“I’m going to be late again” He said for the hundredth time, knowing all too well the resistance he would be met with. Kate would always urge him home, after all Sarah had school in the morning and will be in bed soon. Neither of them see very much of him lately.
“ok, I’ll save you some dinner in the fridge” she replied with a hushed tone of defeat. She had given up, she had finally come to accept that his job would always come first. She was through fighting it. She understood that in his own way, his work was his way of being there for them. He always thought that if he worked hard enough now he could give them the life he never had. He would sometimes stay up late telling Kate about his ideas for these family vacations and how much he wants to someday take the whole summer to go traveling and spend with she and Sara. Kate knew what that hope meant to him, she just wished that he would be here now instead of someday.
John was a bit taken back by the ease of the exchange, but after a brief goodbye he went back to work. As he pounded away at the keyboard a picture that rested at the corner of his desk, mostly hidden behind a mound of paper grabbed his eye. It was of himself with Kate and Sarah last summer. It was probably the happiest John could remember being.
He decided to cut short his usual late night and have dinner with his family for a change. He shut down his computer and turned the lights off and shut the door, he was always the last to leave the office. John walked through the dimly lit parking lot toward his old white sedan. He’d had that car for ages in spite of being more than capable of affording a newer model. There was just something about his old car that gave him a sense of comfort. It was the car he drove from the church when he married Kate, it was the car he drove Kate and Sara home from the hospital in, but most of all, for him it was a constant In a world of chaos.
As John drove home he wondered what Kate would think. How surprised she would be to see him so early. He loved to see her smile; it was one of the small things in life that made him genuinely happy. He couldn’t remember the last time he sat down for a family meal and his own excitement started to bubble up.
He pulled in the garage and as he stepped out of the car he was struck by the sound of shattering glass and muffled screaming from inside the house. A deep dread filled his body and his heart was beating out of his chest as he burst through the door. A serving tray lie shattered on the floor among tiny droplets of blood. John manic gaze searched as thoughts raced though his head.
“Please!” he could make out between weeping sobs coming from upstairs. John rushed to the top of the stairs, his thoughts all but gone, acting purely in a mix of fear and defensive fury. He reached the top of the steps in what seemed like an instant and turning to he and Kates bedroom. There Kate lie, unconscious with a large gash on her forehead. A large man dressed in black standing over her as he was reaching down to tie her hands. John ran at the man with a rage he had never known and threw his body at the man with every ounce of his strength hitting the stranger in the chest with his shoulder.
They both hit the wall with a sound like thunder, crushing the drywall under the force and falling to the ground. John suddenly came to himself and felt as though he couldn’t move. His entire body ached, and he could hardly move his arm. Nevertheless, he mustered up all of his strength, he had to make sure Kate was alright.
“Dad?!” a hopeful voice rang out from across the room. It was Sara, she was peaking out of the closet, her face pale white with tears streaming down her face.
Before John could take a step he felt a blow to the back of his head that shook him to the core. He turned feebly trying to lift his arms to defend only to be met with a barrage of strikes. Each blow felt like sledge hammers raining down. He stumbled backwards as he swung wildly, hoping to land a blow. The world was spinning as his vision became crimson. One last violent strike to Johns forehead sent him tumbling down the stairs. Everything began to dim as John lie at the foot of the steps.
Faint beeping and the rustle of fabric and footsteps began to grow louder as John awoke. He struggled to open his eyes. They felt tight and John could tell they were swollen. He looked around disoriented and his gaze was met by a nurse.
“where am I?” He forced out in a dry, broken tone.
“you’re at Hopkin’s Regional. You’ve been .. “ She began, but John broke in with a panic
“Kate! Sara! Where are they?!” He sprung up, remembering the attack. Searing pain coursed through his body, half covered in bandages. He regained his focus just in time to see the nurse sink, her face so full of grief, though she tried to hide it. John knew at that moment that they were gone. Emptiness enveloped his soul as his head fell back to the pillow. He lacked even the strength to shed a tear.
In the following days John wouldn’t eat. He couldn’t eat, he saw no point in feeding himself and most of all he couldn’t find the strength. Though his body was healing his soul was broken. It hurt simply to exist, and John wanted desperately to run away, to hide somewhere. But hide from what? Reality? Truth? There was no escaping. The doctors and nurses would try to encourage him to eat and urged him to seek counseling, but John could barely withstand the sound of another voice. His brokenness was deep and burned with a flame that demanded stillness, he felt that any move, any slight jostle would enrage the flame and consume his being. Still he knew he had to carry on, they would want him to carry on.
