Author: Clea Saal
Genre: Philosophical Horror
Page count: 290 pages
He woke up, covered in sweat, but the dream, the nightmare, kept calling him back. His father was there before he knew it, holding him, comforting him as if he were afraid.
Paul held onto the child in his arms like a lifeline, though he really couldn’t tell who was supposed to be anchoring whom. He wanted so desperately to protect him, to shelter him from the storm that was raging around him. Kyle was all that remained.
His eyes drifted to the empty bed on the other side of the room, and he felt a pang of guilt when he caught himself wondering what to do with Alex’s things. He dreaded the idea of touching them, especially this soon. Had this been only Alex’s room he would probably have left things as they were for a few days, maybe even for months or years, but he knew he couldn’t do that to Kyle. He couldn’t turn what was now his room into a museum honoring his brother.
There was no question about the toys, seeing how most of those were Kyle’s as well, though the beaten-up stuffed frog had been Alex’s alone. The clothes he would give away, even though Kyle would soon grow into them. Paul just couldn’t fathom seeing them on him… and then his eyes fell on Alex’s most prized possession: his beloved fish tank. Looking at it, it was hard to imagine that it had all begun with a single little goldfish that, much to his dismay, the boy had won at a fair. Now there were so many different shapes and colors gliding through the water. Paul remembered how his older son used to spend hours sitting in rapt fascination, just watching the fish swim, forming an ever-changing, living pattern.
For almost two years Alex had cared for that tank almost obsessively, to the point that, even though he was only seven years old, and just barely able to read, Paul had already been actively encouraging him to learn as much as he could about the sea and its creatures. Kyle, on the other hand, had never shown the slightest bit of interest in the tank or its inhabitants. At first Paul had assumed that it was because he was just too young, but as time went by he had come to the realization that it was simply that Kyle didn’t care. Maybe he could look after the tank himself, as Alex would have done.
Paul was numb and exhausted, but he couldn’t keep himself from reliving the events of the past 48 hours over and over again. Accepting that it had been an accident was all but impossible because deep down he knew he really should have known better. He knew he should have gotten rid of those damned pills while he still had the chance. He should have thrown them away the first time he had seen them in Kyle’s hand, after the boy had managed to climb up to the bathroom sink and open the medicine cabinet somehow. Instead he had hesitated, as he had been hesitating to touch all of Sarah’s things for the past eight months, so, after warning Kyle never to touch them again, Paul had hidden them in an old shoe-box on the top shelf of his own closet, confident that they were safely out of the children’s reach, and then he had forgotten all about them.
He had forgotten, but Kyle hadn’t.
Paul remembered how he had been working in his study, listening to the boys playing in his room as they often did, when all of a sudden Kyle had burst in, saying something about Alex being asleep and not wanting to wake up. He had followed his son back to his room, slightly annoyed by the interruption, only to discover Alex unconscious, and an almost empty bottle of pills lying on the bed. The ambulance had been there in a matter of minutes, but he had known even then that only a miracle would save his son… and he had buried his faith in miracles along with Sarah.
The next couple of hours, hours he had spent in the hospital’s waiting room with Kyle sitting on his lap, were forever etched in his memory. Paul had struggled with the fear, the guilt, the confusion and the anger. It was just too much and it needed an outlet, something he could ill afford. He could not, would not, blame Kyle for a tragedy that he knew to be of his own making. He wanted to question the boy so badly, but he knew he was strung too tight, and he dreaded the possibility of losing control, of saying something he might regret. He had expected his boys to be more responsible, to act like more than children. Numbed by the horror of it all, Paul had done the only thing he could think of: he had held Kyle as closely as he could, afraid that he too might somehow be snatched away from him. He focused on Kyle, who seemed to be almost oblivious to the magnitude of what had happened… as he probably was. For a moment Paul wondered whether or not a five-year-old child, even a five-year-old child who had already lost his mother, could possibly grasp the concept of death. He didn’t think so.
At that point Paul’s thoughts had been interrupted by the arrival of a social worker, a certain Ms. Jones. She had told him that she wanted to ask him a few questions, apparently unaware of just how devoid of answers he actually felt. Paul had told her what he could, but it wasn’t much.
