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Absolution

They didn’t see it coming.  But then, does anybody?

Life wasn’t perfect, their marriage wasn’t perfect, but as she passed Derek’s ‘office’ on her way to the hall closet to get her coat she glanced in and saw a sight that warmed her heart and brought a smile to her face.  Her husband was at his desk, working on something, while Hawk, their adopted five-year-old Vietnamese son [whose name was actually Hakeem, and they should have called him Hack, but didn’t want to for obvious reasons] played peacefully on the rug beside his father’s chair.  Surrounded by toys of all kinds, he concentrated on some incomprehensible arrangement of the pieces, mimicking his father’s serious face.  She grabbed her coat and purse, and stepped back into the doorway.  He looked up as she appeared.

         ”Going somewhere, Val?”  

         She in turn made a face.  ”No, I just find it a bit chilly in here, don’t you?” 

         He made a face back that might have been a smile if he hadn’t been so deeply tangled up in his work.  She regarded him patiently, waiting for him to ask where she was in fact going, but instead, he asked her if she could take Hawk with her.

         ”Actually no, Derek, I’m shopping for a certain item to go with a certain occasion that’s coming up on Saturday, and it wouldn’t be cool if a certain person caught sight of it now.”  She jerked her head in Hawk’s direction, unnecessarily [she hoped].

         Derek looked slightly stricken, but nodded.

         ”Okay, well, he seems fine for now.  But I’ve got at least four more hours to put in on this blankety blank assignment.  Maybe you could leave him in the car while you dash in?”

         Val gave him ‘the look’ and he smiled wanly.

         ”Can’t blame a guy fortrying.  How long will you be?”

         ”No idea.  I’ve got some other stuff to do.  I’ll be as quick as I can.  Man up, dude.”

         At this point Hawk looked up, concern in his black eyes.

         ”Mummy going away?”

         He hadn’t yet learned the phrase ‘going out’, and every time she heard ‘away’ Val cringed to think he might still be remembering being abandoned. She went over and squatted down beside him, ruffled his hair.  [Later she would remember this gesture, and how it crossed her mind to wait until tomorrow, when Derek might not be so busy.  But instead she straightened.]

         ”I won’t be long honey.  You be a big boy and look after Daddy, okay?  He might get lonely for Mummy.”

         Derek looked over, raised an eyebrow.  She raised one back, and quickly took her leave, before Hawk could start thinking of reasons why she shouldn’t go.  He’d move on soon enough, get absorbed in his construction project, and forget all about her.  She knew that now.  Knowing things had a certain comfort, a significant one.  She flushed a little with gratitude that this was not only the case now, but was continually—ifincrementally—blossoming.     

         As she went down the walk toward her car, she glanced over at the pile of junk stacked beside the garage, and frowned, remembering how many times she’d asked Derek to get rid of it.  They had a nice house with a nice yard on a nice street in a nice neighbourhood. But the junk wasn’t nice.

         As she backed out onto the street, she caught sight of Andy Forest raking his front lawn.  He smiled and waved, and started walking toward the edge of the road, so she pulled over and cranked the window down.

         ”Morning, Andy.  What, Cindy’s arms painted on?”

         ”Hah!  You got that right!  Lissen, that little freezer over there against the wall, I don’t suppose it still works?”  Val shook her head.  

         ”Sat in the garage for a whole year not working.  Fortunately we found that out while there was only bread in it.”

         ”Aw, heck, well, I really liked that latch arrangement he put on there to keep the varmints out.”  Val looked over at the dead appliance, resolving she’d make Derek get rid of it next weekend.

         ”Sorry, Andy.  See ya.” As she pulled back onto the road, Andy pointed to the garage and held his nose, grinning. Val flipped him a friendly bird as she drove away.

_____

         Back in Derek’s office acouple hours later, he scowled at the figures coming up on the screen and felta sudden urge to dump the whole project and take Hawk to the library.  But it was Sunday.  A quick game of ‘catch’?  He loved his son, and felt slightly uneasy atthe thought of him having to entertain himself so much.  Thank God for school.  It had been worse before, whole days workingat home while Val ran around selling houses. Seemed he often spent the whole day changing diapers [no longer, thank Christ] reading stories, watching ridiculous kid shows on TV until he couldslip away … sometimes he felt it had been a mistake not to rent an office, andhire a nanny.  But not yet.  He needed to be doing better with his extra-curricularday trading before a nanny was a viable option.

         The phone rang and hescooped it up [they’d kept the land line to avoid the endless searching forcell phones.]  It was Val, telling him would be a little longer than she thought, she was having trouble finding thepresent, and she might drop by her sister’s place.  Erika the hypochondriac.  Another pain, itch, spot, wrinkle, leading toanother wasted afternoon for Val.  And more stress for him.  

         He glanced down at Hawk, caught the bored expression on his face.

         ”Ya, lissen honey, we gotta go play outside for a bit. The rug rat is getting antsy. … Yup, chocolate’s fine.  Whatever.  Bye.” 

         Hawk was already on his feet jumping around.

         ”Outside!  Yaaaayyyy!”

         Derek hung up and rubbed his hands together.

         ”Time to get a little fresh air, Hawkeye.  What’ll we do, toss the football around?”

         ”No, hiben go seep!”

         Derek let a sigh escape.  He wasn’t big on ‘hiben go seep’ because Hawk didn’t hide very well, probably worried about never being found.  Derek had to pretend to look in a whole lot of places before he suddenly pounced. Still, it beat the crap on TV, the junk the networks knew was now a necessity for a lot of families.

         They went out into the still-warm autumn afternoon.  Hawk slid in behind a tree, then poked his head out when Derek didn’t come after him.  Derek faked surprise.   

         ”Aha!  Boo! I spy with my little eye … a Booooddhist!”

         Hawkburst out laughing at the funny word, and started running away.  Derek chased him for a bit, then eventually faked a heart attack, and stumbled around before collapsing on the lawn.  Hawk would pile on and they’d have a short, perfunctory wrestle.  Derek never got to hide after the time Hawk couldn’t find him and had a meltdown.  Val had heard the noise and had come to the back door and let him inside to have a cookie, but Derek had been hiding around the front and didn’t know this.  He hung on for fifteen minutes before he finally gave up, and discovered that Hawk had given up and was now watching television.

         That being said, Derek was a good game player; he always got right into it.  They soon tired of the unstructured horseplay.

         ”Okay, Daddy, I hide now!”

         Just as Hawk was running off, the phone rang inside.  Derek watched him for a second, then decided to take the call.  It would be Val asking if he wanted sweet andsour chicken balls or almond guy ding. He ran in and grabbed up the phone. He could still see Hawk through the window.

It wasn’t Val.

         ”Derek?  It’s Jeff. Bronson just called, they don’t like the graphics anymore.  Some CEO didn’t get laid this morning. 

         ”Shit.  Okay, hang on a sec.”

         Derek went to the window and looked out.  He could see Hawk’s little head, the shiny black hair poking out around the corner of the garage.  He lifted the window and called, I see you!  Gotta hide better than that.  [Of all the things he could have said, why in God’s name had he said that?]

         Hawk took off running and Derek went back to the phone.

         ”What don’t they like?”

         ”I donno, that’s your department.  Probably everything.”

The honchos at Kilroy and Fitch were all anal retentive assholesand  control freaks, who made trouble just for the hell of it.  Derek dropped into his chair, picked up a pen and a notepad, and made some quick notes. 

         He was still on his laptop trying to convert the notes into art when Val came sneaking in with a package wrapped in brown paper.  She immediately saw that Derek was alone.

         ”Where’s Hawk?” she whispered.  ”I gotta hide this.”

         Derek held up a ‘just a second’ finger and continued tapping on keys. Val looked around.

         ”Derek?”

         ‘Yeah, okay honey, just asec … sorry, I’m really preoccupied right now.”

         ”I see that, ya.  Derek … where’s Hawk?”

         ”Just a second, honey … ”

         Again with thefinger.  Val sucked air in through herteeth. It was a sound he knew only too well. He saved his file and swung his head around to face her, then noticed the look on her face.

         ”What, honey!”

         ”Where’s Hawk?!”

         Derek froze.  “Oh shit!  Jesus fuck!”

He got to his feet instantly, purposefully displaying a casualness hedidn’t feel, intent of easing her anxiety and demonstrating his unwavering patience in the face of her hair-trigger panic. She stared at him in alarm.

         ”Derek?!  What the hell are you––oh Christ, you left himout there by himself?!” 

         Derek didn’t reply or pause.  Val dropped her package and followedhim outside.  He was now striding around the yard calling Hawk’s name.  Val stared at him in horrified disbelief.