After several days John was finally able to begin to eat again, little as it was. He quickly learned that the path of least resistance was to pretend he was ok, that he was healing. If he seemed alright to everyone else he could hide within himself, the world would stop trying to fix him with senseless advice and hollow empathy. He could fake it until he was alone and then, then he could finally rest. So that’s exactly what he did.
Soon John was able to return home. A few friends and his parents offered to let him stay with them for a while or come stay with him, but the thought of countless hours around others was far too much to handle so he politely declined and assured them he would be fine. He did however accept their kind offer of cleaning up the home before his arrival. As John drove home he passed by the school where Sara goes… went rather… his heart sank and a sick feeling of anxiety and dread filled him. He tried to shake it off “just hold on til you get home” he told himself. As he continued to drive he could feel his will draining.
Finally, the driveway was in the distance. He pulled in with a heart full of mixed feelings. Part of him thought Kate would be just on the other side of the door, in one of her comfy sundresses, working on some little project. She was always tinkering with something. John loved to see the way her face would light up when she got a new idea for a craft or she finally finished a DIY project. But as he opened the door he was greeted by silence. He collapsed to the floor and wept, tears poured out like a flood as he wailed and pounded the floor, with this came the first bittersweet relief John had experienced since the attack. As the tears slowed he raised himself to lean against the cabinets, he numbly stared across the room into space several minutes until deciding to go upstairs. As he reached the top of the stairs the sound of Kate pleading rang in his head. He turned the corner into the bedroom and stared at the spot Kate had laid. “Dad?!” he heard Sara’s call from that night. That hopeful call, she trusted him to save them. “I couldn’t protect you” John let out as tears streamed down his cheeks. He fell to his knees and cried himself to sleep where his world ended.
John awoke in terror as screams came from the other room. He quickly jumped from the floor, something was off. He was back in the kitchen, but it didn’t look quite right. “Help! Please!” came from the other room, it was a woman’s voice. John ran toward the noise to see two men standing over a young woman who seemed to be in her early twenties. The men were beating her, but why? What could she have possibly done to them? John unthinkingly ran to them yelling for them to stop. They turned to him visibly startled to find someone else in the house, but quickly regained their composure and began toward John. He readied himself for a fight, and as the first got close enough he swung with all his might and, making contact with the man’s jaw, and sent him stumbling backwards. The second tackled John and as they struggled on the ground John managed to make his way on top and began firing a flurry of punches, most were absorbed by the thugs arms covering his head, but John persisted to rain down blows. Suddenly he felt a cold, heavy, stinging pain between his shoulder blades. He toppled over and struggled to pick himself back up, but one of the men quickly leaped on him and dug a large knife into Johns chest.
John awoke in a cold sweat. He was in his bedroom, just where he had fallen asleep earlier. His chest and back seared with pain and his whole body ached as if he had the flu. He picked himself up and pondered on the crazy dream he just had as he crawled into bed. After sleeping for what felt like days John awoke feeling refreshed in body, though still broken inside. He looked around the room feeling the emptiness inside those walls as he pulled himself out of bed for a shower. He didn’t feel like showering, but it was a part of his routine, he found solace in routine. It was always his way of escaping from the world, inside of his ritualistic habits everything is the same, no tragedies, no arguments or hurt feelings, no bad news or depression, just the same comfortable things. John turned on the shower and began to undress. As he passed the bathroom mirror he noticed a scar on his chest where he had dreamed of being stabbed. John examined the scar in disbelief for a moment before brushing it off as coincidence. This must have been from the attack, he had sustained so many injuries surely this must have been one of them. After showering he did feel somewhat better, or at least numb, either way he could function well enough to put on a façade of wellness, as he was expecting a visit form his parents. His mother was determined to make sure he ate so she would be making dinner that night. He just hoped she wouldn’t mention Kate, try to bring up fond memories to help him heal. His mother was always worried about everyone else’s wellbeing, especially her kids. A part of him didn’t want to heal, that would mean letting go, accepting the way things were. In a way his pain helped him to hold onto the tiniest little piece of his family. His father was a strong man, in both body and will. He wasn’t much for talking about feelings, not because he didn’t care, but one of the few things he feared was not knowing what to say in times like these. So John knew he was safe there, the only comfort he found was in those not trying to comfort him.
