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The Man in the Box: Chapter Two


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Vol 1, No 2: Work’s a Game, and Life’s the Prize

Robby pulled into CipherMill Publishing House on Commerce Crossings. As far as he knew, in just two days he’d be sitting in coach, strapping himself in and watching Louisville vanish beneath the clouds with a Bloody Mary in one hand and a bag of pretzels in the other. But for now, between him and that plane seat sat just one more day of work, a day of packing, and a drive to the airport. And perhaps a few fights between the kids.

He nodded to the security guard behind the desk as he walked through the lobby. As soon as he summoned the elevator, Don Nealy swaggered up behind him and stood uncomfortably close, breathing hard. The jaunt from the car to the elevator was clearly too long a walk for the three hundred-pound man.

“They’re talking again,” said Don, watching the down arrow light up.

“About what?” Robby asked. He noticed Don wasn’t even carrying his regular greasy bag of McDonald’s, which Robby often referred to as McDon’s, a running joke he had started around the office.

“I overheard Kurt talking on the phone yesterday. I wish I hadn’t listened, but it sounded like they’re going to be letting more people go soon.”

The prospect of layoffs weighed heavily on the few survivors of the first wave of terminations that occurred seven months ago, and Robby was no exception. The menacing thought always reared its ugly head: Would this be his last year at CipherMill? Self-publishing and electronic books had become such a huge sensation that book editors, like Robby, suffered greatly for it.

Seven months ago the company was cut almost in half. The only reason Robby didn’t get the boot then was because of his tenure. This time around, though, he wouldn’t have that protection; anyone still working had been there as long as he had, if not longer.

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” said Robby. “You probably just misunderstood.” The elevator doors slid open and they both stepped in.

“What part of ‘I’ll start calling people in tomorrow’ would I not understand?” Don asked, spit spraying out of his mouth. “I saw him holding a list of names.”

“Was your name on it?”

“I don’t know, I couldn’t see.”

“Then how do you know it was a list of names?”

“He said, ‘I’ve got the list of names right here.’ I almost put in my two weeks’ notice right then and there, but then I wouldn’t get any severance.”

“I’m sure you’ll be okay,” assured Robby as the elevator doors opened again to let them out. Truthfully though, thanks to Don of the Dead End Job, Robby’s nerves were starting to get tight. But there was no way he was going to let it get to his head today; not hours before the start of his hard-earned vacation.

“No one’s getting fired today,” he said, more to himself than to Don. But as they stepped out of the lift, they saw Bill Donahue walking down the hallway carrying a box full of things. Robby froze.

“Morning guys,” said Bill as he walked past.

Neither Robby nor Don knew what to say. And yet, Bill wasn’t acting as depressed as he should have been following a dismissal.

“By the way,” Bill said, “there are donuts in the break room. You mind saving me a strawberry one? I’m just dropping this stationery down in the warehouse.”

“Yeah, sure,” said Don. Then he turned to Robby and whispered, “Pity food.”

“It’s probably for Carol’s anniversary,” Robby suggested as they kept walking down the hall to their suite.

“Yeah, right. Kurt refuses to even get a wreath for Christmas.”

When they reached the suite, they each headed to their own offices. Don, of course, grabbed a plate full of donuts on his way.

As he walked past Kurt’s office, Robby stole a glance through the window. Darrin Mackey was seated across from Kurt. Darrin, usually loose and comfortable, sat up straight with his hands on his knees like he was on edge about something.

Maybe Don was right. It was only nine o’clock and Kurt always had his office door open in the mornings. Was he getting the firing out of the way? That’s what he had done seven months ago.

Robby quickened his pace to the office, shut the door behind him, threw his briefcase on the chair in the corner, and flipped on his computer. The screen opened up to the last page he had been on, the homepage to the Grand Wailea Resort, where they’d be staying. He marveled at the pools the kids would play in and the room balconies he and Rosalynn would stretch out on as they watched the ocean tide. They’d stroll down the empty beach and witness the blue-orange sunsets each night as the waves caressed the golden sand with a gentle whoosh of foam. The palm trees would lean in toward the water, yearning to kiss the surface with a gentle plop of a branch. Yes, this was heaven, maybe even better. He felt the breeze whispering on his cheek and the sound of distant voices a quarter of a mile away. They were not the voices of water-cooler conversations or office presentations; they were the voices of happiness and playing and total and complete contentment. Now he was sprawled out on a beach towel, Rosalynn beside him, topless, reading a book on her e-reader.

Of all things, that thought shook him out of his reverie. It was as though she were stabbing him in the back by using the devise that was partly responsible for killing his career. Who would have had enough foresight twelve years ago to know that books would eventually go electronic, and then self-publishing be made so accessible? Facebook was still no more than a small community of networking nerds at the time; social media itself was such a long way off. So for tangible, physical books to be available in electronic form was unthinkable. For Robby, electronic books were as far off as flying cars.

There was a knock at the door and Robby stiffened. Was this it? Was this Kurt coming to call him into his office? Why didn’t he just buzz him in like he usually did? A knock was so much more ominous.

Before he could say anything, the door opened and Don barged in with his plate of donuts—likely his second batch. Don shut the door behind him and flopped down on one of the chairs, stretching its legs a little.

If it had been anyone else, this would have irritated Robby, but he and Don started at CipherMill within a month of each other, so they both went back a ways.

“Darrin’s gone,” said Don as he sank his teeth into a pink-frosted donut (which Robby assumed should have been the one Billy had asked them to save for him), spilling sprinkles all over his tie. “Kurt just fired him. I toldyou this was it!”

Before Robby could respond, Don’s phone buzzed. He looked at it and his drooping jowls fell even further. He cried, “It’s Kurt. He must have tried calling my office.” A peal of guttural sounds rumbled around in his fat stomach as he stared wide-eyed at his phone, and Robby was afraid he was going to break wind right there in his office.

“Answer,” Robby prodded.

Don nodded and brought the phone to his ear with a shaky hand. “Hello? Yes, sir. I’ll be right there.” He hung up and looked at Robby with big, brown, frightened eyes. “He wants to see me.”

Robby nodded his head knowingly. Don sat in the chair, stunned, looking off into space now. Kurt was waiting for him, and Robby was starting to feel uncomfortable. “You should probably just get it over with.”

Don dully nodded, then stood up. As he did, Robby suggested jokingly, “Maybe he wants to give you a raise.”

“Do you not see the condition I’m in?” Don asked, his eyes narrowed. “Do I look like someone who’s in the mood to joke around?”

“No. I don’t know why I said that. Sorry. Go get fired.”

Don nodded somberly and disappeared behind the door.

It took no effort for Robby to shift his concerns back to himself. He knew he needed a game plan, but he had nothing to fall back on if he was going to be canned. Working steadily at the same place for a decade didn’t exactly offer you any opportunities—or reasons—to network. Let’s face it; he had taken his posh job for granted. Unemployment had meant nothing to him until now. Now it was just a little too close to home. He would have to update his résumé and rehearse his interviewing skills like he was a fresh-faced wanderlust straight out of college—with a few extra pounds and less hair.

This did not fit into his life plan. Up until a few minutes ago, his life plan had been to take his family to Maui and escape the humdrum hell of everyday life for a week. Just a simple dream. He didn’t expect much more than that.

It didn’t take long before Robby saw, from out the window that overlooked the span of the suite, Don leave Kurt’s office. His head hung limp like a scarecrow.

Robby watched as his ex-colleague dragged himself over to his own office and, a few minutes later, emerged with a couple of full grocery bags. He left the building in a hurry, not even stopping to look back. Oh, brave, valiant Don.

If Kurt was firing half of the people in the office, he, Robby, would be among them for sure. At least the interns were safe—they were free labor. Unlike them, Robby knew it would be just a matter of hours before he would be cleaning out his own desk. He had been prepared to procrastinate his piles of manuscripts and deadlines to ease into vacation mode, but now his procrastination stemmed from that old workplace ailment, NAGAF: Not at All Giving a Fuck.

So Robby spent the rest of the day in a cold sweatas he watched two more people pack up their belongings.

At first he avoided Kurt at all cost; he steered clear of the break room when he knew Kurt would be there and he took the long way round to the bathroom so he wouldn’t pass Kurt’s window. Out of sight, out of mind—like Kurt would just conveniently forget to fire Robby as long as he didn’t see him.

By one o’clock, Robby began to cultivate curiosity and even hope. He grew convinced that he wasn’t going to be fired after all. But after learning from a colleague that Kurt had stepped out of the office for a few hours, Robby sat at his desk and wallowed, and Hawaii was almost forgotten.

What if he did get fired? He dreaded the idea of going back to some soul-sucking retail gig that either ended in Mart or began with Dick’s.

Though he wasn’t wealthy by American standards, he didn’t want to have to sacrifice his comfortable lifestyle of being home by five every night, Monday through Friday. He also didn’t want to have to worry about making ends meet, putting every dollar on trial, or examining the necessity of every bill. He had been through all that in college and as a newlywed. He had already paid his dues! This was supposed to be histime to live the American dream. He had earned it, God damn it!

He glanced at a picture next to his phone of Rosalynn and him posing in front of the ocean. The picture was taken on a camping trip in San Clemente, California, and at the time, they were dating. They had met at a beach party, on that exact beach in Orange County while they were both attending USC.

She looked absolutely stunning in her floral summer dress as her strawberry-blonde hair fell down over her bare shoulders. He was much skinnier then and sported facial hair, which made him look the surfer type that he was.

Robby hadn’t planned on going out the night he had met Rosalynn, but his roommates had coerced him into joining them at the beach with the promise that there would be enough girls, beer, and weed to go around. Well, who the hell could turn down such an offer? Midterms were over and it was time to let loose.

Though the idea of partying sounded intriguing, he couldn’t bring himself to jump fully into the festivities because he was stressing out over a surfing contest he had coming up. At that point he was working toward becoming a professional surfer, but he didn’t know that in just less than a year, he would tear his ACL in a surfing accident, putting a stop to that dream altogether.

He had held back at the beach that night while the others smoked funny things and drank. He faced the rolling black water as it swelled onto the muddy sand and tried to be at one with it, feeling its rhythms and anticipating its every move.

He had just lit up a joint (the only one he planned to smoke that night) when a new voice beside him said, “You seem lost.”

Robby nodded as he looked to see who had spoken. His mouth dried up and his pulse quickened when he saw her for the first time. He did not feel comfortable around cute sober women.

He drilled himself, trying to figure out why he hadn’t seen her around campus before. “You from another group?” he asked.

“I’m wandering. My ex took all my friends with him, so I’m sort of group-hopping at the moment.”

“So how’s this one ranking?” Robby asked, inhaling the weed.

They turned to watch an interlocked couple fall in the sand laughing hysterically. “So far, it’s kind of a letdown.” They both fell into their own laughter when she said this, and the first connection was made.

He took another hit and handed her the joint.

“I don’t date potheads,” said Rosalynn, eyeing the lit joint in his hand. Robby barely had time to form a thought before she said, “Sorry. Was that too fast?”

Robby laughed. “No. I mean, it was, but that’s fine with me. I like fast.”

“You like fast … women?”

“No! Well, I mean, who doesn’t? But I’m not implying—” He stopped himself, knowing he had fallen into her trap. He eyed her sly gaze and said, “I’m onlyafter fast women.”

“And why’s that?” Rosalynn asked, cocking her eyebrows in surprise.

“Because I’m on the lookout for one who can actually keep up with me.”

Robby sweat through the eternity of Rosalynn eyeing him and biting her lower lip in thought. Then she said, “Want a beer?”

