He hadn’t meant to do it. As his muscles strained against their tendons, sweat pouring from his brow, reality blurred like the trees standing behind rain-covered windows. Adrenaline coursed though his veins, filled his mouth with a metallic taste- He wondered if she’d tasted it too, in those few brief moments of chaos.
He hadn’t meant to do it. Really. But, in the moment, it was the only choice he had.
Jason Mattis was old. Not in the physical sense — though a few gray hairs had begun to work their way into his shadow of a beard — but in what he’d experienced over his 26 years of life. Growing up, Jason had watched his mother deteriorate in a mess of tubes and needles and medication, the whirring machines sucking the life from her as fuel for their colorful blinking lights. Sunken eyes, sagging skin, and the shadowy shapes of bones resting just beneath the surface. Smaller and smaller upon that white bed, until one day, she simply wasn’t there anymore.
Jason hadn’t cried at the funeral, hadn’t know that he was supposed to. He just knew that it smelled funny and that he had to wear an itchy suit and that the box at the front of the room contained a woman who looked like his mother but couldn’t be his mother because her skin was about three shades too pale and there was too much make-up on her eyelids. That woman didn’t look like a real woman, certainly did not look like the woman he had once called mom. It wasn’t his mom, he whispered to himself as strangers scrunched up their foreheads and patted his shoulders. Not his mom.
At the time of her death, Jason was seven years old.
After his mother passed away, Jason’s father forgot how to laugh. How to shave. How to fall asleep without crying — how to fall asleep at all. The only thing that seemed to matter to him anymore were the bottles which now lined the counters, the bottles which caused a harsh earthy smell to permanently settle within every crack of the kitchen floor.
Normally, it started with the tears. Silent at first, then quickly making their way into heavy, heaving sobs. The only thing that quieted them were opened-mouth kisses with silver flasks, deep and passionate and yet all together different from the way he used to kiss his wife.
After the crying ceased, Jason’s dad would get a dewy look in his eyes and call over his son to look at pictures and talk about old memories. Jason liked when his dad got to this stage, liked to hear about high school pranks and weird wedding cake flavors (the thought of tasting something called Beer and Sauerkraut Fudge always made him laugh) and how, on his first night home from the hospital, Jason had cried so loudly that the neighborhood dogs had barked along with his wailing until 3 am. It was only when he began getting closer to the present that his face clouded over, that the drinks became more frequent and the words became fewer and further between. Jason didn’t like this stage. This was the Scary Stage.
On the nights when his dad got really bad, Jason would wriggle his way into the small crawl space behind the sofa. He kept some toys back there, to distract him from the Scary noises he would hear from the kitchen: a smashed glass, a slammed drawer, the sound of jumping silverware as fists beat the wooden table. Normally there were a few shouts here and there, most often words that Jason knew better than to ask the meaning of. The scariest of them all, though, was The Silence.
The Silence meant that He was looking for him. He, with the bulging veins and the blurry eyes, the slurred words and the sweaty hands. He, who had begun to exist both in the real world and in Jason’s nightmares.
It was because of Him that Jason had sworn he’d never touch those bottles that so littered the house in which he lived, containing potions that could change the very soul of a man with their might. And he hadn’t, at least not until many years later. Not until The Night, The Hour, that had ruined everything.
Things got better with time, like a scab growing slowly over an open wound. Sometimes, foolishly, Jason’s dad picked at the scab with the clumsy fingers of a young child: A visit to the location of their wedding ceremony, the 8th anniversary of her death, a Tuesday night spent crying in the pew of a local church. He pulled at so many threads that eventually Jason had to learn how to sew, how to be strong enough so that his elementary middle high school arms could carry the weight of both their sorrows — so that they could continue moving forward, even after the occasional step back.
Jason had moved out after graduating from high school, leaving his small hometown of Mayfield, Georgia, to study business at the University of Pennsylvania. They had offered him a scholarship that he couldn’t refuse, wouldn’t have refused even if a better offer had presented itself. Jason had dreamed of playing basketball for UPenn since his freshman year, and had put in the work to make such dreams a reality. He’d spent hours at the free throw line, long after the rest of the team had gone home to family dinners and fireside conversations. Aching muscles and calloused hands were familiar to him, proof of his efforts. They hadn’t gone unnoticed: Jason had been a thousand-point scorer, and had led his team to a championship title. (His dad had gone to that game, had actually told Jason that he was proud of him after he’d made the winning basket. He offered to take Jason out for a beer afterwards, an offer that Jason had politely refused.)
At college, Jason worked hard. Each of his professors knew him by name, knew him by his stencil-like hand writing and eager eyes and overgrown mess of dark curls that had begun to get dangerously close to his shoulders. He learned a great deal — learned how to manage finances and play guitar and make Hot Pockets, to invest in stocks and ice skate and wash clothes without the colors bleeding onto the whites.
