever here?” Carol responded.

“I know you two didn’t have many good years, but is it so difficult to refrain from speaking ill of the dead? Of someone you loved?”

“I never loved Robert,” said Carol. Gloria nodded and took a tired seat beside her, wandering her gaze across the faces in the room.

“Robby loved you.”

“Yes, I know he did. It was disgusting.”

“But you had five children together. You must have loved him at some point.”

“If you believe that the pussy and the heart are interminably connected then you’re no more of a woman than a man decides you to be.”

“Five children,” Gloria persisted. “Five. That’s no small thing to give a man.”

“Says a woman incapable of giving any,” Carol shot back. “Just look at my return of investment. How commensurate.” Gloria looked at her for a moment before lowering her eyes.

“You’re rotten, Carol. You know that?”

“Yes. I am rotten.” Carol looked at Gloria with a startling expression of pride. Gloria rose slowly and turned away to leave her.

“Nothing rotten was never once sweet.”

As Carol stared ahead silently, a salad fork dinged gently at the side of a glass, and the din of conversations ended abruptly. Samuel Eldridge and his employee, Bridget Collins, the four children, and the two ex-wives looked together at an old man who stood at a corner table preparing to speak.

“Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Henry Koper. Most folks call me Hank, at least, Bob did when he was alive. I don’t know if saying things about the dead matter much. Seems to me that if you had something to say about someone, you should’ve said it before they died. That’s a hard lesson you generally don’t learn but the hard way. Bob and I, we grew up together over in Port City, just a couple of troublemakers playing hooky, chasing girls, tying sparklers to cats… good times. Then we grew up, went to war… after that was over, he went his way, and I went mine.

“I become a lawyer. Bob became a billionaire.” The room laughed for a moment without Hank. “He became a billionaire…” Hank hung his head before inhaling to regain his voice. “Bob wrote a letter a long time ago. He gave it to me in ‘Nam for me to send home in case anything ever happened to him. We didn’t die, obviously, and I forgot all about it until I found out he’d passed. Never even read it until yesterday… I’d like to share it with you now, because, well…” Hank Koper reached into his jacket pocket and produced a dirty, yellowed letter and a pair of bifocals. After clearing his throat, he read the following:

Dear Mother,

If you’re reading this, it means either they got me, or I got me. I don’t really understand what this is all about, and I don’t expect you to, either. Regardless, you’re still here, and I’m gone. I once heard somebody say that even after you die, you’re still alive as long as someone is thinking about you. If there’s any truth to that reasoning, it seems to me that it should work the same in reverse. So, wherever it is that I am, I hope I’ll miss you there, because then, you’ll still exist for me, too. If there’s anything I’ve come to realize, it’s not that you lived that’s important, but that you remain alive after it’s all said and done.

Well, I guess there isn’t much else to say, now, except that I love you, and thanks for the socks.

Love always,

Bobby

Hank folded the letter and returned it and his glasses to his pocket. A grin bloomed on his face as he looked around at the crowd and said, “I get the feeling you folks will keep Bob alive for a very long time, and well, that’s just something you can’t inherit from the dead, now is it?”


OTHER SHORT STORIES
BY STEPHEN DANIEL RUIZ

Enter: OBLIVION

Studies In gray.

THE SALESMAN

It has been said that in the final moment of a person’s existence, their whole life flashes before their eyes. I cannot say with any certainty whether this is true because, firstly, I have no life, or at least, no life of my own. What existence I have is shared and fleeting and relies solely on the existence of others. Secondly, there is no such thing as a final moment, because each moment in and of itself is both final and independent. It is for this reason that I cannot fully fathom the notion of directing one’s own fate. Yet, I do believe in it, however begrudgingly, and know that if it were ever afforded to me, I would treasure it. Such privilege is all too often wasted on those who are incapable of believing, even as they hold it in their own hands. My fate forever remains out of hands I do not possess. And now, the only hand I see is balled into a fist and poised for my destruction. Don’t think that I am bitter for my helplessness. I am what I am, and I accept that. After all, one cannot lose what was never had. Therefore, with neither a final moment nor a life with which to live it, I shall do as I have always done and reflect.

It was on a peculiar day, not five years ago, that the new owners of my residence placed me into a room I’d never before seen, and at first I was repulsed at how much time these people spent looking at me. They mindlessly splashed me with sink water leaving the droplets to dry until they felt compelled to clean them off. Many times I found myself peering through the mist, unable to discern any more than shapes and orbs of color and light until the towel which had been wrapped around naked flesh was used to smudge away the fog. And what noises that escape the human form! I consider myself fortunate to reflect light and not sound.

However, even in that undesirable environment, I found most pleasing a new view through a small window giving me sight to what I’d only before heard referenced to as “the lake”. The water moved back and forth in soft crescendos, disturbed only by the impact of rain on its surface. When the sun returned, the neighbor children would go jumping into the water from the pier for some time, then sit back with their fishing poles lined and launched. It was sunny this way nearly every day when the new couple arrived. I do not know where they came from, but I could only surmise after hearing and seeing so many conversations that they too were pleased with the change of scenery, however minor it may have been.