He remembered the dread that that woman’s presence had inspired in him, as it rekindled his fears of losing Kyle. It had taken him months to accept the notion that he would have to raise his boys alone, the sheer scope of that task was daunting, and he was well aware that there were those who thought he couldn’t, or rather shouldn’t, do it… like Sarah’s parents. Paul was also painfully aware of what kind of power Ms. Jones wielded. He knew that, should she deem him to be either an unfit or a negligent parent, he could easily end up losing both his sons. However, in spite of those fears, when she asked for his permission to question Kyle, Paul immediately agreed, hoping that that would enable him to find some answers.
Kyle’s words had been so innocent, so child-like, that they had chilled him to the bone. After making a few irrelevant comments intended to put the boy at ease, Ms. Jones had asked him why they had grabbed the pills in the first place.
“We were playing,” explained Kyle. “Alex was sick, so I gave him the pills to make him feel better.”
“And who thought about using them?” asked Ms. Jones, carefully watching the boy.
“I did, ‘cos Alex didn’t know where dad kept them.”
“And you did?” she asked, sounding rather puzzled.
“Yups, I saw daddy put them in his closet when I founded them in the bathroom.”
That somewhat garbled statement, together with the angry look Ms. Jones shot at him, made Paul realize just how serious a mistake it had been to hide the pills in the boy’s presence.
“And what did your daddy say the first time you found them?” she prodded, keeping her eyes on Paul.
“He said that I shouldn’t touch them because they were bad… but why would he give something bad to my mommy?” asked Kyle, sounding more than a little confused.
“I see, so you had seen him give the pills to your mommy?”
“They made the pain go away,” explained the boy, nodding emphatically.
Paul didn’t know how a social worker would take those words. He realized that he had made a series of mistakes, but the truth was that, when the pain hit, neither he nor Sarah had had the presence of mind to tell the boys to leave the room while she took her medication. Paul could only hope that Ms. Jones would understand that.
“And so when you found them, your dad told you never to touch them again, and then he put them on top of his closet. Is that it?” asked Ms. Jones, trying to recreate the scene in her mind.
“And earlier today, while you were playing, where was your daddy?”
“In his book room. He was working, and I thought he was going to get mad at me when I told him that Alex was asleep,” said Kyle shyly.
“Does he get mad a lot?”
“No, but we are not supposed to go in there when he is working,” explained the boy.
“So you didn’t go looking for him right away, after Alex swallowed the pills?”
“No, I told you. We were playing, but then Alex was asleep and I couldn’t get him to play with me any more. I tried to wake him up, but he wouldn’t, so I went looking for dad.”
“But there is something I still don’t understand, Kyle,” said Ms. Jones, seemingly confused. “If the pills were on top of your dad’s closet, how did you get all the way up there to reach them? Can you tell me?”
“I knew daddy kept them in his closet ‘cos I had seen him put them there, so we opened the drawers to climb up,” the boy tried to explain. “We just wanted to play.”
“You opened the drawers?”
“Yes, like steps, and then Alex went up to get them.”
“But your daddy had told you that you were not supposed to play with those pills,” Ms. Jones confronted the boy, though Paul couldn’t fathom what good that would do. Kyle was only five, it hadn’t been the boy’s fault. It had been his mistake.
“Yes, but I already told you, we were playing, and we had seen them make mommy’s pain go away,” insisted Kyle.
“And after Alex got them down, how did you open the bottle?” asked Ms. Jones, aware that the package itself should have been child-resistant.
“I don’t know. It was hard. At first Alex couldn’t figure out how to do it, but after trying for a while he just did it.”
“So Alex opened the bottle, and then he swallowed the pills?”
“Yes, he was very sick, and the pills were going to make everything better.”
“You mean he got very sick?” asked Ms. Jones, trying to make some sort of sense out of the child’s words.
“No, he was sick in the game we were playing.”
