They sit at their usual table, in their usual spots. They practice habit; habit keeps it together.
Fred orders the black bean soup and the Caesar salad. It is lunch. If it was dinner, he’d order the seafood stew, but it’s always lunch. They only meet for lunch.
Marie orders the salmon wrap. She has ordered this before. She likes the squeeze of lemon and the cherry tomatoes and arugula.
Fred and Marie are in love. Now they are. When they first met, they hated each other with a burning intensity that felt dangerous and exciting in some way. Scratch that. For Marie, “hate” is too inexact. “Fear” is more apt.
Fred is six foot two. He wears glasses and he is balding up top. His face is meatier than his body, giving the impression that he is larger than he is. He has dimples. He likes to wear designer belts, though the rest of his clothes are ordinary. His socks, at times, are mismatched slightly. Fred is forty-six.
Marie is thin and waify, though she used to be heavier when she was young. She became a runner in her late twenties. Her hair frizzes up in the humidity. She has a cluster of freckles on her nose that flare up in the summer. She is partial to floral dresses, yoga leggings. The divorce was hard on her and now she rarely speaks to Kent—twice or three times a year, max. And only in tight little bursts on the phone. Or maybe a text if she can’t deal with him. Marie is forty-two.
This couple—and they even admit they are a couple now—they hold hands under the table where nobody can see them. If people knew…it would not be pretty.
They do not talk about The Thing. The Thing united them, but it is now, they feel, drifting into the backdrop. They hope it is, at least. Not that they want to forget. They never want to forget. However, they need to, badly.
Fred and Marie talk about gardens, instead. It is cold still, but it is March. With March comes the feeling of spring, the early impulse. Yesterday was fifty-something and sunny. It felt like spring, minus the green, minus the flowers, minus the birds and chipmunks.
Fred has a garden outside of his house. Bryan always ignored it. Sometimes he even seemed to spit into it when he thought his father wasn’t watching. But he was watching.
There is something seriously wrong with young men these days, with boys.
Fred thinks of hyacinths, dogwood, daffodils and tulips. All will be coming up soon. He will send photos of them to Marie, or hopefully she can see them there, right there, in person.
It is the ice storm from hell.
They are headed to a movie in the neighboring suburb, but even Fred’s SUV with four-wheel drive is slipping and skidding every which way. They have to turn around.
She clasps his hand.
Fred is not expecting this. Marie is thinking about Max again, she can’t help it. It’s only been a few months and she knows she may never see him again. It is likely, in fact, that she will die before seeing him—at least out in the air, in the real world.
In that pen, in that horrible room—that does not, to her mind, count as seeing Max. She is not even allowed to touch him. Tears trace rivulets down his face and there is nothing she can do. There is nothing.
No, she’d rather not see him at all. She’d rather pretend he’s with the others—underground. Max, he was a mistake. She knows that now. She could not deduce that earlier—and now Marie feels ignorant. She willfully ignored all the signs and manifestations.
“Let’s turn around,” Fred suggests. “It’s not worth it.”
His headlights accentuate the iciness, but Fred is unafraid. He knows Marie probably is though—and with good reason.
“I couldn’t wait for you to say that,” Marie says, hand to neck. “This is terrible.”
“And it seems to be getting worse.”
Even turning around, Fred spins out twice and they barely make it to Marie’s townhouse. Most of the parking spaces are taken. Who would want to go out on a night like this?
She’s a townhouse woman, Fred realizes. He’s known this but it never truly registered with him.
No wonder, Fred thinks. But this is an ungenerous thought, a hateful thought. He watches Marie’s eyelids flutter.
Marie has grown accustomed to winter. Once she has grown accustomed to something, she can deal with it. She can accept it and move on. She is still not so sure she can grasp Max. She knows she cannot imagine what Fred experiences, though he has tried to convey it to her. It is nice to have someone who understands, on a deeper level. Suppressing the guilt is the difficult part—the impossible part. It’s not just Fred’s anguish—but that of all the others. Since when did Max know how to squeeze one even? She never shaved him. Maybe Kent? She doubts that, too. Where did he learn such things? Where did the hatred come from? Is it something she helped generate? Did she say the wrong thing? How Marie wishes she could go back in time and answer all questions, really go through the assortment, show Max the error of his ways.
They sit at Fred’s kitchen table. She drinks Jasmine tea and he Darjeeling. The scent of honey. The candle with the chemical vanilla aroma. How far they still have to go. Dr. Schavone tells Fred that it may take two years. Jamie is imprinted in his DNA. He cannot just extract it. Various Jamie ghosts wander the split-level. Jamie leaning against the wall. Jamie tumbling out of bed, tousling his hair and bearing witness. Jamie on the sofa playing video games, drinking a Fanta—like some throwback to the late 70s.
Tonight’s distraction is backgammon. Neither Fred nor Marie has played in years and they had to Google the rules and directions to remind themselves. It’s a small consolation to Fred if he can win a game or two. It’s something else to think about. It’s something else to do other than drink too many beers and obsess and second guess. If only this, if only that. What’s the point? What are the real stakes?
Marie is not interested, however. She can’t seem to work up the motivation to care about a stupid game and she has no desire to learn or expend energy. The games were always for Fred. She does know it’s easier than just talking though. That is a recipe for disaster.