His reminiscing came to an end when Kurt phoned him and asked him to step into his office. Robby’s stomach tightened, and he chewed the inside of his mouth out of nerves.

Robby’s legs felt like jelly as he made his way through the suite toward his boss’ office. He felt every eye on him convey pity, the same way he had looked at the others who were called in earlier that day.

To distract himself, he pulled his phone out of his pocket and pretended to be looking at it. He wondered if this was what it was like to be led down death row one final time. He knew the comparison was farfetched, but at the moment, it seemed perfectly fitting. He was, after all, about to get the axe.

“Have a seat,” Kurt said with a sigh when Robby walked in.

Robby sat down slowly, and as he did, he couldn’t help but notice the painting that hung directly behind Kurt that he’d stared at hundreds of times in the last decade. It was a large opulent picture of a panther crouching behind tall, dark grass with a dark-green jungle set as the backdrop. Robby felt like the panther was piercing him with its yellow-eyed Mona-Lisa stare, waiting for Kurt to wound him so it could jump out of the painting and finish him off.

“I’m sure you know by now that we’re letting people go,” Kurt said.

So much for loyalty and dedication. These were the first words that sprang into Robby’s head. When it was clear Kurt wasn’t going to elaborate, Robby begged, “Don’t do this to me, Kurt. I can work just as well in the digital department.” He felt petty, but what else could he do? It was the only way he knew to go down with a fight.

“I’m sorry, Robby. I know this hurts, and you’ve got your family to look after. I did all I could to avoid this, but there wasn’t anything more I could do. The whole industry’s dying.” With his red power tie and his salt and pepper hair, Kurt looked so posh and perfect sitting behind his giant oak desk. He looked so … corporate. So … goddamned evil.

The panther continued to gaze hungrily at Robby, and he could have sworn the predator was one step closer to him. “This is all I know, Kurt. Where am I going to look for work?”

“Go online, for starters. There’re all sorts of companies looking to hire experts like you. With your experience, you’ll find something in no time. I’ll give you a good reference. I’m sorry, Robby. We’re only keeping a small handful of people if it makes you feel better.”

Oh yes. Much, thought Robby. In a fraction of a second Robby thought about a deckhand telling some poor soul on the sinking RMS Titanic that just a few people would be surviving, so don’t feel bad about remaining onboard. And the deckhand smiled, much like Kurt was doing now.

How dare he fucking smile.

“After that, who knows?” said Kurt.

“What about my vacation?” asked Robby. It was the last shred of goodness he had to hold on to. A mere crumb.

Kurt shook his head. “The company can’t pay for time you won’t be at work.”

“That’s bullshit!” Robby said. “I’ve earned that. You’re breaking the law if you don’t pay.”

Kurt remained unmoved. “Technically the deadline for your vacation time was last week, and you opted out of it—”

“So that my daughter could play her volleyball tournaments this week!”

Kurt turned his palms toward Robby. “… so your vacation time technically expired. This one was going to borrow out of this new fiscal year. Company policy.”

“Kurt, I haven’t had a vacation in over four years. You know that! Every time I needed time off work, you made me dip into my vacation fund. I had my blood clot scare last year, so I was in the hospital for that; two years ago I took off because I had to fly out to California for a friend’s funeral; the year before that—”

“Where were you going this year?” Kurt asked, cutting Robby off. “Nashville?”

“You know full well where I was going, Kurt.” Robby stood up from the chair and walked toward the door. But before he exited he said, “You know what’s sad? You think you’re actually respected around here.” He gave off a little titter then added, “You may be valuable to the company, to a degree. But if this building were to burn, you’d be the last one anyone would think to save because you’ve allowed a lot of people to get hurt for your own benefit.”

“Robby, that’s out of—”

“Out of line, Kurt? You want to know what’s out of line?” But Robby didn’t know how to say it. Instead, he froze.

“Robby? You said you’re going to Nashville?” Kurt repeated, snapping Robby out of his dream.