He also learned how to entwine his fingers with hers without them getting knotted and tangled and confused, learned how to push them through her hair until they were knotted and tangled and confused and laughing, both of them laughing and smiling and blushing, blushing as new couples so often do. He learned what it felt like to be in love.
Her name was Australia. Lia, for short. She was just like the country, exciting and beautiful and vast. Vast in her knowledge of people, of movies and old records and political happenings, always surprising him with an unknown tidbit on whatever they happened to be discussing. She was studying English, and many times he’d walk in to find her cross-legged on the bed with a book in hand, blonde curls falling in front of her face as ribbon lips mouthed each word read by wide eyes. The room smelled of old flowers, of the flowers which she pressed only between the pages of books that she had read once and then again. Her desk was a mess of half-melted candles and rocks that she found particularly interesting and scraps of paper covered in drawings of eyeballs and hands and ribcages. Hell, the entire room was a mess, but Lia always defensively claimed to know where everything was located.
She was stubborn in that sense, and stubborn in the sense that she wouldn’t back down from a challenge regardless of its risks — such was how she had gotten the lightening bolt scar on her left wrist, after falling from a tree that her older brother had dared her to climb when they had been kids. During a hurricane, she had added quite confidently at the conclusion of the story. Category 5.
After graduating from college, Lia and Jason moved in together. They got an apartment in lower Manhattan, her working as an editor and him moving his way through the ranks at a corporation that dealt with analyzing finances. They had a fireplace and big glass windows and a cupboard stocked with her mother’s china, wood floors and a king-sized bed and, the newest addition, a little brown and black cat which they had decided to call Stanley. A grand name for a small being, they had said laughing. A grand name.
Lia and Jason didn’t fight much. Didn’t have many troubles, many sorrows, until one day Lia was pregnant, and then one day, she was not.
The space between them was small at first, was the size of a lemon was the size of an orange was the size of a fetus at fourteen weeks. The space kept growing until it was the size of an egg plant the size of a pineapple the size larger than any unborn fetus. Jason began to work longer hours. Lia began to drink bottles of wine.
In the months that followed the miscarriage, the pair became two strangers coexisting in the same space. They ate together but did not speak. Slept together but did not touch. He loved her still, though. Loved her still but could no longer find the words to say it, could no longer manage to do anything in connection to emotion. He was afraid to feel again, after having felt such grief. He was afraid to feel until one day he felt the sun on his skin as he walked through town, and so he kept walking until he found a man selling flowers and he bought an entire bunch. He called the office and told them he wouldn’t be returning that afternoon, that he wasn’t feeling well. Well. He walked back to his apartment and he whistled-whistled-as he went, went to return to Lia and to knot his fingers in her hair again and to kiss that little scar on her wrist. Went to tell her that he loved her. Went to her, and found her.
He went to surprise her only to be surprised, to see strange shoes at his door and to hear strange noises in his room. He flung open the door to find a strange man in his bed, with a strange woman who could not be Lia could not be Lia in his bed, and suddenly his suit felt itchy and the flowers began to smell funny and so he dropped them on the floor and turned and walked out, and she yelled to his back. You’re always at the goddamn office. Shit, I’m not supposed to use the Lord’s name in vain. I’m sorry! She called out. About all of this.
I’m really fucking sorry.
Jason kept walking until he was outside, until he noticed that the sunlight had been replaced by clouds, until he was inside the bar that had for so many years sat directly across the street.
The rage behind his eyes made them feel thick, full of blood. His tongue felt thick too, and his lips were dry. He reeked of sweat and smoke and svedka, of all the strangers he had spent the last few hours drowning his sorrows with. When he was satisfied, when the afternoon’s images became blurred with the evening’s fading light, he began to drive. Out of the neighborhood out of the city he drove, every once in a while opening the window to feel the rain pelt his face only to close it again because the rain was pelting his face. He swore every time he drove through a large puddle, swore every time large branches cracked beneath his tires. He got tired of talking to himself, so he turned on the radio and shit hit another branch, an enormous branch, a branch that shouldn’t have gotten in his way and fuck that branch but it wasn’t a branch and he was outside and it was raining and a woman was laying in the street and he could see all of the blood he had felt behind his eyes, could see it all over the street now. Fuck. He was drunk she was dead he didn’t want to lose his job he didn’t want to lose Lia oh God he didn’t want to lose Lia and so he got in his car and hit the gas, had no other choice but to hit the gas. He drove away then, drove away listening to the radio as it talked about the hurricane that was currently hitting the state of New York. Biggest in years, said a man’s voice. Stay inside. High winds. Dangerous conditions.
Header photograph: By Greg Henshall (This image is from the FEMA Photo Library.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons