Sunlight seemed to pull him into its spotlight as he emerged from the DeSmet Building. Steve Thomas did what he'd done for at least half of his life: Stopped, squinted, slipped on his shades and avoided the bright rays. His glance traveled to the building across from the one he'd just left. The Drug Crisis Center shared the parking lot with the DeSmet Building. Right on time, Kristina Ingram pushed open a glass door and came out, searching for and finding him with her gaze. Her welcoming smile, even a hundred yards away, was as bright as the sunlight. He found himself soaking it up gratefully after the day he'd experienced.
For the past five years since she'd come to work at the Center as a counselor, they'd had this same ritual. Somehow, though his schedule was different most days and erratic at best, she left work at the exact same time he did each day.
Steve relaxed, returned her smile as they approached each other. Her hair, the color of cherry wood, was caught up behind her neck in a bun that was rapidly losing form. As the wind caught the loose strands, he remembered what it looked like down and free. She's got a really nice neck. He found himself laughing inside at the crazy thought. It felt good to laugh, even to himself.
"You did it!" she exclaimed when they were only a foot apart. "Congratulations! I'm so proud of you, Steve...I mean 'Associate Professor Thomas'."
Steve didn't bother to wonder how she'd found out. Kristina seemed to know everything going on at Eisner University.
"Thanks. If I had to go through one more committee..." He'd had his share of congratulations today for getting tenure and making Associate Professor status. Also his share, maybe more than his share, of mean-spirited teasing and ridicule wrapped in false sincerity either behind his back or to his face. Some of his peers at the college called him "the scholar", and not fondly. They assumed he was trying to be the pet among the elders. The truth of the matter was, college, getting his master's, his Ph.D., and now tenure as he worked toward full professorship was all that'd kept him sane for the past thirteen years.
Thirteen years--sounded like so little when it felt more like forever. Being here was where he avoided stress. Here he could fill the hours of his day, away from the loneliness, the silence, the endless problems. The black hole of emptiness sucked him in whenever he left this place. But his colleagues wouldn't understand because all they saw was that he made them look bad or he took what they thought they deserved. He didn't care to disclose the truth for most of them either.
"What was the reaction?" she asked because she knew about the rivalry he didn't encourage, let alone get involved in.
He shrugged, but she seemed to realize he'd had a tough day because of it. "They're just jealous, you know," she said, a mischievous twinkle in her eye as she brushed a strand of her hair off her lips. "You wear leather while they wear wool with reinforced plaid sleeves." She touched the sleeve of the light, straight-cut, leather jacket he wore over black jeans and a dark t-shirt.
Steve laughed at the realistic parallel. He'd never fit in with the dress code and never tried. Most of his colleagues followed the rigid ideal of dress because it was an obvious way to get in the good graces of the executive committee.
Surprising him, Kristina stepped forward and hugged him. He almost dropped his briefcase he was so unsure of himself in the position, but then she backed off and smiled at him again. "Have you got time tonight to go out for a celebration glass of champagne? My treat."
They'd never been in a social situation before--outside of a quick lunch or soda at one of the restaurants nearby the campus. She had no way of knowing he didn't drink alcohol, even if she might know why he didn't. Why did their professional friendship strike him as unusual? There was no reason he'd see Kristina outside the campus.
He shook his head immediately. "I can't. Too much to do. Thanks for asking though."
Her obvious disappointment almost had him wishing he could say yes. She knew why he couldn't and didn't push it. They left the sidewalk for the parking lot. After she unlocked the door of her car, he opened it for her.
"See you tomorrow," she said softly. "Do something for yourself tonight. All right?"
Steve nodded and got the feeling she understood the impossibility of that from the concerned look in her eyes.
She smiled, and he remembered the sunlight when he'd come out of the music building. Her smile was like that. Blinding. Revealing. Only he didn't want to avoid it. Sometimes he wished he could stay where she was, where things weren't complicated or stressful. It wasn't fair to think she was the only sunshine in his life. Not at all. But he thought it anyway.
After shutting her door, he walked toward his car, turning to wave at her as she drove past him out of the lot. Sighing, he got into his car, remembered her comment about the wool sweaters and laughed.
The memory of her hug returned. Just a friendship hug. Warm friendship hug. Body to body. The laughter dried up and made his throat feel cramped with emotion. Confusion and straight-out fear gripped him.
No. He had to think about getting dinner ready. Doing dishes. Helping Val with her homework. Laundry needed to be done. Then getting Val to fall asleep, to stay asleep for a while anyway, just until there were no monsters or nightmares to wake her. Only then would he have time to do the work he brought home every night. None of those tasks applied to his wife because he couldn't predict Jessie.
A few minutes later, he was on the freeway and leaving Brookfield. He lived in Greenfield on the southwest side of Milwaukee. Ironic, he often thought driving home, that his family lived in such suburbia.