God, if he could just tell him off, but the little coward inside him prohibited him from doing so. His eyes darted up to the panther above Kurt, and he could have sworn he saw its eyes actually move to look directly at him.

“Um, Hawaii,” Robby answered. “Maui.”

“Well, I’m sorry. But we were honored to have you work for us. Thank you for everything.”

Robby’s head spun as he cleared out his desk. Had he really just been fired? He had never been fired from a job in his life. He was always Employee of the Month, Employee of the Year, life of the office Christmas party, Robby-this, Robby-that, kiss, kiss, kiss.

And now this.

He packed a little box up with his stapler, a coffee cup, some pictures, and other office necessities. He never realized how many personal desk items he had until he saw how full his cardboard box was. What was he going to tell Rosalynn? How would she react? He flirted with the idea of not telling her until they got back from Hawaii. But no, Hawaii would have to be delayed indefinitely. They would need that money when the severance paid itself out.

The sweet smell of sunscreen had faded deep into a memory that never was.

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Chapter 1 of “The Man in the Box”


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Vol 1, No 1: Paradise

Robby downed the last of his neat whiskey and dropped the glass on the roaming server’s tray, chinking the remaining ice. He checked his phone and noted that his scheduled massage was in twenty minutes. The resort’s app instructed him to ask for Alana at the spa’s front desk. He watched a young couple necking each other on the pool steps, the water licking their waists. As he admired the tanned lovers, he lathered more sunscreen on his arms; he could feel a light, threatening burn fester on his skin. He also coated his face, careful not to get any in his eyes.

He basked in the tropical sun and listened to the seagulls caw overhead as they glided above the ocean just steps from the pool area. The faint rumble of the tide swooned and sighed with each swell.  He had just come in from riding those waves, and now his arm and leg muscles rested, along with his mind. At long last, he, Robby Lake, had reached paradise.

He eyed a pretty dark-haired woman as she strolled past him in a green and white string bikini, bouncing her round hips not unlike the pendulum hanging from his boss’ wall clock thousands of miles away. The woman batted her eyes at Robby and her lips curled into a smile as her feet made soft schluckingsounds through the puddles of pool water on the sizzling concrete. A wisp of her coconut-lime sun lotion drifted into his nostrils as she glided past, her breasts bouncing perfectly in rhythm. He closed his eyes when she exited the grounds through the gate and lost himself in the heavenly “Ka Loke” wafting from speakers concealed behind palm trees around the crowded yet perfectly still pool area.

Another server, a native, in the resort’s issued soft white button-down and a black bowtie, placed another whisky on the frosted glass table beside Robby and asked him if he needed anything else.

“Bring me a plate of pulled pork and chocolate-covered pineapples,” he answered dismissively. He was already dreaming of the hula dancers he’d soon be lusting after later that on the star-lit beach, the campfire embers dancing their own hula at his bare feet.

“Right away,” the server said. And then his voice dropped: “You’re dead.”

Robby eyed the server curiously who still had a soft smile on his face as though still happy to take his order. Then he said it again.

“Dad, you’re dead.”

Robby turned his head toward the voice and saw his son sitting next to him where the server had been. The sun was gone now; in its place was a scoreboard hanging on the far end of a high school gymnasium. Below it, a volleyball court replaced the sparkling blue pool, with sophomore girls dotting both sides, his daughter being one of those dots. And the chill of an overworking A/C blew away the sauna warmth of the great Pacific.

“Give it over, Dad,” Jeremy said to Robby. “You’re dead. It’s my turn.”

Robby glanced down at his son’s Nintendo 2DS and saw that he had indeed died; it was Jeremy’s turn to play. He passed the device over to him and looked out at the court six rows down from the bleachers.

East Louisville High was hosting the JV volleyball game this evening, which had drawn several friends and parents of the players from the early May rain that thudded on the gymnasium roof like a steady applause.

