Series I: Stand Off, Chapter 15 – Where the Road Bends

Kristen’s parent’s house was small and it rested on a 45-degree angle along the road that fed into the downtown district of Cold Spring. An old facility was behind the house that stored privately owned boats during the winter. It was right on the cusp of the Hudson River and beyond that was the great landscape of upper state New York; flush and beautiful with mountainous greenery as far as the eye could see. When Thomas and Kristen arrived, her father was outside waiting to greet them and to speak with the tow-truck driver.

“There’s my daddy!” Kristen said. She saw that the driveway was empty and after seeing her father direct the driver to park in the driveway next to the house, Kristen turned to Dave. “You can park in the driveway,” she said while pointing at it. Her hand crossed Thomas’s line of view. He moved away from it slightly while digging into his pocket. Dave just nodded as Kristen brought her hand down.

After Dave parked the tow-truck, Kristen leaned into the passenger door and opened it. “Come on Thomas,” she said tugging at his coat sleeve.

“Ok, hold on,” Thomas turned toward Dave, but he was already out of the truck’s cab walking toward Kristen’s father.

“What are you waiting for,” Kristen said. Thomas just shook his head and followed her out of the cab.

“Hey Kristen, are you ok? You know, you have to make sure that everything is ok with the car before you take it for an extensive drive.” Her father looked at Thomas, “You brought her back in one piece though Thomas,” he said and smiled.

“Hey Mark,” Thomas smiled back.

Dave was walking back to the truck and waved to Thomas and Kristen. “Have a Merry Christmas,” he said.

“Hey Dave, wait,” Thomas jumped into a jog and started to dig into his pocket again. “Merry Christmas,” Thomas handed Dave a fifty dollar bill that landed right into his palm.

“Hey, thanks man,” he said and shook his hand. Thomas nodded and then turned back to Mark and Kristen. He saw the two at the end of a hug.

“How about you two get inside while Dave takes care of the car,” Mark said, “and go say hi to mommy Kristen; she’s been worried.”

“Ok, thanks daddy,” Kristen pecked him on the cheek and motioned Thomas to follow her. Thomas paused, then nodded.

“Ok,” he said, “Thanks Mark.”

Mark smiled and walked toward Dave while Thomas and Kristen walked up the driveway toward the back of the house.

 

The backyard faced the Hudson and it would have been a nice view if it wasn’t for the boat storage facility, yet the scenery overcame the eyesore and it was equally significant. Thomas followed Kristen up the back porch steps that led to a patio which extended along the backside of the house. He saw the white wooden rocking chairs mesh with the mint candy green color of the house’s siding. Small tables were between each and there were three of them. He reached the top of the stairs where he saw at the end of the porch the grill fired up, smoking from its tiny stack. The smoke flowed with a dance that crept through the air into the scenery that laid before him. He turned with the smoke and took a deep breath.

“Hey Mommy!” Kristen said as he heard her enter the house.

The door’s spring stretched, which snapped the screen door shut. The slam startled Thomas followed by Kristen’s mother’s voice.

“You finally made it, is everything ok?” Thomas heard her say. The smoke continued to lift into the air and the rays from the sun faded through them. Thomas turned away from the fading smoke and sun to enter the kitchen from the back porch.

“Thomas, what happened?” Kristen’s mother said as he guided the screen door closed.

“Hey Jan,” Thomas saw that she was cutting avocados on a cutting board.

“Come in here and help me with this guacamole Thomas and tell me what happened,” She didn’t take her eyes off of the cutting board with the avocados almost entirely sliced.

Thomas passed Kristen as she was on her toes reaching for a glass that was in one of the cabinets. As he passed her to squeeze by the tight space of the narrow kitchen, he caressed her waist and nearly touched the sink’s counter with his thigh on the other side.

“Hey bae,” she said and smiled.

“Bae?” Jan’s voice didn’t elevate in tone but sustained the inquisitive pitch that she conveyed with her first question.

“Short for babe mommy,” Kristen said as she brought down a glass and placed it on the counter. Jan paused cutting the avocados and looked at Thomas as he cleared away from Kristen.

“Is that what you call her during sex Thomas?” She asked him. Her eyes peered over the spider trim of her glasses and she didn’t smile; however, Thomas did to relief the awkward tension brewing inside of him.

“Oh mommy, stop it,” Kristen shuffled to the fridge and placed the glass under the water dispenser. Thomas heard the cup fill as Jan handed the knife to him.

“Finish cutting these and tell me about the car,” she moved to where Kristen was when she was grabbing the cup out of the cabinet and leaned against the counter facing Thomas.

“Well,” Thomas cleared his throat, “it was the engine coolant. I saw that the valve was spliced at the tip and . . .”

Jan started to chuckle, “Spliced at the tip aye,” she said playfully slapping Thomas as he cut the avocado. Thomas couldn’t help but blush and nodded.

“hahaha, stop mommy, you’re embarrassing him,” Kristen took a sip from her cup and stepped over to Thomas as he cut. She grabbed his cheek and giggled.

“Yeah, we had to pull over to figure that out and that was after the engine was smoking,” he said, then looked up at Kristen and winked.

“Well, that’s good you two lovebirds made it back. Thomas could you finish the guacamole, Mark can help you . . . I’ll be in the other room,” Jan said as she started to exit the kitchen while continuing to talk, “I want to finish this piece that I am learning on the piano,” her voice faded as she walked down the hallway and into that other room. It wasn’t long until Thomas heard it playing a tune.

The screen door opened and Thomas looked up.

“Ah she’s got you working in the kitchen I see,” Mark said. Thomas cracked a smile as he watched him approach over Kristen’s shoulder. Kristen turned to her father while sipping on her glass of water.

“Mommy said to help him,” she said over the glass’s lip.