The closer he got to home, the more his stomach clenched. He lived in a good neighborhood, in a solid, two-story bungalow. It was about the only thing in his personal life that was good.
As soon as he turned the corner down the street he lived on, he knew something was wrong. Evangeline, the nanny who worked for them, picked up and stayed with the kids after school every day, wasn't there. Her car wasn't in its usual spot--parked on the street in front of the house. That meant Jess had to be home. She'd come home and sent Evangeline away. The fact that no one had paged him didn't make him feel any more relieved.
Every light in the house was on. The front door stood open. Music spilled out into the street as if a live band rehearsed in their garage.
Steve didn't bother pulling into the garage. He didn't take his briefcase. He parked on the garage approach on a slant and jumped out of the car. As soon as he ran up the porch steps, he saw his eight-year-old daughter huddled in the corner crying.
His teeth clenched as he picked Valerie up and held her tight against him. Now what, Jess? Now what, d*t?
He didn't want to go inside the house, almost as much as Val didn't, when he took the steps toward the screen door. "Please, Daddy, I don't want to go inside. Let me stay here," begged Val.
If not for the chill in the September air, her thin shirt and alarming frailness, he would have let her stay outside.
"Val, baby, where're your brothers? Is Ronnie still at football practice?"
Her face red, pinched, and miserable, she nodded. "Tom's at Aaron's."
When Steve opened the screen door, Valerie huddled her face into his shoulder and he barely heard her whisper, "I hate her, Daddy."
He increased the pressure of his arms and prayed he hadn't heard her right or that it was the wind. Regardless of whether she'd voiced it, he knew the truth he didn't want to face.
The stereo in the living room was the one blaring, and he slammed the button to get it to shut up. In the silence, he knew Jess wasn't downstairs. She'd come home, told Evangeline to get out, turned on the stereo to block out the silence and had gone to their bedroom. Left the kids alone again.
"Go in your room and close the door, baby," Steve said softly on the landing upstairs. Val did it without a moment's hesitation. Then he turned toward the closed door of his bedroom.
From outside, he heard the screech of tires in front of the house. One of Ronnie's much older friends dropping him off. Just in time, too.
Steve shoved open the bedroom door, wondering almost inappropriately why she never locked it. Or didn't she think she had anything to hide? Hell.
Inside his bedroom, he saw exactly what he expected to see: his wife lying naked in their bed next to another man. A needle was stuck in her arm, and she wasn't moving. Even when Steve said her name, she didn't stir. All the rage and fear and humiliation crumbled inside his head, yet Steve acted by rote. He checked her pulse and found it slow, erratic, barely there.
Behind him, he heard his son, a twelve-year-old boy with the eyes of an old man, swear. Steve covered Jess before turning to Ronnie and saying with the last vestige of his control, "Call an ambulance."
The long-haired guy next to Jess stirred. Steve didn't wait for him to come to full consciousness in his own good time. He walked around the bed and yanked the b*d straight up before shoving the clothes he'd gathered at him. "What did you two shoot up?" he demanded, and the creep stumbled, incoherently telling him sheet rock--LSD and crack--as he struggled with his pants.
"Get out. Now."
As soon as he fled, falling down the stairs judging from the ruckus, Ronnie picked up the phone next to the bed. Steve watched him punch out the number without taking his eyes off his mother for even a second. He summoned an ambulance as though he'd been doing it forever. And he had. He was twelve years old, and he'd done this more times than he could remember.
Damn you, Jess, how much more? How many times can you put us through this?
He'd known the peace wouldn't last. He'd never believed for a second it would.
"Daddy?" Val's voice drifted into the room from the hall, and Steve glanced at Ronnie. Even Ronnie's glare at him was familiar, and all Steve could think was that this had to end. All this s*t. Somehow. Soon.
It had to.
* * * *
"I'm hungry, Daddy," Val said softly. Steve brought his hand to the back of her head, smoothing her pale yellow hair. She eased closer to him on the waiting room chairs, putting her head on his chest.
"I know, baby. It won't be long now. We'll pick up Tom, then go through the drive-thru on the way home. Get anything you guys want."
Small consolation, but their lives were built on small consolations and Steve gave them whenever he could. Maybe it wasn't good for them, maybe he wasn't firm enough, maybe he indulged them too often. He'd never been able to withhold the little joy he could give them. When they looked back at all this when they were older, he hoped they'd remember these things and say it wasn't all bad.
Glancing across the waiting room of the ER, Steve caught his elder son's dark eyes. Ronnie looked away immediately, hostility so fierce that Steve felt it run through him like a hot knife. He couldn't help Ronnie. It was too late. The damage Jessie had done went too deep to ever bring him back.