The man was handsome, a bit rough around the edges, and certainly not as fit as others I’d seen. He smiled much more frequently, however, and at times it seemed to be his most attractive feature. The woman who kissed him was short and spent far less time than many other women fixing their hair and concealing their blemishes. She seemed to realize what was already beautiful about her and needed nothing—nor felt a need—to make anyone else more aware of it.

What I found most peculiar was the bond between them, far different from the aching hearts of the meek and the mild, the backbiting of the envious, and the stoic silence of hopeless romantics. It was almost as if they felt something genuine for each other, a thing which I could not give a name, yet it was something visible in their eyes when they said to each other, “I love you.” The man and woman said this often, always simply and without reservation. I had, in the first weeks, already decided that even if they believed they meant it, such feelings would not last, and such beliefs would follow suit.

She seemed to realize what was already beautiful about her and needed nothing—nor felt a need—to make anyone else more aware of it.

Whether due to an affliction of supra-naiveté or simply a lack of matrimonial awareness, as the summer turned to autumn and thusly to winter, their happiness and love did not appear to diminish. It was a struggle even for me, with all my knowledge and observation of the human species, to remain pragmatic. Idealistic attitudes of human nature never ended well, as the very first inhabitants of my house learned all too clearly when they were robbed by some soldiers who’d surrendered and sought a night’s shelter from their former enemies. By all accounts, it was nothing short of a miracle that no one had been murdered in their beds. At any rate, the cycle of trust and deception always ended in this way: those who trusted would be deceived, and those who deceived would never trust, but all would meet their end with bitter wisdom.

In the dawn of their first spring, a layer of morning clouds cast a haze over the lake, and the woman entered the bathroom, quickly locking the door behind her. She sat in every ordinary way on the porcelain seat, fumbling with some box and its contents. I paid the affair little mind until she stood before me. She looked at herself in me, and it was then that my attention was caught. It was as if she was facing a giant; that reflected before her was not herself but something greater, as if she observed the path of uncertain adventure. Yet, it was this fact of uncertainty that brought the smile to her face. The man began knocking at the door, and after taking a deep breath she allowed him entrance. Together they smiled, then laughed. Together they wept. This was something I’d never before witnessed. Of course, I’d seen countless men and women weep, but this was something else. This was happiness, and I pondered with perplexity such joy that would release a wealth of tears.

Soon, the woman’s figure changed, her belly and her breasts swelling quickly. Unlike others who grow bigger, this seemed to please her, and she’d turn to one side, then the other, feeling and pressing at her sides, then rubbing her palm tenderly across her skin. On occasion, in quiet moments, the man would do the same to her, his arms wrapping around from behind. The summer and the light returned until it cooled and the leaves began to turn. Breezes whispered to each other just as did the man and the woman, and despite the winter claiming the lake, the cold found no shelter here.

Then, there were three of them. The baby girl chattered and cooed at herself in me, her mother holding her securely against her bossom. The man was there as well, his smile evolved into an expression of awed affection. This child was their creation, and they were humbled and in love. Few moments followed in which the girl was not the center of attention. Like two planets, they orbited their star, and they called her Felicity.

Those who trusted would be deceived, and those who deceived would never trust, but all would meet their end with bitter wisdom.

The three lived this way for a long time. The woman even grew again as with their daughter, and she and the man wept together as before. Yet, there was no addition to the family. One autumn morning before dawn, the light switched on. The woman was alone as she struggled into the bathroom. Her night gown was coated red, and her hands the same leaving smeared prints on the floor as she crawled towards the tub in agony. Her skin was pale, sweating, and crying, her teeth gritted until I was certain they’d crack. With a guttural sigh, her strength gave out, and she lay silently on the floor. The woman bled until she stopped.

I do not like some reflections. I do not like most, if I am to be honest. The man walking into the bathroom, tired and dirty from a long night’s work, those suspended seconds of confusion, the bolt of realization piercing him that followed and the scream he could not give voice to; I would have rather not existed at all than to reflect that light. Perhaps, in consideration of such things, fate is in no one’s hands at all. Perhaps, such a notion is simply a myth, a fairy tale created to make sense of the nonsensical, no different than any other horrible bedtime story.

To say that the woman lived is subjective, and you may take that as you will. The eyes that once looked confidently upon a great adventure now stared blankly at a wall. It was only with Felicity that such an expression was replaced with a smile. However, there was no question that the new reflection was void of something that the old possessed. The man recognized this, too, though he remained silent, seeing it then looking away in denial of both, as if to not acknowledge something is to negate its existence altogether. However, that which is buried alive will seek vengeance when unearthed, and it will shriek and howl all the while in between.

Despite her role in my imminent shattering, the woman I see now is the same woman I saw years before. No form of her in the present is devoid of her in the past, and though it may seem her heavy eyes and splintering tears were born of sorrow for what might have been, they were instead for the inexorable change of what used to be. She’d repeated countless times while looking at herself in me, “You cannot lose what you never had… You cannot lose what you never had…” It may have been that she was simply trying to convince herself of such a thing, to remind herself of what still mattered. However, when one has smiled but can no longer, when a person who has expressed love becomes incapable of expression, when someone who—worse than a lack of feeling—feels the heaviness of nothing, then there is no matter. There is only the reflection, and the reflection must die.


OTHER SHORT STORIES
BY STEPHEN DANIEL RUIZ

Enter: OBLIVION

Studies In gray.

THE SALESMAN