“Mark,” the piano in the other room stopped playing, “help Thomas, would you,” Jan’s voice bounced off the hallway’s walls before ricocheting into the condensed kitchen.

“Yes-yes-yes,” Mark said as he half turned his head toward the hallway. He passed Kristen walking over to Thomas. “Don’t worry about this Thomas, you two should bring your stuff upstairs and get ready to leave,” he said. Kristen looked at her watch.

“Yeah, we really should,” she said.

They exited the kitchen, passing the living room that opened toward the staircase. The piano stopped playing.

“That was fast,” Thomas heard Jan say. Thomas leaned into the living room while Kristen walked up the stairs.

“Mark said he would finish it, we actually have to get ready,” Thomas said. Jan didn’t take her eyes off the sheet music displayed in front of her.

“What time is it?” she said.

“Close to six,” Mark said from the kitchen. Thomas turned his head down the hallway, then back at Jan.

“Oh dear,” Jan said. She bolted up from the piano, closing the sheet music and walked toward Thomas. She patted him on the shoulder. “Get upstairs and help Kristen, We’ll pack the food – Mark, get the tinfoil out!”

Series I: Chapter 14 – Car Trouble

The car broke down just outside of White Plains, New York. There was something wrong with the radiator valve because smoke started to steam up from underneath the hood. Thomas had to pull over into a mall parking lot before the smoke could proliferate and obstruct his view. Kristen was asleep until he had stopped. After he reached under the wheel to unlock the hood he opened the car door and Kristen woke up.

“What the hell is going on?” She yelled. Thomas heard her voice cut off when the door met the door-jam as he closed it. He looked at her through the windshield while pointing to the smoke.

“It just started smoking out of nowhere . . .” he waved the smoke away from his face. Kristen exited the car, swinging her jacket across her back and jutting her arms through the sleeves.

“I fall asleep for,” she glanced at her watch, “almost thirty minutes . . . we are going to miss the lunch.” She threw her head back and gasped from a surge of stress. Thomas felt the stress too.

“Relax,” he said. “There is still the dinner.” He lifted the hood above his head and swung the spoke in place to hold it there. The engine was exposed after a large gust of smoke exhumed from the radiator.

“Ugh,” Kristen stepped back coughing, “what do you think it is?”

“I think it’s the radiator coolant valve because I don’t hear the engine giving out.” Thomas leaned around the smoke and peaked at the radiator, “yes, it’s the valve,” he said. It’s not connected to the system.”

Thomas saw the tiny tube hanging off the cooling system. He reached in to inspect the end of the tube.

“The end is split,” he said and lightly tossed the tube back into the front internals of the car. Thomas looked at the parking lot’s asphalt and bit his lip, thinking. He turned to Kristen, “You know I can call my buddy Rich, he’s a mechanic . . . uh, I’m sure . . .”

“I’ll call my dad,” Kristen interjected. She brought her phone out and up against her ear. Thomas’s words drew to a closed silence. He just watched the smoke continuing up into the atmosphere as Kristen looked around the parking lot.

“Wow, there’s no one here,” she said.

“It’s Christmas,” Thomas replied, but Kristen didn’t acknowledge him.

“Daddy!” She practically screamed into the phone.

Thomas winced a bit from her abrupt change in attitude. It seemed superficial to him. He ignored the subtlety and leaned into the radiator again, fanning what was left of the smoke coming out from it.

“We have triple A,” Kristen’s voice was confirming, “Ok . . . Ok, love you too.”

Kristen hung up the phone, placing it in the pocket of her jacket as she turned to Thomas.

“My daddy called triple A – he’s going to take care of it,” she said. Thomas met her glance after he surveyed the parking lot again, biting his lower lip while nodding. His eyes fell off from hers and back towards the asphalt.

“Ok,” he said.

“Let’s wait in the car – it’s cold out here,” Kristen wrapped her arms around herself and pranced to the car’s passenger side. She opened the door and slid right into the seat where she made herself comfortable. Thomas shuffled his feet to the driver’s door and got in. The door clanked against the metal of the rest of the car like a chain hitting cement, falling from a lofty height. He sighed.

“I’m sorry Kristen,” Thomas said.

“Why, this is not your fault,” she turned toward him. The fur lining her hood covered a portion of her face, but both her eyes were visible. “It’s my mother’s if you really think about it,” she smiled, “I told her and my dad not to buy this car for me; it’s a clunker – cheap yes – but it’s gonna have some problems.”

Thomas subtly shook his head and shared in her smile by smiling himself. “Well, yes I know this is not directly my fault, but I am just saying that I am sorry that you missed your Christmas lunch with your family.” He said.

“Eh, my dad will get over it, he’s practical like that and my mom really doesn’t care; it’s more of a thing for my dad.” Kristen moved the coat away from her face a bit and Thomas saw her lips. She moved the hair away from her eyes and Thomas saw them too, more clearly.

“Plus,” she continued, “my dad didn’t seem upset at all over the phone; he was just glad that I was safe.”

“Thomas nodded and smiled.

“Yeah,” he said and looked out into the empty parking lot, “I haven’t even called my parents to wish them a Merry Christmas.”

“Why don’t you just call them?” Kristen said.

“Meh, I don’t know,” Thomas shook his head, dismissing the suggestion.

“Well, I think you should, but that’s your choice,” Kristen shifted around in her seat and leaned it back, then took a deep breath. Thomas followed the air exiting her mouth. It started to get colder in the car.

“When is this tow-truck coming?” Kristen said. Thomas just shook his head. He pulled out his phone and it read 1:45pm.

“What’s for dinner anyway?” he asked.