It would be somewhat easier if Kent refrained from pointing a gnarly finger at her. Sure, it’s her fault their son went ballistic. She was responsible, okay. But unless you have control over your child every hour, all the time, do you really think you know what they’re up to, how they perceive the world? It is difficult enough just to know yourself, Marie thinks. She does not for a second regret the divorce from Kent. That might be the best thing she’s ever done. Her mind is open now in a way it wasn’t years ago.
After losing three games, Marie has had enough. She is not invested. Fred worries now this means another heart to hurt. This is his punishment for losing his only son?
“No, what?” Fred says.
“The stars. You can actually see them.”
Fred waves for her to follow him. He flips the lights. They stand on the deck and crane their necks. Marie wishes she knew the constellations. Yet another thing she can teach herself one day. Luckily, the neighbors’ houses are dark or relatively so. They can see them fine. There is a glitter, an almost visual hum. It is something to witness. They don’t have to talk now. There will be plenty of time for that soon.
He cannot believe it. If Sheila could see him now, she would be amazed. Perhaps impressed, but certainly astounded. This woman whose son was the one and only one—she approached him. The email arrived first, then the phone call after he responded to the email. After that he agreed to see her two weeks from then. December twenty-third.
He even texted Sheila to tell her, the first time since it happened. No response, but she had to be impressed, he knew that. The New Mexico sun hadn’t dulled everything. She was still human, or partially.
But when Marie reached out her hand, it became an embrace, and it stuck. That he wept was to be expected. What else could he do? How else could he respond? He knew that they shared this, no way around it.
“I don’t know where to start or what to say,” she said. “I feel as if I owe you my life on some level.”
Fred embraced her back.
“It’s not you, it’s them. These kids. This time,” he said. “It could have easily been the other way around.”
But it wasn’t and he knew that. She knew that. Her mascara ran and she dabbed at her eyes with the thin coffee shop napkins. A barista—nose pierced, orange hair—looked concerned, whispering, “Is everything okay?” Fred shook it off.
Of course it isn’t. It will never be. But they can occupy the same space maybe.
She explains the group meetings, the sleepiness, the meds. There is no message from Max, of course. He is unrepentant—always and forever. Do people apologize anymore? Do they admit mistakes? Or has that been lost in the dross of the twenty-first century? But Marie does, that is what is especially impressive. Even Sheila would be wowed. They might even be friends on some level, harboring a secret rivalry.
They sink into life stories, into monologues. They talk family history. They talk job history. They discuss cosmology and metaphysics, ethical dilemmas. It is as if they are long lost pen pals. As their hour turns into two, she grasps his hand. Their fingers intertwine. She can feel his nervousness, and he hers. There is still much to say. There is still little to do.
We are shards, Fred thinks. We are portions of who we used to be.
How could this happen? He knows how, but how? Have humans lost the capacity to feel, to understand? What causes this? We live at peace. There is no threat. We are the threat.
What lacks in me that was unable to stop this? Marie thinks. Fingernails down her face. When they take her in they wonder about stitches, her face is so bloody. Then the endless parade of authorities.
And to look at a patch of grass and know your son is going there, Fred thinks. Someone will mow over him. Others will thoughtlessly step on top of him, his ashes. Wood and velour. Leaves glimmering in the breeze. Flowers around, signifying nothing.
And now what? Marie will just give everything to lawyers. They don’t deserve it and neither does he. Give her the gun; she’d know what to do with him. A mother’s punishment.
Fred spends days organizing and reorganizing Jamie’s closet. Piling clothes and papers on the bed and then resorting back into the closet only to do it again.
Marie cleans. She scrubs toilets and showers. She takes a toothbrush to the grout—all of it. She scrubs smudges from walls. She will repaint everything. She will make the house shine again.
Fred is torn—give it all away or keep it all? What is the best way to handle it? But he can’t decide. So he does nothing. On the bed, back in the closet. In the closet, back on the bed. He wants to know Jamie’s final thoughts. He wants to know if he suffered, though how could he not? He doesn’t understand. This is beyond comprehension.
Marie will reach out to the victims, to the injured, the parents. Most will damn her—she knows that. But at least she will scrub her conscience clean. She can sleep—someday.
They watch the reports on television, though they don’t need the television to see it or know. Their son burns inside. They need a cooling.
Nathan Leslie won the 2019 Washington Writers’ Publishing House prize for fiction for his satirical collection of short stories, Hurry Up and Relax. Nathan’s nine previous books of fiction include Three Men, Root and Shoot, Sibs and The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice. He is also the author of a collection of poems, Night Sweat. Nathan is currently the series editor for Best Small Fictions, the founder and organizer of the Reston Reading Series in Reston, Virginia, and the publisher and editor of Maryland Literary Review. Previously he was series editor for Best of the Web and fiction editor for Pedestal Magazine. His fiction has been published in hundreds of literary magazines, including Shenandoah, North American Review, Boulevard, Hotel Amerika and Cimarron Review. Nathan’s nonfiction has been published in The Washington Post, Kansas City Star and Orlando Sentinel. Nathan lives in Northern Virginia.