All of his life, Ronnie had seen his mother's insanity--her drinking, her drugs, her cheating. He saw and heard the fights. He saw the way Jessie remained oblivious to his brother and sister. Occasionally, Jess noticed Ronnie--when she needed him. Then and only then. Not a minute sooner. It'd created a vicious cycle in him. He wanted his mother's love more than anything, so he remained loyal to her, making excuses for her bad behavior, even when she ignored and used him. In order for him to remain loyal, her enemies had to become his enemies. Steve had become his own wife's enemy because he hated the things she did, couldn't accept them anymore. He'd spent years trying to get her to change. He'd spent years failing. He'd lost the war for his son as well.
Feeling his continued gaze on him, Ronnie turned to him, his lip curling. "You shouldn't have let her go back to work. You should've let her recover longer."
"She made the decision, Ronnie. I didn't say anything one way or another." Steve heard the desperation in his own voice. He wanted his older son to believe him, just once. To assume the best of him instead of the absolute worst.
"When do you ever need to say anything to her? She knows what you think of her. She tries so hard to please you, and it's never enough for you."
Swallowing, Steve felt tears sting his tired eyes.
"Stop defending her!" Val said, her voice watery as she turned toward her brother. "She did it to herself. Daddy tries to help her and she just... She'll never change. Why do you defend her? She doesn't care about you. She hates everyone, but she needs us."
"Val..." Steve started, but Ronnie was already on his feet, stalking out of the room.
Steve's attempt to call him back went unheeded, and he sat forward, his head in his hands. He wanted to let the scream building in his throat out. Let it fill the room, the whole world, until he collapsed under its weight.
"I hate her, Daddy. I hate her," Val said on a sob.
"Don't say that, baby. Please don't say that." She was crying again, and he was helpless to her tears. Nothing he did ever mattered. His actions, his words, couldn't change anything. Yet he pulled her into his arms and held her against him.
"I wish she'd die this time," Val whispered, and Steve wanted to scold her and beg her not to voice that ever again. But he understood. God in Heaven, he understood. She wanted this all to end. She didn't want her mom to wake up, leave the hospital saying she'd go to rehab and everything would be all right again soon. A couple weeks later, she'd come home, clean, apologizing and claiming she wouldn't slip up this time. That she'd be a model mother and wife.
None of them believed her, not anymore, but predicting how long before her restlessness, boredom, and depression took over was impossible. Sooner or later, she'd be back on the drug and booze binges, screwing everybody in sight before she landed in the emergency room. Again. It never ended.
Valerie wanted all that to end. Steve couldn't blame her for that. While the kids knew what had made their mother the person she was, they couldn't understand it. A part of Steve didn't want them to understand. He'd already lost Ronnie. He wouldn't risk losing Val or Tom.
Footsteps came toward the waiting room, and Steve turned to see Dr. Harvey coming in with his arm around Ronnie. Steve stood, lifting Val in his arms at their approach. The doctor greeted Val, handing her a lollipop and asking where Tom was. He gave her an extra lollipop to give to him. He'd been handing out lollipops to the kids since they were babies, all at events similar to this, and he hadn't seemed to notice they weren't two feet high anymore.
"How's my mom?" Ronnie asked, and Steve heard the accusation in his voice as he shot a glare at him. In Ronnie's mind, Steve should have been the first to ask.
"It's touch and go at this point. You know how these things work. Who knows better than you?"
Steve felt his face flush at the humiliation he knew Dr. Harvey hadn't intended to make him feel.
"Wasn't she just in here a month, month and a half ago?"
By sheer chance, Dr. Harvey had been working the emergency room that time as well.
"Rehab didn't take?"
There was nothing to say. Rehabilitation was part of Jessie's cycle. From a doctor's point of view, it had to sound like a waste of time and money. There was no such thing as permanent rehab, not for someone like Jess.
"There's nothing more you can do here tonight, Steve. Why don't you take the kids home? We'll call you if there's any change. Get some rest."
"I wanna see my mom," Ronnie said instantly, predictably.
Dr. Harvey nodded, putting his hand on Ronnie's shoulder. "Sure. But not too long."
"I don't want to go in there, Daddy," Val whispered as soon as her brother followed the doctor out of the room.
Tom hadn't wanted to be here either. Steve had called his middle son from the house, after the ambulance came and went and before he followed it to the hospital. Tom had said they didn't need him there, he'd rather stay at Aaron's tonight. Steve promised he'd pick him up from his friend's after they left the hospital. He wanted Tom with them tonight. Besides, he'd had a bad feeling about Aaron from the first time he met him and not just because of his foul mouth and nose rings. Tom had agreed to be ready when they picked him up.
"When can we go home?" Val asked twenty minutes later. Ronnie hadn't come out yet. Steve knew he'd have to go in after him. I don't want to see Jess either. If he could get away with it tonight, despite Ronnie's wrath, he would leave without seeing her.