Kristen kept her eyes on the ceiling of the car. Her eyes glittered in the sunlight that streamed through the windshield as she spoke. “It’s going to be a lot of stuff; mashed potatoes, stuffed shells, chicken and steak. My aunt does this thing with the chicken where she marinates it in this special sauce that’s sweet.”

“Which aunt?” Thomas said. Kristen moved her eyes toward him and the glittering reflection stopped, but he still watched the color of her eyes absorb the sun.

“Well, she’s not really my aunt, but has known my mom for years. They taught at the same school together before my mom went to get her masters.” Kristen turned again toward the ceiling.

“Oh,” Thomas moved away from leaning toward her and rested his back against the driver’s chair.

“You’ll love her; she’s really into that whole oneness thing and holistic medicines.” She smiled and turned back to Thomas. “Like those self-help video’s you listen to,” she laughed.

“Right, hahaha; hey, don’t knock that stuff. It helps when I can’t find anything else to help me relax,” he said.

“Hey, you got me to relax,” she said with a wink.

“Ha, well how about right now aye?” Thomas joked.

A horn rung as loud as a gong behind them just before Kristen could say anything. It was the tow-truck. It rolled up in front of them and stopped with its red lights illuminating the inside of Kristen’s car. The driver stepped out as soon as those red lights flashed to a dull vibrancy. Kristen and Thomas watched the driver walk up to the car.

“Let’s go meet him,” Thomas said. They both exited the car and Thomas, with his hand extended, greeted the driver.

“Hey, I’m Dave. I’m sorry for taking the time that it did to get here,” he said, shaking Thomas’s hand.

“No, please we are thankful you came out on Christmas,” Thomas said, “This is Kristen.”

“How do you do,” Dave said and shook her hand.

“You spoke with my father ,” Kristen said.

“Well, no I got a call from up top,” he pointed his finger up, “and I took it hoping that it’s going to be the last one for the day.” He exchanged glances with Thomas and then back to Kristen. “Let’s get in the cab, it’s warmer in there.”

Dave led the way to the passenger side of the rig and opened the door. Thomas looked at Kristen briefly, then hopped in first. It was a single bench in the cabin and Thomas received the hint to take the middle. After Kristen hopped in, Dave shut the door and walked around to enter the cabin from the driver’s side.

“So, where y’all headed,” he said as he shut the door and turned the heat setting to high.

“Cold Spring, New York; just outside of Poughkeepsie,” Kristen was leaning out in front of Thomas. Thomas just nodded while staring out of the grand windshield.

“Oh my, well ok,” Dave said, leaning into the wheel and turning his head from Kristen to the open parking lot. “Buckle up; we’ll be there soon enough.” Dave exited the cab and began hitching the car to the tow-truck.

Series I: Chapter 13 – Collapsed Accordion

Thomas walked down the Victorian steps with his chin into his chest and his hands deep into his pockets. He had put his jacket on right before taking that first step down the stoop. When his feet met the sidewalk, the brisk air met his face and he shuttered from its abrupt kiss. It made his skin shiver with goose bumps and they traveled all the way to the tail end of his spine. They went away as soon as he reached the corner of the block.

He stared at the curb and slid his hand across from his front pocket to his back one, reaching for his wallet and drawing it out. He cracked the leather lips open just enough to see that he had no money and realized that he had spent the last of it on the cigarettes the night before. He soon regretted throwing the rest out, but he did not need that habit of smoking to reemerge into his life. He shook the thought off and headed in the direction of the bus station.

All that was on his mind were the previous events that were discussed last night during dinner and how each topic drained him to the point of requesting the guest room. That wasn’t the first time he had done that.

“We’re going to be late Thomas,” Kristen said. She was by the door yelling up the stairs. She could hear Thomas in the bathroom and without warning, its door slammed open.

“I know, I just need to get changed,” he yelled from the upstairs hallway. Kristen was looking up the stairs and saw the steam pluming from the bathroom and creeping over the banister. They disappeared before coiling over to the railing of the stairs.

“How many times have I told you; you need to time yourself in the shower!”Thomas heard that her voice was more instructive than irritated, and he knew that it wouldn’t be that way for very long.

“I know, I know – 5 minutes,” he said walking through the steam and into the bedroom at the top of the stairs. He didn’t look down the stairs where Kristen was waiting, but he felt her angry stare seeping into his back.

“I told my parents we will be there by 11 – you know that it won’t take an hour to get there because of traffic!” Kristen said. Thomas just shut the bedroom door behind him and started to get changed. “I’ll be in the car,” he heard her say through the door.

“Alright,” he said and his voice carried through the door as he searched in the closet for a suit to wear. His hand landed on a grey satin blazer with the pants folded and hung inside of it from the hanger. He threw it on and ran down the stairs to met Kristen in the car.

His shoes clapped down their apartment steps after he had closed and locked the front door. He arrived at the car with Kristen in the passenger seat. She looked at him through the window and motioned him to go around to the driver’s side. He wrapped around the car and opened the door, sliding into the driver’s seat with his head tucking down into the car.

“You know to take route 30 onto 295,” Kristen said as she kept her eyes forward. Thomas just nodded and went to turn the key that was in the ignition. He cranked it and the engine fluttered. “The car’s already on Tom!” She shouted.

“Well shit,” he said. Thomas sighed as he put the car into drive and then pressed on the pedal.

“I can’t believe you,” Kristen said, “It’s like you don’t even care.” Her eyes began to water and Thomas sensed her voice peak into a higher pitch with the back of her throat gripping the far back of her tongue.

“What are you talking about; I do care,” he said.

“You seem like you don’t,” Kristen said, “I woke you up this morning – what did you do – go back to sleep?!”

“I just lost track of time,” Thomas said. He was hunched at the wheel, holding it with one hand at 12 and the other at his stomach. Kristen looked down at his other hand.

“Don’t tell me you’re sick on Christmas,” she said.