As Martha and Henry arrived a little bit of Johns agony faded for a moment. It felt like he was a kid again and his mom and dad were there to pick him up in their arms, chase the monsters from under his bed, make his scraped elbow all better, and protect him from all that is bad in the world. The nostalgia of childhood and the pain of reality fought hard all night, with the latter winning. Still, it was nice having them around. Martha cooked John his favorite meal that night — broiled shrimp, corn on the cob and potatoes. For a moment he was home again, safe, the world wasn’t his responsibility. Still he ached in the midst of his comfort. As they left all the pain and more came flooding back. He watched them pull out of the driveway and with every inch that car traveled John felt the comfort of the past grow more distant with them. As they faded from sight he slumped down against the front door and wept from the very deepest part of his soul. He felt so alone. Ultimately alone. Everything ends and he would always be alone…
As John returned to work he was greeted with warm hello’s, condolences and a few sympathetic glances throughout the day. He tried to be warm in return, but it was obvious he would rather be left to his work. As the day worn on John began to feel more like himself, he could believe everything was normal for a time, and when he returned home Kate and Sara would be right there waiting. He typed away at his computer for hours, even working through lunch until the usual mass exodus from the office and the flurry of “see ya tomorrow”s. John absent mindedly picked up his phone to call Kate to let her know he would be late as usual. The phone rang twice and then Kates voice started “Hi, this is Kate. Sorry I missed your call..” John dropped the phone as the horrors of his memories flooded back into his head. Hands shaking John stood up and stumbled toward the elevator, his trembling fingers searched for the top floor. As the elevator lifted he held his head in his hands and moaned with agony. As he reached the top floor he walked to the stairs up to the roof, that was the first time he had been up there. Everything looked so different from atop the offices. He stood at the edge and imagined throwing himself over. The relief he felt as he pictured hurdling toward the ground was overwhelming. Still he had to carry on, he wouldn’t tarnish his family’s memory by ending it like this, not yet at least. He climbed down from the edge and lied down on the roof. Somehow being in an odd place removed him slightly from his darkness. John lied on the roof until morning, unable to sleep but unable to pick himself back up.
“I got this one, you can get the next” John cheerfully offered as he pulled out his wallet. “I take it next time you want to hit up somewhere expensive” Zach joked. Lunch hangouts had been the new norm for John. His friend Zach had really been there for him through all of the tragedy. Though it was more often a burden than a help, any more John preferred to be alone. Nevertheless, John appreciated the thought..
As John got back home, he could barely keep his eyes open. Any sort of social interaction had become so draining these past several months. He dragged himself up the stairs to the bedroom and flopped on the bed face down welcoming sleep, the only comfort he felt any more. He was jostled awake by the sounds of a struggle in the next room. He lifted his head and panic and confusion set in as he didn’t recognize anything around him. He leapt to his feet and rushed to leave but as searched for the front door he heard the crying of a small child, as if she were in agony. Curiosity and worry compelled him to turn his head to see through the open doorway. His eyes rested on an elderly couple lying in the floor. The man bleeding from what appeared to be a stab wound and the woman had a large gash on her forehead. “they must be the kids grandparents” John thought. He felt of his pockets for a phone to call for help but his searching hands found nothing. “Shut up!” He heard a deep voice yell from around the corner. A man in ratty jeans and a black hoodie appeared from around the corner aiming a gun at the girl as he aggressively stepped toward her. John ran to protect the child, but the gunman heard his steps as he raced down the hall and quickly turned the gun toward John. A loud boom came as a flash of light danced off the barrel of the gun. John felt the hot metal rip through his left shoulder, but he pushes forward and knocks the shooter off of his feet. “Run!” John cried to the little girl as he tried to pry the gun from the killers’ hand. As John miraculously secured the gun, the hooded man surged to his feet and ran out the door in what seemed like the blink of an eye.
As John remembered the little girl fear overwhelmed him. “Is she okay? Did he find her?” He wondered as he tried to stand. His vision was beginning to fade, and his cloths were soaked in his own blood. Every step he took felt heavier than the last. As he approached the front door, he saw the small, pink stuffed giraffe the little girl had been holding. It was lying on the front porch. His mind raced as to what this meant. “was she taken? Did she drop it as she fled?” He questioned. Suddenly he felt a jolt as something hard and heavy met the back of his head and he dropped to the ground.
“I’m losing it” John thought as he opened his eyes to see his bedroom, just as it was the night before. He looked at the clock, it read 9:30 am. It was Saturday, and that was about the time Saras favorite show would come on. John didn’t care for it very much, but he would always watch it with her. He loved how she would scoot up close to him as she rested her head against his chest as she sat and watched.
John stood up from bed, his head pounded and seared with pain with each beat of his heart. He downed a couple of asprin and proceeded to get dressed. As he reached to take his shirt off his left shoulder had a sharp pain that stopped him in his tracks. “Guess that explains the weird dream” he thought, deciding to stay in yesterdays cloths.