         ”Are you kidding me,Derek?!  Are you fucking kidding me?!”  Derek, wheeled on her, teeth bared.

         ”Don’t follow me around like an idiot!  Help me find him.  ”

They checked the clump of trees that bordered their property on the oneside, then went into the garage.  Val was still dogging him.

         ”Jesus Christ, Derek,what were you thinking?!”

         ”I was thinking about how this Tron-K dealmight be going down the toilet, and us along with it!  Interrogate me later, all right?!  Let’s just find him, okay?!”

         ”Did you check out on the road?!”

         ”For God’s sake, Val, you’ve been on my ass the whole time! Did you see me check the road?!  YOU check the fucking road!”

         Val growled something unintelligible and dashed down the drive toward the road.  It was a fairly quiet subdivision, but this stretch of road was straight and the cars [and trucks] tended to pick up a bitof speed.  They’d meant to harass the council to put in speed bumps, but so far no one had taken the initiative.  Now Val hated them all.

         She looked back over her shoulder, and saw that Derek was still in the garage.  Hawkwas obviously not in the garage, how long would it take to establish that?!  She started checking the road inboth directions, calling Hawk’s name almost hysterically.  Andy was still—improbably—out raking leaves.  He looked over.

         ”What’s up, Val?  Something wrong?”

         ”It’s Hawk!  He’s gone! We can’t find him!”

         ”Gone?!”  Andy dropped his rake and strode across the two lawns toward her.  Already his face was red from the exertion. ”How long ago?”        

         ”I don’t know!  I just got home!  Derek was supposed to be watching him.”  Andy noticed but did not comment on the snarlin her voice.

         ”Okay, well, what would you like me to do, get the car and go around the neighbourhood?”

         ”Would you?  That would be great, Andy!”

         ”No problem.  We’ll find him, he just got bored and went exploring.”

         He sprinted back acrossthe lawn to his own driveway.  Val spunback to her search, suddenly noticing the freezer.  With its ‘dandy’ new latch.  Val was halfway across the lawn already, running, her mind racing.  He couldn’thave gotten in there!  The latch!  Derek had come around the far corner of the garage and was behind her, not running, because he ‘knew’ Hawk wasn’t in the freezer.  He couldn’t be.  It was latched from the outside.  Locked! Even as he suddenly remembered taking the padlock off because he needed it for something else, Val’s voice screeched liker a train braking.

         ”THERE’S NO PADLOCK ON THAT FUCKING FREEZER!”

         She got there before he did, flipped up the hasp and then the lid … and howled.

_____

They fought over him, Val unable to get a proper grip, Derek

trying to elbow her out of the way, both of them speaking in tongues, aparoxysm of horror, anger and grief.  It was clear he was dead, but still, somehow, time was of the essence.  Derek finally managed to pull him out, then sank to the ground, cradling him and sobbing.

Val dropped to her knees, trying to grab Hawk away from Derek.

         ”Give him to me!!  Oh my God … oh my fucking God!  HAWK!  HAAWWWK!”

         She managed to yank him free of Derek’s grip, and shook him, calling his name.  Derek sat still and watched her, finally put out his hand and touched her arm.  She sprang back, a wild look on her face, teeth bared, eyes fierce.

         ”DON’T TOUCH ME!  Jesus Christ, Derek … WHAT DID YOU DO?!”

         ”Nothing, he … we were playing hide and seek, and … the phone rang …”

         ”Hide and seek?!  You left him out here by himself to answer the Goddamn phone??!!”  Suddenly Derek is floundering in confusion and a new fear of his wife, a raging virago.

         ”I could see him… here was right over there!!  I didn’t … Itold him and told him … don’t ever get in that freezer!

         “You told him?!”  A five-year-old?!

         “It was locked!  I swear to God!”

         ”Then why in God’s name did you have to tell him not to get in?!  WHY DID YOU TAKE THE LOCK OFF?!”

         She clutched Hawk to her chest and stared at Derek with a look he’d never seen on her or anybody else.  Ever.  A look he would never, ever forget.  [He would remember that look for the rest of his life.]  When she spoke, she hissed through a clenched jaw, so quietly he could hardly understand her.

         ”You never loved him!  You blamed me for my cancer!  Then you blamed me for wanting him instead of a white kid!”  

         ”Val!  Jesus! I never blamed you!  ”How could I?”

         ”It’s true and you know it.  You left him out here by himself because you didn’t care enough!”