“It’s just something I ate,” Thomas said and continued to hunch further into the wheel as he drove.

“What you do mean? We had chicken and rice last night; that shouldn’t have upset your stomach?” Kristen leaned her head out and faced him.

“Nah, the pain’s only minor. This happens when I am stressed,” he said.

“No, don’t do that Tom,” Thomas heard her voice slip into a mild tone of hysteria, “I am still angry at you and if we miss this dinner . . . I wasn’t with my family for Thanksgiving and I want to be with them for Christmas.”

Thomas looked over and she turned her face to the passenger window. She brought her hand up to her eyes and wiped both cheeks.

“We’ll get there,” Thomas said as he accelerated, still hunched over.

The road narrowed off from the suburban sprawl and poured onto the causeway that fed into Camden. He accelerated on this causeway.

“Don’t go too fast, you’ll miss the entrance,” Kristen peered over the dashboard, ‘it comes up sooner than you think,” she said.

“I’ve taken it many times, I know to look for the Applebee’s then it’s the second bend on the right,” Thomas said.

“Yeah well, you missed it last time,” Kristen said shooting a glare at him. Thomas only smiled. He began to breathe heavily while still hunched over.

“Do you want me to drive?” Kristen said. She seemed to become concerned.

“Nah, it will pass,” Thomas said. He kept his eyes on the road and before the pain did pass, he made the entrance without another word about it.

The pain in his gut came in waves. It struck like steam from a hot iron that was pressing up against the insides of his guts. The scenery helped keep his mind off these undulating spasms until the trees that lined the turnpike wore thin. He and Kristen had cleared the southern part of New Jersey.

“Let’s listen to a podcast,” Kristen raised her phone’s screen closer to her face, searching the app for a channel.

“Sure,” Thomas said.

“OOO,” Kristen brought her phone down into her lap as she squeezed her thighs together. “I know just the one,” she said, “I started listening to it last week; it’s called Myths and Legends.” Thomas glanced at her and took part in her excitement with just a smile.

“Myths and Legends . . . about what,” he asked.

“Well, the last one I listened to was about a doll that haunted a family for generations,” Kristen said.

“Whaaa,” Thomas’s voice sustained a monotone pitch and Kristen took him as sincere.

“Yeah, the family believed the doll to be alive and kept it on a chair up in the attic.” Kristen kept searching through her phone, “if only I can find it . . . here it is,” her eyes lit up.

“Wait, why not just destroy the doll?” Thomas said.

“What?”

“The family, why didn’t they just destroy the doll,” Thomas said.

“Because the doll possessed the family; why would the doll want to destroy itself,” Kristen had her phone in her hand as if it was part of her arm.  She raised both hands toward the windshield in a gesture that implied his response lacking in common sense.

“Sure why didn’t I think of that,” Thomas said and the pain in his gut came back.  He winced at the pain, but Kristen didn’t notice. She just played the podcast.

Series I: Chapter 12 – Behind Closed Doors

The guest room was small with only a bed and a dresser against the wall that shared the doorway. There was a mirror above this dresser that expanded the room’s dimensions a bit, but mostly just reflected the sole window that had blinds draped over it, collecting dust.  As soon as Thomas entered the room, he was steps away from the foot of the bed and with a slight glance to his left; he naturally turned toward the mirror to see his reflection. He saw that the sleepless nights were growing on him, represented by his drawn eyes and slouching posture. The couch downstairs, oddly enough, supplemented enough sleep for him to sustain standing, but that was all. He felt the sleep dawn on him like a pendulum’s last swing, right before severing the gut’s tissue and like the dark purpled blood that expels from such a cut, he saw that same color underneath his eyes.  He stared into this color as his pupils dilated and when he walked closer to the mirror, the dark purple blotched to a frozen blur. He then drew his eyes from this directly to his pupils. A reflective reflection on his life was found within those pupils; how they posed at the center of the red-veined sclera. His eyes pulsated and the back of them hurt. He rubbed them again and again and a heat wave crawled up his back and over his shoulders, so he took his shirt off and stepped backwards, crashing into the bed.

He stared at the ceiling in utter silence. It was that kind of silence he found himself comfortable in with no one wondering what was on his mind but himself; a void that he constantly strived to control, and at times he did and those were the times that he could fall asleep.

“It doesn’t take that long does it?” Thomas said watching Darren. Darren had a lighter underneath a spoon and they both were watching the heroin fused with the water, waiting for it to boil.

“Nah, a minute or two,” Darren didn’t take his eyes off the spoon and Thomas, gripping his knees toward his legs as he sat against the motel wall next to Darren, darted his eyes off the spoon and onto Darren, then back on the spoon.

“Are you sure it’s ok to take . . . I heard dealers lace it with rat poison,” Thomas said while scratching his nose against his shirt sleeve. His arms were crossed around his shins.

“Chill man, this guy’s legit,” Darren glanced at Thomas while still holding the spoon above the flame, “besides, that shit’s in cigs too . . . don’t worry about it,” he said and the lighter went out. Thomas watched him flick it again and again. It sparked on the third flick and Thomas winced at the spoon as soon as the bottom of it started to blacken from the heat.

Thomas woke up with his clothes still on and his head jammed with reflections of his dream. It blackened out when he slipped into the deeper portion of his paralysis under the vague impression that he was being watched; expected to come back down to the dinner table only minutes after he had left George and Kristen, but it was morning now and that paranoia carried over into the next day.

He turned toward the edge of the bed to position himself up and after scratching his eyes clean from sleep, he listened to the sounds of the house and nothing came from inside its walls that caused him to panic or to continue sleeping. He stood up and went downstairs.