On the scoreboard, the bulbous number 16 blinked to 17, causing a handful of people to clap their hands with little enthusiasm. (Let’s face it, it wasn’t exactly the Barnum and Bailey circus.) The pullout bleachers groaned underneath Robby as a few patrons stood to their feet. “That brings the score to a tie at 17,” the young adolescent voice announced through the loudspeakers.

Rosalynn sat on the other side of Robby cheering Taylor on, doing her best to ignore Robby’s video gaming. She’d expressed her disdain for it, arguing that Taylor looks up and sees that he’s not interested in her game, but he had argued that at least he was there, being a good dad. Most of her teammates didn’t have dads that cared enough to show up, or were stuck at work, he had said. His presence had to count for something, right?

While Jeremy took his turn with the Nintendo, Robby applauded along with everyone else. His arms were once again pasty white and dry, no longer brown and oily from his creamy Sisley sunscreen. He managed a wane smile when Rosalynn looked over at him to see if his excitement matched hers. She saw that it didn’t, and she knew he was somewhere else. God, how that annoyed her. Many of their fights were spawned because of his incredible ability to zone out at crucial times like during Taylor’s volleyball games, conversations about budgeting, at the dinner table, and on occasion, even during sex. She returned the smile then turned her attention back to the game when the applause died down and the ball on the court was back in motion.

Robby glanced at the clock on the scoreboard with a sigh as everyone else sat back down and the excitement morphed into a casual anxiety to see who would break the tie. But try as he might, Robby could not properly invest in his daughter’s game. Each Thwump! of the ball was like a clock ticking painfully slow through the workweek: Tick … Tock … Tick … Tock …Tick…

Tomorrow was Thursday, which marked his eleventh anniversary at CipherMill Publishing House. To celebrate his tenure he had splurged and bought himself a present, which was currently tucked away in his nightstand: a plane ticket to Hawaii. Yes, in just fifty-six hours, he would be on a plane headed west to the Aloha State.

Of course, three other tickets for his family were paper-clipped to his, but he made sure they all knew that this was his vacation. Like when Rosalynn had asked him what sort of tours they should schedule, Robby said, “You guys can go do anything you’d like. I’m renting a surfboard and taking on the waves. And when you get back from your little lava tours, you’ll find me at the pool with a book.” And one day, Jeremy had asked Robby what kind of food they served in Hawaii. Robby answered, “Anything and everything that can’t be found in Kentucky or anywhere else in the continental United States.” “No fried chicken, then?” Jeremy had asked. “Not unless they can catch it in the ocean,” Robby responded. “And even then, we’d eat it raw, because that’s what they do on de islands, mahn.” (Robby had taken up the annoying habit of calling it de islands, much to his family’s chagrin.) Naturally, this caused Jeremy to lose his excitement for the trip and Rosalynn had to spend a lot of time building it back up, assuring him that they’ll find fried chicken somewhere, or pizza, or whatever.

“She’s doing good out there,” Rosalynn said during a long match.

“Uh-huh,” Robby said, pulling himself back to the present. The ball popped and zipped back and forth, sneakers squeaking jerkily on the gym floor. He couldn’t even tell what position Taylor was playing. “She’s doing great,” he added.

“Do you even know where she is?” Rosalynn pressed with an annoyed smirk.

“Yeah, she’s uh—”

But more cheers mercifully cut him off as people got to their feet. The announcer declared that the Owls had won, which meant Taylor would be going out with the team to celebrate. The spectators all stood to their feet to descend down to the court to congratulate the players. Typically Robby and his family waited until the crowds died down before going down, but Robby noticed the old man in front of him struggling mightily to stand up. He had told Robby and Rosalynn before the game that he had flown in the day before to surprise his great granddaughter for her birthday.

Seeing the man unable to stand up on his own, Robby went to help him.

“Thank you, sir,” the elderly man said. “I hope to be as kind as you when I get to be your age.”

Robby laughed. “When you get to be as old as me, I’ll challenge you to our own volleyball match.”