         Derek stared at her, white-facedand stunned.  She was clearly out of her mind with grief and shock, but still, she’d said it.

         ”That is a vicious lie!  I loved him as much as you did!  He’s my son!”

         ”Bullshit!  YOU COULDN’T HAVE A SON!!  OR A DAUGHTER!!  NEVER! Not with me, anyway!  You should have just left me!  Why didn’t you leave me?!  WHY DID YOU TAKE THE FUCKING PADLOCK OFF, YOU SONUVABITCH?!”

Somehow she got to her feet, still holding Hawk, and started for the house, half stumbling, half running. Derek, stunned, started to rise, but she wheeled on him in fury.

         ”Don’t you DARE come into this house!  DON’T YOU FUCKING DARE!” 

         She got to the back steps, staggered to the door and disappeared into the house.  A moment later he heard a growl and a shriek.  The door slammed.  She had kicked it shut.   Derek staggered to his feet, staring at the door in desperation, then suddenly attacked the freezer, punching and kicking and screaming every obscenity he knew. Finally, spent, he sank to the ground, clutching his head and silently rocking.

_____

The police came and went.  An ambulance took Hawk away.  Val had sneered at the paramedics for bringing an ambulance for a dead kid.  One of the cops put his hand gently on her arm, but she shook it off.

         ”They have to take him in.  It’s what we have to do.”

         ”In where?!  The ICU?! He’s dead, goddammit!”

         The cop made a face, looked at the ground, then right into her eyes.

         ”We have to take him to the morgue, ma’am.  It’s the law.”

         ”Will we have to identify him?”  The cop looked like he’d just stepped in something nasty.  Derek moved in quickly.

         ”Jesus, Val—!”

         But she was already running toward the house, her hands over her face.  The cop looked at Derek, exuding more emotion than he’d ever seen in a cop’s face.

         ”You folks don’t have to come in today.  Tomorrow morning’ll befine.”

__________

And it came to pass that Val fell into a deep depression.  There had been no funeral, and no argument about that decision.

The police had warned them that there might be an inquiry.  [In the end, it was decided that the death was accidental, child services demanded that they both attend child safety classes.]  Derek had moved out almost immediately, and was living in and working out of his sister’s basement, sleeping on a foam slab on the floor.  Val stopped going outside, stopped answering the door or the phone.  She eventually ran out of food, surviving for a few weeks on preserves. 

         One morning there came some ferocious knocking at the front door, then door burst open, hitting the wall with a loud bang.  Val hardly looked over as her father came in and stood with his hands on his hips, looking at her and breathing heavily.  She knew what he was going to say before he spoke.

         ”Okay, enough is enough.  I’m taking you up to the hospital, baby.  Okay?  Pack a few things, I’ll come back and pick up the rest later.  They’re waiting.  [Later, she would say that she had felt nothing since kicking Derek out.  Now suddenly she felt relief.  Something was going to change.] 

         The next day, Derek moved back home.

He had just finished putting his stuff away and was standing in the middle of their bedroom feeling like an intruder in his own house, when a knock came at the kitchen door.  This was a rarity.  A knock at the front door would mean something to do with ‘the incident’, something official.  Nobody ever knocked at the kitchen door.  As he stood there indecisively, he heard the door open a crack, followed by  Andy’s voice.

         ‘Hello?  Derek? You home?’  A pause, then:  ‘I have beer.’

They sat at the kitchen table for a while in silence, until Andy finally broke it.

         ‘I wasn’t sure if I should do this, but after a while I couldn’t stand the indecision so I figured what they hell, I’m gonna bargain in good faith with the universe for once.’  He glanced up at Derek to see how he was responding.  Somehow Derek already knewwhat this was all about, and more or less what he was going to say. But he understood that this was as much about Andy as it was about him.  No platitudes would be forthcoming, no expressions of sympathy, no unintelligible murmurs of support or commiseration.  Andy took a deep breath and started speaking.

         ‘A few years ago, Jess and I were going through a bad time.  We fought, I drank, she cried, slammed doors, went shopping when we had no money …the typical scenario.  We’d just had Julie a couple years before the trouble started, and she’d been colicky, and nobody got much sleep for a helluva long time. Business was sketchy, we were broke, nerves were frayed … it was pretty bad.

         “One Saturday afternoon I was sitting in the living room watching football and drinking beer.  Jess had gone out to Food Basics to pick upsome groceries, and she’s been gone a long time.  Julie was in her crib, and had been quiet for a while, so I was feeling sorta relaxed, you know?”