The creaks in the wood were amplified for some reason, which caused him to carefully step down each stair with a keen alertness. The first thing Thomas noticed was that the dinner table was wiped clean, not even the white tablecloth blanketed its surface. Instead, the only change of scenery was a white post-it note on the table’s surface that immediately caught his eye as he continued down the stairs. He almost slipped down the final step that landed him to the first floor when he realized what it may read and he didn’t take his eyes off it as he walked closer to it, all the while feeling the thrill of almost falling dissipate from within his chest. When his eyes landed Kristen’s hand writing, the thrill was gone and his chest remained still. Lock the door when you leave, was all that it read.

Thomas drew his eyes off the note and onto the door, seeing that George’s jacket was gone as well as Kristen’s near its threshold, he deduced that they left for work earlier in the morning and then he naturally caught a glimpse of the clock by the window. It was 11:45.

Thomas walked toward the couch and grabbed his jacket, slung it over his shoulder and walked toward the door. He didn’t even take a gander at the place before he opened the door to leave. He shut the door only to open it again, slightly this time, and reached around for the inside knob’s lock. He felt it and twisted it and then shut the door once more.

Series I: Chapter 11 – The Sharper the Knife . . .

 

Thomas descended the steps to see that Kristen and George were sitting at the table. Kristen was at the head of the table closest to the stairs and when George spoke to Thomas, she turned around.

“The steaks shouldn’t take much longer,” George said and Thomas nodded. He didn’t smell anything cooking and made a curious face, which Kristen picked up on.

“They’re on the grill just outside,” she said and turned back to face George. They both were sipping on a red wine that Thomas didn’t want any of, nor did they offer. He just walked down to the table and sat between them.

“Thanks for washing these Kristen,” he said while looking at her and she curved an empty smile across her face, then  took a sip from her glass and placed it down again at the left of her plate.

“Thomas, what happened again? You said that some drunk at the bus station came up to you and vomited all over your leg,” George’s tone was less serious and carried a subtle charisma with it.

“Well that’s the bare bones of it, yes,” Thomas recognized his tone as skeptical, but did not acknowledge it, “but he came up to the only bench in the waiting area and shared it with me. He was nicely dressed and around my age,” Thomas’s eyes scattered across the dining room table as if he was looking for something, “he was pretty drunk and started to complain to me about the sharks . . . flyers game,” Thomas’s eyes flew to George as George quickly interrupted him.

“Ahh yes, Kristen,” he said looking at her, “how was the game last night?” Thomas averted his eyes to her and she exchanged glances with him before settling her eyes on George.

“It was fun . . . nice to know that I still bleed orange,” she said and grabbed her glass. She threw the remainder of the wine that was in it down her throat, placed the glass carefully down on the table and repeated that half-smile. George rested his back against his chair and smirked.

“I heard that they lost, ahhh brings me back to our college days,” George turned to Thomas and smiled and let out a heavy breath, “I’m going to check on the steaks; I like them still bleeding, you know?”

He pushed his chair out from underneath him and started to walk into the kitchen, toward the door that led to the back patio. Thomas watched him leave the dining room and then rested his eyes upon Kristen. He saw her smile at George as he passed her to enter the kitchen and when George returned the smile with his own, Thomas continued to see their dynamic transpire. Kristen followed George with that smile fading into an attentive stare until Thomas heard the backdoor shut, then she swiftly turned that stare to Thomas.

“I can sense your concern Thomas; just let it go,” Kristen said. Her eyes did not let up. They seemed distant from the person he used to know and a striking sensation of fear surged throughout his veins. The feeling of being interloped solidified within him and his anxiety began to grow. It went beyond that lazy smile.

“The flyers game,” he said and it came out like an automated voice.

Kristen kept her eyes rigid as they were framed within her eyelids and her pupils coldly pinned in the center, reflecting the low-dimmed light from the chandelier.  He almost lost himself and what he was about to say next while staring into them, but then he noticed her wince and his contemplation returned. The skin that revolved around her eyes was like ripples in a calming lake, caused by a disturbance of a pebble thrown through the glassy surface. She nodded.

The back door slammed open with George entering into the kitchen. It spooked Thomas and Kristen just looked back over into the kitchen.

“How do they look honey; they smell wonderful,” she said and George appeared into the dining room with a studious face peering down at the plate of steaks he was holding, coming into the dining room like a waiter with a rag slung over his shoulder. He looked up at Kristen and smiled, then at Thomas.

“They’re bleeding, just the way I like it,” George said. He placed the steaks on the table and reached for the wine before sitting down. “More wine dear,” he said holding the bottle toward her. Kristen raised her glass with a nod and he poured it until it almost trickled over the rim of her glass, then he brought the nozzle over his own and poured. Thomas watched the red wine glisten against the dull light of the chandelier as it exited the bottle and for a reason unknown to him, he tasted his heart beating right up into his throat.

“Forgive us for drinking in front of you Thomas, I hope it’s not a problem,” George turned the bottle a quarter, then up as if catching the final drop just before it had a chance to land on the fine white table cloth. Thomas waved his hand.

“No, please,” he said. He slightly shook his head in accordance with his hand gesture and then coughed.

“Oh forgive me Thomas,” George caught himself before he sat down and it seemed that he almost stumbled back into the chair, “Allow me to get you some water,” he said walking back into the kitchen.

“He’s fine George,” Kristen said, slightly raising her voice, “he didn’t ask.” She glared back at Thomas and the insecurity of his presence among them steadily increased. He fought it with a smile, but it dulled every point of his senses and that smile was just as devoid of intent as his auditory reception. George’s response to Kristen became white noise and he became the void in which it existed.

It wasn’t long until George returned with the cup of water and placed it to the right side of Thomas. The base of the glass clanged against the polished table where the white cloth buffered the sound. Thomas blinked and averted his eyes to the meniscus.