Kyle appeared to be perplexed, and more than a little exasperated, by the social worker’s seeming inability to tell what he believed to be the obvious difference between reality and a game. In his mind, the game was still nothing more than a game. Well, Paul thought, at least that would explain how he could remain so calm. Still, it was kind of ironic… children were too often accused of confusing fantasy and reality. They were routinely dismissed because it was assumed that they believed that fantasy was fact, but now Kyle appeared to be unaware that the opposite had happened. The boy insisted on keeping fact and fiction apart long after they had merged… long after fantasy had become fact.
Ms. Jones didn’t leave after questioning Kyle. She stayed with them, refusing to give Paul the space and the privacy he so desperately needed.
Eventually a grim-faced doctor approached them, and Paul knew what it was that the man was going to say from the moment he saw him.
The words rang hollow. A well practiced speech that had been repeated so many times that it had been rendered almost completely meaningless. He already knew the words, having heard them from the lips of another grim-faced doctor eight months prior. He wanted to cry, to scream, but he couldn’t do it… not with Kyle watching him.
Ms. Jones left after that. She had more questions to ask, and more pressing cases to attend to. For her, Alex had already turned into a closed case, one she was eager to cross off her list.
Almost mechanically, Paul signed some papers, donating Alex’s organs in a desperate attempt to salvage at least something of his son, even after the doctor had made it clear to him that most of those organs had been compromised by the drugs. In spite of his own grief, Paul was unable to forget that children’s organs were a precious commodity.
The following morning came Alex’s hastily organized funeral. As no arrangements had been made, Paul found himself with no choice but to debate dollars and cents with the vultures that sought to profit from his pain. It was a cold place, an assembly line of grief where the dead became nothing but contract numbers who had lost not just their lives, but also their names and identities… a place in which the bodies were handled with the same cold indifference as carcasses in a slaughterhouse. He almost lost it when he heard a salesman extol the virtues of the different caskets, as if he were merely shopping for clothes, or maybe a new car.
There was an eerie feeling in Alex’s funeral, as a number of his friends were led by their parents past the small casket. For most of them this was their first experience dealing with death, and it had come embodied in a child like themselves. Kyle stood quietly by his father’s side. The boy was calm, maybe even detached, as the events unfolded in front of him. Kyle had only asked if Alex had gone away ‘like his mommy’, and Paul had barely dared to nod at that, unsure of whether or not he would be able to control his emotions long enough to speak.
In addition to that there were also countless nameless faces expressing their condolences with empty words, and Paul suddenly realized that Alex had somehow been transformed into Alexander… a man’s name he would never grow into. He became almost painfully aware of the fact that his son had never truly been Alexander before, only Alex. Like so many parents before him, he had branded his son with a man’s name before he was even born, only to change it to a child’s nickname the first time he’d seen him… and now, in death, his son had morphed into a stranger Paul had never met.
Once the service was over, there was the burial itself. A painfully small grave had been dug open next to Sarah’s headstone, in the place Paul had always assumed he would one day occupy.
He felt lost as he tried to imagine what might have been if something, anything, had been different. Paul was horrified when he caught himself wondering what his feelings would have been if Kyle, and not Alex, had been the patient in their deadly game.
If Kyle had been the patient, he would still have been there, saying goodbye to one of his sons, holding Alex’s hand, comforting him as he now knew he would never do again. He would have been standing on that same spot, holding Alex’s hand in the same way in which he was now holding Kyle’s. His own grief might have been different, as both boys had always been, but it certainly wouldn’t have been less. He would still have been there, wondering what might have been had Alex been the patient. Without even realizing it, Paul tightened his grip on Kyle’s hand, needing the reassurance of the boy’s presence. He was so distracted that he couldn’t even hear the priest offer what he believed to be words of comfort.
Paul was not a religious man, he had never been. For him church was a place he was expected to attend a couple of times a year, part of a ritual rather than a faith… and lately a place to bury the dead, but in spite of that he caught himself muttering a prayer to Sarah, begging for her forgiveness and asking her to keep Alex safe, as he vowed to keep Kyle. He would not fail twice.