         Derek suddenly wanted Andy to shut up.  He felt he couldn’t bear what he was about to hear, but this wasn’t about him.  He sat looking down at the table top, slowly rotating his beer bottle while Andy continued.

         ‘So Jess comes home finally, and made a snarky comment, like ‘Who’s winning?’ and I told her I didn’t know.  And I didn’t.  She snorted and went to put her bags down on the kitchen table.

         She says, ‘Julie in her room?’

         I say, ‘Sleeping.’

         She says, ‘At this time of day?  Great.  Now she’ll up all night!’

         I say, ‘What else is new.’  That kind of stuff, right?  So she drops the bags on the table and bangs down the hall, and then I don’t hear anything. I’m so smashed I hardly even remember that she was here.  Then suddenly there’s this howl.’

         ‘I know the kind you mean.’

         ‘Yeah, I guess you do.  So I don’t to tell you what ensued.  She attacked me physically!  It was a fucking nightmare.  Worse. Long story short, I moved out, we tried counselling … didn’t work.  I was a wreck, wallowing in guilt and poverty.  I knew she was never going to forgive me.  As though it was something I did to her!’

         ‘Um … so … sorry, but …what happened, exactly?’

         ‘You mean to …’

         ‘Yeah, I mean how did she… you know …’

         ‘Die?’  He let the word hang in the air for what seemed a long time to Derek, but really wasn’t.

         ‘It’s okay, I mean, you don’t have to …’

         ‘No. no, it’s only fair, I mean …’

         ‘Right.’

         ‘I guess she woke uptangled in her blanket, and she … Jesus Christ! I’m sitting in there pissed, yelling at my stupid goddamn team, calling them idiots, and Mankowski ‘butter fingers’ …’

         ‘I know … I was on the phone … talk about a cliché …’

And that was it.  Neither of them spoke, until Andy got slowly and shakily to his feet and said, ‘Well.’  As he turned to the door, Derek said, ‘Hey, take your beer.’  But Andy just waved his hand and went out.  And they never really talked again.  

__________

The next day, Arthur called.  They spoke very few words:  a time and a place.  When Derek entered the restaurant, he spotted Arnold right away. Val’s father was a big man, rangy like a football player, with iron grey hair that he brushed straight back.  His face was craggy, handsome, weathered like a mountain climber; an ex-navy gunner, with steely grey eyes that bored into you through a fine web of tiny blood vessels, the result of some serious drinking.  He rose as Derek approached, but didn’t offer his hand.  He indicated the chair across the table, and sat back down.

         ”Thanks for coming, Derek.  Something to drink?”

         ”Thank you, no.” 

         ”Suit yourself.  I’m going to have another beer.”

         Arnold signalled the waitress, then placed his elbows on the table and clasped his hands together.

         ”I thought it was about time we had a chat.  Have you been in to see her yet?”

         Derek expelled a breath, pushing out his cheeks, shook his head. 

         ”Do you think she’d see me?”

         ”That’s not really the point.  Look, I know she was pretty rough on you, but I’m sure you’re man enough to understand that and not let it be the thing that rules your life.  You two had a pretty good life together, and even though the death of a child usually results in divorce, I don’t think that’s necessarily necessary.”

         Arnold almost smiled at his unintentional blooper.

         ”She thinks I let it happen because he was Vietnamese.  Or because she couldn’t get pregnant after the cancer.” 

         ”Are you sure?”

         ”It’s what she said …screamed at me, rather.”

         ”Yeah, but does she really think that?” 

         ”I don’t know.  It’s a position she’s taken.  She’s mad with grief, and I’m not sure she’ll be able to accept that I’m not.  I grieved, I mourned his loss, but I didn’t go to pieces.  I think she holds that against me.”  Arnold sucked on his cheeks and teeth.

         ”She has to hold something against you.  She needs someone to blame, and you had the misfortune to do a stupid thing that came back to bite you in the ass, and I don’t imagine you’ll ever forgive yourself for that.  But she might.  In time.”