“Thanks,” he said and wrapped his fingers around the glass before the meniscus settled. He then drew the glass up to his lips and cradled it back with his head shifting toward the ceiling and his throat cleared when the water dribbled down passed his tongue. His gulps drowned out the initiating conversation between George and Kristen and he started to listen to it when he drew the glass away from his lips, down back on the table.

“So, how’s Corey,” George said while cutting through his steak.

“She’s doing well,” Kristen said with a piece of steak pitched on her fork and she was about to grab it off with her mouth.

Thomas watched her bite it as soon as she answered George. She smiled at him just before she started chewing and that smile was as sharp as the knife that George used to cut his own steak. It stopped in the heart of the steak and screeched the porcelain plate, which caused Thomas to dart his eyes toward it. He watched the blood seep through the succulent pink center of that steak and pore over to its outer burnt ridges.

“Thomas, I don’t think you ever met Corey,” George said while he finished cutting through the rough meat.

“Corey?” Thomas didn’t take his eyes off George’s steak until his question rolled off his tongue and when it did, he slowly looked up to George, meeting him eye-to-eye.

“She graduated with us and moved out here right afterward,” he said.

“Ah,” Thomas made a reflective pause, “yeah-yeah Corey,” he said with profound conviction and even though it wasn’t enough for himself to remember Corey, it was enough for Kristen and George to not question him about her any further.

They ate in silence with the lights dimmed to a serene humdrum and the echoes from their forks and knives hitting the plates, dicing the steaks and with the monotonous chewing in between, it drew Thomas to blink profusely.

“Hey, uh George,” Thomas said, cutting through the silence, “is it ok if I lie down?”

“Well, yeah . . .” he said and Kristen dropped her knife. She looked at Thomas as George looked at her. Thomas swung his head toward her and as they both faced her, Thomas was the only one that sensed the same feeling he had when he asked about the flyers game. It was his anxiety and it grew when that knife clanged against the plate like a strike of a match against red phosphorous. His anxiety sparked just as bright. They both waited for her say what Thomas thought her face was saying, but all that she said was what George was going to say.

“Take the guest room. Second door on your right,” She continued to eat her steak and sip her wine.

“Don’t worry about your plate Thomas,” George followed up with saying. He smiled and Thomas nodded, then excused himself and walked from the dining room table to the stairs. Before he took the first step, he looked at both of them.

“Thank you,” he said. Only George nodded and smiled before he cut into his steak again. Kristen remained silent, sipping her wine and she didn’t turn around toward him.

Series I – Chapter 10: Thawed to Decay

That same silver grey flooded the wooden floor when George walked through the front door of Kristen’s Victorian. His posh leathered shoes clapped against the floorboards as he walked in, shutting the door behind him and placing his duffle bag, along with his laptop bag slung around his shoulder, down to those floorboards. Thomas got up while Kristen remained seated on the couch.

“George, hey man,” Thomas said. He covertly dried his sweaty palms against his sweatpants before approaching him with one hand extending to shake his hand.

“Thomas! What a surprise,” he said with his eyebrows jolting passed the frame of his glasses. He walked passed Thomas without recognizing his open hand and approached Kristen on the couch. She stood up and they hugged. Thomas slightly followed him by turning but then subtly turned away, scratching his left eyebrow as Kristen and George embraced each other.

“How was your flight?” Kristen said.

“Good, good . . . hmm,” George glanced at Thomas and Thomas perked a half smile, “Can we huh talk in the kitchen,” he said turning back to Kristen.

“Yeah,” Kristen smiled at Thomas and then they both walked into the kitchen passed where the fridge was. Thomas could only see George’s back in the reflection of that kitchen window. His smile immediately faded while listening to their incoherent whispers. George’s were sometimes louder than Kristen’s, but Kristen’s trumped them periodically. Thomas was about to just leave, but when he heard them stop talking, his decision changed. They came back out with George leading.

“So, what brings you here Thomas?” he said.

“Oh ahh,” Thomas let his words dribble through his lips as if he couldn’t control how they exited his mouth, “umm, I . . . I just wanted to see Kristen uh, I wasn’t doing so good today and needed to see a familiar face to be around,” he said while rubbing his face here and there.

“Like old times huh,” George said.

“Well, yeah but not so much, I was having an off day and decided to take the bus in . . . after calling Kristen of course,” he said.

“He did call me,” Kristen said looking at George, “I told him he could come over.”

George looked at Kristen then at Thomas, “So your depression isn’t doing so well,” he said and Thomas nodded while still staring down at the floor. Thomas raised his head to him after nodding, seemingly discontent with eyes winced. George walked over to him and as his shoes clapped against the wooden floor, he put his hands into his pockets. “Thomas, I understand what you are going through . . . my sister has the same thing and she sees her therapist,” he took one hand out of his pocket and swayed it toward the couch, “take a seat, I was actually thinking about you earlier today.”

Thomas threw a glance at Kristen and it flew right by George as he started to walk toward the couch. Kristen ignored Thomas’s glance and made her way to the lazy boy adjacent to the couch, facing the window that was to the right of the front door of the Victorian. She landed on its cushion as Thomas turned for the couch to sit next to George. He sat down and George threw a friendly slap onto his knee.

“Thomas, how long have we known each other, a few years now right?” His eyes did not leave the coffee table until a few moments after his hand landed on Thomas’s knee. Thomas only moved his eyes to George’s hand, then at his face. They locked eyes.

“Since our last year at Rutgers,” Thomas said.

“Yeah,” George said with a smile, “that last year really solidified our friendship. Remember I was hurting over Sonya and you came over and we just day drank and shot the shit?”

“How could I forget man, that really got my head out of my ass,” Thomas chuckled a bit and Kristen chimed in.

“You never told me about that George,” she said. George looked over to her.