He helped the old man all the way down the bleacher steps to the court. He figured since he was already there, he’d look for Taylor.

Robby nudged his way down to the court through pockets of friends, siblings, and parents while Rosalynn and Jeremy hung back in their seats to chat with a neighbor. He spotted Taylor and was about to stretch his arms out to offer an embrace, when a college-aged guy, dressed in a tight black T-shirt with a red scarf wrapped around his neck (and equally tight faded jeans), unapologetically invaded Taylor’s personal space by putting his arm around her waist and kissing her.

Robby would not have been more furious if the kid had kissed Rosalynn. He strode up to the two spit-swappers and asked invasively, “Who’s this?” It did notseem like Taylor’s first kiss.

Taylor pulled away from the lip-lock, masked her embarrassment with a grimexpression, and grumbled, “This is Dwayne. Dwayne, my dad.” Her voice dropped down to a mutter at the word Dadas though it was painful to admit.

“If I ever catch your mouth on my little girl again, I’ll neuter you with a lawnmower,” Robby wanted to say. Instead, he settled for something a little less aggressive and said, “I’m Robby.” He stuck out his hand and squeezed the kid’s own damn near as hard as he could. He released when he counted three cracks that sounded like popping bubble wrap.

Dwayne didn’t show any response except to say, “Your daughter played great tonight, didn’t she, Mr. Lake?”

“She always does,” Robby responded as though this kid had just stated the obvious.

“Dad,” Taylor said before he could say anything else, “can Dwayne come over for dinner tomorrow night? You know, since we’ll be gone all next week?”

Robby had to choose his words carefully here. He’d already refused to let her go out with another guy a month ago because his Facebook profile was a picture of him sticking a gun at the viewer, holding it sideways gangstastyle. Fearing the same situation and imagining his family laying in pools of their own blood at the dinner table while this Dwayne guy stood over them and laughed mightily, Robby said, “Let’s keep it just the family tomorrow to celebrate, huh? Maybe next time after we get back from de islands?” Because next time, this guy would be out of her life and no longer an issue.

Taylor shot her dad an icy look, but he stood his ground. These high school-college romances never lasted.

“Do you have a ride to the party?” he asked, changing the subject.

“I was going to take her,” Dwayne cut in.

“The hell you will,” Robby snapped with a humorless smile before thinking.

This earned Robby an exasperated look; wide eyes, open mouth, the kind of look Rosalynn always gave him whenever he said anything inappropriate in front of the kids. “Taylor, why don’t you just let us take you?” Robby tried, pretending he hadn’t just utterly humiliated her.

“The hell I will,” Taylor snapped, mockingly.

Now it was histurn to return the look. Dwayne stood helpless beside the two, tick-tocking his head back and forth as though watching another volleyball match. “Um, should I leave you two alone?” he asked.

“No, it’s fine,” Taylor said. “Just take me to Michelle’s.”

Robby couldn’t stop his daughter from grabbing Dwayne’s arm and pulling him through the small crowd away from him. For a split second he saw his four year old girl in pigtails grabbing her best friend’s hand and running off to play.

“Eleven o’clock, then! It’s a school night!” Robby yelled after her. He wasn’t certain but it almost looked as though his daughter flipped him the bird just before a fat woman with a loud laugh stepped between them. “Love you,” Robby tried anyway.

He pursed his lips, knowing he had just blown it again with Taylor. He kept hoping for one of those moments where they’d connect again, share a smile, laugh at something stupid like they used to all the time when she was younger. It was hard to believe that once, he was her whole world, and now … well, now it seemed the whole world was pushing them further apart from each other.

Taylor was going through the stage where she was embarrassed to be seen with her parents, especiallyher dad. She had stopped talking to him the moment she realized his jokes were outdated and he couldn’t keep up with the latest music, movies, or fashion trends. Robby had long ago resigned to the fate of just waiting it out until she grew out of it. But why was that so much harder than intervening?