         Derek realised suddenly that Arnold needed a reason to hope his daughter would recover.  That’s what he was asking for, Derek’s co-operation in trying to make that happen. Derek was still bitter about being blamed, and on top of the grief he felt, it seemed like too much to accept. But somewhere deep down he believed [or decided] that he was free to transcend whatever circumstances he found himself inhabiting.  His own father had been a man of principle, and never lost an opportunity to mock what he called ‘learned helplessness’.  He had often snarled at Derek that ‘can’t was a choice, but not an option, and although Derek rebelled against his father like any healthy teenager, the principle had taken hold.

         He returned Arnold’s steady gaze.  The challenge was daunting, and nobody would blame him for failing to achieve the miraculous.  In a pinch, he could hide behind that.

         ”I guess this is what you might call an existential crisis.”

         ”Call it what you want Derek, I think we need to do something, or we’re going to lose her.”

        At that moment, the waitress brought Arnold his beer.  He flashed her a quick, thin smile, and she left them alone. Arnold regarded Derek with something like expectancy, then played his ace.

         ”When I was in the navy, whenever we wandered into action, our commander would call us together and explain the situation.  Then, just before he dismissed us he’d say, ‘Okay you fuckers, don’t miss your chance to be heroes.’ ”

_________

The walk from the lobby of the hospital to the psych ward and on to Val’s room seemed to take no time at all, even though it was a long hallway.  He was deeply immersed in morbid fantasies of what he would find, and then suddenly—too soon—he was at her door.  Fortunately, Arnold had arranged a private room.  Her doctor had informed her that he was coming, to which she’d replied nothing at all. 

         When Derek came in, she looked at him, expressionless, then looked away.  He knew then that he had made a mistake—it was too soon.  He left without speaking, but at least she’d known he’d been there.

It took three months, but eventually Val was considered adequately in control of her emotions to leave the hospital, and she was discharged.  On the way home in the car, neither of them spoke until Val told him she was going to move back with her parents for awhile.

         ”For how long?”

         ”A while.  I don’t know.”

         ”I think we need to talk.”

         ”Not now.  Later.”

         ”Maybe we should speak to a counsellor.”

         ”What?”

         ”A grief counsellor. A marriage counsellor.  Somebody.”  She laughed harshly, and turned to look outher window.  Minutes passed before she whipped her head around to face him.

         ”I don’t need a fucking counsellor!  I need time.  Away from you!  Away from everything!”

         ”Val––”

         ”I can’t go back to that house right now!  Maybe not ever.”

         ”They said … they told me you were better.”

         ”Better’ is a relative term.  Besides, they needed the room.”

Derek offered to move back into his sister’s basement, but she told him not to bother, it was her turn to ‘find a squat’.  He didn’t argue, suddenly feeling it was time to stop coddling her before it became the motiffor the rest of their lives, whether or not their marriage survived.  They didn’t discuss that possibility.

         For the next few days, he didn’t see Val at all.  He went to work, came home, made himself a desultory supper, thought about how he would present his case to the inquiry.  His case—Christ!  Like he was some kind of criminal!  Negligence … of course he’d been negligent, but was that a crime?  A mistake, maybe  A lapse of attention, of memory.  Would she bring up the issue of Hawk not being his real son?  Not being white?  Would she actually go that far? 

One morning, he went out to where the freezer was still standing against the side of the garage.  He stared at it,wondering why he hadn’t gotten rid of it. Was it some kind of perverse memorial, like a gravestone?  Had he in fact come unhinged?  Suddenly he went into the garage, grabbed a hammer from his toolbox, and carried it outside.  Christ! He hadn’t even removed the latch! Earlier, when the police had suggested he do that, he’d snapped back that there was no point, the damage had been done.  Before the officer could reply, Val had spoken in a voice that was dead, empty of any emotion. 

         ”There are other children in the neighbourhood.”  [Later he would remember wanting to hit her.  Herself-righteousness, her smugness.  Now all he could do was stand and stare at the empty freezer, and bawl like a baby.]  

         After a minute or two, spent, he put the hammer back in the toolbox, went back into the house and called Earnie Higgs to come and take it away.

Derek offered to pick Val up the day of the inquiry, but she refused, saying she would take a taxi.  The inquiry, brief and not at all aggressive, took place in the judge’s chambers, with no lawyers present.  The judge had come easily to the conclusion that this was an isolated incident and not part of a larger pattern.  Val made no mention of her imagined suspicions about Derek’s possible subconscious motives.  Before they adjourned, the judge had gently admonished them to try their best not to let this tragedy ruin their lives.  He didn’t say ‘your marriage’ but they both suspected that was what he meant. Hope springs eternal, Josh thought as they left the courthouse.