“Sonya, of course I did,” he said as he lifted his hand off Thomas’s knee.

“No, day drinking with Thomas,” she said with her head jutting toward Thomas while lifting a hand in the same direction.

“It was before dating you Kristen and it was only one time,” Thomas said with his eyes rolling off George and onto her. He drew them back to George.

“Wait, was it that time Sonya and I arrived for dinner at your mother’s and,” Kristen’s facial expression delved into a deep recalling look that Thomas studied after switching glances from George, and back to her, “and you were supposed to be there, but . . .” George turned his head back to Thomas.

“Thomas disappeared before you got there,” George’s smile slanted into a weary angle, “and since then I had a clue of what you were dealing with . . . isolating yourself is never good Thomas, but returning to why you isolate yourself is even worse,” he said.

“You let him drive home drunk George?!” Kristen’s voice cracked.

Thomas immediately rose to his feet as soon as George’s words left his mouth. They both followed him somewhat startled. Then, George looked at Kristen.

“He left before I had the chance to stop him. He said he was going to the bathroom.” George sustained a calming voice, “but I am not trying to make Thomas look like the bad guy here,” he drew his eyes back at Thomas, now standing, “I am just trying to help,” he said.

“I . . . I,” Thomas shook his head, “I mean, you’re right George, you’re right,” he let out an elongated sigh, “I need to see a therapist; and I will,” he said and looked around the room, then at Kristen and George.

“Kristen stood up. “Thomas why did you drink and drive?!”

“Kristen, I don’t do that anymore, none of it,” he said. George looked back at his wife.

“Dear, it’s a part of the past and we are here to overlook it and focus on what we can do for Thomas now,” George’s voice slightly rose.

“It’s ok guys – really – I should just go,” and Thomas started to turn toward the door, but George stood up. Kristen collapsed her face into her hands and sighed.

“Non-sense Thomas,” he said and shook his head with his chin hanging low, “I am mentioning this not because I want you to leave, but because I want you to seek the help that you need,” he lifted his arm and placed his hand on Thomas’s shoulder, “I also want to rekindle that friendship in a way, I – we can’t just ignore a friend,” he looked back at Kristen, “right honey,” he said and returned his calm expression to Thomas. “Please, stay for dinner at least.” Kristen lifted her head out of her palms and looked at Thomas.

“Sure, stay for dinner,” she said and she turned toward the kitchen, “I’ll get your jeans.”

George glanced at the sweat pants Thomas was wearing, and then turned toward Kristen.

“Jeans?” he said.

“I’ll uh, tell you during dinner,” Thomas said, scratching the back of his neck with a light smile beginning to crack on his face, “it’s not what you think.” Thomas followed with a half-hearted laugh and George just raised an eyebrow, then shared the laugh with a quick chuckle.

“Well, what happened? You didn’t have an accident did you?” George said.

“Nah, no . . . um there was this guy at the bus stop, he was drunk and just spewed all over me, I uh came to close to see if he was alright and out came his vomit,” Thomas shot his hands up in a subtle way with his eyes widening, but his voice stayed level.

“Ha, you were always the Good Samaritan type Thomas,” George said while moving into the kitchen, “could you help me set the table?”

“Yes, of course,” Thomas said and he started to follow George around the fridge. George opened the cabinet and started to hand him a series of plates.

“I hope you don’t mind steak, I just bought a few slabs of this tender sirloin before I left to see my parents. Kinda the only thing that got me through visiting them – you know what I mean,” George jabbed him in the side and he almost dropped the plates.

“Oh, careful,” he followed up saying.

“Thomas nodded with a smile, “no I don’t think I do,” he said.

“My parents drive me nuts,” George said.

“Right on,” Thomas let out a slight laugh then gestured the plates toward the dining room, “uh out to the table?”

“Yes, please,” George said with a nod. Thomas carried them out and placed them next to the pottery that Kristen’s mother had made. They were still collecting dust.

“Uh, George, what should I do with the pottery here?” Thomas asked. He listened to George opening the freezer and before he responded, he cursed. Thomas remained still and continued to listen. In a matter of seconds Kristen returned from the basement.

“What’s going on?” she asked. Thomas carefully walked closer to the kitchen, but remained unseen.

“I just have to thaw them out, I forgot about that . . . it’s going to take awhile,” George said.

“Well here, let’s get ’em started,” Thomas heard Kristen say. He followed the noises of them moving from the fridge to the sink. It turned on and the water crashed against the hollow metal of the sink’s base. Thomas moved to the wall between the dining room and the kitchen, peaking over its edge and he saw Kristen comforting George by the sink with his jeans draped over her forearm. She had her arms wrapped around his waist and her chin snug into his neck. They seemed to be two flamingos, relying on each other to stay standing and Thomas backed off from the wall’s edge. He found himself not breathing and soon after inhaled while finding a sense of composure. He gliding back to the dining room table, grabbed the pottery and placed them on the hutch against the far wall of the room, then he started to set the plates with two at each head of the table and one in the middle. Kristen entered the dining room when he placed his plate down.

“Here’s your jeans,” she said while walking to him with them in her hand. He grabbed them from her.

“Thanks uh, where can I change?” He lowered them in his hand, bringing them to his side.

“You can go up stairs, any room is fine,” she said, subtly pointing up to the ceiling. Thomas began to walk toward the stairs and when he placed his hand on the railing, he looked up to the second floor.

“When you get back down, I’m sure the steaks will be grilling,” Kristen said. Thomas didn’t look at her, but down and nodded, then he ascended the steps.