The sound of dirt raining down on his son’s casket was almost deafening, but no one else seemed to be aware of it. Paul gathered his courage to look around. He was surrounded by his closest friends, as well as some of his colleagues and even a few of his students, but the ones that drew his attention were the little mourners who had never mourned before, and their parents. Their parents who were too afraid to look him in the eye, their expressions a mixture of compassion and accusation.
Paul suddenly realized that those children, the ones that seemed to be so oddly out of place in such a gathering, were the only ones that were there really because of Alex, the only ones who had had a chance to get to know him. The adults were there for him, or perhaps because they felt it was their “duty”. Even his own family had failed to attend. It really hadn’t been their fault, seeing how most of them lived thousands of miles away, and everything had been so sudden. Sarah’s parents had asked him to put off the service for one more day to make it possible for them to be there, but Paul had refused. For Kyle’s sake, he couldn’t allow things to drag on any longer.
He was grateful when he felt a hand being place gently on his shoulder, distracting him from his own thoughts. He turned around and saw that Sandra, one of his closest friends, was standing behind him. Paul tried to give her a reassuring smile, but failed miserably. She didn’t say anything, silently acknowledging the fact that there was nothing for her to say. She just remained there grounding him, lending him the strength he needed to keep himself together as the ceremony dragged on.
Paul hated himself for feeling relieved when it was finally over, but he couldn’t help it. There was something about funerals that always made him sick. It went beyond the obvious, it had to do with the emptiness of the ritual, and not just with its purpose. They felt almost as a charade in which each one of the participants had a role to play, and he couldn’t help but to fear that he was going to get his own lines wrong.
His mind drifted back to Sarah’s funeral. Back then everything had been ready, prepared. At the time he had found himself almost wishing for a different kind of ceremony –perhaps a sky burial or an open-air cremation– one that would not hide the magnitude of what had happened, one that would not leave a neat mound of earth to remind him of what he had lost. That had been then, but, as he buried his son, Paul was shocked by the realization that there was a part of him that was actually relieved at the thought of having a physical place that could act as a monument, as a reminder of the fact that the boy had lived.
As soon as they got home, Paul realized that what he had not counted on was Alex’s presence on literally every inch of the house. He couldn’t take a single step without feeling overwhelmed by memories he didn’t even know were there. It was so different from Sarah’s death. That had been expected, they had had the time to say goodbye, they had even had time to try to accept what they knew was coming, but now his soul was struggling with the inconceivable idea of letting go of Alex, a child who had had so much to do, so much to see and so much to give.
Paul looked around. Suddenly he could remember everything, a scraped knee here, a bit of innocent mischief there, over there something that was once new and exciting. Everywhere the boys laughing, playing and even fighting.
He tried to distract himself with simple chores, with things that had to be done, such as feeding Kyle and tucking him in. The boy was exhausted, that much was obvious, so Paul put him to bed, and he even managed to read him a bedtime story, but even after the boy fell asleep, Paul still couldn’t bring himself to let him out of his sight.
While he watched his son sleep, Paul finally had a chance to at least try to analyze some of his own feelings. Entering the boys’ room had been devastating. For years he had been trying, without much success, to get his sons to pick up after themselves, but their room had always reminded him of a battlefield after a particularly gruesome confrontation, with the fallen remains of loyal toys scattered as far as the eye could see. While Kyle slept, Paul picked those toys up, and then he proceeded to bury them in a chest by Alex’s bed, in a funeral that somehow seemed more fitting than the one he had endured a couple of hours earlier.
It was strange, almost funny: in his mind it had always been ‘the boy’s room’, and now that it was only Kyle’s, Paul had to struggle to keep himself from thinking of it as being Alex’s.
Of course, as painful as being in that room was, he still felt better in it than he would have felt in his own. What Paul dreaded the most was the image of the bottle of pills he was certain he would see as soon as he walked in there, even if on a rational level he knew that that bottle was no longer physically there. In addition to that, the notion of going to sleep on that bed was all but inconceivable, and because of that he had been deliberately turning everything, even his desire to comfort and protect Kyle, into an excuse to put off the inevitable. So in the end there he was, holding a frightened little boy in his arms in the middle of the night, while he himself was haunted by the ghost of another little boy… and of his own failure.