Derek began taking late morning walks through the neighbourhood, when he knew most of the kids would be at school.  Sometimes he’d spot a young mother pushing a stroller, and he’d force himself to glance in at the baby as she passed, and smile appreciatively.  [Later he would lie awake for hours wondering why:  had the woman even recognized him?  Did she know what had happened?  Who was he trying to impress, himself?]

One morning when he got up, there was already a message from their doctor, with the name of a counsellor he knew who would be willing to see them. It would be a referral, no charge. Derek made the call, but went alone. The counsellor’s name was Eugene Gottlieb.

         ”Your wife wasn’t willing to come?”

         ”She’s too angry to be in the same room with me.”

         ”She blames you for the accident?”

         ”She refuses to accept that it was an accident.  After a brief, tense silence, he added:  Hawk was adopted.  A Vietnamese orphan.  She thinks—she says she thinks—that I didn’t love him.  That I resented the fact that she couldn’t conceive after the cancer.”

         ”Did you?”

         For the first time since ‘the incident’ Derek gave this question serious thought.  If there was any resentment, it was buried pretty goddamn deep, and if anything he was even more appalled by what happened than Val was:  she had the luxury of having someone to blame.  And that’s what he told Gottlieb. 

         Gottlieb leaned back inhis chair, regarded Derek with a new alertness, but before he could ask the obvious question, Derek told him her theory about his subconscious rejection of Hawk.  Gottlieb surprised him by asking what he thought of the theory.

         I think it’s insane!  She’s angry, of course, and blames me, of course, but can’t get over the idea that somehow I was also trying to punish her for robbing me of the chance to have a ‘real’ son.  I wasn’t. I never resented her, or him.  I knew she was devastated.

They talked a few minutes longer, and before leaving, Derek assured him that he would bring Val for a session as soon as possible.

         That never happened.

A couple weeks later, Val suddenly walked into the house just as he was cleaning up after supper.  She stood in the doorway to the kitchen, looking exhausted and empty.  She looked at the floor, not at him.

         ”I can’t go on hating you, Derek.  It’s going to make me sick.”

         Before she could say the word ‘divorce’, he said:

         ”I can’t go on hating you either, Val.”

         ”Me?” 

         There was genuine bewilderment in her voice.  He had no idea how he was going to say what he needed to say, but as he began to speak, the words just came.

         ”I don’t pretend to understand how you feel, but neither can you understand how I feel.  I hated you briefly, after you first accused me of not loving Hawk enough to keep him safe, but then I realised you were out of your mind with grief and anger, and you needed a reason to hate me.”

         ”Derek––”

         ”Let me finish!  Please.”

         ”Yes.  I’m sorry.”

         ”I kept wondering how you must be able to think that of me, given that he––that Hawk wasn’t really your son either.  Seeing the two of you together, it never once crossed my mind that you might be feeling anything other than love for him.  How could you imagine that I didn’t feel as you did?  But then I realized that you had  to hate … someone or something.  I’ve been hating myself relentlessly since this happened, not because I didn’t love him, but because I did!  I do!  What I hate is myself … for being careless, stupid … imperfect!  I refuse to call it an accident.  I caused it to happen!  But Jesus, Val, not on purpose!” 

         She couldn’t look up, but bit her lower lip as though trying to bite back a response, and as he watched her he felt he could detect [very slight] softening of her posture.  He knew she was listening.

         ”I understand that you may never be able to look at me without feeling not only the grief, but the anger.  Yes, I’m to blame.  I failed as a father and as a man.  I failed both of you.  And I’m never going to forgive myself for that.  But I need to be able to forgive you for questioning my love for him.  If I can’t do that, then our life together will be unbearable.”

Her stillness was unreadable.  He knew she had to be breathing, but could detect no sign of it.  It was like waiting for a bomb to go off, and Derek could feel himself beginning to tremble, to heat up, to sweat with sheer anxiety.  Just as he was feeling he couldn’t stand it another second, she looked up, her face expressionless, but streaked with tears.

         ”I’m sorry, Derek.” 

         Derek felt his own tears, not knowing what they meant.  What she meant.  An eternity passed before she said:

         ”I know you loved him.  I know you did.”

As she came slowly toward him, he reached out his arms to her, weeping openly, because at last he felt there might be hope.

Categories: Uncategorized

MoBock

Retired professional actor and playwright, now turning to writing short stories.

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