Series I – Chapter 9: Home Is Where the Hurt Is

“Would you put the phone down and look at this,” Thomas said with Kristen resting in his lap as they both sat on a precipice overlooking Minnewaska Lake. The evergreens sprouted as far as the eye could see and right where the lake met the rocky cliff across from where they were, they gazed upon the vast open country. It reflected off the smoothness of the lake’s surface in shades of the dusking sun; orange mixed with a fiery yellow. The nimbus clouds floating in the sky intercepted the rays, cutting them into elegant beams that made the water twinkle as well as highlighting the bulbous edges of these clouds.

“Yea, it’s beautiful,” she said without taking her eyes off the screen of her phone.

“You’re not even looking,” Thomas had his arm around her neck and shoulder and lifted his hand toward the spectacle. Kristen followed his hand with her eyes then dragged them back to the phone.

“I’m used to this,” she said, “I grew up here.”

“Yeah, I don’t get this at home,” Thomas said with his face enamored by the scenery.

“Hey, but you get the beach, I think that’s beautiful and I bet you take that for granted, right?” Kristen moved her head toward his chin trying to look up at him. He met her eyes with his and then she looked back at her phone.

“True, but I would settle for this over that any day,” he said. Kristen moved from resting against his chest to just sitting next to him and he pulled his arm away and off from around her neck and shoulders.

“Let’s get a picture,” she said, opening the camera app in her phone. She looked around and her hair at shoulder-length flowed with the movement. Thomas followed her by looking around too.

“What is it?” he said.

There was a small family of four with a shaggy golden retriever making their way up to the precipice where Thomas and Kristen were. “No one is going to take our bikes Kristen,” he said.

“No silly,” Kristen playfully slapped him on the shoulder, “They can take our picture,” she said.

“Oh,” Thomas glanced back at the sun setting.

“Don’t be so paranoid,” she got up to her feet, “quick, before the sun goes down,” she said.

Thomas looked back at her walking to the family and he rose to his feet. He waited at the precipice looking down at the water and watched a few swimmers glide through its serene composition like slithering snakes. From the height where they were, he could not discern the splashing made by their flailing arms and kicking legs. Thomas heard Kristen faintly in the back ground saying “excuse me” to the family as he looked down and before he turned his head toward her, he felt a gentle push in his thigh. It was subtle, but just enough to have him feel a slight uneasiness of vertigo. The family’s golden retriever spooked him as it greeted him while painting and wagging its fluffy almost-white tail. Thomas moved away from the edge and knelt down toward the dog to pet it. He only coursed his hand through the dog’s hairy head twice when the father of the family yelled for his dog to get away from the edge and Thomas looked up.

“Thomas, quit messing around and come over here!” Kristen said as she handed her phone to the father. He was wearing a Northface fleece with khaki pants, walking behind Kristen while looking through the phone squinting. His dog ran up to him and jumped where he settled it back down and told it to run toward his family with pointing a finger.

“Where do you want me,” the father said now looking up at Thomas and Kristen.

“We’ll stand here,” and Kristen grabbed Thomas by the waist and moved him toward her. He naturally threw his arm around her shoulders facing their backs toward the sunset.

“I’m going to have to move over here,” the father said pointing the phone toward their left, “The glare from the sun is obstructing a good shot.”

“We could move over a bit too,” Kristen said and Thomas looked to his right.

“Over here,” Thomas said gesturing his head in that direction. They were still conjoined at the hip.

“Hmmm, ok,” Kristen nodded and they both began to move over, “Thomas, get your arm off of me. I can’t move with it there,” she said.

“Oh, sorry,” He dropped his arm and they repositioned against the glare while the father of the family waited for them, still holding the phone up for a good shot.

“That’s good . . . right there,” he said and snapped the photo. Thomas and Kristen posed again. “I am going to take a few more, ok?”

Staring into the phone’s lenses made Thomas miss the sun set at that pivotal moment when the rounded edge of the sun is easiest to watch. He preferred starring into that.

“Here you are,” the father said walking up to them handing Kristen’s phone back to her.

“Thank you,” she said as she grabbed her phone, “Where are you from? Are you just visiting?” Kristen followed up with asking while holding her phone close to her stomach. Thomas turned around toward the sun breaching through the edge of the earth and watched it disappear as Kristen conversed with the father of the family.

“Oh, we made the drive up from Hawthorne in New Jersey, and uh we read about this place while looking for getaway destinations . . . so we wanted to check it out.” The man tilted his head in a way that made his response seem genuine and awkward at the same time.

“Oh wow,” Kristen’s voice shot up and Thomas smiled, “You know,” Kristen continued, “if you’re in the area you should check out Beacon.”

“Beacon?” the man said. His squint subsided due to the sun’s lack of exposure across the land.

“Yes, it’s a lovely town that is on the up-and-up with all of these little dive bars and restaurants . . . well,” Kristen looked over to his children playing with their dog, “Restaurants,” she said and smiled.

 

“Ah yes we were wondering where a good place is to eat around here – the expansive nature is a bit too overwhelming – we are just not used to it,” he said. Where might that be?”

“If you just take 87 south and cut east on 84, you can’t miss it,” she said.

“Oh that’s a little far, maybe on our way back we will check it out, thank you.” The father let out a short laugh that cruised into a small sigh. He looked back to his family and his wife waved him over.

“Honey, it’s getting dark we need to go,” she said. The father looked back at Thomas and Kristen and smiled.

“Beacon, thank you so much for that,” he said.

“Oh no problem,” Kristen said and Thomas looked over.

“And thank you for the photo,” Thomas said, but it seemed that the father didn’t even hear him because he didn’t turn around.

Thomas walked over to Kristen and she turned around to him. “These people that come to visit are annoying – it’s like they don’t even appreciate this area.”

“Well you grew up here; its home to you,” Thomas wrapped his arms around her and she rested her head on his chest. They both stared out into the darkened sky above the lake where the reflection of the sky turned to a silver grey.