“You can’t keep saying no to everything she asks,” Rosalynn said from the passenger seat of their Honda Accord on the drive home. The Accord hummed along the road as the rain began to disappear behind a darkening sky. The evening’s curtain call.

“So, what, you’re saying I should just give in to her every request?” Robby asked.

“I’m saying you should at least give in a little. It’s not like we had anything special planned for tomorrow night. What was he like?”

“What do you think?” Robby said, glancing over his shoulder to merge. “He’s a sex-crazed twerp.”

Rosalynn laughed. “You say that about all of them.”

“That’s because I wasone of them. Guys that age don’t hang around Taylor because of her ability to pull off knee-high socks.”

Robby glanced in the rearview mirror and called to the back seat, “Hey Jer, check out the dinosaur outside your window. It’s eating someone. Blood, guts, everywhere.” The mirror reflected Jeremy glued to a game on his Nintendo 2DS. Robby turned back to Rosalynn and said, “We can talk candidly. We’re not being bugged.”

Rosalynn gave Robby a wry look. “I know we agreed to be firm with her, but there also comes a point where we could ease up.”

He knew she was probably right, but still, Robby insisted, “I’ll look him up on Facebook tonight.”

Rosalynn sighed and stared blankly out the window, signaling the end of the conversation.

“Did you learn anything at school today, buddy?” Robby asked Jeremy, hoping to break the silence. But he was again met with no response.

At least Jeremy would be easier to manage when he turned sixteen. He wasn’t bound to be as moody and hormonal as Taylor. His problem would likely be complacency with the bare minimum. Jeremy was pretty stellar at just about anything he put his mind to, but when he didn’t apply himself, he failed big, and he didn’t apply himself often.

Unlike Robby, who had spent most of his adolescent years competing in extreme sports and making local newspaper headlines. So he pushed Jeremy, too hard sometimes, to excel at what he might be good at, like computers and video games. “You could be a computer repairman,” he had told his eleven year old recently. But the suggestion seemed to push Jeremy away from that field and he started reading more comics instead. It didn’t matter that he had more of an interest in video games, the higher priority for him was giving his parents adequate pushback to whatever they said.

The summer before, Jeremy had set up a lemonade stand per Robby’s suggestion. He put a little effort in setting it up on the corner by the street but ended up back in the house watching videos about video game engineering with a sign outside that said, “Help yourself. $1.50 per cup.” When he had gone back out to count his earnings, he found that his Igloo cooler had been stolen and the table was flipped upside-down on the street, cars swerving around it to get by. But he just shrugged his shoulders, cleaned up the mess, and disappeared back inside the house, kissing entrepreneurship goodbye.

And now, as Robby studied his son through the rearview, he imagined him five years older, Taylor’s age, still engrossed in his stupid video games while colleges from all over stood by to receive his applications. The applications he would never fill out because he would rather beat level eight in Beasts and Dragons or something dumb like that.

“You were spacing out again earlier. You okay?” Rosalynn inquired, snapping Robby back.

He waved her off. “Yeah. I’m fine. Just trying to hold it till I get home. I don’t want to use those nasty high school bathrooms. Might slip on some teenage jizz.”

She hit him on the leg for dropping the J-bomb, but said, half-smirking, “Liar.” But really, Robby hardly ever lied to his wife when he could help it. His dad beat him with the metal end of a belt when he was six after denying taking a paperback novel out of his nightstand and ripping the pages out to fold airplanes. From that time on, lying became the very last resort in any circumstance. Except when it came to his pot habit. He had lied to Rosalynn on more than a few occasions when he continually relapsed as a newlywed.

“How are youfeeling?” he asked, turning the conversation around.

“I’m fine. I didn’t sleep much last night.”

“Pre-flight jitters?”

“Something like that.”

Robby could almost sympathize. As much as he was looking forward to his Hawaiian vacation, he couldn’t shake the feeling that it would be the last good time of his life. But what he didn’t know was that he wouldn’t even get to have that, because he would never make it to de islands.

At least not the ones he was planning on.

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