The empty house, though silent echoed the pain of memories that would never be. John turned on the tv to try to drown out the screams of brokenness inside himself. He clenched a pillow as he found Sara’s show. He fixed his eyes to the screen through his tears. The routine helped him somehow, and between his sobs he could capture brief flashes of a sense that it was just another Saturday, that Sara was sitting in his arm with a big smile on her face, watching her favorite show.
A commercial break started as John began to calm “Tonight. Home invasion turned fatal in the Pembrook area as an elderly couple were found stabbed to death in their home. Police are still on the lookout for their grandchild. If you have seen her please…”
John was in utter disbelief as he watched the images fly across the screen. That was the little girl, those were the people he had seen last night. A sick, sinking feeling filled his stomach as he questioned the reality of it all and the idea that he let down yet another family. “Its not possible” he decided. Still, he needed to talk to someone, but the only one he ever really felt safe talking to was gone..
As the weekend passed John was slowly able to put his “dream” out of his mind. Though the gaping hole left by his own loss never subsided. He began visit Kate and Sara’s graves everyday after work now. He would talk to them as if they were still here until silence would break him and he’d inevitably end up pounding his fists against the dirt and releasing a cry of anguish in the air. It didn’t solve anything, but it did make him feel better, even if only a little and for a fleeting moment. In fact, his only goal these days was just to make find those fleeting little moments where his agony was quenched ever so slightly. He avoided people now more than ever, it took every bit of focus he had to keep his pain under control and any distraction from a well meaning friend was breathtakingly painful and the exhaustion of keeping up appearances took days to recover from. He didn’t really know why he pretended to be okay anyway.. maybe it was to protect the people he cared about from worry? Maybe its because deep down he believed that if they knew his constant misery, he would be too much of a downer to love. Empathy seems to have a limit with people. Maybe it was safer to pretend, that way he could at least continue to feel like he’s worth something to somebody, to keep believing he’s worth being loved..
When he would return home, it was usually the same routine, eat – usually something unhealthy, sit in front of the tv for far too long, finally lie down in bed and fight back bittersweet memories until finally falling asleep.
Work was different now than it was before the attack, it used to be fun, he would joke around with co-workers, there was a sense that he was doing something important, he was providing, he was building, he was a part of something. Now it was just a place he went every day and fought to keep pushing forward. Everything was so difficult now, from mailing an envelope to researching a client account. He longed for rest, for a recovery that would never come. From the time he arrived he counted the minutes until he could leave. Every second there felt like an eternity. It was like placing a hand on a hot stove and being forced to rest it there for hours on end. His mind simmered as his body ached. Panic would inevitably fill his chest as he would imagine that this is what the rest of his life would be.
As Friday came around John began to fear for the weekend ahead, if he didn’t find some sort of joy in it then Monday would come all too soon and then he’d be trapped again. “I can’t handle another week” He thought.
“Happy Friday!” Melanie shouted. She worked in the office next to Johns, she was always so bubbly and happy. John admired that in her, but today it just hurt to hear those words that he had longed for since Monday. “Happy Friday!” John cheered back with a smile and a fist raised in victory.
“Happy Friday? What’s happy about it?” He thought to himself. “I’ll just sit in anguish for a couple of days and then be back here Monday to try to push through another week. Sure, it’s a break I need, but the cycle will never stop” he continued.
As the day passed on, he wondered what the purpose was of what he was doing. “What am I working for?” He wondered as his pain turned to numbness. He was cold inside now. Anything should have been a relief over what he was feeling for so long, but it wasn’t… it was just a different kind of cruelty.
Five o’clock came and he slowly drug himself to his car. That same old white Honda that had brought him first comfort, then the pain of memories, now meant nothing at all. He began to make his way to the cemetery to visit Kate and Sara one last time. As he pulled up to the graveyard he gazed at the horizon and pondered on the emptiness of it all. A year ago it would have been unsettling to John, but now it feels more like home than his own house. There was something about that gravesite that was comforting to John. Kate and Sara’s graves sat directly beneath the branches of a large Southern Live Oak. The foliage hung down off the limbs and seemed to melt from the grey fall sky. The crisp, chilled wind and misty rain licked Johns face as he watched the leaves dance in the light of the lamp post. It was soothing. Finally, the outside world began to match how he felt inside and there was an strange comfort to that. As he sat there, John began to doze as he caught a surprising moment of peace.
He was jostled awake by the sound of crashing plates. “what the..” John was lying upstairs in his bedroom. “No!” He heard a familiar voice shriek. John shot to his feet, completely disoriented. He quickly shot out the door and turned to run down the steps. He was met by a towering man dressed in black forcing a woman up the stairs as she fought for her life.
“Kate?!” John uttered in disbelief…