At the admitting desk, he asked the nurse--a familiar face--to watch Val for a few minutes. With a sad, pitying look on her face, she said, "Sure. Why don't you come back here, honey?"
Getting Ronnie to leave the hospital without his mother would be hard. It never got any easier because the boys' determination grew almost in sync with his physical growth. At twelve, he was already five-seven and well-muscled. Steve knew it wouldn't be much longer before he'd be using his physical strength to protect his mother. And then what would Steve do? He wouldn't hit his own son to get him in line.
Ronnie stood by his mother's bedside and stoically refused to look up when Steve came in.
"Ron, Val's tired and hungry. We have to get your brother--"
"I wanna stay with her."
Steve glanced at the wall. He couldn't look at Jess. He knew he wasn't strong enough to see her. If he looked at her, he'd remember she needed him, but he wouldn't remember why. He'd remember being needed to the point where he didn't exist for any other reason. He'd remember he owed her that much.
"No," Steve said softly. "No, Ronnie. But we'll come back here right after dinner tomorrow. Okay?" When he put his hand on the boy's shoulder, his son shoved away and left the room.
Closing his eyes, Steve took a deep breath. His mind filled with the memory of a cherub with chocolate brown eyes, a mass of dark hair, always smiling, drooling and trying to satisfy his every curiosity. Ronnie had been exuberant about life back then. He'd loved everyone and everything. When Steve held him, he'd stayed there in his arms. He'd wanted to be there.
Steve left the room without looking back. Ronnie already had Val by the hand, leading her out of the hospital.
As Steve drove out of the parking lot, Ronnie said, "I'm gonna quit football."
Ronnie was in a community football team for kids his age that practiced after school and on weekends. He'd been the first to make the team and probably would be the first to quit as well. Taking care of his mom was his top priority. Besides, sooner or later, Jess would ask him to stop going.
"You need a life outside the house, Ron," Steve said, knowing anything he said wouldn't mean a damn thing to his son. He'd enjoyed football in high school, purely for the sport of it, not the competition, and Ronnie loved sports.
"Mom needs me. She counts on me."
She's the mother. You're supposed need and count on her. "Don't quit," Steve said simply.
Ronnie didn't answer.
The silence in the car continued after Tom got in. Steve noticed he didn't ask about things. He just said he was hungry. At eleven, his middle child was even more withdrawn than Ronnie. Tom spent most of his time in front of his computer or the TV, headphones on to block out everything else.
Dinner was something Steve could take care of. He could make a meal, set the table, force himself to eat, hoping they'd do the same. Ronnie took his food up to his room, saying he wanted to start his homework. Steve wanted to forbid it, but he had no desire to fight. None of them did.
"You want me to help?" Tom asked after the meal, and Steve shook his head. "Thanks, buddy. I'll take care of it. You got homework?"
Tom shook his head, muttering, "Did it at school."
He never seemed to have homework, always said he did it at school. He appeared to make no effort based on an avid disinterest in school, but Steve couldn't lecture him for it since he got B's easily enough.
Steve kissed the top of Tom's head and noticed the length of his hair. The smell of smoke in it. He didn't mention either. Despite his middle son's seeming obliviousness to most of life, Steve knew Tom was sensitive. Getting on him about his homework would make him withdraw even more. Even saying a haircut was in order might hurt his feelings. Asking him if he'd been smoking would be worse. Maybe Aaron's parents smoked.
Sullen as usual, Tom got up from the table and went to the living room. A minute later, the TV blared.
"Will you help me with my homework?" Val asked. She'd barely eaten anything. From the time she was born, she'd been apathetic about food. She barely ate enough to keep herself alive. She was much smaller and frailer than most of her classmates, so pale that her veins stood out starkly beneath her skin and her lips always looked blue. Her brown eyes looked huge within her tiny face.
Helplessly, Steve looked at her sipping her milk because he'd asked her to drink all of it, and he suddenly wanted to get the kids together, get in the car and go. Anywhere. Never look back. His hands tightened so hard on the back of the chair, he was afraid he wouldn't be able to disconnect from the reckless feeling inside him.
He'd brought his kids to this. He'd been the one to go against everything he knew was right because he couldn't say no. He couldn't resist temptation. He'd told himself it was okay because he could be everything Jessie needed. Now Ronnie was caught in the same net he'd been ensnared in. Tom wanted to avoid the world so no one and nothing could hurt him, ever. And Val was afraid of the world. She was helpless in it, and the demons around her tormented her night and day. The only way out for all of them was the one thing he couldn't allow himself. They suffered for that inability as much as he did.
He needed to clean the kitchen, get laundry started, or he'd never get any sleep tonight. But he said, "Yeah. Yeah, baby. Whatever you need."